A composer, a journalist and an activist. One of the great boons of technology is the ability to find about people I’m curious about, have known in the past, or want to know about now!.
I was looking up on Google to find out more about the Polish priest, Jerzy Popieluszko, hideously martyred during the struggle for Solidarity in Poland. In the text I found the name of Andrzej Panufnik, who had written a piece of music commemorating Popieluszko, so I followed this up, discovering that he was a much more interesting person than the rather weary, elegant, middle-aged composer I had met on Christmas evening at Twickenham Vicarage, my in-law’s house, back in 1964.
He had refused a Christmas mince pie then, thinking that we crude Anglo-Saxons were eating beef mince pies, after all the previous Christmas feasting earlier in the day. I felt he had not been entirely convinced even after having it explained in very simple English.” Too much food, too much food”, he kept murmuring. (My problem on meeting him was that I was young, unhappy, ignorant and probably crass).
His life, surviving in war-time Warsaw, composing and playing music at cafes – the only way Poles could hear live music since the Germans had forbidden public meetings – and then escaping with his mother just before the Warsaw Uprising, sounded harrowing in the extreme. When he returned to bury his brother and collect his music manuscripts, he found they had all been destroyed, including his ‘Songs for the Underground Resistance’. It got worse. Under Communism, he was required to reflect in his music ‘the realities of socialist life’, and even his symphonies for peace were considered politically unsafe, while his links with other great, but suspect composers, like Shostakovich and Khatchaturian in Russia, were also unhelpful. He was criticised for ‘Formalism’!
In the end he managed to defect. Visiting Switzerland in 1954 to conduct a specially arranged concert, organised so that he could defect, he ended up in a chase in a Zurich taxi, escaping from the pursuing Polish Secret Police. Reaching England, he was supported by other sympathetic composers, including Vaughan Williams, until he established himself. At the same time he was declared a traitor and a non-person by the Communists after his much-publicised flight from Poland.
Eventually he married his second wife, Camilla, an heiress, photographer, and efficient organiser, who lived in a beautiful old house on the banks of the Thames, near my in-laws. From then on he pursued a tranquil and distinguished career, composing and conducting, and was knighted by the Queen. Yehudi Menuhin commissioned a violin concerto from him and Rostropovich, a cello concerto. Compositions streamed out of him, including a ‘Paean” written for the Queen Mother’s eightieth birthday. England, happy marriage, prosperity and professional success, must have seemed like heaven after the perils and dangers of Poland, during and after the war. His obituaries described him as one of the most ‘potent voices in music in the twentieth century’.
Still playing on Google, I found Welles Hangen, head of the NBC Bureau in Hong Kong when I was there. He had disappeared in Cambodia in 1970. I had lost touch with Pat, his wife, one of my close friends when I first came here. I felt she had no energy for anything but the search for Welles. I had spent the last day in Hong Kong with her, the children playing together for the last time. She gave me some delicate dark green jade earrings, with a gold setting in Chinese characters meaning happiness and good fortune, to take with me on my terrifying expedition into the unknown – New Zealand. Welles had given them to her.
In the stories about Welles on Google, I found an account of the Christmas party I went to in their palatial white house with walls of windows, looking down over the harbour from the Peak. A woman who was a war-correspondent, just arrived in Vietnam, had written it. Her description of the fabled party was totally unlike my perception of it. I saw no glamorous Chinese courtesans in exotic cheongsams, circling the room looking for “foreign devils” to subsidise them, nor even any CIA agents, or any other conspirators.
I just saw a sea of middle-aged Yankees – many of whose stout, slightly boring wives I had met at the American Women’s Association lunches, talks and fairs that Pat always took me to. And I was stuck at one of the little round tables with a handful of them, eating dinner with a group of people talking their own private language of acquaintances and domestic doings, which I could hardly hear anyway, above the din of conversation all round. I left early.
When I arrived, wearing an Edwardian-style turquoise crepe blouse, and a quilted silk, darker turquoise ankle-length skirt, my long dark hair piled up into a Japanese geisha chignon, I climbed the steps to the terrace behind Robert Elegant, the English writer and correspondent and his wife, who had had a reputation as a beauty. Welles greeted them at the top of the steps, and then turned to me, took my hands in his, and paid me a glowing compliment. Mrs Elegant swung round and glared at me. For the first time I understood the chagrin of growing older, when I saw it written in her face.
The next morning, party over, Welles left at five am to return to the chaos in Cambodia. Pat, their adopted children, a son, four year old Dana, and Claire, the plump little blue- eyed blonde toddler they’d brought back from the States the previous year, celebrated Christmas without him. A few weeks later, Pat showed me the elegant writing desk she had had designed by an architect, to give to Welles for his 40th birthday when he returned. It was waiting in his study, standing on one of the oriental rugs he’d brought home, literally loaded over his shoulders, when they lived in the Middle East. The desk was simply two elegant rosewood trestles and a sheet of black glass suspended over them.
Welles never saw it. The last news Pat had of him was that he and his camera-man had been captured. She went into a frenzy of effort, ringing and writing, and answering the phones endlessly, and even – in this night-mare – collaborating with “the underground”. Actually, Quakers, who were equipping a ship with medical supplies to sail to the stricken North Vietnam. Previously scornful of pacifists, now, if helping the enemy would help Welles, Pat would help them. She bought up stocks of bandages, quinine, and everything else she thought could be useful from all the chemists in Hong Kong, hoping that somehow a good deed to the North Vietnamese would ricochet into better treatment for Welles, wherever he was.
Later, and shortly after I arrived in New Zealand, I had a dream of Welles. He came to me and asked me to tell Pat that he was alive, but that he was also dead. He was very insistent that I let her know this, so she would stop waiting for him. But in the cold light of morning I didn’t dare write such a letter to Pat, to rob her of the hope which was her equilibrium. Hope was what was keeping her going, and capable of continuing to mother the children, a role which never came easily to her, much as she loved them.
She was the most unhandy and clueless mother I ever knew. She had collected Dana from the New York orphanage the night of the huge power black-out in New York, and had been stuck in a strange unlit house with a hungry crying baby she didn’t even know how to feed. She was in her forties, and had a busy life, so Dana, and then Claire, spent much time with a rather bored, unprepossessing Chinese amah. Which was why Pat loved my children coming to play with hers. I always felt I had let Welles down by not doing as he asked.
I learned from Google that Pat and the children stayed on in Hong Kong for another two and a half years, before returning to family in San Francisco. And there too, was the story of Welles’s end, and the discovery of his remains, in 1993, when the Americans were finally allowed back into Cambodia to investigate, twenty-three years after his disappearance. According to a local peasant, Welles and the others had been captured by the Viet Cong and Khymer Rouge, taken to a hut, kept for a few days, then marched to the riverbed and beaten to death.
Investigations revealed the four bodies, which were identified, and then Pat attended a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, where Welles’ ashes were interred. Two years later Pat was laid to rest beside him. Earlier, at Arlington Cemetery, she had said she would have preferred to go on hoping, but at least now she had finality.
And then there was Cheryl. I didn’t need to google her, she was a friend and back from her world-wide conference in Melbourne. She told me of a woman from a remote community in the Arctic Circle. The woman lives in a village of two-hundred-and- seventy-eight souls, and they depend on fish and caribou for their food. The fish, they know are now contaminated by the poisons we flush into the world’s oceans. So this year, conscious of dwindling fish stocks world-wide, and in the interests of responsible conservation, they agreed to limit themselves to catching two-hundred-and-twenty fish this season. They caught eight.
And because the summer had been so warm, the snow had melted on the caribou’s feeding grounds. When winter came the tundra froze over, and the caribou cannot break through the ice with their hooves to get to their food below the surface. So the caribou were starving.
Cheryl is an interesting person. I know she is highly distinguished, and even has a papal knighthood, but when she talked of her Journey at a meeting of souls, I couldn’t fathom where this exceptionality was hidden in her. But the more I have met her, the more I see what deep wisdom she has. She must have – she understands the concepts I’m talking of, when no-one else does!!! At each encounter, she says something that illuminates, and I think about it for days.
This time, after her story about the Inuit village, we were talking of summer, and how we have both planted queen of the night for its scent. She mentioned how she listens for that moment during each day, when the rasping of the cicadas turns into the clicking of the crickets. I was fascinated, and realised that I had never even thought about it. I shall now. And I shall listen. Among many of her activities, she seeks out and shows films about the planet and global warming to her community, and has started a local chapter of the Red Hat Society (that is a story in itself))
These are some of the rare people I treasure having encountered, or having loved in my life… yes, there are so many more, because every person is so unique – a uniqueness that shines through in every blog I read. So vive all our differences and specialness and uniqueness… there is no-one else like us and never will be – everyone who reads these words is not just unusual but a one-off – what a thought!
Food for threadbare gourmets
I needed a quick, quick meal – we were starving. Chopped mushrooms and chopped bacon quickly fried. At the same time a packet each of instant noodles was soaking in boiling water. Salt, pepper and some cream tipped into the mushroom mixture and boiled up to reduce slightly. Noodles drained, mixture tipped over, and a sprinkling of grated parmesan from the deep freeze. Supper ready in five minutes!
Food for thought
Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, power to re-tell it, to re-think it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts. Salman Rushdie, novelist.