I was born in 1938, and have always been fascinated by what was happening in the world at that point in time when I was conceived and born, because the atmosphere and events of those times would have had huge and unknown emotional pressures on the people who bore me.
My father was an army reservist and had been re-called to the army by the time I was ten months. He didn’t return home until I was nearly nine, and when he did, came with a new step-mother. It was like being adopted by strange people who didn’t know me. My own mother had disappeared when I was six.
And in that time of first emerging into this world – my world, and the world of everyone else – was convulsed by war. That world was on fire and I didn’t know it. Battles raged in the sky overhead, warships ranged the sea a few miles away, the country-side and the towns prepared for siege. And I didn’t know it.
So I have tried to track what was happening when I lived in this world, but was unconscious of it, and have read so many diaries which tell me far more than official histories… I’ve read the inner stories of housewives and politicians, pacifists and generals, and have a shelf of books telling how it was for those who lived through the mayhem.
I’ve just finished reading the diaries of Sir Alec Cadogan, who was Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office from the last two years of Appeasement, and then during, and after the war. I learned so much from him that isn’t in the history books. I’d first come across him, when Churchill was wrestling with Stalin over the Russian plans for that tragic country, Poland. His advice, based on the fact that Britain had gone to war to defend Poland, put the moral viewpoint un-erringly.
And the tragedy was that Britain was in no position to risk a third world war by defying Stalin, supported as Stalin was at that time, by Roosevelt. The Free Poles had been based in London throughout the war, and Churchill, Eden, Cadogan and company had had to placate, comfort, and put up with – what I hadn’t realised until reading Cadogan’s diary – the Poles, nagging away all the time, plus fending off the aggressive resident Russians at the Russian Embassy.
The British were also juggling de Gaulle and the internecine rivalries of the resident Free French, plus the touchy Dutch, the slippery Turks, trying to keep them neutral, the belligerent Yugoslavs, the Americans and their suspicions of the English, as well as of de Gaulle, (Roosevelt and his advisers preferred the Vichy government), the Spanish and problems over them supplying the Germans with wolfram, the Portuguese and negotiations to use the Azores, and the Greeks and their Communists, to mention only a few of Cadogan’s continuing diplomatic challenges. And then there were all the floating kings and queens who had fled Europe, been deposed, or abdicated. London must have been a fascinating place to be then.
Reading of the sixteen hours a day spent in cabinet meetings and conferences, puzzling over how best to handle Hitler during the last period of Appeasement was a revelation to me. Appeasement has been seen as so shameful, but as Cadogan kept advising his political masters, they just didn’t have the military muscle to do anything But negotiate. While they had only ten out of fifteen battleships with the other five in dry dock, the navy was impotent, as was the non-existent air force, and the tiny ill-equipped army, still managing on World War One weapons. On the other hand, Germany, after breaking the Versailles agreements, had built up a modern army and air force equipped with the latest weapons.
To read the endless agonising over the exact words of a telegram to Hitler, trying to gauge the impact of each word, whether it would conciliate, offend, alienate, deter, appease, buy time to re-arm, while at the same time juggling with Roosevelt’s imperious interference, even though at the time he had no intention of becoming involved, left me awed and admiring at the brilliance, industry, patience, and implacable integrity of Cadogan.
He was a direct descendant of the first Earl Cadogan who had been the principal Staff Officer and Director of Intelligence in ten campaigns for the Duke of Marlborough, Churchill’s famous ancestor. On the eve of a battle in Flanders in 1702, Marlborough reconnoitred the positions. He threw down his glove, and harshly told Cadogan to pick it up, which he did. That night, when Marlborough said he wanted the main battery set up at the place where he dropped his glove, Cadogan was able to say that it was already in place. His intuition was so finely tuned to his chief, that he had understood immediately the purpose of the supposed insult.
On 13 June 1940, Churchill took his Cadogan with him to Tours when he flew over to try to stiffen the collapsing French Government. Seeing them together as “they listened to the agonising tale at Tours”, Sir Edward Spears, who was interpreting, wrote: “ here were the descendants of the two great leaders, brought together as their forebears had been by virtue of the services their Houses have rendered, generation after generation, to the country…. I thought how fortunate England has been to be served through the centuries by such men, and by others imbued with the same transcendent loyalty, though bearing lesser names… at that moment… the old story of the Flanders battlefield… flashed in my mind… as I watched the two men in that small room at Tours.”
It was Cadogan who framed the formulae at Dumbarton Oaks which became the basis of the UN Charter. And at San Franscisco, Cadogan, who was the permanent British representative, despaired over the obstructions of the Russians. I particularly enjoyed the story of the UN being broadcast all around America, and as a particularly verbose bore got up to speak, Cadogan could be heard groaning to himself in his clipped English tones, “Oh God!”
I finished the book last night, and regretted doing so. I read it slowly over about three weeks, all seven hundred pages or more. He would go down to Kew Gardens in London like we used to do, to see the magnolias out, or the bluebells, or the autumn trees. He never failed to notice the first crocuses of spring, and watched with approval the progress of the tulips and the wall flowers in the gardens as he paced through Green Park and St James on his way to his office in Whitehall. His idea of relaxation at the end of a tough week, if he wasn’t painting, was to dig over a garden bed, and plant it. This book was a good two dollars- worth from Trademe, and worth ten times the price.
More than any of the books I’ve read as I’ve tried to piece together the world as it was when I entered it, this one filled in many blanks and felt like a logbook of human experience. And more than that, while I was reading it, it gave me the experience of living with someone of the utmost integrity and unself-conscious goodness. In a world still convulsed with problems of an immensity that mankind seems to feel powerless to solve, goodness is precious and inspiring.
Fifteen-year-old Anne Frank, who was destroyed by the world I grew into, wrote these indestructible words back then: ‘In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever- approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquillity will return again.’
This is the sort of goodness and optimism that we needed then and we still need now too.
The picture is of US troops marching to the docks to embark for D-Day… It looks like Weymouth where I spent the war years.
Food for threadbare gourmets
I want to eat masses of vegetables at the moment, and cook meals consisting of nothing else some days… wilted greens, a mix of broccolini, spinach, grated or sliced courgettes or asparagus lightly steamed, is one of my favourite combinations at the moment, and is good with meat or eaten on its own. Lightly cook the broccolini and asparagus, gently fry the courgettes in a little butter and then add the torn spinach leaves. When all these vegetables are lightly cooked, toss them together in a little dijon mustard. In a separate bowl mix together a table spoon of horseradish sauce, quarter of a cup of sour cream, and a few table spoons of cream, pour over the vegetables and boil up quickly. I sometimes slice cooked new potatoes into this mix too, and it’s satisfying and filling. It’s good with grilled chicken.
Food for thought
We are each made for goodness, love and compassion. Our lives are transformed as much as the world when we live these truths.
Archbishop Edmund Tutu