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Open Features: James McNeil, aged 12 – His Story - Part 1

In this story Betty McKay gets inside the head of a 12-year-old diarist.

18th September, 1940

Last week in the middle of our history lesson Mr. Howe asked how many of us kept a diary, and nobody did. He said we lived in what he called, stirring times, and what happened now was very important in our lives and our future. Keeping a diary is an ‘aide-mémoire’. He wrote that on the blackboard.

Then he started talking about the war and Dunkirk. He wanted to know what we knew about it. I told him about going down to the Peninsular Barracks on Saturday, the 15th June, which was the day the soldiers arrived back in Warrington.

My dad said it was called Operation Dynamo. Mr. Howe said the South Lancs were lucky, because the 1st and 5th Battalions were amongst the first to be evacuated from the beaches. He told us that back in 1914 he had enlisted in the South Lancs.

We call Mr. Howe ‘Daddy Howe’ because he is so old. All the young teachers, the men that is, have joined up. We have three new teachers, two women and Mr. Howe.

Gerry Swan told us that his dad used to be in Mr. Howe’s class when he went to school and that Mr. Howe won the Military Medal in the last lot. His dad said we ought to have a bit more respect for Mr. Howe, so we dropped the ‘Daddy’.

It was funny the Saturday the soldiers came back. All the girl took their autograph books along to get the soldiers’ signatures, just as if they were famous film stars. They were very brown and healthy looking, as if they’d come back from their holidays.

When I told my dad, he said, “Some holiday, poor sods. It was a bloody defeat and no picnic. They’ve been through hell.” I didn’t tell Mr. Howe that; I expect he realised that already.

Anyway my dad was in the First World War, and he’s probably even older than Mr. Howe. He’s been retired for five years. Dad was in the Coldstream Guards in the First World War.

Rob, my brother, is in the Army. He’s in Egypt with the Guards Brigade, stationed in Cairo. He doesn’t tell us much in his letters, except how hot he feels all the time and what a filthy place Cairo is. I know he drives a light armoured car. Dad says he isn’t allowed to say much, else he’ll be censored.

I used to share this room with Rob. It’s all mine now, and it’s great having a room of my own and no one to boss me about.

I found a load of Rob’s Lilliput and Health and Efficiency magazines stashed away in his cupboard. He’d be hopping mad if he knew I’d been looking at all his nudey tarts, with their big bums and wobbly bits.

I didn’t realise I was going to write so much. It’s like talking to somebody without them telling me to shut up, and I really enjoy it. I can say anything I like, just so long as I find somewhere safe to hide it, and I know exactly where – at the back of the boiler in the airing cupboard.

2nd October, 1940

This morning Mum said that she’s going to decorate my bedroom, and I could help her. She said these days you can’t get new wallpaper for love or money.

Mrs. Jackson told her about something called stippling. First you paint the walls with emulsion. Then with a special sponge you dab another colour over it and it looks like new wallpaper. She said I could do the dotted bits; then I would feel like it was really my room.

Dad’s got himself a job; he’s working for the man in charge of all the barrage balloons at Padgate Camp. He’s something called a batman. He made it sound very important.

Mum said, “In a pig’s ear,” but anything that gets him out from underneath her feet was a good job as far as she was concerned.

He brought home a scrumptious chocolate cake with his first week’s wages. The lady in the camp canteen makes them.

Somehow I don’t think this is the sort of thing I should be putting in my diary. It has nothing to do with the war, and not very much is happening. Perhaps this is what people mean when they talk about the phoney war.

Mr. Tomlinson, our choirmaster at Saint Alban’s, gave me a solo last Sunday. I sang Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze. I don’t like doing solos. I find them embarrassing.

Mum said I should be proud to have been chosen and wouldn’t I like to be a singer when I grow up, like Nelson Eddy. I told her, “No fear. I want to be a footballer, like Stanley Matthews or Dixie Dean.”


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