Friday 8th May 2020 marked the 75th Anniversary of VE Day. A day to commemorate Victory in Europe – the end of the Second World War. Friday’s news coverage flickered between the black and white footage of street parties of 1945, to the colourful and socially distanced gatherings of 2020. We dressed in red, white and blue; displayed our painted Union Jacks; had a picnic of tea and scones in the garden. How very patriotic. As I listened to the memoirs and the Queen’s Speech, I appreciated this day as one of recollection and unity in the community. I phoned my grandparents, curious to hear about their wartime childhoods.
“Hello Papa, it’s Victoria. How are you?”
“I’m watching repeats on TV and there is no sport on,” he shouted over the noise of the television. “But I can’t complain. I’ve been out gardening.”
“I wanted to have a chat with you about growing up during the war, is that okay?”
There was a short pause on the other end of the phone and the TV volume subsided. “Yes, that is fine. What would you like to know?”
I needn’t have worried about a lack of information. His anecdotes flowed quickly as I scribbled down notes.
Born in 1935, my grandfather Evans grew up on a farm near Magherafelt in County Londonderry. He launched into explaining how their wartime information was obtained. The family did not have a television, and as a young boy he did not listen to the radio very much. Instead, war updates, and village gossip, were carried house to house by the postman. Every morning he would call in to the farm for at least half an hour, for some tea and a chat. Papa laughed at how many daily cups of tea the postman would have had – he did the same thing at every house!
There were eight RAF airfields in Northern Ireland. My grandfather would often look up and count the planes flying low over the countryside, something that was normal during his wartime childhood. Some days there was a constant stream of planes overhead. He could see them clearly as they flew low in the sky before landing at Limavady, just west of where he grew up. My great-grandfather was part of the maintenance at Limavady airfield. He was then sent to Qatar and Sri Lanka.
The US Army were deployed to Northern Ireland in 1942. 300,000 American soldiers arrived to the training camps all over the country. Americans from the nearby camps of Magherafelt and Toome renovated an outhouse on the Evans farm into a small bungalow. Almost every night until 1944 when the US troops went to Europe, jeeps pulled up to the bungalow and soldiers jumped out with their Northern Irish girlfriends. There were parties all the time. Papa paused and chuckled at this.
Belfast was heavily bombed by the Germans in 1941. The Belfast Blitz was the worst wartime raid outside of London in the UK. There were four houses in Desertmartin village for evacuee families from Belfast. Many other children came alone.
My grandmother, an evacuee child from Glasgow, had a different experience growing up during the war. Although a few years younger than my grandfather, she remembers the air raid shelters opposite the flats where she lived; her mother queuing at the butchers to buy meat; the rationing cards. She was then evacuated to Downpatrick in Northern Ireland, where her father was originally from.
I asked them both could they remember the 8th May 1945, the day the war ended. Nana was too young, remembering only fragments of her first few years spent between Glasgow and Downpatrick. The postman informed the Evans’ of the end of the war. The farm was quite far from the closest village, and Papa didn’t have a bicycle until he was fifteen, so he doesn’t recall going to a village street party when the war ended.
We spoke for a long time on the phone. I didn’t have to ask many questions, he just kept talking as one vivid childhood memory flowed into another.
“Those were the days,” he finished our conversation with a sigh.
In the midst of a global pandemic and bound by social distancing, I was brought back to the present, thinking about how surreal a time we are living in. A nostalgic conversation like this should be held in person; over a cup of tea and an opportunity to leaf through old photographs. I thought about my Macaulay grandparents, and wished my curious younger self had realised the importance of recording their anecdotes. I would spend hours with them asking questions; obsessed with finding out about their childhoods; studying family history. My memories of their ‘wee stories’ are now too fragmented to document.
When I picked up the phone to call Papa Evans I hadn’t initially thought of writing an article – I phoned out of genuine interest and something to jot down in my journal. All around us we have ordinary stories from ordinary people, but they still deserve to be told.