Childhood: today versus the 70s and 80s

Tina has a fantastic photo of our children re-uniting after several months apart. As you can imagine they are joyfully jumping up and down, chatting loudly over each other and embracing. Actually I tell a lie: the reason the photo is so brilliant is that it perfectly depicts today’s children;  they are all sat closely together on a hotel bed, heads down and deeply engaged in ipads. I found myself wondering if this is a sad sign of our times: where children are losing the art of conversation and spontaneous playing with their friends; preferring the online company of friends or strangers. Or where the creativity of den-building is forever lost to the creativity of city building, courtesy of Minecraft. I suspect the answer is not clear cut; as for some children the anonymity of computers may help develop their social skills and what the picture doesn’t show is the playful moments that came before this, or the cartwheels on the grass the next day. And although difficult to ascertain from a photograph, the way they were bundled together on the bed also demonstrated a deep bond and comfort they feel in each other’s presence.

Nevertheless, the photograph highlighted the stark difference from my childhood in the 70s and 80s: I recall den building, tree-house building, staying out all day, running through a field causing mayhem…the farmer shooting at us…yep, vastly different to today’s indoor, electrical and social media-focused children!

Some of my fondest childhood memories involve the bi-annual visit to my grandparents; who chose to settle three-and-a-half hours away in the coastal town of Clacton-on-Sea.  As a child sufferer of car-sickness (although oddly enough, usually only on this particular journey…) my elder brother must have really looked forward to the long journey cosseted in the back seat with me.  Predictably an hour or so into the journey, my window would wind down, as I desperately breathed in fresh air.   After eliminating the contents of my stomach, the car would stop, out would come my fresh clothes – specially packed for the occasion – and the journey would resume.  On one of these journeys I lost one of my favourite Christmas presents; an almost life-sized doll.  Taking her out of the car with me for the big-sick-clean-up, we forgot to put her back in and when we drove back minutes later to retrieve her, she had been taken! Sickness and wailing for the remainder of the journey; what a treat for my long-suffering brother!

On another occasion my brother, desperately trying to distract me from vomiting, came up with the ingenious idea of playing hide and seek with some used chewing gum.  After several innovative hiding places in the back of the car, I had the inspired idea of hiding it in the depths of my hair – he would never think to look there! Sibling rivalry points notched up for me as he looked around the car in vain. However, my imagined superiority was soon kicked into touch when we arrived at Clacton and I had to endure a bowl hair cut to remove said chewing gum, courtesy of my mum, with my brother smirking in the background.

Unfortunate haircut aside, I loved the excitement of staying at my grandparents house.  For a child, it was filled with treasures and knick knacks that inspired wonder and necessitated exploring! Together with my brother and dog, we would camp in the living room and raid their chocolate tin when all was quiet in the house. We assumed they never knew of our midnight feast, but looking back perhaps the tin was filled up precisely for that special occasion! I was intrigued by the small black and white television in their bedroom that had two knobs on it; one to turn it on and off and the other to wind up to locate each of the four television channels. I loved exploring their sheds; one where granddad would show me his war paraphernalia – mostly stored in jam jars – and the other creepy, long-forgotten-shed at the bottom of the garden; where my brother would push me in before him to clear his entrance of cobwebs and spiders. I loved the old-fashioned, musty-smelling board games; particularly scoop and mad marbles.

Mad Marbles board game

Mad Marbles board game



And was fascinated by their telephone with a wind-up-dial and a secret drawer at the bottom that popped out with people’s telephone numbers written on it. 312_black_small2I was puzzled (and still am!) by the toilet paper that looked and felt like crispy tracing paper and really, really hurt! And we used to hang onto the car seat in terror as our grandad drove us speedily into town, minus seatbelts I recall, not a care in the world. I used to think he was reckless, but now, considering the danger he faced as a rear gunner in WWII (Rear gunners: a perilous and lonely war), driving fast probably felt like a walk in the park and I doubt seatbelt safety had been fully-realized in those days.

As much as we might crave those heady days for our children, it’s worth also remembering the less-rosy aspects of the ‘old days’. Walking in the dark to find a vacant phone box to call my parents when I was at University was less-than-pleasant and I struggle to recall an average day at work before the advent of email! Even in recent years, contacting my husband on detachment relied on electronic eblueys, whereas now you can have immediate contact (if they are ever in their tent…) via FaceTime.  For me, today’s ideal for our children is a good combination of the old and the new…

Rear gunners: a perilous and lonely war

Wellington Bomber's rear gunner's turret RAF museum, Cosford

Wellington Bomber’s rear gunner’s turret
RAF Museum, Cosford

This tiny turret, right at the tail end of a Wellington Bomber, is where my grandad spent much of the war.  Squeezed into this transparent dome, Ronald, a rear gunner in 115 Squadron,  spent many hours a night flying backwards in cramped, freezing and solitary conditions.  But he was one of the lucky ones:  he came home.  For the life expectancy of a rear gunner was desperately short; estimates vary but suggest that they could expect to be shot down, or killed, within two weeks, or up to five operations.  My grandad flew and survived 30 operations, which was classed as a whole tour.

The rear gunner’s -often known as tail-end Charlie’s – primary role was to be a lookout: to defend his aircraft from enemy fighter attack from the rear of the plane and to warn the pilot when to undertake evasive manoeuvres.  This meant flying in this confined, see-through turret, enveloped by the pitch-black sky and constantly revolving the turret to scan the eerie darkness for a shadow that could be an attacking night fighter.  Daydreaming was not an option as relaxing this constant vigilance – for even a moment – could result in death for everyone on board.

Grandad's log book entry, 29/04/42

Grandad’s log book entry, 29/04/42

Grandad's log book entry, 29/07/42

Grandad’s log book entry, 29/07/42

Staring at the rear gunners position on a Lancaster at IWM Duxford  [which has the same rear position as a Wellington], I struggle to comprehend how a grown man could enter and fit into this seemingly-uninhabitable small space, let alone spend up to eight hours a night, flying backwards in such cramped and surely claustrophobic conditions.

Rear Gunner's turret on a Lancaster, RAF Duxford

Rear Gunner’s turret on a Lancaster, RAF Duxford

Protruding right at the back of a huge and heavy plane, the turret’s position must have made the rear gunners feel so isolated, so far from the rest of the crew and so lonely.  I poignantly wonder what was worse; the isolation, the vulnerability, or maybe even the pressure from the sense of responsibility for the lives of everyone on board.  On their own at the end of the plane, a sheet of draughty perspex and metal between them and the surrounding darkness; they were completely exposed and bitterly cold in their transparent turret.   They would have known that their position often put them first in line for elimination by the enemy fighter planes, who tended to attack from the rear and under the belly of the bomber, so that they could attack without fear of being shot at.   According to Yorkshire Air Museum,  20,000 rear gunners lost their lives during WWII.

A recruitment video from WWII, left me with the sense that each role on board these planes was inter-dependent on each other.  They most likely had complete trust in each other and probably felt rather helpless or vulnerable when the operation was out of their hands.  Whether it was the pilots hearing gunfire from one of the gunners and not knowing exactly what was happening; or the front gunner handing over to the rear gunner, or vice versa, as the enemy plane veered by; or one of the gunners telling the pilot to take evasive action, their lives depended upon each other.  Imagine the susceptibility the gunners must have felt from their detached position as the plane dived to escape an enemy fighter; or was hit by enemy fire and spun out of control: smoke and flames pouring from its crippled engine.

Grandad's log book entry, 02/07/42

Grandad’s log book entry, 02/07/42

And yet, reading this entry from my grandad’s log, it just seems like another day at work.  How humbling that such a – surely terrifying – moment can be summed up in so few words.  As Mark, a friend and author of  Caribbean Volunteers at War, poignantly said: ‘Within those few words, lies an entire film.’

My grandfather died when I was at University and as most young people do, I paid scant interest in his wartime exploits.  I fondly remember him showing me some of his wartime memorabilia in his garden shed and I treasure my grandmother’s Wings that the wives were given.  But my dad says he rarely talked about his wartime experiences.

Ronald, my grandad

Ronald, my grandad

I do remember his effervescent personality and now as I stare at this turret at IWM Duxford, I wonder if his wartime experiences led to that zest for life, or perhaps he was always like that, which might help explain how he endured so many hours in such a lonely place.

And I remember my grandmother and her sister saying how us young people don’t know how lucky we are: how they didn’t see their husbands for up to a year, or more, during the war.  Whenever I have felt a bit low during my husband’s deployments, their words ring true in my mind; after all, what is a few months, compared to a year or longer?


Grandma's Wings

Grandma’s Wings

Understated diary entry

July 1942Whilst looking through my granddad’s log book from WWII, I was struck by this entry:  for what must have been an absolutely terrifying moment in time, which happened 3768 weeks ago, on 02 July 1942, comes across as so matter-of-fact in the way it was written up.  As a friend said to me, “Within those few lines, lies an entire film.”