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34 3.Raids and Recreation 1941 By August the Battle of Britain, as it came to be called, was at its peak. I remember thinking how silly it was to label it that way, as if it were a single battle, like Agincourt or Waterloo, whereas in fact it went on day after day, with alerts and sirens wailing and dog-fights overhead, for what seemed like the whole summer. Nevertheless, one day in mid-August 1940, 180 German planes were shot down, and before that month was out came the first real all-night raid on London. From then on we would often come up from the Hole after an evening or night shift to see the white fingers of the searchlights crisscrossing the blacked-out dark, then suddenly pick up, and hold a tiny, mothlike plane. Or we would stare, shocked and disbelieving, at what should have been the pearly grey of the first light and see instead, the sky dawn red. It was not the dawn, but the red from the flames of burning London. And once again the moon is round and full, The May sky clear, almost too light for stars A lovely night to kill by . . . or to love, Were moons still made for lovers. But instead They point the raider where to drop its load And smile. And the proverbial nightingale, Shell-shocked to silence cannot lift her head. Her brown breast pierced by shrapnel, not by thorn. And we like moles, come up from underground, And over London see the flush of flame, And the slow cauliflower of purple smoke; And the May night seems colder as we watch The beauty and the horror and the waste. Raids and Recreation: 1941 | 35 And when at last through the thick pall of dust On twisted girder and on smouldering brick The morning breaks—perhaps another Christ Weeps in the ruined streets of Bermondsey. As we came off duty from those 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. shifts, we were usually able to guess what the chances of travel were likely to be from the pattern of raids we had left on the map when the next watch took over. Sometimes we hardly got anywhere before we had to start coming back again, but we were young, and sleep didn’t seem as important as lots of other things. Even so, a snatched half-day was only worth it when we were on the shift that came off at 5 a.m. and we could catch the first Underground from Stanmore, if it was running. We would come up in Trafalgar Square, to trample through shattered glass and tangled fire hoses to see if there were any trains from Charing Cross for a dash down home. Surprisingly, there often were! If not, we would hitch. Sometimes I would have a friend with me; Rita quite often came if our times-off coincided , and if so, we went home for twenty-four or forty-eight hours. We would be bearing the prized, unexpired portion of the day’s rations, an ounce of tea and sugar in a careful screw of paper—no plastic bags then— or a rasher of bacon, even a snip of ration card which could be saved until the advent of “points,” or a rare, tiny tin of salmon or golden syrup (bacon, butter, and sugar had come out on ration in January 1940). But that spring both my parents landed up in hospital, having succumbed to the strain. The evacuee children had been moved elsewhere. In any case, once the raids really started, that part of Kent soon became known as Hell-fire Corner and hardly a place of refuge. When my parents were recovered enough to come back home, a quieter regime had to be instituted, for my father, though probably never really aware of it himself, had been found to be suffering from inoperable cancer of the prostate gland. Since my mother increasingly needed moral and physical support to cope, a friend of a friend, Mary Murphy, herself in need of a home, came to be an extra pair of hands. The gardener John’s wife, Grace, did the cleaning, and another neighbour ’s wife from one of the nearby cottages helped with the cooking. John 36 | The Best Kept Secret just managed to prevent the huge garden from going totally back to nature and kept the family in vegetables with probably compulsory surplus for disposal. Unless he...


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