The VE Day Party at the Holmesdale School Reigate. The author’s Mother, Uncle and their friends, Betty and Basil are in the photograph. In conversation with the author, Betty shared her insights on what it felt like then and compares it to what it feels like now during the Corona pandemic.

VE day 1945 : Commemoration in the time of Coronavirus

On the 75th Anniversary of VE Day which will be commemorated on Friday 8th May, we will not be able to be together. Instead, we are in the midst of a global pandemic that forces us to observe physical distancing or lockdowns.

It will be a long time before we can imagine having a street party.

My Mother, Zoe was 12 when the war ended in 1945. It is hard to imagine the reality of living through those times. But it is also hard to imagine that we are living through our current dystopian reality. My mother and her brother, John lived in Warren Road Reigate. They spent the early part of the war with their Grandparents in Dorset, rather than being evacuated, before returning to spend most of the war at home. Their father joined the Fleet Air Arm and was stationed on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Fleet. Their uncles served in the Arctic convoys, in the D Day Landings and one drove a truck through Europe and saw the camps at Belsen. It would be some time before the war was over for them and they could return home.

In my lifetime, despite the Cold War fears of imminent nuclear annihilation, we have not been subjected to a major global event that has threatened our safety. I grew up in Apartheid South Africa, and although we were fighting a Border War, it was deliberately pushed to the edges of our consciousness.

Those who lived through the Second World War undoubtedly remember where they were when they heard Neville Chamberlain’s announcement of the declaration of war against Germany. I wonder if we will remember sitting on our couches, listening to our President announcing that a National State of Disaster had been declared and that the country would be entering a 21 day lockdown period.

The responses to COVID-19 19 have been couched in the language of war. Boris Johnson has channelled Winston Churchill and declared himself the head of a ‘wartime government’ whilst in South Africa, President Rampahosa, dressed in army fatigues, sent out the troops saying,

“We are not the only country waging war against an invisible enemy – coronavirus … Tonight you begin the most important calling of your mission, to save the lives of South Africans,”

Wanting to write something to pay tribute to VE Day and the memories contained in the photo above, I decided to call my Mother’s best friend, Betty, who is now 87, and ask her about her memories of that time and her opinion on what we are experiencing now in comparison to the war days.

People retain such different memories of the same events. Betty says she has no memory of the street party that was held in the yard of the Holmesdale School. Her abiding memory of the war is walking past the end of Warren Road after a bomb had fallen, destroying four houses and seeing a brass bedstead with a corset hanging over it. My uncle, John who passed away at the age of 84 last year, spoke of being strafed by a German Fokker Wulf that flew in over the sea when they were walking along the beachfront in Dorset.

In Betty’s opinion, the war was ‘totally much easier’. She feels the Corona ‘war’ is far worse than her experience of the war. It seems that despite the deprivations of the war, the rationing and the threat of bombs, an unseen enemy is a far more difficult thing to deal with. The current social restrictions; the deprivation of personal freedom and the ability to socialise play a heavy toll on us as social beings. In the future when we reflect on these times, with the distance of time, it will be interesting to speculate on this.

So, back to the street party held in the yard of Holmesdale school. Zoe and John, Betty, Beryl and Basil are all in the photograph. They celebrated the end of the War in Europe. Flags and bunting were brought out. Rations were supplemented with extra sugar to bake cakes. A time and a reality which we have had no real connection to made a little more poignant in our current zeitgeist. My daughter is 14, I wonder what her memories of living through COVID-19 will be.