Persephone Book No 9: Few Eggs and No Oranges by Vere Hodgson

A forum for Persephone readers where we write about a new book every month.

 

dried eggs

 

In Vere Hodgson’s own words, Few Eggs and No Oranges is ‘the diary of an ordinary commonplace Londoner during the war years’.  As a diary it is honest but not revealingly introspective. It is, as the title page states, about unimportant people. And yet it draws the reader in, slowly at first, then gradually increasing its grip. The characterisation is sketchy, we learn little of the inner life of the diarist, the action does not vary much from day to day and we know what the end will be. What is it about The Diaries that holds our attention, and touches our emotions?

 

Vere Hodgson provides the answer in her introduction to the first published edition: ‘it records fairly accurately the hopes and fears and daily drudgery of an ordinary person during many weary springs, summers, autumns and winters’.   She edited the diaries herself for publication in 1976, savagely cutting the original, which had been started to keep her cousin in Northern Rhodesia informed about the war, and later distributed to other family and friends.  Impossible to know what was cut, but it seems safe to assume that she resisted the temptation to flesh out the people, that she did not take advantage of the benefit of hindsight to correct the various inaccurate predictions concerning the course of the war, and that she understood the power of repetition in building up a picture of the ‘daily drudgery’

For the first hundred pages the published diary hardly misses a day. These entries cover the first months of the Blitz, during which London was bombed for seventy-five consecutive nights. It is true that they do not vary greatly from one day to the next. Hard to get into perhaps, but it is the record of the unchanging nightly routine that brings home the relentlessness of the bombing. Vere Hodgson writes about the casualties, and the destruction, that we know about from historians, but she tells us something else: what is was like to be woken by the Air Raid Siren night after night, time after time, to drag oneself, and a mattress down the stairs, to sleep fitfully tight up against people who were at best acquaintances, then drag the mattress back upstairs at the All Clear, only to repeat the process again an hour or so later. She tells what is was like to be tired all the time, to feel sick from exhaustion and ‘speechless with fatigue’ to make one’s way to work, to go on doing this day after day.

 

Almost imperceptibly the mood changes: by August the siren which in June had sounded so alarming, has been nicknamed Wailing Winny. By October she can write of a night which is ‘very gunny’, another which is ‘very blitzy’.

 

Sheltering in Holland Park Underground station. Queues formed by 4pm. London Transport Museum

Sheltering in Holland Park Underground station. Queues formed by 4pm.
London Transport Museum

 

She, like others, is adapting to the war.  In January 1941 a plane flies low as she lunches in a café, ‘I never thought I should get used to having my lunch on a battlefield’.  By May a routine is well established at the Sanctuary: in case of an air raid, get everyone downstairs, turn off the gas and fill the bath (to put out stray fires). ‘It is amazing … how well our nerves keep on the whole. If we are bombed then they go a bit; but if we survive the night, we come up bright and smiling the next morning, very keen to exchange notes on the adventures of the night’. If the aim of the Blitz had been to break the spirit of the British people, it was not going to be allowed to succeed.

 

Vere was 39 at the start of the war, unmarried, a graduate of Birmingham university, an  ex teacher, working for The Greater World Association,  a welfare charity in Notting Hill Gate, living first in a bedsitter and then a flatlet close to her work. If she has a private life, we learn nothing of it. From time to time she entertains the dashing Barishnikov, who spends his points at Fortnum and Mason, or the German exile Dr Rémy, whose family is in Frankfurt, or Retsi, the Swiss accountant, for tea, and on one occasion she is given two tickets for the Albert Hall. The diary does not reveal to whom she gave the second ticket.

 

We know that she reads widely, listens regularly to the News, French and English and to the Brains Trust, takes the Daily Telegraph during the week and the Observer on Sunday, and is a keen cinema goer (brave given the number of bombs that fell on cinemas). Her admiration for Churchill knows no bounds, De Gaulle runs a close second. For the rest of the French nation she has little time. She admires the Russians. Unexpectedly for one so spirited, she complains frequently about her health, but is fit enough to jump from a 10ft wall during fire fighting practice, and tough enough to volunteer to be the ‘body’ dragged down the stairs during the same practice.  She is an energetic walker, taking regular Sunday walks, sometimes in pouring rain, through the West End and the City to look at bomb damage. Local damage is inspected on the instant: ‘I was told that bombs had fallen again in St Charles’ Square, so I took a bus there’, ‘… heard there had been a landmine last night in St Helen’s Gardens. Immediately took a bus.’

 

Bomb damage in Notting Hill, a short walk from Vere Hodgson's house.

Bomb damage in Notting Hill, a short walk from Vere Hodgson’s house.

 

She is quite shameless about what might seem to us a rather ghoulish curiosity, so shameless that I think we can assume that bombsite viewing was not a minority interest. The picture of Miss Moyes  being pushed in a wobbly wheel chair on ‘a tour of the bombs she had not seen’ is, almost, funny, the brief description so vivid: the sides of the chair coming unscrewed with the vibration, Miss M having to dismount every time they crossed the road (in spite of everything, ‘she enjoyed the outing’).  When Vere hears that The Rowley Galleries in Church Street have been burnt out, she runs to see it, ‘Remains of beautiful furniture and pictures all in the street’.  The bizarre aftermath of bombing never loses its fascination for her.  As late as July 1944 she records ‘A spot of excitement. No sooner had I reached my little flat than a Doodle came close in our direction. Roar grew louder … We took breath – heard the engine stop – and then the explosion.’ Hearing that the bomb had fallen in nearby Earl’s Court Road, devastating a crowded restaurant, barely pausing for lunch, she’s off to survey the damage. There is an urgency in her telling, such that we can almost hear her voice, giving us ‘the latest’.

 

Vere Hodgson notes down not what is, or might be, of historical importance, although those events are included, but what excites her, a bombsite, an extra ration of cheese, a trip to the Zoo with a party of children, the discovery of a hoard of Renaissance treasures from the Uffizi hidden behind mattresses in a villa outside Florence, de Gaulle’s extraordinary courage under fire as he walked the length of the nave of Notre Dame while German snipers took aim from the galleries.

 

As the diaries unfold her darting style become familiar and strangely endearing. The big picture and the small sit side by side. In the bitter winter of 1942 she buys a spare hot water bottle, ‘They say there will be no more for years; so I am keeping one in reserve until we get Malaya back…’  The entry for 8th September 1942 records the loss of 80,000 men in the desert and in the next line, ‘Plenty of blackberries – so we wallow in fruit’. In March 1943, from buying curtain material in Liberty’s, she moves seamlessly to the horribly wounded from Dunkirk, and in the written equivalent of the same breath, to the scarcity of biscuits, and her delight at finding soused herrings at 8d each – ‘no fish for months’.

 

In September 1940 she had written to Lucy, ‘food is the least of our worries’. Not for long. By November she is thankful for two eggs, the following February there are ‘No oranges at all, at all’, and cheese is unobtainable. In May she admits to disregarding the News, which ‘shows no sign of improvement, concentrating instead ‘on procuring food to eat.’ Food and the price of food becomes a leitmotif of the diaries, despondency about shortages, surprise and delight at unexpected availability. Prunes, spurned before the war, acquire rarity value and are eaten with pleasure. Macaroni is unavailable but figs make a surprise appearance. Stays in the countryside provide an opportunity to gorge on plums and cherries and fresh vegetables. The Hodgson family manage a goose for Christmas lunch in 1940, and again in 1941, but by 1942 ‘no turkey, no fowl, no rabbit, only the usual joint’ – Auntie Nell in London had acquired a hare, which ‘required a special license’

 

Vere was reprimanded by Kensington Salvage Council for throwing away a mouldy crust of bread.

Vere was reprimanded by Kensington Salvage Council for throwing away a mouldy crust of bread.

 

Christmas in Birmingham and the Sanctuary Christmas Fair are two fixed points in these years. The flowering of the cherry in the street, the laburnum and the lime in the park mark the turning of the seasons and lift the spirits. But little could be taken for granted, and certainly not waking up alive, unhurt and in one’s own bed.  The cityscape changed almost from day to day during the bombing, good news was followed by bad, invasions do not go according to plan, but nor do train journeys. The Diaries remind us that adversity can take many forms.  The lack of a colander is preoccupying, finding a small double saucepan or a rolling pin at a reasonable price makes for a good day. An onion from the greengrocer, when all had been ‘booked’, is ‘a victory indeed’. The gift of sheets is worth more than rubies, when on the old ones even the patches had been patched, and new ones are unobtainable. Feast and famine were as unpredictable as the course of the war. In the final months, during the ‘little blitz’, there were fewer shortages, more food, more coal, more books in the library:  death and departures had made a dent in London’s population, there was more to go round.

 

By September 1944 the end is in sight.  The sirens have fallen silent. Soon there will no more bombs, the black-out will end, it will be possible to move around at night without a torch.  The nights on the stairs have come to an end. A hint of regret creeps in.  ‘We have all got friendly in my Flat residence due to the Fly Bombs. The Old Dears have lost their pernickety ways, and as we sat on the stairs, not knowing whether the bomb was going to drop on us, we became very much a band of brothers.’  Mollie Panter-Downes in Good Evening Mrs Craven put almost the same words into the lonely spinster’s mouth, ‘Those nights, terrible as they had been, certainly had had their compensations. It seemed to Miss Birch, looking back, that the inhabitants of Floor K had been one jolly happy family…’. There will be eggs and oranges in the shops once again, but something will have been lost.

 

 

A few pointers for discussion:

First of all: two quotes (taken from Austerity Britain by David Kynaston) to provide a starting point for discussion of  Few Eggs and Two Oranges:

‘Unadjusted impressions have their value, and the road to a true philosophy of life seems to lie in humbly recording diverse readings of its phenomena as they are forced upon us by chance and change.’ Thomas Hardy (Preface to Poems of the Past and Present)

 

‘The writer Denton Welch … then [on VE day, 8 May 1945] felt – as surely so many did – the discomfort of imminent change from a condition that, for all its inconveniences, had become familiar: “There were awful thoughts and anxieties in the air – the breaking of something – the splitting apart of an atmosphere that had surrounded us for six years.”

 

 

 

Questions

Most of those who thought Few Eggs ‘hard to get into’ have returned to it and found it a compelling read. What is it that make one want to keep turning the pages?

˜Wartime Spirit”, what does it mean?

There are so many questions that one would like to have asked of Vere Hodgson. Asking a friend in her nineties about her experience of wartime London, I was struck in particular by two replies, the first was ‘I’m not a brave person, but I was never afraid’, the second, which I also find wholly believable, was:˜Everything changed when my first child was born in 1942. Then I had to get out of London”. Is it possible to imagine how we might have behaved?

 

 

If you enjoyed this book, you may also enjoy:

Good Evening Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes (Persephone Book No 8 )

They Can’t Ration These by Vicomte de Mauduit (Persephone Book No 54)

On the Other Side: Letters to my Children from Germnay 1940-46 by Mathilde Wolff-Monckberg (Persephone Book No 75)

To Bed with Grand Music by Marghanita Laski (Persephone Book No 86)

 

 

 

What other bloggers have said about this book:

Vere Hodgson’s Diary was amongst the first bunch of  Persephones that I purchased  8 or 9 years ago. When it arrived, I was surprised by its size though happily so. But then something happened. And my bookmark (beautifully coordinated of course: all bookmarks should be coordinated, no?) got stuck.

I think it was somewhere in 1941, but I don’t remember exactly because I became renewedly interested in my collection when a friend of mine added some new titles to my Persephone shelves last year and I plucked that bookmark out once more and started to read again from the beginning. I read the preface and got stuck in the process of making the decision about whether to read on. (So apparently it’s possible to get stuck in a book when you’re not even really reading it.)

But I still wanted to get un-stuck, so when I started thinking seriously about Persephone Week, Few Eggs and No Oranges was at the top of my list. And I am so glad that I persevered.  buried in print

On first starting the book, I remarked to a friend that it seemed all the author ever did was wander about various bombed out streets inspecting the damage. But I’m glad I stuck with it, because I ended by finding the diaries absorbing, and Hodgson’s attempts to keep track of the changing face of London to be extremely moving…… I so wish I had known of these diaries when studying the war in school and college. These, and other diaries collected, should be required reading alongside textbooks. While they do present only one version of the home front, and one of fairly comfortable circumstances at that, what they show is the daily challenges and delights, something textbooks can’t do. … The diaries are remarkable for the fact that Hodgson, while clearly aware about the very real danger she faced every day, managed to create a full and interesting life for herself in wartime, and one brimming with adventure and friendship. make do and read

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