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The truth about Dunkirk

Image result for dunkirk images

 

Dunkirk is a word that probably means something to some Britons these days, and very little to the rest of the world. But to people of my generation the word conjures up a tragic and magic moment in British history that means courage and fortitude and dignity which transformed defeat into something shining and inspirational.

These thoughts, of course, were triggered by watching the film of that name. I’d read the rave reviews by historians I’d thought were knowledgeable, and laughed with the rest of the world with the American critic who enjoyed the film, apart from commenting that there no women or people of colour portrayed in this epic retreat from the French port of Dunkerque.

Well, there were plenty of women in the Forces at that moment but not overseas on active service. All women between eighteen and forty were called up for service, unless they had children. They had freed men up for fighting by doing all the jobs men used to do – working as drivers, cooks, clerks, interpreters, cipher clerks, aircraft plotters, signals operators, radar operators, working at ammunition depots, firing Ack-Ack guns – anti-aircraft guns – Mary, Churchill’s daughter manned such a post in Hyde Park, shooting at Goering’s planes. Women worked in munitions factories,  factories, on the land, and were nurses, Red Cross workers, and did many other vital jobs.

And yes, there were no blacks in the army either… once the Lord Chief Justice Lord Mansfield made his historic ruling in 1772 that any slaves arriving in the country automatically became free men, few negroes came to England for the next century or more. The fourteen thousand or so black slaves already there, now intermarried with the English, so that the ethnicity of their descendants was not obvious in the society in which they were born.

With no slave trade allowed in England, and the Royal Navy maintaining a permanent squadron patrolling the seas for sixty years to try to stamp out the infamous traffic in people – at a cost of 22,000 sailors’ lives as they fought with traders, and millions of taxpayer’s pounds – people of African descent had disappeared by 1940. The Africans rescued by the navy, chained to each other in the bowels of slave ships in horrendous conditions, were taken to Sierra Leone where an African king had sold a strip of land to the British for the purpose of re-settling them. Plenty of ‘diversity’ in the UK now, but that didn’t start until the emigration of West Indians to England in the early nineteen fifties.

So, no women or  people of colour– no ‘diversity’- as the young American critic had called it. But I had other misgivings as I watched this much- praised epic.

The ‘ornery’ Brits sailing their tiny boats across the Channel to save their fellow men were the stars in this film! The chap and his son in their fair isle pullovers and polo ribbed sweater moved me to tears… the sheer ordinariness, and utter decency and lack of pretentiousness of them, their deep in- the- bone goodness, and their amazing kindness,  forbearance and understanding of the rescued shell – shocked nut- case –  in spite of his shocking actions – were so typical of their time and class….

But some things bugged me. Anyone who’s served in the army knows that every ten men in a regiment are a section and they have a corporal to look after them. Three sections make a platoon, who have a sergeant and a second lieutenant to look after them. Three platoons means nine corporals, three sergeants and three lieutenants. Three platoons make up a company with a captain and a company sergeant major to look after them, plus all the adjutants, 2/i/c’s (second in command) plus colonel of the regiment, etc.

There was no trace of all these chaps who actually were the ones who kept the lines in order, going forward over the sandy dunes to the rescue ships, and who, importantly, kept up their men’s morale. Not to mention the staff of all the generals in an army of 300,000 (those numbers were not obvious on the beach in the film either – it was packed to the gills in real life)

Alan Brooke was there, Montgomery was there, Lord Gort, C-in-C was there, and a host of others. Most poignant of all, and what would have made a wonderful moment of film, was General Harold Alexander, who was commanding the last troops on the beach. When everyone had gone, he travelled along the shoreline in a small motor boat at two am in the morning, with a loud hailer, calling out to check if there was anyone left. Few historians ever mention this revealing moment of character.

These people, I felt didn’t get their rightful due, and the order and dignity and courage of the retreat would probably not have happened if they hadn’t done their duty…

The navy didn’t get its due either -there were over four hundred  Navy ships shuttling to and fro, and on the worst day, seven out of ten navy ships taking on troops  were sunk at the Mole… my partner noticed there seemed to be only three ships used over and over again in the film…  being a navy man himself ! Funny they didn’t do some skilled computer generated imagery to make it look more realistic ….

Nit picking, perhaps, but I felt the film was somewhat one dimensional because of these omissions… Kenneth Branagh made a wonderful  character, which I felt owed much to Kenneth More in  ‘The Longest Day ‘, who played the Beachmaster on one of the British beaches on D-Day… with his bull dog!!!.

There are so many stories about this time in history that now are lost, and have never been recorded by historians. Reading Francis Partridge’s autobiographical ‘A Pacifist’s War’, I discovered one of the most intriguing and  little- known stories about the real Dunkirk. Her brother- in- law was the officer in charge of everyone landing at Dover and siphoning wounded and dead and living to their destinations. He told her he realised that so many troops had brought rescued dogs with them, that he organised a dogs’ cage on the beach where each dog was given labels and addresses before going to quarantine and then being sent to their owners!!  Such a typical story of British soldiers… reminding me of all the pi- dogs, as they were called, that my father’s tank regiment rescued and adopted in the desert in North Africa.

And then there was the story my brother’s general used to tell at Guest Nights in the officers’ mess. The general had been a young second lieutenant at Dunkirk, and when he’d got his men stowed away safely on a passenger ferry, he staggered up to the bar, absolutely exhausted, and put his elbows on the counter, his head between his hands, and asked the barman who was busily polishing glasses with bombs going off, ships sinking all around them, if there was any chance of a drink. To which the barman replied righteously: “Good gracious, no sir – we’re still within the three -mile limit “!!

Another little- known book told me of a father who woke in the night dreaming of his son. A very rich man, he donned his clothes, and drove off in his Rolls- Royce to the bewilderment of his wife. Abandoning the expensive car at a port, he wangled his way determinedly on a rescue ship returning to pick up more men at Dunkirk. Once at Dunkirk he strode off over the beaches, up into the town and onto the outskirts. On the side of a road, he found a mangled motor bike and his dead son – a dispatch rider – beside it, as he had seen in his dream. Somehow, in a daze he made his way back to England, a changed man.

These are the stories that fascinate me, stories of truth and courage and heartbreak and fortitude. They are stories which have now almost disappeared as those men have now disappeared too. Some will have been handed on by word of mouth to children as bored probably, as I was, in my ignorant, arrogant salad days when my father tried to tell me something of his long war. They are not stories telling of brave deeds in battle, but accounts of how people survived and coped and rose above terrible circumstances in terrible times. That famous, much derided stiff upper lip often saved them.

And the lesson of Dunkirk was that even when all seems lost, imagination, courage and determination can still save the day, even if it meant having to decide then, in Churchill’s words, to: ‘fight on the seas and oceans ….
we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender’.

Those simple powerful words were a turning point in the history of the free world and western civilisation… this is a small thank you to those men who made that history.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

A grass widower for supper, so I needed not a grand show-off turn,  but something tasty and welcoming and above all simple. I prefer not cooking at night these days. I found an old recipe I’d forgotten about and have no idea where I found it.

Rice and chicken, but all cooked together. I fried an onion and garlic until soft, and spread them in the bottom of a shallow casserole with plenty of butter. Add a cup of long grain rice, and two cups of hot chicken stock, salt and pepper. Cover and bake in a moderate oven for twenty minutes.  Score skinless chicken thighs with a mix of chopped garlic, ginger and grated lemon, and add the chicken to the rice, fluffing it up. At this point I add some more knobs of butter to the rice. Bake for another twenty to twenty- five minutes, adding hot water if the rice needs it.

Served with salad, this is an easy satisfying dish. Pudding was the ersatz rum babas from a previous recipe. It went down a treat..  rum puddings never seem to fail!

Food for thought

Elegance is usually confused with superficiality, fashion, lack of depth. This is a serious mistake: human beings need to have elegance in their actions and in their posture because this word is synonymous with good taste, amiability, equilibrium and harmony. Paul Coelho
 

 

 

 

 

 

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More about Books

Between six and a half and nearly nine, I lived with my grandmother. My mother had disappeared, not to be found until fifty years later, and my father was at the war from when I was a year old until nearly nine. Those two and a half years I spent with my grandmother were the happiest years of my childhood, and one of the reasons, apart from the fact that she loved and spoiled me, was that she brought loads of book into the house when she came to look after us,

I was allowed to read everything, and my range was a wide one, from Enid Blyton’s fairy story The Faraway Tree, published by instalments in a magazine called Sunny Stories, which I collected from the grocer every week, to Foxe’s Martyrs, a huge leather bound book with engraved illustrations with a piece of flimsy paper covering each one. It was a ghoulish record of the three hundred Englishmen and women who Bloody Mary had had burned at the stake for being Protestants. Foxe’s Martyrs wasn’t one of my  favourite books, but it was there.

Also there, were bound copies of Victorian ladies journals, with stories about beautiful orphans, though of noble birth, and young men with crisp, fair curls, sporting striped blazers, straw boaters and high moral character, who rescued these pure young maidens from lives of poverty and humiliation.

Little Lord Fauntleroy was also pressed on me by my grandmother, as was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which sold even more copies in England than in the US, was one of my grandmother’s favourites, and after reading it at eight, I became a fervent abolitionist. Which no doubt would have warmed Harriet Beecher Stowe’s warm heart.

I never had any trouble with poor old Uncle Tom, in spite of today’s politically correct connotations. I loved him for his moral courage and kindness, which I could understand even at eight. He died for his principles, refusing to inflict on other slaves the same cruel beatings that killed him. Eliza and her child fleeing over the frozen river haunted my nightmares.

The other book on my grandmother’s shelves which shaped my life even more than Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was John Halifax, Gentleman, written by Mrs Craik. Published in 1865, the year of the ending of the American Civil War, it was about an orphaned boy who found a home in a Quaker household, and through espousing Quaker virtues became a successful and prosperous pillar of the community. Sounds pretty boring, but even as a child, I loved him for his dignity, integrity, moral courage and loving heart. Like Uncle Tom, he never sacrificed his principles for the sake either of safety or material gain.

When my father returned from overseas, I went to live with him and our new stepmother. I never mentioned these two books, after they had laughed themselves silly when I disclosed to them in an unguarded moment that I had read Little Lord Fauntleroy. I thought maybe these two books might also be material for grownup mockery, and it wasn’t until my late teens that I discovered that they were both well regarded classics. When I re-read John Halifax in my twenties, I realised that the principles that he had lived his life by had been the unconscious grounding of my own philosophy.

My first Christmas with them, my new parents gave me a copy of Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women.  Like most children of my generation and previous ones, I read it again and again, and the principles of integrity, kindness and concern for others influenced me deeply, as I’m sure it influenced so many other girls back then. Thanks to Jo March, I also began writing, and produced my own newspaper, somewhat plagiarised, until it was discovered by the adults and became a great joke.

 The last book which influenced me all my life was Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, a birthday present. Black Beauty, the story of a horse and his friend Ginger, and how they were exploited by human beings they trusted, until these two fine thoroughbreds had been worn down to become half-starved, broken down cab horses, entered my soul. I’ve always been thankful that we use the motor car now, instead of horses, no matter how much pollution cars cause. Black Beauty taught me to love and respect all animals and all life, including the birds of the air and the creatures in the sea.

Louisa Alcott was brought up and taught by Transcendentalists, including Emerson and Thoreau, while Anna Sewell’s parents were Quakers. So when I look back at the four books that in many ways have shaped my character, I see that they were all written by women in the middle of the nineteenth century, all of whom lived in families and communities with the highest ideals and with a commitment to actually practising what they preached (Harriet Beecher Stowe and her husband used to hide escaped slaves).  I feel I was so lucky that these four books came my way at the age that I was so that their philosophies became an integral part of my values and thinking.

As the years have gone by, and I’ve explored different creeds and religions, in the end, the core of them seemed to be the principles that the American Transcendentalists and the English Quakers lived by. So there’s never been any conflict between other creeds and the old beliefs that I picked up from these old books. I often wonder which are the books today that do this same job of inspiring and grounding children in the ideals and values of our civilisation.

I’ve watched the Harry Potter films with my grandchildren, and can see that it’s a struggle between good and evil. But the books that taught me, were about the immediate, down to earth, everyday situations, in which truthfulness, and kindness,  moral courage and selflessness were the standards by which the heroes and heroines lived and died in these old books. And these Victorian books were lovely – gold embossed covers, thick paper and beautiful type-faces.

There are so many well written and inspiring books for children and young adults these days, and the nature of our civilisation is such that there are actually hundreds. So instead of a handful of classics uniting people, so that they knew the same stories and shared the same experiences, today there are so many stories that people don’t have a background in common.

I remember the true story of British writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who kidnapped a German general in Crete in 1944. They smuggled him up into the mountains. In the morning as the shocked and despondent general was looking over the mountains in the dawn, he quoted some lines to himself in Latin from the Roman poet Horace. Leigh Fermor recited the rest of the ode with him, and in his words:’…for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”

Stories like this remind us of the power of books and words and art.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I’ve been so busy with blogging and making lemon chutney with our surfeit of lemons at this time of year, that I haven’t had time to prepare a sustaining lunch for my hungry 82 year old husband. Quick onion soup will have to do, with hot rolls.

I have some lovely stock from the potatoes, carrots and Brussels sprouts all cooked in the same water yesterday, so that also makes me feel virtuously frugal. The soup takes four large onions sliced thinly and stewed in butter. When they’re soft, stir in a tablespoon of sugar. Stir until the sugar browns – don’t let it turn black. Then pour in a pint and a half of stock, with either half a glass of wine, or a dash of wine vinegar. Simmer for about 15 minutes, add salt and pepper to taste, and a sprinkling of parsley. Caramelising the onions with the sugar gives the soup colour, a rich delicate flavour and thickens it up. Recipe for the lemon chutney in the next post!

 Food for Thought

Whatever the world may say or do, my part is to keep myself good; just as a gold piece, or an emerald, or a purple robe insists perpetually, ‘whatever the world may say or do, my part is to remain an emerald and keep my colour true.’

Marcus Aurelius, born in AD 121, Philosopher, Stoic and Emperor of Rome from AD 161 to his death in AD 180

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