My grandfather joined the Auxiliary Fire Service in London before the Second World War, becoming a section leader in the new National Fire Service when it was formed. His “tinlid” helmet is still a prized possession, a tangible, tactile connection to the times he saw.
At the outbreak of the war, tens of thousands of women and children were evacuated from London to protect them from anticipated raids on the capital. Like many who were evacuated, my grandmother returned to London, preferring the risks of staying in her own home to living with the family with whom she and her two children had been billeted.
Air raids on London brought constant dangers for my grandfather. For my grandmother and her young children, the raids meant night after night spent in the air raid shelter in the garden. Chiswick, the west London suburb in which they lived, did not sustain the level of destruction experienced by the East End and Docklands, but there were fatal attacks, including bombs falling on the local dairy, an attack that claimed the life of my great grandfather.
Oddly, my Dad’s recollections of the raids seemed full of the excitement a small boy might have felt at an age when a child feels invulnerable and believes that life will last forever. Listening for the engines of V1 flying bombs, knowing that as long as the engine noise continued, the bomb would pass over; recounting the first V2 rocket hitting Chiswick yacht basin, where the supersonic speed meant there was no warning of the rocket’s approach: these things were never spoken of with fear.
Dad would recount a feeling of fright on VE Day in 1945 when the sirens were sounded to celebrate the end of the war in Europe, the sound prompted him to hide under the kitchen table. But there was only one cause of persistent fear to which Dad would admit, it came from a poem he learned in childhood days. The poem Antigonish was written by William Hughes Mearns, an American writer, in 1899 and subsequently re-published with various revisions, and was recorded by the Glenn Miller Orchestra in 1939, with Tex Beneke singing the lyrics.
As I was going up the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there!
He wasn’t there again today,
Oh how I wish he’d go away!
What was it in the words of a popular song that could have been more frightening than the daily dangers of bombing and the daily stories of death and destruction? Is a sinister unknown always more frightening than a reality that is experienced?