The East End of London during the Bitz. The woman on the right lived in the bombed building opposite. Their food was cooked on a campfire in the basement.
Victors or victims? These thoughts came to me when I chanced upon these words in a book I’d written some time ago.
“I’ve been re-reading Robert Massie’s ‘Dreadnought’ very slowly, trying to take in and remember all the detail. As I worked my way through all the biographical stuff on the various late Victorian and Edwardian English statesmen of the period, I began to notice a rather surprising pattern – which was not repeated in the biographies of their German counterparts.
“It began with an account of the great Lord Salisbury’s childhood, and how he survived his mother’s death before he was ten and the indifference and hostility of his father who thought he was hopeless. Then there was his brilliant and equally successful nephew, Arthur Balfour, who also became prime minister like his uncle. Balfour’s father died when he was seven, and his highly-strung mother Blanche struggled to bring up a large family alone.
“ Herbert Asquith, another prime minister of that time, grew up in an impoverished solo parent home after his father died when he was eight, of a twisted intestine after a village cricket match. My favourite statesman of the period, Sir Edward Grey (“ the lights are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”), was also fatherless by the age of eight, while Admiral Jackie Fisher, the great mover and shaker of the navy, was sent back from Ceylon at the age of six, never to see his father again, who died when he was sixteen, and Fisher was an adult before seeing his indigent and disinterested mother again.
“Winston Churchill’s childhood was famously deprived, brought up by his nanny, deprived of her when sent to boarding school at eight, and writing letters begging his parents to come and see him – they never did. On one occasion his mother, a famous beauty, returned his letter after reading one page. She required him to write to her in French, and she told him his French was so appalling, she had no intention of reading any further. The emotional deprivation and abuse he suffered is legendary, yet not he, nor any of the others, ever made excuses that the challenges of their childhoods interfered with living a useful constructive life. They lived lives full of achievement, unhampered by chips on their shoulders, theories of deprivation and emotional maladjustment or of feeling victim.
“It was much the same with an earlier hero, the great philanthropist Lord Shaftesbury, who among many other causes, stopped the employment of children as young as five in coal mines. He also opened Ragged Schools for slum children, opposed vivisection, and stopped climbing boys being sent up hot sooty chimneys from the age of five onwards, (small boys, because only small boys could squeeze up the chimneys to clean them).
“Like Churchill, he too was neglected and emotionally deprived by his hostile parents, and the only love he received as a child was also from his nanny, Maria Mills, who died when he was nine. Then there was wonderful William Wilberforce, orphaned at nine when his father died, and a year later sent to live with relatives. These men also endured dreadful years at bullying, inhumane schools.
“Yet in spite of all the angst we hear now, about children of single parents being handicapped in the so-called race of life, these people all achieved great things, and apart from Balfour, who never married, all had loving marriages too. Was it because the communities they grew up in were united by values, principles and religion? They also all believed in a Divine Source to sustain them, and perhaps just as important, their sole parent usually had no money worries, so that they were properly educated and thus equipped to make their way.”
During the years I was a solo parent, I was constantly coming up against the stereotype of one parent children being handicapped or deprived, which caused me much heart-ache. This lasted until my son’s teacher, a solo parent herself, asserted that many of the children in her class came from dysfunctional two-parent families, and that loved children with a sane intelligent mother were the lucky ones. I took her at her word.
One of the common features of these men and others, was that they were the possessors of that much maligned British stiff upper lip. I may even have possessed one myself. Laugh and the world laughs with you, weep and you weep alone, was always in my mind, as I navigated disasters that sometimes felt overwhelming.
When I was at boarding school, several of my friends has been passengers on the troopship Empire Windrush when it caught fire in the Mediterranean and sank. They only referred to it in terms of having lost all their clothes and possessions. Recently I Googled the Windrush, and found several newsreels about the disaster. On them is recorded the amazing behaviour of all the women and children as well as the military wounded and servicemen from Korea.
The electricity was affected by the fire, so the life boats couldn’t be lowered and were eventually dropped into the sea. Neither could the intercom work, so all the passengers had to be awakened at 6.30 and they climbed off the ship into the life boats in their dressing gowns and pyjamas.
I watched moving newsreels of mothers holding their babies, children holding the hands of toddlers, all in their night clothes, climbing off a rescue ship which conveyed them to Tangiers. They walked in a quiet orderly procession along the dock, no tears, no hysterics, just calmly disciplined. No panic, no fuss, just that wonderful stiff upper lip as all ages coped efficiently and courageously. This was the story my school friends had omitted to tell when they mentioned in a matter of fact way that they’d lost all their possessions when their ship caught fire on their way home from the East.
That same stiff upper lip was what carried my parent’s generation through the second world war, living through perils and dangers, deprivation and destruction. The bombing, sleeplessness from air-raids, invasion fears, stern rationing, black outs, no petrol for travel, working in factories, on the land, in the army and the navy and air force in horrendous conditions, families traumatised by years of separation and sometimes death in battle, or at sea, or in the air, and the nightmares and undiagnosed PTSD, all had to be endured and survived.
No tranquillisers, anti-depressants, therapists or other emotional support were available. Cigarettes were the nearest thing! They didn’t see themselves as victims, both civilians and servicemen just stoically soldiered on for six years until they achieved victory.
It was another Edwardian, Captain Scott of the Antarctic who famously gave voice to the stoicism and courage which is disguised by that stiff upper lip. Once a hero, then derided by revisionist historians, he has had his reputation restored to heroic status recently, by the advances of science.
Researchers and modern scientists have discovered that when the dog teams with food failed to rendezvous in spite of Scott’s written orders, his party were abandoned in the ten-day Antarctic winter blizzard. Scott and his men perished in a blizzard which was a once in a thousand-year event and the cold was colder than anyone had ever experienced, – 40 degrees Fahrenheit, too cold for human beings to survive in.
As he lay dying in his snow bound tent, the others already dead, Captain Scott wrote the immortal words in which he took full responsibility for their fate – never complaining, never making excuses, never wallowing in self-pity.
He didn’t see himself as a victim. Instead he wrote: “We took risks, we knew we took them: things have come out against us and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined to do our best to the last”.
The difference between being a victor or a victim is simply a change of perspective. When we can accept that the choices we made, have brought us to this point (and some believe that these choices were made before we returned to this plane of existence), we can see the events of our lives from a different perspective.
We can choose to see our lives through a different lens. The quickest way to shift from the misery of self-pity and victim-hood, to the freedom of accepting responsibility, is to begin to feel grateful for our life, the highs and the lows, knowing there is a point or a purpose to all challenges. We may not see them straight away but when we look back, we see there are no accidents and no mis-steps. We can see that all our actions and decisions have led us to this point.
English House and Garden magazine editor, Sue Crewe began keeping a daily gratitude diary after a period of heartbreak in her life. Every day she listed five things. Some years later she wrote:
‘The most transformative revelation is the power of gratitude itself: it takes up so much room that everything coercive and depressing is squeezed to the margins. It seems to push out resentment, fear, envy, self-pity and all the other ugly sentiments that bring you down, leaving room for serenity, contentment and optimism to take up residence.’
What a glorious way to live life.
Food for threadbare gourmets
Potatoes without butter are not the same… mashed potatoes, potatoes baked in their jackets, potatoes baked in cream, new potatoes anointed with melted butter… what is a potato without butter or cream?
The answer is potatoes cooked the way I’ve discovered! Simply cube them, peeled or unpeeled -not too small, about three-quarters of an inch squarish. Boil them till soft but still firm. Drain, and tip flour over them. Put the lid back on the pan, and toss the potatoes in the flour before frying batches in hot oil. When crisp, drain them on kitchen paper as you tackle each batch, and keep them warm. They end up crisp outside and soft inside. Serve these delicious crisp morsels with sea-salt, and chicken, sausages or whatever takes your fancy.
P.S. For an extraordinary story of courage and stiff upper lip, GP Cox’s blog today, about Mrs Ruby Boye in the Pacific War takes some beating.