Lessons of war

20th February 2004 at 00:00
Spitfires, Glenn Miller and digging for victory. Gerald Haigh reads a collection that captures memories - good and bad - of one school's war

Well Remembered Fields: the story of one school's evacuation 1939-1945. Edited by Martin Mitchell and David Bernstein. Park Russell, pound;25 plus pound;4.90 pamp;p from 17 Stanhope Road, Croydon CV0 5NS. parkrussell@aol.com

A boy in short trousers on a bike in an English country lane and, overhead, a Dornier bomber with an engine on fire. Painted for the dust jacket of Mitchell and Bernstein's book, it's one of those images that defines our history, and you can date it within a few weeks just by looking at it: the late summer of 1940 at the height of the Battle of Britain.

Sure enough, the book reproduces a contemporary description of the scene by the boy on the bike: "The British fighters instantly attacked, three from above, three from below. The Nazis were taken completely by surprise, and before they could reply to this sudden onslaught, a Dornier was spinning down."

It's ironic that the boy watching the dogfight was one of the hundreds of thousands of children evacuated from London to escape the bombs. This is the story of one grammar school, Dame Alice Owen's, then in Islington, that was evacuated to another, Bedford modern, then in the middle of Bedford itself.

The tale is told in patches, in the voices of about 70 old Owenians, including the editors: "A myriad recollections of a distant world, a lifetime away." Some are today's reflections, others are culled from the contemporary pages of the Arrow, the school magazine.

They are grouped into themes such as "School", "Teaching", "Amusements" and "Home Front", in an attempt to bring order to a magnificent collection of anecdotes that covers every conceivable emotion and experience. There is tragedy ("It can only be with pain and sadness that one writes of the death of this gallant young member of staff," wrote the headmaster in the Arrow when a popular teacher was killed in North Africa in 1943). And there's farce: an old boy, Joss Ackland, in his preface to the book, recalls telling the head that he wanted to be an actor. " 'I feel I should warn you, ' said the head. 'Let me put it this way. The other week I went to my tailor for a new suit and he took more measurements than were absolutely necessary. Well, there are a lot of people like that in the theatre.' " Every page has a story worth the telling. David Bernstein recalls an encounter with Glenn Miller, shortly to be lost on his way to France, coming away from a concert with a British officer: "The major brushed me aside. Glenn Miller tapped the major on the shoulder and said, 'I promised the kid'. The kid still has the autograph."

There's a long, magically evocative description from the Arrow of a sixth- former's return to London in the blackout. At first everything seems strange and unfamiliar, but gradually the character of the place shows through: "I boarded a bus and heard the conductor's voice say, in the way that only London conductors can, 'Hold tight there! Fares please!'. Then I knew that the blackout had merely darkened the face of London, but had left its soul as free as ever. I had come home."

For the historian, as well as for the general reader, fascinating light is thrown on so much of what happened in those years: rationing, the Blitz, firewatching, the arrival of the Americans, the BBC (much of which was also evacuated to Bedford), music, comics. A whole chapter deals with agriculture; two dozen Owenians went off to join the drive to grow enough food on British soil to feed the nation. One of them writes: "Hoeing turnips is an easy job - if you do it in shifts of five minutes with half-hour breaks. I was hoeing turnips for four days without respite."

And in a very timely way (stories of racism never cease to be timely) we're reminded of the anti-semitism that existed in the England of the Thirties.

Dame Alice Owen's had many boys from Jewish families, of whom one remembers telling his host that he and his brother didn't go to church, and why. "Oh! You wicked children!" the woman replied.

Another recalls meeting a parade of Mosley's British Union of Fascists and being fascinated by the black-velvet-covered snare drums, flags and banners. He returned excitedly home to tell of what he had seen. "My grandmother and my father, when I told them, were appalled, frightened, and warned me to be aware in future."

Many recollect Neville Chamberlain's declaration of war on September 3 1939. For this generation it is the "Do you remember where you were?"

moment that had its later equivalents in the news of President Kennedy's assassination or the death of Princess Diana. One writes: "It was a fine sunny day and I was in the garden, where my foster parent, who was a keen vegetable gardener, was explaining to me how to grow onions, when Chamberlain came on the radio through the open kitchen window. My host reassured me that it would be all over by Christmas."

Importantly, the book tells a part of the evacuation story that's sometimes missed, as we have tended to dwell on the dark side. We've seen the photographs of tiny children on railway stations, holding on to older brothers and sisters, all of them tagged with cardboard labels, and we've tried to imagine saying goodbye for who knows how long to our own children and grandchildren. We know, from many accounts, that some children were exploited, abused, or simply made to feel lonely and unhappy.

Those things did happen, and some of the accounts here acknowledge that they did. On the whole, though, these evacuees evoke the wartime "Never say die" spirit, and are at pains to tell us the good things. Even the partings weren't always painful. "I didn't cry about going away. It was a secure environment. I was with the kids I knew and the teachers," writes one.

The welcome, too, could be warm, with a hint of real affection to come. "I was the son they'd never had. The youngest daughter had a lousy appetite so I got two dinners."

The book is a real labour of love that catches irreplaceable memories, not just before they fade, but perhaps even as they are fading. As Old Owenian Donald Mackay reminds us in the foreword to the book, recalling the past is a tricky business: "You end up remembering the effort and the earlier success of remembering, rather like remembering the photo taken instead of the scene itself."

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