"Good old Chamberlain" shout the Wilson siblings "we don’t want war !" We are walking along Colney Hatch Lane towards the North Circular Road and they are answering my criticism of Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. A criticism relayed from parents, as, of course,was the Wilson defence. I had written a poem in response to the events at Munich, a poem much appreciated by my parents, two lines of which read:
With two flights of an aeroplane
England was put to shame....
"Chamberlain’s a silly old sod" I reply to the Wilsons, not understanding that this is swearing, but the Wilsons know. "What did you call him!" Mervyn asks me in delight. "Silly old sod" I reply uneasily, adding "it doesn’t mean anything - it’s just a word." "I dare you shout it out" Mervyn challenges, Zara adding her voice to her brother’s, "go on!" she urges. "Silly old sod" I shout defiantly and the Wilsons, hooting with laughter, look around in the hope that I have been heard by passers-by.
"Whistle while you work,
Mussoline bought a shirt
Hitler wore it,
Chamberlain tore it,
Whistle while you work...."
sing the children in the school playground, paraphrasing a song from the film of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
In the year of the Crisis, my Bubba, Grandmother Rachel, dies in the London Hospital. This on the 21 October, 1938 and my cousin Flo’s twenty-third birthday. Bubba’s spare figure hurries across the Commercial Road. It is Friday evening and she is on her way home from Schul where she has been bargaining with God for a prolonged and active life. As she nears the kerb a lorry swings around the bend and runs her down. "In collision with a motor vehicle" the Official Police Report records. As if fragile skin, bone and blood is the same in substance to harsh crafted metal. The driver climbs out of his cab and stands aghast at the sight of my Bubba’s broken body around which a crowd is collecting. The family is summoned, perhaps by telephone. My Uncle Marky is in Rotherham, my Aunt Becky in New Barnet and my mother in Muswell Hill. Or possibly they were summoned by telegram:
COME AT ONCE STOP YOUR MOTHER IN LONDON HOSPITAL STOP
or maybe a policeman knocked on doors with the bad news. My grandmother lies in bed at the end of a long ward, the iron head-rest against the wall. Her broken leg in traction. Her blue eyes light up at the sight of her children, two daughters and one of her two sons, gathering fearfully around her bed. "I will be all right" she says "I want to live!" She says this in Yiddish for the violence of the accident has sent out of her head the little English gleaned over the years. "Your mother’s in good shape for a woman of seventy-two" the doctor tells my Aunt Becky. My grandmother has recovered enough English to give the doctor her official age. "Seventy-two!" says my Aunt Becky to the doctor, "my mother’s eighty-four!" My grandmother had always felt it incumbent upon herself to reduce her age by twelve years, for a widow at the age of thirty-two she had married my grandfather, then a boy of eighteen. And in her early thirties had become once more a girl in her twenties, deferring in its turn middle-aage and old age. But she could not defer death, and she died in the London Hospital from pneumonia brought on by shock. As it happens, in spite of my Aunt Becky’s revelation to the doctor of my grandmother’s true age, the family agreed to honour her by recording her age on the Death Certificate, and subsequently the grave-stone, as 72 years. They dare not do anything else!
During this shocking time, I had seen a great deal of my Uncle Marky and Aunt Becky and the house seemed to be always full of people. "Your Uncle seems to be very sure your grandmother isn’t blind" says Twi to me earnestly. We are playing outside the kitchen window where raised voices of adults can be heard. "Bubba has cataracts over her eyes" says my mother. Maybe she had crossed the road in front of the lorry because she could not see. My Uncle will have none of it. The mother who had raised him, fended for her children and a sick husband, whose foresight had surmised their every need, could not now be blind. My mother does not argue too fiercely with my Uncle becausse she feels close to this brother and she sees in him what was left of their father. "Uncle Marky was like our Tsaider" my cousin Flo tells lme. "Gentle and a gentleman." Flo remembers my grandfather for he had not died until she was eleven years old. She would meet him from the barber-shop in Aldgateand he took her for an ice-cold milk with soda water. This was her treat and he needed this beverage to wash from his mouth the taste of hair and the smell of scalps. Half-an-hour on a stool to quieten his hair-filled lungs.
It was in his temperament that my Uncle Marky resembled my grandfather, for whereas my Tsaider had brown eyes and a dark complexion, my Uncle like my mother and Aunt Becky had their mother’s colouring. "The gentleman boxer" my Uncle was called when he had fought in the ring as a Welterweight under the name of Fred Archer. Boxing was an ability he had developed at the Jewish Boys’ Club and economic need had driven my Uncle into this, for him, unlikely profession. My mother tells me that he had fought Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis and lost on points, only because the bandages to protect my Uncle’s hands had not been tied properly, nor his gum shield inserted correctly. This meant that he had been forced several times to stop the fight for these technical repairs, so throwing his boxing out of sync. "The betting was on Marky" my mother says, "so the organisers wanted Lewis to win." Lewis was a fool, what his family would have called ‘meshuge’ for before Mosley had officially adopted anti-semitism as part of his programme, Lewis had been employed to teach Mosley’s thugs how to fight, and had also stood as a Mosleyite candidate in the East End. He had received very few votes and those he did receive, it was surmised, came from relatives!
My Uncle had killed a man in the ring. My mother could barely express in words my Uncle’s grief. "The man had children" my mother says "and your Uncle gave the widow £100 - a lot of money in those days." My mother remembers the end of my Uncle’s boxing career when he was out of the big-time. "All he could get for a fight ws £9 she says. "I’ll never forget the look on his face!" In later years, my Uncle expressed a distaste for the violence of the ring and those who practiced it. And in exculpation he became a faith healer and spent his time mending broken bodies. By that time he had married Passy and they had two children, a boy and a girl. Passy whom my mother despised. "She was a Kitter" says my mother "we Argebands come from the tribe Ben Shia, but the Kitters come from nothing at all!" In her view, they had no refinement nor learning. Maybe they were Dutch Jews who, having arrived in England much earlier than the nineteenth century immigrants from Poland and Russia, had become integrated into the English working-class. Their religious practices differing and becoming less orthodox than those of the later Jewish arrivals. At one time, when my Uncle and his wife are having marital problems, my mother takes their wedding photo from out of the album. A photo which shows my Uncle in bow tie and tails, a smile on his face, and Passy in long white dress and veil, her eyes and hair dark. With sharp scissors, my mother cuts through the photograph to surgically remove Passy from this marriage. She then tears into pieces the strip of Passy and pokes the bits into the Ideal Boiler. And yet Passy was the archetypal Jewish matriarch who possessed the nous that not only kept the family solvent, but made them well-to-do. For Passy’s knowledge of the clothing industry led to her opening a workshop to produce children’s clothing, which soon developed into a small factory. My Uncle, no businessman, working with her only on the peripherary and spending much time in occupying himself with his own interests.
My Bubba had also been forced to supplement her family’s income and because of my grandfather’s poor health, at times support the family financially. During the years at Portsmouth she had worked on the market stall selling sailors’ hats, collars, navy blue jerseys, gold buttons, insignia for the sailors themselves and child-size for boys and girls. Clothing designed to advertise the Imperial might of the British Navy. "Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves....." "We always had good food to eat" says my mother "even during the war when butter was five shillings a pound, my mother found the money to buy it." This praise of my grandmother coming from my mother is rare for often it seemed to me that my mother had rejected her own mother along with her rejection of her religion. We are visiting my grandmother in her small house and she sits before us at the table to speak haltingly of dying and heaven. "Superstition!" snorts my mother "There’s no God, no heaven!" "She’s very old" I remark on the way home, sitting alongside my mother on the tram. "She might be going to die soon and wants to believe in God." My mother is disconcerted. She feels bound, when in the environment from which she has escaped, to justify the opinions which have severed her roots.
Therefore, it comes as a surprise to me that my mother takes my Bubba’s death so hard and that she reproacahes me for a lack of caring. For on the day my Bubba died, my Aunt Becky comes to the house and my mother in a sudden rush of goodwill towards her sister, gives my Aunt two rag dolls given to my mother for my sister and me. Dressed in long clothes and with old faces they remind me of my Bubba’s two younger sisters Shindel and Railer. I burst into tears and my mother comforts me. But after my Aunt has left, my sister whispers to my mother that I had cried because she gave the dolls away. My mother reproaches me: "You weren’t crying for Bubba!" She is disappointed in me. I do not know what to reply. I cannot make my feelings plain even to myself. Perhaps for me the loss of the dolls stood in for the absence of my Bubba, the old lady in the hospital.
The family sits shiva and my mother takes me to my Bubba’s house where a thick candle in a glass burns in the small front room. A candle to represent the spirit of immortality. this candle must stay alive throughout all the days of shiva. What will happen if it blows out accidentally! I hold my breath even when on the other side of the room, for I see the light flickering under my breath and extinguished. What would that mean for my Bubba? for me? For all of us? I leave the adults and go into the back room, my Bubba’s bedroom and climb onto her high feather bed, falling into its centre, but soon I become bored and struggle down onto the floor to examine the heavy furniture. Behind the solid overmantel fronted by a high mirror, I can spy a piece of paper. I try to push my hand between the wall and the back of this structure, but the aperture is too narrow. I cannot reach. What might it be? A lost Will? A map to treasure? A secret my Bubba has hidden away? After the funeral, after sitting shiva, my Bubba’s belongings are parcelled out and it is then that her mahogany table and chairs are delivered to 9 Wilton Road. Minus the chenille cloth promised to us by my Aunt Becky, but claimed by my Great Aunt Railer. I have a sudden vision of my Great-Aunt and my Aunt Becky playing tug-of-war with the plush red material with its hanging tassels. My Great-Aunt proving to be the more determined of the two.
My Bubba’s small, neat body lost in a mound of history, my mother’s ambivalence towards her is quietened, so that when she looks into the mirror resting over the mantelpiece in our living-room, she sees looking back at her the face of her mother. Mother and daughter have become one. "My grandmother died" I say to Colleen. I would never call my grandmother ‘Bubba’ to my classmates for this would have thrown me into a separate culture. "She was run over and died in hospital." We are walking along Grove Road on our way to the Ally Pally skating rink. Sometimes on our way into the Palace along the pathway close to the old tram lines, teenage boys attracted by Colleen’s auburn hair and sturdy figure call out to us. Colleen takes no notice for she never flirts with boys. She treats them all as if they were no more than her brother’s friends. I know that the boys are not interested in me, for at eleven years of age I am skinny and my chest development negligible. And yet in the year of the Crisis I begin to menstruate.
"When I started my periods and told my mother I was bleeding she slapped me round the face" my mother tells me. "I cried" my mother continues "because I thought I must have done something wrong. But then my mother told me the slap was to ward off the devil!" The curse! Unclean! Only men’s bodily emissions are a matter for pride! For some time during the war we are to have a nurse from the mental hospital as a tenant, a Mrs. Taylor and she advises me never to wash my hair while menstruating. Otherwise the blood would rush to my head and leave me mad. This, she has no doubt, diagnosed as the cause of insanity in her patients. However, my mother, remembering her own ignorance and fear, had prepared my sister and me for the event, but I am taken aback when she says "you mustn’t go skating today - the exercise might be harmful." "I’ll just play at Colleen’s house" I lie for I have every intention of going skating with Colleen. Anyway, I cannot tell Colleen I am menstruating, for both of us are reticent about bodily functions. And so we set off for the rink and a slight show of blood has no impact upon my activity.
At the Convent, several of the girls gather at times to whisper recently gleaned information on physiological developments and processes. I am left out of these huddles for my small skinny stature makes them regard me as ‘too young’. However, when menstruation for me has become a regular occurrence and between lessons the girls sitting next to, and around me, whisper, whisper, whisper; heads bent towards one another, a sharp eye kept on the door for the teacher’s entrance, I, annoyed at my exclusion, whisper to my neighbour "I’ve started my periods." She looks at me in disbelief, but passes on the information and the girls gaze at me in amazement, astounded that such a shrimp should beat them into womanhood!
With regard to the year of the Crisis, the events to us children are no more than a blip in our pattern of life, disturbed temporarily to resume its normal flow for the first nine months of 1939, during which the war was in its final period of gestation. At the Convent, a whiff of militarism in the air, combined with the influence of Hollywood spectaculars, results in Miss Stranger, the games and drill mistress, introducing tactical marches. At our annual display in front of the parentws we fan out on the Convent lawn into long lines meeting each other at the centre. Slowly, we walk roiund, keeping in our line, so as to give the impression of an enormous wheel turning. Photographed from above, no doubt, the exercise would have appeared impressive, but denied the resources of Hollywood , every parent watches the lines for a sight of their own child. My one fear in performing is that I will move forward at too quick or too slow a pace, so drawing upon my head Miss Stranger’s wrath. She a short, stubby figure, greying eton-cropped hair, dressed in a plain suit of straight skirt and man-like jacket, stern and quick to anger. She is much feared by the children. I have reason to fear Miss Stranger, for two or three years previously she had trained us to dance around a maypole, for a May Festival to be performed in front of the parents. For this dance we hold onto a red, white, or blue ribbon, which become plaited as we weave in and out. It is not easy for the girls, to whom the process has not been explained, to always remember their part: ‘do I go inside now or outside?’ And so at practice, Miss Stranger stands shouting "blue ribbons out, white in, red under...." Several times she loses her patience with us. "The next one to make a mistake is out of the dance for good!" she threatens. In trepidation I move round, weaving in and out, meeting on the way Madeleine McCormac who dances round the wrong side of me. "Sheila Lahr, you’re out!" shouts Miss Stranger "we’ll find someone else to take your place!" Crestfallen, once again out of step and separated from my peers, I creep away. My mother has bought me a white dress especially for the performance. What will she say?" A few years later, Madeleine and I are to go about together, but neither of us ever refers to this incident. "What a cow that woman was!" my mother is to say several years later. "You arrived home heartbroken and threw yourself into my arms. But, my mother would never have gone to the Convent to protest, for my mother did not expect justice and knew tht while the workings of authority were strange, they had their own inexorable method.
In that last year before the war Miss Stranger’s infant nephew and niece become pupils at the Convent. She brought them to school each morning in her care and took them home again at the end of the school day. Maybe she expected her own flesh and blood to excel, but she was certainly tough on those kids. The little boy’s head lie on one side and because my mother had described to me the symptoms of John Roberts spinal injury, I understood that this little boy had a similar condition. Miss Stranger preferred to believe that he drooped his head wilfully. She is walking a circle of infants sitting on the floor and comes to this small nephew, "keep your head up!" she snaps, emphasising her words with a swipe round the side of his head. The boy’s face crumples and he cries soundlessly. The niece, Heather, a pretty little girl with auburn hair receives also the expression of Miss Stranger’s ire. "Did you see?" the children whisper "she hit Heather round the head with a tin box!" It is not until after the war, and following deputatiions from parents to complain about Miss Stranger’s treatment of their children. that Reverend Mother dismisses the woman. In this way ending for Miss Stranger a life-time association with the Convent. Although she was not a Catholic, she had attended there as a child and at the end of her schooling had been promoted into teaching.
When I consider the negative experience school was for me, I wonder why in 1971 I accepted a place at a Teachers’ Training College, having first sat and passed three ‘O’ Levels. Of course, I had enjoyed teaching my own children and foolishly had equated teaching with schooling. I told myself school had changed since ‘my day’. However, my return as an adult to school left a terrible taste in my mouth, not least because of once more undergoing the traumas I had suffered as a chiild. In an inner city infant school in the 1970s I found that the teachers zig-zagged in and out of self-control, sneering at, slapping, punishing children for fancied misdemeanours, without even the saving grace of the nuns belief that suffering, humility and penitence were necessary to save souls. The teachers found it impossible to enter into the thought processes of a young child, no doubt due to the loss of imagination during their own ‘successful’ school days. And this together with a lack of understanding of the backgrounds of pupils within their care, meant that the teachers could grasp only at inculcated feelings of class, imperialist and nationalist superiority with which, often unknowingly, they had been fed since birth. Opting for discipline and control of children from ethnic minorities or poor working-class families, many of the latter in hostels for the homeless. Bullying these children into a simulation of behaviour attributed to the English middle-class. The only type of schooling acceptable to the educational bureaucracy, backed by government. For the second time in my life-time I was glad to leave school.
However, that is for a future not yet caught up with me. In the meantime I must make the best of school and involve myself in living outside that institution in my child’s world. Unaware that outside both these parts of my life, political and economic events are reaching out to take control and shape my future. As early as 1937 the House of Commons had voted in favour of a plan for air-raid shelters to be erected in most of Britain’s towns and Cities. In April 1939 a Bill is promulgated to provide free air-raid shelters and to evacuate the children. And yet in May 1938 the British government had signed a pact with Italy, Chamberlain at the time praising Mussolini. The British government having ceded Czechoslavakia, the Nazi armies invade in October, 1938. In November 1938 Nazi thugs smash the plate-glass windows of Jewish owned businesses in Berlin - known as Kristallnacht. "They should have killed more Jews and broken less glass" Goering fumes, annoyed that replacement of glass, to be imported, must be paid for in scarce foreign currency. In March 1938 Hitler enters Prague to raise his standard on Hradzin Castle. In the same month Chamberlain pledges to defend Poland. Nazi troops march into Austria. Japanese bombers mercillesly batter Shanghai and Canton, which they occupy. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor meet Hitler on cordial terms.
The British government orders the building of more weapons factories, more camps and vast supplies of boots and uniforms. The House of Commons endorses the government’s decision to conscript men of twenty for military service. In February 1939 the British government recognises Franco, the opposition greeting the Prime Minister with cries of "Heil Chamberlain". In April 1939 Mussolini occupies Albania. In July 1939 Polish dockworkers in Danzig, part of Poland, are arrested and sent to German concentration camps. On 23 August, Hitler and Stalin sign a non-aggression pact; Ribbentrop for Germany, Molotov for the Soviet Union. Stalin proposes a toast: "I know how much the German people love their Fuehrer" he says. Not so long before, in December 1938, Orson Welles in a rendering of H.G. Wells’ the War of the Worlds had panicked listeners who in terror fled into the streets or made for open spaces. Virtual Reality.
During all this upheaval, I,in my child’s world,continue with my ordinary daily activities. I go to school, I come home again, I go out with Colleen to Guides or to the skating rink, or play at her house, or play with Twi or the Wilsons. Christmas 1938 my sister and I buy a small 6d Christmas Tree and ornaments, the latter from Woolworths. Having set the tree with earth in a flower pot, we find the clip-on candle-stick holders bought for previous Christmases and having clipped them onto various branches, carefully give each one a coloured spiral-patterned candle. We buy coloured strips of paper from Torrys and sit at the living-room table making them into chains. We are unaware that this is to be our last peace-time Christmas for some years. Somehow, we hope that the world will solve its problems without involving us. But, in the summer the population is issued with gas masks. "It’s only a precaution" we comfort ourselves and each other as we make our way to church halls to be fitted and issued with this protection. Our gas masks are handed out at St. Peter le Poer in Colney Hatch Lane and I try on the rubber protuberance which is tight upon my face, the nose hanging heavily. Then it is declared "a good fit", boxed and I take it home with me. Towards the end of the summer the newspapers report:
31 August 1939: "Britain’s Cities and towns are strangely quiet today. The children are leaving, clutching their few personal possessions and gas masks. Over 1.5 million of them are being evacuated to safe areas in the country. The great exodus began at 5.30 a.m. yesterday and will continue for the rest of the week. Schools have become reception centres with fleets of buses - taken off their usual route - conveying the evacuees to the main line station. 72 London underground stations have been partly closed to the public to speed the long planned operation. Few parents know where their children will end up finally although the government says "they will be told as soon as possible....." (25)
Small feet were pattering, wooden shoes clattering
Little hands clapping, and little tongues chattering,
And like fowls in a farmyard, where barley is scattering,
Out came the children running
All the little boys and girls
With rosy cheeks and flaxen curls
And sparkling eyes and teeth like pearls,
Tripping and skipping, ran merrily after
The wonderful music with shouting and laughter....(34)
My sister and I caught up in this valediction, trudge up Colney Hatch Lane, hurried along by our mother, our gas masks packed in their square cardboard boxes hang on a string over one shoulder, to bang against our sides. We have been up and about very early. Time enough for me to pull from out of my mouth the fixed restrictive brace and prize off the tin surrounding the two molars to which it had been fixed. My front teeth are almost straight now and I want no more of this painful dentistry. The bad news is that I am lamenting the loss of a silver ring which I have owned since birth. Too small, I have continued to wear it on a little finger. But, my mother has sent me on a last minute message to the shops and in pulling off a glove the ring has vanished.
However, I cannot dwell on this loss for too long for the charabanc has arrived and stands waiting outside the Convent. a small group of parents stand in the road, watching their children board. I spy both Colleen and Twi and tell myself that this is an adventure on which I am embarking with my friends, but the confining presence of the nuns tells me differently. A week or two previously, Colleen had said confidently "there won’t be a war - it’s just a repeat of last year’s Crisis. My Dad says the Germans are only celebrating theanniversary." Now, it appears that both Colleen and her father had been wrong. Don’t worry, it may never happen. You die if you worry, you die if you don’t, so why worry? The human capacity for optimism and blindness. And yet war has not yet been declared. Can it be averted? For I could not accept the threat to myself. I would not be crushed by the rhythm of the mechanical jackboot. Others were menaced, not me. For somehow I had retained a belief in the capacity of my adults to protect me. I did not see us as threatened by the macho men in dark uniforms, carrying murder, hunger and disease, populations dispossessed. Genocide. And yet now I have been caught up in their mad rush by the appearance of a softly purring charabanc in Pages Lane.
The seats all occupied, we wave goodbye to our parents who stoically watch our departure as the coach sets off for Preston Park, Brighton. As this is a private arrangement we know our place of destination and it is not about us that the newspapers report:
"Already reports are coming in of country folk shocked by the verminous condition of some chiildren from city slums, and equally horror expressed by city children at their strange surroundings. For many it was their first sight of cows and other farm animals..."
Little of the journey remains with me now. The ride through drab London streets and out into the countryside. Sometimes, we pass other charabancs bent on the same mission and the children wave to us. Other children not yet caught up in the migration, stand and stare from pavements and playgrounds.
Mrs. Bennett, she who went up and down Wilton Road knocking on doors to collect money for Franco, is accompanying us. She has been employed by the nuns as a cook. She weeps hysterically while we children around her stir uncomfortably. A nun attempts to soothe her, but Mrs. Bennett continues to explode into tears and laments all the way to Brighton. "She can cry!" I say to myself. I have no sympathy for this pro-Franco Spanish woman married to an Englishman. "Anyway, she’s not leaving her children, she’s coming with them!" Adding (raised as I was on Saki and other satirical literature) "maybe that’s why she’s crying!" Subdued, the children sit in the coach barely speaking. All outside passing us as if viewed through a kaleidoscope. In this speeding coach our future travels with us and at last we turn into a long driveway, at the end of which stands an impressive building. A building which I sometimes remember as a castle and sometimes as a church. But most probably it resembled neither of these. We have been evacuated to a Convent in Preston Park to occupy part of its extensive premises. Staircases, corridors, rooms and more rooms.
I touch the silver medallion hanging on a silver chain around my neck, which I wear as a talisman, although it is a First Communion medal. This medal was bought for me by the boarders at St. Martins and,shortly after making my First Communion, I hear an argument at breakfast between Renie and Sister St. Francois. Renie is complaining about the depletion of her pocket money. "You forget you gave towards Sheila’s First Communion medal" snaps the nun. I sink down into my chair and hope to avoid a glancing blow from the girl’s contemptuous eyes. But now the medal has lost all past associations and I wear it as a sign that nothing will hurt my mother and soon I will return home.
On to Dark Nights
Get You Back Home