Notes from the Sofa Ray­mond Briggs


The Oldie - - CONTENTS -

‘SO, WHAT were you do­ing in the War?’ he asked. ‘Well, not much,’ I said. ‘No Dunkirks, no Spit­fires. I was five when it started and ten when it ended.’ We were look­ing at the me­tal bench be­hind his mo­tor re­pair work­shop. I was in­ter­ested be­cause the bench was ob­vi­ously a wartime Mor­ri­son shel­ter. When I spoke to two or three of the men who worked there, not one of them knew what the bench had been. They had prob­a­bly never heard of Mor­ri­son shel­ters, let alone Mr Her­bert Mor­ri­son him­self. At first I was sur­prised that they could not even recog­nise this bench for what it was. It sym­bol­ised the most im­por­tant event in the his­tory of this coun­try for cen­turies. A World War. Bombs fall­ing from the night sky and later, with pi­lot­less planes, the Doo­dle­bugs, fall­ing from the day­light sky. How could they not know?

But then it dawned on my aged brain that it was quite a time ago, decades be­fore they were born: 1940 is 75 YEARS ago!

When I said to one of the me­chan­ics: ‘I slept in one of those things for sev­eral weeks.’ He said, ‘You’re not that old, surely?’ So that cheered me up slightly. I am 81, he was pos­si­bly 28, or maybe even 18. We know time flies, but it doesn’t al­ways fly, oc­ca­sion­ally it hits you slap in the face like a wet had­dock.

My Dad painted the ‘ceil­ing’ in­side the shel­ter in cream gloss to make it lighter and less grim for me. Then de­spite my young age, I cov­ered this ceil­ing with pho­to­graphs of pin-up girls. It seemed the whacky, rather naughty thing to do. Heaven knows what my Mum thought. But at least the neigh­bours would never see them. Mum’s guid­ing prin­ci­ple in life was: ‘What will the neigh­bours think?’

There was blonde Betty Grable, and Ann Shel­ton; for some rea­son I pre­ferred Ann Shel­ton to Vera Lynn. Oddly, Dame Vera Lynn now lives just down the road here. Much older than me, of course. ‘We’ll meet again, Don’t know where, don’t know when ...’ I could have sung this to my Mor­ri­son, ‘I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.’ Mum was al­ways an­noyed by my Dad mis­pro­nounc­ing it Verra Lynn.

All boys of my age col­lected shrap­nel. It was scat­tered every­where and there was com­pe­ti­tion to see who had the big­gest bit. It’s chill­ing to think that any one of those scraps could have killed some­one. The stuff was rain­ing down, some of it from our own anti-air­craft shells.

Apart from sleep­ing un­der­neath steel ta­bles, an­other od­dity of our lives was evac­u­a­tion. One half of my school went to Keigh­ley in York­shire, the other half went to Il­fra­combe in Devon. I was taken in by my two el­derly spin­ster aunts in Dorset. Years later I re­alised that they were not el­derly at all and were in their for­ties. They were part of that gen­er­a­tion of spin­sters cre­ated by the slaugh­ter of the First World War. Born at the turn of the cen­tury, they would have been about eigh­teen in 1918. Not a good time to be look­ing out for a young man to love. But per­haps it was not en­tirely fam­ily kind­ness. They may have taken me, a well­be­haved lit­tle boy from Wim­ble­don Park, to avoid hav­ing a brat from Ber­mond­sey bil­leted on them. It was an odd sys­tem: evac­uee chil­dren were as­sem­bled in a school hall and the lo­cals came in and chose which ones they would take home. The farm­ers chose the big, strong boys to get free labour and the pae­dophiles could not be­lieve their luck.

When we came back, there was an un­usual mix­ture of re­gional ac­cents in our school: York­shire, West Coun­try and my Dorset­shire. I’d come to say ‘Oi baint’ in­stead of ‘I am not’ and ‘Wher be um to’ in­stead of ‘Where is it? So, that be all Oi got ter put down yer now.

See page 27 for de­tails of how to or­der Ray­mond Briggs’s new book.

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