It has been said recently that we haven’t faced a crisis like we are now facing with the Covid-19 pandemic since the Second World War. Although it seems to be a comparison which is bandied about a fair bit in times of worry, perhaps learning some lessons from those who were said to possess ‘Blitz Spirit’ may be a way for us all to get through the virus with some positivity…a way to remain plucky and resolute in the face of uncertainty.
Of course, the challenges we all face today are very different to what our ancestors faced then. Thousands of men, often young, travelled to Europe to fight – many of them never to return, sacrificing their lives for the freedom of future generations. For those left behind, life was difficult due to the worry of loved ones being away. For mothers trying to feed a family, rationing was incredibly difficult.
One person’s rations for a whole week comprised of some margarine, just one egg and not much meat. A stressed wife and mother had to eek out these meagre rations into filling meals for her children and husband if he wasn’t away. It certainly puts today’s worries about not being able to find pasta and toilet paper into perspective.
A way that families could bulk out their rations was by “digging for victory” and planting their own fruit and vegetables, such as carrots and potatoes and making meals seasonally, by growing their own. Although many people would love to do this and simply don’t have time with busy careers and family life, now might be the perfect time to get out in the garden and start getting green fingered.
Over recent years however, growing fruit and vegetables has grown in popularity and many people in the vintage community have embraced it as part of their way of life – a bit of peace in a hectic modern world. Forties enthusiasts Dean Turner and Lynda Easton live a complete vintage lifestyle, where they both live in a period perfect house and only wear fashions from the era. They also try to grow as much food themselves as they can.
Dean started to grow his own when he moved to Sheffield back in the late 1990s, after being inspired by the TV series River Cottage, presented by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall. This continued after he moved in with Lynda a few years ago.
They grow crops such as carrots, parsnips, runner beans and courgettes to name just a few. The crops they grow are ones that can be harvested all year round, so they eat seasonally, and they are both convinced that it helps with their wellbeing. Although it takes a lot of planning, they both say that there is a lot of satisfaction in seeing the seedlings grow into what will be your food in a few months; the exercise from digging and weeding is also a bonus.
Quite often, the food they grow is used as a side vegetable accompaniment with meals. The rhubarb is often used in a crumble, or brewed into a potent rhubarb wine. If they ever get a glut of particular vegetables or jam, then they often turn them into chutneys and jams – although Dean admits, that there’s only so much you can give to family and friends before they start to avoid you! Dean says, “it has helped to a small degree with regards to the pandemic as we have perpetual veg growing, and we do have some knowledge of self-sufficiency, so we are able to take leaves from the wild larder, wild garlic being one.”
Another thing that happened during the Second World War that we can learn from today was that thousands of young women who were left behind, queued up to register for National Service or to join the WAAF or the WAAC, where they volunteered to help the country and do their bit. We have seen the same in the last fortnight, after the NHS called for the public to volunteer to be part of an ‘NHS army’ to help the thousands of people who are self-isolating or shielding at home.
Over half a million people have signed up and others have been inspired to volunteer for other organisations, such as vintage enthusiast Felicity Rickstraw, pictured above, who has signed up to volunteer for the Red Cross. Felicity said “I have always been into social activism in one way or another. As a kid I joined Greenpeace and Amnesty International and I like the idea that a community can and will pull together in a crisis.”
As mentioned above, the situation we find ourselves in today is very different: the most important thing is that we stay at home and follow the strict new rules on hygiene and social distancing. Plus, many of us are working from home and carrying on the much-vaunted 'wartime spirit' by trying as far as possible to carry on as normal in these very abnormal times.
We did come through the war, of course and VE day on May 8, 1945, was marked by celebrations across the country. Neighbours came together for street parties and bunting came out after years in storage. People had been saving rations and these came out in the form of cakes and other party food, as a welcome treat for those who had been starved of delicious treats for so long.
It would be lovely to think that by May 8th, we may be celebrating some victories in the fight against this virus. Perhaps the most extravagant thing we might like to do afterwards is to leave the house twice in a day or cook a pasta bake. Who knows? Life was never the same again after the war and perhaps it won’t be after this pandemic. Hopefully this time shut away with our families will give us chance to take stock and appreciate the things that really matter: our health, the environment and community spirit. Just like our ancestors in the 30s and 40s did.