Monday, 17 January 2011

The banana returns

It was the first winter after the end of the Second World War, and the children of Britain were about to receive a late Christmas present. On 30 December 1945 a Fyffe ship, the Tilapa, arrived in Avonmouth from Kingston, Jamaica, loaded with a consignment of ten million bananas. Hundreds of children, most of whom had never seen a banana before, were there to greet it. As the ship docked, a crew member threw a yellow banana on to the quayside, where it was caught by the ten-year-old daughter of a dock worker. It was the first banana to reach Britain since 1940.

Most of the bananas were green and unripe and meant to be stored for a week before being distributed all over the West Country, but only to under-18s. A popular wartime song, by the bandleader Harry Roy, had asked “When Can I Have a Banana Again?” The arrival of the Tilapa was a symbol – unfortunately, a premature one - of the end of shortages and the return of good times. Many children had to be shown how to eat a banana, like an ice-cream cone rather than corn on the cob.

Ever since refrigerated ships initiated the global banana trade at the end of the nineteenth century, this fruit’s tropical origins, and its susceptibility to disease and shortages, had made it an exotic object. The words “have a banana” were popularly inserted into the music-hall song “Let’s All Go Down the Strand”, giving it free advertising which would have been the envy of any other fruit. In the interwar period, London’s Tin Pan Alley tossed out songs like “Yes, We Have No Bananas” and “I’ve Never Seen a Straight Banana”, and dance halls held banana nights.

The banana went on to divide East and West in the Cold War, for it was rarely available behind the Iron Curtain. Nikita Khrushchev boasted that the Soviets could produce everything except bananas. As the Berlin Wall came down, West Germans pointedly threw bananas at the East Berliners pouring into the west. Despite being frowned upon by today’s low-carb diets, the banana is still one of the bestselling items in British supermarkets.

Mundane quote for the day:

Farewell to long lunches
and other boozy pursuits!
Hail to the new age
of the desk potato,
strict hours of imprisonment
and eyesight tortured
by an impassive electronic screen. – Christopher Reid, The Song of Lunch


  1. The Banana is one of the greatest health giving fruits of the earth. Not only do diabetics use them to deliver slow release energy- but tune in to tennis whenever a match goes into to 5th set you will see Nadal and Federer get out the bananas!