VE Day: Excitement and relief, but people were anxious, the country was broke and the war in Japan continued

This article appeared in the iPaper on the 75th anniversary of VE Day

By Kevin Telfer

Some politicians have suggested that we are at war with coronavirus. It is a ridiculous analogy in many ways, but there is a strange sense in which the build up to the end of lockdown does in some respects resemble the wait for VE Day in May 1945. There is the same constant focus on government announcements, for instance, and grumbling about regulations, and their enforcement, that are seen as bureaucratic, or mistaken, or mistimed, or all of these things. There is also the same sense that when the lockdown is lifted, just as when the war was over, there will be a price to pay that cannot yet be counted.

Churchill summed this up when he wrote about his feelings as he travelled through central London in an open-top car on 8 May, 1945. ‘Apprehension for the future and many perplexities filled my mind as I moved beyond the cheering Londoners in their hour of well-won rejoicing.’ It was only at 3pm that day that he formally announced to the public on the radio that the war in Europe was over.

A national obsession was publicly renewed on the morning of 8 May: the weather forecast could be printed in newspapers and broadcast to the nation for the first time since the war began – it had been classified as sensitive information since 1939. There had been thunderstorms overnight in many parts of the country and the day was warm and humid – hitting 78°F in London. The weather meant that the streets of many towns and cities across the country were filled with people celebrating in one form or another.

The churches were full of worshippers who came to give thanks, remember loved ones they’d lost, sing hymns and pray. Some churches ran hourly services from morning until late into the night.

And although the day was dominated across the country by flag-waving, drinking, bonfires, fireworks and singalongs, Churchill’s own apprehension was felt, even on VE Day itself, by many others.

The end of the war also brought all kinds of uncertainties with it. Conflict had been a constant companion in people’s lives for six years. Now people looked around and saw poverty and rationing, towns and cities ravaged by bombs, and an uncertain economic future. People waited for loved ones to return with a mixture of hope and trepidation. In victory, with its promise of freedom and peace, it was indeed the best of times, but for many fear and anxiety made it feel like the worst of times had not quite ended yet.

More rationing was introduced in May with less cooking fat and less bacon. There was less meat available in 1945 than there had been in 1944. Edmund Wilson, an American writer living in London was surprised to find a shop in Holborn with ‘rows and rows of dead crows’ in it. He assumed that they were for people to eat. He wrote that ‘Where our efforts have gone towards destruction, we have been able to build nothing at home to fall back on amidst our ruin.’

There was a widespread desire to build a better country out of these ruins – a country with universal healthcare, a national insurance scheme to protect vulnerable people, and adequate housing. There was some bitterness from servicemen about ‘the fruits of victory’ – or lack thereof. Britain was broke and broken, tatty and weary, and thousands of those who would be demobilised, or ‘demobbed’, in the coming months would have to find new careers and start from scratch.

But on VE Day itself, most of those servicemen across the world could not even fully rejoice that the war was over. In Europe, the fighting may have ended but conditions were still tough. Private Sid Verrier from Stoke Newington sent a letter home to his parents to describe VE Day in Germany. ‘Believe me, folks,’ he wrote, ‘I’ve never felt so fed up since I joined the army. No beer here, no decent grub worthy of such an occasion, no mail, no fraternisation with civvies, absolutely nothing.’ He spent his evening chatting with an ex-German soldier who was now the interpreter for his unit.

It was even worse for many servicemen in the far east. In Burma, Captain I A Wallace of the 115th Army Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, spent VE Day engaged in tough fighting with Japanese soldiers in the dense rainforest. Near the end of the day he described his platoon commander breaking down in tears after a corporal had been killed in action. ‘The tears poured down his cheeks and he sobbed bitterly. That was how we spent VE Day.’

Just over a month after VE Day George Orwell wrote the first pages of his new novel – Nineteen Eighty-Four. It captured a general mood of pessismism. People had seen and experienced terrible things that they could not easily forget, and the war had given them what might have felt like an enduring insight into human nature. Further events of that summer, such as the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, only seemed to cement the central vision of Orwell’s novel: ‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.’

—ENDS—

The Summer of ’45: Stories and Voices from VE Day to VJ Day by Kevin Telfer

https://www.psbooks.co.uk/The-Summer-of-45-9781781314357

The Labour case for conservatism (thoughts on the 2019 election)

The Conservatives are not conservative. In fact, it is one of their greatest tricks to convince the electorate that they are. Because one of the most well-known truisms about the British electorate is that we are innately conservative, with a small ‘c’. We are collectively resistant to change; suspicious of radicalism; mistrustful of ideology; and scared of revolutions. The Conservative Party learned this essential lesson long ago, which is why it has always tried to portray itself as the party of law and order; of strength and stability; and of unwavering belief in those institutions that uphold what they see as the decent British character: the monarchy, The Bank of England, the military, the Institute of Directors, etc.

Yet all the while the Conservatives have been much more radical than this portrayal might suggest. Radically destructive. Their project, in essence, is to usurp the 100 years of progress that have seen workers get more rights, consumers get more protection, and the vulnerable get more care. This is a combination of ‘red tape’ and ‘sponging’ as they see it. And they want to return to Victorian times; both in terms of hypocritical, anachronistic morality and a deregulated state that allows for capitalism to be unfettered by responsibilities. All accompanied by a prototypical Victorian foreign policy of ‘splendid isolation’. These things, of course, are all intertwined. And the Conservatives have shown themselves to be highly pragmatic when it comes to respect for those institutions that they claim to espouse, as shown by the reaction to the verdict on proroguing parliament. They will respect state institutions so long as those institutions support their ideological project.

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The impossibility of filming Catch 22

STARLIFESTYLE ONLY Catch 22 — Episode 1 – Young American flyers arrive in war and discover that the bureaucracy is more deadly than the enemy. Yossarian (Christopher Abbott), shown. (Photo by: Philippe Antonello/Hulu)

I’ve been watching George Clooney’s TV adaptation of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and it did that great thing of making me want to read the book all over again, which I have not done for a long, long time. Too long, as it turns out, because it is indeed a unique piece of writing that seemed so much fresher and full of energy than I remembered it.

The Clooney adaptation is very different to the 1970 film but I think that both show the impossibility of capturing the wild, contradictory spirit of the book.

Catch 22 is a novel that has contradictions at its heart. The main one being that in the novel, set in the later years of the Second World War, as a member of a bomber crew you could be grounded and not have to fly any more missions if you were insane. But before you could be grounded you would have to ask to be grounded. And if you asked to be grounded it proved that you were actually in full possession of your faculties, and so could not be grounded.

‘That’s some catch, that catch 22,’ says Yossarian after Doc Daneeka explains it to him.

‘It’s the best there is,’ says Doc Daneeka.

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The genius of Rhasan Roland Kirk

This year has for me been the year of the saxophone – from rediscovering the music of Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane, and going to see Pharaoh Sanders at Ronnie Scott’s in Soho in July and Too Many Zooz at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in March, to getting to know Austrian saxophonist Guido Spannocchi, who regularly plays at the Bloomsbury Hotel basement bar just off New Oxford Street. But the crowning glory of the year for me has been finding out about the unique, multi-instrumental  talent of Rhasan Roland Kirk. And I’ve had to ask myself: how has it taken me so long to begin listening to this giant of 20th century music?

I should have arrived at this stage earlier. I came to Rhasan Roland Kirk via Jimi Hendrix. I knew that Jimi Hendrix was a big fan of Kirk’s – it is a well-documented fact that Hendrix had the Kirk album Rip, Rag and Panic in his luggage when he arrived in London from America in 1966. But for some reason I had never checked out his music. I wondered after I had listened to him if this was because Kirk, in a genre of individualists, was such an arch-individualist that he didn’t logically fall into any of the standard family trees of jazz – he was way out there doing his own thing.

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