What the Past was Like

[I helped to research this programme for TSW, so I hope too much offence isn't taken at reproducing the story here. Frank Gent]

A TV company rang. Would I take a trip down memory lane and return to Exeter, which I left in 1940, as they wanted to make a film on the evacuation; taxi provided, and first-class train from Paddington. I would be lodged in the Royal Clarence too, no less.


I hesitate—and they thought I'd rung off. Then I said, 'Yes, delighted,' and wondered why I'd hesitated in the first place. The question niggled. Exeter's a beautiful city. Why had I avoided it in the years between? I'd driven through it, gone round it, and flown over it, but I'd never stopped in it.

Enthroned in the first class from Paddington, I brooded over the problem. The engine took me forward, and memory carried me back. In September 1939 I took the same journey, probably from the same platform—but in third class, of course, not first (second was ladies only). Soldiers, sailors and evacuees were crammed into every cranny. There was no easy-wash nylon then, so we all ponged like well-hung venison, and the smell of wet wool was everywhere. A blue bulb gleamed dimly through the cigarette smoke. I cadged a fag, swallowed and was sick in the toilet.

Even as I retched, I marvelled at a train with a toilet and corridor. Till then I'd only travelled in trains with closed compartments. If you were a child and had to spend a penny, you were lifted to the window, while your fellow travellers averted their eyes. The next carriage up was warned with thumps not to look out lest they got an eyeful. It was hell if you were a little boy, it was worse if you were a little girl.

I am recalled from 1939 to now when our train stops, and a well-bred whisper runs round the first class that there's a detour because of rail repairs. Suddenly I know why I hesitated about going back. The war years were for me a dreadful, useless detour in my life. I'd left London in 1939 a happy go lucky child. When the war ended I was a bewildered mess. In the meantime I'd been billeted on a dozen families.

And yet I was lucky. I remembered my friend Professor John Heimler, whose funeral I had just attended. He was also a happy youth, but a train took him from his home in Hungary at the same time. It carried him to a concentration camp, not to kind people in Exeter. And yet he told me that in that hell where he lost his family he'd learnt to love human beings. Perhaps he would have learnt the same lesson elsewhere, but he didn't. In my mind my dear friend asked me, 'Did you learn anything from your wartime detour, Lionel?' I considered his question carefully. 'It can't compare with yours, John,' I answered, 'but I think so. What started off as self-pity when the war began turned into true pity for others, before the war ended. Perhaps like you I would have learnt the same lesson another way, but I didn't.'

In stations fifty years ago, a soldier in a poster looked out and asked 'Is your journey really necessary?' Are the wasted years of our life really necessary, life's detours and disappointments? With hindsight, perhaps some are. That's the only way some of us ever see the light that shines in darkness. Surely that's the religious hope.

The train slid into Exeter St David's. It felt right to face my past. And this time I wouldn't eat Woolton Pie made with mangel-wurzels, but a cream tea in the Royal Clarence. What bliss!

from Rabbi Lionel Blue, Bedside Manna, Victor Gollancz, 1991