Tag Archives: world war two

The truth about Dunkirk

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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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War and Peace

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I stumbled on a quote from Winston Churchill at the beginning of the chapter of a book I was reading. He was talking to the boys of Harrow, his old school, just after the Battle of Britain… the leader of the free world with his back against the wall, found time to talk to schoolboys in the middle of a World War when his capital city was being pounded in the Blitz…

He said: “Do not let us speak of darker days, let us rather speak of sterner days. These are not dark days; these are the greatest days our country has ever lived.” (I can just hear him growling through his speech impediment and his false teeth)
Those words made me think of those sterner days, and what stern days we have all lived through since the end of the long peace from Waterloo to the First World War.
My ancestors lived peaceful lives between the downfall of one warlord – Napoleon in 1815, and the attack of another warlord – the Kaiser in 1914.

But things changed for them then, as for everyone, and my family would be a microcosm of that change. My grandfather fought at Gallipoli of tragic memories, my great- uncle was one of eight hundred men who ‘went down, “as my grandmother would say – in the Vanguard, when it exploded and sank in 1917.

My step-grandfather was one of the 60,000 men killed or wounded on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in June 1916, when he was shot as he stepped out in the first line after the whistle blew to advance in the early morning sunshine. Unlike that heart-stopping last scene in ‘Blackadder goes forth’, they didn’t run, but stepped out to a measured pace, and were mown down by machine guns raking along the long lines of men moving across the grass as they walked into the ‘jaws of death’….

These were peaceful men, called up from their homes and villages to fight for their country and for peace – they thought – unlike the highly trained aggressive army of martial men which faced them. They had actually thought that the Battle of the Somme would end the carnage.

The next generation faced the sterner days of another warlord, Hitler. My father escaped from France a fortnight after Dunkirk, and then spent the rest of the war as a famed Desert Rat, escaping from the siege of Tobruk, fighting across North Africa and then up through Italy. After the war he was stationed at Belsen, the concentration camp where I joined him to live with him for the first time since he had left when I was ten months old.

His brother served with the Long Range Desert Group which fought behind the German lines in North Africa waging guerrilla war. Captured, and ending up in prisoner of war camp in Italy, he escaped and hid and starved in the mountains, until rejoining the Allied Armies as they fought their way up Italy. My only other uncle manned anti –invasion posts around England before becoming part of the liberation forces in Europe. He listened in horror as they drove away to the sound of gun-shots after handing over Russian PoW’s back to the Soviets, who shot them all, there and then. My former father- in- law, a padre, landed on the beaches of Normandy and was so badly wounded that he lived with the after- effects for the rest of his life.

My first memory was of watching the Battle of Britain – not that I knew it was – I just saw white crosses diving across the sky and puffs of white. I was looking for dogs, since I heard the adults saying there’s another dog-fight. That summer has remained in the memory of those who lived through it – even me at two – as being one of unforgettable beauty. Historian Sir Arthur Bryant wrote of England then: “The light that beat down on her meadows, shining with emerald loveliness, was scarcely of this world… the streets of her cities, soon to be torn and shattered, were bathed in a calm serene sunshine…”

Later, I cowered in bed hearing the dreadful wail of the air- raid sirens, trailed downstairs in my night clothes to crouch in the air-raid shelter, listened for the planes overheard, saw with terror the flames in the red sky, and the next morning gathered up shrapnel in the garden and once, stood on the edge of a huge bomb crater, marvelling. And finally traversed bombed- out Germany on the train to Belsen.

I spent much of the rest of my childhood living in army camps around the world, hearing the sound of reveille across the fields where the soldiers lived in barracks, and drifting off to sleep to the haunting strains of the Last Post.

Inevitably I joined the army, as did both my brothers, who saw service in Aden, Borneo, Germany, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar… and as my first child was born, my army husband was posted at twenty four hours notice to a sudden outbreak of warfare in Cyprus. I came out of the labour ward to find a telegram: “Gone to Cyprus”. So my daughter felt the effects of war as soon as she came into this world and didn’t meet her father until she was six months old. Later her father served in Hong Kong and Germany and Northern Ireland.

My grandchildren are the fifth generation and the first not to feel the effects of war. They‘re aware of violence – who could not be after the world-wide shock at the attacks on the World Trade Centre. But like other children of the West, they seem to see their future and their challenges differently. Unlike the children of Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, my fortunate grandchildren have known only peace, and tucked away in the farthest corner of the globe, they have optimism. They do not see these days as stern ones, though the children in war-torn Middle East must do. They do not see the anxieties that older people agonise over, pollution, dwindling food supplies, over-population, melting ice-caps, ravaged oceans…

They see instead the solutions. One grandson, having gained a degree in philosophy, transferred his search for truth to science, and from first deciding to tackle world hunger by experimenting with growing food from the spores of mushrooms ( I’m sure I’ve hopelessly oversimplified that ) he’s now embarked on a project to discover new forms of anti-biotics, and combat disease.

The other youngsters all have a serene belief that science, and creative understanding will solve the problems that loom so large for older generations. They’re not worried! I find that’s magic. Is this because they live in this peaceful place in the Antipodes, or do all young people have this calm belief in the future?

A friend told us that she had always loudly proclaimed at home that it is selfish and self-indulgent to have a child and bring another soul into this troubled world. She told us with great joy, that her fifteen year old grandson said he didn’t agree. “Life is a gift” this wonderful boy told her. Hearing that wisdom was a gift to us oldies.

Hearing that made me feel too, we can all rest easy. Young people know where they’re going, and know what they can do. Though we hear of mayhem and misery every day, if we oldies step back from it, avoid reading the stuff that make us sad (young people don’t seem to read newspapers! ), we can remember to be as positive and imaginative as that young generation.

And maybe too, to bowdlerise Churchill’s words – these are the greatest days our world has ever lived, when consciousness takes the leap into other dimensions of unity and peace. Christopher Fry wrote that: “Affairs are now soul size,” and that we are ready to:” take the longest stride of soul men ever took.”

This is what we can feel in the hearts of this generation that does not want war and dissension –  the domain of the grey tired thinking of politicians of old. Young people want peace and hope and they deserve it as they face the new challenges that baffle older people. “Young people”, as a friend once wrote in Latin, in a card to me, “are the hope and salvation of the world”. And they need all our loving support and belief in them, as they take that long stride of soul into a future we oldies cannot even imagine.

Food for threadbare gourmets
I had some dainty ham sandwiches left over from a little gathering. Rather than waste them I had them for supper. I whipped up an egg with salt and pepper and a soupcon of milk, and poured it onto a plate. I dipped the sandwiches in on both sides, and the egg mixture glued them together. Fried in a little butter, they were delicious. And no waste!

Food for thought
Close your eyes and you will see the truth,
Be still and you will move forward on the tide of the spirit,
Be gentle and you will need no strength,
Be patient and you will achieve all things,
Be humble and you will remain entire.
Taoist meditation

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The power of one

100_0347Continued from Eyewitness to history…

Christmas at Belsen was rather different to homely war-time Christmas in the quiet Dorset village where I’d lived before being uprooted to join my new parents.

Having been at war since I was a baby, my father had more experience of leading tanks into battle than bringing up a shy nine- year- old girl, while my stepmother knew nothing about children. We all had to make the best of it, and one of the best things was visiting the Duke of Hanover’s palace, a little way out of Belsen – and splendid it was. (What had he made of the concentration camp on his doorstep?)

I was taken occasionally for Sunday lunch there, and for the children’s Christmas Party. We played games like pass- the – parcel, and then musical chairs in the ballroom lined with huge gilt mirrors, under shining chandeliers, slipping and sliding on the marble floor while little gilt chairs were subtracted from the circle. Then, when the party ended, like nearly every other party of my childhood, we danced Sir Roger de Coverley, with the parents standing round clapping in time to the music.

Some weekends, we drove out to the Duke’s hunting lodge in the middle of a dark pine forest, where deer darted out onto the road, and wild boar lurked. This gemutlich little pile was now the officers club, run by a friendly middle-aged German couple.

Had they always been the stewards of this place, I wondered later? Did they transfer their loyalties to their new employers in the interim, and hold the place in trust until the Duke regained his ancestral homes – if indeed he did? Anyway, their speciality was delicious, lavishly sugared doughnuts, stuffed with butter icing. The glory of these doughnuts in a life of total gastronomic deprivation and war-time rations was utterly memorable (Did the Duke enjoy them too, before and after us?)

Doctor Muller, the German vet, called on us regularly, whether our various dogs needed his attentions or not. He regarded my parents – or at any rate, their gin bottle – as friends. In return for the generous helpings of gin and tonic he sipped – unobtainable in civilian Germany – he would bring my stepmother specimens of the many amazing varieties of exotic orchids which he grew. I thought they were awful, not like flowers at all, but fantastically petalled and bearded and contorted in strange sharp pinks and acid greens and yellows. He would arrive bearing this gift, and bend over my stepmother’s hand, clicking his heels together and bowing.

After some months of laborious social intercourse – his English became more broken with the quantity of gin consumed – we were invited to his house in Bergen to meet his wife.

We had tea on exquisite Meissen china, but because they could get sugar at the time, but no flour, we had no cakes or biscuits, but dipped sour apples from the garden into the sugar, as a substitute for cake. The grownups managed with a cup of tea. The doctor’s wife was a fair-haired, washed-out, melancholy woman. When I exclaimed over the beautiful porcelain, she explained that they’d hidden it with all their other treasures in a hole under the cellar, so the invaders wouldn’t loot them.

Even as a child I thought this was rather tactless. Invaders? Was she talking about us? She also reminisced about the awfulness of the war to my parents, and she and her daughter Suzanne, described the anguish of seeing their poor, wounded soldiers in blood- stained bandages in passing trains. Back home I heard my stepmother snort: “If they saw those trains, how come they didn’t know about the others!”

Years later, I realised she was referring to the trains of the condemned heading for Belsen. In her book: ‘The Children’s House of Belsen, Hetty Verolme described the platform at Celle lined with thirty SS men and Alsation dogs straining at the leash as the train pulled in. They then, eleven hundred young and old from Holland, sick or exhausted, straggled all the miles to Belsen on foot and apparently unobserved by the local population, who denied all knowledge of the camp when the British authorities discovered it and questioned them.

But the friendship limped on. One summer’s day, the vet’s two younger children, Hildegarde and Carljurgen, thirteen and fourteen, the one in dirndl skirt and long, white lace socks, the other in leather lederhosen, long, white lace socks and black boots, took me driving in their farm cart.

We rumbled and swayed down narrow farm tracks between fields of blazing blue and purple lupins shimmering with tiny butterflies in the sunshine. Carljurgen let me hold the reins. He avoided that other field, where there were miles and miles of burnt -out German tanks my parents had shown me one dank winter’s day.

It was another ten years before I read Anne Franck’s diaries. It came as a shock to me then, to realise that I had been living in the same place where she had lived briefly, suffered and died.

I’m a chronic re-reader of most books I’ve read, yet I cannot bear to re-read her chronicle of life lived beneath the terror of Nazi inhumanity. But as the years have gone by, her shining spirit has risen above the degradation of that Nazi oppression, and has become a beacon of light.

Though the evil that was Nazism destroyed her physical body, the power of her courage, intelligence, thirst for life, and sheer goodness was not destroyed. She still inspires people from all over the world to visit the building where she and her family hid, and they travel to the memorial to her and her sister Margot at Bergen- Belsen.

It‘s mainly due to Anne Franck that the world today is conscious of Bergen- Belsen… there were many other concentration camps just as bad all over the Nazi empire – nearly three hundred – and many of them are forgotten. But Bergen- Belsen has become symbolic of them all, and serves to remind us all of events and atrocities that must never be repeated.

Teenager Anne wrote prophetically: ‘I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death! And that’s why I’m so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all that’s inside me.’
In death this is exactly what she did achieve, she has gone on living, her words have been both useful and enjoyable, and her life and her death an amazing and triumphant testament to the power of One.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets
Winter and comfort food, and a love affair with the crock pot. Last week I discovered it was possible to bake whole potatoes in their jackets in the crock pot, instead of using the oven for just one potato! Just prick them with a fork, drizzle a bit of olive oil over them and wrap them in foil. I cooked two medium sized potatoes on high for three to four hours… it depends on the size… but they come to no harm when checked for softness towards the end of the cooking time. Sliced in half horizontally, gently mashed with butter and sprinkled with grated cheese they’re a filling, comforting meal on their own. Naturally, virtuous people have some green vegetables with them… I had some Brussels sprouts!

Food for thought
To be nobody but yourself in a world that is doing its best night and day to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle any human being ever fights and never stop fighting.
e.e.cummings.

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When is right wrong?

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It’s always been quite easy to be a pacifist in New Zealand for the last fifty years. Vietnam seemed indefensible to many, and our nuclear free policy made it feasible to take the moral high ground and declare that war is wrong.

I was forced to think about this on reading of the First World War project at Paddington Station in London, where a magnificent and moving statue of an unknown warrior stands. In full battle kit and helmet, he is reading a letter. As part of the commemorations marking the start of World War One, writers have been invited to write a letter to him, and Stephen Fry, wit, comedian and actor was amongst the first to write his, and it caused a sensation.

He wrote it as from a pacifist brother. Though he got historic details wrong – a pacifist would not be sitting at home then, he’d either be in prison or working on a farm, his letter moved many people. I’ve always been firmly behind conscientious objectors – (I like the moral high ground!) but this letter made me think hard about what was the right thing to do then, and how the right thing could very easily seem to be the wrong thing.

I thought about the horrific killings at schools and other places in the last few years, where deranged gun-owners shot numbers of their fellows, and if they didn’t end up shooting themselves, were shot, in order to stop them killing any more innocent victims. These incidents made me think when is it wrong to kill another human being, if there is no other way to stop them killing others. As pacifists do we stand and watch while others are killed, or do we intervene in whatever way we can, to protect the innocent?

This was actually the dilemma in the World Wars. Revisionist historians have said that there was no need for Britain to go to war in 1914. But Britain had informally agreed to support France if she was attacked in order to keep the balance of peace and power in Europe. More importantly, she had signed a pact in 1839 with four other countries of Europe, including Germany, to protect Belgium and allow this war-torn corner of Europe to enjoy being a neutral country, safe for the first time in history from being fought over. It was known as the cock-pit of Europe. It took the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, nine years of diplomacy and negotiations to get the five signatories to agree to preserve Belgium, and they included France, Russia and England, and also Germany and Austria.

But Belgium was doomed as soon as the Prussian General Schlieffen began planning a war for German supremacy, because his plans for invading France, took in Belgium first. By then, under Bismarck’s influence, the German nation had become a military one. Invading Belgium didn’t bother them, though it did the honest German ambassador in London, Prince Lichnowsky, whose anguished telegrams begging the Kaiser not to invade, I have read.

In Belgium the Germans did what they did at Lidice in Hungary and Oradour in France in the Second World War, when they blamed the Nazis for these unspeakable atrocities. No Nazis around in the first war, but they still burned villages, hanged one man in ten and sometimes one man in two, and shot women, children and babies, the youngest three weeks old – at Dinant – as reprisals against any Belgians who had attempted to resist. Before the war was four weeks old, towns and villages had been sacked and burned, their people shot, and Louvain, and its ancient library reduced to cinders. So the choice for many Englishmen was clear – stand by and watch as a pacifist, or try to stop what seemed like a barbarian host?

The British soldiers who went to war then, were part of the history of England which had always tried to stop one power dominating and enslaving all of Europe, from Louis the Fourteenth of France to Napoleon. To go to war seemed to many who joined up then, to be a heroic attempt to save civilisation, and even more so in the Second World War, when Hitler was enslaving the civilised world.

The tragedy of resisting a violent and merciless enemy is that too often all the combatants find themselves using the same methods as the aggressor… war. But can we stand by and hang onto our principles of not killing, when all those we love will be destroyed, and not just those we love – our society, our country, and our whole civilisation. This was the choice which thinking people faced in both world wars.

When World War One was declared, England’s army was smaller than Serbia’s – the tiny country where the match had been lit at Sarajevo. So England’s armies were citizen armies, in both wars, made up of peace-loving men called up to defend their country. There’s a lot of research to show that many soldiers when they fired their rifles at the advancing enemy, didn’t actually shoot at the enemy, but aimed to miss, and that even more didn’t shoot at all. They too faced choices on the battle field which are impossible for us to imagine, when like me, we are living in a safe, peace-loving democracy.

So though I believe in peace, and have always supposed I was a pacifist, and attended Quaker meeting, where everyone was a declared pacifist, do I still believe it is possible to be one when the chips are down? I don’t know any more … Aggression turns easy choices upside down, when right – not killing – seems wrong, and wrong – fighting – seems right.

The wonderful story of the American colonel in Iraq, surrounded by an angry mob intent on violence, calling his armed troop to a halt, ordering them to kneel and point their guns to the sky, immediately defused the threat of violence on that occasion. So how do we defuse the violence of would- be psychopathic conquerors who believe that might is right? Maybe only people power can do that – and that can happen – as it did at the Berlin Wall.

Maybe it just needs enough of us to say: “They shall not pass…”
Food for threadbare gourmets

Something to eat with a glass of wine is one of our specialities in this village – among my friends anyway. It’s so easy to share a glass of wine and a nibble on a Friday night, without all the hassle of a dinner party. The latest craze is kumara skins – kumara are the Maori sweet potato that Kiwis pine for when they leave this country, but even ordinary potatoes are good this way.

Boil scrubbed orange and golden kumara until soft, and then cut them into thin wedges, leaving about a cm of flesh. Heat hot oil until it’s just smoking. Dust the kumara with seasoned flour and fry until golden. Drain and sprinkle with sea salt. Eat the skins with sour cream sauce – half a cup of sour cream mixed with a tbsp on mustard, fresh herbs and lemon juice.

Food for thought

There is something that can be found in one place. It is a great treasure, which may be called the fulfilment of existence. The place where this treasure can be found is the place on which one stands.

Martin Buber 1878- 1965  Jewish philosopher

 

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Poignant symbolism

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‘Mummy doesn’t like carnations,’  the nine year old told him coldly, her information holding a world of meaning as she correctly assessed that the man at the front door was a suitor.

She was right, and though he persevered on that occasion, he never gave me carnations again. It’s a shame about carnations, but at the time I could only see the sad, scentless etoliated versions wrapped in cheap cellophane and sold on garage fore-courts. They symbolised the  capitalism and commercialism that exploits and corrupts even beauty.

The real thing has a big, heavy deliciously clove- scented head, with a tangle of frilly petals, and was originally used by the Romans for wreaths and garlands, known in Latin as corona. When these flowers first came to England with the legionaries nearly 2000 years ago, their name was coronation, until the word evolved into carnation.

I was just as dismissive about daffodils, when I was presented with a bouquet – or rather some bouquets – which I rather regret now. In my salad days when I was a twenty two year old in the army, and stationed outside a beautiful village in Shakespeare country, I was the only girl in an all male officers’ mess. I had my own little cottage where I lived with the mongrel I’d rescued and dignified by calling him Rupert.

Late one night there was a loud knocking, so I dragged myself from deep sleep, hurried on my pink dressing gown, and stumbled to the door.  Grouped there were all the young officers who had gone to watch a rugby match at Twickenham. It had taken them many hours to get back here, judging by the time – two o’ clock in the morning – and one of the things which had delayed them, apart from merrymaking at every pub on the way back, was that they had also stopped at every roundabout, it seemed, between my cottage and London.

Each roundabout they had stripped of its spring flowers, and here at my door was the result of their labours. Each young man was wearing a proud grin and holding a big bunch of golden daffodils in the moonlight. Sadly, I was not amused, deeply disapproved, and was more intent on getting them to go away, and stopping Rupert from barking and waking senior officers slumbering nearby, than in being grateful for their generosity at the expense of every town council between here and London!

So I did know how my three year old grand- daughter felt when I gave her a disappointing bunch of flowers. I’d chosen a big blowsy thank you bouquet  for her mother, and had as much pleasure in choosing the flowers as my daughter- in –law had in receiving them. My grand-daughter was also ravished by them, so I decided to walk back to the shop through the bitter Melbourne winter’s day and get her the little bunch of flowers I’d refrained from getting on the first visit.

I brought home a posy of exquisite purple violets, the perfect symbol, I thought, for my exquisite flower-like little grand-daughter. She took one look at the dainty flowers and burst into indignant tears, and then threw an uninhibited tantrum in which she expressed her un-utterable disappointment at not having a big grown-up bunch of flowers like her mother’s. Mortified, I could see her point.

Two years later a small posy of white rosebuds with one word ‘Mummy’ on Princess Diana’s coffin reduced half a world to tears.

The symbolism of flowers is far more profound that the sentimental Victorian descriptions of the language of flowers. The flaming red poppy, whose name is now synonymous with the word Flanders, is a poignant reminder still, of every young man who died in the terrible war that my grandmother called The Great War.

And in the next terrible war  flowers softened another battlefield. I remember my father telling me how the hills of Tunisia were smothered in glorious spring flowers as his tank regiment fought their way to join up with Montgomery’s army.

Bruce Chatwin painted an unforgettable image of flowers in that same war, in his book ‘The Songlines’. On the first page he wrote of a Cossack from a village near Rostov on Don, who was seized by the Germans to be carted off for slave labour to Germany. One night, somewhere in the Ukraine, he jumped from the cattle-truck shunting him and other captives away from their homelands and fell into a field of sunflowers.

Soldiers in grey uniforms hunted him up and down the long lines of yellow sunflowers, but somehow he managed to elude them. I can still see in my mind those rows of strong, towering green stalks and leaves,  great, yellow tangled- petalled heads benignly sheltering the fugitive crouched beneath.

I can never forget the endless fields of shimmering purple lupins alive with dancing blue butterflies, stretching along- side thousands of burnt -out tanks in post-war Germany just after the war.  And I could never bear the pink rose bay willowherb, which grew on every English bomb site… the only plant that seemed to thrive in those derelict tragic places. They came to symbolise for me as a small girl, all the horror and sadness and destruction of the war I didn’t understand.

But perhaps the most powerful flower image of all, is that glorious girl on an American campus in the sixties, walking up to a row of armed, helmeted men, and tremblingly pushing a flower into the barrel of a gun pointed at her, her hand shaking slightly as she dared the outrageous.  A girl and a flower speaking the in-effable language of peace.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Sometimes home-made mayonnaise can seem a bit heavy, but I use a quick and easy French recipe to lighten it up, learned from my French neighbour. After making the mayonnaise, beat the white of an egg until stiff, and then gently beat it into the freshly made mayonnaise. It gives it a lovely creamy texture, and is particularly good with fish like freshly poached salmon. Another variation is to use a clove of garlic when making the mayonnaise and then add finely chopped avocado with the egg- white. This is a good accompaniment to the chicken mousse from the last post.

Food for thought

That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter. That mankind has in this sense been cowardly has done life endless harm; the experiences that are called ‘visions’, the whole so-called “spirit-world,” death, all those things that are so closely akin to us, have by daily parrying been so crowded out of life that the senses with which we could grasp them are atrophied. To say nothing of God.         Rainer Maria Rilke 1875 – 1926  Austrian mystical poet

 

 

 

 

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So what is gumption?

100_0509“Use your elbow–grease,” my grandmother would chide me good humouredly… or ask: “where’s your gumption?” Where indeed? I searched my somewhat limited seven year old soul but could find no trace of these desirable qualities – whatever they were – for I had no idea. I was completely puzzled, and sad to disappoint her.

However the lack of these mystifying gifts ceased to matter when at a fortnight’s notice, I left my grandmother forever, to join my father just returned from Egypt with his new wife. After a month he disappeared to Germany, and my stepmother and I waited for his summons until a house had been found for us. During those months, instead of going to school, my stepmother gave me lessons in the afternoon. Looking back, though a fully trained physiotherapist, she may not have been quite so well qualified to teach small children, but those were more carefree times, when anything went, and often did.

In my case, we didn’t do much maths, thankfully, but I learnt lots of poetry, mainly, I think, the poets my stepmother had ‘done’ at school in the thirties. These included Sir Walter Scott, Elizabeth Browning, Wordsworth and chunks of Longfellow’s Hiawatha. She was hot on spelling – and as a nine year old, lists of words like phlegm, diaphragm, diphthong, delphinium, rhododendron, asthma, psychology, diarrhoea had to be memorised every day. If I’d ended up in the medical profession this vocabulary might have stood me in good stead, but since then I’ve often wished that I had instead mastered how to spell ‘receive’ and all the exceptions of’ ie’, as well as ‘commitment’, both my constant stumbling blocks.

When it came to composition – as it was called – I was a disappointment to her, the way I’d felt with my grandmother, when I lacked elbow grease and gumption. But what I was lacking now, was imagination. “Use your imagination,” she’d say, and once again, I had no idea what imagination was, though I thought it might have something to do with writing about fairies, which I felt was childish.

I felt mysteriously depressed, as at school I’d always been quite good at composition. But the problem of imagination didn’t seem so important once we got to war-torn Europe. We travelled through apocalyptic scenes – cities of mountains of bricks, with half buildings with crooked pictures still on the wall, a door open and chairs still at a table, and skeletons of ruined churches –  before finally reaching the infamous place called Belsen, where our new home was the Beast of Belsen’s old digs.

Those were bleak times in Europe and I often felt bleak too. Now my father, almost unknown after years away at war, expected me to have common sense. This seemed more important than gumption, elbow grease, or imagination all put together, and just as un-attainable. I think they thought I was sensible when my best friend was murdered. I had gone to fetch her for our early morning riding lesson, but she didn’t answer the door. When I got home after riding, Mary had been found shot in the kitchen, and her younger brother was shot at the door as he had tried to escape. Her father had then shot himself because his wife had left him.

I never spoke to my new parents about this, my chief worry being Mary’s brother’s  feelings as he dashed for the door, and also that Mary mightn’t have made it into heaven, which I knew my parents didn’t believe in. I cried every night in bed, and begged God to let her in. But though I was apparently phlegmatic, the magic of common sense still eluded me – as in: “do use your common sense, child,” or the unanswerable question: “haven’t you got any common sense?”  When I joined the army as a teenager at my father’s behest, I knew he hoped I might now discover some hidden well of this commodity which he seemed to think I really needed for a successful life.

But here was another pitfall. An officer was supposed to have initiative and to use it! This, as a very young officer, I quickly realised, was dangerous. Initiative was a two-edged sword, with unknown consequences, which not everyone appreciated. So it was with relief that I looked forward to marriage, when, I supposed with blind optimism, none of these things would be required of me.

But on the third day into married life, I discovered that things were not as I had thought they were, had to write a big cheque which cleaned me out, and then faced an unpredictable, precarious, and impoverished life on shifting sands. The upside was that I discovered I did have gumption after all! And I needed it.

Elbow grease, on the other hand, was something quite prosaic I came to realise, and was only needed for wax-polishing antique furniture, the idea being that the intense pressure of the elbow grease created friction, and the resultant heat melted the invisible wax crystals, causing them to meld together and create those shining surfaces. Frankly, it was easier just to put the dusters in the oven, and polish with hot dusters instead of elbow grease. The only other use for elbow grease seemed to be for scrubbing burnt saucepans, an activity I have always strenuously avoided.

Common sense? Well I’ve discovered that common sense is merely a matter of opinion, and that one man’s common sense is another man’s madness… so to take a somewhat extreme example, Hitler’s idea of common sense would not be mine – so I’ve flagged common sense. And initiative doesn’t bother me any more – I’m in sole command, and don’t have to answer to any superior officers!

Which leaves me with that lack of imagination. Well, it’s something I’ve got used to, and have had to realise that I never could produce an interesting imaginative novel! I recognise imagination in great works of art, both literary and artistic, in fine blogs, in glorious architecture and opera, in gardening and interior decoration, even in solving problems… but I’m still digging for it in myself…

Jane Austen has sometimes been un-imaginatively accused of lacking imagination, and I used to cling to her definition of her art in a letter to her brother Edward, in which she refers to her: ‘little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush’, but to be brutally realistic, this is not really much comfort, since she painted masterpieces on her little bit of ivory with her fine brush. For me, lacking the flights of fancy that come with a soaring imagination, all I can do is to notice and to describe, and I did find some consolation in these words by the enigmatic writer Fernando Pessoa.

He wrote: “What moves lives. What is said endures. There’s nothing in life that’s less real for having been described. Small-minded critics point out that such and such a poem, with its protracted cadences, in the end says merely that it’s a nice day. But to say it’s a nice day is difficult, and the nice day itself passes on. It’s up to us to conserve the nice day in a wordy, florid memory, sprinkling new flowers and new stars over the fields and skies of the empty, fleeting outer world.”

These words hearten me for I too, can at least conserve the day in wordy, florid memories, try to sprinkle new flowers over the fields and skies of the fleeting outer world, and thoroughly enjoy myself while I’m sprinkling! So here’s to florid memories and new flowers!

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

This is the strawberry season, so it’s crazy to serve anything else for pudding besides these luscious fruits. Friends for dinner meant a quick foray to the nearest strawberry fields. The ones I wanted, where the strawberries are grown by a Vietnamese genius, whose berries are the biggest, sweetest and cheapest, hadn’t opened, so I had to fall back on the other strawberry fields. I usually find theirs a bit tough and tart, but solved the problem by hulling them, and putting them in a dish out in the sun. As the day went by, the delectable scent of soft, sweet, ripe strawberries warm from the sun tempted my taste-buds every time I passed them.

With them I usually do Chantilly cream. One of my grandsons will eat this neat, and has learned how to make it for himself, a useful skill when he goes flatting at University! Take one cup of thick cream, two table spoons of icing sugar and a few drops of vanilla and whip them together. I usually make three times this amount, just tripling all the ingredients.

 

Food for thought

So long as a bee is outside the petals of the lotus and has not tasted its honey, it hovers around the flower buzzing. But when it is inside the flower it drinks the nectar silently. So long as a man quarrels about doctrines and dogmas, he has not tasted the nectar of the true faith; once he has tasted it he becomes still.

Sri Ramakrishna  1883- 1886 Famous Hindu teacher and mystic, who believed that all religions led to the same God, and who practised  both Christianity and Islam

 

 

 

 

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Passion in Provence

Just back from seeing The Well-Digger’s Daughter for the second time, but not for the last time!

I see it’s called an art house film… so a film that has no violence or sex pictured in it, seems to be an art house film apparently. Good for art. So I didn’t feel like a voyeur having to watch heaving bottoms, and listen to other people’s orgasms, and I didn’t have to feel like an accomplice watching fighting, stabbings, shooting, and mayhem.

Instead I watched a story of life and death, love and birth, human pain and human greatness. It was set in the magic countryside of Provence, harsh, rocky, grey mountain ridges giving way to long stretches of olive groves, long avenues of ancient poplars, clear pebbly streams with dappled water beneath the branching pale green trees, and empty, dusty white roads. The well-digger’s farm house was the dream of most westerners, a weathered stone house with faded green shutters at each window, stone sinks and arched door-ways inside, pottery jugs and big old- fashioned soup plates for the cassoulet for dinner. Old barns, a stone parapeted well, and views over empty country-side completed the dream. Long shadows lay across green meadows, and grasses swayed in the evening breezes.

 It was that time before telephones, so children ran errands, and felt useful, people wrote letters which were kept and treasured, instead of e-mails quickly deleted, everyone walked miles for lack of public transport and was fit and healthy, while children got enough sleep every night without TV or computer games to keep them awake. It was that time before sprays and pesticides, wind farms and traffic fumes, tourists and agribusiness had changed the old ways, the old beauties, the centuries-old peace.

The music – some of it from old twenties and thirties recordings – pulled at the heart strings the way those wistful plangent sounds of old records always do. And the clothes! – old fashioned thirties summer dresses, elegant coats and hats and shoes. A green crocodile pochette that matched a shapely green coat… a clotted cream coloured cardigan edged with wine dark ribbon, matching the thin maroon stripe in the girl’s cream dress… the scalloped collar on a simple black dress, embroidered round the edge of the scallops in dull red and green.

But these were the delicious details. The people were the story -the well digger- implacable and generous, warm hearted and narrow minded, honest and angry all at the same time; the other father, weary, hen-pecked, dignified and distant; the possessive, petulant mother; the spoiled only son; the well-digger’s troubled, tragic daughter. The emotions of love and lust, anger and unrequited devotion, shame and guilt, grief and joy, swirled round these people as the Second World War broke out. And the birth of an unwanted baby brought together all these warring people and humbled their pride, softened their grief, opened their hearts, melted their anger, dissolved their arrogance and dispelled their petulance. 

There were some lovely lines. The rejected lover, prepared to marry the girl he loved, who was carrying another man’s child, is told by her angry, bitter father: “Felipe, you have no honour”, to which Felipe replies, “I have no honour, but I have plenty of love”. (How much pain and grief men’s honour has brought to women, and still does, as we read of so-called honour killings, and women strangled, stoned and even shot by machine gun, so as not to diminish this strange concept of murderous egotism, false pride, and cruelty wrongly named honour.)

When the possessive grandfather tries to claim authority over the baby, his new son-in law says, “He doesn’t belong to you. You belong to him.” And the other grandfather replies, “That’s right, the old can only serve the young”, like all grandparents, putty in the hands of his grandchild.

No doubt everyone who sees this film will understand it differently, depending on their age. But as a grandparent, it reminded me of the days when my grandchildren were small, and I discovered for the first time the bliss of giving unconditional love. The sort of love which accepts the loved one as a perfect and beautiful soul, knowing that all the foibles and  problems that parents see, don’t really exist; the sort of love that  knows with perfect certainty that their grand-children will grow up to be strong and good even if they don’t eat all their vegetables!

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Padding is what families need in cold weather, and these two puddings fill the bill. They are hot plain puddings, but also delicious, and old-fashioned puddings are becoming fashionable again. They both need sultanas, washed and then soaked in boiling water to plump them up and make them juicy.

The first, batter pudding, needs the same ingredients as Yorkshire pudding, eight ounces of self raising flour, two eggs, and enough milk and a little water to mix to a pouring batter, plus a pinch of salt. Beat the eggs into the flour and salt, and add the liquid gradually. Leave in the fridge for half an hour. Heat a baking pan with a knob of fat until smoking, and pour in the batter, which you’ve just beaten again. Add the drained sultanas, and bake in a hot oven for an hour, or until risen and cooked. Serve immediately with knobs of butter and brown sugar sprinkled over. A hot and homely pudding.

Bread and butter pudding is the same. You need six slices of good bread – not white supermarket pap. Slice them, butter them and cut them into squares or triangles. Arrange them in a two pint pie dish. Sprinkle over the drained sultanas, and then beat three eggs with three to four ounces of sugar. Add the milk, and pour it over the bread. The pie dish should only be half full. Leave to soak for at least half an hour, before baking in a moderate oven (about 350degrees) for about an hour, or until the custard is set. Eat hot.

Food for Thought

Some day, after we have mastered the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity we shall harness the energies of love. Then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.

Pierre Tielhard de Chardin, 1881 – 1955.  Jesuit, philosopher, eminent palaeontologist and mystic, who was banned from teaching, preaching and writing by the Catholic church, his books denied publication, and his most important book, ‘The Phenomenon of Man’ only published after his death. He is still persona non grata with the church fifty three years after his death.

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