A journey of a thousand steps…..

When I was sorting out vegetable seeds last week, I discovered, to my dismay, that the packet of Swiss chard seeds I’d saved from last year was empty. I can’t think why I kept it and didn’t note that, but I didn’t buy a new packet when I put in my order at the Gardening Club last October. That seems like a different world now. I actually bought quite a lot of flower seeds, intending to spend this year getting rid of the bindweed that has proliferated since Wince had used a rotavator on the garden rather than digging it. I don’t want to dig it either, mind you. But, in the present circumstances, and with Rose and co wanting to get busy in the garden, we’re back to the veggies – which I love growing anyway, as long as I don’t have to do all the weeding.

Swiss chard is a very useful vegetable. It lasts for a year, because last year’s plants start to go to seed at just the time when the new season’s plants are ready for picking. The leaves can be used as spinach and the stalks as, um, chard. Great stir fried or braised, one of the best all-rounders. So it was a disappointment, as the nurseries are closed to customers and I could hardly ask anyone to deliver a packet of seeds.

However, lovely friend Compostwoman, who lives the other side of the country and whom we met two or three years ago – she will come to a blog party one day, but it really is a long way away – put on Facebook that she has a lot of spare seeds she’d be happy to give away, and one of the things she mentioned was Swiss chard. So I raised a keen hand and said I’d put a stamped, addressed envelope in the post. After a delicious cheese lunch, with home-made pickles and chutneys, plus pickled walnuts from the deli (the cheese was from the deli too, come to that) and oatcakes from the wholefood shop, I trotted out to post my envelope.

Having done that, I strolled on round the long way home. I do like walking but don’t generally do it so close to home. Indeed, I’ve rather got out of the habit since my preferred way of getting about has been cycling; though I haven’t done that either since I broke my foot and was told to stay off the bike for at least eight months. Now, however, we are officially allowed off our own premises for exercise or for essential shopping and other vital purposes.

As I walked my extra mile, I reminded myself of my grandmother, who never ate sweets until they were rationed in the war. Then, she was entitled to her 2 ounces so she jolly well ate them. They carried on being rationed for years and my sister remembers the sweet ration. She also remembers that it never occurred to granny to share her 2 ounces. Our mother recalled Wink’s poor little face, longingly watching the 2 ounces of jelly babies vanish into granny’s careless mouth.

Mind you, my mother disapproved of sweets and I’d have been thrilled at 2 ounces a week, when I was a child. I had to wait for Christmas.

The butcher, the baker…….

I thought of another land army story last night, but I can’t think of it right now, so I’ll write it up when I do. A story from way back today, with a connection to the present.

We are so lucky to have local small, independent shops selling fresh food. That’s what one wants, most of the time, after all. Though, at the rate the expensive low energy lightbulbs stop working, we’ll be in the dark soon – the most recent one to blow lasted five weeks and cost £2.69 – because the shops that sell the ones we need are shut in Yagnub. But everything else is fine.

I emailed an order to the deli yesterday. They will deliver on Tuesdays and Thursdays or you can pick up your order at a pre-arranged time so that there’s no contact with anyone else. Similarly, the greengrocer has had to shut to everyday customers, but he’ll deliver or you can pick up. A slightly different system because he phones when the order is ready, you give your card details or use the non-contact machine when you go in, and send a text as you arrive for someone to pop out and put the veggies in the boot of your car. The fishmonger and the wholefood are also open for business as long as you wait outside the door, one at a time, or they’ll give your order to the deli or greengrocer to combine delivery. There are several other businesses, including at least three farm shops, a winery and two breweries that you can visit to pick up an order or have them deliver for the time being. We really are lucky. I find it astonishing that people locally are still telling of going all round the supermarkets and finding bare shelves, when local shops have stock, even though they’re much busier than usual.

It takes me back to my childhood when all the tradespeople delivered. The milkman came every day, of course. The business was owned by Mr Jones. His father’s horse was Tommy, who we took over to save from the knacker’s yard, when the business went over to electric milk floats. Mr Jones delivered milk and cream – no question of yoghurt or anything in those days – every day. We drank gold-top Jersey milk and used silver-top, less creamy milk, in cooking. Now, the milkman delivers three times a week and has lots of other produce too. We just have one pint of milk a week and, to make it worth his while, have some butter, croissants and orange juice too, which sorts out Friday breakfast nicely. At present, we’re serving the croissants with raspberry jam and home-made fig jam.

Once a week, the baker’s van delivered. The bread and cakes were all on shelves around the sides of the van and you could look and choose what you wanted. I can’t remember the baker’s name, if I ever knew it. My father favoured Coburg loaves and we also had big tin loaves, with a cut along the top. Everyone liked the crust, especially my father, and the soft inside got left, to be grated up for breadcrumbs or fed to the birds.

Mr Leggett the fishmonger used to phone every Friday for his order, which he delivered the same day. My mother would phone Mr Marjoram the butcher, though. Of course, she might go into the shop, but she didn’t need to. Along came the van later. Then there was Mr Waller, the grocer. Mr Fenn was his assistant – again, we might phone or drop in an order to be delivered, or wait for it to be packed up for us. A lot of dry goods were sold loose, packeted up by the pound. Butter came ready-wrapped, though. Anchor butter from New Zealand for cooking and Rose of Torridge from Devon for the table. We never had margarine.

Johnny the dry cleaner man from Lavender Laundry came every week. He was a friend and always came in for coffee and a chat. In later years, my mother and I used to reminisce bemusedly that we found the packing of the laundry basket such a chore. It was, by then, our idea of heaven! Remove all the towels and sheets, shirts, tablecloths and napkins – anything white, really – from their appropriate place, number them on a checklist, pack them in the hamper and carry it down ready for Johnny, who would swap it for a similar hamper full of last week’s starched and ironed laundry, to be checked off the list and put away. Other clothes, underwear, hankies and so on were washed by hand by my mother.

The department store we most used was Tuttles, though Hailey’s and Chadd’s were also good. Tuttles had pretty well everything. If my mother went in for some clothes, she didn’t need to try them on in the shop, she would take them home on approval and return anything she didn’t want. I remember her phoning once and saying that her daughter needed a new dress. Would they please send a few in the appropriate size for me to try on and we’d choose the one we wanted. The chemist also and the wine merchant – we did go in there, but we never paid. Please put it on our account, we took it without question or asked for it to be sent. I could go in too, shopping for my mother, and just walk out with what I wanted. I never presumed and bought stuff for myself without authorisation, though I suppose I could have got away with it. But I asked, of course, if I needed something. My father was punctilious about paying his bills every month, he considered it shameful to keep a tradesman waiting for payment.

I’ll pick up my order from Simon Greengrocer tomorrow. I asked if the local asparagus is in yet? It is!! Heaven. Life has not crumbled if there is still asparagus in its season. It may be fraying at the edges, but we will patch it up and hold it together. Life, that is. Not asparagus.

Jane in the Land Army – 7

Jane looked very healthy and she was, but she was less robust than she appeared. She suffered from bad migraines all her life but a “sick headache” wouldn’t have got her a lot of sympathy and working outside in the heat of the blazing 1940s summers must have come hard. However, she was a genuinely hard worker – I’ve realised that, though I call myself lazy and I am, I’ve got her as a standard, so actually I get quite a lot done when I put my mind to it.

But things changed when she developed appendicitis. She was in a lot of pain but carried on working until it became really unbearable. Her stoicism nearly killed her as she narrowly missed peritonitis. Going forward 70-something years, 10 year old Pugsley had the same thing happen, but his appendix did burst between arriving in hospital and having the operation. I should tell him about his great-grandma’s experience sometime.

She wasn’t well enough to go back to work on the farm and went home. She had a letter demanding the return of all her uniform, though it was pretty well worn out after all those years. She’d mislaid a badge in her sudden departure and she had a further letter saying she’d be in trouble if they didn’t get it back. Really, the little Hitlers were about over here, too – anyway, she ignored it as, by then, she was coming down with measles and she didn’t hear anything more about it.

Catching measles as an adult is a serious matter. She was delirious for a while and blind for three days. Thank goodness she was home with her father by that time, so he could look after her – he must have been frantic with worry. The doctor called twice a day. But she did recover and her sight wasn’t affected. This was in the summer of 1945, so the war was coming to an end and she was able to celebrate and to plan her future.

Jane in the Land Army – 6

As I write, we’re going through an unprecedented worldwide experience and, here in the UK, our freedom is being curtailed considerably, for reasons most people accept and appreciate. When there is a war on, citizens also understand that they have to give up personal freedom for the greater good. But there is a line beyond which the bully, jobsworth or, as they used to say, Little Hitler, takes a pleasure in stepping and an experience in the 1940s was one that Jane never forgave.

Some 25 or more years ago, the WI debated, at their AGM, whether it was supportive of the introduction of identity cards. Each WI is entitled to send a voting delegate to the AGM, who will vote in accordance with the wishes of her society and so, the month leading up to the occasion, the motions put up for debate are discussed at the meeting. I murmured to friends that Mummy would have her say on the subject and, in a very few words, said why – and so she did, and this is the story.

It was midsummer and young Jane was driving a flock of sheep along the lanes from one field to another. The weather was hot and she was wearing an open-necked shirt and shorts, her curly brown hair bobbing to her shoulders, enjoying the peace of the day. The village policeman cycled up behind her, stopped her and demanded her identity papers. She hadn’t got them.

He had known her for years. There was no doubt that he knew who she was and he could also see she was at work. But he was a bully and she was technically in the wrong. So he stood her there while he gave her a dressing down and she had to watch the sheep scatter. It took her the rest of the day to round them all up again and take them to the field where they were peacefully heading in the first place. So to her, identity cards gave the less pleasant people in authority free rein to harass the innocent whilst the guilty would have forged documents and go free.

I can’t remember how the WI vote went, though.

Jane in the Land Army – 5

Bobby knew he was doing valuable work for the country on the farm, but it was still not easy being at home when the other men his age were off in the Forces. He had poor eyesight, so wouldn’t have been on the front line either – my own father was in that situation, so was in the RAMC; the medical corps.

A young woman was visiting and she was a keen and experienced rider, so Bobby and she rode off for the afternoon over the fields. A rabbit jumped out, the horse shied and the girl fell off. Everyone who rides falls off once in a while and she laughed it off, but Bobby had seen her hit her head – no riding hats in those days. However, she insisted on remounting. They were a long way from home and so they set off again at walking pace. However, she suddenly went pale, said she felt ill and fell off again. It was obviously serious, she was unconscious. Bobby galloped off to get help and she was carried off to hospital, where she died. Her skull was fractured in the first fall and the second one was fatal. Bobby was devastated, particularly as the coroner criticised him at the inquest. She was an only child, too.

It was a truly mixed farm. They just had one pig, but they had cows, sheep and chickens, as well as arable land. They’d have grown most of the feed for the animals as well as corn and vegetables to sell. I know this because my mother used to tell me about milking the cows – women tend to be good at this, apparently, as their hands are usually smaller, the skin is not so rough and they treat the cows more gently as a result. There was one occasion when she was milking a particularly bad-tempered cow – of course, it was when the pail was full that the cow kicked, knocked it over and Jane off her stool. “You sod!” she said, and everyone else looked round at her like a Bateman cartoon. First time anyone had heard her swear.

Jane in the Land Army – 4

It was a family farm, as I said – mother and father and two sons, though one of them was in the army for a time. Mother was quite a tough cookie. I don’t think Jane liked her much. Jane was an animal lover and she had difficulty in accepting that farm animals were born to be eaten. Or to have offspring that were eaten: that was what they were for.

I know I’ve told you before about her stepmother, whom she hated. When Jane was a child, they kept chickens and she had a favourite. One Sunday lunchtime, the stepmother took pleasure in telling little Jane that the favourite chicken was the Sunday roast. Jane couldn’t eat a mouthful of course and never forgot it. So maybe that was behind her sensitivity, which was not common at the time.

A pig was kept on the farm, because it ate up all the whey from cheesemaking, the leftover potato peels boiled into mash, the lower quality grain and pretty well everything else. And it had a cheerful life in its sty over the summer and became pork and bacon for the winter. Jane avoided the pig. But on her third year, walking through the farmyard, she caught that year’s pig’s eye and couldn’t resist going over, scratching its face, rubbing its back and getting to know it. She told me that she almost starved that winter. The pig was her friend, so she couldn’t eat it. The farmer’s wife, whose name I can’t remember, would make no concessions and gave her no alternative food. So whatever bread and vegetables were available, the occasional egg and, literally, crab apples and berries from the hedgerows were what Jane lived on. She never did become vegetarian but she found the connection between animals and food very difficult.

Jane lived in and life was not particularly easy, not that anyone expected it to be in the early 1940s. On a farm, they probably had better food than anyone else, because the ration book didn’t apply so strictly as in the shops. As I said the other day, she swapped unwanted clothing coupons for her unwanted tobacco (or whatever) coupons with an old farm worker; the one who made her drunk on cowslip wine. I’ve never tasted cowslip wine myself. Those flowers are rare now, compared to then.

I know I’ve written before about the awful accident that changed Bobby’s life, but it’s in the context of Jane’s story, so I’ll tell you again tomorrow.

Jane in the Land Army – 3

As I said, Jane didn’t have or want a boyfriend, but that didn’t mean that she didn’t have a social life. Every weekend, there was a village hop, as they called it, at the local community centre – not sure if that was the pub, village hall or what. I never asked. My dears, if you are lucky enough to have a living generation above you, think about questions you need to have answered! When you lose them, you’ll realise that no one knows the answers to them any more.

They had great fun, they danced and chatted and it was all, as far as Jane was concerned, very innocent, because she didn’t want anything more. She didn’t want to take risks and she wasn’t interested in a romantic relationship at that time. She, Bobby and anyone else at the farm went along on a Saturday night, had great fun and then walked home, chatting and singing. She remembered a particular occasion when the field had just been ploughed and they walked along, one foot on the ridge and one in the furrow, almost helpless with laughter.

A lasting regret, however, was one occasion, much later in the war once the US had joined. A young black soldier asked her to dance and she refused. She felt awfully embarrassed but she knew her reputation would be ruined – all the same, she knew she was wrong at the time and she never stopped regretting it. She wished she’d been braver, it was just a dance and there was nothing more to it.

Jane in the Land Army – 2

She was sent to a farm not too far from Weymouth – I never thought to ask her how much she got home to see her father or other friends. Why does one only think of this sort of thing when it’s too late?

It was a family farm and the son Bobby was excused Army call-up because he was an essential front line worker. There was a second son and he was called up for a time, but I think he returned to the farm later. Other workers on the farm were older men, past the age to be called up, and Land Army girls. When Jane turned up, they assumed she’d be wet behind the ears and only able to throw food to the chickens, but she was determined to do anything they could, and so she could. No tractors because of fuel rationing, but they had a big heavy horse, a cob and, rather oddly, an ex-polo pony called Monsieur de Talleyrand, who was very quick on his feet and lively, but I’ve no idea what work he was actually capable of. The heavy horse, which I think was a Shire, pulled the wagons and heavy machinery. My mother learned to drive him – she was already an experienced rider – and prided herself on her abilities. Such as going at a trot to an open gateway, pulling a laden cart and carrying on through it with inches to spare. She also proved her worth when it came to harvesting root crops. The men chose the big tools and she was left with the smallest one, but she bent down to the job and it was far quicker. She also learned that, if everyone was working together side by side on the rows, it soon became a competition. So you stopped, took a swig from your water bottle and stood and stretched, and soon everyone was in a different place and unaware of who was quickest.

Once, she was sowing wheat in a hillside field near the road. She got to the end of the day, marked the place and went home. Next day, she realised that, whilst she knew where she had stopped, she hadn’t marked the line of the drilling. So, that whole summer, there was a place where the rows went off at a different angle and she – and the farm owners – were teased thoroughly. Everyone thinks they’re the first to say the witticism that the recipient has heard a hundred times. It palls.

Later, other girls did arrive from towns and cities and they were pretty clueless. The old farm workers had various jokes – sending them to shut the five-barred gate to cut out the draught in the middle of the field, going to buy a left-handed pitchfork, that sort of thing. I’m not sure how long any of them lasted and she never mentioned any friendship she had with any of them. She was always drawn more to the company of men, in a completely non-romantic way. She thought of herself as one of the blokes. Yet she knew she was attractive – slim, with curly brown hair, she was sometimes likened to Deanna Durbin. But she was uninterested in having a boyfriend and rather despised the girls who were known to be “easy.”

Jane in the Land Army – 1

I can’t remember if I told you about my mother’s Land Army experiences, so I’ll assume you can’t either. If I’m repeating myself, I apologise – but then there are stories she told many times herself, which is the only reason I remember them. I do know I’ve said some of this – but this is a way of escape from our current difficult times. To previous difficult times, but that’s another matter.

Jane was still at school when the War started. Al was saying to me today, how sorry he was that Squiffany’s 15th birthday was spent quietly in isolation with the immediate family, but Mummy was only 15 in September 1939. It scuppered her hopes of a university education and I don’t think she took exams at the end of the school year. A London school was evacuated to the south coast and they shared the school with the existing pupils. The latter were there in the morning but had to leave their text books behind for the afternoon pupils. And the headmistress was very agitated and held practice evacuations several times a week, so lessons were spasmodic.

So she left school at 16 and went to secretarial college in Weymouth. The college was in sight of the harbour and there were regular “dogfights” over the bay. I suspect that the evacuees had gone back to London or elsewhere by that time, it wasn’t the smartest move to have sent them to the South coast in the first place. She said that the tutor, a rather fussy chap, used to wring his hands and say “oh ladies, ladies, do come down” when the girls all used to rush up to the flat roof to watch the aerial battles. Until one day, when a plane was shot down and hit the water in flames, and they realised that they were watching real life and it wasn’t a bit of fun at all.

When she was approaching 18, she realised she’d be called up to the Forces. She was shy and unsophisticated and felt completely out of her depth, so volunteered for the Land Army instead. Her grandfather had been a farmer and she was a healthy, outdoorsy girl who relished physical work.

Legless

Tim and I chat over dinner, often for quite a long time. It’s a two-person dinner party and occasionally we disagree, even more occasionally quite strongly, but usually it’s a stimulating discussion and we laugh rather a lot. Tonight, for reasons I don’t quite remember, we got on to swearing and blasphemy, both in English and Italian and, at some point, Tim remarked that my mother (then aged about 25) must have led a sheltered life.

Yes, she had, actually. When, aged 23, she and my father got married, she didn’t drink tea or coffee and she didn’t drink alcohol. She certainly didn’t smoke – I’m not sure how I’d cope with no vices at all, but she was a perfect example of those virtues – if virtues they are.

It doesn’t mean she never slipped, however. When she was in the Land Army, she was friendly with an old man and used to visit him with a small gift once in a while. Nothing less than completely innocent, obviously. He was a farm worker who should have been long retired, but carried on working because there was a war on and most young men were in the Forces. He used to give her his clothes coupons in return for – well, I’m not sure what was couponed. Tobacco? If it was, that would have been it.

One evening, she called round and he offered her a glass of his homemade cowslip wine. She didn’t drink at all, she had probably never tasted alcohol. Still, it was quite innocuous, or so she thought, and delicious, so she accepted another glass or more. And when she got up, she found her legs didn’t work. She was fine as long as she sat down, but her legs let her down quite badly. The moral of that story, of course, is never to accept a glass of cowslip wine from a nice old man.

I had a similar comeuppance once, though no old men were involved. We had dinner with friends – she’s not the best cook but she’s the most brilliant hostess. Her brother had brought a bottle of Irish whiskey and we polished it off after the meal. I felt fine and we sailed home, Russell and me, chatting merrily. R hadn’t drunk much, being The Sage, obviously, so was fit to drive under the limit. It was a Saturday night and my mother was invited to lunch the next day. This was one of the most embarrassing Sundays ever. I was legless. I felt fine when I was lying down and I felt awful standing up, I wobbled and was dizzy. I managed to get whatever we were eating into the oven, and then I lay on the sofa. My mother arrived and I had to apologise. She and Russell finished cooking and then brought me a plate of food, which I ate with good appetite. All I couldn’t do was be upright. It was peculiar, because I felt fine until I tried to use my legs.

My mum was very understanding. I expect she remembered the cowslip wine.