One of my many interests is the social history of the Second World War. In a lot of ways, despite the advances in military technology, and the alterations to the world's geopolitical landscape which followed, perhaps the changes in the various forms of society - on what was known as the 'Home Front' - were even more important than those others I have mentioned. In the UK, for example, you saw the emancipation of the female worker, the rise of socialized medicine, and the founding of the 'Welfare State'. The war itself brought an enormous increase in the mobility of labor (with 'direction' of workers into munitions or even down the mines), a vast centrally-controlled economy, and a post-war generation of returning veterans, many of whom had seen more of the world than their parents and grandparents and saw even more international travel in their future; these veterans and their contemporaries also wanted to make LARGE scale political changes - and did so!
The two books I have been reading recently offer valuable insights into that perilous period in the life of Britain. 'Few Eggs And No Oranges: The Diaries of Vere Hodgson, 1940 - 1945', Persphone Books, London, 1999, is a monumental work. It isn't just the scale - 590 pages - but the sheer scope of the book. On the title page, the book's title is expanded in the following form;
'A FEW EGGS AND NO ORANGES - A DIARY showing how Unimportant People in London and Birmingham lived through the war years 1940 - 1945 written in the Notting Hill area of London by VERE HODGSON with a new preface by JENNY HARTLEY'
This near parody of the 17th century style of book titles is quite amusing, and does make for a lively introduction to the new preface. Vere Hodgson, a single woman, with a lowly office position, as the book opens, would seem to have nothing more to offer than a few personal observations of London's Blitz, something that could have been gleaned from the now-published confidential reports of the Mass-Observers, a shadowy organization which gauged the mood of the British people (see, 'The Mass Observers: A History, 1937-1949', James Hinton, Oxford University Press). However, Winifred Vere Hodgson's connections spanned the globe, from the occupied Channel Islands, to Rhodesia, and on to Fascist Italy, and included some historical figures. She had not always been a 'disciple' and employee of the leader of the Greater World Christian Spiritualist Association, one Miss Winifred Moyes. In the 1920s, Vere had taught in Italy at an exclusive school in Florence where Edda Mussolini, the illegimate daughter of Il Duce was a pupil. Thomas Vere Hodgson, the biologist on board H.M.S. Discovery during that ship's voyage to Antarctica (1901-1903), was an uncle of Vere's, and a passage in the book describes a visit to the preserved ship, moored on the Thames, where her uncle's cabin and equipment can still be seen.
Ms Moyes lectured extensively, and founded Women's Night Shelters and performed solid social work in the poorer areas of London, at a time when the 'social safety net' was yet but a gleam in Lord Beveridge's eye! 'The Sanctuary' where Vere worked was a combination spiritual headquarters cum relief agency and living space, situated in Notting Hill, London.
'Few Eggs And No Oranges', describes in minute detail the three-phases of the aerial bombardment of London. First, the daytime and night bombing of the Blitz from 1940-41, second, the V-1 'Flying Bomb' campaign, from June, 1944 to nearly VE-Day, and lastly, the assault by the unstoppable sub-orbital V-2 rockets beginning in September, 1944 until the end of the war.
Food and the lack of it, as the title suggests, played an enormous part in daily life. Vere's relationship with her local shopkeeper, who she refers to only as 'The Old Pole' is one of supplication and artful watching, punctuated by moments of intense joy, as she obtains TWO oranges, 'plus two more, half bad', which she bears in triumph to her beloved Aunt Nell, who will turn them into marmalade! (Sadly, Aunt Nell, a cornerstone of the Hodgson family, died just before the end of the war).
Her diaries are a fabulous resource for any social historian, being as they are, without noticeable bias (except for her love for Winston Churchill; 'he should have a statue of gold'). They were written to be circulated around the family (Sussex, Birmingham, and other areas) and then sent in batches to her cousin Lucy, in Rhodesia - some were lost, due to enemy action, en route.
This is a book, deceptively simple at first glance, which will repay the reader, each time it is re-read. A joyous tome, full of defiant words, and day-to-day minutiae. One for the long winter evenings.
'Rationing In The Second World War; Spuds, Spam And Eating For Victory', Katherine Knight, Tempus, 2007 is a bright and breezy book as you can tell from the title, yet it tries, hard, to be a solid, historical work, too. The author, in the introduction, states, 'This book is written from two points of view. I researched the period as I would any other, but then applied a personal reality check of what I could remember from my own young experience.' Katherine Knight was 6 years old in 1939, and was living in Porthcurno, not far from Land's End, where her father worked for Cable & Wireless Ltd, at the terminal for the undersea cable between the U.S.A. and England. This was a vital wartime link between the two countries, and troops were stationed nearby, as it was thought that the Germans might make a raid on the relay station. Indeed, Mr Knight was issued with a large axe, so he could smash the more delicate parts of the equipment, if the Germans landed!
The whole business of Identity and Ration Cards is laid out, as well as the way the individual food groups were rationed during the war. The complicated 'Points' system is well-explained, and I was really deriving a great deal of enjoyment from the book when something happened which made me have doubts. I pride myself on my WW2 knowledge (after all, I had studied the period extensively, when I was a museum curator), so when I came across this passage, 'Real factories took up positions out in the country, where they were thought to be less at risk of bombing than in industrial towns', and shadow factories, like the dummy aerodromes, set up to mislead the enemy'. Oh dear. The 'shadow factory' scheme was well known, and involved an industrial concern (not in its normal field) being given a new plant by the Government, then "shadowing" its industrial parent, until it gained enough expertise to stand on its own technological 'feet', and built tank engines, or Spitfires, or Tiger Moths (I have written a diary on this). When a hardback book which purports to be historically based makes a basic mistake such as this, I am distressed, as the error might well be perpetuated; what the author was trying to describe were 'Starfish' sites, designed to simulate cities at night when seen from the air, and thereby attract Luftwaffe bombs into open countryside.
The book concludes with some genuine wartime recipes (I recognize some of them, for rationing continued into the 1950s in post-war, 'broke' Britain). If you want to try Corned Beef and Onion Sauce, you can, or perhaps the famous Woolton Pie - a vegetable dish, named after the Minister Of Food, Lord Woolton. Despite some errors, a useful book.
This week's selections took me back, to a time when there was less hypertension, gout, dental caries and cardiac disease - by the time you had dug for victory, harvested the fields on your 'holiday' as a volunteer worker, or walked the hedgerows, looking for 'wild food', you were FIT!
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