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July 11, 2005

A Summer's Day in St James's Park commemorating the end of World War II - two days after the London bombings

Posted by S. J. Masty

Two days after the London bombings, S J Masty goes to the commemorations marking the end of World War II in St James's Park, London - and is moved by a rather extraordinary occasion.

With an old friend I walked to St James's Park to see the so-called Living Museum, a display commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. There were bigger crowds than I had expected, and the queue stretched back almost to Admiralty Arch but it moved quickly. There was no admission charge, and past a table where polite young people peered into bags, a double row of tents displayed the work of veterans' charities, the Red Cross and other groups.

Beyond that, the crowd shuffled along a winding path where modern servicemen, in period uniforms, stood in a makeshift campsite meant to be Burma, helping visitors to work the bolts on .303 Enfield rifles. Further along was Monty's Rolls-Royce and beside that a Spitfire. A middle-aged enthusiast from the tank museum in Devon explained to a teenager that these types of WW2 German tanks now sell to collectors for a quarter of a million pounds. The boy asked why and a stranger beside him answered: "there aren't so many because our side won".

A handsome young woman, in a period woolen uniform on a warm English summer's day, polished a 1942 diesel generator that would later power the huge wartime searchlight. While visitors queued for tea (now, there's a period custom), a woman and two men in black tie stood on a makeshift NAAFI stage – singing wartime favourites such as Run Rabbit, Run and A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. As everyone always says, it is the sort of thing that Britain does well, accurate and entertaining without being cute.

Yet the crowd was as interesting as the exhibition.

The crowd was almost completely English, and white, and I do not know why. Possibly, most Asians, Africans and Caribbean people immigrated here after 1945 and so their families do not share the same wartime memories. Among literally thousands, I counted three people who had African forbearers and three South Asians – a trio of elderly Sikhs in starched, pale blue turbans, rheumy-eyed but ramrod straight, wearing almost impossibly long rows of medals on their blazers.

There were many veterans, each of whom had to be eighty or older. There were at least a dozen dapper, little, white-haired men in clipped mustaches, who looked like David Niven and who might have fought the Battle of Britain. A portly old fellow wearing a single medal, none too steady, brought hot tea back to his elderly missus waiting on the bench and spilled half of it onto the grass, but she didn't seem to mind. Old men in military berets leaned on their sticks as a pair of red-coated Chelsea Pensioners, deep in conversation, wafted among us like ghosts of Crimea. And of course there were innumerable families and teenagers and children: dads in anoraks and moms strong-arming strollers; gently balding men with a baby in their arms and another in a rucksack strapped on behind. Small, quiet children, well-scrubbed and inquisitive, seemed unaffected by the noisy, dusty ones tugging elder siblings this way and that, in fond hope of getting grubbier.

What was not to be seen in the crowd was as interesting as what was there. There was no sign of the English youth that one grows so accustomed to seeing in London nowadays, none of the slovenly, the slouching, the surly, the ill-mannered, the dead-eyed. Again I do not know why, unless their parents wouldn't take them to events such as these. And then, I swear, no sooner had this dawned on me than the trio in the NAAFI began the last song in their set. I was a little too far away to hear the singers clearly but, yes, I recognised a phrase.

While there's a busy street.
Wherever there's a turning wheel...

I strained my ears, and suddenly the song grew much louder, unexpectedly so. Beside me, a ten-year-old boy began to sing along in a clear soprano. Blue-eyed and sandy-haired, he had a choirboy's voice and it pealed like a bell.

"That's it!" the boy's mother urged softly. "You learned that in school last week!" And the lad elbowed his seven-year-old sister who scuffed her feet but joined in hesitantly. They resembled the English children in the slave market, of whom St Gregory the Great reportedly said: "Angles? They look like angels!"

What does it mean to you?
Surely you're proud…

Then I heard it. It began as a kind of a distant rumble, indistinct, undecipherable, and slowly I realised that it was the sound of people singing, but haltingly - as though they needed the time to remember the words or the strength to find their voices. Slowly the rumble grew and it became clearer and stronger.

There'll always be an England,
While there's a country lane…

Old war heroes grasping Zimmer frames; young mothers laden with infants; the three old Sikhs in the distance; a balding middle aged dad holding his young daughter aloft - they started in a hesitant undertone then, one by one, they began in earnest. Not everyone sang, but all of us stopped and stood as though at attention. And one by one, more voices joined in the rumble that in volume and in clarity steadily rose to fill the park.

Wherever there's a cottage small
Beside a field of grain…

For a moment I felt as though I had stumbled into a movie. I felt as if everything should have changed to black and white, as though we were a scene from Pressburger's Mrs Miniver that ended up on the cutting-room floor in 1942.

Freedom remains
These are the chains
Nothing can break.

Two days before we had been ordered to stay in our houses. It was fewer than forty hours since London's red buses had been released from service, ferrying rescue teams and wounded. Now Londoners were singing as the sun beat down on St James's Park, and tomorrow the Queen would come here to commemorate the veterans of a war that she knew as a child, when her nation overcame terrorists.

There'll always be an England
And England shall be free…

I am not English. I am an immigrant. My eyes filled with tears.
© s j masty 2005

S J Masty advises foreign governments on public policy communications.

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