Nothing so risqué, so, so … scandalous, had ever happened in the family to my knowledge and I kept pressing various aunts and uncles for more information. Did my mother willingly get into the wheelbarrow? Why? Where did it come from? Who pushed it? Did anyone see?
The ending of the war in Europe meant little to a six-year-old; but his mother coming home from the pub in a wheelbarrow made a deep impression. I suppose in the end I realized that my Mum had been ‘tipsy’ (the rather charming euphemism then in use for being completely plastered) and that probably everyone else had been tipsy, too. I knew my Dad went out for pint in the local on a Saturday night and my Mum liked a Guinness – she believed the advertising that it was good for her – but I had never seen or heard of either of them having too much to drink, even at Christmas or family parties. It never crossed my mind that my quiet and very conventional parents, who cared a great deal about keeping up appearances, would ever risk getting drunk. So it was the thought of them merrily weaving home from the pub, with my Dad pushing my Mum in a wheelbarrow, that brought home to me the realization that something truly significant had happened.
If further confirmation was needed that historic events were taking place it came shortly afterwards when I arrived home from school to find a glass bowl in the middle of the dining table containing three curious curved yellow tubes. My older sister, who knew about such things, announced that they were bananas. That evening my mother peeled one of the exotic tubes and my sister and I shared the literal fruits of victory. I declared it to be delicious, although actually I was a bit disappointed.
Two days after VE Day, there was a party on our street. We lived in a working-class neighbourhood on the east side of London, but my Dad was a white-collar clerk and we aspired to middle-class values. Consequently I was the only boy present wearing a tie. I know this because I have still got the black and white group picture of our scruffy little group. There I am, sitting cross-legged in the front row, still apparently unable to grasp the victory concept. All the other kids are giving the victory sign in the approved Churchillian fashion; I, alone, have got it the wrong way round and appear to be making a very rude gesture at the photographer.
Years later, whenever the family got together, my mother, whose name was Queenie, would be teased about VE night: ‘I don’t suppose you remember much about that night, do you, Queen? You know, that night they brought you home in a wheelbarrow.’ My mother would blush and pretend to be cross, but I always had the feeling she was secretly rather proud that she had celebrated the end of the war in Europe with such ostentatious and uncharacteristic abandon.
Interviewing people for this book reminded me very forcibly of how different times were then, how curiously innocent life was. Everyone knew, beyond any shadow of doubt, that we were involved in a just war. The issues were clear: we were fighting on the side of good against the forces of evil, therefore we must, in the end, win. Whatever the price that had to be paid, whatever sacrifices it required, it was worth it. No war has ever been fought so unequivocally.
If anyone did harbour any doubts about the Allied cause, or the necessity for war, they were surely swept away when, in April 1945, the first reports began filtering back to Britain of the discovery of the concentration camps. Most people knew about the existence of the camps, and something of the Nazi persecution of the Jews, but until the advancing Allies had overrun places like Belsen and Dachau and Nordhausen, no one appreciated the sheer scale of the horror. Here, alone, was justification for the war.
A few days later came news of the death of Hitler. By then everyone guessed the end was near and that it was only a question of time before the war in Europe would conclude in victory for the Allies. There was still the war against Japan to be won, but peace in Europe was the first priority. The days of waiting were tense but, like the times, strangely disciplined. Even though we knew the Germans had surrendered on Lüneburg Heath, we waited patiently for the official declaration of VE Day and for permission to celebrate.
When it came there was an outpouring of rejoicing and relief and patriotism, the like of which the world will never see again. In these depressing days of social decay and drugs and violence, when large public gatherings frequently end in pitched battles with the police, it is hard to imagine that thousands and thousands of people jammed the streets of London well into the night on 8 May 1945 and those who were there, in that swirling mass of humanity, remember it as an unforgettable experience, one of the happiest days of their lives.
The most common crime of the night was to knock a policeman’s helmet off; the most frequent act of vandalism was to climb a lamp post. Total strangers linked arms in the comradeship of their happiness, kissing and hugging was the order of the night, there was dancing on the streets whenever and wherever space could be found, when the crowd was not singing it was cheering, when it was not cheering it was laughing. The pubs ran dry, but who cared? This was a celebration driven by communal joy; no other stimulants were needed.
There were similar scenes in other cities around the world, in Paris, New York, Melbourne, Copenhagen ... In rural areas, village communities lit huge bonfires and danced around the flames ... And everywhere people drew back their curtains and let their lights blaze out into the night to mark the end of the blackout.
No, there will never be another day like it.
By Russell Miller