25 November 2015

We Shall Never Surrender: Wartime Diaries 1939 - 1945 Edited by Penelope Middleboe, Donald Fry and Christopher Grace

'We are accustomed to our familiar fears; in the same way even in the midst of a bombardment with planes droning overhead and the noise of the barrage I can sleep quite comfortably, but if through this monstrous uproar I hear the still, small voice of a dripping tap, I get out of bed unable to sleep until the sound is stopped.'

- Charles Ritchie (Autumn 1940)

The accounts of daily life in Britain during World War II are shared in this book by nine diarists. I was already familiar with three contributors: Vera Brittain, Harold Nicolson, and Charles Ritchie.  The others had equally fascinating and frightening ordeals to endure with the characteristic so commonly seen in across many communities during the war...the ability to just get on with things.

Some of the early entries centre around the evacuation of children to the countryside, or in Vera Brittain's case sending her children to the United States.  Encouraged to lecture in America, it seemed a logical step to take but Vera felt deceived by the government.  No sooner were her young son and daughter settled across the pond when the government cancelled Vera's visa.  Her pacifist views were considered to be inflammatory so her ability to travel was curtailed.  Another dismal scene is when the Prime Minister asks Harold Nicolson to join Duff Cooper in the Ministry of Information. Nicolson talks to his wife (Vita Sackville-West) about acquiring some form of poison should suicide be more palatable than being tortured by the enemy.

The bravery and unbelievable calm during bombing raids never ceases to amaze.  Perhaps it's partly down to writing about such events after the fact and knowing you've lived to tell the tale.  In any case, being barely into adulthood and collecting body parts or seeing the block of flats across the road heave as though taking a deep breath before collapsing would certainly fray my nerves.

You would think that reading about the endless recipes for mock this-and-that and rationing would paint a fairly complete picture about the dreary nature of food during wartime.  You would be wrong.  There are more cringeworthy culinary explorations to discover; for instance, did you know the fat surrounding tinned American sausages was lauded for its use in cakes and pastry?  And when an impromptu visit by a Brigadier and five officers was made to Sissinghurst, Harold Nicolson and 'mummy' quickly shovelled over two thousand onions, that were being stored in spare bedrooms, into cloth sacks.  Apparently, onion stealing was a well-known trait in certain circles of the army.

Following each diarists 'path of destiny' as they forecast what may lie ahead made this book hard to put down.  Will a spouse chancing a flight across the Chanel arrive safely?  Will a ship carrying evacuated children be torpedoed?  Will the effects of daily bombing raids affect a pregnancy?  One of the most poignant entries in the book is near the end, when Hermione Ranfurly has just been reunited with her husband after three years apart.  They travel to England on a ship and book a room at Claridge's as a special treat.  In the morning, before the sun rises....

'...we climbed out of bed, drew back the curtains and leaned out on the smutty ledge of our smutty windowsill.  Quite soon it seemed as if the whole vault of heaven was vibrating with the roar of aeroplanes.  As it grew light we began to see them - great formations of bombers heading for Europe.  It was a magnificent and moving sight and we watched - fascinated - with thoughts flashing through our heads: how terrible what they must do; pray god they may return safely; can this be the beginning of the end of the war; so Overlord has started, it's not a secret anymore; when the sun comes up every plane will be a target; in a few minutes they'll be over enemy territory.'

As war diaries go, this is an outstanding collection and highly recommended.  And in one of those delightful coincidences, Dame Shirley Williams was a guest on A Good Read last night.  Her choice of a 'good read' was South Riding by Winifred Holtby.  While listening to Dame Williams discuss a wonderful novel by her mother's very special friend, I pictured her as a little girl on a ship crossing the Atlantic while her mother (Vera Brittain) held her breath.

A Balloon Site, Coventry by Dame Laura Knight

20 November 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

JULIA CHILD  1912 - 2004
SIMONE BECK  1904 - 1991

"She dreamed of becoming a spy when the Second World War broke out, but instead Julia Child went on to publish what was in 1961 regarded as the definitive work on French cuisine for English speakers:  Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  The first of three volumes, it was ten years in the making, written and researched with the help of Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle.  Soon afterwards, the American public began a long television love affair with Julia Child, a 6' 2" domestic goddess with a wobbly voice.  This self-confessed 'natural ham' demystified French cuisine for millions of Americans rather in the way that Fanny Cradock brought haute cuisine to the British during the same period.  In an effort to allay public fear of the fat used in French cooking, she noted:  'You don't see all those big fat people over there that you see lumbering around here at Disneyland'.  She herself never became overweight, and ended every show with the words, 'Bon Appetit!'"

The memory of a good French pâté can haunt you for years.  Fortunately they are easy to make, and you can even develop your own special pâté maison.  Do not expect a top-notch mixture to be inexpensive, however, for it will contain ground pork, pork fat, and usually veal, as well as cognac,  port, or Madeira, spices, strips or cubes of other meats, game, or live, and often truffles.  If the mixture is cooked and served cold in its baking dish it is called either a terrine or a pâté.  If it is molded in a pastry crust, it is a pâté en croûte.  A boned chicken, turkey, or duck filled with the same type of mixture in a galantine.  Pâtés and terrines will keep for about 10 days under refrigeration; they are fine to have on hand for cold impromptu meals, since all you need to serve with them are a salad and French bread.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking

Julia Child, Simone Beck, Curnonsky, Louisette Bertholle 
February 1953
(photo credit - Paul Child)

17 November 2015

A Folio Find 'The Lady in the Van'

Folio editions are lovely books so I was over the moon to find The Lady in the Van and Three Stories in a second-hand shop last month.
'June 1977.  On this the day of the Jubilee, Miss S. has stuck a paper Union Jack in the cracked back window of the van.  It is the only one in the Crescent.  Yesterday she was wearing a headscarf and pinned across the front of it a blue Spontex sponge fastened at each side with a large safety pin, the sponge meant to form some kind of peak against the (very watery) sun.  It looked like a favour worn by a medieval knight, or a fillet to ward off evil spirits.  Still, it was better than last week's effort, an Afrika Korps cap from Lawrence Corner:  Miss Shepherd - Desert Fox.'

It seems an odd thing to say that I was entertained by the story of an elderly woman living in such dire circumstance but Miss Shepherd's feisty nature under Alan Bennett's benevolent watch made it seem very okay.

13 November 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

1837 - 1907

'Mrs. Halliday had cut the ham.  The slices were placed in boiling water, and boiled until they were thoroughly cooked.  Then they were put in a frying-pan and browned nicely.  After that, Marion fried some eggs to 'look like pictures.'  She didn't 'turn' them, but carefully dripped gravy over them, until they were done.  These eggs she laid upon the slices of ham, the golden centres shining through the pearly setting, and the ham was so pink where it was not brown, and so brown where it was not pink - truly, Marion's platter was like a bit of painting, and the pretty cook of fourteen was as proud of it as she could be.'

The Cooking Club of Tu-Whit Hollow

The Invalid's Breakfast by Emily Aldridge Crawford