Showing posts with label WW2. Show all posts
Showing posts with label WW2. Show all posts

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Honey, Prisoners - and a King's Speech!

During the war honey was popular, because sugar was
rationed. But Vere doesn't tell us if her sweet gift was made
by a local beekeeper, or was a mass produced jar.
Feel much better this week. Very hot. A jar of honey has been given me. Very pleasant to receive. Able to get one whole pound of tomatoes without queuing for them – so Hitler is not having it all his own way.

So says Vere Hodgson in her diary entry for July 2nd, 1941 – and how luxurious that honey and the tomatoes must have seemed - sugar was rationed, so honey was much in demand, and beekeeping became much more popular. Even the cat was in luck that day, because Vere (I feel I know her, and really cannot continue calling her Hodgson, even if it is the correct way to name an author) managed to get some Kitcat, which was ‘wolfed down as if it were a banquet’. It’s hardly surprising the poor creature fell on this unexpected feast as if there were no tomorrow, because cats and dogs got no rations. At the outbreak of hostilities, the pet food industry was still in its infancy, and animals were usually fed on table scraps, unless owners cooked meat or fish for them. During WW2 there was barely enough food to go round for people, so there can’t have been much to spare for animals.

You can see I am progressing with my slow read of Few Eggs and No Oranges, even if I do have a tendency to get side-tracked along the way. I seem to have become thoroughly immersed in the period, and now have a stack of other WW2 books to read!

On  a more serious note, in this first entry for the second half  of the year, Vere mentions the war in Russia, but has little sympathy for people there since, she says, they have had plenty of time to prepare for the fight, and ‘if they are not ready, it is no one’s fault but their own’. Surprisingly, however, she is confident that Stalin is more than a match for Hitler –because he looks ‘such an unpleasant individual’! 
Three cheers for Winnie! Winston Churchill was one
of Vere Hodgson's heroes.  
Additionally, she tells us about a book she’s read (a biography of Churchill), a radio programme she enjoyed (The Brains Trust) and the sweet-smelling honeysuckle and syringa in her office. This particular entry is a good example of Vere’s range of interest, and the way she jumps from the drama of the war to homely, seemingly unimportant things which mean such a lot to ordinary people.

During these last six months of year, undeterred by the worsening situation, she visits friends and family in various parts of the country, and continues to wander around London looking at the damage. Set against that are small joys, like those flowers I mentioned earlier, a sparrow eating out of a friend’s hand, a garden party, and eating tins of pineapple and prawns with her aunt. 

There are splendid, uplifting stories (Vere likes the word splendid, and I can’t resist using it). In August there is news of the Home Guard catching a German ‘parashot’ who is promptly locked in the Tower. I think this is fascinating - I had no idea they did this in WW2! I was under the impression it was something that happened hundreds of years ago, which shows how much I know! Then, in September, when British bombers arrive in Oslo, residents take to the rooftops and cheer the ‘boys’ as the docks are bombed. In addition there is jubilation when five Free French fighters escape to England in canoes, and Vere enjoys the thought of them sharing champagne with Winston Churchill and his wife.
Were German prisoners really locked way in the
Tower of London during WW2?
In October she’s delighted when she acquires a ‘flatlet’ of her own, and friends and family rally round to help furnish it, which is not an easy task when everything is in such short supply. But she’s less happy when a friend describes life in the Isle of Man:

Full of internees who are doing themselves well. No rationing. Ample supplies from Ireland. His tales of tinned fruit and oceans of butter are galling to us hard-living folk.

Early in December, like everyone else in Britain, she’s stunned by the news from the Pacific (she gives few details but this is, of course, the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbour). And, she reflects, there is an upside to the tragedy, because it pushes America and Australia into the conflict. But things look grim. The British are losing Hong Kong, and everyone is still waiting to learn what is happening in Russia, where the Germans are being pushed back ‘into the snow’.

One of the surprising features of this period is the length of time it took for news to get through, the lack of information when it did, and the way rumours circulated and proliferated. With all our modern technology we are used to ‘instant’ news – we know about things as they happen, and there is such a wealth of data available it is hard not to be aware of what is going on the world. However, the situation was very different during the war. The immediacy of today’s news gathering process and the way it is spread around the world was simply not possible then, and I suppose some things were kept from the public on the grounds of national security, and perhaps there was an effort to keep people’s spirits up by not revealing every detail of what was happening.
The Christmas speech made by King George VI and
 broadcast on BBC Radio 
Anyway, however bleak the future may look, Vere remains upbeat about Life, the Universe and Everything, and she ends 1941 on a high, braving what she terms the ‘Ban on Travel’ to spend Christmas with her family in Birmingham.  Her journey is almost without adventure. Seven family and friends gather for Christmas dinner (a goose), and visitors from next door turn up (with the two airmen billeted on them) for the King’s Speech. More friends arrive during the afternoon and evening, and Vere tells us:
From the back of Elsie’s cupboard came plums and whipped cream. Then Neville poured some exciting looking liquid into glasses, and we did some toasts. Not until we were half-way through it did I discover that it was champagne… brought out specially. So kind.
A good time was had by all, and they shared what food they had - anything nice which could be stored was brought out for special occasions, and their festive fare over the Christmas period includes a tin of butter, and dried apricots, both gifts sent by relatives in South Africa.

Actually, among my stash of WW2 books I’ve got a couple on wartime cookery, and I’m thinking of trying out some of the recipes, to get an idea of what the food was like, but I’m not at all sure if the Man of the House will appreciate austerity in the kitchen – watch this space! 
War Messages: Endpapers in Persephone's Few Eggs and No Oranges
are from a design called London Wall, printed from a fragment of
 rayon  headscarf produced by Jacqmar Ltd c.1942.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Delightful Mrs Miniver

It was lovely, thought Mrs Miniver, nodding good-bye to the flower-woman and carrying her big sheaf of chrysanthemums down the street with a kind of ceremonious joy, as though it were a cornucopia; it was lovely, this settling down again, this tidying away of the summer into its box, this taking up of the thread of one’s life where the holidays (irrelevant interlude) had made one drop it. Not that she didn’t enjoy the holidays:  but she always felt - and it was, perhaps, the measure of peculiar happiness – a little relieved when they were over. Her normal life pleased her so well that she was half-afraid to step out of its frame in se one day she should find herself unable to get back. The spell might break, the atmosphere be impossible to recapture.

Mrs Miniver, as you can tell from the opening passage of the novel which bears her name, is a fortunate woman, and she is well aware of that, and is always prepared to count her blessings. But wealthy, happily married women face trials and tribulations just like anyone else, even though they may pale into insignificance compared to what else was going on in the world. Jan Struther’s classic tale of family life is utterly charming - forget about that dreadfully sentimental old film, and read the book! Mrs Miniver is actually a rather endearing character, and I found her easy to warm to, despite the difference in life-style (no say nothing of income) and a gap of well over 50 years.

It’s set in the months immediately before WW2, and takes us through to the onset of the conflict, ending at Christmas 1939, by which time Mrs Miniver is doing war work in London, leaving staff at her country home to care for seven evacuees and her three children (when they are not away at school. To be honest, for much of the time you wouldn’t know how grave the situation is. But her tone gets more serious as things worsen, and there are unexpected glimpses of the way life changes. She describes the difficulties of getting around on a moonless night in the blackout when, she says, one ‘confines oneself to neighbours who are within groping distance’, and in the evening there is so little traffic that ‘people’s footsteps on the pavements make quite  a loud clatter’. And she mentions the beneficial effect on people’s health, telling us: 
And apropos (literally for once) des bottes, you’ve no idea how all this walking has improved people’s figures. Men with incipient pots, women who were developing Dunlop ridges above the belt, are now sylphlike.
 I just love that description.

However, for me the most moving and thought provoking comment on the war is her account of the lack of children. My mother’s family took in evacuees, and an entire school was moved out of London to the small Surrey town where she lived, so my view is based on her memories, and the impact made by this sudden influx of children and their teachers. But, of course, those extra youngsters in that one place meant fewer young people somewhere else, a fact which I’ve never considered before – and I don’t think I’ve seen it referred to elsewhere.  Anyway, Struther, writing as Mrs Miniver, confides:

The other thing I miss, terribly, is children. Not only my own - I do at least see them (and plenty of others) at weekends: but children in general, as an ingredient of the town’s population, a sort of leven. It may be different in some parts of London, but around here they have acquired a rarity interest. They used to be daisies and are now bee orchises.

Her view was interesting, especially as I am taking a leisurely stroll through Vere Hodgson’s wartime diaries. But this book isn’t about the war, or politics, or current affairs: it’s about people, and the way they react with each other, and the odd things that make us love our families, and above all it’s about Mrs Miniver’s thoughts on Life, the Universe and Everything. And that’s where it’s strength lies, because it’s warm, and funny, and very joyous and life affirming and, surprisingly, it’s very easy to identify with Mrs Miniver (especially as she has the ability to laugh at herself) and her concerns with her family and the small things of everyday life.

Like many other novels issued at this time, Mrs Miniver was originally published as a regular column in a newspaper. Stuther, a poet and essay writer, was asked to produce pieces to liven up the court page in The Times! Peter Feming (Ian’s brother) wanted her to create an ‘ordinary sort of woman who leads an ordinary sort of life – rather like yourself’. Her pieces, gathered into a book in October 1939, were immensely popular, and are thought to have been based on her own life and family.
They mostly take the form of straight forward, short narratives, with one topic for each chapter, but my 1989 Virago edition includes four  ‘letters’ written by Mrs Miniver after the book’s original.

There’s no overall plot, so if you like a book with a strong storyline, this is not for you, as it’s really a series of reflections on different topics and situations. Funniest of all is Mrs Miniver’s account of how she and her husband track down a mystery smell in their country cottage. They fear it might be drains, or a dead rat – but it turns out to be two boxes of fishing bait (once alive, but now in an indescribable state) left behind in a bag abandoned by their eldest son!

A portrait of Jan Struther by Fritz Reichl,
 in the National Portrait Gallery,
Some things, it seems, never change. A visit to the dentist was every bit as unpleasant then as now, despite the padded cushions on the adjustable chair, and the ethics of shooting are just as controversial. But the way of life has altered. I suppose there are still people who enjoy shooting parties, and country house weekends, but for most of us it’s a lifestyle that’s difficult to imagine.

And Jan Struther has created such a warm, humane character that class has no place here. How could you not like a woman who keeps all her old Christmas present lists (there are 17 of them taking up space in an overcrowded drawer) because they evoke happy memories, a ‘memory-film’ of the past… the early days of her marriage, her husband building his reputation as a successful architect, the birth of her children, their growth and changing interests… She is so delightful, I cannot think how I have passed her by for all these years. 

Friday, 9 August 2013

Sleepless Nights and Tea Rationing

Last night was one of those when I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I went downstairs, made a cup of tea, and carried on reading Few Eggs And No Oranges, the wartime diaries of Vere Hodgson, and thought how odd that I should be sitting there, sleepless for no particular reason, while reading her account of nights broken by air raid warnings, the sound of planes overhead, and the noise of bombs exploding around her. And, since tea was rationed, I guess there wasn't always enough for a comforting cuppa in the middle of the night!

I’ve only read the entries for the first few months, but I’m loving it so far. As with all good diaries, the juxtaposition of major national and international events with the mundane and commonplace makes for fascinating – and compelling – reading. And Hodgson makes no effort to marshal her thoughts in a coherent fashion. Details of a raid are followed by accounts of a day at the office, and then by more about the bombs, while gossip about friends and family is interspersed with serious news items about Government ministers, shortages, or updates from battle fronts.

Her portrayal of politicians is fascinating. Figures that I only know from old newsreel clips and newspaper cuttings spring to life.  Chamberlain is every bit as dull, boring and uninspiring as I expected, and Churchill is every bit as charismatic. But who would have thought de Gaulle was such a sensational orator, speaking out against the ‘dishonourable’ Petain Government and rallying the French Resistance. I remember him as an old man, poker-faced, with a big nose, much lampooned by cartoonists in the British press for his unbending stance on us joining Europe, and I find it difficult to think of him ever being young, let alone being so passionate and brave about his country.

The diary starts on Tuesday, 25th June, 1940, and Hodgson leaps straight in – short, sweet, and very much to the point. “Last night, at about 1am, we had the first air raid of the war on London,” she tells us. Her room is opposite the police station, so she gets the ‘full benefit’ of the sirens.

It made me leap out of bed half way across the room. I shook all over, but managed to get into my dressing-gown and slippers, put my watch in my pocket, clutch my torch and gas-mask, and get downstairs first.

Her landlady is ‘rearing’ mattresses against the door (for protection, I suppose). Everyone shares sweets, chat and jokes, before returning to bed because all is quiet – only to be woken again when the All Clear sounds. For some time life remains quiet, despite the Warnings, but gradually things hot up, and nights – and days – are disturbed by sirens, planes, falling bombs, and the bright blaze of burning buildings. I know about the war from history books but I was thoroughly shaken by the scale of the bombing, not just on London, but elsewhere in the country as well. And the noise was indescribable. The words hellish and nightmare don’t even begin to give a flavour of what life was like during the Blitz. And all the time people were on tenterhooks waiting to hear if friends and relatives were safe, and anxious about what British Troops were doing. Many people, including Hodgson, seem to have taken a personal interest in the fate of ‘Our Boys’, but news was often slow filtering through to the Home Front. 

Yet through it all she remains cheerful and alert. She’s curious about the war and its impact on people’s lives, and is very observant, sympathetic, and yet slightly detached, which makes her an excellent recorder of events. Her voice comes across loud and clear over the years. Friends, apparently, described her as brisk, and so she is. She’s intelligent, capable, has a keen sense of right and wrong and is always willing to help others (I’m sure she would have been a good person to have around in a crisis). She’s also got a sense of humour, and is game for anything, attending lectures and courses learning how to deal with bombs, gas attacks, fires, injuries and all kinds of terrors. On one occasion she’s left bruised and battered after being dragged down a flight of stairs whilst acting as the ‘victim’ who must be rescued.

There are details about rationing, queues and food shortages (eggs and oranges were always
in short supply, hence the title of the book), and on July 8 Hodgson notes: “We listened to the news, and heard the bombshell about tea! Two ounces per head, per week!” However, she adds, it will do for her because she doesn’t like her tea strong. I was reminded of George Orwell who, unlike Hodgson, did like his tea strong, and wrote a very funny essay on the subject of ‘A nice Cup of Tea’ which appeared in the Daily Express in 1946 (tea rationing didn’t come to an end until 1952, although by then the weekly amount had risen to 3oz). According to him the 2oz ration (this was loose tea remember , no tea bags then!) made around 20 cups, which is only two or three a day – not a lot  when you think about it. No wonder housewives eked it by following the Minister of Food's advice to use ‘one spoonful for each person and none for the pot’, and eked out their meagre supply by reusing the dregs.

One of the things which surprised me was the extent to which Hodgson travels around: she meanders around London to look at bomb damage, and makes regular trips to Birmingham to see her mother and sister, as well as visiting other friends and relatives. Travel is disrupted, but trains, buses and tubes still run, even though there are often lengthy delays. Thinking about it, I am not sure why I was so surprised, because my mother has told me how the parents of evacuees billeted with her family would catch the train out from Waterloo and spend Sundays with them. And later on in the conflict Mum used to travel into town with the girls to visit their homes.

There is so much packed into these diary entries that it’s taking me a while to read, and I keep getting side-tracked and going off to look things up, to hunt out other books from the period (has anyone got any recommendations?) and to ring my mother for more of her wartime memories. I’m only at the end of 1940, and these first six months have taken me on so many detours – Anderson Shelters, rationing in general, tea rationing (which led to a further exploration on the history of tea), General de Gaulle and the French Resistance, the Ministry of Food, wartime recipes, the Fall of France, the Occupation of Jersey...  I would love a street map of wartime London, to locate the places mentioned. As you can see, the list of Things I Need to Know is likely to get even longer, and at this rate it may be quite some time before I finish reading!

Saturday, 1 December 2012

In Which I am Sent to Coventry...

A view of the Cathedral showing the back of the building with
the zig-zag walls. . .
Well, the rain has stopped (although more is forecast), and the floods have drained away, but by yesterday it was bitterly cold, the water-logged land had turned to ice, and there was a thick frost covering rooftops, cars, trees and grass. So, to cheer ourselves up, a friend and I headed off to Coventry, which has quite a good shopping centre – not as big and varied as Birmingham, but not nearly as crowded, which is a huge bonus at this time of year!
. . . And part of the front. 
It ended up being the sort of day which provides food for body and soul, because we enjoyed a spot of retail therapy, treated ourselves to coffee and cake, and wandered around Coventry's fantastic modern Cathedral, which celebrates its golden anniversary this year. It stands alongside the bombed-out ruins of its predecessor, and is one of the most moving places I've been to. So, since Christmas is on the way, with its message of peace and hope, and since the main theme of the cathedral is peace and reconciliation, I took some photos there for today's Saturday Snapshot.
Sections of the outer wall of the old Cathedral
still stand, and when the sun shines through
the empty window there's a certain beauty.
Coventry, famed for its engineering industries, suffered terrible damage during WW2. The old Cathedral was gutted in an air raid on 14 November 1940: only the Gothic tower, the outer wall, and some broken pillars and arcades survived. But it wasn't the only casualty. That night two thirds of the city centre buildings were destroyed, along with 4,000 homes. Around 600 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured. Rescue work was hampered by the scale of the devastation. Water, gas and electricity supplies were knocked out early in the evening; police and fire HQs were hit; roads were impassable, and the hospital damaged.
This is the original Charred Cross,
with the Cross of Nails in its centre.
However, in the immediate aftermath of the raid, two charred oak beams which once held up the roof of St Michael's were bound together to form a cross. Another was created with three twisted nails salvaged from the wreckage, and a stone altar was made out of rubble. Services were held amidst the ruins, and it was agreed that the Cathedral would rise again, as a symbol of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, and as a sign of hope and forgiveness in a time of war.

The scheme also came to represent the regrowth of the city, but it was ten years before the dream started to take shape, and at least that long again before work was complete. Architect Basil Spence won a design competition, but his vision was hugely controversial, for instead of reproducing the ornate Medieval edifice, he opted for a simpler and starker building, with clean-cut geometric lines. And instead of rebuilding on the old site, he placed his new Cathedral at the side of the ruins, clad the exterior in local red sandstone to match the remains, and linked old and new with a porch that pulls them into a unified whole.
The Jacob Epstein statue shows
St Michael poised in victory
above the defeated Devil.
Perched on the wall, looking at the empty windows and shattered stonework of the old Cathedral, is Jacob Epstein's wonderful sculpture of St Michael defeating the Devil. Somehow the bronze looks as if it is floating in the air, and I always think that at any moment St Michael might step lightly down to earth to see what is happening in the world today.

I'm not usually a fan of mid-20th century architecture, but I think Coventry Cathedral is an absolute triumph. The blend of ancient and modern works incredibly well, while the concrete interior uses traditional Christian themes and symbols in the most awe-inspiring way . The whole thing takes your breath away.
The Baptistery Window, designed by John Piper,
symbolises the glory of God flooding into the world.
 You walk inside, and stop, stunned by a huge, abstract, stained glass window. Designed by John Piper, it stretches from floor to ceiling, and light pours through the golden yellow sunburst at the centre, surrounded by rich reds, blues and greens. It is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen, and as you look and gasp in wonder and amazement, you realise there other abstract glass panels, five on each side, all equally vibrant and colourful, each set into a zig-zag angle of the walls, each rising tall and thin, like a kind of spire, from the floor to the vaulted ceiling.
The great West Screen. The darker areas of
glass are the ruined walls of the old Cathedral. 
And there is the stupendous West Screen, a great glass wall, looking out on to the ruins, which seem to form part of the design. I can't even begin to describe how wonderful it is, but I'll try. It is engraved with angels, prophets and saints, some standing in rectangular 'homes' formed by the grid which holds the glass in place, others flying across the surface. If you look hard you can find St Michael doing battle again, this time with a dragon. The window reminds me of the West Front of Lichfield Cathedral, which is covered in stone figures, and I think it's a nice link with the past, because Lichfield and Coventry were once part of the same bishopric.
In this close-up you can see some of the engraved figures,
and the turreted edge of part of an old wall.
Light from the screen and windows is directed towards the High Altar and the tapestry behind it. Christ in Majesty was designed by artist Graham Sutherland and is (according to the Cathedral's information booklet), the size of a tennis court. It was woven in France, took 10 years to complete, and you could write a book on its symbolism. But the same could be said for almost every object inside the Cathedral. Everything seems to be a work of art, and everything seems to have a meaning.
The Graham Sutherland tapestry is an
incredible piece of work.
Even if you are not religious, you should visit Coventry Cathedral. It is unlike any other cathedral I've seen, but it is beautiful and awe-inspiring, and the juxtaposition of the modern building against the Medieval ruins is very, very moving, as is the fact that this grew out of the devastation of WW2, and that the church community and the people of Coventry found it in their hearts to forgive, and to move on. Not only that, but a Community of the Cross of the Nails has been established in a bid to establish peace between nations through communication and understanding.

It's three years or so since I last visited, and an £8 entry fee has now been introduced. I have mixed feelings about places of worship doing this, because whilst accepting that cash is needed for maintenance and restoration, I feel they should be accessible and free.

For more Saturday Snapshots see Alice's blog at For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice's blog at

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

A Tale of WW2 That Will Break Your Heart

If you're the kind of person who cries over books, make sure you've got a large hanky ready and waiting when you read Alison Pick's Far To Go, because it's beautifully written, totally gripping – and very, very sad. Set in Czechoslovakia in the final few months before the outbreak of the Second World War, it describes how the comfortable life of a wealthy Jewish couple begins to fall apart under the growing threat of Nazism, and how they secure their young son's safety by bribing a place for him on one of the trains which took children to foster families in Britain. The story of the Kindertransport is now forgotten by many, but it followed in the wake of Chamberlain's triumphant 'Peace for our time' speech, made after Britain agreed that Hitler could take over the part of Czechoslovakia known as Sudetenland. It's against this background that Pick's novel is played out, and consequently we are aware, as she herself tells us, that this cannot be a happy story, and there can be no happy ending, for we know the outcome, and history cannot be changed, however terrible it may be.

'Far To Go' is inspired, in part, by the experiences of the author's grandparents, but is not biographical. The tale unfurls through letters, lists, official notes and straight narrative, introducing us to factory owner Pavel Bauer, his wife Anneliese, their son Pepik, who is six years old, and his non-Jewish nanny, Marta, and it is through her eyes that we see much of the action. Bit by bit public feeling against the Jews is cranked up into a frenzied hysteria, some of it so seemingly silly that you wonder, just as Marta does, how people were ever persuaded to believe such nonsense. But believe it they did, and Marta watches in horror as a gang of young Nazi thugs kill an old man, and is distraught when Pepik is forced to sit on his own in school, and can no longer play with other children.

Gradually new rules prevent the Jews leading anything like a normal life, and when Pavel is no longer allowed inside his own factory, the Bauers flee to Prague, but there will be no escape, despite their forlorn hope that this terror is only temporary, and that something will happen to halt Hitler. The Bauers, urbane, sophisticated, educated and cultured are secular Jews, who do not follow their faith but, strangely perhaps, persecution gives Pavel a clearer sense of his cultural and religious heritage, and he is determined that his son will know about Judaism. His wife, however, sees things differently. She wants to survive, and even has little Pepik baptised by a Christian priest, in the hopes that it may protect him from what is to come. 

Marta herself grows in understanding as the novel progresses, ending her affair with Nazi Ernst (who works in Pavel's factory, and has been a long-standing friend with his boss) to throw in her lot with the Bauers, who have given her the only happy home she has known.

Alison Pick, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Set against the events of the 1930s is the story told by a Canadian academic, who works with the children – now grown to adulthood – who escaped on the Kindertransport, recording their lives, and how they were affected by the past, by separation from their families, and by survival when so many others died. The time shift, coupled with the variation of style between narrative and letters, does mean the novel jumps around a little, but I thought it worked well in this particular context, as the link between past and present is revealed.

And there are themes which which link past and present, with the motif of a train running through the novel taking us on a journey of discovery. There is the toy train which the child Pepik loves so much, and the train the family cannot board because their attempted escape has been betrayed. Then there is the train that takes Pepik to his new life, swallowing him and his old life in a disturbingly sinister way.

The train was long and black, and entering it was like being swallowed by a snake. The snake had dislocated its jaw to take Pepik in, and now he was being worked down deep into its body, deep to the tip of its tail. Pepik made a little slithering motion; he put his hands on his stomach and imagined the way the snake felt, all the little bodies tumbling around inside it. There were so many children. His eyelashes were wet but he blinked and swallowed, swallowing himself, letting himself be swallowed.

Then there's the way the Canadian academic (you'll have to read the book to find out more) describes memory.

The train of memory sleeps on its tracks. At night, in the station, the shadows gather round it, reaching out to touch its cool black sides. The train stretches back, far out of eyesight. Where it comes from is anyone's guess.

Reading this through I see that as usual, there are all sorts of things I haven't mentioned, like the emotions felt by the characters: love, fear, confusion, hope and the betrayal of trust between people on a national as well as a personal level. The passing of the years does nothing to lessen the impact of the horrendous treatment meted out to the Jews by the Nazis, and this novel personalises one aspect of what happened, taking an imaginary family as the central point, and ascribing to them things that really did happen.

I read this as part of the Canadian Book Challenge (Pick is a Canadian author) and I really enjoyed it, even though it was so heartbreakingly sad. Pick was a new author for me, and I was interested to read the copious notes explaining how the story came about, and giving details about her own family, her discovery of her Czech-Jewish background, and her conversion to Judaism. However, I'm not sure whether quite so much information was really necessary.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Do You Clean Vegetables With Soap?

Today's novel was described as 'a real oddity' and 'a book unlike any other' when it was discussed on the Radio 4's 'A Good Read'. House-Bound, by Winifred Peck, (published by Persephone), is the second in my loosely-themed 'housework' quartet. The time is 1941, the place is Edinburgh, and middle-class, middle-aged Rose Fairlaw, unable to get servants, decides she will do the cooking and cleaning herself.

My initial reaction was that Rose needed a copy of 'How To Run Your Home Without Help', by Kay Smallshaw (reviewed here), but this wonderful and invaluable domestic guide was was not available until 1949, while Peck's book was published in 1942. Anyway, it was selected for the radio programme by author Sara Maitland, who described it as 'a bit of oddity' (albeit a 'rather good' one) and 'one of the weirder novels I've ever read'. Fellow guest Michael Morpurgo and the show's host Harriet Gilbert both agreed. You can listen to their discussion here, and can also read a transcript of their conversation in the latest edition of the Persephone magazine Biannually.

Personally, I'm not sure I agree with everything they say, because the book is actually not that odd (certainly not compared to Rachel Ferguson's 'The Brontes Went to Woolworths', which remains the strangest story I have read). Granted, the relationships are a little peculiar, but relationships in novels are rarely straight forward, creating tensions vital to the plot, developing characters, and demanding an emotional response from readers. I think what they found so weird was the lifestyle, social setting, and moral code of the day. Time and place can be difficult to grasp when they are so different to your own life – I'll bet Jane Austen's concerns about social position and marriage must appear pretty incomprehensible to many people these days, but no-one describes her books as weird or a bit of an oddity.
The beautiful endpapers in this Persephone edition are from
a 1941 watercolour by Eric Ravilious for a textile commissioned
by the Cotton Board to persuade manufacturers to produce
 economical fabrics during WW2
Oh dear, this is turning into a rant about other people's views on 'House-Bound', rather than a piece about my own opinions. So here goes. I'll start by saying that Rose is not one of those self-deprecating women who cope with domestic disasters, house, husband, servants, children and tradesmen with good-humoured aplomb. She has a sense of duty, whether you're talking about relationships or housework, and she regards managing without servants as her contribution to the War Effort, freeing up younger, fitter, more able women for more valuable war work.

The reaction of her family and friends to her decision is hilarious, even if they do show the values of the strong, snobbish class system in force at the time. And her early efforts at housekeeping are very funny indeed. When it comes to cooking and cleaning she doesn't have a clue. She's never boiled a kettle, let alone an egg, has never wielded a duster – and has certainly never been expected to answer the door and deal with common people like postmen and milkmen.

It's a real shock to her system. “On the first morning of her new vocation Rose decided that she had never in her life seen anything as repulsive as a house in the early morning.” I know the feeling. I find if there's anything worse than dealing with household debris and dirty dishes, it's dealing with household debris and dirty dishes that have been left to fester overnight. The answer is to de-clutter and wash-up before going to bed but, sadly, this is something I rarely do.

Winifred Peck
And anyone who has ever lost the battle with a less than perfect vacuum cleaner will appreciate Rose's struggles: “Sweeping was easy she told herself as she rumbled the carpet-sweeper up and down the beige self-coloured carpet of the dining room [...] the wretched thing seemed to drop out a loathsome gobbet of grey fluff more often than it picked up a crumb.”

She doesn't know how to clean vegetables (does one use soap, she wonders), and her first breakfast is a disaster - the coffee boils over the bacon and toast and makes the stove brown, so Rose's husband Stuart eats sardines! Luckily for her, she is rescued by Mrs Childe, who knows everything there is to know about cookery and housework (and some!), and puts in three hours a day, working, and teaching Rose how to do things herself. And there is additional advice from Major Hosmer, a charming young American army psychologist who, coincidentally, turns out to be treating Rose's troubled daughter Flora.

However, despite the laugh-out-loud funny passages, this book is not a comedy. There is tragedy here, and serious social commentary. Rose has little time to reflect on politics or religion (beyond huried prayers begging God to protect those she loves) but she knows the world is changing. She feels house-bound, tied to her pots and pans, and sees the connection between this and the wider world. The word house-bound, she says: “... belonged not only to herself, not only to Martha in Bethany, but also, surely, to all the unhappy individuals and races all over the world. Peoples, countries, empires, shut themselves up in their own domains, refusing to consider the views on which others gazed from their windows...”

I haven't looked at the other characters or the relationships in this novel, but I will mention the back story. Rose marries and has a daughter, but her husband is killed in the First World War, while Flora is just a baby. Rose's best friend, her cousin Lilias, moves in with her baby son Mickie, while her husband is fighting. The children are brought up together, but Lilias dies from pneumonia, so Rose cares for Mickie, becoming obsessively fond of him. When Lilias' husband – Stuart Fairlaw – returns, he marries Rose, because they are both lonely and can comfort each other and make home for the children. 

Since I bought the book second-hand, there was
no bookmark,  so I printed off this picture of
Woman Reading, painted by Adrian Paul Allinson
in 1940, because it kind of how I imagine Rose
(although she is  dark, not fair) and
her home, and she loves reading
They have a son, Tom, but the marriage is passionless. The one overwhelming love of Rose's life seems to be Mickie, and when he falls ill with polio she shuts herself away to nurse him. When she emerges, two years later, he is cured, but her relationship with Flora is irretrievably damaged, and her chances of growing closer to Stuart are doomed.

It's not until the end of the novel that Rose looks back and remembers her first husband, and the hopes they had for Flora, and is able to reach a kind of acceptance of what life has to offer, and to move on. But she is still bound by duty and doing the right thing. She will continue to do what she must, remaining slightly aloof from everyone and everything. I get the feeling that underneath is a different kind of woman who is too scared to struggle free – someone who would like to flirt, and dance, and have fun.

House-Bound is one of those novels you could read over and over again, looking at different aspects. One last point (well, two really), Peck was obviously amazingly well-read, because House-Bound is jam-packed with literary references, (many of them unattributed), and there is an interesting Afterword by her niece, the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald. 

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Down With Housework!

Doing The Mending: Each chapter heading in How To Run Your  Home Without Help
is illustrated with a lovely little line drawing
Housework, as those who know me will confirm, has never been one of my accomplishments, and the Man Of The House is equally unenthusiastic about domestic activities. ‘Lived-in’ is how people describe our home. Or even ‘very lived-in’, uttered somewhat disparagingly as they shift books off the sofa, brush cat hairs off their clothes and stare in horror at the state of our coffee mugs.

When our daughters were younger their schoolfriends used to turn up at our house to practice their art homework, or colour their hair (does anyone know how to remove blue dye stains from the wash basin?), then depart telling us how much they liked our ‘cosy’ home – which was, I think, a polite way of saying we were messy, and that their mothers would never dream of letting them do such things in their own homes.

A trip down Memory Lane: This book brought
back memories of my childhood, and how hr
my mother worked to keep the house clean
Post-redundancy, you might expect me to have turned over a new leaf because I now have time for the household chores but, if anything, the situation is even worse than it was, as I have discovered all kinds of things that are far more interesting and enjoyable than cleaning, polishing, ironing and washing up.

So, you may wonder why I have a kind of theme going on with my current Books In Progress pile, and the theme is... HOUSEWORK! It started quite simply when I spotted a Persephone edition of How To Run Your Home Without Help, by Kay Smallshaw. There it was, among a stack of volumes donated to the Oxfam Bookshop, packed with useful information that must have been invaluable for middle-class housewives when it was first written in 1949, and I just couldn’t resist it, because I’m always convinced that this type of book will help me transform my home into a neat, tidy, well-ordered haven of perfection – and it is such to fun to read.

Then, by coincidence, I came across a review of House-Bound, by Winifred Peck, so I ordered a copy through Abebooks, because it sounded interesting and I deserved a treat, and whilst doing that I discovered The Home-Maker, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, so I ordered that too (I was treating myself, remember). And the next time I was helping in the Oxfam Bookshop I came across a copy of Katie Fforde’s The Rose Revived, with a painted picture of a proper woman on the front, instead of one of those brainless, pastel-coloured, girly graphics that currently grace the covers of her work. So I pounced on it – after all, £1.99 is such a bargain, and Katie Fforde is always a good read, and it’s worth it for the cover alone.

The endpapers are taken from  'Riverside',
a 1946 printed dress fabric in rayon crepe,
and I bet it looked fabulous made up
So, reading them in the order I acquired them, first up is How To Run Your Home Without Help, written in the aftermath of the Second World War. The army of women who had been working as maids, cooks and children’s nannies spent the war years doing other things: some joined up, or became Land Girls, while others worked in munitions factories, or took on jobs left vacant while men were fighting. When the conflict was over few of those who had been ‘in service’ were prepared to return. Life had changed, and well-heeled, middle-class women were left to run their homes on their own, when rationing was still in existence, and shortages of food and all kinds of other goods were still widespread. It must have come as a terrible shock them, and there’s an excellent preface by Christina Hardyment which puts the book in its historic context.

Smallshaw covers just about everything anyone could possibly want to know about keeping house – planning, cleaning, spring-cleaning, equipment, food, shopping, washing, mending, doing the accounts, and what to do when Baby comes. There’s even a chapter on A Man About The House, and another on Beauty While You Work (a simple tin of Vaseline is a ‘hand-saver’ and rubber gloves are useful, she says). And she advises always using ‘a scarf, cap or clean duster pinned like a nurse’s square over the head and hair when doing the rooms’, as well as remembering to brush your hair each night. In addition, you can get a ‘beauty bath’ by going out in the rain with no cosmetics on, and on wash-day you should cleanse your skin and apply nourishing cream before you begin, then the steam will soften it. And, apparently, housework is good for the figure, although I can’t say it’s done anything for mine – perhaps the 1949 housewife didn’t keep stopping for snacks.

The problem with buying second-hand
Persephone is that the bookmarks are
missing, but I found this postcard which
seemed suitable
I adore the chapter on Doing The Washing, which mentions a ‘hand-operated simple washing machine’ which is an ‘elaboration of a wash-boiler’. Oddly enough, my mother had an antiquated version of something like this when I was a child. There was a rubber hose, which ran from the tap into the machine, and the gas underneath had to be lit to boil the water. I seem to remember there was a plastic paddle inside, which agitated the washing, and everything had to be dragged into the sink with enormous wooden tongs so it could be rinsed, then pushed through the mangle which was attached to the washer. When my brother was born we had a home-help, who couldn’t get to grips with this machine at all, and flooded the kitchen...

There are tips on starching, blueing and stiffening (does anyone else remember those?) as well as hints about taking the drudgery out of ironing – although personally I doubt such a thing is possible.

And the section on mending is an absolute joy. Who these days would bother to darn clothes or ‘make over’ bed linen (in the days before fitted sheets and duvet covers, cotton or linen sheets were cut up the middle, then stitched back together, with the worn patches turned to the outsides).

Ready For Action: Chapter III is all about using the right equipment
Other long-vanished household tasks include things like cleaning the front steps – again, it conjured up memories of my childhood, when my mother, along with most of the other women in our street, would buff up the step with red lead polish. I suspect that Mum, and all the other women she knew, never read this book, but just used their common sense, doing things the way their mothers had done but, as advised by Smallshaw, Mum always recycled old clothes, towels, tea towels and sheets to make cloths for cleaning, dusting and polishing (no J-cloths in those days). And, as there were no spray cans, the cupboard under the sink boasted an impressive array of cleaning lotions and solid wax polishes, just as the book recommends.

I loved this book, largely I suspect, because it was a real trip down Memory Lane, reminding me of my own childhood in the 1950s. To anyone younger than me it would probably seem very old-fashioned, but there is a surprising amount of sound advice that could still be followed and adapted to suit modern lifestyles. But it did confirm my view that progress is a wonderful thing when it comes to housework!
Spring Cleaning: Does anyone still do this?