Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Ursula Buchan’s A Green and Pleasant Land

BuchanUrsula Buchan (yes, one of John Buchan’s grand-daughters), trained as a gardener after taking a degree in history, and was the Spectator’s gardening correspondent for twenty years. This is certainly not her first book, since she has an impressive list of gardening works to her name, but A Green and Pleasant Land is her first foray into social history. She says that writing this book – a history of English gardening during the Second World War – taught her how to organise a deeply-researched subject properly. It’s very well thought out, and a highly engaging read. Definitely one to give your gardening relatives for Christmas.

The subtitle is How England’s Gardeners fought the Second World War, and Digging for Victory is her theme. She restricts her story to only England, because the Irish, Welsh and Scottish experiences would require at least the same length of book all over again. The familiar story of how the population responded when war broke out is told through the history of how gardening and commercial horticulture changed dramatically – in many cases in days – to maintain the island’s food supply under siege and bombardment. It’s a dense read, partly because of the weight of numbers – pecks and rods and perches are quoted frequently – and partly because there is so much to know about. Each chapter shows a subtly different image of the England at war that we thought we knew.

Did you know that, before the war, barely 20% of the onions and carrots consumed in the UK were grown there? That explains the cultural myth of the Frenchmen in striped jerseys cycling around the English south coast selling onions from the strings around their bikes: I had not realised how recently onions became a domestic crop (my grandfathers grew their own). The government taught the nation how to grow vegetables through carefully written leaflets and pamphlets, and in many cases these were beautifully illustrated and designed as well: real works of graphic art. Did you know that Michael Foot (a prominent Labour Party politician and party leader from the 1970s) invented the phrase Dig for Victory? He was an Evening Standard journalist before the war, and wrote a couple of tremendously stirring articles urging the nation to get out to the allotments. Did you know that Ribena (British children’s favourite blackcurrant dilutable drink) was invented in the Long Ashton nurseries near Bristol, as a way to get Vitamin C from blackcurrants as a replacement for the now impossible oranges?

You can tell this book is written by a real gardener because she occasionally forgets to explain the specialist terms. I was very thankful for the eventual discussion of why Mrs Milburn’s potato clamp was sprouting, because I was stuck at the impossible image of a large carpenter’s vice holding potatoes in its maw. Double digging, on the other hand, is never explained, though it is mentioned frequently as something novice wartime gardeners were grateful to avoid. The more advanced ordeal of triple digging is obviously best left to professionals. There is a certain clumping together of sources: Buchan has made extremely good use of the archives of the Royal Horticultural Society, and has obviously read every issue from all six of the war years of the Gardeners’ Chronicle. A handful of wartime memoirs are quoted from again and again: Mrs Milburn of Coventry and Nella Last of Cumbria are the leading informants, with Margery Allingham in Tolleshunt D’arcy popping up occasionally (a memoir I’ve never been able to finish: I don’t know why because usually I’ll mop them up).

I could have wished for a bit of fiction in there as well, to show how the social history of the times was transmuted into the novels of Angela Thirkell, or some of the wartime diarists who have been reprinted so colourfully and opportunistically around the wartime anniversary commemorations over the past few years. While reading I kept thinking about how Thirkell wrote her wartime novels in the light of what Buchan tells us about working on allotments (Thirkell ignored them), WI jam-making (very little), foraging for acorns and other woodland crops (very little), and digging up public spaces and private estates for cultivation (again, very little), or Land Girls (only from a distance, in the stalwart form of the immortal Lucy Marling). It is astonishing how divorced Thirkell’s fantasy Barsetshire was from the reality of wartime horticultural activity, which tells us that she didn’t do much gardening herself, or that she wasn’t interested enough to observe what others were doing.

The really fascinating parts of A Green and Pleasant Land are those that told me things I had never thought much about before: of government-organised foraging for medicinal herbs and plants to replace previously imported medicines; how prisoners of war tackled gardening, since it was therapeutic for their morale as well as essential to supplement their diet. The scientific research into making properly effective compost for the first time was a great surprise to me, showing how amateur English gardening had been until this war, depending on the traditional and individual practices of estate gardeners and professional nurserymen: idiosyncratic and unrecorded. The nationwide uprooting of commercial flower and tree stocks to make land available for cabbages and sprouts was terribly sad, a secondary destruction of lifetimes of work and livelihoods, to keep Britain fed. After the war, the army of Land Girls was disbanded, and also ignored, receiving no pension whatsoever – unlike soldiers and all the other war services.

This is an excellent book, thoroughly recommended for serious gardeners and those who are passionate about Second World War social history.

About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher (in no particular order) in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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