I started Mary Hocking reading early with A Time of War, a 1968 first edition that I paid a little more than I usually would – and I am so glad that I did. We are in very recognisable Mary Hocking territory here, among people working and living together under difficult circumstances. Characters are real people, flawed yet sympathetic within an ever changing world. Mary Hocking’s novels are very rooted in an English landscape – those set in London are just as set within a very recognisably English world too. Here we find ourselves in the wood fringed airfields of the West Country in war time.
“A little snow fell during the week, but did not settle. The fields remained covered with frost like a fine crumble of pastry and the trees were faintly blurred, their stark outlines clotted by frost. In the daytime the sky was cloudless, at night it had a faint reddish tinge. It was very pretty, like an old fashioned Christmas card. Only the water in the millpond, mirroring the trees with razor-sharp precision, seemed to admit the reality of winter.”
A Time of War gives a Wren’s eye view of war and the first tastes of freedom that it brings. A group of young women come together in hut 8 of Guillemot; a Fleet Air Arm training station in the West Country. These young women are not very long out of school, away from home for the first time, learning new skills while becoming a part of the services world. Kerren, newly arrived from Northern Ireland sees the war as a romantic dream; she is one of a couple of meteorological Wrens. The weather information they provide vital to the safety of the pilots that fly out of Guillemot. Along a cedar path through the woods is cabin 8 which Kerren shares with the women who will become so important to her, and with whom she will share so much. Flame haired Robin, who wishes to escape a conventional life in Cheltenham, Hazel obsessed with her brother’s brilliance, Beatie a beautiful, popular man magnet, homely Jessie who envies the confidence and experience of some of her friends and air mechanic Cath destined to fall for a married man.
“I don’t think anything is nice in Civvy Street. It’s so meagre and grey and anxious. It’s made Mother that way, too, scrabbling about after food like a worn old chicken. And Father practically lives at the office because he can’t get any staff.”
The met.office where Kerren and Robin both work is commanded by Lieutenant Commander Hunter, a haunted man whose behaviour begins to cause concern. Lieutenant Adam Grieve, a widower still suffering from the loss of his family, is in day to day charge. Kerren is confident in her ability to plot a chart accurately, and she is keen to show off her ability. Life in the met. office is a round of tension, tea-making and petty bickering, quiet lulls replaced by sudden and frantic action.
On her first day in the met.office, Kerren meets pilot Peter Shaw; Kerren thinks she dislikes Peter at once with his slightly longer hair and suggestion of sideburns. Peter’s name has been linked with Beatie, yet at a party, Peter makes his preference for Kerren obvious, and Kerren is soon spending more and more time with him. Kerren’s success with Peter raises a few eyebrows, but Kerren isn’t too worried what others might think. Feigning nonchalance Beatie shrugs off the loss of Peter’s interest, and moves on seamlessly to the next man on the horizon. Robin becomes involved with the care free American; Con, a relationship which ironically will take her back to just the kind of life she was so anxious to escape.
Kerren marries Peter after a whirlwind affair, while the reality of war is brought starkly home to the women who live together in cabin 8 when sudden and irrevocable losses come out of the blue. Their lives are a round of tedium and waiting for things to happen, interspersed with gossip, bitchiness and the usual agonies of very young women over their latest boyfriends. The women share cold and hunger as they crouch over the cabin stove each evening. Kerren’s head is firmly in the clouds as she seems stubbornly unaware of her young husband’s mood swings.
“Con was astonished at how much Peter had changed. His face had become the most vivid Con had ever seen, not by virtue of personality but because it betrayed so nakedly the forces which tore at him. The eyes were bright as though a thin protective skin had peeled away and every tiny particle of light stabbed, producing an unbearable pain; this pain jerked open the mouth and laughter gushed out inconsequently and as inconsequently died away. The face knew no repose; a nerve throbbed at the temple and the left eyelid was weak and twitched continuously. The limbs moved jerkily as though the co-ordination of mind and muscle was breaking down. To Con it seemed that this man’s own body had turned against him and was gradually destroying him.”
A Time of War is a wonderfully engaging novel which plunges the reader into the world of the Fleet-Air Arm as it works hard and plays hard. I particularly liked how Hocking’s women are portrayed realistically, they aren’t all heroic little angels, nor are they presented as silly little tarts – they each have their own foibles, and concerns, but first and foremost they are normal young women, away from home for the first time, caught up in unusual times.
The Hopeful Traveller which continues the story of several of these characters in peacetime was published two years later, a book I am so glad I already had, as I have been able to move straight on to it.