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.

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!