I am writing a biographical novel based on my Mother’s life as a young child growing up in a rural town in East Anglia, England during WWII. I has been a lot of fun writing with my Mother and probing her memories of her childhood. I have learned a huge amount about the impact of the war on the British people including the Blitz, Black Saturday, rationing and the arrival of the US troops in England.

I recently received some very useful feedback on the structure of my book and, in response, I have re-written the entire first chapter. I will also need to restructure selected parts of the book and re-write the ending but I am very exciting about this process. I feel I have learned so much from this editing process.

I thought I would test out my new beginning here on the blog.

Chapter 1: The house in “back lane”

In 1941, as World War II raged, a little girl was growing up in a small, three bed-roomed cottage on a street that was generally referred to as “back lane” in a town called Bungay in East Anglia, England.

Her humble home had brick walls, the lower half of which were tarred to keep the rainwater and damp out. The cottage had an upstairs and a tiled roof. It also had a chimney for the fireplaces that attempted to keep the cottage warm on bitterly cold winters nights.

The little girl had been born in this house on 21 October 1938. The baby was a howling, squalling baby. Mother had been unable to breast feed her youngest daughter because she had suffered ill-health after the birth of her previous child eighteen months before.

She had resorted to warmed cow’s milk, fed to the baby in a curved glass bottle with a rubber teat. The feedings were hurried as Mother had five other children to attend too as well as a hard-working husband. The cow’s milk had not agreed with her finicky baby girl and she had cried incessantly.

In those days, there was very little a mother could do about a child that was intolerant to cow’s milk and so she just had to bear her child’s crying and upset stomachs for the first six months of her life.

The cottage where the family lived was freezing cold during the winter months, but the little girl had never known a fire to be lit in any fireplace other than the one in the living room.

Once, on an exceptionally cold night, the little girl had asked her mother if she could light the other fire. Mother had said:

“We don’t have enough coal for another fire, dear. We only have just enough for the living room fire. I need the rest to light the copper for the washing once a week and for the oven on a Sunday until the next coal delivery” The little girl had never complained about the cold again. She knew how hard it was for her mother to manage the running of the house with the food, coal and clothing shortages caused by the war.

The little girl was named Elsie and she lived with her mother and father, two older brothers, three older sisters and her baby brother, Teddy. Her brothers’ names were Frank and Sam and her sisters names were Rose, Beth and Marjory.

There were other houses along “back lane” or Nethergate Street, all of which were small and shabby.

The house next door was similar to the little girl’s house and had an outhouse, or outside toilet, and a couple of wooden sheds.

A fat, elderly man lived there alone. The local people called him Old Fiddledee Dee. He wore a dirty shirt, an old waistcoat buttoned over his large belly and a pair of tatty, brown pants. Old Fiddledee Dee kept goats in his sheds which he milked every morning. People said that he lived on the goat’s milk and bread. This sounded awful to Elsie who though goats were smelly.

Elsie’s house did not have sheds outside it. Her father owned cows and so they had much bigger barns where their animals were kept, and an open-ended cart shed. Her family also had an outhouse.

A family named Williams lived in the other neighbouring cottage. Mr and Mrs Williams had a daughter called Margaret who was the same age as Elsie. They had become firm friends when they were only two years old. Elsie had toddled down the road, just after she started walking, and come across Margaret playing in the yard of the Williams’ cottage. Mother had been busy tending to baby Teddy at the time.

Margaret’s mother, Mrs Williams, had been in service as a cook in a large house before she married. She had learned how to make lovely, soft bread rolls.

She baked these rolls every week in her tiny scullery using and old wall oven which she lit once a week for baking.

The rolls were very good to eat but Elsie could only have a taste. Mother had said that during these times of food shortages, she could not take food out of the mouths of the neighbours. She could, however, enjoy the delicious smell of the rolls baking.

Elsie was lucky to live with her father. Most of the men in the town, aged between eighteen and forty-one years old, had been called up to fight for Britain in the war. Only men over a certain specified age, who worked in essential jobs, such as fire fighters, medical practitioners and policeman, were not enlisted in the army. Elsie’s father was a farmer and his job was to stay on his farm and help to produce food to feed the nation.

At night, when Elsie lay awake trying to get warm enough to drop off to sleep, she listened for the throb of the engines of the Jerry bomber planes and the piercing whistle of dropping bombs.

The planes terrified her, and she lay worrying that one might drop a bomb on her house. Her imagination was stimulated by overheard bits of conversations between the adults and her siblings about the devastating impact of the German bombing raids on London.

Beth remembered a conversation between Father and their Uncle Ben after the bombing of London on the day known as “Black Saturday”:

“There were 348 Jerry bomber planes and 617 Jerry fighter planes, Ben.” Father had said. “They say the planes filled more than 2000 square kilometres of the sky and the bombs were falling before the sirens had even gone.”

Father had slammed his fist onto the well-scrubbed wooden table top.

“The timber docks are gone, Ben. Many of our cargo ships sunk. And the bodies, they say there are bodies everywhere, they are pulling them out of the debris.”

Here is the picture that goes with the first chapter of the book:

I would love to know what you think of this beginning. Let me know in the comments.

Robbie