When ‘Normal’ Felt So Strange

Remember the wartime song We’re Gonna Get Lit-Up When the Lights Go On in London ? The little Yorkshire village of Townend, where I was born 18 months before the Second World War began, was about as different from the capital as it could be – but when the workmen arrived to put bulbs back in our street lights soon after the war in Europe ended, for me it was the most momentous event of that time.

I never did get used to street lights, and I still don’t like them, although I know they are very necessary now that no-one dares leave home without locking the door behind them.

I was too young to have any clear recollection of the days before the war began, so by the time I became more aware of my surroundings, all the restrictions and precautions of wartime were a part of everyday life – and that included lamp posts whose fittings gaped like open mouths where the bulbs would normally be.

It was the natural order of things: the days were light (and almost invariably sunny) and the nights were dark – except of course that the sky was filled with the moon and stars, so bright that there was never any difficulty in seeing where you were going. Once in awhile you’d see the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis -strange, luminous, flickering curtains stretching over the horizon that lasted for a while, but came and went without warning.

Any kind of man-made light during the hours of darkness was of course frowned upon. The slightest chink escaping from the blackout curtains behind windows patched with brown paper tape was enough to have the air-raid wardens in full cry: “Put that light out! ”

My father, whose wartime work consisted of inspecting the tiny stainless steel components that formed the firing mechanisms of torpedoes, was a warden, and his dark blue greatcoat and grey tin helmet hung on the back of the door. I
didn’t see much of him, for often his working day was followed by a night of fire-watching duties at the factory in Huddersfield, and on such occasions I would sometimes accompany my mother when she took him his supper. We rode in battleship-grey double-deck buses whose windows were painted over apart from small circles just big enough for passengers to check where they were and the interior lights were dim. These were ‘utility’ buses, with hard wooden seats.

When he wasn’t at work my father was often on his ARP duties, although there were seldom any real alarms. We were 25 miles from Sheffield and a similar distance from Manchester, both prime targets for enemy aircraft, but there was little of strategic importance in our immediate area other than stockpiles of munitions that lined nearby moorland roads.

Our village had a communal air-raid shelter across a field from a farmhouse, and I have vague recollections of being carried there in the night and seeing my father in his helmet at the entrance. The shelter was lit by hurricane lamps, with heavy cloth curtains to stop the light straying, and was lined with wooden boards.

After the war it was a favourite – but forbidden – playground for boys from the village until its wooden supports rotted and it eventually collapsed.

Less than half a mile away, in a small wood, was a searchlight battery whose thick wand of light would comb the sky after the sirens went, but there was rarely anything to be spotted. However the soldiers and their equipment were a major source of interest for inquisitive youngsters.

Towards the end of the war, when air raids seemed to be a thing of the past, I was galled to discover that I had missed one of the great sensations: during the night a ‘doodle-bug’ had passed over the area shadowed by a fighter aircraft which later shot it down over the moors. All my schoolfriends claimed to have seen it, but, misguidedly as I thought, my parents
had allowed me to sleep through the excitement.

School – Wooldale Council School for Infants and Juniors – was a great source of information, as much of it being exchanged in the playgrounds as in the classroom. The ‘three R’s’ formed almost the entire syllabus, although there were regular physical education sessions and music. Once a week we had gas mask drill.

These came packed in a stout cardboard box that could be hung round the neck by a cord and had to be carried at all times. The drill came at assembly in the school hall when, at the sound of a whistle, everyone was supposed to put his or her mask on while teachers checked that they were fitted correctly.

The masks were mainly of rubber and fitted with tapes that could be tightened. The filter was a black metal canister with holes through which air could enter and was expelled between the sides of the mask and the cheeks, making the kind of noise that in other circumstances would have brought immediate retribution. There was a horizontal strip of transparent material to see through, but within a minute or two it became fogged by condensation. Fortunately we never had cause to use them.

Other indications of wartime were occasional deliveries of ‘comforts’ for the pupils. There were boxes of shiny red apples from Canada, powdered chocolate and black plimsolls from America, all of which were duly shared out, although it’s doubtful whether they made much difference, for we all seemed to be well enough fed and clothed – but the thought was appreciated.

So the war largely passed us by, hardly being given a thought at our age until one day flags were thrust into our hands and we were told to go and wave them. Germany had surrendered, and life was about to return to normal.

It was odd, though, that ‘normal’ should feel so strange.

Neil Coates