The BBC has been showing Anna Neagle films, at three in the morning, maybe, and I’ve been watching them.
I’m living in Israel at the moment, without a tv or wifi, I don’t know why, it’s just worked out that way. Every afternoon, around six, I go to the Olive Korner on Bugrashov at happy hour, drink two glasses of wine for the price of one, and download things to watch later. I have a piece of software, VPN, that lets me watch British TV when I’m not in Britain. I suppose it’s illegal, possibly even immoral, but I paid for a tv license last year. I will pretend I don’t know it expires soon.
Anna Neagle was a British film star in the 30s and 40s. She was, I think, unequivocally beautiful. She often played heroes, which is interesting, don’t you think. There were more female heroes in films eighty years ago than there are now. Anna played Amy Johnson and the resistance fighter Odette, Queen Victoria and Edith Cavell. Now you’re lucky to get Wonder Woman, who would pose no threat to someone in a sensible pair of brogues and a sturdy tweed skirt.
I watched Yellow Canary last night, which was propaganda as much as cinema, but maybe it all is, one way or another. Hitchcock would have done it better, but he did everything better.
Anna plays a naice young woman suspected of having Nazi sympathies. She goes down for breakfast and her mother says there’s no butter, only margarine, thanks to people like Anna, maybe it’s her fault for giving birth to her. The butler tells her the eggs are powdered and her sister blames Anna for that, too. Maybe the British have always been world leaders in passive-aggression.
Anyway, Anna goes to Canada and foils a Nazi plot to blow up Halifax harbour. She was only pretending to be a Nazi sympathiser. She gets shot, but marries Robin Hood, or, anyway, the handsome actor who played him on tv a few years later. She takes him home to meet her family and her sister apologises for being so beastly and, I suppose, butter and real eggs are on the breakfast menu again. Except they weren’t, not for years; rationing continued well into the 50s.
From here, from Tel Aviv, where I’ve been since November, it looks like Britain is killing itself. It looks like it’s pulling itself apart because some people have an idea of the country that hasn’t changed since Anna Neagle was a star.
My friend Naomi, who is 85, told me she voted Leave in last year’s referendum because, well, we won the war. We didn’t need them, Europe, then, and she didn’t see why we need them, Europe, now. I wonder why it is so difficult to accept that, not that we need them, but that we are better for being partners with them, Germany and France and Poland, too. It doesn’t undermine us, but strengthens us. And there has been peace in Europe for many years, not least because of the EU. What’s so wrong in needing people, anyway?
The idea we have of ourselves, stout yeomen, stoic, always on the side of right, that we’re brave and noble and lots of things that we don’t think anyone else is, is bollocks, really. Britain was brave to continue fighting Germany after the rest of Europe was conquered. But if you think the Dutch, say, or the Danish, weren’t brave under occupation, then you’re wrong. Anyway, Dunkirk was a terrible defeat. Britain was losing until the US joined the fight. I’m always startled when I remember that, in noble, wartime Britain, there was looting after bombing raids, of shops and houses.
I once spent an hour at a party, pre-Euro, being talked at by someone who couldn’t understand why Austria was “allowed” to have schillings, and we weren’t “allowed” to have shillings. He could see no difference and grew louder and louder and I could find no escape. Well, Britain has become like that dullard at that boring party. There is no respite from the pettiness or the idiocy.
This weekend an otherwise respectable national newspaper published a column calling for the reintroduction of imperial measures, and an ex-leader of the Conservatives made semi-veiled treats of war against Spain over Gibraltar. This is all going well, isn’t it. You have to worry for these peoples’ sanity. Who can wait for negotiations to actually begin?
The things they demand back, that they say we’ve lost because of the EU, always fol-de-rol, blue passports and laws written on vellum, and so on. They tell us they’re important, but they aren’t, except, possibly, as symbols of a dead, ill-remembered past. We will lose far more by not being a part of it.
Maybe Britain is too old, maybe it should die. We’re too smug about ourselves and too inflexible. We don’t play well with others. We always argue, always tell others they’re wrong. Maybe we should start again, nicer, more cooperative, less full of ourselves.
I imagine Anna, staring into the middle distance, looking beautiful, her hair blowing gently in the wind machine, her lips not quivering, she was British, after all, her face not showing how worried she is that we’ve really cocked things up.
The picture at the top is of Anna Neagle as Queen Victoria. She wouldn’t have put up with any of Wonder Woman’s shit.