Oh, What a LOVELY WAR

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), May 24, 2015 | Go to article overview

Oh, What a LOVELY WAR


Byline: JAMES DELINGPOLE HISTORY

Our Land At War - A Portrait Of Rural Britain 1939 To 1945 Duff Hart-Davis William Collins PS20 ****

Keep calm and carry on.

The extraordinary popularity of those words - on mugs, tea towels, posters, key rings - shows what a powerful, nostalgic grip the Home Front of the Second World War still exerts on our national psyche.

Yes, it may have been Britain's darkest hour - the Blitz, the destruction of the medieval city of Coventry, the rationing - but it was also perhaps our happiest as a nation: we all pulled together, life had real meaning and England's sunlit uplands had never looked lovelier or more precious.

Our Land At War does nothing to explode this popular legend. On the contrary, it makes you wish you could have been there, as its author Duff Hart-Davis was, growing up in the Chilterns. He fondly recalls cycling miles to meet the school bus (no petrol for private cars in those days) and hiding his bike, unlocked, in a hollow tree; collecting birds' eggs and falling out of trees (no 'elf 'n' safety); everyone coming together for the harvest or for catching rabbits ('We knew how to kill a rabbit by chopping on the back of its neck with the edge of a hand').

It sounds like the most marvellous adventure, especially if you were a child. Boy Scouts were trained to prepare dead drop boxes and carry secret messages; inner-city evacuees had their eyes opened to country life; one boy was thrilled to survive unscathed being machine-gunned by a doomed German plane during a game of cricket, then helped his father capture one of the bailed-out crew.

There were privations, of course, felt especially by the older generation. Bread was never rationed but the grey National Loaf was so reviled it was known as Hitler's Secret Weapon - and could only legally be sold when it was a day old so that people wouldn't be tempted to guzzle it. Fish, unlike meat, wasn't rationed either, but became progressively less affordable as trawlers were requisitioned for mine-sweeping - unless you fancied the famously disgusting imported South African fish called snoek.

But in the country at least you could grow vegetables, rear your own hens or poach wildlife. Almost anything vaguely edible was considered fair game: in one London store, starlings were sold at 9d a time, mendaciously billed as 'Grey Log. …

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