So what is gumption?

100_0509“Use your elbow–grease,” my grandmother would chide me good humouredly… or ask: “where’s your gumption?” Where indeed? I searched my somewhat limited seven year old soul but could find no trace of these desirable qualities – whatever they were – for I had no idea. I was completely puzzled, and sad to disappoint her.

However the lack of these mystifying gifts ceased to matter when at a fortnight’s notice, I left my grandmother forever, to join my father just returned from Egypt with his new wife. After a month he disappeared to Germany, and my stepmother and I waited for his summons until a house had been found for us. During those months, instead of going to school, my stepmother gave me lessons in the afternoon. Looking back, though a fully trained physiotherapist, she may not have been quite so well qualified to teach small children, but those were more carefree times, when anything went, and often did.

In my case, we didn’t do much maths, thankfully, but I learnt lots of poetry, mainly, I think, the poets my stepmother had ‘done’ at school in the thirties. These included Sir Walter Scott, Elizabeth Browning, Wordsworth and chunks of Longfellow’s Hiawatha. She was hot on spelling – and as a nine year old, lists of words like phlegm, diaphragm, diphthong, delphinium, rhododendron, asthma, psychology, diarrhoea had to be memorised every day. If I’d ended up in the medical profession this vocabulary might have stood me in good stead, but since then I’ve often wished that I had instead mastered how to spell ‘receive’ and all the exceptions of’ ie’, as well as ‘commitment’, both my constant stumbling blocks.

When it came to composition – as it was called – I was a disappointment to her, the way I’d felt with my grandmother, when I lacked elbow grease and gumption. But what I was lacking now, was imagination. “Use your imagination,” she’d say, and once again, I had no idea what imagination was, though I thought it might have something to do with writing about fairies, which I felt was childish.

I felt mysteriously depressed, as at school I’d always been quite good at composition. But the problem of imagination didn’t seem so important once we got to war-torn Europe. We travelled through apocalyptic scenes – cities of mountains of bricks, with half buildings with crooked pictures still on the wall, a door open and chairs still at a table, and skeletons of ruined churches –  before finally reaching the infamous place called Belsen, where our new home was the Beast of Belsen’s old digs.

Those were bleak times in Europe and I often felt bleak too. Now my father, almost unknown after years away at war, expected me to have common sense. This seemed more important than gumption, elbow grease, or imagination all put together, and just as un-attainable. I think they thought I was sensible when my best friend was murdered. I had gone to fetch her for our early morning riding lesson, but she didn’t answer the door. When I got home after riding, Mary had been found shot in the kitchen, and her younger brother was shot at the door as he had tried to escape. Her father had then shot himself because his wife had left him.

I never spoke to my new parents about this, my chief worry being Mary’s brother’s  feelings as he dashed for the door, and also that Mary mightn’t have made it into heaven, which I knew my parents didn’t believe in. I cried every night in bed, and begged God to let her in. But though I was apparently phlegmatic, the magic of common sense still eluded me – as in: “do use your common sense, child,” or the unanswerable question: “haven’t you got any common sense?”  When I joined the army as a teenager at my father’s behest, I knew he hoped I might now discover some hidden well of this commodity which he seemed to think I really needed for a successful life.

But here was another pitfall. An officer was supposed to have initiative and to use it! This, as a very young officer, I quickly realised, was dangerous. Initiative was a two-edged sword, with unknown consequences, which not everyone appreciated. So it was with relief that I looked forward to marriage, when, I supposed with blind optimism, none of these things would be required of me.

But on the third day into married life, I discovered that things were not as I had thought they were, had to write a big cheque which cleaned me out, and then faced an unpredictable, precarious, and impoverished life on shifting sands. The upside was that I discovered I did have gumption after all! And I needed it.

Elbow grease, on the other hand, was something quite prosaic I came to realise, and was only needed for wax-polishing antique furniture, the idea being that the intense pressure of the elbow grease created friction, and the resultant heat melted the invisible wax crystals, causing them to meld together and create those shining surfaces. Frankly, it was easier just to put the dusters in the oven, and polish with hot dusters instead of elbow grease. The only other use for elbow grease seemed to be for scrubbing burnt saucepans, an activity I have always strenuously avoided.

Common sense? Well I’ve discovered that common sense is merely a matter of opinion, and that one man’s common sense is another man’s madness… so to take a somewhat extreme example, Hitler’s idea of common sense would not be mine – so I’ve flagged common sense. And initiative doesn’t bother me any more – I’m in sole command, and don’t have to answer to any superior officers!

Which leaves me with that lack of imagination. Well, it’s something I’ve got used to, and have had to realise that I never could produce an interesting imaginative novel! I recognise imagination in great works of art, both literary and artistic, in fine blogs, in glorious architecture and opera, in gardening and interior decoration, even in solving problems… but I’m still digging for it in myself…

Jane Austen has sometimes been un-imaginatively accused of lacking imagination, and I used to cling to her definition of her art in a letter to her brother Edward, in which she refers to her: ‘little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush’, but to be brutally realistic, this is not really much comfort, since she painted masterpieces on her little bit of ivory with her fine brush. For me, lacking the flights of fancy that come with a soaring imagination, all I can do is to notice and to describe, and I did find some consolation in these words by the enigmatic writer Fernando Pessoa.

He wrote: “What moves lives. What is said endures. There’s nothing in life that’s less real for having been described. Small-minded critics point out that such and such a poem, with its protracted cadences, in the end says merely that it’s a nice day. But to say it’s a nice day is difficult, and the nice day itself passes on. It’s up to us to conserve the nice day in a wordy, florid memory, sprinkling new flowers and new stars over the fields and skies of the empty, fleeting outer world.”

These words hearten me for I too, can at least conserve the day in wordy, florid memories, try to sprinkle new flowers over the fields and skies of the fleeting outer world, and thoroughly enjoy myself while I’m sprinkling! So here’s to florid memories and new flowers!


Food for threadbare gourmets

This is the strawberry season, so it’s crazy to serve anything else for pudding besides these luscious fruits. Friends for dinner meant a quick foray to the nearest strawberry fields. The ones I wanted, where the strawberries are grown by a Vietnamese genius, whose berries are the biggest, sweetest and cheapest, hadn’t opened, so I had to fall back on the other strawberry fields. I usually find theirs a bit tough and tart, but solved the problem by hulling them, and putting them in a dish out in the sun. As the day went by, the delectable scent of soft, sweet, ripe strawberries warm from the sun tempted my taste-buds every time I passed them.

With them I usually do Chantilly cream. One of my grandsons will eat this neat, and has learned how to make it for himself, a useful skill when he goes flatting at University! Take one cup of thick cream, two table spoons of icing sugar and a few drops of vanilla and whip them together. I usually make three times this amount, just tripling all the ingredients.


Food for thought

So long as a bee is outside the petals of the lotus and has not tasted its honey, it hovers around the flower buzzing. But when it is inside the flower it drinks the nectar silently. So long as a man quarrels about doctrines and dogmas, he has not tasted the nectar of the true faith; once he has tasted it he becomes still.

Sri Ramakrishna  1883- 1886 Famous Hindu teacher and mystic, who believed that all religions led to the same God, and who practised  both Christianity and Islam






Filed under army, cookery/recipes, food, great days, humour, jane austen, life and death, life/style, philosophy, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, world war two

51 responses to “So what is gumption?

  1. I have not been able to get past the fact that your best friend and her brother were shot by their father and you had to deal with that all by yourself. that take a lot of gumption i think.. mercy.. c


  2. I love your wordy, florid memories, topped with a dash of delicious Chantilly cream. Do you think children are still chastised for lack of gumption and not using elbow grease etc? Your account of the apocalyptic scenes in Europe makes me think of the scenes that some children in the Philippines are witnessing at the moment.


    • Thank you Gallivanta, glad wordy florid memories appeal to you! I have a feeling those are very old-fashioned words, and that nobody uses them any more… maybe they say things like ‘shape up, ‘ ‘knuckle down,’ or ‘get over it’ ! Actually I think I don’t know what today’s up- to- date bracing words are, but I’m sure there are plenty – a bit like computer speak! Yes, the Philippines is an unimaginable nightmare… and one feels so helpless… apart from donating, including to WSPA to help the animals.


  3. Behind the Story

    The scent of ripe strawberries warming in the sun stays with me. Beautiful!. Strawberry picking was my first job.I was ten years old, and they paid us by the flat. I wonder if I had a favorite virtue that I expected my children to attain when they were growing up.


    • So memories of ripe strawberries are entwined in your past… can’t think of anything nicer !
      Yes, I know what you mean… I think back to my children’s childhood, and the question I always had when we were talking things over, was ” was that kind?”.. and I think they are kind adults…


  4. A wonderful, wonderful quote by Sri Ramakrishna! Added brilliance to my day.

    Ah, Valerie, if we could always be children so that we could understand our significance in their lives. The other day, I saw a grandfather berate his grandson, who was not even ready to mark his second year. I stopped by to talk softly with the little one, just enough time for the grandfather to regain his equilibrium. It was fear, of course, that caused his sharp words, for his grandson could outrun him – he was heading out into traffic.

    It seems to me, that I remember the poignant hurts of early years far more than those I experienced when I reached the “mature” teenage years. And I re-live those memories decades later with a clarity that astounds me. On the opposite extreme, I remember those adults who gave me kindness and compassion.

    “When the first baby laughed for the first time, its laugh broke into a thousand pieces, and they all went skipping about, and that was the beginning of fairies.” J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan


  5. I always enjoy your words and they certainly cause me to use my imagination, picturing so much in each of your posts. I think Psychology began to flourish as a science after WWII and fortunately people took the initiative and considered children’s needs too.
    I read an interesting piece recently about whether “practical wisdom” was a more preferable concept to “common sense.”

    And strawberries……what a delectable treat and I must try your ripening tip! Thank you.


    • Thank you so much for your lovely words, glad you enjoy the post.
      I simply love the concept of practical wisdom – what wonderful words which mean so much… thank you so much for introducing me to them, I really savour the concept.
      Yes… strawberries are one of the special joys of summer…


  6. Dearest Valerie,

    Your (perceived) shortcoming is our delight. I have never had such a wonderful time reading a blog. I followed every step of your journey, felt every joy and ached at the tragedy of losing your best friend, Mary to murder. I love that you are in sole command of your ship and are now the arbiter of common sense (which isn’t common) and the dispenser (at your discretion) of elbow grease. I learned we share a loathing of scrubbing burned sauce pans and I learned more about Walter Scott. Thank you, thank you, thank you for who you are and what you write about. Each post is a lovely time capsule and lesson on life all rolled into one.

    You are a gem.

    Kia Ora,



    • Dear Doug,
      I don’t know how to answer your lovely comment. You are so appreciative I feel quite bowled over. I love it that you read so carefully and see so much, it is the greatest compliment to pay any writer as you know.
      To know that you followed and understood every step of the journey warms my heart, and I loved your phrases ‘the arbiter of common sense’ and ‘dispenser of elbow grease’!.XXX Valerie


  7. That must have been quite traumatic – your best friend and brother shot by their father.

    You pulled through it and that took great resilience, my dear.



  8. Thank you Eric, I really enjoy knowing you’re reading my ( long) blog !!!!


  9. Couldn’t the father of your best friend have suffer a war trauma? I mean, you are describing apocalyptic scenes, cities of mountains of bricks, with half buildings with crooked pictures still on the wall, and skeletons of ruined churches. That is so depressing, and on top of that, being left by a beloved one, could have pushed this man too far. How utterly and utterly sad.
    It is a good thing you tell this story. Too easily the sufferings are forgotten in our modern flimsy world.


    • Dear Paula, you are so right – looking back, the poor man had endured six years of fighting, come home to two strange children, and then his wife walks out…it happened to so many people back then, including my father…
      I think everyone in that terrible place was suffering the same post war trauma… I know my father and his friends in the army were still having nightmares ten years later…


  10. Valerie, you tell us with such modesty about the writers you love, and then you write a blog post that paints such vivid images, both shocking and sublime, often within the same paragraph! And they leave me gasping at the audacity of your modesty. There are many reasons why I follow your blog. This post just might contain all of them.


    • Jadi, thank you so much for the amazing things you say… one can never see oneself as others see us, and I had wondered ( as I often do) if this post would be interesting to readers.
      I had thought I was sending myself, but everyone seems to have seen so many other things in this post.
      I’m deeply touched by what you say, and so appreciate your lovely words and your encouragement, thank you so much..


  11. The reminiscences are riveting, as always. How dreadful about Mary.
    It takes imagination to scatter new flowers, so don’t say you haven’t got it! Just a different style from the one that writes fairy stories and is happily childish – like mine! 🙂 My current novel is one.


    • Hello good friend,
      Just discovered this message from you in a section of Spam that I didn’t know existed… apologies for the delay in discovering !
      And thank you so much for your wonderful encouragement as usual – good luck with your novel , Valerie


  12. Dear Valerie,

    Fingers poised over my keyboard, I sit open-mouthed and at a loss as to how to respond to what I’ve read. I’m amazed and grateful for your sanity and imagination. Yes…imagination. For how can one write with such brilliant eloquence without it?
    I ache for the little girl who was tossed about and then lost her best friend to murder. Unthinkable.
    Thank you for taking me on a journey through your life.




    • Dear Rochelle, what a vivid, thoughtful and kind comment. And thank you so much for your encouragement, I really value what you say. I’ve been amazed at how readers have responded to a blog that I had wondered if it was interesting enough to run… so thank you, thank you… XXX Valerie


  13. Whoever could accuse you of not having gumption? The life you have led, some of it might have brought a weaker soul to their knees never to stand back up. I marvel at your gumption.

    I am grateful for your marvelous sense of wonder in the world around you and the memories you share. Common sense? You have this or you would have never survived. As to imagination, Valerie my friend, without this you would not see the beauty of the world in the simple things. Certainly you would not cook the way you do. Imagination is expressed in many ways, not always in those ways we immediately think of.

    Your presence in your own life is testimony to your gumption, common sense and imagination. I for one am grateful.


    • Dear Val, Thank you for such a huge bouquet, I value it, as if ever anyone had gumption it is you ! I wrote the story intending to send myself up with all those classic words that adults use on children that have no meaning if you don’t understand them, but it seems to have morphed into something else, judging by some comments! Thank you for your wonderful words about imagination – certainly a point of view I’d never looked at before. And thank you for your reading of my blogs, and the careful thoughtful comments that you make, I really appreciate it, from one busy lady that you are ! Your blogs amaze me- the eloquence and expertise and insight you bring to such complicated subjects…XXX


  14. When my grandfather murdered my Grammy when I was a teen it caused me to be adrift for a long time. Having been through that I can only imagine the difficult journey as a child finding your best friend you had to take. Death is hard for children to process but to discover it in such stark horror it chills me.

    As to all the words the adults threw at you when you were young it would serve the rest of us parents to keep in mind how often we may not make much sense to our kids!


    • That must have been quite devastating… in those circumstances you lose two people… so hard for you… Those words – Yes, I still write articles in a parenting magazine, and I’m always banging on about talking to your children as thought they were your best friend! Thank you for sharing your memories…


  15. Your descriptive phrases certainly do stimulate my imagination as well as my emotions. I was told as a child that my imagination was silly (not enough common sense, I guess), but I could never write the beautiful descriptions that you do of your memories and what your perceive around you today. I even think you could do an interesting novel based on stories from your own life which seems to have been full of adventures and difficult times as well.


  16. My goodness, did you have my grandparents…possibly my parents were related to you somehow…all those words…boy, have I ever heard them spoken to me over and over again. Today I know I have gumption and elbow grease…i have dreaming and play acting and inventing…I still don’t have imagination. But one thing I don’t lack and never have is common sense…but sometimes it fails me.



    • Imagination can be expressed in many different ways. I think it can be fair to say that a school essay or a proposed solution to a problem lacks imagination, but not that a whole person lacks it.

      I’m not sure that common sense is purely a matter of opinion, except in the sense that anything not scientifically provable is a matter of opinion. I’d take lack of common sense to mean either failing to see an obvious, straightforward solution (the neighbour’s dog is in our front garden because someone, perhaps a deliverer, left the gate open and not because the dog jumped a high fence or was lifted over) or not understanding what most other people are likely to think (by all means comfort Tom after his painful divorce, but don’t be amazed if people think you’re putting in a bid). At the same time, of course, common sense, because it’s common, can be a barrier to new ideas: it used to be common sense that the world was flat.

      Your comment about officers and initiative reminds me of some prominent businessman (I think he was) who contributed some articles to the old “Punch” magazine and recalled that when he completed training as an army officer in the Second World War, his report said, “This is an officer the men will follow anywhere, if only out of curiosity.”

      Anyway, you survived all these comments about what you were supposed to lack!


      • Hello Simon, thank you for your long thoughtful comment – I had a giggle over your story about the unfortunate young officer! I think my deficiency in common sense was much more prosaic than your examples… like trying to climb on the roof to get a tennis ball when I’d been hitting it against the wall, and falling and spraining my ankle, or not buying some fish or a rabbit, when there were no sausages left at the butcher!!!! And of course, I used Hitler as an extreme example, as he thought it was common sense to liquidate the handicapped, Gypsies, Jews, protestors etc – I don’t !!!! Good to hear from you..


    • Sounds to me LInda, as though you have lots of imagination… I laughed when you told me about your grand-parents, dreamy children drive practical adults mad, don’t they !!!! love Valerie


  17. On the contrary, Valerie… the way you weave these stories together shows a great flair for creativity not dissimilar to the way you grow a garden. Perfectly framed moments of horror that leave us utterly speechless! Who said poetry is the only appropriate use of the imagination?


    • Thank you Alarna for your beautifully worded comment… I am so fortunate to have such wonderful cyber friends with such generous minds, and articulate souls !!!
      I really value what you have said dear friend.


  18. I am sure you have an abundance of all those qualities Valerie, why the post itself is an imaginative feat to have organised your words in such a way to share with us how you first encountered those qualities as words without meaning which time showed you were often a natural inclination not given a name yet, all the better understood when viewed from one’s own perspective.

    Love the quote about poetry and describing a nice day, it reminds me of a comment a reader once made about Cormac McCarthy’s prose, suggesting he could have just said, “The cowboy got up and walked outside” whereas McCarthy writes a long paragraph which paints a picture of the interior and exterior view and was in my eyes magnificent and preferable and the very reason one person did not approve was the very reason I loved it. So, important for us to discover and interpret these tings ourselves, for what joys might be missed otherwise.


    • What a wonderful comment Claire – and I loved the story about Cormac McCarthy !
      Yes, I often think to myself,. it isn’t what you have to say, but how you say it which makes the difference between a readable story and
      a boring one !


  19. I think your posts demonstrate that you have all the things you thought you didn’t, whether imagination, gumption or common sense. They also show what a rich history you have and I’m glad to have the opportunity to share some of it with you.


  20. Loved your post–starting with the word “gumption”! Such a wonderful notion, and good first question in life… We all need to find ours!!


  21. With a life full of richness and memories that are never far from the surface you my dear Valerie lack nothing. Imagination is something no one needs to be right in the middle of your tales whether it be seeing the landscape, being the duster in the oven or experiencing the horror you did. So beautifully spun.


  22. I love your writing and your memories. You create a new world for me though my Granny also used to talk of gumption and elbow grease. I seem to remember a tin of pink stuff called Gumption that was used for cleaning, less elbow grease need then! What a fascinating life you have led and how you have demonstrated all those attributes mentioned!


  23. Hello Sally. so good to hear from you… I take it you are back home now full of gorgeous memories of those enchanting grand children…
    You’ve jogged my memory… I think I remember those tins of pink stuff called Gumption… I’m sure my grandmother used it !
    Thank you for your lovely words, I’m glad you enjoy reading mine !!!


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