Over the top

Image result for images battle of somme

A life – this is another instalment of an autobiographical series before I revert to my normal blogs.

My step-grandfather had been a very successful business man, and a member of the Liberal Council, who in the 1945 general election, just failed to get elected to Parliament as a Liberal. “I nearly had them,” he would regretfully say to me, about the tough Geordies who he wooed in his homeland of Northumberland.

Shortly after the election, while on a lecture tour in the US, the stock market crashed, and he lost all his money. The small amount he managed to salvage when he returned, he invested in South African gold which gave him an opportunity to carry on an enjoyable, long-running and acrimonious correspondence on the immorality of apartheid with his agent in South Africa.

He had suffered from shell shock for many years after the Great War of 1914-18, and from the results of his dreadful injuries. He and his wife were both bitter about it, she because of what she said she had to put up with, he because he felt he got no sympathy or support. As a young officer in the Northumberland regiment which was the first to go over the top and step out towards the German lines on the morning of the Somme battle, he was an irresistible target in his breeches and officer’s Sam Browne belt and holster, and was shot in the face. There were 60,000 casualties on that first day of battle, and he was one of them. Sixty per cent of officers died that day, a much higher number than their men.

Recovered, a year later in the muddy martyrdom that was  Passchendaele, he was buried for two days in a bomb crater, and when dug out, grabbed a helmet filled with liquid, gulping it down to quench his thirst. It was filled with a noxious mix of battlefield poisons which damaged his insides, and he suffered the effects of this for the rest of his life.

He was famous in the family for being bloody-minded, and his injuries may have had something to do with this. One story about him was how after an argument at lunch with a few cronies, over the meaning of Magna Carta, he stormed off to the British Museum to check on the wording. On arrival, after finding his way through the labyrinths of the Museum, he discovered it was not on display. He wrote a biting letter to the Director, who replied saying the matter had been rectified.

Uncle Bill once again made a sortie to the Museum, and finding Magna Carta on a lectern, wrote another critical letter to the Director. The next time, when he visited to check on the situation, matters were only slightly improved. There was a translation now available at the side of the famous document, but Uncle Bill was still not satisfied. On his last visit, everything was finally arranged to his satisfaction, with the lectern lowered, a translation out, and a chair provided on which to sit and read the manuscript. In these days of tight security, it’s probably back in a safe.

In his retirement he went to every rugby match of note at Twickenham, and attended every cricket test at Lords or the Oval. Afterwards, often accompanied by his son and grandsons, he would call in on his wife for a generous high tea of toasted, buttered tea-cakes and rich fruit-cake, and everyone would be regaled with the stupidities and missed opportunities of the occasion, rugby or cricket.

He would also have taken the number of any bus which had been speeding, was late, had crashed the lights or had a conductor who was not up to speed. The family suspected that the local police station probably had a file especially for his complaints.

But it was still politics which would cause his ire to rise more quickly than any other subject. As a Liberal he was often at odds with the rest of the family who were Conservative to a man, so there were plenty of bones to pick over. I could never follow a word of these heated debates.

They also caused his wife to say after he had left: “now you know what he’s like… ” as if anyone was in any doubt. He and my father tolerated each other – my father once told me he was shallow, while Uncle Bill wrote to me when my father died saying he was his own worst enemy. This hurt me, whatever the truth of it.

When I was a late teenager and in my early twenties we still rendezvoused in London several times a year… we’d go to the Tate or the National Gallery, and then he’d take me for lunch to the famous Simpson’s- in -the- Strand where we feasted. Huge haunches of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding or roast lamb were wheeled up to the table on silver domed trolleys and carved for us in the dining room which was unchanged since 1828. This was followed by delectable treacle pudding…

(P.G.Wodehouse loved Simpson’s too. A hundred years ago he wrote:’ Here, if he wishes, the Briton may … stupefy himself with food. The God of Fatted Plenty has the place under his protection. Its keynote is solid comfort. It is a pleasant, soothing, hearty place – a restful temple of food. No strident orchestra forces the diner to bolt beef in ragtime… There he sits, alone with his food, while white-robed priests, wheeling their smoking trucks, move to and fro, ever ready with fresh supplies.’)

Another favourite foodie place we visited was Charbonnel et Walker in Bond Street, chocolate shop extraordinaire since 1875, and favourite rendezvous for our family of chocoholics. In those days the truffles were numbered, and my memory is that my step-grandmother had a passion for number thirty-eight. I too loved number thirty-eight, and was mightily put out when my Christmas present was crystallised pineapple lumps instead of the truffles. We were in good company you could say, as other chocoholics who devoured these goodies included not just the Royal Family, but Noel Coward, Lauren Bacall, Sir John Gielgud and Princess Diana to name a few.

Every Christmas Uncle Bill gave the family a large, wooden box of Fortnum and Mason crystallised fruits laid out in rows on lacy paper doilies. Nothing since has tasted as delicious as those goodies. The exception to the crystallised fruits was when we lived in Malaya, when he instructed Harrods to send ten pounds of hand-made chocolates especially packed for the tropics in a very large tin, and lined with tin foil to protect them from ants, cockroaches and heat. Those were the days …

The best gift he ever gave us was for Christmas just before we went to Malaya. As well as both her parents, my stepmother had invited her brother and his wife, and her two nephews who she loved almost as much as her only son. Uncle Bill arrived first, full of enthusiasm and bringing with him two new inventions.

The first was a Black and Decker hedge cutter and he couldn’t wait to use it on our miles of privet hedge surrounding the front garden, the back garden, the vegetable garden and the grass tennis court. Alas, before long the air was blue with curses and smoke… he had chopped through the long electric cord dangling from a socket inside the kitchen window and that was the end of the hedge cutting project.

The other item he brought with him changed my life. It was a box of detergent called Tide which had just come on the market in England. It was the first heavy-duty synthetic detergent and had been invented in America, where it had been available since 1946.

Since it was my job to do the washing- up, and there were eleven of us for every meal that Christmas, this was a gift beyond price. I had always been squeamish. But now, instead of fishing around in revolting greasy water with a feeble mop-head on a stick, here was a magic white powder which dissolved the horrid mess and washed away all the nauseating aftermath of gravy, grub and grease! Hallelujah! Joy to the world, life had really changed for the exceedingly better.

And it was to change even more when we packed up our lives again six weeks later, and embarked on the adventure of Malaya during the Emergency – called the Emergency so that rubber planters could claim on insurance for their losses to the communist bandits, whereas insurers are absolved from paying out in a war!

More to come, as we used to write at the bottom of each page in the old days of print newspapers

Food for threadbare gourmets

Apples are back! it’s that time of year when the shops and way-wide stalls are loaded with freshly harvested apples-my favourite fruit. I love apple cakes and apple puddings, and this one is a goodie.

Peel a pound of Bramleys or Grannie Smiths apples and cook in a saucepan with 3 ounces of brown sugar and approximately 2 tablespoons of water. Simmer gently until soft, and then arrange this mix in the bottom of a greased baking dish.

In a mixing bowl, cream four ounces of soft butter and four ounces of caster sugar until pale and fluffy and then beat in two large eggs a little at a time. When all the egg is in, carefully and lightly fold in four ounces of ground almonds. Spread this mixture over the apples, and even out the surface with the back of a tablespoon.  Then bake on a middling shelf in the oven for exactly 1 hour.

This delicious pudding is good eaten warm or cold –  with cream. Once cooled, it will keep in the fridge for 3 or 4 days


Food for Thought

An oldie, but a goodie –An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”


Filed under army, battle of somme, cookery/recipes, culture, family, history, life/style, Thoughts on writing and life, uncategorised, Uncategorized, world war one

26 responses to “Over the top

  1. Yes indeed….the one you feed! Very interesting and well done! Please keep on writing. We are all enjoying every word.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your step-grandfather must have been quite a character. I was happy to read that you maintained a certain degree of fondness for him perhaps realizing the extreme chock he experienced at the battle of the Somme made him so difficult to live with. Great post, Valerie!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Peter, lovely to know you’re still reading my saga!!!!
      Yes, Uncle Bill Was a character, and also a very formidable one, as well as a kind one…
      Thank you for your enthusiasm Peter, so good to know you’re enjoying the stories…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Vivid characters, and you describe them well.
    Strange how well I have always identified with the world of Wooster and Jeeves — I think that perhaps it lingered a bit here.
    So for you a period of greater ease washed in with the Tide!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very funny – I had a giggle over high Tide !!!
      I love the Jeeves and Wooster gang – did you watch the TV series with Stephen Fry as the ultimate Jeeves.. and Hugh Laurie as a deliciously daft Wooster? We watched it again recently on the computer…just as good !!!


  4. Another great installment!


  5. I like your Uncle Bill, Valerie.
    What a man he must have been. Loud, brave, and colourful comes to mind.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh my goodness, I just love that Cherokee story, have not previously heard it. Reminds me of a podcast I listened to recently by a psychologist saying within all of us is good and evil… he was missing the magic ending from the Cherokee version! I was born in 1953 and Tide is all my mother ever used, and still uses! I was lost when I moved to Australia, having no idea what else to try! Life back then was so hard for so many. War is such a tragedy for us humans to bring upon ourselves. Another wonderful instalment, Valerie. x

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Hello Ardys, so glad you enjoyed the Cherokee story – it says it all, doesn’t it… and if only the whole world- including Trump Haters, stalkers, members of political parties, religions etc etc had that story pinned to their walls, the world might change !!!
    Thank you so much for your thought-provoking comment as always, I love to know you’re reading my saga…

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Angela

    Me too!! (Oh dear even that phrase now has other connotations!) but am so enjoying this serialisation of such a full, interesting life filled with wonderful characters…..and it’s all true!! Even Tide washing powder brought back memories….& the Cherokee story…so simple but oh so true..
    Thankyou Valerie…my day is made when I see a new post from you…
    Very best wishes

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Angela, I can’t tell you how much pleasure your lovely comment gave me …thank you so much, it really is such a joy to have such enthusiastic appreciation.. you are a true friend !
      Yes… Me too, is a bit loaded these days isn’t it ! So Tide did it for you too, amazing how many people identified with that bit of the story !
      And yes, the Cherokee story is a treasure isn’t it…
      Just about to make a cup ‘that cheers but doth not in-ebriate !’
      Warmest best wishes to you, Valerie


  9. Dearest Valerie,

    How you enrich our lives with your stories. This one reminded me of how we take things for granted…like Tide detergent. It’s been around since I have and never have given much thought. And the hedge clipper story made me laugh out loud. I could so picture that happening.
    As spring is trying to happen here, I find it hard to think about the fact that, as a friend of ours put it, winter is raising its hoary head on your end of the world.
    Again, I’m enjoying these delightful installments. ❤




    • Oh Rochelle, it’s lovely to read your generous comments after each instalment of my saga… I am so grateful for your enthusiasm and support…
      So Tide hit the spot with you too !
      Interesting what a dent it’s made in people’s consciousness !
      And I love to think of you laughing over the hedge clipping disaster !
      Thank you for your beautiful card… how sweet of you to think of us like that… and I hope you are enjoying a gentle spring… it’s supposed to be raining today, but we’ve had the french doors open to the sun and no breeze since I woke, – so ‘winter’s hoary head’ is not too threatening at the moment!!!
      Thank you again for reading all these stories of the past,
      Much love, Valerie


  10. Uncle Bill sounds like a bit of a character, as well as an upstanding member of the community! I winced at his adventure with the hedge-cutter, as it’s something I’m particularly paranoid about. With stick food mixers, too. God bless this age of cordless everything!

    His sufferings during the war were appalling to read about. You’d think we’d learn, but the history of human strife and conflict rolls on and on…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Alex,
      I always love your comments, thank you… yes, Uncle Bill was a character wasn’t he !
      And yes, World War One was absolutely horrendous … the closest most soldiers in the second world war got to those frightful conditions was what the US soldiers had to cope with in the Hurtgen Forest all through the bitter snowy winter…I often think that women are very lucky… it would break my heart to think my son and every mother’s son was having to live through those terrible conflicts that men are expected to…

      Liked by 1 person

  11. What an interesting man Uncle Bill was. He obviously suffered much and perhaps took some of that out on an unsuspecting world 🙂 But you obviously also had some wonderful times with him.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Agree with Andrea’s comment, right above. In general, your life is pretty interesting, Valerie 🙂
    As a French native, I felt moved by your narrative of the Somme battle and WWI in general. La der des ders would not be the last one, despite the horror it left behind. Your uncle’s bitterness is understandable.
    I copied your recipe, even though I have one that seems quite similar. Almonds and apples go so well together.
    And I find the quote absolutely perfect. The thing is, evn though we all know what wolf we should feed we still give big crumbs to the other one. I suppose this is what being human means.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I couldn’t help laughing at your very true observation that we still feed the big bad wolf in spite of our better natures!!!
    Glad you felt the recipe was worth a go… I love any apple puddings…
    Thank you for your comment Evelyn, as usual you give me another perspective… and I can imagine that the Somme battle could have pressed your buttons…though the French were not fighting at that point, under stupid and autocratic generals like the British, and therefore they lost far fewer men than the unfortunate British!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Jane Sturgeon

    Your Uncle Bill was authentic and I love that about him. Simpson’s, my godfather took me there and I remember it well. I am loving your life stories Val. I recall Sunlight soap and Tide. ❤ Xx


    • Love your comments, Jane, thank you… so we have much in common, including Simpsons and Tide !!! Lovely that you are enjoying my story, so encouraging…
      I never call myself Val… I envy people like you with a one syllable name that can’t be changed !!!!
      I love that you saw how unashamedly real Uncle Bill was… authentic is such a wonderful word…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jane Sturgeon

        Oh Valerie, I am so sorry I shortened your name, as I wasn’t even aware I had done it. ‘Val’ fell out as I was writing to you and I know why in hindsight. There’s a story attached, so may want a cup of tea. After all their years in Africa, my Mum and Dad came back to England and landed in Devon and then re-settled up in Cheshire. Mum got a job as a bookkeeper in an insurance firm. One day a couple came to desk to buy business insurance and Mum heard the Rhodesian accent. She asked to help them at the desk and struck up a conversation. The couple, Roger and Val, were settling in the U.K. to keep their boys safe and Mum invited them to dinner. Over thirty years later the friendship has flowed and nourished them all. Val sadly, and suddenly, passed away a few years ago. Talking to Val, is like talking to you and that’s how the name ‘flow’ happened. Hugs for you. Xx


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