We often hear people bandying around words and phrases quite loosely, so much so that we tend to ignore what is being said but this last weekend I focused on one word and what it meant to me, Iconic. I realised that for me, things that are “iconic” simply means a thing, one single thing that symbolises and stands in for something greater such as a crucifix with Christ nailed to it encapsulates the whole Christian story.
But this past weekend I realised that there was an iconic symbol that I had been chasing for some time that was far bigger than just the thing it is, it represented something far more personal to me, it had echoes of my childhood, and that icon ? The Spitfire.
Over the past dozen years I have attended various air shows each year and among the big crowd pleaser’s there has to be the Red Arrows and the Battle of Britain Flight made up of various WWII aircraft but mainly featuring the Lancaster, Spitfire and Hurricane. I have in recent years always attended the September air show at IWM Duxford where WWII “tail daggers” largely feature and where there are always very many Spitfires as part of the flying display.
However and whilst I have taken very many photographs, some good, some very good, sandwiched in between my own lack of skills and/or equipment plus the vagaries of the British weather , I have never felt totally satisfied with the results. Yes I have many excellent pictures but never felt that I had sufficiently good ones that summed up the iconic status that the Spitfire held for me personally. Well that was the case until this past weekend when seemingly it all just came together perfectly at the Weston Air Day. The weather was perfect, I had the right kit to hand, a developed technique and we were treated to an excellent display by both a Spitfire and a Hurricane as well as many others.
Shooting on rapid fire, by the end of the day I had shot some 2,700 pictures. Now you never intend to keep them all, most will be duplicates or variations on the same theme so you pick the best and delete the rest which is one of the joys of digital photography ! In addition, for one reason or another in tracking fast moving objects, some will not have perfect focus or framing so those too go. My first pass through reduced the number down to 1,100, subsequent ones should bring it down to the hundreds but it is a process of many days rather than a few hours.
But Why ?
In reality there were far more Hurricanes in service during the Battle of Britain than there were Spitfires so why should there be such an emphasis on it ? The reason is that it was obviously an excellent fighter in its time, a highly distinctive profile and uniquely very British so it came to represent the core values of the Nation and the ability to survive alone if necessary. Perhaps in a complex and bloody war carried out on land, sea and in the air, it came to represent something almost ‘pure’ and devoid of the blood, guts and losses of the reality, it became the nations “Lark Ascending”.
But what it means to me, someone born in 1945 is something entirely different and more to do with growing up in the distinctly austere post war Britain of the 1950s. Unlike today when relatively few people know those who serve in our Armed Forces, back then every adult I knew growing up had served in the Forces in some capacity during the war plus National Service still existed, we had a conscript Army. True the idea of the Spitfire as something special I might have got from them but in reality and for some reason, the whole idea of flying caught my imagination early on and from when they first became available Airfix scale model construction kits became the object of pretty much all my pocket money for many years.
Such was my passion that it went way beyond just the word “Spitfire”, I knew the differences between each version and would often bastardise kits to produce the “right version” I wanted finished with all the right details such as paint colour scheme and identification decals, they all had to be just right. Fortunately my dear old Mum was not one to fuss too much with housework which was just as well because my fleet of kit aircraft were dreadful hoarders of dust and the aggressive use of dusters would have been a disaster. I can always remember that the big decision with every new kit was “Do I want it with the landing gear up or down ?”
But More Than This…
I am not one to look back in a nostalgic way bathing the past in some golden glow and thinking “How it was all better back then…” because in many ways it wasn’t however I do look back to those days and use them as a personal bench mark of the changes Britain has been through and that I have witnessed.
It is likely a product of age but as I look back to my childhood, youth and compare them with today, I realise that as a teenager I was involved in a watershed moment, the 1960s when all the past was swept away and a new and different world emerged that has led us to where we are today. I have written before at greater length that my view is that these changes really started in the trenches of WWI when the slaughter of the flower of Europe destroyed the myth of authority and wisdom among the then ruling classes. But because of the Great Depression and WWII, it was only in the 1960s when the economic circumstances were right that the stage was set for the many to take over from the few.
So for me, the Spitfire is an icon of my childhood and youth that gives me a direct emotional link to those times, days and the people I remember from then and a country that whilst on the winning side of the war, was as bankrupt as any other European country. Although a “machine of war” it is less of that to me than a living dynamic elegance encapsulated in the sight and sound of seeing one of these flying freely in the sky.
It is not that I would wish to go back to those times, it is more like a box containing some memento or object from your past that you keep in a cupboard. From time to time you get it out or just come across it whilst searching for something else, open the box and smile as the memories and people from your past come flooding back to you. You savour the moment, close the box and know that you will return to it again at another time but for now, must get on with your today.