The Value of Communication: For HOME FIRES Episode 5

2016-01-20 14.49.37I’ve always been fascinated by communication. Not just in its literal form but in what it says about the human condition and how important it is to people to communicate and be communicated with. Throughout my many years of research into the history of the Second World War I have been struck by how much of a difference it made if people could talk to one another, if not face to face then by letter. In fact, sometimes it was enough just to write the letter, as it was in the case of one of the soldiers I wrote about who was a prisoner of the Japanese for 3 ½ years. In February 1942 he wrote to his wife: I am a Prisoner of War. The letter goes on to describe the fall of Singapore and then he wrote the following:

We are going to be linked together through the medium of pen and ink and pencil and paper as we always have been; we are going to continue to put our thoughts on paper. So long as I am able, I am going to write you at least one letter each week. One day you will read these letters … And know without doubt that you are with me … now and always.

Charles Steel wrote 182 letters to his wife, Louise, over the period of his captivity but he could only send them to her when he was finally freed in August 1945. He posted them from Rangoon in September and soon received his first letter from her expressing anxiety about how difficult it would be for them to reconnect after so much time apart. He replied:

‘To hear you talking about cooking for the family is as balm to my soul. . . I am sure that we shall come together quite naturally because I see, quite clearly, a scene in our garden in forty years’ time. You will be reading these letters and I shall be gardening, and I shall come over to you with the loveliest rose I can find. As I pin it to your shawl, I can see you look up and hear you say, ‘Darling, what silly children we were to think that a mere war would alter our love for each other!’ And I shall kiss you, because I shall still love you . . .’

margaret sargent croppedCharles and Louise Steel  did indeed come together and were married for over forty years. Margaret, born after the war, is photographed here with them on holiday.

Today we can communicate a hundred times a day in so many different ways: email, Twitter, Facebook and a dozen other ways I probably don’t know about because I was born into the generation that sent postcards from holiday and rang home once a week from school. In 1940, the postman delivered letters twice, even three times a day. Telegrams were for urgent news, both good and bad, and by the outbreak of war the telephone was becoming more widely used. My mother-in-law, who grew up in the 1930s, recalled her terror of the telephone. It stood in the hall in her parents’ home, a black Bakelite candlestick phone dating from the 1920s, with its loud, insistent ring. She would hide from it rather than answer it. Not everyone was as shy of the telephone as she was but neither did every household have one. We see Bob Simms going out to the phone box to call his editor in Home Fires, only to discover his wife, Pat, on the other end of the telephone in the exchange.

Photo: Stuart Wood (C) ITV Not to be reproduced without permission

Stuart Wood © ITV Studios

But the bulk of wartime correspondence was by letter and the quantity prodigious. In the six years of war the army postal service handled thousands of millions of letters and parcels to and from conflict zones throughout the world. In every diary written during the war there are references to the arrival or non-arrival of the post. Crushing disappointment when nothing came, euphoria at the delivery of a letter from a loved one. And at home the post was just as eagerly awaited. ‘No letter from Jack this week’ or ‘I am sure you have written but I haven’t received any letters from you for a fortnight and I do so worry when I don’t hear from you.’ But ‘bliss oh bliss! Four letters in one day. I jumped into bed, pulled the covers up to my nose and breathed in your news.’ The value of postal communication and exchange of information between servicemen and women and their families is hard to overestimate.

‘Letters for us stand for love, longing, light-heartedness and lyricism. Letters evoke passion, tenderness, amusement, sadness, rejoicing, surprise.’ These words were written by Diana Hopkinson. As a deaf woman she was particularly lonely without him. She and her husband corresponded for over five years, the words on paper giving meaning to her life without him. While she was stirring the jam or playing with the baby, washing her clothes or mending their shoes, the letters, full of love and passion, humour and tales of far-away places she would never visit but in her mind’s eye, filled her thoughts and kept her going throughout the war.

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This book features evacuee children who went abroad in 1940, many to happy homes in Canada.

One very special set of letters came to my notice when I was writing the chapter in my book When the Children Came Home. This was correspondence between families separated by the Atlantic ocean. In 1940 Sherborne School in Dorset sent 125 girls aged between six and sixteen to Branksome Hall School in Toronto. For some this was the opportunity of a lifetime, for others it was less happy as they missed their families, but for all it meant that the only form of communication was the letter. Sandra B had been a teenager when she arrived in Toronto. She wrote: ‘My family were most supportive. They had written twice a week. I had written home without constraint, and I felt that they had kept pace with the ways I was changing: they had both been to North America and were well travelled.’ Coming home, however, was difficult and she found  Britain changed. Canada was where her heart was and she returned in 1947, marrying a Canadian boy the following year. She went on: ‘I consider myself Canadian, British Columbian, but my roots are still British. My mother, brother’s family, aunt, husband’s family are still there. In retrospect I feel I had the best of both worlds and was exceptionally lucky to come to Canada. Because of the age I came out, I do not feel that I was adversely affected; maybe my attitudes were already formed. I feel it made me more self reliant.’ Undoubtedly, in her mind, the ability to communicate openly with her parents had given her the courage to do what she felt was right for her.

While most people had friends, lovers, husbands or wives, mothers and fathers, aunts or grandparents who would write to them, there were a significant number of men in the armed forces who had no correspondence to look forward to. Their families might be illiterate: illiteracy was still a significant problem in Britain in the 1930s. They might simply have no family. An army officer had seen first-hand the importance of letters during the First World War and he determined that no soldier, sailor or airman should be without post. He was the honorary secretary of the British and Allied Comforts and Victims of War Fund. This organisation provided comforts for ‘Friendless Serving Men’ including letters and parcels, which were so helpful in raising these men’s spirits.

The Women’s Institute rallied behind the cause and soon were receiving so many thank-you letters from the so-called ‘Friendless Men’ that they had to set aside time in their busy meetings to read them. Communication was never more important. You will see this played out in HOME FIRES as Miriam takes it upon herself to write to young men who have no other correspondents to rely on.

Next week is my final blog for Series 1 of HOME FIRES. I shall be writing a whole new blog especially for Canada, to celebrate the fact that the birth of the drama series has its oldest roots in Stoney Creek of 1897.

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Love and Sex in Times of War: for HOME FIRES Episode 4


ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES EPISODE 1 Pictured : DAISY BADGER as Claire Hillman and MIKE NOBLE as Spencer Bradley. Photographer: STUART WOOD This image is the copyright of ITV and must be credited. The images are for one use only and to be used in relation to Home Firs, any further charge could incur a fee.

Claire Hillman (Daisy Badger) and Spencer Wilson (Mike Noble) flirt over a bicycle in episode 1 of Home Fires. © ITV Studios

‘If you put men and women together in close proximity in a danger shared, a mutual attraction is not only the inevitable result, it is what we should expect, and we should be very surprised and perturbed from a national point of view if it wasn’t.’ Thus wrote the English novelist, Barbara Cartland in 1945. As a welfare officer for the women’s services during the Second World War she was warm, generous and young people responded to her: ‘No one has ever minded when I have talked to them, and I’ve been both personal and intrusive. Being a novelist helps. I don’t know why, but people always want to confide in novelists, and the other thing which I believe makes everything alright is the fact that I am sincere. I do believe what I say.’ There were those in society who judged young people who got into trouble and condemned them but Cartland thought that was unfair and wrong. They were young, in love, in danger and in a hurry.

This lovely young woman is wearing her boyfriend’s wings on her blouse

Wartime love affairs were not exclusive to nations under attack. Toronto-based Star Weekly’s front covers feature one belle after another, often with her beau, always exuding fresh excitement at new-found love. With the influx of trainee pilots into Canadian airfields there were plenty of opportunities for dalliances, as there were indeed in British villages when handsome, well-dressed Canadian soldiers and airmen turned up and turned heads. From today’s perspective it is difficult to imagine or understand the stigma caused by extramarital affairs or illegitimate children. For both men and women during the war there was a sense that living for today was fine because tomorrow you might die. This spilled over into behaviour which to some seemed reprehensible but which to others was inevitable and not even particularly surprising. ‘War Aphrodisia’ was traditionally ascribed to men in battle and was a well-recognised condition. In total war, as the Second World War undoubtedly was for Britain and mainland Europe, a hedonistic impulse reached many other segments of society and was reflected further afield, wherever service personnel were stationed.

marlene-dietrichThe emancipation of women in Britain after the First World War had led, briefly, to a more liberated attitude towards fashion and behaviour. One commentator wrote: ‘Women bobbed their hair, donned short skirts, smoked in public and wore the heavy makeup which had formerly been the attribute of the harlot.’ The seeds of emancipation had been sown and the flame was fanned hardest in the USA where the combination of a buoyant stock market, bootleg gin and the racy novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald fuelled the frenetic pace of the social revolution. Hollywood played its part, producing erotic films for a mass audience and elevating the leading stars to almost legendary status. Audiences flocked to films such as Alimony (1917), which promised ‘brilliant men, beautiful jazz babies, champagne baths, midnight revels, petting parties in the purple dawn, all ending in one terrifying climax that makes you gasp.’ The Great Depression put a stop to much of this and divorce rates in Britain plunged along with the stock market, reaching a low in 1933, down 40% from the 1928 level. The number of weddings also fell.

The outbreak of the war changed everything. In the autumn of 1939 couples all over the country rushed to marry. The statistics show that in 1939-40 more marriages were recorded than in any previous or later year on record, a 30% increase on 1938. In the face of an uncertain future couples were desperate to tie the knot while the chance was still there. Many wartime weddings followed the briefest of courtships, like that of Kate and Jack in HOME FIRES.


© ITV Studios

Other couples had had lengthy courtships but were catapulted into decision-making by circumstances. Frank and Gladys Mason met in 1932 and got engaged six years later. They had planned to marry in the summer of 1940 but the war focused their minds, as it did for so many others, and they joined the rush for an early wedding, marrying within two weeks of making the decision. Gladys kept a diary throughout the early years of the war and some of the entries, juxtaposed as they are against the backdrop of the sinister news from the war in Europe, make strange reading. Two days after announcing she would marry Frank she wrote: ‘Hitler watched German siege of Warsaw. City in flames. Had my wedding dress fitted. Lovely.’ Many young women chose to marry in traditional long white dresses but a significant number saw the advantage of having an outfit that could used on more than one occasion. Gladys selected a pink crepe material and her mother, a dressmaker by profession, created a calf-length dress with a Peter Pan collar, short sleeves, button-through with buttons and belt of the same material. The matching short jacket had long sleeves and she offset the outfit with a navy hat and shoes. The night before her wedding she wrote in her diary: ‘We are both looking forward to our wedding very much. Frank went on duty at 6 pm. I did odd jobs. Went to bed about 11. Very excited. Hitler made a speech. Wants peace. Won’t get it.’

Frank and Gladys Mason with a guard of honour from the Fire Brigade

Frank and Gladys Mason with a guard of honour from the Fire Brigade © Barbara Hall

Later in the war, when everything was in short supply, including wedding dresses, help came from among others Lord Nuffield, a wealthy British motor manufacturer and philanthropist. He had about two hundred wedding dresses made in the United States and held them in a warehouse in London. Young brides in the Forces could borrow a dress with as little as 24 hours notice and have the chance to look beautiful on their wedding day, rather than having to marry in uniform, which was the other option. Barbara Cartland also stepped into the fray with 150 wedding dresses she bought from women who were prepared to sell them for use by Forces brides. The War Office set a maximum
price of £8.00 (£200 in 2015 or $350) for a dress, with veil and wreath, though occasionally she would top that up with a bit more from her own pocket, ‘because I understood that those dresses were made of more than satin and tulle, lace and crepe de chine; they were made of dreams, and one cannot sell dreams cheaply’.


Rose married Horace Boulay of Belledune, New Brunswick, one of 43,000 British women who married Canadian men during the Second World War © Canadian War Brides/Melynda Jarratt

Home Fires by Julie Summers is the non-fiction book that inspired the drama series HOME FIRES, published as Home Fires by Penguin USA and as Jambusters by Simon & Schuster UK


Home Fires Episode 3: Love, War and Housecoats


By the end of the Second World War the British government had such minute control over every aspect of people’s lives that it governed the length of men’s socks and the amount of metal and rubber in women’s corsets. Even trouser turn-ups were banned and only six designs of underwear for women were permitted. Food was equally carefully monitored and rationed. Everything had been streamlined and controlled to help towards the war effort. The novelist Barbara Cartland was heard to lament that love was about the only thing left unrationed by 1945.

Dame Barbara Cartland in ATS uniform, c. 1942

Dame Barbara Cartland in ATS uniform, c. 1942 She spent six months of the war in Canada, evacuated with her young family, but after the death of her two brothers at Dunkirk in 1940 she returned to Britain. © Cartland family

In November 1939, however, most things were still available and all rationing, apart from petrol which had been introduced in September, was in the future. With nearly one third of the population entitled to wear uniform of one type or another, manufacturing had to turn its considerable energies to mass-producing tunics, battle-dress, bib-and-braces or nurses’ uniforms. The government recognised that controls would be necessary and not just for food but also civil industry and trade. Some planning had taken place in the Board of Trade, but this was mainly to control the import/export market. The immediate impact on civilian trade was major price rises. Unsurprisingly, the demand for goods such as sandbags, black-out material and torches or flashlights rose suddenly and the prices followed. Profiteering became a major issue and was addressed in November through the Prices of Goods Act 1939, which ‘limited the profit earned per unit of a commodity to the amount received at the end of August 1939’. The Act had only limited success, which meant that profiteering continued and inflation, much feared by the government, was an ever present concern. Clothes were particularly susceptible to substantial price rises. A woman told a journalist early in the war that she had gone into a shop to buy gloves and said to the assistant that she wanted to get them now because she feared the new stock would be dearer. To which the assistant replied: ‘Bless you!  You’re too late. We’ve put up the prices of the old stock already.’

The editors of women’s magazines tried to encourage practical solutions such as the wearing of housecoats to protect skirts and blouses. Pat Simms (Claire Rushbrook), for example, and Erica Campbell (Frances Grey), wear housecoats or aprons over their dresses. We might look at these garments today and smile at the memory of own grandmothers or aunts wearing them, but even the high-end fashion magazine Vogue considered them important enough to include designs for housecoats in the winter pattern book of 1939.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES EPISODE 1 Pictured : FRANCES GREY as Erica Campbell, CLAIRE RUSHBROOK as Pat Simms, and SAMANTHA BOND as Frances Barden. Photographer: STUART WOOD This image is the copyright of ITV and must be credited. The images are for one use only and to be used in relation to Home Firs, any further charge could incur a fee.

Eria, Frances and Pat collecting blackberries copyright ITV

Controls of all sorts were introduced in the early months of the war. Market stalls were carefully monitored and once sugar rationing was introduced in January 1940 the Women’s Institute was no longer able to sell cakes and biscuits at their country markets. The WI found the bureaucracy of the Second World War a severe trial and one of the reasons my book was titled Jambusters in the UK was because the WI expended a great deal of energy busting bureaucratic log-jams in order to keep the countryside going. One irritated member wrote in her diary: ‘We went to Coventry this morning and I spent 20 minutes in the Food Controller’s Office getting a permit for butter and sugar for the Women’s Institute teas.’

The WI was nothing if not resourceful and positive. The government recognised the value of a huge voluntary body of women who could be marshalled with just one telephone call to their General Secretary, Miss Farrer, and it made sure that the WI was involved in the outset on food production. WI members were invited to sit on county agricultural committees and to encourage their villages to put aside as much land as possible to grow fruit and vegetables. In episode 2 of Home Fires some of the drama hinges on the determination of Mrs Barden (Samantha Bond), the WI president, to plough up the cricket pitch for vegetables. As seen, this was not popular with the men. This is something that happened throughout Britain. My own grandfather returned from the war to see that his beloved tennis court had been dug up for growing potatoes.

The autumn of 1939 brought great change and a strange sense of a new normality. As you watch episode three you will sense the heightened state of tension and emotion that the war rendered within the families in Great Paxford. It affected everyone in different ways: fear, anger, love, danger, separation but the Great Paxford WI offers its members a solid backbone as the country finds its way during the so-called Phoney War of 1939-40. One of the most successful schemes run by the WI during the war was the ‘Letter Friendship’ scheme. It was conceived in June 1939 at the meeting in London of the ACWW, Associated Country Women Worldwide, at which representatives from women’s movements from all over the world were present. Over 200 Canadian friendships were established and resulted in an exchange of letters so each could understand the other’s situation better. One correspondent wrote: ‘I listen a great deal to the radio but radio doesn’t tell me what the women do at home.’

Women needed each other as never before. The travel writer Rosita Forbes wrote in the magazine Women’s Own: ‘In these hard times, when the utmost is required of everyone, the most important virtues are courage and kindliness. Women’s courage is the valour of endurance, of standing up to endless small difficulties, of putting up with things and making things do. When you are sick and tired and frightened of the future as well, and you go on working without making a fuss, then you are quite as brave as the first person who flew across the Atlantic.’

Cover Croppedfashion on a ration_Cover

Home Fires by Julie Summers, published by Penguin USA, tells the true story of the wartime WI which inspired the drama series HOME FIRES: Fashion on the Ration by Julie Summers was published in March 2015.

Setting the Scene for Home Fires Episode 2

Episode 2 of Home Fires takes place against a strange time for Britons during the Second World War. Britain declared war against Germany on 3 September 1939, Canada a week later on 10 September. In Britain it was followed by a combination of mass paralysis and near mass panic. There was a very real fear that the German Luftwaffe would drop thousands of tons of bombs on London and other major British cities resulting in death and destruction on an unimaginable scale. Thus over one and a half million mothers and babies, unaccompanied school children, teachers and the sick or elderly were evacuated to the countryside. In addition a further two million children were evacuated privately to relatives or with their schools. The government called for all large gatherings to be shut down, so cinemas, sports fixtures, horse racing and theatres were closed for the first two weeks of the war. In short, Britain was in a state of heightened fear.

© ITV Studios

Members of Great Paxford WI making the most of September 1939’s abundant harvest of blackberries. The WI saved over 1,700 tons of fruit for the British larder in 1939 alone. © ITV Studios

People in the countryside were affected by the mass migration of evacuee children, though not every village took them. They were also concerned with the government’s urgent communications about growing crops on every piece of spare land available. Naturally the Women’s Institute sprang into action. It had been born in 1915 during the previous war in order to help with food production when Britons were short of essential foodstuffs. The structure of the WI, with its National Headquarters in London, a Federation office in each English and Welsh county (Scotland had the Scottish Rural Women’s Institute), and a village institute in one in three villages, meant that it was a vastly efficient machine for disseminating information and advice but also sugar, seeds and plants. With one phone call any government minister could be assured of the ears of over 328,000 WI members. They made those calls and the voluntary help requested was forthcoming. The Second World War was, in many ways, the WI’s finest hour.

At this stage in the war, everything was still unrationed, though not necessarily available. Food rationing was introduced in January 1940 when sugar, butter and bacon were limited. Further foods were added to the list over the months and years. The government wanted extra land brought into production so that the country would not be so reliant on imports. Most of Britain’s animal feed, for example, had been imported. Much of this was from the United States. With the perils of U-Boats torpedoing shipping convoys in the Atlantic, the need to become more self-sufficient was vital. The Battle for the Atlantic lasted for the entire war and hundreds of thousands of tons of shipping would be lost, in addition to tens of thousands of lives.


National Registration Form 1939 © National Archives

At the end of September the government introduced National Registration, completing more or less a census of the population. September 1939 was a busy month for the WI and the fictional Great Paxford is no exception. Everything you see played out in Episode 2 would have taken place in one form or another in villages throughout the country.
Although Simon Block’s scripts are entirely fictional, they draw deeply not only on my non-fiction book, Home Fires (Jambusters in the UK) but also on my knowledge of the wider story of the war. What we discussed very early in the planning stages of the drama was the need to capture the mood of the country in the first few episodes. Britain was at war but was not under attack. Men and women in their 40s and above had experienced the First World War and knew how terrible an impact that war had had on families. They knew that air raids and possible gas attacks could rain down on them at any moment. This was Total War, a war in which there are no non-combatants. It was as much the fear of what might come as the real threat that caused so much anxiety.

My book tells the story of the Women’s Institute in the Second World War, following the lives of a small number of women who kept diaries or accounts of the war years. One such is Edith Jones, echoes of who can be seen in one or two of the characters in the drama series. A tenant farmer from the Welsh borders, she kept a few cows, a small herd of sheep and two dozen chickens. She bottled, pickled, preserved, cured and dried fruit and vegetables for her family’s needs. Her diaries record in brief but delicious detail life on the farm set against the background of events on the world stage. On 7 September 1939 her nephew, who lived with them as a son, turned 22. She wrote in her diary: ‘Today he is a soldier in the British Army. We hope and pray that next year he will be a British farmer.’ That sentiment sums up the mood in Britain for so many women in country villages, our wonderful, fictitious Great Paxford included.

Home Fires by Julie Summers, published by Penguin USA, tells the true story of the wartime WI which inspired the drama series HOME FIRES


Women’s Rights are Men’s Issues

‘Women’s Rights are Men’s Issues’: thus spoke the great Meryl Streep on the BBC’s Today programme shortly before 8 o’clock this morning. She was being interviewed about the film Suffragette in which she plays the role of Mrs Pankhurst. Carey Mulligan, who plays the lead role in the film, pointed out, with frustration, that it had taken 100 years to get a film made about ‘this enormous human rights movement.’ Asked why she thought it was so much more difficult to get films made about women’s issues than men’s, she was direct: ‘Our industry is sexist.’ Meryl Streep said: ‘It’s harder for them [men] to live through a female protagonist in a film. I’m not sure why that is . . . They point to the box office. Women’s films don’t sell . . . Even though Mamma Mia has made over a billion dollars for everyone.’ She added. ‘We should all be included, we are half the human race.’

Recently Forbes carried out some research showing that in 2014 the top ten female actors earned just over half that of their male counterparts. There were just two female directors in the top 100 films and that year there was no female over 45 in a lead or co-lead role in the top 100 films. Well, thank goodness that has changed with Meryl Streep’s role in Suffragette.

Closer to my home in the UK, female actors have similarly felt they were competing against insuperable odds to remain relevant in middle age. In summer 2014 Samantha Bond (Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond films; Lady Rosamund, Downton Abbey) was attending a workshop at the National Theatre to discuss specifically why there were no roles for middle-aged women. That afternoon she received a call from her agent ‘to say that there was going to be a programme made about the WI called Jambusters [now Home Fires]. My heart fell.’ She went back into the workshop and said: ‘You are not going to believe this, ITV is doing a series for middle-aged women and we are all going to be making jam – is that where we have got to in the 21st century?’ But then she read the scripts and loved them. There was nothing sentimental about the jam-making and there was a strong sense of female drive. ‘I think the younger Frances [Barden] would have been a Suffragette. I certainly would have been!’ she said. ‘All the key women in the series are of a certain age, so they all have vivid memories of the First World War. They all know what is going to happen, they know about the loss.’

With great sensitivity and an equal amount of verve, script-writer Simon Block has got inside the heads of those wartime Institute members and created a women-led ensemble drama which shows a different side of life during the Second World War in the UK. For me, as the author of the non-fiction book Jambusters [Home Fires in the USA], what I celebrate in this drama is Simon’s ability to convey the fear of the unknown for the mothers, sisters, daughters of the characters as well as their resolve not to be undone by a new, possibly more terrible war. The threat of the Second World War brought with it the very real possibility that their way of life would be destroyed. The strength and determination of the women to work together to stand up to this threat is inspiring and moving. It is a vital continuum of the women’s movement portrayed in Suffragette.

Home Fires is written by a man. It is directed by men. The head cameraman is a man. So does it fall into the trap that so annoyed Meryl Streep at 8 o’clock this morning? I rather think not. The producer and executive producer are women. But it is the fact that Home Fires has as its DNA a non-fiction book about women, ordinary women in extraordinary times, written by a middle-aged woman that gives it depth. These women were the daughters and nieces of the women’s movement. They belonged to an organisation that had as its founders many of the Suffragists. An early biographer wrote of the Women’s Institute: ‘The Suffragists made the pot boil, the Institute movement showed how some things could be got out of the pot.’ Over its 100-year history, the WI has been a force to be reckoned with, campaigning for everything from equal pay for equal work (1943) to a ban on smoking in public places (1964). We’re not there yet on the former, as Meryl Streep revealed to a shocked BBC interviewer, telling her that she often gets offered less pay than male actors. And the latter took forty years to become law. Make no mistake, there is a lot still to be fought for.

I am sure there are those who would find Home Fires more entertaining if ‘a Panzer division tore down Great Paxford high street, raping the inhabitants and pillaging the shops’ as my friend Andy Ballingall suggested. However, that did not happen in real life so we will not let it happen in the drama. While we are not slaves to history, the truth is at least as powerful as any fiction. It is the perceived fear which is as potent as anything a gun, tank or fighter plane could inflict upon the inhabitants.

Home Fires in the UK had more viewers than any other ITV drama since Downton Abbey. That must prove it has appeal beyond just a female audience. Certainly, when I visit the set and meet the actors they are all universally delighted to be working with strong characters based on equally strong historic women. The male actors are as proud as their female counterparts. Strong women are inspiring. And none more so than the magnificent Meryl Streep and Samantha Bond.

A Young Festival

The first Jersey Festival of Words took place this weekend and what a great success it was. This is a young festival, in every sense of the word. I do not mean that as an insult but rather as a compliment. First, I discovered that the only reason I was there was because the chairman’s wonderful 15 year old daughter had heard me speak at Hay in May and told her mother she would like me to come to Jersey. What a compliment. I could not have been more delighted to be invited by a young, sparky, clever girl with a passion for fashion. Secondly, there were children’s events built into the programme rather than be run as a separate series of workshops and lectures. Well done Jersey! When I walked into the Green Room I was greeted by Jo behind the bar and asked if I would like a cup of tea and a sandwich, which was very welcome. She reached into the fridge and produced a small selection of sandwiches. ‘Hidden!’ she told me. There had been a stand-up comic workshop for children held earlier in the day and they had made short work of the sandwiches when they were let into the Green Room for a break. I thought that was lovely and I was delighted to meet one of the junior comedians who, at that moment, was lying on the floor with his trainers tied to a chair by cable ties. The atmosphere was so unpretentious and delightful that it was impossible not to get swept up in the genuine enthusiasm of the organisers for this new festival.

When the time came for me to do my presentation I got changed into my 1940s dress, shoes, hat and make-up and launched onto the stage with a mixture of nerves and excitement. The auditorium of the Opera House is handsome and the stage was set with two arm chairs so that it felt a little like a wartime sitting room. I was talking about Fashion on the Ration and it was fun to lift the skirts on wartime clothes rationing to a new audience. No turn-ups on men’s trousers and a shortage of corsets always get people laughing but the serious side of the wartime fashion industry also surprises people. For example, the benefit to the economy of fashion exports rose almost four-fold between 1939 and 1945. Not something widely known. It is also the case that with a lack of fashion to report on, the editor of Vogue decided to educate her readership about the war, running articles written by the American photographer, Lee Miller, as she made her way across France with the US Army in 1944 and 1945. The editor, Audrey Withers, took the decision to publish Lee’s photographs from a German concentration camp in Vogue, something almost unthinkable today.

After the talk was over I was invited back to the Green Room for a glass or two of Prosecco to celebrate the end of a very successful first festival. How lovely to be included in what was essentially a private party. I have written earlier this year about a bad festival experience. And about my good ones too: Hay, Dartington, Fowey etc. But Jersey is truly something special. Already on that Sunday evening the committee members were talking about possible events for next year. And they were intent on consulting their teenage experts on what would work for the young as well as for the older readers. Give me a young festival anytime!