A Boy in Wartime, Alan Hill
Handsel Press, 2020 £7.50
The vocabulary of children in extraordinary times
Children speak the words that surround them. Children today are growing up with ‘social distancing’ and ‘lateral flow test’ on their young tongues. In Alan Hill’s boyhood it was ‘Luftwaffe’, ‘trace bullets’, ‘Heinkel bomber’ and ‘Posted missing. Presumed dead.’
Words that come loaded with fear for adults are often accepted by children as simply descriptive of what is.
Alan Hill’s new pamphlet, written during the current pandemic with his grandchildren in mind, recalls his WW2 boyhood in tones that makes you feel you are chatting with him by the fireside. This is exactly his intention. I was particularly struck by how technical terms from WW2, which Alan Hill absorbed at the most impressionable age, seem to melt into his evocative, softly spoken poetry. In ‘Little Pink Clouds’:
Little pink clouds of smoke
chickenpoxed the dawn sky
after the long air-raids.
Pretty now, they’d already dropped
their metal fragments […]
Those three-point sevens in Poppet Lane
and the four-point-fives up the main road
had been firing all night.
He could tell them apart. […]
At six years old
he was steady under fire.
Some words, however, were not understood by the boy, for in those days there were things that nobody discussed. In ‘BBC News’:
One day he heard that Japanese soldiers
had raked European woman prisoners.
He was astonished. He couldn’t think why
they would do such a thing, or indeed how.
The boy’s ‘First Air Raid’ was a thrilling adventure for him; less so for his elderly neighbour:
The gunfire grew louder as planes approached […]
He was excited.
It was better than a cowboy film.
Much louder. […]
Later it grew quiet, but he was still alert.
“What’s that noise?’ he said. “A sort of rattle.”
After a moment Mrs Mason spoke again.
It’s my teeth, she said. “I can’t keep ‘em still.”
This is a treasure of a pamphlet. Alan Hill’s grandchildren are very lucky. I’d also recommend it as a great resource for any teacher covering the history of WW2 with their class in school.