Britain declared war on Germany just after U.A. Fanthorpe’s birthday in 1939. She was ten. Living in Kent she was familiar with the signs and sounds, fears and deprivations of wartime England. She knows the enemy – whom she calls by the popular put-down, the Hun – by “the nightly whines, searchlights, thuds, bomb-sites”. Her French teacher is distressed and distracted by thoughts of General de Gaulle and the fate of France. Adolescence is struggle enough and it was hard to maintain hatred for the enemy when there were parents, religion, Shakespeare and math teachers to deal with. I love the thought of her being shushed for rashly expressing her distinctly unpopular opinions on the bus.
She learns math and Macbeth and keeps secret her hatred for the lorry loads of soldiers who sexually harass her from the backs of the trucks. On that she stays silent.
A Wartime Education
Lessons with Mam’zelle were difficult.
Le général would crop up in the middle of
The most innocent Daudet. Tears for la France,
La belle France embarrassed our recitation
Of nouns with tricky plurals: hibou, chou, hélas, bijou.
A father in uniform conferred status. Mine,
Camping it up with the Home Guard in Kent
On summer nights, too human for heroics.
Bananas and oranges, fruit of triumphant
Decimated convoys, were amazements
Of colour and light, too beautiful to eat.
(In any case, eating three bananas
Straight off, one after the other,
Was certain death. We all knew that.)
Struggling though adolescence, trying
To accommodate Macbeth, parents, God,
Teachers of mathematics, it was hard
To sustain plain hatred for the Hun,
Known only as nightly whines, searchlights, thuds, bomb-sites.
Might he not, like Aeneas, have reasons
(Insufficient, but understandable) for what he did?
I found it hard to remember which side
I was on, argued endlessly at home,
Once, rashly, in a bus, and had to be defended
By mother from a war-widow. Careless talk
Costs lives warned the posters. I had no secrets
To offer, but acquired a habit of
Permanent secrecy, never admitted
How I hated the wolf-whistling lorry-loaded
Soldiers, passing me en route to D-Day.
by U A Fanthorpe
Featured image: 1944 The Queue at the Fish Shop Evelyn Mary Dunbar (1906–1960)