The Burner Episode #234: on Victory

James Butler considers the 75th anniversary of VE Day: what are the politics of memory? Plus, Georgia Anderson catches us up on the story of the Nightingale hospitals.


Good morning. This is The Burner. I’m James Butler and it is Friday May 8, 2020. VE Day. And we are still in lockdown. Though for how much longer is the question on the front pages of many of the newspapers. This morning Downing Street faces a significant and strange problem. Having indicated to the press and the public that there would be a loosening of some of the lockdown measures, the right-wing press has picked up the ball and run away with it. With headlines in The Sun especially, effectively suggesting that everything was over, that the lockdown disappear… Hoorah, hoorah, good cheer, happy days are here. Now, that’s bad for Downing Street. Regular listeners to this show will know that I think one of the problems with lifting the lockdown, quite aside from timing and effectiveness, has to do with communication. So far, the lockdown has been effectively a reasonably binary state: it’s on or it’s off. You should basically be at home and so on. Now, that’s a relatively simple message to communicate and the government have failed to handle that terribly well. If you try to wind your mind back and recall the messaging that we had on going into the lockdown, it was very muddy and unclear and has been, pretty frankly, unclear throughout over who should be shielding and how intensely, or the proper reasons to leave home or exactly what powers the police have. In a more complicated form of eased lockdown, where you’re looking at to ease some measures or free up a certain part of the population to go back to work or to change their behaviour when they’re either at work or out of the house, well you need to be on top of communication – maybe above almost anything else. We hear very often about the comms geniuses inside Number 10; Dominic Cummings’ sinister power to change minds with a three word slogan. But if anything acts as a decent reproof to that idea, which is as often as much about excusing our own failure on the left as being astonished by their success on the right, it is the sheer muddiness and confusedness of communications on this. One thing that is perhaps clear is this. Changes, if any are made, need to be made at the level of the law, whether through statutory instrument or through primary legislation, rather than at the level of advice which is easily ignored, confused, rephrased, ambiguous, dated, turned around, intercalated, eccentricly synthesized and so on. And that is one of the things that trade unions have so far objected to in briefing from the government. That its advice for workplaces reopening will be merely that: advice, which they say, rightly in my view, will be ignored by many employers. Most trade unionists know very well that the only way you can ensure an employer does something is by the force of law from above or by the force of organisation from below. And, in the absence of one, we all need and should not be afraid to threaten [with] the other. Whether of course any easing of restrictions is right is an open question. Lot’s has been made of the easing of restrictions elsewhere in Europe but, in truth, it is easing from lockdowns which have been more general, more severely enforced and more serious than Britain’s. In most cases, those are easing off to the level we’re actually at now in Britain. And it is in practice, difficult to see how the lockdown can be eased much more in a practical sense in Britain, bar perhaps some further ease of the socially distanced use of our outdoor spaces. Most shops are too small to reopen practically while distancing is in force. Public transport can only operate at about 15% of capacity if it is to operate safely. Most of the public is very wary about easing off too rapidly. So, even were things to reopen, how successful they would be economically, especially when much of the hospital industry is run at razor thin margins? That’s an open question. And in truth, our rate of infection and death rate still appears to be significantly higher, even through all the data noise than that in other places that are now easing off to our current level. Perhaps though there is another side to this as well, even if Britain’s lockdown has been less severe than elsewhere, there are other problems. One simply is the weather. As we go into what’s likely to be a sunny weekend, people are going to use parks. It’s not a question of if, the question is how to manage that such that it doesn’t turn into a space for mass transmission. That’s the question for each of us, but it’s above all the question of political management. This is a genuinely difficult question of policy; of how much people can wear, of how much people can cope, of balancing risk and balancing mental health, of simply of capacity for enforcement. It’d be good if the government showed any sign of thinking about it at all, of even acknowledging its challenges. Downing Street’s advice so far has been simply “do not go sunbathing this weekend”. And fine, but will it manage to acknowledge that [to] the right-wing press? The apprentices’ sorcerer might be being especially destructive here. Don’t hold your breath now. [Clip] JB: What you’re hearing there is something pretty rare. It’s a recording of a VE day celebration in 1945 from a London pub in Wapping just by the river. One, in fact, in which I’ve spent many a pleasing summer evening after hanging out at Shadwell Basin and all of that. Sociality seems unbelievably distant right now. And there’s a lot of visual recording of that day in 1945 by the way, but actual sound recordings are pretty rare given that most of the footage was silent and overdubbed commentary or music. So, there you go. It’s also a song that reminds me of my Nan and her sisters, but yes, it is VE day: victory in Europe day. It is indeed a bank holiday. With the bank holiday that is usually observed on International Worker’s Day, May 1, moved to this day instead. And, of course, the instant question for the left is simply about that. Should we finger wag and point to this as an example of solidarity or class consciousness being subsumed by cheap and as nationalism? Maybe. But the point itself seems a little cheap or even cliché to me. Even if I don’t particularly feel impelled to celebrate, I’m pretty repelled by all the psychic bunting and Union Jack nostalgia fest many seem to be intent on. But it is a serious hard question, I think. How do you celebrate the anniversary of the end of a war which was so miserable for so many here and which was nonetheless one of the few justified and necessary wars? How to celebrate the end and downfall of fascism while refusing to pretend that Britain and its allies did not commit atrocities without justification, [like the] willful firebombing of Dresden or later the atomic horror in the Pacific? How to make also the horrors that were fought against then real and tangible again to us now? [Inaudible] somehow no longer possible to form genocidal politics – finding its fuel in poverty and in humiliation, breeding through nationalist lies which remain strongly in potential in human societies even today. So how to mark that day, when the war itself is becoming a myth unmoored from its reality? A myth of happy soldiers, or a myth of a unanimous national effort without dissent or scepticism without struggle? Topped off by Churchill in this myth, [the] universally loved, a myth of a solitary and doubtee Britain in which, among other things, the efforts of the Soviets – without whom Berlin would not have been taken and which suffered terrible, extraordinary losses, largely unremarked in British textbooks – have simply disappeared. And now it is of course a myth to be deployed, as we see now today and any time of national crisis. And at the same time, how to remember people who were for us parents or grandparents? Who had lived through five years or longer of fear and death and uncertainty, not knowing when it might end or who might survive? Many of whom could remember just a bad couple of decades before where Europe had already been tuned and gutted and drenched in blood then, for a senseless conflict and a rich man’s war. How to think of them after the wars end, building out the ashes a better social settlement, and demand a recognition that things should never be the same as they were before the war? Its inauguration of a new epoch, the end of empire or the creation of the NHS. I don’t know the answers to all these questions, which are questions of the politics of memory and questions about an event which has defined Britain more so than most European nations over the past 75 years. It has seeped into levels even deeper than mere cliché, and forms much with the way Britain still thinks about itself and its relationship to the world. Even as the world, which the postwar epoch birthed, passes and gives way to whatever new and difficult dispensation we live in now, it lives at the level of unthought of unexamined cognition. Take, for instance, this Daily Mail factoid from the other day that Germany – apparently – uses scientific terms rather than war metaphors to talk about coronavirus because we won and therefore like the war, and they lost and therefore don’t. It is of course nonsense, but it’s British nonsense. It’s ludicrous and jingoistic best. Yes, Britain is still defined by the war; but not by the actual war itself, but the war as it is thought of and remembered or, frankly in most cases today, as it is imagined by people; [all those] who were slightly too young to remember it, and who certainly reaped the benefits of the postwar state, but who often seem to take on the demeanour of people who lived through the war and use it as a cudgel against younger generations whose snow-flakiness would never stand up against Hitler or some such like that. And this ease of invocation is one thing you might find troubling. The thing I most remember all of my grandparents saying – each in different ways – but I remember my Nan most of all sitting in front of the TV news of Rwanda or Kosovo and saying simply: war is a terrible thing, James, a terrible thing. And that feeling is too easily forgotten in celebration, especially in a nation which did not suffer occupation and therefore believes it need never consider its vulnerability or the barbarisms of the occupied. But I won’t forget it. Were it not for the pandemic crisis, I don’t doubt that the celebrations today would have been much more distasteful, much more historically illiterate, much more ginned-up and nauseating. No doubt there would have been much allusion, deeply distasteful, between 1945 and Brexit. Doubtless Johnson would have found it irresistible to make a clanging and vain implicit comparison between himself and Churchill. He may yet try such a thing if the political terrain gets dicier, but such attempts now would be rightly seen as repulsive. Whatever Johnson may have said about the envy of nations across the world at our apparent success with, I remind you likely the worst death toll in Europe, there is no British victory here. There only the shame and embarrassment of living in a country ill-prepared and unjust, in which the failure of its politicians and establishment to prepare and protect its people is matched only by the witlessness and credulousness of its press – engaged forever in a turnabout game of “see no evil, hear no evil”. And, who knows, for this day we might succeed in papering over the cracks with some fresh wallpaper of spitfires and Union Jacks, of bunting and socially distanced street parties, of a nation wistful singing “we’ll meet again”. But the cracks will show. And, as the cracks show, we should ask ourselves the same questions that many Britons ask themselves coming out of the war on the other side. What can we do to ensure this never happens again? Must the world be only as it was before? What kind of future might we build and how can we ensure that all of us have a place in it? And perhaps a new question, what would it mean for this country to think of itself in a way no longer defined by a war it participated in three quarters of a century ago, but by what it is and what it might be today? Last on this. I’ve been trying to think what it is that I find so wrong, or so jarring, about the tone in which these celebrations have been pushed. In part, it has to do with the implicit analogy between the mutual aid groups and the pandemic, or the national effort of the lockdown and the solidarity in mutual support and suffering of those coming home from the war. It is partly to do with those questions of historical memory of smoothing out the past, robbing it of its complexity or difficulty; that the defeat of fascism sits side by side with Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Using it instead to ennoble the present, using it to silence awkward questions. But it’s also more than that. I’ve been thinking, as I so often think, of the work of the Gillian Rose, who died in 1994 but who sat on the committee on the future of Auschwitz. [She] spent many years thinking about how to remember atrocity and how to think about it, that thinking is so critical to remember it and to remembering it properly. But, above all, how to represent it. Even as we must represent it imperfectly. And one thing she held within the long range of her contempt – in an essay in fact about cinematic memory and especially in a passage on Schindler’s list – was something she called the “sentimentality of the ultimate predator”. She was concerned again and again about representations of the past, which stripped it of any link to the present. [Representations] which severed [the past] as something either uniquely or unthinkably evil, and therefore made it somehow something almost safe, in which we ourselves as spectators. [Spectators who] might avoid having to confront the most alarming and difficult of propositions: that our world is not so unlike the past, that our society is not so unlike theirs; that in our case we are not saved and precluded for eternity by some immutable Britishness; that no dividing, bright, clear line of singular, reassuring clarity can be drawn between that society and ours. As she puts it: “instead of emerging with sentimental tears, which leave us emotionally and politically intact, we emerge with the dry eyes of a deep grief which belongs to the recognition of our deep grounding in the emotional and political culture represented”. Perhaps the seriousness of that kind of grief Is the best place to start from. To look now at our culture, to ask the hardest of hard questions about it. Or as Brecht put it in the last lines of his play on the rise of Hitler: [Clip] Just a couple of things. Some of you will remember a few weeks ago we spoke to an NHS worker who was involved in setting up the Nightingale hospitals. Now, those same hospitals appear to be mothballed, having actually seen very, very few patients indeed. So, what happened there and what should we think about what happened in them? Georgia Anderson caught up with her again. GA: Maximum 34, 35 patients, maybe 40. I’m not sure of the exact figures of what was at his highest. To go to the nooks and crannies, the reason why it couldn’t open properly was staffing. Nurse: The recruitment infrastructure was the first thing that very quickly everyone was asking: when do I get paid? What are the rotas? How would I know when I’m working? And all these things that create too much uncertainty, that make you feel really unnerved and make you don’t want to be a part of something. Basically, this idea that in a day’s training you can upscale a general nurse to a respiratory or critical care nurse, to send them out on the floor to take care of very unwell people is just a huge discredit to nursing. It just speaks of a complete lack of appreciation for the skills and consideration of what it takes to be a professional working in that environment in that way. And the nurses, you have to have more nurses than you do doctors because they’re running the ward. They’re providing the constant ongoing care decisions that might be being made by doctors but it’s the input of the nurses who are there all the time. To me, it just really emphasised the complete lack of respect for nurses that is due. And that has been sort of very explicitly shown, in my opinion, in healthcare environments. For example, shift patterns allowing people to work with staff shortages on wards, which was huge pressure on the team as it is, and not being that bothered about recruiting another nurse saying “Oh, well, the help healthcare system will just pick that up” – and healthcare assistants do an amazing job of picking stuff up – but it’s not fair to put the pressure of nursing onto them. They’re not paid for it. It’s three years of nurse training and then you’ve got your first year where you’ve got your preceptorship, and then you probably got a year where, if you’re on your rotation, you want to think about specialising. So, really, it’s five years and they aren’t like “Oh, here you go, one day you’re done”. And we had a nursing shortage, very well known, before we came into this pandemic. So, the fact that they didn’t think we already have a nursing shortage… And, now, for this scale of hospital, we’re asking people to be away from their teams and away from their stretches of support and just become a nurse at this level. And it’s just a complete lack of respect, and sense of reality about the situation. GA: Dehumanising. Nurse: It’s really dehumanising and nurses are absolutely treated like shit from my experience working. It’s really brutal. The junior doctors were also treated like absolute trash, but I think there’s some stuff that has been put in place about wellbeing through one really hard campaign. The failure to respect work and care, a traditional female role, is done by people who are giving them a clap but don’t give them any respect. And in failing to do that, this hospital just ended up being a big PR stunt. GA: What’s happening with the Nightingale now? Nurse: Um, everything has been fumigated and shrink-wrapped ready for the expected second surge in July. JB: My thanks to Georgia for that. And hugely important, I think, to point up those staffing issues and the much longer-term crisis in nursing levels. But we’ll keep our eye on those Nightingale hospitals, especially as we wait, if and when, for that second wave to crash on down. Headlines today Ahead of us today and this weekend, we wait to see what everyone will do this weekend, with messages circulating through the police will certainly be stepping up very enforcement measures. Stories of conflicts among the cabinet and among the wider Tory party abound, and I think we can expect to see more of those over this coming weekend as various elements in the Tory party start to brief their favourite journalists – shifting a bit of blame around ahead of time – and are especially keen to get capitalism back in the swing of things again. That’s particularly true of Deutsche bank or Android, and the ex-Chancellor Sajid, the “Saj” Javid, who is all over the airwaves today to tell us that “the economy needs to run the hot” – which might, I suppose, be a meaningful expression were it a car, or indeed a laptop with bad thermal pasting. But it’s not. But it’s a strong signal that there will be lots of support, I think, for pulling of a financial support as soon as possible. At least from the government benches. Elsewhere today, the Welsh first minister, Mark Drakeford, will be making announcements about lockdown plans in Wales at 12:30pm today. And there’s much that’s likely to be interesting and disappointing in there. We’ll be looking at the lockdown in Wales in more detail next week. And as, as ever, I think Welsh Labour, in particular, poses some of the more difficult questions for the left in Britain more widely, though the left beyond Wales often likes to ignore those questions. Grant Shapps is to urge us all to get on our bikes, not in a Norman Tebbit sense but as a way of avoiding cars and public transport during the crisis. And as a cyclist I say, “great, you should commit to building the infrastructure to make it plausible and practical”, so that I’m not relying on a smear of blue paint on a road to make sure I don’t become a different kind of smear on the road. Keir Starmer manages a headline in The Telegraph this morning, as it splashes on his message linking VE day patriotism and social duty to the crisis in care homes. It’s an interesting one. Perhaps not insignificant, I think, as some people on the internet are making out. It gives one decent co-ordinate of what kind of things Starmerism maybe. We’re still waiting for the rest of those coordinates to properly blink into existence though. And Boris Johnson will round off your weekend by giving a televised address on the future of the lockdown on Sunday evening. But, instead, I hope you’ll try to enjoy your Sunday rather than expose yourself to a really bad Churchill impression. But that’s it for today, and indeed this week. You’ll perhaps have noticed that this edition was slightly later out this morning than it might otherwise have been. Blame it on a combination of technical fuck ups and, frankly, exhaustion on my part. But my thanks to the wonderful team at Novara Media as ever and to everyone who’s been writing and staying in touch. And, of course, to the fabulous 65daysofstatic for that music. Do please stay in touch. I’m on [email protected] And perhaps especially keep in touch with your experiences of the lockdown over the weekend and experiences in the UK, outside of England and beyond – anything interesting really. But that’s it. This is The Burner. I’ll see you on Monday. Have a great weekend. Ciao.  

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