I wasn't quite what you would call a War Baby and so have no first hand memories of the actual years, however I didn't entirely escape the effects that war had on my parents. Brought up to a chorus of Make Do and Mend, and Dig for Victory as well as Clear your Plate, I believe that certain wartime habits are in my genes, like saving bits of string and brown paper bags, and thinking that half an ounce of butter is much too extravagant to put on two slices of toast. Our kitchen drawer and attic are full of potentially useful things that my Dad trained me never to throw away.
I explain to my minimalist husband who spent a peaceful childhood abroad in the colonies that this is not an aberration, but practical economy. Waste not, want not, and all that. He is yet to be convinced, but then he never needed coupons to buy his Black Jacks or liquorice Catherine Wheels on a Friday night, even after the war was over. And he didn't suffer the ignominy of wearing clothes made out of flour bags. My designer dresses had the legend Isaac Andrews & Sons stamped in blue ink around the hem, disguised ingeniously by my mother's beautiful hand embroidery. OK, I didn't mind the turned sheets with the lumpy seams down and across the middle of the bed, but there's only so much recycling a girl can take.
* And when it comes to empty coffee jars and plastic bottles, well, they're absolutely essential for keeping other stuff in - aren't they?
I remember being very impressed with the old wartime People's Friend annuals, with ads for Oxydol on the back cover and everyone dressed in uniform. I was particularly drawn to the story of a girl called Helen who became a Wren and worked a teleprinter and was always receiving and sending secret messages to submarines, and going up to Town on three-day passes. It was all very jolly-hockey-stick sort of stuff, and for a while my chum and I wrote notes to each other in code. Helen and her glamorous friend Gloria were always short of bath cubes which they referred to as "stinks", and had yearnings for nylons and chocolate.
These needs were potentially fulfilled by dating handsome American officers, even if the girls only returned to barracks with tins of Spam. I was also greatly impressed to read about the WAAFs who were in charge of erecting barrage balloons every time an air raid was expected. I thought they stayed up all the time. In later years I discovered one of my cousins had been a "balloon girl". However as my family had a tradition of joining the Navy, and in view of my auspicious birth date, 21st October, Trafalgar Day, the WRNS had to be the career for me. Of course, this never happened, but I did once work in a Lowestoft ship chandler's.
Adults told "jamember" stories. Like during the Easter Blitz of 1941 when half of Belfast decamped to the Cave Hill and the other half stayed huddled in terrified groups under stairs or their dining room tables in the firm belief that they could resist tons of high explosive with a few planks of wood. Those with stiff upper lips who remained where they were, listening to ITMA on the radio, sorry, wireless, were liable, like my parents' neighbour, Peggy, to get their heads blown off for such insouciance. Her brother, sitting on the sofa beside her, survived uninjured, and never had to buy himself another pint. Peggy's number, as they said in those days, must have been up.
My parents were bombed out of two houses in Mervue Street, Nos. 6 and 66 - you would think the words "tempting" and "fate" might have occurred to them. When number 66 was declared uninhabitable by way of no windows, doors, roof, water or electricity, they decided to go back to their home village of Eden near Carrickfergus where friends put them up and their remaining bits and pieces were stored in the hayloft of a farmer cousin. After my Dad died we found the permit from York Street Police Station which gave him clearance to clamber over the rubble to collect any personal belongings that might have survived the blitz.
When I asked my mother about the war she remembered instantly her Identity No. UADR 6062, and making blackout blinds by covering their normal ones with black shoe polish. As far as Christmas went she was vague about any extra rations being issued. Being boarded out with someone else, you just handed over your coupon book to whoever was in charge of the cooking and everything went in together. And by this stage there were three families all living in the same country cottage. She recalls the advent of powdered egg which she absolutely detested. Fresh eggs were scrambled and padded out with cornflour, and parsnips masqueraded as bananas with the addition of appropriate flavouring.
Everyone saved their scraps to feed the local pigs, many of them kept in semi-rural back gardens, being fattened especially for Christmas. She recalled with indignation going to the butcher and because the scales weighed half an ounce over the ration weight, he cut a sausage in two and she went home with three and a half instead of four. Of course having farmer cousins meant that there was always a bit extra for special occasions. Although every animal had to be registered with the district official in charge of farming regulations there were always one or two extra hidden away somewhere. And to the city-bred civil servant one sheep or hen looked very much like another.
- Re: Flour bag fashion, I believe in the USA milling companies started printing designs on their sacks and flour bag dresses became all the rage during the years of the Depression.