Tag Archives: Belsen

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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The power of one

100_0347Continued from Eyewitness to history…

Christmas at Belsen was rather different to homely war-time Christmas in the quiet Dorset village where I’d lived before being uprooted to join my new parents.

Having been at war since I was a baby, my father had more experience of leading tanks into battle than bringing up a shy nine- year- old girl, while my stepmother knew nothing about children. We all had to make the best of it, and one of the best things was visiting 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?)

I was taken occasionally for Sunday lunch there, and for the children’s Christmas Party. We played games like pass- the – parcel, and then musical chairs in the ballroom lined with huge gilt mirrors, under 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 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 dark 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 was 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?)

Doctor Muller, the German vet, called on us regularly, whether our various dogs needed his attentions or not. He regarded my parents – or at any rate, their gin bottle – as friends. In return for the generous helpings of gin and tonic he sipped – unobtainable in civilian Germany – he would bring my stepmother specimens of the many amazing 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 sharp pinks and acid greens and yellows. He would arrive bearing this gift, and bend over my stepmother’s hand, clicking his heels together and bowing.

After some months of laborious social intercourse – his English became 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 doctor’s wife was a fair-haired, washed-out, melancholy woman. When I exclaimed over the beautiful porcelain, she explained 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, and she and her daughter Suzanne, described the anguish of seeing their poor, wounded soldiers in blood- stained bandages in passing trains. Back home I heard my stepmother snort: “If they saw those trains, how come they didn’t know about the others!”

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 described the platform at Celle lined with thirty SS men and Alsation dogs straining at the leash as the train pulled in. They then, eleven hundred young and old from Holland, sick or exhausted, straggled all the miles 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, the vet’s two younger children, Hildegarde and Carljurgen, thirteen and fourteen, the one in dirndl skirt and long, white lace socks, the other in leather lederhosen, long, white lace socks and black boots, took me driving in their farm cart.

We rumbled and swayed 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 me one dank winter’s day.

It was another ten years before I read Anne Franck’s diaries. It came as a shock to me then, to realise that I had been living in the same place where she had lived briefly, suffered and died.

I’m a chronic re-reader of most books I’ve read, yet I cannot bear to re-read her chronicle of life lived beneath the terror of Nazi inhumanity. But as the years have gone by, her shining spirit has risen above the degradation of that Nazi oppression, and has become a beacon of light.

Though the evil that was Nazism destroyed her physical body, the power of her courage, intelligence, thirst for life, and sheer goodness was not destroyed. She still inspires people from all over the world to visit the building where she and her family hid, and they travel to the memorial to her and her sister Margot at Bergen- Belsen.

It‘s mainly due to Anne Franck that the world today is conscious of Bergen- Belsen… there were many other concentration camps just as bad all over the Nazi empire – nearly three hundred – and many of them are forgotten. But Bergen- Belsen has become symbolic of them all, and serves to remind us all of events and atrocities that must never be repeated.

Teenager Anne wrote prophetically: ‘I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death! And that’s why I’m so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all that’s inside me.’
In death this is exactly what she did achieve, she has gone on living, her words have been both useful and enjoyable, and her life and her death an amazing and triumphant testament to the power of One.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets
Winter and comfort food, and a love affair with the crock pot. Last week I discovered it was possible to bake whole potatoes in their jackets in the crock pot, instead of using the oven for just one potato! Just prick them with a fork, drizzle a bit of olive oil over them and wrap them in foil. I cooked two medium sized potatoes on high for three to four hours… it depends on the size… but they come to no harm when checked for softness towards the end of the cooking time. Sliced in half horizontally, gently mashed with butter and sprinkled with grated cheese they’re a filling, comforting meal on their own. Naturally, virtuous people have some green vegetables with them… I had some Brussels sprouts!

Food for thought
To be nobody but yourself in a world that is doing its best night and day to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle any human being ever fights and never stop fighting.
e.e.cummings.

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Eye witness to history

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I noticed a report last week that after the Queen left Berlin in a bright yellow outfit, she then changed into a sombre, slate grey coat and hat by the time she reached the concentration camp of Bergen- Belsen.

We just called it Belsen in my day. We had travelled through Hitler’s monument – Post- war Europe – which seemed from the train to be nothing but mountains of bricks and ruined suburbs with a few half houses still standing. They looked like half a doll’s house where you can re-arrange the furniture. In these grotesque rooms, pictures were askew on walls, wardrobe 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 understand the human tragedy, 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 brick and rubble.

At a station where we stopped to disgorge some of the passengers crushed into crammed carriages, thin, white-faced children banged on windows begging for food, and scrabbled at the side of the track looking for odd lumps of coal. We were seated in the restaurant car, eating the first white bread I had ever seen, quite unlike our war-time rations, but the thrill of this exciting food was dulled by the sight of the pale, dust-smeared faces outside the window which didn’t open.

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 them-selves out and find each other, I thought. When all the debarking travellers had trickled off and the train pulled away again, my stepmother and I were the only people still standing waiting to be met. I had assumed that all the people I had seen were in the process of coming or going – now I discovered that they had all settled down for the night again, thousands and thousands of people sleeping on every available inch of floor, draped up and down stairs, lying propped up against walls where there was no room to stretch out.

When we had picked our way over the ragged, hostile bodies to the main entrance of the station to get into a military jeep to take us to a bed for the night, I stood momentarily at the top of the steps. Straight ahead, the moon was shining through a large, gothic-shaped empty window high in the wall of a bombed church. There was no sound of traffic in the ruined city and no street lights, just silence and the un-earthly beauty and light of the silver moon. And then blessed cold fresh air sitting in the open jeep after the foetid atmosphere of the station.

The next day we arrived at the site of the former concentration camp and moved into our new home, the spacious former digs of Josef Kramer, the notorious Beast of Belsen. Hoppenstadt Strasse was the only residential street in the camp, and had been the quarters of the prison guards and their families before the liberation by shocked British soldiers.

We children were not told the history of the place, but it was as though the energies of the past were impregnated in the walls and streets and trees and stones. It felt like living on shifting sands of uncertainty and fear of all the things we didn’t understand and that no one ever explained.

Violence seemed to be the atmosphere we breathed. There were different layers of this violence. One was when I went to collect my best friend for our early morning riding lesson, and couldn’t raise her. Later at school I learned that her single father had shot her and her brother and himself – Mary in the kitchen, her younger brother on his way to the front door. I had nightmares for months about Mary and whether she had gone to heaven or hell, and what her brother’s last moments of terror were like as he fled from his murderous father. I didn’t feel I could discuss this with my new parents, my father just back from ‘abroad’ after seven years overseas, and a new stepmother.

There were hordes of unpredictable Yugoslav guards in navy-blue greatcoats who patrolled the place guarding it, though I never knew what they were guarding it from. They had a reputation for being dangerous, and every now and then one would shoot himself or a comrade. And yet another aspect of the incipient violence was that a single British car on the road at night was such an irresistible target for angry defeated Germans, that my father was run off the road and injured several times travelling between Hanover and Belsen.

Behind our house I played for hours in a pine forest, rich in bilberries, where the hungry Germans would come in autumn to pick this source of food in a starving land and demolish at the same time my little ‘huts’; while a mile down the road was the Displaced Person’s camp, which had previously been a well-appointed Panzer training depot. DP’s, as they were known, were the survivors of Belsen, still waiting for passports or permission to make their way back home across the bomb-blasted continent to find the survivors of their scattered families. To a puzzled child they seemed un-accountably unfriendly when our paths crossed.

One fine summer’s day the DP’s torched the pine forest and our homes were in danger until the fire was checked. They were trying to hurry up the authorities, and it was a desperate gesture to show their frustration. But the Allied authorities were dealing with twenty million people trying to get back to homes and families, and many of the refugees had no homes, families or even countries to return to. The problem grew under our eyes, as German refugees, another two million in the next few years, fled from the eastern sector and the Soviets.

They came straggling down Hoppenstadt Strasse with bundles wrapped in tablecloths, or blankets tied on the end of poles like giant Dick Whittington bundles. Sometimes they were found sleeping in our empty garages, or taking desperately needed clothes off the washing line, and were hurried on or arrested by the implacable Military Police.

These were the times of tension too when Russia began the process of harassing and interfering with traffic to and from Berlin, which finally culminated in the Berlin Airlift with thousands of planes ferrying food into besieged and beleaguered West Berlin. I didn’t understand it, but I felt the anxiety of the grownups. And we had to learn to use new money, which had changed from one set of cardboard to another, I never knew why.

We, the victors, shared the hardships of starving 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 drank revolting tinned milk, as there was no organised milk supply and no pasteurised herds.

We sat in the dark every night for two hours when the electricity was switched off, and played games like twenty question to while away the pitch black hours. Like everything else, candles were in short supply. We had a puppy who seized the darkness as another opportunity to chew the rubbers that my father used for the Daily Telegraph crossword.

Horses were still an integral part of country life in this part of Germany, and this is where I learned to ride. The British regimental riding stables were run by an aristocratic Prussian officer – not of course using his military rank now- but known merely as Herr Freiser.

I was his star pupil and my father said I was learning to ride like a Prussian officer. Herr Freiser 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 remembered from reading ‘Black Beauty’, and hoped I was bluffing the far-too-big cavalry 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 tall, blonde, classically beautiful Prussian wife regarded me with loathing, as though I was a pet cockroach he was training. I decided she hated all English, and was probably still a Nazi lady.

They lived in the groom’s cottage by the stables and were lucky to have a home and a job in their ruined country, though she obviously didn’t think so. Their gilded furniture, rescued no doubt from their ancestral 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. I realised that he was probably a collaborator with the enemy in her eyes. She would stalk through the stable yard in her immaculate jodhpurs, her glare like a blue flame from her icy blue eyes and thankfully ignored me.

Next week – part two -Belsen – The power of one

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Sometimes the pine nuts in pesto are a bridge too far for a tight budget, so I use walnuts instead. Grate half a cup of walnuts in a grater, and then grate half a cup or more of Parmesan. Finely chop about two cups of basil, plus three chopped cloves of garlic, and mix it all together with enough extra virgin olive oil to make the consistency you want- about half a cup. I then add a few table spoons of the hot pasta water help it all amalgamate. I also like this mixture over broccoli.

Food for thought

‘Ruskin had the romantic’s gift for seeing the inanimate world as if it had that moment left the hand of the Creator’.
Oliver van Oss, scholar, man of letters and great headmaster.

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These I have loved

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Preparing for the next adventure in my life, I look around the house wondering what to keep and what to let go, and I realise there are some things I cannot be parted from. They own me and I am their custodian.

There’s the pair of wooden corkscrew candlesticks which belonged to my grandmother. They sat on her kitchen mantelpiece above the black range, and since they came into my hands, I have carted them around the world. She was a feisty little red- haired late Victorian lady who converted to the Salvation Army as a girl and went to the East End of London to help save souls and sell the Army’s newspaper, ‘The War Cry’ outside pubs at closing time – and got pelted with rotten fruit for her pains. Another of the stories she told me was about her grandfather, Captain Covell, reputedly the first man to sail a paddle steamer up the Thames in the early years of the nineteenth century, and that when he arrived at the docks he was given the Freedom of the City of London.

She told me how she was asleep with her sister Jessie in her bedroom in a leafy Kent town the night Woolwich Arsenal blew up in 1907. The sky was red, and the bedroom windows and the glass in her dressing table shattered.
“We fell on our knees, and prayed” she told me, “we thought the end of the world had come.” At seven I had never imagined the world could come to an end and was haunted by this terrifying possibility for the rest of my childhood (neither did I know what Woolwich Arsenal was). She always referred to World War One as ‘The Great War’ … her husband had fought in it and her only brother died in it.

She was a highly intelligent woman, who typically for her period in history, had no outlet for her talents, and my brother once told me he’d never seen anyone add a column of figures faster; while I, during my childhood, was the beneficiary of her large collection of books, including antique early editions of classics like Pilgrim’s Progress, Foxe’s Martyrs, and Robinson Crusoe (which I was driven to read by the time I was eight, for lack of children’s books). My sister inherited her feisty nature, my brother her piercing intelligence, and I, her bent for the spiritual life which never left her, her love of reading, and the candle sticks.

A treasured brass tray on the pine dresser was hammered out of the top of a shell case by my father’s batman. The batman had etched classic Egyptian figures into the brass, in their classic sideways pose. I don’t know how long they had served together… but my father had been a Desert Rat and escaped from Tobruk, while the alliterative names of his battles rang around my childhood, Sidi Bahrani, and Sidi Rezegh, Bardia and Benghazi… before then he had escaped from France three weeks after Dunkirk, and later, fought his way up Italy before returning to Egypt when the war was over.

I was a baby when he left, and nearly nine when he returned in 1947, to be posted with the Occupation forces to Belsen two months later. My tenth birthday was the first I ever spent with him, and he was so excited that he gave me my presents the night before… a string of pearls and a black fountain pen with a gold nib and clip… the last presents he ever chose for me himself. He died too young to know his grandchildren and great grandchildren, and before I was mature enough to want to know about him and his war, so the brass tray, the one possession of his that I have, is priceless.

The egg-shell china antique coffee set, white, blue and gold, was given to me on my wedding day by my step- grandmother who had also received them on her wedding day, and her book –Testament of Youth – she gave me to read when I was seventeen. In spite of Vera Brittain’s rather priggish voice to me, a child of the forties and fifties, I still dissolved into a puddle of anguished tears as I read it. And I understood from it much about this grandmother, who over a hundred years ago now, had waved her fiancee away, rainbow banners billowing in the north- country breeze, flowers flying, trumpets sounding, drums tapping out a triumphant tattoo as the exuberant young men marched through the village in 1914… never to return.

She was so beautiful that it wasn’t hard for her to find a husband even in a time when there were too few men, and she often reminisced to me about that distant past. She told me about the floating flowered tulle tea gown she wore to a garden party in Shrewsbury in the early thirties when she met the Prince of Wales; of the doctor who set eyes on her, and wanted to marry her, only to see her pushing her pram a few days later… the time her long frilly white petticoat suddenly fell to the pavement from under her long skirt, and how she simply stepped out of it and walked away…. memories that will disappear like gossamer shreds of tulle too, when I no longer remember them.

I will keep the tiny etching of Ripon Cathedral for a grandchild – it had once belonged his other great-grandfather, a padre who was badly wounded on a beach at D-Day. On the back in faded italic handwriting is its story. It says that when the North Transept of Ripon Cathedral was re-roofed in 1842, the wood from the original roof was used to frame this picture. The Cathedral, a work in progress on the site of three former buildings, was finally roofed in 1156. It takes up to a hundred and fifty years before an oak is ready to use in construction, so the mature oak used for the roof, and now framing the picture, must have been growing well before 1066, that dividing line in English history. So the wood in this frame is over a thousand years old.

Which makes me think of the span of years that my memories stretch across. Our formidable black-garbed great-grandmother was in her nineties when I met her as a four- year- old in 1942, which means that she was born just before the 1850’s, a hundred and sixty-five years ago now. By the time my eldest grandchild is in his eighties, sixty years from now, the span of generations will be two hundred and twenty five years… not long in the history of the world, but the span of two lifetimes have seen the world move from the age of steam, crinoline and candle-light, to this blog – one of over eighty million on the internet – and to travel in space among the stars… so where will the world be at the end of that third life-time in 2075?

These facts and figures make me feel that my sentimental memories and guardianship of these little possessions may not have any significance at all. L.P. Hartley wrote: ‘The past is a foreign country’, and for today’s generations this may be only too true. So I now feel that though I‘ll continue to cherish these objects linked to other proud and passionate lives – lives lived through some of the most turbulent times in the history of the world – in the future, these things may not be so precious to anyone else
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To a generation who live in the present, preserving the moment in selfies and on Facebook, tweeting and twittering and texting, my past, our ancestors, and the last century must seem as far away as the days of the dinosaurs… ah well, I tell myself, ‘ sic transit gloria mundi ‘- ‘ So passes away earthly glory…

Food for threadbare gourmets
On a cold wet winter’s day when I read of summer blossoming in blogs all over the northern hemisphere, I think of this salad, which is good in any season in which you can find fresh fennel and hard green apples – preferably grannie smiths.
I grind 75 gms of walnuts in the grinder which I use for parmesan cheese, and stir them into a quarter of a cup of good quality mayonnaise, quarter of a cup of plain yogurt and the zest and juice of a lemon to taste. Slice two grannie smiths and a large fennel bulb into thin matchsticks, and then mix with the walnut mixture. A few chopped fennel leaves are good too. If you like ham, it’s good with it, but I just eat it with a hard-boiled egg and crusty rolls for a refreshing lunch.

Food for thought
These I have loved:
White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,
Ringed with blue lines; and feathery, faery dust;
Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the strong crust
Of friendly bread; and many-tasting food;
Rainbows; and the blue bitter smoke of wood …
The first lines from Rupert Brooke’s nostalgic poem The Great Lover

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So what is gumption?

100_0509“Use your elbow–grease,” my grandmother would chide me good humouredly… or ask: “where’s your gumption?” Where indeed? I searched my somewhat limited seven year old soul but could find no trace of these desirable qualities – whatever they were – for I had no idea. I was completely puzzled, and sad to disappoint her.

However the lack of these mystifying gifts ceased to matter when at a fortnight’s notice, I left my grandmother forever, to join my father just returned from Egypt with his new wife. After a month he disappeared to Germany, and my stepmother and I waited for his summons until a house had been found for us. During those months, instead of going to school, my stepmother gave me lessons in the afternoon. Looking back, though a fully trained physiotherapist, she may not have been quite so well qualified to teach small children, but those were more carefree times, when anything went, and often did.

In my case, we didn’t do much maths, thankfully, but I learnt lots of poetry, mainly, I think, the poets my stepmother had ‘done’ at school in the thirties. These included Sir Walter Scott, Elizabeth Browning, Wordsworth and chunks of Longfellow’s Hiawatha. She was hot on spelling – and as a nine year old, lists of words like phlegm, diaphragm, diphthong, delphinium, rhododendron, asthma, psychology, diarrhoea had to be memorised every day. If I’d ended up in the medical profession this vocabulary might have stood me in good stead, but since then I’ve often wished that I had instead mastered how to spell ‘receive’ and all the exceptions of’ ie’, as well as ‘commitment’, both my constant stumbling blocks.

When it came to composition – as it was called – I was a disappointment to her, the way I’d felt with my grandmother, when I lacked elbow grease and gumption. But what I was lacking now, was imagination. “Use your imagination,” she’d say, and once again, I had no idea what imagination was, though I thought it might have something to do with writing about fairies, which I felt was childish.

I felt mysteriously depressed, as at school I’d always been quite good at composition. But the problem of imagination didn’t seem so important once we got to war-torn Europe. We travelled through apocalyptic scenes – cities of mountains of bricks, with half buildings with crooked pictures still on the wall, a door open and chairs still at a table, and skeletons of ruined churches –  before finally reaching the infamous place called Belsen, where our new home was the Beast of Belsen’s old digs.

Those were bleak times in Europe and I often felt bleak too. Now my father, almost unknown after years away at war, expected me to have common sense. This seemed more important than gumption, elbow grease, or imagination all put together, and just as un-attainable. I think they thought I was sensible when my best friend was murdered. I had gone to fetch her for our early morning riding lesson, but she didn’t answer the door. When I got home after riding, Mary had been found shot in the kitchen, and her younger brother was shot at the door as he had tried to escape. Her father had then shot himself because his wife had left him.

I never spoke to my new parents about this, my chief worry being Mary’s brother’s  feelings as he dashed for the door, and also that Mary mightn’t have made it into heaven, which I knew my parents didn’t believe in. I cried every night in bed, and begged God to let her in. But though I was apparently phlegmatic, the magic of common sense still eluded me – as in: “do use your common sense, child,” or the unanswerable question: “haven’t you got any common sense?”  When I joined the army as a teenager at my father’s behest, I knew he hoped I might now discover some hidden well of this commodity which he seemed to think I really needed for a successful life.

But here was another pitfall. An officer was supposed to have initiative and to use it! This, as a very young officer, I quickly realised, was dangerous. Initiative was a two-edged sword, with unknown consequences, which not everyone appreciated. So it was with relief that I looked forward to marriage, when, I supposed with blind optimism, none of these things would be required of me.

But on the third day into married life, I discovered that things were not as I had thought they were, had to write a big cheque which cleaned me out, and then faced an unpredictable, precarious, and impoverished life on shifting sands. The upside was that I discovered I did have gumption after all! And I needed it.

Elbow grease, on the other hand, was something quite prosaic I came to realise, and was only needed for wax-polishing antique furniture, the idea being that the intense pressure of the elbow grease created friction, and the resultant heat melted the invisible wax crystals, causing them to meld together and create those shining surfaces. Frankly, it was easier just to put the dusters in the oven, and polish with hot dusters instead of elbow grease. The only other use for elbow grease seemed to be for scrubbing burnt saucepans, an activity I have always strenuously avoided.

Common sense? Well I’ve discovered that common sense is merely a matter of opinion, and that one man’s common sense is another man’s madness… so to take a somewhat extreme example, Hitler’s idea of common sense would not be mine – so I’ve flagged common sense. And initiative doesn’t bother me any more – I’m in sole command, and don’t have to answer to any superior officers!

Which leaves me with that lack of imagination. Well, it’s something I’ve got used to, and have had to realise that I never could produce an interesting imaginative novel! I recognise imagination in great works of art, both literary and artistic, in fine blogs, in glorious architecture and opera, in gardening and interior decoration, even in solving problems… but I’m still digging for it in myself…

Jane Austen has sometimes been un-imaginatively accused of lacking imagination, and I used to cling to her definition of her art in a letter to her brother Edward, in which she refers to her: ‘little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush’, but to be brutally realistic, this is not really much comfort, since she painted masterpieces on her little bit of ivory with her fine brush. For me, lacking the flights of fancy that come with a soaring imagination, all I can do is to notice and to describe, and I did find some consolation in these words by the enigmatic writer Fernando Pessoa.

He wrote: “What moves lives. What is said endures. There’s nothing in life that’s less real for having been described. Small-minded critics point out that such and such a poem, with its protracted cadences, in the end says merely that it’s a nice day. But to say it’s a nice day is difficult, and the nice day itself passes on. It’s up to us to conserve the nice day in a wordy, florid memory, sprinkling new flowers and new stars over the fields and skies of the empty, fleeting outer world.”

These words hearten me for I too, can at least conserve the day in wordy, florid memories, try to sprinkle new flowers over the fields and skies of the fleeting outer world, and thoroughly enjoy myself while I’m sprinkling! So here’s to florid memories and new flowers!

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

This is the strawberry season, so it’s crazy to serve anything else for pudding besides these luscious fruits. Friends for dinner meant a quick foray to the nearest strawberry fields. The ones I wanted, where the strawberries are grown by a Vietnamese genius, whose berries are the biggest, sweetest and cheapest, hadn’t opened, so I had to fall back on the other strawberry fields. I usually find theirs a bit tough and tart, but solved the problem by hulling them, and putting them in a dish out in the sun. As the day went by, the delectable scent of soft, sweet, ripe strawberries warm from the sun tempted my taste-buds every time I passed them.

With them I usually do Chantilly cream. One of my grandsons will eat this neat, and has learned how to make it for himself, a useful skill when he goes flatting at University! Take one cup of thick cream, two table spoons of icing sugar and a few drops of vanilla and whip them together. I usually make three times this amount, just tripling all the ingredients.

 

Food for thought

So long as a bee is outside the petals of the lotus and has not tasted its honey, it hovers around the flower buzzing. But when it is inside the flower it drinks the nectar silently. So long as a man quarrels about doctrines and dogmas, he has not tasted the nectar of the true faith; once he has tasted it he becomes still.

Sri Ramakrishna  1883- 1886 Famous Hindu teacher and mystic, who believed that all religions led to the same God, and who practised  both Christianity and Islam

 

 

 

 

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Travels in Foodie Heaven

Food was not a topic of much joy in my war-time childhood. Green ration books for us children, cream ones for adults. If you went shopping without them, it was a waste of time, and you had to get a bus back home to pick them up and start all over again, standing at the back of the queue at every shop.

The biggest foodie thrill I can remember back then was the one orange a year, stuffed in the bottom of my Christmas stocking. Things looked up slightly on my tenth birthday, the first I had ever spent with my father. (I was ten months old when he went to war in 1939, returning for two weeks leave in 1945, before finally coming home in 1947. But we only saw him for a month before he was posted to Belsen).We qualified for an army quarter by the time my birthday arrived, and joined him. To my parents’ horror it was the former home of the Beast of Belsen, the sadistic commandant of the concentration camp.

Knowing nothing of this, I concentrated on my birthday. My new parents took me for a treat to the Officers Club. The palace of the Princes of Hanover now served as the Officers Mess, where we children were allowed for the children’s Christmas party; it was held in the marbled, mirrored, chandeliered ballroom, with satin and gilt chairs to fall over during musical chairs. And the Prince’s hunting lodge deep in pine forests running with deer and wild boar, was now the Club.

The speciality of the German couple who ran it was their sugary doughnuts with butter cream and jam inside (Had the Hanoverian princelings also enjoyed these goodies before us?) I had never tasted anything like them -the nearest thing to heaven in my gastronomically deprived childhood. This may have been the moment when I became a foodie.

The next high point in my foodie career was staying in Vienne in central France a few years later. We were still on rationing in England at the time, and the rich French provincial food was a shock to my spartan system. But here I discovered real French bread. It was brought up from the village to the chateau by one of the maids every day, fresh and warm for breakfast. And in the afternoon a fresh supply was delivered to the kitchen by a boy on a bike. We children would gather illegally in the kitchen and annoy the maids by tearing into the warm bread and eating it with delectable runny confiture dripping onto the floor.

Malaya was another foodie milestone. We lived in a hotel on the edge of the sea in Penang for over a year, and ate in a dining room reminiscent of the forecourt of St Pauls Cathedral. Great pillars stretched the length of the ballroom. We walked this length between palms and pillars three times a day for every meal, and subsided at the end of it in the dining area, still pillared and palmed. We ate the same meals every week, in the same order and my favourite day was Friday when we had nasi goring, the only nod in the direction of the local cuisine.

I’ve tried to get Malayan friends to replicate it, I’ve tried myself, but nothing has ever had the same texture, tastes, variety and delicacy. I can copy most of the culinary joys of the past, but that one has proved impossible – it’s just a fragrant regretted memory.

In Majorca, when few people had even heard of it, at a little fishing village called Cala Ratjada, we stayed in the first hotel to be built there,( there are now over fifty) which they were just finishing, and the water for the shower came speeding through the bidet, and the hand basin only had water in short bursts. But down by the sea was a fish restaurant, and there I tasted two foodie classics, a genuine paella, and a lobster salad which is still fresh in my memory. I was beginning to sensitise my taste buds.

France a year later, this time a hamlet somewhere between San Tropez and Le Lavandou, where every meal eaten under the vine covered terrace was like ambrosia – never a dud. My lasting memories of this bliss were the fresh croissants for breakfast with unsalted butter and delicious homemade apricot jam, and aoli.  Eating aoli was like discovering the secret of culinary life- the simplicity of it, the exquisiteness of it, the white china, the perfect egg, the salad and the aoli. I decided there and then that I’d learn to make it when I had my own kitchen. (Living in an officers mess didn’t give me much scope for cooking experiments at the time.)

Later, driving back from Bonn with a girlfriend, we stopped at Aix (shades of “How they brought the good news from Aix to Ghent!”) for a coffee. We ordered rum babas and though it was fifty years ago, I can still remember the shocked delight at the taste of the rum and the cream and the yeasty cake. They were a benchmark for all rum babas eaten since, and none of them have measured up to the rum babas of Aix. We sat by a river in the sun, with dappled leaves reflected in the water, tall, grey eighteenth century buildings lining the other side of the road.

The next foodie revelation was staying with an old school friend in Winchester, who had become a talented cook in one year of marriage. We started the meal with shrimps in mayonnaise in half a pear, a very 50’s thingie and followed this with roast duck and orange. By the time we got to the crème brulee poor Brenda had fled the room to cope with not morning sickness, but evening sickness.

Her husband and I somewhat unconcernedly tackled the heavenly crème brulee she had left behind. I’d never tasted it before, cream not having been freely available in my past, so this was another taste bud sensation. To this day I can’t go past crème brulee however much I may have eaten beforehand.

Hong Kong? Oh yes, lots of lovely Chinese dishes, but what I remember from those days was the bombe Alaska at a place called Jimmy’s Kitchen. A girl friend and I would skip out from the office at lunchtime and order a bombe Alaska each. Fortified by this self-indulgent mix of sponge and fruit and ice-cream, brandy and meringue, we would totter reluctantly back to our desks to resume writing our boring little stories about fashion parades and new cosmetics for the woman’s pages.

So now, after a lifetime of enjoying food, here in New Zealand, land of milk and manukau honey, what gluttonous delights light my fire? Well, there are two things I cannot live without these days. One is a nice cup of tea. And the other is a nice cup of coffee!

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

When the crusty Duke of Wellington came back from his campaigns in foreign parts, legend has it that all he wanted was a slice of hot buttered toast. What he was talking about was comfort food, and it’s different for each of us. Mine is cornflakes if I’m on my uppers, or creamy mashed potatoes, or scrambled egg. My husband believes that scrambled egg is the apex of my culinary skills, but others have been known to recoil in horror clutching their hearts, when they discover how many eggs and how much butter and cream have gone into them!

For your run of the mill ordinary breakfast scrambled egg, I use a generous sized walnut of butter, and about two tablespoons of milk. I melt them, and then break the eggs in and stir to mix. The trick is to have the buttered toast ready, and then stir the scrambled egg in the pan very gently so it forms large curds. Cook it very slowly, if it’s cooked too fast, it becomes stringy, tough and watery. As soon as the curds are almost cooked, I tip it onto the waiting toast, as it still goes on setting while it’s hot. For softer, creamier scrambled eggs, add more butter and use cream – delectable.

Food for Thought

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

From a speech in Washington in 1953, by President Dwight. D. Eisenhower 1890 -1969

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