Celebrations of VE day let ‘Blitz spirit’ obscure the story’s moral

Sunday National, 10th May 2020.

I never really knew my grandpa Jimmy. My father’s father – Thomas James Tickell – died when I was very young. I have only one concrete memory of him, and given the treachery and inventiveness of the human mind, even this could well be a phantom I’ve conjured from nothing.

But in this memory, snow has fallen. I want to say I am in Oban, but could well be mistaken. If it happened at all, it happened in the late 1980s. I am outside with my granny, bunching mittenfulls of white dust into something resembling a snowman. Sticks, carrot, coals. And there is grandpa Jimmy, presiding over proceedings from an upstairs window – pipe in hand – shouting down encouragement and suggestions. And that’s all there is. It isn’t a particularly tender moment. Nothing really happened. Just a twinkling second which seems to have left tracks on the snow of my imagination. Very faint tracks.

Apart from the stories my parents sometimes tell about him – about his penchant for weird and wonderful food, his fondness for a ploy – that’s all I can see of my grandfather in my mind’s eye. But with Britain’s jingoistic VE Day “celebrations”, I’ve found myself thinking about grandpa Jimmy again this week.

There are photographs, of course. Here he’s a dapper young man togged out in black tie, a neat swish of hair, ears the BFG would be proud of, a twinkle in either eye. In another picture, taken years later, we see an older, milder man in his wellies and waders, pulling a rainbow trout from the loch in Lochaline. There he is in his army regimentals – and here we see him as a wee boy.

It is a picture of huge pathos when you know the stories of the five faces looking out from it. I think it must have been a fond parent’s snap – the kind of thing a mum would cajole her impatient offspring into standing still for on a fine summer day, despite the noises and the grumbles off.

In the picture-perfect version of the story, the five boys would all have angel smiles – but of the five Tickell brothers, only the eldest seems unambiguously cheery in his tall socks and scout uniform, handkerchief knotted at his throat. They’re all between perhaps six and twelve years of age, lined up from tallest to smallest, from eldest to youngest. One of the twins looks surly. The other maybe smirks a little.

And young Jimmy? He’s standing in the middle, peering out seriously under his coconut haircut. In some ways, I like the keepsake more for the sake of the awkward discipline of these kids on parade. It feels truer to life than the picture-perfect version would. It does nothing to dull the sad subtext to this innocent garden scene of squandered promise. I’ll put it simply. We once had a big family. Because of World War II, like many families across the world, we now don’t.

A German torpedo left one of these wee boys on the ocean floor. Another brother left his bones on the island of Sicily to help the flowers bloom, losing his life there in the allied offensive in the summer 1943. My granddad served against Rommel in the tanks of North Africa, and later in Burma, as the quiet testimony and dead weight of the kukri he brought back with him tells – but he survived, as did his other two other brothers, one left to readjust to life as an only twin.

Of the war poems by war poets, perhaps my favourite is Keith Douglas’s “Simplify Me When I am Dead.” At its core, it is about everything time robs us of, about the frailty and faultiness of memory – but also the potential benevolence of that retrospect.

In retrospect, we look through “time’s wrong way telescope,” he said. Through it, everything shrinks. Compared to the immediate encounter with a whole human character, its quirks and gestures and foibles, the whole soul with their sum of experiences and joys and sorrows, virtues and vices, memory can only reveal to us “a minute man ten years hence and by distance simplified.” But Douglas’ insistent refrain was to “remember me when I am dead and simplify me when I am dead.” Simplify, yes, but to remember, as faithfully as possible. As Elie Wiesel once said about the duties of witnesses and messengers, about the necessity of sometimes dwelling on the hard facts of our history in an unsentimental way, we should “never try to tell the tale to make people weep. It’s too easy. If we decided to tell the tale it is because we wanted the world to be a better world – just a better world, to learn, and to remember.”

I know I’m not alone in finding the tone of some of the British “celebrations” of VE Day this week a little jarring. The compulsory British patriotism of bunting and scones, of Churchill and Dame Vera Lynn do nothing for me. But far beyond that, to celebrate a conflict which claimed the lives of almost half a million people in your country alone – and millions more across the globe – feels morally unserious. When the iconography of your sober reflection on a globally terrible moment is a Marks and Spencer’s Victoria sponge – we’re not in the realms of serious remembering.

Being 75 years on from the unconditional surrender of Nazi forces in Europe underscores, if anything, how close to being beyond living memory of these events we have now grown. Without being morbid about it, the average life expectancy in the UK is just a nip over 80 years of age. It is an easy commonplace to say “everyone in the country will have their stories of family members who fought in World War Two.” But what strikes me as more interesting is that this almost certainly isn’t true – or isn’t as true as many folk are inclined it believe.

On my mum’s side, her father was too young to be called into military service, and he too is already long dead. Britain already has a generation of older people who didn’t set a boot anywhere near any of these terrible battlefields, whose memories of the whole conflict are as hazy and unreliable as my afternoon in the snow. What we’re contending with now isn’t the reflections of a generation who knew first-hand what it was to hear the cruel report of a howitzer, to hear the droning of aeroplanes overhead, to see and hear and smell what it means when man goes to war with man. It is easy to forget that.

It is a unique pathology of British culture to transform this terrible phase of human history into something to be nostalgic about. Fintan O’Toole is right. “England never got over winning the war.” It has become the creation myth of modern Britain, ammunition for the exceptionalism, imperialism and humbug which has led this country astray at every political turn.

My grandfather was a largely unobservant Catholic, only attending church on Remembrance Sunday. Like many others, he did not speak often about his experiences in the war. In its aftermath, he fished. He pottered. He liked a good dinner, a drink, and the blether. He had a touch of the debonair. An Englishman by birth and education, he did the British state some service, but he believed in Scottish independence.

You would have to be naive not to notice how poppies, the “Blitz spirit”, have been appropriated by modern historical re-enactment societies for cynical political purposes. What’s missing here is the sense of tragedy and contagion war brought with it. What’s missing is what it means to be caught in the vortex of a violent situation, where only violent solutions were possible. What it meant for a whole generation of children who – left to their own devices – would have done violence to no one, who found themselves in situations where the choice was to be killed or to become killers. Where the lucky ones like Jimmy were left to live with the memories of what happened, what they saw, all they had lost. What’s missing is telling the tale to make a better world.

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