On writing These Days.
As a toddler, my son was obsessed with Janet & Alan Ahlberg’s Peepo! It’s a day in the life of a baby, but in the background is the London Blitz: bombed-out buildings, a Zeppelin. Night after night I thought how, in our bedroom, part of a converted Victorian warehouse in East London, we would have survived the entire Blitz: but safety could be measured in metres, maybe even inches: the rest of the once-adjoining buildings on the street had been flattened.
I started to think that there’d been a Belfast Blitz, too: I remembered my grandma talking about it, her brothers scrambling up the Black Mountain in search of shrapnel. To my surprise – as if the later obliteration of the Troubles had superseded that Belfast – the only fiction I could find was Brian Moore’s The Emperor of Ice-Cream.
But it was just about in living memory. I began speaking to people who’d lived through the Blitz as children, teenagers – even one woman in the year of her 103rd birthday. This was the spring of 2020, and with Covid 19 closing in, my quest took on a new urgency: capturing these stories before they were lost.
In that first lockdown, I wrote with an intensity I can barely describe. The Belfast Blitz consisted of four aerial raids in April-May 1941 which caused some of the greatest devastation and mass casualties of any bombings in the UK, and which people did not think the city could ever come back from.
Surfacing, I’d wonder what my children, then 5 and 2, would remember. Then I’d think of what the Belfast Blitz survivors were telling me. About the day the greengrocer had oranges in, or the new dress made for the scorched doll snatched from flames. The unexpected ride in a motorcar – the joy amid the horror.
Because life does go on. No-one who lived through that time, or these Covid years, remains unchanged. But you don’t get another chance to turn fifteen, or six – to have your first baby – first kiss. As MacNeice puts it in the poem that gives my book its title: These days, though lost, will be all your days. These are our days, and they are all we have, infinitely precious, and we must fill them with as much life and love as we can.