- Contributed by
- People in story:
- The McNicol family
- Location of story:
- Belfast, Northern Ireland
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 09 November 2003
I wasn't born until very late on in the war and so have no first hand memories of the actual years, however I didn't entirely escape the effects that war had on my parents. I was brought up to a chorus of "Make Do and Mend" and "Dig for Victory" as well as "Clear Your Plate". And I believe that certain wartime habits are in my genes, like saving bits of string and brown paper bags, and thinking that half an ounce of butter is way too extravagant to put on two slices of toast. Our garden shed is full of potentially useful things that my Dad trained me never to throw away. I patiently explain to my minimalist husband who spent a peaceful childhood abroad in the colonies that this is not an aberration, but practical economy. "Waste not, want not" and all that. He is yet to be convinced, but then he never needed coupons to buy his sweeties on a Friday night. And he didn't suffer the ignominy of wearing clothes made out of meal bags. My designer dresses had the legend "McDougall's Finest Flour" stamped in blue ink around the hem, disguised ingeniously by my mother's beautiful hand embroidery. Ok, I didn't mind the sheets with the lumpy seams down and across the middle of the bed, but there's only so much recycling a girl can take. However when it comes to empty coffee jars and plastic bottles, well, they're absolutely essential for keeping other stuff in - aren't they?
I remember being very impressed with the wartime People's Friend annuals, with ads for Oxydol on the back cover and everyone dressed in smart military uniform. I was particularly drawn to the story of a girl called Helen who became a Wren and worked a teleprinter and was always receiving and sending secret messages to submarines, and going up to Town on three-day passes. It was all very jolly-hockey-stick sort of stuff, and for a while my chum and I wrote notes to each other in code. Helen and her glamorous friend Gloria were always short of bath cubes which they referred to as "stinks", and had yearnings for nylons and chocolate. Fulfillment came in the form of handsome American officers, even if the girls only returned to barracks with tins of Spam. I was also greatly impressed to read about the WAAFs who were in charge of erecting barrage balloons every time an air raid was expected. I thought they stayed up all the time. [I only discovered in 2003 that a cousin had been one of these WAAFs during her war service in England, and only through a conversation about her being decorated for services to the British Legion.] My family had a tradition of joining the Navy, and in view of my auspicious birth date, 21st October, Trafalgar Day, the WRNS had to be the career for me. Of course, this never happened, but I did once work in a ship chandlers.
Adults told "jamember" stories. Like during the Easter Blitz of 1941 when half of Belfast decamped to the Cave Hill and the other half stayed huddled in terrified groups under stairs or their dining room tables in the firm belief that they could resist tons of high explosive with a few planks of wood. Those with stiff upper lips who remained where they were, sitting on the sofa listening to ITMA on the radio, sorry, wireless, were liable, like my parents' neighbour, Peggy, to get their heads blown off for such insouciance. Her brother, sitting beside her, survived uninjured and never had to buy himself another pint. Peggy's "number", as they said in those days, must have been "up". Indeed my parents were bombed out of two houses in Mervue Street, Nos. 6 and 66 - you would think the words "tempting" and "fate" might have occurred to them. When number 66 was declared uninhabitable by way of no windows, doors, roof, water or electricity, they decided to go back to their home village of Eden near Carrickfergus where friends put them up and their remaining bits and pieces were stored in an empty
hayloft. When my Dad died two years ago we found the permit from York Street Police Station which gave him clearance to clamber over the rubble to collect any personal belongings which might have survived the bombing.
When I asked my mother about the war she remembered instantly her Identity No: UADR6062, and making blackout blinds by covering their normal ones with black shoepolish. As far as Christmas went she was vague about any extra rations being issued. Being boarded out with someone else, you just handed your coupon book to whoever was in charge of the cooking and everything went in together. And by this stage there were three families all living in the same country cottage. She recalls the advent of powdered egg which she absolutely detested. Fresh eggs were scrambled and padded out with cornflour, and parsnips masqueraded as bananas with the addition of appropriate flavouring.
She is still aggrieved with the butcher who, because the scales weighed half an
ounce over the ration weight, cut a sausage in two and sent her home with three and a half instead of four. However, having farming cousins meant that occasionally there might be a little bit extra for special occasions, and everyone saved their scraps to feed the local pigs, many of them kept in semi-rural back gardens and fattened especially for Christmas. Although every animal was supposed to be registered with the district official in charge of agricultural regulations there was always one or two extra hidden away somewhere. The locals were confident that the city-based civil servant couldn't tell one sheep, hen or duck from another, and wouldn't waste time counting.
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