11 - Prelude to War.

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Prelude to War.

All through 1938 Hitler's name came up in the Sunday visits to Momma's. Granddad and Dad talked about terrible events happening in Germany. Austria was invaded in March apparently with the consent of the Austrians.

Dad said Hitler wouldn't stop unless someone stopped him. Letters from France told of anti-Semitism. I asked what it meant - "people attacking Jews", I was told.

I wasn't surprised, after all Jews were twisters weren't they? Dad was angry when I said as much but what else did he mean when he said so and so "was a right old Jew?'

Then came talk of an invasion of Czechoslovakia. Dad said England wouldn't stand for it but no action was taken when the invasion took place. In September Chamberlain attended a conference in Munich with Germany, France and Italy all agreed to allow Germany to annex Czechoslovakia but to protect Poland if Hitler turned his attention to her.

Chamberlain, the Prime Minister came back from the conference waving a piece of paper and saying, "Peace in our time."

Dad said they had "sold Czechoslovakia down the river" whatever that meant.

I remember seeing Chamberlain on the news at the Cinema with what looked like a scroll. I also remember Hitler saying, "This is my last territorial claim in Europe" but I'm not sure which claim he was referring to as he seem to say it lots of times.

Harry finished school in 1939. He matriculated at fifteen and the school suggested university. Boots the Chemist might be willing to sponsor him. Dad went with him to the interview at Boots.

"Well?" Mam said when they returned from the interview.

"Ay they wanted him to go to Oxford and would pay all his expenses." He sighed and shook his head, his brow wrinkled and his mouth pursed.

"What's the catch?"

There was always a catch.

"They wouldn't guarantee him a job at the end of it. Said with a science degree he'd have no problem. What's the use of that? Three years and then to have to start looking for a job. And if Boots didn't want him where else would he go? He needs a steady job with a pension at the end of it."

And so he became a clerk in the Health Insurance.

Dad bought him a small billiard table and asked some of the local youths to give him a game. He had never brought any friends home from school nor did he go out. Now even though he was working he helped in the shop in the evenings and at the weekends but he no longer did the cleaning that fell on my shoulders. Although I accepted that I had to earn my pocket money my efforts at cleaning were not energetic but even when I made an extra effort I received nothing but complaints. The more I polished the more obvious were the bits I missed.

Only in one sphere was I appreciated. As I was in the "C" form, I studied "Domestic Science." Much of this was totally irrelevant to a child of the working-class.

"Did you know," I told Mam. "That when you're training servants you should do the housework with them to teach them the correct way to do things."

"Then it's just as well you'll never have any to train."

Learning how to draw plans for building a house was another task that brought comment.

"I don't know what they think they're at. You might draw lads like flies to the honey pot but you'll not find any millionaires in Hyson Green. Not unless you marry Sammy Pownell." (He was the local scrap merchant.)

But my cookery was appreciated. Mam's cookery skills had never gone further than what could be achieved with the frying pan or the chip pan so everything I brought home was praised to the skies. And praise was all I hungered for. I willingly took over all the weekend cooking and the planning and preparation of all the meals during school holidays.

End of term exams- "I came top in practical, with my winter salad,'

I proudly displayed the bowl of chopped cabbage enlivened with matchstick carrots, cucumber twists diced beetroot and slices of apple. Lovingly I placed it on the table. No one touched it.

"Aren't you going to try it Dad?"

"What? No, it's not for eating it's meant as a table decoration. You can't eat raw cabbage, not unless you're a rabbit."

Dad never ate any form of salad nor did I ever see him eat fresh fruit though we did sometimes have tinned fruit at Christmas and birthdays.

Before we broke up for the Christmas holidays we were taken to the domestic science room to see the cakes made by the fifth years. They were fantastic! One that stands out in my memory was made like a book with a title on the face and pages lined. I really looked forward to the day when I would be taught to make cakes like these.

In this I was disappointed as I was in the anticipated swimming lessons that should have begun the following summer term. I wasn't allowed to go to the swimming baths. "Not until you can swim," Mam said.

The other event in the school year was the Christmas party. We took letters home asking our parents to provide us with a full-length dress and silver or gold sandals. Gym lessons were given over to dance classes that I hated almost as much as gymnastics. I was hopeless. I got muddled as to my left and right foot and couldn't follow the beat never the less I looked forward to the party.

My dress was pale blue taffeta with a frilled neckline and I had silver sandals. I wore that dress once and that party was the only school party we had. Mam raved about the waste of money.

At this time Mam and Dad went out with his elder sister Grace and her husband Bert. They ran a night club and Mam really dressed up to go with them. She wore cobwebby fine pure silk stockings and I lived in anticipation of the day I would possess a pair.

Grace and Bert suddenly disappeared from our lives and it transpired he was a bookmaker and he had failed to lay off bets and had to do a "moonlight flit" to avoid angry punters. People often left their homes in the middle of the night to escape the debt collector.

Violet and Bill didn't visit any more either. I am not sure of the reason but I remember a row in which Mam was raving about Violet staying the night whilst she was in hospital but I am not sure whether this was when she had John or later when she had a prolapse repair operation.

Mam's youngest sister Hélène came to mind the shop whilst we went on holiday for Dad believed customers were lost if the shop was closed. Our holidays were always taken during "Trades Conference" week for Dad was a delegate from his union, The Transport && General."

The last family holiday we had was at Llandudno and it rained all day and every day Mam said I sulked all the time and refused to look at the scenery. We must have gone by car but I don't remember Dad buying a car at this time. I do remember leaving Mam, Dad and Johnny in the car whilst Harry and I climbed up the Great Orme. I thought it was a really high mountain and was surprised when I saw it years later to find it had shrunk.

We were on the way down when a damp mist descended and we lost sight of the path. It took ages to get back down and I really enjoyed the adventure.

We did quite a bit of walking and I recall a visit to the Betws-y-Coed falls and to a smithy where Mam bought a brass dinner gong that stood on the mantelpiece for years. I had the task of cleaning it and what a task that was the polish got into all the engravings and dried white. Mam brought it with her when she came to live with me and I still have it.

During this time gas masks were issued. They were horrible smelly rubber things and I couldn't breath in mine. We were also given a cardboard box on a string that we ere supposed to carry around with us once war came.

Preparations were made to evacuate the schools. I was given a letter to take home for my parents to sign agreeing to my being evacuated. Dad wouldn't sign. So my summer holiday stretched through to the winter of 1939.

At first I thought it was great to have an extended holiday but I soon became bored. Mam became worried about my going out at night for who knew what dangers lurked in the dark. And it was dark. The blackout was absolute or nearly so. "Put that light out!" The wardens shouted if anyone accidentally lit up before drawing the blinds. We groped around with torches, the heads covered in grey paper with a slit in the middle that just about allowed you to find the curb that was painted white. Trees too had a white line round to stop you walking into them - it didn't work.

September 3rd. 1939 war was declared. For weeks Dad and my grandparents had been glued to the radio news programmes. There had been relief when Chamberlain declared, "Peace in our time." The euphoria didn't last long. Less than a year later German troops marched into Poland.

I still remember my Dad saying, "Thank God my sons are too young to go." He couldn't have guessed that it would last long enough for Harry to be conscripted still less that another conflict would involve John.

One night I was coming home in the blackout when I heard footsteps running up behind me. I thought they would pass me by but then I felt a hand go up my skirt. I screamed with shock. Nothing happened just a black shadow ran past me. My heart pounded and my knees felt wobbly. I didn't tell Mam for she would have stopped me going out.

Now I became really aware of the stars and surprised at how much light they gave. A full moon brought delight and fear, a bombers" moon we called it although during the first year there were plenty of sirens but no raids

The school didn't reopen until January 1940. I wasn't notified of the opening but as I was walking towards the Forest I saw pupils sitting at the desks. I ran home, changed into my uniform grabbed my hated satchel and went to school. The secretary said she thought I had left. I think the teachers hoped I had.

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