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Skidmore's Island: A Ration All Explanation

"The nightly bombings were exciting and there was always the chance of another sighting of Olive Cobbold’s bosom. But not even that could distract me from my major strategy. I was determined not to be evacuated,'' writes Ian Skidmore, recalling the wartime years.

For the Allied Powers 1939-40 were the years of the Phoney War. I took a rather different view. For me it was a fight to the death. I wasn’t bothered that Our Side was being trounced all over Europe, that Dunkirk was a humiliation however much the Prime Spin Doctor Churchill was desperately trying to sell it as a victory. The nightly bombings were exciting and there was always the chance of another sighting of Olive Cobbold’s bosom. But not even that could distract me from my major strategy. I was determined not to be evacuated.

I had an early victory by faking spectacular ill health when, in 1939, all the city children in the kingdom were evacuated to the country, leaving only a hard core of refuseniks behind. What a blissful period that was. School hours were cut to an hour and a half a day and kindly teachers were brought out of retirement to cosset us. The streets seemed knee-deep in desirable shrapnel, even precious parts of downed Nazi bombers.

My parents were wondering which was doing the most damage, Hitler’s Luftwaffe or the mobile anti-aircraft guns which for reasons unclear went from street to street firing so noisily they broke every window in sight. My father said it was just like France in World War One when the Royal Artillery competed with the Germans to see who could kill the most Allied troops. It was decided it would be safer to send me to stay with Aunt Isobel in Blackpool. It only took me a week of tears and tantrums before Aunt Isobel decided if she could have the choice she would send me home and my mother could send her the anti-aircraft gun. What, she asked, is so bad about broken windows?

Somerford Hall was much harder to shed. Somerford Hall was a sort of public school for the working class. It had been a holiday camp before the war - which was the way my father sold it to me. I was a bit suspicious but the feeling was temporarily lulled when we ‘new boys’ gathered at the station and were handed plates of chocolate biscuits whilst the camera man from the Daily Herald took our photographs. I thought this was a good sign because chocolate biscuits were rationed. Alas, when the cameraman finished the teacher collected all the biscuits and put them back in the tin, and I began to plan The Great Escape.

Unfortunately it was hard to find anything to complain about. The Hall was set in the rolling Cheshire countryside by a river. The boys were housed in wooden chalet-like dormitories and the teachers seemed intent on teaching us as little as possible. I searched for several days before I found something to complain about.

The food won by a mile. Every morning after breakfast I put fried egg and baked beans in an envelope and sent them to my parents so they could see how little we were given to eat. I believe it was the postman who was instrumental in getting me home. If memory serves, he offered to collect me in his van. He said that people were complaining because bits of egg were seeping out of my envelope and coating his letters with albumen.

It was good to be home and, since by this time the other stay at home kids had been farmed out, I had all the shrapnel to myself.

Food was severely rationed. Each person got a weekly ration. 4 ounces of bacon, 4 ounces of sugar, 2 ounces of tea, a shilling’s worth of meat, 2 ounces of butter, one egg, 3 pints of milk.

Every eight weeks we were allowed a tin of milk powder; every month, eight ounces of jam. Fortunately my policeman father, who was a “speed cop”, was given the job of driving the three-man team of detectives set up to control the Black Market under an Inspector Stainton who had a different interpretation of controlling. To him it meant running it.

Within a very short time our house was stocked with sides of bacon, bolts of cloth, cartons of eggs and huge tins of jam which he shared at very reasonable rates with selected neighbours. Much of the whisky he kept for himself. I developed quite a taste for it and since he marked the level in the bottle I would take my share and then fill it up to the mark with water. To the day of his death he swore the distillers were watering their whisky. The older I got the paler the whisky became.

On the food front the only competition he had was a battalion of American infantry, posted in the village in the run up to D-Day. To my father’s chagrin, they gave away food, cigarettes, chocolates, even bottles of whisky to the families on whom they were billeted. The wives and daughters in the billets suddenly blossomed with silk stockings, and chain smoked. My mother hinted darkly - and perhaps a little enviously - what they were offering in return. It was a toss up whether it was General Eisenhower or my father who waited more anxiously for June 6th.


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