Early Lessons Stick

One thing I believe I absorbed early on, during wartime, was that women could run almost anything. I think that gave rise to my later championship of female protagonists in my fiction – and Gisel’s ability to out-do the men at anything. They drove the buses, and they weren’t easy things, but cranky old diesels with crash boxes. For those of you that only know how to drive cars with ‘granny’ transmissions, a crash gearbox was far harder to manage than a modern manual transmission. The gears had no synchronizing mechanisms and so to shift from one gear to the next the engine speed had to conform to the vehicle speed. Revved up to shift down – and allowed to slow, just the right amount, to shift up.

But women took many more non-traditional roles. David Bashaw’s book on Canadian fighter pilots in WWII has an amusing account of the time when a squadron’s pilots were having a difficult time learning to manage the new Beaufighters – rather hulking twin-engined brutes used mainly as night fighters. One day a new Beau came by delivery flight from the factory and when it taxied over to the squadron area and shut off a tiny young woman climbed out lugging a parachute pack almost as big as herself. After that there were no more complaints about how difficult these brutes were to fly.

Women’s work kept the farms and factories running, and my mother worked in the local market gardens and farms as soon as I was old enough to leave untended. I started school early, at four, so she could go to work. (I must admit that I have little patience with some of the education complaints today – I could read and write before I started school.) Every spare patch of ground had a garden in those days – I remember how one would see vegetables growing along every railway right of way, where the railwaymen had their ‘victory gardens’. If we’re in for hard times – as the unadorned economic statistics suggest – no one should starve in Canada. There is enough fallow ground within every city to provide fresh vegetables for everyone year round.

Mother had a patch of ground, called an allotment, at nearby Starcross. She grew fruit and vegetables for us to eat as well as sell. She said that allotment was the foundation of her bank account, but later in the war her plot was taken away to give to a returning serviceman. Wartime equality soon degenerated into male entitlement. Mother was active in the Women’s branch of the British Legion, but all they could do was commiserate.

Her first investment was in a hut near the beach area of Dawlish Warren. The hut was one of many that stood on blocks around the edges of Blackmore’s fields and was administered by some trust called St Piers from London. They were summer cabins, the forerunners of the huge expanses of ‘holiday chalets’ that filled the English countryside from the fifties. Mother’s was rented out by the week or fortnight during the summer, and while she was at it she looked after the two huts owned by a friend of hers who worked night shift in a factory in London.

Later in the war, when the couple who were billeted on us at the rented cottage in Cockwood became too overbearing to stand, she and I moved out to the hut. Billeting bombed out people was a wartime expedient, but these two still monopolized the cottage for several years after the war until Mother bought the cottage and sold it from under them. I loved living in the hut. It had kerosene lamps for light, kerosene heaters and stoves for warmth and cooking, outside pit toilets, a battery powered radio, and a water tap connected to the municipal supply just outside. The only other child my age in the area was Betty, a year older than me, who lived in a hut with her mother in the next field.

We roamed the countryside at will. Through all the lanes; the two miles to Dawlish to visit the town or the children’s playground; down to the beach to hunt for lost coins in the sand (a good day we could find enough for candy and pop at the store); down to the dump to throw rocks at the rats or find someone’s cast off treasures (that was where my Crimean War swords came from); a mile away to the woods to play; down to the wartime coastal artillery bunkers and pillboxes to play soldiers; into the marsh to explore and get covered in mud; or just down the lane to what Betty called the Faraway Tree from the Enid Blighton children’s adventure stories she used to read.

The local authority pretended to be aghast at the fact that several families were living in these sub-standard huts throughout the year. No doubt the two children who wandered at large throughout the area were regarded as being particularly at risk. The fields were closed, and St Piers could do nothing about it. Mother would have lost the money she’d sunk in the hut, a hundred pounds or so (worth real money in those days) except that Colonel York, who lived in the big house up the hill in Cockwood, took his leadership of the community seriously and bought Mother’s hut to use as a garden shed. I remember peeking into his garden some years later and seeing this oddity – entirely out of place in an English garden – and realized that in a just society (as Britain was in the immediate post-war years) some concept of doing good for the sake of humanity should exist.

The post-war Labour government did many things to free working people from what was traditionally an aristocratic society. One piece of legislation allowed tenants to buy their homes from the estates – titled and ecclesiastical – that owned and neglected most of the rural countryside. Villages were renovated all over the country – electricity was brought in, as were the privies that had been outside for generations, and even a few coats of paint were splashed about to dispel the gloom of Dickensian England. Mother was able to borrow some money from her maiden aunt to buy the rented cottage from the two Pollard sisters who had been landlords since before the war. It set her on the way to investing in the cold and drafty Victorian terraced house in which I completed my growing up and helped (modestly) to run as Holywell Guest House.

The Butler Education Act opened up the private secondary schools throughout the country to youngsters whose parents would never have been able to afford the fees – simply by awarding scholarships to those who demonstrated their potential in the eleven-plus exams. Without that entry to the formerly exclusive Teignmouth Grammar School I would never have received my educational start in life.  Even university education was provided through a system of educational grants in a foresighted plan that recognized that training the young was a social good, instead of a system that used education as a means of making money. I chose to challenge the Ministry of Supply competitive examinations that resulted in my gaining a student apprenticeship at RAE Farnborough, Britain’s NASA, and was trained in engineering not only free of tuition fees, but was also paid enough for the hostel accommodation where we all lived – and even eked out a tiny surplus of pocket money. I fondly imagine that Gisel Matah’s Workers’ Brotherhood and her father’s training school at Bergrund starts Gaian society on a similar course of social advancement, and also strengthens the readers’ attachment to social justice.


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3 Responses to “Early Lessons Stick”

  1. joylene Says:

    Nice tribute to women of a special era. And yes, your female protagonists are all fascinating and interesting and appealing characters. Keep doing what you’re doing, Chris. It’s working for you.

    I was born after the war, but heard lots of stories when I was young. When my grandmother needed more space in their house, she built another room. She even put in a second story with the help of the sons too young to enlist. My mother worked at Swift Meats in Winnipeg on machinery that was otherwise a man’s job. When the men all came home from the war, I imagine it was quite a shock.

  2. kester2 Says:

    Thanks Joylene:

    I see history from the bottom, but one difficulty I have in fiction is representing it from the viewpoint of characters who need to be in proactive, commanding positions.

    Gisel becomes quite a rich young woman from prize money and rewards for service — all compounded by her share in the wealth of Iskander’s successful enterprises. By the end of The Wildcat’s Burden at the age of 22 she’s probably worth, in dollar equivalent, close to $10 million. At some time I need to show her in the role of a privileged upper class intellectual working to create a social democratic society amid a world of emperors and kings. Her workers’ and women’s organizations are just the tame forerunners of what would be bound to develop.


  3. joylene Says:

    You’re welcome. Chris, I’m presenting you with the Sunshine Award that you can pick up anytime at my blog along with the instructions. Have a great day.

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