Tuesday 20 August 2019

Dame Esther Rantzen: Wartime letters offer antidote to modern Christmas

Dame Esther Rantzen has spoken of how different Christmas was in the 1940s and 1950s
Dame Esther Rantzen has spoken of how different Christmas was in the 1940s and 1950s

Dame Esther Rantzen has said that newly-published wartime letters describing rationing struggles can provide a "stringent antidote" to the commercialised Christmas of today.

Describing 1940s and '50s Britain as a "foreign country" compared to modern life, the 76-year-old presenter and charity campaigner said that the insight into wartime Britain reminds readers of the importance of "keeping ourselves together" and "showing dogged determination".

Her comments followed the publication of Esther Rantzen Make Do And Send, a selection of letters sent in to newspapers by readers between 1940-1960.

She told the Press Association: "It's huge fun to read about in this foreign country of today.

"It makes you put yourself in a mindset where there's a clothes ration and you get used to queuing for everything.

"But there was also a black market where people would try and flout the rules, try and get a little extra bit of this or that under the counter.

"These letters are not tolerant of everything, but they are tolerant of this sparse way of living and of everybody pulling together and making the best of it.

"It's a sort of stringent antidote to what psychologist Oliver James calls 'affluenza', where there's this requirement now to be fashionable and have the right brand of trainers, but this was a very different culture where showing off was actually very bad taste."

The former That's Life presenter added that the book could go as far as to make readers "envy" the "ordered, non-ostentatious, stiff-upper-lip-ness that we miss now".

Born in 1940 in Berkhamsted, Dame Esther said she remembered living in a rationed household herself, especially eating "soggy, wrinkly" apples picked by her family in the autumn and preserved until the winter in newspaper.

Speaking about going through the letters, which are tied together with her introduction, she said: "It has been very nostalgic to remember the days when we had one egg per week and used things like rosehip syrup. Whatever happened to rosehip syrup? It was delicious."

But as well as hoping readers would "laugh a bit" as they read the book, published by Gibson Square, Dame Esther said she hoped it would draw attention to family values and the danger of "isolation".

Founder of The Silver Line helpline, a charity which supports elderly people facing loneliness, she said: "Nowadays everybody feels that living independently is the ambition, whether you are young or old, you want a home of your own, but I look back on those days when people didn't have the money or the ambition to buy a place of their own and it meant that it was less isolated.

"On Christmas Day I will be phoning a lot of older people who won't have anyone else to talk to, just to share a joke or a memory, discuss the world, television, Strictly Come Dancing.

" I find it very poignant speaking to someone who is literally not going to speak to anyone else at Christmas time."

She is also currently working with Cheryl, who this year became the face of children's charity ChildLine, which Dame Esther pioneered in 1986.

"Cheryl has a real genuine concern and understanding of young people who are having a tough time and she is very credible as a ChildLine champion," Dame Esther said.

"The young people believe she understands what they are going through, so it's a very good partnership and we are very impressed."

PA Media

Also in this section