The Girl Next Door: Articles

This section contains interviews with Alan Ayckbourn about his play The Girl Next Door. Click on a link in the right-hand column below to access the relevant interview.

This is an article by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd written for the world premiere programme for The Girl Next Door. The article looks back on Alan Ayckbourn's personal memories of growing up during World War II and how these memories influenced the play

Lives in Lockdown

Articles by Alan Ayckbourn

Thoughts On A Lockdown

Articles by Other Authors

Lives in Lockdown (Simon Murgatroyd)
“I was born in 1939, so my earliest memories are of a sort of lockdown: of crowding into Anderson shelters or subway stations; of sleeping in deckchairs or on my mother’s lap. Things have come full circle for me.”
Alan Ayckbourn, 2021

On a terraced street in Canonbury, London, on an August morning, two households are experiencing lockdown. But things are not quite what they seem.

For whilst one household is set in a very familiar world which we have all experienced during a year of COVID and its seemingly myriad lockdowns, the other draws on another set of experiences and memories.

Alan Ayckbourn was born five months prior to the outbreak of Word War II and he recalls his entire youth was affected both by the war and its aftermath.

As two households experience two very different crises in
The Girl Next Door, Alan Ayckbourn talks about some of the memories which inspired the play.

“In 1942, I was three years old, just about taking note of the circumstances and the fact that, overnight, houses in the area seemed to get blown up. Which was quite strange. I remember going out on my trike one morning and pedalling around and the houses had vanished. Of course, they were just destroyed by air raids and were piles of rubble and kids would climb up them as though they were huge playpens!”

Unlike many children who were evacuated from London, Alan spent the majority of the war in the city with his mother - affectionately known as Lolly - living in Regent’s Park Mews, about an hour’s walk from the play’s setting of Canonbury in Islington.

As a result, he experienced both the Blitz campaign from September 1940 to May 1941 as well as the later Vengeance weapon bombings of 1944.

Alan’s earliest memory is sheltering with his mother in the Underground during a bombing raid, although his main concern was actually an imminent deckchair catastrophe.

“My mother - being my mother - hadn’t put the deckchair up properly and so we were lying there and we could hear the bombs above. And I thought, ‘oh the deckchair’s going to collapse in a minute and I don’t want to wake my mother up because she’s asleep at last.’ When I told her this story, she said, ‘I was lying there thinking, ‘Oh God, I’ve not put it up properly and I don’t to wake up my little boy.’ So we were both lying there considerately waiting to say, ‘excuse me, I think the deckchair’s about to collapse.’ And of course, neither of us said anything.”

As Alan and his mother lived alone in a flat, they didn’t have access to home shelters such as the outdoor Anderson shelters nor the indoors Morrison shelters. This meant some unusual sleeping precautions in case of air raids.

“I remember sleeping up the stairs at one point because there was advice that if you were caught at night out of a shelter, the safest place to be - if you didn’t have a Morrison Shelter in your house, which was sort of a reinforced steel table with mesh all around it - was to sleep on the stairs.

“I remember sleeping at the bottom of the stairs, curled up right by the front door and I was awoken every morning by the post coming through and clattering me on the face! “And my mother did herself severe damage as she was too long to sleep in that space. So she slept with her legs up the stairs and did her neck in. So we were both sleeping on the stairs because it was the narrowest part of the house and therefore, if there was a cave-in, we’d probably get minimum damage.”

Over eight months during 1940 and 1941, the German airforce staged an immense bombing campaign - the Blitz - which killed 43,000 civilians; equivalent to nearly half of Britain’s total civilian deaths for the whole war. More than a million houses and flats were damaged or destroyed.

Alan’s closest call during the Blitz is not something he remembers, but was recounted to him by his mother.

“One night, she’d nipped out to the pub leaving her child alone in the house. And there was an air-raid and she was caught out, she came back in the darkness desperately trying to see if I was still alive. A bomb had dropped opposite and gone off, blown out the windows of our house and my cot had just shot across the room. I was blown across the bedroom and I was still asleep!”
By 1944 with the tide turning against the Germans, they unleashed their Vengeance weapons - better known as the V1 and V2 missiles - which are still etched on the playwright’s mind almost 80 years on.

“I was old enough to be able to remember the doodlebugs and the V2s. I distinctly recall the sound of them coming over. There was a sort of rumour that some of them would stop and then just drop down absolutely whilst others, the rocket would cut out and they’d glide. So if you heard the sound cut out overhead, you’d be thinking, is this a glider or a dropper?

“By that time, we were sleeping in the bed rather than the staircase and I was sleeping with my mother and there was an air-raid. I remember this noise coming over, dum-dum-dum-dum-dum, and then it stopping and I remember sitting up in bed and it was the only time I ever saw my mother kneeling at the end of the bed praying and crying. I said, ‘what’s the matter?’

“And she was listening and then we heard this bang several streets away and the rocket had obviously glided. I remember thinking, ‘oh blimey.’ Sometimes I still think about it, I don’t think I realised at the time there was a bomb possibly about to drop on us.”

One of the less traumatic but no less affecting aspects of the war, which everyone in the country experienced, was rationing. Introduced in January 1940, practically everything but fruit and vegetables - although even they were in short supply - was rationed by the Government during the course of the war and beyond.

It puts into perspective the limited shortfalls experienced during the early days of Covid when you consider rationing did not end completely until 1954 when Alan was 15 years old.
“There was such a shortage of everything. My mother wasn’t a very good cook, but there wasn’t much to cook with anyway - except carrots. We were told carrots made you see in the dark and gave you everything you needed. I’m not convinced.
“There was no trace of a fridge back then either. We used to have a jar and you put your milk in it and you buried it to keep cool. Everything was always a bit off! Not seriously off. Our expectations in 1942 of having any possessions were zero. I still have these inbuilt things from growing up - I’m still obsessed with turning lights off.”

After the war, as some rationing eased, it also led to strange new experiences as Alan discovered when he was taken to the theatre for the first time.

“By the time I first went to a pantomime, the comedians were dishing out bananas to the kids. None of us had seen a banana before! They came into the audience and said: ‘’ere you are kid, have a banana.’ It was like eating candle-wax, I thought. Most of us found them disgusting - I remember taking a bite and going ‘eurgh.’”

It’s a wonder he wasn’t put off theatre for life!

Alan’s other vivid memories involve the arrival of the G.I.s into the war. The American troops began arriving in the UK during 1942 and over the course of the war, it is estimated more than three million Americans passed through the country.
“I remember the Americans arriving - most of them were called Al or something like that it seemed to me. Most of them had chewing gum and sweets as well as nylons for the ladies and all those gifts. They’d give the kids a few sweets and tell them to ‘bugger off’ and then chat up the ladies with the nylons. My mother called them all ‘uncles’: ‘Alan, this is Uncle Al, this is Uncle Zeph…’ So we had a good time - at least she did.”
Alan and his mother eventually evacuated at the end of the war, first to Weston-Super-Mare and then Grange-over-Sands in Cumbria, but he still recalls his mother finding more ‘uncles’ even there!

“My mother picked up a sailor - another of my ‘uncles’. Because they wanted to ‘get down to it’ on the beach and it was pretty empty, he had this ball and he would throw it - he had a hell of a good arm and could throw it miles. He’d say, ‘go fetch it, kid,’ so I’d run off and get it and I was very fast and I’d bring it back like a dog. And he’d be like ‘oh Christ’ and kept hurling the ball further and further away - probably put his arm out - but he never got anywhere with my Mum. Those were merry days.”

It’s impossible to draw direct parallels between the traumatic experiences of the country during World War II with the events of the past year, nor should we, but for Alan it has stirred memories and he has found parallels of experience.

“Life does go in cycles and what I find curiously interesting is that I’ve lived through that part of the cycle during the war and now I’ve gone all the way round back to that part of the cycle again! I’m pretty sure nothing’s moved on. All that’s happened is that social media has just made everyone more aware that there’s a lot of other people doing rather well out of this crisis: the myth of us all being in the same boat together, I guess, is even less convincing today.

“It was a strange time when I look back on it. It’s amazing we survived at all!”

Whilst these extraordinary memories inform
The Girl Next Door alongside all our shared experiences of the COVID lockdown, Alan is quick to point out this is not a play which draws on the horrors of these experiences, but instead looks for something positive and uplifting for us all as life slowly, hopefully, begins to return to normal.

The Girl Next Door is an affirmation of love across the generations - I hope it’s positive and hopeful for those today crawling out of their metaphorical Anderson shelters blinking into the light.”

Article by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do note reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.