The 60th Anniversary Of VE Day At Our Lady's Catholic College Lancaster

On Tuesday 18th January, at 3.30 pm, Mr Norman Gardner, on behalf of the Lancaster Military Heritage Group, visited Chris Robson, the Head of History at Our Lady's Catholic College, Lancaster. Norman wanted the staff and pupils of the school to be involved in the town community's programme of festivities to celebrate the 60th anniversary of VE Day. The outcome of the discussion was that, with the Head's support, Year 9 teaching would be slanted towards the topic, in order to produce a display of work for of Friday 6th May in the assembly hall: this would provide a venue that evening for a concert, where the children could use their talents to reawaken consciousness of their great-grandparents' experience of total war.

The History staff got to work, so the young people would be able to contextualize the events being recalled. There were lessons on the passio which paid for the resurrection of victory, drawing into its net the shoal of anecdotes that make the study of the past so intriguing: stories of the generosity of the Canadians, who gave $2,500 millions to the United Kingdom during the war, as well as the flower of their young men; and tales of fighter pilots with their girlfriend's stockings tied round their necks as keepsakes. Many of the children got fascinated by the personalities, especially of Georgi Zhukov, who, as defender of Moscow and saviour of Stalingrad, was the main architect of Hitler's military defeat in the field: Zhukov was a devout Christian, and at the siege of Koenigsberg the guns of the Wehrmacht conveniently seized up just after the Orthodox litany to the Virgin had been said by him.

These fragments inspired the pupils to take up their own research. Mrs Dorothy Williams asked children across the year to produce pictorial work celebrating the wartime experience, and got the pupils to interview the older members of their families to find out about the everyday happenings of the Second War. Work started to come in from the young people: neatly drawn maps of Fighter Command's operations in the Battle of Britain; and fading ration books salvaged from an old box in the garage, and served up with a piece of writing on the family diet in a Torrisholme household in May 1941.Accounts of evacuees were prominent, and there is all the pathos of parent-less boys and girls in groups on railway platforms waiting for someone to take care of them: "My Nanna wanted an evacuee to come and live with them…but her Mum said no because she already had six children". There was some well illustrated work on how families responded to bombing by the Luftwaffe, in an age which erroneously believed that wars could be won by indiscriminate civilian bombing: "my great auntie was killed by a bomb in Barrow", an obvious target because of the naval dockyard; and "the blackout was dark because no lights were allowed to be shown".Even more emotive are family references to combat, which led to some of the best work, again amplified with photographs, cap badges, medal ribbons, and, sometimes, newspaper cuttings rejoicing at some feat of arms or, with circumspect restraint, describing some military fiasco. This typifies the writing:" My Grandad was a blackwatch ( i.e. a member of the Black Watch )….At one point he had to guard Buckham (Buckingham) Palace….Whilst he was abroad he got shot six times, all down the same side…he could of (have) died if it wasn't for one of his friends, because my Grandad was going to be stabbed by a bayonet but his friend jumped in the way of the attack…"Using these and similar contributions, Dorothy created a display which took pride of place on the east side of the designated concert hall. It was an eye-catching exhibition, which demonstrated that a new generation can appreciate its precursors and pay them tribute on important matters of honour.

And the Sixth Form got involved. Here, the key issue under scrutiny was ethical, the perennial question as to whether the use of force in the face of evil is ever morally permissible. Mrs Juliie Woods, the assistant to the Chaplain, who herself has some elements of Azkenazic Jewish ancestry, centred the discussion on the implementation of Nazi racialist theory in the death camps of eastern Europe during the years 1941 – 1944. Julie became interested in the harrowing story of the SS round-up of Jewish children in the West for the gas chambers in the autumn of 1942, and went on to construct an important component in the concert, based on her own act of witness, and a macabre dance of death which caught the horror of the holocaust in full swing. The cold-blooded precision of a judicial documents from the Nuremberg Trials is an eloquent argument that self-defence and resistance sometimes have to go beyond the moral and the spiritual, all important though these ultimately be

Meanwhile, other wheels were turning.Mrs Anna Pendlebury, the Head of Music, was busy getting the staff singers into shape for the big night, and proved herself yet again an accomplished choirmistress, with an infallible judgment for what works, while her husband Stephen were rehearsing with the band and the jazz trio.Other performers were busy, under the direction of Mrs Jill Bowers and Mrs Theresa Murphy, who together have given the school a strong reputation in dance. And Mr Stephen Sweet, the Chief IT Technician of Our Lady's Catholic College, was ferreting through the internet for photographs of the chief protagonists, and found most of the best things for the concert's powerpoint presentation.

On the morning of Friday the 6th Mrs Maureen Ashworth of the RE Department mounted a floral display around the statue of Our Lady in the school entrance hall. This statue of the Virgin, in Carrara marble , stands on a plinth of blue Lakeland granite. For the previous week, it had been flanked on its two sides by the Roll of Honour, the names of those men from Lancaster and its surrounding district who fell in combat during the Second War: this was compiled through the painstaking research of Brigadier Jim Dennis (retd). Maureen chose the colour red for the display, and cleverly used a combination of carnations, aquilegias, and amaryllis in imaginative sprays to deck the foot of the statue, and crowning Our Lady's head with crimson carnations. The implicit message of this arresting focal point was to emphasise the sacrificial and co-redemptive aspects of suffering in the cause of what is morally right, and to endorse the sentiment that the offering of one's life in appalling circumstances need not be in vain. All was now prepared for the evening's entertainment.

The concert itself began at 7.30 sharp with a short snatch from the celebrated Riefenstahl film of Hitler addressing the Nuremberg Rally on German rearmament. Then the hall was blacked out, and the sirens wailed their warning. At this point , the show's Director, Chris Robson, moved into the spotlight that covered the lectern and read out the words of George VI's BBC broadcast for Christmas 1940: "And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year….Put you hand into the hand of God".. This opening of such contrasts was completed with the first bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, in morse code three dots and a dash, 'V' for victory, on Churchill's insistence the call sign to SOE operatives throughout occupied Europe.

The template for the concert's structure , a powerpoint presentation of key slides from the Second War period,interspersed the eighteen elements in the evening's programme, providing vivid links with those years and conjuring up their ambience, in the military, political, and entertainment senses. Within this framework, there were four inputs into the concert, the drama, the band, dance, and singing, arranged into a pattern which captured the feelings of wartime from the outbreak of hostilities, but which put a justified emphasis on the last eighteen months of the conflict.

Scene 3 of Noel Coward's Still Life, the basic script for the film Brief Encounter, which Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson immortalized, was the obvious choice for the would-be actors of Year 10.Coward, whose Pride of London incarnated the capital's spirit of defiance during the Blitz, wrote a play which reflected the moral discipline and taboos of the early 1940s generations which, at least indirectly, contributed to survival and to victory. The excerpt was competently produced, and the staging well realised, even if the lines were sometimes muttered inaudibly.

The band could be heard, and there was a merciful absence of the atonal cacophony that can mar neophytes' performances. The trumpeters and trombonists, who had to rise to an occasion celebrating Artie Shaw, the Squadronnaires , Joe Loss, and above all Glen Miller, the colossus of 'the big band era', who disappeared mysteriously in a doomed flight over the Channel in 1944, did so. There were no false starts and the notes were secure. These young instrumentalists played Little Brown Jug and Moonlight Serenade , compositions which resonated with the new world the GIs brought with them. And this not-so-big band was complemented by its specialist trio, Helen Adderley , Sarah-Jayne Drake, and Mrs Rachel Kelly, who caught the smoky atmosphere of the blues, and, through the sincere flattery of mimesis, paid a tribute to Duke Ellington and other denizens of the jazz pantheon.

And the players in the band made the dancers spin and pirouette, in an innovative mix of items. Indeed, the dancers of the Lower School and Year 10 provided the event with the necessary chutzpah, and brought kaleidoscopic movement to an agenda which threatened to be static. The choreography sparkled in four elements: the jive, to mark the entry of the Americans to the UK; a sombre number related to the Holocaust and based on the theme music for Schindler's List, which was characterised by balletic grace, most obviously from the lead dancer, Rosie Bates; a Russian dance, to salute Zhukov and the soldiers of the Red Army he led from Stalingrad to Berlin, a dance item which had all the charm of English boys and girls attempting to mimic Cossack ferocity and gymnastic kicking from physiologically awkward postures; and a final explosion of light and colour in a euphoric VE Day street party.

For those over 65, and they were many of them that night, the spine of the programme was provided by the songs. Bye Bye Blackbird, Blue Moon, Good Night Sweetheart, Blueberry Hill, and , of course, The White Cliffs of Dover, sung by the staff choir with sporadic audience participation in 'singalong sections', were effortlessly evocative of the indigenous popular music of the time. Through the fog of nostalgia can be detected in these wartime songs the winsome sentimentality and escapism of music in the late 1930s, with echoes in the work of very different artistes, among them Arthur Askey, for ever linked with Kiss Me Goodnight, Sergeant-Major, and Anne Shelton, whose My Devotion became a signature tune.

The Americans changed all that. In the long run-up to D Day the songs of US troops, many of whom were stationed in Britain, brought an invigorating brashness and candour to the pulse of an Appalachian beat.The children of St Bernadette's Primary School, constituted as 'The New Voice of Youth Choir', gave us several of the results of this American infusion, among them Chattanooga Choo Choo, which they sang with innocence and gaiety. Their director, Ms.Sue Parish, then delivered what is aesthetically and musically the greatest song of the War, A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, transcending the technical constraints and proving herself to be a mezzo-soprano soloist to be reckoned with. It was a hard act to follow, but there were some agreeable surprises. Among the evening's 'Americana' , against the large slide of 'Frankie Boy' beaming his seductive smile and twinkling his 'ole blue eyes', were two Sinatra hits, among them What A Difference A Day Makes: this was sung by Cameron Baird in the 9th Year with real style, worthy of the Italian American maestro, and was the show-stealer that overtrumped all the other US cards, quite disarming the professionals and semi-professionals.

No concert of the period could confine itself to sycophantic gratitude to the United States, or, by implication, to anglophone librettists. There must be a smattering of other languages. Culturally, the Second War was not Anglo-Saxon; it was European. Thus it was fitting that Anna Webster should sing the Pie Jesu , the Latin words which underpin the score of Gabriel Faure's Requiem, a work performed in Notre Dame shortly after the liberation of Paris by Leclerc and Rol-Tanguy in August 1944. Anna kept her nerve and held the top C and other head notes. And, it goes without saying, no commemoration of the Allied victory would have been complete without a rendering of Lilli Marlene, sung by Lale Andersen in the tragic words of Norbert Schulzer, a favourite melody with Rommel's Afrikakorps; and which, in its English form , was sung at Tobruk and El Alamein by the men of 8th Army. Unaccompanied, Mr Chris Robson could get away with upping the key when he had a shot at singing parts of this superb song in German as well as in English, that built an invisible spiritual bridge between the two groups of combatants: Bei der Kaserne, vor dem grossen Tor, steht 'ne Laterne , und steht sie noch davor

The interval was an opportunity to raise money for The British Legion. A 10th Year pupil, Josh Macaulay, smartly turned out in his RAF cadet uniform, and helped by other students who were also in the CCF, went round with collecting tins so that disabled ex-servicemen and their families could be assisted financially. With the same purpose, Miss Pat Ormesby, the Head of Chemistry, had been selling raffle tickets, and she made the raffle draw as people returned to their seats. In the wartime fashion, Pat wore a pinny and had her hair covered with a headscarf. It soon became clear that the raffle prizes were ration coupons, blackout curtains, Churchillian recruiting posters, and other bric-a-bric from long forgotten attics with windows looking out on long since bulldozed bomb sites. It must also be said that the assembly hall was full, and that all proceeds from the sale of tickets, '£3 for adults, and £1.50 for concessions', also went to the charity. These various bids for generosity paid off, and as a result of the evening's fund-raising endeavours Mr Raymond Hirst, the President of the local branch of The British Legion, received a cheque for £612.67.

The concert's finale was set against an impressive array of powerpoint slides showing Nazi propaganda on its last legs, Hitler's bunker hours after his suicide, and Von Keitel and Doenitz signing the deeds of unconditional surrender. There followed a recording Winston Churchill's message to the British people saying that "the German War is over", and through the scratch marks and random background interference, could be heard the rapturous cheers and shouts of the crowd. The dancers filled the stage with riotous colour, and swirls and counter-swirls of centrifugal and centripetal movement. Then , at the click of the conductor's baton, the band played the music of Ludwig Van Beethoven's Ode An Die Freude, The Hymn to Joy, the European anthem: its words are an exaltation of liberty from the greatest of composers, who hated tyranny and militarism, as befitted a son of the profoundly liberal Rhineland. It is a work linking peace and joy in a manner redolent of St Francis of Assisi.

Lastly came the Parthian shots of gratitude from the Director, Mr Chris Robson. There were thanks for the Lancaster Military Heritage Group, specifically for Norman Gardner, Councillor Sheila Denwood , and Brigadier Jim Dennis, who inspired the event in the first place. And Mr Robson acknowledged his debt to to the Head, the staff involved in co-direction,, the children, their parents and families, and the audience:

It was time for the Director's valediction, and he chose the words of Prospero in The Tempest that, by oral tradition, are regarded as Shakespeare's farewell to the London theatre. The play itself is, suitably enough for a memorial about the months from the Normandy landings to the fall of Berlin, an allegory about redemption from slavery; but these utterances of Prospero, the wizard with a wonder-working wand, refer to the ephemeral fantasy of the stage not as enslaving but as life-enhancing and liberating.

You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismayed. Be cheerful, sir,
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
……………
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep…….

Tempest. IV.i. 146-150, 155-159

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