I was fourteen when the war finally came to an end and stupidly over excited, I’m ashamed to say, and my mother, who was even more over excited than I was, took me up to London to ‘have fun’. We started off in Parliament Square and walked up Whitehall to Trafalgar Square. I have never seen such huge tightly packed crowds in all my life, either before or since. At one point my feet were lifted off the ground and I was carried along by the pressure of the bodies all round me. But it wasn’t such a crush when we reached Trafalgar Square, although the place was full of people dancing. My mother shot off to find some servicemen to flirt with and I joined a group dancing the Hokey Kokey. I danced till my feet were sore, the Conga, the jitterbug, whatever people were singing, bouncing along with everyone else. It was a long, noisy evening but at last it drifted to an close and people began to wander out of the square and my mother appeared with a paper hat on her head and said it was time to go home. Then we hit a problem. It was so late that the trams, buses and underground had all closed down. So we had to walk back to Tooting and it felt like a very long way. (It was actually six and a half miles. I’ve just Googled it.) And that was the end of it. The next day I went to school and back to ordinary life.
One year and ten months later I met the love of my life. I had just turned sixteen then and had read a small life-changing book called the Beveridge Report,which is still on my shelves, and lived through the amazing bloodless revolution of 1945 and was then cheering the way our new government was changing the way we lived. I soon found out that my darling was an ardent socialist too which made me love him all the more. We talked about pretty well everything, the unfairness of the old system, the obscenity of the concentration camps, the need to ensure that we never went to war again and in the course of our endless talk, we remembered VE Day. I told him what fun it had been dancing in the Square and asked him what he’d done that day. His answer was sobering and made me think. ‘I was bloody relieved,’ he said, ‘but I went for a long walk and remembered all the people who’d been killed.’ It made me see VE Day in a completely different light.
So no, I’m sorry but I won’t be out in my front garden waving a patriotic flag today. I shall be working at this machine and remembering the millions of all nations who were killed in that war or so badly wounded they never recovered. So my final pictures are a reminder, from the bus in the crater at Balham, where so many died the most terrible and terrifying death under the ground, to the wreckage around St Paul’s, when nothing was left standing after that night’s raid except the cathedral. I could have filled several pages with others from all over the world.
We must be very careful that we don’t tell any of our young either in words or more subtly and dangerously by implication, what Wilfrid Owen called ‘the old lie.’ Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. It is not a sweet and proper thing to die for one’s country. It is and always has been an obscenity. Have a party with your neighbours by all means but don’t get carried away by patriotism.
And to make my point for me I’ve just read a tweet from someone writing about her neighbours celebrating with ‘overloud recordings of anti German songs and victory speeches.’ That is exactly what worries me.