Who’s Herr Hitler?” I remember asking my father. I was ten in 1938 and this mad-eyed man with the boot polish black hair and the small moustache had begun to show up regularly in the papers. He was always in military uniform with his hand stretched out flat in front of him. “A right boyo” my father responded “and he’s only warming up……he has poor Chamberlain by the short hairs…… “ I had another question: “Why is he always called Herr Hitler – is it like John, or Joseph?” My father threw back his head with a sceptical laugh. “Begod it’s not. It means Mister. And we have to call him that while he’s still respectable. But it won’t be for long!”
It wasn’t for long: less than a year. I remember exactly what I was doing when I heard that a World War had started on September 3rd 1939. A major step into modern life had taken place in our area: The first public telephone box had been installed at the bottom of our avenue. I had never used a telephone so far. I stepped into the booth on my way to Mass, with time to spare, and read the instructions carefully. I didn’t want to lose my twopence so I put it in and pressed Button B and retrieved it over and over again. I consulted the telephone directory to see what famous people were in it. Suddenly I became aware of a furious red-faced man waving at me through the glass. When I emerged in confusion he roared at me: “What are you at! Don’t you know there’s a bloody war on?
Halfway through Mass the priest interrupted the proceedings to tell us that Britain had just declared war on Germany, and when we spilled out of the church there was already a Stop Press newsboy in Aughrim Street flapping a big poster with WAR! in huge black letters on it. Back home my father was crouched over the wireless in the hall, his hand raised to prevent interruption. Through the hiss of interference I heard the cracked voice of Neville Chamberlain: “The undertaking the British Government has required from Herr Hitler has not been received and consequently Britain is now at war with Germany.”
Going to be fitted for our gas masks was great fun or frightening depending on which generation you belonged to. We were all summoned to the local national school and kitted out with tin snouts fastened tightly around our heads with wide straps. The snouts ended in a big pair of celluloid goggles pressed so close to your eyes that your lashes brushed against them. The children circled round each other hooting with laughter at the alien look of their pals. The small ones, frightened, refused to try them on at all and nobody had the heart to enforce it. Each gas mask packed into a cardboard box with a strap and you were supposed to carry it with you at all times. All of ours went on the top of the kitchen dresser and I never remember them coming down again.
The deterioration in the daily menu was the dreariest thing about the war. They said that people were never healthier but everything sweet or succulent seemed to vanish: chocolate, oranges, bananas, cakes, biscuits, tinned fruit, jams, jellies. Bread steadily darkened as an increasingly higher proportion of the wheat was left in the milling – eventually flecks of chaff were showing up in your slice. Butter was rationed to two ounces per person per week (one pound for our entire family) so various nauseating toppings were substituted: margarine, meat flavoured spreads, jam made from turnips and fake banana from mashed parsnips and banana essence. The ration of tea was half an ounce a week, so the potful of weak straw coloured liquid had a little tablet of brown vegetable dye added to delude people into tasting it as strong tea. “Rationing” is a mean word, my father used to say with dislike.
There were potatoes, vegetables, meat, poultry, eggs, milk in plenty so nobody was ever actually hungry. I was affronted one morning to be offered a breakfast of fried potatoes and a slice of cold beef – I had nothing against either dish but my stomach shouted in protest “This isn’t breakfast, it’s dinner!” We fantasised over the departed delicacies like people in jail.
Improvisations got clever. At Christmas there were no sultanas or raisins for the cake so dried prunes, carrots and apples were minced up to pass for the fruit and more brown colouring to capture the nostalgia of real Christmas cake. Lashings of Guinness were used to make up for deficiencies of flavour. People skimmed the creamy top off their milk and beat it up with gelatine and called it butter. There was ice-cream, because there was milk, but no cones or wafer biscuits so the wedge of ice-cream was handed across the counter in a little overcoat of paper. While the supply of imported things was slowly drying up – a process that took some time – luxuries like chocolate and cigarettes were stealthily released to the shops’ best customers: it became a matter of prudence, not just loyalty, to stick with one shop even if it was two miles away.
Loyalty would be rewarded with a bar of Cadbury’s milk about one visit in five. The smokers, more desperate, would have a wide beat of “regular” shops in which they might flush out two or three single cigarettes per shop. The streets steadily emptied of cars as petrol disappeared for everyone except crucial people like taxis and doctors. The trams continued to ply – they were driven by electricity – but the bicycle became the most coveted object in the life of anyone who wanted to keep moving. Tyres and tubes were patched and repatched. Until the wheel was studded with little hard lesions which kept hopping the bike off the road.
The most memorable rationing was that of gas: it spawned a new Dublin character called the Glimmer man. The cooker jets sprang to life at the orthodox eating hours of breakfast, dinnertime, teatime, but within two minutes of the specified shut off time the flames had dwindled to a candle flicker. This was called the Glimmer. It existed only because of the technical impossibility of emptying the gas pipes completely between the authorised doses. The Glimmer Man was an inspector sent around by the gas company to flush out the unpatriotic offenders who were trying to make a cup of tea on this feeble flame.
In the interests of safety, the gas company asserted. Dubliners called it pure bloody-mindedness. The Glimmer Man’s job was to check for suspiciously warm kettles and burners and issue a summons to the offenders. Collecting the evidence was simplicity itself. There was no embarrassing interrogation. He just put a hand on the burner to see was it still warm. But with a strange naiveté he travelled around on a bright yellow bicycle- the gas companys’ trademark colour- so the grapevine was usually well ahead of him.
My primary school released me at three o’clock, a no-gas period. The older ones had already been home in the conventional lunch hour, the preschoolers were at hand whenever the food was. My mother would cater for my hot dinner by plunging a couple of huge potatoes into the heart of the ash pit under the kitchen range. They slumbered in there for a couple of hours. When they were tonged out, on my arrival, their jackets were swollen, rock-hard, singed in spots, white with ash. (Aluminium foil hadn’t been invented) Split open – it took our heftiest knife – their floury innards steamed fragrantly and were soft as cake. A dollop of butter, a spray of salt and pepper: heaven in the mouth. My taste buds anticipated the forked up crumbly potato swirled in the melted butter all the way up Prussia Street.
That would fortify me sufficiently to face doing my homework on a copybook that had the same texture as lavatory paper. Like the bread, paper was adulterated to make it go farther, when the paper pulp stopped coming in from Sweden. These were the pre-Biro days and we used Waverly nibs and liquid ink. A generous dip in the ink bottle would produce a spreading pattern on the soft beige paper which showed little hairs of straw at the edges. Even the most careful work could come out looking like the cat walked over it. It was no comfort that everyone else’s would look just as bad.