I was in Amiens recently. Just a few days before the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day.
I thought I knew a fair bit about war time life – I had been brought up by a succession of single women who had made sure I knew why they were able to turn two turnips and a potato into a reasonably nutritious meal, and who treated every unpleasant task as a challenge to rise to rather than an unfair imposition that required extensive counselling and support by ‘experts’. They had instilled in me a mind set that would always look for ways to achieve something out of nothing, rather than search for excuses as to why it couldn’t be done. I admired them, did my paltry best to emulate them.
It would be fair to say that I considered men as ‘beasts of burden’; fit for heavy lifting, fighting – if they must; but ultimately an addition to any household that represented an additional figure to be cared for, fed, the tin bath to be filled for, more washing, more food to be searched out. Not a particularly positive view, I will grant you. The world of the 1960s was full of such women. Miss ‘This’ and Miss ‘That’ – getting on with their lives. Strong, confident, women.
I saw a new side to these women in Amiens. I had never heard of the forced repatriations after WW2; of how thousands of women and children trudged hundreds, nay thousands, of miles through devastated European countryside, searching food where they could, walking in the half light through forests where the fruit of the trees would reveal themselves to be the bloated, hanging bodies of alleged collaborators as old scores were settled in the aftermath of war. Where a lone woman had as much to fear from coming across a band of adrenaline-fuelled armed ‘victors’ as they did the ‘nowt-to-lose and dejected’ fleeing vanquished.
Many died on the journey; many were raped. They returned to give birth in desperate circumstances in the ruins of the cities they had returned to. They found food to feed their infants; they kept them safe if not strong. ‘Faminism’ rather than ‘Feminisim’. They made homes for themselves – and they became the grand-mothers of the present generation of Thoroughly Modern Millie’s.
The Miss ‘This’ and the Miss ‘That’ who featured in my life hadn’t known that exceptional hardship as experienced by many women on the continent – but they had suffered. Rationing was still a feature of life until I was old enough to remember the excitement of being given my first banana. Double digging the veg garden and turning the compost heap was considered a normal way for a nine year old girl to spend her Saturday – not trailing round Top Shop and topping up her mobile phone.
An Eeh, ‘cardboard box – you were lucky’ whine? Not at all, merely the background to how we viewed ‘Feminism’ when it appeared in the late 60s. Feminists, to us, were women in Boiler suits, with crew cut hair, and over large backsides; for some reason they preferred to wear the incredibly heavy ‘Doc Marten’ boots on their feet. We were a tad mystified – we couldn’t quite figure out why they were so keen to join that forlorn band of wimps known as ‘men’ – creatures that had to be cared for in addition to the children. The only men I knew had missing arms or legs, or something called ‘shell shock’ and spent their days fishing, or wandering the canal paths muttering to themselves – and we were instructed to give them a ‘wide berth’ – unless sent to lead them home to be fed yet again.
Coming back to England after seven years, I have been brought face to face with the fruits of 50 years of Feminism; empowering women. I have commented before, after my infrequent trips to Britain, of the sheer shock of seeing the size of the British race. Men waddle from side to side with huge pot bellies – but so do the women. You probably don’t notice it, seeing this transformation every day.
I went to a supermarket; ye Gods – they don’t even walk the aisles! I was being mown down by motorised trollies – fastened to the front of mobility scooters with fat bloated slugs cascading over the sides of the padded seats. I may have seen one such scooter in France in 7 years – but this was a solid wall of them.
The supermarket itself, a branch of Sainsbury’s, was different too. I did find fresh vegetables eventually, having walked past 20 yards or so of peeled, chopped, vacuum packed carrots and potatoes, all ‘ready to cook’ – and that was having ignored the ‘pre-cooked’ ‘ready to re-heat’ variety, and the ‘ready mashed potato’ – even ‘Smash’ is too much effort for these ladies it seems.
Snippets of conversation assailed my ears – I can’t help but listen to them; after years of struggling to translate every tenth word of the sottovoce French lilt, I am understandably fascinated by being able to earwig every sentence. By the tenth snippet of conversation, somewhere around the tinned custard – yeah, tinned custard, not even custard powder in tins; what do they do with eggs these days? – I realised that every snatch of conversation I had stored away followed a theme. They ranged from ‘not my fault izzit’? to an (at least ten times Tourette-ishly repetitive) ‘s’not right izzit’, via a lone ‘me social worker’. All delivered at an ear piercing blast with a liberal smattering of lip quivering ‘fffffffs’. Apparently I should have gone to Lidl’s…
After acquiring the ingredients for a sausage casserole (we only have a slow cook-pot by way of a kitchen at the moment) I went in search of a launderette. Mr G has been pulling down ceilings, apparently in the same set of clothes, for three weeks now, and we have no hot water yet – and it took me three approaches to find someone who spoke English to direct me; mind you, they were all normal sized people, I find the bloated motorised slugs a bit scary.
The launderette was an eye opener too. ‘No drugs or alcohol to be consumed on the premises’. Blimey! Still searching for the instructions on how to use the machines, I peered bleary eyed at the next notice. ‘Do not leave your washing unattended – Thieves around’ and another one for the obligatory ‘Rape Counselling Service’ – both provided by the local ‘Ruralshire’ Police Force. Nothing whatsoever about how to set the machines in operation! Eventually a lovely Polish lady who appeared to be doing the washing for an entire hotel came to my rescue, setting up the machine along with a lecture on where to buy the cheapest washing powder – Lidl’s again! Not a single English person in that launderette.
Returning home, I opened a copy of the Daily Mail, now a comforting 60p instead of €2.70 for half the paper, and simultaneously turned on the BBC news – both something of a treat for a returning ex-pat. There I learned that committing suicide before a court case is a sign of guilt in a male ‘predator’, but a ‘regrettable and avoidable’ tragedy where a ‘vulnerable female’ should have been in the dock; that a team of ‘counsellors’ has been sent into a school to help the pupils ‘cope’ with the fact that one of their number unfortunately died in a motor accident; that Dolphin Square, which was a block of council flats full of around 1,000 Westminster council employees; the local dustman et al – and a dozen MPs – in the 1960s and 1970s, when I lived there, had been transformed retrospectively into a ‘mansion block’ of ‘privileged VIPs’ who ‘preyed on the vulnerable’ by virtue of one claim by one individual that he had been raped there; that women – en masse – were held back from employment, preyed upon, in thrall to, denied by, enslaved by, those creatures I knew as ‘men’.
Whatever happened to the army of strong confident women that peopled this land before Feminism arrived to ’empower’ them?
‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ has been transformed into a helpless slug, at the mercy of a million potential disasters; none of which she can cope with unaided. I’ve travelled 20 miles across the English Chanel – and I am truly in a foreign land, where the only apparently ‘normal women’ speak Polish.
If you are female, speak English, know how to peel a sprout without advance counselling and the ubiquitous ‘support’, and weigh less than 24 stone – please make yourself known in the comments. I urgently need the reassurance that you are ‘out there’ somewhere!