For­get-me-nots: ‘ Be­fore the War’

This England - - Contents - Brian Bone

Bananas were the Holy Grail. Ap­par­ently they were a stun­ningly beau­ti­ful yel­low colour on the out­side, ut­terly de­li­cious, del­i­cately scented and soft in­side — as easy to peel as an Elasto­plast from a knee. Best of all, mon­keys liked them, peel­ing them with their teeth and fin­gers, then eat­ing them just like a hu­man. In that mag­i­cal, near-myth­i­cal, to­tally un­ob­tain­able Par­adise which was “be­fore the war” you only had to walk down the road to buy as many bananas as you wanted. They weren’t even ra­tioned.

Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War ev­ery child was tor­mented by sto­ries of what life was like be­fore war broke out in 1939, and of the won­der­ful things you could once buy (and do) and which were now never, ever, even glimpsed.

Ice cream, for ex­am­ple, made with real cream, which you bought off a man rid­ing down the street on a funny kind of tri­cy­cle. This of­ten came in strange cone things made from wafer, what­ever that was.

My mother did make one heroic at­tempt at home­made ice cream. How­ever, even Billy the dog, never one of life’s great gourmets, re­coiled from her half-rot­ten-wind­fall ap­ple ice cream made with pow­dered milk and dried egg. My fa­ther did man­age a few spoon­fuls of it, and lived, but then he had sur­vived Pass­chen­daele.

An­other ma­jor dis­ap­point­ment were Christ­mas and birthday presents, which never, ever, seemed to be new. Ev­ery­thing was at least third-hand, mauled to death by my many cousins. I would have killed for a teddy bear with a full com­ple­ment of eyes, ears and limbs, which wasn’t two-thirds bald and which hadn’t been gnawed within an inch of its life.

The same went for clock­work cars which would ac­tu­ally wind-up, toy lor­ries which you could push along with­out the wheels fall­ing off, elec­tric trains that didn’t just buzz at you when you turned on the power and ac­tu­ally moved a lit­tle, and Mec­cano that wasn’t all bent and twisted as if it had been bombed — which it prob­a­bly had. Jig­saws al­ways had vi­tal bits miss­ing, board games lacked essen­tial coun­ters, and play­ing cards and card games never had a full deck (“Hasn’t any­one got Mr. Grim the Un­der­taker?”)

Once upon a time, mad­den­ingly in the not-too-dis­tant past, there had been one par­tic­u­lar, unique Shangri-la where all the won­der­ful things which “be­fore the war” of­fered had come to­gether in a sin­gle place. It was sit­u­ated by the sea, lit­er­ally on the beach, a lit­tle tim­ber and as­bestos sum­mer bun­ga­low which my mother owned with her brother and sis­ter. Here, in­deed, was Par­adise, and all my older cousins con­firmed the fact.

There was row­ing and sail­ing, and sand and sand­cas­tles, shin­gle and swim­ming and fish­ing and shrimp­ing, and a thou­sand other mar­vel­lous things to do and see. The build­ing was on stilts and, if there was a gale dur­ing spring tides, the surf would some­times thrillingly whoosh be­neath it.

It was on the south coast, close to a beau­ti­ful sea­side town called East­bourne which had a pier, some­thing called a prom­e­nade, and huge, im­mac­u­late white-painted build­ings all along the front which weren’t all peel­ing, dirty and shabby like ev­ery­thing nowa­days. I wanted to go there more than any­where else in the world, more even than the

top of Mount Ever­est where no one had ever been. Trag­i­cally, be­cause of its po­si­tion, the bun­ga­low was no longer ac­ces­si­ble as the Ger­mans were go­ing to in­vade and oc­cupy it. As a re­sult civil­ians weren’t al­lowed any­where near the place, even the own­ers.

In Au­gust 1994 my mother and I had a week’s hol­i­day in a small Bex­hill ho­tel owned by one of my fa­ther’s friends. By then the risk of in­va­sion had re­ceded, so the nearby beach had been partly cleared of anti-in­va­sion barbed wire and other tem­po­rary struc­tures, and it could once again be en­joyed by the pub­lic.

Sur­prised by this, and also in­spired by it, my mother came up with a re­ally won­der­ful idea. “It’s only a few miles away, would you like to have a look at the bun­ga­low?”

I was ec­static. Af­ter a life­time hear­ing about it, I was ac­tu­ally go­ing to visit Par­adise. It wasn’t a sim­ple ex­pe­di­tion, though, and in­volved a train, a bus, and what would be quite a long walk for a six-year-old along an un­made road. Nev­er­the­less, I was hap­pily pre­pared to die on the way back if I could ac­tu­ally see the place at long last.

It took us hours; buses were late, trains didn’t turn up, the road was long, hot and dusty. We had gone about half­way, when we came round the cor­ner and sud­denly saw the tim­ber and barbed wire across the road. A large, red-painted sign was at­tached: “No En­try. Military Per­son­nel Only”. It is still one of the great­est dis­ap­point­ments of my life and, de­spite all my mother’s at­tempts to con­sole me, by the wa­ters of the rather smelly dyke that ran along­side I sat down in the dusty road and wept.

A year later, on 15th Au­gust, us­ing five years of ac­cu­mu­lated drift­wood, we all built an enor­mous bon­fire on the beach di­rectly in front of our bun­ga­low and, as he perched on the top of his pyre, burned the Em­peror of Ja­pan in cel­e­bra­tion of VJ-DAY. At long last the na­tion was at peace, and soon, I was ab­so­lutely con­fi­dent, the ge­ol­ogy of the en­tire coun­try would be groan­ing un­der the weight of mil­lions and mil­lions of fab­u­lous, ut­terly de­lec­ta­ble bananas.

Sheet mu­sic for a pop­u­lar wartime song.

The pier at East­bourne and a wartime pho­to­graph show­ing how, for some hol­i­day­mak­ers, life went on as nor­mal.

BRIAN GIBBS

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