Tag Archives: courage

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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“Old soldiers …”

Image result for 14/20th king's hussarsLeafing through an old notebook looking for a blank page to pull out to write a shopping list, I found these words I’d forgotten I’d written.

Timing isn’t always everything I decided, and though I’m late, these words still count…

Parade on Armistice Day

Behind that stern moustache

And row of clinking coloured medals

And Desert Rat insignia,

Service dress, and highly polished Sam Browne belt and sword holster

Stood a man.

 

A man who loved and laughed and grieved and swore and smoked and drank,

And played poker sitting on a petrol drum

Beside his tank in the desert.

He hated the beat of the Funeral March from ‘Saul’,

And he never forgot the ones who were ‘brewed up’.

This was the nightmare he fought most nights for the years of peace.

 

It had been a daily nightmare back then.

It had loomed while he shaved in half a mug of water,

And haunted his thoughts as he drank a mug of strong tea

To cut that terrible desert drought.

And he never forgot the spring flowers that bloomed in Tunisia.

 

Just like five weary years before,

He had never forgotten the women of Plymouth,

Who waited with steaming mugs of tea

For the cold, hungry men who landed at dawn

After escaping from Cherbourg,

Three long weeks after the miracle of Dunkirk.

 

In all the years between, he had been there,

And the names of his battles had

Reverberated through my childhood:

Bardia and Benghazi, Sidi Rezegh, and Sidi Barani,

Tobruk, Tunisia, Salerno and all the others…

He loved his friends and didn’t hate his foes.

Like Abou Ben Adhem, he loved his fellow men.

This was my father.

 

He was a cavalryman, and proud of the history of his historic regiment – an officer from his regiment was dispatched by the Duke of Wellington to take the news of Waterloo to London. It’s the regimental  cap badge at the top of this piece.

Though he survived the war, he didn’t live to old age, and like his other children I still miss him, and I regret not talking to him when I was old enough, or mature enough, to appreciate him the way his friends and his soldiers did. Both groups loved him.

One soldier in the British Army took leave from his posting in Gibraltar to come to London and find my father in his office at Whitehall to give him a watch. Ten years earlier, when we  were in Malaya, this man had been fighting the British. My father on patrol in the jungle, captured him, starving and nearly dead from scurvy.

My father helicoptered the ‘bandit’, as the insurgent communists were called, out of the jungle, and rushed him to the only grocery store for miles around, where we happened to be shopping at the time. He leapt out of the army vehicle, calling to my stepmother to buy a box of oranges. While she did this, he carried the soldier from the jeep into the back of our saloon car. Peeling an orange, he fed segments to the nearly unconscious ’bandit’, and then, as he began to revive, gestured to him to go on eating the oranges.

The man was taken to a rehabilitation centre, where he regained his health, renounced his communism, learned English, and finally joined the British Army. He never forgot my father and came to London ten years later to thank him for saving his life.

Armies and soldiers are sometimes reviled, often by people who do not know soldiers. But like most of his fellows, my father was a good and courageous man, a kind and tolerant man  – like most of the men of all ranks, that I grew up knowing on army camps around the world. Honor virtutis praemium.

Food for threadbare gourmets

For a celebratory birthday lunch the other day that wouldn’t take hours to cook, even though I felt roast chicken would be appropriate, I compromised. I had a couple of chicken breasts in the deep freeze, so after de-frosting slowly in the fridge, I trimmed them open a bit more, and spread a stuffing of whole grain breadcrumbs, onions and mushrooms chopped and cooked in butter, and lots of chopped sage and parsley, salt and pepper on one breast.

Placing the other breast on top, I wrapped them in rashers of bacon, making a parcel, and holding the rashers in place with toothpicks. Scrubbing a couple of Agria potatoes, I pricked them all over, rolled them in olive oil, and cooked them in their skins at the same time as the chicken. (Hot oven for about 45 minutes, or until ready). When cooked, the potatoes were mashed with lots of butter, salt and pepper.

Spinach and carrots completed the meal, along with good gravy made from chicken juices in the pan, while the chicken was ‘resting’ in a warm place. It was as good as if I’d cooked a whole chicken, and took half the time to cook

Food for thought

I am not interested to know whether Vivisection produces results that are profitable to the human race or doesn’t. … The pains which it inflicts upon unconsenting animals is the basis of my enmity towards it, and it is to me sufficient justification of the enmity without looking further.

Mark Twain. American writer, publisher, river boat pilot and many other things. One of his claims to fame was that he was born when Halley’s Comet showed up in 1835 and died, as he predicted, the day after it came back in 1910.

 

 

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Ode to friendship

Wherever I look there are the tokens, and maybe calling them tokens is a misuse of the word.

On the bookcase is a round blue stone, and written on it are the words: ‘ In the bonds of love we meet,’ which are lines from the NZ national Anthem. It was a birthday present from Friend, which is what I Ching calls a person who is in a ‘familial or love relationship’.

In a fat white jug with all my pens is a sandalwood fan, sitting there at the ready to be used when needed… my Friend brought it to choir practice on a baking hot evening nearly twenty years ago – the sort of evening when we all melted in the airless church hall as we practised our Hallelujahs, or softer Bach anthems. On this day, she produced the fan to keep me cool.

By the bedside is a long thin delicate bamboo stick with a hand at the end with claws on it – a Chinese back scratcher – in constant use by my love. This is the relic of a Christmas lunch thirty years ago. A gang of us used to meet for Christmas lunch in the park, taking over the beautiful little band rotunda, and bringing lace table-cloths, silver candlesticks, champagne and the works.

We started a ritual of bringing presents for everyone, and they could cost no more than two dollars… a tiny amount even in NZ currency. All year we subconsciously looked for some delicious little token, and this was Friend’s gift one year, practical and treasured ever since.

In hospital, an hour and half drive from her home, she and her husband visited me, bringing gifts … a sheepskin to lie on and ease my discomfort, a bag full of miniature bottles of wine – a glass and half to each one – for me to sip with my fairly dreary suppers… an orchid so beautiful that everyone who came by, stopped to admire – it made me many friends… lanolin to rub on my face so my skin wouldn’t dry out in hospital warmth, fluffy red, possum-wool slippers with non-stick soles for my cold feet, vitamin C capsules to aid my healing, and most delicious of all… I had said I wished I had asked my love to try and find my magnifying mirror as I was beginning to look like Freida Kahlo, so a splendid magnifying mirror on a stand came with all the other goodies.

We have been together at births and funerals, personal growth courses, anniversaries and jolly parties. Best of all have been the long, happy lunches, and the times she and Friend Two have come to stay, armed with bottles of wine donated by helpful husbands. We’ve listened to the latest visiting guru, and then celebrated with riotous dinners, visited massage ladies and spiritual channellers, sat with an aura soma intuitive for a reading, and travelled long distances just to go and commune with a lady who told fortunes reading tea-leaves, or for lunch at a good winery.

During one famous lunch I happened to mention I’d seen some enormous candlesticks I’d love to get, but feared they might be a bit over the top. We had hardly downed our rose than we all set off to inspect the said candlesticks. The three of us emerged from the store with two pairs each… one to keep as gilt, the other to hand over to Friend Two, an artist, who was going to paint them to look aged and antique and precious. Friend moaned, “K – will kill me for bringing more candlesticks into the house”, but it did not deter her.

Friend has given me Reiki massages, and I have given her the same. After a severe operation I came to give her one, and after sitting with her for three hours while she slept deeply, I crept away. On Christmas morning we gathered for white-bait fritter brunch at her lovely house, and on birthdays, we three nearly always managed to meet.

Now, I sit on the sofa, and lean against a deep red taffeta cushion with a large rosette made of dozens of exquisite, hand-stitched, tiny rosettes, made for me by Friend Two. I look up at the beautiful picture she painted for me, and still revel in the painted candle sticks. We laugh because I haven’t bought a lipstick in years- instead she gives me all her mistakes, and they work for me. Guests for lunch exclaim over the beautiful French plates they’re eating from, a gift that both Friends had brought on one of their visits. The memories of their generosity, creativeness, fun and love are all around me.

I have other friends who are precious too… true friendship is never exclusive, but always inclusive.  Somewhere I have read, and forgive me, the lovely person who wrote this – I don’t know who you are… but they wrote: :’ A friend is what the heart needs all the time. True friendship multiplies the good in life and divides its evils. Strive to have friends, for life without friends is like life on a desert island… to find one real friend in a lifetime is good fortune; to keep him is a blessing.’

In a very difficult life I have had many friends. I also read once that most people only have five close friends… I have many more than that, and they are treasured and beloved. One friend has been my treasured and loyal, loving friend since our school days. Another, just as treasured, just as loyal and loving and supportive, has been there since we were young officers of twenty-one. (She sent me a precious seven-leaved clover she had found, for luck, when I was in hospital.) The roll call of a life-time’s well-loved names is one of my greatest treasures.

These are the people who have never judged me, but who have seen me and accepted me, in spite of what they saw !!!!. Aristotle said that friendship is a slow ripening fruit… for me friendship has been one of the most precious fruits of my life. And now blogging has added another dimension of friendship bringing fruits and gifts I couldn’t have imagined.

Some of these friends have not been around for a while, and I know are coping with illness, looking after sick mothers, or a handicapped child, or are just travelling or having fun;  but the knowledge of their friendship, the connection of spirit across the globe, the meetings of minds through our blogs and comments, from friends both absent and present, are treasured. Greetings to all these true friends.

PS This brief TV clip is about my son and his step-daughter. It’s about courage.

: http://www.newshub.co.nz/home/new-zealand/2017/01/teen-left-tetraplegic-after-horse-accident-determined-to-walk-again.html

Food for threadbare gourmets

I un-freezed too many things, not thinking straight. And then I cooked a lovely risotto, forgetting I had the other food waiting to be cooked. The fish wouldn’t last, so I quickly fried it in butter and put it in the fridge. I wondered what to do with cold fish the next day…

So I cooked some tomatoes in butter, stripping off their skins when cooked, so they melded with the cream I poured over them, (Friend calls me the Queen of Cream) and let them blend together. Then added the cold fish, and gently reheated it, sprinkled lots of dill in … and it was delicious with new potatoes and green beans.

Food for thought

Be careful of reading health books. You may die of a misprint.

Mark Twain 1835 – 1910 (born the year when Halley’s Comet neared earth, died the year it returned)

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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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Hollywood, Ruined Reputations and Truth

100_0273

In the New Zealand Parliament this week the leader of one of the parties put up a motion congratulating the New Zealand  Ambassador and his second secretary for “their courageous and commendable” role in offering refuge and “significant help”  in 1979, at their Tehran embassy during the US hostage crisis in Iran.

He termed the film ‘Argo’ a “grave misrepresentation” of the part the NZ diplomats had played, which had placed both themselves, and their country’s policies and trade at risk.

The motion was passed unanimously. Ben Affleck has admitted in a press conference that he had been unjust both to the British and to the New Zealanders, who’d both risked themselves and their countries by helping the US hostages. But he said it was a better story if he falsified the facts.

I can’t imagine how it must feel to be held up as a coward to the whole world, when you’ve actually acted generously and courageously. But such thoughtless arrogance  is nothing new. Hollywood has been falsifying history and making heroic war films about Americans using the exploits of British servicemen for years.

And this is why I prefer facts to fiction. The story I tell now is true, and is such a perfectly rounded story with a neat plot and unexpected ending that if it was fiction it would be said to be too neat, and therefore improbable.

It’s about my father who belonged to a distinguished cavalry regiment, and had fought in tanks throughout the war. After the war, playing a leading role in a huge military exercise, the last of its kind ever held in England, he was concerned about the lack of proper treatment of the real accidentally wounded, as opposed to the dummy wounded, and he became a whistleblower.

We all know that whistleblowers are not popular, and like many another whistleblower, he had ruined his career. So he left his regiment in which he now had no future, and volunteered to go to Malaya as an infantryman, to serve where communist Chinese guerrillas were terrorising the local populations and killing British rubber planters and the like. The conflict in Malaya was called an Emergency at the request of the planters, as otherwise the insurance companies wouldn’t cover them for losses, if it was a war!

The Chinese guerillas called themselves a Liberation Army, and received their orders from Moscow. Their leader was a Chinese called Chin Peng, who had trained in guerrilla warfare against the invading Japanese during the war. These guerrilla “freedom” fighters were ruthless and brutal in their methods of intimidation.

Vulnerable and frightened Malays and Chinese labourers living on the edges of the jungle were re-settled in safe New Villages, where they had better conditions and pay than ever before – and after British pressure, were allowed to buy land and have the vote – so they didn’t need to support the ‘bandits’ as everyone else called them. Measures were put in place to stop the bandits getting food from the terrified local populations, and since the bandits also extorted food from the Sakai’s  – the aborigines – in the jungle, the Sakai’s hated them too.

This meant that in the end the bandits could be starved out of their hideouts. A lot of thought went into winkling them out of the dense jungle, while not antagonising the local populations. Troops, who consisted of some British and Ghurka regiments, and some Malay regiments, tracked them down in the jungle. My father was in a Malay regiment, and small detachments were dropped into the jungle at the end of a rope by helicopter, to spend six weeks tracking, hoping to find bandit camps, disband them and send the demoralised and hungry bandits to rehabilitation camps. Inevitably there was shooting. But while the British authorities offered surrender, no Britons who were captured by the bandits ever survived. The military operation was called ‘Winning Hearts and Minds”….

We lived in a tiny military camp in the middle of the jungle in Pahang, central Malaya. I came home for school holidays with a large armoured car escort, in case of ambush. On this day, we had gone to the nearest village where the only grocery shop for hundreds of square miles was to be found. The shop was owned by a magnificent old Chinese trader, known as Mr Tek Seng, and when shopping there we all had to go into his back room and drink tea while our groceries were packed up.

As we left Tek Seng’s, my father, who we thought was still in the jungle, raced up to the entrance in an army jeep, and called out to my stepmother to get some oranges and hurry, hurry. When she returned with a box a few minutes later, he was half carrying an emaciated Chinese man in ragged clothes, and putting him into the back seat of our car. He sat the man down, and sat on the seat beside him, peeling an orange. He then gave the man segments to eat. When he’d finished one orange, my father indicated to the man to go on eating them, and help himself from the box. We then drove home with him.

Back at camp, the man was taken to the guardroom, and I heard later that as soon as he began eating the oranges, he began to recover. He was at death’s door with starvation and  scurvy when my father had found him in the jungle. (Early Renaissance explorers lost two thirds of their crews from scurvy, as did all the navies until the 18th century) But as soon as a person gets some vitamin C into them, they start to recover. And that was that with the bandit, I thought.

We returned to England after Merdeka – self government – was declared in Malaya in 1956, and got on with our lives. Chin Peng, meanwhile, the Communist leader, eventually retired to live in Beijing since there was nothing to fight for since Malaya achieved peaceful independence without him!

A few years later, my father retired too, and took a job in Whitehall, central London. Some seven years after the bandit had been captured and rescued from the jungle, a soldier from the Royal Signals Corps came to my father’s office, and asked to see him. It was the bandit.

He had emerged from rehabilitation camp a changed man, and had joined the British Army. He was now stationed with his unit in Gibraltar, and he came to London to seek out my father and to give him a watch. To thank him.

I love this story for its humanity and decency.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

The threadbare gourmets in this house feasted rather well today. Friends had brought us some fresh fillets of fish which they had caught this morning. We ate them with buttered new potatoes bought from a stall on the road home, and local tomatoes also bought from a road-side stall. And afterwards we had fragrant ripe figs, from another friend’s garden. They were beautiful to look at, stained with dark purple and green on the outside, and inside, pale pink and translucent green.

I cooked the fish quickly in butter and with chopped dill. I also cooked the soft little tomatoes with them so the juices would flavour the cream. When both were not quite cooked, I tipped a tblsp of brandy in the pan and let it bubble up, then added salt and pepper and thick cream and let it bubble and thicken a bit more. We ate it immediately with the new potatoes and parsley, and some green beans.

 

Food for Thought

If you lose touch with nature you lose touch with humanity. If there’s no relationship with nature then you become a killer; then you kill baby seals, whales, dolphins, and man either for gain, for sport, for food, or for knowledge. Then nature is frightened of you, withdrawing its beauty. You may take long walks in the woods or camp in lovely places but you are a killer and so lose their friendship. You probably are not related to anything but to your wife or your husband…

Jiddhu Krishnamurti  1895 – 1986 Teacher, philosopher

 

 

 

 

 

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Living her Dreams While She Danced With Death

Soraya was not her real name, but it’s close to it. She was as beautiful as Persian Queen Soraya, and also had some of the fine-boned quality of that Queen’s successor, Farah Diba . Strikingly beautiful however you looked at her.

She came from one of those Asian countries like Uzbekistan. Her husband came here alone to set up a new life for his wife and daughter, and went back after 18 months to fetch them.  Two weeks after returning, he left them. She lived with their daughter in a tiny student type flat, and mother and daughter shared a mattress on the floor of the bedroom.

She crossed my path when she met someone close to me, through the internet. The friendship didn’t last long, as he found her rigid Muslim beliefs hard to stomach.  But a few weeks later I had a shattered phone call saying she’d rung to tell him she had breast cancer. He couldn’t cope, so I told him I’d see to it.

I rang her to say I would help her, and then spent a day on the phone ringing every sort of agency to try to get advice, support and friendship for her. She was always outside the area, or didn’t qualify. Finally I found a church group, who also felt the situation wasn’t something they couldn’t assist with, but I hung in, until I got them to agree that they would become responsible for getting her little girl to kindy, so that Soraya didn’t have the long journey to and fro on public transport twice a day.

I lived too far out of town to be able to do anything practical, but I went to see her. Her situation was shocking. She had just started chemo, and had spent the night vomiting, with the little girl crying in fright beside her. The second time I was there, an elderly lady arrived from kindy with the daughter. She was the person I’d spoken to on the phone, but was too distracted to take in my presence.

The next step was my daughter. Eugenie is the most capable person I’ve come across, simultaneously starting the international Arts Festival in this city, which she now chairs, being on the City Council, first woman on countless committees and boards, as well as editing and writing parenting magazines and being president of kindergarten organisations and a dozen other pies, bringing up her children and supporting family in countless ways. She’s also kind and intuitive.

I arranged to bring Soraya to meet her for lunch in a restaurant in the park. We sat in the sunshine with my daughter who, to my amazement, was wearing a long chestnut wig instead of her own dark hair. All became clear when she began talking to Soraya about chemotherapy, and how it’s okay to wear a wig, and still look beautiful.

Eugenie then took charge of the situation. She badgered the welfare authorities until they found a charming little two story cottage for Soraya in a nice area near a good school, and arranged all sorts of subsidies to help with transport and all the extra expenses outside her hospital treatment. (Thank heavens for free medical care)

She texted the mothers at her son’s school, and gathered together furniture for the house, while an interior decorator mother lent her van to move the stuff. One morning some of the fourteen year olds in my grandson’s class came to transport Soraya and her things from the squalid flat to her new home. I taxied her and her little girl, and did homely things like providing curtains, bedding and fridge. We made a pretty girly bedroom for the little daughter.

Eugenie took Soraya to hospital for her operations, wept with her, hugged her, and set about finding people to support her. The lady from the church kept in touch, and the church rallied round and came to visit and help where they could. Soraya was very dubious about getting close to Christians, and I would endlessly tell her that the test of being with people was how loving they were, not what name they gave to the Creator, whether it was Allah, Jehovah, God or Great Spirit. Their kindness eventually wore down her doubts.

It was election time, and they took her to a meeting of candidates. There, among the other men who swooned when they saw this exotic beauty in the little church hall, was a rich lawyer, well known for his good deeds, who made a bee-line for her. He courted Soraya, and wanted to marry her, but she was so brave that she refused because she didn’t love him. He never gave up, and was always there for her for the next five years. She made friends and did the things she had only dreamed of doing back in her poverty- stricken country. She even shopped till she dropped, found another house she preferred, and lived her life every minute of every day in between the debilitating spells in hospital.

When we moved to this place, I was too far away to stay connected, but kept in touch occasionally, especially when she was in hospital. Finally she did fall in love, and moved into a luxurious house, which gave her enormous pleasure. But the lawyer was still part of her life, and a few weeks before the end he took her to a grand party at Parliament House in Wellington. They ended up going to lots more grand parties, because someone else fell madly in love with her, and invited them to everything that was going. Soraya was in seventh heaven. In spite of all the pain and misery, she felt she was living a glamorous fairy- tale life. From a standing start she’d created this for herself in just a few years. In the photographs she blazed with happiness and joie de vivre.

Back home, she was on the last leg of her long journey. When she died, and Eugenie and all my family went to her funeral, held in the church which had taken her in, we found it was full. Her first husband was there with their daughter, and in one of the mysteries of life, told us how Soraya had been his best friend. His second wife was still in hospital having given birth in the same hospital as Soraya, on the same day that she had  died.

One by one each person told the story of their time with Soraya, and the elderly lady told hers, how this persistent social worker had rung her, and because she wouldn’t give up, finally she’d agreed to involve her church group. Afterwards I told her that I was the persistent person, not a social worker. The pastor was there, and was fascinated at having found the missing link.

I said to him sadly, that I always felt that I never did enough for her. You and everyone else, he replied. Everyone gave what they could, and then when they faltered, the next person was there in line for her;  each person told him they felt guilty that they hadn’t given enough, and yet what they had to give was perfect, and the timing was right for them and Soraya. He gave me peace of mind, as I’m sure he gave others.

Soraya was, and is, a reminder of the inscrutable mystery of every person’s life and how we can never know the meaning of another’s journey.  She was so vulnerable and frightened one moment, and in the next, so determined to wring the last ounce of joy out of life. She was infuriating, obstinate and single minded, and generous, gay and gorgeous. She faced her devastating challenges with courage and unquenchable spirit.  What magnificence.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets.

When I made the pear and almond tart the other day, I was disappointed with it. But the pastry, with no rubbing or rolling was all that I’d hoped for. This time I’m going to make it and use it for a tarte au citron, for my husband’s birthday lunch. This is the easy- peasy pastry recipe.

The trick is the melted butter. You need 125 grammes of the butter, and when melted and cooled, pour it into a bowl with 100 grammes of sugar,  two tablespoons of ground almonds, a pinch of salt, a few drops of almond essence and a few drops of vanilla essence or half a teaspoons of vanilla sugar. Stir to combine, then mix in 180 grammes of self raising  flour. Press out into a nine or ten inch tart dish which has been buttered and lined with baking paper, or buttered and floured. You don’t need to prick it or weight it. Bake at 180 degrees for about ten minutes, or until the dough is just slightly puffy and a very pale brown. Take it out and fill with your chosen filling, and bake as directed. Make sure there are no holes or cracks, or the filling will run out!

Food for Thought

I celebrate myself…

I am larger, better than I thought.

I did not know I held so much goodness.

Walt Whitman. 1819 – 1892   Controversial American poet, who served as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War.

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Diana

Diana died on 31 August fifteen years ago. Those old enough to remember, know where they were at the moment when they heard that John Kennedy had died, taking with him the hopes and idealism of people all around the world.

And most of us I think, also know where we were when we heard of the death of Diana – there’s only one Diana. Her death left a huge hole in the consciousness of the world. For fifteen years we had gloated over her clothes, admired her beauty, shared her children, followed her travels, marvelled over her commitment to others,  felt her pain at her failing marriage, hated her rival, regretted her lapses of judgement in men and other things, and always loved her.

Who can forget the pictures of her kneeling at the feet of an old blind lady just after her engagement – no Royal had ever knelt to their adoring audience before? Who doesn’t remember those pictures of her on her knees again, arms open wide, love blazing from her face as she greeted the sons she hadn’t seen for a few days? Can anyone forget that picture of her mastering her fear and courageously walking through a minefield to show the world what wars do to women and children?

Do people remember those pictures of her holding the hands of a leper, and another of her sitting with an Aids patient with his hands in hers? These pictures flashed a message around the world – no-one should ever be an outcast. We should include the old and the sick and the pariahs.

And then there were those unforgettable ones of her in a Bosnian cemetery where she came on a grieving mother, and with no common language between them Diana put her arms round this stranger and held her. Being available to her grief, no words necessary. And the shots of her carrying a little Black American girl in her arms to take her for a ride in her limousine, the one wish the little girl had expressed.

There were other pictures – the woman who went to hospital to collect her husband with his broken arm in a sling – the same husband who then, unbeknown to the world at the time, took his mistress up to Scotland to convalesce with his grandmother. Meanwhile, Diana continued to visit the young man she’d befriended in that hospital, and then to visit his family when he got back home.

She went to a childrens’ hospital every few days to paint a little girl’s finger nails pink. She wrote so many comforting handwritten letters to people, that after she died, and the stories were told, people could only marvel.

She did so many kind things in private, and as her marriage broke down, some foolish things in public. But in many ways she lived out all the archetypes of women, and maybe that’s why some people loved her, and some didn’t- if they were repelled by the archetype. So she personified Persephone, the shy goddess of springtime, who in her dark moments refused to eat; she personified Ceres, the mother and good friend, with compassion for all; Hera, the angry, vindictive, jealous and rejected wife of Zeus; Minerva, the career woman who was meticulously briefed and organised in contrast to her husband’s chaotic office, and all the other goddesses. (I wrote of this in depths in my book ‘The Sound of Water’).

She also had that much misused word – charisma – hardened journalists felt her presence, watched her love in action, and melted. She was down to earth- talking to a mayor on an official visit, she had him eating out of her hand when she asked him how much money he gave his children for pocket money!

She had courage. As a shy twenty-one year old on her first tour – in New Zealand – she emerged from a hall to greet the waiting crowds, and was met by a barrage of placards and yelling protestors shouting about Ireland. For a moment she stopped, shocked, and then stepped straight up to the other people standing in front of the protestors and greeted them, all the while enduring the barrage of insults. That took grit. She had courtesy, refusing to shelter from the rain under an umbrella, unless the mayor’s wife standing with her shared it too, the mayor’s wife told me.

In psychological terms, the first relationships people have with their parents shape their later lives. Diana, as the third daughter, was initially rejected at birth by her father who wanted an heir. That sort of emotional shock would have stayed in her psyche, and projected an unconscious fear that she would be rejected by the men she loved. So she was. Her husband rejected her, and then the Pakistani surgeon who she loved for two years and hoped to marry – until he couldn’t face the hullabaloo which surrounded her.

Her last fling on the rebound was unlikely to have lasted. Dodi Fayed simply didn’t have the intellectual and emotional depths that Diana would have needed. She called herself as thick as a plank, because she had failed her school exams. But it’s a given that strife at home blocks children’s progress at school. They can’t concentrate on their lessons when they have emotional trauma going on, and Diana was always torn between her warring parents. On the other hand, people who knew Diana encountered a lively mind and wit, a phenomenal memory, and a musical talent that meant she was able to plunge into the notoriously difficult Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto without any music, when asked to play.

Like all un-integrated people she had many flaws. Who does n’t? That’s no reason to denigrate her, as it’s become fashionable to do in the years since the world wide grief at her death. Her gifts to the world outweighed her private problems. And what were those gifts, apart from her two sons? She left us with a memory of a beautiful soul who wasn’t afraid to love and act spontaneously; who gave compassion- and acceptance – to all who crossed her path, and whose example has given others the courage to open their own hearts and express their feelings.

Her motto was ‘compassion in another’s troubles, courage in your own’. Her acts of random kindness were legion. Her life, her mothering, and her work were an inspiration, while fashion has never been the same since she went to Paris and died. I, like many, still miss Diana’s presence on this earth, and wish I had seen her grow into the magnificent mature woman which was her potential. She was only thirty-six when she died.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

A friend recovering from a major operation came for supper last night, so I made a bit of an effort. Whole chicken legs, slashed at intervals and the slashes stuffed with chopped garlic and grated lemon rind and juice, marinated for some hours before hand. Before popping into the oven, I sprinkled them with flour mixed with ginger, salt and pepper, and sprinkled with some olive oil. Then into a hot oven for about an hour or until cooked. The skin is crisp and tasty. I’d made some of the cream potatoes from the recipe other day, and we had them with Brussels sprouts and little spring carrots.

Not bad. I experimented with a pear and almond tart for pudding – the pastry a wonderful quick easy recipe for another day – the frangipane didn’t taste as almondy as I would have liked… so a bit of jiggling to do there.

Food for Thought

So precious is a person’s faith in God… never should we harm that.

Because He gave birth to all religions.            St Francis of Assisi 1182 -1226

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