It’s a very small world that I record: geographically that is. I’m back in Waitrose car park. Mrs L and I were there on the day after St Stephen’s Day – St John the Evangelist’s Day – and there we watched a 1936 open-topped Bentley sweep in. It was much loved, much polished, half as long as a cricket pitch. I know the year of its manufacture because I spoke to the owner. The car is barely a year younger than I am but in much better condition…
The reason I spoke to the owner was that my eye fixed on its number plate. It had a JY registration. Once again – perhaps I work this vein too much – I was back in wartime. Before hostilities broke out my family lived in Plymouth and owned a car. It was the first one my parents had and it was an Austin 10. I remember riding in it. It was brand new and I can remember the summer-warm smell of its interior to this day, with its invitation to explore and find beaches, and harbour walls to enjoy. My father, a factory manager and reasonably prosperous in those perilous times, had stopped smoking to pay for it.
But the war came and his factory was bombed to the ground. And then he was called up into the Army and my mother and I moved to West London to live with my grandma ‘for the duration’.
My father had told me that his Austin 10 had a JY number, because it was registered in Plymouth. My infant mind, I now realise, had mourned the loss of its Devon paradise, and in those suburban streets I looked out for any car with a JY number, just to experience a taste of ‘home’. There were few cars about – because of the war – and I never saw one from Devon. I had not seen one until yesterday, 60-odd years later.
I spoke to the driver of the Bentley. ‘Did your car begin its life in Plymouth?’ I asked him. He wasn’t sure but maybe it was from Devon, and he understood its first owner had been a Naval officer…
This reminded me of a book of poems, ‘Coming Home from Sea’ by Priscilla Napier, who lived in Plymouth. Her husband, a Naval captain died in 1940 from a disease contracted after 11 sleepless days on the bridge, chasing U Boats. Maybe she had a premonition but perhaps she also saw beyond that. It might have been only an instinct at the time. But in a poem at the start of the war, when she was 31 or 32 years old she wrote:
‘A part of us has crossed the deadly waters,/The storms, the seas of ice,/And the long deserts of our separation/To drink at last at the immortal wells.’
The final poem in this collection ends with his imagined return (1998):
‘And you, the man in prime, home from the sea,/with lengthened stride crossing the market place,/’I wonder,now, who that old woman was?’/So he would muse. ‘I seem to know her face.’