Tag Archives: President Kennedy

The Land between the Rock and the Hard Place

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Am too technically incompetent to reduce the size of this outrageously large picture

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

I loved my time in the army. I made friends I still have today. I could afford holidays with them in Provence, and Majorca when it was still empty and unknown. I had beautiful clothes. I had a social life that swung between visiting married friends at weekends, to parties with dashing cavalry officers and staying with their titled parents, to holidays on my own roaming the beloved dales and the moors of Swaledale, or riding across Exmoor and Lorna Doone country on my best friend’s horses with her family.

My army career blossomed, I received promotions very early and was given responsibility far beyond my rank and years, being promoted to captain when I was twenty- two. My last dream job was lecturing all over England and Wales armed with a car and a driver, which also meant staying in the best hotels and in my spare time exploring cathedral towns and remote villages in glorious country-side.

It all came crashing down one day at home on leave. A letter arrived for me from my step-grandfather. I thought it might be a suggestion to meet for lunch as we sometimes did. But it was a deeply underlined request to come to his flat secretly one evening – and tell no-one – in capital letters.

My stepmother saw her father’s hand-writing and insisted on reading it. She hit the roof and accused me of having a fully- fledged affair with him. Her dislike for me – we could only be in each other’s company for short periods before her hostility began to manifest – now crystallised into loathing, and she blamed me for leading him on, and aiming to get my hands on his money – a gold digger she called me.

I left home feeling I could never return, and when my father, who had never taken the episode seriously, began secretly coming to see me I felt that I must be causing trouble between him and my stepmother. I felt the only way out of the impasse was to get married and make a home of my own, and then it would be natural that I wouldn’t be coming home.

With that intention I soon met someone, convinced myself that I loved him, and we became engaged. The engagement survived the freezing legendary winter of ‘62/63, driving around in his unheated MG in a sheepskin coat, and I was grateful too, that this was the year woolly tights were invented.

My engagement ring somehow symbolised the future. I had just wanted an in-expensive antique ring, but my future mother- in- law apparently deemed this unsuitable. She invited me to tea, and as we finished our cherry cake, a knock on the door produced the local jeweller with a tray of conventional rings with no price tags. I was mortified, but chose the ring I disliked least, feigning delight, and knowing that she was paying for it, not my fiancée.

Trying to be like all my friends and pretending that I had a normal loving home like everyone else – it had always felt so shameful not to be loved – I organised a traditional wedding and paid for it…from the engagement notices in the Times and Telegraph and printed invitations, to the flowers and church, the wedding cake and reception, the cars and the white satin dress. During this time, I had returned home, and paid my stepmother an in-ordinate sum for the privilege of sleeping on the sofa, since my step-grandmother now lived in my bedroom.

My new husband had grandiose ideas, so we were booked into the Savoy Hotel for the first night of our honeymoon, before travelling first class to Cornwall, where after a night in another expensive hotel we caught a plane to the Scilly Isles for two weeks in another expensive hotel.

Our first night in the Scilly Isles life came crashing down again.                                             My husband asked me for a cheque to pay for the honeymoon, pay off all his debts, and his overdraft at the bank. “I promised the bank manager I’d pay it with your money as soon as we were married”, he told me. (I’ve sometimes wondered what the bank manager must have thought of this promise)

The amount swallowed nearly all my savings after the expense of the wedding. It felt as though a prison cell door had just banged shut behind me. I wept and rolled around on the bed in agony. My husband simply couldn’t understand why I was so upset. He simply couldn’t see why it felt like a betrayal. And I was right to fear the future. This was only the first of many betrayals awaiting me.

Somehow, I put the misery to one side, and tried to make the best of things. Just as well, as within a couple of weeks I was felled with morning sickness. Only it wasn’t morning sickness. It was all day sickness. I carried a saucepan around with me, in the house and in the car. In 1963, two years after thalidomide had been withdrawn, the doctor was not going to give me anything to help, he just said it would pass, so I tried every folk remedy from raw carrots to ginger biscuits!

I also got hopelessly behind with things like the washing! Being something of a dandy, my husband owned fifty- two shirts, and one hot June day we came to the end of them. They were all piled into the dirty linen basket. With a handful of other young married couples, we had gathered in someone’s army quarter to pass round The News of The World and read the latest instalment of the Profumo scandal.

My husband was down to his last shirt – so old it had no sleeves, but he’d hidden this deficiency with a tweed sports jacket. Everyone ribbed him mercilessly until he ruefully took off the jacket – with an apologetic glance in my direction – revealing the humiliating shirt and my in-adequacy!

It was worse when we were visiting his mother at Christmas. She was a perfectionist who ruled her family with an iron hand, but not with that velvet glove. She found her precious son was wearing summer pyjamas in winter. She was mystified – I gave him lots of warm viyella pyjamas – she kept saying until I confessed they were all stuffed in the dirty linen basket… but pregnancy was no excuse for not looking after her son properly!

Towards the end of November, sitting on the sofa, feeling ill as usual, and waiting for my husband to come home, he arrived through the door in some haste at twenty-past seven. He hurried to the radio and turned it on saying President Kennedy had been shot. As I was pooh-poohing any truth in it, citing De Gaulle’s escape from 140 bullets the year before, the Archers – the long running farming serial –  was interrupted.

An announcer told us that President Kennedy had just died. Like everyone else, we were stunned – it seemed unbelievable. The life and light of a leader who personified hope for the world just snuffed out. The inspiration of our generation gone, with no warning. Only grief and disbelief left to us.

Two days later we were at dinner in Winchester with my oldest school friend from Malaya. Her husband turned on the television to watch the news. As we watched, still shaken and shocked from the assassination, we saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald, there under our very eyes as we watched – at that very moment in time. That, too, seemed unbelievable. The whole world seemed to rock.

Lack of money beset us from the start of the marriage, as my new husband was a year too young to receive ration allowance, which started when officers were twenty-five. The idea was to discourage early marriage so young officers were keener to go out and be killed fighting than if they had a wife and family!

With all my savings gone, in the last few weeks of pregnancy we were so skint, that I gave my husband the only good piece of jewellery I had ever bought for myself – an amethyst ring – to go and sell to raise some money. Predictably we didn’t get very much… just enough to buy food for that weekend.

We had moved house, from a posting in Wiltshire to an army quarter in Essex, in the last month of pregnancy, and I had managed to get a bed in a London teaching hospital. Still vomiting to the last, I weighed a stone less the day after the birth. To the envy of the other mothers, my clothes were hanging off me after the baby was born – unscathed by her mother’s ordeal- bouncing, bonny and over seven and a half pounds.

I had never gone back to the unhelpful doctor, so had missed out on pre-natal information, and had no idea what birth was actually about, my best information being from’ Gone with the Wind’ and Melanie hanging onto a knotted towel so as not to groan.

No knotted towel, but gritted teeth meant that I heard the nurse in the labour ward tell my husband he might as well go home since I was asleep. So he did, even though I raised my head and said I was awake! When the baby was born later that night, it was one of the most beautiful moments of my life when she was placed in my arms already sucking her thumb.

That beautiful moment was somewhat marred some hours later when a trainee African doctor from Khartoum who hardly spoke any English, and didn’t seem to have heard of anaesthetics, marched in, ignored my protests and sewed me up with nothing to dull the pain.

When that was over, I was handed a telegram which had just reached the hospital. The words simply said: “Gone to Cyprus”. My husband’s regiment had been sent – as the last men standing – to douse the flames of civil war in Cyprus. The month before in January, after  Zanzibar had exploded, the armies of Tanganyika, Uganda and Kenya had  mutinied over pay and conditions, and each government had asked Britain to send troops to help. It felt as though half Africa was in a state of insurrection with British troops flying everywhere.

My husband’s regiment was on standby for the next emergency, and it had arrived- Greeks and Turks at each other’s throats in Cyprus. The Daily Express wrote that “25,000 Turks have already been forced to leave their homes”, and the Guardian reported a massacre of Turkish-Cypriots at Limassol on 16 February 1964, the day my daughter was born.

It’s hard to explain how vulnerable I felt – psychologically I needed someone to care for me while I cared for the new baby, while we were suddenly much worse off financially with me in one place, and him in another. I hardly knew the house we had just moved to, and I was terrified of my new born baby, not having any idea how to care for her.

I left hospital after a week and went to stay with my in-laws for two weeks. Then my father drove me back to the army quarter I’d briefly lived in. Painters had come in while I was away, and the house was cold, damp and depressing with white paint spots over everything, including my bright new, stainless steel, wedding present pop-up toaster. The painters had obviously not bothered to use drop cloths. All my neighbours –  other army wives – had packed up and gone home to their families, so I was high and dry and alone.

I couldn’t drive the car parked in the garage, had no phone, and had to walk pram and baby through the cold foggy February weather to the village shop two miles away, to get shillings to feed the gas meter for heating. I was frightened and depressed. And the baby had colic. She cried for most of the day and night while I paced up and down with her in my arms, before collapsing with a fierce migraine when she was six weeks old.

So now, like the other wives, I packed up too and went to stay with my in-laws in London for a few weeks before taking the train to Manorbier at the furthest tip of Wales, where my best friend from our army days now lived. Her baby was a year older, and the weeks spent here were full of joyful jokes, as though we were still carefree and unmarried. Her friendly husband watched us in tolerant amusement. We still hark back in our letters to the fun we had then, and I turned my life around in that time. My daughter thrived and I got my courage back again.

When I returned to the house in Essex, I had enough energy now to tackle the over grown lawn, mowing three square feet with a push lawn mower every night after the baby was in bed, until I completed it. I began walking the pram into town a couple of miles away and attending the baby clinic every week for weighing and measuring, until they said I only needed to bring the baby every two weeks. It never occurred to me to tell them that this was the only time I saw anyone to talk to.

And now a few old friends came to stay, and one or two families trickled back into neighbouring army quarters.  I stopped fearing that my husband would be shot by Greeks or Turks. His regiment had now become part of the UN peacekeeping force, patrolling the Green Line.

After six months he returned and I was rather taken aback to find a cache of new clothes made by a local tailor in his luggage, and also to discover that he had learned to swim, thanks to the friendship of a girl from the Foreign Office. He hadn’t mentioned either of these things in his in-articulate weekly letters, but I pushed my surprise to the back of my mind.  The second day he was back, I realised as we sat in the sunshine in the garden, that I was bored, and supposed that this was one of the inevitable stages of marriage.

To be continued…

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 I’m not really a meat eater, especially when it comes to beef. So cooking one of Himself’s favourite things – spaghetti Bolognaise  – is always a bit of a chore. But I’ve just discovered the answer for me – in the Daily Mail of all places. Only three ingredients needed, and the whole thing can bubble away while I beef up the Bolognaise! I halved the amount, so used one tin of tomatoes, the recommended onion, and three tablespoons of butter. For four people, double the ingredients, apart from the onion. Don’t chop the onion, just peel and cut in half. Put everything in a saucepan and let it all bubble gently for forty -five minutes, stirring occasionally. Just before serving, fish out the onion. The resulting rich smooth tomato sauce over pasta and sprinkled with freshly grated parmesan is food for the gods. Who needs beef?

 Food for thought

‘Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one.’ Stella Adler – actress and acting teacher

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Follow The ( American) Leader

What IS a modern leader? A – a politician with pots of money and a longing for power?  B – an idealistic altruist who wants to help humanity?  C – a petulant six year old wanting to play with grownup toys?

Frequently A and C are combined, and it seems to me that this is the sort of leader most of us get these days. I read a report the other day that the most successful leaders also have the character traits of a psychopath. This certainly explained a lot to me.

But do we really need leaders who are psychopathic, spoiled rich men, politicians who’ve compromised and bent their principles until they haven’t got any? Bring back The West Wing I say, at least we had decent men then, even if half of them were alcoholics, workaholics and egotists of various shades. Oh gosh isn’t it possible to think about leaders and leadership without thinking negative thoughts like that?

I’ve thought of other leaders, people like US Grant, who right at the beginning of the Civil War, on his first march with the civilians he’d trained, found that few of them were ready for the first stage of the march. The next day was the same. The third day he set off at the agreed time, leaving the stragglers behind. No threats, no harangues, just marched off without them. Boy, did they scramble to catch up, and he never had any trouble again. A man of his word, and one who never wasted them. (Also a man who loved animals, never went shooting, punished his men if they ill-treated their horses, and refused to attend a bull fight in his honour in Mexico when he was president)

But great soldiers don’t seem to make great heads of state. Grant made a hash of his presidency because he didn’t understand power games and trusted corrupt politicians. Eisenhower was not as successful a president as he was a genertal (towards the end of his presidency when he spent most of it on the golf course, the joke was that the White House was known as the Tomb of the Well-Known Soldier). Even the Duke of Wellington, when he was made prime minister, made a mess of it.

Interestingly, none of these leaders seemed to show the psychopathic traits that successful heads of state are supposed to need (presumably, Hitler, Stalin and Mao were role models for this type of leadership – and I wonder about Putin).  Lyndon Johnson would have been a prime example of this sort of leader in the west, with his iron controlling will and ambition, which is not the same as wisdom and judgement. Jimmy Carter by contrast, a reasonable man who was the exact opposite of Johnson, didn’t make a second term.

The whole world is watching the contest going on in the US at the moment, and yet after having watched the West Wing, we are now so savvy about the constraints and checks on a president’s power from his lobby groups, senators and congressmen, and their need for votes from satisfied voters, that we know that maybe the man is not who matters , but the party and its policies.

And yet at the same time, thanks to TV and media outlets, we still see the parties’ figureheads as personifying the policies. So when one hasty or ill-chosen word can trigger riots and violence all over the Middle East, and terrorism in our own countries, it matters terribly who is speaking for America and by inference, for the West.

So we all have our preferences, hoping that the man we think thinks most like us will win. One of the things that made non-Americans love John Kennedy, regardless of his politics, was that he seemed to value the rest of us all around the world, and to see us as partners in the progress of the planet.

Since then, other presidents have often seemed to us outsiders as thinking that America matters more than the rest of us. Yet the day of 9/11 actually showed us how the world is a village, that we are all connected, and people shared and grieved collectively all around the world. And people all around the world also grieved for loved ones they too had lost in New York that day. So it’s never been possible to think since then, that what happens anywhere doesn’t affect us all.

What happens anywhere does matter to us all, whether it’s the third year of drought affecting American farmers, and the consequent drop in their earnings, and the raising of food prices around the world, to honour killings in Pakistan and the ripples of hostility that go round the world, raising levels of distrust.

So when America chooses its leader, we long for a man who can see the rest of us as valuable inhabitants of our world, not just fodder for American corporates peddling pesticides, milk powder, GM foods or arms.

Many of us are beginning to understand Nurse Edith Cavell’s words. She was the English nurse executed by the Germans for nursing wounded soldiers of all nationalities, whom they shot as a spy in 1915. Her last words were: “Patriotism is not enough”. We are beginning to understand that if something doesn’t work for one country, then it will affect us all; that western countries can’t go on supplying arms or polluted goods or subversion in the name of diplomacy to other parts of the world and not be harmed ourselves eventually.  ‘My country right or wrong’ is now an outmoded concept for the citizens of the twenty-first century.

Most importantly in a world where nuclear arms are commonplace, is to know that our leaders are not ambitious patriots, or frightened six year olds who can press a nuclear button without thinking it through. Tsutomu Yamaguchi who survived Hiroshima, and then dragging himself to his family in Nagasaki, survived a second atom bombing, said before his death in 2010, that: ‘Nations with nuclear armaments should be lead only by women who are breast-feeding.”

I’d go further than that, and say that maybe all nations would be better led by mothers who are breast-feeding. And I don’t need to explain why, do I?

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

This recipe comes from a little book of risottos by Anna del Conte. The page is badly thumbed and stained, and it’s one of my favourites, though I’ve adapted it slightly. Risotto al Limone, risotto with lemon.

Simmer five cups of vegetable or chicken broth, and keep it simmering all the time. Sauté an onion and finely chopped celery stalk in two tablespoons of butter. When they’re soft mix in a cup and a quarter of Arborio rice or similar, and stir for a few minutes till the rice is translucent. Stir in two thirds of a cup of broth until it’s absorbed, and continue to do this until the rice is cooked. You may not need all the broth.

While this is cooking, thinly pare the zest from an unwaxed lemon, and chop it into six fresh sage leaves and the leaves from a small sprig of rosemary. Stir this into the rice halfway through cooking. Squeeze half the lemon into a small bowl, and combine with an egg yolk, quarter to half a cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese, quarter of a cup of cream, a little salt and a good grinding of black pepper. Mix with a fork.

When the rice is cooked, add this to it, plus another two tablespoons of butter. Cover and let it rest for a minute or two. Give it a stir and serve immediately with more Parmesan if you want. Serves two greedy people over-generously, three well behaved people comfortably, and four as a starter. If I have any left over, I mould it into patties, sprinkle with flour, and fry to make a delicious light meal.

Food for Thought

Prayer obviously produces results, otherwise millions wouldn’t pray.                                                                                                                       Krishnamurti    1895 – 1986  Indian spiritual thinker and teacher

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