David Bean’s War

67 Castlebar Road,
Ealing, London W.5.
August 28, 1939

Dear Dad,

I trust this finds you, Mother, Don, Gillian, and Ann as fit as you looked at the seaside last week. From the news this week, I fear it was the last of our family holidays together for some time. Lucky we got it in before Germany signed up with Russia. Now, we can only hope the German people can persuade Hitler not to go to war. Meanwhile, I’m stuck here in West London. No phone, of course, nor any hope of getting one. But the rent’s low and they let me use their well-tuned piano. Also, they never complain about my violin. Best of all Ealing’s on both the Central and District tube lines and within thirty minutes of work available at any concert or dance hall west of Piccadilly.

I’m grateful, Dad, for our long chat on the way back to the boarding house on Sunday. Sorry I got us lost for a while, but it did give us a chance to talk without interruption from my giddy little sisters.

As mentioned, I’ve done much soul-searching, particularly since conscription started last spring. While I realise the Montreal job at McGill University’s music school looks specially tempting for someone my age, I agree with you that a man must do his duty and all that. I can’t abandon my country in face of attack, but rushing into battle seems equally abhorrent.

Please try to see it from my view. I do feel proud of Britain’s pledge to support Poland. I can’t blame my friends in Berlin, mostly musicians, for Hitler invading Czechoslovakia. I simply cannot risk killing a fellow student, a teacher, or their families. Many of them welcomed me into their homes like a son or brother. All the ones I know hate Hitler. As do I, of course.

All this ruminating brought me to decide, yesterday morning, to register as a Conscientious Objector, a “conchie,” as our neighbours in the village will no doubt call me. Please understand my motives and don’t take me for a coward.

So I found my way up the hill to the recruitment centre in St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church basement, where they used to hold cookery sales and children’s pageants. Today, instead of the gleeful ring of reedy voices fighting over the best costumes among racks of musty clothes, I heard a sergeant’s far-from-dulcet tones shouting, “Take off your knickers, boys, and line up for the nice doctor.”

About thirty of us dutifully queued up by nine o’clock, all shivering in our birthday suits and holding bundles of clothes over our modesty, while men in khaki stomped around in army boots and shouted orders. The uniformed men looked a darned sight better fed than most of the skinny recruits, some with ribs even showing through their backs. At least this conscription will mark the end of the Depression.

At any rate everyone treated me well. The sergeant told me, “It’s good you came and signed up on your own before getting called up. Should count in your favour.”

They said they’d assign me to “an essential job” until they decide what I’m “fit for.” Not sure what that means, but I put myself down as willing to go to the front with a medical unit in any capacity needed. I just don’t want to kill anyone, Dad.

Will write in a couple of days. Meanwhile, tell Don he can use my gramophone but keep the needles sharp and never ever touch my long-playing Beethovens.

Your loving son,

Ealing, London, W.5.
October 5, 1939.

Dear Don,

Am still at same address. Glad you’re taking on the mantle of Elder Brother now I’m away, and that Gillian asked you what she should do. She’s only fourteen, for heaven’s sake! Tell her to keep studying. After she takes matric., she can join the Women’s Land Army. She likes gardening and we need more home-grown food in order to be self-sufficient. Meanwhile, she and young Ann should keep up the voice training and knitting. I’d appreciate some warm socks for Christmas. And tell Ann not to worry about growing too tall. It runs in the family. Later, she can be a fashion model, like Mother before I arrived.

Please be advised you should be proud of your big brother, who is now on the front line of—drum-roll, please—a fish-paste factory.

My call-up papers arrived last week. Sorry for not writing immediately but I didn’t want to worry Mum and Dad until I knew where they’d send me. I’ve written to them separately.

The factory’s within cycling distance, in West Acton. It consists of two Nissen huts stuck together, end to end, backing onto a park dug up for allotments. Since our family name is Bean, and, as usual, I’m the tallest and skinniest, they have dubbed me “String.” The family running the factory hails from Ireland, as do most of the workers. I’m the only conchie, but they say they don’t mind because the Irish aren’t at war “at all, at all.” Youngest, at barely fourteen, are Pat and Jacko.

These fine autumn days we take our tea breaks out back by the allotments where I play penny whistles and spoons with the two lads. We’re quite the trio in our matching general-issue hairnets and white cotton lab coats.

Last spring, the boss—he of “Shearing Fish Pastes: Finest in the World—installed the latest in fish-paste-making equipment: extruders, grinders, mixers, and steam ovens. I started out on the extruder, which is Men’s Work, although the more burly girls pitch in when we’re short handed.

Hard to imagine how it works? Well, Mr. Shearing’s secret recipe gets pumped through overhead pipes running the length of the two Nissens to four outlets pointing down to the raised counters where we stand at the ready. The mixture comes out at these four stations looking like something the dog might extrude from his rear end. We hold up our little jars, skim off the excess with spatulas, drop the jar in a segmented metal tray and whip up another jar in time to catch the next dollop. All day, all night, it goes, in three shifts, in a steady rhythm with teams of three to an extruder pipe so there’s always a jar held high.

I’m developing strong muscles lugging the metal trays and crates to the pressure ovens, where the steam seals the jars and cooks the mix. A constant din comes from the bottles rattling on metal punctuated by pops and squeaks from the half-dozen ovens. One day I’ll write a concerto for fish-paste jars, crates, and ovens. Our most exciting moments in this dangerous war work happen when glass jars shatter, for we must beware of glass shards and boiling hot steam when the oven doors clang open. And all this to the merry tunes of “Music While You Work” blaring from the radio.

Mr. Shearing himself, a distinguished man with white hair and moustache, stands erect in his lab coat, guarding the mixers and peering down the assembly line through thick spectacles. Shearing oversees the correct apportioning of ground herring to tomatoes, or shrimp to filler. Two fat and warty women, Florrie and Gertie, with huge raw hands the colour of lobsters and faces to match, strip the fish, or rip heads and tails off shrimp. At tea time, Florrie and Gertie wax quite outspoken about their private, um, relations with their husbands, which they find infrequent and unsatisfactory. My older mates suggest the ladies might inject some romance into their marriages by wearing frilly knickers and washing the smell of fish off their hands before leaving the factory, suggestions they whisper to one another because they wouldn’t want to rile those two knife-wielding worthies.

We’re not supposed to talk while working, but everyone’s adept at speaking out the side of the mouth while watching out for Mr. Shearing’s keen and angry looks. My mates may seem a rough and common lot at first, but many times they’ve covered for my slowness with the spatula and clumsiness with bottles and crates.

By the way, I only got lost twice while cycling to and from work. A new record!

Bests from your older brother,

Acton Hospital,
Gunnersbury Lane,
London, W.3.
November 13, 1940.

Dear Don,

A beautiful hospital volunteer—married, alas!—is penning this for me.

Around three this morning I came off night shift to find shrapnel raining down like red-hot bullets pattering and jumping on the pavement. A full moon and noisy night, with ack-ack guns pounding, tracer bullets popping, and vicious explosions in the distance. About four blocks from the factory I hopped off the bike and into a street shelter. With all the racket, no one was asleep, so they got everyone singing (off-key mostly) until we heard a German bomber drone directly overhead and all went quiet. We waited some seconds for what we dreaded, then ducked—you can’t really help it—as we heard the usual Doppler scream of bombs. We counted two strings of bombs, but only ten explosions, close together. Each impact rocked the shelter. People muttered, “Some poor devil’s getting it.” A man upchucked into a fire bucket in a corner. We waited for the eleventh and twelfth explosions, but the last two must’ve been duds or set to go off later. When the ground stopped shaking we all ran out and I nearly choked on the smell of burning herring and tomato paste. I headed straight back to Shearing’s. I’ll never forget the sounds of wardens and First Aid people clearing a path through the broken glass, blowing whistles and shouting to one another as they strung lines of garden hose and formed bucket brigades to get water to the fires. I found the front office and the mixing and extruding area had suffered a direct hit: nothing left but shattered glass and burning debris covered in pink fish paste, all eerily lit by a wooden shed burning in the park and the light of the full moon.

Under two blankets lay the bodies of little Jacko, the Irish lad, and poor old Florrie, looking like a grey beached whale. The wardens told me both died instantly when the corrugated iron roof collapsed. Gertie, who’d arrived early for the morning shift, was inconsolable. Pat got trapped, unconscious, with the burning counter crushing one leg and the rest of the building about to cave in. We couldn’t wait for the firemen. We used whatever we could to lever the counter off him. As soon as we got the lad clear we helped a First Aider tie a tourniquet on his thigh.

We were looking for warm coats to keep Pat from going into shock when Mr. Shearing padded through the glass in carpet slippers and red silk quilted dressing gown, which he pulled off to cover the boy. He looked like some broken down old tramp standing there in his striped ‘jammies, taking in the smouldering mess, sodden with water from hoses and stirrup pumps.

I warned the wardens I suspected two unexploded bombs had landed somewhere in the area, and waited with Pat for the ambulances. As we left, the back allotments exploded, twice, sending up massive clods of earth. We had to dodge a hailstorm of earth, potatoes, cabbages, carrots, and clods of earth. The noise from this debris drumming down was augmented, but not enhanced, by the arrival of emergency vehicles making their usual clanging racket to keep people out of the way. At Acton Hospital they put some whopping bandages on my hands to cover burns I hadn’t noticed when helping to free Pat. The doctor and pretty nurses assure me my paws weren’t badly damaged, but for a few days they’ll be dressing and undressing me. For the family honour, of course, I try to resist, but (blush) they insist.

They’ll probably send me overseas now, unless I get lost on the way.

Love to Mum, Dad, and the girls. Will write to them all.

Your favourite brother,

P.S. Poor young Pat lost his leg above the knee but will survive ok.

ATEU: Allied Troop Entertainment Unit,
Somewhere in Italy.
May 25, 1944

Dear Folks,

That is what the Yanks call their families. ATEU (otherwise known as “Atchoo!”) assigned me to team up with a Yank, also a musician (clarinet and violin), Bob Shoupelli. Our mates call us “Shoup and Beansh.” He comes from New York, though his “folks” were born in Florence and emigrated right before the Depression.

Anyway, we are elated here on the Italian front. The people treat us with great courtesy and warmth, particularly since Shoup speaks first-class Italian. Best of all, Shoup discovered a musical family and together, we formed our own quintet. They’re the Fratellinis. Imagine this, Gillian and Ann: Signora Fratellini or her sister chaperones the two oldest daughters (flute and divine cello) whenever we’re there. The distinguished Signora, a fine cook, has practically adopted us. Here in censored for the past d weeks, Shoup brings them food to cook from the U.S. army canteen. They can’t grow anything because retreating German troops land-mined the fields. We sit down in their tapestried dining room, in the un-bombed part of the house, to delicious meals on real plates, with wine—such a treat after months of dreadful army food. But this will soon end. For my sins, I have been assigned to pppddddddppp, renowned for its nnnn old nnnnnnnnnnn and beautiful ppppppp. I leave on nnnnnnnn.

However, my dear ones, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel of war and look forward to seeing you all again soon. Please send along photos to show the Fratellinis. The youngest sister (flute) wants to see Don in his naval uniform. Also send Mother’s, Gillian’s, and Ann’s foot sizes. Shoup gets genuine nylon stockings from the PX.

Stay safe.

Your loving son and brother,


ATEU: Allied Troop Entertainment Unit,
Somewhere in Italy.
June 8, 1944

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Bean,

I met your son shortly after landing at Anzio. We played music together all the time, and a happy association it was. David had a brilliant career ahead of him. He played every chance he had: washboard and spoons in hillbilly sessions, jazz or swing piano, or classical violin in quintets with an Italian family of musicians who “adopted” us in nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn.

I can only imagine what a difficult time this must be for you, but I want you to know that David was a fine soldier who never compromised on his determination not to be responsible for the death of another human being.

Like you, I cling to the idea that he may yet be alive, but perhaps wounded, in one of the smaller towns or villages the unit passed through, or maybe he has lost his way somewhere. He set out for mmmmmmmmm on nnnnnnnn on a small motorbike, borrowed from one of the sappers. I should never have let him go out on his own.

Be assured that I shall somehow find a Jeep and set out to find him. I know he would do the same for me.

Yours sincerely,
Bob Shoupelli.

ATEU: Allied Troop Entertainment Unit,
Somewhere in Italy.
July 10, 1944.

Dear Mum, Dad, Gail, Ann, and Don,

Confirming my telegram, I am indeed very much alive, although not thanks to any superior brain power.

I was riding along the road to dddddddddddd to see the iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii on a borrowed motorbike, a noisy two-stroke putt-putting thing, and as usual was wondering if it was the right road, when I saw four German soldiers ducking behind a hedge. I cut the engine and cried out, “Halt!” and they froze. “Ich bin ein freund,” I said.

They looked rather sceptical of this, until I explained that I’d studied in Berlin and had lots of jolly German friends, and would never kill anyone.

The leader of these lads, none of them over seventeen, laughed and slapped me on the back, saying, “Freund? Ah, freund!” Then the weasels had the cheek to tear off my uniform and dress me up in one of theirs. It was filthy and miles too small. The tallest donned my uniform, rolled up the sleeves and trouser legs, straddled the bike and pretended to be a British officer. Two others took each of my arms and a third walked behind me. You can guess the idea was for Motor-Bike Fritz to look like the brave British lieutenant bringing in four scallywag German deserters.

We continued this way for a while, with me watching my chance to run, until we came on a group of British Tommies, who promptly arrested the lot of us.

I ended up being interrogated by our own Military Police who, soon as they heard me talking German to my erstwhile “freunds,” accused me of spying. I haven’t been in that much trouble since I took a wrong turn in Portsmouth and ended up behind the WRENs’ barracks’ bathhouse with a dozen half-naked women screaming for my blood.

And then, out of the blue, Shoupelli drives up in what he calls “a hot Jeep.” He managed to convince the authorities that I was merely a musician, incapable of thinking up a ridiculous spy plot, and totally incompetent of finding my way from Point A to B.

Apart from that, it looks as if we may go to lllllllllllllllllllll in the near future.

Yesterday’s news of Caen falling is welcome indeed. We’re all sick and tired of war, many of us having walked practically from the bottom of Italy to iiiiiiiiiiiii.

But I love Italy and the Italians. Shoupelli and I plan to return after the war to study composition in iiiiiiiiiiiiii, where we enjoyed making music with the Fratellinis. We might all apply for work at McGill University or form a swing band or play at the Albert Hall.

I’m alive and almost drunk on the freedom to make plans for the future again. What else can I tell you?

Your ever-loving son and brother,

Pauline Clift has enjoyed QWF programs with Elaine Kalman Naves, Robert Majzels, Joel Yanovsky and Colleen Curran. She has gratefully received support from the Banff Centre for the Arts and Canada Council for her current book-length project about a family in London struggling through the Second World War.