The Beginning and the End
The day war broke out – the Second World War – I was three years old. I can’t claim to remember those dreadful words, ‘This country is at war with Germany’, but I can recall the atmosphere in the room as they were said. My grandfather was sitting smoking his pipe in his big reclining chair with its tweedy brown cushions. In fact, he always seemed to be brown and tweedy himself, except on Sundays when he wore a grey suit with a rose in his buttonhole. I suppose it couldn’t always have been a rose but there was certainly always a flower from the garden. He had a cunning silver device with a thimbleful of water in it, which clipped behind the buttonhole and was lovingly prepared by my grandmother.
On the shelf beside him stood the radio, an impressive wooden box with its circle of mesh and its array of large knobs, and beside that stood his pipe stand and all the paraphernalia necessary to the 1930’s smoker.
I was sitting on the hearthrug. There was no fire, this being early September, but the grate was laid and on the hearth was a pile of cobbler’s wooden lasts. In this Northamptonshire village, discarded lasts were the mainstay of everyone’s fire. Around me in their armchairs sat my parents and my grandmother. My mother’s knitting was abandoned in her lap and I wondered why. My grandfather had reprimanded her for knitting on a Sunday. It had been quite a disturbance because my mother had remarked tartly that she would stop knitting on Sunday if he was happy to see his granddaughter without a vest on Monday. My grandmother was on the edge of her chair, twisting her blue flowery apron in her fingers. She was a fidgety lady and someone always seemed to be telling her to sit down. My father was hunched forward, the bowl of his pipe cupped in one hand. No-one was smiling. They were all listening intently to the voice coming from the wireless and I knew that I must not make a sound. Something important was happening.
To my horror, I suddenly saw a harvest spider walking towards me across the hearthrug, one of those spiders with a tiny body and dreadfully long legs. I can see it now and feel the panic rising. I sat there not moving a muscle while the words from the wireless slowly filled the room and the spider worked its way relentlessly towards me. It reached me and, one leg at a time, climbed onto my hand. Would it carry on up my arm? No, it crossed my hand and stepped down to continue its journey into the hearth where it disappeared among the cobbler’s lasts. Still frozen with anxiety that the spider might reappear, I became aware that the voice from the wireless had stopped and the room was filled with silence. No-one spoke. We were all held together in a moment of fear.
The day the war ended, I was nine years old and in school. It so happened that my class was in the school hall for a singing lesson. Suddenly, the door burst open and a young teacher ran in, flinging her arms in the air and shouting, ‘It’s over!’ The teachers hugged each other, tears streaming down their faces, and we children looked on in wonderment. Our teacher pulled herself together and said, ‘I think we should all sing God Save the King’, so we did, with gusto. Then the whole school gathered in the hall and the Headmaster led us in saying ‘Our Father’ and we were allowed to go home straight away. I had quite a long walk, along suburban roads. Everywhere, children were jumping about with excitement and women were bringing out armfuls of bunting and Union Jacks. I wondered where they could have found them as I had never seen such things. Some children had already made big signs for their front doors proclaiming Welcome Home Daddy! I ran on, eager to see what my house looked like with bunting and flags. As I got nearer, I was so disappointed to see that my house was just the same as usual. No decorations at all. I opened the back door to be greeted by the whirr of the vacuum cleaner . There was my mother busy with her housework. ‘Mum!’ I shouted. ‘The war’s over!’ I had to shout it twice before she took it in and switched the cleaner off.
I can remember feeling utterly deflated. Everyone else was so excited and my mother didn’t even know. ‘There are flags everywhere,’ I said, ‘and we haven’t got anything!’ I actually felt ashamed at our lack of patriotism, after a childhood punctuated with frequent renderings of Rule Britannia and There’ll Always be an England, let alone The White Cliffs of Dover.
But my mother redeemed herself. Hurriedly pushing the vacuum cleaner back into the cupboard under the stairs, she led the way up to the box room, the resting place of The Black Box. This was a trunk-sized wooden box in which my mother kept all kinds of assorted treasures, from photo albums to dressing-up clothes. Because the lid was so heavy, I had never been allowed to attempt getting anything out of it so to me it was a box of mysteries. She heaved open the lid, moved aside a couple of spare blankets and revealed – oh glory! – a Union Jack and a whole string of bunting. Soon our house was as patriotically decorated as everyone else’s and honour was satisfied.
Our local celebration of VE Day took the form of a party in the park, with fireworks as a grand finale. Once again, I was destined to experience acute disappointment. I have no recall of the party but I do remember the trestle table on which the big wooden box of fireworks was displayed. We children gazed at the box, having very little idea of what the display would be like, and wishing that we could see the actual fireworks. A young soldier was standing guard over the box and he told us that on no account could the box be opened in case a spark from a cigarette set the whole lot alight. I have a clear picture of the soldier standing gazing watchfully out over the crowd, the box on the table behind him. A loudspeaker announcement told us all where we should gather to watch the display in safety and we all hurried to take our places. A hush descended, then another announcement. ‘I regret to inform you that there will be no firework display as the box of fireworks has been stolen.’
‘Shame!’ ‘Disgusting!’ ‘Those spivs, they’ll steal anything!’ The crowd grumbled its way home, my father remarking that he wouldn’t be in that soldier’s boots for anything.
How would this disappointment be overcome? The timescale here is hazy but at some point the street lighting was restored and we all went for a walk in the dark to see the lamp posts lit up. To me it was fairyland as I danced along the road from one lamp to the next and I was sure that no firework display could ever be so exciting. I remember my mother saying she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, laughing at my happiness but crying that my childhood had been so dull in the war years that I could be joyful at something as mundane as a lamp post.
No matter, the war had come and gone, peacetime had begun and my future was bright.