VE Day With Bryant & May
Seventy five years ago, my mother Kath was working as a secretary in Clerkenwell when the nation celebrated the unconditional surrender of the Nazis. Winston Churchill tempered the celebrations by pointing out that Japan had not surrendered – a situation that was to change three months later with the horrific war crimes perpetrated on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Like everything else from that time, the VE Day celebrations had been long planned-for and organised so that no-one was left out. It has been celebrated ever since, although not much in London, where too much upheaval and movement has disrupted neighbourhoods.
We’re now reaching the end of those living memories; my mother was always a good source of material for what the streets were like then; she died at 91 and her acute observations never deserted her. She went to Piccadilly Circus that day clutching her best friend’s hand, but it was too crowded to move so they walked up Regent Street, where the roads were wider. Traffic had been stopped from entering the area and the shops were all still boarded up, with Eros protected from the attentions of drunken revellers.
The Queen was 19, my mother 21 – she passed her life in London without once glimpsing Her Majesty, until I got her into the Royal Film Command Performance and we found ourselves sitting directly behind her. I don’t think Kath remembered a frame of the film. All she recalled about VE Day were the linked arms and dancing, she and her workmates making friends with strangers, sharing a bottle of Guinness and travelling home to bake cakes for the street party the following morning.
Street parties were still common events, with the pecking order along the long tables often decided by municipal jobsworths to preserve the social order. The poorer residents of the street, ‘the council’ and those who rented rather than owned their properties, were usually left to the end of the table. Watch ‘A Private Function’ and ‘The Punch & Judy Man’, both of which feature disgruntled wives complaining about their station in life reflected in the table arrangements. Tables down the street appeared every summer from May onwards, and there was always an indoor version for children at Christmas.
By the time I was born the war seemed like ancient history, and yet of course it had been no time at all. Apparently I had a ration book for a couple of years, and I remember a flimsy, rusting Anderson shelter still in the garden. Looking at old footage of devastated London I can find no way of touching that past – it seems the nation followed a different timeline that I am unable to access.
Kath lost her teenaged years to the war. She was just fifteen when war was declared, and remained in London in an essential job for the duration of the fighting. Like many young women of her age Queen Elizabeth II acted as a peculiar sort of role model. Kath considered it her duty to enrol in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, and looked back on that time as the best of her life, when she said, ‘I really felt I was making a difference.’
If she had still been alive, she would have been shocked to find Dame Vera Lynn singing ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’ at the age of 103. As indeed we all are. I’ve a feeling she’ll sing at the centenary unless we beat her to death with a stick.