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Over the top

Image result for images battle of somme

A life – this is another instalment of an autobiographical series before I revert to my normal blogs.

My step-grandfather had been a very successful business man, and a member of the Liberal Council, who in the 1945 general election, just failed to get elected to Parliament as a Liberal. “I nearly had them,” he would regretfully say to me, about the tough Geordies who he wooed in his homeland of Northumberland.

Shortly after the election, while on a lecture tour in the US, the stock market crashed, and he lost all his money. The small amount he managed to salvage when he returned, he invested in South African gold which gave him an opportunity to carry on an enjoyable, long-running and acrimonious correspondence on the immorality of apartheid with his agent in South Africa.

He had suffered from shell shock for many years after the Great War of 1914-18, and from the results of his dreadful injuries. He and his wife were both bitter about it, she because of what she said she had to put up with, he because he felt he got no sympathy or support. As a young officer in the Northumberland regiment which was the first to go over the top and step out towards the German lines on the morning of the Somme battle, he was an irresistible target in his breeches and officer’s Sam Browne belt and holster, and was shot in the face. There were 60,000 casualties on that first day of battle, and he was one of them. Sixty per cent of officers died that day, a much higher number than their men.

Recovered, a year later in the muddy martyrdom that was  Passchendaele, he was buried for two days in a bomb crater, and when dug out, grabbed a helmet filled with liquid, gulping it down to quench his thirst. It was filled with a noxious mix of battlefield poisons which damaged his insides, and he suffered the effects of this for the rest of his life.

He was famous in the family for being bloody-minded, and his injuries may have had something to do with this. One story about him was how after an argument at lunch with a few cronies, over the meaning of Magna Carta, he stormed off to the British Museum to check on the wording. On arrival, after finding his way through the labyrinths of the Museum, he discovered it was not on display. He wrote a biting letter to the Director, who replied saying the matter had been rectified.

Uncle Bill once again made a sortie to the Museum, and finding Magna Carta on a lectern, wrote another critical letter to the Director. The next time, when he visited to check on the situation, matters were only slightly improved. There was a translation now available at the side of the famous document, but Uncle Bill was still not satisfied. On his last visit, everything was finally arranged to his satisfaction, with the lectern lowered, a translation out, and a chair provided on which to sit and read the manuscript. In these days of tight security, it’s probably back in a safe.

In his retirement he went to every rugby match of note at Twickenham, and attended every cricket test at Lords or the Oval. Afterwards, often accompanied by his son and grandsons, he would call in on his wife for a generous high tea of toasted, buttered tea-cakes and rich fruit-cake, and everyone would be regaled with the stupidities and missed opportunities of the occasion, rugby or cricket.

He would also have taken the number of any bus which had been speeding, was late, had crashed the lights or had a conductor who was not up to speed. The family suspected that the local police station probably had a file especially for his complaints.

But it was still politics which would cause his ire to rise more quickly than any other subject. As a Liberal he was often at odds with the rest of the family who were Conservative to a man, so there were plenty of bones to pick over. I could never follow a word of these heated debates.

They also caused his wife to say after he had left: “now you know what he’s like… ” as if anyone was in any doubt. He and my father tolerated each other – my father once told me he was shallow, while Uncle Bill wrote to me when my father died saying he was his own worst enemy. This hurt me, whatever the truth of it.

When I was a late teenager and in my early twenties we still rendezvoused in London several times a year… we’d go to the Tate or the National Gallery, and then he’d take me for lunch to the famous Simpson’s- in -the- Strand where we feasted. Huge haunches of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding or roast lamb were wheeled up to the table on silver domed trolleys and carved for us in the dining room which was unchanged since 1828. This was followed by delectable treacle pudding…

(P.G.Wodehouse loved Simpson’s too. A hundred years ago he wrote:’ Here, if he wishes, the Briton may … stupefy himself with food. The God of Fatted Plenty has the place under his protection. Its keynote is solid comfort. It is a pleasant, soothing, hearty place – a restful temple of food. No strident orchestra forces the diner to bolt beef in ragtime… There he sits, alone with his food, while white-robed priests, wheeling their smoking trucks, move to and fro, ever ready with fresh supplies.’)

Another favourite foodie place we visited was Charbonnel et Walker in Bond Street, chocolate shop extraordinaire since 1875, and favourite rendezvous for our family of chocoholics. In those days the truffles were numbered, and my memory is that my step-grandmother had a passion for number thirty-eight. I too loved number thirty-eight, and was mightily put out when my Christmas present was crystallised pineapple lumps instead of the truffles. We were in good company you could say, as other chocoholics who devoured these goodies included not just the Royal Family, but Noel Coward, Lauren Bacall, Sir John Gielgud and Princess Diana to name a few.

Every Christmas Uncle Bill gave the family a large, wooden box of Fortnum and Mason crystallised fruits laid out in rows on lacy paper doilies. Nothing since has tasted as delicious as those goodies. The exception to the crystallised fruits was when we lived in Malaya, when he instructed Harrods to send ten pounds of hand-made chocolates especially packed for the tropics in a very large tin, and lined with tin foil to protect them from ants, cockroaches and heat. Those were the days …

The best gift he ever gave us was for Christmas just before we went to Malaya. As well as both her parents, my stepmother had invited her brother and his wife, and her two nephews who she loved almost as much as her only son. Uncle Bill arrived first, full of enthusiasm and bringing with him two new inventions.

The first was a Black and Decker hedge cutter and he couldn’t wait to use it on our miles of privet hedge surrounding the front garden, the back garden, the vegetable garden and the grass tennis court. Alas, before long the air was blue with curses and smoke… he had chopped through the long electric cord dangling from a socket inside the kitchen window and that was the end of the hedge cutting project.

The other item he brought with him changed my life. It was a box of detergent called Tide which had just come on the market in England. It was the first heavy-duty synthetic detergent and had been invented in America, where it had been available since 1946.

Since it was my job to do the washing- up, and there were eleven of us for every meal that Christmas, this was a gift beyond price. I had always been squeamish. But now, instead of fishing around in revolting greasy water with a feeble mop-head on a stick, here was a magic white powder which dissolved the horrid mess and washed away all the nauseating aftermath of gravy, grub and grease! Hallelujah! Joy to the world, life had really changed for the exceedingly better.

And it was to change even more when we packed up our lives again six weeks later, and embarked on the adventure of Malaya during the Emergency – called the Emergency so that rubber planters could claim on insurance for their losses to the communist bandits, whereas insurers are absolved in a war!

More to come, as we used to write at the bottom of each page in the old days of print newspapers

Food for threadbare gourmets

Apples are back! it’s that time of year when the shops and way-wide stalls are loaded with freshly harvested apples-my favourite fruit. I love apple cakes and apple puddings, and this one is a goodie.

Peel a pound of Bramleys or Grannie Smiths apples and cook in a saucepan with 3 ounces of brown sugar and approximately 2 tablespoons of water. Simmer gently until soft, and then arrange this mix in the bottom of a greased baking dish.

In a mixing bowl, cream four ounces of soft butter and four ounces of caster sugar until pale and fluffy and then beat in two large eggs a little at a time. When all the egg is in, carefully and lightly fold in four ounces of ground almonds. Spread this mixture over the apples, and even out the surface with the back of a tablespoon.  Then bake on a middling shelf in the oven for exactly 1 hour.

This delicious pudding is good eaten warm or cold –  with cream. Once cooled, it will keep in the fridge for 3 or 4 days

 

Food for Thought

An oldie, but a goodie –An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

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Carrying on with the army

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Nasturtiums in my garden

My brilliant career in the army, making unconscious mayhem as a recruit and scrambling through officer training, had not quite lived up to my expectations of discovering gorgeous young men, eager and willing to escort me into a glamorous high life of dancing and dates,  which was what women’s magazine of the fifties sold as the ideal preparation for marriage.

They also suggested that a touch of white around the neck, and spotless white gloves were the final touches needed for any ambitious girl to find her beau. So far the army had not given me much scope to achieve these dreams of social success. First recruit training in an all woman training depot, and then a year at an all woman officer training unit cut off from all other human contact in the middle of a bracken – covered heath dotted with silver birch woods.

Absolutely beautiful, but at nineteen I didn’t have the same thirst for nature and for beauty that I have fifty five years later. So it was a blow when I found myself back to the nunnery for my first posting, at my old stamping ground, (literally) the Depot. There were still people there who remembered me enraging the Colonel by marching around in a red coat because I’d arrived on the wrong day, and ingenuously behaving as though I was in Harrods when fitting my marching shoes at the Quartermaster’s store.

But they let this pass now that I sported one lonely little pip on my brand new officer’s uniform. They even saluted me, and I gingerly returned the courtesy knowing that I hadn’t actually earned the respect they were forced to give me.

The one bright spot was that I was simply one of half a dozen girls like me, even though I was the youngest, and some of them are still friends after a life-time. Our main ambition was to escape the depot and get a posting overseas, which was our idea of heaven. But we had to make the best of it in the mean-time, and an intermediate stage of paradise was to get oneself on a course – this could be anything from a pay course to a signals course.

The unspoken idea was that while we were escaping from our nunnery, we would meet some of these gorgeous young men we were sure were lurking in the rest of the army, and while they were there to learn about pay or signals and maybe further their careers, we went to enjoy ourselves.

I immediately put my name down for a religious leadership course – that seemed an easy one, and a fire-fighters course – this happened to be with the Maidstone Fire Brigade, and I was the envy of the other girls because I actually had a long distance boyfriend who was ADC to a general not far from Maidstone. I planned to see plenty of him during the course.

I was accepted for both courses, and accepted the congratulations of my friends. All I had to  do now was wait for the time to come round – they both were six months away. Anticipation kept me soldiering on through the regular rituals of documenting recruit intakes, inspecting said recruits and their barrack room floors and giving them boring lectures on pay scales, army routines and regulations; signing pay books on pay parade, and getting myself on parade  every day on time to march the recruits round the huge parade ground. Not exactly romantic, but you have to start somewhere.

December came at last, and all excitement I set off for the religious leadership course. It was set in a large country house, Bagshot Park. Then, it was the headquarters of the Royal Army Chaplain’s Department and sported a notice by the lake saying ‘Please do not walk on the water’. It had been a royal residence for hundreds of years, before being pulled down and rebuilt for Queen Victoria’s third son, the Duke of Connaught. He died in 1942 and the lease went to the padres. Today this Queen’s third son, Prince Edward, lives there with his wife and two children in the 120 room mansion.

I arrived on a cold foggy day, when the depressing rhododendrons were dripping damply around the red brick house. Inside it was swarming with young men – very heaven!!! There was one other girl on the course. We had this concourse of young men to ourselves! However, on closer inspection, few of them were up to scratch for the destiny we had in mind for them.

Not many of them were dashing, only one of two had glamorous little sports cars – and only some of them seemed interested in us. However, bearing up, we made the most of our opportunities, and I for one, enjoyed the luxury of a huge bedroom and bathroom which had once belonged to the dead Duchess of Connaught.

We now had ten days of getting up at dawn for Holy Communion, and attending various services like Matins and Evensong throughout the day in the chapel, ending with Complines (a lovely service) at ten o clock and lights out. In between all this church going we listened to unmemorable lectures, which never seemed to actually give any information on how to be a religious leader in one’s community (I am in still in the dark fifty five years later).

I nearly starved to death, the food was so awful. A handful of us were driven to bribe the cooks to leave  the side door unlocked, and we sneaked out in search of food, sometimes as far away as London … The only places open for a hearty meal at that time of night tended to be transport cafes, catering to long distance truck drivers. We pigged out gratefully on fried bacon, egg, chips, sausages and tomatoes, before tiptoeing back to the sleeping padres.

After two days of what felt like fasting, and churchgoing, we were called together for an announcement. The padres considered it unseemly that the two young maidens (us) should be using the same staircase up to our bedrooms as the young men. Forty of them and two of us. So the in-offensive young men were banished to the back stairs up which once valets and skivvies and ladies maids had toiled, while we used the grand heavily carved main staircase which led down into the great hall where we gathered before meals and lectures.

Josie and I sailed down this great staircase in our high heels and solitary state several times a day, the cynosure of all eyes. Head held high, straight spine, carefully nyloned legs, manicured hands sliding gracefully down the smooth stair-rail, we made the most of it, especially at night when we had to change for dinner.

What the prim padres, anxious to protect our virtue didn’t know, was that my soaring bathroom had a spiral staircase up to the maid’s room above. And in the maid’s bedroom were crammed five lusty young men. On the nights when we weren’t roaming the streets desperately looking for food, and sometimes on those nights too, the trapdoor would open. The chaps would all perch on the narrow steps of the spiral stairs, while Josie and I sat on the edge of the bath in our dressing gowns, and made ovaltine for us all with hot water from the tap, using our tooth-mugs.

We shuddered to think what the padres would think of this depravity. Honi soit qui mal y pense.

(The next instalment of this thriller/chick lit/ dubious autobiography will come when I can’t think of anything else to write. Previous instalments are under the headings of A Soldiers life is Terrible Hard..)

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Tomatoes are still cheap and plentiful, and when we had a celebration dinner for our national day, Waitangi Day this week, I used this tomato recipe with roast chicken legs tossed in flour and fried to make the skin crisp; plus roast potatoes parboiled and thrown around the saucepan in flour to give them a rough edge so that when they were cooked in hot oil they were crunchy and crisp, leeks and carrots. The tomatoes, which should have been a starter, lubricated the meal so we didn’t need any gravy. We followed this unusually elaborate meal for two with a left- over Christmas pudding – sweet, aromatic and enhanced with glorious brandy butter!

The tomato recipe comes from a French doctor and cookery writer Eduard de Pomiane. I’ve used it for the last fifty years or more, but he is now becoming a bit of a cult, and I saw this recipe re-produced recently in an article by English novelist Julian Barnes.

It’s simple as, and de Pomiane suggests it as a starter. Slice six tomatoes and put them cut side down in a frying pan with a knob of butter. Puncture the skin at intervals with a sharp knife. After five minutes turn them over and cook for five more minutes.  Then turn them back again for ten minutes, and finally turn them again, cut side up. The juices run out of the slits in the skin. When they are cut side up the last time, pour about three ounces of thick cream into the pan to merge with the juices. As soon as it bubbles, slide onto a dish and serve immediately. The taste is utterly unique.

Food for Thought

You know quite well, deep within you, that there is only a single magic, a single power, a single salvation … and that is called loving.        Herman Hesse 1877 -1962   German – Swiss writer and painter, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature

 

 

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