Carrying on with the army


Nasturtiums in my garden

My brilliant career in the army, making unconscious mayhem as a recruit and scrambling through officer training, had not quite lived up to my expectations of discovering gorgeous young men, eager and willing to escort me into a glamorous high life of dancing and dates,  which was what women’s magazine of the fifties sold as the ideal preparation for marriage.

They also suggested that a touch of white around the neck, and spotless white gloves were the final touches needed for any ambitious girl to find her beau. So far the army had not given me much scope to achieve these dreams of social success. First recruit training in an all woman training depot, and then a year at an all woman officer training unit cut off from all other human contact in the middle of a bracken – covered heath dotted with silver birch woods.

Absolutely beautiful, but at nineteen I didn’t have the same thirst for nature and for beauty that I have fifty five years later. So it was a blow when I found myself back to the nunnery for my first posting, at my old stamping ground, (literally) the Depot. There were still people there who remembered me enraging the Colonel by marching around in a red coat because I’d arrived on the wrong day, and ingenuously behaving as though I was in Harrods when fitting my marching shoes at the Quartermaster’s store.

But they let this pass now that I sported one lonely little pip on my brand new officer’s uniform. They even saluted me, and I gingerly returned the courtesy knowing that I hadn’t actually earned the respect they were forced to give me.

The one bright spot was that I was simply one of half a dozen girls like me, even though I was the youngest, and some of them are still friends after a life-time. Our main ambition was to escape the depot and get a posting overseas, which was our idea of heaven. But we had to make the best of it in the mean-time, and an intermediate stage of paradise was to get oneself on a course – this could be anything from a pay course to a signals course.

The unspoken idea was that while we were escaping from our nunnery, we would meet some of these gorgeous young men we were sure were lurking in the rest of the army, and while they were there to learn about pay or signals and maybe further their careers, we went to enjoy ourselves.

I immediately put my name down for a religious leadership course – that seemed an easy one, and a fire-fighters course – this happened to be with the Maidstone Fire Brigade, and I was the envy of the other girls because I actually had a long distance boyfriend who was ADC to a general not far from Maidstone. I planned to see plenty of him during the course.

I was accepted for both courses, and accepted the congratulations of my friends. All I had to  do now was wait for the time to come round – they both were six months away. Anticipation kept me soldiering on through the regular rituals of documenting recruit intakes, inspecting said recruits and their barrack room floors and giving them boring lectures on pay scales, army routines and regulations; signing pay books on pay parade, and getting myself on parade  every day on time to march the recruits round the huge parade ground. Not exactly romantic, but you have to start somewhere.

December came at last, and all excitement I set off for the religious leadership course. It was set in a large country house, Bagshot Park. Then, it was the headquarters of the Royal Army Chaplain’s Department and sported a notice by the lake saying ‘Please do not walk on the water’. It had been a royal residence for hundreds of years, before being pulled down and rebuilt for Queen Victoria’s third son, the Duke of Connaught. He died in 1942 and the lease went to the padres. Today this Queen’s third son, Prince Edward, lives there with his wife and two children in the 120 room mansion.

I arrived on a cold foggy day, when the depressing rhododendrons were dripping damply around the red brick house. Inside it was swarming with young men – very heaven!!! There was one other girl on the course. We had this concourse of young men to ourselves! However, on closer inspection, few of them were up to scratch for the destiny we had in mind for them.

Not many of them were dashing, only one of two had glamorous little sports cars – and only some of them seemed interested in us. However, bearing up, we made the most of our opportunities, and I for one, enjoyed the luxury of a huge bedroom and bathroom which had once belonged to the dead Duchess of Connaught.

We now had ten days of getting up at dawn for Holy Communion, and attending various services like Matins and Evensong throughout the day in the chapel, ending with Complines (a lovely service) at ten o clock and lights out. In between all this church going we listened to unmemorable lectures, which never seemed to actually give any information on how to be a religious leader in one’s community (I am in still in the dark fifty five years later).

I nearly starved to death, the food was so awful. A handful of us were driven to bribe the cooks to leave  the side door unlocked, and we sneaked out in search of food, sometimes as far away as London … The only places open for a hearty meal at that time of night tended to be transport cafes, catering to long distance truck drivers. We pigged out gratefully on fried bacon, egg, chips, sausages and tomatoes, before tiptoeing back to the sleeping padres.

After two days of what felt like fasting, and churchgoing, we were called together for an announcement. The padres considered it unseemly that the two young maidens (us) should be using the same staircase up to our bedrooms as the young men. Forty of them and two of us. So the in-offensive young men were banished to the back stairs up which once valets and skivvies and ladies maids had toiled, while we used the grand heavily carved main staircase which led down into the great hall where we gathered before meals and lectures.

Josie and I sailed down this great staircase in our high heels and solitary state several times a day, the cynosure of all eyes. Head held high, straight spine, carefully nyloned legs, manicured hands sliding gracefully down the smooth stair-rail, we made the most of it, especially at night when we had to change for dinner.

What the prim padres, anxious to protect our virtue didn’t know, was that my soaring bathroom had a spiral staircase up to the maid’s room above. And in the maid’s bedroom were crammed five lusty young men. On the nights when we weren’t roaming the streets desperately looking for food, and sometimes on those nights too, the trapdoor would open. The chaps would all perch on the narrow steps of the spiral stairs, while Josie and I sat on the edge of the bath in our dressing gowns, and made ovaltine for us all with hot water from the tap, using our tooth-mugs.

We shuddered to think what the padres would think of this depravity. Honi soit qui mal y pense.

(The next instalment of this thriller/chick lit/ dubious autobiography will come when I can’t think of anything else to write. Previous instalments are under the headings of A Soldiers life is Terrible Hard..)

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Tomatoes are still cheap and plentiful, and when we had a celebration dinner for our national day, Waitangi Day this week, I used this tomato recipe with roast chicken legs tossed in flour and fried to make the skin crisp; plus roast potatoes parboiled and thrown around the saucepan in flour to give them a rough edge so that when they were cooked in hot oil they were crunchy and crisp, leeks and carrots. The tomatoes, which should have been a starter, lubricated the meal so we didn’t need any gravy. We followed this unusually elaborate meal for two with a left- over Christmas pudding – sweet, aromatic and enhanced with glorious brandy butter!

The tomato recipe comes from a French doctor and cookery writer Eduard de Pomiane. I’ve used it for the last fifty years or more, but he is now becoming a bit of a cult, and I saw this recipe re-produced recently in an article by English novelist Julian Barnes.

It’s simple as, and de Pomiane suggests it as a starter. Slice six tomatoes and put them cut side down in a frying pan with a knob of butter. Puncture the skin at intervals with a sharp knife. After five minutes turn them over and cook for five more minutes.  Then turn them back again for ten minutes, and finally turn them again, cut side up. The juices run out of the slits in the skin. When they are cut side up the last time, pour about three ounces of thick cream into the pan to merge with the juices. As soon as it bubbles, slide onto a dish and serve immediately. The taste is utterly unique.

Food for Thought

You know quite well, deep within you, that there is only a single magic, a single power, a single salvation … and that is called loving.        Herman Hesse 1877 -1962   German – Swiss writer and painter, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature




Filed under army, cookery/recipes, great days, humour, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized

42 responses to “Carrying on with the army

  1. What an amazing young woman you were – and you have still kept that amazing quality….


  2. This is such a fun piece to read. I can’t imagine that out of 40 guys there were just two you thought worth the trip. However, the large bedroom and bath trumps all…even with its own secrets.


  3. What a great story! Thanks for sharing 😉


  4. Getting up at dawn was never good.
    Better to stay up until then.


  5. *Stomping hobnail boots with a crash to the ground.”Two-three up. Salute. Two-three down.* “Hit haz come to my attention 2nd Lt Victoriana that you too-wit haf been fraternising wiv a Non Commissioned Hofficer too-wit being Staff Sergeant Ralph. Wot wood the CO say Ma’am *Stomping hobnail boots with a crash to the ground.”Two-three up. Salute. Two-three down.* I don’t know. I just don’t know what this Regiment hiss coming to.” 😀 xox


    • Ralph, it sounds even worse when they shorten it – “fratting” , yours in brotherhood/ fraternity, Virgilia


      • Lt. Vee. Basic training now !!!
        At the top of all your comments is the word Edit. Left click on Edit in your “Ralph, it sounds even when when they shorten it – “fratting” , yours in brotherhood/ fraternity, Virgilia” comment. In the new edit page you can adjust typos, spelling whatever. So add the word “worse” and Click UPDATE. It’s done.
        So your reply ” Lots of typos… I should have written: it sounds even worse when they shorten it” is unnecessary now. Left click on Edit. In this case when the edit page opens click on “Move to Trash” and the reply is gone from your comments.
        Be brave and do it. It’s easy. I’ll be back later for RSM’s inspection 😉 xox


    • Ralph, I’ve done it! Thank you so much – wonderful. It worked, yours victoriously, Vienna


  6. Michele Seminara

    Thanks Valerie, I enjoy these stories of your young self so much!


  7. You have some fantastic stories, Valerie! That must have felt surreal, being in the army in those posh digs! I must try that tomato recipe when it’s tomato season here again—it sounds divine!


    • Lovely to hear from you Madame… just my bit of fun – glad you enjoyed it… Yes, I can recommend the tomatoes… are you coping with the storm and the snow? We are in the grip of drought, leaves falling off the trees, buying water etc…


  8. What a wonderful post, Valerie — I was transported back to your young and adventurous days, sleeping in a bedroom of a dead Duchess, dealing with 40 padres and two of you young women. Thank you, too for the tomato recipe. It sounds absolutely wonderful and mouth-watering and I will try it as soon as possible. Salud! Dee


    • Hello Dee, lovely to hear from you… so glad you enjoyed my bit of fun – nothing like sending up one’s younger self! ( the padres were the staff, not the forty young men!) Hope you enjoy the tomatoes!


  9. marcelino guerrero

    Well, at least the Army you where in, thought their solders were Gods. The signs I saw in my Army where No Walking on the Grass, a difficult task for mere mortals!


  10. Dear Valerie,

    Spiral stairway to heaven, thought the boys…and perhaps the girls. I love this post, your story, and you. Thanks for being such a captivating writer. Don’t wait too long to write the next installment of this tale or I shall have to sneak out to the truck-stop greasy spoon kitchens of other blogs to find sustenance. This is the food I crave.




    • Doug – what a bouquet you’ve given me. Thank you – I always love your comments, and I’m so glad you enjoyed my bit of fun.. I’d love to write some more, it’s amazing that you enjoy it…Love Valerie


  11. Totally love your story. More, more!


  12. You my friend have led a wonderfully fascinating life. I am so happy you share it here. I giggled through this, needed the giggle this morning! I absolutely could see you in both your proper uniform coming down the grand staircase and in your dressing gown late at night!

    I do hope you will write more, soon please!



  13. I so love your army stories!


  14. elisaruland

    What an interesting life you’ve led, Valerie! I am chomping at the bit to read the next installment…
    p.s. The tomato in butter and cream sauce sounds divine. I really am going to try this.


    • Hello Elisa, Lovely to hear from you, and so good to know you enjoyed the post! They’re always fun to write, and since people seem to enjoy them, I’ll have another go! Hope you enjoy the tomatoes….


  15. Fantastic i love the army installments, you were such a deliciously naughty girl.. c


  16. Hehe! Love your wayward spirit, Valerie 😉


  17. Ha – ha! Just read your response to Celi! So this is what you were up to in those earlier years. I wonder…did you do anything formally with the theology?

    I once went to Santa Barbara, Calif to a Benedictine monastery for a 10 day (part) silent retreat. I really loved it. Quiet, great meals made with organic produce, all the services/chanting/prayers, talks by different monks, endless walking trails and books! The beautiful old place burned to the ground a few years ago in one of the major fires that swept through that part of California.


    • No… it was quite a pointless exercise by men who in retrospect were in the church as a career rather than a vocation – that is probably a very harsh assessment… Your retreat sounds wonderful – just the sort of thing I’d love – what a shame the monastery is no longer there… That was the third or fourth of my army stories…. I love writing them and sending myself ( and them) up!


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