Blood, toil, tears and jitterbugging

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The Independent Online
AS THREE days of VE celebrations got under way in Hyde Park yesterday morning, there were reasons to be doubtful about the chances of complete success. It was hard to see how the spontaneous celebrations of May 1945 could be echoed by something so organised. Or disorganised: it had been widely reported that the giant military figures painted on the back of the Hyde Park stage were wearing anachronistic uniform; doves of peace had shown themselves to be useless in test flights and had had to be replaced by pigeons. And on the gate at 10am, the security guards were giving a Chelsea pensioner a hard time. He may have been an imposter, but he was a good one. "I've been to eight gates," he said forlornly. "I've walked a mile."

But as the day went on - in blazing heat amid an audio-visual overload of mocked up air raid shelters, Vera Lynn and psychedelic Maypole dancers - it overcame such difficulties and managed to find some odd balance between good cheer and grief, between remembering the end of the war and remembering the war itself. It would have been hard to predict that a cross-generational jitterbug dancing class could be so moving.

The Queen Mother wore pale blue. Her audience wore faint-inducing dark suits and medals - or open shirts with expert origami newspaper hats. Don Carter, 64, wore white gloves, a Union flag T-shirt, and a top hat. "Study the hat," he said, revolving it slowly between two hands, and pointing at photographs pinned to it. "You've got the late King, you've got - God bless her - the Queen Mum, in her favourite blue, then of course the Queen herself, and Sir Winston, the great man." On top of the hat was a model dove. "Peace everlasting! Please God."

A marching band marched past, and Mr Carter spoke as if commentating on television. "No one, no one in the world can present such a pageant as the Brigade of Guards."

At some distance, Joe Mahonney was impersonating Winston Churchill. He contrasted the price of a real cigar with that of the plastic one he was smoking. "£1.50! And it lasts forever!" He took a drag. "I have nothing to offer you," he said, "but blood, toil, tears and sweat." This was the experience of some very young visitors. ("Monica!" said one mother. "I'm having an argument with Miles at the moment. Can't I argue with you in a minute?") But older children had a careful attentiveness that seemed to be at the heart of the day's mood. Yesterday was designated Veterans Day, but it was veterans with families, and yesterday hundreds of veterans were wearing their medals and telling their stories not in the back of the Royal Legion bar, but in the company of the next generation, and the generation after that.

The most telling images of the day were of teenage grandsons sucking up - in the nicest way - to their grandfathers: "So which was that campaign? When did you leave Italy?" In the heat, and over the terrible noise of George Formby, people were listening to one other.

In the Veterans' Tent, a computer system designed to assist ex-servicemen to find former colleagues had crashed, so names were instead written on pieces of paper and posted on the wall. "Curly Clapson. 318 Squad. Royal Marines " or "any crew members of HMLC T356". And people talked and listened. Captain A A Raja showed his bayonet wounds, inflicted in Singapore serving in the 14th Punjab Regiment of the British Indian Army. His comrade was killed, but he managed to crawl to safety. On VE Day he was in a Japanese PoW camp in Singapore, sleeping on the floor, among the sick and dying.

On the same day, Tom Kennie was a day-and-a-half out in the Atlantic. They celebrated by splicing the mainbrace (taking a double tot of rum). The next day they boarded a U-boat that had surrendered. "We were supposed to confiscate the officers' quarters. But we didn't. It didn't seem worth it, for one night." They allowed the Germans one more night in their own bunks.

Jock Menzies, a New Zealander who served as a Royal Navy officer, was in Bombay on VE Day. "We were in the service a long time. And we'd been talking about the end of the war every night in the ward-room, over a few gins. Is it going to end? Is it ever going to end? And then it ended. And we'd won."

Reports & pictures, page 3

VE Day special, page 24

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