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.
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Funny that, just watched Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Dianne Keaton “The Natzis are marching today, we should debate them”.
Woody “Yeah, we’ll go down there with some bricks and baseball bats”.
It’s what we do in lock-down!
One of the great scenes in 20th Century cinema. The guy has been pontificating about the NYTimes publishing a ‘devastating article’ and then this from Woody. Shame his reputation has been besmirched but, it was his own fault, Another great scene is Nazis and the can opener in Hannah and her Sisters. Enjoy
‘… 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.’
The other thing which did it, at almost the same time, was the Falklands War. It was one of the vanishingly few times when I thought Thatcher was very largely right; but my sense was that the notions of wartime spirit and ‘Britannia (splendidly and courageously!) contra mundum’ experienced a sharp resurrection from that time on, and has never gone away since.
Well remembered, and wisely put. Contra whatever, ever since? That’s sort of how Herr Schnickelgruber began.
So it is. Or, rather, was.
I’m afraid that ‘sort of’ is the convenient broad-brush of the Left, that is forever titivating the past with it’sbroadest of ideological air-brushes. There were specific causes at work in the Germany where and when Hitler came to power. Pace Hegel, whatever moral lessons anyone may take from history, it is dangerous to edit or airily dismiss uncongenial or intractable facts in order to produce a propagandist narrative: not only Marx but also Hitler benefited from that lesson, after all, to our lasting detriment. Point me to a current political platform that is a serious danger and I will start… Read more »
‘The English, in their jingo days, said that wogs began at Calais’ -Jan Morris, “50 years of Europe” an Album.
Briliant, Meic as always. A pity the replies you jave received seem to me to say more about the responders thsn the subject! Please let’s have some less self-regarding discussion.
Nazis are what this is all about, or are “the responders” off track?
Mike what you really trying to say? Maybe truth be told you and other ‘narrow cybernats’ just could not stomach all the Union Jacks yesterday and the shared memories of ‘British people’ and certain home truths that will no matter how much ‘yessing’ and bus rides the reality is it’s no go for an ‘Independent Wales’ and a referendum would be a n embarrassing train crash, fin! Time to wake up Cymru Game Over as the Land of our Fathers becomes more and more West Britain complete with Union Jacks. Time to get a life boyo! Have you any links… Read more »
I myself hope for the permanent establishment of a Wales proudly distinct from the identity to which our English friends and neighbours give their greatest loyalty. If we can fly the Banner of Glyndwr and the Red Dragon, as they fly the Cross of Saint George, we will honour the Union Jack which represents our shared Island history. Independence is not isolationism, but rather a more equitable relationship, which I fully support. But we should not deride English sentiments either; indeed, when it comed to VE Day we should unequivocally share them! The mean-spirited ideological sniping of the article is… Read more »
Jan should be nominated for a St David Award, its too late this year but she really deserves some official recognition. https://gov.wales/st-david-awards/nominate
The only actual peoples of Europe who ’embraced’ (your word) internationalism after the War were those Stalinised populations who didn’t dare spout anything but the Kremlin’s ‘General Line.’ The Western view of this was that vast swathes of the continent had been locked in a chilling grip of iron, in which popular opinion had little significance other than as a target for suppression bythe KGB and by all the numerous associated ‘Vichy’-Soviet Stasi-type organisations in their Soviet colonies. Liberated territories gratefully banded together in the West under NATO’S American-sponsored military umbrella, but otherwise the populace of each liberated country naturally… Read more »
Roosevelt, it was, who globalised things by forcing Churchill to accept the end of the Britsh empire. He really
seemed to hate the empire’s goods funding England, describing Churchill as “a real old Tory”. It was right wing
stars and stripes Americans who saw off the empire, not those dreaming of European cooperation.
Without the coronavirus, we might in 2020 have had the mental space to have an opportunity to, with the decade containing the 100th anniversaries of the First World War having passed, and the 75th anniversary of VE Day arriving in 2020, to begin to have a more balanced historical view of the two world wars.
Instead, the same cliches have been revived again, and propagated in a fossilised form to another generation.
Not that we would have done so anyway, without SARS-CoV-2 we’d still be arguing about the Brexit transition period.
Er…Quite partial to abit of winsome frou-frou myself.
My father was in the British Army during WW2 and my grandfather was a war correspondent in S.America for WW1. My father was rescued at Dunkirk, and fought in Burma, Italy and at the end, in Germany. I think he would have celebrated VE day as would’ve my Mam. Just saying.
Remembering those who died protecting our way of life is of course the right thing to do. However, dwelling on victory and basking in pride will – as the saying goes – only lead to our fall. As a country we live with our heads stuck in the past, it’s time we looked at the ‘now’ and prepared for a better future far more.