Nostalgic Re-visionings with the Wartime Gardeners

By Penny Rivlin

This week the team have been examining recent injunctions to ‘dig for victory’ across a range of cultural sites. The revival of the WWII Ministry of Agriculture campaign slogan and its associated prescriptives for food self-sufficiency and self-reliance is gaining increasing cultural purchase in the present conjuncture of economic and environmental crisis – what has been termed ‘eco-austerity’ in academic discourse (see Bramall, 2012).  Growing your own food in the wartime period was presented by government as a rational instrumental response to food and resource scarcity; a means through which ordinary British citizens could make a difference on the domestic Home Front. The ‘Dig for Victory’ initiative therefore invoked a sense of collectivity, nationalism and a morally charged ethic of ‘good’ care-based citizenship.

As several scholars have observed (Ginn, 2012; Bramall, 2011; Hinton and Redclift, 2009), a dominant discursive framework through which eco-austerity can be articulated is through recourse to the Home Front period and its austerity-driven aftermath. The cultural turn towards thrift-based domestic practices and food self-sufficiency is communicated across a range of lifestyle registers, wherein digging, make-do-and-mending and recycling/re-use are presented as a solution to environmental and economic precarity. Examples include the re-publication of a raft of Home Front advice manuals such as Digging for Victory (Middleton, 2008); Eating for Victory (Norman, 2007), and the British Home Front Pocket Book (Lavery, 2010).  On lifestyle TV, cookery programmes have linked wartime austerity narratives and iconography to a pro-environmental, eco-communitarian agenda. For example, in the River Cottage series (Channel 4, 2008), images and slogans from ‘Dig for Victory’ are revived to promote chef and eco-preneur Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s national grow your own ‘Landshare’ project (see In this sense, nostalgic re-visionings are imbued with transformative potential – here, in addressing issues of social disenfranchisement and land scarcity.

This context informs our approach to the ways in which the revival and re-use of the ‘lessons’ of history, and the cultural values which attend heritage discourses of digging are mobilized, (re)articulated and practiced in the present.  ‘Dig for Victory’ brings together issues of national identity, citizenship, cultural memory, ruralist ideologies, community building and civic participation; as such it represents a significant resource for emulation and mediation.

In line with the project’s examination of mediations and practices of digging at the level of the individual (as well as at institutional and community collective levels; see my post on The Wigan Diggers, and future posts on the Big Dig), we are currently analyzing the ways in which the cultural values of heritage digging are articulated and disseminated by a family living in the North West of England. Explicitly invoking past injunctions to ‘Dig for Victory’, this family of three extensively employs a range of social media platforms to chart and share their experiences of digging a wartime garden from scratch. Closely following the digging advice and prescriptions of the popular wartime gardener and radio broadcaster, Mr C.H. Middleton (2008 [1942]), the family are conducting what might fruitfully be termed a ‘green living experiment’ (Marres, 2009) which conjoins their embodied experiences of wartime digging as a way of life(style) with a contemporary engagement with digital media. Noting on their Facebook page that they want to ‘get more people growing their own’, the wartime gardeners are calling on all heterogeneous communities of present, and potential, diggers to engage with their own garden, window box, allotment space or backyard pots, and to share their diverse stories of food growing – even if this is expressed only at the level of fantasy.  As such, the family rehearse some of the central tenets of lifestyle TV programming in particular, and online lifestyle media in general in their democratizing address and appeal to social inclusivity and (digital) community building through the conduit of digging.

Our case study of the wartime gardeners involves close analysis of their use of various social media platforms, examining their choice and uses of these media and the content therein. We have identified the ways in which the wartime gardeners deploy the discursive strategies of ‘nostalgi-zation’, ‘family-ization’ (Rivlin, 2013), retro-austerity chic and democratization in their self-representations and embodied digging practices. As well, we aim to conduct in-depth, face-to-face interviews with the wartime gardeners as a means of accessing their accounts of the cultural values of digging that are unmediated by digital engagement. I will be discussing our progress with the wartime gardeners in more detail in regular future posts; please do check back!


Bramall, R. (2012) ‘Popular culture and anti-austerity protest’, Journal of European Popular Culture, 3(1): 9-22.

Bramall, R (2011) “Dig for Victory!’ Anti-consumerism, austerity, and new historical subjectivities’, Subjectivity, 4(1): 68-86.

Ginn, F. (2012) ‘Dig for Victory!’ New histories of wartime gardening in Britain’, Journal of Historical Geography, 38: 294-305.

Hinton, E. and Redclift, M. (2009) ‘Austerity and sufficiency: The changing politics of sustainable consumption’, Environment, Politics and Development Working Paper Series, Paper 17, Department of Geography, Kings College, London [Online] Available at: Accessed 27 September 2013.

Lavery, B. (2010) The British Home Front Pocket-Book, 1940-1942. London: Anova Books.

Marres, N. (2009) ‘Testing powers of engagement:  Green living experiments, the ontological turn and the undoability of involvement’, European Journal of Social Theory, 12(1): 117-133.

Middleton, C.H. (2008) Digging for Victory: Wartime Gardening with Mr. Middleton. London: Aurum Press.

Norman, J. (2007) Eating for Victory: Healthy Home Front Cooking on War Rations. Reproductions of Official Second World War Instruction Leaflets. London: Micheal O’Mara Books.

Rivlin, P. (2013) Domesticating Environmentalism? Gender, Class and Everyday Practices in the Home, Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Leeds, July.


Digging-up local histories: The Wigan Diggers’ Festival

By Penny Rivlin

In line with the primary objectives of the project, we are thinking about the different ways in which digging as heritage is mobilized in the present moment in the UK.  We are exploring the connections between the symbolic and embodied/community enactments of digging as forms of civic participation at both the grassroots local level, and the ways in which these politics of digging are expressed and disseminated across social media platforms. In conditions of land and resource scarcity, neoliberal individualism and self-responsibilization, we are asking what kinds of cultural values are invoked through the appropriation of heritage cultures and politics, and the transformative possibilities – as well as the tensions and ambivalences – of digging for heterogeneous UK citizens and communities.

In the past few weeks the Cultural Values of Digging team have been digging up local histories through participant observation at the Wigan Diggers’ Festival in Wigan, North Manchester on Saturday, 7th September.  The first Diggers’ festival, in September, 2011, attended by Farida, involved a small-scale collective of ‘heritage diggers’ and supporters who marched through Wigan to Mesnes Field – an open land site subject to proposed development.  The central motif of the festival was to commemorate and celebrate the radical political agency of Wigan born Gerrard Winstanley (1609-76), leader of the 17th century Diggers movement, and it is worth pausing for a moment to consider Winstanley’s legacy.

Also known as the ‘True Levellers’, the Diggers constituted a community of what Winstanley termed ‘the common people of England’: a poor, property-less majority increasingly dispossessed of common or ‘waste’ land due to enclosures (a process now framed as privatization).  As John Gurney (2013) observes, Winstanley’s overarching aim focused on the ‘establishment of community’ via the sharing of the commons as a route to social equality and freedom.  Winstanley’s discursive conjunction of community and commons is exemplified in his radical call that:

[the] earth must be set free from intanglements of Lords and Landlords, and that it shall become a common Treasury to all, as it was first made and given to the sonnes of men (1649, cited in Gurney, 2013: 47).

In 1649, Winstanley and his supporters mobilized to action by digging in to an area of common land at George Hill (now St George’s Hill) in Surrey. Establishing a small commune, the Diggers’ cultivation of the land and their lived experience of Winstanley’s ethos – ‘working together and eating together’ – faced considerable, often violent opposition, resulting in their eventual eviction after just eighteen months. It is in this historical context that the Wigan Diggers’ Festival march to Mesnes Field can be situated.  Accompanied by local photographers, the Diggers’ performed a symbolic re-enactment of the 17th century Diggers’ occupation of the commons.  Wearing wide-brimmed cloth hats and performing public recitals of extracts from Winstanley’s writings, the Wigan Diggers’ dug in to the common ‘Treasury’ of Mesnes Field.

The subsequent festivals’ of 2011/12 have significantly expanded in response to growing local interest and sponsorship, local authority support, and an online presence ( However, the festival’s practice of drawing on history as heritage as a means of addressing issues of land ownership and usage and other conditions of resource scarcity in the present moment of austerity remains central to its organization and dissemination. As one of the festival organisers, Stephen Hall asserts, the primary aim of the festival is to ‘remind people of the significance of Winstanley and the Diggers and his relevance to present day politics … we want to encourage a re-born sense of community spirit amongst ordinary people everywhere’ (quoted in Hyland, 2012).  There are clear resonances here with Crouch and Parker’s (2003: 396) observation that contemporary uses of history as heritage work to ‘undermine current structures and practices and promote alternatives’.  From the perspective of the project, the festival presents interesting challenges to current structures and practices. First, through its re-visioning the 17th century diggers act of re-claiming the commons via a symbolic performance of digging, the festival harnesses digging as heritage as a political tool. Second, in capturing the re-enactment on film for dissemination on the festival website, it harnesses the transformative potential of a digital ‘commons’ to access a wider community.

Following their attendance at the recent Festival, Erinma and Andy have shared their observations and Festival stories with the rest of the team, which generated a rich and fruitful discussion.  Based on their insights; our engagement with the Gerrard Winstanley and 17th century diggers focused literature; and our content analysis of the Wigan Diggers’/Festival digital platforms, we are in the process of finalizing the methodological routes through which a range of heritage-oriented voices can be accessed and documented.  Erinma and Andy will be sharing their insights as Festival observers in future posts – please check back!


Crouch, D. and Parker, G. (2003) ‘Digging-up’ Utopia? Space, practice and land use heritage, Geoforum, 34(3): 395-408.

Gurney, J. (2013) Gerrard Winstanley: The Diggers Life and Legacy. London: Pluto Press.

Hyland, B. (2012) Wigan stakes its claim to be the home of Socialism, The Northerner Blog, The Guardian. Retrieved from: Accessed 22/09/2013.

The Wigan Diggers Festival (no date) Accessed 22/09/2013.

‘Visceral learning’ and allotments

By Peter Jackson

I’ve just read a PhD thesis which explores the idea of ‘visceral learning’ in the context of a study of two allotments in rural Somerset.  The author, Rebecca Sandover (a geographer from Exeter University), argues that there is too much emphasis in academia on the cognitive processes of ‘knowing’ and not enough on the embodied processes of ‘doing’.

Rebecca explores this idea through a study of growing practices on the two allotments including an ‘auto-ethnography’ of her own experiences of growing fruit and veg on her own allotment in Somerton.  It’s here that she advances the concept of ‘visceral learning’, focusing on the feelings and embodied knowledge that are evoked through her sensory engagement with the plot (clearing the ground, digging, planting, growing, weeding, harvesting, cooking and eating).  She also got local school children involved in a community ‘cook-in’, preparing and cooking produce that had been grown on the site.  While most of the children enjoyed the experience, some were less tolerant of holey carrots and some were squeamish about eating squash.

The study encourages us to pay more attention to these visceral feelings (reminding us that ‘visceral’ refers literally to the gut).  What is it about particular tastes and textures that provoke such strong feelings of desire or disgust?  Do foods that are grown and cooked with a personal investment of time and love actually taste better than those that come from more distant and disembodied sources?

The thesis left me wondering whether this kind of visceral learning – gained by sharing practical tips among growers, being outdoors in the wind and rain, battling the weeds and slugs, and sharing a successful harvest with friends and neighbours – might yield a different understanding of the cultural values of digging than the kind of ‘armchair’ knowledge that we might get from more conventional approaches.

Welcome to our project blog

by Farida Vis

Welcome to our Cultural Values of Digging project blog! I’m very excited to lead this short six-month AHRC Cultural Value project and we are delighted to have found Penny Rivlin, our Research Associate, who will work with us. Please see our project team page for full details about everyone involved in this project.

Rather ambitiously, we decided that a project blog would be a productive way to record some of our initial thoughts and ideas as we are developing our different case studies. Our case studies focus on:

  • The UK print media representations of digging, 2000-2012 (led by Farida Vis);
  • The Winstanley Festival remembering the Diggers (led by Andrew Miles);
  • The recreation of a wartime garden (led by Peter Jackson);
  • The Big Dig (recent initiative encouraging people to ‘give’ through digging) (led by Erinma Ochu).

We plan to blog as often as possible with each co-investigator contributing roughly one blog post a month. Sometimes this will be directly about the case study we are leading, sometimes this will be about other, related topics. Penny will (heroically) blog every week. Through our combined efforts this blog will hopefully be a rich resource for our project and we are very happy to receive comments, either on individual blog posts or more general ones. If you would like to get in touch with us via email, rather than via this blog, I can be reached here. We will try to make the most of social media, specifically Twitter, by using the following two hashtags when discussing the project: #culturalvalue and #digging.

If you would like to share your own thoughts and interpretation around what we have called the ‘Cultural Values of Digging’ and are happy to write a blog post for us, please get in touch. We look forward to sharing thoughts and ideas as the project develops.