Monday musings on Australian literature: Grateful Brits send books to Aussies

As I was searching Trove for another topic, I came across some articles that I just had to share, particularly given my recent posts on bookswapping and bookselling for charity.

These articles date from post-World War 2 when Britain was living under strict rationing, which continued for a long time – until 1954, in fact. To help the struggling Brits out, Australians – often through CWA (Country Women’s Association) groups – sent food parcels. The British people were very grateful, as an article from the Molong Express and Western District Advertiser (Wednesday 14 January 1948) conveys. Molong, a small town in central New South Wales, was one of the many towns to send food across the waves, and in this article, the editor writes that “almost daily, the Town Clerk (Mr. E. H. Scott) receives letters of appreciation from British people for gifts of food from the Molong municipality. The writers range from all walks of life — from hospital matrons to mayors and old age pensioners.”

Mr Scott, he continues, provided some of these letters for the paper to publish. Here’s a selection:

I wish to thank you and the residents of Molong for the generous gifts of food to our people. I wish you could have seen the gratitude of the old people  … Some of them could not express their thanks for tears, but so many said “Thank the dear people of Australia for me.” …  Mayor of Blackburn

AND

We thought it was really very kind of you to send us such wonderful food parcels, and, although we know that you have been thanked by the authorities here in England, we felt obliged to send you a personal letter of thanks. To people like us who have only one ration book, it is a little difficult at times, although, of course, we are not grumbling. We thank you very much for your kindness …

AND

We have today received at the hospital … a gift of tinned jams, marmalade and tinned rabbit from Australia … I felt that I must write, and tell you just what that thought means, for us. Not only are we extremely grateful for your kindness, but the thought and spirit behind the gift means perhaps more to us when we think that you, so many miles away, have spared such a lot of time and have given, so much that we may share the good things of your country. I am afraid it is beyond my powers of expression to make you realise exactly what we feel, but I do want you all to accept our most sincere and grateful thanks. With all good wishes and much happiness to you all, I remain, yours sincerely  … Matron, Liverpool.

AND

I have just been presented with two tins of jam, one tin of powdered soup, one tin of casserole rabbit and 2 lb. of dried pears, being a present from you … there is no name on the tins to go by, only “From the residents of Molong, N.S.W.” I address this letter to thank you very much … Hardly a week passes without a cut in our food ration, and a little extra food is very welcome. The extra food is for my wife and myself — both old age pensioners … may God bless you …

I guess it’s only right that we sent back to England some of those pesky rabbits! Seriously though, what wonderful letters. They would surely have encouraged continued kindness from the citizens of Molong. (And doesn’t your heart go to Eva Wood who says, “Of course, we are not grumbling”?)

That’s the background to this post!

“Book parcels for food”

Early on in this process of Australians sending food to Britain, the British wanted to reciprocate in some way. As London-based R. G. Lloyd Thomas wrote in The West Australian (7 September 1946):

For long the people of Britain have been rather worried by the one-sided traffic in gifts from Australia. They have received very gratefully enormous quantities of food parcels and found no tangible method of appreciation which would satisfy their independent spirit.

Book Stack

(Courtesy: OCAL, from clker.com)

But then, the “Women’s Institute, the equivalent in this country of the C.W.A.” lit upon an idea, that of reciprocating with parcels of books for distribution “to the people of the outback and the nearer but still amenity-remote areas which lack public libraries, and find it difficult to obtain an adequate supply of books”. What a wonderful idea, eh?

Not all the books would be new, Thomas writes:

Collections are being made of books regarded as suitable, some new, some from the bookshelves of the donors, and others purchased secondhand. They are being cleaned and repaired when necessary and made up into parcels which will be sent to the people and organisations who have been sending gift food parcels to Britain. The first consignment of books to Western Australia will be sent from Lancashire and Yorkshire Women’s Institutes.

An article in The Sydney Morning Herald (27 July 1946), describes the geographical arrangements a little more: “the Yorkshire and Lancashire institutes will send books to Western Australia, South Wales to New South Wales. Cheshire and Staffordshire to South Australia, Cambridgeshire and adjoining counties to Tasmania, Surrey and Middlesex to Queensland, and Essex and Bucks to Victoria”.

Lloyd Thomas, noting that “one of the few things here off the ration is books”, says that the women hope to reach every person and organisation responsible for sending food parcels. He comments on “the joy and humiliation these food parcels have brought to the women of England”, and that

the naturally proud independence of the people has been disturbed by the one-sidedness of the gesture. The majority could and would willingly pay for the parcels – but to do so would destroy the fundamental requirement of admission of these parcels, that they are unsolicited gifts.

These books, he says, will have special bookplates which will identify the donor and recipient, and it is hoped that the books will “form a valuable link of friendship between Britain, the Dominions and the Colonies who have shown such a spontaneous and generous attitude.”

Interestingly, Lloyd Thomas concludes by noting that while the food recipients are too grateful to offer suggestions, certain items are particularly appreciated:

Rich fruit cakes travel well in tins and provide an exceptional luxury these days. Tinned meats and milk are always welcome and (provided it is packed only with tinned food) soap of any sort. Jam (with special emphasis on marmalade) is a much-appreciated supplement, and, if Australians themselves can obtain any, tinned fruit. Dried fruits, sweets and nuts are welcome rarities. In fact, outside coffee (plentiful and unrationed) tinned soups and meat extracts, any foodstuff is welcome. Honey and dripping, provided they are melted into tins to ensure transport through the tropics, are other precious commodities for the English housewife.

Such a lovely insight not only into rationing, but also the food and cooking culture of the time. I mean, dripping! (But this just shows my fortunate life, doesn’t it?)

I apologise for the heavy use of quotations in this post, but in stories like this, there’s nothing like the expression of the times. Anyhow, I’d love to know how successful this reciprocal program was …

All that holding, lifting and turning … the future of the book

Sense and sensibility book covers

Printed and e-Books for Jane Austen's Sense and sensibility

Back in May while I was travelling in Japan, Jennifer Byrne (host of The First Tuesday Bookclub) convened one of her special Jennifer Byrne Presents panel discussions, this one on “The future of the book”. I finally got around to watching it this week. Her panelists were Richard Watson (writer and strategist on the future!), Kate Eltham (writer and Executive Officer of the Queensland Writers Centre) and Richard Flanagan (award-winning novelist). You can read the transcript or watch the show on the ABC website.

I’m not going to analyse it in-depth, but Byrne kicked off the discussion by asking the panel for their response to “the theory that our connectedness with the net is actually impacting on our capacity to read and think deeply”. In exploring this and related questions, the panel talked about:

  • the pros and cons of distractions: do they, for example, encourage creativity or destroy our ability to concentrate?
  • the nature of writing and book production: will the novel (as we now know it!) survive in the new digital, web-based, more interactive environment?
  • the nature of reading: is it a social activity or a private act?
  • writing: will the (apparent) democratisation of writing and publishing make it impossible for writers to make a living out of writing – and if that happens what will happen to the novel (literature)?

But, the most entertaining point came late in the program from Jennifer Byrne:

I’d like to read from the Institute for the Future Of The Book. This is someone who wrote in last month and I think gives us an idea of the problem that does face print ahead. ‘Cause this is a guy… He says he reads almost exclusively on screen, he’s got a kindle, an iPad, an iPhone, a Blackberry, a laptop… ‘But this weekend I did something radical and old-school. I checked a big, thick book out of the library.’ This is the bit I love. ‘The physicality of the book, having to hold it open then lift and turn each page…’ (Laughs) ‘..was a lot more exhausting than I remembered.’ ‘That holding, lifting and turning distracted me from the book.’ What’s happening to modern people?

I’m not sure that we can generalise from this comment to “modern people” but this did make me laugh. And then I thought, hmmm, I do like to read on my Kindle. It is easy to hold (very much like a book), but it is the same (light) weight whether I am reading Ford Madox Ford‘s novella The good soldier or Leo Tolstoy‘s War and peace. I no longer need to have multiple books on the go: the one to read at home because it’s too heavy to lug around, and the smaller, lighter one that I can carry in my bag. Perhaps the comment is not quite as silly as it first sounds?

The program provides no answers. How could it?  And some of the opinions presented are, really, just that, opinions, based more on personal preferences and anecdote than research. But for those of us interested in the future of the book – of the novel, of the experience of reading – it’s yet another interesting discussion to ruminate on.