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Shalom and Sheiks: 9 - Enjoying Life While It Lasted

...But still people went out to enjoy life while it lasted, no matter how heavy the air raid. The Queens' Brasserie, (known to everyone in London as the 'Brass Arse'), was always filled with RAF boys on leave, who did not give a damn about the Luftwaffe up above. The Navy frequented The Captain's Cabin, where, especially on a cold winter's night, one could warm up with a hot rum punch...

John Powell vividly conveys the life-must-go-on spirit which prevailed in London during World War Two.

To read earlier chapters of John's highly-entertaining life story please lick on Shalom And Sheiks in the menu on this page.

For those with money there was no end to the available entertainment. The Albert Hall still gave concerts of classical music, while for those with less sophisticated tastes there were plenty of opportunities. The Palais de Danse locations were always filled, where you could dance non-stop for the whole day.

One could dine out at the more expensive venues and, at the Savoy Hotel, dance to the music of Carrol Gibbons and his Savoy Hotel Orpheans, or at the Grosvenor House, to the Sidney Lipton band. The restaurants, such as the Cafe Anglais with Harry Roy and his band, filled with life and laughter.

But people took risks although even tragic happenings failed to deter them from having a good time. At the Cafe de Paris, Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson and his band, and many customers dancing happily, were killed when the restaurant received a direct hit. The building was ruined.

But still people went out to enjoy life while it lasted, no matter how heavy the air raid. The Queens' Brasserie, (known to everyone in London as the 'Brass Arse'), was always filled with RAF boys on leave, who did not give a damn about the Luftwaffe up above. The Navy frequented The Captain's Cabin, where, especially on a cold winter's night, one could warm up with a hot rum punch.

The West End of London was always thronged with people. The prostitutes paraded along their beats and as you passed would ask the age-old question, "Like to 'ave a bloody good time, love?”

In Piccadilly Circus, there were always two or three men selling the three evening newspapers and shouting, "Evening News...Star...Evening Standard." Or were they? Passing near them, you noticed that they only held two or three papers and they would say quietly to you, "Want any rubber goods, Sir?...Evening News...Star...Evening Standard." Today we would call them, ‘entrepreneurs', specialising in pimp work with a bit of condom sales on the side: in those days we called them, 'spivs', or, ‘wide boys', being anyone who made a quick quid, probably by illegal black market means.

A camaraderie sprang up among civilians; cooperation and a helping hand were everywhere; neighbours who had never spoken to each other before became big friends; the upper crust of society mixed on equal terms with the lowliest; and, through it all, solid as a rock, was the cockney humour and cheerfulness.

Grumbles there were at the Government but rarely at conditions or hardships due to enemy action. "Don't you know there's a war on?" was the usual comment.

Although the day raids had diminished in intensity, it was a harrowing time at nights, when the radio became a little distorted and then the sirens wailed dismally, with the regularity of ships' foghorns on the mist-bound Thames, as the drone of bombers overhead and the sound of anti-aircraft fire heralded in another night of fear.

Even the young servicemen and women, enjoying themselves in London's West End, were often obliged to stop the fun and take refuge in the nearest shelter.

The Underground railway stations were made available at nights to sleep in. Dad was alarmed when he went to have a look at the Oval Station and saw the possibility of the spread of disease and infection. Both there and at the next station of Kennington he arranged for some of his patients to go down every morning to scrub out the platforms with disinfectant and clean up. Reporting his concern to the Department of Health, they followed his initiative and extended the cleaning to all stations.

One night I went down with him on his evening inspection, for he had set up First Aid posts in both stations, with qualified people to man them. The civilians carried all their bedding down and placed it in their claimed positions. It was a tribal law that existed and heaven help anybody who tried to take another's place.

"This is our spot; always has been; right here under this advertisement for Watney's Beer. We've been here all the time. Bugger off! Go and find somewhere else."

They all had to keep back a certain distance from the edge of the platform, to allow the passengers to have access to the carriages; this was always observed. There they slept, almost on top of each other, with constant trips to the mobile toilets that Dad had organised.

Dad and I went to an art exhibition. He was very taken by a picture, which he bought, showing the people sleeping in an Underground Station. The exhibition was by 'Artists of Promise'. Years later he sold it for a profit of nine thousand pounds. He had picked an original Henry Moore.

It was a memorable December night that the London Docks, two miles away, received a very heavy raid. Taking advantage of a local lull in our area, I went up from the Dugout to the front door then promptly called Dad to come and have a look. We gazed in awe, speechless.

The view was appalling. The whole eastern horizon seemed to be on fire, with the intense yellow-red glow of the fires reflecting against the clouds so that they too seemed to be ablaze. From time to time a more intense blaze of bright light would suddenly flare up as another conflagration burst out of control to light up the clouds.

The barrage balloons, at varying heights, appeared as hundreds of blobs of black ink against the vivid backdrop, among the flashes of bursting anti-aircraft shells. The pencil-thin beams of searchlights, feeble, faint and hardly visible in the bright glow, appeared to wander aimlessly across the sky on the outskirts of the fires.

To our ears came the constant drone of throbbing engines from the bombers overhead. There, in the middle of the night, we could read a newspaper from the brightness of the sky, as though daylight.

"Oh, God damn them! Just look at what the bastards are doing to our London, Dad."

"Yes, Shun, but they will get theirs one day; they'll get it ail back with interest. You know, it seems to me as though they sprinkle bombs around at random, just to make us all keep our heads down, while concentrating the main attack to one area."

"Yes, I suppose in that way our defences are scattered and it keeps us all busy, unable to go to help another area."

"Well, I wouldn't like to be those poor blokes in the docks tonight. God help them. Still, keep your old chin up, Shun. Don't forget, you, that th' Brook's still a-flowin'."

“Yes, Dad, thee bist right. Th' Brook's still a-flowin', you, everything will be all right."

The guns opened up nearby and we went down to the Dugout. Our turn was soon to come.


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