The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
The side gate stuck fast, the weeds grew so close around it. We forced it ajar, wide enough to squeeze through with our battered suitcases. Once again we stood in our own back garden, for the first time in almost a year.
The garden had disappeared. The patch of lawn, the tiny flower beds, the big vegetable plot, even the garden path, had vanished under a prarie of tall, nodding grass, heavy with seeds.
‘Look Mum, look!’
‘Don’t just stand there’, she snapped, ‘help me with the door.’
The back door was easier. It was already unlocked. Both the front and rear door locks had been smashed by blast during a long distant air raid. When eventually we left home to escape the bombs we had bolted the front door from the inside and left the back door unlocked.
Whereas time had wiped away the garden it had stood still indoors. No heavy dust or cobwebs, just a sheen of mould on the tea cosy to show that we had been away for more than a few hours. Eleven months is quite long in anybody’s life, but to a child it is an immensity of time, a quarter of all the life I could remember. It seemed impossible that so much had happened yet all the time this tiny room had stayed just the same, waiting for me to come back. It was like waking from a dream.
Mum and I had been ‘evacuated’ more than once. We had gone away together in the first week of the war, before the bombing and before remembered time, to stay with friends in the West Country. We were back home by Christmas. At the tail end of the Blitz I had been sent away on my own to a rural family in the Midlands, who had treated me as a domestic slave and sold my toys to the neighbours (narrated in my story The Red Car). That lasted for three months, that have lived with me for the rest of my life. Mum decided that from then on we would ‘stick it out’ together in our own home and so we did, all through the night bombing of 1942-3 and the flying bombs in the summer of 1944, even though we took a direct hit when visiting my grandmother for her birthday (see The Birthday Party), but the supersonic rockets, the V2s, were too much for Mum.
Some people preferred being killed unawares. Not for them the throb of the incoming flying bomb and the heart stopping death glide when the engine cuts out. Mum, however, could not bear the idea of being killed without warning, so we left on our travels again.
With no friends or relatives to take us in, we joined an ‘official’ evacuation scheme, which like all such schemes was bound for an unknown destination. Mum was sure we were going to the West Country, her ancestral home. Disillusion came when our fleet of taxis unloaded us at Euston station. Then came the longest train ride of my life. We shared a compartment with the family of a man who worked for the Council.
‘I know where we’re going’, he said proudly. ‘We’re going to Wigan. That’s why we brought the buckets and spades’. He gestured to the luggage rack.
‘But Wigan isn’t by the sea’, said Mum.
‘Haven’t you heard of Wigan pier?’ he said pityingly.
We spent only one night in Wigan, sleeping on the floor of a school hall. The next day we were bussed to St Helens, a small town not far from Liverpool, although I went into Liverpool only once in all my time there. St Helens is an old industrial town known principally for its glassworks and the manufacture of Beecham’s Pills.
Before we left the school in Wigan they asked my mother if she had any preferences about the religion of the family with whom we were to be billeted.
‘No, we’re not religious’, she answered.
So they put us with a Catholic family in the Irish district of the town, in the old city centre, a district of small houses in smoke-blackened red brick Victorian terraces. All the local children went to the nearby church school but Mum wouldn’t let me be educated in an alien faith. While the other children went one way to school I went the other, over the hill to a newly built state school, with plate glass windows and grass covered surrounds. The Catholic children threw mud at me and shouted ‘Protestant’.
‘Don’t take any notice of them’, said Mum. ‘They’re just jealous. They’re going to spend the rest of their lives in poverty and superstition. You are going on to better things.’
Mum must have told somebody that the was worried that I had been disturbed by the air raids, because some time before starting at school I was referred to the educational psychologist. This was a new service, still staffed largely by refugees from Nazi Germany.
I don’t know what it was about my behaviour that worried her. I had always thought that it was she who found the raids disturbing. Dad, in his letters home from Burma always asked his ‘little man’ to look after Mum and I took this seriously. I can only think that adults imagine that anything that frightens them must be terrifying for a child. But I could not remember peace; war and air raids were my normal life. I was no more worried about dying in an air raid than children today fear being killed in a car crash.
I found the meeting with the psychologist very difficult. His German accent reminded me of too many films I had seen of Allied prisoners being interrogated by the Nazis. I was scared that an incautious reply might have me certified insane and sent to an institution, so I said as little as I could. Eventually the man told my mother there was nothing to worry about and that he would write a letter to the school.
On my first day in class the young teacher addressed the children.
‘Teddy here is an evacuee from London. Teddy has seen terrible things that we can’t imagine. Some people are hurt in their bodies in the war, Teddy has been hurt in his mind. You must all be nice to him.’
No, they didn’t bully me; it was they who were frightened of me. Every time I spoke to one of them he or she looked nervous and edged away. I stood on my own at playtime, which no doubt confirmed the teacher’s opinion that I was traumatised.
Despite all its glass and grass my new school was well behind the academic standards of the gaunt Edwardian school I had attended in London. I was the only child in the class who could read a newspaper easily and I came well top in every exam. One of my classmates sitting behind me remarked to his neighbour, ‘my Mum says they’re like that when they’re a bit like that’ (which I suppose translates as ‘you have to be mad to be top of the class’).
No doubt with time I would have settled in, but I was at the school for only one term. The household with whom we were billeted was unusual in having a man present, a soldier who had been wounded in Syria fighting the Vichy French, who was fond of denouncing the French as ‘worse than the Germans’. It was news to me that we were fighting the French. Until then I had thought they were all brave Resistance fighters battling the German occupiers. Also he was a Catholic convert and he started asking Mum whether she had ever considered her religion. Mum went to the billeting officer and we were reallocated to another pat of town.
We found ourselves in a large council estate (social housing) between St Helens and Widnes. The estate was mixed Catholic and Protestant. Whereas in the city centre they threw stones at each other, here they inter-married and to all appearances loved one another. The household where we were billeted consisted of an elderly Welsh ex-miner and his adult son William, himself a coal miner, and his Irish wife Mary, daughter of the family next door.
To my eight year old eyes black-haired, blue-eyed Mary was the most beautiful woman I had ever met. She and William had no children of their own (a matter of private regret and suspicion on the part of the priest) and spent a lot of time with me. Mary told me about her childhood in CountyMayo and William told me about the mine.
In contrast the old man was a grumpy individual, polite only to his dog, Beauty, and he was always trying to annoy the young couple with sour remarks about Catholics and Ireland. His pet hates were Winston Churchill (‘the murderer who turned the troops on the miners at Tonypandy’) and the Irish Prime Minister, Eamon De Valera (‘a traitor who keeps his country neutral while English boys die fighting to save them from the Nazis’). I didn’t know that anybody except the Nazis hated Churchill or that Ireland was neutral. The war was more complicated than I realised.
Mary was unmoved but William always rose to the bait. ‘Lay off her! I don’t hold with them being neutral, Dad, but Mary has a right to stand up for her own country.’
Not that Mary seemed at all neutral. She left for work each morning with her dark hair hidden under a big pink turban, to keep it out of the machinery, to work all day making munitions for the British forces. William did shift work at the pit and came home like a miner from a picture book, helmet on his head and his face black with coal dust. Mary pulled out the big zinc bath in front of the range and heated water over the fire to wash down her husband.
‘It’s disgraceful’, said Mum. ‘He doesn’t have to come home like that and have his wife wash him. They have pit-head baths nowadays.’
I’m not sure if it was the grime or the intimate washing she disapproved of most.
We all used the zinc bath. Being a modern (1920’s) house it had a bathroom, but this was reserved for the dog. Beauty and I were great friends and I took her for walks on the wasteland nearby. The wasteland was a relic of the chemical industry, which had since moved to Widnes, dominated by tall white tips of some sort of chemical waste and featuring a greenish channel we called the sewer. I tobogganed there with my school friends, coming home white with dust, and only once fell into the sewer.
Though modern the house was overrun with cockroaches, which seemed to be invisible to the local people. I came downstairs once in the night to stand frozen on the bottom stair, watching the rustling mass of insects scurrying over the floor tiles, startled by the sudden light. William said they came from the mines – ‘we have lunch with them’.
My school was the other side of the wasteland. It was quite like my school in London, big and old with high ceiling classrooms, but the schoolchildren were very different. Some of them wore steel rimmed clogs (the neighbours tried to persuade Mum to buy me a pair, but she had her standards) and they spoke a strange form of flat vowelled Biblical English, that still used the second person singular in all its grammatical forms (‘th’art, th’wilt, th’wast’, etc). Not that they couldn’t speak standard English, but that was for the classroom, not the playground. However, there was no question of my sanity and nobody thought to challenge my religion so it was easy to make friends.
It was lucky that I liked the school, for I spent a long day there. Being an evacuee I qualified not only for free school dinners but also free breakfast. For these I had to be at the school canteen by eight o’clock. Breakfast was always porridge.
The high point of my time at the school was when I won the school geography ‘composition’ and was applauded in the school hall. School geography was exclusively the geography of Lancashire. I still remember the litany of towns and products, ‘Rochdale, Bury, Bolton and Blackburn for cotton, Wigan for coal, St Helens for glass, Blackpool for holidays’ and so on through the county. We learned a great deal about glassmaking, with promotional material from Pilkingtons, and a lot about the ManchesterShip Canal.
VE Day came and after that there was no reason to stay in St Helens. Yet since the war in the Far East carried and Dad was still there, therre was no urgent reason to go home. I finished the school year and we came home in August.
And so it was all over. I stood in the kitchen and listened to the silence. Silence had been rare for the last year; now as an only child I would have to get used to it again. Nothing had changed, nothing at all, except that I would never be the same.