Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Fireweed by Jill Paton Walsh

published 1969, set in autumn 1940

D 1678Remember? I can still smell it. I met her in the Aldwych Underground Station, at half past six in the morning, when people were busily rolling up their bedding, and climbing out to see how much of the street was left standing. There were no lavatories down there, and with houses going down like ninepins every night there was a shortage of baths in London just then, and the stench of the Underground was appalling. I noticed, as I lurked around, trying to keep inconspicuous, that there was someone else doing the same. I was lurking because I wanted to stay in the warm for as long as possible, without being one of the very last out, in case any busybody asked me tricky questions. And there was this girl, as clearly as anything, lurking too.

D 12199

[He makes friends with the girl, Julie, and they decide to join forces]

I looked at her doubtfully. ‘You’d stick out like a sore thumb in that posh dress,’ I said. ‘We’d have to get you something a bit raggedy.’

‘How could we do that?’ she asked.

D 14836‘From the Salvation Army Mission. They got me this jacket when the weather went cold. They don’t ask too much, either. The only trouble is, all their stuff’s too big.’ And I pulled at my jacket, to show her how far in front of my chest it buttoned up.

She laughed. ‘Bill, you could get two of you in there, easily,’ she said. Then she began to giggle. ‘And wait till I tell Mother. She said this dress would do to go anywhere!’

observations I’d never heard of this book until recently: I was discussing books set in WW2 with new friend the writer Lissa Evans, and she was shocked that I didn’t know this one. And rightly so: it is a complete gem, a small perfect book about young people at large in London during the blitz. Bill and Julie each have their own reasons to be adrift, and they link up and start to operate together: sleeping in the shelters at night, picking up casual work in the day. Eventually they manage to make a kind of home in the cellar of a bombed-out house: and their fake family life is extended to include a much younger lost child. But of course this cannot last.

It’s a short book, the story told with great economy, but full of implications and subtleties. Julie is obviously from a much posher family than Bill’s, and there is some mutual incomprehension. Bill is 15, Julie is of similar age but I don’t think that is specified. Sometimes the two are like children – there is a great moment when Julie is describing being on a ship that was attacked and sunk:
‘it was torpedoed in the middle of the Atlantic…’
‘You were on that [ship]? What was it like?’
‘Not so much fun as it sounds.’

And sometimes they seem much older.
All around us death and ruin rained out of the sky. We saw it everywhere, and we were afraid like everybody else, and yet it cast no shadow in our hearts.
There are amazing descriptions of air-raids on London, and on the sights that meet their eyes the next day, and there are black jokes:
I can still remember a toothless old man saying, ‘Talk about laugh! She paid into the insurance for years to be buried proper, and it took them three days to dig her out!’
You can read the book pretty much in one sitting, and it is mesmerising, and tremendously affecting. Afterwards the occasional question arises – I couldn’t work out the timeframe at all, how long they were together, though external events put it at a few weeks just. Later (after the main story is finished) Bill says:
That was the night of November the twenty-third; the first night for fifty-seven nights that there were no raids on London at all.
-- and that shocked me: despite all my reading about the era, I hadn’t realized that the raids were so unremitting at that time.

There is an introduction to my edition by writer Lucy Mangan, who loved the book – but who once met author Jill Paton Walsh and was told firmly that the book was juvenilia, and that JPW did not like it much any more. It’s a funny but sad anecdote: and Mangan concludes that the rest of us can carry on loving and admiring and enjoying the book…

The top picture is, exactly, people sleeping in the shelter at Aldwych. It is used by kind permission of the Imperial War Museum, © IWM (D 1678): the caption reads ‘Shelterers sleep along the walls of the passageway leading from the lifts to the platform at a London Underground station, probably Aldwych, in November 1940. The shelterers lie on thin mattresses and suitcases have been used to partition off areas...’

The young boy is also from the IWM, © IWM (D 12199).

The young woman is in a utility dress, also from the IWM collection, © IWM (D 14836).

Jill Paton Walsh’s continuation of the Lord Peter Wimsey books featured on the blog here


  1. I'm so pleased you loved it - and what an interesting anecdote about the author! It makes me realise that I have never read any of her adult fiction and only one other of her books for children (The Dolphin Crossing - another set during WW2).
    The relentlessness of the bombing had one tiny advantage - people actually got used to it in a peculiar kind of way, and built it into their nightly routine. There are many accounts of how much more of a strain it wast during the early months of 1942, when the bombing became intermittent, and heavily linked to either moonlit nights, or retaliation for raids on Germany (so you would hear about the raid on the wireless in the morning, and know that you were 'in for it' that night....)

    1. Such an extraordinary time. My parents were in Liverpool then, which was also badly bombed: the stories are amazing.
      I read a couple of JPW's adult novels, and enjoyed them in varying degrees. She writes in a lot of different genres.

    2. Oh God, I meant 1941. Duh.

  2. Another that I guess I would enjoy if I ever read it, but probably won't.

  3. This sounds like a good read, Moira. I think a lot of people don't really know just how difficult it was for civilians during those days of the Blitz. And the perspective of young people like that just seems intriguing. Shame Paton Walsh later decided she didn't like this one.

    1. Yes, it has a real authentic feel, I think it was very well-researched. An excellent way for young people to read about the topic.

  4. I highly recommend The Dolphin Crossing, which is based around Dunkirk. Also A Parcel of Patterns, about the plague in Eyam (Derbyshire), and Chance Child, which is a very odd time-slippy book about neglected children.

    1. Thanks, 2nd vote for Dolphin Crossing. I have read quite a few books by JPW, but none of those, I will seek them out.

  5. Hmmm, I will have to try some of her books. This one does sound very good. I have only read a couple of the continuation books of the Peter Wimsey series.

    1. She has such a range - there was a children's picture book about Grannys that my children loved when they were little. I have become increasingly unimpressed with the Wimsey books, but I love some of her others.

  6. her Imogen quy books are my favourites

    1. Thanks Karen - I have read one of them, and liked it very much.