Wartime childhood

Who on Earth is Tom Baker? An Autobiography

© Tom Baker 1997

Excerpt from chapter 1

My first ambition was to be an orphan. During the war of 1939-45, Liverpool was a good place to be. All routine was broken by the fear of death from the Germans’ bombs.

The pleasure of being a child at that time is not easy to describe without seeming flippant. But it was drama, high drama: fires at night, the fires that burned people’s houses away; bombs fell and left exotically shaped fragments in the form of shrapnel. And we collected it and traded it. As long as we were not hurt – and I wasn’t – life seemed wonderful. At the gasworks one night a landmine, which was a bomb on a parachute, had descended gently and was hanging from one of the arms of the gasometer. Hundreds of people gathered and stood around, conjecturing about the size of the bomb. Bets were placed. The police and the fire brigade tried to get the people clear of the scene and, with difficulty, did so. Grumbling and arguing people were forced away from the danger area bitterly resenting the bossiness of the authorities.

Policemen and air-raid wardens and fire watchers loved the power they had to shout at their neighbours and tell them what to do, and they exercised it. In the shelters we sat all night or until the “All Clear”. And people talked and talked and prayed and prayed that God would spare us. We were convinced, like all good Christians, that God was on our side.

Later, when prisoners of war began to be seen in the district we found them interesting and often very nice. My mother encouraged us to be kind to the Italian prisoners who reminded her that the Pope was Italian. The tall and ascetic Pius XII, Eugene Pacelli I think he was called in civvy street, had a big influence on us even then. That the Pope could be on the side of the enemy was easily explained away by the teachers and priests. The Italians were not really the enemy, it was all a misunderstanding. How could they possibly be the enemy when the Pope himself was Italian? But it was admitted that the Germans were the enemy even if they did go to Mass, carry rosary beads and have mothers. So there was no punishment if you threw stones at Germans, oh no. Italians innocent, Germans guilty; unless of course they could play the piano or keep goal like Bert Trautmann of Manchester City. Prayer became dramatic, as it always does in times of danger. Like exercise to a heart patient, it takes on an importance that makes us love it. And God, in His omnipresence was said to be everywhere, even in the hearts of the bombs. I worried about Him so much. I didn’t want Him to get hurt, and I prayed that He wouldn’t get hurt, and He always answered my prayers. He never did catch it.

The advantage of being an orphan sprang from the generosity of the American people. If your Dad or Mam were blown up then you really got some attention. Presents would arrive from America with a nice card from the President himself: funny hats and jackets that were considered very smart. At that time, the Superman comics were widely read and there were American soldiers all over the place. As American accents only reached us through the films, it was like being in a movie to meet them or to wear clothes that came from their country. We adored everything about America. We just could not get enough of it, from gum to caps to shirts with funny figures printed on them. We even copied the way the Americans walked, though Father Leonard didn’t like that bit of admiration. He disapproved of rolling buttocks.

The only drawback was that to qualify for the goodies your Mam had to be in Heaven. So I prayed hard that a bomb would drop on mine as she trudged home from the Sefton Arms…

Read an excerpt from chapter 8

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