Today started with a pleasant breakfast at Caffe Russell … a short stroll from the hotel through Russell Square. There’s a pretty fountain, and lots of dogs rampaging around in a well-behaved British kind of way, and people sit outside in the sunshine with their briefcases and read the paper. Breakfast is unexceptional but the coffee is good and the wait staff are very friendly and nice. (Yes, you read that right, the coffee is good. It’s like Melbourne coffee).
We took the tube to Lambeth North via Piccadilly Circus, making the acquaintance of friendly Poms who’d been to Australia en route. We started chatting with the first one when he made a joke about making squeezing onto the train an Olympic sport and I said that the Poms would win that event for sure – and it turned out he’d been to Perth though not to Melbourne. Conversation started with the second one when he noticed the Tassie Wooden Boat Centre logo on Tim’s windcheater, and it turned out that he’d worked in Tassie for a year or so, and had spend a little time in Melbourne too. It’s friendly encounters like these that make me work harder at learning foreign languages, because I want to have similar experiences in other countries too, if I can.
The entrance to the Imperial War Museum is dominated by these massive naval guns from WW1 battleships. They can fire 15″ shells for 29km, and those yellow things in the picture are the shells. It’s quite horrible to think of these things raining death and destruction at sea. But there were more than a few sobering artefacts in the museum, as you’d expect…
The purpose of our visit, however, was to see the Fashion on the Ration exhibition. (Sorry, no photos allowed). I was interested in this because my mother was a young woman during the war, and so her young womanhood was spent mostly in uniform. She was in the ATS, driving POWs up to Leith Fort in Scotland, and ferrying supplies across the channel and salvaging spare parts from wrecked vehicles from near the front. According to the signage, the ATS uniform was thought to be the most drab, and the lisle stockings a lot less desirable than the smart navy ones worn by women in the other services.
It was fascinating to see how women managed to make the most of the ration and still look quite smart. There was a lot of mend-and-make-do, and they made sure to wear aprons and wrappers to protect their clothes when they were doing housework, but there were Vogue patterns for some stylish frocks and some amazing accessories made from plastic salvaged from the factories. There were sobering vignettes about the dangers of factory work: some women did not like to have their hair tied back in those drab nets, but suffered terrible injuries when their hair was caught in the machinery.
When I saw a lifesize image of Dior’s New Look which so captivated my mother after the war, I mentioned it to Tim – and was immediately asked about it by some schoolgirls who were there visiting the exhibition. The signage was really well done, I thought, but perhaps it had more impact to hear about these things from a real person? The girls gathered around me and asked about this and that, and so I told them how when my mother was their age that she would have had very few clothes compared to them, and that she was thrilled by the new designs that used so much more material when the restrictions were lifted some years after the war. We talked about how boys like her brother (my Uncle Pat) were only allowed to have shorts until they were 13, and men couldn’t have turn-ups on their trousers. And I showed the girls how they wouldn’t have been allowed to have so many pleats on ther uniforms that they were wearing either. They were just at the age when clothes really start to matter, so they were really interested…
They didn’t know anything about food rationing so I told them about how it was still in force when my older sister was a baby so that there was just one egg for the family for the week, and how it was a disaster when as a baby she threw a shoe out of her pram unobserved and my father tramped the streets afterwards looking for it, but never found it. I suppose all this is so long ago for school kids now, that it’s ancient history!
From there we went upstairs to the Heroes exhibition, which profiled the numerous VCs from Britain’s wars, and then we went to the Holocaust Exhibition. It was very sobering, especially seeing the scale model of Auschwitz which showed the dreadful process in a ghastly white snowy landscape. On the lower floors there was an exhibit about Britain’s secret operations, from the Enigma codebreaker to MI5 and MI6, and there was also a vivid exhibition about one family’s experience of WW2.
All in all, it was much better than I had expected: I thought there would be more about weapons and equipment, but it mainly focussed on people and the impact of war. I probably would never have gone to this museum if not for the Fashion on the Ration exhibition, but I’m really glad we went.
We had an indifferent lunch at a nearby pub called The Three Stags – which had the most interesting wallpaper I’ve ever seen! Until I looked properly I thought it was just another set of nostalgic images that you see everywhere, showcasing British country life. But no. On closer inspection, the images turned out to be social commentary. On the top RHS you may be able to see the man in a suit striding past with his mobile phone – oblivious to the homeless person sitting on the park bench. And below that on the LHS, you can see a man being held up by a robber.
Tomorrow we’ve off to Amsterdam, so we bid farewell to the lovely people at the Montague who have looked after us so well. It will be our first trip to the Netherlands so we are really looking forward to it:)