A Second World war propaganda poster depicting rearmament industries on Clydeside.
Morag Mossawirrecalls wartime austerity in auld Glesca Those Brown Legged Days
By the spring of 1942 and almost ‘all over the world’(a line I recall from a then contemporary Vera Lynn song), wartime conditions had become a way of life. For me,my brother and our friends,it seemed to have lasted for most of our lives - it was not just the war,it was our childhood! Back at school in Glasgow’s East End,my teacher’s class load was 42 children,all seven to eight year olds.We had one of the few male teachers left. He had flat feet and spectacles as thick as bottle bottoms,so of course we called him Tojo after General Hideki Tojo,the despised,speccy leader of Japan. These deficiencies kept him out of the forces but this did not stop me complaining to my mother that he still did not know my name,even after months of teaching,only to be told firmly that I was there solely to learn and we were very lucky to have him at all. I have a photo of my brother Alistair’s first year class,smiling away fixedly,not knowing that 47 pupils was an awful lot to be crammed into one classroom. Occasionally somebody would come to school with a black band on their arm because they had lost a father or another relative to the enemy. I remember feeling bizarrely jealous that I did not have anybody to sacrifice nobly for the cause - or was it even then just my nagging longing to grab attention,regardless? The closest relative we had in ‘the fighting’was my Uncle Duncan and 8
I certainly did not want to lose him. He had been rescued at Dunkirk, had fought in the jungles of Burma and was at this point indefatigably fighting Rommel in the deserts of North Africa. He had come through so far with nothing worse than a dose of malaria and a demotion for flirting with an officer’s lady:but,being a useful squaddie,he was soon rising through the ranks again. I practised wearing a band on my arm and walking slowly and solemnly, like David Copperfield after the headmaster had told him his mother had died,just in case. How shallow I was:but then we were constantly hearing about death and I suppose we were innocent of the reality and finality of it all. Food rationing got tighter and gratitude to our grandmother was boundless when a sack of new potatoes and a freshly killed chicken arrived at the door. My only problem was with the dead fowl. It had to be hung in the bathroom for two days before being plucked and cooked and during that time I was scared to enter because I sensed its accusing soul still lingering around as it hung there. Folk tried to help themselves by taking over sections of the parks and dividing them into individual so-called victory gardens where they grew their own vegetables. The urge to till the soil ran deep,especially when rationing became more stringent. There were chicken coops and rabbit farms in back gardens as well;and a thriving black market if you had the money,which we did not,but I doubt if my parents would have dabbled in such nefarious ploys anyway,even if ready cash had somehow been plentiful. The school became more crowded and Tojo was eventually called up.The authorities must have been desperate for more cannon fodder. New recipes abounded for spam-based concoctions, tasteless loaves,eggless,flourless,sugarless cakes and other awful,wartime abominations. Sometimes my father brought lonely American, Canadian or Australian soldiers,sailors or airmen back to the flat for home-cooked meals. As a policeman he met them while keeping an eye on entertainment centres set up to amuse the bored troops. Local girls did their bit by dressing up in whatever attractive outfits they could get together,improvising leg tans in lieu of stockings. This involved an orange-toned liquid painted on their legs. The difference from today’s artificial tans was that stockings (this was before pantyhose) had seams up the back and these had to be carefully drawn onto both back legs using eyebrow pencil. A gum-chewing Yank could depend on picking up any girl with a wink of his roving eye and a pair of seductive silk stockings as a gift in his hands. If he was not careful,he could also count on greasy orange marks on his trousers from fake leg tans. When we had such guests,my mother ate bread and margarine or even lard. She always consumed less than any of us,insisting she was not hungry and that,anyway, sustenance for growing kids, a working man or the visiting military was much more important. It must have become a habit because she continued to eat sparsely, even after the war ended, but still remained remarkably healthy. I often wondered what these servicemen thought of the frugal repasts they were served and if they went back
to their barracks and wrote home that the Brits were hospitable but ate very strangely. This was probably why British food had such a bad reputation for years afterwards. My mother tended to overcook the greens to their complete obliteration, while the boiled mutton, sold as lamb, was also inevitably overdone. I fiercely insisted on drinking the water left over from the boiled veg because my immune system needed the vitamins which otherwise would be poured down the drain. American visitors usually brought ‘candy’with them and ‘gum’which mother sternly frowned on. She thought chewing was a disgusting,vulgar habit and to this day,though I now live in the States,I have never indulged in this national,jaw-clenching pastime. One sailor brought my mother a pair of silk stockings and she almost fainted. Even lisle (cotton knit) stockings were becoming impossible to find and anyway used up valuable coupons. Whoever visited usually felt obliged to bring something edible like Canadian bacon,butter,a big tin of soup or maybe a jar of jam. If not, they always promised to post us something. A tall,handsome Texan once took me on his lap and asked me what I really wanted and when I said a doll he promised me one as tall as I was with eyes that closed and real eyelashes and blonde curls.With my austere lifestyle,I of course doubted if such a fabulous creation actually existed but my seven-year-old heart prayed that it did and would arrive some day. It never did.The Texan had told us he had been torpedoed three times, so maybe he did not survive a fourth sinking. However,years later,when I emigrated to New York,I saw a child with a doll as big as she was on my first subway ride. The little girl was around four years old and had her doll sitting next to her,so it was not all a tall tale from the Wild West after all. One New Zealand sailor promised to send us something from his
home country that we could all enjoy;and,sure enough,a brown,paperwrapped package arrived in our flat,as luck would have it just as we were all leaving to stay with our Highland grandparents to help gather in the annual harvest. We did not have time to open the parcel because we were rushing for the train and mother would not let us take it. Alistair offered to carry it because,like me,he wanted to know what it contained:but saboteurs with mysterious packages were supposed to habituate trains which they wanted to blow up and my mother did not want to be arrested on suspicion,so we left the gift lying on the kitchen table. When we returned weeks later and opened the front door,a disgusting smell nearly knocked us down. It was coming from the package and my mother opened it with trembling fingers tugging at the tight string. As the wrapping fell open,the stench became overpowering. It was a huge cheese which had over-ripened during the very hot month we had been away. It certainly was something we would all have enjoyed had we been allowed to open it before our departure. My mother ran downstairs with the offending article in her outstretched arms and sped round to the back court where she dropped it in one of the dustbins,covering it up with whatever was to hand which was not much because hardly anything was thrown away in those days. Even newspapers were not flung out, being used on shelves or as wrapping or even as toilet paper.The back court smelled badly for a while but the house was much worse.The windows gaping wide open had little effect and the smell hung around for what seemed an eternity. Fortunately the sender of the gift from the other side of the world never found out how his generosity had gone so disastrously wrong.
A celebration of Glasgow – In Gold & Silver
A celebration of Glasgow – In Gold & Silver A celebration of Glasgow – In Gold & Silver This is the bird that never flew This is the tree that never grew This is the bell that never rang This is the fish that never swam
For details of our complete range contact Goldcraft Jewellers 160 Kilmarnock Road,Shawlands,Glasgow G41 3PG Tel:0141 632 2778 Handmade in Scotland for Glasgow Museums