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A Boy in Wartime, Alan HillThe jacket is cream is colour, with the title centred in large cursive script in the top third. Below this, inside a square box, is a photo of a soldier's helmet, with a W on it. To the right, inside this box is the word 'poetry' in the same cursive script. The author's name is in small caps (grey) at the foot of the jacket, centred.

Handsel Press, 2020   £7.50

The vocabulary of children in extraordinary times

Children speak the words that surround them. Children today are growing up with ‘social distancing’ and ‘lateral flow test’ on their young tongues. In Alan Hill’s boyhood it was ‘Luftwaffe’, ‘trace bullets’, ‘Heinkel bomber’ and ‘Posted missing. Presumed dead.’

Words that come loaded with fear for adults are often accepted by children as simply descriptive of what is.

Alan Hill’s new pamphlet, written during the current pandemic with his grandchildren in mind, recalls his WW2 boyhood in tones that makes you feel you are chatting with him by the fireside. This is exactly his intention. I was particularly struck by how technical terms from WW2, which Alan Hill absorbed at the most impressionable age, seem to melt into his evocative, softly spoken poetry. In ‘Little Pink Clouds’:

Little pink clouds of smoke
chickenpoxed the dawn sky
after the long air-raids.
Pretty now, they’d already dropped
their metal fragments […]

Those three-point sevens in Poppet Lane
and the four-point-fives up the main road
had been firing all night.
He could tell them apart. […]

At six years old
he was steady under fire.

Some words, however, were not understood by the boy, for in those days there were things that nobody discussed. In ‘BBC News’:

One day he heard that Japanese soldiers
had raked European woman prisoners.
He was astonished. He couldn’t think why
they would do such a thing, or indeed how.

The boy’s ‘First Air Raid’ was a thrilling adventure for him; less so for his elderly neighbour:

The gunfire grew louder as planes approached […]

He was excited.
It was better than a cowboy film.
Much louder. […]

Later it grew quiet, but he was still alert.
“What’s that noise?’ he said. “A sort of rattle.”

After a moment Mrs Mason spoke again.
It’s my teeth, she said. “I can’t keep ‘em still.”

This is a treasure of a pamphlet. Alan Hill’s grandchildren are very lucky. I’d also recommend it as a great resource for any teacher covering the history of WW2 with their class in school.

Annie Fisher

Making poems out of war memories

The publisher’s website describes this pamphlet as

Poems by one old enough to remember

In an introductory note, Hill, aged 87, says, ‘I remembered not just events, but increasingly how I had felt about them, and allowed each memory to determine how it wanted to be written’.

The opening poems, recalling the ‘Phoney War’ and the first air-raids, are chocka with anecdote and remembered detail. They sound to my mind like prose with line breaks. Does this matter? Perhaps it depends whether you're reading for the memory, or for the memory as poem.

Besides, there are some lively moments:

Those three-point-sevens in Poppet Lane
and the four-point-fives up the main road
had been firing all night.
He could tell them apart.
The three-sevens sounded like
the slamming of double doors —
An echo from the woods his Dad said.
     [‘Little Pink Clouds’]

The ending of ‘The Balloon’ (about the destruction of a barrage balloon) adds emotional impact to the excitement that Hill’s six-year-old self experienced:

He’d never seen his mother crying before,
Nor his father so gentle and so softly spoken.

That second ‘so’ is doing, as today’s phrase goes, a lot of heavy lifting.

‘Evacuee’ details the pain and oddness of the child's experience of being sent away:

mostly it seemed he had chips and cocoa
when he went home they said he’d turned yellow

Arguably the strongest of the twenty-seven poems — as poems as opposed to memories — are sonnets in which Hill has worked harder to shape his priceless material into poetic form:

He thrilled to watch their yelling bayonet practice,
the good old-fashioned way to beat the Axis.
     [‘Blackpool Sands’]

And Oh the brown jelly that was under the fat!
It just didn’t get any better than that.
     [‘Dripping on Toast’]

Sometimes I remember that little wood
where four bombs fell and blew out craters like
great pudding-basins in the black leaf-mould.

Some of the poems seem to me to carry a historical overload of explanation, no doubt because they have been written, above all, for the poet’s family. However, despite the seriousness and horror of their backdrop, they contain much for general readers to enjoy.

Matthew Paul