“Careless Talk”: reading Britain’s Home Front fiction

Karen Schaller
School of Literature, Drama, and Creative Writing, University of East Anglia, Norwich, U.K.

Abstract

How can the Home Front archives help us to read World War II literature? This essay draws on newly digitised National Archive materials to explore how these materials might contribute to, or even challenge, how we read fiction from the period. Elizabeth Bowen’s war-time stories are some of the most important fictional writing about Britain during the Second World War. Yet students rarely study the period’s literature. This essay discusses an aspect of Bowen’s 1941 story "Careless Talk" that students often struggle to interpret – her representation of food – in light of public relations records from the Ministry of Food.  This allows us to see how food on the Home Front was a site of complex political and personal feeling, feeling that was, itself, being intensively scrutinised and administered by government. By showing how the archives can open up a seemingly trivial detail, the essay highlights the ways these materials can enhance students’ ability to both contextualise the period’s writing and to develop more insightful literary analysis. In this way the Home Front archives can offer a more complex sense of not only the period, but of the writers working in its historical moment, and of our own cultural memories around the Home Front.

Introduction

“I want these put somewhere for me till the end of lunch. Carefully,” she added. “They are three eggs.” In 1941 the writer Elizabeth Bowen published a short story about four friends meeting up for lunch at a restaurant in London. Joanna, who lives in the country after her London house was bombed, has brought a gift of eggs. 

Originally published as “Everything’s Frightfully Interesting” and later retitled “Careless Talk,” the story does not need its reference to the “Careless Talk Costs Lives” propaganda campaign of the period to signal its engagement with the lived reality of life on the Home Front. I teach Bowen’s story on my second-year undergraduate literature module “War Lives: Writing Britain in WWII,” and although students are often perplexed by how absent British fiction of the period has been from their literary educations, they are quick to pick up on the ways Bowen’s story reflects its moment.

 

Only four pages long, the narrative is saturated with the kinds of detail that characterized life on the Home Front. References to evacuees, foreign strangers, and bombed houses share the page with comments about cigarettes obtained on the black market (“I just got twenty out of my hairdresser,” says Mary Dash), butter rations such that a “shilling sized portion” is “spread tenderly,” and, of course, the value of three eggs brought from the country and left with the waiter for safekeeping. 

My students’ observations about these details often prompt the sharing of family stories, and a broader conversation about the cultural memories at work in our stories of and about the Home Front. What is fascinating about their accounts however is how the memories my students have inherited emphasize a spirit of collectivity, an atmosphere of togetherness and common purpose, a sense of unity and fidelity. 

Yet the Home Front archives tell a different story. 

I have been reading through two particular kinds of document in the newly digitized National Archives collection: the Food Control Committee records, and the Kitchen Front broadcasts. One of my interests as a literary scholar is food, and the kinds of feelings at work in literary representations of food. In Bowen’s story “Careless Talk,” I am intrigued by the role those three eggs play: why does the story open with three eggs? Why does it close with worry and speculation that they’ve gone missing? And how can the Home Front archives help us think about those eggs’ significance?

When I ask students what they make of the eggs they tend to read them as either a sign of Bowen’s realism (a testament to her story’s historical accuracy) or a symbol (the eggs are standing in for something else that the literary text can’t say – they are actually about death, or religion). These interpretations aren’t wrong, per se, but they do limit our sense of Bowen’s story and her use of representations of food to either simply a factual detail or a literary allegory. Neither version treats the eggs, themselves, as having something to say. And neither really helps us to think about how Bowen’s story was engaging with, rather than simply portraying, its historical moment. By getting students to explore archival material around food during the period, however, a different kind of understanding can emerge. A lot, I teach my students, can come from asking: what did eggs actually mean at the time? How were eggs part of the cultural imaginary? And what can the archives tell us about what was at stake in an egg?

The first thing we can learn from the Home Front archives is that “home” in this historical moment did not simply mean Britain, but the home itself: one of the key characteristics of the period and its effect on people’s lives is that the war was being fought in the intimate and domestic spaces of the everyday. This is one of the key distinctions of the time – the extent to which the most ordinary and everyday practices of British life (what people ate, how much, and crucially how they felt about it) were being actively shaped by the government in very specific ways. 

The Kitchen Front Broadcasts are particularly telling here: the war’s “front” is not a foreign territory, nor is it an imagined landmark. It is your – our – kitchens. This series of radio programs was produced by the Ministry of Food’s Public Relations branch. The scripts I’ve been looking at are all marked for a presenter named “Mrs Nelson” from East Anglia. These do many of the things we might expect from our cultural memory of the period and the ways it’s been represented in films and novels. Many of the broadcasts, marked “for Beginners only,” provide general cookery lessons for those who find themselves newly in the kitchen as people are mobilized and relocated for the war effort. These broadcasts have the “carry on” tone that our contemporary heritage industry has memorialized on mugs and tea towels. And the programs share the kinds of wartime recipes we associate with the period, such as variations on Orange Whip or Fruit Cream. Having access to the Ministry of Food’s recipe guidance offers my students an opportunity to experience at a sensorial level what life was like: they can, by accessing these recipes, begin to understand the Home Front as not simply a cultural narrative, or memory, but a lived experience. The particularity of the recipes and accounts of how the foods taste and work in cookery, and the opportunity to explore how it might have felt to be tuning in to these broadcasts, help my students to explore how history is embodied. 

But these documents do much more than offer us a taste of the period. These help us realize that eggs, and other foodstuffs, were not trivial matters, but actually a matter of serious government importance.

The sheer volume of material held in the Kitchen Front Broadcasts tells us that the government was dedicating considerable resource to the Public Relations work involved in ensuring that the daily frustrations of rationed goods didn’t fray morale beyond repair. Household (powdered) milk seems to be a particular culprit. In this extract from a November 1945 script Mrs. Nelson says:

In the southern part of the country, where I work, I find that a number of people who visit the Food Advice Centre do not use their allowance of Household milk. Sometimes they feel it is troublesome to mix, or they’ve found when heating that it’s apt to burn. I’d like to give you some hints which will help you to get over these difficulties. And at the end I’ll give you a rather special Christmas recipe for sweets, using Household milk and dates – now that dates are plentiful and cost only 4 points a lb. (MAF 102/7, p. 23)

A month later, just before Christmas Eve, Mrs. Nelson returns to the sensitive matter of milk: 

I hardly dare mentioned [sic] that word ‘MILK’ but as a milk pudding is one of the easiest dishes to make it's something all beginners should know how to do. And it’s not really as impossible at the moment as it sounds, because household milk makes an excellent pudding. (MAF 102/7, p. 11)

These extracts show us how the Kitchen Front Broadcasts aren’t just teaching their audience what, or how, to cook with rations, but how to feel about the impact rationing was having on daily life. 

Bowen’s “Careless Talk” doesn’t just open with eggs, but closes with speculations about their disappearance: “I tell you one thing that is worrying me: that waiter I gave Joanna’s lovely eggs to hasn’t been near this table again. Do you think I put temptation right in his way? … I don’t know how I’d feel if I lost three eggs.” Eggs here are as fraught as any of the moments in the story students more readily understand in terms of “careless talk.” But unless students are able to contextualize the story’s moment as one in which the government understood that food was, itself, the site of a great deal of public discontent, they are unlikely to register the tension – the seriousness, even if it is tongue in cheek – at work in the eggs that open and close “Careless Talk.” It’s only by understanding how intensively the government was administering food and feeling about food that the final line of the story takes on its resonance: “I don’t know how I’d feel if I lost three eggs.”

When my students read the story “Careless Talk,” they often see the discussion of food as a sort of deceptively innocuous backdrop for the more serious matters in the story – the suspicions that the enemy might be listening in for idle disclosures, or that even old friends might not be trusted. As historian Jo Fox has pointed out, the “careless talk” posters produced a tension between making the public feel they could trust that they were all in it together, yet also making people feel like no one could be trusted. In this way the posters were peculiarly at risk of undermining the very spirit of collectivity that propaganda campaigns were trying to foster. But managing “careless talk” was not just about enjoining the public in regulating gossip about secrets: it was also about tackling the harm of complaint and misinformation. 

The Kitchen Front Broadcasts were not simply instructing listeners about cookery, and how to work with rations. They are explicitly designed to provide the appearance of a direct line of information about rationing in order to quell the kinds of “careless talk” that might undermine the war from within – that on and from the kitchen front. Those recipes about household milk are a good example. They were accompanied by broadcasts, such as this one, from December 13, 1945, specifically designed to tackle the kinds of misinformation that might spill over into more powerful political discontents:

Good morning. I’ve had a lot of letters telling me what a hardship it is to have only two pints of milk a week, which is the allowance for ordinary consumers at the moment. Well believe me, I know from personal experience what it means, and I don’t like it any more than you do. This morning I’m going to answer some of your questions. (MAF 102/7, p. 9)

The broadcast goes on to explain why, despite the growth in milk production, rations still prioritize some consumers: women who have had, or are about to have, babies; children; and invalids. Public suspicions about the necessity for “priority consumers” are allayed by emphasizing that these policies are neither new, nor unexamined: 

…That has been the policy of the Government since 1940; and they have the experts behind them. Only a week or so ago the government asked the medical and scientific experts to look once again at the allowances we give to these priority consumers. And the experts, far from recommending any reduction, said that the allowances are as low as they can be. (MAF 102/7, p. 9)

Not only do these broadcasts allow us to track how rationing varied across different moments in the war, or different regions of the country, but they allow us to see how the government was tracking the public feelings that rationing affected – suspicion, hostility, doubt – and managing these with public education. 

The same broadcast about milk explains how production is affected by the “thin diet” of Britain’s cows, and how imports of tinned milk depend on the U.S.: “It’ll be easier if the loan from the United States is ratified: that is, always assuming that the United States have any to sell.” 

Public suspicion about abuses of the policy, meanwhile, are answered with a sense of scale, and reassurance: 

Well, some abuse is inevitable in a big scheme of this sort – that must be admitted – but the Ministry of Food doesn’t think there’s a great deal and certainly not sufficient to justify our altering the scheme… the selfish people who take a mean advantage of the system are not many in proportion. But these abuses do worry the Ministry and we’re always trying to make the scheme more watertight without penalising those who really deserve the extra. (MAF 102/7, p. 9)

That last line is worth noticing. It’s not simply a reassurance to stave off disaffection: it’s also reminding the public that abuses won’t go unnoticed. Yet it does so in a way that carefully manages the public spirit. The broadcast could have said that the government is watching out for abusers and will punish them. But it doesn’t. Instead the Ministry of Food is “worried” by abuse. This is a subtle but powerful way of reimagining a political and government body from the sort of impersonal institution that an individual might feel able to cheat and instead constructing them in the listeners’ imagination as a caring and protective body, one that is looking out for – rather than watching – the public. Given the fragility of trust and morale, it is a politic use of language.

As a literary scholar, this is what most excites me about the access provided by the digitization of these records. By encountering the Home Front archives as textual materials we get not just to see what these documents say, but also to examine how they say it. One of the questions I ask my students is about the relationship between the literary and historical materials from the period: if we are interested in how the Home Front was being “written,” are we simply talking about the novels and short stories? Or are we able to use our literary training to read the documentation and records as themselves kinds of writing? Because the Home Front archives enable us to look, up close, at the language used in these documents, we are able to explore the literary devices and rhetorical strategies these broadcasts deployed. This offers my students a much more complex and nuanced perspective on their family stories and our cultural memories. That “we” they so often take for granted can, instead, be seen as a carefully shaped perception that the government was working quite hard to produce. 

Perhaps one of the most notable techniques we can detect is how the address of these broadcasts shifts from the singular to the collective, the personal to the official, in order to acknowledge the feeling of shortage without endorsing it. In the December 1945 broadcast, the presenter says: “That brings us to the ordinary consumers, that is, you and me, with our miserable winter allowance of two pints a week, what’s the Ministry of Food doing about us?” (MAF 102/7, p. 9) Here the voice of the Kitchen Front Broadcast is aligned with the grumbling “ordinary consumer” who might feel overlooked by the policies of priority consumption. Calling the allowance “miserable” in an official broadcast provides an important validation of the effects of shortage and rationing. This speaker is an ally, someone to be trusted to pass on information in good faith, to good ends. This rhetorical strategy orients the reader to be receptive to the educational material. 

But the program finishes with an intriguing change in voice:

To sum up, there are two targets; the first, to get more tinned milk from abroad; and the second, to get enough liquid milk for us ordinary consumers to have two-and-a-half pints throughout next winter – but that’s not a promise because, after the Government and the farmers have done all they can, it still depends on the cow, and the cow is very sensitive to her food and to the weather. We can’t do anything about the weather but we shall do our best about the food. (MAF 102/7, p. 10)

Throughout the broadcast the speaker has been an “us” but here in the final line they become a “we.” Who is this “we”? Is it the voice of the Government “doing our best about the food,” or is it the “ordinary consumer” doing their part on the Kitchen Front? Given the feelings food mobilized, and the very real threats these posed to morale, it is a remarkable use of language. Because neither interpretation is certain, and both are possible, the phrasing allows the broadcast to end by actively joining these together, constructing a sense of collective spirit in which the relationship between Government and “ordinary consumer” is no longer “us” and “them” but “we.” It is a powerful example of how carefully the language of the Kitchen Front Broadcasts has been constructed to organize public feeling.

There is a risk in our contemporary imaginings of the Home Front that we attribute to the period a kind of unquavering feeling of collectivity and fidelity. That so much effort had to go into sustaining people’s spirits in very directed ways however tells us that public sentiment was much more fragile, more full of civil discontents, than our cultural memories often allow. By looking at the Home Front archives we can see that the morale and feeling we often remember the period by were actually being actively produced by these government strategies. We might, in light of the Home Front archives, see Bowen’s story “Careless Talk” as a comment on the work done by the government’s very careful talk. 

By accessing materials such as the Kitchen Front Broadcasts my students gain a much more nuanced and complex understanding of how to think about writing in and about the period. They can see that these educational programs were not simply informational, nor instructional: they were also story-making, a key mechanism by which the government was writing and circulating a very particular kind of public narrative about the British spirit, a story that would sustain itself, and its audience, to withstand what Bowen later described as the “excoriations” of the period.

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