I recently settled down to watch Wartime Farm on television and also started reading Jambusters: the story of the Women’s Institute in the Second World War. In the recent past I’ve read The love charm of bombs about writers in wartime London. I also have a penchant for World War II noirish crime writers like Philip Kerr and Alan Furst. The Second World War definitely has a certain attraction, even glamour.
The Women’s Institute is best known these days through the movie Calendar Girls where a group of Yorkshire women produce a nude calendar to raise funds for cancer treatment. Every meeting begins with a rendition of Jerusalem – a rousing hymn not so well known these days. From Jambusters I learnt that 8,000 WI members gathered in London in 1939 for their annual conference which began with the singing of Jerusalem. It must have been quite a performance. I also learnt that by war’s end WIs throughout Britain had made 5,445,000 kilograms of jam and preserves.
But more than factoids I’m starting to learn about the women themselves. Many were in rural circumstances of hard work on farms with none of the modern conveniences we take for granted – electricity, indoor plumbing, appliances, motor vehicles and so on. The WI broke the isolation of many and empowered them with learning, leadership opportunities and by valuing the skills they took for granted – running a house and farm and feeding a family from produce they grew themselves. The WI even set up markets where members could sell their produce.
I think the jambusting spirit of WI resonates particularly in post quake Christchurch – groups like Gap Filler, CanCERN, Addington Action and Rekindle are definitely following in the footsteps of make do and mend in difficult circumstances.