They Shall Not Grow Old – Review

Tonight the S&G attended the premiere of Sir Peter Jackson’s eagerly-awaited new film, They Shall Not Grow Old.  The film’s trailer told us all that we needed to know: in 60 seconds we saw the familiar jerky, grainy silent images from the Western Front transformed into warm colour, played at real-life speed in modern high definition.

With the footage thus transformed, lip readers could easily see what was being said and actors with the correct dialect for each regiment brought their words back to life against a background hubbub of the genuine noises of war.

Our screening was not the ritzy all-star affair at the British Film Institute with Prince William, Mark Kermode and some former Hobbits in tow. This was just one of 250 simultaneous screenings taking place across the country, which gave a telling snapshot of those for whom this film will have the most resonance.

The majority of our sell-out audience was white haired and, as we waited in the lobby, appeared somewhat nervous looking. No doubt they were remembering their own grandfathers, if they had survived, and all the others of that generation whom today’s pensioners had known doubtless as nurturing figures but equally taciturn and seldom willing to address their war with younger generations.

One sensed that they knew this film would be a chance to glimpse into the shadows under the stairs and into the uneasy silences of their childhood.

Of today’s children there were very few to be seen. The youngest members of the audience were generally 40- to 50-year old men: some bookish, some city types fresh off the 17:30 from Waterloo, some shaven-headed reprobates juggling plastic beakers of beer. Some brought their wives but few could induce their children along. Across the auditorium there was an air of quiet reverence long before the lights went down.

Before the main feature there was a short intro to 1418now.org, the Lottery-funded council of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport that has presided over the centennial arts programme since 2014 and commissioned Jackson’s film. We were treated to an abundance of make-believe Tommies with one’s eye being drawn to the smattering of Afro-Caribbean faces placed rather ham-fistedly in their midst, whilst women in brightly-coloured hijabs looked on in wonder.

Mercifully, this festival of inclusiveness and reversed cultural appropriation only lasted for a few minutes. That’s not to say that the archive footage in Jackson’s film was lacking in colour of any kind – battalions of Sikh infantry, Chinese labourers and West African supply troops were all present and correct. But when youngsters do come to watch the film, they will doubtless wonder why the token black soldiers are not there among the Sussex Yeomanry and Lancashire Pals, as they are whenever Doctor Who visits the Western Front.

The colour palette of the restored footage will be familiar to anyone who has seen the great battles of Middle Earth that Jackson has conjured on screen. The Tommies’ waterproof capes melt into the earth like Frodo and Sam’s Elven robes. The mud, blood and rain have been recreated so well in the movie-maker’s most celebrated trilogies… mainly because J.R.R. Tolkein himself lived as a soldier on the Western Front.

There were moments of beautiful humanity when German and British soldiers met after battle; belly-laughs at the soldiers’ absurd sense of humour and always the threat of the raw violence and fleshy carnage that they created. When it was all over and the credits rolled, some in the audience applauded – but not many. It was too stark and powerful for that.

After the film came a Q&A with Sir Peter Jackson, hosted by Mark Kermode. He described They Shall Not Grow Old as probably the most personal film that he has ever made, inspired by the awe in which he held his own veteran grandfather who served from 1910 to 1919, and the lifetime Jackson himself has spent learning as much as he can about the war.

Quite rightly, he lamented the fictional movies that persist in imposing a sense of victimhood upon the soldiers of the Western Front that we have bestowed upon them. He had much more to say as well although at our screening there was an interruption by a young woman who stood with a clenched fist and barked out some slogan or other (it sounded like ‘object and you rule’), until she eventually ran out of the theatre, while we all looked at each other and said ‘what?’

Probably a Cambridge under-graduate, they seem to go in for that sort of thing these days. There will be a second screening and Q&A tomorrow purely for schools and colleges. We wish them all the luck in the world.

The film will now go on a limited cinematic run and will then be screened by the BBC on 11 November. If you can, go to the cinema and drink it in at full size. No matter what, please take the time out to sit and watch it on TV. It is only a snapshot of a very limited part of the war but it is real and heartfelt and, for that, it is truly astounding.

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Blue skies at the Shuttleworth Collection

When the sun is out, there’s barely a whisp of cloud in the sky and the breeze wouldn’t trouble a house of cards there’s really only one place to be: Old Warden for a flying display.

While the rest of the nation was shedding a tear of joy or two over Prince Harry’s nuptials, a decent sized crowd went to Bedfordshire. They came to savour not only the regular field of aeroplanes from the Shuttleworth Collection’s unique array of vintage and veteran stock, but also the official return to flying duties of its unique Spitfire Mk.Vc after 12 years under restoration.

Given that it was an evening show, the S&G wasn’t able to linger and enjoy the undoubted stars of the show, the WW1 and Edwardian machinery, take to the air on such a still and clear night. Nevertheless, there is never a day when one feels short-changed by seeing even a portion of the schedule at Old Warden, so here are the highlights.

First of all: what was to be found on the ground:

 

And here’s what was seen during the air displays:

 

As the long days of summer hopefully stick with us until the new academic year and beyond, it’s always worth keeping an eye on what’s going on at Old Warden, particularly with a brood to entertain.

Pick your heroes wisely

They say that you should never meet your heroes for fear that they may leave you disappointed. The S&G’s recommendation is simply to pick your heroes wisely. In writing the Haynes Manual on the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5, the defining day of the whole experience came in Bristol with the opportunity to interview the man who first made this writer want to tell stories of any kind: Derek Robinson.

It’s nearly 50 years since Robinson turned the literary world on its head with Goshawk Squadron – the Booker Prize runner-up of 1971. Until its publication, the image of airmen in World War 1 had been based upon the myth of a ‘cavalry of the clouds’ (as Lloyd George’s spin doctors put it). They were daring, chivalrous knights of the air jousting high above the squalor of the trenches with their silk scarves a-flutter.

Robinson wrote of a war that was no less squalid than that on the ground from the perspective of an S.E.5 squadron commanded by Stanley Woolley; a foul-mouthed working class combat veteran. Woolley presides over a rabble of idealistic young public schoolboys who believe that they are taking part in a gallant contest with the enemy – a delusion that Woolley tries to beat out of them by any means necessary.

The inspiration for his story had come in 1968, when the Sunday Telegraph ran a feature marking the 50th anniversary of the Royal Air Force in which a First World War veteran was interviewed. ‘He said it was much more like meeting a guy down a back alley with a sock full of broken glass and cracking him over the head and running like hell,’ Robinson remembered.

‘He said it was just as bad to be shot at 15,000 feet as it was in the trenches so let’s forget all the chivalry stuff, there was no fair play, there was no duelling in the sky… I was reading this and thought: “Hey! Never thought of that!” So that was it, after that I was off and running and so I read everything that I could lay my hands on.’

There were two things that Derek Robinson knew about – writing good copy and the Royal Air Force. The former came from a career spent in the advertising trade, a fair bit of local journalism and generally being a pen for hire… whilst all the while dreaming of writing the perfect detective novel. When it came to writing about wartime airmen, however, the aspiring novelist was able to draw on a wealth of first-hand knowledge as a trained radar operator and fighter plotter.

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Robinson’s characters owe much to his encounters with WW2 veterans while on National Service

‘I did my national service in the RAF and I knew various pilots – this was at the time of Korea, and the reserves had been recalled from among the pilots of the Second World War,’ said Robinson.

‘I was at Exeter Airport and one of these reserve squadrons arrived in Spitfires and flew there all summer… and of course they were all crackers.

‘The railway line comes out of Exeter and it runs through alongside the River Ex estuary and then it goes down the coast to Cornwall. Because it’s marshland down there the railway line is built up on embankments and these guys in Spits used to hang around – we could watch them from the radar station, we could see it – so when the train was steaming out of Exeter and picking up speed they used to dive down and sweep level with the train driver. A lot of that sort of behaviour went into Goshawk Squadron and all the books.’

The full canon of Robinson’s stories of the air begins with a quartet of tales from the First World War that run chronologically from the Battle of the Somme in 1916 (War Story, 1987), to the battles of Arras and Passchendaele in 1917 (Hornet’s Sting, 1998), to the German Spring Offensive in 1918 (Goshawk Squadron, 1971). The final instalment tells of the deployment of Royal Air Force units to fight for the White Russians against the Bolsheviks in 1919 (A Splendid Little War, 2013).

Then we get to World War 2, in which the series begins with Piece of Cake (1983), the story of an RAF fighter squadron from September 1939 to September 1940. Intertwined with this is a later book, Damned Good Show (2002), which tells the story of the bomber crews in 1939-41 before the arrival of ‘Bomber’ Harris as their commander.

The survivors from Piece of Cake are then found in the vast expanse of the Sahara, fighting Rommel’s Afrika Korps alongside the SAS during 1942 (A Good Clean Fight, 1993). The WW2 quartet ends with Flight Lieutenant Sweet, the central character from Damned Good Show seeing out his war, struggling in civilian life and jumping at the chance to fly a nuclear-armed V-Bomber at the height of the Cold War in Hullo Russia, Goodbye England (2008).

‘I don’t know of anyone who is competing with me: I don’t know anyone who writes this kind of stuff about First and Second World War flyers,’ Robinson said. He has a very good point as well but sells himself rather short because no novelist has ever come as close to explaining the truth of war in living memory.

Certainly in the case of airmen, only the terminally ill First World War pilot Victor Yeates, in his book Winged Victory (1934), really compares in terms of the rawness and the willingness to address uncomfortable truths. Unlike many veterans who have written about their wartime experiences, Yeates wrote without a care for how posterity might view him or his comrades. Even after a century it is a truly shocking read.

In recent times, novels that have been set in either of the World Wars have merely used elements of the conflict as a backdrop to melodrama. If you read Birdsong after reading Goshawk Squadron, then Sebastian Faulks’ efforts are revealed as a genteel middle-class soap opera that pays only lip service to military history.

‘I’m pretty good at what one critic described as “putting people in the cockpit”,’ said Robinson.

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Goshawk Squadron puts the reader here, sat between two machine guns at 15,000 feet

‘So you feel you know what it’s like up there and it’s complicated, it’s difficult, it’s dangerous and yet it’s hugely exciting and you can do things up there that nobody could dream of. I research that very, very closely but I don’t put a lot of process and procedure in the books because people get fed up with it pretty quickly – but it informs the story. Secondly, the jokes are not bad!’

In fact, the rich vein of humour that runs through all of the books is often riotous. In Robinson’s version of events, the pity of war is something that we the readers experience through the author’s voice or characters like the outspoken intelligence officer ‘Skull’ Skelton who appears in every one of his World War 2 books – usually before getting the ‘chop’ and being sent to some backwater or other as penance.

The airmen seldom, if ever, take time for a wistful glance or mournful sigh – they’re too busy living and dying. Gravitas, pity and sorrow are what we bestow upon wars long after the event, like a hushed BBC commentary on Remembrance Sunday.

‘It’s a point I try to make that, for these young men, being given the most amazing machinery of their times and the means to shoot things down and blow things up – it was bloody good fun!’ Robinson chuckled. Over the years some veterans have complained that he has not done their legacy any favours – but on balance many more have found the ebullience of his fighting men to be right on the money.

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Derek Robinson at home with a selection of his handiwork. A thrilling interviewee for a writer.

‘I was talking to a D-Day veteran once, and he was complaining that we make such a fuss about that landing when there were others before it that never get a mention,’ Robinson recalled.

‘He said: “I remember when we were going into Sicily, and we were in the landing craft, and the Lieutenant stood up in front of us and he said that it was going to be rough stuff that we were going into and it may well be that half of the men in that boat would not be coming back.” And this chap said that he looked around at the bloke next to him and he thought: you poor bastard!’

In recent years, Robinson has produced two non-fiction books that tackle big issues in popular military history. First came Invasion, 1940 which looks at whether or not Britain was in fact under imminent threat of German occupation during the Battle of Britain. In Why 1914?, Robinson’s gimlet eye for history was turned upon the circumstances and misadventures that fuelled Europe’s descent into the First World War.

These books, together with his authoritative works on Rugby Union, books about his beloved Bristol, a series of spy stories and even an American novel, all delight the Robinson faithful. But it is the stories of airmen that have come to define his oeuvre – all of which stem from the writing of Goshawk Squadron.

‘We were on our uppers but I guess it’s part of being young and having lots of energy – I had a lot of energy in those days.  And a fair bit of anger at the world in general,’ Robinson said.

‘I wrote it – according to my wife, who remembers it far more vividly than I do, I’m sure –not so much in a fit of rage but in a fit of defiance. I had already wasted four years writing stuff which nobody wanted to publish. So I said to myself – and I think I said to her too – “well, I don’t give a shit. I’ll write it for me and if somebody else wants to publish it then that’s good luck!” …that’s what I should have done in the first place!’

Although now in his eighties, Robinson remains a cheerfully restless author. The shelves of high street bookshops are groaning under the weight of newer and lesser war novels, while the maestro’s most recent works are mostly self-published and sold directly to his followers. Such is the case with his latest novel, Holy $moke, which came out last year and follows a mismatched group of intelligence men into Rome and the chaos that reigned after Mussolini’s fall.

One cannot help but feel that a return to the screen is long overdue. It’s 30 years this year since Piece of Cake was broadcast as a six-hour miniseries by ITV but it remains utterly fresh and vital, thanks in no small part to the source material. Sir Peter Jackson has built an entire air force of 1914-18 machinery – not to mention a hangar full of Lancasters – and has yet to find a suitable vehicle for any of them. He need hardly look further than Bristol for inspiration.

All of Robinson’s books can be ordered directly from the man himself by visiting www.derekrobinson.info and this is to be heartily recommended. As for the S&G, our time of chuntering about old aeroplanes and good books, with accompanying tea and doughnuts, will long be remembered. Because sometimes meeting your heroes is very well worth it.

Alfa’s Story – Part 1

The return of Alfa Romeo to grand prix racing seems to have passed almost unnoticed in the hubbub around this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix and the start of the 2018 Formula 1 season. Perhaps it is because everyone knows that it’s ultimately just a Ferrari engine deal but the cloverleaf and the prancing horse have happily shared the paddock for nearly 90 years.

Alfa Romeo is a hallowed name in motoring. From the blood red Grand Prix cars driven by Tazio Nuvolari and Achille Varzi through to the most beautiful car ever built and on to the achingly cool hatchbacks of recent years, like TV detective Aurelio Zen’s black 147, the artisans of Italy’s oldest performance car maker have forged and beaten metal into the stuff of dreams. Yet the company was something of an accidental hero that was inadvertently founded by a Frenchman and overcame some towering obstacles before crossing the threshold into motoring myth.

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When the BBC wanted a cool new detective they gave him an Alfa.

Alexandre Darracq entered the booming French car making industry during the 1890s and, like so many others, chose motor racing to advertise his wares. It took him almost a decade to crack race engineering, but in the dying days of the city-to-city events on the public highway, Darracq’s ‘light cars’ became a force to be reckoned with.

Employing the celebrated French cyclist Henri Farman to drive his ‘light cars’, Darracq presided over victory in the voiturette class of the 1901 Pau-Peyrehorade and Nice-Salon-Nice races. This brought considerable interest from a London investor, who also introduced Farman to what would be a long and fruitful relationship with British industry. Farman soon left mother earth to become a celebrated aviator, while Darracq and his backers went in another direction.

They soon realised that slaving away to produce small numbers of bespoke cars and motor cycles would never be as profitable as volume production. Thus Darracq’s light cars grew even lighter as he made them cheaper and their performance became even more polished. It’s worth noting that the 1904 12hp Darracq that was immortalised in the movie Genevieve was the Golf GTI of its day.

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Movie icon ‘Genevieve’ was one of Darracq’s sporty voiturettes

At a shareholders’ meeting in London during 1906, the decision was made to commit to building a new and bigger factory to increase production still further. It was decided that northern Italy was cheap enough, well connected to the rest of Europe and with a well-educated workforce.

Darracq himself chose the location beside Via M.U. Traiano near Milan. The road was named after the Roman emperor Trajan but the factory was rather less grandly named after a nearby trattoria that Darracq had taken a shine to: he called it Portello.

It was unfortunate, then, that in 1907 the bottom fell out of the European car market amid a series of economic tsunamis just the last of Portello’s brick work was being finished off. Darracq decided to cut costs even further and skimped on parts but this only served to make the Italian-built cars fiendishly unreliable. Customers took their trade elsewhere

Darracq very publicly fired the British factory manager at Portello and brought in some local talent to help restore the factory’s reputation. The new man was called Ugo Stella and his solution was a drastic rebranding exercise. He took on a loan of half a million lire from the Banca Agricola Milanese and offered to buy the factory, renaming the company as Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili – or ALFA for short.

Not much was changed in the company structure, however. The British investors were still part of the package and Alexandre Darracq was listed as a director of ALFA. The cars that they began to produce were also to Darracq’s designs… at least until the appointment of new chief designer Giuseppe Merosi in 1909.

The first of Merosi’s cars was the ALFA 12/15, a large but rather sporty model, which debuted in 1910. Throughout 1911 interest in the new car picked up, particularly among enthusiastic drivers and amateur racers. This led the ALFA factory itself to try a few forays into the racing world, which grew all the more serious when Merosi’s new 40/60 model appeared. This car would provide the basis of a full-house Grand Prix challenger in 1914, although it would not compete in anger.

Another designer had also joined ALFA to work alongside Merosi on engine development. This was Antonio Santoni, who wanted to enter the burgeoning aviation market by building the first aeroplane to fly across the Alps. His engine was revolutionary because it featured a supercharger that he himself had patented – one of the first forced induction units ever recorded. Sadly, Santoni was beaten across the Alps by one of Louis Blériot’s monoplanes.

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Giuseppe Merosi’s ALFA 40/60 competed before and after WW1. Here, Merosi sits at the wheel of the 1914 GP car.

Then came World War 1 and Italy was forced into battle alongside the British and the French. With nobody buying cars and without any military contracts to sustain its workforce, ALFA went bust very quickly. The Banco Italiana di Sconto, which had become ALFA’s main source of funding, sent in an administrator to take over the failing factory: his name was Nicola Romeo.

Romeo had come from a relatively humble background in Naples, trained in engineering and had set about making himself a fortune. He had begun to realise his ambitions of wealth by importing cheap American farming equipment in kit form, knocking it together and selling it on at a profit.

Romeo networked and made alliances with banks and officials. And he made a lot of money. When Romeo arrived in Portello, he did so with a contract for the provision of 10,000 artillery shells per day and set about rehabilitating ALFA under a new guise: Alfa Romeo.

This was a process that Romeo forced through despite some misgivings from within Portello. The north/south divide in Italy is sharply drawn and there was a considerable clash of cultures between the mannered metropolitans of Milan and the swashbuckling brigand from Naples. Giuseppe Merosi and a number of other senior ALFA men flat-out refused to work with Romeo, but were eventually convinced to remain at their posts. The company survived the war from within Romeo’s engineering empire.

In 1918 the guns fell silent but Italy was in chaos and there was a surge of popular support among factory workers for a Russian-style revolution. To counter this worrying threat, and funded by allied powers such as Britain, the Fascists under Benito Mussolini would take brutal action to quell any Communist activity.

It was a protection racket on an industrial scale, and in hindsight Italian industry was often at the mercy of both parties. Alfa Romeo’s factory in Portello was brought to a standstill by an uprising… which Mussolini’s men quickly countered.

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Big fires and big sticks were part and parcel of Italian industrial relations in the 1920s

The factory went back to building Giuseppe Merosi’s cars and to promote them it returned to competition. The war had inspired a good number of young men towards adventure and risk taking of the kind that motor racing could offer them, and a nucleus of drivers was built up in 1919-20 including the aspiring opera singer Giuseppe Campari, engineers Antonio Ascari and Ugo Sivocci plus a precocious 22 year-old called Enzo Ferrari.

Together they and their cars were managed under the Alfa Corse banner by Giorgio Rimini – an imposing (many would say terrifying) Neapolitan who had long sat at Romeo’s right hand. In 1920, Giuseppe Campari scored the first victory for Alfa Corse when he took the chequered flag at the Circuit of Mugello, driving one of Merosi’s pre-war 40/60 models. It would lead towards a succession of ever-more important race wins and ever-greater honours for the team.

Of which there will be more in Part 2…

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Nicola Romeo (centre) visits the Alfa Corse pit garage, to the delight of Enzo Ferrari (right)

Eduard’s Royal Class

Model makers appear to be enjoying the S&G’s manual for the S.E.5 fighter, which has been given the thumbs-up from Military Modelling magazine – thank you, chaps. In the appendices you will find what was hoped to be the definitive list of scale models of the type but, rather annoyingly, a brand new model kit has since appeared. The good news, however, is that Eduard’s new 1/48 S.E.5a looks like a gem.

The headlines have all been stolen in recent years by Wingnut Wings and its staggering output of 1/32 scale kits of World War 1 aeroplanes. In part it is because of the phenomenal level of detail in such a (comparatively) large scale, and also the quality of the fit and finish. There’s also the star quality of knowing that these models were produced by Lord of the Rings movie mogul Sir Peter Jackson as part of his lifelong crusade to see Great War aviation remain in the spotlight.

While the success of Wingnut Wings has been staggering, the smaller scales have been left in the shade as a result, including the seldom-less-than-brilliant offerings from Czech firm Eduard. That has changed with the release of its long-awaited S.E.5a, however.

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Eduard’s S.E.5a broke cover earlier this year (pic IPMS Deutschland)

For British modellers, the downside of Wingnut Wings kits primarily revolve around the steep price that must be paid to own one, thanks to Her Majesty’s Customs & Excise. There is also the size of the things to be considered, however. A 1/48 scale kit bridges the gap between the hyper-detailed world of Wingnut Wings and the tiddly 1/72 ‘gentleman’s scale’ modelling that most of us attempted in our youth at one time or other.

To date the Eduard S.E.5a kit has only been available with the British-built Wolseley Viper engine. Now, however, it has been treated to a deluxe ‘Royal Class’ release, with sufficient parts to make two different aeroplanes, and for both the Viper and the Hispano-Suiza engine around which the type was originally designed.

All of this presents the modeller with a myriad of choices to make on colours, pilots, squadrons and setup for each model. Fortunately, Eduard has also included a Royal Flying Corps-themed hip flask with the plastic content, upon which the lucky owner can take the occasional pull while making their mind up.

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Sumptuous detail in miniature form: Eduard’s S.E.5 can be made ‘undressed’ (pic IPMS Deutschland)

The basic Viper-engined kit appeared about a week after the S&G’s book was published and sells at £21.99. This new Royal Class edition will be very limited and retails at a healthy £65.00 but includes so much in the way of photo-etched metal parts, resin upgrade parts and, of course, the commemorative flask, that it looks like good value and can be found for around the £50 mark with a bit of smart shopping.

All in all it looks like a great deal. Here at the S&G we have dabbled with Eduard kits and they do make even ham-fisted amateurs look like fairly decent modellers. This one will doubtless be much the same – so why not give it a go?

A new perspective on the past

Marina Amaral is an extremely talented lady.  Based in her native Brazil, she has mastered the art of retouching black and white photographs in order to bring them to vivid life for the modern era. Her work varies from profound subjects to the most mundane and she is accepting commissions to breathe a little colour back into whatever subjects her clientele might wish to revive.

It is incredibly hard to convey the relevance of even our recent past to the generations coming through.  To a vast majority of people raised in the digital age, everything is disposable and nothing is sacred. If something cannot be related to and offer tangible pleasures then all too often it is discarded. Marina’s work makes the other-worldliness of old photographs fresh and challenges the eye.

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Marina Amaral reveals the man behind the moustache: Neville Chamberlain arrives home from Munich

In the 1980s, space was filled in the early evening schedules of BBC2 with silent ‘shorts’ by Harold Lloyd, ‘Buster’ Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Children would watch them after Grange Hill and Crackerjack had finished in preference to the early evening news – the S&G among them – and wonder what it must have been like when humans could only see the world in black and white.

Today such films are never put in front of a youngster unless by accident.  As a result, the unbridled joy of watching grown-ups wallop each other and fall over, let alone learning about the broad palate of emotions that they are sensing in the world through the elegant mime of truly great actors, is denied to them.

Having spent far too many hours in museums this year, often with tides of teenagers ebbing and flowing around the corridors, it was clear that the relationship between past and present is becoming fractured. School history lessons are a drudge of irrelevance to most kids. In school, the subject appears to have been boiled down to putting on fancy dress and then writing about how they believe people felt.

Skills like Marina’s offer a unique opportunity for families, schools and publishers to redress the balance somewhat. That is a truly valuable resource to have.

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The Red Baron emerges in another of Marina Amaral’s pieces

 

Visiting Captain Ball

This week saw the S&G in the sleepy village of Annœullin in the Pas de Calais, paying a visit to a key figure in the archives – and one set to appear several more times in the weeks and months ahead – Captain Albert Ball.

It had been 28 years since last calling in on the good Captain (the passage of time being rather less marked upon Annœullin than upon oneself). Ball’s grave remained in impeccable condition, standing tall among the simple crosses that fill the rest of the German military cemetery in the village.

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It is 99 years since Ball’s last flight and the discussion over how he ended up inverted in a shallow dive over the fields of this little corner of the Pas de Calais continues to ebb and flow. Indeed, it’s simmering along rather excitably at present; with a few metaphorical low blows and beard tweaks being exchanged between historians.

Of course, whether he was shot down by Lothar von Richthofen – or anyone else, for that matter – became of little consequence to Ball himself from the moment that he hit the ground. Unless his S.E.5 suffered a structural failure, it is highly doubtful that even Ball knew the real cause of his demise.

Photographing the grave was not a problem but, sadly, reaching the surviving marker of the two laid down at the crash site by Ball’s distraught father, Albert Sr., proved impossible. These photos show the closest that could be achieved.

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To the best of the S&G’s knowledge, Albert Ball Sr. bought the field in which his son died in order to lay the stones that marked where the wreckage lay. With the markers in place – it has never been clear what happened to the second marker – the land has been worked continuously since the Armistice. Despite the agricultural setting it was possible, in 1988, to walk right up to the remaining stone.

As can be seen in the pictures, no such path exists today. For those interested in the inscription, this ‘borrowed’ image might clarify what lies out amid the greenery:

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A quick scout around upon returning to Blighty revealed that, yes, the land was bought by Albert Ball Sr.

On the assumption that nobody in the family has since sold the land back, it can hardly have been the intention that visitors should be deterred from venturing near the marker by an impenetrable army of lettuce.

Of interest was a story in the news for staff at RAF Waddington, where 56(R) Squadron – Ball’s unit of 1917 – is now based. A sergeant with the unit recounted travelling to Annœullin in 2014 for an Armistice commemoration, saying:

‘The next morning the party travelled to the town hall of Annœullin for a meeting with the Mayor and other local dignitaries. As well as discussing our participation in the Armistice parade, we also talked about the future of the field where Captain Ball crashed. Purchased by his father after the Great War, the local population has been maintaining the site ever since. It is envisaged by the local council that a permanent footpath and fence should be erected to preserve the site, and 56(R) Squadron will help facilitate the negotiations between the council and Ball family.’

Of course it is not going to be a high priority for public spending in Annœullin, and the intransigence of French farmers is the stuff of legend, but perhaps for the 100th anniversary of Ball’s last flight such a path could be inaugurated. Such a path might honour not only the loss of the man but also the determination of a bereft father that his son should never be forgotten.