A Strictly British form of Victory
Sillitoe Trail Xtra: Adrian Reynolds
As Britain celebrates VE day 75, it’s getting hard to tell what real is. Even our ads are fake.
I saw one with Claudia Winkleman, off Strictly. Only, they tried to pretend it wasn’t that. She’s there reading a letter from someone asking if she really uses the shampoo they’re advertising. It looks like she’s getting ready for the shoot, and this is spontaneous, a camera crew casually filming before it happens.
We’ve had the queen sharing WW2 memories to placate the age group most likely to die. Government talk about “fighting” covid. Bully beef Johnson doing his nice-but-dim Churchill routine. Farage, the spiv. Spitfire flypasts for a true hero in the form of Colonel Tom. A coin to commemorate VE day, with flags and bunting to bring back the ghosts of street parties.
All this 1940s stuff, when even the people who remember it didn’t fight – unless they’re Colonel Tom’s age. Anyone even 80 years old wasn’t battling Nazis. They were kids, like my mum is and dad was. They grew up around men and women active in the war, lost siblings and parents, got taught by teachers with PTSD.
That generation didn’t have hundreds of branded shampoos to choose from. They had carbolic soap, made of coal tar and smelling like it. You wouldn’t have hair as lovely and lush as Claudia’s using carbolic. Even she doesn’t: her ad is just another serving suggestion, like the one on a readymeal lasagne that doesn’t look like the lump in the box.
That coin, the one to remember VE Day? It’s being given away by the Daily Mail, “to celebrate Britain’s victory over Europe” according to them.
The enemy wasn’t Europe. We fought Germany, and Italy, and Japan, with allies across the continent, and Russia and America, to defeat an enemy running the beta version of fascism. It’s been improved since, awkward bits with swastikas smoothed away.
Core to fascism is the way business and government are tangled together. That’s been happening more and more since the 80s: trillions heading in the direction of institutions whose fiscal piracy somehow justifies them being given bailouts that don’t need to be returned. More recently, enormous digital corporations tight with intelligence agencies have wormed their way into our lives, hoovering up information telling them how we behave.
With data from billions of people, Facebook knows just when we’re likely to be at a low ebb thanks to our social media activity, and sells that information to companies so an ad pops up with a coupon for a pizza now, or clothes delivered tomorrow, to feel better about ourselves. I’ve done both. The same principles apply to the physical world: Pokemon Go was an experiment in getting people out and about to specific places, lured by cartoon animals, creating more data sold to businesses about how we can be pushed and pulled.
We’re not living in the world Colonel Tom fought for. Troops came back from fighting Nazis to vote in a Labour government, creating the NHS and an education system that for a few decades at least allowed more opportunities for working class kids like my parents.
It’s not hard to see in a world where gaslighting is just another way to get what you want that when the Daily Mail talks about victory over Europe, they mean Brexit. Whether or not you voted for it – there are plenty of understandable reasons – that’s pretty low if you remember what World War Two was actually about.
Bear that in mind when the bunting is up for VE Day, because if clapping won’t stop covid then surely banners and singing will. At any rate, it’s a distraction. Our family were conscientious objectors for the Silver Jubilee street parties. We cleared off for the day, took a trip to the beach. Won’t be doing that this time, but if I commemorate VE Day at all, it won’t be Daily Mail style.
A few years back I was asked to do some work with young writers. In the café before the session, I leafed through a copy of the Daily Mail. The front cover had a story about people seen in what the British tend to call the English Channel, and the French know as La Manche. Notice the French version doesn’t suggest they own it. The people were on some kind of improvised raft.
How the story was written said a lot about what the Daily Mail takes from the world. It suggested the amateur mariners were refugees, looking to illegally enter Britain. That may or may not have been the case – all I could see was a blurred photo of some people in a precarious situation at sea.
A front page is about telling readers something important is happening. In this case, one version would be is to go into how the people have risked their lives because they were fleeing a situation so dangerous, that trusting to a homemade raft going through one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes seemed like a good idea.
That wasn’t what the Mail did. In seeing unknown people in the English (remember) Channel, they reckoned those on the raft planned to enter Britain illegally. And that was the gist of their story: foreigners seeking to take from ‘us’, the British.
A lot of beliefs go into supporting a narrative of that sort. Like, foreigners can be a threat, and the sort of foreigners we call refugees more so. And there was a supposition that the mariners would live off the British welfare system, no consideration they might have skills and resources that could add to the UK economy, like sorting Claudia Winkleman’s hair out.
There was no sense of curiosity about those possible refugees as individuals. No consideration of how they came to be refugees, in all likelihood a consequence of western countries seeking access to oil. And zero contemplation of the rights and wrongs of that situation, just a wilful ignorance illuminated for me by a banner I saw in a photo of an American march: “How did our oil get under their soil?”.
A wider perspective helps. Especially if you can put it in the context of the Daily Mail being owned by the 4th Viscount Rothermere, wealth estimated by The Times in 2015 as £1 billion. The newspaper has long had a big influence on British politics and is upfront about its right-wing preferences. After the 1936 Battle of Cable Street, in which an alliance of Jews, anarchists, communists, and socialists battled fascists in London, its then editor Lord Northcliffe – a penfriend of Hitler – said it was time to fight back against the Jews and get behind British fascist leader Oswald Mosley.
Even as late as 1938 the paper was a fan of the Nazis, running a story on 20 August 1938 “The way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage: the number of aliens entering the country through back door – a problem to which the Daily Mail has repeatedly pointed.”
There’s that image again: strangers on the horizon! One of them was Claudia Winkleman’s Austrian grandmother. So much for what Rothermere’s newspaper takes from the world. And what does it give? A few pages after the blurry cover photo of people on a raft, I came across an offer for readers, something the Daily Mail wanted to give to the world: a limited-edition ceramic mug featuring a minor member of the royal family.
One image Boris Johnson has used about covid is that it’s a mugger, and now I can’t help picturing the Mail’s memorabilia. This time round, they’re offering money with menaces. Don’t let them take you for a mug.
Victory in Europe Day 1945 – Derrick Buttress
The very first Sillitoe Trail feature by Derrick Buttress (1932-2017), author of Broxtowe Boy and a contemporary of Alan Sillitoe.
Victory in Europe Day 2020 – Paul Fillingham and Justyna Hodur
From victory to virus. Comparing the Market Square of VE Day 1945 with the Covid-19 stricken city of 2020.
The Sillitoe Trail
Take your own interactive tour of the author’s city and follow in Arthur Seaton’s footsteps around Nottingham, exploring the real locations of key scenes from the novel. You can go back to the Old Market Square or visit The White Horse pub, the Raleigh factory, the River Trent and Goose Fair. For updated content, visit Sillitoe Trail Xtra
Follow: Arthur Seaton @Thespacelathe on Twitter
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Fillingham and Walker 2012 - 2021