Category Archives: military history

A soldier’s life is terrible hard! (says Alice)

Image result for duchess of kent in wrac uniform

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

Gentle in manner, resolute in deed, was the motto of the lady-like group of women I now joined – no rifles, mud-covered faces, raucous corporals or killing fields for us. The picture above is our Colonel Commandant, the Duchess of Kent, and my company commander, Major Betty Metcalfe- veteran of the war, and a blonde, elegant blue- eyed woman.

The recruiting officer had sent me to the Regular Commissions Board to see if I was officer material. Here I had had a pleasant surprise – though I was the youngest, everyone else was young and full of fun –  and life began to look up. I jumped through all the hoops for three days, and was eventually informed that I was indeed officer material.

Back home waiting for the date to join up, when I continued to drive my parents mad dreaming around the place, and my father had uttered with relish threats like: “they’ll wake you up when you join the army”, and: “you’re going to get the shock of your life when you get there”, I wasn’t too worried.

I got to the WRAC Depot on the wrong day, just as I’d got the dates wrong all my life, taking half term holidays when every-one else was at school, arriving to catch the plane as it landed the other end, taking a train to Chester instead of York, or Birmingham instead of Cardiff.

My unheralded arrival at the depot caused great consternation, and several anxious conferences I discovered later. It was decided to park me with the recruit company which was already half way through its training. The quartermaster resolutely refused to issue me with a uniform, because it would screw up her account books, but was prevailed upon to allow me a pair of shoes in order to do all the marching I was about to embark on.

Not knowing the procedure, when they took me to the quartermaster’s stores, I took fitting my shoes as seriously as though I was in Russell and Bromley buying some fabulously expensive gear. I pinched the toes, checked the heels, worried about the width, and walked up and down trying several different ones for size, while the quartermaster’s staff looked on in dumb disbelief, and allowed me to get away with it, since I was obviously away with the fairies! Later I discovered that it was just a question of saying your size and taking what you were given. Ignorance/innocence was bliss…

I was then escorted to the barrack-room, with a corporal helping me to carry my suit case. As we neared the entrance, I heard the clatter of seventy pairs of shoes thundering along wooden floors, and can still remember my subconscious thought, “Oh, they must have taken the carpets up for cleaning…”

Since the quartermaster – a fearsome figure – had dug her toes in over my uniform, I had to trail around at the end of the squad in my old red raincoat, the only thing I had to wear. Every time the Colonel – another fearsome figure – saw my red mac, it was worse than a red rag to a bull, because she then trounced the harried Adjutant for the incompetence of everyone down the chain of command who hadn’t issued me with uniform. Thus, unbeknown to me, I became famous or rather, infamous throughout the depot.

Meanwhile I solemnly got on with the job of being a recruit, with a lot of help from my fellows, who thought I was going to be a clerk or a cook like them. Since I was out of sequence with the other officer cadets, I was in with a room of diverse and fascinating girls, some escaping the slums, some escaping their parents, others escaping an unhappy marriage, or a cruel employer. There were also two girls from the Gorbals, the notorious Glasgow slums, whose speech was salted with curses and swear words – most of them new to my ears.

One night, after another exhausting day of: “by the right, by the left”, right wheeling, left wheeling, right form, and lectures, with the same programme awaiting us the next day, I got tired of their strident voices and obscenities keeping us all awake while we tried to get our much- needed sleep. I said to them very crisply in my pukka Queen’s English, down the length of the barrack room – “Good Bloody Night !” There followed a deafening silence and I went straight off to sleep.

At lunch-time the next day, a deputation from the barrack room came to me, and asked me very seriously not to be corrupted, and start using bad language. They gently told me I’d been brought up properly, and they didn’t want me to be influenced by people who didn’t know any better! I promised them I’d be a good girl, thinking of my father, and wondering if he would think I was getting that shock to the system that was going to wake me up!

Because I’d muddled up my dates, when I emerged as a fully- fledged recruit, my fellow officer cadets were still some weeks behind me, so I was a spare wheel. They invented a temporary rank for me, and I was called a Senior Private. I had the job of marching the new recruits to the cookhouse, which was no sinecure, because you had to remember the right military words of command, shout them loud enough for a long column to hear, and get them timed for the right feet to come to a halt in sequence.

My counting was a shambles so the girls stumbled instead of coming to a brisk halt, and the worst time was when we’d reached the cook house and I couldn’t remember the word for Halt! Finally, as they were in danger of piling up against the door, continuing to march with no word of command to halt them, I shouted “Stop!” in desperation, and I could hear them all muttering things like, “we didn’t get the right foot… she didn’t give us the right command… what’s wrong with her”… responsibility is a terrible thing, I would have told Alice.

By now I was in a new barrack room with all the tough old hands, and one morning in the first week, someone dropped their highly polished shoes for parade, and exclaimed: “Shit”. There was a heavy intake of breath around the room, and then silence. She turned to me and said “I’m sorry”. “Why apologise to me?” I asked in amazement. “Because we all decided we wouldn’t swear when you came into this room,” she said!

My poor father would have been sadly disappointed – coddled and protected, when was I going to wake up?  But a soldier’s life was terrible fun! So after my somewhat chequered career as a recruit I set off for officer cadet school with the rest of my intake – all eleven of us who had surfaced from the forty other applicants.

I learned later that it was no coincidence that the Colonel happened to come past the transport as we left, looking keenly at me! Oblivious to the impact I had had on various unfortunates at the depot, I discovered that officer cadet school was just like going back to boarding school, only better – I got paid!. As the youngest, and just out of school, I probably found it easier than the rest who had enjoyed their freedom. But to me, regular study periods, meals in the dining room, putting on uniform every day, was just more of the same.

Cadet school was set in a camp left behind by the Canadians after D –Day. Our nearest neighbours were the TB patients in the next- door sanatorium. No potential there for hobnobbing with the opposite sex. The camp was surrounded by silver birch woods, which stretched for miles to the nearest village, and on still June nights I would wake to hear nightingales singing in the moonlight.

The only difference to boarding school was the hours spent on the huge parade ground being drilled by a tiny sergeant major, less than five feet tall, whose mighty voice echoed not just around the parade square but on and beyond to the main Portsmouth road. As the eleven of us wheeled and drilled, and right formed, and fell into line, came to a halt, and about turned, a line of lorry drivers would pull up on the side of the road to watch us for their amusement, while they ate their sandwiches for lunch.

Thus it felt all the more humiliating, when dreaming about the un-read pages of the timid love letter stuffed hastily into my battledress top to read in our break, that I missed a step, failed to hear the word of command and carried on marching in the opposite direction when the rest had about turned. Love letters – or what passed for them – were a fairly scarce commodity at cadet school, as we might as well have been in a nunnery, we saw so few men or even boys.

The highlights of each term were the invitations to the house of an elderly couple who invited batches of Sandhurst cadets and us girls to hear talks on Moral Re-Armament. Their house just missed being stately, their servants were helpful, their food was heavenly, the worthy talks were utterly boring to frivolous young women, but the chaps might be interesting, we hoped. They never were but hope always sprang eternal.

Apart from the daily morning parades, and the hours spent perfecting our drill and learning to shout commands that one day would be directed at our platoons when we took them on parade, we spent a great deal of time in lectures on arcane subjects like pay scales, army regulations, map-reading and leadership.

No rifle drill for us, but instead lectures from a series of university lecturers on constitutional history, current affairs, scientific trends and something called Clear Thinking, which involved logic, and fallacies and syllogisms – all considered necessary for a well-educated officer back in 1957!

Constitutional history was taught by the scion of a famous German intellectual family who’d escaped Hitler before the war, but the name of this gentleman was so long that generations of philistine and irreverent cadets just called him ‘Footy’, which he pretended not to know. He also pretended not to know that we never listened to a word he told us about constitutional history and the balance of power between the Commons and the House of Lords, but sat instead endlessly practising our signatures, or planning what to wear on our next trip to London.

Scientific Trends was taught by another mid-European lecturer, only unlike Footy who’d grown up in England, this very gentle man had a very thick accent and a deadly monotone. He showed films to illustrate the latest scientific trends, and as his lectures were conducted in the cadet sitting room, where there was a film screen, we just curled up in an arm chair in the dark with a bar of chocolate, and usually dozed off.

The rest of the syllabus was devoted to giving us an understanding of life, and the background many of our future charges came from, so we visited a Lyons Swiss roll factory to see what life on a conveyor belt was like, attended a Petty Sessions where we saw sad souls parade before the magistrates, and I felt like a voyeur, and worst of all, went to the Old Bailey. The day we were there we watched a murderer condemned to death, after a crime passionel. His voice after sentence had been passed was like the rustling of dry leaves.

The most challenging part of officer training was the two days I spent in the cook house, discovering how hard life really was. My worst crime was to leave the potatoes so long in the potato peeling machine that they came out the size of marshmallows. The kindly cooks who actually had to deal with this catastrophe, covered up for me, and my copybook was not as blotted as it might have been.

A handful of lectures on strategy and army organisation at Sandhurst were memorable for the lunch breaks when we mingled with the Sandhurst cadets. My most lasting memory is going for a punt on the lake, and it sinking, and my partner in this exploit – John Blashford-Snell, who has since become a famous explorer who did the first descent of the Blue Nile, explored the whole Congo River, and the Amazon, shooting many rapids unscathed – had to wade ignominiously back to shore, towing me sitting on the end of the leaky vessel.

The one thing I did master while at cadet school were the steps to the Charleston, then back in fashion. I perfected the knock knees, pigeon toes and tight sideways kick by holding onto the back of my chair in the lecture room as we waited for the next lecturer to arrive. I practised my dancing until I was foot perfect, and by the time we Passed- Out was acknowledged as top of the class by my peers in this useful social accomplishment.

At the end of this gruelling training, interspersed with dances, parties and uniformed guest nights – when we practised the solemn ritual of Passing the Port – you Never lift the decanter from the table and only slide it in the coaster from right to left so it goes around in a circle, using Only the right hand – five of us emerged as second lieutenants. And now reality hit us.

Second lieutenants, we discovered, were despised by all, except new recruits. Everyone knew we hadn’t the faintest idea of what we had to do, from the regimental sergeant major down to the newest corporal. We were saluted, and called ma’am, but we knew that behind this ritual was the thinly concealed contempt of ‘old hands’.  Wet behind the ears, my father would have called us.

Many of the old hands had been through the war, like my motherly platoon sergeant who told me they knew D-Day must be in the offing, when they had to give up all the sheets from their beds, so that the huge new detachments of American soldiers arriving nearby could have the same sheets on their beds! And in the end, it was my platoon sergeant and the company sergeant major who taught me what I needed to know. Which seemed to be mostly to do what they told me!

Their commands varied from: “Here’s the pay books to sign, ma’am”, to: “Time to inspect the recruits, ma’am”, to: “Time to have your tea ma’am”. My requests varied from: “What shall I do now, Sergeant Major?” to: “D’you know where Private Smith is ?  She hasn’t made the tea yet.” A soldier’s life is terrible hard…with apologies to AA Milne and Christopher Robin

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 Raw food isn’t really my thing, but I found this recipe for mushroom pate rather delicious. Chop twelve to fifteen baby mushrooms or two really big portobello mushrooms, and marinate them in two tablespoons of olive oil and the same of tamari soya sauce, for half an hour. Put half a cup of walnuts in a food processor and pulse until slightly broken down, and add the mushrooms and a clove of garlic. Pulse until the mixture is slightly chunky and add salt and black pepper to taste. Good on crackers with a glass of wine, or sherry…

Food for thought

Clanmother sent me this time ago, and I love it.  She wrote:   ”  J.R.R. Tolkien lost his best friends in WWI. One of my favourite quotes on war comes from his work, “The Return of the King,”
‘It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under army, british soldiers, cookery/recipes, humour, military history, Thoughts on writing and life, uncategorised, Uncategorized

My army life

Image result for Catterick camp circa 1950

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

I had left the convent and started the state high school at the same time that an army quarter became available at Catterick Camp, where my father’s cavalry regiment was stationed. Not only was it a place where thousands of young men trained and soldiered, it was also home to generations of children like myself, who grew up with the names of old battles in our ears. Catterick was divided into smaller camps, each one like a small town, and each with its own name, Cambrai, Kemmel, Somme, Ypres. My father’s regiment occupied Menin Lines. The roads were named after Generals. We lived in Haig Road, next door to French Road, and then Rawlinson Road. Long before I knew anything about the First World War, I knew all the names and places.

We children also knew the regiments our fathers belonged to, and took as much pride in them as though we were serving in them ourselves, indulging in the same military snobberies that our parents did. Those of us with fathers in cavalry regiments felt infinitely superior to the rest. We acknowledged girls with fathers in infantry regiments, but felt only pity for children with parents in corps, so that Caroline, who lived in the largest house in the street because her father was a brigadier, was somewhat patronised by we children, because her father was ‘only’ in the Royal Signals.

As I walked home from school, and passed each army quarter I would amuse myself by chanting under my breath the names of the historic regiments that each inhabitant belonged to… 17/21st Lancers, Royal Signals, 15/19th Hussars, Royal Army Service Corps, 12th Lancers, Fifth Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, (Captain Oates of the Antarctic’s regiment), and the 14/20th Kings Hussars.

My father had given me all Wellington’s Peninsula campaigns to read, including Captain Titus Oates’ favourite reading in the Antarctic -Napier’s History of the Peninsula Wars – so I was well up on the history of many of these old regiments. Conan Doyle’s tales about Sir Nigel and the White Company in medieval France, combined with Joan Grant’s books on Egypt and re-incarnation, The Three Musketeers’, The Scarlet Pimpernel’, ‘I Claudius’ and lots of John Buchan were also part of my eclectic reading list.

Rare excursions to the cinema were so exciting. I was allowed to see ‘Hamlet’, ‘Henry V, and ‘Oliver Twist’, and it was considered that ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ was also suitably educational. The moment when they killed the ponies – rather sanitised, in hindsight – is preserved in amber in my memory. Forget the men, it was the ponies I cried for.

Like everyone else, my father had his own batman, who, like everyone else’s batman, did lots of domestic chores like cleaning the silver, fetching coal, chopping wood, and even vacuuming, when he’d finished polishing brass buttons and chain mail, leather Sam Browne, shoes, long, leather Wellington boots and silver spurs.

Maloney was a tall gawky Irishman, with buck teeth and a drinking problem. I knew this because when he arrived at eight in the morning, I would smell it on his breath when I sneaked out to the scullery where he was polishing shoes, to ask him the time. The bus went at eight twenty- five, and there was just time to walk the mile from the bus-stop the other end to get to school for nine o’clock.

My parents had trouble getting up every morning, and though I was expected to cook breakfast for them at the weekends, my stepmother became angry if I started to cook the breakfast during the week, as this implied criticism of her. From seven- thirty every day of my life I hovered in the kitchen in an agony of suspense, as the minutes ticked by, getting to the point where I would miss the bus. As long as she arrived in the kitchen by ten past eight there was just time to gobble the food, grab my coat and satchel and run.

I prepared as much of the breakfast as I could, to make it a lightning cooking operation when my stepmother appeared, but too often I bolted down the bacon, egg, tomato, and fried bread so I felt sick as I ran to the main road for the bus. I begged just to have toast for breakfast, but my stepmother was adamant that we should all have a “good breakfast”.

I don’t know how much good it would have done, eaten at that level of tension. At the other end at school, there was disgrace, and punishment for being late, as if children had any control over their comings and goings. There were also the embarrassing interviews with the headmistress over why I wasn’t wearing school uniform… I walked around in a blue tweed skirt when everyone else was kitted out by their proud parents in the navy school uniform. When I finally got mine it had to last for the next three years through five inches of growth and  two more schools, both with brown uniforms, not navy blue, and I darned the seat until the repairs were breaking away from the worn, shiny fabric.

This was a humiliating experience for a suppressed fashionista who overheard sotto voce remarks from clever classmates about genteel poverty, and whose siblings at private schools were immaculately equipped. I only had thin white cotton socks even in winter, and my feet were so frozen in the north country cold that I was in real pain while they thawed out at school. The excruciating chilblains which covered my legs and fingers were partly from this I suppose, and partly from magnesium deficiency, probably the result of the level of tension I lived at.

Maloney, the batman, was terrified of my parents too, and he would silently show me his watch as the minutes ticked by. Whenever he went home to Ireland on leave, he couldn’t face coming back, and would go absent without leave until the Military Police found him in some Irish pub, and returned him, and he would then serve his time in “the glasshouse”, as my parents called it, though I never knew why.

And then, he would re- appear one morning, looking sheepish. I always missed him, as well as his watch, when he went on leave. During the holidays, there was a different sort of tension, both in the morning and after lunch before my father went back to his office. Every officer carried a swagger stick in those days, and my father was always mislaying his. If I was around I was expected to look for it, and find it. The dreaded cry would go up: “I’ve lost my stick”, and I’d fly into frenzied action, not always successfully.

The children who lived around us fell into two, very distinctive groups just after the war, those who were afraid of their parents and those who weren’t. The lucky ones had fathers who had bonded with them again when the war was over – these fathers had usually been in non-combatant corps. Others had fathers like mine who had fought  bloody battles for six years, and who now spent just as many years recovering from the war, went on having nightmares regularly, drank heavily to deaden the pain, and often treated their children like the soldiers in their command. They’d be treated for post- traumatic stress disorder in these more enlightened days.

Many of us had post-war brothers and sisters who had displaced us. I recognised, even then, the faint air of anxiety in the mothers of several of my friends who were torn between alcoholic husbands- sometimes violent- their first pre-war child, and the new baby.

Like me, the older child would be shunted out to Sunday School, and sent to do the weekly shopping. Like me, the older child would have chores in the house to do, while the other group were out playing. We tended to play with the children in our own group. It was hard to explain to children who had tolerant or reasonable parents why we couldn’t do such and such, or why we were so terrified if we were late home, or tore a dress, or lost a hair ribbon.

In those days, I never came by elastic bands to hold the ribbons on my plaits. I don’t even know if they were available, or whether my stepmother had decided they were an unnecessary extravagance when we were hard-up. Whatever the reason, my hair ribbons were always slipping off my plaits, and I spent hours re-tracing my foot-steps, looking for a crushed bow on the pavement.  The children with parents like ours understood instantly when we went into panic over some trivial incident or couldn’t invite them home.

We all wordlessly envied the other group, whose individuals we sometimes described as being “spoiled”. Children like William, for example, whose mother doted on him, and Priscilla and Jane whose parents never minded if they brought us home, Caroline, an only child whose mother encouraged her to invite me to tea and to play. I was allowed to have her back for tea once, and it was so stiff with us all trying to behave like a relaxed, happy family that I never tried again.

Melanie and her brother had horsy, hunting parents, and whereas Melanie didn’t mind riding, her seven-year old brother Conrad was permanently in disgrace because he was terrified, and often vomited before his riding lesson. This didn’t save him. Their mother spent most of her time hunting and judging hunter trials. Their father became an MFH (Master of the Fox Hounds) when he retired from the regiment. I saw Melanie’s wedding photo in Tatler at fashionable St Margaret’s, Westminster, years later. Her eyes were now ice-cold blue like her mother’s, her face a frozen mask.

Moira was such a wreck at eight years old, that my stepmother recognised it, and told me to be kind to her because she had a hard time. She never defined what the hard time was, though I knew. The awful thing about it was that none of us children could stand Moira because she personified how we felt at our very worst. And she was like it all the time. Her mother was tall and elegant, with a beaky nose and long red painted nails, and was like a vulture pecking incessantly at the truly wretched child. Today we’d call it emotional abuse, and it’s still the easiest form of sadism to inflict on a child without being discovered.

I myself seemed to spend a lot of time in disgrace, which meant being banished up to my bedroom, until given permission to come down. This sometimes meant all day, and missed meals. It was often freezing in winter. I identified deeply with David Copperfield sitting up in his room, terrified of Mr and Miss Murdstone downstairs. Sometimes I wasn’t told when it was okay to come out of banishment and if I came out too soon, I wasn’t penitent and if I came out too late, I was sulking.

My misdemeanours were trivial, like the problem with my hair. Every Saturday, after it was washed, I had to towel it dry. This meant I was left with a headful of tangles looking like Medusa. The bakelite combs of those days were brittle and broke easily, and time and again, a tooth would snap. And time and again I was in disgrace for this.

Another time I was confronted with an old French exercise book my stepmother had found while I was at school. On the last blank page, having no other drawing paper, I had spent a happy Saturday afternoon drawing an oak tree in the field next door. She insisted I must have done it during a French lesson, and when I asked her why she didn’t believe me, she said if I had done it legitimately, I couldn’t have resisted boastfully showing it to them. At this I knew I was beaten. When I cried for hours in my room, I would try to console myself by promising myself that one day I would write about it.

It was now that I became a ward of court. If it was a bad time for me, in hindsight I realise it was also bad for my parents. With their money draining away on court cases, in which my father had obstinately refused to concede that I should see the mother I never mentioned (of course not, I thought she was a taboo subject, and that no-one knew where she was), he took refuge from that and everything else, in heavy drinking.

This was an easy thing to do in good company in a rich cavalry regiment after the war. But this left my stepmother short of companionship as well as money in the snobbish society of the regiment.  I was at the end of this chain of despair. I knew my stepmother was depressed when she came down to breakfast wearing powder, but no lipstick. She was particularly depressed when she wore a brown and fawn checked, swagger jacket which didn’t suit her, and no lipstick. The tip of her nose used to turn pink when she was angry. I carefully watched for all these signs.

Christmas parties were a feature of childhood social life in this group. I used to feel sick when I woke in the morning, and knew the day of the party had arrived. We would arrive and be taken upstairs to divest ourselves of our coats. I had long since grown out of my lovely blue coat with velvet collar, and was down to a navy gaberdine school mac. Each little girl would surreptitiously size up each newcomer as she stripped off and revealed her party finery. The fashion was for velvet dresses, and ballet shoes while all I had was a summer dress, and indoor shoes, a deprivation hard to forget even as we played party games and danced to the gramophone.

One of the best games was called Kim’s Game. A tray laden with small objects would be laid in front of us, and then after a few minutes, taken away, and we had to remember everything, and write a list. I nearly always won this game. We played charades too, and the game ‘Murder in the Dark’, and, best of all. Sir Roger de Coverley, danced just before the party ended, with the nannies and other parents come to collect their children, clapping from the side.

Then, out into the dark and the cold, to walk home alone, the ordeal over until the next one…back home to wake to the faint sounds of reveille drifting across the sports fields from the regimental barracks, and hearing the haunting strains of the last post as I waited for sleep at night.

To be continued – next – The pleasures of London

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 After sampling a Dutch neighbour’s gingerbread, I felt I had to rise to the occasion when she came to tea with me. I used a favourite and easy friand recipe. In a bowl place one and a half cups of ground almonds, and the same of sifted icing sugar, half a cup of flour, and combine.   Add six lightly beaten egg whites, stir together, then stir in 100 gms of unsalted melted butter and a tablespoon of grated lemon zest.

Spoon into a greased muffin tin and bake for 20 to 25 minutes in the oven at160c. The friands should be springy to touch, and moist in the centre. Dust with icing sugar and devour!!! This amount makes twelve.

Food for thought

 Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand that this too was a gift…

from The Uses of Sorrow by Mary Oliver

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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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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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Officially sanctioned ghosts

Image result for battle of edgehill

 

I learned about ghosts when I was a twenty-one- year old army officer stationed in Warwickshire. History seemed like the present in such a place – Banbury Cross was still there, Warwick and Warwick Castle were nearby, Stratford-on-Avon not far away, while behind our camp at Kineton lay the village of Warmington, which was near the site of the Battle of Edgehill, one of the first important battles of the English Civil War, fought in 1642. The Royalist army under Charles 1 (sometimes called Cavaliers) met the Parliamentarians, Oliver Cromwell’s troops here. (they were nicknamed Roundheads from their short chopped hair-do’s)

Nearly every English child back then, used to know the Prayer of Sir Jacob Astley which he murmured here after positioning the Royalist infantry which he commanded, on the morning of the battle: “Oh Lord, Thou knowest how busy I shall be this day. If I forget Thee, do not Thou forget me”.

The Royalist army  – 18,000 on foot and horseback- trumpets blaring and drums beating, had straggled through Warmington village on its way to the battlefield. (It was only Prince Rupert who used the new-fangled method of marching his troops in those days). People in the gracious grey stone manor house, and from the many gabled cottages still standing from that time, stood and watched the army go by.

After the indecisive but bloody struggle, some of the dead were buried in the churchyard, but many, both Royalist and Roundhead, died and were buried on the battlefield.

The Battle of Edgehill seemed to dominate the memories of people in the area, even though this was 1960. Or rather, the ghosts of the Battle of Edgehill. The site of the battle encroached onto army land, and there was an area where the guard dogs refused to patrol, or if they were dragged into it, they growled and barked, and their hackles rose. A single- track railway line was used to carry ammunition to various points (this was an ammunition depot), and at night, to convey the guards and their dogs to the perimeter of the camp, which covered some miles.

One of the legends of the battle which continually surfaced in people’s conversation was that anyone who saw the ghost of Sir Edmund Verney, Charles 1’s standard bearer, who was killed in the battle, would be involved in some disaster. The latest such victim was a man who had seen the ghost as a boy growing up in the village of Warmington.

As a man, he drove the train carrying men and goods around the camp. One foggy winter’s night, he thought he saw the ghost again, just as the train he was driving, carrying men and dogs on their way to guard duty, inexplicably left the rails, killing and injuring some of them.

It was no wonder that the memories and the legends of the battle should surface so often. Most of the people who lived in that place were descendants of the country people who had seen the event – Prince Rupert’s cavalry charges into the Roundhead infantry, and the flight of panicking, bleeding soldiers through their village. The villagers had lived through the long, cold frosty night of Sunday, October 23 when both sides stayed where they were on the battle field, the dead and the wounded around them.

They would have heard the groans and cries of wounded and dying men lying in the muddy fields which those farming folk later ploughed and planted, reaped and harvested for the rest of their lives. The memories of that day and that night would have stayed with them, and would be revived wherever and whenever they walked and worked over that land in the succeeding years, and those memories would have been passed onto their children and their children, until they reached us over three hundred years later.

The reliability of folk memory has probably not been scientifically proved, but for example, the country people in Turkey and what used to be Persia, still threaten their children with Alexander the Great if they are naughty. His conquest of their ancestors in 331 BC is still part of their reality today.

So the people in the villages and farms around Edgehill, Kineton and Warmington were never far away from their history either, and the anniversary of the battle was always remembered in those parts. The actual date, October 23, had become confused, owing to the changing from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar in 1752 in England. The Julian calendar had over-estimated the length of a year by some minutes. Over the centuries, the minutes had built up to some thirteen extra days by 1582, when Italy went into Gregorian time.

The changeover was always accompanied by the same sort of resistance as the 20th century opposition to decimal currency, which is why it took another two hundred years for England to change her calendar. (The old calendar is still in use in Mt Athos monasteries) It took some calculation to work out what the original October 23 was in the new Gregorian calendar, but the members of the Society for Psychical Research had been up to the challenge, and one of their number turned up the year I was there.

He brought a tape recorder, in the hope of recording the sounds of battle which were often heard on the anniversary. There was also the hope of seeing the Standard Bearer, to try to clear up the mystery of why his feet seemed to be below the surface of the fields, for he could only be seen from the ankles upwards.

The Society rather thought that the land must have risen by about six inches since 1642. This theory was based on the fact that when a group of ghostly Vikings were sighted hewing and slashing away in battle on some island off the coast of Northern England, they could only be seen from the knees upward, and geological evidence showed that the island had risen by some eighteen to twenty inches since then.

The researcher sat in my sitting room, and told me all this one night before the date of their enterprise. He also explained that ghosts needed exorcising, and that the Society had a team of tame priests who practised the rite of exorcism. He told me lurid stories of possession, of candles being seized by invisible entities, (evil of course), and priests standing fast, holding up the cross, chanting the Lord’s Prayer, or calling on His name.

It was only when I encountered a medium and healer nearly twenty years later in New Zealand, that I discovered that exorcism didn’t need to be a dramatic ceremony with bell, book, and candle.

This man who I’ll call Colin, worked with a tiny group of other mediums, doing what is known in his trade, as “rescue work”. They deliberately go into other planes of energy or consciousness, to find the lost souls who are what we call ghosts. According to him, and to others who quietly do this work, these ghostly energies haunt the place they have known when they were alive, or, in the case of people who have died suddenly, from accident, murder, or war, they remain trapped where it happened – so suddenly – that their consciousness hasn’t realised the body has died.

Colin explained that it’s very delicate work, because often, if you tell ghosts they are dead, they either don’t believe you, or they become so shocked and panic-stricken, that they remain stuck where they are, and the whole point of the exercise is defeated.

He told me about the ghost of a little girl who’d died before World War One. She had been searching for her kitten, when she heard it mewing from the bottom of a dis-used gold-mine near Waihi. Trying to rescue it, she fell in too, and was killed. Colin worked with another medium, a local traffic policeman, who gave up the work after this, in case word got out, and his career was endangered. The traffic cop was able to convey what the little girl was feeling, lost and lonely waiting to be rescued at the bottom of the mine.

” It was weird hearing this great big man talking in a frightened little girl’s voice,” Colin reminisced.

” We didn’t dare tell her she’d been dead for years. We also had to be careful about what we said about heaven and Jesus, because she remembered everything she’d been taught at Sunday School, and she had some mighty strange beliefs.

” It was real touch and go, winning her confidence, and then not saying anything that would upset her, in case we lost contact again.

” We nearly had her ready to go to her new home, where people she loved were, and Jesus too, when she suddenly remembered Sooty.

” ‘Oh, I can’t leave Sooty”, she cried. “They won’t let me take an animal to heaven’.  Well, we worked on that, and convinced her that Jesus would welcome a kitten to heaven, and then we heard her voice slowly fading, and then we heard her excitement when she saw someone she recognised. When I brought Tim back, we were exhausted. It had taken several hours. We were so relieved we were practically in tears.”

On the strength of these stories, I did my own exorcisms when needed, which I’ll write about next week, as this blog is already rather long. I’ll be fascinated to know the experiences of others too.

These thoughts and memories were inspired by a blog on ghosts I’ve just discovered: https://bookemjanoblog.wordpress.com/

Googling the battle I found this postscript : ‘Uniquely though, as a result of the Royal Commission’s investigation, the Public Record Office officially recognises the Edgehill ghosts. They are the only British phantoms to have this distinction’.

Food for threadbare gourmets

 

We were watching a car rally go past our gate, in the company of our neighbours, and we all gathered for a pot lunch afterwards. I had made a big plate of ham sandwiches, using beautiful ham off the bone, and when I brought those that were left home, I decided to use them for a quick supper.

I’ve mentioned them before, but some readers might like to be reminded. I dunked the sandwiches in a couple of eggs whipped up with milk, and then fried them in olive oil. Some had mustard on the ham, others were just bread and butter and ham. They were delicious, and seem quite different to ham sandwiches when cooked like this, Since they’re piping hot, they need to be eaten with a knife and fork.

 

Food for thought.

Sometime I like a good joke, and ‘1066 and All That’  by WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman is one of them.

They wrote about the Civil War that : The Cavaliers were wrong but romantic, and the Roundheads were right but repulsive.

 

 

 

 

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The truth about Dunkirk

Image result for dunkirk images

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

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

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

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

Food for thought

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

 

 

 

 

 

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“Old soldiers …”

Image result for 14/20th king's hussarsLeafing through an old notebook looking for a blank page to pull out to write a shopping list, I found these words I’d forgotten I’d written.

Timing isn’t always everything I decided, and though I’m late, these words still count…

Parade on Armistice Day

Behind that stern moustache

And row of clinking coloured medals

And Desert Rat insignia,

Service dress, and highly polished Sam Browne belt and sword holster

Stood a man.

 

A man who loved and laughed and grieved and swore and smoked and drank,

And played poker sitting on a petrol drum

Beside his tank in the desert.

He hated the beat of the Funeral March from ‘Saul’,

And he never forgot the ones who were ‘brewed up’.

This was the nightmare he fought most nights for the years of peace.

 

It had been a daily nightmare back then.

It had loomed while he shaved in half a mug of water,

And haunted his thoughts as he drank a mug of strong tea

To cut that terrible desert drought.

And he never forgot the spring flowers that bloomed in Tunisia.

 

Just like five weary years before,

He had never forgotten the women of Plymouth,

Who waited with steaming mugs of tea

For the cold, hungry men who landed at dawn

After escaping from Cherbourg,

Three long weeks after the miracle of Dunkirk.

 

In all the years between, he had been there,

And the names of his battles had

Reverberated through my childhood:

Bardia and Benghazi, Sidi Rezegh, and Sidi Barani,

Tobruk, Tunisia, Salerno and all the others…

He loved his friends and didn’t hate his foes.

Like Abou Ben Adhem, he loved his fellow men.

This was my father.

 

He was a cavalryman, and proud of the history of his historic regiment – an officer from his regiment was dispatched by the Duke of Wellington to take the news of Waterloo to London. It’s the regimental  cap badge at the top of this piece.

Though he survived the war, he didn’t live to old age, and like his other children I still miss him, and I regret not talking to him when I was old enough, or mature enough, to appreciate him the way his friends and his soldiers did. Both groups loved him.

One soldier in the British Army took leave from his posting in Gibraltar to come to London and find my father in his office at Whitehall to give him a watch. Ten years earlier, when we  were in Malaya, this man had been fighting the British. My father on patrol in the jungle, captured him, starving and nearly dead from scurvy.

My father helicoptered the ‘bandit’, as the insurgent communists were called, out of the jungle, and rushed him to the only grocery store for miles around, where we happened to be shopping at the time. He leapt out of the army vehicle, calling to my stepmother to buy a box of oranges. While she did this, he carried the soldier from the jeep into the back of our saloon car. Peeling an orange, he fed segments to the nearly unconscious ’bandit’, and then, as he began to revive, gestured to him to go on eating the oranges.

The man was taken to a rehabilitation centre, where he regained his health, renounced his communism, learned English, and finally joined the British Army. He never forgot my father and came to London ten years later to thank him for saving his life.

Armies and soldiers are sometimes reviled, often by people who do not know soldiers. But like most of his fellows, my father was a good and courageous man, a kind and tolerant man  – like most of the men of all ranks, that I grew up knowing on army camps around the world. Honor virtutis praemium.

Food for threadbare gourmets

For a celebratory birthday lunch the other day that wouldn’t take hours to cook, even though I felt roast chicken would be appropriate, I compromised. I had a couple of chicken breasts in the deep freeze, so after de-frosting slowly in the fridge, I trimmed them open a bit more, and spread a stuffing of whole grain breadcrumbs, onions and mushrooms chopped and cooked in butter, and lots of chopped sage and parsley, salt and pepper on one breast.

Placing the other breast on top, I wrapped them in rashers of bacon, making a parcel, and holding the rashers in place with toothpicks. Scrubbing a couple of Agria potatoes, I pricked them all over, rolled them in olive oil, and cooked them in their skins at the same time as the chicken. (Hot oven for about 45 minutes, or until ready). When cooked, the potatoes were mashed with lots of butter, salt and pepper.

Spinach and carrots completed the meal, along with good gravy made from chicken juices in the pan, while the chicken was ‘resting’ in a warm place. It was as good as if I’d cooked a whole chicken, and took half the time to cook

Food for thought

I am not interested to know whether Vivisection produces results that are profitable to the human race or doesn’t. … The pains which it inflicts upon unconsenting animals is the basis of my enmity towards it, and it is to me sufficient justification of the enmity without looking further.

Mark Twain. American writer, publisher, river boat pilot and many other things. One of his claims to fame was that he was born when Halley’s Comet showed up in 1835 and died, as he predicted, the day after it came back in 1910.

 

 

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