Forget-me-nots: ‘ Before the War’
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.