Like most stories, Rose in the Blitz is a mixture of things that happened and things that are made up; places where I've been and places I've only heard about; people I've known and people I've only met in dreams…..
And I think that's what our memories are like too. We remember the important bits, the meaningful things, the times that were particularly happy or scary or sad; but we also remember smells and feelings and sights and sounds that don't seem to have any particular meaning and sometimes might not even have happened at all. Sunny days in photographs and scary first days at school our parents told us about; the smell of our grandma's house or a pet rabbit's clean fur; the sound of seagulls or the feel of our best friend's hand….
If you've read 'Rose in the Blitz' you'll have seen that it's dedicated to the memory of my mum and dad. They both died, as very old people, in 2014, the year I finished writing my other book about Rose and Tommy. You might also notice that, like the characters in the book, my mum was called Rosemary and my dad, John (though he was always known as Jack).
That doesn’t mean my mum and dad were the Rosemary and Johnny in the story. Mum had trained as an actress and, like Rose's 'aunt', she was known as Cosy in the family and was a bit of a show off. Like Aunt Cosy, she also owned a Chinese jacket made of black silk and embroidered with flowers and dragons that she brought out for special occasions (I've got it now). But she was only eleven when the Second World War broke out and she didn’t live in Nightingale Lane, Clapham. She lived in Worthing. Like Johnny, my dad joined the RAF at the age of nineteen. His plane was also shot down over Europe and he ended up in a prisoner of war camp. But he didn’t come from British Guiana (it's called Guyana now and isn’t British anymore). He came from Ipswich. He survived his time in POW camp and, when the war was over, he was brought home, where a few years later he met the girl who was to become my mum.
Like many men who'd been through either of the two World Wars, my dad never talked about his experiences (partly because I think he felt it would be showing off), but Mum did. She loved to tell us about keeping chickens in the garden and the shortage of sweets and always hoping that the air raid warning would go off during maths so you could go down to the shelter and sing songs instead of doing sums; about her dad being away and her brother being in the Home Guard and being woken up in the middle of the night by a loud bang and her mum saying, 'Go back to sleep, dear, it's only a bomb'; about being evacuated to a family with a big house in Yorkshire where there were ponies and servants and you had to say prayers before breakfast; about soldiers everywhere (she always thought how boring life would be without soldiers!) and seeing the Emperor of Ethiopia walking along the promenade at Worthing with his family and barbed wire on the beach and girls being allowed to wear trousers; and then, on the day that the war officially ended, going up to London with her mum on the train and dancing in Trafalgar Square and spending the night on a bench in St James' s Park because they'd missed the last train back to Worthing….
All my mum's memories became part of my own memory and my life. They still are. So, when Mum got really old and, like Aunt Cosy, started to show signs of memory loss, I wanted to try and make sure they would never be forgotten. But I wasn't sure how to do it.
And then something else happened. Mum started to see things that weren't there. It's not particularly unusual for people with memory loss and can sometimes be quite scary. It wasn't with Mum though. She used to see two little boys out of the corner of her eye who would follow her around and appear at inconvenient moments when she was in the Co-op or having her eyes tested. I got intrigued by these little boys and used to ask her about them, and then started to wonder what it would be like if I could see them too. If I could see what my mum was seeing, I thought, then maybe I could really be part in her memories and share the things that had been most important to her throughout her life, before they were lost forever.
I didn’t manage it with my mum, so I decided to do it with Rose. I sent her down the escalator after Aunt Cosy into the London of her memory, the London of the wartime Blitz when, for nine months, the city was subjected to nearly nightly bombing raids.
There are three big events in 'Rose in the Blitz' that really did happen:
On September 7th, 1940, at about five o'clock on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the people of London stopped and stared at the sky as over three hundred German bombers, escorted by over six hundred fighter planes (there to protect the bombers if they were attacked by the British planes) flew over the city to drop their bombs on the docks, factories and warehouses of the East End. The homes of many ordinary people were also destroyed and many hundreds of men, women and children were killed and injured. It was the first big raid of what became known as the Blitz.
On October 14th, 1940, at about eight o'clock in the evening, a high explosive bomb hit the road above the underground station in Balham, South London. It went through the water main and the sewer which flooded the station where the local people were sheltering, believing that they would be safe. Over sixty people were killed although over three hundred were led to safety.
The night of May 10th/11th, 1941 became known as the Longest Night. It was the last night of the Blitz (even though London and other cities did continue to suffer raids, it was never quite so bad again) and was generally remembered as the worst. From the time of the first air raid warning at half past eleven on the night of Saturday 11th of May, until the all-clear sounded at ten to six on the Sunday morning, nearly fifteen hundred people had been killed and eleven thousand buildings hit, including the Houses of Parliament. An incendiary bomb (the kind that set buildings on fire rather than blew them up) did land on the scaffolding that was covering Victoria Tower (the tower of Big Ben was hit later) and someone did climb up to put it out before the tower went up in smoke. I hope the brave police officer (I don’t know his name) who was really responsible for saving one of London's best-loved landmarks, wouldn't mind if he knew that I let Johnny do it instead!
I don’t know if there was a New Year's Eve dance at Covent Garden in 1940 (though the Opera House was used for dances during the war) or an unexploded bomb on Clapham Common. But I do know that there were many thousands of men (and some women) like Johnny who made their way to Britain from places like British Guiana, the Caribbean and West Africa, to join the fight against Nazism and I wanted to find a way to remember their contribution.
I wanted to find a way of remembering it all, actually.
Johnny Smythe came to Britain from his home in Sierra Leone in 1939 after his teacher gave him a copy of Hitler's 'Mein Kampf'.
My mum and dad on their wedding day after the war was over.
Beautiful and haunting, it will make you smile, cry and fill your heart with joy….a wonderful book.
A lovely time-slip story…so rich and vivid that you can imagine yourself there…I think you'll enjoy it.
A lovely, intelligent read with exceptionally well-drawn characters and a narrative that flows and draws you into the story…highly recommended.
A truly beautiful story about love, family and friendship.
This is more than just an historical story. At its core, it's a love story - love of family, love of life and true love. It's also about dealing with grief and how we cope with the loss of those we love and how we remember them….. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
An excellent, emotionally mature read for 10-16 year olds.
A beautifully described introduction to this rather horrific time in our history.