“THE DAY WAR BROKE OUT” September 3rd.

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On this day 73 years ago, rising nine years old, I was standing in the gloomy parlour of a somewhat bleak farmhouse in Devon, with my sixteen year old sister and our mother watching the farmer tune in his radio, a large brown plywood cased affair, powered by an “Accumulator”. It was coming up to one o’clock and the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain was going to address the nation. His grave, wobbly voice told us we were at war with Germany.

We were evacuees and had arrived at the farm four days before. However, being middle-class – my father worked for the Inland Revenue and made the princely sum of £900 a year, which enabled him to privately educate me, my sister and my brother – there was no government scheme for getting us away from where we lived in the Thames Estuary. Instead he had contacted distant relatives, farming folk from whence his family had come, in North Devon. On being assured that we could be accommodated, he arranged for the three of us to travel by hired car. Austin 16 Berkeley 1936

The car was a box square Austin 16 – a large vehicle with ample space in front of the rear seats, in which the driver had placed at least 20 full one-gallon cans of Shell petrol, covered with blankets, which nevertheless reeked. We started in the early morning, and I only remember two things of the journey. The first was crossing Salisbury Plain and seeing Stonehenge. The second was arrival in the dark at the farm at Loxhore, a very remote place indeed.

1939 - September, LoxhoreThe farmhouse was ramshackle and probably about 90 or 100 years old, maybe with earlier bits as well. Accustomed as we were to running water, hot water from a gas “Geyser” over the bath, electricity, daily deliveries of milk and newspapers and the services of a maid or home help, this was a new experience for us. No electricity, running water, drainage or heating. There were stairs that creaked and squeaked at every foot-fall and rooms at different levels, up to which, at night in pitch black we climbed uncertainly aided only by a small sputtering paraffin lamp. Washing was undertaken with bowls and jugs, usually with cold water from the pump in the yard, and the lavatory was a two-holer outside the kitchen where one’s detritus dropped on to soil below, which some unfortunate farm labourer removed several times a week, replacing with fresh soil. Light was by paraffin lamp and cooking was on a coal-fired range.

The farm itself was of about 100 acres of mixed land and activity. Fields of a few acres each grew various vegetables, wheat, barley and corn on a rotation basis, with one year in four or five lying fallow, when the 30 or 40 cows were grazed upon it, so there was always green grass for them. The weather was good and it was harvest time. It was before the combined harvester – so there was a tractor-pulled scything machine cutting the corn, followed by workers and volunteers, including me and my sister, gathering up the loose shoots and forming them into bundles called ‘stoops’ which when then stood up to dry out. Later the threshing machine, driven by steam engine would come and separate grain from stalk.

Shortly after we had settled in, another family arrived; my school friend Michael who had proposed the idea to his parents following my telling him of our plans, his older brother of 14 and their mother.

For a few days at least, it was the holiday I had never had. With Michael and his brother I explored the farm, the fields and the surrounding area. We played games, read books and wrote letters to our fathers. On one side of the farmyard there was a large barn with a hay loft, reached by a step-ladder. The three of us used to congregate in there and wile away an hour or two, talking of the war, our parents, school and farm life. There was the rotund, red-faced local woman who ran the farmyard, feeding the chickens which ran everywhere, gathering the eggs and wringing necks when birds were wanted for the pot. Wringing a chicken’s neck seemed an easy operation and I volunteered to do it. The woman – a grubbily dressed, head-scarved person – picked up a bird and handed it to me. I broke its neck all right, but didn’t wring the life out of the poor creature. It fluttered mightily and I dropped it, whereupon it ran around the yard with its head flapping down almost to the ground. The woman made a scornful comment to me, then with surprising agility caught the bird and administered the coup-de-grace.

We watched the butter being churned and the cows being milked, where we assisted with varying degrees of competence. Mine was nil. But I was happy. Mother hated the smells of the farm. I loved them.

I was aware my mother didn’t like Michael’s mother, but not of her basic discontent. My sixteen year old sister, trying without much help to come to terms with emerging womanhood, bore the brunt of her frustrations and general ennui. She wrote of the days: None of us was happy. Mother was beside herself with dislike of everything and everyone.

Memory tells me she was mistaken in my case – I was enjoying myself. Everything was so new and different, with a sense of freedom our narrow middle-class life never had. Our hosts, distant cousins of my father, were simple, dour, spare people, but good hearted. The man showed us the farm and the running of it. Then there were farm labourers, poor, honest, kindly folk who would share their lunch bread. Never before had we been in such close contact with ‘the working class’ and, with the exception of contacts at school with a few London evacuee children later in the war, it didn’t happen to me again until I was called to do my National Service in 1949. There was an elderly distant cousin with a cottage and smallholding just down the hill from the farm, who on seeing me for the first time said in his soft broad Devon accent: “Old Jim Skinner (my grandfather) will never be dead as long as this lad’s alive,” and made a great fuss of me. He gave us goat’s milk and cheese, about which we townies were less than enthusiastic, and told us about the vegetables and fruit in his smallholding. I loved this rural life and as soon as I saw my father again I told him I wanted to be a farmer. It was clear he had accountancy in mind for me.

The farmhouse kitchen was large, with a flagstone floor, on which resided assorted oddments of quite large furniture, with a big old dark brown painted Victorian pine table in the centre. It was where we ate most of our meals and was the heart of life in the farm. There was always good bread and plum jam, fresh butter and pots of cream. Cooked meals were usually meat and vegetable stews, or chicken.

1939 September 2nd. Derek commissioned at HullavingtonNow, though as of September 3rd. Britain and France were at war with Germany. On the previous day at RAF Hullavington Wiltshire my 19 year old brother had received his Commission as an RAF Pilot Officer (Photo, left, taken on that day) . He would go on to pilot a Hampden bomber 44 times over Germany, move to the Middle East and eventually lose his life in a bombing mission to Derna, Libya in December 1941.

For a nine year old revelling in the farm life, our abrupt leaving was something of a shock. I remember nothing of our departure except sitting in a railway carriage with dimmed lights, progressing slowly eastwards towards London.

My sister recalls the surprise announcement of our mother that we were leaving and going back to Westcliff-on-Sea: I asked, “When?” “Tomorrow. We’ll get the weekly bus.”

“That night we feverishly packed our bags and, early the next morning, having borrowed some money from the farmer and his wife for the train tickets, said our goodbyes and thank-yous for the sandwiches of ham and cheese they had provided for the journey, but no one was shedding a tear at our departure. We set off to walk across the fields to the road where we would pick up the bus to take us to Barnstaple. We each carried our own suitcases, young Pat trudging along manfully trying to keep up with us. His suitcase was nearly as big as he was. He was very good, and very brave, I thought”.

Back in “the War Zone”, my father then made one of several brilliant decisions. He moved us to Brighton, a few months short of the Fall of France and the Invasion Scare, and then to North London, in time for the start of the Blitz. There are memories galore, but none compares with those short weeks spent as a freelance evacuee.

© Patrick Skinner, 2012

“WHERE THE FLYING FISHES PLAY”

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Patrick’s BLOG – week ending 30th July 2016

These days the world’s sea foods and fishes travel the globe in frozen or chilled style every day of the year. It used to be quite rare to fly the stuff about. Yonks ago, 1957 to be exact, I worked on a dreadful British film about two young lovers in the cold, cold lobster coast of Novia Scotia. It was called “High Tide at Noon” and some bright spark conceived the idea of having the world premiere at half past ten in the morning at the Odeon Leicester Square, with a seafood and booze reception afterwards, featuring, you guessed it, fresh lobsters flown in from Novia Scotia. The team, of which I was a member, duly arranged this, and one of our number was sent to Heathrow Airport early in the morning to collect a large wicker basket containing seaweed and several dozen live lobsters and bring them to the “Hungaria” restaurant in London’s Lower Regent Street, which happened to be in a basement. He arrived on time and confidently took his first step down the stairs. He tripped and bowled down 30 more, legs, arms, lobsters and seaweed akimbo, arriving rather messily at the bottom. Lobsters started crawling across his person.

The chef took one look at the collected crustaceans and pronounced them “too small” for grilling. “Soup!”, he said, “I will use my own for your party”. He did, and it was a success, which is more than I can say for the film.

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Several days a week, “food freighter” aircraft land at Larnaca. They come from Norway, Scotland, France, Russia, Italy and other countries. Their cargo is chilled or frozen. Fresh and smoked salmon, oysters, sturgeon (and its eggs = caviar), Barbary duck, geese, partridge, pheasant, prime beef, young lamb…. Oh, and lots, lots more. Because here in Cyprus you can have anything you want to eat or drink. All you need to live as high off the hog as anywhere else in the world is money. And so, this little island is not much different from Coasts and Costas the world over. But thank heavens there are still places around the coast, in the hills and woodlands where you can find a quiet spot, take a picnic and a book and enjoy a quiet hour or two.

This brief reflection is a piece in a train of thought that started with, would you believe, the phrase “Consider the Oyster” , the title of this book by one of my favourite writers who considers food among other aspects of life and love.

clip_image003In this quite modest tome, M.F.K. tells of oysters found in stews, in soups, roasted, baked, fried, prepared a la Rockefeller or au naturel – and of the pearls sometimes found therein. Her own initiation into the "strange cold succulence" of raw oysters as a young woman took place in Marseille and Dijon, and goes on to discuss the mollusc’s well publicised aphrodisiac properties and its equally notorious powers of stomach upset. As one review of the books says: “Plumbing the ‘dreadful but exciting’ life of the oyster, Fisher invites readers to share in the comforts and delights that this delicate edible evokes, and enchants us along the way with her characteristically wise and witty prose."

My own experience of oysters is more limited. As a young film publicist who had something to do with advertising budgets, I and a colleague were once taken to lunch by two formidable middle-aged magazine editors who wanted some film advertisements in their papers. The venue was the sadly now-gone “Au Jardin des Gourmets” in London’s Soho. Our hosts ordered a dozen oysters, whilst we took paté, or some-such. One of the rather up-market ladies then tried to persuade us to sample an oyster. My (senior) colleague made such a fuss at being almost force-fed with one, that a similar attempt upon me was abandoned.

Some years later I lunched with an American friend at the famous “Crawdaddy” seafood restaurant on Grand Central station, New York, and felt obliged to eat some oysters – seeing several items involving cooked oysters, I opted for soup which was delicious. (See “Footnote”) On a other occasion I enjoyed fried oysters, but I have never been able to approach one in its raw state.

Mankind goes back quite a way with oysters. Middens (heaps of waste matter) testify to the prehistoric importance of oysters as food, with some old heaps in New South Wales, Australia dated at ten thousand years. They have been cultivated in Japan for at least 4000 years. The English seaside is noted for oyster farming from beds on the Kentish Flats that have been used since Roman times. The borough of Colchester holds an annual Oyster Feast each October, at which "Colchester Natives" (the native oyster, Ostrea edulis) are consumed.

The French seaside resort of Cancale in Brittany is noted for its oysters, whose beds also date from Roman times. Sergius Orata of the Roman Republic is considered the first major merchant and cultivator of oysters. Using his considerable knowledge of hydraulics, he built a sophisticated cultivation system, including channels and locks, to control the tides. He was so famous for this, the Romans used to say he could breed oysters on the roof of his house.

In the early 19th century, oysters were cheap and mainly eaten by the working class. Throughout the 19th century, oyster beds in New York Harbour became the largest source of oysters worldwide. On any day in the late 19th century, six million oysters could be found on barges tied up along the city’s waterfront. They were naturally quite popular in New York City, and helped initiate the city’s restaurant trade.  New York’s oystermen became skilled cultivators of their beds, which provided employment for hundreds of workers and nutritious food for thousands. Eventually, rising demand exhausted many of the beds. To increase production, they introduced foreign species, which brought disease; effluent and increasing sedimentation from erosion destroyed most of the beds by the early 20th century. Oysters’ popularity has put ever-increasing demands on wild oyster stocks. This scarcity increased prices, converting them from their original role as popular food to their current position as a costly item.

The British native variety, Ostrea edulis, requires five years to mature and is protected by an Act of Parliament during the May to August spawning season. The current market is dominated by the larger Pacific oyster and rock oyster varieties which are farmed year round.

If you boast that "The world’s my oyster" nowadays, you’re claiming that the world’s riches are yours to leisurely pluck from the shell. In William Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor”, written in 1602, the braggart ensign Pistol, however, utters the phrase as a sort of threat — of the aggressively bombastic kind he’s known for. Sir John Falstaff, himself a braggart almost the equal of Pistol, refuses to lend him a penny; Pistol promises to use his sword, if not on Falstaff, then on other helpless victims, to pry open their purses. Pistol’s thievish intentions have largely been forgotten, and "The world’s my oyster" has become merely a conceited proclamation of opportunity.

FOOTNOTE: ““And a Dozen of the Finest”

clip_image005This is how a plate of the best oysters comes to you at Crawdaddy. In the restaurant’s own words: “Grand Central Oyster Bar is the ultimate experience for any seafood lover. From the market to your plate, we’ve spent nearly a hundred years perfecting our seafood dishes. Every morning, the chef goes to the New Fulton Fish Market to personally pick the day’s freshest seafood. Everything from lobster to different kinds of fish is hand-picked for the best flavor and freshness. We’re most famous for our oysters though, with over 30 different varieties on any given day.”

Have a good week!

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At Last! Cyprus Wine on the Web

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Many years have elapsed before Cyprus wines have become properly represented on the Internet. It doesn’t seem long – a few months, perhaps – since I searched the Web and there was not a definitive source of information about the vines, wines and winemakers of Cyprus. Looking recently I found one. It is called Cyprus […]

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Beef Briefs from Further East

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BUKRA FI MISH MISH

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Memories flooded back as I turned the pages of this food and family orientated book. It is many years since I visited Damascus, and indicative of this is that back then, in the 1960s, I, an Englishman, drove by myself to and through the city several times on return trips from Beirut to Amman, in […]

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