Category Archives: films

The truth about Dunkirk

Image result for dunkirk images

 

Dunkirk is a word that probably means something to some Britons these days, and very little to the rest of the world. But to people of my generation the word conjures up a tragic and magic moment in British history that means courage and fortitude and dignity which transformed defeat into something shining and inspirational.

These thoughts, of course, were triggered by watching the film of that name. I’d read the rave reviews by historians I’d thought were knowledgeable, and laughed with the rest of the world with the American critic who enjoyed the film, apart from commenting that there no women or people of colour portrayed in this epic retreat from the French port of Dunkerque.

Well, there were plenty of women in the Forces at that moment but not overseas on active service. All women between eighteen and forty were called up for service, unless they had children. They had freed men up for fighting by doing all the jobs men used to do – working as drivers, cooks, clerks, interpreters, cipher clerks, aircraft plotters, signals operators, radar operators, working at ammunition depots, firing Ack-Ack guns – anti-aircraft guns – Mary, Churchill’s daughter manned such a post in Hyde Park, shooting at Goering’s planes. Women worked in munitions factories,  factories, on the land, and were nurses, Red Cross workers, and did many other vital jobs.

And yes, there were no blacks in the army either… once the Lord Chief Justice Lord Mansfield made his historic ruling in 1772 that any slaves arriving in the country automatically became free men, few negroes came to England for the next century or more. The fourteen thousand or so black slaves already there, now intermarried with the English, so that the ethnicity of their descendants was not obvious in the society in which they were born.

With no slave trade allowed in England, and the Royal Navy maintaining a permanent squadron patrolling the seas for sixty years to try to stamp out the infamous traffic in people – at a cost of 22,000 sailors’ lives as they fought with traders, and millions of taxpayer’s pounds – people of African descent had disappeared by 1940. The Africans rescued by the navy, chained to each other in the bowels of slave ships in horrendous conditions, were taken to Sierra Leone where an African king had sold a strip of land to the British for the purpose of re-settling them. Plenty of ‘diversity’ in the UK now, but that didn’t start until the emigration of West Indians to England in the early nineteen fifties.

So, no women or  people of colour– no ‘diversity’- as the young American critic had called it. But I had other misgivings as I watched this much- praised epic.

The ‘ornery’ Brits sailing their tiny boats across the Channel to save their fellow men were the stars in this film! The chap and his son in their fair isle pullovers and polo ribbed sweater moved me to tears… the sheer ordinariness, and utter decency and lack of pretentiousness of them, their deep in- the- bone goodness, and their amazing kindness,  forbearance and understanding of the rescued shell – shocked nut- case –  in spite of his shocking actions – were so typical of their time and class….

But some things bugged me. Anyone who’s served in the army knows that every ten men in a regiment are a section and they have a corporal to look after them. Three sections make a platoon, who have a sergeant and a second lieutenant to look after them. Three platoons means nine corporals, three sergeants and three lieutenants. Three platoons make up a company with a captain and a company sergeant major to look after them, plus all the adjutants, 2/i/c’s (second in command) plus colonel of the regiment, etc.

There was no trace of all these chaps who actually were the ones who kept the lines in order, going forward over the sandy dunes to the rescue ships, and who, importantly, kept up their men’s morale. Not to mention the staff of all the generals in an army of 300,000 (those numbers were not obvious on the beach in the film either – it was packed to the gills in real life)

Alan Brooke was there, Montgomery was there, Lord Gort, C-in-C was there, and a host of others. Most poignant of all, and what would have made a wonderful moment of film, was General Harold Alexander, who was commanding the last troops on the beach. When everyone had gone, he travelled along the shoreline in a small motor boat at two am in the morning, with a loud hailer, calling out to check if there was anyone left. Few historians ever mention this revealing moment of character.

These people, I felt didn’t get their rightful due, and the order and dignity and courage of the retreat would probably not have happened if they hadn’t done their duty…

The navy didn’t get its due either -there were over four hundred  Navy ships shuttling to and fro, and on the worst day, seven out of ten navy ships taking on troops  were sunk at the Mole… my partner noticed there seemed to be only three ships used over and over again in the film…  being a navy man himself ! Funny they didn’t do some skilled computer generated imagery to make it look more realistic ….

Nit picking, perhaps, but I felt the film was somewhat one dimensional because of these omissions… Kenneth Branagh made a wonderful  character, which I felt owed much to Kenneth More in  ‘The Longest Day ‘, who played the Beachmaster on one of the British beaches on D-Day… with his bull dog!!!.

There are so many stories about this time in history that now are lost, and have never been recorded by historians. Reading Francis Partridge’s autobiographical ‘A Pacifist’s War’, I discovered one of the most intriguing and  little- known stories about the real Dunkirk. Her brother- in- law was the officer in charge of everyone landing at Dover and siphoning wounded and dead and living to their destinations. He told her he realised that so many troops had brought rescued dogs with them, that he organised a dogs’ cage on the beach where each dog was given labels and addresses before going to quarantine and then being sent to their owners!!  Such a typical story of British soldiers… reminding me of all the pi- dogs, as they were called, that my father’s tank regiment rescued and adopted in the desert in North Africa.

And then there was the story my brother’s general used to tell at Guest Nights in the officers’ mess. The general had been a young second lieutenant at Dunkirk, and when he’d got his men stowed away safely on a passenger ferry, he staggered up to the bar, absolutely exhausted, and put his elbows on the counter, his head between his hands, and asked the barman who was busily polishing glasses with bombs going off, ships sinking all around them, if there was any chance of a drink. To which the barman replied righteously: “Good gracious, no sir – we’re still within the three -mile limit “!!

Another little- known book told me of a father who woke in the night dreaming of his son. A very rich man, he donned his clothes, and drove off in his Rolls- Royce to the bewilderment of his wife. Abandoning the expensive car at a port, he wangled his way determinedly on a rescue ship returning to pick up more men at Dunkirk. Once at Dunkirk he strode off over the beaches, up into the town and onto the outskirts. On the side of a road, he found a mangled motor bike and his dead son – a dispatch rider – beside it, as he had seen in his dream. Somehow, in a daze he made his way back to England, a changed man.

These are the stories that fascinate me, stories of truth and courage and heartbreak and fortitude. They are stories which have now almost disappeared as those men have now disappeared too. Some will have been handed on by word of mouth to children as bored probably, as I was, in my ignorant, arrogant salad days when my father tried to tell me something of his long war. They are not stories telling of brave deeds in battle, but accounts of how people survived and coped and rose above terrible circumstances in terrible times. That famous, much derided stiff upper lip often saved them.

And the lesson of Dunkirk was that even when all seems lost, imagination, courage and determination can still save the day, even if it meant having to decide then, in Churchill’s words, to: ‘fight on the seas and oceans ….
we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender’.

Those simple powerful words were a turning point in the history of the free world and western civilisation… this is a small thank you to those men who made that history.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

A grass widower for supper, so I needed not a grand show-off turn,  but something tasty and welcoming and above all simple. I prefer not cooking at night these days. I found an old recipe I’d forgotten about and have no idea where I found it.

Rice and chicken, but all cooked together. I fried an onion and garlic until soft, and spread them in the bottom of a shallow casserole with plenty of butter. Add a cup of long grain rice, and two cups of hot chicken stock, salt and pepper. Cover and bake in a moderate oven for twenty minutes.  Score skinless chicken thighs with a mix of chopped garlic, ginger and grated lemon, and add the chicken to the rice, fluffing it up. At this point I add some more knobs of butter to the rice. Bake for another twenty to twenty- five minutes, adding hot water if the rice needs it.

Served with salad, this is an easy satisfying dish. Pudding was the ersatz rum babas from a previous recipe. It went down a treat..  rum puddings never seem to fail!

Food for thought

Elegance is usually confused with superficiality, fashion, lack of depth. This is a serious mistake: human beings need to have elegance in their actions and in their posture because this word is synonymous with good taste, amiability, equilibrium and harmony. Paul Coelho
 

 

 

 

 

 

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Aliens, Narnia and our dog, Murphy

Image result for image of world from space

 

My latest devouring passion (perhaps passions keep you alive and hungry for the fascination and excitement of life!)  is for films about aliens… I especially love the ones with encounters between them and us… those with peace and a desire to communicate.

The film ‘Arrival’ sparked this unlikely interest, and I’ve watched it several times, and have been working backward from ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’, in which Keanu Reeves played the solemn and idealistic alien, ‘ET’ of course, and my favourite, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. At the end of any film I’ve watched, I then go into a frenzy Googling the cast, reviews, and interviews with directors and any other interesting facts, etc.

When watching ‘Close Encounters…’ again last night, I registered for the first time the dead decoy carcases of sheep and cattle. I noticed too, the tortured dog entrapped in a crude home-made gas mask by his owner, who was trying to sell animal gas masks at the crowded railway station crammed with evacuees. I put aside my disquiet at the killing of the sheep and cattle in order to immerse myself in the mystical, magical encounter with the space-ship and its aliens.

But in my researches afterwards, my misgivings returned. Reading Spielberg explaining that before disguising a group of local school children as the child aliens he had tried to use an orang-utan encased in a silver lycra suit and roller skates strapped to his feet upset me dreadfully. The poor creature undid the skates and crawled back to its owner, so Spielberg had to switch to using children.

As usual, my heart turned over at the idea of using an animal for the purposes of entertainment and causing it distress and discomfort. Not as bad as bull fighting obviously, or as bad as the experience of the tiger in ‘The Life of Pi’. This glorious creature became the victim of the very people who were supposed to be looking after him, and nearly drowned because his keepers were so pre-occupied with the affair they were enjoying.

I’m been suspicious of the use of animals in films ever since the makers of Narnia had wanted to use our magnificent bull mastiff. We had taken Murphy – a rescue dog – to the vet, who was impressed with his splendid mastiff good looks. The vet told us that the makers of the film Narnia were on the look- out for big, handsome bull mastiffs like this. They needed six apparently.

We thought about it, desultorily, and finally asked what it would involve. It would have meant gentle, devoted Murphy – who’d cried with relief all the way home from a ‘Club Med for Critters’ where we’d left him for a weekend once – going away for training for six weeks. And what would the training be, we asked. He would learn to snarl and growl and spring upon people on demand, we learned.

We were absolutely horrified. While he would be pining, and wondering why he had been taken away from us, Murphy’s gentle, friendly nature would have been warped for the purposes of film makers who obviously would not have his best interests at heart. How would they teach a friendly courteous animal to snarl and growl and attack, I wondered, appalled.

Since learning about this, I’ve been very conscious of the way film-makers seem to lack a conscience about how animals are used on set. I no longer believe those PC disclaimers: ‘No animal has suffered any cruelty in the making of this film.’ Certainly, the carnage, when over a hundred horses were killed in the making of Ben Hur, would not be tolerated today, but what constitutes cruelty is entirely subjective…

I cried my heart out over Old Yeller, like most of my generation, my best friend and I mopping up our blotched mascara in the ladies cloakroom after the film… but I sometimes wonder now, after our experience with Narnia , how Old Yeller was trained when he had to snarl and growl before rabies set in…

Lassie is another story, with his waving tail and cheerful demeanour. The most fascinating thing about him is that his character is based on a true story, and on the heroism of a real Lassie.

Wikipedia tells us that writer Nigel Clarke in the “Shipwreck Guide to Dorset and South Devon”, gives the original Lassie story. Half collie, Lassie was owned by the landlord of the Pilot Boat, a pub in the little sea-side town of Lyme Regis. On New Year’s Day in 1915, the battleship “HMS Formidable” was torpedoed by a German submarine off Start Point in South Devon, with the loss of more than 500 men. In a storm that followed, a life raft containing bodies was blown along the coast to Lyme Regis. The owner of the Pilot Boat offered his cellar as a morgue.

When the bodies had been laid out on the stone floor, Lassie found her way down amongst them, and began to lick the face of one of the victims, Able Seaman John Cowan. She stayed beside him for more than half an hour, nuzzling him and keeping him warm with her fur. To everyone’s astonishment, Cowan eventually stirred. He was taken to hospital and went on to make a full recovery. He visited Lassie again when he returned to thank all those who had saved his life.

The sinking of the ship was a severe blow and when RN officers heard the story of Lassie, and what she did to rescue Cowan, they told the story again and again to anyone who would listen, as it was so inspirational and heart-warming. The story travelled to Hollywood and Lassie and the generations of Lassies who followed her, became one of the immortals.  Hers is a feel-good story, as also was the real- life filming of Babe.

In this film, there were six trainers acting as department heads, supervised by an American trainer, and assisted by over fifty-seven animal handlers from the United States, Australia and New Zealand. It took a year and a half of training, and six months of filming to make the film. Wherever there was any violence or an incident in which an animal might suffer discomfort, animatronic models were used; and the pigs were so clever that animatronic models were hardly used in their scenes.

The filming of Babe was a triumph for the humane treatment of other creatures. Interestingly, James Cromwell, who played Farmer Hogget, who was already a vegetarian, became a vegan after making it. Many children, including my granddaughter, stopped eating bacon after seeing this film… And when we remember how often the word ‘pig’ is used in such derogatory ways, it was beautiful and heart- warming that pigs were portrayed at last as the intelligent and loveable creatures that they are.

I’ve strayed a long way from aliens, but I like to think that the noble alien in ‘The Day The World Stood Still’, who came to save the planet, but not the undeserving people, would approve of this film, realising that humans are changing, that they can cherish all life, and not just our own species. (They can even give up eating bacon!)

Technology update. I discovered that my extraordinary overload of e-mails was a file I didn’t know existed, and it contained every blog I have ever received, plus every like, comment, follower, since May 2012. There were nearly ninety thousand, and I’m down to just under seventy- three thousand, deleting them in chunks of fifty which is the best ‘they’ will let me do.

Four fascinating bloggers used to send between five and twenty blogs a day each, which was one reason for the huge back-log… but now at least I know what I’m up against and try to clear between five hundred and a thousand every day … time consuming especially when a title leaps out at me, and I simply have to stop and read it. I’m back as far as December 2015, so you can imagine what a task I still face…this may explain my tardiness in sometimes getting back to you… but nil desperandum.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Not much in the fridge, except the makings of courgette and feta fritters, a favourite for us both. First, grate two large courgettes and put them to drain on kitchen paper. I’m using leeks at the moment instead of onions, so cut half a leek in four lengthways and chop it. Gently fry the leek in olive oil. In a large bowl mix the leeks, grated courgettes, two beaten eggs, a crumbled packet of feta (about 225 gr) two tablespoons of flour, lots of salt and pepper, and plenty of chopped parsley and fresh thyme. Drop tablespoonfuls into hot olive oil, and slightly flatten, turn when brown on one side, and then drain on kitchen paper while you cook the rest.

Sometimes I use coriander instead of parsley and thyme, sometimes nutmeg. We eat the fritters with chilli jelly or sweet chilli sauce, or beetroot relish, with salad – and hot buttered rolls for hungry people. This amount of fritters is enough for three greedy people or four reasonable people!

Food for thought

You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.        William Wilberforce who campaigned against slavery and cruelty to animals.

 

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A tearful (sob) tale !

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If I’m going to cry I want it to be when I’m laughing. I think that may be one of my favourite pleasures, to laugh till I cry… but it’s not something that can be planned… such moments seize us out of the blue, and swoop down without any warning. And then it’s bliss…I love it – having laughed my way not just to good health but to aching sides and streaming eyes.

Tears come more easily to some than others… my tear ducts are the sort that let me down and embarrass me constantly… it was about the only thing I had in common with Princess Diana, being neither blonde, rich, thin, Royal or any of the other things she was…. but she cried easily… she cried waving goodbye to her fiancée when he flew off to NZ for a couple of weeks, she cried, bless her, when the band played God Bless the Prince of Wales on her honeymoon, and she cried among other times, when she was complimented on her work on the day her separation was announced. By contrast her sister-in-law Princess Anne has only gone on record crying once… when she waved farewell to any more cruises on the royal yacht Britannia as it was de-commissioned.

The tough and the strong are sometimes tempted to despise we weaker vessels, and that’s when tears are so humiliating, if we forget that some of the sweetest moments in life, and the most memorable, are those which move us to tears. Tears are one of the things that make us human beings – though I have watched that heart-breaking video when an elephant who had been starved and beaten for fifty years was finally freed, and he wept – rivers of tears slowly trickling down his wrinkled old grey cheeks -and I wept too.

So yes, tears reveal us as feeling human beings… and though times of hormonal change… those teenage years, pregnancy, post-natal months, menopause, depression, even the wrong medical drugs can cause unexpected floods of tears, nevertheless, tears should not be sniffed at. A baby’s tears are his only means of showing his hunger, hurt, fear, anger, discomfort, insecurity and other problems…. but as we grow older and find less direct forms of communication, tears assume a different place in our lives.

They still mark emotions like fear, misery, anger, grief, hurt, but as we grow older – joy too. So why does our culture sneer at tears and try to train children not to cry, with the jeer: ‘cry baby’ or ‘softie’ being an allowed insult in the playground or even worse: ‘don’t be such a girl’.

When I landed in New Zealand in the middle of winter many years ago, my luggage two small children, tears of fright flowed behind my huge black sunglasses in spite of all my efforts at control. And there have been many other moments since when tears marked unforgettable moments of joy and sorrow… including watching first my children, and then my grand-children’s nativity plays… I cried when I watched my tall, skinny thirteen year old son walking away from his childhood into ‘big’ school, head and shoulders above the others his age… at my daughter’s wedding, and my grandchild’s christening… a perfect watering can.

‘Don’t cry when you say goodbye to us’, my eight year old daughter had said before they took off across the world to see their father. So I smiled and waved, and tried to pretend tears weren’t coursing down my cheeks in great rivers. Later, the exquisite voice of Joan Sutherland singing in concert brought tears to my eyes and to many others. Few of us could define what these involuntary tears were triggered by but they were precious, and the moments memorable. I’ve heard other great singers in person including the incomparable Kathleen Battle, but none of them drew that spontaneous tribute.

When my first baby was born the midwife who delivered her did so in floods of tears… she said she always cried when a baby was born. Now, tenderised by life, I know what she means. I only have to see a new born to feel those tears start gushing. It’s hard not feel embarrassed or humiliated by these ever-ready tear ducts.

I am famous in the family for beginning to cry in the cinema at the beginning of a film. As the credits went up on the film ‘The Young Winston’… the traditional ride of the Adjutant on his white horse, up the flight of steps to the library at the end of the Passing- Out Parade at Sandhurst filled me with such nostalgia for my military childhood that I was lost at the first frame.

And I remember lingering in the cinema loo mopping my eyes with my best friend as we tottered out after Disney’s ‘Old Yeller’ (about a Labrador) had ended, ravaged with tears and nearly blinded with clogged mascara. I can go to a funeral of someone I hardly know, as a courtesy to a family member, and become a tearful wreck… not quite sure whether I’m crying in sympathy with those who are really mourning, whether tears are contagious like yawns, or whether I’m touching into old and forgotten griefs.

In the end it’s animals who really pull the heart-strings and have provoked so many gallons of tears I could fill buckets with them … I was ten when I wept over the shooting of the ponies in the film ‘Scott of the Antarctic’… blow the men dying heroically in the snow, it was the ponies I cried over. The deaths of our fifteen or more rescued dogs and a cat was always a tear- streaked nightmare over the years, and it isn’t just me who’s reduced to an emotional wreck by animals.

On one particular personal growth course, a man who had remained unmoved by harrowing moments supposed to break down our innermost defences, went home one night to find his precious bull terrier fighting for her life, and losing it in child birth. The next day, as he told us all about his beloved ‘Maggie’, he dissolved into heart- broken sobs, as did all the women and most of the strong men in the room. Loved animals in distress can make even the toughest weep.

Broken with grief, this man was then able to do the inner work he had come for, the tears had dissolved his emotional barriers, and he became a softer, kinder, warmer person overnight. So in spite of the superiority of those who have well controlled tear ducts, it does seem that weeping is good for the soul, even though it’s terrible for the complexion. Doesn’t seem to matter whether we’re weeping from laughter or weeping from grief, or weeping from any other emotion, tears seem to loosen us up.

Yet mostly, tears don’t seem to come in the moments of great crisis… then the mind is focussed. Shock and intense attention keep us icy cold, functioning unhampered by anguish or emotion… so maybe tears are a bit like Wordsworth’s definition of poetry: emotion recollected in tranquillity, but in the case of tears: emotion when there’s time for it. I rather treasure the words of Kahlil Gibran, who puts tears and laughter into perspective, as ever… that they are both – in the pompous self-mocking phrase of a friend – part of ‘life’s rich pageant’!

Gibran says: “I would not exchange the laughter of my heart for the fortunes of the multitudes; nor would I be content with converting my tears, invited by my agonized self, into calm. It is my fervent hope that my whole life on this earth will ever be tears and laughter.”

So weepers of the world – unite! Hang onto your sodden tissues, and leave off your mascara. Don’t feel intimidated by the stiff upper lips or cold embarrassment of stronger mortals, our ability to cry at the drop of a hat means that we’re living, breathing, sentient beings,
Yours tearfully…

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

A friend for supper on a cold winter’s night meant that I wanted to spoil her with comfort food, and what more comforting than blackberry and apple crumble?

I had the apples, and a tin of blackberries, though I prefer fresh or frozen, and also often use boysenberries instead. I tipped the cold, cooked sliced apples and the blackberries into a pie dish, with plenty of juice, and sugar to taste; then the crumble was spread on top, baked in a moderate oven for forty minutes, tested with a knitting needle to make sure the crumble was cooked, and served with cream… delicious and she loved it.
The trick is the crumble… eight ounces of flour, four ounces of cold butter, grated and mixed with the flour, six ounces of brown sugar, the grated rind of a lemon, and two ounces of ground almonds. Mixed altogether, it only takes a few minutes to prepare, and not much more to eat!

 

Food for thought

All children long for recognition and acceptance of their essence – secretly so do most adults. The insistent question inside all of us is: do you see me, not only my body, but my essence; the gifts, potential, needs, wounds, character and quality of soul that shape me individually?
Professor Richard Whitfield

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Cricketers, bridge-players and great white hunters

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These I have loved, to quote Rupert Brooke. I think I’m a serial monogamist – but didn’t dare put that in the title and invite a torrent of prurient spam into the file! Neither did I dare put ‘men’ in the title – that would have meant more Viagra ads.

I started young and can date the first love of my life back to age nine. Stuck in a London flat with two new parents, waiting to move north, bored with playing in the park and endless games of ludo, these two strange adults took us to the cinema one afternoon. ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ no less. My heart did a tumble – Leslie Howard alias Sir Percy Blakeney, standing, quizzing glass raised in one hand, one long leg in pantaloons and buckled shoe resting on a chair, lace cravat tumbling from his neck, and laughingly baiting his pursuers with his little ditty: “ They seek him here, they seek him there, those Frenchies seek him everywhere. Is he in heaven or is he in hell, that damned elusive Pimpernel?” Oh, his gaiety, his nonchalance, his recklessness…

My heart was his. I sought out Baroness Orxy’s Scarlet Pimpernel books and they sustained me for some years, until the glowing image dissolved when I found ‘Jane Eyre’. Mr Rochester!  He truly enslaved me. I read the book over and over, memorising every scene in which my (rather doubtful) hero figured. I found him terrifying and mesmerising. I used to terrify my dormitory at school too, sitting on the end of the bed in the dark, reciting the latest instalment of Charlotte Bronte’s homage to plain women and masterful men.

Mr Rochester’s black beauty faded on board ship to Malaya, when I discovered that Cupid really could throw darts. I was fourteen the night we boarded at Southampton, and my father suggested that he and I take a stroll around the decks to watch the bustle of embarkation. As we passed an open window where a posse of young naval officers were making merry, one of them glanced out of the window. A pair of deep blue eyes looked straight into mine, and for the rest of the five week voyage I thought of nothing else. I craned to see the possessor of these magnetic blue eyes whenever we were all in the dining room, and pined between meals.

I rejoiced when we were delayed in the Suez Canal for a few extra days after a crashed oil tanker blocked our passage. I glowed when I found him playing tennis at Mount Lavinia in Columbo while we had afternoon tea. I never spoke to him. I cried for days when we landed in Singapore and he sailed on to Hong Kong, immaculate and oblivious in his white tropical uniform. I think my parents must have gone mad with irritation, never knowing when I was going to dissolve into what they probably thought were hormonal tears. My secret was locked in my non-existent bosom. I never even knew his name.

Then along came ‘Gone with the Wind. My father, knowing nothing of my amorous past, assumed I would come home crazy about Clark Gable, and decided to put a spoke in Mr Gables ‘s wheels before I left, by telling me to watch how his ears waggled when he spoke ( they did!) This malicious dart fell harmlessly by the way. There was my new/old love, Ashley Wilkes, with his brooding blue eyes, his noble brow, his elegance and his honour! I watched ‘Gone With The Wind eleven times before I was over Leslie Howard. My father was disgusted that I would love such a wet!

But time has revealed that not only was he a talented stage actor, playwright and producer, but also a patriotic man who left comfortable Hollywood to return to war-time England, and who died when the Luftwaffe shot down his plane on a flight outside the war zone. He was reputed to have been on an intelligence mission. He also had a reputation for womanising (who doesn’t?). He himself said he: “didn’t chase women… but couldn’t always be bothered to run away”.

By the time I’d worked through the eleven viewings of ‘Gone With The Wind’ in various parts of the world, some years had passed, and I then became pre-occupied with flesh and blood. But come re-marriage, contentment and a deeper appreciation of the beauty of men, I became a serial lover again.

My first new love was the noted Pakistani cricketer, Sarfraz Nawaz, who discovered ‘reverse swing’, and taught it to Imran Khan and other Pakistani cricketing greats. But I loved Sarfraz before he achieved greatness ( you could almost say I discovered him!) and having seen him by chance on TV while my new husband was watching a test match, I demanded to be taken to the cricket to see him live.

This was the early to mid-seventies when great – or rather infamous events were a-foot in Washington, and a tall gentleman with a twinkle in his eye shot to fame, as they say. Archibald Cox. Some may remember him. I loved him for his rumpled suits, fine intelligence and un-assailable integrity. My exasperated husband triumphantly waved a wire photo he’d found in the office, hoping to break his spell. But I thought Archibald Cox lolling in his  chair with his long legs propped on his desk, and the leather soles of his shoes facing the camera – sporting two large holes – was irresistible.

If I had loathed Nixon before, my hatred knew no bounds when he famously sacked my man, and I never saw him again. So that left me with Andrew Young, (another groan from husband) Ambassador to the UN. I looked at a recent photo of this interesting man, and it just didn’t do justice to his youthful fire and fierce good looks. But even he couldn’t compete with that spectacular entrance of Omar Sharif emerging from the desert on his camel, jingling and shimmering and enigmatic in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.

When he re-appeared as Dr Zhivago that was it! My husband was as usual, chagrined, and assured me that all this gorgeous man ever did was to play bridge… he was brilliant apparently  and wrote books and newspaper columns about a subject that is a closed book to me.

This was disappointing, so for a few years I transferred my affections to Robert Redford as the handsome, eccentric and very decent great white hunter Denis Finch Hatton in ‘Out of Africa’… he had a lot in common with Sir Percy Blakeney and Ashley Wilkes.

But like all my other loves, Robert Redford is aging, and is not the glorious young man he once was. So in my twilight years, my loves have been fewer, and indeed, I thought my love life was over, until we went on a cruise a few years ago. Reader – to quote Charlotte Bronte – I, like every the woman on our dining table, fell hopelessly in love with our handsome young Indian waiter.

All the husbands ground their teeth, knowing they couldn’t compete with this charming clever and exquisite young man. He dispensed sour green apples to a woman he’d noticed hovering on the edge of sea- sickness, cherished an autistic teenage girl, attended to each of us as though we were each the only woman in his life, and in my eyes, at least, achieved perfection when I discovered that he was deeply spiritual. He was a devout Hindu, a vegetarian and a man who saw all religions as having the same value. In other words – a good man.

Well, he sailed away of course, and I now face the unpalatable truth that men my own age are not figures of romance. But I don’t want to become a cougar … a term I’m told which describes older women who pursue younger men. So I will just have to fall back on the sweet memories of my youth… though you never know… they say the party isn’t over till the fat lady sings…  I mean the slightly over-weight lady… oh – that could be me!

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

The most useful thing I learned when I was in the army was how to keep peeled potatoes fresh. Sitting in the cook house at night as a recruit peeling hundred of potatoes for all the hundreds of women the next day, I had to put a knob of clean coal in the water to keep the potatoes fresh and the water clear. The tragedy of my life is that I haven’t seen coal for years, so can’t use this pearl of wisdom myself…

Food for Thought

While we wonder what will happen next in North Korea, I found this, written nearly two hundred years ago, and it seems that nothing has changed since then.  “What experience and history teach us is this – that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. 1779 – 1831 Influential German philosopher.

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Hollywood, Ruined Reputations and Truth

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In the New Zealand Parliament this week the leader of one of the parties put up a motion congratulating the New Zealand  Ambassador and his second secretary for “their courageous and commendable” role in offering refuge and “significant help”  in 1979, at their Tehran embassy during the US hostage crisis in Iran.

He termed the film ‘Argo’ a “grave misrepresentation” of the part the NZ diplomats had played, which had placed both themselves, and their country’s policies and trade at risk.

The motion was passed unanimously. Ben Affleck has admitted in a press conference that he had been unjust both to the British and to the New Zealanders, who’d both risked themselves and their countries by helping the US hostages. But he said it was a better story if he falsified the facts.

I can’t imagine how it must feel to be held up as a coward to the whole world, when you’ve actually acted generously and courageously. But such thoughtless arrogance  is nothing new. Hollywood has been falsifying history and making heroic war films about Americans using the exploits of British servicemen for years.

And this is why I prefer facts to fiction. The story I tell now is true, and is such a perfectly rounded story with a neat plot and unexpected ending that if it was fiction it would be said to be too neat, and therefore improbable.

It’s about my father who belonged to a distinguished cavalry regiment, and had fought in tanks throughout the war. After the war, playing a leading role in a huge military exercise, the last of its kind ever held in England, he was concerned about the lack of proper treatment of the real accidentally wounded, as opposed to the dummy wounded, and he became a whistleblower.

We all know that whistleblowers are not popular, and like many another whistleblower, he had ruined his career. So he left his regiment in which he now had no future, and volunteered to go to Malaya as an infantryman, to serve where communist Chinese guerrillas were terrorising the local populations and killing British rubber planters and the like. The conflict in Malaya was called an Emergency at the request of the planters, as otherwise the insurance companies wouldn’t cover them for losses, if it was a war!

The Chinese guerillas called themselves a Liberation Army, and received their orders from Moscow. Their leader was a Chinese called Chin Peng, who had trained in guerrilla warfare against the invading Japanese during the war. These guerrilla “freedom” fighters were ruthless and brutal in their methods of intimidation.

Vulnerable and frightened Malays and Chinese labourers living on the edges of the jungle were re-settled in safe New Villages, where they had better conditions and pay than ever before – and after British pressure, were allowed to buy land and have the vote – so they didn’t need to support the ‘bandits’ as everyone else called them. Measures were put in place to stop the bandits getting food from the terrified local populations, and since the bandits also extorted food from the Sakai’s  – the aborigines – in the jungle, the Sakai’s hated them too.

This meant that in the end the bandits could be starved out of their hideouts. A lot of thought went into winkling them out of the dense jungle, while not antagonising the local populations. Troops, who consisted of some British and Ghurka regiments, and some Malay regiments, tracked them down in the jungle. My father was in a Malay regiment, and small detachments were dropped into the jungle at the end of a rope by helicopter, to spend six weeks tracking, hoping to find bandit camps, disband them and send the demoralised and hungry bandits to rehabilitation camps. Inevitably there was shooting. But while the British authorities offered surrender, no Britons who were captured by the bandits ever survived. The military operation was called ‘Winning Hearts and Minds”….

We lived in a tiny military camp in the middle of the jungle in Pahang, central Malaya. I came home for school holidays with a large armoured car escort, in case of ambush. On this day, we had gone to the nearest village where the only grocery shop for hundreds of square miles was to be found. The shop was owned by a magnificent old Chinese trader, known as Mr Tek Seng, and when shopping there we all had to go into his back room and drink tea while our groceries were packed up.

As we left Tek Seng’s, my father, who we thought was still in the jungle, raced up to the entrance in an army jeep, and called out to my stepmother to get some oranges and hurry, hurry. When she returned with a box a few minutes later, he was half carrying an emaciated Chinese man in ragged clothes, and putting him into the back seat of our car. He sat the man down, and sat on the seat beside him, peeling an orange. He then gave the man segments to eat. When he’d finished one orange, my father indicated to the man to go on eating them, and help himself from the box. We then drove home with him.

Back at camp, the man was taken to the guardroom, and I heard later that as soon as he began eating the oranges, he began to recover. He was at death’s door with starvation and  scurvy when my father had found him in the jungle. (Early Renaissance explorers lost two thirds of their crews from scurvy, as did all the navies until the 18th century) But as soon as a person gets some vitamin C into them, they start to recover. And that was that with the bandit, I thought.

We returned to England after Merdeka – self government – was declared in Malaya in 1956, and got on with our lives. Chin Peng, meanwhile, the Communist leader, eventually retired to live in Beijing since there was nothing to fight for since Malaya achieved peaceful independence without him!

A few years later, my father retired too, and took a job in Whitehall, central London. Some seven years after the bandit had been captured and rescued from the jungle, a soldier from the Royal Signals Corps came to my father’s office, and asked to see him. It was the bandit.

He had emerged from rehabilitation camp a changed man, and had joined the British Army. He was now stationed with his unit in Gibraltar, and he came to London to seek out my father and to give him a watch. To thank him.

I love this story for its humanity and decency.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

The threadbare gourmets in this house feasted rather well today. Friends had brought us some fresh fillets of fish which they had caught this morning. We ate them with buttered new potatoes bought from a stall on the road home, and local tomatoes also bought from a road-side stall. And afterwards we had fragrant ripe figs, from another friend’s garden. They were beautiful to look at, stained with dark purple and green on the outside, and inside, pale pink and translucent green.

I cooked the fish quickly in butter and with chopped dill. I also cooked the soft little tomatoes with them so the juices would flavour the cream. When both were not quite cooked, I tipped a tblsp of brandy in the pan and let it bubble up, then added salt and pepper and thick cream and let it bubble and thicken a bit more. We ate it immediately with the new potatoes and parsley, and some green beans.

 

Food for Thought

If you lose touch with nature you lose touch with humanity. If there’s no relationship with nature then you become a killer; then you kill baby seals, whales, dolphins, and man either for gain, for sport, for food, or for knowledge. Then nature is frightened of you, withdrawing its beauty. You may take long walks in the woods or camp in lovely places but you are a killer and so lose their friendship. You probably are not related to anything but to your wife or your husband…

Jiddhu Krishnamurti  1895 – 1986 Teacher, philosopher

 

 

 

 

 

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Art and soul – do they matter?

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On Sunday I discovered that I am a member of a tiny minority. I belong to a group of around three million people world- wide who watch the live performances of opera filmed from the New York Metropolitan Opera House! And when I watched film of the Met audience, I decided that I must also belong to an even more select group, a blogger who watches opera.  I don’t know what a blogger actually looks like, but to my mind, this collection of elegant, groomed rich people didn’t look like bloggers- would they have the time to sit over a computer? Not did my home audience of mostly elderly people look like bloggers either!

It was a Mozart opera, ‘La Clemenza di Tito‘. Then on Tuesday I spent ages poring over Clanmother’s beautiful blog with Renoir’s pictures. On Wednesday I went back to see the opera again, unable to resist it, and on Friday I rushed in to see the film ‘Anna Karenina’  before it went off. A week you could say, of culture and art. The theme of the opera was goodness and mercy, though it took even worse liberties with history than Hollywood does. This didn’t matter.

The music was sublime, the costumes and scenery a feast for the eyes, and the voices were among the best in the world. Two of the parts were what are known in opera as trouser roles – that is they were written for women’s voices, but the characters were men. Anyone who saw singer Susan Graham all in white as the long legged elegant Rosenkavalier will know just how ravishing women dressed up as men are, and these two were delectable.

Opera singers are born, not made, but to achieve the mastery needed to sing opera well takes years of voice training, learning music theory and music history, if possible mastering an instrument, learning French, German and Italian since most operas are written in these languages, learning drama, acting skills, and sometimes ballet, and for men, sword fighting  skills. For the rest of their lives, opera singers have to continue to practise and train their voices to sing different sorts of opera. Mozart’s music is the most testing and the finest training according to singers. And many have to work at day jobs to make a living.

This opera was written in the last three months of Mozart’s life, when he was travelling around the music capitals of Europe looking for a post to support his family in 1791. It appeared in the first week in September; a week later he produced another great opera,’ The Magic Flute‘, and then some cantatas, a clarinet concerto, a piano concerto, and finally his great Requiem before dying on the 6 December. What inspired creativity in the last three months of his life, and typical of his lifelong astonishing output, having begun composing when he was five .

The pictures of Renoir throb with joie de vivre and utter beauty. Each exquisite picture, whether flowers, dancers, portraits or landscape are radiant with life and light. To see one is exciting, to see a collection of them is breath-taking … In spite of acute arthritis in his hands, Renoir went on painting into extreme old age, and the joyousness and celebration of beauty are always there.

‘Anna Karenina’ is considered to be one of the greatest novels in western literature… though some beg to differ, myself among them. At the end of this sumptuous production, with jewels and dresses to die for, I felt a distaste at having watched a collection of worldly people with no self awareness make a hash of their lives! This novel, along with ‘War and Peace’ are Tolstoy’s masterpieces, for he spent most of his later adult life trying unsuccessfully to reform his errant ways, and then trying to reform the world, gaining a controversial reputation as a reformer. He preached peace and inspired both Ghandi and Martin Luther King.

So in one week I had had a feast of some of the world’s great artists. Beverley Sills, the American soprano once said that: “arts are the signature of civilisation”, and it worries me sometimes that this signature is getting more and more illegible. In a film on Beethoven a couple of years ago, I heard a magnificent German bass agonising over what he called the dumbing down of our culture – referring amongst other things to cheap music, Facebook communication,  and the shallow snippets of sensational news on radio and TV – he was comparing them with the profundity of Beethoven .

I would also have added to his list new Bible translations which are no longer literature, but banal religious tracts, and the sort of art that wins prizes these days – someone’s unmade bed adorned with stubbed out fag-ends and grubby sheets, or a skull covered in diamonds. Both the perpetrators of these masterpieces are now rich and famous on the strength of them…

Taoist philosophy suggests that art awakens a response in the mind and soul and it is important that it should evoke the higher not the lower nature. And that is what the art that I revelled in this week did for me. It lifted me above the daily round and common task, the disappointments and frustrations of a rather difficult week, and reminded me of actress Stella Adler’s words: ‘Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one.’ Yes, I think art matters…

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Frangipane is the delicious almond base in many fruit tarts. It’s easy as…you just need four oz of butter and four oz of sugar, two eggs, one oz flour, 5 oz ground almonds, one teasp vanilla essence, and half a teasp of almond essence. Just beat them all together, and spread on top of the pastry. Then press down in it the fruit of your choice. This is only one of many recipes, some use more eggs, others use more almonds. I keep my ground almonds in the deep freeze so that they are fresh and don’t go rancid.

 

Food for Thought

Oh great Creator, grant us one more hour to perform our art and perfect our lives.     Jim Morrison 194 – 1971  Poet and songwriter who died unexpectedly in Paris at 27

 

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Passion in Provence

Just back from seeing The Well-Digger’s Daughter for the second time, but not for the last time!

I see it’s called an art house film… so a film that has no violence or sex pictured in it, seems to be an art house film apparently. Good for art. So I didn’t feel like a voyeur having to watch heaving bottoms, and listen to other people’s orgasms, and I didn’t have to feel like an accomplice watching fighting, stabbings, shooting, and mayhem.

Instead I watched a story of life and death, love and birth, human pain and human greatness. It was set in the magic countryside of Provence, harsh, rocky, grey mountain ridges giving way to long stretches of olive groves, long avenues of ancient poplars, clear pebbly streams with dappled water beneath the branching pale green trees, and empty, dusty white roads. The well-digger’s farm house was the dream of most westerners, a weathered stone house with faded green shutters at each window, stone sinks and arched door-ways inside, pottery jugs and big old- fashioned soup plates for the cassoulet for dinner. Old barns, a stone parapeted well, and views over empty country-side completed the dream. Long shadows lay across green meadows, and grasses swayed in the evening breezes.

 It was that time before telephones, so children ran errands, and felt useful, people wrote letters which were kept and treasured, instead of e-mails quickly deleted, everyone walked miles for lack of public transport and was fit and healthy, while children got enough sleep every night without TV or computer games to keep them awake. It was that time before sprays and pesticides, wind farms and traffic fumes, tourists and agribusiness had changed the old ways, the old beauties, the centuries-old peace.

The music – some of it from old twenties and thirties recordings – pulled at the heart strings the way those wistful plangent sounds of old records always do. And the clothes! – old fashioned thirties summer dresses, elegant coats and hats and shoes. A green crocodile pochette that matched a shapely green coat… a clotted cream coloured cardigan edged with wine dark ribbon, matching the thin maroon stripe in the girl’s cream dress… the scalloped collar on a simple black dress, embroidered round the edge of the scallops in dull red and green.

But these were the delicious details. The people were the story -the well digger- implacable and generous, warm hearted and narrow minded, honest and angry all at the same time; the other father, weary, hen-pecked, dignified and distant; the possessive, petulant mother; the spoiled only son; the well-digger’s troubled, tragic daughter. The emotions of love and lust, anger and unrequited devotion, shame and guilt, grief and joy, swirled round these people as the Second World War broke out. And the birth of an unwanted baby brought together all these warring people and humbled their pride, softened their grief, opened their hearts, melted their anger, dissolved their arrogance and dispelled their petulance. 

There were some lovely lines. The rejected lover, prepared to marry the girl he loved, who was carrying another man’s child, is told by her angry, bitter father: “Felipe, you have no honour”, to which Felipe replies, “I have no honour, but I have plenty of love”. (How much pain and grief men’s honour has brought to women, and still does, as we read of so-called honour killings, and women strangled, stoned and even shot by machine gun, so as not to diminish this strange concept of murderous egotism, false pride, and cruelty wrongly named honour.)

When the possessive grandfather tries to claim authority over the baby, his new son-in law says, “He doesn’t belong to you. You belong to him.” And the other grandfather replies, “That’s right, the old can only serve the young”, like all grandparents, putty in the hands of his grandchild.

No doubt everyone who sees this film will understand it differently, depending on their age. But as a grandparent, it reminded me of the days when my grandchildren were small, and I discovered for the first time the bliss of giving unconditional love. The sort of love which accepts the loved one as a perfect and beautiful soul, knowing that all the foibles and  problems that parents see, don’t really exist; the sort of love that  knows with perfect certainty that their grand-children will grow up to be strong and good even if they don’t eat all their vegetables!

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Padding is what families need in cold weather, and these two puddings fill the bill. They are hot plain puddings, but also delicious, and old-fashioned puddings are becoming fashionable again. They both need sultanas, washed and then soaked in boiling water to plump them up and make them juicy.

The first, batter pudding, needs the same ingredients as Yorkshire pudding, eight ounces of self raising flour, two eggs, and enough milk and a little water to mix to a pouring batter, plus a pinch of salt. Beat the eggs into the flour and salt, and add the liquid gradually. Leave in the fridge for half an hour. Heat a baking pan with a knob of fat until smoking, and pour in the batter, which you’ve just beaten again. Add the drained sultanas, and bake in a hot oven for an hour, or until risen and cooked. Serve immediately with knobs of butter and brown sugar sprinkled over. A hot and homely pudding.

Bread and butter pudding is the same. You need six slices of good bread – not white supermarket pap. Slice them, butter them and cut them into squares or triangles. Arrange them in a two pint pie dish. Sprinkle over the drained sultanas, and then beat three eggs with three to four ounces of sugar. Add the milk, and pour it over the bread. The pie dish should only be half full. Leave to soak for at least half an hour, before baking in a moderate oven (about 350degrees) for about an hour, or until the custard is set. Eat hot.

Food for Thought

Some day, after we have mastered the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity we shall harness the energies of love. Then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.

Pierre Tielhard de Chardin, 1881 – 1955.  Jesuit, philosopher, eminent palaeontologist and mystic, who was banned from teaching, preaching and writing by the Catholic church, his books denied publication, and his most important book, ‘The Phenomenon of Man’ only published after his death. He is still persona non grata with the church fifty three years after his death.

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