ld memories - really old ones - are sometimes unreliable. We often discover that what we remember as a huge building which we often walked past as a child turns out, when we revisit it as an adult, to be far less grand than we took it to be; or that some vast playground, say, near our childhood home, becomes, in the clear and unromantic light of day when we go back as adults, no more than a modest corner of a small park to which we were taken before we started primary school. In this way the passing of the years can tell us to be cautious about claiming too much in the way of dramatic or significant events that we suppose took place, just as we remember them, when we were small children.
Like everyone, I have my share of such recollections. I am convinced that I remember, accurately, that I once asked my father why I was placed, in or on whatever bedding my parents provided, under the dining room table when it was time for me to sleep. His reply - that if a bomb landed on the house it would have to go through the roof and then the ceiling and then the table in order to do any harm - sounds plausible when considered as the sort of reassurance a man might offer to a small child. But I was born in January 1943, and I make no claim to be a precocious child who could hold a conversation before I was even much of a toddler. Yet the memory is clear. I do remember, quite accurately, that my father was a very cautious man - I realised this as I grew up. I know that he experienced the blitz, and indeed was caught in a shower of incendiaries that fell around him as he made his way home to Roland Avenue, Holbrooks, after a shift at the Dunlop factory. He subsequently told me that he took up heavy smoking the following day in order to calm his nerves; and he was, many years later, to die of lung cancer; so it is not too fanciful to say that the firebombs started a very protracted causal chain that would eventually end his life. Anyway, even in 1945, just before peace was declared, he would I am sure have doggedly insisted that V weapons might conceivably land on our house. And those who know about such things tell us that a child can have a vocabulary of 200-300 words by the age of two... so this seemingly implausible story - an unlikely-seeming exchange of words - is something which I choose to believe is true.
I have another memory, however, about which I have discovered there can be no doubt at all. As a small boy, I too once found myself, like my father before me, making my way home to our house in Roland Avenue. I recall that it was the start of a sunny day, and a simple application of logic tells me that it could not have been a schoolday; the temporary primary school which I attended was a long way off in Holbrook Lane, and I was always taken there by my mother, who likewise collected me at the end of the day. So what I am about to describe must have taken place at the weekend, when I sometimes wandered down Roland Avenue on my own. I was, I can clearly remember, walking past the entrance to some fields, in the middle of which was a path which led to the Parkgate hotel, a pub which my parents sometimes went to and where I used to search for walnuts, still in their green husks, half hidden in the grass underneath the trees at the edge of the fields. On this particular day I had not found any. There was hardly any traffic in those days, and the avenue was very quiet. I suddenly heard a very loud bang, seemingly from a long way off. I turned to look back toward Hen Lane, and was mesmerised to see, in the clear blue sky, a large number of what I thought were pieces of silver tinsel, each with flames erupting from them, along with other, falling objects which I took to be wreckage. I stood quite still, unable to take my eyes off them until they finally disappeared behind a row of distant houses.
When I got home I told my parents (both were at home, which further reinforced my conviction, years later, that it could not have been a weekday). At some point later I was told that a plane had exploded in mid air, and in the following days other children helped put together a story (probably true and untrue in equal measure) that bodies had been found on the ground and that rings and wristwatches had been stolen from them by bad people.
For many years I carried this memory (which always seemed to present itself in slow motion), perhaps the most vivid one of my childhood, without knowing exactly what had happened. I always harboured a suspicion that the plane would probably have been a DC3, the workhorse passenger plane that had been produced in thousands during the 2nd World War. Then, as a middle-aged man living at the time in Lancashire, I decided to try to find out what it was I had witnessed. I emailed the Coventry Evening Telegraph with my story, and an extraordinarily diligent and helpful member of the staff took the trouble to send me a large brown envelope; it contained photocopies of the pages of the paper that appeared on February 19th 1949 - a Saturday - with a report of a collision between a Dakota (sure enough, a DC3) and an RAF trainer in the sky above Exhall. It took place at 10 am on a sunny, cloudless, weekend day - just as I remembered. The report states that "... the accident took place at a height of about 1,000 feet... one of the planes burst into flames." One witness saw "thousands of pieces breaking off". All 14 people aboard the two aircraft were killed. The location clinches what I remember also: if you stand in Roland Avenue facing Hen Lane, and stare at the sky, you are looking in the direction of Exhall.
So this shower of burning silver turns out to be a memory which is quite accurate, and not one that has been embroidered or exaggerated by the passage of time or the inventiveness of imagination. It is no fine thing, as a six year old, to have witnessed a plane crash and the loss of life which accompanied it; but you can't choose what you are sometimes confronted with, still less choose to forget it.