Life During Wartime

This year, 2023, is the 100th anniversary of my parish, Our Lady of Lourdes, in north London. As part of the celebrations the parish priest, Fr David, asked me to edit a commemorative book about the parish and its history. So last week I made an appointment to visit the archives of the Diocese of Westminster, where I was given the box containing the parish archives.

Among the papers I found a copy of a previous commemorative booklet, one that had been produced to mark the 20th anniversary of the parish’s founding. Only, this was in 1943, in the middle of World War II. Among the other items in the booklet was a poem, modelled on Rudyard Kipling’s If, telling what life was like in a north London suburban parish that had seen much bombing due to the main east coast railway line running through the parish. The poem was written by the parish priest, Fr Joseph Sunn, who founded the parish in 1923. It is one of the most vivid portraits of what life was like for the people on the home front that I have ever read and finding it in the archive was an inexpressible delight.

For the first time in 80 years, you can read it too. Below are pictures of the text, and below that my transcription of the poem.

(with apologies to Kipling)

Fr Joseph Sunn

If you can keep your head when, all about you,
Old London burns, and feel IT’S UP TO YOU
And, grasping mask, shield, pipe, pump, tin hat, shovel,
Put out your fire – and perhaps your neighbours too.
If you can wait, and not be bored by waiting,
For the “All Clear” which means some blessed sleep,
And rise, when your alarm – an hour later –
Says, “Time for work!” (No breakfast, that must keep.)
If you can dream, and not make dreams your masters,
If you can think, and not make thoughts your aim;
Remember pre-war juicy steaks and onions,
Eat bread and marge – but pay about the same.
If you can meet the nightmare weekend shopping,
Hear shopmen call in chorus, “No! No!! No!!!
“Bananas, what are they?” “Eggs, perhaps next Friday:
If I should hear of one I’ll let you know.”
If you can watch the crazy world about you,
Not criticise, but grin and keep your wits,
They’ll put you in the history books, and call you,
“The Sleepy Britishers who beat the Blitz.”
If you can travel on the tubes and buses
With half a dozen people on your feet,
And in the evening queue up for a sausage
Before you take the foul thing home to eat;
If you can wash up nasty pans and dishes,
Then – spurning slippers – put on heavy boots
And, taking turnip seeds, fork, spade and shovel,
Pull up your favourite rose tree by the roots.
If you can force your nerve, and heart, and sinew
To do a little more than just your whack.
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the will which says to you, “HIT BACK!”
If you can say “I’ve done my bit already,
But I’ll do more to help the fighting man;
If I can’t drop a bomb, or fire a rifle,
By heck, I’ll buy one for the chap who can!”
But you HAVE done these things, and will continue
To do two jobs each day instead of one
(On half the rations too, instead of double),
You may be doing three before you’re done!
But you have found the all-deciding answer,
No one will rule you with a Nazi rod,
Three years ago you stood alone, unaided,
But in your heart you knew you stood with God.
If you can put your faith in Him, your Father,
Not ask “Why send this war?” “What have I done?”
(Not only sinners suffer on the journey,
To weariness and pain He sent His Son.)
You on God’s side, and at His side, rebuilding
A new world on His pattern, brave and clear,
Already in the East the clouds are breaking –
Work, when you look again, Dawn may be here!


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