Eggs or Anarchy is one of the great, British stories of the Second World War yet to be told in full. It reveals the heroic tale of how Lord Woolton, Minister for Food, really fed Britain. As a nation at war, with supply routes under attack from the Axis powers and resources scarce, it was Woolton’s job to fulfil his promise to the British people, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill in particular, that there would be food on the shelves each week. Persuading the public to not resort to the black market and to manage on the very limited ration was one thing, but Woolton had to fulfil his side of the bargain and maintain supplies in time of crisis. A grammar school-educated genius, he was a fish out of water in Churchill’s cabinet and the PM himself doubted Woolton would survive due to the unstinting criticism he faced from colleagues, the press and public.
This is the story of how he battled to save his own career while using every trick in his entrepreneurial book to secure supplies. He battled to outwit unscrupulous dealers on the black market streets of cities within the British Empire – such as Alexandria in Eygpt – persuading customs authorities to turn a blind eye to his import schemes. If Britain had gone hungry the outcome of the war could have been very different. This book, for the first time, finds out the real story of how Lord Woolton provided food for Britain and her colonies and discovers that for him there were days when it was literally a choice of ‘eggs or anarchy’.
If you’ve read many of my reviews, you already know I don’t read many non-fiction books but this one was a welcome exception.
It takes a special kind of author to make a niche area of history like WWII food rationing really interesting, but Sitwell manages just that! I read it over a couple of days rather than the couple of weeks I was expecting it to take in bitesize chunks (I like history, I just don’t like textbooks).
He bounces around topics quickly enough that you don’t have the opportunity to get bored and it’s wonderfully biased in Woolton’s favour without being cringeworthy, so you have a ‘hero’ to follow in the book. For serious history readers, this might be a bit of a turn off because the opinion:fact ratio is a bit off but for lay readers, this is the best way of shoehorning historical knowledge into your brain.
Lord Woolton, originally Fred of Manchester, was an excellent businessman who was snapped up by the government during the war effort and took the role of Minister of Food. It was this real-ness and not having been groomed from politics in the womb that made him perfect – he actually cared about the poorest people in the country and where their next meal was coming from, he was prepared to tell rich people to tighten their belts and his ability to negotiate food deals internationally was miraculous.
What I found fascinating is that he suffered from colitis (which can’t have been fun) and so had a fascination with nutrition and health, so he co-operated with doctors to find out the nutritional needs of different demographics of the population and ended up with a country with greater nutritional health coming out of the war than they did going on. He cared about pregnant and nursing mothers’ health and that of young children especially, which is a demographic that has a tendency to suffer the most during wars.
The author uses various reliable sources to write this book, the best being recollections of certain situations from both Woolton and his wife’s journals so you can see how they parallel. Woolton’s relationship with his wife was something truly lovely to read about, he sent her love letters and thanks when they were apart and wouldn’t make any major decisions without her input because they truly were a partnership – something that Churchill scoffed at, apparently.
It’s only later in the book that you realise quite how fine the line he was treading – if the rationing system failed, the blackmarket overtook it or vital foodstuffs ran out, there would be riots and fighting in the street to get what was left. It was only by getting things right and working with the media to reassure the public that everything was under control and their best interests were genuinely in mind, that Woolton was able to keep everyone calm and carrying on.
Now, if this author would like to write about any other areas of history, I’d be more than happy to read them!