Time, gentlemen, please!

Please go to Objects and Subjects for farewell message!


At the outbreak of the Second World War I was a primary school child living in Eastbourne, Sussex on the south coast of England with my parents and baby brother. My father was then thirty-four years old and the pharmacist-manager of a branch of the Sussex and District Co-operative Society. He was probably too old to be scooped up in the first wave of conscription to face the all conquering German army. The British War Office deemed that Eastbourne was a likely site for a German invasion and so it moved most of the women and children inland. Consequently, business took a drastic downturn and my father decided to look elsewhere for a job. By chance, he found a promising opening in Norwich, the city in which he had spent a good part of his childhood and from where his own parents hailed. A few weeks later my mother, brother and I faced a long and much interrupted railway journey from the south coast to East Anglia. My memories of this trip have faded but I do remember vividly that the first street sign that I read on leaving Norwich Thorpe station was Eastbourne Place! That coincidence was very puzzling to my seven-year-old mind.

My father had found a suitable house for rent but it was not immediately available and so we were obliged to lodge with some maternal cousins of his. In those days, most people in the United Kingdom possessed marked regional accents. A journey of thirty or forty miles would take you from one population to another sounding quite different.  I suppose that I must have had a fairly pronounced Sussex burr, having already spent three or more years at school. The children of my father’s cousins had broad Norfolk accents. Moreover, they used quite a lot of dialect words which I had never heard before. Shortly after arrival, I was sent off to the local council school and left to fend for myself. I do remember being picked on because I sounded so funny to the locals. Once we had settled into our own house I was put into a small, one-roomed private school run by the formidable Mrs Athill and her unmarried daughter. I remained there for a number of years until I was able to gain a place at Norwich School, the immensely ancient institution that had been granted a Royal Charter by King Edward VI in 1546. I was lucky to have spent those years under the wing of Mrs Athill because she pushed me along sensing that I was a pupil keen to learn. I was luckier  still to get into Norwich School, a splendid establishment that encouraged academic prowess. It was situated in the wonderful Norwich Cathedral Close and made use of all kinds of very old buildings belonging to the Cathedral. The atmosphere of the school and the Close was such that it was impossible not to fall in love with the subject of history; a love affair that I retain to this day.

Norwich and East Anglia were somewhat off the beaten track. They were both situated well to the east of the main roads and railway lines which connected London to the North and to Scotland. East Anglia was very much an agricultural area with very little other industry. It was common to come across people who had spent their entire lives in Norfolk and who had never visited London, a scant one hundred and twenty  miles away. My parents and I were regarded quite suspiciously for the first two or three months of our stay because we had come from afar. By chance, my father told our landlord and next-door neighbour, one Billy Spalding, a general contractor and property owner, that he had been born in Great Yarmouth, a seaside resort on the Norfolk coast and had also attended school in Norwich. It was if a light had turned on because it quickly got around that he was a Norfolk Dumpling like the rest of them. Once the news spread, the locals were much kinder and forgiving of our strangeness.

At the beginning of the war, my father was probably too old for conscription. Moreover, he was a pharmacist and deemed, therefore, to be in a 'reserved occupation’. Although he was never called up, the family suffered otherwise: my mother’s younger brother was taken prisoner in North Africa by the Italians and subsequently perished when the ship that was transporting him to a camp in Italy was sunk by the Royal Air Force. My mother’s sister’s husband died when his ship was sunk when on convoy duty in the North Atlantic. My father’s sister’s husband was also lost at sea. Once the war was well underway, the enemy organised a series of bombing raids on non-strategic cities in England in order to reduce civilian morale - the so-called Baedeker raids. Norwich was singled out for some of these and a good deal of damage was caused to residential property. The principal city buildings: the Norman Cathedral, the Castle and many of the grand mediaeval churches escaped harm. Norwich School did not get off scot-free and the damage meant that various rooms in the bishop’s palace and the dean’s residence were pressed into service as emergency class rooms. Those in the latter were exceedingly quaint for the house dated from the thirteenth century and rooms lurked up twisting and dangerous staircases. The lintels over the doorways were very low and bruised foreheads were common. We survived and thought that it was all rather fun.

Living in a city, as I did, over which gentlemen in planes are dropping bombs with a view to causing mayhem, did not strike terror into my heart as it would today. Childishly, I assume that I accepted it as part of the curious way grown-ups managed day to day affairs.  George Orwell, in his essay, 'England, their England' had this to say about that very thing:   "As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me .They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are ‘only doing their duty’, as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil.”  Now that those events are seventy-five years in the past, I have digested the attempts made to murder me and have arrived at the same conclusion that Orwell did. I am not certain how I would feel if I lived in today’s Paris or London where ideologically driven nut jobs are conspiring to cause harm to passers by. The Nazis were driven by a warped ideology related to realpolitik, whereas some contemporary Muslims  think they are required by god to kill unbelievers. Somehow, the latter is more menacing than the former.  The Western Alliance could and did bomb the hell out the Germans. Today’s pestilence is more vague and diffuse and it is hard to know whom to strike in revenge or even if such striking would make the slightest difference to the pests.

A year or two after our arrival in Norwich, an old pharmacy that had been set up by its proprietor in the early nineteen hundreds came on the market. With the aid of a small loan, my father was able to take over the ownership and running of R. Fox (Chemists) Ltd. He remained its proprietor for forty years until he died. The premises were tiny and largely taken up by shelves of various pharmaceuticals and galenicals. There was one small drawer in which lipsticks and face powder were kept - items purchased by the parlour maids and factory girls from the local large houses nearby and the two factories situated down by the river several hundred yards away. As time passed, Fox’s prospered and major renovations were carried out so it came to resemble much more closely a modern pharmacy selling all kinds of merchandise. My father was also an optometrist - the combination of optometry with pharmacy was not at all uncommon in the UK back then. His updated enterprise included an optometric consulting room. 

The last throw of the Nazis against the civilian population of Great Britain was the deployment of the ‘doodle-bugs’ aka V1 and V2 rockets. The former were fairly clunky and flew across the North Sea at two or three hundred miles an hour at an altitude of ten to fifteen thousand feet. Their engines made a characteristic clattering noise. While you could hear it, you were safe. Then it stopped and the rocket plopped down out of the skies. That sudden silence was ominous for it was followed by an immense bang as it exploded on impact. So, it was not the noise of the engine that was scary, it was the silence that followed. “Is the damn thing going to fall upon my head?” The V2s were much more sinister for they flew at supersonic speeds and reached the stratosphere during their flight. They exploded more or less unheralded and did huge amounts of damage. Their inventor, Werner von Braun, was scooped up by the Americans at war’s end and obliged to assist them in developing rockets that subsequently took man to the moon. 

The British government of the day organised the Air Raid Precaution Service (ARP) and members were known as Air Raid Wardens. My father was duly drafted and was provided with a helmet and badge and tasked with ensuring that the neighbours observed the strictures of the ‘blackout’ by ensuring that not the merest chink of light emerged from curtained windows thus impeding the navigation of the Luftwaffe. These wardens sprang into action after air raids and were the first on the scene after bombs fell and had to evacuate the injured. It so happened that the old man was never called upon to carry out that role. His greatest claim to fame arrived when a nearby parade of shops was set on fire by a fall of incendiary bombs.  Father and his mates sprang into action and broke into the grocer’s shop and rescued the valuable bacon slicing machine much to the relief and gratification of the grocer. No medals were awarded for this act of heroism!

As the war progressed and the tide began to turn in the Allies favour, we saw squads of prisoners of war being marched from their camps to farmers’ fields, where they were employed as labourers. There was also a large number of airfields in East Anglia from which the remorseless bombing of Germany was organised. By day, vast numbers of American Air Force planes droned overhead on the way to bomb German cities and by night, equal numbers of Royal Air Force planes went on the same journey. For many months, not a day went by without the ceaseless roar of aircraft engines overhead. The ’success’ of all this activity was measured after the War when it was revealed that in much of Germany hardly two bricks remained standing  one upon the other. 

Well after the war, my mother told me that she felt that her thirties had been taken away from her: rationing, blackouts, air raids, personal loss and fear. We had moved to an apartment over the draper’s and haberdashery shop that she owned and she and my father spent a good number of their evenings in the sports room of the public house opposite, The Heartsease, playing table tennis, taking part in sing-songs and having a few beers. Early on, the licensee was an old Norfolk hand called Arthur Noble, greatly approved of by all his customers. Towards the end of the war, he was replaced by a smarty-pants Londoner called Les Diamond, belonging  to the celebrated Lupino family of show-biz fame. His modern, London ways were regarded with great suspicion by all the old stagers. But, he carried on one tradition, which was the call of, ‘Time Gentlemen, please,’ at ten o’clock precisely, after which, no further drinks were served. It is not inappropriate to repeat that old call as I ring down the curtain on this blog!

"Time gentlemen (and ladies), please!”                                                                                           Please go to Objects and Subjects for farewell message!

David Amies,

Lethbridge,

June 14, 2017