Book Club Discussion Notes for Jambusters

This book came about as a challenge from Julie’s editor to see if the Women’s Institute did anything interesting in the Second World War. As a result of the research she carried out over four years the conclusion she inevitably came to was that there a wealth of material. The year after the book was published ITV bought the rights to turn it into a television drama. It ran under the name of Home Fires for two seasons in 2015 and 2016. The true story of the country women who kept the countryside ticking is what is on offer in Jambusters (Home Fires in the USA and Canada).

Topics to consider for discussion might include:

Coming just 21 years after the First World War what do you think women feared most from the Second World War?

How much did the WI’s Pacifist stance affect the way it was perceived by the British Government?

How important was a sense of humour during the war?
Were you able to relate to any of the characters in the book and if so, what drew you to them?

Has the author got the balance right between using her research to tell the factual story and her writing abilities to create an engaging narrative?

Do you think today’s women would rally to the support of the government in a future war and if so, what would be their main focus?

Did this book change your opinion on the Women’s Institute or the role of women on the Home Front in the war?

Honour in Oxton: a Blue Plaque for Toosey

This is the transcript of a speech I gave to mark the unveiling of a blue plaque at the gates of the house where my grandfather lived in the early twentieth century. The people of Merseyside voted him the person most deserving of recognition. There was a huge turnout of Toosey relatives as well as two former prisoners of war, Maurice Naylor (96) and Fergus Anckorn (98) who unveiled the plaque. My son Richard read the words of the Japanese camp guard.

 

Brigadier Sir Philip Toosey CBE, DSO, TD, JP (12 August 1904 – 22 December 1975)

Brigadier Sir Philip John Denton Toosey was born in Upton Road in 1904 and moved to 20 Rosemount in 1910. Over the course of his life he played a role in the lives of many, many people from all walks of life: from Liverpool to Lima, from Barings Bank to the Bridge on the River Kwai and from Oxton to Africa. He had the ability to make you feel as if you were the only person who mattered at that moment in time, whether you were being praised on parade, being given a severe rocket for leaving bicycles on a train or drawing on the dining room wall paper. Latterly people felt his gaze upon them as he fundraised energetically for the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.

He was more than his title would suggest. His kindness, his delicious sense of humour, his repertoire of whistles and his passion for life never waned. He shared this passion with all who came into contact with him. To his friends he was Phil, and sometimes ‘Dear old Phil.’ To his wife, Alex, he was Philip with a particularly plosive P when she was cross with him. To his three children, Patrick, Gillian and Nicholas he was ‘The Captain’,named after Captain William Bush RN, a fictional character of extreme efficiency and loyalty in CS Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series. Thus to us his grandchildren he became Grandpa Bush. To his men he was the Colonel and later The Brig and to the thousands of people he met over the course of his working life he was simply Mr Toosey.

To one man, however, he was a figure of such significance that he changed the course of this man’s life. Sergeant Major Teruo Saito was second in command at Tamarkan in Thailand when Colonel Toosey and his men marched into the bridge camp on the River Kwai to the tune of Colonel Bogey. Saito was a regular army officer from the Imperial Japanese Army and although his methods of discipline were brutal, Toosey always argued that Saito knew how to handle men and there formed an unlikely bond between the two of them based on mutual respect. Toosey wrung concessions out of Saito for his men, such as rest or Yasume days, a canteen and the right to discipline his own men rather than leave it to the Japanese. In return he agreed to keep the camp clean and morale high, which in itself saved hundreds of lives. In 1943 Toosey was involved in a plot to help two officers and seven soldiers escape. The men were all captured and executed. Toosey told Saito that only he had known of the plan and as such he was subjected to a severe beating and was forced to stand to attention for twenty-four hours in the tropical heat – a humiliation initiated by Saito as a way to show the Kempi Tai (the Japanese equivalent of the Gestapo) that he had dealt with the situation. Saito’s actions undoubtedly saved Toosey from an even more unpleasant fate.

This photograph of the Bridge on the River Kwai was given to Toosey in 1955

At the end of the war when Toosey was asked to help screen the Japanese and Korean guards for war crimes he told the investigators that Saito should be set free. This made an enormous impression on the Japanese. In 1974 he wrote to Toosey:

For long period of time I have been harbouring the wish to meet you and express my thanks to you. I especially remember in 1945 when the war ended and when our situations were completely reversed. I was gravely shocked and delighted when you came to shake me by the hand as only day before you were prisoner. You exchanged friendly words with me and I discovered what a great man you were. Even after winning you were not arrogant or proud. You are the type of man who is a real bridge over the battlefield.

After the war Toosey, like most of the former POWs, struggled to settle back into civilian life. He was helped by his firm, Barings, and by his activities with the Far Eastern Prisoners of War Federation of which he was Chairman from 1966 to 1974

A decade later, in what would have been Toosey’s 80th year, Saito came to Britain at the invitation of Professor Peter Davies, Toosey’s first biographer. They visited the grave in Landican cemetery and Saito expressed surprise that there was no great monument but a simple headstone.

Saito at Toosey’s grave on 12 August 1984 on what would have been Toosey’s 80th birthday

He asked to spend a few moments at the grave as to say a prayer, for he had converted to Christianity after the war. Later that afternoon he came here to tea with Patrick and Monica and saw 20 Rosemount. He returned to Thailand and wrote to Peter and Patrick:

I feel very fine because I finish my own strong duty. One thing I regret, I could not visit Mr Philip Toosey when he was alive. He showed me what a human being should be. He changed the philosophy of my life.

Phil Toosey in his study at Heathcote 1974

Three generations of Tooseys: l-r Nick Toosey (son); Arthur Toosey, Gillian Summers, Georgia Toosey, Giles Toosey, Stephanie Hickish, Richard Steele, Evelyn-Mary Matthews

 

Pimms, Parasols and Passions

Today is the first of five days of the Henley Royal Regatta, the rowing world’s equivalent of Wimbledon or Lords. It has been part of Britain’s summer social calendar since 1839 and it has been little altered over the last one and three quarter centuries. Two crews battle side by side along 2,112 metres of river followed by an umpire in a beautiful wooden launch and watched from the bank by tens of thousands of spectators. Because rowing is essentially someone sitting on a seat going backwards as fast as they can it has, like cricket, endless records and silly names though, unlike cricket, most races are completed in under ten minutes. Just occasionally a race is won in such a spectacular way that it joins the ranks of Henley legends. Ten years ago this year one such race captured everything that is magical about the regatta and I was there to witness it. Here is the story:

Sunday 8 July 2007 and the market town of Henley-on-Thames is enjoying a warm afternoon.  On the Buckinghamshire bank of the River Thames the scene is one of colour, pageantry and tradition: blue and white striped boat tents marshaled neatly between the pink and cream Leander Club hard up against Henley Bridge, and the white marquees housing the grandstands and Stewards enclosure on the downstream side.  It is finals day of the regatta, the day when lives are changed forever by the outcome of an individual race.  At 3:50pm two crews of nine boys line up at the start, next to the lozenge shaped island in the middle of the river crowned by an elegant temple designed by the 18th century English architect, James Wyatt. The umpire is standing in a handsome launch, arms raised holding a red flag vertically above his head waiting for the two coxes to indicate that their crews are all set.  ‘Are you ready?’ He sweeps the flag down sharply.  ‘Go!’   Sixteen blades dip into the water.  They are off.

Upwards of 100,000 people attend Henley Royal Regatta each July. It is an event caught in a bubble of history with echoes of a bygone era everywhere: fine hats, striped blazers, picnics in the car park come rain or shine, decorated launches bobbing on the white booms that line the course, Pimms jugs clinking with ice, champagne and oysters, a brass band playing military tunes, and all the while a titanic battle is being fought on the water. Brentwood had dispatched the favourites, Eton, in the semi-finals the day before and Shrewsbury had beaten Radley in a slower time.There is expectation and excitement all along the river bank – not least in the Stewards’ Enclosure where nervous parents fidget, check their watches, exchange anxious glances and wonder why the commentator has not mentioned the race yet. But patience. Then the deadpan announcement over the loudspeaker: The final of the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup is in progress between Brentwood College on the Berkshire station and Shrewsbury School on the Buckinghamshire station. Brentwood College are the Canadian National School Champions. No mention of Shrewsbury’s pedigree.

At the end of the island, both crews rating forty-two, Brentwood College lead Shrewsbury School by half a length. Forty strokes in from the start and the Canadians already have a half-length lead. Six minutes to go. The grandstand is full of Shrewsbury supporters. There is barely a free seat, the atmosphere tense. Elsewhere people are milling around the bars and chatting. Henley is, after all, a great social event. It marks the end of the summer season, after Ascot, and coincides with Wimbledon.

At The Barrier, Brentwood College maintain their lead of half a length over Shrewsbury School. Time to The Barrier, 1 minute 58 seconds. A buzz. One second faster than yesterday. The Barrier is one of two points where intermediate times are taken, times that later will be scrutinised, compared, delighted at or despaired over. The spectators downstream can see the action first. Crowding along the river bank they get close-up views of the two crews battling it out in the early stages of the race.

The next timing point is Fawley. Now there is a change: At Fawley, Brentwood College’s lead over Shrewsbury School has been reduced to a quarter of a length. The grandstand is in spasm, spectators begin to move towards the river bank sensing a spectacle. Downstream the shouting has increased and the excitement is palpable. Can the home crew crack the Canadians? At The Three-Quarter Mile Signal Brentwood School led Shrewsbury School by 2 feet. The grandstand is on its feet, a roar is moving up the bank like a giant wave. Half the race gone. At the Mile Signal, Shrewsbury School had taken the lead. Wild elation but fear too. The Canadians were not about to give up and Shrewsbury supporters knew that. ‘We could see them now and it looked hell’, wrote housemaster Martin Humphreys to crew member Tom Hanmer’s parents. ‘Shrewsbury on the far side pounding away, looking a bit scrappy and tired, to be honest. Brentwood on the near side and neat and long. When they came past us Shrewsbury had a quarter of a length lead, but I could see the Canadians were eating into it with every stroke. This was grim.’ At the progress board the crews are level. Just metres from the finish …

The two boats cross the line neck and neck. Then there is silence. The commentary ceases and the Finish Judge has to make his call. The wait seems interminable, time stands still. Then: The result of the Final of the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup was that Shr …. No need for the rest: the name of the winning crew is always announced first. The grandstand explodes in ecstasy … the verdict, one foot. More cheering. The narrowest, the shortest, the tiniest of winning margins imaginable, less than a sixtieth of the length of the boat.

For Brentwood College a bitter blow. To be a member of a losing crew, however epic the race, there are no prizes. For the boys of the winning crew and their parents, unsurpassed joy, a matter of lifetime pride and for one man in particular this is a sweet victory. Eighty-three-year-old Michael Lapage watched his grandson, Patrick, help to win this great battle. Nearly seventy years earlier, on the same stretch of river, Michael had won silver for Great Britain in the 1948 Olympic Games. The legacy of a Henley win is a long one. It unites generations and brings tears to the eyes of the strongest of men.

Five years later Patrick was rowing in the final of the Ladies Challenge Plate, this time for Harvard University against Britain’s Leander Club. From where I was standing close to the finish it was impossible to say who had won the race after six minutes of another titanic battle. The announcement came after what seemed like an age. The result of the Final of the Ladies Challenge Plate was that Harvard University of the United States of America beat Leander Club. The Verdict: one foot. Now what are the chances of that happening to the same young man five years apart?

I am looking forward with eager anticipation to this year’s Henley Royal Regatta and hoping for some more history to be made and to watching grown men cry.

 

Home Fires Season 2 Episode 4 Love and Sex in Times of War

‘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.

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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 and 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. Later in the war the American GIs turned many heads and over 60,000 GI brides made their way to the New World in the immediate aftermath of the Second War. But that is all in the future.

The 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.

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‘Jazz babies’ in Hollywood, 1927

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 circumstances of total war changed both attitudes and opportunities: ‘We were not really immoral, there was a war on,’ explained one British housewife. The ‘what the heck I could be dead tomorrow’ attitude of some of the fighter pilots, for example, brought many couples together and hastily arranged marriages, with often only forty-eight hours to spend together, were not uncommon. Few couples could consider what would happen after the war, when life might return to normal. They lived for that day and perhaps the next. ‘They were loved and beloved, and by this stage in the war love was about the only thing left unrationed.’

Unit stills photography

copyright ITV

As we dig deeper into the fourth episode of HOME FIRES, war aphrodisia has reached Great Paxford. Electric tensions spark and shock around the village in the ferment of high drama. Pat’s nascent relationship with Marek has caused gasps and quickening heartbeats not just for careful observers like Erica, but for the rest of us watching on, agonising over her every move, desperate for her to duck and dive to avoid the eagle eye of Bob. How can she be so brave as to carry on her relationship with Marek while her deeply troubled husband is trying to exert his influence over her?

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A contemporary description from a Manchester housewife in 1944 might throw some light on this: ‘There was nothing cheap about our affair, and if Rick had my body, my heart was with my husband and somehow I didn’t feel that I was doing anything wrong.’

Other relationships stop and start. Emotions that would normally have been ignored or suppressed, rise to the surface with a juvenile and intoxicating urgency. Some women find themselves almost out of their depth and exert a rigorous check on their emotions. Thanks to an intervention by Joyce Cameron in the last episode, Sarah Collingbourne is brought to an abrupt halt in her dalliance with the delightful, handsome and oh-so-eligible Wing Commander from RAF Tabley Wood.

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But what of Miss Fenchurch? She might have danced with him at the Czech Camp but is there a chance of something in the future? Is Laura Campbell’s reputation going to blot out the early signs of love with Tom, the handsome young pilot who nobly stands up to the prissy but not-above-buying-black market-butter, Mrs Talbot? This fetid atmosphere of possibility belongs, of course, in a 9pm drama in 2016, but it accurately reflects the intoxicating atmosphere of the summer of 1940 when no-one knew what might happen next. The Second World War had entered a phase of unprecedented high stakes and it is not surprising that people reacted to it by questioning their tomorrow.

I am constantly excited and delighted by Simon Block’s brilliantly observed scripts. He has succeeded in chiming with the changing times. The pace of this series increases as the pace of the war did too. We never quite know what turn is to come next but when it comes it is both thrilling and fitting. Robert Quinn’s outstanding directing never lets us rest for a minute, yet it is not hurried. We are on the edge of our seats, as the country was in 1940. Home Fires is an all-round production with an exceptional cast, a superb production team and an energetic editorial and post-production set up that weaves the magic together as Samuel Sims’ music sprinkles the icing on the cake. Enjoy Sunday 23 April. It is a mesmerising episode.

The first section of this blog appeared in the USA in October 2015 and is an abridged version of a chapter in Stranger in the House, entitled Sex and Love in Times of War.

cover Home Fires full 6.24.15

 

Europe – an historical perspective

Wednesday 29 March 2017 is the most significant day in the life of the United Kingdom this century and possibly even of the last forty-four years. Some go as far as to say it represents the most momentous decision taken by this country since the end of the Second World War. Whatever side you are on in the question about whether it is a good or bad thing that Britain is going to leave the European Union, it cannot be denied that invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is a noteworthy event. The Britain of today will look different in two, five, twenty years time. The anxiety must be what that Britain might look like and how will the changes affect all our futures.

Oxford, my home city, voted 70% to Remain in the EU. We have residents, workers and visitors from all over the world

As a historian I find momentous and noteworthy events both alarming and exciting. As such I turned back to history to give me some lead on the whole development of the idea of a united Europe and examine what its forefathers had in mind in the immediate aftermath of 1939-45 for the future of a war torn continent. It is a common myth that in 1940 Britain stood alone on the edge of Europe with no help or support. In exact terms we were alone but in reality we had nationals from all over the continent living, fighting and working for Britain and towards the war effort. Polish and Czech airmen flew magnificently during the Battle of Britain and were at our side in many other operations in the war including D-Day. Britain changed out of all recognition over the course of the war.

GIs at a village dance, 1944

The evacuation of people to the countryside, the influx of foreign fighters including 300,000 Canadians and a few million American GIs, mean that people living in rural villages heard accents and saw sights they had hitherto never encountered. 10,000 men from the West Indies came to Britain to enlist and were sent to North Africa and Italy in 1944. Of the GIs, over 130,000 were black soldiers and many found the non-segregation in Britain at first alarming but then a delight. They were billeted all over the country. Then there were Poles in Northern Scotland, Czechs in Cheshire, Americans in Cornwall, Canadians in Suffolk, Danes, Greeks and French in Malvern. The country was welcoming not only to foreign fighters but to refugees. Over 10,000 children arrived with the Kindertransport in 1938-39, just two years after 4,000 children from the Basque country fled here to escape the Spanish Civil War. Britain coped and despite the historic resentment of many to change, by and large they accepted the incomers.

After the war some of those who had made Britain their wartime home chose to remain here rather than returning to their countries of birth. It wasn’t perfect in the early years and there were times of strife but the country has changed over the last eighty years and I am proud to be a citizen of a wonderful, multicultural country.

Moss Side Amateur Boxing Club 1984

After the devastating years of conflict Europe had to be rebuilt and countries aligned so that such a violent and destructive conflict could never happen again. There are many significant players who had a finger in the early version of the European pie but one of the most fascinating from my perspective was a man who had spent the pinnacle of his career training volunteers to enter Nazi occupied Europe and cause mayhem, murder and sabotage. His name was Sir Colin McVean Gubbins. His name may not be familiar to British or American readers but in France, Belgium, Poland, Czech Republic, Norway and the Netherlands he is recognized as a great hero.

Sir Colin Gubbins KCMG

Born in Tokyo in 1896 he was sent, aged seven, to live with his maternal grandparents on the Isle of Mull. He did not see his father or mother for five years but he described his childhood as blissfully happy. After school he attended the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich and in the summer of 1914 he was in Heidelberg learning German. In August had to make a frantic dash back to Britain to avoid arrest. He succeeded by disguising himself as a child and later wrote: ‘My escape from being imprisoned in Germany was entirely due to the kindness of the Englishman, a complete stranger, who lent me £1 on Cologne platform.’ Gubbins was at Ypres for the first and second battles, then on the Somme where he won his Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry. He was shot in the neck on the Somme in October and was in hospital for eleven days; he was gassed in 1917 and suffered from trench fever in April 1918 but was fit enough to join General Ironside, later commander-in-chief of the Home Forces, as ADC on the autumn mission to Archangel in Russia to prepare a winter campaign. After the war, then aged twenty-three, Gubbins was sent to Ireland where he was given a three day course in guerrilla warfare and observed the methods used by the nationalists at first-hand. In 1923 he learned Russian and then went to India to learn Urdu.

Promoted to major in February 1934, he was posted to the War Office and appointed GS02 in a new section of MTI (Military Training Instruction), which was the policy making arm of the Military Training Directorate. In this role he was sent in 1938 to Czechoslovakia to oversee the withdrawal of Czech forces from the Sudetenland. It was something that he found exceptionally repugnant and it remained a matter of lasting shame to him for the rest of his life. It also gave him a first-hand view of the brutal force of Nazi expansion.

Stay-Behind Fighters being trained at Coleshill House near Swindon

In the summer of 1940, after the fall of France, the invasion of Britain seemed imminent. Gubbins was put in charge of training stay-behind parties of men who would work locally to sabotage Germans stores, blow up bridges and generally slow down their advance parties. When the threat of invasion lessened he was transferred to a new section called Special Operations Executive, known by its nickname Baker Street which was the London HQ. Its aim was to train foreign fighters who would be sent back to their own countries to carry out secret missions.

He moved to the Highlands to set up Special Training Schools where agents from occupied countries could be trained in the brutal arts of guerrilla or, as Churchill called it, ungentlemanly warfare. Men and women were turned into silent killers, explosives experts, radio operators and sabotage agents who were parachuted into France, Belgium, Poland, the Czech Republic, Norway and so on to carry out their secret and often deadly work. Gubbins worked with SOE for the whole war and clocked up some notable successes in Norway, France and, most spectacularly, in the Czech Republic when two agents trained in the Highlands carried out the successful assassination of Acting Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich in May 1942. The reprisals for the murder of Germans was hideous but the heads of the various governments-in-exile in London thought the boost to a country’s morale and the confirmation that they had not been forgotten was a price worth paying.

Jozef Gabcik (left) and Jan Kubis who carried out the assassination of Heydrich in May 1942

At the end of the war Gubbins’ department was shut down. His biographer wrote of him:

Britain was spared the shame and misery of enemy occupation; without this experience it is difficult to appreciate the part played by clandestine resistance both in restoring national self-respect and in permitting courageous individuals to escape from the ignominy of their situation. . . It was as a resistance leader that he came to fashion Special Operations Executive, and to write his own page in the history of almost every country occupied by the enemy in the Second World War.

So respected was he in the countries that had been occupied by the Nazis that the government had to waive the rule that an officer could receive only four foreign honours for services in the war. Eventually he received more fourteen awards including the highest from Norway, Denmark, Greece, France, Poland, Belgium and the United States of America. Gubbins received a knighthood in 1946 and began the second half of his life’s work, which was to promote European Unity. Despite the fact he had spent five years trying to devise every possible lethal means of undermining the Germans, he realized that the only way of securing a lasting peace in Europe was to work together.

Jozef Retinger, founder of the European Movement, lived in exile in London having been expelled from his native country by the communist government in 1945

In 1946 an old Polish friend, Jozef Retinger, asked him to help set up the Independent League for Economic Cooperation in Brussels. This was merged with various others in 1947 to become the International Committee of the Movement for European Unity with Churchill’s son-in-law, Duncan Sandys as chairman. In 1954 he was asked to represent Britain as a founder member of the Bilderberg Group, an organisation set up to promote a strengthening of US-European relations and preventing another world war. When asked what he considered to be his greatest achievement he said the role he had been most honoured to play was in helping to prevent a further war.

Gubbins died in 1976 at the age of eighty, by which time Britain had been a full member of the European Union for three years. I was sixteen at the time and two years later I would leave home to live in Germany. I spent two years in Munich prior to university and then a year in Vienna. Later I spent time in Paris, Prague, Warsaw, Milan, Naples, and many other cities where my work took me. Freedom of movement and the lack of borders is something I now take for granted.

With my German friend, Atti, who changed my life when I was 17 and living in Germany. She made me proud to be a European

Will all this change? I wonder what Sir Colin McVean Gubbins would think of the step his country is about to take on 29 March 2017 and where he might imagine it could lead…

Gubbins’ story will be told in full in my next book Behind Closed Doors. It will be published in spring 2018.

A Touch of Class

imagesPart of my work as an author is to give lectures. I do two six week seasons in the autumn and spring all over the country, speaking about the social history of the Second World War among other topics. The ITV drama series HOME FIRES, inspired by my book Jambusters, is a favourite theme at the end of my talk about women and war. Everywhere I have been since May 2016 I have been harangued by people who are desperate for answers, confused why the series ended on such a dramatic cliff-hanger and who would love nothing more than to see HOME FIRES return to their screens. I politely explain the ITV line that the broadcaster is seeking constantly to refresh their offering. That explanation is not always well received and often produces sarcastic laughter.

Last week I was lecturing in Exeter and among the audience was the mother of a senior crew member from the drama. She told me that she had learned from her son that the reason it had been cancelled was because it was too white and middle class. I had guessed that might have been one of the reasons it was not re-commissioned but I had not heard the remark from a reliable source. I cannot let that go. This is my response, tempered after a week of editing my thoughts and controlling my indignation.

Wartime clothes modelled outside Imperial War Museum, London, March 2015

Wartime clothes modelled outside Imperial War Museum, London, March 2015

Rural Britain in 1939 was predominantly white. That cannot be denied. But it was far from middle-class. Mass Observation, that brilliant window on everyday life, presented the most valuable of vignettes in its myriad reports, diaries, questionnaires and observations during the early years of the war. Set up in 1937 by three young men, anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet and journalist Charles Madge, and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings, its aim was to document and record everyday life in Britain through the eyes of ordinary people. They listed four classes in Britain in the late nineteen thirties: upper class, middle class, artisan class and unskilled working class. They estimated that the working class accounted for sixty-five per cent of the population as opposed to roughly fourteen per cent in 2015. The upper class, or aristocracy, represented five per cent and the remainder (thirty per cent) was split between the burgeoning middle class of the nineteen thirties and the artisan class, which included skilled workers on low incomes. This is reflected in all the research I have done for my books on the social history of the Second World War and was picked up by the writer Simon Block for HOME FIRES.

Bunbury - the ancient Cheshire village that became Great Paxford

Bunbury – the ancient Cheshire village that became Great Paxford

A typical village in the early twentieth century would have a manor house, inhabited by the squire and his family, who might be resident full time or who might only come down for the hunting. Then there would be the farmers, some owning their own farms, others as tenant farmers but many of very long standing. These families, headed by the men, might have been working the land for many decades, if not centuries. Resistance to change, and in particular to book learning, was strong among this group. The main body of the village would comprise farm labourers and their families, who again might have been living in the village and serving the big house for generations. Some villages had a doctor and he, as a man of learning with knowledge of science, was held in high regard. The vicar or priest was accorded equal respect. A few villages could boast an artist or two but they were generally on the periphery of village life and not part of the hierarchy.

HOME FIRES echoes this picture of English rural life at the outbreak of the Second World War. Joyce Cameron is the wife of the wealthiest man in the village, even though we barely get to see Douglas Cameron in the series. I have always imagined him as owning farms and land in the in the area around Great Paxford. Joyce could best be described as old school middle-class in that she was born into the privilege rather than earning her way into it as the other middle class character, Frances Barden, would have to have done. Frances and Peter, a wealthy factory owner, are both university educated and belong to the new middle class that, frankly, appalled Douglas and Joyce Cameron. Their household, with Cookie and Thumbs – the cook and gardener – and Claire Hillman, the housemaid, represents a fairly typical well-to-do family of the era. Had the Bardens had children, there would have been a nanny and quite possibly a nursery nurse. That is the sum total of the middle-class characters in Home Fires and they dominate the drama in the early episodes, in keeping with the mores of the time.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES EPISODE 1 Pictured : FRANCESCA ANNIS as Joyce Cameron. 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.

Joyce Cameron (Francesca Annis) Photographer: STUART WOOD 
copyright ITV

For the women in Great Paxford the arrival of the Women’s Institute, probably in the early nineteen twenties, did more for their social mobility and education than anything else. It gave them a reason to meet up and discuss any number of topics regardless of their social background. When the WI was set up in Wales 1915 it was modelled on the Canadian model of a safe meeting place for women to expand their horizons, share experiences, learn and try new things and, above all, it was meant for every woman, whatever her personal circumstance. From the word go there was to be no bar for anyone joining the WI. Church and Chapel, Conservative and Labour, upper and working class, gay and straight – everyone was welcome. This did not always succeed, especially if a village were hide-bound by ancient traditions and divisions. But the first two episodes of HOME FIRES shows how that could be and was broken with a change of leadership. Under the guidance of Frances Barden the Great Paxford Women’s Institute opens its doors to a wider spread of women from the village and welcomes incomers.

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Little Stan (Brian Fletcher), Steph Farrow (Clare Calbraith), Stan (Chris Coghill) doing the ‘Farrow Frown’ © Julie Summers 2015

Their first recruit from the village is Steph Farrow, a tenant farmer who runs her herd of a dozen cows with her son Little Stan. It is possible that her farm is owned by Douglas Cameron, although that has never been mentioned. Certainly it does not belong to the Farrows. Her husband, Stan, goes off to war leaving Steph in charge and she soon gets into difficulty with the Ministry of Agriculture when she finds it impossible to keep up with her paperwork. We realise that she can neither read nor write. Illiteracy among women born before the First World War was high and it was something that the Women’s Institute was keen to address. Education was, and remains, the keystone of the movement and it gives the WI its present charitable status. Thus it is entirely in character that Steph is taught to read and write by a fellow WI member, Teresa Fenchurch, the teacher from Liverpool.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENT HOME FIRES EPISODE 5 Pictured: LEANNE BEST as Teresa. This image is the copyright of ITV and must only be used in relation the HOME FIRES on ITV.

Teresa Fenchurch (Leanne Best)
copyright ITV

Teresa is a breath of fresh air in Great Paxford. Coming straight from a poor area of the city she has experience of all types of families and children. She is no doubt the first in her family to be educated to teacher level and the passion with which she encourages the children to learn to read and write is something new in the village. She understands how education can change lives and open doors for children who, in the past, would have had to follow their parents into farming or service. Her past liaison with Connie, a fellow teacher from Liverpool, is the key reason she had to leave the city and she hopes to put it behind her. She is typical of the kind of woman who came from the city to the countryside during the war, though many of the teachers who ended up in village schools were there because of the evacuation of school children rather than by choice. This chimed with many viewers who remember their parents talking about the quality of teachers coming from the cities into the countryside during the war and raising the standard and ambition of local teaching.

Teresa’s landlady, Alison Scotlock, has her own secret that she is keen to hide. Although ostensibly a respectable working woman trained as a book-keeper, she is not legitimately Mrs Scotlock. She and George were not married as he was unable to obtain a divorce from his first wife. Had this become widely know in Great Paxford she might have found it difficult to stay. She therefore lives dangerously close to the edge of society and her entanglement with the world of crime is born out of necessity. Her friendship with Teresa is understandable: They each learn the other’s secret and agree, in an unspoken understanding, to keep it.

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The Revd Adam Collingbourne (Mark Bonnar) and Sarah (Ruth Gemmell) copyright ITV

Dr Will Campbell, as a professional, is held in high regard as is Adam Collingbourne, the vicar and their wives enjoy status because of their husbands’ professional roles. Erica and Sarah soon evolve as powerful characters in their own right and we see the world through their eyes rather than that of their husbands. The novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, the daughter of a vicar, wrote that the dilemma for vicars was they had to live a middle-class lifestyle on a working-class salary. That is hinted at in Home Fires because Sarah has no help in the vicarage and is happy to take in a lodger at the outbreak of war. Erica Campbell helps to bolster the family’s income working as the practice pharmacist, something that is especially helpful during series two when the family fortunes are affected by Laura’s affair with her boss.

HOME FIRES EPISODE 1 Pictured: CLAIRE PRICE as Miriam Brindsley, DANIEL RYAN as Bryn Brindsley and WILL ATTENBOROUGH as David Brindsley. 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.

Bryn Brindsley (Daniel Ryan) Miriam (Claire Price) and David (Will Attenborough)
Photographer: Stuart Wood
copyright ITV

Bryn the Butcher is from North Wales, probably the son of a butcher or a farmer, and his wife, Miriam, hails from the same sort of background. The butcher’s place in the village, like that of the greengrocer, garage owner and postman, was such that they would have addressed most of their customers as Mr or Mrs so-and-so. They belong to the artisan class as defined by Mass Observation. Bryn probably encouraged Miriam to join the WI in order to make friends with other women in the village and to help to break through the class barriers.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES EPISODE 1 Pictured : CLAIRE RUSHBROOK as Pat Simms and MARK BAZELEY as Bob Simms. 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.

Bob Simms (Mark Bazeley) and Pat (Claire Rushrbook)
Photographer: Stuart Wood
copyright ITV

Bob Simms and his long-suffering wife, Pat, represent the dark side of village life in the nineteen thirties. Bob is a frustrated writer. His first novel was a runaway success but he has failed to match that with any subsequent writing. Pat lives to service Bob’s writing life. The domestic abuse she suffers at Bob’s hands is not unusual for that era – nor sadly for today – and the secrecy that surrounds it plays to the conspiracy of silence that is prevalent in abusive households. Whether she and Bob were ever able to consider themselves middle-class is a moot point. From the perspective of where we first meet them in Home Fires they have definitely slipped down the ladder to surviving on a working class income with Bob getting jobs where he can. He is too proud to admit that Pat could help out by working but eventually she prevails and we celebrate her tiny bit of freedom from the tyranny of their domestic life.

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Wing Commander Lucas (Mark Umbers) photographed in September 2015

Other characters who are introduced into the drama in uniform join that mysterious ‘class’ that was, by its nature, classless. Some 15 million men and women were entitled to wear uniform over the course of the Second World War. Some were in the armed services but others were in organisations such as Air Raid Precautions, Home Guard, Women’s Voluntary Service or the Women’s Land Army. Women were called in to take over roles that were traditionally the preserve of men. They worked as tram and bus conductors, they stripped engines of all sizes, from locomotives to lorries; they worked in factories making uniform, parachutes, helmets or munitions, camouflage nets and vehicles. All these people belonged to a special caste that changed with their clothes. Zelma Katin was a tram conductor in Sheffield during the day and a housewife by night. She wrote: ‘The Englishman’s inhibitions vanish before the sight of a uniform and he speaks far more readily to conductresses than to fellow-passengers. I suppose he feels that as we are public servants he has a stake in our personal lives.’ Jenny Hillman, the village gossip, takes on a whole new persona when she joins the WAAF in series two while our admiration for Wing Commander Nick Lucas cutting a dashing figure in his blue uniform is such that we never even question what his background might be.

The young people in the drama – Will and Erica’s girls Kate and Laura; David Brindsley, the butcher’s son; Claire Hillman and Spencer Wilson, housemaid to the Bardens and postman respectively are all less inhibited by their backgrounds and point forward to the social mobility and class upheaval that grew out of the Second World War.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES SERIES 2 Pictured: ALEXANDRE WILLAUME as Marek. This image is the copyright of ITV and must only be used in relation to HOME FIRES SERIES 2.

Captain Marek Novotny of the Czech Army (Alexandre Willaume)
copyright ITV

And then we have the foreigners who appear in the second series. There is Mrs Esposito, an Italian who has lived in the village for twenty years. She is rounded up and arrested as an enemy alien along with 19,000 of her fellow countrymen on Churchill’s orders but not before we witness the shocking verbal abuse of her by the local children. They run behind her shouting ‘Wop Wop’. Meanwhile, 4,000 Czechoslovak soldiers arrive in Cholmondeley Castle in June 1940 and as Great Paxford is just down the road from there we get to see them in the second series. The Czechs fought with great distinction alongside the Allies in the Battle of Britain, D-Day, Arnhem and many other battles besides. They, along with the Poles, who were at this stage not in Cheshire (though they turned up later in the war) were among the huge number of servicemen from all over who fought alongside the Allies.

Had we been allowed to continue with Home Fires the face of Great Paxford would have changed, as did the face of rural Britain, as wave upon wave of incomers changed life in the countryside forever. This culminated in 3 million American GIs which included 130,000 black soldiers, a battalion of whom were housed in Tattenhall, just a few miles down the road from Great Paxford. Sadly that honour has been denied us and I deeply regret that we were never able to tell the whole story.

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Paxford is mentioned in this magnificent tapestry from 1596 hanging today in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. It is part of our history…

I think one of the reasons why HOME FIRES resonates so strongly with its audience is precisely because it is not a one dimensional middle-class drama. The history is so interwoven with the stories that it represents a snap shot of real-life seventy five years ago. The men and women whose lives we see created on screen in the brilliant scripts by Simon Block are in our DNA. Their lives and experiences have echoes in our own past. Their joy and pain, their losses and gains, are universal and familiar. They are in our parents, grandparents, great aunts and uncles. The world is one we can recognize and I am only sorry that the powers that be could not see how relevant and important that was, and remains, to many people who love the series.

SAVE HOME FIRES!

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It is a week since my last blog about Home Fires and things have moved on dramatically. Since that phone call at 12:08 on Wednesday 11 May 2016 telling me that ITV had decided against commissioning a third series I have witnessed more activity on social media in a fortnight than I have ever experienced before. The energy and enthusiasm of fans for Home Fires is matched only by their frustration, sadness and at times barely concealed fury at ITV’s decision to drop the show after just two series. That it ended on a spectacular cliff-hanger has been one of the biggest points of discussion but the other is more subtle and interesting. Why cut a strong, women-led drama which had such a great following? Especially when the networks are all trying to prove how egalitarian they are with a view to showing women on television.

When I first talked to script writer, Simon Block, about why writing about the WI in wartime appealed to him, he said: ‘It offered a fantastic opportunity to write about a lot of women in their own right, and not merely as adjuncts to – or victims of -various men, which is so often how women are portrayed in television drama.’

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He went on to describe how he was impressed by the support and friendship the Women’s Institute offered to “often isolated women who needed the companionship of other women like never before – even if for a few hours a month. The book opened my eyes to the great extent WI women mobilised to make such a huge contribution, generating a fantastic spirit of ‘community’. The fact that this was largely unknown (as is often the case with women’s history) left me feeling it was a significant episode in British culture that should be more widely recognised.”

That resonated with the audience who have been writing movingly about how much they love the characters and how they feel connection with the drama. One lady posted on the Jambusters public Facebook page (so it can be verified that I’m not making it up) “I always admired the women who live and struggled through World War Two, I think because my 81 year old mother has memories of it. Jambusters added to my knowledge and Home Fires brought it all alive for me.”

Mark Umbers, who plays Wing Commander Nick Lucas in the drama, wrote a beautiful open letter in which he said: ‘Home Fires assembled a large ensemble cast but told its stories from the female perspective — in a way that didn’t diminish its male characters. What it proved beyond doubt was that a female-driven narrative, across a broad range of characters and ages, could routinely draw in consolidated audiences of around six million in the UK alone — despite a negligible publicity.’

He is right of course and what a viewer pointed out is that the message coming across is that women-led dramas scare TV executives who can’t believe they can be popular. When Home Fires first came out in Britain it got poor reviews from TV critics who thought it was clever to poke fun at what they thought was a weak and whimsical drama. How wrong they were. My friend Andy said: ‘I think some critics would only be happy if a Panzer division drove down the middle of Great Paxford High Street followed by storm troopers raping and pillaging.’ But actually the portrayal of women’s lives behind the scenes of the most devastating conflict in history did interest and captivate people. Six million week in week out for all twelve episodes across two series. And the drama ‘won’ the 9pm slot 11 times out of 12, meaning it got a higher percentage of the viewers than the BBC offering on the other side.

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WI Market 1944 © Women’s Institute

 

‘One does have to ask if sexism was involved. Would the same decision have been made if it was a men’s organisation that was at the centre of the drama?’ asked someone on Facebook. I can’t provide her with a definitive answer but I wonder whether the decision to cancel the show was taken by men in suits who didn’t understand that a drama about ordinary women’s lives could catch on. It wasn’t sexy enough and there was a lack of death on screen perhaps. Maybe Andy was right and they would have been happier with tanks rumbling down the high street and Hugo Boss uniform-clad German officers.

What I do not understand is how ITV so grossly underestimated the Home Fires audience. The drama touched people at a very deep level and made an impact on men and women alike, people who are now invested in the drama and at a loss as to why it has been pulled. That it has produced such a violent and wonderful outpouring of emotion is heartwarming for the writers, producers and wonderful cast and crew who so loved working on the show.

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St Boniface Church, Bunbury (Great Paxford)

As Simon Block said in a Radio Times interview on 13th May: ‘What people like me forget at our peril is that without the audience a show like Home Fires doesn’t really exist, except on a shelf somewhere in an unlit room. It only truly bursts into life when it ignites an audience’s imagination, as they develop a relationship with the characters – empathising with some, identifying with others, reviling Bob! In that sense it’s the audience’s show as much as ours, and that’s what I think they want to voice at the moment. And I support that 100%. For a writer who stares out of the window for 90% of his working life the reaction has been very affirming.’

The protest must be getting under ITV’s skin. According to the press there are hundreds of pots of Jam flying like Harry Potter owls into the press office at ITV. The petition is ever growing and both Facebook and Twitter are alive. WI and other audience members are displaying posters, writing letters and generally protesting in a very British and Home Fires-like way. I shall continue to fight for Home Fires because, like Simon, I believe the show belongs to everyone who is invested in it emotionally as well as financially. Let’s continue to fight to #savehomefires.

HOME FIRES Series 2 Episode 4 Sex and Love in Times of War

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Steph and Stan Farrow © ITV

‘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 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.

imagesFrom 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 and 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.

The 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 circumstances of total war changed both attitudes and opportunities: ‘We were not really immoral, there was a war on,’ explained one British housewife. The ‘what the heck I could be dead tomorrow’ attitude of some of the fighter pilots, for example, brought many couples together and hastily arranged marriages, with often only forty-eight hours to spend together, were not uncommon. Few couples could consider what would happen after the war, when life might return to normal. They lived for that day and perhaps the next. ‘They were loved and beloved, and by this stage in the war love was about the only thing left unrationed.’

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.

Clare Hillman and Spencer Wilson in series 1 © ITV

As we dig deeper into the fourth episode of HOME FIRES, war aphrodisia has reached Great Paxford. Electric tensions spark and shock around the village in the ferment of high drama. Pat’s nascent relationship with Marek has caused gasps and quickening heartbeats not just for careful observers like Erica, but for the rest of us watching on, agonising over her every move, desperate for her to duck and dive to avoid the eagle eye of Bob. How can she be so brave as to carry on her relationship with Marek while her deeply troubled husband is trying to exert his influence over her? A contemporary description from a Manchester housewife in 1944 might throw some light on this: ‘There was nothing cheap about our affair, and if Rick had my body, my heart was with my husband and somehow I didn’t feel that I was doing anything wrong.’

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Marek and Pat dancing at the Czech Camp party © ITV

Other relationships stop and start. Emotions that would normally have been ignored or suppressed, rise to the surface with a juvenile and intoxicating urgency. Some women find themselves almost out of their depth and exert a rigorous check on their emotions. Thanks to an intervention by Joyce Cameron in the last episode, Sarah Collingbourne is brought to an abrupt halt in her dalliance with the delightful, handsome and oh-so-eligible Wing Commander from RAF Tabley Wood. But what of Miss Fenchurch? She might have danced with him at the Czech Camp but is there a chance of something in the future? Is Laura Campbell’s reputation going to blot out the early signs of love with Tom, the handsome young pilot who nobly stands up to the prissy but not-above-buying-black market-butter, Mrs Talbot? This fetid atmosphere of possibility belongs, of course, in a 9pm drama in 2016, but it accurately reflects the intoxicating atmosphere of the summer of 1940 when no-one knew what might happen next. The Second World War had entered a phase of unprecedented high stakes and it is not surprising that people reacted to it by questioning their tomorrow.

I am constantly excited and delighted by Simon Block’s brilliantly observed scripts. He has succeeded in chiming with the changing times. The pace of this series increases as the pace of the war did too. We never quite know what turn is to come next but when it comes it is both thrilling and fitting. Robert Quinn’s outstanding directing never lets us rest for a minute, yet it is not hurried. We are on the edge of our seats, as the country was in 1940. Home Fires is an all-round production with an exceptional cast, a superb production team and an energetic editorial and post-production set up that weaves the magic together as Samuel Sims’ music sprinkles the icing on the cake. Enjoy Sunday 23 April. It is a mesmerising episode.

The first section of this blog appeared in the USA in October 2015 and is an abridged version of a chapter in Stranger in the House, entitled Sex and Love in Times of War.

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HOME FIRES Series 2 Episode 3 the Grey Areas

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES SERIES 2 Pictured: FRANCESCA ANNIS as Joyce, CLARE CALBRAITH as Steph,RUTH GEMMELL as Sarah,FENELLA WOOLGAR as Alison, CLAIRE PRICE as Miriam, LEANNE BEST as Teresa.SAMANTHA BOND as Frances,FRANCES GREY as Erica and CLAIRE RUSBROOK as Pat. This image is the copyright of ITV and must only be used in relation to HOME FIRES SERIES 2.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES SERIES 2 Pictured: FRANCESCA ANNIS as Joyce, CLARE CALBRAITH as Steph,RUTH GEMMELL as Sarah,FENELLA WOOLGAR as Alison, CLAIRE PRICE as Miriam, LEANNE BEST as Teresa.SAMANTHA BOND as Frances,FRANCES GREY as Erica and CLAIRE RUSBROOK as Pat. © ITV

As episode 3 opens we find ourselves in mid-July 1940. The Channel Islands have fallen into German hands and Hitler has told his generals to plan for an invasion of the United Kingdom, codenamed Operation Sea Lion. In Great Paxford Stanley Farrow firmly believes the operation will succeed. He has increased his determination to safe-guard the farm. With the help of Isobel he lays barbed wire and farm machinery across the fields.

Meantime, Little Stan has other ideas about how to prepare for the Germans. All over the country people were anxious, trying to work out who might be a spy or an enemy, and some ridiculous misunderstandings arose, as we shall see. All foreign nationals were picked up and imprisoned either in jails or in camps on the Isle of Man. Many of the men were later freed, as they were considered no serious threat to the country, and were enlisted in the Pioneer Corps. But for the time-being the atmosphere was febrile.

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Porlock WI Country Market in wartime © NFWI Archives

The summer of 1940 saw an increase in the number of foods on the ration. In March all meat was included and in July tea and margarine were added. Tea rationing was particularly unpopular but there were ways to increase the quantities of food available. Gardens were turned over to vegetable growing and the Women’s Institutes were very active in growing onions and tomatoes for their local country markets. Yet some things were very hard to come by in quantity and this is where people became resourceful and traded illegally. Much has been written about the Black Market, most of it speculative, because few records were kept and although some dealers were caught by the police, many were not. What I have always found more interesting and believable is the Grey Market. That was not even an official title, so vague were the lines that people were prepared to cross. People in the countryside had greater access to fresh food during the war and were happy to exchange honey for home-made lard, or eggs for butter. It was not illegal but some frowned upon it. Mainly, I suspect, if they had nothing to exchange or barter.

In Jambusters I wrote about a WI member called Sibyl Norcott whose father, Mr Shacklady, sailed close to the wind. He had added pigs to the farm for the duration of the war. This way the family could have meat and lard from the pigs, cream and butter from the cows, eggs from hens and ducks, flesh from turkeys, vegetables from the garden and fruit from the orchard. Sybil’s father once swapped a ham for a hundredweight bag of sugar and both parties were delighted. She quickly made the point that Mr Shacklady did not keep all the sugar for himself but distributed it among the neighbours in their Cheshire hamlet. He then bought Sibyl a canning machine so that she could make a few bob on the side helping WIs and other local farmers’ wives to can their vegetables, beans and fruit for the winter. It was a good little business for both of them.

pigs_mainThe rules for killing and butchering pigs during the war were extremely strict. A licence was required to kill a pig but if it was a gilt (a young female swine under 12 months) there was leeway in the licence and the farmer had five days to do the deed. Mr Shacklady took advantage of this loophole and killed one gilt for every day of the licence period. On this occasion a Ministry of Food official came round to call. Sibyl and her father had less than 15 minutes warning and had to hide six large hams hanging up in the house in pillowcases. Sybil’s father had to think on his feet. He told her to keep the inspector talking downstairs for a few minutes while he hid the evidence. When the inspector finally met Mr Shacklady he learned that his wife was lying ill in bed upstairs so he had been delayed attending to her. In fact she was perfectly well but was tucked up under her large eiderdown with the hams stuffed down either side of her.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES SERIES 2 Pictured: DANIEL RYAN as Bryn. This image is the copyright of ITV and must only be used in relation to HOME FIRES SERIES 2.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES SERIES 2 Pictured: DANIEL RYAN as Bryn © ITV

People in official positions, such as the butcher in Home Fires, had to be scrupulous with their returns. The paperwork was a headache with forms to be filled in six copies and submitted to the local Food Office along with the surrendered food coupons. Although Bryn Brindsley is, I am sure, above suspicion, a lady I know of discovered that her greengrocer would sell ‘special’ potatoes to certain customers. One day she got up the courage to ask him if she could have two pounds of his ‘special’ potatoes (these were not rationed) and when she got home she was delighted to discover she had one pound of potatoes and a one pound ingot of sugar.

imagesWith so much bureaucracy there was plenty of opportunity to exploit the systems that the government put in place. In reality people understood that rationing had been introduced so everyone had fair shares and in terms of overall percentage Black Market goods were a drop in the ocean in comparison with the food bought and sold on the ration. The grey market persisted in the countryside and the impact it had on the economy will probably never be known. However, a dozen fresh eggs or a pat of fresh butter was always a welcome addition to the larder.

Meanwhile, the war has begun to take a serious turn and the final quarter of episode 3 is tense and dramatic. The juxtaposition of everyday concerns with situations that could spell life or death is where Simon Block’s drama sparkles. Enjoy Sunday evening!

Jambusters is the true story of the WI in the Second World War and was the inspiration for ITV’s drama Home Fires

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HOME FIRES Series 2 Episode 2 Hearts Aflame

Episode 2 of Home Fires is packed full of love, loss, hope and pain but I do not intend to write anything in this blog that would give away the plot. Instead I thought it would be fun to explore two of the themes which were introduced in Episode 1. The first is that of divorce. It was considered a disgrace to be cited in a divorce at almost every level of society. The stigma attached to any part in the unravelling of a marriage is today hard to imagine. In the United Kingdom there were 470,549 marriages and just 7,755 divorces in 1940. That was to rise dramatically to over 60,000 in 1947 as couples found they were incompatible in the sober light of post-war Britain. Those figures compared with 241,000 marriages and 120,000 divorces in 2011 show just how rare divorce was in the era of Home Fires.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES EPISODE 1 Pictured :FRANCES GREY as Erica Campbell and ED STOPPARD as Will Campbell. 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.

Whole families were affected by the disgrace of an extra marital affair. Will and Erica Campbell (Ed Stoppard and Frances Grey) know there will be fall out from Laura’s relationship with Wing Commander Richard Bowers © ITV Studios

Laura Campbell’s naming as the co-respondent in the formal break up of Richard and Charlotte Bowers’ marriage is therefore deeply humiliating and people’s attitudes towards her reflect the intolerance of 1940’s society. The fact that Wing Commander Richard Bowers was a predatory man has nothing to do with the way she is treated in Great Paxford. In reality, a disgraced woman would have brought shame not only on herself, damaging her chances of making a ‘suitable’ marriage, but also on her entire family. I recall as a child in the 1960s being told in a very hush hush way that one of my relations was getting something beginning with ‘D’. I immediately assume this meant death, but in reality she was leaving her abusive husband and filing for divorce. It was the first time I had ever hear the word. Laura is contending with a very difficult situation and we will soon learn whether there are people in the village who have sympathy with her.

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The beautiful Cheshire countryside was under threat as never before in the summer of 1940

As I have written before, it is so very difficult from this perspective to imagine what a perilous position Britain believed herself to be in during June 1940. An article in the New York Times of that summer gives perhaps just some hint of how dangerous the situation was as seen from the other side of the Atlantic:

… the wisest prophet in Christendom cannot say what is to come. The folk, old towns of Britain, the hills and cliffs and shores and meadows, rich with history, the homes and lives of forty-five million people, the great British traditions of human worth and dignity, the folk sayings, the deep wisdom and the long-suffering hopes of a race – these, not being pleasing to Hitler, are condemned.
Words falter. There are no phrases for the obscene ambition that attacks, for the magnificent mobilization of a people that defends, unshaken and unafraid. We can only pray that soon the time will come when the vultures no long defile the British skies, and the cry goes out from John o’Groats to Land’s End –
‘Twelve o’clock and all’s well!’

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Signposts were removed from all over the country in 1940 ‘to confuse the enemy’

It was not the case that Britain was wholly unprepared. All during the 1930s the Secret Intelligence Services (SIS) and various government departments, including the War Office and Civil Defence had been planning how to keep the country safe in the event of war. Now, with their backs to the wall, SIS decided there should be a Home Defence Organisation known as D/Y which would be a sabotage and spying body. A team under Major Lawrence Grand drew up plans for a behind-enemy-lines stay-behind terrorist and intelligence gathering network. The thing that was new about this organisation was that although it would be overseen and supervised by army and professional SIS officers, the work on the ground would be undertaken entirely by civilian volunteers. Key here was that if a man fought in uniform he had the right, under the Hague conventions, to lay down his arms and claim prisoner of war status. A civilian, on the other hand, had no claim to POW status. The hope was that they could carry out their sabotage and blend into the background but if he or she was caught they would almost certainly be executed. In the end about 3,000 men and women from all walks of life, peers and poachers, policemen and priests, volunteered to undertake training in sabotage to be ready to hinder the invaders once they came. They were known as Churchill’s hidden army and the name they were given was designed to be as vanilla and inconspicuous as possible: Auxiliary Units.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES EPISODE 3 Pictured: CLARE CALBRAITH as Steph Farrow.. This image is the copyright of ITV and must only be used in relation the HOME FIRES on ITV.

Steph Farrow (Clare Calbraith), defiant as ever © ITV Studios

All over the country people were preparing for invasion. Farmers, in particular, were called to help prevent aircraft from landing on their fields by placing farm machinery and old junk from their buildings onto fields that might be used as a landing strip. Some villages protected themselves by rolling huge tree trunks across the entrance roads. They were often on wheels so they could be rolled back to allow legitimate vehicles through. Signposts were removed from roads. Railway and bus stop signs were taken down in an effort to confuse the enemy when they landed and tried to make headway inland. Whether any of this would have worked in the face of the Wehrmacht is something that we shall never know as fortunately it was never tested. But make no mistake, even Churchill believed it unlikely that Britain would not soon be under the jackboots of an implacable foe.

Enjoy Episode 2. It is magnificent. Simon Block and Glen Laker’s writing sparkles through the words and actions of the outstanding cast. The mood in Great Paxford is tense, tempers are short and surprises come thick and fast. Roll on Sunday evening!

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