The other day, I re-watched one of my favourite childhood films.
I was reminded of it by this tweet from Labour blogger Sadie Smith.
Fortunately, Sadie is, of course, completely and utterly wrong. It’s wonderful – probably still the best war film I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen most of them. It doesn’t have the scale of Apocalypse Now, the pathos of The Great Escape or the special effects of many modern efforts, but it has an intimacy, a suspense and a set-piece scariness which thrilled me to bits as a child.
I still feel echoes of that now, like when the Zulus crest the hill for the first time, tiny black dots against the veldt sky, to the shiver of violin strings, and the camera ranges along the hill to show more… and more… and more of them. In fact the photography throughout is just masterful. You can taste the agoraphobia and the fear – you are there, on that plain with the 24th Foot, behind a few feet of mealie bags, waiting.
It stars Michael Caine in his breakthrough role, the wonderful Nigel Green whose Colour Sergeant Bourne (above left) will live in your pub quote memory for ever (“No com-edians, please.”) and the vastly under-rated James Booth as the devilishly exciting (well, I was six and he said “bloody!”) Private Henry Hook. It has a wonderful ensemble supporting cast of ordinary gentle-voiced Welshmen and Londoners with sideburns that really do look as if they’ve been shipped out from the valleys and dock wharves of nineteenth-century Britain. More marvellous yet (I only discovered this quite recently) it has the real descendant of the Zulu king of the day, Cetewayo, playing the role of his ancestor and leading his own people, in full traditional ceremonial dress, in the battle scenes.
And it has the great Jack Hawkins, roaring across the screen like a biblical allegory – which he is – in the role of the missionary Otto Witt, treating peace with the aid of his daughter, the only female speaking part in the film. The daughter Margareta, who seemed to me unimaginably beautiful then and still does, was yet another way into the film for my six-year-old self. Yes I wanted to be raffish Henry Hook, capable Sergeant Bourne, and strong, silent Lieutenant Chard, I could feel the fearful lump in the throat of Private Cole and hold my breath as I broke out of the hospital with Hook, 612 Williams, 593 Jones and 716 Jones, yards ahead of our pursuers. And I could also feel Margareta’s discomfort as she, a nineteenth-century pastor’s daughter, sat among six-foot half-naked warriors with assegais, watching a mass marriage tribal dance. Still physically vulnerable myself, I felt every pounding of her heart as the war cries started to go up over her head.
Now, it’s not that I’ve not seen it since I was six – no bank holiday weekend in Sidney Sussex TV room was complete without a Zulu-and-Haribo session – but watching that film after a couple of years spent in the political blogosphere is a very different experience. I realised how this film would look to the gender activism mindset I was barely aware of before the blogosphere. The only woman character is afraid, sometimes ineffectual, even subject to abuse at the hands of the men. Margareta has plenty of spirit at times, but she’s also priggish and in the end is simply overcome by brute strength. All is not lost, as she ends up being the means of her father’s salvation – but still the film is chockful of more appealing characters than her.
So why was I never offended, or troubled, or otherwise culturally damaged by this? Well, I had a bit of an odd upbringing culturally. I think it can be traced to the fact that my grandfather was born in 1910 and only had my father when he was forty. So my father’s upbringing was a little bit more Boy’s Own Paper, a bit more 1930s than perhaps was normal. And mine, in turn, was in some ways more 1960s than 1980s in terms of what I watched, what I read, what we talked about. Without being, particularly, a tomboy, I loved history and adventure and escapades and scrapes and exciting stories, on the page or in celluloid, and if there wasn’t any around I’d make up my own (and wars with My Little Ponies are a bit of a stretch, I can tell you; luckily I soon acquired a small brother who appeared to come with lots of Cowboy Playmobil and Pirate Lego and that was much easier).
In other words, all my favourite role models and stories from that time were to do with men and you know what? I think it has worked. It never occurred to me to differentiate the role models I was offered on the basis gender, and in thirty years I realise I never have.
I loved Zulu, so I aspired to be brave and honourable. I loved the Goons and Spike Milligan’s War Diaries, so I aspired to be funny. I loved reading war stories – biographies of Douglas Bader, various POW camp escape stories, Colditz – so I aspired to be ingenious and resourceful, and battle against odds. At eight or nine I read an old Josephine Tay novel, the Daughter of Time, and my love of medieval history was born, so I aspired to go to Oxford or Cambridge to study it, and I did, I went to both. My role models had never intimated to me that I couldn’t aspire to do anything I wanted, and I didn’t know women weren’t supposed to get firsts, so I got a first. None of the usual barriers, none of the usual doubts that women are supposed to possess ever seemed to apply to me. I had a permanent psychological get out of jail free card.
What alchemy of genetics and nurture allowed me to absorb all these male influences and strive to match them, and often succeed, without my at any point being undermined by a great wash of hormonal self-doubt? The same wash that causes so many women to demand female role models before they, or their daughters, can do anything? We are constantly being told that politics needs more female role models. What is it about me that doesn’t need specifically female role models if so many others apparently do? I wish I knew. If I did, I could bottle it and sell it. Oh, I have self-doubt like everybody else, and went through the usual teenage angst like everybody else. But there’s nothing uniquely female about any of that.
I think background and schooling had a lot to do with it. The pure statistical fact of being born in Surrey, even if not to a wealthy family, immunises you to a lot of life’s woes, sad to say, and I went to an all-girls’ state school whose teaching and management was, in retrospect, little short of magnificent. And there were role models there too – a fantastic and lovely history teacher, the elegant headmistress and wooden boards in the hall full of the names of previous gels. And all that seemed to jumble itself up with Spike Milligan and Stalag Luft III just fine.
The funny thing is that the more I read about feminism, the more I recognise its earliest progenitors as twin souls of my own – writing liberal tracts, bashing windows in, reading papers to the Royal Society, flying the English Channel and running country estates without it ever crossing their minds that they needed anyone to show them how to do it. They didn’t need female role models – they got on with being them. They didn’t need a “safe space” for their activities or their debates – the world was their space. They grew up, interestingly, in exactly the age of over-confident empire whose frontier badlands are invoked by Zulu.
So now, lucky me, when I look at the Lib Dem parliamentary party, I get so many more role models to choose from. I want to be like Chris Huhne, because he’s a right fierce and effective wossname and I reckon I could do with being a little more like that. I want to be like Vince, because honestly who doesn’t? I want to be like Nick because he’s an eternal optimist and a tryer, and quitting too soon is one of my worst failings. I want to be like Steve Webb, because he’s clever and impassioned and reminds me of some of my tutors, I want to be like Lynne Featherstone because she’s just so capable and self-assured and glamorous and reminds me of CJ Cregg in the West Wing, I want to be like David Howarth because he’s brilliant and forensic, I want to be like Norman Baker because he’s One of the Good Guys and like John Hemmings because he is the King of all the Geeks.
It seems strange to me, the idea that I can only be inspired, or confirmed, or protected in any endeavour if someone else with the same genital configuration has already done it. The whole rich panoply of human courage, and kindness, and greatness to choose from, and you cut out the half that’s been, for various historical reasons, most active for the last several millenia? What on earth is wrong with women having men as role models? People of both genders have wonderful qualities and have achieved wonderful things and they’re all there for study and emulation. Isn’t the whole luxury of living in a post-feminist world that we can do this now?
If I ever have daughters, I’ll be showing them Zulu.