VE Day With Bryant & May

London

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.

21 comments on “VE Day With Bryant & May”

  1. Bernard says:

    Timelines are indeed funny things. For example, the lower drawing of B&M appears shows them during or at least at the end of the war with a backdrop of bombed houses and various helmeted police, nurses, wardens, etc. Let’s say they were 20 years old. That makes them 95 this year. Not likely.

    I don’t recall in which story it appears but at some point we are told that the events described in Full Dark House, purportedly set during WWII, actually took place a couple of decades later. That would put B&M in their 70s, and as I too am in my 70s (how did that happen?), I find that credible.

    If the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are defined as war crimes one wonders whether the entire war should be so described.

  2. Derek J Lewis says:

    My dad was in Burma on V.E day (albeit in the RN) He always thanked God for the A bombs. As he said, the Japanese would have never surrendered willingly or easily and hundreds of thousands of lives on all sides would have been lost had the War dragged on for many more months or even years.
    So, on behalf on my Dad and thousands of other allied troops who were spared that Hiroshima and Nagasaki ( the Japanese still refused to surrender after the first) were not war crimes.

  3. There are certain characters, supposedly fictional, though, as some of us know, they really do exist, characters such as Holmes and Watson, Biggles and his associates, and Bryant and May, who age very slowly and can live on for centuries.

  4. Martin Tolley says:

    Killing nearly a quarter of a million civilians in a couple of fishing towns to save the lives of many service men, as was argued, must have been a nightmare decision to make. I guess that’s a decision that brings into question the whole notion of “right” and “wrong”. Those decisions have consequences, and people who make those decisions have to be brave enough to accept ownership of those consequences, not try to mealy mouth their way out of the bad effects and put a positive spin on things. Would we were in a country today where we might hear “We got this wrong, we’re sorry.”
    I was born on the 9th anniversary of VE day (wierd birthday today, but at least there was a bugler playing the last post in my village today, and people having some strange tea parties which I took to be a personal tribute!) My mum went into hospital to have me (as was the custom then) and the one thing that made her day (I was barely of peripheral interest) was that the nurses told her to tear up her ration book, as she wouldn’t need it.

  5. roxanne reynolds says:

    i simply adore that first illustration of B & M. that’s exactly how i picture them in my mind’s eye.

  6. Bruce Rockwood says:

    See the alternative to Hiroshima portrayed in The Lucky Strike by Kim Stanley Robinson. Something to think about.

  7. Ian Luck says:

    And if you want to see an almost unbearably moving music video about Hiroshima, then look for This Mortal Coil’s version of ‘I Come And Stand At Every Door’, with the anime video. It will definitely stay with you for a long time.

  8. admin says:

    Ian, I think that video has been taken down, unless you have a URL.
    Derek, that’s a fair point.The renewed Japanese belief in Bushido would have ensured continued fighting. At the same time, killing more than 100,000 people (the most conservative estimate), mostly civilians, many innocent children, is still very hard to reconcile. Most historians now regard Henry Kissinger as a war criminal for infiltrating a neutral country and drawing it into war, but Japan was not innocent. Certainly the second target of Nagasaki feels like simple revenge.

  9. John Howard says:

    Oh dear, I haven’t anything good to say about this years VE day celebrations (just this years) so shall say nothing.
    ANYWAY – Enough of that:
    Would love to know what the slogan “Get Up Those Stairs” on the hats in the second picture means.

  10. Liz Thompson says:

    I come and stand at every door is a song I sang occasionally in folk clubs. As a fervent member of CND, it seemed appropriate. The legacy of abnormal birth defects consequent on the bombings continued for a very long time, and the women who gave birth to such children suffered shame and social exclusion. Some women who survived the bombs deliberately chose never to bear children because of the genetic risks.
    It does no good to say it was the wrong or right thing to do. Can’t change history. What I regret is the prostitution (and yes, I do mean that) of the VE commemoration into a “celebration”. The after effects of war need to be remembered, but not celebrated.

  11. I have reconciled the stretched timeline for B&M long ago. Like the ravens in the Tower, they are just here and that’s that – and thank God they are.
    Besides, didn’t Raymond berate Arthur for getting his times wrong after reading his memoirs? He told him off for saying he met John during WW2 when he knows for a fact he met him in the 50s?!
    Haven’t re-read any for a while but lockdown has been a godsend for letting myself dip back in. By best wishes to everyone. Des

  12. brooke says:

    First, best wishes to you all as you mark VE day.

    Although using the atom bomb required UK agreement, it was a US invention. Its destructive power began even before Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Native American friends whose fathers were commandeered for clean up after desert tests talk about leukemia and other cancers that spread through the group. During student days I met prominent scientists who worked on Manhattan project; students, other faculty, ordinary people would be very rude to them and in some cases they were personally openly remorseful about their roles. The two cities were bombed after 50 (not sure about this number) other Japanes cities were fire bombed. As Mr. Fowler says, Nagasaki feels like revenge.

  13. Joel says:

    VE Day is to be noted, not celebrated. It is definitely not to made a big event out of, and apart from noting that the evils which began the conflict were defeated, should be relegated to memory – it was 75 years ago. Why not celebrate the Boer Wars, or the English Civil War? What’s the valid timeline? Hanging out the bunting won’t bring back the dead, won’t right the wrongs of war, and no way is the Blond Buffoon going to successfully use it as a smokescreen for the mess his cabal has made of protecting us from Covid-19.

    My background (I was born in 1951) is from all over Europe – no-one alive now knows anything of our origins; records of our mid-19th century arrivals in the UK remain stubbornly unfindable. My cultural outlook stretches across the Channel, seeing that death was inflicted on millions everywhere, and there is no unconditional ‘right’ in war. I’m not religious so the obscenity of all sides’ padres urging their conscripts on in the name of God is only a message of the failure of humanity.

    We do not fight the Axis now, except perhaps in humour only, but some of those laughs are cheap and hollow. This is the only planet we have and finding excuses to divide it up even further, even if only in concept, is another obscenity.

    We have a future (I hope), and making the past responsible for it is only part of the story. Be glad we’re alive and work to make it better for those who follow us. Apologies for the rant but it seems right to point out that not all of us found something to ‘celebrate’ yesterday.

  14. Andrew Holme says:

    The version of ‘I Come and Stand at Every Door’ by The Byrds is definitive. They used to finish every album with something a bit quirky, a bit left field, something a bit more sober. So last night when Anton Du Beke et al ( is this our reward for defeating Nazism?) sang ‘We’ll Meet Again’, I played the Byrds delicious version which closes their first album. A total joy.

  15. Richard says:

    The illustrated B&M is a joy. I’m seriously tempted to doodle the pair, but I think the definitive has already been done.

  16. eggsy says:

    I agree with Liz re: VE Day. Celebration had a place at the time, now only remembrance. I’m glad we don’t have to witness what was originally planned.

    Timelines: its to do with multiples of your age, isn’t it? when a nipper, the previous decade is a couple of lifetimes ago, and each year passes slowly as a serious chunk of your existence, while later in life years fly by and you can take a measured view of the periods before your birth.

    As for The Bomb, Truman was seeking to end a war he didn’t start, and had something available to do it instantly. Or would have, if the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War had responded to the first. The “conventional” alternative of saturation bombing and a much more risky version of D-Day (Operation Olympic) would have killed many times more (five million plus against 200,000+), not least by the general starvation of the population in the ensuing destruction of the Japanese state. But what else could be done?

  17. Ian Luck says:

    Yes, I was disappointed to see that – I only watched it a couple of months ago. A case of the music being a perfect match for the visuals, taken, I believe, from the 1983 anime, ‘Barefoot Gen’ (which in itself, is simply astonishing), and the two bolster each other. I do know of the original by The Byrds, but prefer the delicacy of touch that the This Mortal Coil’s cover gives it. Heresy? Perhaps.

  18. Helen Martin says:

    Is the instruction to “go up the stairs” a comment on the fact that there will not now be bombing to make the top of the house dangerous so children can now sleep up top? “It’s time to climb to Bedfordshire.”
    The regret I have about those bombs (I was born in 1942) is that there wasn’t treatment for the survivors for a long time and the medics instead kept track of data to show what the results of atomic injury were. Not going to suggest comparisons here.

  19. John Howard says:

    Great post Helen. and thank you for the thinking behind the phrase.

  20. Andrew Holme says:

    Ian, of course it’s not heresy. However, the moment when Crosby sings harmony with McGuinn on the last verse still makes me cry. Beautiful.

  21. Joe Gurman says:

    There is no question that by the and of the war, both sides had become callous to the point of near indifference of civilian casualties. Did the British firebombings of Hamburg (over 42000 dead, 37000 wounded) and Dresden (25000 dead) differ in a qualitative way from the American firebombings of Tokyo (somewhere north of 100000 killed) and other Japanese cities? Even with the terrible burns and the numerous (but not as numerous as later predicted) birth defects in Hiroshima, those bombings (and yes, it took two) convinced the Japanese government to surrender.

    The Japanese had brought a million troops to the Home Islands from Manchuria that US planners didn’t even know about, and the latter still expected upward of a million casualties invading Kyushu and Honshu (two separate operations), based on the experience on Okinawa. There were 10,000 aircraft reserved from Kamikaze use, and millions of civilians (even teenaged girls) trained to kill American servicemen with sharpened bamboo poles if it came to that.

    All of war is a crime. When you draft 7 million men into the armed services (5 million others volunteered), those forces become pretty much indistinguishable from civilians. Certainly the Japanese never scrupled at killing civilians, perhaps as many as 300000 in Nanjing alone. The decision to drop the atomic bombs was based on two things alone: simple arithmetic of “our” vs. “their” casualties to end the war, and wanting to impress the Soviet Union not to mess around in the Far East beyond their declared intention (at Yalta) to attack Japan 90 days after VE Day.

    I admit I am biased. My father was already in the South Pacific, and his unit would have been supporting at least one of the two invasions of Japan, so I might very well not be here if the bombs hadn’t been dropped.

Comments are closed.