108. Dining Out

By Peter Fraenkel

In Britain, rationing was still strict when I arrived on a Union Castle Line boat in December 1949. We were some 60 South African students on that boat – children of wealthy parents who could afford to pay for the voyage. Mine couldn’t. I had my fares paid by NUSAS, the National Union of South African Students. I had won a debating context, and was sent to debate at British universities. A bus, laid on by the British students union, took us from Southampton to London… us and an escort of three Brit students sent to act as our guides for our first few days.

They brought us copies of that day’s British dailies. The only British papers I had come across, back in Africa, had been “The Times” and the “Illustrated London News”. The ‘popular’ papers they now distributed were a revelation to me:  There were pages of celebrity gossip, some scandals, lots of sport but little of what I considered news. Certainly no international news. I had ambitions to become a journalist. But no, not a journalist like these!

The ‘yellow press’ – as we who didn’t like it called it – was then in the throes of great agitation: Hadn’t we Brits won the war? We had licked the Huns, hadn’t we? But these Huns were abolishing wartime rationing! How could they do that?  Because our leaders, who called themselves British, were sending the Germans our agricultural produce – food that our own people needed.

There was a lot of lies in the British press but this was not entirely invented. The Attlee government had understood that a hungry enemy (or ex-enemy) was more dangerous than a fed one. Had it not been the hunger of the great inflation which had prepared the way for Hitler?

Someone had learnt from history. A rare event!

I, coming from Africa, had no ration book but I could eat in restaurants where diners did not have to produce ration books. However, what they could eat was limited. No restaurant was allowed to charge more than 5 shillings per meal.  I remember standing outside a Soho restaurant with several other students who had come on the same boat.

One of us said aloud “Bet they’ll find ways of charging us double.” A doorkeeper stood outside the restaurant. Better restaurants always had one in those days. The doorkeeper addressed us.

No, gentlemen! The only way you could be charged more than five bob would be if you ordered coffee after the meal. Sixpence extra, maximum.  Mind you, I hear at the Savoy they are charging nine pence.”

And it was true.

We asked one of the guides provided by the National Union of Students whether he could recommend some restaurants. No, he replied, he could not.  He had never eaten in a restaurant. He couldn’t afford it.  He brought sandwiches from home.

The second guide chipped in: “If you can’t afford five bob for a 3-course meal – and who can? –  go to a “British Restaurant”. This was a chain set up during the war. Every town had one. London had several.  There we could get a meal for one shilling. In those early weeks I sometimes frequented these restaurants: not a good meal but a filling one.

When I felt flush – when the allowance from my parents in Northern Rhodesia had just arrived – it was wiser to splurge two shillings and sixpence at a Lyons Corner House. There were several in London. You could fill your plate from a great variety of dishes – and come back for a refill, even more than once. There was, however, no meat on offer. There was a sort of fish paste you could smear in your bread.

We never went hungry.  But I was, in those days, a sweets addict. Sugar was in short supply and I suffered. Eventually I discovered a pretend-chocolate pudding, saccharine-infused – a poor substitute.

In those days, in London, “rough sleepers” were many.  Far more than now. Some sheltered in the cellars of bombed-out buildings. They were often referred to as ‘shell shocked’. Some had limbs missing. Many seemed permanently inebriated. There were said to be army deserters among them. I don’t recall them ever begging for food. They asked frankly for a few pence “for a pint”.

Merran, who later became my wife, worked as a ‘supply teacher’ at a city school at that time. She recalled seeing barefooted little girls, scantily clad, emerging from such ruins to walk to school – not, she suspected, because they valued the education but because the school also supplied a meal.

The ‘Sally Army’ fed the rough sleepers. At many a London street corner stood the Salvation Army’s mobile kitchens – barrels on wheels with a firebox below. I don’t remember what these are called in English but curiously I recall that in German they were known as Gulaschkanonen – goulash cannons.

            In London bomb damage usually meant a gap of one or two houses in a street missing — extracted, like a tooth – but leaving the rest standing. One town in England was hit far worse: Coventry. So were harbour town like Liverpool. There entire streets had been flattened.

The Nazis’ chief propagandist, Goebbels, created a new term for the Luftwaffe’s levelling of British cities. “Wir werden ihre Staedte coventrieren”, he yelled. …We will ‘coventrate’ their cities …a word play, I guess, on ‘kastrieren’ i.e. ‘castrate’.

But in the later stages of that war German cities were subjected to far more massive aerial bombardments by Thousand Bomber Raids – Anglo-American.

Even that war came to an end, eventually. A brave new world was promised. We’d all meet again … some sunny day … provided, of course, that the sun could disperse those ‘peasoupers’.

‘Peasoup’ may have sounded nourishing, but it wasn’t.The peasouper was a killer. It choked the old and frail.  It was the name they gave to that dark yellow fog that hung over England’s cities – a fog engendered by the open coal fires burning in the grates of most living rooms.

But then, the government brought in the first of the Clean Air Acts.

A footnote:

In 1958 the Belgians had launched a world exhibition with loud fanfares: It was called Atomium and its symbol was a huge metal sculpture of an atom.  Visitors could climb into a restaurant housed in one of these ‘atoms’. I believe it is still standing at Brussels. Most countries had a pavilion and each pavilion had one or more restaurants which served their national cuisine. Among dishes offered in the British pavilion was “bangers and mash” – mashed potato with sausages popular among the British. Alas, British bangers did not come up to Belgian food standards. A small percentage of pork was augmented by lots of minced bread. The Belgian inspectors banned bangers. The popular British press was apoplectic with outrage but Atomium proceeded banger-less!