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 http://www.landshare.net/). 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!

References

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: http://www.kcl.ac.uk/sspp/departments/geography/research/epd/HIntonRedcliftWP17.pdf 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.

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