by Rodney Hall
Popeye is, of course, Popeye Doyle who eats his spinach is as strong as strong.
The Popeye in this case is a memoir of the author’s early childhood in England during the Second World War. The story is told from the little boy’s point of view with spelling and punctuation to match. The breathless tone of a five year old narrating his day to day existence is extremely well written and comes across with a veracity that make you feel like you are in the room with him. The war is almost incidental, an afterthought in Rodney’s story that almost, but not quite, belays the danger and anxiety that beset the small boy. But it is always in the background and provides the narrative for the way Rodney and his Mother, brother Michael and sister Diana lived. So, although we have an account of a long-gone childhood in England, we also have the Hall family hiding under the piano during a bombing raid, a trip to the theatre interrupted by an air raid, an incendiary bomb scoring a direct hit on the shed in the garden and setting it alight, barrage balloons, American soldier, rationing and billeting.
“Mike heaves the window down to slam it shut, and Di comes running across the carpet just in time to see the whole town change into black chimneys and glass flashes and this one WOW! comes so close i duck and the windows rattle and i see weird rooms over there like bright toilets and rooms with cupboards and enormous shadows flicker on the wallpaper, but im not afraid because Mikes here and im going to be a sailor anyway! and a puff of smoke drifts past in front of everything but i press my nose against the mesh,
‘BKHHHURR!’ i shout back at the explosion,
and the din is terrific with the air raid sirens wailing as well,”
So begins Rodney’s tale at age five. What follows is a mad rush to close the blackout curtains, push the sofa over towards the piano to create a shelter where they huddle until the raid is over and the all clear sounds.
The voice Hall uses is a little disconcerting to begin with but once you begin to get into the book, it ceases to annoy and becomes enchanting. The breathless excitement of a small boy recounting his story sweeps you along until the reader no longer notices the punctuation and writing style. What unfolds instead is an little boy facing life’s challenges that are far more daunting than an air-raid: beginning school, making friends, handling bullies, a first attempt at stealing and the guilty feelings and terror that are a consequent of the act of daring do, the excitement of first tasting an orange at Christmas, and the many adventures around his immediate environment that can delight and terrorise a small boy.
Rodney and his older brother Mike and sister Di have a large amount of freedom to wander at will as they explore their town and the surrounding countryside. They find forbidden adventure in an abandoned flour mill knowing full well they shouldn’t be in there as they demonstrate the complete lack of danger that is apparent in young children. That the rusty old staircases in the silo could collapse as they play their war games simply doesn’t occur to them.
“are we allowed? i ask,
‘shut up and stay in the shadow of the all’ Mike whispers ‘so no one can see you!’
but im already squashed right up close to it and squatting under the TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED sign,
‘whats prosecuted, Mike?’
‘chased and caught’ he says,
and the terror jumps out at me, like theres big men in hats all rushing to to catch us,’
Who can ever forget the terror and bravery of a forbidden childhood undertaking?
And yet, when caught outside while bombers fly over, their sense of danger is apparent. even when Rodney argues with Mike and wishes a bomb would fall on his bossy big brother!
Hall’s extended family includes Gran.
“and Gran tells me the big picture in her room is an oil painting but i reckon its a few cows flopping in the shade under a knobby tree.”
“so Gran complains about money all the time but when she wants us kids to run errands or when she wants us to give her kisses she bribes us with pennies and sometimes threepences and she gives the best hugs because of the way she catches hold of you to squeeze you against her and her cheeks are soft and puffy and i like kissing them and i can smell cooking smells…”
Gran may be an irascible old lady to the rest of the family but Rodney has her worked out.
But for the young Rodney, a place called ‘Kangaroo Valley’ holds all the mystery and mythology a young boy can dream of. Rodney’s dreams encompass a time and place to go to to escape the war, it offers a dream destination for a small boy feeling miffed with his family and harbouring a desire and intention to run away from home.
(Rodney’s description of what he imagines Kangaroo Valley to be like has a particular resonance with me as I do, in fact, live near there and have know it well.)
Popeye never told you is a story of childhood innocence – not that Rodney and his compatriots were innocent little darlings by any means. It was a time when childhood innocence could watch a stricken bomber go overhead in a crash drive and marvel at the the sight but with a total unawareness of the consequent destruction. It was a time when you could revile the enemy at large but the enemy closer to you, and with a greater impact on you, was that of twin bullies you encountered on a day to day basis.
It was a time when adults told you what they thought you should be told but not what you wanted to hear and wanted to know. For instance, why was Uncle Ralph handed a white feather by a strange lady?
Author: Rodney Hall
Title: Popeye Never Told You: Childhood Memories of the War
Publisher: Pier 9, (Murdoch Books) 2010