The lights were about to go on. The nights had been blind in London for six years, but for searchlights and flames. Londoners were used to stumbling about in the blackout, listening for enemy planes, anti-aircraft guns, falling bombs. But that was all over now.
Piccadilly Circus was packed with people celebrating: so many bodies, swaying and cheering, swigging from bottles and kissing strangers, climbing the boards where Eros had been, or just standing in the gloom wondering what it all really meant: Victory in Europe Day, 8 May 1945. There were soldiers, sailors and airmen, Yanks and Poles and Commonwealth troops, Waafs and Wrens and Land Girls, and men and women out of uniform, drawn to the centre of the city. There were haunted faces in the crowd, people who wished they were dead like their friends, and boys who did not want to go home, but they did their best not to show it. The West End was full and the lights were about to go on… now.
Globes and bulbs flickered and flashed around the Circus, bus headlights splashed gold, and searchlights threw V-for-victory signs in the sky. Arrows and eyes and signs glowed from shops, theatres and bars; and the end of a huge electric Craven A burned red again on its billboard for the first time since the last day of peace. Gasps and some tears greeted this explosion of light and colour, this victory salute that yelled Guinness is Good For You! Keep Looks, Figure and Sparkle! Diamonds!
Away from the centre of the city, over the river, south past the taverns and warehouses, down through the back streets and bombsites that ran along by the docks, among the war-weary tenements where the most bombs had fallen, there were bonfires burning.
People in Camberwell had neither money nor electricity to burn, but they had wood from doors and broken window frames and shattered furniture gathered up in a pyramid, as the focus of their street party. The grocer had dug out some old bunting, somebody had found sparklers, and rockets that fizzed harmlessly. It was all a bright wonder to a boy of four, who should have been in bed hours ago but who stood in the street, barely noticed, watching the beery faces, waiting to ask his mum the only question he cared about that day: “Will Daddy be home soon?”
The answer was no. The boy was my father, Arthur. The woman was my grandmother, Violet. And the man who was being asked after was my grandfather, Bert. They are not famous people, you will not have heard of them before, but they lived through extraordinary times, like so many others. It is easy to forget that when we only think of war as a distant exercise in a desert. Today, when we look at the VE celebrations 75 years on and try to work out what it all means to us now, is a good time to remember them.
Bert and Vi got married in Camberwell Town Hall in 1939. There was no music in the register office, and no drinking afterwards because they had both taken the pledge. Vi was 23, Bert 21. He kissed his new bride, swung his kitbag on to his back and walked off to catch the bus to war, that same afternoon.
God only knows how either or them survived, mentally or physically. There were many that did not. On Camberwell Green, where my father played, a bomb made a direct hit on a public shelter. Inside were nine members of the same family, the Wrights, who had been celebrating the eldest boy’s wedding in the pub across the road when the air-raid sirens went off. They were all killed, instantly.
There were stories like that all over London, Belfast, Glasgow, Coventry and other cities where the bombs fell. There were many whose husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters had been killed at home or abroad. On VE Day in 1945 there were British people all over the world, longing to be home: from the Sea of Galilee, where a young Tony Benn was stationed, to the guardhouse in Germany where my grandfather, Bert, was on duty when he heard the news, on the radio. The relief he felt did not last too long. The army was sending some of his colleagues to fight the Japanese, and he was terrified of that idea.
After six years as a soldier, being left behind at Dunkirk and fighting hand-to-hand in the dark forests of Germany, he was not about to volunteer. His head was still reeling from the street-to-street combat. He had seen houses torched with women and children in them, and been ordered to spray buildings with gunfire before looking for survivors. He didn’t want to go east, that was for sure, but neither did he particularly want to go home. He barely knew his wife, but he knew she lived in a place that was swarming with spivs, where every other house was a wreck, the rats ran free, and work was hard to find. He was the ninth of 13, and had been a rag dealer before the war. He knew the army had given him a uniform, food, an education and a sense of order. He didn’t know how he would cope with nobody to tell him what to do.
There were very many men and women like him. They struggled to cope with peace time, but could never tell their families why. Some had been traumatised by their experiences, and woke up screaming German in the night, or refused to allow anyone to touch their belongings. Others felt the guilt of the survivor, like Enoch Powell, who once broke down and wept on live radio as he talked about his former colleagues. He wished it had been him who had died instead of them. Then there were those like Bert who felt a secret guilt that they had actually preferred life in the Army.
The divorce rate rose by nearly 400 per cent in the 10 years after 1939. Some lives had changed too much to be picked up as before. When couples did stay together, some did so in silence. The priest Peter Owen Jones wrote about meeting veterans in their old age: “To have done things that on a normal day you would have been hanged for, to sit on sofas in painted rooms holding teacups having bayoneted other young men to death must have created an awful inner loneliness. Their wives, their children, all say the same thing: he never talked about it.”
Children who had slept in the same bed as their mothers, providing mutual comfort under bombardment, were exiled into cold boxrooms once Daddy came home: and he was often a huge, frightening man they had no memory of. One woman was 47 before she could tell her elderly parents that she felt in the way when she was with them, lonely and desolate when she left them. “The repercussions of the war can last for 40 or 50 years,” she said.
They did for my family. Bert was in Germany longer than expected, and when he did return to England he looked at the conditions in which his wife was living, in some mental distress, and decided he could not handle them. So he went to live with her sister, and cycled past his family on the way to work every day. It was two years before his faith took him back to the family home. By then it was too late: the sense of abandonment felt by my father would last decades. Then I came along, asking awkward questions with the urgency of someone who wanted to know his family history in order to keep his sanity. When Bert and Arthur read my book about them they understood each other’s stories for the first time, and the silence was broken. Grandchildren love enough to ask questions but don’t know enough to prejudge the answers. To me, Bert was an ordinary private marched from dangerous place to dangerous place over six years then told, “Thanks, son. Here’s 56 days’ pay and a bad suit, now hop it.”
The first soldiers, sailors and RAF personnel began to be released from service on 18 June 1945. Four million people had worn uniform during the war, and when victory was declared the Minister for Labour and National Service, Ernest Bevin, said he hoped to have 750,000 of them back in their old clothes by the end of the year. There would be no mass unemployment, he promised, driven by the memory of an encounter with soldiers at Portsmouth Harbour during the final push for victory. “Ernie!” one of them had shouted. “When we have done this job for you, are we going back on the dole?”
It was a fair question. More than three million men had been demobbed during the first five months after armistice in 1918, and it was chaos. Two million were still unemployed by 1922. The sons of those men, like Bert, had been born into poverty. They learned about politics during discussions over army mess tins. They voted for the radical government of 1945, inspired by the likes of J B Priestley who urged returnees to throw off the old shackles of class and expectation and fight for a better world. Talk about pressure.
A guide to civilian life warned that rations would be short. Lunch, it said, only half-joking, would be “bone soup, fried bread rissoles coated with breadcrumbs, and bread-and-butter pudding.” The advice was, “Always praise to the skies anything your wife gives you”, but when she was not looking, throw the pudding out the window. “If, on the third day, she serves the same thing up again, deal with her in the same way as the pudding.”
Bert did go home. He and Vi had five children in all: my father and my aunt and uncles. They stayed together as a couple all their lives, despite poverty, illness and depression that caused Vi and those around her many problems. They made a home full of love, where everyone was welcome. There was a lot of laughter. Fifteen years ago I interviewed my father and grandfather for a book that became My Father Was A Hero. I tell him it’s an ironic title, but I’m joking. It’s about the way we fill the silences in our family histories. Writing it, I realised Vi’s ability to survive was heroic. I wrote this:
“She was a good woman,” said my grandfather as we talked in the room where she died. Vi was a kind and witty person, who loved her husband and kept her vows. They were quite a pair: the rag and bone boy who could barely read or write when they met and the shop manager’s daughter who had secret troubles of her own. Nobody thought they should get married but them. Nobody thought it would last but it did, for the rest of her life. She coped with the blackout, the bombs, the rockets, fires, food shortages, con men and looters and death after death after death among the people she knew, young and old. She brought up the oldest boys on her own during wartime, accepted her husband back on his terms, comforted him after his nightmares, raised two more boys and a girl, endured severe depression that had dogged her life yet finished it with an enormous circle of friends and the devotion of a family who knew her faults but thought her worthy of love. Her ability to survive was heroic. Bert said she had enabled him to do the same.
Vi became ill in her Sixties and we watched her shrink away. Her quick tongue never slowed, though. She would answer the phone by saying: “I’m still here!”
She slept downstairs in her last week. I have often thought of their last night together: of Vi exhausted in her makeshift bed, guessing what was to come, and Bert holding his wife, weak as she was and almost not there, perhaps stroking her hair. A word or two, then the eloquent silence of two bodies breathing, one strong and regular, the other fading, and the tired eyes closing to sleep. After the rushed wedding and the fearful uncertainty of war and its aftermath, she had spent every day of her last thirty years with her soldier, leaning on him and being leaned on. She could see he was exhausted too that evening, so sent him upstairs to lie down on a proper bed. When he came back down, she was cold.
“Shall I tell you what her last words were to me were? She said: ‘I’m sorry.’ I said: ‘It’s me that should be sorry, not you. You’ve got nothing to be sorry for.'”
They had loved each other against the odds, those two, and were together until the end. Hard as it was to be, if anyone had offered them that future on VE Day, 1945, as Vi danced in London and Bert stood on duty in Germany, I think they would have taken it.
This is an adapted version of a piece first published in The Independent on Sunday to mark the 60th anniversary of VE Day in 2005, when ‘My Father Was a Hero’ was published by Penguin. When the book came out, me and Dad took Grandad back to his old haunts. Here he is at Brockwell Park Lido, where he spent so many days. He’s gone now too. They are both much missed.