I was recently sent a review copy of "The Wartime Farm", a book to accompany the BBC series of the same name, by the publishers Octopus Books. Last year, wearing both my historian's and horticulturalist's hats, I spent 2 weeks living on a wartime diet. I made a series of videos about it and the local media took quite a bit of interest in what I did. It seems Octopus Publishing noticed it as well. So when they asked me if I wanted a copy of the book, I replied that I would love to receive one and review it for them. After all, I am a great fan of the previous programmes they have produced about farming in the Stuart, Victorian and Edwardian periods. The Wartime Farm itself is currently being broadcast on Thursday evenings on BBC2. After locking up my hen and duck houses and watering the greenhouse, my Thursday evenings are now spent watching the tv.
I've just finished reading the book. I loved it. The big joke in our house is that when we are watching a history programme, I will predict what is about to be said and, assuming I get it right (not always the case!) I end up saying, "I could have written it for them!" Whilst this can be applied to some of the history behind the Wartime Farm programme and book, there is plenty that is new to me. Farming and food production during the war years is something about which we as a nation have a vague collective consciousness but it is an area that is not extensively researched. There is much to be learnt and, frankly, the lessons of the war years can be applied to the modern world. Problems of poor diet, over-consumption of calories by some, under-consumption by others, waste, land use, health were all tackled successfully in the war years. Sadly, the UK as a whole has, for decades now, been forgetting much of what was learnt in the war years with terrible consequences: obesity in some, unhealthy lifestyles and lack of exercise, bad diets, to name but a few.
The book and the series covers a range of issues, not all directly to do with food. One of the most interesting was the revival of old skills that were dying out as the war began. For example, blacksmiths came out of retirement to help repair old farm machinery that had been left to rust for years in the corner of fields. Alex Langlands revived the art of making bee skeps. As a beekeeper myself, I found this fascinating. He even created the materials himself from straw available on the farm and from brambles.
"Make do and mend" is a familiar catchphrase from the war years. Its meaning is now something that is lost on modern Britain. There is a tendency now to throw something out if it is broken, rather than repair it for continued use. Indeed, some things are thrown out now that have years of life left in them. Look at the way clothes are bought and disposed of nowadays. The number of people who make their own clothes is, sadly, diminishing. I fear that we will lose those skills forever. Clothes are often thrown away because they are no longer fashionable. Such utter waste is killing the planet and would have been viewed with complete horror in the war years. Typically a person now would buy more clothes in a fashion season than someone living 70 years would have bought across the whole of the 14 years they had ration books. Then people knew how to make things last, how to reuse something, how to repair, how to get the best from something, how to make it into something else.
One of the unsung heros of the war was the Women's Institute. The book examines the tremendous voluntary work the WI put in during the war years to increase the country's food supply. Not only did they turn Britain's bounty of wild foods into the jams and preserves that are always associated with them, they also turned themselves into a mobile university and training organisation, teaching others the skills needed to preserve food and increase the food supply. In the war on the home front, they were the cavalry, charging in to do the job. Sadly, too many people now think of the WI as a small "c" conservative organisation, full of "Little Britain" ladies whose stomachs turn when confronted with people who do not follow a preconceived norm. The reality is totally different. The WI helped us get through the war. The book brings that out superbly.
Now that I have a copy of "The Wartime Farm", it is no longer on my Christmas present list. (The book has a section on making toys so if anyone wants to make me the Spitfire Alex Langlands made from tin cans, you know what to pop in my stocking this December.) The book however is a great read, even if you have no interest in history. So forget about asking for more clothes that will be unwearably unfashionable by this time next year. Get a copy of this book for Christmas (or even earlier) instead.
"The Wartime Farm" is published by Octopus Books, price £20.