Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Turn Back Time- The High Street: WW2 Make do and mend

  Turn Back Time - The High Street: World War 2. More like make do and don't get killed, of all the eps so far, this was by far the best if only because it brought close to home to a lot of people the forgotten lessons of WW2  and the suffering and hardships of people away from the front. My family of course had little or no concept of this as they were in large part occupied by Germans and Russians, then just German, then just Russians ( our liberators, yay! ). Bombs fell a lot and nobody seemed too keen on feeding them or being nice to them. My wife's family was at first in the Jewish Ghettos then in the German death camps ... most did not survive. My own Father, grandfather and grandmother on my father's side spent most of the war in Siberia before the Russians in 1942 decided to let them fight the soviets old allies, the Germans. Before "liberation" they got nothing, they lived on berries, nuts, acorns and whatever they could catch and of course selling off what few possessions of value they were allowed to take when they were deported in 1940. After "liberation" they lived on my father's earning and about a rationed kilo of truly horrid bread for three for a week, local provisions were stripped for the front, so again  they went from nothing to next to nothing. We lost a few along to the way to starvation and the executions in the Katyn forest,  many who started the journey to Teheran and freedom, never made it. So pardon me if I'm not too impressed by the deprivation and home front tribulations of some merchants. That said, some of my family on my mother's side did get out early and lived through the rationing , the blackouts and the bombs. But in fairness, that part of our history never seems to bubble up as much as the total loss of everything we owned, the wholesale murder of our families and the surrealist experience of surviving the concentration camps and Siberia.

Poles who made it to Teheran in 1942 from Siberia
In fact before I say owt else, I suspect most of you have no idea what it means to grow up in a family where the after supper conversation around the table with older relations, regularly came round to family history which included highlights like stories about seeing your own father shot by Russians in the public square, or having your grandfather tossed down a well after he'd been murdered in cold blood by Nazis. Nothing changes your life like being forced to watch non-pulsed with a gun to your head as your Jewish friends and neighbours are taken away and shot, only to be yourself  sent to Ravensbruck shortly after. My father's second wife spent part of her 12th year of life being a courier in the Warsaw uprising as the Russians sat just outside the city waiting  for the Germans to wipe out the remaining non communist leadership.  Certainly puts such things as rationing, mending and vegetable plots in perspective doesn't it. My own life as a boy was an endless stream of what do you mean you're hungry? I  had to march 10 miles in the Polish winter etc...... and you couldn't argue with that could you? When we watched Katyn the film, my father had a running commentary of who was killed , how he and my grandfather were lucky to be arrested later and only allowed to live because they were believed to be spies. My own wife's Grandmother "filled in the details" of Schindlers list that were too gruesome for film.and both our families learned a healthy respect for our bullshit meter and the little bell in our heads telling us it's getting too hot to stay. I appreciate more than most whom and what  I have and why I should cherish it, and that sometimes earthly possessions are sometimes just stuff. I appreciate the horror of what the people of London and Coventry and countless other places on the planet went through, but most of my friends who aren't from a family like ours, just don't get it. They really can't wrap their heads around what it means to have history happen  TO YOU and have history so directly mould who you are. I would never wish any of this on another person, but it does my head in to see just how many people, even well meaning ones, for whom this is just an abstract thing you read about in books.

Tonight's story was as much news to me as it must have been to most people who hadn't bothered watching C4 these last few years. An important retelling in terms that most modern people would understand. So what did change on the home front. For one, suddenly there wasn't a lot around. 55 million tonnes of goods became 18 million tonnes of goods coming into the country. The war effort meant that much of what the country produced went to the troops and out of the country. As the war dragged on and the Phony War or Sitzkreig had only claimed Poland, the real fear and consequences started in earnest only in 1940. With the result that England was nearly invaded, from then on, the hard graft on the home front was very real and very harsh if you didn't cooperate and work together. The British government launches the Make do and mend culture complete with community gardens and the usage of the national loaf and mutton or rabbit to replace the ubiquitous porc. Rationing and ration books become a way of life complete with more frugal use of foods and less appreciated foods like fake banana and spam or corned beef. I myself like both, but in moderation  but would probably not be keen on the fake banana food flavouring. As times get tougher and the men in trade are called to the catering corps, the women and young people are yet again left behind , except for bakers who are still needed at home. Hard fines and jail time are the lot of profiteers and the ill will it causes could be the undoing of much community spirit. As for the ration for the week,  it  consisted of more and varied food than my father ever saw in Siberia in a month or my wife's Bubie ever saw in Bergen Belsen, it was well balanced but meagre. This was not a bad thing, you could supplement it with all the bread you can eat, get veg from the garden and eat rabbit . So if you wanted to, it wasn't the end of the world.

So how will our merchants be affected by this and how will they cope?

The Devlins bakery is transformed into a restaurant designed to serve community meals that satisfy and keep scarce resources better distributed.  Now I wanted to have a go at Caroline, I really did, but she really got herself together this time. Even her National loaf, also  known at the time as Hitler's secret weapon as it was so unpleasant, was not as bad it could have been and she muddled through. Small but important detail about the national loaf , you didn't sell it fresh, it had to be a day old so as to last longer, but that was skipped over, why I don't know. Not withstanding the taste or the consistency, as it was whole wheat, Britain ended the war as one of the healthiest people on earth. Mrs. Devlin, If anything,  displayed the Dunkirk spirit that got Britain through the war the best. Her own children were among the most hard working of the lot and seemed to not complain one bit. More on the Devlins in a bit.

Simon the black smith traded in his toy shop for the basic hardware shop and Gill now offered to mend old clothes and refashion them into new garments. Together they took the initiative to go round the town and collect old tat and transform it back into useful items. I've banged on before,  elsewhere about how the greens of today haven't invented the wheel with recycling. This last gasp of the Ironmonger was to be his best and most satisfying, as his trade would be made redundant with the advent of mass produced goods on a global scale. Gill the dress maker took in many orders for alterations and converted a lot of people to the idea of giving clothes a new life. For the record, during the war Shepton Mallet collected 18tonnes to build a tank. Ever wonder where all those fences fine gates and other bits of less pretty iron work went to? Yep fighting the Gerries. We collected  fat, rotting veg, and all sorts. 

The other real stars of this ep were the Butchers and  the Grocers. Before I get to the Sergisons, let's talk about the Father and son butchers Andrew and Michael. They had to serve mutton, two year old sheep to people who'd got used to  porc and younger lamb. 1,5 pounds per customer, that was it. Now some customers  took on the era and gave it shot as social history, but others turned their noses up at rabbit and thought mutton too nasty. Andrew however turned the tables by making all the things people wanted from mutton and just as good, his best effort was the macon or muccon.. mutton bacon ok!  after a few locals tried it, it turned out to be more than a bit tasty. As things went, the only slightly sour note tat was hit was when the older men went away to serve in the catering brigades, normally hard working Michael turned into bit of a knob. This poor Scottish woman Ann Davidson, comes in to run the shop and not only does she get attitude from Michael but has her abilities questioned by punters, most of whom were women.

And now Carl Sergison and his wife Debbie. What a piece of work these two are. Having hidden some stock from the previous era, they then started to sell it on in private at double profit. in total padding the till by an additional 30£. But in the process setting off a cycle of distrust and recrimination that had it been real wartime would have cost him his business at the very least. They compound this by raiding the community veg garden and using it as their free goods cornucopia of profits.  It's people like this that make you seriously consider going communist. What they were practising was profiteering and illegal. Such people as Carl would have been sent to prison and their shops handed over to people who could do the job properly.The Chamber of Commerce fined them £100 or about £4500 in modern money. Carl seems not to have taken the lesson to heart and is more and more the vile money hungry bad guy of Dickensian novels. Fair shares for everybody just doesn't seem to be in his rule book.What he was treasonous , but he just considered he was taking care of his family even if it meant others went without. During war this is the kind of thinking that gets you locked up and rightly so. Debbie, who gives Geordies  a bad name, then squabbles with Caroline and her husband over using un-eaten bread for the same day, preferring "fresh" baps. As I said , the bread during that era was actually already slightly stale before it was allowed to be sold, and she wanted fresh. NOW who isn't getting the point of the exercise.

Which brings us to the centre piece of the the ep, the communal meals that Caroline organizes with the other merchants to pool resources were a brilliant idea. It went along with the community kitchens that served in some places up to 60,000 meals a day. It was easier to make a massive wodge of food that was tasty and nutritious in one place than in several. Over the ep , several age groups try out the fare, from spam and various kinds of carrot and swede mash... yum by the way, make it myself often , to rabbit stew and sheep's tongue with date and raisin pud  for the people old enough to remember the war. What was nice to see  was that as people got to appreciate the community kitchens more, they stayed long past the meals to chat and give each other support. Even the old art of queueing for something other than concert tickets, got people talking to each other in a way they hadn't in donkeys years.

Just as the Sergisons are truly not getting the point of the exercise, there is an air raid drill that reveals a lot more than just nerves and brings a few back to a realization of just how dangerous things are in the second war and that maybe they ought to after all cooperate. I'm not entirely sure Carl got it, but had he been there when one of 200 bombs fell on the town in the war, he might have been a bit less eager to be such a banker. My father's own recollections of air raids was the hit and miss nature of the beast, leaving one building intact but another completely shattered. Perhaps if they had taken out a building with a few fake casualties, it might have got the point across to some people a bit more forcefully. It does bring Caroline and Debbie closer and the women bond again. One gets the sense it's the closest Debbie was going to come to an apology.

As moral grew a bit strained and low, the street gets a dance to pick up spirits and we see some lovely frocks and the leg painting ( the full fashion look)  that imitated the look of real stockings with the sexy black seam on the back of the legs. Now the party was tamed to certain degree. During the war, such parties were not as innocent as this one seemed, with no lonely women going off with soldiers for a quick romance against the tree or wall, but then no one said it was going to be 100% accurate. In the end, the war pigs went home ( got some Ozzie on at the minute) and all breathed a  huge sigh of relief. All over the country and in Shepton Mallet a VE or Victory in Europe party was held in the street and became part of the biggest street party in history one reckons. Folk brought their left over rations and a feast was made to satisfy all apatites present. 

What is clear to have come from this in the population of the town that took part, was the creation of a community spirit that will not be soon broken. That town centre seems more likely than ever to retain a bit of the fairy dust when the cameras will go away. The best reaction was not from the old age pensioners who loved the meal of sheep's tongue and rabbit, or even the adults who embraced macon as delicious and gorgeous, but from a little boy who seems to have understood just how much rationing meant and that he was happy he lived in a time that had come about from the self sacrifice of millions of people like himself so long ago.  This lad who seems to have become a real fan from as early as the Victorian era has truly embraced the social experiment. So it's not Doctor Who's TARDIS, but he's been through 80 years of  the town's history in a way a pamphlet never would have. The closing line of the ep definitely belongs to the man who summed up the feeling stirred up by the week...We're all in this together, Let's not be greedy, Let's all help each other. Surely a motto worthy of any time?

Catch up the series here And find out more from the official web page here 

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