Category Archives: slavery

The truth about Dunkirk

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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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Filed under animals/pets, army, british soldiers, cookery/recipes, films, history, life and death, military history, slavery, Thoughts on writing and life, uncategorised, Uncategorized, world war two

Am I not a man and a brother?

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My husband took one look at my ravaged face, and retreated to his study. I had just returned from seeing the film ‘The Butler.’ Instead of the gracious meander through history at the White House that I’d expected from the trailer, I had watched another episode of the American Civil War which I thought had ended in 1856.

Too appalled even for tears, at the end of the film was I shell – shocked to hear that many of the freedoms fought for in that bitter sixties campaign I’d just watched, had later been repealed, replaced or blocked by President Reagan. ( I’d like to think that information was wrong )

It’s hard to get my head round this long-running disaster for humanity. Having grown up in a country where people joyously belt out: “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves”, in their annual singing orgy at the Albert Hall on the Last Night of the Proms, slavery under its many names had been something I grew up thinking  had disappeared from the civilised world,

It ended in England before the founding of the US, when in 1772 the Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield, decreed that anyone who set foot in England was automatically a free man. By this act he initiated the beginning of the abolition movement, led by William Wilberforce, and his supporters who included Quakers and Evangelicals. (Quakers on both sides of the Atlantic had been agitating for emancipation in the ‘Citty upon a Hill’ since George Fox, founder of Quakerism, visited the States, and preached against it in 1672)

Though a sick man, who took opium for most of his life to alleviate his pain, the heroic and persistent Wilberforce brought his anti – slavery bills before Parliament for over twenty years, until finally, Parliament voted against the slave trade in 1807. In 1808 the US also voted to end it, but not slavery itself, and so slaves were still bought and sold in the States. As a result of the British vote, the British Navy created the West Africa Squadron to patrol the African shores to prevent slave trading. The navy patrolled for sixty years, and at times, one sixth of the navy’s ships were at sea on this mission. Freed slaves were taken to Freetown in British Sierra Leone where they were safe from being re-captured. Over 150,000 Africans were freed in this way.

By 1834, England- as personified by Parliament – had come round to the idea of emancipation, and slaves were freed in most of the British colonies, including Canada and South Africa, and slave owners compensated at huge expense to the government. It meant that 800,000 slaves were gradually freed, and it also meant that many imports into England now cost a lot more. In the sometimes unhappy history of the British Empire this is one brownie point.

When Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it had bigger sales in England than America, and as one of her readers, as well as being an afficionado of the American Civil War, I had thought all had ended well for the slaves when the South was defeated. ‘Gone With The Wind’ did incalculable damage to the thinking of ignorant people like me.

The picture it painted of a noble, benevolent society with happy, contented slaves living in harmony with masters they loved, was a travesty of truth, I discovered –  no hint of anyone being bought and sold, families destroyed, and later, lynch mobs, Klu Klux Klan or Billie Holiday’s song ‘ Bitter Fruit’- which came out in the same year as the film. The rude way black people were spoken to and humiliated, even in benign films like ‘Driving Miss Daisy’, shocked me. As did the true story of Hadley Hemingway losing all Hemingway’s manuscripts, and when she was too shattered to tell him, he finally confronted her with the thing he dreaded most: “You’ve been sleeping with a Negro.”

Twenty years ago when  Ken Burns’ moving films introduced me to the Civil War, I also read a fascinating and horrifying series of reports which jobless students were commissioned to write during the Depression. They interviewed and recorded the memories of the slaves who were still alive in the thirties, and those memories were harrowing, whether before or after Emancipation. Singer and actress, Hattie McDaniels, who played Mammy in ‘Gone With The Wind’ was the daughter of slaves, and her lot was not much better.

She was asked not to attend the opening night of the film in Atlanta in 1939, and when she won Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars, had to sit alone in specially segregated seating. She was also not allowed to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery which even practised segregation in death! When I learned this, I was still not aware of how the South had been gradually winning the Civil War with Jim Crow laws, and especially in the twenties and thirties, suppressing black civil rights, expanding segregation, and passing laws like the ‘one drop of negro blood’ in 1924, which condemned innocent people to a ‘shadow’ existence.

‘Shadow’ families were those like Thomas Jefferson’s children, born to a slave, Sally Hemings. She was herself more than half white, and thanks to the exploitation of slave women then, was also an aunt of Jefferson’s legitimate daughter through Jefferson’s wife.  Jefferson’s and Sally’s children were seven- eighths white. If they hadn’t already disappeared into white society back before the Civil War, they would have been trapped by these creeping race rulings.

A friend whose ancestor was General Pettigrew, the other general who led Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, gave me a biography of the general which had been published recently. As I read it I became increasingly puzzled, for the general was such a heroic paragon , who apparently embodied all the chivalric qualities of a noble cavalier, that even his predilection for quarrelling and the resultant duels were held to be virtues, and typical of his aristocratic society.

The barbarians of the North, inhospitable, dour, materialistic Protestants, had destroyed both this magnificent young man and the civilisation of the ‘old South’ that he represented, according to the writer. In the end, I Googled him, and light dawned. He was still fighting the Civil War! Not only was this writer a man of great reputation in the South, but he had founded a league of Southern gentlemen, which some people – like me – would feel that in the light of Southern men’s record, was an oxymoron.

There’s another film due to come out about slavery, the true story of a free black American living in the North who was kidnapped, and sold into slavery in the South. His horrendous ordeal lasted for twelve years, and when he escaped he wrote his story, which has gradually been forgotten.

Two black Englishmen have produced this film, and I won’t be watching it. I know enough. I already believe in the cause of freedom, and I’m too much of a coward to watch the cruelties and inhumanities that I saw in the trailer. The title to this blog comes from a medallion struck in 1787 by Josiah Wedgewood, the great potter, and  supporter of Wilberforce’s abolition campaign. The words go straight into my heart.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I had a big bunch of watercress, and decided to make soup with it. Mrs Beeton, who I consulted, had three recipes for it, and this was the one I fancied. The fiddliest bit was taking the leaves off the stalks, as I have a feeling the stalks taste bitter. Gently sauté the leaves in butter for a couple of minutes, then remove from heat. Mix about a dessertspoonful of cornflour with some milk, whisk it into chicken stock, and add the cress. I leave a few leaves aside, and then whisk everything with my stick whizzer. Quickly re-heat and add cream to taste, and a pinch of cayenne. The rest of the cress leaves float greenly on the top. The amount of stock depends on how much cress you have, and it’s easy to gauge.

Food for Thought

 “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference”                                                                                          Elie Wiesel- born1928.  Writer and survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. When he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, the Norwegian Nobel Committee called him a “messenger of peace”.

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The upsides and the downsides of being a woman

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Something made me re-read a book for girls which my Victorian grandmother had pressed on me when I was seven. It was about a girl who’d lost her mother, and whose military father was absent. It pressed a few buttons for me, though at seven I didn’t realise why. ‘The Wide Wide World’ by Miss Wetherell, was published in 1850, and became an instant best seller on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s a vivid picture of rural America in the 1840’s, and the forerunner of all those other girls books. Jo March reads it in ‘Little Women’.

Ostensibly the story of an orphan who becomes a fervent Christian and whose faith sustains her throughout constant miseries and trials, re-reading it I saw something else. It was a perfect picture of the powerlessness of women, and of how ingrained this powerlessness was.  Ellen, the heroine, never has any choices, and even when she finds happiness with the upright Christian, John Humphreys, she is totally subservient to him, and finds her greatest happiness in pleasing him. So powerlessness was held up to generations of girls as being a virtue.

This theme of powerlessness was on my mind, after reading a wonderful list in another blog, of a person’s rights, which included having the right to say no, to remove oneself from an abusive situation, not have to explain oneself etc. And as I thought about these rights, and how I’d painfully allowed myself to claim them over a long life of invalidating myself, I realised that the reason most people – but especially women – have to be reminded of these rights is because they do feel powerless, and this is too often the result of the way we bring up our children.

We don’t allow them to be angry and say no, or choose what foods they eat, or what subjects they will take at school… too often from the day they are born, children are treated like brown paper parcels, and rarely given information about where they’re going or what they’re going to be doing; often their needs are secondary to the needs of parents or other pressures, and in so many tiny ways we unwittingly make children feel powerless and without a voice. They learn to please their parents by giving away their power and conforming. I’m not talking about permissive parenting here, but about the courtesy we give to adults, but not to children

In the book, Ellen is often in floods of tears, which reminded me of my childhood, and it’s only well into life I realised that I was always in tears as a child because I so often felt powerless and therefore angry. Saying how we feel, expressing anger, was not allowed, and it’s a skill that many of us haven’t mastered or taught our children.

So the only other way people can express their anger and powerlessness, is to be destructive, and we see this constantly in the courts, on the roads, and in relationships. But it was comparatively safe for a child to cry, so many children from Ellen onwards, learned to divert their anger into tears. As a mature adult whenever I was angry, to my annoyance I would cry…  until I realised that this was the way I’d dealt with anger as a child. They were tears of powerlessness.

It was gentle Anne Bronte in ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, published two years before ‘The Wide Wide World’, who challenged this powerlessness of women in her book which was considered shocking when it was published, and instantly became a best seller! In the book, which is about a woman trapped and terrorised by a drunken and sadistic bully, the wife, driven to desperation, slams the bedroom door in his face and locks him out, before eventually escaping.

This one act of slamming the door in her husband’s face reverberated throughout Victorian society. She had violated her husband’s rights, and broken the law at the same time. Some have called this the first feminist novel. This heroine had defied the centuries old acceptance that a woman was a father’s property until she married, when she became her husband’s property.

When Mrs Caroline Norton, whose husband was also a drunken bully, famouslyleft her husband in 1836, she not only had no rights to her children and no rights to divorce him, but when she earned money to support herself it became her husband’s property. The Married Women’s Property Act in 1870, finally allowed women some independence in England. But women were still powerless in many other ways, as Mary Lincoln’s incarceration in a lunatic asylum for no reason other than eccentricity, unresolved grief, and falling out with her son over money, showed.

While slavery – owning a person, buying and selling them, breaking up their families and working them to death  – became illegal in the western world, it wasn’t for many more years that women achieved the vote and a measure of freedom. And still, in some places in the west women are struggling for equal pay and equal rights.

Religion has not been on the side of women – as President Jimmy Carter has said:  “The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.”

They have in fact chosen to play the power game. And it isn’t just Christianity which has made this choice. There’s hardly a religion in the world which doesn’t rate women as lesser beings. In Jerusalem these days, women are now segregated on buses, not allowed to pray at the Wailing Wall, and subject to increasing discrimination by extreme members of the Jewish faith. And we all know the fate of too many women in Muslim, Hindu and other religious societies.

Marve Seaton in her courageous blog about the abuse of women, continually draws attention to female circumcision, breast ironing, gang rape, acid attacks, stoning and “honour” killings, (a euphemism for male sadism, ego, and heartlessness) amongst other outrages inflicted on women. Most religions, including extreme Christian sects, still think that it’s okay, and a husband’s right to beat his wife.

The UN figures show that two thirds of illiterate people in the world are women, that women work harder and longer hours than men as well as being responsible for their households, and  that men own most of the land in the world, and most of the money.

Women in the west who feel powerless, who are struggling with low wages, male chauvinism and hostility from the far right of some Christian churches, have it easy compared with their sisters in the third world and elsewhere…  and women everywhere are often too emotionally connected to the needs of their children to find any way out of their dilemmas of poverty and powerlessness.

But when I look back at the position both of slaves and of women and children a hundred and fifty years ago in the west, I can see how far we’ve come. And now it’s the time for our sisters in the rest of the world to start to edge towards their freedom too, which for many of them means feeling safe. Anne Bronte’s book also preached universal salvation, and it must have seemed an unattainable vision when she wrote ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’.

But western men did change their minds, and western women are well on their way now. So it IS possible that things can and will improve for our sisters in the rest of the world, that the climate of thought can change other men’s minds. Changing the way men think is the challenge for those women, and it’s our challenge to support them in doing it. We’ve come so far, that we can be optimistic that the time will come when we will all be free. Progress does happen. Change does happen. This is the blessing of modern times.

As Emily Dickinson said back then: “Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Deep disappointment today! Desperate for something sweet, I decided to make myself a banana split. I knew I had some ice-cream in the deep freeze, because I’d seen the plastic container. Alas. It wasn’t labelled, and turned out to be soup. Undeterred, I dashed up to the village shop and bought a packet of vanilla ice-cream. By the time I was home I’d changed my mind, and instead of banana I made a quick hot chocolate sauce to pour over the ice-cream. It’s heaven, and used to be the children’s favourite pudding outside chocolate mousse.

It comes from Mrs Beeton, the famous Victorian cookery writer. All you need is one rounded dessertsp of cornflour, two of cocoa and three of sugar, half a pint of water, half an ounce of butter and some drops of vanilla. Mix the cornflour, cocoa and sugar together with a little of the water. Boil the rest of the water, and pour over the chocolate mix. Pour into a saucepan and boil for two minutes, add the butter and vanilla, and pour over the ice-cream. Delectable and cheap.

 

Food for Thought

Looking after oneself, one looks after others.
Looking after others, one looks after oneself.
How does one look after others by looking after oneself?
By practicing mindfulness, developing it, and making it grow.
How does one look after oneself by looking after others?
By patience, non-harming, loving-kindness, and caring.   Samyutta Nikaya 47.19  Verse from the Buddhist scripture

 

 

 

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Lincoln’s wife – ‘that woman’

This is the story that Isn’t in the film on Lincoln. But I couldn’t look at Robert Lincoln in it, without thinking of how he betrayed his mother and had her certified as insane and bundled into a mental home ten years after her husband died.

After her husband’s death and then the death of Tad, Robert was her only son. He left her to grieve alone in her cheap hotel when Tad died and went off on holiday for a month. Later, after she had had a premonition that he was in danger, he decided he’d had enough.

Reasons for certifying her were her obsessive grief, belief in spiritualism and premonitions  – her husband had dreamt of his death shortly before his assassination – compulsive shopping, and embarrassing efforts to raise money – like selling her clothes – because she couldn’t afford to buy a house when she left the White House, and was lobbying for a pension..

Two men arrived at the hotel where she lived, took her off to court, where Robert had bribed six doctors who’d never seen her, to say she was insane, and the jury – of men – certified her. After three months, she managed to smuggle a letter to a woman friend who was also a lawyer though barred from practising because she was a woman, and finally extricated herself from the asylum. She went to live with her sister.

The actor playing Robert was a remarkable likeness, as was Sally Field, who wore copies of the same clothes that Mary Lincoln had been seen in, and also looked uncannily like her. Mary Lincoln, for all the slurs and vicious attacks on her in the newspapers of the time, was her husband’s most loyal and percipient supporter. She’d seen his greatness from the days of their courtship, when she turned down another suitor – Stephen Douglas –Lincoln’s political rival, and said she intended to marry a man who was going to be President, and it wasn’t him!

When her confidant Elizabeth Keckley, and she fell out, Keckley wrote a book about Mary’s years in the White House. Who of us would want our lives exposed by a friend we’d fallen out with? Over the years newspapers picked up every piece of malicious gossip, true or not and ran with it, while Robert’s explanations for his behaviour added to the picture of an unbalanced and unlovable woman. The lasting effects of all this negative publicity shows in her entry in Wikipedia in which all the slurs of that time are repeated as though they were true.

One of the last massive  public snubs this unhappy and difficult woman endured was when one of my favourite people, Ulysses Grant, and his wife Julia, were given a triumphant reception in Pau, where Mary Lincoln was living in frugal exile in France, and they failed to even call on her.

In psychological terms, she never got over her feeling of being a victim, which she was, attracting the very events which re-inforced her victimhood. She was a victim both of the times she lived in, and of her own frequently tactless behaviour. Displaced as a year- old baby by two more brothers, she became the forgotten middle child in a family of six, and then her mother died when she was six years old.

A new stepmother arrived swiftly in the family and one of her methods of dealing with her unwanted stepchildren was to shame and humiliate them, which to a vulnerable six year old would have been devastating. As more and more children arrived in the family via the stepmother, the older children became more side-lined and alienated.

Mary became a boarder at a school in walking distance from her home, and at seventeen left this unhappy house to live with her sister. She was pretty, mad about fashion, accomplished, speaking French fluently,  highly intelligent, and fascinated by politics, an unusual quality at a time when most girls left school and thought of nothing but clothes and who they would marry .

When she met and married Lincoln, unlike most other women then, Mary had neither slaves not servants. She kept her house like a new pin, became a noted cook and hostess for her husband’s political supporters, and brought up their children in a very modern way, easy-going and tolerant, as was Abraham. But the deaths of three sons and her husband devastated her already scarred psyche.

After each death she did become emotionally unbalanced, no doubt driven by that first deep wound of her mother’s death. And history has not been kind to her.  Today, she would have been understood and received the counselling and therapy she needed to exorcise her pain. Today we would have understood that her extravagant shopping was an attempt to comfort herself… who of us has not enjoyed some retail therapy at some time in our life?

Today, her child-rearing methods would have been accepted, as would her need for an outlet for her talents and energy. Today it would not be possible to bundle her off out of sight into a mental home because she was an embarassment. But it was okay to do that to a woman in the 1870’s.

Today, she would have received proper medical treatment for the post childbirth problems she suffered for the rest of her life, as well as for her constant migraines. She would not have been treated as a hysterical neurotic with no rights. (“Get that woman out of here,” a man said when she was weeping over her dying husband.)

Today, she would not have had to leave the White House with no means to buy a house for herself and her children, would not have had her husband’s estate withheld from her for two years because of dilatory executors, and she would not have had to beg for a pension. After leaving the White House she lived in cheap hotels for the rest of her life.

She had a happy marriage and a devoted husband, and had no need of VAWA, and the protection against violence that so many women need today all over the world. She needed the protection of rights and respect, and in Western countries at least, today women can no longer be treated like chattels or second class incompetents – they are equal under the law, they have a vote and a voice.

The contrast between Mary Lincoln’s treatment then, and women’s rights and opportunities today shows us that we have made progress, that civilisation is inching its way to a better world, and that though there are still so many areas of pain and poverty that need to be tackled, we can still hope to ease the suffering, knowing that we’ve achieved so much already.

Don’t miss that film ‘Lincoln’!

P.S. If I seem neglectful at reading your blogs, it’s I’m having great trouble with Word Press. According to the teenage son of the garage proprietor I’ve lost my cookies or something, but he can’t fix it… So it means a long drive into the nearest town to the computer man to get it done… I have visions of a computer buff scoffing a plate of chocolate brownies, but presumably computer cookies are something else….

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Summer and salad days. We have a glut of cauliflower, thanks to a generous neighbour. We’ve done cauliflower cheese of course, but my favourite way with cauliflower is raw. This recipe is for one person, just increase the amounts for each person. Grate a cup, to a cup and a half of cauliflower, chop lots of parsley, hard boil one egg and chop three or four dates. Pour a tablsp of almond chips – not flakes- into a non stick frying pan, and watch carefully until the almonds brown in their own oil. Tip into the grated cauliflower immediately or they go on cooking, and mix everything together gently with enough good mayonnaise to bind it. Sometimes I add grated carrot, sometimes chopped banana, but this is the mix I like best. It’s filling enough on its own for a meal.

Food for Thought

The success of any great moral enterprise does not depend on numbers.              William Lloyd Garrison   1805 – 1879     One of the great heroes of Abolition, whose life was sometimes endangered by his crusade against slavery. He also campaigned for women’s suffrage, and civil rights for blacks.

 

 

 

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More about Books

Between six and a half and nearly nine, I lived with my grandmother. My mother had disappeared, not to be found until fifty years later, and my father was at the war from when I was a year old until nearly nine. Those two and a half years I spent with my grandmother were the happiest years of my childhood, and one of the reasons, apart from the fact that she loved and spoiled me, was that she brought loads of book into the house when she came to look after us,

I was allowed to read everything, and my range was a wide one, from Enid Blyton’s fairy story The Faraway Tree, published by instalments in a magazine called Sunny Stories, which I collected from the grocer every week, to Foxe’s Martyrs, a huge leather bound book with engraved illustrations with a piece of flimsy paper covering each one. It was a ghoulish record of the three hundred Englishmen and women who Bloody Mary had had burned at the stake for being Protestants. Foxe’s Martyrs wasn’t one of my  favourite books, but it was there.

Also there, were bound copies of Victorian ladies journals, with stories about beautiful orphans, though of noble birth, and young men with crisp, fair curls, sporting striped blazers, straw boaters and high moral character, who rescued these pure young maidens from lives of poverty and humiliation.

Little Lord Fauntleroy was also pressed on me by my grandmother, as was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which sold even more copies in England than in the US, was one of my grandmother’s favourites, and after reading it at eight, I became a fervent abolitionist. Which no doubt would have warmed Harriet Beecher Stowe’s warm heart.

I never had any trouble with poor old Uncle Tom, in spite of today’s politically correct connotations. I loved him for his moral courage and kindness, which I could understand even at eight. He died for his principles, refusing to inflict on other slaves the same cruel beatings that killed him. Eliza and her child fleeing over the frozen river haunted my nightmares.

The other book on my grandmother’s shelves which shaped my life even more than Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was John Halifax, Gentleman, written by Mrs Craik. Published in 1865, the year of the ending of the American Civil War, it was about an orphaned boy who found a home in a Quaker household, and through espousing Quaker virtues became a successful and prosperous pillar of the community. Sounds pretty boring, but even as a child, I loved him for his dignity, integrity, moral courage and loving heart. Like Uncle Tom, he never sacrificed his principles for the sake either of safety or material gain.

When my father returned from overseas, I went to live with him and our new stepmother. I never mentioned these two books, after they had laughed themselves silly when I disclosed to them in an unguarded moment that I had read Little Lord Fauntleroy. I thought maybe these two books might also be material for grownup mockery, and it wasn’t until my late teens that I discovered that they were both well regarded classics. When I re-read John Halifax in my twenties, I realised that the principles that he had lived his life by had been the unconscious grounding of my own philosophy.

My first Christmas with them, my new parents gave me a copy of Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women.  Like most children of my generation and previous ones, I read it again and again, and the principles of integrity, kindness and concern for others influenced me deeply, as I’m sure it influenced so many other girls back then. Thanks to Jo March, I also began writing, and produced my own newspaper, somewhat plagiarised, until it was discovered by the adults and became a great joke.

 The last book which influenced me all my life was Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, a birthday present. Black Beauty, the story of a horse and his friend Ginger, and how they were exploited by human beings they trusted, until these two fine thoroughbreds had been worn down to become half-starved, broken down cab horses, entered my soul. I’ve always been thankful that we use the motor car now, instead of horses, no matter how much pollution cars cause. Black Beauty taught me to love and respect all animals and all life, including the birds of the air and the creatures in the sea.

Louisa Alcott was brought up and taught by Transcendentalists, including Emerson and Thoreau, while Anna Sewell’s parents were Quakers. So when I look back at the four books that in many ways have shaped my character, I see that they were all written by women in the middle of the nineteenth century, all of whom lived in families and communities with the highest ideals and with a commitment to actually practising what they preached (Harriet Beecher Stowe and her husband used to hide escaped slaves).  I feel I was so lucky that these four books came my way at the age that I was so that their philosophies became an integral part of my values and thinking.

As the years have gone by, and I’ve explored different creeds and religions, in the end, the core of them seemed to be the principles that the American Transcendentalists and the English Quakers lived by. So there’s never been any conflict between other creeds and the old beliefs that I picked up from these old books. I often wonder which are the books today that do this same job of inspiring and grounding children in the ideals and values of our civilisation.

I’ve watched the Harry Potter films with my grandchildren, and can see that it’s a struggle between good and evil. But the books that taught me, were about the immediate, down to earth, everyday situations, in which truthfulness, and kindness,  moral courage and selflessness were the standards by which the heroes and heroines lived and died in these old books. And these Victorian books were lovely – gold embossed covers, thick paper and beautiful type-faces.

There are so many well written and inspiring books for children and young adults these days, and the nature of our civilisation is such that there are actually hundreds. So instead of a handful of classics uniting people, so that they knew the same stories and shared the same experiences, today there are so many stories that people don’t have a background in common.

I remember the true story of British writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who kidnapped a German general in Crete in 1944. They smuggled him up into the mountains. In the morning as the shocked and despondent general was looking over the mountains in the dawn, he quoted some lines to himself in Latin from the Roman poet Horace. Leigh Fermor recited the rest of the ode with him, and in his words:’…for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”

Stories like this remind us of the power of books and words and art.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I’ve been so busy with blogging and making lemon chutney with our surfeit of lemons at this time of year, that I haven’t had time to prepare a sustaining lunch for my hungry 82 year old husband. Quick onion soup will have to do, with hot rolls.

I have some lovely stock from the potatoes, carrots and Brussels sprouts all cooked in the same water yesterday, so that also makes me feel virtuously frugal. The soup takes four large onions sliced thinly and stewed in butter. When they’re soft, stir in a tablespoon of sugar. Stir until the sugar browns – don’t let it turn black. Then pour in a pint and a half of stock, with either half a glass of wine, or a dash of wine vinegar. Simmer for about 15 minutes, add salt and pepper to taste, and a sprinkling of parsley. Caramelising the onions with the sugar gives the soup colour, a rich delicate flavour and thickens it up. Recipe for the lemon chutney in the next post!

 Food for Thought

Whatever the world may say or do, my part is to keep myself good; just as a gold piece, or an emerald, or a purple robe insists perpetually, ‘whatever the world may say or do, my part is to remain an emerald and keep my colour true.’

Marcus Aurelius, born in AD 121, Philosopher, Stoic and Emperor of Rome from AD 161 to his death in AD 180

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