The rather fancy, well-to-do area has changed dramatically since Garner's wartime childhood. He vividly conveys dirt and poverty and childhood disease. There's his parents coming to wave at him through a window when he's in hospital with diphtheria, or the childhood friend who he shared adventures with, and,
"Then Marina died." (p. 92)
It's just one example of a devastating punchline. I was particularly hit by his sweet description of the US soldiers stationed nearby, who he'd saluted and call to from his porch as they marched by, and they'd salute and call back as if he were an official watchman. The Yanks include an American despatch rider - "the first black face I'd seen" (p. 72) who is respectful to Garner's mum and gives the boy gum and chocolate, and you feel the connection made, reaching across the ocean from Garner's small, parochial world. It's warm and fun - and then undercut by the final words of the chapter.
"The Yanks went. Their ship was sunk, and they drowned. From the porch, I kept watch." (p. 76)
It's not just the Yanks who are lost; Garner is mourning people, phrases and ways of doing things long since gone. Not all of it is rose-tinted: there's a constant fear of bullies and fights, the teachers are just as capable of violence, and with the war on there's a constant threat of death - a feeling I think we've got used to living with again recently. It's vividly conveyed from the perspective of a child, too, so we sometimes have to join the dots to understand what's happening, such as how seriously ill he was. He's also not always well behaved, such as when he shoves his friend Harold into a clump of nettles.
At the end, we skip forward many years, to the 50s, the 70s and then beyond, with short anecdotes that pick up on elements from before. The book begins with child-Alan finding what he think might be an unexploded bomb; in 1955 and with experience from National Service, he knows to spot a real one. Then there's a sweet coda to a story about a contest at school, where he finally gets his due prize. And finally, a catch-up with Harold in later life.
Garner won a scholarship when still very young which took his life in a very different direction to Harold's - who bunked off school but retained a connection to the local area which came in useful later. In just a few short lines, he's the vividly realised character, putting a bit of stick into local meetings. My first sense was of Garner's envy. But that's not the raw emotion behind this whole exercise in remembrance. In the penultimate sentence of the book, Garner casually mentions "Harold's funeral". Having walked through the world he was part of, we really feel his loss.