The war was to us kids was just like the film show that we saw every Saturday morning. Although several bombs had fallen in the local fields, no-one was hurt. Shrapnel hunting in the fields was as exciting as any of the films.
My first moment of fear, was not the sight of London burning, but it was the terror in my mother’s eyes, as we watched, from the safety of our back garden, the crimson glow of the blitz, just twenty miles away, it was like a rainbow, filling half the sky but with only one colour, red.
I am an eight-year- old boy full of dreams and ideas that only a child can fill his mind with. The Playhouse picture palace, in Guildford Street, had been my main view of the outside world. Films were rated as ‘U’ or an ‘A’. children were able to watch a ‘U’ film without an adult, ‘A’ films needed an adult to take a child in. The films were shown twice a day, the main film was followed by the newsreel, and then by the ‘little’ film, without a pause.
For the cost of one ticket, you could take your seat at any time during the film, this meant you had to stay after the film had finished, to see the beginning of it. There was always a queue outside waiting for someone to come out, maybe halfway through the film.
Sometimes ‘Pathe Gazette’ would show ‘news from the front’—we always seem to be winning the war. With clapping and shouts from the packed picture house, it was uplifting for anyone present, but some of the older audience, remembering an earlier war, must have had their doubts, having heard it all before.
The Saturday morning picture club for children, was my favourite, there we could see films of a perfect world—perfect at least for the children of rural Chertsey. Cowboys, Tom Mix and Gene Autrey on their wonderful Palomino horses were the heroes, always with perfectly ironed shirts and clean white cowboy hats, even their boots, bedecked with gemstones, were sparkling and shiny no matter how dusty the land was.
The baddies, on the other hand rode dirty brown horses, wore scruffy clothes, and of course had dusty black hats, even the spurs on their worn-out boots made a menacing jangle. A baddie appearing on the screen would be met with shouts and hissing from a couple of hundred children, it was deafening.
The drama of Saturday morning pictures was not confined to the screen. Although it only cost tuppence to get in, some of us had no money, so by lifting the bar on the fire escape door at the back of the building, one paying child could let in a few of his mates.
The manager, dressed in his full red uniform, with gold braided shoulder epaulettes and what my brother called ‘scrambled egg’ on the brim of his hat, would walk down the aisle with a torch, looking at a house full of children, but with less than half the tickets sold.
The kids who had sneaked in the back door, had one eye on the picture and the other on the torch, ready to turn away from the beady eye of the manager. It was a sign of the times that he allowed this to happen week after week.
I think if he had his way all the children would get in free.
This evening, I have been taken to the pictures by my sister and her boyfriend. The film was a bit dull, but the Pathe News was very graphic, it showed people fleeing their towns and villages that were being bombed and burnt to the ground. They were not soldier’s but ordinary people and children. Afterwards, as the picture-goers are walking home, hardly a word is spoken, those towns could just as easily have been Chertsey, with the same shops and churches, and with our people running away from the tanks and bombs.
At Bell Corner, people were standing and looking down Eastworth Road. Above Miss Stotts clothing shop, once again there was the brightest sky ever a shimmering arc of orange and red, almost like an enormous sun setting on the skyline, tonight, it seemed to be pulsating. It wasn’t just down Eastworth Road though, once again London has been bombed. It’s the third night in a row that the sky has been so red, it won’t stop burning until there is nothing left to burn.
I can’t help thinking of those poor people in London, not knowing where to run. The only bombs that have fallen in our area did hardly any damage. Once home, I couldn’t wait to hide under the dresser, this is where I like to sleep in my makeshift bed—we have a Morrison shelter, where the others sleep, but Sylvia, our new baby is very noisy, and I only go under the shelter when the siren goes.
I feel safe under the old Army overcoat that I use as a blanket, it’s my favourite souvenir, I don’t know where it came from, but we use anything to keep us warm at night, no wonder we call them bedclothes because that is what they were, somebody else’s clothes. I snuggle down into it—there is always a faint smell of burning from it, as if it has been too near to the fire. Everything in London must smell like this, I try to think of something else—it’s very hard to do.
We are lucky living in a town like Chertsey, there is nothing here of any importance, nothing for the Germans to waste their bombs on. At least that’s what Mrs. Salmon always says.
“The only thing that they would bomb would be Chertsey bridge or the railways, but they are not main the targets, it would be somewhere like the Tank Factory over in Chobham that are more important”.
It turns out that Mrs Salmon is right in one way, the Germans would target railways, but they do have another trick up their sleeve—hit and run raids on any small town— a town such as Chertsey, this is what Fred says anyway.