Friday, May 30, 2008

Gone With The Wind

from Jacqueline

My parents have been here for almost four weeks, staying with my brother who lives about five minutes walk from my house, which makes it easy for them to walk back and forth, dinner with me one night, then back to him the next. There’s always that easy time after you’ve had a meal (OK, last night it was mushroom omelette, sausage and chips, because we’d been out all day and I was running out of original ideas), when you sit back and talk, and I’ve found that as we all get older, that talk is increasingly about the past.

As soon as my parents arrive, I know I need to have a very large pile of books ready for my mother, who inhales novels, reading at least one a day. When she’s worked her way through my bookshelves, she goes off to the local library and buys from the sale shelves for a couple of bucks a book, then takes them all back to the library before she goes home. Last weekend she bought a copy of Gone With The Wind, because she wanted to read it again. And after dinner last night, we started talking about the famous book, about the Civil War and on and on, dipping and diving over new threads of story as they came up, like porpoises flying in and out of the waves. Then mum told me the story of when she went to see the movie, in her teens. It was in the middle of the Blitz, and she had saved up to go to the pictures (what Brits call going to the movies), taking her seat with a blanket to keep her warm, and a hot water bottle to make sure. Part way through the film, it was stopped to announce the air-raid warning, and the manager said that the film would continue to play, but if people wanted to leave to go down to the air-raid shelters, then they should go now. Mum said there was no way she was going to leave that picture house, snuggled up in her blanket and cuddling the hot-water bottle to her. She said she remembered hearing the bombs raining down outside, and hoping the they wouldn’t be hit until after the film finished. When she came out it was to a very different landscape indeed – probably not unlike the film she’d just seen.

My mother has lots of stories about the second world war, most of them from the perspective of a child (she was not quite twelve when the war began) and as young woman, and she remembered so much, probably because it was seared into her memory. And it could be that, because of those stories, and knowing the legacy of that experience in one person to whom I am very close, I have always been more than a little interested in the impact of wars on children, whether they were evacuees in Britain in 1939, orphans in Romania in the late 1980’s, or child-soldiers in Africa. War always seems to be particularly ruthless in its impact on children. And because I’m writing a book about a child in a time of war, I did not hesitate when I came across a book called, “War Child: Children Caught In Conflict,” by Martin Parsons.

Now, I’ve often said that a book bought for “research” purposes is worth every penny spent even if I get only one small nugget of insight, one tiny little fact to weave into story, one thought, one image to help me bring life to characters and color to scenes. I already understood so much about the evacuees’ experience from my mother’s stories, so there wasn’t much there that was new in that section, however, there was one snippet of insight from Parsons that had me thinking for days – and I’ve been mulling it over ever since. By the way, I should add that Dr. Martin Parsons is the director of the new International Research Center for Evacuee and War Child Studies at the University of Reading in England, and has a string of affiliations that speak to his passion and involvement in issues involving the children of war, In his book, Parsons says that it takes three generations for the effects of war to work their way out of the family system (so multiply that by the community, the region, the country). And that set me to thinking.

I was quite young, probably five years old, when I began listening intently to my mother’s stories, even if she told the same ones time and time again. As I grew older, more detail was added, and I knew it was because I was considered mature enough to understand. At first, the whole evacuation experience sounded like a day out at the seaside, then later I came to ache when I thought of the terror of four sisters (my mother was evacuated along with her younger siblings) billeted to the home of a man we would today call a pedophile, and how it must have felt to be her, fighting to remain awake at night so that she could protect her sisters if necessary. To accomplish this feat, she bought dressmaking pins that she wove through her pajamas - she thought that if the man put his hands in the bed, he would soon take them out again, and the pins would wake her if she stirred when he came into the room. I thought of my uncle, who was seven when he ran away from his billet, because he missed his mother, and was sent to a reformatory for three months because he stole a bottle of milk when he was hungry on his long walk back to London. And I think of my mother, wrapped up in her blanket, watching Gone With The Wind.

The thing is that I was terrified when I went to bed at night. We lived just a few miles away from a small airfield, and sometimes at night you would hear, in the distance, the sound of an old ‘plane coming closer. And when I heard that whining rumble of the aircraft approaching, I would begin to sweat with fear, because I thought it might be bombers coming over, and I would hide under my bed until morning, when I was always surprised to be alive. The war had been over for more than twenty years by then.

My mother lives with other legacies from that war, and I cannot say I haven’t been impacted by it – not in a big way, but enough to understand Parsons’ “three generations” claim. And while on my book tour, I managed to meet up with my aunt in Canada, and we began to talk about her experiences in the war – she was the youngest of the girls and the one my mother feared for the most. My aunt told me that she had felt like an orphan for the first ten years of her life, because she was but four when she was sent away, and ten when she came home – and her memories prior to being sent away were fuzzy at best.

And in the way that events dovetail, I rented “Charlie Wilson’s War” last week – I’d missed it when it came into the theatres. There was that scene, close to the end, when Charlie – having accomplished the feat of directing billions of dollars to fight a covert war against the Russians in Afghanistan – was asking for just one million dollars to build schools in a war-torn country, because he knew the tormented minds needed direction, needed to see a different future. Of course, he was turned down.

We’ve all read reports of the impact of conflict on children – indeed children are used worldwide in war propaganda - and we know that the ills of childhood don’t easily go away in adulthood. Fortunately, there are people trying to help in war-torn areas, whether as individuals or as a part of a wider organization.

Here are the closing words of Parson’s book, quoted from Dr. Peter Heinl, the world’s leading expert on war-related trauma in children:

“... sadly there is no end in sight for wars on this planet. The childhood sufferers of today will be the suffering adults of tomorrow. Peace stands by helplessly. There is one conclusion, which can be drawn firmly with respect to children in war time, be it victory or defeat: children tend to be the great losers overlooked by history.”

For my humble part, I am going to find some small way in which I can help change this situation. It may be just a donation to the right organization, a school, perhaps. Children shouldn’t be scared of bombs in the night and of predators coming to their doors as they sleep.


  1. Brilliant and important post, Jackie. Thank you for taking the time to write it, and for sharing your mother's memories. Heartbreaking, truly.

  2. Blood Diamond (the film) impacted my view on children in war zones with a strength that I haven't been able to shake. I still look at the diamond on my left ring finger and pray that no child was impacted by the purchase of my wedding set.

    Whether children are sent away from their parents to be under the care of a filthy predator or taken away from their parents to be trained as skilled marksmen and assassins, the scars are permanent and lasting. (Lasting beyond even their children's generation, according to Dr. Parsons.) Unfortunately, children often come last, even in peaceful societies. Funding for education consistently sits further down on the budget sheets than that of military reinforcement.

    It is a sad realization, and I'm left feeling helpless. Thank you for the reminder to look beyond myself once again. I'm looking forward to the future release of your book.

  3. I also worry about children impacted by the devastation brought on by Mother Nature like the recent earthquake in China. Wonderful post, Our J.

  4. from Jacqueline

    Thank you, Louise and Lindsay. I couldn't watch Blood Diamond, just the beginning was too much for me. As far as diamonds go, I've decided I can't tell the difference between the good fakes and the real thing anyway - so I recently bought myself some lovely faux diamond earrings, a bit of bling without the worry.

    And Patty, I was going to add in the post, that "war" can mean the war we wage against poverty, starvation, sickness, and post-natural disaster suffering, but there was only so much space. Doesn't that sound like a moral for our times? Only so much that we can all do.

  5. Thank you, Jacqueline, for yet another of your beautifully insightful and meaningful posts. My mother in law talks about some of the better times in London during the Blitz. Her invalid father was a chef for the uso canteen there, as well as working for one of the nicer restaurants. She recalls briefly meeting Glenn Miller during a search for a broom before the canteen opened for the evening, being evacuated, her mother's flighty need to travel and 'experience' things, boarders, bombs, rationing, theatre cues, shopping, etc, during and after the war, before she came to the USA. It's a wealth of knowledge and stories that are fascinating.

    No child should see or experience what some of them do. Too easily dismissed and disposed of, by an increasing number of adults who say they aren't responsible for any of it, but too often are.

    I don't own any diamonds. When Bob asked me what I wanted for an engagement ring, I told him amber and amethyst in silver. So he went and had it designed and made up, and it is totally unique.

    In Australia, some of the evacuated children from blitz-ravaged London were told that their families were dead and that there was no point in going home again. Imagine the heartbreak when now middle aged evacuees found out otherwise. Some found their families again, for others it was too late as parents had died in the interim. Apparently ours wasn't the only country it happened in, sad to say.


  6. This is a beautiful post, Our J.

    Thank you.

  7. from Jacqueline

    Thanks so much for your comment, Marianne, and thank you, too, Cornelia. Marianne, you may be interested in a book published some years ago, by a man called Ben Wicks: No Time To Wave Goodbye. Wicks was originally from the East End of London and was evacuated during the war. In 1957 he emigrated to Canada and became a well-known syndicated cartoonist. He wanted to write a book about the evacuation experience, and placed a small ad in some British newspapers asking for people who had been evacuated to share their stories - and he was just about overwhelmed by the response, with many letters coming from men and women who began, "I've never been able to talk about this, but ..." or "I've kept this to myself for many a year...." People wept as they wrote for the first time about something that had happened nigh on fifty years earlier. His book combines personal memoir along with those letters and is so raw in places, you just have to weep. He later became quite an advocate for children caught in conflict around the world. (He also owned a pub in Toronto, which shows how versatile people can be!).

  8. brilliant jackie. your post was once again the topic at our saturday breakfast table.

    i can just imagine your mother telling you all these stories. it must be her you get this gift from.

    i remember "no one waved good bye". didn't we publish that?

    have a wonderful weekend with your family!


  9. Sybille, you know, "No Time To Wave Goodbye" might have been published originally by Hutchinson, though I know Bloomsbury brought out a paperback later (but at the same time, I think Bloomsbury inherited some of the Hutch backlist). Anyway, it was a good book and certainly heartbreaking. It's always lovely to hear from you on the blog, Sybille - and glad to be of service, vis a vis your Saturday morning subject-matter!

  10. My mother was one of the first warbrides to come over to the states. I have heard stories of being in the bomb shelters during the air raids and her wedding dress was made down there from an old parachute. I still have it! I also remember her telling us about the two boys that were placed in her mother's house during the evacuation of the children from London. She always wondered what became of them in life. I agree that it must take three generations to rid one's mind of the war. I think about things that happened to my mother during the war all the time! I am 52. That isone of the reason's why I enjoy your books so much. It is like having my family around me. They have all died now. Thanks again for your work!!!

  11. Thank you, "anonymous" for the story of your mother being a "GI Bride." And you know, quite a few brides walked up the aisle in wedding dresses made of parachute fabric - it was the only material that you could get in the length required to make a dress! My aunt fell in love with an American in the war, but the thought of being so far from England made her break off her relationship with him - as your mother would have told you, when those girls went over to America, many of them on the Queen Mary, they thought they would never see home again. Thanks so much for your comment.

  12. Actually it was the Ille de France. She was given 24 hours notice to get on a train going to Southampton. The train station was bombed as they pulled out. They put the 12 women on a ship with the wounded. As the war was still going on, they could not notify my Dad, already back in New York. He would come down to the docks each time a ship was due in , hoping that she would be on it. She never could adjust to the States and they moved back to England numerous times over their lifetime, finally in West Sussex to retire.

  13. Glad my book was of help to you and 'got you thinking' about the generational issues.
    I have written a number of books on evacuation including 'I'll Take That One' and 'Evacuation the True Story' specifically about the plight of UK Evacuees. I am presently doing extensive research into the Belfast Evacuation in WW2. I have a new book (ed) coming out in August called 'Children: the Invisible Victims of warfare' which is an interdisciplinary study of war children.

    Best wishes
    Martin Parsons