Robert S. Arbib’s book of that name, subtitled “The Notebook of an American Soldier in Britain” was published in 1946.
Arbib was an American engineer employed on airfield construction. He was also Base postal clerk whilst stationed at Debach and then Wattisham and visited Sudbury on a regular basis to pick up and drop mail. He formed a deep affection for Sudbury and its people. Among those he described with great affection were Joan Ramsey, who worked at the Post Office and lived in Queens Road, Daphne, who delivered meat for Cook’s the butchers and lived next to the Half Moon PH, and Vic Goodman, the manager of the Midland Bank. He was also a frequent guest at the Gainsborough Hotel, owned by John Merricks but run by the indefatigable Winnie Offord. A few short extracts must suffice to give a flavour of this delightful book.
a. On the impact that airfield construction had on the historic East Anglian landscape:
“And so it was with regret shared by many of us, that I watched it slowly disintegrate and disappear before my eyes, as a result of our relentless handiwork. As each new field was invaded by our crushing machines, as each new hedgerow was smashed and uprooted and shattered, as each great oak succumbed before axe and dynamite and bulldozer, we felt a pang. For there is nothing quite as final, quite as levelling as an aerodrome.”
He describes how one farmer had tried to chased the construction workers away:
“But that farmer was an oft-repeated symbol- a sad man clinging to his heritage, refusing to believe what he knew to be true, that the field that he had ploughed for years, the soil that he had planted and tended, the beets that he had planted and hoed and weeded, would soon be under eight inches of concrete; that the cottage in which he and his grandfather and his great grandfather had lived and died would disappear before his eyes.”
b. On Sudbury girls:
“We could never solve the enigma of where the pretty girls came from or why, on this island of attractive girls, Suffolk seemed to stand out, and, in Suffolk, Sudbury above the rest. But we were sure we had found a secret and unexplored paradise.”
c. On local Anglo-American relations:
“Nowhere in England had a finer or more friendly relationship been established than here in my favourite English town. Everywhere were evidences of it. An Anglo-American club had been established. …The soldiers came for parties and dances and behaviour was exemplary. Americans had given baseball matches for charity. Americans were being married in Sudbury churches. They had been invited to use the local swimming pool and reciprocated by teaching Sudbury children to swim and dive…. There had been countless personal friendships formed. There were picnics and fetes; sometimes Sudbury people invited the soldiers, and sometimes the soldiers invited Sudbury children for big parties. …. Americans had fallen into the swing of Sudbury life and were taking part in it; few Sudbury homes were lacking in American friends.”
d. On an evening on the Croft in October 1944:
“At Sudbury the meadows are broad and green, and the river flows close to the edge of the old buildings that spring up from its eastern bank. You can walk down to the river across the green in front of St. Gregory’s church, cross a little bridge and sit on a bench under the plane trees, and look out across the meadows to the fields that rise beyond them, and the line of tall trees crowning them. You cannot get much closer to the heart of England anywhere.
I sat and looked over the meadows, and lit a cigarette. Presently an old man came along with a dog, leading his cows. The cows stopped and eyed me, slowly and patiently, each in their turn, and then moved off down the path and turned over the bridge, paused, and then lumbered out on to the meadow. “Evening,” said the old man.
“Evening,” I answered.
A boy came along with a basket of apples, and offered me an apple, turning the basket to find me a bright red one. “Cox’s Orange,” he told me. “Good eating apples. You can tell when they are ripe if you hear the pips rattle.” So we shook the apples until we heard the pips rattle, and then we each ate one.
“I was doawn here this morning,” the boy said, “just afore sun-up, to gather mushrooms.” Lots of mushrooms on the midders this toim of year, he explained. “But you’ve got to get here early to find them.”
“Well, tea toim,” said the boy. “Cheerio, then” and he walked away.
The shadows had lengthened across the green meadows, and the water in the Stour river had darkened almost to black.
You would never have known that there was a war being fought on this island and elsewhere in the world. Or that this was the twentieth, and not the seventeenth or eighteenth century. Not until you looked across the meadow again, and saw, white and ugly under a copse of willows, like one monstrous overgrown white mushroom, a concrete pillbox.
The bell in St Peter’s tolled, and I rose to go for my train – making the most incongruous note of all – a man in American soldier’s clothes, moving slowly through an English scene….”