Today I am looking back – though the link between past and present is never far away.
My childhood was World War II. Most nights were spent underground with the beetles in our Anderson Shelter. Getting dragged out of bed at midnight to the howl of the air raid siren and being put back at two or three seemed perfectly reasonable. The smell of the damp earth and the ear-splitting sound of bombing nearby, the booms of anti-aircraft guns up the road – again, to an eight year old, was just a way of life. Didn’t everyone do that?
The only time I remember being afraid was when there was machine gun fire, and my Mum or my Grandma shuddered and stiffened with anxiety. It was all so very close to our little dungeon. My Dad was out there doing his Air Raid Warden round. There were gasps of relief when his torch shone down on us.
Oh, yes, and there was the stomach churning feeling at teatime when the familiar siren wailed and we had to take our tea down to the air raid shelter. I was also a bit put out once when I took out something interesting and crispy from my coat pocket. As I lifted it to my mouth I saw it was a black beetle.
I saw the craters and heard the grown-ups talking about ‘a fatality’; I’d heard that word on Pathe News at the local ‘picture house’.
Even when I had measles and stood indoors at the bay window talking to my little pal who was outside, I don’t recall being fazed by the German Fighter which dove to the height of our house. I saw the man’s face clearly behind his goggles. He didn’t machine gun Doreen or me, so that seemed fine. Such is the childish acceptance of whatever happens.
When Dad was called up and had to leave us to go into the RAF I was filled with pain. Some of my pain was for the grief which spilled from my mother’s eyes. Thank God he came home. He wasn’t killed in action – a phrase even the youngest of us knew.
I queued with Mum and Grandma for hours at the Butcher’s for sausages; they weren’t on ration. There was a UCP tripe shop which fell into the queuing category. Getting my toffee ration at the sweetshop made those vigils less boring.
One of the highlights of those years was our little Cockney evacuee. A bit younger than I was, she could cuss for five minutes without taking breath. My lovely mum was outraged and when I started to copy her she got my Dad to tell me that ‘young ladies’ didn’t talk like that. This little girl had been unceremoniously dragged up to bomb-stricken Manchester to save her from London doodlebugs. We were terrified up here of those unmanned killers which were launched at us. First the drone and suddenly the engine would cut out and they’d drop and explode indiscriminately.
Six weeks before War was declared I’d been rushed off with my school to Blackpool to avoid danger in our big city. Just after we actually went to war we all came back and spent the war in Manchester.
Children were tagged and had a gas mask hung round their neck, and sent away like little animals seeking sanctuary. If the government knew what it was doing it was good at concealing it. Monty Python comes to mind! Accepting the unacceptable was a no-option game
The day the war ended, VE Day, was my fourteenth birthday. I soon joined the world of adults as I settled into a job as an office junior. I was still a child, but that was the way it was in those days. As I keep saying, whatever happens when you’re very young is accepted.
Now that I am not young – I question every part of these childhood experiences. It was an innocent acceptance of the unacceptable.
I’m still here. Better or worse for it all? Call me a cynic, but who could be better for growing up with war on the streets. All I can say is that the antidote is love, and I was surrounded by that.
Dorrie Jane Bridge