They sang and danced all night
The Queen’s message to the nation on April 5th 2020 urged us all to stay strong during the Coronavirus pandemic, whilst noting the British characteristics of "self-discipline", "quiet, good-humoured resolve" and "fellow-feeling". She also alluded to the spirit of the Second World War and that “we will meet again”. Of course, those famous words belong to the forces’ sweetheart, Dame Vera Lynn's, anthem ‘We’ll Meet Again’, which incidentally has soared in the iTunes download charts after the Queen made this reference during her address. It seems doubly apt, then, to write about memories of the end of World War II, when a weary war-torn world was finally able to glimpse some daylight and look forward to a future.
On 8th May 2020, we will celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE Day, Victory in Europe. It was pronounced a national holiday plus one more day by Winston Churchill, a time richly deserved, and now commemorates the formal acceptance by the World War II Allies of Nazi Germany's unconditional surrender on 8th May 1945. As Adolf Hitler had committed suicide on 30th April during the Battle of Berlin, Germany's surrender was taken by an administration headed by Karl Dönitz, known as the Flensburg Government.
The act of military surrender was first signed at 02:41 on 7th May at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force at Reims, in France, with a further document signed on 8th May in Berlin. As the jubilations began, it is worth noting that many were still fighting in the Far East. Atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan on August 6th and 9th respectively, and on 15th August 1945 Japan surrendered to the Allies, which became known as VJ Day (Victory in Japan). On 2nd September 1945, Japan formally surrendered, finally ending World War II throughout the rest of the world.
A staggering number of people died across the world either in combat, as civilians were caught in bombings, or through genocide, but for those lucky enough to survive, a mass outpouring of relief, albeit tinged with great sadness, took place in the form of spontaneous dancing in the street. After years of wartime blackouts, bombs and ration cards, an estimated 50,000 people were crowded around Piccadilly Circus in London, but across Yorkshire and the North East, crowds were also exuberant, with local communities revelling after nearly 6 years of misery.
In York, excited crowds gathered outside the De Grey Rooms, with its windows wide open so all could hear the popular music playing inside. In Newcastle, flares illuminated Grey’s Monument as people danced, a victory bonfire was lit on Windmill Hill in Gateshead, and in Leeds everyone was joyously dancing around the town hall. Ecstatic scenes were replicated across the country. Where did we all learn to dance so well and with such abandonment?
The dances of the period are seen in many of the archive films, capturing people of all ages enjoying the glorious moment, dancing and singing into the late night. The Lindy Hop or Jitterbug was the dance craze of the day and a progression of the Charleston which was popular in the 1920s. The Charleston itself was a ground-breaking dance of its time, thought to have developed in the African American communities in America. The jazz age of the 1920s was enthusiastically embraced by the young, both as a total break from the social constraints of the past and the horrors of WW1. And just as this continually evolving music was often improvisational, combining African rhythms, European harmony structures and syncopated rhythms, the Lindy Hop/Jitterbug dance too absorbed other forms of dance and was renowned for its creative improvisation and musical interpretation.
As the war dragged on for years and rationing began to bite this gaiety was a much-needed release. So, most towns or villages had a hall where regular dances had taken place. If you were very lucky in some of the larger venues, you had an orchestra or three-piece band, but most probably had to make do with just a record. Despite common assumptions that American GIs introduced the Lindy Hop to the United Kingdom, there were specialised dance magazines from the 1930s and early 1940s that suggest that the dance was actually known pre 1939, a few years before the GIs arrived in the UK, and was likely introduced to the UK through a variety of means, not least the ever popular Hollywood films of the period, and touring American Jazz musicians. However, it was probably the American GI’s that were able to successfully spread the craze across the UK alongside bringing in chocolate and nylons. Or have I been watching too many Hollywood films???
What about the other activities? In many of the archive films we see long tables of sandwiches and cakes, festoons of flags adorning local streets, young women and children dancing together with abandonment and lots and lots of smiley faces.
And today, in April 2020, when many of us are isolating at home unable to carry out our normal shopping routine, maybe we could learn from some of the thrifty wartime recipes. How did they manage to bake those delicious looking cakes and fill the sandwiches? Well, eggless cakes with rationed sugar were seemingly perfected and possibly a lot healthier than those eaten today, the cook keeping a smart eye out and maybe utilising the vegetable garden. The versatile carrot for instance found its way into desserts, cakes and puddings as well as savoury pies.
Perhaps the women at home also listened to Marguerite Patten, who worked for the Ministry of Food suggesting nourishing and inventive recipes using the rationed food that was available. Her recipe ideas and nutrition advice was broadcast to the nation on a BBC radio programme called the Kitchen Front.
Yorkshire film Archive put together this short compilation filmed across the region during the celebratory days in 1945 but it is also worth watching the longer versions:
Lastly, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced world governments to intervene in our daily life in a way unprecedented for many democracies in a non-war scenario. It has shifted our thinking about how we relate to our families, our neighbours and our communities, maybe opened our eyes to housing inequalities. It has altered our perceptions of work and leisure time and the workings of the global economy. Many of us are much more familiar with the digital world. Sadly, we are also much more aware of fatality on an unprecedented scale.
Vera Lynn, now aged 103, said in her birthday video, "keep smiling and keep singing”. I would like to add that we should all take as many films as we can, using our digital technologies, for future generations to look back on this strange period.
- Val, YFA Volunteer