21: THE GARDEN CITY:
Knighted in the year of my birth, Sir Ebenezer Howard, Founder of the Garden City Movement, gazes benevolently at his 1920s creation from a stone plinth. This pedestal alongside Welwyn Garden City Department Stores, an emporium catering to all material needs. A forum in which the pubescent girls of Our Lady’s Convent are to pass love notes to the boys of St. Ignatius College, until several boys have confessed in turn the girls’ perfidy. The priest, breaking his professed vow of confidence, lays a complaint before the Mother Prioress at Our Lady’s Convent. And she in turn spits fire and brimstone over us, her pupils, at Assembly. Sir Ebenezer sees none of this for he is an idealist influenced by Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and the socialist author of Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy. Sir Ebenezer’s dream is of the urban environment transferred to the countryside - rows and rows of suburban type housing with front and back gardens - the City masquerading as rural by the addition of grass verges and tree-lined streets. One of Howard’s principal goals was to curb the unplanned growth of the suburbs and confine the population of his Garden City to 30,000. Now, as he stonily surveys his universe he must see the Garden City itself spreading outwards. For at the end of WW2, local Councils laboured to fulfil housing targets and to accommodate Inner City dwellers bombed out of, or decanted from, their former neighbourhoods. At the same time, all over the country, there sprang up New Towns influenced by Ebenezer’s vision of nature held without bounds by the restraining hand of idealism. However, in 1940 the extending Garden City cast only a shadow over the surrounding fields and Sir Ebenezer’s dream appears to be entire.
My mother, Oonagh and I travel to the Garden City by train. Or was it by green line bus? No matter, it is my arrival that is important. My mother has been sent by the Convent the address of a Mrs. Brown who has offered Oonagh and me a temporary billet. When, on 31 August, 1939 the children had been evacuated out of the city en masse, they had been lined up for the inspection of the local population in nearby fields, as if they were livestock. Those chosen first possessed the most pleasing demeanour. "Middle-class people chose girls because they thought they’d eat less, and could be made to help in the house" remarked Frances Smith, my auburn-haired friend who some years later worked with me at Transport House. "That meant the working-class families had to take hungry boys who ate them out of house and home." At that time, a sentimental story in the tabloids told of how a small black child remained unchosen, until a couple, taking pity on him, agreed to offer him a billet. On undressing the boy for bed, the couple found underneath his vest £100 in notes in an envelope addressed "To whomsoever is kind enough to give my child a home." Whether this story unleashed a run on the very few black children available in those days, was not stated!
By the time Oonagh and I arrived at the Garden City, the home of the Shredded Wheat factory whose long white building was reproduced on every packet, the first furore of billeting had long been settled. It was now necessary only to fit us in somewhere. As soon as we had called at Mrs. Brown’s suburban home and made our introductions, I insist that we call upon Colleen. Colleen does not ask me into her billet, for that is not her ‘lady’s’ way, and during my stay in the Garden City I am never to go into anyone’s billet apart from my own or Oonagh’s. Instead, Colleen comes out of the house, smiling. She greets my mother and Oonagh who wait in the background and then, with a wave and a promise to see me at Sunday Mass on the morrow, disappears into the house, for she says "my lady’s laying the table for tea." "My lady this, my lady that..." say the evacuees, referring to the woman of the house, neither the child nor the woman having distinguished a more exact relationship. The man of the house is rarely mentioned and if so only as "my lady’s husband" or "M - at my billet."
Mrs. Brown houses two regular evacuees from the Convent, the Anglo-French Priestnoll sisters, one older and one younger than me. The sisters are refugees from France. "Ou est le Parc?" I say, practicing my French, and the two girls hoot with laughter. "J’habite a Londres" I say with some difficulty and once gain they treat me as a comic act. It is while speaking in English that I discover that they are acquainted with Nicole, for the Mittelsteins had stayed with the Priestnolls while fleeing France. Madeleine, the older girl, pulls a face and I gather than Nicole is not her favourite person, or that the relationship between the two families had soured. However, to me, any relationship at all seems to be an amazing coincidence and I ask enthusiastically for Madeleine to write to Nicole. She shrugs "If she writes to me, I might answer." On a visit home to Muswell Hill I relay this message to Nicole, whose face registers astonishment. I am treading in deep waters. A further memory of this billet is tea-time on my first day when Mrs. Brown asks me if I take both milk and sugar. Impulsively, and for no good reason, I reply "no milk’ and have to suffer the consequences for the rest of my stay! Engraved on my mind also is an abortive walk to Mass through Sherrards Wood one Sunday. I am alone and take the short-cut which I have been shown on the previous Sunday. This leads over the level-crossing and comes out near to the Church. Walking into the woods, I follow the wrong path, trees crowding me in on each side, the occasional bird noisily flapping its wings or screeching a warning note above me as I go deeper and deeper into the forest. I know that I am on the wrong path and yet a stubbornness insists that I continue on my way, for I blame not myself, but my environs, as if I were Alice in the Looking Glass and the paths were twisting and shifting to deliberately confuse me. I will not give in to them. I will walk on until before me on the other side of the trees the level-crossing decides to appear.
I must have walked a full half hour on this path of packed earth, grass and twigs and at last arrive at a clearing strange to my eye. It is then that I have to admit to myself that I have lost my way. There is now no point in going to Mass, so I walk back the way I have come and return to my billet. I allow Mrs. Brown to assume that I have been to Church, and as she is not a Catholic, she knows no differently. But then a nun calls later in the day to enquire the reason for my absence. Mrs. Brown is annoyed with me. I am deceitful. Where did I go? What was I doing? Lamely I say that I missed the path and lost myself in the woods, but I can tell from Mrs. Brown’s expression that she does not believe me. This is not a good start to my stay in the Garden City and it seems to me that wherever I go I take with me confusion and misunderstanding.
Our Lady’s Convent of the Servite Order whose motto is Alma Mater Dolorosa, Our Mother, or Our Lady, of Sorrows - which should have warned me - is billeted on Handside Elementary School. A one-storey off-white windowed prefabricated building, stretching out in a long line, one classroom behind the other as if they were compartments of a train which had ploughed its way through town and country until running out of steam it has laid up at this place. The Convent occupies several classrooms and had its own Assembly Hall, so that we have next to no contact with the girls of the Elementary School. The only time in which I come into contact with the Handside girls is during an air-raid alert, when we are hurried into the hall to sit on the floor against a wall where a lesson in home economy is in progress. ironing boards open and girls industriously plying the irons back and forth. Apart from one girl of about my age, pert face, curly brown hair, who emphasises every action by lifting the iron high, examining it, pressing it down, pushing it across the garments in a skating movement, lifting the finished garment, looking at it from all sides, frowning, putting it back onto the board, pretending to lose the iron... Colleen and I laugh at her antics for we enjoy not only her performance, but the joke she is making of this lesson. Colleen asks the girl her name and she tells us ‘June’ and so, perversely, Colleen says we will call her ‘July’.
If I meet ‘July’ while out with Colleen all is well, for we indulge in banter. But once on my own and walking behind her and a group of her friends who are all talking and laughing together, I try to give her a greeting when she turns restlessly to look behind, but all I can get out is a croak. And the girls laugh, not with me, but at me. It may well be that Handside School were able to accommodate us, because so many of their own pupils had been evacuated farther afield. For the area was under threat of air-raid and on my first day at school I see a Convent girl with bandaged head and an arm in a sling. A bomb whining its way down to its target had hit the house in which she was billeted. Bricks, mortar, tiles, plaster, furniture, all fell in upon themselves and her, burying this girl under a tomb-like pyramid.
After a few weeks in the Garden City, we are taken to a permanent billet, this with a Mrs. James and her husband ‘The Captain’. To what he owed this title I remain unaware, but to Mrs. James he was always ‘The Captain’. He is a thin man in late middle-age and some years older than his wife, stiff and unbending. In fact, I cannot remember him ever speaking to Oonagh and me. Mrs. James is his first chain of command. I pull out from the book-shelf in the drawing-room one of the leather-bound books by James Barrie, ‘The Admirable Crichton’, lined up with its fellows. Mrs. James is indignant. "Put that book back! The Captain won’t have anyone touch his books!" I return the book to its appropriate rank.
Mrs. James talks a great deal, and when it is not to complain about my sins of commission and omission, she spills out over us grievances against her husband’s first family. Grievances which building up within her over the years have inflated her into her present shape. Pouring out this bitterness might have benefitted her figure, however, I was not with her long enough to perceive this. Grievances which she can voice to no-one else for she is not popular in the Garden City. "She come from nothing" sneers Mrs. Harding, ‘my lady’ at my next billet. "She were only Captain James’ housekeeper. She got him to marry her when his wife died. She ain’t nothing." "My family came over with William the Conqueror" Mrs. James tells Oonagh. She is washing-up carefully blue and white china, while Oonagh dries. This is later when I am no longer at this billet and Mrs. James had introduced Oonagh to various areas of work in the house. "My maiden name was Vallis", she continues "which is a corruption of the French ‘Valois’". The Royal House of Valois to rule France from 1328-1589. Oonagh listens to Mrs. James, but makes no comment. Instead, she hurries through her chores so that she can continue to read the treasure trove she has discovered of Sexton Blake magazines, hidden in a wardrobe. "They saved me" she said to me only recently "they kept me sane, they took me into another world."
Before my eviction from this house, Mrs. James tells me bitterly, as restlessly she tidies the room and I stand to listen: "Tony and I were very ill a few years ago." Tony is her son by Captain James, now about fourteen years of age and away at boarding-school. "And we were too weak to get out of our beds. Tony was in his cot alongside me" she says. Her mouth a grim line, her eyes sharply looking back into the past. "Captain James’s son and daughter left us to lie up there, she indicates the stairs, "neither of them came near us, they did nothing for us, they wouldn’t make me so much as a cup of tea, or give Tony a drink of milk. If it wasn’t for the maid bringing up soup and milk we could have died!" I see Mrs. James lying on her sickbed, her face flushed, her pinched-back hair loose, wet from perspiration. Beside her bed stands a cot in which a fat pallid baby tosses and turns restlessly, whimpering. ‘The Captain’ locked in his study, the step-children laughing and talking downstairs, the daughter tittivating, preparing to meet a friend, the son on his way to play cricket, or tennis. The maid creeps up the stairs, holding on a tray sustenance for invalids. The step-children ignore her. They have no interest in this interloper and her child lying above them and tidied away by illness. Captain James’ son by his first wife is now in the navy, the daughter married.
Tony comes home for the half-term holiday, a fat boy and I am fascinated by the wobbling of his double chin. "Billy Bunter!" I whisper to Oonagh. He is shy of us girls, ducking his head, or looking away, whenever we meet him in the house. How4ver, I am surprised to learn from Mrs. James that his boarding-school is situated in the former holiday home at Haslemere, a place at which Oonagh and I had spent at least two summer holidays. I see Tony plodding the grounds where I lie sunbathing, or puffing as he runs down the long sloping drive in pursuit of the afflicted child who has slipped his leash. I envision him gathering with his fellows in the Assembly Hall to hear Mrs. Lee’s morning lecture and lying in the dormitory alongside my hard bed where I nurse my friend’s rubber doll. Tony at home for the holiday, I must vacate my bedroom and sleep on a make-shift bed in the dining-room. The blackout in this room immovable, I find myself at night in complete darkness. Waking to find the room pitch-black, in a panic I rush into the hallway to switch on the light, then I return to bed, the door open a little, so that the light comforts me into sleep. The first time or two this happens, Mrs.. James assumes that ‘The Captain’ has forgotten to turn off the hall light, but at last it strikes her that I am the culprit. She is not pleased. Electricity costs money and, of course, should the blackout not be secure in any part of the house, a light would result in a heavy fine. Mrs. James cannot understand my motivation and looks at me oddly, while I will not explain my fear for I am ashamed of such a failing in a girl of my age.
During my stay with Mrs. James, I am taken into the cottage hospital for removal of my adenoids, re-grown since last pulled some eight years previously. This second removal in the hope that I will be encouraged to breathe through my nose, instead of mouth. Colleen is taken into the hospital at the same time, for having suffered a number of sore throats, she is to have her tonsils yanked out. Parts to precede us into infinity. "When the doctor said she was sending in two friends together to keep each other company, I thought she meant two little girls" says the Staff Nurse accusingly, eyeing two thirteen year olds, myself small and thin, but Colleen sturdy and plump. "We were going to let them share a bed!" I am laid out on a hospital table, the mask placed over my mouth ready for the gas to be pumped into my lungs. A type of death for I have no control over my lapse into unconsciousness. At the age of five, I fought against the pressure of the mask and the noxious substance invading my body, but this time I am resigned and take long, deep breaths, drawing into myself sleep as if I were a prisoner in the American gas chamber intent upon ending the fiasco of life. My co-operation giving me some control, for the injection of Pethedine which, with the prick of a needle, put me out some years later as if I were the Sleeping Beauty, is far more terrifying in concept. I am almost surprised to wake in my hospital bed. My throat is not too sore and I am lively, but Colleen is a little collapsed and croaky. It is a relief when we are sent home. At Mrs. James’ house I spend a few days in bed, happy to be waited on by her. She does her best by me, possibly remembering the distress of her own illness and to atone to herself for the inattention of her step-family.
But I am not to stay at Mrs. James’ house much longer, for my changing relationship with Oonagh decides her to part with me. As the older sister, I had become accustomed to making the decisions for both of us and if Oonagh agreed only with reluctance, or ignored my commands, she made no violent objections. After all, I could remember a time when I had been able to convince her that she was wearing her socks on the wrong feet! I had taught her to skip and attempted to teach her to ride a bike, although in this latter endeavour I was unsuccessful. Now Oonagh is growing up and beginning to challenge me. To me it seems that she wants to overlay my personality with her own, an attempt to dominate which I resist. Rows erupt, the two of us screaming and shouting at each other. The argument raging back and forth so that the walls resound and throw back at us our squabbling and the tiers and tiers of blue and white china standing to attention on the Welsh dresser, shake and clatter one against the other. This china, Mrs. James has obtained from spending her days before the war by diligently cutting out coupons from Shredded Wheat packets, each coupon representing one cup and saucer, or a plate, their blue and white haze spreading throughout the house, subduing in its refinement all louder hues. The reverberations of our shouting now threaten to topple them. If her china is to be saved, one of us must go and of the two of us Mrs. James prefers Oonagh, if only because she appears to be the more malleable.
From Mrs. James’ house on the middle-class side of the Garden City, known as Cherry Tree, I go over the tracks to the Harding house on the Peartree side. An area which consists of Council houses and factories. Ebenezer Howard’s dream distorted by the realities of a class society. The Hardings live in a 1920s Council house, built as a plain square box and veneered with an off-white cement wash, each house the twin of its neighbour. Mrs. Harding is a twice married middle-aged widow, square figure usually covered in a sleeveless overall, untidy grey hair and a face lined by travail. She has two adult sons, Harry and Johnny, and three daughters, Doreen, almost fifteen, who works in the spring factory, Primrose who is my age and six-year-old Sheila. Two Sheilas in the house cause a problem and so I am forced to surrender my name. "What’s your second name?" asks Mrs. Harding. "Mary’s my baptismal name" I reply. Mrs. Harding does not like the name Mary. "I do have a name Joy" I admit. The translation of my Hebrew name Simcha is ‘joy’. And so to the Hardings I become ‘Joyce’. Joy, gladness, delight, glee, cheer, sunshine, cheerfulness...All lost to me. Mrs. Harding is apprehensive at my arrival, fearing that I will compare her working-class home unfavourably with Mrs. James’ house. We sit in the living-room, Mrs. Harding in the armchair, the girls either side of me on the settee, the boys out somewhere. A small coal fire warms the room. "Mrs. James’s house is bigger than ours" Mrs. Harding says tentatively "I expect you got used to it." I divine the words she is not saying. "Our house in London is only small" I reply. Mrs. Harding brightens. "You’re better off with something you’re used to" she says. The Hardings are part of that vast army of people who, taking society at its face value, have been made unsure of their place in the world. Or who fear there is no place for them.
"My Aunt never lets soap touch her face and she’s got lovely skin." Doreen informs me. We are sitting on the settee, Mrs. Harding in the armchair. Sheila the other side of me. "And her little girl wears lovely clothes. My Aunt’s posher than us." Mrs. Harding, and Primrose who is standing, listening, nod their agreement. They are proud of this connection for they see it as taking them a little way up the pecking-order. I am shy with this family. I do not know how to talk to them. Not even with primrose who is my age. She is a quiet, withdrawn girl and I would need to take the first step towards any friendship. But I cannot make it. Therefore, I occupy myself in keeping Sheila amused for she is young enough not to have lost the spontaneity of early childhood. Maybe she has three or four years more before the iron sets into her soul. Sitting in the Harding living-room in the evening, I read comics to Sheila, play a card game or help her to dress and undress her dolls. The Hardings look at me in amazement. They think I am odd.
"My friend’s got an evacuee and she’s a right caution!" says Mrs. Harding, looking at me reproachfully. "Real saucy and does a tap dance when she comes in here. She’s a right lad!" I couldn’t compete with this, I was too lost and unsure of myself. This ‘right caution’, a pale, flabby girl, named Joan, visits the Hardings once while I am there. She comes into the living-room with a shuffle which passes for a tap dance, and in a loud voice talks nonsense which passes for humour. I envy her this ability to get past the Hardings’ defences by bringing with her a kind of warmth. Later Joan is to become over-burdened and disorientated by the enforced role of perpetual comedian and this leads her to run away from the Convent and the Garden City. She takes with her a class-mate, Barbara, and the two girls are found by the police wandering in London. Joan is expelled from school and Barbara disciplined. The two adult sons take no notice of me and I am nervous of them. Harry, the son of Mrs. Harding’s first dead husband is in his twenties. His hair is brown and wavy, his face sharp. Mrs. Harding tells me that Harry’s father had taught him to write with his left hand "because my husband was right-handed and had that arm shot off in the war." This was WWI. I am awed for it seems to me that Harry has been made into a walking, living memorial to his father. "What if Harry were to lose his left arm? I ask myself "would he in turn make his son write with his right hand?"
Johnny, the second son of about 18 years, a little above average height, well-built, wide swarthy face, brown eyes, is at home more often than his brother. He brings home his girl-friend. She wears a mauve dress pulled in tightly at the waist by a wide gold belt. Her face brightly made up with lipstick and rouge. All my previous training tells me that she is ‘common’, especially as she sits on Johnny’s lap, kissing and cuddling and allowing him to explore her body. My face feels hot and then cold, my limbs tremble, I want to be sick and to prevent myself from gagging, clench my teeth together and try to still my breathing. One evening, Johnny comes home drunk, staggering about the living-room, a silly grin on his face. While my father has been a heavy drinker, I have never seen him in this condition: out of control, I am terrified for the drunk, like the insane, are unpredictable. "He’s only joking" Mrs. Harding assures me. "He wouldn’t dare come home drunk to this house!" I don’t believe her and thankfully run up the stairs to bed.
Doreen is a thin, nervous girl, her brown hair softly waved. Having left school at the age of fourteen to work on the assembly line of the spring factory means that she has jumped, or sprung, the threshold which separates childhood from adulthood. Therefore, while there is not much more than a year between us in age, the difference in experience and expectations makes us years apart. But Doreen, if we happen to be walking up the road in the same direction, might speak agitatedly of the factory, but Primrose never talks about anything, not her school, her friends, her hopes... And it is only later, not long before I depart from this billet under unhappy circumstances, that I become a little at ease with this pale-faced girl. She takes the initiative in asking me to accompany her up the road on an evening walk. Then she suggests that we knock at doors and run away, throw bricks into gardens... Half-heartedly and unhappily I comply, for I realise that this is a gesture of friendship. At long last the ‘walk’ is at an end and it is time to return home.
It is while I am with the Hardings that a bomb falls across the road, failing to explode. The inhabitants of these houses, crowded one upon the other, are advised to evacuate and so the Harding girls go to stay with relatives. I am left in the house to face danger together with Mrs. Harding and her sons. In fear, I see myself lying asleep in bed, the bomb blasting its way through the night shooting out bricks and debris in all directions - a brick to crash onto the roof of my billet tearing it like paper to strike me on the head and kill me while I lie sleeping. I am angry at the Hardings, for it seems that evacuating the girls without me shows they do not care if I live or die. But uppermost is my fear, which must have shown in my face for Johnny says to me "Garn! You’re not frightened! Garn! You’re a brave one, you come from London." I am moved into the long back bedroom to sleep in one of three beds. For a long time I lie in the dark, my eyes peering towards the ceiling, but at last I sleep. When I awake in the morning to find myself alive and whole, I am almost light-hearted.
At the Convent, I have been put into the Lower Third. I sit at a single lidded desk, my text and exercise books, pens, pencils, ruler and rubber in the space under the lid. The other side of the narrow gangway which separates each line of desks, sits Colleen. The lesson is Latin. "Take out your books and do the exercises from number 41" says the lay teacher, sitting at her desk in front of and facing the class, her black graduate cloak hanging over the sides of her chair, like the wings of a bat. Although at St. Martins Convent, at Church and chapel, we had sung hymns in Latin, I have never learned it as a language, not even as a dead language! Therefore, Latin to me is no more than strings of letters put together without meaning. I copy from Colleen’s exercise book, which she surreptitiously hands to me from under her desk. When the exam is held at the end of the term, I sit in front of a piece of paper, blank except for my name and the letters A M D with which we head every page of our work books, and the words ‘Latin Exam’! After that, I am dubbed a dunce at Latin and am excused lessons. Instead, I am told to tackle outstanding homework or work from my arithmetic text book. Fortunately, I have been free of asthma for some months, but the serious gaps in my education caused by absence from school have not healed. Later I am to be excused drawing lessons, for a hatred of the subject developed when I was at St. martin’s, has resulted in my hand refusing to hold a pencil firmly enough to mark a piece of drawing paper. Joan Fletcher, whom we call ‘Fletch’, a tall-built girl, short blonde hair, pale face, is also excused drawing lessons and for similar reasons. Later ‘Fletch’ and I are to live together in the Convent hostel.
Scholastically, I do no better than at the other schools, but as I have decided that, anyway, all school learning is gobblydegook, it seems unnecessary to expend upon it my energies, except in the case of lessons I find interesting, such as English Composition. Choosing the words to set down on the page, rejecting one word in favour of another, putting words together to make a statement... I have a measure of control over this. And yet the strict rule of adherence to standard English is to impede for the greater part of my life a fluency in writing, especially in reported conversation. This, together with the subjects deemed appropriate to write about, all others taboo, stilted my imagination and language. A condition from which I have spent the rest of my life recovering.
History is taken by Miss Murphy, a short, stubby figure, carefully waved hair and very deaf. Except when a girl whispers a rude remark about, or to, her. Such a remark usually uttered by Pamela Bloomfield, whom we call ‘soapbox’ (whose life I am later to help save). ‘Soapbox’ with her bright blonde hair, red face, wide turned-up nose and small blue eyes, given her nickname because she harangues rather than talk to her class-mates, and is always ready with her views. Miss Murphy, a fanatical Catholic, so incensed by the sings of Henry VIII that she never teaches us any other era of history. As soon as she comes to the end of this King’s reign, she begins all over again from the beginning, for she cannot bear to let go of his iniquities. Much later, I am to view this as an advantage, for it means that I escaped establishment history. Therefore, when, as an adult, I become interested in the past, I have no preconceptions and choose to learn about the history of the common people in a political, social and economic context.
The geography lesson I loathe, for we are expected to spend the entire lesson tracing maps. Most of the girls do this easily, but for me the tracing paper always shifts, so that I cannot join the lines without changing the shapes of countries and Continents! If I do manage a reasonable facsimile and begin to draw around the faint outline with a wooden pen holder and nib, dipped into the inkwell fitted into the desk, a blob of ink is always sure to fall upon the page, obliterating countries, towns and ports! The only time I do any good at geography is when we are asked to find war maps in newspapers and magazines and stick them into an exercise book. "An A-plus will be given for every map found" says Sister Ursula, our geography and form teacher. We call her ‘pussy-foot’ because she has a habit of creeping into the class-room before we are aware of her presence. A-plusses are given for especially good work and go towards the sum total of the ‘house’ to which each pupil is allocated. A winning house being announced every month. There are four such houses, all of them referring to a shrine to Our Lady: Loretta - green; Walsingham - red; Senario - mauve; Lourdes - orange or yellow. These colours appearing as stripes on the school scarf, on a background of navy blue. I have been put in Senario and wear on my navy-blue gym-slip, in line with my chin, a small shield contained within a mauve outline. The shield bearing the letters A M D. Generally, I am a dead loss insofar as Senario is concerned, for I never present the house with an A-plus. But now is my big chance! I write to my mother and ask her to send war maps from newspapers, I ask Oonagh for newspapers from her billet, I search the streets for newspapers blown about in the wind. I even spend my pocket-money on buying them. At last I present some eleven or twelve maps carefully cut out and pasted in my exercise book. Maps at which I barely glance, except to determine that they are what is required. I see nothing of the weaponry wielded by soldiers, tanks crashing their way through field and desert, the answering fire... Nor do I smell the stink of blood and rotting corpses. Tobruk, Tripoli, Abyssinia, Benghazi, Libya, Mogadishu, Baghdad, Iran, Crete, Greece, Damascus... War maps to me are no more than black squiggly lines upon the pages of newspapers. Each map representing an A-plus. Eleven or twelve maps, and all the other girls have dozens and dozens! Many producing an exercise book filled to the brim with war maps! In face, so phenomenal are the number of A-plusses awarded that the whole system of awards becomes unbalanced and begins to crumble. "After today no more war maps are to be collected" announces Sister Ursula. She stands in front of the class, her mouth a grim line, from which we gather that our enthusiasm has rebounded to her discredit. And so we abandon the allied forces and from henceforth they are on their own.
Out of school, I continue my friendship with Colleen. However, she wants us to form a threesome, which includes Barbara Metcalfe who is in our form and also from St. Martin’s. Barbara has become a pupil at the Convent in the Garden City some weeks before my arrival, this giving time for Colleen and her to become friends. Now I see this slim, dark-eyed girl, her hair short and a shining black, her clothing always neat, as attempting to supplant me in Colleen’s affections. A girl whose mouth droops discontentedly and who lacks vivacity. Even at St. Martins Barbara and I had not been friends. She was one of the girls who had sneered at my clothing and untidy hair, but now Colleen is the friend of both of us. And so Barbara becomes an appendage to Colleen and me, although much of the time I feel that it is I who am the appendage. The Metcalfes have moved to Hatfield and so Barbara travels to school each day by train. "Her mother’s very strict" Colleen says to me, explaining her friendship with Barbara who is an only child. "Her mother goes to work all day and leaves a glass of milk and biscuits for when Barbara gets home from school. Then she has to go to her room and finish her homework. If she touches anything she shouldn’t, or doesn’t finish her homework, she has to stay in her room all night!" I couldn’t work up any sympathy for Barbara. I didn’t like her and she didn’t like me. Colleen accepts her invitations to tea, counter-signed by Mrs. Metcalfe, but I am never asked.
Every other weekend, Colleen and I travel home together on the green line bus to Barnet, where we catch the 134 to Wilton Road. Later, I am to cycle home alone, pedalling the miles which seem endless until I recognise the large Express Dairy on Barnet Hill. This is the first sight of home. On one occasion at least, my father cycles with me on my return, until he has completed the twenty miles allowed him under alien restrictions, then he must turn back. It is on one of these trips home by green line that I learn that the bookshop at 68 Red Lion Street has been destroyed, one of the casualties of the incendiary bombs which light up the City at night. An illumination which shows the way for the wraiths of Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton and John Bradshaw as their shades walk the path now lost. The lost river Bourne boils and hisses as through the inferno the condemned are dragged down the river banks on hurdles, to become Catherine Wheels, while their tormentors dance away from the scorched earth. Along Theobalds Road, Kings and Queens ride in their carriages on their way to their Hertfordshire Palace. They turn to watch the fiery red of the sky and complain of the heat while the horses whinny and the coachman struggles to maintain control.
My father had arrived home by the side entrance, banging the kitchen door behind him. My mother was in the scullery preparing a meal, for she had not long arrived home from work at the Standard Cable Works where she is employed on munitions. "You’re home early!" she says to my father in surprise, and then she notices the bandage on his left foot, the loosened straps of his open-toed sandals barely buckled together. "What’s happened! What have you done!" she asks in alarm. My father shrugs and gives her a rueful smile. "Mutchie, I got a splinter in my foot while climbing over the ruins of our shop!" The bookshop described by Alan Steele, publisher, as "Charlie’s minute shop" and H.E. Bates as "a rabbit hutch." "A bookshop" which, said Kenneth Hopkins, was "so full of would-be poets and novelists between the hours of twelve and three that it was like a madhouse. In the middle of the melee would be Charlie, reading the stock or engaged in an animated discussion and greeting every request with the words, ‘Christ! Get out of my shop can’t you!’ or simply ‘Bastards! They steal my books, clutter up my shop, use my telephone.....’" (45)
My mother cries at the loss although its dream has long escaped her, and laughs at my father’s manner of imparting the news. My father is full of plans. He has been offered a room by the bookmaker at No. 74 Red Lion Street. He will take the stock and shelves from the press room, from the bedroom, he will cycle round the secondhand stalls... It is this aspect of my father’s character that my mother most admires. "He won’t let anything defeat him" she says to me. "He always picks himself up and starts again." My father moves into 74 Red Lion Street and a friend says to him "a bookmaker and a bookseller, all you need now Charlie is a good bookkeeper!" With superhuman energy he erects shelving, lines it with books and a few days later the Nazis burn his books once again, for No. 74 goes up in flames in a further raid on the City:
"December 29, 1940 Sunday: "The beginning of what became known as the ‘Second Great Fire of London’...The Civil Defence workers had their work cut out this night. Between 6 a.m. and 9.30 p.m. the Luftwaffe...dropped 127 tons of HE and more than 10,000 incendiary bombs, starting a series of massive fires which threatened to turn the City into one huge conflagration. Using 2300 pumps on a night when the river was at its lowest, 20,000 fire-fighters assisted by countless soldiers and civilians fought until dawn to control the blazing City." (46)
But this does not finish my father as a bookseller. For during the war an important slogan exhibited on boarded-up windows, the glass having been blasted, read ‘Business as Usual’. There was no remaining part of 74 on which my father could pin this notice so, instead, he rented a shop at 12 Little Newport Street, opposite to the back of the Hippodrome and off the Charing Cross Road. Now part of the Chinese section. It is here that he is to meet Bill Howley, an American GI from Newcastle, Pennsylvania. Bill, a former member of the Socialist Workers’ Party and a book-lover. Bill, stationed in the South of England and for a time at Clacton-on-Sea, a plump, rounded man of medium height, in his early thirties, who is to spend his furloughs at 9 Wilton Road until 1947 when he is returned to the States to be demobbed. By which time he had become part of our lives. However, it was not in the bookshop that my father met him for in 1981 when I visit Bill and his wife Sally in Washington, he tells me that on the fateful day he had consumed several pints of beer and was about to relieve himself by a lamp-post in Little Newport Street. My father, having spied his intention, runs immediately from the shop, taps Bill on the shoulder and says "you’ll get arrested, use my WC". Bill is delighted at making contact with a bookseller, and saw the humour in this unusual manner of introduction. Having relieved himself, he talks with my father and discovers that he has many interests in common with the Lahrs. It is then that he says to himself "this is for me." Bill is good to Oonagh and me, taking us out for tea or to the cinema. He is a meteorologist in the Army and tells us about different cloud formations until I, becoming bored, or to tease, ask him if the cigarettes which he smokes, called ‘Passing Cloud’ are cumulus or nebulous! I enjoy joking with Bill and making him laugh. When at last he returns to America, for the following two or three years, I make up a newspaper called ‘Lahriana’, giving news of the family in comic vein. Many years later, in 1995, when my parents, Bill and Sally are long lost in history, Bill’s and Sally’s older son, also Bill, and his wife Lorie, are to stay for a holiday with me and my husband at our home in Whetstone, Barnet.
However, at the Garden City, I have other problems uppermost in my mind. Although Primrose and I are a little more friendly, she takes every opportunity to complain about me to her mother. I am not a sibling, and yet she has of me a sibling’s jealousy, without the usual loyalty. One morning, I am in the hallway preparing to go out when I hear Primrose speaking to her mother. No doubt she assumes that I have left the house for her mother is using the treadle sewing machine, at which she sits working furiously, the noise of which shut out any noise made by me. I hear Primrose say complainingly "Joyce think her school’s better than anyones. When we said in the paper it said evacuee girls were getting themselves pregnant, she said it wasn’t her school....." I do not hear Mrs. Harding’s reply, for I leave the house, banging the door loudly behind me. Therefore, it should have come as no surprise to me when one Friday afternoon I am called out of the classroom by a nun who hurries me to Mother Prioress’ room. Mother Prioress, a nun of indeterminate age, a little above average height and broadly built, her long black gown adding to her width. Her way is never to sound harsh or threatening. Instead she reduces girls to tears by looking at them sadly and letting them know that of them she had expected better. Her great trust in them has been broken. Today, she says to me from behind the desk at which she is sitting and eyeing me seriously "Mrs. Harding has phoned the Sisters’ house to say that you have stolen from her a sixpenny piece left on the mantelpiece." I am shocked! Me a thief! How could she! "She says you’re not honest" the Mother Prioress continues earnestly. "She says you took a bulb from your sister’s torch, for your own torch." I had mentioned this to the Hardings, more for something to say than any other reason, but Oonagh and I were brought up to share and I did not regard this as stealing. Now it is to be used against me. "Why should I steal sixpence?" I ask desperately. "My mother sent me two shillings and sixpence last week and I’ve still got two shillings left." Mother Prioress dismisses me and says she will look into the matter further. I leave her room miserably, for I am convinced that she does not believe in my innocence.
Outside the school at the end of the day, I wait for Oonagh and we walk together up the road. "I won’t go back to that house!" I say fiercely. "I’m going home. I’ll catch the green line." Oonagh doesn’t argue and comes with me to the stop, to wait with me until I board the bus, when, as I take my leave, she pushes a bag of sweets into my hand. I arrive home in the late afternoon and wait at the gate to 9 Wilton Road for my mother to return home from work. As her small, hurrying figure rounds the corner, her shopping bag loaded, much to her surprise, I rush up to her. I go with her indoors and recount the whole sorry tale, concluding "I didn’t take her sixpence" and know that my mother believes me. Having passed the matter into her hands, I relax and luxuriate for a week in my own home. Somehow, in spite of long hours at work, my mother clears my position with the Mother prioress and I am allowed back to school in the following week. Colleen greeting me in the classroom, before the beginning of the first lesson, whispers "all the girls are on your side - they don’t think you stole sixpence - except for Pamela Bloomfield, but you don’t want to take any notice of her!" I am not to return to Mrs. Harding’s house, but am given the address of a further billet.
Now I can understand Mrs. Harding’s motivation. Her house was overcrowded and her life a constant struggle with money and housekeeping. There was no profit in the eight shillings per week paid by the government for each evacuee. And while some parents of evacuees supplemented this payment, maybe my parents could afford no more than Oonagh’s and my school fees. For Mrs. Harding to welcome me into her household I would have had to become not only another daughter, but the liveliest and most helpful of her daughters, who in her cheerfulness and friendliness reduced the family’s burdens. This I could not do.
On to The Hostel
Get You Back Home