Monday, 9 November 2015

Make Do and Die

Being something of a sewing fan, the wartime catchphrase “make do and mend” makes me immediately think of clothing.  This is what the phrase was often referring to in its everyday use.  Make do with your old clothes, patch them up, transform your curtains into a frock etc.  But then a film that I watched recently broadened my make-do-mend horizons.    The film was called ‘Bang! You’re Dead.’ It was made in 1954 and stars Jack Warner.  Warner plays a woodsman who lives with his seven year old son.  As he works in the woods, his son is left free to roam.  Inevitably, the boy is drawn to an abandoned U.S. military base, where he plays in the huts and on the old jeeps scattered around the yard. One day, while rummaging around his playground, the boy finds a revolver. He uses it to play highwaymen with a man on a bicycle, and unwittingly shoots the cyclist dead.  An innocent man is then accused of murder and the rest of the film is taken up with the investigations.

My “make do and mend” moment concerned the housing depicted in the film. Warner and his son live in a Nissen hut, a large semi-circular, corrugated iron construction. They form a row of such dwellings; the inhabitants having done their best to transform them into cosy cottages.  They keep hens in their gardens, grow their own vegetables and hang out their washing to dry among the bushes and trees.  At a glance, filmed in the summertime, it all looks quite idyllic.  Surely this wouldn’t have been so cosy in the wintertime when the wind howled across bare gardens and through the gaps in the corrugated sheets.  Not really somewhere that you’d want to live all year round.  Possibly these huts depicted in the film were meant to have been connected with the U.S. base.  There were many of these Nissen huts sprouting up throughout World War Two – they were cheap preformed structures that were quick to get into place. They were used in many wartime developments such as military bases and prisoner of war camps. When their original use was no longer necessary, then the “make do and mend” mentality meant that they were often put to varied peacetime uses, from homes to playgrounds to pigsties.

Jack Warner by @aitchteee
Coincidentally, another use for Nissen huts was brought to my attention just a day or two after watching the film.  I work for a charity that supports people who have become ill as a result of asbestos exposure.  I was given a case study of a teacher who had developed Mesothelioma as a result of working in Nissen huts that had been converted into school classrooms.  The insides of the huts had been coated in an asbestos impregnated material.  The pinning and stapling of work to walls had released the deadly fibres into his lungs. Unbeknownst to Jack Warner, those huts on the abandoned base held something more deadly that the abandoned revolver with a single bullet left in it.  This is, of course, aside from other diseases linked to living in damp and unsanitary conditions.  One suspects that the wife and mother of the woodsman and his boy succumbed to pneumonia or something similar.

So it transpires that there were two kinds of “make do and mend”.  A good sort, where materials were looked after, reused and resources preserved.  One that some are now trying to return to in response to our throwaway culture.  But there was a side that we would not want to return to, one which forced people into makeshift homes and workplaces.  We are still feeling the consequences of this.

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