For the generation(s) that don’t know who she was, Lynn was a singer in World War Two, most famous for her song We’ll Meet Again. There were others songs – including White Cliffs of Dover – but We’ll Meet Again became ‘the’ British song of the 40s and she became known as The Forces Sweetheart.
I was never a huge fan. Given I was born a decade after the war ended, she was too old-fashioned for me, and World War Two a piece of ancient history. But my parents loved her. Dad served in the army while Mum remained on the Home Front, caring for my brother. They were apart for six years.
We’ll Meet Again.
No wonder they loved that song, full of poignancy, optimism and hope.
Noel Coward once wrote, ‘Strange how potent cheap music is’. Watching a Youtube compilation of Vera singing it throughout the decades, I found the tears streaming down my face. Mum and Dad were suddenly alive in my head and I miss them so much. Dad has been dead forty years now. Mum almost twenty. I have a very clear memory of Mum standing at the kitchen sink in our house in Glasgow, singing it while she washed the dishes, and of standing on Dad’s toes in the dining room as he tried to teach me to dance.
With Father’s Day coming up this weekend, I feel their loss even more keenly.
Mother’s Day is almost over here in Canada and I find myself, this evening sitting here, reflecting on the lessons my mother taught me.
I look back on my childhood and think of the magical moments we shared; of Mum waking me at dawn on May Day to wash my face in the dew; of her standing behind me as we waved my brother off to work in the shipyards, the windows rattling in the wind, the rain pouring down; of her driving me down to the baker’s on Dumbarton Road to get rolls for breakfast; of standing on her toes as she danced me around the kitchen floor; of standing by the window on a Scottish island and gazing out at the full moon; of watching the deer gathering on the hills at dusk.
My mother taught me about the magic in life.
She also taught me about the hard, cold realities.
Mum was widowed at sixty-three, and lived twenty-two years more on her own before she died. Neither of us realised it at the time, but in those twenty-two years, she taught me how to survive the years after my husband abandoned me.
You get on with things. Yes, you cry and rage and grieve, but you get up and get on with things. You carve out a life for yourself that is yours.
Mum, you were and are the strongest woman I ever met. You lived through World War Two, bringing up a child, my brother, never knowing if Dad would make it home alive. And you did it. You thrived. You were the heart and soul of our family. Dad might have provided the home and support and money in our lives, but you gave us the support and love. It was you who made sure our clothes were warm when we ventured out on those cold frosty mornings to school. It was you who provided those ‘picnic’ lunches that I loved so much.
It was you who, after Dad died, walked that beach, sobbing your heart out, but found that inner strength to survive.
It was you who, at seventy-six – yes, seventy six! – years of age applied for your first job in more than fifty years – and got it, driving a jag around London. (And got two proposals of marriage in the process – which you turned down.)
Oh Mum, you were amazing. You didn’t think you were… but you were. You are – and always will be – the heroine, and inspiration, of my life.
I love – and miss you – Mum. Every day of my life.
A bit of back story. In 2009, I visited France with my friend Anna to retrace my father’s desperate journey from the small village, Vis-en-Artois – where he was stationed with the British Army 1940 – to the spot on the bloody beaches of Dunkirk where he was plucked to safety by one of the ‘little boats’.
I had written to the mayor asking if anyone remembered Dad. The mayor passed my letter on to Madame B, who had been a child during the war.We visited her and had a lovely day. She didn’t remember my dad, but just as we were about to leave, she said, ‘Come back on Monday. My friend Noel knew your father.’
Monday, we return to Vis-en-Artois. We’re the first to arrive at Madame B’s. My husband has e-mailed a picture of my Mum and Dad taken in 1936. It’s one of my favourites. They look so young. So Happy. So in love.
I’m expecting Noel to be a woman, but of course that would be Noelle. Noel is accompanied by his wife. Like Madame B, they are both friendly, alert, white-haired, fresh-faced, on the ball.
We’re introduced, I show him the photo of Mum and Dad. ‘Ahh.’ He smacks the picture in that Gallic way. “Jacques Cranstoon.’
But I’m not totally sold. After all, I wrote Dad’s name in my letter to the mayor and perhaps Noel wants this connection to the past as much as I do.
And then he says something that sends a shiver up my spine. ‘Et votre mere, Marie.’
Nowhere – nowhere – had I written my mother’s name. This is very, very, real.
We talk, Anna interpreting as I catch only every fourth or fifth word. My dad was billeted next door to Noel’s family. Throughout that bitter winter of 39/40, with no heat or lighting in their accommodation, Dad and another married soldier visited Noel’s family’s warm house every Friday evening to write letters home to their wives.
Noel reaches into his pocket, pulls out a small, rather battered brown leather diary, and offers it to me. ‘Your dad gave it to him for Christmas 1939,” Anna translates.
The hairs on my arms stand on end. It’s as though, to borrow a quote from Alan Bennett’s History Boys, a hand has reached out of the past and taken mine.
My Dad, dead for 30 years, is in the room with us.
It’s funny, isn’t it, how sometimes things ‘connect’?
Although I wasn’t born until long after The Evacuation of Dunkirk, it’s always hung there, over me, throughout my life. My dad was one of the 350,000 men rescued from its beaches in May 1940 by one of the ‘Little Boats’, and I have come to believe it was, perhaps, the defining moment in his life.
My dad was a good, honest, hardworking, honourable man, and I sometimes think any illusions he had about mankind were, literally, shot to hell on the beaches of Dunkirk. He didn’t speak about Dunkirk very often, but when he did, one of his memories was of watching Nazi pilots bomb a hospital ship clearly marked with the Red Cross.
So when I saw the trailer for Christopher Nolan‘s movie Dunkirkthis week, and saw a clip of a Red Cross ship being bombed… well it brought all those memories back.
The second ‘connection’… ? A friend and I were talking about our favourite Christmas movies. Mine is The Bishop’s Wife, made in 1947, starring Loretta Young (who looked like my Mum) and Cary Grant. What has that to do with Dunkirk? Well it turns out, the original book of The Bishop’s Wife was written by American writer Robert Nathan who also wrote a poem about Dunkirk.
There weren’t just men on the beach at Dunkirk. British army nurses were rescued from those beaches too. And I love the idea – as in this poem – that at least one of those Little Boats had a girl on board too.
Will came back from school that day,
And he had little to say.
But he stood a long time looking down
To where the gray-green Channel water
Slapped at the foot of the little town,
And to where his boat, the Sarah P,
Bobbed at the tide on an even keel,
With her one old sail, patched at the leech,
Furled like a slattern down at heel.
He stood for a while above the beach,
He saw how the wind and current caught her;
He looked a long time out to sea.
There was steady wind, and the sky was pale,
And a daze in the east that looked like smoke.
Will went back to the house to dress.
He was half way through, when his sister Bess
Who was near fourteen, and younger than he
By just two years, came home from play.
She asked him, “Where are you going, Will?”
He said, “For a good long sail.”
“Can I come along?”
“No, Bess,” he spoke.
“I may be gone for a night and a day.”
Bess looked at him. She kept very still.
She had heard the news of the Flanders rout,
How the English were trapped above Dunkirk,
And the fleet had gone to get them out
But everyone thought that it wouldn’t work.
There was too much fear, there was too much doubt.
She looked at him, and he looked at her.
They were English children, born and bred.
He frowned her down, but she wouldn’t stir.
She shook her proud young head.
“You’ll need a crew,” she said.
They raised the sail on the Sarah p,
Like a penoncel on a young knight’s lance,
And headed the Sarah out to sea,
To bring their soldiers home from France.
There was no command, there was no set plan,
But six hundred boats went out with them
On the gray-green waters, sailing fast,
River excursion and fisherman,
Tug and schooner and racing M,
And the little boats came following last.
From every harbor and town they went
Who had sailed their craft in the sun and rain,
From the South Downs, from the cliffs of Kent,
From the village street, from the country lane.
There are twenty miles of rolling sea
From coast to coast, by the seagull’s flight,
But the tides were fair and the wind was free,
And they raised Dunkirk by fall of night.
They raised Dunkirk with its harbor torn
By the blasted stern and the sunken prow;
They had reached for fun on an English tide,
They were English children bred and born,
And whether they lived, or whether they died,
They raced for England now.
Bess was as white as the Sarah’s sail,
She set her teeth and smiled at Will.
He held his course for the smoky veil
Where the harbor narrowed thin and long.
The British ships were firing strong.
He took the Sarah into his hands,
He drove her in through fire and death
To the wet men waiting on the sands.
He got his load and he got his breath,
And she came about, and the wind fought her.
He shut his eyes and he tried to pray.
He saw his England were she lay,
The wind’s green home, the sea’s proud daughter,
Still in the moonlight, dreaming deep,
The English cliffs and the English loam
He had fourteen men to get away,
And the moon was clear, and the night like day
For planes to see where the white sails creep
Over the black water.
He closed his eyes and prayed for her;
He prayed to the men who had made her great,
Who had built her land of forest and park,
Who had made the seas an English lake;
He prayed for a fog to bring the dark;
He prayed to get home for England’s sake.
And the fog came down on the rolling sea,
And covered the ships with English mist.
The diving planes were baffled and blind.
For Nelson was there in the Victory,
With his one good eye, and his sullen twist,
And guns were out on The Golden Hind,
Their shot flashed over the Sarah P.
He could hear them cheer as he came about.
By burning wharves, by battered slips,
Galleon, frigate, and brigantine,
The old dead Captains fought their ships,
And the great dead Admirals led the line.
it was England’s night, it was England’s sea.
The fog rolled over the harbor key.
Bess held to the stays, and conned him out.
And all through the dark, while the Sarah’s wake
Hissed behind him, and vanished in foam,
There at his side sat Francis Drake,
And held him true, and steered him home.
I’m a bit of a Luddite, but IF I’ve managed the technology correctly, my book In My Father’s Footsteps will be free on Amazon on December 26th and 27th 2014.
Several years ago, I traced Dad’s footsteps from the village in France, where he was stationed in 1939/40 as a young private in the British Army, to the bloody beaches of Dunkirk. It was one of the most important journeys of my life.
My Dad was born on December 25th, 1914, the first Christmas of the First World War. He would have turned 100 years old this Christmas Day. Sadly he died when I was only twenty-four, so I have now spent more of my life without him than I have with him. He was a lovely man and I still miss him.
If you are interested in reading the book, please click here.
Merry Christmas. Wishing you and your families health and happiness in 2015.
My last entry for this month’s wartime rations. When I spent a month eating wartime rations earlier this year it was really easy; perhaps because it was in the middle of winter when everyone hibernates at home. This month, with anniversaries, birthdays, Thanksgiving… well, I’ve probably ‘eaten at the Savoy’ just as frequently as eating rations.
So my last entry for this experiment was the final dish I made with the remains of my ground beef ration for this week; meatballs made with the same ingredients as the burgers (chopped onion, breadcrumbs, seasoning, bound with tomato sauce), baked in the oven at 180C for 20 minutes and then covered in gravy. On the side, home-made fries and my newest favourite, shredded cabbage fried in a little bacon fat. For dessert, we chopped up and shared the remaining toffee apple. Given that November 1st brought snow here in Calgary, reminding us that winter has finally arrived, it really was the perfect comfort food.
If you’re wondering why I’ve used archived copies of The Glasgow Herald as my go-to paper during the past month, it’s not just because I come from Glasgow, but my Uncle Alex, Anne’s big brother, used to be a journalist with the paper. An RAF pilot during the war, when he returned to Scotland he became the Voice of Scottish Golf, not just on the radio, but with The Glasgow Herald and then as the editor of Golf Monthly. When he died in 2000, both The Telegraph and The Glasgow Herald published obituaries.
Anne says: He started as a general reporter; he ‘covered’ the launching of the Queen Mary, I know, because he came home saying, ‘She did it!’ – but whether he was talking about Queen Mary successfully throwing the bottle of bubbly or the great ship successfully floating instead of sinking to the bottom, I don’t know, ships always being referred to as feminine. Then he started covering sport and eventually as you know became Scotland’s prime golf journalist. He was sent to the first post-war American (Open Golf/Ryder Cup?) and his boss told him proudly that he would be flying there (flying being a great rarity at the time). Alex of course was disgusted after his years and years as a bomber pilot DFC, so they let him travel one way on the QM. I remember a photo of him with some famous golfer (Henry somebody I think) which appeared in the paper and of which there was a print at home.
Anne with her big brother Alex (Percy) Huggins, early 1940s.
Another memory from Anne: After Alex had done many, many more than the stipulated number of bombing flights he was transferred to the Azores on anti-submarine patrol. Here there were bananas, and when he came home on leave (after VE Day), managed to bring us a few – Mother made sure their skins were put right on top of the rubbish bins so that when the lid was lifted the dustmen could wonder at them!
Having bombarded you with almost daily posts for the past month, I’m going to take a break for a few weeks and plan to return with my usual schedule on December 15th – although I may add the occasional post before then. Looking forward to catching up with you.
Dinner tonight was real hot comfort food before going out into the cold Hallowe’en night trick-or-treating; homemade hamburger, roasted squash and mashed potatoes. Burger: ground beef, breadcrumbs, chopped onion and seasoning to taste, bound with a little tomato ketchup. For the squash; I chopped it into bite sized pieces, sprinkled the pieces with a tiny bit of sugar and cinnamon, tossed them in some melted butter and roasted them uncovered in the oven at 190C for about 35 minutes.
For dessert, my husband and I chopped up one of the toffee apples I made yesterday into pieces and shared it. It tasted so delicious that we decided we’re going cut up the apple next time before dipping it into the syrup and leaving it to harden. Sounds decadent… but within our wartime ration allowances!
The Population Problem: Scotland is definitely a younger country than England or Wales, but an examination of the Registrar General’s figures show that in both countries the population is ageing. Women of child bearing-age between 15-45 in 1937 formed 24.2% of the population but within the next generation they will drop to 18.5%.
At the end of the South African War, children formed 1/3 of the population, today they form 1/4. If the same story continues, in 70 years time the number of children in Scotland would be halved to 1/6th.
Population breakdown: Scotland 1944
Population 5 million
2 million live in 4 cities.
1 million live in 26 large towns
1/2 million live in 66 medium towns
1/2 million live in small towns
1 million live in rural areas.
2/5 of the population live within 20 miles of Glasgow
Given that it’s now exactly 70 years since that report looking into the future, I thought I would check out the current statistics. It makes for interesting reading.
In 2011, the population of Scotland was 5.2 million.
The population of the 5 major cities was as follows:
If children are defined as aged 0-19 years of age, they made up 22.39% of the population in 2011.
If children defined as aged 0-14 years of age, they made up 16.14% of the population in 2011, almost the exact prediction from 1944. Fascinating!
I know it’s not Hallowe’en until tomorrow, but I thought I might get ready early and make some traditional toffee apples. After all, apples are within my rationed fruit for this time of the year, and I have plenty of sugar left over. So even in the midst of war, there would be some cheer for the children. It turns out that the recipe is extremely easy (this would have made enough for 4 large apples); 1 cup sugar, 1/2 cup water, half a teaspoon of vinegar. Heat until the sugar has dissolved, then boil for about 20 minutes. When the mixture hardens when you drop a little into a bowl of cold water it’s done. Being very careful, dip the apples into the mixture and place on some greaseproof paper to set for about an hour.
But what of a traditional Hallowe’en (October 31st) or Guy Fawkes (November 5th) in wartime? An editorial in The Glasgow Herald of October 31st, 1945 (page 4) suggests that both customs disappeared during the war but had quickly resurfaced: One peacetime practise of Scottish youth has already established itself – guising. A colleague reports that on Monday night three urchins liberally bedaubed with soot, came to his door with the traditional chant of, “Please, sir, gie’s war Hallowe’en”. The black-out banished the ‘guisers’ – or galoshans -and it is pleasant to see that at least one old Scots custom has survived the war.
Here are some of Anne’s thoughts on Hallowe’en and Guy Fawkes back in the 30s and 40s.
The full title was All Hallows Even(ing), the day before All Hallows’/All Saints’ Day in church, the night the dead were liable to come back to haunt you. So Hallowe’en was the time for dressing up (to disguiseyourself to avoid the ghosts)and fancy dress parties. I’ve often wondered ifguising, not guysing was the word originally used, but transformed itself into Guysing for Guy Fawkes’s 5th November.
At Hallowe’en parties there were usually a few sparklers, the sparking fireworks children loved to hold in their hands – though the sparks were hot if you didn’t hold the sparkler carefully. Children did go knocking on people’s doors – any doors, not just their neighbours’, and the usual request was, ‘Please, missis, gie’s oor Hallowe’en’. (for 5th Nov, the plea was ‘Penny for the guy, please’, but this usually happened in the street, not at the front door, and was more common in England).
For the Hallowe’en children, Mother always had apples and handfuls of nuts or sweets to hand out: ‘Don’t give them money, their parents are often waiting round the corner to take the cash to the nearest pub’. For these goodies the children were expected to perform in some way, maybe sing a song or recite a poem. We were taken aback once by a girl of about 7 or 8, hand-in-hand with a much smaller brother, who said, ‘I’ll sing and he’ll harmonise’ – difficult to keep one’s face straight till they’d performed and left!
Dooking for apples
Dooking for apples with a fork.
Yes we all dooked for apples, both at home and at school where we’d been told to bring two apples – in the genteel fashion of kneeling over the back of a chair and dropping a fork from your mouth in the hope that the prongs would stick in one of the apples floating in a bowl or bucket of water – there were many failures if the bucket had a wide top! Less genteel was the practice of kneeling beside the bucket and grabbing an apple with your teeth.
Scones with treacle.
I much preferred the other game when Mother dropped the ceiling pulleys halfway down, tied strings around them to ‘mouth height’ and tied on large triangular scones liberally doused with black treacle. These we tried to bite a chunk off with our hands behind our backs – great fun; the floor had to be washed afterwards, as did our hair, unless we did the dooking afterwards and washed out the treacle in the apple water.
The other treat was the Hallowe’en dumpling, which ranged from wealthy folks’ almost Christmas-rich puddings down to a plain one with a few sultanas, or even down to a potful of mashed potatoes – what was special were the tiny silver charms, wrapped in greaseproof paper, which had been mixed in before boiling or mashing – each ‘charm’ would tell your future: a little silver threepenny coin was the best, or there could be a baby, a horseshoe, a ring etc. During the war it was usually mashed potatoes!
War time meals, in this experiment at least, seem to involve eating a lot of leftovers. I had baked fish yesterday, so tonight made fish pie with the leftover fish and cheese sauce, topped with mashed potato and a little grated cheese, then cooked in the oven at around 180C for about 20 minutes. For lunch… I ‘broke down’ and used a whole fresh egg in an egg mayonnaise sandwich. Very extravagant – but completely delicious!
As I’m getting close to the end of a month of wartime rations, I thought I’d jump ahead a little in the newspapers and see what they were saying about the end of the war. But when DID the war end exactly? My understanding was that World War Two ended on May 7th (8th in the Commonwealth) with VE Day in Europe (Glasgow Herald May 8th 1945 Page 4) and then VJ Day on August 15th 1945 with the Japanese surrender.
But as with everything to do with the war, nothing is clear-cut. I clicked on this great link on Yahoo which offers the following:
The Japanese surrendered on August 15.45 THEIR time, which was August 14th in the US.
However the paperwork on surrender was not completed until September 2nd, Japanese time, September 1st US time. (Check out this edition of the Glasgow Herald from September 3rd, 1945 which gives all the details on page 3.)
But those were papers of surrender. Technically, according to the reply on Yahoo, wars don’t end until a treaty of some kind is signed.
In that case, a peace treaty with Japan was signed on September 8th, 1951 but the US only ended their occupation of Japan on April 28th, 1952. I couldn’t find an entry from The Glasgow Herald for September 8th but did on the front page of The Calgary Herald. If you click on the link, it appears that 48 countries signed the treaty despite Russian objections.
In Europe, the French, British and US all ended their formal occupation of their areas in West Germany on May 5th, 1955, but had effectively done so on May 23rd, 1949. (Glasgow Herald, May 5th, 1955 Page 6.)
Interesting. (And for all you high school history students out there wanting to impress your teachers, it’s those little nuggets that get you extra marks in exams!! ) :o)
It’s been a busy day today so I’m just getting this blog post in under the wire. My daughter and her husband flew out tonight to spend the next three months in South East Asia. (If you’d like to read her travel blog, please click on girltrieslife.) They will arrive in Bangkok in just over 24 hours. Back in 1944, it would have taken weeks to get there by ship – several days, I would imagine, by plane. The world has certainly changed in the past 70 years.
Getting back to my wartime rations; for lunch today I had white fish baked in a cheese sauce with a spinach salad on the side. For dinner at the airport tonight… not quite wartime rations.
On the front page, under the Birth/Marriage/Death announcements was one for Prisoner of War. Girvan. Official information has been received that Private William Girvan, Cameron Highlanders, reported missing in August 1944, is now a Prisoner of War in Stalag V11, Germany; thanking all friends and neighbours for inquiries and information of broadcasts. Mrs W Girvan, 103 Cartside St, Glasgow.
Jordanhill Church, Woodend Drive, Glasgow. Collection for both Sunday services for Christmas Gifts for Our Members in the Forces.
Two hundred thousand cases of Spanish oranges, weighing 10,000 tons coming to the UK from Spain. A Ministry of Food spokesman stated… “There will be some for the public, but details of the division between manufacturers and the general public have not yet been worked out.”
Sinking Standards in Schools: “It seems to be a general opinion among secondary teachers that the standard of elementary proficiency in reading, writing and speaking is steadily sinking among the pupils of 12 or so who enter secondary school.”
As a writer, I’m really taken with human stories and the Undefended Divorces listed in the paper is fascinating. Several were given to soldiers currently POWs in Germany. One was given to a woman whose husband, current address unknown, had deserted her. One was given to a woman in the W.R.N.S and another to a woman based on her husband’s cruelty. But I’m particularly fascinated by those given to the men in POW camps. What was the legal mechanism that permitted that? Who initiated those divorces; the husbands or their wives?