Encyclopaedia make no mention of Evacuation, which affected 5 million children, in June ’39, disrupted families whose children were dragged off into the depths of the country, but also the poor devils who had to look after them. Evacuation is a sort of two way mirror, showing each group how the other lived. Not all of us were small with labels tied to our lapels, some were in their last year at school and had to go because the school went. In Sussex I lived in four different homes, three far outside my own experience. We were taken to a Sussex village, assembled in the church hall where we camped out until fixed up with digs. My first home was in a children’s orphanage where I was very happy helping the older children look after the little ones, but that was only temporary until an ordinary billet was found. Next I joined the Assistant Headmaster and his wife at the home of a senior member of the Stock Exchange and life really did change. The house, was mock-Tudor, standing in vast grounds, with a ‘shoot’ attached. The owner, Tate, had the sort of life-style common today, but one I had only seen at the cinema. It was a two car family, with a gardener-chauffeur and live-in maid. We dined off polished mahogany with lace mats, silver of the highest quality, each with his own napkin-ring and linen napkin. Brought up to protect the wood of our dining table under all circumstances, passing glasses, salt cellars and dishes, one to another on this highly polished surface, was like scraping an open wound but I soon acclimatised and decided I liked the life. I was treated as one of the family, but I had to earn my place by helping the maid, cleaning the car when the chauffeur was off and acting as a sort of gilly when Tate went shooting in his private shoot, which was a fair size. We hunted pheasant, partridge, rabbit and hare
I was beater, gun carrier, and clack when Tate managed to hit anything, which was not too often. In search for rabbit, Tate saw one; I saw a flutter of grasses and suggested he shoot between the rabbit and the grasses, which he did and killed three rabbits. At length he explained to me how he did it – several times, never once mentioning my part in the operation. He told the tale to everyone in the house, including the maid, finally telephoning all his friends with news of the carnage. Generally, however, he was a poor shot and maimed more than he killed, with the result I mostly had to dispatch the poor things.
We were evacuated prior to when Chamberlain was doing his diplomacy and the rest of us waited with baited breath. I remember the day war was declared, it was a beautiful sunny day in August, we listened to the fateful words spoken on the radio and then, those like the Assistant Head and Tate, who had seen it all before, looked meaningfully at one another and no one spoke for a while. On an errand for Mrs Tate, emptying the cigarette machines in the district of cigarettes – she expected the cost of tobacco to rocket – I heard air raid sirens for the first time, it was eerie, but an air raid in that beautiful countryside on that beautiful day was really unimaginable.
I was in matriculation year – working in Tate’s house under the eye of the Assistant Headmaster’s wife, it was like a correspondence course because there was nowhere the senior boys could be accommodated. We met occasionally but most of our work was done individually, with the consequent drop in standards. Those days would have formed the summer break under normal circumstances, so when it was time to resume schooling in the proper environment we were all shunted off once again to join the locals in a grammar school. I finished up in Lewes, a lovely part of East Sussex, for a period of my life I’m glad I did not miss.
The Incident Of The Adder I was almost totally a town boy. I loved the country and found pleasure in walking through the shoot and across the fields. This day I came across a short grass snake, it was light fawn and dark brown with markings in a ‘V’ pattern on its head. Twelve to fifteen inches long it looked positively beautiful and I could not resist it. Apart from those I had seen in Africa I had only seen snakes in glass cases at the Zoo. I picked it up and stroked its head and back and after a while put it in my jacket pocket. In successfully frightening the maid with it, I decided to put the grass snake up my sleeve, and then reaching for the salt; the snake would glide down my arm, slither across the shiny mahogany – Surprise!!
The grass snake had other ideas. Firstly it mysteriously transformed itself into an adder, next, bored with games, it bit me in the thumb and finally it poisoned me. It must have been a Sunday because Tate was at home. When he saw the snake he realised it was an adder and promptly killed it. Next he telephoned the local doctor, some 5 miles away and then drove me to him at speed. By the time I arrived a lump had formed in the lymph gland under my arm and even though he gave me an antidote I could not use my arm for days after that – serve me right for my ignorance.