Setting the Scene for HOME FIRES Episode 1

Front Cover JB croppedThe drama series, Home Fires, written and created by Simon Block, was inspired by my non-fiction book Jambusters (Home Fires in the USA) which looked at the activity of the Women’s Institutes on the British Home Front in the Second World War. Born in Canada in 1897, the Women’s Institute movement gave a voice to country women living in often isolated communities. By the middle of the twentieth century it had matured in both Britain and Canada into an important women’s organisation which had the power and authority to lobby government and strive for better conditions for country women, while maintaining a strictly non-sectarian, non-political stance.

The idea of a group of independently-minded women working within a rural village in Britain appealed to the creative mind of the script writer and executive producers of the show. Their belief in the project has given birth to a powerful women-led drama that draws on history for its backdrop, but with a light touch, and on the imagination of Simon Block for the characters and the development of the drama.

 

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Members of Muskham WI preparing vegetables for a produce market. Just one WI initiative to help keep the countryside fed during the war © WI Markets

We open the first episode of the first series in August 1939 when Britain waited breathlessly, as other allied countries, to see what Hitler’s next move would be. It was vital from the outset of the drama to emphasise the mood in the country at that time. We all now know how the Second World War ended but in August 1939 there was no certainty that there would actually be a war – just a very great fear that there might be. And it was the fear of the unknown that was so pervasive. The late summer weather was particularly beautiful that year and people could hardly match the dark rumblings from the continent with the glorious warm sunshine and rich harvest of fruits and vegetables that followed the announcement on 3rd September that Britain had declared war on Germany.

1930s rural Britain was characterised by tradition, much of it hide-bound and generations old. The village centred around the church, the various shops, the doctor’s surgery, the village pub (for the men) and, if there was one, the women’s institute. Most larger villages, such as the fictional Great Paxford, had a school and a regular bus service but contact with the world beyond the ‘big city’, in this case Chester, was limited for the majority of villagers. Yet they would have been aware of the wider world of yesteryear as a result of the devastating slaughter of the First World War. Many of the characters you meet in the first episode would have had fathers, brothers, cousins, sisters who had been involved in that dreadful conflict either in the Forces or working as nurses, in munitions or indeed on the land to keep the country fed.

Sybil's wonderful stories from her childhood in rural Cheshire brought colour and humour to Jambusters

Sybil was a farmer’s daughter and lifelong WI member. She joined Dunham Massey WI in Cheshire aged 14 © Norcott Family

Not every woman in the village would have joined the Women’s Institute. Some would have been simply too busy, others would have felt it was ‘not for them’ and in some villages little factions arose in the early years that meant not all were as welcome as the movement would have liked. Britain’s countryside was still uncomfortably traditional: those who went to church did not mix with the others who went to chapel. Political leanings also affected how people mixed and the social hierarchy was in some cases hopelessly entrenched. The Second World War shook rural Britain to its roots. The influx of over two million evacuees from the towns to the countryside at the outbreak of war brought the glaring differences between town and country living to the fore. Over the course of the so-called Phoney War, which ended with the Blitzkrieg in May 1940, some fourteen million changes of address were recorded by the Post Office. People were on the move and life began to change.

This is the backdrop to the first series of HOME FIRES. The historical events you see were very much part of life in the early months of the war. Although Simon Block’s characters are entirely fictitious, they share many characteristics with the real women of 1940s Britain and as such mirror rural life as it was then.

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The farmyard scene with cows and vegetables © Julie Summers

I would just like to add one little personal story to this introduction to HOME FIRES. When the drama was being filmed I made a visit to the set in Cheshire. Nothing could have prepared me for the thrill of seeing the black and white world that I have known for the last fifteen years through pictures, words, diaries and books come alive. The scene the team were filming was the opening sequence to the series. So no spoiler alert. Steph Farrow and her son, Little Stan, were driving a herd of shorthorn cattle into a Cheshire farmyard. Simple as that. But for me it was an emotional explosion. There were smells, so familiar from my childhood but now linked with Simon’s drama. There was noise, colour, movement, heat and energy. It was overwhelming and I admit I had tears in my eyes when I saw Steph, played by Claire Calbraith, encouraging the cows into the yard. ‘Slow as you like, Stan’, she says to her son. Slow as you like indeed. I didn’t want it to stop. And because this is television, it did not stop. There were several takes so I was happy. Everything about the set was perfect as far as I was concerned. The vegetables planted in the middle of the farmyard, the hen coop, the old car in front of the stables and lovely brown and white cows munching grass along the hedgerows and mooing as if indignant at having to do the same thing more than once.

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UK Edition published by Simon & Schuster

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US edition published by Penguin USA

 

A Grand Prize

I do not often have the opportunity to speak to someone who wants to make a serious difference to writers’ lives. Earlier this month, however, I had that opportunity and I wrote an article which I am reproducing here because I think the man behind the story is exceptional.

440-CarolSachs-OldParsonage-5D3_1464-LoResJeremy Mogford is a passionate man: passionate about life, passionate about his work and equally so about the annual prize he set up in 2013 to encourage short story writing on the subject of food and drink. The prize money is generous by any measure: £7,500 to the winning entry of a short story of 2,500 words. Last year saw over 450 short stories submitted and he hopes that this will be surpassed in 2016. But why this prize and why this subject matter?

The answer lies in Mogford’s career. After leaving university he set up Browns Restaurant and Bar in Brighton in 1973. Browns expanded into other cities including Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol and London. He and his partner, John Mayhew, went on to acquire Rules in London, which Mayhew now runs solo. Mogford moved to Oxford in 1976 and has used the city as his base ever since. He was inspired, he explained, by the idea of good, simple food in convivial surroundings. During the early years of Browns he would regularly visit La Coupole, a vast brasserie dating from the 1920s, on the boulevard du Montparnasse in Paris. He recalls an elderly man using a stick, wandering around the tables talking to the diners. ‘Who is that?’ he enquired of a waiter, ‘ah, that is Monsieur le Patron’ came the reply. Le Patron had been a presence in the restaurant over many years and then on one visit he was not there. Mogford enquired where he was and received the answer that the old man had fallen to the floor and died in the restaurant a few months earlier, at the venerable age of 94. Le Coupole had been le Patron’s life and the secret of his longevity is that he never lost his passion for the restaurant and the clientele who enjoyed its unique atmosphere. Longevity is a word that resonates with Jeremy Mogford and one that he hopes will be associated not only with his hotels and restaurants in Oxford, which include The Old Parsonage,the-old-parsonage-hotel-oxford_030320091348294620 The Old Bank Hotel, Gees and Quod, but with his prize for food and drink writing. When we met in the beautiful new library upstairs in the Old Parsonage I was struck by the comfortable combination of books, art, conversation and excellent coffee. It is easy to see why Mogford’s passion for these has coalesced into a literary prize for food and drink in his adopted city.

Food and drink features in literature from the earliest days, from the wedding feast at Cana to Oliver Twist’s bowl of gruel; Alice in Wonderland gatecrashes the Mad Hatter’s tea party; Proust experiences a moment of exquisite pleasure and is transported to the past when he dips a Madeleine into his tea. Heidi enjoys a Swiss raclette while Moby-Dick celebrates clam and cod chowder. The examples go on and on so that it becomes almost impossible to recall a work of literature that does not contain a salient reference to food and drink.

Why_we_re_excited_His_Dark_Materials_is_coming_to_TVPhilip Pullman’s His Dark Materials opening chapter is entitled ‘The Decanter of Tokay’, which contains a lethal dose of poison. It is certainly not the only drink to be laced with an invisible, odourless substance. However it was a whiff of wee that crystallised the idea in Mogford’s mind for the short story prize. His son Thomas, author of crime novels set in the Mediterranean, wrote a short story published in The Field about asparagus, with its extraordinary quality that means its scent is detected in urine within ten minutes of eating a single spear. ‘Why not a prize for food and drink writing, launched in Oxford? I have lived here since 1976, the city has been very good to me and my family and I wanted to give something back. Something with longevity and which celebrates excellence.’ Mogford has already been a generous donor to Oxford’s literary scene: it was his financial support that helped to revive the Oxford Literary Festival in 1995 and his support for the festival continued for two decades.

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Rick Stein

The Mogford Prize is now in its fourth year and is one of the top 25 literary prizes in the country. At a time when average writers’ incomes are so low they make headlines, it is a welcome fillip to see a prize that is intended to reward great work and to go on doing so annually. The Mogford Prize is here to stay and its founder is determined to see it grow both in terms of its recognition and reach. In affirming his desire to underline his serious commitment, Mogford has succeeded in recruiting Rick Stein and Lawrence Norfolk author of John Saturnall’s Feast, as the guest judges for 2016. He says: ‘I want to encourage and attract the very best writers to take part in the prize. It is about celebrating and using food as the inspiration for a story which can also include other elements, such as crime for example.’ Food and drink are components but they can be used like a twist of lime in a gin and tonic, to add flavour and fragrance but not necessarily to dominate.
‘Above all, it should be fun,’ Mogford concludes. The short-listed authors will be invited to the annual Quod party at the Old Bank Hotel on Thursday 7th April 2016 during the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival. The authors will be put up in Oxford and well looked after during their stay. But there is more: a cheque to the winner of £7,500 and the winning short story will be published in a slim volume, copies of which are placed in the bedrooms of both The Old Parsonage and the Old Bank where they are enjoyed, and often taken away, by overnight guests. In creating and supporting this award, Jeremy Mogford has added a rich jewel to the literary prize crown for now and for the future.

The Mogford Prize for Food and Drink Writing is open to any writer, published or unpublished, from anywhere in the world. It must be in English and up to 2,500 words long. The closing date for entries is midnight on 6 March 2016. Entries should be submitted by email as a Word document to shortstoryprize@mogford.co.uk.
Full details can be found at http://www.oxford-hotels-restaurants.co.uk/the-mogford-literary-prize/