My Friday book: Hilarious book on eccentric maiden: “Aunt Alice’s War”

I can not even remember how I found out about this funny book, since my life is so stressful that I only live one day at a time and discard all unnecessary information. Yes, in a way I feel like I am heading for a mental breakdown, at the same time, there is noone to pick up the pieces, so I just have to toughen it out. This I must do with the help of among other things, good books. And while this book is not long at all and you finish it in an afternoon, it is a delight to read.

imageThe book is a loving portrait of the author Douglas Walker’s aunt Alice. An eccentric unmarried aunt, living in a sleepy old Victorian seaside resort, called St. Anne’s, south of Blackpool. Living on the right side of the train tracks, counting herself as middle to upper middle class, she has never had to go without anything that she’s wants and a war is not going to stop her from living comfortably! But she is also a patriot. Unfortunately being a patriotic, old-fashioned, naive, un-educated, 42-year-old woman, as graceful as an elephant in a china shop and the same size, turns out to be a poor combination.

In the Prologue, the author describes himself as having been about 8-9 years old when the war broke out, and while he usually lived in Scotland with his family, his parents often sent him and his two-year older brother off to stay with his mother’s younger sister Alice. In his opinion Scotland only felt that the war was a “slight increment” over the usual hard Scottish life. North-West England which was hardly the target of the German bombers, had about the same attitude, thinking the war a “deuced inconvenience”, but of course a great conversational piece.

Alice did not know a whole lot, but she had strong convictions and had a purpose with all her dealings, so she felt like a great defender of Britain, which the surrounding society failed to see. The only ones appreciating her efforts were really her young nephews, who were conscripted in to being accomplices when  it came to all her wild schemes. Douglas’ brother John being a less devoted follower.

To be honest, her neighbours were not much less eccentric than herself. Like Perce the lazy neighbour, who refused to work and came to tea every day and every time, there was food to be seen. And his constantly cleaning wife Lou, who never treated anyone to tea or received guests, even though food was always on her mind. Like Little Miss Chistlehurst, who had to look after her housekeeper instead of the reverse and old 90-year-old Mrs. Harmer and her granddaughter, who noone knew what she worked with, but it must have been something hush-hush, since she had a fancy gas mask! Dr. Merrilee who forbade people to drink milk, advocating barley and who was rejected for military service because he told the authorities that masturbation should be compulsory to soldiers, in order to avoid VD. Or how about Father Harry, the brain-damaged ex-boxer who ran the laundry business? He travelled around on a tricycle, collecting incoming garbage on the beach.

But back to Alice. She lived quite well-off, with her maid Mabel and her three inbred dogs. Mabel, being in her twenties, strangely was not called up for service, but spent all her time looking after Alice, going to the pictures, drooling over film stars in the Hollywood magazines and playing with make up.

Then came the outbreak of the war. On the 2 September 1939, Douglas’ mother was actually also present at St. Anne’s. During a visit to the beach, Alice notices the front of Perce’s newspaper, that Hitler has invaded Poland and she will not stand for it. She tells all the present, that it has to be stopped and the children must prepare themselves for rolling bandages, run messages and dig trenches. She gets quite worked up, and so do the boys, while their mother finds her sister tiresome. The next day, they all stand in attention in front of the new, imageelectrical large wireless called Marconi Super Heterodyne, to hear Neville Chamberlain declare war against Germany. Alice doesn’t wait for any directives, she has been collecting civil defense cards in cigarette packages for weeks, so she sends everyone around the house taping the windows, to protect them from a blast. Only to be told by the neighbour, that since they taped on the inside, the blast will just make the window a big projectile shooting inwards. Alice is not stumped for ideas so she phones the Air Raid Precautions’ Headquarters and when she doesn’t get an answer to how they should be taped, she decides to tape the outsides as well, making all the rooms covered in brown light,  and hardly being able to look out. For the rest of the war.

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As with most of Alice’s ideas, they are often good from the beginning, and then they turn sour. Alice having very high thoughts of herself, perhaps since she is VERY big and impressive in stature, volunteers right away to become a leader but the only thing they give her to do, is becoming an ARP Warden for three streets. She is not impressed by the things they give her to fulfill her new responsibilities: a helmet, an armband, a WWI gas mask, a whistle and a rattle. Not even an instruction booklet on how to organize things, but she is not stumped for long. To show authority, she has to have a uniform and when she can not decide which one she likes the most, she combines three in imageto one. Lord Mountbatten’s Navy one, General Montgomery’s beret, Cavalry boots, warden embroidered in gold and a rhinestone brooch stuck to the beret. The Brigadier in charge of the Home Guard is impressed till he realizes that she is a woman, but this he does not discover until she has become the laughing-stock, after getting stuck in a revolving gate. After this she abandons the riding boots which were too small and walks around in uniform and bedroom slippers.

As a leader of such an important job as protecting her fellow citizens, she has to have some headquarters. Her cupboard under the stairs becomes “The Bunker”. Her organization consisting of herself, John and Douglas. Only one adult at a time is able to visit the bunker. She decorates the bunker with a military cot for the person on duty, a bucket of sand and a shovel, to put out all incendiary bombs with, an oil lantern, first aid kit, biscuits, a tin of spam, a couple of bottles of water and most important of all, a chamber pot. And on the door she hangs a sign painted by herself: ARP HEADQUARTERS; AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. When the Warden, i.e. aunt Alice, blows her whistle, all must run for the cupboard, which becomes very cramped indeed. On the first occasion they try to light the oil lamp and the only thing which happens is that the cupboard becomes full of black smoke, so they have to take refuge somewhere else. From then on, they have to sit there with torches instead. Was the little town bombed? No, but every time enemy aircraft flew over, the siren went off and it was time to dive for the cupboard.

The end of the headquarters come on a night when the boys are back in Scotland. Alice had gone out and her servant girl Mabel had gone to the pictures, without permission. For some reason, 90-year-old Mrs. Harmer was a houseguest. The siren sounded and the two regular habitants of the house, sought shelter elsewhere and did not return home till the all clear sounded, whereupon they headed directly for bed and sleep. Strange that Mrs. Harmer did not appear for breakfast though! After a search of the old lady’s house and the police sending out a search party for the old soul, on the beaches, which lasted all day till nightfall, they finally had to give up and face the music. Millicent, the granddaughter, had to be told on her return home, that aunt Alice had misplaced her mother. The police now searched every house, garden and shed on the street, for the old woman. At tea time, they were invited for tea and this is when they heard a scratch from the cupboard. Alice had great difficulty trying to open the bunker. When the door finally gave way, the old woman wearing gas mask and nightgown, spoke for the first time in years and asked “Is it all clear?”. The police forbade Alice to ever use the bunker again!

When talk of a German invasion started in 1940, all street signs were taken down and the town’s people started joking when people asked for the way: ” Sorry, I’m a parachutist here myself!”. Alice decided that it was best to take down all house numbers on her streets as well, to confuse the Germans, but having changed all numbers around confused the locals more than the Germans. On her own house, since she was obviously going to be wanted by the Germans, she did not put up a number at all but “Beware of the dog” sign. In order not to offend the locals, government had decided to build a pillbox on the beach, so it would not look like the people in town, were considered expandable. It protected the children’s wading pool and the public toilet, without being manned by human beings. On one occasion, Father Harry and Alice, get in to their heads that the Germans are smuggling spies in on the beach, after he has found a strange-looking sailor’s hat. They take up position in the pillbox. The humiliation is great when first they see that it is fishermen bringing fish in and not Germans landing and then not being able to get out, since sand has blown and blocked the door. While they are trapped everyone wonders where Alice is, till Little Miss Chistlehurst announces that Alice has eloped with Father Harry. Him also missing.  The first not to open the pillbox, are a mother and her children bathing, who thinks them perverts in there. The one eventually coming to the rescue, is the leading woman of the social scene in town, whom Alice looks up to greatly. And this woman finds it so hilarious that they had thought this sailor’s hat from a dance club, being a German one, that she happily shares Alice’s latest adventure at the lady’s club.

The Shadow of Treason is a sad chapter indeed, which is all about how the knob on the wireless accidentally had been bumped to another channel than the one Alice regularly listened to. Alice now became the avid listener of this journalist who seemed to pop over to a studio in Germany every day, reporting on events. William Joyce sounding so much more authoritative in her mind than BBC’s new anchor from the North Country. In order to not miss her favourite programs, Alice had had a speaker rigged from the drawing room to the kitchen and it was there, one night, when Mabel was having a date with Cyril, a private who had been part of the Northumberland fusiliers for all of six weeks, that William Joyce’s voice announced that Germany was calling. Cyril, who after six weeks  of blisters and diarrhoea, felt a real soldier betrayed by evil collaborators, screamed out that Alice was a collaborator listening to Lord Haw-Haw. Alice not understanding who he was talking about, became terrified at the word collaborator. Cyril went ahead and smashed the wireless and then walked out, threatening  to have her reported and shot. Poor Alice never dared to listen to herimage big Marconi again, hiding it in the garage and purchasing a tiny plastic Philco instead, which could not pick up anything but the BBC, surely? Cyril was posted to Wales, where he spent the entire war, fighting the Welsh.

During the Blitz, a billeting officer arrived to Alice’s and announced that she had room for two evacuee families and they would be arriving the next day. Alice did not take this lightly. After trying to voice her complaints to the Mayor, she has to bite the bullet and sets about creating a rigorous schedule for the Londoners arriving. Set meal times, areas where they were allowed to go and not, a gong summoning them to meals. Only, these East Enders do not adhere to rules. imageThey did not bring any ration coupons which creates a special head ache for Alice trying to keep track of what they eat till she can be compensated. She creates meal tickets in different colours, with the owner’s name on it and at each meal she punches it. Till she discovers that the cockney children has outsmarted her, just like they do with London bus drivers. The gong has to be removed since they use it as a musical instrument and her kitchen becomes a regular cafeteria. Her maid Mabel finding the evacuee mothers more interesting than her duties, stops answering to Alice’s beckon. After the children go through a bout of measles, the families decide to pack up and go back to the excitement of London instead. Mabel runs off with them, since she has come to understand that London is the place to be. Alice is suddenly all alone and full of spots since the children’s goodbye gift, was measles.

In the summer of 1940, aunt Alice is struck with spy paranoia. After putting up a poster “Loose Lips Sink Ships”, she also has her nephews on board. They are put on around the clock surveillance of a neighbour, Mr Bakker, who with his strange-looking name and strange business of repairing wireless radios, must be a spy. The boys putting on disguises of their own making, only manage to become a laughing-stock when after being discovered, John runs down the streets with flannel trousers down by his feet. Mr Bakker suddenly disappears after this, to do his spy business think Alice and the boys, but he returns in a Royal Air Force uniform. After all, his spy accent was not German but that of Newcastle, which the boys’ mother had tried to explain to Alice.

Outside of town, a temporary training camp is set up and aunt Alice has very high esteem for the boys, as long as they do not loiter around in town. After all, they are going to defend her lifestyle. She cherish their arrival and their departure the most and very much wants to get involved with serving refreshments, like they do at train stations across the nation. The only problem being that there was no train station at St. Anne’s. But trains were usually delayed at the Old Links Junction, an old abandoned station. But being held up and stopping are two different things, which meant that Alice did not know when a train was going to be held up nor for how long. She enlists a group of women and they set up a kitchen in the old waiting room, lacking all electricity so they had to work in the light of torches. Moving down the platform in the dark is another problem which Alice solves by attaching the torches to the ladies’ caps. What did they serve? What could be begged from neighbours. Bread, spam and egg powder. Alice had her own recipe for what to do with the latter. Mixing it with water and seasoning it all with mint, sage or parsley. It looked and tasted like plaster but she hid it between slices of bread so… What put an end to this great scheme of Alice’s? After weeks of attacking trains with their tea, spam and reconstituted egg sandwiches, finally a troop train with French Colonials arrived. Tapping on the windows, screaming that there was free food, one soldier finally opened a window only to have his hands scalded when Alice poured tea all over them in the dark. The word spam brough great anxiety to all these Muslim soldiers and when they saw the contents between the bread slices, they threw them back at the women. A regular battle ensued. Men throwing back sandwiches at the women and finally pointing their guns at them, since they wanted to be left alone. Some soldiers had got off the train to fight their assailants and when the train started to move, they were horrified at perhaps being left behind with these crazy women. They frantically jumped on the moving train and noone knew what happened after this, except suddenly there was tall barbed wire fences around the Old Links Station and signs that threatened with severe punishment if one trespassed. Alice had messed up again.

After Christmas 1941, a German bomber escaping from Liverpool, dropped a bomb on the golf course. It never exploded but sappers were brought in to remove it. Alice of course had to be present in full ARP uniform. Things dragged out and she decided to feed her nephews biscuits while they were waiting and have some barley water herself. Then the ground shook, she fell down and rolled down the embankment, making strange noises as she was choking on the barley water. When she and the two dirty boys arrived home, the boys’ mother wondered where on Earth they had all been. “At the front” exclaimed Alice, “War is Hell!”. The boys were very excited though, their first battlefield experience inspired them to become “bomb disposal experts”. John creates a bomb from an old can, old clock and some wire. They compete who can get the can open and get the clock out the fastest, having buried the can in the sand dunes on the beach. One day, Alice walks her dogs  and sees the top of the can, pokes at it with a stick and it sets the clock off ticking. The rest you can guess. The boys do not dare to confess and Alice calls in the Army, who promptly arrive in four lorries with a bomb squad. They can not do anything that evening, but Alice is proud of her moment, wearing her specially designed uniform that bring lots of looks. In the morning, the bomb squad decides to detonate the bomb, which is done while the two little boys watch in horror. When the bomb squad see what they have wasted time on, they leave without a word of goodbye. Alice not understanding anything, goes to the crater and sees the milk can with a childish swastika painted on it, but instead of putting it away as another failure, she proudly lets people see it and comments on how poorly made the German bombs are.

On the topic of rationing, it was stated that the Scots were already used to a Spartan diet. And well to do Englishmen could continue eating as they used to at restaurants. And the poor could continue eating their favourite dish, fish and chips, since seafood was not rationed. They also could go eat at the British restaurant which served a few not too exciting meals. Alice liked rationing from the beginning and organized everyone’s according to size. Big people should get to eat more, in other words she got the majority of the household food. As rationing got tougher and meat became scarce, people had to buy tinned foods on ration coupons. Alice did not want to be limited by coupons though, so she bought a couple of extra tins every week “on the quiet”. People started getting suspicious when all customers looked skinny and unhealthy while the Rumble family, who owned the shop, was rather plump. The police finally raided the shop and Alice got terrified since she by then had 100 tins in stock at home. She desperately looked for somewhere to hide her cans and the opportunity arouse when she was asked to look after her neighbours Perce’s and Lou’s house. She enlisted her nephews in to moving all the cans to Perce’s Anderson shelter. In the middle of the night Douglas is sent to clear the shelter of all garden tools that Perce keeps there, but doing it in the dark turns out to be a dangerous thing. After John is attacked by a garden rake, he has to take charge, since Alice by now is having a nervous breakdown thinking about Mr. Rumble’s prison sentence. But the troops really rise to the occasion and the operation is successfully completed. Perce never doing any gardening, never discovers the tins and they stay there all summer long. When the nephews are to return to Scotland, Alice suggests they take some tins with them back and lures off Perce and Lou on a drive, while the boys go to fetch some tins. The boxes have fallen apart and mice have eaten off all labels, so that entire winter, it becomes a surprise every time they open a tin, as to what it contains.

Civil defence instructions were short and were not supposed to alarm the readers. Alice thought they should have a gas attack rehearsal. This was going to take place at the Homestead Home, an orphanage for girls. Alice had read on the cigarette cards she collected, that gas smelled geraniums and looked yellow, so she had made a concoction of geranium leaves, food colouring and cigarette butts soaked in water over night and then strained to be sprayed on victims. Alice was to wear gas mask, full protective gear swinging her rattle while the boys would creep around spraying the girls, this meaning they had become gas victims. The girls were to wear bathing suits so they could be hosed down afterwards and the boys were very excited indeed over the task given to them. Both Alice and Douglas being nearsighted, creates a problem though because you can’t wear glasses under the gas mask. Stumbling in to the walls, not finding his targets, Douglas becomes very frustrated. He manages to spray down the walls while hearing the girls giggling away. The ones ending up being hosed down are the boys while the girls are laughing their heads off. Moving in oil skins, rubber boots and being nearsighted, had not been a good combination!

Taking a bath was a big ordeal. Alice of course had painted a line in the tub to show how much water one could have. But one day, there was not even that much water coming out of the spout. All plumbers but one old one had been called up, so this one was the one called upon to solve the problem. Alice decides that it must be sabotage and that must be the upstart Mr Milton-Collins being behind it all. He must be jealous of her being an Air Raid Warden when he is just a part-time fireman, is her reasoning. Her next door neighbour, is a retired priest and his wife. They built a gazebo in their garden that summer and Alice strongly disliked it since they could look in to her garden from it. The gardens were built on sand in that area and they could absorb a lot of water. That summer, all gardens looked very lovely and lush even though there was no water coming out of the hoses. Alice usually loved her garden but not when Dr. Chowdray could look in to it. So she decides to get a revenge organizing a garden party on a Sunday. She moves all dining room furniture out in the garden and her best china. The lawn seems moist so they put bricks under the table legs, so they will not sink in to the lawn but they do not do so for the chairs. One of the guests, Mrs Wallington, is as heavy-set as Alice, and when she chose to sit down on a chair, she soon sits with her knees up by her chin and tea-cup held high in the air, to the amusement of the nephews. Soon all chairs sink in to the lawn and ladies’ shoes get stuck. No longer do the white flannel  suits and chiffon dresses look nice but as the guests stumble around, they are soon very muddy. Alice standing with the other guests on the garden path, see all her furniture sink in to a hole and the nice china fly in all directions. The vicar announces from the gazebo next-door “Beware ye who profane the Lord’s day and flee the righteous wrath of the Almighty.” But suddenly he disappears from view as his gazebo topples over, as the hole moves on to his garden. The answer for the calamity comes in a couple of days when it is discovered that all water to that street has leaked through a crack in a pipe and has created a large underground pool of quicksand. All the weight at the garden party combined with the gazebo, had brought the matter to a blow.

Outside St. Anne’s there was a remnant of an old castle, Stallwart Castle, nicknamed Wigger’s Piggery. It was subject to flooding and laid downstream to a pig farm. Lieutenant Flowers of the home guard decided to have a night manoeuvre. 12 of the home guard were to be German paratroopers and 18 were to be defenders of the gasworks. The tower at the old castle was to be the observation post and Alice was asked to transport the signaller and the signal lamp there.  Happily she agreed. The signaller was the cross-eyed dustman and the signal lamp was as big old-fashioned thing weighing tons. They were to carry the heavy thing to the top of the tower and face it towards Lt Flowers’ troops, signaling three dots. Depending on where they saw the invaders coming, they would send different signals that Freddie the signaller had memorized. Alice is fine, helping with he lamp, till they reach the top and she feels a spider on her face. She is petrified of spiders and the dark, so she screams and run around, knocking both the lamp and Freddie down. Alice continues looking for spiders and Freddie with a bumped head, now tries to light the lamp. They would not have discovered the invaders, had the same not been singing a rude song about the nazi leaders’ genitalia. It is time to signal but Freddie can not get the lamp working. So a heavy frantic ARP Warden crashes in to the cross-eyed home guard and together they knock over the lamp, trying to get it lit. The room catches fire and Lt. Flowers who expected a discrete little light, now sees an entire burning tower instead. He comes to understand that it no longer is an excercise but the real thing, so he calls the army. The firefighters are already on their way, since the fire has been seen miles away. The RAF thinks there is a sneak German raid, so they take off with their fighter planes. Coastal command thinks it is collaborators sending a signal to enemy ships outside the coast, so they get their patrol boats out. And the Army sends not only soldiers but an entire squadron  of tanks. The invaders go home and a lot of people get demoted that night. Alice and the signaller  snuck off to hide with his mother-in-law, till morning. The invaders claimed they had never been there, the signaller claimed it an act of God and most of the others, remained silent on the matter.

One day Alice feels that Britain has taken enough from the Germans, writing her cousin Adelaide in Boston and telling her that it is time the Yanks get involved. Soon they arrive and according to Alice it has nothing to do with Pearl Harbour but with her letter. imageThe flying boys of the Fortresses, which arrive to the vicinity of St. Anne’s, are all very popular with the girls and Alice. Alice of course decides to organize a welcome at the lawn bowling club and this is where she meets Major Orville Hackensacker from Texas and falls in love. Every Saturday this fat 40 something arrives to Alice’s home with cigarettes and there they sit and drink gin together. She demands to be alone with him, so all the others have to keep in the kitchen, while she and the Major dines on the best china in the drawing room, using up all the rations. And afterwards sitting holding hands gazing in to each others eyes.  He brings her nylons which she can never get in to and she makes him bedsocks. Since he eats their entire meat ration, all of them lose weight that summer. One day, he is posted elsewhere and Alice is devastated till she receives a letter from his mother, saying thanks for treating Orville “Just like your own SON!” The woman sends Alice chocolates every Christmas that Alice refuses to eat! Son indeed!

When Italy entered the war, people did not know how to treat the people who were supplying them with ice-cream and fish&chips.image  In St. Anne’s there were two Italian families, the Verrichis, who kept an ice-cream shop and  the Chicoines, the fish and chips people. Mr. Verrichi, was a virtuoso on violin and Mr. Chicoine, had the most beautiful tenor voice. They were often part of the musicals set up at the town hotel, nicknamed the Hydro. But in 1940, the police found out that most Italians either had to be sent off to the Isle of Man, posing a threat to national security or they had to be incarcerated locally. The police in St. Anne’s decided that they needed their cells, so they incarcerated the two Italian men in a bathhouse, not being used. But the family of Mr. Chicoine could not manage  the fish and chip shop on their own. So, Alice petitioned that the husband would get to look after his business during the day and then lock himself up in the bathhouse, during the night. But he had to use distinct clothing to show he was a prisoner. Usually they were supposed to wear a brown suit with orange target circles on it, but there was none to give Mr. Chicoine, so he put on the most distinct clothing he had. A green velvet gondolier’s costume, he had worn in a musical. Soon, Mr. Verrichi could also attend his ice-cream shop and they could be part of musicals as well. And since Mr. Chicoine had smuggled his wife in to the bathhouse at night, she soon gave birth to twins, which she patriotically gave the names Winston and Spencer.

The Victory Parade was going to be a big thing. The main street decorated with flags and bunting and with pictures of  Queen Victoria and Lord Kitchener and Douglas failed to see the point of the latter. All military men were gone so this was to be a civilian affair, the parade. Alice had been invited since she was one of the few who had a sort of uniform and a car. But her Austin was not doing well. One  no longer could open the doors and the car leaned in 30 degree on the driver’s side, since the springs had worn out, from her weight on that side. Proudly she decorates her car though with flags, bunting and Christmas decorations. On the roof they put a bucket, stirrup pump and a sign with ARP written on it. They arrive to the gathering point where you can find the fire brigade,  football team, cricket club, WVS, St John’s Ambulance Corps, Royal Lifeboat Society, Salvation Army band, Morris Dancers, Masonic Lodge, Home Guard, Boys Scouts, Girl Guides and you name it.

Alice can not find any other ARPs to join her so they get in to the car and is about to start but the clutch will not work. The doors will not open. Douglas being tiny, is able to climb through the window but is not able to open Alice’s doors even with a crowbar. So Alice orders him back in to the car, since she absolutely do not want to miss the parade. Somehow, she manages to get second gear in and starts the car, which jumps forward and scatters some empty cans. She can not hit the brakes, since the motor then will stall and might not start up again. she also has trouble steering the obnoxious car. Bearing down on the parade all she can do is honk the horn which sounds like “an elephant passing wind”. Then the car stalls, whereupon Alice jump starts it again in second gear and shoots forward. This is how they travel that day. After creating havoc in the entire parade and plowing through the Hydro’s flower beds, they stall a final time in front of the town hall. Were an assortment of dignitaries stare at the strange vehicle with broken Christmas ornaments and trailing banners, caught on the way, has just stalled while Alice salutes everyone marching by. She has been in the victory parade and has fought a long and hard war valiantly!

I am sure that some of you might feel that I have given the entire story away here, but considering that the book is out of print and hard to find, and me having been forced to cut out all the funny dry humour in it, by just summarizing the events, you really have something fun to look forward to, when you finally get hold of the book! You will know that it is a hilarious book and that it is worth the hassle and wait.

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