Arrival and departure
Combe Hill is the highest point in the Chilterns and from the top you can look westwards down onto Chequers, the Prime Ministerial estate where Thatcher and the least despised of her cronies have plotted some historically audacious propaganda coups. In the Vale to the north lies Aylesbury, dismally landmarked by the gnarled finger of concrete rising through the haze. It is a much uglier town now, after the planners and the developers have left their mark, than it was when I was forced to make a brief visit there in September 1939 — although in any case I was too young and unhappy at the time to have been able to value any virtues it might have had.
The alleys, inns and duck-ponds which once characterised the town have been swamped now by what is called progress but which is more accurately known as profitable, uncaring investment. A few mediaeval bits, as well as some Georgian and Regency buildings, have survived. There are industrial estates and wedges of 1960s suburbia, all set down to attract Londoners; thirty years ago the theory of urban overspill was the brilliantly insightful solution to inner-city congestion. That concrete finger — known as Fred’s Folly after its architect — was built during the time to house the administrative offices of the County of Buckinghamshire. In between a lot of housing went up during the nineteenth century and it was to these that my two brothers and I were evacuated at the start of the Second World War.
On 1 September 1939 I was in school, enduring a moderately tedious lesson, when the Deputy Head came to whisper some awful message to our teacher. For a while she tried distractedly to carry on but then blurted out the news that the German army had invaded Poland that morning. This had little effect on me, much less than the pervasive gloom of the Munich crisis a year before, when I had learned to pronounce Czechoslovakia and looked it up on the map but had then accepted with relief my mother’s crass endorsement of Neville Chamberlain’s assurance that he had signed up for Peace In Our Time. After all, great men like the Prime Minister, the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury did not say things which were not true. By the end of the war I knew better.
Over the next two days the government plan to evacuate the children of London was carried out. For some weeks we had kept on the mantlepiece the instructions for our part in this huge operation — how we should be labelled, what we should do, where we should go (or “report” as it was militarily put), who we should obey — and the list of basic clothing which had to be packed in a rucksack (suitcases were officially frowned on, on the grounds that a rucksack would allow us to run faster in an emergency). We all knew what that emergency was expected to be; for example our headmaster had assembled us one day in school to bark at us some astoundingly stupid advice on how to survive an air raid, based on a government publication which was widely circulating. We were urged to keep a smart look out for bombs, the better to dodge them; they could easily be recognised because as they fell they looked like silver arrows. The evacuation plan was that we should go with our schools, presumably to ensure the greatest possibly continuity in our training in patriotism, the acceptance of international rivalry and the ultimate glory of military success. As far as my family were concerned, the problem was that my two brothers and I attended three different schools. To keep us together while civilised life was destroyed all around my mother had to ignore instructions and send us all to be evacuated with the local grammar school, where my eldest brother was a pupil.
So on the morning of 3 September we took a numb farewell and climbed aboard a fleet of requisitioned London transport buses which trundled off north-westerly to Aylesbury (although we were not allowed at the time to know where we were going; at that early stage we had the neurotic secrecy of wartime thrust down onto us). We were resigned never to see our homes and families again, for if war came the silver arrows would lay waste to London within the hour. When we reached Aylesbury our labels were examined and listed time and again by intimidatingly brisk women, we were given bars of chocolate larger than I had ever seen, let alone been encouraged to eat (these were our “rations” — the bombing was expected to dislocate food supplies immediately), and taken to our billets. As soon as we could we had to make our way to the local park, where as we assembled in the calm afternoon one of the older grammar school boys told us that war had been declared that morning, at just about the time we were getting on the buses. “We’re bound to win”, he assured us cheerfully but my elder brother told us his parents were German so we could not be sure about which side he meant by “we”
Perhaps because we had no official place on that evacuation, my middle brother and I had about the worst billet in the whole of Aylesbury, with a couple whose awareness of childish needs was as stunted as ours of geriatric eccentricities. Mr. Gilson — stout, silver-whiskered, frock-coated — was in his eighties and his housekeeper Miss Marks — thin, faded, anxious — was in her seventies. I suppose they did their best, which was more than could be said for us, who immediately succumbed to treating them with either fear or contempt. Their childhood was long lost in time and we could simply not imagine ourselves ever being as old as they were. Between us and them lay decades of school, employment, parenthood, retirement — with all they meant in poverty and stress. Their house was deep in musty gloom, with electric light in only a couple of the downstairs rooms and food cooked — and flavoured — by a paraffin stove. Miss Marks, in a rare spasm of forethought, had provided a cake to welcome us. It was meant to be a treat but as we gulped it down, appalled and terrified at where we found ourselves, we began to cry. Miss Marks was ready for this — or perhaps she had been hoping for a chance to show some physical comfort to someone. She crushed each of us briefly to her bony chest while Mr. Gilson shifted and cackled in embarrassment from his chair.
Whether our eldest brother had done better was hard to decide. He was with Mr. and Mrs. Davis, who were in their forties and whose house exuded respectability with the smell of polish and the resentment of these kids from a poor London home who were so scared yet so careless of so immaculate and sterile a house. Mrs. Davis gave a new dimension to frugality, grimly rolling newspapers into tight ropes which she then knotted into knobs for use as fuel alternative to wood or coal. Whenever we called for our brother she eyed our grubbiness with a disdainful ambition (Mr. Gilson and Miss Marks never noticed whether we washed) and one day she humiliated us into a distressingly painful scrubbing of our faces, necks, hands and knees before she allowed us out again. Perhaps enforced cleanliness was the crucial indignity, for it was about that day that we decided to go home as soon as we could. Only six days after being evacuated we were back in that London suburb, emerging from the railway station to find the place unravaged by bombs, unsullied by gas. untroubled by German spies or saboteurs.
Our defiance of authority gave us a little short-lived local status as heroes but then other evacuees began to trickle back, in particular from Wales and the West Country, with stories of impossible billets among unwelcoming communities. When the air raids did begin we heard with some wry satisfaction that Aylesbury was bombed before our town. The West also suffered, as I saw later in the war when I watched from coastal sand dunes along the Bristol Channel the flashes and searchlight sweeps of the air raids on Bristol and the South Wales ports.
So why did it happen? What was the reason behind the traumatic uprooting of all those children? Did the bureaucrats fail to consult a map before they planned to remove us to what they told us would be safety? Did they overlook the range of the German bombers? Was it simply a case of ignorance or incompetence? As the war dragged on, another explanation asserted itself. Only twenty years after the previous War To End All War, with families all over the country still grieving for the dead of the great battles of Flanders, the British people were being cajoled into going to war again. The reputations of the politicians of 1918 were in tatters. How could their successors in government rebuild the collective, self-destructive hysteria so necessary to a war effort? To some extent, the British ruling class had ready-made propaganda for this to hand, when they abandoned their policy of trying to carve up Europe in conference with their German counterparts and instead went to war with them, in the huge cruelties of Nazi Germany, which they had so recently been so ready to conceal. But a war effort is best energised by acceptance of its immediate, threatening reality among the people who actually have to fight it. Of course at times the propaganda to this end reaches the absurd — but as we all know in war the first casualty is truth.
I have already mentioned some of the misinformation which was fed to us about air raids. There was also an official obsession about gas attacks. For example, street furniture was treated with yellow paint which, just in case our lungs and nervous systems did not tell us that something was up, would help us by turning green in a gas attack. In defence we were issued with gas masks, which we were supposed to carry at all times in a small cardboard box on a length of string. (“I saw Mr. Gilson today.” sneered Mrs. Davis. “He had his gas mask on his back. He’d never manage to get it on in a gas raid”.) In truth, as was generally acknowledged later in the war, the gas masks would have been useless and they were soon consigned to junk-rooms and cupboards.
We were abjured not to pick up stray packets of sweets we might find lying about in the streets, in case they had been poisoned and deposited from German aircraft (German aircrews were imagined to be especially ruthless and cunning in their will to get at all the women and children in Britain). We were instructed in the recognition of German paratroopers, who were expected to drop from the skies dressed as nuns. Towards the end there was a rather different deception — the plans for a Welfare State as reward for our vigilant compliance in British capitalism’s war effort. It hardly needs to be said that this may all have been a waste of time. Would not the British working class, unmindful of where their interests lay and deluded that they had some common, national cause with their exploiting class, have done all that was needed of them without such elaborate and costly goading?
In September 1939 our evacuation was experienced as forcible deportation, so that we three kids felt we had to keep our decision to go home a close secret. In fact, at the last minute our intention was uncovered so we made a run for it and were chased part of the way to the railway station. It felt as if Britain was one huge prison camp and we were absconding. Years later we learned that our departure had provoked an angry panic, that the entire school had been joined with the local grammar school to sweep the countryside to find us and drag us back to a speechless Mr Gilson.
The episode gave me an unreasoning hatred of Aylesbury which endured until I had to go there again, in December 1950, to help film the carol singers in the Square. I saw then how distorted my view of the place had been by my childhood and the miseries of evacuation. By then Mr Gilson must have been dead and I had my regrets that I had not gone back to apologise to him for the bewilderment caused by our arrival and the panic left by our departure. I would also have liked to rummage through his memories, for as I recalled him he was by no means senile and he had lived through such times as the American Civil War, the Paris Commune and the slumps and trade union struggles around the turn of the century. By then I was absorbed with the society of the future and he was a precious link with the past. There had been something to say for Aylesbury, after all.