Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Picturing Postwar Disability

Professor Gill Plain

On the cover of Prosthetic Agency is a picture that tells a story. A man in civilian clothes sits at a bar, holding his prosthetic foot. There’s a pint of beer in front of him and over his shoulder looks a cool, collected woman whose superintending gaze suggests a degree of concern. All around the couple are men in uniform – animated, engaged and slightly blurred – emphatically active in comparison with the still, central figure of the non-combatant disabled man. This is Sammy Rice, ‘hero’ of The Small Back Room (1949) and in many ways the inspiration behind my work on ‘prosthetic agency’.

The Small Back Room was a novel before it was a film. Published in 1943, Nigel Balchin’s account of bomb disposal and bureaucracy was a huge success. Fast paced and crisply written, it observed the absurdities of wartime with sharp and cynical eye. The point of view belonged to Sammy Rice, a ‘backroom boy’ whose disability – a missing foot – excludes him from the brotherhood of military masculinity. Unable to accept that his scientific knowledge might nonetheless be valuable, and living with persistent pain, he takes comfort in cynicism, whisky, and the affections of his long-suffering girlfriend Susan. The book oscillates between satire and jeopardy – the latter introduced by a new type of German bomb. Sammy is tasked with finding a solution, alongside Major Stuart, one of the book’s many stoic, self-deprecating, modest military men. Stuart encapsulates a wartime ideal: the mid-century, middle-class British man was expected to be inarticulate, self-effacing, given to understatement and stiff upper lips. And he was expected to be in uniform. Proximity to such a type only exacerbates Sammy’s inferiority complex, which isn’t even assuaged by his eventual successful defusing of the bomb: surely a man-making task if ever there was one. But there is a sting in the tail of Sammy’s achievement: exhausted by the work, he needs a soldier’s help with the final turn of the wrench – a failure in self-sufficiency that pretty much finishes him. He ends the book in a state of despair – ‘I didn’t like what I was, and I couldn’t be what I liked’ – broken rather than made by his attempt to conform to the gender expectations of his time.

Balchin’s Sammy is a wartime creation, but his lack of a uniform – and the psychological consequences of his civilian status – anticipates the gendered anxieties that will surface at war’s end, when combatants come home to find both their masculinity and their stories surplus to requirement. Demobilisation is a huge undertaking: nothing less than an attempt, on a mass scale, to turn around the super-tanker of gender. A vast body of men who had spent six years away from home, learning the skills of violence, were expected, almost overnight, to become what historian Michal Shapira calls ‘domestic citizens’. Cast out of the familiarity of their homosocial environments, they were now to be husbands, fathers and breadwinners, and all without the prosthesis of uniform, that – however mundane their military role – had given them cultural authority. By the time these men came home, the nation was war-weary and civilians were exhausted. They were also anxious about what war might have done to combatants. War stories, once the staple of British cinema, had largely disappeared, overtaken at the box office by costume melodramas, crime films and comedies. Seemingly the last thing anyone wanted were stories that reminded them of the war. So why did Britain’s pre-eminent filmmakers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, decide in 1949 to adapt Balchin’s novel? What possible comfort could the story of Sammy Rice offer to the postwar cultural imaginary?

The answer lies in the changes made to Balchin’s original. For the most part, the film sticks closely to the plot – Sammy is self-doubting, alcoholic and living in a state of perpetual grumbling conflict with the forces of wartime bureaucracy. But in the closing scenes, something very different happens. Alone on the beach with his bomb, Sammy fixes it all by himself and is rewarded with a magical metamorphosis. Almost instantaneously he acquires not just renewed self-confidence, but a uniform to call his own. He is valued, he is listened to, his girlfriend looks at him with adoration rather than anxiety. In one turn of a wrench, Powell and Pressburger transform The Small Back Room into a potent fantasy of repair, a characteristically postwar man-making narrative. The film’s wartime setting is largely irrelevant: what matters is that technological know-how enables Sammy to become a man, despite his disability. This formula would be replicated in countless films and fictions of the late 40s and 50s. The technology of the jet age would reconfigure risk, the logistics of civil aviation would present new problems, and science – imagined as safely empirical and there to be tested – would offer new stories of male adventure, new boundaries to break, and new routes to postwar self-fashioning. Mind you, as John Wyndham suggests in his surprisingly cheerful apocalyptic novel, The Kraken Wakes (1953), science can definitely go off the rails. However useful they might be, British mid-century culture never quite loses its distrust of brains.

But technology is not the only prosthesis shaping the book. While demobilisation generated new pressures of conformity for all men, there was a cohort of wounded veterans for whom the business of postwar social reintegration offered even greater challenges. These were men such as the RAF pilot William Simpson who suffered traumatic burn injuries when he was shot down in France in 1940. Given the extent of his injuries, it was remarkable that he survived the crash; it is perhaps even more remarkable that he survived the medical neglect and incarceration that followed. When he was eventually repatriated, he wrote of his experiences, casting himself as a journalist and friend of France, observing the nation under occupation. Two years later, he wrote again: this time recording the practicalities of physical rehabilitation, as Archibald McIndoe, the pioneer of plastic surgery, attempted to repair his damaged face and hands. Finally, some ten years later, he wrote his story for a third time, looking back reflectively on what it meant to face the postwar world as a disabled and disfigured man. It wasn’t just Simpson’s story that fascinated me, rich as were the insights it offered into the attitudes of the time. Rather, I was fascinated by the fact that he felt the need to tell this tale three times. This was not writing about man-making, this was writing as man-making. In a world in which disability was almost inevitably figured in terms of feminine passivity, writing itself becomes prosthetic. Autobiography is a mode of self-constitution and, in writing their lives, veterans like Simpson assert that however changed they might appear, they are still men fit for the job of postwar reconstruction, fit for domestic citizenship. Simpson was not alone in negotiating the cultural terrors induced by disability; the postwar period is replete with anxious negotiations of male damage. From reiterations of the legendary life of double amputee pilot Douglas Bader to the proliferation of symbolic scars and limps across both page and screen, postwar culture sought repeatedly to reassure that the wounds of war could be repaired.

Sammy’s prosthesis is of a different order. It is a device symbolising the impossibility of living up to ideals of masculinity – in wartime and its aftermath. The film of The Small Back Room solves this problem by moving the goalposts. The heroic civilian is the one wearing a uniform. As an answer, this wasn’t going to work for the hundreds of thousands of demobilised men, struggling to adapt to the demands of a changed world – and perhaps this accounts for its relative lack of box-office success. Cinema was going to have to come up with more plausible modes of postwar man-making, stories that offered agency, action, authority and risk within the seemingly prosaic confines of peacetime work. The writers and filmmakers at the heart of Prosthetic Agency stepped up, reconfiguring risk and responsibility, and making heroes out of tests pilots, chemists, teachers, salesmen, policemen and engineers. Across thrillers and crime novels, melodramas and movies, men could be found working with dedication and skill to prove what Balchin’s Sammy Rice believed impossible: that just being good at your job and getting a girlfriend could be enough to make a man of you.

Sammy then, set things in motion – so he rightly sits front and centre. But the cover of the book holds other delights for anyone interested in postwar cinema. Look closely and you’ll see that the woman is Kathleen Byron, last seen as a deranged nun in Powell and Pressburger’s better known Black Narcissus (1947). And the man behind the bar, staring with melancholy absorption into Sammy’s beer, is British comedy legend Sid James – captured here before the ‘Carry On’ franchise made a star of him, and before the ‘golden age’ of British cinema finally dwindled into farce.

Prosthetic Agency by Professor Gill Plain 

About The Author

Professor Gill Plain

Gill Plain is Professor of English at the University of St Andrews and has published extensively on war writing, mid-century British literature and film, popular culture and gender...

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