Sunday, December 30, 2012

The First Day of War - Evacuation

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I was in a crocodile of children walking with our teachers along the seafront at Deal. It was a crazy place to which to evacuate a bunch of London kids. Deal is but twenty miles from France. On a clear day the continental coast is visible. It would have been about 11.00 a.m. and the air raid siren sounded. This was the first sound of War. The teachers, no doubt flustered and confused hurried the class of young children into the Tudor gun emplacements of Deal castle. There are various narrow passages with openings for small firearms and into such a passage we were led. There was no danger. This was the phoney war which last some months.
But consider the mental torment to my mother! A few days before, it may have been no more than two; I and my next older brother – I had two brothers – were bundled off with the rest of the school into a train. My mother did not stay to see us leave. She had no knowledge whatsoever as to where we would lay our heads that night. Not any idea. Imagine how she must have felt as she returned to our home. She would not know for days where we were living, what family we were with, whether we were distressed or happy. There was no telephone. She laid her trust in the teachers of the school. London had no children. It was as though a Pied Piper had whistled them all away, and gardens and parks and streets between the terraced houses had no sound of children at play.
When we arrived at Deal we were put on a bus. Some previous arrangements must have been advertised in the Town for families who had space to accommodate the Londoners. The bus stopped by a small house, ‘Can you take two boys here?’ asked a teacher. We were the two boys. We were given a packet each of Jacobs Cream Cracker biscuits and ushered into the home of Mr and Mrs Rennie. They were retired and found us perplexing. But every circumstance brought a new expansion of my mind. ‘Would you like to see the goldfish in the pond’ said Mrs Rennie. The ‘pond’ was an old sink in the tiny back garden and in its shallow dirty water swam the imprisoned fish. But kindness was offered and I repaid it by wetting the bed.
We listened to the wireless, powered by an ‘accumulator’ which had to be recharged at a nearby garage. Mr. Rennie had constructed internal shutters to the windows which were effectively airtight. These were mounted in case of a gas attack from the air.
Towards the end of September my parents visited. It was close upon my birthday. They gave me a Rupert Bear annual which is still a precious possession.
This evacuation was the beginning of a torment for my brother who accompanied me. Not at Deal but the later consequence. I was six, and he was ten. His supposed education was at a more important stage than mine and that age in formed in his mind a disturbance which lasted till he died.
But I return to the experience of Deal. As throughout my years of education I recall little of formal lessons, but the other experiences of life left great impressions. I often looked across the sea. Wrecks of boats on the Goodwin Sands were close enough and I made childish sketches of them. War did not impinge itself except for the instance of the ‘Naughty Nora’. This small cargo boat struck a mine at sea and was disabled. It floated on its side into the pier at Deal and demolished the structure. It looked huge stuck into the wreckage. More non-education followed thick and fast; The shoals of sprats which marooned themselves on the stony shore gave us meals of fried fish; The picking of outdoor cucumbers on Mr. Rennie’s allotment; The huge falls of snow which rose above my tiny Wellington boots and gave me chilblains; The smell of dog-shit in a back alley way; The taste of a millefeuille filled with raspberry jam; The watching of my schoolmates throwing a stink bomb into a fish and chip shop.
Life for the Rennies with two street wise boys was getting difficult. We had to go. My brother said to me in bed ‘Let us pray that we can go to Mrs Field’. We were good Roman Catholics! We did so move but with an interim stay with a third household. All this life continued without the knowledge of our parents, who could in no way have an opinion on our lives.
We went to school in some Convent in Deal and some of our lessons were conducted by nuns. Only a few memories remain; The huge fire in a large fireplace in a large stone hallway where some spelling bee on a blackboard was conducted; The single remarkable lesson by a nun who drew upon the board a ladder and indicated heaven at the top and hell at the bottom. ‘If you do something good, then you climb a few steps to Heaven. If you do something naughty (like throwing stink bombs?) you slip down a little towards Hell’. No other memory of the school remains. What can I make of this?
I guess that young boys are rather like young animals, exploring their environment; a kind of Huckleberry Finn experience. At times they need the direction of a firm hand and rules to be laid down. ‘Always use two pieces of lavatory paper’. Said the fifteen year old daughter of Mrs Field. Even this rule I followed for many years. It is the Sound of Music syndrome, where the ex-nun directed the children. By God, we need this direction today in our society.