This book is published by Persephone Books, which I have only discovered recently but thoroughly recommend. As it says on the tin, it’s the diaries of one woman living during World War Two, originally a series of letters sent to her cousin, Lucy Hodgson, in Rhodesia and also circulated around other friends and family as a record of life in London at that time. Vere combines news of international events with a record of the streets and buildings that have suffered bomb damage and details of every day life. I was especially struck by two things. First, by just how fearful people were of a German invasion. Perhaps it takes someone living through the Blitz, documenting the ups and many more downs – rather than somone writing with the benefit of hindsight – to convey the power and proximity of that possibility. Second, there is just one mention, in December 1942, of the Holocaust: ‘ The massacre of the Jews is awful to read of, and I don’t propose to bear anything but animosity to Germans as long as I live’. As the war draws to a close Vere writes a little more about the concentration camps but her diaries reveal just how little this aspect of the war registered for most of Britian.
The daily relentlessness of being under attack could be monotonous without all the little details provided by Vere. For example she tells us how one doctor’s secretary had the foresight to store patient records in the refrigerator to protect them in the event of the surgery being destroyed. She sends her photos of the Gulf of Spezia (Vere was a teacher in Italy in her early twenties) when the Admiralty request them to help with Commando raids. We find out how the citizens of London had to contend with a lack of saucepans, kettles and sheets, as well as Hitler’s bombs. In April 1942 she tells us ‘Am now trying to run a kettle to earth, and then we may survey the war in peace on the Kitchen Front’. And we learn that London’s buses have no red paint so are maroon for a while.
Food – the lack of it, getting hold of it and sharing it – features heavily in the diaries. Vere is both economical and generous so feels rather indignant to be told off one day by the Kensington Salvage for throwing away a crust of bread that had gone mouldy in the heat of her room. She has a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, thanks in part to her welfare work for the Greater World Association. All share information about where to get hold of the oranges and eggs of the book’s title, as well as cherries, sausages, sugar and butter, which Vere is sent from time to time by relations overseas. She also seems to accumulate animals that need feeding , especially cats and the sparrows that do not desert the city as the seagulls do.
Middle class and well educated, Vere is a huge fan of Churchill and listens to every word of his speeches broadcast on the wireless. In fact she is an avid listener to all sorts of programmes, following the news, plays and debates, as well as standing to attention when various national anthems are played. The radio and time in bed with The Observer on a Sunday are lifelines in many ways – the cinema and theatre too allow her and her friends to experience something resembling normality, albeit regularly disrupted by sirens and bombs. She also rejoices in the way the natural world continues to provide beauty, despite the destruction being wrought – be it the bluebells in a vase on her office table or the laburnum in the park.
Vere shares her views on pacifisim with us, reads and half believes the astrological predictions in the newspapers, regularly debates issues of the day with her friends and we get her take on the characteristics of each nation that joins the war. For example, she is terribly distressed at the prospect of Florence being bombed but curses the Italians for not doing more to fight for freedom. This in contrast to the French resistance who even passed around the Mona Lisa and other pictures from the Louvre and always sent news of their whereabouts to the RAF so they’d never be bombed. Her curses are wonderfully tame though – I cannot remember the last time I came across someone using the word ‘drat’!
A Fire Warden, Vere is often called upon to do her duty and does so willingly and proudly. She is often thrilled by the ‘fireworks’ in the sky above her and is living proof of her own assertion that Londoners adapted to pretty much everything thrown at them during the war. Originally from Birmingham, Vere’s love of the Capital shines through every page of her diaries and she seems to feel every lost or damaged building. I did too.