Casualties of war

3rd November 1995 at 00:00
JOHNNIE'S BLITZ By Bernard Ashley Viking Pounds 10.99 0 670 86378 5 THE SHOUTING WIND By Linda Newberry Collins Pounds 8.99 0 00 185612 X

Johnnie Stubbs is tough. On the run from approved school, where he was sent for a crime he didn't commit, he is wary and bitter, convinced that he was dealt with harshly because of his scrap-dealing family background. "Deal in second-hand and they treat you second-rate", his father said. But his father is away in the Army, and there is no Mum. "Never had one." Johnnie has shacked up in the scrap yard with his granddad and Old Nell, ducking into a salvaged Morrison shelter during the worst of the air raids and trying not to keep looking over his shoulder.

It takes careful reading to work out these basic facts. Johnnie's Blitz is written in the East London demotic of the 1940s, a racy language scattered with such phrases as "vicky-verky" and "the key veev". Bernard Ashley launches into his tale with no more concern for his readers than had the Ancient Mariner, but his hand grips the shirt-front and there is no escape. Gypsy language is laid on top of the Cockney as Johnnie finds himself on the road with his violent, drunken uncle, Tommy Price, who is wanted by the Red Caps as a deserter. Price is married to a "loony" half-Gypsy girl who has stolen a three-year-old child found wandering after a bomb had destroyed her house.

On the face of it, all this is fairly preposterous stuff, but the plot skates fast over all unlikelinesses and Ashley hurls in a fistful of blitz whenever things flag. Thus flambe'd, the meat of the book is tender, suddenly becoming very rewarding when Johnnie takes on the responsibility for Shirley, the lost three-year-old, wet pants and all. His finding of affection for her is done with gruff reticence, for Johnnie would "always bleed before he'd cry, and he'd never had a kiss in his life."

There is nothing here that will embarrass the gum-chewing hard men of the fourth year. If they can be induced to get into this book, they'll be hooked. But if you try it as a read-aloud, rehearse it first and make sure you're not going to come a cropper over the lingo.

No such risk is attached to Linda Newberry's The Shouting Wind. This is a thoughtful, cautious book about what war does to human beings, written in English that is as clean and well-balanced as its outlook. Designed to be the first of a trilogy, it takes the form of a long flash-back triggered by Tamsin's visit to a flying show at RAF Winderby, where her grandmother, Kay, was stationed as a war-time WAAF. The bulk of the book is Kay's story, and the switch of time is beautifully done, returning not only to the atmosphere of the armed services but the relative naivety of a girl brought up without the voyeuristic cynicism of those accustomed to television's all-seeing eye.

Kay's mother is a pacifist, and cannot condone her daughter's participation in the war, but there is no rift between them. As Kay learns first-hand about the anguish of waiting, sometimes in vain, for aircraft and their crew to return from their missions, she also thinks with compassion of the people who are on the receiving end of the deadly cargo dropped over Germany, and is glad to be nothing more aggressive than a radio-telegraph operator. "If women fought too," she muses, "then it would seem normal." War, she feels, must always be regarded as a tragic breakdown rather than an episode of glory. But the question is gently put, and does not destabilise a love-story of great poignancy.

The jacket, mysteriously, shows Kay in a WAAF tunic that buttons up the wrong way, and with straggling collar-length hair that would, as the text makes clear, earn her three days' jankers. But don't be put off the book - the research is so well done that it reads like memory.

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