Boyhood recalled

A nostalgia piece today – something I wrote to try and re-create the feelings of a nine-year-old boy during the Blitz. Just history to many, but very real to those of us who lived through it.

From my bedroom window (1941)
There was a raid last night. As soon as the siren started to wail, Dad called out: “Come on, children – downstairs!” I put on my dressing gown, without turning on the light, and peep out between the bedroom curtains. Searchlights are fingering the sky. I hurry downstairs, with my sister Joan close behind.
The bed on the larder floor is already made up. Joan and I snuggle under the eiderdown – like sardines, with our heads at opposite ends. Dad says this is the best place for us, because the larder window has no glass (it’s made of that metal with little holes in it) and the ceiling is the smallest in the house, if it should fall.
Mum and Dad have a sort of mattress thing under the kitchen table. Dad keeps his special air-raid tray close by. It has a torch, in case all the lights go out; a candle and some matches, in case the torch doesn’t work; four corks, for us to bite on so that we don’t bite our tongues off when the bangs come; four little brown envelopes with our ear-plugs in, so that our ear-drums won’t burst; and a little bottle of brandy – “just in case”, says Dad. Mum says he’s a very methodical man.
Soon we hear the throbbing of the bombers overhead. Some of the boys at school reckon they can tell the difference between a Junkers and a Dornier. I just pretend that I can. Now there comes the crack of ack-ack guns, and the deeper crump of distant bombs. When the raids first started Joan and I thought it was all rather exciting, but now we just want it to be over so that we can go back to sleep.
Eventually the all-clear sounds and, after a bit, Dad says: “Well, I think that’s it for tonight. Might as well all get back to bed.” We trail upstairs again, and Dad comes into my bedroom with me. After checking that the door is closed, so that no light would show, he opens the curtains and we look across the Downs to the north. There is a reddish glow in the sky. “Looks like the City caught it again,” says Dad. “Right, lad – back to bed!”
Now it’s morning, the sun is shining and I’m looking out across the back garden. I hardly notice the barrage balloons hovering in the distance. My thoughts are all on the big walnut tree that stands in the corner of the lawn. Its trunk forks near the ground. I’ve been climbing the right-hand side for ages; I know every branch and twig. But the left-hand trunk is different: it’s smooth and bare for several feet and quite unclimbable. The only way to get into that side of the tree is to leap, like Tarzan, from a crotch on the other side, catch hold of a horizontal branch and swing yourself up so that you can hook your legs over. I’ve been thinking about this for days. I wonder if, today, I’ll have the courage to do it…..

6 Responses to “Boyhood recalled”

  1. 1 lichanos February 21, 2008 at 9:44 pm

    Thank you for this short piece – I found it moving. I am far too young to have experienced this – not to mention being an American, but I have long been fascinated by the UK, and the fate of London during the blitz. (Should be blitzes, shouldn’t it? There were several after all.)

    I work on the 32nd floor of a building right next to the site of the World Trade Center. I did not work here on 9/11, and now I just enjoy watching the construction process in the pit. Horrifying as that atrocity was, when I hear people talk about it as though it were the most earth shattering event in history, I think of London and its 40,000 civilians dead in WWII.

    I have a few posts at my blog that describe my perception of your youthful experience, refracted through various cultural media.


  2. 2 johnchap February 22, 2008 at 8:21 am

    Thanks for your comment, lichanos. ‘Blitzkrieg’, meaning ‘lightning war’, was coined by Hitler to describe his strategy of high-speed attacks, spearheaded by high-speed armoured units. It came to be applied to the whole Luftwaffe bombing campaign against Britain. There were of course hundreds of raids, but the whole campaign, from late 1940 until the RAF gained supremacy, was always referred to, by us Brits, as ‘the blitz’, not ‘the blitzes’.

    I suppose the horror of 9/11 has to do with it all happening in the space of an hour, whereas the destruction of the blitz was spread over many months. And let us not forget the thousands of German civilians who died as a result of what Hitler started.

    Watch out for my next post. It will have relevance to the view from your window!

  3. 3 lichanos February 22, 2008 at 4:45 pm


    I guess I was thinking of the various technologies the Nazis used in their air attacks on the UK. First bombers, then the buzz bombs, then the V2 in the final days.


  4. 4 drtombibey March 6, 2008 at 11:03 am

    What was the quote about the RAF? “Never have so few done so much for so many with so little” or something like that.

    Thanks for the real history lesson. As Americans I’m afraid we tend to glorify conflict, but we ain’t ever lived through it. (except for the Civil War, which too many have forgotten.)

    I think your blog is very readable- you just have’t been at it that long. I’ve got a Doctor from Scotland I read on a regular basis. You might consider marketing yours to the U.S. folks as being from England. Many of us desire to be less egocentric and want to read of other points of view than just American. I love it here, but we are far too commercial, and sometimes don’t have enough respect for tradition.

  5. 5 johnchap March 6, 2008 at 11:24 am

    Hi Tom. Thanks for your encouraging comment. The quote you are thinking of was in a speech by Churchill in August 1940:

    The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day…

    It’s the “Never in the field …” sentence that everyone remembers.

    I have visited your blog, and enjoyed it.

  6. 6 drtombibey March 6, 2008 at 1:05 pm

    That’s the one! Thanks.

    Hey I typoed the word “American” of all things if you’ll edit it!

    Dr. B

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