Writing this letter as I am ---, and like my fellow Englishmen, I find myself prevented from disclosing my true destination for the simple explanation there might be spies amongst Britannia's population. I was afraid I had spoken too much in my previous letters. And as such, I have censored my own letter, deleting references with three dashes where necessary.
However, to give you a spot of color in this drab wartime, I will be on a personal journey through England and intermittently, I shall, through periodic personal observations, relate how the English folk are dealing with this war Hitler is bent on having us fight.
I am quite sure there must be spies; the British dearly love a delicious spy story and even in this war time, Mister Holmes' tales fill the second hand bookshops rapidly and just as rapidly disappear into the Kangaroo coat pockets of elderly ladies and the knapsacks of youngsters still in the third form.
Merely mention Mata Hari's name at the beginning of high tea and one will find oneself engaged in a jolly conversation lasting well into the evening, particularly if the vicar is your tea partner!
Stopping off for a few days in the tiny, quaint village of ---, I met up with the convival Miss H--- in, where else? The vicarage. Miss H---, following our dear Queen, has usurped (or, rather preluding our Queen and our Queen has merely usurped Miss H---) the vacant land around the vicarage and started a war garden. She has also planted small gardens here and there the natural clearings in the woods surrounding the village (to better hide the produce from potential invading armies; don't want to feed the enemy, she says.)
The British also dearly love gardening--the ornamental gardens range from the yew hedges of Montacute House to the gardens of East Lambrook Manor near South Petherton. Even during wartime, distractions are necessary and the hedge mazes confound me to no end! So, sister dear, extending ornamental gardens to include vegetable gardening is quite natural for our fellow citizens.
Miss H's avid interest in gardening coincided with the crash of the US stock market in '29--one of her remote ancestors had invested in the South Seas Company. Sister dear, resulting from ---, I'm now rather keen on our English ancestry, whilst you tend to go for our Egyptian ancestry, so forgive me if I refresh your memory.
Marlborough's war against the French cost millions of pounds and Parliament decided to go into debt, rather than to raise taxes. In return for trading concessions in the south seas, the South Seas Company, newly incorporated, bought Parliament's debt and issued trading shares to the public. Rather expensive shares, I might add, for 1720: a hundred quids! A princely sum for most of the working masses; however, inside of six months, each share was worth around £1,100.
No, sister dear, I did not imbibe of a Speyside whisky--truly the reason why Scotland exists!
To purchase five shares of the SSC, Miss H's ancestor had pawned the family silver and an Elizabethan era small three legged table thickly inlaid with ivory and ebony (I have sketched it for you in oil pencils).
She, (yes, she) being of hearty physique, learned of an imminent new arrival to her half dozen offspring and later that same year, sold her five shares for a massive profit of £5000 (actually, she produced twins--a boy and a girl, who, unlike four of their siblings, survived to adulthood and the boy, Clarence, is the progenitor of Miss H).
The following month, the South Seas Bubble burst and left thousands without their life savings.
Miss H--- had followed her remote grandmother's idea and had pawned the same items: the family silver and the Elizabethan table and invested in the American Stock Market. Selling out in early '29, she too earned a small profit--not wealth beyond her belief, but enough to provide for a comfortable retirement for her then sixty years of age.
She had been, since her early adulthood, a worker for a milliner. A unique profession is a milliner but a necessary one, for how is one to go about the gentlemen's clubs without proper attire on one's head?
The first few years of vegetable gardening, she told me, the harvest was poor (barely sufficient) but she persevered with the stiff upper lip and during the past eleven years, she has maintained the village's community garden--which provided this rustic rural village with an adequate food supply during the Dark Years of the last decade.
Now there is another kind of Depression loosed again: the depression of another war and its attendant horrors and shortages.
Such is the scene in many English villages. Gardens were planted during the last decade to supplement the village food supplies and in the last eleven years, the rural villages grew used to providing their own vegetables. It is a much more difficult task to provide one's own vegetables when one lives in a cold water flat in a crowded city tenement.
A gardener through and through is Miss H--, a quite suitable occupation for her short though sturdy frame. Her perpetually dirty hands, in between brushing back her long white hair, have brought forth quite the bountiful vegetable harvest.
And as I have discovered, not only does
she garden, she is quite knowledgable about antiquities and a walk through
the thick woodland rising up in this part of England is a treat indeed--as
Miss H--- is quite the conversationalist, knowing the Norman and neolithic
ruins by heart. She has already begun to write down her knowledge (she
showed me a few journals and sister, her knowledge is quite impressive!)
During my brief stay, she took me on a short walking tour and showed me a few ruminants they've sheltered deep in the woods and away from prying eyes. The local men have built a dry stone wall to contain the hoofed animals, who have been hand fed since being calved.
Upon seeing humans, the scattered bovines made immediate headway for the squeeze stiles, the narrow slit in the wall where they know humans can pass but only their heads can slip through. Apparently, each animal has its favorite stile for each headed towards the stile closet to their grazing area.
There, in the squeeze stiles along the slate wall, the animals mooed and bellowed sweetly in the hopes of a treat--which Miss H--- produced from her deep pockets.
I say, dear sister! Hand feeding a cow is a marvelous experience and I can well understand the misty joy my own son Ian and the unwillingly transplanted London children are feeling over in the countryside, feelings that must rise to the surface despite their separation from their parents and witnessing their homes destroyed, and their friends and neighbors killed by the silver 'presents' Germany is intent on handing out. Milking is done with the dawn and cow's milk cheese is popular here in ---.
"Rations are hard, planning precisely how much food one eats in a given day," Miss H told me in a sturdy tone. "One half cup of carrots here, three ounces of meat per week there. The wireless tells us Spam is becoming popular."
At this point, sister dear, I neglected to mention that Spam was in large supply with regards to our housemaid. So I replied, "Only once have I tasted Spam but that was in conjunction with Speyside."
Miss H---'s eyes glittered brightly upon the mere mention of Speyside--she knew instantly to what I was referring! "With the Speyside single malts, one only tastes the flavor," she told me. "Food is irrelevant with any of the whiskys from Speyside. One only needs conversation and whisky to enjoy Scotland. Part of Scotland is on the same latitude as Siberia, you know. Have to keep the body heating system operational."
I nodded at that point and agreed a wee dram of whisky works wonders with the body's heating system.
"A wee dram is merely the tip of the iceberg. One needs more than a few wee drams to fully appreciate the effort expended in the making of single malts," she replied cheerfully as we passed a sarsen stone circle. There were just two left standing--lonely monuments to a people gone for thousands of years.
She continued, "We have heard reports about London and the cities having food shortages. The wireless reports that queues form when a particular bakery announces they will have bread at a given time. People queue for hours in front of the bakery. Dreadful times we live in, when one must wait hours for bread. Are the children getting enough?"
She was, I knew, referring to bread and other food. "No," I replied. "Although the ration books suggest everyone receives the same amount of food each week, supplies often run out before the end of the week and many shops are only open two or three days per week."
Miss H--- gave a sad smile. "We here in --- have extra stored up for the winter. Is there a shelter to which we can send food? It wouldn't be much, but we had quite the harvest of Kentish cobs and we could send a hundred bushels. On the sly, of course. Government might take the rations away that week."
I thought a moment. Would the village, so rustic, so small, have enough to feed themselves and the children should the war carry on for years? I thought about the canning, and the length of time food can be stored. Corn is a feed grain--would the village have enough to feed the cows?
Miss H--- must have seen the pensive look on my face, for she continued, "Kentish cobs are a variant of hazelnut and named after where they originated in Kent. Decades ago, our dear departed Mister D--- migrated from Kent and wanted a reminder of home."
I nodded sagely. I too, yearn for reminders of home, sister dear, and I yearn now for news of my son Ian. Miss H--- continued her explanation.
"So he transplanted a few bushes of Kentish cob and now they grow thick and wild around here. We're really overloaded with this year's harvest. We're still eating cobs from a few years ago."
Naturally, sister dear, when I saw the old carriage barn filled with the harvest I agreed to arrange transport of Kentish cobs to ----. So if you would, sister dear, explain to the relief workers Kentish cobs are a variety of hazelnut, lest they think corn is being received.
And so, moving on, harvest time is newly finished, vegetables canned for the winter, and the village children, a few of London's children amongst them, thoroughly enjoyed Harvest--even with the attendant hard labor.
The children informed me the village's remaining population celebrated Guy Fawkes Day in this year 1940 by replacing the usual bonfire festivities--the bonfire ban resulting from blackout restrictions--with a veritable feast of various vegetables (both green and gourd), plums, Kentish cobs (I explained their meaning before), and surprise! newly harvested apples!
Before leaving for their rounds of the surrounding farmland, the vicar's wife, C---, had made the most delicious apple pie from a recipe she had received from her daughter, who lives (although not by choice and more on C---'s daughter in a bit) in the Southern part of America.
Smelling the newly cooked apple pie laced with cinnamon upon my arrival in ---- stoked my appetite immensely and provided the catalyst conversation for high tea with the vicar and his wife before they repaired off to the surrounding farms.
It's amazing how the olfactory senses increase when one has been on government rations since January 8 of this year.
As I write you letters, sister dear, I know I will make the inevitable references to the rations, so please bear with me, for seeing first-hand the effects the rations have upon our fellow English people gives me pause to thank our dear Tallulah for her foresight.
Now for C---'s daughter M---. She is from a first marriage (and a child of Set with red hair and left handed)--a quick marriage, for the First War had just broken out and the two lovers were in love and lovers in love want to hold onto that love, especially in war.
So they married. As he is deceased, I shall use his name: Harold was killed in action the day their daughter was born and C--- swears she saw Harold standing over their newborn daughter--and knew her husband was dead. M--- traveled to America in the summer of '39 and she was due to return to England in late September that year.
Then Germany and Russia invaded Poland and C--- wrote her daughter, telling her to stay in America, for America has not yet, as of this letter, entered the war or been invaded. C--- is of the opinion her daughter will be safer in America for the time being.
M--- sadly agrees, but has discovered,
much to her delight, she enjoys traveling to the various parts of America.
M--- has recently traveled to the Southwestern part of America and she
has written of the American Indians with their ancient cultures as impressive
as those of Egypt. She sent along to her mother a turquoise necklace that
is better crafted than the one you possess, sister dear.
Of the village itself: like many rural villages--burbs, really--the village (being a bit larger than a mere crossroad as a result of a building scheme earlier this century), has the requisite pub, several dozen houses and rowhouses built in the timber framed Tudor style (and more than a few are uninhabited), various slate-roofed barns now used as storage, and a vicarage. Many of the farms graze sheep and cattle, especially in the higher elevations of the region.
In the higher elevations, Miss H--- informed me sweetly, are the most beautiful pink colored flowers which cling to the lichen. On a spring day, one can look up at a misty pink dawn as the sun comes over the horizon. Standing on one of the small hills, the spires of cathedrals can be seen in the far distance.
A pair of peacocks strut through the village centre, believing themselves to be Lord and Lady Peacock of the Manor. The village of --- was founded in the middle of the last century by three brothers who merely wished to provide the area farmers with the necessities of life (there never was a manor house or lord associated with the village of ---). None of their descendants survived. The woods surrounding the village echo with the cries of quail and an occasional deer is seen.
Of the village architecture, the houses, as I mentioned before, are built in the Tudor style and many are possessed of catslide thatched roofs, thus ensuring a romantic memory that would titillate a literary pilgrim searching for scenes from Thomas Hardy.
Before the call to arms was issued in September of 39, sixty two inhabitants laid claim to ancestry here in ---. The reduced population in this second war is to be thirty six (not including the nine transplanted children), a vast reduction indeed, sister, but not nearly as drastic a reduction as during the First War.
As the Victorian Age waned, families here in --- were prolific in producing sons and daughters. Surely, they thought, the Crimean War was over and the flag of the British Empire would not become tattered again from bullet holes or cannon fire.
And so the village of --- prospered: new homes were built to accommodate the city folk from various larger cities, who, seeing themselves prosperous in the early years of the century, bought quaint thatched roofed country homes here in --- amidst the woods and the river.
Then 28 June 1914 occurred--and changed the world. Those able to so do, and the number totalled fifty seven and almost evenly split between the genders with twenty nine women, went off to the trenches, to the front lines as ambulances drivers and nurses, to the relief organizations. Nurses were in desperate need and this quaint English village is proud to have produced a baker's dozen of nurses.
It is safe to say there were no white feathers distributed to anyone in the village of ---.
Most of those fighting on the front lines never returned. You know seventeen million were killed in the First War, a staggering number.
Of the village men, exactly half perished in the trenches. Three returned with shrapnel wounds and two more brought home new wives. The remaining nine decided to stay abroad or relocated to the cities to continue their educations or continue their employment with the military; one villager is commanding troops over in France.
Of the village women, only four returned to the village, battle scarred and shell shocked. Three nurses perished while driving ambulances or while tending the wounded in France and like the nine men, the remaining twenty one women continued their lives outside the village in various new jobs and countries.
The children who were too young to fight in the First War stayed behind and produced families. After Armistice Day, several of the young adults from the families who purchased the country homes (and many of those young people were involved with the war effort) moved to the village permanently to escape the hustle and bustle of the cities.
Rather, sister dear, I believe the mustard gas, the trenches, the stench of decomposing bodies and the sight of the rats crawling across the corpses were difficult for the mind to absorb. Retreating to the country would have a beneficial and calming effect--shell shock is the term used for the sufferers--Siegfried Sassoon amongst them.
And so, we are once again brought to war--and once again the patriotism asserts itself and the village's young are off to the war and have made plans to sign up with the relief organizations.
Every day, they anxiously await news of their postings--most are to travel abroad for the first time in their short lives and are simultaneously scared about the war and anxious about going abroad, a strange mixture of emotions to experience, they tell me, for the reason why they are going abroad is to fight the Axis powers and they are not quite sure how to handle these emotions.
"Although we have heard the stories, and many of our relatives went off to the First War and most didn't come back, the furthest any of us have gone is to visit the seaside resort of ---," (about two hours drive from the village, sister dear) I'm told over a cup of tea.
One day they feel, the youth tell me (and not a one is over 23), terrified and they don't wish to get out of bed. Then, they think about the countries to which they are to be posted, and they grow anxious at traveling abroad for the first time.
That's when it hits them, I'm told. As soon as the thought of going to a foreign country enters their head and they grow anxious, the reason why they are to be traveling hits them hard: the harsh memories of the losses the village incurred in the First War, the realities of the Blitz, the realities of war, of seeing the photographs of ravaged London, of Bristol, of Portsmouth and other English cities bombed by the Luftwaffe, they think of Hitler controlling Europe, killing indiscriminately, and these realities intrude on their thoughts and they grow angry at the Axis powers for visiting these horrors upon the world.
Staunch determination is a emotion they do not realize they are also feeling, for the village youth tell me they will not let the Axis powers defeat Britain and her allies. The youth, both men and women, hold rallies every day, discussing ideas as to how best defeat Rome-Tokyo-Berlin.
Engaged as the youth are in preparing for their overseas postings, there is a keen interest in conversational French, which I am only to happy to provide. Miss H--- is the village's only French speaker, and she has been much in demand throughout the region since the War broke out.
Pub conversation runs high about America and the opinion is generally favorable of President Roosevelt, who, as you know, in return for control of a few military bases, agreed to Churchill's request for fifty old American destroyers to fill the gap the Royal Navy needed.
Opinion is divided: we sorely needed the
destroyers to control German attacks on our shipping lanes and America
wanted a military bastion in the Caribbean and off Newfoundland and the
debate continues over who got the better deal, although I am of the opinion
we have the better deal.
As an escape measure from talk of the Blitz, I find myself much in demand as a conversationalist, if only as a teller of tales about our adventures in Egypt.
Wherever I travel in merry England, I find the fascination for Egypt--I know I have alluded to the immense interest about Egypt in my prior letters to you and I suspect I will find further interest in Egypt as I continue my travels.
Perhaps it is the idea of reincarnation
that interests the general population, for with sons and daughters off
in the War--and a great number are certain to perish--the thought that
there is an afterlife and rebirth must be comforting to many. I know I
was greatly relieved to have you brought back to me on that day--greatly.
Wireless is a most wonderful invention! But, sister dear, have you seen a telly programme? I am referring to television, of course. Correspondence from the village's expatriates tell of watching telly broadcasts (which started regularly just four years ago) in a few of the local pubs and I am keen to locate a television set, even second hand, as I desire my son Ian to have access to this new form of entertainment.
We were in Cairo, dearest sister, when the first telly programme was broadcast in London eleven years ago. I remember reading the article about the broadcast to you--it certainly made headline news and this time was the start of the Depression, news about something other than the worsening worldwide economic situation was a relief indeed.
The villagers gather in the pub and chat and listen to the wireless, and they speak of pooling their available cash to purchase a television set for their pub. They are a bit envious at their offspring, who gather in the pubs in their respective locales and watch the telly programmes. Letters are filled with the exacting details from the telly programmes and each letter is avidly read aloud many times while the village population is gathered in the pub.
So for Ian, I will make a rather belated
attempt to locate a television set, although I believe that will be difficult
to achieve at this time.
The small library has been depleted of books on the various destinations of the young population and they have plied me for details of our trips abroad.
And speaking of details, nearly everyone I meet is anxious for information about our ravaged capital city. The beeb's reports are filled with the sobering statistics on the dead and injured for the month of October and the final tally, I'm afraid, will rise quite high.
Pencil sketches I made of London's sharply punctuated skyline from Shooter's Hill are passed around. Looking out over the City that evening (you know to what I refer), a wave of immense sadness filled my soul and the scene was etched forever into my memory.
Like yourself, friends and family, I witnessed the residents of London reduced to rubble in all senses of the word. Out of sheer survival needs--both for the present time and in the future, and with the upcoming winter, the paltry clothing rations of sixty six coupons won't suffice--the denizens rummaged through the debris of their homes (and the debris of their neighbors homes).
I watched as the surviving residents tossed aside the debris and shouted out with glee when they chanced upon a bit of food or bedding or clothing they'd found in the pile of bricks which comprised someone's home.
I then watched the depths of depravity emerge as other people, both young and old, punched the treasure's finders before running off through the still-smoking neighborhoods with their ill-gotten gains.
Watching the reactions of those to whom
we distributed Cornwall's supplies, I felt relief at knowing that I was
assisting in alleviating, if only temporarily, the distress Londoners felt
when their homes were destroyed and they found themselves in desperate
I do find myself wishing I possessed a field telephone, for I dearly would love to speak with my son Ian. I find myself looking out the window and wondering what he is thinking, and if he is thinking of me and of our few weeks together. Do you think my son misses me?
I write him nearly every day and post the letters every day although I am at a loss as to how often (or if) he is receiving my letters. The post mistress, I know, is willing to help me out, but without knowing what Ian is thinking, I feel sadness and can not wait until I see him again.
Walking through the Irish countryside, passing the dolmens, and talking, I felt what our parents must have felt when we were both young children: contentment. There is nothing like talking to your own child and hearing what they wish to do with their future--although that future is often times just a few days from hence.
Strange, isn't it, how children tend to think of the future in terms of days or maybe weeks (or months in the case of birthday or the Nativity holidays). Adults tend to think of the future in terms of years, or decades but a child doesn't yet think of the future in years, except as a vague mention of what they want to be when they grow up.
The term 'grow up' becomes an abstract description and the career choices of my child changed dramatically in the few weeks I spent with him. When I first made his acquaintance on the train, Ian told me he wished to become a food vendor, the better able to eat every day he said.
It seems most--if not all--of Ian's foster families regarded him more as a nuisance rather than a child, and consequently Ian was fed rather irregularly.
Gaining access to three squares a day, Ian grew comfortable rather quickly and began to think of the skills he could use to turn over money, as he termed it. Ian now wishes to become a farmer--although I think this may have more to do with the fact he has never been on a farm before, much less been outside the city limits and he is enamored of farm life--much as I am still enamored of my son Ian.
As I related in earlier letters, Ian is
keen on traveling to Egypt, and I find myself anticipating his excitement
at discovering the things I once discovered! How I wish for this war to
be over with, so that I can start my life with my new son.
I am running out of writing paper with my rather lengthy letter to you sister dear, but I do not mind writing you (and I hope you do not mind my rather lengthy history lessons!), and I shall have need of finding a stationers to purchase some more. Barring a stationers, I will barter for more paper. Bartering is fast becoming an underground economy and skills are bartered for supplies amongst the rural population.
I will leave you and my brother in law and my nephew with these words:
I remain, as always,