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.
Yesterday was my father-in-law’s birthday. If he were still alive, he would have been 103; he was already old enough to be a grandfather by the time his first child was born. My husband was the youngest of three boys, the first of whom was still-born. My parents-in-law had their children late because the Second World War intervened.
Already thirty, Dad volunteered for active service early in the war; because of his age, this was long before he would have been officially ‘called up’. In retrospect, it was a smart move: it meant that he ‘had a good war’ and, although he certainly found himself in some dangerous situations, he was not often in the forefront of the fighting. He elected to join the Coldstream Guards and was employed as the batman and driver of a brigadier who was also an aristocrat – someone whom the government wanted to keep out of harm’s way. Ironically, the brigadier was killed right at the end of the war, when the armoured car in which he was being driven to a strategy meeting in the field went over a Teller mine. By some fluke, he had taken a reserve driver with him on that day, so my father-in-law survived.
He didn’t talk much about the war or, indeed, about his own youth. I know that he was the eldest boy of a family of seven (he had one elder and two younger sisters, and a younger brother; two other siblings died in infancy). His father was a chicken farmer who was gassed in the First World War (like one of my own ancestors). I don’t know how long he survived after this, but he certainly didn’t work again. When Dad married my mother-in-law, he was still taking responsibility for his own family and continued to send his mother money regularly until she died.
He wasn’t bitter about the war, nor did he question the way it was run. He had a small fund of stories that he told, but he always related them in a matter-of-fact way, as if what happened was inevitable. For example, he was part of the second wave of D-Day landings. He said that he and his colleagues ran inland from the beach, saw a German tank ahead and ran back towards the sea again (discretion the better part etc.) – hardly the glorious unstoppable heroics celebrated long afterwards in books and films! (I remember noting the very gradual shift away from unrealistic, partisan and fictional representations of the war to a more balanced and gritty portrayal of its truths.) Soldiers were issued with cans of corned beef as emergency rations – the type that had a metal strip round its middle that you pulled to divide the can into two halves. He remembered that, when it was very hot, as soon as they pulled the can apart, the meat was covered with blowflies. But they ate it, anyway. As they worked their way up through France and the Netherlands towards Germany, one of the more amazing tasks that befell Dad was to dig daily a ‘foxhole’ in the ground for his superior; though the trench was a defensive measure, he would arrange a waterproof tarpaulin and fill it with warm water so that the brigadier could take a bath. Shades of Blackadder indeed! He also remembered the many corpses of bloated cows that littered the French countryside, dead because their owners had fled and no-one had been left to milk them. Always an enthusiastic but never obsessive gambler, Dad made modest but often successful bets on dog- and horse-racing, which still took place in various places along his route, and had to obtain permission from the brigadier to send his winnings home.
From my observation of my father-in-law and my own father and the fathers of my friends who were half a generation younger, I’d say that there was a great dividing line between those who fought in the war and those who didn’t. Dad belonged to a generation which dealt in absolutes. He believed in authority, hierarchies, decorum and The Queen. There was a way of doing things and he liked it to be observed. My husband relates that his father met him off the train after his first university term with: ‘That’s a very disgraceful pair of shoes that you’re wearing.’ He didn’t ‘get’ that his son didn’t value polished toe-caps. He always meant well, having a kindly heart, but wasn’t very attuned to the sensitivities of others. When I first met him, we drove to find him on the day’s estate shoot; at the time, I was not keen on any kind of meat, but, since he happened to be carrying a brace of duck, he thrust them into my hands as an intended kindly gesture! Later, when I revealed that I was scared of moths (a phobia that I’ve since conquered), he caught a large one and informed me: ‘Now I’m going to show you what a beautiful creature a moth is.’ When he discovered that I disliked Christmas pudding (an aversion to which I have remained constant), he lay back in his chair, shut his eyes in disgust, and announced: ‘Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Christmas pudding.’
It interests me, though, how people can be cut off from the era in which they live by an event that those younger than themselves cannot wholly relate to. Dad survived the war by more than forty years, but he never really belonged to the era that succeeded it, which, in this case, saw the children of retainers (like himself) to the landed classes develop through educational opportunity an independence that challenged the authority of the class system. I suspect that this has also been true of others who have lived in previous centuries through sudden seismic shifts of values: from the Civil War to the Restoration, for example, or from the Regency to the reign of Queen Victoria.
I haven’t talked to my husband about yesterday’s date, but I’m sure that it won’t have escaped his notice. His father was a more remote ‘father figure’ than fathers are today, but he was loved and respected and is still remembered; indeed, his last generous act, shortly before he died, when he was not really fit to drive, was to take his car and head off to a local orchard, in order to bring us back a whole box of Cox’s apples. He lived up to his own very high standards. They were just different from ours.
Yesterday I mentioned that I have recently bought several books about South Lincolnshire to aid my research. One of these is Aspects of Spalding Villages, by Michael J. Elsden. It is a book of photographs with quite an extensive accompanying text drawn from contemporary newspapers and other documents, such as old trade directories.
Among the many fascinating sections is one on Pode Hole, a hamlet between Pinchbeck and Spalding, which became important when a pumping station was set up there in the late eighteenth century to reduce the threat of flooding. It was a place to which I often headed when out on bike rides. Its system of sluices represents a complex and quite awe-inspiring feat of engineering. However, of more interest to me were the rather quaint by-laws relating to the pumping station, which were posted in full on a board in front of the main building. When I visited Spalding shortly before last Christmas, I was intrigued to see that the by-laws notice is still there. It’s a sturdy production, set in stone like a fenlands version of the Ten Commandments.
The section in Michael Elsden’s book that is headed ‘Trades and Business People in Pode Hole in 1937’ includes the entry ‘Sherrard, Rd. Albert, haulage contractor, Pode Hole’. It leapt out at me because Richard Sherrard (whose middle name was also his father’s – I had not previously known that he also bore it) was my Great-Uncle Dick. When I knew him, he led a fairly down-and-out existence. He scraped a living by farming a small-holding at Spalding Common and lived in one of the short streets of council houses there. I don’t recollect having had any meaningful conversations with him as a child; the Sherrard men were not particularly interested in girls. However, my brother, the only boy of our generation, was regaled with all sorts of treats and confidences. When we were both adults, he told me some of the family history that he had gleaned from Uncle Dick and his two surviving brothers (the eldest brother, John, had been gassed in the Great War and died in the 1920s). He said that Uncle Dick had told him that he was once the owner of a thriving haulage business, with a fleet of lorries that carried vegetables and livestock across the Fens. More roguishly, he admitted that he had plied a flourishing black market side-line during the Second World War.
I only half-believed this tale, because the Uncle Dick that I knew was anything but a prosperous businessman. I therefore rather assumed that it had been invented to satisfy a small child’s curiosity and also to imbue his old uncle with a touch of glamour. (‘What did you do in the war, Uncle Dick?’ ‘Oh – ha, ha, ha – I was a bit of a scoundrel; I sold stuff on the black market. It didn’t harm anyone; I just helped people to get the things that they needed.’) Now, however, I have found proof that at least some of Uncle Dick’s story was true: he was indeed a haulage contractor. The question is, did he really own a fleet of lorries, or just one antiquated, clapped-out lorry that was pressed into service for the war effort? And, if the former, what happened to them all? Might they have been confiscated because his nefarious activities were found out? Might the haulage business even have gone downhill because he was disgraced, or sent to prison? I don’t suppose that I shall ever find out and, since my own version of events is probably more colourful than the truth, I’m not sure that I really want to!
Although I usually have a crime novel on the go, I read a lot of history and biography as well. I’ve almost completed Fleeing Hitler: France 1940, by Hanna Diamond (OUP 2007). This is an extraordinary book about the French flight from Paris after the German invasion of northern France. Although I’ve read many books about the Second World War, I must say that I hadn’t realised the extent of the exodus that took place. Parisians were clearly terrified; millions of them abandoned their homes, in most cases taking only the possessions that they could carry or wheel in carts or on bicycles. A very small minority had cars or vans, but were often forced to abandon these when they ran out of petrol.
Ironically, most of the populace would have been better off staying where they were, unless they were Jewish, as the Germans had no plans to harm them wholesale; in fact, they wanted as many people as possible to carry on working to support the German war effort. Doubly ironic is that, while Parisians and other inhabitants of northern France and Belgium were panic-stricken and took to the roads with little cause, in Berlin and other urban centres in Germany, German Jews believed that they were safe and stayed until it was too late. I have no explanation for the extreme fear amongst the French, unless it was caused by the fact that Paris had been invaded four times within living memory, on the last occasion only about a quarter of a century previously.
Of particular fascination is Hanna Diamond’s account of how the quite sophisticated Parisians (though, in many cases, they were only a generation away from having been peasants themselves) reacted to the extremely basic lifestyles of the peasant communities in which they found shelter. It is a snapshot in time of how two eras, the modern one and the age-old traditional one, collided. Despite bucolic discomforts, however, a significant number of Parisians did not return to Paris after the panic subsided, but stayed in these rural communities, especially if they could find work. Some of the wealthier départements were extremely generous; for example, the inhabitants of the Charente gave refugees ten francs each per day, even though they could obtain accommodation and food (‘including drink’!) for about twelve francs per week. Others – especially those on major routes south, which were assailed by wave after wave of large groups en route – received them with dour suspicion and moved them on as quickly as possible.
I’m not unduly patriotic, but the account in this book of the behaviour of the French government in power at the time of the invasion makes me somewhat proud of the contrasting achievement of the British government of the day. In Britain, the government gave everyone clear orders about rationing, evacuation of children, building of safety shelters and what to do in case of invasion. There were also regular news bulletins (though some were censored in order not to demoralise) about what was going on in the rest of Europe. The French government, by contrast, seemed to be incapable of organising anything at all. The refugees received no directions besides broad advice on which areas further south they should head for, no financial support, no food, no petrol and no information. It is hardly surprising that Marshal Pétain and the Vichy government commanded so much support when they first appeared; theirs was the only leadership on offer.
It is estimated that 100,000 people died during the flight from Paris and the subsequent bedraggled return of most of the refugees; many of these victims were children, the old, the ill and the infirm. Some may actually have starved. I do wonder, though, how many were murdered. There were fights for food along the way; fathers and husbands were forced to prostitute daughters and wives in return for petrol and other basics; and returning families sometimes found that their flats had been occupied by German soldiers or by French people who had taken advantage of their absence. Plenty of scope for nefarious deeds here, I should have thought, including a few undetected murders.
I have found much to interest me in this carefully-researched account of an aspect of the Second World War that does not usually get an airing. I recommend it.