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Book Review: A Green and Pleasant Land

A Green and Pleasant Land pbUrsula Buchan, A Green and Pleasant Land: How England’s Gardeners Fought the Second World War, (London: Windmill Books, 2014; ISBN: 978-0-099-55866-8), 299pp; 6 colour and 16 black & white photographs, £9.99 (paperback).

In recent years wartime slogans such as ‘Keep Calm and Carry on’ and ‘Dig for Victory’ have featured in all kinds of unlikely marketing situations and the vast majority of the population who do not remember World War II might be forgiven for believing that such promotional gimmicks reflected a gloriously successful propaganda campaign.  Of course, any book with the subtitle ‘How England’s Gardeners fought the Second World War’ will contain plentiful information on the Dig for Victory scheme but this book is far more than just the story of that campaign, more a tale of the indomitable spirit of a nation during war time and a social history of England in the years between 1939 and 1945.  At this point it is important to say that readers from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can learn much from the book and should not slam it shut because they feel its contents will not be relevant to them or are aggrieved that the contribution their countries made to the British victory are not covered in detail.  The author explains at the outset that she restricted herself to consulting only English sources to keep the work within reasonable bounds - there is plenty of material in the archives of the nation for anyone wanting to get stuck in and write about the efforts made to fight World War II on the home front in the other countries of the United Kingdom.

Ursula Buchan, a highly regarded horticulturalist and author, describes the Dig for Victory campaign very early in the book and refers to it constantly. The scheme had originally been conceived towards the end of the First World War when, in 1917, German attacks on British shipping had left the country with only three weeks’ supply of food.  In 1939 the government was well aware that, since much imported food came from North America, the British nation could be starved out by a German sea blockage.  Buchan describes in detail how the government encouraged people to transform their private gardens into mini-allotments and become growers of fruit and vegetables.  There are constant reminders of how dire the situation might have become had there not been a concerted effort by people to grow their own food.  The humble onion was a case in point.  At the outbreak of war 90 per cent of the onions consumed in Britain were imported from abroad so enormous encouragement was given to people to grow their own.  Buchan makes it abundantly clear that this was no easy task for novice gardeners who, trying to grow from seed rather than sets, found them an extremely difficult crop to cultivate on newly dug land.                           

There were some, such as the cookery writer Marguerite Patten, who must either have been particularly successful in their attempts to feed themselves or who remember the time through rose-coloured lenses.  Patten describes how she and her mother had a large garden with an abundance of produce: apple and plum trees, masses of soft fruit and too many vegetables to list here.  What was more, ‘when it got dark we retired to the kitchen to bottle fruits – including tomatoes – and make jam and chutney when we had saved sufficient sugar from our rations.  War time gardening was hard work but very satisfying and productive’.  Of course, many people took up trying to grow food during the war but, by 1944, as a government survey revealed, less than half of urban households could be persuaded to grow their own fruit and vegetables.  Consequently, in this impeccably researched book, Buchan dispels any such myth about the glorious success purported to have been achieved by the Dig for Victory campaign.

There are endless things to inform, amuse, amaze or simply answer half-thoughts that cross the mind from time to time.  For example, I had always wondered why my mother, a qualified occupational therapist, had spent some time working in an office during the war – a job for which I always felt she would have been totally unsuited.  The answer is here:  by 1942 all women aged thirty and under without small children were required to take a job.  Then there are all those things one might have known about but never considered the implications for daily life.  Things like double summer time and the fact that there were no weather reports between 5 September 1939 and 2 April 1945.                                                        

Some of the most shocking tales describe environmental matters and are reminders of how very different things were seventy years ago.  One of these concerns a report from William Lawrence, Gardens Curator at the John Innes Horticultural Institution:

The most fearsome of our weapons was cyanide.  Bowls of sulphuric acid would be placed along the length of the greenhouse and weighed amounts of potassium cyanide in screws of tissue paper dropped into the acid, one by one, while the operator beat a hasty retreat before the acid ate through the paper!  The cyanide fumes were of course deadly to humans and doors had to be tied up so that no one could enter the house before next day. 

Elsewhere Buchan describes how the formidable Miss Hess, an Agricultural Advisor to the Ministry of Agriculture ‘got hold of a new handgun duster (used to puff powder on to plants) - you could see the insects dying in front of your eyes’.  Another shocking tale describes how, with the aim of very quickly destroying potato crops on the Isle of Wight, the Germans had dropped boxes of Colorado beetles.  As part of the war effort there was a scheme which involved evacuated school children in collecting them up and destroying them by plunging them into boiling water.

Buchan gives many examples of how nurserymen were forced to alter or give up precious businesses as they made their contributions to the war effort.  She is particularly sympathetic to the fate of nurserymen like the Quaker Cheal family of Crawley who had been in business since the 1860s and had been suppliers of plants to landscape architects like Thomas Mawson, Sylvia Crowe, Brenda Colvin and Geoffrey Jellicoe.   Also described are the problems faced by landowners and how, after the war, the National Trust gained such gardens as Hidcote Manor (Parks & Gardens UK Record Id: 1716), in 1948, Bodnant Gardens (Parks & Gardens UK Record Id: 459) in 1949 and Nymans (Parks & Gardens UK Record Id: 2462) in 1954.                                                  

This book is informative, fascinating and entertaining and is not bereft of humour as a quotation from Punch reveals: Lady Addle bewails the fact that her efforts to grow mustard and cress on old pieces of shirts, on the statuary along the terrace have failed miserably and ‘all our radishes have suffered from slut weevil, and an entire crop of early parsley was devoured by the fell sod fly’. 

Reading it will remind you of how different gardening is in the twenty-first century.  Enjoy.

Jean Reader
30 June 2014