I’ve borrowed the title of this post from my grandfather, Cyril William (Nick) Nichol’s journal.
Playing Lines And Ladders was a way of always telling stories spontaneously. I have found it hard to consider the stories of my grandparents as family history. These stories are too personal to me to share in writing or on the stage. I am lucky; I knew all of my grandparents into adulthood and my Granny Paddy continues to help me with my research. Their lives are close to mine in a way that their predecessors are not. Lines And Ladders is a personal exchange of stories; it is easier to talk about people I know to people I can see.
My grandfather Nick was a pilot in Bomber Command. On the 22nd March 1944, his plane was shot at and the Wireless Operator, Arthur Elliott, was killed. Nick managed to land the plane and the rest of the crew survived. Two evaded capture, but my grandfather and three others became prisoners of war. He didn’t talk much about his experiences to me, but he did keep a journal.
It is filled with lists of food that he dreamed of eating. He wrote ‘At Luchenwalde time was heavy and passed slowly so that many officers began to collect recipes, menus and lists of places to stay and places to eat. Many hours were lightened by chatter about good food and pleasant places to stay when we were living more than two hundred in a single storey barrack approximately ninety feet by thirty five feet, on three tier bunks with not enough blankets issued to go round’. Living on rations of mint tea, soup, potatoes, rye bread, a small amount margarine and sugar every third day, evidently recording imaginary feasts was a distraction.
The journal is an international culinary celebration, with recipes for food and drinks from around the world, and recommended places to eat from Bassenthwaite to New York. Four pages are dedicated to German recipes, including a Mohkuchen Poppy Cake, Nürnberger Lebkuchen and Berlin Pancakes. There’s a list of sandwiches that I guess are influenced by his American friends: peanut butter with lettuce and mayonnaise; peanut butter with bacon; or peanut butter and raspberry jam.
The war did not end on VE Day. I wonder how my great-grandparents must have felt seventy-five years ago? I presume relief that their children might return to Cumberland, but there must have still been great uncertainty.
My grandfather did return. He was thin and malnourished, but he came home. Three months after VE Day, his sister, Connie Nichol, died of malaria. She was nursing in Nigeria at the time and is buried in Lagos.
The war was fought for peace and freedom from oppression. Its conclusion meant that the ‘contemplated feasting’ could take place all over Europe and across the world. My grandparents spent their lives looking outwards and were holidaying across the world by the time that I knew them.
I don’t think my grandfather did much cooking after the war – so I don’t know if he tried out these meticulously copied recipes. Most are so full of fat and sugar, I don’t think I could stomach them, but I do plan to try making the pepper nuts (for which there are two different recipes). These featured in a wonderful, moving play that we saw at Derby Playhouse last year – Pepper & Honey – about the relationship between a Croatian woman living in the UK and her grandmother.
75 years after the day that peace was declared in Europe, I won’t be flying bunting or dressing in red, white and blue. I’ll be taking time to remember the man I was lucky enough to know and his sister who didn’t come home.
When I raise a drink to my Granpa – perhaps from his extensive and lethal looking list of ‘Punches and Cocktails’ – I’ll remember that his measures were always generous.
My grandparents, Paddy and Nick, after he had returned, with thanks to my Granny Paddy for sharing this photograph and my Granpa’s journal.