Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category

I have only visited a convent once ; it was in the middle-north of England where the friend of a friend was serving.  I was fairly young at the time and knew next to nothing of religious life, so I had only a jumble of ideas of what to expect.  My first surprise was that they let me into the convent at all ; I had half expected that I would be required to wait outside while my companion went in to chat with her old school-friend.  But, in fact, there is a homely and comfortable reception area made for the purpose of entertaining all kinds of visitors ; and we were both made very welcome.

I began to wonder what on earth I could contribute to this meeting of old friends.  Are nuns allowed to speak to men?  Or even to listen to them?  I prepared to make my own vow of silence for the duration but I needn’t have bothered, for the sisters were only too eager to chat ; not, I hasten to add, out of a wish to discover news of the wicked world beyond their walls, but out of simple friendliness mixed (I think) with a charming politeness.  They understood my dilemma.

The talk was of many things, but mainly about news of the girls’ mutual acquaintances ; but this broadened by degrees until even I thought of something to say.  The nuns spoke mainly about their work, which reminded me that even they had to earn their living.  All this was unexceptional.  And there was absolutely no talk of religion or vocations or the good life.

Perhaps it was that delightful visit of forty years ago that silently prompted me to buy a DVD which explored further the life of the religious.  It concerns the lives of the sister at the Carmelite Monastery of the Holy Trinity in Notting Hill ; in the heart of London. It is called No Greater Love, which reminds us of Jesus’ words that there can be no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend.  And that is what these girls do ; they devote every minute of their lives to the betterment of the world and its people – their friends.

Of course, a worldly cynic might say that there is no great sacrifice in retreating from the world in order to work and pray.  Some might even say that it is abandoning the harsh world so as to lead a comfortable life ; and is it possible to deny that some, at least, have done that?

But when you consider more closely the training that the sisters have been through, it is not easy to be so dismissive ; for their transition to religious life, and then their everyday lives, are far from easy by our standards.  I received an insight into this when I watched another film, The Nun’s Story,  in which we meet Audrey Hepburn and Peter Finch in leading roles.  This film is based on a true story and, as far as I can tell, is pretty much true to form.

It concerns a Belgian girl who comes from a prosperous family and whose father is a leading medical doctor.  We follow her from her decision to decline a comfortable life, through her pains at telling her family of her decision, on to her fairly terrifying training, and further to her years in Africa as a nurse.  We also see her assigned (to her disappointment) to escort a sick patient back to Belgium by sea ; she has no choice because she is the only nurse who has the necessary medical knowledge.

To her immense disappointment, she was to have no return to Africa and the patients she loved.  Being a nun, it seems, is the surest way of learning to cope with personal anguish ; of learning to find happiness through losing one’s self and one’s desires – in the service of a greater good.

The end of the story comes not in the safety of the convent.  And it comes as a surprise.


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A Life

On the third of February 1905 the world became a better, warmer place ; for on that day Andrée Marthe Virot was born.

She came into this world by way of a religious and deeply patriotic French family and, by the time of her mid-thirties, ran her own beauty salon in Brest.  She might have prospered here in peace. But here she was when the War came to France and here she stayed until she was arrested and taken, first to Paris, then to Ravensbruck and then to Buchenwald.  In each place she was humiliated, she was tortured, she was left with injuries that pained her all the days of her long life.  And, though having been betrayed herself, she betrayed no-one.  Andree was marked for death several times and yet, by her own courage and by the bravery of others and by chance (if chance it was) she was spared.

And all this trouble she brought upon herself.  Nobody obliged her to join the Resistance.  Indeed, she began her life-work before the Resistance existed as such.  Nobody compelled her to smuggle a hundred Allied airmen to safety through the enemy patrols and road-checks.  Nobody obliged her to risk her life guiding British aircraft to lonely improvised landing strips.  And at any time she was escorting those Allied airmen to the British submarines and boats that were to take them back to their homes, she might have escaped the nightmare herself.  But she did not.

Andrée was one of those rare people who do not merely love their country, but are prepared to lay down their lives for it quite willingly. For to love is easy enough, while to die for the love of something greater than oneself is heroic.  “A greater love hath no man than this ; that he lay down his life for a friend.”  Yes, she loved her country ; and any who loved even in a small degree likewise was her friend.

After her release from Buchenwald, Andrée returned to Paris where she was welcomed by crowds singing the Marseillaise, and fulfilled a promise made in 1944 to make a pilgrimage to the Sacré Coeur church in Montmartre to thank God for her deliverance.

And on the fifth of February 2010, a week ago, the world became a cooler place, but cooler only by a little ; for she left behind an afterglow that will never fade, a warm memory that will never perish.  May this God-loving and God-fearing lady rest in peace for evermore.

You can read more here.


Andrée Peel (Virot)

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I grew up on the chalk downs of Kent. Not that you could see a lot of chalk at first glance ; for we only notice these things after we have had some enlightenment in the matter, and then know what to look for.  But, as Chesterton was to exclaim of our next-door neighbouring county, “What is Sussex but a piece of chalk?”  So Kent also is a piece of chalk ; but it is pocketed all over with hollows of clay ; and it has the huge Weald, broad and long, down its middle, which is more highly fertile and is traditionally the source of its wealth.  Weald? – wealth? – surely there has to be a connection.

But the connection I was interested in, one day long ago, was between what Mr Burrows, our all-knowing teacher, had told us about chalk and flint.  “They always go together,” he had said.  “And they are very ancient, too.  Not the most ancient of things, but old enough to get us wondering…”

So wonder I did, as I wandered through the beech-wood towards the place we knew as The Den.  Here the chalk was right on the surface ; such soil as there was would support only scrubby grasses and hardy flowers such as the poppies and campions – and the sweet broom, of course ; and such trees as had ventured here clung on to life as poor stunted things whose roots must have bled and ached as they struggled, year by year, to reach a little deeper and a little wider in search of the precious food that would keep their leaves and flowers alive, and provide homes for the linnets.

With so many distractions, it was a surpise that I did find my piece of flint – two pieces, in fact.  I needed two pieces because my mission was not going to be an easy one.  For Mr B had informed us that the real treasure of a flint was not to be seen on the outside, but on the inside.  “The bare nodule of flint appears to be a rather boring thing,” he had said, “But the treasure is buried.”

So, I had to break the nodule in order to find the jewel ; that’s why I needed two pieces ; one as the Mine, and the other as the tool to broach it. But cracking a flint is not nearly so easy as cracking a nut ; but I eventually succeeded.  And there, before my very eyes, was the glittering treasure of jewels that the all-wise Mr B had spoken of.  To be sure, the diamonds (as I thought of them) were not of any great size.  But what matter?  The point was that they were there ; it was surely a miracle that they were there at all. They had lain there for millions of years – as if they were just waiting for me to find them.

I don’t recall now whether it was at the moment of discovery that another realization was created in my mind, or whether it came later.  But the enlightenment was this : that at the instant of the breaking of the stone, the light of the sun entered that dark cavity for the very first time.  If ‘diamonds’ could see, they must have been dazzled in their awakening.  Also there was that very Kentish air that flooded in at the moment of the breach ; if ‘diamonds’ could breathe, they must have had their breath taken away by it.  In an instant, the life of the sparkling crystals was changed for ever.  No more dwelling in the darkness, no more silence ; no more would they live in their arid cave.  For, following a very rude awakening, they had been welcomed into the world of light and shade, of form and substance.  It was as if they had now acquired the real gladness of mere existence ; it was as if they had just been born.

But, of course, it was not really the ‘diamonds’ that had been awakened, surprised and gladdened.  It was me.

THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.


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What is a one-year-old grandchild but an elaborate little machine for turning damson porridge into smiles?  I suspect this to be true, because once or twice I have enjoyed a Royal Visit from the young lady and gentleman in question.  I have the damson stains on my shirt ; I have the memory of the little sticky kisses… I know it to be true.

But it was not always like this.  For when a child’s age is to be reckoned in mere weeks, instead of months, we are dealing with a very different creature.  The newborn child is so deficient of the experience of living in the world that it really is like a little machine ; a machine that is governed entirely by selfish desires ; a machine that that is almost entirely emotional ; indeed, a machine that displays only four states of existence :  unconsciousness : indifference : bliss : and rage.  It is unconscious when asleep ; it is indifferent when awake but not aware of any discomfort ; in bliss when recently fed and comforted ; and in a rage when its discomfort is ignored.

It is the rage that we tend to notice, for it becomes extreme in a remarkably short time.  The hungry infant is a terror to behold, with its red-to-purple face, its bawling mouth, its nearly-closed hard eyes, its clenching fists.  As the very observant Freud remarked, if an adult were to behave in this way then, unless you could outrun it, you would have no choice but to shoot it.  For otherwise it would certainly kill you. Small wonder that Freud shocked our Victorian forebears, with their idealized notions of childhood.

And yet, Freud did no more than remind us of an ancient truth ; that man is born steeped in sin.  He didn’t put it quite like that, of course, but  that is what he meant.  We are selfish, pleasure-seeking and aggressive in our very natures.  And it is that selfishness, that pleasure-seeking, and that aggressiveness which good parenting seeks to control and sublimate to more noble ends.

But, when you’re just a little Granddaughter or Grandson, who can’t even say, “I’m twelve munce old,”  ( let alone spell it) you don’t know any of this.  But you are very, very  busy putting your infantilism behind you – and fast learning how to be a lil machine for turning porridge into smiles.

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High as a kite

I was born in 1942. The longest part of my formative years was spent on a (then) recently disused Army camp ; an anti-aircraft battery to be exact. Barely more than one-hundred yards from the house in which I lived there were the concrete emplacements from which real guns had fired real ammunition at the real aircraft that really were trying to kill and maim real people ; people that I knew. It was an exciting place for a lad to be.

There was lots of open space. On good days, an old man might be seen shuffling his way from a wooden hut, just like ours, across a rough ‘meadow’. he was labouring with a burden under his arm ; but you couldn’t yet see what his burden was. He assembled a camp stool. Then he fiddled with his ’something’ ; and, before long you would see a kite taking to the fresh breeze, fitfully but surely. yes, it was a kite. And in a matter of minutes it would be flying and soaring above the green of the grass. Under expert control.

Mr Adams – yes, that is his real name, and I give it because he deserves to be remembered – had been a prisoner of the Japanese. And flying a kite was the only skill of hand that he could recall.

If you could dare to come close to him, you would be impressed by his appearance. His face was a deep brown, as were his eyes. Hair jet black. He had high cheek-bones ; his lips were thin ; his teeth were surprisingly even. He spoke a strange language, made mostly of mumbled syllables and gutterals, with much gesticulation. You might make out what he was saying – if you listened carefully and followed his eyes and hands. You might imagine that he had been born a cretin.  That’s what a PoW camp can do to a man.   But he sure was an expert at flying a kite. And you would have realized that he was friendly, too, once you had overcome your fear.

Mr Adams was a married man. His wife was blonde and seemed to be about a hundred years younger than he. She was pretty ; good-looking, even, as a real man might have judged. She was, I suppose, in her mid-twenties. A lad would be surprised to reckon that Mr Adams himself could have been not more that thirty. Thirty! And he was a living wreck. And she a beauty.

I would watch as ‘the missus’ would bring him a cup of tea and a sandwich on those kite-flying days. And maybe a coat, too, if the wind got fresh. She was dependable. Always there for her man – whose only surviving skill was flying a kite.

I was invited into their home more than once. He was mostly silent, paying as much attention to the fire-coals as he would pay to his swooping kite ; in what seemed to be a permanent contemplation ; a contemplation of what? an adult might ask. But I was not an adult. ‘The missus’, that young beauty, was in constant attendance ; watchful for every sign of need in the hundred-year-old man of maybe thirty.

One day I must tell you about Fred, an RAF man with a battered face, who might well have played a part in seeing that Mr Adams was able to be a kite-pilot ; who might have been a deciding factor in conferring (imposing?) the holy destiny on the lovely, loving, devoted Mrs Adams. They all and each deserve our consideration.

I often asked myself why that sweet lady stayed with her husband. She needn’t have. Why did she care so much for that old, broken man who had once been her dashing groom, full of vitality? Why did she spend her precious days of youth escorting him out to the fields, bringing him tea, bringing him his coat in the freshening breezes? Why did she spend her days sitting with him beside the winter’s fire ; watching and waiting for his hundred-and-one special needs? Knowing that she would never have children. Why? Well, if you need to ask a question like that …

Jamie MacNab

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A man of his times

When I was young, there was no WW1 and WW2 ; we had the First War and Hitler’s War instead.  Jack Feekings lived and served through them both.  Chance, if chance it was, caused our paths to cross in 1955, the year when I found myself removed from living in a condemned wooden hut on the de-commissioned Army camp in Rainham, and residing in a posh new council house in Gillingham, some two miles away as the crow flies.  Jack found himself living in a posh new old-people’s flat next door ; he had come from about two miles in the other direction, his mean terraced house alongside the gas works having been declared unfit for human habitation.

I guess that Jack had not been long retired when he came to his flat, and not long widowed either.  All his long working life he had been employed in the Gas Works, first as a stoker and then, when his health gave out, as a labourer operating the giant hoppers that filled the lorries with coke to be sold on to the merchants, and with slag to be dumped somewhere or used as hoggin.

I first found Uncle Jack (as he would have me call him) on one of his shopping trips.  The round journey to the shopping centre was five-hundred yards or so, but Jack’s breath would begin to give out well before he had shuffled home.  He would pause every fifty yards or so and rest on one of the low brick boundary walls that fronted the houses.  It was natural to offer to carry his ancient grocery bag made of cheap patch-worked imitation leather.  It was natural also to carry it to his door, up an external  flight of dreary concrete steps.  For a man of his times it was natural for him to offer a ‘cuppa tea’ in reward, and a golden thrupence sometimes, too.

His flat was tiny and sparsely furnished ; a small table against the wall ; two wooden chairs ; a coal scuttle, fire irons and hearth mat ; and, surprise, a dozen geranium pots that cluttered both window sills and seemed to give out a light of their own.  The smell of distemper on the walls still hung in the air.  On the table was a little plastic wireless set, and next to that a couple of photo frames.  In  one of the frames was an elderly woman – his late wife?  In the other was a soldier – stiff and erect in an immaculate sergeant’s uniform and sporting a broad Empire moustache not unlike that of Kitchener himself.  Could this possibly be Jack?

“I wa’n’t in the reg’lar army.  Reserve  occ’pation.  Gas Works all me life.  I was in the Territorials.”   He seemed to straighten a little as if getting ready for a photo.  Or maybe a parade.

We sat at opposite sides of the table, backs to the wall, and sipped our cuppas – his had a spoonful of Epsom salts in, and I was to find out why later.  Once he had got his breath back, his voice was strong for a bit and he sat more upright.  He placed a few coals on the subdued fire.  After that began his first inquisition of me ; the first of many.

Over the next four or five years we were to speak of many things.  You could say anything you liked to Jack.  He always understood.  “Scrumpin’?  Oh-hooo, I can tell yer a thing or two!”  And he was no stranger to even more daring exploits, “Knock out Ginger?  I know that one!  Oh-hooo, what capers we used to ‘ave!”  In Jack’s world, boys would be boys but, mind you, it was all wrong, really.  “You’ll come to see the error of your ways.  See if you don’t!” he cautioned.

It was a wonderful thing to watch Jack as he shed the years over a ‘cuppa tea’ – or even over a small glass of Guinness.  In truth, he was a broken man who followed the footsteps of many a stoker before him.  He had a double hernia and wore a huge steel truss “to keep me guts in”.  He popped a nitro-glycerine tablet every so often “to keep me ticker workin”.  But once he had settled down of an evening, to listen to the wireless or to have a talk, his mind came alive and his face flushed.

It was once while he was in such a mellow mood that he suddenly stopped what he had been nattering about and said suddenly, “D’yer play cards?”  His eyes betrayed a hope and a wish that must have long been burning within.  “Well,” I said, “I can play whist and rummy.  And I know patience, too.”

“That’ll do then,” he said.  “I don’t s’pose you know crib?  Euchre?  No?  Well, we’ll get round to them all in good time.”  He directed me to get the cards and the cribbage board from the little sideboard.  And so began the expansion of my young mind to include the customs and practices of the pubs and clubs of Lower Gillingham, where the stokers, labourers, sailors and ne-er-do-wells congregate of a Friday night.  Not that Jack was typical of them ; he was a Sergeant, remember, and a man of some standing ; a man of substance and even a kind of leader.  It was he who kept order of a Friday night – and many a tale he had to tell of that.

The memories will always out with old people.  In the case of the old, the lonely and the infirm, it’s often all they have.  To begin with, he spoke only of everyday things ; but, as our friendship grew, he drew ever nearer to matters of more substance.  He would then talk of his late wife, and his voice would catch on something ; a shy glance confirmed that his eyes were overflowing.  Or he would mention the name of an old colleague and the same would happen.  One of his sons had been wayward.

Even to my young mind, barely teen-aged, it became apparent that Jack was not ‘just a clapped-out pensioner’ ; here was a person.  A big thing is a person.  Here was a man who had more to tell than boyish tales for a youngster ; more to him than hilarious larks in the Territorials.  Even now there was more to this shambling, shuffling, scruffy old-timer.  Here was a man of rich and ripe experience, full of years and wisdom.  Here was a man touched by tragedy and by wrongs done as well as rights.  A man of regrets and sorrows.  A man who knows that, however great the will, it is too late to say sorry, too late to amend the follies and hurts committed carelessly in the past.  Here was a man of that kind of wisdom that needed no book-learning.  He would often terminate such an episode with a sigh and , “Man proposes and God disposes,”  and he was not ashamed of his tears.  His life had been his to live for good or ill ; but his fate was not his to decide, and he found hope in confession.

Why are the Uncle Jacks of this world important?  Well, in a sense, they are not ; they are merely atoms in the substance of humanity ; lone, unknown faces in that endless pageant we call Life or History.  But they are also the ploughmen in Gray’s churchyard ;  they are the unknown soldiers, unknown benefactors, unknown doers of ten-thousand kindnesses. They are the great ones who never became great.  And some might say, “By all that is good, they were spared the curse of fame.”

And yet, Jack is famous.  He is famous to me and doubtless to other folk likewise unknown.  I can only relate my part and his – and even then, only as far as I can tell.

Jack Feekings

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Life’s twists and turns have always been there, as anyone who has made even a casual study of history knows.  Indeed, as anyone who has taken an interest in people knows.  And yet, they still have the power to give us a little surprise when we examine our own lives and see the changes.  We can see for ourselves how a chance meeting, perhaps, or an overheard conversation, definitely altered the course of our progress through life.

I remember an occasion of being in trouble at school.  I had come to an arrangement with the French Master to skip metalwork lessons and do French instead ; the two masters had agreed I could do this.  But there was a problem ; I would also have to skip a physics lesson later in the week, and I knew that the Physics Master would never agree.  So, in a rare act of rebellion, I decided to skip it anyway.

The arrangement worked well for the first half of the term ; Charlie Chaplin, the Physics Master made no complaint.  But then, although I did rather well in the French prog test, I had slipped my ranking in the physics.  I was on the carpet, and Jock Rankin, my Form Master became involved.  Surprisingly to me, (but obviously not to him) he was displeased at these arrangements being made behind his back.

The two of us had a rather heavy meeting which had a momentous conclusion.  “Weel, MacNab,” he said, “And what do ye intend doing when you leave school?”

“I’d like to be a newspaper reporter, Sir,”  I replied with all the dignity I could summon under the circumstances.

“Aye, weel, ye’ve a rocky road ahead of ye MacNab.”

And that was it.  Condemned in ten words.  No more French lessons (which I relished) and back to metalwork (which I choked on) and physics (which I found merely unappetising).  The upshot of this brief and painful meeting was that I eventually made a career in engineering which was to consume half my working life.

But were those ten words really a condemnation?  For what happened at that half-way point was another meeting ; but a meeting that was the culmination of many others that had been unconsciously altering my course over the years.  And the decisive meeting was between an author, in his book, and my own breezy introspections.  And the upshot of this encounter was to set a fair wind for the remainder of my life so far.

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