"Dear Mrs. Stone, Carter Paterson will call tomorrow (Tuesday) for my sewing machine. It merely has to be handed over and my address given. Will you kindly do this. The other things, if you would care to pack in a sack they could also be sent. Such things as will not go in a sack such as Charles’ back wheel of bicycle and saddle can be collected by us if you will appoint a time convenient to us both. Evening is best.
Mr. Rowley states that my cutlery was packed by you into a small suit-case which you returned. I have no doubt you had forgotten. If you are in possession of the children’s clothing of any kind I shall be grateful to receive them, particularly their winter velour school hats. The children are returning this week and I am in a hurry to complete their school uniforms, so am anxiously awaiting my sewing machine. It is just possible that you do not know that if a back wheel is removed then the 3 speed gear which is attached is automatically removed with it. Also you will find more pillows than you suspected since I always kept a good supply for the emergency of Sheila’s illness which requires her to sleep bolt upright, propped by pillows. There were also other bolsters. I had also a present given to me of a flat powder box and dredger with petit-point work. Please return this as I prize it highly."
While at the Isle of Man, in her mind’s eye, our home at 9 Wilton Road had appeared as when we left it. Our furniture and furnishings standing still and caught up intact in time to await our return. Now she and my father alight from the bus at the top of Wilton Road and my mother rushes ahead of him. She can hardly wait to be in her own home. Impatiently, she stands on the step for my father has the front door key, but at last the door is open and they are inside. She hurries down the short flight of stairs to our living-room and throws open the door, her eyes immediately seeking the handbag left behind on my Bubba’s magogany table! No furniture! Only a dartboard hanging on the closed scullery door and a number of empty beer bottles stacked in a corner. The room stinks of cigarette smoke. Panic-stricken, my mother hurries to our front bedroom and is relieved to find our beds still standing, although they have been stripped of bedding. Her eyes are drawn to the middle of the floor between the beds where piled together as if someone had intended to start a fire, lies torn up correspondence. Letters which my parents have received over the years and preserved, many of them from well-known writers. But, fortunately, the books remain on all four walls of the ‘press’room and in piles on the floor. The overspill into our bedroom appears also to be untouched.
Neither the electricity nor gas disconnected, and with the connivance of the Rowleys, our living-room has been used by neighbours on ARP or fire-watching duties. Again and again my mother laments the loss of the Dawsons as tenants. "They were honourable people, they would have cared for our property as if it were their own!" Although, it could be said that my Aunt, our tenants and our neighbours had done exactly that! "The Dawsons would never have allowed it to happen" my mother says bitterly as she gets together what little money she has to pay exorbitant bills for gas and electricity. Bills accumulated during our absence. As aliens, my parents are fearful of making complaints against neighbours and tenants and, therefore, must grin and bear it. Maintain a low profile, not provoke hostility. Luckily, the Rowleys move out for Mr. Rowley is called up for military service and his wife decides to live with her parents.
By the time Oonagh and I return home, my mother by dint of argument and threats has induced my Aunt Mary to return most of our possessions. But there are some we are doomed never to see again. On arriving home, I go immediately to the drawer of the sewing-machine to find the cultured pearl necklace inherited from my Bubba, but the drawer is empty, and the necklace lost to me forever. My mother repossesses also toys, dolls and a child’s desk and chair from our next door neighbours, the Reeves. Mrs. Sargie advising her where to look. But this is not all the Reeves have taken from us. My father calls upon my Aunt Mary to reclaim the back wheel of his bike. Opening the gate to No. 3 Leathwaite Road, he walks past the two grey dustbins, the successors of which, many years later, Cecil is to paint. One green and one red. In the Rise stands the Church which some time in the future will convert its apron to a car park. Cecil painting out the ‘Way Out’ notice when his mother becomes bedridden and he is unable to cope with the organisation of their daily lives. My father climbs the stone steps to my Aunt’s front door and rings the bell. She watches him from behind the glass panel. He keeps his finger upon the bell so that it screams throughout her house, and at last she opens the door.
"I’ve come for my back wheel" my father growls, his eyes hard, his teeth clenched. My Aunt’s face is red with temper as she glowers at my father. "Sam!" she calls, and from behind her appears a muscle man in shirt sleeves who moves to stand in front of my father, his fists raised. My father, no fighting man, is forced to retreat down the steps and out of the gate. "You bitch!" my father shouts at my Aunt from the safety of the street. That was the end of my parents’ relationship with my Aunt Mary. Thereafter, my father had no further contact with either of his siblings in England. For he had quarrelled also with his brother, my Uncle Henry, before the outbreak of war. My Uncle Henry was sympathetic to the Nazis which disgusted my father, and additionally he had refused to cash a cheque, acting as if he thought my father was intent upon defrauding him. But my Uncle Henry had not been interned because he was a naturalised Englishman. Aunt Mary was British by marriage, such are the vagaries of nationality and who is, and who is not, alien. With regard to my Aunt Mary, later my mother is to tell me that her further plans (encouraged by Amphlett, although this latter fact was not known to my parents) were thwarted by their Bank Manager. The Bank Manager refusing access to my parents’ accounts. In those days when Banks served only a minority of the population directly, Bank Managers were expected to show probity. In the 90s, and no doubt the years 2000, Bank Managers are no more than salesmen. Salesmen selling loans, insurance and savings schemes, many of dubious value. And, of course, they work on commission.
In spite of these setbacks, my father soon regains his old place at the bookshop in Red Lion Street, for somehow or other it has been saved, at least for the present. There are restrictions placed on his liberty and he is not allowed to travel more than twenty miles. He is also subject to a midnight curfew. But he can live with this.
Charlie Lahr at the Red Lion Street Bookshop
While we are away, my Aunt Becky has died on 26 June, 1940 (my eldest daughter being born on the same day in 1955). She has died under a simple operation on a fallopian tube and it is difficiult for me to equate the solidly built, loud-spoken woman - a rude version of my mother - with the fragility of death. For I was unaware that her seeming strength hid a weak heart. The doctor calls my Uncle Gussy into a side room and says, avoiding his eyes, "I’m sorry I have to tell you...." Gussy is taken to view his wife’s body, her gown straightened, her curly hair combed, her eyes closed, her arms crossed. "We are Jewish": he says "her arms must lie by her side." He watches while an attendant straighten limbs which can no longer move under their own volition. My mother’s feelings are ambivalent about the death of her sister. They were not friends and, in fact, a dispute, the cause of which I cannot now remember, had prevented them from seeing each other for some months prior to my parents’ internment. And yet my mother is in shock because her sister, her conemporary, who should have lived many more years, is dead. At the death of a person close to us we go through many phases of regret, the most important of these guilt, followed by attaching blame to the victim. My mother in the second phase says: "Whenever she couldn’t get her own way she clutched her heart and fainted. She gave herself heart trouble." This is how my mother rationalises and explains to herself the death of her sister. Florrie brings her younger siblings to visit us at 9 Wilton Road, where they wander through our house and garden as if lost. Seema with her large, sad, brown eyes and shoulder-length chestnut hair, making the most impression upon me, so that I see her as an orphan child escaped from the stories of my childhood.
While I am away in Filkins, Colleen has left St. Martin’s Convent and now goes to a grant maintained Convent, Our Lady’s, in Amhurst Park, Stamford Hill. But, in the remaining school holidays I go to her house or out with her to the swimming baths, the cinema or we take the 102 bus to Epping Forest. But Colleen is to be evacuated with her school at the beginning of the new term. I blench, for life without my friend seems bleak indeed. "Can’t I be evacuated with Colleen and go to her school?" I ask my mother querulously. I am not concerned with the difficulties, cost for instance. My mother is vague, says little, perhaps she would prefer now to keep us at home. But I nag and nag at her. Maybe my mother would have continued to put me off with bland replies, but the decision is taken out of her hands by the bombing of London which becomes knows as the Blitz. A bomb drops in Alexandra Park Road and I stand with a crowd to gawp in amazement at a house sliced in two, tables and chairs clinging perilously to sloping floors as if this solid brick, wood and plaster 19th century home which had sheltered generations, were no more than a plyboard doll’s house:
"On 7th September hundreds of incendiary bombs are dropped on London Docks, on Sunday 8th September the Luftwaffe bombs the East End. Throughout day and night fire-fighters battled to control 19 major, 40 serious and nearly 1000 small fires. Doctors, nurses, ARP wardens, policemen, rescue workers and a host of others fought to save lives, maintain order and offer comfort. 430 civilians died, 1600 injured and thousands more made homeless on this one night." The London Blitz published by Chapmans 1990.
And this scenario continues day after day, night after night.
For us at 9 Wilton Road, the Blitz brings with it a specific difficulty because during our absence from home, Mr. Reeves and his family have commandeered our Anderson shelter. The shelter planted so firmly and deeply by my father and covered with flowers. And for quick entrance to this shelter, Mr. Reeves had knocked down part of the fence between our two gardens. His own shelter he had taken the opportunity to sell for £1. Now our shelter houses not only Mr. and Mrs. Reeves and their two young children, but also the upstairs tenant of No. 11, a Mrs. Fairgrieve, and her baby of a few months. Her husband in the forces. There is no room within it for my parents, but once the sirens have sounded their long wail of warning, my mother hurries Oonagh and me outside to the Anderson. Oonagh pulled from bed and dressed in the siren suit recommended by the government and made by my mother on our sewing machine. A wool material, trousers and top all in one piece. Today we would call it a catsuit, or a jogging suit. My sister never stays long in the shelter, for seriously overcrowded there is no room for us to sleep on the bunks. Because of this, we are forced to sit stiffly until the broken wail of the All Clear sounds. I remain in the shelter after Oonagh leaves, not because I am afraid of bombs, for after all, death and injury happen only to other people. I use the Anderson as a place of sanctuary away from my usual routine. A place out of time. Sitting on a hard chair I bury myself in a book and soon I am oblivious of the two families pressed up against me in this claustrophobic environment. In that shelter I read the whole of Hugh Walpole’s ‘Herries’ series - Rogue Herries; Judith Paris; The Fortress; Vanessa - wrapping myself in these early blockbusters to avidly follow the lives of a family over the generations of love, death, jealousy and revenge.
In my private world I am deaf to the gunfire of the anti-aircraft batteries, known as ‘ack-ack’, shooting at incoming German planes. At that time we are unaware that this gunfire shot down few planes, but many civilians are killed by its shrapnel! For what goes up, must come down! The British government and the military apparently regarding the guns as a morale building exercise. Mrs. Feargrieve saw them as no such thing and as soon as the ack-ack fire booms out, its sound reverberating around the iron shelter, she panics, screaming in unison with the guns, laying noise upon noise. As the guns outside become noisier so does Mrs. Feargrieve and the panic taking hold of her, she finds relief in shaking, banging and slapping her nine-month-old daughter sitting in her lap. Jerked out of my book by her hysteria, I watch in fascination until at last Mrs. Reeves says "Leave her alone May" and forcibly removes the baby from her mother’s hands, to cradle the baby in her own arms. I am not surprised to hear from my mother a few years later, that this child, on going to stay with grand-parents refused to return to her parents. At last the All Clear sounds, or I become too tired to sit at my book, the print wavering before my eyes, so I return to bed in the house.
On Sundays, quite often we are visited by, or visit, friends my father has made on the Isle of Man, they now being released. Those house-mates who have signed the slip of paper on the reverse side of the poem for my father. Dr. Bauer is a frequent visitor. He does not list his first name, but signs himself ‘Professor Bauer’, for although the Nazis have stripped him of his home, his nationality, his life, he refuses to relinquish an academic achievement worked for so single-mindedly. All I remember now of Dr. Bauer are his said brown eyes which mourn also for the gentile wife who took the opportunity offered by the Nazis to divorce her Jewish husband. But their adult daughter had travelled with her father into exile. Sometimes, Oonagh and I walk with Dr. Bauer to the allotment on a disused reservoir facing the North Circular Road, where my father Digs for Victory. My father has offered Oonagh and me a halfpenny for every bucket of manure we carry, to put around the potatoes, cabbages and beans. But, not even the offer of a monetary reward can induce us to carry more than one or two of such buckets! Walking back from the allotments, Dr. Bauer begins to speak to us in German until our blank faces remind him of his whereabouts. Straddled across two worlds there are times when he mistakes one for the other. Occasiionally, we visit Hermann Nonnenmacher, also on my father’s list, and his wife who are both sculptors and have set up a studio in a house off Archway Road. Nonnenmacher had been a well-known sculptor in Germany and his works had adorned many public buildings. His wife Jewish, he had chosen to go into exile with her. Therefore, the Nazis had tumbled and smashed his works from pedestals. In Britain, the ground floor of their Archway house form one large studio in which stand figures emerging from the stone and those struggled out, set in one position as if frozen. And yet, the sculptor’s art make it seem that many are about to move, walk forward falteringly, or smile at us behind our backs:
As Pygmalion in days of old,
Clasped to himself the lovely statue, cold,
Until the marble’s graven form and face,
Glowed to throbbing life in his embrace...(42)
Many years later, Sarah Roberts was to take lessons in sculpting from the Nonnenmachers and we were told a story of how, in a fit of pique and dissatisfaction with her own work, she seized a head and threw it out of the window. Only to find that the head which lie cracked on the pathway was not her work! Hermann Nonnenmacher was only one of many artists interned on the Isle of Man. For apart from those coming to Britain on religious and political grounds, Britain had accepted artists whose work had been branded by the Nazis as ‘degenerate’ at the notororious Entartete Kunst Ausstellung of 1937, and who had thereby lost their teaching posts. These artists forbidden also to exhibit, sell, or even work. Banishment and imprisonment, the artists could withstand, but creation was their very life’s blood. Therefore, for some time on the Isle of Man and until artist materials became available, the interned artists improvised, using oil paint made from crushed minerals, dyes abstracted from food rations mixed with oil from sardine tins, paint brushes from Samson Schames’ strong and wiry beard. While artists Dachinger and Nessler collected gelatine from boiled-out bones and mixed it with flour and leaves to size newspapers, and so made paper on which to draw with burnt twigs for charcoal. The artists of Onchan used also the reverse side of wallpaper, and having stripped one room completely, formed a human chain along the walls with each artist drawing a portrait of his neighbour on the bare wall, to form a continuous frieze. Lino from corridors and kitchens was used for linocuts. And Weissenborn manufactured an enduring printing ink by mixing crushed graphite from lead pencils with margarine. Kurt Schwitters made use of ceiling squares of a composiste material to paint portraits and landscapes. He colleclted also discarded cigarette boxes, stamps, sweet wrappings, papers and throwaway detritus. These to become the ingredients of his collages. For panels, Schwitters dismantled tea chests. Lavatory paper became a sort of illuminated scroll. Tent pegs were shaped into animal letter openers, especially crocodiles. Regularly the artists held exhibitiions of their works within the camp. (43) In this the artists were more fortunate than other professional people interned, who were unable to follow their callings.
Now released, many of the Nonnenmachers’ commissions are for churches. On one visit in which we are accompanied by Dr. Bauer he provides a medical diagnosis of a Virgin Mary standing some three foot high on her pedestal. "She’s pregnant" he declares, examining her from all angles and for once his sad eyes light up in amusement. His stocky figure is placed firmly in the centre of the floor. "And I would suggest an exopthalmic goitre." He walks around the figure once more: "Perhaps also a spinal problem!" Refused permission to practice medicine in Britain, Dr. Bauer can, at least, practice his craft on statues! The Nonnenmachers take it all in good part. They are childless and the stone people to which their hands give birth are more to them than flesh and blood. Until my father dies in 1971 he counts also among his friends Fritz Schönbeck whose name is also on my father’s list. Schönbeck ordered books from my father and, as a financial consultant, freely gave my father money advice. Towards the end of his life, my father, losing track of time and unable to sleep, occasionally phoned Schönbeck at 3 or 4 a.m. This early summons from his bed not appreciated by Schönbeck, now himself an old man.
At about this time, in response to the ‘Flat to Let’ board which has stood at our gate for some weeks, a young couple take our upstairs flat. They are to be married and we are invited to the wedding reception in a house in Holloway. My mother taking Oonagh and me to the ‘do’. At the tall Victorian house, divided into flats, the wooden partition dividing the front room from the back of the groun floor, is flung open to provide one long room in which the table is laden with goodies. Little girls dressed in frilly party dresses and little boys in clean shirts and short trousers, their hair slicked back unnaturally. Mrs. Higgs in tailored navy blue suit (which in those days we called a ‘costume’). Mr. Higgs uncomfortable in a dark pin-stripe suit, stiff collar and tie. My mother, never at home with the working-class en masse, is relieved to find that one of Mrs. Higgs’ Uncles in a trade union official, which provides her with some common ground. Mrs. Higgs is ugly-attractive, flat-face, pug-nose, dark, small. Mr. Higgs, dark mottled skin, thickset. Mrs. Higgs is a cigarette maker and works at Carreras, the large factory at Mornington Crescent, the doorway flanked by two enormous stone, sitting, black cats. As my mother has also worked at cigarette making, she has some fellow feeling for Mrs. Higgs. Therefore, the two women sit in our living-room and exchange experiences and work stories. They speak often of the marriage bar, for in the days before the war once women were married they were expected to stay home ‘and mind ba-bee’! And this marriage bar was applied throughout the Civil Service, local authorities and industry. Women in need of money, were forced to marry secretly "until a baby was on the way" says Mrs. Higgs "and then they’d say they were leaving to get married. It could be embarrassing because their workmates would get up a collection and ask when and where the wedding was taking place!" This marriage bar applied also to laundries, an industry widespread before the war, and prior to the introduction of launderettes. Pre-war, those needing to work to support their families, or add to family income, on applying to wash the neighbourhood’s bedding, smalls, shirts and so on, must take off their gold bands and swear to be single!
My mother is not so fond of Mr. Higgs, for he likes a drink and on one occasion when Mrs. Higgs is at work he comes down into our living-room and says to my mother "sit on my lap girl"! After that she is chary when she knows that they are alone in the house together. Whether the Higgs worried about our lack of a useable shelter I do not know. Perhaps they were able to make other arrangements. Certainly an above-ground brick built structure stood at the Tetherdown end of Wilton Road. Although its only advantage to a house was that it had no windows. In fact, I seem to remember that some years later a corruption scandal broke in connection with the building of these shelters.
And so our weeks continue, with me occasionally asking my mother when I can go to join Colleen in Welwyn Garden City. Until one evening when I put down my book and climb out of the narrow opening and confinement of the shelter, to go to the WC. As I cross the garden, I hear overhead the whining noise of a descending bomb zooming through the air, aiming itself at me. At the same time, I hear at ground level, the noise of crockery breaking. This is Mr. Reeves who has thrown himself down on the path, letting go of a tray of cups of tea and biscuits. A voice screams "put out that light!" Quickly, I push open the kitchen door, banging it shut behind me, and run across the kitchen and into our cupboard under the stairs. A cupboard in which the meters are situated and my father stores seed potatoes. Then the floor moves and shakes, the kitchen electric light bulb flashes on and off, on and off. I stand in the cupboard, the door slightly open, shivering with shock until the room ceases its spinning and the electric light remains constant. The bomb on this 24 November 1940 has fallen on the other side of Wilton Road and at the end near to Tetherdown (44). Fortunately, no one is killed nor injured for the occupants are all in their Anderson shelters. The shelter on this occasion living up to its name. But once again I view houses torn apart as if they were no more than cardboard. Afterwards, the Lazenbys are blamed for an inadequately drawn blackout curtain - for after all, someone must be at fault! An offence, for wardens trudge the streets each night to discover such illegal lights. Whether the Lazenbys were fined or cautioned I do not know, but I am sure that my parents in their situation were relieved that no such blame could be attached to themselves!
We are fortunate, for our house has remained unaffected, not even a window broken by blast and my mother gives thanks to the Ash Tree which spreads its branches over our front garden. Other houses in the road not only have windows blown in and tiles from the roof lifted to fall onto the hard pavement, but have been left without water, gas or electricity. As soon as it is light, my mother and I busily hurry up the road, carrying buckets of water and trays of tea and sandwiches, while workmen labour to restore public utilities. Wilton Road takes on the appearance of a busy thoroughfare as the more fortunate set about helping the others. We carry refreshment to Mrs. Pearce at No. 41 and she asks us upstairs into her kitchen. I gaze out at the line of tall poplars standing in rank and look down on the mound of her flower covered Anderson shelter. Suddenly, I become aware of Mrs. Pearce saying agitatedly "I had a terrible dream last night!" I turn to look at her. She stands in her useless kitchen, her eyes wide, her hands pulling at the long green bead necklace around her neck. "I dreamed it was all coming up over me, smothering me!" She moves her hands upwards and down again, indicating envelopment. She is overcome, can say no more. "It’s the shock" my mother says soothingly, "the bomb fell almost opposite." "It was pressing down on me" Mrs. Pearce almost weeps.
I walk with my mother down the road to find Oonagh playing with the two younger children in the downstairs flat of No. 41, Oonagh running with them round and round a van parked at the side of the road. One of these children, Molly, had appeared a week or two previously in a concert at Coldfall School, to which my mother had taken Oonagh and me. Molly had sung:
I’ll walk beside you through the world today,
Through tears and joys and sorrows come what may...
And when the great call comes and the sunset beams,
I’ll walk beside you to the land of dreams....
And she had extended the ‘e’ in ‘beside’, drawing it out. When I return home I mimic her by warbling:
"I’;ll walk beeeeeeeeeside you!....."
Now, I say to Oonagh in a grown-up manner "why are you running around the streets like an urchin!" I am censorious for while I have been playing the role of adult, Oonagh, Pat and Molly have been chasing each other and laughing as if a bomb had not shaken all the street and beyond. Oonagh takes no notice of me and continues to play with her friends in the street, so I follow my mother indoors.
The second bomb falls after my sister and I have been evacuagted to Welwyn garden City and I can repeat the story only as told by my mother: Night had fallen and my parents sit in the kitchen, the blackout curtains drawn over the window covered by patterned sticky paper to ensure that glass broken by blast remains in one piece. Outside the batteries of ack-ack guns boom and crack. Overhead the drone of planes. They do not hear the bomb whine down, but they feel its crunch as it sets sthe house swinging around them until they fear that it will shake loose from its moorings. My parents fling themselves down on the floor and wait until the house is once again quiet and still. Then they rush out into the garden, expecting to find a crater into which my father’s planted vegetables and the pocket-handkerchief lawn have fallen. But they step onto firm ground. All at once, from a little distance away, they hear terrible screams rending the darkness: "Get them out! Get them out!" Sobbing, screaming, keening.
My father grabs a garden spade and runs up the road towards Tetherdown, Mr. Reeves not far behind and on the way they are joined by another man also carrying a spade. "It’s at number 41" the man shouts at them. The Pearces! The front door is open, a distraught woman standing in the hallway. My father and his companions run into the back garden where another neighbour is already at work, standing on a bunk of the Anderson shelter and shovelling soil from out of it. The bomb has fallen in the garden, felling a poplar tree, its roots tearing through the ground to throw a heavy shroud of earth up into the shelter, burying Mr. and Mrs. Pearce and two of the children from the downstairs flat. Ten year old Molly, the child with whom Oonagh was playing only a few days before, and the youngest of four children, and Peggy at 15 years, the eldest. All four sleeping on the two bottom bunks. My father climbs through the narrow aperture and the two men stand on the top bunks on which the parents and two of their children have been sleeping, My father the reverse of a grave digger. He must work againsst time for he must observe a midnight curfew. At last they uncover the two children and the Pearces. "The Pearces looked so peaceful" my father tells my mother "lying side by side, half smiling. They must havae died in their sleep." The older girl, Peggy, is dead when they reach her and Molly barely alive. My father and Mr. Reeves struggle to free the little girl from the shelter which has shifted and is lying across her legs. "Mum, oh Mum" they hear her murmur as she dies in Mr. Reeves’ arms. The clock strikes twelve and my father, exhausted physically and emotionally, bereft of words, passes the bereaved parents and siblings who are now standing forlornly outside the shelter, as if they do not know any more what is expected of them. He returns to 9 Wilton Road.
On to The Garden City
Get You Back Home