Please be warned, in the nicest possible way, that this is quite a long Blog, I’m in nostalgic mood again, I must really be getting old!
In September 1939 at the outbreak of the 2nd World War, I was not quite 3 years old and lived with my parents in south-east London. During the first 8 months of the war, a period known as the ‘Phoney War’ - because nothing really happened, I remained with my mother, after which time the bombing of London became more and more severe. In common with most young children, I was then evacuated to the country – in my case to a safe haven in Sussex, my mother remaining behind in London where she joined the Ambulance Service. My destination was a very large and grand country house which had been taken over by the authorities for the purpose of housing ‘evacuee’ children from London. The house was at Chelwood Gate in Sussex, and in normal times was the residence of the Macmillan family - Sir Harold MacMillan was later to become Prime Minister of Great Britain (1957-63). I can remember little about my stay there, except sleeping in a high cot in a large room where several other children also slept, and spending a Christmas there with my mother who was visiting me, and looking up at the clear, starry sky on a cold Christmas Eve night and imagining that Father Christmas would soon be coming down from the sky with his reindeer and my Christmas present! This no doubt seems fanciful and a product of an overwrought imagination, but truly this is the one significant episode of my life at that time that has remained etched in my memory!
I remained at Chelwood Gate for no more than a few months, after which I was sent to a small residential school near Reading in Berkshire, which again was considered a reasonably safe haven for evacuees. I have virtually no memories of this establishment, but I still have one memento somewhere around, a photograph of a small boy with other small boys, dressed up as pixies! It is the sort of photograph that doting mothers love and their children hate! The sort that either your best friend or perhaps worst enemy would love to get hold of, so that on reaching a 'landmark' birthday you suddenly see this photograph reproduced in your local newspaper under the caption ‘Happy -- Birthday ----!’. I don’t really know how I come to possess this, but probably Mum kept it during her lifetime, and when she died it passed into the family collection.
My stay in Berkshire was no more than a year, for my mother decided that she would prefer me to live with her sister, my Auntie Kaye, and her two young daughters who lived - wait for it - on the outskirts of Birmingham!. I remember walking to school across a small Common, and playing marbles along the roadside gutter – you could do such things in those days for cars were almost non existent! Yes there was the occasional bus and of course quite a number of bicycles, but apart from the rare commercial vehicle the roads were remarkably quiet, although I don’t suppose things were quite like that in the centre of Birmingham! About 200 yards from Aunty Kaye’s house was a large ‘Prisoner of War Camp’ where Italian POWs were interned. A wall and masses of barbed wire separated the camp from the roadway. The inmates could often be seen strolling around the open areas behind the barbed wire, apparently quite cheerful in spite of, or perhaps even because of, their restricted but relatively safe lifestyle!
My stay in Birmingham was again quite short, probably less than a year, as my mother succeeded in renting a small house in rural Surrey not far from Banstead, and she wanted me with her. She had worked as an ambulance driver in London until about 1943 living with friends or relatives, and she was on her own with my father serving abroad in the army. Much of his war service was spent in West and North Africa and I seldom saw him during these years. He very occasionally came home on leave and although I must have seen him briefly, I can remember little of these meetings. Once he sent me a surprise present, a fine, large wooden model boat, which he had arranged to be made by Italian POWs in Africa, and which was delivered to our new address in Surrey. It was a beautiful present for which I regret that I may never have fully expressed my appreciation. It was only much, much later, that I realised the trouble and expense that my father had been to, in arranging for me to receive this gift. At the time I had considerable difficulty in getting the boat to run. It was battery powered, but I didn’t seem able to make it work, and there was always the problem of where to run it. After numerous failed attempts, I rather lost heart and the boat was relegated to a safe place in our home, where it remained for many years. Of course the boat was made to be used and enjoyed, rather than just stored away, and eventually it went to a good home, an orphanage or children's home, where I'm sure it was received with great pleasure and delight. I know that my dear Dad would have been happy with this. Once settled in rural Surrey, I had to attend the local school which meant a walk across fields and through woods, a distance of probably just under 2 miles. At this period of the war the countryside was covered in concrete ‘tank traps’, barbed wire, and similar obstacles, with all signposts removed, as part of home-defence contingency plans in the event of enemy invasion. To a small boy such things were quite exciting – and dangerous! One day whilst returning home from school, I was testing the depth of the puddles in the middle of the wood -like small boys do, when I found not a puddle, but a large open manhole into which I fell. The hole was much deeper than I was tall, I could not swim and was alone, and the only thing to hold onto was some grass and soil around the circumference of the hole, but nothing strong enough to enable me to pull myself out. My Guardian Angel was certainly looking after me for I had reached the stage when I had begun to tire, when an older boy also on his way home from school through the woods, saw me and was able to pull me out. This boy whose surname I still remember- 'Richards', took me to his house, and his mother dried me off in front of the fire and gave me some warm, dry clothes, and some tea. This boy certainly saved my life and he is always remembered in my prayers.
Our house was virtually on the flight path for enemy aircraft from Europe to London and Southern England, and it was quite common for unused bombs to be jettisoned by these aircraft on their return journey home. There was a large crater in the field opposite our house caused by one such bomb dropped earlier in the war, and a favourite boyhood activity was searching the surrounding countryside for shrapnel of all shapes and sizes from exploded shells, bombs, and damaged aircraft. During this period of the war, the V1 ‘Doodlebugs’ were in vogue and often these passed almost directly over our house. One day I was with a friend in the hilly countryside behind our house, watching a doodlebug flying in the distance, when its engine suddenly cut out and it dropped like a stone, exploding on impact with the ground. It was impossible to see whether it had caused any damage but I suspect that fortunately it had fallen in open countryside. The sound of the ‘doodlebug’ engine was unique, once heard, never forgotten! It was a steady and consistent loud, droning, noise, which you grew to recognise instantly. If you were in an air- raid shelter at home or in the garden, the thing you dreaded most was if the engine cut out when ‘the beast’ was directly overhead! The ‘doodlebug’ was a pilot-less aircraft, and I believe the RAF developed a technique for either destroying them in mid-air or even turning them around so that they returned from whence they came. Our house was quite near to both an American and Canadian army camp whose inmates would have been involved in ‘D Day’ operations. We often investigated these camps from outside, and became adept at obtaining chewing gum and candy from generous and good natured GIs. This was very rewarding for us because sweet rationing was in force, and we were only allowed three quarters of a pound of sweets per month which could only be bought with ‘ration books’. One of these camps occasionally invited the local people to their weekly film show, which invitation included a lift in a jeep to and from the camp. I recall that my mother took me to one of these evenings, and it was very exciting to be travelling in this open American Army jeep, driven by a real American soldier, in true American army style!! In common with many households in that area, my mother offered accommodation to service personnel. Different servicemen stayed for quite short periods, and once we had an RAF man who was a brilliant pianist, possibly a concert pianist in civilian life, who regularly played on our modest, but cherished piano, to the delight of my mother. At one time I found a wristwatch lying somewhere in the house, and removed the back in order to see how it worked. Unfortunately having taken the back off, I found to my horror that I couldn’t get it back on again. Being only 6 or possibly 7 years old and terrified of returning the watch without a back, to its original location, I quite irrationally decided to hide it – under the stair carpet!! Don’t ask me why the stair carpet – but that’s where it ended up! Understandably the owner of the watch was rather upset when he couldn’t find it, and I was too frightened to own up to my misdeed, with the result that the village policeman was summoned. His mere presence was enough to break me, and with profuse tears and apologies the wristwatch was retrieved from beneath the stair-carpet – fortunately none the worse except that the back had been removed. I suspect that I was forgiven by the serviceman rather more quickly than by my mother, who no doubt had been rather embarrassed by the whole incident. Still I didn’t go to prison - as I feared I might!; the watch was duly recovered and restored to its rightful owner – I can’t remember whether this included a back or not, although I like to think it did; and the policeman returned home to his house in the village satisfied with a job well done! I’m sure that it wasn’t very long before Mum forgave me – for it really was a case of genuine childish curiosity that went wrong! I must admit that throughout my life I’ve found it very much easier to take things apart than to put them together again! Things don’t seem to change!
Any resemblance to a ‘normal’ life-style must have been very hard for wives and mothers during the war, with husbands and fathers away, not seen and perhaps not even heard from, for weeks, months and sometimes years at a time, and sometimes not at all. My two sisters were born after the war, so that at that time, I was an only child living with my mother and our dog Bobbie, a pretty brown and white spaniel/ cross bitch, with a lovely temperament - my mother’s faithful war-time companion. When I was safely esconced at school for the day, my mother sometimes travelled to town, which necessitated a long walk to the Station, and then an even longer train journey. One summer day, on one such trip, she was late returning. I had arrived home from school, and as time went on became very upset when she failed to materialise. I resolved to go to meet her, and whilst walking along this interminably long country road and still not having met her, I became even more upset. A lady walking in the opposite direction, stopped as she passed me, and asked me why I was crying. When I told her that my mother hadn’t come home, she gave me a 6d piece (known as a ‘tanner’ in those days), to cheer me up. This was a considerable sum of money to a small boy and certainly was some compensation for my distress, particularly as very soon afterwards I met my long-suffering Mum on her way home! Although food was severely rationed at that time, living in the countryside had certain compensations. In the summer we enjoyed plenty of fresh fruit, with apples and succulent Victoria plums available from the farm orchard nearby. I seem to remember that you could buy a bag of plums for 1d, and even now when I think of them,I fancy that I can still taste them! We lived a long way from our nearest Catholic church and we didn’t have a car and there wasn’t any local transport available, so I’m afraid that we didn’t often get to Mass. Additionally the continual domestic demand on my mother caring both for ourselves and our live-in military guests, must have been both tiring and time consuming.
I was nearly 8 years old when my mother decided that I should go to a Catholic primary school. The nearest was about 1 hours journey away, being part of a larger school taking in older boys. The journey involved a long walk (or possibly bike ride) to the Railway Station, a train journey of 10/15 minutes, followed by a short bus ride and a final walk to school. The journey did not worry me, in fact it was quite exciting. Paradoxically, in spite of being at war, England was a much safer place for children in those days than it is today. The most dangerous part of the journey was crossing the main road near the school, as events were to prove! One day my Guardian Angel was working overtime, for after getting off the bus to walk the final stretch to school, I foolishly ran across the main road in front of the stationary bus, straight into the path of a car. Fortunately the car must have swerved slightly, for I ran into the side of the car rather than the car running into me, with the result that I bounced back off the car, ending up in the roadway in front of the bus, which happily for me, had not yet started to move. All I suffered was superficial bruising and hurt pride, for which I truly thank my Guardian Angel. I suspect that today, the idea of an 8 year old travelling alone on train and bus to and from school, would be condemned as ‘irresponsible’. However in those days, even though we were at war, children generally were safer, were more able to enjoy their childhood years, and I believe happier than most children are today. It is not that children have changed, it is not the children’s fault, it is the society into which they are born and in which they grow up- it is this that has changed. Today our predominantly Godless society has spawned evil, beginning with the legalised murder of the unborn. Materialism and selfishness have been nurtured by a liberal, humanist- based State education system, where God is so often ignored and immorality is taught under the guise of ‘sex education’, starting with children at primary school. In our modern world traditional family values are widely denigrated, pornographic and indecent literature and films are readily available, self-gratification is idealised, and legal recognition of same-sex marriages and sodomy makes that which was previously unthinkable and unmentionable, now socially acceptable! God has been sidelined, if not totally dismissed by so many in our society – to our eternal cost and with so much lost. So many children today have neither the opportunity nor the encouragement to learn of God and His creation, with modern life geared to instant gratification and material acquisition. Childhood itself has become a victim of this exploitation, which promises so much but delivers so little, promises which without God, are totally illusory and unattainable.
We remained in Surrey until early 1945 when we went to live with Auntie Kaye who had moved to Eastbourne in Sussex. She had rented a very large 1st floor flat over a butchers shop situated near to the Town Hall, and Mum and I and our dog Bobby moved in with her and her two daughters. I was just 9 years old, and attended the Catholic primary school which was a bus ride away at the far end of the town. My principal memories of this time are of the lovely Catholic church of ‘Our Lady of Ransom’ which we attended for Mass, which was only a short walk away; watching the Town football team play at ‘The Saffrons’, a superb Sports Ground adjoining the Town Hall. I can still remember the name of my hero, goalkeeper ‘Bob Mallin’; and with my friends, exploring the numerous bombed-out houses and buildings that were everywhere to be seen.
The war came to an end later in 1945, and it became necessary for people to plan for the future – something I suspect few had dared contemplate until peace actually arrived! I was dispatched as a boarder to Westminster Cathedral Choir School which re-opened that year, and within a few months my mother and father, who had been demobbed from the army, moved to a small house in a country village outside Eastbourne. In hindsight, I suspect that it took months, if not years, for my parents to re-adjust to life in peacetime England. Times were still very hard, with industrial unrest, unemployment, and strict food rationing, compounding the widespread physical and psychological problems commonly experienced as a result of 6 years of war, with spouses and whole families growing apart through absence, separation, and all too often - death.
We were very fortunate as a family, having been spared so much during the war. Even so, my parents had lost lifelong friends, both military and civilian. During the latter part of the war my mother took me to see two elderly ladies who lived in a large house in south-east London, who gave me a toy which basically comprised a round metal hoop about 26” in diameter, with a solid handle fixed to the outside. In cross-section the hoop was about 2" wide, convex in shape, rather like the inside of an old-fashioned bicycle mudguard, and the challenge was to rotate a table-tennis ball placed on the inside track of the hoop, round and round the track at a fast speed without allowing it to fall to the ground.This was done by holding the hoop by the handle, and moving it quickly backwards and forwards. It sounds and was very simple, probably a very popular Victorian/Edwardian toy giving endless hours of fun to countless children! It certainly gave me a great deal of pleasure. Anyway, these dear ladies, who were close personal friends of my mother, were both killed instantly when a V2 rocket scored a direct hit on their home late in the war. The V2 was silent, with a range of 234 miles and travelling well in excess of the speed of sound, giving no time for the usual air-raid warnings and people to take shelter. They were fired from huge mobile platforms in secret, camouflaged sites deep in the hinterland of Europe, and if the war had not ended when it did , weapons such as this, together with others being developed, particular the supersonic warplane, could have totally altered the whole course of events, certainly in the short to medium term. Thank God that this did not happen, but who knows what the future may hold? Tragically today, so many people and nations reject God and His Commandments, deny the Divinity and Kingship of Christ, ignore His teachings, and persecute His Church, the one, true Catholic Church instituted by Christ Himself. Mankind must first 'render to God the things that are God’s, then to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s'. Only then will the peace of Christ reign in men's hearts and in the world, a peace which 'surpasseth all understanding'. Thank you for sharing these memories, I hope that you have enjoyed reading them and that you found something of interest therein. ‘Our Lady Help of Christians and Queen of Peace - pray for us.'
I must confess that I have always found the history of the Spanish Civil War (1936- 1939) totally confusing, that is until recently when I read ‘The Last Crusade’ by Warren Carroll, published by Christendom Press. This account of an extraordinarily complex and ruthless war, superbly written by an eminent American Catholic historian, provides a welcome and refreshing antidote to the anti-Catholic bias adopted by so many contemporary historians. Carroll defines ‘Crusade’ as a ‘war for the sake of the Cross, a war to protect Christian people from persecution and death on account of their faith in Jesus Christ’. The Spanish Civil War was certainly this - ‘ In 1936, the first year of the war, in just 6 months a total of thirteen Bishops and nearly seven thousand priests, seminarians, monks and nuns were martyred by the enemies of the Church. It was the greatest clerical blood-letting in so short a space of time since the persecutions of the Church by the ancient Roman emperors. Tens of thousands of churches, chapels, and shrines in Spain were pillaged or destroyed. In response, faithful Spanish Catholics proclaimed a crusade. Against all the odds the crusaders triumphed, and the Church and the Faith in Spain were saved.’ This book, in paperback format (232 pages), once started, is hard to put down. I was so impressed that I have bought several copies for various family members to read. Still with Spain in mind but in a rather different context, I have to admit that I have only visited once - about 9 years ago. At that time I was a member of the Exeter Philharmonic Choir, about 100 strong, and we went to Spain to give two concerts, one in Madrid at the Auditorio Nacional, and the other at Salamanca in the Old Cathedral. Our Conductor and Master of Music was Raymond Calcraft, who as a young man had attended the University of Salamanca and who had been a lifelong friend of the world-famous Spanish composer and musician Joaquin Rodrigo(1901-99). It was undoubtedly through Raymond’s knowledge of all things Spanish and his contacts in the Spanish musical world, that we had the pleasure and privilege of performing in Spain. The first concert was in Madrid and was recorded live on Spanish radio. What I particularly remember about the Auditorio Nacional was the acoustics - or perhaps I should say, as far as it appeared to me, the lack of acoustics. In England many of our concerts were performed in Exeter Cathedral which is one of the largest and most beautiful Gothic Cathedrals in Europe, with huge, high roofing-vaults which echo and carry the human voice as ‘on the wings of a dove’. In the Auditorio Nacional it was as though the walls were encased in cotton-wool, you could not hear yourself singing and you could not hear your colleagues, which I found quite off-putting. I remember that our main programme comprised a Psalm set to music by Gustave Holst – starting off very gently, and ending in a thunderous hymn of triumph ; then followed a relatively short choral work- I think for women's voices only, by Joaquin Rodrigo; and finally Dvorak’s 'Mass in D' for 4 voices with Organ accompaniment. We were told later that the broadcast had been well received, so clearly (forgive the pun!) my perception of the acoustics was not reflected in the quality of the broadcast! Our second Concert was in the Old Cathedral in Salamanca. We travelled by coach from Madrid to Salamanca and I remember thinking how bleak and inhospitable much of the countryside appeared. I recollect small hamlets just off the main road, apparently abandoned with no sign of life except for the storks nesting in the roofs. Salamanca was different altogether, with a wide river and green pastures, and a huge, magnificent central square surrounded by ancient stone buildings and small shops. Dominating the city are the two Catholic Cathedrals, the Old Cathedral and the New, virtually side by side. The former is now used primarily for artistic events such as concerts, and the latter is the main place of worship. Our concert was in the evening in the Old Cathedral, and when the time came I was amazed to see that the building was absolutely packed, with people standing in the aisles and right up to the front of the stage where the choir were. It seemed as if the very walls of the Cathedral were bulging! I later discovered that entry to the Concert was free and that it was traditional that everyone attended such events – which they certainly appeared to have done! The audience comprised people of all ages and walks of life, all of whom showed genuine excitement and pleasurable anticipation. The extremely close proximity of the audience - you could almost shake hands with those in the front, and the attention, concentration, and appreciation that they showed, was something never to be forgotten. We performed the same programme as at Madrid, with everything going well up unto the interval. Unfortunately when we returned to the platform some 15 minutes later, we found that large numbers of the audience had disappeared! We then learnt that many people had left because they thought that the concert had come to an end, apparently not being familiar with the concept of an 'interval'. Although I’m sure that programmes were available, it may be that most of the audience did not avail themselves, or it may have been that the interval was not clearly indicated. Whatever the cause it was clear that drastic steps had to be taken. The choir then retired for a second time from the platform, and search parties were immediately dispatched to scour the neighbourhood in search of the missing audience. Fortunately the extended interval allowed many, if not most, to be traced and thus return in time for the much delayed second half. Cynics might think that the mystery of the vanishing audience was by design rather than accident, but I really don’t think so. Prior to the start of the concert the audience anticipation, interest and excitement, was palpable, and the enthusiastic applause at the end of the first half was absolutely genuine, as it also was at the end of the performance. In spite of the ‘walk out’, I can honestly say that this particular concert is one that I will always remember and treasure, for to have been privileged to sing Dvorak's magnificent Mass in this historic and grand Old Cathedral, enjoying an unusual intimacy and empathy with a highly appreciative and receptive audience, was an unforgettable experience. I would love another opportunity to sing in the Old Cathedral. Realistically this is probably unlikely, but I refuse to give up hope! Salamanca itself, with its fine University and mediaeval buildings, its history and Catholic culture, is a 'must' for visitors. Prior to visiting Spain, a big mistake on my part was the assumption that many, if not most Spanish people speak English. In hindsight I realise that this was somewhat arrogant, for why should Spanish people be expected to speak English? Certainly in England you would not expect the natives to speak Spanish! I suffered for this misapprehension on several occasions. Once in particular, when after a tiring morning sight-seeing on my own in Madrid, I decided that I needed something to eat. Endeavouring to find a restaurant, I could find nobody that spoke English. I eventually came across a ‘McDonalds’ type establishment, and through the plate-glass window I could see displayed on the walls, large coloured photographs of particular meals on offer. I deduced that once in the restaurant, I would be able to order a meal by the simple expedient of pointing at one of these photographs, there would be no need to say a single word – and so it transpired! Such was my first and last experience of eating-out alone in Madrid. This was definitely not the most exotic place in which to dine, but highly recommended for those who do not speak the ‘lingo’! A rather poignant memory is that of attending Holy Mass at 8a.m. on a Sunday morning in Madrid and finding that there were perhaps 12 people in total in the congregation. The church probably held 2/300 at least, a lovely traditional Catholic church, and a devout young priest. This perhaps is a reminder that the Church in Spain is still suffering from the long-term effects of the Civil War, wounds since aggravated by the liturgical and associated disasters of Vatican 2. It is certain however, that the blood of the holy Spanish martyrs will not have been shed in vain. In 2001 Pope John Paul II beatified 233 of the martyrs of the Civil War, and in 2007 Pope Benedict XVI beatified a further 498 – the largest group beatification ever. Certainly - ‘Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat’.
Prayer for the beatification of Bishop Richard Challoner, Bishop of Debra, Vicar Apostolic of the London District 1758-1781. O God, who didst make thy servant Richard a true and faithful pastor of thy little flock in England, deign to place him among the Blessed in Thy Church, so that we who profit by his word and example, may beg his help in heaven for the return of this land to the ancient faith, and to the fold of the one true Shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Slightly frayed around the edges and still trying to pretend that I'm not really as old as that! I thank God for all my blessings, particularly my Catholic faith; my wife a 'pearl of great price'; my children and grandchildren; my friends; our dog Dartmoor; and our good neighbours and spiritual mentors, the F.SS.R community from Papa Stronsay.