Post-War Memories

Danny Karlin

  • ‘The Good War’: An Oral History of World War Two by Studs Terkel
    Hamish Hamilton, 589 pp, £12.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 241 11493 4
  • Truth, Dare or Promise: Girls Growing up in the Fifties edited by Liz Heron
    Virago, 248 pp, £4.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 86068 596 9

In my first year as a graduate student, I lived in a terrace house in York Street, Cambridge – a shabby, friendly part of town which had not yet been ‘improved’. (True, the previous owners had built an ‘extension’, but it was very ramshackle, and they left the main drain in the middle of the kitchen floor.) One of my next-door neighbours was Mrs A., a bent, frail, spirited woman, about seventy years old. Her house was heated by coal and lit by gas, because when she and her husband came back after World War Two, the landlord told them the whole street was going to be demolished in six months and it wasn’t worth putting in electricity. And after her husband died she could never be bothered.

During the war, when Mr A. was called up, she had gone back to London to work in a munitions factory and to live with her family on the Isle of Dogs – parents, two brothers, sister and brother-in-law and their two children, one a baby. Her father, a Thames lighter-man, had been crippled in an accident. The three other men had not been called up because they worked in the docks. Mrs A. was surprisingly bitter about the Blitz – I mean the bitterness was surprisingly fresh, thirty years on. The constant anxiety, the grubbiness – above all, the lack of sleep. She told me she had longed to be dead, and used to envy the peace and quiet of the corpses she saw pass by in funerals. There were plenty of funerals.

The Isle of Dogs was bombed day in, day out. At the back of the house there was an Anderson shelter, a tinny prefab half-sunk into the ground and covered with earth. (The first citation in the Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary is from the New Statesman, 3 June 1939: ‘Goats sheltered from high explosive in Anderson shelters were claimed to be quite unhurt.’) One evening, shortly after the men came home, the siren started and the whole family crowded into the shelter. In the hurry, no one noticed that the baby’s bottle-feed had been left behind. The baby was hungry, and cried incessantly. The raid was heavy and prolonged, and the atmosphere inside the shelter was stifling. Then there was a lull in the bombing, but the all-clear didn’t sound. The baby cried and cried. The lull went on for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. Finally Mrs A.’s elder brother declared that he couldn’t stick it; he was going up to the house to get the feed. No, said the baby’s father, he ought to go, and the two men had a silly, furious row about it. They decided to go together. The women tried hard to persuade them not to, it seemed so stupid, but they had ‘made their minds up’, and they went. They were just inside the house when Mrs A., who was watching at the edge of the shelter, heard that unmistakable high thin drone, and jumped back inside. A clutch of bombs fell along the line of the street, one of them directly opposite their house.

At first the bodies could not be found. It was not unusual for people to be blown hundreds of yards away. Mrs A. and her surviving brother, in their time off work, visited the local mortuaries where the unidentified dead lay for a short while before disposal. In the second or third place they were shown the remains of a man who might have been their brother. They were not allowed to uncover the top half of the corpse; they were told it was no use, anyway. The body of the baby’s father, their brother-in-law, was never identified.

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