NERD YOUR ENTHUSIASM (11)

By: Toby Ferris
November 4, 2021

One in a series of 25 enthusiastic posts, contributed by 25 HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of (one of) their nerdy obsessions.

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Harry Andrews, Anthony Quayle, Sylvia Syms and John Mills in Ice Cold in Alex, 1958

BRITISH/EALING WWII FILMS

In his memoir Other People’s Countries, the Anglo-Belgian writer Patrick McGuinness recalls a moment when, aged thirteen and at boarding school in England, he was dumbstruck to see his Belgian home town, Bouillon, used as the set of a film that happened to be on TV in the common room—the 1948 Ealing war film, Against the Wind.

McGuinness describes the jolt of recognition he felt as Gordon Jackson and Simone Signoret ran the Nazis ragged through the town, and it is a recognition which I share, not just of the film (I must have seen Against the Wind half a dozen times, and can in my mind’s eye follow McGuinness’s description of the chase through the streets of Bouillon) but also recognition of the boy in the common room. McGuinness and I are almost exactly the same age, and I too spent many inadvertently formative afternoons watching old British war films, Ealing or Gaumont or the odd Powell-and-Pressburger.

Perhaps unlike Patrick McGuinness, I still regularly return to those films. Some are genuinely good—anything, almost, with John Mills, a scrawny, tightly-wound sprite of a man; Noel Coward gives a a characteristically deft turn as captain of a destroyer sunk off Crete; and Jack Hawkins leads a memorably manic round of Ten Green Bottles on an Atlantic lifeboat in The Cruel Sea. Others are not great cinema, bridging as they do the propaganda of the war years and the subsequent romanticised account of British pluck and resourcefulness. But taken together, they amount to the telling of Britain’s own shonky Iliad, a processing of trauma in which John Mills and Trevor Howard and Anthony Quayle come to stand for Ulysses and Agamemnon and Diomedes, and Celia Johnson is a perpetually fretworking Penelope.

There is such a thing, I would theorise, as free-floating nerdish obsessiveness, an anxiety of knowing which can fix on any object; and then there is a version of nerdish obsessiveness in which the objects of our attention are more deeply rooted, and inescapable. In this case it is the latter—the fathers and grandfathers of my generation, after all, were able to bear witness to much of the real history, and show us their bronze-age scars and add their own store of anecdote to the oral epic. No wonder then that these films continue to infiltrate my life—I managed only with some difficulty to keep John Mills and Sylvia Sims out of a book I wrote about Pieter Bruegel the Elder, but not before I had spent a morning enquiring into the fate of the whole cast of Ice Cold in Alex (all dead bar Sylvia Syms), and morosely writing up the results. No matter how sharp I like to believe my critical awareness has grown, to see John Mills cranking his ambulance up the hill, or Gordon Jackson and Simone Signoret bolting for a bridge in Bouillon and freedom, is to be thrown back into a world at once sham and theatrical and comforting, and powerfully familiar.

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NERD YOUR ENTHUSIASM: INTRODUCTION by Peggy Nelson | Andrew Sempere on NERDING | Blanca Rego on RAIN | Lucy Sante on PSEUDO-AMERICAN PSEUDONYMS OF FRENCH PULP WRITERS DURING WWII | Heather Cole on AMERICAN GIRL | Nicholas Rombes on OLD GEOLOGY SURVEY BOOKS WITH MAP INSERTS | Susan Roe on TIME | Mark Kingwell on SCALE MODELS | Jessamyn West on THE POST OFFICE | Josh Glenn on ARDUIN | Vanessa Berry on NEWSAGENCY AESTHETICS | Toby Ferris on BRITISH/EALING WW2 FILMS | Annie Nocenti on MOSS | Adam McGovern on JOAN SEMMEL | Gabriela Pedranti on ILLUSTRATED BOOKS | Miranda Mellis on DOUBT | Tom Nealon on PAGE EDGES | Mandy Keifetz on KLINGON CONFIDENTIAL (NOVEL EXCERPT) | Eric Weisbard on SUMMATIONS | Kio Stark on LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CLASSIFICATION CODES | Charlie Mitchell on REPO MAN | James Parker on SEINFELD | Heather Kapplow on NOTHING | Russell Bennetts on MODE 7 | Vijay Parthasarathy on VIRTUAL TRAVEL | Marc Weidenbaum on NERD PROXIMITY.

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Categories

Enthusiasms