25 OCTOBER 1940, Page 10



THERE was no warning whistle when the bombs exploded; they tore the air like calico in our direction. The noise in the small basement-shelter was not so loud as one had expected, but the fourth bomb wiped away the house next door. There wasn't time to be afraid; only the silence afterwards was a little shocking, and the smell of hot metal. Then the wardens came and drove us out to find refuge in a strange shelter. It was our turn to be strays.

Strays had always interested us—uneasily—as their feet clattered on the area stairs and the curtain billowed. Just so, I suppose, do rabbits look up from their lettuces at the sound of an intruder in the burrow. Will it be buck or doe? aggres- sive or apologetic? For in our small shelter—which was comfortable but not reassuring with a beaverboard wall—there was only room for the regular population which came there every night. After a month of aerial war we had coalesced like a platoon; that was why we seemed to present a rather surly front to newcomers until they had proved friendly. Far more, I think, than bunks and free earplugs does this solidarity help to make life underground bearable—almost pleasant. A routine grows naturally like a plant; in the first week tea was always made after a particularly close explosion; later the close explosions didn't matter so much, so we had tea and biscuits at 9 (everyone paid a penny and took it in turns to supply tea and sugar); lights were shaded at 10, and snorers ceased to rouse angry feelings—toleration developed. Most wonderful of all a Pole learnt to make strong English tea.

For ours was a cosmopolitan world. It was as if, burrowing below ground, one evaded national boundaries. Three Germans had ended a long pilgrimage there: a mother and two children. The father had been an officer in the German army; -he resigned w(hen Hitler came to power, and they fled to Austria, and then to Amsterdam; the father had ended his journey in Australia. Vienna, Prague or Warsaw, Amsterdam, our burrow; these were familiar stations to others too. There was an Austrian, three Czechs and a Pole; the English were only a bare majority. Mattresses and deckchairs left little room for chance corners, and they usually went on to a larger burrow ten yards up the street: a raffish place where—we heard it rumoured—the police were sometimes called in to deal with drunks and gamblers. We never expected to find ourselves there, in those bleak halls, smelling of old sandbags, strays ourselves.

That night the raid started punctually to time, and everybody was happy (perhaps it was the tranquillity Peter Rabbit felt when he knew exactly where his enemy Mr. Macgregor lurked at the moment). A Czech lady carried round a bag of sweets, and self-revealing conversations started up all over the shelter. Thick with personal dramas and philosophies, the atmosphere was usually a cross between Grand Hotel and The Cherry Orchard, but More Baum perhaps than Tchehov, for the plot was a violent one. Between the thuds of the barrage a young man explained to a girl the secret of contentment (he made it sound very easy); the Pole tried to improve his English, two women discussed babies, and a Czech told fortunes roguishly in a teacup. "A bomb will fall," he said, and everyone laughed.

Soon, as the noise of the barrage lifted, and the enemy engines began to probe inwards, the time for the strays arrived —who had to meet the silent daunting criticism of the platoon. Some used to resent it, and disappear during a lull towards the raffish shelter, dropping disparaging remarks, ineffectve among the bombs; others ignored it and moved on a little later carry- ing their personal histories with them like unopened letters; a few stayed.

Among the strays, too, the Baum and Tchehov elements pre- dominated; there was, for example, the night of burglaries in the street above—which was unmistakably Baum. Three men came briskly down the steps at two in the morning, separated, and made for unoccupied chairs, then pulled other people's blankets up to their chins. They had tight suits and ugly ears, and looked shaved for action : once a policeman gazed in, and the cautious eyes watched him from the half-dark. They came once more . . . and there was a burglary that night too. One had a racking cough; he looked accustomed to cement floors and the heavy breathing of neighbours. Sometimes soldiers sat shyly out on the area steps with girls, and once—that was a Tchehov touch—an old philosopher with a white beard spent the night. He was a birdlover, and he had a little birdlime on his hat. It was a noisy night; when he left he said it had been an interesting experience—" really very interesting." He thought he would go into the country all the same, and sleep on a barn floor (if one had to sleep on floors one might as well sleep in a barn); there, he said, one could have peaceful thoughts. He handed round before he left picture postcards of himself with sparrows nibbling the food from his lips, and repeated that it had all been very interesting.

- [like to think it was a tribute to our shelter, and now that ki e are strays ourselves, among the vagrant population moving restlessly up and down, I am glad to remember we welcomed at least one stray. Conscience pricks one for all the unwelcomed who tried—some with feigned indignation or nervous fantasies —to make a contact: irritation was better than indifferencc. There was the large woman in dusty furs who woke us at tw in the morning, in the heart of the heaviest raid, to seek pro- tection from an imaginary mouse—" there it is, there it is "- but it was only a piece of grey fluff shifting in the draught of explosions; and there was the old drunk man who was sc,.1- dalised at the sight of husbands and wives sharing mattrec, - "I'm a ratepayer," he kept repeating, propped against' wall. " If I hadn't seen it with me own eyes," he said shim' 7 them firmly," I wouldn't have believed. Disgusting, it's disgu - ing." Screwing his eyes tighter, he toppled sideways.

Well, one can understand loneliness now. Sometimes on,' salutes at a distance another member of the old platoon, but w are individuals; the solidarity is gone, and for the first tinr we are all aware of insecurity.