V-J Day celebrates its 75th anniversary this week. The Japanese surrendered on 15 August 1945 in Japan but the news was received when it was 14 August in the UK and USA. In Britain this was a much lesser event that the V-E day celebration 3 months earlier. Prof Ashley Jackson of Kings College London has posted on the College website a brief survey of published diaries describing how their authors spent the day. For example, Harold Nicolson hardly noticed it. On the other hand,
… the novelist and soldier Evelyn Waugh was at his family home in Ickleford, Hitchin. ‘Peace declared. Public holiday. Remained more or less drunk all day’. On the following day he wrote: ‘Another public holiday. Hangover, Winston [Churchill, the Prime Minister’s grandson] a boisterous boy with head too big for body. Randolph [Churchill] made a bonfire and Auberon [Waugh’s son] fell into it. American came to luncheon and signed Randolph up for highly profitable daily column. Some village sports and damp bonfire and floodlit green.’
The quotes are from Waugh’s Diaries, p. 632. Waugh was, in fact, not at his own family home but that of his friend Randolph Churchill. Waugh’s home at Piers Court was not re-occupied by the family until 10 September 1945.
Novelist and critic D J Taylor also commemorates V-J Day with an essay in the New Statesman. This is entitled “We Lived Through It”, referring not to himself, born in 1960, but to his parents. As a child, he lived through the war vicariously, constantly reminded of it by his parents. His father served in the Army and his mother was head of the household in his absence. He recalls it in his war-themed toys and the films he most remembers as a child in the 60s as well as what he read as a student:
It was the same with the novels by Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell and Olivia Manning which one started reading a few years later in the sixth form. Here, it seemed, was an entire literature devoted to the war your father had fought in, where even the angry young men of the statue-toppling 1950s were signed up as junior subalterns. After all, the university-lecturing hero of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim(1954) keeps his notes in an old RAF file, visualises the streets and squares of London by remembering a weekend leave spent there during the war and is forced to compare his tenure as a RAF corporal on the west coast of Scotland with the heroics of his student Mr Michie, who commanded a tank troop at Anzio.
After summarizing the impact of the war on specific elements of British post war politics and culture, he concludes:
Three-quarters of a century after VJ Day, when the Japanese surrender brought the Second World War to its close, reminders of the conflict and its effect on our collective sensibility are still everywhere to hand. If one of its consequences was to nurture a sense of the national collective we are, and were meant to be – that whole “People’s War” framing, which sees the founding of the NHS as a natural progression from the solidarity of 1939-45 – then another has been to encourage the low-level chauvinism that hangs over our relationship with Europe. The continent is immemorially regarded as a cartel bossed by Germany, the country we defeated, and France, the country we rescued from tyranny. Even now, at a time of unimaginably lowered national prestige, it is possible for a certain kind of Englishman (and it is usually a man) to console himself with the thought that: “After all, we won the war.”
As for the personal consequences, only the other day I turned up a copy of John Keegan’s history of the Second World War, given to my father as a birthday present in the late 1980s, and returned to me by my mother after he died. On the flyleaf Dad had written his name and the four words, “Who lived through it.” As anyone born in the decades after the Second World War can tell you, in our own indirect and necessarily diluted ways, we lived through it too.
UPDATE (14 August 2020): Reference to DJ Taylor essay added.