The spice of life! Synchronicities or benevolent coincidences, as they’re sometimes known, have been coming at me fast this week.
It all started with reading the autobiography of an old soldier, General Carton de Wiart VC etc etc, who had one eye and one arm by the end of all his wars, and had been shot in the face, leg, stomach, ankle, leg, hip and ear on different occasions!
He was supposed to be the model for Evelyn Waugh’s Brigadier Hook in ‘Sword of Honour’, but there was a lot more to him than that. What intrigued me was that having married the daughter of a European prince, who sported a stately eight names, he moved easily around pre-war European aristocracy, ending up living in a hunting lodge in the Pripet Marches between wars, courtesy of his ADC Prince Radziwill.
Then, picking up a book at random to read in bed the next night, I took Patrick Leigh Fermor’s anthology of his best bits. I read of his stay with Hungarian aristocrats outside Budapest, and a way of life now gone, and was fascinated, as I had been by Carton de Wiart’s entree to this civilised European way of life. The sons of the houses had all been educated at English Catholic schools, Ampleforth, and Downside.
These Europeans all spoke the same languages, and shared the same culture. Later Leigh Fermor stayed with a Rumanian family in their castles, playing bicycle polo with both the family and the footmen. They were tightly knit communities of families, both peasants, servants and owners’ whose lives all intertwined in what seemed like a centuries old alliance. And these families too, had been educated in England. At this level of society, friendships were international, something which has almost disappeared in the aftermath of World War Two.
Leigh Fermor had famously kidnapped a German general in Crete during the war, and his accomplice, Billy Moss, married a Polish aristocrat, a refugee from the war living in Cairo. Her Tarnowski family also lived in civilised pre-war European splendour, their homes filled with Titians and Rembrandts, family servants and international guests – their story told in a book called ‘The Last Mazurka’ – written by the last of the Tarnowski’s.
What struck me about all these families stretching across the continent from Poland and the edges of Russia through Hungary down to Rumania, was how the war destroyed this way of life, for both the families and the symbiotic communities they lived in. Centuries of beauty, loyalty, civilisation, all gone. And mostly they disappeared under the hands of the Nazis, and then Communist takeovers. The Rumanians were taken from their castles, the men sent to slave labour, the women to live in garrets far from their homes, as Leigh Fermor discovered when he went back to trace his friends from decades before. Most people were too frightened to talk to him. Much the same happened in Hungary and Poland, while Carton de Wiart’s hunting lodge in the Pripet Marshes disappeared in the same destruction.
And now I read from a Facebook friend, about the passing of her family’s way of life in East Prussia. In her soon to be published novel ’ Last Daughter of Prussia’, Marina Gottlieb Sarles writes of the same centuries old story of beauty, decency and goodness destroyed by the Second World War – in the maelstrom of hell created by Nazis and Russian Communism. Her story is about the heroic escape of the lucky ones. Those left behind faced the horrors of starvation, un-imaginable tyranny and soul- destroying surveillance, as in Poland, Hungary, Rumania and elsewhere.
Writer Julian Barnes wrote recently that history is “where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation”, but that seems to me to be an account of political history. These stories of paradise lost are the real histories – the truths about people and their ways of life – broken by ideologies and decisions of distant demagogues, tyrants, far-away bureaucrats and politicians of the twentieth century.
Books like Marina’s, stories like Leigh Fermor’s, memories like Carton de Wiart’s, tell us more about our past than the official histories. Their stories are the spiritual logbooks of mankind, and maybe now, all our blogs are becoming part of that stream of consciousness too…
Read more about Marina’s story : www.marinagottliebsarles.com
Food for Thread-bare Gourmets
A tin of salmon and some pancakes means a delicious lunch or supper for hungry gourmets. Make the pancakes according to the last recipe – they can be made ahead of time. Open a tin of pink salmon – red if you’re feeling rich – and drain off the juice into a cup. Make a fairly thick white sauce – melt an ounce of butter, stir in a heaped tablespoon of flour, slowly add warm milk, or a mix of milk and hot water. (If I do this, I add a bit of cream too.) Let the sauce bubble and cook for a few minutes, stirring all the time, so it doesn’t stick or go lumpy.
To the white sauce, add salt and pepper to taste, the juices of the salmon, and lots of chopped parsley. Break up the salmon and add to the white sauce. Spread this mixture down the middle of each pancake, and fold over into three. Lay on a flat dish, sprinkle quite lavishly with grated Parmesan cheese, and gently re-heat in the oven. Serve with a green salad, and some hot buttered rolls, and it feels quite luxurious.
Food for Thought : The unexamined life is not worth living.
Socrates, Greek philosopher condemned to death in 399 for allegedly corrupting the young. He drank the poison hemlock, and as he breathed his last, asked for a cock to be sacrificed to Asclepius, the god of healing. This was taken to mean Socrates’ joy and thankfulness at passing over into another world.