A lasting influence

by Phoebe Spence, Stockport

This is one of a series of pieces written by members and staff from NFPB, reflecting on how the second world war shaped them, their families, and thinking and action for peace

I was born in 1952, and have a ration book in my name. Eating up all the food on your plate, not wasting food, preserving food – they were all there from the start (inherent sustainability for me). ‘Make do and mend’ was also part of my childhood in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, which was one of the New Towns after the war. So many Londoners moved there, where there were new houses with gardens and new facilities built amongst the former villages. I felt it was quite an equitable place to grow up and the houses were generally similar, and with good provision of services for all. I did not encounter class/wealth differences until later. The post war welfare state was embodied there, for everyone’s benefit. Will our current crisis engender such a response?

Inspiration from parents

My dad was a committed Christian. Influenced by his headmaster at school who had been a conscientious objector (CO) in WW1, he went to a tribunal to register himself as a CO. He had visited both France and Germany just before the war, one of his arguments was that he would not kill German people for the actions of their government. He served in the non-combatant corps, cheerfully undertaking tasks such as washing up. But he was ordered to help build a railway which he found out would be used for transporting munitions, so he refused, and ended up in prison sewing mail bags. On release he went into farm work, some of the time at Letchworth, and some on a Steiner farm. He became keen on growing fruit and vegetables, having an allotment, and later choosing a house with a large garden for that purpose. In the army, in prison and on the land he had contact with a wide range of views and beliefs. His book collection reflected this; he joined with Quakers after the war.

Meanwhile my mum, who had worked in the same office as my dad in the civil service, lived at home and volunteered with the Red Cross. They got married during the war, eventually moving to Hemel Hempstead. There they befriended Germans from the local prisoner of war camp, becoming life-long friends. My mum had had two German penfriends from when she was at school – she enjoyed writing letters, but never learnt German. The war halted their correspondence, but she was delighted to hear from both of them after the war, so they resumed their friendship. Both of the women lived in the east, the GDR (German Democratic Republic). So it was quite courageous of my mother to travel there to visit them in late 1960s. I don’t think it was easy for her.

International outlook

So I was very privileged to be brought up by internationally minded parents who had a different experience of the war to many. I was encouraged to learn languages and do international exchanges. I was able to visit my parents prisoner of war friend, and my mothers friends in GDR. It is important to appreciate the different experience of other countries in Europe, and WW2 was significant. I participated in international work-camps, and was later part of the Woodcraft Folk, hosting and participating in international camps and delegations with my children.

As my children were growing up we had family holidays in Germany, visiting friends there, experiencing life behind the Iron Curtain. Although my sons might have preferred to go to Spain like their peers, their interest in Germany stayed with them, and they both worked there. My older son is now married to a German from former GDR, so family and friendship connections continue, with three lovely bilingual grandchildren, aware of cultural differences between England and Germany.

The VE day celebrations, and Brexit, make me realise how my experience of WW2 through my parents was quite different to many. It can be difficult to convey this. The continued military language in everyday life emphasises the deep rooted attachment to the militaristic narrative of recent history which sadly prevails and pervades current thinking.

Other pieces in this series of WW2 reflections

| Seventy five years on | A Complicated Relationship | A necessary war? | A lasting influence |
Personal histories and challenges | A pacifist’s experiences of WW2 and some reflections |

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