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THE VICTORY CONCERT - a moment I shall never forget

By Anne Smith

 I was six and a half years old, and a pupil in Class Two at Dundee High School, when the Second World War came to an end. Being a competitive child, I was pleased to hear that we'd won, but on a personal level my initial feelings were rather mixed. On the one hand, it meant that I would never again have to endure the claustrophobic horror of gas mask practice, and there was the possibility that I would no longer be forced to eat spinach. But on the other hand, headlong dashes to the Anderson shelter wouldn't happen anymore, and this I much regretted, especially those that happened in the middle of the night. Oh, the thrill of waking to the wail of the siren, of being bundled into my red siren suit and hurried across the garden and down into that secret hiding place which wasn't nearly big enough for the six people it had to accommodate. Squashed in beside me and my mother and father - who was a banker and therefore exempt from active service - were our elderly neighbours, the Revd. Isaac Clyde and his wife, and our living-in maid, Sadie, clutching the sock which contained her life savings and usually lived under her bed.

I was never told to stop talking and go to sleep. Instead I was allowed to join in the telling of jokes and eating of biscuits and singing of songs as enemy bombers droned overhead on their way to try to bomb the Tay Bridge. I knew, of course, that bombs were dangerous, but I wasn't afraid, even when I heard the whine and boom of an explosion.  On the contrary, I sensed that the bombs were part of some sort of challenge to which we were all rising, and the togetherness of it bred a wonderful sense of security which was doubly enhanced by the presence of the minister. God would never let anything happen to him - even when he wasn't wearing his dog collar.

Now all that was over. But I soon found that there were compensations of various kinds. I was allowed to play in the Anderson shelter which became in turns a dungeon, a castle, or whatever else my lively imagination allowed it to be. We got a dog, a shining black Labrador bitch called Judy, to whom I was instantly and passionately devoted. I tasted my first banana. I helped my father to sow a lawn in what had always been a potato bed, and my mother gave me yards of redundant blackout material for my dressing-up box. But exciting as all these things were, they paled into insignificance beside the dazzling prospect of the school concert.

Our teacher, Mrs Marshall, told us about it one afternoon when we should have been doing Geography. It was going to be a Victory Concert to celebrate the end of the war, and everyone was going to take part, from the big boys and girls in the senior school right down to the lowly members of Class 2. Although we had won the war, apparently, we hadn't done it all by ourselves. People from other countries had helped us, and all those countries were going to be represented in the concert. Mrs Marshall pinned a big map up on the blackboard to show us where the countries were, and told us that some of the girls in our class were going to perform an action poem from Norway, and others were going to do a Polish dance. I was thrilled. For as long as I could remember, I'd been making up stories and acting them out, or learning poems which I recited with dramatic zest at family gatherings, but I'd never been in a proper concert, on a stage. I couldn't wait.

 For the next two weeks, we all practised the action poem with Mrs Marshall, and the Gym teacher, whose name was Miss Whittock, taught us the dance. The poem was all about a cuckoo shut up inside a clock by the fairies as a punishment for throwing other birds out of their nests. There were several verses, and between each one was a refrain:

"Inside a wooden clock, he cowers and has to tell the proper hours "Cuckoo!" he cries "Cuckoo! Cuckoo! It's true, it's true!"

 Five children were involved, four standing shoulder to shoulder in a line representing the closed doors of the clock, with the cuckoo standing behind them. Everyone recited the verses and the first two lines of the chorus, at which point the "doors" opened and the cuckoo shot for his moment of glory. It was great fun, and when my turn came to practise being the cuckoo, I gave it all I'd got. But for me, the highlight of every day was dancing practice in the big school hall. I had never had dancing lessons before, because my sternly Presbyterian mother disapproved, but I found that learning the steps and formations of the little couple dance was no problem at all, and my response to the rhythms of a Chopin Mazurka came as easily and as naturally as breathing. I just loved every minute of it, and when I thought about the concert - which was most the time - it was in terms of the dance that I did so.

Then came the day when Mrs Marshall told us who had been chosen to do what. Five of us, she said, would recite the poem, and the other twelve would dance. The buzz of excited speculation which followed quickly gave way to profound silence as the names of the twelve dancers were readout - and mine was not one of them. I couldn't believe it. There must be some mistake. I had to be one of the dancers. But I was not. Mrs Marshall, moving briskly on to the action poem, smiled upon me and in tones which suggested that she had kept the best news till last, said "And well done, Anne! You are to be the cuckoo!"

Words cannot describe the depths of my disappointment. By the time I got home I was crying so bitterly that it took my mother some time to discover what it was all about, and in the end she was only mildly sympathetic. As far as she was concerned, a solo part in a recitation was far more important than any dance could possibly be, and I couldn't make her understand. I wept on and off until bedtime, when, for the first time ever, I didn't say my prayers because my faith in God had been profoundly shaken. I'd been praying for ages for a rabbit, which so far hadn't materialised, and now He hadn't let me be in the dancing either.

Since anything which could be construed as sulking was not permitted at home or at school, I did my cuckoo bit at rehearsals with the best grace I could muster, but I was severely tested when I had to watch the dancers, especially on the day when they appeared in white dresses and black velvet boleros and pretty headdresses of flowers and rainbow coloured ribbons. That same afternoon, we tried on our cuckoo poem costumes. The other girls had black skirts with coloured braid round the hem, bright red aprons, and little white lace-trimmed caps. I had brown woollen stockings, brown knee-length knickers, a brown tunic with wide, flapping sleeves and a brown felt hat with a feather stuck in the front of it. When I was sent along to the cloakroom to look at myself in the mirror, I was mortified to the depths of my soul.

Sixty years on, I can see that angry, miserable reflexion as clearly as if it were yesterday, and understand why I was cast as the cuckoo. With my tanned, scowling face, and brown curls exploding like ruffled feathers from beneath the pointed hat, I looked every inch a nasty, bad-tempered little bird. But that didn't occur to me at the time. All I could think about was appearing on stage in those awful knickers.

 I had long since stopped looking forward to the concert, I was simply longing for it to be over. And then, with four days to go, a miracle happened. Helen Fraser was absent from school - and Helen was one of the dancers. She was still absent the next day, and while her friends asked Mrs Marshall anxiously if she would be better in time for the concert, I silently nursed the small flame of hope which had begun to burn within me. That afternoon Miss Whittock came into our classroom in the middle of an arithmetic lesson, and we were told to get on with our sums while she and Mrs Marshall had a whispered conversation. Seventeen slate pencils squeaked away industriously, and I prayed more fervently than I had ever prayed before.

At the end of afternoon school, Mrs Marshall called me up to her desk. "Helen Fraser may be back in time for the concert" she said "but she may not be well enough to dance, so Miss Whittock has chosen you to be the reserve, just in case."

"But what about the cuckoo?" I asked - as if I cared.  "Oh, you'll still be the cuckoo" she replied " but you might have to dance as well. Do you think you could manage that?"  The twinkle in her eye told me that she understood it all. That night I apologised to God for ever having doubted him - and added that while I hoped He would make Helen better, if  He could just put off doing so until after the concert I would be very grateful.

God compromised. Helen did come back on the day, but she wasn't well enough to dance, so after the cuckoo poem - which received tremendous applause - I rushed off stage and, while another class sang a song, Mrs Marshall helped me into my lovely white dress and crowned me with flowers and ribbons. Years later my mother told me that if ever she saw pure happiness on a child's face, she saw it when I danced the Mazurka.

But the best was yet to come. At the end of the concert, the school orchestra played a march while all the other performers processed through the audience and up onto the stage. Some of the senior boys went first, carrying the flags of the allied nations, and formed a semi-circle at the back, and we all stood or knelt in groups in front of them. In the middle of the stage was a dais with steps on one side, and the Head Boy with the Union Jack on the other. When we were all in place, we sang "I Vow to Thee My Country" and during the second verse the Head Girl, dressed all in white, and carrying a dove, stepped up onto the dais. On the final words "and all her paths are Peace", we all turned towards her and she lifted the dove up high.

 I suddenly knew, deep down inside, that this was a very important moment. I was excited and happy and wanting to cry, all at the same time. For some reason, I thought of the Anderson shelter, and when the thunderous applause had died down and everyone stood for the National Anthem, I could hardly sing because of a huge lump in my throat. The hope and disappointment and challenge and effort of the last few weeks, and then being part of a glorious, shared achievement was all mixed up in my mind with winning the war, and the Union Jack, and everyone looking at the dove.
Of course I didn't understand what it was all about at the time. I was only six and a half. But it's a moment I'll never forget.


 

 

 

 

  

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