27th October 2000 at 01:00
PRISONERS OF WAR. True Stories of Evacuees: their lost childhood. By H V Nicholson. Gordon Publishing pound;9.95.

Free pamp;p for TES readers. Make chequespostal orders payable to Gordon Publishing and send to Gordon Publishing, PO Box 23882, London SE15 2WN The author considers the evacuation of British children during the Second World War "a monstrous thing to do", and her book is made up of first-hand reminiscences from those who, as child evacuees, experienced extreme deprivation. She concedes that many other children had better luck, and that young lives were saved, but she writes in anger and pain as someone who suffered severely as an evacuee.

Some may believe this leads to a loss of perspective - total war is, after all, a dirty, degrading business that damages everyone - children included. But, despite over-emotive language, exaggeration and repetition, Nicholson's case strengthens as her book progresses.

Nicholson's chief complaint is not so much against the concept of evacuation but about the lazy, unprofessional way it was monitored once the logistical triumph of moving so many children around wartime Britain had been achieved. There was no urgent belief among the all-male committees of civil servants responsible that the children should be carefully supervised once placed in their billets.

Complaints that did surface were often irritably put down to there being "no boarding-school tradition in the family". This was a time when many children were often treated roughly, at school or at home, as part of what was seen as a necessary "toughening up" process. Those who emerged intact as adults were always happy to testify to the benefits of this philosophy. Those who were crushed often felt too ashamed afterwards to talk about the experience.

The witnesses whose harrowing stories are repeated here responded to a newspaper appeal by the author. Some had kept silent about what hapened to them for more than 50 years. As they recall the beatings, starvation, malicious cruelties and sexual abuse they suffered, there is an overwhelming sense of lost childhood. But there is also a sense of release.

The really guilty parties were the over-stretched local authorities that, lacking any firm brief from government, simply left the children to their various fates. Even the most cursory inspection would have revealed inappropriate sleeping arrangements, deranged hosts, and evidence of illness or neglect. But often, the only hope for an abused child was an observant teacher or concerned neighbour. Left on their own, these children led truly wretched existences - it takes a strong stomach to read some of these pages.

The author puts this neglect down to official optimism, of the type that infused the upbeat slogans of the time, laced with political and economic expediency. As one civil servant put it: "From the standpoint of wartime efficiency, children are a liability and not an asset." Once the children were safely out of sight and mind, their mothers could get on with valuable war work while their fathers fought overseas.

There was also massive ignorance about children's emotional needs. A letter from Dr John Bowlby to The Times in November 1939, drawing attention to the dangers of separating children from their parents, was never published. This is hardly surprising, given that the ruling classes regularly sent their own small children away, and continue to do so. But however tough life sometimes was or is at Eton and Harrow, it can rarely have compared with the squalid stories recorded in this book.

In an age of public apologies for past wrongs, perhaps someone could offer one to those evacuee children who did not get the quality of care that any young person taken away from home ostensibly for their own good surely has the right to expect.


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