Post-war England childhood
Essay by David George Ball, James City

After we won the war against Germany I thought we would soon get a new school, Dad would get a new church, and life would improve. The Labour Party swept Winston Churchill out of office and the new prime minister, Clement Atlee, promised a “New Jerusalem.” But life didn’t get better. Mum still cut up the news - paper into little squares for us to use as toilet paper. We received ration books for food and clothes, but often the butcher had no meat. Sometimes in the chill of
David Ball in front, with his brother behind him.
winter Dad would say, “We won’t have a fire tonight. We’re almost out of coal.” Dad borrowed Granny Hadley’s car to drive us to Sunny Bank in the Cotswolds, where my grandfather raised a few beef cattle and fowls, kept a cow for milking, and cut his wheat by hand with a scythe. One unforgettable Saturday at Sunny Bank, after noticing a rabbit sitting in the middle of a field nibbling on the lush grass, Dad had a brilliant idea. He whispered, “Stay perfectly still. I’ll come around from the other side.” He advanced stealthily along the hedge and stunned his quarry with a heavy stick. When we arrived home he skinned the rabbit and put it in a pot to cook with potatoes, onions, carrots and peas. Everyone loved rabbit stew. We hadn’t had meat for weeks.

We had a tradition of gathering at Sunny Bank with Dad’s family once a year on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas. Jonathan and I escaped from Mum’s control for secret pranks with our cousins. Steam billowed from the kitchen where grand father’s wife, whom we called Auntie Gracie, conjured up beetroots, potatoes, carrots, peas, turkey, and Christmas pudding. She exclaimed, “What a blessing!” The linoleum ran with condensation. We took off our shoes and skated in our socks down the hallway screaming with laughter until it was time to squash into the small
dining room. We gasped with excitement when Grandfather, who was a teetotaler, poured brandy over the Christmas pudding and lighted it with a match. We pleaded for large portions, knowing the pudding was stuffed with silver thruppenny bits. Then full of high spirits, we headed for the bluebell wood to cut holly and mistletoe for home.

The only other time Mum didn’t tell me what to do occurred when we visited Dad’s sister, Auntie Vera, and Uncle Gerald at Kington Mead Farm, near Thornbury. We delighted in the company of their children Roger and Carol, but most of all we admired their daredevil son John. The moment we arrived Jonathan and I piled out of the car and yelled, “Where’s John?” Auntie Vera often replied, “I just sent him out to mark the lines of the tennis court.” But he had gone. Our cousin seemed to disappear just before we got there. We found him bird nesting or shooting magpies with his air rifle or once kissing a girl behind the summer house. Several times Auntie Vera exclaimed in desperation, “Go and find John and whatever he is doing tell him to stop.” She sent him to Exeter Cathedral to sing as a choirboy, but at the end of the school year he returned just as naughty and as lovable as ever. We followed him like the Pied Piper through the rich smell of cow manure in the yard, where the cattle waited for milking, to the world of freedom and adventure beyond the gate.

During harvest Dad helped Uncle Gerald pile sheaves of wheat onto the hay wagon in Gully field near Thornbury Castle. Jonathan and I perched on top of the sheaves while the horses clip-clopped back to the barn. Dad took two sheaves of wheat to use at the Harvest Festival at our church in Gloucester. The folks from the city council houses surrounding the chapel didn’t have much money, but they brought the best produce from their tiny gardens: the largest marrows, the longest cucumbers, the reddest tomatoes and the most luscious apples and plums. Dad placed their gifts on a trestle table in front of the pulpit. He added some eggs from our fowls, and at each end of the table he stood the sheaves of wheat. The congregation belted out one of my favorite hymns with conviction:

We plough the fields and scatter The good seed on the land, But it is fed and watered By an Almighty hand. The seedtime and the harvest The sweet refreshing rain Are sent by God our father Who gives us food and grain.

After the service, Dad took the produce to the homes of the most needy families.

David George Ball of James City received his bachelor’s degree from Yale in 1960 and his law degree from Columbia University in 1964. He served as assistant secretary of Labor 1989-93.