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A Queasy London Celebrates the Seventy-fifth Anniversary of V-E Day

“When the day finally came, it was like no other day that anyone can remember,” Mollie Panter-Downes, the London correspondent for this magazine, wrote of May 8, 1945, the day that the war in Europe officially ended. “It had a flavor of its own, an extemporaneousness which gave it something of the quality of a vast, happy village fete as people wandered about, sat, sang, and slept against a summer background of trees, grass, flowers, and water.” This holiday atmosphere was, presumably, what the architects of the commemoration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of Victory in Europe Day had in mind when it was announced, last June, that, in 2020, the bank holiday typically observed on the first Monday of May would be moved to Friday, May 8th. This rescheduling would permit a three-day-long celebration of that long-ago victory, with bagpipers playing from atop the four highest peaks in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and bells ringing from the towers of churches and cathedrals nationwide.

As recently as February 23rd—a month after the Chinese city of Wuhan was locked down, three weeks after the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in the U.K., and a day after the first deaths as a result of the disease were reported in Italy—the government was releasing further plans: these included a service of thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey, to be attended by veterans, and what was being billed as “the Nation’s Toast,” during which publicans, whose licensing hours would be extended to 1 A.M., would encourage patrons “to raise a glass to the Heroes of World War II.” The official Web site of the anniversary, VE Day 75, suggested forties-themed street parties, dances in village halls, and the baking of ration-book-era recipes, such as Lord Woolton pie, a root-vegetable and pastry confection. “Don’t forget the Spam!” the site warned cheerily, proposing the consumption, or at least the purchase, of the reviled processed meat as the ultimate in kitsch depri-tainment. Less than a month later, though, the first deprivations of the coronavirus crisis began. Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered both pubs and churches to cease operations, and police were deployed to prevent wandering, sitting, or dozing in public spaces. Rather than remembering the end of the Second World War from the safe distance of twenty-first-century peace and global—if not always personal—prosperity, Britons arrived upon the anniversary feeling some glimmer of proximity to the endurance and privations of the past.

On May 8, 1945, Londoners awakened to a thunderstorm that dissipated into what Panter-Downes described as “that perfect, hot, English summer’s day which, one sometimes feels, is to be found only in the imagination of the lyric poets.” In London, Friday, May 8, 2020, also dawned gloriously. The air was clear and fresh, pollution in the capital having dropped by as much as fifty per cent in some areas since the cessation, seven weeks earlier, of all-but-essential commerce, travel, and industry. Temperatures were in the low seventies, perfect for lazing in the park or picnicking—two of the activities that are reportedly going to be permitted after an anticipated lightening of restrictions. With some government sources having, presumably, leaked the picnic-go-ahead rumor, other government sources quickly sought to tamp down expectations: changes would be “modest, small, incremental and very carefully monitored,” Dominic Raab, a senior minister, said on Thursday evening. V-C Day was definitely not yet in sight, nor is it likely to be. For all the martial metaphors that politicians on both sides of the Atlantic like to invoke, humanity is not so much at war with the virus as uneasily, unwillingly cohabiting with it, with nowhere more hospitable to escape to.

The messaging for V-E Day changed in the days running up to the holiday weekend: Britons were being encouraged to celebrate at home. They were to deck their living rooms with bunting rather than waving flags on a sidewalk; to hold back-garden tea parties—simultaneously with their neighbors, if they wished, at an appropriate social distance—instead of street parties. Panter-Downes had witnessed, in London, the apparition of groups of beautiful young women, who “streamed out into the parks and streets like flocks of twittering, gaily plumaged cockney birds.” In lieu of that kind of liberty, Britons this weekend had a downloadable “VE Day Party Pack,” created by English Heritage, the charity that oversees many of the nation’s monuments. It was about as festive as you’d expect in a social landscape in which any public embracing of handsome, uniformed strangers by young women in summer dresses would result not in cheers from onlookers but in tut-tutted condemnation. Instead of dancing in the streets, one could Lindy Hop around one’s kitchen, or download a recipe for cheese-and-marmite swirls. Still, Spam was for sale: two pounds per can on the Tesco supermarket’s Web site, and available for home delivery if you could get a slot, which you couldn’t.

A schedule of events had been issued—a timetable around which the population, isolated at home, was invited to cohere, just as it has every Thursday evening since mid-March, for doorstep cheers for the National Health Service. The first event was at 11 A.M., a two-minute moment of silence in honor of the war dead, for which Britons were asked to stand on their doorsteps in solidarity. On one street in North London, at least, not a single householder was seen making the gesture, unless the guy sitting on his doorstep and looking at his phone could be counted, which somehow seemed unlikely. In London, it might have made more, if counterintuitive, sense to have called for a moment of noise. The symbolic downing of tools has considerably less impact when tools have already been downed for weeks, with an estimated seven out of ten firms furloughing staff. Londoners have been observing not moments but weeks of silence, and any passing appreciation of enhanced birdsong and the absence of jackhammers is more than outweighed by the moral obscenity of, for example, a new population of homeless, comprising unemployed hospitality and restaurant workers, who have been driven onto the streets of central London.

On May 8, 1945, central London was alive with revellers, “from the smallest babies, with their hair done up in red-white-and-blue ribbons, to beaming elderly couples who, utterly without self-consciousness, strolled up and down the street arm in arm in red-white-and-blue paper hats.” Arm-in-arm strolling has been a no-no for a while now: the city’s pedestrians are all hewing closely to the right or left of too-narrow sidewalks, seeking to avoid rival pedestrians and shoppers queuing six feet apart from one another. Elderly couples may, possibly, be beaming as they walk through the streets these days, but it’s hard to tell behind the face masks that so many of them have taken to wearing in public, and the alarmed eyes that widen whenever a younger jogger comes puffing into view would suggest otherwise.

“The crowds milled back and forth between the Palace, Westminster, Trafalgar Square, and Piccadilly Circus,” Panter-Downes wrote. That’s quite a distance to mill, especially in a crowd, as Londoners who last gathered en masse to protest Brexit—and who are now forbidden from congregating in groups larger than their own immediate family—will dimly recall. On Friday, Londoners were traversing those routes not on foot but by bicycle. In recent weeks, it’s been easy to feel at times as if the British capital has been transformed, winningly, into Copenhagen, with hordes of cyclists whistling through the Royal Parks, which have never looked greener or more beautiful. At Westminster, opposite the Houses of Parliament, an occasional passerby took a photo of the statue of Churchill, whose appearance on the palace balcony on V-E Day drew “a deep, full-throated, almost reverent roar” from the crowd, Panter-Downes recorded. The clock tower of Big Ben, which is presently under repair, was clad in black drapes, looking as if it had been the target of arson. To behold it was to recall Boris Johnson’s sloganeering in late January, when he prevailed upon Britons to “bung a bob for a Big Ben bong”—contribute to a fund to make the bell temporarily functional—in order to celebrate Britain’s departure from the E.U., and to wonder what briefings about the alarming new virus the Prime Minister had brushed aside in his Brexit Day bluster.

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