It’s the first time I’ve been to the Imperial War Museum since I was 11 and I’m a bit disorientated, so I ask a member of staff where the Once Upon a Wartime exhibition is. “See the Sherman tank in the corner?” he says, pointing to a monstrous tank surrounded by kids with clipboards. “Just behind that.” It’s a good introduction to the idiosyncrasies of the museum’s collection of weapons and war and the constant stream of school parties of shrieking kids moving between them.
Once Upon a Wartime is a new exhibition at the IWM exploring the themes of loyalty, separation, excitement, survival and identity in children’s war literature, with a focus on four classic books: Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners, Bernard Ashley’s Little Soldier, Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War and Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword.
In the way of the modern museum exhibit aimed at children, the exhibition seems rather sparse to adult eyes. It’s beautifully presented, and has a lot to interest kids, but perhaps is a touch style over substance for older visitors.
But the best bits, from the point of view of anyone interested in literature, are the sections on the writers themselves. There are recordings of each talking about their work, and glimpses into their writing processes in the form of notebooks and manuscripts. Michael Morpurgo writes his stories by hand then reads them aloud to a friend, who types a manuscript, a page of which is on display, with Morpurgo’s corrections. You can see Bernad Ashley’s pocket-sized ideas notebook, and Ian Serraillier’s “plot book”, where he kept notes on his characters and on the complex mess of war-torn Europe he had to navigate them through, and the school exercise book from which Robert Westall read The Machine Gunners aloud to his adolescent son in an attempt to win his attention, changing bits if he found them boring.
What comes out of the exhibition is the ability of great children’s literature, especially when dealing with a subject as visceral as war, to forget for a while that it’s meant to be children’s literature at all, and simply become literature, ageless, plain and powerful.
Michael Morpurgo says that “I try to write as if I’m telling the story … as if I’m telling my best friend,” and it’s a quality all these books share – an immediacy of narrative and a vibrancy of experience that many adult novels lack. I’m working my way through them again, revisiting the vivid scenes of Bawden’s Druid’s Bottom, Westall’s Garmouth and and Seraillier’s Warsaw that I remember so clearly from my childhood, and enjoying War Horse and Little Soldier for the first time.
It’s easy to forget the label of children’s literature as I read. The Machine Gunners hardly seems like a children’s book at all, beyond the fact that some of its main characters are kids. Shot through with the constant threat of death on the Home Front, it hints at the harsh realities of bereavement, orphaned children, prostitution and cowardice.
In the exhibition, Robert Westall talks about his lack of that clichéd “sense of wonder” as a child. “To me [...] the wonder was in the adults. I wanted to be an adult from the age of 5.” This is also the grim effect war has on children in The Machine Gunners, making them more grown-up than the grown-ups around them, until they end up robbing corpses, stealing and opening fire with a real gun. It’s a harrowing read, and I’d recommend it, whatever age you are.
What Once Upon a Wartime also achieves, sometimes brilliantly, is to show glimpses of the reality behind the fiction. There’s a letter on display addressed to Lord Kitchener, written during the drive to requisition horses for the war effort. It’s from a little girl called Frida, who is, she says, “…writing for our pony which we are very afraid may be taken for your army. Please spare her. [...] It would break our hearts to let her go. We have given two others and three of our own family are now fighting for you in the Navy.” (A good sense of priorities in her list: the horses, then the family members serving.)
It’s a relief to see a scribbled reply from Lord Kitchener’s office, reassuring Frida that “no horses under 15 hands shall be requisitioned.” I imagine Betty the pony safe in a quiet field on an English farm, the war to her only the distant rumble of passing planes.