As part of my role as Poet in Residence: Portsmouth City Council Library and Archive Service, generously funded by Arts’ Council UK, I’ve been preparing a writing workshop for 12 – 16 year olds. Some of the archive material we’ll be using is about Portsmouth during the war. As a Naval town it was hit badly, with over 2,000 civilians losing their lives between 1940 -1942. A collection of dramatic photographs, some of which I share above, show the impact and devastation the city suffered. Here I’m focussing on ordinary homes that were obliterated. Many of these suffered in the first raid. It must have been devastating for the families and particularly terrifying for children not evacuated – who, having been versed in what to do, may have relaxed over months of expectation into thinking it might never happen.
The following poem was written after research regarding bombing adjacent to the Portsmouth property I’d just bought. That was two years ago. It was written to echo children’s playground rhymes, such as Oranges and Lemons, and counting games that would have been sung by children at the time. It also has a darkness found in children’s cautionary tales and songs such as Lizzie Borden’s Forty Whacks, so seems appropriate to include in this portfolio blog.
One of the images above, taken in Copnor, clearly shows someone’s bedroom. We can only hope the inhabitants were safe in an air-raid shelter when the bombs came down; in early night raids many will have died in their beds. My own mother lived further along the coast, in Kent, and used to talk about counting the seconds as bombs whistled down. When the sound stopped you had, she thought, three seconds to a direct hit. At the time of writing I also spoke to an elderly lady who remembered being dug out from an air raid shelter after a bomb, hitting close by, entombed them.
Then came sirens to sound the alert.
to waken deaf Annie the neighbourhood crone.
counting the steps from kitchen to shelter.
and counted each person that came through the door.
and Peter, my friend, and Jane and Elaine.
the time when the Anderson could take a hit.
as the mortars struck home and walls crashed to ground.
Outside there were shouts that the church was on fire
Three strikes to the roof and one for the spire.
as they pulled off the rubble and let in the light.
But where was deaf Annie and poor little Rose?
were empty the day that those two were killed.
(I don’t want to give too much away, as yet, but writings on this theme continue. I’ll add songs and poems, as workshops progress.)