World on Fire

South Vietnamese troops battling the Viet Cong in Saigon during TET offensive

A life- another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

My husband’s affairs – in every sense of the word – meant that he and his intended had stumbled into a mine field. When Candida, as I’ll call her, told her naval husband of her plans, he hit the roof. He had no intention of parting with his elegant sweet-natured wife. The thing began to take on diplomatic proportions, and the General and the local naval boss now got involved, and Candida and husband were posted hastily back to England to avoid further scandal.

This meant that my husband was storming tactlessly and angrily around the place, and the padre came to see this cold, unloving wife who had driven her handsome, charming husband out of his unloving home. There was probably more than a grain of truth in this by now, as I certainly didn’t love him any more!

It was that tense turbulent year of 1968 when the world seemed on the edge of drama month after month. After North Korea captured the US ship Pueblo, imprisoning and torturing all eighty- five of her crew at the end of January, the ripples of the surprise Viet Cong Tet offensive in Saigon then reached us. Friends from the office were holidaying in Saigon, and were caught up in that murderous mayhem which continued all through February.

When Martin Luther King was shot in April, I hurried up to see Pat Hangen to somehow try to comfort her. When Robert Kennedy was shot in June, it seemed unbelievable. I shall never forget the silent shock in the newspaper office, before I rushed up to see Pat again…it seemed a devastating thing to be American at this time…

This was also the time of the Prague Spring when another mid European country tried to throw off the Russian yoke. And now in August, we listened with anguish and watched television as the Russian tanks rolled into Prague to crush freedom, as they had done into Hungary nearly nine years before.

We were in the middle of a very destructive typhoon, and in spite of the wooden shutters over the windows, the towels laid along the window sills and carefully led into bowls, were soaking wet. I went from window to window wringing out wet towels and feeling intimidated by the storm while I watched the Czechs being intimidated by the tanks. My heart was wrung for Anton Dubjek as my hands wrung my wet towels!

A few weeks later, I went to the doctor who gave me some pills to check the constant nausea I’d been feeling, and taking one straight away, I only just managed to drive home. Tottering into bed, I woke to consciousness in the evening, having slipped into a coma with pills that had apparently knocked out my liver. The next day the doctor rang and said he was sending an ambulance round straight away – my tests had come back – and I had hepatitis with secondary infections of glandular fever and jaundice.

The children went to play school in the mornings, and before this happened, I’d just organised a gentle, friendly, eighteen-year-old school leaver out from England to come every afternoon to read to the children and play with them. I was worried that their vocabularies might stagnate with just their loving Chinese amah to talk to, and I hoped now that my husband would stay with them in the evenings.

In hospital in Kowloon, I lay in my room overlooking the harbour, and watched the glittering water sparkling in the magical light of the sun at the change of the season. I also put myself together and found my inner strength again. My doctor had given me a book of D.H. Lawrence’s poems, and ‘The Song of the man who has come through’ became a sort of prayer and affirmation.

Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!

A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.

If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!

If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!

If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed

By the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the chaos of the world….

And his other words… ‘It is not easy to fall out of the hands of the living God…”

The Red Cross trolley with library books came round every day, and along with the biographies and books on travel and exploration I gobbled up, there were some Elizabeth Goudge. ‘The Dean’s Watch’, about the power of love, shifted me on from my little local world into a larger perception of all that is, and I was ready after five weeks to go back and transform my little world.

I wrote to my step-grandfather who was still writing to me, and asked him if he could loan me five hundred pounds to get started, but he replied rather pompously that he would have no hand in breaking up a family with young children. (Many years later, when an old man, he wrote to say he had a guilty, nagging feeling that he had let me down over something, and I spared him and wrote to say he had always been a loving friend)

Meanwhile my husband, who was still marking time over his enforced separation from his intended, every now and then suggested that we have another go with our marriage. Not convinced that leopards change their spots I told him that I would be gone in a month, after Christmas, and his response was that he would smash me mentally and physically before then.

Still feeling frail and ill I managed to find a flat for us. It was always hard to compete with Americans who had large housing allowances and lots of money compared to the rest of us. But I drove round Repulse Bay, hoping to find ‘flat to let’ signs. By a miracle I found one hanging outside twelve -foot high, brightly painted gates, with painted peacocks embossed on them, the mansion behind hidden by high walls. It had been built by a Chinese millionaire for his family to come and live with him, but they had refused.

When he showed me the flat, and told me the price, I said I couldn’t afford it. So he said, what can you afford? And when I told him, he said I could have it for a year. I lived for that first year of independence beneath the splendour of chandeliers, with an elegant panelled walnut entrance hall and an amazing, huge, pink marble en-suite bathroom.

Back home, my husband came to me in tears. His bank was threatening to foreclose on his debts, and this would mean being cashiered by the army, and no financial help at all from him for the children. I wrote him a cheque for half my savings and feeling sorry for his humiliation said he didn’t need to write an IOU as he offered, but that I would trust him. I never saw the money again.

I persuaded my husband to ring England and tell his parents what was happening,  and the first response of my father-in-law was to ask if his son had got good legal advice. Yes, he’d been to see an old school friend who was a lawyer. As I listened, I felt a cold hand over my heart. No concern for me, it was going to be a power struggle aided by the law and family. I felt truly alone.

I thought I’d better get some legal advice too. But when I went to see the army legal services, my husband had been there first, so they would have no truck with me. It was the same at the navy and the RAF. All the free legal services were closed to me. My husband had been to see them all, and this debarred them from giving me advice, they each insisted.

The establishment had closed ranks. In those days male chauvinism was alive and well, and it felt as though all the men had ganged up on me. The army lawyer then sent me a letter telling me I was no longer allowed to set foot in the garrison. Being an army daughter, a serving officer and an army wife was a part of my heritage, and I was devastated by what felt like a gratuitous insult.

The result of these snubs was that I was driven to find expensive, civilian legal advice. I contacted a friendly solicitor who I’d met at a party. He felt there was some urgency when I rang him, so that Sunday I spent at his stylish flat, curled up in an elegant orange Arne Jacobson ‘Egg’ chair, dictating my divorce petition to him.

It was a cold winter’s day, and still feeling fragile a couple of weeks out of hospital, his warm, cosy flat in the Mid-levels seemed like a safe haven away from the stress of my own home. As I dictated, my eyes wandered over stacks of beautiful fabric -covered boxes on the bookshelves. They housed his collection of precious snuff bottles, but as a philistine, I thought then the boxes were prettier than the bottles.

He rang a few days later. There was an alarming hitch. It seemed that no woman had ever divorced her husband in Hongkong before – this was 1968 – and there were no legal precedents. He was at a standstill but would try a few other avenues. He came up with something from Indian and Colonial law. It was possible for an Englishwoman in India to get a divorce in that country if she had been resident there for at least three years.

Peter said he would try to get me a divorce quoting this Indian precedent. The element of uncertainty was unnerving. By the date of the hearing my husband had followed his intended wife back to England, so it was a very empty court I attended. I had already left the army quarters, packing all my belongings into the Red Cross ambulance the doctor lent me. I realised as I looked back that nearly every other army wife was standing on her veranda watching the astonishing sight of another wife leaving her husband under their very eyes.

Before the divorce Peter told me the judge was homosexual. I didn’t know how this would affect the outcome in which the custody of the children was at stake. I dressed very carefully in a demure, white dress with a hem at knee level, in this year of mini skirts. When the case began, the judge questioned the validity of it, and Peter provided him with the Indian and Colonial volumes.

I sat in suspense while the judge pored over the pages, and finally agreed the case could go ahead. Called into the witness box, for some routine questions, to my horror I could feel tears coming. I had left my handkerchief in my handbag on my seat, so had to sniff through my answers. The tears were pouring down my cheeks by the time I returned to my seat. And the white dress was wasted, the judge didn’t even look in my direction.

On the way home in my battered Morris Minor convertible – all I could afford after I’d given my husband half my savings – it broke down and ran out of control down the hill to Repulse Bay. Apparently, the rust which held the chassis together had finally weakened, and there was no connection between the steering and the wheels.

It took thirteen monthly instalments to pay the huge bill to patch it up. The floor in the back seat had rusted away, so I tucked cardboard over the holes, and the children would complain their feet were getting wet when it rained. I always had to drive over the Peak in wet weather, as low-lying Wanchai would have flooded it.

I discovered quite by chance that some of my rich American friends thought I’d chosen this broken-down form of transport as part of my English eccentricity. It never crossed their minds that the South China Morning Post paid women so badly that I earned two thirds what a cub reporter earned. Another subtle local distinction was that people recruited from overseas for their jobs earned far more than impecunious “locally employed”.

The first months were tough. The doctors hadn’t told me I would be depressed for six months after my illness, so I didn’t realise until my six- monthly check-up that the fatigue and depression I was felt was normal. Instead, when I thought longingly of walking into the sea and never coming back, it was only the thought of the children that had kept me going. I was so run down that my teeth packed up and I racked up big dentist bills, while my husband’s American bank – one of the many he had swapped around – wanted me to pay his debts.

I worried that I couldn’t afford my son’s play school anymore, and I worried when my husband’s small cheque didn’t arrive, which spelt disaster on my tiny salary. I kept a pocket diary which I filled in every day at the office. No words, just two colours – red for good red-letter days, blue for bad blue days… at first the blue days far outnumbered the red.

I had copied two quotations into it – one from William the Silent: ‘There is no need of hope in order to undertake, or of success in order to persevere’… and the other from Clement of Alexandria: ‘We may not be taken up and transported to our journey’s end, but must travel thither on foot, traversing the whole distance of the narrow way…’ I read these rather grim exhortations regularly to inspire me to ‘just get on with it!’

And with all the struggle, I would gloat to myself that I was an independent woman now. I had two beautiful children, a home through my own efforts, a car, and a job I enjoyed. I knew that life could only get better. And, of course, it did. The worst was behind me.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

When I make one of our favourites, feta cheese and courgette fritters, I usually serve them with chilli jelly, salad and hot rolls. But I really love beetroot relish with them too and decided to stop buying it from the supermarket and make my own.

Place in a pot three peeled and roughly grated beetroots, one finely chopped onion – red if you have it – a cup of brown sugar, half a cup of cider vinegar or balsamic, quarter of a cup of water, a table spoon of olive oil, half a teasp of ground cumin, salt and black pepper. Heat gently for thirty minutes or until the liquid has been absorbed. If it dries up, add enough water to keep it moist and juicy. Place in a jar or bowl and refrigerate until ready to use.

Food for thought

 A certain percentage of those who have survived near-death experiences speak of a common insight which afforded a glimpse of life’s basic lesson plan. We are all here for a single purpose: to grow in wisdom and to learn to love better.

We can do this through losing as well as through winning, by having and by not having, by succeeding or by failing. All we need to do is to show up open-hearted for class. So fulfilling life’s purpose may depend more on how we play than what we are dealt…  Kitchen Table Wisdom by Rachel Naomi Remen

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Life and loss, love and death

Image result for south  bay hk

Deepwater Bay

Another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to writing my normal blogs

Ensconced in Deepwater Bay, life now took on the tone and routines that shaped our lives until the final disintegration of our marriage. My husband would go off to University every day and return home in time for dinner. After dinner he would take off back to Victoria – to the officers mess, he would say, to see Henry or Richard or whoever… I assumed for some time that he was bonding with the other people on his course, in spite of having spent all day with them.

Later he would say there was a party or a get together. And later still, when the whole saga had ended, friends would tell me that I had no idea of how many girl- friends there had been – “You didn’t know the half of it”….

I tried everything, and one night I remember in despair taking the car before he did and driving round to beautiful South Bay, an empty semi- circle of still water, ringed with flame trees, and where I watched the flaming sunset. The beauty was so moving, I felt I must share it with him, and drove back home, and persuaded him to come back to South Bay with me. He did, and then took the car and drove off- somewhat delayed – to whatever rendezvous he had in town.

Two things helped me through this time. I had found a wonderful amah, Ah Ping, a shy eighteen- year- old girl with very little English, and a lovely nature. She adored the children, and we had a little competition at bath-time over which of us was going to enjoy bathing the youngest, still very much a baby. She learned to speak English with my accent and tone, so that people thought it was me when she answered the phone. She helped to maintain the happy atmosphere for the children and they  loved her.

The other thing that sustained me, was my first foray into writing. I studied the woman’s pages of the South China Morning Post, the main English speaking newspaper in Hong Kong, and realised that the one element missing was cookery.

Cheekily I offered my services to the woman’s editor, a childless and fashionable young woman, Jane, the same age as me. Feeling plain and boring by now, I somehow managed to keep my end up with her at my interview and got the go ahead to write a cookery column on Fridays. I had no qualifications for this of course, apart from an abiding love of food, but I managed to make it sound as though I knew what I was talking about.

After six weeks, I was offered another bite of the cherry, when Jane suggested I write a story to fill Thursday’s page – she wanted something about bringing up children, and now she had as it were, a captive mother, I filled the bill. This was meat and drink to me and writing about children and parenting became one of my areas of expertise and was something I only stopped doing fifty years later at seventy- seven.

My husband’s social life was costing us, and debts had begun to pile up, so the money I now earned was important to me, as I knew I could always feed the children with it. I could also afford to visit the famous alleys, and find cheap lengths of gorgeous fabric, which I sewed by hand, making glamorous new summer dresses. I had new friends, and was making a life, but I still felt miserable and longed to be loved. I tried to fill the emptiness by playing Bob Dylan and the Beatles and they left me feeling even more alone and bereft. I also started having blinding migraines which took five days out of life every time they struck.

One evening my husband came home and said we’d been invited to a party at the naval base on the commander’s ship. I put on a red dress from my pre-marriage party days and set off, feeling like I always did these days, in-adequate and plain.

At the gangplank we were warmly greeted by a man with piercing blue eyes and golden hair. His wife was a ravishing blonde ex-ballet dancer with huge brown eyes, beautiful features, and a pile of hair pinned up,   so long that when it fell to her ankles when we were dancing, she looked like Rapunzel. Her chic little black dress showed off her ballet dancer’s figure to perfection. I was in awe of both these glamorous people.

Later we went back to their house where we all sat down at the dining table for an impromptu dinner. Our host sat me at his right hand and talked to me as though I was actually interesting. I felt such gratitude for his kindness. We continued to meet at parties as our friends were old childhood friends of them both. At each occasion he sought me out, raising his glass to me across many crowded rooms before making his way through the throng to us.

And then one night as he handed me out of his car after a party, he squeezed my hand. The next party we went to was at a French officer’s house. He and his wife were a gentle couple, and we played silly childish games, since we were a mixture of French and English couples with few of us speaking each other’s language, so conversation was difficult.

During one game if a player won some sort of forfeit, they placed a cushion in front of the person of their choice and knelt and gave them a kiss. My naval friend placed his cushion in front of me when it was his turn, and I said to myself if he does it again, I will know that he meant it. And he did. The next two months were a dizzy time of love and longing set against the back drop of riots and curfews and water rationing and our move into army quarters in Repulse Bay, where we became neighbours. Neither of us ever said a word but were drawn to each other at every meeting.

At the same time, I was fascinated by his ravishing wife, and couldn’t believe that he could care for me, when he had such a spell-binding partner, who I knew he’d loved since they were children. I could see that she was scatter-brained and sometimes strangely childish, but still found her beauty entrancing.

The night before they left to return to England we all met for one last time. As we danced he told me he loved me. I said I thought it might have been a sailor’s girl in every port, and he reproached me. He told me that his fey, feckless wife was a millstone round his neck, and that we both had “to make a go of it”.

They flew out the next day, and I went into a sort of collapse. I literally couldn’t get out of bed for a few weeks, and somehow struggled on into the grey winter like a zombie. The migraines ambushed me more and more often. I felt too fragile and depressed to write to my father.

My husband now asked me not to leave him alone with the husband of a woman I’d thought was my best friend because he feared being beaten up. The husband had discovered that my husband and his wife had been having an affair. I felt shocked and betrayed by my friend, but then, I found my husband was having another affair with another colleague’s wife, and I stopped caring.

After Christmas Jane, the woman’s editor offered me a fulltime job, and I began in January. A few weeks later, I woke up one morning, looked out at the sea, watched the fishing boats streaming back after their night’s fishing, and felt different. It was though a huge grey cloud had lifted from me, and my first thought was – now I can write to my father. Because I was still trying to juggle my job and the children, and learning the ropes at work, I put it off until I had a moment to sit down and enjoy communicating again.

A few nights later I dreamt that one of my father’s good friends who was in Hong Kong, was sitting on my bed with its beautiful blue and green patterned Venetian bedspread, with his arms around me, comforting me. When I awoke in the morning I inwardly castigated myself that I was so desperate that I was dreaming about my father’s friends!

That night, as I slept, I heard the phone go, and my husband answer it. I heard him say: “Thank you, I’ll tell her.” When he walked into the bedroom I sat up in bed, and cried out, “Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”

“Your father’s dead.” he said. The War Office had rung.

I immediately rang my father’s friend Ian, and unwittingly destroyed a dinner party. Ian came straight round, and as he sat on the bed and put his arms around me, my dream came back to me.

It felt as though the bedrock of my life had been ripped from beneath me. It seemed like the worst thing that had ever happened to me, even though I knew it happened to everyone.  But he was only fifty- four. My siblings who were scattered around the globe on various rocks – Gibraltar, St Helena, Aden gathered, but I was too far away. No-one contacted me. I never heard from my stepmother again for nearly forty years when she was in her late eighties. My father-in-law wrote and told me about my father’s funeral, and now I was alone.

I had leant Pat Hangen my copy of Towers of Trebizond in which was a poem I felt I needed. As soon as day broke after the phone call, I rang and asked her to return it. The poem was like a lifeline back to sanity. Every time I was overwhelmed with grief, I read it again and it brought me back to a place where I could still stand being alive. It was John Davies of Hereford’s dirge for his friend Thomas Morley:

Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend.

My dearest friend is dead and laid in grave.

In grave he rests until the world shall end.

The world shall end as end all things must have.

All things must have an end that nature wrought.

Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend.

The rhythm of these lines helped somehow, while the words of the gurus did not. “Participate joyfully in the sorrows of life.” Joseph Campbell once said, and: ‘we can choose to live in joy’. But had he ever  experienced the sorrows of life, in his long, happy,  childless relationship (with none of the agonies and ecstasies of parenthood) and his sheltered affluent university life-style? Words like his seemed to mock.

In my world, enduring the sorrows of life, it took weeks to move beyond the pain of grief and despair, and my husband lost patience with me. Then both children developed bad cases of measles. It took the spots ten days to come out for my son, and with his high temperature I feared he’d develop encephalitis. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. My daughter developed bronchitis and was very sick at the end of her bout of measles.

One night, as I lay by her side in bed anxiously watching her, my husband came to the bed room door. I’d been so pre-occupied with the children’s sickness, that I hadn’t really noticed that his party round had been even more frenetic that usual. He stood in the doorway, looking dreamy and dazed, and said to me, “I’ve just met the woman I’m going to marry.”

I replied coldly, “Well, you’re still married to me.” But inside, I felt a surge of relief. We must be on the home straight! We were. I even stopped having my debilitating migraines. I began saving my earnings for when I would need then.

Now too, my job became really interesting. I began interviewing all the interesting people who came to Hong King. They included charming, handsome Dr Seuss, a man of goodness and integrity. Writer Iris Murdoch was a challenge, and I wish I could do it again now that I know more about life. But then I was so naive that I wondered how such a plain woman could have found a husband! John Bailey, the husband who later betrayed her when she had Altzheimers, was vague and donnish when I met him. Robert Helpman, the great ballet dancer was a joy, gentle, charming, and kind.

Barbara Cartland, so exuberant and full of life at seventy- four (honey and vitamins she told me) took me to her bosom- literally – when I mentioned one of my closest friends who was her son’s best friend. When Raine, Lady Dartmouth, her daughter, came to Hong Kong a few months later, she was just as friendly and charming, seeking me out with all eyes on her as she walked across the dining room to greet me while I was lunching in the Eagles Nest of the Hilton. She was radiantly beautiful, tall and elegant, with big china blue eyes and peaches and cream complexion like the Queen’s. It was hard to see her as the wicked stepmother of Princess Diana in the years that followed.

I don’t think I was very good at writing interviews, but I did uncover a talent for writing columns which blossomed when I moved to another country. I also discovered that journalism could be a powerful force for good when a woman rang me one day and asked to see me at my home. She gave me what she said was a false name.

I opened the front door to a tall, fair-haired sweet-faced woman with great poise and dignity. She wanted to talk to me about setting up Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon, the family support group in Hong Kong. I ended up attending meetings of both, and then writing several stories. Both groups took off, and today, the woman, who became one of my closest friends, tells me there are at least seventeen groups now flourishing in the territory, three of them for Europeans.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 I’m still on my what to do with lettuce and greens jag and have adapted this recipe for lettuce soup from my old copy of the one and only Mrs Beaton. I use four spring onions if I have them and soften them with a couple of thinly sliced onions, a chopped garlic clove and a finely chopped carrot. When this is soft I pour in three cups of heated chicken stock. The lettuce then goes in, torn into small pieces, and a cup and a half of frozen peas, salt and pepper. Cook for eight to ten minutes and remove from heat while the soup is still bright green. Whizz in the blender until smooth. One of my oldest friends combs the hedgerows in the Forest of Dean for edible wild plants, and she would add leaves like nettles to this soup. I am not so brave…

Food for thought

You start dying slowly
If you do not change your life when you are not satisfied with your job, or with your love,
If you do not risk what is safe for the uncertain,
If you do not go after a dream,
If you do not allow yourself,
At least once in your lifetime,
To run away from sensible advice… by poet Pablo Neruda

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Sunset over Hong Kong

Image result for images of old hong kong harbourHong Kong in the mid-sixties

A life – another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

Before we left England, we enjoyed two quintessential English events. The in -laws gave us their tickets for the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, one of the glamorous fixtures on the London calendar fifty years ago. I watched with interest the people and clothes, as well as the pictures. Standing next to a woman dressed in exquisite soft pale blue suede with matching knee length suede boots, I recognised the heiress Tessa Kennedy, famous for her elopement at eighteen with painter Dominic Elwes.

They had fled to Havana to escape the English courts and marry there, before eventually fleeing Cuba on a raft during the anarchy of Castro’s era… I watched the President of the Academy reverently ushering through the galleries the fascinating Dorelia, Augustus John’s mistress, then partner for over fifty years. She was tall and stately, her gypsy beauty undimmed, her bright draperies fluttering as she moved. The famous and the fashionable thronged the beautiful galleries.

Earlier in June I had sat in Whitehall- dressed in a big navy straw hat, coral linen dress, and navy court shoes, feeling deliciously elegant- this time in seats obtained by my father, for us to watch the Queen’s Birthday Parade close up. She rode side saddle into the great parade square, escorted by the Royal Dukes on horseback, all gold braid, chain mail, spurs, bearskins and majesty. The Guards and the Household Cavalry trotted and wheeled and manoeuvred in their timeless rituals as the colours were trooped, and we sat spellbound on a perfect summer’s day, the glorious trees of the parks all around framing the pageantry and splendour.

We returned to old Thomas Twining’s two hundred and forty-three year old house down by the Thames, also surrounded by ancient trees, where squirrels scampered along the top of the high Georgian garden walls. A hundred yards away, a small boat was moored. This was an ancient ferry crossing, and a boat had waited there since medieval times, ready to ferry passengers across the river to Ham Common and the beautiful country on the other side of the river.

History and historic houses, parks and woodland dotted the banks along this stretch of the river. I loved it all. And had I known then that I was leaving this blessed plot, this beloved place, ‘this precious stone set in a silver sea’ – this England – forever, I would have been rent with grief.

But then, simply looking forward to our next adventure I set blithely off. Expecting the gentle energy and rich tropical environment of Malaya, I had a terrible shock when we landed in Hong Kong. The army had laid on a bus to take us from Kaitak airport and deposit us at our hotel and as I looked out of the windows in horror at the traffic, black exhaust smoke, pollution and shoddy blocks of flats, there just below our window, was a truck filled with bloody red animal carcasses covered in flies. This nauseating sight accompanied us the whole way to Kowloon and coloured forever my feelings about this extraordinary place.

Our hotel turned out to be plum in the middle of the thriving and noisy red- light district of Kowloon. The girls whose beauty had bowled me over at first with their elegant cheongsams, beautifully coiffed chignons of shining black hair and immaculate make -up turned out to be prostitutes plying what looked like a prosperous trade with the legions of cropped headed American servicemen on R and R – Rest and Recreation – from Vietnam.

Nights were made hideous with the sound of rows and roistering in the bedroom next door, as well as the traffic outside, and honking of horns and shouts of hawkers who never seemed to go to bed. But after various vicissitudes, we eventually found a beautiful flat in Deepwater Bay, across the harbour on Hong Kong Island. It was ideal, as all the other flats were occupied with young families like us, and there was never any lack of playmates.

We had arrived in the blistering heat of summer, but in September something magic happened. The humidity dropped, and the air became crystal, clear and shimmering and the light glittered on the blue and silver sea. The atmosphere changed too and became charged with a beautiful and haunting nostalgia.

After that first year, I waited for the day, and every year the same magic suddenly returned to the strident city, and transmuted for a few glorious weeks, the raucous harshness of the place and people. Some people never noticed the poetry which suddenly flooded those days and nights. Those who did, likened it to the light of the Greek islands. It lasted for a month to six weeks, before ebbing away into the grey mistiness of winter.

The rest of the time for me, Hong Kong was a place to be endured. Yet now, since China has grasped the prize, I sometimes think back with nostalgia to those years spent on that amazing rock, ten miles by five miles, where then, nearly four million people hawked and spat and bargained and gambled and drank and starved and jockeyed for the biggest profits and built the highest high rises.

In the mid-sixties, with Vietnam and flower power both at their zenith, Hong Kong was both a place of rest and recreation for American troops slogging it out in Vietnam, and a place too, where some draft dodgers quietly eked out an alternative life style.

There were also the  grand, old-established British families of several generations who had built up the great English Hongs, or business houses, there were colonies of newsmen, especially from most of the top American news agencies, from CBS and NBC, Life and Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times – to name a few – there were birds of flight from New Zealand and Australia, working their way across to Europe for their OE – overseas experience- refugees from South Africa and apartheid, army and navy contingents, the Foreign Office and government clusters, the Indian community, Portuguese- Chinese immigrants from Macau, the rich Chinese and the endless army of poor Chinese, most of whom had fled China in different waves, ever since the Communist takeover.

This was also the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Just before coming to Hong Kong, I’d read the history of the Boxer Rebellion. It struck me then, even in the mid-twentieth century, that China was a good place to stay away from. At a dinner party one night soon after we had arrived, a handful of us farewelled a lowly foreign office official, named Ray Whitney.

After learning Chinese like my husband and all those dining with us, he’d left the army to join the foreign office and was now posted to what was still known as Peking. Sitting next to Ray after dinner I naively suggested to him that it was a dangerous posting with the Cultural Revolution in full swing, and shades of the Boxer Rebellion. He swung his whole person round to look at me. “My dear young lady”, he exclaimed, ” I regard this as an adventure”.

A few days later, we read the reports of him and his colleague being beaten up on Shanghai Station and smeared with glue. When they reached the British Embassy in Peking, it became their prison. The diplomats there were beaten up while hordes of Chinese Red Guards chanted Kill! Kill! and part of the embassy was set on fire. Back inside, they were besieged, and no-one could leave for nearly eighteen months.

Requests would reach Hong Kong for Italian cook books and the latest novels with which to while away the captivity of an embassy of bored, beleaguered, idle diplomats. (Ray Whitney, a lovely man, had a distinguished career after this, knighted for his very real services, becoming an MP and a member of many influential offices and commissions.)

Reports were also reaching us of cruel mock trials of intellectuals and artists and other Enemies of the People. Old men were made to parade around in dunce’s caps at their trial and sentencing. It was a grotesque gesture by Chinese hooligans who had no idea of the history of Duns Scotus’s medieval hat. The Red Guards had now transformed the symbol for a dunce into a ritual for sadistic humiliation.

This was the year too of the Star Ferry Riots, when the government tried to raise the price of the Star Ferry tickets by one cent, the first rise since 1947. Those riots were just over when we arrived, and the next riots were soon to begin, fuelled by the unrest in China.

A curfew was laid upon the island. Everyone had to be in their homes by some ridiculously early hour like six o clock. I climbed into our turquoise Volkswagon and drove round from Deepwater Bay to a look-out on the Peak. I was the only disobedient soul outside and as an army wife, I felt slightly guilty. I looked down to Victoria, the town centre. Nothing moved.

Trams sat abandoned on the sides of the roads, cars were left empty and parked. The streets were silent and empty. The throngs of shoppers, the hurrying workers, the hawkers and Hakka women in their rattan hats trimmed with black, the street vendors, the prostitutes and the students, the toddlers who lived and played on the pavements, the school children crouched on the side-walk doing their homework in the shelter of a sewing machine or street stall, the rick-shaw men, and the porters in white vests and black shorts and wooden clogs, the business men in grey suits, the camera-laden tourists – all had disappeared.

It was eerie and frightening in the same decade as films of nuclear war and lethal clouds of radio-active dust destroying all life, leaving cities full of dead but still standing. That was how Hongkong looked that night, silent and empty. The silence was almost more un-nerving than the emptiness.

The unrest went underground, and suddenly erupted one hot summer’s afternoon. Perhaps as karma for disobeying the curfew, I found myself in the middle of the next round of dissent. I was driving up Garden Road with the children to see Pat Hangen. She and her children lived on the Peak with her husband Welles, NBC Bureau chief, always away in Vietnam and who later disappeared forever in Cambodia.

I had only recently learned to drive, and uphill starts were still a challenge, though there was only one junction where I might be called upon to use them, I thought. But, as I passed the Helena May Hostel for Young Women, I came on a mass of white-clothed Chinese youths, all shouting and waving Mao’s Little Red Books in the air.

I slowed down, and another group converged from another direction. I tried to edge out of the crowd, but more and more columns kept coming from all directions. I slowed right down to walking pace, and realised I was in the middle of a hostile, fanatical mob, and if I made one mistake, like running back or edging forward too quickly, it would be more than dangerous for me and the two now very silent toddlers in the back.

I wound all the windows up so that air came in through only a crack at the top, and the heat became stifling.   Sweat ran down my face and spine in rivers, soaking my thin cotton dress. The children’s hair was plastered to their heads with sweat and I could smell the musty smell of their damp scalps, and something else – our fear.

There were thousands and thousands of young men shouting in unison and waving their red books in the air. As they moved at slow walking pace, I was obliged to shift the car at the same speed, crunching the hand brake on and off, as we slowly revved up the steep incline. Then, suddenly, I could see where it all ended. They were all advancing on the Governor’s Residence off to our right. Thankfully I left the Governor to it, and made our way to Pat, shaking all over from the tension.

And after that, things took on another momentum, with bombs exploding all over the place, and many areas placed out of bounds to Europeans. The Bank of China in the middle of the city began a propaganda war of noise, blaring out raucous, Chinese communist marching songs and party chants. The deafening noise was augmented by the childish response of the authorities, who used the tower of the Hilton Hotel across the road from the bank, to play decadent, western rock and roll to drown out the Chinese music.

It seemed to go on all summer. What also went on all summer, was the Chinese water torture. Hongkong and the New Territories relied on water supplies from China, and some years, flexing her muscles, and also to annoy, China restricted the water. This revolutionary year was no different and for the four long hot months of sweltering summer, we were severely rationed in order to survive.

There was no water for three days out of four. On the fourth day, water was piped for four hours in the evening, during which time we had the opportunity to fill baths, buckets and every available jug, bottle and kettle with water to last for the next four days. We all also seized the opportunity to shower or bath during this precious four hours.

Unfortunately, our flat was at the top of a twelve-storey building, and the pressure didn’t build up until the water had been on for two hours, so we only had the precious stuff for two hours every four days.

And we were the lucky ones. The Chinese living down in Wanchai and among slums built on the sides of hills from boxes and cardboard, queued for several hundred yards by the intermittent taps. They had to manage with buckets and containers small enough to carry back to their dwelling places. These were the people who had fled China after the Communist takeover and it was their teenage children who were now demonstrating in Hong Kong, mimicking the excesses of the Red Guards under Mao.

The much-maligned Colonial rule in Hong Kong prevented the same victimisation and destruction here. Yet at the same time that these rebellious Hong Kong teenagers were enjoying their Maoist demonstrations, dissidents were risking their lives to escape from China, in the continual exodus which had never ceased since the Nationalists under Mao Tse Tung had driven out the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai Check back in 1949. In 1949 alone, the population of Hong Kong had  doubled.

Since then, the borders had been closed, and now most people slipped across the border in darkness or swam across, and were picked up in the New Territories. These refugees arrived undernourished and dressed in patched rags, testimony to the poverty that reigned in China under Mao. The society they now joined was a heartless one. Many once penniless Chinese had made good in the years since they too had arrived destitute.

They had obliterated their peasant past and educated their children at western schools and universities, penetrating established, rich society. Others had arrived from places like Shanghai with all their riches and built lordly homes on the upper slopes of the great rock which meant safety to them all. But they were indifferent to the plight of the newest arrivals. There were no charitable organisations to help them or the struggling poor. Philanthropy was not a characteristic of Hong Kong society.

A hundred and fifty years before, in 1812, the city of London with a population of a million, had free hospitals, alms houses, dispensaries and nearly three hundred free schools educating, feeding and clothing nearly twenty thousand children. Arthur Bryant, the historian who gathered these facts, wrote that ‘London could claim her real palaces were hospitals. Wren’s Greenwich and Chelsea; Gibb’s St Bartholomew’s with its Hogarth staircase; St Thomas’s with its four great quadrangles treating and discharging 11,000 patients a year; the new “Bethlem” and St Luke’s for the insane, with their enormous classical facades, were buildings that a king might have been proud to inhabit.”’

By contrast there were only two hospitals provided by the government here in Hong Kong for three and a half million people – huge rabbit warrens – not palaces. There were no facilities for the handicapped or insane at all. In a population of four million, there would have been a minimum of 200,000 mentally and physically handicapped, judging by the normal ratio of such figures per head of population. No-one knew where they were, though there were stories of deranged figures chained to verandas.

There were stories of goodness too. Two English teachers received a divine message to go to Hong Kong where a task lay before them. Obediently they packed up and came. Once in the colony, they had no idea what the task might be. They ‘waited on the Lord,’ and seemed to feel they should buy an old house in the New Territories. This they did, still having no idea why.

After a few weeks, they found a baby girl on the doorstep one morning. They took her in. And then the unwanted babies kept coming. They knew their task now, but they had no money. So they prayed for what they needed. And whenever they needed money or assistance, they prayed and it arrived. They called this place the Home of Loving Faithfulness.

The Dean of Hong Kong Cathedral and his wife were very pleased to have a new house built for them among the old trees just behind the Cathedral. It was handy, central, and of course, unlike most vicarages, new and efficient. In order to build this house, a destitute old lady who squatted beneath the trees, and scavenged enough food to cook small meals on a tiny stove, had had to be moved on.

But she always came back. The dean, a good man, and his wife, equally good, then organised a real home in a new block for the old lady, and there she was taken. By the following week she had found her way back, squatting where she had always squatted, which was now the veranda of the brand-new house. There she stayed, her acrid cooking smells drifting through the windows into the house. This was her home, so we have no right to force her to leave, said these worthy representatives of a sometimes-maligned church. So she stayed.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 I love the idea of thrifty ways to avoid wasting food. I found a recipe the other day in one of my scrapbooks for using up the remains of salad leaves to make a good pesto. Whatever the leaves, and someone else tells me she’s used radish leaves – put them in a blender with olive oil, garlic, and grated walnuts, salt and pepper. Whizz enough to make a textured mix – I use it over pasta, or with poached salmon. Amounts of olive oil etc depend on how much wilting lettuce you have in the fridge !!! I grate the nuts in my parmesan cheese grater.

 Food for thought

 This poem by Wendell Berry soothes my soul and brings me peace:

I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

 

 

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Sacred space

Image result for dial house twickenham londonRambling house down by the River Thames where my in-laws lived and I spent much time.

A life – another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

I loved the ordinariness of the countryside. It wasn’t spectacular country, but it contained all the elements of the things which are now becoming rarer. There were thick hedgerows, and wild flowers and long grass in the orchard where the fox sometimes slipped through, on his way to the field where the donkey grazed: little copses, with their bare, spare branches etched against the pale winter sky, or billowing with green foliage against a blue sky in summer: woodpigeons cooed, cuckoos called, thrushes sang, and the smells of cut grass and manure, of wet leaves and sweet lilacs scented the clean air.

There was no hum of traffic from a distant motorway and few  sounds apart from the occasional drone from a tractor, the creaking braying of the donkey, and contented cows mooing on their way to  milking.

There were other things which showed me the dark side of modem farming. Henry the farmer, who gently patted his thirty prize cows on their rumps as they slowly filed past to the milking shed, where they stood and gave up their warm, creamy milk to the strains of Viennese waltzes, showed me with pride, his solitary calves. Each one was alone and imprisoned in iron cradles where they stood unable to move, turn or lie down, trapped in compartments in pitch-dark sheds, preparing to become white veal. I’ve never eaten veal since.

The house had no mod cons – everything was as it had been since the Victorian aunt’s childhoods. We had never been able to afford a washing machine for the babies’ nappies, so the lack of one was no drawback for me. So, while each baby luxuriated in smocked viyella nighties from the White House in Bond Street and was aired daily in the expensive pram bought by doting paternal grandparents, their nappies were washed the old-fashioned way. In a boiler.

This was filled with a hose from the kitchen tap. I then switched on the heater in the boiler and let the water boil, bubbling and swirling the soap-sudded nappies. They always had the same smell, those boiled soap suds. At the end of the boiling operation which filled the kitchen with steam, I wheeled the pulsating monster to the kitchen sink, and gingerly prised the lid off. Then, with a pair of wooden tongs in theory, but in practise with a wooden spoon, I poked around the scalding nappies until one became hooked on the spoon. With a quick swing it was transferred from boiler to sink, and then the endless rinsing process began.

Nappy by nappy was hooked and swung from boiler to sink, steam misting up the windows, and billowing out through the kitchen door to the rest of the house. My fingers became so swollen that I couldn’t wear my rings any more. Some days I was only one dry nappy ahead of the babies. Now Newney Hall didn’t even have a boiler, but at least Napisan, (hurray,) had arrived on the market, and banished my boiling days forever, however un-hygienic the nappies may have been.

The amenities of the house began and ended with the calor gas stove, while the bathroom and loo were directly above the kitchen, presumably to economise on plumbing. Since the staircase was the other end of the house, this meant walking or running the whole length of the house twice to get upstairs to the bathroom, but at twenty- seven years old the inconveniences didn’t seem to matter.

Living so far away from the shops didn’t matter either. The village grocer delivered our food for the week on Friday afternoons. The butcher called in his van three times a week, as did the baker. The greengrocer called twice a week, and the milkman called every day to supply not just milk to use up the baby coupons, but also yogurt and butter.

My husband left first thing in the morning for the London train, taking the old Morris Traveller with him to the station. I found expensive purchases hidden in the back of that car – a hat from Lock’s, the oldest hat makers in the world, who’d been in business since 1676 – Nelson was wearing one of their tricornes at Trafalgar). There was a shirt from Gieves  (Nelson was wearing a suit made by the original Mr Gieves at Trafalgar too). I worried my extravagant husband was getting into debt again while I couldn’t afford a new lipstick). When we’d waved him away, toddler peeping over the stable door of the kitchen, the baby perched on my hip, we returned to the kitchen table to finish our breakfast.

After hastily scrubbing the high chair before the spat- out cereal set like concrete, polishing the chrome on the pram so my mother- in- law would not silently notice spots or rust marks, I handwashed cobweb-like shawls and lacy matinee jackets in cold water so that my mother-in-law could not suggest I’d turned them yellow by washing them in hot water.

And then more vacuuming, (why did I think it all had to be done every day? – ready for inspection, ma’am – my mother-in-law lived miles away ) sweeping, dusting, regular stoking of the fire, the acres of red and white tiled kitchen floor to be washed free of mud, all kept me busy till the baby woke and lunch loomed, and then the sieving and straining and mashing began, before more face-washing and bib-tying and strapping baby into his high chair and hoisting the toddler onto a cushion on a kitchen chair.

The slow routine of spooning and cooing to the baby and answering the toddler’s continuous eighteen- month- old chatter ended, with more face-washing and changes of nappies, before putting both children down for an afternoon sleep. This was the one hour in the day to myself. I ate my lunch standing at the draining board – cheese and biscuits – reading the newspapers –  Guardian and Telegraph from front to back – I’ve never been better informed. I didn’t dare read a book as I would have forgotten the time and my duties.

I was so tired I didn’t dare sit down either, or I would never have got up again. I hadn’t had an unbroken night’s sleep since the first child was born, and now, with the baby’s night feeds and the other’s broken nights ever since her father had returned from Cyprus, I was so ground down that I couldn’t imagine what it felt like to be normal. Staying for Christmas with the in -laws, my mother- in- law told her son, who told me – how plain I had become. She was right!

The newspapers only lasted till the first child woke, and then their faithful slave would bound up the stairs or rush outside to the pram, checking the nappies, and freshening up their faces before we got dressed for our walk.

Living in a northern climate one becomes accustomed to the hours spent preparing to go outside into the cold or the rain. It must have taken twenty minutes or more to swathe each child in coats, hoods and zip-up jackets, ease tiny, bunched feet into warm boots, and wriggle fat, plasticine-like fingers into gloves or mittens. Then the strapping into the pram, buckling the harness, propping baby up on the pillows, tucking in the rugs to keep out the draughts, and finally, flinging on my sheepskin and gloves, wandering out at snail’s pace or toddler-pace, to gasp fresh air in lanes where the pram would go.

We never met another soul, looking across the frosty, bare, ploughed fields. We were five miles from the village and buried in primeval privacy. Back home, we watched the cows go past for milking, which was the signal for our tea-time. This meal, composed of much the same ingredients as lunch, but including any cakes I might have found time to make during my lunch break, began around four- thirty. This I know, because I switched on the radio when we started, to catch the five ‘o clock news, and so as not to disturb the children’s concentration by leaping up to switch on during their meal.

So I became a captive listener to ‘Mrs Dales’ Diary’, as I waited for the news to come on, and spooned food and baby talk into thrush-like, open mouths around the fireside. I listened with stilled breath to the Congo disasters, the Rhodesian Declaration of Independence, the bombing in Vietnam, the mistakes and injustices of authority all over the world, it seemed, yet these were almost incidental. The pressing reason for listening to the news was for the sheer pleasure of hearing another adult voice, to break the boredom and monotony of the endlessly repeated trivial tasks.

In summer, at twenty- past five every day, we watched the goose spoon water with her beak over her two goslings at the duck pond, before climbing the stairs for our baby bath-time and bed- time. It was always early – because they were ready for it, I said, and needed their sleep. So by six o’clock every night silence reigned. Perhaps they did need it – they certainly never argued and fell asleep straight away – but the real reason was that I needed it. People used to comment on how beautifully behaved they were – because they were always attended to – instantly!

Before the words ‘suburban neurosis’ had been coined, I’d have been ashamed to admit the boredom to anyone, but a wave of relief swept over me, unacknowledged every night, as I walked downstairs and poured a drink into a civilised, crystal sherry glass, for my one leisurely tot before beginning the cookhouse stint for my husband’s  dinner.

My marriage was breaking down already though my husband refused to go for counselling with marriage guidance. But before we left for Hong Kong, I had made a life for myself and found a circle of friends, Margery, the farmer’s wife who wrote poetry and read her poems aloud with a group called Poetry in Pubs. My nearest neighbour, was the Hon Jean, who had children the same age, which was the only thing we had in common, but she seemed to need me. Lady Selina, who divided her time equally between her painting, the stables and her children, and was both a Quaker, and a sort of enfant terrible was stimulating, while sweet Jennifer, whose children always fought with mine, shared a passion with me for interior decoration and gardening.

Eventually we left that enchanted house to go to Hong Kong, where the hectic life and chaos of those times almost obliterated the memories of that year in the country. But for years I have dreamt of that beloved house. In my dreams it’s bigger, and there are many more rooms. The furniture is more elegant and the rooms more beautiful.

There’s one room which is filled with such treasures that I only go into it sometimes… it feels sacred. I have no idea why I dream so often of this house I lived in for a short year so long ago. I don’t know what it symbolizes. I’ve lived in other houses and places just as magical…  no doubt a psychologist would mine some profound Jungian theory from these dreams, delving into the unconscious and maybe coming up with an archetype!

We spent the last few weeks in England with the in-laws at their rambling red brick Georgian house down by the river Thames. Built by Thomas Twining of the tea family in 1722, a big sun dial told the hours on the front of the house above the front door. Inside it was decorated with glorious colours and filled with treasures and exquisite antiques and china collected by my deaf, difficult, demanding mother- in- law, whose creativity and taste taught me so much.

The night we left, as we sat in a big car lent by friends of the in-laws to accommodate all our luggage, we four and the in-laws who were seeing us off on our plane, I looked up at the old house, illuminated by the street lights and wondered when I would see it again. No presentiment warned me it would be twelve years before I saw that sun dial again, after what had seemed like a life-time of heart-break, adventure, life in a far country, second marriage and extraordinary experiences.

To be continued

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

 A friend who has her mahjong foursome to stay here in the forest for a weekend once a year, usually brings them to my place for afternoon tea and we have a great girls natter. They always love my scones and want the recipe. This is it, so quick and easy: eight to ten ounces of SR flour, pinch salt and two to two and a half ounces of butter – I simply grate it cold from the fridge. Mix this altogether with an egg beaten in a cup of milk until it all comes together. Use more milk if you need, to make a soft dough.

I don’t bother to roll it or use a pastry cutter. Just gently knead it into a square, about an inch thick, cut it into small squares, and place with a space between them on a greased baking tin. Some say leave it in the fridge to cool… sometimes I do – if I don’t have time – que sera sera. Bake in hottish oven for fifteen minutes or until risen and done. Serve hot with butter, strawberry jam and whipped cream if you have it. If there are any left over (not often) I fry them with bacon and fried egg… nice…

Food for thought

You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to satisfy me… CS Lewis – a man after my own heart.

 

 

 

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Living in Splendour

 

Image result for layer marney towers
Layer Marney Towers – photo by Rachael Pereira photography

A life – another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

Within two months I was pregnant again, and within four months we had moved house again. I was just as under the weather with this baby too, and also had a baby to care for. My husband was often away on army manoeuvres and what were called practise camps, so there wasn’t much support around.

The one difference this time was that I knew another young army wife with two young children who was as lonely and stressed as I was. Neither of us could drive, but we both had a telephone. We spent hours on it, never saying anything of much import, but just whiling away the time talking to another adult. We had very little in common, and when I moved house again some months later, I never heard from her again. But we’d each served a purpose in each other’s lives at that moment in time.

This time around too I also had the absorbing interest of watching my daughter growing. I’d discovered a fascination with child development after reading a sociological magazine called New Society for several years. Now I was watching child development in action.  I knew from my reading that from eighteen months to three years, when the brain is at its most active, children are like sponges, soaking up words, information and new skills and that between the ages of eighteen months and three, the toddler’s brain is twice as active as the adult brain.

As I watched my daughter, I could see that the range of skills babies acquire -physical, mental and emotional – was awe-inspiring. And I was watching a baby of ten months thinking and deducting. One Friday afternoon as I sat on the sofa feeling ill, hearing the helpful local grocer deliver our box of groceries for the week and leave it in the kitchen, my ten- month old daughter skated into the kitchen on her bottom, her normal mode of getting about. I let her. Some-time later she came through to the sitting room and tugged my hand, making it clear she wanted me to go into the kitchen.

When I did, I was awed. She had unpacked the box, putting the butter, cheese, bacon and yogurt by the fridge door which she couldn’t open. Neither could she open the cupboard door under the sink but the things like wash-up liquid, harpic, vim etc were neatly lined up by the cupboard door.

The jams, tins of baked beans etc, were neatly lined up on the lowest shelf in the larder where they were stored. Everything was in its place. Unbeknown to me she had watched me and learned where everything went, even stuff like baked beans and cleaning materials that she had no truck with. She’s continued to organise me ever since…

Her brother’s birth some months later and a fortnight early was so painful that I passed out, having no pain threshold at all, and my last thought being; “this is worse than anything I thought possible.” When I regained consciousness, I found a whole host of seemingly worried people gathered around my bed. I left hospital the next day so that my daughter wouldn’t notice that I’d gone and revelled in being thin again, and fitting into a tight pale blue dress bought by mail for three pounds from Kings Road, Chelsea, fashion capital of the world for my generation!

Shortly after the birth of his son, my restless husband decided to apply to learn Mandarin-Chinese and take off for Hongkong. This entailed spending a year at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, before attending Hongkong University for several years. So we had to find somewhere to live within reach of the capital.

One night I was cursorily scanning the personal columns of the Daily Telegraph looking for somewhere to live. My husband was away with his regiment on manoeuvres, and I was filling in the trying gap between the baby’s ten o’clock and two o’clock feed.

I found a few lines offering a country house in the right area for nearly the right price – for a year. The next day I rang. The owner was delighted – he was off to Greenwich Naval College and wanted someone to keep his house warm. “Chudor, ya’ know,” he told me, listing the bedrooms… he said he’d pay the gardener.

We arranged a time that weekend to inspect the place, and when my husband returned the next day he went off on what he called a recce. He came back looking rather panic-stricken. “It’s bigger than Hampton Court,” he said, “and looks like it too, all red brick.”

Reference books describe the place – Layer Marney Towers as a Tudor palace, composed of buildings, gardens and parkland, dating from 1520. The handsome red brick gate house is the tallest in England.

Undaunted, I persevered, rather fancying the idea of living in a stately home. We’d never be able to heat it, my husband argued, and then I saw the light – with an eighteen- month- old and a four- month- old, that mattered.

So I returned to the personal columns, and struck gold a week later. “This one sounds OK”, I said,” right area, right rent, and only five bedrooms” (my ideas had expanded considerably since my brush with Layer Marney Towers the previous week). I rang the owner – same story – wanted someone to live in it for a year, this time while he wound up his boat building business in East Anglia. “You’ll love it,” he said, and reeled off the amenities: “there’s the garden bedroom, the oak bedroom, the red bedroom, the four- poster bedroom, and the end bedroom…” My husband panicked again.

But a few days later we set off on a light June evening driving through quiet Essex lanes, with honeysuckle and dog roses winding in among the high hazel, hawthorn and elderberry hedges. We found Newney Hall (also a listed historic building) dreaming between fields and hedgerows, a small lake – which in the twilight was almost black and edged with a tangle of lilacs and shrubs – lying between it and the road. The house, Tudor red brick, and Essex pantiles on the upper floor with casement windows, stretched beyond the lake, reaching into a circular lawn with a cedar in the middle. Beyond that, a walled orchard.

As we walked down the gravel drive I could hear the sounds of music coming from the house. A knock on the door revealed a rather vague looking woman with a viola tucked under one arm, and the bow held in her other hand, as though she could hardly bear to stop between bars to open the door. “George!” she called imperiously, and the seigneur hurried to welcome us. Within minutes the deal was done, and we moved in a week or so later.

The house had been built in the time of Edward the Sixth, Henry the Eighth’s son, and all the land around had been gifted to Wadham College, Oxford in the same reign, so nothing in the landscape had changed for over four hundred years. The fields and trees, lanes and barns were untouched by time, and since there was no sound of traffic, no jet planes practising, and only occasionally the sound of a distant tractor, the whole place lay wrapped in an almost primeval peace. There was no other house in sight.

Wood pigeons cooed incessantly somewhere in the trees, cocooning us in their summer sounds, the donkey in the next field brayed occasionally, the cows mooed as they shambled past to the milking shed at the farm beyond the house. The old black painted, red-roofed tiled barns, grain sheds on staddle stones, and stables were laid out around a square, where the cows sheltered in winter. I walked across to the cow- shed every day, my eighteen month old trotting along beside me, baby on my hip, and carrying a big cream- ware jug in which to to collect my fresh milk. We also went there to pick up new-laid eggs from the farmer.

The house was built from huge beams and filled in between them with a mixture of mud and straw. They were plastered over, and the walls were about three feet thick, with deep window ledges where I put books and vases of flowers. Two old aunts had been living in the house before expiring and gifting it to George. In the mid-sixties they were over ninety, and the house was unchanged since the days when they had been born back in the 1870’s. So was the dust. When I moved an antique chest of drawers to dust behind it, a thrush disintegrated into fine powder.

I scrubbed and polished, opened windows, put flowers in jugs in the deep window sills, polished brass, and made the tables shine, re-arranged the country Hepplewhite chairs, and the drop-leaf Sheraton table, cleared thick cobwebs from behind the family portraits and arranged our still -new wedding presents, clocks and silver, antique oriental rugs and a few good prints and pictures, all my books, and the baby’s equipment and paraphernalia.

I spring cleaned from top to bottom, washed curtains, scrubbed floors,  and polished and dusted the elegant Chippendale chairs. It was like living in a time warp. No heating, a gas stove so old I’d never seen one like it, and neither had the serviceman when he came. If it’s working, best leave it, he said, shaking his head. I had a big kitchen with a big square scrubbed table in the middle, red and white checked tiled floor which needed scrubbing on my hands and knees every week, and a real larder with marble slab. The only gadgets – my wedding present pop-up toaster and a wooden spoon!

At weekends, we filled the house with friends and others. School friends from Malaya, friends from my laughing, irresponsible army days, all of us weighted down with two and sometimes a half, children. Anne coming to stay while her husband laboured through Staff College, forgot the address, so simply peered at windows of large houses till she saw toys in them, she said.

Others came in distress, a girl friend known since childhood days at Catterick, diagnosed with MS, a fellow officer of my husband’s who’d been court- martialled, and who had nowhere to go; then there was the Polish-French, Quaker student at London University who’d never been invited to an English home in his previous three years, and who told my husband I worked too hard – which puzzled me exceedingly – didn’t everyone who had children?

There was the person behind an SOS in the personal columns of the Telegraph – pregnant and needing a home. She stayed for six long weeks, lolling around the house in pink, fluffy, bed-room slippers, never leaving me in privacy with my new-found neighbourly friends, and not enjoying my food. She’d left a previous haven because she didn’t like the vegetarian food. She left us after six weeks for another address, presumably hoping the food there would be better. She’d arranged to give the baby to a woman who wanted one!

And there was my teenage cousin who introduced me to the Beatles – not in person! She had a genius IQ and had been sent to an expensive boarding school to make the most of it. But she hated her school, and at this juncture, her mother too, so she came to us for regular holidays with tangled hair and skimpy skirts. There were parents and in -laws, brothers and their girl- friends, Helen, my former colonel, now a god-mother… and then back to primeval peace during the week

All this entertaining meant lots of food and cooking. Now we were at last the grateful recipients of marriage allowance, I was able to move on from mince and baked beans and tins of stewed steak and indulge in good food and pander to my sweet tooth with chocolate souffles, choux pastries, croquembouche, mousses and more.

My husband meanwhile had made plenty of new friends in his new working environment, including a pretty blonde girl called Angela. Although I liked her when he brought her home, we had several fierce rows because he went to parties with her, leaving me at home with the babies. I tried everything to make home seem attractive, cooking delicious dinners for him, having a drink waiting for him when he got home…

One night during one an angry argument about Angela, I dumped his steak and kidney pudding and vegetables on my husband’s head in despair. Mistake. He was a tall powerful man who never understood that when he hit my head with the full force of his hand, I wasn’t doing a Hollywood as he called it, when I sank to the ground too nauseous and dizzy to stay upright. On this night, apart from painful physical reprisals, I’d given myself lots of cleaning up to do.

And later, I lay in the long sweet -smelling grass in the orchard, where I’d seen the red fox glide through, and cried my eyes out under the late evening summer sky. At twenty- seven I thought no-one would ever love me.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 I’ve always made the same recipe for chocolate mousse, using an egg per six squares of dark chocolate, but this three ingredient recipe from NZ cookery writer, Annabel Langbein, is a delicious quick alternative. She uses 200g dark chocolate and recommends chocolate with as high a chocolate content as possible – I use 72% .

Break the chocolate into squares and melt very slowly and gently with a cup of cream and a cup of white marshmallows. (250 ml of cream, and 100gm of marshmallows.)

When smooth and melted remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Beat remaining cream to soft peaks and fold through chocolate mixture. Pour into glasses or bowls and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or overnight before serving.

Most recipes recommend putting the ingredients in a bowl and placing over boiling water to melt. I’ve never bothered. I just put everything into a saucepan and gently melt. The trick is to do it slowly so the mixture doesn’t go grainy but becomes smooth. And if it does become grainy, this doesn’t affect the taste, so you can soldier on regardless! And I always add a few drops of vanilla to the mix.

Food for thought

 We are all broken. That’s how the light gets in.

Ernest Hemingway, American writer and hell-raiser

Having huge issues with internet, so apologies for no response to the beautiful comments before this page clicks out on me. Back soon !!

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The Land between the Rock and the Hard Place

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Am too technically incompetent to reduce the size of this outrageously large picture

A Life – another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

I loved my time in the army. I made friends I still have today. I could afford holidays with them in Provence, and Majorca when it was still empty and unknown. I had beautiful clothes. I had a social life that swung between visiting married friends at weekends, to parties with dashing cavalry officers and staying with their titled parents, to holidays on my own roaming the beloved dales and the moors of Swaledale, or riding across Exmoor and Lorna Doone country on my best friend’s horses with her family.

My army career blossomed, I received promotions very early and was given responsibility far beyond my rank and years, being promoted to captain when I was twenty- two. My last dream job was lecturing all over England and Wales armed with a car and a driver, which also meant staying in the best hotels and in my spare time exploring cathedral towns and remote villages in glorious country-side.

It all came crashing down one day at home on leave. A letter arrived for me from my step-grandfather. I thought it might be a suggestion to meet for lunch as we sometimes did. But it was a deeply underlined request to come to his flat secretly one evening – and tell no-one – in capital letters.

My stepmother saw her father’s hand-writing and insisted on reading it. She hit the roof and accused me of having a fully- fledged affair with him. Her dislike for me – we could only be in each other’s company for short periods before her hostility began to manifest – now crystallised into loathing, and she blamed me for leading him on, and aiming to get my hands on his money – a gold digger she called me.

I left home feeling I could never return, and when my father, who had never taken the episode seriously, began secretly coming to see me I felt that I must be causing trouble between him and my stepmother. I felt the only way out of the impasse was to get married and make a home of my own, and then it would be natural that I wouldn’t be coming home.

With that intention I soon met someone, convinced myself that I loved him, and we became engaged. The engagement survived the freezing legendary winter of ‘62/63, driving around in his unheated MG in a sheepskin coat, and I was grateful too, that this was the year woolly tights were invented.

My engagement ring somehow symbolised the future. I had just wanted an in-expensive antique ring, but my future mother- in- law apparently deemed this unsuitable. She invited me to tea, and as we finished our cherry cake, a knock on the door produced the local jeweller with a tray of conventional rings with no price tags. I was mortified, but chose the ring I disliked least, feigning delight, and knowing that she was paying for it, not my fiancée.

Trying to be like all my friends and pretending that I had a normal loving home like everyone else – it had always felt so shameful not to be loved – I organised a traditional wedding and paid for it…from the engagement notices in the Times and Telegraph and printed invitations, to the flowers and church, the wedding cake and reception, the cars and the white satin dress. During this time, I had returned home, and paid my stepmother an in-ordinate sum for the privilege of sleeping on the sofa, since my step-grandmother now lived in my bedroom.

My new husband had grandiose ideas, so we were booked into the Savoy Hotel for the first night of our honeymoon, before travelling first class to Cornwall, where after a night in another expensive hotel we caught a plane to the Scilly Isles for two weeks in another expensive hotel.

Our first night in the Scilly Isles life came crashing down again.                                             My husband asked me for a cheque to pay for the honeymoon, pay off all his debts, and his overdraft at the bank. “I promised the bank manager I’d pay it with your money as soon as we were married”, he told me. (I’ve sometimes wondered what the bank manager must have thought of this promise)

The amount swallowed nearly all my savings after the expense of the wedding. It felt as though a prison cell door had just banged shut behind me. I wept and rolled around on the bed in agony. My husband simply couldn’t understand why I was so upset. He simply couldn’t see why it felt like a betrayal. And I was right to fear the future. This was only the first of many betrayals awaiting me.

Somehow, I put the misery to one side, and tried to make the best of things. Just as well, as within a couple of weeks I was felled with morning sickness. Only it wasn’t morning sickness. It was all day sickness. I carried a saucepan around with me, in the house and in the car. In 1963, two years after thalidomide had been withdrawn, the doctor was not going to give me anything to help, he just said it would pass, so I tried every folk remedy from raw carrots to ginger biscuits!

I also got hopelessly behind with things like the washing! Being something of a dandy, my husband owned fifty- two shirts, and one hot June day we came to the end of them. They were all piled into the dirty linen basket. With a handful of other young married couples, we had gathered in someone’s army quarter to pass round The News of The World and read the latest instalment of the Profumo scandal.

My husband was down to his last shirt – so old it had no sleeves, but he’d hidden this deficiency with a tweed sports jacket. Everyone ribbed him mercilessly until he ruefully took off the jacket – with an apologetic glance in my direction – revealing the humiliating shirt and my in-adequacy!

It was worse when we were visiting his mother at Christmas. She was a perfectionist who ruled her family with an iron hand, but not with that velvet glove. She found her precious son was wearing summer pyjamas in winter. She was mystified – I gave him lots of warm viyella pyjamas – she kept saying until I confessed they were all stuffed in the dirty linen basket… but pregnancy was no excuse for not looking after her son properly!

Towards the end of November, sitting on the sofa, feeling ill as usual, and waiting for my husband to come home, he arrived through the door in some haste at twenty-past seven. He hurried to the radio and turned it on saying President Kennedy had been shot. As I was pooh-poohing any truth in it, citing De Gaulle’s escape from 140 bullets the year before, the Archers – the long running farming serial –  was interrupted.

An announcer told us that President Kennedy had just died. Like everyone else, we were stunned – it seemed unbelievable. The life and light of a leader who personified hope for the world just snuffed out. The inspiration of our generation gone, with no warning. Only grief and disbelief left to us.

Two days later we were at dinner in Winchester with my oldest school friend from Malaya. Her husband turned on the television to watch the news. As we watched, still shaken and shocked from the assassination, we saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald, there under our very eyes as we watched – at that very moment in time. That, too, seemed unbelievable. The whole world seemed to rock.

Lack of money beset us from the start of the marriage, as my new husband was a year too young to receive ration allowance, which started when officers were twenty-five. The idea was to discourage early marriage so young officers were keener to go out and be killed fighting than if they had a wife and family!

With all my savings gone, in the last few weeks of pregnancy we were so skint, that I gave my husband the only good piece of jewellery I had ever bought for myself – an amethyst ring – to go and sell to raise some money. Predictably we didn’t get very much… just enough to buy food for that weekend.

We had moved house, from a posting in Wiltshire to an army quarter in Essex, in the last month of pregnancy, and I had managed to get a bed in a London teaching hospital. Still vomiting to the last, I weighed a stone less the day after the birth. To the envy of the other mothers, my clothes were hanging off me after the baby was born – unscathed by her mother’s ordeal- bouncing, bonny and over seven and a half pounds.

I had never gone back to the unhelpful doctor, so had missed out on pre-natal information, and had no idea what birth was actually about, my best information being from’ Gone with the Wind’ and Melanie hanging onto a knotted towel so as not to groan.

No knotted towel, but gritted teeth meant that I heard the nurse in the labour ward tell my husband he might as well go home since I was asleep. So he did, even though I raised my head and said I was awake! When the baby was born later that night, it was one of the most beautiful moments of my life when she was placed in my arms already sucking her thumb.

That beautiful moment was somewhat marred some hours later when a trainee African doctor from Khartoum who hardly spoke any English, and didn’t seem to have heard of anaesthetics, marched in, ignored my protests and sewed me up with nothing to dull the pain.

When that was over, I was handed a telegram which had just reached the hospital. The words simply said: “Gone to Cyprus”. My husband’s regiment had been sent – as the last men standing – to douse the flames of civil war in Cyprus. The month before in January, after  Zanzibar had exploded, the armies of Tanganyika, Uganda and Kenya had  mutinied over pay and conditions, and each government had asked Britain to send troops to help. It felt as though half Africa was in a state of insurrection with British troops flying everywhere.

My husband’s regiment was on standby for the next emergency, and it had arrived- Greeks and Turks at each other’s throats in Cyprus. The Daily Express wrote that “25,000 Turks have already been forced to leave their homes”, and the Guardian reported a massacre of Turkish-Cypriots at Limassol on 16 February 1964, the day my daughter was born.

It’s hard to explain how vulnerable I felt – psychologically I needed someone to care for me while I cared for the new baby, while we were suddenly much worse off financially with me in one place, and him in another. I hardly knew the house we had just moved to, and I was terrified of my new born baby, not having any idea how to care for her.

I left hospital after a week and went to stay with my in-laws for two weeks. Then my father drove me back to the army quarter I’d briefly lived in. Painters had come in while I was away, and the house was cold, damp and depressing with white paint spots over everything, including my bright new, stainless steel, wedding present pop-up toaster. The painters had obviously not bothered to use drop cloths. All my neighbours –  other army wives – had packed up and gone home to their families, so I was high and dry and alone.

I couldn’t drive the car parked in the garage, had no phone, and had to walk pram and baby through the cold foggy February weather to the village shop two miles away, to get shillings to feed the gas meter for heating. I was frightened and depressed. And the baby had colic. She cried for most of the day and night while I paced up and down with her in my arms, before collapsing with a fierce migraine when she was six weeks old.

So now, like the other wives, I packed up too and went to stay with my in-laws in London for a few weeks before taking the train to Manorbier at the furthest tip of Wales, where my best friend from our army days now lived. Her baby was a year older, and the weeks spent here were full of joyful jokes, as though we were still carefree and unmarried. Her friendly husband watched us in tolerant amusement. We still hark back in our letters to the fun we had then, and I turned my life around in that time. My daughter thrived and I got my courage back again.

When I returned to the house in Essex, I had enough energy now to tackle the over grown lawn, mowing three square feet with a push lawn mower every night after the baby was in bed, until I completed it. I began walking the pram into town a couple of miles away and attending the baby clinic every week for weighing and measuring, until they said I only needed to bring the baby every two weeks. It never occurred to me to tell them that this was the only time I saw anyone to talk to.

And now a few old friends came to stay, and one or two families trickled back into neighbouring army quarters.  I stopped fearing that my husband would be shot by Greeks or Turks. His regiment had now become part of the UN peacekeeping force, patrolling the Green Line.

After six months he returned and I was rather taken aback to find a cache of new clothes made by a local tailor in his luggage, and also to discover that he had learned to swim, thanks to the friendship of a girl from the Foreign Office. He hadn’t mentioned either of these things in his in-articulate weekly letters, but I pushed my surprise to the back of my mind.  The second day he was back, I realised as we sat in the sunshine in the garden, that I was bored, and supposed that this was one of the inevitable stages of marriage.

To be continued…

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 I’m not really a meat eater, especially when it comes to beef. So cooking one of Himself’s favourite things – spaghetti Bolognaise  – is always a bit of a chore. But I’ve just discovered the answer for me – in the Daily Mail of all places. Only three ingredients needed, and the whole thing can bubble away while I beef up the Bolognaise! I halved the amount, so used one tin of tomatoes, the recommended onion, and three tablespoons of butter. For four people, double the ingredients, apart from the onion. Don’t chop the onion, just peel and cut in half. Put everything in a saucepan and let it all bubble gently for forty -five minutes, stirring occasionally. Just before serving, fish out the onion. The resulting rich smooth tomato sauce over pasta and sprinkled with freshly grated parmesan is food for the gods. Who needs beef?

 Food for thought

‘Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one.’ Stella Adler – actress and acting teacher

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A soldier’s life is terrible hard! (says Alice)

Image result for duchess of kent in wrac uniform

A life  – another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

Gentle in manner, resolute in deed, was the motto of the lady-like group of women I now joined – no rifles, mud-covered faces, raucous corporals or killing fields for us. The picture above is our Colonel Commandant, the Duchess of Kent, and my company commander, Major Betty Metcalfe- veteran of the war, and a blonde, elegant blue- eyed woman.

The recruiting officer had sent me to the Regular Commissions Board to see if I was officer material. Here I had had a pleasant surprise – though I was the youngest, everyone else was young and full of fun –  and life began to look up. I jumped through all the hoops for three days, and was eventually informed that I was indeed officer material.

Back home waiting for the date to join up, when I continued to drive my parents mad dreaming around the place, and my father had uttered with relish threats like: “they’ll wake you up when you join the army”, and: “you’re going to get the shock of your life when you get there”, I wasn’t too worried.

I got to the WRAC Depot on the wrong day, just as I’d got the dates wrong all my life, taking half term holidays when every-one else was at school, arriving to catch the plane as it landed the other end, taking a train to Chester instead of York, or Birmingham instead of Cardiff.

My unheralded arrival at the depot caused great consternation, and several anxious conferences I discovered later. It was decided to park me with the recruit company which was already half way through its training. The quartermaster resolutely refused to issue me with a uniform, because it would screw up her account books, but was prevailed upon to allow me a pair of shoes in order to do all the marching I was about to embark on.

Not knowing the procedure, when they took me to the quartermaster’s stores, I took fitting my shoes as seriously as though I was in Russell and Bromley buying some fabulously expensive gear. I pinched the toes, checked the heels, worried about the width, and walked up and down trying several different ones for size, while the quartermaster’s staff looked on in dumb disbelief, and allowed me to get away with it, since I was obviously away with the fairies! Later I discovered that it was just a question of saying your size and taking what you were given. Ignorance/innocence was bliss…

I was then escorted to the barrack-room, with a corporal helping me to carry my suit case. As we neared the entrance, I heard the clatter of seventy pairs of shoes thundering along wooden floors, and can still remember my subconscious thought, “Oh, they must have taken the carpets up for cleaning…”

Since the quartermaster – a fearsome figure – had dug her toes in over my uniform, I had to trail around at the end of the squad in my old red raincoat, the only thing I had to wear. Every time the Colonel – another fearsome figure – saw my red mac, it was worse than a red rag to a bull, because she then trounced the harried Adjutant for the incompetence of everyone down the chain of command who hadn’t issued me with uniform. Thus, unbeknown to me, I became famous or rather, infamous throughout the depot.

Meanwhile I solemnly got on with the job of being a recruit, with a lot of help from my fellows, who thought I was going to be a clerk or a cook like them. Since I was out of sequence with the other officer cadets, I was in with a room of diverse and fascinating girls, some escaping the slums, some escaping their parents, others escaping an unhappy marriage, or a cruel employer. There were also two girls from the Gorbals, the notorious Glasgow slums, whose speech was salted with curses and swear words – most of them new to my ears.

One night, after another exhausting day of: “by the right, by the left”, right wheeling, left wheeling, right form, and lectures, with the same programme awaiting us the next day, I got tired of their strident voices and obscenities keeping us all awake while we tried to get our much- needed sleep. I said to them very crisply in my pukka Queen’s English, down the length of the barrack room – “Good Bloody Night !” There followed a deafening silence and I went straight off to sleep.

At lunch-time the next day, a deputation from the barrack room came to me, and asked me very seriously not to be corrupted, and start using bad language. They gently told me I’d been brought up properly, and they didn’t want me to be influenced by people who didn’t know any better! I promised them I’d be a good girl, thinking of my father, and wondering if he would think I was getting that shock to the system that was going to wake me up!

Because I’d muddled up my dates, when I emerged as a fully- fledged recruit, my fellow officer cadets were still some weeks behind me, so I was a spare wheel. They invented a temporary rank for me, and I was called a Senior Private. I had the job of marching the new recruits to the cookhouse, which was no sinecure, because you had to remember the right military words of command, shout them loud enough for a long column to hear, and get them timed for the right feet to come to a halt in sequence.

My counting was a shambles so the girls stumbled instead of coming to a brisk halt, and the worst time was when we’d reached the cook house and I couldn’t remember the word for Halt! Finally, as they were in danger of piling up against the door, continuing to march with no word of command to halt them, I shouted “Stop!” in desperation, and I could hear them all muttering things like, “we didn’t get the right foot… she didn’t give us the right command… what’s wrong with her”… responsibility is a terrible thing, I would have told Alice.

By now I was in a new barrack room with all the tough old hands, and one morning in the first week, someone dropped their highly polished shoes for parade, and exclaimed: “Shit”. There was a heavy intake of breath around the room, and then silence. She turned to me and said “I’m sorry”. “Why apologise to me?” I asked in amazement. “Because we all decided we wouldn’t swear when you came into this room,” she said!

My poor father would have been sadly disappointed – coddled and protected, when was I going to wake up?  But a soldier’s life was terrible fun! So after my somewhat chequered career as a recruit I set off for officer cadet school with the rest of my intake – all eleven of us who had surfaced from the forty other applicants.

I learned later that it was no coincidence that the Colonel happened to come past the transport as we left, looking keenly at me! Oblivious to the impact I had had on various unfortunates at the depot, I discovered that officer cadet school was just like going back to boarding school, only better – I got paid!. As the youngest, and just out of school, I probably found it easier than the rest who had enjoyed their freedom. But to me, regular study periods, meals in the dining room, putting on uniform every day, was just more of the same.

Cadet school was set in a camp left behind by the Canadians after D –Day. Our nearest neighbours were the TB patients in the next- door sanatorium. No potential there for hobnobbing with the opposite sex. The camp was surrounded by silver birch woods, which stretched for miles to the nearest village, and on still June nights I would wake to hear nightingales singing in the moonlight.

The only difference to boarding school was the hours spent on the huge parade ground being drilled by a tiny sergeant major, less than five feet tall, whose mighty voice echoed not just around the parade square but on and beyond to the main Portsmouth road. As the eleven of us wheeled and drilled, and right formed, and fell into line, came to a halt, and about turned, a line of lorry drivers would pull up on the side of the road to watch us for their amusement, while they ate their sandwiches for lunch.

Thus it felt all the more humiliating, when dreaming about the un-read pages of the timid love letter stuffed hastily into my battledress top to read in our break, that I missed a step, failed to hear the word of command and carried on marching in the opposite direction when the rest had about turned. Love letters – or what passed for them – were a fairly scarce commodity at cadet school, as we might as well have been in a nunnery, we saw so few men or even boys.

The highlights of each term were the invitations to the house of an elderly couple who invited batches of Sandhurst cadets and us girls to hear talks on Moral Re-Armament. Their house just missed being stately, their servants were helpful, their food was heavenly, the worthy talks were utterly boring to frivolous young women, but the chaps might be interesting, we hoped. They never were but hope always sprang eternal.

Apart from the daily morning parades, and the hours spent perfecting our drill and learning to shout commands that one day would be directed at our platoons when we took them on parade, we spent a great deal of time in lectures on arcane subjects like pay scales, army regulations, map-reading and leadership.

No rifle drill for us, but instead lectures from a series of university lecturers on constitutional history, current affairs, scientific trends and something called Clear Thinking, which involved logic, and fallacies and syllogisms – all considered necessary for a well-educated officer back in 1957!

Constitutional history was taught by the scion of a famous German intellectual family who’d escaped Hitler before the war, but the name of this gentleman was so long that generations of philistine and irreverent cadets just called him ‘Footy’, which he pretended not to know. He also pretended not to know that we never listened to a word he told us about constitutional history and the balance of power between the Commons and the House of Lords, but sat instead endlessly practising our signatures, or planning what to wear on our next trip to London.

Scientific Trends was taught by another mid-European lecturer, only unlike Footy who’d grown up in England, this very gentle man had a very thick accent and a deadly monotone. He showed films to illustrate the latest scientific trends, and as his lectures were conducted in the cadet sitting room, where there was a film screen, we just curled up in an arm chair in the dark with a bar of chocolate, and usually dozed off.

The rest of the syllabus was devoted to giving us an understanding of life, and the background many of our future charges came from, so we visited a Lyons Swiss roll factory to see what life on a conveyor belt was like, attended a Petty Sessions where we saw sad souls parade before the magistrates, and I felt like a voyeur, and worst of all, went to the Old Bailey. The day we were there we watched a murderer condemned to death, after a crime passionel. His voice after sentence had been passed was like the rustling of dry leaves.

The most challenging part of officer training was the two days I spent in the cook house, discovering how hard life really was. My worst crime was to leave the potatoes so long in the potato peeling machine that they came out the size of marshmallows. The kindly cooks who actually had to deal with this catastrophe, covered up for me, and my copybook was not as blotted as it might have been.

A handful of lectures on strategy and army organisation at Sandhurst were memorable for the lunch breaks when we mingled with the Sandhurst cadets. My most lasting memory is going for a punt on the lake, and it sinking, and my partner in this exploit – John Blashford-Snell, who has since become a famous explorer who did the first descent of the Blue Nile, explored the whole Congo River, and the Amazon, shooting many rapids unscathed – had to wade ignominiously back to shore, towing me sitting on the end of the leaky vessel.

The one thing I did master while at cadet school were the steps to the Charleston, then back in fashion. I perfected the knock knees, pigeon toes and tight sideways kick by holding onto the back of my chair in the lecture room as we waited for the next lecturer to arrive. I practised my dancing until I was foot perfect, and by the time we Passed- Out was acknowledged as top of the class by my peers in this useful social accomplishment.

At the end of this gruelling training, interspersed with dances, parties and uniformed guest nights – when we practised the solemn ritual of Passing the Port – you Never lift the decanter from the table and only slide it in the coaster from right to left so it goes around in a circle, using Only the right hand – five of us emerged as second lieutenants. And now reality hit us.

Second lieutenants, we discovered, were despised by all, except new recruits. Everyone knew we hadn’t the faintest idea of what we had to do, from the regimental sergeant major down to the newest corporal. We were saluted, and called ma’am, but we knew that behind this ritual was the thinly concealed contempt of ‘old hands’.  Wet behind the ears, my father would have called us.

Many of the old hands had been through the war, like my motherly platoon sergeant who told me they knew D-Day must be in the offing, when they had to give up all the sheets from their beds, so that the huge new detachments of American soldiers arriving nearby could have the same sheets on their beds! And in the end, it was my platoon sergeant and the company sergeant major who taught me what I needed to know. Which seemed to be mostly to do what they told me!

Their commands varied from: “Here’s the pay books to sign, ma’am”, to: “Time to inspect the recruits, ma’am”, to: “Time to have your tea ma’am”. My requests varied from: “What shall I do now, Sergeant Major?” to: “D’you know where Private Smith is ?  She hasn’t made the tea yet.” A soldier’s life is terrible hard…with apologies to AA Milne and Christopher Robin

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 Raw food isn’t really my thing, but I found this recipe for mushroom pate rather delicious. Chop twelve to fifteen baby mushrooms or two really big portobello mushrooms, and marinate them in two tablespoons of olive oil and the same of tamari soya sauce, for half an hour. Put half a cup of walnuts in a food processor and pulse until slightly broken down, and add the mushrooms and a clove of garlic. Pulse until the mixture is slightly chunky and add salt and black pepper to taste. Good on crackers with a glass of wine, or sherry…

Food for thought

Clanmother sent me this time ago, and I love it.  She wrote:   ”  J.R.R. Tolkien lost his best friends in WWI. One of my favourite quotes on war comes from his work, “The Return of the King,”
‘It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

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