Everyday heroes

I was born less than ten years after VE Day. A sobering thought, especially as I’ve always considered World War II a distant historical event. But looking back, I realise The War has impacted my life in ways I’ve only begun to understand during these strange times.

My mother was less than a month short of her tenth birthday when war was declared. Within weeks, she was sent away from her London home to live with a family of strangers in a small town in Northamptonshire. No checks back then, to make sure the people who took in the thousands of evacuees were safe. My father was just fourteen. He was briefly evacuated from London to a village in Essex. I have the impression his experience was happier than Mum’s, but he was never one for talking about his feelings.

Like his father before him, Dad started work with the Electricity Board at the age of fifteen. He enrolled in evening classes, to study electrical engineering, and thus, when the time came for him to be called up, he was in a unique position. His employers agreed to consider his job a reserve occupation, so long as he passed all his exams. One failed exam, and he’d be called up without a second chance. As a result, my father spent his war in North London. He worked full time, studied in the evenings, and took turns at fire watch as the bombs rained down by night. Despite the stress and lack of sleep, he passed every last exam, otherwise I suppose I might never have come into being.

I sometimes wonder whether our collective imagination has erased much of the trauma of war. The London of my childhood was peppered with derelict buildings, demolished not by property developers, but by the bombs that had fallen night after night, as terrified people hid under stairs or kitchen tables, or ran for the nearest air raid shelter. People like my father, scarcely more than a boy himself, risked their lives to keep watch for the fires that broke out after the bombs had fallen, and to fight them, often using only rudimentary equipment.

Food and clothing were in short supply throughout the war, and were strictly rationed. Vegetable growing was a necessity, not a hobby. In the main, clothes were hand-made, and mending was a crucial skill. Socks and stockings were darned, tears stitched meticulously, and elbows patched. Hems were let down as children grew, then turned up again for the next child. I remember my mother describing how people would save their sugar and butter rations for weeks ahead, so as to be able to bake a real cake for Christmas or a family birthday. Expensive presents were out of the question of course, as was any kind of waste. My grandfather still kept his wartime bees and bantams in his North London garden when I was a child. I remember the tiny eggs, and the near-black honey on Granny’s home-baked bread for tea.

I’ve learned too much about the consequences of war ever to glorify it, but equally I’ll never belittle the sacrifices of those who’ve lived it. Those who survive carry trauma all their lives, those who die take a part of every one of us with them, and the heroes of war are not always the ones who carry guns. In the war of my parents’ experience, life was held by the thread of darning needles, the taste of cakes baked from shared rations, the smell of fresh-dug earth and the sting of the bees on my grandfather’s arthritic hands. These were the stuff of every day, the hope that heroes would come home, and the promise that the future would be better. In lockdown, small things take on significance again – the daily walk, the sourdough culture in the airing cupboard, an old knitting pattern, a new book – and perhaps it’s no accident that the lens most often on my camera now is best suited to shots of bees, buttercups and bluebells.

On the seventy-fifth anniversary of VE Day, we find ourselves locked down in the face of an invisible enemy, as dangerous as the Luftwaffe and far less predictable. The Luftwaffe took out less than 45.000 civilians in six years. In just four months, more than 30,000 plucky Brits have lost their lives to COVID-19. Nevertheless, several newspapers have heralded the predicted easing of ‘draconian’ lockdown measures next week as cause for celebration. ‘Happy Monday’, The Sun headline blared yesterday. There are also rumours that the Prime Minister faces opposition within his own party for being over-cautious about easing restrictions.

We live in an age of grand plans and sky’s-the-limit. We’re accustomed to instant answers, to what-we-want-when-we-want, so it’s hard to believe something we can’t hear, see, smell, taste or touch can change all that. Anyone who hasn’t yet seen the effects of COVID-19, or lost someone they loved, can perhaps be forgiven for questioning the need for caution, especially as the government continues to drag its feet over support for those whose homes and livelihoods are threatened. But, there’s too much at stake to risk a headlong rush back to ‘normal’. The Luftwaffe had been roundly defeated by the time VE Day arrived. COVID-19 is still wreaking havoc. There’s no cure, no effective protection apart from isolation, no vaccine and people are losing their lives every day. 626 of us have died in the past 24 hours according to the latest figures, including a six-week-old baby. Tonight, 626 heartbroken families are learning the gut-wrenching realities of grief. Thousands of people are facing life without a mother, father, sister, son, daughter, brother, aunty, granny, uncle, grandad or best friend. Of course, the tabloids and their wealthy owners are free to celebrate if that’s what they want, but you’ll have to forgive me if I sit this one out

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