HARRY was a child in the winter of 1944/5. He lived in the Netherlands and that winter was called by the Dutch people the Hongerwinter, meaning hunger winter.

In his later life, he spoke of it occasionally, describing how hungry people were, that often parents would go without food completely to feed their children. The food that was available was very limited, mostly potatoes, perhaps some bread. He remembered having to leave his home town to stay in the countryside, where anything found in the soil of the fields would be taken and eaten, sometimes including flower bulbs.

When the war ended and the Allies liberated the area, he remembered the joy but also the tears. He had survived, but many hadn’t. Thankfully, there had been some coordinated efforts to feed people, especially children, with soup kitchens and food drops. But many people had died of malnutrition, and even those who had survived were affected by it in different ways for the rest of their lives.

Harry would talk of a woman he called “my angel”. She looked after him and, despite having almost nothing, she made sure he could eat something every day, often going without herself. She would tell him stories and jokes, and sometimes they would sing to keep warm. It was a bitterly cold winter, with little fuel available to heat homes; “being almost always hungry and cold is my memory of that time”, he once told me.

But once his angel managed to make him a broth with some chicken. He remembered watching her pluck it. It was the skinniest chicken ever, as the poor thing was also malnourished, of course. How she got it he didn’t know, but even into old age he remembered the taste and smell of the broth. Afterwards, he felt so full and happy. His “angel” made the broth last for the next couple of days. The hunger winter lasted six months.

It’s all history now, of course. Afterwards, Harry lived his life to the full, became a jazz musician and travelled the world. But that winter always haunted him to his dying days. He never forgot his “angel”, and would speak of her and her kindness, and how she had saved him.

Harry was my mother’s partner in her last years, and he died soon after she did over eight years ago, taking his witness of this time with him. I wish I had listened more when he wanted to speak of it.

I thought of him and his childhood experiences recently as some children from a local school are doing a project on the Second World War, and I was able to incorporate some of Harry’s lived experiences into a tale. There are so many different life experiences from that time and of course now we have reached the point where those who witnessed it are very few.

We will hopefully never experience such horrific times, yet in the telling of Harry’s tale I couldn’t say a child being cold and hungry is now history, because it isn’t. It’s a reality for many children, even in our seemingly well-off privileged society.

I know today’s child poverty can’t be directly compared to the utter horror of Harry’s experience of the Dutch hunger winter. Yet for many children, the personal experience of regularly being hungry, lacking warmth and even security are the same as those experienced by Harry all those years ago.

It frightens me that so many children in our communities are experiencing this. Thankfully, there are many other “angels” out there, working tirelessly to make sure children and families are supported. But we shouldn’t be needing so many angels.

One of the lessons of the Dutch hunger winter was the long-term effects it had on the lives of those who survived it, in terms of later health and wellbeing. Today’s poverty has long-term consequences too.

I wish as a storyteller I could say “once upon a time, in a land and time when children went hungry”, but if I did, then a child may ask me: “You mean here today?”