I write this on the seventy-fifth anniversary of VE Day, when we came together to commemorate victory in Europe. Across the Island people repurposed their Isle of Wight Day bunting to mark the declaration of peace triggered by the unconditional surrender of the Nazis – when everything returned to normal.
After years of being compelled through messages of the propaganda machine to do their bit for the war effort – a war I suspect many were not pleased to be thrust into – the people were once again free to do as they pleased. Freed from the shackles of military service, liberated from fields and factories, able to return to loved ones and pick up their lives exactly where they left off.
But, of course, it was nothing like that. Yes Hitler, the bogeyman of the Second World War, had died in his bunker – killed by his own cowardly hand – and, several days later, politically the whole hideous shebang was over. But, as anyone who lived through those times will bear witness, a magical switch wasn’t flicked resetting people’s daily lives to how they were before September 1939.
No. Men were still in their battalions overseas – many in far-flung places, not just Europe. With their menfolk otherwise occupied, in those few years women had discovered purpose and independence. As well as equipping the machine of war in the munitions factories and on the land, they also scratched that burning sexual itch, forming urgent relationships with their neighbours, colleagues or Allied soldiers.
Meanwhile, across mainland Europe were millions of displaced persons; refugees, folks bombed out of their homes, conscripts and those liberated from the death camps. Even after the infamous gates of Auschwitz had been creaked open by Allied forces, inmates were not able to leave. The majority, of course, were dead. But even the few survivors were mostly too depleted by starvation, beatings and disease to start their long journeys back to what remained of their hometowns.
Photos of VE Day show neighbourhood knees-ups and the collective consumption of bully-beef butties; the smiles returned to those grey faces. But it wasn’t over. Far from it. Rationing continued, homes – communities – needed to be rebuilt, and lost loved ones mourned.
And so to the virus. I’m not, like some, going to resort to patriotic jingoism or wartime metaphors when it comes to talking about how this nation is going to manage and emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. This international health crisis is not the same as the Second World War. Yes, there have been many deaths. And true, we are all pulling together with a common, sloganised, aim. And, like the end of WW2, the ‘new normal’ won’t happen overnight.
But we won’t be released from lockdown to street parties and social closeness. To have any chance of success, we’ll need to be thoughtful and measured; taking incremental steps and re-evaluating what previously we thought important. It will be a long journey and, even then, as normal is redefined, we might not find our old selves.