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Ducal splendour and daily deprivation

On my tenth birthday -wearing my pearlsInline image 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued –  back to England

Food for threadbare gourmets

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

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

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

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

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

Food for thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bombs and a baby

 Valerie6.jpg
 A Life – Part two

We are familie-e-e-e-ee

I was staying with my grandmother when I was three. She must have had her hands full, looking after me, nursing her sister Jessie who was dying from kidney disease in the big bedroom, and coping with her maverick younger son, who was staying with her before embarking for the Western desert, to join the maverick Long Range Desert Group – a match made in heaven!

My uncle, who was unmarried, childless, and in his early twenties, spoiled me the way everyone did since I was the eldest of only two grandchildren. So now he said he would take me with him when he went to say his last goodbyes to the other side of the family. It would be an opportunity for me to meet my great-grandmother for the first time too.

We crossed London by double decker bus, and arrived at a house filled, it seemed to me, with lots of old people in dreary black and dark clothes. I was made to kiss all these tall elderly people towering over me (they were probably not more than forty!) and then we sat down to tea round a big oval table laden with cake-stands on the lace table-cloth.

The grownups got on with their conversation, and my great-grandmother, a fearsome little lady, grey and wizened, but sharp as a button, leaned down from the head of the table with a plate of small cakes, and offered me one. I reached out to take one, then drew back, realising they had currants in them. “No thank you,” I said politely.

“Why don’t you want one?” My ancient relative asked sharply.

“I don’t like currants,” I replied.

“You’ll have one,” she snapped, “I made them myself.”

So I took one obediently, and sat quietly picking out the currants so I could eat the cake parts, while the conversation flowed around me.

Suddenly a stick landed hard on my knuckles, and I cried out in pain. My great-grandmother was leaning down the tea table and had hit me with her walking stick. I pushed back my chair, slid off it, and fled into the kitchen where I buried my head in some-one’s lap (a maid?) who was sitting there, and cried my heart out. Before long, my uncle came in and I was hustled out of the house in disgrace.

When we caught the bus, with my uncle still be-rating me for my naughtiness, I was so upset, I jumped off the open double decker, and rolled into the road. I wasn’t hurt, but everyone on the bus seemed to be very angry with my poor uncle for upsetting a little girl so much that she did something so drastic to get away from him!

Back at my grandmother’s, the poor young man related the whole sorry saga to my disbelieving grandparent. “But she’s always so good”, she kept repeating as he tried to get her to understand how unfortunate the afternoon had been. My grandmother just cuddled me, and he was miffed.

Later she came to stay with us in Dorset, and I repaid her kindness by flinging myself into her lap to give her a hug, and knocking her spectacles off her nose, and smashing them. It was difficult to get anything repaired with everyone concentrated on the war effort, but she returned a few months later, and stepped down from the train smiling, wearing her repaired specs. I leapt rapturously into her arms, and knocked them off again. They lay shattered on the station paving. And she forgave me again.

When I stayed with her in London, while my brother was born back in Dorset, she taught me proverbs and rhymes and skipping games. I learned to skip down in the disused cobbled stable-yard, happily singing and chanting these traditional rhymes to myself. But I hurried inside from the garden in the dusk, fearful that Germans might be hiding behind the laurel bushes.

They might get me if I strayed too far from the big Edwardian house in which she had a flat, and I never lingered near the head- stones and graves for dead dogs, because there were so many places where the Germans might be hiding. When she visited her friends and took me with her, I overheard their conversations about where the bombs had been falling and realised that the world was a very dangerous place.

I was just four when my father came to stay before returning to North Africa after being commissioned. But then he and my mother had a row, and he packed his suitcase and strode out of the door. My mother stood weeping in the doorway, watching him go, and then she sent me after him. I ran down the lane, and he stopped, put down his suitcase, kissed me, and came home. But then it happened all over again, and this time when my mother stood in the doorway weeping, and sent me after him, he was angry, and sent me back crying.

I stood in the door with my mother and watched him go back to the war, and my heart was like a stone. I cried because he hadn’t loved me enough to come back, and I cried because I had failed my mother. There were other memories. The songs my mother sang me. She loved singing. She sang ‘Cherry ripe’, and ‘ Where the bee sucks, there suck I, and ‘One fine day’, from Madame Butterfly as lullabies…

Nine months after my father had disappeared back to the war, my baby brother was born, and we moved to a red brick villa on the outskirts of Weymouth. She used to sing the words of a pop-song then: ” You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are grey…” It was many years before I heard those songs again, and nearly fifty years before I could bear to hear ‘you are my sunshine.’ My mother disappeared a little over a year after we moved to Weymouth. The skies had often seemed grey before she left.

After the baby was born she seemed to have lost interest in us. She had always been somewhat erratic even to a small watching child, but now she would read a book at meal-times so we couldn’t talk to her. She was often out, and we would be so hungry with no food in the house, and I felt so despairing, that I used to look for comfort at a picture in a hymnbook my grandmother had given me. It was a painting of Jesus floating on a cloud, and underneath were the words from a hymn: ‘There’s a friend for little children above the bright blue sky’.

I learned to mash Farley’s rusks with milk to feed the baby, and can remember when we had been away for the weekend with our mother, rushing in to rescue the abandoned baby in his cot, change his nappy, and make scrambled egg for the starving child. When I stood on a chair at the ironing board to iron our school uniform for the expensive private school we attended, she laughed, and said, “you’re my little slave, aren’t you – but don’t tell anyone I said that”.

The worst times were at night. If I woke I would creep along to her bedroom and very quietly open the door to see if she was there. If she was, she smacked me hard, but I didn’t mind, because she was home. If she was out, when the air raid siren screamed, I had to get my younger sister and the baby downstairs and into the air raid shelter. One night as we lay on a mattress in the shelter, my nose began to bleed heavily. I couldn’t stop it, and finally must have slipped into unconsciousness, because the next thing I knew, I was wrapped in a blanket, with my mother holding me and fire blazing in the hearth.

The worst night of all was when I lay awake for hours frozen with fear, hearing planes flying over endlessly, and certain that this was Hitler come to get us. It was only recently that I realised that this was the night of D-Day, when people all over the South of England were standing outside in their night clothes watching this great armada flying to the invasion. It was round about this time that my mother disappeared, and my grandmother left her home and friends to come and care for us – a six- year- old, a five-year- old and a traumatised fourteen- month-old baby. The next few years were the good ones.

To be continued

Food for threadbare gourmets

Having read a blog about not wasting food I felt challenged… I don’t think I do, but to be on the safe side, I used up left-overs today. I had a good serving of cooked rice, so decided to make kedgeree. Did my normal thing now of cooking the onion in the microwave before adding it to the frying pan, sprinkled a heaped teaspoon of curry powder, half a teasp each of cumin, coriander and turmeric, plenty of garlic and let them cook with the onion for a few minutes.

Having soaked half a cup of frozen peas and sultanas in boiling water, I added them to the mix to absorb the curry flavours, and then stirred in the cold cooked long grain rice. I had no smoked salmon left after making blinis endlessly for all the celebrations we’ve been attending, so opened a tin of shrimps, and stirred them in. Tasting it, I added some more curry powder, and salt. I didn’t have any fresh parsley to chop, but with a chopped hard- boiled egg each, it was a good lunch.

Food for thought

Intuition, not intellect, is the ‘open sesame’ of yourself. Albert Einstein

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under cookery/recipes, family, history, life and death, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, uncategorised, Uncategorized, world war two

Time, like an ever-rolling stream

a traditional Cotswold village hotel, England, UK

Image result for dorset villages

A life  – Part one

Diarist Frances Partridge wrote”… I have a passionate desire to describe what I’ve felt, thought or experienced, for its own sake – to express, communicate or both? And I can hardly bear not to pin down the fleeting moments.”

This year is when I turn eighty, the sort of birthday one can never imagine will happen to oneself, and I still have  that:  ‘passionate desire to describe what I’ve felt, thought or experienced, for its own sake – to express. communicate…’ and above all, to savour and revel in the joy of everything – love, food, family, friends, ideas, music, books, the sea and the wind, the birds and the flowers… infinite treasures and gifts.

My years seem to have been packed with incident and tragedy, drama and amazement, travel and wonder. I look back at the people I’ve known and loved, and also to the people, who to my puzzlement and sadness have hated me and sabotaged me, and I know that each one has given me gifts of love and insight, and in the case of my enemies, strength and tolerance… I can’t say that I ’love them that hate’ me in Jesus’s words, but I try to see the point of their presence in my life, and to let them go… forgiveness is not a word I use… I’d rather come to terms with the past and the sadness of knowing that others are hostile, and then release them from my life.

What I have learned from the hostility and jealousy of those people who do actually hate me – and they are family rather than strangers-  is that their words reflect who they are, rather than telling me anything about myself.

One of the wonderful things about living the years that I have, is that Time has taught me so much about myself. In doing so, Time and opportunity have set me free to be the essence of who I really am, rather than the person who has been beset by the grief of bereavement, abandonment, divorce, poverty, pain and rejection. The insights that Time has allowed me to gather, have set me free from those profound and painful experiences to be joyful, fearless, and – I hope -loving…

And like Frances Partridge, I have this urge to write about the fleeting moments, even if no-one reads them… just writing the story of time past will be satisfying, fulfilling, and, I suspect, will give me fresh insights with which to live the rest of life, however long it may be. My intention is also to go forth on the next journey, singing and dancing, heading off joyfully into that other plane of existence which awaits us all.

Maybe writing my story will seem self-indulgent to some readers, but to those who stick around and find it interesting, I thank you in advance.

Most of us were touched by history in the 20th century, and many of our lives touched too. Sometimes, the connections are obvious, sometimes they remain hidden. And sometimes history, events or people have reached out from other centuries and other segments of time and beckoned for attention. The past is always with us – our own and the pasts of other people and other times. Consciousness of these peoples and these pasts enrich the experience of our present.

And, oh, the pleasure of acquaintance with personalities then and now, their quirks and foibles and wonderful, mystifying uniqueness. And there is too, the indefinable uniqueness of the places around the planet where human beings have settled and, in the taming of the place, evolved their own particular culture.

Skyscrapers and fast food chains may try to obliterate the personality of modern megalopolises, but rock and sand, climate and sea still exert their shaping influence. Rock and sea hem in the millions who cluster upon Hongkong, and mould their lives as they push and punch for space, while among the mountains and islands, volcanoes and lakes of New Zealand, people have obliterated forests and swamps and become a pastoral people.

For a while I lived on the rock that is Hongkong, and among the mountains, lakes and plains that are New Zealand; I shared the hardships of survivors in dis-membered Germany and battered Britain, grew up in Malayan jungles and attended school set among tea plantations in the highlands.

The story that I write is like the story of us all, in that it’s my interpretation of the past, my remembrance and re-living and reworking of the segments of time  inherited from my forbears and family.

Begin at the beginning, commanded Alice, but, like most of us, my own stories only begin halfway though. Glints of sunlight and moments of beauty remain embedded in the dull, grey mass of unremembered early years. That pink dress with tiny tucks and frills, a blue balloon sailing away in the wind, the taste of a warm cherry pulled from a drooping branch, the honey scent of golden gorse flowers, these are my beginnings. But where did they lead and where am I still travelling?

Dorset in 1940 was a different world. It was my world. With no pylons or pollution, undefiled by progress, it still lay dreaming in that deep content described by Thomas Hardy. Once known as Summerlands, it seemed always to be summer in my two and three- year- old’s memory. Hardy’s description: ” The languid perfume of the summer fruits, the mists, the hay, the flowers, formed therein a vast pool of odour which at this hour seemed to make the animals, the very bees and butterflies drowsy…” was how it was for me.

The skies were clear and blue, and the bright sun blindingly gold. Dragonflies darting and dipping over the water seemed one moment emerald-green, the next, electric blue. Wisps of freshly- gathered hay lay in long horizontal strips high up on hawthorn hedges, where the heavily laden dray, hauled by a huge, patient cart horse had swayed and creaked down the narrow lane past our home in the dusk. The scent of honeysuckle and the taste of pink and yellow cherries warmed by the sun still transports me back to those times.

My twenty-three -year- old mother had fled the Blitz and was living in great discomfort in a tiny farm cottage. It had no electricity, which was not unusual then, and she walked regularly to the village shop to replenish the oil for the lamps she used at night. I dragged along holding the handle of the pushchair while my baby sister sat in it. We passed the grey stone manor, scene of Tess of the D’Urberville’s honeymoon, and plodded over the ancient Elizabethan bridge to a shop before the level crossing. The dark little shop had fly papers hanging in it with dying flies buzzing. Their misery appalled me.

Sometimes, I lay on my stomach and pushed my head between the struts of  the small bridge nearby to watch the currents of the stream. Other times I stood on tiptoes high enough to peer over the  lichen-encrusted stone of the big bridge over the river, and gazed into the shiny water flowing below, and at the sharp emerald- green of the long strands of water-weed forever rippling with the current. If I forgot time, I discovered that my mother seemed miles away with the push-chair, and ran in panic to catch up.

The only thing which shattered the silence of those quiet days, was the terrible tanks which ground ear-splittingly along the road from the nearby military camp. Once, as we crossed the grey bridge over the Frome, a column of tanks caught us halfway across. We sheltered in one of the mossy alcoves for pedestrians trapped in former ages by farm carts, horses and carriages. The caterpillar tracks, which seemed to smash into fragments the very air we breathed, were higher than my ears. Their noise felt like hearing the sound of hell. No-one told me this was the sound of war

At two I had few words, but I understood what the adults were saying, and they often puzzled me. The biggest puzzle of all was when they gathered in a little knot of excitement, and looked up to those clear, blue skies, saying: ” There’s another dog-fight”. Hard though I squinted up into the cloudless blue sky, I could see no dogs, only  tiny white crosses, and white puffs following the crosses, diving across the sky. Now I know this was the Battle of Britain.

There was a framed photograph of me on the kitchen wall. Thick dark hair cut straight across my forehead, dark eyes, my neck and shoulders fading away. I looked at it often, wondering when my arms and the rest of me grew. And there were other memories too, like snapshots in colour, with no knowledge of what happened before or after.

Pulling on my Wellingtons and staggering outside, very proud to have managed it un- aided, and the pain at the burst of laughter when the adults saw the boots were on the wrong feet. The grass snake in the puddle. Putting my arms round a huge, hairy, grey and white dog called Mollie. The perfect happiness of the day I was big enough to fit the blue, pink and yellow flowered sun-suit, when the big children from the farm let me join them, and we ran up a hill where sunshine streamed between the trunks of pine trees in golden columns of light.

These older girls taught me their country games, dances and songs, some harking back to the eighteenth century: ‘Poor Jennie is a-weeping on a fine summer’s day’, a haunting tune that has stayed with me all my life, and: ‘I sent a letter to my love and on the way, I dropped it. One of you has picked it up and put it in your pocket…’

These are some of the fleeting moments that reach back to that past more than seventy- seven years ago … ‘Time, like an ever-rolling stream, Bears all its sons away, They fly forgotten, as a dream Dies at the opening day.’

To be continued

Food for threadbare gourmets

After all that rich Christmas food we needed something to re-set our digestive juices ! I craved curry, wanted something quick and easy, and also wanted to use up scraps. I only had half an onion, plenty of mushrooms, the green top of a leek, and tomatoes. Giving the chopped onion a quick zap in the microwave, I added it to the frying pan with olive oil,  sliced mushrooms, the leek chopped very finely, and a couple of chopped tomatoes.

When they were soft, feeling lazy, I stirred in a generous teaspoon of prepared garlic from a jar, a teasp of ginger from a jar, a good sprinkling of ground cumin, coriander and even more of turmeric to taste, plus a teasp of mild curry powder for good measure. When the spices had cooked for a few minutes in the oil, I added water, and let the mix boil … after tasting, I added a generous dollop –  a heaped tablespoon – of ginger marmalade to take the sharpness off the curry and a good squirt of tomato paste from a tube. After letting all this gently simmer, I added some cream before serving, but another time would try yogurt.

We ate it with dahl – lentils – and a hard- boiled egg each. I couldn’t be bothered to cook rice as well, but the lentils soaked the curry up instead. This quick simple economical vegetarian curry was even better when it had mellowed the next day, when we had it again…

Food for thought

The dedicated life is the life worth living. You must give with your whole heart.

Annie Dillard – American writer and mystic

 

 

 

 

 

 

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