When I left off last week, I was talking about food. There’s more…………
Sleeping Under the Stairs, part 4
The Food Office was a horrid place, with flimsy temporary walls plastered with notices exhorting us to ‘Waste Not Want Not’ , ‘Be like Dad, Keep Mum’ – a reference to telling nobody anything that might be useful to an enemy, such as where people in the forces might be stationed. Queuing was the most boring part of life then – we queued for everything, in every shop, for the bus, and particularly for anything official.
The Black Market was not a shop or a market stall. It was people known as spivs (my nickname at school because of the rhyme with Viv) who by hook or by crook came by things in short supply – no-one knows how. I think that must be how the expression ‘Fell off the back of a lorry’ came about. The spivs would then sell the goods on to favoured customers at vastly inflated prices. Only those with money could buy, ‘off the ration’ (ie without surrendering the coupons in the ration books) so the black market was manifestly unfair. Food supplies, for no reason that anyone could understand, became even more difficult in the early after-war years. My father – after he had been demobbed from the RAF in 1946, went back to work in the bank, and there he was offered by (I think) a customer, 56 pounds of sugar. Having struggled with his conscience, Dad agreed to buy this sweet bounty which we all craved. Then, overcome with fear of being arrested and remorse for patronising the black market, he hid it in the bank, and only brought it home a pound at a time in his briefcase. Mum then used it to swap with the neighbours for other groceries. We all loved butter, and the ration was minuscule – two ounces for a family for a week. So the sugar was a Godsend to swap with those who actually preferred the horrible synthetic margarine.
During the war Mum used to save the inch or so of cream which came to the top of each bottle of milk. She kept it in a Horlicks jar in the fridge until Saturday morning when Sylvia and I took it in turns to shake and shake until our arms felt as though they would drop off. After about an hour, the creamy milk would become a small lump of butter. What a triumph! You couldn’t do that nowadays as milk is homogenised so that the cream doesn’t come to the top. But at least we can now buy proper cream, which we couldn’t until about 1955. The cream substitute in those days was evaporated milk, on ration ‘points’ naturally.
I ate my first ever banana in 1946. They had disappeared completely from the shops during the war, but all the adults and older children spoke longingly of the day when the banana boats would be able to come back to Britain. But for me that first taste was an awful anticlimax. ‘Is that all it is? I don’t know what all the fuss was about.’ To me it was like a mouthful of tasteless mush. I do eat them now, though, so long as they are very under-ripe. I think it may have been the smell of an over-ripe banana that put me off.
Ice-cream was a different matter. Dad’s step-mother, a formidable Belgian lady of uncertain temperament known to us as Aunty, but who insisted everybody else called her Madam, made the most fabulous ice-cream, once real cream came back on the market – really creamy and vanilla-ey.
After the war years, cream was always known as ‘real’ because of some of the ghastly substitutes we had to put up with. Mum once iced my birthday cake with a cream made from mashed parsnip because they are a sweet vegetable, which she mixed with a little milk. Not by any means the worst ‘make-do’ product. When shop ice-cream came back in, it was either sold as an inch-thick cylinder wrapped in paper (Lyons) which though probably almost completely synthetic but tasted quite good specially with a cornet, or as a small thin rectangle between two wafers (Walls). The favourite shop ice-cream though was Fullers, eaten with a spoon in one of the many Fullers’ cafés renowned for a delicious walnut sponge cake. I wonder what happened to Fullers.
My father’s father – a mischievous punster, round and wicked (of which more later) used to take pity on us from time to time and send us a chicken for Sunday dinner. The smell coming from the kitchen drew us irresistibly and we’d sit round the table in the brown dining room, salivating until Mum brought in the miracle bird. All would go quiet for a while and then someone would bring out the inevitable ‘just like a rich family in peace-time.’
We could of course have had chicken more often had we been sufficiently hard-hearted. Before he went into the RAF Dad had built a chicken run out of the turf lifted from the lawn to grow potatoes. He piled them up, grass side down in a rough rectangle against the back fence into a wall and covered the whole thing with chicken wire. I suppose it would have been about three feet high, and it was my job as the littlest to crawl in and collect the eggs from the two white Wyandottes Mum had scrounged from a country friend. When they died of old age they were given a state funeral at the bottom of the garden, mourned more for the loss of the eggs than for their smelly presence. By then Mum had managed to get six Rhode Island/Light Sussex cross point-of-lay hens, which somehow we kept fed with scraps enough to produce eggs for us and for others less fortunate. But we certainly hadn’t the heart to kill them to eat.
As well as the regretted missing bananas, there was an almost complete lack of any citrus fruit. A rumour went around that the greengrocer had had a delivery of oranges, and I was despatched to the shops. After about two hours in the queue, little legs aching desperately and boredom at a new high despite having my nose in a book most of the time, I reached the head of the queue. ‘Grapefruit, one per family’ said the greengrocer, reaching for a brown paper bag. I had never heard of such a thing, didn’t know if I’d like it, thought I’d be in trouble for bringing the wrong thing, so I said ‘No thank you’ politely and turned dispiritedly away. The storm that erupted over my head when I got home was cataclysmic. ‘Of course I wanted a grapefruit. Back you go miss and don’t come home without any.’ But of course by the time I’d trailed back to the shops all the grapefruit had gone, so I was in for a double dose of bother.