A Wartime Education

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

1943 Home Guard Ella Mary Ffolliott Powell (1854–1943)

Time Magazine August 4th 1941 featured General De Gaulle. France had fallen 1940 and he was the leader of the Free French forces in exile.

With the 300th: On the Move, Edward Jeffrey Irving Ardizzone, 1940 

Tirzah Garwood’s 1929 wood engraving The Crocodile

1952  Lucian Freud, Bananas

Paul Nash
Bomber in the Corn 1940

Eric Ravilious
Shelling by Night 1941

1659 painting by Elisabetta Sirani (adapting Merian’s engraving); Timoclea pushing the Thracian captain who raped her into a well.

”No to sexual harassment” by Egyptian street artist Mira Shihadeh

Mikalene Thomas, This Girl Could Be Dangerous

Featured image: 1944 The Queue at the Fish Shop Evelyn Mary Dunbar (1906–1960)


  1. Would be fascinating to juxtapose children’s geographies in wartime/interwar times from then to now…. This post also brings me back to Child in the Country, the removals and subsequent “modernization” of the rural…..

    • That would make for a really interesting study. And Colin Ward would be an essential companion for it. He explodes so many of the cosy myths of the rural idyll for children.

      I get the sense that Fanthorpe’s childhood – in Kent – was relatively privileged. In an interview she wrote: “My childhood was happy until the war began in 1939; then our parents had to send us (my brother and I) away to school for safety, because Kent – where we lived – was near Biggin Hill, an important airfield regularly targeted by German bombers. I never really settled at the school they sent me to, but I couldn’t tell them; they already had enough to worry about.”

  2. How well this poem captures female adolescence! It is not confined to a single time period. Her time was before my time, yet she takes me right back inside my emerging self. Glad to meet this poet here, and continuing to enjoy your pairings of poems and pictures! — Elizabeth

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