Thursday 25 August 2011

Sentimental journey

We are at the Children’s War exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London. Lily has raced on ahead to see the 1940s house but I am fixed to the spot, digging my nails into my arm to try and stop myself blubbing, reading testimonies from bewildered child evacuees, stiff upper-lipped mothers who waved their children goodbye, and foster parents who felt bereft when their wards went home. Separation and loss. All so utterly sad.

Why am I so sentimental? Maybe because I grew up with my mother silently sobbing to Land of Hope and Glory at the Last Night of the Proms. Today’s soundtrack, a scratchy recording of Teddy Bears’ Picnic, is unbearably poignant. It was the little row of display boxes that started me off. You open the lid and inside is a lone exhibit – a little toy dog, given by a father to his child; a pair of children’s specs. Waaaaa!

I finally move on, bucked by a quote from a child’s letter: ‘They call this spring, Mum, and they have one down here every year.’

Now I’m in the 1940s suburban house and the tears are welling up all over again. It’s just so familiar. My mother’s childhood house was like this. Items of furniture followed us to my childhood house. The oak hallway dresser, the Lloyd loom chairs. Rental cottages I’ve stayed at in Cornwall and Wales – identical tiled fireplaces, lumpy wooden-framed sofa and chairs, utilitarian iron bedsteads, the only concession to modernity being an indoor lav and a semi-fitted kitchen. Oh the pain of nostalgia!

I find Lily in the World War One trenches, a sobering experience even for her. We emerge to the sunshine and sit on the museum steps with our polystyrene trays of chips.

‘Did you read some of the letters from the children who had been sent away to the country?’ I ask Lily.

She screws up her face and twists her mouth as she racks her brains. There’s a long pause as I wait and she scrabbles around in her tray. She makes a stab with her wooden fork and brandishes a three-inch chip. ‘Longest chip challenge!’

I find one of a similar length and hold it up.  

She measures hers against mine. ‘Draw.’

‘Did you listen to that telephone thing where that woman said, “We were pleading to come home”?’ I put on a sad face with downturned mouth.

Lily’s lips twist again and her eyebrows furrow. Then she stabs a half-inch square chip and displays it for inspection. ‘Shortest chip challenge!’

I root around for a short chip but can’t match hers.

‘I win!’ she laughs.

‘Darling, what did you think was most touching and moving in that exhibition?’

She sighs heavily, raising her eyes to heaven and leaning forward over her chips.


She resumes her stabbing and munching.

‘Didn’t you think it was quite sad all the children having to be sent away?’

‘Ye-ah!’ she agrees, picking around her tray once more. Up comes another specimen. ‘Crispiest chip challenge!’

I find a crispy sliver and offer her a test-bite. ‘Not bad,’ she concedes with a crunch. ‘But mine's crispier. I win!'

A pair of pigeons are moving in on us, hopping and flapping up the steps. We eat the rest of our chips in silence and head for home.

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