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Prof Bown celebrated her 93rd birthday during lockdownn at her home in Shrewsbury, where she continues to work. Here she shares her reflections on the fight against fascism during World War II and our current fight against the coronavirus:  

"We speak today of fighting the coronavirus. Can we compare our present war against disease with the World War II fight against fascism (when I was first at school and then university)? Both are of course struggles without boundaries.

I remember, bizarrely, queuing with school-mates, each paying sixpence for the Red Cross just to smell a single grape-fruit.  But the experience shows one major difference then: that food was both plain and rationed – we couldn’t have imagined modern super-market abundance. At boarding-school, we each had (and guarded carefully) a little dish of our week’s butter ration, about two ounces. We couldn’t afford to waste any morsel of bread, so stale bread was soaked in a little milk and warmed in the oven to freshen it up. Some food-rationing continued for seven years after the war’s end. Unlike most of my school-mates, I went home in the holidays to our Shropshire farm, where we could eat better, though production was regulated by a War Agricultural Committee.       

There were also 'British Restaurants', where you could get a filling meal for a shilling (5p today). I used to escape to one near my college when college food was at its worst. The advantage then was that everyone had a basic equality. I never foresaw a time when millions had to go to food banks. We also had clothes-rationing; I bought just one dress in my three Oxford years.

We did have experiences in common with the present. We were living with the possibility of imminent death, not knowing when it would strike. Now it’s disease, then it was bombs – more likely in big cities, but even in Shropshire, a disoriented enemy plane came down on the Long Mynd. And we also feared something more like coronavirus: gas. So we all carried card-board boxes slung round our necks, containing gas-masks. I never had to use mine, other than for practice; but gas was feared because we all knew veterans who had experienced its horrors in the First World War.

The worst of any situation is the unknown – then not knowing when bombs or gas would come, and now disease  -  living with uncertainty as to when it would end. But there are two notable differences. We didn’t have lockdown, though we had to observe blackout – not a chink of light to be shown out of any window. Secondly, we were at war in the 1940s for nearly six years, living with privation and the economy in unparalleled fall. Now we have just had a two seasons of this pandemic and it somehow feels like the end of the world.

It wasn’t then. Interestingly, we in general felt optimistic – not assuming the gloomy picture imagined later. It was a time when Britain became the world’s leader in science and engineering, with, for instance, car production, the jet engine, penicillin; when culture flourished; and when English was becoming the international language. Additionally, the greater social equality of the war years ('all in it together') resulted in welfare reforms, including, of course, the National Health Service. Without it, our present 'war' against the coronavirus would be unbelievably more frightening."

Professor Lalage Bown, OBE, has dedicated her life’s work to improving education for the disadvantaged, especially women. After graduating with an Honours MA in Modern History from Oxford University she spent 30 years in Africa providing university-based adult education programmes, after which she returned to lead the Department of Adult and Continuing Education at the University of Glasgow. 

A pioneer in education, Professor Bown received her sixth honorary doctorate from UCS during our first graduation ceremony in 2018. 

 

 

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