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Based on the memoirs of David Irving

Posted Saturday, March 28, 2009



[Brentwood years] (1947-1956)

by David Irving


AT BRENTWOOD School hung a portrait in oils of Vivian Rosewarne, the author of An Airman's Letter to his Mother, a famous wartime propaganda document. ("Dearest Mother," he had written in 1940 to his widowed mother, who had stinted to bring up her only son. "Though I feel no premonition at all, events are moving rapidly and I have instructed that this letter be forwarded to you should I fail to return from one of the raids that we shall shortly be called upon to undertake. . .") I thrilled to Thomas Babbington Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome, and took due note of how Horatio held the bridge.

… as that great host, with measured tread,
And spears advanced & ensigns spread,
Rolled slow toward the bridge's head,
Where stood the dauntless Three.

It was easy in ones imagination to become Horatio in Ancient Rome, or Jack Cornwell VC in 1916, or that Battle of Britain airman in 1940.

There was no force-feeding of opinions or overt propaganda at Brentwood. We were schooled in more subtle ways. The whole school was paraded in sections to the local Odeon to see John Mills in the Ealing Studios epic Scott of the Antarctic and I connected his men's ordeal to those sepia photos of icebergs and snowy wastes and yellowing naval sweaters left over from my father's own forays into that bleak wilderness in 1930. The film was produced in Technicolor by Michael Balcon in 1948 -- was I really only ten? Ralph Vaughan Williams' haunting Sinfonia Antarctica still evokes that Odeon morning with the, for once, hushed schoolboy audience and the Britishness of the understated courage shown: the army Captain Lawrence Oates, a paying guest on the Polar expedition, stepping out of the final tent into the blizzard murmuring, "I am just going outside and may be some time." Years later in the British Museum I stood before the actual diary of Captain Robert Falcon Scott which recorded that farewell, opened at its famous last page -- "I do not regret this journey."

So something of the historian began to stir, unsuspected, within me. "Ich habe es gewagt," the philosophical epitaph on Rudolf Hess's stone grave-marker now, is similar: "I took the risk." He had flown in mid-war to Britain in a single-handed effort to halt the madness, before the deadliest barbarism had even begun, and spent the next forty-six years in prison as his reward.

Schoolchildren now are now taught to hate -- marched off to see less subtle movie epics like the war-porn Schindler's List, based on a novel by the Australian writer Thomas Kenneally; and they are force-fed Anne Frank's tragic diary, and with measurably different results.


SEE, I still recall Scott with a thrill sixty years later, though I remember with equal vividness going with schoolfriends to the same cinema to see Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1953 cult thriller Le Salaire de la Peur. Four men down on their luck are hired to drive two truckloads of nitro-glycerine to a blazing oilrig in South America: They will get two thousand dollars if they survive, "the wages of fear."

I remember this film as much for one scene widely discussed at schoolboy level, of a young Mulatto woman bathing in an interestingly shallow tin bath, as for a piece of dramatic artifice: The first explosives truck is miles ahead and unseen across the valley; in the open cab of the second, Yves Montand is steering with one sweaty hand and rolling a cigarette with the other. There is a pale flicker of light from the horizon; a silent puff blows the tobacco off the paper, followed seconds later by the cataclysmic blast. The first truck has blown up.

Time-and-space prefiguring, that's how it's done. Another little wrench went into my mental toolbox: that's how to capture attention. I adapted this technique slightly in some of my histories. In The Destruction of Convoy PQ.17 (London, 1967) Nazi U-boats and bombers hunt down thirty-eight merchant ships, one by one. After a time the reader subconsciously realises that if at last I give the ship's tonnage, its turn has come: "His victim was the Matson Navigation Company's 6,069-ton Olopana. "

Schiller's Gedichte completed my knowledge of the heroic sagas. The cunning written word, the oil painter's artistry, the sparkle of brass on the breech of that six-inch gun, these are the really dangerous ingredients of boyhood and they are not easily forgotten; and nor should they be.

Taken to see HMS Victory by my mother, I gazed at the brass plate marking where Horatio Nelson fell in 1805: another Horatio, another boyhood hero -- and when a daughter died tragically fifty years later the London undertaker's quietly murmured reassurance, "We handled the arrangements for Admiral Lord Nelson, you know," earned him my trust immediately.

© 2009 Copyright David Irving / Focal Point Publications


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