Apparently the Queen does the same.
It was the dust that would wake me up.
Little particles gritting between my teeth and coating my tongue dry. Often, I would just lie looking towards the bedroom window. The sun streaming though the dusty panes highlighted the particles, some were white and just hung in the air, others twinkled, flashing gold, whilst more would gleam and dance like tiny bits of silver.
Dust was part of life and it was everywhere, especially after an air raid.
I would roll out of bed, down a short flight of stairs, across the kitchen to the sink in the corner, to splash my face under the brass tap and gulp – If, there was water.
Sometime the tap just hissed. The water supply was broken, and that was part of life also, after an air raid.Somewhere between my tap and where the water came from had been blown to bits.
‘You will swallow a worm!’
My grandmother, who always managed to appear whenever I was doing something forbidden, materialised in the doorway. I was not allowed to drink directly from the tap.
Years later when I was older and mildly interested enough to ask why it was so terrible to have a good gurgle, half upside down in the sink, nothing had changed.
‘ Because you will swallow a worm.’ This time the warning was delivered with a half smile.
There was only the one tap above the kitchen sink. The sink was quite large, but when you are little, everything seems large. Hot water came from the kettle, assuming the gas supply was still intact, which it was not often, especially after an air raid.
When we moved into the house, just after the war started, I was so short I couldn’t reach above the sink. When I left the house, many years later to train for war, the tap had become obsolete, I had moved on to tea and coffee – and beer.
The house in Dennington Park Road, was the second dwelling for the family in just over a year. The first, had been in Highbury Hill in North London. I remember it had a lot of steps leading up to the front door, then there was a hall and more steps that lead to where I slept.
That is all I can remember about that house, except for the man with the white helmet.
I was almost under the helmet with him. He was carrying me on his shoulder down to the air raid shelter. It was dark and my grandmother was cursing someone called Hitler.There was a lot of noise and that was the first time I met the dust. The house seemed full of it, fine and brown, every time there was a loud explosion it seemed to get thicker.
The air raid warden laid me down on a mattress in the shelter. My Aunt was already there with my mother’s sister who closed the corrugated iron door behind my grandmother.
This shelter probably saved the lives of the family several times as the bombers seemed to come every night.
Every house had to have a shelter by law, and each shelter had to confirm to strict dimensions and construction.
A rectangular hole about four feet deep would be dug in the garden, away from the house. The hole was then lined with concrete with formed sheets of corrugated iron embedded in the top edges of the concrete to provide the upper part of the shelter. The tops of these sheets were bent over, meeting the one opposite in the middle. They were then covered in the soil that had been dug out to make the hole. That was called an Anderson shelter
It always smelt damp and the concrete seemed to produce a dust that my grandmother was always sweeping up. I would play with old toys on the concrete shelf, between the candles that provided the only light.
Whenever there was a particularly heavy explosion, more dust and dirt would drop down where the arched sheets of the corrugated iron were bolted together to form the roof.
When it rained, which was not often, the rain just gathered on the floor of the shelter and had to be mopped up. Drains were an unheard of luxury in the war. The water would make the shelter smell for days afterwards.
My mother seldom came down to the Anderson. When the air raid siren wailed, the rest of the family moved en masse down to safety.
But mother stayed resolutely in her bed, having announced that Hitler would never force her from between the sheets. In the morning or after the all-clear siren shrieked, breakfast would be waiting, with my mother trying to stop her expression from transmitting a leer.
Her superiority did not last.
On one particularly intense raid, the house two doors away was hit. The explosion rattled the iron sheets of the shelter and apparently caused the whole row of houses to sway. The shelter door burst open and my mother appeared horizontally, like a human rocket, shouting words I had never heard before. My grandmother muttered something about Hitler, my mother replied that it wasn’t Hitler who got her out of bed, the blast from the bomb blew her out!
When we came out of the shelter in the morning it seemed a lot lighter than before, which of course it would. Half the houses in the street were now just piles of rubble.
The nights of gunfire, bombs, and fires seemed particularly intense in Highbury. I remember my grandmother telling everyone she was not getting enough sleep, a problem that intensified when we had to move out of the Highbury Hill house into a flat in Dennington Park Road in West Hampstead.
Why they picked West Hampstead I never knew. There were plenty of empty houses in London, most families had moved out of the city when the Blitz started. West Hampstead is crossed by at least four major railway lines. The Luftwaffe loved railway lines, they shone in the moonlight and were lines of communication and supply that had to be broken.
If Highbury Hill had been noisy, West Hampstead was pandemonium.
The explosions of the bombs now had an accompaniment. Ack-Ack guns beside the railway lines, Bofors on Hampstead Heath, and the bells from the fire engines from the fire station at the top of the road, now added to the din. But when a seven year old is tired, Ack-Ack, and Bofors guns, fire engines and bombs do not elicit even a stir.
The move to West Hampstead had been forced on the family and it’s cause created one of the first memories of my little life.
The air raid that night had been heavy. But at one point the sound of battle had changed. It must have been a huge crack because it woke me up. The family was puzzled. Gran looked at her sister, then at her daughter and then looked at the shelter door. You didn’t open shelter doors during an air raid, so whatever had cracked would not be discovered until morning. Bombs go bang, bombs don’t go crack, so there was much discussion about this wrong blitz noise.
At daybreak the shelter door was opened cautiously, my grandmother’s nose pointing through the crack in the door was the only movement in the garden as the bombers always left before the sun rose. Everything seemed normal, a new layer of dust and a few more bits of shrapnel scattered around the terrace and embedded in the shelter roof.
I went up to my bedroom.
And there, waiting to brand itself on my memory was the scene that would stay with me for the rest of my life.
At first, I did not see the hole in the ceiling. I was staring wide eyed at the hole in the floor. Barely two feet from my bed. The hole was quite wide and round and I peeped over the edge. There was a hole in the ceiling in the room underneath and in the floor, and in the room below that.
In the basement, lying on the rubble it had created, was a longish black thing.
‘No!’ My grandmother was peeping over the side of the hole beside me. I remember being picked up. I remember the new experience of being carried by my Aunt by my waist, under her arm. I remember the family racing away from the house along Highbury Hill, yelling at everyone to run.
That afternoon we were allowed back into the house to get our belongings.
I collected my few toys, and with a final look through the hole at the unexploded incendiary bomb, now safe, lying in the basement, moved my life on to Dennington Park Road.
Dennington Park Road
We did not have the whole house, just the upstairs flat. I say just the upstairs flat, but I remember it being very large, over three floors. And it was the end of our nights in the shelter for the moment.
We were provided with a new invention – an indoor shelter. It was in installed in the kitchen that was on the middle floor. Replacing the large kitchen table.
The floor and roof of the shelter were made of steel and the strong corner pillars provide fixing point for the steel mesh that surround three sides. The idea was that if your house was hit and collapsed around you, you would be safe inside the shelter. After the house had disintegrated, all you had to do was wait patiently to be dug out of the rubble by the air raid wardens.
But the family weren’t keen on the idea of crashing down two floors in a metal cage. My mother flatly refused to have anything to do with it. During the next few air raids we would all traipse down to one of the air raid shelters in the street.
But it was for just a few air raids
The mix of cigarette, cigar, and pipe smoke, the snoring, the coughing and sneezing, the farting, (I used to go insane with laughter) from the strangers around us was too much for the family, and the first bar of the air raid siren would sent us diving into our own private metal coffin in the kitchen.
The top of the shelter had taken the place of the kitchen table, where, when we did not have visitors, the family dined. The problem was the wire mesh around the base of the shelter made it impossible to put your feet under the ‘table’. The problem was fixed quickly by my mother. She removed the wire mesh!
When my gran protested about the lack of safety, my mother went into great detail with a brief lesson on advanced physics. Explaining how bombs dropped vertically and not horizontally. Apparently my gran missed the important bit. The rubble from walls shoots sideways when they collapse, which was the point that worried the people who had made the shelter.
Now we were no longer underground during raids, the attenuating effect of the shelter walls had gone. The explosions and gunfire were three times louder. My mother knitted us all tight Balaclava type hats that held cotton wool pads against our ears to reduce the din around us. It helped, but also cut down on conversation.
My grandmother was determined not to sleep. She complained about the noise of the air raids continually – but when the blitz was over the complaints were modified – she could not sleep because of the silenced!
I also discovered a new talent that was of great help to the family. Sometime the bombers arrived before the sirens sounded. It seemed I had subconsciously learned the sound of aero engines. The deep menacing throb was the signature sound of the enemy.
‘It’s a Mercedes-Benz!’ I would cry and the family would vanish under the table. A whispery sort of roar and I would be in the centre of the strained looks from the family.
‘A Merlin.’ My assertion allowed the family to relax. Merlin’s powered Spitfires, Hurricanes, and Lancasters. A happy cacophony identified an American Mustang, or Flying Fortress and the family could finish dinner on top of the table, instead of under it. This talent also came in handy towards the end of the blitz when the flying bomb made its arrival.
Again my mother refused to sleep in the shelter but now, she informed my grandmother, she would sleep with her knickers on, in case another nearby explosion swept her out of bed again.
The Sweet Shop
‘Go and get me a tin of peas.’ My grandmother gave me a three-penny piece. She invariably forgot something whenever she went shopping and would use my younger legs to complete her shopping list. It was a Sunday morning and the grocers at the corner of Dennington Park Road and West End Lane was open on Sunday morning.
The Germans did not take Saturday night off and the raid that night had been particularly heavy. The house had been severly shaken. At one point the scream of the blast from the nearby bomb had blown in the glass of the windows in my mother’s bedroom and caused an uproar in the morning.
It was a super row between my grandmother and her daughter, they must have been yelling at each other for a good ten minutes before my mother flounced out of the house. It was very educational. I not only learned new words, but also new facial expressions.
The authorities had advised citizens that during an air raid, doors and windows should be left open. This would not only reduce the damage done by the blast from explosions, but also give shelter to folk who were caught between shelters.
‘She would catch cold – birds might fly in – a burglar could take advantage – it might rain – she only had her knickers on – Hitler is not making me change my life.’ The reasons from my mother for not leaving open her door and window poured forth, and my grandmother had given up arguing.
But now the window was damaged, my grandmother had let loose, but she was about to get another surprise and shock.
Now the row was finished and clutching the three-penny piece I slauntered up the road, half way up there is a bend, a bend that was concealing the work of last night’s nearby bomb. The top left hand side of the road had vanished.
The grocers and neighbouring shops were smouldering rubble. The flats above were now just brick dust below. The fire brigade, police, and ambulances were still attending. There was a smell of burnt meat, the last traces of a butchers shop, but it was not the only reason for the aroma.
This had been a special Saturday night. A wedding party had been celebrating in one of the flats above the shops, an incendiary bomb had exploded among them, burning them all to death. This I did not know until many years later, when the family judged I was mature enough to take many of the truths of the blitz that I had been shielded from.
Right then, as a raid hardened seven year old, my main concern was, where was I going to get a tin of peas? No problem, the contents of the shops were strewn everywhere. I quickly found several tins, humped them home and dumped them on the kitchen table along with the three-pence piece.
My Grandmother’s surprise quickly changed to shock and she dropped everything to help at the top of the road.
It was then the penny dropped. Next door to the grocers was a sweet shop! Why and how it survived commercially I could not know. Sweets did not exist during the war, although I knew that they existed I could never remember ever having any. But the word ‘sweet’ pushed every button I had and this time and my return to the bombsite was not a slaunter, more a gallop.
The sweetshop had been flattened, but where the entrance had been was a small flight of stairs. Stairs that have spaces beneath for dustbins etc. Pulling aside a few bricks I squeezed into this space and – eureka!
The entrance to the basement of the shop was in front of me with the door blown in half. But the basement store-room did not have the piles of sweeties I had imagined. The shelves were loaded with tall, shiny, tins. They were also in cupboards and stacked against the walls. There was hardly any light in the basement, so I picked up one of the tins, and wriggled my way out.
My push on the lid of the tin was useless, despite all the efforts of my small hands. Did I take the tin home or just chuck it?
‘What have you got there?’ I knew that shout. Panic was chasing alarm across my mother’s face. She had just come off duty and the sight of her son clutching a long shiny cylinder on a bomb-site was a nightmare about to start.
‘Put it down!’
‘It’s from the sweet shop.’ I thought the words sweet would calm her. ‘There’s lots in there.’ No markings, detonator cap, firing pin, or stabilisers had a calming effect and my mother picked the tin up. A quick twist of an adult hand was all that was necessary to expose the contents.
‘Yuck!’ It was brim-full with a thick brown filling. To my astonishment my mother stuck her finger into the splodge and sucked it.
‘Chocolate!’ She was hooking another finger-full out.
‘Try some.’ I didn’t want to stick my finger in that muck.
Gingerly I pushed my finger into the mixture and even more reluctantly guided it to my tongue.
Boom! And boom again! My first visit to Heaven!
Sweet, soft, creamy … the descriptive adjectives were beyond my limited vocabulary as God’s finest product was welcomed all the way down my throat.
‘Bernard! Come back!’ I heard my mother’s yell as I way half way back into the basement.
We went home with four of the tins. My Grandmother was estatic, now she could raise the families spirits with chocolate sponges, chocolate trifles, chocolate everything for the next few months. I went back to get some more tins but barricades had been placed around the site with two policemen patrolling.
A week later the police vanished along with the fences, the site being deemed safe. The entrance to the basement of the sweetshop had been cleared, so, unfortunately, had the basement store room. It was one of the first lessons in life. Never, never, never leave chocolate lying around.
Because West Hampstead is bisected by many railway lines it was a favourite target for the bombers. Sumatra Road, Blackburn Road, Iverson Road, and one side of Broadhurst gardens, alongside the underground lines, with about thirty blocks of flats razed to the ground, all presented fresh bomb sites. They made ideal playgrounds, that was until prisoners of war, usually Italians, came weeks later and tore down what remained of the buildings.
The Dennington Park Road site was a particularly favourite. Between the remaining shops in West End Lane was, and still is, a stairway that gives access to the flats above the shops. The shops and flats on the left hand side had been damaged and were empty. Our most popular game was to enter the empty flats and via a broken skylight, climb onto the roof.
Then the game of dare would start.
Who had the courage to run across the flat roof, jump on the dwarf wall and leap across the gap above the stairway to the roof of the flats on the other side? The roof is about fifty feet above the stairway and the gap about six feet wide. It was quite a challenge. Much time was spent terrifying ourselves looking over the drop, excitedly walking round in circles, and making runs at the dwarf wall without the slightest intention of actually making the leap.
It was on the third visit about a week later the fear was conquered. Robin had climbed through the skylight ahead of me, I stopped to wrench out a dangerous looking piece of glass, when I arrived on the roof Robin was grinning at me – from the roof on other side!
Now the pressure was on! John looked at me, I looked at Roger, and Roger looked worried.
‘It’s easy!’ Robin taunted.
I looked over the dwarf wall, the drop seemed to have doubled and the distance across trebled. Roger backed away, along the roof, took a deep breath and ran towards us and jumped. His leap was huge, a good seven feet. He landed and looked back at the distance he had covered. I looked at the distance he had covered, and John looked at the distance he had covered. It would have been impressive – the problem was he was still on our side of the roof. John and myself then took runs and leaps across the roof.
‘Come on!’ Robin was taunting again. ‘Practice over!’
My legs suddenly took charge, I found myself tearing towards the edge of the roof, I don’t think I could have stopped had I wanted to. My right foot hit the top of the dwarf wall, a huge kick and I soared across the gap. There was no time to look down, I cleared the wall on the other side and crashed in a heap onto the roof, well away from the edge.
Robin clapped loudly, even though my ankle hurt I stood up nonchalantly, giving Robin dismissive wave. But a tremble was running through my body, it may have been excitement, or elation, or fear, for suddenly I realised I now had another problem – was going to have to jump back!
Roger flatly refused to leap, John after much argument across the gap went the far end of his roof, thundered past Roger and launched into space. Gravity played tricks on his flight halfway across, there was no danger he would not make it, but somehow he became horizontal. And that was how he landed, skidding across the roof on his chest. A convenient chimney stack stopped his trajectory, catching his jacket where the sleeve joins the body. Robin and I watched fascinated as he stood up, his jacket sleeve slowly slipping down his arm to his feet.
Somehow, in the hot afternoon sun, his face managed to turn white.
We now had the problems of jumping back across the six feet of terror. But another problem creakily intervened.
We were young, we were small, and we were light. But our landings were heavy. Three thumps in the middle of the afternoon on his roof had been disturbing.
‘His’ head appeared after the creaking of the skylight being lifted.
‘What the hell are doing?’ The head snarled. We could run and leap back across, but I was not mentally prepared for the challenge. So I just froze and shivered with Robin and John. The head had a body that followed it out of the skylight.
‘You’re bloody mad.’ The head had a voice that was spluttering astonishment after it had looked over the parapet at the steps fifty feet below.
‘Get down there’ The body had a finger that pointed to the skylight.
He could have been a nice man because he didn’t slap us for our stupidity, but he ruined his character by kicking us out of his front door onto the rear balcony. So it became a game, at least once a week we would soar across the gap and land with an exaggerated thump on his roof. He never failed us.
The skylight would creak open and his head would appear with a mouth that would be shouting. But we were loaded and ready to fly, back across the gap to the safety of the other roof and there was nothing he could do about it.
The Drama Of The Teapot.
Oh my God, I still feel the pain from this escapade.
The bomb-site at the top of Dennington Park road had been filled and levelled.
The site stretched the length between Dennington Park Road and Inglewood Road, only a few of the shops in West End Lane were left standing. The debris, bricks and wooden rafters scattered around the site were our playthings. We spent hours building our own shelters, carefully building the bricks as we had seen them in walls and laying the rafters across the top. The roof of the shelter was always a problem.
The buildings had had slate roofs and finding whole pieces of slate was difficult, so our shelters usually ended up with pieces of tarpaulin. And that was the root of the drama.
We did not consider ourselves a gang, just four friends who played together. Now Sumatra road had a real gang, how many there were I have no idea, but they numbered a lot more than four. And they were feared. Why I did not know, I had never met them or seen them but we got the message – they were going to ‘do’ us.
What ‘doing’ us entailed was an unknown but it sounded horrible enough to cause a silence whilst we wrung or hands and stared at the ground with growing trepidation. And the day we were going to be ‘done’, could not have been more catastrophic.
John had pinched his mother’s teapot. A shelter was not a shelter unless it was baptised by a cup of tea.
We didn’t have a kettle or anything with which to boil the water. But we did have teacups and some tea. A search of the rubble produced a tin can. Roger had some matches and a bottle of water. With plenty of wood scattered about we soon had a happy blaze boiling our water. The tea was made without further incident as long as you ignore part of the tarpaulin roof catching fire.
The Sumatras hit us as we were trying to work out why the tea did not taste like tea and why the tea leaves would not sink as they should. One of the villains stuck his head through the door of our shelter and shouted something – so John hit him with a brick.
I remember more heads coming through the door and more bricks flying. Bodies tumbling around inside a flimsy brick construction can only have one result – trouble. Ten boys fighting among broken rafters, brick rubble and plaster dust with patches of burning tarpaulin adding the correct aroma was spectacular.
It took a policeman, two dustmen, and John’s mother to restore civilisation. But Johns mother had seen something that would make hell seem like paradise.
A broken piece of a teapot spout ! Her teapot spout! It had been attached to her teapot. Her teapot, last seen snug under it’s cosy on a shelf in her kitchen. John was clever, he vanished – and so the rest of us, including the Sumatra terrors, were vandalised. By the time John’s mother had finished slapping heads and yelling, even the policeman was retreating. I thing she thumped me three times and I was lucky, most got four.
The Sumatra Road gang were a blubbering sight, she made them turn their pockets to see if they had money to pay for her teapot. Of course they hadn’t, which made no difference because you could not buy china teapots during the war.
John’s mother told my mother who thought it was hilarious. Not that the teapot was broken, but that her son had tried to make a cup of tea.
The Sumatra gang never came near Dennigton Park Road again, and Bob, who lived in Sumatra Road, confessed to me years later after we had both passed the killing age, that the gang were convinced John’s mother was really Mrs Hitler.
The Lamp Room
Standing in the doorway was enough!
It was horrible.
The smell of intense paraffin, the flickering lights, and everything, the shelves, the floor, the ceiling, and even the lamps themselves seemed to be black.
Yes. Just from the doorway, before I even entered, I had decided the lamp room was one of the dirtiest places I had ever been in.
But the visit was short, my mother, it seemed, was not bothered by the sight and smell of the place. She picked up the nearest lamp with the red lens and led me back up the stairs to platform six I think it was, of Paddington station.
The lamp was placed; in it’s special fixing, on the last coach of the train.
‘But it is daytime – why the red light on the back of the train?’ I blurted.
‘It’s the law,’ said Fred. Fred was looking at my mother intently.
‘Well?’ He asked.
The face that mothers have when they have to make a decision they do not want to make was already in place.
‘It’s against the law.’ replied the disturbed mother.
‘Yes,’ said Fred. I had no idea what was going on but it seemed very important.
‘And if there’s an air raid?’
Fred shook his head. ‘Not in Devon.’
‘You’ll look after him?’
‘He’ll have armour plating.’ Armour plating sounded very strong to me, even though I did not know what it was.
‘Alright.’ My mother turned to me. ‘You be a good boy, and do just as Fred says.’
My mother had been re-quesitioned. The government decided the efficiency of the war effort would be increased if my mother became a guard on The Great Western Railway. This was the reason for our visit to the lamp room, it was the guards responsibility to ensure the red light on the rear of the train was present and correct.
I had travelled several times with my mother in the guards van but this trip was going to be different. Fred, was a huge, ginger haired, amiable man who was always smiling, whom I had met several times. He had not been called up to fight because he was doing a vital job.
He took my hand and led me along the platform to the front of the train. The engine, green and black and smelling of heat an oil was snorting steam, impatient to hurl itself along the silver lines to Ilfracoombe. I was picked up in Fred’s steel arms and hoisted aboard the monster.
‘You,’ he laughed. ‘Are riding with us!’
I gaped from the footplate at the dials, pipes, levers, valves and wheels surrounding me. I was about to live the dream of ninety per cent of the kids on the planet. I was going for a ride on the engine of an express train!
Fred’s vital job was as a fireman on the railway. Far more important than shooting Germans.
The coal tender, behind the engine, was carrying a mountain of glistening, black, wonderfully smelling, coal. How many tons it contained I had no idea, but by the time we reached our destination, Fred had shovelled most of it into the hole in the middle of all the dials and levers.
My mother blew her whistle and the driver, I forget his name, performed an octopus dance, his hands flying across the controls, each movement causing the engine to vibrate until with a scream, as the huge driving wheels fought for bite on the steel rails, screeching, the mountain of metal dragged itself forward.
Fred became a shovelling maniac, darting between the tender and the furnace, his shovel brimming with coal and perspiration glistening on his face each time he flipped open the furnace door with his foot. Each push with shovel invoked tongues of flame from the firebox and red-hot cinders cascading across the steel floor.
I was mesmerised. The driver had sat me on a dicky seat to one side of the cab and there I stayed in wide-eyed wonder. The noise was exciting, the thunder of the fire, the thunder of the wheels, the thunder of the steam and wind made speech impossible.
The driver and Fred had their sign language, tapping on dials, pointing to levers, spinning open valves, shaking heads and giving thumbs up. Each movement was punctuated by a wipe of the hands on white rag that I now know to be cheesecloth.
Despite the steam, the occasional burst of water from on of the many pipes, the coal and the dust, the engine remained spotless. The dust loosing all battles to settle before the swipe of the cheesecloth.
And then another new experience was about to top all the others. Three plates appeared, along with three forks. Fred wiped his shovel with his personal length of cheesecloth, a material of which he seemed to have rolls of, and presented the spotless and shining tool to the driver.
I watched in amazement as the driver cracked three eggs onto the shovel and then carefully laid several rashers of bacon along the sides. With perfect balance in the swaying cab, Fred coaxed his shovel through the furnace door. The driver was occupied with a metal teapot that he filled with steaming water from a tap connected to one of the myriad pipes. Suddenly I had a plateful of eggs and bacon, ready to be sluiced down with a steaming mug of railway tea!
To me, eggs were dried powder, and to have a real live, dead, egg, the taste of which would be burnt on my memory, was an education.
And not the streaky stuff we had at home very occasionally, this was a thick engine drivers rasher! All lean bacon and little fat. I must have made my bacon and eggs last twenty miles in the cab of an express train hurtling to the West Country. It was the stuff a young lad could die for, if he had not been stuffing himself with one hand and holding onto his seat in the bucking, swaying, shuddering, wet, cab of a main line steam express locomotive.
But there was a lesson that had to be learned. In the shape of a long, heavy, bright steel lever. It ran diagonally across all the controls in the face of the cab. This I knew was a pretty important piece of kit, used to start the monster.
The driver would lean out of the cab, look along the permanent way before him, stretch out his arm, and pull the lever gently up. That was when the World stopped standing still. When clouds of smoke and steam rose up from beneath our feet. When the huge driving wheels spat sparks from the rails and we were off.
Hammering hell on the rails and punching a hole in any air that was stupid enough to get in our way. The train had stopped only twice since leaving Paddington. At the third stop the driver lifted me off my perch and placed me before the massive lever.
‘This time, you are the driver!’
My expression must have been of pure juvenile terror. Fred shook with laughter and wagged his finger at me.
‘Don’t break it!’ He managed to giggle at me.
The lever had a metal handle and was quite hot. The driver tossed me a length of cheesecloth to grip with. Now I was really one of the team.
I heard my mother’s whistle.
‘Not yet!’ The driver’s head was out of the cab, staring intently ahead. His arm came up and then dropped.
‘Now!’ I pushed the lever upwards, except I didn’t. The thing was immovable. I push again, harder, and then harder again. Fred came forward with his shovel, to help I think. The driver waved him back.
‘C’mon lad, we’ll be late!’
I pushed, I heaved, I rattled, but the steel arm stayed solid. Then I had an idea. With my foot against a pipe, and with both hands I levered myself away from the lever, across the cab. My arm was suddenly vibrating, the lever was vibrating, the whole world was vibrating.
I had done it!
The engine pulled away from the platform a little faster than usual I think, possibly tumbling a few passengers, but I did not care. I was an engine driver! There weren’t many kids who could say that.
The warm glow of success stayed with me until we arrived at Ilfracoombe. I ran excitedly down the platform to tell my mother about my new talent. Then, suddenly I was alone, standing by the guards van. My mother was torpedoing back to the engine.
Apparently they had to take her into the station tea room to calm her down when she started throwing lumps of coal at Fred. But it did not change anything, I had several more rides on the engine, so I assume Fred was very good at brain washing.
Years later I asked my mother how she was allowed to take me with her to work and accompany her all over the Western Region?
‘I wasn’t’ was her reply.
‘But’, she explained. ‘I was working so hard I hardly ever saw you, so they had a choice, either I was allowed to go, or the train didn’t’. What the sentence would be for withdrawing labour from a vital job in war-time, I have no idea. The Operating Superintendant of the Great Western Railway probably knew, but was short of guards so forgot it.
I knew Fred the fireman was strong, but just how strong almost blew my mind.
For some reason the engine had to be turned around. Steam locomotives went as fast backwards as they did forwards and this train that my mother was guarding had to have the engine in reverse. Fred lifted me onto the footplate and to my surprise started the routine to get the monster to move. The driver, he explained in response to my question, wasn’t necessary.
Another surprise, the engine had left the carriages standing on the platform. Fred had obviously decoupled them – but why? When you leave Paddington station, there is a snake pit of rails tangled across the entrance to the station, way over to the left, at Westbourne Park, there was a very strange piece of kit.
Fred threaded the engine through the tangle and carefully guided it onto this weird contraption. Hauling the huge handbrake on he gave me his usual grin.
‘Don’t move, this is fun!’
Then vanished over the side of the cab. I was worried. I had never been alone on a steam locomotive. OK, so I knew how to drive one, but my young logic was also giving me a hint. I did not know how to stop one. The fire wasn’t roaring, which was a good sign, and there was no groaning and bursts of escaping steam, but nevertheless, I moved across the footplate and jammed my small foot against the massive handbrake lever.
The move enable me to see where Fred had vanished to. He was standing opposite the engine on the other side of the contraption, and by a pole. Turning, he placed his back against the pole and started walking backwards!
The world was moving. – but sideways – no, not sideways – in a circle! Fred was turning the huge engine in a circle – by himself! Slowly, the front of the engine moved to where the rear had been and came to a gentle stop. Fred climbed aboard, did the octopus dance with the controls, and we traced the path back to the train at the platform.
‘How did you do that?’ My gasp was full of wonder, I can still remember the wave of astonishment even now.
‘You must be very strong!’
Fred held up his arms, actually they weren’t arms at all, they were ramrods.
‘I am,’ the grin was a delight. ‘I eat spinage for breakfast!’
Everyone knows Popeye eats spinage, that is where he gets his strength from, so even now, whenever I put a Popeye DVD on for the grandchildren, Fred’s grin is everywhere.
I was not to know the giant turntable at Westbourne Park was an engineering masterpiece. The heavy machinery was balanced to the nth degree and it was almost possible to push a twenty ton locomotive with your finger on the pole such was the perfect balance of the turntable.
There were other amusements beside playing with express engines – and they were in the guards van. This was the last coach on the train, the one that had the red light. It was a large, wood lined, coach that echoed when it was empty. It was very bare and very utility, with just a desk at one end with a chair that was bolted to the floor.
The chair was however a very special chair and a source of wonder and joy. The seat revolved! If I kicked hard enough I could just make four full turns. I nearly made five once but my mother arrived, stopped my record breaking spin and dumped me on a large crate.
On the wall beside the desk were rows of pigeon holes. As the journey progressed these would fill up, as after each stop my mother would sit at the desk and fill out forms. I would watch her filling in the columns with times and remarks. The form would then be carefully rolled up and placed in the appropriate compartment.
The remarks concerned the contents of the guards van. These changed as the train continued its journey. At each stop the wide double doors would be opened and freight removed or loaded. Bicycles, bulging sacks, crates, churns, all sorts of things came and went and sometimes I had a friend for a short while.
I liked the pigs best. When I talked to them through the mesh of their cages, they would listen to me. Chickens just twitched their heads, glared with a beady eye and pecked at nothing on the floor. We also had engine drivers, firemen and other guards as company. They had to sit with me on the crates and bags of mail. Most were very friendly but a few were quite sullen. Refusing to speak to my mother.
This apparently was a problem my mother faced regularly. The men were furious that a woman was doing a job traditionally filled by men. That there were no men to do the job, that my mother had not been allowed to refuse the work, and that she was getting paid less than the male guards had not seeped into their bigoted skulls.
I think now that my mother had been a marked woman by officialdom hence being press ganged into the railway job. Her problem with the suited sods started shortly after the war broke out, she had been working as a supervisor for Black and White milk bars.
But milk bars did not make bullets, bombs and shells, and the forces needed bullets, bombs, and shells much more than milk shakes. Along with many hundred other young women she was requisitioned by the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich.
What her job was she was not allowed to say but I know she worked with high explosives. And apparently, that was the problem. As well as the cough. The Arsenal was 24/24, 7/7, 365/365. So everyone worked shifts.
My mother started coughing and loosing weight. I gathered this from the family conversation around the dinner table. The doctor said it was the conditions she was working under and she must stop. But the Royal Arsenal doctor took a different view and her coughing got worse.
‘They will work you till you drop.’ I can remember my Grandmother complaining. ‘You must to something.’ So my mother did – she bough a packet of matches and took them to work.
Snap searches were commonplace at the Arsenal. To be sure you were not stealing any hand grenades or, more importantly, you had nothing inflammable in your handbag. It took barely a week before the guard’s eyes popped under his helmet at the packet of Swan matches. She had bought that make because it was the biggest packet there was. Her insurance to make sure the guard did not miss them.
Of course it was instant dismissal.
And a lot of cuffuful over official letters, and a warning that I could not follow and did not dare ask as it was none of my business. It was useful experience for the family however. Gwen was to follow the same path a few months later into the dreaded powder factory. She lasted three weeks before the Swan Match Company came to her rescue.
The point that worried my Grandmother about the ploy was quite basic. She was terrified officialdom would discover neither of her daughters smoked.
But Gwen was not out of work for long. Due to the G.I. effect.
GIs came in all shapes and sizes and ranks, and I think Auntie Gwen knew most of them.She ‘danced’ with an American officer with several stars on his shoulders, he needed a secretary and Auntie Gwen was suddenly working for the American Red Cross.
And did that change the food parcel scene!
Food parcels came from The United States. They were packed with goodies. Sweets, chocolate, cocoa powder, jam, coffee, biscuits, sugar, all the items virtually unobtainable in England.
But my family did not qualify for food parcels, why, I have no idea but from the moment Auntie Gwen worked for the American Red Cross, a food parcel would appear on the kitchen table at regular intervals.
And nylons – packets of them. And cigarettes, with cigarette cards inside. They featured American baseball players who meant nothing to me, but I collected them anyway.I was warned to say nothing to my friends about the parcels and not to take any of the sweets out of the house, especially to school.
They were mainly boiled sweets, in twisted paper wrappers, my mother thought they tasted awful, wondered how I could eat them, I thought they were wonderful, but then, I had never had any sweets before.
And then my sweet supply was suddenly stopped.
How my Grandmother found out about my adventure with a butterfly bomb I was not to discover until several months later, and it was all Duncan’s fault.
Duncan was a new friend who had moved in recently into Kingdon Road.
The adventure just happened. John and myself were walking along West End Lane. The Black Path joins West End Lane by West Hampstead main line station. It runs alongside the railway on one side and behind the houses in Sumatra Road on the other.
My adventure was about to modify the local geography.
There had been the usual air raid that night and the Germans had dropped butterfly bombs.
A butterfly bomb we had been warned many time was extremely dangerous. They were very small, about six inches square with fins on them that resembled butterfly wings. One touch of the wings and you were blown to bits.
As usual, they were littered everywhere and the bomb disposal units had not got around to disarming them.
And there was one in the middle of the Black Path!
It was John who suggested it.
It would be fun, he giggled, if we crouched behind the corner of the wall in West End Lane, and, his eyes glistened with excitement, if we threw a brick around the corner at the butterfly bomb!
Of course I agreed.
‘You can have the first go!’ He beamed generously.
There were always plenty of loose bricks around, and with innocent ease I casually lobbed one around the corner at the bomb.
There was a crunch as the brick landed. John poked just one eye around the corner.
‘Missed!’ He laughed. John was always laughing I remember.
I watched him creep around the corner and gingerly pick up the brick as if it was the bomb.
He had difficulty aiming with just one eye available and with a wide sweep of his arm he tossed the brick forward, at the same time jumping into a crouch beside me behind the wall.
It was then we realised we had really boobed.
The explosion hurt. A shock wave of sound hit us. The squealing in my ears, an instant headache, and a cloud of dust caking our ears, eyes, and lips was proof this was a monster boob.
Panic had replaced the laughter on John’s face.
There was a trail of debris, blown from the path across West End Lane.
No, this wasn’t fun.
Not all of the Black Path was still there, and certainly the bomb wasn’t, just a small crater in its place. The railings had been chopped through by the anti-personnel bomb and the garden wall of the house was scarred by shrapnel.
Blinking away the dust we stood side by side open mouthed.
Explosions were everyday but they were usually far away or attenuated by the shelter walls, but this one had been close up and personal.
Suddenly personal became even more personal. My headache had gone but my ears were still singing and they were about to start another verse.
The second explosion within two minutes hit.
My head was banged against something hard, I saw stars, in fact I think I saw the whole of the milky way. Then it went dark, then red, and then white.
My ears were no longer singing, they were screaming.
By standing next to John I had made it easy. With little effort he was able to bang our head together.He must have been behind us when John tossed the brick.
‘Look what you have done!’ He yelled. ‘Look at that hole.’
He was punctuating his sentences with cuffs on our heads.
‘And that wall!’ I tried to duck and was nearly scalped.
‘And those railings! He gave us another thump before reaching forward to push a wicked looking piece of railing to one side. It was a mistake.
We were gone.
Along West End Lane, into the safety of bushes in an overgrown front garden in Lymington Road, to pant with panic. When we judged it was safe, the policeman had not bothered to chase us, we walked home in silence until we argued over which of us had the largest lump on the side of their head.
Mine was brilliant, the size an egg, so of course my grandmother spotted it instantly.
‘A policeman hit me.’ I always told my grandmother the truth, well most of the time.
‘What!’ Her exclamation was lined with fury, a policeman had dared to hit her grandson.
‘Why did he hit you?’ Now she really had her rats up.
‘We were throwing bricks’.That really was the reason, I left the bomb bit out.
Her defence for the family evaporated.
‘Serves you right, you shouldn’t throw bricks.
And that was it, no sympathy, case closed. I went upstairs to my bedroom to get to know my lump and to listen to my ears singing.
It is a long walk from Dennington Park Road to Redington Road. But if we wanted to play with newts the trek was necessary.
The houses in Redington Road were large, detached, luxury homes with huge gardens and, the reason for our visits, swimming pools! Most of the houses were empty, the owners having scarpered to their country estates to escape the blitz. The swimming pools, no longer maintained, had turned into green rectangles, packed with weed, slime, and – newts.
There would be masses of them, sunning themselves on the pool surround. We quickly learned to creep up quietly, and then, with outstretched hands, pounce for the catch.They were very quick but an easy trap as there were so many of them.
Crouching side by side, we would release our prisoners, the winner would be owner of the first newt to scamper back in the pool.
Roger decided he was going for a swim with the newts and stripped to his underpants. Fortunately he lowered one leg into the green slime before committing himself to a dive. His yell launched several pigeons from the huge trees around the garden.White faced he scraped the slime from his foot.
‘There’s a shark in there.’ He yelled again. ‘ It tried to eat my foot!’
I didn’t know what a shark was, but backed well away from the pool as he described one. The pool had suddenly lost interest, Roger put on his clothes, complaining about the agony he was in and then limped for the rest of the afternoon – when he remembered to.
We played in the empty house, jumping out of windows into the mass of overgrown grass and weeds that was once someone’s pride and joy of a lawn. Everything was overgrown, making some part of the garden impenetrable.
We slide down banisters, creating dust clouds when landing heavily on carpets choked with the stuff, played hide and seek in what was left of fitted cupboards and wardrobes and I was delighted to be able to drink directly from the kitchen sink tap that still worked, without a grandmother appearing at the door.
And then John decided he wanted to go to see the balloon men. And the balloon men were on Hampstead Heath!
By the Whitestone pond!
It was only a short walk away and Hampstead Heath was our treasure trove. Each time we visited the place something new and exciting had been added.
First it was a barrage balloon. A steel hawser attached to a winch was bolted on the back of an army lorry. The other end of the hawser was some two hundred feet in the air attached to a huge silver balloon. The oval balloon had stabilisers like two Elephant’s ears and there were dozens of them in the skies above London. The idea was to make it impossible for enemy aircraft to engage in low level strafing.
Our interest was not in the balloon or in the macho hawser that sang in the wind as the balloon lumbered above. I used to listen to it for ages, fascinated by sounds punctuated by wind gusts as the balloon was violently buffeted above
Our target was earthbound, in the cab of the lorry. think there were three soldiers with each balloon and these soldiers had rations, food – something we were always short of. It was seldom we left without chewing on something.
Whilst we scrounge several morsels the only food I can remember eating were ships biscuits.These were flat rectangular pieces of biscuit, as thick as a doorstep, that were harder than concrete. It took several minutes of hard sucking before you could gnaw a corner off. This was probably why the soldiers were so generous with them. I remember dropping a piece once just within range of a pigeon. The bird swaggered up, tried a peck, turned it’s back and strutted off.
The Hampstead Ponds were another necessary venue; a source of excitement and terror of the nicest possible kind. There were three, they had been used for swimming, but like the pool in the house in Redington Road they were now overgrown with weed and filled with dead branches of trees. The most exciting was the one nearest the road. It had a diving board. I was told it was the highest diving board in Europe -wherever that was.
I have tried to picture how high it really was, but I can only remember having to lean back quite a long way to see the top. The tower was painted white and quite narrow; an equally narrow staircase could be seen through the criss-crossed wooden struts. It was certainly a lot higher than the average public pool board.
And that was the attraction – it terrified us.
Just looking up at it made my head spin. Of course it was unused and peeling paint, with rust bleeding from bolts holding the cross timbers. The notice across the staircase yelled danger, no admittance., and the stairs had been boarded across. To us, modern Tarzans, veterans of swinging across bombed out buildings, the barricade across the staircase was child’s play and we were children at play.
We simply moved around to the rear of the tower, climbed up the cross timbers, stepped across to the stairs and raced to the top.
Just thinking about how high up we were made us feel giddy. But gripping the handrail at the side of the platform, and inching our way forward really started the shakes. The diving board seemed very long and pushed out from the platform into a terror inducing emptiness. The slight bow along it’s length gave an hypnotic beckon that added a silent scream to the stress and the terror.
John was the first to look over the edge waterside. He laughed inanely and scuttled back, shaking with a cocktail of fear and delight. Roger followed, and being the oldest, confined himself to a mature gulp.
My turn – the platform was still covered in ragged bits of coconut matting that I stepped over carefully. The motionless green slime so far below started my knees vibrating but I forced myself to look at least another three seconds longer than the others. In this way I could swagger back instead of a cowardly scuttle or creep like the others.
We stayed on the platform for about an hour. Daring each other to dive off. An act that had not the slightest chance of being performed. The sight of young boys peeping at the depths of the pond and screaming excitedly could have only one result.
‘Get down here! I’ll wring your bloody necks’.
The policeman with several other traitors was waving his fist.
Silence. They could not see us if we sat in the middle of the platform. Roger reasoned our position was impossible; we were surrounded. Being the oldest he decided to negotiate.
‘We’ll come down if you don’t wring our necks.’ He shouted.
The PC agreed and so we descended. In those days policemen were honest, dependable, and helpful. And this one lived up to the reputation of the Metropolitan Police. He did not wring our necks. Just beat the hell out of us instead.
We never went up the diving board again.
Even, to get a better view, when the Heinkel arrived. The aircraft had crashed on or near Hampstead Heath. The crew had survived and I heard they had been ‘seen to’ by a local army unit, what ever that meant. The wrecked aircraft had been dragged into the Hampstead pond, the one with the diving board to be collected later.
It was a big attraction, we would spend hours sitting on the banks of the pond working out ways to get across to the thing. But the authorities foresaw our plans and we never managed to get near the plane.
But we were persistent, after much discussion we worked out how to get across to the wreck. Hampstead Heath suffered the same problems as parks during the war. All the gardeners had been called up and the place was littered with broken tree trunks and branches. It would, we decided, be a simple matter to drag a few branches down to the pond, lash them together and triumphant float across to our target.
Carrying a roll of electrical cable we had salvaged from a bomb site we scuttled to the ponds. To our horror we arrived just in time to see the aircraft being loaded onto a long blue RAF trailer!
I picked up a small aluminium label written in German from among the pieces that were scattered on the ground after the trailer had left. This became extremely valuable. When word got around I had this priceless piece of plunder, I was able to swap what ever I wanted in exchange for a peek at this genuine part from a German bomber.
It did not cut any ice in the family however. Gwen already had a piece from a Spitfire that had crashed in Hyde Park. Or so she claimed. Our two morsels of aviation production were to fade into insignificance when uncle Roland returned home from the war.
Uncle Roland was married to Meg, grandmother’s third daughter.
They lived in a flat in Fortune Green Road. He was in Army intelligence, what ever that was. He came and went, and went and came. What he did and where he went and when he did and when he went was a mystery, and remained so until the day he died.
But boy! Did he have a collection!
Goering’s silver luger pistol! I actually held it!
Iron crosses, hunting pins, regiment badges, bayonets, medals galore, daggers, SS skull and crossbones, helmets, and goggles. He had hoarded most of the badges of the German forces. I spent many happy hours with him whilst he told me the stories connected with his mass of booty.
He would swap cigarettes or food for the badges the prisoners of war had on their uniforms. Goering’s pistol was the only collectable for which he did not have a story. Goering was the chief of the Nazi air force and after being captured he was in my uncle’s charge.
But Goering managed to commit suicide. Both my uncle Roland and his wife Meg were very tense for weeks. What the result was I never knew but I don’t think my uncle was incarcerated in the Tower of London.
At the top of Fortune Green Road, near their flat, was Fortune Green. A children’s playground was squashed between the public garden of Fortune Green and a pub.
We used to go to play on the swings, except there were no swings. Just the wooden frames from which they once hung. The swings, the roundabout and the slide were made of metal. Swings, roundabouts, and slides are made of metal but they don’t kill Germans – but their metal can.
Metal railings outside houses, metal banisters on staircases, old cars, even spare saucepans and grills were requisition to be turned into armaments – so we only had wooden frames to swing from.
The Fortune Green playground was also the centre for the children’s Black Market. With just about everything on ration, the Adult’s Black Market was booming, it was a regular point of discussion in the family.The children’s version was run by older children; on a swapping basis as none of us ever had any money.
Pre-war toys, army badges, exceptional pieces of shrapnel, American chewing gum, hand grenades… yes, hand grenades! They were our currency. You weren’t in the war effort if you did not have a hand grenade. All the kids had them.
My mother gave me mine, her brother gave it to her for me to play with.
At first it fascinated me, I would pull out the firing pin and watch as the mechanism clicked home and then reload it. The clicking used to drive my grandmother crazy. The body was cast iron I think, and moulded into small squares. I could almost see them disintegrating and flying in every direction as the weapon exploded. There was a round screw cap on the base where the explosives were packed in.
I would unscrew the cap and sniff at what I though was the smell of TNT. But of course all these hand grenades were dummies, used for training purposes and had never been near an explosive charge.
We used to lob them over walls and duck down and make our own explosive noise until our throats hurt.
They were not worth very much on the black market, not as much as Spanish fly.
Spanish fly was a piece of wooden stick. Very thin and about four inches long. It had to be chewed to release the taste of liquorice.
There always seemed to be plenty being swapped. Where it came from I have no idea, but it was supposed to have super beneficial powers. The longer the piece you chewed, the faster you could run was one claim, another, boasted by chewing a piece each day, your eyes could see much further. I read somewhere after the war it was also an aphrodisiac. My reaction to this effect was null and void at the age of seven.
Another hot commodity that passed through many hands in the fortune green market were ballraces. I think they came from the bearings on car axles; they were about ten centimetres in diameter with a large hole in the centre.
They were a vital part of our lives. Without ballraces you could not make scooters. The raw materials for a scooter were plentiful. Floorboards from bombsites made the base and the front. One ballrace became the rear wheel by cutting a V in the end of a plank and then pushing a piece of wood through the centre of the ballrace before nailing it the middle of the V. The second ballrace was treating the same way on another plank, this time mounted vertically to make the front. The handlebars were a strip of wood fixed across the front plank.
The base would have a square piece of wood with two eyelets screwed into the forward part that would marry up with two more eyelets screwed into front board. These would be joined with a long coach bolt and your scooter was ready for action. All the material was easily found in bombed out houses except for the precious ballraces.
Scooters had two big advantages. First, you could get around much faster and the second; it was their acoustical value.
The ballraces made a loud snapping noise when you scooted over cracks between the flagstones on the pavements. If you really went fast it almost sounded like a machine gun, and when a friend followed on his scooter the noise was sheer bliss.
But the scooters did not last long. If you left them at the top of the steps they were always stolen I think. But even when I took them into the house they still seemed to vanish. No one in the family ever knew what had happened to them.
The houses in Dennington Park Road are rather pleasing to the eye. During the war few had been painted over and the London brick, and ornamental stonework vied with the house opposite to attract your attention. Also a great effort was made by the architects and builders to make each house frontage slightly different to break the monotony of a line of terraced houses. This effect has been ruined somewhat nowadays by the relentless lines of parked cars.
During the blitz Dennington Park Road was rather different, boasting just one parked car.
Of course it attracted our attention, we would look at our reflections in the chrome bumpers and large headlights. I think it was a Wolsey as it had a white oval badge at the top of the radiator grille.
The owner worked for the government and that is all anyone in the road knew. He used the car every day so he had petrol. There were petrol coupons but never any petrol, so most cars had been stored in garages and gardens for the foreseeable future.
I had never been in a car and would goggle through the window at the black and chrome steering wheel, the walnut dashboard, and the white-faced instruments with bewildered interest.The car had a running board, large mudguards, and a long bonnet. These made it easy for me to climb up to the windscreen and swing the windscreen wipers across the windscreen itself.
A few minutes of my manual wiping satisfied my curiosity and I slide down the side of the bonnet, down the mudguard, onto the running board to begin a slow amble home.
‘Come back here!’ The yell was from an upstairs window of the house where the car was parked.And then I did it all wrong; I ran as fast as could down the road and in total stupidly, up the stairs of my house.
The loud knock on the door was answered by my grandmother. The words ‘windscreen wipers’ floated up the staircase.Those flimsy things I had been I had been shoving backwards and forwards were windscreen wipers, and a man was complaining loudly.
I had a secure hiding place; it was under the dining table. Placed against a wall, the wide and long dimensions made reaching underneath difficult. An added barrier was the criss-cross wooden strips fixed to the legs.
It was my bolt hole whenever I had committed a sin. The family had completely given up trying to extricate me for punishment and I would huddle away the time waiting for whoever I had upset to cool down.
But this man had long arms – with hands on the end that grabbed me by my shirtfront. I was hoisted on to the table-top, face to face with my pursuer. I waited for the slap, aware of grandmother spidering in the background.
Whilst his arms were immobile, his mouth was not. There was no shouting, no red face, no piercing eyes. Yet he stabbed me – with words. I remember thinking about this man for days afterwards and what he had said. I prayed it would never rain again because I would be blamed for his car crash.
By playing with his windscreen wipers I stopped him from seeing the wall in the rain, and the car could have caught fire with him trapped inside unable to get out, and his children would not have a father and his wife a husband. It was a pretty horrific thing to launch at a child but it was effective. My hair stood on end whenever I thought about the problems I had caused him, and I never touched his car again.
I remember this being the only car in the road for a long time. But a walk up to West End Lane would be rewarded with an interesting mix of traffic.
The dark green motorcycles of army dispatch riders, always speeding like mad. The gear change lever on the side of the petrol tank fascinated me. I was deeply impressed to see them change gear with one hand and steer with the other.
There were number 53 buses. The stairway to the upper deck was at the rear on the outside of the bus. The terminus was West End Green. I would sit for hours with a piece of paper and a pencil noting the numbers as they arrived. They all seemed to suffer from the same problem. The big chrome radiators would be gushing steam as they squealed to a halt, requiring the driver to fill them with water from a huge watering can.
There were a lot of armoured troop carriers. These were dark with camouflage and made a wonderful clatter as their metal tracks slapped the road. Very occasionally the whole road would judder beneath the weight of a battle tank. It was open mouth time for me. The huge gun, armoured slabs, shovels, machine guns and other articles of war festooned the top and sides as they thundered past. Aircraft wings and fuselages would pass at regular intervals, loaded onto long trailers painted in RAF blue, a few cars would make an appearance along with milk floats.
It was therefore a day of great excitement when my mother announced I was going to North Wales – in a car! We would stay in Wales while waiting for the necessary papers to travel to Ireland. There was some important reason for my grandmother to return to Ireland. So important I was never told.
My sole memory of the drive to Wales was an airfield at the side of the road. Apparently we were not allowed to stop while passing the base.
The perimeter track ran alongside the road and was packed with huge aircraft almost nose to tail. The Dakotas, as I was to recognise much later were painted light green with the USAF insignia. Some of the pilots were looking out of the side window of the cockpits. For me it was like looking at Gods with their flat hats.
Armed sentries were posted at intervals along the road, and the sight of all the aircraft, the guns of the sentries, the jeeps and squads of marching soldiers filled my little memory for some time.
We arrived in Minffordd, apparently there is a village there but I never saw it. The place for me was just four houses, one of which we stayed in.
On the other side of the lane opposite our house was a huge slab of rock. It must have toppled from somewhere because the base was not flat, allowing me to crawl underneath – to play with the snakes.
My grandmother had been assured they were harmless, so my favourite game was to sneak up to the slab and try and catch the snakes sunning themselves on the top. I never succeeded, the green little things always found a crevice to wriggle into way before my clumsy fingers could touch them.
Lorries used the lane to get to a quarry. I could see the place from my bedroom window. It seemed a long way away. Across a big field on the other side of a strip of water. The water may have been an inlet from the sea or a lake; I never knew.
On several days of the week blasting would take place. It was very dramatic. The dynamite would explode, and the face of the quarry would change. A huge slice of stone would slowly lean forward, detach, and gathering speed would slide down, crashing into boulders below.
The quarry was to start an adventure that would have my mouth open and my eyes on stalks with astonishment for a whole afternoon. But it did not start well. My mother had sent me two packets of Plasticine. They were packed in cellophane, and I would stare at them for hours, running my fingers over the flat ridges. The unique experience of having something that was brand new was such a pleasure, actually opening and playing with the plasticine seemed unnecessary.
To reach the quarry, lorries would pass down our lane, and one would stop regularly, the driver was related in some way with the people we were staying with.
I was staring with pleasure at my Plasticine one afternoon when a hand grabbed one of the packets. It was ripped open and the hand started to make a model. It was the lorry driver. The shock of seeing my beloved Plasticine opened and being touched by someone else sent me bananas.
I screamed with fury and raced down my usual path in times of stress – I disappeared under the table. A long time passed before I was coaxed out, the lorry driver had gone – for the moment, and my Plastacine I now considered ruined.
It was a warm sunny day, just right for the snakes to sunbathe. I waited for them on top of the stone slab; my glare across the lane was focussed on, and for the sole benefit of, the lorry driver. He had stopped earlier and was now approaching me alongside my grandmother.
I did not think my glare was enough to transmit my hatred for the Plastacine destroyer, but short of throwing stones at him was all I was equipped with at that moment. The barrier of silence between us was about to be dismantled.
‘Want to come for a ride in my lorry?’ I still had pure disgust radiating. Now I had been offered something I could only dream about. A ride in a lorry! Wow! But he was the enemy. I could not surrender to a bribe. Before another wall of silence was created, my grandmother released her talent for diplomacy. She took my hand, led me to the lorry and opened the door. Before I could switch on a show of hysterics I left the ground and was bounced by the driver onto the lorry’s seat.
The driver pressed the starter, crashed the gears, and with a roar and a shudder, the huge vehicle groaned off. We were going to the quarry. I thawed before the driver’s chatter and by the time we trundled into the quarry I am sure I must have spoken to him.
Piles of stones and a gang of men heaving them onto the vehicle was only mildly interesting and I was quite happy when, with another crash of gears, we groaned our way back to my lane. But we didn’t stop at my house.
‘Where are we going?’ My question was loaded with suspicion. Maybe this driver not only destroyed Plastacine but was also a kidnapper.
He laughed. ‘You’ll love it. I promise’. We arrived at the promised land quite quickly. A huge gate, guarded by several sentries remained closed as one of the soldiers climbed onto the running board to inspect the drivers papers.
His gaze targeted me.
‘Is he a spy?’ The eyes narrowed, the mouth tightened, and his rifle was gripped.
‘Don’t think so,’ the driver shook his head. The sentry stepped of the running board. I could still see his head as he circled the cab, his eyes never left my face.
‘Get out’ He had made it easier by opening the door. My arms were ramrod straight by my sides which was a great help to hide my shaking. The sentry smelt of oil and webbing. I could not know the aroma of webbing, but when I buckled on the kit years later, the smell relit the scene with the sentry.
He had a fixed bayonet, huge black boots with toecaps that shone and an SMLE.
‘Are you sure you’re not a spy?’ It was easy to shake my head, it was simply a continuation of my vibrations.
‘Will you vouch for him?’ The growl was thrown towards the lorry driver who nodded. Again the ground vanished and was replaced by the lorry seat as the sentry loaded me aboard. I realised during my upward swish the smell of oil came from the rifle.
‘Want to see some Hurricanes?’
I just gaped.
Hurricanes! Did I want to see Hurricanes! It was a question the driver knew would send me into orbit.
We groaned onto the airfield.
And there they were!
A long line of them, I don’t know how many but it was all action around them. Fuel browsers, armourers threading belts of ammunition into the wings, and dozens of mechanics crawling over and under the aircraft. I was mesmerised. These were the aircraft I had seen fighting over London.
The lorry stopped by a small hut and the driver helped me down.
Inside the hut the walls were covered in maps and pictures and diagrams of enemy aircraft. A man with a lot of stripes on his arms introduced himself. The lorry driver said he would be back soon and the man with the stripes took my hand.
‘Let’s look at a Hurricane.” He took my hand and led me towards the line of the most exciting things in the universe.
‘Undercarriage, glycol, wing, elevator, cockpit’. I think he must have pointed out every component of the aircraft, but I just could not take it all in, excitement had frozen my brain.
‘Don’t touch anything!’ I was hoisted onto the wing for a view of the cockpit. The knobs, controls, levers, switches and buttons, the seats, sides and bottom of the cockpit were all painted black which I though made it look very complicated.
I walked back to the hut with my head still fixed on the aircraft, not wanting to waste a second of sight of the fighter. The hut was now occupied by several men, some in uniform, some wearing flying jackets, and some sporting Mae Wests. These were the pilots who flew the Hurricanes.
I could not take my eyes off them. How could anyone be so clever, so brave, and so fast as to be fighter pilot? During the war we did not have rock stars, or celebrities. They were fighter pilots, warship captains, or soldiers who captured the headlines.
A thud presented itself on the table before me. A huge steaming mug of tea was waiting to be drunk. I had tried tea once and did not like it. This mug was so big I could almost swim in it with far too much liquid for me to finish, but I started sipping. It tasted horribly sour and it smelt awful, but the man with the stripes had been so kind I could not offend him by not drinking his brew.
Several more pilots and people came into the hut and by the time I had drunk half the cup I was able to sneak out unnoticed, to wait for the lorry driver outside.
It was one of the last of his trips to the quarry apparently, a few days later he was called up to fight, and I never saw him again.
The reason for our stay in Wales had been to get me away from the blitz and to wait for papers to allow us to go to Ireland.
And now my grandmother had them.
I knew Holyhead, can’t remember why but I was familiar with the two ferries that crossed to Dun Loaghaire near Dublin in Ireland.
There was the Hibernia and the Cambria. I preferred the Cambria because it sounded smooth and looked modern and streamlined, also the name did not jar for me like Hibernia. So of course we went on the Hibernia.
There were two incidents I remember on the crossing.
The first was chips. I had entered the world of potato chips. I had never seen so many, trays and trays of golden, crisp, chipped delights. Of course they had to be found. The moment I set foot on board I was off on my own voyage of discovery.
And God guided me to the galley. I was allowed to help myself and thereafter the voyage was punctuated by the speed of my digestion. I would stuff myself, do a tour, and return to heaven for another gorge. Until – everything stopped. My grandmother snatched me to a seat.
‘Don’t dare move!’
Looking around, I realised nobody was moving, the thud of the ship’s engines had also stopped. No one was smoking, no one was talking, and worst of all, no one was eating, not even me.
It was eerie, the slap of the sea against the ship’s hull and the moan of the wind gave me an unpleasant feeling of loneliness.I tried ask what was happing, but my whisper was gagged by my grandmother’s hand over my mouth.
The other passengers seemed tight lipped and strained, so whatever was not happening was important. Our enforced deafness and dumbness seem to last for ages until with a crash and a rumble the engines staggered into action, people began to move, smoke, talk and best of all – eat.
A German U-boat had been stalking the Hibernia. She had been locked down and silent to evade detection until a Royal Navy destroyer churned out of the darkness to escort us to Dun Loaghaire.
I remember the train from Dun Loaghaire to Dublin because it seemed very toy-like. We sat in a small compartment and all the men on the platform seemed to be dressed in suits. A newspaper seller passed up and down the platform shouting ‘Higilby! Higilby! Don’t know why I remember that, prpbably because he seemed to shout every few seconds.
I remember the river Liffey in Dublin because it smelt so awful, but my only other memory of the city were the sweet shops.
They were huge, with displays of chocolates piles high and animals made from icing sugar. In front of the long counters were chocolate bars with brightly coloured wrappings which hypnotised a sweet starved refugee from blitz blackened London.
I was allowed to choose whatever I wanted as long as I only chose one. After several dithering circuits of the shop I snatched a Mars bar. This was cut into many thin slices that I was allowed to eat at regular intervals in case the rush of rich sugar upset the refugee’s little stomach.
We returned to London quite quickly but I have no recollections of the return journey.
My school was on the corner of Mill Lane and Fortune Green Road.
‘Early Will I Seek Thee’ was the legend over the main entrance to the school. We were told this by the headmistress, a Mrs or it might have been Miss Sinclair, because I don’t think I could read at the time. And the main entrance was Holier than Holy. I can never remember being allowed into the school through that door.
We had to cross the playground to the entrance in the corner of the building.
There were two teachers, the headmistress Miss Sinclair and Miss James ( this is not her real name, I have changed it to protect her innocence and my guilt ). Miss Sinclair was a small, slight, and very smart woman, always well made up who moved quickly and nervously, whilst Miss James ticked all the other boxes. She was large, she towered over me when I was sitting at my desk blocking out most of the daylight. She had a red face that had never wasted a farthing on cosmetics – and did she shout! Even the spider’s under window sill used to cringe when she go going.
Emmanuel was a Church school and we seemed to spend a lot of time snaking across the road to Emmanuel Church for prayers. The vicar was The Reverend Hoare, a very pleasant and gentle man who would proudly announce that he was the only Hoare in Hampstead.
I started in Miss Sinclair’s class. I suppose I must have learned something but the only thing I really remember was a huge picture of Jesus surrounded by children on one wall and on the wall opposite, another huge picture of Jesus surrounded by animals. Jesus had the same miserable expression in both pictures, as if the kids and the animals were pissing him off.
The move up to Miss James’s class was viewed by all the pupils with trepidation. She had the reputation for being a warhorse and in her class, when you wrote anything, the letters had to be joined together!
She had a huge picture of Jesus in her classroom as well, but he was alone, floating above some clouds, he looked a lot more relaxed now there were no kids or animals around his feet.
There was a large cupboard in the classroom that Miss James would disappear behind at times. She would emerge smacking her lips and dabbing her mouth with a handkerchief. I though she drank from a bottle of water she kept on the top shelf but I was assured by everyone else in the class, through their giggles, that it was gin.
Miss James’s rod of iron and bottle of gin worked well together as I learned far more in her class than before.
There was another red face in the class and it belonged to a girl, I can’t remember her name, so we will call her Maureen.
Miss James had two favourite punishments. The first, for minor riots, was to hurl a piece of chalk at you. She was a bloody good shot, if cricket had been played during the war she would have been in the Hampstead cricket team.
The second penalty was to sit you at the back of the class. This was psychological torture based on shame. Shame didn’t work on me and the back of the class meant I could continue my diversions out of the range of flying chalk.
I must have caused an upset as I found myself led, by the ear and dumped on a back desk, next to Maureen.
This led to two emotions, delight and bewilderment. Delight because by sitting at the back of the class I could continue with my diversions out of the range of accuracy of flying chalk. And the bewilderment was caused by my age. I was much too young to understand why Maureen kept shoving her hand down the front of my trousers. But her wide grin and sparkling eyes indicated she was enjoying it.
She giggled with delight until milk time whilst I sat confused, trying to work out what she was giggling at.I told John at playtime about the epic; when I went back into the classroom, I found he had taken my seat next to her.
We had two regular drills at the school. Fire drill, and gas drill. Fire drill would commence when the fire alarm (pre-announced) would sound. We were then expected to move quietly to the centre of the playground where we would be counted. Gas drill was more complicated – and much more fun!
The jangling of a hammer hitting a metal bar announced the Germans were dropping gas. This was entertaining, the bar was carried by a teacher who had to run around the school hitting it. I don’t think the teachers had training for this; often the bar was dropped as they opened doors, often the hammer was dropped on their feet as they swerved to avoid pupils. The gas alarm was therefore punctuated by clatters, thuds, screams, and a stream of new words we did not know.
The gas drill was drummed into us regularly. My first object when I left the house was to scrutinise the transformer on the corner of Dennington Park Road and Sumatra Road. It was a large iron enclosure with a domed roof. One quarter of the roof was painted yellow. If the paint had turned pink there was gas around and you grabbed your gas mask.
Gas masks were sacrosanct. They were kept in a flimsy cardboard box with a piece of string to loop around your neck. If you were seen without your gasmask you were for it. Policeman would march you home and admonish your parents. Old ladies would wave their sticks at you and my grandmother used to go bananas and – you were not allowed in school without one.
So the alarm would sound, you grabbed your gas mask, put it on and the fun would start. The mask cut down your field of vision, the big round filter at the front slowed your exhaled air; causing the visor to mist up. This was all the excused needed for half an hour of mayhem.
A school full of children (and teachers) charging along corridors and around corners with limited vision was exciting. You had no idea who you would bump into, fall over or bounce off. Communication was non-existent, you could shout loudly and the only person you deafened was yourself.
When you finally fell into the playground the fit of your mask was checked. Tight around the face and forehead, and under the chin? I am sure the teachers too an evil delight expanding the chin strap and letting it twang loose on your face.
Facing the school, on the right hand side was, or is, a wooden fence, and to the side, the front gardens of the block of flats that stand on the corner of Mill Lane and West End Lane. It was a favourite game of the children to hop over the fence toward the end of playtime and hide from the teachers. I saw little point in this exercise. The punishment was to carry the milk crates for a week. I did not like the smell or taste of milk and kept away from the stuff as much as possible.
In an idle moment during a playtime I looked over this fence to see if anyone was lining themselves up for a week of crate heaving. The muddy strip on the other side was childless but, here the mystery started, glinting in the sunlight was a silver packet.
A quick hop over the fence, a quick fumble opening the find, and I was staring at a block of gold! Not real gold, but chocolate gold. Chocolate was worth far more to me that the yellow metal, chocolate could be eaten! My only moment of chocolate magic had been from the bomb site and now, in my hand, nestled another taste of paradise.
It was, I now know, a bar of Kit Kat. The puzzle of a bar of unobtainable chocolate lying beside a school fence in the middle of the war did not hinder me for a second as I scoffed it in a crouch behind the fence.
Of course I told John but he did not believe me, however I noticed he often strayed, in a casual way, to peep over the fence at playtimes.
I found the second bar a few weeks later and allowed John one of the chocolate strips to prove my point. It was silly, from then on it was a race between us each morning and each playtime, to get to the fence to claim the silver prize.
The scream exploded from a boy on the other side of the fence. Our class was late out for playtime and this villain, waving a packet in the air, had found our treasure. He was of course mobbed.
I never found any more chocolate and never found out how it came to be beside the fence. I can only surmise it was a child whose parents had access to sweets and gave them to their offspring to munch at playtime. The offspring did not like chocolate and tossed it over the fence. Must have been a total idiot and would never go far in life.
John lived two doors away in Dennington Park Road. His mother was a very short but sweet lady whom I liked very much. This view was not shared I felt by her husband. He seemed always to pull a face and puff with exasperation whenever she spoke to him. This display had little effect on John, his brother or his sister.
I could never get to grips with John’s sister. Whenever we met she had an expression of impending doom on her face as if I had done something terrible and upset her – which I probably had. She did not get on with her brother John. She was always shouting at him, but so was everyone else in his family.
Now our cozy friendship was being threatened. His family had to move out of their house. The front of his house was moving forward whilst the rest wasn’t. Eyes opened wide when we discovered to where they were moving. It was our posh swimming pool district – Remington Road. But the other end, nearer to Hampstead Heath.
The house was massive and they had the upstairs flat. This was massive as also, on two floors with enough rooms for his mother to hide from his father. The house next door was in modern Art Deco style but next to that was a quickly discovered paradise.
An orchard, it ran up an incline and away from the road. The Tarzans from the bomb sites became Tarzans of the orchard, climbing and swinging between trees, building shelters in the brambles and doing exactly what we wanted away from the prying eyes of the police and public.
Amazingly, we must have played there for over two months before we met the old lady. She lived at the very top of the orchard in a ramshackle hut. We became very friendly with her, she even entrusted John to buy her some milk that to everyone’s astonishment, he manage to do without loosing the money or dropping the bottle.
There were also many wild cats in the orchard. We tried making friends with them but quickly gave up. One moment they would be purring around your feet and the next trying to scratch the skin off your hands.
The old lady informed us the orchard was a mix of apple and pear trees, maybe they were, but we never saw any, neither the blossom or the fruit, perhaps the trees had shut down for the duration of the war.
When going to meet John I would cross Finchley Road and walk up West Heath Drive. The two roads joined at a small grassy junction.
It was here I saw a man disappear! He had been walking towards me until he was level with the grass where he turned, crossed the grass, and vanished. I expected my slow cautious approach to end in front of a blood filled pool in the middle of the green square, but a more mundane, wooden trapdoor, explained his disappearance.
Why someone would descend under the grass just off Finchley road was a mystery that I would look into the next time I was visiting John. I right now there was a man down there and I did not have the courage to investigate alone.
The next day the visit to see John was with Roger. He knew the scenario and our guessing and chatter became louder and more excited as we neared the trapdoor. With trembling hands we quietly lifted the hatch. The shaft of daylight revealed wooden steps disappearing down a shaft, but there was something reflecting in the daylight around the shaft.
The light switch at the side of stairs clicking under Roger’s fingers not only lit up the shaft, it lit us up as well. Telephones, pads of paper, complicated looking radios, telephone switchboards, and other black shiny boxes were neatly placed on a shelf that circumnavigated the shaft that had now turned into a room.
We pulled the trap shut above us and spent at least an hour pushing buttons and turning knobs. We could not entice even a beep from any of equipment, probably because we did not know how to switch anything on.
I learned many years later this unit was an emergency communications centre, one of many dotted around London. We visited it several times but eventually gave up trying to make things work, anyway we had much more exciting things to look after.