Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A sense of irritation

Metropolitan Police War Diary
I've spent nearly nine years blogging, trawling the newspapers and other media sources. That is over 3,000 days, almost without interruption – although I admit to taking four days off for open heart surgery, and a couple when I was banged up in jail. I feel almost guilty for allowing such exhibitions of sloth.

Add to that, constant discussions to journalists, high and low, and interactions in many different ways, and it is fair to assert that one has learned a thing or two about the media, even more so when also when benefiting (if that is the right word) from a semi-detached position within the industry.

Unfortunately, one also learns a thing or two about the other side of that industry – the readers. And it is probably reasonable to assert that the collapse of quality journalism stems from the ever shrinking pool of people who are interested in it. Basically, the media produces tat because that is what people are interested in.

However, this piece is not a general lament about the media and its users – or, at least, it wasn't meant to be. That was not my mind when I started writing it.

What I actually wanted to do was impart news of a discovery, a very small one, of vanishingly little interest to the rest of humanity, but one of great importance to me – which says more about myself than I would care to admit.

The skill of journalism and now blogging - which, whether the MSM like it or not, is a branch of journalism – is to turn a collection of largely uninteresting facts, or even factoids, into something sufficiently engaging that the bulk of one's readers actually get to the end of a piece before switching off and moving elsewhere.

And so to the small discovery. This is that the National Archives is in the process of digitising its collection of microfilmed documents, and is making them freely available on-line. Only a very small proportion of the collection is so far accessible, but it can be found here.

One appreciates that this is indeed a trivial piece of information, one of limited value to most people, and most probably not at all news. It has been going on for some time, except that I hadn't noticed. That I have now done so makes it news to me, if no one else.

In a roundabout way, though, the tardiness partly explains the title of this piece. I am irritated with myself for not realising the collection was on-line. It contains a treasure which I could have used in the preparation of The Many Not the Few which would have added immeasurably to its quality.

This "treasure" is the Metropolitan Police War Diary for 1940 (other years are also available) - cover illustrated above left. And its particular value is to provide a primary source which proves that police and troops were deployed to stop people using tube stations during the Blitz. I am profoundly irritated with myself for not picking this up and using it as a source in my book.

Such, though, is by no means the full extent of my irritation. The very thing which motivated me to write the book in the first place was a greater irritation, building to a smouldering anger, that a part of our history – and one which helps define who and what we are as a nation – has been so badly told.

Entry for 10 September  1940
This is best illustrated by just one single page of my "treasure", the entry for 10 September, reproduced right (click to enlarge). Tucked in, under the report that Buckingham Palace had been damaged by bombing – on which the press was to dwell – is a stunning piece of news, which seems to have remained dormant for over seventy years.

In bland officialese, written in the neat handwriting of the age, is thus the legend that: "On evening of 9th (before the raid) some 5,000 persons attempted to rush the entrance of the new Tube Station at Bethnal Green (which was then still under construction) – order restored by Police and Home Guard".

Now, it is maybe the case that I am more interested than most in such details, but it seems to me that, even after the elapse of seven-tenths of a Century, the fact that "some 5,000 persons" stormed a tube station in a desperate attempt to seek shelter, and were seen off by police and armed troops (and yes, the Home Guard were armed), is something of a revelation.

Seen in the context of the time, this was the third day of the London Blitz, and while morale was officially described as "good" for the whole of London, it was the East End which had taken the hammering, where it was reported that there was "uneasiness and some bitterness in the East End, Southwark and Deptford areas".

Given what had most recently happened in the area, which I have charted on the Days of Glory blog, it is not in any way an exaggeration to say that the situation was extremely fragile and could very easily have built into something far more dangerous for the authorities. Rebellion was in the air and even revolution was possible

Here now, we get to the core of my irritation, as virtually nothing of these desperate moments survives in the mainstream narrative. Despite having read hundreds of books on the period, I have seen nothing that even hints at the sheer scale of what was going on. And having 5,000 people rush an empty tube station, seeking shelter, is news in a big way. Yet history is silent on the event.

Of course, at the time, we had censorship, and one can image that the blue pencils were hard at work, excising any mention of this event. But historians are not censored, and neither are other commentators.

One such I mentioned in a piece last weekend. This was Guy Eden, a lobby correspondent during the war – the equivalent of Ben Brogan, Peter Oborne, and James Kirkup - who in 1945 wrote a hagiography of Churchill, in his book, "Portrait of Churchill".

Through the wonders of the internet, having first come across this book last Saturday, I now have a copy in my hands, and of the great events, as recorded in the police war diary, Eden tells us (p.62):
Somebody made a decision that angered the long-suffering, joking people of London. And London, angry, can be very difficult. It was decreed that the Underground stations should not be used for shelters. London took not the slightest notice of this rule. London will obey any order, however stringent, it thinks is "sense", well ignore any rule it is convinced is "rot". And the rule against using the Tube as shelters was emphatically in the "rot" class. Harassed officials reported that the crowds had taken matters into their own hands, were using the stations, permitted or not.
It is interesting to see from this that this political correspondent's grasp of events is no better than that of his successors for, to use Eden's own words, this report falls very much into the "rot" class.

But one should also note the use of the anonymous "somebody", who made the decision to exclude people from the Underground. That "somebody", as Guy Eden, lobby correspondent, must have known full well, was Home Secretary John Anderson who, as Eden must also have known, had the full confidence and support of his master, Winston Churchill.

What is terrifying, though, is how much of the Eden view of the world survives. Safely inside the bubble, he is "above the line" and the pastiche he has to offer is far more attractive than the dry, dull accounts in the official records.

The reason for this, most probably, is precisely that - the myth is more attractive than the reality. The soap opera is more engaging than the messy, complex and confusing events of the real world. And so people retreat to their fantasy version.

What thus remains to be asked, though, is whether this really matters. Should we actually care what actually happened seventy years ago or, for that matter, what is happening now?

The answer is the same for whatever period you might consider - then or now. To assert that it does not matter means that you must be content with a situation where most of what you are told, in your newspapers (and now on your radios and televisions), is only a fraction of what is actually going on.

You must be content that it is heavily biased to the point of distortion. You must also be content that these distortions are carried over into the history books, without correction, to become myths which bear very little relation to reality, yet which shape our perceptions and behaviour and influence how we see ourselves, and how others see us.

On the other hand, few with argue with the sentiment that information is power. And if you really do believe that your diet of distortion doesn't matter, then you must be content that others should, by their manipulations and distortions, control the flow of information and thereby retain their power over you.

And if you are so content, go and watch the budget speech, lap it up and believe it is real.