'I was there'
Someone, someday, is going to present me with an expectant face and ask me about the Battle of Britain, and I, if I'm not careful, will be bereft of the sort of answer likely to satisfy a young son who wants to know what it was really like up there. Clearly I must be able to say I saw the Few in action in 1940, even if I didn't perform miraculous gyrations in a beat-up Hurricane.
But did I? Or was I on one of the half-dozen evacuation excursions organized by my mother? About twice a year during the war, usually after a period of nocturnal incarceration in the Anderson shelter or under the stairs in the cellar, she packed our bags, picked a place on the map that appealed to her verbal aesthetic and led me from the shadow of death and destruction to pastures new and peaceful. That they remained peaceful never ceased to surprise me. An indomitable spirit did nothing to diminish Mother's essential gentility and no billeting officer could persuade her to consider a lodging without her conducting discreet, but for me embarassing, inspections of the abodes he had to offer. It had to be clean, it had to be quiet and it had to smell right. The smell wasn't the least important.
There was one dark Dorset night when we met a crooked old crone in a pony and trap on the edge of what might have been Hardy's Egdon Heath. From the moment I scrambled up beside her I resigned myself to Mother's inevitable rejection. Not so much would it be because of the primal expanse opening out before us as because of the smell. The old crone smelt, the pony and trap smelt, of honey, an all-pervading, cloying saccharine smell that wouldn't suit Mother at all if it hung around the house, even if the house were a mansion. It was a tiny cottage, and you couldn't move for honeycombs. "A little too far from the village," apologised my mother more sweetly than the atmosphere, and we returned in the trap to the edge of Egdon Heath with my ears burning like beacons.
It had been dark when we arrived in the town that evening and I was buttoned up in an overcoat that made the straps of my gas mask cut into me. That's significant, because if it was overcoat weather it wasn't late summer, when the Battle of Britain took place, so we weren't in Dorset.
And we certainly weren't at Ipswich during the Battle, because that's where we, and nearly everyone else from the London and Essex border country, arrived in September, 1939, twenty-four hours after Hitler began tramping all over Poland. I heard Chamberlain's sad little speech from someone's knee in a rose-coloured cottage overlooking the first field of corn I'd ever really seen. I went into it later and sat waiting for the Gothas and zeppelins Mother had told me about. But Ipswich didn't hold us long.
Was it Somerset, then? One strives for a memory, some whiff to key it to a month, if not a year . . . a forgotten single-track railway disappearing into a usurping copse . . . saplings pushing aside rusted metal and rising between tired twisted sleepers . . . birds squatting on the line like crotches on a stave . . . a speckled-blue trush's egg I stole, God forgive me, from a nest in a hawthorn bush. But trushes don't lay after June, and as we left for London soon after we couldn't have been in Somerset during the Battle.
There was a place in Buckinghamshire . . . waking in a bright, sunshot bedroom to utter quiet, with no memory of a queasy turn of the stomach as the siren went the night before . . . but a sharp recollection of the night before that, three bombs screaming down with awful clarity and killing the Browns across the road and buckling a branch of the L.N.E.R. That was 1941, so we weren't sheltering in Buckinghamshire during the Battle. Nor could it have been Oxford, because that was where the Oxford University Press, itself evacuated from the blitzed Amen House in London, gave me an after-school job ruling up ledgers and delivering books to the colleges. It was always dark when I visited the gloomy porter's lodges, peering past the stern incumbents like Jude the Obscure to see as much as I could before being frowned away. The point is that if it was dark that early in the evening it must have been winter again, so it wasn't Oxford.
Cambridge, then? (Mother thought we should visit both seats of learning if only to show our impartiality.) That was where the son of the house kept a diary of the war, so I kept one, too. It came from Boots and was interleaved with utility blotting paper that didn't blot and smudged half the entries. Wonderful phrases carefully culled from the papers and 6 o'clock news went into that diary . . . "British troops invade Sicily" . . . "II Duce resigns; Italy under martial law" . . . "Russians repulse Germans at Byelgorod" . . . "R.A.F. bombers breach Ruhr dams" . . . Now when were the Dam Busters in action . . . 1943, says the history book, which means it wasn't Cambridge, either.
That leaves Newmarket . . . a friendly high street, American soldiers letting small boys and big girls have endless rides with them on the dodgems at the fair . . . early-morning mists hanging over the heath and wraithing a single line of horses and trainers . . . Tehran winning the Ledger . . . Spiky Jones, a stableboy as thin as a riding crop and not much taller went with me to the pictures to celebrate something or other and he frightened me terribly by falling into what I thought was a coma. I dug and punched him in the ribs for ten minutes before stealing outside to buttonhole another riding crop and tell him the worst. But apparently it was Spiky's normal way of seeing a film after having risen before the sun. When did Tehran win the Ledger . . . 1944.
It seems, then, that I wasn't away from home during the Battle of Britain, and that dogfight I remember risking my neck to see in a flawless blue sky beribboned with creamy vapour trails might well have been part of it . . . "I can hear them firing!" "They've got one!" "Look, he's doing a Victory roll!" "there goes a parachute." Yes, it must have been. In fact, when I come to think about it there'll be quite a bit to tell the boy . . . .