Friday, December 28, 2012

Life in London 1940 - No schools

Living in Deal just had to end. The school was commanded to return to London in May 1940, after nine months of evacuation to Deal. This time the journey was entirely by bus - or coach – the word used was ‘charabanc’ . The approach to London was memorable. The sky was clear. I saw through the front window of the coach the sky over the eastern suburbs of London decorated with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of barrage balloons – great silvery blimps held fast to the ground with long hawsers. The evening sun shone a golden light on them. They decorated the sky, optically diminishing in size towards the horizon. They were indeed a splendid sight. It was decided that the school would re-locate to Devon, to the town of Torquay. My mother decided that I would not go. I must stay with her whatever the consequences. She felt that my brother’s education (he was 13) was more important than mine. But her baby –me- must remain with her.
For my brother began some weeks of torment. I never knew the reason why he was unhappy. I guess he was ill-treated in some manner, and I believe the hurt was hurt indeed. My mother was deeply angry and her anger caused her separation from the Roman Catholic Church. I remember the meeting with Father McKenna sitting in our front room. The embarrassment on his face was matched with the fury of my mother. We never went to mass again. My mother had been a convert to the Church. That ‘conversion’ must have occurred more or less during the year of my birth. My father was bankrupted. We were penniless. My father had no work and there were three boys to feed. She, at that time turned to pray at the nearby R.C church and sought help from the Church. The Church gave her money. My mother used to say to me frequently, ‘Pray! – more things are wrought by pray than this world dreams of.’ That is a quotation from Tennyson. She loved poetry and she had been awarded a prize at her school at the age of 13 of a book of his complete works for ‘proficiency in Religious Knowledge’.
My brother had to return from Torquay but there were no schools open. I did not go to school for many months, perhaps for a year. My brother also would have no schooling if he remained. It was decided that he should go to live with my mother’s brother in Glasgow. So he was put on a train, by himself, and sent to Scotland. I suspect that he came from Torquay by himself also. From thereon his life was not smooth. To his last day he claimed that his mother had deserted him, had sent him away. A feeling of persecution grew in him.
As for me, I just whiled away the idle hours. My mother tried to teach me a little. I could read from before the age of four. A friendly neighbour had some popular encyclopaedias for children and I was fascinated by the stories of ancient civilisations and much more. But the time of the Blitzkrieg on London was approaching. Frequently we three; father, mother and child; crept at night to try to slumber in the narrow cupboard below the stairs while exploding shells and drones of planes were resounding in the skies above.
The docks at Woolwich were ablaze. It was a September day in 1940. I was outside in the morning and looked to the North and saw huge clouds rising beyond the woods of Shooter’s Hill. My mother came to the door and in astonishment said to me ‘ Can it be gas?’ Her fear transmitted itself to me, but I had no answer. I had no fear in myself. To the young what happens, happens. Fear is frequently (though not always) the consequence of thinking into the future. If pain and misery has flowed from a past experience, then fear may well be engendered if that experience is encountered again. But for me at this time, each new wartime experience was just that, a new experience. I did not listen to the wireless and hear Churchill say ‘whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender’. But after that speech my mother expressed her fear to me. I was in the arms of my mother and we sat at the window of the bedroom looking across the road which was the main road from London to Rochester and the Kent ports. ‘What will we do if the Germans come?’ she asked of me. I did not know and gave no answer. ‘I expect that many of them are decent people. They are sons and fathers too. If we treat them well, then they will be nice to us, I expect.’
In time some schools re-opened to serve the increasing number of children who had filtered back from evacuation. I went – possibly as it happened for only a few days – to Deansfield School. No young male teachers existed. Most women teachers were themselves evacuated with their schools. The teachers at Deansfield were elderly and recruited back from retirement. The image of an elderly man with a grey stubbled chin bringing his face within inches of mine as I sat at a desk, trying to make me recite a multiplication table, still comes upon me. That frightened me! This was a new experience which brought immediate dread. That same lesson was interrupted by the wailing sound of an air raid siren. That sound for many years filled me with dread. I did not follow the others to the air raid shelter. I ran home. I did not return to that dread school. I never did discover if the school noticed my absence!
At some time later Henwick Road School re-opened. I joined its classes and some different experiences came with it. I repeat, I have so very few memories of ever having learnt anything in a classroom. The acquisition of knowledge generally has been incidental. Hideous reminiscences as retold above were also rare. As for my multiplication tables, they have always been dodgy. I have had need too often to ask my wife ‘What is six times eight?’ or whatever. Yet my abilities in mathematics is not poor.
It seems to me that a kind heart and love for the child is more important than the impulsion of teachers to impart knowledge. If the child respects and admires the teacher, the child will imitate the teacher. This was my experience at Henwick Road.