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Uncle George's free London bus and tube travel

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posted on 2024-06-05, 18:59 authored by Their Finest Hour Project Team

When some people talk of their WWII experience I'm reminded of a wonderful line from the novel 'Creation' by Gore Vidal, set in Greece and Persia, in the year B.C. 445:

"All over Greece, strangers of a certain age will greet one another with the question, 'Where were you and what did you do [at the Battle of] Marathon?' Then they exchange lies."

I was born seven years after WWII, and neither my dad, nor his five brothers ever made any pretence of heroism or derring-do. They definitely adhered to that fine old North London working-class tradition of only doing anything you were told to do when you could no longer avoid it. Not exactly shirkers and evaders, but there were certainly no volunteers for armed service amongst my uncles. You'd get the call-up if they want you - no point looking for trouble, is there? So, one by one, they got called up. Nobody complained. Nobody did cartwheels of joy either.

During those interminable (to a child) Boxing Day and Easter holiday family gatherings throughout the 50s and 60s - small, smoke-filled living rooms, packed the gunnels with old, grey men and women - the child you were was only dimly aware of what was talked about by the grown-ups. War reminiscences often cropped up but when they did I mainly recall a sense of fatalistic making-do in the midst of an overarching boredom and hard grind, interspersed with bombings, dislocation, and general inconvenience.

That said, my child's ears picked up on one story my Uncle George related, which I'll present in something like his own words:

"I'd gone into my Staff Sergeant's office and he weren't there. But on his desk there was this whole pile of blank travel warrant cards [servicemen could travel free on public transport, in the line of normal duty requirements]. Well I thought, there's that many here, he won't miss a few will he? So I grabbed a load, scrawled something in all the authorisation boxes, flogged a few round my unit and kept most for myself. In the next couple of years I never paid once on the bus or tube! The one spot of bother I had was one day on the bus to Wood Green, and this MP (Military Policeman) got on. I shows him my card, he looks at it and says, 'Who's this authorising officer? I can't make it out.' For a minute I thought I was in dead schtook, but what I said to him was, 'To be honest I don't really know. The thing is he's one of them new Polish officers that's come over here, and he's got one of them funny long foreign names . . .' Anyway, this MP looks at me and he says, 'Oh yeah, know what you mean. We've got a couple of them in our lot.'

That was a close one, but I got out of it, didn't I!"

That sort of thing was my personal 'Boys' Own Guide to WWII' - Just trying to stay alive, get by, and maybe make a couple of bob where you can.

Around the same period I would've been devouring 'Captain Hurricane' and his like in the 'Valiant' comic, and happily applauding his single-handed demolitions of entire German Panzer Divisions every week! But I don't recall experiencing any disconnect between these and the sorts of real-life narratives I was picking up from my dad, Uncle George and the other grown-ups in my young life. Was I a wise and discriminating child? I don't know, but I'm grateful I've grown-up without having bought into any fantasies about British 'exceptionalism' and/or invincibility. The ghost of Uncle George has made sure of that!

Of course things aren't as black and white as I've just painted them. Dunkirk and the D-Day landings needed heroism on a personal and industrial scale. But people aren't 2-dimensional heroes or cowards. On different days and in different situations they might be either, and everything else in-between. My Uncle George was not one of the thousands involved in these heroic enterprises. Had he been so, I'm sure he'd have shown the courage they all did. And I'm equally sure that he was very glad and relieved to, instead, be riding London Transport free of charge through WWII.


Person the story/items relate to

George Carpenter

Person who shared the story/items

Richard Carpenter

Relationship between the subject of the story and its contributor

He was my uncle

Type of submission

Shared online via the Their Finest Hour project website.

Record ID