Few Eggs and No Oranges: The Diaries of Vere Hodgson 1940-45 is an incredibly riveting document of a woman living through World War II in London. I’ve read a good bit of history of this era, and intellectually know about rationing, the bombing of civilians, blackout, endless queues for essentials, etc. but these every day entries really brought home the relentless, wearying reality of wartime London.
To give friends in foreign parts some idea of our meals: Meat ration lasts only for three evening meals. Cannot be made to go further, that is, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. O.K. Tuesday and Wednesday I cook a handful of rice, dodged up in some way with curry or cheese. But the cheese ration is so small there is little left. Thursday I have an order with the Diary for a pound of sausage. These make-do for Thursday, Friday, and part Saturday. No taste much of sausage, but are of soya-bean flour. We just pretend they are the real thing.
Every night brings the fear of bombing. More times than not, the Warning is sounded, sleep interrupted, and Vere is under a desk, down the basement, or quaking in fear under her bedroom skylight! I feel like I could count the nights that she was able to sleep through in her own bed over the five years of her diary on my fingers! The fatigue is palpable. Every day brings more destruction of her beloved London. She takes buses and walks all over to see what is happening to her city (so we see, too). Time without hot water, time without heat. She hears about death, and experiences the death of loved ones.
She did not purchase a single item of clothing during the War (one dress was given to her). She notes her darns were darned! These little details are so rich and important. A tin of butter sent from her relatives in Africa was treated as an amazement – she and her aunt were almost afraid to eat it, and kept commenting that they thought it was a mirage! Having to stand on one leg for an entire train trip to see her mother; the trains were always so crowded. The endless searches for a saucepan, a kettle, a colander. Craving, craving, craving fresh fruit. Hallucinatory exhaustion after a night of bombing followed by a long day of work. Repeat.
Somehow, she still finds laughter, beauty, and joy. She goes to the cinema and reads voraciously. She has people over for tea (rationed to 2 ounces a person a week!) and somehow creates pastry out of dried eggs and flour and water for them. She goes hunting for the first snowdrops, the first daffodils, the first green leaves on the trees. She fusses and chuckles over the office cat. She makes jokes!
While Vere is a wonder, what most impressed me is that so many others were, too. Vere’s family, coworkers, and neighbors were full of pluck, willing to roll up their sleeves and do a fire watch, and ready to give their rationed food to someone who needed it more. Her aunt makes jam for family and friends with everyone’s saved sugar ration when someone gets their hands on fruit. People go visiting carrying cooking fat and nuts. Room is made for those who were bombed out the night before.
I cried with happiness and relief when the War ended — reading this 600 page account in the span of a few days made it very intense and consuming for me. Reading it during my Winter Break full of holiday feasts and material goods made for a stark contrast with Vere’s life at this time. Her diary was filled with heartbreak and terror, but also so much good. The community that was created during this horror, and Vere’s ability to still savor small moments of beauty and pleasure made for fortifying reading; its own kind of meal or gift. I am very glad to have read it.