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Remembrances of War and Summer

Culture: Born during wartime, with a father on a Nazi hit list, only adds to a writer's disdain for the warmest season.

May 28, 2000|ALEXANDER COCKBURN | Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications

Here we are, at the edge of yet another one, but I don't particularly care for summer. My clock started ticking when the Germans were trying to figure out a cross-channel invasion schedule. I was born in the north of Scotland on what the British optimistically were wont to call a summer's day, June 6, 1941, three years before D-day. My father was far away in London, where the Luftwaffe's bombs and rockets were falling. My mother had evacuated to the house of an American friend, just north of Inverness.

Down in London and denied access to the north of Scotland because he was a Red, my father went down the street to get a Sunday paper. Down came one of Hitler's rockets, up in smoke went 5 Acacia Road, St. Johns Wood. My father returned to find a lot of rubble and the cat with its fur blown off. The cat thought my father had done it, had a nervous breakdown and never did forgive. So much for seasonal precedent.

Hitler had plans. One of them was to shoot my father. The Nazi blacklist, prepared for the German force poised to cross the channel, featured Claud Cockburn. We never saw a copy until Alan Moorhead used the relevant page as an illustration in his book "Invasion 1940," because Churchill's name was on it. There was Papa's name, a few lines lower, with the correct address for his office on Victoria Street, where he'd published The Week, a newsletter the fuehrer and his associates didn't care for.

All Commies would have been shot anyway. The Nazis felt the same way as the British War Office, whose plan was to draft all the Reds, send them to the front lines and hope that the German Panzers would do their duty. But then the War Office worried that the Commies, in the span between recruitment and dispatch to the front lines, would foment discord and mutiny. So my father got his call-up papers, then almost immediately a letter saying "Forget about it."

Back in London, I spent a lot of my first summer evenings down in St. Johns Wood subway station, where many in our neighborhood would flee when the bombing got bad. At first, the authorities refused to allow any deep shelter program on the grounds that if the people went underground, they'd never come out. Even though Churchill used an abandoned subway station as a shelter himself, according to his secretary, he was thinking on authoritarian lines about shelters and talked of forcibly preventing people from going into the Underground.

There's a myth now about the British hanging together in those dark days. "London can take it," Ed Murrow told America in his CBS broadcasts. Actually, morale was appalling. Most people correctly had little confidence in the competence of their government and thought Germany was going to win. In the Channel Islands, which the Nazis did take over, the people greeted them hospitably and turned in Jews with zest. The British Ministry of Information employed 10,000 people to read people's mail surreptitiously, intercepting about 200,000 letters a week, and discovered that people were deeply pessimistic and thought Churchill was "played out."

A secret government report spelled out the popular lack of nerve: "Portsmouth--on all sides, we hear that looting and wanton destruction had reached alarming proportions. The police seem unable to exercise control. . . . The effect on morale is bad and there is a general feeling of desperation . . . their nerve had gone."

Churchill's famous speeches about their "finest hour" and so forth didn't have much effect either. He delivered them in the House of Commons, and when the BBC asked him to rebroadcast them on the radio, he refused. So the BBC secretly used an actor named Norman Shelley to read them, pretending to be Churchill. Shelley's usual role was to play Larry the Lamb on "Children's Hour." Most people didn't actually know what Churchill's voice sounded like, and those who did thought it sounded funny. Letters poured into No. 10 Downing St. asking what was wrong with the PM.

Many people tried to shut out the war as much as they could. By the end of 1940, nearly a third of the population admitted to not following news of the war. When asked what depressed them most, people put the weather first, then war news, then the air raids. Life was rotten anyway for a huge slab of the population, which was malnourished, poorly housed, barely educated and deeply discontented. When they visited the East End, the king and queen were soundly booed. In the summer of 1941, a woman got five years in prison for saying, "Hitler is a good man, a better man than Mr. Churchill."

Summers were colder and wetter back then. Even now, in Northern California, I'm not enamored of the summer season. By rights, spring should last until late July. Then a week of summer, abolish August and then have fall.

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