It’s a truism that the older you get, the more interested you become in how your forebears thought, spoke and acted - witness the extraordinary popularity of Who Do You Think You Are? as well the growth of family historical and genealogy societies.It’s also a truism that by the time you get to middle age, you regret not asking many more questions of your now departed parents.
I am no different from anyone else. How I wish I had listened more carefully as a child to those stories my grandfather told about the Battle of the Somme (however sanitised for his grandchildren’s ears) and, worse, I scarcely asked my mother any questions about her life during the Second World War. I know only that she was evacuated from London to live with an aunt in Norfolk during the Blitz, then worked in a munitions factory making small bits for Spitfires.
At some point she had a Canadian Air Force boyfriend, and met my father in a War Office lift after the war ended. I don’t remember her talking about rationing, the blackout, ITMA, Land Girls, bombed sites, dance halls, or the Dig for Victory campaign. All I really remember is how thrifty she was with soap and string. She died when I was a teenager – before I minded much about her past - so that was that.
For the last two years I have been writing a book about gardening in all its forms during the Second World War. (I have been a gardening journalist and author for 30 years so that seemed the place to start.) Although gardening is a relatively small – if universal - aspect of human activity, I discovered that the ways that government and people responded to the need to grow more food - to make up for the steep decline in imports - shed light on so many larger themes and aspects of life, like the power of propaganda and myth, the role of women, the impact of class and money, the destruction of the country house, and the importance of science and technology as well as the media.
In the process, I’ve discovered aspects of civilian life that were common to everyone who was forced to endure the war on the Home Front, so I can now more accurately imagine my mother’s wartime experience. I’m glad I’ve done it.