The optimistic internationalism of VE Day risks being trampled by saccharine exceptionalism
As is fitting in the week of the 75th anniversary of VE Day, I’ve been wallowing in 1945. Not I hasten to add the Daily Mail version, the bollocks-to-lockdown festival of bunting and belligerence in order to celebrate what they somehow contrived to call the ‘British victory over Europe’. The 1945 I’ve been immersed in is far lovelier: Jan Morris’ take on New York at the end of the war.
Her book Manhattan ’45 has sat unread on my shelves for years, and I’m so glad that I left it until now. Lockdown stir craziness has hit hard this last week, as it seems to have done for almost everyone I know. To travel somewhere else, and to the world’s most thrilling city no less, at the possible apex of its story, has been such a boost. Armchair travel across the miles and the decades too, and all in the best possible company.
Jan can make a stroll around Pwllheli sound breathlessly exciting, so with raw material as rich as this, the exhilaration is eye-popping. She starts at the Hudson docks, as the requisitioned liners bring GIs home from war-torn Europe, back to the old country that’s really a new country, their swagger – and the city’s too – corked like fine champagne, fit and ready to pop.
NYC as the world’s first true melting pot is lavishly recreated, its characters brought back to larger-than-life. One is photographer Usher Fellig, a refugee from Poland, nicknamed Weegee (from Ouija board, because he often beat the authorities to a photo-worthy incident; some suspected hoodoo). His images are the perfect counterpoint to Jan’s prose; amongst this selection VE Day is captured in the broad grins and victory signs of the habitués and residents of Chinatown. Weird that Chinese New Yorkers should be so excited about Britain beating Europe…
Jan Morris first visited New York in 1953, and is of course still with us, aged 93 and living as she has done for nearly sixty years on the Llŷn peninsula. Aside from the eternal truth that any time spent in her company, on the page or in person, is time richly rewarded, I wanted this week to be in the presence of someone who experienced the war for real, and who fought in it.
There are so few of them left, the generation that experienced it as young adults. Those that saw fascism full in the face have acted as an anchor on us all, but as they slip away and the anchor is pulled, it is no surprise that we are once again drifting into those same shark-infested waters.
Manhattan ’45 is the spirit of that generation, of optimism, internationalism, co-operation and relentless determination to improve the world for those following in their wake. Those noble qualities are what I want to spend today quietly pondering and honouring, because they are in such danger of being trampled to death in the stampede of saccharine and sentimental exceptionalism that pretty much drives our entire public discourse these days – even at times of real crisis like this. The UK’s woeful response to coronavirus came from precisely this same place.
After the war, we allowed the future to become our dominant force, rather than the past. It didn’t last, of course; it couldn’t. The past, or at least a bastardised version of it, is a religion on this foggy little rock. Post-war futurist thinking limped on into the 1970s, but the oil crisis delivered a fatal blow, before Murdoch and Thatcher swept in to flog off the ruins, wrapped in nostalgia, tradition and the flag.
Perhaps we in Powys have to share some responsibility here too: enthusiasm for the frou-frou of Laura Ashley didn’t come out of thin air. Though the company has gone, her winsome Victoriana still rages, and has mutated right across the spectrums of age and gender.
Go to any city these days, and there in the wannabe hipster enclave will be innumerable apothecaries and emporia, and restaurants called things like Mr Wotherbury’s Chop Tavern, run by two bearded boys called Toby and Tom who look like their own great-grandfathers. I’ll have the Peaky Blinders and chips, please, with a side order of Farage’s Strictly Unmixed Slaw.