Whistling in the Dark - Shirley Hughes


Like my earlier novel, Hero on a Bicycle, this story is set in the Second World War, but in a very different place: a suburb of Liverpool during the terrifying winter of 1940– 41, when the city was relentlessly bombarded almost every night by Hitler’s Nazi airforce, the Luftwaffe.

I was living there then, aged thirteen, so it was very easy for me to imagine what it was like for Joan, my fictional heroine, her mum, her older sister, Audrey, her brother, Brian, and her younger sister, Judy (who, like all younger sisters, can be a bit of a pain at times!). Their father was lost at sea while serving in the Merchant Navy, and the family are struggling on as best they can.

Wartime, when it was not frightening, could be very boring. There were no holidays – the seaside was covered with barbed wire and gun emplacements. Travel was discouraged unless absolutely necessary, and endless time was spent queuing for food. The rationing system was very fair but restrictive – just enough to keep everyone healthy. Luxuries like sweets were a rarity. Nice clothes and, worst of all, nylon stockings, were almost unobtainable. Except, of course, on the black market, which no patriotic person would have stooped to using.

All troublesome enough, but in Whistling in the Dark, everything is further complicated because Joan’s mum is being courted by the pompous bore Captain Ronnie Harper Jones. None of the children, except Judy, can stand him. He is stationed locally and never seems to be short of much-coveted luxury food supplies.

Despite the war and trouble at home, Joan and her friends somehow manage to have a good time, going to the cinema (Blitz-allowing), collecting salvage with a handcart and listening to the radio.

It is into this scene that a mysterious man appears – first seen by Joan as a face at the window. And a series of events unfold which emanate from Nazi-occupied Europe, where conditions make life in war-torn Britain look like a bed of roses.

But the real heroes of this story are the men of the Merchant Navy, who, like Joan’s dad and Audrey’s boyfriend, Dai, risked their lives to bring food and vital supplies across the icy U-boat-infested Atlantic Ocean and saved Britain from starvation and defeat. They were poorly paid and ill-armed to retaliate when they were attacked, and their bravery is one of the great heroic achievements of the Second World War.


North-west England, autumn 1940

“There’ll always be an England

While there’s a country lane,

Wherever there’s a cottage small

Beside a field of grain.


Joan Armitage snapped the radio off, bringing Vera Lynn’s famous voice to an abrupt stop. That song was definitely not one of her favourites. She preferred the big American swing bands like Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller, which played really hot dance music. Anyway, it was especially irritating to hear Vera going on about cottages and fields of grain when there wasn’t anything like that here in their suburb, near Liverpool, in north-west England. Now, in wartime, even the beach was full of barbed wire and heavy artillery gun emplacements.

Joan was supposed to be concentrating on her French homework. Mum was always telling her that you couldn’t do school work properly with the radio on. But if you were the one who actually had to do the work, you knew better. Music lightened the load a bit.

Joan sighed and picked up the grammar book. No one else was home yet, so this was as good a time as any to get on with it. Her big sister, Audrey, was staying the night with her best friend, Pat, and Mum had taken Judy – the most annoying six-year-old on the planet – to a jumble sale in aid of the war effort. Joan’s brother, Brian, who had a half hour bicycle ride back from the grammar school, wasn’t in yet.

The sitting room at the back of the house was freezing cold, as usual. Mum might light the fire when she came in, but you weren’t supposed to have any heating on until evening because coal was in short supply.

It was late in the afternoon, but Joan did not want to close the blackout curtains yet. Instead, she pulled her chair over to the window to catch the last of the daylight. It was very still outside. She could hear the gulls crying as they swooped and wheeled over the miles of shining estuary mud out beyond the golf course. It was a sad, insistent sound, like