Tag Archives: Winston Churchill

Castaway Books

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I sometimes torture myself by imagining I’m on a desert island and can only take ten books with me. I look around at the walls of book-shelves  in the sitting room and bedroom and spare room, and wonder how to whittle them down to the ten most treasured books I wouldn’t want to be without.

As in the BBC radio programme, no Shakespeare or the Bible allowed, though I’d be sad to let the Bible go – not for religious reasons – but for the sheer poetry of the prose and the beauty of so much of the writing, for some of the stories embedded in the teachings… like the story of Ruth for example, or the Song of Solomon… and the Beatitudes, and ringing phrases like: ‘I am as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal if I have not charity’ .. or the exquisite words of Psalms like 139, which ends with: ‘…’if I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall thy hand find me, and thy right hand shall hold me’.

But having surrendered the Bible what would I take? Bernadine Evaristo, this year’s Booker prize-winner, says she hates Jane Austen and Virginia Wolfe… but while l’d agree about Virginia, as an afficionado who used to read Jane Austen’s six novels once a year, I’d have to disagree with her findings on Jane. (Real Austen fans are called Janeites. I once wrote a piece for an anthology of raves about Jane Austen, and attending the book launch party was somewhat bemused to find myself among some fans wearing long Regency dresses, and sporting shawls and fans)

Which of the six would I take? No contest. In my younger days, I’d have plumped for ‘Pride and Prejudice’… or ‘Persuasion.’ But now I’d go for ‘Mansfield Park’ which I used to think was the dullest of her books. Now it’s my favourite. I love the picture of Georgian country life, the amateur theatricals with all the tensions and emotional turmoil, and the irritating, contradictory and sparkling array of people, especially the two villains, who’re the most attractive characters in the book. But most of all, I love that picture of elegant English country life in my favourite period of history before the Industrial Revolution, when squalor and hardship and smoking factory chimneys had not altered forever a peaceful pastoral society.  (Even if they didn’t have good dentists).

To balance that picture of aristocratic country life I’d take Thomas Hardy’s ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’, my favourite of all his books, crammed with authentic country lore and farming custom, just slightly later in time that Austen’s novel.

And to round off this wallowing in homesickness for another time and place while on that desert island, I’d take George Eliot’s tome, ‘Middlemarch’, a great book described by the despised Virginia as  ‘the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels for grown-up people.’

It’s a huge canvas describing with acute psychological insight many typical characters of both town and country in early Victorian England. For me, it’s a picture not just about English town life of that period, but a profound study of character, both shallow and profound, of good and evil in the shape of materialism, and of the compromises demanded by society. So, nostalgia and homesickness sorted – there’s several more choices to go.

Top of the list would be Barbara Tuchman’s splendid history, ‘The Guns of August’, an account of the first ten days of WW1, but fleshed out with vivid and witty accounts of how Europe got to that point, and an analysis of the main protagonists… fascinating history, accurate psychology, and telling insights, all delivered with wit and humour, so that often I find myself chuckling as we traverse the terrible terrain of one of the great turning points in the history of Europe.

I would have to take ‘The Snow Leopard’ with me, by Peter Matthiesson. It’s the story of his journey into the remotest regions of the Himalayas on his search for the then almost never seen and legendary snow leopard. It’s a many layered tale with deep spiritual undertones, and read like all these other books, many, many times.

Getting a bit panicky now, with only three more choices to go. I think I’ll reach for Truman Capote’s story of love and war, ‘The Grass Harp’. It’s told with deceptive simplicity, the characters utterly loveable, and gloriously eccentric as despair drives them to desperate measures. They are the odd ones out, who finally step outside the norms of society to assert their individuality, and when they say what they feel, they slice through the hypocrisies and cruelty of narrow-minded small-town officialdom.

I love diaries and have a huge collection of them, ranging across time, from seventeenth century Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn in Charles 11 reign, to Georgian Parson Woodford and Parson Gilbert White, Victorian Francis Kilvert, through to the two world wars, to the randy diaries of Alan Clark, the notorious womaniser and politician, and the delicious, hilariously funny fictional diaries of Adrian Mole, my favourite being ‘Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass- Destruction.

I toyed with the last of the Bloomsberry’s, Frances Partridge’s  ‘A Pacifist’s War’, her diary filled with details of an idyllic life in the beautiful country house where the painter Carrington lived with writer Lytton Strachey before his death and her suicide. Her war years are peopled with a stream of intriguing/incestuous Bloomsberry illuminati who came and feasted with Ralph Partridge and Frances while dwelling on their moral high-ground as conscientious objectors.

I decided on something more uplifting. Inspiring integrity was what I was looking for. Should I take Alanbrooke’s war-time diaries, or Cadogan’s account of appeasement and diplomacy before and during the war, or Klemperer’s diary chronicling the terror of the Nazis, and his worry about the fate of his beloved cat? It finally had to be put down when Jews were no longer allowed to keep pets. Klemperer, a distinguished university professor, ended up in the bombing of Dresden which allowed his wife and he to disappear in the chaos, the only positive thing I’ve heard about that raid.

No… I finally settled on the two volumes of John Colville’s diaries. He was Churchill’s private secretary during the war, and the parade of kings, queens, statesmen and generals, society ladies and foreign diplomates makes absorbing reading, quite apart from the affectionate and admiring portrait of the great man himself.

Throughout the cliff-edge years of war, Churchill is revealed as an irascible but brilliant, kind, intelligent and chivalrous aristocrat in the best sense of those words, without a trace of snobbery or small mindedness. Perhaps too original and spontaneous to be described in conventional terms as a gentleman, he emerges as a magnificent human being who poured his huge stores of energy, humanity and vision into his country and the struggle against one of the greatest tyrannies in history.

The last and tenth book is a tantalising choice, trying to choose between two of my favourite diaries. ‘Mrs Milburn’s Diary’ is written by a woman with no literary talent, but an abiding love for her only son, who was captured before Dunkirk and endured POW camp for the rest of the war. Her letters sent via the Red Cross, and his to her were usually months old by the time they reached their destination, so she began writing a diary chronicling life in his home and family and community.

It’s a prosaic day to day telling about the price of woollen vests going up, the annoying man at Matins every week who coughs all the way through and ruins the service, the evacuees who stay briefly, the long cold nights sitting in their primitive underground air raid shelter in the garden – doubly important to them-  as they lived in the country outside Coventry, and lost many friends in the catastrophic bombing raid which destroyed that city. It’s an insight into a way of life now gone… when, even during the war, she picked primroses every spring in the woods, packing them up in damp cotton wool and sending them to friends in the city.

She records the routines of church going, weekly shopping, Mother’s Union meetings, working for the WVS (Women’s Voluntary Service) dealing with the erratic gardener, the feckless land girls, a chaste glass of sherry shared with old friends. The annual rhythms of the seasons’ rituals celebrate a slice of civilisation which had its own small satisfactions, sorrows and minor victories.

Or, do I go for ‘Burning,’ a diary of a year living in the Blue Mountains in Australia? Kate Llewellyn is a poet, and her book is crammed with exquisite metaphors and similes, quirky people, precious moments of beauty, meditations on history, recipes, travels and gardening. I read it often, not just for the drama of human tragedy and pain which also takes place during that year, but for the sheer beauty of the writing.

As CS Lewis observed, ‘we do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties’. He also suggested that someone who only reads a book once is ‘unliterary’, whatever that means! But I certainly agree with him on both counts when he says “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”

So I can’t decide between these two life stories – regularly ‘savoured’, and will beg my invisible and sadistic inner voice to let me have them both… to have whittled down my choices to eleven from hundreds of books is no mean feat, which meant leaving out precious favourites like Leigh-Fermor’s ‘A Time of Gifts’, his vivid description of European civilisation before the Nazis destroyed it

As I mulled over this imaginary exercise, and visualised myself roaming a tropical paradise, alone like Robinson Crusoe, I realised that by choosing a handful of books to be my companions in this solitary life, I wasn’t using any carbon footprint, and many of the books were recycled – bought from second-hand bookshops around the world via the internet, or acquired from op-shops and the like.

Many of them of them too, like Capote’s ‘The Grass Harp’, I’ve owned since the sixties, and are worn from regular loving re-readings when I savoured every aspect of the writing and the human condition. In a book on educating children read in the seventies, I found a wonderful thought, that literature is the logbook of human experience, and that’s how it seems to me too.

For this solitary island existence, Christopher Morley, an American writer, gave me words that seem particularly apt: ‘when you get a new book, you get a new life –love and friendship and humour and ships at sea at night -… all heaven and earth in a book.’

The written word survives e-books, the internet, texting and all the other apparent advantages of technology. It has been with us from the earliest times, when the Sumerian civilisation evolved writing around 3,000 BC, and the first literature was created by a Sumerian author a thousand years later. Books and words may be the one blessing and means of communication that survive in the aeons to come.

Books will always be the ‘log-book of human experience’, and can hand on the riches of our civilisation to generations still unborn. And for the present, they can be a comfort, a companion and a treasure. They inform and educate, amuse, console, entertain and inspire. They are indispensable and irreplaceable. They make life on a desert island bearable!

Food for Threadbare gourmets

We’re living dairy free at the moment for various reasons, and I discovered to my delight that it’s perfectly possible to make a decent white sauce using olive oil instead of butter.

So using the juices from a roasted chicken from the night before, I made a rechauffe… fried some chopped bacon and mushrooms, made the sauce, and stirred a bouillon cube and the chopped cooked chicken, bacon and mushrooms into it. Flavoured the mix with salt, pepper and nutmeg, and served it on rice.

To cheer up the plain boiled rice, I fried a grated courgette in olive oil and garlic, plenty of salt and pepper and stirred it into the rice. We ate it all with green beans and didn’t miss the cream or milk at all!

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Dancing to the music of time

Image result for world war two photos of us soldiers marching to the docks before d day

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

 

 

 

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Saving the West

Image result for hastings uk images

Hastings

We’ve been re-watching a favourite TV series on Youtube from some years back… Foyle’s War. Unlike real life, it’s one of those satisfying forms of entertainment in which the baddies always get their come-uppance, and the goodies triumph – hurray !

Second time around I relish the masterly performances by actors at the top of their art…and notice many little quirks and anachronisms I’d missed first time around. But this time, I’m really aware of Foyle in a way I hadn’t been before. Much water has passed under the bridge since the years when this series – a favourite with watchers on both sides of the Atlantic – was created.

And since then the world has changed in so many ways, which include the upsurge of terrorism with the advent of Isis, the  unprecedented invasion of Europe by another culture – not just by refugees – but  by armies of young men from third world countries looking to improve their lot and enjoy the largesse of western society; and many other factors like the spread of sex changes even among young school children, drunkenness among women in the UK on a scale unheard of previously, homelessness on the streets of many  towns and cities, plus the religion of political correctness which means that on Twitter, another new arrival, people can be metaphorically crucified for using the wrong word…

I try not to equate the pictures of society men and women at various depraved looking parties where guests are encouraged to personify ’filth’, the photos of young people on the streets reduced to zombies by killer drugs, and stories about university students who feel it’s Ok to sue their  instructors for not helping them get better grades, with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire… Society collapsed then for many reasons, not least the gulf between rich and poor, and the bacchanalian  orgies of self- indulgence which we see today with the zillion dollar superyachts, and four or five day weddings of the rich and famous costing millions of pound/dollars, typical of the Roman over-indulgence and selfish hedonism in the last years of that Empire.

Christopher Foyle, the detective chief living in Hastings, the pretty coastal town where William the Conqueror landed, and defeated the defending Anglo-Saxon army in 1066, reminds me of some of the qualities of civilisation that I sometimes fear that Western culture is forgetting. While all around – to mis-quote Kipling – are losing their heads, failing to take responsibility, and blaming the war for profiteering, dishonesty of various degrees, for petty crime, spying, revenge and murder, Foyle remains incorruptible, refusing to cede one iota of the rule of law, built up over the centuries by generations of lawgivers and members of Parliament to create a fair and decent society.

He’s an ordinary person in every way, laconic, kind, and generous, but implacable when it comes to refusing to accept wrong in any form, never sparing family, friends and colleagues, as well as law breakers. He reminds me of Marcus Aurelius’s words: “Whatever anyone does or says, I must be emerald and keep my colour.” He keeps his colour no matter who around him is losing their integrity, and integrity is the word which most describes the quality that is Foyle.

Winston Churchill once said of Ernest Bevin, the great post-war Labour foreign secretary that: ‘he had many of the strongest characteristics of the English race. His manliness, his common sense, his … simplicity, sturdiness and kind heart, easy geniality and generosity, all are qualities which we who live in the southern part of this famous island regard with admiration.’

He called him a great man, and by that measure, so is Foyle. Why do I dwell on this fictional character in a long running detective series – the only one I’ve ever watched since murder, mayhem and mystery don’t tickle my fancy? I do so because this sort of person was not so rare as to be unusual many years ago. I can think back to many fine characters who people the English way of life – the only one I can write about with any knowledge.

People like the great statesman and gentle man, Edward Balfour, noble Sir Edward Grey, foreign secretary who tried to be peacemaker before World War One, to the thoroughly honest, decent, modest man who succeeded Churchill as prime minister – Clement Atlee. Honest politicians were not so unusual back then. They upheld the values of civilisation without even considering that by living lives of integrity this was what they were doing. And every person, however unknown, living such a life, is still today, of inestimable value to their society and civilisation.

Kenneth Clark at the end of his magisterial book ‘Civilisation’, wrote he believed: “that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta… I think that knowledge is better than ignorance and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology… I believe in courtesy, the ritual by which we avoid hurting other people’s feelings by satisfying our own egos. And I think we should remember that we are part of a great whole, which for convenience we call nature. All living things are our brothers and sisters.”

He goes on to say that it is a lack of confidence more than anything else which kills a civilisation, and that we can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion. And this to me is what Foyle is all about. He never succumbs to cynicism and disillusion, but sticks to the great truths of kindness, justice, the rule of law, compassion and courtesy. These are the qualities which can preserve and save our civilisation, despite the depravity of the rich few, and the hopelessness of the homeless and deprived.

Western civilisation, with its ideals of freedom, kindness, fairness, justice for all, value for learning and for literature, for art, music and science, our recognition of the rights of all people and all races, and for all creatures; our care for the environment and for those who need protection, is a way of life worth preserving.

If we do believe this and do not succumb to the belief that we have to cede these freedoms and rights to other cultures and customs which deprive others of freedom, dignity and the right to happiness, cultures which dictate how people should think, what they should wear, and mutilate women in the belief that a Creator demands this, we can still save our own way of life – what one blogger calls ‘the True West” in Arthurian/Camelot terms.

We can still bequeath peace and harmony to our children and grandchildren, and we can try to share these blessings with all people. We can continue to believe in those great words from the American Declaration of Independence written in 1776, that: ‘all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’.

Tolkien defines the task for us in the Lord of the Rings, his epic about saving civilisation: ‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo. ‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’

Food for threadbare gourmets

Cakes- easy ones. This is one of my favourites – combining lemons with the easiest method ever. I adapted it from one of Elizabeth Luard’s recipes, and use 175 gms of SR flour, 175 gms of sugar and the same of mild olive oil, three eggs, pinch of salt and zest and juice of a lemon. I also add a teasp of vanilla into this mix in memory of my grandmother who always used vanilla in her cakes. Stir it all together and tip into a greased lined loaf tin, and sprinkle a generous helping of caster sugar on top. Cook in a moderate oven for about forty minutes or until ready.

Food for thought

Even as our few remaining wilderness areas are threatened, each day more of us venture into these beautiful landscapes to experience the energy for ourselves. And, immersed in the natural rhythms of the earth and the wind and the sky, our minds relax and we view our lives with quiet perspective. We can see our paths and can recognise the synchronicity that has guided our footsteps.
James Redfield from The Tenth Insight

 

 

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A refined conversation

0000534There were six of us sitting at the dining table. The only husband was ‘a former naval person’, in the words of Winston Churchill signing off his telegrams to President Roosevelt. My husband wasn’t well enough to join us, so the rest of us were what some people would call old ladies, but I don’t think it had occurred to any of us.

There was the magnificent matriarch, well into her eighties, now a great grandmother, still jetting around the globe to various children and grand-children, still walking her dogs every day, still wiping the floor with everyone at bowls and golf, still giving lectures on arcane subjects to U3A, the university of the old, still beautiful, slim and elegantly dressed. She was entertaining two of the other ladies in her sea-side house, so I’d suggested they come for lunch.

One of her friends was a gardening devotee, fresh from a tour of the gardens in Melbourne …  sitting beside her, she and I discussed great Australian gardeners like Andrew Pfeiffer and Edna Walling. Magnificent matriarch’s other friend was the titled widow of a distinguished sailor, and a painter, while my other friend, who also painted and had spent her life in France, also sported a title. So you might think that we would generate a decorous and refined level of conversation. I’m not sure what triggered the subject of washing nappies, but this generated more energy, heat, and hysterical laughter than many other subjects before or since around that dining table.

We explored the horrors of scraping and rinsing, the wringing out and pegging on the line outside in freezing cold with frozen fingers. I described my primitive electric boiler on wheels, into which I placed a hose for the water. In it I put the horrid wet smelly nappies and soap powder, and boiled it up, steam filling the kitchen while a particular smell of boiling clothes would penetrate the place. When they’d boiled sufficiently, the heavy boiler had to be rolled to the kitchen sink, the nappies fished out one at a time and swung from the boiler into the sink for rinsing. We all agreed that we used a wooden spoon for this rather than the tongs. By now the kitchen was filled with steam and all the windows misted up.

The sailor’s widow claimed that her lot was worse than the rest of us. She didn’t even have a boiler, but had to fill a bucket and lug it across to boil it on the top of her stove, which then entailed heaving the boiling bucket with stewing nappies back across the kitchen to the sink. The magnificent matriarch reminded us of how the fingers used to swell with all this rubbing and wringing, and I remembered how I’d stopped wearing my wedding and engagement rings as my fingers had swelled so much.

French lady complained about the horror of having a baby sitting on your lap, and the sudden realisation that the bottom of the baby was sodden. Sailor’s widow and I swapped notes on the anguish of getting them dry in a cold climate. Her husband was stationed in Canada then, and mine in England. We carried stiff , square, frozen nappies in from outside, and draped them over a clothes horse or chair in front of the fire to thaw them and dry them. With two babies under two, I was often only one nappy ahead of each baby. No such thing as a dryer back then – a clothes horse in those days was made of wood, with hinges of heavy-duty linen.

We discussed the fine cotton inner nappy and the bulky outer terry towelling nappy, and the great day when plastic outer pants were invented, thus saving us from the trauma of the wet nappy sitting in the lap. Former naval person sitting at the end of the table sat riveted with horror at this refined lunch-time conversation, and rolling his eyes and groaning at intervals, just to remind us he was there.

We happily ploughed on eating our chicken vol- au- vent, and alcoholic dried fruit compote for pudding, his revulsion just giving an added edge to our enjoyment – maybe even revenge for the trials we had all endured. We envied flower expert’s possession of a high-ceilinged old fashioned kitchen which had meant she had room for an airing rack on a pulley to dry everything in the warm air up on the ceiling. French lady boasted that by the time she had her last child, she could order a nappy service in Paris to collect and deliver. We practically jeered at this decadence, sailor’s wife claiming with determination that she had had the worst experience with nappies, and who could argue… buckets, frozen nappies, an’all ?

Our children had it easy, we all agreed, and we had all noticed that our grandchildren never had any problems with nappy rash from their easy disposables. Threat though they are to the environment, this, we agreed was a huge plus, freeing  mothers from the guilt which we experienced if any of our babies  displayed that bright red rash, for which we blamed ourselves for not rinsing the nappies well enough, or not changing them often enough.

This burning subject and un-savoury occupation which kept five intelligent, well-educated  women from prosperous backgrounds fully occupied for years of their lives, would seem utterly trivial to today’s mothers, who not only enjoy disposable nappies, but washing machines and dryers which do the job at the touch of a button.

But today’s women also juggle jobs with housework, children and commuting. I don’t envy them. Though fifties women are considered a joke by most people now-a-days, we actually had time to spend with our children and ourselves. And our trials were very character-forming!

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Dried fruit compote is one of the easiest luxurious puddings I know. Roughly chop about three cups of dried peaches, prunes, figs and apricots into three cups of cold tea and add rum to taste, plus a cup of brown sugar. Add a stick of cinnamon, six cloves, and two or three star anise and at least a teasp of vanilla essence. Gently heat and simmer until soft, and serve hot or cold with crème fraiche or whipped cream, and maybe a little shortbread biscuit. Peeled sliced apple and tamarilloes are also good in the mix. Add more liquid is needed.

Food for Thought

In Islam, especially among the Sufi orders, siyahat or ‘errance’ – the action or rhythm of walking – was used as a technique for dissolving the attachments of the world and allowing men to lose themselves in God.

Bruce Chatwin,  1940 – 1989  Traveller and writer

 

 

 

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Filed under babies, cookery/recipes, family, great days, humour, life/style, sustainability, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, village life, womens issues

A Much Maligned Hero

If there is a list of less than attractive characteristics, my hero is on that list – alcoholic, psychopath, megalomaniac, autistic, faults and addictions, these labels are all heaped upon his well-known head.

He didn’t have an easy start in life – his American mother, a famous society beauty was too busy socialising to spend any time with him, or visit him at school; while his father was too busy with his brilliant career, and finally too embittered by his terminal illness to have any time for him at all, and never once visited him when he was packed off to boarding school at seven. His mother required him to write to her in French and frequently returned his letters unread, saying his French was so appalling that she had no intention of reading them. The wounds and scars from beatings on his back, administered by a sadistic head master between the ages of seven and nine, finally convinced his parents to send him to another school.

The one person who loved him was his nanny. He loved her  until the day she died, and was with her at her death-bed. At his schools, he was unpunctual and unconventional, and no-one had a good word to say for him. He failed his military exams, and when he finally made it into Sandhurst was broken-hearted that his father had died before seeing that at last he had succeeded in achieving something. Because his father had died young, he always felt that he would too, and since he always felt that he had come into the world to fulfill some great purpose, he felt he didn’t have a lot of time, and had to hurry!

He had a brief and brilliant military career, earning medals and commendations, and took part in the last great cavalry charge in history at Omdurman against sixty thousand dervishes. Leaving the army he became a newspaper correspondent, and while reporting on the Boer War was captured and had a famous escape, which brought him to the notice of the world. Back in England he went into politics like his father, and having by then educated himself with massive reading programmes, and developed a great gift for words and oratory, he was very successful. In the First World War he unfairly took the blame for the disaster at Gallipoli, though he was merely one of a group of people who’d been behind the scheme, there being no scope for dictatorship by second ranking politicians in the English constitution.

His career apparently ruined, he went and fought in the front line on the Western Front. After the war, returning to politics with some success, he was then vilified and disliked by most people, because he warned about the inevitable war with Germany all through the thirties. While in politics, he had worked for an old age pension for every-one and for better working hours for men and women. With an intelligent powerful wife like Clementine, he supported votes for women, but not the methods of the Suffragettes, especially after one militant feminist tried to push him under a train, and his wife only just pulled him back in time. During this time in the wilderness he supported his family by writing and lecturing.

When war was declared in 1939, no-one in politics really wanted him, from the King down, in spite of him having been proved right about Hitler and the dangers of appeasement. But the people did, and he became prime minster at the time of the greatest danger England or the world had ever faced.

For the next two years, Winston Churchill held the free world together. He not only united his country in the face of fighting a war they could well lose, against a foe whose brutality and inhumanity had already been demonstrated all over a devastated Europe, but he sustained the people in all the defeated countries. They risked their lives to listen secretly to his speeches on their radios, knowing that if they were discovered they would be shot.

“There goes the British Empire”, the American Ambassador heard a workman say as Churchill conducted him around the smoking ruins of a city hit by the Luftwaffe the night before. He was there to report to President Roosevelt on whether he thought the British were going to be able to stand up to Hitler. When the US finally came into the war when Japan attacked them, Churchill knew that with America’s might they could win the war, however long it took. But for two years he alone bore the whole burden of the war on his shoulders, and people waited to hear his speeches to raise their spirits and inspire them to hope even in such hopeless circumstances.

When night after night, London and all England’s other great cities were bombed, its citizens sometimes buried in mass graves, as in Coventry, and irreplaceable architecture, homes and churches destroyed, Churchill’s words kept the nation and the free world going.

People who worked with him were devoted to him. He was very affectionate and treated his staff like his family, inviting them to share all his family meals  when they came to stay every weekend, while Churchill worked – usually until 3am. They were part of the family, playing cards, croquet and going for walks. He had a wicked wit.  When Lady Astor said to him at dinner, “If I was your wife, I’d put cyanide in your coffee,”  he famously replied, “If you were my wife I’d drink it”. When Bernard Shaw sent him a ticket for the first night of Pygmalion, writing : “Bring a friend if you have one”, Churchill replied: “ Cannot make first night, but will come to second, if you have one”. He described an opponent (fairly accurately) as ‘a modest little man, but then he has much to be modest about!’

His capacity for work was prodigious as was his eye for detail … he sent a memo to the top navy, army and air force men telling them to give dignified names to operations, saying if a mother heard that her son had been killed in a battle with a silly name like ‘Operation bunny hop’, it would diminish the dignity of her dead child. He began every memo to his staff:  “ Pray… could you …etc.”  He cared about people, and was devoted to his wife and family after his miserable childhood. He was a talented painter as well as writer, who won the Nobel prize for literature for his four volume series  ‘The History of The English Speaking Peoples.’

He was often inconsiderate and sometimes arrogant, but never mis-used power, his proudest boast being that he was the servant of Parliament and the English people who elected him.  And when his party lost the election as the war was ending – in spite of the love the people had for him – he told every-one that they had to respect the will of the people.

And in old age he could still laugh at himself … when a nervous MP whispered to him that his fly buttons were undone, he replied ‘Never fear, the dead bird never leaves the nest.’ His beloved private secretary Sir John Colville said that he never saw him drunk, though champagne and brandy were his favourite tipples. And as for the other labels … I’m sure he’d rebut them with that old English saying; ‘ Sticks and stones  may break my bones, but words will never hurt me…’

What a man!  I think he’d prefer: What an Englishman! And yet he was deeply proud of his American ancestry too. When his dark- eyed, dark- haired mother died, it was reported that her face bore: “all the hallmarks of a native American inheritance”. His descent from another great Englishman and soldier, John, Duke of Marlborough, was the inspiration for his belief in his destiny … which could be summed up quite briefly – to save the free world.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Hot summer days, and heaps of fresh vegetables – many from the gardens of my lovely neighbours. So today, it’s crudités with that lovely mayonnaise made with my new mixing stick in the last recipe.  Fresh batch today with garlic added, making it aoli, to be eaten with hard boiled free range eggs, fresh raw baby carrots, tomatoes warm from the sun, new potatoes from a neighbour’s garden – cooked with fresh mint –  cucumber and a jar of artichokes. We’ll start with some sweet corn dripping with hot butter, the corn almost pearly, it’s so fresh … fresh purple plums with that dusty bloom on their skins to end with … a summer feast ….

Food for Thought

History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. What is the worth of all this? The only guide to a man is his conscience. The only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour.

Extract from his tribute to his old opponent Austen Chamberlain on his death,  by Winston S Churchill 1874 -1965  politician, writer, painter, visionary leader

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Filed under cookery/recipes, great days, history, humour, life/style, military history, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, village life, world war one, world war two