We are delighted to introduce the new memoir from Partricia R. Carpenter M.B.E.
And Life Goes On is an enchanting portrait of childhood in 1940s and 50s town and country. Patricia Carpenter was awarded her M.B.E in 1997 for services to the MoD and the community. In this original memoir, Patricia Carpenter shares the experience of crouching under a table top shelter while air raid sirens blare out their warning. Her world is one of red Mickey Mouse gas masks and her mother dashing to the shops on roller skates with the pram because they can’t afford the bus.
When peace resumes, the urban landscape of smog and shortages is exchanged for the wide spaces of Kempsford in Gloucestershire. This is a place where mains electricity becomes a distant memory, water has to be fetched from the well and children are expected to help on the land before going to school.
With additional chapters featuring her parents’ life in service to the gentry and her own coming of age in the country, And Life Goes On is a beautifully personal account of growing up in wartime Britain.
Read on for an excerpt from And Life Goes On:
One of my earliest memories is of wartime London, crouching with my mother and baby sister Eileen in the table top shelter or cowering under the stairs of 45 Ordnance Hill, St John’s Wood NW8 as the sirens blared out the warning that an air raid was imminent.
As a small child I didn’t understand what all the fuss and hurry was and would have much preferred to stand at the window, especially at night peeping through the blackout curtains watching the searchlights shining high up in the sky – which were the only lights seen at night.
All vehicles, of which there were few – due to petrol rationing – vehicles and torches had a cardboard covering over the light with a thin slit cut out of the middle showing the smallest glimmer which MUST be pointed down to the ground so that no light could be seen from the air. Men smoking pipes had to turn the bowl of the pipe
up-side-down, for the same reason.
We used to have an Anderson shelter in the garden until it was destroyed when a bomb demolished some of the houses on the other side of the road. Then we managed to squeeze into the cupboard under the stairs which still smelled of the coal that used to be stored there before the war, this was our temporary shelter until a large table top one was installed in our living room. It was so big it took up half of the room, and had mattresses inside. I was put to bed every night in the shelter which was great fun – it was my very own den – until there was an air raid when everyone joined me and it became very cramped.
As soon as the sirens screamed out mother would first put on the light and check that the blackout curtains were carefully drawn so that not a chink of light could be seen outside. If it could, a warden would soon rap on the door and shout, ‘put out that light.’ ‘Don’t show Gerry the way.’ Mother would then fetch the baby from her cot in the next room and we were soon joined by Milkie (Miss Milton), Wilkie (Miss Wilkins) from next door, Uncle ‘Bob’ Tanner (slang for one shilling and sixpence). His real name was Charles Tanner and he had a self-contained set of rooms on the second floor of our house. Two Irish Colleens came down from the top storey – Mary and that ‘painted hussy Christine’, as Milkie called her. Everyone would settle down as best they could under what now seemed quite a small shelter with their blankets, pillows, thermos flasks of cocoa, torches, baby’s nappies and bottle: the list of items was endless. We would wait for the ‘all clear’ siren to sound and then we could all go back to bed.
Everyone would talk, drink cocoa, play games or have a good moan and eventually end up having a good old sing song. Sad songs to begin with, then some defiant ones like ‘Rule Britannia’ and, finally comic songs. Uncle Bob always fiddled with a wireless set trying to get the latest bulletin. Mickey Drippin, who was really my uncle Reg and a pilot – one of the ‘Few’ to survive the Battle of Britain, later to be killed when only 25, whilst training Indian pilots, only no one knew that in those dark and dismal days.
I loved Mickey Drippin most of all. When he was in the shelter he would do conjuring tricks, make threepenny pieces magically appear from my ears or hair. As soon as he arrived home on leave, which was not very often, he would shout, ‘where’s Paddy Wack the Barber?’, pretending he couldn’t see me when I rushed in clutching his knees and yelling, ‘Here I am.’ He would swing me high above his head. He was such fun.
Whilst sheltering, we all waited to hear the sound of ack-ack guns trying to shoot down the enemy aircraft. If there was the sound of a doodlebug going over (the newly invented flying bombs – I’m not sure, even now, what the difference was), the adults all listened hoping it would pass over, because when the engine stopped – silence – as it plunged to the ground and exploded and they all hoped it would plunge somewhere else. I think that one was the V1 and the V11 was totally silent until the explosion was heard.
One night it stopped overhead and dropped on the houses the other side of the street. Our windows were blown out and a ceiling fell on Mother as she was fetching the baby from her cot, she had paused to warm the feeding bottle. Debris and dust was everywhere and my dolly’s pram which was left in the garden, was never seen again.
There were clods of earth, wood, glass and water from burst pipes everywhere.
Pretty soon policemen (my daddy was one) and wardens were evacuating the area and cordoning off the street. No one was allowed back for any reason, until the search for casualties was complete and the area was declared safe. Everyone crowded into the pub to be accounted for.
After this my mother said I had to be evacuated to the safety of the country. Some children had gone away and then returned when it seemed that we would not be attacked. Mother was adamant: I was taken to a railway station one cold grey day, willing myself not to cry again. I had been told that I was a big girl now and big girls do not cry.
I was not quite sure what was going on but everywhere was chaos and everyone very busy. Large bosomed ladies with long lists in their hands seemed to be charging up and down the platform, marking off the children’s names as they were found. Tying big labels onto their coats barking out in bossy voices, ‘name and address on label?’ ‘Ration book?’ ‘Complete change of clothing?’ ‘Gasmasks?’ Those who had received a ‘Direct Hit’ had had to be kitted out by the Red Cross, WVS and church groups.
There was noise and confusion everywhere. Children were shouting, crying and getting lost. The bossy ladies were becoming very cross and red in the face as they tried to keep order among the would-be evacuees. Elderly guards were trying to ignore the chaos, smoking a crafty fag and hiding behind the luggage wagons.
I wanted to take off my red Mickey Mouse gasmask, as the cord was cutting into my shoulder but Mother would not let me.
I wondered if there was a blanket bundle for Mother among the luggage on the platform. Uncle Harold, who lived in Kempsford in Gloucestershire, often sent a bundle of blankets to Mother. Carefully concealed in the blankets was, maybe, a rabbit, hare or a brace of pigeons. Mother called him our secret butcher. It was a secret because it was not allowed. All food was carefully rationed. I remember being hungry nearly all of the time. I didn’t like pigeons very much, I remember being taken to Trafalgar Square once not too long before and a photographer wanted to take my picture among the pigeons.
Some corn was put onto the palms of my hands and suddenly the birds swooped down on me. They were all around me and on my head and arms. I screamed and screamed, and I have been terrified of birds ever since if they come anywhere near me.
Why was I being sent away? All by myself? Because of the war … THEY said. It would not be safe for me to stay … THEY said. I could not understand why, it was safe for Mother and baby Eileen to stay, so why not me? After all the ceiling fell in on Mother and Eileen: I was safely in the shelter.
Suddenly the guards were shouting, ‘All aboard’ and slamming the carriage doors. Mother bent down and gave me a hug. ‘You’re coming home with me,’ she sobbed. ‘If our number’s up, we’ll all go out together.’ The whistle blew and the train slowly steamed out of the station. I was so happy.
<-- END OF EXCERPT -->