The Great Below

living the feeling life


Surviving a crisis

With all the talk of the current situation being ‘unprecedented’, and much like a war, I’ve been thinking a lot about what my parents lived through during WW2. We are facing six months or more of disruption to our usual, privileged lives, but for Britons in 1939, there were six years of restrictions, deprivations and danger ahead. It would take even longer for their way of life to recover to anything resembling normality, with food rationing and some travel restrictions continuing into the 1950s.

It began with the blackout – “general darkening as a permanent condition” –  imposed just before the declaration of war. From dusk onwards all windows had to be covered with heavy fabric, cardboard or black paint to stop any light escaping and attracting enemy bombers. Streetlamps and car headlights were dimmed; shops and theatres were no longer illuminated; no fireworks were permitted, and torches had to be scrupulously angled downward. The exception was of course the moon, which shone as brightly as ever, turning the city into one big target. The stars were also clearly visible in the night sky – when it was not lit up by the glow of fires from bombed buildings, that is.

The Blitz started in September 1940, and within days my mother’s home was seriously damaged  by a time bomb which fell at the end of the garden. When it exploded, it took with it seven bomb-disposal men who were working desperately on defusing it, and demolished several nearby houses. My mother was thirteen at the time and felt as if her world had ended; I don’t think she ever felt truly safe again. After being allowed home, the family spent many nights in the damp and often freezing Andersen shelter in their garden, and the rest of the time slept downstairs huddled all together. At least 32,000 people were killed in London during nine months of relentless nightly attacks, and bombs continued to fall throughout the war, including the terrifying V1 and V2 unmanned rockets.

Shortly afterwards my mother’s school also suffered major damage, and was forced to drastically scale back classes. For the next two years, she went in only part-time, sometimes just to collect homework or sit exams. During Air Raids lessons were held in the school shelter, and they also took over part of a local primary school, sharing classroom hours with the younger children. Needless to say, my mother’s education suffered greatly – she became disaffected and rebellious, and ended up being expelled for going ice-skating when she should have been in a ‘prep’ class. A bright and intellectually curious young woman, her prospects were utterly thwarted by the war.

Food rationing began early in 1940, partly in reponse to hoarding and to increasing shortages caused by the war at sea. Much like today, over half of Britain’s food was imported from elsewhere, and the sinking of so many merchant ships severely disrupted imports. It began with butter, sugar and bacon and as the war progressed more and more items had to be bought with ‘coupons’, including clothing and even soap. Other things simply became gradually unobtainable.Vegetables and fruit were not rationed but hard to get, and people were encouraged to grow their own as much as possible, to “dig for victory”. My mother recalled the disappointment of cutting open her one permitted weekly egg, only to find it was bad.

The list of things that gradually became scarce over the years included metal for saucepans, cutlery and razor blades; wood for making furniture, toys, musical instruments and matches; candles and batteries; any kind of ceramic or glass; rubber for wellington boots, baby teats and condoms; paper, pencils, paint, cosmetics, soap and shoe-polish. Petrol was reserved for official use only and even phone calls were rationed to three minutes, if you were lucky enough to have access to a telephone.

Everything was saved, re-used, or cleverly adapted to some other purpose, and people became extremely ingenious and resourceful, as they still are today in poorer countries. It’s little wonder that many of the wartime generation went to their graves with secret stashes of ‘pieces of string too short to use’ and the like. Drowning in possessions as we are today, it seems appealing to live in a more basic way with only what you really need; the reality is that it took up a lot of time and effort, and was frequently uncomfortable, inefficient and depressing.

Listening to comments from some of the older generation on today’s crisis, their message is that we need to “just pull together and get on with it.” and that is indeed what they were taught to do, and what probably got them through. People bombed out of their homes were given shelter by others, community spirit became essential in a world without resources. My mother was desperate to be useful, and furious that she was not allowed to go out on fire patrol with her father and sister: “They wouldn’t let me go. They say I’m too young. POOH! It does make me feel fed up. If only I was a bit older then I might be able to do something to help. Too young for this! Too young for that! I think it’s a DARN SHAME.” Strong language for a well-brought up young woman.

I have tremendous admiration for the courage and stoicism everyone displayed in coping with the ongoing adversity. But there were high costs in terms of mental health – most people learned to suppress their ‘negative’ emotions to the extent that they hardly realised they had feelings. Depression, PTSD, grief – all were hardly recognised, and even less frequently expressed. We’re only now beginning to find our way out of this emotional lock box and to realise that to be human is to feel, and perhaps above all to feel for others.



“Darling Maddy,..”

All this week I’ve been immersed in re-reading a huge pile of letters from my mother, which she wrote to me when I was travelling or living abroad in my late teens and twenties. I had thrown them out, but somehow she managed to retrieve them from the rubbish and I found them this summer.

Whenever I went away – travelling in India and the USA, or living in France and Chicago, and at university in Liverpool – I wrote long letters home about my experiences, and my mother (and occasionally my father) wrote regularly to me, sending their mail to Postes Restantes in different towns, or care of friends, not always certain they would reach me.

International telephone calls were prohibitively expensive in those days and I usually didn’t have access to a phone in any case. I remember trying for days to call home from India one Christmas, trudging to the local telephone exchange only to be repeatedly told that “the lines are down”. Or I would stand in a draughty phone box somewhere feeding coins in at an alarming rate, which made trying to have any kind of relaxed conversation almost impossible.

I was slightly dreading tackling this pile of letters, which I needed to re-read because I’m writing a book about my mother. My hope was that amongst what I assumed would be a rather uninteresting catalogue of ‘news from home’ there would be some personal reflections, some clues to my mother’s state of mind which I could use, as I have done with her diaries and personal writings.

In the event what I found was something much more precious – abundant evidence of her love for me. The letters are long and chatty, full of anecdotes and musings and often funny and expressive. True, they contain a wealth of detail about elderly relatives, friends and their offspring, the state of the garden and practical issues, all of which at the time I probably greeted with a big yawn, but which now paint a vivid picture for me of her day-to-day life while I was absent. She also writes about books she has read, films and plays she has seen, what has given her joy, what has troubled her.

The letters often respond in detail to mine (most of which she kept, of course); it feels like watching my life unfolding from her point of view. She is interested, sympathetic, advisory (with apologies – “Oh Mum!”), and wisely philosophical. Much the same, really, as I am with my son in our endless phone conversations – since no-one writes letters any more – trying to help and guide him without overstepping the mark.

My mother was a good and often entertaining writer – her tone is mostly bright and cheerful, in the spirit of ‘keeping everything nice’, but also genuinely searching for what good she can offer me. As the years  pass and we both grow older, more of her unhappiness creeps in. Both she and my father suffer increasingly from pain and illness. She speaks of feeling empty and without purpose, especially once my sister has left home, and makes self-deprecatory comments about having done little with her life. She is clear-eyed about how hard being a mother was for her, though ultimately seems not to regret it.

I had a very complicated relationship with my mother. She was often depressed, angry, bitter about her life and her marriage, and with the solipcism of youth I took it all personally; I knew she hadn’t wanted children and extrapolated from that that she didn’t love us. But from her letters I see a very different side of the story – she tells me how much she misses our conversations, that I am always in her mind, that she was so thrilled to have a phone call from me she is “on a high”. I am her precious daughter, for whom she wants only happiness, success, health, love.

I’m realising how like her I am, and how well we might have supported and empathised with each other; in short, that we could have been better friends. Sadly, when we were together, these positive aspects of our relationship were mostly hidden, to me at least. My mother was unable to be anywhere near as open, as accepting, as emotionally available in person as she was on the page. Reading the letters it’s important for me to remember that the negatives also existed, to the extent that they often outweighed and overwhelmed our love for each other. As someone once said of human psychology – “The bigger the front, the bigger the back.” Nevertheless, I am grateful to my mother’s hoarding instincts for this chance to redress the balance of our relationship a little more towards happiness.