Running in the Family

My great grandfather, Alfred Harris was a story teller. He was very good at it, and while never sinking as low as fabrication (unlike his great granddaughter) , he could take a small nugget of fact and spin it like a politician with an election to win. These stories have become Harris family legends, believed implicitly by several generations and handed down as “hand on heart, it’s true as I live and breathe” truths, never to be questioned.

I’m a story teller. I make no pretensions to literature, I know what I am, a spinner and a weaver of whimsy, one step away from the old men and women who sat by the fire in the cave and told tales to keep the night away and stop the kids making a nuisance of themselves. Over the years I’ve sat in warm kitchens and back parlours and listened as the old people drank tea, smoked endless cigarettes and remembered. I’ve heard all Alfred’s stories told by his children and his grandchildren and I’ve given up on the “pinch of salt” where they are concerned and substituted a fist full instead.

Having said that, I have to give Alfred his due, he may have being stretching the truth until it pinged, but sometimes, there was a grain of truth in what he said, a much abused grain, but it was there. Like how the family once lived in Jerusalem…he was right, we did once live in an area of a small Surrey town which was colloquially and ironically know as “Jerusalem” on account of its undesirable reputation. This part of the tale was, of course, omitted and the impression of sand, heat and holiness allowed to grow and grow. I swear there were times when I could smell the gefilte fish and hear the muezzin call from The Dome of the Rock.

The one about us being descended from Spanish Gypsies makes me very suspicious, but one the other hand, genealogical research as proved a direct ancestor was born at sea in about 1800. There is no more information so far, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out  Spain is involved some where. I have strong doubts about the gypsies, if there is anything in it, it will probably involve a cargo of something very dull and a delayed voyage.

One of the other favourite family stories was how a Harris, back in the good old days, fought Tom Cribb, the famous bare knuckle boxer whose fight with Molineaux is a legend in pugilistic circles and familiar to any reader of Georgette Heyer.  My grandfather, Alfred’s youngest son, was very fond of this one and would tell it the second boxing was mentioned.

Pinch of salt? Please…pass the cruet.

However, on my genealogical travels down the branches of the family tree, I discovered that Alfred’s mother-in-law (deceased long, long before he met her daughter) was the child of a stonemason and came from a little town in Herefordshire called Fownhope.

One day in 2009 The Military Historian and I happened to be on our way to somewhere in Wales the long way round and we chanced to see a sign pointing to Fownhope and on the spur of the moment we decided to go and have a look.

It is a charming village and has two pubs, The New Inn and The Green Man. We decided to have lunch in The Green Man and on the wall is a large notice telling all about a former resident of the town and the pub …wait for this…was a former famous bare knuckle fighter called, not Tom Cribb, but Tom Winter. Not only that, but later research showed my ancestor lived in the old mews behind the pub and had several brothers. What are the chances of a couple of small boys not taking the opportunity to beg for a chance to spar with the great man?

Look Tom Winter up, my long ago ancestors didn’t get to take a swing at Tom Cribb, but he did.

The story of fighting with a famous boxer had obviously been told to Alfred’s wife by her mother and she in turn told it to her husband and great-grandfather couldn’t resist adopting and embellishing the story and making it a Harris legend.

Is there a moral to all this? Well yes, a couple – the first being don’t take family stories as gospel. I hear a lot of them at genealogical fairs, all too often preceded by the words “you’ll be interested in this”, which, believe me is very rarely the case and I can’t help wondering just how much truth there is in them. Are they “Jerusalem” stories or is there some truth underneath?

The other thing, and this is the one I like best, is never let a good tale go untold.  After all, there’s Granny’s Crown Derby Tea Service to be explained, and the day Aunt Grace’s husband came looking for her with the gun, and who exactly was George Clement Smith?

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“The Root of Earth”

Human beings aren’t supposed to be alone. I know there are some individuals who like their own company and don’t need others, but they are few and far between, taken as a whole humans need other humans. Withholding social contact is one of the unkindest things you can do to another person, but it is so very easy to do it without malice, some people are very easy to over look.

Loneliness has been occupying my thoughts for awhile now, worrying me and bothering me. Not for myself, I am surrounded by a crowd of loud self-opinionated extroverts who wouldn’t allow anyone to be alone no matter how hard they begged, and I have my lovely sewing friends as well, but I am concerned for others and as always happens with me, a story began to form in my head., so after a period of inactivity, my oddly wired brain has dragged me away from the sewing machine and back to the key board.

I have begun a new book with the working title “The Root of Earth“…kudos to anyone who can tell me where I have nicked that from. If all goes to the plan which is scribbled on the back of half a dozen receipts and in the posh notebook The Military Historian bought me for the purpose of note taking and which I keep forgetting, it will be a sci-fic story about a colony ship.

I can almost hear the groans of “Oh god, not another one“, but I think I may have found a bit of a twist on this well trodden path. The first one being the ship gets to its destination which I notice rarely happens in most colonisation stories, so often they get lost, have a mutiny or find someone else got there first causing endless problems – none of this will happen here, I promise. The story is more about what happens when you land a lot of people on a place they are now going to have to call home whether they like it or not, because there is no return ticket if you change your mind. This is not the situation best suited to loners, loners won’t survive.

Next…my main cast of characters has no men, not one. I have a woman and four girls and a gender neutral computer. This is a complete change of direction for me,  I have on several occasions been criticised for “not having a positive role model for women” in my work. My argument has always been that surely the fact the books are written by a woman should be enough to show I am positive. There will be make characters of course, but I don’t think many of them will be taking centre stage. I could be wrong, characters have a habit of demanding a part of the action despite a writers best intentions.

Changing the subject, the nameless military tart in my last blog has been named by a contributor as “Gordon Pasha Tart” after General Gordon who was killed at Khartoum. Since then another recipe experiment has gone extremely well and “Younghusband Tart” will be shared here in due course. We are still going down the Victorian soldier route and as this one has mountains of nut brittle, Younghusband got the honour.

I am working on a very decadent idea involving chocolate, hazel nuts and butter and if it works it will be “Charles Napier Tart” because it will be a sinful pleasure.

I will add the recipes soon.

 

 

 

Banana, Banana!

Sometime back in the 1960’s my grandparents went on holiday to the Canary Islands. Back then this was a real adventure, especially for two people born before World War One and for whom flying was still something amazing.

One of the things they brought home was a bottle of banana liqueur. It was one of those things tourist did bring back, it was in a very exciting shaped bottle and the most improbable golden yellow in colour.

My gran never drank and my grandfather was very abstemious, so this bottle was never opened. I suspect they never really had any intention of opening it, it sat in their cocktail cabinet a glowing golden addition to the a status symbol my grandfather was very proud of , it cemented his image as the successful, self made business man he was.

In time the cocktail cabinet and the bottle passed to my mother. She also is/was no drinker and her really hated that cocktail cabinet. Resourceful woman that she is, she found homes for both, the cabinet to a cousin who admired it and the bottle to the Military Historian and me.

Neither of us is adverse to the odd glass of something, but there was something about this jaundice liquid in its bulbous bottle which did not tempt. So we did what any sensible person would do, we put it in the back of a dark cupboard and ignored it. When we moved we thought about chucking it out, but what with one thing and another, it came with us to the new house and went into a new dark cupboard.

Then we moved again and so did the bottle, to yet another cupboard. Then I had a new kitchen and it spent a while in the cellar. Then we needed to clear the cellar, so it found itself in one of the new kitchen cabinets…luxury, it was only semi-dark in there.

Then comes last night. I’ve made pots and pots of apple butter from the bags and bags of windfalls which keep appearing. It is delicious and it needs a home, so we decide to make some space in the kitchen. There in all its yellowness is the now sixty year old bottle of banana liqueur. The time has come, its day is done, the bottle is quirky, so we might keep it, but the contents is going down the sink. Let’s face it, by now it will be yucky beyond belief.

I’m about to pour when the Military Historian says “dare you to try it”. Well, I’ve not been married to the British Army for more years than I care to remember for nothing! A challenge is a challenge and not something to be turned down. So I pour some into a spoon and try it.

Then I had another spoonful to make sure my taste buds hadn’t been deceived. It is DELICIOUS! Sweet, mellow and tasting of banana, but not in a bad artificial way, but the way a perfectly ripe organic banana does. It is obviously not something for dwarfish quaffing, but it is very drinkable. I have no idea if it always tasted like this or whether time has been the agent, maybe by the end of the bottle I will have worked it out.

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Military Tarts

Tart 1

Prince George, 2nd Duke of Cambridge (1819-1904), Commander in Chief British Army 1856 to 1895.

He is the person my first tart is named for. All those of you expecting ladies of a certain ancient profession waiting for business on street corners in garrison towns…shame on you.

Back to tarts.

When I was a little girl this was standard picnic fare, but I haven’t eaten or made it in years, but an article on the above gentleman in “Soldiers of the Queen” ( Journal of the Victorian Military Society  http://www.victorianmilitarysociety.org.uk/ ), brought it back to me.

There is no written recipe, it is probably one of those many dishes handed down to us by my Great Granny Pittock. I’ve no idea where she got them from, but I suspect Eliza Acton’s “Modern Cookery for Private Families”. There was a fashion in Victorian times for naming dishes and treats after the famous names of the time. One day, when I’m feeling brave and in need of more calories than are good for me, I will attempt Duke of Connaught Pudding.

Back to Duke of Cambridge Tart. This is a very simple recipe and doesn’t sound promising, but it is very good and delicious.

Line a tart/flan tin with short crust pastry.

Take 130 grams of self raising flour, 130 grams of castor sugar, 130 grams of cooking spread and two large eggs and beat them together. This is the quick easy all in one method, but you can do it the old fashioned way if you don’t have an mixer.

To this add about 130 grams of currants (approx. I tend to add them until I think it looks right) and the grated zest of one large (or two small) lemons.

Put the sponge mix into the pastry case and bake at 180 C for about 30 mins or until the cake part is well risen and a toothpick comes out clean.

Juice your zested lemon and using 150 grams of icing sugar and use it to make a thin glace icing. When the tart is cooled, but still just a little warm pour the lemon icing over the top and leave to set.

Eat! With or without custard or cream, it is delicious just on its own with a cup of tea.

Tart 2.

Emboldened by the successful remembrance of how to make the above, I wondered about variations.

I did just the same as before, but this time I added 140 grams of sultanas, 150 grams of chopped walnuts and the grated zest of an orange, keeping back half a teaspoonful for the icing.

I baked it just the sane way and made the icing the same only just orange juice and the reserved zest (orange juice doesn’t have the same amount of flavour as lemon).

I have to say, it was a bit of a triumph, it must have been because the military historian and number one son seemed to have no trouble at all in making it disappear.

What I need now is a name for it. I want something military and Victorian, but I don’t want any of the obvious names. So, I am open to suggestions. Please message me your ideas and the reasons why.

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Goodbye Dolly Gray

Many conflicts have a song or a tune which has come to symbolise it, WW1 and “Tipperary” comes to mind, as does “Brighton Camp” for the Napoleonic Wars and for the Boer War the popular song was “Goodbye Dolly Gray”.

These days two great wars have separated us from conflict in South Africa which dominated the years bridging the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it was a hugely influential time. It was the first time The Empire was really challenged and it was the first “popular” war, when men flooded to the colours in a rush of patriotism.

The short comings of the army which were shown up by the tenacity and courage of the Boers led to the reforms which would produce the BEF which went to France in 1914.

Why am I telling you all this?

Because a while ago we were approached by a lady who was the owner of a diary, or at least part of a previously unpublished diary from the Boer War and she wondered if we as representatives of The Victorian Military Society would be interested in it. It covered a year of his service in South Africa during 1900.

What she gave us was a day by day account of an ordinary soldier on campaign and I have had the privilege of being one of the transcribers and it has been a riveting and fascinating insight into the life of an ordinary man who lived in extraordinary times. Someone once said that war is long periods of tedium punctuated by short moments of terror, Charlie (author of the diary), was a very lucky man, because all he got for the duration of the diary was the tedium.

So why was this so interesting?

What has made transcribing this document so enthralling?

And why is The VMS going to be publishing it?

Because while there are endless accounts of battles and officers careers, there are very few about the day to day life of a ranker at this time. Charlie tells us what they ate and what they thought of it. Where they slept and what they did to entertain themselves. He also tells us what he thought of the great events which were taking place near him or which he got news about. Views which are often very modern in their outlook.

We know a bit about Charlie Holmes, gleaned from odd bits and pieces he mentions. He was a reservist, called back to the colours and had served in the Far East. We know where he was born and when, but what we don’t know for certain is if his surnames was Holmes. As if often the case when searching military records, the one you want is missing.

“The Boer War Diary of Charlie Holmes” will be out soon.

The picture is an Imperial Yeoman c.1900 courtesy of “Scarlet Gunner”.

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