So first, a few words about Steinbeck. He was born in the first decade of the 20th century, went to Stanford University but dropped out, went to New York, was a construction worker and a newspaper reporter there, among other things, then returned to California, took up writing and eventually wrote 27 books. The Grapes of Wrath is probably his most famous. It was a best-seller in its time, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. Some of you may have also read Of Mice and Men or East of Eden. He grew up in the Salinas Valley of California and used that in many of his books. He was brilliant at evoking a sense of place.
His books often dealt with the economic and social issues. They show a strong anti-capitalist streak, and great sympathy for the working poor. He went on to win the Novel Pries in 1962. It was a controversial decision. Many didn't think he deserved it. He didn't think he deserved it. But today, many would disagree. He is definitely a vital part of the American canon now.
Grant took the Duke of Edinburgh's ignorance in good part, but it was symptomatic. Even locked up in Buckingham Palace, the
Queen's consort must have occasionally looked out of the window or read the papers, and been aware that about 6 per cent of the English population isn't white and could not in any sense be said to belong to an English, Scots or Welsh 'race'. (Neither, of course, can he: on marrying Princess Elizabeth, Prince Philip had been required formally to renounce his claim to the Greek throne and to stop using his title from the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg.) But in a gathering of politicians from around the globe he was unable to imagine that his own adopted country could be represented by someone with a black skin. You can imagine the Duke, whose ability to make clumsy comments is legendary, telling the story against himself in the exclusively white circles of Bucking-ham Palace, doubtless proving that 'they all look the same'. To her credit, the Queen did a lot better when she was introduced, immediately volunteering, in a splendid reversal of roles, You're Bernie Grant, aren't you? I've seen you on the telly.'
How many attempts have there been to explain what the Second World War did to Britain? One thousand? Ten thousand? What
none of them can undermine is that in that titanic struggle the English had the clearest idea of what they stood for and, therefore,
the sort of people they were. It was nothing to do with Hitler's pride in his Fatherland, it was something smaller, more personal, and I think, more quietly powerful. Take David Lean's 1945 tale of forbidden love, Brief Encaunter. The couple meet in the tearoom of a railway station, where she is waiting for the steam train home after a day's shopping. A speck of coal dirt gets caught in her eye and, without a word of introduction, the gallant local doctor steps forward and removes it.
It is an ordered, hierarchical sort of place in which the war is an inconvenience to be put up with, like rain at a village fete. It is a chaste, self-denying country in which women know their place and children go dutifully and quietly to bed when told. 'Don't make a fuss,' say the wives to one another during an air raid, 'we'll have a cup of tea in a minute.' As the Chief Petty Officer leaves home his mother-in-law asks him when he'll be ashore again.
'All depends on Hitler,' he says.
’Well, who does he think he is?' asks the mother-in-law.
’That's the spirit.'
In Which We Serve was unashamed propaganda for a people facing the possible extinction of their culture, which is the reason it is so
illuminating. It shows us how the English liked to think of themselves.
The picture that emerges from this and many similar movies is of a stoical, homely, quiet, disciplined, self-denying, kindly, honourable
and dignified people who would infinitely rather be tending their gardens than defending the world against a fascist tyranny.