Stephen White, co-author of the book The Last Evacuee written by himself and his mother, outlines how he completed his mother’s untold story after her death.
Here ends my tale of the life of a London girl. Like the RAF’s motto, “Per ardua ad astra” (“Through adversity to the stars”, which is Stephen’s favourite phrase), it is of inspiration and the will to succeed against the odds. It is of closed windows of opportunity that are opened by faith, perseverance and a greater understanding, and knowledge, of life.
It is a document of the spirit, the mind and the heart. It is completed by loyalty, enduring love and dedication to, and from, those around me. It is such a collection of thoughts, written down and left behind.
Thus, with the last paragraph of my mother’s life, her final words, chapter twenty five ended. It was the penultimate chapter of my first book, co-written by my mother and me, entitled ‘The Last Evacuee – Reflections upon a Changing Window’.
From such an end, I hereby present my account of how, despite it seeming an almost impossible task to accomplish, I managed to complete my mother’s limited wartime memoir more than a decade after her death, and elaborate upon it to the extent that her entire life story was completed.
It was to prove to be an extremely difficult undertaking and I was fortunate that I completed it when I did, for with the greedy ravages of time, even in just the last few years, producing the book in its present form would have been impossible.
My mother’s early years were moulded by a conspiracy of dramatic events. She shared those formative years with a unique, inspirational family. The story of that time and her achievements, were originally intended to be brought to the masses in her tome ‘The Changing Window’. However, I was eventually destined to complete it, and would do so unconventionally, which was somewhat appropriate, as ‘Reflections upon a Changing Window’. Y Lolfa wanted a title that more obviously let the potential reader know what the book was about, so I came up with a few suggestions before both of us agreed on ‘The Last Evacuee’ as a main title after relegating ‘Reflections upon a Changing Window’ to the status of a subtitle.
Lilian was born into a hard life in London. While her family suffered devastation during the Second World War, she was evacuated to the beauty of the Tenby area of south‑west Wales and spent many years with a kindly and inspirational headmaster’s family, the mother of which earned a BEM.
Later, Lilian wrote of her experiences during the war, but fate left her memoir unfinished. Myself, exploiting my love of history and inheriting gentle humour, decided to complete her story – and so record the tale of those evacuees – and their guardians – who encountered adversity, and moments of triumph too.
Now, at last, those embodiments of the better virtues of humanity may be here recognised, and their achievements extolled.
I do not wish to spoil it for anyone who has not yet read the book but I will mention that there was a close family friend who was killed in the war, and a separation from a close family member that was to leave my mother with a lifelong sense of tragedy and feeling of guilt.
Because my mother only completed twenty‑odd pages of typed story, I initially thought that her work would forever remain incomplete.
However, it troubled me that I was giving up on the idea without first determining with absolute certainty that finishing her memoir was impossible; I have a distinct dislike for what convention sometimes determines is or is not possible. I was aware of the existence of many pages of her untyped notes. I also had the knowledge of what she had told me and her relatives of her experiences, and I also went to Tenby – where she was later evacuated – and to a farm to acquire first‑hand experiences of similar – or actual – scenarios. I even discovered some of the people from her childhood!
Once again, with respect to that ‘reinventing the wheel’ thing, I shall quote another passage from my book as to how I managed to fill in the other 260‑odd pages of her story:
The project began to appear like a kind of historical literary jigsaw puzzle that could lend itself to completion in the same way that the conventional board game could. The known facts were placed first within the book. Incomplete facts were the next to be placed; they were put in the most likely vacant segments but they were not allowed to contradict what was already known and they were subject to later changes. Assumptions – likely scenarios – filled in the major blanks.
Where there were minor opportunities for a little light relief, I indulged my obscure sense of humour – one that was not too dissimilar to my mother’s, so I did not feel that it was particularly inappropriate to do so. Thus, in time, the complete story of my mother’s life began to take shape.
I am proud to declare that the story of my mother, which she and I completed, became Waterstones in Wales’ Book of the Month and also Museums Book of the Month at the same time. I have been privileged to have been a part of the creation of something so venerated, particularly as this was our first book.
The Last Evacuee is an unusual book. The story it tells is unique, of exceptional circumstances. It is the kind of book that I am sure other – far more established – authors might have wished they had been credited with writing.
I wish to hereby express my great pleasure at being able to write a little about my book and its construction but I shall have no compunction at availing myself of this ideal opportunity to highlight the wrong being done to me and, in particular, my mother.
I hope that you have enjoyed reading this article, have found it stimulating and perhaps are now inspired to read my mother’s story. I am grateful to everyone who appreciates it.
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The Last Evacuee by Lilian and Stephen White (£9.95, Y Lolfa)