Valley of Tears – More4

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  In 1991, when I was 16, I gave my economics A-level group a lecture on the Yom Kippur War.  The teacher had been droning on about patterns of inflation and GDP, and asked if anyone could explain the problems which arose in 1973.  Excellent, thought I.   An excuse to talk about interesting things like war and politics, instead of financial stuff!   Whilst the rest of the class looked blank, I started talking.  Belated apologies to Mrs Wallace for dragging her lesson off the point (although I did get to the oil crisis eventually.)  However, apparently, most people, not being strange teenage historians, don’t talk about this period in Middle Eastern history at all; and that’s something which this fascinating TV drama series aims to change.   And I also understand that a film on the subject is in the offing, with Helen Mirren playing Golda Meir.

As we saw with the Second World War, sometimes time has to pass before people feel able to talk  about their experiences of war, and the makers of the series have spoken about how some of the veterans whom they interviewed had buried their experiences for many years.  This is essentially a war drama, and the name comes from the Battle of the Valley of Tears, when a vastly outnumbered Israeli force successfully resisted a Syrian attack; but the focus is on the human stories of the individual characters.   It doesn’t make for comfortable watching, and it’s not supposed to.  We see young men, and some young women – gender issues are tackled, as we see female officers being ordered by their male counterparts to get out of the firing line, literally – , many of them doing their national service rather than being professional soldiers, suddenly being catapulted into the nightmare reality of war.  Whilst the viewer is clearly intended to, and will, feel deep sympathy and admiration for them, the programme has little of good to say for the politicians, shown as both taking their eye off the ball in terms of the risk of attack and failing to tackle some difficult social problems.

As we head into Remembrance weekend and remember those who gave their today for our tomorrow, let’s not forget that conflict continues in many places around the world.  Filming of this drama had to be halted at one point because of the risk of rockets fired in the Syrian civil war straying across the border, and the war in Yemen’s been going on even longer, to mention but two examples.

This is an excellent series about war and its effects on the combatants and on society in general, and thank you to More4 for enabling British viewers to see it.

I think that the view in the West at the time, especially bearing in mind the pattern of Cold War alliances, was dominated by a feeling that the Egyptian/Syrian-led coalition had pulled a very dirty trick by launching an unprovoked attack on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.  The view in Israel itself, which led to the fall of the government, was very strongly that the Israeli authorities should have been better prepared, and that’s very much what we see here.  It’s a common historical phenomenon that a country which has been successful in war becomes complacent and is then caught out – think of the Boer Wars, Vietnam, Napoleonic France’s invasion of Russia, the Russo-Japanese War or the 1683 Siege of Vienna.   The message here is that this is what happened in Israel after the Six Day War.  To be fair, that was partly because of the fear that the US would withdraw its support if Israel had launched a pre-emptive strike, but the soldiers didn’t know that.  We see the soldiers having no idea that forces were massing on the border, and a young intelligence worker who kept insisting that something was brewing being dismissed and even mocked.

We also get an interesting insight into the divisions within Israeli society at this time, with considerable resentment amongst the Sephardi/Mizrahi communities, who’d either moved to Israel from other parts of the Middle East or North Africa or whose families had lived there for generations, against the Ashkenazi Establishment.   Some of the characters belong to the “Black Panther” movement, obviously named after the one in America, calling for change to improve the lot of their often poverty-stricken communities.

The first time I came across this issue of historical social division in Israeli society, years ago, I found it quite hard to get my head round, because it’s always been the other way round in Manchester, and indeed in other parts of the UK – historically, it was the Sephardi communities who were well-to-do and in some cases reached prominent positions in society, and the Ashkenazi communities who struggled, although times have changed.  And the same’s true in the US.  So, again, this will challenge the perceptions of Western viewers.  Things have changed in Israel now, but it’s an interesting issue, and quite brave of an Israeli-made series to tackle it.

But, despite feeling that the politicians had let them down, and, in the case of some of the soldiers from Mizrahi backgrounds, feeling that they were treated badly by society in general, and despite having no warning that war was coming, the young soldiers did what they had to do – and, even by the end of the first episode, we’d seen one of the characters killed.   As I said, this doesn’t make for easy watching, but it’s worth the effort.

 

Living in the Shadow of World War II – More4

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Programmes about the history of food are always interesting, and the effect of food rationing during the Second World War is still with us. Apple crumble and carrot cake, anyone 🙂 ? My fridge is full of leftover bits and pieces, even fruit that’s starting to go off, because my grandparents’ generation trained my generation never to throw good food away. This programme managed to cover all sorts of things in under an hour – glorious terms such as “National Loaf” and the “Rural Pie Scheme”, some strange revelations about the testing carried out by nutritionists, the Dig For Victory scheme, mobile demonstration vans showing people how to make eggless cakes, issues with knicker elastic, how being Land Girls made life easier for lesbians, “Doctor Carrot” (with very odd-looking shoes) and, of course, queues. You’d think they’d have mentioned that Lord Woolton, the Minister for Food (and only a “lord” since 1939) grew up just round the corner from Old Trafford, though. I mean, I’d have said that in the first few minutes.  What came across really well was what a good job the authorities did of managing a difficult situation, and how they really tried to make it as fair as possible.

I’m not sure that I really needed to know that nutritionists were analysing what came out as well as what went in, but, OK, it made the point that there was serious scientific research going on into what people needed to eat in order to remain healthy. Whilst the Nazis allowed people not considered to be part of the master race only 450 calories a day, and the Soviets prioritised the transport of armaments even if it meant food supplies running short, the government here really did try to make sure that no-one went without – even though, by late 1942, pretty much all types of food other than vegetables were on ration, and it wasn’t always possible to get certain items even if you had the coupons for them.

All that queuing! And then trying to feed yourself and the rest of your household on whatever you’d managed to get. My grandmas and great-aunts used to keep ridiculous amounts of non-perishable foodstuffs in stock, because they never quite got past the psychological impact of coping with rationing. And it was a huge amount of work for shopkeepers. The programme talked about all the detailed record-keeping that had to be done, especially when people wanted to take only part of their weekly ration and come back for the rest another day, and people remembered little arguments over things like whether or not the weight of the paper that the food was wrapped in should be taken into account. And, OK, there was a fair bit of black market activity going on, despite the large fines and two year prison sentences that could be imposed for it, but people were generally very accepting of the situation. There were no food riots, even though everyone must have got thoroughly fed up (no pun intended) with it all.

So much thought and work went into it all. What a contrast to the times of food shortages in earlier periods of time, when the less well-off were just left to suffer. Famously, even the Royal Family were subject to rationing, and we heard Eleanor Roosevelt’s account of being served off gold and silver plates on a visit to Buckingham Palace, but only getting the same amount and type of food that was available to everyone else, including “National Loaf” bread – which must have been very good for you, because it contained extra calcium and vitamins, but which apparently looked and tasted bloody awful. Price caps were put on the amount that restaurants could charge for a meal, to ensure that it didn’t become a case of the rich eating out all the time whilst everyone else had to cope on rations, and subsidies were given to the least well-off.

It didn’t mention school dinners, which was a shame, but I suppose they couldn’t cover everything. We did hear about British Restaurants, though – and how they got their patriotic name because Churchill thought that terms like “community feeding centres” sounded too socialist! It wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring something like that back. And the wonderfully-named Rural Pie Scheme, providing pies for farm workers. A lot of voluntary work was involved. Then there were the “mobile demonstration vans”, doing their eggless cake demos! Austerity food like apple crumbles and carrot cakes are still very popular … although some of the other stuff mentioned, including horse meat and (immediately after the fall of Norway) whale meat, didn’t go down very well even at the time. It seems a bit unfair that game wasn’t rationed, seeing as people in inner city areas would have had far less access to it than those in rural areas, but I suppose there was no practical way of monitoring it.

The programme talked a lot about the campaigns to help people cope with rationing and promote healthy eating, as well. There seemed to be a lot of films, which presumably people only got to see if they went to the cinema, although wireless programmes were also mentioned. Doctor Carrot, with a top hat, glasses and some very odd-looking shoes, helping fighter pilots to see in the dark!  A lot of it sounds horrendously patronising now, especially as the voiceovers were always by men, at a time when nearly all the cooking would have been done by women, and always in those terribly posh accents that all BBC announcers used to speak in, but the authorities really were trying hard to make sure people could manage.

We also heard a bit about the Dig For Victory scheme, including film of Aintree racecourse, a golf club and parts of the royal estates being dug up. It was all so well-organised. I hate to sound like some old biddy going on about how everything was done better back in the day, but imagine if the people in charge of, say, rolling out Universal Credit had been in charge of distributing ration coupons or encouraging people to Dig For Victory. Domestic food production levels rocketed. Farm labourers’ wages went way up! People volunteered to help bring in the harvest. The Land Girls did incredibly important work – some of it, especially for those in the Timber Corps, extremely physically demanding.

The programme also touched on how the war was quite liberating for those women, with particular reference to lesbians, and also briefly mentioned clothes rationing – with specific reference to painting your legs to make it look as if you were wearing stockings, and the potential issues that a shortage of elastic could cause with underwear! – and petrol rationing, but it was mostly about food. It says a lot about how attitudes had changed. I’ve got the Napoleonic Wars on the brain at the moment, because of the Peterloo bicentennial, and there were terrible food shortages then, with people just left to cope as best they could, food riots breaking out, and then, after the wars, the Corn Laws making it all worse. During the Second World War (I do wish people would not talk about “World War II”, as if it were a film franchise), things really were pretty well-organised – and, as we’re always being told, the health of the working-classes actually improved.

I don’t know why this series was shoved in a graveyard slot, on More4 rather than on Channel 4 itself, because there’s usually a lot of interest in the Home Front during the Second World War. There are two more episodes, which I haven’t had chance to watch yet. I’m looking forward to them: this was great.