Category Archives: world war two

Keeping body and soul together

daisies

About a month before the full extent of the crisis which is now overtaking the whole world was obvious, I began quietly accumulating food-stuffs in my store cupboard. Two of this or three of that instead of just one. So when the catastrophe reached this country, and we went into lockdown within a few days of the first cases of the plague arriving in these shores, I didn’t need to do any panic shopping, just last minute perishables like milk, mushrooms and courgettes.

When the drawbridge went down and we all retreated to our own castles, I felt like a biblical wise virgin – perhaps not – a wise crone perhaps, with the oil in my lamp, ready for the challenge, not of spiritual growth but of living without all the amenities that we take for granted in the western world. We had stocked up on gas for the cooker, and petrol for the generator in case the power went down, filled the car and checked the oil.

The old freezer we’d replaced when a friend bequeathed her up-to-date appliance while re-modelling her kitchen, was still sitting here. No-one else had wanted it. So it came back into service in this emergency and absorbed all the bulky things like bread, and the extras like the butter and grated cheese and pastrami that we weren’t going to be shopping for in the foreseeable future. We felt ready for anything.

I can live off baked beans for a month, my love bravely declared. There’s no need, I kept re-iterating, we’ve got plenty of everything. And now we seem to have so much more time than we did before the Great Retreat, I’ve also had more time to think about food, and how to marshal our resources; and also to read new recipes and ideas.

We seem to be living rather luxuriously, rather than frugally… though that may come. So instead of just putting together my normal macaroni cheese which is a favourite in this house, I found a French recipe which we tried last night.

I left out the tomato puree, which I didn’t fancy, and for lack of a bacon hock, just chopped up and lightly fried some rashers of good bacon. Instead of making a normal cheese sauce, I broke into the packet of mascarpone nestling in the fridge as per the recipe, and beat it into the yolks of two eggs.

I added grated cheese, no Gruyere in the house, just good old Cheddar, leavened with some Gouda with cumin seeds, found at the back of the fridge and grated, which added a layer of je ne sais quoi to the mix.  With plenty of black pepper, the bacon, the cooked pasta and all, was tipped into a casserole with a layer of grated parmesan on top, and left with enough time in the oven to warm it up and grill the top till crisp.

Even the pasta wasn’t macaroni. I had several packets of two-minute noodles sitting in the cupboard, having previously used their sachets of chicken stock for flavouring soups. I simply pour boiling water over the noodles, and leave them for a few minutes until they’re soft and ready to drain and use. Combined with all the other ingredients, their humble origin didn’t matter. The whole dish took only as long as separating the eggs, frying the bacon at the same time, and soaking the noodles, before ten minutes or so in the hot oven.

This is my idea of cooking these days – something quick, easy and delicious, using for the most part good ingredients, and not shying away from short cuts. I do a lot of things now, that I inwardly swore when I was young, I’d never do, like using chopped garlic from a jar, buying grated cheese, and even using pre-cooked packets of rice, when I lack the energy to slave over a hot stove. These packets of basmati, long grain and jasmine rice, which are more expensive of course than loose rice, were the despised unwanted items left on supermarket shelves during the Great Shopping Rush, but for me, they are a gift.

They mean a fried rice, or a kedgeree, or a curry in a few minutes instead of the hard labour of thoroughly washing and rinsing, boiling and draining of the real thing.  Nearly fifty years ago, I remember watching in Stanley Market in Hongkong, an old Chinese lady, wispy white hair scraped up into a tight bun, wearing clogs and grey sam-fu with black trousers, crouched by a tap on the edge of the pavement, washing and rinsing rice in a battered aluminium pot, over and again.

She poured in the water, swishing it about with her hands, draining it carefully out through her old wrinkled fingers, never losing a single precious grain, and then beginning the whole process over again until the water ran clear into the gutter.I think of her, every time I cook rice, but no longer feel guilty at cutting corners to save my energy, as I used to.

Energy is precious, and so is time; and while plenty of time is the gift of the Great Retreat, energy is not so plentiful. Yet this too is the gift of this unexpected home detention, isolation, withdrawal, lockdown, whatever we call it. Time is our own. We can measure our energy, plan our time, listen to our inner clock, and nurture the needs of our mind and soul as well as our body.

Those of us who are retired, and those who have no duties of care for children, or family who need us, are fortunate. We can still enjoy human contact by phone, the internet, skyping, even blogging. Even those of us who don’t have pets to nurture, and be nourished by, still have the time to enjoy the pleasures of books, music, knitting and other pastimes we often don’t have space for in our busy western lives.

I’ve been painting a new porch and veranda black – posts and roof and steps and lovely curved front, a bit Japanese looking, jutting out into the forest. Bitten by the bug, I then painted the wicker chairs black, and then a white side table which had once been gilt and then white, became black, and a big pot which had once been black, and then white, is also black again!

And so now we have another place from which we can look into the trees, watch the weather, listen to bird song,  gaze at the sunset, and see the moon rise. So many people in their homes and apartments, in so many places throughout the world, are cut off from the outside world, and yet by a strange paradox they are now savouring the growth of spring in the northern hemisphere, watching the clouds and the rain, becoming conscious of the sun rising and the moon waning, and connecting more and more with the natural world. So too, are we, in the southern hemisphere, as autumn creeps up on us. For once, in the poet’s words, we all have the time to stand and stare.

 

Food for Housebound Gourmets

 For those who fancy trying my fancy French macaroni cheese, here are the amounts for four people:250 gms crème fraiche, 2 egg yolks, 225 gms macaroni, 115 gms gruyere cheese, and a sprinkling of parmesan

Stir crème fraiche and egg yoks together, add cooked pasta and all the other ingredients, including pepper. Sprinkle parmesan over the mix and bake until hot and the top golden. Enough for four, and we will have it again tomorrow jazzed up with salad etc.

I would use cream instead of creme fraiche next time, as I like a looser cheese sauce… or I’d use my other short cut… cook the pasta and stir in a tin of condensed chicken soup, grated cheese, black pepper and nutmeg, loosen it to taste with cream or milk – and hey presto.

I’m keeping a record of what we’re eating and will be fascinated to see how it works out over the time. So far:

Day one: Coq au vin using chicken legs.

Day two: pork chops, plus leftover risotto from the deep freeze, fried onions for him, kumara/sweet potato for me, and acid free tomatoes cooked in butter and cream a la famous chef, Dr de Pomiane.

Day three: spaghetti Bolognaise for him, egg/avocado/tomato salad for me.

Day four: chopped cooked chicken from deep freeze stirred into a white sauce flavoured with chopped bacon, chopped mushrooms and nutmeg, the sauce made with some meaty stock made from scraping the pork chop pan the other night. (plus cream!)served on rice with green beans.

Day five: baked chicken drumsticks cooked on a bed of chopped onions, with rice, mushrooms and tomatoes for him, kedgeree with hard-boiled egg for me, and enough to store half in the deep freeze..

Day six: macaroni cheese.

Ah, food, glorious food.  As someone once said, “The only thing I like better than talking about food is eating it.”

Food for Thought

 Over three hundred years ago a prisoner in the Tower of London carved on the wall of his cell during his long imprisonment: ‘It is not adversity that kills, but the impatience with which we bear adversity.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What’s wrong with a stiff upper lip?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a glorious way to live life.

Food for threadbare gourmets

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

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

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

 

 

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Land of the long white cloud

Auckland, with volcanic island Rangitoto across the harbour

A Life – Another instalment of my autobiography until I revert to my normal blogs

  I searched the world for an egalitarian English- speaking country. Canada was too cold. Australia meant living in another large crowded city in order to find a job. So I explored New Zealand – reading its history written by well- known historian Keith Sinclair. On learning from it that women had had the vote since 1893, that back then employers were required to provide a seat for shop girls to sit on if they needed to, and that the two- day weekend for everyone to spend with their families was the norm, I decided this was the place.

It sounded a kind and old- fashioned society. Which it was, and that didn’t seem a dis-advantage. I began reading NZ newspapers at the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) trying to get a feel for this new country.  I found that the city nearest the equator which would be big enough to have a newspaper that would employ women was Auckland.

I had no money for our air fares so went to see the Dean of S John’s Cathedral to see if their fund for distressed gentlewomen could help. He directed me to the British Legion, who generously covered all our fares and expenses. It galled me that they did so because my father and ex-husband had been in the army rather than because I had been, but I swallowed my pride, and thanked them for their largesse.

Just before we left, my ex-husband back in England, placed an injunction on me to prevent me leaving with the children. This involved another expensive legal action and employing an enormously expensive counsel this time.

At a conference before the case, the pompous and rather arrogant counsel began by telling me not to speak unless spoken to, and to answer his questions with a yes or no. Towards the end, he had picked up so many false trails that I broke his rules and butted in and put the facts chronologically as he needed them. He sounded irritated and asked why I hadn’t said all this in the first place and couldn’t see that he’d created the situation by treating me like a half-wit.

The case was heard in chambers, with the same judge from my divorce, who once again decided the course of my life without even looking in my direction as I sat at the other end of the table. Unusually he gave me custody, care and control, a rare decision which the British High Commission in Wellington declined to believe a few years later when I applied for a separate passport for the children so they could visit their father back in England. The logic of applying for a passport to send them to their father if I’d kidnapped them in the first place defied me. But harassment was such a normal state of affairs for women in those days that many, like me, took it for granted, and just worked around it.

I could only afford to pay for the minimum sized box, four cubic feet, in which to pack our belongings. I ordered it five foot by four by three, to accommodate a favourite picture, painted by Chinese school children. It was called ‘House Under the Moon’, and later, a friend who was curator of various well- known art galleries said that if an adult had painted it, it would have been a masterpiece.

Besides this treasured picture which I couldn’t bear to leave behind, I packed a pair of Bokhara rugs, a black lacquer Chinese box containing our china, some silver, an antique mirror, a few other pictures, two Chinese lamps, some carefully culled books, and a pair of bamboo Chinese collapsible bookcases that looked like Hepplewhite designs. I was so ruthless that I’ve since regretted many small things that would easily have fitted in – treasured pieces of china, an art nouveau pewter goblet, good linen. But then, the burning of boats suited my mood.

So I packed up my life, and spent the last day with Pat Hangen. Our plane was delayed by eight hours while another plane was fished out of the harbour at the end of the runway at Kaitak. Landing or leaving this fabled island was always dangerous – flying between tenement blocks and drying laundry to land or take -off.

I had never really come to terms with life here. In Victoria, the heart of the rich bustling city, a newspaper seller had a pitch outside Lane Crawford, the Harrods of Hong King. The windows just behind him were tastefully arranged with fabulous diamond encrusted jewellery; and I discovered that he and his wife and children lived and slept on the pavement under his newspaper stall.

Yes, I tried to assuage my western conscience by delivering clothes and blankets. But the shocking gaps between haves and have-nots, especially in the cold winters, bothered me as much as cruelty to children and animals still do…  Now, as we flew out on the second of August 1970, I peered down at the lights of Hong Kong and the places we’d grown to know so well in the last four years.

Deepwater Bay, Repulse Bay, Stanley Bay. These were the places in which we had lived. In each one, I was always conscious, over twenty years after the events, of the battles fought in these places by the defenders against the terrifying Japanese army. Deepwater Bay was where the Japanese landed to cut off the defenders from each other on Hong Kong island. I knew the very spot at Repulse Bay, where two British soldiers swam for it, and got to Stanley Point, only to be killed in the massacres there.

I used to look up at the woods behind the Repulse Bay Hotel and wonder where the drain was where the women and children had tried to seek safety from the bullets. And I never drove to Stanley Point and past the site of St Stephen’s College without remembering the slaughter of the patients and doctors there, the rape and murder of the nurses.

Wongneichong Gap no longer exists. The cliff face and rock formation have long since been demolished to make way for a wider road. But whenever I drove through it then, either forking right to Deepwater Bay or straight ahead for Repulse Bay I paid homage to the Canadians who made their last stand against the Japanese there, and fought with such incredible bravery to the last man. It felt sometimes as though they were still there, I was so conscious of their ghostly presence.

The memories of the signing of the surrender on Christmas Day had been briskly banished from the unchanging Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon across the harbour. Yet the few trees left in Victoria, on Hong Kong island, still bore the marks of the dreadful barrage of artillery from the Japanese across the water. They were riddled still with shrapnel, but somehow were bravely surviving a worse battle now against traffic and fumes.

We landed in our new country among green fields dotted with white sheep. Driving into Auckland in the middle of the antipodean winter, gardens were blooming with daffodils and camellias, jasmine and purple lasiandra bushes. It seemed like paradise.

The journey had been an unexpected ordeal. My friendly doctor had given us all our injections but had forgotten to sign the documents. When we landed in Brisbane in the freezing dawn at six o clock, the elderly and obstructive airport doctor discovered this – but refusing to even look at our weeping smallpox vaccinations as proof, sent us back to the plane under armed guard, to the astonishment not only of me, but the other passengers.

At Sydney I thought I’d avoid the hassle and stay on the plane for the stopover. Alas, it was not to be… after a long delay on landing, a posse of armed police boarded the plane, and announced over the loudspeaker that I was to report to them with my children. Struggling through the now irritable standing passengers with their luggage, waiting to leave the plane, we were marched off and put in a freezing room.

August in Hong Kong is hot, hot and this was frosty mid-winter in Sydney. In spite of our warm clothes we were all shivering with cold – and in my case with fear. Finally, after nearly half an hour I opened the door in a rage, and found an armed guard standing in front of me. How long am I going to be kept here I asked. It’s not my business to say he replied. I have never felt so utterly powerless.

Then a doctor arrived, young and reasonable, looked at our arms and sores, laughed and said it was all a storm in a tea-cup, and we were allowed to board the plane, this time unescorted. Halfway across the Tasman, checking our documents for arrival in Auckland, I realised that the Sydney doctor hadn’t signed the medical documents either.

It never crossed my law-abiding mind to sign them myself, so positioning myself at the back of the queue this time, I went through another hostile interrogation on landing in Auckland, and ended up bursting into tears when one of the truculent officials demanded “Well, where’s your husband?” “I haven’t got one,” I wept and they let me through.

More trials awaited me at customs, where our three suitcases contained not just clothes but sheets and towels and cutlery! Coming from Hong Kong, customs were sure I must have muddy shoes or other dangerous items covered in bacteria which would pollute this pristine place. Finally, a friend of a Hong Kong friend who had said he’d meet my plane, was actually waiting for us, even though I’d only met him once.

The tired children were as good as gold and sat in the back seat of his car amid the eight fringed legs, two fiercely wagging tails and the panting jaws of his two golden retrievers. John was a bachelor, and it never crossed his mind that we were exhausted, so he drove us all over his city in the fading twilight, to show us beauty spots and architectural delights, before taking us to his flat on the fringes of the city. His father had just died, so instead of leaving us at a hotel as I’d expected, he lent us his flat while he stayed with his bereaved stepmother.

Frightened though I was by the experience of landing in a new country, with no money, no home, no job, and no friends, it felt as though the tide was turning. I seemed to have found a generous and kind friend already.

The next day, having lit the fire, switched on the lamps, got the children settled at the dining table, enjoying a properly cooked supper, and a low happy babble of conversation filling the comfortable room, John arrived.  I could see he just loved the idea of being welcomed home, offered a drink, and entertained by two lively children. He stayed for hours, with me once again on the brink of exhaustion.  Meanwhile his dogs had begun what became a regular routine for some years. They trotted through to the bedroom where the children were tucked up, and checked they were alright before rejoining us. Life began to seem rather sweet.

The next day, his neighbour, who was a journalist, gave me the names of the people to apply to for a job at the two main Auckland newspapers. I still have the envelope on which she scrawled the names and phone numbers. One of the names eventually became my second husband. After meeting the children, she also asked to use them for a television programme about taking children to the zoo, as their clear articulate voices meant they were ideal for her purposes – local children mumbled, she said!

John’s best friend also arrived with John and being in the car business helped me buy a second- hand car on hire purchase, a necessity in a huge city with minimal public transport. Thus equipped, I turned up for my two job interviews. The worst part of this was knowing no-one with whom to leave the two five and six- year- old children. So I parked on the top floor of a quiet car park.

Torn between the fear of them being kidnapped if I left the car door unlocked, or trapped inside the car if I locked it and there was a fire, I straddled both nightmares. I left them with a picnic- cream buns and chocolate biscuits- and left the car unlocked, telling them if there was a fire, to go to the edge of the car park, lean over and yell fire. I then made my way un-easily to my job interviews.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 Friends arrived unexpectedly for drinks, one of them allergic to gluten in a big way. My usual standby – rice crackers – seemed stale, so I had to improvise. I sliced a potato very thinly, fried the slices in olive oil, and used them as a base for smoked salmon and cream cheese, while the rest of us consumed gluten packed blinis. I made a good helping of garlicky aoli, to eat with sticks of celery, courgettes and carrots -that did for us all – and along with a plate of olives, gherkins, and cubes of cheddar cheese and a lovely bottle of Reisling, we managed !

Food for thought

Outside the open window

The morning air is all awash with angels.

Richard Wilber

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A heroine, an eccentric, a Muslim attack and a paradise

Image result for la times muslim sultans torchlight birthday parade

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

The last holidays were spent in Kota Bahru, where my father had been exiled after another stoush with another commanding officer. In his game of snakes and ladders with his career, he was heading towards the top of the ladder again, when he landed on a snake, picked an unnecessary and unreasonable point of principle with the colonel, and slithered down the board again, missing out on a medal, ending up with a mere mention in dispatches and a posting as far away from the regiment as possible.

Kota Bahru, up on the east coast near what was then the Siamese border, was idyllic, with long, unspoiled beaches edged with casuarina trees, and gaily -painted fishermen’s boats lined up beneath them. The men wore piratical- looking turbans in bright oranges and reds and blues, and the women’s clothes were richly- coloured unlike the drab, brown batiks of the sarongs on the rest of the Malayan peninsula. Thanks to a mixed Siamese/ Malay heritage, the women here were famed for their beauty, combining the voluptuousness of the Malay with the sculptured bone structure of what are known as Thais now.

We lived in a pink stucco house near the mouth of the river, some way out of the town, and not far from the airfield which had seen hard fighting when the Japanese landed. The house looked across at a peaceful little kampong beneath the trees. Great clumps of purple water hyacinth often drifted slowly down river, and we watched the bronzed, brown bodies of children jumping and playing in the water. Early in the morning, or at dusk, the girls would stand and discreetly bathe beneath their sarongs, and their grandfather sat and fished all day, a still, meditative figure across the water.

The house still bore the machine gun holes from twelve years before when the Japanese had made their sudden appearance from the sea at dawn in December 1941. The hub of the community we were now part of, was the Kelantan Club, where Europeans gathered to meet each other. They were a mix of the local judge and policemen, diplomats and doctors, nurses and rubber planters, and representatives of various historic far eastern trading houses.

The rubber planters had mostly lived here since before the war, and were in many ways, thirtyish Somerset Maugham characters. They had all been interned together at Changi Camp in Singapore during the war, and those who had survived were a close -knit band of brothers.

There was Ted Kurtain, famous for swearing, whose waterfall and rock pool was a favourite picnic spot for the favoured few, including us. His closest friend was a dignified quiet man, Hugh Jackson, who had had a Thai mistress for nineteen years before the Japanese came. She waited for him during the war years he spent in Changi, and they were re-united when he came back to his rubber plantation.

Deaf to the misgivings of his well- connected English family, he sent his mistress to a Swiss finishing school, and then married her. On visits to his spacious bungalow, filled with books and English china and antiques, she entertained us as though it was an English country house party. She was beautiful, dignified, her grooming immaculate, and exquisitely dressed.

Alf, one of the two eccentric local police chiefs, had a head as bald as Yul Brynner’s, and underneath his intimidating exterior was a gentle, kind and lonely man. When his mandatory leaves came around every three years, he took a boat to Aden where he disembarked and bought a flock of goats. These he would drive north up the Arabian Peninsula, using the goats as food and currency, and when he reached Port Said took a boat to Liverpool.

Here he would spend a fortnight with his sister before returning to his post in the East. The other police chief was a much younger Englishman who had converted to the Muslim faith and kept his distance from we alcoholic and godless infidels!

As well as the Kelantan Club, the other meeting place was the Palm Court Hotel, a complete contrast to the old wooden club house with its planter’s chairs and rattan furniture. Palm Court was all concrete and tiles and chrome, and run by Mammy, a giant White Russian lady in late middle age. She wore ankle length caftans before they had been invented, had frizzy, short hair and thick pebble spectacles. But behind her facade of jolliness, I noticed loneliness and sadness.

When writing a blog, I pieced together the remarkable story of this unusual woman. Luba Ruperti was a White Russian born in 1896. She fled with her parents from the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918 via Shanghai to the safety of British Singapore, after her sister had been killed by a revolutionary mob.

In those years before the war, Luba would have felt safe in this seemingly impregnable British colony. She married a Russian rotter, who bankrupted them both and left her. Then after their grim appearance in Kelantan, the Japanese reached Singapore, and in that mayhem of murder and bombings, killing of patients in hospital beds, raping of nurses, and killing of all Chinese, somehow Luba got to the dock and managed to board SS Kuala. It was overloaded with five hundred or so other women, children and babies, including a number of Australian and New Zealand nurses.

The next day the Japanese sank the ship, setting it on fire and mothers threw their children overboard trying to get them into the rafts below. As women and children struggled in the sea, wounded, bleeding, drowning, trying to hold onto rafts and floating debris, the Japanese machine-gunned them in the water.

Those who survived terrible thirst, hunger, horrendous wounds, madness and burning sun to make it to shore, were machine gunned in the water and as they staggered over rocks and up the beach into the shelter of the trees. They had reached Pom Pong Island which had no food, and only a tiny source of fresh water, after three hours in the sea. “My fat be blessed for that!” Luba told a reporter after the war.

A few days later the SS Tandjong Pinang arrived at Pom Pong Island from Sumatra to rescue the small band of between a hundred and a hundred and fifty survivors from the original five hundred. Hardly had they embarked than the Japanese were back, and sank this ship too. Luba was one of only handful of survivors of this second disaster.

The few the Japanese captured on shore ended up suffering and usually dying in the terrible conditions of internment. Luba got away, and somehow ended up in India, via Ceylon, where she made her living cooking for thousands of U.S. troops in Delhi, before returning to Singapore after the war.

While in India, in February 1943, Luba gave her great gift to all those who had died, suffered or survived. She had compiled a long list of the names of the people who had boarded the SS Kuala at Singapore and who had survived to board the SS Tandjong Pindang. In the chaos and panic during the bombing of the docks in Singapore as frantic passengers tried to board the ship, no records had been taken.

No-one knew who had boarded, escaped, drowned or survived. Families would never have known if their loved ones were still alive in some corner of the world. Luba must have started compiling her lists during their terrible ordeal on Pom Pong island, as there was no way otherwise that she could have known so comprehensively who was there.

It was an act not just of heroism in those hellish days, but of responsibility and altruism in conditions when it could very well have been everyone for himself. Her act of witnessing and recording rescued both the dead and the living from oblivion, telling their story – a story that no one else was able to share with the world for another three years when the war ended, when a pitifully small handful of survivors could then tell of their sufferings.

In an archival story I found a reference to her being back in Singapore by 1958, and by the mid-1960’s nearing seventy, she was: “utterly dependent for her living by making and selling exquisite dolls dressed in the costumes of old Russia, complete with tiny earrings, bracelets and rings on the dolly fingers,” according to quotes from a story in the Singapore Straits Times. The same archival entry comments that: “she appears at this stage of her life to have been still the exuberant woman who had lived through so much fear, chaos and loss without losing her innate spirit”.

This feisty open-hearted woman… who never seemed to be defeated by the perils and tragedies of her extraordinary odyssey from Czarist Russia to post- Colonial Malaya, via Shanghai, Singapore, Indonesia, India and back to Singapore, surviving death, abandonment and poverty, loneliness, bombings, torpedoed ships and dangerous journeys was the person most people thought was a joke.

But in spite of Mammy’s joyful welcome at the Palm Court, most people preferred the relaxed, slightly ramshackle atmosphere of the Kelantan Club. Everyone turned up for the weekly cinema show on Friday when an old black and white film was shown on an ancient and not very efficient projector.

On Saturday nights, we enjoyed Scottish dancing, and there was a full complement of balls to mark every possible occasion. At Christmas I was asked to paint two huge festive murals on the walls, with red-coated Father Christmas, reindeers, sleighs, snow and the rest.

The most enjoyable part of this creative endeavour was at lunchtime when all the chaps would drop by to chat and share a fresh lime with me… to be the only unmarried female under forty in a town crammed with young men was a fate worth enjoying! None of these nice young men ever crossed the line with a naive and ignorant seventeen- year -old schoolgirl and they treated me with respect and consideration.

By contrast, one evening we left our peaceful riverside to go into Kota Bahru and watch the colourful Sultan’s Birthday Torchlight procession. My small fair- haired brother sat on my father’s shoulders so he could see. When we’d finished watching we turned to go back to the car, and as we pushed our way through the tight throng of mostly Malay men I felt a slight ripple as though they were converging on us. With my brother high on my father’s shoulders acting as a beacon, they pressed up against us as we struggled along in single file, my father, I think, unaware of what was happening behind him. My stepmother clung to him and behind her, I clutched her hand tightly.

I became the focus of this angry hostile crowd. They had hands and knowing fingers so hard I felt I was being punched as they prodded, pinched and poked me, finding soft places that no-one had ever found before. I was terrified and humiliated at the same time. When we got to the car and out of the melee I was too shocked and shamed to mention this ordeal to my parents.

It was only fifty years later, yarning with my brother, that I talked for the first time of what had felt like a shocking and unprovoked attack by angry hostile Muslims… was it my sex, my race or my religion which provoked it – or all three?

One memorable day the British Resident invited us to join him and General Bourne to sail out to the deserted Perhentian Islands. Thousands of brilliantly coloured and richly patterned tiny tropical fish swirled through the clear turquoise waters, so clear that thirty feet deep looked like three. A solitary fisherman climbed a coconut palm for us to drink the ice- cold coconut milk in the heart of the great green globe. No other soul was there. It seemed like the most beautiful place on earth, untouched, unspoiled, a pristine, perfect paradise.

Yet now, it’s impossible to find a photo of the islands which doesn’t have hotels and boats and people and jumbled sand from footsteps on every silver beach. Shortly after this idyll, we returned to Penang and the Runnymede, which felt like home, before setting sail for England in a Blue Funnel ship, where we enjoyed utter luxury once more.

I look at old photos of that time and the memories return so vividly – my stepmother wearing a purple linen dress which looked wonderful with her black hair and pale skin, sitting in a rattan chair chatting to charming Tungku Abdul Rahman, the ‘father’ of Merdeka. They both held the inevitable cigarette between their fingers, he with his de rigueur glass of orange juice for a Muslim in the other hand, the orange juice fortified, my stepmother told me with a laugh, with a big slug of whisky.

There’s my father, hot, tired and unkempt, squatting on a beer box in the jungle stripped to the waist, about to eat his bread and cheese and drink his beer, the food he had dropped into the jungle instead of army rations… nearby butterflies hovered over the sweaty socks he’d just taken off, savouring the delicious pheromones.

And my small half- brother and I, me standing to attention in a new dress I was so thrilled with, at a parade on the padang at Kota Bahru, and he, sitting cross-legged at my feet, looking puzzled, not sure what he was supposed to be doing.

Penang is like most thriving eastern cities these days… as busy, crowded, built up and polluted as any western city – no longer the elegant peaceful place I once knew. Yet back then as we sailed away from Penang, and it faded into the misty blue distance my heart hurt so much that I couldn’t bear to say good-bye to all that beauty, and I promised myself I would return. But I never have.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

Re-cycling is one of my favourite hobbies, whether it’s re-cycling from the rubbish tip or leftovers from the fridge. In this case, I had a cup of leek and potato soup left over from the day before. Waste not, want not – I checked out a pea soup recipe, and found that leeks were one of the  ingredients.

I also had a big cup of steamed cauliflower in the fridge, so tipping it into the soup, I added a good gob of garlic from a jar, a couple of cups of good chicken stock, salt and pepper, and when hot, two cups of frozen peas. When the peas were cooked in a few minutes, I whizzed it all smooth in the stick blender, and hey presto, we enjoyed a delicious pea soup that took only five minutes or so to cook.

I love croutons that always cheer up a soup, but didn’t have any good sour dough bread for them, only soft white sliced sandwich bread bought for sandwiches. I simply cut a slice into four and fried the pieces in olive oil. Sprinkled with salt, they were better than croutons, crunchy and satisfying.

Food for thought

Nothing living should ever be treated with contempt. Whatever it is that lives, a man, a tree, or a bird, should be touched gently, because the time is short. Civilization is another word for respect for life…

Elizabeth Goudge , writer

 

 

 

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Filed under army, colonial life, cookery/recipes, history, Japan, life and death, the thirties, Thoughts on writing and life, travel, uncategorised, Uncategorized, world war two

Sailing to the fabled East

EMPIRE TROOPER leaving harbour

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

Southampton 1953. The first night on board ship (shown above) my father took me for a walk around the deck while my stepmother settled my brother and our luggage into our cabin. It was the first time we had gone for a walk together since that memorable and devastating day in London when we first joined him and my stepmother. He had mellowed in the six years since then. There was a joyous bustle and excitement everywhere we walked in these last few hours before we sailed.

Since I was fourteen I was allowed to eat with the adults, which meant attending the formal dinner every night. Though this was a troopship, the elaborate routines and rituals of an ocean-going luxury liner were still maintained. It had been a German ship during the thirties and when captured during the war, had been transformed into the military ship in which we were now travelling, though still with its sweeping curved staircases and ornate dining room, and a waiter who still processed around the corridors banging a soft gong to announce each meal. So every evening, we ate a full Edwardian dinner, course after course, in full evening dress.

My father had deliberately packed his uniforms, which were now buried in the ship’s hold, so he couldn’t dress up in full regimentals. This had earned him a very black mark from the captain, to which he was impervious. All around us, other officers sweltered and swaggered in mess kit, short jackets laden with gold braid, jingling spurs and tight overalls – as their long tight trousers fitting over Wellington boots were called – while my father relaxed in bow tie and dinner jacket.

With my stepmother wearing her long black silk evening dress he apologised to the others at the dining table for looking so funereal, and as he made his witty remarks, I watched the two poised and elegant young naval officers on our table fall under the spell of his debonair charm, like all his young regimental subalterns. These two young men were exquisitely mannered, especially the blonde blue-eyed one with an indefinable air of distinction, who, my father told me, came from a distinguished aristocratic family.

As the voyage progressed, and we sat with the same diners at every meal and got to know each other, both these young naval officers told me what a wonderful man my father was. By then, I was old enough to see something of what they meant. He was handsome and distinguished in his own right, witty and wicked, with a mischievous sense of humour, gay and rather gentle, and exuded integrity and intelligence. Above all, he shared a zest for life, a joy in people, and a laughing disdain for authority.

This was partly why we were on our way to Malaya, where he was going to help form the Federation Regiment. His career as a gunnery expert was soaring when he had complained to the Army Council about the lack of proper treatment for accidentally injured soldiers during a huge army exercise. Whistleblowers always suffer for their intransigence, so this had meant the end of his career. He left the cavalry and became an infantryman, an unusual career move!

He had had a long hard war, and didn’t get away from France until two weeks after Dunkirk.  His tank regiment had been ordered to support the French on the line of the Somme, but the French never turned up to be supported, and his outnumbered, outgunned regiment was in considerable peril from the swiftly advancing German army. They managed to retreat to Cherbourg, where they destroyed all their tanks and equipment, and were packed onto a cargo ship for the dangerous cross channel journey through the night.

Two thousand men were crammed on to the deck, hungry, exhausted and relieved. He said he never forgot the women of Plymouth in the WVS, waiting for them on the docks at dawn with hot tea. He was then sent to Africa, to serve in his tank regiment in the Eighth Army, and then the First Army. He was one of the famous Desert Rats. The names of his battles echoed through my childhood: Tobruk, Sidi Bahrani and Sidi Rezegh, Bardia and Benghazi, Salerno and Cassino…

I knew where he was, because he sent little cream cards with Pharaohs on them, sitting sideways with their arms bent, with long, black hair and black, almond shaped eyes. He also sent little wicker baskets of almond nuts, perhaps when he was in Tunisia. And later, when he was in Italy, he wrote letters and drew pictures of himself drinking wine at the top of steep hills. But then, after my mother disappeared, his letters stopped coming. As though the heart had gone out of him.

So I sat at table now, in the big dining room, and watched as he charmed our dining companions, who included a childless couple, he, very conscious of his grand regiment; she, still living on her memories of being ‘presented’ at court before the war, when, she told me, as a debutante she wore her long white dress with a train and two white feathers in her hair, to make her curtsey to the King and Queen at the evening courts.

I wore a smart new summer dress my stepmother had bought for these occasions, but since the rest of my wardrobe was in tatters, and my only shoes were a pair of gym shoes, she lent me a pair of flat red Russell and Bromley shoes to complete my outfit.

With a life-time of war-time rations behind me, I couldn’t believe my eyes as course after course of delicious food was served, not just at dinner, but at lunch and breakfast, and even afternoon tea. Few adults slumbering in their cabins, bothered with afternoon tea, but to me it was unmissable, with cake stands laden with mille-feuilles, meringues, slices of Battenberg cake, Florentines, petit fours and other delicacies I’d never even seen before. (The waiter named each exotic cake for me)

After the first week or so of this high life, I was approached by a group of young army lieutenants. They had asked my father first if they could include me in a play they were writing. I discovered that they called me Angelina, and I now enjoyed a court of charming young men who spoiled me and made me the heroine of a play they wrote and produced for the entertainment of the other passengers, so I enjoyed a brief moment of glory.

But I was immune to their considerable attractions, as the night my father had walked me round the deck, I had fallen hopelessly and secretly in love with an unknown naval officer with blue eyes, standing with a group of friends having a drink in the bar. I saw him through the open window as we passed. I never knew his name or anything about him, and craned to see him in the dining room, and hoped to see him in the lounge, and never passed him on the deck.

At Port Said we visited the places my parents knew for old times sake, so I never saw him there. At Aden he was nowhere to be seen, and at Columbo, as we sat and had tea at Mt Lavinia, the famed hotel by the sea, I saw he was playing tennis, and my heart turned over. When we disembarked at Singapore, and he sailed on to Hongkong, I cried for days. I must have driven my parents mad, and no doubt they put it down to hormones, since they didn’t know why I was such an emotional wreck!

Sailing into Singapore in the flaming red dawn was a little like approaching Venice from the sea, and this old port was just as fascinating back then before the skyscrapers arose, and the old streets and dwellings had been razed. It was still a maze of narrow alleys, where long bamboo poles festooned with drying clothes protruded from windows high above pedestrians and trishaws, and below them, shops crammed with intriguing foods, clothes and rugs, jewellery and carvings lined the thronged pavements.

We stayed in a hotel just around the corner from the fabled Raffles Hotel. Our hotel was built around a courtyard where tall palms grew and fragrant frangipani scented the air. In the warm, dark tropical night, I looked down from our bedroom windows to where knots of people squatted around the flames of tiny stoves on the pavement and cooked their evening meal… the scents of their spicy food, and the sound of their voices drifted up through the night, and they became a part of the palimpsest of this strange and enchanting Eastern city.

It was still recovering from the years of deprivation, persecution, and near starvation under the brutal occupation by the Japanese during the war, but then I only saw the beauty and fascination of another culture.

For a few weeks we explored the city, visited old friends in the army quarters and every day took a taxi to the beautiful Botanic Gardens in the cooler late afternoon where we fed the monkeys pea-nuts. Then we took the long train journey the length of Malaya, trundling endlessly through palms and past muddy rivers until we reached Penang, another romantic island, approached by ferry this time. We arrived in this beautiful place to another great hotel, the Runnymede, a rambling white stucco building on the edge of the sea, originally built by that splendid Georgian Englishman, Sir Stamford Raffles, as a home for his first wife and family in 1805.

He’s remembered as the founder of Singapore, but he also abolished slavery wherever he was posted, established law and order and free trade, religious freedoms and free schools. He spoke Malay and wrote a history of Java and was one of the founders of the London Zoo, and London Zoological society. Typically, he was frowned on by the English government, which refused him a pension, and fined him twenty- two thousand pounds when he retired because his land reforms meant he hadn’t made enough profit from the territories he administered! It was a risky business and didn’t pay to be a just and creative colonial official!

The Runnymede Hotel had been extended enormously since Raffles’ time and had evolved into one of the legendary hotels of the East, like Raffles Hotel in Singapore, and the Peninsula in Hongkong. Life for the wives in Malaya before independence – or ‘Merdeka’- as it was known, had a thirties flavour. Very little had changed since before the war in this tiny enclosed world. We spent eighteen months living in this luxury hotel on the edge of the sea which had been commandeered by the army to house officer families.

So while the husbands were scattered all over the Malayan peninsula, banging off at Chinese bandits or Communist freedom fighters – depending on your point of view – in steaming, leech-infested swamp and jungle, their wives and children lived lives of bored luxury in Penang. I, of course was one of these fortunate children, and since now my step-mother’s friends had amahs to look after their children my child- amusing duties were redundant.

I was at an awkward age -fourteen and a half – too young to really be included, but useful when they were short of one for canasta. Too young to learn bridge, or to be invited to join them and their friends for a pimms or gin and tonic before dinner, but too old to eat with the children. So I watched them and tried to understand the shifting friendships and social hierarchies.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 We’re having roast chicken on Easter Sunday, so I decided to make  bread sauce, which I haven’t bothered with for years. It’s supposed to be served with turkey or partridge, but I think it’s just as good with chicken. Stick eight cloves in a peeled onion,and put it in a small saucepan with 500mls of milk, two bay leaves and two springs of thyme. Slowly bring to the boil, and then leave to infuse for at least thirty minutes.

Strain the milk, discard the herbs and the onion. Stir into the milk a 100gms of fresh white breadcrumbs (I use sour dough) and slowly bring to the boil stirring all the time to make a thick smooth sauce. I make this the day before. On the day I will add 100 ml of cream, salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. It can be thinned with more cream or left nice and thick which is how I like it.

Food for thought

 According to my parents, I was supposed to have been a nice, churchgoing Swiss housewife. Instead I ended up an opinionated psychiatrist, author and lecturer in the American Southwest, who communicates with spirits from a world that I believe is far more loving and glorious than our own.

Elizabeth Kubler Ross. Pioneer in near death studies

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under army, british soldiers, colonial life, cookery/recipes, family, history, life/style, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, world war two

Kingdom by the sea

Image result for lulworth cove
A life – this is another instalment of an autobiographical series before I revert to my normal blogs.

Three years, three schools. During the next three years I went to three different schools, as my father went from one army posting to another.  Richmond High School was unusual. It had been built just before the war started, and was a no- expense-spared, state of the art modern building with even the chairs and tables designed ergonomically and in harmony with each-other and the architecture.

Unlike the historic boy’s grammar school nestled down in the town opposite the medieval parish church, the girls’ school was built high above the River Swale on the edge of the town looking across rolling farmland.

Designed by Denis Clarke Hall, a modernist architect, whose father was one of the founders of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children – NCPCC – it broke new ground for school design. Building was completed in 1940, the windows arriving miraculously from Switzerland, and the school furniture was designed by the great Finnish designer Alvar Aalto.

From the entrance hall the staff rooms, and library led off to the right, the assembly hall to the left, and straight ahead stretched a long, blue- tiled light-filled corridor for about a hundred yards. On the right, three short blue-tiled corridors or stalks as they were known, branched off from the main corridor at intervals, and at the end, divided into two classrooms. The classrooms were large, high-ceilinged airy rooms with windows stretching along two sides, from desk height to ceiling, and equipped with full- length Venetian blinds – very modern in 1950.

In the cloakroom, we each had our own hooks for hats and coats, and beneath them fitted benches equipped with shoe boxes for our indoor shoes. Similarly, in the gym cloakroom and showers, we had our own hooks for shorts and gym vest, towel and shoe racks. It was a perfect example of architecture actually working for the purpose it was designed, with no fish-hooks in it. It also educated my eye, so I was already in tune with the lines of Scandinavian architecture and furniture design which became the rage during the fifties and sixties.

From here I went to Aldershot Grammar, an old fashioned red brick building, over-used and over-crowded, and I missed the beauty of Yorkshire, the charm of old Richmond, the great achingly-empty spaces of the moors, the thick leafy trees in the dale, and rushing water of the River Swale, ruined abbeys, medieval churches and the Norman castle. Then, moving from the built-up Aldershot garrison town and rather grim grammar school, I started yet again at Swanage Grammar, another red brick building, this time on the edge of a sea-side town.

It had a joyous atmosphere, partly due to the constant creativity nurtured within its walls. The annual arts festival was the focus of our lives for a large chunk of the year, during which we wrote and painted and rehearsed, and the classrooms rang with choirs practising, soloists practising their instruments and voices singing and declaiming poetry and speeches…

The festival was so devised that everyone could find some talents to develop and was required to enter four events… I won the short story competition, and the declamation prize, making my mark with Shakespeare’s ‘This royal throne of kings’.

Today, these three schools no longer exist. The first was merged with the medieval boy’s grammar school and local secondary modern schools, the second seems to have disappeared so thoroughly it’s not even in records, and the third stands empty, merged with other area schools. I find it sad.

Each school I went to belonged to a different examining board, the Oxford, Cambridge and London, so I had to start afresh with a different syllabus at each one, and this was where my reading stood me in good stead, though it didn’t help with my disjointed maths career. My navy school uniform which had lasted me since the first school, just made it to the day I left to go to Malaya, darned and skimpy and about to collapse! In the two schools with brown uniform I had stood out like a sore thumb.

After my London holiday, my next was in France, an adventure I wrote about in my blog called My Tour de France. The last summer holiday before leaving England was at Lulworth Cove. We lived there for a year, and to get to school at Swanage  I had to catch a bus at 7am, change to catch a train at Wareham, arriving in Swanage to catch another bus up to school. The return journey saw me wearily arrive home at six o’ clock.

It was a hard year. I cooked my own breakfast- one egg, one rasher of bacon and a piece of bread-  at six thirty, fed and let out the twelve chickens and two geese we had invested in to feed the whole family at Christmas, and left the sleeping household undisturbed as I went to catch the bus. A finicky eater, I couldn’t stomach the dreadful school lunches, but since my stepmother was sure that I had had a good midday meal, and was also sure that I had eaten it, tea back home was just some toast, followed by cornflakes before I went to bed after finishing my homework. I was always hungry.

I used my penny for the bus up to school and back to the train, to buy a dough-nut for the return train journey like every- one else, until my step-mother discovered this. Always hard-up, she decided that if I could walk and run the last mile to school and back, I didn’t need the penny each way, so I sat in the train and watched everyone else eat their snack, pretending my stomach was not rumbling with hunger.

As soon as I got home, there were the chickens and the geese to round up and feed, and shut up for the night in their respective huts. Homework and then bed at eight completed the day. But a bookworm can’t stop reading so I would read whatever book was obsessing me, kneeling by the bedroom door to use the crack of light from the hall, until my parents went to bed.

This was the year I discovered Thomas Hardy, beginning with Tess of the D’Urbervilles. This was Hardy country, we all read him, and talked about him, and echoes of his words haunted every corner of this beautiful place once known as Summerlands.

The Dorset country-side was enchanting, old grey stone cottages, and historic unchanging villages, nestled in the folds of the valleys on the Isle of Purbeck, where hedges were bent against the prevailing wind from the Channel, fat lowland sheep grazed, and ancient churches dreamed through all the days. History and folk lore and old memories brought each place alive for me.

Every morning on the bus, we drove past the grey stone Elizabethan manor house where Tess spent the first night of her honeymoon with Angel Clare… round the corner in Wool was the ruined abbey where Angel carried her when he was sleep walking…  While Norman Corfe Castle, where the Roundheads in 1645 had twice besieged and finally overcome Lady Mary Bankes and her Royalist garrison by a betrayal from inside – and which was then ruined on Cromwell’s orders – was a historical landmark on our journey.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of history was a moment in our present. At eight o clock on the 28th January 1953, just as the train pulled out of Wareham Station, we looked at the time, and silence fell on the carriage of eight girls of different ages. We sat there in a long tense vigil, and it was a long time before anyone broke the silence, as we all lived and died the last few moments of nineteen- year -old Derek Bentley’s short life as he was hanged in London.

It seemed utterly unbearable that a life should be taken in such a brutal way, that a life should just be obliterated while we sat with bated breath in our little train travelling towards school for another day of life and laughter and learning. (Sixteen- year- old Christopher Craig, who actually shot and killed the policeman in the case, served ten years and on release became a plumber.)

That summer of my fourteenth birthday, my stepmother’s nephew came to spend the long holidays with us. She adored him, and gave him wonderful memories of idyllic weeks with picnics and expeditions every day. This was idyllic for me too, since I was the one taking him for the picnics and long walks and jaunts to the different beaches and bays.

With our satchels filled with egg sandwiches and sometimes ginger pop, we would set off, our favourite place being a remote bay down a steep cliff, called Man o’ War Bay. We walked up the hill past a fascinating Lutyens house, through fields, down crumbling steps to reach the pebbly beach and blue water, clear as crystal, and played and swam until time to come home.

Back home, my stepmother who never made cakes, had a magnificent high tea waiting for us with scrambled eggs or baked beans on toast followed by warm, freshly baked, utterly delicious date cake. The whole holiday felt like something out of Enid Blyton, ‘Four Go Away on Holiday’ sort of thing, without a care in the world.

Most weekends for the rest of the year, I explored remote bays and paths that few walkers could ever use, for I roamed across the shooting ranges of the Gunnery School where my father was second in command. So I was able to reach forbidden and forbidding Arish Mell Gap, and to explore the desolately lovely village of Tyneham – commandeered by the army in 1943 to practise firing on the land surrounding it. In the early fifties, the two hundred villagers had only been gone for ten years, so their homes hadn’t suffered too much damage from gunnery shells or the decay of desertion. Back then it was a particularly beautiful English village, haunted by its past and untouched by the present, where time had stood still.

From there I’d scramble up to the 2,500 -year- old Iron Age fort, where later, the Romans had eventually wrestled it from the local Durotriges tribe and then maintained their own watch, and I’d look down on Worbarrow Bay, also out of bounds. In the other direction, I went for solitary swims right round at the furthest edge of the curve of the circle of Lulworth Cove, the legendary beauty spot on the Jurassic Coast. Once I swam in mist so dense I couldn’t see further than a few yards, just deep green water surrounding me and feeling long slippery strands of sea-weed waving between my legs…

When it rained, I would kneel on the sheep skin rug on the floor in my bedroom and lose myself in my latest library book. Though none of my school friends lived nearby, I was never lonely, as I had a rich interior life – books, art, music, the history of ballet, ancient Egypt, history, poetry – all these interests meant I was never bored, but always dreaming, always in the midst of some absorbing passion. So I was overcome by grief at the end of The Mill on the Floss, mesmerised by autocratic Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre, irritated by Emma, loathed Becky Sharp,  hated Jack London’s Sea Wolf, loved Prince Andrei and Natasha, mystified by Virginia Wolff’s allusive writing and learned by heart ‘Annabel Lee’, in her kingdom by the sea.

I spent a lot of time painting. My father would bring me long strips of cardboard from the packings of the shells they fired every day on the ranges. These strips were about eighteen inches wide and three feet long, and on them I depicted in the vivid poster paints always given to me for Christmas – nursey rhyme characters like Wee Willie Winkie, Little Boy Blue, Miss Moffat and all the others. These pictures adorned not just my brother’s bedroom, but the toddler’s bedrooms of many of my stepmother’s friends.

Years later one mother told me she still had these pictures. I was known as ‘good with children’, so often these same friends would borrow me to amuse their toddlers in those days before play groups and kindergartens. One mother even borrowed me for a fortnight to look after her toddler while she was recovering from the birth of her second child.

While we lived here by the sea, with the help of the army padre I was confirmed in Salisbury Cathedral, and shortly after, the King suddenly died on 6th February 1952. We still, in those days, stood when he had given his speech after Christmas dinner and the National Anthem was played. The radio – no TV for us then – only played chamber music, as it was called – for a week, the newspapers were framed in black, and we all felt we were part of a huge national event.

The new Queen was young and beautiful… and now after the passage of time, and the longest reign in English history, it will seem perhaps even more apocalyptic when her spoiled elderly heir inherits that ‘royal throne of kings’.

The following year sweets came ‘off ration’ in the week before we sailed for Malaya. For the first time in my life sweet shops were full of sweets/candy instead of running out of stocks in the first few hours, and it was possible to buy as much chocolate we wanted, without waiting in a long queue and having to count out a measure of measly sweet coupons!

To be continued

Food for threadbare gourmets

 I’ve always loved date cake since that year by the sea… and this recipe brings back those days. Soak 250 gms of dates in a cup and a half of boiling water and a teasp of bicarbonate of soda for about 30 minutes until the dates are soft. Beat 125 gms of softened butter, three quarters or more of a cup of brown sugar, and a teasp of vanilla. When pale and creamy add two eggs one at a time, and then stir in the date mixture and two cups of SR flour.

Pour into a greased tin, the bottom lined with greaseproof paper (I use a loaf tin) and a bake in an oven at 180 degrees C for about forty minutes, or until a blade comes out clean. I often sprinkle the top with extra white sugar, just because if I’m going to indulge in sugar, it might as well be really sweet!

Food for thought

 Don’t take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

The Second Agreement from The Four Agreements by Miguel Ruiz

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A beautiful woman

Image result for affluent tree lined london streets

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

My step grandparents accepted me for better or worse, but not as a grandchild, so I called one Uncle Bill, which wasn’t his real name, the other Nana. She was a tall, slim, elegant woman with a cloud of white hair piled up on her head. When she went out, she wore little, high-crowned, fashionable forties hats with a black veil tipped over her fine brown eyes.

She wore expensive and beautifully- cut black or grey suits in wool or gaberdine, with slim straight skirts, and flimsy, white blouses, in silk, finest lawn or crepe, which buttoned to the neck or tied in a bow. She always wore high heeled, black suede shoes by the Swiss makers Bally, the style called Toby, and she never wore anything else, summer or winter.

She lived happily alone in her flat in a wide quiet street lined with large Victorian houses, in an affluent leafy suburb, which was as unchanging then as she was. I loved her walnut sideboard with elegant mirror hanging over it, and the Imari bowl on a stand on the piano which rang when your finger tapped it. On the mantelpiece she had a pair of fine bronze statues, a pair of large art nouveau urns with tulips on them, and over it, another large mirror.

We sat in deep grey and black velvet sofas and chairs round the fire. She always sat in the same chair, or rather, perched in it, at an angle, with her elegant long legs crossed, and her back unbending. Even when alone, she sat in this way reading The Telegraph, living out her vision of herself as a beautiful lady.

On the refectory dining table in the window, set with high backed comfortable chairs, she always had a vase of beech leaves, verdant green in spring, somewhat darker and leathery in summer, and in autumn, sprays of brown leaves. She bought them from the same florist, year after year. On a trolley by the kitchen door a set of cups and saucers, sugar bowl and milk jug with a net cover weighted with beads over it, sat ready for a cup of tea to be made. She herself lived on tea and toast fingers. She said they helped her keep her figure, and they certainly did, until old age, when her system collapsed with shingles.

She had no friends, except perhaps, the two nuns who called once a year, collecting clothes for the poor. These callers she welcomed in, and laid her finest china and crispest napkins, and plied them with afternoon tea. They must have known that this visit was one of their most valuable acts of charity, for they never failed to make time for this occasion.

She told me once, that when she was a young wife, she saw a tramp outside, so she invited him in, and laid a tray with her best china and linen, and gave him a slap-up meal in grand style. She loved style, and she was obsessed with privacy. She could open up to the strangers at her gate, but to no-one else.

There were pictures of herself and her separated husband in the spare bedroom, where I slept when I stayed. She was a beautiful young woman with wide, large eyes, a mass of dark hair, and a whimsical smile playing round a firm, well-shaped mouth and strong chin. Her husband was in his World War 1 officer’s uniform, a fine-featured, handsome, young man quite unlike the rather gross, heavy-jowled old man I knew.

The only remnant of his former beauty was his fine, well-shaped nose. Neither of their children had inherited these good looks, but neither had they inherited their parent’s personalities either. The son was as courteous and good-humoured as his father was irascible and unpredictable, and the daughter was as gay and energetic as her mother was withdrawn and languid.

I lived with her for six months when I attended the Regent Street Polytechnic after I returned from Malaya. She gave me her favourite book to read, ‘Testament of Youth’ by Vera Brittain. In the mid- fifties Vera Brittain hadn’t become fashionable again, but I read it, and was ravaged by it, in spite of having to overcome my resistance to her pompousness and priggishness at the beginning.

I understood my step-grandmother much better after reading this. She told me she had watched her fiancee march gallantly off to war in 1914, bands playing, banners waving, flowers flying through the air. The tiny remnant which survived returned to the little north country town, to be met by a shattered community. She never really recovered from the loss of her fiancee, but settled for second best, rather than be left on the shelf.

So they both suffered, but her vanity supported her through the long, lonely years of her life. She told me about the doctor who told his sister he had seen the girl he was going to marry, and his chagrin when he saw her pushing her baby’s pram, the clothes she had worn then, and on other occasions, and which outfits won her flowery compliments.

She described the floating thirties chiffon dress she wore to the garden party at Shrewsbury School when she met the Prince of Wales, the complimentary things that sales girls said to her out shopping, or having tea at Fullers, telling her that she and her daughter were the nicest mother and daughter who came regularly… and she told me about the second war, the war which came to civilians, when they hid under the stairs night after night as the planes came over, and stepping over the fire hoses in Leicester Square, going to see ” Gone With The Wind” after a heavy night’s bombing.

She told me these things, not because she was close to me, but because I was interested, and I was someone to talk to. I don’t think she ever felt any affection for me, but she was never unkind to me. Our relationship was one of unchanging good manners and consideration. I was polite and grateful, she was kind and courteous.

As the years went by, the drawers in the walnut sideboard stuck, the handles became loose, and a hinge fell off the cupboard door. The art nouveau vases on the mantelpiece developed a jigsaw of tiny cracks, while the velvet chairs sagged, and the springs went, but she went on perching upright in the corner on the springs, nibbling her toast fingers and sipping her tea. Until one day, it all caught up with her. She was very ill and never recovered.

Now she began to disintegrate. She needed constant nursing, so they found a good nursing home. The respite only lasted a month or so, and then she was expelled. This pattern continued for the rest of her life. No nursing home could handle her. So she came home. Now, after a life of food deprivation she had become a foodaholic and was forever raiding the kitchen wherever she was.

After starving herself all her life, now she couldn’t stop eating. She became a hugely fat old lady. Everything in the kitchen at home was locked up, but she would even stand on a stool dangerously balanced on a chair, to reach cold mashed potato hidden at the top of a high Victorian cupboard.

The last time I saw her was on my wedding day. Wearing her fluffy pink dressing gown, she called me into her bedroom where she had permanently sequestered herself, and produced, from heaven knows where, a box with a beautiful little coffee set in it. It was finest white porcelain, with a deep blue and gold border, cups, saucers, sugar bowl, jug and coffee pot, unchipped and perfect. She told me it had been given to her on her wedding day. I never used it, but I carried it around the world for years.

A few years later in Hongkong, I had a brief letter from my stepmother – the only one she ever wrote to me. It consisted of two sentences, one which said she hoped life was still treating me royally – had it ever really treated me so, I wondered? And the next sentence told me her mother had died.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

We had gone to a barbecue supper with some neighbours, but since it turned out that they rarely ate red meat like us, there was a lot of barbecued steak left over after we’d eaten. Rather than condemn themselves to eat it, they pressed it on us, so nothing daunted, my love suggested they come the next night to eat it with us! What to do with cooked steak? I found a recipe which sounded just the job- beef stroganoff.

I made it as simple as possible – whizzed the chopped onion in the micro wave, gently cooked lots of sliced mushrooms with garlic, added a good glug of red wine and let it boil-up, then stirred in a heaped table spoon of flour. I’d made stock by boiling all the mushroom stalks, and I now stirred this into the mushroom mix, added the onion, stirred them altogether, and added a dash of Dijon mustard and a stock cube.

When we were ready to serve, I stirred in the steak, chopped into thin bite-size pieces, plus half a cup of cream –( I should have used sour cream for a stroganoff, but in deference to a toddler, I went for something less sharp), plenty of black pepper, and served it with rice and salad, and sliced courgettes cooked in olive oil and garlic. It was as good as re-cooked steak could get!!!

Food for thought

“I have one major rule: Everybody is right. More specifically, everybody — including me — has some important pieces of truth, and all of those pieces need to be honoured, cherished, and included in a more gracious, spacious, and compassionate embrace.”
― Ken Wilber – philosopher, writer, teacher

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