Trevor Wedlake's Writings
First published on the website April, 2007
|The train pulled out of the station with barely a judder. The sun shone from an almost cloudless summer sky. It might have been Sunday morning, church bells ringing out their message over the open valleys and villages, bees buzzing in the blossoms, cabbage whites commencing their assault on the brassicas, straw-hatted allotmenteers discussing rotations or yesterday's football, spades and forks rudely summoned from oily hibernation.
But Sunday it was not, and gardeners were probably at their day jobs, and the train gathered pace past a great chaos of backyards, sheds, factories, the occasional lines of billowing washing, past hedges and telegraph poles and distant, grazing sheep and cows.
I turned drowsily into the carriage. Most of it was occupied by an animated party of young people in their late teens, early twenties, of both sexes, varying ethnicity. As far as I could see they were all in a kind of uniform of jeans and trainers, and carrying back-packs. I wondered idly which activity or adventure they were embarking on; gleaned snippets of conversations revealed nothing.
Quite sudden;y, the scene carried me back to another train journey many decades before, in the early 40s in fact. The whole of that train was occupied by young, blue-clad youth in their late teens. The blue was RAF blue; they (and I) all carried back-packs and heavy kit bags. We were a trainload of cadets bound for Northumberland to continue our initial training. It was a fiercely cold winter day. The train was unheated and we huddled into our greatcoats.
Most of us had never ventured so far north and viewed the prospect negatively. A large Jamaican boy, the only black boy in our entry, made his way towards me. "Move up buds", he said, and I shifted nearer the window to accommodate him. Frederick Jackson was a tall, gangly West Indian known to us all as Jack, Jacko or Jackson (he would have liked Stonewall) and never Fred.
When he returned to camp from local dances he would often have lipstick smeared on his tunic. When it came to guard-duty on cold winter nights he looked for some positive discrimination - he never experienced any other.
The train at last moved off in clouds of steam and we settled for our long journey. The card sharps were soon about their games. We looked out of the window. "England," Jackson said. "Winter", I said. A few seats away Taffy Brennan and Taffy Herbert were arguing about the Farr-Louis title fight. One of them was insisting that Tommy Farr had been robbed by the American ref. Referring to Louis as Louise, the other continued by saying that his father had been down to Swansea to see a film of the fight. "My father said, fair play man, Louise won fair and square." Jackson looked and smiled. Some weeks later after a night out, one of these Welshmen who stayed very close, was overheard saying to the other about to throw up, "Don't let the Welsh nation down, man."
Jackson was always intrigued and amused by by the variety of accents; he had been lectured before he left Jamaica that in England he would hear the language spoken as it should be. Most of the accents of the British Isles could be heard in this train. The boys had come together, seduced by the glamour of flying. So few had flown in those days, that to do so set one apart, something very special, perhaps like being an astronaut today.
Not seen as such by these boys, the airforce training schools were like a vast sausage machine; the youths going in from civilian life were the raw material, they emerged a couple of years later as the trained bomber crews to be devoured by the powerful and ultra-efficient German air defences. Whatever is said now about the mass bombing of German cities, in which over half a million civilians are admitted to have died, and more than five million made homeless, it was then the only way of carrying the war to a most ruthless enemy.
In this hardest of battles, the young bomber crews paid with their lives in their thousands and tens of thousands. Very nearly 56,000 were blown to pieces in the night skies of Germany. 10,000 were taken prisoner and thousands more were killed in crash-landings, young men, boys almost, who passed in terrible moments of fear and fire from brief life to become, except in the fathomless grief of their families, "as though they had never been."
But within a year of Pearl Harbour in 1941, our giant American ally was producing more armaments than Japan and Germany and the satellite countries combined. They were mass-producing 86,000 aircraft a year; a Liberty ship could be built in 4 days by people who had never seen a shipyard, and American trucks, jeeps and weapons were everywhere from New Zealand to Russia.
This vast industrial and military effort was beyond not only the capacity of any other nation on earth, but beyond their imagination. And really it was this New World dynamism, yoked to old-fashioned patriotism, which underwrote the future of the boys on this train. German air defences would be subdued; these boys would not be tried and tested like their peers who had so recently passed through Training Command before them. Morning of abundant life would break for them.
We drove ever further north becoming ever more bored and cold. Many of us would make long journies in our service careers, including some of several days' duration, from the searing plains of India to its beautiful snow-fringed frontiers, but none ever seemed so long and disappointing as this one. "What d'you miss about Jamaica, Jackson, is it the sun ?" I asked. "Sweet potatoes," he said, smiling. "Sweet potatoes?" Hearing that I did not know what they were, he laughed in disbelief.
"What will you do when you get back to Jamaica, Jackson ? Will you be growing bananas or these sweet potatoes or something ?" "No, no, man, after de war, see my hudda brudda, he de work on de railroad, but I's, I's more or less de brains of de family and after de war it's de politics for me." "Politics .. politics, Jackson ?" "'Ome rule, man, 'ome rule for Jamaica, man." "Home rule, Jackson ? You ought to be proud to belong to the British empire." "De British Hempire," he said in a flash, "De British Hempire is all right for you people, you all of de royal blood." He was serious but smiled broadly and gave me a friendly shove.
An optimistic youth a few seats away, addressing all and sundry said "We should be OK for crumpet, lads, up here there's no Yanks or airforce up there." "Don't get excited, lads," replied Johnny Price, "they chaperone them up here till they're 30." Johnny Price, a Geordie from Northumberland liked to call himself an "older man", he was, after all, 21. He was strong, well-built, and very particular about his buttons and shoes being highly polished. In southern England we found he could not go to the bar for a round of drinks without an interpreter.
On his way out of the nissen hut to church one Sunday morning, he was subjected to a ragging from one of the inmates, and without a word he turned, went back to the errant's bed, tipped it up left-handed from the foot, made sure the occupant was well smothered before turning to proceed on his highly polished way. After the war he became a policeman in Palestine and Malaya.
At one of several unscheduled stops, Dick Allard, a thin boy from Bath, rushed to the window. "Crewe, Crewe station, Crewe," he shouted, "just put me down in Crewe." We all laughed. Dick hated being away from home, and was usually slightly late back from leave. "Last minutes with Joyce on the sofa, but they'll never catch me at home," he said.
During the following months, every whit's while, from boredom or frustration or homesickness, Dick would leap from his bed crying "Crewe, Crewe station, Crewe, put me down in Crewe, I'll do the rest." During a hard-up spell he arranged what was called the "Allard-in-bed-breakfast service". For a small sum he would bring us a Sunday breakfast in our beds.
One or two of the lads who claimed to know the distance between telegraph poles, were trying to estimate the speed of the train. Somewhere or other, the train actually stopped at a station, perhaps Doncaster or Rotherham; somewhere, anyway, in the great dark engine-room of England. We went to the windows. Leo Mullins, a tall, pale boy from Portsmouth spotted a large hoarding. In a loud voice he read out its message "Virol: anaemic girls need it." "That's not what they need," he said, "what they need is .." and he went on to propound his own unsurprising and unlikely remedy. A cheery moment.
My short, modern journey was nearing its destination. I wondered what had happened to these wartime friends. Did Dick Allard marry Joyce ? Did Jackson get caught up in the violence of Jamaican elections ? Was Eric from Nottingham, already at 19 a husband and father of 2 children, a great-grandfather ?
Journey's end, and my musing lapsed. The young men and women flew to the exit; today the platform clean and dry, not deep in dirty slush. The sun shone from a clear, blue sky, not shiftily from lowering clouds. Today no Geordie sergeant was posted at the exits shouting "Away," and "Get fell in".
None of the young women had probably ever heard of Virol. From my distance, at least, none of them looked anaemic. But if they had been, they might have approved Leo Mullin's dictum.