Much mention has been made in these past weeks of ‘Blitz spirit’. The Queen even hinted at it in her address to the nation, referencing Vera Lynn in her ‘We will meet again’ closing remarks. TV presenters, journalists and indeed our own Prime Minister cannot resist these stirring references to the resilience of the Home Front, the sense of national solidarity, the pluck and grit of the British people, especially as we reach the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Blitz spirit has become such a powerful and recognisable reference point in our national imagination that it is applied, almost at whim it often appears, to any tricky situation the country faces (the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, for instance). During these weeks of lockdown, we as a country have apparently shown much Blitz spirit, although few would argue that the middle classes hunkering down with Netflix and turning en masse to baking, causing Waitrose to run out of flour, is the same thing as being bombed night after night, sleeping in overcrowded shelters and going to work the next morning regardless.
And yet the comparison appeals. The most eager proponents of this ersatz sense of Blitz spirit are almost always younger people, those of us lucky enough to have lived lives of plenty in times of peace — which, thank God, is most of us. I confess, I speak from experience here: I am a fully paid-up member of the Blitz spirit fan club and bow to no one in my love of the popular music of the second world war. My latest Spotify playlist is full of the songs of George Formby, Anne Shelton and, of course, the incomparable Gracie Fields (you can keep Vera Lynn, Your Majesty; it is ‘our Gracie’ for me any day).
We Blitz spirit lovers mean well in our sometimes gauche efforts, we really do. We want to remember what our forebears had to endure while realising that we are unlikely to suffer anything nearly as bad. That second point can sometimes be lost, and it can seem as if we’re acting out of a misguided impulse to write a new generation into the narrative of a great national story of valiant struggle.
My obsession with Blitz spirit comes from my parents. My father was 16 in 1945; another two years of conflict and he too could have been called up for active service. Growing up, the lucky break of his near miss always haunted me, but when as an adult I mentioned it to him he looked at me with genuine bewilderment. ‘I’ve never thought of that,’ he said. He and my mother gave me much the same look when I applauded and cried my way through the televised commemorations of the 70th anniversary of D-Day in 2014, when the French government awarded veterans a special medal.
Here’s the rub: my parents had lived through all this and, while certainly not being disrespectful, they didn’t see anything romantic about these particular tales of heroism. They had grown from children into teenagers during the war, fed on diets of dubious powdered eggs and ordinary stories of extraordinary bravery. Everybody alive in 1939-45 was, in their own way, called upon to display amazing resolve and if they had all stopped to wave flags and crack out the bunting at every act of bravery no one would have got anything done, least of all win a war. Instead they did what they had to, namely carry on with life with the minimum fuss possible. Keep calm and carry on, if it really must be put like that.
Patriotic songs extolling the war effort were all well and good, ran the majority opinion in our house, but they weren’t half as much fun as Tommy Handley’s lightly subversive ITMA on the radio. As my father so succinctly commented when my Gracie Fields fervour reached fever pitch: ‘I didn’t like her much the first time around, so I can’t believe she’s making a comeback in my house.’ This dogged refusal to sentimentalise something that was no fun in the first place is the true manifestation of Blitz spirit.
It is entirely right for each successive generation to reassess, critique and celebrate the achievements of the last, but I do think romanticism has its place too. I will still always love the nostalgia of 1940s-style Cath Kidston tea dresses and lovingly homemade flags. Although I draw the line at powdered eggs.