A Boy in Wartime, Alan Hill
Handsel Press, 2020 £7.50
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.
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
awaiting execution. They were bound
to posts with barbed wire, sweating with fear,
while two Jap soldiers
stood in the foreground, grinning hugely.
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.
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.