Notes from the Sofa Raymond Briggs
‘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.