Back in 2010, the anniversary of the Blitz, I recorded my elderly mother on video talking about her memories of wartime. Mum had dementia but was still relatively lucid then – she died in early 2016, by which time she was lost deep in a fog. Publishing my new book The Chalky Sea which begins in July 1940, when Eastbourne experienced the first bombing of its own long Blitz, I remembered the video and thought I would share it with you.
War changes people
One of the themes of the book is how war changes people. Gwen, one of the two main characters, has lived a half-life of suppressed emotions during peacetime. The war forces her to confront her past and bring her feelings to the surface. Listening again to my mother’s words on the video when she talks about how “war brought out the best in people” I wonder if what she had said had lurked in the back of my mind.
Mum was not quite twelve when the war began. She was living in Liverpool with her widowed mother and her seven older siblings. When the bombing of Liverpool began she was evacuated to a farm at Whitchurch in Shropshire. While the farmer and his wife were very kind, it was a miserable time for her as she was desperate to go home. She wrote pleading letters to her mother, declaring that she wanted to die with everybody else in the family.
People were kinder
She talks on the video of the generosity of people – sharing spare vegetables from the garden with neighbours, offering pies and generally helping out. Maybe she was looking back with rose-coloured spectacles but I doubt it. Many people use similar words – especially what she says about “just getting on with it”.
My father was four years older and so had his chance to serve in the forces. He joined the RAF and was sent to Canada to be trained as a pilot, before being assigned to RAF Coastal Command, where he flew a Halifax on meteorological operations. He was stationed in Iceland and in Scotland, flying over the Atlantic with his crew reporting on weather conditions and spotting U-boats.
This picture of him before he was demobbed is with his two younger brothers and his brother in law – who had flown as a rear gunner and had already been demobbed.
We moved in 1968 as a family to live in Eastbourne, where The Chalky Sea is set. I don’t think either of my parents had any idea that the little seaside town we were living in had as eventful a war as Liverpool did – nor that the Canadian army were stationed here. I wish they had lived to read the book.
I wish now I had spent more time quizzing both my parents about their wartime memories – it’s too late now. Have you talked to elderly relatives about their World War 2 experiences? Do you think they viewed those times through rose-coloured spectacles or are their memories harsher than my mum’s?
Read about the secret relics of World War 2 I found in the streets of Eastbourne.