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Tag: Second World War

Bomb-Damaged London & Its Bomb-Damaged Kids

Saw Hue & Cry t’other night on the tellybox for the first time since I was a nipper.

This recently digitally restored kid-oriented Ealing Comedy presents as its climax a London-wide mobilisation of boys (and a few tom-boys) for a ‘big adventure’ – beating up baddies that the police had failed to nab, or even notice. I always loved that kind of film – in which kids show-up the groan-ups, and also give them a good hiding.

Officially the first Ealing comedy, it was directed by Charles Crichton (who went on to direct The Lavender Hill Mob) and shot in 1946, just as the Welfare State was being founded and the horrors of the past were being swept away by the post-war Labour administration of Clement Attlee – who had himself swept away Winston Churchill (the wartime leader who was not nearly so popular as official histories like to tell us).

Maybe it’s because I’m now the middle-aged enemy, but watching it today, Hue & Cry seems really rather disturbing to adult, contemporary health & safety sensibilities. All those kids in rags running around in bombed-out houses, wading through sewers and getting into fights with cops and robbers? Someone call social services!­­­­­­­

The sainted Alistair Sim (and no, I didn’t write that book about him) makes an appearance as the enjoyably eccentric and laughably timid author of the ‘blood and thunder’ comic book stories that the barrow boy protagonist (played with enthusiasm but little skill by Harry Fowler) is obsessed with. Scarf-wearing Sim lives at the top of a German expressionist spiral staircase, his only companions a cat and the Home Service.

But it is bomb-damaged, bankrupted London that is the real star of this movie – shrouded in steam and smoke, with chimneys, spires and dock derricks the only things troubling the still-Victorian skyline. Digitally-restored and viewed on HD widescreen, the past seems almost unrecognisable – even the past in the form of vaguely remembering watching a scratchy print of it on 1970s TV.

Bomb-damaged London is populated, in its bomb-craters and burned-out shells, by its bomb-damaged cheeky-chappy lads and lasses. Intentionally or not, beneath all the jolly cockernee japery, Hue & Cry presents a kind of comic-book PTSD in which the apparently orphaned and traumatised children of the war can’t stop fighting a global conflict that is already over. Note the surprising sadism of some of the fight scenes, in amongst the slapstick (does that baddie really need his head banging on the ground that many times?).

After the clip above ends, the Cockney hero finishes off the mini-tached, side-parted, long-fringed evil-genius (played confusingly by the later Dixon of Dock Green) after  a lengthy showdown in a bunker-esque bombed-out warehouse – by jumping onto his prone stomach from the floor above. With great relish. In an earlier scene the gang tie up a glamorous female villain and set about torturing her to extract the identity of her criminal boss (her terror of mice turns out to be the key to her interrogation).

hue-and-cry-1947-torture

The real version of this world is the one that twins Ronald and Reginald Kray, born in 1933, grew up in: the semi-feral East End gangsters famous for the violence, sadism and terror tactics they employed building and maintaining their underworld empire in the 60s – a parallel demimonde that was both part of and also an affront to the ‘white heat’, glamour and shiny modernity of ‘Swinging London’. The Krays were the sewer rats of social mobility.

Krays

Like the tearaway in Hue & Cry they also couldn’t stop fighting the war that they grew up with – but were only interested in their own war, no one else’s. When they were conscripted into National Service in the early 1950s they decided the British Army was their enemy. By employing all kinds of fiendishly childish and inventively savage tactics (Ronald being proper psychotic probably helped) they won, and the British Army, like the cops and the baddies in Hue & Cry, beat a hasty retreat from the onslaught, giving the twins dishonourable discharges.

They then employed much same tactics on rival London gangs, effectively eliminating the opposition. When this terrifying comic-book duo were finally sentenced in 1969 to thirty years maximum security chokey for murder, the judge dryly observed: ‘society has earned a rest from your activities’. Ronald died in prison in 1995, aged 61; Reggie in 2000, aged 66. But they had already been immortalised on the big screen in the rather good 1990 film The Krays, played by brothers Gary and Martin Kemp, working class London lads who achieved riches and fame by being pop stars in the hit band Spandau Ballet in the 1980s – rather than by switchblades and gangs.

Another working class pop star, Steven Patrick Morrissey, had a year earlier anatomised the highly homoerotic hero-worship of the Krays and the pernicious glamour of violence in his single ‘The Last of the Famous International Playboys’.

For all their crimes, ‘Ronnie and Reggie’ are almost as fondly-regarded in British culture as an Ealing comedy, and arguably most of the UK gangster movies made in the 1990s and Noughties that followed The Krays were cartoonish homages to the terrible twins. They were certainly comical, even when they didn’t intend to be.

Their story has now been revisited again in a recently-released UK film Legend, starring Tom Hardy playing both roles. I’ve seen it and will offer you my pearls about it shortly. Suffice to say that it’s not so much about Ronald and Reggie, or about class, or about London in the 1960s.

It’s all about Tom – and the 21st Century’s obsession with male sexuality.

You’re the Top! You’re Mussolini!

Mark Simpson on the oddly passionate adulation the ‘Roman Genius’ Benito Mussolini inspired – and still inspires to this day.

(Independent on Sunday, 29 June 2003)

‘I grabbed her on the stairs, threw her into a corner behind a door and made her mine,’ wrote Mussolini recalling one of his teenage ‘wooings’. ‘She got up weeping and humiliated and through her tears she insulted me. She said that I had robbed her of her honour. It is not impossible. But, I ask you, of what honour was she speaking… She wasn’t in a sulk with me for long…. for at least three months we loved each other not much with the mind but much with the flesh.’

Benito happened to be describing, in typically Nietzchean poseur stylee, the ravishing/raping of a peasant girl neighbour, but he would have liked us to believe that he could also have been describing his seduction of Signora Italia, whom he famously ‘made his’ during his March on Rome in 1922 (which, actually, was not a march at all but a jolly day out on the train).

This more famous affair not much of the mind but of the flesh ended up lasting over twenty years instead of three months, cost Italy rather more than her honour and plenty of tears – eventually involving a hairy threesome with Adolf Hitler – and did not end until Il Duce (along with his real-life mistress of the moment) was summarily executed by Partisans in 1945 as he tried to flee to Austria disguised as a German soldier, in something of a crimine di passione.

Although Italy, like the peasant girl of his memoirs was the victim, it’s not entirely clear that Signor M was quite the towering studmeister he presented himself as being or more of a jumped-up gigolo eagerly playing the role that history paid him to.

Italia, victim or no, did love him. After sanctions were imposed to punish Italy for his unprovoked and mass-murderous invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, Il Duce called on Italians to donate their wedding rings to him – in exchange for steel ones – and other gold to help the invasion effort. Astonishingly, hundreds of thousands of Italians heeded the call from the reverse Midas, and handed over 33,622 tons of gold for steel, symbolically marrying their leader and providing the dowry themselves.

To be fair, it wasn’t just the Italians who couldn’t resist Mussolini for the first decade or so of his dictatorship. Mussolini was the first pop star politician in the age of mass communication and had a global, frenzied fan-base. The American poet Ezra Pound was besotted, Cole Porter penned a song which helped turn his name into a superlative, ‘You’re the top!… you’re Mussolini’ (the Duce-worshipping lyric was actually written by PG Wodehouse for the London version of ‘Anything Goes’). Pope Pius gushingly IX described him as a ‘man of Providence’. Before he left the Italian Socialist Party even Lenin spoke approvingly of him.

Once he became a bulwark against Bolshevism, The Times and the Daily Mail heaped praise on this ‘great politician’ and ‘foreman’ of the Italian people. Winston Churchill, that great and uncompromising defender of Parliamentary democracy and scourge of tyrants, was a passionate admirer of the original Fascist dictator he dubbed ‘the Roman genius’: ‘What a man! I have lost my heart!… he is one of the most wonderful men of our time,’ he sighed in 1927, providing an early inspiration for the character of Jean Brodie.

In fact, the only other anti-Bolshevik who was hotter for Mussolini than Churchill was an ambitious former Austrian Corporal chancer kicking around Bavaria who desperately wanted to be like his Italian ‘man of steel’. He insisted on eating in Italian restaurants and wanted to know everything about his fave popster Il Duce. ‘He seemed like someone in love asking news about the person they loved,’ recalled one SS Colonel. Hitler made many requests to meet Mussolini but the would-be groupie was continually rebuffed by a Mussolini who was not keen to share the Fascist limelight.

Until, of course, Hitler became German Chancellor in 1933. Observers noted that, on meeting Mussolini, the future merciless master of Europe had tears in his eyes. Afterwards he had nothing but praise: ‘Men like that are born only once every thousand years,’ he exclaimed. ‘And Germany can be happy that he is Italian and not French.’

Mussolini’s verdict was less rhapsodic: ‘He’s mad, he’s mad…. Instead of speaking to me about current problems… he recited to me from memory his Mein Kampf, that enormous brick which I have never been able to read.’

Nicholas Farrell, who is clearly one of Mussolini’s growing number of contemporary fans, makes much in his biography Mussolini: A New Life (Weidenfeld & Nicholson) of the Bald Big Head’s (as the Partisan who arrested Il Duce called him) dislike of Hitler, both to distinguish Italian Fascism from National Socialism – which was, we can all agree, rather nastier – and also to portray the forthright blacksmith’s son Benito as more sympathetic. Personally, however, I found myself rather touched by Hitler’s crazy devotion to Mussolini, which long outlived the Italian windbag’s usefulness and always surpassed his merits.

Mussolini’s ranting about Hitler, on the other hand, while very funny, seems almost, dare I say, unkind, or at least bitchily ungrateful. Worse, it merely supports the prevalent post-war perception of him as a comic, impotent buffoon that Farrell is so keen to puncture. Mussolini is undoubtedly more likeable than Hitler; but he’s also, for that reason, more contemptible too. At the news of Mussolini’s daring ‘rescue’ by German troops from the mountain prison he was incarcerated in after being deposed in 1943, Hitler, bless, was as ecstatic as he was at the fall of France, stamping and dancing on the spot.

But when Mussolini realised that the men who had arrived in gliders were Germans rather than English he groaned, like some Latin Alf Garnet or Sidney Trotter, “That’s ALL we need!”. As the pictures taken (for propaganda purposes) during this operation show, the diminutive ‘Roman Genius’ being bundled by towering blond Nazi Special Forces into a tiny Stork aeroplane ready to whisk him off to Hitler’s Hideaway, was definitely not a master of events by this time: he was a situationist comedy in jackboots.

Even though he probably deserves less than most other historical figures I can think of, it’s impossible not to suppress a certain amount of pity for poor Benito by this time. You see, I suspect that he was beginning to realise that Adolf was behaving rather like another Austrian in his life called Ida Dalser, an old flame who used to regularly show up shouting, ‘I AM THE WIFE OF MUSSOLINI!! Only I have the right to be near him!’ Once in power Mussolini would lock Dalser up in a lunatic asylum in Venice where she remained until her death, a prisoner of love. In a strange case of poetic-romantic justice, Hitler was to effectively lock Mussolini up with him in his own asylum until Mussolini himself expired – also a prisoner of love.

After his death, Mussolini’s widow Rachele was determined to have the pocket Caesar to herself as well, despite the fact that he famously met his end with his mistress. She claimed to have received a letter from him just before his death: ‘… I ask you to forgive all the bad things that I have involuntarily done to you. But you know that you have been for me the only woman that I have truly loved. I swear to you in front of God… this supreme moment.’ Conveniently, she said she had subsequently destroyed the letter after ‘memorising’ its contents.

Farrell has drawn on newly discovered letters to write a book that sometimes seems like a 477 page version of that phantom letter to Rachele, albeit written in the style of a Sunday Telegraph editorial, or Spectator column. For Farrell, the Fascist bully boy who abolished democracy in Italy, invaded Ethiopia, Greece, France, Russia and Yugoslavia for no particular reason other than he thought he could get away with it (and made a terrible mess of every campaign except Ethiopia where bombers, tanks, poison gas and half a million men were deployed against tribesmen) who sold Italy to Nazi Germany for the price of the Prussian goose-step (he made his short-legged Fascisti practice it to ludicrous effect) giving Hitler the green light for his European war and the apocalyptic conflagration that followed, was actually a hugely talented, likeable, big-hearted giant of a man who, unlike his “cynical” and “ruthless” leftist opponents (whom he had his Blackshirts beat, shoot or incarcerate), always had Italia – his one true love’s – best interests in mind. But who made just one small, involuntary, entirely understandable error in regard to the Second World War that was, anyway, really that nasty wop-hating knee-jerk anti-Fascist Anthony Eden’s fault.

Perhaps I exaggerate. Perhaps I have even caricatured the author. But Farrell, in a revisionist history which is not entirely without merit, has caricatured himself rather more. He is even pictured on the jacket sleeve in a black Fedora, a black shirt and black leather jacket. The text tells us that since 1998 he has lived in Predappio in the Romagna ‘where Mussolini was born and is buried like a saint.’

Mussolini, in other words, is still a prisoner of love.

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