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- From Gosport to Burnley
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- 17 November 2003
It was a Saturday afternoon and I had to go to bed. At the age of four and a half that was unusual but I was going on a long journey by train - several trains in fact. I didn't sleep because I was too excited although I pretended to be asleep when I heard my mother coming up the stairs from the fish and chip shop down below.
I can't remember any other emotion although, looking back, I guess there were powerful feelings emanating from parents who were about to lose their only child for an unknown period of time.
They had lived in Gosport since 1932 when, just as they were getting married, my paternal grandfather had decided to move his own small business from Burnley to Portsmouth where he had been a Royal Navy sick berth attendant in the First World War. Now he was the one who was going to take me back. It was 2nd September 1939 and I was about to become a private evacuee fleeing from the anticipated attacks on the biggest submarine base on the south coast.
First there was the trip across the harbour, made many times before, on the single funnel ferry boat smelling of steam and oil where down below one could see into the engine room where the shiny pistons punched to and fro. And where on the Portsmouth side the ferry berth was almost next to the main naval jetty where the biggest ships were berthed, the masts of Nelson's Victory visible behind them.
My grandfather was at the station and the train was waiting. As it pulled away I felt that we were in one long, dark tunnel which never seemed to end. It had, in fact, got fully dark since we had left the house but for many years I constantly affirmed that the Harbour station was underground.
I must have fallen asleep at last for suddenly we were at Waterloo amidst the bustle and noise from the endless platforms but more excitement was to come as I sank into the soft leather cushions in the back seat of a taxi to be taken across London to Euston.
Euston was even busier than Waterloo, the scurrying of people in all directions like figures from a Lowry painting, the enormous engines hissing steam and belching smoke as arrived or moved away, porters pushing trolleys laden with cases and boxes. We clambered in and found seats in a compartment which rapidly filled with other adults.
I found myself squeezed between my grandfather and the outside window surrounded by sombre grown ups. Everybody seemed quiet. When they did talk it was in soft and muffled tones as we pulled away again into the darkness of the night. The glass was cold to the touch of my cheek and wet with condensation running down it. I began to play with the thick leather strap hanging down the centre of the carriage door held tight on a single brass knob which penetrated through the top hole. My hand was removed and I was told to go to sleep. I must have doen so but from time to time I woke as shouts and whistles in the darkness indicated that we were at another station.
It was getting light when we finally reached Preston and changed trains to make the final part of the journey to Burnley Rosegrove in the cold light of a northern sabbath morning to walk out on to the Accrington Road with its cobbled surface and the click-clack of the occasional clogs on the yellow flagstoned pavement until we came to Perth Street, its tight packed houses cowering under the mill chimney.
The welcome from my other grandparents was warm and cheerful (it was to be many years before I learned that my two sets of grandparents had not been on speaking terms for a long time) with close cuddles and grilled sausage and Lancashire cheese dip for breakfast. But there was to be liitle rest. We had to set off again for Uncle Percy's.
Uncle Percy was important. He was the manager of the abbatoir and lived in a big house at the gate almost under the railway bridge in the middle of town. I had, of course, no idea what an abbatoir was but Uncle Percy and Aunt Ruth possessed another attraction that morning in the form of a large radio set. It stood on the dresser, tall and polished brown with three large knobs at the bottom and a circular speaker in the middle criss-crossed with thin wooden strips. The room was full of serious faced, old men and women muttering in semi whispers. I did not know what was going on but I knew I had to keep very quiet.
Years later, of course, I realised the solemnity of the occasion. All those old men and their wives were actually in their late 40s and early 50s and there were more women than men. Many, like my maternal grandfather, had been in the East Lancashire regiment barely twenty years before. They were the survivors. Their brothers, the brothers of their wives together with the husbands of some of their sisters were still there, buried in the lines of war graves from Paschendale and the Somme. That had been the war to end all wars but eternity had only lasted for twenty one years.
In the silence of that tense room the thin voice of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was the only sound. I can hear it still as if it were yesterday, "No such answer has been received and I have to tell you that we are now at war with Nazi Germany".
My paternal grandfather refused to stay. He left immediately to return to Portsmouth leaving me with aged relatives I hardly knew. It was to be three months before I returned home to find we had moved from Gosport to Fareham. Ironically I had missed the phoney war; the blitz was just about to start. And I now knew what an abbatoir was and why when he had arrived on that fateful Sunday morning there was blood flowing in the gutter.
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