My Father Celebrating Victory in Europe, May 1945

My Father Celebrating Victory in Europe 1

My father, Michael, was a medical student at Guy’s Hospital, London during World War II. I recently found an extraordinary letter that he wrote to his mother describing his part in the celebrations when the cease fire and Allied Victory in Europe were declared.

He was a part of the massive crowd that partied for three days and called the Royal Family out onto the balcony of Buckingham Palace. His letter gives a fascinating insight into those events and people’s behaviour.

My Father Celebrating Victory in Europe 2
The Royal Family at Buckingham Palace 8th May 1945. From left to right, Princess Elizabeth (to become Queen Elizabeth II), Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, King George VI and Princess Margaret. Copyright unknown

Take a look at this news reel of the day.

I can’t help thinking that World War II was the raison d’être for European unity; something that the UK is on the point of moving away from.


Talbot House,
42, Trinity Square,
LONDON E.C.3
14th May 1945

Dear Mother,

God, what a week ! Three days and three nights of jubilation, revelling and indulgence followed the “cease fire.”

Monday afternoon began it and I thought Wednesday would see the end of it – I left my heart, soul and voice in Trafalgar Square. But Thursday was the most strenuous of the lot.

On Monday night – the night of V.E. day, flags were going up everywhere. People were waiting – and tired of waiting – for the word “go” to begin their celebrations.

I arrived from Guy’s to find Miss Coulson brushing what the rats had left of what Coronation Day had left. A little bunting and a Union Jack were put up on the front of 42.

An old fellow with very blue eyes and a palid skin came up and asked me “Is it necessary ?” He went on – “I’ve lost my family…. Do you expect me to hang one out ?” Some would rejoice, having experienced the loss, that no more should die – others of course would not. The obvious remark was “Please yourself !” but I had not the heart to make it.

I set off to Charing Cross in perhaps a more philosophical mood which, however was soon lost when I came across a University of London procession which had been marching since 3.30 – it was now about 10.0. We marched round the Victoria Memorial several times and for an hour waited for the King who did not appear that night. Not many people had waited for the official proclamation and when our number had dwindled to about thirty we split up. Some of us went to Piccadilly – a  bunch of men and women from UCL and Bedford. The place was a riot, and until late at night – probably early morning – people were dancing the very wildest of dances – singing and shouting. 

I crawled in pretty late but was up early the next morning. I was a little tired. However, no stopping, it was V.E. day.

Everywhere people’s more sober feelings presided in the morning. A service at All Hallows at 11.0. A pint of beer, lunch at Lyons and a service at Southwark at 1.0. Just after 2.0 a bunch of us met some Royal Free people outside St. Georges and strung across the street we marched to Buckingham Palace.

There, crowds were gathering and for the first time I saw thousands herded and directed by mounted police with their wonderful horses under perfect control. It was too crowded and we went on to hear Churchill speak in Parliament Square – it was worse here.

That night we made a famous raid on Kings College, Strand, and captured – without opposition – Reggie (a stuffed lion), the best mascot in London – only once before stolen. Having seen it safely to Guys, Alan and I went to see the King and Queen at Buckingham Palace and hear his speech.

There were masses and masses – an ant hill disturbed was not in the picture. We managed to get to the Victoria Memorial and then lost each other. We waited nearly an hour amongst the panting and sweating crowd which was fainting in parts but growing all over. Big Ben and God Save the King were barely heard ; in fact, I doubt they would have been were it not for a sailor sitting right away up on one of the warriors of the Memorial. His position had temporarily endowed him with leadership. For once in his life he could control the reactions of people, he had the feelings of thousands (millions ?) in the palm of his hand. No one would have deprived him of his temporary glory – but, God how we cursed him later.

A great hush fell on the people, a lull in the storm, death to the struggling – indescribable, intense and intoxicating. “His Majesty the King” – that bloody sailor yelled and clapped – so, therefore, did very many others. We missed the beginning – not much it was true, but at the climax of the hour – two or three hours in some cases – the crowd nearly burst with anxiety.

The King said what was needed and very well – we waited in suspense to see him. Had the Royal Family appeared straight away things would not have been so bad. But we had waited close to half an hour after the speech and when they came out there was a swell of hysteria – a turmoil and each one fought for a fleeting glance. I had never seen any of the Royal Family before – they seemed far off and unreal – but there they were – there they really were ! It was tremendous. I was to get a closer look the next night. Once again I went up to Piccadilly and by amazing coincidence met a crew from Toc H. and together we entered the hilarious spirit of the masses. Tonight being “The” night – rejoicings were madder still. People were climbing up lamp posts, shouting, singing, dancing on shelter roofs and round great fires. These fires were built in the middle of the street from boarded up shop fronts, fences round bombed areas and mainly  “To Let” boards and anything else to be found. Eventually we wandered back putting “one foot in front of the other.” If I remember these days for anything, it will be the dire shortage of anything to drink anywhere near the celebrations. This in spite of the fact that I drank more these last few days than ever before.

The next day was quiet in the morning and afternoon – apart from a drink or two on the wards at 12.0 Before the fun began in the evening Alan and I went to a show at the Princes called “3 Waltzes” with Evelyn Laye – a very good show. We had 2/- gallery seats – most successful. Later we found 3 others from Guys and between us found a Wren each. Wrens make good land marks – they are always decent girls and ready for some fun (I tried my hand at some A.T.S. but they were not so forthcoming.) These Wrens were grand. They marched with us, where they helped us shout for Guys until we were 100 strong. Then down the Mall to Buckingham Palace where they danced with us, where they helped us raise the cheers of the crowd – always there – where we brought the King and Queen out of bed and let them know who we were. I saw them closer this time. They really were the King and Queen and no impersonating member of the kitchen staff – no picture in a paper or on a screen. The King and Queen in flesh and blood.

Yes, these Wrens were with us when we marched back again, when we swarmed up the side of the Royal College of Physicians and demanded to see our doctors and when we marched through the crush in Piccadilly to Trafalgar Square and drained our last ounces of energy singing on the steps of Nelson’s Column. Indeed they had to come – we had got their hats on our heads !

Nelson was fine. Serene and aloof he was lit from many different angles. The centre of fun, he was the emblem of England’s gallantry. The Admiralty Arch was flood lit in green and violet, as light as day – as also was Big Ben. The sky was red with flames and streaked with rockets and later a pale shimmering spider-work of shifting search lights. St. Paul’s was beautiful, but the Tower was transfigured ; a fairy tale brought to life ; history on a modern stage ; standing right out in its greyness, baked by the deep purple of night – even Toc H’s roughest soldier was impressed.

I’ll remember these days as examples of England’s reverence – churches were packed ; of England’s love of peace when it’s time for peace – the mornings and afternoons were still ; of England’s solidarity and loyalty, of her good fellowship and joyousness when it’s time to rejoice – and last – her dryness on those nights !

These were some of my doings and impressions – I hope they haven’t bored you – Great Scott ; 7 pages ! You might keep ’em – I might want to read them later – poor reading, though, they’ll make.

Tired, foot sore and sleep wanting we all rolled up for work the next day, but not for long. King’s College raided us. Seven hundred swept into the Hospital. They wanted Reggie. Outnumbered though we were – and taken by surprise – we pushed them right out beyond the gates. This fight was colossal, I’ve never seen so much water – the fire apparatus was a useful weapon – but the details are too many to give you now. From my point of view my shirt was torn by their women, and my beautiful tie taken as a trophy by them. I was thrown down some stairs and tore my best trousers – needless to say I soon changed into a suit from the linen department. In the afternoon we had to take Reggie back – we did ! A half mile procession took him back and the Strand at 3.0 was a mass of  fighting students which only subsided when Reggis was in many little bits.

Of course this sort of thing is not without its casualties and it will have far reaching repurcussions. Call it “boyish” if you like – but my goodness it was dashed good sport.

And yet, do you consider we have the right to celebrate like this – after all, one political move leads to another – a war merely means its come to a head, anyhow our troops are still fighting ?

Too, late, the deed is done and there are 50 million people in Great Britain feeling the better for it.

I have missed four days of work so I shall have to work next week-end. I think I shall have to go to the Wells to do it, so unless you hear to the contrary, Alan and I will appear on Saturday afternoon if it’s alright by you.

With very much love,

Michael.

The Lonely Planet at Terre Blanche

The Lonely Planet at Terre Blanche 1

Terre Blanche Golf Resort describes itself as a “Land of Inspiration in Provence.” In my mind, a reasonable claim. Even though it’s the French equivalent of Saint Andrews, I’m not only here for the golf. The club house and elegant surroundings are crammed with stylish contemporary sculpture. And big names too. However, despite the best efforts of the helpful staff, nobody can tell me the provenance of something that really captures my attention: a huge silver-steel-shiney orb sitting among some stunted oak trees that line the path down to the first tee. It is entirely out of place and all the more intriguing as a result.

The Lonely Planet at Terre Blanche 2

The object’s surface is covered with randomly spaced indentations of varying size; they are clearly meant to recall craters. It reminds of the first time I used a high powered telescope to look at the moon the surface of which is entirely covered by evidence of asteroid impacts. I read once about the “impact events” that have affected planet earth. Apparently, every 500,000 years an asteroid of more than 1km collides with earth; one of over 10 kilometres hits us every 20 million years (and extinguishes most life forms.) The reason that these craters are less obvious on earth as compared with the moon and other planets is simply because of water; many hit the sea and the signs of those that have had a terrestrial impact are slowly ground down by atmospheric erosion and plant life.

Fascinated, I wander around this lonely planet. I lay on a hand; the brilliant surface is smooth and very cold. On touching it with the tip of my nose, I detect a faint but definite metallic odour. I tap this beautiful sphere with my knuckles and am treated to a deep and distant resonant clang; it’s not a forest noise. Finding this sculpture here, completely discordant with it’s earthly surroundings, augments the other-worldly feel it gives out. Form and placement together result in an immensely satisfying piece of work. Does anyone know whose work it is? Or did it fall from the sky?

Herring Boats in Overstrand

Herring Boats in Overstrand 1

I imagine Overstrand in England’s late 19th century. It is winter. The grey North Sea can be heard crashing its rollers on the beach below the cliffs. The cry of gulls on the gale add but more wildness to the day. In the cottages here on the remote coast of North Norfolk, candlelight illuminates the dish of herring that form the evening meal of the population. This is a horsedrawn world, quiet, non-electric, non-digital, with time to think and ponder your life. Your heroes are the sailors who bring home these silver fishes for your dishes, the seamen, your relatives and friends, who brave the storms in their sailing boats – and latterly powered by steam engines – in order to harvest the great North Sea of its bounty. Death is always near; if not from drowning, he visits with disease and injury in a time long before our National Health Service. Such a different life from ours today!

Herring Boats in Overstrand 2

My imaginings were prompted by what I had just discovered on a hot, Summer’s afternoon whilst walking past an old cottage atop Overstrand’s cliffs. My eye had caught the exquisite rendering of herring boats – “drifters” – carved into the brickwork of the cottage wall. Each boat sails upon a sea of cement below the brick. The gaff-rigged sails, steam chimney and upward angled prow of the vessel speak of a deep knowledge of the subject.

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I feel a connection to a person now dead who took the time to scratch these important images of their life into the bricks. What was the purpose? Was it simply a love of the boats? Was it hero worship or some deeper, spiritual ceremony to bring luck or success in the hunt for the elusive shoals? All I have to work with is this evidence on the cottage wall. The rest is conjecture but nevertheless, I am in a culture now past. I gulp and a tear rolls. I am deeply moved.

Herring Boats in Overstrand 4

Here’s to you! Fishing here was your life; all consuming, necessary and endless. You were born, you fished and you died. Occasionally you would carve another boat on that cottage wall. Did you do it for me? Were you seeking some form of immortality? Whatever your reasons – thank you.

Herring Boats in Overstrand 5

Dry Stone Bridges in Sutherland, Scotland

Dry Stone Bridges in Sutherland 1

I first walked the stalkers’ track near Scourie in Sutherland, Scotland in 1982. Each return is a nostalgic and near-spiritual experience. This ancient and glaciated landscape is home to red deer, adders, tiny frogs and countless bird species including an occasional golden eagle. The lochs teem with small brown trout. The only sounds are the wind and the mournful call of golden plovers. That same wind carries a peaty fragrance with hints of heather and bog myrtle. This is a place that fills the senses and lifts the soul.

Dry Stone Bridges in Sutherland 2

For some reason, maybe to look at a wild orchid or one of the small carnivorous plants that can be found here, I step off the track. I notice a wonderful little dry stone bridge that I must have walked over twenty times. I have never thought about how the track, that must have been laid at least one hundred years ago, actually crosses the multiple small streams that flow off these hills. I am fascinated. My canine buddy tells me I should look at this from the other side.

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Just fabulous! To think, through its existence, this cementless structure has withstood floods and snow drifts together with the weight of human traffic whether on foot, horse and carriage or landrover.

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A kilometre along the track, I find another but with a single span. I notice these hardy little bridges are constructed from stones available on the spot. Large stones are stacked and stabilised with small stones wedged in. Maybe flatter stones were hauled in to make the cross pieces but it is difficult to look at them closely; they have been here for so long that they are now covered with heather and are just part of the track. As with the dry stone walls in this part of the world, I admire the skill and plain hard work of the unknown master crafts(wo)man/men who created these little gems.

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These bridges have a rustic, aged beauty accentuated by how they are now integrated into the environment. I find a third; it is so overgrown that, to see it, I have to step into the stream bed. My day just gets better.

Who else has noticed the dry stone bridges of the stalkers’ track? I wonder if I have happened upon a long-forgotten little bit of antiquity. Does or should some kind of preservation order apply in the event of maintenance or upgrade of the track? I try to contact the office of the estate concerned but without success. An internet search reveals nothing about these bridges (but I find there are courses on how to make one!) Is there an engineer-historian out there who knows about them? It would be great to hear from you.

Meeting Mike Howell

Tasman Golf Club, Nelson, New Zealand. It is pretty and quiet. I put $20 for my round in the “honesty box.” The sun is shining. I stand on the first tee. I am greeted by a fine view over the bay. All is well in the world. I hear a car pull up. Another golfer. “Fancy a round?” Friendly voice. Good bloke, I reckon. “Great idea!” I say.  “Mike Howell” he says. Firm handshake.

Meeting Mike Howell 1

By the first green, we have established the basics of the who, what, when and where of our respective lives. By the second, I have learnt that Mike is no ordinary golfer; he is also painter, sculpter, teacher, writer, illustrator, scientist, conservationist, fisherman, hunter, traveller, grandfather and the golf club’s Mr Fix-it. I tell him of my brief foray into painting and Talking Beautiful Stuff and how I don’t like the word art because I can’t define art and how I hate artspeak. His spine stiffens slightly; he turns to look at me anew. It’s like a gundog that’s caught a new scent. I see I have stepped into his professional domain.

Meeting Mike Howell 2

Mike’s entire home is his studio. It is hung about with beautiful stuff. I ask about what, at first sight, looks like a mixed-media collage of sticks and shells on a blue background. Some minutes later, I understand this is his tribute to the skills of the polynesian seafarers of yesteryear. For centuries, pacific islanders have paddled huge distances using for navigation aids only the night sky (the geographically arranged shells: note the two shells at the bottom doubling as New Zealand,) wave charts that record changes in the ocean swell thrown up by islands and reefs (the sticks) and the direction of flight of migratory birds such as godwits (the black twines.) These elements all come together in a pleasing and intriguing whole. I ask Mike about other paintings that could be described as “maori.” I realise that I have touched on what really floats his boat. He is professionally passionate about image-making as a means of education and keeping traditions alive among cultures that do not have a written history. He believes firmly that all children should be aware of the artistic heritage of their society and, as a means to bridge cultures, that of other societies as well. I am in awe of his clarity of thought together with his commitment to and eloquence on the subject. “But I have to show you my latest thing,” he enthuses. “It’s a tokotoko!” Right !

Meeting Mike Howell 3

A tokotoko is a stick that a wise maori elder might lean on whilst talking of generations past and accompanying myths and legends. Anyone else holding the tokotoko has the authority to speak. This tokotoko is an exceptionally beautiful piece of work. It would be fitting for the most respected of elders. It is a driftwood sapling with roots that mike has meticulously carved and adorned to produce images of some of New Zealands iconic, rare or even extinct fauna. It is a hand-crafted lesson in the unique ecology of this country.

Meeting Mike Howell 4

Prominent on the shaft is a Tuatara. In evolutionary terms it is a very very old beast. The name derives from maori meaning “peaks on the back”. I turn the tokotoko in my hands.

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Top right I find a huia. It is now extinct. It was the largest of the New Zealand wattlebird species. It was a striking black songbird. Female and male huia had dramatically different bill sizes and shapes; this is thought to be the most extreme sexual bill dimorphism of any bird species. Underneath the huia there is a South Island kokako that is also believed to be extinct. However, occasional snippets of song and possible glimpses of the “Grey Ghost” continue to tantalise ornithologists. Lower on the shaft of Mike’s tokotoko there is a representation of one of the native giant kauri snails. These molluscs are carnivorous, cannabilistic and may live for up to twenty years. Some species are also declining in numbers. Nestling right next to the snail is the increasingly endangered lesser short-tailed bat (pekapeka-tou-poto.) It is, unusually, a terrestrial bat that forages on the forest floor. Top left is a long fin eel (tuna kuwharuwharu;) one of the largest eels in the world. Its potential lifespan is about one hundred years and is found only in the rivers and lakes here. It was an important food source for the maori.

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The last feature of the tokotoko that Mike draws my attention to is a small brown godwit in flight. This brings our conversation full circle back to navigation. Each year about 80,000 of New Zealand’s godwits fly to the Yellow Sea (between China and North Korea), then on to Alaska, and back again. Precisely how they achieve this extraordinary feat is not entirely understood but it is certain that phases of the moon and the positions of stars (also incorporated on the tokotoko) guide these extraordinary birds on their epic journey.

I struggle to digest the aesthetic and intellectual span of Mike’s work. He very successfully makes manifest his eclectic interests and passions via a wide variety of image-making techniques. I take my hat off to him. He is committed to promoting humanity’s capacity to create beautiful stuff for the benefit of cultural future of generations to come. Meeting him is an enriching experience. And to think that when I first met him, I reckoned he was just a good bloke!