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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Jambusters is the real story of the WI in the Second World War

HOME FIRES Series 2 Episode 1 Life on the Edge of Europe

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.

HOME FIRES SERIES 2
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

 

When we left Great Paxford at the end of series 1 the villagers all stood on the street, spell-bound by the sight of hundreds of aircraft flying south. The Phoney War had come to an end and the real war was about to begin.

In fact, by the time those planes were flying south, Hitler’s troops had already invaded Denmark and Norway. The British Expeditionary Force had been guarding the Maginot Line for the last nine months but was woefully unprepared for what was to come. On 10th May 1940 two things happened that changed the course of the Second World War: Hitler launched the Blitzkrieg against France, Belgium and neutral Holland, and in Britain Winston Churchill became Prime Minister. For two weeks the BEF and its Allies fought to hold out against the German onslaught but towards the end of May it was obvious that they had suffered a humiliating defeat and Churchill ordered a retreat. The familiar story of Dunkirk now unfolded.

DunkirkHundreds of boats, ships, barges and tugs were sent to the rescue and over 330,000 British and Allied soldiers were picked up from the beaches of Dunkirk over a period of several days. My grandfather was pulled out of the water by a Thames barge pilot on 2nd June and brought back to Southampton by ship. ‘The sailors who dried our clothes pinched all our buttons and insignia but we were so relieved to be safe we didn’t bother about it.’ The following night he was reunited with his wife, Alex: ‘It was one of the strangest contrasts of the war. One night I was standing up to my neck in water with very little chance of rescue and the next I was eating dinner with my wife in the Midland Hotel in Manchester.’

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.

ALEXANDRE WILLAUME as Marek Novotny © ITV

Three weeks after the evacuation at Dunkirk, France fell to the Germans. Amongst the Allies who had been fighting were Polish and Czechoslovak forces who were at risk of captured and put into German Prisoner of War camps. Churchill realised that if this could be avoided it would mean he would have experienced, battle-hardened troops in Britain. So he ordered them to be rescued from southern France. In the end some 20,000 Polish and nearly 5,000 Czech soldiers and airmen were brought to Britain and proved themselves more than worthy of the trust Churchill had placed in them. The Czechs sailed into Liverpool and were put on a train to Bunbury from where they marched 8 miles to Cholmondeley Castle. The villagers along the way cheered them and the soldiers immediately fell in love with the beautiful Cheshire countryside. They camped in the fields around the Castle, which had already been requisitioned for another military use, and they remained there throughout the glorious summer of 1940 until they moved on to Leamington Spa to a more permanent camp.

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.

DANIEL RYAN as Bryn © ITV

The mood in the early summer of 1940 was one of agitation, anxiety and apprehension, mixed with fear. People were told that careless talk would cost lives and that they should be on the lookout for spies. Signposts were taken down or blacked out, so that moving around in the dark became even more difficult. There was a genuine and powerful fear of invasion. Even Churchill thought it unlikely that Britain could withstand a full-blown attack by the Luftwaffe and seaborne troops. The Battle for the Atlantic, which is the off-screen backdrop to our series, was about to enter troubled times. The German U-Boats had become ever more effective at targeting convoys and fears grew for the protection of passengers, especially evacuee children, who were setting out west for the safety of Canada or America. Yet once France had fallen there was a sense in Britain that, as the last man standing, on the edge of Europe, we would somehow defy the odds and emerge victorious. This mood is well-documented in diaries, letters and newspapers from the era.

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

CLAIRE RUSHBROOK as Pat ©ITV

So, for our village of Great Paxford, the sense of anxiety about the future is very much there. The incoming Czechoslovakian soldiers add a fresh element to the drama, as does the permeating anxiety about foreigners, spies and Nazi sympathisers. However, life did go on during the war and it will go on in Great Paxford. The everyday lives of the characters are of course affected by the external influences but themes of love, loss, suspicion and excitement are constants. We pick up where we left off with Laura Campbell named in the divorce of her lover, Richard Bowers; Alison Scotlock is still in trouble with the police over accounting and Claire Hillman is as in love with Spencer as she was at the end of the last series. Bryn the butcher is typical of the kind of man who is determined not to be cowed by the threat of invasion. He has a business to run, a pregnant wife to protect and a missing son to worry about. Pat, on the other hand, is once again knocked down: not by husband Bob, this time, but by a brawl outside a pub. For her the war is about to change her life but in a wholly unexpected way. Meanwhile Jenny is busy in the telephone exchange taking the government’s message to ‘trust no-one’ very much to heart.This episode opens with the farmer going about her business and the army going about theirs. After all, this is wartime…

Home Fires airs on Sunday 3rd April at 9pm on ITV. It is created and written by Simon Block and inspired by my book Jambusters which tells the true story of the WI on the home front from 1939-1945.

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Home Fires Series Two

Home Fires series 2 begins on Sunday 3rd April at 9pm on ITV. It is so exciting to be going back to Great Paxford to see what will happen to the characters that we were introduced to in 2015. Many people have asked me over the last few months whether I have had to write another book for series 2. I have not: Jambusters is a non-fiction ‘biography’ of the Women’s Institute covering the entire Second World War. Simon Block, the creator and writer of Home Fires, used and continues to use the book and my research as the inspiration for his drama. Inspiration is the key word here. Home Fires is not based on Jambusters per se but rather set in a fictional version of the same era that I describe in my book. Some of the stories that you will come across in series 2 of Home Fires have evolved directly from Jambusters, others have been the result of research, conversations and other lines of inquiry. From my perspective this is fascinating and exciting. The link to history of the Second World War and life on the Home Front in Jambusters anchors the series in the 1940s but leaves Simon Block free to let his characters grow and develop in Great Paxford.

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I have to be a little careful not to give anything away about series 2 because I might spoil people’s enjoyment of the drama. However, what I can say is that it takes place against the extraordinary summer of 1940. Series 1 set the scene for what happened in rural Britain during the early months of the war in the period known as the Phoney War. The unnatural calm of the winter and spring of 1939-40 was about to be shattered by the Blitzkrieg when Hitler’s army marched into the Netherlands, Belgium and France. The British Expeditionary Force, who had spent the winter guarding the Maginot Line, was suddenly called into action against a furious, implacable, overwhelming foe. This began on 10 May and by the end of the month over 330,000 Allied troops had been evacuated from Dunkirk.

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

A month later France fell to the Germans and Britain stood alone on the edge of Europe waiting with baited breath for an invasion. It was a summer of high drama and danger; a summer when thousands of families opted to send their children abroad to the USA, Canada and Australia. It was also a summer of bountiful harvests, glorious weather and prodigious activity by the WI on the food production front. Britain was never invaded, as we all know, but everyone, even Churchill himself, thought it the likeliest outcome at the time. Elaborate emergency plans were laid to and a secret guerilla army was built up throughout the country and trained to carry out acts of sabotage behind enemy lines. It was the moment in the war when Britons realised that it was up to them to fight; to resist whatever threat might be around the corner and it proved the making of many on the Home Front. Far from panicking, people resolved to be calm and brave and it is this extraordinary stoicism which became defined, later, as the Blitz spirit.

But Britons were not entirely alone. Canadian troops had been in the country since December 1939 and immediately after the fall of France Churchill welcomed a large number of battle-hardened troops from the continent. Nearly 5,000 Czechoslovak and 20,000 Polish Forces would turn out to offer immeasurably valuable support during the Battle of Britain when the German Luftwaffe tried, but failed, to gain air superiority over the Royal Air Force. This is the backdrop for series 2 of Home Fires.

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WI Members at a market c. 1940 © EPSON MFP

One of the aspects of Home Fires which I found most rewarding was the bonds of friendship that grew up between the actors when they were on set for filming. It mirrored closely the extraordinary bonds that developed during the Second World War when women were thrown together in a wholly unfamiliar situation, put upon by every department in government imaginable and expected to cope. They coped and with humour.

Nothing could have delighted me more when I read Samantha Bond’s reply to a question asking her what it was like to reunite the cast:

‘It was absolutely glorious. I’m afraid we are appallingly happy and we relish each other’s company on set and off. I can’t remember ever having been in a company so happy and so funny and so full of love. All immensely supportive of one another. I adore them. And our men. All brilliantly written by a man. Simon Block has done a fantastic job.’

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.

Erica Campbell (Frances Grey), Frances Barden (Samantha Bond), Pat Simms (Claire Rushbrook) Home Fires Series 1 © ITV

I made three visits to set in the autumn and each time I was aware of the great atmosphere on set and the mutual support and respect the actors had for each other’s performances. I watched a wonderful scene filmed in the church when Sarah Collingbourne (Ruth Gemmell), the vicar’s wife, makes an emotional speech about coping at this difficult time. Samantha Bond said of this outstanding performance: ‘It’s just stunning. I was sitting on the front pew trying to be the grown-up big sister, sending your little sister waves of support. And I just kept crying. We were all in pieces.’ So was I.

But a film set is a place of work and one of the striking aspect of set visits from the point of view of someone who spends their working life with her nose in a book or an archive, is that there are so many people involved. I have said this before: there are more people working in the Make-Up truck at the unit base for Home Fires than are involved in the production of one of my books. Well, on the editorial side at least. On set everyone is so professional, clear-headed and confident in what their role is. For me the fun is in the detail. I’m often described as a scratch and sniff historian because I like tiny snippets that tell me something about the minutiae.

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Stockings drying November 2015 © Julie Summers

So this photograph of stockings drying in a trailer is one of my favourites from series 2.The actors wear real stockings, not tights. The wardrobe is authentic to the last inch and I love that. The clothes are hired from Angel Costumes and all date from the 1930s and 1940s, shoes and underwear included according to Melissa Cook, who is in charge of the wardrobe. It is as important for me as making sure the lettering used on the war memorial is of the era (it is) and that the cows are the right breed (they are). The telephone exchange, the cars, the tractor are all minutely observed. Even the ration books look authentic.When details like this are correct but don’t get in the way you can trust the rest of the drama, which I do.

 

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The magnificent Austin – one of only a handful still on the road in this country © Julie Summers

The filming was done in Cheshire, where fictional Great Paxford is set, and it is a stunningly beautiful corner of the North West which is still relatively unknown. Although the phone signal is poor and one Cheshire lane looks very like another – imagine what it was like for incoming drivers when all the signposts were removed – everyone in the cast speaks very fondly of the area around Bunbury. Claire Rushbrook, who plays Pat Simms, said recently: ‘You do have to pinch yourself that you’re working. Because it’s just stunning around there. . . I hope the viewers enjoy it as much as we enjoyed making it.’

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The non-fiction book that inspired Home Fires

 

Weekly blogs will appear here to introduce each episode. No spoilers, just a little background historical information for anyone interested in knowing a bit more about the war. And of course there’s history, sticky jam and plenty of laughter in Jambusters. You won’t meet Frances Barden or Pat Simms but you will meet their true historical counterparts: Edith Jones, Clara Milburn and Ruth Toosey, whose stories are equally fascinating, although their hair and make-up might not have been quite so beautiful…

Curves and Corsets


stockings compressedWhenever I give a talk about wartime fashion I get a host of memories from audience members who recall parachute silk dresses, Make-Do-And-Mend shirts, thrice darned stockings and coats made from blankets. Some people remember the era with pleasure and tell me about how they loved their Liberty bodice or their Land Army uniform. Others recall patched jumpers and empty department stores. But almost everyone has something to say about underwear. I suppose it is the most intimate detail and it is endlessly fascinating but if someone were to ask me what kind of undies I wore when I was growing up in the 1970s I would be pushed to know. There is something that is very ingrained in the collective memory about wartime knickers, bras and, above all, corsets.

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A 1939 advertisement for a corset in Vogue

There is almost a whole chapter devoted to corsets in Fashion on the Ration because it was a topic that exercised not only women who wore them but the civil servants in the Board of Trade who had to guarantee their supply. And it was no easy job. Over 18 million women wore corsets in the late 1930s but wartime production dropped to just 9 million a year and this was the cause of much heartache, not to say irritation. The reason is simple: corsets were made up of three important constituent parts, all of which were necessary for the war industry. Metal was needed for aircraft production so the stays were replaced with compressed cardboard, with disastrous results. Cotton supplies dropped during the war as world cotton prices rose and the number employed in the cotton spinning and weaving industry fell by thirty percent. Rubber became a rare and precious commodity after the fall of Singapore in spring 1942 as the Japanese held the majority of the world’s rubber supplies in the Far East. Finally, the expert corset makers, with their highly skilled workforce of machine operators, often switched to making parachutes, to which their expertise and equipment was ideally suited. As a result, corsets

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Corsets designed for the Forces by Berlei

were in short supply and what was available was often very poor quality.One young mother, who had just given birth in the summer of 1944, wrote a furious letter which was published in Time magazine in which she took the Board of Trade to task, even naming Hugh Dalton, the then president, in her diatribe: ‘There should be no false modesty about this very essential article … After the birth of my second child the sight of my figure enclosed in a utility corset nearly paralysed me. True, it caused a certain amusement to my family, but I didn’t feel funny, only ill and unhappy … I found that the boning at the front consisted of three pieces of compressed cardboard. I defy even the most pugnacious cardboard to do anything but follow the shape of the figure it encloses … A band of infuriated housewives should force Mr Dalton into a utility corset and a pair of the best fitting utility stockings he can buy. I would add a saucy black felt hat for which he had to pay four guineas and a pair of those ghastly wooden-soled shoes. He should be made to walk one mile, then stand in a fish queue for an hour. By the end of this time his utility stockings would [droop] from knee to instep in snakelike coils and twists. His corset would have wilted into an uncomfortable, revolting mass of cotton and cardboard. He would find himself supporting the corset, instead of the corset supporting him. May I suggest this would be a very speedy remedy?’

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Ladies queuing at a produce stall, some of them almost certainly wearing corsets.

This glorious image may raise a smile but it was a serious matter and many women, who had been used to the support of their pre-war Berlei or Spirella corset felt uncomfortable and very aggrieved. And queuing was something that women had to do on a daily basis, often for hours on end while they waited for food to appear in the shops or on a market stall. The women’s fashion magazines did their best to advise women on ways of keeping their corsets in good order and they encouraged young women to learn to do without by practising core body exercises.

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Designed for Export is the caption for this beautiful Molyneux dress designed for the 1941 Fashion show in South America

But Fashion on the Ration was not just a story of utility corsets, grey Forces bloomers and austerity designs for skirts and coats. There was another side to the story which I had not expected to find and this was the significant role played by the haute couture houses in designing fashion for the export market. Export sales brought in much-needed currency and over the period of 1938 to 1946 fashion exports rose from £98,000 to £507,000. Paris, as the centre of the fashion world, was out of the picture from 1940 until the liberation of France in 1944 and London was quick to take its place. Shows were organised for South America, South Africa and the USA with designs by Molyneux, Hardy Amies, Digby Morton, Norman Hartnell and Bianca Mosca rising ‘phoenix-like…from our dustsheeted London life.’
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Fashion on the Ration came out in paperback on 25 March and the exhibition which it accompanied at the Imperial War Museum in London last year will be reopening, slightly enlarged, at IWM/North at the end of May 2016.

 

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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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/

 

How to Make a Drama out of a Crisis: HOME FIRES Episode 6

Front Cover JB croppedWhen I set out to write a history of the wartime activities of the Women’s Institute of England and Wales in 2009 I had no inkling that it would lead to a full-blown television drama series. None at all. So you can imagine that it has been a journey of many exciting twists and turns: to create a drama out of the greatest crisis to hit the lives of those living in the middle of the twentieth century.

First things first. I am a historian, not a script-writer, so the suggestion that a village women’s institute might be a potential seed of an idea for a drama came not from me but from the brilliant mind of Home Fires’ creator and writer, Simon Block. He and I met on a course in the beautiful English county of Devon in 2012. Simon was one of two tutors on a TV script writing course. If I am not script writer, what was I doing on this course? It is a good question and one I asked myself several times during the week. I had written ten books and fancied that writing in a different format might offer a new challenge.

At the end of the course Simon and I discussed the fact that I did not want to become a script writer but that storytelling was my great passion. I told him about my book on the WI, which I had just submitted to the editor in its final draft, and to my surprise he was very interested. I think even back then he could see the potential for a women-led drama set against the backdrop of the Second World War. He wrote to me earlier this year with his thoughts:

WI Display in For Home & Country‘Like most people I think, I had no idea of the extent and importance of the role played by the WI during the Second World War. Not only in regard to its activities aimed at supporting the home front but also in terms of the support and friendship it 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. Plus, 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.’

Simon approached Catherine Oldfield at ITV Studios and we were introduced. Within an hour of meeting Catherine I knew that I could trust her with my work and within four days she and her boss, Francis Hopkinson, had taken out an option on my book, Jambusters (Home Fires in the USA). That meant ITV Studios would be able to work up a first script and submit it to the television networks in due course. But how to translate historical non-fiction, the voices of real women, and the goings on in the Second World War on the Home Front, into a television drama that would pack a punch but remain true to the history? Francis Hopkinson explained to me that in the normal course of events an author is not involved in drama development. However this appeared to be a slightly unorthodox situation as my book was to be the source for inspiration rather than adaptation. Simon Block describes it as the DNA of the series.

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

Sybil Norcott grew up in rural Cheshire and was WI to the core

So I am retained as the historical consultant to the scripts, which means that I have the immense good fortune to be involved in the meetings when story lines are discussed. My role is to produce the history, when required, of both the progress of the war and the situation at any given point in time of the WI. I was able to offer a sense of background for the first series, emphasising the mood in Britain during that strange period called the Phoney War: the country was at war, the British Expeditionary Force was guarding the Maginot Line in France, but nothing was actually happening. It produced a kind of paralysis in the country, which changed into anxious boredom and then the acceptance of the calm before the storm.

All the characterisation was developed by Simon Block and he knows each of the men and women in his drama intimately. In a fascinating three day meeting ‘in conclave’ in April 2014 five of us sat down, with tea, coffee and cakes (WI style), and discussed the back-stories to all the main characters.

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Julie standing by a Home Fires signpost pointing to Great Paxford

My involvement stops with the scripts. The production is a whole different game and I find it both fascinating and bewildering. When I write a book there are perhaps half a dozen people involved – editor, copy-editor, proof reader, publicist and so on. That is about the same number of people working in the make-up truck on the set of Home Fires. On my first visit to set in September 2014 I was completely overwhelmed by the scale of the enterprise. There are hundreds of people on set and they all know exactly what their role is and where they should be at any given moment. I visit infrequently because to me it is still magical and I do not want to lose that sense of wonder.

To be involved in Home Fires, if only peripherally, has been one of the most exciting and thrilling experiences in my career to date. I am delighted with the drama series and I can only say that if you have enjoyed Series 1 then watch out for Series 2. It is fabulous. The final episode of the current series will give a flavour of what is to come. The Phoney War is over. And the crisis is about to produce yet more amazing drama.

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Home Fires is published by Penguin USA and is the history of the WI which inspired the TV drama series of the same name.

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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