Why we should care about Spitfires and Syrian refugees

EDITOR'S BLOG: The spirit that won us the Battle of Britain wouldn't turn away those in need.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 01 Sep 2015

I spent last weekend in north Norfolk. At Sunday lunch outside I heard the noise of an aeroplane in the distance. This wasn’t the usual jet out of Manchester headed for Antalya at 30,000 feet. It was a propeller-driven machine and coming low towards us. But being of a certain age I recognised it was something slightly unusual. It was indeed the sound of a twelve cylinder Rolls Royce Merlin engine and within seconds a lone Spitfire flew overhead waggling its wings slightly. I was beside myself with excitement.

I do love aeroplanes. One of the highlights of my career thus far was being taken up for a spin in a Red Arrow. ‘Well, where d’you want to go today?’ asked Flight Lieutenant Kelvin Truss (yes, really) as we waited for takeoff clearance at the end of the Cranwell runway . ‘Shall we just shufty up to the Lakes for a look?’

They’d given me three sick bags but I didn’t puke, despite him chucking me through about 4G over Windermere. I showed my seven year old ‘The Right Stuff’ on DVD the other day. But he got bored within 20 minutes and went back to his Lego Star Wars game. It was worth the try.

Anyway, back to the Spitfire. There were about six young people in their mid 20s at the table. Not one got up or indeed took much notice whatsoever, doubtless thinking me a bit of a sad, old fart. They ate, drank their Rose de Provence and then had two Camels each afterwards.

I thought this was interesting. Our host’s dad won the Victoria Cross aged 24 in Normandy in 1944. The average age of a Spitfire pilot during the Battle of Britain was around 20 and the average life expectancy about four weeks. My oldest son is 20. He’d look quite right in his  leather flying jacket and Mae West waiting at RAF Tangmere in a deckchair. Not sure how he’d do behind the joystick of a Spitfire. He couldn’t even pilot our Grand Scenic down the road without clipping the kerb. Besides who wants their 20-year-old to last four weeks?  

I was a bit cross at first. Didn’t they realise the Spitfire was a key element in maintaining our and their freedom to drink French rose rather than Liebfraumilch or Blue Nun? But then... why should they, really? For them wars mean Iraq, maybe Northern Ireland. The death in his underpants of Gaddafi in a sewage pipe and the chaos that ensued in Libya afterwards. Not much righteous Brit glory in those actions.

It’s 70 years since VJ Day. Almost beyond living memory. My grandfather blamed his baldness on the tin hat he wore in the WW1 trenches but he’s long long gone. For all the disappointments and machinations of the EU at least we haven’t fought each other within Europe during the last 70 years. And say what you like about Frau Merkel and her cold intransigence when dealing with the Greeks but at least her country has shown the decency  and common humanity to accept 800,000 asylum-seekers this year. This is not a universally popular move and there have been unpleasant attacks on migrant shelters and hostels.

All we will do is send more barbed wire and sniffer dogs to Calais. I daresay we’ll chuck in a few G4S operatives too - on minimum wage - while we’re at it. It’s all very disappointing. I can barely bring myself to mention that miserable rag The Daily Express, but last week it couldn’t even spell ‘asylum’ correctly on its bilious and bigoted front page.

The way we have reacted thus far to the migrant crisis - ‘the swarm shall not pass’ - is hardly in the spirit of 1940. I can think of a good few 20-year-olds who died who’d be pretty disappointed at what we appear to stand for in 2015. That’s if they can work out what on earth we stand for in the first place.

It’s fine being the paragon of austere economic virtue, congratulating ourselves that we never fell for the Euro  and smugly looking at high youth unemployment in Italy because we’ve done the right thing. But a combination of ‘there’s no room,’ ‘all you want is a job’ or even ‘it’s none of my business’ is not a satisfactory answer to this Syrian father and his family.

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