Category Archives: life and death

Guns and exams, ancient peoples and bandits

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A life – an0ther instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

The first eclipse I ever watched was at school in the Cameron Highlands in Malaya. School was on a plateau surrounded by tea plantations and hill farms, and we had a clear view. They were dangerous times, the hundred and twenty children who attended the school were transported from all over the Malayan Peninsula in the greatest secrecy so that ‘the bandits’ wouldn’t ambush us. ( ‘Bandits’ were Communist Chinese guerrilla/freedom fighters who wanted to take over the country). We never knew the date of the beginning of term or the beginning of the holidays until the last minute.

When I lived in a remote jungle station in the middle of Pahang, I travelled in a convoy especially convened for me. The army sat me in an open jeep (stupid in hindsight) with my officer escort, in the middle of a long convoy of armoured cars escorting me to Kuala Lumpur. Here I stayed the night, before joining everyone else on the school train to Ipoh. We were then taken to Tapah, the staging post at the foot of the Cameron Highlands, where we gathered from all over the country.

After lunch at Tapah we were all packed into what were known as ‘coffins’ for the forty- mile drive. The coffins were armoured boxes on wheels with a few narrow slits about a foot wide, which could be opened when it was supposed to be safe. There were low, narrow wooden benches to sit on, and a dozen of us would crouch on them, sweltering in the tropical heat, locked up in these metal cages with nothing to eat or drink. Between each coffin in the convoy was an armoured car, and overhead a plane patrolled back and forth, until one term it crashed, so the authorities decided that one danger outweighed the other and didn’t replace it.

Halfway up the 600 or so hairpin bends of the mountain road, the convoy stopped for us to crouch behind clumps of pampas grass on the side of the road to have a pee. Since we were ringed with soldiers with their rifles cocked, ready to spring into action when the bandits fell on us, I could never muster much enthusiasm for this so -called break. I was never sure that I would actually be in private for the occasion. We’d finally reach our destination after dark, having travelled for two days. When my family moved to Kota Bahru up on the East Coast, the journey took even longer, beginning with the flight to Kuaka Lumpur in an Auster light plane via Bangkok, where I caught a connecting flight.

The bandits had a more sinister effect on our lives than anyone realised. It was only after I left, that the authorities discovered that our cook, Mr Su, Mrs Su, his wife. Ah Yu his son, and his two minions Wong and How, were feeding the bandits our food. Every term we were weighed at the beginning and end, and I would always have lost half a stone. I nearly died of hunger, I felt so ravenous all the time. But the food we were given was inedible. I realise now that everything was mixed with water or oil, to stretch it, so that the bulk of the rations could be sent to the bandits who invisibly surrounded us m the deep jungle.

Some children managed on this diet, but those of us who were accustomed to good food couldn’t stomach what was served. Mr Su and his team were several times given an in-depth cooking course, and while the team of instructors were there, we feasted like kings. But as soon as they left, we were back to watered down baked beans, butter that tasted like lard, grey- black potatoes, thin watery jam and stale bread. I used to hang around the staff room after break and afternoon tea, in the hope that the teachers had left some of their dainty sandwiches. A quick dive in before Wong or How came to clear the table, and the raging hunger might be momentarily cheated. But not for long.

Every night a platoon of soldiers arrived to guard us, and the thud of their boots as they patrolled past our dormitories in the moonlight punctuated our sleep. In retrospect, our food guaranteed our safety much more effectively than their guns.

One of the few privileges of being a senior girl was that one could get permission to go for a run before breakfast. Our route went around the golf course overlooked by the Cameron Highlands Hotel. My best friend and I did this, not because we had the slightest interest in athletics, but because on our return we could ask for an extra piece of toast to keep us going till breakfast.

Early one morning while dawn was still breaking we were stopped in our tracks in the cold mist. From out of a thicket a single file of  very small people emerged from the trees, like no others we had ever seen. We were riveted to the ground with fear. We didn’t know whether if they saw us there, they would raise their blow-pipes and dispatch us with their poisoned darts. There were half a dozen lean, long-legged, warriors leading the tribe carrying their long blow-pipes, the women and stick-like old people following, bearing large loads, while the children kept up in the middle of the group.

They moved swiftly and silently, practically naked. Unlike the known indigenous Sakai tribes, this tiny handful of people were a much older race, the Senoi, a tribe of Orang Asli, and were long-limbed, delicately made, almost pygmy people. We had heard of them by repute, but they were rarely seen back then. Looking neither to right or left, they disappeared as quickly as they had appeared, and we were released from our spell of fear and amazement. And I think we forgot about them after we’d eaten our hot toast back at school.

Thanks to a wonderful music master, music was one of the passions that lightened our days, and we sang to Gilbert and Sullivan, listened with delight to Dvorak and Greig, marvelled over Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, swooned to Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, danced to Scottish reels, waltzed to popular songs and sang in the school choir. When the music master acquired a copy of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, conducted by Toscanini, we senior girls were invited to listen to the sacred record. It was a Sunday afternoon and we sat shyly and solemnly in the staff-room and were overwhelmed by it.

And when the music master found the art master thundering out the last movement on the piano in the assembly hall, a great feud erupted between them which lasted the whole term, the art master seeing no reason for not extemporising on the piano, and the music master condemning him for bowdlerising and cheapening Beethoven’s masterpiece. It seemed to matter terribly. Those who liked the art master were on his side. Those who didn’t like him were for the music master.

This was in 1954. Music was hard to come by then, and so far more significant than it is today. And we made our own. Some nights during the holidays we sat outside our house by the river at Kota Bahru, when a group of chaps used to come, and all the generations sat and sang to someone’s flute – songs like ‘The foggy, foggy dew’, ‘On top of Old Smoky’. Lots of Burl Ives.

We didn’t sing well, we just enjoyed singing. Where we sat under the stars by the river, the Japanese had passed in their motor boats at dawn, twelve years before, on the morning they invaded Malaya at the same time that they bombed Pearl Harbour. The line of bullet holes from their machine guns was still there in the pink stucco walls, testimony to their random brutality.

Guns also punctuated my exams. Artillery had been positioned on a ridge across the valley from school, and when the guns aimed into the jungle, the thunder of their firing was followed by the terrible crashing of trees, cries of birds and endless echoes around the mountains. It was a continuous and thunderous bombardment which totally destroyed concentration or peace of mind. This went on for weeks.

The firing began again during my A level exams, which lasted for  three hours. When the overwhelming noise began, the head master came quietly into the exam room where I scribbled alone with an invigilator, the only one taking English A levels. He took my paper, noted the time when the firing began, and came back to log the time when the thunder of the barrage ceased several hours later. I always hoped these unusual entries would cause the examiners to deal leniently with me… and maybe they did as I was pleased with my marks.

Living in the remote places that we did, my parents didn’t often manage to get up to the Cameron Highlands Hotel, though they, like everyone else so soon after the war, were tickled by the address book, with its historic page dated ‘January 1942’ and inscribed with what felt like an arrogant flourish: “Nippon”.

There were no further entries until 1945, when British troops re-took the hotel, and triumphantly defaced the next page with the scrawl -” Nip-off”.

My father had now transferred to a Malayan regiment, which like the Gurkhas, was staffed by English officers and NCO’s. So we left Penang and all moved to a clearing in the jungle in Pahang, which was called Mentekab. It’s a thriving town now, but then, it was just lines of barracks, officers and sergeants messes and families quarters.

My father quickly achieved the highest “kill” of bandits, being extremely good at jungle warfare, in spite of having spent the war in tanks. One day, we were shopping at the local Chinese grocery store in Temerloh, Tek Seng’s, the only source of food in the middle of the Pahang jungle. My father was spending the normal six- week spell in the jungle, so we were surprised when he arrived at speed, and with company – a Chinese man in tattered clothes.

He practically lifted the man into the back of our car and told my mother to run back into the shop, as quickly as possible and get a box of oranges. When she returned, he peeled one, and fed segments to the wilting man in the back seat, put the rest of the oranges on the seat beside him, telling him with hand signals to eat them, and then drove off. I had to follow in the army vehicle.

The wilting man turned out to be a Chinese bandit, and the policy of starving bandits out of the jungle was working so well in this particular area, that this one was half dead and suffering from starvation and scurvy. Hence the oranges. With hospital treatment he eventually recovered and went to a rehabilitation camp. Here he recanted his Communist beliefs and then joined the army.  Seven years later, my father was in his office at Whitehall in London, when a Chinese soldier asked to see him. It was the bandit. He was now serving in the Royal Signals in Gibraltar and had got leave to come and present my father with a wrist watch as a thank you for saving his life. We wondered later how he had managed to track down my father.

Gallivanta sent me the link to this photo of the convoys up to school with the coffins and armoured cars

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 Invited for lunch with a group of neighbours, I volunteered to bring pudding. Carrying food is always a challenge, so I decided on a tart which couldn’t spill or spoil. So pear and almond tart it was. This is my quick fix on it short cuts and all. I used some quality bought short crust pastry for a base. Spread a layer of plum jam on this cooked base. Drain a tin of pears, and when about to use, pat them as dry as possible with kitchen paper, and slice horizontally, keeping the shape of each pear half.

Cream 6 ounces of butter and seven good tablespoons of sugar together, then stir in an egg. When smooth, add a teaspoon each of vanilla and almond essence, then an ounce of SR flour, and eight ounces of ground almonds. Mix well and spoon this mixture into the pastry case, and gently arrange the pear halves in the almond mixture – don’t press them down or they disappear during baking. Bake for 55 minutes in a moderate oven or until cooked. Good hot, cold, or warm with cream.

Food for thought

 “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.” Lao Tzu, reputed author of the Tao Te Ching

 

 

 

 

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Ducal splendour and daily deprivation

On my tenth birthday -wearing my pearlsInline image 1

A life – This is the eighth instalment of an autobiographical series before I revert to my normal blogs)

There was a legend that there were no birds in Belsen, that they had fled this dreadful place. That I don’t remember, but I do remember the strange energy, a sense of shifting sands, and unknown menace. The Germans seemed hostile (understandably), and refugees from East Germany trudging past were distant, pre-occupied with despair.

And as well as the British Army, there were also posse’s of Yugoslav soldiers in navy-blue greatcoats, armed with rifles, who constantly patrolled the place, guarding it, though I never discovered what they were guarding it from or why they were there. They had a reputation for being dangerous and unpredictable, and every now and then, one would shoot himself or a comrade.

And our succession of German maids left constantly, Helena after stealing tea, Elsa taking nylon stockings, Hilde our meagre meat ration, and finally Hannah who left to get married;  Kuntz, the big taciturn batman, suddenly disappeared in a rush of joy, when he had word that his wife who he had thought was dead, had surfaced in Berlin.

Behind our house was a pine forest, rich in bilberries, where the local Germans would come in autumn to pick this source of food in a starving land, and beyond that, a mile down the road, was the DP’s camp. Displaced Persons were the survivors of Belsen, still waiting for passports or permission to make their way back home across the bomb- blasted continent to find their scattered families.

One fine summer’s day they torched the pine forest, and our homes were in danger until the fire was checked. The DP’s had set the forest on fire as a desperate gesture to show their frustration and get some action from post -war authorities. I don’t think it made the slightest difference to their plight.

The Allied authorities were dealing with twenty million people trying to get back to homes and families after the war. Many had no homes, families or countries to go to. The problem grew under our eyes, as refugees, another two million in the next four years, fled from Eastern Europe and the Soviets. They came straggling down Hoppenstadt Strasse carrying bulging bundles wrapped in blankets on the end of sticks hoisted over their shoulders like pictures of Dick Whittington.

Unlike him they were not seeking streets paved with gold, but something more precious – freedom. Sometimes they were found sleeping or sheltering in our empty garages, or taking desperately needed clothes from the washing line, and were hurried on or arrested by the implacable Military Police.

The currency was changed from the cardboard money we knew, to the new currency, the Deutschemark. This triggered the months of tension, which even we children were conscious of, when Russia began the process of harassing and then blocking all traffic in and out of Berlin, by road or river. This finally culminated in the historic Berlin Airlift to save the citizens of West Berlin.

Stalin‘s intention was to starve and freeze the Berliners into submission and oust the Allies. He failed, thanks to the extraordinary air-lift when planes flew in and out of Berlin every four minutes bringing in food and fuel for over two million Berliners, and World War Three was averted.

The conquerors shared the hardships of ravaged Europe. Our meagre rations were delivered once a fortnight in a cardboard box. I remember my stepmother looking at a small pile of cucumbers, our vegetables for the next two weeks, and asking in despair what we could do with cucumbers for a fortnight. We only ever had revolting, evaporated, tinned milk to drink for there was no organised milk supply and no pasteurised herds.

Every night for two hours from six till eight the electricity was switched off to save power, and we sat in the darkness playing games like twenty questions to while away the pitch- black hours. There were no candles. Our puppy seized the darkness as an opportunity to chew the rubbers/erasers my father used for the crossword.

The Daily Telegraph crossword was one of the most popular diversions in the regiment, and I achieved minor fame and popularity in the officers mess then. Whoever wrote the crosswords had a penchant for using ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘The Wind in the Willows’ for clues, and a phone call would come from the mess for me. This would then put my parents on to the clue if they hadn’t already. In retrospect, I think there must have been a daily sweepstake for first past the post, judging by the competition to get the thing finished.

The officers mess was the Duke of Hanover’s palace, a little way out of Belsen, and splendid it was. (What had he made of the concentration camp on his doorstep?) We went there occasionally for drinks before lunch on Sundays, and for the children’s Christmas Party, when we played musical chairs in the ballroom under the shining chandeliers, slipping and sliding on the marble floor while little gilt chairs were subtracted from the circle. Then, when the party ended, like nearly every other party of my childhood, we danced Sir Roger de Coverley, with all the parents standing round clapping in time to the music.

Some weekends, we drove out to the Duke’s hunting lodge in the middle of a pine forest, where deer darted out onto the road, and wild boar lurked. This gemutlich little pile was now the officers club, run by a friendly middle-aged German couple. Had they always been the stewards of this place, I wondered later? Did they transfer their loyalties to their new employers in the interim, and hold the place in trust until the Duke regained his ancestral homes – if indeed he did?

Anyway, their speciality were delicious, lavishly sugared doughnuts, stuffed with butter icing. The glory of these doughnuts in a life of total gastronomic deprivation and war-time rations was utterly memorable (Did the Duke enjoy them too, before and after us?) My parents managed to get some of these dough-nuts for my tenth birthday.

It was the first birthday I had ever spent with my father, who went off to war when I was ten -months- old and my mother was pregnant with my sister. The previous year when I was nine, we were still in Yorkshire while he was battling his way to Belsen. He seemed more excited than I. The night before, when I went into the garden to say good-night to them, sitting in wicker chairs with their gin and tonics, I was allowed to stay up beyond seven o’clock, so my father could give me my birthday presents.

He was too excited to wait until morning. He gave me a string of pearls and a black fountain pen with a gold clip and nib. When the next birthday came, it was different, for he and my stepmother had a baby son, and my sister and I were rather a chore by then.

My stepmother had learned German and French at school, and rather fancied herself as a linguist. So she seized this opportunity to try to turn us into cosmopolitans too. Thanks to the puppy we’d become friendly with the local German vet from Bergen village five miles away. His twenty year old  daughter Suzanne became our German teacher, and she came every Sunday afternoon to teach us nouns and verbs and the endless der, die, and das, to be sorted through and applied to each noun.

She left us with piles of homework to do, and extraordinary medieval -looking text books with print that looked like something straight off Caxton’s press. The print was extra black, and the S’s and F’s and W’s and V’s expressly designed to trick baffled and ignorant nine and ten- year- olds.

She also told us how lucky we were, because her younger sister Hildegarde and brother Carljurgen had no paper and pencil at school, just broken, leftover stubs, and had to write in the margins of printed books when they wrote answers and essays. I didn’t always feel lucky. Her father, Herr Muller, called regularly, whether our various dogs needed his attentions or not. He regarded my parents as friends – or at any rate, their gin bottle.

In return for the generous helpings of gin he sipped – unobtainable in civilian Germany – he would bring my stepmother a specimen of the many extraordinary varieties of exotic orchids which he grew. I thought they were awful, not like flowers at all, but fantastically petalled and bearded and contorted in strange fluorescent pinks and acid greens and sharp yellows. He would arrive bearing this gift, and bend over my stepmother’s hand, clicking his heels together and bowing, in a strange old- fashioned Prussian ritual.

After some months of laborious social intercourse – his English becoming more broken with the quantity of gin consumed – we were invited to his house in Bergen to meet his wife. We had tea on exquisite Meissen china, but because they could get sugar at the time, but no flour, we had no cakes or biscuits, but dipped sour apples from the garden into the sugar, as a substitute for cake. The grownups managed with a cup of tea.

The vet’s wife was a fair-haired, washed-out, melancholy woman. When I exclaimed enthusiastically over the beautiful porcelain, she told me that they’d hidden it with all their other treasures in a hole under the cellar, so the invaders wouldn’t loot them. Even as a child I thought this was rather tactless. Invaders? Was she talking about us?

She also reminisced about the awfulness of the war to my parents, she and her daughter Suzanne, our teacher, describing the anguish of seeing their poor, wounded soldiers in blood- stained bandages in passing trains. Back home I heard my stepmother snort indignantly: “If they saw those trains, how come they didn’t know about the others!”

Since I didn’t understand what she was talking about it stuck in my mind, but some years later, I realised she was referring to the trains of the condemned heading for Belsen. In her book “The Children’s House of Belsen,” Hetty Verolme describes the platform at Celle lined with thirty SS men and Alsation dogs straining at the leash as her train pulled in from Holland. They then, eleven hundred young and old, sick and exhausted, hungry and thirsty, straggled the fifteen  miles or so to Belsen on foot and apparently unobserved by the local population, who denied all knowledge of the camp when the British authorities discovered it and questioned them.

But the friendship limped on. One summer’s day, Hildegarde and Carljurgen, the one with long fair plaits, and wearing a dirndl skirt and long, white, lace socks, the other, just as fair haired and blue-eyed, wearing leather lederhosen, long, white lace socks and black boots, took me driving in their farm cart, rumbling and swaying down narrow farm tracks between fields of blazing blue and purple lupins shimmering with tiny butterflies in the sunshine. Carljurgen let me hold the reins. He avoided that other field, where there were miles and miles of burnt -out German tanks my parents had shown us one dank winter’s day.

My father said I was learning to ride like a Prussian officer. The army stables were run by an aristocratic Prussian officer- not, of course, using his military rank now – but known merely as Herr Freiser. He took great pains with me, never guessing that I was terrified of the huge jumps he put me over. Fear runs along the reins, I would remember from reading Black Beauty, and hope I was bluffing the huge, far -too- big military horse I rode regularly. A big brushwood jump was one thing, but the fence on the wall was too much, and I came off every time, never knowing what had happened until it was all over.

Herr Freiser’s blonde, classically beautiful Prussian wife regarded me with loathing, as though I was a pet cockroach her husband was training. But I decided she hated all English, and was probably still a Nazi lady. They lived in the groom’s quarters by the stables, and were lucky to have a job and a home in their ruined country, though she obviously didn’t think so.

Their gilded furniture, rescued no doubt from their Prussian schloss, was piled right up to the ceiling in one room, while they lived in the other. Herr Freiser seemed as frightened of her as I was. She would stalk through the stable yard in her immaculate jodhpurs, her glare like a blue flame from her icy blue eyes.

To be continued –  back to England

Food for threadbare gourmets

Having eaten a lot of curry in hot climates like tropical Malaya and humid Hongkong, it seems quite normal to me to eat it in our hot humid summer days at the moment. Curry Tiffin on Sunday in the Officers Mess was a hallowed ritual, and I used to love the choice of beef, lamb or chicken curry, gently simmering in large casseroles on the long polished table. These days, since I shattered my leg, and am less interested in standing for hours over a hot stove, I’m always looking for short cuts and now use some quick ingredients I’ve shunned in the past.

So I used both ready-made chopped garlic from a jar and also ginger for this old recipe, and it worked like a treat. I mostly do vegetarian curries these days… chop an onion and a couple of tomatoes, and in a blender whizz them to a paste with two cups of water, a dessert spoonful of prepared garlic, half a dessert spoon of ginger, several dessert spoons of tomato paste, a dessert spoon of curry powder, a good sprinkling of turmeric and half a teaspoon of stevia powder, or brown sugar.

Tip half this mixture into a pan with half a cup of cream, and let it boil and reduce while five or six chopped mushrooms are gently frying in butter or olive oil.

Combine the two when the curry mixture has thickened, and add some ginger marmalade to soften the sharpness if necessary. Hard boil an egg and chop it over the curry. This amount serves one greedy person, and I ate it with chopped steamed cauliflower instead of rice. (I try to avoid rice since I read that it contains two to three times the amount of carbohydrate than bread. I would also eat this mix with lentils)

The other half of the curry sauce I freeze for another time, when I would curry cauliflower and peas instead of mushrooms, or even some chicken.

Food for thought

Nobody is superior, nobody is inferior, but nobody is equal either. People are simply unique, incomparable. You are you, I am I.                                                                         Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh  Indian guru

Some facts about post-war Bergen-Belsen for those who may be interested…

Adults didn’t tell us much back then… so I’ve done a lot of research to try to understand what was going on around me then. First of all, I discovered, Belsen became the holding place for DP’s from many other camps, who were unable to return to their homes behind the Iron Curtain. The facilities were the best, since they were accommodated in a Panzer training depot next door to the camp, and we all know that Hitler’s military got the best!

But many DP’s were not only depressed and traumatised but hostile to all authority after their experiences, and not all refugees were upright, honest pillars of the community – there was riff-raff as well. They were very difficult for the British to deal with – who were also tired and traumatised after six years of war, and their own social problems like returning to families who hadn’t seen them for six years.

The Jewish leader in the camp, Josef Rosensaft, a charismatic Belsen survivor, would only communicate with the frustrated British in Yiddish, even though he was a perfectly fluent English- speaker. He agitated for everyone to go to Palestine, as it then was, instead of trying to find other countries. (The Americans were still only taking in tiny numbers of refugees or displaced persons) And the British were constrained by the Mandate, (a responsibility given them after World War 1) and were not allowed to let unlimited refugees into Palestine.

The Arabs – rightly as it turns out -were concerned about their place in their own country. After the Balfour declaration, a quota of Jews had trickled in, but this didn’t bother them, when it was two thousand a year. Come Hitler, numbers jumped to 60,000 the first year and continued to rise, until the Arabs were fearful they would be outnumbered (they were right to be fearful). The British were caught in the middle of this.

Also, Europe was in chaos at the time, and the British Zone had very little farming land, so food was a real problem for the British authorities, both in England and in their zone of Germany. Labour Prime Minister Attlee considered at one stage reducing the ration for the English to 1700 calories a day, they were so up against it, with paying off the huge loans to the Americans for Lend lease – which they finally paid with all the interest in 2006.

This was also the time of the changing of the currency and the Berlin Airlift. At the same time the Black Market was a nightmare for the authorities, and it was discovered that Belsen was the biggest hub of the Black Market. British Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Morgan, chief of “displaced persons” operations for UNRRA, recorded in his memoir that :‘under Zionist auspices there had been organized at Belsen a vast illegitimate trading organization with worldwide ramifications and dealing in a wide range of goods, principally precious metals and stones. A money market dealt with a wide range of currencies.’

The British wanted to go in and search the place, and stamp it out. But Josef Rosensaft held them off for nine months, stalling over the idea of German police or British soldiers trespassing on their hallowed refuge after all they’d been through with the Nazis. By the time the British got into the camp, the evidence had been hidden or destroyed. All these events built up real hostility and dislike, which is why, I suppose, so many people, unable to distinguish between the ‘goodies and the baddies’, became unsympathetic to the D.P.s.

Ninety-six young English medical students volunteered to help the doctors and nurses coping with the disaster they had found in 1945. In the two months following, 14,000 more people died, too far gone from disease and starvation to save. Many could literally no longer stomach food, and many solutions were tried. Apart from the trials of Kramer, his infamous women guards/tormentors, and a dozen or so other guards from Auschwitz as well as Belsen, by the British, no-one else was ever held to account by the Germans for the deaths of more than 50,000 people.

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Footprints of the Nazis

Image result for hanover in world war two
Post-war Hanover

A life – This is the seventh instalment of an autobiographical series before I revert to my normal blogs)

Postwar Europe was a unforgettable monument to Hitler’s destructive genius. The train which was supposed to take us to Hanover got lost in the chaos that still existed in Europe in 1947. We took a wrong loop of the track and traversed areas of Northern Germany, reaching Hamburg before turning back.

We arrived at Hanover eight hours late, having rattled uncertainly through endless suburbs of ruined cities, nothing but mountains of broken bricks, and half houses still standing, looking like the half of a doll’s house where you can re-arrange the furniture. In these grotesque rooms, pictures were askew on walls, and cupboard doors hung open, chairs still sat round marooned dining tables and empty fireplaces waited to be lit by ghosts.

I was awed into silence by these gross and hellish scenes. But at nine, I couldn’t even begin to guess the human tragedies, the broken lives, the blasted families, and never realised that maimed and starving people were actually trying to live in these apocalyptic holes and hills of smashed bricks and rubble. At the station where we stopped to disgorge some of the people crushed into the crammed carriages, thin white – faced children banged on the windows begging for food, and scrabbled at the side of the tracks looking for odd lumps of coal.

We were seated in the restaurant car, eating the first white bread that we had ever seen, quite unlike our war- time rations, but the thrill of this exciting new food was dulled by the pale dust- smeared faces outside the window.

Finally, Hanover at midnight. The station was the usual bedlam, the engine hissing and roaring, people calling and shouting and waving, and the lighting so poor that it took longer than usual for everyone to sort themselves out and find each other. When everyone had trickled off and the train had pulled away again, my stepmother and sister and I were still waiting on the platform.

My father was nowhere in sight. What felt like a very long time later, loaded down with our luggage, we found our way to the Ahtee-o, which I later learned meant RTO, or Railway Transport Office. We didn’t seem to be particularly welcome at that time of the night, but something had to be done with us.

The telephone lines through to Belsen to contact my father were simply the military ones, and though Belsen was only about twenty miles away, it seemed to be a very difficult operation to find him. Every conversation was filled with a hail of military terms and abbreviations which flew back and forth like a secret code. Through bleary, sleep-filled eyes I watched the impatient RTO sergeant trying to raise a distant Orderly Officer, who had to get through to the Officers Mess to find my sleeping and delinquent father.

Halfway through, my sister wanted to use the loo. This caused consternation. The nearest ladies was miles away in another part of the station. But we three females set off. The next shock was ready to rise up and hit us. I had assumed that all the people I had seen at the station were in the process of going or coming – to catch a train or leave one. Now we discovered that they had all settled down for the night again, thousands and thousands of people sleeping on every available bit of floor- draped up and down stairs, propped up against walls where there was no room to stretch out.

We had to step over all these sleeping bodies, avoid their belongings and move half a dozen people out of the public lavatory in order to use it. The ragged, hungry refugees did not seem very happy to be woken by three well- dressed English females in the middle of the night. It certainly wasn’t a comfort stop for us. My stepmother seemed to be as anxious and insecure as I felt. And then there was the long drag back to what seemed now, like the comfort and familiarity of the RTO.

Finally, at three o clock, unable to raise my father, it was decided that we should be taken to spend the rest of the night in a transit camp – another unfamiliar military term. Once again, we braved the sleeping, homeless hordes, and emerged at the front door of the station to climb into a waiting jeep. As we walked down the steps, I looked out towards the city, and there through the black ruined outline of a broken church window, the moon shone in a clear pale sky.

We were awakened next morning by the embarrassed arrival of my father, who had given up waiting for the train to arrive the previous afternoon, since no-one knew what had happened to it. I knew my stepmother felt that he had let us down, and I thought so too. He took us to our new home where my sister and I had to feel out a whole lot of new rules. Not only was my new parents’ honeymoon over, but so was ours.

When we had lived in Yorkshire my stepmother had worn very fashionable clothes, to my old- fashioned eyes, which I knew my grandmother would have thought were ” very fast”. But my stepmother would wear these wonderful clothes to breakfast, and when she heard a favourite tune on the wireless, she would jump up and waltz round the room with my father, humming and laughing and even kissing him. My sister and I hardly knew where to look during this extraordinary adult behaviour, but now, that was all over. No more smart grey trousers, no more incredibly high -heeled, navy suede court shoes, which I hoped she would leave to me in her will. Just the same boring old skirts and flowered tops day after day. No-one told us that these were maternity clothes.

On the 11 February, 1948 our stepmother was not at the breakfast table. While the maid served breakfast, our father told us she had gone into hospital in the night. When we asked why, he said he didn’t know. At school we felt both scared and important. At play-time everyone discussed it, with guesses as to what the matter might be. They ranged from appendicitis to her death bed.

Finally, someone said: ” She was getting a bit fat. D ‘you think she’s going to have a baby?” “She wasn’t getting fat”, I replied indignantly. “And anyway, they’d have told us if they were going to have a baby.” Back home for lunch, our father was sitting at the dining table waiting for us. He was smiling broadly. “You’ve got a baby brother,” he said.

By then, we knew the right way to behave, so we both exclaimed with excitement. But underneath I felt a little pain in my chest. I never examined it, but I knew that it was because they hadn’t wanted to share it with us. After that we seemed to be two groups in the family. My sister and I who were there because there was nowhere else to be, and my father, stepmother, and the baby, who I adored. Them and us. We had bread and jam at afternoon tea. “They” had biscuits or cake.

And now life took on a darker tone… We slept on one side of the house, my parents at the other end. Every night they would march into the bedroom to say good night. If we had been good, it was okay, and it was usually okay for me as I was chronically law-abiding.

But my sister was always in ‘trouble’, and every night after the post mortem she was spanked. Then the two tall adults who seemed to tower over us, marched out again, leaving my sister to cry herself to sleep. To my eternal shame I didn’t cross across to her bed to comfort her, but lay wretchedly curled up in my own bed trying not to hear her sobs.

After my best friend was murdered by her father, who shot the whole family one night, I was moved to a small bedroom near my parents. I was the first person at the scene, I had knocked repeatedly on the door to collect Mary for our early morning riding lessons, but there was no answer. By the time I got to school later, the door had been broken down and the heart-rending scene discovered.

I suppose my parents thought I might need some support, but I never talked to them about it, as I was worried that Mary and her brother had gone to hell, and used to send myself to sleep praying that they had gone to heaven instead. Since my parents didn’t believe in God there was no point in talking to them about it. It’s only now as I write that I realise how it must have been for my eight -year- old sister left alone to cope on her own at the other side of the house when I was moved.

We lived in the only residential street in the concentration camp, known as Hoppenstadt Strasse with notices each end in German and English – Langsam fahren kinder – Drive slowly children.

The houses we lived in had been the homes of the German prison guards during the war. Now, one side of the street was reserved for officers’ families, and we each had one floor of the houses, which meant that we had two flats which had been roughly connected to make a roomy home. Our home, I learned many years later from my stepmother, had had the distinction of having housed Josef Kramer, the notorious commandant of the camp, known as the Beast of Belsen. It never felt like a happy home.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 Having a long car journey to and fro from a very sad funeral, leaving at 5am, I couldn’t face eating bready sandwiches for breakfast -on- the -run during the dash to be there by 10am, so the day before, I made something from my recipe book, called Jenny’s zucchini slice, to eat instead.

Grate three good sized zucchini/courgettes. In a large bowl, beat five eggs, and add three chopped slices of bacon, a cup of grated cheese, a cup of self- raising flour, half a cup of oil, and an onion (did my usual, and pre-cooked it in the micro wave), the grated zucchini, salt and pepper. Stir everything together and spread in a shallow, greased baking tin. The mix should be about an inch and a half deep. Bake in a moderate oven for roughly three quarters of an hour, or until a knife slides out clean. It’s delicious hot or cold, eaten with salad for a meal, or cut into slices to eat on a journey like ours.

 Food for thought

 “I can choose either to be a victim of the world or an adventurer in search of treasure. It’s all a question of how I view my life.”            Paul Coelho

 

 

 

 

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Bombs and a baby

 Valerie6.jpg
 A Life – Part two

We are familie-e-e-e-ee

I was staying with my grandmother when I was three. She must have had her hands full, looking after me, nursing her sister Jessie who was dying from kidney disease in the big bedroom, and coping with her maverick younger son, who was staying with her before embarking for the Western desert, to join the maverick Long Range Desert Group – a match made in heaven!

My uncle, who was unmarried, childless, and in his early twenties, spoiled me the way everyone did since I was the eldest of only two grandchildren. So now he said he would take me with him when he went to say his last goodbyes to the other side of the family. It would be an opportunity for me to meet my great-grandmother for the first time too.

We crossed London by double decker bus, and arrived at a house filled, it seemed to me, with lots of old people in dreary black and dark clothes. I was made to kiss all these tall elderly people towering over me (they were probably not more than forty!) and then we sat down to tea round a big oval table laden with cake-stands on the lace table-cloth.

The grownups got on with their conversation, and my great-grandmother, a fearsome little lady, grey and wizened, but sharp as a button, leaned down from the head of the table with a plate of small cakes, and offered me one. I reached out to take one, then drew back, realising they had currants in them. “No thank you,” I said politely.

“Why don’t you want one?” My ancient relative asked sharply.

“I don’t like currants,” I replied.

“You’ll have one,” she snapped, “I made them myself.”

So I took one obediently, and sat quietly picking out the currants so I could eat the cake parts, while the conversation flowed around me.

Suddenly a stick landed hard on my knuckles, and I cried out in pain. My great-grandmother was leaning down the tea table and had hit me with her walking stick. I pushed back my chair, slid off it, and fled into the kitchen where I buried my head in some-one’s lap (a maid?) who was sitting there, and cried my heart out. Before long, my uncle came in and I was hustled out of the house in disgrace.

When we caught the bus, with my uncle still be-rating me for my naughtiness, I was so upset, I jumped off the open double decker, and rolled into the road. I wasn’t hurt, but everyone on the bus seemed to be very angry with my poor uncle for upsetting a little girl so much that she did something so drastic to get away from him!

Back at my grandmother’s, the poor young man related the whole sorry saga to my disbelieving grandparent. “But she’s always so good”, she kept repeating as he tried to get her to understand how unfortunate the afternoon had been. My grandmother just cuddled me, and he was miffed.

Later she came to stay with us in Dorset, and I repaid her kindness by flinging myself into her lap to give her a hug, and knocking her spectacles off her nose, and smashing them. It was difficult to get anything repaired with everyone concentrated on the war effort, but she returned a few months later, and stepped down from the train smiling, wearing her repaired specs. I leapt rapturously into her arms, and knocked them off again. They lay shattered on the station paving. And she forgave me again.

When I stayed with her in London, while my brother was born back in Dorset, she taught me proverbs and rhymes and skipping games. I learned to skip down in the disused cobbled stable-yard, happily singing and chanting these traditional rhymes to myself. But I hurried inside from the garden in the dusk, fearful that Germans might be hiding behind the laurel bushes.

They might get me if I strayed too far from the big Edwardian house in which she had a flat, and I never lingered near the head- stones and graves for dead dogs, because there were so many places where the Germans might be hiding. When she visited her friends and took me with her, I overheard their conversations about where the bombs had been falling and realised that the world was a very dangerous place.

I was just four when my father came to stay before returning to North Africa after being commissioned. But then he and my mother had a row, and he packed his suitcase and strode out of the door. My mother stood weeping in the doorway, watching him go, and then she sent me after him. I ran down the lane, and he stopped, put down his suitcase, kissed me, and came home. But then it happened all over again, and this time when my mother stood in the doorway weeping, and sent me after him, he was angry, and sent me back crying.

I stood in the door with my mother and watched him go back to the war, and my heart was like a stone. I cried because he hadn’t loved me enough to come back, and I cried because I had failed my mother. There were other memories. The songs my mother sang me. She loved singing. She sang ‘Cherry ripe’, and ‘ Where the bee sucks, there suck I, and ‘One fine day’, from Madame Butterfly as lullabies…

Nine months after my father had disappeared back to the war, my baby brother was born, and we moved to a red brick villa on the outskirts of Weymouth. She used to sing the words of a pop-song then: ” You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are grey…” It was many years before I heard those songs again, and nearly fifty years before I could bear to hear ‘you are my sunshine.’ My mother disappeared a little over a year after we moved to Weymouth. The skies had often seemed grey before she left.

After the baby was born she seemed to have lost interest in us. She had always been somewhat erratic even to a small watching child, but now she would read a book at meal-times so we couldn’t talk to her. She was often out, and we would be so hungry with no food in the house, and I felt so despairing, that I used to look for comfort at a picture in a hymnbook my grandmother had given me. It was a painting of Jesus floating on a cloud, and underneath were the words from a hymn: ‘There’s a friend for little children above the bright blue sky’.

I learned to mash Farley’s rusks with milk to feed the baby, and can remember when we had been away for the weekend with our mother, rushing in to rescue the abandoned baby in his cot, change his nappy, and make scrambled egg for the starving child. When I stood on a chair at the ironing board to iron our school uniform for the expensive private school we attended, she laughed, and said, “you’re my little slave, aren’t you – but don’t tell anyone I said that”.

The worst times were at night. If I woke I would creep along to her bedroom and very quietly open the door to see if she was there. If she was, she smacked me hard, but I didn’t mind, because she was home. If she was out, when the air raid siren screamed, I had to get my younger sister and the baby downstairs and into the air raid shelter. One night as we lay on a mattress in the shelter, my nose began to bleed heavily. I couldn’t stop it, and finally must have slipped into unconsciousness, because the next thing I knew, I was wrapped in a blanket, with my mother holding me and fire blazing in the hearth.

The worst night of all was when I lay awake for hours frozen with fear, hearing planes flying over endlessly, and certain that this was Hitler come to get us. It was only recently that I realised that this was the night of D-Day, when people all over the South of England were standing outside in their night clothes watching this great armada flying to the invasion. It was round about this time that my mother disappeared, and my grandmother left her home and friends to come and care for us – a six- year- old, a five-year- old and a traumatised fourteen- month-old baby. The next few years were the good ones.

To be continued

Food for threadbare gourmets

Having read a blog about not wasting food I felt challenged… I don’t think I do, but to be on the safe side, I used up left-overs today. I had a good serving of cooked rice, so decided to make kedgeree. Did my normal thing now of cooking the onion in the microwave before adding it to the frying pan, sprinkled a heaped teaspoon of curry powder, half a teasp each of cumin, coriander and turmeric, plenty of garlic and let them cook with the onion for a few minutes.

Having soaked half a cup of frozen peas and sultanas in boiling water, I added them to the mix to absorb the curry flavours, and then stirred in the cold cooked long grain rice. I had no smoked salmon left after making blinis endlessly for all the celebrations we’ve been attending, so opened a tin of shrimps, and stirred them in. Tasting it, I added some more curry powder, and salt. I didn’t have any fresh parsley to chop, but with a chopped hard- boiled egg each, it was a good lunch.

Food for thought

Intuition, not intellect, is the ‘open sesame’ of yourself. Albert Einstein

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Time, like an ever-rolling stream

a traditional Cotswold village hotel, England, UK

Image result for dorset villages

A life  – Part one

Diarist Frances Partridge wrote”… I have a passionate desire to describe what I’ve felt, thought or experienced, for its own sake – to express, communicate or both? And I can hardly bear not to pin down the fleeting moments.”

This year is when I turn eighty, the sort of birthday one can never imagine will happen to oneself, and I still have  that:  ‘passionate desire to describe what I’ve felt, thought or experienced, for its own sake – to express. communicate…’ and above all, to savour and revel in the joy of everything – love, food, family, friends, ideas, music, books, the sea and the wind, the birds and the flowers… infinite treasures and gifts.

My years seem to have been packed with incident and tragedy, drama and amazement, travel and wonder. I look back at the people I’ve known and loved, and also to the people, who to my puzzlement and sadness have hated me and sabotaged me, and I know that each one has given me gifts of love and insight, and in the case of my enemies, strength and tolerance… I can’t say that I ’love them that hate’ me in Jesus’s words, but I try to see the point of their presence in my life, and to let them go… forgiveness is not a word I use… I’d rather come to terms with the past and the sadness of knowing that others are hostile, and then release them from my life.

What I have learned from the hostility and jealousy of those people who do actually hate me – and they are family rather than strangers-  is that their words reflect who they are, rather than telling me anything about myself.

One of the wonderful things about living the years that I have, is that Time has taught me so much about myself. In doing so, Time and opportunity have set me free to be the essence of who I really am, rather than the person who has been beset by the grief of bereavement, abandonment, divorce, poverty, pain and rejection. The insights that Time has allowed me to gather, have set me free from those profound and painful experiences to be joyful, fearless, and – I hope -loving…

And like Frances Partridge, I have this urge to write about the fleeting moments, even if no-one reads them… just writing the story of time past will be satisfying, fulfilling, and, I suspect, will give me fresh insights with which to live the rest of life, however long it may be. My intention is also to go forth on the next journey, singing and dancing, heading off joyfully into that other plane of existence which awaits us all.

Maybe writing my story will seem self-indulgent to some readers, but to those who stick around and find it interesting, I thank you in advance.

Most of us were touched by history in the 20th century, and many of our lives touched too. Sometimes, the connections are obvious, sometimes they remain hidden. And sometimes history, events or people have reached out from other centuries and other segments of time and beckoned for attention. The past is always with us – our own and the pasts of other people and other times. Consciousness of these peoples and these pasts enrich the experience of our present.

And, oh, the pleasure of acquaintance with personalities then and now, their quirks and foibles and wonderful, mystifying uniqueness. And there is too, the indefinable uniqueness of the places around the planet where human beings have settled and, in the taming of the place, evolved their own particular culture.

Skyscrapers and fast food chains may try to obliterate the personality of modern megalopolises, but rock and sand, climate and sea still exert their shaping influence. Rock and sea hem in the millions who cluster upon Hongkong, and mould their lives as they push and punch for space, while among the mountains and islands, volcanoes and lakes of New Zealand, people have obliterated forests and swamps and become a pastoral people.

For a while I lived on the rock that is Hongkong, and among the mountains, lakes and plains that are New Zealand; I shared the hardships of survivors in dis-membered Germany and battered Britain, grew up in Malayan jungles and attended school set among tea plantations in the highlands.

The story that I write is like the story of us all, in that it’s my interpretation of the past, my remembrance and re-living and reworking of the segments of time  inherited from my forbears and family.

Begin at the beginning, commanded Alice, but, like most of us, my own stories only begin halfway though. Glints of sunlight and moments of beauty remain embedded in the dull, grey mass of unremembered early years. That pink dress with tiny tucks and frills, a blue balloon sailing away in the wind, the taste of a warm cherry pulled from a drooping branch, the honey scent of golden gorse flowers, these are my beginnings. But where did they lead and where am I still travelling?

Dorset in 1940 was a different world. It was my world. With no pylons or pollution, undefiled by progress, it still lay dreaming in that deep content described by Thomas Hardy. Once known as Summerlands, it seemed always to be summer in my two and three- year- old’s memory. Hardy’s description: ” The languid perfume of the summer fruits, the mists, the hay, the flowers, formed therein a vast pool of odour which at this hour seemed to make the animals, the very bees and butterflies drowsy…” was how it was for me.

The skies were clear and blue, and the bright sun blindingly gold. Dragonflies darting and dipping over the water seemed one moment emerald-green, the next, electric blue. Wisps of freshly- gathered hay lay in long horizontal strips high up on hawthorn hedges, where the heavily laden dray, hauled by a huge, patient cart horse had swayed and creaked down the narrow lane past our home in the dusk. The scent of honeysuckle and the taste of pink and yellow cherries warmed by the sun still transports me back to those times.

My twenty-three -year- old mother had fled the Blitz and was living in great discomfort in a tiny farm cottage. It had no electricity, which was not unusual then, and she walked regularly to the village shop to replenish the oil for the lamps she used at night. I dragged along holding the handle of the pushchair while my baby sister sat in it. We passed the grey stone manor, scene of Tess of the D’Urberville’s honeymoon, and plodded over the ancient Elizabethan bridge to a shop before the level crossing. The dark little shop had fly papers hanging in it with dying flies buzzing. Their misery appalled me.

Sometimes, I lay on my stomach and pushed my head between the struts of  the small bridge nearby to watch the currents of the stream. Other times I stood on tiptoes high enough to peer over the  lichen-encrusted stone of the big bridge over the river, and gazed into the shiny water flowing below, and at the sharp emerald- green of the long strands of water-weed forever rippling with the current. If I forgot time, I discovered that my mother seemed miles away with the push-chair, and ran in panic to catch up.

The only thing which shattered the silence of those quiet days, was the terrible tanks which ground ear-splittingly along the road from the nearby military camp. Once, as we crossed the grey bridge over the Frome, a column of tanks caught us halfway across. We sheltered in one of the mossy alcoves for pedestrians trapped in former ages by farm carts, horses and carriages. The caterpillar tracks, which seemed to smash into fragments the very air we breathed, were higher than my ears. Their noise felt like hearing the sound of hell. No-one told me this was the sound of war

At two I had few words, but I understood what the adults were saying, and they often puzzled me. The biggest puzzle of all was when they gathered in a little knot of excitement, and looked up to those clear, blue skies, saying: ” There’s another dog-fight”. Hard though I squinted up into the cloudless blue sky, I could see no dogs, only  tiny white crosses, and white puffs following the crosses, diving across the sky. Now I know this was the Battle of Britain.

There was a framed photograph of me on the kitchen wall. Thick dark hair cut straight across my forehead, dark eyes, my neck and shoulders fading away. I looked at it often, wondering when my arms and the rest of me grew. And there were other memories too, like snapshots in colour, with no knowledge of what happened before or after.

Pulling on my Wellingtons and staggering outside, very proud to have managed it un- aided, and the pain at the burst of laughter when the adults saw the boots were on the wrong feet. The grass snake in the puddle. Putting my arms round a huge, hairy, grey and white dog called Mollie. The perfect happiness of the day I was big enough to fit the blue, pink and yellow flowered sun-suit, when the big children from the farm let me join them, and we ran up a hill where sunshine streamed between the trunks of pine trees in golden columns of light.

These older girls taught me their country games, dances and songs, some harking back to the eighteenth century: ‘Poor Jennie is a-weeping on a fine summer’s day’, a haunting tune that has stayed with me all my life, and: ‘I sent a letter to my love and on the way, I dropped it. One of you has picked it up and put it in your pocket…’

These are some of the fleeting moments that reach back to that past more than seventy- seven years ago … ‘Time, like an ever-rolling stream, Bears all its sons away, They fly forgotten, as a dream Dies at the opening day.’

To be continued

Food for threadbare gourmets

After all that rich Christmas food we needed something to re-set our digestive juices ! I craved curry, wanted something quick and easy, and also wanted to use up scraps. I only had half an onion, plenty of mushrooms, the green top of a leek, and tomatoes. Giving the chopped onion a quick zap in the microwave, I added it to the frying pan with olive oil,  sliced mushrooms, the leek chopped very finely, and a couple of chopped tomatoes.

When they were soft, feeling lazy, I stirred in a generous teaspoon of prepared garlic from a jar, a teasp of ginger from a jar, a good sprinkling of ground cumin, coriander and even more of turmeric to taste, plus a teasp of mild curry powder for good measure. When the spices had cooked for a few minutes in the oil, I added water, and let the mix boil … after tasting, I added a generous dollop –  a heaped tablespoon – of ginger marmalade to take the sharpness off the curry and a good squirt of tomato paste from a tube. After letting all this gently simmer, I added some cream before serving, but another time would try yogurt.

We ate it with dahl – lentils – and a hard- boiled egg each. I couldn’t be bothered to cook rice as well, but the lentils soaked the curry up instead. This quick simple economical vegetarian curry was even better when it had mellowed the next day, when we had it again…

Food for thought

The dedicated life is the life worth living. You must give with your whole heart.

Annie Dillard – American writer and mystic

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Angels and the third man


About twenty years ago a veranda on a house in Wellington collapsed under the weight of a Christmas party and all the revellers were hurled to the ground some way below.

I kept the newspaper clipping of this accident for some years to show my grandchildren. Not for any ghoulish reason, but for the story a pregnant partygoer told. She landed upright, unharmed, unlike the others, many of whom were injured. She said she felt absolutely no fear, because at the split second the veranda began to fall, a great white being held her, and deposited her safely. I wanted my grandchildren to hear from another source than their Grannie, about the reality of angels.

My lovely cleaning lady Rebecca also told me about her encounter with an angel. She was a tiny little thing, and at the time she was working on a fishing boat. It was hard physical labour for a woman trying to keep her end up in tough male society and on this voyage, she developed excruciating toothache, as well as a really bad back. Sitting on her bunk on her six- hour sleep shift, she began to weep from pain and exhaustion. Suddenly a column of light appeared beside her, and she felt enveloped in love and peace. She drifted off into a deep sleep, and when she awoke her toothache and bad back had gone, and she felt strong, happy and revived.

There are many stories of angels, and they always fill me with joy. I find the mysterious story of the extra presence on Shackleton’s expedition, when they were in dire straits very moving. As he and two other exhausted starving team members struggled over glaciers and mountains in South Georgia to get help for everyone else stranded on Elephant Island, having just endured an eight-hundred- mile voyage in an open boat through mountainous seas and hurricanes, they reported that there was always this extra person, and yet when they came to count it, it was never there.

Yet the presence was continually there, sustaining them throughout their dreadful journey, on which the lives of everyone else depended. Shackleton wrote: “during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia, it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.”

TS Eliot alludes to this in ‘The Waste Land.’

‘Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
— But who is that on the other side of you.

This is sometimes called the Third Man Factor, and many survivors of shipwrecks, avalanches, fires, polar expeditions etc, describe it. Scientists and researchers rationalise that this is some sort of projection of the mind to protect us when we are in danger, or at the last gasp of our strength, which is why it happens for so many explorers, mountaineers, and in the case of the last man out alive from the World Trade Centre. That man, Ron Di Francesco described a Being who led him out of the inferno just before it collapsed on 9/11.

But what happened in what I am about to describe was different to the Third Man phenomenon, for I was in no danger, and was being cared for.

I have never seen an angel, but I felt their magic Presence on this occasion. It happened a few years ago, when I came home from a dinner party, deeply upset by the way a group of old friends had ganged up on one very vulnerable person. It was totally unlike them all, but puzzlngly, it had happened. Too churned up to go to bed, I decided to make a cup of tea, but didn’t bother to switch on the kitchen light, since the hall light dimly illuminated the space.

This was my downfall, because in the half light, I poured the boiling water from the kettle over my hand. I stepped back away from the scalding water now running over the bench, and my high heels slipped in the water spilling onto the floor. I fell backwards, pulling the kettle on top of me, thus scalding my stomach as well as both hands.

Almost insane with the pain, with the skin hanging off my fingers, I somehow rang a help-line for advice on what to do, and they sent an ambulance. Morphine and more blessed morphine got me to hospital, and once there, the doctor treating me warned me about the seriousness of the burns, and the likelihood of long-term nerve damage. My arm would be in a sling for three months and I would need long-term treatment and physiotherapy. Then I was wheeled into a side room until someone had time in Emergency to transfer me to a ward.

I lay there for three hours, during which I experienced the most blissful moments of my life. As I felt the company of heaven enveloping me in an un-earthly love, peace, joy, glory, I thanked them ecstatically over and over again for the accident, which had brought me to this place.

When I was wheeled into a ward, I felt quite wild with bliss. Back home the next day, when the nurse called to change the bandages, I knew when she took them off, there would be no wounds, and I was right. The burns were completely healed apart from some sore red patches on my stomach, on which the nurse smeared honey every day for a week, which completed the healing.

The few people I shared this experience with were divided into those who believed it, and those who said it was the effect of the morphine… except that I never needed even an aspirin for pain afterwards, since I had no pain or scars. And when I shattered my leg last year and was in hospital and on morphine for months, I never felt how I had felt that night. The Company of Heaven cannot be explained away.

So now, Christmas is here again, and probably Christmas angels are with us as usual, even though we may not see them, or feel them, or believe in them, and I remember the lovely lines of Francis Thompson:

‘The angels keep their ancient places;

Turn but a stone and start a wing!

‘Tis ye, ’tis your estranged faces,

That miss the many-splendoured thing.’

And though we may not see the many-splendoured thing, we can take comfort if we wish, in knowing that the angels do still keep their ancient places… that ’angels and archangels and all the company of heaven’ in the words of the Anglican prayer book, are not just a fancy, but a truth.

A Happy and a Merry Christmas to all my friends who read this blog.

The picture is by Guercino. An angel in flight, c.1648. Red chalk, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

We had a little party to celebrate arriving in our forest two years ago… I cooked these little cheese biscuits to nibble, these amounts make about twenty. You need four ounces of butter, eight ounces of finely grated cheese, 3 ounces of plain flour, half teasp English mustard powder, quarter teasp cayenne pepper, and salt.

Cream butter and cheese with a fork, and add flour a tablespoon at a time, then the other ingredients. On a piece of baking parchment roll the mixture into a sausage about one and a half inches in diameter, and chill in the fridge. This can be made in advance and frozen if need be. Before baking, cut the roll into thin pieces the size of a coin, and cook on a baking tray for eight to ten minutes at 190C or 375 F… cool on cake rack. They’re best baked the day you need them.

 

Food for thought

Loveliness does more than destroy ugliness. A mere touch of it in a room, in a street, even on a door knocker, is a spiritual force. Ask the working-man’s wife, and she will tell you there is a moral effect even in a clean table cloth.

Henry Drummond, Scottish inspirational writer.

 

 

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Dancing to the music of time

Image result for world war two photos of us soldiers marching to the docks before d day

I was born in 1938, and have always been fascinated by what was happening in the world at that point in time when I was conceived and born, because the atmosphere and events of those times would have had huge and unknown emotional pressures on the people who bore me.

My father was an army reservist and had been re-called to the army by the time I was ten months. He didn’t return home until I was nearly nine, and when he did, came with a new step-mother. It was like being adopted by strange people who didn’t know me. My own mother had disappeared when I was six.

And in that time of first emerging into this world –  my world, and the world of everyone else – was convulsed by war. That world was on fire and I didn’t know it. Battles raged in the sky overhead, warships ranged the sea a few miles away, the country-side and the towns prepared for siege. And I didn’t know it.

So I have tried to track what was happening when I lived in this world, but was unconscious of it, and have read so many diaries which tell me far more than official histories…  I’ve read the inner stories of housewives and politicians, pacifists and generals, and have a shelf of books telling how it was for those who lived through the mayhem.

I’ve just finished reading the diaries of Sir Alec Cadogan, who was Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office from the last two years of Appeasement, and then during, and after the war. I learned so much from him that isn’t in the history books.  I’d first come across him, when Churchill was wrestling with Stalin over the Russian plans for that tragic country, Poland. His advice, based on the fact that Britain had gone to war to defend Poland, put the moral viewpoint un-erringly.

And the tragedy was that Britain was in no position to risk a third world war by defying Stalin, supported as Stalin was at that time, by Roosevelt. The Free Poles had been based in London throughout the war, and Churchill, Eden, Cadogan and company had had to placate, comfort, and put up with – what I hadn’t realised until reading Cadogan’s diary – the Poles, nagging away all the time, plus fending off the aggressive resident Russians at the Russian Embassy.

The British were also juggling de Gaulle and the internecine rivalries of the resident Free French, plus the touchy Dutch, the slippery Turks, trying to keep them neutral, the belligerent Yugoslavs, the Americans and their suspicions of the English, as well as of de Gaulle, (Roosevelt and his advisers preferred the Vichy government),  the Spanish and problems over them supplying the Germans with wolfram, the Portuguese and negotiations to use the Azores, and the Greeks and their Communists, to mention only a few of Cadogan’s continuing diplomatic challenges. And then there were all the floating kings and queens who had fled Europe, been deposed, or abdicated. London must have been a fascinating place to be then.

Reading of the sixteen hours a day spent in cabinet meetings and conferences, puzzling over how best to handle Hitler during the last period of Appeasement was a revelation to me. Appeasement has been seen as so shameful, but as Cadogan kept advising his political masters, they just didn’t have the military muscle to do anything But negotiate. While they had only ten out of fifteen battleships with the other five in dry dock, the navy was impotent, as was the non-existent air force, and the tiny ill-equipped army, still managing on World War One weapons. On the other hand, Germany, after breaking the Versailles agreements, had built up a modern army and air force equipped with the latest weapons.

To read the endless agonising over the exact words of a telegram to Hitler, trying to gauge the impact of each word, whether it would conciliate, offend, alienate, deter, appease, buy time to re-arm, while at the same time juggling with Roosevelt’s imperious interference, even though at the time he had no intention of becoming involved, left me awed and admiring at the brilliance, industry, patience, and implacable integrity of Cadogan.

He was a direct descendant of the first Earl Cadogan who had been the principal Staff Officer and Director of Intelligence in ten campaigns for the Duke of Marlborough, Churchill’s famous ancestor. On the eve of a battle in Flanders in 1702, Marlborough reconnoitred the positions. He threw down his glove, and harshly told Cadogan to pick it up, which he did. That night, when Marlborough said he wanted the main battery set up at the place where he dropped his glove, Cadogan was able to say that it was already in place. His intuition was so finely tuned to his chief, that he had understood immediately the purpose of the supposed insult.

On 13 June 1940, Churchill took his Cadogan with him to Tours when he flew over to try to stiffen the collapsing French Government.  Seeing them together as “they listened to the agonising tale at Tours”, Sir Edward Spears, who was interpreting, wrote: “ here were the descendants of the two great leaders, brought together as their forebears had been by virtue of the services their Houses have rendered, generation after generation, to the country…. I thought how fortunate England has been to be served through the centuries by such men, and by others imbued with the same transcendent loyalty, though bearing lesser names… at that moment… the old story of the Flanders battlefield… flashed in my mind… as I watched the two men in that small room at Tours.”

It was Cadogan who framed the formulae at Dumbarton Oaks which became the basis of the UN Charter. And at San Franscisco, Cadogan, who was the permanent British representative, despaired over the obstructions of the Russians. I particularly enjoyed the story of the UN being broadcast all around America, and as a particularly verbose bore got up to speak, Cadogan could be heard groaning to himself in his clipped English tones, “Oh God!”

I finished the book last night, and regretted doing so. I read it slowly over about three weeks, all seven hundred pages or more. He would go down to Kew Gardens in London like we used to do, to see the magnolias out, or the bluebells, or the autumn trees. He never failed to notice the first crocuses of spring, and watched with approval the progress of the tulips and the wall flowers in the gardens as he paced through Green Park and St James on his way to his office in Whitehall. His idea of relaxation at the end of a tough week, if he wasn’t painting, was to dig over a garden bed, and plant it. This book was a good two dollars- worth from Trademe, and worth ten times the price.

More than any of the books I’ve read as I’ve tried to piece together the world as it was when I entered it, this one filled in many blanks and felt like a logbook of human experience. And more than that, while I was reading it, it gave me the experience of living with someone of the utmost integrity and unself-conscious goodness. In a world still convulsed with problems of an immensity that mankind seems to feel powerless to solve, goodness is precious and inspiring.

Fifteen-year-old Anne Frank, who was destroyed by the world I grew into, wrote these indestructible words back then: ‘In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever- approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquillity will return again.’

This is the sort of goodness and optimism that we needed then and we still need now too.

The picture is of US troops marching to the docks to embark for D-Day… It looks like Weymouth where I spent the war years.

Food for threadbare gourmets

I want to eat masses of vegetables at the moment, and cook meals consisting of nothing else some days… wilted greens, a mix of broccolini, spinach, grated or sliced courgettes or asparagus lightly steamed, is one of my favourite combinations at the moment, and is good with meat or eaten on its own. Lightly cook the broccolini and asparagus, gently fry the courgettes in a little butter and then add the torn spinach leaves. When all these vegetables are lightly cooked, toss them together in a little dijon mustard. In a separate bowl mix together a table spoon of horseradish sauce, quarter of a cup of sour cream, and a few table spoons of cream, pour over the vegetables and boil up quickly. I sometimes slice cooked new potatoes into this mix too, and it’s satisfying and filling. It’s good with grilled chicken.

Food for thought

We are each made for goodness, love and compassion. Our lives are transformed as much as the world when we live these truths.

Archbishop Edmund Tutu

 

 

 

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