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- Anne Butcher
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- 15 July 2003
By Anne Addison (Fulwell Writers' Circle)
Memory plays some strange tricks on us and, given long enough, it blurs the edges of the sad, unpleasant, or uncomfortable happenings in our lives. Hence the wave of nostalgia regarding everyday life during WW2. It is even difficult now to remember that going without all the good things in life was not really fun - we just made the best of a bad job since it was useless to grumble. Thus today we look back and laugh at what we endured.
Make do and mend
Clothes were severely rationed, so everyone improvised wherever possible and the slogan 'Make do and mend' was designed to encourage people to do just that. I remember my delight in coming across a dress which, the shop-owner assured me, required no coupons at all - although this was reflected in the price. It was only when I got it home I realised it was made from dyed hessian.
Shoes were made with wooden soles because that way they required fewer clothing coupons. There was quite an art in walking in them - a rocking step needed to be developed. Later, hinges were added, but these were unsuccessful as small stones became wedged in the hinge and the wearer was left having to hobble on the toe section until the offending object could be removed. The clatter they made was overcome by attaching an extra sole cut from an old bicycle tyre.
Barrage balloon material made good waterproof macs so when a damaged one came down it quickly went missing. Silk parachutes, which were constructed from triangles of material, could be unpicked, re-stitched into rectangles and re-cut to make luxurious underwear. Consequently, when an airman was seen to bail out there was frequently a race between the authorities and civilians to recover the parachute, while sometimes a portion could be bought on the black market.
When the elastic snaps…
Worst of all was the shortage of accessories for clothing and the especially vital elastic was very difficult to obtain. What problems this caused; yet what ingenuity and inventiveness it inspired! Tape, string, cord, or buttons and faith had to be relied upon to hold up garments. Nor was it any use depending upon a safety pin. These, too, were hard to come by, since all metal was needed for munitions. When a suspender gave way, a button or small coin twisted into the top of the stocking served as an emergency fastening, but most of the time girls went stockingless, painting their legs with make-up instead. This dried very powdery and rubbed off on the bedclothes, despite the constant pleas by mothers to their daughters to remove it before going to bed. (Not all houses had indoor plumbing and even if they did, bath water was restricted to a depth of five inches - try it!)
The greatest humiliation could come when the fastening on panties suddenly gave way, yet the resourceful girl soon learned to cope even with this. She had a choice of three courses of action. She could step neatly out and quickly pocket them; she could leave them lying and walk on calmly, pretending they weren't hers; or, immediately she felt that PING she could clamp one hand in a vice-like grip on her waist, preferably in a pocket, and keep it there until she reached some suitable place of sanctuary.
I was running for a bus, with my boyfriend at the time, when I experienced this. Faltering for only a fraction of a second I thrust my hand into my pocket and managed to grab the offending garment. 'Come on,' he urged. 'We'll miss it. What's wrong?'
'Stitch,' I muttered - which I suppose was true enough - and clung on like a limpet until we reached the cinema where I could retire modestly to the Ladies!
Strange things on the dinner table
Over-riding all these trifling discomforts was the non-stop foraging by the housewife to provide some variety in her family's meals. I cannot recall ever being literally hungry, but the country had been reliant upon imports, which were now impossible because of the sea blockade. Everything was scrupulously rationed and we ate some strange things to supplement our diet.
Tea tablets were used to make the tea look stronger; babies' dried milk or 'National' milk was added if it could be obtained; and saccharine was used as a sweetener. Some even resorted to using honey or jam. What a concoction - but we drank it. Bread was heavy and a dull grey colour, but it, too, was rationed - so we ate it.
Sweets were devised from a mixture of dried milk and peppermint essence with a little sugar or icing sugar if available. Grated carrots replaced fruit in a Christmas or birthday cake, while a substitute almond paste was made from ground rice or semolina mixed with a little icing sugar and almond essence. Dried egg powder was used as a raising agent, and this same dried egg could be reconstituted and fried, yielding a dull, yellow, rubbery-like apology for the light and fluffy real thing - but there was nothing else, so we ate it.
Bean pies and lentil rissoles provided protein to eke out our meagre meat ration, and the horse-meat shop, which previously had sold its products only for dogs, now bore a notice on some of its joints occasionally, 'Fit for Human Consumption'. This horse-meat was not rationed, but it did have to be queued for and sure enough eventually it appeared on our table. It had to be cooked for a long time and even then it was still tough. Nevertheless, it did not get thrown out.
In complete contrast, one highlight for me was the coming of spam from America. It was an oasis in our desert of mediocrity; an elixir in our sea of austerity. It seems to me that it was meatier, juicier, and much tastier than it is now. (Tricks of memory again, no doubt.) We ate it in sandwiches; we ate it fried with chips; cold with salad; chopped in spam-and-egg pies, until, of course, it ceased to provide the variety we longed for, but I never tired of it.
Whale meat - completely inedible
The benefits of eating fish were widely proclaimed, but again it was very scarce. Fishing was a dangerous occupation in mine-laden waters and the pier was a prohibited area, so fresh fish was a novelty and a luxury.
The ultimate came, however, when the government hit on the bright idea of combining fish and meat and urged us to eat whale meat. Where, or how, the whales were caught and brought to England I do not know. There must be a limit to how much whale one ship can carry, and one whale alone would provide a lot of whale steaks, but newspapers and the wireless told us how to prepare and cook the stuff, and sure enough, in due course, it appeared in the shops. From there, inevitably, it found its way onto our table.
It had been soaked overnight, steam-cooked, and soaked again, then blanketed with a sauce, but still it tasted exactly what it sounds like - tough meat with a distinctly fishy flavour, ugh. Just this once the next-door's cat ate it!
Yes, we laugh about it all now, yet after all these years I still cannot bear to see good food wasted or thrown away - but I think I could make an exception with whale meat.
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