Imagine this. You've been scrambled from a grass landing strip somewhere in Britain, dashing from the Lloyd Loom chairs to your Hurricane, lifting off low over the hedges as the undercarriage cranks up and climbing as rapidly as you can to intercept. When you spot the enemy in the distance, approaching at a combined closing speed of around 500 miles an hour, it becomes clear that there's something of a numerical discrepancy. You are part of a flight of six aircraft. One hundred and fifty are coming towards you. "Crikey," you might say, "this isn't cricket." Except you wouldn't because you're Polish and this English expression probably hasn't figured in the intensive English course you've just undergone so that you can fly with the RAF.
"Angels" was on the course, and "bandits" and "pancake" – the RAF slang for landing a plane on its belly, which presumably came in handy when Josef Frantizek (a Czech pilot who attached himself – very loosely – to the Polish squadron) forgot that he wasn't flying a fixed-undercarriage aircraft any longer and scraped his Hurricane down the runway. Incidents like that – and the fact that the Polish airforce had lasted just three days against the Luftwaffe – meant that refugee pilots were regarded as a dubious resource at the beginning of the war. But as The Untold Battle of Britain reminded us, Polish pilots turned out to bear a similar relationship to British pilots as Polish plumbers do to their British counterparts. Tempered by their experience in Europe, they did the job faster, cheaper and more efficiently.
The comparison isn't just a flippancy. That's partly the point of Channel 4's three programmes, broadcast as part of the Bloody Foreigners strand and designed to remind us that immigrants have always played a part in our history. The role of the Brits in the dramatised sections here was to be stuffy, protocol-obsessed and mildly xenophobic, these prejudices eventually being overcome by the remarkable zeal of the Polish pilots in combat. Frantizek, who never took to RAF discipline and was permitted to operate as a kind of lone wolf (top brass can't have been all that stuffy then) became the highest-scoring ace of the war. His colleagues in the Polish 303 Squadron were among the highest-scoring squadrons. In one particularly fierce battle, on 7 September, they managed to shoot down 16 German aircraft in less than 15 minutes. They didn't do too badly in the bedroom either: "The girls were nice and friendly and so were their mothers," said one veteran. "The fathers? Well, fathers were absent, most of them."
Prejudice was suspended temporarily but reasserted itself in shameful fashion when the war was over. Polish pilots who'd defended the country found themselves reverting to the status of embarrassing guests. Their hopes for a decent post-war settlement were destroyed at Yalta and they weren't even invited to march in the victory parade after the war, lest their presence put Stalin's nose out of joint. I imagine that by this time they might have acquired the only vocabulary fitting for such a shoddy response to their courage.
I don't know whether Diana Athill ever offered wartime consolation to a Polish pilot, but she candidly owned up to a sexual preference for foreigners in Imagine's very winning portrait of her, "Growing Old Disgracefully". "Terribly interesting to get under the skin of someone so completely different to myself," she said. I wasn't sure about the title really, which nodded to the unconventionality of her social arrangements but didn't quite do justice to the boldness with which she ignored the done thing in favour of something that did better for her. There wasn't anything disgraceful about it at all, even if her promiscuity in her younger years (her untroubled word, incidentally) was a reaction to the deeply painful end of her first love affair, rather than a matter of blithe liberation.
The books are successful because they combine a great elegance of style with a fearless lack of discretion. "I find Diana repulsive," wrote one of her later lovers, an Egyptian writer who eventually killed himself in her flat. "I find it impossible to live in the flat with someone whose physical body provokes mine to cringe." And we know this not because a third party uncovered this devastating entry, but because Athill herself read the diary and thought fit to pass it on, rather than suppress the fact. When John Betjeman was asked very late in life whether he'd had any regrets he replied: "Yes. I wish I'd had more sex." That doesn't seem as if it's a problem for Athill, but she did seem to acknowledge here a regret that she hadn't been more outspoken with her parents – about her political and social opinions.
The film was a kind of stations of the cross – Athill in company with Alan Yentob, revisiting the important sites of her life, from her grandmother's impressive country house in Norfok ("When we came here it was like being let loose in the perfect life really") through boarding school and her office at André Deutsch, which now appears to have been converted into a fine art supplier. The shot of her sighing rapturously over a tray of beautifully coloured pastels was a happy accident of art – the very image of a woman who'd believed that her life was a little dull and then pulled open a drawer to find wonderfully subtle tints and shadings concealed within it. She's often held up as an example of how to live old age well, but this film rather suggested that it helps enormously to live well before you get old.Reuse content