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…

The Value of Communication: For HOME FIRES Episode 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES EPISODE 1 Pictured : DAISY BADGER as Claire Hillman and MIKE NOBLE as Spencer Bradley. Photographer: STUART WOOD This image is the copyright of ITV and must be credited. The images are for one use only and to be used in relation to Home Firs, any further charge could incur a fee.
Claire Hillman (Daisy Badger) and Spencer Wilson (Mike Noble) flirt over a bicycle in episode 1 of Home Fires. © ITV Studios

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

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

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

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

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

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© ITV Studios

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

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

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

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

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

 

Home Fires Episode 3: Love, War and Housecoats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting the Scene for Home Fires Episode 2

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

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

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

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

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National Registration Form 1939 © National Archives

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

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

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

 

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.

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