- By Clive Enders
- Published 07/10/2007
They were rough, yellowy-brown little books, stapled in the middle once, that looked as if they had been chewed up in granny’s old hand mincer to then form thin brittle pages full of tiny, dated coupons. In the War years they were compulsory and remained so until the early fifties. The grocer, butcher, baker and probably the candle-stick maker, as well as the confectioner, cut these coupons out with scissors initially, but later, simply struck them off with pen or pencil mark. Aged around four or five, I had a glorious time sticking all of them at random into my small colouring book – a prelude, I guess, to a lifetime’s interest in collecting postage stamps. Today such an enterprise would be admirably called ‘collage’ but at that time of strict rationing, it was regarded as sheer madness; or, in my case, ‘pure badness!’
When Granny saw the results of my endeavours she was speechless – almost. ‘The devil’s got into you and He’s got to be dug out!’ she wailed. Shrieking in anger she aimed a clout at me somewhere around the left ear, but I managed to dart out of reach and hide under the dining-table. ‘Now you’ve ruined all the ration books I don’t’ know what we’ll do – except starve to death probably. Wait till your mum gets home this weekend – you’ll be in for it then – you bad, bad, boy’ And I was duly soundly thrashed, with a table tennis bat, as I recall; then sent to bed early and deprived of my precious monthly portion of sweets. Thus I learned the hard way that clothing and food coupons were precious currency during the 40’s; things not to be wasted in any fashion.
No wonder my growing up is so mixed with rationing books that it still colours my thinking today. Frugal with everyday simple things yet almost spendthrift when it comes to the bargains and reduced price-shelves in shops and supermarkets. All of course, linked to a belated feeding frenzy for things which were out of reach or sight, long ago – e.g. bananas, grapes, oranges, pineapples. We adults who grew up with rationing are almost schizoid about waste. We always clear our plates, and any leftovers the next day, or go about seeking that which can be readily and cheaply devoured, else it may go to waste by rotting or going stale. Thank God for modern refrigeration and deep freezers – unheard of sixty years ago. Do you still cut up your empty washing-up liquid bottles to get at that last drop in the bottom, or salvage pieces of soap and lather them into one mass? I do.
It’s all a way of making up for lost days of mass deprivation – whether in soap, cheese, sweets, bread, butter or sausages. In the 40’s, rationing made the simplest things seem desirable and luxurious. How many babies resulted from local village girls offering themselves to
This was an impressive three-tier effort, mostly of cardboard painted white; the top tier concealing a small but delicious fruit cake my grandmother had ‘borrowed’ coupons from all my aunts in order to obtain flour, sugar and currants, plus precious fresh eggs, for the finished product she had stayed up all night to bake in time for the wedding day. My parents, both in the R.A.F., married on a weekend-pass, in late May 1943. Three months later Dad was in a P.O.W. camp near
Now, all these years later, I am appalled at our modern-day ‘throwaway’ society, which produces so many million tons of rubbish each week, there will soon be nowhere on land-fill sites left to bury it. I always feel things readily available could disappear overnight, so I cling to my store of tinned foods and find it hard to dispose of old clothing and shoes. I still possess my parents ‘utility’ dining-table and chairs, as well as their double-bed and other bits and pieces; some even dating back to the First World War! The other day, I came across my old knitted swimsuit, made of very rough recycled wool, well over fifty years ago. It has not improved with age, and is rather moth-eaten now, but I could never part with it. If you survived rising out of the sea in such an item, all sense of shame at your puny arms and chest fled to another dimension – or, rather, a completely opposite area of your body!
My thoughts flew back to those days of thriftiness and economy, which bought their own unsung rewards. Thrift was a cardinal virtue then, long gone today, as has the concept of ‘make do and mend’. I recall my gran’s large sewing trunk, filled with not just needles and cottons, but tin boxes of carefully sorted buttons and shirt studs, crochet-hooks, knitting needles and other strange implements. Also, there was every kind of silk for darning and embroidery, plus precious oddments of linen-fabric, pieces of satin, velvet and lace. All these oddments had initially been saved from shortening or altering garments to then be used for hat-making, or to adorn or repair other items from blouses, dresses and shirts to underwear and bed-linen. Repairing stockings and socks was an evening task, while listening to the news or the BBC light programme. And when a shirt collar was beyond further patching or darning, it would be completely detached from the body of the shirt, reversed, then sown back in place around the neck entirely; all within an hour or so Well-loved and worn blouses and sometimes pyjama tops, often received the same careful attention.
Yet with thrift and rationing, many ate better, or in better proportion, than they had ever done before. I remember lining-up at the pantry or larder door with my two much younger sisters for our dessert spoonful of cod-liver oil, malt extract or some orange juice, the latter which came in a strange square bottle with a blue lid and bore the rather Orwellian-inscription; issued by the Health Office. Then there were the dire dried milk and awful, over-sweet, condensed tinned milk and even worse, the dried or powdered egg. Everything seemed dry or tinned.
But we were the healthiest generation of kids known up to that time; no crisps, chips or burgers, no ‘junk-foods’ as we call them today. Also no additives, little butter or sugar, and few fats, nuts, currants, least of all the rarely seen sultana. But there was also only dried fruit or candied peel and little jam or marmalade or lovely fattening cakes. Sugar, cream cheese and butter were too scarce or expensive to get hold of. Our diet was low-sugar, low-fat, low-cholesterol (no fatty meats) and low in carbohydrates. In fact it was everything we’re supposed to eat and everything we’re encouraged not to eat out of all proportion today.
The only really revolting things I remember eating, apart from crusts with dripping collected over several weeks from differing meats, were yellowish tarts, largely containing baking soda and stewed sweet parsnips, as the replacement for bananas, which Gran (being herself half-French) named Paris cakes. Almost equivalent were her large rough objects, called quite accurately, rock cakes, which were made from coarse blackish flour which first had to be sieved through muslin or an old silk stocking.
But once a month, came the great treat for us kids. Dad would drive home in ‘Army’, our old Austin 7, with a brown cardboard box at his side, containing sweets, purchased, by coupon of course, from far-distant and fabled shores of
So, the revelation of luxury, extravagance, and elegant colourful wrappings of foil and cellophane, that spilled out in 1953, when sweet-rationing ended, was nothing short of dazzlingly amazing. Above all, Easter had come back in all its chocolaty glory. That cornucopia of Quality Sweet, Rowntrees, Roses and especially MacKintosh toffees has, for me, never reached the same height of plenty or been the same again. The only tormenting curtailment was that we had to then buy them from a very meagre pocket-money allowance. Everything is now available in such profusion and quantity that it’s almost impossible to imagine, let alone recall, that rapture, that excitement, that certain special frisson, of fifty years ago. All I can say is that I remember it and some of the products available, very clearly indeed.
Spangles, Maltesers, Rolo’s, above all Smarties – that brilliant piece of marketing, where you pour out a cascade of brightly-coloured pills, all your very own, from a small cardboard tube. After eating, especially the red ones saved last, your lips resembled some
Then came the light, milk chocolates, Cadbury’s caramel or rich, dark, plain Bournville, pumice-like Crunchie, Kit Kat with long, seamed quarters and Chocolate Fingers you could suck clean down to the tubular biscuit. Finally there were always Wagon Wheels, great value for their sheer size. As rationing ended, so my own freedom was no longer rationed. I was old enough to go to the big school, have pocket and dinner money every day. Above all I was free at last to buy my very own selection of sweets, keeping a little back each week to go towards a growing collection of unused, or mint, postage stamps. But no divine, be-ribboned box of expensive, Belgian chocolates has ever, or will ever, haunt my nostalgic memory, quite as much as opening up that very first tube of Smarties in September 1953.
© C A Enders