Wartime lessons for the credit crunch
By Fiona Wickham and Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine
As Jamie Oliver calls for a return to a wartime diet, a new book documenting how ordinary families survived the austerity of World War II provides some useful lessons in belt tightening.
Get a pint of milk and half a teaspoon of salt, put them in a pan and bring to the boil. Add three tablespoons of corn flour, mix to a paste and boil again until stiff.
Nella Last’s recipe for home-made margarine might not get people’s taste buds salivating these days but in 1943 it was considered “amazingly good”, according to her diary.
[The project] was about using writing to record something about a life that otherwise might vanish
Dorothy Sheridan, Mass Observation archive director
It would definitely have impressed TV chef Jamie Oliver. His latest campaign is inspired by wartime values towards food. Back then people were encouraged to make the absolute most of their limited rations and grow their own food. Oliver wants us to take the same approach.
Nella was one of the hundreds of ordinary British people who volunteered to write diaries for the Mass Observation social research project between 1939 and 1945. Extracts of her story, along with those of 14 others, are published in a new book, Our Longest Days.
The Mass Observation diaries were collected from across the country, to provide personal accounts of how everyday life was lived during horrifying times.
“It was about using writing to record something about a life that might otherwise vanish or hold still,” says Dorothy Sheridan, director of the Mass Observation archive.
So with the country facing a downturn in the economy, what wisdom can be gleaned from people who managed the grim hardship of the war years?
We made up the margarine with corn flour but this afternoon it looked like blancmange! It was amazingly good… no one grumbled and we had no complaints
Nella Last, 16 July, 1943
The country is not on rations in 2008, but the wartime attitude of making the most of what you have is a valuable lesson for people nowadays.
Today it’s about using what you have and cutting down on the huge amount of food that’s thrown away – 6.7 million tonnes, according to the government. Back then it was about not being able to waste a mouthful because food was in such short supply.
All food was used during the war
“Things like sugar were rationed,” says Ms Sheridan. “People had to be more inventive and grew fresh veg themselves.”
Wrap, the government’s waste reduction agency, says we can learn from the food values of that time.
“It’s a mentality a lot of older generations who lived through the war still have, you don’t just scrap leftovers into the bin but use them for another meal,” says a Wrap spokeswoman.
“It’s a skill that many people have lost, but it is so valuable. It not only cuts down on waste but cuts down on your food bill.”
The chemist said people aren’t taking anywhere near the amount of medicine they did before the war, especially nerve tonics. You’d think in these times they would want three times the amount… never believe it, they don’t.
George Springett, 9 October, 1940
With money and time on our hands, it’s human nature for some to become more self-indulgent. While there’s nothing wrong with a bit of “me” time, for some it can become all about “me, me, me”.
When times get harder, people are forced to refocus on what really matters and forget little moans and groans.
People had a common purpose during the war
The outcome can be positive. During WWII there was a reduction in reported mental illness and depression.
“I think that was related to people feeling perhaps they had more purpose,” says Ms Sheridan. “In a way you didn’t have decisions to make, you just had to fit in.”
It’s a common psychological phenomenon in times of crisis or conflict, says Dr Dorothy Rowe, psychologist and author of The Real Meaning Of Money.
“People are anxious, but their minds get a new focus,” she says. “To get depressed you only think of yourself, how bad things are for you. In hard times you don’t have that luxury.
“During the war people’s time was consumed with necessities like food or clothes. Some people are having to do the same in the current financial climate.”
“While no one wants anyone to lose their house, being forced to focus on what’s important is not a bad thing. Too often people now consider luxuries to be necessities when they’re not.”
There was a knock at the door, a woman living in the opposite wing of these flats said ‘Would you accept these?’ holding out a paper bag. It proved to be four eggs. I said with pop eyes that of course I would accept them! She said she had had some sent her and thought she’d like me to share… what a beautiful thought!”
Edie Rutherford, 16 March, 1944
Often tough times can bring out the best in people, like sharing eggs (which were like gold dust) with a complete stranger. Situations may force people together, but in doing so they rediscover a sense of community.
During WWII people weren’t inherently better than they are now, but their situation made them co-operate, says Ms Sheridan.
People had to help each other
“Because of rationing and the conditions, people were having to co-operate,” she says. “Generally speaking there was a shared purpose and it pushed people from different backgrounds and classes together.”
Applied to today’s society, that wartime sense of having a shared purpose can have the same effect. Having to tighten our financial belts is one of the reasons local bartering schemes are gaining popularity. As well as providing services, they create “village communities”, say members.
“Affordability comes into it a lot but it’s not just a material gain,” says Carol McArdle, of the Local Exchange Trading Scheme (Lets) in Yeovil and South Somerset.
“Friendship is the main thing it’s good for. It’s a huge trust builder and a very interactive thing. We have engineers, barristers, painters and decorators, dressmakers, all across the social strata. People appreciate each other for what they can do and are so grateful.”
I don’t think a great deal about the war in general – try to only think of the day-to-day – even the hour-to-hour. As for next week, next year – they are in God’s pocket as Gran used to say
Nella Last,16 July, 1943
The Mass Observation diary-writing provided a psychological support for people in a way we’d now recognise as therapeutic. Nella Last repeatedly describes losing herself on purpose in cooking and dressmaking.
“Nella’s son went to war and he was injured,” says Ms Sheridan. “And like millions more, she lived with the horribleness of it and the waste of it and the fear.”
“That’s how it’s relevant now. The diaries are not a nostalgia-fest. There will be 49-year-old women in the country whose sons are fighting in Iraq who identify with Nella Last.”
People ‘lost’ themselves in the ordinary
In wartime, small scale domestic efforts like “make do and mend” were incorporated into national campaigns as a patriotic force for good. People could feel rewarded by their own small-scale behaviour in the way it collectively propelled the war effort forward.
Even now focusing on your daily routines and personal responsibilities can help you navigate your course and regain a sense of control.
“In times of adversity people often feel they are not in control of their future and can’t plan ahead, so they focus on the day-to-day as a way of coping,” says Dr Sheila Keegan, a psychologist with business consultancy Campbell Keegan Ltd.
“Change is a good thing, but there has to be a balance between stability and change. If there isn’t that balance you feel out of control.
“It’s about controlling what you know you can and leaving what you can’t.”