The nation’s new diet | Tales from the Vale

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It is September 1939 and a young girl, around 12 years old, is hushed while the family gathers in the kitchen: ‘there’s an important announcement on the wireless.’ The Prime Minister is announcing to the nation ‘we are at war with Germany’.
I’ll break in at this sombre moment to recall the memory of Spike Milligan, a teenager, later called-up to fight. He was in his London home at exactly the same time as our young Blackmore Vale girl, his family also hushed around the wireless, as Chamberlain made his announcement, ‘we are at war…’.
Spike’s dad indignantly said of the deluded, failed premier, “I like the ‘we’!”.
And how life changed for the little girl. The families were issued with gas masks, ID cards and ration books. The gas masks had to be carried at all times. What a coming of age for the poor children.
Now too old for Mappowder’s infant school our young girl and others were bused to Buckland Newton primary, a rather bare three roomed building.
The children were told to bring a hessian sack into school the next day, where the girls slit the edges
so they resembled small blankets. The hessian squares – one for each child – were dyed green and
they were told to listen for the whistles.

SW London on VE Day – top left you can spot Andy’s mum Audrey Philipson, aged 15, with her hand on her hip, apparently rather
annoyed that the war was over

One pheep on the whistle meant the children had to put on the gas masks. Two shrill calls on the whistle instructed the children to lie down flat on the ground and cover themselves with their green hessian blanket in order to minimise being machine gunned by passing German planes. Three whistle calls meant ‘run to the
trenches’, which were at the top of the school garden and under a hedge. And there they had to stay, presumably alternating between being scared rigid and giggling until they heard the ‘all-clear’.
You may think it a bit far-fetched, the thought of highly intelligent German pilots, from an allegedly super-cultured nation that gave us Schiller, Goethe, Beethoven (we’ll omit Kraftwerk) modern psychiatry et al, machine gunning English civilians, including women and children.
Not at all: it is well-documented. I used to play chess in East Sussex with some elderly gentlemen (and yes, they always won, but they did checkmate me with a charming air of regret). They all remembered their boyhood in Kent spent excitedly watching the German formations drone over and running for cover when a low- level fighter came over searching for ‘a bit of fun’.
Indeed, secretly recorded conversations from captured pilots in British-run POW camps caught some pilots boasting about the fun of such heroic war work and of their prowess.
Obviously, such a thing couldn’t happen in Europe today.
Oh, hang on …

Now, onto food
I’ve mentioned before that one of my first jobs was to establish and run an education department in a military museum (Fort Newhaven in East Sussex – see my column in Feb’s BV) .
The job was easy as we had no end of original artefacts to display and for school age children to
handle.
But it was all pretty much geared for boys, and I wanted it to be attractive to girls. So not only did we display authentic uniforms for women called up – the WRENS uniforms were most admired – I thought it interesting if children could appreciate the weekly food allowance which, I’ll admit, rather astounded me.

The nation’s new diet
Rationing was introduced on January 8th, 1940 and a typical person’s weekly ration – the amounts
fluctuated throughout the conflict – roughly allowed per person:
• 1 egg,
• 2oz of tea
• 2 oz of butter
• 1 oz of cheese
• 8 oz of sugar
• 4 oz of bacon
• 4 oz of margarine
Just a quick note: fifty modern teabags weighs 4.8 oz (they re-used tea bags). A modern pack of butter is
9 oz. Two tablespoons of sugar is 1.7 oz – no wonder people sweetened cake mixture with root vegetables,
mainly carrots.
It may be interesting for children to weigh out two ounces of butter and see how much they get to last
a week.
As for bananas, oranges, lemons and other imported fruit and nuts, forget it. In 1946 my mum, aged 16, was given an orange, and she’d forgotten what they were. When told it was to eat she took a bite and grimaced – she didn’t know you had to peel it. The last time she’d seen an orange, she was nine.
So, at the museum I got the art department to knock up a display of a typical week’s food allowance. Our
female visitors were astonished – but the boys were even more horrified.

National Loaf
No, this wasn’t a massive country-wide lie-in: rationing made people inventive. We had an example during the 70th VE Day anniversary in the village hall in Mappowder.
The villagers went to great efforts to reproduce authentic war time festive meals. By and large it was all inedible, including the ‘National Loaf’, which my wife researched and baked. The National Loaf was a Government-inspired horror which urged bakers not to use wasteful white purified flour, but the grain
husks, too.
I’m all for wholemeal and roughage but there are limits, as the Government must have thought as they
tried to sell the concept with the ditty:
Pat-a-loaf, pat-a-loaf
Baker’s man
Bake me a loaf as fast as you can
It builds up my health
And its taste is good
I find that I like eating
Just what I should.
I think it fairly clear that the author at the propaganda ministry either hadn’t tried the National Loaf – or had one hell of an imagination. Not sure if the ditty worked but that didn’t matter. There was little other choice for most people.
And there was the notorious Woolton Pie, named after the Food Ministry boss. Of this monstrosity, I can only say that if you tried a modern ‘Homity Pie’ in what seems to be the regulation bullet-proof pastry from a particularly austere vegetarian café, then that would be sumptuous by comparison.

Mrs Lillie Taylor of Oldham, Lancashire at work in the Ministry of Food kitchen. She was “one of 25
housewives chosen to show cookery experts of the Ministry of Food how they vary their rations”.

A sheltered upbringing
Bit more about my mum, which I have gently touched on in an earlier article: mum, based in SW London, rather liked the war and thoroughly enjoyed the air raids in 1940. Even now I wonder at the morality of adult males thinking it OK to kill a 10 year old girl and her mum. Mum had little thought for that. “It was so cosy in the shelter. Dad made up beds, we had hot milk in a thermos and I was allowed to read by candlelight.”
Typical of my mum: it’s just ‘me, me, me!’

…rationing wasn’t rationed!
And did rationing end right after the war in May 1945? No. My mum was nine when rationing started, and she was a 24 year old qualified teacher when it ended on July 4th, 1954.
Blast! No, that wasn’t a bomb, I’ve been distracted (bloody Germans!). I meant to write about life in the
Blackmore Vale based on our young north Dorset girl’s memoirs, but got carried away.
We’ll see if the Editor wants more next issue. (NO, write something cheerful, for the love of macaroni. Ed)

Click to read a fascinating House of Commons debate by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food from March 1942.
It discusses the effects of current rationing, and a fascinating discourse on the efforts to control the black market. With a startling relevance to current political furore around ‘partygate’, Lloyd George finishes by stating “we can call upon our people for any sacrifice, provided they have the knowledge that it is equitable”

by Andy Palmer

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