Saturday, 30 June 2018

War, emigration and some fine silk socks

In 1940, my father, Leonard, volunteered to join the Royal Air Force. At his interview, a Wing Commander looked at his application and asked what must have seemed to him to be the crucial question.

‘So, young man, you were born in London, but moved to Brussels at six weeks?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And why did you do that?’

My father was English to his fingertips, even though he spent his childhood in Brussels and spoke French like a native – indeed, it became the preferred language of communication between him and his four siblings.

He left Brussels with his mother, on the last train before the German army moved in.

‘It was just as well we caught the last train,’ he told me, ‘the one before was strafed by German fighters and a lot of the passengers were killed.’

He arrived by boat in Portsmouth.

‘It was great to see all the warships in the port, lined up and sleek in their battleship grey. It made me feel that we weren’t defenceless, that I was home and among powerful friends.’

This was the start of the only extended period he was to live in England: from 1940 until he was demobilised in 1946. When he headed back to Francophone territory, specifically Paris.
Propping up a wheel of his bomber
- Leonard while doing his bit in WW2
My mother, Leatrice, on the other hand, had only been out of the country once in her life, on a family holiday in France. When she was three.

She was still in her late teens when war broke out. She spent one term away from London and the dangers of bombing, at a school in Windermere in England’s North West. She hated being away from home and decided she preferred to risk the bombs and came back. That occasionally meant cowering with her mother in the broom cupboard under the stairs until the all clear had sounded.

‘Under the stairs was the safest place. When you saw bombed-out houses, the stairs would often still be standing. But it was horrible crouching in there in the dark.’

No bombs fell in their neighbourhood anyway, in Hampstead Garden Suburb in outer North London, home for many Jews who’d made enough to be comfortable, though not quite enough to join their wealthier co-religionists in nearby Golders Green.

As the war went on, both my parents became blasé about the bombs.

‘I hated shelters,’ my father told me, ‘the atmosphere was dank and full of fear. So, when I was on leave in London, I just stayed up above and watched the raids. Once, I was walking home with a packet of eggs – precious at the time – and I could hear the shrapnel from the anti-aircraft shells falling back to earth and tinkling on the ground all around me. All I could think of was how to keep my eggs safe.’

My mother even played a memorable tennis game with a friend, ignoring the air raid warnings, only to discover when they’d finished and climbed to the top of the hill where they could see the view, that the whole of the City of London was ablaze.

On leaving school, she took a shorthand course and went to work for Finchley Council, in North London.

‘The anti-Semitism was unbearable. I couldn’t wait to get out.’

Always a sympathiser of the political left, her next job was with Albert Inkpin, formerly the first general secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain. When they met he’d been demoted to running the Friends of the Soviet Union. She helped him with its paper, Russia Today. The publication recounted the glorious achievements in the Soviet Union and the triumphant advance of the working class everywhere under the leadership of Joseph Stalin. In other words, it was a propaganda sheet. If it existed today, we’d call what it purveyed fake news.

Come to think of it, it does exist today and that’s exactly what it purveys.

My mother found the diet there a little too rich. She moved on to an organisation that was more congenial to her, the venerable social democratic movement –Inkpin might have described it as bourgeois liberal – the Fabian Society. She worked half time for the Society and half time for one of its leaders, the Labour MP John Parker.

One of her more vivid memories was of lying in the grass in St James’s Park, between the government offices in Whitehall and Buckingham Palace, watching German V1 flying bombs coming over.

‘You listened for the motor to cut. If it did when the bomb was close, it might drop straight out of the sky towards you. I once heard a V1 motor cut while I was in a Lyons Corner House restaurant. All the clients, including me, flung ourselves to the ground under the glass-topped table – hardly likely to give us much protection. Fortunately, the bomb didn’t hit us.’

The V1 'doodlebug'
The time to get really worried was when the engine stopped
She stayed in the job after the war. That meant she was there on an evening in 1946 where a diminutive, humble figure walked through a crowd of Labour staff members in the Headquarters building, with only a smile and an occasional wave in an acknowledgement when they stood to give him an ovation. The man was Clement Attlee, and the staff had just had the confirmation he would be the next Prime Minister, having beaten the legendary and apparently unbeatable Winston Churchill. He would be one of Britain’s most effective Prime Ministers.

My mother hankered, however, to get away. She found an ill-paid job in Paris and moved there. She didn’t realise it, but it would be the last time she lived in England for four decades.

Meanwhile, my father had started working with a British railway body and had done well. So well, indeed, that his boss called him in one day to congratulate him on winning a more senior appointment back in Britain.

‘But… I didn’t apply for the job,’ my father told him.

‘No. I put in the application for you. And you’ve won! It’s a great honour.’

‘Maybe. But it’s not a job I want.’

He eventually gravitated to working with UNESCO, based in Paris. He was young, well-paid with few responsibilities. He indulged in some luxuries, one of which was silk socks. In all the time I knew him, I never saw him in silk socks, which is perhaps a measure of what it cost him to accommodate my brother and me.

Meanwhile my mother moved on from the ill-paid job and joined the UNESCO typing pool –not the most fulfilling work but it allowed her to live far more richly than she ever had before.

One day she was invited to a party with a bunch of her colleagues and found herself on the floor with her back against a sofa, on which a young man was sitting. What she saw of him first was, of course, his shoes and his socks.

‘Good Lord,’ she said, ‘you’re wearing silk socks with little clocks going up the sides.’

‘Yes,’ he said. Thus they took the first step towards a life containing my brother and me, and far more cotton than silk.

No comments: