A Minstrel in Spain

The minstrel boy to the war is gone.
Old Welsh song

The reader may recognise some of the occurrences in this tale from my account of the big bands in Ron's Pages. This is unavoidable, as both tell the story of my life. The two accounts are, however, written differently, to suit the concept—one is about the jazz world, the other about real life. There is a difference.

Chapter One

The Bombers

I lay on the floor in the hallway of my Auntie Flo’s house, with a blanket over my head, listening to the bombs come whistling and moaning down, and hoping that my name wasn’t on one of them. It was the 14th of November 1940, I was twelve years old, and high above my head two squadrons of Heinkel He 111H-3s, of the German Luftwaffe Kampfgruppe 100, were bombing the hell out of my home town.

These were no precision bombing runs. The bombers simply followed the Knickebein radio beam from down near Cherbourg, dropping their bomb loads when they crossed another similar beam transmitted from higher up on the French coast. An error in the British jamming of the signals on the X-Geraete in the bomber cockpits allowed the planes to find their targets without the need for precise navigation. The leading planes dropped thirty tons of incendiary bombs in the first wave. The bombers behind them unloaded five hundred tons of high-explosive into the flaming city below and on to my head.

I didn’t know all this at the time, of course—I was too busy filling my pants to contemplate feats of engineering and logistics.

We found out all the technicalities of the Blitz years later; disloyal subjects even hinted that Churchill had banned the use of jamming devices that night for fear of the Germans finding out that we had them. The argument is as silly as the one about not using the strips of silver paper we had so all so industriously saved from cigarette packets to jam German radar in case they retaliated by using it as well.

I learned later, after the war, that even the German bomber crews were appalled at their task of attempting to wipe out an entire city, in the hopes of hitting some aircraft factories. This didn’t stop them trying to do so at the time, however. Anyway, they missed me.

The stupid part of all this was that my parents, with my sister and myself, had, first of all, left the absolute safety of Winnipeg, my Canadian birthplace, to come back to England just before the war, and then departed a perfectly tranquil village in Essex to come and stay with my aunt in Coventry. Two serious blunders that could have gotten us all killed.

One of the reasons for leaving the village was the chilling promise of the British government that we would be right in the path of any invasion that came, and would also lie under the bomber routes if we stayed in Essex. True as this may have been, the place we left behind us had neither air raids nor invasion scares for the duration of hostilities.

The other reason must have been that my aunt, aware that she was surrounded by airplane and tank factories, would feel better if she had someone else in the family die with her.

The guns used to make more noise than the bombs, but when you heard one of those howling down, that was when you huddled down a little more on the floor, under the blanket, as if that would afford any protection.

The council had built brick shelters in our street, for protection against shrapnel, they told us. No one ever used them for the purpose for which they had been built, but they became the ideal place for teenage lovers, who didn’t seem to mind thrashing around locked together on the dirty concrete floors. The council had also put a corrugated-iron Anderson Shelter in our garden, which filled up with water at once. Right at the beginning of this particular raid, which began at 7.30 in the evening, when most people were on their way home from work, one of the shelters in the street took a direct hit that wiped it completely from the face of the earth, making it the ultimate trip for whoever happened to be writhing about inside at the time.

The house at the bottom of our garden was also blown to pieces, together with everyone in it. We had been in the centre of a salvo, saved by a freak of fate, as if in the safe, quiet eye of a hurricane. A large piece of an upright piano from the house landed in our garden right by the back door. There it remained, sticking up in the mud vertically, like some grim monument, until my mother and I chucked it back over the fence later on.

My aunt had previously had the ceilings papered. Now the plaster hung down in strips, like stalactites. The glass in the windows, boarded on the inside, had long since gone. I still had sticking plaster round most of my fingers from screwing on the hardboard.

Later on we had a Morrison shelter installed in the lounge. This was a steel affair with steel netting on the sides. As it left no room for anything else to be done in the room I used to sit on top of it and do my homework until the bombs started to fall.

To top it all, my aunt Flo was a real pain in the butt. The story went that she had jumped up and down in rage on her one and only ever engagement ring at the age of 18. Now she was a 50 year old spinster, a masseuse in the Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital, and spent most of her time telling my mother how to bring up her children.

While the bombs were falling we had no lights on. My aunt used to take this opportunity to tell my mother, with relish, the most gruesome tales of life in a great hospital. Lying there in the dark, shaken by enormous explosions every few seconds, I heard about children born with two sets of genitals, two heads, a tail, no hole in their bum, and legs like baby elephants. It was good preparation for the journey into the unknown upon which I fully expected to embark at any moment.

According to her there were several injured German bomber crew members, who had been shot down locally, recovering in the upper floor ward of the hospital. She related with great glee as to how they were always the last to be evacuated to the cellars during raids.

Having been pumped full of British sportsmanship, in the shape of parables, morals, cricket, and stories of gentlemanlike decency right from my early days, how to turn the other cheek, and so on, this smacked to me more of an eye for an eye application, which was a bit of the Bible we weren’t being encouraged to read at Sunday School.

My mother used to suffer everything, even the bombs, with a smile. Not me, though. Even though I was only 12 years of age I lost no time at all in letting my aunt know that I thought she was a fat old windbag.

Her crowning achievement in our relationship was to buy for me, that Christmas, a Hohner mouth organ. After a particularly violent argument a couple of days later she said she was confiscating it, and took it away again. When I told her she was welcome to stuff it she threatened to call the police.

After that we never spoke to one another again. I revenged myself for the mouth organ by regularly going in to her room after that, and stealing from the stack of Benson & Hedges cigarettes she’d hoarded in her wardrobe. Strangely enough, she never mentioned missing any, although, over a period of a couple of months, I nicked, and smoked, the lot.

Now and again my Dad, a sergeant-major in the  Pioneer Corps, would turn up suddenly on a 48-hour pass from his camp somewhere up in the north of England, usually in the middle of an air raid. While we grovelled under our shelter, he, to my great wonder and admiration, would take a bath upstairs. To my enquiry as to what would happen if we received a direct hit he replied that he would go to heaven clean.

Surrounded as we were by aircraft factories we were well used to the roar of planes during the day, barrage balloons in the sky, and the acrid smell of the nightly smoke-screens.

I was out in the street at the back of our house playing with my brother Ken one day when a plane came over very low. Ken was three at the time, and he was on his tricycle. The plane was very black, and I couldn’t see the usual markings, but that wasn’t unusual because new planes were being tested all the time. Suddenly there was the rattle of machine-guns and the doorway of a house we were standing near disintegrated in a shower of splinters. I tried to grab Ken from off of the bike, but he didn’t want to let go of it, so I picked the lot up and ran. Behind me there was a tremendous explosion that knocked us both over. For a moment I couldn’t get my breath. Ken was crying like mad. Then the air-raid warning sirens went.

It had been a German plane, all right. I can hardly imagine that he would take the risk of flying all the way from the French coast just to machine-gun a couple of kids in the street. Later on we learned that the guns had been those of one of our own fighters. Still, friendly fire can kill you just as dead. The explosion, which I’d assumed to be from a bomb, was, in fact, the plane blowing up as it hit the ground. No one ever explained what the plane was doing there in broad daylight.

The explosion had knocked down the rest of our plaster, and broken all the windows and we had to leave the house. People were always asking in the shops if anyone had been bombed out, and my Mum found a woman who would put us up for a while.

We took a few things with us and slept on the floor of their front room until Mum found another place for us. The man of the house was a piano teacher, which was ideal for my sister Joan. The man was badly stricken with arthritis, and could hardly play himself. Also ideal for my sister was the fact that there was a son of her age in the house with whom she fell instantly in love. He was a dashing sort of man, an engineering draughtsman working in one of the local factories. They married quite quickly and went to live in half of his grandmother’s house. The grandmother was a pain in the neck, and he turned out eventually to be an asshole, and left her for another girl. My sister was so upset by all this that she remained unmarried until she became 63, when she married a retired postman.

I was evacuated, with many of my school-mates, away from the bombing, and from my aunt, whom I considered to be much more dangerous, to a village  a little south of Stratford–on–Avon. There I was to be billeted, with another boy, with the local rector and his wife.

The moment our bus arrived in the little village we were confronted by other, experienced evacuees, who had been there for some time. Upon learning that we were the new boys for the Rectory we were told, with glee, that we were completely out of luck because the place was so terrible that the last two boys billeted there had run away and never been seen since.

The teacher then appeared and told us that it was important to remember that if asked how long we intended to stay we should always answer ‘for The Duration’. For some reason it was necessary to convince the good people of the village that we weren’t only there on an overnight hop. Merely saying this magic phrase seemed to give some of them the impression that we loved being there so much that we intended staying forever. While he was telling us this an enormous turkey came out of the farmyard next to the school and stalked menacingly towards us. It was the first turkey I’d ever seen that hadn’t already been stuffed at both ends and roasted golden brown.

As far as that village was concerned the war was something to be read about in the newspapers. The sky was often lit up at night by air-raids on surrounding towns, but nothing ever fell out of the sky within fifty miles of the place.

We were welcomed at the Rectory by the good man’s wife, who managed to give us the rules of the house before we even had our coats off. They were the usual stuff boys were used to hearing, all beginning with don’t. In this case it was clear that whatever we did, it was bound to annoy the rector.

At the age of 50 that reverend gentleman appeared, to my youthful eyes, to be exactly like the bumbling old parson you'd normally only encounter in British film comedies. It was probably this alone which made him admirably suited for the job of parish vicar. The only thing I ever saw him do well was write. He had the most marvellous copperplate handwriting, a real work of art. It was so beautiful that it took him two hours to write a one page letter.

I was well trained for church work as I’d already been a well-scrubbed angel in the choir at home, and, like David Niven, had also tried my hand at pumping the organ, with the same catastrophic effects. We were rowed in for all that kind of work at once. If I had only known at the time I could have escaped it all by declaring that I was Jewish. There is actually a Jewish antique dealer up near Euston station who has my name plastered all across the front of his shop.

Anyway, our family is Church of England. The only one of our family that ever had anything like a Jewish nose was my Uncle Ron, and he was only an in-law, married to one of my Dad’s sisters. He was a fine looking, upright man, whom I admired more than any other of my twenty–three–odd uncles and aunts. I wanted, more than anything else, to grow up to be handsome and successful, like my Uncle Ron.

It was not until I was well into my fifties that I discovered, from my brother’s wife, who knew more about the family than I, that my Uncle Ron had spent his entire life working as an attendant in a public toilet. I suppose it’s as honorable a profession as any. I remember playing the Presse Ball in Berlin many years later. All the rich and prominent people were there, the women laden with jewellery, the men in tuxedos. In the men’s toilet a handwritten sign had been stuck up with sticky paper, saying that the price for tonight had been increased from 10 to 50 pfennigs. Better class pee, therefore more  valuable, I suppose.

As I left I heard the attendant say, ‘Na ja. Pinkeln gibt’s immer.’ There will always be peeing. The German version is more accurate, though, and rolls around the tongue better. The toilet philosopher. Berliners have a reputation for humour.

The village had a lovely old church, built in the twelfth century, or thereabouts, with a tall spire, clock, bells, and several lead bullets buried in the door from some ancient civil war ofTredington church - click to enlarge which I knew nothing. The locals used to say that someone had taken a pot at the vicar, oh ar…har, har, har, cough, cough, gargle, spit, banging one another on the back.

The steps up to the belfry were worn completely out from centuries of trudging feet. The tower was thus banned to us boys, which made us all the more keen to get up there. The ramparts were crumbling, rickety and lethal. One look was enough for me. I developed an almost uncontrollable desire to throw myself off them and never climbed up there again. But some of the lads found a secret way into the church and used to hold contests up there, trying to see who could spit on to the furthest gravestone.

Chapter Two >>>

Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved