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REVIEW - Knapworth at War

James Herriot - I laughed out loud at the account of the prisoners of war. It struck a chord because I have many memories of prisoners in our own community and the picture of German prisoners trooping in for their vast meal of eggs and bacon was one which could have been seen all over Yorkshire in those days.

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The sequel to Knapworth at War is a further collection of memoirs about life in a Leicestershire hamlet during the Second World War, seen through the eyes of a small boy.

With a population of sixty souls, Knapworth reacted to the outbreak of World War II with much the same phlegmatic gaze that it had faced most other national crises in the thousand-odd years of its existence.

Many of the stories will evoke memories for those old enough to have lived through the war, and is the stuff of legend for younger generations. There is the visit of the Man from the Ministry, intent on confiscating the elegant Georgian railings of Knapworth House for the war effort. There is the great National Pie Scheme, conceived in Whitehall, planned in secrecy and scorned by the Knapworth residents when their quota is delivered. There are evacuees who come and very quickly go and the village fete where the winner of the raffle gets a much-prized and rare banana.

The Italian prisoners-of-war were regarded as faintly exotic by the villagers, some of whom had never travelled further abroad than Leicester. Captured in the desert war, these reluctant warriors had carolled their way by troopship from North Africa to London, and so by train to Campo 49, an easy-going internment centre near Market Harborough. Here they joined a thousand more of their friends and compatriots, all bursting with joy at their release from danger and the excitement of life in a new country. Pietro, Lucco and Salvadori, billeted in the loft across our yard, were like those small rooftop birds which they so loved to eat. When it was cold they would withdraw into their nest under the eaves and go to bed or wash their hair and, to our fascination, don hairnets so they would look their best in more optimistic times. In the evening they would sing, and such was the beauty of the sound that Fred Quoylescockerel William went on strike out of professional envy. They loved children and we boys were soon invited into their loft for a special supper of pasta and HP sauce. The pasta they made themselves, drying the strands on an old clothes-horse hung over the stove. We didnt like the unfamiliar food, but there were so many other things to admire - a wooden flute of their on making on the cupboard, and rations from the Camp for barter. They were friendly and ingenuous and from the first day of their arrival most passers-by made an excuse to turn in at our gate and join in the hubbub of the yard.

Then there is Adam the gypsy, a source of endless fascination to the three small brothers with his basket full of treasures and the swaps of the week ration books, door-knobs, clothes-pegs which Adam made himself out of alderwood and strips of tin, mushrooms or eggs or red crab-apples. And since Adam lived from minute to minute it was a fresh surprise to him at every door he visited to roll away the outer covering and see, each time anew, his worldly possessions laid out before him.

This particular morning a complicated swap was on. Mother had three soda siphons and a pair of Fathers cricket shoes. Adam had a page of sweet coupons and two brass candlesticks. The question was whether any clothes-pegs needed to be added to the equation to make it balance.

Timothy Finn puts under his microscope a small village caught up in the toils of local life, in which the war was a distant and irritating intrusion. These affectionate stories evoke a timeless world tinged with the pleasure of nostalgia.

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