The measure of a moral compass
By Tracey Edgerly Meloni
Nana’s last ration book, bilious green and brittle, is pasted to the inside cover of her journal. Rationing in the UK continued until 1954 – July 4 – and defined three generations of my family, for better or for worse. Now, it seems the hand of “democratic deprivation” touches – teaches? – six-year-old me.
Holding it, feeling it, I am engulfed in memories that are not mine, but are as deeply embedded as if they were. All my short life I have heard about the evacuees from London and Birmingham that filled The Chantry, the Victorian Gothic-horror house where eventually I was born in England’s Lake District. Retold stories of GranNana “tsking” over the poor quality of coal available to heat the house while she supervised the hanging of “ill-fitting” blackout drapes, lamenting in her ladylike way the conversion of nearby Shap Wells resort into a POW camp for upper echelon German officers. I recall Nana joining the chorus: “We managed on one egg a week while the best provisions sailed past bound for ‘Those Germans’.”
My mother took up shooting rabbits for meat – “I’m not eating another revolting mouthful of bloody whale, and you’ll not convince me SPAM is meant to be eaten by humans. I’d rather wait for horsemeat.”
The “Land girls” made sure they – I can’t help but think “we” – had plenty of vegetables and developed recipes to make them palatable in the absence of butter and onions. Most treasured, and missed, were bacon, butter, cream and whole milk. Till the day they died, my forebear-women would not tolerate margarine, powdered milk or the dreaded peanut butter (used as a less-than-successful shortening in wartime baked goods).
Sharing the shortages was a red badge of courage. Rationing was good for all.
All the women spoke gleefully of the alligator shoes, a size too small, my mother found for 100 pounds (!!) on the black market. No one chastised Mr. Dixon-Hunter for siphoning petrol from unwitting hotel visitors. The tale of Rodney, the ill-gotten pig, hidden and slaughtered for a village Guy Fawkes Day feast, is still cheerfully ballyhooed.
Uncle Willie, my Godfather, who fought in a ghastly conflict no one mentions, sees my untutored ethical struggle. He smells of Pear’s soap and Players cigarettes and ginger. I love him very much.
Years will pass before I grasp his meaning, but the words remained as indelibly etched as the brittle feel of the ration book.