1940 – 1945

Whenever I split logs, my boyhood years
Come rushing back, spring tide in fullest flood.
The acid smells of chestnut, birch and oak
Rebuild the wood stores at our end of town
And recreate the tar and sawdust fuel,
The heatless swirls of grey-green blinding smoke,
Incense to gods of darkness and of war.
At night we strove to see and wept to read
And when the morning came, we smelt of smoke.

Our books were our escape! Dumaresq Street
Was Ali Baba’s cave as, once each week,
We climbed the spiral staircase after school
In search of tales from Russia, India,
From Persia and the Golden Orient;
Row upon row of heavy leather books,
So many magic carpets for our flight
From shores of hunger and of hopelessness.

But life was more than reading. Summer days
Stretched endlessly with double summertime,
Each waking hour well filled with jobs to do
And games to play along our streets
Or in the water meadows on the edge of town,
Knee-high in clover or red campion.
Armed with a kitchen knife, we filled our bags
With dandelions for Christmas rabbits.
Barbed wire barred the valley higher up
And lookout posts stood out against the sky.

No day was unproductive: apples scrumped,
Horse-dung collected, twigs and bark brought home,
Crab apples, chestnuts, acorns, blackberries,
Stale crusts of German bread, cigarette ends,
Skimmed milk we queued for in Victoria Street,
All these were trophies, nothing was too small,
Salt water from the shore, much spilt en route,
And tar in buckets, wheeled in ancient prams
Along the cobbles of Gas Lane. Such were
The daily quarries of our wartime years.

School rescued us from life. From nine till four,
The wooden floors resounded to our clogs
And rooms to tables, hymns and catechism.
We scattered at the bell and occupied
Each inch of space for endless games of King
Or Tip and Run. Conkers followed marbles
In the yard as Summer bowed to Autumn.
When play was done, Marc Ceppi’s French shared time
With Deutsches Leben, learnt reluctantly.
As Christmas came, we sang O Tannenbaum
And Stille Nacht, with soul, to please Fräulein.

At noon we hurried down to Gloucester Street
For soup, each with his spoon and bowl and hopes
Of ladles full of steaming vegetables,
Deep from the bottom of the metal vat.
Our hopes were more substantial than the soup
And mealtime was soon over for the day.
Outside, in the Parade, the rooks flew up
High over Russians coming from the port,
Grey, haggard, bootless, feet in woollen rags.
We watched their shuffling lines pass out of sight
And dawdled back to school with scarce a word.

On Saturdays we gathered in the Square
To hear the music of the German band.
They played triumphant marches, songs of home,
Prelude to Lohengrin or Schubert airs
And we forgot our hunger for a while.
The marching soldiers nearly always sang,
I hear them still, descending David Place,
With voices, hearts and boots in unison,
“Ein Heller und ein Batzen” yet again!
Jew Süss, Munchausen, Frederick the Great
Were films we saw for fourpence in the stalls
With newsreels of advances at the Front.

True to his ancient form, the God of War
Brought harshest winters in his chariot,
Compounding hunger with their savage cold.
Our fingers swelled with chilblains till they burst.
On swollen toes we hobbled as we could
And huddled where the slightest heat was found.
The Germans donned great coats and winter capes
And blew into their fists and stamped their boots.

Outside, the winter nights were darkest pitch
And heavy curtains on each window frame
Kept in the house what little light there was.
Curfew at ten brought silence to the dark
Until the drone of planes besieged the skies.
Searchlights and shells sought out their enemy
And in the morning, all but still asleep,
We gathered shrapnel on our way to school.

My mother’s wrists were red from washing clothes
In latherless cold water, chapped and raw.
She bound them as she could, without complaints,
And in her winter sleep she dreamt of soap.
Her hands were never still, except in prayer,
Daily she rose at six and went to Mass.
She was the beacon of our wartime lives
As down the hungry days she bore us all.

My father was away before we woke.
His plumber’s bag across his handlebars.
He turned his hand to many different tasks
Without complaint and much inventiveness,
Mending our clogs with strips of old car tyres,
Transforming tins to milk cans or to mugs.
He worked in every parish, rain or shine,
And brought us news and tales from country parts
Where we had never been, of pumps on farms,
Burst pipes in manor lofts and fields of swedes,
Of concrete walks and bunkers near the beach
And distant views, across the sea, of France.
Sometimes he came home late. An ebbing tide
Would leave a seaman’s body on the shore
Which he encased in lead or, later, zinc,
Beneath the scrutiny of German guards.

In those drear days a star rose from the sea
And sailed into our lives: the SS Vega.
The icon of that providential ship
Is graven on our hearts as if in stone,
Each parcel in her hold a gift for kings,
A birth of hope, a passport back to life.
When all is lost in time, if we forget
All else, revere the blessed Vega.

So down we came through five slow-moving years.
Each one more bitter than the year before.
As through a valley menacing and strange
With hunger as our spur and hope as guide.
Until one day, one blessed golden day,
We climbed to sunlit meadows, bathed in peace.
The joy we lived defies today my verse.
Each word emotion hides and heart betrays
Each memory another one enfolds.
You sip my cup but cannot drink it dry
Unless you too were thirsty, hungry, cold.

I still hear children crying out for bread
And mothers weeping in the heartless night.
I think of exiles laid in foreign soil,
Boat people drifting on the open sea
And soldiers, husbands, fathers, far from home.
Our past is theirs today. The peace we have
Is held in sacred trust for us to sow,
To graft, to propagate by every word
And deed, with all our mortal strength and love.