I did not celebrate VE day

Last week was the 75th Anniversary of the end of the second world war in Europe, although not of course in South-East Asia. France has always marked May 8th as a public holiday, but not the UK. This year, however, that changed. Much was made of the fact that we had overcome great odds to win the war and would, presumably, overcome similar odds to defeat Coronavirus.

Fighting a virus is not the equivalent of fighting enemy armed forces so I didn’t think you could compare the two things. Besides which, at that point, we had been in lock down for 7 weeks. The war went on for 6 years. I could see the government wanted to whip up a sense of national fervour, but it’s hard to feel triumphal when so many people are dying – and so many of them seem to have died unnecessarily. Since the lock down, I have lost two family members – one to Covid; one, probably, to old age – but he was in a Care Home and many thousands of people – of that very generation we were meant to be applauding – have died in Care Homes during the pandemic. There’s a strong likelihood that this was linked to a lack of appropriate protective equipment and protocols for care staff to follow. Some elderly people with Covid were even sent back from hospitals to their Care Homes.

From the very beginning of the pandemic, I felt relieved I didn’t have to worry about mum. Shortly before she died her Care Home had a bout of Norovirus – inadvertently brought in by a visitor or care worker. It was obvious to me, as they are places where lots of older, vulnerable people live, and where workers come in from the community, that these homes were going to be potential danger zones. And this is not to mention the people who are being cared for in their own home by carers who go from house to house on short visits. The ones who used to come in to visit mum always wore plastic aprons and gloves (although not masks). And when the pandemic started many carers and medical workers were unable to source any further protective equipment than that basic kit.

Add to this the fact that, when they could source this equipment, the Homes found that its cost had sky-rocketed. It seems that those who had some, wanted to profit by its scarcity. The crisis was exacerbated by the fact that most Care Homes and Care Agencies are privately run: some it’s true are owned by big companies, but many, like the one where mum lived, are just small family-run businesses with narrow profit margins.

Apparently, the government was surprised by the number of deaths in Care Homes. They claimed they hadn’t realised this would happen. Do they think we were all born yesterday? It was as clear as daylight it would happen. But, in spite of the tragic number of deaths of older people in our Care Homes, our government started applauding the ‘heroes’ who’d fought in WW2. But they had done nothing to make the heroes they claim to think so highly of, safe. Quite the opposite. What hypocrisy.

That afternoon, I went out for a walk and I noted, in spite of the ban on social gatherings, discreet street parties were taking place in many cul-de-sacs and side roads. Everyone socially distanced of course! And plenty of flags (I admit a bias here: Perhaps I’m being unfair but I’m suspicious of anyone who happens to have Union Jack bunting in the cupboard). Anyway, when I got home my neighbours were all out in the front, having an impromptu get-together. No bunting though, I was relieved to note. They called me over. But I said, thanks but no thanks. I’m not in the mood to party. Apart from recently losing 2 members of my family, this remembrance of the war was bringing back a lot of stuff to do with mum – and with dad – and I was feeling too sad to make small talk.

But I also knew, looking at all their happy faces, that my neighbours just wanted to have a pleasant afternoon and a chat. And because I was feeling so on edge, I also knew it wouldn’t take much for me to express my anger at how people have been treated in the Care Homes and the hypocrisy of the government to grandstand on the memory of the war while apparently culling people who lived through it.

I appreciate what that generation did for us. I was born not long after the war; I remember the bombsites and the shortages. I was brought up on my family’s memories of the blitz and rationing. Not so much the men, who didn’t tend to speak of what they’d been through, tho in retrospect I can see that most of the men must have been suffering from PTSD – and yet they were expected to just get on with everyday life.

That evening, I watched a TV programme of film clips taken on May 8th 1944. There were celebrations, sure, but it seemed to me the exuberance came as much from relief that such a long dreadful time was over as from fun and frolics. And I’m sure that, for many, their joy would have been bittersweet.

So, I did remember them. But I chose not insult their memory with a distasteful and hypocritical show of triumphalism.

20200522_11574920200522_114814War time glamour! Mum with 2 of my aunts.20200521_160152Mum with my grandmother. She’s wearing the jacket she wore on the first date with dad.

We begin to empty the loft

It’s tricky getting up in the loft. First you have to pull down a very heavy folding ladder using a long metal pole with a hooked end. A few years ago, I could release the ladder and just about let it down without it crashing on top of my head. But I’ve never had sufficient strength to push the ladder back until it folds up and clicks into place above the trapdoor in the ceiling. It can’t be left down permanently as it would block the way into the bathroom.

The ladder is very unstable; it rocks and buckles as you climb. Then at the top, you have to haul yourself over the edge and into the loft space. My father loved going up there – until he nearly fell off the ladder – after that he was forbidden to do so. That upset him as much as having his driving licence taken away! But he squirreled away all kinds of things up there. Over the last few years when we can’t find something we know must be in the house, we’ve said: dad must’ve put it in the loft.

Both Brother and I were particularly keen to find a box of old photos: black and white snaps of the sort taken by a Brownie box camera which we remember from our childhood. They were always in a particular box but no one had seen that box in years. We said: ‘Dad must’ve put it in the loft.’ Brother did go up and have a scout around, but without success and we’d begun to say, a little fearfully: ‘perhaps dad threw them all out.’

It will be impossible to put the house on the market before the loft is emptied. And for the last few years Brother has kept saying he’ll come and empty it. Even if the ladder were down, I couldn’t get up there anymore because of my bad shoulder etc. so this is one job my brother actually has to do but, as we know, he likes to take his time. He said he would come last year, but never did come. To be fair, the last thing I wanted at that point was any extra stuff to add to all the rest of the junk I already had in front of me to sort out. Anyway, I didn’t need to worry because although he said he would do it, he didn’t do it. And then, this year in early March, he made a start.

He worked very hard. It’s dangerous carrying stuff down that damn wonky ladder. He brought a lot down and took loads of it to the tip and to charity shops – but he also left quite a lot in piles on the floor to be sorted out – and to get in my way. He was, of course, intending to return a few weeks later – but then came The Lock Down. So here I am with all of it to step over – and to sort out.

However! The great thing is – he found the photos. In a different box, in a suitcase, in all kinds of receptacles. While he was here, we spent a couple of happy evenings going through them. Exclaiming over old favourites! Puzzling over who everyone was! But we didn’t really sort them out. Now Brother can’t come back and I am here, ‘living la vida lock down’ by myself, so I’ve made a start sifting through them all.

I’ve worked out who many of the people are: some are even quite closely related to me; some I didn’t initially recognise because they’re so young – but there are others I really don’t know. Some of the snaps belonged to my mother’s three sisters – my dearly beloved aunts – but I don’t know where they were taken or who they are posing with. Is one of them the Swiss boyfriend of my aunt who never married? I know of him because they were separated by the war and although they met afterwards things ‘just weren’t the same’. Then there’s all dad’s war photos. He’s posing with his fellow guardsmen. Is one of them his best friend whose tank was hit by a shell and dad had to stand by and watch helplessly while the crew were all burnt alive? I’ll never know.

There’s lots of mum with her girlfriends. Is one of them her good mate Primmy? Or the pal whose family were on the stage? Or the one whose brother was gay? It’s such a shame these photos were hidden away. Mum would probably have recognised most of the people but it’s too late to ask her now. I emailed a few of the photos to a relation in Canada because I thought some of them were of her – and indeed of her wedding day and I hoped she’d be able to identify some of the other people there. But she’s in her 80s and, although she sends emails and seems quite computer savvy, she didn’t seem to understand what I was asking. And there’s no one else to ask.

It’s sad to have to consign all these human lives and memories to the rubbish, but what can I do? It’s hard enough to decide what photos to keep of the people I do recognise. How many baby photos of myself do I need, after all? And yet, they’re all so sweet! In fact, I seem to be building, brick by brick, photo by photo, a picture of a happy childhood which – to be honest – I didn’t remember at all.