This has been a strange weekend for everyone, despite – or even because of – the blue skies and sunshine, now replaced by a cold, grey front from the North Pole. On Friday, it was seventy-five years since ‘VE [Victory in Europe] Day’. In the UK, all kinds of celebrations had been planned for this, most of which haven’t happened because of the Covid-19 lockdown. There is some hope that they can be held on 15th August, on ‘VJ [Victory in Japan] Day’ instead. I wonder. When the lockdown started, no-one imagined it would still be in place towards the end of the summer, but it may well be.
My daughter-in-law, who is German, told us about a conversation she had with our five-year-old granddaughter about this European anniversary, providing her with the relevant history that she really did want to know about, for, though the family lives in Cambridgeshire, she has relatives in the Münsterland and elsewhere whom she visits regularly; she also speaks German very well indeed. She knows that her great-grandparents chucked bombs at each other. Her mum’s words speak for themselves:
“VE Day. I’ve been thinking about the right words all day. It is one of the very few days when I find British life… awkward.
For me, the 8th of May has always been a day of commemoration and, primarily, of remembering the liberation from fascism and the Holocaust. I have absolutely no problem with celebrating this and the end of the war, but I suppose what makes me feel uncomfortable is the choice of the name for this day. Victory in Europe.”
Between them, she and her daughter decided to rename the day ‘Peace in Europe Day’ and – in and with, socially distanced 😉, their local community – to celebrate peace, not victory, as something perhaps more relevant now than it has ever been since 1945.
Here, at home in the Pennines, we have reflected a lot on how far we have come as a nation since the Second World War and I don’t mind saying that we are both committed Europhiles, who are happily English but also proud of being European. We love the country we were born in and all that makes it unique, but we love Europe too; we identify, quite rightly, with our nation, but not to the detriment of other nations; we are not jingoistic and we are weary indeed of the ultra-nationalistic nonsense we’ve heard all our lives and, especially, over the past three years or so. When our son and daughter-in-law were married in 2011, we hung German and British flags in our hall, where they have remained ever since, accompanied now by a banner of the twelve Chinese horoscope characters in silk and an Indian textile designed to celebrate Diwali, both acquired on my forays abroad. They hang there together in solidarity, companions in peace and shared interests from four very different countries, a testament to new global friendships with likeminded people. Our granddaughter takes it for granted that they are a permanent part of our household.
In the village where I live, several families hung out Union Jacks. Flags are evocative props – they stand at once for national pride, military prowess and a strong sense of identity. When my husband was a child and his family were living in the south of England they made a pilgrimage back to the north once a year to visit his grandmother, who always hung out Union Jacks on the hedge to welcome them after their long journey.
In retrospect, these same flags were probably the ones she purchased to celebrate the original VE Day. When I was a child growing up in Lincolnshire, we all waved flags on Flower Parade Day (though I never understood why) and, when we visited the seaside, our parents would buy us little packets of paper flags to stick in sandcastles. There was always a Union Jack among these, though my brother and I both liked the red and green Welsh dragon best. Children enjoy the simple realities, rather than the symbolism, which they only later come to understand. We are delighted that our granddaughter has shrugged off naïveté about this very early.
The celebrations were meant to mark the return to peace rather than victory and those creative people who managed to put their mark on yesterday expressed this. My favourites were the staff of my local convenience shop, who dressed as – very glamorous – land girls to cheer and amuse their customers.
They all work very hard to support everyone in their neighbourhood, with no discrimination, even though they have their fair share of – how best to put it? – awkward individuals! I’m led to consider that EVERY nation has its own fair share of, frankly, unpleasant people.
Because of my day job, I’m in daily touch with people across the world, all coping with lockdown. Some have very challenging situations to cope with: they live in densely populated conurbations, are looking after newborn babies or have underlying health issues that have confined them to their homes for months. As the effects of the lockdown here make life seem ever more like living in a science fiction novel, I’m conscious of how fortunate I am that my home is in a beautiful place, from which I can walk out for my daily exercise in woods bursting with bluebells and with the air a tumult of birdsong.
The spring has seemed particularly lovely this year, perhaps because the enforced stay at home has helped us to notice it more. Listing the positives associated with the lockdown, both the warmth of the season and having access to technology that allows me to keep in touch with far-flung friends and family are jointly top. I’ve learnt some new skills, too: several culinary ones, including a Nigella chocolate cake that guarantees domestic bliss (at least in this household!); I’ve helped my husband make John Innes-style compost for the tomato plants because the garden centres were closed; and I’ve plucked up the courage to tackle my grey roots and for the first time to experiment myself with hair dye (I’m pleased to report I’ve emerged neither orange nor bald!). I’m working on a new venture with an old friend. I’ve had more time to get in touch with other authors to discuss writing; I’ve managed to read even more books than usual. The British Library, which I joined last year, has sent me links to virtual tours of its collections which have enthralled and delighted me.
Of course, there are negatives. Social networking can’t replace face-to-face contact in the long term; the future of my day job is uncertain; and a significant reaction to bee stings has been harder to deal with than if the chemist and the doctor’s surgery had been working as normal. But these things are trivial compared to the most profound truth: that in villages such as mine we know we are cocooned from reality: it’s hard for us to imagine the distress and suffering that is being experienced by patients and NHS workers across the country, or by those in care homes, those who are grappling with Covid-19 at home or those who are afraid because they need ‘shielding’.
Flags and silk figures can’t help here: they symbolise important values, but they are inert. What can and does help tremendously are the small acts of joy that people like Paula, who works in the convenience store and took the trouble both to research and glam herself up in style, bring to the people they meet, by spending time and thought on how to celebrate sensitively.
There may have been criminal lapses in some NHS care, but it’s a crime not to praise the NHS for what it does well.
Earlier this week, I was booked into my local NHS hospital as a day-patient in order to undergo a minor medical procedure. I’ve always had excellent service from the NHS and try to take the trouble to say so each time I use it, as it has had, just recently, a lot of bad press. The irreproachable care that it dispenses 95% of the time often fails to get a mention.
Mine was the first generation to benefit from the NHS from birth. Early memories include solemnly hanging on to the handle of the pushchair when my younger brother was being taken to the clinic. (That pushchair was something else: made of a kind of khaki canvas, with solid metal wheels, it folded up crabwise, so that the wheels lay flat under the canvas. It weighed a ton and had been used by several babies in the family. If they’d had pushchairs in the First World War trenches, I’m sure that they would have looked like this. Apologies for the digression!) One of the best things about the clinic was the unusual, NHS-exclusive foods that it dispensed. These included cod liver oil (which wasn’t nearly as bad as people now make out), tiny intensely-flavoured tangerine vitamin pills and, my favourite, an orange concentrate that could be diluted to make a long drink which was called orange juice. It didn’t taste of orange juice, but it was delicious and I’ve never encountered anything that remotely resembled it since. A slightly later memory is of standing in a queue in the freezing cold yard of the doctor’s surgery with all my primary-school classmates, waiting to be inoculated against polio. The injection hurt, but the nurse was at the ready with a twist of paper containing several brightly-coloured boiled sweets for each child.
When I came back from the theatre this week, the comfort of NHS comestibles immediately kicked in again. A severe young nurse, who was rather old-fashioned (plump, with dark curly hair and a fresh face, she would have made an excellent poster girl for a 1950s nurses’ recruitment drive), forbade me to get out of bed until I had consumed tea and toast. She returned immediately with two doorstep slices of white bread slathered with butter, a cup of mahogany-coloured tea like that my grandmother used to make – I think you can achieve the desired effect only with industrial quantities of ‘real’ tea-leaves and plenty of whole milk – and a packet of three chocolate Bourbon biscuits. Immediately, I recalled the last occasion on which I had seen such a packet of biscuits, also at an NHS hospital. It had been more than a quarter of a century ago, towards the end of my final ante-natal class at St. James’s Hospital in Leeds. Having spent upwards of an hour with several other imminent mothers, alternately lying on the floor like so many beached whales to practise breathing exercises and grabbing each other’s ankles to simulate contractions (what a joke this was only became apparent some time later), we were blissfully interrupted by the tea lady, doing her rounds with mahogany tea and packets of Bourbon biscuits. The latter tasted all the better for being forbidden – we’d all just been lectured on eating the right foods for ‘baby’ and the crime of putting on too much weight – when this no-nonsense lady appeared and made it obligatory for us to tuck in.
I suspect that one of the reasons why the nation takes the NHS so much to its heart is that it has always managed to embrace this ambiguity between what is ‘good’ for you and what forbidden fruits it will allow in order to cheer you up. Another is that the treats themselves have not changed over the years. Doorstep toast, mahogany tea, packets of Bourbons biscuits – they all belong to the relative innocence of the 1960s, when it didn’t take too much to please.
Stuffed as I was with toast, I couldn’t manage my Bourbon biscuits as well, but I asked the nurse if I could bring them home with me and I certainly intend to enjoy them. In spite of what appear to be thoroughly unacceptable lapses in Mid Staffordshire from the very high standards I have always found in evidence in my visits to hospitals, I shall continue to praise the NHS and the homespun comforts that it offers. If someone could rustle up a bottle of that concentrated orange juice, I would give it a blog-post all to itself.