For anybody who doesn't know, I was born in Coventry, England. It's a not very big city which is famous for quite a few things - car building, watch making, ribbon weaving etc, but it's most well know for two events: Lady Godiva and the Blitz.
Today, 14th November, is the anniversary of when during WWII, the German planes swept over the city and bombed it very badly. So badly in fact that pretty much the entire city centre had to be rebuilt after the war, and the medieval cathedral was hit so badly that all that was left was an empty shell.
I thought that you might like to read a story about that night and about what happened to one ordinary little girl. A little girl named Alice....
Once, not all that long, ago there was a war.
It was a war that stretched all across the world.
Every night was filled with noise and smoke and bombs would fall like rain drops in a storm.
In a small city, in a not very big country, there lived a young girl named Alice.
One cold, cloudless November night, when the moon was as big and as bright as could be, Alice was sitting admiring her new shoes.
It was early evening and in their small house on an ordinary street, all around her her family were busy. Her Mammy was feeding her little brother and sister, her father, or Dadda as she called him, was getting himself ready for his night shift as an Air Raid Warden and her older sister was fixing her hair for a night out dancing. Her older brothers were fighting somewhere in the war, but Alice didn’t like to think too much about that.
What she did like thinking about however, was how smart her new shoes looked. A few days before it had been Alice’s birthday and her family had put all their spare clothing coupons together and bought Alice some new shoes.
They weren’t fancy shoes, or extraordinary in any way. They were sturdy and brown and very sensible, but Alice loved them. Nobody had much money back then and Alice had had to wear all of her sister’s old clothes and shoes for as long as she could remember. This was the first time she she had ever had anything new and something that was just for her.
Soon Dadda was ready to go so he gave Alice a kiss on the forehead and left for his shift.
Her sister blew kisses and clattered out the door to meet up with her friends. Alice’s little brother and sister yawned and grumbled in their sleep and Alice and her Mammy sat in their overcowded living room waiting, like they did every night, for bombs.
They didn’t have to wait long.
The sirens sounded, filling Alice’s ears with their loud and urgent cries. Searchlights snapped awake and danced across the sky, darting all over the place trying to find the aircrafts which grumbled and groaned low over the city.
Alice and her Mammy leapt into action. They bundled themselves and the babies into warm clothes. Alice grabbed her gas mask box and slung it over her shoulder. Taking him by the hand she led her little brother across the pitch black street and down into the shelter, stopping only to push the family dog down in front of them. Mammy and her little sister were close behind.
And it was there in that shelter that Alice and her family stayed that night, crammed in with other people, neighbours, whose white worried face shone out of the gloom. Above them, the earth shook and trembled as wave upon wave of bombs fell on the city. They didn’t know it but the sky was lit up, red and orange with flames. Plumes of smoke coughed and sputtered across the sky.
The night dragged on. Down in the shelter, everyone was quiet. Some wringed their hands, others shuffled their feet. Everyone winced when a loud bang went off nearby and gripped onto each other in fear as all around them the earth shook and quivered.
Alice kept looking up at her mother’s face. It was drawn and tense and she bit her lip anxiously. Alice knew that her Mammy was worrying about Dadda, and her sister and her brothers who were fighting in some far off place. Alice started to think about them too, but shook her head to banish the thoughts away.
Eventually morning came and the bombing stopped. Slowly and quietly, everyone shuffled out of the shelter into the cold, foggy morning air.
The city was in ruins.
Alice gasped as she stood in her now dust covered new shoes and looked around at her street. Not one pane of glass was left in any window and several houses had disappeared. It was if the night had swept them away leaving only rubble and fires and mess. There were other things for Alice to see; a smoke blackened bed hanging out of a bombed upstairs bedroom. A headless porcelain figurine lying half-drowned in a puddle. A neighbour lying dead in the pile of bricks and glass that used to be their house.
Nobody said a word. They just looked at the mess and destruction. Silent tears ran like rivers down their pale, dusty faces.
Alice stood next to her mother and tried to shield her brother’s eyes from the horror. Where was Dadda? she wondered. And her sister? Were they safe?
It was impossible to know if anyone was safe, so they busied themselves helping the wounded and clearing the mess until they could find out.
It wasn’t until the middle of the afternoon that Dadda arrived home. He appeared through the smoke like a miracle. His face was covered in soot and dust and his eyes were small and red and tired. When he found his family however, they lit up like Christmas and he swept Alice and Mammy and the babies into his arms and held them there, safe and warm as the dog danced around their feet.
Alice breathed a little sigh of relief.
Alice’s sister arrived back later, pale faced and tired. Alice noticed that it was only then that her Mammy’s face started to look a little less worried. Her family that were in the city were safe.
The city, however, was not.
It had been almost destroyed. Streets full of houses had been blown to pieces. Shelters full of men, women and children had been hit. Fires raged in the cold winter air.
And worst of all, the beautiful cathedral that had stood proud and solid in the middle of the city for centuries had been hit by the bombs and had burst into flames. It burnt all night long and for several days afterwards.
When the fires had stopped burning and some of the rubble had been swept away all that was left was an empty shell and, by some miracle, the spire.
A few days later, when the fires had died down and the smoke had cleared slightly, Dadda took Alice for a walk through the city. Alice put on her best clothes and her new shoes and walked with her Dadda through the injured, bomb ravaged streets. They eventually found themselves by the remains of the cathedral. Alice couldn’t believe her eyes. Where they had once been a high roof and stained glass windows, there was now blacked stone walls and fragments of brightly coloured glass littering to floor like dropped jewels.
As she stood next to her father, Alice became aware that her feet were feeling hot and uncomfortable. She looked down and with horror saw that the soles of her shoes had started to steam. The stone step on which she was standing was still so hot from the fires and the bombs, that it had started to melt her new shoes.
Dadda saw it too and he saw the shock and disbelief on his daughter’ face, so he lifted her up and he carried her home.
This is actually a true story and I know that because the little girl named Alice grew up to be my grandmother. Here is a picture of us together when I was a little boy. (Snazzy jumper. hey?!)
Alice was born in Lismore, County Waterford, Ireland in 1926 and when she was still a very little girl she travelled over from Ireland to England and settled in the early 1930s in Coventry. I have the tiny suitcase she used for the journey in my studio. It was in Coventry that she grew up in the big Irish community that set up up home in the city. It was a tough time for the Irish then. There were signs put up in buildings reading 'No Dogs. No Irish'.
Every November, when I was a child, Alice would tell me the story of the Blitz, how she sheltered with her Mammy and younger siblings and how her street was almost destroyed and how, a few days later, she walked up to the Cathedral with her Dadda and how her shoes started to melt on the steps. I think it was a very poignant memory for her as later that winter, her father, whom she loved very very much, became ill and died. She was infact just a little bit older than the Alice in my story, but really did get new shoes for her birthday as well as a golden ring engraved with her initials - AS - Alice Stapleton.
Alice died when I was eleven, but the summer before she took me up to her bedroom and took the ring out of it's box and gave it to me. We have the same initials and she had been saving it for me from the moment I was born and named.
Because Alice's father died when she was young she had to finish school early and put the career she wanted (to become a tailor) on hold. She had to in a way become the mother of the household as her Mammy had to go out to work. Because of this she always felt that she wasn't very clever or well educated and one of the saddest things we found when she died was a little lined notebook that she had kept and practiced her handwriting in and her spelling. She was very funny and although not a writer like her husband Sid, could tell the most wonderful stories, including the one you just read.
Actually, talking about Sid, the story of how she met my grandad is really lovely, but I think I will save that another for another time....
Her shoes melting on the steps of the cathedral must have been a really life changing moment as the memory of it stayed with her forever, and when she grew up and married my grandfather she became a bit of a shopaholic! She had shoes of every colour and bags and gloves to match and we can never remember her ever going out of the house with out looking like a million dollars. Even when she went into hospital towards the end of her life, she made sure she had her lipstick with her - just incase!