Hello new readers. If you enjoy my blog why not try my prizewinning novel of WWI, Major Tom's War? It's available as a revised and expanded second edition in paperback and on Kindle. You can order it via my lovely publisher Kashi House at www.kashihouse.com or from any good bookseller.
The only bad argument my family has had since Lockdown began has been about the #BlackLivesMatter protests: one person maintaining that it was all somehow ‘America’s problem’ and that there was no ‘serious racism’ in the UK, others taking very different viewpoints.
I believe all racism is serious and yet I wasn’t planning to blog about #BlackLivesMatter. Why? Good question. Probably, if I am honest, out of a fear of flack; that by saying anything at all, I might somehow ‘get it wrong’ and be vilified.
Then an incident happened to change my mind. The admin of a local Facebook noticeboard site I like – the one where people ask for help finding a plumber, thank the NHS, hunt for local property or post pretty pictures of local scenery etc – took down a photograph very like this one.
This may have happened for good but misguided reasons: the admin may have wished to avoid inciting riotous assembly during Lockdown, or may have perceived the posters as political statements. Both perceptions are wrong, as this is a Covid-appropriate protest unlikely to foment a desire to march along Fortrose High Street. The #BlackLivesMatter movement transcends politics. Yes, it may well be politically manipulated at times, but if that leads to the fall of any racist and corrupt political figure, I for one will not be shedding any tears.
What interested me in particular was the instinctive choice of the old mercat cross for this small act of corrugated-cardboard-and-sharpie protest. Please don’t be sanctimonious and say it is defacing an ancient monument. People have been taping or propping up notices on and against the mercat cross, myself included, quite literally for ever.
Once the mercat cross stood in the north-western corner of the cathedral grounds. It has not been moved: more extensive in the past, cathedral land stretched from the High Street to Rose Street, from Union Street to Academy Street. The main function of any mercat cross is to grant the right to free assembly, so market traders could come together and flog their wares. Whichever king granted one to a town made the calculation that its people were staunch good citizens unlikely to rise against him.
Mercat crosses became the Facebook noticeboards of their day. Here you would stand to seek employment, protest and share news. Perhaps, in 1833, Fortrose folk stood at the cross to be told that the beginning of righting an ancient wrong had come about with the Abolition of Slavery Act. We know the name of Wilberforce but that achievement was also in part brought about by a small, domestic act of protest: women in the main refusing to buy plantation sugar. People here in the Black Isle would have been among them.
There are echoes of slavery and the #ToxicColonialism which brought it about everywhere. Many of the great houses in the Black Isle and farmland were bought with or built on ‘black gold’, plantation wealth. Does it mean they should be torn down today? Of course not. They are happy 21st century family homes. Those who live there cannot and should not now be held responsible for the sins of our forefathers. But we do need to acknowledge those sins existed, talk about them, understand not just who and when but why, share the story with all local children. History lessons should include the shameful, the uncomfortable and the horrifying as well as the entertaining and the the progress and the military victories.
The toppled statue of the slaver Edward Colston in Bristol should surely now be removed to a museum intact and interpreted there as a warning. Melting down his effigy in bronze does not right his wrongs or punish him, for he, like those he oppressed, became dust long ago. I would keep this statue horizontal. Why? So that he can be looked down on, a powerful metaphor, so that the act of toppling him can also become part of the story, to be interpreted to every generation hereafter as the moment, perhaps, when viewpoints really began to change.
Travel helps understanding. I am old enough to have visited South Africa under apartheid. I was taken to Soweto for a tour. We visited a school. Our group of all-white tourists was led straight into a classroom without knocking. The teacher stopped mid-lesson. The children stood, their eyes on the floor. How many times a day did this happen? My mother, a teacher herself, was outraged and tried to apologise but our white guide prevented it and moved us on. I was 14 but have never forgotten it. I also visited Zimbabwe when it was Rhodesia, less oppressive than South Africa at the time but still a culture shock. The fact that both countries have suffered terribly in the aftermath of the overthrow of white rule does not make that white rule any more justified. One led to the other, both of them outcomes of #ToxicColonialism.
As a linguist and genealogist I know that there is no such thing as ‘pure’ race. Indo-European tribes journeyed north, settling as they went, creating fledgling languages and nations. My own bloodlines come from many places, including a ‘quadroon’ (mixed race) heiress from a plantation family in Kingston, Jamaica. Unusually there is a family portrait of her. A beautiful, dark haired and dark-skinned woman. Perhaps my own skin and hair owes a tiny debt to her. My DNA testing also shows me to be a real mixed bag, more European than British, more Scandinavian than Scots. Am I still white, and privileged? Of course I am. But I have thought about all this, and thought hard, and quietly tried to become the best iteration of myself that I can. I met my best friend in France and her children are half French, half Congolese. My own children have grown up seeing them as part of the extended family.
Without my Sikh publishers Kashi House, MajorTom’sWar would probably never have seen the light of day. Through them I was able to travel to India, to overcome many preconceptions and prejudices and, yes, fears, and to make friends for life. In India, I was often the only white person among Indians in a land scarred and severed by #ToxicColonialism. I was treated with immense curiosity at times but also with unfailing courtesy and such kindness I felt humbled. Strangers helped me, chatted, shared their food, just as I have often helped strangers myself, here in the Highlands.
As the way forward I believe in a world of small countries which interconnect, not in superpowers, who are still forcing #ToxicColonialism on us dressed up, for example, as vile trade agreements for importing chlorinated chicken.
It is heartening to see that some of the youngsters where I live are still capable of independent thought rather than living through the chillingly manipulative culture of Instagram and TikTok. So if you pass the merkat cross and see their notices, stop for a moment. Read them. Think. Pray if you are of a mind to. Don’t just tut-tut or accelerate past them or worst of all, take them down. Our beleaguered democracy may be on the ropes at present but we do, still, just, have the right to freedom of speech.
Here is an interesting thought: during Lockdown we are all ‘hefting to place’. Hefting is the term used for moorland-bred sheep which can be released on to the hill where they were born without wandering away – there is an internal boundary in their heads as to where they belong which they never cross.
I think Lockdown will have two very different impacts on humankind. Firstly, many of those who have been imprisoned in cities and large towns will want to move out, seeking refuge in the countryside as a more natural place to live through a lockdown if it happens again. The population in rural areas will expand. People who cannot move permanently will wish to holiday here. Highland second home ownership and tourism will boom.
Secondly, those who already live in more rural areas like the Black Isle, including folk who commuted to work in towns like Inverness or Dingwall but live in the countryside, are hefting, perhaps unknowingly, to place.
How? Well, we are walking our boundaries, a territorial habit as old as man. We are getting to know every tree, rock, hedge or wall intimately. We are watching the seasons change. We are learning to tend our gardens and to grow again: seeds, plants, ourselves. We are looking at the circle of our horizon with curiosity. We are getting to know and supporting our neighbours and local shops as would have happened naturally 100 years ago. We are slowing down, forced to live smaller and more simply.
Some of this will evaporate when Lockdown ends of course and people gey back to work Some, but not all. The natural world has changed for the better during Lockdown. Let us hope the human world has learned from the impact of Lockdown too. It will be very difficult to live as we did before, without realising the harm we were inflicting through the effects of our previous fast-paced modern life.
When putting in a new planter yesterday I found this underneath an old bucket – a field mouse’s magnificent stash of hazel nuts and plum stones for the winter. Its whole small world comprises my garden. And for a few months my own world has not been that much larger.
I replaced the bucket and put my planter elsewhere…
Why is it always so hard to announce that you have won a competition (and yes, thank you, I know it should be ‘one has won’, but it already sounds pompous enough to say ‘I have won a prize’)?
As a Brit I am hard-wired to be self-deprecating. I had my first taste of this when MajorTom’sWar won that prize at the SAHR Military History Fiction Awards last year. I found myself saying things like ‘oh, it was nothing really,’ when in actual fact it was a huge, life-changing deal to have someone outside my publisher and my immediate family acknowledge that the last ten years of my life had not been a complete waste of time.
I have been writing professionally for over 20 years as a hired pen. I know I am reasonably good at it, as I have been doing it for long enough. Wordsmithing for my clients where text is often approved by committee is however a very different kettle of fish from the flying-without-a-net world of creative writing.
So you know what? I am going to admit here, quite openly and honestly, that winning the HughMillerWritingCompetition2020 means a lot to me.
This time the prize is not for a novel but for a fictional short story, CinderToffee. This means I can believe that MajorTom’sWar was not just a fluke or a one-off. It means my publishers Kashi House can call me a prizewinning author and I will not immediately succumb to imposter syndrome. So thank you, judges. This really does make a difference.
The Hugh Miller competition is rooted in Scottish geology, inspired by the remarkable writer, geologist and man of science Hugh Miller, born in Cromarty on the Black Isle. I am not a geologist but always have pebbles in my pockets and still walk along nose to the ground, always looking for my dream ammonite or the perfect geode to crack open.
This season I should have been joining the NationalTrustforScotland’s team at HughMiller’sCottageandBirthplaceMuseum in Cromarty as the property’s summer assistant. Then along comes coronavirus to derail the whole of humanity. This prize is also a surprise compensation for that disappointment (I hope to pop up there next year, ‘if we’re spared’, as it soon may become traditional to say once more.) So do come in and say hello.
My short story is set, in part, in a claustrophobic EdinburghUniversity vestibule, and, in part, in the wild, wide, open spaces of KnockanCrag, on the border between Ross and Sutherland. The photographs were taken on a day-job heritage conference in Inverness a few years ago. I returned to Knockan Crag for the first time in many years then, on an excellent field trip organised by ScottishNaturalHeritage. It rained, of course, but not all the time, and the excellent fresh interpretation on site intrigued me.
Peach and Horne are two names weel-kent within geological circles. Now, I hope, they will become more widely know as a result of people reading CinderToffee. These two represent an extraordinary flowering of largely male expertise in the 19th century in the field of the ‘outdoor’ sciences: geology, biology and botany in particular. Their sweet tooth is entirely fictional. The rest of their story is as close as I could come to how it must have felt – within the 2000 word limit and the three days I gave myself to write it.
What did they discover at Knockan Crag? You’ll need to read the story to find out – but this recipe provides a clue!
You will find CinderToffee here, among the other excellent prize-winning entries (good to see Cromarty Primary pupils keeping their end up for Hugh Miller). Soon there will be an audio file of me reading it aloud too. https://www.scottishgeology.com/hughmiller/
The impact of coronavirus means that there can be no prizegiving. It would mean a lot to the gallant committee of competition organisers if my own story and the work of all the other prizewinners could be passed on by word of mouth as worth a read.
If you enjoy my writing style and would like to read MajorTom’sWar, it is now available on Kindle (as a revised and expanded second edition) for under £5 and there are still hardback first editions available direct from myself (if you would like a signed copy get in touch via www.majortomswar.com) or my beloved independent publisher www.kashihouse.com.
I am about to dip a toe… no, to wade… oh hang it, to plunge… into some very choppy waters. So here are some gratuitously pretty Easter pictures for you to enjoy, even if you hate me for what I am about to share.
Many professional writers are confessing to finding themselves ‘blocked’ during this lockdown (while poets are producing some sizzling work, but that is another story). I am, alas, no great shakes as a poet. After all, why use 3 words when 300 will do?
My own major work in progress, BrotherJoe, is therefore in limbo (sorry Joe. Your time will come, your story told. Just not quite yet.) This is partly because the storyline, planned long before the outbreak of COVID-19, covers the 1919 Spanish influenza pandemic and dealing with that feels a little too prescient at present.
One of my creative writing ‘tutees’, whom we will call Joanne, confessed last week to finding it hard to settle down and write anything. I decided that a simple diary piece would be an appropriate goal for our next ‘literary encounter’. I then opted, somewhat rashly, to support Joanne by writing one myself.
Well. At first, of course, I avoided the task altogether. I felt guilty, too, for wanting to do other things; everything, anything but write, in fact. Then I tried a step-by-step documenting of my day, as agreed with Joanne. I reread it the following morning to discover that I had risen, dressed, walked, gardened, read, spoken, eaten at punctuating intervals and then gone to bed. Exactly the same everyone else? Not quite. Not in one majorly significant way.
Only once I began to wonder why this should be the case did words began to drip, and trickle, then flood out of me. What you have here is a distillation of that.
Joanne soon contacted me to say that something similar was happening to her. Should she stop? No, I replied. Let’s surf the wave and see where it takes us. I have to say that what she has produced is far, far better than this piece, which amounts to an expiation.
The thing is, you see, that I am happy. There, I have said it. Happier than I have been for years. Isn’t that just appalling? Especially when those around me are increasingly stressed and miserable. I realise that it is an entirely peculiar and selfish happiness, but it is also the honest truth.
Yes, of course part of me is still very much afraid. I know more and more people are dying, many in grim circumstances, unacknowledged in the official statistics. I know our beloved, beleaguered NHS, starved of political empathy and funding for so many years, is on its knees. I know I may also in part only be feeling this way because I am locked down in a beautiful, tranquil rural part of the Scottish Highlands little, as yet, affected by COVID-19. I also know that I may hate myself next week or next month if the situation worsens.
Why is it I cannot bring myself to scurry around the local paths during my exercise hour, eyes fixed grimly on the ground, as many seem to? Why do I find myself stopping, standing, staring at the clouds, noticing the subtle daily changes in nature?
Happiness in my life up until now has often been counterbalanced by extreme pressures (for various reasons) in both my family and my professional life. This paradoxical #lockdown contentment is a different kind of happiness. This list is my best guess at the reasons for it.
1. My closest family are here at home with me and all are well. In the past I have taken this for granted. Not any more.
2. I never again expected to have both my daughters, now young women, living with me under one roof for any length of time. That feels like a miraculous gift.
3. I have time to keep in touch with others I love via social media, phone and email. I am using my writing skills on digital platforms, a new adventure for me, and enjoying it. I am using my French to bring together French speakers from all over the country. I have always been happy to communicate by the written or spoken word, often more so than face to face.
4. The four of us locked down together (age range 17 – 74) are taking time to understand each other’s needs far better than we have done before. We are being honest with each other, possibly for the first time ever.
5. The daily hour’s exercise forces me to concentrate on my fitness. I am convalescing from surgery. Under normal circumstances I would probably not be taking time to recover properly. I am exercising gently but I am also resting. It feels so good.
6. After the initial shock and panic of no work (which for me means no AirBnB bookings, no teaching and no heritage consulting) we have worked out how much we can live on. It is surprisingly little. We will survive. Travelling as much as we did for work and for pleasure generates the need for more and more income generation. It is an unnecessary cycle.
7. I have set up a support group for my neighbours, and as a family we are helping them practically in any way I can. We are getting to know some well, one or two for the first time ever. We have not been near a supermarket or even placed an order online for over a month. I do not miss it. It is perfectly possible, here, to live locally. People are bartering skills, food, plants. This is the world I want to live in.
What these seven points have in common of course is the feeling of my world shrinking, of enjoyment derived from slowing down, of taking the foot off the pedal, hitherto so rare in life. There is also gratitude, not to terrifying COVID-19, but to the beneficial impact our response to it has had on our home planet.
Looking back at life before the epidemic, I feel like we were already collectively holding our breath, waiting for something to happen. Our excessive lives whirled ever faster, out of control. Planet Earth has been sickening for years and we have known this – and ignored it. The planet has now taken action to heal itself. Unless we heed this shot across our bows, we risk entering the Age of the Pandemic, of which COVID-19 is merely a mild foretaste. This virus could depart only to wheel, adapt, mutate, return. If it does, humankind could become a short and grubby footnote in the history of this ancient planet.
Will I be glad when this #lockdown ends? Of course I will, but again, not entirely. I have greatly valued this time of being able to stop, draw breath, think. All I pray is that those in power realise that things must never go back to ‘normal’; that the old ‘normal’ was slowly killing us and destroying the planet on which we live.
Humanity now faces a stark choice: mend our ways – or become extinct. I am a resolute optimist and I believe it can and will happen – providing others, like myself, can also begin to say ‘Enough! We need a better way of life.’
Reflecting on all this, my heart still wants to dance. Yes, my logical brain knows that I too may catch the COVID 19 virus and die; but somewhere deep inside me a small voice, which may or may not be called faith, is saying yes, but you were always going to do thatanyway. You were never immortal, even if your species likes to pretend it is. So live while you can, but live better.
There is this whole bonkers mystique about souffle-making. ‘It’s hard’ (no, it’s not). ‘It won’t rise’ (yes, it will). ‘It’s extravagant’ (six eggs to feed four? Don’t think so). Any cook who can make a thick white sauce and beat egg whites into stiff peaks can make a souffle. This mixture is based on my 4 x GGrandmother’s recipe from 1810.
Why flowerpots? Well, when I was a kid a famous TV chef and MP named Clement Freud (back in the days when politicians had integrity, talent and personality) made bread in the shape of flowerpots. It was one of my mother’s favourite recipes. I kept the medium-sized flowerpots she used and now I make souffles in them as well as bread. If you try it make sure yours are clean – sterilise them using boiling water – or better still use new ones.
Wooden spoon, large non-stick pan.
2 medium-size clean terracotta flower- pots (or two straightish high-sided ovenproof dishes will do fine too)
2 round greaseproof cake liners or just greaseproof paper
3oz unsalted butter
4oz grated mature cheddar cheese (or any cheese you fancy, stilton is good if you are a fan)
6 eggs, separated into yolks and whites (don’t get even a drop of your yolk in the whites, or they won’t beat to stiff peaks). If you do have a mishap use an eggshell to scoop out the bit of yolk and plenty of white around it – just add it to the sauce instead. If you want to make doubly certain your souffle will rise, add an extra egg white (and save the yolk covered in the fridge for something else).
About 1/3 litre milk (I said a half at first but depends on flour, oven etc – sauce is better too thick than too runny)
4 – 5 heaped tablespoons plain flour
One tablespoonful Dijon mustard
Freshly-ground black pepper
1/4 teapoonful freshly grated nutmeg
Line two flourpots or ovenproof dishes with your greaseproof cake liners. If you don’t have any liners put a circle of greaseproof paper in the bottom of the dish but DO NOT grease the sides. You souffle needs something up which to climb.
Make your white sauce in the non-stick pan over a medium to high heat: melt your butter and add the flour a little at a time. Fry off the flour in the butter (if it goes a little brown in places no problem) and keep mixing until it smells a little of toast.
Now add the milk a little at a time. It will look horrible and lumpy and you will think you have failed but persevere (or cheat and give it a whizz with an electric hand blender). Put it to one side in a warm place it it’s not working and wait 5 minutes – the lumps will gradually soften and help thicken the sauce. The trick is just to keep beating it like crazy until it gives in.
When it is smooth, stir in the black pepper, nutmeg and the egg yolks. Finally, add about 3/4 of the cheese, stir well and set aside.
In a separate clean dry glass bowl, beat your eggs with an electric whisk (the only reason to do it by hand would be if you employ an idle kitchenmaid with massive biceps). Stiff peak is when the egg whites look solid and become more like meringue. Pour your warm eggy cheesy white sauce on to the side of your egg white. This will push it up rather like an iceberg.
Take a warm dry metal spoon and gently, using an up and down circular motion from the bottom of the bowl to the top (so not normal round and round stirring), pull the egg white into the sauce. It may not look very even, but don’t worry too much about that.
Pour your mixture evenly into the two dishes on a baking tray and sprinkle with the rest of the cheese.
Pop into a hot (210) oven for 35 – 40 minutes. Keep an eye on them and if tbey brown early quickly cover them with a piece of foil. Souffle myths include not opening the oven door but you can if you are quick and the kitchen is not too chilly.
Make sure your family is seated before you serve the souffles, as then you get a nice oo-moment before they sink. Using liners means the kids can lift them out and peel off the nice crunchy bits at the end.
You can flavour souffles with anything – spinach is good, one of tonight’s was mushroom, and for a naughty dessert try melted chocolate swirled through (adding a little dark brown sugar and leaving out the cheese and spices of course!).
Tonight I served the souffles with a warm broccoli and orange salad with bacon, rosemary and balsamic vinegar.
I have always loved foraging and free food. You must however make sure you pick from a clean location where no herbicides or pesticides have been used. If you are not 100% sure of a plant’s identity, do not pick it. And always leave some for the bees.
Dandelions are beautiful, useful little plants (yes, beautiful. The designation ‘weeds’ is a marketing ploy to flog weedkillers which can blind you if you get them in your eyes and garden tools which look like instruments of mediaeval torture). And they are delicious to eat. We need to rethink our garden priorities. Just imagine you hold the National Collection of dandelions and be proud!
Dandelion means ‘lion’s teeth’ although I have always thought lion’s mane would be a better name. In French they are pissenlit: from pisse-en-lit – wet-the-bed, the old Highland nickname too. I remember echoes of this in my Highland primary school when the Bad Boys used to chase us with dandelions, shrieking with glee, if they touched us with one, that we were going to wake up to soggy sheets.
There is a useful folk-memory here though as the dandelion plant is a diuretic and helps eliminate water retention. The long (and loathed) tap-roots were once washed, roasted and ground as a sort of coffee during the World Wars. And if well made, dandelion wine is a pale golden joy which releases a fragrant early summer bouquet, even in the depths of winter.
To make bhajis for 3 – 4 people you will need a large mixing bowl, 12 dandelion heads picked in bright sunlight, a spoonful of curry paste, a large finely chopped onion or leek, a good cupful of flour (half plain, half self-raising) and two lightly beaten eggs, plus a little sunflower oil and a little butter for cooking.
If you have no curry paste, you can use freshly grated ginger, finely chopped garlic, finely chopped chilli or pwder to taste, ground cardomum, cumin and turmeric instead – fry together lightly then add at the flour stage before the egg.
1. Wash your dandelion heads and pat dry. Pick the golden ‘teeth’ away from the green ‘head’ and place in a large bowl. Add the flour and onion and mix until evenly distributed. Beat the curry paste into the egg and then pour into the flour mixture. Mix thoroughly until it forms a loose dough.
2. Drop tablespoonfuls into hot oil/butter mixture in a frying pan and cook until golden brown on all sides. It will take 4 – 5 minutes at most. Keep cooked ones warm as the others sizzle away.
For the salad allow 6 young dandelion leaves per person (they look like swords with serrated edges) and wash and dry well. Add a few crumbled walnuts, a finely chopped apple and some chopped hard boiled egg or blue cheese if liked.
Make a creamy dressing with a spoonful of mayonnaise, half a cupful of olive or good rapeseed oil, quarter of a cupful of balsamic vinegar, the juice of a lemon, a teaspoon each of honey and Dijon mustard. Place in a warm dry jam jar and shake vigorously – then pour over the salad and serve with the warm, crisp golden brown bhaji.
If you fancy trying this recipe, please first promise never to use herbicides or pesticides in your garden again…
It has been a very strange 24 hours. When P and I married in January we mentioned postponing our honeymoon to October for a memorable journey to Canada to some of our friends because we expected such a busy AirBnB season.
One kind family decided this Would Not Do and gave us a voucher for the lovely Torridon Inn. We should have gone over in February but I was ill, then I had my op and so last month we rescheduled for this weekend.
Since then of course the whole world has changed. We were in two minds about going at all but after discovering that our rooms were direct access off a courtyard rather than through a building we decided we would, since we could continue to social-distance ourselves.
I cannot find words for the beauties of the drive over – better just to share them with you pictorially. The news then came in shortly after our arrival that all hotels would close the following morning.
The charming French staff at the Inn cannot return home but their employers are being very supportive (unlike the heartless Britannia Hotel Group at Coylumbridge which kicked out its mainly foreign national staff without notice or any provision for their accommodation).
The meal last night (attentive if of course physically distant staff, well spaced tables) for the few of us present had a weirdly Last Supper feel, with much hilarity across the divides. This morning was more muted as people crept into their vehicles and drove off sombre-faced.
On the roads (not so much at the Inn) there are a lot of non-local and foreign vehicles out and about. We also saw many wild-camping tents, especially in Glen Torridon. That is a worrying trend as an asymptomatic carrier from outside the area could spread the virus so easily.
What is the solution? Applecross is already discouraging access to its peninsula. Checking postcodes for shop purchases and limiting fuel purchases might be another way?
I am glad we managed our single, precious night away – but I was also very glad to get home and prepare to batten down the hatches.
My lovely cousin Arleen and her family have been clearing the house of my ‘uncle’ Richard, who was the last of my mother’s cousins. Kindly Richard and his intimidating older sister Veronica were the products of a marriage of first cousins (a family habit not without consequences) in India and both were titans of my childhood.
Even when the postie handed it over, I could hear and feel that sickening crunch of broken glass inside.
All genealogists know that bereavements are a risky time for family ‘treasures’. The grieving offspring may seek to sweep away everything in their agony of loss (or at worst their relief at having got their life back after a lengthy demise). Dustbins are filled. Skips are ordered and are soon piled gleefully or mournfully high. Photos may be saved – but only if the younger generation knows who they are.
It also takes effort to read spidery handwriting. So much easier just to consign bundles of letters to the flames. My own father burnt my paternal grandfather’s diaries. They detailed his time rounding Cape Horn on one of the last tea-clipper three-masters, but also his many infidelities, and presumably my father thought it was the right thing to do. Sob.
Arleen, her husband Richie and his sister Rosemary are not especially genealogically-inclined and knew they had their work cut out but said they would keep an eye open for anything I might like. Kindly old Richard and his ever-cheerful wife Betty had never thrown anything away – just in case it came in handy – an identifying trait of the generation which lived through the war (Richard was an army photographer). The family had to clear shelf upon cluttered shelf, box upon grimy box from their house in Queen’s Parade. As anyone who has done this will know, it can be soul-destroying labour.
The first parcel contained three pictures, one with brittle glass probably shattered in transit. All three (two certain, the third probable) I recognised as the work of Lucien Jonas, the French war artist, who features in Major Tom’s War sketching these very portraits. Two show Indian Cavalry sowars and their horses.
The third is the original charcoal portrait of Tom which appears in Major Tom’s War.
Let me explain further. Within our archive there is an album of Lucien Jonas prints and in it there is a photo of a portrait of Tom – we supposed the original to be lost. One, possibly two of these images have been cut from the album and separately framed – the knife-cuts certainly match on one.
My grandfather had no sons and was fond of Dick, his brother and his son Richard, whom he helped to raise while Dick and his wife Vera were living a butterfly life in India. Perhaps for this reason these two prints plus the original portrait were given to Richard. Or perhaps Evie my grandmother gave them to him when Tom died.
Either way, Richard must have hung the portrait sketch in bright sunlight and the paper is badly faded, unlike the album version. How do we know it is the original? Because Jonas has written the words ‘respectueux hommages’ beside his signature on the original and then obscured them on the print, where they are still faintly visible due to their reflection through the glass plate.
To say I was thrilled is an understatement so imagine my astonishment to receive another message from Arleen to say that among some other family bits and bobs she had found another portrait photograph of Tom, and would I like it. WouldI!
This is now the best portrait of my grandfather Tom that I possess. In some he looks rather testy (he was known for his quick temper). This one I think shows his good looks and his humour. I am hoping it will make its way into the paperback edition of Major Tom’s War, out later this year.
Long live keeping in contact with kind cousins – thank you to my Tenby family – Arleen, Richie and Rosemary Westmacott!
Long after the places have faded, I will remember the people I met in India. Some of them I have already written about: Karanvir Singh Sibia, the passionate advocate of Sangrur heritage; Dinesh Rana, descendant of Arjan Singh, a loyal and brave friend to my grandfather; Depinder Sandhu and the whole charming extended family descended from the great Risaldar Major Amar Singh; Dr Naveen Kumar, who showed me ancient Patiala through his own eyes; Mandeep Singh Bajwa and the extraordinary volunteers of the #MilLitFest and of course Captain Amarinder Singh, Chief Minister of Punjab – and so many others too. The glaring omission is, of course, that of my regimental family.
The embarrassing thing is that I never knew they existed, these kind and delightful people, who hosted me so well both in India and in London, until after Major Tom’s War was published.
Tom my grandfather was a captain with the 38th King George’s Own Central India Horse during the whole of 1915, reluctantly becoming the Divisional Assistant Provost Marshal (APM) from 1916 until the end of the Great War. In that role he had to become the upholder of martial law within the division, with all the horrors that entailed. Military discipline was excellent within the Indian Army, then as now, but nonetheless courts-martial and executions became part of his life. The ‘Major’ of the book’s title is ironic: he is demoted on arrival in the regular army, fights for reinstatement throughout the war and is only reappointed major in 1919, after the war ends.
It was not that I had not looked for any trace of the Central India Horse, my grandfather’s old regiment. I was vaguely aware of a modern Indian regiment of the same name – but I knew that it was no longer a cavalry regiment, having long since exchanged the horses for tanks and other armoured vehicles. Why, I thought, no modern-day soldiers would be interested in the regimental goings-on of a century earlier – would they?
Well. I could not have been more wrong about levels of interest among retired and serving CIH officers and their families. It took that fateful article in the Chandigarh Tribune (thank you again, Vikramdeep Johal) spotted by a member of the Central India Horse Association (CIHA) to start the tumbling line of dominos which led me to stay with Major Shivjit Shergill and his family at the beginning of my India journey.
So I did not find the CIHA – it found me. To be precise a lovely lady named Charlie Tipper got in touch. She told me she was the Honorary Secretary of the CIHA and I remember that twin rush of exultation – and then embarrassment of my ignorance of its existence. Why didn’t I come to the annual CIHA luncheon, she suggested. And so I went along (you can read all about that first encounter in an earlier blog). At that meeting I mentioned what then seemed like the remote possibility of a journey to India. Charlie assured me that her regimental counterparts would welcome me with open arms there too. I thought she could not possibly be serious, but I again was proved wrong. And then some.
Preet Shergill, Shivjit’s delightful wife, prepared wonderful food to settle me in, sighing with relief (after the first cautiously bland omelette) when I told her I was happy to eat her delicately spiced curries. Theirs is an ancient and honourable military family, with portraits and weapons festooning the walls. Their boys are the same age as my daughters. I therefore felt completely at home with Shivjit and Preet.
On my first day Preet wisely drove me through Chandigarh’s elegant streets lined with old trees between which bright green parakeets shrieked and swooped. There were parks. There were roses. It was neat and tidy. Not a menacing monkey or a rabid dog in sight. Kipling was still lurking at tge edges of my subconscious and this was not what I expected India to be like at all.
Then, only a short distance away, we turned a corner to explore what Preet called the ‘villages’, which seemed strikingly basic in contrast to the residential areas so close by. This was a kind and wise introduction to the polarities of real India I would witness elsewhere.
Of everywhere I visited, it was Delhi which shocked me the most: the sheer size, the monstrous traffic which causes choking pollution which blocks out the sun; but again, the people I encountered were wonderful.
I had been invited to speak at the United Services Institute and was hosted there jointly by leading academic Squadron Leader Rana Chhina, whom I had met through Kashi House, and the delightful Mrs Aruna Minhas, remarkable wife of the current Central India Horse Colonel of the Regiment. Aruna took great care of me in Delhi, introducing me to the redoubtable Mrs Shirin Sen, widow of the renowned Colonel Rusty Sen of the CIH. Shirin met us for lunch at her local Anglican church where I tried idli for the first time, little white semolina dumplings.
Aruna also hosted me around the crowded spice markets for modest purchases of cardomum and star anise (and yes, the occasional scarf) to squeeze into my overloaded suitcase.
Aruna had managed (after eight establishments she had deemed unsatisfactory) to find me a splendid New Delhi B&B run by Mala Bindra, whose art-filled apartment was so relaxed and comfortable, and with whom I traded recipes.
Highly recommended to other travellers!
The Delhi lecture (arranged by Rana, ably assisted by Aaliya, above) went extremely well.
I was introduced to an audience of army veterans and service personnel by an awesome panel of co-presenters, including Rana, Major Karun Khanna and General Ian Cardozo, a remarkable veteran who had, I was told, lopped off his own injured leg with a khukri toescapetheJapanese. He also gave me his very kind review of Major Tom’s War, confiding as he did so that he found all the early childhood chapters a little slow, but loved the military action therafter (future army readers are hereby given the author’s permission to cut to the chase!).
Afterwards we all lunched together.
The regimental family in Delhi then swooped down and carried me off (through impossible traffic!) to the splendid Sabre Mess. That evening I was privileged to meet seven retired officers who had commanded CIH and gone on to have illustrious careers at high ranks, now retired, and theur kind and beautifully-attired spouses. Colonel Robbie Kapoor and his wife even gave me a splendid cookbook, which I am greatly enjoying. I told true tales of CIH valour from Major Tom’s War late into the evening, the gentlemen matched them with stories of their own and I was presented with a regimental history and the print of the last mounted CIH parade, now on the wall of my office. We enjoyed the most amazing meal together, in very atmospheric and historic surroundings.
The following day Aruna and I shared a delicious lunch in a shopping garden where green parakeets swooped down to bird tables and a few late roses still bloomed. Whenever we were together Aruna’s WhatsApp would be pinging with messages non-stop and I am sure she should really have been dealing with many more important things than an itinerant Scots author. I really cannot imagine a nicer woman to be ‘mother’ to a modern regiment than Mrs Aruna Minhas.
Aruna even escorted me to the train the following day, which was very reassuring, as the station was mayhem. I was sorry to leave everyone I had met and board the express, with its crowds, its food and drink vendors and its unforgettable toilets (only for the most agile – and the desperate!) – but I can now definitely say I have travelled on an Indian train, a long-held ambition. I quickly found myself surrounded by kindly and interested fellow passengers (one of whom plans a whisky trip to the Highlands soon).
Once back in Chandigarh with dear Shivjit and Preet again, I spent an emotional last night with the local CIH regimental family, hosted by Colonel & Mrs Manohar Singh, also a retired officer of CIH who had commanded the regiment. After a delicious home-cooked meal (my last dalmakhani…) and singing and dancing to Auld Lang Syne with everyone, it was time for bed and I said my fond farewells.
This was followed by the incredibly thoughtful gift of a massage the next morning, and I am convinced my exhausted yet elated body fared better on the 26-hour return flight that day because of this wonderful treat from regimental wife Apeksha’ talented team!
I hope to see many of those I met in Delhi and Punjab again one day and would love my ‘younger generation’ to meet their CIH peers. There will always be a billet here for any offspring of regimental family who wish to explore the beautiful Scottish Highlands.
As it turns out, I planned my book tour the right way round. Without my Punjab and Delhi travels for the first two-and-a-bit weeks, the impact of the Chandigarh #MilLitFest might have proved overwhelming. As it was, I had time among kind people to travel, absorb and acclimatise.
How to describe the Chandigarh Military Literature Festival? Well, I can promise you that it is utterly unlike any book festival you may have attended elsewhere in the past. It is extremely big, for a start, one of the largest in the world. It is staged in the grounds of the very grand Sukhna Lake Country Club, dotted with elegant white pavilions and stages set around the lake itself, with views of the green hills to the north where Shimla lies. There are five or six venues there of different sizes, a food court containing all kinds of good things to eat and drink and, of course, a massive book sales area too. And it is teeming with school-uniformed youngsters helping to run it, so keen to please.
Make no mistake, this festival is positively bristling with all things military, and not just books. Many of the youngsters I encountered showed a creditable intelligence and interest in the military past, present and future of their homeland. Will some of them end up in the Armed Forces? Of course they will.
One of my fellow speakers harrumphed that it was all a bit too military for his taste, but we have to see the festival through Punjabi eyes. This is border country. Punjab needs to show off its military prowess and this is a clever way of doing just that. Punjab has not just any border, but one carved with blood and fire through its heartland in 1947, after just five pitiful weeks were allowed to plan a division which would shatter the lives of millions in both India and what would become Pakistan.
Allow me to backtrack for a moment here to my time in Amritsar. There, as well as visit Jallianwala Bagh and the Partition Museum, I also went to Wagah, and I think this is the best place within my tour blog to tell the story of my experience of the border there.
A giant stadium has been erected on both sides of the border at Wagah, creating a setting for a remarkable show which takes place every evening. It is an event which is part Edinburgh Military Tattoo, part brinkmanship. I would love to know more about how it evolved on both sides, as it must have required some impressive Indo-Pakistani co-operation.
Before the ceremony began, an army officer with a mic warmed up the crowd, leading fervent patriotic chanting. A large group of colourfully-clad spectators, many of them women, then formed a relay bearing the Indian flag, racing halfway to the border and back again, the green orange and white of the Indian flag billowing behind them as they ran. Something similar was happening on the Pakistan side – hard to see – but it appeared a more muted ceremony there, spectators more sparse, clad in white, men and women seated in different areas and their soldiers’ helmet plumes black rather than red. Rather like the real ceremony on one side and its paler shadow on the other.
Fabulously-uniformed soldiers from the two armies then marched at, postured and taunted each other, gesticulating at each other right on the grim line of the border, in a well-orchestrated ritual. The impact of this appeared more cathartic than aggressive or inflammatory. Whipped into a patriotic fervour by the MC, I found myself shouting ‘Hin-do- stan! Hin-do-stan!’ until I was hoarse, along with all the others. Sitting on those hard concrete steps with brightly-clad and bright-eyed Indians was a curiously festive experience, yet charged with emotion. I left feeling oddly stirred by it all (Tom’s blood again?) while deeply regretting the need for any border at all and feeling the weight of my own homeland’s part in its creation. I certainly had no desire to acquire a tacky souvenir from any of the border stalls I passed.
All borders divide families, loved ones, family lands and communities. The pain of Partition is still felt in both countries today. It made me think long and hard about the likelihood of Scotland dissolving its 300-year union with England and I wondered if a similar ceremony might one day take place on our own border. It was a disquieting thought but I accept its possibility.
While at the Chandigarh festival I attended many fascinating sessions on subjects ranging from mediaeval Indian history to the use of nuclear weaponry – part of the fun is stumbling into different sessions, listening and learning. And I certainly learned a great deal over the three days.
The question of apology for Partition or for Jallianwala Bagh which arose more than once in different contexts is a hard one. Is it such a momentous step for any government to acknowledge that many of the past actions of its predecessors have had terrible consequences? And yet many of my new Indian friends just shrugged and said, look Vee, it is over. You cannot change history by looking back. So why apologise for it? When Britain gave us so much?
All this was swirling around in my head and heart when I arrived at Chandigarh, where I was in the enviable if tricky-to-explain position of being a non-historian (I am a storyteller with a strong interest in history, which is not the same thing at all). I found myself surrounded by hundreds of ‘proper’ historians and military personnel and almost all of those I met, whether Indian or European, were utterly charming, if often a little bemused by my gender. A frequent (and understandable) early question, until people became used to my presence, was whether my husband was speaking at the festival.
The presentations provided much food for thought. In spite of the positive aspects of colonial occupation, I continue to think that an apology (without any subsequent reparations – too late for that) could play a part in educating a new generation of British children and, yes, its new and fearfully-hawkish government, on the impact of a colonial attitude to the world. It is also an acknowlegement that however beneficial the ‘takeover’ by a colonial power, there is always an alternative path, a road which was not then travelled, just as there would have been for Scotland in the early eighteenth century.
As well as all the book launches and presentations and stellar guest speakers (such as the BBC veteran Mark Tully, a hero of mine for many years), there was inevitably serious partying: three in fact, one for each night, plus a surprise to end on. I have to say that at home I am by no means a party animal and so those glittering events I attended in Chandigarh will stay with me for ever.
The first was at the house of Andrew Ayre, the Depute High Commissioner, where Mrs Ayre had supervised the erection of a vast marquee and the creation of a sumptuous buffet meal, all under a torrential downpour and without her housekeeper, who had been taken ill. It was a lovely gathering and some undertaking in the grounds of quite a modest home.
Let’s get one thing straight, however: these fabulous parties were work. Honestly they were. The bulk of networking and ‘book chat’ took place there. They were all ‘indoor-outdoor’ events under billowing canopies and awnings, somewhat challenged by the unseasonably cold weather. I was glad to have packed some warm wraps and my coat, which had a habit of going AWOL.
Next came an elegant party in a regimental mess, when it had rained so heavily that the fabulous carpet was actually underwater in places, but no-one cared: the fine band played on, delicious canapes were offered from hot trays and the whisky and conversation flowed like the deluge outside. The whisky was almost universally the Singleton single malt produced at the Glen Ord distillery just ten miles from my home, almost entirely for export. I drank a bit as it was chilly, and it felt strange to savour such a familiar taste in such exotic surroundings. I also wondered what happened to that beautiful red and gold carpet afterwards, was it ruined?
The third, and as I thought final party of the literature festival, was on the day I was due to speak. This date had been rearranged from Friday to Saturday just before I came and sadly the daily programme had not quite caught up. I also found I had been scheduled against Mark Tully speaking on William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy, a talk which I had hoped to attend myself.
Not many people had turned up at my venue by the appointed hour and I thought ‘oh dear’! Then when the technology refused to co-operate I thought, oh hang it – and I grabbed the microphone and began to sing songs from the Great War instead. Then I storytold and acted out my talk, without notes and with high drama. This worked wonders for my audience numbers and the tent was pretty full by the end of my presentation, when all prayers were answered and the technology belatedly decided to cooperate – whereupon I was asked to run through the whole shebang again, this time with pictures. It turned what could have been a bit of a disaster into a triumph and I had great fun doing it.
That night’s party was glittering and magnificent, set in the Chandigarh Rock Garden, a vast garden site scattered with strange sculptures, structures and patterns all created from rubbish found on the dump once located there, the work of one inspired man.
It was both eery and beautiful, and I enjoyed strolling through the unusual setting. I thought it was the most elegant party I would ever be invited to, but I was wrong about that.
By this stage many other delegates who had been strangers were becoming friends. Those of us staying at the Shivalik View Hotel all travelled together by minibus, rounded up by a team of charming transport organisers whose numbers seemed to vary between two and six. I also had my very own minder, Inderpreet, who was simply brilliant and, like most others involved in the festival (as future speakers need to remember), a volunteer.
There was also the lovely Rima Hooja from Jaipur, who suggested I speak at the book festival there, a couple of sweet Gurkha officers with a keen interest in the Battle of Imphal; a young, tall, devastatingly-handsome naval officer whose excessively correct politeness when sober was only exceeded by his righteous superiority when drunk – and so many more whose names and numbers I still have on WhatsApp, the communication tool of choice.
I woke with a sigh of relief on the Sunday morning that I could have a nice quiet day and just enjoy the presentations of others. The Sunday was to provide the most exciting speaker of all for me as Captain Amarinder himself, Maharajah of Patiala and Chief Minister of Punjab attended the festival. Captain Amarinder is himself a respected author and historian. Even the carpets had been renewed in his honour (there must be a carpet shop somewhere in Chandigarh which sells carpet by the square acre).
The Captain arrived at the main pavilion bristling with security and it was only then that I had my slightly mad idea. I had just the one copy of Major Tom’s War left, the rest had been sold – so why not present it to the Captain? It was hopeless when he arrived – too many security guards and others and I realised I should have asked to do it in advance, not on the day. Someone suggested waiting for him by the exit instead but I could see it wasn’t going to work: I am 5′ 2” and the average Chief Minister’s bodyguard is about 6′ 6! I just stood by clutching my book and feeling a little foolish. Then – a miracle. ‘Take my hand,’ instructed a deep voice from on high, and I found myself being towed through the crowd of gun-toting bodyguards before I could draw breath. That was how I was presented to and talked with Captain Amarinder Singh, Maharajah of Patiala. And he was lovely.
‘Ah, I have heard of you’, he said. ‘I have been reading the papers.’ I was glad to know my efforts at publicity had paid off! We had a photo or two taken together and then he swept on, flanked by his vast entourage.
My tall saviour turned to look down at me and beamed. I recognised Amarpreet Singh Badal, a senior finance minister and politician, who had bought a copy of Major Tom’s War only the previous day and to whom I had been chatting earlier. He must have noticed my half- hearted efforts with the book. This simple act of kindness, which meant such a lot to me that day, still brings a lump to my throat. A very decent man.
The invitation to the Captain’s special party at his house arrived about an hour later, by WhatsApp, a lovely surprise. I had thought I was all partied out, but I soon decided I would need to be wrong about that.
It was a beautiful party, with fewer invitees than the others, at Captain Amarinder’s farm about 20 minutes outside Chandigarh. There were braziers lit to keep us all warm, and this time delicious Italian-themed food, which caused great excitement among my new Indian friends – although to their amusement I still sought out some dalmakhani to enjoy! Some fascinating people were present, not least the Captain and his family, who were very kind to me.
Inside the house there were some interesting paintings and sculptures and a fabulous bar, where I was able to take a snap or two as my friend Yai Yaphaba the Gurkha presented his own book on Imphal to the Captain.
Just one thing worried me about all the partying. A few minutes after midnight I got a text from our posse of transport people saying that they were waiting for us in the minibus. I thought I was about to be left behind so shot outside, but when I went to find them they were alone, huddled together shivering under blankets – it was particularly cold on the last night. Perhaps security was too tight to allow them in somewhere to keep warm, and of course they did not themselves complain, but it made me uneasy to think of them waiting for us all like this in the cold, and possibly for four nights in succession.
I went back inside to try to round up a few of the other guests (honestly I did!) but no luck, more drink was poured and I then only have the vaguest memory of the party after that. I am pretty sure we ended up singing songs from the Sound of Music in the Captain’s beautiful bar with some of the family and the other hardworking organisers until well after midnight.
So that was the night I learned to party like a Maharajah… and I suspect no other book festival I attend will ever quite live up to that in Chandigarh for the sheer spectacle and warmth of welcome. I am so grateful to Mandeep Bajwa and his team for inviting me to attend and covering my flight costs and to my publisher Kashi House for helping me with internal travel costs, too.