A Mother and A War
Apologies for the late start to blogging this year, and for my near-total absence from social media last month. This was due to the unexpected death of my mother a week after the New Year – ‘unexpected’ despite her being 92. Obviously, there have been a thousand things to do (I was her only child), so everything online has gone very much to the bottom of the priority list. But now, with the funeral over, I’m gradually coming up for air, and I thought my first post of 2018 could only be a tribute to her. After all, one doesn’t – or, perhaps, shouldn’t – mourn someone who’s lived to such a ripe old age in the same way that one grieves for, say, those who die long before their time. Instead, I think, one should celebrate a life well lived, and I’m certainly doing that in my mum’s case, especially as she stayed in her own home to the very end, as well as retaining all her mental faculties.
(Apropos of nothing in that respect, her out-of-the-blue comment shortly before the 2016 Presidential election was ‘I think this Trump’s a bit of a loony, really’. This from a woman who was born when Calvin Coolidge was President and Thomas Hardy was still alive, and who knew very well several people who could remember when Ulysses S Grant was President and Charles Dickens was still alive.)
A couple of years ago, I digitally recorded her on several occasions, preserving her recollections both of various aspects of the family history, and of the second World War. I promised her that I wouldn’t publish those memories in any shape or form until after her death, but now, the time has come to put this into the public domain.
My mum grew up in a street of terraced houses in Llanelli, then a thriving industrial town. Her father died before she was born, so she lived with her mother and bedridden grandmother. On the day that war broke out, Sunday 3 September 1939, she was ‘on holiday’ with relatives in the mining village of Ponthenri, not far away as the crow flies, but then a journey that involved a change of trains on an obscure railway line that didn’t even survive until the Beeching Cuts. Apparently her mother and uncle panicked, thinking the trains and buses would stop and she wouldn’t be able to get back, but her principal memory of the day wasn’t the actual declaration, but the first air raid warning of the war. ‘The siren went frequently – a lot of them were false alarms,’ she recalled, although in one sense, the alert on 3 September proved to be anything but a false alarm for a heavily pregnant neighbour’s daughter – ‘when the siren went, she started in labour – she had a baby girl [from] the shock of it, I think’. In a school friend’s house, the reaction was very different. The mother panicked and leaped out of bed, but the father swiftly got back in, saying ‘if I’m going, I’m going in comfort’!
There were soon major changes at school. ‘We had a school join us…the Mary Datchelor school, [evacuated] from London…our next door neighbour took in a whole family…’. There were preparations for the anticipated attacks. ‘In school, we had all the warnings – how to take a gas mask with you…it wasn’t very pleasant to wear…I had a square box with the gas mask in.’
By the winter of 1940-1, the sirens were not always false alarms.
‘The bombing started – Llanelli was exceptionally fortunate because there was an oil dump at the docks…they hit it [just] once…[we were visiting] two streets away [from her house]…there was a terrific thump and the sky lit up….there was a laundry at the back of our house, [and as were coming back] you could see all the machinery in the laundry through the windows, from the light in the sky…’
Swansea, twelve miles away, was less fortunate, with its centre being virtually destroyed during the ‘three nights blitz’ of February 1941. From the house, in the south-west of Llanelli, it was possible to hear the German bombers – ‘much deeper, louder’ engines than British planes – and see the glow from the flames. (My father, then thirteen, lived on the east side of town, much closer to Swansea, and remembered seeing both the flames themselves and the bombers being illuminated in the searchlights.)
At home, meanwhile, some ingenuity was required to safeguard a grandmother who was virtually immobile: ‘when the siren went, we had planks that we put over her bed’. Her grannie died on the last day of 1940, after which my mum and her mother went next door during air raids…'[the neighbour] used to herd us children under the table’, with the adults finding refuge under the stairs.
In 1940, too, my mum left school, aged fifteen. ‘I had to get a job because my mother’s pension was finishing…I had this job in the Post Office, which fortunately meant I wasn’t called up…I started off with the telegraph…we had a poky little room with four teleprinters…we trained in Swansea, but the worst [bombing] was after we finished our training…’
Part of her job involved receiving and processing the casualty notifications – ‘they used to come through, and we had the telegraph boys taking them out on bikes, with the bad news…one I took, and my friend was going with a boy, and they were very close, and he was killed…and the thought of sending it to his mother…you knew when one was coming through on the printer, and you taped it onto the sheet, sealed it, put it in the envelope with the address…it wasn’t a very pleasant job at that time’.
There were other alarms. ‘One evening the postmaster came in…a message had come through from somewhere…there’d been a holdup in some [other Post] Office…it was a deserter…so of course it was a bit edgy, and there was no-one around [she was on her own once the postmaster left]…I had a phone number to contact, but nothing happened…it was really scary at the time to be in this room…there was so much money – the counter at the time [had] no shield, it was all open, you had no protection at all.’
The social life in the town, particularly in the dance halls, changed dramatically after the USA’s entry into the war. ‘There were always scandals going on…there were a lot of black Americans, and for a while there were quite a few black babies in town’. (This, though, certainly wasn’t the first time my mum had encountered black people – she’d gone on many family trips and holidays to family in Cardiff during the 1930s, and Cardiff had long been markedly multi-cultural.)
Finally, though, the war drew to a close. On VE day, 8 May 1945, ‘a friend from school got married that day, so I was in a wedding…we went back to town by bus…I must have gone home and changed, but I can’t remember where we went…’ VJ Day, 15 August, was much more memorable, because she was in Cardiff. ‘We’d been waiting all day for the announcement…it didn’t come until midnight…[the family friends she was staying with] were strict teetotallers, but the eldest daughter was partial to a little drop of gin…she had a little bottle on top of a wardrobe…we went out onto Newport Road, and there were people milling around, going into the centre of Cardiff…everyone was just talking about how wonderful it was, that it was at an end eventually…everyone was so happy…[but there was sadness too]…quite a few of the boys from the office didn’t come back’.
Soon after the end of the war, she went to London for several weeks as one of many provincial staff brought in to relieve the hugely overworked London telephonists. And it’s there, as a twenty-year-old making her first visit to Trafalgar Square, that I’ll leave her.