Did you have any special traditions that your family used to have?
After 1940, there was only my mother and I, and we weren’t the tradition kind! Except for Christmas Day, which was always spent at my Gran’s. After breakfast, I walked to their overlooking-the-harbour apartment alone. Down Goviers Lane (the edge of it’s on Streetview, it hasn’t changed a bit!), past the railway tracks and the New Conquest cinema, along the harbour Esplanade, and there I was. We almost never had snow, so the day was usually rainy; but when you’ve never known different, it didn’t matter. (Now I hate black clouds and rain with a passion!)
How have things changed through the years?
Standard “old folks” answer: Simplicity! The half-house I grew up in (the top floor, except for a bathroom/kitchen, had another family billeted in it) had no fridge, phone, hot water (you boiled a kettle!), central heating nor indoor toilet. The sole source of warmth was a miniature coal fire – when coal was available. But we were not, let me emphasize, poor. It was an average middle-class English home of the 1940s.
Growing up, what was your favorite way of having fun?
At the end of our row of houses was a builders yard, abandoned when the war started. My friend Richard and I commandeered one shed as our hideaway – from his bossy sister AND other kids. He stole cigarettes from his mom’s store, and we daringly embraced the Devil Nicotine while dreaming up new schemes. A fave game was Catch The Spy – we’d go to the bus stop, wait for a stranger to alight, and follow him around, hoping to find a nest of German agents! (What we probably did was spoil a planned Traveling Salesman – Lonely Housewife tryst!)
In the dark blacked-out evenings we armed ourselves with torches (flashlights!) and played Hare and Hounds around the village. I loved being the Hare! My favourite lair was the roof of the station waiting room, from which I could watch my friends going crazy trying to find me! Another evening pastime was going “Scrumping”, which Urban Dictionary defines correctly as “Stealing fruit, especially apples, from someone else's trees. British!”
What kind of toys would you play with?
Toys during the war were limited. Kids with older brothers in the service were lucky – they had inherited toys. I made do. Pistols were fashioned from conveniently shaped tree branches. If we wanted new toy soldiers, we melted down old ones, recast and repainted them! After seeing Errol Flynn at the cinema, we made quite lethal bows and arrows – and used them against rival gangs! I had some uncle-donated Meccano parts, which I loved. Also a pre-war railway set. The rails only made a small circle, but I also had a turntable, which gave some variation!
How would they compare with the toys of today?
As I’ve indicated, they were do-it-yourself for the most part. Toys that moved were clockwork driven – Batteries Not Included, and no complicated instructions! Wooden or lead. Bakelite (an early plastic) existed, but was only seen in GI model airplanes - used for aircraft recognition classes, and somehow making their way into our hands.
How was school for you? How did classrooms look? Did you have any influential teachers?
My primary school, starting when I was five, although called Church School, was secular in form and spirit. If we did pray in the mornings, it was probably along the lines of “Lord, be merciful and help us massacre the Hun!” I really don’t recall. We sat in small wooden seat/desk rows, recited our times-tables endlessly – how many modern kids know instinctively that seven eights are fifty-six? – and learned to write longhand correctly using a steel nibbed pen. The ink was in little wells sunk into the desktop, and we took turns mixing the ink from powder and water, and refilling the wells. Skilled teachers were in short supply, so we spent a lot of time just being read to! Also – who says War is Hell? – when the school filled with evacuees, we alternated morning and afternoon lessons, using the free time for other more worthwhile things. And we had discipline! One afternoon “Da Gang” played hooky to go see a movie … and got caught. We were caned in front of the whole school – six of the best on the hand; flinch and you got six more! As those who know me can attest, it didn’t warp me for life, or turn me into a societal outcast!
High school I thoroughly enjoyed – except for team sports, which have always been abhorrent to me; I prefer the loneliness of the long distance runner. History was my best subject, and the teacher, Mr. Trayhurn, turned my interest into a lifetime love.
How many students were there?
In Church School, maybe 150 – we were a small village. The High School was ten miles away – we bussed to and fro – and probably had as many as 500 students.
What things did you do in your free time and what hobbies did you enjoy?
We spent much of our time on the beach, searching for crabs and other sea life, collecting fossils, and – when the tide was coming in – playing dare to see who’d stay longest on a rock before the waves covered it!
This pursuit often had dire consequences: we had no Wellington (rubber) boots – unavailable in wartime – and sea water rots ordinary shoes. I got many a well-deserved licking from my mother!
I collected stamps, tinkered endlessly with my Meccano, and – because I went through a sickly stage: mumps etc – invented board games. Including baseball, after listening to the American Armed Forces Radio Network from postwar Occupied Germany. Richard and I also organized Fairs in his back yard, during which we raked in pocket money by running rigged concessions!
There were no bicycles available, but I was able to borrow one from a neighbour, and on Sunday mornings used to ride all over hilly West Somerset. 3-speed gears didn’t make an appearance until peacetime, so we walked a lot!
What did we wear? What did we wear for special occasions?
Whatever our mothers could find with the ration coupons available – usually gray! Like all English boys, I wore short pants until my first high school year, with a button shirt and a sweater. Woolen gloves were de rigueur, and quickly became sodden and useless in wet (which it usually was!) weather. Special occasions??? Maybe not special, but at high school – actually called a Grammar School – we boys had to wear a school cap and tie, and the girls a school tunic and hat. There were unofficial prizes awarded to whichever boy could look scruffiest – I was always a contender!
What kinds of things were popular growing up but are not around now?
Double feature movies – plus news and a cartoon or other short – that you could stay at and watch around again; I used to get there early and see everything twice if the main feature was good! Cigarette cards that you could collect and trade; sometimes they were loose in the packet and grownups would just throw them away! Nowadays I think kids have to buy things like baseball cards … where’s the fun in that?
REAL RADIO! Not just music, commercials and self-opinionated announcers. Comedy shows, adventure thrillers, and horror stories. CBC comes closest nowadays, but listening required the right atmosphere – and that’s missing too. I used to listen to a series called The Man in Black on the BBC; it had ghost stories, and adaptation of creepies like Poe’s Cask of Amontillado. My Mum worked evenings, so I listened sitting in a high backed chair, by the flickering light of a coal fire, sometimes terrified of turning around to look behind me at the darkened room. TV will NEVER do that to you!!!
For you Yanks, I should explain that there was no private radio in England: the BBC was the only game, and it decided what was suitable for us. While they were great on drama, the music just plain sucked!!!! No jazz, no morally corrupting American Swing! So my friend Richard and I erected a makeshift antenna on our adjoining roof, and clandestinely listened to AFRN in occupied Germany. Dorsey, Goodman, Kenton, and comedy shows like Jack Benny and Duffy’s Tavern. I confess that American Comedy usually didn’t strike me funny, but I liked Amos ‘N’ Andy!
How was dating different than now?
Well, the obvious answer is: you didn’t make out!!! (Well, there was this blonde in high school that people said did it, but none of my friends could verify the rumours!) I didn’t plan dates – never had the nerve to ask! - but used to meet a classmate at the movies, and walk her home afterwards. She lived in the next village three miles away, so I often got a tentative kiss as a reward. Which was as much as any boy expected.
How has technology changed over time?
I remember my mother taking me to the Science Museum in London when I was about 13. The headline exhibit was right at the main entrance. It was a sliding glass door that opened automatically when you approached it!!! Wow!
TV for us common folks came along around 1955 I think. The Officers Mess had a mysterious room at the rear where older types (i.e anyone over 25 and NOT aircrew!) used to disappear in the evenings. I peaked in one night; across a room filled with pipe and cigarette smoke I saw a small screen on which one could see gray human-like figures. I hurried back to the bar and card game in progress! Next time I went on leave my mum had one, so I watched a play. I especially liked the part where the wrong camera went live, and you got to see the off-screen cast, standing there with cups of tea firmly in hands! Live TV was much more fun!
What invention affected you the most?
Well, since it was my chosen profession for the most rewarding years of my life, I’d have to say The Aeroplane! I Joined the Air Training Corps (Air Cadets?) at about 14, and loved learning aircraft related stuff. Especially navigation. So, since I had to do military service (we still had the draft), I chose the Royal Air Force – which gave me the adventure I’d dreamed about as a kid.
Do you have any special memories of family gatherings?
Apart from the Christmases already described, no. We weren’t a large family group, so the Woody Allen 25 people around a Thanksgiving Table never happened. The war made things different. I was 12 when it ended, and before that had one birthday party. My mother found some cake somewhere, and we feasted on that and bread and margarine sandwiches – oh, and cups of tea, of course!