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A Boy in Wartime, Alan HillThe jacket is cream is colour, with the title centred in large cursive script in the top third. Below this, inside a square box, is a photo of a soldier's helmet, with a W on it. To the right, inside this box is the word 'poetry' in the same cursive script. The author's name is in small caps (grey) at the foot of the jacket, centred.

Handsel Press, 2020   £7.50

News

When Alan Hill was a child, news travelled more slowly than it does now. However, then, as now, trusting the provenance of news was sometimes problematic.

Alan as a boy is ‘almost certain’, for example, that Margie’s revelations regarding American soldiers are wrong:

She needed no coaxing but launched straight into
a series of dreadful revelations —
the source being her ‘friend who’s sixteen’, she said,
alleging quite bizarre sexual habits
embracing much, he was almost certain,
that was anatomically impossible.
     [‘Chewing-gum’]

But he’s less sure what to think about a piece of news from the BBC, delivered via the wireless, not television, of course:

One day he heard that Japanese soldiers
had raked European woman prisoners.
He was astonished.
[…]   He knew what a rake was; had often used one
himself in the garden
     [‘BBC News’ ]

When his mother is asked to explain ‘she seemed no wiser than he was. / It was a mystery.’

Picture Post was another source of news. It was ‘big on pictures and you didn’t have to read / the serious print if you didn’t want to’. One edition shows

                               two prisoners
awaiting execution. They were bound
to posts with barbed wire, sweating with fear,
while two Jap soldiers
stood in the foreground, grinning hugely.
     [‘Picture Post’]

But when the boy reads the text, he questions whether the picture’s telling the whole story:

Whatever the truth, he found a box
in his head where he dropped the whole article
and slammed down the lid. If he had known about
radio-active isotopes he would have felt
as if he had one locked in a box in his head.
     [‘Picture Post’]

These poems contain news, as experienced by the poet as a child during the Second World War. They show a young person doing his best to process information and how that information then shapes the child’s world.

And in that wartime world, news is often stark; literally life and death. So Alan’s lack of hyperbole is reassuring and refreshing. These poems are not over-priced, calorie-laded, mocha lattes with hazelnut syrup and whipped cream. They’re tea and a biscuit, with dunking definitely encouraged.

Sue Butler

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.

Annie Fisher

Making poems out of war memories

The publisher’s website describes this pamphlet as

Poems by one old enough to remember

In an introductory note, Hill, aged 87, says, ‘I remembered not just events, but increasingly how I had felt about them, and allowed each memory to determine how it wanted to be written’.

The opening poems, recalling the ‘Phoney War’ and the first air-raids, are chocka with anecdote and remembered detail. They sound to my mind like prose with line breaks. Does this matter? Perhaps it depends whether you're reading for the memory, or for the memory as poem.

Besides, there are some lively moments:

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.
The three-sevens sounded like
the slamming of double doors —
An echo from the woods his Dad said.
     [‘Little Pink Clouds’]

The ending of ‘The Balloon’ (about the destruction of a barrage balloon) adds emotional impact to the excitement that Hill’s six-year-old self experienced:

He’d never seen his mother crying before,
Nor his father so gentle and so softly spoken.

That second ‘so’ is doing, as today’s phrase goes, a lot of heavy lifting.

‘Evacuee’ details the pain and oddness of the child's experience of being sent away:

mostly it seemed he had chips and cocoa
when he went home they said he’d turned yellow

Arguably the strongest of the twenty-seven poems — as poems as opposed to memories — are sonnets in which Hill has worked harder to shape his priceless material into poetic form:

He thrilled to watch their yelling bayonet practice,
the good old-fashioned way to beat the Axis.
     [‘Blackpool Sands’]

And Oh the brown jelly that was under the fat!
It just didn’t get any better than that.
     [‘Dripping on Toast’]

Sometimes I remember that little wood
where four bombs fell and blew out craters like
great pudding-basins in the black leaf-mould.
     [‘Troy’]

Some of the poems seem to me to carry a historical overload of explanation, no doubt because they have been written, above all, for the poet’s family. However, despite the seriousness and horror of their backdrop, they contain much for general readers to enjoy.

Matthew Paul