War is declared.
On Sunday, September 3rd, 1939, Kathy and I had been to Mass in Sheerness and, when we got home by bus, there were men at the bus-stop wearing Air Raid Wardens helmets and looking very officious. They told us that Britain had declared war on Germany.
We scampered home and within minutes we heard the air-raid sirens which were being tested in the locality. Grand-dad was standing outside in the garden looking with great intent at his pocket-watch and timing the siren.
Two minutes would signal a real alert, anything shorter would be a test. We were hustled inside the house and told to get under the dining table. Gosh, this was exciting.
After a little while the sirens stopped and we were allowed out from under the table and told that it was only a test. Then the all clear was sounded. I was so disappointed because I had had visions of fighter planes shooting the Gerries out of the skies. It never occurred to me that they might equally well have shot our lads down.
Suddenly everything seemed to change. We were issued with gas-masks. The windows and doors of all houses had to be blacked out with blankets. No chinks of light were to be seen by the air-raid wardens who rode by on their bicycles or walked the streets. Get that bloody light out., was their usual admonishment. Ration cards were issued. People who were lucky enough to have private cars began to lay them up for the duration, a couple of bricks under the axles of the vehicle to lift the wheels off the ground and to try to prevent the tyres from perishing. Some of these vehicles were commandeered by the military. God knows how long the war was going to last.
Shops began to have their windows and doors sand-bagged. There seemed to be millions of sand-bags everywhere. Public air-raid shelters appeared and people began to build Anderson shelters in their gardens as a place to which they could repair, instead of staying inside their homes during an air-raid.
Public service and commercial vehicles had their lamps blacked out and, on dark nights, crept quite slowly along the roads with only a pin-prick of light showing. Many children were evacuated to the island from the larger cities and boarded with local families. Their new faces appeared at the school and were the subject of much questioning as to where they had come from, if they had been bombed-out and their parents killed (we were such blood-thirsty kids!), and what they thought of their new surroundings.
There was talk of many foreigners being interned if they stayed in England. One of my school friends, an Italian boy named Soave, (whose father owned an ice-cream parlour in the High Street) and I, used to imagine ourselves as detectives and watch out near the gates of the dockyard and at the local fairground to see if we could recognise any spies or dubiously behaved characters. We never did, especially since we always looked out for individuals with masks over their eyes, like highwaymen, but who were always also portrayed in the Dandy and Beano comics as spies. Furthermore, stories abounded that in the First World War there had been a spy caught in the Dockyard. We were determined to catch a spy. But, of course, it never happened.
When Italy entered the war, the Soave family were shipped back to Italy as undesirable aliens. But they returned after the war and re-started their business in Sheerness. Even though we met after the war, my friend and I never really got chummy again. He had to all intents and perposes been the enemy and I suppose there was a sort of shyness between us.
The worst consequence for the family of the outbreak of war was that Dad immediately got his notice to rejoin his corps. Within days he went up to Scotland and embarked from Glasgow on the Cunard Brittanic, a giant 50,000 tonner, to return to India. We were left in England with Mum and the rest of Dads family. Mum wasnt happy there and I do not know what went wrong, but there were words between her and the family and we were soon traipsing around looking for other accommodation.
Eventually, we found temporary accommodation with Mr. Starck, a retired professor from the French part of Belgium, and his spinster daughter, Miss Starck. They were good people and Mum was in her element being able to speak French, although they could speak perfect though heavily accented English, to both of them.
They had a big garden with many trees and a pond in it and their house was beautifully decorated in a cosy, heavily curtained way. They had all sorts of treasures. One of the pieces which I admired was a hand-constructed, two-foot long model of a cruiser of the First World War. There was so much detail in it, the guns, decks, masts and even down to the lifeboats, railings and the portholes. I was not allowed to touch it, but I spent hours just looking and wondering at it.
Miss Starck was a jig-saw puzzle addict. She had a multitude of the things and it was nice that she allowed us to play with them. I am sure that she had done them all many times and seemed to know where every piece of a puzzle fitted. She used to peer through her spectacles which were thick, giving her the appearance of an owl and would have her lighted cigarette dangling from her lips. The ash would be hanging from the end of it threatening to fall off and I think I was almost more fascinated by that sight than the fact that she was so fast at getting a puzzle completed. Just when the ash was getting to the point where I was certain it would fall off, she would take an ashtray and daintily flip the ash into it.
Papa Starck, as we called him, always wore a knitted skull-cap and was a quiet chap, often sitting alone in the conservatory of the house, reading or writing or just snoozing, but always with his pipe firmly clenched between his teeth. Most of the time it was un-lit or had gone out. Miss Starck, on the other hand, smoked like the proverbial chimney. She used to smoke Churchmans cigarettes, but never bothered to collect the fag cards which came with each pack, so I was in luck and soon had a huge collection of cards. In addition, I used to pick up all the discarded cigarette packs I could find in the street or on our walks in the countryside and, very often, would find cigarette cards still inside.
Cigarette cards are now a huge and valuable collectors fancy and fetch amazingly high prices. Collecting and playing games with fag cards was a big draw for the kids at the time. Flick-card was one of the favourites in which one or more players would flick their cards in turn and try and land on one of the previously thrown cards. If successful, even just touching the card, the thrower took the lot, and the game continued until school break-time was over or one of the players had cleaned out the rest.
Fag cards depicted various sportsmen, animals, insects, military interests and so on in sets of about 50 cards. Other cards which I collected were themed Footballers, The Royal Navy and Animals of the Countryside. At the time that we were with Miss Starck, the Churchmans set was Kings of Speed. I so clearly remember many of the cards; Capt.G.E.T. Eyston, another driver, Sir Malcolm Campbell and his Bluebird racing car. Paavo Nurmi, the Finnish athlete, Prince Birabongse, the Siamese racing driver.
Siam, I could cope with because we had heard a lot of that country, now called Thailand, while we were out in India. But this Finnish thing and Finland was something totally out of my comprehension though, as a very keen athlete myself, I admired one particular Finn for his great athleticism and the broad range of his ability. Little did I know that in the year before, 1938, a girl was born in Tampere, the second city of Finland, whom I would marry 32 years later. And on the very first day I arrived in Finland, Pirkko and I went around to see the Olympic Stadium and I was left to marvel at the feats of Paavo Nurmi as I looked at the statue which was erected in his honour. One circle completed!
School Photo of me Sheerness 1939
We used to go for walks on the Sheppey Cliffs with Mum and Miss Starck and one day, Philomena found a dead, wild rabbit. We took it home and, like all good French-speaking Belgian women, Miss Starck would not hear of us throwing it away and insisted on cooking it. As I have mentioned, there was food-rationing and so, a bit of extra meat did not go astray. In fact, as I remember it, it was a really tasty meal. But in 1952, myxomatosis was intentionally introduced into the countryside in Britain because there were millions of wild rabbits destroying the valuable grain-crops, and I can remember how those poor infected animals would creep out from the hedgerows with their eyes swollen and their noses half eaten away with the disease almost trying to commit suicide to get away from their pain and I have never eaten rabbit or hare since. Except when once, dining at a Greek friends house, his mother had produced rabbit stew and I felt duty bound to sample it. Boowaak!
Each school-day we used to walk to the corner of the lane to the main road and catch the bus to school in Sheerness a couple of miles distant. One day a gent in a car, no doubt intrigued with these two auburn-haired girls and a dark-skinned, black-haired lad who accompanied them, stopped and asked us where we were going. When we told him, he offered us a lift. We were thrilled to be driven to school and even more so because we had saved our bus-faresWhoopee! I thought, another Sharps, Eton toffee-bar for me. When we excitedly told Mum about it that evening, she was very pleased and glad for us. How different it would be today with fears of paedophiles, child molesters and murderers. There could not have been much, if any, of that sort of thing in those halcyon days. It was such a gentle, kind and innocent time.
After a couple of months, Mum decided that we would have to live nearer to the school in Sheerness itself. We were offered a Council dwelling in Sheerness town and it looked good to me. It had a shed and I thought about what I could do with it. Perhaps I could keep a dog in it, or rabbits to eat! But it didnt suit Mum and she was desperate to leave England and re-join Dad in India. This was going to be no easy task She was about five months pregnant with my brother, Sean, and with four kids, no father nor even an ayah to help, she must really have been desperate.
She turned down the council house and, instead, took lodgings with Mr and Mrs Day who lived opposite the Sheerness football ground, and a mere couple of streets, just strolling distance, from the school. Mr Day had been gassed in the First World War and constantly coughed and spluttered. I was afraid of him and of his wife because although they were ordinary working-class people, they were aloof and both were biggish heavy, rounded individuals. The most threatening and eerie place in their home was the front room. Somehow, cold and forbidding, a grand-father clock monotonously tick-tocking and every half-hour clanking and whirring before dolefully booming out the hours, the lounge was never used and the furniture was covered with sheets which were only taken off for special visitors. The Days never had any special visitors during the time we stayed with them. I suspected that if there had been any special visitors they might have turned out to be Dracula or one of his ilk.
Each night, Mr and Mrs Day and Mum, polishing off a huge bottle of stout or dark beer, would sit and play bezique on the table in the dining room which had also been allocated to me as a bedroom. They would talk and laugh and play for what seemed hours. Finally they would retire for the night. Most times I fell off to sleep long before they turned in for the night. It is funny how I have now become such a light sleeper that if someone were to rustle a newspaper three streets away, I would wake up.
Each morning, Mrs Day would come into the dining room, sort out and rescue any unburned coals from the grate. She would then make up the coal fire in the dining room in readiness for the next night and each night it would be lit to keep the house or, at least the room, warm.
Late one night, after everyone had gone to bed I awoke dying to have a pee, but I just did not fancy going to the outside toilet in the cold. I made a quick decision to piss in the fireplace and remember well, how it sizzled as the urine splashed on the dying embers. I needed a long and healthy piss. The following morning, Mrs Day came down to perform her routine fire-preparation. I kept my eyes closed, pretending to be asleep, but she must have been aware that I was awake, for when she began sorting out the still un-burnt coals she kept on saying out aloud.
These coals seem to be very damp. These coals seem to be very damp. I wonder how they got so wet.
Anyway, she eventually got the fire made up to her satisfaction and ready for the evenings lighting, and departed. I was safe, at last, and she never even asked me what had happened. I am sure she had realised that I had emptied my bladder over the embers, but nothing was ever said. I began to think she was not such a bad old biddy after all.
Mum decided that the only way to get any action regarding going back to India was to personally visit India House in London and see the Secretary of State. I dont know whether or not she had an appointment, but we got on the coach to London and went to India House in the Aldwych.
We kids sat on a bench outside the offices but still within the building, huddled while Mum dashed about from one office to another. It seemed we were there for ages and ages.
For the first time since we had left India, we saw Indians walking about and doing various jobs within Bush House. Then we realised that we had never seen any black or brown people in the streets of the other places we had been to in England or Ireland Even in Dublin, Kathy said. More fascinating was that some of the ladies were dressed in sarees. This really was something special, and London was certainly an international metropolis, we decided.
A few more hours passed before Mum finally returned to us and told us that she had secured a passage to India and that it would not be too long before we were with Dad. All of us were overjoyed.
We returned to Sheerness very late in the evening, but we were happy at the result of the day-trip to London. Almost the very next day we started to make preparations for our departure.
Ill take time out here to tell you a story that Dad had told us about how few Indians there were in England in days gone by.
In 1930 when on leave in England, Dad had been travelling on the London Underground. Coming to a station where he had to change, he stepped out of the carriage and could not help noticing a biggish crowd in a huddle at one end of the platform.
He went over to the crowd, peered into the centre of it, and discovered that an Indian lascar (deckhand) was surrounded by Europeans mainly English, no doubt who were talking, even half-shouting or, at least trying to communicate with him.
Lascars are lowly-paid, un-educated and, generally, illiterate people who are employed mainly for pulling ropes around the ships decks and in the main doing the donkey-work.
Quite clearly neither the lascar nor the crowd were getting anywhere. Dad, recognizing that the fellow was an Indian, spoke to him in Urdu. On hearing Dad speak, the Indian by this time scared out of his wits, sweating with fear and on the point of a nervous breakdown fell on his knees to the floor, touched Dads shoes with his hands and then kissed his hands with prayerful gestures and thanks.
Dad asked the lascar what was troubling him and the fellow explained that he was trying to get back to his ship but could not remember which direction to go in or how to proceed from there. Dad carefully explained to the chap how he should get back to his ship and after some more conversation and discussion the lascar thanked him again and went on his way.
The crowd had looked on in astonishment and silence, listening to the strange conversation until finally, a vicar addressed Dad and asked in his best British accent.
I say, old chap, what language was that in which you spoke to the fellow ?
I spoke to him in Urdu, Dad replied, explaining that he himself had spent the last ten years in India and had learnt the language.
Oh, I say, how quaint said the vicar. You know, we did try him out with several languages, Greek, Italian, Spanish his voiced trailed off.
Then, Couldnt the blighter have spoken French or something ?
Dad smiled and left.