Saturday, 6 April 2013

Our Passport To Rations

Earlier this year I read a book entitled ‘These Wonderful Rumours’.  The book contains the fascinating wartime diaries of Derbyshire schoolteacher May Smith and has an introduction by my history heroine Juliet Gardiner.  The wartime diary is no publishing innovation – the Mass Observation diaries of Nella Last and others have already achieved a well deserved fame.  In particular I would recommend ‘Our Hidden Lives’ – a compilation of several diaries overseen by Simon Garfield. But as these were all submitting their diaries to the Mass Observation project, they were perhaps conscious of an audience and felt compelled to write about events which they would not have otherwise covered in personal jottings.  It is clear that May Smith’s diary was not intended for public consumption.  Much of it covers the everyday movements of friends, family and boyfriends; her teaching and learning experiences and shopping for clothes.  Potentially banal stuff perhaps, but when she does mention events of significance you know that these were the ones that had the biggest impact on the general public.

One of the reasons why I enjoyed it so much was its provincial, semi-rural setting.  A lot of the surviving home front coverage seems to concentrate on London and the South East – I suppose what could be termed the front line of the Home Front.  But through her diaries we find out the concerns of the majority of provincials in protected jobs.  It seems that the biggest concern for May was food and clothing.  Of course the reason why this was such a concern was rationing, introduced on 8th January 1940.  We hear of a potential suitor who sends her gifts – not of chocolate or flowers but dead poultry and eggs – which are received with near rapture!  Wedding cakes have cardboard instead of icing and May wears underwear that is made from old handkerchiefs.  In our society, which is based on over-consumption all of this is barely imaginable – although personally I think that we should start to imagine and become accustomed to the idea.  How long will it be before we have to ration fossil fuels?  Many people in the UK already self ration petrol and gas because of the spiralling cost.  As the population continues to grow and demand the lifestyle that their parents have become accustomed to in recent decades – how long can we sustain this? I wouldn’t be surprised if a more permanent rationing system is introduced before this century is done.  

If this does happen, I pity the government that has to introduce it.  When wartime rationing began in 1940, I think it fair to say that while no-one welcomed it, most accepted it as a necessity and patriotic duty.  The enemy was on the doorstep and this enemy was tangible and plainly evil.   But even though war was over in 1945, rationing continued on for several years.  Many people questioned the reasons for this as they settled into peacetime and began to grumble at the government that upheld the policies.  I imagine that now, when we are even less inclined to accept government policy than we were in the 1940s, opposition to such a scheme would be vociferous.

When post-war rationing is under consideration, there is one film that leaps out as the obvious place to go for a look at the attitudes of the day.  ‘Passport to Pimlico’, an Ealing classic, depicts exactly what happens to vital supplies when a community becomes inward looking and selfish.  After a UXB goes off and reveals a treaty detailing Pimlico’s long forgotten annexation to Burgundy, the local residents become determined to exercise their independence from British government.  After initial euphoria at rationing being no longer applicable, they find that their supplies are running dangerously low, and one accidental event leaves them with virtually nothing to eat.  It is only the charity of well-wishers that enables them to continue with their stance, as food parcels are thrown over the barbed wire by other Londoners, typically enjoying seeing a bit of subversion.  These scenes are often spoken of as being a direct reference to the Berlin Airlift which took place the year before this film was released – a pivotal Cold War event.  I think that this is meant to remind the audience that when things are not done the British way, you might as well just hand everything over to the political extremists.

Another scene in the film shows Pimlico’s main street being taken over by “black marketers” (illegal traders).  Since Pimlico has suddenly found itself out of British jurisdiction, these spivs have realised that they can openly trade here without fear of arrest.  In her diaries, May Smith mentions visiting a black marketer only once.  She vows never to do it again simply  because of the expense.  The goods that she purchased were not worth the cost.  So we are seeing another warning.  Bring back the free market now while there are still shortages and the few will prosper – charging what they like for goods that people need.  Finally, I like to think of that sudden change in weather at the very end of the film as symbolic to this theme.  When Pimlico residents officially become British again, the prevailing heatwave suddenly breaks and rain pours down.  The residents are thus reminded what it is to be British.  But the rain falls on everyone, whether rich or poor.  And they all ultimately benefit from that rain as it turns into drinking water and feeds the growing food, even if in the short term we may curse our climate.

Because of this constant theme alluding to rationing and the reasons for it, I do believe that ‘Passport to Pimlico’ was on a mission to remind the British that it was still very much needed.  The message is “stop whining and think”.  This shows that at the time of this film, there was a growth in opposition to continued rationing which some felt needed tackling. 

We continue to allow the gap between rich and poor to widen and to actively encourage uncontrolled consumption, while resources disappear.  It’s going to take a lot more than a film to persuade the people to accept the curbs on aspirations that rationing will being next time around.

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