Anything that can go wrong, will!

I had intended to post this earlier in the New Year however technology gremlins have kept me off-line for a while. I made a quick shopping trip to Andorra after Christmas where, apart from stocking up on duty-free goodies I also watched the skiers. It brought back memories of my own skiing experience there thirty years ago which I thought I would share with you. 

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 That first day on the pistes I distinguished myself by being totally incapable of getting on the T-bar lift. It was supposed to come behind you and wedge under your buttocks. I just could not manage it. Was my bum too big? Too small? Wrong shape? Whatever the reason I just fell or missed the T-bar completely. I became totally embarrassed as a restless queue of skiers built up behind me. In the end a huge German guy grabbed hold of me, pushed me in front of him and transported me up the slope like a parcel.

Once on the slopes my skiing was pitiful. I tried hard to remember all I had learned in Kitzbuhl a few years previously. On a gentle green run all went well for the first few minutes. Then I fell in an ungainly tangle of skis and poles. I fell again and again until my initial confidence seeped away particularly after a neat crocodile of giggling toddlers swept past me.

The piste was busy with skiers and snowboarders. I really tried hard to avoid them but I’m sure I left a trail of destruction in my wake. It took about an hour to get down to the dreaded T-lift when most of the group I was with had taken about fifteen minutes and were on their second or third run. I baulked at going back up and sneaked off for an early hot bath.

The following day was New Year’s Eve. I refused point blank to use the T-lifts again so we moved to another slope with chair lifts. Lord, it was cold, freezing and a huge lowering cloud hung over the mountain. We got into our gondola and with a clank and a groan, the lift hoisted us up the mountainside. About half way up the lift ground to a halt. We hung there, the gondola swaying alarmingly in a freshening breeze. The mass of heavy grey cloud slipped down the mountain side enveloping us. It began to snow. We could not see anything. We just hung and swung. I started to shiver, teeth rattling like castanets.

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For one whole bloody hour we were suspended there, freezing, glued to our seats. At last, with more creaks and groans, the lift began to move again and slowly we were transported to the top. There however, we were not allowed to get off. Apparently the weather was closing in too quickly and the diesel engine that powered the lift kept seizing up. So off we clanked back down the mountain. We staggered back to our pension. I have never been so cold again as I was that morning.

Back at the pension a hot shower did a little to warm me up and afterwards I dived under the duvet on the bed and refused to come out. As the afternoon wore on my shivers became more violent. I had a thumping headache and a rasping sore throat. Hubby disappeared on a quest for aspirin and throat lozenges and I fell into a fretful doze.

That evening, reluctantly, I got up because it was the grand New Year’s Eve dinner at the pension. My legs seemed to have developed a life of their own as I wobbled my way to the dining room. Our patrons had done us proud. The table groaned with festive fare and a huge cauldron of some sort of hot punch, a bit like a spicy sangria, awaited us. Shame I could not enjoy it but my throat was so rasping sore I could scarcely swallow. Our hostess persuaded me to slip some oysters down my burning gullet. She hovered anxiously at my shoulder.

Mmm, lovely’ I lied as the rubbery tasteless stuff slipped down.

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I slunk away, turned up the heating in our bedroom and flopped back under the comfort of the duvet.

The next morning I could not move without falling over. Sick, giddy, aching, every breath I took was painful. I was virtually voiceless…emitting only a feeble petulant croak.

For the rest of the week I stayed in the warm fug of the bedroom, under that fabulous duvet. Hubby brought me boxes of satsumas which were about the only things I could eat and described the incredible runs and feats of derring-do on the pistes whilst I sulked, wishing only for home.

We left Andorra in a blizzard and as we crossed into France the coach slithered and slipped down the narrow road and across hairpin bends. We thought, as we approached Toulouse that the snow would ease off, but no. On arrival at the airport all flights were cancelled because of the weather. We were part of a group of seven flying back and between us, all we had was a handful of small change in pesetas and francs. As I recall we shared three rapidly ageing sandwiches and a couple of coffees. We waited all day and into the evening until flights started again around eight o’clock. Finally at eleven our flight was called and we trooped aboard cold, hungry and tired.

It was obvious that the UK had also been enjoying Andorran-type weather. The motorway north had only one lane clear of snow and it took us a further five hours to get anywhere near home. At the turn off to our cottage a massive snowdrift blocked our way. It stretched from almost the top of the telephone pole out across the road to the wall at the other side. A huge icy-white barrier – a prototype for Game of Thrones. This white world sparkled and glistened in the moonlight. All was silent. Familiar trees and bushes along the lane, bent over by the weight of snow, looked as though they were bowing in obedience to the weather gods. We abandoned the car to stomp and stumble through the snow to our cottage.

Next morning Frank, our neighbour turned up to see if we had made it back.

Ah, you got here then? Thought you might not make it. Had a good time?’

No’ I snapped. ‘It was horrible. I was ill. I never got to ski and I swear I’ll never, ever go back to Andorra again. It’s the arsehole of the universe.’

Well there was no need for you to go at all. Look down there.’ Frank pointed to the sloping fields around the village where youngsters were skiing, sledging and generally having the sort of fun time that I had wanted. He cracked up laughing.

You could’ve saved your money and done your skiing at home.’

Close Encounter of a Caprine Kind

Just outside our village, we have what is known as La Dechetterie Verte – The Green Tip. It is a place where you can leave all your garden rubbish. In reality its just a large pile of steaming, decomposing greenery. It is located at the top of a steep hill, on a local farmer’s land. When it gets too piled up, the council workers come and shove it down the hillside…nothing too technical.

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At this time of year there is always a goodly assortment of greenery which comes in handy for decorating the plant pots and containers dotted around the village.

Yesterday, there I was, on official business searching for suitable foliage for Christmas Decorations. I took Faithless Hound Zouzou with me. He lolled in the front seat of the jalopy all ready to defend me against any irate hunters who might be out and about searching for their Christmas dinner. I’ve met them before. They have an extraordinary ability to pop up from behind a bush and shout and wave at me. At first, I thought they were just being friendly…then I learned a few French swear words. But I digress.

So we rumbled up to the green tip, the old car belching and burping like a cow with belly ache. Frosty morning, sun shining, blue sky, just the day for a trip to the tip.

We arrived. Faithless Hound zoomed off in search of who knows what and, me, bravely squidging through the mud in leaky boots, I found what I was looking for. Conifer branches, glossy green laurel, bits of cedar all thoughtfully dumped under a load of tree branches.

I set to with a will, a song in my heart, squidging, squelching, pulling and tugging until I got to the good stuff. Carefully I arranged these in piles by the old jalopy. I was just retrieving a particularly good branch of conifer when a peculiar aroma tickled my nostrils. A sort of fusty, dusty, I hesitate to be blunt…but… it was a stink. I turned around and there was this large, well largish, horned Beast chomping away at my neat piles of foliage. Outraged I waved my conifer branch at it.

‘Yah, shoo, get off that.’ I cried.

The Beast looked at me, yellow eyes glowing. Its jaw worked steadily from side to side. It gave a snort, scornful, I thought and resumed its munching.

‘Hey that’s mine and don’t you know it’s poisonous to the likes of you?’

Another snort and a rather impatient stamp of a hoof. My goodness it was in need of a pedicure. Its hooves were so long they had curled up at the front like a pair of Chinaman’s slippers.

Of course I realised my mistake – it is one many of Les Anglais who visit these shores make – that of supposing all the natives speak English if only one shouts loud enough. Its unresponsiveness showed me clearly that it was a French Beast.

Waving my conifer branch I took, yes I admit it, a very hesitant step towards it. I have had some experience of Beasts like this and still have the scars to prove it. I bawled:

‘Casses-toi, bete, fiches le camp.’

It looked up at me and took a couple of steps forward. It then occurred to me that perhaps this was a Spanish Beast. Perhaps it had spent a happy hour duty-free shopping in Andorra and taken a wrong turn on the way home. Unfortunately ‘no hablo Espanol’ was the only phrase I remembered from my rain-sodden honeymoon in sunny Majorca.

By now the Beast was tossing my branches around, making a right bordel of my neat heaps. I advanced again, waving my branch, The Beast stamped and snorted. This was looking dangerous. Where was Faithless Hound when I needed him?

As if on cue, FH appeared with what looked like a mammoth’s femur in his jaws. He looked at me and then at the Beast, dropped to the ground and calmly began gnawing away.

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Something had to be done. Pulling together my two thin threads of courage I advanced, conifer branch at the ready. When under stress my linguistic skills (such as they are) desert me and I resort to the language of God’s Own County…Yorkshire.

‘Yah shoo, yer girt lump o’nowt. Bugger off. I’m not laikin’ wi’ likes o’thoo.’

I shook my conifer at him. Shook it real good and proper I did. The Beast abandoned its purloined branches and stalked towards me. I retreated, cut off from the safety of the jalopy. It padded forward, head lowered. One, two, three paces. I could see the steam puffing out from its nostrils

At this point, FH took over. Deserting his treasure to rescue his beloved mistress he rose, a bit leisurely though and emitted a polite woof followed by a series of rumbling growls. Clearly FH spoke the lingo. The Beast tossed its head and scarpered up the hillside. Well satisfied, FH returned to his bone.

‘Come on, we’re off’ I muttered, stuffing the greenery into the jalopy. I had a nasty feeling there might be a whole battalion of Beasts hiding in the bushes waiting to launch a full-on assault. FH was not very gruntled at being hustled into the car, minus mammoth bone, but what was an admonishing nip compared to a possible attack by slavering Beasts.

After all that, I did manage to put a few pots together but I think the incessant rain is going to spoil them.

So please, if any of you know someone, somewhere, who might like a brown, hairy, crinkly-horned, smelly billy goat for Christmas will you please let them know. It is terrorising our green tip. They are welcome to come and get it…no ifs and hopefully no butts.

Pilgrim Country

For a while I lived in Retford in Nottinghamshire. Along with Lincolnshire and Yorkshire this area became known as Pilgrim Country. Since it is Thanksgiving Day this week, over the Pond I thought I’d take a quick look at some of the key players from Pilgrim Country.

Near to Retford is the village of Babworth. The church there under the leadership of Richard Clyfton  became one of the centres of religious dissent during the early part of the seventeenth century. Many of those who eventually set sail in The Mayflower came from hereabouts.

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Babworth Church

During her reign, Queen Elizabeth I had made many reforms of the Church of England but for some it was not enough; they wanted to abolish the church hierarchy and many of the rituals that derived from the Catholic church. A group know as Separatists went further, calling for a clear separation between the church and the state.

When King James came to the English throne in 1603 he followed the Catholic religion and made Non-Conformism including Separatism a crime of sedition. Anyone who participated in Non-Conformist worship of any kind could expect to lose their livelihood which meant in effect, poverty and often imprisonment.

Richard Clyfton supported the Separatist view. It was his preaching and inspiration that attracted two others – William Brewster, from nearby Scrooby and William Bradford from Austerfield.

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William Brewster

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William Bradford

William Brewster had studied at Peterhouse, Cambridge and then entered the service of William Davison who was the ambassador to the Netherlands. This provided him with his first opportunity to learn more about Non-conformist religion. Brewster returned home to Scrooby for a time and it was there that he encountered both Richard Clyfton and William Bradford.

When Conformists denounced Richard Clyfton as a Separatist (who thus was deprived of his living) the Brewsters at Scrooby Manor took him in. There they created their own clandestine church whose congregation included William Bradford.

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Scrooby Manor

William Bradford was a teenager when he first met Brewster at Scrooby Manor. They became friends and when the move to Holland was proposed Bradford determined to join it.

At that time Non-Conformists were subjected to a range of pressures-fines, imprisonment, close supervision and so, in 1607 many of Clyfton’s congregation decided to flee to Holland, a more religiously tolerant country. Clyfton joined them a year later.

It was William Brewster who organised the flight to Holland.

At that time emigration without permission was illegal and the group travelled cautiously,always haunted by the threat of arrest and betrayal. They set off over the Lincolnshire Wolds, heading for Boston a small port on the Lincolnshire coast. They skirted the town itself and boarded a Dutch ship whose captain had agreed to take them to Holland. He betrayed them. They were all arrested and brought before a court. Surprisingly the court dealt with them quite leniently and most were released fairly soon.

The following year they tried again but nothing was ever easy for them. The men had walked to an agreed embarkation point whilst their women and children travelled in a barge down the river Trent. The men boarded. Unfortunately the captain of the ship saw a group of armed men approaching his ship. Putting two and two together, he knew he would face arrest if caught with his passengers so he set sail leaving the women and children behind. They were all arrested but for once the Authorities realised they had nothing to gain by keeping them in prison. All were granted permission to emigrate.

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Exactly where they embarked from is not known. The writings of William Brewster refer only to a creek somewhere on the coast between Grimsby and Hull. One possibility was Killingholme Creek, near Immingham where a memorial stone to their endeavours stands.

They made it to Leiden in Holland where they gained the freedom to worship as they chose. Bradford lodged with the Brewster family, first in Amsterdam and then Leiden where the lived in the graphically named Stink Alley and took what work they could find.

However they were still not free from the persecutions of the English Crown and a further worry was the behaviour of the youngsters in the group.  Bradford wrote:


“Many of their children…were drawne away by evill examples into extravagante and dangerous courses.”

When Brewster published highly critical comments about James, King of England and the Church, King James launched a manhunt for him. He promptly disappeared and went underground. According to some sources Brewster gave himself up to the Dutch who refused to send him to certain death in England. Instead they told King James that they had arrested the wrong man and released him.

These events spurred the congregation to move farther from England. They looked to the New World – America.

In Holland, in 1620 they boarded The Speedwell and set out for Southampton to meet their other ship, The Mayflower one of whose passengers was to be William Brewster who came out from hiding.

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The Mayflower in Plymouth Harbour by William Halsall

Further delays ensued – The Speedwell proved to be unseaworthy and both ships were forced to return first to Dartmouth and then after another unsuccessful attempt, back to Plymouth. Eventually, The Mayflower now overloaded with additional passengers set sail from Plymouth on September 6, 1620 with 102 passengers and about 30 crew members.

The weather still worked against them and they landed on the shores of Cape Cod in mid-November 1620 rather than at the designated site on the Hudson River. In the ensuing weeks the would-be settlers explored their new territory looking for a site for the permanent settlement. It was not until December 1620 that The Mayflower dropped anchor in Plymouth Harbour – the settlers opting to use the name of their departure point in England for their new home.

Richard Clyfton never made it to the New World – he remained in Amsterdam where he died in 1616. Brewster died in April 1644 and Bradford in May 1657 both having played significant roles in the colony.

To those in the New World – have a wonderful Thanksgiving Day on Thursday.

 

 

 

 

“Winter forms our character and brings out our best.”

I keep hearing that we’re in for a bad winter here in SW France. Apparently locals are beginning to have feelings in their bones/waters/guts…The old saw about the profusion of berries in the hedgerows being the harbinger of this terrible winter-to-be is frequently mentioned despite the fact that, logically, it is the result of the earlier good spring and plenty of blossom.

The miserable wet weather of late resulted in my having a clear-out on my computer. I came across the files for a book I wrote about my life as a hill farmer in the Yorkshire Dales (never to be published). I skimmed through it wondering whether it was worth keeping and came across the chapter about the winter of 1978/9. I thought I would share it with you and give you some survival tips. Admittedly some might need adapting for those who pursue a suburban lifestyle!

I moved to the Dales in spring 1978, to a small isolated cottage in the middle of an old stone quarry, 900 feet up a hillside and a mile off the tarmac. It had land with it and I had been bitten by the self-sufficiency bug induced by too much reading of the books by the then s-s guru, John Seymour.

  • Tip 1 – do not believe a word the so-called experts say. It is likely their ‘wisdom’ comes to you from an armchair and a book they once read or read once.

Christmas 1978 approached and whilst inside my cottage I made merry with friends and family, outside, winter stole in. The sky grew leaden and heavy. By dusk snow was falling; light, fluffy, twirling flakes like you see in a Walt Disney movie but without the singing. My sheep were already covered in a fine dusting of snow.

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Ah it won’t last’ I said to myself with the confidence that comes from sheer ignorance.

  • Tip 2 – do not fall for the schmalzy snow stuff they put in the movies and remember that innocence is no excuse for ignorance.

In the morning it was a changed world, a dazzling white scene. There were none of the familiar rocks and hummocks to be seen. All was a smooth icy white sheet. The sheep – my Hells Angels – (they could go very fast; over, under or round any obstacle and made a lot of noise) found themselves well and truly blocked in down the hillside. They bleated and blared, marooned up to their bellies in snow. The Great Winter was beginning.

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  • Tip 3 – keep your sheep close (or anything else you value – car, spouse, partner, kids, Fred the Ferret) and your shovel closer.

Looking back, I shudder to remember how unprepared I was to face the 78/79 winter. Fuel stocks were low; the freezer nearly empty; dwindling hay, straw and feed for the animals whose appetites seemed to double overnight. The relentless white stuff just kept coming. My little lane filled up and I spent most of my time dragging a sledge with hay bales, sacks of coal or whatever was required. I dressed in treble layers of woollies and a large shovel became my new best friend.

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  • Tip 4 – take the mattresses from your beds – you will not have time to sleep. Turn them into sledges for all the family. Be careful any broken springs do not cut you. However if they do, the cold will keep the pain away.

Everything was held in a painful icy grip. The hens kept to their hut. The few eggs that came usually cracked in the cold. Even the geese the most hardy of creatures, sought shelter. In the metallic half-light of morning, Gulliver goose and Mrs G would waddle out from under a gorse bush and follow me to the feed store. He would tap angrily at the door and hiss.

Hello ugly” I would greet him

Shiss, shiss” was the invariable reply, before spitting rudely at me and rattling his feathers, coated with ice droplets like a thousand tiny sequins.

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  • Tip 5 – Do not piss off your goose, just cook it for Christmas instead. Better still, be resourceful; hide your own and nick your neighbour’s.

In the garden all the winter cabbages and broccoli disappeared under the snow. I’d netted them against the rabbits but times were so hard for them that they tunnelled under the snow, nibbled a neat hole in the net and then chewed their way through the frozen leaves. When, eventually, the thaw came, all that was left was a tangled collection of holey netting, rows of smelly cabbage stumps and suspicious heaps of round black pellets.

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  • Tip 6 – Be kind to the wildlife; they have to survive too. Nor should you eat your pets or family members. However you may wish to take the opportunity of ridding yourself of some of your less-than-satisfactory neighbours – although long, slow cooking is recommended.

After about a month of this hard freeze, it started to blizzard again and the east wind howled bringing down a maelstrom of swirling snow and ice.

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By this time I had managed to get my car to a neighbour’s house where I parked it. Foolishly I decided to try my luck at driving it home along the lane. Halfway, I ran out of luck and straight into a massive snow drift. I pushed, stomped, crawled for half a mile to reach the cottage, carrying a precious bundle of supplies on my back. (You have to remember this was forty years ago. I wasn’t as doddery as I am now!). It was a complete white-out; road, walls, fields and the sky itself merged; no boundaries, no landmarks to guide me. Sharp spicules of ice cut my face and the shrieking wind deafened me. Sheer stubbornness and bad-temper kept me going (and still do) until I finally made it to the cottage. In my kitchen warmth enveloped me, steaming up my specs and melting the snow and ice from my clothes. I staggered to the nearest chair, dripping pools of water and too exhausted to care.

  • Tip 7 – cultivate the right attitude. Bloody-mindedness is always of benefit. The deeply philosophical phrase “Oh bugger” uttered at intervals is also most helpful.

The arctic winter dragged on well into the New Year 1979 and the lane to the cottage remained impassable.

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There was a savage beauty in the surroundings but for those who had to get to work and earn a living it was a very difficult time indeed. I became accustomed to floundering through the snow and ice, carting supplies, cutting logs and on one or two occasions helping to dig neighbours’ sheep out of drifts or fodder their outlying cattle. Anyone foolhardy enough to want to visit this winter wonderland, was press- ganged into carrying small parcels of vital supplies such as chocolate or ciggies.

  • Tip 8 – Make an unbreakable rule: all visitors must come armed with luxury goods as defined by you and must bring their own shovels and snow-shoes.

The weather did bring out a sort of community spirit. My nearest neighbour lived about a mile and half away alongside a cleared road. He took in deliveries of feedstuffs for all the cut-off outlying farms. The telephone kiosk at the side of that road became the location for a drugs drop whenever the vets could not get to a farm.

  • Tip 10 – only make use of your neighbours if you can be sure they will not run off with the stash.

The icy surface of the snow could be positively dangerous. Once as I made my way across the sloping side of a drift at the top of the quarry, I lost my footing and began sliding helplessly towards the quarry edge and a seventy foot drop. I thrashed around helpless; dug my heels into the frozen crust, but to no avail. It was sheer luck that at one point the drift did cave in underneath me bringing my slide to a snowy stop and I was able to creep away to safer ground.

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  • Tip 11 – ‘Exercise’ is unnecessary. It is a much over-rated activity and you will get enough of it just trying to get through the day.

By March cruel, icy winds swept across the lying snow and the water supply to my cottage and barns froze. The water came from a spring a little way up the hillside. My days were filled lugging water to the animals and into the house. Inevitably, I slipped on the ice. It was three strikes and I was out. Legs shot out in front, head shot back and the precious water shot all over me. Result – concussion and a chipped elbow bone.

  • Tip 12 – fill whatever you have with drinkable water to tide you over. If you have paddling pool fill it – ignore the kids’ protests. Fill every possible available container you can find. Store outside and you will have ready-made ice to act in lieu of your freezer when the electricity is cut off. Be frugal – the less water you have, the more you will want.

Eventually, in early April the icy grip on the land began to loosen as a westerly wind gusted in. It was still cold; hailstorms and showers pelted down with monotonous regularity. But the snow drifts shrank and retreated from the milder air. Most welcome of all was the return of running water. The days of a discreet tiddle in the bushes were over. The old familiar landscape re-appeared, washed-out and drab and I picked up the threads of a more ‘normal’ life.

  • Tip 13 – Run away! Run away! Find somewhere warm to hang out until it is all over. You can send postcards to all your friends saying how hot and sunny it is. They will not be delivered of course. But think of the smug satisfaction that will envelop you.

That was my first taste of a Dales winter. Now, some forty years on and armed with this experience, if there is to be something similar as the Jeremiah’s predict, I shall do things differently. I shall turn my back on it all, lock the doors, close the shutters, put on numerous layers of mismatched garments, get under several duvets and hibernate. Possibly I may see you all when spring is sprung. Possibly you may think I am dead but more likely I will just smell funny.

The Faces of War

Today’s blog post is adapted from an article written by Caroline Alexander in 2007 for the Smithsonian Magazine. The full article may be read here:
(https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/faces-of-war-145799854/ )

Although much longer than my usual posts it acts as a graphic reminder of the many wounded soldiers who suffered terrible disfigurement during World War I.

The Faces of War

Wounded tommies facetiously called it “The Tin Noses Shop.” Located within the 3rd London General Hospital, its proper name was the “Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department”; either way, it represented one of the many acts of desperate improvisation borne of the Great War which claimed the lives of 8 million of fighting men and wounding 21 million more.

The large-calibre guns of artillery warfare with their power to atomize bodies into unrecoverable fragments and the mangling, deadly fallout of shrapnel had made clear, at the war’s outset, that mankind’s military technology wildly outpaced its medical. The very nature of trench warfare, moreover, proved diabolically conducive to facial injuries:

“[T]he…soldiers failed to understand the menace of the machine gun,” recalled Dr. Fred Albee, an American surgeon working in France. “They seemed to think they could pop their heads up over a trench and move quickly enough to dodge the hail of bullets.”

Writing in the 1950s, Sir Harold Gillies, a pioneer in the art of facial reconstruction and modern plastic surgery, recalled his war service:

“Unlike the student of today, who is weaned on small scar excisions and graduates to harelips, we were suddenly asked to produce half a face.”

On a single day in early July 1916, following the first engagement of the Battle of the Somme—a day for which the London Times casualty list covered not columns, but pages—Gillies and his colleagues were sent some 2,000 patients. The clinically honest before-and-after photographs published by Gillies shortly after the war reveal how remarkably—at times almost unimaginably—successful he and his team could be; but the gallery of seamed and shattered faces, with their brave patchwork of missing parts, also demonstrates the surgeons’ limitations.

It was for those soldiers—too disfigured to qualify for before-and-after documentation—that the Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department had been established.

“My work begins where the work of the surgeon is completed,” said sculptor Francis Derwent Wood, the program’s founder.

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Born in England in 1871 he was too old for active duty when war broke out, so enlisted as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Upon being assigned as an orderly to the 3rd London General Hospital, he at first performed the usual “errand-boy-housewife” chores. Eventually, however, the realization that his abilities as an artist could be medically useful inspired him to construct masks for the irreparably facially disfigured. His new metallic masks, lightweight and more permanent than the rubber prosthetics previously issued, were custom designed to bear the pre-war portrait of each wearer. Within the surgical and convalescent wards, it was grimly accepted that facial disfigurement was the most traumatic of the multitude of horrific damages the war inflicted.

“Always look a man straight in the face,” one resolute nun told her nurses. “Remember he’s watching your face to see how you’re going to react.”

Wood established his mask-making unit in March 1916, and by June 1917, his work had warranted an article in The Lancet, a British medical journal.

“I endeavour by means of the skill I happen to possess as a sculptor to make a man’s face as near as possible to what it looked like before he was wounded,” Wood wrote. “My cases are generally extreme cases that plastic surgery has, perforce, had to abandon; but, as in plastic surgery, the psychological effect is the same. The patient acquires his old self-respect, self assurance, self-reliance,…takes once more to a pride in his personal appearance. His presence is no longer a source of melancholy to himself nor of sadness to his relatives and friends.”

 

The journey that led a soldier from the field or trench to Wood’s department was lengthy, disjointed and full of dread. Stage by stage, from the mud of the trenches or field to first-aid station; to overstrained field hospital; to evacuation, by way of a lurching passage across the Channel, to England, the wounded men were carried, jolted, shuffled and left unattended in long draughty corridors before coming to rest under the care of surgeons.

“He lay with his profile to me,” wrote Enid Bagnold, a volunteer nurse (and later the author of National Velvet), of a badly wounded patient. “Only he has no profile, as we know a man’s. Like an ape, he has only his bumpy forehead and his protruding lips—the nose, the left eye, gone.”

Those patients who could be successfully treated were, after lengthy convalescence, sent on their way; the less fortunate remained in hospitals and convalescent units nursing the broken faces with which they were unprepared to confront the world—or with which the world was unprepared to confront them.

Mirrors were banned in most wards, and men who somehow managed an illicit peek had been known to collapse in shock.

“The psychological effect on a man who must go through life, an object of horror to himself as well as to others, is beyond description. …It is a fairly common experience for the maladjusted person to feel like a stranger to his world. It must be unmitigated hell to feel like a stranger to yourself.”

The pains taken by Wood to produce masks that bore the closest possible resemblance to the pre-war soldier’s uninjured face were enormous.

Once the patient was wholly healed from both the original injury and the restorative operations, plaster casts were taken of his face, in itself a suffocating ordeal, from which clay or plasticine squeezes were made.

“The squeeze, as it stands, is a literal portrait of the patient, with his eyeless socket, his cheek partly gone, the bridge of the nose missing, and also with his good eye and a portion of his good cheek,” wrote Ward Muir, a British journalist who had worked as an orderly with Wood. “The shut eye must be opened, so that the other eye, the eye-to-be, can be matched to it. With dexterous strokes the sculptor opens the eye. The squeeze, hitherto representing a face asleep, seems to awaken. The eye looks forth at the world with intelligence.”

This plasticine likeness was the basis of all subsequent portraits. The mask itself would be fashioned of galvanized copper “the thinness of a visiting card.” one visitor reported. Depending upon whether it covered the entire face, or as was often the case, only the upper or lower half, the mask weighed between four and nine ounces and was generally held on by spectacles. However the greatest artistic challenge lay in painting the metallic surface the colour of skin.

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Today, the only images of these men in their masks come from black-and-white photographs which, with their forgiving lack of colour and movement, make it impossible to judge the masks’ true effect. Static, set for all time in a single expression modelled on what was often a single pre-war photograph, the masks were at once lifelike and lifeless.

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The voices of the disfigured men who wore the masks are for the most part known only from meagre correspondence.

“Thanks to you, I will have a home,” one soldier had written. “…The woman I love no longer finds me repulsive, as she had a right to do.”

The number of masks produced by Wood is not known. Almost no record of the men who wore the masks survives, but it was clear that a mask had a life of only a few years. Few, if any, masks survive.

Francis Derwent Wood died in London in 1926 at age 55. His postwar work included a number of public monuments, including war memorials, the most poignant of which, perhaps, is one dedicated to the Machine Gun Corps in Hyde Park Corner, London. On a raised plinth, it depicts the young David, naked, vulnerable, but victorious, who signifies that indispensable figure of the war to end all wars—the machine-gunner. The monument’s inscription is double-edged, alluding to both the heroism of the individual gunner and the preternatural capability of his weapon:

“Saul hath slain his thousands, but David his tens of thousands.”

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Medieval Mirepoix – You Can’t Keep A Good City Down

The medieval city of Mirepoix sits on the banks of the river Aude about halfway between Carcassonne and Foix. In the early 13th century many of the merchants and artisans of Mirepoix had converted to the Cathar religion, regarded as heretical by the Catholic church.

In 1206 rumours of a war against the Cathars brought together, in Mirepoix, around 600 people – lords, ladies, tradesmen, farmers – to discuss what they should do in the event of a war. They were right to do so for in 1209 the Pope declared a holy war against the Cathars – the Albigensian Crusade – a war that lasted twenty years. Simon de Montfort led the Pope’s army with his second in command Guy de Lévis. Carcassonne fell to them and they headed for Foix via Mirepoix.

It was a walk in the park for de Monfort. Mirepoix was neither garrisoned nor possessed of defences. A few were killed but it was a relatively bloodless occupation. De Monfort gave the town to his second in command together with all the surrounding region. Ultimately this proved no bad thing. Guy de Lévis, originally from Normandy, seems to have been a relatively cultured and rational man. He did not oppress the people of Mirepoix rather he helped them; he added the town’s name to his own – Guy de Lévis-Mirepoix and built the Church of St Maurice. The town prospered until disaster struck in June 1289.

It had been cold wet and snowy that year. The rivers were running high some of which flowed into a dam at Puivert some thirty kilometres away. The dam broke and in three days the town of Mirepoix was destroyed completely except some few ruins of the old feudal château.

John, the grandson of Guy de Lévis-Mirepoix was now the Seigneur and he gave the people of Mirepoix enough land to rebuild their city but this time on slightly higher ground on the other side of the river l’Hers. The new city was rebuilt as a Bastide – that is built on a grid system around a central market place. This was slightly unusual since such towns were normally built around the church.

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The big market square was surrounded by shops, half timbered and galleried and a new church of St Maurice was built by John and his wife Constance of Foix. It became a cathedral in 1317.

Under the watchful eye of their seigneur, the people of Mirepoix and their city prospered. All went well until the late 14th century.

Enter the Black Prince, Edward of Woodstock,eldest son of Edward III. During the Hundred Years war he sacked, looted and pillaged towns and cities in the region including Mirepoix, half of which he burned down

But you cannot keep a good city down. Nothing daunted the citizens built again and a new Mirepoix emerged from the ashes. This time they built surrounding walls and stone ramparts together with four stout gateways – the remains of one, La Porte d’Aval, can still be seen.

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La Porte d’Aval

The townspeople constructed more half timbered houses with colonnades wide enough for horses and carts to pass under thus keeping their occupants dry whilst shopping. The finest example of these houses is the Maison du Consuls with its array of fantastic carvings.

The cathedral was destroyed in the fire and so began major reconstruction and enlargement that did not finish until 1865. Models depicting the different stages of reconstruction are on display within the cathedral.

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Today Mirepoix is a bustling small city, popular with tourists. In particular the tradition of the market continues every Monday when the square is filled with colourful stalls selling everything from fruit and vegetables, clothes, bric a brac – you name it Mirepoix market sells it…probably!

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