Tag Archives: Churchill

The truth about Dunkirk

Image result for dunkirk images

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

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

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

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

Food for thought

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

 

 

 

 

 

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Netflix-The Crown-The truth about the Royals?

Once upon a time, as all good fairy tales start (does anyone tell them nowadays?) I was commissioned to write a book about the Royals who had visited this country (New Zealand). They were many, beginning with the first Duke of Edinburgh, Queen Victoria’s second son, and continuing with today’s crop of Royals, including Charles and Diana.

Though I was only given five months in which to write this masterpiece, (I deduced that someone fitter than I had dropped out of the project at the last minute) I couldn’t resist doing a mass of quite unnecessary research, which meant that in the end I was reduced to writing from seven am in the morning to seven pm at night.

I was already well placed to write this book, though when I received the phone call from the publishers asking if I would a write a book for them, my flippant reply – ‘as long as it’s not a book on engineering…’ – did not endear me to the humour-less editor I worked with.

But years before, in idle moments in the magazine office I worked in, I had found a tome on Queen Mary. It was written by James Pope-Hennessey, who was what the Royal family call “a safe pair of hands”, meaning they were prepared to talk to him, open the archives, let him read letters and trust him not to say anything derogatory. His book started me off on all the other Royal biographies long before writing my book. Thus, Harold Nicolson writing his matching tome on George V, Queen Mary’s husband, was also considered a ‘safe’ pair.

So Pope-Hennessey for example, refrained from telling us that Queen Mary was a famous kleptomaniac. And well-placed gossip has it that after her death, her grand-daughter, this Queen and daughter in law, Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, had to make a number of embarrassing visits to stately homes around England in order to return various items of value to their rightful owners.

I am not a ‘safe ‘pair of hands, but I am a ‘truthful’ one, and was therefore quite bothered when watching Netflix’s work of fiction masquerading as fact. So much so that when I read they were hoping for a congratulatory phone call from the palace, I laughed out loud… I don’t think they should hold their breath. I don’t think the Queen would appreciate seeing her handsome intelligent, hard-working husband portrayed as a temperamental, insensitive, adolescent lout.

He once wrote, in a resigned letter to the film and stage star Pat Kirkwood, with whom he was accused of having an extra-marital affair: ‘Invasion of privacy, invention and false quotations are the bane of our existence.’ The facts in this case were that Baron the photographer, was Pat Kirkwood’s boyfriend and he took Philip to meet her after her show. They spent the night dining, dancing and ended up in Baron’s flat having scrambled eggs for breakfast. (more on this later)

Philip’s ancestry was much more royal than the Queen’s (she was only half royal, her mother simply being an aristocrat) and he was as accustomed to princes and palaces as she was. He had experienced the discipline of the navy since he was a teenager, and had a gallant war record, so he would never have shirked his Royal duties in the adolescent way Netflix writers portrayed… but back to him in the next blog.

There’s so much to say that I just have to take it in  chronological order. Eileen Atkins does a peerless job at portraying Queen Mary, but lots of fictional scenes there too… on the other hand, they missed a wonderful true moment of the real Queen Mary advancing on the prime minister, Mr Baldwin during the Abdication crisis, wringing her hands, and exclaiming in a distraught and un-queenly fashion quite unlike her – “Here’s a pretty kettle of fish!”.

The subject of this remark, her son and son of her husband, George V, who had said: “The boy will ruin himself in twelve months,” was the new King Edward. (He did it in eight months.) Alex Jennings who plays him- and who played Prince Charles memorably in the film ‘The Queen’ – portrays a much stronger and slightly more likeable character than the real flaky king and prince.

Private secretary Sir Tommy Lascelles – played with great veracity in the film – had resigned from his service when he was Prince of Wales, appalled by the Prince’s louche and reckless way of life, woman-ising, drinking, and neglecting his duties. Now the reluctant new King Edward inherited the reluctant Lascelles from George V who had re-employed Lascelles, and the carelessness and irresponsibility of Edward were even more marked now, to the dismay of everyone close to him, not just his private secretary.

Government officials began censoring the documents they sent to him for signature in the red boxes for example, after state papers and documents were returned with wine-stains and finger marks, and it was rumoured that they were being passed around the social set partying around his desk – Mrs Simpson among them. It’s notable that in all the years of this Queen’s reign she has never shown the contents of the red  boxes to her trustworthy husband.

It was strident, social-climbing, twice married Mrs Simpson who is credited with links to Ribbentrop, the infamous German ambassador hanged at the Nuremburg Trials and influencing Edward in his notorious pro-Nazi views. She was also famous for flaunting around London the wonderful jewels the besotted Edward showered upon her, and which caused so much gossip at the time. (There were people who felt a statue should be raised in her honour, they were so thankful to her for being instrumental in getting rid of a king who would probably have brought down the throne.)

Unlike the Netflix version, the ex-king was never short of money – he was in fact, a very rich man, having amassed a fortune from the Duchy of Cornwall all the time he was Prince of Wales, (like the present holder of the title) and sold Balmoral and Sandringham to his rather more cash-strapped brother, the reluctant new King. Once on the loose, married to the woman he loved, the now Duke of Windsor set the pattern of endless socialising he and the Duchess became famous for.He also gallivanted off to see Hitler, who planned to re-instate him, and went on record as saying that the Duchess of Windsor ‘would have made a good queen’ – nuf’ said.

I won’t go into their disloyal war record, which began with the Duke (who had been given the rank of general) deserting without leave his military post in Paris when the Germans were arriving, without even letting their devoted, but unpaid staff know. On the other hand, they arranged for the Germans to guard their Paris apartments, which the Germans did, sealing and protecting them throughout the war… the Windsor’s were probably the only people in the whole of Europe whose home and possessions were intact after the war.

Windsor never had cosy little breakfasts discussing helpful tips on kingship with the present Queen, a la the Crown and Netflix. Apart from his visit to England for George VI ‘s funeral, she didn’t meet him until 1965 when he came to England for a visit, and then in ‘67. Finally, on a state visit to Paris in 1972, she took tea with him.

Sir Tommy’s Lascelles diaries are an invaluable record of much of this time, witty, irascible, authoritative, erudite, in the know… and almost family. In the photo of his daughter’s wedding in ‘45, the whole Royal family (what he termed a ‘pride of Royals’) were there, from Queen Mary and the King,  down to Princess Margaret – with Townsend in the background.

The good looking and elegant Townsend he termed: ‘a devilish bad equerry’. Among other true-to-life portraits was his picture of Churchill dining at Buckingham Palace the night news from Alamein was hoped for. At last, unable to wait any longer, the Prime Minister excused himself and went off and telephoned his office.

He returned with Lascelles, ambling down the golden corridor  singing ‘with little evidence of musical talent’ in Lascelles’ acid account: ‘Roll out the barrel’ with gusto, to the astonishment of the footmen standing to attention. This story, as with so many other references to Churchill dining at the palace, gives the lie to the ridiculous scene of the Prime Minister refusing to sit before his new sovereign with all the daft waffling about not sitting in her presence.

He’d sat in her presence and that of his previous sovereign, plenty of times over the last eight or more years, and had known Elizabeth more or less for most of her life, remarking favourably on her appearance when she was two and taking time out from running the war and the country in 1941, to send her red roses on her fifteenth birthday.

I can’t resist writing in my next blog about the skewed facts and in-accuracies about George VI and his daughters – Princess Margaret and the present Queen – and the truth about Prince Philip. The same writer who wrote the successful West-end play and film called ‘The Audience’, about the Queen and her prime ministers, wrote this series.

I walked out of that film after half an hour, in spite of Helen Mirren, as I found it painful watching so many imaginative reconstructions then! So no wonder I find this series hard to swallow. I know it’s meant to be entertainment but the facts are just as entertaining as the fiction being served up… and the fiction seems rather hurtful to some of the characters.

“More to come”, as we used to write at the bottom of each page of a story in the newsroom before the days of computers ended hand delivered copy! As a journalist for most of my life, facts matter. Concocting a good story is not my line…

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

It seems appropriate to share a recipe with a Royal theme, so the first version of this dish known as Coronation Chicken was created for the Queen’s coronation. This version by Lady Maclean is the one I prefer.

Taking enough cold cooked chicken for four, stir it into a mix of good mayonnaise, curry power, golden syrup and cream to make a creamy consistency, and deliciously tangy and sweet taste.

The key is the cold rice which is served with it. Make a good vinaigrette dressing with a teaspoonful each of Dijon mustard, and sugar, plus plenty of black pepper. Defrost a cupful or more of green peas, and soak them in boiling water until soft.

Do the same with a good handful of sultanas. In a frying pan quickly toast a generous cupful of slivered almonds (watch them – they burn quickly). Finely chop a generous handful of parsley, and just before serving, mix all these ingredients with the rice.

Food for Thought

This poem was written by fifteen -year- old Minnie Haskell, and George VI recited it in his 1939 Christmas speech, the first Christmas of the war. The Queen, who was 13 at the time, gave it to him, she had found it in a privately printed book of poetry….

THE GATE OF THE YEAR

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

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Filed under cookery/recipes, great days, history, Queen Elizabeth, Royals, royalty, Thoughts on writing and life, uncategorised, Uncategorized

War and Peace

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I stumbled on a quote from Winston Churchill at the beginning of the chapter of a book I was reading. He was talking to the boys of Harrow, his old school, just after the Battle of Britain… the leader of the free world with his back against the wall, found time to talk to schoolboys in the middle of a World War when his capital city was being pounded in the Blitz…

He said: “Do not let us speak of darker days, let us rather speak of sterner days. These are not dark days; these are the greatest days our country has ever lived.” (I can just hear him growling through his speech impediment and his false teeth)
Those words made me think of those sterner days, and what stern days we have all lived through since the end of the long peace from Waterloo to the First World War.
My ancestors lived peaceful lives between the downfall of one warlord – Napoleon in 1815, and the attack of another warlord – the Kaiser in 1914.

But things changed for them then, as for everyone, and my family would be a microcosm of that change. My grandfather fought at Gallipoli of tragic memories, my great- uncle was one of eight hundred men who ‘went down, “as my grandmother would say – in the Vanguard, when it exploded and sank in 1917.

My step-grandfather was one of the 60,000 men killed or wounded on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in June 1916, when he was shot as he stepped out in the first line after the whistle blew to advance in the early morning sunshine. Unlike that heart-stopping last scene in ‘Blackadder goes forth’, they didn’t run, but stepped out to a measured pace, and were mown down by machine guns raking along the long lines of men moving across the grass as they walked into the ‘jaws of death’….

These were peaceful men, called up from their homes and villages to fight for their country and for peace – they thought – unlike the highly trained aggressive army of martial men which faced them. They had actually thought that the Battle of the Somme would end the carnage.

The next generation faced the sterner days of another warlord, Hitler. My father escaped from France a fortnight after Dunkirk, and then spent the rest of the war as a famed Desert Rat, escaping from the siege of Tobruk, fighting across North Africa and then up through Italy. After the war he was stationed at Belsen, the concentration camp where I joined him to live with him for the first time since he had left when I was ten months old.

His brother served with the Long Range Desert Group which fought behind the German lines in North Africa waging guerrilla war. Captured, and ending up in prisoner of war camp in Italy, he escaped and hid and starved in the mountains, until rejoining the Allied Armies as they fought their way up Italy. My only other uncle manned anti –invasion posts around England before becoming part of the liberation forces in Europe. He listened in horror as they drove away to the sound of gun-shots after handing over Russian PoW’s back to the Soviets, who shot them all, there and then. My former father- in- law, a padre, landed on the beaches of Normandy and was so badly wounded that he lived with the after- effects for the rest of his life.

My first memory was of watching the Battle of Britain – not that I knew it was – I just saw white crosses diving across the sky and puffs of white. I was looking for dogs, since I heard the adults saying there’s another dog-fight. That summer has remained in the memory of those who lived through it – even me at two – as being one of unforgettable beauty. Historian Sir Arthur Bryant wrote of England then: “The light that beat down on her meadows, shining with emerald loveliness, was scarcely of this world… the streets of her cities, soon to be torn and shattered, were bathed in a calm serene sunshine…”

Later, I cowered in bed hearing the dreadful wail of the air- raid sirens, trailed downstairs in my night clothes to crouch in the air-raid shelter, listened for the planes overheard, saw with terror the flames in the red sky, and the next morning gathered up shrapnel in the garden and once, stood on the edge of a huge bomb crater, marvelling. And finally traversed bombed- out Germany on the train to Belsen.

I spent much of the rest of my childhood living in army camps around the world, hearing the sound of reveille across the fields where the soldiers lived in barracks, and drifting off to sleep to the haunting strains of the Last Post.

Inevitably I joined the army, as did both my brothers, who saw service in Aden, Borneo, Germany, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar… and as my first child was born, my army husband was posted at twenty four hours notice to a sudden outbreak of warfare in Cyprus. I came out of the labour ward to find a telegram: “Gone to Cyprus”. So my daughter felt the effects of war as soon as she came into this world and didn’t meet her father until she was six months old. Later her father served in Hong Kong and Germany and Northern Ireland.

My grandchildren are the fifth generation and the first not to feel the effects of war. They‘re aware of violence – who could not be after the world-wide shock at the attacks on the World Trade Centre. But like other children of the West, they seem to see their future and their challenges differently. Unlike the children of Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, my fortunate grandchildren have known only peace, and tucked away in the farthest corner of the globe, they have optimism. They do not see these days as stern ones, though the children in war-torn Middle East must do. They do not see the anxieties that older people agonise over, pollution, dwindling food supplies, over-population, melting ice-caps, ravaged oceans…

They see instead the solutions. One grandson, having gained a degree in philosophy, transferred his search for truth to science, and from first deciding to tackle world hunger by experimenting with growing food from the spores of mushrooms ( I’m sure I’ve hopelessly oversimplified that ) he’s now embarked on a project to discover new forms of anti-biotics, and combat disease.

The other youngsters all have a serene belief that science, and creative understanding will solve the problems that loom so large for older generations. They’re not worried! I find that’s magic. Is this because they live in this peaceful place in the Antipodes, or do all young people have this calm belief in the future?

A friend told us that she had always loudly proclaimed at home that it is selfish and self-indulgent to have a child and bring another soul into this troubled world. She told us with great joy, that her fifteen year old grandson said he didn’t agree. “Life is a gift” this wonderful boy told her. Hearing that wisdom was a gift to us oldies.

Hearing that made me feel too, we can all rest easy. Young people know where they’re going, and know what they can do. Though we hear of mayhem and misery every day, if we oldies step back from it, avoid reading the stuff that make us sad (young people don’t seem to read newspapers! ), we can remember to be as positive and imaginative as that young generation.

And maybe too, to bowdlerise Churchill’s words – these are the greatest days our world has ever lived, when consciousness takes the leap into other dimensions of unity and peace. Christopher Fry wrote that: “Affairs are now soul size,” and that we are ready to:” take the longest stride of soul men ever took.”

This is what we can feel in the hearts of this generation that does not want war and dissension –  the domain of the grey tired thinking of politicians of old. Young people want peace and hope and they deserve it as they face the new challenges that baffle older people. “Young people”, as a friend once wrote in Latin, in a card to me, “are the hope and salvation of the world”. And they need all our loving support and belief in them, as they take that long stride of soul into a future we oldies cannot even imagine.

Food for threadbare gourmets
I had some dainty ham sandwiches left over from a little gathering. Rather than waste them I had them for supper. I whipped up an egg with salt and pepper and a soupcon of milk, and poured it onto a plate. I dipped the sandwiches in on both sides, and the egg mixture glued them together. Fried in a little butter, they were delicious. And no waste!

Food for thought
Close your eyes and you will see the truth,
Be still and you will move forward on the tide of the spirit,
Be gentle and you will need no strength,
Be patient and you will achieve all things,
Be humble and you will remain entire.
Taoist meditation

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A Much Maligned Hero

If there is a list of less than attractive characteristics, my hero is on that list – alcoholic, psychopath, megalomaniac, autistic, faults and addictions, these labels are all heaped upon his well-known head.

He didn’t have an easy start in life – his American mother, a famous society beauty was too busy socialising to spend any time with him, or visit him at school; while his father was too busy with his brilliant career, and finally too embittered by his terminal illness to have any time for him at all, and never once visited him when he was packed off to boarding school at seven. His mother required him to write to her in French and frequently returned his letters unread, saying his French was so appalling that she had no intention of reading them. The wounds and scars from beatings on his back, administered by a sadistic head master between the ages of seven and nine, finally convinced his parents to send him to another school.

The one person who loved him was his nanny. He loved her  until the day she died, and was with her at her death-bed. At his schools, he was unpunctual and unconventional, and no-one had a good word to say for him. He failed his military exams, and when he finally made it into Sandhurst was broken-hearted that his father had died before seeing that at last he had succeeded in achieving something. Because his father had died young, he always felt that he would too, and since he always felt that he had come into the world to fulfill some great purpose, he felt he didn’t have a lot of time, and had to hurry!

He had a brief and brilliant military career, earning medals and commendations, and took part in the last great cavalry charge in history at Omdurman against sixty thousand dervishes. Leaving the army he became a newspaper correspondent, and while reporting on the Boer War was captured and had a famous escape, which brought him to the notice of the world. Back in England he went into politics like his father, and having by then educated himself with massive reading programmes, and developed a great gift for words and oratory, he was very successful. In the First World War he unfairly took the blame for the disaster at Gallipoli, though he was merely one of a group of people who’d been behind the scheme, there being no scope for dictatorship by second ranking politicians in the English constitution.

His career apparently ruined, he went and fought in the front line on the Western Front. After the war, returning to politics with some success, he was then vilified and disliked by most people, because he warned about the inevitable war with Germany all through the thirties. While in politics, he had worked for an old age pension for every-one and for better working hours for men and women. With an intelligent powerful wife like Clementine, he supported votes for women, but not the methods of the Suffragettes, especially after one militant feminist tried to push him under a train, and his wife only just pulled him back in time. During this time in the wilderness he supported his family by writing and lecturing.

When war was declared in 1939, no-one in politics really wanted him, from the King down, in spite of him having been proved right about Hitler and the dangers of appeasement. But the people did, and he became prime minster at the time of the greatest danger England or the world had ever faced.

For the next two years, Winston Churchill held the free world together. He not only united his country in the face of fighting a war they could well lose, against a foe whose brutality and inhumanity had already been demonstrated all over a devastated Europe, but he sustained the people in all the defeated countries. They risked their lives to listen secretly to his speeches on their radios, knowing that if they were discovered they would be shot.

“There goes the British Empire”, the American Ambassador heard a workman say as Churchill conducted him around the smoking ruins of a city hit by the Luftwaffe the night before. He was there to report to President Roosevelt on whether he thought the British were going to be able to stand up to Hitler. When the US finally came into the war when Japan attacked them, Churchill knew that with America’s might they could win the war, however long it took. But for two years he alone bore the whole burden of the war on his shoulders, and people waited to hear his speeches to raise their spirits and inspire them to hope even in such hopeless circumstances.

When night after night, London and all England’s other great cities were bombed, its citizens sometimes buried in mass graves, as in Coventry, and irreplaceable architecture, homes and churches destroyed, Churchill’s words kept the nation and the free world going.

People who worked with him were devoted to him. He was very affectionate and treated his staff like his family, inviting them to share all his family meals  when they came to stay every weekend, while Churchill worked – usually until 3am. They were part of the family, playing cards, croquet and going for walks. He had a wicked wit.  When Lady Astor said to him at dinner, “If I was your wife, I’d put cyanide in your coffee,”  he famously replied, “If you were my wife I’d drink it”. When Bernard Shaw sent him a ticket for the first night of Pygmalion, writing : “Bring a friend if you have one”, Churchill replied: “ Cannot make first night, but will come to second, if you have one”. He described an opponent (fairly accurately) as ‘a modest little man, but then he has much to be modest about!’

His capacity for work was prodigious as was his eye for detail … he sent a memo to the top navy, army and air force men telling them to give dignified names to operations, saying if a mother heard that her son had been killed in a battle with a silly name like ‘Operation bunny hop’, it would diminish the dignity of her dead child. He began every memo to his staff:  “ Pray… could you …etc.”  He cared about people, and was devoted to his wife and family after his miserable childhood. He was a talented painter as well as writer, who won the Nobel prize for literature for his four volume series  ‘The History of The English Speaking Peoples.’

He was often inconsiderate and sometimes arrogant, but never mis-used power, his proudest boast being that he was the servant of Parliament and the English people who elected him.  And when his party lost the election as the war was ending – in spite of the love the people had for him – he told every-one that they had to respect the will of the people.

And in old age he could still laugh at himself … when a nervous MP whispered to him that his fly buttons were undone, he replied ‘Never fear, the dead bird never leaves the nest.’ His beloved private secretary Sir John Colville said that he never saw him drunk, though champagne and brandy were his favourite tipples. And as for the other labels … I’m sure he’d rebut them with that old English saying; ‘ Sticks and stones  may break my bones, but words will never hurt me…’

What a man!  I think he’d prefer: What an Englishman! And yet he was deeply proud of his American ancestry too. When his dark- eyed, dark- haired mother died, it was reported that her face bore: “all the hallmarks of a native American inheritance”. His descent from another great Englishman and soldier, John, Duke of Marlborough, was the inspiration for his belief in his destiny … which could be summed up quite briefly – to save the free world.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Hot summer days, and heaps of fresh vegetables – many from the gardens of my lovely neighbours. So today, it’s crudités with that lovely mayonnaise made with my new mixing stick in the last recipe.  Fresh batch today with garlic added, making it aoli, to be eaten with hard boiled free range eggs, fresh raw baby carrots, tomatoes warm from the sun, new potatoes from a neighbour’s garden – cooked with fresh mint –  cucumber and a jar of artichokes. We’ll start with some sweet corn dripping with hot butter, the corn almost pearly, it’s so fresh … fresh purple plums with that dusty bloom on their skins to end with … a summer feast ….

Food for Thought

History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. What is the worth of all this? The only guide to a man is his conscience. The only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour.

Extract from his tribute to his old opponent Austen Chamberlain on his death,  by Winston S Churchill 1874 -1965  politician, writer, painter, visionary leader

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