Of sunlit lakes and poisoned apples

I am going to the theatre tomorrow evening, for an audience with two very elderly ladies who worked as code-breakers at Bletchley Park during the war. This has reminded me of a trip to Bletchley Park itself.

I went with friend K on one of those elderly persons’ mini-coach trips. We saw ourselves as two sprightly spring chickens, uncomfortably roosted in narrow seats just behind the driver, adrift in a sea of white curly perms, half-mast trousers and walking frames. We felt out of place. Oddly, the owners of said perms, trousers and walking frames didn’t seem to notice this.

I have had other depressing, age-related experiences. Not long ago my sister and I went to view a dementia care home – the same one, in fact, that our mother moved into yesterday. We assumed it was pretty obvious that we were visitors, being under the age of eighty. However, eighty and ninety year-olds came surging forward to welcome us – the two charming new lady residents. We’d like it there, they said. It was a nice place. Bright and sunny. Good food. Even a cat.

Much further back in time – soon after my divorce when Mum and Dad were trying to keep me amused, thereby forestalling an inconvenient and expensive daughterly nervous breakdown – I went with them on a visit to the Dickens Museum in Rochester. Granted it was a filthy, cold day and tipping it down with rain, and we were all wearing dripping anoraks with the hoods up. All the same, it was an irritation when the lady at the till offered us three Senior Citizens tickets.

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Anyway, K and I sat on this sunshine-yellow minibus for a very, very long time. I never realised the rush hour traffic jams into London continued until eleven o’clock in the morning. But it was worth it to be in the actual Bletchley Park, where all that clever stuff happened during the war. It’s a big old house with a gravel driveway, and a lake with sun glinting on its mildly rippling surface. It’s one of the few museums – in fact the only museum – that I would be happy to visit more than once. Code-breaking used one of my fantasies, you see – doing something absorbing, secret and clever in the service of the Nation, in a remote, grand, quiet place surrounded by lawns, with a lake – and not in any physical danger.

As the novelist John Braine pointed out in How to Write a Novel, it is quite possible to be born with the strongest of ‘callings’ to write yet possess not a shred of ability to do so. A cruel irony, he said. So it was with me, the fantasy code-breaker. As a child I was always making up complicated little codes in old school notebooks, then forgetting how they worked or losing interest. I was no good at any of the things that might have helped, such as mathematics or chess. I could only do crosswords if they had sensible clues – anything slightly cryptic and I was mystified. I’ve never even won a game of Scrabble.

But for me the saddest association with Bletchley Park will always be its star performer, Alan Turing, and the terrible waste of a promising life. I know times were different then but still I find it hard to forgive those 1950s types for hounding, prosecuting and finally chemically castrating him because he admitted to a policeman that he was gay. No matter that he was a genius, and probably Asperger’s, and vulnerable. And now they exonerate him, now they bother to apologise – so many years after he lost all hope and injected the cyanide into the apple.

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Winning Ways With a Scarf

Apparently, the above knitted monstrosity represents an Ewok, which is something to do with Star Wars. It certainly looks cosy. I just don’t think I could carry it off, particularly at the Gulbenkian Theatre.

I’ve been thinking about clothes again. This is because tomorrow – yes, tomorrow (silent, childlike handclapping) I am due for one of my thrice-yearly outings. NB: apparently it is now considered poor English to say ‘thrice’. You can say ‘once’, you can say ‘twice’ but when it comes to ‘thrice’ you are only now allowed to say ‘three times’. B******s to that – it’s my beloved language, and if it was good enough for Shakespeare it’s good enough for me.

Tomorrow I am going to meet my friend N at the University of Kent for The Bletchley Girls. I have written about my friend N before. N used to be my boss but by some miracle we managed to stay in touch and become friends after I left the firm. I have written before about student productions N and I have attended at the Gulbenkian (a theatre on campus at the University of Kent) and also of the illicit amusement to be had from student productions, in Some Fairly Substantial Fairies. (It seems to be a day for links today; what a fiddle links are). This, however, looks like a nice change from that. It’s an evening with two ladies, Ruth Bourne and Pat Davies, both now in their nineties, who were part of the predominantly female work force at Bletchley Park during the last war, working night and day to intercept messages and break codes. Ruth Bourne was eighteen at the time, a naval rating selected to operate the Bombe – one of genius Alan Turing’s machines.

It sounds good – nothing to be sniggered at over coffee in the interval there (unlike A Midsummer Night’s Dream). However, my mind has turned to more mundane matters. What to wear for it.

I was never very good with clothes, even when I worked for N in a posh office. It was always something of a struggle to compose my ‘look’ for the day, and sometimes I got it wrong and had to cower around all day in the wrong dress or even – more than once – non-identical shoes. You have to just keep your feet under the desk when you do that. Another tip – if yoghurt spills down your office blouse just before a client comes in – on with the cardigan and clutch it casually around you. Yet another – if skirt hem starts to unravel and no handy sewing kit in desk, staple said skirt. Aim sharp side of staple outwards otherwise – if tights ladder, arrest that run with a blob of nail-varnish or – if really desperate, soap. Soap tends to let you down.

The only thing I did get complimented on was my scarves. Year upon year there used to be a class advertised in the prospectus for the Adult Education Centre – Winning Ways With a Scarf, by Mrs Minnie HaHa, or something similar. Every year I planned to sign up for it, but never did. It sounded so like the one in the Joyce Grenfell monologue – Useful and Acceptable Gifts. I just seem to have a natural gift for impressive scarf-flinging. My niece taught me a new one a few years back – the back-to-front one that makes you look like Lawrence of Arabia. The trouble is, you can’t exactly venture out in an impressively-flung scarf and ‘nowt else.

arab scarf

Gosh, that’s a monster of picture. I thought it was going to be teensy.

[My father, by the way, danced with Joyce Grenfell in India. During the war. She would have been 106 if she hadn’t died in 1979. And drove her back to the railway station afterwards. Thought you’d like to know that. He was so proud.]

But now of course, there’s the money situation. I always wondered why old ladies’ clothes looked as if they had come from charity shops. Now I understand. It’s because they haven’t been able to buy any new ones for many, many years and the clothes have become… limp and vaguely grey. Eventually, presumably, if you carried on wearing them for a century or so, they would actually be all the same colour. Grey is the new… everything. Garments are quite substantial nowadays. They don’t tend to wear out, whatever Marks & Spencer would have you believe. They just gently, sadly, wilt.

What one has to do in this situation, Gels, is aim for the least unacceptable and/or least noticeable look. This will probably involve faded black leggings and the sale-reduced black ‘going out’ dress again. It’s so old it just kind of dangles, miserably from the hanger – no perk left in it at all. Or maybe I could aim for trousers and a cardigan with… something or other, possibly a tee shirt, under the cardigan. With a scarf to disguise or at least distract from its tee-shirt-ness. And footwear – well, it’s probably going to have to be the boots, even though it’s May and the sun has inconveniently started to shine. It’ll be evening. Bound to be a bit chilly and boot-suitable by evening. Or the flat shoes that start to pinch after half an hour but can be taken off in the car. I can drive barefoot. Except there’s all those bits of glass lingering around from when the neighbours’ ridge-tile crashed through the windscreen in a gale. It’s a toss-up between cuts or blisters, really.

No doubt one will cease to worry once in there and safely ensconced in one of those midget, itchy theatre seats. Have to stack the legs sideways to avoid pins and needles… No doubt Joyce Grenfell would have had to do the same.

But then of course, Dad being 6 foot 4, height wouldn’t have been a problem…

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Cold Cabbage and Custard, Cold Kippers and Lard

That was what Nan used to say, if you asked what was for dinner. I used to wonder where she got all her Sayings from – “It’s as black as yer ‘at over Will’s mother’s”, “Up in Annie’s Room Behind the Clock”, “Jelly, Alice?” Grandad had a few of his own. If you asked him how old he was he’d say “As old as my tongue and a little bit older than my teeth.”

The best meals I remember ever were Nan’s Sunday Lunches. Many years later I became a vegetarian, but I can’t pretend not to have relished that great, steaming plateful of chicken or roast beef, gravy, Yorkshire pudding, peas, home-made mint sauce, roast potatoes at the time. Nan did the best roast potatoes in the world. And the best gravy. And the best pastry.

She grew up in the country and went into service at the age of thirteen or fourteen – so she had a range of culinary and household skills, both rural and ‘gentry’. In summer, she would pick cherries from the tree in their garden and bottle them in kilner jars for the winter. They had damson bushes, and raspberries, and she made jam. I remember the steamy, sticky kitchen and that dense caramel-sugar-fruit smell. The jam, of course, we had on bread – cut thin by grandad with a dangerous-looking breadknife. He sharpened it himself, so it had a kind of curve to it, and he cradled the loaf lovingly, slicing towards his chest.

The cherries we had with ice-cream from a home-made cold-safe which had to be raised and lowered on rope pulleys – under the washbasin in the bathroom. The bread and jam we had after Sunday tea. I got sent out to buy a jugful of shrimps from the Shrimp Man, who appeared in the road on Sunday afternoons. And there always seemed to be celery in a jug, and salt to dip the ends in. Tomatoes were straight from the garden and tasted and smelled like tomatoes rather than water and Egyptian tomato-growers’ pee.

On winter evenings Grandad would toast crumpets on the end of a long brass toasting fork – so hot that when you buttered them it melted instantly and ran down through the holes in the crumpets. Sometimes there was toast, made on an ancient electric toaster that lived permanently in the middle of the table. It had a glass flap with a black knob on either side, opening outwards from the top, and a red-hot element on either side. You opened the flaps gingerly, deposited a slice of bread on either side and closed them again, equally gingerly. Until years later I believed toast always sported a lattice of charred black strips.

I actually saw that toaster – well, not that toaster, but that model – in a museum of 40s/50s domestic life, on a visit to Bletchley Park – the country house where Alan Turing and his associates broke all those codes using the Enigma machine during the war. I was more drawn to ‘my’ old toaster than the Enigma machine, which looked a bit lashed-together and steam-punky. At the time, of course, it was the white heat of technology.

Things have gone downhill a bit from those days. I used to pity one of my husband’s bachelor friends, who appeared to live on Mars bars and minced beef, in a basement flat. He told me he wasn’t interested in food at all and ate merely to live. I started off pitying my mother, who used to cook for herself but now cannot, because of the dementia. I once spent part of one of those interminable meetings with Mum’s social workers, her Mental Health Team, her Care Agency Boss etc. – so many people to look after one old person – discussing her failure to eat regular meals. We were discussing random, margarine-smeared Ryvitas; midnight slices sawn off those interminable Tesco current cakes; the several thousand Activia yoghurts in the fridge, which she swears she rotates but doesn’t, any more than she looks both ways when she crosses the road. No – straight out there. Once more into the breach. Basically, she had a cupboard full of cake, cat food and yoghurt.

And then I went home and faced the truth. In spite of living only fifteen minutes’ drive from a farm shop, with a supply of fresh fruit and vegetables second to none, I had a fridge full of Activia yoghurt – not quite so many, perhaps – bread, butter, cheese, Economy Marmalade, Sandwich Spread, Peanut Butter and Marmite; a packet of softening Custard Creams in the cupboard, and a venerable bag of rice I couldn’t be bothered to boil since it would mean washing-up a saucepan – and flinging a succession of determined, fur-shedding cats from the cooker-top whilst using it. And after all that, only the usual baked bean/tinned curry/grated cheese slop to go with it.

Be honest, I said (sternly!) – you live on this now, don’t you? You know how to cook. On the rare occasions you have people staying with you, you actually do cook. You are perfectly capable of following a recipe. You could even now whip up a Sunday lunch (vegetarian version) preparing the vegetables, organising and timing everything so that it all comes together at exactly the right moment – just like Nan did. But what you do is sit in front of the TV set (often still in your nightie and dressing gown) glued to the Migrant Crisis or Brexit on the 24 hour News Channel, or some abstruse science programme about Black Holes, Event Horizons and the True Nature of Reality whilst slurping bowls of instant porridge or sugar-infested granola, with additional spoonfuls of granulated sugar on top, and occasionally – almost every time, in fact – dribbling the sugary milk down your chin/dressing gown.

So why wait? Why not just book yourself into the Old Folks Home tomorrow?