Mrs Horniman: Blitz Spirit


People talk such nonsense. I hear them on the radio all the time.


I'm not talking about the silly young things. They listen to their new-fangled music and talk about love being the answer, and paint flowers on everything, and have long hair. It's silly and pointless, but at least it doesn't so any real harm.


No, it's the old ones I'm talking about, who ought to be old enough to know better. I hear them going on about the young ones all the time. "No respect," they say. "Not like when I was young." Then they go on about how wonderful everything was when they were younger, when everyone pulled together, and no-one said a bad word against anyone, and you could leave your door unlocked for years and no-one would ever dream of stealing anything.


Stuff and nonsense. It was grim then, and it is grim now.


The thing that really makes my blood boil is all this romantic nonsense about the so-called Blitz Spirit. That lie was being peddled even as it happened, and I suppose that was understandable, because they had to keep morale up somehow, and keep the enemy from knowing how badly things were going for us. But now it’s become truth. The way some people talk, the war was a golden age when everyone was happy and England was never so good.


I was there. I know what it was really like. In 1941, a bomb landed slap bang on top of my neighbour's house, and killed them all stone dead. It tore my house to pieces, too. The kids and me were in the Anderson shelter, and lived, but that was that. We'd lost everything we ever had. The kids had nightmares for months. They used to go everywhere with Pat and Mike, the kids that were dead, and play in the streets for the hours that they could.


Golden age? My foot! Try telling that to kids who wake up crying because their friends are dead, and they've got no home to go to.


A week later, the telegram came, and that was that.


I was homeless and widowed, with two mouths to feed. I saw precious little Blitz Spirit then, I can tell you. Even when the sun shone, the sky felt dangerous, because you never knew when the bombs were going to fall. Streets I had known since a child suddenly felt menacing. I had to get out of there. Everywhere I went, I saw places I had been with Joe.


I can't call it a miracle, the thing that happened next, because it came after so much tragedy, but it was a life-saver, and no mistake. My Joe's unmarried aunt went and died. Someone must have told her what had happened to us, because the next thing I knew, some city gents were asking round after me. She'd left me all her money, which didn't amount to anything much, but better than that, she'd left me her cottage. It was in a small place called Huntercombe, out beyond Windsor, out in the country and away from the bombs.


So that was that. We packed up what remained of our possessions, left the only home I had ever known, and came here. And thirty years later, with the kids long gone, I am still here.


And now a new enemy is battering down our doors, and the old foolishness is being spouted all over again. I heard Mr Stanton at it just a few minutes ago. "Splendid in adversity," he said, him with his education and his long words. That Mr Lyon was agreeing, too. It's the old Blitz Spirit nonsense again, spouted by people who weren't there. So Mr Stanton likes to think that we're happier stuck in here, suffering and afraid, than we are when we're safe in our own homes… It makes me sick. Not that I can say so, of course, when his wife has given me work for nigh on thirty years, and her kids are good 'uns at heart.


No, Mr Stanton, we're stuck here because he have no choice. The wind is wailing like an air raid siren, and its chill goes right through me. The snow is as ruthless as the Germans ever were. People freeze to death in their own homes. Kids see their friends taken away from them. Everyone thinks only of themselves. And it gets colder and colder, and there will be no end to it, until we each freeze where we sit, each one alone.


People are trying to pretend that everything is well. The doctor is bustling around treating bruises and broken legs. Mr Stanton has brought a tramp along to be treated. Will Stanton looks worried, like my kids used to look when the sirens were wailing. Poor little mite. He'll never forget this. He'll have nightmares about this, you mark my words.


And now the poor boy is trailing past me, following the doctor. I listen; I am good at that. The tramp has asked to see young Will, it seems. The doctor should be ashamed at himself. He should have told the tramp to shut his mouth and be grateful that he's got a roof over his head. Letting a boy of ten get close to a man like that… These fancy men in their fancy clothes with their fancy education think they know everything, but they haven't an ounce of common sense between them.


No-one listens to me, of course. I saw that Mary Stanton trying not to laugh on Christmas Day, when I told her mother what awaits us all. The think they know it all, these young people with their airs and graces, and the rich. They think it makes them better than us. They think I'm common, but I know more about life than any of them.


The tramp has one of them horrid diseases you hear about on the wireless. And here we all are, gathered together in one room, and we'll all catch it. Coughs and sneezes spread diseases. Ma used to tell me about the flu after the first war, how it killed more people than the fighting. We'll all go like that, or freeze in the cold. Nobody can say I didn't warn them.


Everyone's still prattling away, pretending everything's fine. I watch them talking again, a little knot of cheerful people. Something, it seems, is happening. A concert. Oh, dear, a concert. They'll be singing the wartime songs again, or London songs in their country accents. I've seen it before. I've seen everything before. The Blitz Spirit, they call it, but those songs are like the air-raid siren, something I never want to hear again.


Will Stanton starts the singing. It's a melancholy thing, not fitting for a kid like him. It tugs at the heart-strings, I have to admit. He has a beautiful voice, but all too soon he'll grow up and turn into a thug. Teenagers, they call them now. His hair's already too long for a boy. This world is the ruin of even the nicest of kids.


Take my own two. They grew up and left me. Went back to London, if you'll credit it, as if the memories and the nightmares were not enough. In my day, a girl would marry and live just down the road from her Ma, and everyone would be one happy family. It's not like that now. By the time Will Stanton is old and grey, the world will not be worth living in. But I'll be long gone by then, and quiet in my grave. We all will.


Then comes the flute, and I am almost crying, though what is the point of tears? It grows colder and colder, but people are still smiling, lost in their lies. Colder, and the lights fail. The radiators are fading, and there is snow down the chimney, so even the fire has gone.


I hear the wail of the siren, and the dreadful drone of the enemy bombers. I see faces by the flicker of candlelight, like fires burning in the wreckage of my home. I see a man who cannot get up. I see the hate-filled face of the enemy, the twisted face of the tramp. I see the hand of death reaching out for a young boy, closing on him like claws. Babies scream; they screamed then. Mothers hold small bodies in their arms, and weep.


The bombs falls then, in an explosion that tears the world in two. My neighbour's house is hit, and my house is burning. I hear the children screaming as they die. And my Joe is blown to pieces far away, and everything is lost, and this is the end, this is the end.

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