The Second World War is frequently invoked as a global crisis similar to that faced today: a life-and-death battle on a worldwide scale. But is this analogy fitting and accurate? Is it right and helpful for us to think of coronavirus as an enemy to be defeated? Should we, in the UK, be demonstrating a new ‘Blitz spirit’? Are the risks the same? Who and what are creating and shaping the nature of the dangers faced?
Many Londoners’ experiences of life before lockdown extend to the Second World War. Some people served in the armed forces and saw action overseas. Others were children at the time and experienced the challenges of the Home Front, such as separation from families, shortages of food and other essentials, fears for loved ones on the front lines, and the threat of sudden death and destruction from the air. Lockdown has caused many to reflect on those events. The memories of older people encourage contemplation of the nature of that conflict, the reality of its challenges and narratives, and the appropriateness of comparing those days to these. They also prompt consideration of how different generations can perceive threats to life, health and wellbeing in times of danger and emergency.
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Morry (94) was evacuated as a child during the second world war, from the East End to the countryside, to escape enemy bombing. He then served in the British Army: 'We were much more disciplined in the war. In the war, you were told what to do, you did it. Now people are doing their own thing. They’re not listening. You’re supposed to keep yourself confined to the house. Don’t go out, only unless you have to go out. But we find people taking walks with their children as though nothing’s happened. It’s never going to get cured unless people abide. In wartime, we were told what to do and we did it. You can only have this, that’s it. You can’t have that. You had to suffer for it. You were told, ‘You’re going in the army’. You did as you were told. There was no messing around.'
Violet (91) lives in Manor House. During the Second World War she worked in a cafe in Dover, Kent: 'When you went out shopping, it was rations and it was all right. But here, with the people hoarding all the stuff when it first started, how they went rushing out and buying all these toilet rolls and everything, I think it was mad. But that’s how life goes, isn’t it? I used to be a waitress then. All the troops, the soldiers, the navy, used to come in. We used to wait on them. Very cheerful. We’d have a laugh and a joke and that. Everybody was friendly. Everybody helped you out and things like that. You wouldn’t dream of asking a bunch of soldiers or sailors to come into your home now.'
Joe (96) served in the British Army during the Second World War. He saw active service in Italy, including the Battle of Monte Cassino: 'It was an experience, something to look back on. It wasn’t a great experience, but still. You see the other side of life. I was there for just over three years in Italy. It was interesting times. It was dangerous at times. I was a unit armourer. We used to make sure the weapons were working correctly - if they needed repairing, we’d do that. We was up there in the Battle of Cassino when they bombed the monastery. We was outside there. It was an experience. But I think this lockdown seems to be worse. Harder, maybe, because of my age. Harder than when I was in the army during that time, that period. It was scary at the time but we was young. I was only 20.'