Are your neighbours plotting a VE Day knees-up? (Are you sure?) Hester Lacey reports
BREAK OUT the bunting and the barrels of beer, hang out the flags and the celebration tea-towels, dust off the song-sheets, start the sandwich production line. The 50th anniversary of VE Day on 8 May will be marked with a nationwide rash of street parties; there has already been such a run on red, white and blue bunting that manufacturers are putting in frantic overtime to meet VE Day orders.

The idea of an alfresco frolic with the neighbours evokes both cheers and cringes. "It's wonderful, really brings the community together," says Mrs Wendy Keeble of Hornsea Road, Portsmouth, who has galvanised her locale into action.

Young householders, however, tend to be rather sniffy about the whole idea. "A street party is such a tacky notion," says one from south London. "I remember the Jubilee party when I was still living with my parents. It was embarrassing - all these crusty ratbags whose normal communications are complaints suddenly flinging decorum to the winds and bounding about getting pissed in public. I don't even know my neighbours."

So many events are being planned that party-haters are having to go to considerable lengths to escape. "We can't think of an excuse to get out of our neighbour's VE Day barbecue, so we're leaving the country for a long weekend and going to Ireland," says one couple. "We don't like them, and war or no war, we don't want to eat their sausages."

What is the trigger that makes the staid British suddenly want to party in the streets? In fact, says Rob Colls, history lecturer at Leicester University, the original 1945 celebration was less spontaneous than might be imagined. "There was a big push from the top, from the Government and the media. And while things like street parties and charabanc trips might have appeared spontaneous, they were down to the resourcefulness of the women, who would have had to organise everything." The first street parties, he thinks, were to mark the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Joyful citizens also took to the pavements to celebrate the jubilee of King George V in 1935, and Lowry painted a street party celebrating the 1937 coronation of George VI.

John Baxendale, principal lecturer in social history at Sheffield Hallam University, suggests street parties are down to an in-built national ability to recognise a good excuse for a party rather than an overwhelming sense of patriotism. "Perhaps it relates to the old carnival traditions. In pre-industrial times there used to be recognised times of year for merry- making and festivals. Nowadays we celebrate festivals like Christmas much more privately at home, so we like an excuse for a knees-up. It's also an excuse to transcend social conflicts - in 1945 there was a very strong feeling of social unity and national purpose, and the feeling that dukes could party with dustmen. An early example was the Relief of Mafeking when people flooded into the streets and got drunk, but I'm sure it wasn't because they were all that bothered by the Boer War."

Hester Ainger, 86, remembers the original VE Day celebrations. "All the neighbours were out dancing in our street, Gaston Way in Shepperton. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed themselves. I remember we did the hokey cokey and the conga. We were rationed but we did what we could for the food - sandwiches mostly."

The modern street party is a much more lavish affair. Wendy Keeble and her neighbours will be feeding over 300 children and entertaining them with Mr Blobby, a Bouncy Castle, puppet shows, and local magician Dan Dan the Magical Man; parents and grandparents get a buffet supper, old- time dancing, and karaoke. "It's buzzing," says the energetic Mrs Keeble, who has been producing a fortnightly newsletter to keep everyone up to date with party developments. "Old uns, young uns, this has really brought us together. There was one house that didn't want to know, but out of the 228 we went round, that isn't bad," she adds. Ftes, jumble sales and sponsored walks have already raised a party fund of nearly £2,000, and the committee is enjoying itself so much that it plans to have another knees-up for senior citizens the week after VE Day proper.

The degree of organisation required, however, is no picnic. Feelings can run high. One lady retired from her street's VE Day committee in high dudgeon. "It had got ridiculous. There was so much organising I could see nothing was going to get done. I could see them setting up the Flag Pole Procurement Sub-Committee and the Home-Made Sausage Roll Production Sub-Committee, so I decided to bow out gracefully."

Street party committees must apply to the council to officially close their road, and obtain permits for bunting and decorations. At Stedham, near Midhurst in West Sussex, the committee has been planning since September. "Meetings every month, and I'm on the phone every day," says the chair, Vic Diamond. Sponsorship from local businesses is providing free lunches for children and senior citizens; other diversions include a parade with floats and steam engines, and a dog agility competition. A Second World War cookery demonstration will contrast with the Thai food provided by a local restaurant. In the evening, church bells and a bugler playing the Last Post and Reveille will coincide with the Queen's lighting of the celebration bonfire in Hyde Park. "We thought a bonfire would be too dangerous near the marquee, so we're having a rocket instead," says Mr Diamond. "Then it'll be £5 for dancing to a seven-piece Glenn Miller-style band."

Parties are being co-ordinated nationwide with the appropriate military precision. Bruno Peek, the Royal British Legion's National Organiser for VE Day Celebrations in Relation to Beacons, Bonfires and Street Parties, has sent party-throwing information to every parish in the land (a total of 40,000), and he is compiling a comprehensive list of street jamborees. "It's coming together very, very well," he says. He hopes party-throwers will help raise funds for the Legion.

Leaving all the hard work to someone else is also an option. "We'll Meet Again" themed breaks at the Warner's holiday villages in Hayling Island, Hampshire, or North Wales, cost from £109. "We'll have flags, bunting, balloons, jazz bands, and we'll be trying to recreate the authentic menu, though sadly, guests today won't stand for just dripping sandwiches," says Tony Trafford, entertainment manager. "We're decorating with camouflage netting. Anyone who comes will get the full `We'll Meet Again' treatment."

This may well be the safest way to observe VE Day. One man who will be having nothing to do with the celebrations on 8 May this year is an unfortunate who volunteered to chair his road's Street Party Planning Committee for the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977. "The night before, we all met up to make sure everything was properly organised for the next day. Then we went off to the pub. When the pub shut we went on to the local after-hours drinking club - still planning hard, of course. We got home at about three in the morning. The next day, all the men were too hung over to do anything at all. All their wives thought it was my fault. None of them spoke to me for weeks."