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Time Witnesses: A Peace Party

Al Smith recalls the day he went door to door, collecting spoonfuls of tea and sugar.

For more stories of wartime please visit timewitnesses.org/

"You and Peter can ask for a spoonful of sugar and tea", said my Auntie Doll. So, off we went, knocking at the front doors of our 20 or so neighbours in Larchwood Close, Collier Row, Romford. Two eleven year-olds, still not fully understanding that air-raid sirens, con-trailed busy skies, buzz bombs, V2s, night raids, sleeping in the steel table cage known as 'the Morrison' - all day-to-day events of our childhood - really were no more.

No more instant adventure playgrounds where homes and factories had stood the night before. Never again to collect treasured gleaming, scorched and silver-blue fragments of shrapnel after explosive, searchlight sectored nights. We'd won the war!

And there was going to be a party. A street party. Uncle Arthur and Auntie Doll were already planning and delegating. My mate, Peter Harding and I were holding out our basins to each neighbour as they came to the door. "We only need a spoonful from everyone." That spoonful would be missed from the week's meagre rations, but they all chipped in. Some decided that the occasion was worth more, raiding their rainy day emergency stores for a tin of condensed milk or can of Spam.

The basins filled quickly as we made our door to door way down one side of the steep hill that was the Close, the gathering pile of extras causing us to return a couple of times to off-load back at base. It was going well. The party virus incubated, the infection spread and soon all the residents were displaying a full range of symptoms. "Nice day" and "Good morning" were replaced by "Have you got enough marge?" "I've got lots of china." "What about presents for the kids?" Paper bags, boxes, tins with yellowing 'war effort' half-size labels, bottles. All manner of exciting things were piling high in the front hall, leaving barely enough room for uncle's bike.

Suddenly, it was party time! Circling the roundabout at the top of the hill were kitchen and trestle tables, assorted chairs, R.White's crates, boxes, stools. Right outside number 19 - our house. Plates brimming with sandwiches, sausage rolls, rock cakes and other offerings from overworked ovens, covered the tables. Reserve supplies waited under clean teacloths and muslin. Buckets of water bubbled on gas rings to provide the raw material for a sweet, delicious infusion of the fruits of our collection - tea, sugar and tinned milk tipped directly into the buckets. Warming, cheering, enamel punchbowls into which we plunged our cups.

The party blurred past our gang - Billy Harvey, Peter, Jean Valentine, Pat Thompson, Roy Simons, Michael Chinnery - laughing, playing, sitting, running, eating, hiding. Neighbours burst from their shells to talk to other neighbours, previously barely acknowledged, arms around shoulders; munching, swigging, adding to the laughter or quietly remembering special thoughts. The bonfire was lit, quickly giving birth to fully-grown flames striving to leap clear of the woodpile. Those that did break away met instant death as they dashed for the darkening sky. When sparks flew as tepee-piled timber collapsed the search was on for anything to feed and prolong the beacon. Waste paper, garden rubbish, broken fences. Even my treasured wooden sledge was sacrificed.

A great, accidental discovery was fragments of asbestos sheet from a shattered shed roof. These exploded spectacularly when sneaked into the fire. Grown-ups tut-tutted, but they didn't stop us. Eventually, when the fire was a heap of glowing grey ashes, potatoes were conjured and buried in the heat. Getting on for midnight, sitting around - spent, relaxed, happy - scorching our fingers as we picked at charred peel and blew on the steaming potato flesh. Someone rustled up some margarine and it trickled down our chins as we bit into the greasy, yellow-blotched, salty spuds.

I suppose the party did come to an end. I don't remember. I was there next day, ruefully, but with no real regret, pulling steel sledge runners from the still-shimmering ashes. Our war really was over and life beckoned.


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