War Baby by A C Clarke
This is partly a memoir of a war-time and post-war childhood, a period which seems very remote now, even if you were alive then (which I only just was, having been born in 1954, early enough to have a ration card, but too late to remember it), and impossibly different in many ways from the one we live in now. It was far from the golden age of allotments, home-baking and hand-knitted jumpers, and seaside holidays like the ones in the Enid Blyton books advertisers and brexiteers seem to believe. It was an era characterised by war-time shortages and a long period of austerity afterwards, by restrictions and discomfort, by a lingering fear of death and terrible, because unspoken, anxieties and by a dangerous emphasis on compliance and deference that left bullies in charge, and children isolated and unprotected.
I said yes. You always said yes to grownups
All this is evoked in this short pamphlet. A.C. Clarke turns an unsparing eye on the past of her family, the death of her baby sister, the discord, social aspirations and sibling rivalries
I see myself squat as a monolith
blocking your light, you cold in my shadow.
She revives unerringly that childhood sense of being small in a grownup world that didn’t feel it necessary to explain, but simply changed things at will – houses, regulations, brothers (a half-brother arrives out of nowhere, and later disappears without explanation). The cold houses, the stodgy, unimaginative food, the uncomfortable clothing
Liberty? What generations
were prisoned in your sturdy cotton
like chickens trussed for the pot!
are evoked without drama, as the everyday facts they were, not period props. Coronation Day gets a mention, of course, but without nostalgia – the day is not one of pomp and celebration, but tedium, and the exhausted attempt to behave properly:
The children clutch paper flags.
They wait and wait. no-one moves out of line
though dizzy with heat. At last
a long procession of limousines.
The children wave their flags. Perhaps
they raise a cheer.
When I went to the launch, there were several people of my generation, and the reading sparked conversations that we hadn’t had before. Our parents, almost universally, had been reluctant to talk about the war, but all the playground games were of soldiers and nurses, fighter pilots and escaping prisoners. We remembered blackout curtains and flat irons, the terrible smogs and the nursery food, of course. But now we began to ask ourselves how our parents had coped with the hardships and traumas of war, how it had changed the dynamics of our family lives. It’s not often you get a book so thought-provoking, so revealing, and yet with A.C. Clarke’s meticulous craft and control. It was a joint winner of the Cinnamon pamphlet competition, and well deserves its prize.