Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Edward and Helen- What they ate on holiday - and at war.

Unusual stark simple front page.

Newfoundland headline

My novel begins with Robert Frost taking action having heard of the declaration of war on 4th August, 1914 . He walked from Little Iddens in Leddington to Ledbury to stock up on provisions, buying boxes of a shredded-wheat cereal, tins of sweet biscuits and some soap. These were to be delivered by carter; when they arrived he stacked them up in the sitting room.

c Friends of the Dymock Poets.
The war troubled the Frost family, understandably - first it made his work less viable as war subjects pre-occupied the population, and secondly as ships became threatened, the Atlantic crossing, should they decide to go home, was dangerous.

But that August, the Thomases on holiday at Oldfields farm were more conscious of the enormous bounty of food in the villages, a prosperous farming and fruit -growing area.

When they picnicked with the Frosts Helen took advantage of  it:

'I’d prepared the picnic food carefully. Produce seemed plentiful as ever, but I noticed that prices were beginning to rise. I heard the Chandlers wondering whether they would have to increase our board and lodgings fee from three guineas a week. It was true we ate a great deal, especially Merfyn, at that growing stage.

In a sense we were also the Frosts’ guests as we spent most evenings with them at Little Iddens, with the children munching their way through the wartime supply of sugary biscuits, so I felt we owed them this picnic lunch. And I enjoyed the work. Big fresh loaves, lettuces, tomatoes and a deep chicken and ham pie. And for dessert, yellow-skinned apples, which Edward loved for their scent as much as their flavour, and a big bowl of purple plums. Mary Chandler said they were not up to market standard but they were perfectly ripe, with that deep gold dew beginning to ooze sweetly in the little blemishes that condemned them.

But the Frosts were carrying lemonade and a tin of the wretched biscuits, although I’d said I would see to the food. The orderly lunch I’d planned was not to turn into one of the Frosts’ haphazard free-for-alls. I wanted to show Robert and Eleanor, especially Eleanor, how it could be done. '

Earlier in 1914 Edward had visited his Welsh cousin and friend John Jenkins who used the bardic name Gwili, after his local river near Ammandford, Carmarthenshire.

River Amman
Gwili had been living there for some years, and  Edward came to Ammanford on his much-looked-forward-to visit with Merfyn and Bronwen. Special preparations were to be made at the lodgings, brown bread was to be got in, and it was to be baked in slices very hard in the oven. There were to be some bananas and dates if possible, and the tail piece of the letter asked for very fat bacon, the fattest in the land.

Helen had found the huge filling meals she had been expected to eat when visiting the Welsh relations too much for her in earlier years - it looks as though the Thomases were quite particular about what their children should eat.

Food supply& shortages

Before the First World War, over 75% of the butter, cheese, eggs and bacon consumed in the UK came from overseas, from the 'Empire'. The outbreak of war brought an urgent need to cut down on imports to save foreign currency, and to reallocate shipping to the war effort. Food shortages became a serious issue.

As soon as war was declared in 1914, Sainsbury’s posted notices in the windows of all its branches stating that regular customers would be kept supplied and warning against hoarding. Despite this appeal, queues began to form as worried customers stocked up on basic foodstuffs. {Robert Frost's rush to Ledbury for cereals, soap and biscuits was typical.} Panic buying quickly pushed up the prices of imported food, particularly sugar and butter. Regulations were put in place: managers were instructed not to sell more than 2lbs of sugar to anyone.

Some ‘home-produced’ food could still be obtained at reasonable prices. With the rising price of imported butter, margarine became an important product during these war years.
Even if goods were available, the requisitioning of delivery horses by the army affected distribution to branches like Sainsbury's. Home delivery of bread, milk, meat and the 'weekly order', the norm for many households, was affected or stopped and customers were asked to carry smaller parcels home for themselves. They were also encouraged to settle their accounts promptly.  
(From Imperial war museum.)
Rationing was not introduced until 1918 - that was considered a mistake, rectified in the Second World war. The result was that food shortages after the war were even worse and rationing lasted until 1921.
As the war progressed the food shortages were manifesting themselves for the Thomases. In the short time they lived at High Beech in Epping Frost Helen kept Leghorn chickens for eggs, and Edward had netted the garden against rabbits. But cooking was a problem as there was no proper stove: Helen cooked porridge and fried bacon on an open fire.

Meanwhile, in France

At the start of the war, British soldiers at the front were allowed 10oz of meat and 8oz of vegetables per day, a luxury compared to what would be provided in the years to come. Parcels from home loaded with chocolate, tins of sardines, and sweet biscuits would be a welcome but irregular source of extra nourishment. For day-to-day meals, soldiers’ options were limited.

The size of the British Army and the efficiency of the German submarine blockade grew in tandem, with doubly bad results for the state of British Army rations. By 1916, the meat ration was down to 6oz a day, and later, meat was only provided once every nine days. Things were getting worse, and Tommies were beginning to fend for themselves. There are reports of vegetable patches being established in reserve trenches, and of men going hunting and fishing while not in the front-line, both to pass the time and to supplement their meagre rations.

The winter of 1916 saw a major shortage of flour. It was replaced by dried, ground-up turnips which produced unappetising, diarrhoea-inducing bread. At this time, the staple food of the British soldier was pea-soup with horse-meat chunks. The hard-working kitchen teams were having to source local vegetables as best they could, and when that was not an option, weeds, nettles, and leaves would be used to whip up soups and stews.

Each battalion was assigned two industrial-sized vats for food preparation. The problem was that every type of meal was readied within these containers, and so, over time, everything started to taste the same. As a result, pea-and-horse flavoured tea was something the soldiers had to get used to.
Canister being filled for soldier to take hot soup to the trenches.

Food transportation was also an issue. By the time it reached the front, bread and biscuits had turned stale and other produce had gone off. In order to combat this, soldiers crumbled the hard food that arrived and added potatoes, sultanas, and onions to soften the mixture up. This concoction would then be boiled in a sandbag and eaten as a sandy, stale soup.

Soldiers and kitchen staff were forced to carry soups and stews through the communication trenches in cooking pans, petrol cans, and jars. Upon arrival at the front-line, the food would be cold or spilled. In an effort to rectify this, field kitchens were relocated further forward, but they were never able to get close enough to provide hot food for the men. Some were lucky enough to obtain small camping stoves from town shops, but with fuel in such high demand, this was never much of an advantage, and the stoves also had to be carried.

One widely-used and equally widely-disliked ration was the canned soup, Maconochie. A thin, watery broth containing sliced turnips and carrots, Maconochie was tolerated by famished soldiers, and detested by all. One soldier summed up the army’s attitude towards the stuff by saying, ‘Warmed in the tin, Machonochie was edible; cold it was a man-killer.’

Of course, to allow the Germans to get wind of this desperate food situation would never do. The British Army had to be portrayed as a content, well-fed, determined body whose morale was unwavering. An army announcement that British soldiers were being given two hot meals a day, however, caused widespread outrage among soldiers. The army subsequently received over 200,000 angry letters demanding that the dire truth be made known.

Making ­­good, fresh Maconochie
Normally prepared in a dug-out or reserve trench, in a modern kitchen Maconochie stew should not be difficult to make.
340g beef (or one can of corned beef)
140g waxy potatoes
30g onions
30g carrots
30g beans, cooked (white beans such as haricot)
60ml beef stock or water
15ml flour
15ml fat (lard or rendered beef fat)
Salt to taste
1. If using fresh beef, cut into ½ inch to 1 inch pieces.
2. Thinly slice potatoes, onions, and carrots.
3. Steam or boil the beef, potatoes, carrots, and onions until tender.
4. Heat the fat in a pan.
5. Add cooked potatoes, carrots, onions, beans, and beef over medium heat.
6. Make a batter of the beef stock or water with flour.
7. Add batter to the stew.
8. Cook until thickened.
9. Salt to taste.
                                  c.Military History Monthly

Extracts from A Conscious Englishman:

 He wrote to his brother Julian, 'I've suffered far more than this in other early springs.' The physical discomforts are not so different from us cycling in icy rain, he reminded Julian.

They washed and shaved in a canvas wash-stand, warming the water on an open fire first. In a scrap of mirror he could see that his face was really gaunt. The Maconochie rations, tinned stew and bully beef, were not generous. Those, and tea and jam, were their meals. If it weren’t for the food parcels that came quite regularly from Helen, Eleanor and his mother, he would go hungry.
 Shells fell all around his billet, and he saw many dead and wounded. Death would come for him one
day, he thought, whether from appendicitis, old age or a bullet. Even so, he felt that he would enjoy this whole experience more if only he could be sure to survive it. He wanted to survive, to go on living having faced death. It would be a different life, he thought, and he in some ways a different man. To Robert he wrote that he could not think of being home again, but he dared not think of never being there again.                                                 *

Eleanor liked to send Edward treats. Once she sent a hamper from Fortnum and Mason. But what he liked most were muscatels, almonds and preserved ginger. He wrote to thank her, telling her how he ate them in the spring sunshine at his Observation Post and how content he was. At least, he wrote, he could enjoy this life if he were sure he would survive. He admitted his trepidation as they prepared for a great battle, but she mustn’t think that it was often fear he felt. Nor did he have any sense of foreboding.
‘It is worse for you and Helen and Mother, I know.’
Eleanor would never forget those two words, 'for you.’

A Poem: I think this is appropriate as it shows the effort to continue producing food in the very clear awareness of war, hardship and death. It was written in May 1916 when Thomas was actively seeking to 'go out'.
'It symbolises war's intrusion into rural England, and into English pastoral'. (Longley)

 As the Team's Head-Brass
As the team's head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed the angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.

The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker's round hole,
The ploughman said. 'When will they take it away?'
'When the war's over.' So the talk began -
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
'Have you been out?' 'No.' 'And don't want to, perhaps?'
'If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm, I shouldn't want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more...Have many gone
From here?' 'Yes.' 'Many lost?' 'Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.'
'And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.' 'Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.' Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team
Publishing news
Imagine my delight on receiving an email from Robert MacFarlane, mine and everyone's favourite writer on Thomas, nature and walking. I trust he won't mind me sharing this part:
I have read almost half of A Conscious Englishman, and like it very much. It has been very well published: lovely paper, type-face, and the Nash-like cover, with its tactile matte finish. And your inhabitation of Edward, Robert, Helen and their world is tender and subtle, and of course the whole thing, as we know, is cast from the beginning into shadow by the foreknowledge of what will come to pass. I am returning to it regularly, reading it part by part, and enjoying the encounters and the little shocks of recognition very much.
Many congratulations to you, and with my best wishes,

  What with a comment  from novelist Kathy Page and an enquiry about a possible Italian translation it's been a lively week. She wrote that she'd enjoyed the weaving in of poems, letters and memoirs, the portrait of Helen and the 'more speculative parts.'

Some reviews on the GuardianBooks page, reader reviews,  would be very welcome, even a mixed one. There have been a couple of reviews and it's easy to do.

 a story


  1. Your novel sounds fascinating. Could I ask you a Thomas related question? I'm visiting Arras next week and would love to see the site where ET died outside his OP - do you have any idea of its exact location in Beaurains?

    Simon Fielding

  2. Hello Simon,

    On your Thomas question about where he died:.

    Although he was billeted in Beaurains I'm afraid I don't know the location even of that, just that it was one of the houses left standing by 1917 but damaged. I doubt if it survived.

    Edward Thomas is buried at Agny so I assume he died fairly near by. Someone more military minded might know - the Imperial War Museum for instance. I'd never really thought about it. Agny's a very small cemetery not far from Beaurains. You approach it via some allotments which I always think is appropriate. If you go, look for P.E. Thomas, not E - his first name was Philip.

    Good luck,