Category Archives: history

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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Those were the days, my friends…

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I’ve only recently discovered that being called a baby boomer is an insult when used by young things intent on saving the planet. Heaven knows what I would be called, being even older than a baby boomer, but hey, it’s been worth the long ride!

The tragedy of the Covid 19 seems to have gone a long way towards meeting the Extinction Rebellion’s movement’s aims. It seems even worse than their favoured methods of bringing attention to the plight of the planet. These seemed to involve bringing the maximum misery and difficulty to the world’s workers who found themselves unable to get to work, get to hospital, late home after a tiring day’s drudgery in their offices and cafes and other work spots, thanks to delayed trains and blocked motorways.

But the other side of the coin of lost loved ones, lost jobs and lockdown in the Pandemic has been the joy it’s brought to the rest of the planet… there have been pictures of hippos surfing on empty South African beaches, and monkeys running amok in deserted Indian squares. There are majestically antlered deer grazing on English village commons, and jellyfish gliding through the newly clear waters of Venice canals. The blue unpolluted skies have restored long lost views of glorious places like the Himalayas, and there are weeds growing between the paving stones in empty Roman piazzas.

Bird-watching societies in England report that their membership has soared by thirty per cent during lockdown, and English optimists are reckoning on a bumper crop of baby hedgehogs, as with empty roads, the populations of amorous adults are getting to the other side without being squashed by continuous traffic. The seas around busy Portsmouth and the Solent, usually a dull muddy brown, are now sparkling tropical turquoise blue; and not only are the skies clear and bright, but with no travel and no aeroplanes the continuous drone of noise in the sky has ceased.

People are hearing the birds again, and fish in the sea, disturbed for so long by the vibrations of tankers, ferries and cruise ships, are able to roam the deep in peace. The beaches in this country, NZ, usually alive with overseas tourists, are now deserted in lockdown and the few observers doing their allowed daily stroll, say it feels as though the land is returning to its pristine beauty before man arrived here.

How can we keep these gains, not just for the planet but for ourselves, when lockdown ends? Will we go back to the extravagant wasteful consumerism of the last decades… or will we try to limit our travel both in our cars and overseas, stop buying cheap Chinese goods ( very difficult when they even make the screws in appliances made in other countries), continue to keep cooking nutritional food at home, and consider the creatures we share the world with?

This would not be difficult for baby boomers, and those like me who lived through an even simpler childhood than theirs. We had few clothes, and usually only one or two pairs of  shoes – an indoor and outdoor pair – which when the soles wore out we took to the cobblers to be repaired. Our clothes were made of natural fibres like wool and cotton -man-made substitutes weren’t available then – and clothes were often homemade and usually too big so we could grow into them. The hems were ‘put up’, and as we grew, they were ‘let down, and I hated the crease which was ineradicable so you could see where it had been lengthened.

We usually knitted our jumpers, and often our socks. We darned holes, repaired tears, and handed them on to smaller or younger siblings, and others. When I was twelve, I remember the glory of a luxurious reversible satin dressing gown – pink one side, blue the other – which the Colonel’s wife handed on to me when her daughter had outgrown it… and her linen flowered pyjamas…

We scraped the butter wrapper with a knife to get the last fragments of the two ounces per person per week – a butter substitute was to mash parsnip with banana essence – not recommended –  I preferred dry bread with a soupcon of rationed jam. We ate dripping from the tiny Sunday roast – our meat ration was five ounces per person per week –  smeared on bread with salt and pepper, while one egg per week per person meant falling back on dried egg substitute – revolting. We never left anything on our plates and never threw food away.

We had larders instead of fridges which didn’t use any power… they were dim and cool and usually had a stone floor, and marble slab for meat and cooked food and leftovers, and shelves on which to store bottled fruit, jams, pickles and tins – if our war-time coupons ran to buying them – and if we could find them in the shops.

Though it was boom-time in America after the war, England and Europe were still struggling with shattered economies, bombed cities, broken bridges and wrecked or neglected infra structures. We endured food rationing for fifteen years until it ended in ‘54. There were no boom-times for boomers. The frugal life of war-time continued into peace-time for many years. Few had TV’s, telephones, fridges, mixers or electric kettles. (the Queen’s coronation in ‘53 prompted a surge in TV ownership) Neither did we use power for washing machines and dryers – we sent our sheets and linen to the laundry every week, and washed the rest ourselves.

There were many women who eked out a living by taking in other people’s washing – boiling, rinsing, starching, mangling, ironing, and we all washed our own cloth nappies. Children felt useful as they were required to run errands and deliver messages to neighbours, since we had no phones or computers…

We listened to the radio for selected programmes and the news, and read books, and knitted and painted and did jigsaw puzzles, played cards and chess, Ludo and Monopoly.One of the features of the news, was that at the end, a solemn voice would say: Here is an SOS message for… they would give the name and last known address and ask them to report to their nearest police station as soon as possible. With no telephone this was the quickest way to contact people in an emergency. Otherwise, the telegram boys would deliver a short cryptic message, in which every word was counted and paid for.

We wrote letters by hand in ink, and posted parcels in re-used (re-cycled we’d say now) brown paper, tied with string which had been used many times before with knots laboriously untied. We used sealing wax to make sure our knots on the parcel didn’t come undone. Envelopes were constantly re-used, with sticky labels to cover the previous address, and a sticky label to seal it.

We’d never heard of takeaways, or drive thru… we queued for fish and chips wrapped in newspaper on Friday evenings, and that was our one bought meal.We had real milk, sold in bottles, which were washed and put out the next morning for the milkman to replace. We didn’t go to a rubbish tip – if there were such things – but when the rag and bone man drove round the streets with his horse and cart, we brought out our inorganic rubbish.

When things were broken, we had them repaired. All these customs and this way of life, meant that these jobs gave many people work – laundering, collecting the metal dustbins, delivering coal and milk and letters and telegrams, cobbling shoes, dress-making, mending clothes, repairing watches, lamps, and a myriad of other household items. Most of these skills and jobs have disappeared now in the disposable society in which today’s millennials, generation X and all the other categories now live.

Boomers couldn’t afford to be wasteful. We lived frugally, and didn’t despoil the planet with travel, tourism, eating foods out of season, flown around the world, throwing away the cheap clothes which shrink or lose their shape.  Actually, we had a quality to our lives – good food grown locally, leather shoes, wool or cotton clothes, and simple pleasures and pastimes.

So though Greta Thunberg (who comes from Sweden where, not having participated in the war, their Boomers didn’t have to cope with the ruin of their country and economy) told us at the UN that we had ruined the lives of her generation; and while the Extinction campaigners rail at us for being Boomers, it isn’t such a badge of dishonour as they would try to make us think.

This wonderful world which has re-emerged during the tragedy of the Pandemic has shown us how it used to be, and it’s up to us all to try to keep it that way. One of the ways in which the world was a kinder gentler place when we grew up, was that people didn’t insult and name-call those whose opinions were different. The spitefulnesses of social media were un-imagineable cruelties.

So the challenge for us all, is to not only try to preserve the planet, but also to preserve the tolerance and kindness, the courtesies and decencies of those times so stigmatised by younger generations. Live and let live so that we can all share a brave new world!

Note: we are indebted to Shakespeare for those ringing words: a brave new world.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Unable to stand for long with my bothersome back, the microwave has become my friend, and this little dish has become my comfort food.

For one person, slice about a third of a leek into thin rounds, arrange in small ovenproof microwave dish, and pour hot water over half the depth of the leeks. Cover with kitchen paper, and zap in the microwave for five minutes.

Remove and cover with cream and a thick layer of grated parmesan, and grill till golden under the grill. When I’m up to it, I shall also chop a hard- boiled egg over the leeks and then cover with Parmesan.

It makes a small meal for a delicate digestion! Better still, for the hale and hearty, would be to enjoy a hot roll and a glass of good white wine with it ….

Food for Thought

Winston Churchill spoke these words during those times of our lives:

‘The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.’

‘All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom; justice; honour; duty; mercy; hope.’

 

PS- a reader has written privately explaining why boomers are condemned, this was my reply:

  • I know it’s fashionable to beat boomers with a stick over consumerism, the environment etc, but maybe some of these positive facts and thoughts may console you for being unfortunate enough to be born a boomer!!!
  • One of the things I’ve always been glad about is the spread of the motor car, so we no longer mistreat overwork and exploit horses to carry us around ! On the other hand, the diminishment of public transport everywhere because of the spread of cheap Japanese cars after people got over their prejudices about their atrocities, has undoubtedly damaged the planet…
  • Wiki. states that …
  • Boomers are often associated with the counterculture of the 1960s, the civil rights movement, and the “second-wave” feminist cause of the 1970s.
  • Boomers
  • 60% lost value in investments because of the economic crisis
  • 42% are delaying retirement
  • 25% claim they will never retire (currently still working)[4
  • Memorable events the boomers were involved in -: the Cold War (and associated Red Scare), the Cuban Missile Crisis, assassinations of JFK, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., political unrest, walk on the moon, risk of the draft into the Vietnam War or actual military service during the Vietnam War, anti-war protests, social experimentation, sexual freedom, drug experimentation, the Civil Rights Movement, environmental movement, women’s movement, protests and riots, and Woodstock

 

  • So Boomers – and not merely American boomers, helped to change the world in many positive ways when you read about their challenges, and what they were involved in.
  • Just saying !!

 

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What’s wrong with a stiff upper lip?

war  The East End of London during the Bitz. The woman on the right lived in the bombed building opposite. Their food was cooked on a campfire in the basement.

 

Victors or victims? These thoughts came to me when I chanced upon these words in a book I’d written some time ago.

“I’ve been re-reading Robert Massie’s ‘Dreadnought’ very slowly, trying to take in and remember all the detail. As I worked my way through all the biographical stuff on the various late Victorian and Edwardian English statesmen of the period, I began to notice a rather surprising pattern – which was not repeated in the biographies of their German counterparts.

“It began with an account of the great Lord Salisbury’s childhood, and how he survived his mother’s death before he was ten and the indifference and hostility of his father who thought he was hopeless. Then there was his brilliant and equally successful nephew, Arthur Balfour, who also became prime minister like his uncle. Balfour’s father died when he was seven, and his highly-strung mother Blanche struggled to bring up a large family alone.

“ Herbert Asquith, another prime minister of that time, grew up in an impoverished solo parent home after his father died when he was eight, of a twisted intestine after a village cricket match. My favourite statesman of the period, Sir Edward Grey (“ the lights are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”), was also fatherless by the age of eight, while Admiral Jackie Fisher, the great mover and shaker of the navy, was sent back from Ceylon at the age of six, never to see his father again, who died when he was sixteen, and Fisher was an adult before seeing his indigent and disinterested mother again.

“Winston Churchill’s childhood was famously deprived, brought up by his nanny, deprived of her when sent to boarding school at eight, and writing letters begging his parents to come and see him – they never did. On one occasion his mother, a famous beauty, returned his letter after reading one page. She required him to write to her in French, and she told him his French was so appalling, she had no intention of reading any further. The emotional deprivation and abuse he suffered is legendary, yet not he, nor any of the others, ever made excuses that the challenges of their childhoods interfered with living a useful constructive life. They lived lives full of achievement, unhampered by chips on their shoulders, theories of deprivation and emotional maladjustment or of feeling victim.

“It was much the same with an earlier hero, the great philanthropist Lord Shaftesbury, who among many other causes, stopped the employment of children as young as five in coal mines. He also opened Ragged Schools for slum children, opposed vivisection, and stopped climbing boys being sent up hot sooty chimneys from the age of five onwards, (small boys, because only small boys could squeeze up the chimneys to clean them).

“Like Churchill, he too was neglected and emotionally deprived by his hostile parents, and the only love he received as a child was also from his nanny, Maria Mills, who died when he was nine. Then there was wonderful William Wilberforce, orphaned at nine when his father died, and a year later sent to live with relatives. These men also endured dreadful years at bullying, inhumane schools.

“Yet in spite of all the angst we hear now, about children of single parents being handicapped in the so-called race of life, these people all achieved great things, and apart from Balfour, who never married, all had loving marriages too. Was it because the communities they grew up in were united by values, principles and religion? They also all believed in a Divine Source to sustain them, and perhaps just as important, their sole parent usually had no money worries, so that they were properly educated and thus equipped to make their way.”

During the years I was a solo parent, I was constantly coming up against the stereotype of one parent children being handicapped or deprived, which caused me much heart-ache. This lasted until my son’s teacher, a solo parent herself, asserted that many of the children in her class came from dysfunctional two-parent families, and that loved children with a sane intelligent mother were the lucky ones. I took her at her word.

One of the common features of these men and others, was that they were the possessors of that much maligned British stiff upper lip. I may even have possessed one myself. Laugh and the world laughs with you, weep and you weep alone, was always in my mind, as I navigated disasters that sometimes felt overwhelming.

When I was at boarding school, several of my friends has been passengers on the troopship Empire Windrush when it caught fire in the Mediterranean and sank.  They only referred to it in terms of having lost all their clothes and possessions. Recently I Googled the Windrush, and found several newsreels about the disaster. On them is recorded the amazing behaviour of all the women and children as well as the military wounded and servicemen from Korea.

The electricity was affected by the fire, so the life boats couldn’t be lowered and were eventually dropped into the sea. Neither could the intercom work, so all the passengers had to be awakened at 6.30 and they climbed off the ship into the life boats in their dressing gowns and pyjamas.

I watched moving newsreels of mothers holding their babies, children holding the hands of toddlers, all in their night clothes, climbing off a rescue ship which conveyed them to Tangiers. They walked in a quiet orderly procession along the dock, no tears, no hysterics, just calmly disciplined. No panic, no fuss, just that wonderful stiff upper lip as all ages coped efficiently and courageously. This was the story my school friends had omitted to tell when they mentioned in a matter of fact way that they’d lost all their possessions when their ship caught fire on their way home from the East.

That same stiff upper lip was what carried my parent’s generation through the second world war, living through perils and dangers, deprivation and destruction. The bombing, sleeplessness from air-raids, invasion fears, stern rationing, black outs, no petrol for travel, working in factories, on the land, in the army and the navy and air force in horrendous conditions, families traumatised by years of separation and sometimes death in battle, or at sea, or in the air, and the nightmares and undiagnosed PTSD, all had to be endured and survived.

No tranquillisers, anti-depressants, therapists or other emotional support were available. Cigarettes were the nearest thing! They didn’t see themselves as victims, both civilians and servicemen just stoically soldiered on for six years until they achieved victory.

It was another Edwardian, Captain Scott of the Antarctic who famously gave voice to the stoicism and courage which is disguised by that stiff upper lip. Once a hero, then derided by revisionist historians, he has had his reputation restored to heroic status recently, by the advances of science.

Researchers and modern scientists have discovered that when the dog teams with food  failed to rendezvous in spite of Scott’s written orders, his party were abandoned in the ten-day Antarctic winter blizzard. Scott and his men perished in a blizzard which was a once in a thousand-year event and the cold was colder than anyone had ever experienced, – 40 degrees Fahrenheit, too cold for human beings to survive in.

As he lay dying in his snow bound tent, the others already dead, Captain Scott wrote the immortal words in which he took full responsibility for their fate – never complaining, never making excuses, never wallowing in self-pity.

He didn’t see himself as a victim. Instead he wrote: “We took risks, we knew we took them: things have come out against us and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined to do our best to the last”.

The difference between being a victor or a victim is simply a change of perspective. When we can accept that the choices we made, have brought us to this point (and some believe that these choices were made before we returned to this plane of existence), we can see the events of our lives from a different perspective.

We can choose to see our lives through a different lens. The quickest way to shift from the misery of self-pity and victim-hood, to the freedom of accepting responsibility, is to begin to feel grateful for our life, the highs and the lows, knowing there is a point or a purpose to all challenges. We may not see them straight away but when we look back, we see there are no accidents and no mis-steps. We can see that all our actions and decisions have led us to this point.

English House and Garden magazine editor, Sue Crewe began keeping a daily gratitude diary after a period of heartbreak in her life. Every day she listed five things. Some years later she wrote:

‘The most transformative revelation is the power of gratitude itself: it takes up so much room that everything coercive and depressing is squeezed to the margins. It seems to push out resentment, fear, envy, self-pity and all the other ugly sentiments that bring you down, leaving room for serenity, contentment and optimism to take up residence.’

What a glorious way to live life.

Food for threadbare gourmets

Potatoes without butter are not the same… mashed potatoes, potatoes baked in their jackets, potatoes baked in cream, new potatoes anointed with melted butter… what is a potato without butter or cream?

The answer is potatoes cooked the way I’ve discovered! Simply cube them, peeled or unpeeled -not too small, about three-quarters of an inch squarish. Boil them till soft but still firm. Drain, and tip flour over them. Put the lid back on the pan, and toss the potatoes in the flour before frying batches in hot oil. When crisp, drain them on kitchen paper as you tackle each batch, and keep them warm. They end up crisp outside and soft inside. Serve these delicious crisp morsels with sea-salt, and chicken, sausages or whatever takes your fancy.

P.S. For an extraordinary story of courage and stiff upper lip, GP Cox’s blog today, about Mrs Ruby Boye in the Pacific War takes some beating.

 

 

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Filed under cookery/recipes, happiness, history, life and death, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, world war two

Castaway Books

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I sometimes torture myself by imagining I’m on a desert island and can only take ten books with me. I look around at the walls of book-shelves  in the sitting room and bedroom and spare room, and wonder how to whittle them down to the ten most treasured books I wouldn’t want to be without.

As in the BBC radio programme, no Shakespeare or the Bible allowed, though I’d be sad to let the Bible go – not for religious reasons – but for the sheer poetry of the prose and the beauty of so much of the writing, for some of the stories embedded in the teachings… like the story of Ruth for example, or the Song of Solomon… and the Beatitudes, and ringing phrases like: ‘I am as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal if I have not charity’ .. or the exquisite words of Psalms like 139, which ends with: ‘…’if I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall thy hand find me, and thy right hand shall hold me’.

But having surrendered the Bible what would I take? Bernadine Evaristo, this year’s Booker prize-winner, says she hates Jane Austen and Virginia Wolfe… but while l’d agree about Virginia, as an afficionado who used to read Jane Austen’s six novels once a year, I’d have to disagree with her findings on Jane. (Real Austen fans are called Janeites. I once wrote a piece for an anthology of raves about Jane Austen, and attending the book launch party was somewhat bemused to find myself among some fans wearing long Regency dresses, and sporting shawls and fans)

Which of the six would I take? No contest. In my younger days, I’d have plumped for ‘Pride and Prejudice’… or ‘Persuasion.’ But now I’d go for ‘Mansfield Park’ which I used to think was the dullest of her books. Now it’s my favourite. I love the picture of Georgian country life, the amateur theatricals with all the tensions and emotional turmoil, and the irritating, contradictory and sparkling array of people, especially the two villains, who’re the most attractive characters in the book. But most of all, I love that picture of elegant English country life in my favourite period of history before the Industrial Revolution, when squalor and hardship and smoking factory chimneys had not altered forever a peaceful pastoral society.  (Even if they didn’t have good dentists).

To balance that picture of aristocratic country life I’d take Thomas Hardy’s ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’, my favourite of all his books, crammed with authentic country lore and farming custom, just slightly later in time that Austen’s novel.

And to round off this wallowing in homesickness for another time and place while on that desert island, I’d take George Eliot’s tome, ‘Middlemarch’, a great book described by the despised Virginia as  ‘the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels for grown-up people.’

It’s a huge canvas describing with acute psychological insight many typical characters of both town and country in early Victorian England. For me, it’s a picture not just about English town life of that period, but a profound study of character, both shallow and profound, of good and evil in the shape of materialism, and of the compromises demanded by society. So, nostalgia and homesickness sorted – there’s several more choices to go.

Top of the list would be Barbara Tuchman’s splendid history, ‘The Guns of August’, an account of the first ten days of WW1, but fleshed out with vivid and witty accounts of how Europe got to that point, and an analysis of the main protagonists… fascinating history, accurate psychology, and telling insights, all delivered with wit and humour, so that often I find myself chuckling as we traverse the terrible terrain of one of the great turning points in the history of Europe.

I would have to take ‘The Snow Leopard’ with me, by Peter Matthiesson. It’s the story of his journey into the remotest regions of the Himalayas on his search for the then almost never seen and legendary snow leopard. It’s a many layered tale with deep spiritual undertones, and read like all these other books, many, many times.

Getting a bit panicky now, with only three more choices to go. I think I’ll reach for Truman Capote’s story of love and war, ‘The Grass Harp’. It’s told with deceptive simplicity, the characters utterly loveable, and gloriously eccentric as despair drives them to desperate measures. They are the odd ones out, who finally step outside the norms of society to assert their individuality, and when they say what they feel, they slice through the hypocrisies and cruelty of narrow-minded small-town officialdom.

I love diaries and have a huge collection of them, ranging across time, from seventeenth century Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn in Charles 11 reign, to Georgian Parson Woodford and Parson Gilbert White, Victorian Francis Kilvert, through to the two world wars, to the randy diaries of Alan Clark, the notorious womaniser and politician, and the delicious, hilariously funny fictional diaries of Adrian Mole, my favourite being ‘Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass- Destruction.

I toyed with the last of the Bloomsberry’s, Frances Partridge’s  ‘A Pacifist’s War’, her diary filled with details of an idyllic life in the beautiful country house where the painter Carrington lived with writer Lytton Strachey before his death and her suicide. Her war years are peopled with a stream of intriguing/incestuous Bloomsberry illuminati who came and feasted with Ralph Partridge and Frances while dwelling on their moral high-ground as conscientious objectors.

I decided on something more uplifting. Inspiring integrity was what I was looking for. Should I take Alanbrooke’s war-time diaries, or Cadogan’s account of appeasement and diplomacy before and during the war, or Klemperer’s diary chronicling the terror of the Nazis, and his worry about the fate of his beloved cat? It finally had to be put down when Jews were no longer allowed to keep pets. Klemperer, a distinguished university professor, ended up in the bombing of Dresden which allowed his wife and he to disappear in the chaos, the only positive thing I’ve heard about that raid.

No… I finally settled on the two volumes of John Colville’s diaries. He was Churchill’s private secretary during the war, and the parade of kings, queens, statesmen and generals, society ladies and foreign diplomates makes absorbing reading, quite apart from the affectionate and admiring portrait of the great man himself.

Throughout the cliff-edge years of war, Churchill is revealed as an irascible but brilliant, kind, intelligent and chivalrous aristocrat in the best sense of those words, without a trace of snobbery or small mindedness. Perhaps too original and spontaneous to be described in conventional terms as a gentleman, he emerges as a magnificent human being who poured his huge stores of energy, humanity and vision into his country and the struggle against one of the greatest tyrannies in history.

The last and tenth book is a tantalising choice, trying to choose between two of my favourite diaries. ‘Mrs Milburn’s Diary’ is written by a woman with no literary talent, but an abiding love for her only son, who was captured before Dunkirk and endured POW camp for the rest of the war. Her letters sent via the Red Cross, and his to her were usually months old by the time they reached their destination, so she began writing a diary chronicling life in his home and family and community.

It’s a prosaic day to day telling about the price of woollen vests going up, the annoying man at Matins every week who coughs all the way through and ruins the service, the evacuees who stay briefly, the long cold nights sitting in their primitive underground air raid shelter in the garden – doubly important to them-  as they lived in the country outside Coventry, and lost many friends in the catastrophic bombing raid which destroyed that city. It’s an insight into a way of life now gone… when, even during the war, she picked primroses every spring in the woods, packing them up in damp cotton wool and sending them to friends in the city.

She records the routines of church going, weekly shopping, Mother’s Union meetings, working for the WVS (Women’s Voluntary Service) dealing with the erratic gardener, the feckless land girls, a chaste glass of sherry shared with old friends. The annual rhythms of the seasons’ rituals celebrate a slice of civilisation which had its own small satisfactions, sorrows and minor victories.

Or, do I go for ‘Burning,’ a diary of a year living in the Blue Mountains in Australia? Kate Llewellyn is a poet, and her book is crammed with exquisite metaphors and similes, quirky people, precious moments of beauty, meditations on history, recipes, travels and gardening. I read it often, not just for the drama of human tragedy and pain which also takes place during that year, but for the sheer beauty of the writing.

As CS Lewis observed, ‘we do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties’. He also suggested that someone who only reads a book once is ‘unliterary’, whatever that means! But I certainly agree with him on both counts when he says “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”

So I can’t decide between these two life stories – regularly ‘savoured’, and will beg my invisible and sadistic inner voice to let me have them both… to have whittled down my choices to eleven from hundreds of books is no mean feat, which meant leaving out precious favourites like Leigh-Fermor’s ‘A Time of Gifts’, his vivid description of European civilisation before the Nazis destroyed it

As I mulled over this imaginary exercise, and visualised myself roaming a tropical paradise, alone like Robinson Crusoe, I realised that by choosing a handful of books to be my companions in this solitary life, I wasn’t using any carbon footprint, and many of the books were recycled – bought from second-hand bookshops around the world via the internet, or acquired from op-shops and the like.

Many of them of them too, like Capote’s ‘The Grass Harp’, I’ve owned since the sixties, and are worn from regular loving re-readings when I savoured every aspect of the writing and the human condition. In a book on educating children read in the seventies, I found a wonderful thought, that literature is the logbook of human experience, and that’s how it seems to me too.

For this solitary island existence, Christopher Morley, an American writer, gave me words that seem particularly apt: ‘when you get a new book, you get a new life –love and friendship and humour and ships at sea at night -… all heaven and earth in a book.’

The written word survives e-books, the internet, texting and all the other apparent advantages of technology. It has been with us from the earliest times, when the Sumerian civilisation evolved writing around 3,000 BC, and the first literature was created by a Sumerian author a thousand years later. Books and words may be the one blessing and means of communication that survive in the aeons to come.

Books will always be the ‘log-book of human experience’, and can hand on the riches of our civilisation to generations still unborn. And for the present, they can be a comfort, a companion and a treasure. They inform and educate, amuse, console, entertain and inspire. They are indispensable and irreplaceable. They make life on a desert island bearable!

Food for Threadbare gourmets

We’re living dairy free at the moment for various reasons, and I discovered to my delight that it’s perfectly possible to make a decent white sauce using olive oil instead of butter.

So using the juices from a roasted chicken from the night before, I made a rechauffe… fried some chopped bacon and mushrooms, made the sauce, and stirred a bouillon cube and the chopped cooked chicken, bacon and mushrooms into it. Flavoured the mix with salt, pepper and nutmeg, and served it on rice.

To cheer up the plain boiled rice, I fried a grated courgette in olive oil and garlic, plenty of salt and pepper and stirred it into the rice. We ate it all with green beans and didn’t miss the cream or milk at all!

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A Pardon, Apartheid and Plagiarism

Image result for nelson mandela in prison
Nelson Mandela in his prison cell

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

Late one afternoon Patrick arrived home deeply disturbed. Throughout all the threatening events of the last few years with both police and gangsters, I’d never see my tough imperturbable husband shaken.

Now he stood by me, utterly de-stabilised, while I peeled potatoes at the kitchen bench, and listened to him tell how he’d been pursued all the way down the motorway by a large black car with three men in black in it. He caught sight of them in his rear vision mirror and watched the three, wearing black suits and black sunglasses, looking vaguely oriental he said, and implacable, following him relentlessly.

They felt utterly alien, he added. He’d managed to throw them off by failing to indicate when he turned left at speed onto the minor road home. I caught the nameless dread of the encounter and was so appalled that I buried it in my consciousness, and forgot it.

But a few years later when I read on page 78 of his book ‘Alien Intelligence’, Stuart Holroyd’s discussion of the strange phenomena of the sinister men in black in large black cars, two or three of them, who have menaced those people all round the world who have seen and spoken of UFO’s – as we had done – it all came back…

We’d seen UFO’s often, and I always felt a sense of benevolence and peace when we did. The last time we’d seen them I’d known all evening that this was the night, and kept watching for them. It was a still light summer night, and suddenly I saw a green flashing craft moving swiftly and silently across the sky.

It was bouncing up and down and then I saw another silent object coming from the opposite direction, flashing red. They joined up, and suddenly shot up vertically so fast that they disappeared almost at once. And that was our last sighting.

Another unwelcome presence now entered our lives, a writer called David Yallop. He’d been staying with a mutual friend, writer Maurice Shadbolt, and had become fascinated by the Thomas Case. He rang Patrick from the airport as he was leaving to return to the UK. He suggested that they collaborate on a book about the case, and believing that anything which added to the pressure on the government, Patrick somewhat reluctantly agreed.

He sent all his notes, clippings, files, a copy of his book Trial by Ambush, the confidential transcripts of both trials, and the police photographs of the inside of the house where the couple had died.

After six months of silence Yallop wrote and said he’d decided to write the book himself. He used all Patrick’s work to produce the book, with no acknowledgement, and interviewed no-one. He made a huge wave when the book was published by coming to New Zealand and claiming he knew who had fed the murdered couple’s baby, who had been found in the house unharmed.

His book became a bestseller, while Patrick spent months retrieving all his files and material from Yallop. Yallop always claimed that he had got Arthur Thomas out of prison, but actually he was just another player in the long drawn out tragedy. Patrick and Jim Sprott then had a long session with the Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, and he decided to give all the facts to an independent QC, R.A. Adam-Smith.

Meanwhile the Mr Asia inquiry had taken a strange twist – Mr Asia himself was found murdered in Lancashire, England. His partner in his crimes, Terry Clark, was eventually arrested by the UK police, and among the incriminating evidence was a photograph of the woman who had rung us – lying laughing on a hotel bed naked – surrounded by thousands of pound notes.

She denied any knowledge of her lover’s criminal doings, and he was sentenced to twenty years in prison, though he died suddenly after two years. Patrick took four weeks off from The Star to write the book ‘The Mr Asia File’ about The Star’s investigation.

For the last week of this intensive enterprise, we took a brief holiday in the Bay of Islands so he could check out Terry Clark’s palatial and notorious mansion on the waterfront. We both wanted to come home early without mentioning to each other that we feared something was happening at our house.

We were right- this was when we found the break-in and deep freeze switched off. The next day we all drove into town to do food shopping, and for Patrick to deliver the final chapters of the book to his editor.  The children and I sat in the car outside the newspaper in the hot summer afternoon of 18 December 1980. Suddenly Patrick came running out – “Arthur’s been pardoned!” I looked at him blankly. I couldn’t even take it in. Mr Adam- Smith QC had examined the evidence, and told Muldoon that Arthur was innocent.

We drove home to pack an over-night bag for Patrick, and rendezvoused with him on his way down to meet Arthur just out of prison. Back in ’73 Patrick had promised they would spend the first night of Arthur’s freedom together. Now seven weary years later, he was fulfilling his promise. After feeding the children, I got on with the holiday washing that evening, and as I pegged up the clothes, I saw a station-wagon pull into the drive and back out to park hidden behind a high hedge.

I walked down the drive as two men got out of the car, and one put something black under his arm. They strode purposefully towards me, and I thought: ‘they’ve’ come for Patrick. I was rooted to the spot in terror, wondering how to protect the children. I know now, how true those phrases are – rooted to the spot, frozen with terror. Then the man with the black object under his arm, introduced himself as a TV news anchor, he was holding his microphone. Since we never watched TV I hadn’t recognised him.

He was the first of many newsmen staking out the house that night, hoping to interview Arthur. But Patrick had to keep him under wraps and hide him until his own newspaper came out the following day. So there was no trace of him or Arthur. Eventually they drove into the garage, and Arthur uncoiled himself from the floor in the back seat. The only food in the house after our holiday was eggs, so his first meal of freedom was scrambled eggs and red wine.

Half way through he wanted to ring the prime minister, to thank him for the pardon. We heard the operator ask who was calling, and Arthur replying Arthur Thomas for Mr Muldoon, and the operator slammed down the receiver thinking it was a hoax!  With some fast talking Patrick managed to get Muldoon on the line to talk to Arthur.

Both men then drove off to Arthur’s sister’s house where he stayed the night untroubled by newsmen. He came out of the bedroom, carrying the flowered sheet from his bed, asking if this was a joke. So many things had changed during his eight years in jail, and flowered sheets were one of them.

When a film was made of Yallop’s book, in which Patrick was written out of all that had transpired, the last scene is of Arthur’s eight brothers and sisters running hand- in- hand across a field to meet him. But it wasn’t like that.

In the morning, Patrick took him to his parents who had been running Arthur’s farm for him. As they drove up to the house, the door opened, and Ivy, his old mother, flung her arms around him, crying,” My boy, my boy.” His father, kindly, patient, Job-like, stood in the door, and said to his son: “Where the hell have you been?” a question which had many meanings. It was a deeply moving moment of quiet joy.

A few months later the Prime Minister did something that split the country and communities,  families and friendships. In a rugby mad country, he refused to honour the anti-apartheid agreements of the Commonwealth, and allowed the all- powerful Rugby Union to invite the South African rugby team, the Springboks, to tour this country for a series of test matches.

It sounds innocent enough, but it was betrayal of the anti-apartheid movement, and was an encouragement to racism in this country. The liberal, educated middle classes and town people who had marched years before in the fifties under the banner ‘No Maoris, no Tour’  when Maoris were refused their places in the visiting NZ team by South African authorities, now opposed this tour with all their might. The country folk and rugby die-hards passionately supported it. (Maoris were eventually allowed into South Africa as ‘honorary whites’)

There were protest marches all over the country for months beforehand to ‘Stop the Tour”. Thousands of people who had never marched or protested before in their lives, old and young, fit or hobbling along on sticks, tried to make their voice against apartheid heard and ‘Stop the Tour”. The police countered with violent measures.

Friends – poets, painters, writers, psychiatrists, potters, architects, took to wearing crash helmets to protect their heads from the blows of police batons. One match in Hamilton had to be abandoned when protestors surged against the fence around the rugby field, and spilled onto the ground.

The match was cancelled, and enraged rugby fans sought out protestors and beat them up unmercifully. It was the most extraordinary episode in the history of a peaceful, law-abiding country. Like so many others, Patrick and I both marched and wrote against the tour. In our country community we were so completely ostracised that I took a book with me to read while everyone else was sociaising, when I had to attend school concerts in the village hall.

And Nelson Mandela, enduring his dark night of the soul in his prison cell on Robben Island, hearing of the protest marches half a world away, and that the match in Hamilton had been cancelled when protestors invaded the ground, felt as ‘if the sun had come out’.

Next week -what really happened to the murdered couple…

 Food for Threadbare Gourmets

 Because our forest is hidden away behind high heavy iron gates, with no fear of being caught by a breathalyser, we are able to indulge in an easy and old fashioned form of entertaining – drinks before dinner.

This recipe for red tinned salmon is a quick and easy dip, and good to eat with chilled white wine or rose. Use 50 gms of softened butter to 100gms of red salmon. Whip the butter together with half the salmon, and then stir in a clove of chopped garlic, a chopped spring onion, a teasp of finely chopped fresh dill, and the grated zest and juice  of half a lemon. Add the juice from the tin of salmon, and then flake the remaining salon and lightly stir into the mixture. Spread on rice crackers for gluten free guests or any other small cracker for guests to help themselves.

Food for Thought

Nothing is more satisfying than to write a good sentence. It is no fun to write lumpishly, dully, in prose the reader must plod through like wet sand. But it is a pleasure to achieve, if one can, a clear running prose that is simple yet full of surprises. This does not just happen. It requires skill, hard work, a good ear, and continued practice.                      Barbara Tuchman, historian

 

 

 

 

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Drugs, Death threats, Alfred Dreyfus and Pastor Niemoller

Image result for phonographs

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

 Alfred Dreyfus, the Frenchman wrongly accused of spying, and the victim of twelve years of imprisonment, trials and injustice, ending in his pardon in 1904, seemed an odd person to enter our lives – but he did.

Dreyfus was framed and punished for a crime he didn’t commit, and his case has since become the classic example of  bias and state bullying. Among the people who campaigned to exonerate him and re-gain his freedom was the writer, Emile Zola, who wrote a powerful and explosive newspaper article entitled ‘J’Accuse!’ aimed at those who had collaborated in this crime by the establishment.

So many aspects of Dreyfus’s ordeal were repeated in the case of Arthur Thomas that Patrick began to use the parallels and wrote his own version of ‘J’Accuse!’ Whenever he was invited to speak to a meeting, be it conservative anti-Thomas, pro- establishment Rotary clubs, or dinners for Justices of the Peace, he would tell the story of Dreyfus, not mentioning his name.

The audience would grow visibly angry since they believed that justice had been done to Thomas. At the end of his talk he would say – no, not Arthur Thomas, but Alfred Dreyfus. This would always cause a stir, and suddenly they became open to hearing about Arthur’s case, asking the questions Patrick wanted to answer. The constant campaigning went on, while I beavered away by now, at producing the women’s pages as well as writing two weekly columns for the Star and Women’s Weekly.

Life became a juggling act with the children now at secondary school in the city, forty minute’s drive away, and reliant on us to get them there as public transport was difficult from our remote little valley. By the time  we’d added in their weekly piano lessons  with two different teachers in two different  directions, flute lessons in another distant suburb, weekend children’s orchestra, regular piano concerts in which their teachers had entered them, plus my daughter’s activities, which included the Duke of Edinburgh Gold Medal, and rehearsals with the Handel trio she’d organised, culminating in the finals of a nation-wide competition -to name only a few of their activities – life was hectic.

Friends came to stay from England – a god-mother for three months, other friends for weeks at a time and Shirley, who became a regular visitor who collapsed with exhaustion on her arrival, slept for a few days, and then left – refreshed! This schedule was interrupted with increasingly frequent bouts of what is now known as chronic fatigue syndrome, but in those days got me diagnosed as hypochondriac, or emotionally disturbed, and other enraging judgemental descriptions. I eventually gave up on conventional medicine and went to a homeopath.

He was a very tall, handsome and distinguished man with great compassion, who a few years later returned to England to become the Queens’s homeopath, but was murdered by his mistress with a pair of scissors before he could take up the appointment.

When I went to see him, he was appalled at how weak I was and sent me off to see a raft of specialists, from an endocrinologist, a gynaecologist, a neurologist and finally a faith healer. No-one could get to the bottom of my puzzling ailment, and because no-one could put a name on it I was in a sort of limbo… not really ill at all… I dragged myself around to walk the dogs and speak to meetings, organise, write, interview and lay-out the women’s pages, working from home for most of the tine, and driving into the office two days a week.

One of the high spots of this time was meeting the Duke of Edinburgh, who was handsome, charming, intelligent and witty. Later, a cocktail party on board Britannia to meet the Queen was another fascinating experience, not just talking to her but watching her vivacity and sense of fun as she mingled with other guests. Other interviews were with people as diverse as tennis player Yvonne Goolagong and the new Governor General, Erin Pizzey, English campaigner against domestic violence, painters, poets, midwives, and Maoris…so many good people doing their best for their world.

Patrick in the mean-time pursued his rather expensive hobbies, so although we were always struggling financially, he still managed to collect antique phonographs and records, until he had hundreds of old cylinders and records, and over twenty horned gramophones, Victrolas and other models. Vintage cars were another of his passions, and he was always coming home with another brass headlamp, a brass horn, a new radiator and other trimmings which I used to call Christmas tree decorations, the cars were arrayed with so many extras.

One day he came home with a strange story about one of his girl cadets coming to see him because she was worried about her flat-mate. She feared her friend was working for a shady magazine with odd connections… false passports in the safe, strange phone calls, and stranger people calling. The following week, having followed it up, he felt he had stumbled on a drug ring.

Over the next few years, in tandem with the Thomas campaign, he investigated this frightening international crime ring, which he nicknamed The Mr Asia Drug Ring. He was assisted by a team of three brave and enthusiastic reporters. Up to twelve people were murdered by the two principals, and my heart used to sink at having to listen to more stories of crime and depravity. Eventually I couldn’t take any more, and my daughter claimed her stepfather unburdened it onto her instead on the school run!

But I still couldn’t escape the ramifications of this dangerous mission Patrick was now committed to. After several years of investigations and a big front-page story, the phone rang that eveing, and an educated woman’s voice spoke at the other end. “Martin is not going to like it.” she said menacingly, naming one of the two drug ring-leaders. Since we had an unlisted number this was worrying; we learned later that she worked in the office of Arthur Thomas’s counsel, and had found it easy to get our details.

This barrister, a QC, who had demanded such a price for volunteering to be Arthur’s legal adviser that the Thomas parents had had to mortgage their farm, was also successfully defending one of the two drug lords. This was a strange situation for Patrick, who while he discussed Arthur Thomas with the QC, never mentioned Terry Clark, the other client who he, Patrick, was trying to expose and destroy, while the QC was trying to defend him!

Now, the prime minister, Rob Muldoon caused another huge ripple in our lives. He sent a list to all the newspapers of all the supposed communists in the country, and Patrick who was editing the Star at the time while the editor was on holiday, refused to publish it. I remembered Pastor Niemoller and rang Patrick at the office with his famous words:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Patrick printed them in his editorial – saying next it will be homosexuals in the education department, or Catholics in the health department. His staff were enraptured, exclaiming that they were proud to work for the liberal newspaper, while it caused a stir throughout the country. Flushed with pride Patrick was furious when his boss came hurrying back from holiday, and criticised his  decision.

The next morning, I awoke to hear him say, “I’m resigning.” Suddenly, after a few good years of what felt like prosperity, we were thrown back into the hardship of never having enough money. The big yellow Austin Princess office car was returned to the newspaper, and my lovely new yellow station wagon, the only new car I have ever owned, had to be sold.

With the proceeds, Patrick bought a vintage car called a Dodge, so he could have the fun of it, he said, and we could use it as transport. It was a disaster, always breaking down, and hideous to boot! We ended up selling it at a loss – of course – and buying three very old Morris Minors, one for Patrick, one for me, and one for the children to drive themselves to school- my earnings paid for their school fees. Patrick found it hard to find another job with his reputation for not toeing the establishment line, and went into radio which he didn’t enjoy.

I mentioned to him that there was a lot of rattling in my Morris Minor when driving along our steep and winding country roads. When he checked, he found some -one – the drug lord’s henchman? – had somehow penetrated our isolated home, and had unscrewed all the nuts on the front wheels except one, which hung by a thread. And just in case we hadn’t got the message that ‘they’ knew where we were and would stop at nothing, when we were away on holiday for a week, they broke into the house, and switched off the deep freeze, so that everything had rotted… a sinister calling card…

Other troubling messages continued to reach us, like the one brought by a reporter who’d been dining at a restaurant. As she was leaving, a man at a table put out his walking stick to prevent her passing and said: “Tell Mr Booth that I am always thinking of him”. This was frightening, as was the information relayed by the police, that the drug ring had put out a contract on Patrick’s head, with return fares to and from Australia, and a payment of thirty thousand dollars – which, nearly thirty years ago was a lot of money.

To be continued

 Food for Threadbare Gourmets

 I use this mixture in a pie, or if I’m pushed for time, over two minute noodles. For gluten free foodies, it could be served over rice, but I think I’d jazz up the rice with some frozen peas, chopped parsley, mushrooms cooked in butter, fried onions or similar. It’s just three chopped leeks, gently fried in butter with a spring of fresh chopped thyme.

Mix two table spoons of flour with two table spoons of cream, and add to the leeks along with 200gms of crème fraiche. If no crème fraiche I might use cream cheese. To this add 200 gms of ham, though I use chicken and a few rashers of cooked, chopped bacon. Then salt and pepper, and a good dollop of chopped blue cream cheese… 100 gm at least. When they’re mixed, tip into a greased pie dish, and cover with short crust or puff pastry, brushed over with some milk.

Make a small hole in the centre for steam to escape – those old china pie funnels are ideal – and bake for thirty minutes or so. Good with carrots and broccoli, and creamy mashed potatoes for a homely winter meal on a cold day. In summer it’s just as good with salad.

Food for Thought

There is life on earth – one life, which embraces every animal and plant on the planet. Time has divided it up into several million parts, but each is an integral part of the whole. We are all of one flesh, drawn from the same crucible. The instructions for all life are written in the same simple language. An intricate web of interaction connects all life into one vast self- maintaining system.

Lyall Watson. The opening lines of Supernature

 

 

 

 

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Extraordinary year, strange events, fascinating people

Image result for bill sutch nz

Bill Sutch with his wife and daughter after his trial

Another instalment of my autobiography before reverting to my normal blogs

 It was an extraordinary year, but it just seemed ordinary at the time! After Bill and Shirley’s visit at the start of 1975, our family plunged into village life, which included the annual flower show, probably the most important event of the year in our valley. We were still visited regularly by our extra-terrestrial visitors, and the whole family became accustomed to their presence.

We were also visited by different members of Arthur Thomas’s family, his parents, his various brothers, his wife…all needing to chew over the cud and somehow wring some shreds of hope out of their visits, after which I usually felt totally drained.

A few weeks after the end of the summer holidays, the children and I set off for a distant country school across the ranges, where a district sports day was to be held. With both children in the back seat, we could manage one more child there, though I resolutely refused to let any child sit in the front seat by me, in these pre-seat-belt days.

So when we skidded sharply over fresh gravel on a hair pin bend with a steep drop one side, and rode up the steep bank the other side, it was only me who shot through the wind-screen when the car turned upside down. I was pinned with my arm crushed between the roof of the car and the road, but luckily all three children were able to climb out of the back, with only the petrol from the tank spilling on them as they crawled out.

Another car full of children now rounded the corner, and then another, and the farmers driving them were able to extract me. They were so concerned, that I felt anxious and quite protective towards them.  I sat and thought, so this is what an accident feels like.

Later in hospital, I had a four-hour operation to get all the glass and grit out of my shattered hand. A dentist had to cut my rings off as there were shards of glass sticking out all the way down each finger. I returned home a few days later with my broken arm in a half plaster cast, and swathed in bandages for the lacerated hand and wrist.

At home, I found a certain amount of chaos. My son now lapsed into shock and wandered round the garden sucking his thumb, and holding his pillow. My daughter checked on what we expected to get from the insurance for the car which was a write-off, and began scanning the for-sale columns of the newspaper for a replacement car at the same price. Bill and Shirley were on their way to spend a weekend with us, and Patrick had been unable to track them down on their journey north, to ask them not to come.

They arrived half an hour after I did, and at the same time as the wonderful district nurse, who came to suss me out and check on my bandages. She then soaked my arm in warm salt water in a deep antique Victorian bowl, the salt water a home remedy far more helpful than anything else.

The chaos was compounded by a neighbour’s teenage daughter seeking safety in tears of fright because she said a man in a car was following her. The one thing I didn’t have to worry about was food. The whole community had rallied round and delivered pies and casseroles and cakes of every description.

Shirley bustled off to a law conference, leaving us with a very frail-seeming Bill to look after. So he was unable to rescue me when I went for a one- armed walk with the three dogs on leads, who darted into a bramble bush after an enticing smell, and dragged me in with them. There we stood until a neighbour passed by in her car, and untangled us all, the long haired afghans and cavalier King Charles spaniel!

The arm took three months to heal, and the doctors told me I’d never have the use of my hand again. But as the months went by I felt the pain and stiffness drain out of each finger while I was meditating and within months was back to normal – able to crochet, play the piano, and peel potatoes!

I only missed writing one column in the week of the accident, and immediately got back to work the second week, typing with one hand and one finger for the most part!. We couldn’t afford for me to miss my payments, as we were terribly hard up since Patrick was paying two thirds of his salary to his first family.

Our life never stopped while I coped with the aftermath of the accident, friends like John and Oi came and went,  and another new friend, Richard Hirsch, came often too. Before we met him he had been director of the Auckland Art Gallery, but after much- publicised internecine struggles with the staff, he resigned and then threw himself out of the window of his apartment on the top floor.

When he came out of hospital, he had lost a leg, and on my way into the Star to deliver one of my weekly columns, I suddenly realised that this person slowly negotiating the hill down to the Auckland Star on crutches, and then making his way to the reading room, was Richard. Work in the reading room was all he could find to do after all his misfortunes.

I suggested to Patrick that he could stop on his way to the newspaper every day, and give Richard a lift, and so developed a friendship. Richard’s parents had been part of the group of rich artistic American friends who had supported the poet Kahlil Gibran, author of ‘The Prophet’ and Richard had grown up being the only focus of his doting parents, who thought he was too special and precious to go to school like ordinary mortals.

So though he passed his childhood in places like Paris and New York and Switzerland, he was deeply angry and bitter at never having had a normal childhood, and he found it hard to sustain any relationships at all, hence his problems at the art gallery.

He found some solace in his friendship with my children. Underneath his pain and rage and bitterness was a loving and gentle soul, and it leapt in recognition of those same qualities in the children. I longed for him never to move away from this essence of himself, but his deep rage and unhappiness exploded even in an innocent conversation when drying the dishes.

Inevitably Richard became the recipient of Happy Cards too, and once after my daughter had sent him a picture he wrote: “Thank you so much. There are a number of varieties of pictures. Some are pretty or merely alright. And then there are others which I call nourishing – like yours. Nourishing? Well, yes. Have you ever thought that the eyes are hungry all the time? A good meal – and you won’t feel hunger for hours. But your eyes roam all the time – hunting for patterns. Hunting for them everywhere in the room. Toys for the eyes to play with. Nobody ever talks about the games the eyes play every minute of the day… So thank you for providing such a lovely toy for the hungry eye.”

Richard died a few years later from cancer of the throat, choked, I felt, by his un-assuaged pain. But for a time I felt we gave him a little joy.

Now came Bill’s trial in this year of milestones. I couldn’t bear to read the reports of what was a sensational event in New Zealand’s history. The trial turned out to be black comedy. The charge was that Bill gave ‘unspecified information’ to the Russians, in spite of him having retired years before and having no worthwhile information. All his various appointments to talk to the Russians were written in his diary, so there was actually nothing secretive about them. And someone must have tipped off the SIS who observed every meeting with his Russian friend.

The agents were revealed as incompetents who lost dates, muffed places and times, and actually didn’t have any evidence against Bill. Their strongest card seemed to be the journey he had made across the top of the world as an adventurous young man in the early twenties, when he explored places like Tashkent, Samarkand, Afghanistan and northern India. This proved he must be a communist! (though this was not illegal in a free country like NZ !) Bill was not a communist and he was acquitted. But he didn’t recover from the ordeal of the trial. For a patriot like Bill who had spent his whole life working for his country, it had been a betrayal.

As autumn turned to winter, the nights turned cold and we awoke to frost, beautiful and sparkling in the clear bright sunshine. And now the friend I had helped to start Alcoholics Anonymous in Hong Kong, came to visit, bringing her alcoholic husband, three daughters and toddler son. They stayed for two weeks, and we had long intimate talks, family feasts, evenings dancing and laughing while my son played the piano, playing games, and showing them the beautiful country-side where we now lived.

Though I was sad to see them go, I was also exhausted from cooking for ten of us, and looking after everyone, plus the dogs, one of whom was feeling so neglected that she made her feelings known by peeing in our bed.

Oi suggested that I come and spend a restful day with her. Hardly had I arrived at her tranquil home hidden amid trees and by a stream in the prosperous Auckland suburb where she lived, than Patrick rang me from the office. He told me that my friend Phillipa’s ship was on fire, and she was in a life-boat.

I spent the day praying for my gallant friend and her children. By the end of the day it was obvious there was no hope. The next evening, I rang the hotel where Jean, her husband, was staying. I heard the recognition and relief in his voice when he heard me say who I was, and as soon as he had dealt with the aftermath of the disaster he came out to stay with us.

It was an excruciating time. He spent long hours walking through the valley, and I never see white clematis now without remembering Jean who climbed a tree and brought me back a spray.

We drove up to Whangarei for the funeral, though my daughter refused to come. ‘God will hear my prayers just as well from here,’ she said.  I arranged for her to spend the day with friends. At the ceremony in the church, Jean wore his naval uniform, and with his great height, pale skin and huge black haunted eyes looked like a remote, carved stone figure, a medieval knight rather than a twentieth century sea captain.

After the ceremony, we drove to the harbour at Tutukaka, where a police launch was waiting. We piled the overpoweringly sweet-scented spring flowers from the church, which we’d brought in our car, into the cabin, and then made our way out to sea. We rounded the point and moved slowly across to Whananaki where Philippa had died. It was a sparkling winter’s day with smooth glassy water, cloudless blue sky overhead, and in the distance, the line of yellow sand on the beach where a solitary policeman stood watching and waiting.

“Here,” said Jean, and as the launch slowed to a stop we were surrounded with an exquisite fragrance. Then the door from the cabin was opened and the church flowers were brought out. We caught our breath – they had a different perfume to the other- worldly fragrance which had been surrounding us … was it the Presence of Love, or Philippa – it has always been an unsolved riddle…

Now, deep in his pain, Jean slowly tossed the flowers overboard as he said his last goodbyes to those he loved. With great courtesy, he gently gave the last bouquet to the only child there – my son – to throw into the sea. This ritual with the flowers was an old Breton custom in the fishing community Jean came from on the other side of the world.

Back in our country home, Jean continued to visit until he left New Zealand. We didn’t tell him we were about to celebrate our marriage – it seemed too cruel. And when we wrote to invite Bill and Shirley, Shirley replied saying that Bill was dying from cancer of the liver, and had only another week to live. He died after he had held his new born grandson in his arms.

A week or so later Patrick and I married in a quiet Anglican church not far away. I felt the absence of our cherished friends, but we now began a new chapter of our lives, in which the plight of Arthur Thomas continued to dominate, and into which was added a  dreadful new dimension of drug-runners, and their threats and dangerous actions which dogged us during these years of drama and derring-do.

To be continued

 Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Sometimes I want a quick refreshing pudding and this one made with fresh oranges is the answer. Allow two or three oranges for each person. Peel, cut in half and then thinly slice across the fruit. Pile into a glass bowl and pour over a glass of wine and four heaped table spoons of caster sugar. Leave in the fridge until needed. Then spoon into small glass bowls and top with a dollop of whipped cream.

Food for Thought

Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are engines of change (as the poet said), windows on the world and lighthouses erected in the sea of time. They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print.        Barbara Tuchman historian

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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