- Contributed by
- Julia Matcham
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- Julia Matcham
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- 05 May 2005
MY BENIGN WAR
The Second World War, began two days before my sixth birthday. I remember that when it started, we were visiting my grandparents in Northampton. I kept nagging at my parents to know the reason for their continuing ominous silence and obvious distress; had I done something wrong? Eventually, my mother, realising I needed an explanation, said sadly, “Well, darling, there's a war, you see…” Of course, I didn't have the foggiest idea what that meant, but such had been the powerful emotional transference of their anxiety, I burst into tears.
On the whole, the war was a benign influence on my life. It interrupted times when I should have been in bed which, as children do, I welcomed enthusiastically. A dash to the garden corrugated iron Anderson shelter in my all-in-one siren suit and camping out with my parents for the night was great fun. Many is the time I rolled over on my sleeping platform and dropped onto them sleeping below. Highly amusing…for ME. Of course I didn’t understand anything of the danger despite all the shrapnel that we children used to collect. It was some years later when, walking home with a jar of tiddlers from the local river, I actually saw a doodle-bug (V1) chugging its way across the sky and sounding like a barge, arrest briefly over what seemed be our house, that I suddenly knew fear. From then onwards I insisted in sleeping in the new Morrison every night. The space in our small back room that wasn’t taken up by the Morrison accommodated a large loom. This my father made partially for his own interest, but ostensibly for weaving rag rugs for which in wartime there was no proper substitute available in the shops. They were very pretty.
My father, who had been a weakly bronchial child, was, luckily for us, rejected for the army, and his contribution was mostly made in many nights of fire-watching, on the roof of Odhams, Watford, the Printing firm where, at that point, he was employed as a copper plate engraver. He always felt bad about not being involved in the fighting. He would return from work telling my mother of some previous colleague reported killed and shaking his head. At Odhams I remember there was a lot of spare time between shifts and my father taught himself watch repairing amongst other things. I got the impression that everyone there was involved dual activities…others may know about that? I think it must have been common because I remember a joke in Lilliput (a stack of which my grandparents had) which showed a cigarette lighter factory with the boss coming in unexpectedly and the men hastily trying to wheel out an aeroplane.
What I particularly remember is my father grimly shading-in daily on a map of France the German advance. Later I was told that he and my mother were working out how to dispose of our small library of books the content of which he thought would make us quick to be lined up and shot in the event of an invasion which seemed more and more a real possibility. I remember him saying that he wouldn’t have wanted the neighbours to know what they were doing, because in the event, he didn’t trust them. Interesting times!
During the Battle of Britain I was evacuated to my relations in Northampton; more fun for a 7 year old. If I remember, only one bomb fell on Northampton…in the cemetery! I also remember being aware that on the only occasion the siren went when I was in Northampton everyone in the house was absolutely panic stricken. In Watford the siren sounded off daily and while we were prudent, no way did we panic, so I couldn’t really understand why everyone at the house in Northampton was cramming themselves under the stairs and getting out their rubbers on string neclaces (these were supplied by the authorities for biting on in the case of sheer terror!). And of course then everyone wanted a pee…and as the loos in these old houses were always dangerously situated down the garden, an hilarious scene evolved. Even at 7 years old I could see it didn’t really add up!
My father, who also made puppets and used to tell his own stories with them, used to give free fortnightly Saturday shows to children at Watford North Library. I think he felt it was some little contribution to those children who had effectively lost their fathers. Behind the scenes I used to help him put the glove puppets on his hands, and squint through the curtains at the ecstatic faces of the little children.
On VE day he was invited to do a show in Cassiobury Park where Watford’s celebrations were taking place. Uniquely this was to be paid for. I remember my father’s day being spoiled by having been treated by the organisers with the lordly disrespect due to a mere paid showman. It was ironic; after years of free shows! I would have been about 12 years old by then, and I felt my father’s unjust humiliation. So I remember VE day!
One other more small remembrance: the day at the beginning of the war when ice-cream was banned. No more of such luxuries. One day was left to eat it up, and ice-cream shops were giving it away. I remember sitting with my mother in Cassiobury park slightly bewildered at this embarassement of richesse but both of us eating great quantities of Grillo’s best.
I am lucky; the war did me no harm at all. If anything it educated me fast in worldly matters, and encouraged independence.
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