Today marks 75 years since the victory of the allied forces in Europe against Hitler. In the UK, it was to have been a day of mass celebration, parades and street parties, with the early May bank holiday moved from Monday to today to allow people to get out and party.
The Covid-19 pandemic means the reality is rather different. Instead of physical gatherings, there will be small-scale, individual commemorations and virtual parades. The last major milestone in living history since that momentous series of events that changed the course of world history all those decades ago will pass quietly and bear little resemblance to the raucous celebrations of 8 May 1945.
I’ve written before about the problem with the wartime rhetoric deployed to get people behind the lockdown in the early days of the pandemic (interestingly, that is now shifting to tendency to belittle and infantilise the public, with talk of ‘weaning’ people off the coronavirus government support and claims from some quarters that the population was ‘a little too willing to stay at home’; instead of heroic stoics who are all in this together and are praised for our resoluteness by the Queen, we are becoming workshy infants who need to be taught not to depend on the state).
Today, however, the parallels with those who lived through the Second World War and those enduring the lockdown are foremost in my mind. For all the differences between that time and this, it strikes me that there is one major thing that the people of that time and those living today have in common: we have all seen how quickly everything we take for granted can change.
This is not news to many people: every hour visits this realisation upon certain individuals. Those whose loved ones die suddenly or suffer tragic accidents or lose everything through chance events experience the truth of this. And of course, there are millions of people living in other parts of the world who have much more recently experienced the abrupt break with everything they know that comes in the wake of natural disasters, political upheaval and war.
But in this country, at least since the Industrial Revolution, it has been relatively rare for all the structures we have been used to to be dismantled, rendered redundant or mothballed in a matter of days.
For the first four decades of my life, societal change has been a gradual, creeping thing. Often, it has been so imperceptible that it is only apparent when you look back at footage and photographs, and marvel at the haircuts, fashions and outsize mobile phones. Even momentous shifts – the coming of the internet, the banking crisis, Brexit – unfolded at a comparatively leisurely pace and did not shatter the way we do things overnight. In general terms, the measure of someone born when I was was bound up with technical, nerdy details, such as whether you know what a cassette tape is or how to work a rotary dial.
All that’s different now. Those of us who live through this crisis and eventually, hopefully, come out the other side, will have seen our reality abruptly changed. Like many of those who woke up on 9 May 1945, sore-headed and bleary-eyed with bunting littering the streets, we will have to ask ourselves, what’s next?