When I read one of my favourite blogs, Cecilia at http://thekitchensgarden.com/2015/04/01/did-you-find-your-voice/#comments I felt the torpor of my hiatus dissolving…
So greetings to the friends who have been by my side during this long absence… it’s been one of the wonders of blogging to discover from messages and comments left on my blog, and private letters, that blogging friends care, they don’t forget and they don’t go away. Thank you, lovely friends who’ve sustained me during my absence from our blogging world. And thank you to dear Celi and her Fellowship of the Farmy. Reading their conversation enticed me back, to use my voice again. These were my thoughts yesterday, as I pondered Celi’s words about finding our voices. This is also something of an experiment as I try to find my way round the new systems which have evolved since I last posted!
BEFORE THERE WAS FEMINISM
Sorting through old piles of letters I came on a clipping from the Daily Telegraph – the obituary of one of my dearest friends.
We’d been in the army together and known each other since we were nineteen. She died nearly twenty years ago at fifty six. In the beginning, Jackie was a bit of a joke… always a bit harum- scarum when we were required to be constantly immaculate and impeccably punctual… and always bubbling with fun, and deadly serious about saving to buy a car. She’d been saving since she was eight, and even now, every penny she earned went into her car fund, so she missed out on quite a lot of fun with the rest of us.
When she was posted to Germany, she found to her ecstatic surprise that by buying a Morris Minor and having it shipped overseas, she didn’t have to pay purchase tax, and she could at last afford her dream. Not long after, she married a man as kind and decent as she. And later I visited her in hospital during her miscarriages, and called in on her during trips back to England, sometimes having to sleep in her absent son’s bed, because her elderly and doting bachelor admirers couldn’t tear themselves away from her warm- hearted home and spare room. She was a generous godmother to my son and a loving friend.
Re-reading her obituary I was as awed as I had been on first reading it. Jackie was deliciously dyslexic, leaving big spaces in her letters while she went to look up the dictionary and then forgot and posted the letters anyway. In spite of what could be seen as a handicap, at forty she began writing in ‘Soldier’, the British army’s magazine for soldiers. For the next seventeen years until just before she died, she campaigned for unemployment benefits for army wives serving overseas, maternity benefits for serving women soldiers, fought for the rights of separated and divorced women, and found night shelters for London’s homeless ex-servicemen.
She crusaded for compensation for solders injured in training, for anti-Aids packs for British soldiers and their families serving in Africa, and for improvements to married quarters. She worked for better care for soldiers suffering from combat stress, set up the Army Playgroup Associations, and helped start the Federation of Army Wives. This is only a short list of all that she achieved before dying of cancer, not to mention the loving and beautiful home she had created.
As I thought about Jackie, I thought of my other friends. My oldest school friend who became a local body politician and the first Labour councillor for the city of Winchester, and who, besides learning to upholster furniture, became a gourmet cook, talented gardener, bee-keeper and honey-maker, and dedicated mother. She also completed a three year diploma in dying, spinning and weaving, before becoming a secretary at the House of Commons, running her MP’s constituency for him! She now writes cookery books.
My other army friends included Anne, my dearest friend, who’s still a riding instructor, exquisite interior decorator, and like my school friend, graduated from college as a mature student with a diploma in arcane skills like weaving and soft furnishings, upholstery and other arts. Now in her mid seventies, still caring for her dogs and horses, children and grandchildren, she’s about to walk the El Camino Pilgrim trail in Spain.
And then there is Cordelia who started Alcoholics Anonymous in Hongkong – so greatly needed that there are now 17 branches there – and a single mother who supported her children by modelling, doing radio programmes, exquisite sewing, and making sought- after soft furnishings, before becoming a county councillor in local government until recently, and is now a painter …
And Perfect Prue – enviably beautiful, clever and talented, tennis champion, fencing champion, darling of all the senior officers to our chagrin. She married the man of her dreams – she’d loved him since her teens – and found jobs for him, and when he walked out on each one she bought a country house and turned it into a Michelin rated restaurant and hotel, while the husband chatted to guests over gin and tonic, and finally disappeared.
All these wonderful achieving women came from that generation which notoriously wasn’t trained for anything, and who were expected to stay home and look after their husbands and children… and maybe garden and play bridge. They were never feminists – too busy getting things done in their own lives to even think they were being discriminated against. And they probably were, but they learned to work around the system, and didn’t waste their time repining.
The next generation took up the torch of feminism, but these women just accepted Bill Gates’ dictum: ‘life isn’t fair’ – and made the most of it… no grumbles, no sense of victim, just a joyous commitment to making the best of things. They nearly all made their own clothes, some baked their own bread, and Anne still scours hedgerows for hips for rose-hip jelly, elderberries for wine, blackberries for jams.
Life often wasn’t easy for them, the war had done dreadful things to their childhoods, but they never looked back in anger or self-pity. They cherished their families and tried to improve the lot of others. They weren’t into saving the world or marching for peace, they just did what needed to be done in the small worlds they lived in. They were gentle and kind and were what would have been called ladies back in their day.
All these lives – like all lives – seem like a miracle and a mystery, in which the years have enfolded secret sorrows, public joys, wearying challenges and unworldly wisdom. And now these friends from my youth are devoted grandmothers, back-stops and rocks in tough times, and often indispensable to their families and communities. I treasure them, and yet I sometimes wonder too, how other generations perceive them….tiresome oldies, or beloved matriarchs – or both? … Another of life’s mysteries!
Food for threadbare gourmets
A girl’s dinner and I needed something between nibbles and hors d’oevres to soak up our first glass of champagne. I made a very garlicky aoli, and chopped some cucumber half an hour beforehand, cut out the seeds, and let it sit in some salt and sugar. I patted the chunks dry before arranging them on each plate, and gently fried some fat king prawns in butter and garlic, arranging them on the bed of chopped cucumber, with a big dollop of aoli in the middle. Served with a little napkin and small fork, this went down very nicely with the champagne. I thought it would be rather nice too for a light lunch with some warm crusty rolls.
Food for thought
You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink. G.K. Chesterton