A child’s war

Mar 16, 2014   //   by Nicholas Milton   //   Blog  //  No Comments

I’m currently taking a course at Stratford College on writing for newspapers and magazines. Each pupil was asked to write a feature on a specialist subject. This is A child’s war by Teresa Foot.

The media have recently been focusing on this year’s anniversary of the beginning of the WW1. Nostalgia, reminiscences, historical analyses and photographic reminders have all been on display, and rightly so. This reminds me of my own memories of WW2.  Coincidentally, at the same time, my granddaughter’s teacher asks for my help. She wants me to go into school to talk to the children about my memories. I agree and it is arranged.

I have to prepare. I am used to addressing adult audiences, but children are something else. I start by jotting down some memories: the lack of food, the cold, the dark, the fear, the normality of it all, as I knew no other life. I decide that for this session a bit of action is better than a thousand words, so I trawl the internet for recordings of air raid warning sirens, aircraft noise and all clear sirens. As I listen my stomach knots up with a permanently imprinted fear reaction from seventy-two years ago. Once again I am a frightened little girl, dragged sleepily out of bed to go and crouch in a Morrison shelter, with the steady hum of aircraft passing overhead. I didn’t know it at the time, but they are on their way to bomb elsewhere, not my house.

So I check it out with my granddaughter. I am thinking of staging an air raid. If we pretend that the school desks are shelters, is there room for the children to sit on the floor underneath when I play the siren recording? Yes, she says, so I think I’ll give it a go.

What else can I do? I remember the lack of toys. I decide to show today’s children that we used to make paper aircraft, not darts – they’re too easy – but quite elaborately folded ‘planes. I haven’t forgotten. They fly remarkably well if you adjust the tail fins. I decide that it is not feasible to get the children to make their own, so I spent half an hour making twenty versions to take into school. They can colour in the RAF markings. I think we’ll give swastikas a miss – you never know, a parent might misconstrue my motives.

I need one more activity. I recall how few sweets or chocolate we had when I was young. I remember my mother cutting a mars bar into about ten pieces, one piece each, once a week. Oh what a treat! And I remember my astonishment when years later I watched someone eating a whole mars bar. So I decide to give a tenth of a mars bar to each child to demonstrate how little we had. I bet this will amaze them.

I think I’m ready. I warn my granddaughter that if she puts her hand up I am not going to call on her for an answer to my questions. I have my recordings, my mars bars and my paper planes at the ready. I’m not nervous but not quite sure how children behave so I am marginally apprehensive.

I go into the classroom. I decide to be bold, “Good morning, children” in a loud voice. They all stand up “Good morning, Sacha’s granny”, they say in unison. There’s a surprise. They’ve got it. I am Sacha’s granny – it’s my primary identity nowadays. I feel good about that.

I tell them my age and ask them to work out how old I was at the beginning of the war. I explain how memory works, that we all remember things that are associated with heightened emotion and give the example of being frightened during air raids. I don’t use such long words, though.

Then it’s the air raid. The children clearly love the opportunity to crouch under their desks, so I am off to a good start. As always my stomach churns when I play the siren recording. I talk some more and try to turn much of what I say into questions, just to keep their attention. On each question a sea of hands goes up and then I start to recognize the teaching skills I haven’t got. Who do I pick to answer? Some faces stand out. I will try and pick someone new each time. It’s not easy to be fair.

I talk about the blackout, the absence of cars on the road, the cold of unheated bedrooms, the fire wardens, the shrapnel we collected and swapped like conkers, the fear of a strange man called Hitler that the grown-ups kept talking about. And I recall the mixture of fear and excitement when a large American soldier lifts me up into the back of a lorry along with about twenty other children to go to a party. What an adventure. The class is intrigued by this story.

I decide not to mention the lack of a father figure in my little world. I know I have a daddy because he visits us occasionally, wearing a smart blue uniform.  He only comes to live with us when the war is over. He looks strange in a brown ‘demob’ suit. But that’s a grown up story for another time.

The last few minutes of my talk are taken up with children’s questions. I am learning on the job and decide to go round the class so everyone has a chance to ask something. One bright spark wants to know whether you can grow vegetables on an Anderson shelter. It reminds me of hours spent shelling peas. Once again I am a little girl, this time a happy one, playing in the garden, chasing butterflies. The memories are of warm summer sunshine as well as cold blackout nights.

And then I’ve finished. I take my leave. The teacher thanks me graciously. My granddaughter looks embarrassed and proud. I haven’t let her down. It is fairly obvious that I am going to have to return next year for the same session to another class. That’s ok. There is a certain pleasure in helping young people to understand the world I lived in. How different it is now. I am not sure I would want their high tech childhood. My little girl may be deprived but she doesn’t know it.

Later, my granddaughter tells me that the class homework is to write a thank-you letter to Sacha’s granny. I look forward to reading the children’s comments. I am curiously anxious for feedback. I have already asked if anyone like my talk. Was I ok?  The response is positive. Sacha says that one of the boys has commented that her granny is ‘epic’. I like that!.

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Nicholas Milton

I am a marketing and communication expert with over 20 years experience. Over this time I have campaigned on issues I feel passionately about - conservation, climate change, racial equality, land reform, rural poverty and most recently international development. I am also a successful freelance journalist and have been published in the Guardian, Times, Daily Telegraph and the Independent.

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Email: nicholasmilton@hotmail.com Telephone: 0044 7880 622059

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