DJ Taylor: My father's D-Day

National frictions on the road to Berlin; tribal fictions in darkest East Anglia; things Orwell got right, things Paxmen gets wrong; oh, and pop intellectuals
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The Independent Online

On D-Day, the 65th anniversary of which fell yesterday, I always think of my late father, who, as Leading Aircraftsman Taylor JRG, landed in Normandy in June 1944 and spent the next year following the Allied advance eastward to Berlin.

This D-Day, what with the slight chill cast over Anglo-French relations by President Sarkozy forgetting, or omitting, to invite Her Majesty the Queen to the commemoration, I thought about my father even more. His memories of his time in Liberated Europe in 1944-45 were always presented in comic terms: looking up from a makeshift football pitch on some blasted German heath as a plane droned overhead and yelling, "It's all right lads, it's one of ours", only to end up 20 seconds later face down in a ditch amid a hail of tracer bullets; asking the surrendering Nazi encountered on an evening stroll through a French village if he could come back later as he was on his way to the cinema.

Knowing him as I did, I always thought this was a conscious desire to deflect some of the traumas of death, separation and close friends not coming back that might otherwise have troubled him. On the other hand, my father took a much less cheery line on Anglo-French relations. Five years ago, when he was 83, the local radio station took him back to Normandy and invited him to reminisce. What, the interviewer wondered, as they stood on some sun-drenched Gallic esplanade, had been the reaction of the French citizenry to their glorious liberation? Actually, Dad replied, it hadn't seemed to make a great deal of difference to them. He recalled another occasion when, with supplies running short, he and some friends knocked at the door of a farmhouse, whose barns bulged with recently harvested provender, and asked if they could have some food. When the French farmer shook his head, they simply lost patience and helped themselves. It was all a long time ago, of course, but a small part of me is hoping that, in defiance of all known protocols, Prince Charles, Her Majesty's last-minute replacement, lost patience with M Sarkozy.


Another of this week's commemorations is the anniversary of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was published 60 years ago tomorrow, seven months before its author's death, from tuberculosis, in University College Hospital, London. Much of the barrage of media interest has dwelt, understandably, on Orwell's talent for prophecy (interestingly, he described the novel as a "warning" rather than a series of predictions). While 21st-century Orwell studies tends to regard the book as a projection of Orwell's complex personality – the obsession with rats, for example, goes back to his childhood – there is no gainsaying its extraordinary prescience. Here, consequently, is a list of some of the things Orwell Got Right, compiled with the help of Professor Peter Davison, editor of the 20-volume collected works: metrication; deforestation; loss of privacy at the hands of intruding technology; the state-facilitated breakdown of the nuclear family; the disappearance and sequestration of political dissidents; the degradation of language; the waging of proxy wars by superpowers through satellite states or in peripheral territories; the dissemination of pornography to the working classes; a national lottery with enormous cash prizes. There are probably more. Practically the only one of Orwell's stabs at crystal-ball gazing we haven't yet got round to is public executions. No doubt this will come.


The funniest thing I read last week was an essay by the music critic Paul Morley which accompanies the excellent CD and DVD boxed set of Siouxsie and the Banshees at the BBC. Mr Morley begins with a brief sketch of the 1970s socio-historical background, before raptly declaiming: "And this is the tense, nervous world, the battered, fading landscape, the shabby, archaic town centres, the static but tumultuous times, that Siouxsie and the Banshees were born into, a world where it appeared you could dream up a new future by making up new rules and new sounds ... a world that seemed stamped on by a brutal, crazed, monochrome past, a world that needed new energy, and new visions, and a sense of revolutionary fervour. They broke upon the 20th century, as it seemed to be inside the English mentality, in the most surprising of ways, and began almost instantly, with a ravishing, razor sharp and accusatory effervescence, to compile their response and contribution to the century..."

Suddenly there I was again, back in the sixth-form common room circa 1978, brooding over a copy of the New Musical Express, that teenage hipster Bible, in which Morley and his chum Ian Penman briskly invoked Brecht, Ballard and Baudrillard the better to decode the latest waxing of some band of pale-faced 20-year-olds from Salford. Who is there nowadays who can write seriously about popular music without being borne aloft on a hot-air balloon of inflated rhetoric? The late Ian MacDonald could do it, and the wonderful Charles Shaar Murray (another of Morley's comrades on the golden-age NME) still can. Jon Savage, among contemporary practitioners, isn't bad apart from a tendency to confuse exceptionalism with representativeness, whereby adenoidal twentysomethings are always thought to be "brilliantly exemplifying" some social construct or other when all they are really exemplifying is themselves. As for Morley, it would be a fascinating exercise for some university English department to set the preceding paragraphs as a practical criticism test, and see if any of the undergrads had a clue what he was going on about.


Fresh evidence of the hulking geographical fissure that cuts East Anglia in two was supplied by news of a forthcoming autobiography by the former Ipswich Town footballer Fabian Wilnis. Among other things, Full English, Wilnis's account of his footballing career lately brought to an end at non-league Grays Athletic, reprises an episode that took place in March 2004 when, Ipswich having gone down 1-3 in a Championship fixture at Norwich's Carrow Road stadium, he remarked that the Norwich team wasn't good enough to top the table, wouldn't survive in the Premier League and, unless they signed 15 new players, would be relegated by Christmas. Alas, Mr Wilnis received hate-mail and a letter threatening to break his legs, should he ever set foot in Norwich again.

Norfolk-Suffolk rivalry, of course, goes back to Saxon times. Pagus Suthfolchi is 9th century; "Norfolk", for some reason, is absent from the charters until 1043. The curious thing about this tribalism is that it extends far beyond the football pitch (a Norwich employee once lost his job for announcing via the electronic scoreboard that "the scum" – ie Ipswich – were losing) to take in age-old mud-slinging about "Silly Suffolk" and "Normal for Norfolk". Even my father, exulting in the 1966 World Cup Final victory, could never quite get over the fact that Sir Alf Ramsay came from the debatable lands on the other side of the border. All nonsense, naturally, and yet even today I find myself shaking my head over the news that something called the "University of Suffolk" has set up shop in Ipswich and, heading over the county boundary at Beccles, inviting the children – just as my father did 30 years ago – to take their last breath of unsullied Norfolk air.


One of the horrors Orwell would certainly have worried about, had he lived, is the routine hypertrophying of emotions and behaviour that prevails in modern reportage. A footballer who decides to turn down a transfer is always said to have "snubbed" his prospective purchasers. "Infamous" (Shorter Oxford definition: "of ill fame or repute, notorious for badness of any kind") has become a kind of all-purpose garnish, capable of being applied to a politician's gaffe ("In an infamous speech to the 1985 Labour Party conference...") or a defeat on the cricket field ("England's infamous collapse at Old Trafford").

Confirmation of what might be called the absurdist/exaggerated tendency in 21st-century English comes from Jeremy Paxman, who recently described the British as "barbarians". One's first thought on hearing this was that he was complaining about rampaging football fans in Europe. No, Paxman was referring to the national habit of watching too much television, a medium, ironically enough, of which he is such a notable ornament. Forty-eight hours later came news of the death, in Mali, at the hands of al-Qa'ida, of the British hostage Edwin Dyer. This was (rightly) described by Gordon Brown as "barbaric", ie an act perpetrated by a barbarian. The trouble with the absurdist/exaggerated tendency, as practised by Jeremy Paxman, is that when something really terrible happens you have no language left to describe it.