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World on Fire

South Vietnamese troops battling the Viet Cong in Saigon during TET offensive

A life- another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

My husband’s affairs – in every sense of the word – meant that he and his intended had stumbled into a mine field. When Candida, as I’ll call her, told her naval husband of her plans, he hit the roof. He had no intention of parting with his elegant sweet-natured wife. The thing began to take on diplomatic proportions, and the General and the local naval boss now got involved, and Candida and husband were posted hastily back to England to avoid further scandal.

This meant that my husband was storming tactlessly and angrily around the place, and the padre came to see this cold, unloving wife who had driven her handsome, charming husband out of his unloving home. There was probably more than a grain of truth in this by now, as I certainly didn’t love him any more!

It was that tense turbulent year of 1968 when the world seemed on the edge of drama month after month. After North Korea captured the US ship Pueblo, imprisoning and torturing all eighty- five of her crew at the end of January, the ripples of the surprise Viet Cong Tet offensive in Saigon then reached us. Friends from the office were holidaying in Saigon, and were caught up in that murderous mayhem which continued all through February.

When Martin Luther King was shot in April, I hurried up to see Pat Hangen to somehow try to comfort her. When Robert Kennedy was shot in June, it seemed unbelievable. I shall never forget the silent shock in the newspaper office, before I rushed up to see Pat again…it seemed a devastating thing to be American at this time…

This was also the time of the Prague Spring when another mid European country tried to throw off the Russian yoke. And now in August, we listened with anguish and watched television as the Russian tanks rolled into Prague to crush freedom, as they had done into Hungary nearly nine years before.

We were in the middle of a very destructive typhoon, and in spite of the wooden shutters over the windows, the towels laid along the window sills and carefully led into bowls, were soaking wet. I went from window to window wringing out wet towels and feeling intimidated by the storm while I watched the Czechs being intimidated by the tanks. My heart was wrung for Anton Dubjek as my hands wrung my wet towels!

A few weeks later, I went to the doctor who gave me some pills to check the constant nausea I’d been feeling, and taking one straight away, I only just managed to drive home. Tottering into bed, I woke to consciousness in the evening, having slipped into a coma with pills that had apparently knocked out my liver. The next day the doctor rang and said he was sending an ambulance round straight away – my tests had come back – and I had hepatitis with secondary infections of glandular fever and jaundice.

The children went to play school in the mornings, and before this happened, I’d just organised a gentle, friendly, eighteen-year-old school leaver out from England to come every afternoon to read to the children and play with them. I was worried that their vocabularies might stagnate with just their loving Chinese amah to talk to, and I hoped now that my husband would stay with them in the evenings.

In hospital in Kowloon, I lay in my room overlooking the harbour, and watched the glittering water sparkling in the magical light of the sun at the change of the season. I also put myself together and found my inner strength again. My doctor had given me a book of D.H. Lawrence’s poems, and ‘The Song of the man who has come through’ became a sort of prayer and affirmation.

Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!

A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.

If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!

If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!

If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed

By the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the chaos of the world….

And his other words… ‘It is not easy to fall out of the hands of the living God…”

The Red Cross trolley with library books came round every day, and along with the biographies and books on travel and exploration I gobbled up, there were some Elizabeth Goudge. ‘The Dean’s Watch’, about the power of love, shifted me on from my little local world into a larger perception of all that is, and I was ready after five weeks to go back and transform my little world.

I wrote to my step-grandfather who was still writing to me, and asked him if he could loan me five hundred pounds to get started, but he replied rather pompously that he would have no hand in breaking up a family with young children. (Many years later, when an old man, he wrote to say he had a guilty, nagging feeling that he had let me down over something, and I spared him and wrote to say he had always been a loving friend)

Meanwhile my husband, who was still marking time over his enforced separation from his intended, every now and then suggested that we have another go with our marriage. Not convinced that leopards change their spots I told him that I would be gone in a month, after Christmas, and his response was that he would smash me mentally and physically before then.

Still feeling frail and ill I managed to find a flat for us. It was always hard to compete with Americans who had large housing allowances and lots of money compared to the rest of us. But I drove round Repulse Bay, hoping to find ‘flat to let’ signs. By a miracle I found one hanging outside twelve -foot high, brightly painted gates, with painted peacocks embossed on them, the mansion behind hidden by high walls. It had been built by a Chinese millionaire for his family to come and live with him, but they had refused.

When he showed me the flat, and told me the price, I said I couldn’t afford it. So he said, what can you afford? And when I told him, he said I could have it for a year. I lived for that first year of independence beneath the splendour of chandeliers, with an elegant panelled walnut entrance hall and an amazing, huge, pink marble en-suite bathroom.

Back home, my husband came to me in tears. His bank was threatening to foreclose on his debts, and this would mean being cashiered by the army, and no financial help at all from him for the children. I wrote him a cheque for half my savings and feeling sorry for his humiliation said he didn’t need to write an IOU as he offered, but that I would trust him. I never saw the money again.

I persuaded my husband to ring England and tell his parents what was happening,  and the first response of my father-in-law was to ask if his son had got good legal advice. Yes, he’d been to see an old school friend who was a lawyer. As I listened, I felt a cold hand over my heart. No concern for me, it was going to be a power struggle aided by the law and family. I felt truly alone.

I thought I’d better get some legal advice too. But when I went to see the army legal services, my husband had been there first, so they would have no truck with me. It was the same at the navy and the RAF. All the free legal services were closed to me. My husband had been to see them all, and this debarred them from giving me advice, they each insisted.

The establishment had closed ranks. In those days male chauvinism was alive and well, and it felt as though all the men had ganged up on me. The army lawyer then sent me a letter telling me I was no longer allowed to set foot in the garrison. Being an army daughter, a serving officer and an army wife was a part of my heritage, and I was devastated by what felt like a gratuitous insult.

The result of these snubs was that I was driven to find expensive, civilian legal advice. I contacted a friendly solicitor who I’d met at a party. He felt there was some urgency when I rang him, so that Sunday I spent at his stylish flat, curled up in an elegant orange Arne Jacobson ‘Egg’ chair, dictating my divorce petition to him.

It was a cold winter’s day, and still feeling fragile a couple of weeks out of hospital, his warm, cosy flat in the Mid-levels seemed like a safe haven away from the stress of my own home. As I dictated, my eyes wandered over stacks of beautiful fabric -covered boxes on the bookshelves. They housed his collection of precious snuff bottles, but as a philistine, I thought then the boxes were prettier than the bottles.

He rang a few days later. There was an alarming hitch. It seemed that no woman had ever divorced her husband in Hongkong before – this was 1968 – and there were no legal precedents. He was at a standstill but would try a few other avenues. He came up with something from Indian and Colonial law. It was possible for an Englishwoman in India to get a divorce in that country if she had been resident there for at least three years.

Peter said he would try to get me a divorce quoting this Indian precedent. The element of uncertainty was unnerving. By the date of the hearing my husband had followed his intended wife back to England, so it was a very empty court I attended. I had already left the army quarters, packing all my belongings into the Red Cross ambulance the doctor lent me. I realised as I looked back that nearly every other army wife was standing on her veranda watching the astonishing sight of another wife leaving her husband under their very eyes.

Before the divorce Peter told me the judge was homosexual. I didn’t know how this would affect the outcome in which the custody of the children was at stake. I dressed very carefully in a demure, white dress with a hem at knee level, in this year of mini skirts. When the case began, the judge questioned the validity of it, and Peter provided him with the Indian and Colonial volumes.

I sat in suspense while the judge pored over the pages, and finally agreed the case could go ahead. Called into the witness box, for some routine questions, to my horror I could feel tears coming. I had left my handkerchief in my handbag on my seat, so had to sniff through my answers. The tears were pouring down my cheeks by the time I returned to my seat. And the white dress was wasted, the judge didn’t even look in my direction.

On the way home in my battered Morris Minor convertible – all I could afford after I’d given my husband half my savings – it broke down and ran out of control down the hill to Repulse Bay. Apparently, the rust which held the chassis together had finally weakened, and there was no connection between the steering and the wheels.

It took thirteen monthly instalments to pay the huge bill to patch it up. The floor in the back seat had rusted away, so I tucked cardboard over the holes, and the children would complain their feet were getting wet when it rained. I always had to drive over the Peak in wet weather, as low-lying Wanchai would have flooded it.

I discovered quite by chance that some of my rich American friends thought I’d chosen this broken-down form of transport as part of my English eccentricity. It never crossed their minds that the South China Morning Post paid women so badly that I earned two thirds what a cub reporter earned. Another subtle local distinction was that people recruited from overseas for their jobs earned far more than impecunious “locally employed”.

The first months were tough. The doctors hadn’t told me I would be depressed for six months after my illness, so I didn’t realise until my six- monthly check-up that the fatigue and depression I was felt was normal. Instead, when I thought longingly of walking into the sea and never coming back, it was only the thought of the children that had kept me going. I was so run down that my teeth packed up and I racked up big dentist bills, while my husband’s American bank – one of the many he had swapped around – wanted me to pay his debts.

I worried that I couldn’t afford my son’s play school anymore, and I worried when my husband’s small cheque didn’t arrive, which spelt disaster on my tiny salary. I kept a pocket diary which I filled in every day at the office. No words, just two colours – red for good red-letter days, blue for bad blue days… at first the blue days far outnumbered the red.

I had copied two quotations into it – one from William the Silent: ‘There is no need of hope in order to undertake, or of success in order to persevere’… and the other from Clement of Alexandria: ‘We may not be taken up and transported to our journey’s end, but must travel thither on foot, traversing the whole distance of the narrow way…’ I read these rather grim exhortations regularly to inspire me to ‘just get on with it!’

And with all the struggle, I would gloat to myself that I was an independent woman now. I had two beautiful children, a home through my own efforts, a car, and a job I enjoyed. I knew that life could only get better. And, of course, it did. The worst was behind me.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

When I make one of our favourites, feta cheese and courgette fritters, I usually serve them with chilli jelly, salad and hot rolls. But I really love beetroot relish with them too and decided to stop buying it from the supermarket and make my own.

Place in a pot three peeled and roughly grated beetroots, one finely chopped onion – red if you have it – a cup of brown sugar, half a cup of cider vinegar or balsamic, quarter of a cup of water, a table spoon of olive oil, half a teasp of ground cumin, salt and black pepper. Heat gently for thirty minutes or until the liquid has been absorbed. If it dries up, add enough water to keep it moist and juicy. Place in a jar or bowl and refrigerate until ready to use.

Food for thought

 A certain percentage of those who have survived near-death experiences speak of a common insight which afforded a glimpse of life’s basic lesson plan. We are all here for a single purpose: to grow in wisdom and to learn to love better.

We can do this through losing as well as through winning, by having and by not having, by succeeding or by failing. All we need to do is to show up open-hearted for class. So fulfilling life’s purpose may depend more on how we play than what we are dealt…  Kitchen Table Wisdom by Rachel Naomi Remen

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Life and loss, love and death

Image result for south  bay hk

Deepwater Bay

Another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to writing my normal blogs

Ensconced in Deepwater Bay, life now took on the tone and routines that shaped our lives until the final disintegration of our marriage. My husband would go off to University every day and return home in time for dinner. After dinner he would take off back to Victoria – to the officers mess, he would say, to see Henry or Richard or whoever… I assumed for some time that he was bonding with the other people on his course, in spite of having spent all day with them.

Later he would say there was a party or a get together. And later still, when the whole saga had ended, friends would tell me that I had no idea of how many girl- friends there had been – “You didn’t know the half of it”….

I tried everything, and one night I remember in despair taking the car before he did and driving round to beautiful South Bay, an empty semi- circle of still water, ringed with flame trees, and where I watched the flaming sunset. The beauty was so moving, I felt I must share it with him, and drove back home, and persuaded him to come back to South Bay with me. He did, and then took the car and drove off- somewhat delayed – to whatever rendezvous he had in town.

Two things helped me through this time. I had found a wonderful amah, Ah Ping, a shy eighteen- year- old girl with very little English, and a lovely nature. She adored the children, and we had a little competition at bath-time over which of us was going to enjoy bathing the youngest, still very much a baby. She learned to speak English with my accent and tone, so that people thought it was me when she answered the phone. She helped to maintain the happy atmosphere for the children and they  loved her.

The other thing that sustained me, was my first foray into writing. I studied the woman’s pages of the South China Morning Post, the main English speaking newspaper in Hong Kong, and realised that the one element missing was cookery.

Cheekily I offered my services to the woman’s editor, a childless and fashionable young woman, Jane, the same age as me. Feeling plain and boring by now, I somehow managed to keep my end up with her at my interview and got the go ahead to write a cookery column on Fridays. I had no qualifications for this of course, apart from an abiding love of food, but I managed to make it sound as though I knew what I was talking about.

After six weeks, I was offered another bite of the cherry, when Jane suggested I write a story to fill Thursday’s page – she wanted something about bringing up children, and now she had as it were, a captive mother, I filled the bill. This was meat and drink to me and writing about children and parenting became one of my areas of expertise and was something I only stopped doing fifty years later at seventy- seven.

My husband’s social life was costing us, and debts had begun to pile up, so the money I now earned was important to me, as I knew I could always feed the children with it. I could also afford to visit the famous alleys, and find cheap lengths of gorgeous fabric, which I sewed by hand, making glamorous new summer dresses. I had new friends, and was making a life, but I still felt miserable and longed to be loved. I tried to fill the emptiness by playing Bob Dylan and the Beatles and they left me feeling even more alone and bereft. I also started having blinding migraines which took five days out of life every time they struck.

One evening my husband came home and said we’d been invited to a party at the naval base on the commander’s ship. I put on a red dress from my pre-marriage party days and set off, feeling like I always did these days, in-adequate and plain.

At the gangplank we were warmly greeted by a man with piercing blue eyes and golden hair. His wife was a ravishing blonde ex-ballet dancer with huge brown eyes, beautiful features, and a pile of hair pinned up,   so long that when it fell to her ankles when we were dancing, she looked like Rapunzel. Her chic little black dress showed off her ballet dancer’s figure to perfection. I was in awe of both these glamorous people.

Later we went back to their house where we all sat down at the dining table for an impromptu dinner. Our host sat me at his right hand and talked to me as though I was actually interesting. I felt such gratitude for his kindness. We continued to meet at parties as our friends were old childhood friends of them both. At each occasion he sought me out, raising his glass to me across many crowded rooms before making his way through the throng to us.

And then one night as he handed me out of his car after a party, he squeezed my hand. The next party we went to was at a French officer’s house. He and his wife were a gentle couple, and we played silly childish games, since we were a mixture of French and English couples with few of us speaking each other’s language, so conversation was difficult.

During one game if a player won some sort of forfeit, they placed a cushion in front of the person of their choice and knelt and gave them a kiss. My naval friend placed his cushion in front of me when it was his turn, and I said to myself if he does it again, I will know that he meant it. And he did. The next two months were a dizzy time of love and longing set against the back drop of riots and curfews and water rationing and our move into army quarters in Repulse Bay, where we became neighbours. Neither of us ever said a word but were drawn to each other at every meeting.

At the same time, I was fascinated by his ravishing wife, and couldn’t believe that he could care for me, when he had such a spell-binding partner, who I knew he’d loved since they were children. I could see that she was scatter-brained and sometimes strangely childish, but still found her beauty entrancing.

The night before they left to return to England we all met for one last time. As we danced he told me he loved me. I said I thought it might have been a sailor’s girl in every port, and he reproached me. He told me that his fey, feckless wife was a millstone round his neck, and that we both had “to make a go of it”.

They flew out the next day, and I went into a sort of collapse. I literally couldn’t get out of bed for a few weeks, and somehow struggled on into the grey winter like a zombie. The migraines ambushed me more and more often. I felt too fragile and depressed to write to my father.

My husband now asked me not to leave him alone with the husband of a woman I’d thought was my best friend because he feared being beaten up. The husband had discovered that my husband and his wife had been having an affair. I felt shocked and betrayed by my friend, but then, I found my husband was having another affair with another colleague’s wife, and I stopped caring.

After Christmas Jane, the woman’s editor offered me a fulltime job, and I began in January. A few weeks later, I woke up one morning, looked out at the sea, watched the fishing boats streaming back after their night’s fishing, and felt different. It was though a huge grey cloud had lifted from me, and my first thought was – now I can write to my father. Because I was still trying to juggle my job and the children, and learning the ropes at work, I put it off until I had a moment to sit down and enjoy communicating again.

A few nights later I dreamt that one of my father’s good friends who was in Hong Kong, was sitting on my bed with its beautiful blue and green patterned Venetian bedspread, with his arms around me, comforting me. When I awoke in the morning I inwardly castigated myself that I was so desperate that I was dreaming about my father’s friends!

That night, as I slept, I heard the phone go, and my husband answer it. I heard him say: “Thank you, I’ll tell her.” When he walked into the bedroom I sat up in bed, and cried out, “Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”

“Your father’s dead.” he said. The War Office had rung.

I immediately rang my father’s friend Ian, and unwittingly destroyed a dinner party. Ian came straight round, and as he sat on the bed and put his arms around me, my dream came back to me.

It felt as though the bedrock of my life had been ripped from beneath me. It seemed like the worst thing that had ever happened to me, even though I knew it happened to everyone.  But he was only fifty- four. My siblings who were scattered around the globe on various rocks – Gibraltar, St Helena, Aden gathered, but I was too far away. No-one contacted me. I never heard from my stepmother again for nearly forty years when she was in her late eighties. My father-in-law wrote and told me about my father’s funeral, and now I was alone.

I had leant Pat Hangen my copy of Towers of Trebizond in which was a poem I felt I needed. As soon as day broke after the phone call, I rang and asked her to return it. The poem was like a lifeline back to sanity. Every time I was overwhelmed with grief, I read it again and it brought me back to a place where I could still stand being alive. It was John Davies of Hereford’s dirge for his friend Thomas Morley:

Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend.

My dearest friend is dead and laid in grave.

In grave he rests until the world shall end.

The world shall end as end all things must have.

All things must have an end that nature wrought.

Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend.

The rhythm of these lines helped somehow, while the words of the gurus did not. “Participate joyfully in the sorrows of life.” Joseph Campbell once said, and: ‘we can choose to live in joy’. But had he ever  experienced the sorrows of life, in his long, happy,  childless relationship (with none of the agonies and ecstasies of parenthood) and his sheltered affluent university life-style? Words like his seemed to mock.

In my world, enduring the sorrows of life, it took weeks to move beyond the pain of grief and despair, and my husband lost patience with me. Then both children developed bad cases of measles. It took the spots ten days to come out for my son, and with his high temperature I feared he’d develop encephalitis. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. My daughter developed bronchitis and was very sick at the end of her bout of measles.

One night, as I lay by her side in bed anxiously watching her, my husband came to the bed room door. I’d been so pre-occupied with the children’s sickness, that I hadn’t really noticed that his party round had been even more frenetic that usual. He stood in the doorway, looking dreamy and dazed, and said to me, “I’ve just met the woman I’m going to marry.”

I replied coldly, “Well, you’re still married to me.” But inside, I felt a surge of relief. We must be on the home straight! We were. I even stopped having my debilitating migraines. I began saving my earnings for when I would need then.

Now too, my job became really interesting. I began interviewing all the interesting people who came to Hong King. They included charming, handsome Dr Seuss, a man of goodness and integrity. Writer Iris Murdoch was a challenge, and I wish I could do it again now that I know more about life. But then I was so naive that I wondered how such a plain woman could have found a husband! John Bailey, the husband who later betrayed her when she had Altzheimers, was vague and donnish when I met him. Robert Helpman, the great ballet dancer was a joy, gentle, charming, and kind.

Barbara Cartland, so exuberant and full of life at seventy- four (honey and vitamins she told me) took me to her bosom- literally – when I mentioned one of my closest friends who was her son’s best friend. When Raine, Lady Dartmouth, her daughter, came to Hong Kong a few months later, she was just as friendly and charming, seeking me out with all eyes on her as she walked across the dining room to greet me while I was lunching in the Eagles Nest of the Hilton. She was radiantly beautiful, tall and elegant, with big china blue eyes and peaches and cream complexion like the Queen’s. It was hard to see her as the wicked stepmother of Princess Diana in the years that followed.

I don’t think I was very good at writing interviews, but I did uncover a talent for writing columns which blossomed when I moved to another country. I also discovered that journalism could be a powerful force for good when a woman rang me one day and asked to see me at my home. She gave me what she said was a false name.

I opened the front door to a tall, fair-haired sweet-faced woman with great poise and dignity. She wanted to talk to me about setting up Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon, the family support group in Hong Kong. I ended up attending meetings of both, and then writing several stories. Both groups took off, and today, the woman, who became one of my closest friends, tells me there are at least seventeen groups now flourishing in the territory, three of them for Europeans.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 I’m still on my what to do with lettuce and greens jag and have adapted this recipe for lettuce soup from my old copy of the one and only Mrs Beaton. I use four spring onions if I have them and soften them with a couple of thinly sliced onions, a chopped garlic clove and a finely chopped carrot. When this is soft I pour in three cups of heated chicken stock. The lettuce then goes in, torn into small pieces, and a cup and a half of frozen peas, salt and pepper. Cook for eight to ten minutes and remove from heat while the soup is still bright green. Whizz in the blender until smooth. One of my oldest friends combs the hedgerows in the Forest of Dean for edible wild plants, and she would add leaves like nettles to this soup. I am not so brave…

Food for thought

You start dying slowly
If you do not change your life when you are not satisfied with your job, or with your love,
If you do not risk what is safe for the uncertain,
If you do not go after a dream,
If you do not allow yourself,
At least once in your lifetime,
To run away from sensible advice… by poet Pablo Neruda

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Sunset over Hong Kong

Image result for images of old hong kong harbourHong Kong in the mid-sixties

A life – another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

Before we left England, we enjoyed two quintessential English events. The in -laws gave us their tickets for the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, one of the glamorous fixtures on the London calendar fifty years ago. I watched with interest the people and clothes, as well as the pictures. Standing next to a woman dressed in exquisite soft pale blue suede with matching knee length suede boots, I recognised the heiress Tessa Kennedy, famous for her elopement at eighteen with painter Dominic Elwes.

They had fled to Havana to escape the English courts and marry there, before eventually fleeing Cuba on a raft during the anarchy of Castro’s era… I watched the President of the Academy reverently ushering through the galleries the fascinating Dorelia, Augustus John’s mistress, then partner for over fifty years. She was tall and stately, her gypsy beauty undimmed, her bright draperies fluttering as she moved. The famous and the fashionable thronged the beautiful galleries.

Earlier in June I had sat in Whitehall- dressed in a big navy straw hat, coral linen dress, and navy court shoes, feeling deliciously elegant- this time in seats obtained by my father, for us to watch the Queen’s Birthday Parade close up. She rode side saddle into the great parade square, escorted by the Royal Dukes on horseback, all gold braid, chain mail, spurs, bearskins and majesty. The Guards and the Household Cavalry trotted and wheeled and manoeuvred in their timeless rituals as the colours were trooped, and we sat spellbound on a perfect summer’s day, the glorious trees of the parks all around framing the pageantry and splendour.

We returned to old Thomas Twining’s two hundred and forty-three year old house down by the Thames, also surrounded by ancient trees, where squirrels scampered along the top of the high Georgian garden walls. A hundred yards away, a small boat was moored. This was an ancient ferry crossing, and a boat had waited there since medieval times, ready to ferry passengers across the river to Ham Common and the beautiful country on the other side of the river.

History and historic houses, parks and woodland dotted the banks along this stretch of the river. I loved it all. And had I known then that I was leaving this blessed plot, this beloved place, ‘this precious stone set in a silver sea’ – this England – forever, I would have been rent with grief.

But then, simply looking forward to our next adventure I set blithely off. Expecting the gentle energy and rich tropical environment of Malaya, I had a terrible shock when we landed in Hong Kong. The army had laid on a bus to take us from Kaitak airport and deposit us at our hotel and as I looked out of the windows in horror at the traffic, black exhaust smoke, pollution and shoddy blocks of flats, there just below our window, was a truck filled with bloody red animal carcasses covered in flies. This nauseating sight accompanied us the whole way to Kowloon and coloured forever my feelings about this extraordinary place.

Our hotel turned out to be plum in the middle of the thriving and noisy red- light district of Kowloon. The girls whose beauty had bowled me over at first with their elegant cheongsams, beautifully coiffed chignons of shining black hair and immaculate make -up turned out to be prostitutes plying what looked like a prosperous trade with the legions of cropped headed American servicemen on R and R – Rest and Recreation – from Vietnam.

Nights were made hideous with the sound of rows and roistering in the bedroom next door, as well as the traffic outside, and honking of horns and shouts of hawkers who never seemed to go to bed. But after various vicissitudes, we eventually found a beautiful flat in Deepwater Bay, across the harbour on Hong Kong Island. It was ideal, as all the other flats were occupied with young families like us, and there was never any lack of playmates.

We had arrived in the blistering heat of summer, but in September something magic happened. The humidity dropped, and the air became crystal, clear and shimmering and the light glittered on the blue and silver sea. The atmosphere changed too and became charged with a beautiful and haunting nostalgia.

After that first year, I waited for the day, and every year the same magic suddenly returned to the strident city, and transmuted for a few glorious weeks, the raucous harshness of the place and people. Some people never noticed the poetry which suddenly flooded those days and nights. Those who did, likened it to the light of the Greek islands. It lasted for a month to six weeks, before ebbing away into the grey mistiness of winter.

The rest of the time for me, Hong Kong was a place to be endured. Yet now, since China has grasped the prize, I sometimes think back with nostalgia to those years spent on that amazing rock, ten miles by five miles, where then, nearly four million people hawked and spat and bargained and gambled and drank and starved and jockeyed for the biggest profits and built the highest high rises.

In the mid-sixties, with Vietnam and flower power both at their zenith, Hong Kong was both a place of rest and recreation for American troops slogging it out in Vietnam, and a place too, where some draft dodgers quietly eked out an alternative life style.

There were also the  grand, old-established British families of several generations who had built up the great English Hongs, or business houses, there were colonies of newsmen, especially from most of the top American news agencies, from CBS and NBC, Life and Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times – to name a few – there were birds of flight from New Zealand and Australia, working their way across to Europe for their OE – overseas experience- refugees from South Africa and apartheid, army and navy contingents, the Foreign Office and government clusters, the Indian community, Portuguese- Chinese immigrants from Macau, the rich Chinese and the endless army of poor Chinese, most of whom had fled China in different waves, ever since the Communist takeover.

This was also the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Just before coming to Hong Kong, I’d read the history of the Boxer Rebellion. It struck me then, even in the mid-twentieth century, that China was a good place to stay away from. At a dinner party one night soon after we had arrived, a handful of us farewelled a lowly foreign office official, named Ray Whitney.

After learning Chinese like my husband and all those dining with us, he’d left the army to join the foreign office and was now posted to what was still known as Peking. Sitting next to Ray after dinner I naively suggested to him that it was a dangerous posting with the Cultural Revolution in full swing, and shades of the Boxer Rebellion. He swung his whole person round to look at me. “My dear young lady”, he exclaimed, ” I regard this as an adventure”.

A few days later, we read the reports of him and his colleague being beaten up on Shanghai Station and smeared with glue. When they reached the British Embassy in Peking, it became their prison. The diplomats there were beaten up while hordes of Chinese Red Guards chanted Kill! Kill! and part of the embassy was set on fire. Back inside, they were besieged, and no-one could leave for nearly eighteen months.

Requests would reach Hong Kong for Italian cook books and the latest novels with which to while away the captivity of an embassy of bored, beleaguered, idle diplomats. (Ray Whitney, a lovely man, had a distinguished career after this, knighted for his very real services, becoming an MP and a member of many influential offices and commissions.)

Reports were also reaching us of cruel mock trials of intellectuals and artists and other Enemies of the People. Old men were made to parade around in dunce’s caps at their trial and sentencing. It was a grotesque gesture by Chinese hooligans who had no idea of the history of Duns Scotus’s medieval hat. The Red Guards had now transformed the symbol for a dunce into a ritual for sadistic humiliation.

This was the year too of the Star Ferry Riots, when the government tried to raise the price of the Star Ferry tickets by one cent, the first rise since 1947. Those riots were just over when we arrived, and the next riots were soon to begin, fuelled by the unrest in China.

A curfew was laid upon the island. Everyone had to be in their homes by some ridiculously early hour like six o clock. I climbed into our turquoise Volkswagon and drove round from Deepwater Bay to a look-out on the Peak. I was the only disobedient soul outside and as an army wife, I felt slightly guilty. I looked down to Victoria, the town centre. Nothing moved.

Trams sat abandoned on the sides of the roads, cars were left empty and parked. The streets were silent and empty. The throngs of shoppers, the hurrying workers, the hawkers and Hakka women in their rattan hats trimmed with black, the street vendors, the prostitutes and the students, the toddlers who lived and played on the pavements, the school children crouched on the side-walk doing their homework in the shelter of a sewing machine or street stall, the rick-shaw men, and the porters in white vests and black shorts and wooden clogs, the business men in grey suits, the camera-laden tourists – all had disappeared.

It was eerie and frightening in the same decade as films of nuclear war and lethal clouds of radio-active dust destroying all life, leaving cities full of dead but still standing. That was how Hongkong looked that night, silent and empty. The silence was almost more un-nerving than the emptiness.

The unrest went underground, and suddenly erupted one hot summer’s afternoon. Perhaps as karma for disobeying the curfew, I found myself in the middle of the next round of dissent. I was driving up Garden Road with the children to see Pat Hangen. She and her children lived on the Peak with her husband Welles, NBC Bureau chief, always away in Vietnam and who later disappeared forever in Cambodia.

I had only recently learned to drive, and uphill starts were still a challenge, though there was only one junction where I might be called upon to use them, I thought. But, as I passed the Helena May Hostel for Young Women, I came on a mass of white-clothed Chinese youths, all shouting and waving Mao’s Little Red Books in the air.

I slowed down, and another group converged from another direction. I tried to edge out of the crowd, but more and more columns kept coming from all directions. I slowed right down to walking pace, and realised I was in the middle of a hostile, fanatical mob, and if I made one mistake, like running back or edging forward too quickly, it would be more than dangerous for me and the two now very silent toddlers in the back.

I wound all the windows up so that air came in through only a crack at the top, and the heat became stifling.   Sweat ran down my face and spine in rivers, soaking my thin cotton dress. The children’s hair was plastered to their heads with sweat and I could smell the musty smell of their damp scalps, and something else – our fear.

There were thousands and thousands of young men shouting in unison and waving their red books in the air. As they moved at slow walking pace, I was obliged to shift the car at the same speed, crunching the hand brake on and off, as we slowly revved up the steep incline. Then, suddenly, I could see where it all ended. They were all advancing on the Governor’s Residence off to our right. Thankfully I left the Governor to it, and made our way to Pat, shaking all over from the tension.

And after that, things took on another momentum, with bombs exploding all over the place, and many areas placed out of bounds to Europeans. The Bank of China in the middle of the city began a propaganda war of noise, blaring out raucous, Chinese communist marching songs and party chants. The deafening noise was augmented by the childish response of the authorities, who used the tower of the Hilton Hotel across the road from the bank, to play decadent, western rock and roll to drown out the Chinese music.

It seemed to go on all summer. What also went on all summer, was the Chinese water torture. Hongkong and the New Territories relied on water supplies from China, and some years, flexing her muscles, and also to annoy, China restricted the water. This revolutionary year was no different and for the four long hot months of sweltering summer, we were severely rationed in order to survive.

There was no water for three days out of four. On the fourth day, water was piped for four hours in the evening, during which time we had the opportunity to fill baths, buckets and every available jug, bottle and kettle with water to last for the next four days. We all also seized the opportunity to shower or bath during this precious four hours.

Unfortunately, our flat was at the top of a twelve-storey building, and the pressure didn’t build up until the water had been on for two hours, so we only had the precious stuff for two hours every four days.

And we were the lucky ones. The Chinese living down in Wanchai and among slums built on the sides of hills from boxes and cardboard, queued for several hundred yards by the intermittent taps. They had to manage with buckets and containers small enough to carry back to their dwelling places. These were the people who had fled China after the Communist takeover and it was their teenage children who were now demonstrating in Hong Kong, mimicking the excesses of the Red Guards under Mao.

The much-maligned Colonial rule in Hong Kong prevented the same victimisation and destruction here. Yet at the same time that these rebellious Hong Kong teenagers were enjoying their Maoist demonstrations, dissidents were risking their lives to escape from China, in the continual exodus which had never ceased since the Nationalists under Mao Tse Tung had driven out the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai Check back in 1949. In 1949 alone, the population of Hong Kong had  doubled.

Since then, the borders had been closed, and now most people slipped across the border in darkness or swam across, and were picked up in the New Territories. These refugees arrived undernourished and dressed in patched rags, testimony to the poverty that reigned in China under Mao. The society they now joined was a heartless one. Many once penniless Chinese had made good in the years since they too had arrived destitute.

They had obliterated their peasant past and educated their children at western schools and universities, penetrating established, rich society. Others had arrived from places like Shanghai with all their riches and built lordly homes on the upper slopes of the great rock which meant safety to them all. But they were indifferent to the plight of the newest arrivals. There were no charitable organisations to help them or the struggling poor. Philanthropy was not a characteristic of Hong Kong society.

A hundred and fifty years before, in 1812, the city of London with a population of a million, had free hospitals, alms houses, dispensaries and nearly three hundred free schools educating, feeding and clothing nearly twenty thousand children. Arthur Bryant, the historian who gathered these facts, wrote that ‘London could claim her real palaces were hospitals. Wren’s Greenwich and Chelsea; Gibb’s St Bartholomew’s with its Hogarth staircase; St Thomas’s with its four great quadrangles treating and discharging 11,000 patients a year; the new “Bethlem” and St Luke’s for the insane, with their enormous classical facades, were buildings that a king might have been proud to inhabit.”’

By contrast there were only two hospitals provided by the government here in Hong Kong for three and a half million people – huge rabbit warrens – not palaces. There were no facilities for the handicapped or insane at all. In a population of four million, there would have been a minimum of 200,000 mentally and physically handicapped, judging by the normal ratio of such figures per head of population. No-one knew where they were, though there were stories of deranged figures chained to verandas.

There were stories of goodness too. Two English teachers received a divine message to go to Hong Kong where a task lay before them. Obediently they packed up and came. Once in the colony, they had no idea what the task might be. They ‘waited on the Lord,’ and seemed to feel they should buy an old house in the New Territories. This they did, still having no idea why.

After a few weeks, they found a baby girl on the doorstep one morning. They took her in. And then the unwanted babies kept coming. They knew their task now, but they had no money. So they prayed for what they needed. And whenever they needed money or assistance, they prayed and it arrived. They called this place the Home of Loving Faithfulness.

The Dean of Hong Kong Cathedral and his wife were very pleased to have a new house built for them among the old trees just behind the Cathedral. It was handy, central, and of course, unlike most vicarages, new and efficient. In order to build this house, a destitute old lady who squatted beneath the trees, and scavenged enough food to cook small meals on a tiny stove, had had to be moved on.

But she always came back. The dean, a good man, and his wife, equally good, then organised a real home in a new block for the old lady, and there she was taken. By the following week she had found her way back, squatting where she had always squatted, which was now the veranda of the brand-new house. There she stayed, her acrid cooking smells drifting through the windows into the house. This was her home, so we have no right to force her to leave, said these worthy representatives of a sometimes-maligned church. So she stayed.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 I love the idea of thrifty ways to avoid wasting food. I found a recipe the other day in one of my scrapbooks for using up the remains of salad leaves to make a good pesto. Whatever the leaves, and someone else tells me she’s used radish leaves – put them in a blender with olive oil, garlic, and grated walnuts, salt and pepper. Whizz enough to make a textured mix – I use it over pasta, or with poached salmon. Amounts of olive oil etc depend on how much wilting lettuce you have in the fridge !!! I grate the nuts in my parmesan cheese grater.

 Food for thought

 This poem by Wendell Berry soothes my soul and brings me peace:

I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

 

 

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The end of the golden weather

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a6/The_ruined_Church_of_St_James%2C_Lancaut_-_geograph.org.uk_-_202262.jpg

A life – another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

So we sailed away from the golden weather and un-ending sun-shine, back to a world that had changed since we had sailed east three years before. The journey reflected this. We couldn’t leave the ship at beautiful Colombo, there were strikes on the docks, and it was deemed unsafe for us to land. At Aden we were allowed to land but not to roam the town. We were whisked straight up to the RAF Officers club where we enjoyed a swim in the blazing heat and sun.

Sailing through the desert on the Suez Canal in late February meant scarlet dawns and blazing sunsets seen across the desert sands in sparkling clear air. These were the last moments of golden weather and beauty. At a cold rainy Port Said the presence of two menacing uniformed Egyptian guards at the top of the gangway deterred us all from leaving the boat…we were warned there was no guarantee we would get our passports back or be able to re-board. This was just a few months before the nationalisation by ‘The Dancing Major, ‘as President Nasser was known then. I realised then that Pax Brittanica had passed.

We landed in a cold misty dawn amid the grim grey docks of Liverpool, and by the time we reached London on the boat train from the docks, I was so cold and so depressed that England seemed very unwelcoming. I still had some months to go before taking my last A  levels, so I was enrolled in the University Entrance Department of the Regent Street Polytechnic, my scholarship still opening doors for me.

My first day there felt so bleak and intimidating, that by lunch-time I had fled, and walking blindly down Park Lane, head down dodging the icy rain, sought refuge in Apsley House, The Iron Duke Wellington’s London pad where it was warm. When it was time to go back home, I caught the tube, and didn’t divulge where I’d spent the time. Days passed, the only heating in the whole building seemed to be the miniscule coal fire in the common room, which I could never get near.

I shivered uncontrollably with cold, prompting one student who arrived every day in a chauffeur driven Daimler to chide me kindly and ask why I didn’t wear warmer clothes. I was wearing all I had – a short-sleeved white muslin blouse, thin white cardigan and grey flannel skirt donated by my step-grandmother with whom we were staying. I was already at my new educational establishment when the rest of the family had taken themselves off to Simpsons in Piccadilly to get kitted out with warm clothes.

I felt totally intimidated by my fellow students –  including the sophisticated girl delivered every day in the Daimler. I noticed a beautiful Indian youth from a princely family, a woman in her thirties who attended classes as a way of passing the time instead of working, an exquisitely mannered and groomed Jewish girl I became friendly with, some arrogant young chaps from Eton, a blonde elegant girl famous for being a general’s daughter, and a plain young man, the inheritor of a shoe – making empire who took me out in his green MG until I couldn’t bear being with him just for the sake of the MG.

There were others too, like the charming Polish girl who told me of starving in the ruins of bombed out Berlin as they fled west from Poland to escape the Soviet soldiers; and another Polish girl -this one fair-haired, blue eyed, and Jewish -who had endured unspeakable things.

These hard-up refugee girls somehow knew their way around a sort of student underground, knowing where to buy good second- hand clothes before the term vintage had been invented, getting their hair beautifully styled by trainee hairdressers needing models, having their teeth done by trainee dentists needing someone to practise on and getting free tickets to concerts and student activities.

Eventually I became part of a foursome who stuck together, Vera, a Hungarian Jewish refugee with a cloud of fair curls, blue eyes, and an anxious manner, Joanna, a calm gentle girl who lived in Hampstead, and Winifred, slim, elegant and as naïve as me. Joanna had been at school with Jackie Collins, before the budding actress had been expelled at fifteen and Joanna regaled us with stories of both Jackie and her older sister, Joan Collins. My history teacher was Mary Quant’s father, while one of the rich girls was the daughter of the man at the head of the cool new TV station, ITV.

All these hints of a larger world made us feel as though we lived on the fringes of glamour and excitement. Bill Haley’s Rock around the Clock shocked our elders, when teenagers – a term just invented – began dancing in the cinema aisles to this song. We would gather to dance this new rage of rock and roll too, at the central hall in the Regent Street Headquarters, though I was still too shy to dance and watched from a balcony with Winifred.

When we broke up for the Easter holidays, I caught the tube to Acton, where I had heard there were lots of factories. I walked down a long road lined with them and seeing a sign saying ‘vacancies’ went in and signed on. When I got back to my step-grandmother’s where we were staying, every one reacted as though I had said I was joining a brothel, but I ignored the disapproval and went anyway.

I lasted the week until Easter, packing thousands of yellow plastic lemons that would hold lemon juice. I became so bored that I ended up scribbling verses from Omar Khayyam inside the cardboard boxes, in the hope that someone, somewhere, would read them… sort of message in a bottle sent from a factory…

With the five pounds so hardly earned I took myself off to Marks and Spensers and bought a blue and white pinstriped blouse, a grey flannel pleated skirt and a cardigan. Back at Regent Street, I ended up making other good friends as well as my close foursome, and having lots of fun, skipping classes to see Ingmar Bergman’s incomprehensible ‘The Seventh Seal’, an exquisite Russian version of Twelfth Night, great lover Rudolf Valentino in The Sheik and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and lots of goodies at the Baker Street Classic. The wondrous Wallace Collection was just around the corner, and museums and art galleries all within walking distance.

One day Joanna said her parents were away, and invited the four of us to their rambling house in Hampstead to try out a oujia board. With great enthusiasm and much ignorance, the four of us gathered around a table, and wrote the letters of the alphabet on separate squares of paper which we arranged in a circle. In the centre we placed a glass. We then each put a finger on the glass and sat in silence.

When the glass began to move, we each laughingly accused one another of pushing it with our finger, but then it seemed to gather a momentum all its own. In silent disbelief we watched it glide from letter to letter, and then hurried to write down each letter so we could work out the words and the sentences. As the séance progressed we all became more and more un-easy. The messages we were getting seemed rather malevolent, telling us that people we knew were untrustworthy, another was entangled with the wrong person, and other personal details.

Feeling we were playing with danger we broke off the session, made ourselves some coffee and dispersed across London to our various homes. I was so frightened by what felt like a mischievous and unpredictable energy that I didn’t dare switch off the light in my bedroom back at my step-grandmother’s flat that night. Nor did I switch it off for some weeks until the memory of the nastiness had faded.

As for my education – I never caught up with my Latin – though I  enjoyed the lessons, as the Anglican church in North Audley Street was just through the classroom wall, and the organist was always either rehearsing or playing for a wedding – mostly the wonderful Trumpet Voluntary – a small compensation for my struggles with the subjunctive and ‘The Aeniad’.

My lovely history tutor, Mr Quant – didn’t teach my history period. I begged him to just let me swot myself and recommend some reading as I couldn’t face starting somewhere else, and we hobbled towards the finishing line together, and somehow I passed. Thus ended my schooldays, but not my education.

I now joined my parents in Monmouthshire, where they were living in a house belonging to friends who were overseas. Here I walked in a field golden with buttercups, edged with high hawthorn hedges. Here I felt again the sweetness and gentleness and ancientness of the English countryside that I had hungered for in the tropical heat when the only flowers apart from frangipani, were yellow cannas, purple bougainvillea and the scarlet flame tree.

I was eighteen and this was how I had remembered the scenes of my childhood… shades of Sir Walter Scott’s:

Breathes there the man with soul so dead

Who never to himself hath said,

This is my own, my native land…

We were living in a house lent to us by friends, far out in green hills and deep valleys. The name of the house revealed that it was built on the site of an Iron Age fort. Offa’s Dyke was reputed to end in our garden, just above a huge S-bend in the River Wye. Offa lived from 757 to 796 and invented the penny. His dyke separated Mercia from Wales and stretched for ninety-eight miles from north to south. Whatever the truth of the rumour, behind the un-used stables there was a large mound stretching into the back garden from the fields and woods beyond and covered in hazel and hawthorn.

The house was part Queen Anne and part Georgian, with a charming regency style wrought iron porch stretching along the garden side of the house. It looked over a lawn, where two ancient lime trees hummed with bees in summer, and which seemed like silent sentinels in the wintry mist which hovered among their thick tangle of branches in  winter. Beyond the lawn was a ha-ha, but not deep enough to keep out the piebald pony who led a small herd of young steers through the gate-posts, up the drive, avoiding the ha-ha and across the lawn while every-one else was at church parade one morning.

By the time I’d rushed downstairs to shoo them away, they had meandered on into the little sheltered garden with a sundial, and pushed their way through the scraggy hedge which gave onto a lane, leaving only their deep hoof-prints.

The lane led down to a farm house, but before I got there, I would branch off through the woods with my puppy and take the winding path which meandered down to the river. Just below the tree-line, and in the grass which bordered the riverside was the ruin of the tiny sixth century church of St James, only its outer walls still standing, empty windows framing the sky, ivy climbing part of the grey stone walls, and tangled brambles guarding the foundations. In spring the woods were filled with bluebells and windflowers.

The house was faded and gentle, dreaming in the silence of the country-side, no neighbours within sight. My bedroom had pretty flowered wallpaper, pale green painted thirties furniture and long windows looking over the garden. It had a soft sweet atmosphere. The other place that I loved, and where I spent solitary afternoons engrossed in a book was the so-called ballroom. Not a grand one, its claim to fame being the ceiling which had been copied from some famous library in a country house.

Apart from the large and somewhat threadbare faded old carpet on the polished floor, the only other furniture in the room was a big drab-green brocade-covered Knole sofa, and a large gilt mirror hanging over the carved fireplace. That was all I needed. On sunny days I sat on the cushioned window seat, on other days I curled up on the sofa. When I shut the door the silence and the solitude were absolute.

So I dreamed around the place, head in the clouds or in a book, picking flowers, adopting two wild kittens as well as the puppy, my dreaminess driving my parents mad. I didn’t know anyone, but once a boy nearby invited me to a hunt ball at Tintern, and the rather erudite and elegant bachelor who lived on the corner further down, in a house filled with books and good furniture invited us to a pre-ball party. I thought he was much more interesting than my escort, and found the ball very dull, spoiled with too many in Malaya.

It was around now that both the Suez crisis blew up, and the Hungarian revolution was crushed by Soviet tanks. The Suez crisis didn’t bother me much… there had always been tanks and guns rumbling somewhere throughout my life, though this felt nearer, having so recently traversed that contested strip of territory. It seemed to get tangled up in the drama of the Hungarian tragedy. I cried my heart out when I heard on the radio the last words that came out of Budapest from Radio Rakoczi on October 23:

“This is Hungary calling! The last remaining station! … For the sake of God and freedom, help Hungary.” Then a horrifying silence.  It felt unbearable that the west that I was part of, wouldn’t lift a finger to help the Hungarians.

I mooned around, not sure what to do with my life. I wanted to go to university but didn’t know how to go about it, and also shrank from more difficult years of trying to mask my scanty wardrobe and lack of funds. I’d never been able to save as my stepmother used to ask me if I had any money when she sent me shopping, and so my Christmas and birthday postal orders had dwindled away on potatoes and bacon and sausages.

I tried to repeat my factory stint by signing up to work in a local brush factory, and also tried to apply for a job interview at the local hotel for a receptionist. Both these schemes were vetoed by my father, who said he didn’t want to see his daughter behind the hotel desk when he fetched up there for a drink with his friends. So I continued to drift, until the day my father came home and said he’d made an appointment for me with the recruiting officer in Cardiff.

Which was how I ended up joining the army. I left home in the dark at six thirty, one cold January morning.  My parents put me on the bus to the station with my suitcase, gave me three pounds, and I left my childhood behind.

( the picture is St James Church with acknowledgements to Mercurius Politicus)

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

To cheer up lunch, which was just bread and cheese and chutney, I decided to knock up a courgette and cheese loaf to make life more interesting!

So easy… two cups of SR flour, a cup of grated cheese, a cup of  grated courgette, quarter of a cup of oil, an egg, salt, a teaspoon of mild curry powder and a cup and a half – or more if needed – of milk. Just mix them altogether, and tip into a greased loaf tin. Cook for forty minutes or so in a hot oven, and there you have it… serve warm or cold, it’s just as moist the second day, and particularly delicious with soft blue cream cheese. I’ve also served it with cold meats…

Food for thought

 There are three forms of culture: worldly culture, the mere acquisition of information; religious culture, following rules; elite culture, self development.  Revelation of the Mystery by Sufi master Al-Hujwiri

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A heroine, an eccentric, a Muslim attack and a paradise

Image result for la times muslim sultans torchlight birthday parade

A life – another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

The last holidays were spent in Kota Bahru, where my father had been exiled after another stoush with another commanding officer. In his game of snakes and ladders with his career, he was heading towards the top of the ladder again, when he landed on a snake, picked an unnecessary and unreasonable point of principle with the colonel, and slithered down the board again, missing out on a medal, ending up with a mere mention in dispatches and a posting as far away from the regiment as possible.

Kota Bahru, up on the east coast near what was then the Siamese border, was idyllic, with long, unspoiled beaches edged with casuarina trees, and gaily -painted fishermen’s boats lined up beneath them. The men wore piratical- looking turbans in bright oranges and reds and blues, and the women’s clothes were richly- coloured unlike the drab, brown batiks of the sarongs on the rest of the Malayan peninsula. Thanks to a mixed Siamese/ Malay heritage, the women here were famed for their beauty, combining the voluptuousness of the Malay with the sculptured bone structure of what are known as Thais now.

We lived in a pink stucco house near the mouth of the river, some way out of the town, and not far from the airfield which had seen hard fighting when the Japanese landed. The house looked across at a peaceful little kampong beneath the trees. Great clumps of purple water hyacinth often drifted slowly down river, and we watched the bronzed, brown bodies of children jumping and playing in the water. Early in the morning, or at dusk, the girls would stand and discreetly bathe beneath their sarongs, and their grandfather sat and fished all day, a still, meditative figure across the water.

The house still bore the machine gun holes from twelve years before when the Japanese had made their sudden appearance from the sea at dawn in December 1941. The hub of the community we were now part of, was the Kelantan Club, where Europeans gathered to meet each other. They were a mix of the local judge and policemen, diplomats and doctors, nurses and rubber planters, and representatives of various historic far eastern trading houses.

The rubber planters had mostly lived here since before the war, and were in many ways, thirtyish Somerset Maugham characters. They had all been interned together at Changi Camp in Singapore during the war, and those who had survived were a close -knit band of brothers.

There was Ted Kurtain, famous for swearing, whose waterfall and rock pool was a favourite picnic spot for the favoured few, including us. His closest friend was a dignified quiet man, Hugh Jackson, who had had a Thai mistress for nineteen years before the Japanese came. She waited for him during the war years he spent in Changi, and they were re-united when he came back to his rubber plantation.

Deaf to the misgivings of his well- connected English family, he sent his mistress to a Swiss finishing school, and then married her. On visits to his spacious bungalow, filled with books and English china and antiques, she entertained us as though it was an English country house party. She was beautiful, dignified, her grooming immaculate, and exquisitely dressed.

Alf, one of the two eccentric local police chiefs, had a head as bald as Yul Brynner’s, and underneath his intimidating exterior was a gentle, kind and lonely man. When his mandatory leaves came around every three years, he took a boat to Aden where he disembarked and bought a flock of goats. These he would drive north up the Arabian Peninsula, using the goats as food and currency, and when he reached Port Said took a boat to Liverpool.

Here he would spend a fortnight with his sister before returning to his post in the East. The other police chief was a much younger Englishman who had converted to the Muslim faith and kept his distance from we alcoholic and godless infidels!

As well as the Kelantan Club, the other meeting place was the Palm Court Hotel, a complete contrast to the old wooden club house with its planter’s chairs and rattan furniture. Palm Court was all concrete and tiles and chrome, and run by Mammy, a giant White Russian lady in late middle age. She wore ankle length caftans before they had been invented, had frizzy, short hair and thick pebble spectacles. But behind her facade of jolliness, I noticed loneliness and sadness.

When writing a blog, I pieced together the remarkable story of this unusual woman. Luba Ruperti was a White Russian born in 1896. She fled with her parents from the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918 via Shanghai to the safety of British Singapore, after her sister had been killed by a revolutionary mob.

In those years before the war, Luba would have felt safe in this seemingly impregnable British colony. She married a Russian rotter, who bankrupted them both and left her. Then after their grim appearance in Kelantan, the Japanese reached Singapore, and in that mayhem of murder and bombings, killing of patients in hospital beds, raping of nurses, and killing of all Chinese, somehow Luba got to the dock and managed to board SS Kuala. It was overloaded with five hundred or so other women, children and babies, including a number of Australian and New Zealand nurses.

The next day the Japanese sank the ship, setting it on fire and mothers threw their children overboard trying to get them into the rafts below. As women and children struggled in the sea, wounded, bleeding, drowning, trying to hold onto rafts and floating debris, the Japanese machine-gunned them in the water.

Those who survived terrible thirst, hunger, horrendous wounds, madness and burning sun to make it to shore, were machine gunned in the water and as they staggered over rocks and up the beach into the shelter of the trees. They had reached Pom Pong Island which had no food, and only a tiny source of fresh water, after three hours in the sea. “My fat be blessed for that!” Luba told a reporter after the war.

A few days later the SS Tandjong Pinang arrived at Pom Pong Island from Sumatra to rescue the small band of between a hundred and a hundred and fifty survivors from the original five hundred. Hardly had they embarked than the Japanese were back, and sank this ship too. Luba was one of only handful of survivors of this second disaster.

The few the Japanese captured on shore ended up suffering and usually dying in the terrible conditions of internment. Luba got away, and somehow ended up in India, via Ceylon, where she made her living cooking for thousands of U.S. troops in Delhi, before returning to Singapore after the war.

While in India, in February 1943, Luba gave her great gift to all those who had died, suffered or survived. She had compiled a long list of the names of the people who had boarded the SS Kuala at Singapore and who had survived to board the SS Tandjong Pindang. In the chaos and panic during the bombing of the docks in Singapore as frantic passengers tried to board the ship, no records had been taken.

No-one knew who had boarded, escaped, drowned or survived. Families would never have known if their loved ones were still alive in some corner of the world. Luba must have started compiling her lists during their terrible ordeal on Pom Pong island, as there was no way otherwise that she could have known so comprehensively who was there.

It was an act not just of heroism in those hellish days, but of responsibility and altruism in conditions when it could very well have been everyone for himself. Her act of witnessing and recording rescued both the dead and the living from oblivion, telling their story – a story that no one else was able to share with the world for another three years when the war ended, when a pitifully small handful of survivors could then tell of their sufferings.

In an archival story I found a reference to her being back in Singapore by 1958, and by the mid-1960’s nearing seventy, she was: “utterly dependent for her living by making and selling exquisite dolls dressed in the costumes of old Russia, complete with tiny earrings, bracelets and rings on the dolly fingers,” according to quotes from a story in the Singapore Straits Times. The same archival entry comments that: “she appears at this stage of her life to have been still the exuberant woman who had lived through so much fear, chaos and loss without losing her innate spirit”.

This feisty open-hearted woman… who never seemed to be defeated by the perils and tragedies of her extraordinary odyssey from Czarist Russia to post- Colonial Malaya, via Shanghai, Singapore, Indonesia, India and back to Singapore, surviving death, abandonment and poverty, loneliness, bombings, torpedoed ships and dangerous journeys was the person most people thought was a joke.

But in spite of Mammy’s joyful welcome at the Palm Court, most people preferred the relaxed, slightly ramshackle atmosphere of the Kelantan Club. Everyone turned up for the weekly cinema show on Friday when an old black and white film was shown on an ancient and not very efficient projector.

On Saturday nights, we enjoyed Scottish dancing, and there was a full complement of balls to mark every possible occasion. At Christmas I was asked to paint two huge festive murals on the walls, with red-coated Father Christmas, reindeers, sleighs, snow and the rest.

The most enjoyable part of this creative endeavour was at lunchtime when all the chaps would drop by to chat and share a fresh lime with me… to be the only unmarried female under forty in a town crammed with young men was a fate worth enjoying! None of these nice young men ever crossed the line with a naive and ignorant seventeen- year -old schoolgirl and they treated me with respect and consideration.

By contrast, one evening we left our peaceful riverside to go into Kota Bahru and watch the colourful Sultan’s Birthday Torchlight procession. My small fair- haired brother sat on my father’s shoulders so he could see. When we’d finished watching we turned to go back to the car, and as we pushed our way through the tight throng of mostly Malay men I felt a slight ripple as though they were converging on us. With my brother high on my father’s shoulders acting as a beacon, they pressed up against us as we struggled along in single file, my father, I think, unaware of what was happening behind him. My stepmother clung to him and behind her, I clutched her hand tightly.

I became the focus of this angry hostile crowd. They had hands and knowing fingers so hard I felt I was being punched as they prodded, pinched and poked me, finding soft places that no-one had ever found before. I was terrified and humiliated at the same time. When we got to the car and out of the melee I was too shocked and shamed to mention this ordeal to my parents.

It was only fifty years later, yarning with my brother, that I talked for the first time of what had felt like a shocking and unprovoked attack by angry hostile Muslims… was it my sex, my race or my religion which provoked it – or all three?

One memorable day the British Resident invited us to join him and General Bourne to sail out to the deserted Perhentian Islands. Thousands of brilliantly coloured and richly patterned tiny tropical fish swirled through the clear turquoise waters, so clear that thirty feet deep looked like three. A solitary fisherman climbed a coconut palm for us to drink the ice- cold coconut milk in the heart of the great green globe. No other soul was there. It seemed like the most beautiful place on earth, untouched, unspoiled, a pristine, perfect paradise.

Yet now, it’s impossible to find a photo of the islands which doesn’t have hotels and boats and people and jumbled sand from footsteps on every silver beach. Shortly after this idyll, we returned to Penang and the Runnymede, which felt like home, before setting sail for England in a Blue Funnel ship, where we enjoyed utter luxury once more.

I look at old photos of that time and the memories return so vividly – my stepmother wearing a purple linen dress which looked wonderful with her black hair and pale skin, sitting in a rattan chair chatting to charming Tungku Abdul Rahman, the ‘father’ of Merdeka. They both held the inevitable cigarette between their fingers, he with his de rigueur glass of orange juice for a Muslim in the other hand, the orange juice fortified, my stepmother told me with a laugh, with a big slug of whisky.

There’s my father, hot, tired and unkempt, squatting on a beer box in the jungle stripped to the waist, about to eat his bread and cheese and drink his beer, the food he had dropped into the jungle instead of army rations… nearby butterflies hovered over the sweaty socks he’d just taken off, savouring the delicious pheromones.

And my small half- brother and I, me standing to attention in a new dress I was so thrilled with, at a parade on the padang at Kota Bahru, and he, sitting cross-legged at my feet, looking puzzled, not sure what he was supposed to be doing.

Penang is like most thriving eastern cities these days… as busy, crowded, built up and polluted as any western city – no longer the elegant peaceful place I once knew. Yet back then as we sailed away from Penang, and it faded into the misty blue distance my heart hurt so much that I couldn’t bear to say good-bye to all that beauty, and I promised myself I would return. But I never have.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

Re-cycling is one of my favourite hobbies, whether it’s re-cycling from the rubbish tip or leftovers from the fridge. In this case, I had a cup of leek and potato soup left over from the day before. Waste not, want not – I checked out a pea soup recipe, and found that leeks were one of the  ingredients.

I also had a big cup of steamed cauliflower in the fridge, so tipping it into the soup, I added a good gob of garlic from a jar, a couple of cups of good chicken stock, salt and pepper, and when hot, two cups of frozen peas. When the peas were cooked in a few minutes, I whizzed it all smooth in the stick blender, and hey presto, we enjoyed a delicious pea soup that took only five minutes or so to cook.

I love croutons that always cheer up a soup, but didn’t have any good sour dough bread for them, only soft white sliced sandwich bread bought for sandwiches. I simply cut a slice into four and fried the pieces in olive oil. Sprinkled with salt, they were better than croutons, crunchy and satisfying.

Food for thought

Nothing living should ever be treated with contempt. Whatever it is that lives, a man, a tree, or a bird, should be touched gently, because the time is short. Civilization is another word for respect for life…

Elizabeth Goudge , writer

 

 

 

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Guns and exams, ancient peoples and bandits

https://i1.wp.com/www.slimschoolmalaya.com/cliffphillipsphotos/convoywaits.jpg

A life – an0ther instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

The first eclipse I ever watched was at school in the Cameron Highlands in Malaya. School was on a plateau surrounded by tea plantations and hill farms, and we had a clear view. They were dangerous times, the hundred and twenty children who attended the school were transported from all over the Malayan Peninsula in the greatest secrecy so that ‘the bandits’ wouldn’t ambush us. ( ‘Bandits’ were Communist Chinese guerrilla/freedom fighters who wanted to take over the country). We never knew the date of the beginning of term or the beginning of the holidays until the last minute.

When I lived in a remote jungle station in the middle of Pahang, I travelled in a convoy especially convened for me. The army sat me in an open jeep (stupid in hindsight) with my officer escort, in the middle of a long convoy of armoured cars escorting me to Kuala Lumpur. Here I stayed the night, before joining everyone else on the school train to Ipoh. We were then taken to Tapah, the staging post at the foot of the Cameron Highlands, where we gathered from all over the country.

After lunch at Tapah we were all packed into what were known as ‘coffins’ for the forty- mile drive. The coffins were armoured boxes on wheels with a few narrow slits about a foot wide, which could be opened when it was supposed to be safe. There were low, narrow wooden benches to sit on, and a dozen of us would crouch on them, sweltering in the tropical heat, locked up in these metal cages with nothing to eat or drink. Between each coffin in the convoy was an armoured car, and overhead a plane patrolled back and forth, until one term it crashed, so the authorities decided that one danger outweighed the other and didn’t replace it.

Halfway up the 600 or so hairpin bends of the mountain road, the convoy stopped for us to crouch behind clumps of pampas grass on the side of the road to have a pee. Since we were ringed with soldiers with their rifles cocked, ready to spring into action when the bandits fell on us, I could never muster much enthusiasm for this so -called break. I was never sure that I would actually be in private for the occasion. We’d finally reach our destination after dark, having travelled for two days. When my family moved to Kota Bahru up on the East Coast, the journey took even longer, beginning with the flight to Kuaka Lumpur in an Auster light plane via Bangkok, where I caught a connecting flight.

The bandits had a more sinister effect on our lives than anyone realised. It was only after I left, that the authorities discovered that our cook, Mr Su, Mrs Su, his wife. Ah Yu his son, and his two minions Wong and How, were feeding the bandits our food. Every term we were weighed at the beginning and end, and I would always have lost half a stone. I nearly died of hunger, I felt so ravenous all the time. But the food we were given was inedible. I realise now that everything was mixed with water or oil, to stretch it, so that the bulk of the rations could be sent to the bandits who invisibly surrounded us m the deep jungle.

Some children managed on this diet, but those of us who were accustomed to good food couldn’t stomach what was served. Mr Su and his team were several times given an in-depth cooking course, and while the team of instructors were there, we feasted like kings. But as soon as they left, we were back to watered down baked beans, butter that tasted like lard, grey- black potatoes, thin watery jam and stale bread. I used to hang around the staff room after break and afternoon tea, in the hope that the teachers had left some of their dainty sandwiches. A quick dive in before Wong or How came to clear the table, and the raging hunger might be momentarily cheated. But not for long.

Every night a platoon of soldiers arrived to guard us, and the thud of their boots as they patrolled past our dormitories in the moonlight punctuated our sleep. In retrospect, our food guaranteed our safety much more effectively than their guns.

One of the few privileges of being a senior girl was that one could get permission to go for a run before breakfast. Our route went around the golf course overlooked by the Cameron Highlands Hotel. My best friend and I did this, not because we had the slightest interest in athletics, but because on our return we could ask for an extra piece of toast to keep us going till breakfast.

Early one morning while dawn was still breaking we were stopped in our tracks in the cold mist. From out of a thicket a single file of  very small people emerged from the trees, like no others we had ever seen. We were riveted to the ground with fear. We didn’t know whether if they saw us there, they would raise their blow-pipes and dispatch us with their poisoned darts. There were half a dozen lean, long-legged, warriors leading the tribe carrying their long blow-pipes, the women and stick-like old people following, bearing large loads, while the children kept up in the middle of the group.

They moved swiftly and silently, practically naked. Unlike the known indigenous Sakai tribes, this tiny handful of people were a much older race, the Senoi, a tribe of Orang Asli, and were long-limbed, delicately made, almost pygmy people. We had heard of them by repute, but they were rarely seen back then. Looking neither to right or left, they disappeared as quickly as they had appeared, and we were released from our spell of fear and amazement. And I think we forgot about them after we’d eaten our hot toast back at school.

Thanks to a wonderful music master, music was one of the passions that lightened our days, and we sang to Gilbert and Sullivan, listened with delight to Dvorak and Greig, marvelled over Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, swooned to Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, danced to Scottish reels, waltzed to popular songs and sang in the school choir. When the music master acquired a copy of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, conducted by Toscanini, we senior girls were invited to listen to the sacred record. It was a Sunday afternoon and we sat shyly and solemnly in the staff-room and were overwhelmed by it.

And when the music master found the art master thundering out the last movement on the piano in the assembly hall, a great feud erupted between them which lasted the whole term, the art master seeing no reason for not extemporising on the piano, and the music master condemning him for bowdlerising and cheapening Beethoven’s masterpiece. It seemed to matter terribly. Those who liked the art master were on his side. Those who didn’t like him were for the music master.

This was in 1954. Music was hard to come by then, and so far more significant than it is today. And we made our own. Some nights during the holidays we sat outside our house by the river at Kota Bahru, when a group of chaps used to come, and all the generations sat and sang to someone’s flute – songs like ‘The foggy, foggy dew’, ‘On top of Old Smoky’. Lots of Burl Ives.

We didn’t sing well, we just enjoyed singing. Where we sat under the stars by the river, the Japanese had passed in their motor boats at dawn, twelve years before, on the morning they invaded Malaya at the same time that they bombed Pearl Harbour. The line of bullet holes from their machine guns was still there in the pink stucco walls, testimony to their random brutality.

Guns also punctuated my exams. Artillery had been positioned on a ridge across the valley from school, and when the guns aimed into the jungle, the thunder of their firing was followed by the terrible crashing of trees, cries of birds and endless echoes around the mountains. It was a continuous and thunderous bombardment which totally destroyed concentration or peace of mind. This went on for weeks.

The firing began again during my A level exams, which lasted for  three hours. When the overwhelming noise began, the head master came quietly into the exam room where I scribbled alone with an invigilator, the only one taking English A levels. He took my paper, noted the time when the firing began, and came back to log the time when the thunder of the barrage ceased several hours later. I always hoped these unusual entries would cause the examiners to deal leniently with me… and maybe they did as I was pleased with my marks.

Living in the remote places that we did, my parents didn’t often manage to get up to the Cameron Highlands Hotel, though they, like everyone else so soon after the war, were tickled by the address book, with its historic page dated ‘January 1942’ and inscribed with what felt like an arrogant flourish: “Nippon”.

There were no further entries until 1945, when British troops re-took the hotel, and triumphantly defaced the next page with the scrawl -” Nip-off”.

My father had now transferred to a Malayan regiment, which like the Gurkhas, was staffed by English officers and NCO’s. So we left Penang and all moved to a clearing in the jungle in Pahang, which was called Mentekab. It’s a thriving town now, but then, it was just lines of barracks, officers and sergeants messes and families quarters.

My father quickly achieved the highest “kill” of bandits, being extremely good at jungle warfare, in spite of having spent the war in tanks. One day, we were shopping at the local Chinese grocery store in Temerloh, Tek Seng’s, the only source of food in the middle of the Pahang jungle. My father was spending the normal six- week spell in the jungle, so we were surprised when he arrived at speed, and with company – a Chinese man in tattered clothes.

He practically lifted the man into the back of our car and told my mother to run back into the shop, as quickly as possible and get a box of oranges. When she returned, he peeled one, and fed segments to the wilting man in the back seat, put the rest of the oranges on the seat beside him, telling him with hand signals to eat them, and then drove off. I had to follow in the army vehicle.

The wilting man turned out to be a Chinese bandit, and the policy of starving bandits out of the jungle was working so well in this particular area, that this one was half dead and suffering from starvation and scurvy. Hence the oranges. With hospital treatment he eventually recovered and went to a rehabilitation camp. Here he recanted his Communist beliefs and then joined the army.  Seven years later, my father was in his office at Whitehall in London, when a Chinese soldier asked to see him. It was the bandit. He was now serving in the Royal Signals in Gibraltar and had got leave to come and present my father with a wrist watch as a thank you for saving his life. We wondered later how he had managed to track down my father.

Gallivanta sent me the link to this photo of the convoys up to school with the coffins and armoured cars

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 Invited for lunch with a group of neighbours, I volunteered to bring pudding. Carrying food is always a challenge, so I decided on a tart which couldn’t spill or spoil. So pear and almond tart it was. This is my quick fix on it short cuts and all. I used some quality bought short crust pastry for a base. Spread a layer of plum jam on this cooked base. Drain a tin of pears, and when about to use, pat them as dry as possible with kitchen paper, and slice horizontally, keeping the shape of each pear half.

Cream 6 ounces of butter and seven good tablespoons of sugar together, then stir in an egg. When smooth, add a teaspoon each of vanilla and almond essence, then an ounce of SR flour, and eight ounces of ground almonds. Mix well and spoon this mixture into the pastry case, and gently arrange the pear halves in the almond mixture – don’t press them down or they disappear during baking. Bake for 55 minutes in a moderate oven or until cooked. Good hot, cold, or warm with cream.

Food for thought

 “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.” Lao Tzu, reputed author of the Tao Te Ching

 

 

 

 

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Sailing to the fabled East

EMPIRE TROOPER leaving harbour

A life – another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

Southampton 1953. The first night on board ship (shown above) my father took me for a walk around the deck while my stepmother settled my brother and our luggage into our cabin. It was the first time we had gone for a walk together since that memorable and devastating day in London when we first joined him and my stepmother. He had mellowed in the six years since then. There was a joyous bustle and excitement everywhere we walked in these last few hours before we sailed.

Since I was fourteen I was allowed to eat with the adults, which meant attending the formal dinner every night. Though this was a troopship, the elaborate routines and rituals of an ocean-going luxury liner were still maintained. It had been a German ship during the thirties and when captured during the war, had been transformed into the military ship in which we were now travelling, though still with its sweeping curved staircases and ornate dining room, and a waiter who still processed around the corridors banging a soft gong to announce each meal. So every evening, we ate a full Edwardian dinner, course after course, in full evening dress.

My father had deliberately packed his uniforms, which were now buried in the ship’s hold, so he couldn’t dress up in full regimentals. This had earned him a very black mark from the captain, to which he was impervious. All around us, other officers sweltered and swaggered in mess kit, short jackets laden with gold braid, jingling spurs and tight overalls – as their long tight trousers fitting over Wellington boots were called – while my father relaxed in bow tie and dinner jacket.

With my stepmother wearing her long black silk evening dress he apologised to the others at the dining table for looking so funereal, and as he made his witty remarks, I watched the two poised and elegant young naval officers on our table fall under the spell of his debonair charm, like all his young regimental subalterns. These two young men were exquisitely mannered, especially the blonde blue-eyed one with an indefinable air of distinction, who, my father told me, came from a distinguished aristocratic family.

As the voyage progressed, and we sat with the same diners at every meal and got to know each other, both these young naval officers told me what a wonderful man my father was. By then, I was old enough to see something of what they meant. He was handsome and distinguished in his own right, witty and wicked, with a mischievous sense of humour, gay and rather gentle, and exuded integrity and intelligence. Above all, he shared a zest for life, a joy in people, and a laughing disdain for authority.

This was partly why we were on our way to Malaya, where he was going to help form the Federation Regiment. His career as a gunnery expert was soaring when he had complained to the Army Council about the lack of proper treatment for accidentally injured soldiers during a huge army exercise. Whistleblowers always suffer for their intransigence, so this had meant the end of his career. He left the cavalry and became an infantryman, an unusual career move!

He had had a long hard war, and didn’t get away from France until two weeks after Dunkirk.  His tank regiment had been ordered to support the French on the line of the Somme, but the French never turned up to be supported, and his outnumbered, outgunned regiment was in considerable peril from the swiftly advancing German army. They managed to retreat to Cherbourg, where they destroyed all their tanks and equipment, and were packed onto a cargo ship for the dangerous cross channel journey through the night.

Two thousand men were crammed on to the deck, hungry, exhausted and relieved. He said he never forgot the women of Plymouth in the WVS, waiting for them on the docks at dawn with hot tea. He was then sent to Africa, to serve in his tank regiment in the Eighth Army, and then the First Army. He was one of the famous Desert Rats. The names of his battles echoed through my childhood: Tobruk, Sidi Bahrani and Sidi Rezegh, Bardia and Benghazi, Salerno and Cassino…

I knew where he was, because he sent little cream cards with Pharaohs on them, sitting sideways with their arms bent, with long, black hair and black, almond shaped eyes. He also sent little wicker baskets of almond nuts, perhaps when he was in Tunisia. And later, when he was in Italy, he wrote letters and drew pictures of himself drinking wine at the top of steep hills. But then, after my mother disappeared, his letters stopped coming. As though the heart had gone out of him.

So I sat at table now, in the big dining room, and watched as he charmed our dining companions, who included a childless couple, he, very conscious of his grand regiment; she, still living on her memories of being ‘presented’ at court before the war, when, she told me, as a debutante she wore her long white dress with a train and two white feathers in her hair, to make her curtsey to the King and Queen at the evening courts.

I wore a smart new summer dress my stepmother had bought for these occasions, but since the rest of my wardrobe was in tatters, and my only shoes were a pair of gym shoes, she lent me a pair of flat red Russell and Bromley shoes to complete my outfit.

With a life-time of war-time rations behind me, I couldn’t believe my eyes as course after course of delicious food was served, not just at dinner, but at lunch and breakfast, and even afternoon tea. Few adults slumbering in their cabins, bothered with afternoon tea, but to me it was unmissable, with cake stands laden with mille-feuilles, meringues, slices of Battenberg cake, Florentines, petit fours and other delicacies I’d never even seen before. (The waiter named each exotic cake for me)

After the first week or so of this high life, I was approached by a group of young army lieutenants. They had asked my father first if they could include me in a play they were writing. I discovered that they called me Angelina, and I now enjoyed a court of charming young men who spoiled me and made me the heroine of a play they wrote and produced for the entertainment of the other passengers, so I enjoyed a brief moment of glory.

But I was immune to their considerable attractions, as the night my father had walked me round the deck, I had fallen hopelessly and secretly in love with an unknown naval officer with blue eyes, standing with a group of friends having a drink in the bar. I saw him through the open window as we passed. I never knew his name or anything about him, and craned to see him in the dining room, and hoped to see him in the lounge, and never passed him on the deck.

At Port Said we visited the places my parents knew for old times sake, so I never saw him there. At Aden he was nowhere to be seen, and at Columbo, as we sat and had tea at Mt Lavinia, the famed hotel by the sea, I saw he was playing tennis, and my heart turned over. When we disembarked at Singapore, and he sailed on to Hongkong, I cried for days. I must have driven my parents mad, and no doubt they put it down to hormones, since they didn’t know why I was such an emotional wreck!

Sailing into Singapore in the flaming red dawn was a little like approaching Venice from the sea, and this old port was just as fascinating back then before the skyscrapers arose, and the old streets and dwellings had been razed. It was still a maze of narrow alleys, where long bamboo poles festooned with drying clothes protruded from windows high above pedestrians and trishaws, and below them, shops crammed with intriguing foods, clothes and rugs, jewellery and carvings lined the thronged pavements.

We stayed in a hotel just around the corner from the fabled Raffles Hotel. Our hotel was built around a courtyard where tall palms grew and fragrant frangipani scented the air. In the warm, dark tropical night, I looked down from our bedroom windows to where knots of people squatted around the flames of tiny stoves on the pavement and cooked their evening meal… the scents of their spicy food, and the sound of their voices drifted up through the night, and they became a part of the palimpsest of this strange and enchanting Eastern city.

It was still recovering from the years of deprivation, persecution, and near starvation under the brutal occupation by the Japanese during the war, but then I only saw the beauty and fascination of another culture.

For a few weeks we explored the city, visited old friends in the army quarters and every day took a taxi to the beautiful Botanic Gardens in the cooler late afternoon where we fed the monkeys pea-nuts. Then we took the long train journey the length of Malaya, trundling endlessly through palms and past muddy rivers until we reached Penang, another romantic island, approached by ferry this time. We arrived in this beautiful place to another great hotel, the Runnymede, a rambling white stucco building on the edge of the sea, originally built by that splendid Georgian Englishman, Sir Stamford Raffles, as a home for his first wife and family in 1805.

He’s remembered as the founder of Singapore, but he also abolished slavery wherever he was posted, established law and order and free trade, religious freedoms and free schools. He spoke Malay and wrote a history of Java and was one of the founders of the London Zoo, and London Zoological society. Typically, he was frowned on by the English government, which refused him a pension, and fined him twenty- two thousand pounds when he retired because his land reforms meant he hadn’t made enough profit from the territories he administered! It was a risky business and didn’t pay to be a just and creative colonial official!

The Runnymede Hotel had been extended enormously since Raffles’ time and had evolved into one of the legendary hotels of the East, like Raffles Hotel in Singapore, and the Peninsula in Hongkong. Life for the wives in Malaya before independence – or ‘Merdeka’- as it was known, had a thirties flavour. Very little had changed since before the war in this tiny enclosed world. We spent eighteen months living in this luxury hotel on the edge of the sea which had been commandeered by the army to house officer families.

So while the husbands were scattered all over the Malayan peninsula, banging off at Chinese bandits or Communist freedom fighters – depending on your point of view – in steaming, leech-infested swamp and jungle, their wives and children lived lives of bored luxury in Penang. I, of course was one of these fortunate children, and since now my step-mother’s friends had amahs to look after their children my child- amusing duties were redundant.

I was at an awkward age -fourteen and a half – too young to really be included, but useful when they were short of one for canasta. Too young to learn bridge, or to be invited to join them and their friends for a pimms or gin and tonic before dinner, but too old to eat with the children. So I watched them and tried to understand the shifting friendships and social hierarchies.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 We’re having roast chicken on Easter Sunday, so I decided to make  bread sauce, which I haven’t bothered with for years. It’s supposed to be served with turkey or partridge, but I think it’s just as good with chicken. Stick eight cloves in a peeled onion,and put it in a small saucepan with 500mls of milk, two bay leaves and two springs of thyme. Slowly bring to the boil, and then leave to infuse for at least thirty minutes.

Strain the milk, discard the herbs and the onion. Stir into the milk a 100gms of fresh white breadcrumbs (I use sour dough) and slowly bring to the boil stirring all the time to make a thick smooth sauce. I make this the day before. On the day I will add 100 ml of cream, salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. It can be thinned with more cream or left nice and thick which is how I like it.

Food for thought

 According to my parents, I was supposed to have been a nice, churchgoing Swiss housewife. Instead I ended up an opinionated psychiatrist, author and lecturer in the American Southwest, who communicates with spirits from a world that I believe is far more loving and glorious than our own.

Elizabeth Kubler Ross. Pioneer in near death studies

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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