I was born before supermarkets and sliced bread were invented. A lot has changed since 1937. We lived in a three bedroom duplex in south east London, England, in a leafy village called Mottingham, later swallowed by suburbia. All I remember before the war started when I was two, is ice-cream and bananas. We had to wait until I was eight to taste them again. German submarines sank the ships bringing cargo to our shores, their planes bombed our capital and the Battle of Britain took place in the skies above us.
I watched beside my Mother in the shop where she bought strictly rationed groceries by the ounce. The sugar sack, taller than I was, stood on the floor beside the counter and the grocer used a scoop, weighing and tipping the grains into cones of twisted brown paper. He cut butter from a block, weighed and wrapped it in greaseproof paper. We were allowed four ounces of butter for our family of four one week, eight ounces the next, alternating weeks of deprivation. Margarine in those days tasted disgusting. It was made from whale fat, pale and tainted. Mummy mixed it with the butter to make it taste better. It made the butter taste worse. The only cheese available was Cheddar; my father Fred called it ‘mouse-trap cheese’. We had Ration Books until 1951.
I started school aged four, leaving Mummy at the gate and walking in with my shoe bag containing daps or tennis shoes in case our feet got wet. We did no sports. The lavatories were in blocks across the playground and sometimes we had to dash through the rain.
The classroom windows were covered with crossed sticky brown paper strips to minimize bomb blast. The windows at home, some blown out four times, were similarly protected. Everybody had blackout curtains to avoid creating targets for the Nazi bombers we could hear above us in the night on their way to central London. They sometimes dropped their bombs on us as they fled the anti-aircraft guns and searchlights that swept the sky in hot pursuit. One of these heavy guns (nicknamed ‘Big Bertha’) was stationed in the school grounds opposite. We heard them booming. In the large garden of the big Victorian house next door a barrage balloon was tethered to discourage low flying enemies, presumably to protect the battery. Sometimes we stood in the dark garden, watching the searchlights, but mostly we were in the shelter.
We slept under a Morrison shelter in the living room, a cast iron table with braced legs designed to stop the walls falling on us in the event of a direct hit. Friends a few hundred yards away were saved by the shelter Fred installed for them. When they came to us the night their house was demolished their baby was covered in soot and plaster dust, apparently dead. My Mother washed him tenderly in the kitchen sink and he revived.
We listened avidly to the wireless, as the radio was called in those days. My Father followed the news and I had to be quiet while it was on. There was a comedian called Rob Wilton who always made my Father chuckle. I liked listening to a comedian and singer called Issy Bonn (Let Me Call You Sweetheart), imagining him shrunk to the size of a pea so that he could walk through the wires into our large wooden boxed wireless. I don’t know how I thought the orchestra arrived
We had no telephone, no fridge, no washing machine, and dryers and TV had not been invented. Everything was in short supply, the whole country’s resources devoted entirely to the war effort. My Father mended our shoes on a cobbler’s lathe. He would cut pieces of leather to shape and nail them on. He taught me the word ‘template’. One time he added studs to my sturdy, laced, unflattering brown shoes to prolong their life, because shoes were scarce. I was mortified as my studs clanked on the concrete pavement so people heard me coming. When our saucepans wore out my Father mended them with rivets. I watched a team of men remove the metal chain links bordering the neighbors’ gardens, for scrap.
Standing on the bridge by Mottingham station, I watched the steam train approach, its copious clouds briefly interrupted under the bridge, resuming its sulfurous belch as it pulled into the platform. Doors slammed, the whistle blew and off it chugged again. In retrospect I can still hear, smell and taste those purposeful steam trains.
At the dentist’s the drills were robust and slow. We had no anesthetic for our fillings. High-speed drills and injections were not invented till my teens. But those dentists (and lack of candy) saved our teeth and I was over seventy before my first extraction.
After a series of throat infections before antibiotics were developed, I had my tonsils removed, aged 7. There were no relaxing drugs to give one the sense of trust and euphoria that accompanies modern surgery. I had to climb onto the operating table, lie down and watch as they put a mask over my face exuding foul gas I fought to avoid, and lost. In hospital, post-operation, was the only time during the war that I tasted ice cream.
My Father, teenage engineer in the Royal Flying Corps in France who maintained biplanes in the First World War, serviced his own car, new in 1939. He had petrol coupons in his essential reserved occupation as inspector of boilers in London factories. (Most people could not use their cars and many stored them jacked on bricks for the duration.) As his little helper, I watched him replace brake pads and grease the wheels. He demonstrated the clutch and gear system so I would understand its function. (Later he would teach me to drive, double de-clutching.) Small orange Bakelite arms lifted from the sides to indicate turning right or left, but Fred added hand signals through the open window, to be certain. There was no heater. The windscreen could be opened outwards with a handle at the bottom, like a window; the car had a retractable roof to let in sunshine on good days. It was started with a winding handle and had the power of seven horses. There was not a lot to go wrong on an Austin 7.
Casual clothes in those days meant overalls or an apron. My Father went to the beach wearing his working suit and brown Trilby hat. Our clothes were bought with clothing coupons, without style, washed by hand with bars of hard soap. Detergents had not yet been invented. Our neighbor stood talking to us in the street one day as her son flew over low on his way home in his Spitfire, gaily waggling his wings in greeting, and she snatched off her apron laughing, “I mustn’t let Tom see me wearing this!” Only now do I reflect how relieved she must have been to see him return from yet another mission.
At school the only picture on the wall was an illustration of a booby trap, dropped by the Nazis to kill people. We were cautioned not to pick them up. I studied it carefully. Every day there was shrapnel from the bombs. We picked up the shards on our way to school. One of the boys wanted to swap his piece for mine, but this was the first time I’d heard of swapping and I was suspicious. I tucked it deeper in my pocket.
The egg ration was one per person per week. My father Fred built a chicken shed in the garden that smelled of creosote and a series of four chickens kept us supplied with eggs throughout the war. Aged three I observed them dipping their beaks in water, lifting them to the sky to swallow, clucking, aimlessly strutting and crowing when they laid an egg.
Early in the war a bomb fell in the side garden, and Fred took the opportunity to turn the crater into a vegetable plot in the ruined lawn, a dozen feet from the house. He planted potatoes and I helped him harvest gold nuggets from the brown earth. New potatoes boiled with mint, with salt and butter are fit for a king. I gardened with him when I was so small, he would waltz me around with my feet on his, holding hands and laughing. He wore a waistcoat over his shirt, and when he hugged me my long hair often tangled on the buttons. He would tenderly unwind it.
Walking to school one morning I was more than half way there when the air raid warning sounded, a mournful undulated wail. I ran fast, just in time to reach school before the bombs started falling. The teacher had us singing to keep our spirits up in the dark, dusty shelter and it worked. I always enjoyed singing. We sang loud to drown the noise of the exploding bombs.
Late in the War I stood beside my Father in our garden looking up at the sky filled with more bombers than we had ever seen before, from one horizon to the other. Our planes usually took off in the dark for night raids, in smaller numbers. “Look,” said my Father, “Those are the Americans, so brave in the daylight, going to bomb Germany. They’ll end it soon.” And they did.
For years after the war one could still see London houses vertically split, their rooms exposed like doll houses, shredded wallpaper flapping in a breeze. It took years to rebuild parts of London. But there was a unifying spirit, all pulling together, a feeling that we were in the same boat and thus united. Churchill on the wireless rallied us, engendering tremendous spirit. I was helped by the confidence that my parents would not really let a bomb drop on me.
I don’t think of them as the Good Old Days. Society was less dangerous in terms of muggings, drugs, scams and terrorists, but we had other hazards, notably bombs falling in the night, incendiary bombs we strove to put out with buckets of sand and water, unmanned rockets, their engine drone cutting out an ominous sign they’d reached their destination, conscription and the perennial tragedy of war, dead servicemen and civilians. Four of my Mother’s brothers fought in Europe and survived the war.
Distances seemed longer, communications slower. Life was less affluent on every level. We had no central heating. My Mother’s shins were mottled red from the living room coal fire, while her back froze away from it. But the post was reliable: letters were delivered next morning for a penny stamp, everywhere in Britain.
I was swinging around a lamp-post, playing with the neighbors’ children, when one of them said, “The War is over!” She’d heard it on the wireless. I thought, “Thank goodness for that, now I won’t have to be quiet while the news is on.”