A World in Your Ear

Link

????????????

When I started researching and writing Jambusters seven years ago I had no idea that it would lead me on such an exciting adventure which culminated in ITV’s drama series Home Fires. None at all. However, what I knew from fairly early on was that there would be an audio CD.

In 2014, Catriona Oliphant of award-winning ChromeAudio had asked me about recording an abridged version of Jambusters with excerpts from Ralph Vaughan Williams’ arrangement of Folk Songs of the Four Seasons, commissioned by the WI in 1949. I had worked with her twice in the past with great pleasure on Stranger in the House and The Colonel of Tamarkan, runner-up in Best Audiobook of the Year 2010.  Sadly Catriona developed breast cancer and the project was put on hold.

Meanwhile, many of us (6.2 million every week) watched with great pleasure the goings on in Great Paxford during the first year of the war over twelve episodes of Simon Block’s exceptionally well written drama. As you who follow the story will know, the drama is inspired by Jambusters but not based on the people I wrote about, such as Lady Denman, Edith Jones or Ruth Toosey. We see hints of the real-life, non-fictional characters in Frances Barden, Joyce Cameron, Alison Scotlock and Steph Farrow and the history, as I have said many times, is solid and accurate, both of the WI and the war itself. That was my role in advising on the scripts.

Home Fires

Despite a petition signed by over 30,000 people and endless letters and pots of jam sent to ITV they have resolutely refused to change their mind. The cast and crew were stood down in June and the costumes released to Angels. If there is a future for Home Fires it will be with another broadcaster at an unspecified time in years to come. For now Great Paxford is closed for business.

Fortunately there is a happy ending to the audio CD story. Catriona recovered from surgery and treatment and is now back at work – recently she has been working with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on podcasts for the Somme Vigil in Westminster Abbey marking the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.  The audio abridgement of Jambusters is in its final edit and will be released in September.  The readers are the wonderful Samantha Bond and Fenella Woolgar. For those of you who know Home Fires, Samantha Bond played the fiercely proud, crack-shot WI president, Frances Barden. Fenella Woolgar, as Alison Scotlock, was the book-keeper wrong-footed by a businessman who took advantage of her brilliant brain and vulnerability over a huge vet’s fee to cook his books. Both actors commented during the filming of Home Fires that they had been moved by the incredible sense of community inspired by the WI in the war years. They also both told me that it had been one of the happiest productions they had ever worked on, not least because of the strong female-led cast. ‘We were ridiculously happy.’ Samantha said.

The recording of the audio was an equally happy process. Catriona (executive producer) and Alexa Moore (producer) loved the women in Jambusters and were delighted by the way they came alive when voiced by Samantha and Fenella – who will also help keep the spirit of Home Fires burning for those of us devastated by ITV’s decision not to continue with the drama.

cropped-Jambusters-HB-1.jpg

For me, the audio CD is a wonderful celebration of the WI and, in particular, the important part played by its members in keeping the country going during the Second World War.  The CD is also a very practical way of celebrating the WI.  The WI has charitable status as an educational organisation, but the future of its educational headquarters, Denman College, is in jeopardy because of worries over the cost of maintaining the Grade II listed building. When Catriona heard about the appeal within the WI to raise money for Denman, she immediately proposed donating £1 for every CD sold to the appeal.

Denman

Denman College, the home of the WI’s education programme aimed at empowering and inspiring women

Catriona hopes to raise £10,000 for Denman College.  I am a great fan of Denman and will be spreading the word to help her reach her target.  I very much hope you will too. If each WI group were to buy a copy of the audio CD for its archive that would itself raise nearly £7,000 for Denman, before taking into account sales to family and friends.

If you are interested in purchasing a CD you can find more information here AudioCD. If you would like to get your name or that of a WI printed in the Jambusters CD booklet, please subscribe before 22 July 2016. The CD will be launched at an event at Denman College on 19 August and will be on general release from September.

 

 

Inspiring Women and Powerful Campaigners

EPSON MFP image

Porlock WI Country Market, November 1944

Sometimes people who ask me about my work are a little sniffy about the fact that I am a female historian writing about Second World War home front focusing on women and the Woman’s Institute at that. They mock at their peril. Woe betide them if they ever come face to face with an angry WI group. Ask Tony Blair. He didn’t like it much when they roasted him in 2000. Politely. But a roasting nevertheless. The WI is a magnificent organisation with immense power and patience. I have endless respect for them today as I do for their mothers and grandmothers who were part of the WI seventy years ago.

File written by Adobe Photoshop¨ 5.2

The Hon. Gertrude Lady Denman, NFWI Chairman 1917-1946

The wartime Women’s Institute was dominated by three powerful women at the top of the organisation who had energy, vision and passion. They took on the establishment to prove to the government what a valuable resource women, and the WI in particular, could be. The first was the national chairman, Lady Denman, who had been in post since 1917 and knew a thing or two about getting things done. Her deputy, Grace Hadow, was a brilliant academic and suffragist. The third was a Cambridge educated economist called Francis Farrer.

 

Grace Hadow was educated at Oxford and known as one of the best public speakers of her age; she was the brains behind the national executive. By the outbreak of war she was sixty-four and as active as ever, having spent the previous summer climbing in the Alps. It was Miss Hadow who had to designate the restrictions for the WI’s wartime work so as not to breach their Pacifist stand.

She wrote: ‘No one would wish to restrain people from volunteering for National Service, but National Service may lie in simple things, and to help to keep up morale and to prevent life in an emergency from becoming wholly disorganized is in itself work of no mean value.’

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Grace Hadow, NFWI Vice Chairman 1918-1940

The only stipulation she made was that WI funds could not be used towards the war effort. This meant that every penny spent on wool for knitting for the troops or jam jars and sugar for making jam had to be raised and accounted for separately. As the WI was and remains very good at fundraising this was no obstacle to their work but it was an extra burden for them at a busy time when many were stretched more than they had ever been. Men were away, the villages were full of evacuees and their help was needed on all fronts. Sadly Miss Hadow died in January 1940 of pneumonia and the WI was robbed of a great talent.

Frances Farrer was the general secretary of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, from 1929 to 1959. She was created a Dame (DBE) in 1953 in recognition of the immense contribution she made towards the war effort by acting as a conduit between the government and the membership. She was, as far as I am concerned, the chief Jambuster, in that she bust bureaucratic log jams and hassled ministers to get things done. An early hit on the Ministry of Food three days after war broke out produced 350 tons of sugar which went towards the first ad hoc jam preservation of autumn 1939. This proved to the Minister, Lord Woolton, in 1940 that he had an army of willing volunteers with access to surplus fruit who would help him to stock the nation’s larder.

Dame Frances Farrer (new no 2)

Dame Frances Farrer, NFWI General Secretary 1929-1959

Miss Farrer took up cudgels on behalf of evacuees; she wrote to the Ministry of Health with members’ suggestions which fed into the Beveridge Report and she made sure that there were WI members represented on most post-war reconstruction boards. When the Board of Trade wanted to discuss clothes rationing they brought in two women they needed to get on side: Miss Farrer representing the WI and Lady Reading for the Women’s Voluntary Service. Miss Farrer would phone ministers before breakfast in order to get their attention.

The only battle she never won was with a Mr Squance in the Department of Mines. He was responsible for petrol rationing. They locked horns in 1940 and she eventually wrote her last letter to him in April 1946. The WI was not entitled to bulk petrol rations, like the WVS and the Women’s Land Army, as it was not a war organisation, on account of its pacifist stance. Thus the WI was treated as a civilian social organisation, something that enraged Miss Farrer. She needed extra petrol for members to deliver their produce to country markets or to collect and deliver fruit to preservation centres. This was never forthcoming and members had to resort to catching lifts or using unusual sorts of transport.

imgres

Lady Denman wearing her WI badge

For me the most impressive member of the wartime WI hierarchy was Lady Denman. Even though she had technically stood down so she could run the Land Army, she was still the figurehead and highly recognisable in government circles. Extraordinarily practical – she was an expert on poultry keeping – she was an inspiring leader for the WI. She was described as ‘attractive, very intelligent, [she] had a fine stride in walking, was good at sport and expert in tree felling, a capable business woman, a good housekeeper, shy, devoid of sentimentality, and full of sympathy for those in trouble. She believed in success and demanded a high standard of work in everything and never spared herself.’

images

Lady Denman speaking at a Land Army rally in 1943

Lady Denman believed in democracy and said: ‘It is better for a meeting to make the wrong decision it wishes to make than the right decision which its chairman wishes to make.’ One MP who saw her in action on House of Commons wrote that she was worth ten men on any select committee. An example of her belief in the power of the WI to be a force for change was when she was leading the 1938 WI resolution which campaigned to get free school milk for children. (remember 1/3 pint milk bottles, with frozen cream in the winter and often a little off in the summer?). She told delegates and members at the Annual General Meeting about her experience:

‘I do know that very many WIs did write to their MPs, for I was one of your representatives who met the Nutrition Group of Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. On that occasion more members came than we expected. One MP suggested that he would have been saved a lot of work if he had received one letter from the County Federation rather than fifty from individual WIs. I suggested in reply that it was always possible for one letter to be overlooked, whereas fifty were bound to receive attention. Judging by the way this remark was greeted by a chorus of ‘Hear Hear’ and laughter, most of the Members of Parliament entirely agreed that there is strength in a united attack.’

Lady Denman knew all about united attacks and she continued to make use of any means she could to communicate the WI’s message throughout the war. She used the media to her advantage and played it brilliantly: a visit to a WI in Kent with Mrs Churchill, Mrs Roosevelt and Lady Reading; a broadcast in 1942 which reached millions urging the government to make use of members in post-war reconstruction and an invitation to the Queen to speak to the only AGM that took place during the Second World War. By the end of the war no one could overlook the WI’s contribution towards the war effort, despite the fact they maintained their pacifist position throughout.

File written by Adobe Photoshop¨ 5.2

WI propaganda Lady Denman style: HM The Queen visits a fruit canning centre near Reading in 1941

The WI has been and continues to be an organisation that believes in positive, constructive campaigning. Letters, petitions … even flower-bombing war memorials after the Women’s War Memorial in Whitehall was defaced in May 2015. I am always impressed by how much they achieve by the simple power of persuasion on a vast scale. They are inspiring women indeed. And these three wartime leaders in particular.

A Blithe Spirit – Peggy Sumner

When an old person dies it is traditional to look back over their whole life, starting at the beginning and ending at the end. However, in the course of my work researching the social history of the Second World War I inevitably enter the latter part of people’s lives. The risk of talking to someone about what happened seventy years ago is that their memory becomes coloured by the tint of history or by the influence of collective memory. Peggy Sumner was different. There was a freshness about her wartime memories that was captivating and believable. When describing her first WI meeting in Dunham Massey in 1938 she brought a lost-world to life:

‘Everyone was wearing heavy coats, hats, gloves, good solid thick stockings and well-soled shoes or boots. The predominant colour was black or navy blue and these were top coats that had been bought to last a lifetime. People were still in mourning from the Great War which had ended twenty years earlier and some of the coats dated from that era. The room itself was always cold. You had to push the emergency bar on the inside of the school room door to get into our room, which brought with it an icy blast of cold air in the winter. There were heating pipes around the room but they could not compete with the draughts, so we all kept our coats, gloves and hats on throughout the meetings.’

Peggy Sumner, 1940

I remember from my own school days those huge black heating pipes that burned your legs if you got too close to them but were useless against draughty doors and windows. In fact, our classrooms were a series of micro-climates which could almost certainly have sustained a variety of different forms of life, from polar bears to scorpions.

The president, Mrs Hughes, ran a tight ship and kept her committee in order. In the end she ran Dunham Massey WI for over a quarter of a century and in all that time Peggy and her sister Marjorie were members. There was little time for chit-chat. Peggy likened the meetings to church but she had a twinkle in her eye when she remembered the cakes. Even during the war the membership eschewed biscuits in favour of cakes. Biscuits were just not acceptable, she said simply:

‘The only time we talked was when the tea came round and the cakes were handed out. If you were at the end of the row you had to hope that a nice-looking cake you had spotted would not have been taken by the time it got to you.’

Last time I saw Peggy was in her house in Hale, near Altrincham. She had lived in the house with her sister since before the Second World War and although there were some modern details, it was essentially a 1940s house with a few 21st century trimmings, such as books and cards. Yet Peggy’s presence was anything but old or dusty. She was full of ideas about what WI outings she would like to take part in, even if her horizons were somewhat narrowed by her ninety-plus years. But she was also enthusiastic about what opportunities the WI was able to offer some of the newer, younger members who were just starting out on what she clearly thought was a great adventure.

‘The great thing about the WI is that you are one of a few who are all trying things out. I have seen members scared to open their mouths when they first joined who have ended up as President or on the county committee.’

Peggy at IWM North for the launch of Jambusters in 2013. She was so proud to be involved in the book and I was honoured to have been able to tell her story.

Peggy had that rare ability to telescope the years so that she was as at home talking about the 1940s as she was the 1990s or even the 2010s, if that is what they are now called. When I was reflecting last night on her long life it came to me that what Peggy Sumner was able to express was the spirit that never aged in her. She might have become frail and elderly but inside her mind was a seventeen year old girl who turned up at her first WI meeting and joined a family that lasted for over 77 years. Peggy did not have a career as such, nor did she push herself forward to take the lead in things but she lived a full and happy life and made other people’s lives better simply for being there. What a remarkable lady. She will be much missed. I am proud that her memories are perpetuated in Jambusters.

Is Cooking an Art or a Science?

The other day my youngest son said to me: ‘cooking is easy if you can read. Just follow the recipe.’ That got me thinking. Is cooking really as easy as that? Is it something we learn, we inherit from watching our parents in the kitchen, or what? Does one not need a bit of an instinct, a feel, for when something is right? A roux or a gravy, for example.

Recently I was asked to supply a recipe for wartime jam-making for The Times. I checked the records from the WI in 1944 and sent the following message: 3/4lb sugar to 1lb jam. ‘Yes, but what is the recipe?’ came back the reply. I was briefly baffled. There was no recipe per se. In those days women who ran country households made jam as a matter of routine. They didn’t use recipe books for preserving, pickling or bottling. They just did what their mothers and grandmothers had done. It was hard-wired into their cooking repertoire. Preserving fruit and vegetables was a way of life in an era when 70% of rural properties did not have electricity. Larders with north facing windows and long stone or slate shelves were the places to store fresh and cooked food and the closest thing most women had to a fridge.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES EPISODE 1 Pictured: CLAIRE RUSHBROOK as Pat Simms, CLARE CALBRAITH as Steph Farrow, RUTH GEMMELL as Sarah King and CLAIRE PIRICE as Miriam 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.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS
HOME FIRES
EPISODE 1
Pictured: CLAIRE RUSHBROOK as Pat Simms, CLARE CALBRAITH as Steph Farrow, RUTH GEMMELL as Sarah King and CLAIRE PIRICE as Miriam Brindsley.
Photographer: STUART WOOD
This image is the copyright of ITV and must be credited.

Of course there were recipe books and during the war a number of them were published by the Ministry of Food with suggestions for cooking with rations, while other, more adventurous, authors published recipes using herbs and wild fruits from the fields and hedgerows. But cookery basics were well-understood.
Currently the WI is running a campaign to encourage the teaching of Domestic Science in schools. This was the cornerstone of the early WI when it was set up in Canada in the end of the nineteenth century. But the burden of the education was not on cooking but hygiene in the kitchen. I would say that nowadays we understand hygiene but have perhaps lost our instinct for basic cookery. So yes, being able to read a recipe book should mean you can make a dish but the great art of cooking is to know instinctively what works and what does not.

In Home Fires there is an energetic jam making episode which exactly mirrors the ad hoc jam making by the Women’s Institute in 1939 when they saved 1,740 tons of fruit from going to waste by buying sugar from the Ministry of Supply. Waste not want not.

http://www.facebook.com/Jambusters1?ref=hl

https://twitter.com/juliesummersUK