Category Archives: army

Not angels or saints – Women

This is a story about three women who were described as the Angel of Arnhem, the Virtuous One and Queen of Okoyong.

Kate ter Horst was called an angel by those who received her heroic care under fire. The mother of five children, she lived happily with her husband Jan at Oosterbeek, near Arnhem, where part of the Allied assault, Operation Market Garden took place in September 1944.

As the battle for Arnhem Bridge intensified, an army doctor by the name of Randal Martin knocked on Kate’s door and asked if he could bring some lightly wounded men there for shelter, as their field hospital was running out of room. With her husband away helping the Dutch Resistance, Kate agreed, and putting her children safely in the cellar with their nanny, she opened her doors to the wounded, the men of the British Parachute Brigade.

They never stopped coming as the battle raged, until over three hundred wounded and dying were crammed into every available space, where there was no room to step anywhere, she told her children afterwards. When the house became a target, she improvised water for her unexpected house guests siphoning off water from the boiler and the toilet cistern. But mostly she comforted and supported the wounded. Talking to them, reading the Bible and prayers to those who wished, holding their hands when they died. She infused the house with calm, and loving kindness.

Liv Ullman plays Kate in the film, ‘A Bridge Too Far’, with great soul and sensitivity, so that one knows how much the shattered soldiers loved her, and clung to her steady, gentle kindness. “She brought light into darkness,” a wounded general said afterwards. Over three hundred men finally lay on the polished oak floors, on the stairs, on sofas and make-shift beds. The young English doctor was wounded twice as relentless sniper fire targeted the house and explosions rocked it. Fifty-seven dead soldiers were hastily buried in the garden, and when the Germans finally marched in, Kate and her children were expelled from their home, walking away with nothing.

They called her the Angel of Arnhem and never forgot her. When the war was over, those who survived and the families of those who didn’t, came back to thank her and to be with her once again. Dr Randal Martin, like some others, became a life-long friend, and when Kate was killed in a car accident in 1992 and her husband badly injured, Randall flew over to Holland to care for him. They were awarded an MBE by the King, and when Kate died, the British Parliament stood to honour and pay tribute to her.

Her daughter Sophie continued to live in their re-stored house. She said: “I cherish this house and feel privileged to live here. It’s where British men gave their lives to free Europe. I’ve lived with their memories all my life. I think of them all the time.”

(of the 10,000 men who fought at Arnhem, only 2,400 returned). Her mother turned the garden into a shrine to the young men who had died there, and when her husband became mayor, he started the custom of all the children in the town being responsible for one grave, which they tended and decorated with flowers since the families of the dead were too far away. It continues to this day.

Gladys Aylward was also involved in a war – the terrible conflict between the Chinese and Japanese. A house-maid before she had saved enough to pay for the cheapest fare available to go to China – she had two pounds and nine pence when she set out on the dangerous journey overland to become a missionary. Missionaries have had a bad rap over the years, along with the British Empire (which abolished suttee – the burning of widows on their husband’s funeral pyre, helped abolish foot-binding in China and tackled infanticide in parts of Africa)

When thirty- three year old Gladys arrived in China she joined a seventy- three year old missionary, Jeannie Lawson, in a remote part of the country, where the two women restored a ruined haunted hotel, and made a warm welcoming stop for mule trains… while they ate their food, one of the women would tell them Bible stories, in the hope the muleteers would pass them on! When the elderly Jeannie died from a fall, Gladys took over on her own. She overcame local hostility and prejudice against all ‘foreign devils’, learned the language, became a Chinese citizen, quelled a local prison riot and obtained decent conditions for the prisoners.

She became an official employee of the government to abolish the barbaric practise of foot binding, having great success in remote regions in spite of the resistance of the men. (footbinding involved breaking the toes and the instep, binding the toes to the sole very tightly and creating a foot of four inches, on which women could hardly hobble and were trapped at home. They often fell and broke their bones which became more brittle than unhandicapped women’s. It was agonising, and considered a sign of beauty) At the same time Gladys was adopting orphans whenever they came her way! The locals loved her and gave her a Chinese name – Virtuous One.

She ended up at the outbreak of war having to lead a hundred orphans of all ages to a safe town, away from the Japanese, who were destroying all the towns and villages, and killing everyone.

Her epic trek over the mountains with the children for twelve days, almost starving, sleeping in the open, trudging through rain and up and down steep mountain passes was the subject of a film, ‘The Inn of the Sixth Happiness’ a distorted Hollywood account which included a fictional love affair, which the modest Gladys hated.

At the end of the journey she collapsed with typhus and fought for her life, before going back to work with her beloved orphans. With the coming of Mao she had to escape China, and she ended her life caring for orphans in Taiwan. Not bad for a four foot ten inch London parlour maid.

Mary Slessor was a Scots girl, who from the age of eleven had to work to help support her family, who were unsupported by an alcoholic father. She worked in a weaving mill until she was twenty eight, when she felt able to leave home, and sailed off to Africa to be come a missionary. She went to Calabar in Nigeria, and after a short time at the mission, she set off into the unknown interior of the great continent.

Back in 1878, this really was darkest Africa, with many hostile tribes, particularly brutal forms of slavery, constant tribal wars and barbaric and brutal customs which made everyone’s life a fragile dangerous ordeal. Other missionaries who had tried to spread their message there had been killed. Undaunted, Mary learned Efik, the local language, and bringing nothing with her but love and a desire to help the oppressed, she set off.

She spent the rest of her life exploring and serving this part of Nigeria and with sheer force of personality taming murderous chiefs, curbing the power of witch- doctors, trying to end the practise of chaining the wrists of a suspect and pouring boiling oil over them -if he was innocent, he would not be harmed! She rescued slaves condemned to death for trivial mis-demeanours, and saved the lives of many women from being killed for irrational reasons, stopped the practice of finding someone to blame when someone died and taking their life too, put a stop to all the chief’s wives and servants being killed when he died, to go with him, and everywhere she went, building her own house, chopping logs and fixing roofs, and always having her adopted children with her.

Her most powerful achievement was to end the killing of twins, whose parents were deemed cursed by their communities and the mother driven off to die in the jungle and the father considered a ‘devil child’. She scoured the dense undergrowth whenever the grapevine told her twins had been born and rescued hundreds of the abandoned babies, nursed their broken mothers back to health, tried to re-unite the parents, and above all, worked on the chiefs to get them to stop this cruel practice. She cared for the babies, finding homes for them and adopted four girls and a boy herself.

 The people adored her for the loving and unstinting energy she gave to improving their lot and trying to change things for the better. Mary had contracted malaria soon after her arrival in Nigeria, and struggled with it for all the years she worked in Africa until she died a sixty- seven in 1915.

But until then she never gave into it, and battled through fever, debilitation and pain to the rescue of endangered women, or to stand in the path to stop an invading tribe attacking. Though she was a timid woman, hiding in doorways if she saw a dog in her native Dundee, here in Africa, using prayer to sustain her she showed such courage that all, European and Africans alike, were awed by her achievements. Her focus was on teaching Christianity, settling disputes, encouraging trade, establishing social changes and introducing Western education. She changed many lives simply by her example.

She had an extensive correspondence with children  back in Scotland, and even with the crippled son of hotel owners in the Canary Islands. Knowing the labour of hand writing long letters, this reaching out with loving encouragement to these children was an extraordinary service on top of all her other self-appointed duties.

The British Government in Nigeria cooperated with Mary’s efforts to stop the killing of twins and passed a law against it. They also made Mary the local consul with the power to preside as a magistrate and keep the peace in her area. By now, she was known by all, as the Queen of Okorong, for all the tribes and chefs deferred to her and brought their disputes to her, knowing she would resolve their problems with fairness and kindness as she knew their ways and customs. Everyone trusted her.

Mary refused a salary for this important post saying she was serving God, not the government, so the government paid her salary to her local mission. The frail missionary became beloved by all who knew her, and though George V honoured her with the award of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, she valued far more the love of her adopted children and all those she worked with and served. When she died, the colonial authorities gave the red-haired blue-eyed Scottish girl from the Dundee slums the equivalent of a state funeral

All these women brought light into darkness, and they are an inspiration. Gladys and Mary and Kate are well-known, but at the same time, in each place in the world where they laboured, there were many other women (and men) bringing light, and kindness among people who needed hope; people struggling against centuries of oppression, poverty and the cruelties inflicted by the powerful, as well as by the tragedies of war.

The tapestry of the past is composed of dark and light, but by looking at the light, and acknowledging it, instead of focusing only on the dark, we can see how the light has showed us the way to a more just, more compassionate present. The light can inspire and lead us out of the darkness of injustice or cruelty into the possibilities of a fairer kinder future.

Dale Carnegie had a point when he said two men looked out from prison bars, one saw the mud, the other saw stars. These women were stars and their lights still shine for those who choose to see it.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets.

Not for the first time, Nigella Lawson has enhanced my life! I read her tip to cook chips in COLD oil. This looked too good to be true. But using a deep saucepan, instead of a frying pan, I tipped chips into cold vegetable oil and left them to cook. Miracle – crisp outside, soft and fluffy inside, and they took half the time and no hot oil spattering. Next time I tried with kumara/sweet potato as well – just as good but they cook a lot quicker.

So then, in a separate pan, I tried chopped onion in cold oil. The recipient, an aficionado of fried onions, said they were the most deliciously crisp of any I had cooked before. I tip them onto kitchen paper, to dry out a bit of the oil, but they seem to be less oily than ordinary chips. Must be vegetable oil, so I use grape-seed.

Food for Thought

What is civilization? I answer, the power of good women.     

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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The Soldiers – ‘A Richer Dust Concealed’

100_0584The beginning of July is pock- marked for me with remembrances, memorials and history… the birthday of my father, the day I shattered my leg four years ago, spending two and a half months in hospital, and the unforgettable anniversary of one of the worst battles of the First World War.

It was a hundred and four years ago,  when my step-grandfather stepped out with thousands of other young men on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The first of July, 1916.

He was a north countryman from Northumberland, and the four Northumberland regiments were the first to walk into battle at 7 30 am on a blue sunny morning with the birds singing. The four Geordie regiments stepped purposefully towards the German lines which were supposed to have been bombarded into nothing after five days of thunderous firing – the barbed wire cut by the bombardment also.

For a moment, these fine young men walked into the sudden silence, and then the German machine guns began to fire. The bombardment had neither cut the wire nor killed the enemy, who had moved out of range. The German guns now simply swept the battle field, as their targets continued walking steadily towards them, and line after line of brave young men fell. These regiments belonged to what was known as the New Army, bodies of men who had joined up from their towns, villages and workplaces, calling themselves names like the Grimsby Chums, and the Manchester Pals. They were, to use a cliché which has meaning in this context, the flower of the country’s youth. They had set off that morning believing that this battle would end the war.

Percy, my step-grandfather, didn’t become one of the 60,000 dead British soldiers killed on that one day, but just one of over 30,000 wounded. He was a young officer, and like them all, easily distinguishable to the German machine-gunners. Officers went into battle wearing their service dress, collar and tie, shining leather Sam Browne belts, and carrying a pistol, not a rifle. By the end of the day, seventy five per cent of officers had been killed, compared with fifty per cent of men. The three colonels of the four Geordie regiments were dead, the fourth badly wounded.

Percy was shot in the face, and later buried in a huge crater after a mine had exploded. He was found four days later, still alive – just – and he grabbed a helmet lying on the ground to drink from it and quench his terrible thirst. The helmet was full of chemicals and poisons from the battlefield, and Percy ruined his insides. The face wound healed, he returned to the battlefield, and unlike so many of the men who endured the hell of the First World War, he survived to see peace.

The day that 60,000 brave young men died on the Somme was the worst day of that terrible war. Waterloo was accounted a bloody battle, but Wellington lost only 25 per cent of his army, 8458 men. El Alamein, an eleven- day battle, cost 1,125 men a day, while on D-Day the British and Canadian casualties cost 4000 men.

So my step-grandmother, living in a north country village, had seen all the young men march proudly through the streets on their way to fight for their country, trumpets blowing, banners flying, girls throwing flowers. Now all the houses had their blinds down, mourning their sons and husbands, brothers and fiancees, friends and neighbours. It wasn’t the same back in Germany. The Germans had not been slaughtered. For every seven British soldiers killed, they had lost one, from a much bigger population.

Paddy Kennedy, a soldier with the Manchester Pals, another regiment which was destroyed that day, helped to take a German post at Montauban. In the German trenches he found a small black frightened kitten, the pet of a dead soldier. Feeling sorry for it, he fastened it inside his pack, and took it with him. During lulls in the fighting he took it out and played with it. A few days later, he gave it to the company cooks as a mascot, and got on with his job… the following year, the kitten, now known as Nigger, went back to England hidden in a soldier’s battledress.

The young man took it home on leave to his family in Rochdale, and left it with them. He was killed at Passchendale shortly afterwards. But Paddy Kennedy, who’d gone back home to Manchester after the war, had not forgotten the cat. Throughout the twenties he went to visit Nigger at Rochdale.

This reminded me of the Dogs Cage on the beach at Dover. As the soldiers arrived back from Dunkirk in 1940, hungry, wounded, shattered, they brought with them dogs and puppies which they’d rescued from the deserted, burning town of Dunkirk. Since rabies could not be allowed to invade the British Isles, the commanding officer at Dover organised for the dogs to be labelled, and their addresses recorded; and after six months in quarantine, these French dogs were delivered to their rescuer’s homes around the British Isles. I suppose that by then they knew what ‘sit,’ and ‘stay’ were in English…

These loving actions by soldiers in the midst of fighting, somehow ease the heart when one reads the horror of those battles. So when I think of Percy and all those other wonderful young men, whose deaths wring the heart – “theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die”, I think of their kindness and courage and decency – and try not to think of the warmongers who forced war on the world, of the devastated people in Belgium and Northern France, who suffered atrocities perpetrated by Germans, not Nazis, who conveniently took the blame for similar atrocities in the next world war.

When some of those young men rescued the frightened black kitten, they lovingly gave it a name which is now anathematized in some parts of the western world, and I wonder what those brave young men would have thought of our world now.

Of the million white slaves in the Middle East, some would have been the ancestors of these soldiers, some would have ancestors who slaved in the mines, others impressed in the navy for seven years, and many more who scurried up and down stairs as over-worked and underpaid servants. Most soldiers would have come from families whose members had always been poor, overworked, and downtrodden throughout the history of their country.

But they loved it, and wanted to protect it. They didn’t want to impose it and their way of life, and their culture on others. And they died trying to save it.

The title comes from Rupert Brooke’s famous (and now unfashionable) poem, The Soldier.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I’m just emerging from a bad bout of ‘flu, so apologies to all the wonderful friends who commented on my previous post, and I will be getting back to you. I also had a posse of zoo researchers coming to dinner, before they began their nights research into our almost extinct species of frogs and lizards in the forest.

I wondered how I was going to put on dinner for five – the spirit was willing but the body was weak, so I turned to my newly acquired slow cooker for rescue. Brilliant! Into the pre-heated container went chopped onion, garlic, a stick of chopped celery, chopped mushrooms, and a few rashers of chopped bacon. Then a layer of chopped chicken- good sized chunks – I used boneless thighs and tenderloins, then smothered the whole with a tin of condensed chicken soup plus a chicken stock cube and hot stock, plus a liberal helping of cream, and salt and pepper.

I put the lid on, and it cooked for four hours on high. Then I added a packet of lasagne, made sure the liquid covered it, by adding a bit more hot chicken stock, and continued cooking for another hour and a bit till the pasta was ready. With a green salad, and freshly grated parmesan, it was a doddle.

And for an easy pudding, I whipped up cream, added the same amount of apricot yogurt, plus succulent chopped peaches I’d freezed in summer, some sugar, and a tin of mandarin oranges to decorate the top. In a crystal dish, it looked good enough to eat!

Food for Thought

Lord, Thou knowest how busy I must be this day. If I forget Thee, do not Thou forget me.

The prayer of Cavalier, Sir Jacob Astley before the Battle of Edgehill 1642

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Take a knee

The Great War in France - battlefields sites and monuments

“Military men are just dumb, stupid animals to be used as pawns in foreign policy.”  Said Henry Kissinger.

I had thought of these callous words when I copied the food for thought in my last post: “The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”

As a military daughter, wife, sister, serving officer myself, and descendant of soldiers, I’ve sometimes found myself defending military men, as I did once at a Quaker meeting where everyone is committed to pacifism. And I thought of these stories of profound wisdom by three military men in recent wars.

In 2005, Dan Baum wrote this inspiring tale in the New Yorker: “During the early weeks of the Iraq war, the television set in my office was tuned all day to CNN, with the sound muted. On the morning of April 3rd, as the Army and the Marines were closing in on Baghdad, I happened to look up at what appeared to be a disaster in the making. A small unit of American soldiers was walking along a street in Najaf when hundreds of Iraqis poured out of the buildings on either side. Fists waving, throats taut, they pressed in on the Americans, who glanced at one another in terror.

“I reached for the remote and turned up the sound. The Iraqis were shrieking, frantic with rage. From the way the lens was lurching, the cameraman seemed as frightened as the soldiers. This is it, I thought. A shot will come from somewhere, the Americans will open fire, and the world will witness the My Lai massacre of the Iraq war.

“At that moment, an American officer stepped through the crowd holding his rifle high over his head with the barrel pointed to the ground. Against the backdrop of the seething crowd, it was a striking gesture—almost Biblical. “Take a knee,” the officer said, impassive behind surfer sunglasses.

“The soldiers looked at him as if he were crazy. Then, one after another, swaying in their bulky body armour and gear, they knelt before the boiling crowd and pointed their guns at the ground. The Iraqis fell silent, and their anger subsided. The officer ordered his men to withdraw.”

It took Dan Baum two months to track down Lieutenant Colonel Chris Hughes to hear his story, and his spontaneous reaction to the peril he and his men were in.

Major Chris Keeble was a British soldier fighting in the Falklands War. During the Battle of Goose Green, he inherited command of the 2nd Battalion of The Parachute Regiment when Lieutenant-Colonel H. Jones was killed in action. Keeble was a devout Christian. The battalion was at a point when its attack upon the Argentine Army position had broken down, having lost one in six of its men; it had almost run out of ammunition, had been without sleep for 40 hours, and was in a debilitated condition in Arctic conditions facing the unknown potential of a counter-attack from the Argentine forces all around.

After kneeling alone in prayer amongst the burning gorse seeking guidance as to what to do, Major Keeble conceived the idea of refraining from more attacks to try a psychological ploy. He released several captured Argentine prisoners of war in the direction of their Goose Green garrison, carrying messages to the commander requiring its surrender or threatening it with a fictitious large-scale assault by the British forces, supported by artillery. The Argentine commander, subsequently surrendered the garrison to the Parachute Regiment without further fighting.

Keeble said later that: “perhaps the most profound factor of all, was that 112 civilians were locked up in the Community Hall in Goose Green! This fact, discovered overnight, re-emphasized the need to use more subtle means than the bayonet! After all, we had not journeyed 8,000 miles merely to destroy the very people we had come to save.

“And so, standing in a small tin shed on the airfield next day, with the Battery Commander, and our two bewildered journalists, Robert Fox and David Norris, we confronted the Argies.” They surrendered their forces which were three times bigger than the British forces.

And these are the spontaneous and noble, almost Shakespearean words of another soldier – the eve-of-battle speech made by Colonel Tim Collins to the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment in Iraq in 2003. Luckily there was a reporter there who took down in shorthand the only record of these inspiring words.

“We go to liberate, not to conquer. We will not fly our flags in their country. We are entering Iraq to free a people and the only flag which will be flown in that ancient land is their own. Show respect for them.

“There are some who are alive at this moment who will not be alive shortly. Those who do not wish to go on that journey, we will not send. As for the others, I expect you to rock their world. Wipe them out if that is what they choose. But if you are ferocious in battle remember to be magnanimous in victory.

“Iraq is steeped in history. It is the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood and the birthplace of Abraham. Tread lightly there. You will see things that no man could pay to see – and you will have to go a long way to find a more decent, generous and upright people than the Iraqis.

“You will be embarrassed by their hospitality even though they have nothing. Don’t treat them as refugees for they are in their own country. Their children will be poor, in years to come they will know that the light of liberation in their lives was brought by you.

“If there are casualties of war then remember that when they woke up and got dressed in the morning they did not plan to die this day. Allow them dignity in death. Bury them properly and mark their graves.

“It is my foremost intention to bring every single one of you out alive. But there may be people among us who will not see the end of this campaign. We will put them in their sleeping bags and send them back. There will be no time for sorrow.

“The enemy should be in no doubt that we are his nemesis and that we are bringing about his rightful destruction.  As they die they will know their deeds have brought them to this place. Show them no pity.

“It is a big step to take another human life. It is not to be done lightly. I know of men who have taken life needlessly in other conflicts. I can assure you they live with the mark of Cain upon them.

“If someone surrenders to you then remember they have that right in international law and ensure that one day they go home to their family. The ones who wish to fight, well, we aim to please.

“If you harm the regiment or its history by over-enthusiasm in killing or in cowardice, know it is your family who will suffer. You will be shunned unless your conduct is of the highest – for your deeds will follow you down through history.

“We will bring shame on neither our uniform or our nation. As for ourselves, let’s bring everyone home and leave Iraq a better place for us having been there. Our business now is North. “

No, Mr Kissinger, military men are not just dumb stupid animals, their lives and words and deeds matter. As Rudyard Kipling wrote:

‘For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”

But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot…

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

At a little end- of- lockdown soiree, I made these nibbles, which disappeared very fast. Cut parsnips into fingers, slightly thicker than a finger. Dunk them thoroughly in beaten egg, and then roll them in freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Arrange in a baking tin so they don’t touch each other. Bake in a hot oven for twenty minutes or so, until cooked. Eat warm or cold.

 

 

 

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Letter to a Protesting Grandson in London

100_0106Thank you for your letter darling. As a veteran of pro-peace, Anti-Vietnam marches, Anti-Apartheid protests, even walking for Save the Whales, it’s good to know that you’re following in your grandmother’s and mother’s footsteps!

And thank you too…. will go and follow up your Wiki research on BLM… you have set my mind at rest somewhat. There seemed so much destruction and hate, and though I can understand how bitter and sad black people and their families are, who have suffered both in the present and in the past, it doesn’t help the cause when white people join in the vandalism and add to the hate and divisiveness on both sides of the ‘divide’. Martin Luther King said: “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”

Of course I whole-heartedly agree with what you say about the dreadful injustices both past and present…I’ve always thought it was abominable that the film ‘Gone With The Wind’ was written, filmed, and enjoyed – when it was actually a hymn of praise to the South and slavery … But I just wish the protestors would stop tampering with British history which is not as black as they paint it!

Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice ruled in, I think it was 1772, that any slave who set foot in Britain was automatically free – slavery had no part in English law, he said. (The case of Somersett, a slave – I wrote about it in my book ‘The Sound of Water’). This was nearly a hundred years before it was abolished in the US.

For sixty years between 1800 and 1860 the Royal Navy maintained a permanent anti-slavery squadron, which cost not just millions of pounds, but more importantly, the lives of over two thousand sailors as they battled traders and rescued captives on slave transports all over the Atlantic. The RN rescued at least 150,000 Africans who they re-settled in Liberia. Britain was the first nation to propose a motion calling on all European nations to end slavery at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

During the American Civil War, in 1862-6, cotton workers at the mills in Manchester and around, refused to buy cotton from the South, thereby aiding the North, and plunging themselves into penury… just as when Britain voted to abolish slavery in all its colonies, this caused a huge rise in prices for everything for people all over Britain… Dear old William Wilberforce, who campaigned all his life against slavery (remember that film I took you to – ‘Amazing Grace’) – was also one of the founders of the RSPCA….

The  Indian writer, VS Naipul, went on record as saying that for every year since the British left India, the country has gone back ten years… as a woman, I feel that one of the best things the Brits did was to abolish suttee – the burning of widows on their husband’s funeral pyre!!!

And when I was researching China’s slow march to world domination about eight years ago, I read of some African leader whose country has been infiltrated by China and Chinese workers, (he had of course been in prison in the last years of British rule, for sedition – most African rulers seemed to do a stint in prison as part of their careers as activists back then!) wishing the British were back, they employed us and built hospitals and schools and roads, he said….The really brutal colonists were the Dutch and Belgian….

I suppose because I actually lived in a colony-  Malaya- during the last years of colonial rule – before they achieved Merdeka -freedom, the year after I left, and seeing the intelligent, humane and decent rule of law there, and the respect for the Muslim culture and way of life, I feel sad at the distorted and one-sided view of history which so many un-informed people have.

Ulysses Grant, the great US Civil War General, one of my heroes, and whose diaries I have, wrote that of all the colonial nations Britain seemed to have achieved the best balance, and relationship with the peoples they ruled – (He was another animal lover, an amazing horse-rider, punished his soldiers if they ill-treated their horses, and refused to attend a bull fight put on in his honour in Mexico when he was President…)

One protestor, as he defaced the statue of Winston Churchill, was reported as saying Churchill didn’t fight for blacks – he fought for colonialism, whereas he actually fought to save Britain and the world from one of the most evil regimes in the history of the world

Reading the English newspapers this morning, I see that another of my heroes, Captain James, Cook, a straight up and down working class Yorkshire lad, who rose to become not just a captain in the British Navy, but also one of the greatest explorers and cartographers in history, whose explorations also saw him initiate a new science of anthropology, is also on the list of statues threatened with demolition by British BLM protestors.

Cook had nothing to do with slavery, though his discoveries did have a lot to do with the eventual expansion of the British Empire. In their sealed instructions, the Royal Navy told Cook not only to map the coastline of any new land, but also “to observe the genius, temper, disposition and number of the natives, if there be any, and endeavour by all proper means to cultivate a friendship and alliance with them… You are also with the consent of the natives to take possession of convenient situations in the country, in the name of the King of Great Britain.”

Which is why we all now live in New Zealand. When your mother was six, I decided after living in the horrendously crowded island of Hongkong for four years, I didn’t want to go back to another crowded island, England. So we came here to a country the same size as the UK, but with only three million inhabitants. After fifty years we now have four million people, but we still have plenty of space!

In that fifty years, the population in my beloved birthplace, has grown from fifty-five million to over sixty-six million. And maybe that’s why we’ve been able to beat Covid 19 in this country. We all banded together and observed lockdown scrupulously, with only twenty-two deaths, and have had no more cases for nearly three weeks.

I continue to be shocked by the way both young doctors and nurses are treated by our health system… the huge rewards for different workers, – like Ceo’s and lawyers, seem so unfair compared with the under-paid, essential and self-sacrificing people like health workers and others…I admire your brother’s beautiful doctor girlfriend enormously for her persistence, dedication and intelligence, and sticking with such a demanding and difficult calling…

Love talking to you darling, you give me fresh viewpoints and lots to think about…

Much love Grannie

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

With my bad back still dogging me – in a manner of speaking – I’ve perfected a number of dishes for a hungry man without too much angst for the cook.

Take for example, half a dozen chicken drumsticks, and brown them on both sides in the frying pan. Then arrange them on a bed of chopped onions. Pour some olive oil over the chicken, and a little water among the onions. Salt and pepper.

Cook them in a hot oven for about an hour. When the chicken is ready, put in the microwave a packet of pre-cooked rice for the prescribed minute and a half. Pour the juices from the pan over the rice, and if you have the energy, rustle up some broccoli, peas, or salad to eat with the chicken, onions and rice…

Food for Thought

The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war. …

I don’t know who said this, but after re-watching Band of Brothers for the last few nights, it rings very true.

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Heaven is a Place on Earth

TLot18againOur home in the forest

This is the last instalment of my autobiography before I resume my normal blogs

I asked the Salvation Army’s Missing Person’s Bureau to find my mother when I was nearly fifty. It took them three years, and when they did, I immediately flew to London to see her.

We met on neutral ground at the Tate Gallery, and sat on a leather bench in front of a masterpiece. I have no idea what the picture was, but the pattern of the red brocade wall- covering surrounding it is stamped on my memory forever. We stayed there for hours until the gallery attendant gently told us they were closing, and then we paced the Embankment trying to catch up on a lifetime.

In the end we never did bridge the gap of that lost time as she only seemed to remember the good times we had had, while I remembered the bad times, but what I learned about her broke my heart over and over again. Her father had left before she was born, and two stepfathers died of cancer.

When she was eight months pregnant with my younger sister she lived through the angst of waiting for her husband to return at Dunkirk. He didn’t. He escaped two weeks later. Two years after this, when he returned to do his officer training she became pregnant again, and gave birth to that child on her own as well.

And now, she met a farmer from the Channel Islands, who was working on Pluto – Pipe- Line Under the Ocean, a top -secret invention to supply fuel to the armies at D-Day. They planned to marry when the war was over and take us children to live on his family farm. There was an accident and he was killed. My mother was pregnant, and in despair she fled.

She couldn’t afford to keep the baby, adopted her, emigrated to Australia to start a new life, and eventually re-married a man she’d met on the voyage out. Back in London she had a daughter with her new husband, and when that baby was a few months old, this man went into a sanatorium with TB and when he recovered, never returned to her and their child.

She brought up that child alone, and became an efficient civil servant. On her retirement she sold her house in order to move and buy a house near her sister. Shopping for a new sofa, she learned from the hushed gossip in the local shop that her solicitor had hanged himself after embezzling all his clients’ money including hers.

She had a few thousand pounds left, which she blued on a trip to China, to fulfil at least one life’s dream. She had whiled away the long lonely years by learning Chinese, attending cookery classes, playing chess and listening to opera. And when I met her, she was living in a council retirement flat. She was a gentle, refined woman, and never at any time when I met her at intervals before her death, made any complaint about her life; and though she was sad, she was never bitter.

After a forty-year silence, I met my stepmother again too. And the weeks I now spent in her company were amongst the happiest in my life. All the dislike, hostility and coldness she had shown me had dropped away. And all the hurt and pain and anger I had felt at being rejected also dissolved. The love between us was so complete and miraculous, it felt as though we had transitioned to the next plane of being, when we see each other clearly, and recognise the love and beauty of each other’s soul.

My father died fifty years ago. He shaped the person I am today. Back from the war when I was aged ten, he used to stop at a second- hand book stall set up by his bus stop on Friday nights. There he chose his old favourites for me, like Lord Lytton’s ‘The Last Days of Pompeii,’ and ‘Harold’, Kingsley’s Westward Ho and my very favourite – read and re-read – Hypatia, the Greek woman philosopher and mathematician who came to a sticky end, thanks to men! Then there was David Copperfield and so many others.

When we moved to Catterick, he shared the books he was reading then, which included Sir Nigel and the White Company, Conan Doyle’s historical romances set in France in 1366, C.S. Forester’s Hornblower Books, and Napier’s History of the Peninsula Wars. And every night, when I’d finished my homework, he read aloud to my eleven- year- old self from H.M. Trevelyan’s ‘English Social History,’ setting up my fascination with history.

Still eleven, he taught me the value of money and compassion. Sitting at the dining table I had suggested my stepmother buy some sheepskin boots because her feet were cold, “they only cost five pounds,” I blithely chirruped.

“Look out of the window,” my father ordered. A worn working man with a deeply-lined face and shabby clothes covered in grime from a building site, was dragging tiredly past. “That man earns five pounds a week to feed his family”, my father grimly pointed out, and lectured me on extravagance in words that would have profited Marie Antoinette.

Later in Malaya, when I was sixteen, and we entertained the Indian quarter -master to tea with his wife in her colourful saris, and I had to give them my books on the Royal family who they loved, he demonstrated tolerance and the opposite of racism.

Back in England in the mid- fifties, he taught me to accept homo-sexuality at a time when it was scarcely mentioned. I commented on a strange man on the bus who wore a brown striped suit with flared trousers, a wide brimmed brown felt hat and thick makeup. He laughed, told me he was a wonderful old ‘queen’ and was such a punishing boxer that no-one dared jeer at him.

He demanded respect for all his soldiers, telling me they’d fought through the war, were bringing up families on a pittance, and were fine decent people. Like Abou Ben Adhem, he ‘loved his fellow men.’

Later when I was twenty-one, he suggested that my outlook was a bit narrow, and that I should read The Manchester Guardian. Back then it had a reputation for fine writing, tolerant humane values, and wide culture. I became a sensible feminist, reading Mary Stott on the women’s pages, learned about good food, enjoyed witty TV criticism, discovered avenues of musical appreciation, and acquired a burning social conscience, which cut me off from all my family and many of my friends!

When he retired from the army at forty-five he commuted/cashed up his army pension to pay for his youngest son’s expensive schools, and so condemned himself to working to support his family for the rest of his life. But he died in 1968 at fifty-four.

I wonder if anyone will remember me, fifty years after I am dead? At the moment, I am far from dead, and know that he would have loved to know what risks I have taken to live my life as fully as I can and to be able to love as deeply as I do now.

When I began blogging, I inadvertently stumbled on an unusual blog when I was looking for some poetry I’d enjoyed. When I left a comment on this rather beautiful blog, which was not poetry, the writer replied with such courtesy that I was enchanted. In the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein’s words – I ‘grocked’ him. Which meant I felt I knew him, and recognised him, and understood him at a very deep level.

We began ‘following’ each other, and our comments reflected a mutual admiration. My new follower wrote exquisite remarks on my blogs, but when a rather malicious stalker I’d attracted from the day I first began writing, began sneering at my “followers massaging my ego,” I feared that he might recognise the underlying message of love in the sensitive, perceptive words my new friend wrote on my blog. I feared that my stalker’s spite could spoil this friendship.

So I wrote to my friend, suggesting that we write privately instead, to avoid any unpleasantness. Two years and two thousand letters later, my friend – now my love- left his country, his home of forty- five years, the job he loved at a world-famous observatory, his family, and his friends and came to begin a life with me.

I read recently:”I don’t think genuinely falling in love is negotiable. The heart goes where the heart goes. Age has nothing to do with it.” This is true – he’s much younger than me, cherishes me the way I’ve never been cared for before, we share the same spiritual values, and revel in a life of love and freedom.

Like me, he had left behind not just his home, but most of his assets too, so we looked for a place where we could afford to live, that would give us the environment we both wanted. It was waiting for us. Just as out of over eighty million bloggers we had  found each other, so we discovered the perfect place that we could not only afford, but which turned out to be a haven of beauty, peace, and community.

We bought a tiny one room log cabin set on forty acres of covenanted podocarp forest, where we look across a valley like an amphitheatre and gaze up to our own mountain. We listen to our streams tumbling over rocks below, and hear birds singing from the dawn chorus in the morning to the moreporks/owls through the night. Our property is home to various almost extinct species of frog, lizards, geckoes, to more than three hundred species of butterfly and moths – or lepidoptera as I’ve learned to call them – and to rare plants and trees. People come from the universities and world-wide societies to study these precious vanishing species in this time of the sixth great extinction.

Our neighbours, hidden in the forest, have a shared environmental commitment to keeping the sprawling hills and ranges free of pests and to nurturing the creatures who’ve made their homes here for milleniums. These neighbours come from all walks of life – an architect, a musician, zoologist and landscape professors, a geologist and several engineers, a restauranteur, a painter, a therapist and others. They are all nationalities, Swiss, English, Australian, Belgian, Dutch, Maori, Russian, Mongolian, American.

Behind our high wrought iron gates, we share a civilised social life, and work together to preserve the forest. On our property, we’ve extended our original tiny dwelling, planted fragrant flowers, created architectural flights of steps, made melodious bells from diver’s tanks, re-cycled doors and windows and other found objects, and live a blissful life of creativity and harmony.

I wake in the morning and look out of the window to where the dawn shines gold on the peak of the mountain. I turn to my love and whisper, “the sun is on the mountain.” And another day begins of a quiet mystical life of love and beauty.

The end

 Food for Threadbare Gourmets

 I love Indonesian food, and a friend gave me a little booklet of recipes years ago. One page in particular is stained and dog-eared… with the recipe for sambel goreng telor on it – this means eggs in coconut milk.

For two people hard boil four eggs, cut them in two and put in a deep dish. Fry a chopped onion, and when soft add tomato, clove of garlic, half a red pepper, a table spoon of brown sugar and salt to taste. When they’re soft, add half a cup of coconut milk, heat and pour over the eggs. Delicious with plain boiled rice.

Food for Thought

 Hear our humble prayer, O God, for our friends the animals, especially for animals who are suffering; for any that are hunted or lost or deserted or frightened or hungry; for all that must be put to death.

We entreat for them all thy mercy and pity and for those who deal with them we ask a heart of compassion, gentle hands and kindly words.

Make us ourselves to be true friends to animals and so to share the blessings of the merciful.

Albert Schweitzer, doctor, humanitarian, writer,  musician, organist and organ restorer

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The future in the distance

100_0404I know I said this would be the last instalment of my autobiography, but as it turns out, there is one more chapter to come.

 When I was in the army as a twenty- two- year old lieutenant, I had to take a detachment of my girls to help at a local fete at Stratford-on -Avon. My job was to look after John Mills, the film star, and his daughter Juliet, also a film star. They were opening the village fete.

When this not-too- onerous task had been completed, I was free to wander round the fair ground, though feeling somewhat conspicuous in my dark green army uniform. I ducked inside a fortune teller’s tent for fun and sat down in front of her crystal ball. She took my hand, and peered at it. “There’s writing in this hand,” she said. “you’re going to start writing and you’ll never stop. It’s all through the rest of your life.”

Nothing was further from my thoughts at the time, and I dismissed it as a fortune teller’s fantasy. It took another seven years before her prophesy came true, and I’m still writing! During the years of Patrick’s retirement when he was still churning out a weekly column and editing a grey power magazine, I was still writing too.

Not only did I write for his magazine – interviews, columns, and cookery articles, (all unpaid) helping him design covers and acting as courier to and from the printers, but I also checked his books before they went to the printer, thought of titles like: ‘Sons of the Sword’, ‘Dangerous Journeys’, and provided material to give them extra depths like the extracts from the Mahabharata about a nuclear explosion, when he wrote of Hiroshima in ‘Sons of the Sword’.

When he ran out of ideas for his column, I’d cook up a reader’s letter for him to discuss, or find and research a topic for him, and as he grew less able, I’d check over every column trying to re-write confused sentences and connect unconnected trains of thought. He used to get very angry with me at correcting his work, and I dreaded doing it every week, but it had to be done to maintain his credibility.

A publisher commissioned me to write sixteen illustrated books on New Zealand, I wrote for a parent’s magazine, and for my pleasure also began writing a book called ‘The Sound of Water.’ Through all the sadness and despair of the last years of our marriage this writing energised me and gave me pleasure.

Patrick had six major operations during this time, and they were always followed by complications. When we could still afford private care, it was daunting to discover that once the operation had been completed, and paid for- we were out on the street! Not even any help into the car with a severely disabled heavy patient, and there was no follow-up care.

When we had to fall back on the state health system, the follow-up care was meticulous and took a great weight off my mind; but we still had the long treks into the pain clinic, the geriatric department, the heart unit, operations for cataracts, endless visits to the hearing clinic for hearing aids, and regular trips to the doctor… I was now facing what so many women who marry much older husbands have to cope with.

When he fell over, a frequent occurrence, I would have to ring the local volunteer fire brigade for help in lifting a heavy and inert old man – it would take four men to get him off the floor, and then onto a stretcher and into an ambulance to hospital.

The army of medical practitioners involved in his care all told me that now was the time to ask for family help, ‘you can’t go it alone’. But like so many other families, mine too was spread around the globe or coping with their own burdens.

Though I was frequently ambushed with depression in this time, and so stressed that heart pains made me wonder if I was having a heart attack, the support of friends, coffee, lunch or little get- togethers kept me going. And now I discovered opera, becoming an afficionado of the New York Met’s filmed operas which showed at our local cinema regularly.

Back home I’d compare different versions on Youtube, and found solace and stimulation in this new passion. And then blogging became a hobby too – more writing! And because I always looked bright and efficient, loved my garden, books, music, clothes, good food and friends, no-one ever thought I wasn’t coping.

Once I organised a two week stay of what was called ‘respite care’ in a nearby retirement home, paid for by the health service, and Patrick’s children were appalled at my callousness. During this time, I was so exhausted I slept most of the time, which I’m told is typical for carers. I began to wonder guiltily if I would ever have any life left to enjoy, when this long period of illness and frailty was over for a husband – who in spite of all his operations and constant illness was still, it seemed, indestructible.

I began to seek comfort in the words of people like Ibsen:

‘ELMER: But this is disgraceful. Is this the way you neglect your most sacred duties?
NORA: What do you consider is my most sacred duty?
HELMER: Do I have to tell you that? Isn’t it your duty to your husband and children?
NORA:I have another duty, just as sacred.
HELMER: You can’t have. What duty do you mean?
NORA: My duty to myself.’

I found the lines in Oriah Mountain Dreamer’s poem gave me courage:

‘… I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul. If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.’

And Hillel’s words written two thousand years ago: ’If not you – who? If not now – when?

So in the end, after giving him a rousing eighty-fifth birthday party which all but two of the children were able to attend, I decided I had to make a decision. Three weeks later, with my doctor’s encouragement, I told him I couldn’t go on any longer, and that I’d found several good retirement homes for him, which of course he refused to consider, saying he was not ready for that yet.

It happened, and I incurred odium and ostracism from all his family and most of the people connected with him. Even during the first year on my own, struggling with too little money, a burden of guilt, and legal woes, I was happier than I’d been for years.

Patrick lived in a luxury retirement home, where his daughter was the manager. He was immediately assessed as needing to be in the hospital wing, which I felt justified my decision. Family and work associates all made the trek out to see him regularly, though no-one had bothered to do this when I was looking after him!

He was still collecting Japanese artifacts and still writing his monumental and unreadable history of Japan and the Pacific War. I moved to the Coromandel peninsula, a four hour drive away, and when I received a phone call one evening three years later, saying he was ill and unlikely to last beyond the next day, I drove through the night to see him.

He was unconscious, and I sat by his bed for three hours until I felt his daughter wanted me to go. I bent over to kiss him and say goodbye, and he opened his eyes and looked straight into mine.

He had been twenty-one when he joined his beloved Auckland Star. On its masthead back then were the lines:

For the cause that needs assistance,

For the wrong that needs resistance,

For the future in the distance,

For the good that we can do.

He faithfully and steadfastly lived those words for the next sixty- eight years of his life until he died at nearly eight-nine.

At his funeral, as the hearse was about to pull away, an elderly man stepped forward and placed a flower on the coffin. It was Arthur Thomas.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

 This is a wonderful lunch dish for a special occasion. I found it in a magazine a few years ago, and now that spring is here, am about to dust off my quiche tin for it. Having prepared and cooked a short crust pastry shell, the recipe suggests to cook six sliced red onions in two tablesp of oil and four tablesp of brown sugar until soft. When golden leave to cool. Mix five egg yolks with three hundred g of crumbled blue cheese, 22 g mascarpone, six slices of prosciutto or thin streaky bacon and eighty g of pine nuts. Stir in the onions and spread the mixture into the pastry case. Bake at 180 degrees for 20-30 minutes or until cooked. If the top starts to brown too fast, lower the oven to 160 degrees.

I like it with half cheddar and half blue cheese, use cream instead of mascarpone, and chopped fried  streaky bacon – still good…The magazine recommends six small onions, and the quiche is double the normal size I cook, serving ten people. When I make it in a normal sized quiche tin for five/six people, I use two onions, and 100g of blue cheese plus several ounces of cheddar and a good helping of cream.. I also use five whole eggs. Hope this answers your query Nicki, from Expat Alien… I’d feel the same if I saw those amounts recommended by the magazine !

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World on Fire

South Vietnamese troops battling the Viet Cong in Saigon during TET offensive

A life- another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

My husband’s affairs – in every sense of the word – meant that he and his intended had stumbled into a mine field. When Candida, as I’ll call her, told her naval husband of her plans, he hit the roof. He had no intention of parting with his elegant sweet-natured wife. The thing began to take on diplomatic proportions, and the General and the local naval boss now got involved, and Candida and husband were posted hastily back to England to avoid further scandal.

This meant that my husband was storming tactlessly and angrily around the place, and the padre came to see this cold, unloving wife who had driven her handsome, charming husband out of his unloving home. There was probably more than a grain of truth in this by now, as I certainly didn’t love him any more!

It was that tense turbulent year of 1968 when the world seemed on the edge of drama month after month. After North Korea captured the US ship Pueblo, imprisoning and torturing all eighty- five of her crew at the end of January, the ripples of the surprise Viet Cong Tet offensive in Saigon then reached us. Friends from the office were holidaying in Saigon, and were caught up in that murderous mayhem which continued all through February.

When Martin Luther King was shot in April, I hurried up to see Pat Hangen to somehow try to comfort her. When Robert Kennedy was shot in June, it seemed unbelievable. I shall never forget the silent shock in the newspaper office, before I rushed up to see Pat again…it seemed a devastating thing to be American at this time…

This was also the time of the Prague Spring when another mid European country tried to throw off the Russian yoke. And now in August, we listened with anguish and watched television as the Russian tanks rolled into Prague to crush freedom, as they had done into Hungary nearly nine years before.

We were in the middle of a very destructive typhoon, and in spite of the wooden shutters over the windows, the towels laid along the window sills and carefully led into bowls, were soaking wet. I went from window to window wringing out wet towels and feeling intimidated by the storm while I watched the Czechs being intimidated by the tanks. My heart was wrung for Anton Dubjek as my hands wrung my wet towels!

A few weeks later, I went to the doctor who gave me some pills to check the constant nausea I’d been feeling, and taking one straight away, I only just managed to drive home. Tottering into bed, I woke to consciousness in the evening, having slipped into a coma with pills that had apparently knocked out my liver. The next day the doctor rang and said he was sending an ambulance round straight away – my tests had come back – and I had hepatitis with secondary infections of glandular fever and jaundice.

The children went to play school in the mornings, and before this happened, I’d just organised a gentle, friendly, eighteen-year-old school leaver out from England to come every afternoon to read to the children and play with them. I was worried that their vocabularies might stagnate with just their loving Chinese amah to talk to, and I hoped now that my husband would stay with them in the evenings.

In hospital in Kowloon, I lay in my room overlooking the harbour, and watched the glittering water sparkling in the magical light of the sun at the change of the season. I also put myself together and found my inner strength again. My doctor had given me a book of D.H. Lawrence’s poems, and ‘The Song of the man who has come through’ became a sort of prayer and affirmation.

Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!

A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.

If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!

If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!

If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed

By the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the chaos of the world….

And his other words… ‘It is not easy to fall out of the hands of the living God…”

The Red Cross trolley with library books came round every day, and along with the biographies and books on travel and exploration I gobbled up, there were some Elizabeth Goudge. ‘The Dean’s Watch’, about the power of love, shifted me on from my little local world into a larger perception of all that is, and I was ready after five weeks to go back and transform my little world.

I wrote to my step-grandfather who was still writing to me, and asked him if he could loan me five hundred pounds to get started, but he replied rather pompously that he would have no hand in breaking up a family with young children. (Many years later, when an old man, he wrote to say he had a guilty, nagging feeling that he had let me down over something, and I spared him and wrote to say he had always been a loving friend)

Meanwhile my husband, who was still marking time over his enforced separation from his intended, every now and then suggested that we have another go with our marriage. Not convinced that leopards change their spots I told him that I would be gone in a month, after Christmas, and his response was that he would smash me mentally and physically before then.

Still feeling frail and ill I managed to find a flat for us. It was always hard to compete with Americans who had large housing allowances and lots of money compared to the rest of us. But I drove round Repulse Bay, hoping to find ‘flat to let’ signs. By a miracle I found one hanging outside twelve -foot high, brightly painted gates, with painted peacocks embossed on them, the mansion behind hidden by high walls. It had been built by a Chinese millionaire for his family to come and live with him, but they had refused.

When he showed me the flat, and told me the price, I said I couldn’t afford it. So he said, what can you afford? And when I told him, he said I could have it for a year. I lived for that first year of independence beneath the splendour of chandeliers, with an elegant panelled walnut entrance hall and an amazing, huge, pink marble en-suite bathroom.

Back home, my husband came to me in tears. His bank was threatening to foreclose on his debts, and this would mean being cashiered by the army, and no financial help at all from him for the children. I wrote him a cheque for half my savings and feeling sorry for his humiliation said he didn’t need to write an IOU as he offered, but that I would trust him. I never saw the money again.

I persuaded my husband to ring England and tell his parents what was happening,  and the first response of my father-in-law was to ask if his son had got good legal advice. Yes, he’d been to see an old school friend who was a lawyer. As I listened, I felt a cold hand over my heart. No concern for me, it was going to be a power struggle aided by the law and family. I felt truly alone.

I thought I’d better get some legal advice too. But when I went to see the army legal services, my husband had been there first, so they would have no truck with me. It was the same at the navy and the RAF. All the free legal services were closed to me. My husband had been to see them all, and this debarred them from giving me advice, they each insisted.

The establishment had closed ranks. In those days male chauvinism was alive and well, and it felt as though all the men had ganged up on me. The army lawyer then sent me a letter telling me I was no longer allowed to set foot in the garrison. Being an army daughter, a serving officer and an army wife was a part of my heritage, and I was devastated by what felt like a gratuitous insult.

The result of these snubs was that I was driven to find expensive, civilian legal advice. I contacted a friendly solicitor who I’d met at a party. He felt there was some urgency when I rang him, so that Sunday I spent at his stylish flat, curled up in an elegant orange Arne Jacobson ‘Egg’ chair, dictating my divorce petition to him.

It was a cold winter’s day, and still feeling fragile a couple of weeks out of hospital, his warm, cosy flat in the Mid-levels seemed like a safe haven away from the stress of my own home. As I dictated, my eyes wandered over stacks of beautiful fabric -covered boxes on the bookshelves. They housed his collection of precious snuff bottles, but as a philistine, I thought then the boxes were prettier than the bottles.

He rang a few days later. There was an alarming hitch. It seemed that no woman had ever divorced her husband in Hongkong before – this was 1968 – and there were no legal precedents. He was at a standstill but would try a few other avenues. He came up with something from Indian and Colonial law. It was possible for an Englishwoman in India to get a divorce in that country if she had been resident there for at least three years.

Peter said he would try to get me a divorce quoting this Indian precedent. The element of uncertainty was unnerving. By the date of the hearing my husband had followed his intended wife back to England, so it was a very empty court I attended. I had already left the army quarters, packing all my belongings into the Red Cross ambulance the doctor lent me. I realised as I looked back that nearly every other army wife was standing on her veranda watching the astonishing sight of another wife leaving her husband under their very eyes.

Before the divorce Peter told me the judge was homosexual. I didn’t know how this would affect the outcome in which the custody of the children was at stake. I dressed very carefully in a demure, white dress with a hem at knee level, in this year of mini skirts. When the case began, the judge questioned the validity of it, and Peter provided him with the Indian and Colonial volumes.

I sat in suspense while the judge pored over the pages, and finally agreed the case could go ahead. Called into the witness box, for some routine questions, to my horror I could feel tears coming. I had left my handkerchief in my handbag on my seat, so had to sniff through my answers. The tears were pouring down my cheeks by the time I returned to my seat. And the white dress was wasted, the judge didn’t even look in my direction.

On the way home in my battered Morris Minor convertible – all I could afford after I’d given my husband half my savings – it broke down and ran out of control down the hill to Repulse Bay. Apparently, the rust which held the chassis together had finally weakened, and there was no connection between the steering and the wheels.

It took thirteen monthly instalments to pay the huge bill to patch it up. The floor in the back seat had rusted away, so I tucked cardboard over the holes, and the children would complain their feet were getting wet when it rained. I always had to drive over the Peak in wet weather, as low-lying Wanchai would have flooded it.

I discovered quite by chance that some of my rich American friends thought I’d chosen this broken-down form of transport as part of my English eccentricity. It never crossed their minds that the South China Morning Post paid women so badly that I earned two thirds what a cub reporter earned. Another subtle local distinction was that people recruited from overseas for their jobs earned far more than impecunious “locally employed”.

The first months were tough. The doctors hadn’t told me I would be depressed for six months after my illness, so I didn’t realise until my six- monthly check-up that the fatigue and depression I was felt was normal. Instead, when I thought longingly of walking into the sea and never coming back, it was only the thought of the children that had kept me going. I was so run down that my teeth packed up and I racked up big dentist bills, while my husband’s American bank – one of the many he had swapped around – wanted me to pay his debts.

I worried that I couldn’t afford my son’s play school anymore, and I worried when my husband’s small cheque didn’t arrive, which spelt disaster on my tiny salary. I kept a pocket diary which I filled in every day at the office. No words, just two colours – red for good red-letter days, blue for bad blue days… at first the blue days far outnumbered the red.

I had copied two quotations into it – one from William the Silent: ‘There is no need of hope in order to undertake, or of success in order to persevere’… and the other from Clement of Alexandria: ‘We may not be taken up and transported to our journey’s end, but must travel thither on foot, traversing the whole distance of the narrow way…’ I read these rather grim exhortations regularly to inspire me to ‘just get on with it!’

And with all the struggle, I would gloat to myself that I was an independent woman now. I had two beautiful children, a home through my own efforts, a car, and a job I enjoyed. I knew that life could only get better. And, of course, it did. The worst was behind me.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

When I make one of our favourites, feta cheese and courgette fritters, I usually serve them with chilli jelly, salad and hot rolls. But I really love beetroot relish with them too and decided to stop buying it from the supermarket and make my own.

Place in a pot three peeled and roughly grated beetroots, one finely chopped onion – red if you have it – a cup of brown sugar, half a cup of cider vinegar or balsamic, quarter of a cup of water, a table spoon of olive oil, half a teasp of ground cumin, salt and black pepper. Heat gently for thirty minutes or until the liquid has been absorbed. If it dries up, add enough water to keep it moist and juicy. Place in a jar or bowl and refrigerate until ready to use.

Food for thought

 A certain percentage of those who have survived near-death experiences speak of a common insight which afforded a glimpse of life’s basic lesson plan. We are all here for a single purpose: to grow in wisdom and to learn to love better.

We can do this through losing as well as through winning, by having and by not having, by succeeding or by failing. All we need to do is to show up open-hearted for class. So fulfilling life’s purpose may depend more on how we play than what we are dealt…  Kitchen Table Wisdom by Rachel Naomi Remen

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Life and loss, love and death

Image result for south  bay hk

Deepwater Bay

Another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to writing my normal blogs

Ensconced in Deepwater Bay, life now took on the tone and routines that shaped our lives until the final disintegration of our marriage. My husband would go off to University every day and return home in time for dinner. After dinner he would take off back to Victoria – to the officers mess, he would say, to see Henry or Richard or whoever… I assumed for some time that he was bonding with the other people on his course, in spite of having spent all day with them.

Later he would say there was a party or a get together. And later still, when the whole saga had ended, friends would tell me that I had no idea of how many girl- friends there had been – “You didn’t know the half of it”….

I tried everything, and one night I remember in despair taking the car before he did and driving round to beautiful South Bay, an empty semi- circle of still water, ringed with flame trees, and where I watched the flaming sunset. The beauty was so moving, I felt I must share it with him, and drove back home, and persuaded him to come back to South Bay with me. He did, and then took the car and drove off- somewhat delayed – to whatever rendezvous he had in town.

Two things helped me through this time. I had found a wonderful amah, Ah Ping, a shy eighteen- year- old girl with very little English, and a lovely nature. She adored the children, and we had a little competition at bath-time over which of us was going to enjoy bathing the youngest, still very much a baby. She learned to speak English with my accent and tone, so that people thought it was me when she answered the phone. She helped to maintain the happy atmosphere for the children and they  loved her.

The other thing that sustained me, was my first foray into writing. I studied the woman’s pages of the South China Morning Post, the main English speaking newspaper in Hong Kong, and realised that the one element missing was cookery.

Cheekily I offered my services to the woman’s editor, a childless and fashionable young woman, Jane, the same age as me. Feeling plain and boring by now, I somehow managed to keep my end up with her at my interview and got the go ahead to write a cookery column on Fridays. I had no qualifications for this of course, apart from an abiding love of food, but I managed to make it sound as though I knew what I was talking about.

After six weeks, I was offered another bite of the cherry, when Jane suggested I write a story to fill Thursday’s page – she wanted something about bringing up children, and now she had as it were, a captive mother, I filled the bill. This was meat and drink to me and writing about children and parenting became one of my areas of expertise and was something I only stopped doing fifty years later at seventy- seven.

My husband’s social life was costing us, and debts had begun to pile up, so the money I now earned was important to me, as I knew I could always feed the children with it. I could also afford to visit the famous alleys, and find cheap lengths of gorgeous fabric, which I sewed by hand, making glamorous new summer dresses. I had new friends, and was making a life, but I still felt miserable and longed to be loved. I tried to fill the emptiness by playing Bob Dylan and the Beatles and they left me feeling even more alone and bereft. I also started having blinding migraines which took five days out of life every time they struck.

One evening my husband came home and said we’d been invited to a party at the naval base on the commander’s ship. I put on a red dress from my pre-marriage party days and set off, feeling like I always did these days, in-adequate and plain.

At the gangplank we were warmly greeted by a man with piercing blue eyes and golden hair. His wife was a ravishing blonde ex-ballet dancer with huge brown eyes, beautiful features, and a pile of hair pinned up,   so long that when it fell to her ankles when we were dancing, she looked like Rapunzel. Her chic little black dress showed off her ballet dancer’s figure to perfection. I was in awe of both these glamorous people.

Later we went back to their house where we all sat down at the dining table for an impromptu dinner. Our host sat me at his right hand and talked to me as though I was actually interesting. I felt such gratitude for his kindness. We continued to meet at parties as our friends were old childhood friends of them both. At each occasion he sought me out, raising his glass to me across many crowded rooms before making his way through the throng to us.

And then one night as he handed me out of his car after a party, he squeezed my hand. The next party we went to was at a French officer’s house. He and his wife were a gentle couple, and we played silly childish games, since we were a mixture of French and English couples with few of us speaking each other’s language, so conversation was difficult.

During one game if a player won some sort of forfeit, they placed a cushion in front of the person of their choice and knelt and gave them a kiss. My naval friend placed his cushion in front of me when it was his turn, and I said to myself if he does it again, I will know that he meant it. And he did. The next two months were a dizzy time of love and longing set against the back drop of riots and curfews and water rationing and our move into army quarters in Repulse Bay, where we became neighbours. Neither of us ever said a word but were drawn to each other at every meeting.

At the same time, I was fascinated by his ravishing wife, and couldn’t believe that he could care for me, when he had such a spell-binding partner, who I knew he’d loved since they were children. I could see that she was scatter-brained and sometimes strangely childish, but still found her beauty entrancing.

The night before they left to return to England we all met for one last time. As we danced he told me he loved me. I said I thought it might have been a sailor’s girl in every port, and he reproached me. He told me that his fey, feckless wife was a millstone round his neck, and that we both had “to make a go of it”.

They flew out the next day, and I went into a sort of collapse. I literally couldn’t get out of bed for a few weeks, and somehow struggled on into the grey winter like a zombie. The migraines ambushed me more and more often. I felt too fragile and depressed to write to my father.

My husband now asked me not to leave him alone with the husband of a woman I’d thought was my best friend because he feared being beaten up. The husband had discovered that my husband and his wife had been having an affair. I felt shocked and betrayed by my friend, but then, I found my husband was having another affair with another colleague’s wife, and I stopped caring.

After Christmas Jane, the woman’s editor offered me a fulltime job, and I began in January. A few weeks later, I woke up one morning, looked out at the sea, watched the fishing boats streaming back after their night’s fishing, and felt different. It was as though a huge grey cloud had lifted from me, and my first thought was – now I can write to my father. Because I was still trying to juggle my job and the children, and learning the ropes at work, I put it off until I had a moment to sit down and enjoy communicating again.

A few nights later I dreamt that one of my father’s good friends who was in Hong Kong, was sitting on my bed with its beautiful blue and green patterned Venetian bedspread, with his arms around me, comforting me. When I awoke in the morning I inwardly castigated myself that I was so desperate that I was dreaming about my father’s friends!

That night, as I slept, I heard the phone go, and my husband answer it. I heard him say: “Thank you, I’ll tell her.” When he walked into the bedroom I sat up in bed, and cried out, “Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”

“Your father’s dead.” he said. The War Office had rung.

I immediately rang my father’s friend Ian, and unwittingly destroyed a dinner party. Ian came straight round, and as he sat on the bed and put his arms around me, my dream came back to me.

It felt as though the bedrock of my life had been ripped from beneath me. It seemed like the worst thing that had ever happened to me, even though I knew it happened to everyone.  But he was only fifty- four. My siblings who were scattered around the globe on various rocks – Gibraltar, St Helena, Aden gathered, but I was too far away. No-one contacted me. I never heard from my stepmother again for nearly forty years when she was in her late eighties. My father-in-law wrote and told me about my father’s funeral, and now I was alone.

I had leant Pat Hangen my copy of Towers of Trebizond in which was a poem I felt I needed. As soon as day broke after the phone call, I rang and asked her to return it. The poem was like a lifeline back to sanity. Every time I was overwhelmed with grief, I read it again and it brought me back to a place where I could still stand being alive. It was John Davies of Hereford’s dirge for his friend Thomas Morley:

Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend.

My dearest friend is dead and laid in grave.

In grave he rests until the world shall end.

The world shall end as end all things must have.

All things must have an end that nature wrought.

Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend.

The rhythm of these lines helped somehow, while the words of the gurus did not. “Participate joyfully in the sorrows of life.” Joseph Campbell once said, and: ‘we can choose to live in joy’. But had he ever  experienced the sorrows of life, in his long, happy,  childless relationship (with none of the agonies and ecstasies of parenthood) and his sheltered affluent university life-style? Words like his seemed to mock.

In my world, enduring the sorrows of life, it took weeks to move beyond the pain of grief and despair, and my husband lost patience with me. Then both children developed bad cases of measles. It took the spots ten days to come out for my son, and with his high temperature I feared he’d develop encephalitis. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. My daughter developed bronchitis and was very sick at the end of her bout of measles.

One night, as I lay by her side in bed anxiously watching her, my husband came to the bed room door. I’d been so pre-occupied with the children’s sickness, that I hadn’t really noticed that his party round had been even more frenetic that usual. He stood in the doorway, looking dreamy and dazed, and said to me, “I’ve just met the woman I’m going to marry.”

I replied coldly, “Well, you’re still married to me.” But inside, I felt a surge of relief. We must be on the home straight! We were. I even stopped having my debilitating migraines. I began saving my earnings for when I would need then.

Now too, my job became really interesting. I began interviewing all the interesting people who came to Hong King. They included charming, handsome Dr Seuss, a man of goodness and integrity. Writer Iris Murdoch was a challenge, and I wish I could do it again now that I know more about life. But then I was so naive that I wondered how such a plain woman could have found a husband! John Bailey, the husband who later betrayed her when she had Altzheimers, was vague and donnish when I met him. Robert Helpman, the great ballet dancer was a joy, gentle, charming, and kind.

Barbara Cartland, so exuberant and full of life at seventy- four (honey and vitamins she told me) took me to her bosom- literally – when I mentioned one of my closest friends who was her son’s best friend. When Raine, Lady Dartmouth, her daughter, came to Hong Kong a few months later, she was just as friendly and charming, seeking me out with all eyes on her as she walked across the dining room to greet me while I was lunching in the Eagles Nest of the Hilton. She was radiantly beautiful, tall and elegant, with big china blue eyes and peaches and cream complexion like the Queen’s. It was hard to see her as the wicked stepmother of Princess Diana in the years that followed.

I don’t think I was very good at writing interviews, but I did uncover a talent for writing columns which blossomed when I moved to another country. I also discovered that journalism could be a powerful force for good when a woman rang me one day and asked to see me at my home. She gave me what she said was a false name.

I opened the front door to a tall, fair-haired sweet-faced woman with great poise and dignity. She wanted to talk to me about setting up Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon, the family support group in Hong Kong. I ended up attending meetings of both, and then writing several stories. Both groups took off, and today, the woman, who became one of my closest friends, tells me there are at least seventeen groups now flourishing in the territory, three of them for Europeans.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 I’m still on my what to do with lettuce and greens jag and have adapted this recipe for lettuce soup from my old copy of the one and only Mrs Beaton. I use four spring onions if I have them and soften them with a couple of thinly sliced onions, a chopped garlic clove and a finely chopped carrot. When this is soft I pour in three cups of heated chicken stock. The lettuce then goes in, torn into small pieces, and a cup and a half of frozen peas, salt and pepper. Cook for eight to ten minutes and remove from heat while the soup is still bright green. Whizz in the blender until smooth. One of my oldest friends combs the hedgerows in the Forest of Dean for edible wild plants, and she would add leaves like nettles to this soup. I am not so brave…

Food for thought

You start dying slowly
If you do not change your life when you are not satisfied with your job, or with your love,
If you do not risk what is safe for the uncertain,
If you do not go after a dream,
If you do not allow yourself,
At least once in your lifetime,
To run away from sensible advice… by poet Pablo Neruda

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Sunset over Hong Kong

Image result for images of old hong kong harbourHong Kong in the mid-sixties

A life – another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

Before we left England, we enjoyed two quintessential English events. The in -laws gave us their tickets for the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, one of the glamorous fixtures on the London calendar fifty years ago. I watched with interest the people and clothes, as well as the pictures. Standing next to a woman dressed in exquisite soft pale blue suede with matching knee length suede boots, I recognised the heiress Tessa Kennedy, famous for her elopement at eighteen with painter Dominic Elwes.

They had fled to Havana to escape the English courts and marry there, before eventually fleeing Cuba on a raft during the anarchy of Castro’s era… I watched the President of the Academy reverently ushering through the galleries the fascinating Dorelia, Augustus John’s mistress, then partner for over fifty years. She was tall and stately, her gypsy beauty undimmed, her bright draperies fluttering as she moved. The famous and the fashionable thronged the beautiful galleries.

Earlier in June I had sat in Whitehall- dressed in a big navy straw hat, coral linen dress, and navy court shoes, feeling deliciously elegant- this time in seats obtained by my father, for us to watch the Queen’s Birthday Parade close up. She rode side saddle into the great parade square, escorted by the Royal Dukes on horseback, all gold braid, chain mail, spurs, bearskins and majesty. The Guards and the Household Cavalry trotted and wheeled and manoeuvred in their timeless rituals as the colours were trooped, and we sat spellbound on a perfect summer’s day, the glorious trees of the parks all around framing the pageantry and splendour.

We returned to old Thomas Twining’s two hundred and forty-three year old house down by the Thames, also surrounded by ancient trees, where squirrels scampered along the top of the high Georgian garden walls. A hundred yards away, a small boat was moored. This was an ancient ferry crossing, and a boat had waited there since medieval times, ready to ferry passengers across the river to Ham Common and the beautiful country on the other side of the river.

History and historic houses, parks and woodland dotted the banks along this stretch of the river. I loved it all. And had I known then that I was leaving this blessed plot, this beloved place, ‘this precious stone set in a silver sea’ – this England – forever, I would have been rent with grief.

But then, simply looking forward to our next adventure I set blithely off. Expecting the gentle energy and rich tropical environment of Malaya, I had a terrible shock when we landed in Hong Kong. The army had laid on a bus to take us from Kaitak airport and deposit us at our hotel and as I looked out of the windows in horror at the traffic, black exhaust smoke, pollution and shoddy blocks of flats, there just below our window, was a truck filled with bloody red animal carcasses covered in flies. This nauseating sight accompanied us the whole way to Kowloon and coloured forever my feelings about this extraordinary place.

Our hotel turned out to be plum in the middle of the thriving and noisy red- light district of Kowloon. The girls whose beauty had bowled me over at first with their elegant cheongsams, beautifully coiffed chignons of shining black hair and immaculate make -up turned out to be prostitutes plying what looked like a prosperous trade with the legions of cropped headed American servicemen on R and R – Rest and Recreation – from Vietnam.

Nights were made hideous with the sound of rows and roistering in the bedroom next door, as well as the traffic outside, and honking of horns and shouts of hawkers who never seemed to go to bed. But after various vicissitudes, we eventually found a beautiful flat in Deepwater Bay, across the harbour on Hong Kong Island. It was ideal, as all the other flats were occupied with young families like us, and there was never any lack of playmates.

We had arrived in the blistering heat of summer, but in September something magic happened. The humidity dropped, and the air became crystal, clear and shimmering and the light glittered on the blue and silver sea. The atmosphere changed too and became charged with a beautiful and haunting nostalgia.

After that first year, I waited for the day, and every year the same magic suddenly returned to the strident city, and transmuted for a few glorious weeks, the raucous harshness of the place and people. Some people never noticed the poetry which suddenly flooded those days and nights. Those who did, likened it to the light of the Greek islands. It lasted for a month to six weeks, before ebbing away into the grey mistiness of winter.

The rest of the time for me, Hong Kong was a place to be endured. Yet now, since China has grasped the prize, I sometimes think back with nostalgia to those years spent on that amazing rock, ten miles by five miles, where then, nearly four million people hawked and spat and bargained and gambled and drank and starved and jockeyed for the biggest profits and built the highest high rises.

In the mid-sixties, with Vietnam and flower power both at their zenith, Hong Kong was both a place of rest and recreation for American troops slogging it out in Vietnam, and a place too, where some draft dodgers quietly eked out an alternative life style.

There were also the  grand, old-established British families of several generations who had built up the great English Hongs, or business houses, there were colonies of newsmen, especially from most of the top American news agencies, from CBS and NBC, Life and Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times – to name a few – there were birds of flight from New Zealand and Australia, working their way across to Europe for their OE – overseas experience- refugees from South Africa and apartheid, army and navy contingents, the Foreign Office and government clusters, the Indian community, Portuguese- Chinese immigrants from Macau, the rich Chinese and the endless army of poor Chinese, most of whom had fled China in different waves, ever since the Communist takeover.

This was also the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Just before coming to Hong Kong, I’d read the history of the Boxer Rebellion. It struck me then, even in the mid-twentieth century, that China was a good place to stay away from. At a dinner party one night soon after we had arrived, a handful of us farewelled a lowly foreign office official, named Ray Whitney.

After learning Chinese like my husband and all those dining with us, he’d left the army to join the foreign office and was now posted to what was still known as Peking. Sitting next to Ray after dinner I naively suggested to him that it was a dangerous posting with the Cultural Revolution in full swing, and shades of the Boxer Rebellion. He swung his whole person round to look at me. “My dear young lady”, he exclaimed, ” I regard this as an adventure”.

A few days later, we read the reports of him and his colleague being beaten up on Shanghai Station and smeared with glue. When they reached the British Embassy in Peking, it became their prison. The diplomats there were beaten up while hordes of Chinese Red Guards chanted Kill! Kill! and part of the embassy was set on fire. Back inside, they were besieged, and no-one could leave for nearly eighteen months.

Requests would reach Hong Kong for Italian cook books and the latest novels with which to while away the captivity of an embassy of bored, beleaguered, idle diplomats. (Ray Whitney, a lovely man, had a distinguished career after this, knighted for his very real services, becoming an MP and a member of many influential offices and commissions.)

Reports were also reaching us of cruel mock trials of intellectuals and artists and other Enemies of the People. Old men were made to parade around in dunce’s caps at their trial and sentencing. It was a grotesque gesture by Chinese hooligans who had no idea of the history of Duns Scotus’s medieval hat. The Red Guards had now transformed the symbol for a dunce into a ritual for sadistic humiliation.

This was the year too of the Star Ferry Riots, when the government tried to raise the price of the Star Ferry tickets by one cent, the first rise since 1947. Those riots were just over when we arrived, and the next riots were soon to begin, fuelled by the unrest in China.

A curfew was laid upon the island. Everyone had to be in their homes by some ridiculously early hour like six o clock. I climbed into our turquoise Volkswagon and drove round from Deepwater Bay to a look-out on the Peak. I was the only disobedient soul outside and as an army wife, I felt slightly guilty. I looked down to Victoria, the town centre. Nothing moved.

Trams sat abandoned on the sides of the roads, cars were left empty and parked. The streets were silent and empty. The throngs of shoppers, the hurrying workers, the hawkers and Hakka women in their rattan hats trimmed with black, the street vendors, the prostitutes and the students, the toddlers who lived and played on the pavements, the school children crouched on the side-walk doing their homework in the shelter of a sewing machine or street stall, the rick-shaw men, and the porters in white vests and black shorts and wooden clogs, the business men in grey suits, the camera-laden tourists – all had disappeared.

It was eerie and frightening in the same decade as films of nuclear war and lethal clouds of radio-active dust destroying all life, leaving cities full of dead but still standing. That was how Hongkong looked that night, silent and empty. The silence was almost more un-nerving than the emptiness.

The unrest went underground, and suddenly erupted one hot summer’s afternoon. Perhaps as karma for disobeying the curfew, I found myself in the middle of the next round of dissent. I was driving up Garden Road with the children to see Pat Hangen. She and her children lived on the Peak with her husband Welles, NBC Bureau chief, always away in Vietnam and who later disappeared forever in Cambodia.

I had only recently learned to drive, and uphill starts were still a challenge, though there was only one junction where I might be called upon to use them, I thought. But, as I passed the Helena May Hostel for Young Women, I came on a mass of white-clothed Chinese youths, all shouting and waving Mao’s Little Red Books in the air.

I slowed down, and another group converged from another direction. I tried to edge out of the crowd, but more and more columns kept coming from all directions. I slowed right down to walking pace, and realised I was in the middle of a hostile, fanatical mob, and if I made one mistake, like running back or edging forward too quickly, it would be more than dangerous for me and the two now very silent toddlers in the back.

I wound all the windows up so that air came in through only a crack at the top, and the heat became stifling.   Sweat ran down my face and spine in rivers, soaking my thin cotton dress. The children’s hair was plastered to their heads with sweat and I could smell the musty smell of their damp scalps, and something else – our fear.

There were thousands and thousands of young men shouting in unison and waving their red books in the air. As they moved at slow walking pace, I was obliged to shift the car at the same speed, crunching the hand brake on and off, as we slowly revved up the steep incline. Then, suddenly, I could see where it all ended. They were all advancing on the Governor’s Residence off to our right. Thankfully I left the Governor to it, and made our way to Pat, shaking all over from the tension.

And after that, things took on another momentum, with bombs exploding all over the place, and many areas placed out of bounds to Europeans. The Bank of China in the middle of the city began a propaganda war of noise, blaring out raucous, Chinese communist marching songs and party chants. The deafening noise was augmented by the childish response of the authorities, who used the tower of the Hilton Hotel across the road from the bank, to play decadent, western rock and roll to drown out the Chinese music.

It seemed to go on all summer. What also went on all summer, was the Chinese water torture. Hongkong and the New Territories relied on water supplies from China, and some years, flexing her muscles, and also to annoy, China restricted the water. This revolutionary year was no different and for the four long hot months of sweltering summer, we were severely rationed in order to survive.

There was no water for three days out of four. On the fourth day, water was piped for four hours in the evening, during which time we had the opportunity to fill baths, buckets and every available jug, bottle and kettle with water to last for the next four days. We all also seized the opportunity to shower or bath during this precious four hours.

Unfortunately, our flat was at the top of a twelve-storey building, and the pressure didn’t build up until the water had been on for two hours, so we only had the precious stuff for two hours every four days.

And we were the lucky ones. The Chinese living down in Wanchai and among slums built on the sides of hills from boxes and cardboard, queued for several hundred yards by the intermittent taps. They had to manage with buckets and containers small enough to carry back to their dwelling places. These were the people who had fled China after the Communist takeover and it was their teenage children who were now demonstrating in Hong Kong, mimicking the excesses of the Red Guards under Mao.

The much-maligned Colonial rule in Hong Kong prevented the same victimisation and destruction here. Yet at the same time that these rebellious Hong Kong teenagers were enjoying their Maoist demonstrations, dissidents were risking their lives to escape from China, in the continual exodus which had never ceased since the Nationalists under Mao Tse Tung had driven out the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai Check back in 1949. In 1949 alone, the population of Hong Kong had  doubled.

Since then, the borders had been closed, and now most people slipped across the border in darkness or swam across, and were picked up in the New Territories. These refugees arrived undernourished and dressed in patched rags, testimony to the poverty that reigned in China under Mao. The society they now joined was a heartless one. Many once penniless Chinese had made good in the years since they too had arrived destitute.

They had obliterated their peasant past and educated their children at western schools and universities, penetrating established, rich society. Others had arrived from places like Shanghai with all their riches and built lordly homes on the upper slopes of the great rock which meant safety to them all. But they were indifferent to the plight of the newest arrivals. There were no charitable organisations to help them or the struggling poor. Philanthropy was not a characteristic of Hong Kong society.

A hundred and fifty years before, in 1812, the city of London with a population of a million, had free hospitals, alms houses, dispensaries and nearly three hundred free schools educating, feeding and clothing nearly twenty thousand children. Arthur Bryant, the historian who gathered these facts, wrote that ‘London could claim her real palaces were hospitals. Wren’s Greenwich and Chelsea; Gibb’s St Bartholomew’s with its Hogarth staircase; St Thomas’s with its four great quadrangles treating and discharging 11,000 patients a year; the new “Bethlem” and St Luke’s for the insane, with their enormous classical facades, were buildings that a king might have been proud to inhabit.”’

By contrast there were only two hospitals provided by the government here in Hong Kong for three and a half million people – huge rabbit warrens – not palaces. There were no facilities for the handicapped or insane at all. In a population of four million, there would have been a minimum of 200,000 mentally and physically handicapped, judging by the normal ratio of such figures per head of population. No-one knew where they were, though there were stories of deranged figures chained to verandas.

There were stories of goodness too. Two English teachers received a divine message to go to Hong Kong where a task lay before them. Obediently they packed up and came. Once in the colony, they had no idea what the task might be. They ‘waited on the Lord,’ and seemed to feel they should buy an old house in the New Territories. This they did, still having no idea why.

After a few weeks, they found a baby girl on the doorstep one morning. They took her in. And then the unwanted babies kept coming. They knew their task now, but they had no money. So they prayed for what they needed. And whenever they needed money or assistance, they prayed and it arrived. They called this place the Home of Loving Faithfulness.

The Dean of Hong Kong Cathedral and his wife were very pleased to have a new house built for them among the old trees just behind the Cathedral. It was handy, central, and of course, unlike most vicarages, new and efficient. In order to build this house, a destitute old lady who squatted beneath the trees, and scavenged enough food to cook small meals on a tiny stove, had had to be moved on.

But she always came back. The dean, a good man, and his wife, equally good, then organised a real home in a new block for the old lady, and there she was taken. By the following week she had found her way back, squatting where she had always squatted, which was now the veranda of the brand-new house. There she stayed, her acrid cooking smells drifting through the windows into the house. This was her home, so we have no right to force her to leave, said these worthy representatives of a sometimes-maligned church. So she stayed.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 I love the idea of thrifty ways to avoid wasting food. I found a recipe the other day in one of my scrapbooks for using up the remains of salad leaves to make a good pesto. Whatever the leaves, and someone else tells me she’s used radish leaves – put them in a blender with olive oil, garlic, and grated walnuts, salt and pepper. Whizz enough to make a textured mix – I use it over pasta, or with poached salmon. Amounts of olive oil etc depend on how much wilting lettuce you have in the fridge !!! I grate the nuts in my parmesan cheese grater.

 Food for thought

 This poem by Wendell Berry soothes my soul and brings me peace:

I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

 

 

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Sacred space

Image result for dial house twickenham londonRambling house down by the River Thames where my in-laws lived and I spent much time.

A life – another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

I loved the ordinariness of the countryside. It wasn’t spectacular country, but it contained all the elements of the things which are now becoming rarer. There were thick hedgerows, and wild flowers and long grass in the orchard where the fox sometimes slipped through, on his way to the field where the donkey grazed: little copses, with their bare, spare branches etched against the pale winter sky, or billowing with green foliage against a blue sky in summer: woodpigeons cooed, cuckoos called, thrushes sang, and the smells of cut grass and manure, of wet leaves and sweet lilacs scented the clean air.

There was no hum of traffic from a distant motorway and few  sounds apart from the occasional drone from a tractor, the creaking braying of the donkey, and contented cows mooing on their way to  milking.

There were other things which showed me the dark side of modem farming. Henry the farmer, who gently patted his thirty prize cows on their rumps as they slowly filed past to the milking shed, where they stood and gave up their warm, creamy milk to the strains of Viennese waltzes, showed me with pride, his solitary calves. Each one was alone and imprisoned in iron cradles where they stood unable to move, turn or lie down, trapped in compartments in pitch-dark sheds, preparing to become white veal. I’ve never eaten veal since.

The house had no mod cons – everything was as it had been since the Victorian aunt’s childhoods. We had never been able to afford a washing machine for the babies’ nappies, so the lack of one was no drawback for me. So, while each baby luxuriated in smocked viyella nighties from the White House in Bond Street and was aired daily in the expensive pram bought by doting paternal grandparents, their nappies were washed the old-fashioned way. In a boiler.

This was filled with a hose from the kitchen tap. I then switched on the heater in the boiler and let the water boil, bubbling and swirling the soap-sudded nappies. They always had the same smell, those boiled soap suds. At the end of the boiling operation which filled the kitchen with steam, I wheeled the pulsating monster to the kitchen sink, and gingerly prised the lid off. Then, with a pair of wooden tongs in theory, but in practise with a wooden spoon, I poked around the scalding nappies until one became hooked on the spoon. With a quick swing it was transferred from boiler to sink, and then the endless rinsing process began.

Nappy by nappy was hooked and swung from boiler to sink, steam misting up the windows, and billowing out through the kitchen door to the rest of the house. My fingers became so swollen that I couldn’t wear my rings any more. Some days I was only one dry nappy ahead of the babies. Now Newney Hall didn’t even have a boiler, but at least Napisan, (hurray,) had arrived on the market, and banished my boiling days forever, however un-hygienic the nappies may have been.

The amenities of the house began and ended with the calor gas stove, while the bathroom and loo were directly above the kitchen, presumably to economise on plumbing. Since the staircase was the other end of the house, this meant walking or running the whole length of the house twice to get upstairs to the bathroom, but at twenty- seven years old the inconveniences didn’t seem to matter.

Living so far away from the shops didn’t matter either. The village grocer delivered our food for the week on Friday afternoons. The butcher called in his van three times a week, as did the baker. The greengrocer called twice a week, and the milkman called every day to supply not just milk to use up the baby coupons, but also yogurt and butter.

My husband left first thing in the morning for the London train, taking the old Morris Traveller with him to the station. I found expensive purchases hidden in the back of that car – a hat from Lock’s, the oldest hat makers in the world, who’d been in business since 1676 – Nelson was wearing one of their tricornes at Trafalgar). There was a shirt from Gieves  (Nelson was wearing a suit made by the original Mr Gieves at Trafalgar too). I worried my extravagant husband was getting into debt again while I couldn’t afford a new lipstick). When we’d waved him away, toddler peeping over the stable door of the kitchen, the baby perched on my hip, we returned to the kitchen table to finish our breakfast.

After hastily scrubbing the high chair before the spat- out cereal set like concrete, polishing the chrome on the pram so my mother- in- law would not silently notice spots or rust marks, I handwashed cobweb-like shawls and lacy matinee jackets in cold water so that my mother-in-law could not suggest I’d turned them yellow by washing them in hot water.

And then more vacuuming, (why did I think it all had to be done every day? – ready for inspection, ma’am – my mother-in-law lived miles away ) sweeping, dusting, regular stoking of the fire, the acres of red and white tiled kitchen floor to be washed free of mud, all kept me busy till the baby woke and lunch loomed, and then the sieving and straining and mashing began, before more face-washing and bib-tying and strapping baby into his high chair and hoisting the toddler onto a cushion on a kitchen chair.

The slow routine of spooning and cooing to the baby and answering the toddler’s continuous eighteen- month- old chatter ended, with more face-washing and changes of nappies, before putting both children down for an afternoon sleep. This was the one hour in the day to myself. I ate my lunch standing at the draining board – cheese and biscuits – reading the newspapers –  Guardian and Telegraph from front to back – I’ve never been better informed. I didn’t dare read a book as I would have forgotten the time and my duties.

I was so tired I didn’t dare sit down either, or I would never have got up again. I hadn’t had an unbroken night’s sleep since the first child was born, and now, with the baby’s night feeds and the other’s broken nights ever since her father had returned from Cyprus, I was so ground down that I couldn’t imagine what it felt like to be normal. Staying for Christmas with the in -laws, my mother- in- law told her son, who told me – how plain I had become. She was right!

The newspapers only lasted till the first child woke, and then their faithful slave would bound up the stairs or rush outside to the pram, checking the nappies, and freshening up their faces before we got dressed for our walk.

Living in a northern climate one becomes accustomed to the hours spent preparing to go outside into the cold or the rain. It must have taken twenty minutes or more to swathe each child in coats, hoods and zip-up jackets, ease tiny, bunched feet into warm boots, and wriggle fat, plasticine-like fingers into gloves or mittens. Then the strapping into the pram, buckling the harness, propping baby up on the pillows, tucking in the rugs to keep out the draughts, and finally, flinging on my sheepskin and gloves, wandering out at snail’s pace or toddler-pace, to gasp fresh air in lanes where the pram would go.

We never met another soul, looking across the frosty, bare, ploughed fields. We were five miles from the village and buried in primeval privacy. Back home, we watched the cows go past for milking, which was the signal for our tea-time. This meal, composed of much the same ingredients as lunch, but including any cakes I might have found time to make during my lunch break, began around four- thirty. This I know, because I switched on the radio when we started, to catch the five ‘o clock news, and so as not to disturb the children’s concentration by leaping up to switch on during their meal.

So I became a captive listener to ‘Mrs Dales’ Diary’, as I waited for the news to come on, and spooned food and baby talk into thrush-like, open mouths around the fireside. I listened with stilled breath to the Congo disasters, the Rhodesian Declaration of Independence, the bombing in Vietnam, the mistakes and injustices of authority all over the world, it seemed, yet these were almost incidental. The pressing reason for listening to the news was for the sheer pleasure of hearing another adult voice, to break the boredom and monotony of the endlessly repeated trivial tasks.

In summer, at twenty- past five every day, we watched the goose spoon water with her beak over her two goslings at the duck pond, before climbing the stairs for our baby bath-time and bed- time. It was always early – because they were ready for it, I said, and needed their sleep. So by six o’clock every night silence reigned. Perhaps they did need it – they certainly never argued and fell asleep straight away – but the real reason was that I needed it. People used to comment on how beautifully behaved they were – because they were always attended to – instantly!

Before the words ‘suburban neurosis’ had been coined, I’d have been ashamed to admit the boredom to anyone, but a wave of relief swept over me, unacknowledged every night, as I walked downstairs and poured a drink into a civilised, crystal sherry glass, for my one leisurely tot before beginning the cookhouse stint for my husband’s  dinner.

My marriage was breaking down already though my husband refused to go for counselling with marriage guidance. But before we left for Hong Kong, I had made a life for myself and found a circle of friends, Margery, the farmer’s wife who wrote poetry and read her poems aloud with a group called Poetry in Pubs. My nearest neighbour, was the Hon Jean, who had children the same age, which was the only thing we had in common, but she seemed to need me. Lady Selina, who divided her time equally between her painting, the stables and her children, and was both a Quaker, and a sort of enfant terrible was stimulating, while sweet Jennifer, whose children always fought with mine, shared a passion with me for interior decoration and gardening.

Eventually we left that enchanted house to go to Hong Kong, where the hectic life and chaos of those times almost obliterated the memories of that year in the country. But for years I have dreamt of that beloved house. In my dreams it’s bigger, and there are many more rooms. The furniture is more elegant and the rooms more beautiful.

There’s one room which is filled with such treasures that I only go into it sometimes… it feels sacred. I have no idea why I dream so often of this house I lived in for a short year so long ago. I don’t know what it symbolizes. I’ve lived in other houses and places just as magical…  no doubt a psychologist would mine some profound Jungian theory from these dreams, delving into the unconscious and maybe coming up with an archetype!

We spent the last few weeks in England with the in-laws at their rambling red brick Georgian house down by the river Thames. Built by Thomas Twining of the tea family in 1722, a big sun dial told the hours on the front of the house above the front door. Inside it was decorated with glorious colours and filled with treasures and exquisite antiques and china collected by my deaf, difficult, demanding mother- in- law, whose creativity and taste taught me so much.

The night we left, as we sat in a big car lent by friends of the in-laws to accommodate all our luggage, we four and the in-laws who were seeing us off on our plane, I looked up at the old house, illuminated by the street lights and wondered when I would see it again. No presentiment warned me it would be twelve years before I saw that sun dial again, after what had seemed like a life-time of heart-break, adventure, life in a far country, second marriage and extraordinary experiences.

To be continued

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

 A friend who has her mahjong foursome to stay here in the forest for a weekend once a year, usually brings them to my place for afternoon tea and we have a great girls natter. They always love my scones and want the recipe. This is it, so quick and easy: eight to ten ounces of SR flour, pinch salt and two to two and a half ounces of butter – I simply grate it cold from the fridge. Mix this altogether with an egg beaten in a cup of milk until it all comes together. Use more milk if you need, to make a soft dough.

I don’t bother to roll it or use a pastry cutter. Just gently knead it into a square, about an inch thick, cut it into small squares, and place with a space between them on a greased baking tin. Some say leave it in the fridge to cool… sometimes I do – if I don’t have time – que sera sera. Bake in hottish oven for fifteen minutes or until risen and done. Serve hot with butter, strawberry jam and whipped cream if you have it. If there are any left over (not often) I fry them with bacon and fried egg… nice…

Food for thought

You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to satisfy me… CS Lewis – a man after my own heart.

 

 

 

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