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.

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 --'

The children who have gone, and the children who have missed their chance of living in a society which can no longer protect them, live on equal terms in these streets. It is very odd. In the last war women hurried to have children. In this, already they are afraid. Why have a child if you must send it away to be safe? What place is really safe? Last week they were demonstrating to mothers a gasproof something-or-other for babies. But does the thought that she may be able to buy one of these encourage a young woman to endure the pain and doubt of a birth? Statesmen speak of the birth of a new Europe. It is a charming idea. But no woman has yet succeeded in giving birth to children with bodies immune to phosgene and high explosive. It should be attended to first. Streets without children are meaningless scribbles.

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