The three of us moved cautiously past the ruins of the house and into the overgrown back garden. We were moving carefully as the long grass hid ankle-turning bricks, toe-stubbing baulks of timber and shin-barking pipes. We had learned of these obstacles the hard way in other similar sites, there being quite a few of them in our area. We knew the garden contained apple trees and we were checking on the ripeness of this season’s crop. The garden was comparatively large which was unusual. Few were in this part of the country where land was at a premium. The house had been a single storey dwelling, commonly known as a bungalow, another rarity. This was in a street in an up-market part of town where the houses were all single storey and all of different design. We three lived in two storey, semi-detached structures differing only in internal decorations and colour schemes. Less affluent but at least they were still standing.
There along the remains of the back fence were the trees. The apples must have been ripe because they had all gone. Some other bunch of scrumpers had beaten up to the prize. We stared at the fruitless branches for a few moments and then turned to retreat. One of our group spotted something over in the corner beside the blackened remains of the burnt garden shed. “Spuds” he exclaimed. Carefully we moved towards the yellowed, grub eaten leafy tops of the tubers. There was a lone plant among the weeds. Scrapping away the top soil with bare hands we rapidly uncovered a handful of egg sized, thin skinned potatoes. Further digging with a piece of fence paling uncovered a couple more. Sorting them out fairly required a bit of bargaining, but all of us were quickly satisfied with our share. Then our leader spotted a pile of dried prunings. “Let’s make a fire and roast them” he suggested. “I’ll go home and get some matches while you two break up some of those sticks and get the fire ready”. He was off and back in quick time. He must have run. We soon had a small fire crackling away and after the initial blaze had died down, tossed the salvaged vegetables onto the embers along with some more twigs. The potatoes were carefully watched and turned over periodically using two sticks. A smell of charred murphy’s mixed with the odour of the burning apple wood and we sniffed appreciatively. A single blackened sphere was rolled out of the fire and a sliver of wood driven in to determine if it was cooked. The judgement was that sufficient heat had been absorbed and the rest were rolled out. Gingerly they were hefted onto the piece of paling previously used for excavating. With fingers and twigs the exterior carbonised shell was removed revealing steaming white, charcoal-spotted delicacies. Within minutes they were no more.
We weren’t starving. On the contrary, it could be argued that we were the best fed generation of our century, meaning we received a balanced diet with adequate nutrition for growing boys. Yes, we were boys; six year old boys, living on the outskirts of London during World War Two. None of us were abnormally skinny but there was only one fat boy in our school and he was the local doctor’s son. Doctors got well paid, often in kind by grateful patients who grew vegetables on allotments and reared rabbits in hutches, but had little cash. I said we were not starving, but we were always hungry, particularly for anything sweet. Many years later in my early twenties, I went on a camping holiday with three other lads. We had challenged ourselves to live off the land as much as possible. We had rifles, spear guns, fishing rods and our wits. We feasted on wallaby, native hen, abalone, crayfish, stingray, parrotfish and leather jacket. We fared well on this high protein diet and I periodically relive that most enjoyable week. But those potatoes and their contribution to my diet have been a particularly fond memory.