Category Archives: Past

Dedication

I hope it’s now abundantly clear why there’s been such a dearth of blogs on my site this past year but just in case you missed the announcement I’ve been otherwise engaged. Books don’t write themselves. In my case it’s taken a lifetime to achieve this goal. Although I thought I would write my first novel soon after leaving school life got sort-of busy and soon there was a mortgage to pay, commitments to fulfil and my dream of writing a novel had to be postponed – no rush, I had all the time in the world.

Then we had a year of disasters – life-changing disasters. Taking time out to write a book was no longer an option – no space available for fulfilling ‘unpaid’ ambitions. For many years times were tough and however much I wanted to write ‘that book’ it never resolved into action. Dreams have a habit of remaining ‘on hold’.

One of the first friends I met after moving to Cumbria was a quietly spoken artist called Liz. A master-silversmith and teacher she won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art where she was paired her with Bruce Oldfield for her final exhibition. However, instead of proceeding as an artist in the Big City, she returned to her parent’s home in Cumbria because she wanted to nurture creativity in local schools. To that end Liz enlisted anyone she thought could help, including me, because she believed passionately that ‘making’ art was essential for achieving fulfilment in life.

Liz died of ovarian cancer in 2008. I miss her gentle passion, her calm resolve, her softly spoken words which prompted those around her first to try, then to do better. She always expected her students to aim high yet never raised her voice or bullied, her ways were far more subtle and enduring.

There isn’t a dedication in The Blood of Kings. It would take more than one page to list everyone who helped towards writing this novel, but I would like everyone to know my friend Liz was the instigator, if not the spur.  Bless you girl, wherever you’re hiding.

 

 

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Filed under art, aspirations, completion, courage, Crafts, Friendship, fulfilment, hope, Life, Memories, Past

Friars Carse

A twenty-four hour break seemed just enough to charge our memories because there was once a time, when my son was learning his trade, when we needed to drive along the A76 three or four times a month. Except I’m hardly a glutton for nostalgia and had almost forgotten the compelling beauty of this landscape, its low rolling hills and broadleaf forests, the few snatched glimpses of the glistening River Nith. The ancient road links Dumfries to Sanquhar and beyond, and its sense of history is compelling as it weaves through places that recall times past. And November is a time for remembrance.

Being Border Country the land was once dotted with castles. Proper castles, with sheer stone walls that fail to radiate warmth and hospitality. Castles undoubtedly occupied by ruthless nobles who jealously guarded their patch. Many were destroyed to fulfil a treaty with the English back in the 1300’s. Poor King David II was being held hostage in London and the price of his freedom was utter humiliation. But being Border Country the nobles were quick to rebuild.

After leaving Dumfries the first place of note is Thornhill, a perfect example of a traditional Scottish town. Neat stone houses line boulevard wide streets and shops provide essentials like oil lamps, hearth tools and treacle licks. There is a sense that time is marked differently in this corner of Scotland except yellow coated contractors are busy installing super-fast broadband cables beneath the sandstone slabbed pavements. Not even a mobile signal today!

The weather was becoming increasingly dreich so we dived inside a café for lunch. Soup of the Day was broth – just like my grandmother used to make, a thick kaleidoscope of root vegetables jewelled with beads of barley, inviting any spoon to take root. Soup that braves the elements. Except we didn’t.

Friars Carse, the hotel where we were staying, owns an exceptionally long history. On a small rise near the entrance archaeologists discovered the remains of an Iron Age Fort which was later occupied by Romans. Grey Friars brought their form of Christianity here but the ecclesiastical buildings they founded were enclosed inside a fortified building that was later extended to make a comfortable home. If I had my pick of the land I’d choose this very same plot because the stately sandstone house sits atop a raised peninsula overlooking the beautiful River Nith framed in majestic trees bright with autumn colour. Some native trees possess girths which suggest a very long lifespan, no doubt charmed by their setting.

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In 1809 the house became the home of Dr James Crichton, the Admirable Crichton, being renamed Friars Carse in 1895. In 1938 it became a hotel and attracts its regular clientele of anglers keen to nab salmon and trout. Our prize was to rest but first we’d anticipated taking a slow walk through the grounds before settling into our suite. Unfortunately the weather proved un-obliging and so we fell to appreciating the bottle of chilled champagne waiting in our room. The afternoon was spent reading and relaxing and dinner was divine, every morsel perfectly sumptuous. We retired entirely mollycoddled.

For me the most enigmatic attraction of Friars Carse is the tiny shed-like outbuilding called the Hermitage. Etched into one of the window panes are the following words:

Thou whom Chance may hither lead,

Be thou clad in russet weed

Be thou deckt in silken stole

Grave these counsels on thy soul.

Life is but a day at most

Sprung from night – in darkness lost;

Hope not sunshine every hour

Fear not clouds will always lour.

The person who scribed these famous lines lived less than a mile south of Friars Carse and should you follow the fast-flowing Nith for about half a mile you reach his former home, Ellisland Farm. Historians say he chose the site because he was particularly inspired by this stretch of river. However it cannot be denied the poet also enjoyed its proximity to Friars Carse. Robert Burns even wrote a poem called The Whistle to commemorate a drinking contest which took place there on 16th October 1789. Participants had to drink each other under the table. You might guess what form of trophy was awarded to the winner.

Should you be tempted: http://www.friarscarse.co.uk

 

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Filed under Autumn, Culture, Experience, fiction, Friendship, History, Life, Nostalgia, Past, Scotland, Wishes, Writing

In Remembrance – A letter from home

This letter was found in 2009 among some papers that belonged to my father’s great aunt (Hilda Hutchinson) who lived in California. It was written by her brother George’s wife (a widow) and illustrates very clearly the terrible effect the war was having on one family. 

14 Nutbrook,

East Dulwich,

London SE   

Sunday, Jan 28th 1917

My dear Hilda, 

Was more than pleased to hear from you.  I thought I was quite forgotten by Uncle George’s friends for ever.  Uncle Fred and Aunt Clara never come to see us now.  They have been twice since Uncle has been dead, which is over thirteen years now.  I do miss him, more every day, but thank goodness, I have got good children.  Sorry to say, I have had one of my boys missing five months through this wicked War, left a wife, with five children.  

My son George has just come home from France has been out there fifteen months he does look so ill.   I am afraid be he’s done for, he does not expect to go back to France.  My other son has gone in the Army.  He is expecting to go out any time.   All my boys are in the Army.  Your mother will remember the names of them.  The one that is missing (Ernest) was such a dear good boy and a real mother’s boy.

My daughter Olive has been married now two years last September, her husband is such a good fellow, but of course, he is in the Army.  He is in Egypt of course, now he has gone, Olive is living with me, Olive is such a good girl for I have been ill for years now.  I cannot do any work, for three years could not dress myself but Thank God I am much better and now able to do a little work, in my own home.  Olive has been good to me all the time of my illness and has never left me.  My other daughter Bertha is getting on as well as can be expected as she also has bad health.  I don’t know if your Mother knew she has lost her husband eleven years, she has three children.  One was born after her husband died.  Arch has got two children a boy and a girl.  The boy is 14 years and the girl 10 years.

Now about yourself.  So pleased to hear you have got such a good husband and that you are so happy.  You must do all you can for your husband.  I don’t think there is many of them about now.  I am more than pleased to think that Olive has such a good husband.  We shall be more than pleased to see him come home.  We shall be very pleased to see you  and your husband when ever you come to England and your cousin would do all she can for you to make you happy and comfortable. 

It is dreadful in England now with the War going on.  I do wish it was all over.  You must thank God, that you are all over there, out of this trouble, the price of food is dreadful, I do wish it was all over.  Pleased to hear that your mother and father and the rest of the family are keeping well, what a large family of you.  I would like to see you all again.  About your Grandmother, you did not put her number – but I will try and see what I can do for you, but the weather now is so bitterly cold but as soon as it gets warmer, I will go and find it for you and will let you know as soon as I can.  It is not safe to go out of a night it is so dark, all shops close much earlier.  It is not at all pleasant in England now, but then we must all hope for a brighter time.  Well dear Hilda, I must now draw to a close.  Give my love to Mother and Father tell them I shall be more than pleased to hear from them.  Tell your mother that Eveline died two years before her father.  I must now close hope these few lines, will find you and your husband in good health. 

I am dear your affectionate Aunt Polly.

Olive’s husband died in Palestine. Earnest died in Flanders. George survived the war but never recovered from his injuries.

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Filed under 1st World War, Life, Past, Research, Roots, Surviving

Loaded Secrets

So here’s the reason why my friend’s dad spent the last two years of the 2nd World War in a Scottish internment camp. And why he earned a Russian medal.

During the war he was seconded from the merchant navy to serve on a US built ship re-named HMS Dasher. Adapted as an aircraft carrier she was given to the Royal Navy under the Lend-Lease scheme and had quickly earned a reputation for being difficult to handle. So much so the RN needed experienced mariners to maintain her engines.

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The Russian Gold Star was awarded to all personnel who served with Arctic Convoys sent to break the German embargo on Murmansk. Dasher was one of 26 Royal Navy ships that left Loch Ewe on 15th February 1943 but that month the North Atlantic suffered some of the worst storms ever recorded, bringing huge waves and gale force winds. Six ships turned back and Dasher reported a 60 foot hole in her side. She limped into shelter in Iceland where she was declared ‘unfit for duty’ and was quickly escorted back to Dundee for extensive repairs to be carried out.

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HMS Dasher on Convoy Duty in the North Atlantic, picture from the collection of Sub-Lieutenant (A) John Vallely RNVR.

On 27th March 1943 Dasher was fit to carry out training manoeuvres following her crucial repairs. A new captain had recently taken over the ship and he was determined to improve her safety record so that day was to be spent practising aircraft take-off and landings. However, as usual, the engines kept stalling and instead of steaming out into the Atlantic she was ordered to remain in the Firth of Clyde, chugging between the islands of Little Cumbrae and Arran. The mood on board would have been cheerful because all non-duty crew were due to go on leave as soon as she returned to shore at 1800 hrs.

At 1630 hrs some of the aircraft were refuelling in the hangar while another waited on deck. Suddenly, at 1640 hrs, a huge explosion ripped through the aircraft lift, shooting the whole thing into the air. While all personnel on the flight deck were toppled into the sea a plume of smoke and flames shot out of the hole and the wooden flight deck folded ‘like the lid on a tin of sardines’. Almost immediately the ship began to list backwards and the bow lifted out of the water.

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Few of the 527 men on-board survived, despite being within sight of shore and having immediate assistance from the many boats present in the Firth. Of those who managed to abandon ship only 149 men were rescued, every attempt at pulling them out of the freezing water being hampered by the quantity of oil discharged. Dasher’s fuel tanks had contained 75,000 gallons of aviation fuel. Thick and slippery it floated on the surface of the water, covering survivors. And then it caught fire. Several ships involved in the recovery were given commendations for ploughing through flames to rescue seamen.

By 16.48 the HMS Dasher had sunk.

The sinking of HMS Dasher

All survivors, and those who took part in the rescue, were warned they must never talk about the disaster. It still bares little mention in official records. The reason given at the time was that morale was low and the RN still had other US ships in service. Many sailors were already calling these ships ‘floating bombs’ because the aviation fuel tanks were placed too near the ammunition stores. Whatever the truth my friend’s dad was held in an internment camp because he was a merchant seaman and not Royal Navy, therefore deemed a civilian.

But the story doesn’t end there. Recent research has led to a different reason for the secrecy – Operation Mincemeat. One of the sailors who drowned in the Dasher disaster was apparently used for the deception that played a key role in diverting German intelligence from the Allied landings at Normandy.

Whatever the truth the story is a strange one. If the navy was so short of able men it seems absolutely ridiculous to keep experienced sailors under lock and key. Having trawled the internet I’ve found many stories written by descendants of Dasher’s survivors but not one ‘first-hand’ report. It seems nobody broke their oath to keep the whole affair secret.

There is a memorial to HMS Dasher and all who were lost on the fore-shore at Ardrossan.

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Filed under Disaster, endurance, Family, History, Memories, Past, Scotland

What do I know of hate?

A ricochet fire-crack splits the night streets.

The sound chills my soul.

I have never fired a gun but the media have taught me this sound and I recognise its tyranny.  It is synthesized in my knowing as the sound of terror.

The distinctive stutter of mechanical death.

What do I know of hate?

During the seventies I worked in central London. In 1978 a car exploded immediately outside my place of work. After the rancid bellow of explosion I stood with my colleagues in a vacuum of silence. The window of our office had become a gaping hole and a cold December chill was biting my face.

Within minutes an army of police arrived. They cordoned off our road. Dover Street, the heart of Mayfair, where things like this should never happen.

We were told to go home. Gianni pointed from the sandwich shop across the road. I looked up to see a helicopter hovering above our building. The police had found body-parts on the roof. The event was barely mentioned in the news – nobody died except the perpetrators.

Later we learned the men who died were delivering the bomb to a destination never discovered, or revealed. The London papers reported they were Iranians but quickly fell silent as another story, another crisis, grabbed the public’s gaze.

I was angry my comfortable world had been invaded by somebody else’s war.

tunnel life (2)

What do I know of hate?

Last month we visited, as tourists, the place which most represented war during my childhood – the Chu Chi tunnels in Vietnam. As we followed our guide Michael through the maze of jungle paths he explained how the ‘communist rebels’ survived in these inhospitable conditions for twenty years. His father had died fighting on the ‘other’ side, for the South. He described without emotion how his mother was forced to abandon him and his brother to a Catholic orphanage. He said the priests had made him a scholar. He was proud of his country – ‘we look forward, never back’.

During our tour the sound of Kalashnikov gunfire echoed above our heads. The sound was unnerving, adding a distinctive edge to our visit, but we never felt afraid. Michael led us finally to the firing range, a small clearing squeezed behind the café and gift shop. For the price of a bullet, anyone could have a go with a gun – no rules, just pay the man and he’ll load the gun with live ammunition. It’s an easy gun to shoot, Michael said.

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Filed under Experience, Memories, Past, Travel