25 years ago yesterday, as they say, I was in Portsmouth. It was edging towards the end of my first year at university and that day marked 50 years since the long overdue demise of the Third Reich, a Reich notable for (amongst other things) thoroughly failing to last for a thousand years. That it lasted for more than a thousand seconds was a great shame but that time at least it really was the war to end all wars. Well, not all wars, just the really big global ones. Humankind should be so proud that it has been able to limit wars to just the many hundred smaller ones that have raged since 1945 and consumed the lives and happiness of countless millions. Lord above we’re a loving bunch.
And that day in Portsmouth, a city with a naval heritage of some hump, was to be celebrated and I had dispatched myself to get refreshments for a party. A student party, because I was a student and, therefore, automatically a twat. I had a room in the rather grandly named Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother Tower, known to pretty much everyone who favoured brevity as QEQM. No doubt when it was built this moniker must have occurred to someone a tribute of sorts but if you lived there or had to see it on a daily basis its very existence was nothing short of a treacherous insult to everything the monarchy represents. Twelve grey floors of shitty concrete built so badly that the top two floors were permanently empty because they swayed whenever the breeze off the channel got even a touch feisty. The other limitation to the QEQM complex was that it was geographically pretty much as far away as it is to be from Portsmouth city centre and rather more crucially the university. Even the nearest supermarket was a good mile or so away and when you’re walking that solo, in flip flops, on a searingly hot day and then back again with a crate of 24 big cans of lager and various other sundries one could easily question whether you might have thought things through a bit better. The party happened and I can’t remember much about it but it was definitely the 50th anniversary of VE Day and that, I think, is the important thing.
Yesterday, yesterday, as they say, was just another day but with the added exception of it being the 75th anniversary of VE day, and that meant lots of idiots could gather in their streets without really following the two metre rule and get away with it because in a fight surely World War II beats crappy old Covid 19. We had made no such plans to collegiate so recklessly because if you’re told to keep your distance in this unprecedented time of crisis you shouldn’t really drop all the rules just as you wouldn’t if it was Joan Collins’ birthday. We celebrated instead by going on an early morning walk and then I went up to the loft and did some work. No really, I did. On a bank holiday. With glorious weather outside and people raising a glass to VE and the British bulldog spirit and all that. I didn’t want to work but that is just the nature of the times. Shit happens so get on with it. By half three I gave up and went to the garden because that seemed like the best thing to do.
We opened some cheap bubbly as a tribute to our country’s part in all the carnage and the horror and most of all the sheer bloody relief that we had managed to miss out on it all and that people from history had stepped in to save the day. Our day. Any day. We ate fat steaks the size of generous side plates (British steak I hasten to add) and lashed it back with a smooth Portuguese red (ah Portugal, where would we have been without their fearless assistance?). The odd balloon and flag aside it really could have been any other day, until we turned on the TV for the BBC’s big tribute programme. I slumped, wincing as Katherine Jenkins forced her way through the bellies of various songs before ripping them apart from the inside, and my stomach curdled at the sight of Beverly Knight’s somehow inappropriate hairdo, but whenever they did the stuff with the old people and chucked in a “never surrender” quote from the real Churchill I began to choke and my eyes filled up and it all hit home, as it should do every once in a while, what a great big unavoidable things all this was.
I would argue that there have been a few other moments in history on a par with how low WWII got but its insistence is just how recent it all still feels. It feels modern. It feels touchable. It feels live. And all those soppy interviews suddenly didn’t seem so corny and every old bugger and his missus being propped up in a care home telling their stories couldn’t help but merit a huge virtual hug of gratitude. Even William and Kate came out of it looking good and then of course The Queen did her little bit about the streets being filled with love and that was nice too, though I wondered out loud if she’d overdosed on Botox because it wouldn’t have hurt for her to crack a little smile once in a while. Freedom from all that is worth celebrating and I’m sorry I didn’t do more but I did get there in the end. In 25 years from now pretty much all those veterans will be dead and maybe I will too. I hope at least that we don’t get caught up in a WWIII, because that would be very, very foolish and would rely on people being stupid. Oh dear.
G B Hewitt. 09.05.2020