Memoirs

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
It's the season that does it. It brought on Christina Rossetti's "The Burning of the Leaves", and Kurt Weill's "September Song". It's a time of elegiac feelings as the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame, and you haven't got time for the waiting game.

That must be why I'm presented with this little collection of books with black and white photographs of children from long ago on the covers. The books all begin with: "When I was a lad, it was all fields round here." (They don't, actually, but you know what I mean.) As it happens, Peter Kinsley's memoir of his childhood during the Second World War is called All the Fields are Covered with Snow (Minerva pound;11.99). It's a poetic, stream of consciousness book about being evacuated to a mining village, listening to Tommy Handley and playing dangerous games under coal wagons. The cover has a haunting picture of two slightly lost looking boys, the older one with his arm round his anxious younger brother, the author. Jonty, the older boy, died at 13, just as the war was ending - an event that permeates the book.

My favourite anecdote from the bookis the one about the teacher sacked when an HMI caught him teaching his children to sing "The Sheikh of Araby" ("At night when you're asleep, into your tent I'll creep").

Pinhoe as Used to Was by Denys Deere-Jones (Tabb House pound;15.95) also has the author on the cover, wearing a woolly pullover and a confident air, with his arms folded, as befits the schoolmaster's son. "Denny" went to school in Pinhoe, now part of the Bristol conurbation, in the Twenties, and his memoir has lovely accounts of infant and elementary school life.

After these engaging small boys, we come to a book cover with an engaging teenage lad wearing a beret and posing on a vintage racing bike. He's in black and white, naturally, an, of course, on a cobbled street lined with terraced houses. This is High Hopes by Billy Hopkins (Headline pound;17.99), whose first book, Our Kid, was picked up by Headline after being self-published and became a bestseller.

High Hopes is described as a "fictionalised autobiography", whatever that is. It's a good read, though, picking up the author's life as he goes to training college in 1945 and going on to describe school life in the post-war years. "They're my class and my problem," he says to his mother after a bad day. "I must admit, though, I don't know how to get control of them. Punishment is no good - that'll only make them into enemies." He did find a way, as we all have to, and went on to a full and distinguished career in education here and in Africa.

From time to time, we need to be reminded that our ability to paint a rosy nostalgic picture of home life in the early Forties is actually a privilege. H J De Blij, author of Wartime Encounter with Geography (The Book Guild pound;14.95), grew up in Rotterdam where, in May 1940, a happy childhood was brutally interrupted by the arrival of the Nazis. The book is a timely and sobering reminder that while we evacuated and listened to It's That Man Again, millions of mainland European families were immersed in horror and fear.

"The Nazis took 25 hostages at random from the streets of the village," writes De Blij, describing a retaliation for the shooting of an SS officer. "Two of the hostages were killed and left in the street; the others were taken away without notification of their families."

And the "encounter with geography" of the title? De Blij found solace in a collection of atlases and geography books, mentally travelling the world in their pages. Now he is a professor of geography in the United States.

GERALD HAIGH


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