It’s the use of the word “youngster” that elevates it to a thing of wonder. Without the word “youngster”, it would merely be a career politician who likes to claim to be “a man of the people”, going to the cinema in a suit and tie.
If you are under the age of 30, you may need to be told that “youngsters” is a word once used by middle-aged people to refer to the generation below them while simultaneously trying to avoid being eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger. You may also need to be told that Nigel Farage has urged you to go and see the movie Dunkirk.
“I urge every youngster to go out and watch Dunkirk,” the grand high wizard of Brexit said on Twitter last week, accompanied by the by-no-means-obligatory picture of himself, presumably at his local Odeon, next to the poster in by-no-means-obligatory turn of the century office wear.
Perhaps, when you are the same age as Brad Pitt but commonly assumed to be several decades older, you have some propriety over terms like “youngster”.
Perhaps, when you have a view of the world entirely untarnished by whole generations of human progress, you can indeed be born in 1964 then go from boarding school direct to the City of London, and still have some imagined claim to a superior understanding of sacrifice and struggle than a generation who have graduated into a decade of economic stagnation, and who are about to be plunged into another one by, well, you.
Such was the brevity of the Farage endorsement, we cannot know whether it was merely the astounding cinematography or the surprisingly accomplished performance of Harry Styles, or perhaps a misty-eyed longing for the good old days of industrialised warfare, which charmed him in the movie of the summer.
We all see what we want to see. We all shape the evidence to support our narrative. For Farage, no doubt there is glory in old England, standing up to the enemy, defending our island, whatever the cost may be. If only the youngsters of today wanted to fight on the beaches, get maimed in the streets, step on a mine on the landing grounds and die with growing confidence and growing strength in the air.
Though youngster I am not, I happened to see the movie at the weekend, at the same time as our current Prime Minister was marking the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele, a human abomination far nearer the genesis of Dunkirk and what followed.
I am of a different political persuasion, but I spent the full 106 minutes in a state of fear and dread, as the German planes strafed and bullets flew and men burned in seas of oil, in grim wonderment at the awesome power of nation states and the mind-bending horrors they can achieve when directed either by design or sheer stupidity towards malevolent ends. Of how we have decided now is the time to rip up the consensus that has kept us safe and delivered us, though imperfectly, a better life than any that has come before.
I happened to think about my great uncle Victor, so called because he was born in November 1918, who drowned at El Alamein, casting a long dark shadow over the lives of his seven brothers and sisters, one of whom was my grandmother. The raw anguish of his death lived on well into the Nineties.
I thought of how his short, bad life was handed to him by forces far beyond his control. Of the dreadful politics of war and peace in Europe in the years before his birth and his childhood. Generations of misery doled out by idiots, from which humanity took almost a century to recover.
The glorification of the war by a gilded generation far too young to know anything of it is a common trope on the right of politics. The BNP has a history of using images of Spitfires in its campaigns. When David Davis was told at the start of this year that the civil service did not have the capacity to handle Brexit, he breezily quipped that it was a lot bigger than when it won the war.
The view persists that Britain was somehow at its best when its young men were fighting and dying against the nations that are now our friends and neighbours. The idea that the European Union, the eastern expansion which reduced the old German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to tears of joy, has largely maintained peace for longer than at any point in Europe’s history has become almost boring. Now, it is something that is safe to be tampered with.
Back in our lifetime, it is again the wreckers that have their hands at the controls. The ones for whom, again, it is all a grand gilded game.
It is impossible to look, for example, at the Foreign Secretary travelling to Sydney to give a dim, crass, counterfactual speech on the imagined future of Australia had it been allowed to join the European Community in 1970s and not see the embodiment of the degenerate aristocrat general.
As if the world is an undergraduate essay or a newspaper column. That the correct course of action of a nation can be justified if you can make a 900 word case for it (how telling, by the way that Johnson wrote two columns, one for and against Brexit, as if that were the way to decide – the more persuasive column, the correct course of action).
At no point did he appear to pause and realise the regressive case is always easier to make than the progressive one. This, really, is the struggle that shapes history. Unfortunately, for the time being, we are going backwards. The rest of the world is not, by the way. Just us. The question is whether we will ever recover. Acceleration has never been faster; we have slammed the car into reverse at high speed.
I wouldn’t have the temerity to urge all youngsters to do anything in particular. Particularly as, if you do want to stand up against those who will smash your little lives to smithereens for a phony ideology 100 years out of date, it would appear to already be too late.
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