The Great Below

living the feeling life

Time bomb

On 14th September 1940, her sister’s birthday, my mother Katharine recorded in her ‘Schoolgirl diary’ that just after tea “the sirens went off.” A week earlier had seen the start of the London Blitz – a relentless campaign of destruction by Hitler’s bombers which pounded the city night after night for nine months. The war, which until then had been largely fought in continental Europe, out on the high seas or up in the skies, had hit home.

My mother’s family lived in West London, close to Heston Aerodrome from where in 1938 Prime Minster Neville Chamberlain had flown to Munich to meet with Adolf Hitler, returning to declare that he had secured ‘Peace for our time.’ It was a brief stay of execution; less than a year later Britain and France would declare war on Germany. During the war Heston became an operational base for Spitfires and Hurricane Bombers, rendering it a frequent target of aerial attack.

Catching up with her diary a few days later, Katharine tells us that “Three bombs were dropped very near us. Our house was damaged”. The family had been evacuated in the middle of the night to a nearby ‘canteen’ as it was not safe to go down to their own Anderson shelter – the half-buried, corrugated-iron structure like a pig arc that her father had installed at the end of the garden the previous year, when war was looming. They couldn’t return to their house because a high-explosive time bomb had fallen “under the concrete round Hens house” and lay there waiting to go off.

The next day, while my mother was at school, the time bomb exploded, damaging houses all around. Her family were at last allowed home to clear the mess and board up the blown-out windows – my mother accidentally cutting her finger on broken glass. “It’s horrible living in the house like this.” she writes. Shortly afterwards, the children and their mother went to stay with a relative in the countryside at Woburn Sands while their father stayed in London, going to his job in the tax office while trying to patch up the house and protect it from further damage.

For my mother, aged thirteen, this was the end of her childhood. Even though war had been declared a year before, things had been relatively quiet until now. Katharine’s diary for 1940, started with vigour on January 1st but as usual gradually thinning out, had up to then contained the typical entries of a school child – “Went to my music lesson”, “Bought a 2d chocolate bar”, “Iris was off school with spots” and quite often “Nothing much happened today.” From that point on, the diaries continue recording her attempt to live an every day, normal schoolgirl life amid the chaos, but most entries are peppered with comments such as “Sirens went at 7.30. Heard a lot of gunfire.”  “We had a bad three-hour raid this afternoon” “Did not go down to the shelter tonight as it was not too noisy.”

What Katharine didn’t know at the time, and possibly not until much later, is that when the time bomb exploded under the hen-house, it took with it seven men from the bomb-disposal squad who were trying to defuse it, blasting them all to smithereens. For weeks afterwards, my grandfather was still picking fragments of skull and human flesh out of the garden hedges; it must have been a grim reminder of the three years he spent as a stretcher bearer on the Western Front during World War 1, tending to terribly wounded and dying men on the battlefield. How must he have felt, having lived through that ghastly war, to be caught in the middle of this new horror?

The house was made habitable and the family moved back in, but would they ever feel properly safe again? Not my mother, of that I’m sure. It would not be until mid-May 1941 that I again find a day in which “Nothing much happened”, by which time it must have come as a blessed relief.



All about my mother – part 2

my motherI’m writing this in a lovely flat lent to me by friends to work in. It’s set in a former mental asylum in Wales – an impressive gothic stone structure surrounded by well-tended grounds dotted with octagonal wooden gazebos, with views all around of the distant green mountains. In it’s nineteenth century heyday, this place housed a community of over a thousand patients – ranging from the seriously insane to people with epilepsy and more than likely several ‘fallen women’. A beautiful place with a sad history, and a great environment to re-engage with writing about my mother’s depression.

Summer is not a good time for writing, I’ve discovered that time and again. My head is simply not in a place of concentration – sometimes I even find it hard to read. But as autumn sets in and that ‘new school year’ feeling brings freshness and resolve, I can pick up this blog and my book again. I like to think that fallow time is not wasted – it’s a space to let things settle and to explore what else needs to be considered.

One outcome of this summer ‘break’ was the chance to go through some boxes of papers that we had stored in my sister’s garage eight years ago, while clearing out my mother’s house when she moved into a nursing home. There wasn’t time to sort out much of it then, as we needed to sell the house quickly to pay for the care fees, so we simply gathered anything vaguely interesting and put it away for later. It got buried for a while under the accumulated junk of modern life, but finally this summer I persuaded my sister to retrieve the – now slightly damp – boxes for me to investigate.

I hadn’t been certain that there would be anything of use to me, but what I found proved to be a revelation. My mother never really kept regular diaries – except for three years during the war when she was a schoolgirl – but she did from time to time write down her feelings and experiences on scraps of paper, often in scribbled pencil. She wrote from the heart, with scant punctuation, as one would a diary – and yet some of these pieces I’m sure were intended as short stories, as there are occasional notes showing that she intended to expand a certain section or give more detail at a later stage. Pages are missing or badly stained, or written on a shaky train – sometimes the handwriting  is just indecipherable, so reading them has been a process of guesswork at times.

While occasionally descending into romantic cliche (she was a great reader of fiction and had clearly absorbed some of its tropes) her writing has amazing freshness and immediacy – it made me feel almost breathless at times with the powerful emotions both expressed and reflected in her description of the landscapes around her. In these writings she describes a painful affair with her married boss – the love of her life – as well as a later romantic encounter on the beach of Nice with a penniless drifter, when she travelled to the South of France as a young woman. There are sad reflections on her marriage to my father (‘the story of the marriage that died’ – although they did stay together) and some very troubling pieces from her later years of depression.

What interests me is that these are what she decided to keep – there must have been more, as I know she attended a creative writing class for a time, but very little evidence of that exists. My guess is that these pieces express the most vivid and deeply-felt times of her life, and were also probably the best writing, writing she could well have been proud of. What a pity she didn’t do more.

All this has reinforced for me that the purpose of my writing this book is to find out ‘what happened?’ This young vibrant, creative woman, passionate in love, full of promise – where did she go? Somehow she got buried inside the mother I knew who was sad, angry, embittered, lonely, unable to break out. I feel a great need to honour and reclaim that young woman, to explore her life and understand the challenges she faced, and perhaps finally to set her – and myself – free.