I have found magic in stories of evacuees. Carrie’s War (by Nina Bawden) was one of my childhood favourites, and then earlier this year I was charmed by Barbara Noble’s Doreen.
Not magic of a fanciful kind, but the magic conjured by real and vivid human emotions. And this memoir has that magic in spades.
It is a little book – Terence Frisby explains at the very start that he has only included what he clearly recalls. And that fact, lodged in your mind, tells you as much as the memories themselves.
Terence and his elder brother Jack started their lives in south-west London. In short a few pages those earliest years are brought to life. The boys were clearly happy and loved.
Then war came.
It was a horrible decision for parents to have to make. To keep their children and run the risk of the bombers, or to send them away to an unknown place with unknown people and have to bear the separation.
Terry was seven and and Jack was eleven when their parents took the decision to allow their sons to be evacuated. It was clearly painful, but they took every possible step to make the parting as natural as possible.
And their mother even thought of a way for her boys to be able to safely let her know how they were. She gave them a postcard:
“Now this is the code. Our secret. You put one kiss if it’s horrible and I’ll come straight there and bring you back home. You put two kisses if it’s all right and three kisses if it’s nice, really nice. Then I’ll know.”
Terry and Jack were evacuated to the village of Doublebois in central Cornwall. And they were lucky to be taken in by good people: Auntie Rose and Uncle Jack. Their own sons were away, fighting, and so they took in the two “vaccies”.
Further down Cornwall my own grandmother was in the same position and did the very same thing.
“Good people.” It’s a simple expression, but it means an awful lot.
The postcard was sent home plastered with kisses.
And then there are so many memories of three years in Doublebois. The demarkation lines between locals and vaccies. School. A new way of life around the woods, the river and the railway line. Mixing with the village community. The circus. Corona bottles. All of the things that make up a Cornish country childhood.
And, for me, wonderful echoes of the childhood memories that my own father – a direct comtemporary of Terry – used to tell me.
But, of course, the shadow of war never went away.
Soldiers stationed at a requistioned manor house nearby caused a stir – not least because many of the locals had never seen a black man before.
Auntie Rose taking her charges on a shopping trip to Plymouth and berating herself when they narrowly missed a bombing raid on the docks. How could she take such a risk with another mother’s children?
And many villagers had suffered in the first war. They thought that it had been the war to end all wars, but it wasn’t. Many had suffered losses, and many would again.
So many wonderful stories so wonderfully told. I wish I could write about them all.
So many emotions, so many moments to move you.
A wonderful portrait of an extrordinary time in a place that is today the same is so many ways and yet so very different too.