As I explained in a recent post, my mother came from a theatrical family; her father, John Barton White [otherwise known, for his romantic proclivities, as ‘The Bounder’] was both playwright and actor and ran his own successful touring company; her mother, Louise, was the eldest of four sisters, all of whom appeared on the stage from a very early age – Louise, Katie, Ruby and Pearl. Both her father and mother died before I was born, but I did get to meet my great aunts, Katie and Pearl on several occasions, most memorably, in Brighton, early in 1942.
By then, Katie would have been in her early 70s, Pearl some ten years younger. I would have been some months past my third birthday and not long started at kindergarten under the watchful eye of the nuns of the La Sainte Union Catholic School in north London, and the war would have been well into its third year.
We were in the kitchen when the bomb dropped. Or was it bombs? Whatever the case, the sound of the explosion was sudden, frightening; the vibrations close and strong enough to send every pot and pan from the high open shelves cannoning across the room and along the floor. What happened then, I don’t know. Did I scream or cry? I imagine my mother attempting to comfort me while my aunts, perhaps, put on a brave show of it, singing – they both regularly appeared in musical theatre and pantomime – as they cleared away and set things to rights.
There was more to come. We were walking, my mother and I, along the front, heading for the station, when a German plane – I presume on its way home after a raid – flew low towards us, strafing the promenade with machine gun fire. From nowhere, a man rushed towards us and shepherded us urgently towards one of the benches, under which we took shelter. It was over in moments: I remember it clearly. That and the saucepans flying from the shelves. Brighton, 1942.