Today I’m pleased to introduce guest blogger, author Gwen Parrott here at the Post! Gwen wrote the book Dead White, a popular Welsh crime novel. I’ll be reading the first English translation of it next. Looking forward to it and sharing it with you all. Thanks, Gwen for stopping by!
EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT RATIONING BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK
When you write a novel like Dead White set in 1947, rationing looms large. As Britain waited to be invaded from the beginning of WW2 in September 1939, the authorities decided that it could be a long siege, and came up with a system for the fair distribution of food and essentials. So, from 1940 to 1953, everybody in the UK had ration books, with coupons in them that covered a lot of foodstuffs, clothes, shoes, fabric, sweets and petrol, limiting what you could buy. You could only buy what you had coupons for, no more. Anything that came in from overseas became very scarce and in the case of foodstuffs like bananas, totally unobtainable. The ‘British loaf’ which was also rationed at one point, was partly wholemeal, by law. Depending on what supplies were available the rations could vary enormously from week to week. Bacon, for example, was restricted at times to 2 ounces (50 grams) per person per week. That comes to two thin slices – just the thing to have with the one egg a week you were allowed! Yet, it has been argued that the population’s health improved ‘on the rations’, which restricted all forms of meat, butter, fats, sugar and tinned foods, made extra milk and orange juice available particularly to children and nursing mothers and encouraged growing your own vegetables,. And rationing didn’t end with the war. Because the country’s merchant shipping had been so decimated, and there was so little money for rebuilding, rationing remained in force until 1953, although it gradually eased.
I knew that it would have to play a huge role in the book. We all have to eat and wear clothes, but in a world where there is endless consumer choice we have almost lost the ability to imagine what such restriction and limitation feels like. Depicting it without endlessly labouring the point was another challenge. It wasn’t just rationed goods that were restricted. Almost anything could be hard to find, and when you describe life in 1947 you have to factor in the daily grind of trying to find things that you need, or the inconvenience of doing without.
One lucky feature of the plot of Dead White in this respect, is that Della Arthur, the protagonist, has moved to a remote village in North Pembrokeshire from a bustling town in the valleys of South Wales. The difference between town and country was marked, even under such a carefully regulated system, and this made an interesting contrast to explore in the novel. Della is used to having fish and chip shops and cafés on her doorstep, neither of which required coupons, although their products might be limited. These places do not exist in her new life, but the farmers in the area, who have land and livestock, are busily churning butter, producing eggs, cream and milk and growing vegetables. Although they didn’t have anything like the choice of goods available in towns, country people had much more access to scarce food. Della is delighted to be given a really good Sunday lunch at Chapel House – roast chicken followed by a steamed pudding with golden syrup. It doesn’t sound like anything amazing, does it? In fact, in that period it was pure luxury. Even in the mid ‘60s chicken was still a delicacy. This is not something I could say in the novel, obviously, and I had to rely on trying to convey her appreciation instead.
However, the fact that Della guiltily enjoys a soft- boiled egg in the kitchen of her neighbour Jean was an opportunity to point out other differences between various parts of the country. The winter of 1947, when Della arrives in the village, was appalling. It snowed more or less constantly for three months over the whole country. The overwhelming problem at that time was shortage of fuel. Jean tells her that their small spinney will be a bare field by the end of the winter because they will have had to chop it all down for firewood and Della replies that in the coal mining valleys, where miners receive coal as part of the perks of the job, every back garden is full of the best anthracite. But the situation became desperate in many places, and electricity supplies were limited because there was no fuel to generate them. The question of electricity restrictions doesn’t arise in the village, simply because it doesn’t have any electricity. In the towns, at times, you would only get a few hours a day. Imagine their lives in sub-zero temperatures.
From my own childhood experiences in rural Pembrokeshire, it occurred to me that possibly the dwellers in Della’s remote village were better equipped to cope than their counterparts in the towns who had known an easier life before the war. It must be more galling to have services and goods taken away from you, if you’ve grown used to having them, than if they’ve never been part of your life. Everyone got very weary of the restrictions and very resentful of the way rationing seemed set to continue forever. And, human nature being what it is, they found ways around the scarcities. Very few people stuck rigidly to the rations if the opportunity arose to get something extra. But to be fair, people did generally share out any bounty. Della finds her pupils are forever coming in with a few small cakes for her, or a rhubarb tart. A local farmer provides root vegetables for the school dinners during the snow.
Pembrokeshire is only a stone’s throw across the Irish Sea from the Republic of Ireland which stayed neutral in WW2 and didn’t suffer the same restrictions. The dried fruit for my parents’ wedding cake in 1953 was brought over from Ireland stuffed in the pockets of a helpful ferry worker. From time to time my great aunt in North Wales used to send a suitcase full of salted butter down by means of a nephew who was a despatch rider for the RAF. That was what you did to make life bearable.
The minds that formulated the rations were beyond question responsible for keeping the entire nation fed to a reasonable degree during very hard times. It was a brilliant system. But the men and women who had to live on it and find ways around it were pretty amazing too!
Dead White: A Della Arthur Murder Mystery by Gwen Parrott
During the harsh winter of 1947, Della Arthur arrives at a remote Pembrokeshire village in the middle of a snowstorm to take up her new job as headteacher of the local primary school. Losing her way from the train station, she comes across a farmhouse and takes shelter there. After finding two dead bodies inside, Della struggles to discover the truth behind their deaths. She soon realises that in this close-knit community, secrets and lies lurk beneath the surface of respectability.
Della must choose who to trust among the inhabitants of this remote village – should she reveal what she knows to the sardonic minister of the local chapel, Huw Richards, or the Italian prisoner of war, Enzo Mazzati? Della finds herself under siege on all sides, and encumbered by an unwelcome lodger, a missing colleague and a disturbed pupil. It is only when her own life is threatened that she understands how dangerous her discoveries in the farmhouse really were.
“I was so impressed by so many things in this book – its characters, its period detail which really comes alive in a very convincing way, through the conversations of people, without bogging you down at all.”
Radio Cymru Book Review by Bethan Mair
“A pearl of a novel which crosses several frontiers. I really hope that we will hear more from this author.”
Janice Jones in BBC Cymru e-magazine
A Pageturners Crime Publication. This is the first English language, digital edition of the acclaimed Welsh language novel.