City Without Children

A correspondent describes the early days of Britain's war with Germany when, in anticipation of bombings and gassings, more than half a million children were sent away from London.

They stood and watched me from the door when I came away. At the end of the street I looked back. They were standing close together, small.

In a pleasanter street a small handsome boy ran his scooter up and down alone. His mother came to the end of the garden to call him in. 'He misses the others,' she said soberly. 'My neighbors blame me for keeping him; one woman this morning said I was wicked. "That's a strong word," I said. I was vexed. "Downright wicked," she said, "making him wait to be murdered. Didn't you see the Spanish pictures? There was a child with both legs gone." It worries me, but what I say is there will be time to send him to my sister in Cornwall when they come. I couldn't let him go into billets; he might get anywhere, with any sort. But I can't believe they'll come. This isn't Spain. How could anyone, even Germans, bring themselves to murder thousands and thousands of people in cold blood? Why, you can't believe it; it would be the end of all things. They'll never do it. Never.'

After the summer rains the wide Common was a clear vivid green. On the edge of it the swings and bars for the children had been painted, blue, white, green. The six children had it to themselves. Bored, they picked up their gas masks and began trying them on. Before the trees and dew-bright hedge they looked like the child-players in a mediaeval farce. They rolled their eyes behind the yellow mica, nodded their heads to make the snouts move up and down, until the little lively boy wanted to laugh, choked, lost his head, clawed at the mask, and had to be helped out, frightened and sobbing.

'You've spoiled your mask now,' sister reproached him.

II

What had been grotesque became fear that had emptied the city's play grounds and streets. It is an old fear. The last raiders ran their black cruel-looking boats against the land, came ashore, burned, killed. A woman who had escaped them might come back to what had been her home and look for a child's body among the smouldering wood and the stones. The image, a precise one, has been lying in wait, to return unaltered, unsoftened by the centuries that have silted down on it, as sharp and intolerable as it was that day.

In the centre of London, the City proper, there are squares that have changed little if at all since the eighteenth century. The houses have become the the offices of sedate firms. Unless they shout, little marble-playing boys are not ordered off, and not many weeks since I watched children playing in one of these squares a game with flat stones that was probably old in Troy. The children have vanished. Two big paunchy business men, carrying rolled copies of The Times, self-conscious with gas masks in canvas boxes slung on their shoulders, stroll across in the sun. The steps going down into a small church are well sandbagged. It is as dark as a crypt in this sunken place, and nearly full of people praying, as people have prayed here for five centuries, for help in the day of trouble and lamentation. Without looking up, a woman said in a loud voice: 'My son! Oh, my son!' To what listener?

The streets are lively with typists and office girls, going home. Many of these girls are only two years older than a sister who has been evacuated. On one side of an age line you are still a child who must be protected. A step, and you have become a young woman with handbag, toeless sandals, and gas mask, who must go to the office as long as the office is there. It seems a pity. But one cannot save everybody. So these older children walk jauntily on their long thin legs, carrying their masks with a touch of coquetry. One of them points to a ice: AIR RAID SHELTER 50 PERSONS. You know that Mr. Junior? Well, morning I said to him, "What if the house falls on top of us?" He said, "Oh, you don't have to worry -- we're much too close to the Bank of England. Hitler won't bomb that; he'll want to take them alive."

'He makes you laugh, that one. I shall try to run across into your basement as soon as we get the warning. We have only old hags of thirty and men who were in the last war in our firm.'

Whole districts in north and northeast London are given over to Jews. Their strong dark-eyed children fill the streets and the parks. Surprising how many are still there. There is a dazzling evanescent excitement in the air from their voices. A middle-aged man in the café tries to explain why so many have stayed. He, a Jew, an Austrian, one of the fortunate ones who had English relatives. 'We Jews have many faults. We have been blamed for keeping our religion. Now they say of us that Jews have bought houses in north Wales to be safe. If it is true, they are the Jews who have lost their religion; they are what you would call assimilated and I call rotten. All round here are Jews who know the folly of expecting to be safe. What Jew is safe? Many children have gone, but the rest will stay as long as there are any cellars to hide them in, and any food. I expect you will blame us then; you will say, "Look, the Jews have food! Dirty Jew, out with you and your brats!"'

'Not in London.'

'Why not in London? We have a trick of surviving, and you won't find it easy to forgive that now.'

An arterial road cuts through here. At the other side of it, between these stubbornly urban streets and the reservoir, a thick spatter of new small houses, with unfenced gardens. Where the Scandinavians build white elegant suburbs and the Viennese used to build charming blocks of flats, we turn the speculative builder loose to do his repellent worst. 'They're healthy for children,' we say of these places, as if elegance were something no child should be exposed to catching. But, curiously, the children do flourish in them. They rush whooping along the cinder tracks, between the ash bins and straggling flowers; they grow awkward and ruddy -- not country children, because this is still London, but not sharp-eyed pallid Londoners either. The young married couples who come here to live intend to have children; the long raw gardens, the sham-modern houses, were made for it.

And so long as the children are there, yelling and running, the place does not look so bad. It is shoddy, hideous, but it is lived in by people who are not yet tired or disappointed, and it has a touching brightness. Without children it is inexcusable. The rows of mean small houses, each with its ash bin, have no more expression than an idiot. If ever streets were mentally deficient, these are.

'No. We didn't send a child away because we haven't one to send. We only got married last month, in his week's holiday. We waited two years, to be able to furnish. Would you like to see? It's nice, isn't it? I made the curtains. Everything brightly colored I said, "We won't have any of those washed-out-looking patterns; we'll be gay," I said. And the furniture too, it's all modern. I like new things. My sister said, "Rent a flat somewhere," but I said, "No, I want a garden. You must have a garden," I said, "if you want children." Now I'm thanking God we didn't start one. My husband will be called up-he's twenty-four, like me. We'll have to give up this house; we shan't have the money. And my things -- I don't know what to do with the things. I thought of trying to let furnished, but other people would destroy them. And the new paint. Oh, can you understand this war? Tell me why it had to come, spoiling our lives, tell me! Perhaps we shall never have a child now, never; it's all been wasted. Excuse me, I feel ashamed of crying, but when I look at my nice things -- over two pounds we paid for that carpet - and he has a shelf for his books, and we were going to have, to have, we were going --'

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In