I must say a big thank you to British-born Blitz-survivor Phyllis Brooks Schafer, who has been kind enough to read my manuscripts and share her knowledge and experience of World War II Britain. (I remember specifically when I had the radio program "It's That Man Again" on at a particular day of the week and time — and Phyllis corrected me: "No! It was on on Mondays at 8:30!")
Phyllis and I became friends and we met in person in the Bay Area last year, where I was introduced to her two lovely cats and had a delightful tour of Berkeley, where she lives and works.
Today (here and on Jungle Red Writers) Phyllis shares with us details about growing up in England during the war.
PHYLLIS BROOKS SCHAFER: The world changes.
Pre-1948 was a different world, defined for me in many ways by the things I didn’t have rather than those I did have. Life in England was more “primitive” than that I met in the U.S. when we arrived in Seattle at the end of 1948, but many of the things I didn’t have in England were also rare in poorer families in the U.S. at that time. Remember this reflects my roots – in a working class family with next-to-no disposable income, but the “No”s I list were common to large parts of the population beyond my immediate class limits. And of course this list would be as shocking to people under the age of 60 in England today as it is to those living in Berkeley.
No plastic – Oh, the occasional bakelite bangle or drawer knob, or a fragile celluloid floating duck. But none of the common plastics we live among now. None. No plastic wrap, no plastic bowls, no plastic bags, no sheet plastic to substitute for glass in picture frames, no plastic toys, no plastic pieces for games. Mah jongg tiles and dominos were made of ivory. Checkers were made of wood. No plastic table cloths. No plastic cases for typewriters, radios, clocks. No plastic typewriter keys. Instead ceramics, glass, wood, metal, rubber.
No television – I have a dim memory of seeing a small postcard-size TV screen with programing when I was about 6, but BBC TV went off the air in 1939 and did not return until about 1947. (When I first came to Seattle in 1948, TV transmission was just beginning there.) Instead of watching TV we listened to the radio, with its choices of plays, children’s programs, music, etc. The BBC, and no commercial channels. There only two BBC stations until 1947, and all tastes were catered to at various times through those two outlets, with everything from pop music to opera, from comedy to talks (more like lectures) on serious scientific subjects. We learned the hours when the things we liked to listen to were on, and the entire nation went quiet around the time of especially popular comedy shows. And there was reading, reading, reading. Mostly from the public library, but the local newspaper store ran a little lending library – books could be rented for a penny or two a day, mostly mysteries and romances.
No central heating – We heated the living room of our small house with a coal fire, and in the two bedrooms upstairs we had the ultimate in modernity – electrical heaters in the wall.Yes, the house could get cold. That’s why God made sweaters!And we folded a blanket to keep out the draft that whistled in under our front door when the winter wind was in certain directions.
No checks – For working class people, it was a cash economy. My father received his pay in cash, in a pay packet, once a week. (Still much the same in Japan!) Savings were not usually in a bank, but rather in a post office savings account. There was no bank in our community – one had to go into town for a bank. By the time checking accounts started to come in, it was usually the man of the house who wrote them. I had to teach my mother how to write a check when she divorced my father in her late 50s in Pasadena.
No bills coming in the mail – The rent man came round once a week to collect the rent and write down the receipt in the rent book. The electricity and gas men came round every few weeks to empty the meters inside the house, meters we fed with coins to continue the supply of power. The milkman brought his account book with him and collected payment about once a week. Same for the newspaper delivery man. The coal man had to be paid at the time of delivery. No money, no coal, no heat.
Almost no synthetic fabrics – Shirts, blouses, etc., were made of cotton, and outer clothing of wool. Silk or linen was beyond the means of the average person. Nylon stockings came in during the war years with the Americans stationed in England – the best present a girl could get from her Yank boy friend. Otherwise stockings were either expensive silk, or made of a kind of cotton knit called lisle. There was some rayon for dresses and underwear, but it was not common. At the end of the war, surplus parachutes were briefly much in demand: they were white nylon and made good wedding dresses (though there was a rumor that nylon should not be worn when you were having a photo taken - you would appear naked in the resulting pictures).
Almost no electrical appliances – We had only two electrical outlets in our little living/dining room. None in our “front room” or the bedrooms, bathroom, etc. We had an electric iron and a radio. Period. When my mother or I ironed, we could listen to the radio. There was no electrical outlet in the kitchen. No electric clocks. Alarm clocks, in their metal cases with a bell on top, had to be wound up each night. The big clock in the living room was an eight-day clock, and my father ritually rewound it every Saturday morning. No toaster. No electric kettle, no electric mixer or blender. And, of course, no microwave. Bread was either toasted at the fireside – a long handled toasting fork let you hold a slice close to a glowing coal till it was brown, and then you had to turn it over and toast the other side – or under the small grill on the gas cooking stove.
No refrigeration – Not even an ice box. Ice was something you broke on ponds and puddles, or slid on in the streets. I didn’t see ice cubes or block ice until I came to the U.S. To keep milk from souring in the summer, we stood the bottles in a bowl of water in the empty fireplace and draped a cloth over it to absorb water and cool as it evaporated. We shopped every day for meat, cheese, etc. – just enough for that day’s meals – so we had very few leftovers. In any case there was no aluminum foil, no waxed paper, no plastic film to wrap and cover leftovers – but there was cooking parchment to line cake tins for making fruit cakes.
No washing machine – My mother boiled clothes in a large metal container (called a “copper”) that lived under the wooden draining board beside the kitchen sink. It had a gas heating unit to bring the water up to the right temperature. She stirred the clothes with a wooden stick, and pulled them out to scrub them in the kitchen sink on a ridged scrubbing board. Buckets held washed clothes as she rinsed them, once again in the sink, in cold water. We did not have a wringer, so she wrung out everything by hand – including the sheets. (Our neighbor did have a wooden wringer turned by a big handle, but my mother was too proud to ask to use it.)
No dryer – The washed clothes had to be carried outside and pinned up onto the washing line that was then raised up into the air with a heavy wooden prop with a Y-shaped end. If we were lucky, the clothes dried before it started raining again. Otherwise we had to carry things inside to dry on racks in the tiny living room. In winter the sheets and clothes froze hard as boards. We had to be careful taking them down – they could actually break. But freezing and thawing did get rid of a lot of moisture. The smell of clothes taken down from the line on a warm summer day was wonderful. I remember burying my head in the sheets just for the joy of smelling them.
No vacuum cleaner – But then nobody we knew had fitted carpets. Rather the floors were wood or covered with linoleum, with area rugs on them. We carried the rugs outside, hung them over the washing line, propped them up higher, and then beat them with a carpet beater until the dust no longer came out of them. The carpet on the stairs to the second story was a long runner held in place by metal rods that could be slipped out of their holders. Periodically we removed the rods and carried the whole runner outside for the ritual beating.
No restaurant meals – Well, very, very rarely we might have a snack in a café (or, as adults, in a pub) while shopping in town. Even before the second world war, with its stringent food rationing, meals in restaurants, even of the most modest sort, were not part of working class life. I never sat down to a dinner in a restaurant with a table cloth and a menu until I came to Seattle. The only takeaway foods were fish and chips (bought from the fish shop on the nights when they were open and frying, and wrapped in newspaper to bring home for consumption) or pork pies and slices cut for each customer individually from a big, bone-in ham, which some butchers had for sale. In bigger towns or in the cities, there were often stands or carts on the street – something like the taco trucks on International Boulevard in Oakland – selling sausage and mash, or the Cockneys’ favorite winkles, little cooked sea snails that one picked out of their shells with a pin and dipped into vinegar, to be eaten standing up or on a nearby park bench. The only big treat meal eaten out by working class people with some pretensions to good taste was the occasional tea, usually in a dainty little tearoom: pots of tea, with little sandwiches, cakes, and, in summer, strawberries with clotted cream – only a fond memory for much of my life until the post-war austerity began to lift slightly.
No private telephones – In the small community where I lived, only the doctor had a phone. Maybe to call an ambulance if one was needed? There was no one local to call him. If he was needed, someone ran down to his house-cum-office to get him or to leave a note. The local policeman also had a phone, in the police station office inside his house – but that was half a mile away. There was one public telephone box at our nearby string of small shops, the bright red British telephone box with the glass paneled sides like the model that you see in “Doctor Who.” And those were all the phones I can remember in my immediate environment. I never made a phone call till I came to the U.S. Once I was going to high school I got to know a few people who had phones, people who lived in the local town. But they were all people whose parents (usually the fathers) needed a phone for work purposes. We wrote letters or walked over to talk directly to the people we needed to see.
No out-of-season vegetables and fruits – For six years the war made merchant shipping a dangerous endeavor used only for essential supplies (so no bananas), but even before the war items like fresh pineapples or asparagus were available only in London or other big cities and bought by professionals and other upper-class people. Our treats – pineapple and the like – came in cans, and those had only started to come back more commonly on the market by the time I left England in 1948. But we did have the joy of seasonal fruits and vegetables appearing in the shops as the year wore round. Too many potatoes, carrots, cabbages, rutabagas, and brussels sprouts – but always apples – during the winter. And then late spring: strawberries, cherries, tomatoes, green peas, green beans, new potatoes – each sweet and delicious.
No supermarkets as we know them. Even if you registered to buy certain rations at Sainsbury’s (groceries, meats, dairy), you could not buy there things like cleaning supplies, or soap, or the hundred other things we expect to pick up in our local Safeway store (or Tesco, etc., in England).
I’m quitting here – though things that people like us didn’t have keep coming to mind: no gears on bicycles, no Christmas trees, no credit cards, no yogurt, no typewriters, no pasta (except for canned spaghetti) – not start talking about things like computers!
And then there were the things that we had, but that we owned only one of – Where are the scissors? I need the sharp knife. Who hid the screw driver? That’s another story.