Vere Hodgson’s Few Eggs and No Oranges: 1940-45
Persephone No. 9 (1999)

Ironically, it was not a book — Persephone or otherwise — that settled my debate about which Persephones to read for Persephone week.

It was the combination of my having responded so strongly to Pat Barker’s Regeneration series earlier this year with my spotting a set of films at my local shop.

(Well, there are literally hundreds of books lying around here unread: it’s bound to be a little bit mysterious as to why some are catapulted to the top of the reading list whilst others languish.)

But in this case those two events cemented my interest in reading about the second world war on Persephone pages for this week.

Hodgson’s Diary was amongst the first bunch of Persephones that I purchased (Persephones should always come in bunches, no?), 8 or 9 years ago. When it arrived, I was surprised by its size though happily so. But then something happened. And my bookmark (beautifully coordinated of course: all bookmarks should be coordinated, no?) got stuck.

I think it was somewhere in 1941, but I don’t remember exactly because I became renewedly interested in my collection when a friend of mine added some new titles to my Persephone shelves last year and I plucked that bookmark out once more and started to read again from the beginning. I read the preface and got stuck in the process of making the decision about whether to read on. (So apparently it’s possible to get stuck in a book when you’re not even really reading it.)

But I still wanted to get un-stuck, so when I started thinking seriously about Persephone Week, Few Eggs and No Oranges was at the top of my list. And I am so glad that I persevered.

Of course there were tragic bits, like this:
“I cannot bear to listen to the News. There is nothing in it. We bomb them…they bomb us. That is all. Life is a miserable affair.”
October 3, 1940

“Dreadful to read about Leningrad. Just as I thought — all gas and electricity gone; they are cooking on brazers in the street. Every day it gets worse, and the only end is The End — with the Germans marching in because we cannot help them.”
September 24, 1941

But there were also hopeful bits, like this:
“Went to the Zoo to book tea for my next party of Mothers and children on June 19th. The Old Pole is open on Sunday, so explained my plan of action. He found me some aged radishes and lettuce and with his compliments to the animals he gave me extra [so that she could feed the yak and the panda].”
June 6, 1943

[For a companion read on WWII and zoos and resistance, you might like to be Buried In Print with Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife (2007).]

“Amazing to see the patience of the women in the Cat Food Queue. It was snowing. They were loaded with heavy shopping bags, and then came a long wait for food for the cat! But they seemed amazingly cheerful. They waited for Pussy’s dinner with the same good humour they had waited for their own.”
February 8, 1942

And there were mixed bits, like this:
“Queen Charlotte’s Hospital is uninhabitable. It must have had a very bad time, though the walls seemed to be standing. Got bus to Notting Hill. Sat by the fire and read the Ranee of Sarawak’s biography. Cannot think why she had such awful daughters. Barishnikov came to tea. Ran down to do the black-out. Guns began. Hope Miss M. gets back from Oxford tonight. We have not had a Warning all day today…A record!”
November 10, 1940

Passages like that brought back my recent reading of the Orange-Prize nominated novel Small Wars, which also considers the bizarre dichotomy of everyday life (say, children with fevers) intersecting with acts of wartime violence (say, nighttime bombings).

Thus we sit at home and take part in a battle simultaneously. We are pegging on slowly — a case of biting off a morsel at a time.
July 17, 1944

One of the things that brought Sadie Jones’ characters relief were evening dramatic readings (a scene surrounding one of Shakespeare’s plays figures prominently) and literature also provided Vere Hodgson with some relief; tomorrow I’ll include some quotes from her diaries on that subject. I’ll also have more to say about her diaries later this week, when I consider two other Persephone wartime accounts.

It has been absolutely fascinating immersing myself in this era for Persephone Week. Many thanks to Verity and Claire for hosting!