World War II


ooking through the window of my office at Green College, Oxford, I can see, less than a hundred yards away, the venerable stone buildings of the Radcliffe Infirmary where I was born nearly sixty-five years ago, three weeks before Britain declared war on Hitler. Fear of fascism as much as fear of Hitler colored the conversational environment of my early years. Having known no other life, I accepted war-time existence as the way the world was, unable to distinguish products of the emergency that would disappear with a return to peace from those things that were permanent features of society. For adults it was a minimalist existence compared to their pre-war life. Food was scarce and rationed, and “the blackout” rigidly enforced by air raid wardens, insured that not a sliver of light escaped from windows sealed with blinds or black cloth. Street lights, neon signs that hung like dead vines on the sides of buildings and other forms of outside illumination were gone for the duration, night was like it was meant to be--totally black. Commerce was strictly constrained by the war effort. In my childhood experience houses were never bought or sold, new shops never opened, no one started a new business, there were no professional sports, gasoline rationing prevented virtually all private use of automobiles, there was no ice cream nor any new toys in the stores.

The newspapers were so filled with the war that I grew up thinking that once the conflict was over, there would no longer be newspapers. Fearful of defeat and invasion, the population held onto whatever money and possessions they had. The prime minister, Winston Churchill, asked that people turn in their pots and pans and the iron railings in front of their houses, anything made of metal that could be melted down and turned into munitions. Years later I would learn that this was an exercise in futility dreamed up by Winston Churchill to instill a sense of sacrifice for the war effort in the people of Britain and had no practical relevance to the production of weapons.

My parents lived in a small apartment on the curiously-named Squitchey Lane in North Oxford. The three, four-unit apartment buildings were clustered together on a corner lot with a grass area behind. Beyond was a line of garages for the tenants. We did not have one because we did not have a car. These stucco-clad buildings had been put up just before the war and my parents, considered very lucky to get in, were among the first occupants. The rent was one pound ten shillings a week and bald Mr Pye came each Friday to collect it. This was my world for the first eight ears of my life. I knew all the neighbors: glamorous, cigarette-smoking Mrs Axtell who lived underneath us had a husband away in the war but was always throwing parties and having men visit; Mr Abbot, the newsagent in the nearby shopping district, his wife and son of seventeen who was about to go into the army; the two friendly Dr Sinclairs, husband and wife who wore uniforms and were in the army, but commuted everyday to a local military hospital, and Mrs Geddes who lived across the hall from us and who had a daughter, Mary, my own age and my earliest playmate. Mr Geddes was in the army in North Africa.

It was largely a world of mothers and children. Most men I encountered were over fifty. I was lucky to have a father at home. Both my parents had been born in Perth, Western Australia and my father, a medical scientist, had come to Oxford in 1936, initially as a postdoctoral fellow, and then as a lecturer in the physiology department. As an Australian citizen and an academic playing a vital role in the war effort, he was initially exempted from the conscription that affected other men his age. He had made a name for himself, and become a potential Nobel Prize candidate, by being the first person to demonstrate the presence of Vitamin C in the human body. Despite his youth, he was recognized as one of the world’s leading authorities on nutrition. With the outbreak of war, he became an advisor to the Ministry of Food. Winston Churchill had directed that a nutritional safety net be established to insure that a minimum standard of health and nutrition be maintained for mothers and children despite food rationing and other sacrifices of the war. My father made frequent trips to London amid bombing raids to help establish what that standard should be and what supplements to their rations mothers and children should receive. A bottle of concentrated orange juice and of cod-liver oil provided free to all children every two weeks was among the measures taken. My father and other scientists traveled the country speaking to factory employees, community groups, and women’s organizations to educate them about good nutrition, especially vitamins. Ironically this program resulted in a level of nutritional health for children of working class families that far exceeded that which they had enjoyed in peace time, when poverty, ignorance and an indifferent government did not reach out to them. I was kept strictly on the diet my father was recommending to the government and I was made the test child for the program. Every three months I was taken to a lab at the headquarters of the Oxford Nutrition Survey at 10 Parks Road where my blood was drawn, my night vision was tested in total darkness, and I was given a general physical. My father went to great lengths to prepare me, but it was still a frightening experience for a three-year-old. My health dictated the diet of the children of the nation.

Shortage of food was an important part of my early life. I remember regularly standing in line in the cold with my mother for countless hours at a bread factory where we went twice a week. The government set up feeding centers in church halls and other large buildings where anyone could go to obtain a nutritionally balanced meal outside the rationing system and for minimal cost. My father frequently took me to eat at one such facility where the fare seemed always to be the traditional English dish of ground beef and potatoes known as shepherd’s pie. It was in a church hall across the street from what has become Green College, the college where now I regularly dine at “high table” on Thursday evenings on gourmet cuisine with the best wine. Each time as I leave I look across at the church hall and marvel how my life has changed in a little over sixty years.

Shortly after my third birthday I was enrolled in Miss Franklin’s Wayside Nursery School. Miss Franklin was a stout spinster in her forties with greying hair pulled back in a tight bun. She took roll each morning sitting in a straight-backed chair, with the children dressed in yellow smocks arrayed on the floor in front of her. She sat in a no-nonsense fashion but with her knees apart, and you could look up her skirt “all the way to the top.” We snickered among ourselves and she never knew why.

Miss Franklin was a devout Roman Catholic and her school was across the street from a Catholic church which had a small group of nuns associated with it. There was also a priest, a silent, frightening figure in black, who moved in the background and never spoke to the children. On several occasions we were taken there to watch flickering black and white movies of the missionary work their order was doing in Africa. The semi-naked black figures moving among tiny thatched kraals seemed so distant from anything in my own experience. It was hard for me to relate to the idea of these nuns, strange characters in their own right, going to Africa to impart Christianity to these people.

My father, a slim compact man with a thin moustache and glasses, would depart each morning, even in the worst British weather, bicycling to work down the Banbury road to the physiology department in the university. He had attached a small seat to the crossbar on which, on weekends, I could sit while he rode. In this fashion I saw most of Oxford and the surrounding countryside. Sometimes we stopped at a pub where he would sit me outside with a lemonade while he went in for a pint of beer. Occasionally he took me to work with him. Like any large research lab, the smell of chemicals and forest of glassware were its most memorable features. But to me the most exciting aspect was always the visit to the floor with the research animals. There they had guinea pigs, rats, mice, dogs, cats and even several species of monkey, each of which my father taught me to identify. Periodically my father would take his turn spending the night on the roof of the building, along with other faculty across the university, looking out for incendiary bombs that the Germans might drop. These had to be extinguished immediately to limit the damage in the old highly flammable structures.

Despite the war, it was an exciting time in medical research in Oxford. Among my father’s colleagues were, Howard Florey an Australian and Ernst Chain, a Jewish refugee from the Nazis, who with a team of other scientists were turning Alexander Fleming’s original discovery of penicillin into the biggest breakthrough in the control of infectious disease of the twentieth century, Dorothy Hodgkin, a crystallographer was working on defining the structure of insulin, for which she too would later receive a Nobel prize, Peter Medawar, another Nobelist, who was doing original work in immunology, a field that over the next fifty years would come to dominate medical science. ( I have a picture of myself at age two running naked on a lawn with his daughter Caroline.) And there was Hugh Sinclair, an iconoclast and visionary thinker in the field of nutrition who became convinced of the importance of essential fatty acids in the human diet. A meticulous scientist but inattentive to his personal appearance and habits, he always stank of the whale blubber or other animals fats he was working on. For fifty years his pioneering studies were largely ignored, but today our understanding of the crucial importance of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids in human health is largely attributable to his work.

My father tried hard to be a good parent, especially in the intellectual realm. He read to me almost every evening, heavily from popular science, particularly about animals, as well as mythology, geography, and the poems from Shakespeare’s plays, most of which I could recite by my fifth birthday. Above my bed he pinned a map of the world about which he regularly quizzed me so that I could soon identify all of the countries and most of the major rivers and cities. We had a large illustrated book with the most famous works of the world’s great artists which we went through so often that I could name each picture and its painter.

Perhaps because he was self-conscious about the culturally unsophisticated background he came from in Australia my father took a strong interest in ballet. The only picture I remember on the wall of our apartment was a copy of Degas’s “Ballerina.” I recall at a very young age being taken to a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. My strongest recollection was of a young man in uniform, probably on leave, sitting next to us who seemed overcome by emotion watching the grace of the dancers. At some point my father had briefly taken ballet lessons and when I was no more than four it was proposed that I take classes at the Oxford ballet school. My parents were good in always wanting to expose me to new experiences and opportunities, but always with the caveat, “if you do not like it you do not have to do it.” The ballet school was filled with women in tights in their late teens or early twenties exercising at the bar or leaping around the room. I was terrified by their size, power and fast movement and fearful that I would be knocked over. I did not go back.

Horseback riding was another matter. My teacher, Gwladys Antonia Doering, was a quintessential British eccentric and an Oxford fixture of the forties and fifties. In her youth a cultured academic, I remember her as a tall gaunt figure in her late fifties, with facial hair, a large hat, always wearing the same heavily worn garments with multiple petticoats, loping with powerful strides, rope or halter in hand, through the streets of Oxford. She rode the bus, but usually forgot to pay. In those days people let it pass. Today she might be thought of as a “bag-lady.”

She taught riding at Port Meadow, a large stretch of common land given to the people of Oxford by William the Conqueror, on which anyone could graze their animals. It was said that she was not particular whether the lesson was given on one of her horses or someone else’s, if indeed, she owned any horses at all. She would end the day by taking tea at the elegant Randolph Hotel where she carefully left her muddy boots, but not the strong odor of horses, at the door.

Although the war and the fear it generated gradually diminished as I grew older, in the early years the sense of threat was intense. The war we knew was the air war, which throughout Europe would involve a quarter of a million planes and the loss of 200,000 lives. Rarely was one or more planes not visible somewhere in the sky. I grew up with a Pavlovian response of fear whenever the long steady note of the air raid siren warning of imminent attack punctuated our lives, and of pleasure and relief when the oscillating sound of the “all clear” was heard. Oxford was a university town, but it was also the site of the Oxford Motor Works, which was churning out military vehicles at a fierce rate. And it was on the flight path of Germans planes flying to attack the industrial center of Coventry. Heavy German bombing seemed a certainty. When I was an infant in 1941, fear of bombing led my mother to move with me to a village in the Cotswold Hills to which my father would bicycle on the weekends. One Sunday afternoon my parents took me for a picnic on an open hillside near the village. Suddenly a low flying Messerschmidt, apparently separated from the rest of his squadron, roared down on us from a cloudless sky. One burst from his machine guns would have quickly put an end to the three of us. Whether out of humanitarian decency or lack of ammunition, he did not fire. My parents decided that we were probably just as safe in Oxford, after all. Unbeknownst to the public, a secret agreement had been reached whereby the allies would avoid bombing Heidelberg and in return the Germans would spare Oxford and Cambridge. However, a year later when there were again rumors that Oxford would be hit my father moved us to the resort town of Brighton on the south coast of England. Not long after my mother and I took up residence with friends there, the Germans began “hit and run” raids, flying the twenty miles across the English channel, dumping their bombs on the coastal towns and quickly flying back to occupied France before the British planes could get in the air to attack them. These resort towns had no strategic significance. It was merely an effort to intimidate and demoralize the civilian population.

Once a joyous center of fun and recreation, Brighton had become a dreary town. Just to kill time and keep me entertained, my mother spent many hours walking me along the sea-front where the once laughter-filled beaches had become a dismal tangle of barbed wire, mines, and concrete pylons to slow any German amphibious landing. The screaming air raid sirens usually gave us time enough to run to the underground shelters. Once my mother and I were caught on the street as a bomb fell less than a block away. We were blown off our feet into the doorway of a store. The store’s plate glass window crashed down, but neither of us was injured. The raids got steadily more frequent with part of almost every night spent in the shelters. Finally my father arrived to take us back to Oxford. That night the raids were particularly heavy and my father exhausted from his journey wanted to take his chances staying in bed rather than going to the shelter. He had taken my place in my mother’s bed and I was sleeping in a makeshift bed on the floor next to him. Over the weeks my mother and I had become somewhat inured to the bombing, but I could sense the fear in my father who was experiencing it for the first time. I was initially determined to show him that I was not afraid, but eventually the raid became so intense and the exploding bombs so close that I had to admit my fear and ask in a plaintive voice if I could join them in the bed. The next morning we returned to Oxford and would give up looking for other refuges for the rest of the war.

It was the face of war close up that was more frightening to a young child than the somewhat abstract threat of bombing. Several of the Oxford Colleges had been turned into hospitals to treat the wounded. St. Hughes had become the center for casualties with brain damage. When you passed by on fine days you could see, at a distance, men in the grounds wandering around or sitting in wheel chairs with their heads swathed in bandages. It was a frightening site to a three or four year-old. On one occasion, when my mother and I were riding on a train, the young man sitting opposite us had terrible scabs on much of his face and one of his arms. He explained to my mother that he was a Spitfire pilot who had been badly burned when he was shot down. I remember trying to get my mother to move to another compartment.

Whenever I hear people speaking glibly and even enthusiastically about war, I think, from my own experience, about the devastating and lasting psychological effects it has on children even when the exposure to the full horrors, as in my case, is limited. There are times when I feel my whole life has been shaped by those distortions of everyday existence that war inflicted on me. It also makes me believe that those who did not share similar experiences can not begin to comprehend the tragically unanticipated implications of a lightly taken decision to go to war.

Italy surrendered in 1943, but its prisoners of war were kept in Britain until the cessation of hostilities with all of the axis powers. Unlike the German prisoners they were given considerable latitude in mixing with the civilian population. They wore dark jump suits with “P.O.W.” emblazoned on the back in large letters. On weekends they congregated in the center of Oxford going to shops, pubs, and restaurants. I remember them as gregarious and friendly, especially to children.

German prisoners, with whom we had little contact, were by contrast something to be feared. They were only seen in the towns being transported in trucks to construction sites or farms where they could be required to work under the Geneva Convention. Perhaps because I only saw them in winter, they always seemed to have on heavy overcoats and were unfriendly and unsmiling. My mother had a sister who was married to a school master at Radley College, about six miles from Oxford, and occasionally we would go there for the weekend. Next to their house was a farm where German prisoners came everyday to work. Other children and I were warned to stay well clear of them with the same degree of concern with which we were admonished to beware of the bull.

In the early part of the war, the greatest fear was of being invaded by parachuting German divisions. People in Oxford believed that because of the many open spaces near the city, we were in a prime location for such an attack. The government had announced that if an invasion occurred, people would be warned by the ringing of church bells all over the country. Unfortunately, there were several false alarms when church bells rang for some other reason, and we were convinced we were about to see Germans on our doorstep. So ingrained was the fear and hostility towards Germans that it took me years after the war to overcome it. In some respects, perhaps, I never have. One joy the Germans did bring to my life and that of other children was the “silver paper” their planes dropped from the sky, chaff to confuse British radar. In our drab colorless war-time world these shiny strands from heaven added excitement and novelty to our lives and most children collected it like stamps or baseball cards.

Later in the war American troops began to appear. They were unlike the tired, worn-down, reserved British, the feared, resentful, hostile Germans, or even the laughing, friendly Italians. The Americans were outgoing, warm, generous, and to some child-like in being largely oblivious to local sensitivities and customs. For children, their greatest asset was that they represented a never ending source of Wrigley’s Spearmint chewing gum. “Got any gum, chum?” was the greeting we used any time we saw Americans. For young women they were the source of nylons, an innovation in hosiery hitherto unknown in Britain. But the G.I.s enjoyed salaries several times that of British troops and had a widely despised attitude that they had come to take over and win the war. For those who had clung on through the blitz and turned the tide when Britain faced invasion, this condescension from troops who had yet to see a moment of combat was a considerable source of anger, giving rise to the widely quoted aphorism that “the only thing wrong with the Yanks is that they are overpaid, oversexed, and over here.” In the British Army, one of the great bastions of the class-system, American officers were seen as gauche, with no more refinement or education than their enlisted men. British officers found it difficult to accept them as equals. To most Britons, America was a largely unknown country and culture. I do not remember meeting any Briton who had actually been to America until I was at least twelve years old. Concepts such as “manifest destiny” and “American exceptionalism” would have been unknown to all but a handful of academics.

Although my mother was born in Australia her parents had emigrated from rural Wales at the turn of the century. Her father, a cobbler in the tiny village of Caio, had tried to enlist in the British Army at the time of the Boer War but was rejected for “flat feet.” Instead, in 1901 he set out for Western Australia, where many Welsh were going to flee the poverty in their native land. Having established himself with a shoe shop in Perth he returned three years later to marry his childhood sweetheart from an isolated farmstead in the Cothi valley of Carmarthenshire.

When my parents came to Britain in 1936, my mother established contact with her Welsh relatives. When I was four she had taken me there for several weeks. At that time it was a very long trip; we took several trains, breaking the trip overnight in the port city of Swansea. Returning to the station the next morning I remember walking by the smouldering shells of building after building, the result of intensive bombing a few days before. During the war farmers were one group given a special gasoline allowance.

My mother and I stayed in a little white-washed cottage with slate roof on the banks of the Cothi river, the home of another cousin and her two young daughters. There was no electricity or inside plumbing. A bath was a weekly event in a galvanized iron tub in front of the fire. Each day we walked through the fields to the main farm house, Brynteg. There were rabbits everywhere which, as a source of protein, sustained the local farmers throughout the war. People would later tell me they do not know how they would have survived without the rabbits. In the fall the river was filled with spawning salmon. Although they were all in the livestock business, it was against the law to kill and eat the sheep they were raising.

There was a network of first and second cousins, great uncles and great aunts, related to me through my mother, scattered throughout these wild beautiful valleys. This area had been the western most extension of the Roman empire. There were the remains of Roman gold and tin mines, aqueducts, military forts and lookout posts. My relatives could trace their ancestry back at least to the sixteen century in this area and our shared ancestors had probably worked as Roman slaves. It was very different world from Oxford, but as with rural people everywhere they were warm and friendly. Wales would become an important part of my life. Generally, because farmers were exempted from military duty, families were still intact, a new experience for me. My mother came from a community of tenant farmers from which the once powerful gentry had largely disappeared. There was an egalitarianism quite different from the class-consciousness in England. This, too, was the heartland of non-conformism in Britain, and most were devout Methodists or Baptists. In my early years, Welsh was still the predominant language with many people speaking no English. During my lifetime, Welsh would gradually diminish becoming the first language of fewer and fewer people. This was where my roots lay and where I would later return to restore myself no matter where I had gone in the world.



In the early summer of 1944 the invasion of Europe was imminent. My father took me to a little airport at Kidlington near Oxford where we spent an afternoon watching large gliders made, miraculously, mostly out of plywood, doing practice landings. They were to be towed by planes across the channel filled with troops to land in fields behind enemy lines. What was not known was the exact date on which the invasion would occur or the precise location of the landings, and a great guessing game began. Each day the number of planes in the sky began to increase. On the morning of June 6th, perhaps sensing that the crescendo could not go on for ever and seeing the sky particularly thick with planes, I announced definitively to my parents “Today is the day of the invasion.” I could not be talked out of it and to their astonishment I turned out to be right.

As the war in Europe was drawing to a close, my father, who had so far had been exempted from military service, was called to active duty. I suspect that he may have had much to do with it himself, concerned about being someone who had not served in a sea of returning veterans. He went in as a major in the army with a component of the Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.) known as Force 136. Its primary job was to support clandestine operations against the Japanese in Burma, Thailand and Malaysia. He made a four-day trip by flying boat to India, sending a letter from their re-fueling stops along the way. From India and later Ceylon he would send me gifts, including wooden elephants and other carved animals. When the Japanese surrendered he moved on to Kuala Lumpur where he was in charge of restoring the nutrition of the Malaysian people who had been brought to a state of near starvation. His letters and gifts were my first taste of a world outside wartime Britain.

For a year and a half my mother and I lived alone. We were close, and my mother worked hard to make up for my father’s absence. She was not physically demonstrative, but tried to fill my life with pleasant and interesting experiences. She also had a strong social conscience and filled me with concern for injustice. She showed great empathy and compassion for those who were deprived or suffering. In later years when she was a clinical psychologist for the county of Oxford, she would collect perfume samples and give them to teenage girls, usually orphans or emotionally deprived, with a note that said “from someone who cares about you.” We went on extended weekend trips to the resort towns of Torquay and Bournemouth, the country town of Paignton on the edge of the Cotswolds, and occasional visits to London. It was a period in which the impact of the war steadily diminished. Pre-war commodities, if not luxuries, slowly began to reappear. Winston Churchill arranged for a boatload of bananas to be brought from the Caribbean with enough so that there was at least one for every child in Britain. It was a highly anticipated event and for several days I rushed home from school to see if my mother had obtained my unknown fruit. When they finally appeared I ate the revered delicacy slowly savoring the taste and smell. I saved the skin until it had turned thoroughly black and had dried up. Ever since, triggered mainly by the smell, I have been unable to eat a banana without recalling that moment. It was an inspired gesture- -a memorable streak of yellow in the grey world of post-war Britain.

My mother took a job as a part-time secretary for a woman doctor, Vera Walker, whose husband also was a physician. It allowed her to save enough money so that later, after my father’s return, there was enough for a down payment on a house. It was something she would regularly raise any time they had an argument. My mother and I were invited to the doctor’s house for Christmas in 1945. Although she lived only a few blocks from our apartment, her home was large and expensively appointed. It was my first recognition that some people lived more comfortably than others and that money was the decisive factor. In general my parents taught me that making money was something to be scorned and that as a goal in life, as opposed to making intellectual or social contributions to society, it was not something to aspire to. They never saw this in any political context, but rather as part of an inherent system of moral values by which everyone should want to abide. I do not remember either of my parents taking much interest in organized politics.

My mother also did volunteer work with the Overseas League, mainly helping to entertain foreign visitors to Oxford. The most memorable to me was an African from the Madagascar named Ratsamamunga, who came to lunch. He was the first black person I had ever encountered in the flesh, with the missionary films at Miss Franklin’s church being the sum total of my knowledge about Africa up to that point.

For VE Day my mother and I bought flags to hang out of our windows, British, Australian and American. The day was the most exciting of my young life. Hard drinking revelers were in the street all day; many people maintained what amounted to a day-long open house, and at night there were bonfires and a few scarce fireworks in every community. That night I stayed with a friend of my mother’s who was in her seventies, so my mother could spend the night celebrating. It was the only time I remember her leaving me at night in someone else’s care and quite out of character for her to be out most of the night carousing. Three months later on my sixth birthday the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. I remember the male Dr Sinclair, in his major’s uniform, explaining it to me. It certainly meant the end of the war with Japan and the happy prospect of my father’s return, but he impressed on me his concern as to whether the massive loss of life was really necessary and his fears about the implications of such a weapon for the future of the human race.

I went on from Ms Franklin’s to the Dragon School, a unique institution that would have a profound affect on me, not just in terms of what I learned, but upon my outlook on life, the values I held and the kind of person I became. Among the founders was Charles Liddel master of Christ Church and the father of Alice of Alice in Wonderland. Lionel Charles Liddel, one of Alice’s brothers was among the first group of pupils. By the early twentieth-century its reputation was such that parents put their children on the waiting list at birth. Merely by being in Oxford it attracted the children of talented and accomplished figures both locally and from around the country. Those who had preceded me or were contemporaries included-poet John Betjeman, the children of J.R. Tolkein and the nephew of Boris Pasternak, author Neville Shute, historian Antonia Frazer, poet laureate John Stallworthy, the children of Andrew Lloyd Weber (whose mother taught music at the school), Labor Party leader, Hugh Gaitskill, several cabinet officers in both parties, the children of several Nobel Prize winners and several who went on themselves to win the award.

I started just after my sixth birthday in the junior school, a small two year program that was only for day students. We would all go on to the senior school as day boys or boarders to join the bulk of the students who entered only the senior school at age eight. There was no provision for girls to be boarders so their numbers were small and they were all the daughters of Oxford residents.

I had heard that one of the features of this majestic institution was corporal punishment and I worried during the weeks before my first day of school that my reading ability would be judged as not good enough and I would be subjected to terrifying castigation. In fact, I was a proficient reader, and I discovered corporal punishment was not administered in the junior school that was run entirely by women. My teacher, Miss Cleasby, was a kind and motherly young woman.

My father returned in the middle of 1946. He had been gone for twenty-five percent of my life and despite the excitement of his homecoming, he was like a stranger to me. We still did things together and he continued his interest in me, but our relationship would never be quite the same again. In my father’s absence my mother had been working diligently, using what few political connections she had, to obtain passage for the two of us on an ocean liner to Australia. After a forced separation for more than ten years she wanted to see her parents. In the immediate post-war period, there were large numbers of people with high-priority justifications for any transportation in or out of Britain, and tickets on any boat were highly-coveted. When my mother notified my teachers that she planned to take me out of school for an entire term, they were astonished. No one in Oxford ever did something like that, and they warned that my nascent academic career could be irreparably damaged.

The month long voyage took a toll on us, but especially my mother. Our cabin was below the water line, and four mothers with five children, all under seven, were crammed together in nine bunk beds without temperature control or air circulation. The air was stale and smelled of fuel oil. While we had access to as much sea water as we wanted each adult received only one bucket of fresh water a day for herself and her children. On the first morning after our departure I and most of our cabin mates developed serious sea sickness in the traditionally choppy seas of the Bay of Biscay. I spent most of the next three days huddled in a blanket on the main deck vomiting, drinking ginger ale and occasionally nibbling on salted sea biscuits.

We passed through the Mediterranean and the Suez canal. The canal was barely wider than the ship, so that you felt you were sailing along in the middle of the desert. You could almost reach out and touch the camels walking on tracks along the banks. I remember vividly the utter tranquility, without a slightest ripple on the water, as we crossed the Great Bitter lake, where only a few months before President Roosevelt had met with King Saud to create America’s oil-based relationship with the twelve year-old desert kingdom. One morning I awoke to find that, during the night, we had anchored in the harbor in Aden at the tip of Yemen. Long a British bunkering station on the route to India, we were to stop there for three days while the ship refueled and took on provisions. I was stunned by the dazzling color, the brightness of the sun and perhaps most lastingly by the aroma of spices and incense. Young boys, naked, had swum out to the ship and would dive after coins thrown into the water by the passengers. Merchants in small rowing boats loaded down with exotic looking leather goods, fezzes, rugs and curved knives studded with semi-precious stones cruised around us bargaining up to the passengers at the top of their lungs. To me it was like Aladdin’s cave come to life. We went ashore for an afternoon and walked around the town among veiled women and men in strange garb, camels and goats. It was an experience so different from the drab world I had known to that point and a major milestone in my life.

Shortly after we departed into the Indian ocean we encountered a major storm. Mountainous seas threw the ship around. Virtually every passenger and crew member was vomiting over the side. Again I was severely affected. When my mother took me to the ship’s doctor, he decided I also had severe tonsillitis and recommended that I be admitted to the ship’s hospital. My mother was delighted to find a way to get me out of our cramped cabin, even though I was the only child in a ward of rough talking men suffering from broken limbs or dysentery.

We landed in Fremantle, the port town near Perth in Western Australia. We were met by my paternal grandfather, Walter Howard Bourne, a slim purposeful man with rimless glasses and grey hair. I have always remembered him as physically resembling Harry Truman who was much in the news at the time. His grand-father, my great-great-grandfather, John Bourne, had emigrated from Britain in 1853 with his wife, Charlotte Rose and four young sons. John had been an ivory turner of modest accomplishment when, lured by the news of the Australian gold rush, they had fled the slums of Victorian London. After a three month journey they landed in Melbourne and went immediately to the gold fields at Ballarat. John reportedly mined £ 6,000 worth of gold over the next fifteen years, but gambled much of it away. Their youngest son, Arthur, drowned in a flooded mine shaft at Kangaroo Flats when he was eight, and another son, Henry, was killed in a rock fall in the Suleiman Pasha gold mine in 1885. Henry was forty-two, married, and, today, has more than sixty descendants still living in the state of Victoria.

The family had for the next two generations eked out a living in the mining industry. Then, in 1905, my grandfather lured, like his grandfather, by the discovery of gold, moved to the site of the new finds in Coolgardie in Western Australia. After two years of harsh living in a shelter made of poles and canvas, little gold to show for it, and the death of their two young children, he and his wife, Minnie, moved to Perth. There he landed a job as a printer, a trade he had learned as a teenager at the Moonta Mines Gazette. Over the years he moved up to become the deputy government printer. More significantly he also became a union organizer founding the printer’s union in Western Australia. This led him into politics and a heavy involvement with the Labor Party. He had played a critical role in helping to assure the election to the parliament in Canberra of a young protegé, John Curtin. Walter, however, felt that Curtin had forgotten him and, once in power, had done nothing to reward him for his years of loyalty. He would remain bitter to the end of his life.

My mother’s family, with whom we were to stay for the next three months differed significantly from that of Walter Bourne. Ben Jones, my mother’s father, was retired and suffering from parkinsonism, attributed to the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918. He slept in a chair much of the time and was hard for a little boy to relate to. Their modest home exuded Welshness. Pictures of Welsh scenes and Welsh people covered the walls. Ben and his wife Letitia (Letty) spoke Welsh much of the time and, despite a life time in Australia, their existence centered around the Welsh expatriate community with its clubs and musically oriented social evenings. Even at that young age I remember, during that trip, becoming acutely aware of people’s cultural and ethnic differences.

Australia was for me a staggering contrast with war-time Britain. The constant warm, sunny days, of the approaching Australian summer, the bright neon lights at night downtown, green-grocers stores with piles of fresh and exotic fruit, milk shakes, (something I had not previously encountered), shops filled with goods including books and toys of every description, un-rationed gasoline, so that travel by car was the rule rather than the exception, the absence of any kind of war threat or austerity, and the informal relaxed nature of Australians, opened a whole new vision of what the world could be like. The vastness of the countryside after the neat hedgerows and tiny fields of Britain fascinated me. We spent time at the beaches where, my mother told me, my grandfather in his youth had been a re-known shark fisherman. My parents had met when they were both students at the University of Western Australia. After graduating my mother, before getting married, had worked for a year as a teacher in the tiny outback town of Toojay. She was attracted to my father, she told me over the years, not only because he was very bright and academically successful, but because he made no secret of his desire to make the most out of his life even if meant going to the ends of the earth to escape the parochialism of Australia.

My mother’s eldest sister owned a cabin in the mountains in a small community called Darlington that was a couple of hours bus ride from Perth. There we walked in the bush among giant eucalyptus trees, elegant tropical flowers called “kangaroo paws” and saw foot-long, stump-tailed lizards, wallabies and the occasional kangaroo. Always wary of snakes, we searched for “black boys” a waste high cross between a fern and a palm with a high concentration of a turpentine like substance that made them ideal for starting fires. Disappearing then, I am sure that if any still remain today, they are a protected species.

After one weekend visit we were waiting in the general store and cafe for the bus back to Perth. A rough, friendly fellow, not unlike “Crocodile Dundee,” asked me “Do you like to drink spiders?” “What’s a spider,” I replied. Somewhat incredulous he explained that it was a Coca Cola with a scoop of ice cream in it. “What’s Coca Cola?” I asked having never heard of it before. He thought I was trying to be smart with him, but he did buy me a “spider” while my mother struggled to explain that the complete absence of sodas was a part of the deprivations we had endured in wartime Britain.

I stayed for a week with Walter and Minnie Bourne. Their house was near the South Perth zoo and this was used with me as an inducement to be willing to spend the time away from my mother with people who were for all practical purposes total strangers. Separation was one thing, but there was another matter that worried me. My father had been a champion college athlete holding the Western Australian mile record. Walter had been his emphatic manager and trainer. My father described how following a shower his father would give him, and on occasion other athletes, a special “rubdown and massage”. I was to be the beneficiary of the same experience and it was discussed by my mother openly with Walter as “something Peter’s father has told him about and he is looking forward to.” In fact I was petrified. Showers were something with which I had had no experience before coming to Australia and the idea of being rubbed down while naked by a strange old man as part of some athletic ritual when I was only a child left me very frightened. The first morning my grandfather fetched me for the shower. He had large oversize mittens made of toweling material with which he vigorously rubbed me all over as I stepped from the shower. Nothing untoward happened, but if it had, I would have been too ashamed or frightened to say anything to my mother. After that first day my grandfather seemed to lose interest, but I have always been suspicious about what he might have been up to in his younger years. But he did take me to the zoo twice. High points for me of the whole trip.

Despite his earlier radical politics I remember him as rigidly conservative in his personal values. Walter was a very bright man who had only four years of education, something that he clearly regretted. He had driven his children to succeed as much for his gratification as theirs. After an older brother had died in a a motorcycle accident Walter had focused all of his search for gratification on my father. Hard work and accomplishment was what he valued and I could well see how my father came out of that home as a driven over-achiever.

My father, years later described to me how Walter, who had been forced to marry Minnie when she became pregnant despite his lack of feelings for her, lived in constant fear that my father’s two sisters might become pregnant and, until they left home, strictly regulated any contact with boys. Similarly he would not allow my father to date girls until he was at the university and was always warning him that he could destroy his career by “going too far.” Ironically, the son of my father’s older sister, Dorothy, now in his seventies recently told me that his mother was pregnant with him when she got married.

Due probably to family connections, our return to the UK was in far greater style than our outward voyage. My mother and I shared a state room to ourselves on the main deck of the ship. The weather proved to be perfect most of the way and I recall few if any days of seasickness. I spent long hours on deck usually in some isolated corner entranced by the sea and its constantly changing character. Some days it was smooth as glass, at other times broken into tiny white-capped waves, or heaving mountains of water. Sometimes it was bright blue, another day it would be green. On several occasions there were bottlenose dolphins dancing in the bow wave of the ship and once we passed a whale.

The lower decks were filled with Italian prisoners of war being taken back to Italy. We could not mix with them, but there was a deck overlooking an area they used for recreation, where I would watch them. They played mandolins and concertinas, held boxing competitions and religious services. They sang and danced with a vigor that put the British and Australian passengers to shame .

One port of call was Port Said in Egypt, a stop we had not made on the outward trip. As we went ashore we were told that at one of the department stores, Simon Artz, there was, to attract customers, a man who was 8 feet 4 inches tall and perhaps the tallest man in the world. (Now, I know probably a Dinka from the Sudan.) This I had to see. I was duely impressed by the giant who was as tall as advertised, dressed in a long white robe and turban, and who stooped down and shook my hand. Port Said was a bustling exotic city filled with street vendors, camel drawn carts, veiled women, and memorable smells of spices and sandalwood. As I grew up any talk of the “Middle East” conjured up in my mind memories of the three days spent in the city.

We also stopped in Naples to drop off our contingent of Italian POWs. We docked early in the morning and there was a vast milling crowd of family members waiting to welcome their loved ones after several years of absence.. Many were yelling up to the passengers begging for cigarettes. There was a delay in the disembarkation process and the sea of people on the dock, mostly women in black dresses and head shawls, began surging forward through the restraining ropes and police lines. Suddenly the carbinieri produced large whips and started thrashing the people at the front in an indiscriminate and vicious manner. Women were screaming and running as the police chased them down and hit them. It was a horrifying sight for the passengers hanging over the side of the boat watching and I, am sure, even more so for the returning Italian prisoners. My mother was noticeably shaken by what we had seen and it was the major topic of conversation on board for the rest of the day. There was a lot of anti-Italian
sentiment expressed and the view that with Mussolini gone for only 18 months fascism was still alive and well in Italy.

Despite the war, I had what most would consider an idyllic childhood. The trip to Australia was an important experience for me, a significant milestone in my young life. It opened my mind at a critical stage in my development to the existence of a world beyond the secure, but narrow, environment in Oxford. I had a taste of what life was like without war and I learned that my experience up to that point was not representative of how most of the people in the world lived. The brief exposure to Yemen and Egypt started what would become a lifelong interest in the Third World. It was a significant milestone in my young life.

© Peter G. Bourne - 2009