What was it like in the War, Grandma?
Chapter One: Sleeping under the Stairs
They tell me I couldn’t possibly remember this, but I can, vividly: the sky, blue to shame ink; the garden with flowers round the edges, lupins and phlox, all taller than I was then, aged two and a half, the lawn gone – sacrificed to the need for potatoes; the only grass a foot-wide path surrounding the mound of roughly dug earth. And me – photos show a small plump girl with ringlets bunched in satin bows, eyes screwed up against the sun, mouth hidden behind a large doll.
I remember the buzzing of bees in the buddleia by the French windows. But no, it’s louder than that. Look up: the sky so far above me contains a whirling swarm of insects, chasing each other, swooping, curling upwards and away only to drop down to resume the senseless circus. I did not know it then, but those loud insects were Spitfires and Heinkels, Hurricanes and Junkers, their young pilots desperately trying to shoot each other out of the sky. It was the summer of 1940 in South-West London.
Home was a paradigm of semi-detached suburban respectability, pebble-dashed with rounded bay windows downstairs and up and a little window cantilevered out from the wall (my room in peace-time) over the arched porch and oak studded front door with inset bullion glass. A sloping roof covered the integral garage approached by twin cement paths. The car – a Morris 8 – had been laid up on piles of bricks at the beginning of the war, for lack of petrol, but it was later sold to an optimist who thought the war would be over by Christmas. It was another 15 years before Dad was to be able to buy another car – one of the very first split-screen Morris Minors, black of course. The front garden was crazy-paved, with creeping Jenny growing in the cracks. A healthy young sycamore tree grew behind the wooden fence and beautifully cut privet hedge. Many years after we had moved away that sycamore had to be cut down because the roots had broken the fence and the pavement outside and threatened to break the house down as well, something the bombs weren’t able to do.
Inside was to be found the fashionable art deco décor of the 1930’s, with brown and orange geometric pattern carpet atop brown mottled lino in the front dining room, sturdy dark oak square furniture. Pride of place went to the big Bakelite radio with a rising sun pattern on the front and big dials to find exotic stations like Hilversum and Luxembourg as well as the familiar (and only) BBC Home Service. The radio stood on a small table with crossed supports underneath, and that was where I used to crouch to listen to Children’s Hour at 5 o’clock every afternoon: Larry the Lamb from Toytown with Mr Growser – I think he was the policeman and very stern; Jennings at School took us to the strange world of boys’ boarding school. and there were some marvellous stories: much better than television because the pictures were better. We were allowed to sit up until 8 o’clock on Saturdays specially to listen to the classic serials, and that was my introduction to Dickens, not a favourite author of mine now, but much loved then – I suspect because of the extra hour before bedtime!
Dad was in the ARP (air raid patrol) then and after a day’s work at the bank he would have a short snooze in the chair and then it was off to the air raid post – a hideous concrete bunker smelling of pee at the end of the road – to spend the night patrolling the area in case of fire and sometimes rescuing people from bombed houses. He also had to look out for people showing a light from their homes. The thought was that if the enemy could see the lights from houses and factories they would know where to drop their bombs, so that before we could switch a light on in the evening Mum had to go round all the windows fixing wooden frames stretched over with blackout material to each opening. The front door had to have a curtain over it. If anyone came to the door, the light in the hall had to be switched out before you could open it. As there were, of course, no streetlights, you had a job to see who it was at the door. Cars, lorries and buses had their headlights covered with black tape with a slit in the middle allowing just a sliver of light so that the driver could see where to go.
But at night the almost total darkness was broken by the beautiful patterns made by the searchlight beams, so called because they swung about searching for enemy aircraft during the raids. I saw these because Mum was fascinated by them and she would sometimes put all the lights out and open the blackout to watch. When the searchlights were on, so would the ack-ack (anti-aircraft) guns boom away in nearby Nonesuch Park.
Sleeping under the Stairs, Part 2
Blackout material was to haunt me later in life: many years on, when I was at Grammar School, we had to wear knee-length knickers made from blackout material for gym and games. Adolescent girls get giggly and embarrassed about looking silly and ugly, so we used to pull the elastic up to the top of our legs and tuck in the ballooning fabric. Then we had to walk the length of the playing field to the hockey pitch, running the gauntlet of whistling, mocking boys. The shame of it! And to top it all, if we were seen by a prefect we were made to pull the legs down again and given ‘lines’ to write: ‘I must wear my gym knickers correctly’ or some such rubbish.
Once there was a terrible raid and eight bombs dropped one after the other, leaving craters like a string of beads all down the middle of our road. An awful lot of windows were blown in, leaving crunchy glass all over the floor of countless front rooms. How lucky we were to escape alive.
Some people had air-raid shelters – either an Anderson, half sunk into the ground with a semi-circular corrugated iron roof piled with turf, terrible dark and damp places where whole families crowded in to spend night after night. Some had Morrison shelters, metal cage-like contraptions indoors: not very effective against bomb damage, but useful as a big table and as a cave to play in.
But we had no shelter: Mum slept upstairs in the big bedroom, Dad, too, until he went into the RAF. I never knew why we didn’t have a shelter, except that they were usually unhealthy places and you didn’t get any sleep, so I suppose my parents didn’t believe in them. The shelters would save lives so long as there wasn’t a direct hit: then, nothing saved you. During the Blitz my sister and I would sleep under the stairs to keep us safe from flying glass and falling debris. Chimneys and stairs were supposed to be the strongest part of the house, but we couldn’t sleep in the fireplace. It’s true that quite often all that was left after a house was bombed was either the staircase wall and stairs or a gable end with chimney. Sometimes you would see parts of rooms dangling in space with baths, walls and doors at crazy angles.
The noise of the planes and the bombs was so loud that we hid our heads under the blanket in our little nest. I remember that blanket – so soft and so warm – it was brown with a gold satin edge. My sister and I used to play tunes with our fingers on each other’s backs and try to guess the name from the rhythm and sometimes from the pattern of how the fingers moved. Sylvia – my elder by three and a half years – would tell me made-up stories. They always began Once Upon a Time, but didn’t always end Happily Ever After. Sylvia had a macabre sense of humour and often would invent horror stories that gave me nightmares. My mother reminded us of how she overheard a story that began ‘Once Upon a Time there was a little girl. She had no Mummy, no Daddy, no brothers or sisters. Doesn’t that make you sad Vivienne?’
Later, those stories took on a slightly vicious tone, deliberately designed to scare me – or so it seemed to me. Sylvia was averse to the indignity of walking to school with the little pest (me), and she would stalk off to join her friends, compelling the four-year-old to carry her satchel full of heavy books. As I was very small for my age, this was too big a burden and I took to dragging the satchel behind me along the pavement, ignoring mud and puddles. When I made it to the main road, the gaggle of older girls would be giggling on the corner and fell on me in horror. Sylvia would threaten me with horror stories, and fine me my threepence pocket money if her books were wet.
This must have gone on for some time, because eventually enquiries were made as to why Vivienne never had any money while Sylvia was flush. Then it all came out and for a while I was allowed to walk with ‘the big girls’, and Sylvia would wait for me to walk home. But that didn’t last long. At this time was probably born my liking for walking alone through suburban streets, admiring gardens and noticing the shapes of houses. Nowadays you wouldn’t let a four-year-old girl walk alone for two miles, but then there was little traffic and people seemed always to be kind.
Sleeping Under the Stairs, Part 3 .
There’s a horrible smell that reminds me of my first school, Saint Cecilia’s. You know, chalk and long-boiled cabbage, dirt and smelly lavatories. The vision it brings to mind is that of windows criss-crossed with tape to stop the shards of glass coming in when bombs dropped nearby. There was no air-raid shelter, so we were drilled to get under our desks when the crumps started nearby. If we were on our way home and the siren went we were to lie face down in the gutter. Much good any of that would have done us! Walking to and from school, I was terrified of the houses whose windows had been blown out. They would be roughly covered over with tarpaper and I thought the houses were blind, with monsters lurking behind the black openings.
That was where I lost my ringlets – source of pride to Mum and purgatory for me. My long brown hair was combed out last thing every night and sections of it were wound over strips of rag, which were then knotted close to my head. Sleeping with a head full of hard knots was not easy, and the little head tossed and turned and wriggled all night, leading to even more suffering in the morning when the rags were unwound and an attempt made to comb out the tangles. But help was at hand.
A note was sent home to mum from school:
‘Dear Mrs Showell
We feel it would be appropriate for Vivienne to have her hair cut.
Every day at dinner time the ends of her ringlets are covered in gravy, which makes a mess of her cardigan. Please see that her hair is cut when she comes back after half term.
Sincerely, E. Bowman’
I learned to read there. I don’t remember any preamble, any ‘a’ for apple, ‘b’ for ball. I have no idea how I did it. It just arrived. It seemed as though one minute I could not read and the next I could read anything. One day the teacher put a book in front of me and pointed to a line of words. ‘The cat sat on the mat’ I read , surprised that anyone should have needed to print that in a book. Initially I read it to myself, in my head. But the teacher seemed to want something else, so I read it aloud, still puzzled as to why anyone should be interested.
And that was that, the habit of a lifetime was started, my joy and my crutch, my antidote to boredom, pain or difficulty. From then on, any Christmas or birthday present that was not a book was a disappointment. Once (I was certainly not more than four) I was taken to see a friend of my Grandmother, a prim elderly lady who wouldn’t believe that I could read. ‘Try her’ said Mum, and the Daily Telegraph was produced. The lady pointed to a paragraph full of long words and I read it aloud, without hesitation. I hadn’t a clue what it meant of course, but I could certainly decipher the printed words!
I was only at that school for one term, but some other important things happened to me there: I learned to avoid going to the loo during the day in the revolting toilets outside in the playground, filthy dirty and stinking, with half doors exposing your head and your knicker-wrapped feet to all who cared to look. Thus started a long-standing problem with constipation, not to mention a lifelong distrust of public toilets. But I do have a strong bladder!
I also encountered real poverty for the first time in my life – a girl’s torn dress was caught up after ‘being excused’ and when she turned her back there were NO KNICKERS. I had had no idea that there could be anybody so poor they couldn’t afford knickers. I still have a little notebook in which my mother noted what she bought with the house-keeping money. The price of a pair of child’s knickers then would have been about fourpence ha’penny – less than two pence in today’s currency.
I had my first crush at St Cecilia’s. A glamorous new girl arrived after the beginning of term, beautifully dressed, with a blond head of short curls, and a quaint manner of prefacing everything with ‘I say’ – an expression for which I could see no purpose, but which seemed incredibly chic. I plucked up courage and brought out a hesitant ‘I say, could I have some jam please?’ to the amazement and ridicule of my family gathered round the table. I suppose she represented the other end of the scale from the knickerless one.
It was then that I lost my father, albeit temporarily. In 1941 he went into the RAF. I cried my eyes out when Mum said ‘He’s not Daddy any more. From now on he is AC2 Showell, 1866919’ – a number that is still engraved on my brain, a brain that can’t even remember its own car registration. A few days after he departed for a place called Castle Donnington I sat down to write him a letter. Barely literate at the time, I printed slowly and laboriously, with a chewed pencil, onto feint-lined paper:
‘DEAR A C 2
WE MISS YOU IT IS RANING THER WAS A RAID LAST NIGHT
I HOPE YOU ARE ALL RITE
WITH LOVE FROM VIVI
I addressed the envelope, with the title and number, and gave it to Mum. How she kept a straight face I’ll never know, but later I heard her roaring with laughter with Gran. My cheeks burned with resentment. How dare they laugh at my letter? I’d done exactly as I’d been told, proud of my ability to write. So that’s another thing I lost: my pride.
I was sent to Mass with Sylvia in the school hall from the age of about three. Mum and Dad didn’t go with us, an omission never spoken about. It didn’t last long though: Sylvia complained that I had pinched an old lady’s gloves or was it her bottom? (Rather conveniently I forget which) and kicked up a rumpus because I was bored. I was then banned for about a year until I could more or less be counted on to behave, then I was once more sent off with Sylvia. I wince when I remember the hard wooden floor we had to kneel on, and the smell of incense made me dizzy then as now. I was certainly anything but holy!
Sylvia had an imaginary companion at that time – called Mister – and room had to be found for him at table and going through doorways. In her eyes I was far too young to be a companion, and in any case was beneath contempt! I can’t say I really blame her, I must have been an abominable child, never still and always up to some devilment or other. I went through a phase of speaking Spanish – or what I insisted was Spanish. I don’t think I’d ever heard of Spain then, so why that language? Eventually Sylvia got it sussed. She would ask me what was the Spanish for this or that object and I’d rattle off some rubbish or other. Meanwhile Sylv would make a note of what I’d said and bring it out triumphantly when she caught me uttering different words for the same thing.
Food loomed large in the consciousness of everyone then. Mum took us to queue up at the Food Office for about two hours to collect the first ration books. These were little stapled books with little tear-out bits of paper equal to our ration for the week of meat, fat, sugar, tea, eggs – in fact all the basic foodstuffs. Children qualified for ‘Green’ ration books, much sought after, because they carried extra rations and free concentrated orange juice, a most delicious drink like no orange juice before or since, strong and sweet, at a time when there wasn’t much in the way of sweet stuff to be had. Though there was a small sweet ration, which we used to spend on Saturdays with our threepence pocket money in a wonderful old-fashioned sweet shop. The sweets were kept in large square jars on a shelf behind the counter (no self-service then) and carefully weighed on brass scales, poured into small paper bags and the corners twisted round expertly into little ‘ears’.
Rations would go up and down from time to time according to how many merchant ships bringing the food had been able to get through, and the new amounts would be announced on the radio. In addition to the basics, there were printed pages of ‘points’ which the shopkeeper would cross off when you bought extra things like jam or tinned fruit or biscuits. You had to register with your grocer and give him the ration book every time you shopped. The biggest bone of contention with people like my Mum was the meat ration. Even when there were four people in the house, there was rarely enough to buy a joint of meat, and if you did, that was all you had for a couple of weeks, so it would be one slice each hot, the same cold on Monday and if we were lucky, a minute Shepherd’s pie or a hash-up on Tuesday. Then it was back to bread and jam for dinner.
The Food Office was a horrid place, with flimsy temporary walls plastered with notices exhorting us to ‘Waste Not Want Not’ , ‘Be like Dad, Keep Mum’ – a reference to telling nobody anything that might be useful to an enemy, such as where people in the forces might be stationed. Queuing was the most boring part of life then – we queued for everything, in every shop, for the bus, and particularly for anything official.
The Black Market was not a shop or a market stall. It was people known as spivs (my nickname at school because of the rhyme with Viv) who by hook or by crook came by things in short supply – no-one knows how. I think that must be how the expression ‘Fell off the back of a lorry’ came about. The spivs would then sell the goods on to favoured customers at vastly inflated prices. Only those with money could buy, ‘off the ration’ (ie without surrendering the coupons in the ration books) so the black market was manifestly unfair. Food supplies, for no reason that anyone could understand, became even more difficult in the early after-war years. My father – after he had been demobbed from the RAF in 1946, went back to work in the bank, and there he was offered by (I think) a customer, 56 pounds of sugar. Having struggled with his conscience, Dad agreed to buy this sweet bounty which we all craved. Then, overcome with fear of being arrested and remorse for patronising the black market, he hid it in the bank, and only brought it home a pound at a time in his briefcase. Mum then used it to swap with the neighbours for other groceries. We all loved butter, and the ration was minuscule – two ounces for a family for a week. So the sugar was a Godsend to swap with those who actually preferred the horrible synthetic margarine.
During the war Mum used to save the inch or so of cream which came to the top of each bottle of milk. She kept it in a Horlicks jar in the fridge until Saturday morning when Sylvia and I took it in turns to shake and shake until our arms felt as though they would drop off. After about an hour, the creamy milk would become a small lump of butter. What a triumph! You couldn’t do that nowadays as milk is homogenised so that the cream doesn’t come to the top. But at least we can now buy proper cream, which we couldn’t until about 1955. The cream substitute in those days was evaporated milk, on ration ‘points’ naturally.
I ate my first ever banana in 1946. They had disappeared completely from the shops during the war, but all the adults and older children spoke longingly of the day when the banana boats would be able to come back to Britain. But for me that first taste was an awful anticlimax. ‘Is that all it is? I don’t know what all the fuss was about.’ To me it was like a mouthful of tasteless mush.
I do eat them now, though, so long as they are very under-ripe. I think it may have been the smell of an over-ripe banana that put me off.
Ice-cream was a different matter. Dad’s step-mother, a formidable Belgian lady of uncertain temperament known to us as Aunty, but who insisted everybody else called her Madam, made the most fabulous ice-cream, once real cream came back on the market – really creamy and vanilla-ey.
After the war years, cream was always known as ‘real’ because of some of the ghastly substitutes we had to put up with. Mum once iced my birthday cake with a cream made from mashed parsnip because they are a sweet vegetable, which she mixed with a little milk. Not by any means the worst ‘make-do’ product. When shop ice-cream came back in, it was either sold as an inch-thick cylinder wrapped in paper (Lyons) which though probably almost completely synthetic but tasted quite good specially with a cornet, or as a small thin rectangle between two wafers (Walls). The favourite shop ice-cream though was Fullers, eaten with a spoon in one of the many Fullers’ cafés renowned for a delicious walnut sponge cake. I wonder what happened to Fullers.
My father’s father – a mischievous punster, round and wicked (of which more later) used to take pity on us from time to time and send us a chicken for Sunday dinner. The smell coming from the kitchen drew us irresistibly and we’d sit round the table in the brown dining room, salivating until Mum brought in the miracle bird. All would go quiet for a while and then someone would bring out the inevitable ‘just like a rich family in peace-time.’
We could of course have had chicken more often had we been sufficiently hard-hearted. Before he went into the RAF Dad had built a chicken run out of the turf lifted from the lawn to grow potatoes. He piled them up, grass side down in a rough rectangle against the back fence into a wall and covered the whole thing with chicken wire. I suppose it would have been about three feet high, and it was my job as the littlest to crawl in and collect the eggs from the two white Wyandottes Mum had scrounged from a country friend. When they died of old age they were given a state funeral at the bottom of the garden, mourned more for the loss of the eggs than for their smelly presence. By then Mum had managed to get six Rhode Island/Light Sussex cross point-of-lay hens, which somehow we kept fed with scraps enough to produce eggs for us and for others less fortunate. But we certainly hadn’t the heart to kill them to eat.
As well as the regretted missing bananas, there was an almost complete lack of any citrus fruit. A rumour went around that the greengrocer had had a delivery of oranges, and I was despatched to the shops. After about two hours in the queue, little legs aching desperately and boredom at a new high despite having my nose in a book most of the time, I reached the head of the queue. ‘Grapefruit, one per family’ said the greengrocer, reaching for a brown paper bag. I had never heard of such a thing, didn’t know if I’d like it, thought I’d be in trouble for bringing the wrong thing, so I said ‘No thank you’ politely and turned dispiritedly away. The storm that erupted over my head when I got home was cataclysmic. ‘Of course I wanted a grapefruit. Back you go miss and don’t come home without any.’ But of course by the time I’d trailed back to the shops all the grapefruit had gone, so I was in for a double dose of bother.
The wartime years in retrospect seem very drab and colourless. Isolated sunshiny memories are far outweighed by grey days. People’s clothes were mostly sombre, many wearing black mourning armbands over the sleeves of their grey winter coats. Ladies wore turbans – a headscarf folded to a triangle, with the hypotenuse at the back of the neck, the point flopping over the forehead and then the long ends gathered up, concealing the hair totally and tied at the top. Then the pointy bit would be folded back, arranged artistically and turned in under the knot. They covered a multitude of sins such as curlers or unwashed hair, but some ladies would do their hair elaborately, put the turban on over the top and then fluff out a few curly bits at the front. That fashion lasted pretty well throughout the war.
Mum had two sorts of clothes, though not very many of them. In the mornings she wore what she called her working clothes – much the same as afternoon ones, except much older and more worn. But in the afternoon she ‘dolled herself up’ in what I remember as a very smart dress – her only one – which had been made to measure by a dressmaker down the road. It was a shirtwaist style with a box-pleated skirt, in a dark green and cream tiny dog-tooth check. Several years later I was wearing that same dress, cut down to a skirt, and passed on to me (inevitably given the clothing coupon problem) via Sylvia.
The one glamorous outfit Mum owned was a pre-war black evening dress, princess line, with a swirly skirt made from the finest silky velvet. So far as I know that was the only evening dress she ever owned, and it was trotted out two or three times a year, if ever she and Dad went out to a dance after the war, until at least the 1960’s. Even now, to me, ‘pre-war’ applied to just about anything, signified high quality. Many, many manufactured goods, including clothes, carried a strange little label of two rounded black inverted commas. This signified ‘Utility’ and was supposed to mean that minimum standards of workmanship and materials had been met but nothing fancy, nothing luxurious. At the time, ‘Utility ‘was a pejorative word in most people’s vocabulary, but long after the war was over Utility garments and furniture were still doing sterling service, when post-war goods would long have been worn out.
As children we were dressed identically, at least to start with – a sore point for both of us. Naturally I inherited Sylvia’s outgrown clothes, so by the time I too had outgrown them I hated the boring things. We had kilts for Sundays, worn with fawn home-knitted fair-isle jumpers; for parties we wore (again pre-war and handed down) shantung dresses with puff sleeves and smocking, made by Mum who was a superb needlewoman. In summer it was grey flannel divided skirts (known as shorts in those days) worn with grey Aertex shirts.
…to be continued
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