Monday, 23 January 2012

Air Raids and Illegal Newspapers

(I have missed out quite a large chunk of the memoirs since the last post - mostly descriptions of childhood homes and family members; in the meantime Sybil has left school and got a job working at Lacrinoid Products.)

It was September 1939. The meeting was going reasonably well. By this I mean there were at least a dozen people actually standing and listening and others giving a fleeting ear in passing. George Martin was a fiery, Cockney speaker, with plentiful traces of humour and a confident, easy style of speech. The theme was, of course, peace – how to get it and keep it. We did not know Chamberlain had already declared, “We are at war with Germany,” and I doubt whether the others gathered around us at Beckton Corner, near West Ham Docks, knew either. The meeting had only been in swing about half an hour but already the horse was a bit restless (the speakers’ platform being on an open horse-drawn cart) and we considered closing it perhaps earlier than usual. Very suddenly and unexpectedly, came the loud, mournful wail of an undulating siren, shrieking its warning far and wide. Back went the horse’s ears, together with most of the crowds’! We all knew it was an air raid warning, as we had been told what to expect. Where to go and what to do? People scurried as quickly as possible to get under cover but we could not leave the cart. The decision was made that George and one other would take care of that and return it to the owner, while the other four comrades found what shelter we could. We were in an unfamiliar part of the Borough, so decided to follow other people and go to a nearby railway station, which was at least below ground. In the event, it was a false alarm, and Britain did not in fact experience any actual air raids until at least a year after the start of the war.

It was during this period that I became more politically active and aware. I was an active member of the Clerical and Administration Workers’ Union (CAWU) and indirectly this brought about my leaving Lacrinoid’s employ, as there was a “round robin” organised amongst the clerical staff asking for improved conditions and pay, for which I was blamed although I was on holiday at the time and had I been there I would certainly have advised against it until all had joined the union. However, with the war just starting, I was ready for a move more related to that, so I became a clerical officer, “unestablished”, in the Civil Service at the West Ham office of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), which was housed in Stratford Town Hall, in the ballroom. We were mainly occupied with issuing ration books and identity cards and the paperwork connected with shop supplies.

The Lacrinoid years were mainly enjoyable and carefree, although greater involvement with wider affairs of the day brought considerable worry and consumed lots of time. Vi [Sybil's office partner at Lacrinoid] and I became very good friends – I introduced her to the progressive movement and she became a popular and hard-working member of the Young Communist League (YCL). Funnily enough, I never joined them, but a lot of my social life was with them and through them – rambling, camping, holidays and lots more.

So now, 1941, I was a disher-out of ration cards – and of the illegal “Daily Worker” while it existed -  luckily not for long, I believe only a few months, then the CP decided not to risk being banned for doing something illegal, but to use instead its other publications to spread the message.

It (the Daily Worker) lay with all my work papers, innocently on the shelf – and would be collected in the morning, and distributed to specified points. My boss would have hit the roof but it was never suspected. The office staff were mainly girls, mostly young. I transferred from the CAWU to the Civil Service Clerical Association (CSCA) and recruited practically all the young staff: the managers had a different association. Our little branch prospered, with the help of the association’s Headquarters, and we won permission to have monthly meetings on the premises during lunchtime, as the increased bombing made evening meetings almost impossible. Once or twice, it started as work finished, and then it was too difficult to travel the couple of miles home and I slept in the church crypt opposite the Town Hall, arriving at work next day, crumpled, unwashed, but much earlier than usual!

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