“Blue Watch”

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Exactly why my father opted to join the Auxiliary Fire Service [that’s him, the handsome one, third from the left] was never clear. To me, at least. The National Service (Armed Forces) Act was passed into law in September, 1939, at the outbreak of the war, making all men between the ages of 18 to 41 liable for conscription. [My father would have been 32.] Exemptions could be made for medical reasons or for those engaged in ‘reserved’, or vital, occupations, such as prison warders, police officers, lighthouse keepers – and those serving in the Fire Service. It could be that, while still doing something important for the war effort, he wanted to avoid being sent overseas; I had been born some nine months beforehand and perhaps he didn’t like the idea of leaving my mother and me alone if it could be avoided. He might even have thought the Fire Service less potentially dangerous than the armed forces; there was no one, presumably, to warn him about the terrors of the Blitz.

The perils of responding to nightly bombing raids – in common with most men of his generation – was something he would never discuss. But what did become clear was that in many ways the years my father spent in the Fire Service were the best years of his life – for the camaraderie, the good humour, the excitement and, I dare say, the sharing of danger.

Blue Watch is, in some ways, an exploration of what those experiences, that time, might have been like for him, filtered through the adventures of a fifteen-year old Fire Brigade messenger – father and son. Initially published, in translation, by Editions Syros in France as part of their teenage fiction series, this English edition, published by Troika, and aimed, primarily, but not, I hope, exclusively, at 12-16 year old readers, has been quite considerably rewritten, extended, and, I like to think, improved.

 

03_BLUE_WATCH_AW PRINT READY

Here’s a taster from the opening chapter …

It was one of those nights when it seemed as if the whole of London was on fire.

What little cloud cover there’d been earlier had cleared and over two hundred enemy bombers had made their way across the Channel by moonlight, with close to a hundred fighters in support. At first it had seemed as if, yet again, their main target would be the docks either side of the Thames, but tonight the devastation spread far and wide.

In the north of the city, three or so miles from the centre, the streets were dark, the air thick with smoke and the smell of burning. Head down, Jack Riley swung his Fire Brigade messenger’s bike hard left and right, avoiding the smouldering debris that lay scattered across the street. His objective was still some way off: a group of warehouses by the canal close to Kings Cross station, where units from B District were fighting to bring a fierce blaze under control.

Like most nights since the Blitz had started, the phone lines were down and the only way of conveying messages securely from the Brigade control rooms to units in the field was by messenger.

On his first day the section leader at Kentish Town fire station, where Jack was based, had gripped his wrist and turned his arm sharply, pointing at the vein clearly visible beneath the skin.

‘See this, Jack? This vein? That’s you. Our lifeline. You and the other messengers, you’re the ones who keep it flowing. Lose that and the whole service fails to function. We die. People die. You understand?’

Jack nodded. ‘Yes, sir.’

People die. The words burned into his brain.

The officer’s grip tightened. ‘You won’t let me down?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Good lad.’

Jack was shaking as he turned away.

That was two months ago. A lifetime, or so it seemed.

As Jack reached the crown of the road, pedalling fast, the loud roar of an explosion shook the air around him, lifting his bike off the ground and hurling him sideways, a flash of light outlining the skeletons of two towering iron gas holders, stark against the sky.

Shaken, he pushed himself up onto his hands and knees.

His regulation issue trousers were torn and there would be bruises, he knew, along with the grazes to his hands – but cuts and bruises were a given, a nuisance to be shrugged off and forgotten, along with the pain – what Jack was most concerned about was the state of his bike.

Fortunately, the damage was slight: the chain had come loose and the front wheel showed some faint sign of buckling, but nothing more. Chain quickly back in place, Jack pushed off and was away, head down into a hail of flying embers.

More than a dozen fire appliances – heavy units and trailer pumps for the most part – were ranged along the cobbled street that ran behind the threatened buildings. Jack lay his bike down and hurried between the maze of hosepipes criss-crossing the ground.

‘Senior fire officer,’ he called to the fireman on the nearest pump. ‘Where’ll I find him?’

The man pointed aloft, towards the turntable ladder that was reaching up towards the heart of the fire.

Jack swallowed hard and began to climb.

Syros

 

 

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Art Chronicles: Bonnard at Le Cannet

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Fruit on the Red Carpet 1945

I remember being surprised when I realised that Bonnard had lived through World War Two. In my mind, he had existed in the Paris of an earlier era, when, along with Vuillard, he was one of the leading lights in the school of Post Impressionism known as Les Nabis. But he lived – and continued to paint – until his death in 1947 at the age of 80.

In 1927, Bonnard bought a house in the village of Le Cannet, close to Cannes on the Cote d’Azur, and until the outbreak of the war, when travelling became first difficult and then impossible, he moved between there and his home and studio in Paris. From 1939 onwards, he and his wife Marthe, the subject of many of his paintings, lived solely in Le Cannet, Marthe’s mental and physical health declining until, in 1942, she died, leaving Bonnard bereft. You can see this in the self-portraits he made in those years; see also, I like to think, his awareness of what he had learned of events of the war.

The following poem of mine was written after reading Bonnard at Le Cannet by Michel Terrace, with photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson (Thames & Hudson, 1988). It was first published in Poems for the Beekeeper, edited by Robert Gent (Five Leaves Publications, 1996) and re-published in Bluer Than This (Smith/Doorstop, 1998) and Out of Silence (Smith/Doorstop, 2014).

Self Portrait
Bonnard at Le Cannet

Cold here, this room you sit in, 1945;
your corner table, vase of flowers and white cloth,
grey scarf  close about your neck.
You sit and smoke, patient for cognac
warm in its glass; a white cup with gold rim,
the small black coffee she will bring.

Again and again sketched in his diary –
Saturday, February 26th; Tuesday the 15th of June –
like an otter she would ease, sleek, into the bath,
snug against the curve of porcelain.

On the radio, news of the Armistice,
a hastily articulated peace, the Jews.
The air is rimed with smoke, far echo of guns.
The small electric heater stands unplugged,
no fire in the gate.

Marthe – why does she not come?

These last mornings you have walked
between the almond and the olive trees,
gazed over red roofs toward the fullness of the sea.
You painted ochres, oranges and browns,
cupboards steeped in jars and bottles,
herbs in bunches, greengages and plums,
golden apples, persimmons.

In the studio the slow shunt of trucks,
smell of paint thick on your hands;
stiff-legged before the mirror
you blow warmth into your fingers.
Head shaved, ready, this is not so difficult,
one portrait, all that’s left.

A gash of colour for the mouth,
those veins, blue, drawn down
across the fabric of the face;
black hollows where the eyes would have been,
burnt out by bodies that lay ripening,
close=pressed between trees, their richness
leaking back into the soil, beyond reach of seeing,
stripped beneath the surface of the sea.

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Self Portrait 1945

 

Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory is at Tate Modern from today (23rd January) until  6th May.