Sixty-eight years ago

September 25, 2007

During her stay in Canada my mother reminisced about her experience of the outbreak of war in September ’39, when she was a twenty year old Londoner. Her recollections brought it to life for me, so I’ll share them here.

A couple of days before the beginning of the 2nd World War, when Poland was being invaded and everyone knew that war was inevitable, my mother, who had a “half-season” ticket to the Proms — costing her 9 (old) pence rather than a shilling per concert — went to a performance at the Queen’s Hall which turned out to be the last ever, because these concerts ceased for the duration of the war and the old Hall was bombed. Being Friday, it was a Beethoven night, with Henry Wood conducting. Few people came to the concert, so she had a good view of the orchestra, but it was a “poor performance,” she said. It was difficult to come down the steps afterwards, as the blackout had now been imposed. Busses drove by with hooded headlights, and no lights on inside. The destination sign was likewise blacked out so a prospective passenger would have to shout to the bus driver from her bus stop, “Where are you going?” Nor could she see the coins in her purse when the conductor came round to collect the fares, so perhaps she only gave him a farthing, instead of threepence.

On normal occasions, she would often walk the three miles home to save her threepence.

The first my mother heard of the declaration of war was in a Methodist Church in Holborn where the famous pacifist, Donald Soper, happened to be preaching that morning. He interrupted the service to make the solemn announcement which was immediately followed by the sound of an air-raid siren. Everyone got up and left the premises, making for the safety of the nearest underground station. As it was a Sunday, none of the escalators was working and officially the station was closed, with no one to sell her a ticket, but Mum went down below all the same, carrying her gas mask in its “clumsy box”. A tube train came by, stopped, and she got on, for the first time in her life taking a free ride. She came up again at her home stop, Holland Park, expecting to see devastation, but “everything was the same as usual.”

Trenches were dug along Holland Park Avenue; there were sandbags and barrage balloons and “a funny atmosphere” during the phoney war. Everyone anticipated drastic events, but for a while “nothing happened”. Mum worked for the Civil Service in those days at an office in Hammersmith, Olympia, which before long was evacuated elsewhere, some of the employees being transferred to a place called ZA which everyone knew to be Harrogate. Mum, knowing this was about to occur, wrote to the authorities, saying: If the town concerned is less than fifty miles from Darlington where my aging parents live, I would like to be included in the evacuation. (In fact her parents were only in their early sixties; even so, my grandfather was to die of a stroke in the spring of the following year.) Her real motivation was to “get back to the countryside” because she was homesick for the moors. Her ploy worked; she was transferred to Harrogate and every three weeks was able to go back to her “old life” in Darlington at the weekend, playing the flute in her father’s chapel orchestra, though psychologically she no longer felt that she really belonged there. It was an unsettling, she said, living two lives.

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