Glorious London

Image result for perronneau a girl with a kitten

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

When I was eleven I went to spend several weeks of the summer holidays with my step-grandmother. I travelled down from Yorkshire on the Flying Scotsman, ate my egg sandwiches for lunch, taking them out of their grease-proof paper wrapping and brown paper bag, and felt thirsty with no drink.

I sat and worried the whole journey about how I was going to get my suitcase down from the luggage rack when we arrived at King’s Cross. There, the thundering, hissing steam engines and the noise of all the milling crowds of people were overwhelming, and then it was out into the heat and traffic. London seemed like hell at first, but I grew to love it.

I loved waking in the morning and seeing the shafts of sunlight stabbing through the heavy, floor -length, apple- green velvet curtains. Outside, veiling the view of the street, was the thick screen of plane trees, pollarded every year, but now in high summer, green and leafy. I listened to the clop of the horse’s hooves as the milk man jingled down the road at 6.30 in the morning, and felt a great sense of well- being.

As long as I was polite and well-mannered and helped with the chores, no-one ever got cross here, and it was so easy to be good. My stepmother’s parents were in this sense, perfect grandparents – uncritical.

Every morning at about eleven, my step-grandfather arrived to take me for an expedition. They were glorious. London in 1949 was a still a blackened, blitzed city… black from the coal fires of the industrial revolution, blitzed from the bombs of the Luftwaffe… so among the blackened sooty edifices of the city, there were still deep bomb craters filled with rubble and pink rose bay willow growing on these derelict monuments to World War Two – Wren’s precious, now ruined churches,  elegant, destroyed townhouses, fashionable shops, and humble homes…

Uncle Bill walked me all over this London, telling me the names of the streets, and the history of all the places, and the names and stories of the heroes and soldiers, statesmen and artists commemorated in all the statues. We strode down Constitution Hill, past the Palace, No I, London, also known as Apsley House – the Iron Duke’s London home- through the parks, Admiralty Arch, Whitehall, where King Charles I was executed, Westminster, along the Embankment, into the City.

Other days he took me to the Abbey, the Tower, Kew Gardens, Hampton Court, and on the river bus to Greenwich, or the other way to Kew. He opened my eyes to the layers of history and beauty of this ancient city, centuries of life and death, trade and plague, culture and violence  …we walked up streets with fascinating medieval names like Threadneedle Street, home of the Bank of England, where a detachment of Guards, he told me, have marched to guard it nearly every day since the Gordon Riots in 1780; we discovered the corner of Cock Lane, once known as Pie Corner, where the Great Fire of London ended, having started in Pudding Lane… we marvelled at St Paul’s, which Sir Christopher Wren had  built to replace the old Gothic Cathedral destroyed by the Great Fire…

We meandered through Georgian London with its elegant Nash facades and lingered outside Rules famous restaurant opened by Thomas Rule in 1798, round the corner from Covent Garden, and favourite meeting place for artistic life from Dickens and Thackeray, to Laurence Olivier and Clark Gable;  Edwardian London we  acknowledged at Admiralty Arch, built by Edward the Seventh to honour his mother, Queen Victoria… Victorian London, and the statue of the Queen outside Buckingham Palace… Elizabethan London, where Good Queen Bess had ridden as a girl beneath the ancient oaks in Greenwich Park, and where Charles II’s wonderful Hospital for Seamen, Wren’s glorious masterpiece, still stands as a monument to public charity and architectural beauty. When we saw it, it had become the Naval College where we admired the famous Painted Hall and I gazed with ghoulish interest at the brown blood- stains on the cotton vest worn by Nelson when he died on the decks of the Victory.

Norman London meant Westminster Hall, William the Conqueror’s masterpiece, with its unique 240 feet hammer – beam ceiling, as well as his menacing Tower of London, where I listened to the story of the death of the Little Princes in the White Tower several hundred years later, as told by a Beefeater guide, and recalled the cruel executions of sad seventeen -year- old Lady Jane Grey, and tragic Anne Boleyn before her, as well as Sir Walter Raleigh.

To the Abbey, all the poets in their corner, and the tomb of the Unknown Warrior, memorial to the dead of what my other grandmother called The Great War…and where it is said the ghost of John Bradshaw who signed Charles 1’s death warrant, is sometimes seen – then across the way, to magnificent Boadicea in her chariot by the river, Queen of the Iceni before the Romans settled the city as Londinium… many believe that she’s buried at Kings Cross under Platform 10!   I had learned about this legendary woman from my history teacher when I was eight, and she fascinated me…

Writer Anna Quindlen wrote: ‘London… is divided into chapters, the chapters into scenes, the scenes into sentences; it opens to you like a series of rooms, door, passage, door. Mayfair to Piccadilly to Soho to the Strand.’ And that was how it felt. At Trafalgar Square I was moved by beautiful Nurse Edith Cavell’s memorial from the First World War,  while in Piccadilly, Uncle Bill told me of stepping over fire hoses from the previous night’s bombing in World War Two, then in Downing Street he pointed out the window from which Chamberlain had waved to the crowds after bringing back ‘peace in our time’ from Munich.

And the best days of all, were when he took me to the National Gallery and the Tate. I had already read, re-read and read again, umpteen times, a book belonging to my parents called ‘The Outline of Art’ by Sir William Orpen. It was probably printed during the war because the only colour illustration was a picture of his own, a particularly hideous painting of a butcher’s shop in all its bloody detail. For the rest, every glorious picture was in black and white, so I imagined what the colours were. It was a dreadful disappointment when I first saw Rossetti’s ‘The Beloved’ in colour, and discovered the Beloved was wearing emerald green, instead of the madonna blue I had visualised her in.

And so it was too with Christina Rossetti in ‘The Annunciation’. The pictures and the painters I learned to love in this black and grey world, have remained my favourites ever since, which is a chastening thought that having formed my taste at eleven it has never developed since.

But I still love the dignity and gentleness of Fra Angelica, and the sheer beauty of Fra Filippo Lippi and Botticelli. I still dislike Mona Lisa and love Beatrice d’Este. Da Vinci’s ‘Virgin on The Rocks ‘ still takes my breathe away, and his angels and cartoons ravished me then and now. I loved, and still love, Holbein and Van Eyck, and the wonderful line and delicacy of Durer. Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch still feed some pool of serenity deep inside me. Rembrandt, alas, didn’t re-produce well in black and white, but I took Orpen’s word for him, and he was right.

And, oh, the glory of Gainsborough, from Mr and Mrs Robert Andrews sitting beneath the tree in their ripe cornfield, to the society beauties and ravishing children he painted later. Constable didn’t show up very well in black and white either, so I came to love him later.

The Pre-Raphaelites are all the rage now, but I loved them back in ’49, especially Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and Lord Leighton, and also Picasso in his blue period. And Hoppner and Romney. Sir Joshua Reynolds ‘Samuel’, I loved because my grandmother had told me his story… “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth”… Samuel Palmer didn’t seem to be in ‘The Outline of Art’ – perhaps he didn’t reproduce well in black and white either. But I fell in love with him on our return from Malaya.

At the first opportunity I had hot-footed it down to the Tate, passing through the Turners, which never appealed to me (p’raps the black and white had killed him for me!) and found in a corner by the door, an exquisite little painting of people coming from church, and a golden moon shining down on them. Samuel Palmer. That picture, and he, caught my heart, and I still have the postcard I bought then, in its battered little gold  frame, and I still love his golden cornfields and fat sheep and the mystical light of his other paintings

So I was ripe for my first visit to the National Gallery. At the end of a long exciting afternoon, Uncle Bill asked which picture had been my favourite. I panicked. I was still mortified from the mockery of the reading I had done before I met my parents – and I didn’t know him well enough, or trust him enough not to laugh at me for being religious. So I lied, and said Perroneau’s ‘Girl with a Kitten’, and van Gogh’s ‘ Chair ‘. And so I was punished for my lie, because he bought me copies of them both, instead of my favourite picture, da Vinci’s sublime ‘Virgin on the Rocks’.

The picture is, of course, Perroneau’s  ‘A girl with a kitten’

To be continued… The Edwardians

Food for threadbare gourmets

Courgettes/zucchini are one of my favourite vegetables, sliced in long thin ribbons or sliced across in penny shaped pieces, and cooked I olive oil and garlic, they are delectable…  grated and stirred into a risotto, with lemon zest added, they’re delicious; courgette and feta fritters and courgette slice, using either chopped bacon or a tin of salmon, make a lovely lunch, and I use them in ratatouille, instead of aubergines – which are anathema to me  (though  I do buy them just to enjoy their purple beauty in a bowl of fruit and vegetables).This courgette loaf is a fragrant way to enjoy courgettes with a cup of coffee in the morning, or with a cup of tea in the afternoon.

In a bowl, beat three medium sized courgettes, 150 gm of sugar, one egg andn125ml of light olive oil. In a separate bowl, sift together 200 gm of SR flour, half a teasp of salt, quarter teasp of baking soda, a teasp of cinnamon and two teasp lemon zest. Stir the flour mixture into the courgette mixture just until blended. Pour the batter into a greased loaf tin and bake for forty- five minutes, at 160C or gas mark 3. When cool I like a layer of lemon icing spread over it.

Food for thought

We manufacture everything ( in our manufacturing cities) except men; we blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar, and shape pottery; but to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages.

John Ruskin. Victorian write, art critic, philosopher

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My army life

Image result for Catterick camp circa 1950

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued – next – The pleasures of London

 Food for threadbare gourmets

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

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

Food for thought

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

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

from The Uses of Sorrow by Mary Oliver

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Nuns, nice habits and strange foibles

Valerie10.jpg

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

I never had any trouble remembering the date of my baby brother’s birth, because when we arrived back in England from Belsen, we were sent to school at a convent in Yorkshire. It was with the sisters of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, a Belgian teaching order. My brother’s birthday was the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, one of many feast days when we were sent home, presumably so the nuns could pay due reverence to the day, unhampered by their fee- paying pupils, and causing my parents to grumble that they spent all this money in order for us to stay home.

Sometimes, as at Corpus Christi, we were required to attend in order to parade and go to Mass, and draw holy pictures. This was a time of severe mortification for me, because not being Catholic, our parents refused to buy us white dresses and veils to wear on feast days.

On the other hand, thanks to the books I had read with my grandmother, I was bigotedly anti-Catholic, and had no qualms about being different. The nuns themselves were mostly gentle and sophisticated women, many of them French or Belgian, others English. My form teacher, who was also the maths teacher, was the most avidly religious person at the convent and not a nun at all. Rather, she was an Irish Catholic, and, as I discovered later in New Zealand, she embraced a very different brand of Catholicism. ‘

Not to put too fine a point on it, she rammed religion and her devotion down our throats, exhorting us amongst other things, to bring old clothes to her to dispense to the needy. As she gathered them in from everyone except me, she would regularly intone, ” Ah, gurrells, it’s boi moi gude deeds to the puir that I hope to go to heaven.” She would interrupt long division to make us all stand up and say The Angelus, and we would then pray for the parents of all the unfortunate girls who had one Protestant parent. Since both my parents were Protestant, this was a prayer I obstinately refused to join in, as I had no regrets about their situation.

One day, her propaganda about “puir St Thomas Moore”, wicked Protestants and suffering Catholics enraged me so much, that having  just finished one of my father’s books, a history of the Borgia family, I had enough ammunition, I felt, with the Inquisition and the scandal of the Avignon Popes, to take her on. I never got beyond the Borgia Pope and a quick mention of the Inquisition, before she clapped her hands over her ears, and drowned me out by shouting: “What a pack of Protestant lies.” No-one liked me very much after that, and I would always be left to last when they were picking teams for netball and rounders.

One person who did like me, perhaps a little too much, was Mother Michael, a rather coarse -looking Englishwoman compared with the refined foreign nuns. She was not a teacher so much as our house- mother, and she was obsessed with long hair. My long, almost black, thick plaits were meat and drink to her. Every lunch hour I was dragged off to the big, sunny cloakroom-cum ante-room, and had my plaits ceremoniously undone, and brushed out.

The brushing went on all through play-time, and I never got to play with anyone. As the time for the bell drew near, she’d plait the blessed things up again, refusing to let me do them. She dragged the hair round my face quite differently to the way I scraped my hair back myself, and I’d get home every day, looking quite unlike the school girl who had set out in the morning.

Every day my stepmother would ask what was going on, and when I told her about the brushing and the plaiting, she’d say “It’s got to stop”. But I didn’t know how to stop it, so it went on until Mother Michael fell in love with another girl with long plaits.

The nuns wore elegant, plum- red gaberdine habits, with a long swinging pleated skirt, and a thick, beautiful cord with long tassels round their waist. Their rosaries also hung from this fat cord, and they had long, soft white wool veils which swung in the wind when they borrowed our roller skates and took a turn round the rink in the evenings when everyone was inside, doing their homework. The garden beside the skating rink plunged down towards Our Lady’s grotto, and then to the River Tees.

I would gaze out of the classroom window in our annexe called The Hermitage, in winter, and see the black, lacy boughs of the empty trees, the black running water of the river, white snow, and sometimes a flame- coloured squirrel silhouetted in the trees against the pale winter sky. The main convent building was grim, grey, Victorian Gothic, with long, shiny, lino-floored corridors where feet and voices echoed. It smelt of incense and wax candles, lino polish, and nearer the kitchens, carbolic soda and grease. In alcoves at regular intervals along the echoing corridors, painted statues of saints draped with rosaries presided. I glared at them like a latter-day Oliver Cromwell as our crocodile straggled to chapel for prayers every day after lunch.

I always enjoyed Retreat, three or four days of silence when we spent most of our time drawing and painting holy pictures, instead of wrestling with fractions, and going to chapel for mass, as well as the regular after- lunch prayers, and then Benediction. I hated the priest who came to the convent for the occasion, and whom all the nuns fluttered around and flattered and fawned upon. To the cynical ten-year-old looking coldly on, he looked like a very boring, not very bright man, who relished in an unspiritual fashion, the entirely undeserved attention he received.

I was happy to go to chapel as often as we did during Retreat, as I had figured out that God was everywhere so it didn’t matter where you were beating his ear. I had no idea why we were doing all this, but then, a lot of things puzzled me… so I loved the reverent silence of the whole day, including the silent meals with severe, beautiful Mother John standing at her lectern, reading from the lives of saints. During these meals we ate Assumption Tart, known to us all as Sumpies.

The story of the three fashionable Belgian Victorian women who decided to found the Order was read aloud as we ate the tart. None of them knew how to cook, clean, or sew, and so in the first week, the lady nun assigned to cooking duties threw together some ingredients in a panic and produced the hard, yellow crust of almost inedible pastry on which jam was smeared and which we still ate. We all welcomed Sumpies on the menu, as at least the jam was sweet, the only ingredient which had any taste. The convent food was still obviously flung together by nuns who could not cook.

During Retreat, our class was visited by both Reverend Mother, and Mother Superior, causing an outbreak of curtsying and crossing ourselves. Since no-one ever explained anything to children in those days, I couldn’t work out why a young Reverend Mother seemed more important than a Mother Superior. Reverend Mother was Polish, about twenty-eight, very young to have reached such rank, and had an indefinable air of holiness about her. She also had an amazing complexion, pale skin and brilliant red cheeks. She received total devotion from everyone, and she fascinated me. Sometimes she wasn’t well enough to come to our weekly audience with her, so Mother Adelaide, Mother Superior, came instead.

My father adored Mother Adelaide. She was just the sort of woman he loved, witty and wise, French, sophisticated, clever and rather beautiful. Long after, when I heard that Reverend Mother had died the following year of TB, I realised that Mother Adelaide had left her duties as superior of the order, to come over from Belgium to keep things going with as little disturbance to everyone, including the beloved young nun.

After a while, it was decided that my sister would do better at school on her own. So I agreed to ” sit the scholarship” in order to go to the local grammar school. My stepmother was then summoned for an interview with the county education authorities. She told me that they informed her that my maths was so abysmal there was no way I could qualify for higher education. But my English and general knowledge were so far ahead of my age, that there was no way they could not give me a scholarship. Nothing much has changed since then, my maths are still abysmal.

To be continued

Food for threadbare gourmets

I had some wonderful coloured -peppers, red, yellow and orange, and instead of cooking them in my usual way, I tried a Jamie Oliver recipe – with adaptations! I chopped the three peppers and added them to a chopped onion, plenty of garlic and olive oil to sweat them until cooked. When soft I added a good glug of balsamic vinegar and boiled it all together, and then salt and pepper to taste.

This is where Jamie Oliver comes in. He recommended tossing in a generous handful of parmesan cheese and some table spoons of mascapone or cream cheese.  Stir it all together until everything is melted and amalgamated. He served it with pasta and I served it with steak and mushrooms, and it was delicious.. It may have been better with pasta but I won’t be using the cream cheese again.

Food for thought

If you truly get in touch with a piece of carrot, you get in touch with the soil, the rain, the sunshine. You get in touch with Mother Earth and eating in such a way, you feel in touch with true life, your roots, and that is meditation. If we chew every morsel of our food in that way we become grateful and when you are grateful, you are happy.
Thich Nhat Hanh. Vietnamese Buddhist teacher

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ducal splendour and daily deprivation

On my tenth birthday -wearing my pearlsInline image 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued –  back to England

Food for threadbare gourmets

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

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

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

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

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

Food for thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Footprints of the Nazis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

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

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

 Food for thought

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

 

 

 

 

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Flowers, beauty, architecture and antiquity

Image result for image of The Old Parsonage Hurworth Co durham
The Old Parsonage
A life –  Part  six

After a few weeks in London we packed up again and travelled north. I remember the cooing of wood pigeons and the enchantment of high summer in unspoiled country on the borders of Durham and Yorkshire, where my parents had found a house belonging to a friend of the family. It was in a village by the River Tees, described in the guide books as a ‘late medieval house, with studded front door with affixed carved oak female head, under ogee-shaped lintel (door said to have come from a demolished Saxon chapel).

‘The date on the lintel above the door is c1450, the reign of Henry VI. The house had been through many hands since then, had been extended in the 17th century, altered in the 18th and equipped with modern comforts in the 20th. Fashionable pantiles from the Low Countries were used to re-roof the house in the 17th century. Today it’s been altered again, and one wing converted into another dwelling.’

It was set in a high walled garden at the end of the village, and we spent most of our time in the sitting room, a wood panelled room with huge Tudor fireplace and inglenook. If I stood on the head of the tiger on the striped tiger-skin rug, I could just reach the chamfered 17th century beams as a nine- year- old. The casement windows looked onto the garden, and beyond the garden walls, hills and woods stretched to the sky-line.

We children were rarely allowed into the drawing room, and then, only if we knocked on the door beforehand. Mostly we stood at the door with whatever it was we wanted to say, but were allowed to sit there when guests came or when we had our lessons. I hankered to spend time in that room, a Georgian addition with French windows into the garden. It was simply furnished with soft flowered chintz, but it had a different atmosphere to the rest of the house – a refined, gentle energy compared with the robust Tudor architecture elsewhere.

I loved the slightly faded thirties linen prints on the loose covers on the sofas and chairs, and the black and white tiled hall with its antique chests and barometer. I developed a love of interior decoration and from then on felt uncomfortable in rooms that were ugly or tasteless, and was hungry for beauty when it was absent.

My new stepmother, who was lonely, and needed someone to talk to, unconsciously educated me too, looking through the pages of Vogue with me, and discussing the famous and controversial New Look by Dior. She wore clothes that I could appreciate, well-cut grey flannel trousers with a red jacket, elegant suits, nifty little hats with a bit of veil, perched at an angle, incredibly high navy suede court shoes, and severe beautifully cut evening dresses.

Everything was new and interesting, the stones in her jewellery, discussing menus, the intriguing friends who dropped in on their return from overseas, learning to distinguish crystal from glass, china from pottery. We didn’t always see eye-to eye. I was deeply upset when the revolving Victorian summer house with stained glass windows, a pointed pitched roof, and a circular table like a wheel which turned the house in the direction of the sun, was demolished, and the circle of soil now exposed, planted with grass. It seemed barbaric to smash this thing of beauty. My stepmother condemned it as Victorian. Anything Victorian was despised by both my parents.

This rambling house was a splendid place to curl up in and bury myself in a book. They were in short supply here. The owner had put hers away, and ours were all packed up. My stepmother gave me her textbooks on ancient history, so I learned about Pericles and Alexander, Carthage and Hannibal, there was Tanglewood Tales’, a book on Greek legends by Nathanial Hawthorne, and ‘ Black Beauty’, that animal classic which has influenced me more than any other for the rest of my life, I suspect.

Whatever the curse of the motor car, I am glad horses are no longer ill-used, neglected and exploited every day on the streets and in the country-side. “Little Women’, also among my stepmother’s books, had the same potent moral influence on me, as on so many other girls before and after. Interesting that the Quaker background of Anna Sewell, and the Transcendentalism of Louisa M. Alcott should have influenced so many generations of children.

I grazed through Palgrave’s ‘Golden Treasury’, which our stepmother used for our lessons. She was not strong on child psychology, but we learned a lot of poetry from the Golden Treasury, including: “Breathes there the man with soul so dead,” from Walter Scott, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ” What was he doing, the great God Pan, down in the reeds by the river?” I can still declaim them both in the overblown elocution class style required of us. Longfellow’s Hiawatha was another favourite of my stepmother, and we learned to recite long passages of this too.

My sister got very ratty if she didn’t do the same things as me, so she tried to learn them as well. But she never mastered the esoteric spelling my stepmother required of a nine- year- old and an eight- year -old. The words included phlegm and haemorrhage, diaphragm, delphinium and rhododendron. By now, my father had long since departed for his next army posting and we were alone with our new stepmother, who was struggling with early pregnancy as well as the malaria she’d picked up in Egypt, though we were unaware of either. Sixty years later, she confided over an affectionate dinner together that:” You never played me up – you could have, but you never did.”

We didn’t go to the village school, and never knew anyone from the village except the gardener, Mr Appleby. He took a fancy to me and taught me the names of his flowers in the garden. He certainly behaved as though they were his. His deep red, rich pink, and white peonies were his greatest joy, and had a beauty all their own, as I picked them for my stepmother’s crystal vases. They were as lovely as roses, dripping with dew on their bright green leaves, and droplets nestled in the big flower heads layered with petals like an old-fashioned rose.

Since we had our lessons in the afternoon, it was my job in the morning to re-fill and refresh all the flower vases in every room in the house. This was perfect. It got me away from the parents who I was very nervous with – never sure of what was required of me and possible disgrace – and I could spend as much time in the garden as I wanted. Mr Appleby let me pick the best pink and red peonies, there were fat, pink, peppermint-scented pinks, sweet- scented roses, multi-coloured wallflowers and  purple penstemons, fragrant white stocks, spiky blue delphiniums and stocky lupins. Snow- in- summer and blue campanula sprawled in crevices on the terrace by the house.

He started bringing me treats from his own garden, huge, juicy, golden Williams pears, the fattest, hairiest, rosiest gooseberries I’d ever seen, juicy purple plums with golden flesh. My sister was furious that he never brought her any treats. Then he offered to take me for walks around the surrounding country-side.

The first walks were magic. Mr Appleby was probably in his sixties, a wiry little man with red apple cheeks and black stubble, who wore a grubby shirt with no collar and shabby black jackets and worn trousers that would be described as ‘rusty’. He had lived here all his life and knew every path and stream and hill and dale for miles around. He showed me mice nests slung between corn stalks, rubbed the ears off barley for me to taste, showed me the flowers that grew in bean fields and corn fields, where bird’s nests were, and where fish jumped in the pools which gathered between great slabs of flat rock in the river.

He explained who owned this field and that great house, he took me by shallow streams he called becks, and up steep cliffs he called scars. The walks extended from five miles at the beginning, to over eight miles one afternoon, up hills and along narrow paths, when I was so tired I thought I’d never take another step. I was always exhausted at the end of these marathons.

And then one day he said something I didn’t believe I’d heard. So he said it louder. ” Give us a kiss, then.” How could I be ungrateful after all the things he’d done to give me pleasure. I dabbed a quick peck on his horrid unshaven cheek. He did the same on the next walk. I avoided him in the garden as much as I could. I felt so sick the following week when he came for the Tuesday afternoon expedition that I hid in the top of the pear tree.

My stepmother called and called, until my sister revealed my hiding place, and I was sent on my way with admonitions not to be so rude. I dragged behind him for most of the way for the rest of those walks, but there was always a point when at some place he asked for the unwilling kiss. Once, I tried to tell my stepmother about it, but she stared at me disbelievingly, which effectively closed the conversation, and now I look back sadly, and see an achingly lonely and love-starved old man.

I loved that country-side.  I remember walking by myself to the next village on an errand for my stepmother, dawdling past the long, grey stone wall of an estate, with dark, shiny rhododendron bushes reaching over the top, and hearing the cooing of wood pigeons. There was a clear blue sky, the empty, cobbled village street, no sounds of traffic, nothing but bird song, sunshine, the church clock chiming, shady trees and the perfect happiness of being on my own with nothing to do but walk in this perfect place.

A Shell guidebook in the 70’s described our village as consisting of one street 3/4 mile long. ” One side of the road is a wide green behind which extremely attractive 18th and early 19th century houses face equally good houses behind a narrow green on the other side of the road. The village is sited on a ridge immediately above the bank of the Tees, and the river and rich farmland beyond can be glimpsed between the trees and houses. It is remarkably unspoilt… New houses are discreetly sited, so that they do not detract from the atmosphere of a more gracious age than our own. It is a village of many greens, sundials, river views, trees, and attractive door-casings, and its centre has changed very little since Jane Austen’s day.”

In 1947, it had changed even less, and there were no new houses, rather, it resembled the very village scenes observed by Emma… “her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from the shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker’s little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread…”

The only difference between 1815, when Jane Austen wrote these words at the end of one European war, and 1947 at the end of another European war, was the lack of horses and ginger bread. Food rationing was still as stringent as ever, with Europe on the verge of starvation, while lack of petrol meant no cars spoiled the peace of this north country village.

And all this was about to change as we sailed from Harwich to the Hook of Holland on our journey to join my father at Belsen, the notorious concentration camp in the heart of hungry, war-ravaged Germany.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 My tomato plants are flourishing, so I have a glorious glut of tomatoes. This was my solution the other day. Fry the chopped tomatoes gently in olive oil… the skins come off easily as they cook. When soft, pour in lots of cream, and as it boils to thicken, stir in a small lump of Dijon mustard, salt and pepper, and let them all meld together.

Two- minute noodles were a quick answer to some padding for the tomatoes which were poured over them. With fresh parmesan grated over the tomatoes it was a fragrant, delicious light lunch. A small glass of red or white wine is a great enhancement!

Food for Thought

 The people who are compelled to write down what they feel are the ones who feel it hardest… Briana Wiest

I discovered this quote and much more on a beautiful wordpress blog at: Deborah J. Brasket Living on the Edge of the Wild

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War-time and Peace-time

Image result for weymouth harbour

 

A life – part five

Adults talked of ‘War-time’ and ‘Before the War’, and ‘When Peace-time comes’. I couldn’t imagine what Peace-time was like, since it had always been War-time for as long as I could remember. Peace-time sounded something like Christmas, when we would have plenty of food, no clothes coupons and lots of toys.

But when it came, it didn’t seem like that at all. There was a big parade for something called VE day, which had something to do with Peace-time, a lot of fireworks, which I’d never seen before, and then life went back to all the same old things, only worse. The grownups seemed to be worrying about not having enough bread and potatoes, shuddering over tinned meat called Spam and outraged over the idea of eating whale-meat. But the toys, the sweets, the goodies they’d all talked about, never came.

The first big change had actually come as soon as all those hundreds of planes had flown over us to D-Day almost frightening me out of my wits. When we went down to the beach to play in the sand in the small area cordoned off with high rolls of barbed wire, the barbed wire had gone. So had all the thousands of armoured cars, tanks, lorries, guns, jeeps that had covered the beach as far as the eye could see, and all the American soldiers. (They had all gone to the dreadful ordeal of Omaha Beach I learned many years later).

All the spikes in the sea to stop the Germans coming and which stretched all along the line of beach had also gone. Until then I had thought that all beaches were covered in khaki war machines, with camouflage netting stretched over them and that all seas were ringed with big black spikes. But now we had the whole beach and were allowed to walk along the pier, attend concerts on the grandstand and meander round the ancient harbour where the Black Death had first entered England, killing up to sixty per cent of the population, and where the first death had occurred in June 1348.

Now in 1945, the next big change was when my uncle came home from Prisoner of War camp. He was no longer the gay, carefree and happy- go- lucky young man who used to bring me coloured chocolate smarties when I was a toddler. His experiences in POW camps, his life- threatening escapes and starvation in Italy behind the German lines, where he hid in a goat- hut in the mountains, and then in Florence until the allies and his brother with the 8th army liberated it, had of course changed him.

Back home at the end of the war he took up civilian life again, and began his new career as a reporter on the local newspaper. Like so many returned soldiers he was deeply hurt and angry. I was the nearest soft target for this anger and I didn’t realise that the teasing I endured was indirect anger and the result of his war… to me it felt harsh and hurtful, and I often ended up in tears.

When my father returned for a brief leave it was the same, and he was as strict as my grandmother had warned. No more Enid Blyton. No more reading the Express and the Mail, my grandmother’s favoured newspapers. Only the Telegraph or the Times. He only had a fortnight’s leave before he went back to Egypt, but had a good go at under-mining my belief in Christianity, Brown Owl and the Brownies. He drew pictures of fat angels standing on clouds with harps and in long nighties with flies on their noses, hoping that mockery would dislodge the horrifying belief in religion he had discovered in this unknown daughter. All that happened was more tears from me.

Unbeknown to me until many years later, my grandmother dissuaded him from putting these unknown children into a convent, and an orphanage for the toddler son he didn’t know, so he went back to Egypt with our futures unresolved.

It wasn’t a very good basis for beginning a new life with him and his new wife, in the spring of ‘47. I was already frightened of him, and though I had longed to have a mother, I eventually became even more terrified of my new one than of my father. In the beginning it had been different. My father was coming home with a new mother, we were told. I was so excited at the idea of being like everyone else again, with a mother and a father, that I rushed out of the house and told some complete strangers passing by, that we were going to have a new mother.

Later I pieced together the facts, that they had met on a blind date at the legendary and glamorous Shepheards Hotel in Cairo – now famous after appearing in The English Patient – but actually burned down in the riots of 1952 . My stepmother was in the Red Cross, and keeping her best friend company. The best friend and her boyfriend broke up in the end, and the two blind dates married. Like Tess of the D’Urbervilles, they spent their honeymoon at Woolbridge Manor, the beautiful Elizabethan manor I used to pass with my mother on the way to the village. Now they were now coming to claim us.

My father arrived and took us to meet her. They were staying at a hotel in town, and when my sister and I stepped out of the taxi at the foot of the long flight of white steps, a very tall lady in a navy- blue coat and very high heeled court shoes, ran down the steps towards us, and swept us into her arms with a hug and a kiss. I just loved it.

Then we spent the afternoon together, first of all having lunch and fizzy lemonade – which seemed a bit more like I’d imagined Peace-time, – and then we went for a walk round the ancient harbour, into a park, and for afternoon tea back to a place by the harbour with big oil-paintings on the walls. For the first time I looked at paintings and saw the brush strokes and the way the painter had used colour. The whole afternoon felt like stepping into a magic new world.

A week later my father came to collect us for good. I left behind my dolls and dolls pram, black board and easel, my bicycle, and our brother, on the understanding that all these things would be collected later. I never saw them again, never had another doll, and didn’t see my brother or grandmother again for years as she refused to part with my brother, causing a huge family rift. Neither did I see my uncle for many years as he had become an energetic Communist, and association with him would have destroyed my father’s security rating in the army.   So now we went to London, where our new mother was waiting. She gave us beef stew for lunch, which neither my sister or I liked, and we refused to eat it.

After lunch the father we hardly knew, except for the fortnight the previous year, took us for a walk around grey, London streets in the cold April afternoon. He told us grimly that from now on we would eat everything that was put in front of us. And from now on, we would do exactly as we were told – immediately. The afternoon seemed to get colder and greyer as he spoke, and when we went back I was totally crushed. My sister, clever, feisty and quick tempered like my grandmother, had more spirit.

The next day we went shopping, and came home with shorts and shirts like the children in Enid Blyton’s ” The Adventurous Four”, three blue summer dresses for me, blue and white stripes, blue and white checks, and a blue silk dress with tiny flowers on it. I had a new tweed  coat in blue, with a dark blue velvet collar, and my fair haired, blue-eyed sister had a yellow tweed coat with a red velvet collar.

The clothes my grandmother had made for us disappeared, my favourite tartan skirt and bolero and fine ninon blouse that went with it, a primrose coat, a pink satin party dress – all went, regardless of entreaty. I had immediate remedial exercises for my lisp, elocution lessons to rid us of lingering Dorset accents, and physiotherapy and exercises for the splay feet which I had carefully cultivated to be grownup like my grandmother. I had what would be called today, a complete makeover. It seemed after a few weeks that I was a different child… and even more insecure and uncertain. And I loved both my new parents. Especially my harsh, handsome father.

He loved books as I did. He must have learned it from his mother who he couldn’t stand.

To be continued…

 Food for threadbare gourmets

Sometimes I just want a plate of roast vegetables, but also feel I must need some protein. I kid myself that this pea-nut sauce will fill the gap. It’s quite unlike the traditional pea-nut sauce, and was dreamed up in front of me by a chef at a demonstration.
In a stick blender,  spoon a cup or more of pea-nut butter, the skin thinly peeled from a lemon, plus the juice, a good teaspoon or more to taste of dried thyme, a couple of garlic cloves, a tea-spoon of fish sauce, a dessert-spoon or more to taste of brown sugar, plenty of salt and black pepper, and a cup or more of olive oil. Just whizz everything together. And add more olive oil, thyme, pea-nut butter if you need it. It lasts for plenty of time in the fridge, and is good with baked or sauted vegetables for a light meal, and also with baked or poached salmon.

Food for thought

Most people die before they are fully born. Creativeness means to be born before one dies.                                               Erich Fromm, German philosopher, writer, psychologist and psychoanalyst who fled Nazi Germany, eventually seeking refuge in the US.

 

 

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