Torn Loyalties of an Evacuee


Doreen, by Barbara Noble, tells the story of a nine-year-old girl who is evacuated from a London slum during WW2,  and cared for by a well-to-do couple in the country. In the few short months she is there, she is torn between love of this new life, offering undreamed-of opportunities, and love of her mother and the old, known world. The pull between ‘Mum’ and ‘Them’ is emphasised by the way her name is pronounced: she is Doreen at home, and Doreen in the country. The adults on each side of the divide, believe their way will be best for Doreen – but ultimately they all acknowledge that she fulfills an emotional need in their own lives. And if she stays in the country and learns to ‘better’ herself, will it equip her to cope with life when she returns to the East End?

I bought it because I was curious to see the ‘other side’ of evacuation. My mother was brought up on a kind of smallholding, in a small town near London, and an entire school was moved to the area to escape the bombs in the East End.  Like many others, her family took in evacuees, and Mum, who was 12 when war broke out, attended their school, staying until she was 16 (instead of leaving at 14 as she would have done at the local school). Because they were so close to London, sometimes the evacuees’ mothers visited, and sometimes the girls would catch a train to Waterloo to spend a weekend with their loved ones, taking Mum with them. Like Doreen, she found cconflict between two very different worlds, but in her case it was London and the people she met there who opened her eyes to new things and new ideas.

Hundreds of thousands of children packed on to trains taking them to homes in the country. Like them, Doreen carrid her possessions in a small suitcase, and would have carried her gas mask in a box with a shoulder strap. Pic courtesy of BBC – see full details here.

Anyway, back to Doreen. She and her mother, Mrs Rawlings, live in two rooms at the top of a dilapidated house, with a shared gas stove and sink on the landing. Doreen is small, pale, polite and well spoken, but very quiet – rather an insignificent child.  However, when she smiles (which isn’t often), her face comes alive. Her mother, an office cleaner,  is large, dour and joyless, but she doesn’t have much to be joyful about. The one bright thing in her life is her daugher, and she loves her fiercely – so much so that she cannot bear to send Doreen away when the school is evacuated. No other arrangemts for Doreen’s education seem to have been made, and she spends her time time alone in the flat, accompanying her mother to work, or playing with a friend who has also remained in London. I’m not sure I like Mrs Rawlings much, but I had to admire her because life has dealt her a rough hand, but nevertheles she’s proud and independent, and loves her daughter, and works hard scratching a living for the two of them as best she can.

Then the brief lull of the ‘Phoney War’ comes to an end, the bombs start falling, and as the unrelenting terror of the Blitz continues, night after night, Mrs Rawlings realises that London is no longer a safe place for her young daughter. One morning a secretary in the offices spots her crying, and comes to the rescue. It is agreed that Doreen will stay with Miss Osborne’s brother Geoffrey and his wife Francie, who cannot have a child of their own. It seems to be an ideal solution: Doreen adjusts surpisingly quickly, does well at school and makes friends. The Osbornes love her, and she loves them – and therein lies part of the problem, because her mother regards the Osbornes as a threat to her own relationship with the child, and fears Doreen will get ideas above her station.

i like to think that Doreen might have looked something like these girls, pictured gathering vegetables during WW2. The picture comes from the Garden Museum site, and you can find full details here.

Things take a turn for the worse when Doreen’s soldier father (who abandoned his wife and child years before) appears on the scene, decides her new life is ‘not suitable’ and takes her away, followed by the frantic Osbornes who rush to London to tell Mrs Rawlings what hs happened.. There are some some graphic accounts accounts of war-torn London. with people packed into tube stations during air raids, and the incomprehensible scale of the damage above ground. The couple take a taxi across London, and find their route blocked by a trestle barrier. “Behind the barrier, a giant with a giant bag of grey dust had apparently emptied the contents all over the houses on either side, Tiles, glass and miscellaneous rubbish choked the surface of the road, and further down, the inevitable gap, broken tooth in ruined mouth, showed where the bomb had landed,” Noble writes.

There are other disturbing images of the devastation, like the burned-out warehouse where Doreen and her mother used to shelter in a basement during air raids – now nothing is left but the ‘menacing’ girders. However, what stayed in my mind was the empty window in Doreen’s home there has been no glass for three or four months, Mrs Rawlings reveals, in flat, matter-of-fact tones, She doesn’t explain any further, but it’s implicitly understood that replacing the glass is pointless, because it will only be shattered by falling bombs again, and again, and again.

Doreen’s father takes down to a tube shelter to join families sheltering from an airraid. Pic courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, which is well worth a visit. It has a lot of information and exhibits about WW2, including , ncluding small suitcases used by evacuee children, and letters they wrote home. Full details of photo here.

But what really shocked me was the belief of Doreen’s parents that everyone knows their place and must accept their lot. They don’t want Doreen to be better educated and better informed, with the chance of a better life. Mr Rawlings tells his estranged wife: “You’d have done better sending her away to people of her own station.” And Mrs Rawlings is of the same mind. “She’s got to live the life she was born to,” she says. “The war won’t last for ever, but I’ll never be able to do much more for her than what I do now. She’ll have to face up to that.”

I guess their attitude was typical of the time, just as no-one asks Doreen what she wants to do. The only person who considers the girl’s thoughts about her future is Mr Osborne’s sister. “It was on the tip of Helen’s tongue to ask her if she wanted to go back, but she decided that this was an injudicious question, whatever the reply, and she said nothing,.”

I really enjoyed this book, and the way the author reveals the back stories of characters, so you can see how their experiences shaped them into the people they are now. She’s very good at getting inside people’s heads and giving different points of view – the child Doreen, the Osbornes, Mrs Rawlings. The dilemma of Doreen’s future is not something easily resolved: you know the outcome will bring heartache for someone, and I felt so much for the characters I couldn’t say whether the final decision was right or wrong.

It’s published by the ever-wondeful Persephone Books, who have moved to Bath.

A Perfect Book!

The original cover of Richard Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside, published by Harper Collins in l973.

I had never noticed before that the canal here was as clear as a chalk  stream. Yellow water lilies drooped like balls of molten wax on the surface. Near the edge of the water drifts of newly hatched fish hung in the shallows,” writes Richard Mabey in the opening chapter of The Unofficial Countryside. And that’s just for starters. He goes on to describe how the last swallows of the season are ‘hawking’ for flies over the water, there’s a brilliant spike of purple loosestrife in the distance, and the towpath is ‘festooned’ with wine-tinted hemp agrimony blooms.

The latest edition of The Unofficial Countryside, beautifully produced by Little Toller Books.

You could be forgiven for thinking he is in the country, but this spot is on the edge of London, right next to a large pumping station. And that, really, is the theme of Mabey’s book, for in it he explores nature in its many varied forms in ‘marginal’ landscapes – motorway verges, dockyards, bomb sites, rubbish dumps, a sewage farm, car parks and gravel pits, as well as gardens and parks. He finds plants, birds, insects and animals flourishing in the most unlikely places. And he also records brief sightings of wildlife and plants spotted from the windows of trains, buses and cars. Nature, as he tells us, is remarkably resiliant. But that doesn’t mean it’s OK to destroy te natural world, and he sounds a warning bell for the future, a plea for us to live with nature. “There is a limit to the recuperative powers of the natural world,” he stresses. “It will always fight back, but it cannot survive outright eradication.”

The book really resonates with me because I’ve always been fascinated by the way plants flourish in the oddest locations. The alley at the back of our house produces an ever-chaning display of ‘weeds’ which push their way though a hairline gap between the Tarmac surface and a crumbling wall. All kinds of grasses have taken root, along with dead nettles (red and white), groundsel, shepher’s purse, dandelions, goatsbeard (or possibly hawkbit, I always have problems identifying them), and even the odd forget-me-not and occasional marigold. The plants attract insects, and the insects attract birds, so a tiny (very tiny!) habitat is established, ignored, I suspect, by everyone except me! Even more strangely, a short walk away, there are plants growing out of the top of the stonework on the Victorian railway arches. Who would have thought anything could thrive in such an unnatural environment, with trains thundering alongside, and a busy urban road below!

Buddleia growing in the stonework of the railway arch near my home.

To be honest, I loved this book so much it’s difficult to know what to mention – I could open it at any page and something to enthuse about. I love Mabey’s writing. His lyrical descriptions of the natural world contrast with his accounts of surrounding urban dereliction, while his emotional responses have a simple honesty. He also includes snippets of prose and poetry, bits of folklore, history, botany and zoology, as well as odd facts about the flora and fauna he enounters.

For example, did you know that a single rosebay willowherb produces 80,000 seeds, each one a ‘superb example of survival engineering’ – little hairy parachutes which will be borne away on the wind. I think that’s pretty amazing, don’t you?

Mabey’s nature writing broke new ground when The Unofficial Countryside was first published in 1973, and it’s every bit as relevant now as it was then and is, I think, very accessible. He celebrates the commonplace weeds and pests that other people may overlook or, worse still, try to eradicate. But he also welcomes rarities and exotics. They all have their own kind of beauty, and they all have a role to play.

A wonky photo of one of Mary Newcomb’s illustrations in The Unofficial Countryside.

A more recent edition has been published by Wiltshire-based Little Toller Books, and it is really beautiful, printed on lovely, thick, smooth paper, with a fascinating introduction from author and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, whose edgy style and views are a perfect match for Mabey. Equally well chosen are the illustrations by artist Mary Newcomb, who makes connections the rest of us never think of, like electricity pylons and cowebs. Stand inside the pylon and look up, and you can see similar patterns between the two.

I thought this was just perfect in every way. It’s a lovely book to have in a hard print format, and I would urge you all to please read it.

Discovering Gladys Mitchell

It was Monday. Little requires to be said about such a day. Charles James Sinclair Redsey, who, like Mr Milne’s Master Morrison, was commonly known as Jim, sat on the arm of one of the stout, handsome, leather-covered armchairs in the library of the Manor House at Wandles Parva, and kicked the edge of the sheepskin rug.

Any writer who references AA Milne’s poem ‘Disobedience’ in the first paragraph has got to be worth reading – and Gladys Mitchell’s The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop more than lived up to that opening paragraph. For those who don’t remember, Milne’s Jim is James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree, who took great care of his mother, though he was only three, and told her she couldn’t go down to the end of the town unless she went down with him. Now, I may be old-fashioned,GD was an odious little brat, who would have benefited enormously from what used to be called ‘a good hiding’, and I hope his mother ran away with the raggle taggle Gypsies and lived happily ever after!

Anyway, I digress. Mitchell’s Jim is nice young man, even if he is rather dense and a little hot tempered. He is staying with his wealthy, older cousin Rupert Sethleigh who, like James James’ mother, seems to have been mislaid. His disappearance is discovered when Mr Theodore Grayling, solicitor, turns up to discuss changes to Sethleigh’s will. Jim, who stands to inherit under the old will, admits he quarrelled with his cousin, and is behaving very strangely. He claims his cousin has gone to America, but this does not seem to be the case…

Murder (for murder it is) is a serious business, but what follows is positively farcical, and the story gallops along at a breath-taking pace, with all the right ingredients for a thoroughly enjoyable mystery. There’s a spooky wood where all sorts of people were wandering around on the night of the killing, a Stone of Sacrifice (complete with blood stains), and a suitcase (with more blood stains), which appears and disappears, like a prop in a conjurer’s act. In addition there’s a human skull which also keeps being lost anf found, a set of false teeth, and a dead fish. And, of course, there’s a corpse: a headless, neatly jointed body found hanging on hooks in the butcher’s store room!

Inspector Grind has hIs work cut out trying to solve the mystery, especially as the dead man was an unpleasant, unprincipled ‘bounder’ who amassed a fortune by charging exorbitant interest on financial loans and indulging in the odd bit of blackmail – and couldn’t keep his hands off the local women. Jim would seem to be the obvious suspect, but he was in the pub, so drunk and incapable he had to be carried home. Maybe one of Sethleigh’s victims administered his own form of justice. Or maybe, unlikely though it seems, Mrs Bryce Harringay, the aunt of Sethleigh and Jim, wanted to secure the house and money for her adored son Aubrey. Or maybe it’s the forgetful vicar, or the doctor who wants to keep a secret from the past hidden. And what about the two strange artist, newcomers to the village, and the woman who lives with them? The plot gets more and more weird, and more and more incomprehensible as Aubrey joins forces with Felicity (the vicar’s daughter) to muddy the waters and protect Jim.

The star of the book, undoubtedly, is psychoanalyst Mrs Bradley, whose amateur sleuthing is not always appreciated by the police. Like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver, she is knocking on a bit. But unlike them she does not look sweet or innocent – there’s an element of malice in her. And shewould never, ever blend into the background (nor would she want to). There is nothing gentle or kindly about her – indeed, Gladys Mitchel tells us:

Mrs Beatrice Lestrange Bradley, twice widowed, black-eyed, claw-fingered, age no longer interesting except to the more grasping and avaricious of her relatives, smiled the saurian smile of the sand lizard and basked in the full glare of the sun in the charming old-world garden of the Stone House, Wandles.

Mrs Bradley is very intelligent and shrewd, but she also has a physical strength that belies her age and appearance – I’d lay good money on a heavy-weight boxer coming off second-best if it came to a fight! Surprisingly, she has a beautfil speaking voice (despite her unnerving cackle), and she has the most appalling clothes. For example, there’s a blue and sulphur jumper ‘like the plumage of a macaw’, and the hideous ‘magenta silk dress, summer coat to match, large black picture hat (quite ludicrously unbecoming)’ that she wears when visiting the pub.

I’m fascinated to find out what drives her: she lacks the sense of right and wrong displayed by Miss Marple and Miss Silver, or perhaps she has a different idea of justice. She certainly has no sympathy with the murder victim. All things considered, Mrs Bradley is not a likable character, but she is unforgettable because she doesn’t conform to any of the traditional views of women’s roles at the time this was published in 1930.

Gladys Mitchell, courtesy of Michael Joseph,

Business As Usual

As a book lover and Oxfam book shop volunteer, how could I not love Business as Usual, by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford. Originally published in 1933, it was reissued last year as a Handheld Classic, when a lot of bloggers wrote some very nice things about it, and I can see why. The novel, written as a series of letters, memos, and telegrams, centres on Hilary Fane, who is spending a year in London earning her own living before returning to Edinburgh to marry surgeon Basil.

Hilary is lovely: warm, caring, funny, intelligent, and very feisty. She has a quirky sense of humour, and a keen appreciation of people’s oddities and foibles – I think she would find Elizabeth Bennett a kindred spirit! At this point, I will state loudly and clearly that I cannot for the life of me understand how she came to be hooked up with Basil, who is everything she is not. We never actually meet him, and don’t see his letters, so we only get to know him from Hilary’s replies, but he comes across as being dour, selfish, controlling, and very conscious of his position on society. He’s given to saying ‘I told you so’ when things go wrong, but never, ever congratulates Hilary on her successes, or offers her any encouragment, (Spoiler Alert: As the story progresses, and the relationship breaks down, her letters to Basil get shorter and shorter, and she tells him less and less).

Anyway, Hilary finds life very different to anything she has known before. She comes from a cultured, educated, middle class family, holds a degree, and has been a teacher and a librarian – none of which qualifies her for employment in London. Her first interview is for a job in Corsets, where she is told she could have ‘quite a success with the Stout Gents’ Belting’ – but she is expected to pay £30 for the priviledge of selling these garments! Next she tries for work with ‘a purveyor of Psycho-therapy’ who is wearing a Biblical bath-robe and ‘contemplating eternity in front of a Grecian vase with one lovely flower in it’. She beats a hasty exit without discovering what her duties would have been!

Eventually she is offered a position as a clerk in the book department of Everyman’s Stores in Oxford (Our Business is Your Pleasure, they boast), for the princely sum of £2 10s a week – less 1s 3d for sickness and unemployment. The work is boring (mainly writing labels for parcels of books), and she’s not very good at it. especially when it comes to financial matters. She writes home: “Mr Simpson came up and said that he’d see I wasn’t idle. So after lunch he gave me a list of books that I could type for him. It was nice to get to know their names, wasn’t it? I spent the afternoon over his list. It wasn’t altogether wilful meandering, either. I just couldn’t get the prices to add up right, and whenever I was half-way up the shillings column Miss Hopper sent me to get something for her or a packer brought me back one of my more illegible labels and I had to begin at the bottom again.”

Oh, how I sympathise about those figures! When I was at Oxfam and had to cash up, I could never get the money in the till to match the amount shown on the receipt totals, and I would count, and count, and count, and each time, impossible though it may be, there was different amount!

Hilary’s labels are illegible, she knocks books off tables, and makes bills out wrong but, despite all that, she is promoted after resolving a problem with the headmistress of a posh girls’ school, who has received a copy of Marie Stopes in the monthly parcel of ‘select’ books supposedly suitable for her pupils! Mr Grant, Organising Director is impressed, and believes her talents could be better used elsewhere, so he moves her to the book shop, where she adds up on her fingers, and draws in the sales book… much to the horror of the supervisor.

Mr Grant (who is a bit of a dish) comes to her rescue, and she is transferred to the library, where they do less adding, and asked to look into the system, trace complaints, and draw up plans for improvements. To avoid ill-feeling among the staff, Mr Grant (Michael) steps in again – he oviously appreciates Hilary in a way that Basil does not – and she is appointed assistant to the staff supervisor, a role that suits her perfectly. “It means getting back into the sort of organising work I really enjoy. Also, one comes into less physical contact with books and ink and labels and typewriters, which is so fortunate, considering how much I’m at the mercy of the inanimate.

And she may be be bad at maths, but Hilary turns out to be surprisingly at budgeting her meagre wages. She moves out of the hotel where she stays when she first arrives in London, rents a basement room for seventeen shillings a week, eats filling food in cheap restaurants, and darns her stockings, like any other working girl. Later, when she gets a wage rise, she’s able to move into a small flat, but there is no money for luxuries, and not much spare time. Writing to Basil, she says: “The worst of earning one’s living, Basil, is that it leaves so little time over to live in. During the winter you’ve got to hand over the eight daylight hours to Everyman’s, and only keep the twilight bits at each end. And most of them go to waste in sleep.”

She has opted to live like this, but she understands that for her colleagues there is no choice. “I can always run away. They – the other people with basements and nine-to-six and two pounds ten a week – can’t”. And she adds: “I know I shan’t spend my life this way. I won’t. But the others, Miss Hopper and Miss Watts and Mildred Lamb, will. And they know it. It’s the only way they can be safe; sure of a place to sleep in, food, and those tidy, monotonous clothes. But they pay so much more for that safety (in things that aren’t money), than the basic two pounds ten a week.”

The book is light-hearted, and is never overtly political, but nevertheless social issues of the day, like unemployment, are implicit in the story, and you realise how difficult life must have been for single, working class women. Everyman’s, generally thought to be based on Selfridge’s, reflects the social order of the day, with its own hierarchy, and separate facilities to keep managers and the managed apart. And neither side is expected to fraternise with customers, so you can imagine how shocked the staff are when Hilary’s wealthy Aunt Bertha sweeps her off for lunch in the customers’ restaurant!

There was so much I loved abut this book, but it’s impossible to mention everything. The descriptions of people, however brief their appearance, really bring them to life – your heart goes out to the older women who ‘go from one dust-bin to another with sacks at this time of day: they lift the lids and finger the muddle inside with grey, careful hands that never miss a bottle or a crust’. It makes you realise what a difference the creation of the welfare state made to people.

Set against that is Hilary’s hilarious account of a performance by the staff drama group, which she sends to Michael (no longer Mr Grant!) because he has broken an ankle and cannot attend. During my time as a local journalist, I covered an awful lot of amateur dramatics, some of which were excellent. But there were many things which could (and did) go wrong, and the book’s authors perfectly capture the atmosphere of these occasions – and the enjoyment and enthusiasm of the watching friends and family.

There are charming illustrations by Ann Stafford, and an excellent inroduction by Kate Macdonald (who founded this independent publisher). She provides a wealth of fascinating information about Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford (real names Helen Christina Easson Rees, née Evans and Anne Isabel Stafford Pedler) who wrote some 97 novels, together and independently. Kate also places the novel in the context of its time, with details about life, libraries, social classes, and women’s roles in society.

I bought the Kindle edition because I wanted an immediate read, but I wish I’d bought the book.

What Shall I Read?

Calloo! Callay! Oh Frabjous Day! My first parcel of books has just arrived from Little Toller, and it will definitely not be the last – they are soooooo BEAUTIFUL!!! I was only going to buy this, for #ReadIndies month, because Karen made it sound so irresistable:

But when I looked at the website there were so many lovely goodies I treated myself to this…

And this…

I thought that was very restrained, and three seems a good number for a book order, don’t you think? Not too many, not too few! But now, of course, I am on the horns of a dilemma, because they all look so good I cannot decide which one to read first – I’ve read the first page of each, and still can’t make my mind up! Has anyone read all three, and if so, do you have a favourite?