By Terence Nunn
Copyright 2010 by Terence Nunn
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This is a true story; some
names have been changed.
Chapter 1: Chalk and Cheese
Chapter 2: Days of Rose's Lime Juice
Chapter 3: Being Evacuated
Chapter 4: Mud and Sheep
Chapter 5: A Glow in the Sky
Chapter 6: Rescue
Chapter 7: Acton, Home and Beauty
Chapter 8: We'll Keep a Welcome in the Hillside
Chapter 9: Entertainments
Chapter 10: Sour Milk
Chapter 11: Miss Morgan the Organ
Chapter 12: A Little Learning
Chapter 13: Into the Slums
Chapter 14: Hitler's Ear
The night I was born, twenty thousand Nazi stormtroopers, across the sea in Berlin, marched in triumphant torchlit procession through the warm summer dusk. Though they were not doing this to celebrate my arrival, there was nonetheless a connection between the two events. For, seven short years later, Britain declared war on Hitler's Germany and as a result I, like over three million others, became a child evacuee.
I once read somewhere that the mass evacuation of children in Britain at the beginning of the Second World War was the greatest population movement in so short a time in the country's history. It could well be true. In the early months of the war we were packed off in our thousands from London and the other big cities, the likely targets of Hitler's bombs, to the safety of the countryside. Tagged with luggage-labels bearing our names and addresses, gas-mask cases over our shoulders, hordes of us scrambled onto trains and buses, often without the faintest idea where we would end up. There were tearful farewells as bewildered children left homes and parents behind them to travel into the unknown.
After long journeys we arrived in some town or village, tired, hungry and dirty, often to find ourselves herded into a hall or schoolroom to be subjected to a process reminiscent of an ancient Roman slave-market, as total strangers looked us over and picked and chose the children they were prepared to take into their homes. It was a traumatic experience that marked many for life. Some have suffered after-effects in later years: a dislike of travelling, feelings of insecurity or the inability to settle down. I like to flatter myself that the experience gave me a broader outlook on life than those who spent their entire childhood in Birmingham or Bexleyheath, and a disdain for the blinkers that so many people seem to choose to spend their lives wearing.
It probably didn't do me any lasting harm to be beaten up, half-starved, pushed around and neglected at such a tender age; after all, the upper classes have for generations been sent away to their boarding-schools to be beaten up, half-starved, pushed around, etc., and still, in what is technically a democracy, they continue to come out on top.
But this is no sociological treatise. Rather, it is the personal story of one small, bemused wartime evacuee, recollected unreliably in tranquillity. It is a modest attempt to give a little of the flavour of the experience of evacuation and of the times that made it necessary.
Meanwhile, back at the torchlit rally...
Chapter 1: Chalk and Cheese
A lot of photographs are like the picture of Dorian Gray. They stay shut away in the dark as the years go by. You, of course, are much the same person you always were; each day you look in the mirror and see the same face that you saw yesterday. You haven't changed. But as the decades have gone by, those photographs, once so new and fresh, have aged visibly until by now they look quite antique.
The pictures of the world of my childhood are like that. Buses with square fronts and funny spoked wheels drive down streets filled with men wearing cloth caps and mufflers. People in long one-piece bathing costumes stand on forgotten beaches or, baggy trousers rolled up, paddle gingerly at the water's edge. There is even the occasional late-flowering cloche hat. Can these ridiculous old photographs really show the world into which I was born?
My earliest memory of that world is of lying on my back in my pram, watching peeling stucco facades moving across my field of vision as I was pushed down a grey, porticoed street. This, no doubt, was in Fulham in south-west London, where my family lived at the time, at No. 37 Castletown Road. (I have never had any desire to go back to the womb; it sounds boring, not to say claustrophobic. Back to the pram is quite a different matter. It is a very comfortable way to travel and if the weather turns bad they pull the hood up and you can listen to the sound of the rain thrumming down on the navy-blue canvas and enjoy the delicious feeling of being warm and snug and dry while everyone outside, including the pram-pusher, is getting wet. Perhaps most people have a subconscious memory of this childhood sensation and this accounts for a great deal of the popularity of the motor-car. After all, what is a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce but the ultimate in grown-up perambulators?).
Fulham was not, in 1932 when I was born, the smart address that it has since become, and if you lived there you did not boast about it. My mother, who was one of nature's snobs, referred to the area to her dying day as 'West Kensington'. On my frayed and decaying birth certificate, Alfred Brady, Registrar of Births and Deaths for the District of Fulham, recording in a good round hand my arrival, EPNS spoon in mouth, into the ranks of the upper lower middle classes, also refers to the area as 'West Kensington', no doubt writing at my mother's dictation.
It seems that I did not much care for Fulham myself, for as soon as I was delivered I gave voice to howls and yells of rage and sorrow, which did not stop for several days. Always a finicky eater, I turned my nose up at the various varieties of slop which were offered to me and, according to my mother, would not have survived had I not compromised and struck a deal with Cow and Gate baby food, from which time I never looked back.
It is quite certain that if my parents had left it much longer I'd have missed the boat. When I was born, my father was sixty years old, my mother forty-two. And considering what an oddly-matched couple they were, it's a wonder I even got to the gang-plank. For fifty-two years my father walked in and out of the same office in Finsbury Square in the City. During that period he worked his way up the long ladder from office-boy to company secretary in a rather staid firm of wool importers. Such a one-track, monotonous career suggests a colourless, uninteresting personality. And yet I remember him as a warm, kindly, humorous man. With his wise, smiling eyes and Roman nose, he looked quite distinguished - rather like me, in fact. He smoked a pipe, liked Haydn and Mozart in moderation and dabbled in water-colour painting. He was an excellent bowls-player and was the president of two bowling clubs.
Disliking old age, my father believed that everyone should be put into a gas chamber on his sixty-fifth birthday, but, being a man of flexible opinions, he had no difficulty in changing his mind on reaching that age himself. At one time a special constable, he had been drafted to Ireland at the time of the Troubles. A skillful handyman, he once confessed that he would have liked to spend his life as a carpenter, 'working with my hands'. But as a stockbroker's son at the end of the nineteenth century such a career was one that he could never have seriously considered. (There cannot, as I write, be very many people left in this world who had as a paternal grandfather a High Victorian stockbroker, born in the eighteen-forties. Unfortunately, any financial advantage that might be expected to accrue from such an ancestry has, in my case, failed to bridge the double generation gap).
My mother was a very different kettle of fish. At the age of seven she started life in the way she didn't mean to go on, by running away from home to go on the stage. Playing in suburban theatres, she took child parts in Victorian melodramas such as East Lynne and Little Lord Fauntleroy. According to her own account her performance in The Silver King brought the house down at the Chiswick Empire in 1897. Whether a tearful mother came and dragged her home again or, like Shirley Temple, she just grew too old, I don't know, but her promising theatrical career seems to have petered out.
Some eighteen years later sees her, in a faded photograph, at the reins of a milk-cart during the First World War. There she stands on her trap, in a voluminous sepia skirt, head up, chin back, her whip raised for the photographer's benefit, striking a blow for Women's Lib fifty years too soon. From the milk-cart she went on to greater things, earning herself a tiny niche in history by becoming the first woman ever to drive a horse and cart for the carriers Carter Paterson.
After that, apart from the interval of her married years, her life's work was done in London pubs, as skivvy, barmaid, waitress and cook. Half the public houses in the metropolis might now be haunted by her ghost if she'd stayed long enough to put down any roots. Three months was the average in any establishment before she flounced out in a huff. She was in the old mould of the domestic class; she 'knew her place' but woe betide any employer who tried, in her own words, to 'come the old acid', either by getting too bossy or, worse, by presuming to tell her how to do her job. Many a hard-faced publican's wife was reduced to angry tears by the final tongue-lashing which often accompanied Mother's departure from a job; even the catering manager of the mighty Levy and Franks ('Manager! He didn't know "A" from a bull's foot!') came off a very poor second-best in a dispute over the ownership of certain cooking utensils on the premises of the King Lud at Ludgate Circus.
One Sunday afternoon towards the end of her life, my mother, in expansive mood, told me about her years 'in business', as she liked to call it. While the ancient Westclox alarm clock ticked on the mantelpiece and the budgerigar chirruped in his cage, she talked of the doddery old walrus-moustached Carter Paterson driver to whom as a young woman she was apprenticed and of his jealous wife who lay in wait for him at the end of his working day; of the pubs where she later worked, with their mean landlords and violent drunks; of the long hours, the poor pay and the vanished customs. This scribble of mine may well, for all I know, be the only record anywhere of the fact that you could walk into a London pub in Edwardian days and buy, for one-and-threepence, a 'liqueur flag', three liqueurs poured carefully one after another into a glass so that they settled in layers. In those days such skills were part of a barmaid's stock-in-trade.
In her later years, my mother's ability as a 'good plain cook' kept her in employment preparing businessmen's pub lunches. Her last job was in a tavern near the BBC and a ghostly echo of the old Edwardian rumbustiousness seemed to dog her even there. She saw the then television personality Gilbert Harding thrown out on his ear for calling the landlady a 'hermaphrodite'; and she gave succour to an actress in a famous long-running radio serial when that idol of millions fell down the stairs to the Ladies' in a drunken stupor. So ended sixty years of uproar, years that left Mother, if with little more tangible, then with a fund of sayings for every day. And every day, it sometimes seemed, were many of them repeated:
'I'll just go upstairs and have forty winks, then get up and do some more...'
'That's all I am in this house, I'm nothing but a general servant!'
'Ah, my boy/my girl, you'll miss me when I'm gone/when I'm kicking up the daisies!'
Her stiff, upright bearing and large blue staring eyes hinted at a secret madness.
Childhood is a time of conformity and for years I was secretly ashamed of the extreme age of my parents, compared with those of other children. Their names, too, caused me distress; nobody else I knew had parents with such odd names. Mother was simply Jessie, which was not short for Jessica or for anything else, while Father was called Horace Pople. Horace, I thought, was bad enough, but what sort of name was Pople? When my classmates at school discussed their parents, I kept quiet.
There can be little doubt how these two very dissimilar parents of mine met and married. Mother would have been working in a City pub where Father was wont to call in for a lunchtime drink or on his way home. One thing led to another and ultimately to my being pushed along Castletown Road in a pram. It was the second time around for both of them and I acquired as part of my birthright a half-sister, my mother's daughter Marjorie, nineteen years my senior. Marjorie worked as a shorthand-typist in the Sun Life of Canada offices in Trafalgar Square and when my arrival drew near the entire office was canvassed for possible names for me. My birth made half of them redundant (including Gloria, a hot favourite) and the rest were whittled down to the name I now bear on the grounds that it was the only one that could not be shortened (they were wrong). If that unknown secretary who suggested it is still alive and ever chances to read these words, I would like her to know that on the whole I have been quite satisfied with the name of Terence. I was christened with it in a church in Parsons Green and, precocious from the start, embarrassed the very young curate who performed the ceremony by interrupting him with loud cries of 'Peep-bo!'.
I spent the first two or three years of my life in Fulham and odd memories bob up like flotsam on the sea of infantile imbecility. I can remember being wheeled in my pushchair into Kensington Gardens by my 'nanny' - not one of those exalted beings in a starched uniform and cap but a sly and slovenly Irish girl with a terrifying squint, whose main recreation was frightening me with stories of ghosts and leprechauns. Perhaps this was her revenge for the tuneless and wordless 'going-to-Kensington-Gardens' song that I inflicted on her each time we visited the park. An informed passer-by might have detected in my song-cycle the influence of Pierre Boulez, had not M. Boulez only recently passed the pushchair stage himself.
The song was as unvarying as the liturgy of some Eastern orthodox church. The erratic sequence of notes was always exactly the same; the same phrase was sung on each occasion at the same stage in the journey, reaching the same atonal crescendo as we passed under the optician's surrealistic sign depicting large disembodied staring eyes framed in a pair of spectacles. My singing always stopped dead as we passed through the gates of the park, no doubt much to the relief of all within it.
It was in Kensington Gardens that I had my first intimations of mortality when I fell into the Round Pond, which was all of six inches deep. One moment I was reaching over the brownish waters for my toy boat, the next the world exploded into a thousand stars as my face hit the water. My whole life did not pass before me (it wouldn't in any case have taken very long) but I experienced a few seconds of gulping panic before I was hauled out bawling with rage, which only increased at the sight of the bystanders unfeelingly roaring with laughter, while my mother scolded me loudly, quite unnecessarily in my opinion, in order to cover her own embarrassment.
There is a dim memory of a large department store, probably Selfridges or Gamages, which seemed to be filled from floor to ceiling with Union Jacks of all sizes, from small ones for waving in the hand to huge ones for draping from a balcony. I adored these flags, not from any youthful sense of patriotism but because the massed red, white and blue seemed to me the most colourful and beautiful sight I had ever seen. I had to choose a small flag for myself, so I suppose there must have been a royal occasion in the offing. I do not remember what it was (Jubilee? Coronation?); in those days I did not count out the passing years by the calendar but by those intriguing shiny cards cut in the shape of a number representing my age, which arrived in shoals every year on my birthday.
When I was about three years old, my mother persuaded my father that we should move to a more salubrious neighbourhood. (According to my Auntie Alice, she achieved this by threatening to jump off the roof of Castletown Road if we didn't. Though Auntie did have a mischievous gossipy streak, this rumour accords with my mother's occasional tendency towards the melodramatic, Joan Crawford, school of life). And so we arrived in Acton, in west London, at No. 8 St. Dunstan's Gardens. This adjoins St. Dunstan's Avenue, a longish road running off the busy Western Avenue, in an area that had been built up not so many years previously as part of the vast development of the London suburbs.
It was here that my consciousness emerged from its chrysalis and my memories really started. Like a gosling who thinks that the first thing it sees is its mother, I looked at East Acton and loved it. I have been back since and found, as so often, that the penny plain reality does not match up to the tuppence coloured memory, but to me, then, it seemed that there could be nowhere so beautiful. It still looks much the same today as it did then, a great big Disneyland of long, tree-lined avenues of cute little bow-windowed semis with neat front gardens. It was a land where memory insists that it was always summer and the flowering cherries were always in bloom, dusting the pavements with pink petals.
We had, like a thousand other houses in the neighbourhood, three bedrooms, separate bathroom and lavatory, and two 'receps', filled with the worthy but dull furniture of the period, ornamented with discreet twiddly bits. There were standard lamps with fringed shades, moquette-covered armchairs and an enormous Art Deco radiogram beside which I waited impatiently each evening for the strains of The Teddy-Bears' Picnic to introduce Children's Hour with Uncle Mac and Larry the Lamb. There was a modest but well-kept back garden, part flowers, part vegetables, where I discovered the delights of marigolds, hollyhocks, snapdragons, sweet peas, birdsong, ants, worms and woodlice.
This book has more than its fair share of aunts and uncles, for my childhood was overrun by them. The graveyards of Britain are filled with their bones, their ashes blow among the rose-bushes in many a crematorium garden. Not one of them was genuine. From a very early age these impostors crowded in upon me. For a start there were the bowling-club uncles and aunts. There was rotund, roguish Uncle Dave Piper, a merry balloon of a man with a face like Mr. Punch, his mouth forever turned up in a quizzical grin, as though life were one long joke. He lived in Shepherds Bush with Auntie Kitty, thin as a rake but every bit as merry as he. I always thought of them when I read the nursery rhyme about Jack Sprat who would eat no fat and his wife who would eat no lean.
Uncle Joe Hipkin was another bowling-club uncle, a morose, downtrodden little man who worked part-time for us as a jobbing gardener and sometimes renewed our house's outside coat of green and cream gloss paint. Then there were Marjorie's friends, fellow-secretaries from the Sun Life of Canada like Auntie Greta and Auntie Gladys, jolly, lively girls, full of fun, who rode horses, played tennis, belonged to the Women's League of Health and Beauty and swaggered about daringly in baggy slacks with turn-ups, like men's trousers.
There was emaciated Auntie Rene, with whom Marjorie had gone to school and who had married Uncle Bill with whom she lived in Kenton, near Harrow; they were the only people we knew who actually owned a motor-car. There were old family friends like Auntie Flo, who lived in a delightful flat in an elegant road in South Kensington with her teenage daughters, Peggy and Gwen. I used to look forward to our visits to them, for Auntie Flo would bring out a box of intriguing coloured little tiles for me to play with. While I arranged them in patterns on the carpet and the adults talked over their teacups, my two 'cousins' would stand on the balcony of the flat discussing and disparaging any young man who happened to be passing on the pavement below, making scornful remarks about his trilby hat or laughing at his yellow socks.
Of all my spurious aunts and uncles by far the most important was Auntie Alice, known to me, my mother, my sister and even to her own husband and lodgers as 'Auntie'. She lived with Uncle Bert in a capacious Victorian semi-detached villa in Askew Road, Shepherds Bush, a twenty-minute bus-ride but a world away from the sparkling paint and neat bow-windows of St. Dunstan's Avenue. Askew Road was a dingy street built of old yellow brick which over the years had been darkened to grey by the London smoke. Large red trolleybuses clicked and whined down the centre of the road between the ageing, sash-windowed houses with their half-hearted builders' facades.
A trip to see Auntie was a weekly ritual of my pre-war childhood. Mother and I would catch one of the infrequent No. 12 buses at the end of our road in the Western Avenue and, to the growling and groaning of the labouring gears, would lurch down the hill to the Savoy cinema, East Acton, turning right down the Old Oak Road. At the very end of the road we would leave the bus to continue its complaining journey to the West End and would walk down Askew Road to No. 18, mounting the short flight of steps and giving the 'family' knock: 'Rat-tatta-tat tat! Tat-tat!'
Peering through the fleur-de-lys patterned ground glass of the front door we would make out the blurred, stooping figure of Auntie, her netted grey hair, suspicious frown and disapproving pursed lips gradually coming into focus as she approached the front door along the dark passage. Then the door would open and her expression would melt into one of relief as she recognised us.
'Oh, it's you!' she would say, as though to chide us for playing such a trick on her.
Though she was officially the tenant of the whole house, Auntie lived only on the ground floor, the basement and upper part being sublet. This ground floor was, in fact, one large room divided into two by an ingenious wooden dividing wall which could be slid and folded out of the way, though I never in my life saw it thus drawn back. The front sitting-room, like the entire house, was gloomy, for the walls were almost black and sucked the light from the large window overlooking Askew Road. Close examination showed them to be covered with a pattern of roses, on wallpaper which had been new at the turn of the century when Auntie and Uncle Bert had moved into the house as newly-weds. It had gradually darkened over the decades and was never replaced.
The furniture, too, was large, sombre and old-fashioned, and there were ornaments and knick-knacks everywhere. The mantelpiece held a pair of bronze figures struggling to hold back symmetrical rearing horses on either side of a garish pink, gold and green clock, covered in pictures of goddesses and cherubs, that looked as if it ought to be cut into slices and eaten.
The house had seen better days; on the wall near the mantelpiece was a china knob that, half a century before, had been pulled down to set bells jangling in the damp, murky basement scullery, sending a housemaid scurrying up the dim, narrow staircase. Now it just made worrying, skittering noises somewhere deep inside the wall, like trapped rats. By the window, trying to catch any light that was not swallowed up by the gloom inside, stood an aspidistra in a gilded ornamental pot. Though in its younger days it had been accustomed to share Auntie's daily bottle of Guinness, I never in my time saw it being fed or watered and the soil in which it stood was as dry and hard as if it had been baked.
Later in my youth I read Great Expectations in that room and truly there could hardly have been a better place to do so. The shadowy room and passages of the house echoed Miss Havisham's gloomy mansion, while Auntie, then widowed, stood in for Miss Havisham herself. The nearest she had to a cobwebbed wedding-cake was a tin of 'Aeroplane Brand' steamed treacle pudding, which was sent to her by a relative in America at the time of Munich and which lay quietly rusting in the sideboard for twenty years. (In the end, both Auntie and the house gathered dust, withered away and died of senile decay. The house still stands but the fleur-de-lys front door has been replaced by one in cash-and-carry Georgian style. Doubtless the Victorian gloom has long since been chased away in a flurry of bright wallpaper, flying ducks and Allied Carpets).
On the out-of-tune upright piano next to the fireplace stood an ancient fretwork-fronted wireless set, a two-valve superhet which gave out painful howls and whistles when it was tuned. It was powered by a glass acid-filled accumulator, which had to be topped up periodically with distilled water, and taken every so often to the local wireless shop to be recharged. On Saturday nights, under the weak electric ceiling light, Uncle Bert would spend what seemed like hours listening to the solemn litany of the football results: 'Charlton Athletic two, Blackburn Rovers nil; Sheffield Wednesday three, Manchester United one...' as he checked his pools coupon.
Bert was a semi-invalid as a result of what Auntie always referred to as the Last War. 'Take no prisoners, lads!' his sergeant had ordered as they went over the top at the Somme and Uncle Bert, who would not normally have hurt a fly, had bayoneted every German he had come across, even those who had thrown their hands in the air and shouted 'Kamerad!'. But the Huns had got their own back in the end; they gassed him as he crouched in his trench.
In younger days Bert had been a bookmaker and Auntie told us how he would sit at the room's large table after a day's racing, counting out piles of gleaming gold sovereigns ('The ones that fell on the floor were mine!'). He had a streak of Cockney vulgarity that somehow went with his slicked back hair and toothbrush moustache, and on odd occasions when I stayed the night and Auntie undressed me for bed, he would point to my feet and say:
'See them black bits between yer toes? That's toe-jam, that is! Toe-jam! You oughta pick it out and eat it! Har! Har!'
Many years before, walking across Hammersmith Bridge, Mother had seen Bert approaching her; on his arm was his mistress, a pale young beauty with waist-length golden hair that gleamed in the setting sun. He and Mother pretended not to see each other. Later, Bert accidentally got the girl pregnant. Once Auntie found out, he was never allowed to forget his transgression; he once told Mother that there hadn't been a single day since that Auntie hadn't 'thrown it in my face'.
Auntie, though no relative, was nevertheless a fully paid-up member of the family. She had helped bring up my sister and, before her, my mother and in future years would help to bring me up in my turn. She was a countrywoman from Hampshire, with an old-fashioned turn of speech; she always referred to a mirror as a 'looking-glass'. Her lifelong hobby was hypochondria, the preferred areas being the back and the stomach. She could not rise from a chair without a gasp of pain and the exclamation 'Ooh! My back!'. Even in my sister's childhood she and a friend had referred to Auntie as 'Mrs. Oh-My-Back'. Often the ritual would be reduced to a shorthand version, a wince with pursed lips, accompanied by a hissed intake of breath and a backward arch of the spine; but the words 'Ooh! My back!' were still implicit.
'Old age is a tragedy, Terence!' she would say, shaking her head mournfully. The 'blasted old swine of a doctor' was little comfort.
'There's nothing at all the matter with you, Mrs. Muncey!' he would say brusquely.
'Auntie's trouble is that she's never had to do a day's work in her life!' said Mother.
Despite her real or imagined illnesses, Auntie had a real sense of fun and would often, suddenly and for no particular reason, lift her skirt, twirl an ankle and break into some old music-hall song:
Why did I leave my little back room in Blooms-bur-y,
Where I could live on a pound a week in lux-ur-y?
In my single days it was bad but since I married Maria,
I've jumped out of the frying-pan, into the blooming fire!
or: La-di-doody, don't be rude-y!
Uncle Bert's war pension was supplemented with rents from the lodgers. On the top floor were Mabel, a bitter Lancashire woman, and her husband, also a Bert, a shambling ape-like Liverpudlian who liked to beat her up when he returned from an evening at the pub. Though in his cups a snarling beast, when sober Bert was a gentle giant and would sometimes sit at Auntie's piano, accompanying his own baritone rendering of Song of Songs with such feeling that the tears rolled down his cheeks.
In a basement room lived Alec, a slick double-breasted young motor mechanic with sideboards, a pencil moustache and Brylcreemed hair. Highly-strung, he was always tapping a foot or nervously playing with a coin. He was of the type that later, in the war, would be described as 'spiv'. He stank of lighter-petrol and gave me cigarette-cards, as well as the soundest advice that anyone has ever given me; alas, I have never had the temperament to follow it:
'Push, that's all yer need in vis world, Terence! Push 'ard an' yer'll get anyfink out of life yer want!'
Auntie was the link between Mother's neat-lawned suburban present and her rowdy Edwardian past; and the link was as strong as any ties of blood. Having no children of her own, Auntie had doted on me ever since the day when, aged two, I had thrown a hairbrush at her and blacked her eye. She had never forgotten the occasion and she often, to the end of her life, reminded me of it, a wistful look coming into her eye as though she half-wished I would do it again.
Not far from Number 18, on the corner with the Uxbridge Road, is the Askew Arms. One of Auntie's more bizarre treasures was a length of wood like a baton, with a metal spike on one end. This, according to her, was a missile dropped from a Zeppelin in the First World War, narrowly missing her as she went into the pub for a drink; she could point out the exact spot on the cobblestones outside the saloon bar where it had struck.
The Askew was kept by Bill Hollindale, a bluff and hearty publican well known to our family. He would turn a blind eye to the frequent illegal smuggling of my person into the pub and on more than one occasion I was obliged to stand on a sill of the pub's high windows, hiding behind the long curtains when the local bobby poked his head in. My mother was fond of her tipple and I, like my sister before me, spent an inordinate amount of my early childhood wriggling with boredom outside one pub or another, usually the Askew or the ornately seedy Henneky's in King Street, Hammersmith, the tedium being relieved only by the occasional lemonade or packet of Smith's crisps sent out to me by Mother as a sop to her conscience. I cannot now see one of those little blue paper twists of salt without feeling vaguely restless.
Chapter 2: Days of Rose's Lime Juice
It is almost true to say that you had only to visit our house to be ennobled by my mother as an honorary 'uncle' or 'aunt'. This was a double-edged honour, for it meant that whenever you called to see us you were liable to be met by me at the front door with the blunt, mercenary enquiry: 'What have you brought me?'
For, being to all intents and purposes an only child of older parents, I was horribly spoiled. My mother could hardly pass a toyshop without buying me something, while most regular visitors seemed to take the hint and seldom arrived empty-handed. I had toy cars, buses, lorries, fire-engines and traffic-lights (with real lights worked by batteries), lead soldiers galore, a train-set, a Meccano, a pop-gun, a bow-and-arrow and a bus-conductor's outfit, complete with a rack of tickets and a ticket-punch that went 'ping', as the real ones did.
But my pride and joy was an expensive kiddie-car, just like the one that the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose had, which worked by pedal-power. I never tired of riding it up and down the pavement outside our house, though on the days I had successfully wheedled Mother into letting me stay away from school she insisted that I rode it only in the garden, in case I should be seen by some frightening-sounding ogre she referred to as 'the School-Board Man'.
At the age of five I had been enrolled at the John Perryn Council School, about twenty minutes' walk away at the other side of the busy Western Avenue. John Perryn's had been opened a few years earlier in 1930; it is a typical Twenties red-brick building trimmed anaemically in grey stone. At that time it was staffed entirely by lady teachers past their first youth and unmarried, cheated out of husbands by the Great War. Though they all wore their hair in buns and seemed to be about a hundred years old and their bottoms smelled funny when they crouched down in front of you in demonstration mode at PT, they were determinedly modern in their approach to education.
In practice this meant that we children spent a lot of our mornings painting patterns and kneading lumps of Plasticene, activities apparently so taxing that we had to lie down on mattresses to sleep in the afternoons. I never felt sleepy on these occasions and would look with scorn upon my fellow-pupils, who would drop off the moment their heads touched their pillows. I would try to alleviate the boredom of this enforced idleness by looking up through half-closed eyes at the clouds in the sky outside the window, or by seeing how slowly my eyes could follow the dado right round the room.
To be fair, we did have 'proper' lessons; at an age when the previous generation had struggled with pen and ink, laboriously practising their hooks and loops, we would play at Guessing the Letter. The teacher would hold up a card on which was printed a lower-case letter of the alphabet and one of us would have to identify it phonetically as 'ah', 'buh', 'cuh', 'duh', and so on. Evidently this represented the most advanced primary-educational thinking of 1937. I, much to the teacher's annoyance, would throw a spanner into the works by identifying a letter as 'ay', 'bee', 'see' or 'dee', my mother having taught me the old-fashioned ABC early in my infancy. Indeed, she and I were already something of a double-act on the No. 12 bus by the time I was three years old; Mother would persuade me to read out, in a voice loud enough for the rest of the bus to hear, the names on the shopfronts as we passed. I would happily co-operate, playing up nauseatingly to Mother's one-upmanship.
Every morning the entire school would march into the assembly hall to the tune of Country Gardens played briskly on an upright piano by one of the teachers. We would form ourselves into neat rows, then sing a hymn, perhaps appropriate to the season but always something jolly: All Things Bright and Beautiful or We Plough the Fields and Scatter. Then we would recite the Lord's Prayer.
To Jehovah's Witnesses unwise enough to venture to our front door, Mother, before shutting it in their faces, would sum up her lifelong religious philosophy thus:
'Do unto others as you would be done by, that's always been my rule!'
As a result of this primitive credo I had been fortunate in never having had any spiritual instruction whatever. Consequently I had to learn the most important of all prayers by parroting the boy next to me:
Our Father, Chartinem,
'Hallo!' be Thy name.
on erff tizzinem.
I didn't understand what it meant but I could see by the way the other children fiercely screwed their eyes shut that it was all a most serious business. When it was over we would march, arms swinging, out of the hall to the tune of Men of Harlech:
I'm the man who came from Scotland,
Shooting peas up a nanny-goat's bottom ...
Every morning I would toddle off to school along the long suburban roads, up St. Dunstan's Avenue, over the footbridge which crossed Western Avenue, busy with cars buzzing up and down like angry bees, and along The Approach to the bend in the road where stood John Perryn's. Child molesters must have been thin on the ground in those days, for I remember no lectures about not talking to strangers. Indeed, on Tuesday evenings in the winter I would often return to the darkened school, alone in the black streets, twopence clutched in my hand to pay for a film-show, which was given every week in the school hall. The projector was silent but the films were often musicals and the young audience relieved the boredom of minutes on end of some lady singer's silent mouthings by throwing half-chewed toffees at the screen.
We were not required to carry books and so forth to and from school but each day I took a little haversack containing what my mother called my 'lunch' but which was really elevenses, for I came home for lunch proper (called 'dinner') at midday. In summer I would take a medicine bottle containing Rose's Lime Juice, of which I was inordinately fond, to drink in the playground during the break. In fact I do not remember drinking plain water at all during my early years ('Water?' Mother would say, 'It's bad enough to have to wash in it!'). Instead, the Corona lorry, spoked wheels and all, would deliver a fortnightly crate of fizzy drinks in which I indulged most of my thirsts.
As if this were not enough, the Walls ice cream factory was a few hundred yards up the road, tucked tastefully amongst the trees, and from here in summer would issue into the leafy streets a fleet of overworked and underpaid men on tricycles bearing white boxes labelled 'Stop Me and Buy One'. Needless to say they would be stopped on their way past No. 8, to deliver into my eager little hand a 'Snofrute' (price one penny) or a 'Snocreme' (price twopence), frozen prism-shaped sticks, cardboard-packaged, which were the primitive ancestors of the modern ice-lolly. In winter the factory discontinued the manufacture of ices and turned instead to pies, filling the immediate neighbourhood with slightly disgusting warm, meaty smells.
I was spoiled not only for toys and sweet indulgences but for food as well, for Mother was a superb 'plain cook' and excelled at roasts with vegetables from the garden. She had the knack of cooking everything for just the right length of time, so that it always tasted fresh and not over-cooked. In summer I would sometimes sit with her in the little lean-to conservatory, shelling peas fresh from the garden to be cooked for lunch. Despite being simmered for what seemed a very long time with additives such as bicarbonate of soda, the peas always turned out smooth and tender, never hard and wrinkled as other people's did.
Sometimes I developed childish little fads which puzzled Mother. One of my story-books at school told of a little piglet and his hunger caused by continually being elbowed away from the feeding-trough by his bigger brothers. Reading this story made me feel so hungry that for a couple of days I would come home from school at lunchtime and scoff about twice as much as usual. On another occasion, noticing that in my comic any meals depicted in the strip-cartoons never had any gravy on the plate, I declined, without any explanation, to take gravy on my lunch. Mother was most upset.
'It's all good, nourishing gravy. It's good for you, lots of Starving Children in India would be glad of it,' she would say, shaking her head sorrowfully but knowing that this latest odd fancy would last only a couple of days.
Easter meant a shower of chocolate eggs from all my 'uncles' and 'aunts' and a chance to make myself thoroughly sick. For my birthdays Mother would bake me a Madeira cake with cherries, the only sort of cake I liked, with a thin layer of icing and a small handful of candles to blow out.
The Starving Children of India, so often conjured up by Mother, were among my first indications that all might not be for the best in this best of all possible worlds I had inherited. Occasionally some dirty, ragged small boy would knock at our front door with a pail of horse manure, on offer for twopence the bucketful. Invariably Mother would shoo him away with a flea in his ear, as though his very poverty were a deliberate affront to her respectability (though she was not above hastening out into the road herself with bucket and shovel if some horse manure were conveniently deposited outside our house). Acton had its pockets of penury; there was a boy at school whose clothes were so ragged that he would sometimes entertain the class behind the teacher's back by exposing himself through several of the different holes in his filthy trousers.
As I grew older I sometimes accompanied my parents to the Shepherds Bush Empire, later a television theatre but then an old-fashioned variety house. As we pushed through the swing doors with the crowd and heard the first strains of the orchestra tuning up, I, thinking of the money we were spending, would be overcome with remorse at the sight of an old man with a wrinkled, dirt-stained face, his trousers held up with string, playing a violin for pennies at the door. Guiltily I would avoid meeting his eye. Even at my tender age I was becoming aware that, by comparison with many, we were a privileged family.
Occasionally, when I would be sent to spend the night at Auntie's, to be undressed in the great dim sitting-room and have Uncle Bert point out my toe-jam, Mother and Father would dress up for a night out. Stepping into a chauffeur-driven Daimler, which had cost them the then huge sum of five pounds for the evening, they would purr away into the night along St. Dunstan's Avenue, down through the twinkling lights of the Western Avenue and beyond, all the way to Piccadilly to dine at the Trocadero, probably spending as much again on the meal.
My mother's fierce respectability, worn like a badge, was her defence against that other world of poverty from which she had escaped but which at any moment might (as it eventually did) swallow her up again. Her walk was beyond reproach. Head up, back straight, face stern, shoulders back, free arm swinging stiffly, she was like a soldier on parade. I was often an unwilling accessory for her demonstration to the world, for whenever I went out with her (remembering always to walk on the outside, like a little gentleman) I was dressed up like a dog's dinner in overcoat, kid gloves and a huge tweed gorblimey cap, whose sole function was to be raised by me to ladies of Mother's acquaintance whom we might meet in the street, so that they should think what a well-brought-up child I was, and such a credit to his mother!
On buses with standing-room only I was expected to stand up, raise my cap politely and offer my seat to a grown-up (I was fully forty before I could, without feeling horribly guilty, remain seated on a bus or train while a woman of any age was standing). Even the kitchen appliances played their part in Mother's craving for respectability.
'I'm all-electric!' she never tired of proclaiming to everyone, as though the absence of dirty, smelly gas were somehow proof of an inner refinement, as well as a badge of affluence. Kitchens with refrigerators and electric cookers were still something special in the days when the only plastic was bakelite, brown, cheap and tacky, and when household deliveries were still almost all made by horse and cart.
Spending so much time being cosseted and pampered by middle-aged and elderly people brought out the worst in me; when thwarted I would indulge in noisy, exhibitionist tantrums. On one occasion I summoned Mother to the front door by throwing a rotten apple with a thump against it and, when she opened it, announced: 'I'm running away from home!', which threat I carried into immediate effect.
I did not follow Mother's childhood example by carving a career for myself on the stage; the farthest I got was a penny bus-ride to Askew Road, where I presented myself to Auntie as though making a normal visit, something I often did unaccompanied. She thus had no reason to alert my mother and it was not for several hours that, anxious and furious, the latter finally tracked me down. All her life Mother had a touching faith in higher authority and when neither threats nor blandishments had any effect on my behaviour she appealed first to Father, much to his and my embarrassment. Perhaps as a reaction against his own strict Victorian upbringing, his admonishments were weak and ineffectual and Mother resorted to the headmistress of Perryn's, who was also, I suspect, secretly embarrassed by the whole business but gave me a thoroughly professional talking-to and arranged for a series of follow-up visits.
Periodically thereafter, Mother would dress me up in overcoat, hat and gloves and, grasping me by the hand, would march me firmly to the school after hours. There, in front of the headmistress, I would squirm with shame, a sinner at confession, promising to be a good boy for ever after, a promise which we both knew would be broken before the week was out.
My best friend was Michael, a well-built, slightly obese boy who lived across the road in St. Dunstan's Avenue. I first met him as a classmate at John Perryn's and he earned my unstinting admiration of his ability to knock a bee off a snapdragon at a range of three feet with a well-aimed jet of pee. He also had a talent for drawing which made me envious. At the age of six he could pick up a pencil and paper and produce a picture that was almost adult in its maturity.
Living so near to each other meant that Michael and I were forever in each others' houses and were almost inseparable. We got up to all sorts of mischief together, our favourite being the lighting of surreptitious fires. Striking a match and creating fire produced a guilty thrill in us that was almost physical in its intensity and we would purloin boxes of Swan Vestas that we found lying around our houses (we preferred these to safety matches because you could strike them on anything) and take them into Michael's garden where, in a spot not overlooked by the house, we would make little bonfires of paper, dried grass or twigs. One spring, inspired by Auntie's morally-meant stories of sinners being burnt in Hell, we collected dozens of unfortunate caterpillars and, twin devils, organised our own hellfire and incinerated them all.
Michael had a younger sister called Sheila, with whom I would walk to school until Mother, in the sometimes insensitive way that adults have, started teasing me.
'Off you go to school with your girl-friend!' she would cry, archly. Nothing was worse than appearing to be 'soppy' and thereafter I would refuse to walk with Sheila, making her go up on the road ahead of me. This caused my mother even more amusement.
At about the age of six I was taken for the first time in my life to the cinema, somewhere in Acton. I was enthralled, not only by the films themselves, but by the whole paraphernalia of a picture-show: the two sets of curtains, inner and outer, majestically opening and closing, the house lights dimming as coloured lights played on the screen, the silence of the censor's certificate followed by the swelling title-music. It was intoxicating.
The programme was, as was usual in those days, a double bill: Girls' School and Dawn Patrol, the latter being an exciting drama about the Royal Flying Corps in the Great War. I yawned and fidgeted through Girls' School but when the main feature came on I was glued to the screen by the biplanes on the screen, banking and looping the loop, dropping bombs and machine-gunning one another.
I was astonished by the audacious way in which the film cut from one scene to another and from long-shot to close-up and back again. As soon as I got home I constructed a home cinema consisting of a sheet of white card propped against an upright book. For days I bored everyone stiff by making them watch repeated performances of Dawn Patrol, with vocal aircraft sound effects to accompany the film which, invisible to everyone else, was running inside my head.
Another smash hit, with both Michael and myself, was Paul Robeson in Sanders of the River. It confirmed what I had learned from Crackers comic, that in Africa all white men were explorers wearing solar topees, and all black men (always known as 'natives') wore leopard skins and attacked the white men by throwing spears at them. I immediately identified with the 'natives', not from any precocious spirit of anti-racism but because they seemed to be having much more fun than the white men. I decided that I wanted a native outfit, on the same principle as my bus-conductor's set, and mentioned this ambition to Uncle Joe Hipkin as he weeded our garden. He was a man who never liked to disappoint anyone.
'I'll keep my eyes open in Shepherds Bush Market and see what I can find,' he promised me, unwisely, for thereafter I pestered the life out of him until I finally realised that 'native outfits' did not exist.
I did acquire a costume of a quite different kind as a result of a fancy-dress party which John Perryn's put on for the whole school. This event stirred my imagination and I wanted to go as a pirate, perhaps as Long John Silver. But Marjorie, in the manner of older sisters, decided that it would be quite delightful if I went instead as Harlequin. Who was Harlequin, I wanted to know? She was somewhat vague on this point but it appeared that he kept company with a girl called Columbine. Marjorie arranged for a little schoolmate, Jacqueline, to fill this role.
For weeks my sister thoroughly enjoyed herself, running the costumes up on Mother's Singer sewing-machine. When the great night came, I regarded myself unenthusiastically in the mirror, thinking how much more fun a pirate's hat and eyepatch would be than this sissy diamond-patterned outfit and black eye-mask. I am sorry to say that I took my disappointment out on Columbine, reducing her to tears before the evening was out.
As I grew older I was often taken to the cinema and to variety shows but I was a nervous child, easily frightened, and often had to be hastily removed from the performance, yelling with fright at something or other that had upset me. I was carried screaming out of The Wizard of Oz at the Savoy, East Acton, and though I like to pretend that it was Judy Garland that had terrified me, it was in fact the witch. I was also bundled out of the Shepherds Bush Empire, alarmed at a pair of low comedians throwing goldfish bowls at one another. My sister Marjorie had to take me but, as she disliked variety anyway, she was secretly grateful for my tantrum.
Despite these unhappy experiences I developed a liking for films and theatre which are with me still. There was something about a stage, with its curtains, lights and, if you were lucky, scenery, which fascinated me. I fell in love for the very first time with a butterfly in a school pantomime I was taken to at a church hall somewhere in East Acton. The butterfly was about my own age (six) and there was something profoundly erotic about the way she lounged, bare-legged, against the side of the proscenium during the interval, staring haughtily across the heads of the audience as she chewed gum with her mouth open. I experienced a strange, exciting feeling, somewhere below the belt, which puzzled me greatly, but I was far too shy to dare to walk up to her and speak to her and so break the glamorous spell of her tissue-paper wings and cotton knickers. After that evening I never saw her again.
My own turn upon the boards came in John Perryn's end-of-term play and, were this the memoir of somebody else, it might record the first hesitant but inevitable step upon the road to becoming a Great Actor. Over the years Fate has presented me with a number of opportunities to become a Great Something-or-Other; I have fluffed them all. The Pied Piper of Hamelyn was the first of these never-to-be-repeated chances. I was given the part of the crippled boy who, unable to keep up with the other children, is left behind when the Pied Piper leads them out of Hamelyn and who remains to tell the townspeople of his fellows' fate.
It is a dramatic final scene. The boy hobbles onto the stage on his crutches at the very end of the play to make a long speech all in verse, after which the final curtain comes dramatically down. It is a natural for any little show-off who can act his way out of a paper bag. But not for me, for I was overcome with stage-fright. Though we had had many rehearsals and I had learned all my lines, I was quite unprepared for the sight which greeted me when I made my crutch-assisted entry: the school assembly hall crammed to capacity with row upon row of proud, eager parents and relatives, all waiting to hear what I - and I alone - had to say.
I froze, looking from the audience to the children playing the townspeople and back again. In the wings a formidable bun-haired teacher waved her arms at me as though I were an orchestra. Hastily I broke into my speech, gabbling away in a very low voice through a series of rhyming couplets which had to do with clothes of many a different hue and so forth. Even the front row could not hear me.
'S-p-e-a-k u-p!' hissed the teacher in a stage whisper so loud that it quite drowned out the low murmuring sound that should have been the play's final ringing speech.
To give the audience their due they did not laugh - for how can you laugh at a child on crutches, even when you know it is only make-believe? - but their thunderous applause as the curtain fell after the last inaudible words of my peroration contained more than a hint of relief. I had completely ruined the climax of the play, to everyone's disgust, and I did not venture onto the stage again until, years later at the age of thirteen, I allowed a conjuror to saw me in half at a wartime 'Holidays-at-Home' carnival in a tent in a field near Slough.
Summer holidays consisted of a fortnight each year at Jaywick Sands, near Clacton, where my parents rented a small chalet fronting onto the sea. Father was the president of the local bowling club there, as he was of Wormholt Bowling Club in Shepherds Bush, where many of my summer Sundays were spent. They were sensual afternoons of hot, scented sunshine falling on the white-clad players and glinting on the shiny black bowls gliding across the perfectly-kept green. I would lounge languidly against the side of the clubhouse listening to the satisfying clicks of the bowls, smelling the creosote in the hot woodwork and studying with the fascination of childhood the single thick curly black hair that grew out of the mole on the chin of Mrs. Green, the elderly wife of the club secretary.
When I achieved the grand old age of six I was allowed to go on the Wormholt Bowling Club's annual summer outing for the first (and, as it turned out, the last) time. It was a great success. The coach called at the clubhouse where we had all gathered: Mother and Father, Marjorie and I, Auntie Alice and Uncle Bert, Uncle Dave and Auntie Kittie, old Joe Hipkin, Mr. and Mrs. Green and a supporting cast of blazered, open-necked uncles and floral-frocked aunts.
We bowled along to Marlow and the river, where we piled, laughing and talking excitedly, onto pleasure boats and into pub beer-gardens. There was a picnic lunch on the river-bank and, later, tea on a sun-dappled lawn with white cast-iron tables. And in the evening the darkened coach brought us back to the lamplit streets of Shepherds Bush, the adults singing Lily of Laguna and There's a Tavern in the Town in low, sentimental, lubricated voices, as the red, yellow and blue neon signs of the smart Western Avenue factories flashed on their faces and I tried desperately to keep awake and miss nothing.
It was the end of a perfect day, that summer's evening in 1938. Far away, as I dozed on my mother's lap, Mr. Chamberlain's chickens were coming home to roost and war was on its way. Little did I know, as I fell blissfully asleep, that when it came there would be no more idyllic summer outings, for me or anyone else.
There is one memory which stays with me as a mental snapshot of those far-off days of life before the war. Like the photos of the time, it is grey, slightly fuzzy and creased at the edges. In it, I am turning out of the alleyway next to the ice-cream factory on my way home from school, looking forward to my tea and to Children's Hour and perhaps Arthur Askey in Bandwagon on the wireless. There has been a brief summer storm and the wet evening air hangs heavy with the smell of ozone. In all the trees in all the well-tended gardens a thousand birds are singing. Tomorrow will be another day.
Chapter 3: Being Evacuated
Nothing stays the same for ever. I discovered this at the age of six when my sister Marjorie, who used to bath me and rescue me from rowdy variety performances, suddenly and without consulting me, got married and left home. Her bridegroom, Freddie, had been born of English parents in Poona, India, in the heyday of the Raj. His father was a clergyman, a prison chaplain whose job it had been to visit Mahatma Gandhi during one or two of his various incarcerations. Freddie had been educated at Oxford and Heidelberg and, although originally destined for the Indian police, had instead become a representative for a menswear company. His dress, accent, and manners were impeccable and he was a young man of considerable bonhomie and charm. Mother could not have wished for a more suitable son-in-law.
The happy couple were married in a registry office and the reception was held at 8 St. Dunstan's Gardens. In snaps taken on the lawn I have managed to insinuate myself into the front of the various groups and stand grinning and grimacing inanely at the camera, hands held stiffly at my sides, like a caricature soldier at attention. After the reception Marjorie and Freddie left for their honeymoon in Northern Ireland, which was Freddie's 'territory' and where they were to set up home in a pleasant suburb of Belfast.
The next summer we broke with our usual tradition of a fortnight at Jaywick Sands and went instead to stay with Marjorie and Freddie in Northern Ireland. I found it all most exciting, for I had never left the mainland before and had never travelled on a ferry. On arrival I was delighted to be fingerprinted, just like the adults, though whether this was done just to indulge a small boy and make him feel important I do not know. In two weeks we travelled all over the province in Freddie's car and I was enchanted by the melancholy beauty of the Ulster countryside.
My imagination was fired by the ruined cottages on the sides of the Mountains of Mourne and by the many tumbledown castles that seemed to be scattered across the land like the aftermath of some long-ago disaster. My new-found passion for ruins became something of a family joke. I did not know then that there would be ruins enough to satisfy me in the years to come.
Not long after our return from holiday, the unthinkable happened: Father suddenly fell ill and died. It was pleurisy, something to do with a clot of blood on the heart. My mother told and retold the story often.
'On the Friday evening he complained of these pains. On the Saturday the doctor came and by nine o'clock in the evening he'd gone - just like that!'
From my bedroom I heard the bustle and commotion of the various comings and goings and I knew that something was amiss. This was confirmed when I went into my parents' bedroom and found that Auntie, not Father, had shared the double bed with Mother.
'Where's Daddy?' I asked at once, for I had already instinctively guessed what had happened. 'He's gone away to Heaven,' said Mother, smiling bravely and sniffing into her handkerchief. I was too young to feel any grief; indeed, on the contrary, I found the whole thing rather exciting. Mother adapted to widowhood as she did to all the reverses and tragedies that beset her during her life. No good crying over spilt milk, you just had to get on with it, do what you could and make the best of a bad job.
Father's death made a tiny paragraph in Bowling News and mother tore it out and left it on the mantelpiece, where I found it. It ended: '... Mr. Nunn leaves a wife and small son.' I read and re-read this notice, especially the bit about the small son, feeling very proud to be mentioned in a newspaper, even if not by name, and seeing myself as quite the forlorn little waif. How sorry everyone reading that paragraph must be feeling for me, the small son!
I was too young to understand that it was the beginning of the end of our home in Acton, for my mother, quite unable to manage money, soon went through my father’s legacy.
I cannot remember when I first started taking a gas-mask to school but it seemed the most natural thing in the world. Hadn't everyone always done so? Most people carried them over the shoulder in the cardboard box in which they were originally supplied: however, Mother's usual desire to go one better than everyone else meant that I was bought a special case, made of black rexine and moulded to fit the contours of the gas-mask - so much more stylish! Some masks for younger children were made in the likeness of Mickey Mouse, with painted grins and enormous circular ears, but we six-year-olds considered them rather babyish.
At school, sitting in class, we had lessons in the technique of putting on our gas-masks; indeed, we had so much practice that even today I could don one quite automatically, without a moment's hesitation. It's easy: hold your breath, put your chin in first, then, holding onto the straps, pull them back over your head and the job is done. Breathe out as hard as you can, then breathe normally, your breath making a funny roaring sound in your ears as you inhale a strong smell of rubber (and stop fooling about and making funny noises, please). For us kids, the whole thing had no especially sinister overtones; you would wear a gas mask for much the same reason as you would look both ways before crossing the road. It was just a lesson, like writing or painting or PT. You did it because teacher told you to. In the playground we sang:
Will you come to Abyssinia, will you come, come, come?
Bring your own ammunition and a gun, gun, gun.
Mussolini will be there
Dropping gas-bombs from the air,
Will you come to Abyssinia, will you come, come, come?
The adult world greatly feared gas attacks. The father of Jacqueline, my little Columbine, had a small board stuck into the lawn of the front garden of his house in Western Avenue, rather like the sign you sometimes see in a suburban doctor's or dentist's garden. But this sign had nothing printed on it; it was covered with a special white paint which was supposed to turn yellow if there was any gas about. I always inspected it very carefully each day as I passed the house on my way to school.
Uncle Bert, of course, knew all about such things, to his cost. He and Auntie had an Anderson shelter installed in their enormous back garden at Askew Road and had their photograph taken standing in front of it proudly, Bert in his tin hat and overalls, for he had lately joined the A.R.P., Auntie, as always, in cardigan and hairnet, lips pursed, smiling cautiously. For some reason this picture was one of Auntie's favourites and was still on her bedside table the day she died, twenty years later.
One Sunday morning, with a group of school-friends, Michael and I lounged in the sunshine on the lawn of our back garden discussing one of life's mysteries, namely why ladies had to sit down to do what we could do quite easily standing up. Michael claimed to have studied his mother's anatomy out of the corner of his eye as she sat in the bath and with his wonderful facility with a pencil quickly produced a drawing which he passed round the group. It showed something strange and amorphous, composed of many squiggles, and in large, childish letters was captioned: 'My Mum's Dick'. The rest of us refused to accept this blatantly silly version of the female state of affairs and scornfully thrust the picture back at Michael.
After everyone had gone home Mother came to the back door to call me in for lunch and told me in her best dramatic Bette Davis manner that it had been announced on the wireless that war had been declared. Mr. Chamberlain had just made that famous speech. I was unimpressed by the news and was more concerned with tearing Michael's drawing into tiny pieces to scatter into the garden dustbin.
Britain, they say, was unprepared for war when it finally came. I certainly was. I had, of course, little idea of what it could mean, though I had vague mental pictures of biplanes whizzing around the sky machine-gunning one another, as in Dawn Patrol. There was the possibility that we would be bombed (what fun!) or gassed (I had my gas-mask!) and the virtual certainty that I would be 'evacuated'.
Up until this time my only experience of evacuation had been of an entirely different kind, one that Mother took very seriously indeed. To be thoroughly respectable, you had to have what she described as 'a good turn-out' once a