Memories: Mary Lawson

Early Days: 1919-1941 by Mary Lawson

Writing in her late 90s, Mary looks back on her childhood and school days on this page before moving on to her BBC years during the war on the following pages. She worked in the recording unit, first at Broadcasting House and then at Maida Vale, and these pages include a first-hand account of using the Marconi-Stille and Philips-Miller machines. The articles were originally written for the newsletter of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and reflect Mary's lifelong love of music.

There has recently been much reminiscing about the Centenary of the First World War. As a music lover and BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra supporter who has lived through 96 of those 100 years, it struck me how much music of all kinds so often evokes vivid recollections of events in my life which occurred decades ago. Everyone likes to imagine their 'Desert Island Disc' choices and I thought my recollections may recall for you perhaps those of your parents or grandparents.

I was born in the North of England in February 1919, three months after the Armistice. My father, wounded with the Durham Light Infantry on the infamous July 1st on the Somme was patched up and returned to France in 1918 with the Notts and Derby regiment and was still there awaiting 'Demob' when I was born, and so it was a neighbour who discovered my mother, a victim of the Flu pandemic, collapsed on the floor with a month old baby in her arms. Luckily unaffected, I spent my first months in the care of my grandmother, a Boswell descendent of the Border Reiver whose family were also 'Seafaring'. She rocked me to sleep nightly with "Blow the Wind Southerly", "Bobby Shafto" and a particular favourite of hers, "White Wings", another song about a boat returning to port, which seems to have disappeared from all memory but mine.

Months later, returned to a civilian school teacher father and a recovered mother, I was surrounded by music. My mother, a pre-war LRAM in Piano and Singing had a good soprano voice and was much in demand for solo parts in Choral and Operatic societies which proliferated in those pre-wireless days. There was an upright Broadwood piano in the 'front parlour' of even the most modest of homes, including ours. Every family get-together for the celebration of birthdays, christenings, engagements etc and at Christmas and New Year would end up with a musical sing-song. We all joined in the choruses of traditional, folk and popular songs from all parts of the UK and the USA. Accompanied by my mother, Uncle Tom, a tenor would show his prowess with "Passing By" or an aria from 'The Bohemian Girl'. Uncle Fred, a baritone, would evoke patriotic fervour with Kipling-esque songs such as "Boots" and "The Road to Mandalay". Every one of us children would have a party piece ready. There were many WW1 widows who eked out a living by giving piano lessons but it was my mother who introduced me to a daily practice of scales and Czerny Exercises. The "Rustle of Spring" was my peak achievement!

It is not perhaps realised today that our parents had wide contact with 'live' music. Most provincial towns were proud of their Albert or Victoria Hall, magnificent multi-purpose buildings which could provide a large audience not only for prospective Parliamentary candidates but to numbers of well-known musical celebrities who had to supplement a living by touring the northern industrial towns. Opera and Operetta flourished, with regular visits by the Carl Rosa and Moody Manners companies and of course of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. Touring companies providing first class performances of the works of Lehar and Ivor Novello were regular visitors, so that every home piano stool housed its sheet music copies of the solos. When I was about 7 years old my parents introduced me to 'Carmen', 'The Yeomen of the Guard' and, best of all, 'Bitter Sweet' by Noel Coward and 'The White Horse Inn' (by Ralph Benatzky and Robert Stolz in collaboration with a number of other composers). An added thrill was the journey home afterwards on the late night tram through the darkened town, long after my 7pm bedtime!

Lacking for us was a professional symphony orchestra, such as the Halle in Manchester, but there were great brass bands. Living near the main road to Durham, on one day every July I enjoyed the procession of works' bands as, with banners flying, they marched to their great Gala Day which ended in Durham Cathedral. "Blaze Away" was their choice.

School - The Twenties Please imagine a picture of twenty 5 year olds in late August 1924, lined up in a school yard by an austere lady in a starched white blouse and long black skirt, who were about to enter for the first time the building which, for the next three years, would alter their daily lives. Carved into a stone lintel above the dark wood entrance was 'INFANTS 1894'. Led into the 'classroom', we found a space surrounded by three wood and glass wall panels, and seats, each consisting of an iron frame supporting a hinged plank of dark wood on which we could sit in pairs. In front of us another hinged piece of wood would soon support our first efforts at writing, at first with slates and chalk and then Copybooks. In the corner of the room was a black coke stove identical with those seen in films such as 'The Great Escape'.

The morning began with the rhythmic chanting of "three times one is three". Eventually, this choral chanting would reach "Twelve times twelve is a hundred and forty-four". In the same way we discovered inches, feet, yards, furlongs and miles; pounds, shillings and pence; ounces, pounds, stones, hundredweights and tons; and pints, quarts and gallons. 'Doing sums' in your head was essential. Can you work out two and a quarter yards at three and eleven pence per yard? I still can! Reading followed, each in the class standing up and reading aloud a paragraph from a Reader, a printed book of suitable difficulty, the only copy of which was handed in turn to the next to read. At 12 noon, shepherded by older girls, we walked home to Dinner, a hot vegetable stew and rice pudding waiting for us in the coal fired range in the kitchen. At 1pm we were back in our desks ready for the afternoon.

Afternoons were enjoyed. A long roll of canvas was stuck to the blackboard and, sixty years before Julie Andrews, we followed the teacher's pointer and learned to sing "Doh Re Mi Fa So La Ti Doh. Gradually, we progressed to singing intervals such as Doh-Fa and Re-Ti. Then followed first singing of simple nursery rhymes and little songs. A play break in the school yard was supervised by the teacher and singing games progressed from 'Ring a Ring' to simple folk songs and dances. On Friday afternoons the teacher read us a story and we were absorbed in the 'Just So Stories', 'The Water Babies' and 'Aesop's Fables'. Towards Christmas we joined the 'big girls' and, for the first time with a teacher playing the piano, we would learn our first Carols as singing angels in the Nativity Play.

As we got to make friends with our little classmates, it did not seem odd to us that some like me had Dads who went daily to a place called 'Work' and some had Dads who did not go to Work. Some Dads had bad legs. Some did not seem to have a Dad. Some had no Mums - TB, Flu or Childbirth - but there were plenty of Grans and widowed Aunties to fill the gap. Little Gwennie, my first friend, said one day "Me Gran says me Dad was gassed". Which was a puzzle as 'gas' was what Dads lit with a match to light the room. We children may have been aware of 'The War' but knew really very little. Grown-ups had much more serious things to think about - The Crash, Lloyd George, TB, Polio, Pneumonia, Scarlet Fever, Meningitis and the killer, Diphtheria. The Doctor was called as a last resort and could offer only diagnosis or Aspirin or call the Fever Wagon which would whisk the little patient off to isolation in a distant Fever Hospital for weeks or maybe months. Measles, Mumps and Chicken Pox were everyday things best got out of the way as soon as possible. Infected tonsils were removed on the home kitchen table.

Dads then were very versatile. They could do all the household repairs, make furniture, grow vegetables in the small back garden, repair our leather shoes on a last, make our Christmas toys and paint the house. In 1925, my Dad was doing something with wire and a soldering iron which he heated in the fire. With a neighbour he perilously strung the piece of wire across the road between our chimney and that of the house opposite, an 'aerial'. Days later, a contraption appeared which had wires, a bit of glass called a 'crystal' and something called a 'cat's whisker', which was odd as we did not have a cat. When round things were pushed against my ears I heard a faint man's voice singing, then a distant man's voice said "This is the British Broadcasting Company". Little could I then know how vital a part that organisation would play in my life to come. Soon, thanks to a monthly magazine called 'Practical Wireless' which had diagrams with zig-zag lines and other strange symbols, my father progressed to one and two valve sets and a loudspeaker. I'm afraid I much preferred the tunes which came out of the horn of our wind-up gramophone when my mother pointed a steel needle on a black disc called a 'record'. Once a month records with a picture of a small dog on the label would appear. These introduced me to "Hear my prayer" sung by a choir boy, "On with the motley" sung by a tenor called Caruso, and the Overture to 'Tannhauser', a favourite of my father's.

Junior School Meanwhile, there was at 8 years old, a move to the Junior School with long division, History and Geography, composition writing, poetry memorising and lots more singing. There were inter-school choral competitions in which I performed. Most of us who had piano lessons could read staff notation but many still found the tonic-solfa symbols which were always printed above the stave easier to learn. There was a much-praised recording of Manchester schools singing "Nymphs and Shepherd's Come Away" which we tried to surpass. I remember as test pieces we had two part versions of "Where ere you walk", "Who is Sylvia" and, surprisingly, "The Erl King".

I must also mention a vital part of our musical education, the result of our regular Sunday attendance at all denominations of church and chapel. My father, a teacher of classics and English in the C of E boys' school was an active official in the ancient Parish church from which the school had been founded. So, introduced first to the afternoon Sunday School, I then joined my parents at Sunday morning service. School had already trained us in the practices of 'No Talking' and 'Sitting Still' for long periods, so the long sermons were no hardship. A new found joy was that of standing up alongside my parents and joining in singing the great tunes of 'Hymns Ancient and Modern' with a congregation in full voice accompanied by the glorious sound of the organ, especially at the Harvest and Christmas festivals. Church organists did miracles too. Small boys, their white surplices hiding their threadbare Sunday best - many from the most impoverished families - were taught to sing the great hymns of Stanford, Parry and the Wesleys, and the ritual plainsong of the Responses and the Magnificat. My triumph was when I could follow and keep up with the rhythmic pointing of the Psalm for the day as printed in the Book of Common Prayer. Later in life, I realised that, without then any understanding of the doctrine, that early exposure to the text of what was essentially 'The Mass' was useful when, much later, I sang the great works of Bach, Mozart, Handel and Verdi. I had also profited from an early exposure to the poetic prose of the 'Authorised Version of the King James Bible'. Sometimes we joined friends who were Methodists or Presbyterians in performances of 'Messiah' or 'Elijah' which were regularly given by their adult church choirs. When I was 8 years old, I heard my first Bach 'St Matthew Passion'.

The Thirties In 1930, after a visit to a radio trade fair, a radio-gramophone was delivered to our house. It was a small cupboard-sized piece of walnut furniture. As well as the usual gramophone turntable and needle holder, there was a dial with strange names such as Hilversum, Fecamp or Normandy. On turning one of three black nobs quickly, a babel of snatches of music and strange languages emerged from behind a carved wood panel. From that moment, the medium wave North Region and Scottish Region and long wave National Services of the British Broadcasting Corporation became an essential part of our family life. Home from school at teatime there was 'Children's Hour' with Uncle Mac, Uncle Eric and Auntie Kathleen and lovely stories and songs. For parents, the News at 9 pm and programmes such as 'In Town Tonight' were compulsory evening listening. In came the era of 'signature tunes' of which the popular light music composer Eric Coates became a master.

Grammar School In 1930 also, having passed the 'eleven plus', I began the next part of my life at the local girls' grammar school. My school blazer with badge, tie and school hat were actually bought in a town shop. Hitherto, my clothes, woollen jumpers and frocks were either home-made or 'passed on' from older cousins who had outgrown them. The required white school blouse and navy blue tunic were home-made.

In 1929, a new local grammar school for boys and girls was opened by Queen Mary. We were the first lucky occupants. Boys and girls were in separate identical buildings kept apart by adjoining hockey and football pitches. Each school had a large assembly hall with grand piano, fully equipped laboratories for Science and, for girls, a Domestic Science room. Both schools had central heating with radiators and indoor toilets with wash basins! Such luxury we did not have at home, having in fact no continuous supply of hot water and an outdoor toilet. Only a year before had electric lightbulbs replaced our gas mantles.

We girls were lucky in another way. The number of men killed in WW1 had left what the popular Press called "two million surplus women" who were unlikely to find husbands. With their WW1 experience and new found independence the hospitals were expertly run by trained nurses, and legions of secretaries skilled in typing and shorthand were available for office work. But for highly educated women university graduates, only some parts of the Civil Service or teaching in Training Colleges or Girls' Senior schools were potential occupations. The staff of single women who faced us in our new school included a Headmistress who, in addition to an Oxford degree, had pre-war studied at the University of Heidelberg. A Chemistry teacher had a first class degree from Manchester. A Scottish graduate from Edinburgh taught French and German, all in a non-fee paying local school. The Depression with considerable unemployment still lingered and there were a number of girls in the school with out-of-work fathers. These teachers contributed hours of personal time and effort finding ways of helping them with the cost of books, sports equipment and school uniforms. Discipline was strict, but not unduly so. Work was hard, with all of us doing seven subjects for the School Certificate to be taken at the age of 16 years - English, Latin, Maths, History, Geography and a choice of Chemistry or Physics and French or German. Art and Music were optional after-school extras.

There arrived on our school staff in 1932 an excellent Maths teacher, a Cambridge graduate from Newham College, and significantly, she was Jewish and of German nationality. Almost immediately, she gave me an interest in Mathematics which influenced my choice of career in Science. With hindsight, it seems that our teachers had protected us from concern about political events in Europe. In 1946, on a visit to this teacher, I was introduced to her frail uncle and aunt whom she had just brought back from Belsen.

Recent historians with their usual hindsight have written thousands of words analysing the uneasy 'between the Wars' complexities of Western Europe. I remember it only as a happy time, full of new interests and pleasures for us teenagers. Parents listened to political talks by Vernon Bartlett on the BBC and we saw occasional pictures of Hitler on the Pathe News on our Saturday visits to the cinema, but much more important were the great Broadway musicals and the first Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire films with the music of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin and the big MGM orchestras. In one Broadway musical, I saw the Paul Whiteman Orchestra give the first performance of Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue' and it became an instant hit.

There were still the visits to the performances given by the local Opera and Choral Societies in which the orchestral and choral sections of the works were provided by local amateur and semi-professional musicians, but solos were sung by national eminent soloists. I particularly remember basses such as Harold Williams and Roy Henderson, tenors such as Heddle Nash, sopranos, Isabel Baillie and Elsie Suddaby and the contralto Gladys Ripley. At one performance there was a young, unknown contralto. At her first notes of "Oh Thou that Tallest" there was almost a ripple in the audience as a rich velvet sound filled the hall. It was a young Kathleen Ferrier, learning her trade on the circuit!

At school, apart from the hymn singing at morning assembly, music had to take a minor role in the extensive work load, but we did have a school choir of which I became a member. My report said that I had a strong voice and was a good sight reader. I also opted to do music in School Certificate but this had to be by private study at home. The set works were Mozart's Haffner Symphony and Beethoven's Symphony No 1. This was my first introduction to orchestral scoring and analysis. In an era still suffering from national poverty, there was no money available for musical instruments. A few girls learned the violin from relatives as 'fiddle playing' was a traditional folk culture. The boys' school had a Brass Band and in rare moments of fraternisation some of their masters and senior boys were recruited to provide necessary parts in the yearly concert performed for our parents. Haydn's 'Creation' was a popular choice. We were fortunate too with our gym teacher. When the weather was not suitable for the compulsory hockey and netball, she taught us Country Dancing. She was associated with the national organisation founded by Cecil Sharp. I remember still the tunes played on her portable gramophone - "Strip the Willow", "Sellinger's Round", Scottish foursome and eightsome reels, and particularly a local dance called "Newcastle", the tune of which I heard years later sung by Peter Pears in an arrangement by Benjamin Britten. Another excellent English teacher started an after-school club to which she brought her own classical music records but most of all she recommended which BBC programmes we should listen to and this advice was very valuable.

The BBC national and regional programmes provided as well as news, current affairs, sports commentaries, popular comedy and drama, a wealth of music of all kinds. The universally popular 'Dance Music' was played nightly by musicians in orchestras of outstanding technical ability of which the BBC's own dance orchestra was one of the best.

But it was the classical music provision which gave me an education and lifelong enjoyment, for which I owe eternal thanks to the BBC. I lived in a very musical household but my parents' interests were solely in choral and piano music. All our HMV records were operatic selections. My mother often played Chopin Etudes and Beethoven Sonatas, but mostly practised the piano accompaniment of choral works to be sung by the choirs for which she was accompanist. Woodwind and percussion were unknown territory.

Suddenly, I could listen to the sound of a full-sized professional orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Our radiogram was probably as hi-fi as was possible then and reception of the national programme on the 1500 metre waveband could be variable, but listening to the weekly broadcast concert was for me a life-changing experience. There was also a weekly programme by the first 'DJ', Christopher Stone who, with his brother-in-law, the author Compton Mackenzie, had newly founded the Gramophone magazine, in which he discussed the merits of newly issued commercial recordings. His expert discussions introduced me to not only the great symphonies of Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn and Brahms but to concertos with renowned soloists. More importantly, he opened my ears to the role of the conductor and soloist and the problem of correctly interpreting the wishes of the composer as written in the score. One result was that with saved-up pocket money and birthday money I bought my first classical recording, Beethoven's 'Pastoral' Symphony played by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. My record buying had usually been the monthly trip to Woolworth's for a cheap disc of a pop tune played by a favourite dance band, Ambrose, Jack Hylton or Jack Payne and sung by its soloist or by the universally adored Bing Crosby. Creeping in too were records from the USA of Bennie Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and my favourite, Artie Shaw. Parents were highly critical but eventually tolerant, a fact I recalled when years later my son made the whole house vibrate to the sound of Jimi Hendrix!

Visits to other countries were non-existent in those cash-strapped days. Most of my friends had no holidays away from home. I was one of the lucky ones. Every July we had a week in a boarding house at one of the popular resorts. Scarborough, Harrogate and Colwyn Bay were my parent's choice - there was a Palm Court Orchestra. There were daily concerts 'on the pier' if fine and a Sunday evening Gala Concert in the magnificent Imperial Hotel. These concerts also had as a guest performer an eminent singer, pianist or violinist. The music played was the sort my parents loved, the whole range of Light Music, much by English composers. What surprised me was that printed in the programme as performers were familiar names which I had heard on the BBC - Paul Beard, Reginal Stead, Warwick Braithwaite are names that I vaguely remember and I realised that these were the same musicians who were also members of the Symphony Orchestra who enthralled me 'on the air'. This now included concerts of a new BBC Northern Orchestra on medium wave. I'm afraid variable reception prevented hearing the new Scottish Orchestra satisfactorily. The 'Radio Times', now bought every Thursday, allowed a family agreement on the coming week's listening.

Having achieved a creditable Grade 5, my piano study ceased, and with full parental approval so did Sunday church going. School homework and especially the weekend essay took priority. My evening radio listening was rationed so the dance bands were for Saturday only. But a programme called 'Music and the Ordinary Listener' was sacrosanct. This was a weekly series given by Dr Walford Davies, at that time Master of the King's Music and composer of the RAF March and 'Solemn Melody' which is still played at the Cenotaph each November 11th. I was fascinated by Walford Davies' series on the Bach Cantatas in which he introduced me to the wonder of the harmony and counterpoint of Bach. One Sunday morning, parents at church, I discovered among my mother's music collection a book of Bach solos. Playing some of the chords in the piano accompaniments was a revelation - the simple movement of the middle finger of a C E G chord to the E flat was 'Happy to Sad' and it was all contained in some black dots on lines! Since then, music for me has been the complexity and wonder of all the possible permutations of 12 frequencies and the multiple combinations constructed by the geniuses who made the resulting sounds touch every human emotion.

In 1934, my school friend and fellow music lover was invited to bring a friend with her to stay for a week in London where her relatives owned a small boarding house. This was my first visit to London. Imagine our feelings when her aunt arranged that we should go to a Promenade concert at the Queen's Hall for an all-Beethoven concert and that we would be escorted for the first time in our lives by her cousin and his friend, two handsome 19 year old Marine cadets studying at the Nautical College for their First Mate Tickets. We wore our best dresses. We heard the real live BBC Symphony Orchestra we had listened to so often on the wireless and from our good seats we looked down on the arena fountain and the Prommers standing packed below us. This is one of my memories, made poignant when I heard in 1941 that both young men had been lost at sea, their ship torpedoed.

At school, our language teacher, back from an exchange spell at a school in Vienna, had a list of names of Austrian girls who would like 'pen friends'. Mine was a Viennese girl called Charlotte. My smattering of German in no way matched her English but this did not matter. She was happy that I wrote in English and corrected her English in reply and we matched perfectly. We soon discovered we were both fans of Richard Tauber, a glorious tenor whose record of "You are my heart's delight" was top of the pops in the UK. I also saw him in the film musical 'Lilac Time', a dubious life of Schubert but with beautiful singing of his music. Charlotte told me that, as well as his operetta work, Tauber was revered in his own country as a renowned singer of the operas of Mozart. Charlotte sent me a sheet copy, autographed by Tauber, of his famous song "Wien nur du allein" ("Vienna, City of Dreams"). In 1937, Lotte (as I now called her) came to the UK and stayed with me and my parents for two memorably happy weeks. Arrangements were made for my return visit to her home in Vienna in summer 1938 and we both looked forward to it. In March was the Nazi Anschluss of Austria. My parents decided, much to my great disappointment, that my visit should be postponed for the time being. Charlotte and I exchanged one more letter and I never heard from her again.

University At school, this was our vital year of School Certificate. Thanks to excellent teaching by our Maths teacher and Chemistry teacher, I decided my future lay in studying Science. Because of our parents' experience of WW1 we were a generation for whom the idea of war was unthinkable, despite the news from Europe. Parents firmly believed that Appeasement, the League of Nations and several Disarmament conferences would solve all international problems. We confidently made plans for our futures. For me it was the end of school and in September 1937 enrolment at Imperial College of technology, part of London University, for study for a BSc degree.

From October 1937 till May 1940, South Kensington was my base. We, students supported solely by our parents, had very little money to spend. I lived in a women's hostel in which we had a small cubicle with a bed, table and small chest of drawers. Lights were put out by the warden at 10 pm nightly after the National Anthem had been played on a gramophone in the Common Room. In our particular section we were 10 women among 30 men. The first year included Maths, Physics and Chemistry. Those 30s years saw some of the most profound scientific advances in X ray crystallography, atomic structure and other fundamental discoveries by great scientists, many British. This research provided the foundation of much of today's technology. Our lecturers were hard-pushed to keep us up to date. Study was time consuming so there was little social life. As a body of students I think we tried to ignore the ominous news. We seldom discussed political matters. We still believed that war would be avoided but also felt a desperate need to get a degree and be trained and equipped for whatever might happen.

At the end of the summer term 1938 it was suggested that we could stay on and do additional work during the vacation and I eagerly accepted this chance.

With several of us staying on in London in July and August, we decided to go to the Henry Wood Promenade concerts in the Queen's Hall. We bought a season ticket for the Prom, the cheapest, and amicably shared it among ourselves. It was especially memorable as it was Sir Henry Wood's 50th Jubilee celebration. I still have the little badge, a cheap circle of cardboard attached to a safety pin which says 'Henry Wood Proms Circle 1938' which was given to all Prommers. With no programmes to remind me, it is hard to recall all the works I heard in my share but I remember a very young Ida Haendal playing the Brahms Violin Concerto and the thrill of my first live experience of the Beethoven 9th symphony. There were many British works that were new to me. But it was the experience of standing among this pack of regular supporters whose musical knowledge and familiarity with members of the BBC SO was so extensive, which was memorable.

We all went to the Last Night and I remember this as a wonderful moving experience, very far removed from the embarrassing jingoistic extravaganza which this concert has now become on TV. Elgar's ''Pomp and Circumstance March No 1' was played as he wrote it, without any community singing. We were often told that Elgar hated those 'abominable words'. The 'Fantasia on Sea Songs', which by long tradition was the last work played, had (we were told) been composed by Sir Henry to give each section of the orchestra a special solo, a 'Thank You'. This was enjoyed as each section did its bit - the Hornpipe for the strings' contest with the clapping of the audience, the beautiful cello solo 'Tom Bowling' by the principal cellist Ambrose Gauntlett, the rapt silence for the adored harpist Sidonie Goosens as she played 'Home Sweet Home' and the stirring harmonisation of four trombones for 'Spanish Ladies'. Lastly was "Rule Britannia", all the verses of the original song by Arne, sung by a soprano. No speeches, "Jerusalem" or other audience participation. We were an audience the fate of which at that very moment was on a knife edge between war and peace. We just wanted to give Sir Henry the 'Thank You' he deserved for his 50 years, and the affectionate applause went on and on until he appeared with his coat on and gently led the Leader, Marie Wilson, and the Orchestra off the stage.

The coming of war I went home for the last two weeks in September and with my parents followed on the wireless Chamberlain's visit to Munich with Hitler and his famous return with the 'slip of paper' and 'Peace in our Time'. There were feelings of relief and the guilty shame of having given in and sacrificed an innocent Czech nation. My father quietly went back to study a document he had received, 'Arrangements for the evacuation of his school on a possible declaration of war'.

Back in London to Imperial College for the 1938-1939 session, one was aware that similarly quiet preparations were also going on but we students just tried to carry on as before. I opted for Physics and Chemistry. Each day followed the same routine - 9 am to 12 noon Lectures. 2 pm to 5 pm. Practical work in the laboratories. Evenings, revision and more revision. Saturday, possibly a visit to a cinema or a concert. A group of us went to a concert in the Queen's Hall by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. We were not familiar with the advertised work to be played, Vaughan Williams' '4th Symphony'. We knew a few of his works, 'The Lark Ascending', the London Symphony and the Pastoral Symphony and expected something similar. After the final notes we felt stunned! Leaving the concert hall after a concert usually we would be chatting or discussing what to eat. This time we were abnormally silent. Vaughan Williams had, somehow in music, captured our private unspoken fears and tensions which we all felt at the time. When I went home for the last weeks of the summer holiday, gas masks were being delivered, trenches dug in parks, and an Anderson Shelter was delivered to a neighbour's house. On Sunday September 3rd, at home with my parents, all of us collected round the wireless, I heard the BBC announcer introduce the Prime Minister. A sad voice explained that we were now at war with Germany.

The weeks that followed that momentous announcement can best be described as Organised Chaos. All places of entertainment were closed. All usual BBC programmes ceased. Poor Sandy MacPherson drooled on hour after hour on the BBC organ, interrupted at intervals by a shopping list of Government announcements. Plans, hastily improvised during the previous years were, for better or worse, put into action. We had all seen the famous film with the film score by Arthur Bliss, 'Shape of Things to Come' and contemplated immediate annihilation from the air. My father and his school were removed to "somewhere in the wilds of Yorkshire". I was told not to return to London, sent a package of work for home study and told to go to a local Technical College for practical laboratory work. My mother volunteered for a thing called CEMA, intended to provide serous concerts for the forces to supplement the lighter entertainment provided by ENSA.

By Xmas, except for a few 'hit and run' raids on shipping and coastal buildings, which at least got us familiar with all the Air Raid precautions, the anticipated annihilation of London and elsewhere had not happened. Common sense allowed the BBC to get back to cheerful programmes and cinemas and theatres reopened. A letter told me to start back in January at Imperial College for my final two sessions. My mother and I mothballed and shuttered up the house and she went to join my father. Before I left, she bought me a little battery-powered portable wireless which became one of my most treasured possessions. Then, very few people had a private telephone. In emergencies the red telephone box on the corner of the street with pennies in the slot, was the only form of personal contact. Future news of my parents would only be with pen and paper and postage stamp and the post men and women who were determined to deliver to a population nationally 'on the move'.

Back in London, there were more instructions - where to go in an air raid, how to save hot and cold water, laboratory chemicals and writing paper and to share text books. In our hostel we learned when we could have our one weekly bath. Ration books came in. But soon we got back to the daily routine of lectures and laboratory work and Saturday relaxation at the cinema or a concert. Despite many musicians being called up for the Services, the great orchestras doubled their efforts and kept going in all sorts of venues. We went to hear the London Philharmonic conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham in the Coliseum Theatre one Sunday afternoon for an excellent programme of Haydn and Mozart.

There were a few wails of the siren and we duly went to the air raid shelter as instructed, but on the whole we were able to continue studies as normal. We listened to the 9 pm BBC News. The bad news was the daily sinking of allied ships by submarines but on land all was quiet until May 1940. This was when we had our final exams, the culmination of three years of study. Suddenly the balloon went up. The Germans seemed in days to romp through Holland, Belgium and France. One day as we were quietly struggling with the Final Chemistry paper, a person entered the exam hall and said to our invigilator in a whisper which in the silence we could not help but hear, "The Germans have entered Calais". Thanks to the heroic efforts of our lecturers we were able to complete all our theoretical and practical exams. I eventually received my degree certificate by post in 1946.

We students had been protected from the 18 year-old Call-Up but on graduation became under the Central Register which decided our future - the Services or Work of National Importance. I was directed to report as soon as possible to a northern soap works as a Process Chemist. Soap was not yet rationed but it was the by-product glycerol which was essential for explosives. After a two day visit to my parents in Yorkshire I duly reported and found a works which seemed exactly as it must have been when founded in 1800! The work I was told to do was routine and monotonous, the working conditions atrocious. I knew the only alternative was to volunteer for the Services, which I did.

I applied to join the Women's Air Force, the WAAF, hoping to be used in a technical capacity. After weeks of despairing delay, I was called for a medical examination. I passed all with full marks except the eyesight test. Short-sighted, I had worn glasses continuously since my first examination by a school doctor and had never found them in any way restrictive. Sadly, the RAF work was on Radar, which needed intense concentration on a spot on a cathode ray tube and required perfect vision. So it was back to the soap works. I appealed to the Central Register for work of a more technical nature. Weeks went by and the only solace of listening nightly to the BBC on my little wireless in the unheated bedroom of my 'digs' right through Xmas 1940 kept me going. The news from London was of course shocking. After the apparent success of the Battle of Britain came the Blitz. We had a number of raids, some quite close, and I spent some nights in an Anderson Shelter but nothing like other cities were experiencing. I heard that our beloved Queen's Hall had been hit and Broadcasting House and other places I had known well.

The BBC beckons It was therefore with some astonishment that one morning I received a letter from the Central Register directing me to fill in a form of application for a post as a 'Woman Operator' in the Engineering Division of the British Broadcasting Corporation! I did not wait. Days later a letter from the BBC Establishment Officer told me to report to him at BBC Maida Vale in a week's time. A voucher for a single rail ticket, Newcastle to King's Cross was enclosed. I said 'Goodbye' to the soap works, wrote to my parents, dashed to my old home which was looking quite abandoned, collected a few photographs and treasured mementos and filled a suitcase with my best clothes. With cloth rationing now in force, these would have to survive 'for the duration', as we had begun to say. A rucksack which had seen many happy days Youth Hostelling with friends in the Lake District held my little wireless, a sandwich box and toiletries which included quite a few samples of soap.

On the first Sunday in May 1941, I boarded the overnight train in Newcastle station. It was already packed with Service men. I thought I might have to stand in the corridor all the way but a kind person found me enough space to sit down. There were of course only eerie blue lights in the blacked-out train and station and as I peered out I suddenly felt very lonely and slightly afraid of what was ahead. In all the excitement of going to the BBC, I had forgotten about the possible danger. To my astonishment, I saw my father hurrying along the platform. The train was just about to start so I had time only to lean out of the window of the closed door. We were only able to shake hands and he yelled to me, "Write whenever you can. Keep in touch" and the train moved off. I learned later that he had had a very difficult bus journey from his billet in Yorkshire but was determined to see me away.

Our journey too was a series of stops and starts. We arrived at King's Cross at about 9 am so it must have taken eleven hours. Emerging from King's Cross station, I was shocked. I saw my first bomb-damaged building, rubble littering the roads. This was the city I had left just a year before. Following instructions, I made for the Bakerloo Line to Warwick Avenue. I knew vaguely that Maida Vale was a BBC studio where the Symphony Orchestra used to play but I had read that BBC music had been evacuated to Bristol. Leaving the Tube station I noticed another girl also looking for Delaware Road. We were on the same quest. She was Welsh and we became immediate friends.

My account of the next five years must be contained in my next instalment. I can only say that if you ask any of the dwindling number of us ninety year olds what we did between 1941 and 1945 you will hear some very interesting stories of experiences unlike anything we had known before or have known since. This was true of my life.