Second world war

Jonathan Raban’s last hurrah

Jonathan Raban, who died earlier this year, left this memoir almost complete. It tells two stories, artfully braided. One concerns the first three years of the author’s parents’ marriage, when Peter Raban was abroad serving in the second world war. He rose to become a major in the Royal Artillery, fighting in France and Belgium, evacuated from Dunkirk and proceeding to North Africa, Italy and Palestine. The second is about the author’s stroke in 2011, aged 69, his rehabilitation in a neurological ward where, on his first morning, a nurse asked ‘Do you want to go potty now?’, and the start of a new life as a hemiplegic. Raban had

Latvia is alive with song again

Every five years Latvia stages a week-long song and dance festival and this year my wife’s Latvian cousins got us tickets to two of the biggest events. I had no idea what to expect. The first evening, in a vast open-air arena in the Mezaparks forest outside Riga, while the light faded behind the tall pines, we watched a 10,000-strong choir dressed in varied costumes – the men in cream or grey flared frock coats and black boots, the women in flower crowns, tartan shawls and striped skirts – as they sang traditional songs. The next day in the Daugava stadium we thrilled to an astonishing 17,000 amateur dancers swirling

I may never recover: Sisu reviewed

When I went into the Sisu screening I knew only that it was a Finnish film, so was expecting an arthouse drama, maybe featuring bearded men in nice fisherman knits and herrings being salted, rather than this hyper-violent, viciously bloody exploitation flick from which I may never recover. It is a swift 90 minutes and will please those who desire this experience, and it is clever in its simplistic, empty way. But if it’s not your genre, you will almost certainly find yourself praying: ‘Dear God, I’ll never tell another lie if you just make this end.’ The film begins with a title card saying that ‘Sisu’ is a Finnish

Sad, blinkered and incoherent: Arcola’s The Misandrist reviewed

A new play, The Misandrist, looks at modern dating habits. Rachel is a smart, self-confident woman whose partner is a timid desperado named Nick. Both accept that Rachel must make all the important decisions in their lives and she orders Nick to submit to ‘pegging’. After some perfunctory resistance, Nick obeys. ‘Lube me up,’ he cries and she plunges a pink truncheon deep into his digestive tract. Afterwards he claims that the experience was so uplifting that even his ancestors enjoyed a taste of bliss from beyond the grave. Lisa Carroll’s ironic and frivolous comedy is fun to watch. The characters are enjoyable and the lightweight, throwaway acting meets the

The £6m country house that was home to Churchill’s secret army

The high-risk, adrenaline-fuelled operations dramatised in recent BBC1 mini-series SAS Rogue Heroes left viewers gripped. Not quite as attention-grabbing, but no less fearless (or dangerous), were the activities of another special forces unit, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) – a volunteer force set up in 1940 to wage a secret war. Famously ordered by Prime Minister Winston Churchill to ‘set Europe ablaze’, this band of brave agents were often dropped by parachute into Nazi-occupied territory, tasked with sabotage, subversion and helping local resistance movements. Many of them were serving soldiers with commando training; others had been drawn from civilian life. In Lonely Courage, a biography of the 39 women who

My lunch with the Queen

None of this would have happened had I accepted my neighbour’s invitation to dine with a Swiss billionaire banker, or bb. (Sorry, Real life.) He’s an old friend, the bb, and untypically Swiss. He boozes, schnoofs, and chases women, or Afabs, as the absurd youth of today call them. Booze, alas, now goes to my head, and as the song says, it lingers like a haunting refrain for at least a couple of days. I had kick boxing early the next day so I chose to watch the 1949 classic, Sands of Iwo Jima, and snub the Swiss bb. The film was made in 1949 and stars the greatest of

Churchill and the house that saved the world

A short train journey from London, in the outer reaches of suburbia in Kent, sits the house that saved the world. Or rather: it’s the house that saved the man who saved the world. The property in question, of course, is Chartwell, which 100 years ago this month was bought by a certain Winston Churchill, then a Liberal MP. Back then his career was in ascendance: in 1924, with Churchill having crossed the floor, Stanley Baldwin made him Chancellor, a post he retained until 1929. But then, rather suddenly, he was out in the cold. That was when Chartwell – and the 81 acres it sits in – came to

The £15m Surrey mansion where Rudolf Hess was held prisoner

The restoration of any run-down English country mansion is likely to involve extensive re-roofing, re-plumbing and re-wiring. Only one, however, is likely to uncover microphone wires hidden deep within walls by MI6, or involve the polishing of a grand, three-storey oak staircase over which Hitler’s top henchman, dressed in full Nazi regalia, tried to throw himself (failing when he got his leg stuck in the balustrade). Mytchett Place, between Ash Vale and Frimley Green in Surrey, is a sprawling 23,000 sq ft Victorian house that has just hit the sales market for £15 million. In recent years used as commercial premises, it’s in need of complete renovation, but comes with

Churchill as villain – but is this a character assassination too far?

The veteran journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft claims in his prologue to Churchill’s Shadow that: ‘This is not a hostile account, or not by intention, nor consciously “revisionist”, or contrarian,’ before launching into a long book that is virtually uninterrupted in its hostility to Winston Churchill, his memory and especially anyone who has had the temerity to admire Churchill or learn lessons from his life and career. Churchill revisionism is hardly new. The very first book I reviewed was Clive Ponting’s revisionist biography of 1994, since when there have been scholarly books by John Charmley, a predictably vicious one by David Irving (whose hero’s career was somewhat curtailed by Churchill) and a

Spare us the preaching: The Railway Children Return reviewed

It doesn’t help the cause of The Railway Children Return that the original 1970 Railway Children film is currently on iPlayer. Just to test my capacity to cry, having emerged dry-eyed from the new one, I came home and re-watched the original. Yup. The 2022 sequel has three scenes of the new cohort of Railway Children – three second world war evacuees from Manchester, Lily, Pattie and Ted – waving goodbye to their soldier father as he departs for war, in the fog, never to return. Violins soar. Eyes remain dry. The 1970 film has just one scene of Daddy arriving home, in the fog of a steam train, and

In praise of Greek royalty

New York Prince Pavlos, heir to the Greek throne, turned 55 recently and I threw a small dinner for him. Pavlos is a hell of a prince, father, husband and businessman. He’s tall, good-looking, a gent in every way, intelligent, hard-working and has never put a foot wrong. Neither has any member of his immediate family. Compared with them, the rest of European royals seem wanting, but then I’m prejudiced. The Greek royals are Danes, and the oldest reigning clan of Europe. Unlike another royal family whose name escapes me – it is the Platinum Jubilee issue after all – the Hellenic one has had no divorces, no scandals, and

Fascinating exhibitions – clunky editorialising: Breaking the News at the British Library reviewed

In The Spectator office’s toilets there are framed front covers of the events that didn’t happen: Corbyn beats Boris; ‘Here’s Hillary’; Jeremy Hunt wins the Tory leadership contest. The British Library has something similar at its Breaking the News exhibition. The difference is that these ones actually made it to the newsstand. It’s enough to make any passing journalist break into a sweat. ‘Titanic sinks, no lives lost’, reported the Westminster Gazette in April 1912; ‘King Louis XVI dodges the guillotine’, we are told in the 1793 issue of the London Packet. The Sunday Times’s 1983 Hitler diaries hoax appears in this hall of infamy. So does ‘The Truth’, the

Mostly gripping – and boasts not one but two Mr Darcys: Operation Mincemeat reviewed

Operation Mincemeat is based on the book by Ben Macintyre, which in turn is based on what Sir Hugh Trevor-Roper called ‘the most spectacular single episode in the history of deception’. It is so spectacular that the film doesn’t have to do much aside from tell it, and that’s what it does, straightforwardly, plainly, no bells and whistles. It’s a classic tale of British second world war derring-do and the sort of film you’ll watch with your dad on a Sunday afternoon, before or after Ice Cold in Alex. Plus it has a terrific cast that includes not one but two Mr Darcys (Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen). It’s 1943

The moral courage of P.J. O’Rourke

Was it Socrates who said that chaos was the natural state of mankind, and tyranny the usual remedy? Actually it was Santayana, and boy, did he ever get it right. My friend Christopher Mills has given me a terrific book, The Wages of Destruction by Adam Tooze, about the making and breaking of the Nazi economy. I thought I knew everything there is to know about that period, but I hadn’t thought of global economic realities, the ones that actually won the war. Germany’s limited territory and lack of natural resources led to war. Germans had been starving since the end of the Great War, and needed the corn of

Robert Harris on Boris Johnson, cancel culture and rehabilitating Chamberlain

Robert Harris has long been on a one-man crusade to reverse history’s negative verdict on the architect of appeasement. He argues that it was Neville Chamberlain’s duty to go the extra mile for peace and give Britain the moral authority to fight Hitler in the second world war. ‘There seems to be a general feeling that he couldn’t have done much else. He bought us precious time.’ Now the appearance of an acclaimed Anglo-German Netflix film Munich — The Edge of War, starring Jeremy Irons as Chamberlain, and based on Harris’s 2017 novel Munich, gives him the chance to bring his quixotic campaign to a mass audience. Born in 1957

The forgotten story of the pioneering surgeon who healed disfigured airmen

‘You’re inside an incinerator. The cockpit is on fire. You are burning. You can see bits of your body melting off. And you are struggling to get out.’ This is Andrew Doyle, the creator of Titania McGrath, describing to me the experience of an RAF pilot trying to escape from a stricken plane during the second world war. He explains that the injured airmen were treated by a New Zealand surgeon, Archibald McIndoe, who developed new methods for repairing skin damage at a specialist burns unit in the 1940s. And this is the subject that Doyle has chosen for a new musical. It may seem an odd departure for the

Can the fiasco of the Dieppe Raid really be excused?

In my mother’s final days we had a long conversation about the second world war. I asked if she’d ever thought we might lose. ‘No,’ she snapped. ‘I knew we were too clever for them.’ The chief of the imperial general staff, Sir Alan Brooke, had been less sanguine. On 31 March 1942 he confided to his diary: ‘During the last fortnight I have had, for the first time since the war started, a growing conviction that we are going to lose.’ His concern, besides the army not fighting very well — witness Hong Kong and Singapore — was that Britain’s new allies, the Soviet Union and the United States,

Grimy, echt and gripping: Netflix’s The Forgotten Battle reviewed

The Forgotten Battle is a Dutch feature film commemorating the desperate and relatively little-known Allied assault on the Scheldt estuary in October and November 1944. When I went to the battlefield decades later with veterans of 47 RM Commando, they told me it was worse than D-Day because the Germans knew they were coming and had prepared stronger defences. Nearly 13,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded (about the same as the German casualties), half of them Canadians. It has been a long time since I watched a half-decent second world war movie, mostly because they hardly bother making them any more. In the past decade, I can think only

I miss life before Big Tech

Do any of you remember the time when everything took place on the terraces and in outdoor cafés? Before everyone retreated into laptops and mobile telephones and Twitter? When the streets thrummed with possibility and the potential for new encounters was everywhere? Well, that’s all gone now, thanks to some pretty ugly-looking fellows with names such as Dorsey and Zuckerberg. But we’re the ones who adopted their useless inventions and live by them as if they were the Sermon on the Mount. The social consequences have been devastating — the young make noises instead of articulating speech — and had Cassandra been around 20 or so years ago she would

The art of the pillbox

When Oscar Wilde famously claimed: ‘All art is quite useless’, he may not have had artistic subjects in mind. But it’s certainly true that since the Romantic era, artists have had a special affection for the superannuated. An image of an abandoned building with some sort of past, not necessarily glorious, appeals to our emotions, be it Rachel Whiteread’s ‘House’ or Constable’s ‘Hadleigh Castle’. Even ephemera pre-loved by strangers evoke nostalgia when incorporated in the shadow boxes of Joseph Cornell or the assemblages of Peter Blake. But what about things that are not just obsolete but have never had any use at all? That’s the curious question prompted by a