Saturday, 12 September 2009

The Week We Went to War, and Proud to be English

The beautiful half-timbered Market Hall at Ledbury, Herefordshire.

Yes English, rather than British, even if we have been transplanted in Wales for over 20 years now.

This week, 70 years after the outbreak of WWII, has seen some excellent articles in various magazines and papers, and two programmes on tv which I thoroughly enjoyed - one on at 9.15 a.m. each morning which dealt with life in Britain during the week war broke out and subsequently, and Landgirls, a drama at 5.15 in the evening. The latter was a little predictable/melodramatic and my feeble brain is trying to work out if it was based on the book/film which came out several years back now (probably 20!). I found myself peering past the actors and actresses and trying to see what they were using in the kitchen! It would appear that I could have supplied them with a few props myself . . .

The Week We Went to War in the mornings showed film clips from wartime newsreels and Michael Aspel spoke about his wartime experiences, some poor student lad had to live for a month on typical WWII rations (I think it was probably the making of him in the kitchen despite him having been on Masterchef!) - but what a shame they didn't give more detail on that. Tim Wonnacott (there's a good Devon name for you) had a daily slot looking at Utility furniture, old radios, and other ephemera from that period. I could watch something like that every week, not just this one.

I am old enough to know most of the words to many wartime songs, especially Vera Lynn's, my foot taps to Glenn Miller still and I would have loved to learn the Jitterbug when I was slim enough to enjoy it! How I miss the old black and white movies about wartime patriotism which were family fare on the telly on a Sunday afternoon. The hero would be terribly "stiff-upper-lip" with a clipped English accent and a moustache just like my dad's, and would always do what was best and sensible, especially in affairs of the heart. An affair would have caused much heartache and a terrible scandal and was never contemplated.

I have been thinking about Sunday tea times in the Bolt household when I was a child, and which probably weren't a great deal different to when my mum was growing up pre-war, with a cake (nearly always a "boughten" in my mum's case), and quite often Angel Cake or Battenburg or sticky Ginger in pride of place on the little glass stand covered with Nasturtiums which I still have and use occasionally. There would be bread and butter on a plate, and with the butter usually spread into lumps and holes as it was too cold to spread properly when summer was past. To accompany that we had fish paste - bloater or sardine and tomato and we had a tin of fish - never tuna, for some reason, but either salmon or white crab meat - I can taste the sweetness of that crab meat now. There would be a tin of fruit (fruit cocktail or peaches or manderins) and a horridly Germoline-pink blancmange or else a jelly. Sometimes mum would make up the jelly with the tinned fruit in it - tangerine and manderins was the best!

In today's weekend Telegraph, they were giving away volume one of the Best of the Proms, and I have just been playing it downstairs in the kitchen whilst I finished putting the gimp on my piano stool which I reupholstered yesterday. I think Gordon Brown should be made to listen to Land of Hope and Glory, Jerusalem and Rule, Britannia! as he has his breakfast and then, perhaps, he might want to do something good for this wonderful country of ours. They made me feel proud to be English again. English, not British, as my West Country roots call loudly to me and I know if my DNA was tested, it would pinpoint me here since the glaciers retreated : )

So let us celebrate everything that is English - maypoles and Morris Dancers; cream teas and scones; Victoria sponges and home-made jam; red London buses and red letterboxes; half-timbered buildings and thatch; higgledy-piggledy stone walls and watercress beds; Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie; The Wind in the Willows and Beatrix Potter; The Archers and Sherlock Holmes; toad-in-the-hole and Sunday roast; the good old cuppa and a biccy to dunk in it; Changing the Guard and Buckingham Palace; the Mousetrap and the Proms; St Paul's and Westminster; proper cheeses from Cheddar and Stilton; Melton Mowbray pies and Ploughman's lunches; the Jam and Jerusalem of the W.I. . . . I am sure that someone can add to that list!


  1. Such an interesting essay! I have uneasily wondered lately if I have reached an age where I tend to "wallow in nostalgia" as my daughter accuses me. Still, I have always loved the sense of handed down traditions and the details of how other generations lived.
    Have 20 years gone by since the 50 year anniversary of WWII? Our public TV station featured many programs that year having to do with the war--I made myself watch some that were horrific re the concentration camps--and I do recall a movie about the Land Girls which I thoroughly enjoyed.
    Your description of Sunday tea reminds me of the times when my g-aunt Julia and g-uncle Wilford came "across the lake" to spend Sunday afternoon in my grandfather's womanless household. My uncle, who did the housekeeping, would get out a white tablecloth, I was allowed to bring out dishes that were seldom used. Aunt Julia [she of the blueberry pie disaster] usually brought cake or a pie. The meal might be only Campbells soup and canned fruit, slices of the "Monks' bread" which uncle bought from the "bread truck", but there was a festive quality to the gathering.
    I have encountered the term "bloaters" before--sounds like some sort of dreadful sausage--please enlighten me!
    I'm thinking about my own maternal heritage: be it British or English--with a hefty dose of Scots--I used to ask my Mom, "what are we?" and she would say, "New England Yankee." I wonder if someday our children or grand children will suddenly take an interest in these tidbits from the past that folks such as you and I are determined to record.

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed it MM. I am all tooguilty of wallowing in nostalgia, but with the country currently going to the dogs, perhaps it's no bad thing . . .

    It was reading the Molly Gloss book that prompted this too - the titbits of life in the past in that county, and what happened to folks there in the future. Then the music got me all fired up and patriotic. I swear I would charge into the Valley of Death at Balaclava once my blood was up like that . . .

  3. Bird-watching. My English husband and all his English friends watch birds. My Irish friends shoot them.

  4. Snort of laughter from BB at THAT comment TPT!

  5. I hoped to watch that LandGirls thing but what a time to have it on?! we eat dinner at 5pm,I tried to record it but the digital (grrrrr) signal was rubbish & it recorded all pixilated even though recorded on a digital dvd machine grrrrr! I know what you mean about drinking in the clothes & props,with LRTC I used to sometimes forget I was suposed to be listening lol!!!

    I have been reading Nella Last's War,its brilliant & I have been so comforted with her *wobbles* sometimes you get the impression that they all sailed through with stiff upper lips & I berate myself sometimes for indeed having wobbles,thinking holy mo girl,countless women put up with far more than you have to! I give myself a stern talking too........
    So to read of her worries & wobbles & glum moments has made it truly something I can relate too. Yet of course they still just had to get on with it,which I am happy to say is my attitude,you can grumble for a bit but then life has to go on doesnt it!
    It saddens me more are not bursting with pride at this country of ours, I would add picnics & talking about the weather!English apples & allotments,sheds,churches & their bells,proper pubs & eiderdowns,Ladybird books & trifle,milkmen & Brownies/Cubs ,conkers & cooking apples :o)
    GTM x x x

  6. This is a wonderful tribute to your "Englishness". I just love the history and tradition, the language and jargon, the flora and fauna, the lay of the land...Well, I love all things English. Since I was a young (very young) girl, prowling the library stacks for books about the Stewarts and diving into Heathcliff's wild moors, I've been enchanted. I do hope I get to see it all one day.

  7. I have to tell you that yet again you have captured my interest with things I have to look up. I wasn't sure about the "Proms" and now am listening to a BBC iPlayer broadcast of the proms from radio Wales. My son phoned in the middle of it, but I could hear choir and orchestra giving their all to Zadok the Priest.
    I thought I should be familiar with "Jerusalem" but didn't want to paw through a stack of old music, so brought it up on YouTube. Supposedly it is a favorite of your Mr. Brown.
    Are the traditional male Welsh choirs still going strong there? Several communities near us on the Vermont/New York border had a concentration of Welsh slate workers--imported Welsh choirs visited the churches every few years for memorable concerts.

  8. MM - oh yes indeed, Welsh male voice choirs are still going strong. I have a CD I bought my mum, and she loved it as it reminded her of them all going to Uncle Will's in Aberbargoed. I am sure you are going to enjoy the Proms over and over again on iPlayer!

    Nancy - Englishness - as opposed to Britishness - is I think a very definite way of being, and one of its wonderful attributes is eccentricity. I am sure that there are Welsh, Scottish and Irish eccentrics too, but . . . BTW, I think you may be disappointed by the latest dramatisation on tv of Wuthering Heights. It has the ugliest Heathcliffe ever - you have been warned - I thought he would have done better as Frankenstein personally . . . not my sort at all!

    GTM - what a wonderful reply too and great suggestions - I was thinking of dozens more things when I was in the bath - how could I forget crumpets, muffins, roses round the door and Easter bonnets for starters? BTW, I have Nella Last's Peace if you want to borrow it, and in fact, got NL's War out again (here in front of me as I type) with the intention of finding the bits where she literally turned nothing into something in a meal, and wasted nothing (not even breath!) - I thought of her tonight as I manfully reheated the 3rd portion - and last thank Heavens - of the risotto I made 2 days ago and am sick to the teeth of . . .

  9. Hullo there china,
    You may guess from the accent that I am from a bit further North than you are currently. I'll resist the urge common to my countrymen to do a bit of English bashing at any opportunity and just say that you penned a nice post, eveocative and poignant.
    Its great to be proud of your roots { I am too. } and to recall a time when everyone worked together for a common goal. But when talking about the war{s} lets not forget for a moment that it was the whole country, English, Irish Welsh and Scots and that we all suffered. England may have had more war damage to property but Scotland for instance lost many more men as a percentage of population, and I'm sure if we looked we could find similar issues for the rest of the country too.
    We are all, after all is said and done, British - even if thats just at the moment for us Scots. and its right to celebrate our similarities as well as our national differences.

    Once again, Lovely post.

    kind regards........Al.

  10. Am I allowed three comments to one post? I realize I am about to "gush", but have to tell you that the Wales Prom has lifted a doldrums day into an occaision. All the great classics, Hayden, Handel, Elgar and the lighter show tunes. A real surprise was the "men only" performing the lush arrangement of "Green, Green Grass of Home" which J. likes to sing.
    "Rule, Britannia" is not often played in this country, but its stirring cadence took me back to high school marching band when, clad in scratchy wool uniform and "white bucks" I strutted along tootling my clarient to Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever."
    The greatest moment of the Prom was when they announced "Calon Lan." I let out a screech of joy and leaped to my feet at the first note, stabbing the air with an imaginary conductor's baton, humming the harmony like a demented bumble bee and waiting on each chorus for that delightfully shivery bit where the tenor line soars up to the 7th. I last heard Calon Lan performed live in the auditorium of Green Mtn College in Poultney, VT--in the heart of slate quarrying country. It was a humid summer evening and there was barely standing room, the choir members had to be sweating in their stiff white shirts and black ties.
    The recorded prom concluded without the national anthem, so I was compelled to go to the piano and pound out several rounds of Calon Lan and finish with Land of My Fathers. The cats have decided that I am dangerously off kilter and I expect it is a good thing I am home alone.
    I see that I've got to find Nella and read her storeis--aren't you glad you inspire me?

  11. Alistair - watching the Week we Went to War programme this week, there was quite a big chunk about Clydebank being bombed flat, which is something that is rarely mentioned in an overview of bombing Britain in WWII - the emphasis is always on the East End of London. I hadn't realized about the pro capita number of Scotsmen killed being so much higher, but I suppose that demographically there were far fewer Scotsmen in the first place. My dad always spoke highly of the Scottish soldiers he fought beside, even though they called him "Bolt the Bastard" because he was also their PTI!!!

    MM - chunter on as much as you wish, though it seems such a pity that this wonderful rolling discussion is "behind the scenes" when I feel it should be the Main Event! You will love Nella Last (SO "English"!!) and I suspect read, and re-read. You have got me going on Welsh Proms now and I currently have "Men of Harlech" thundering round my brain - at half past three in the morning (I can't sleep) . . .

  12. Hullo Miss B,
    Like you I don't seem able to sleep much.
    On line at 2.30am and back again at 5.20.

    Thanks for visiting and adding me to your list. Re - reading my comment now it sounds a tad preachy - sorry 'bout that. Not what was meant.

    Actually my Mum - whose ashes we scattered on Fridays beautiful evening - watched the bombing from the hills on the outskirts of Glasgow with her Mother.

    Men of Harlech. Mmm. Another thing I have in common with where you are now perhaps is playing in a brass band for over 20 years. We used to play a concert with the Paisley Male voice choir every year. That was one of the standards we did together, so now I suppose I have to thank you for having it running through my head as well.

    Er, cheers for that. I

    kind regards........Al.

  13. Erm, Me again,

    Meant to say....... A bloater is a herring smoked with the guts still in I think. No idea why anyone would want to do that when you can have a perfectly good Arbroath Smokie or a nice Loch Fyne kipper.

    Or of course I could be completely wrong........


  14. bb, i am English too, rather than British. I really resent the exclusion of English as an option on official forms... the choices usually say British, Irish, Welsh, Scottish. I always cross through British and write English in its place!

    Leanne x

  15. You and me both Leanne! What I resent even more is the BBC ranting on whenever it can in history programmes about the English being a mongrel race and how many "immigrants" are in our genetic makeup. Yeah, like I always think of the Angles, Vortigern's Jutes & Friesians, Franks, Goths, Vikings, Normans as "immigrants" - though the original Angles were probably Federati brought in at the time of the late Roman period as a militia with a military obligation. Not to put too fine a point on it, they weren't blardy well invited and shown the way to the Dole office . . .

    Alistair, my dear, we were propping our eyelids open at the same time. I wish I had known, as the bowels of the night feel so very lonely. It's strange, but all the things I eschewed as a bright young thing - male voice choirs, popular classical music, wandering round old churches and cathedrals, now have great appeal. I suppose I am Growing Old . . .

    Oh, and I wish I'd known about herring guts and bloaters before I ate bloater paste!

  16. Just recently we were taking a photo of a steam train, travelling through fields were a game of cricket was taking place. We sent the photo to one of my American friends, who said it was exactly how she thought England would look!Kath (Born in England, of Welsh parents, married in Scotland to an Irishman :)

  17. bloater
    Brit a herring that has been salted in brine, smoked, and cured
    I'm finding these less appealing with each new revelation! Then there's haggis and all sorts of things I would shy off trying!
    I agree, these "discussion" pages can be so much fun. And...we incurable insomniacs can hover here in the wee hours, bundled in fuzzy robes and slippers, hair on end and come across as witty!

  18. Oh you HAVE to try kippers (same as bloaters but less the guts I think) - they are SO tasty. Manx kippers are the best I reckon. I've had haggis and prefer "the real thing" to Tinned Haggis which we were given once on our Scottish Dig!!

    I'm glad that I am luring all fellow insomniacs out of the woodwork and am glad we don't have a video link!

  19. Englishness? it has become hidden of late and TV is very much to blame. And I am not being nostalgic, though I did live in London during the war. We should however record our 'roots' as children do become interested once their own children are of an age that they want to know about their family past. But go out into some of the still to be found wild places and enjoy the solitude - or a country town where they still retain their own identity and Englishness re-emerges. Listen to the music of Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Athur Bliss, Delius or Butterworth (Banks of Green Willow) and feel proud of 'being English'.

    The last night of the Proms had become stereotyped and a travesty of the music over the last few years. It took an American conductor (David Robertson) to bring tears to the eyes at the power of music, at this year's 'last night' which I watched on Saturday. Still fun but far more meaningful.

    As to the one thing I would define as true Englishness, it is a cup of tea, made properly: teapot and china cups/mugs heated with boiling water, leaf tea to which the water is added just as it comes to the boil, stirred and poured (strained) onto fresh milk and served at any time of day (from early morning in bed whilst I write) to afternoon 'tea' with sandwiches - weekend only - and home-made cake or biscuits or scones with home-made jam. Different tea blends according to the time of day.

    Apologies for the long comment. Ann.

    P.S. I too cross out British on forms and insert English!

  20. Dear Ms B and Ms MM,

    Tinned haggis? TINNED HAGGIS? Pu..leeze ladies! Lets have some decorum on this blog. This is just getting a bit oot o hand now.....

    A good haggis is a fabulous thing and should never ever under any circumstances be stuffed intae a bloomin tin. I suspect that the company who is noted for doing this is only superficially Scottish and is actually run by an Englishman! {sabotage...} Thank goodness you said the real thing is best.

    And as for kippers, { cough cough, splutter splutter} to say that ahem, Manx kippers are better than............naw, naw I canny bring masel' to even say it.

    An Arbroath smokie is a holy thing and a mere kipper wouldny get within fifteen feet of my breakfast plate if there was a choice at all.

    Jings....might need to go for a lie

    curmudgeonly yours..........Al.

  21. Hullo there,

    For what its worth my tuppence worth on Englishness.

    Scrumpy cider,
    Ladies in sensible shoes,
    Queueing politely,
    contrary sayings... Can things be "Terribly good" or "Awfully nice."
    Margaret Rutherford,Joyce Grenfell, Terry Thomas, David Niven
    cutting crusts off sandwiches,
    Roast Beef and yorkies,
    Knotted Hankies on heads and rolled up trouser legs,
    Pimms or Gin and it, ice and a slice.
    Polo and Croquet,
    Silly Mid Off
    "Bounder", "Cad" and "Blighter", "Spiffing" and "Posh"

    And lets never forget "Crikey"

    kind regards.........Al

  22. Hullo again,

    And also lts not forget the very best thing that England has left the world.

    THe Pub......

  23. Oh this had turned into such a wonderful discussion, North of t'Border too! Al - I agree with your English jottings - especially The Pub and for Pub of the Year I would like to nominate the Square and Compass at Worth Matravers in Dorset, beloved of start the New Year with a Walk days from many years ago (pre-Children in fact). One little bar, a privy out back, and the only food was a bag of crisps or the occasional Cornish Pasty. So unspoilt . . . hope it still is.

    Oh, and next time I'm in Scotland I will try the real macoy and have an Arbroath Smokie . . .

  24. Shall read all the comments in a minute Jenny but just wanted to say what an absolutely marvellous post! Like you I am specifically English rather than British and have the family tree going back 300+ hundred years to prove it:) I always put English as my nationality on forms - apart from passport where apparently you aren't allowed to be English, only a citizen of the United Kingdom...

  25. I've read all the other comments now and this is a great discussion. I've never had bloater paste and having read what it is I'm really glad about that! Arbroath smokies on the other hand are a wonderful thing. The thing about the being proud of being English - I appreciate all the great qualities of my fellow citizens of the UK, the Scots, Welsh and Irish, sterling people all of them but I'll bet that if you asked them what their nationality is they'd all say 'Irish, Scots or Welsh' as appropriate, few would describe themselves as British I suspect.

  26. Forgot to mention Al, the allegience to Manx kippers is due to my husband's Manx ancestry . . .

    Rowan - great to see you back. I am half way through a long letter to you but can't finish it until I get my proper computer back (on D's laptop right now and struggling).

    I am glad that the topic of Englishness has provoked such an interesting discussion.