In our little town of Hatherleigh in Devon, we recently lost Dennis Bater to Covid-19. He kept the fish and chip shop for years; a good citizen, fireman, postman — and mayor — who loved his town. My cousin and her husband in Sheffield were poorly for many weeks; my best friend at university too. Weeks of anxiety, but all are recovering. And one of our most beloved children’s writers, Michael Rosen, has also been in hospital, and very ill, and is now getting better at home, thank goodness.
We can really understand something of epic tragedy only when it becomes personal. And in the week in which we should have been in the streets commemorating the 75th anniversary of VE Day, I’m reminded, too, of the suffering of soldiers in wars far from home, dying far from all those they love and who love them.
My uncle Pieter, an actor, was killed aged 21 in RAF Bomber Command. I never knew him. He never saw VE Day, was never a grandfather, a father, like me. My wife Clare’s uncle John, a young publisher — a commander in the Royal Navy — died when his aircraft carrier was torpedoed in the Mediterranean. He saw Clare only once, when she was a baby. How many who were alive to witness victory in Europe have died recently in our hospitals and care homes in just the same way?
The end of the Second World War, the defeat of fascism, was both a great turning point in history and a massive human tragedy that traumatised millions, that marked a time of huge change in our society and in the wider world.
The pandemic we are now living through is, in its own way, likely to be just as tragic, just as life-changing. And we need to be prepared for that if we are to make the best of the new world we will be living in. We can and must learn much from history, and perhaps look forward, with that hindsight, to the supreme efforts our predecessors made to create a better world.
We are already asking the question: were we ready for this viral pandemic? As with the Second World War, we preferred to hope the worst would not happen. Governments then and now were forced to play catch-up, do their best, cobble things together in a hurry. Not enough guns, not enough ships, not enough planes; not enough masks, not enough ventilators. Not enough airmen, soldiers and sailors; not enough doctors, nurses and carers. Dunkirk was no victory; it was a brave and cobbled-together act of defiance and self-preservation. There would have been no VE Day without it.
As with the Second World War, when it came to this pandemic we preferred to hope the worst would not happen.
Now, as then, we want our politicians to speak to us straight, tell it how it is and how it is likely to be. We don’t want flannel. If it is to be “blood, sweat and tears”, then say so. If they don’t know answers, then say so. We can screw our courage to the sticking place if we know what we might have to face up to and deal with.
It is interesting, too, that when they were going through the worst of times in the war, when victory seemed well nigh impossible, they plodded on. Day by day, they got on with life, found common cause, became a community based on resistance and defiance, on mutual need. They just had to do the job, to get through. They did not know there would ever be a VE Day. They hoped for it, dreamt of it, worked and suffered for it.
Before this crisis we rarely thought of doctors and nurses and health workers and social carers as heroes. We don’t blow bugles for them — now we clap and sing for them instead. They are doing the same lifesaving work as the soldier going forward at El Alamein under fire; as a sailor in a destroyer guarding a convoy in the Atlantic; as a navigator in Bomber Command going out on another sortie across the Channel.
What they did do, that generation, was to understand that things were never going to be the same after the war. They weren’t going to let it be. Why else did they begin to create free education for all in the 1944 Education Act? Why else did they set up the NHS in 1948?
How many who were alive to witness victory in Europe have died recently in our hospitals and care homes in just the same way?
There will soon come a time when the pandemic has died down, or is under control, when there will be better treatment and a vaccine. What then? As after the Second World War, we will have an economy on the rocks and we will be reeling from the trauma of this hideous episode, many of us grieving.
But we will have learnt what our predecessors learnt: that community is every bit as important as the individual — indeed, that the individual is lesser without it; that we all need one another; that those who look after us are precious, never to be taken for granted again; that everyone really does and must matter.
I hear already that some can’t wait for everything to get back to normal. No, normal won’t do. Surely out of this must come a moment of hope for humanity, that we can gather ourselves to create a world community and learn now to live together more equitably, in peace, in harmony with one another and our planet.
They rose out of the ashes of war on VE Day, built the world anew. Our ancestors did not get everything right after that war. But they tried, and so must we.