Of Duchesses and Doctors

It didn’t look promising. A book of letters between a duchess and a writer didn’t exactly grab me, even though the duchess was one of the famous Mitford sisters, and the writer was world famous Patrick Leigh Fermor.

But a quick dekko inside, and I was hooked. The page that did it was the one where Deborah the duchess, explained how thrilled she was with a book on farming which an eccentric  aristocrat farmer had left her in his will. “He asked if I wanted jewels” she wrote, “but I preferred the book.”

The book in question had the gripping title: ‘The Agricultural Notebook’ and was written by a yeoman farmer, with the unlikely name of Primrose McConnell. He lived at North Wycke, Essex, a suitably rural address, and wrote this esoteric tome on farming in 1883. Deborah’s copy was the nineth edition, published in 1919 with the inevitable dedication after the devastating Great War, to Captain Primrose McConnell MC, killed at Salonika in 1918.

From this book, she told Leigh Fermor, she learned about the Gunter Chain, Ville’s Dominant Ingredients of Manure, the diseases of sheep, the classifications of wheat. Surely she teased, you know all about these things. As an expert farmer, famous for breeding various animals and chickens due for extinction but for her, she did know, because she loved farming, and loved being a farmer, not a duchess.

But I had to look them up for myself, discovering that Gunter’s Chain was a measurement of length of chain invented by an English clergyman and mathematician in 1620, before the days of theodolites. His measurement became known as a chain and is still used in the US and other parts of the world, and I also learned that a cricket pitch is one chain – twenty two yards. The diseases of sheep from A to Z which included such horrors as agalactia, akabane and atypical scrapie, boils and black disease under the B’s , cheesy gland and ended some dozens of illnesses later with zoonotic disease, made me wonder why anyone would even dare farm such a delicate animal.

And as for the classifications of wheat, which included such terms as glumes, ploidy levels, tetraploid and hexaploid, meiosos and rachis ( the central stalk), by now, I felt overwhelmed with the level of expertise a skilled farmer apparently needs to have at his finger-tips.

It made me think about other experts who loved what they did, and a story in the newspaper today. It was about an eleven year old girl celebrating her birthday after spending all the years since she was three, in the childrens’ hospital. Coping with leukaemia and aggressive graft-versus-host disease, which I’d never heard of, she’s had countless operations and about 500 anaesthetics, and for six years was fed by a tube.

The nurses and doctors who cared for Claudia were all experts in their fields, and obviously gave her their best technical skills. But it was what they did for her which was beyond expertise, and could only be called love which was so moving. When she came round from her anaesthetics after having her wounds dressed, she would discover that the staff had painted her nails in a surprise colour to gladden her waking up. They would devise dress-up days to distract her from the pain. “They had cat days, fairy days, animal days. One doctor dressed up as a leprechaun”, said her mother. “They’re crazy, absolutely mad. They were always coming out of the theatre with tiaras and wings on”.

The imagination and devotion behind all this dressing up and craziness made me cry. Expertise is one thing, but without love, it ain’t anything. Knowing how busy hospitals are, and how stretched doctors and nurses are, with all the demands on their emotions, time and energy, to make the effort to add these gifts to their caring for the little girl, is nothing short of heroic to me. They all deserve medals for gallantry– because this was the front-line for them all. We  need medals to recognise  the wonderful experts in peace-time who go beyond the course of duty. And they did what they did, not because they were experts, but because they loved what they did – like Deborah!.


Food for Threadbare Gourmets; this is a family favourite, and it’s sausages to die for. Not your chemical, preservative-filled supermarket disasters, but good artisan butchers’ sausages.

Take as many as you need for each person. I often boil them first to get some of the fat out of them. Saute lots of sliced leeks in butter, and when they’re cooked, add a teaspoon of mustard, enough cream to make it a consistency you like, a couple of chicken bouillon cubes, and some nutmeg. Let it all bubble together, and then add the sausages to the mix. Serve with mashed potatoes and green vegetables. You can also add par-boiled sliced potatoes to the pan, and make it a one pan supper. A little brandy poured into the mix also gives it a bit of a kick if the budget runs to a bottle of medicinal brandy!

Food for Thought:      Alas, I have done nothing this day! What? Have you not lived? It is not only the fundamental but the noblest of your occupations.    Michel de Montaigne sixteenth century French philosopher

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