As I survey the Home Front during these midsummer weeks of 1942 I see a Britain that is braced for action. There have been times when the nation's muscles have relaxed for a space; it was as if the tension had been too high, the too hot to maintain. A graph of this mental and muscular tension would be informative. It touched a high spot in the days of Dunkirk. Fluctuating for a time, it seemed to have moved downward at the end of last year. Recent events have called forth a new spate of national energy. I see a Britain that has transformed itself not only into a fortress, but into a vast arsenal that resounds with the clamour of productive machinery. War material rolls from our factories like a dark tidal-wave. On the Home Front, too, the pruning-hook is busy: everything in our daily lives that fails to help in the war effort is being cut away. A pruning-hook is a handy implement; but a sharp axe cuts deeper. There are those that cry for the axe.
The problem of coal has been agitating the minds of many. Both the Lords and the Commons have had their say; the big tub has been thumped in some sections of the Press. The tussle about the Beveridge rationing scheme for fuel went on for weeks. The problem of the mines and the miners is like a running sore. Many people want immediate out-and-out nationalization, and the man-power question in the mines is critical. Part of the labour at the coal-pits is unskilled; the miners' leaders declare that the wages paid for such work are far below the average the men could get in other industries. Faced with a demand for a minimum wage of £4 5s. for the hewer at the coal face, the coal owners have retorted that the hewer has been earning more than figure in the better pits, in some cases reaching £6 per week, and even in the poorer coal fields averaging £4. A few weeks ago it was stated that 80,000 tons had been lost by recent strikes in the north of England, the chief cause being the resentment of the lower-scale miners at the fat pay envelopes of their own wives and sisters in other industries. If the whole problem is not settled with goodwill on both sides, the outlook may be grim before we get through next winter. We cannot afford to let one single machine producing war material stand idle for one hour through lack of fuel.
The Minister of Agriculture has made a new call on farmers. More land must be ploughed up, since with a battle-line that girdles the globe, with munitions pouring out from our seaports and raw materials flooding in, it is inevitable that cargo space for food must shrink as the months go by. The old cry of "Speed the Plough" has a new potency at this stage of the war. The Wiltshire agricultural committees have declared their ability to plow up another 20,000 acres. "Good," replied Mr. Hudson, the Minister of Agriculture; "I expect you to do another 30,000." The farmers will respond, we may be sure, in an eager fighting spirit.
Some heartening details have been released by the Ministry of Home Security about the raids on certain of our towns. After the dire experiences in the early part of last year, when some of the Civil Defence Services were stretched to the uttermost in repeated blitzes, a lot of re-organization has been carried out. The National Fire Service has been welded into a great unit that is now fighting fit; and the "good neighbour" policy among towns has been working on full throttle in what the Press called the Baedeker raids. Mutual aid has, in fact, been organizes all over the country; and we have examples in the prompt help Bristol gave to Bath and Plymouth to Exeter in the brutal Hitlerian orgy of destruction when historic buildings were ground into dust.
The Civil Defence authorities have been releasing tear gas on the public at unexpected times and places. These tests cause inconvenience, but surely only a fool would grumble. Not so long ago the Prime Minister made a solemn announcement that if Germany used poison gas against any of the Allies, Britain would at once reply with poison gas. This threat was not made without grave thought. With a people as well protected as we are in Britain, gas is a weapon that can succeed only if we are taken by surprise. In Bristol last month, hundreds of aircraft workers were caught in an invasion exercise and blinded with tear gas: they had "forgotten" their gas-masks.
In a few days' time the number of private motor-cars on British roads will be still further reduced. Gone is the basic petrol ration, by which a motorist of the good old days of a year ago could travel his forty or fifty miles per week. If he wished, he could go to dog-races, to the cinema, or for a sniff of country air. Austerity has clamped down on this with a sharp metallic click: from July 1 onward pleasure motoring is dead. The insurance companies have agreed to a considerable discount in premiums, in some cases about 20 per cent, because presumably there will be fewer accidents. Yet the prices of secondhand cars show a firm market.
Clothing control, extended this month, has Austerity as its keynote. After consulting with the Board of Trade, the publishers of Paper Patterns have been carrying out experiments that will interest every woman. Styles are to be restricted, but the publishers are eager to include pleats, frills and other trimmings in their patterns. There is a reason for this. Home-made frocks do not come under the Government ban: they may be as frilly as the heart desires. Officials of the Board of Trade were staggered when certain statistics were put before them; no less than one fifth of women and children's clothes in this country are made at home. With no Austerity curb on home-made frocks, the number is likely to increase.
Meantime, the weather has helped housewives. Green vegetables, an essential part of diet, have been fetching astronomical prices. Drought caused a green vegetable scarcity, but rain came in the second week of May. A cabbage of average size had been costing eighteen pence; a few drenches brought them down to fourpence - the prewar figure, which I put on record with satisfaction, at a time when "the war" is too often used as an excuse for petty profiteering of the most flagrant kind.
Towards the end of this month housewives have been hoping to purchase the dried eggs sent across in a huge consignment of 144 million from the United States. A new process has made it possible for eggs to be sent in this dried form, a 5 oz. tin equalling twelve eggs, thus saving cargo space. Since the manufacturing capacity for milk products had reached its maximum in the middle of May, milk had been taken off the rationing scheme; and there was heated controversy in certain newspapers about the Food Ministry's action in their slow-down in the canning of fruit and vegetables. To those with a sweet tooth and the means to pander to it, the rationing of sweets will sound the knell to one form of indulgence. No doubt the Black Racketeers will ply their shifty trade, and most people would like to see penalties increased, even to the inclusion of flogging; for Black Market operations in Germany the penalty is death. To strike a more genial note, soft drinks are to be controlled. The universal scowl on the faces of schoolboys changed to a smile when it was learned that control would not mean restriction in quantity; for the Government is merely anxious to "pool" the production of mineral waters and fix prices, the result being considerable factory space available for the storage of other goods.
Even banking facilities are to be pooled. Plans are afoot to release for the Services many young men and women in the Big Five and other banks. Not that the bankers have been reluctant to get into uniform; of the 60,000 employed before the war more than half are now in the forces, and over one-tenth of the 9,000 branches in this country have already been closed. But still greater concentration is being demanded, and Sir Kingsley Wood has set up a committee that will consider the release for other duties of those who work behind the familiar but formidable brass rails. Both the Stock Exchange and Lloyds have also contributed a notable portion of their personnel. For the first time in history there was talk the other day of women working "on the floor" of the Stock Exchange. However deep the horror of some old members at this innovation, it is only another example of the passing of the old ways. A new order -very different from Hitler's- is being born before our eyes.