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 children were sent out of London over the week-end. On Friday and Saturday, with the roads and railways cleared of ordinary travelers to make room, it was a little like an unexpected picnic. The picnickers carried knapsacks, gas masks, and packets of food which became unpalatable in the hours of a long hot day. On Sunday morning we were at war with Germany. Everything changed. The helpers at main-line stations no longer found it amusing when a mother nursing one baby and dragging the other hung back at the last minute, looking over her shoulder at the husband standing by helplessly. 'D' you know, miss, I think I won't go after all. Y' see, I never left him before; how's he to manage?'
'Get in, get in. You can't go back. Quickly. There are others to come still.'
How long before the first air raid? Hours? Minutes? Remembering that Hitler had promised to darken the sky with his aeroplanes, people told each other that Chamberlain had wanted to get the children away before declaring war. Now was it too late? The days passed, the nights passed. A week after the beginning of war, London -- childless London -- has not been bombed.
Over half a million children were hurried out of the city. Some further hundreds of thousands went independently, packed off to relatives and boarding schools in the country. On Wednesday, September 6, London looked as it would look if some fantastic death pinched off the heads under fifteen. It was an exquisite day; we have had a poor summer, much rain and low gray skies; today, and all this first week, sunlight, the wind mild and fitful, the sky clear. In this light, London is extremely handsome. Very early in the morning the balloon barrage looks unreal and very frail. As the light strengthens, the balloons become clear and hard, oversize stars in a perfectly blue sky. A pity there are no children to point at them.
There are some. Kensington Gardens are for middle-class and wealthy children. 'Young society mothers wheel their own baby carriages.' The photograph shows the Honorable Mrs. Campaspe in short fur coat and short skirt, smiling across the hood of the carriage on one of the asphalted paths. But it is usually a gray-clad nurse or a governess who watches the children from the edge of the grass. This morning there are exactly five children and three nurses on a lawn-smooth space as wide as Piccadilly Circus. Even in wartime these nurses do not talk to strangers; opening my newspaper, I listen to two who must know each other very well.
'I thought you said you were leaving on Saturday, Mrs. Lowrie.'
'I thought so. But at the last minute her Ladyship said, "No, we'll wait. I don't believe there's so much danger as people think," she said. "Besides, why have I spent over five hundred pounds preparing bombproof rooms if we're going to run away?" "It's not the bombs I'm afraid of for them," I said; "it's gas." "Surely you're not afraid, Mrs. Lowrie?" she said. She laughed. I'm not afraid for myself; it's for them. However, this morning her secretary told me she had been writing off to Scotland, to ask if the house was ready, so I dare say we shall go soon. But what about yours?'
The other woman frowned. 'He doesn't want them to leave. She won't let me take the child away without her -- as if she made any difference! -- and she won't leave him unless he tells her to go. So here we are.'
'Perhaps he knows something -- in his position.'
'Know or not know, when even slum children are going, why keep ours here?'
Regent's Park, with its ring of elegant houses, is an easy walking distance from two of the more squalid warrens of London -- Camden Town and the slums behind Paddington Station. That is why the charming lawns on the canal are noisy half the year with agile dirty infants in the charge of matriarchs of eight or nine. The well-to-do Civil Servants, BBC officials, a novelist or two, who live elegantly on the edge, find the Park pleasanter in winter. They have it this bright day to themselves. Or almost. Two little girls, faces striped with dust and responsibility, have fetched here a bare-bottomed infant and a brace apiece of little filthy boys. Two of the now familiar cardboard boxes are lying with a baby's bottle and a ragged shawl.
'I see you've got your gas masks.'
'Well, we had to fetch them. One's mine and one's hers. Of course we haven't any masks for them,' -- she waved a hand at her brothers, -- 'they're too young, see? A nice sight I should look, me in my gas mask, running home with all this lot if a German comes hittling about here.' She giggled.
'Why didn't you go with the other children?'
'Mother wouldn't let us.'
She had no idea and didn't care. She was not disappointed that they had had to stay behind; it was unlikely that anything in 'the country,' that place as blank in her mind as the Antarctic on old maps, was better than this; wherever she went she would have the baby and the rest on her hands. It struck me that the last time I saw her and her hands, rough and too old for her eight years, she was squatting on the edge of a pavement in Madrid. But she had no gas mask there.
London south of the Thames is a crazy quilt of swollen spoiled towns and villages; decent, squalid; old, bleakly new; with parks and commons, without. Stretched tight between a shopping street and the railway line, a dozen rows of scabrous little houses, two families to a house. The streets between the houses are asphalted wide gutters, on any holiday alive and running with children. All now as empty as though they had been upended and shaken. The silence was deafening. In a few of the houses women had seized the chance to clean up, but the women down here are slatterns compared with the women in the smoke-infected industrial towns of the north. There was a woman idle in most doorways or lounging with an elbow on the windowsill. And now that they could have clacked without raising their voices over the shrieking voices of the children they had nothing to say. Further on, a long street of shabby houses with ragged ends of garden, unnaturally tidy. A lorry-load of Anderson shelters had been sent here, and obediently and skeptically planted. 'I don't mind standing in one myself,' a woman said, 'but could I have squeezed in five children? I saw photos in the newspaper of bombproof rooms, but they say it costs a fortune.'
'Aren't there any children left in this street?'
'Yes, there are. The people in the end house kept theirs. Risky, I call it.'
In the end house three blond children, a girl and two boys, were playing in the kitchen: they had been into the street, their mother said, and had run in again because it was strange. She offered with a little defiance to show me the dugout her husband had made in the garden: he used the Anderson shelter and revetted the rest with boards. It took up the whole of that narrow space. He was there working on it, a middle-aged man, with that look of extreme patience and gentleness many English workingmen have. He was a young soldier in the war, the last war. He had been married twelve years, and for the last seven he had been unemployed. 'My sister offered me years ago to go to her with the little girl,' his wife said, 'and let the boys go to a home, and him do what he could. But I said, "No, we'll stick together, thank you," and my husband said the same. So when their teacher came here telling me to let them go with the others I wouldn't. God knows what it's taken us to keep together all these years; we're not going to break up now. I reckon if it's bombs we'll be safe enough in there. Anyhow we'll be smashed up together. I don't know why the government is so anxious about us. You wouldn't have thought it these last years.'
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.
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 --'
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.
In the early evening, white fleecy clouds covered the sky, like a woman's shawl. The sun dropped to the level of the balloons; they became incandescent. The Thames filled with light. Two little boys hung over the parapet of the embankment, watching. Someone had carefully labeled the cases of their gas masks in large black letters. Harry. John.
The elderly woman looked what she was, a schoolmistress. She had that impersonal kindness for children which comes of seeing them as so many unformed fidgeting bodies and reluctant brains. 'I blame women who won't part with their children. But I've no patience with the nonsense running out of the tap now, about their being happier living with strangers, and better-educated in their half days in village schools. Why they've had to be sent away is because no proper air-raid shelters were built while there was time to build them. That's why. Nothing else. The only thing the government could do now was push the children out of the way, quickly, billet them, and hope for the best. Some mothers came on the Wednesday asking, "Need we send them? Is it serious?" That was the BBC cooing at us it was only a precaution. But I knew. I remembered last September before Munich, when they sent a few trainloads of children into the country. They weren't serious then. The instructions I got then, if by accident anything had happened, couldn't have been carried out. Every schoolteacher knew they were eyewash; I knew. So when these plans came through, complete down to a bar of chocolate, I said, "So it's come; it's war." And I told all my mothers, Precaution or not," I said, "send them; you send them; you wouldn't forgive yourself if anything happened and it was like Spain, or China." It's queer isn't it? The people seem stunned. They keep on saying, "London, it's London." As if children could be smashed into pieces in Madrid and Guernica and Shanghai, but not in London. Or not in New York. I suppose the Americans think their children are safe. As we used to.'
London has become middle-aged, suddenly. It is because London children had the habit of wandering. They would walk miles, dragging still smaller children, to reach the Embankment, the Serpentine in Hyde Park, the Round Pond at the top of Hampstead. You fell over them in Bond Street and St. James's. Last summer a policeman threatened an infant who was trying to bathe in the Trafalgar Square fountain. He said he was three years old. 'Where d'you live?'
'Hackney Marsh. And I got to be off back, see?'
Three hours' hard walking through the jungle of traffic.
Overnight, London has become what it will look like in another half century -- war or no war, bombs or no bombs -- when fewer and fewer children are being born. Half a million grown men could be moved out of the city and it wouldn't make any serious change. But without children an essential part of the picture has been wiped out. There are gaps in the composition where a nurse should have been seated watching a child on the grass; or a harassed little girl, wheeling an infant past the shops, with two gripping her dress, should have pushed between the bodies of grown-ups. The gap made by one note dropped out of the scale is shocking. The ear listens for it in an impatient growing anguish.
If there is no raid next week, or the week after, the mothers will want their children back. A slatternly young woman with a baby, sent to a village near London, returned the next day. She preferred danger to the appalling boredom of a life without door-to-door gossip, streets of shops, and the comforting sense of the swarm of bodies near hers. 'Buried alive I was down there, so I've come home for Hitler to do the job proper.'
The woman reading the newspaper in the sunlight crumpled it up suddenly. 'Have you a son?' she said in a hard voice.
'How old is he? Mine's eighteen. War age. That's what they call it. War age. If he was only eight, if I'd only waited ten years to have him, he'd be safely in the country now. There's four in my street whose children have been evacuated, missing them all day long,. grumbling, anxious - - yet they know they're safe. Safe. If I could send mine into safety! If there were anywhere on earth where I could hide him!'
Parts of Soho are like some shabby French town, like Bayonne. The flat shabby houses face each other in narrow streets, and the children sit on doorstep and chatter, chatter; the sound under the noise of traffic like water under a bridge. As soon as they left, this sound ceased, not only in these streets, but in every quarter of the city, exactly as though a fountain had been turned off at the source. Rooms, yards, playgrounds, the streets of poor districts, quiet suburban streets, parks, the banks of the canal, the river, have been silenced overnight. Goodness knows how often a woman, climbing the stairs of her house at night, listens for some sound; then remembers that no one is there. Or she will remember it in the street with its nagging emptiness. The legend of the first-born who had to die for what was not his mistake or guilt, and the other legend of the fortunate youngest brother, have returned to life as certain legends perpetually do, being truer than most facts. But each rehearsal differs from all the others. This silence, unnoticed as a whole but noticed at a million separate moments during the day, is new. It is disconcerting and harsh, like the silence after an air-raid warning or like the Armistice silence. Even a well-meaning government cannot evacuate the thoughts of its citizens.
A woman -- young by her voice, coming out of the darkness without street lamps -- is talking and half crying. 'I wish I hadn't let him go! If I'd thought it would be like this I wouldn't have let them take him -- he's so little, after all, and he was crying when the train went. It's no use your saying we had to send him. We didn't have to; we could have kept him. No, I don't want to go in I can't. Don't tell me I must be sensible. Is any of this sensible? It's mad -- the whole world has gone mad.'
The extraordinary sense of unreality persists. Among ordinary people -- husbands trying to comfort their wives, mothers folding away the blankets from a child's bed -- it underlies every other feeling. From moment to moment it swirls up and drowns them all. It is incredible that we are at war; it is incredible that the children have gone away. We look up at the grotesque balloons, at the lean muzzles of guns in the parks and on the roofs of high buildings; but they do not make us realize it. Not even air-raid warnings can do that. Not even the thought, recurring: 'Look, look! You may never see it again.'
When the reality breaks through for a moment, it comes from infinitely simple things: a young woman looking at her newly bought chairs and curtains and thinking, 'I shall have to store these somewhere'; another remembering her child's face in the instant before the train swept him from sight; the spoiling and ruin of uncounted simple lives. A minute of intolerable grief and anger, then the numbing sense of unreality closes down. And so we wait, with scarcely any emotion, for something to happen.
Night-dark London, with the moon in its last quarter, has an air of extraor dinary beauty, endurance, ease. So it must have looked in the seventeenth century, to eyes accustomed to this halfdarkness, to squares in which the darkness rises to the tops of the buildings, to corridors of half-deserted streets without lamps. No seventeenth-century eye would have known what to make of the balloons, now glittering like swans, against rippling white clouds. At ten o'clock Trafalgar Square is almost empty. The columns of St. Martin's in the Fields have the whiteness of young birches. The child squatting on the steps has his back to them.
'Are you lost?'
'Do you want to go on sitting here' It's late.'
He looks up with a derisive smile and doesn't answer. The policeman emerging from the darkness a dozen yards away says: 'Oh, I know him all right. He'll go home in his own time. There used to be four or five of them come every evening. The others'll have gone.'