We Have Brandy And Half Corona

I wrote this, went back to it, re-wrote it, nearly deleted it and then went back to it again and decided to go with it.

Today is a bank holiday in the UK. The traditional May Day bank holiday that should have been on Monday moved to today- not that it matters very much at the moment, almost everyday’s the same anyway. Today’s bank holiday celebrates the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe, the defeat of the Nazis and the end of the Second World War in Europe. This day will be celebrated by some with bunting and socially distant street parties and cosy 1940s vibes, speeches by Churchill and a general sense of national satisfaction. It is a Daily Mail, Tory Party, Brexit, picture postcard version of 1945- cheerful British crowds, Spitfires, the King and Queen waving from the balcony, cucumber sandwiches. I’m uncomfortable with it because it is based on a number of lies and distortions.

The Blitz brought untold suffering to the people of Britain. Two million houses destroyed, 32, 000 people killed and 87, 000 seriously injured by bombs. Cities were flattened. When it began there was no real plan at central or local government level for how to deal with bombing or its aftermath. When the first air raids wiped out whole streets, the local authorities had to invent a response. Clearing bomb sites, digging out survivors and bodies, providing medical care and shelter. Blackout, evacuation, fire wardens and so on were all put in place. Whole families and entire streets were lost. There’s a memorial in Stretford cemetery, just up the road from here, to the residents of Lime Road where multiple houses were flattened by a bomber returning from delivering it’s load to Trafford Park. The wall records the names of fifty people and ‘seventeen unidentified persons’ who were killed in their beds at Christmas 1940, in some cases every member of a family. The trauma that these raids brought is generally overshadowed by the so- called Spirit of the Blitz. Counselling didn’t exist. Dealing with PTSD wasn’t a priority. People buried didn’t talk about it. Even at the time the Spirit of the Blitz was a myth, a propaganda campaign conducted by Lord Beaverbrook, the Daily Express newspaper owner brought into the National Government, to keep spirits up and help win the war. Crime increased during the Blitz. The black market flourished. The King and Queen were booed and jeered  by ordinary Londoners when they visited the East End. Evacuees were often resented by communities and many were treated badly. Public air raid shelters were not widely used, they were often cheaply built, water logged and had a reputation for collapsing. Many people, the poor in the cities, had little or no access to shelters anyway. All in it together?

Newspapers that supported left wing parties were banned under wartime legislation. Churchill wanted to extended the ban to include the Daily Mirror when it published a cartoon critical of his policies in 1942 (above). Under Beaverbrook the newspapers staged photographs of milkmen delivering the daily pint over the wreckage of a bombing raid to keep spirits up. They’d already had to spin the defeat at Dunkirk into a victory. The war was almost lost before it began, 350, 000 troops retreating from the oncoming German army and trapped between them and the sea. This is not to deny the bravery of the men involved but the Dunkirk myth is one of the biggest propaganda spins the British media has ever created. This isn’t to say that keeping spirits up and raising morale aren’t an important job during wartime but the lie has become the truth, officially repeated and that’s the version of the war that is being celebrated today.

During the war some members of the government began to plan for afterwards and there was a growing view that things had to change. The poverty of the 1930s, unemployment, children going hungry, slum housing, no security, were all seen as the old way. There was talk of a new world, of doing away with the old guard and getting it right. Win the war and then win the peace. People started to talk of a welfare state and Sir William Beveridge was asked to write a report. He said that Britain could afford a welfare state and had to afford it, for the national good. Churchill was against it and he began to be seen as the man for the war but not the man for the peace. The British people agreed, removing him from office at the first post- war general election. Ernest Bevin, the trade union leader who was brought into the Wartime Cabinet and in charge of the Ministry of Labour, argued strongly for a welfare state and for post- war security for all, the idea that poverty should be eradicated and that government and the people had a duty to build a fairer society. After all, what was the suffering for, if not this? This has been successively undermined from the 1970s onwards by the right wing press and right wing politicians, with repeated stories of benefit cheats, dependency culture and dole dossers, a concerted campaign to forget that the welfare state was a reaction to the absolute poverty of the 1920s and 1930s and a commonly held desire to provide security for people who had none, who could not afford to visit a doctor, who died because they could not afford medicines, who went hungry when they had no work. The Daily Mail and the Tories who want us to celebrate V.E. Day are the same who want to undermine and override the Second World War’s most long lasting social impact in this country. The causes of the welfare state- war, poverty, inequality, injustice- are ignored in favour of sentimental flag waving and a notion of togetherness. The real togetherness, if it existed, was the sense among politicians and people in 1945 that when Hitler was defeated there had to be fundamental changes in the way the UK and society were organised and the way it treated people. In this new world there was no place for Winston Churchill who was against it anyway. Our current PM’s hero is Winston Churchill. The talk is that he wants to loosen the lockdown, get the economy going again, and that he will announce this on Sunday- backed up by the flag waving Tory press. Many feel that this is too soon. If Johnson sees this as his Churchill moment he may find that a resulting second wave of Covid infections becomes the equivalent of the V2 flying rockets that destroyed neighbourhoods in London 1944 and 1945.

The V.E. Day celebrations also add to the idea of British exceptionalism, that ‘we’ won the war. Yes, the Battle of Britain was a significant moment, Hitler’s plan to invade Britain postponed, but it was his decision to invade the Soviet Union that the war hinges on militarily. The Russian people fought street by street, house by house, cellar by cellar. Russian women served at the fontline. They lost 20 million people as a result. The Red Army, the defence of Stalingrad, the horrors of the Eastern Front and the advance towards Berlin turned the tide of the war. In the west the D- Day landings started to squeeze the Nazis out of France. U.S. soldiers make up two thirds of the 10, 000 casualties from the landings. None of this is adequately represented by the Spitfires, sandwiches and bunting portrayal of V.E. Day.

The newspapers and politicians who want us to celebrate this parochial, one eyed view of the past are the same ones who want to take us out of Europe, who want us to prioritise business over human lives by lifting the lockdown and who want to turn back the clock to a land that never existed. Jon Savage tweeted a comment earlier this week and it’s something that I’ve felt for some time. Jon’s Tweet reads-

‘Have suddenly focussed on the fact that the usual May Day holiday on Monday has been moved by this shower of shit government to next Friday for VE Day: this country has been totally infantilised. GET OVER THE FUCKING SECOND WORLD WAR’

And who can disagree?
Actually loads of people would disagree I’m sure.

Anyway, that’s my take. I’ll inevitably end up feeling like the V.E. Day Grinch when the genuine sense of community down our road that has been fostered during lockdown becomes a socially distanced street party later on today, people drinking and waving flags in their front gardens and there’s some communal Vera Lynn and Churchill broadcasts.

Here are some London Irish trad- folk punks singing a song in 1988 about the serious business of public holidays in Almeria.