ʻAt first sight, when one had emerged from the underground, the whole of central London, bare of wheeled traffic, seemed impassably thick with people; yet this was just an illusion, for the crowd had no centre, no real purpose, and everyone was aimlessly on the move. What could one do, after all, but drink as one had drink before, kiss familiar or unfamiliar faces, join in the sporadic outbreaks of singing, stare at the brave souls shinning up the lamp-posts, and cavort for a while in the uncouth, impromptu dances which suddenly cleared a space for themselves in the throngs?ʼ
VE Night, 8 May 1945, described in The People’s War: Britain 1939-1945 by Angus Calder.
When I started this site, a mere two months ago, I was blithely unaware that we were about to be subjected to yet another overdose of history. How could I have predicted, in the halcyon, far off days of late February, that by the last week of March it would be impossible for me or anyone else to visit a bar of any description for ʻthe durationʼ. Astonishing really. But, like our plucky wartime forbears, we adapt to circumstances. For example, the Zoom platform has been a godsend, and some of us have used it to arrange virtual drinking sessions, a make-do-and-mend substitute for getting shitfaced in company. But beyond the state of our livers, comparisons between the historical event just commemorated and the pick ‘n’ mix bag of crises we are currently wading through scream to be made. It would be delinquent of me not to address some awkward facts, so I suggest you pour yourself a stiff one now.
In The People’s War, Angus Calder’s commanding study of wartime Britain, the impressions of London on VE Day have a suitably disordered character. The afternoon was dominated by the euphoria that greeted Churchill, who addressed crowds from a balcony overlooking St.James’s Park (his bodyguard observing that the PM enjoyed himself ‘like a schoolboy at an outing’). As day turned to night, the city was brilliantly illuminated after five years of darkness. Amidst the crush, you might have glimpsed a young Guards officer, Humphrey Lyttleton, drunk on champagne, playing his trumpet whilst riding in a handcart at the head of an impromptu jazz band proceeding up and down the Mall. Somewhere in the crowd, the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret mingled with the throng (an incident that was the subject of a fairly recent film), bonfires were lit, flags were waved, and so on and so forth. But fugitive spectres were glimpsed in the shadows. On VE night Harold Nicolson attended a party given by a rich Conservative MP. ʻThere in his room, copied from the Amalienburg, under the lights of many candles, were gathered the Nurembergers and the Munichois celebrating our victory over their friend Herr von Ribbentrop.ʼ (A couple of days ago, some wag on Twitter echoed this sentiment, expressing surprise that the Daily Mail was celebrating the 75th anniversary given that their side lost.)
The collective memory of post-war Britain is an accretion of semi-mythical totems, with convenient elisions along the way. If victory over Hitler is rightly remembered, the crippling post-war war debt to America is conveniently forgotten, along with the Suez debacle and the near-bankruptcy of the 1960s and 70s. Misremembering the past is a national pastime; and our post-imperial comfort blanket of war-time victory regrettably feeds a sentimental myth of national exceptionalism, one that leads to the heart of our sick and Brexity present. On 20th March, as the scale of the Covid-19 crisis dawned on even the Prime Minister, Boris Johnsonʼs announced the closure of bars thus: ʻWeʼre taking way the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go the pubʼ, an absurd bit of flag-waving made at the very worst possible time. (Mr. Johnson is fond of posing with a pint in his hand, but it is hardly a secret that he prefers Bollinger to bitter.) If, in the words of another social media wit, Boris Johnson is essaying a Winston Churchill tribute act, this studied persona is showing the strain. The Prime Ministerʼs television address to the nation on Sunday was hardly stirring rhetoric, and its lack of eloquence has been very eloquently parodied. As certainly as his relentless careerism led to the chaos of Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare his inability to lead in a national emergency (one not of his own making, that is). Applause for the NHS is no substitute for the government cash it has been very conspicuously denied. And, as Nicola Sturgeon coolly repudiates Johnsonʼs softening of quarantine measures, the very viability of the Union that he purports to lead is even more in doubt. All this as a hard Brexit looms into view, with EU negotiators complaining of Britain’s apathy whilst British diplomats in the USA fervently lobby for a trade deal. So, despite the bombast and the rhetoric and the champagne (although Churchill preferred Pol Roger to Bollinger), it strikes me that future historians will not compare Boris Johnson to Winston Churchill – nor to Herbert Asquith, nor even to Neville Chamberlain. Personally, Iʼd say that the ʻwartime leaderʼ that ʻBojoʼ most resembles is Norwayʼs Vidkun Quisling. Cheers.