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Tropical learning curves

15

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

We sometimes played hockey on the padang at Tanah Rata, the nearby township where I quickly learned to play on the wing after my first attempt at playing centre. As we bullied with our hockey sticks in the slight dip where water had collected, my legs became covered with small red leeches. Trying to prise these horrifying bloodsuckers off was a practical demonstration of the phrase ‘he stuck to him like a leech.’

I also played fast and furious tennis with three teachers (one who had been a Junior Wimbledon champion) who needed a fourth on Saturday afternoons, and as head girl started the school magazine; I made a wonderfully arrogant and stupid Lady Catherine de Burgh in the school play of Pride and Prejudice, arranged the flowers for church every week, and ignored various nice boys (in retrospect) who tried to get my interest.

My best friend and I also enjoyed infuriating two young but frumpy teachers who we knew thought we were bumptious and too big for our boots. Apart from this friendship with my best friend which has lasted our life-times, the greatest gift I took away from this school was the ability to write clearly.

The man who tried to teach me to write was a very patrician academic, who wrote book reviews for The Times and was also an army officer. He was our charismatic headmaster – tall, elegant, witty and charming. He didn’t normally teach but he decided to coach me himself for the newly introduced A levels.

I quickly discovered that I was a sloppy thinker, with very little idea of how to write. This uncomfortable realisation hit me after my first essay, when I referred to ‘the naked truth’. Robin (I learned to call him this later) made me look up the meaning of the word ‘naked’ in the dictionary, and it was a lesson I never needed to learn again – to make sure I actually knew the meaning of a word before I used it and forget about clichés!

He taught me to write short simple sentences, to use short Anglo -Saxon words, and never pompous, pretentious Latin words. He’d say chuck instead of throw and tried to teach me not just to write good direct prose, but to think for myself too, and once when I had written an obsequious essay on Anthony and Cleopatra, he teasingly wrote at the bottom: “Beware too slavish an adulation of the Bard!”

The best training he gave me was to write a précis nearly every day, of a piece of weighty Elizabethan or Restoration prose, reducing each piece to a third of its length. It was a rigorous exercise, which trained me to express meaning in the most efficient and simplest way. It taught me to understand the meaning of words so I could translate them into a simpler briefer version and sharpened up my whole writing style. And that was it – the nuts and bolts of writing.

When I hear or read of people’s experiences with gifted teachers today, I marvel at the creative opportunities they have; but on the other hand, these simple rules he gave me have been a useful scaffolding on which to build a writing life. Yes, I missed out on the metaphors and similes, and creative flights of fancy. I just had simple guide-lines for communicating clearly, with no tiresome tics of speech or writing, no frills or clichés, no worn-out phrases, un-necessary words, purple passages or exhibitionist long words.

I learned to write truthfully, and to avoid sentimentality – I think! And this for me, is still the challenge of writing, over half a century later; truth means finding the exact word with no compromises, which means knowing how I truly feel.

Every holidays, I seemed to go back to a different house or hotel. One Easter, my parents met me at the station, and I was whisked back to the rest house at Port Dickson, situated right on the beach. We spent a week here, with the usual routine of lazy morning, tea and bananas served after siesta, shower and change for dinner, dinner, post -prandial stroll along the empty moonlit sands, before moving to Malacca and a government bungalow on a cliff edge outside the town.

It was a big, two-story house with magnificent views. At night, looking out over the sea, and up into the clear night sky, my father pointed out to me the North Star and the Southern Cross in the same starry sky as we stood almost on the equator.

Malacca by daylight had the charm which was missing from every other Malayan town. The Malayan kampongs in jungle clearings were attractive, traditional communities constructed from indigenous materials, wood and coconut leaves, and composed of small groups of dwelling places on stilts. By contrast, the towns were simply concrete shells with shops in the bottom usually owned by Chinese merchants, and crude dwellings over the shop.

Garish signs and raucous music from the radio were also elements of these depressing environments. To enter these un-attractive townships, or rather, small tropical slums, one ran the gauntlet of terrible smells from rubber factories, and then from durian, a fruit whose smell is legendary. Brave people said it tasted delicious, but few were brave enough to battle past the smell.

Malacca had an architectural European past, both Portuguese and Dutch. The Portuguese buildings, dating from 1511, included the old fortress, parts of which were still standing when we explored in 1954, over four hundred years later. Eventually Protestant Dutch traders arrived in 1641.

The Dutch built much of the old town that remained when I saw it, a little corner of the Netherlands transplanted to the tropics. Fifteen years later, when I stayed in Macau, occupied by the Portuguese in 1557, it too had the same charming atmosphere of an alien architecture dreaming far from home.

But whereas Macau was Portuguese and Mediterranean, and the architecture had a certain suitability for the climate, the little Dutch red-tiled buildings were derived from a northern style designed to keep the warmth in. It was strangely incongruous in the humid sunshine of the old sea-port, by then silted up, trade gone and only Malayan fishing boats crowding the moorings.

The British got here in 1795, and in spite of the modern tendency to sneer at all colonial activities, the policy of the British then was to preserve the sultanates, the Muslim faith and the Malay way of life, and those aspects of Malayan life still dominate the modern country of Malaysia today.  We visited the Malacca museum and listened to a music box playing Mozart which Dutch exiles would have heard nearly two hundred years before, admired the Dutch-built church, now Anglican, the old Dutch government offices, and explored intriguing little shops for jewellery and non-existent treasures.

In the afternoons while every-one else slept, I read dog-eared orange and cream -covered Penguin books left behind by previous visitors, including the unforgettable Ambrose Bierce and, in cheap editions, Helen Waddell and Mary Webb, Robert Graves and Stefan Zweig. Or I’d play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on 78’s, piling them up on the long central column, so that they plonked down one after the other.

Or I’d walk along the golden, empty sands below and swim, till one day I foolishly swam half a mile out to a fish trap, not realising that it was sited there precisely to catch the current. I slowly became aware that no matter how much I swam, I was getting no nearer the fish trap, but a very long way out to sea.

Trying not to panic, I remembered that to get out of a current you have to swim with it, and across it. It took me over an hour to get back to shore, miles away from the rest-house, pursued, I was quite sure, by sharks. Jack London’s horrible book ‘ The Sea-Wolf’ had already made an indelible impression on me. That afternoon, it haunted me, with every splash of my tired feet probably being the snap of a shark’s jaws. Once back at the rest-house, I kept this escapade to myself.

The next holiday was spent in an army quarter in Mentekab, a garrison built in the middle of a clearing in the jungle, it seemed. Now, I felt I had finally emerged as an adult. I was sixteen, and one of the subalterns in the regiment asked my father if he could take me out. I didn’t know him at all, apart from a dance the previous week, but I jumped at this opportunity for my first grownup date.

The day arrived, and so did he. My stepmother had provided us with a picnic basket. He drove to Temerloh, where we embarked in a long Malayan rowing boat, and he rowed us down the wide, muddy brown river edged with endless palm trees down to the water’s edge. Mile after mile was the same.

Two complete strangers faced each other in the boat, with nothing to even remark on as the miles slipped past. I sat, apparently entranced, as he described in a self- conscious monotone, stories about Japanese opera which he had seen while on leave in Tokyo. Now I’ve seen some myself, I’m even more amazed that he should have bothered to watch. The women’s magazines I had read said that men liked girls who listened to them, and who hung on their words.

They also said men liked a touch of white at the neck, and the daisy- fresh look of white gloves. No hope of that in this dripping heat, alas. I sweltered in a tight, waist- cinching, fashionable, elastic waspie, and a frou of frilly white petticoat I’d made myself – all the rage in northern climates, but as unsuitable for the tropics as the Victorian crinolines and Edwardian bustles of previous memsahibs and missies in this sticky climate.

The young man suddenly spied a small patch of what passed for grass in this part of the world and rowed across to it. By the time we had tied up, spread the prickly wool tartan rug, undone the flask and poured the hot tea which brought out fresh beads of sweat on brow and upper lip, the inhabitants of the nearest kampong had materialised and stood around us in a circle, giggling and chattering in Malay.

They must have thought we were deaf, or that they couldn’t be heard in a foreign language, for they called out to friends who hadn’t yet arrived, and generally carried on as though we were the afternoon’s entertainment. As we were. They were obviously deeply interested in European courting rituals, observing every bite of our picnic, and commenting loudly to each other on our every movement.

Finally, I opened the raffia box in which my stepmother had tastefully packed an iced chocolate cake and started back horrified as a horde of ants tumbled out with it.

At this, we abandoned the whole expedition and followed by waves of what felt like derisive laughter from the indigenous peoples, made our way painfully back up the river. At the other end, my father was waiting mischievously with his speciality, dinner of spaghetti Bolognaise made with the longest spaghetti he could find – extremely difficult to eat with dignity, his subtle plan to embarrass the poor young man and sabotage an occasion which was already an anti-climax to put it kindly.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

I love Caesar salad, but don’t like bought Caesar dressings. This dressing is worth the little extra effort for a delicious salad.

Place the following ingredients in a stick blender: one egg yolk, one tbsp Dijon mustard, two to three cloves crushed garlic, one small chopped shallot, four or five chopped anchovies fillets, and the juice of one lime. I use a lemon if I haven’t got a lime. Gradually add 75ml oil –  extra virgin olive oil and canola oil mixed, and continue to blend. When thick stir in a few handfuls of finely grated  Parmesan.

If you have time, make the dressing ahead and let it sit for a while so the flavours meld together.

 Food for thought

 “When a relationship stops working, it usually means that someone has grown.
Someone is now ready to receive more and have more than the relationship offers.
Someone is ready to be loved, honoured, and treated the way they really want to be treated. Could that someone be you?”

~ Iyanla Vanzant

 

 

 

 

 

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Guns and exams, ancient peoples and bandits

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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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Coronation, luxury, opera and Latin

Image result for runnymede hotel penang
The Runnymede Hotel from the sea

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

The Queen’s Coronation was big in Malaya and it was big for me too! On our drive down to Taiping to join my father and his regiment for the celebrations we passed through one kampong after another, with a richly coloured Coronation arch festooned with flowers and streamers and pictures of the Queen welcoming us into every village … everyone seemed to be involved.

When we had arrived from the train and ferry at the Runnymede Hotel several months before, it was discovered that the porter who picked up the trunk with my clothes in it amongst other things, had disappeared with it. This meant that my new summer dress and my new and unworn swimming costume had gone, and I now had little more than the clothes I stood up in- a well-used green striped skirt cut down from a summer dress of my stepmother’s two years before, and a green air-tex shirt.

My stepmother had coped with this disaster with insouciance, but I was in despair since I knew my clothes were unlikely to be replaced any time soon. I managed to make a new skirt with some fabric given to me, and as time went on, different people bequeathed dresses which they said they no longer wanted and which I learned how to alter to fit me.

But the loss of the swimming costume was a misery in the tropics where everyone swam most days. Now in Taiping for the week of the Coronation, I was staying with a couple whose daughter was in hospital with appendicitis, and after we had visited her once a day, these two lovely people took it upon themselves to spoil me. Not only did they buy me a swimming costume, but a pair of shoes – I had been managing with some humiliatingly ugly tartan cloth ones my stepmother had bought for me in the local Chinese market. The wife also gave me one of her dresses and let me try on all her evening dresses and her makeup. It all felt wonderful.

When I turned up for the Coronation Parade and re-joined my parents in my new finery, I saw my stepmother looking rather coldly at these kind people and I, but my cup was overflowing, and I didn’t worry.

After the festivities and two weeks holiday spent amid clouds and cool forests at the top of a mountain called Maxwell Hill we all went back to Penang, where I waited another three months before being accepted into the boarding school in the Cameron Highlands. Apart from my school terms I spent eighteen months living beside the water in this beautiful environment.

Each day began with the long walk between pillars which seemed as big as those on the portico of St Paul’s Cathedral, but in this case, they were holding up the huge ballroom, about a hundred feet long. At the end was the dining area, where the Chinese maitre d’hotel met each family and conducted them to their regular table with as much flourish as though they had been pre-war English milords, miladies, famous writers and intrepid tourists in the thirties. (He had probably been on the staff then himself, having somehow survived the Sook Ching massacres -the wholesale killings of the local Chinese – by the Japanese during the war) My step-mother was one of the ladies he met with particular deference and a favoured smile.

Our service was always quicker than less favoured mortals. It had nothing to do with my father’s mediocre rank or mediocre income. I supposed it had something to do with my step-mother’s unbending dignity and courtesy -she ‘nothing common did or mean’… it took me a while to see that others did do mean things, I was so used to her being, as my father’s sergeant -major put it -” a lady.” (Which didn’t mean to say I found it pleasant living with her. She might not manage anything common or mean, but she had ways of dealing with people like me who she didn’t like!).

After a hearty English breakfast beginning with cereal, ending with toast and marmalade, and bulked out with sausages, bacon and egg in the middle, coffee or tea, we all filtered back up the stairs to our rooms. The amahs had already tidied them and made the beds, so we prepared ourselves for the day – for the wives, a little shopping, ending at the Cold Storage Co. for feasts of iced coffee and sundaes in blissful icy air-conditioning to which I was sometimes invited. Or it might be a trip to the swimming pool, and hot curry puffs and ginger beer shandies in deck chairs round the pool… having no swimming costume I just sat around enviously.

Wives who were happy to leave their toddlers with an amah would sit on the hotel verandah by the sea, just by the huge flame tree where the children took turns on the swing, while their mothers played canasta or mah-jong. Or they just gossiped over coffee.

Husbands sometimes managed to get back for a weekend with their families every few weeks. One regiment stationed at Alor Star had its hands full with constant bandit activity, and at the last minute their leave would be cancelled for an emergency. A mock groan was the only outward sign of disappointment the wives allowed themselves when the message came, and when one young woman, newly- pregnant, couldn’t bite back her tears of disappointment before the others noticed, there was much comment at her lack of control.

There were some who didn’t follow the regular routines of the others… they were outsiders, who didn’t join the regimental groups or the more exclusive cliques. They may have been free spirits, and seemed to have busier, more satisfying lives than the daily routines of the others, but, sometimes too, I felt their loneliness.  The other women wordlessly disapproved, as though being an army wife was being part of a team that the outsiders were refusing to join.

After a generous lunch with several courses from soup or a starter through to pudding and cheese in the great dining room, the hotel would fall silent. Every-one retired to their room for a nap – including, I suspect, all the staff -because the place was deserted between two and four. Except for the amahs and house-boys, who were busy whitening  shoes and doing the dhobi, washing, ironing, and starching our full-skirted cotton dresses – Horrockses were the prettiest and most sought- after. Some wives had their dresses made up locally but you could tell at a glance when fashion trends took about two years to reach us.

During this silent two hours in the afternoon, the various teenagers in the hotel would coalesce, playing tennis, giggling, talking, and sharing, I remember, the whole series of books on Tarzan in the jungle. Unfortunately for me, I quickly became bored with them and Tarzan, and after a few weeks was back on my own, stemming boredom with what my stepmother dismissively called, my highbrow pleasures- whatever poetry and history I could find, all and any literature. This left me indifferent to Tarzan.

Some childless friends of my parents who lived in Penang permanently took a fancy to me, and began inviting me to their fascinating house filled with books and art. They introduced me to opera on their new-fangled long- playing records and took me to a film of Faust. I was hooked and took back with me to school a precious gift from them of a 78 record of Joan Hammond’s standard, “Oh, my beloved daddy”. I never got to play it. It warped in the heat during the way up from Tapah on the journey to school in the Cameron Highlands.

Between four and four-thirty, all over Malaya, in rest-houses and residencies, homes and hotels, the amah knocked on the door of every bedroom, and deposited a tray with a pot of tea, a plate of rich tea biscuits and a clump of the tiny, sweet, Malayan bananas. This we would consume at leisure, dressed in a cool cotton housecoat, and if we were lucky, enjoy for an hour the coolness of convection rain which fell at the same time every day, in sudden sheets. The coolness lasted only as long as the rain, and then the sun would return, and steam would rise and it would feel hotter and stickier than before.

Simultaneously with the tea-tray, the house-boy would deliver the clean laundry, our stiff, rustling, starched dresses, and white shoes cleaned with white Meltonian polish. After a shower, we dressed for dinner, and descended the stairs for the ritual of salted pea-nuts in cut glass saucers and drinks before dinner. Sometimes one of my father’s friends would ask if they could include me in a round of Pimms, which I thought the height of sophistication, but usually it was lemonade for me, or better still, a delicious fresh lime.

And then for the third time in a day, the long walk down the pillared ball-room for another stately meal at our own tables, before sitting on the veranda under the stars in the warm tropical night, sipping coffee with dreadful tinned and boiled milk from tiny, old fashioned coffee cups. The scent of frangipani hovered amidst the inevitable cigarette smoke, and sometimes a sampan with a single fisherman would drift silently past where the sea lapped against the garden wall, and as he scooped his net, or dragged his oars, a shower of gleaming phosphorescence would show us where he was on the dark water.

During the months I was waiting to be accepted into boarding school in the Cameron Highlands, my parents arranged tutoring for me in the mornings. To keep up with my Latin, I attended a Chinese convent where they had a Latin class every morning at seven o’clock, so I set out to walk through the deserted streets at six thirty. I nearly died  of embarrassment as no European was ever seen actually walking at that hour in the morning, and everyone stared at me.

It was a pointless exercise, because I couldn’t understand the accents of the Chinese nuns reading Latin. I was completely defeated, and never kept up with the place in Virgil that we were supposed to be translating.

I came up against this problem again, during my French oral exam for School Certificate the following year. We were laboriously ferried down from school to Tapah, with all the palaver of armoured transport, troop carriers, guns and all, and on to Ipoh to visit a Chinese convent where the nuns spoke French, and were accredited to examine us.

This was a ponderous joke, which we all mutually recognised but never acknowledged, because they knew that our school-girl French was not up to understanding their Chinese -French, and they couldn’t understand our clumsy Anglo- French. So they gave us the benefit of the doubt and we all passed our French oral.

To be continued

Food for threadbare gourmets

When we’d eaten all we could of the roast chicken at Easter, I boiled up the carcass. The resulting jelly was too good to put in a soup. I made a risotto with it instead. I pre-cooked an onion in the micro-wave, and then tipped ut into a frying pan, lubricated with chicken fat from the roast chicken. Three chopped mushrooms and a teaspoon of garlic (from a jar!) went in next, and adding more chicken fat, I poured in a cup of Arborio rice.

When it was translucent I added a glass of good white wine, and before it had all boiled away started adding the chicken stock which also had small chunks of chicken from the carcass in it. There was enough to cook the rice completely, and when I started to run out at the end I added some milk… then cream, then a good knob of butter. When the rice was soft, I stirred in a couple of table spoons of freshly grated parmesan, and covered the pan for five minutes.

When we tucked in, I nearly swooned with greedy delight… each grain of rice glistening with stock and butter and cream was sumptuous. It didn’t even need any more parmesan, it was so delicious. I will never cook risotto again unless I have real chicken stock… bouillon cubes just don’t cut it any more!

Food for thought

 Always say “yes” to the present moment. What could be more futile, more insane, than to create inner resistance to what already is? what could be more insane than to oppose life itself, which is now and always now? Surrender to what is. Say “yes” to life — and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you.                               Eckhart Tolle, spiritual teacher

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under army, colonial life, cookery/recipes, culture, family, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, uncategorised, Uncategorized

Kingdom by the sea

Image result for lulworth cove
A life – this is another instalment of an autobiographical series before I revert to my normal blogs.

Three years, three schools. During the next three years I went to three different schools, as my father went from one army posting to another.  Richmond High School was unusual. It had been built just before the war started, and was a no- expense-spared, state of the art modern building with even the chairs and tables designed ergonomically and in harmony with each-other and the architecture.

Unlike the historic boy’s grammar school nestled down in the town opposite the medieval parish church, the girls’ school was built high above the River Swale on the edge of the town looking across rolling farmland.

Designed by Denis Clarke Hall, a modernist architect, whose father was one of the founders of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children – NCPCC – it broke new ground for school design. Building was completed in 1940, the windows arriving miraculously from Switzerland, and the school furniture was designed by the great Finnish designer Alvar Aalto.

From the entrance hall the staff rooms, and library led off to the right, the assembly hall to the left, and straight ahead stretched a long, blue- tiled light-filled corridor for about a hundred yards. On the right, three short blue-tiled corridors or stalks as they were known, branched off from the main corridor at intervals, and at the end, divided into two classrooms. The classrooms were large, high-ceilinged airy rooms with windows stretching along two sides, from desk height to ceiling, and equipped with full- length Venetian blinds – very modern in 1950.

In the cloakroom, we each had our own hooks for hats and coats, and beneath them fitted benches equipped with shoe boxes for our indoor shoes. Similarly, in the gym cloakroom and showers, we had our own hooks for shorts and gym vest, towel and shoe racks. It was a perfect example of architecture actually working for the purpose it was designed, with no fish-hooks in it. It also educated my eye, so I was already in tune with the lines of Scandinavian architecture and furniture design which became the rage during the fifties and sixties.

From here I went to Aldershot Grammar, an old fashioned red brick building, over-used and over-crowded, and I missed the beauty of Yorkshire, the charm of old Richmond, the great achingly-empty spaces of the moors, the thick leafy trees in the dale, and rushing water of the River Swale, ruined abbeys, medieval churches and the Norman castle. Then, moving from the built-up Aldershot garrison town and rather grim grammar school, I started yet again at Swanage Grammar, another red brick building, this time on the edge of a sea-side town.

It had a joyous atmosphere, partly due to the constant creativity nurtured within its walls. The annual arts festival was the focus of our lives for a large chunk of the year, during which we wrote and painted and rehearsed, and the classrooms rang with choirs practising, soloists practising their instruments and voices singing and declaiming poetry and speeches…

The festival was so devised that everyone could find some talents to develop and was required to enter four events… I won the short story competition, and the declamation prize, making my mark with Shakespeare’s ‘This royal throne of kings’.

Today, these three schools no longer exist. The first was merged with the medieval boy’s grammar school and local secondary modern schools, the second seems to have disappeared so thoroughly it’s not even in records, and the third stands empty, merged with other area schools. I find it sad.

Each school I went to belonged to a different examining board, the Oxford, Cambridge and London, so I had to start afresh with a different syllabus at each one, and this was where my reading stood me in good stead, though it didn’t help with my disjointed maths career. My navy school uniform which had lasted me since the first school, just made it to the day I left to go to Malaya, darned and skimpy and about to collapse! In the two schools with brown uniform I had stood out like a sore thumb.

After my London holiday, my next was in France, an adventure I wrote about in my blog called My Tour de France. The last summer holiday before leaving England was at Lulworth Cove. We lived there for a year, and to get to school at Swanage  I had to catch a bus at 7am, change to catch a train at Wareham, arriving in Swanage to catch another bus up to school. The return journey saw me wearily arrive home at six o’ clock.

It was a hard year. I cooked my own breakfast- one egg, one rasher of bacon and a piece of bread-  at six thirty, fed and let out the twelve chickens and two geese we had invested in to feed the whole family at Christmas, and left the sleeping household undisturbed as I went to catch the bus. A finicky eater, I couldn’t stomach the dreadful school lunches, but since my stepmother was sure that I had had a good midday meal, and was also sure that I had eaten it, tea back home was just some toast, followed by cornflakes before I went to bed after finishing my homework. I was always hungry.

I used my penny for the bus up to school and back to the train, to buy a dough-nut for the return train journey like every- one else, until my step-mother discovered this. Always hard-up, she decided that if I could walk and run the last mile to school and back, I didn’t need the penny each way, so I sat in the train and watched everyone else eat their snack, pretending my stomach was not rumbling with hunger.

As soon as I got home, there were the chickens and the geese to round up and feed, and shut up for the night in their respective huts. Homework and then bed at eight completed the day. But a bookworm can’t stop reading so I would read whatever book was obsessing me, kneeling by the bedroom door to use the crack of light from the hall, until my parents went to bed.

This was the year I discovered Thomas Hardy, beginning with Tess of the D’Urbervilles. This was Hardy country, we all read him, and talked about him, and echoes of his words haunted every corner of this beautiful place once known as Summerlands.

The Dorset country-side was enchanting, old grey stone cottages, and historic unchanging villages, nestled in the folds of the valleys on the Isle of Purbeck, where hedges were bent against the prevailing wind from the Channel, fat lowland sheep grazed, and ancient churches dreamed through all the days. History and folk lore and old memories brought each place alive for me.

Every morning on the bus, we drove past the grey stone Elizabethan manor house where Tess spent the first night of her honeymoon with Angel Clare… round the corner in Wool was the ruined abbey where Angel carried her when he was sleep walking…  While Norman Corfe Castle, where the Roundheads in 1645 had twice besieged and finally overcome Lady Mary Bankes and her Royalist garrison by a betrayal from inside – and which was then ruined on Cromwell’s orders – was a historical landmark on our journey.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of history was a moment in our present. At eight o clock on the 28th January 1953, just as the train pulled out of Wareham Station, we looked at the time, and silence fell on the carriage of eight girls of different ages. We sat there in a long tense vigil, and it was a long time before anyone broke the silence, as we all lived and died the last few moments of nineteen- year -old Derek Bentley’s short life as he was hanged in London.

It seemed utterly unbearable that a life should be taken in such a brutal way, that a life should just be obliterated while we sat with bated breath in our little train travelling towards school for another day of life and laughter and learning. (Sixteen- year- old Christopher Craig, who actually shot and killed the policeman in the case, served ten years and on release became a plumber.)

That summer of my fourteenth birthday, my stepmother’s nephew came to spend the long holidays with us. She adored him, and gave him wonderful memories of idyllic weeks with picnics and expeditions every day. This was idyllic for me too, since I was the one taking him for the picnics and long walks and jaunts to the different beaches and bays.

With our satchels filled with egg sandwiches and sometimes ginger pop, we would set off, our favourite place being a remote bay down a steep cliff, called Man o’ War Bay. We walked up the hill past a fascinating Lutyens house, through fields, down crumbling steps to reach the pebbly beach and blue water, clear as crystal, and played and swam until time to come home.

Back home, my stepmother who never made cakes, had a magnificent high tea waiting for us with scrambled eggs or baked beans on toast followed by warm, freshly baked, utterly delicious date cake. The whole holiday felt like something out of Enid Blyton, ‘Four Go Away on Holiday’ sort of thing, without a care in the world.

Most weekends for the rest of the year, I explored remote bays and paths that few walkers could ever use, for I roamed across the shooting ranges of the Gunnery School where my father was second in command. So I was able to reach forbidden and forbidding Arish Mell Gap, and to explore the desolately lovely village of Tyneham – commandeered by the army in 1943 to practise firing on the land surrounding it. In the early fifties, the two hundred villagers had only been gone for ten years, so their homes hadn’t suffered too much damage from gunnery shells or the decay of desertion. Back then it was a particularly beautiful English village, haunted by its past and untouched by the present, where time had stood still.

From there I’d scramble up to the 2,500 -year- old Iron Age fort, where later, the Romans had eventually wrestled it from the local Durotriges tribe and then maintained their own watch, and I’d look down on Worbarrow Bay, also out of bounds. In the other direction, I went for solitary swims right round at the furthest edge of the curve of the circle of Lulworth Cove, the legendary beauty spot on the Jurassic Coast. Once I swam in mist so dense I couldn’t see further than a few yards, just deep green water surrounding me and feeling long slippery strands of sea-weed waving between my legs…

When it rained, I would kneel on the sheep skin rug on the floor in my bedroom and lose myself in my latest library book. Though none of my school friends lived nearby, I was never lonely, as I had a rich interior life – books, art, music, the history of ballet, ancient Egypt, history, poetry – all these interests meant I was never bored, but always dreaming, always in the midst of some absorbing passion. So I was overcome by grief at the end of The Mill on the Floss, mesmerised by autocratic Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre, irritated by Emma, loathed Becky Sharp,  hated Jack London’s Sea Wolf, loved Prince Andrei and Natasha, mystified by Virginia Wolff’s allusive writing and learned by heart ‘Annabel Lee’, in her kingdom by the sea.

I spent a lot of time painting. My father would bring me long strips of cardboard from the packings of the shells they fired every day on the ranges. These strips were about eighteen inches wide and three feet long, and on them I depicted in the vivid poster paints always given to me for Christmas – nursey rhyme characters like Wee Willie Winkie, Little Boy Blue, Miss Moffat and all the others. These pictures adorned not just my brother’s bedroom, but the toddler’s bedrooms of many of my stepmother’s friends.

Years later one mother told me she still had these pictures. I was known as ‘good with children’, so often these same friends would borrow me to amuse their toddlers in those days before play groups and kindergartens. One mother even borrowed me for a fortnight to look after her toddler while she was recovering from the birth of her second child.

While we lived here by the sea, with the help of the army padre I was confirmed in Salisbury Cathedral, and shortly after, the King suddenly died on 6th February 1952. We still, in those days, stood when he had given his speech after Christmas dinner and the National Anthem was played. The radio – no TV for us then – only played chamber music, as it was called – for a week, the newspapers were framed in black, and we all felt we were part of a huge national event.

The new Queen was young and beautiful… and now after the passage of time, and the longest reign in English history, it will seem perhaps even more apocalyptic when her spoiled elderly heir inherits that ‘royal throne of kings’.

The following year sweets came ‘off ration’ in the week before we sailed for Malaya. For the first time in my life sweet shops were full of sweets/candy instead of running out of stocks in the first few hours, and it was possible to buy as much chocolate we wanted, without waiting in a long queue and having to count out a measure of measly sweet coupons!

To be continued

Food for threadbare gourmets

 I’ve always loved date cake since that year by the sea… and this recipe brings back those days. Soak 250 gms of dates in a cup and a half of boiling water and a teasp of bicarbonate of soda for about 30 minutes until the dates are soft. Beat 125 gms of softened butter, three quarters or more of a cup of brown sugar, and a teasp of vanilla. When pale and creamy add two eggs one at a time, and then stir in the date mixture and two cups of SR flour.

Pour into a greased tin, the bottom lined with greaseproof paper (I use a loaf tin) and a bake in an oven at 180 degrees C for about forty minutes, or until a blade comes out clean. I often sprinkle the top with extra white sugar, just because if I’m going to indulge in sugar, it might as well be really sweet!

Food for thought

 Don’t take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

The Second Agreement from The Four Agreements by Miguel Ruiz

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My army life

Image result for Catterick camp circa 1950

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

I had left the convent and started the state high school at the same time that an army quarter became available at Catterick Camp, where my father’s cavalry regiment was stationed. Not only was it a place where thousands of young men trained and soldiered, it was also home to generations of children like myself, who grew up with the names of old battles in our ears. Catterick was divided into smaller camps, each one like a small town, and each with its own name, Cambrai, Kemmel, Somme, Ypres. My father’s regiment occupied Menin Lines. The roads were named after Generals. We lived in Haig Road, next door to French Road, and then Rawlinson Road. Long before I knew anything about the First World War, I knew all the names and places.

We children also knew the regiments our fathers belonged to, and took as much pride in them as though we were serving in them ourselves, indulging in the same military snobberies that our parents did. Those of us with fathers in cavalry regiments felt infinitely superior to the rest. We acknowledged girls with fathers in infantry regiments, but felt only pity for children with parents in corps, so that Caroline, who lived in the largest house in the street because her father was a brigadier, was somewhat patronised by we children, because her father was ‘only’ in the Royal Signals.

As I walked home from school, and passed each army quarter I would amuse myself by chanting under my breath the names of the historic regiments that each inhabitant belonged to… 17/21st Lancers, Royal Signals, 15/19th Hussars, Royal Army Service Corps, 12th Lancers, Fifth Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, (Captain Oates of the Antarctic’s regiment), and the 14/20th Kings Hussars.

My father had given me all Wellington’s Peninsula campaigns to read, including Captain Titus Oates’ favourite reading in the Antarctic -Napier’s History of the Peninsula Wars – so I was well up on the history of many of these old regiments. Conan Doyle’s tales about Sir Nigel and the White Company in medieval France, combined with Joan Grant’s books on Egypt and re-incarnation, The Three Musketeers’, The Scarlet Pimpernel’, ‘I Claudius’ and lots of John Buchan were also part of my eclectic reading list.

Rare excursions to the cinema were so exciting. I was allowed to see ‘Hamlet’, ‘Henry V, and ‘Oliver Twist’, and it was considered that ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ was also suitably educational. The moment when they killed the ponies – rather sanitised, in hindsight – is preserved in amber in my memory. Forget the men, it was the ponies I cried for.

Like everyone else, my father had his own batman, who, like everyone else’s batman, did lots of domestic chores like cleaning the silver, fetching coal, chopping wood, and even vacuuming, when he’d finished polishing brass buttons and chain mail, leather Sam Browne, shoes, long, leather Wellington boots and silver spurs.

Maloney was a tall gawky Irishman, with buck teeth and a drinking problem. I knew this because when he arrived at eight in the morning, I would smell it on his breath when I sneaked out to the scullery where he was polishing shoes, to ask him the time. The bus went at eight twenty- five, and there was just time to walk the mile from the bus-stop the other end to get to school for nine o’clock.

My parents had trouble getting up every morning, and though I was expected to cook breakfast for them at the weekends, my stepmother became angry if I started to cook the breakfast during the week, as this implied criticism of her. From seven- thirty every day of my life I hovered in the kitchen in an agony of suspense, as the minutes ticked by, getting to the point where I would miss the bus. As long as she arrived in the kitchen by ten past eight there was just time to gobble the food, grab my coat and satchel and run.

I prepared as much of the breakfast as I could, to make it a lightning cooking operation when my stepmother appeared, but too often I bolted down the bacon, egg, tomato, and fried bread so I felt sick as I ran to the main road for the bus. I begged just to have toast for breakfast, but my stepmother was adamant that we should all have a “good breakfast”.

I don’t know how much good it would have done, eaten at that level of tension. At the other end at school, there was disgrace, and punishment for being late, as if children had any control over their comings and goings. There were also the embarrassing interviews with the headmistress over why I wasn’t wearing school uniform… I walked around in a blue tweed skirt when everyone else was kitted out by their proud parents in the navy school uniform. When I finally got mine it had to last for the next three years through five inches of growth and  two more schools, both with brown uniforms, not navy blue, and I darned the seat until the repairs were breaking away from the worn, shiny fabric.

This was a humiliating experience for a suppressed fashionista who overheard sotto voce remarks from clever classmates about genteel poverty, and whose siblings at private schools were immaculately equipped. I only had thin white cotton socks even in winter, and my feet were so frozen in the north country cold that I was in real pain while they thawed out at school. The excruciating chilblains which covered my legs and fingers were partly from this I suppose, and partly from magnesium deficiency, probably the result of the level of tension I lived at.

Maloney, the batman, was terrified of my parents too, and he would silently show me his watch as the minutes ticked by. Whenever he went home to Ireland on leave, he couldn’t face coming back, and would go absent without leave until the Military Police found him in some Irish pub, and returned him, and he would then serve his time in “the glasshouse”, as my parents called it, though I never knew why.

And then, he would re- appear one morning, looking sheepish. I always missed him, as well as his watch, when he went on leave. During the holidays, there was a different sort of tension, both in the morning and after lunch before my father went back to his office. Every officer carried a swagger stick in those days, and my father was always mislaying his. If I was around I was expected to look for it, and find it. The dreaded cry would go up: “I’ve lost my stick”, and I’d fly into frenzied action, not always successfully.

The children who lived around us fell into two, very distinctive groups just after the war, those who were afraid of their parents and those who weren’t. The lucky ones had fathers who had bonded with them again when the war was over – these fathers had usually been in non-combatant corps. Others had fathers like mine who had fought  bloody battles for six years, and who now spent just as many years recovering from the war, went on having nightmares regularly, drank heavily to deaden the pain, and often treated their children like the soldiers in their command. They’d be treated for post- traumatic stress disorder in these more enlightened days.

Many of us had post-war brothers and sisters who had displaced us. I recognised, even then, the faint air of anxiety in the mothers of several of my friends who were torn between alcoholic husbands- sometimes violent- their first pre-war child, and the new baby.

Like me, the older child would be shunted out to Sunday School, and sent to do the weekly shopping. Like me, the older child would have chores in the house to do, while the other group were out playing. We tended to play with the children in our own group. It was hard to explain to children who had tolerant or reasonable parents why we couldn’t do such and such, or why we were so terrified if we were late home, or tore a dress, or lost a hair ribbon.

In those days, I never came by elastic bands to hold the ribbons on my plaits. I don’t even know if they were available, or whether my stepmother had decided they were an unnecessary extravagance when we were hard-up. Whatever the reason, my hair ribbons were always slipping off my plaits, and I spent hours re-tracing my foot-steps, looking for a crushed bow on the pavement.  The children with parents like ours understood instantly when we went into panic over some trivial incident or couldn’t invite them home.

We all wordlessly envied the other group, whose individuals we sometimes described as being “spoiled”. Children like William, for example, whose mother doted on him, and Priscilla and Jane whose parents never minded if they brought us home, Caroline, an only child whose mother encouraged her to invite me to tea and to play. I was allowed to have her back for tea once, and it was so stiff with us all trying to behave like a relaxed, happy family that I never tried again.

Melanie and her brother had horsy, hunting parents, and whereas Melanie didn’t mind riding, her seven-year old brother Conrad was permanently in disgrace because he was terrified, and often vomited before his riding lesson. This didn’t save him. Their mother spent most of her time hunting and judging hunter trials. Their father became an MFH (Master of the Fox Hounds) when he retired from the regiment. I saw Melanie’s wedding photo in Tatler at fashionable St Margaret’s, Westminster, years later. Her eyes were now ice-cold blue like her mother’s, her face a frozen mask.

Moira was such a wreck at eight years old, that my stepmother recognised it, and told me to be kind to her because she had a hard time. She never defined what the hard time was, though I knew. The awful thing about it was that none of us children could stand Moira because she personified how we felt at our very worst. And she was like it all the time. Her mother was tall and elegant, with a beaky nose and long red painted nails, and was like a vulture pecking incessantly at the truly wretched child. Today we’d call it emotional abuse, and it’s still the easiest form of sadism to inflict on a child without being discovered.

I myself seemed to spend a lot of time in disgrace, which meant being banished up to my bedroom, until given permission to come down. This sometimes meant all day, and missed meals. It was often freezing in winter. I identified deeply with David Copperfield sitting up in his room, terrified of Mr and Miss Murdstone downstairs. Sometimes I wasn’t told when it was okay to come out of banishment and if I came out too soon, I wasn’t penitent and if I came out too late, I was sulking.

My misdemeanours were trivial, like the problem with my hair. Every Saturday, after it was washed, I had to towel it dry. This meant I was left with a headful of tangles looking like Medusa. The bakelite combs of those days were brittle and broke easily, and time and again, a tooth would snap. And time and again I was in disgrace for this.

Another time I was confronted with an old French exercise book my stepmother had found while I was at school. On the last blank page, having no other drawing paper, I had spent a happy Saturday afternoon drawing an oak tree in the field next door. She insisted I must have done it during a French lesson, and when I asked her why she didn’t believe me, she said if I had done it legitimately, I couldn’t have resisted boastfully showing it to them. At this I knew I was beaten. When I cried for hours in my room, I would try to console myself by promising myself that one day I would write about it.

It was now that I became a ward of court. If it was a bad time for me, in hindsight I realise it was also bad for my parents. With their money draining away on court cases, in which my father had obstinately refused to concede that I should see the mother I never mentioned (of course not, I thought she was a taboo subject, and that no-one knew where she was), he took refuge from that and everything else, in heavy drinking.

This was an easy thing to do in good company in a rich cavalry regiment after the war. But this left my stepmother short of companionship as well as money in the snobbish society of the regiment.  I was at the end of this chain of despair. I knew my stepmother was depressed when she came down to breakfast wearing powder, but no lipstick. She was particularly depressed when she wore a brown and fawn checked, swagger jacket which didn’t suit her, and no lipstick. The tip of her nose used to turn pink when she was angry. I carefully watched for all these signs.

Christmas parties were a feature of childhood social life in this group. I used to feel sick when I woke in the morning, and knew the day of the party had arrived. We would arrive and be taken upstairs to divest ourselves of our coats. I had long since grown out of my lovely blue coat with velvet collar, and was down to a navy gaberdine school mac. Each little girl would surreptitiously size up each newcomer as she stripped off and revealed her party finery. The fashion was for velvet dresses, and ballet shoes while all I had was a summer dress, and indoor shoes, a deprivation hard to forget even as we played party games and danced to the gramophone.

One of the best games was called Kim’s Game. A tray laden with small objects would be laid in front of us, and then after a few minutes, taken away, and we had to remember everything, and write a list. I nearly always won this game. We played charades too, and the game ‘Murder in the Dark’, and, best of all. Sir Roger de Coverley, danced just before the party ended, with the nannies and other parents come to collect their children, clapping from the side.

Then, out into the dark and the cold, to walk home alone, the ordeal over until the next one…back home to wake to the faint sounds of reveille drifting across the sports fields from the regimental barracks, and hearing the haunting strains of the last post as I waited for sleep at night.

To be continued – next – The pleasures of London

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 After sampling a Dutch neighbour’s gingerbread, I felt I had to rise to the occasion when she came to tea with me. I used a favourite and easy friand recipe. In a bowl place one and a half cups of ground almonds, and the same of sifted icing sugar, half a cup of flour, and combine.   Add six lightly beaten egg whites, stir together, then stir in 100 gms of unsalted melted butter and a tablespoon of grated lemon zest.

Spoon into a greased muffin tin and bake for 20 to 25 minutes in the oven at160c. The friands should be springy to touch, and moist in the centre. Dust with icing sugar and devour!!! This amount makes twelve.

Food for thought

 Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand that this too was a gift…

from The Uses of Sorrow by Mary Oliver

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Nuns, nice habits and strange foibles

Valerie10.jpg

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

I never had any trouble remembering the date of my baby brother’s birth, because when we arrived back in England from Belsen, we were sent to school at a convent in Yorkshire. It was with the sisters of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, a Belgian teaching order. My brother’s birthday was the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, one of many feast days when we were sent home, presumably so the nuns could pay due reverence to the day, unhampered by their fee- paying pupils, and causing my parents to grumble that they spent all this money in order for us to stay home.

Sometimes, as at Corpus Christi, we were required to attend in order to parade and go to Mass, and draw holy pictures. This was a time of severe mortification for me, because not being Catholic, our parents refused to buy us white dresses and veils to wear on feast days.

On the other hand, thanks to the books I had read with my grandmother, I was bigotedly anti-Catholic, and had no qualms about being different. The nuns themselves were mostly gentle and sophisticated women, many of them French or Belgian, others English. My form teacher, who was also the maths teacher, was the most avidly religious person at the convent and not a nun at all. Rather, she was an Irish Catholic, and, as I discovered later in New Zealand, she embraced a very different brand of Catholicism. ‘

Not to put too fine a point on it, she rammed religion and her devotion down our throats, exhorting us amongst other things, to bring old clothes to her to dispense to the needy. As she gathered them in from everyone except me, she would regularly intone, ” Ah, gurrells, it’s boi moi gude deeds to the puir that I hope to go to heaven.” She would interrupt long division to make us all stand up and say The Angelus, and we would then pray for the parents of all the unfortunate girls who had one Protestant parent. Since both my parents were Protestant, this was a prayer I obstinately refused to join in, as I had no regrets about their situation.

One day, her propaganda about “puir St Thomas Moore”, wicked Protestants and suffering Catholics enraged me so much, that having  just finished one of my father’s books, a history of the Borgia family, I had enough ammunition, I felt, with the Inquisition and the scandal of the Avignon Popes, to take her on. I never got beyond the Borgia Pope and a quick mention of the Inquisition, before she clapped her hands over her ears, and drowned me out by shouting: “What a pack of Protestant lies.” No-one liked me very much after that, and I would always be left to last when they were picking teams for netball and rounders.

One person who did like me, perhaps a little too much, was Mother Michael, a rather coarse -looking Englishwoman compared with the refined foreign nuns. She was not a teacher so much as our house- mother, and she was obsessed with long hair. My long, almost black, thick plaits were meat and drink to her. Every lunch hour I was dragged off to the big, sunny cloakroom-cum ante-room, and had my plaits ceremoniously undone, and brushed out.

The brushing went on all through play-time, and I never got to play with anyone. As the time for the bell drew near, she’d plait the blessed things up again, refusing to let me do them. She dragged the hair round my face quite differently to the way I scraped my hair back myself, and I’d get home every day, looking quite unlike the school girl who had set out in the morning.

Every day my stepmother would ask what was going on, and when I told her about the brushing and the plaiting, she’d say “It’s got to stop”. But I didn’t know how to stop it, so it went on until Mother Michael fell in love with another girl with long plaits.

The nuns wore elegant, plum- red gaberdine habits, with a long swinging pleated skirt, and a thick, beautiful cord with long tassels round their waist. Their rosaries also hung from this fat cord, and they had long, soft white wool veils which swung in the wind when they borrowed our roller skates and took a turn round the rink in the evenings when everyone was inside, doing their homework. The garden beside the skating rink plunged down towards Our Lady’s grotto, and then to the River Tees.

I would gaze out of the classroom window in our annexe called The Hermitage, in winter, and see the black, lacy boughs of the empty trees, the black running water of the river, white snow, and sometimes a flame- coloured squirrel silhouetted in the trees against the pale winter sky. The main convent building was grim, grey, Victorian Gothic, with long, shiny, lino-floored corridors where feet and voices echoed. It smelt of incense and wax candles, lino polish, and nearer the kitchens, carbolic soda and grease. In alcoves at regular intervals along the echoing corridors, painted statues of saints draped with rosaries presided. I glared at them like a latter-day Oliver Cromwell as our crocodile straggled to chapel for prayers every day after lunch.

I always enjoyed Retreat, three or four days of silence when we spent most of our time drawing and painting holy pictures, instead of wrestling with fractions, and going to chapel for mass, as well as the regular after- lunch prayers, and then Benediction. I hated the priest who came to the convent for the occasion, and whom all the nuns fluttered around and flattered and fawned upon. To the cynical ten-year-old looking coldly on, he looked like a very boring, not very bright man, who relished in an unspiritual fashion, the entirely undeserved attention he received.

I was happy to go to chapel as often as we did during Retreat, as I had figured out that God was everywhere so it didn’t matter where you were beating his ear. I had no idea why we were doing all this, but then, a lot of things puzzled me… so I loved the reverent silence of the whole day, including the silent meals with severe, beautiful Mother John standing at her lectern, reading from the lives of saints. During these meals we ate Assumption Tart, known to us all as Sumpies.

The story of the three fashionable Belgian Victorian women who decided to found the Order was read aloud as we ate the tart. None of them knew how to cook, clean, or sew, and so in the first week, the lady nun assigned to cooking duties threw together some ingredients in a panic and produced the hard, yellow crust of almost inedible pastry on which jam was smeared and which we still ate. We all welcomed Sumpies on the menu, as at least the jam was sweet, the only ingredient which had any taste. The convent food was still obviously flung together by nuns who could not cook.

During Retreat, our class was visited by both Reverend Mother, and Mother Superior, causing an outbreak of curtsying and crossing ourselves. Since no-one ever explained anything to children in those days, I couldn’t work out why a young Reverend Mother seemed more important than a Mother Superior. Reverend Mother was Polish, about twenty-eight, very young to have reached such rank, and had an indefinable air of holiness about her. She also had an amazing complexion, pale skin and brilliant red cheeks. She received total devotion from everyone, and she fascinated me. Sometimes she wasn’t well enough to come to our weekly audience with her, so Mother Adelaide, Mother Superior, came instead.

My father adored Mother Adelaide. She was just the sort of woman he loved, witty and wise, French, sophisticated, clever and rather beautiful. Long after, when I heard that Reverend Mother had died the following year of TB, I realised that Mother Adelaide had left her duties as superior of the order, to come over from Belgium to keep things going with as little disturbance to everyone, including the beloved young nun.

After a while, it was decided that my sister would do better at school on her own. So I agreed to ” sit the scholarship” in order to go to the local grammar school. My stepmother was then summoned for an interview with the county education authorities. She told me that they informed her that my maths was so abysmal there was no way I could qualify for higher education. But my English and general knowledge were so far ahead of my age, that there was no way they could not give me a scholarship. Nothing much has changed since then, my maths are still abysmal.

To be continued

Food for threadbare gourmets

I had some wonderful coloured -peppers, red, yellow and orange, and instead of cooking them in my usual way, I tried a Jamie Oliver recipe – with adaptations! I chopped the three peppers and added them to a chopped onion, plenty of garlic and olive oil to sweat them until cooked. When soft I added a good glug of balsamic vinegar and boiled it all together, and then salt and pepper to taste.

This is where Jamie Oliver comes in. He recommended tossing in a generous handful of parmesan cheese and some table spoons of mascapone or cream cheese.  Stir it all together until everything is melted and amalgamated. He served it with pasta and I served it with steak and mushrooms, and it was delicious.. It may have been better with pasta but I won’t be using the cream cheese again.

Food for thought

If you truly get in touch with a piece of carrot, you get in touch with the soil, the rain, the sunshine. You get in touch with Mother Earth and eating in such a way, you feel in touch with true life, your roots, and that is meditation. If we chew every morsel of our food in that way we become grateful and when you are grateful, you are happy.
Thich Nhat Hanh. Vietnamese Buddhist teacher

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Was I a snowflake?

Image result for radipole weymouth dorset
A life – part four

 

When we occasionally walked past what was known as the elementary school in those days, I used to shudder. The grim Victorian building, the concrete playground and iron railings, the noise and roughness of it horrified me. I was so grateful, even as a small child, that I went to my sheltered little school.

Unlike most prep schools one reads about in that period my private school was neither cruel, sadistic or frightening – perhaps because it was owned by a woman and all our teachers were women, except for the wonderful history teacher.

Miss MacFarlane-Watts, owner and head mistress, was a tall commanding woman with thick, grey hair cut almost as short as a man’s. She wore white shirts with a tie, heavy pleated skirts, tweed jackets, thick stockings and flat lace- up shoes. Without ever having heard the word lesbian or even a discussion about genders, I knew she was different… and we all accepted her as such. School was a large Edwardian house set in tree- ringed grounds and lawns, not far from where we lived.

As a fashionista even at that age, I rather enjoyed our school uniform… white blouses and navy blue pleated tunics with a braid belt for the girls, and grey shorts and jumpers for the boys. Our hats were my real pride and joy, a big brimmed, deep crowned navy- blue, thick, velour hat for winter with a striped ribbon with the school colours, and a wide-brimmed Panama hat for summer – they were so big that we little girls must have looked like mushrooms beneath them, and it was amazing that items of such quality were still available at this point in the war. We kept these expensive hats from flying off in a wind with a piece of elastic which went under our chins. Even our gabardine macintoshes were the finest quality.

Clothes had always figured largely in my life even as a toddler, when I remember the broiderie anglais edging my white petticoat, and relished my delicate little smocked ninon dresses, one in pink, the other in blue… does anyone even know what ninon is today … a fine net covered in tiny balls of fluff is my recollection.

My grandmother inevitably had somewhat old- fashioned ideas about clothes, one of which was to kit us out in liberty bodices… a sort of cotton layer worn on top of a vest and under a jumper, with buttons round the waist to hook a skirt on. They weren’t too bad, but I shrivelled with embarrassment when she sent me to school in antique leather gaiters to keep warm. They stretched the length of my leg, and the tiny buttons running that whole length had to be prized open with a button hook to get them off… this experiment was abandoned when I couldn’t cope with getting them off for physical education!

The day we arrived at this school, the infant mistress – who seemed  enormous to me – swung my tiny blonde  sister up in the air, looked into  her big blue eyes fringed with impossibly long black lashes, and said  “Oh, what a little Topsy!”  She didn’t take to me… children always know… and a few days later, she said to my bewildered little sister: “If your sister put her head in a bucket of water, you would too, wouldn’t you?” To which my sister baldly replied “Yes”.

It was a kind environment. A few years later, when I was eight and one of the big girls, my brother started school. He was so frightened by the experience that he was sent up to my classroom, and was allowed to sit by my side at my desk for days until he was ready to cope on his own.

Lessons were archaic. We learned to write copperplate, often using badly crossed nibs to write rows of letters over and over again until we got the right angle and shape of each letter. On handwriting days, the ink monitor – (never me – I was such an introvert that no-one even knew if I could cope with such responsibility, and I was happy to be overlooked) brought the tray of inkwells in, and they were passed along the rows of desks… then the pens… inevitably there would be spills – usually by a hapless boy.

Each day began with chanting boring times tables, while we sat with our arms folded, and I sometimes think the ritual may have been a calming meditative exercise too, for we never had any rowdiness or fuss to disturb the quiet orderliness of the classroom.

Art lessons nearly broke my heart. I was so excited when it was announced that we were now old enough to begin art lessons. But it was a huge let-down. We had to learn to draw a straight line, making short feathery strokes with our pencils. After a couple of lessons when we had mastered this arcane skill, we graduated to drawing a rectangular box and tackling perspective. With this accomplishment behind us we were now ready to be introduced to colour ! Hurray! We were instructed to bring a laurel leaf with red berry attached to the stalk to school the next day. Alas, our laurel hedge had no berries, so no lovely red for me, just boring green and yellow spotted leaves.

No computers then, so we competed with pencil cases, and collections of hard-to- come- by coloured pencils. We marked our pencils by slicing off a sliver of wood to make a flat surface at the top and then inked our name on it. Indelible pencils were much sought after… you licked the lead, and this made the writing indelible… as for rubbers (erasers if you’re American) – if you lost one, or broke it in half by using it too strenuously, war-time replacements were scarce… whispers criss-crossed the classroom – “can I borrow your rubber”, “can you lend me your red pencil?”

At Christmas we were all dragooned into the Nativity play. I had no idea what it was we were doing… which was not unusual… I spent so much time dreaming that I often missed important information. On this occasion, we all trooped down to the hall nearby, and I found I was an angel along with the other small girls. I was given a triangle to ching on at various not very obvious intervals to me.

The boys seemed to have all the best parts as wise men, wicked kings, shepherds – and of course, Joseph. They also had all the best musical instruments – tambourines, and trumpets, drums and the rest- this was the moment I realised somewhat bitterly that boys/ men had advantages that we girls did not seem to have. And while we stood around in our angel nightgowns in the freezing hall, the teachers seemed to endlessly move rows of chairs around. It was all a complete enigma to me then.

The next year we passed on the nativity play as we’d lost the use of the hall to the American soldiers who used it as their dining hall. They seemed noisy and enormous – wore fur-trimmed jackets – air crew I learned later – and since our back garden abutted onto the back of this hall, showered us with chewing gum, wrapped cubes of sugar – much prized – and sometimes bars of chocolate.

My grandmother gave us three pence pocket money every week, and with this I bought a bar of chocolate every Friday from Mr Duscherer, the German grocer just up the road on the corner. Everyone knew he was German, but I never once heard a word of disparagement about him. He was a big kindly man and I used to watch with pleasure as he prized a wire through a big round of cheese when you ordered a quarter of a pound or whatever the ration was then.

He had a huge machine that cut bacon the way you wanted it – smoky, thick or thin, streaky or back… he would weigh half a pound of biscuits out from big Peak and Frean biscuit tins into brown paper bags – did biscuits not get soggy then, I’ve often wondered, as I try to break into thick layers of cellophane to get into a biscuit packet these days. He sold stamps, posted parcels – usually wrapped in scarce and re-used brown paper, tied with re-used string and sealed with red sealing wax- no ubiquitous cellotape then, and he also stocked Sunny Stories, Enid Blyton’s weekly magazine for children with the long running serial The Faraway Tree in it.

Life seemed simple and safe and satisfying, especially after my grandmother bought me a little blue bicycle, and I no longer needed to make sure that all my dolls were safely tucked up in their cot and had been kissed good night, a ritual which I needed to do when my mother was still with us, and I now recognise as psychological transference.

And with the end of the war it was all about to change dramatically.

To be continued.

 Food for threadbare gourmets

Today, I had one duck leg left over after a little feast yesterday, using a tin my son had given me, so I made a duck risotto. It was delicious. Did the usual, onions, cooked half a dozen finely chopped mushrooms, fried the rice in butter, threw in a glass of good white wine to evaporate, and then added hot stock and a good pinch of dried thyme. When it was nearly cooked, added a generous dollop of cream, some green peas, and the duck meat which shredded beautifully. And then, with duck and orange in mind, added the grated rind of an orange and the orange juice.

When ready, I covered it for ten minutes to sit and mature, then stirred in a big knob of butter and some parmesan. Served with more parmesan, green salad and glass of chilled Riesling, it was rather good.

Food for thought

It is never too late to be what you might have been.      George Eliot, great Victorian woman novelist

 

 

 

 

 

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