published 1969, set in autumn 1940
Remember? I can still smell it. I met her in the Aldwych Underground Station, at half past six in the morning, when people were busily rolling up their bedding, and climbing out to see how much of the street was left standing. There were no lavatories down there, and with houses going down like ninepins every night there was a shortage of baths in London just then, and the stench of the Underground was appalling. I noticed, as I lurked around, trying to keep inconspicuous, that there was someone else doing the same. I was lurking because I wanted to stay in the warm for as long as possible, without being one of the very last out, in case any busybody asked me tricky questions. And there was this girl, as clearly as anything, lurking too.
[He makes friends with the girl, Julie, and they decide to join forces]
I looked at her doubtfully. ‘You’d stick out like a sore thumb in that posh dress,’ I said. ‘We’d have to get you something a bit raggedy.’
‘How could we do that?’ she asked.
‘From the Salvation Army Mission. They got me this jacket when the weather went cold. They don’t ask too much, either. The only trouble is, all their stuff’s too big.’ And I pulled at my jacket, to show her how far in front of my chest it buttoned up.
She laughed. ‘Bill, you could get two of you in there, easily,’ she said. Then she began to giggle. ‘And wait till I tell Mother. She said this dress would do to go anywhere!’
observations I’d never heard of this book until recently: I was discussing books set in WW2 with new friend the writer Lissa Evans, and she was shocked that I didn’t know this one. And rightly so: it is a complete gem, a small perfect book about young people at large in London during the blitz. Bill and Julie each have their own reasons to be adrift, and they link up and start to operate together: sleeping in the shelters at night, picking up casual work in the day. Eventually they manage to make a kind of home in the cellar of a bombed-out house: and their fake family life is extended to include a much younger lost child. But of course this cannot last.
It’s a short book, the story told with great economy, but full of implications and subtleties. Julie is obviously from a much posher family than Bill’s, and there is some mutual incomprehension. Bill is 15, Julie is of similar age but I don’t think that is specified. Sometimes the two are like children – there is a great moment when Julie is describing being on a ship that was attacked and sunk:
‘it was torpedoed in the middle of the Atlantic…’And sometimes they seem much older.
‘You were on that [ship]? What was it like?’
‘Not so much fun as it sounds.’
All around us death and ruin rained out of the sky. We saw it everywhere, and we were afraid like everybody else, and yet it cast no shadow in our hearts.There are amazing descriptions of air-raids on London, and on the sights that meet their eyes the next day, and there are black jokes:
I can still remember a toothless old man saying, ‘Talk about laugh! She paid into the insurance for years to be buried proper, and it took them three days to dig her out!’You can read the book pretty much in one sitting, and it is mesmerising, and tremendously affecting. Afterwards the occasional question arises – I couldn’t work out the timeframe at all, how long they were together, though external events put it at a few weeks just. Later (after the main story is finished) Bill says:
That was the night of November the twenty-third; the first night for fifty-seven nights that there were no raids on London at all.-- and that shocked me: despite all my reading about the era, I hadn’t realized that the raids were so unremitting at that time.
There is an introduction to my edition by writer Lucy Mangan, who loved the book – but who once met author Jill Paton Walsh and was told firmly that the book was juvenilia, and that JPW did not like it much any more. It’s a funny but sad anecdote: and Mangan concludes that the rest of us can carry on loving and admiring and enjoying the book…
The top picture is, exactly, people sleeping in the shelter at Aldwych. It is used by kind permission of the Imperial War Museum, © IWM (D 1678): the caption reads ‘Shelterers sleep along the walls of the passageway leading from the lifts to the platform at a London Underground station, probably Aldwych, in November 1940. The shelterers lie on thin mattresses and suitcases have been used to partition off areas...’
The young boy is also from the IWM, © IWM (D 12199).
The young woman is in a utility dress, also from the IWM collection, © IWM (D 14836).
Jill Paton Walsh’s continuation of the Lord Peter Wimsey books featured on the blog here.