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- 30 November 2003
Waiting to board a ship
July 1940. Two girls, one just 14, the other nearly 11, stand at the entrance to a pier in Liverpool harbour. Somewhere in the background, a ship. There is a wooden barrier, they stand on one side of it, their parents on the other. The older child looks with anguish and embarrassment at her mother's face streaming tears, her father's face twitching. Presumably there are other children, other parents, because an adult appears and leads all the children away from the barrier and the sight of their parents into an almost empty warehouse, where they are told to sit on whatever is handy. They sit, numb, hardly noticing each other.
Eventually, an uneasy adult makes them all sing.
No idea, all that is left is the grotesque memory of singing, of myself watching us singing as though watching a movie, of being outside it all. For years I thought it was an experience unique to me, until I learned that it is a not-uncommon reaction to the unbelievable, the unbearable.
The decision to send us away
In the literature about evacuating children during WW2, there has been speculation about what lay behind the decisions of that relatively small number of English parents who sent their children overseas. Belief that the war would be decided one way or another fairly quickly? Parallels with sending children back to England from the colonies for schooling? I only know what motivated my parents - and some of it I only learned considerably later.
My father, a member of the Economics Faculty of Cambridge University, had recently written a book entitled 'The Economic Recovery of Germany, 1933-1938'. Published the very month the war broke out, it got very bad reviews, both because it argued the strength of the German economy, something nobody in England wanted to believe at that juncture, and because it focused on the economic policies pursued by the Nazi government and was felt to have largely ignored the negative social and political policies followed by that regime, particularly the persecution of the Jews. (Years later, HAL Fisher, in a footnote in one of his books, referred to my father's book as almost the only one which correctly assessed Germany's dangerous strength at that time.)
To my father, the possibility of British defeat in the event of invasion (this was after Dunkirk) was very real.
For my mother, there was another factor. She was Austrian by birth, had come to England in 1908 and had spent World War 1 in England as an enemy alien. So strong was the xenophobia at that time that she had to leave her secretarial job in London and go to work as a Land Girl on the Oxfordshire farm of William Morris's daughter May. She was obsessed by the idea that we children, half English and half Austrian, would be pariahs in the event of a German invasion, and wanted us out of the country.
My English godfather, the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, had been in England for some weeks at the beginning of the war before returning to New York, and both parents had shared their anxieties with him. So after the fall of France, he and his American wife, Margaret Mead, cabled to my parents saying, 'Send the children.' Which, after much heart-searching, they did.
Whether they believed it or not, they told us that the separation would not be for more than a year. But at 14, a year is a very long time, and I reacted with revulsion, with rage, with panic, cried most of the time in the few weeks leading up to the journey to Liverpool, and refused to be reconciled to my fate. My sister Claudia seemed to think it would be an exciting adventure.
The Duchess of Atholl
So, Liverpool harbour.
We went aboard our ship, the Duchess of Atholl, on a Friday afternoon, and there we sat until Monday, while our parents imagined us on the high seas. I have always understood that this was because a submarine had been spotted and had to be driven away, but whether that was the real reason I don't know.
We were a party of 28 children from the Cambridge area, under the nominal care of one mother accompanying her brood of six and one nurse, a woman in her fifties. The children ranged in age from 15 down to three, and the older ones looked after the younger, more or less. Claudia and I had the upper bunks in a cabin for four, the lower bunks being occupied by two little girls, Margaret aged six and Ann aged five. They were not related to each other, and each was travelling without other members of their families.
Margaret began vomiting the moment she came on board, although there was no motion on the ship. Both of them wept desolately and our efforts to comfort them, while they distracted us from our own miseries, were completely unsuccessful. I went in search of the nurse, who came to our cabin, (this is a recollection of my sister's which I had forgotten) and said, 'Oh you poor children, how you must missing your mummies!' Whereupon we ALL burst into tears.
'She was a stupid woman,' said my sister. Anyhow, she decided to take the two little girls into her cabin, and replaced them with two small boys, Lester aged about six and Fabian aged three. Fabian, the youngest of a family of five, was travelling with two older sisters and was in any case entirely, fabulously self-sufficient. Lester was a horrid child, who used to lie on his bunk with his feet on the bottom of Claudia's mattress and try to bounce her out of bed, until she came down and clouted him. After that, although he slept there at night, we did not see much of him.
I don't remember how the time passed during those three days of inaction, except that we had been given ten shillings to spend (our normal weekly pocket money was one-twentieth of that amount) and spent a sizable part of it on Mars Bars. As a consequence I have never been able to face one since.
We explored the ship, or tried to. Class distinctions aboard were still rigorously maintained at that stage of the war. We were travelling tourist class, and discovered that although we were allowed to be on the top, or boat deck, we were not allowed to get there, because the only access to that deck lay through the first and second class accommodation, which was forbidden territory. So to get there or back we always had to run the gauntlet of stewards intent on preventing us from trespassing.
Finally at sea
On the Monday we finally departed, four passenger ships together. There may have been a naval escort for the first few hours, but I have no recollection of one. Before nightfall, two ships turned south heading for South Africa, we were told, and we went on with our sister ship, the Duchess of Bedford. Both ships were Canadian, and both were sunk not many months later.
I expect I was seasick initially, because in those days any vehicle other than a bicycle gave me motion sickness. We spent a lot of time on the boat deck, though it got bitterly cold even in July because the ships took a very northerly route, and we blessed the fact that our trunks were accessible because we needed all our winter clothes and still walked about draped in blankets. Because of the American neutrality laws, we could not sail to a US port, and were headed for the St Lawrence River and Montreal.
We were befriended by the Chief Engineer, a fatherly character who evidently felt sorry for us and lent us his deck quoits - until we lost them over the side and successively those of all his junior officers, who resented their loss. We also used to collect used matchsticks and drop them on the hats of the officers taking the air on a sort of balcony on the deck below, likewise unappreciated.
Fabian provided distraction from time to time. On one occasion he locked himself in a stall in the women's lavatories; he needed somebody to help him with his buttons and the few older boys in the group were rarely on hand when needed, so he was used to going into the ladies' loos with one of us. Most small children would have panicked and screamed, but Fabian sat on the floor and sang to us.
We couldn't get him out under the door because the gap was too small, but there was a bigger gap at the top, and we got one of two eight-year-old red-headed twins, eased her over the top and lowered her into the stall. She was a bit upset by the experience, but not Fabian.
On another occasion we lost him for several hours. The tannoy was making announcements about a missing child, and he was finally found, we were told, lying on the carpet in the first class lounge, surrounded by a group of portly gentlemen in arm chairs, to whom he was singing. He liked to sing, and they evidently liked to hear him.
Arriving in Canada
The journey seemed endless, and after almost a week we ran into fog and spent 24 hours at a standstill waiting for it to clear, which was the only part of the journey when I remember feeling frightened. When it cleared, we found we were at the mouth of the St Lawrence River, and felt safe at last.
On the way up river we stopped at Quebec City to land poor little Ann, who had briefly been our cabin-mate, and who had developed chicken pox on board. What that child must have felt was beyond my imagination. She had been separated from her family, then taken ill with chicken pox, then separated again from the only familiar faces around her and dumped into a hospital in a foreign land. I never tried to contact her when I eventually came back to England four years later. I don't know whether I couldn't face the pain I thought she must have felt, or was too full of my own concerns or too inefficient to track her down, but I have never ceased to feel unhappy about her. And now I realise I have managed to forget her last name, a sort of subconscious excuse for not doing anything.
We arrived in Montreal and were conveyed by bus to the dormitories of a women's college whose students were on holiday. It was a curious place. There were a number of beds in each room, and all the doors had been removed, taken off their hinges. We were assigned beds, and sat about wondering what would happen next. Somebody started to cry, and with no doors one could hear it, and it swept through the dormitories until we were all wailing, regardless of age. In an odd way, I seem to remember that it helped.
I think most of the children were headed for families in Canada, but a lady from the Red Cross or some equivalent organisation came to fetch me the next morning to deal with some formalities about entering the US. It was the first time I had ever heard a Canadian or American accent, and I was fascinated. Claudia was travelling on my passport (her photo was in the section for Wife, and confused passport officers for the next ten years) and so did not have to accompany me to the consulate. I felt extremely grown up. And then we were both taken to the station and put onto a train of the Boston and Maine Railroad, and I felt even more grown up, clutching passport and tickets, and so filled with responsibility that I forgot to be train sick.
Four years in America
The scenery reminded us of Austria, and after a journey of not many hours we arrived at our destination - Ashland, New Hampshire. We were met by Margaret and Gregory, and friends of theirs who had a car. Again, I have one of those glimpses of things seen from the outside: the two of us clambering down the steep steps of the train in our matching suits made by our mother, mine green, Claudia's blue, and our matching felt hats with brims. At least Gregory was a familiar face.
And then began four years in America.
Claudia took to America like a duck to water. She enjoyed her school, rapidly acquired an American accent and made the best of things despite living in an elderly household (that of Margaret Mead's parents in Philadelphia) which was not very cheerful for a young creature and very different from what she had known in England.
I did the opposite: in an exceedingly conformist peer group at our school, I made a point of not conforming. I refused to cut off my braids, I clung to bits of my old school uniform (which I had loathed in England) as a symbol that I WOULD NEVER FORGET ENGLAND, and, although I was not conscious of doing it, I retained my English accent.
My schoolmates were really very kind and tolerant - much nicer than I deserved, all things considered - but the thing that bothered them most was my unwillingness to cut my hair. In my last year at school, there were class polls, and people were voted most attractive, most likely to succeed, having the best legs, etc. I won best ears (since the female fashion at the time was for spaniel-like hairdos, my ears were the only ones anybody could see) and most conservative. The latter had no political connotation whatever, it was strictly about my pigtails, which were by that time wound round my head.
For the first year and more, I was acutely homesick, but as time went by, England and family began to acquire an unreal quality. The weekly letters home became more and more of a chore. I felt detached, I seemed to have grown emotional scar tissue.
Going back to England
I spent three years at my Philadelphia school and one year at Barnard College, and by then it was 1944 and becoming easier to repatriate civilians to England. In April Claudia departed, travelling with a friend of my parents and her two children. I stayed on to finish the academic year at Barnard, and followed in August.
When people heard I was going back, they said 'Isn't that wonderful! You must be so thrilled!' I pretended to agree, but as time went by I got more and more uneasy. Because I did not feel anything at all, not reluctance at leaving and certainly not pleasure at returning.
It was a very odd trip back, in a 50-ship convoy which included an aircraft carrier loaded from stem to stern with planes. There were troopships, freighters, two ships carrying civilians, one of which was mine, and a sizable naval escort. My ship was the Rangitiki, an ancient New Zealand liner mounting an anti-aircraft gun, with a naval gun crew.
The convoy zigzagged, at a speed of 14 knots which was the Rangitiki's maximum speed, until we reached approximately the middle of the Atlantic, at which point our engines broke down. After a lot of signalling, the convoy departed over the horizon, leaving us behind with a corvette fussing around us. Fortunately by that stage of the war the U-boat danger was greatly diminished, but it was not pleasant. After 24 hours, repairs completed, we hustled after the convoy, which had had to slow down on our behalf. The commodore was not pleased with us, and as punishment we lost our original place in the order of disembarking. The convoy should have taken 12 days from New York to Liverpool, but the Rangitiki spent three more days hanging around in the Irish Sea and yet another day in the Mersey, waiting for a dock to be free.
The passengers were a mixture of war brides of British servicemen (who had been sent to the US or Canada for training and had acquired wives and small children over there), and returning evacuees like me and a family I got to know, with three very pretty teenage daughters.
My first proposal
I got to know the fourth engineer. His name was Ronnie, he came from Dundee and had a widowed father whom he worried about. As our crossing became more and more prolonged, Ronnie hit on a brilliant solution to his problem: I should marry him, and I could look after his dad while he was at sea.
In the meantime, the eldest of the pretty teenagers had fallen for the gunnery officer. My swain, who had crossed the Atlantic with that gunner before, said that he set out to seduce at least one girl per crossing, and there was Jennifer, ripe for the plucking.
We were not warned by how long our landing date had been postponed, and in fact I don't think anybody knew from day to day just when we would be allowed off. So from day 12 onwards, people would have some great romantic climax, or some equally climactic row, in the expectation that they would never see each other again - and then there we all were the next day. And the day after.
Because the Rangitiki had been used as a troopship at some point, most of the cabin partitions had been removed and long rows of double-decker metal bunks installed in what amounted to dormitories. (For years afterwards I had a pair of pyjamas with rust stains acquired from one of those bunks.)
During one of those days of limbo, I had gone down to the dorm to fetch something, and Jennifer came with me. She told me in thrilling tones that the gunnery officer had asked her to meet him on the boat deck at midnight, and what should she do? I felt at a loss: she was older than I was, and what business was it of mine anyway? On the other hand Ronnie had informed me that the gunner was a cad, so I felt I ought not to forward his nefarious designs. I don't remember what I actually did or said, but I have an image of myself with my back to the door of the dormitory, my arms spread out, saying, 'No, you shall not go' in dramatic tones.
Anyhow she didn't, and about a year later I was invited to her wedding to a rather boring young man.
In the meantime, there we were on that infernal ship. I tried to be diplomatic in breaking it to my engineer that while greatly honoured by his offer - it was my first proposal and I was genuinely touched - I did not feel equipped to be his father's housekeeper. He was distressed, and drowned his sorrows in I don't know what, and I felt sorry, but really Dundee did not appeal. So we avoided each other at the end, and there was nothing to do except brood about the implications of coming home. Surely there must be some feeling of pleasure, after all these years? Nothing. Cold, quite cold.
And I began to get panicky. How on earth was I going to behave to my parents, I who felt nothing, who was frozen?
We spent the last night tied up to a dock in the Mersey. It was dark, I was up on deck by myself, wrapped in guilt and anxiety. There was still a blackout in effect, but the moon was up, and far away at the end of the dock I could see a figure walking towards me. As it came closer, I recognised the unmistakable, unforgettable shape of an English policeman's helmet.
And suddenly the ice jam gave way, and I felt I had come home. I cried, not with joy but with relief at the return of feeling.
Not that coming home was easy - in fact it was almost more difficult than leaving - but at least I had a fighting chance of coping.
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