Bentley Priory Museum bentleypriorymuseum.org.uk
Canons Park www.canonsparkfriends.org
Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture moda.mdx.ac.uk
RAF Museum Hendon www.rafmuseum.org.uk
The Spitfire in front of Bentley Priory Museum was flown by Squadron Leader Cyril ‘Bam’ Bamberger, according to the sign.
“If you were called Cyril,” I said, “I suppose you’d probably welcome some sort of nickname.”
“Bam isn’t very creative, though, is it?” Keith said.
“’Greasy’,” I suggested.
By now we were close to giggling, and the rich Hunnish seam of Cyril’s surname remained unmined. We were certainly in no state to enter a building within which people had done so much to preserve our freedoms, among them the freedom of men old enough to know better than to scoff.
The location of the museum was partly to blame. Its position inside a gated community had raised Keith’s hackles, as sensitive to signs of privilege as buzzards to a thermal. A sign at the entrance had invited us to stop and call at security. That might cut some ice in Idle Valley when Philip Marlowe calls on the Wades, in The Long Goodbye, but we were having none of it. As we drove slowly up the drive, glancing around in case of pursuit by armed guards, we noticed that the large houses on the estate had their own gates. Doubly protected from the outside world – Stanmore, in this case – the inhabitants might be imagined regaining their homes after a day at the coal face near Canary Wharf and heaving a sigh of relief at having survived another day in the dystopian present. I doubt the Harvester round the corner saw much of their business.
By the time we had parked and were approaching the neo-classical splendour of the museum, inverted snobbery had us in its grip. Having made fun not, I hope, of Cyril but of the RAF’s affection for nicknames, we stopped to take some photographs and compose ourselves. When we presented ourselves at the ticket office we were being our age again and gained a senior’s discount as a result.
Bentley Priory was the headquarters of Fighter Command and the museum concentrates on the Battle of Britain. It evokes the period carefully. Labels are typewritten in scripts that use a capital I as a 1, and combine lower case ‘f’s in ligatures with ‘i’ and ‘l’. The tittle in the ‘i’, which is to say the dot, blends into the hood of the ‘f’, the overhanging part, and a single ‘glyph’ or character is formed. German, by coincidence, is full of such things.
Some of the rooms are more successful than others. You’re encouraged to start in the Abercorn Room, in which the history of the RAF at Bentley Priory is recorded. The view from the windows is outstanding. The Adelaide Room is enlivened by unexpected bas-reliefs in the moulding, in which infants misbehave in precocious ways. In one, a child clad in a sack points a rifle at a duck’s head at point-blank range; in another, a naked child swigs from a bottle or flask while another rolls out a barrel. According to the guide book the ceiling is “believed not to be the work of Sir John Soane” but may have been created to give the widow of William IV something to look at while she was laid up with dropsy.
From the Rotunda things begin to pick up. Architecturally, the glass-domed ceiling on a circular room is a gem. As a display space it starts to bring home the extent of the RAF’s achievement in 1940. Its walls present images and memorabilia of The Few – pictures, artefacts (a four miles to an inch OS map, for example, of the type they were sent aloft with to find their way about). It is an excellent preparation for the more dramatic displays in Sir Hugh Dowding’s office and the Filter Room. This latter includes a recreation, with life-size bronze figures bending over charts, of the process by which movements of German aircraft were plotted and analysed and the results sent to fighter squadrons. “It looked like chaos, but it worked,” one veteran of the Filter Room recalled.
A couple of weeks before our visit, the newspapers had reported criticisms made by the German ambassador to the effect that the pro-Brexit movement (and by implication most of the UK) was still obsessed with WW2. To which, after a visit to Bentley Priory, you might take Basil Fawlty’s line: “You started it.”
Barnet’s ground is on the other side of Stanmore from the museum. We parked at Canons Park tube station and walked through Prince Edward playing fields to the Hive. We were spectators number 1,500 and 1,501.
As we were queuing at the ticket office a steward walked the line asking if any of us would prefer the visiting supporters’ end. ‘The queue’s shorter there,” he explained. The informality of the suggestion appealed to us, and we posed as Accrington Stanley fans for the rest of the afternoon. Keith even got a chant of “Come on, Stanley” going at one uneventful point. A Spurs fan, he was impressed by the Gents and the absence of flat caps and he remarked on the number of attractive young couples. To that extent, Barnet is a sign of football to come.
Barnet’s modernity even extended to a form of context-sensitive advertising. When the physio sprinted on to attend to an injured player, a notice for Toshiba Medical (‘Official Medical Partner of Barnet FC’) flashed up on the big screen; when it looked as though the wet sponge would not do the job and the stretcher might be needed, the more dramatic BMI Hendon Hospital ad appeared.
The last time I was in this area, I was not very much younger than some of the men celebrated at Bentley Priory.
Towards the end of September 1972, the new school year began for my girlfriend at the establishment at the top of Canons Park. That was a week before I needed to go north for the start of my first university term. On two days that week I rode to Stanmore on my Triumph to collect her at the school gate.
The motorbike had a single arm kickstand so that, at rest, it leaned at a jaunty angle. I slouched against it with my legs at an opposing angle, crossed at the ankle, in a pose I imagined as pleasingly symmetrical with a hint of gravity defied.
Hoping to project confidence, I used a bottle of Coke – opened with very great care – as a prop to give me something to be doing with my hands. My hair, another potential problem, was shoulder-length and ill-kempt. A crash helmet was not yet a legal requirement but I needed one to be able to offer it to J. Wearing the helmet (purple sprinkled with silver stars) was the easiest way to transport it, but that flattened my hair into the semblance of a swimming cap. Strapping the helmet to the rack left my hair at the whim of the wind and resulted in rats’ tails. National Health Bakelite spectacles also let me down, I sensed. So much of the agony of first love is about appearances.
Limbs, locks and glasses aside, in all other respects I hoped that the girls streaming away from North London Collegiate would look at me and think of Peter Fonda.
When we rode off, then, we did so in second gear. This heightened the risk of stalling but it made the bike sound awesome. The Tigercub had a 200cc four-stroke engine; with two aboard, moving off in second gear, it sounded as though someone were hitting a galvanised metal wheelbarrow with a spade, rhythmically.
Is any of this what the Few fought for? What would Bam have made of it? Not much, I suspect. But would he have behaved similarly, given the chance?
Barnet 1 Accrington Stanley 1
The Hive, 17 February 2018