Just before Christmas, I found myself watching The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, on TV. Nice CGI, fiesty female leads, children doing grown-up things (instead of much of modern film showing grownups acting like children).
What struck me was the timeshift at the end: the four children, hotfoot from a major battle in Narnia, step through a magic portal back into wartime London.
The Underground, filled with ARPs and darkness, the children in school uniform carrying gas masks. The London of air raids and the Blitz, of missing parents or siblings fighting a war more real and more close than anything Narnia might hold. A city under siege, with no end in sight. More terrifying than an enchanted forest and an army of monsters.
This ending, with its abrupt slip from greenery and fantasy into a country at war, set me thinking.
My parents lived under German bombing raids.
My father’s house was flattened and his family had only the possessions they’d taken into the bomb shelter – the clothes on their backs, the change in their pockets, the baby in its pram and my father barely out of nappies. For a brief while my mother was an evacuee, and she remembered the bonfire at the end of the street on VE Day with an effigy of Hitler ablaze on top.
When I was born they brought me home to a bombed-out suburb. If I’d grown up there my playground would have been rubble and bomb craters and the clearances of condemned housing.
Instead, us kids played in fields and forests. But every time an aircraft flew overhead, we’d hide “from the Germans”, although the plane was more likely a charter heading for one of the Inner Hebrides. Along with cowboys & indians and the Famous Five, the family memories of bombing raids permeated our games.
I’m probably one of the last generations to remember this. My playmates were a few years older, with older siblings, who’d been children in the Sixties when the memory of wartime and rationing were still strong.
Och, even when I started primary school our textbooks were all tainted by the Second World War:
It’s more real to me than the wars fought since by Britain, except perhaps the Troubles, which were as much a part of my upbringing as the threat of imminent nuclear destruction during the Cold War.
What struck me about the Narnia film especially was how frightening it must have been for everyone, not just children, living under siege in wartime Britain. Blackouts darkened the streets, and those who carried lanterns hid their glow from open sight. The long dark nights of winter must have felt quite threatening.
My childhood games were safe – we knew the war was over. Even C S Lewis writing in 1950 knew how it all turned out.
There was a happy ending, for some.
But while the war went on, there was no certainty. Nobody knew how it would end, or when.
Instead the struggle continued – on all sides – and people bore up, or suffered, or caved in. But not to know that you were safe? Not to know that your home would still be there when you rose up out of the shelter in the morning, when the raids were over, the streets obliterated by the rubble of their own construction? To walk through darkened streets with only the lanterns of your fellow wanderers to light your way?
My childhood forty years ago was closer to the Second World War than that childhood is to today. In those forty years or so, the certainties which seemed so strong have been eroded, and continue to disappear, and strange new worlds have taken their place.
This electronic realm is almost close to Narnia – a step away from the real world, into the imagination, away from everyday troubles. We use this realm of the imagination to escape our cold realities. We tell stories to allow ourselves happy endings, even when there’s little hope in sight.
And we look for other lanterns in the darkness, to know we’re not alone.