One and a half million children were evacuated from London and housed in the country in two days. The evacuee child with its gas mask round its neck and the luggage label so particularly distressing to modern sensibilities, is a familiar image, but perhaps more credit is due to the organisation of Operation Pied Piper which went into action on 1 September 1939. In the light of recent events in New Orleans it begins to seem a miracle of planning and execution.
According to Jessica Mann’s preface to this reissue of Barbara Noble’s 1946 novel about the emotional consequences of evacuation, an Evacuation Sub-Committee was established as early as 1931, in anticipation of chaos. Newsreels of bombing in Manchuria, Abyssinia and later Guernica, had prepared people for the worst. Mann quotes Bertrand Russell: ‘London will become one vast raving bedlam, the hospitals will be stormed, traffic will cease, the homeless will cry out for peace…’.
The aim was to ensure that ‘the children of the poor should have the same chance of safety as those whose parents could afford to make their own arrangements for escape’. Not much thought was given to possible psychological damage, especially, as Mann points out, since the planners were middle-class men who sent their own children off to boarding school at seven. But one memo from the Ministry of Health, amazingly, did question whether ‘separation might not involve greater risks than air-raids’ , and it is exactly this possibility that Noble addresses.
It is a gentle, serious story in which, rather disconcertingly, everybody behaves well. Doreen, aged nine, is a docile little girl who has been strictly reared by her grim but devoted mother. Mrs Rawlings works as a charwoman, is fiercely high-principled but cannot bear to part with Doreen though she knows she should. When the Blitz comes she is persuaded to send her to live with the Osbournes, a youngish, childless, middle-class couple in the country. Mrs Osbourne longs for a child of her own. Fortunately Doreen is not, as her name might suggest, an amalgam of Evelyn Waugh’s Doris and Marlene in Put Out More Flags. Faced with a pretty house and garden, her reaction is not Doris’s horrified ‘Jesus, you aren’t going to leave us here’: she blossoms; the Osbournes grow to love her in no time, and she them. She gets on with other children in the village. Mrs Rawlings comes to stay for Christmas, but although the potentially excruciating awkwardness of such a situation is not ignored we are more aware of the sensitivity, forbearance and mutual respect shown by all parties in this tug-of-love.
The crisis — if so mild a story can be said to have such a thing — comes when Doreen’s renegade father turns up and on a drunken whim carries her off to London. It looks for a moment as if a genuinely sinister character has turned up to add a bit if bite, but he too behaves well after a dodgy start.
At the end of the book a decision must be made as to where Doreen’s best interests lie. Can Mrs Rawlings bear to leave her in the country, thriving but acquiring ‘ideas above her station’, or will she risk bringing her back to London? Barbara Noble’s argument is scrupulously fair; she is observant, sensitive and intelligent but in seeking to establish sympathy for both parties simultaneously she forfeits something in the way of a good story. The book has endpapers taken from a 1940 silk scarf ‘London Alert’ — a curiously frivolous memento of the air-raids.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 8, 2005