In praise of Garden Societies, 40s music, Vera Lynn and the wireless …

Part of our wartime garden display on Make Do and Mend in wartime, Newquay Zoo World War Zoo Gardens collection

Another busy week for the World War Zoo Gardens project at Newquay Zoo. The first of this season’s Garden Society talks took place on Wednesday 21st September 2011  at Goonhavern, a few miles east of Newquay. I’m still not unpacked from selecting out a few boxes of display material of wartime gardening books, posters, seed lists and other wartime memorabilia I took along to illustrate my talk on Dig For Victory and its modern parallels in our World War Zoo gardens project at Newquay Zoo. Gardeners (and cooks) loved leafing through these original and reproduction books before and after the talk.

Pinning the (reproduction) Dig For Victory posters up on their noticeboard for the evening felt a little strange as if the Village Hall and Community Centre had been old enough, the originals must once have been pinned there. Garden talks would have taken place in halls like this all over the country to eager Dig for Victory Gardeners 70 years ago. Goonhavern Garden Association celebrate   their 40th anniversary this year – so congratulations on this!

Celebration bunting, cabbages and mascot Blitz Bear out in the World War Zoo gardens at Newquay Zoo, Summer 2011

As ever my lovely  vintage Dig For Victory  spade dated 1944 (the same type as the  famous boot on spade iconic  poster) was much admired and could have been sold many times over.  A lovely weight and patina to it, this spade is still very capable of active service but now in my museum collection for the present along with a pristine Stirrup Pump. Slightly more battered examples of both are left in the wartime garden plot here at the zoo, to give the real impression that the gardener has just popped out for a few minutes.  

Whilst setting up, I had time to put some Vera Lynn music on for company, which was playing as the Garden Society members arrived. Highly atmospheric, and the music I was brought up to by my 1940s evacuee parents. I’m not sure of the legality of playing my warm up music as people arrive, but then legality and Vera Lynn don’t match in my family.  I recently discovered from my mother that she was the very young (4 or 5 year old) lookout for a gang of fellow evacuees in Ditchling where Dame Vera lived, on watch while the bigger kids went Scrumping in Vera Lynn’s Orchard.  Maybe we should plant an apple tree in our wartime garden section in both their honour …

Canny recyclers before their time! The WI did important work for the Dig For Victory and salvage campaigns. This wartime WI badge is from our wartime display, World War Zoo Gardens, Newquay Zoo.

Geoffrey Glasse from Goonhavern contacted me afterwards to find out if we were interested in surplus apples etc from his group. What to do with surplus produce in wartime caused many arguments between the Dig For Victory scheme organisers and the Ministry of Agriculture. The WI and canning machines was one solution …

The story of this campaign is well set out in the recent book by Daniel Smith, The Spade as Mighty as the Sword: The Story of World War Two’s ‘Dig for Victory’ Campaign (Aurum Press, 2011) including solutions to mysteries such as whose foot is on the iconic boot on spade Dig For Victory poster? Popularly it is said (for example in Jennifer Davies’ excellent Wartime Kitchen Garden (book of the 1990s BBC TV series) to be a Mr. W.H. McKie of Acton, London, but was it? Another mystery solved: which journalist turned informally dressed Labour Party leader  coined the phrase ‘Dig For Victory’? I was surprised.

As well as posters and radio allotments, newsreel films were well used to encourage reluctant diggers – you can see this in a  lovely short 6 minute Dig For Victory MOI film with Roy Hay the radio allotment gardener http://www.thebigworld.co.uk/howtodigforvictory.htm.

Other good newsreel clips include Radio gardener Mr Middleton chatting ‘Over the Garden Fence’ on this wartime gardening blog: http://wartimegardening.wordpress.com/2010/04/23/mr-middleton-talks-about-gardening/

My next talks are booked in November at  Twycross Zoo’s BIAZA Zoo conference  for the peer audience of Zoo  educators and marketing people . This is a good chance to get into the Bartlett Society (for zoo history research) library / archives held at this zoo. More research for our forthcoming book on wartime zoos and botanic gardens. I’m also talking at a Cornwall College Newquay seminar on the morning of November 30th to many of the FE and HE students at this conservation college next to the zoo.

 So that’s a few dozen people at a time. if you want to reach more, there’s always old (and new) media … the finest of which is wireless.

Radio (or Wireless) and music were important for morale and mood in wartime. The BBC continue this fantastic role today. One of the pick of this week’s listening for me was John Gray on  Radio 4’s Point of View (often a slot for David Attenborough’s Life Stories radio talks) about Winston Churchill becoming Prime Minister in 1940. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0150dsv#synopsis

If World War Zoo Gardens had a soundtrack? Its BBC Radio Devon”s every Sunday evening 8pm – 10 pm weekly Swingers&Singers programme (great title). It’s run by David Lowe (on Twitter he’s @ MrNostalja)  and  you can find live on the BBC online website and later on the repeats I-player site.  It’s great to know as I listen to this programme at home with my family that there are thousands of others of all ages tucked up listening to the same programme and its dedications all over the West Country, Britain and beyond. It’s like looking up at the moon and thinking it shines on so many others, the same moon in so many countries. I wonder how mnay people looked at the moon fearfully in wartime as a bombers’ moon. Swingers and Singers is a great source of evocative 1930s, 40s and 50s music. Enjoy!

Happy listening, happy gardening.

Find out more about us on the blog and the Newquay Zoo website. Mark

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