What Is It About The Brits & The 1940s?

Have you noticed that whenever the Brits are called upon to celebrate something in a particularly 'British' way, it's the 1940s, and in particular the Second World War, to which we're drawn? In fact, when called upon to come up with anything nostalgic, it's those wartime years that we look to, whether or not we actually  lived any of our life in that time. Don't believe me? Think about it. I bet the last time you joined in a sing-song, there were more than a few wartime favourites. After all, what's a sing-song without a bit of Vera Lynn?

There's just something about that era that we, universally it seems, love. Of course, it could be that it's tantalisingly out of reach of our memories. Because, for most adults alive today, the 1940s are either a thing of our early childhood, or something about which we were told by our grandparents. My Nana talked with such affection about wartime that it puzzled me. After all, she spent much of it in Hull during that community's awful nightly bombings. Once she was blasted from one side of her house to the other. And a neighbour was killed when an air-raid shelter took a direct hit. You can sort of understand how those whose childhood was spent during wartime, might view it with some affection. After all, it was an adventure. Bomb sites to play on, shrapnel to collect and, eventually, American soldiers to ask for treats. But for adults, who remembered the consequences of the previous conflict and who understood the very great peril they were in, it was quite a different experience. And yet, when speaking of the Home Front at least, the stories those who remember the war have passed down to us, are rarely awful. More likely they are about happy times and great friendships too.

The music, of course, was classy and elegant. It still seems modern and of-the-moment, even today. Go in any classy restaurant and there's a good chance you'll hear a swing band or a crooner of the day playing in the background. And it seems that everyone, no matter what they have loaded on their iPod, feels relaxed and happy with music of that era.

It could be those Forties fashions, so popular once more, which makes us fall in love, again and again, with the wartime years. With rationing on clothes and materials, ladies were encouraged to choose well cut, form flattering designs that used minimal fabric and trim. And yet those ladies lost none of their femininity. And no woman whose fashion experimentation took place in the 1940s ever has the embarrassment of having to look back at some awful creation they thought looked wonderful but in fact looked ridiculous. And I'll bet none of the rest of us can say that. It's always fascinated me that what was probably the most feminine of eras for women also marked the time at which women began working at men's jobs. When they began working at dirty, heavy jobs in munitions factories, as mechanics and so on. Partly, I think modern women can identify with our wartime forebears precisely because they were very like us. Granted you have only to go back a couple of generations or so, but the lot of the pre-war women was very different from that we know. In many ways, the war marked the beginnings of the modern women we are today. And yet this doesn't really explain the enormous popularity of the era itself.

Even a quick Google search will reveal dozens of sites devoted to the 1940s. There are dozens of re-enactors, performers and countless shops selling reproduction clothes, accessories or household items. And even sites offering 1940s-style beauty advice. But, above all, there are many sites that discuss all aspects of the wartime era. And every year, right across the country, there are countless 1940s events from wartime themed steam railway open days to fetes, tea dances and exhibitions. And it proves that we have such a passionate love affair with an era that proved so challenging to our nation.

On the face of it, it's a strange fact, because we realise that those years were possibly the hardest Britain had ever seen. We know that hundreds of thousands of British men, women and children were killed in the fighting and on the Home Front. We've been told that lives were turned upside down. And we understand that rationing meant hardship for everyone. And yet all of us, even those who remember those days, still think of the 1940s with great affection as if it was the favourite time of our nation's life.

But, it was also the time that, when faced with such uncertainty, when our country stood alone against the Nazi threat, it stood firm. The nation pulled together, refusing to give in. It's the time that gave us terms like 'their finest hour' and the 'Blitz' and 'Bulldog' spirits. It's the moment when the people of Britain refused to fall into hysterical panic but carried on with stoicism and determination. The reality, of course, was probably not quite so clear-cut. Some people must have panicked, some certainly fled spending nights away from the city. But, at least according to accepted wisdom, come morning just about everyone picked up what was left of their lives and continued as normally as they could. 

Nowadays we see a lot of products with that old "Keep Calm And Carry On" slogan. And it's that phrase that seems to sum up what we imagine was the spirit of the times. As it happens that slogan came from a wartime propaganda poster. It is said that millions of copies were printed, although it was never distributed. Britons will consider themselves fortunate that the poster was only rediscovered ten years ago – it was intended for release only in the event of a great wartime disaster or perhaps the anticipated invasion.

But it's the recent popularity of that slogan that, perhaps, goes some way to explaining the remarkable warmth we feel when we get all nostalgic about the war. We feel that way precisely because it was so difficult. And, most importantly, because we 'carried on' when all about us was collapsing. Although not so absolutely as was the case during the war, over the last few decades the so-called 'home front' has continued to be the target of movements and organisations that consider the UK their enemies. And, time and again, we have drawn on that determination, some might call it stubbornness, not to yield to the threat. In July 2005, when London's transportation system became the target of Al Qaeda-inspired terrorists, the foreign press seemed amazed at the  resolute refusal by most Londoners to not let the tragedy stop their daily activities. They wrote of the 'Bulldog Spirit' as if Winston Churchill himself had inspired the apparent calm. And it made us feel good. And just a bit proud.

Are we some special breed? Of course not! Would we remain so stoic under even the most trying of circumstances? Perhaps not. After all we've not had a civil war for more than 400 years. We're lucky enough to avoid almost all natural disasters. We don't suffer famines. In truth, we are rarely tested to the extreme. But what tests we have faced, we'd probably say we've passed. And the biggest of those, seventy years ago now, inspires us in all sorts of ways. So it's little surprise, then, that when we are asked to choose an era to represent our nation at its best, it's those wartime years that we lean towards.