I was just a twinkle in my father’s eye when this photograph was taken on June 8th 1945. My mother is the lady front right, and the little boy she has her hand on is my older brother, who’d have been about two at the time. The face behind the camera is almost certainly my father’s. He loved gadgets and was a keen photographer as my trip to the family photo box has just shown me.
The scene is Regent Street in Kettering, Northamptonshire, my grandparents’ home, where I was born and lived for the first year of my life. It’s a place that features in some of my novels, and I have happy memories of it – a secure, tranquil place where I knew I was loved.
But life in the years immediately before I was born were far from secure or tranquil, and it’s only by living through one’s own fear that one can truly appreciate the fear of others. I remember my mother telling me that they used to all hide under the stairs when the air-raid sirens went off. And as a child, I was terrified if a plane went over. Mum volunteered for the WAF, was stationed at Holt in Norfolk, and drove ambulances and blood lorries – brave considering she hated the sight of blood. She said it was preferable to joining the land army because she had a phobia of chickens. Obviously chickens freaked her out more than blood did.
Dad was excused war duty, having only one eye, but he helped keep the Stewarts and Lloyds steel works going at Corby, producing much-needed steel for the war effort. He was an electrician and worked high up on steel beams, walking across them like a man on a tightrope, sometimes in the fumes of the Bessemer plant, a job that Mum was convinced shortened his life from cancer. after leaving Stewarts and Lloyds, he became a TV aerial erector, and I remember him running along roof ridges from one chimney to another with no fear at all. I’m glad I didn’t witness this scene, or I’d have ‘had kittens’ as my grandmother would have said. Needless to say, he’s the one with his feet planted on two chimney pots and not holding on to anything! The shop beneath was his radio and Tv shop in Wellington Street.
I didn’t inherit my mother’s fear of chickens, but I hate heights – this image makes my knees feel sick – and I can’t stand the sight of blood, especially my own. Blood, zonk, out cold.
But as ever, I digress. I can remember rationing and that the men in the street all had a war story to tell. I wish I’d realised how very close those memories still were to them in the five or ten years after the war. How I wish I’d listened to them, wrote them down – what an archive that would have been. And not just the men; what about the stories of those who ‘also served who only stood and waited’, the women and children who didn’t know if their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons would come home? What tales they had to tell. But, despite the deprivations of the forties and fifties, it was a time of hope and of rebuilding that which was destroyed to make a better world – a land fit for heroes.
I’ve often said, as I’ve grown older, more cynical, and disillusioned that the youth of today wouldn’t respond with the resilience and community spirit of those who endured the war years and rebuilt the nation after two world wars. Swayed by biased reporting of the bad amongst us at the expense of the good, I cited the drug peddlers, the scammers, the criminals, the scroungers – all those who, for one reason or another, and I admit this is not always their fault and that life can be harsh, are catastrophic drains on our economy, health service, security, confidence, and freedoms.
By ‘the youth of today’, by the way, I mean anyone under fifty – being of advanced years, they all look like children to me, and my media-tainted view of most people was of shallow, self-centered, selfie-obsessed … I can’t think of a suitable word.
But I apologise. I was wrong, and this probably doesn’t come as a surprise to most of you. Seventy-five years after Britain celebrated Victory in Europe, while still mourning their war dead, our ‘youth’ – yes, really, if you’ve just turned fifty you really are still young, so make the most of it – has stepped up in fighting our generation’s war against an invisible but deadly enemy.
Covid 19 may be wreaking heartbreaking devastation in our families, wrecking our economy, pushing our health service to breaking point, ruining our travel plans, and keeping us ‘oldies’ shut in our homes, but it has restored my faith in humanity. I have witnessed such a coming together of people and community as I haven’t seen since I was a very young child. So many acts of kindness, resilience, determination, selflessness, and innovation. You are all heroes – every one of you. I could go on, but we all know of people and acts like this, and to those who have given their lives for the good of others, I salute you and will not forget you.
We may not be able to recreate the street parties of 1945 due to lockdown, but I know today’s news will be full of extraordinary people celebrating VE Day in their own special way… lest we forget the sacrifices of those who helped keep Britain free.
It’s down to all of us now, to rebuild our lives and our economy, and to ensure that we too forge a new Britain, and as a keen environmentalist, I know we need to show this same indomitable spirit to make sure we build a greener, more sustainable, healthier, more peaceful, and more pleasant world for us all. A home fit for today’s heroes.
This is our big chance, probably our only one, and Covid 19 may yet, unwittingly, be our saviour. Don’t let’s waste the sacrifice of those lives lost whether they be from fighting an aggressor or fighting a virus.
Stay safe, stay home if you are told to do so, stay strong, stay resolute. The fight is still on, and we are not yet victorious.
For tales of two wars see
http://mybook.to/TouchingtheWire – The women of Auschwitz
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