Prince Charles was chosen to front the events marking the 75th anniversary of VE-Day, the end of the war in Europe. His parents, I suppose, were regarded as too old to perform that role and at the ages of 94 and 98 no-one could seriously argue with that.
What I noticed, a bit smugly perhaps, was that the Crown Prince, even at the age of 71, was too young to have been present at the VE-Day celebrations on Monday May 8, 1945 – but I wasn’t.
My strongest recollection is being told sternly at school on the previous Friday – I would have been seven and a half at the time – that we could take Monday and Tuesday off if the end of the war was announced, but we had to return to school as normal if it wasn’t.
I was too young and too far away to have danced in Piccadilly and the Mall like the thousands who did – happy pictures of whom are being shown this weekend. I was in a rather dour mining village in county Durham, to which I had been evacuated.
But I can still remember the jolly street party in the main village street, mainly for the jellies, trifles and jam tarts that were such an amazing treat for a small boy who had lived for the previous five years on iron rations (though I admit to having formed an addiction to the cod liver oil and malt we were required to swallow every evening).
It is remarkable that that period of national rejoicing and unity has been recalled during the present Covid-19 crisis without any cynicism that I can detect. Figures like Dame Vera Lynn, aged 103, and Captain (now Colonel) Tom Moore, aged 100, are celebrated as a national hero and heroine. One can almost expect statues of them to be erected in Trafalgar Square.
There are newsreel pictures of Winston Churchill standing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace waving his cigar at the cheering crowds. Soon after the dancing was over, however, his government was kicked out of office by returning Servicemen, like my father, who wanted a new kind of Britain after the sufferings and privations of war.
In came Clement Attlee’s Labour government, with massive nationalisation of industry, the revered National Health Service and the Welfare State – all funded by massive loans from the United States. Only six years later, however, Churchill was put back in Downing Street by an electorate disenchanted with poverty, unemployment, homelessness and the ineffectiveness of Labour’s reforms in regenerating a shattered economy.
Returning after the Covid pandemic will be much like returning from the Second World World War. Although there have been many fewer deaths than in war-time and the vast majority of those have been of old people, it is the younger generation that will face the economic chaos that follows.
Let’s hope Boris Johnson’s government learns from the mistakes of 1945 and rebuilds the economy from the bottom up to create work for people, rather that strutting on the global stage.
Salute to a gentle hero of our time
Today I celebrate an unsung hero of British newspapers and British athletics who died this week at the age of 76. He was a close friend and adviser to Roger Bannister, who ran the first four-minute mile, and played an important role in the London Marathon (of which he ran an astonishing 29) as well as being the Editor of three national newspapers and a top executive on two others.
John was a friend of mine in his later years and I formed the view that it was only his gentle and unassertive personality that prevented him from gaining the recognition he deserved as one of the most talented figures in the journalism of his time.
He was born in the Somerset village of Haselbury Plucknet and retained the West Country burr he acquired in his childhood. He said he learned to enjoy running by chasing the school bus in the village.
At Oxford he won an athletics blue and was captain of cross-country running before starting his journalistic career in Edinburgh. He rose to be Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Telegraph, leading the newspaper’s move out of Fleet Street to Victoria, but disliked the rough-and-tumble of making staff redundant and fighting off jealous colleagues who wanted his job.
He was unluckily involved in two newspaper disasters – The European, launched by Robert Maxwell, which died soon after the reviled tycoon fell off his boat; and the Sunday Correspondent, founded by a group of City tycoons who soon ran out of money.
He became deputy Editor of The Times and then a senior figure on the Daily Mail. It was while he was at the Mail that he discovered the young South African athlete, Zola Budd, brought her to England, secured her a British passport (she had a British grandmother) and enabled her to compete for Great Britain at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
Although she reached the final of the women’s 800 metres, she unfortunately stumbled and tripped the popular local favourite, Mary Decker, putting them both out of contention for medals. She suffered some nasty abuse from the media, especially in America, and never achieved the success her talent always promised.
John, meanwhile, never stopped running. He was captain of the world’s oldest running club. Even after he was hit and seriously injured by a car on a training run, in which his legs were so mangled after the crash that he was told that he would never walk again, he recovered to run many more marathons.
He went on to write a number of books on athletics – on Jogging, on the four-minute mile, on the London Marathon and a biography of its founder, Christopher Brasher. I helped him a bit with last two.
He gave me credit for helping to get the London Marathon under way by hosting a lunch at The Observer at which we brought together all the interested parties – representatives from Greater London Council, the Metropolitan and City Police, the heads of the local boroughs through which the race would run, the bosses of the London parks - and banged their heads together.
I am glad to have this opportunity to salute a gently-spoken man who achieved much more in his life than he would ever admit.