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War-time and Peace-time

Image result for weymouth harbour

 

A life – part five

Adults talked of ‘War-time’ and ‘Before the War’, and ‘When Peace-time comes’. I couldn’t imagine what Peace-time was like, since it had always been War-time for as long as I could remember. Peace-time sounded something like Christmas, when we would have plenty of food, no clothes coupons and lots of toys.

But when it came, it didn’t seem like that at all. There was a big parade for something called VE day, which had something to do with Peace-time, a lot of fireworks, which I’d never seen before, and then life went back to all the same old things, only worse. The grownups seemed to be worrying about not having enough bread and potatoes, shuddering over tinned meat called Spam and outraged over the idea of eating whale-meat. But the toys, the sweets, the goodies they’d all talked about, never came.

The first big change had actually come as soon as all those hundreds of planes had flown over us to D-Day almost frightening me out of my wits. When we went down to the beach to play in the sand in the small area cordoned off with high rolls of barbed wire, the barbed wire had gone. So had all the thousands of armoured cars, tanks, lorries, guns, jeeps that had covered the beach as far as the eye could see, and all the American soldiers. (They had all gone to the dreadful ordeal of Omaha Beach I learned many years later).

All the spikes in the sea to stop the Germans coming and which stretched all along the line of beach had also gone. Until then I had thought that all beaches were covered in khaki war machines, with camouflage netting stretched over them and that all seas were ringed with big black spikes. But now we had the whole beach and were allowed to walk along the pier, attend concerts on the grandstand and meander round the ancient harbour where the Black Death had first entered England, killing up to sixty per cent of the population, and where the first death had occurred in June 1348.

Now in 1945, the next big change was when my uncle came home from Prisoner of War camp. He was no longer the gay, carefree and happy- go- lucky young man who used to bring me coloured chocolate smarties when I was a toddler. His experiences in POW camps, his life- threatening escapes and starvation in Italy behind the German lines, where he hid in a goat- hut in the mountains, and then in Florence until the allies and his brother with the 8th army liberated it, had of course changed him.

Back home at the end of the war he took up civilian life again, and began his new career as a reporter on the local newspaper. Like so many returned soldiers he was deeply hurt and angry. I was the nearest soft target for this anger and I didn’t realise that the teasing I endured was indirect anger and the result of his war… to me it felt harsh and hurtful, and I often ended up in tears.

When my father returned for a brief leave it was the same, and he was as strict as my grandmother had warned. No more Enid Blyton. No more reading the Express and the Mail, my grandmother’s favoured newspapers. Only the Telegraph or the Times. He only had a fortnight’s leave before he went back to Egypt, but had a good go at under-mining my belief in Christianity, Brown Owl and the Brownies. He drew pictures of fat angels standing on clouds with harps and in long nighties with flies on their noses, hoping that mockery would dislodge the horrifying belief in religion he had discovered in this unknown daughter. All that happened was more tears from me.

Unbeknown to me until many years later, my grandmother dissuaded him from putting these unknown children into a convent, and an orphanage for the toddler son he didn’t know, so he went back to Egypt with our futures unresolved.

It wasn’t a very good basis for beginning a new life with him and his new wife, in the spring of ‘47. I was already frightened of him, and though I had longed to have a mother, I eventually became even more terrified of my new one than of my father. In the beginning it had been different. My father was coming home with a new mother, we were told. I was so excited at the idea of being like everyone else again, with a mother and a father, that I rushed out of the house and told some complete strangers passing by, that we were going to have a new mother.

Later I pieced together the facts, that they had met on a blind date at the legendary and glamorous Shepheards Hotel in Cairo – now famous after appearing in The English Patient – but actually burned down in the riots of 1952 . My stepmother was in the Red Cross, and keeping her best friend company. The best friend and her boyfriend broke up in the end, and the two blind dates married. Like Tess of the D’Urbervilles, they spent their honeymoon at Woolbridge Manor, the beautiful Elizabethan manor I used to pass with my mother on the way to the village. Now they were now coming to claim us.

My father arrived and took us to meet her. They were staying at a hotel in town, and when my sister and I stepped out of the taxi at the foot of the long flight of white steps, a very tall lady in a navy- blue coat and very high heeled court shoes, ran down the steps towards us, and swept us into her arms with a hug and a kiss. I just loved it.

Then we spent the afternoon together, first of all having lunch and fizzy lemonade – which seemed a bit more like I’d imagined Peace-time, – and then we went for a walk round the ancient harbour, into a park, and for afternoon tea back to a place by the harbour with big oil-paintings on the walls. For the first time I looked at paintings and saw the brush strokes and the way the painter had used colour. The whole afternoon felt like stepping into a magic new world.

A week later my father came to collect us for good. I left behind my dolls and dolls pram, black board and easel, my bicycle, and our brother, on the understanding that all these things would be collected later. I never saw them again, never had another doll, and didn’t see my brother or grandmother again for years as she refused to part with my brother, causing a huge family rift. Neither did I see my uncle for many years as he had become an energetic Communist, and association with him would have destroyed my father’s security rating in the army.   So now we went to London, where our new mother was waiting. She gave us beef stew for lunch, which neither my sister or I liked, and we refused to eat it.

After lunch the father we hardly knew, except for the fortnight the previous year, took us for a walk around grey, London streets in the cold April afternoon. He told us grimly that from now on we would eat everything that was put in front of us. And from now on, we would do exactly as we were told – immediately. The afternoon seemed to get colder and greyer as he spoke, and when we went back I was totally crushed. My sister, clever, feisty and quick tempered like my grandmother, had more spirit.

The next day we went shopping, and came home with shorts and shirts like the children in Enid Blyton’s ” The Adventurous Four”, three blue summer dresses for me, blue and white stripes, blue and white checks, and a blue silk dress with tiny flowers on it. I had a new tweed  coat in blue, with a dark blue velvet collar, and my fair haired, blue-eyed sister had a yellow tweed coat with a red velvet collar.

The clothes my grandmother had made for us disappeared, my favourite tartan skirt and bolero and fine ninon blouse that went with it, a primrose coat, a pink satin party dress – all went, regardless of entreaty. I had immediate remedial exercises for my lisp, elocution lessons to rid us of lingering Dorset accents, and physiotherapy and exercises for the splay feet which I had carefully cultivated to be grownup like my grandmother. I had what would be called today, a complete makeover. It seemed after a few weeks that I was a different child… and even more insecure and uncertain. And I loved both my new parents. Especially my harsh, handsome father.

He loved books as I did. He must have learned it from his mother who he couldn’t stand.

To be continued…

 Food for threadbare gourmets

Sometimes I just want a plate of roast vegetables, but also feel I must need some protein. I kid myself that this pea-nut sauce will fill the gap. It’s quite unlike the traditional pea-nut sauce, and was dreamed up in front of me by a chef at a demonstration.
In a stick blender,  spoon a cup or more of pea-nut butter, the skin thinly peeled from a lemon, plus the juice, a good teaspoon or more to taste of dried thyme, a couple of garlic cloves, a tea-spoon of fish sauce, a dessert-spoon or more to taste of brown sugar, plenty of salt and black pepper, and a cup or more of olive oil. Just whizz everything together. And add more olive oil, thyme, pea-nut butter if you need it. It lasts for plenty of time in the fridge, and is good with baked or sauted vegetables for a light meal, and also with baked or poached salmon.

Food for thought

Most people die before they are fully born. Creativeness means to be born before one dies.                                               Erich Fromm, German philosopher, writer, psychologist and psychoanalyst who fled Nazi Germany, eventually seeking refuge in the US.

 

 

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“Old soldiers …”

Image result for 14/20th king's hussarsLeafing through an old notebook looking for a blank page to pull out to write a shopping list, I found these words I’d forgotten I’d written.

Timing isn’t always everything I decided, and though I’m late, these words still count…

Parade on Armistice Day

Behind that stern moustache

And row of clinking coloured medals

And Desert Rat insignia,

Service dress, and highly polished Sam Browne belt and sword holster

Stood a man.

 

A man who loved and laughed and grieved and swore and smoked and drank,

And played poker sitting on a petrol drum

Beside his tank in the desert.

He hated the beat of the Funeral March from ‘Saul’,

And he never forgot the ones who were ‘brewed up’.

This was the nightmare he fought most nights for the years of peace.

 

It had been a daily nightmare back then.

It had loomed while he shaved in half a mug of water,

And haunted his thoughts as he drank a mug of strong tea

To cut that terrible desert drought.

And he never forgot the spring flowers that bloomed in Tunisia.

 

Just like five weary years before,

He had never forgotten the women of Plymouth,

Who waited with steaming mugs of tea

For the cold, hungry men who landed at dawn

After escaping from Cherbourg,

Three long weeks after the miracle of Dunkirk.

 

In all the years between, he had been there,

And the names of his battles had

Reverberated through my childhood:

Bardia and Benghazi, Sidi Rezegh, and Sidi Barani,

Tobruk, Tunisia, Salerno and all the others…

He loved his friends and didn’t hate his foes.

Like Abou Ben Adhem, he loved his fellow men.

This was my father.

 

He was a cavalryman, and proud of the history of his historic regiment – an officer from his regiment was dispatched by the Duke of Wellington to take the news of Waterloo to London. It’s the regimental  cap badge at the top of this piece.

Though he survived the war, he didn’t live to old age, and like his other children I still miss him, and I regret not talking to him when I was old enough, or mature enough, to appreciate him the way his friends and his soldiers did. Both groups loved him.

One soldier in the British Army took leave from his posting in Gibraltar to come to London and find my father in his office at Whitehall to give him a watch. Ten years earlier, when we  were in Malaya, this man had been fighting the British. My father on patrol in the jungle, captured him, starving and nearly dead from scurvy.

My father helicoptered the ‘bandit’, as the insurgent communists were called, out of the jungle, and rushed him to the only grocery store for miles around, where we happened to be shopping at the time. He leapt out of the army vehicle, calling to my stepmother to buy a box of oranges. While she did this, he carried the soldier from the jeep into the back of our saloon car. Peeling an orange, he fed segments to the nearly unconscious ’bandit’, and then, as he began to revive, gestured to him to go on eating the oranges.

The man was taken to a rehabilitation centre, where he regained his health, renounced his communism, learned English, and finally joined the British Army. He never forgot my father and came to London ten years later to thank him for saving his life.

Armies and soldiers are sometimes reviled, often by people who do not know soldiers. But like most of his fellows, my father was a good and courageous man, a kind and tolerant man  – like most of the men of all ranks, that I grew up knowing on army camps around the world. Honor virtutis praemium.

Food for threadbare gourmets

For a celebratory birthday lunch the other day that wouldn’t take hours to cook, even though I felt roast chicken would be appropriate, I compromised. I had a couple of chicken breasts in the deep freeze, so after de-frosting slowly in the fridge, I trimmed them open a bit more, and spread a stuffing of whole grain breadcrumbs, onions and mushrooms chopped and cooked in butter, and lots of chopped sage and parsley, salt and pepper on one breast.

Placing the other breast on top, I wrapped them in rashers of bacon, making a parcel, and holding the rashers in place with toothpicks. Scrubbing a couple of Agria potatoes, I pricked them all over, rolled them in olive oil, and cooked them in their skins at the same time as the chicken. (Hot oven for about 45 minutes, or until ready). When cooked, the potatoes were mashed with lots of butter, salt and pepper.

Spinach and carrots completed the meal, along with good gravy made from chicken juices in the pan, while the chicken was ‘resting’ in a warm place. It was as good as if I’d cooked a whole chicken, and took half the time to cook

Food for thought

I am not interested to know whether Vivisection produces results that are profitable to the human race or doesn’t. … The pains which it inflicts upon unconsenting animals is the basis of my enmity towards it, and it is to me sufficient justification of the enmity without looking further.

Mark Twain. American writer, publisher, river boat pilot and many other things. One of his claims to fame was that he was born when Halley’s Comet showed up in 1835 and died, as he predicted, the day after it came back in 1910.

 

 

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Culture, History, Glamour and Beauty

There’s a mysterious magic in some names and places, names like The Akhond of Swat, places like The Forbidden City, Venice, Timbuctoo or Mandalay. Sadly as the world has shrunk, and tourism has tainted so many remote places, some of the magic has melted away. It’s as though the less we know, the more romantic a place is.

Aleppo is one of those romantic places, but we’ve always known plenty about it, and it’s still a magic place. It’s so old that people were living there over seven thousand years ago. It’s seen every conqueror in history, from Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Mongols, Mamluks and Ottomans, and now the Assads. It’s architecture is older than the Greeks, legend has it that Abraham lived nearby with his flocks, Alexander was here in AD 333, and Saladin made it here too, among many others.

Since the sixteen century many Europeans lived here too, as Aleppo was the first city to have its own consuls, the first being the Venetian consul who built his house here in 1599. The same family have occupied it for centuries, like many other Europeans who came from places like Italy and Austria and stayed, building handsome homes, collecting exquisite works of art and historic libraries. The famous Baron’s Hotel which rivalled all the great hotels of the world hosted royalties from all over the world – mostly Europe! – travellers like Freya Stark and Patrick Leigh Fermor, statesmen like Theodore Roosevelt and Earl Mountbatten, the rich and famous like the Rockefellers and Charles Lindbergh, Agatha Christie and many more. The great Citadel has stood defiant for centuries, the Souk is the longest in the world at nearly 13 kilometers, while all around are ancient ruins, Roman and Greek, Crusader, and Assyrian.

And now – like Babylon, where US troops dug tank trenches, and wiped out ancient Sumerian cities; like Kabul, where the museum with relics from Alexander’s visit was obliterated by Russian and Taliban fighters; like the Bamiyan Buddhas, bombed by the Taliban; like Bayreuth, once called the most beautiful city in the world, destroyed in civil war  – this treasure, which is not just part of the heritage of the Middle East, but is the heritage of humanity, is also being destroyed. Both people and history are being shown no mercy.

The famous Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers has been shelled by the troops of Assad, an Assyrian temple has been destroyed, and battles have been fought among the famed “dead cities,” the Graeco-Roman cities long abandoned, but preserved in the dry heat of the desert.  When the rebels take refuge behind the thick walls of ancient castles, Syrian troops haven’t hesitated to destroy these historic monuments in order to kill their countrymen hiding behind them.

Queen Zenobia’s legendary city of Palmyra is surrounded by Syrian troops, camped in the castle above the city, and there’s a tank park in the Valley of Tombs. It’s even rumoured that trenches have been dug in the Roman city. All these places, like the places devastated in Iraq, have nurtured many cultures for millenniums, from Sumerian and Byzantine to Christian and Moslem. And desperate men are destroying this heritage. Places of beauty, symbolism and significance for mankind are once again being devastated, as was much of Europe in World War Two, and the previously untouched historic cities like Sarajevo and Dubrovnik in later conflicts.

Africa is also our heritage, the cradle of the human race, that mysterious continent which hosts so many magnificent creatures seen nowhere else on the planet. And the native people who live there today are part of the delicate balance between man and nature, that unlike westerners, they have managed to preserve where they are left in peace. But here too, the ancient, misty culture of mankind, and the existence of the unique creatures who share this world with us, is threatened. Not by war here, but by heartless pleasure seeking. The Masai who inhabit the Serengeti in Tanzania, are facing eviction so that rich oil millionaires, kings and princes from the Gulf can hunt and shoot the wild life there.

The Arctic and Antarctic are also the common heritage of us all. And they too are being despoiled by the oil rush, by tourism, by global warming and power struggles. Our planet is so small now that we are all affected by whatever happens. Recently on TV, Professor Brian Cox, the famous physicist, picked up a huge diamond, and told his astonished audience that we are all so connected that when he rubs the diamond, it affects the stars in space.  So we are certainly all affected by all these events happening in our small world. We Are all one, as the mystics have always asserted.

What can we do to make a difference? Thanks to souldipper.wordpress.com pointing me to Scilla Elworthy’s video on TED, I know that there are many people working to end conflict in all its forms. And the best way? Start with ourselves… which means that though we may hate what’s happening, we can’t hate the people involved – because they all think they’re doing the right thing just like you and me!

And you can help the Masai by Googling Avaaz.org Stop the Serengeti Sell-off.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

An inpromptu little gathering for drinks with a few friends meant rustling up something to soak up the wine, so they would n’t, in the words of a funny article I read, have to drive drunkenly home through country lanes. A dish of olives, and some chicken pate and crackers were the usual nibbles, but I decided instead of doing something with salmon that I’d make a sardine pate. Quick and easy. Two tins of sardines, four tablespoons of cream cheese, some squeezed lemon, salt and pepper, and lots of finely chopped parsley. No need to bother with a mixer – which I don’t have – it mashes into a lovely smooth spread/dip- call it what you will. With thin slices of artisan olive bread left over from lunch, it was a hit, and cheap withal.

 

Food for Thought

Our ordinary mind always tries to persuade us that we are nothing but acorns and that our greatest happiness will be to become bigger, fatter, shinier acorns; but that is only of interest to pigs. Our faith gives us knowledge of something better: that we can become oak trees.             E.F. Schumacher. 1911 – 1977  Economist and writer of ‘Small is Beautiful ‘.

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Young Men Walking to Their Death

Ninety- six years ago, my step-grandfather stepped out with thousands of other young men on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It was the first of July, 1916.

He was a north countryman from Northumberland, and the four Northumberland regiments were the first to walk into battle at 7 30 am on a blue sunny morning with the birds singing. The four Geordie regiments stepped purposefully towards the German lines which were supposed to have been bombarded into nothing, the barbed wire cut by the bombardment also.

For a moment, they walked into the sudden silence, and then the German machine guns began to fire. The guns simply swept the battle field, as their targets continued walking steadily towards them, and line after line of brave young men fell. These regiments belonged to what was known as the New Army, bodies of men who had joined up from their towns, villages and workplaces, calling themselves names like the Grimsby Chums, and the Manchester Pals. They had set off that morning believing that this battle would end the war.

Percy, my step-grandfather, didn’t become one of the 60,000 dead British soldiers killed on that one day, but just one of over 30,000 wounded. He was a young officer, and like them all, easily distinguishable to the German machine-gunners. Officers went into battle wearing their service dress, collar and tie, shining leather Sam Browne belts, and carrying a pistol, not a rifle. By the end of the day, 75 per cent of officers had been killed, compared with fifty per cent of men. The three colonels of the four Geordie regiments were dead, the fourth badly wounded.

Percy was shot in the face, and later buried in a huge crater after a mine had exploded. He was found four days later, still alive – just – and he grabbed a helmet lying on the ground to drink from it and quench his terrible thirst. The helmet was full of chemicals and poisons from the battlefield, and Percy ruined his insides. The face wound healed, he was returned to the battlefield,  and unlike so many of the men who endured the hell of the First World War, he survived to see peace.

The day that 60,000 brave young men died on the Somme was the worst day of that terrible war. Waterloo was accounted a bloody battle, but Wellington lost only 25 per cent of his army, 8458 men. El Alamein, an eleven day battle, cost 1,125 men a day, while on D-Day the British and Canadian casualties cost 4000 men.

So my grandmother, living in a north country village, had seen all the young men march proudly through the streets on their way to fight for their country, trumpets blowing, banners flying, girls throwing flowers. Now all the houses had their blinds down, mourning their sons and husbands, brothers and fiancees, friends and neighbours. It wasn’t the same back in Germany. The Germans had not been slaughtered. For every seven British soldiers killed, they had lost one, from a much bigger population.

Paddy Kennedy, a soldier with the Manchester Pals, another regiment which was destroyed that day, helped to take a German post at Montauban. In the German trenches he found a small black frightened kitten, the pet of a dead soldier. Feeling sorry for it, he fastened it inside his pack, and took it with him. During lulls in the fighting he took it out and played with it. A few days later, he gave it to the company cooks as a mascot, and got on with his job… The following year, the kitten, now known as Nigger, went back to England hidden in a soldier’s battledress. The young man took it home on leave to his family in Rochdale, and left it with them. He was killed at Passchendale shortly afterwards. But Paddy Kennedy, who’d gone back to Manchester after the war, had not forgotten the cat. Throughout the twenties he went to visit Nigger at Rochdale.

This reminded me of the Dogs Cage on the beach at Dover. As the soldiers arrived back from Dunkirk in 1940, hungry, wounded, shattered, they brought with them dogs and puppies which they’d rescued from the deserted, burning town of Dunkirk. Since rabies could not be allowed to invade the British Isles, the commanding officer at Dover organised for the dogs to be labelled, and their addresses recorded; and after six months in quarantine, these French dogs were delivered to their rescuer’s homes around the British Isles. I suppose that by then they knew what ‘sit,’ and ‘stay’ were in English…

These loving actions by soldiers in the midst of fighting, somehow ease the heart when one reads the horror of those battles. So when I think of Percy and all those other wonderful young men, whose deaths wring the heart – “theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die”, I think of their kindness and courage and decency – and try not to think of the stupidity of the generals and politicians who sent them to die.

Do other families have their stories?

Food for Threadbare Gourmets.

Like the soldiers of most recent wars, when my military husband (first one) and I were down to the bare boards at the end of every month,( since we had married too young and didn’t get any allowances) we opened a tin of bully beef . If you’re really up against it and hungry too, this recipe is good value.

Fry a few onions in a little oil and butter. When soft, add some curry powder to taste, just enough to give some flavour, and fry a little more. Then add the chopped- up tin of bully beef, a few tomatoes if you have them, and a squeeze of tomato sauce, Worcestershire sauce, pepper – salt if it needs it, or any spices you think would taste good. Stir-fry this altogether. Sometimes I might add a tin of baked beans to the mix. If it’s dry, add some water and a chicken bouillon cube and some flour to thicken it. Stir the flour into some water till the lumps have gone, before adding to the mix and cook for a few minutes. Serve hot with plenty of creamy mashed potatoes and some green vegetables. Not an elegant dish, but tasty and filling!

Food for Thought

Lord, Thou knowest how busy I must be this day. If I forget Thee, do not Thou forget me.

The prayer of Cavalier  Sir Jacob Astley before the Battle of Edgehill 1642

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