Saturday 31 December 2016

December competition

To win one of five copies of Christina Koning's Time of Flight, just answer the following question in the Comments section below:

"What other woman do you admire who was a pioneer in a traditionally male field?"

Then email your answer to so that I can contact you if you win

Closing date 14th January

We regret that our competitions are open to UK Followers only

Friday 30 December 2016

Cabinet of Curiosities – Christmas Family Trees

As most people know, Christmas trees were first introduced into the UK in the nineteenth century, influenced by the habits of the royal family, although using greenery to decorate our houses at winter festivals has been a tradition for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

But, fascinating though a general history of Christmas traditions would be, that’s not why I’ve chosen my Christmas tree as my first entry into the History Girls’ bulging Cabinet of Curiosities. No, I’ve chosen it because, visiting friends and family, seeing all of their trees and putting up my own has reminded me that every home and every family has its own history – and these can often be traced through the branches of its Christmas tree.

So I thought I’d take you on a quick journey around my own family tree, sparkly nuts and all.

Christmas in my parents’ home has always been about our family and our traditions, built up over the years – and still is. That’s why my mum still hangs out the sequin-encrusted stockings that were first my dad and uncle’s, 60 years ago, and were then mine and my brother’s a mere 30 years’ back.

The tree at my mum and dad’s also always has certain things on it, no matter what. This year, my mum’s tree was decorated entirely in red: except, that is, my Yellow Glitter Bell (created age 7ish, maybe?) and My Brother’s Sparkly Nuts (made when he was about 2). I never did understand why the adults sniggered when we cried ‘its Matthew’s nuts!’ as they came out of the box each year...

As an adult, my own tree can’t compete with such precious and time-honoured relics, but I have developed some traditions of my own. There are the baubles two of my closest friends gave as wedding favours from their December marriage, having brought back 160 of them from China; the 7 or 8 freebie ‘fat Robins’ that my local independent garden centre gives away each year when you buy your tree from them rather than the big chain store just down the road; or the cheapo Woollies angel who is a remnant from my first student house.

There are other memories on my Christmas tree, too, of places I have been, with people I love: the wooden reindeer from an amazing holiday in the Arctic Circle; a tiny nativity scene inside a bell, brought back from the moving pilgrimage route of the Camino de Santiago, or the bauble painted with scenes from the Tuscan countryside, reminding me of wine-tasting and walking with my mum this summer, fulfilling one of her ‘bucket list’ dreams.

To me, that’s what a Christmas tree should be about: not just a sparkly, oversized ornament which drops bits of itself all over your carpet, but a series of reminders of the people, places and things you love, evolving year by year, each new decoration a precious memory as well as a thing of beauty in its own right. 

I hope you all had a very merry Christmas and have a happy, healthy and prosperous new year. But do me a favour: when it comes to take the decorations down, be sure to pack them away carefully. They aren’t just baubles, but celebrations.

Thursday 29 December 2016

Amy Johnson by Christina Koning

Our guest for November is Christina Koning, formerly of this parish.

Christina left the History Girls when she became a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge. She has clearly also been busy writing her latest novel, about Amy Johnson.

Christina Koning was born in Kuala Belait, Borneo and grew up in Venezuela and Jamaica. She has worked as a travel writer and journalist – most recently for the Times. Her novels include A Mild Suicide, which was short-listed for the David Higham Prize for Fiction; Undiscovered Country, which won the Encore Prize and was long-listed for the Orange Prize, and Fabulous Time, which was awarded a Society of Authors Travelling Scholarship. The Dark Tower, her first novel for Arbuthnot Books was published in 2010. It was followed by Variable Stars in 2011 and Line Of Sight in 2014. A Mild Suicide was re-issued by Arbuthnot in 2012. Game Of Chance, the second book in the Blind Detective series, was published by Arbuthnot in 2015.

Why I became fascinated by Amy Johnson and the women fliers of the Golden Age of Air

When I started writing my latest novel, Time of Flight, which is set in 1931, I knew one thing: that it would be about flying - then reaching its zenith as a popular craze - and that it would feature a character inspired by those magnificent ‘queens of the air’, who did so much to popularise flying in its golden years. One of the most celebrated was the American aviatrix, Amelia Earhart (1897-1937), the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic - but Britain wasn’t slow in fielding a candidate of its own.

Amy Johnson (1903-1941) was, at first sight, an unlikely celebrity. The daughter of a Hull businessman, she first became interested in flying while working as a secretary to the solicitor, William Charles Crocker. His offices were on the far side of London Bridge, and it was there that my grandfather, Charles Thompson, worked as a telephonist and receptionist. This, incidentally, was one of the jobs the blind were trained to do, in the years following the Great War. My grandfather had learned typing and telephony at St Dunstan’s, the rehabilitation centre for the war-blinded, then located in Regent’s Park, where he was referred after being invalided out of the army in 1917. Charles was of course the model for my ‘Blind Detective’, Frederick Rowlands, in the series of detective stories of which Time of Flight is the latest.

It fascinated me that Charles must have known Amy when she was first getting interested in flying - although, sadly, he died long before I was able to ask him what he thought of her! But of course, this curious fact - that my First World War hero grandfather had once worked in the same office as one of the greatest ‘heroines’ of modern times - was one of the reasons I chose an aviation theme for the novel. It had been at the back of my mind when I started the Blind Detective series, and I knew that ‘Miss Johnson’ (as she is referred to in the first book, Line of Sight) would have to have more than just a walk-on part.

And so I got more and more interested in Amy, who in 1927, the year in which Line of Sight is set, was still unknown. But her anonymity wasn’t to last very long: in 1929, after saving up for flying lessons at the Stag Lane airfield, she was awarded her pilot’s license. She also gained her ground engineer’s ‘C’ license - a qualification that would stand her in good stead on her famous solo flight from England to Australia, when her engineering skills came into play on numerous occasions. Amy was twenty-six years old, and had had only 90 hours’ flying experience when she set out from Croydon Airport on May 5th, 1930 in her De Havilland GH60 Gipsy Moth ‘Jason’, on the first leg of this epic 11,000 mile journey.

Averaging 800-900 miles a day, she was confronted by all kinds of extreme weather - from rainstorms, which reduced visibility to zero, to sandstorms that caused her to crash-land. Much of the time she was ‘flying blind’ - radar hadn’t yet been discovered, and the instruments she had to guide her were basic, to say the least. She found her way by looking down from the open cockpit, and following the lines of rivers and roads. After many terrifying escapades, she reached Darwin on May 24th - and was hailed as a heroine of the Modern Age: ‘Amy, Wonderful Amy’ in the words of the 1930 hit song. Overnight, this unassuming young woman became an instant celebrity - a role with which she was far from comfortable.

Because, in spite of having gained international renown, at a time when few women achieved fame for anything other than their looks, Amy Johnson was shy and reclusive by temperament. Her passion was flying, and she continued to set records throughout the 1930s, including one for a solo flight from London to Cape Town in 1932, breaking her husband Jim Mollison’s record. The marriage to Mollison, who seems to have been a bit of a playboy, didn’t last, but Amy continued to pursue her fascination with speed - learning to drive racing cars (another of the era’s dangerous hobbies) and taking up gliding.
Jim Mollison and Amy Johnson

With such rich material to draw on (and Amy’s story was only one of many - for a fuller account of the lives of ‘Those Magnificent Women in Their Flying Machines’ see my HG post of the same name), I found the writing of Time of Flight an enjoyable - if not always uncomplicated - experience. Since it is, obviously, a murder mystery, I had to find solutions to the crime writer’s perennial problem of how to kill people without making the killer too obvious from the start. Fortunately, I had expert assistance from a friend who is also something of a Flying Ace. He not only took me up in his plane, but let me fly the thing, in order to get an idea of what those early aviators had to deal with. More usefully still, he came up with a fiendishly clever idea for making a murder ‘work’ within the context of a story about flying.

So I’m grateful to Amy Johnson - not only for being such an inspirational figure, for me and for millions of women, in the years since she took the controls of her Gipsy Moth, but for providing me with such a great theme for my detective story. I live not very far from Duxford Airfield, and so I quite often see light aircraft - some of them the sort Amy herself might have flown - flying over my garden. Whenever I do, I can’t help feeling a thrill of excitement, and a glow of admiration for all those amazing aviatrixes of the past.

(All photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Wednesday 28 December 2016

To Resolve or Not, that is the New Year's Question by Julie Summers

A few years ago a husband of a friend of mine announced at midnight on 31 December that his New Year's Resolution was to make love to his wife three times a week. We all stood around feeling suitably impressed, depressed, optimistic - take your pick - and somewhat inferior. After all, we were none of us less than 50 years old. He kept his promise and did make love three times a week but more often than not to someone else's wife. Was that a good resolution? I leave you to judge for yourselves.

I, personally, find New Year's resolutions more of a burden than anything else, something to beat myself up about in the dark, cold days of February but quickly forgotten when the spring flowers come of life and my garden is alive with proliferating flora and fauna. However, so many people make resolutions that I thought I would look up their ancestry.

New Year's resolutions seem to have begun with the ancient Babylonians who made promises to their gods at the start of each year that they would return borrowed objects and pay their debts. That tradition developed and evolved under the Romans into a series of promises to Janus, the god of beginnings after whom the month January is named. He is also the god of gates, transitions, time, doorways, passages and endings. Usually depicted with two faces, he also presided over the beginning and ending of conflict: the doors of his temple were open in time of war and closed to mark peace.

Over the next millenia various ages adopted variations on the theme of reaffirmation of promises, while the world religions used it to urge us to reflect upon our wrongdoings in order to seek and offer forgiveness. That seems to me to have moved on a little from the original simple message and introduced a level of guilt which, to me at least, seems unhelpful.

Liverpool Central Library - one of my favourite places to work

Being a book person the message I take from the Babylonians is that I must check I have returned all the books I borrowed in 2016 whether from libraries or friends. But, flippancy aside, I'm beginning to like the idea of returning borrowed objects and paying debts. It seems to me so much more positive and interactive than promising myself I will go to the gym once a week or always wash socks in pairs or, heaven forbid, promise to make love to my husband three times a week. No, I think I shall take away the positive message and return affection that I have been given over the last year and pay my respect to friendships that have held me up in difficult times as well as celebrating good things. So my New Year's Resolution is made.

I wish you all a very happy 2017.

Tuesday 27 December 2016

Regent's Park Catastrophe 1867, by Janie Hampton

When I was a small child my grandmother told me of a terrible event that she had witnessed. ‘My father took me to Regent’s Park,’ she told me. ‘We walked across the frozen lake. As we stepped off onto the bank, the whole lake tipped up, and all the people skating slipped into the water. Then the ice tilted back, with the people underneath. There was nothing anyone could do. Father and I were so lucky. We got off just in time.’ Her words stuck with me but it was another 50 years before I found an eye-witness account of this disaster which occurred 150 years ago next month. It was by Francis Henry Skrine, the 19 year old son of the Rev. Clarmont Skrine of Wimbledon, and went as follows:
‘Regent’s Park is, indeed, the chief glory of north-western London, and it owes much of its beauty to an artificial lake of vast extent, studded with islets, and the chosen home of a variety of wild fowl. On the 15th January 1867, the Regent’s Park water, as this lake is termed, presented an animated scene. Three days of sharp frost had covered its ample bosom with a sheet of ice, apparently firm enough to support the crowd of skaters and sliders with which it was thronged. The spectators on shore numbered thousands, and a roaring trade was being done by lenders of skates; and vendors of hot chestnuts, “brandy balls” and oranges. The great interest, however, centred round the “hockey on ice” – a game of which I was then an enthusiastic votary. It is played as hockey on dry land, with the exception that the rubber ball is replaced by a disc of cork: and when the pace is hard and the players numerous, it is a highly exhilarating if somewhat risky form of sport. So exciting was the game that I entirely failed to notice the dangerous condition of the ice, and the fact that it was gradually being deserted by all but the most adventurous skaters. 
'It was not till 1.30 p.m. that I paused for an instant to rest. I glanced round me, and saw at once that I was lost. I was exactly in the centre of the lake, 200 yards distant from the islets, or the shore; on a spot too, where I knew the water to be at least 12 feet in depth. The treacherous ice was everywhere a perfect maze of cracks, through which the water was oozing, as the surface bent and undulated under the skaters. I looked for a means of escape and saw close by an employee of the Royal Humane Society with cork life-belt and ladder, making his way gingerly towards the shore; but my entreaties to be allowed a share of his life-belt in case of a break-up, were answered by imprecation [cursing], and the remark that “he would have enough to do to save himself”. To strike out for safety would have endured instant immersion; I therefore lay down on the ice, and awaited the inevitable catastrophe. It was not long in coming. A party of 15 strong men were engaged, a few yards off, in a fierce struggle for the hockey ball. Their weight proved too much for the rotten ice, which gave way, engulphing the entire group. A wave swept over the surface of the lake from the scene of this catastrophe; the ice broke up in all directions and I found myself struggling in the water. I managed to grasp a floe about four feet in diameter, and, clinging desperately to it, shouted “help” with the full force of my lungs: but my despairing appeal was drowned by those of scores of other victims around me. My hands grew number from contact with the slippery ice, and I was burdened with my saturated overcoat, and dragged down by my heavy skates. I felt my grasp slowly relaxing, and knew that I must soon lose hold, slip between the miniature icebergs around me, and sink to rise no more.
‘At this critical moment, I observed, floating a few feet from me, the ladder of my friend the ice man, abandoned in his hasty retreat, and without hesitation, I left my floe, and struck out for the surer support. It was a terrible and almost hopeless effort. Twice I was engulphed amid the floating ice, and twice I emerged breathless from the dark water. But at length utterly exhausted, I reached the ladder, and clung to it with all the strength of despair. I was now in a position of comparative safety and able to glance at my surroundings. The entire surface of the lake was covered in human heads, their owners clinging desperately to ice-floes and rending the air with their entreaties for help. The shores were fringed by a yelling mob of spectators, intensely excited, but utterly unable to assist their perishing fellow-creatures close by. A stalwart fellow who had been one of the most eager and profane of our hockey-players, was praying fervently for mercy. Seeing my ladder, he implored me to push it within his reach, and after great exertion, I managed to do so. The groaning wretch abandoned his temporary support and clutched at my ladder; but the effort was beyond his powers. He went under, and the last I saw of him was two clenched fists slowly sinking between two adjacent floes.
‘A stout individual was lying at full length on an island of ice barely large enough to support his weight and shouting “A thousand pounds to the man who’ll get me out.” This appeal to their cupidity was too much for the “roughs” of whom the most ashore was largely composed. A chain was speedily found, and a score or two, hand in hand, darted into the icy water. After several fruitless efforts, the capitalist was rescued from his perilous position. (I afterwards learnt that he decided not to “execute”, and offered his salvors the paltry sum of £10; that they sued him for the entire amount but they lost, the judges holding the non-existence of a contract!)
‘One after another, the heads around me slowly disappeared, the shouts of the mob grew fainter, I felt a delicious dreaminess invading my sense, and sunk into a profound slumber, the result, doubtless, of the flow of blood from the head.
‘On awaking, I found myself in a comfortable bed, surrounded by kind and solicitous attendants. Collecting with a great effort my scattered senses, I ascertained that it was past 11 p.m. and that I was the guest of a resident in one of the splendid terraces overlooking the park. I learned that, after a prolonged delay, boats had been launched, and the survivors picked up and taken, for the most part, to the infirmary of the Marylebone workhouse. I had been actually the last to be rescued, after an immersion which had lasted towards of four hours, and had been conveyed to my kind hosts, at the suggestion of a friendly park-keeper. I had clutched the ladder to which I owed my life too firmly to allow of its being taken from me, and I was carried to my temporary quarters still holding it in my grasp.
'Medical men were in prompt attendance, and after unremitting exertion on their part for upwards of five hours, I was restored to consciousness. Beyond the loss of my finger-nails, I suffered no ill-effects from my terrible experiences and two days later was able to assist in the mournful task of dragging the lake for victims.
‘Forty-two bodies, mostly youths in the heyday of life, were recovered from the oozy depths, their hands full of weeds and mud grasped in their death agonies. The catastrophe was undoubtedly due to the incompetence of park officials and the police, who should have cleared the lake as soon as the dangerous condition of the ice became manifest. Its repetition has been rendered impossible by a reduction in the depth of the lake to a maximum of four feet. But the 15th January is still a sad anniversary in many an English home. F.H.S. Calcutta, December 1884.’
Maybe my granny saw this and believed it was her?
A year after this event, Francis Skrine joined the Bengal Civil Service and eventually rose to become British Commissioner of the Chittagong Division. The Regent’s Park catastrophe seems to have affected his entire outlook on life. During his 27 years in India, his colleagues were impressed by three water-related achievements: he designed a new system of embankments in the Nadiya District; excavated a great drainage canal at Rangpur; and constructed water-works at Arrah. He was noted for his efforts during three major famines and for his ‘energy and devoted efforts to save life during a very serious cholera epidemic’. Even though this was written 17 years after the catastrophe, the details were still vividly remembered. Maybe that is why my granny recalled being there – after reading this she was convinced she saw it all. I say this because, when I found Skrine’s account among her papers, I realized she was not born until 20 years after it had taken place. So much for oral history!

Monday 26 December 2016

Peace on Earth, by Carol Drinkwater

This month my blog is very short. Apologies for that. I am a little unwell. On top of that, due to the loss of my mother earlier this year, my husband and I are having a very low-key Christmas.

Today, 26th December, is Boxing Day. It is also St Stephen’s Day, which is celebrated in the Republic of Ireland as Lá Fhéile Stiofán. It is a public holiday also known as  Day of the Wren, or Lá an Dreolin. In certain parts of the country such as Dingle and Galway locals dress themselves in straw hats and parade through the streets. This tradition is less common now but occasionally you might see such a parade if you are lucky. What I appreciate about most about this tradition is that those who participate are free to parade and dress as they please. Nobody stops them.

St Stephen was the first Christian martyr. He was taken outside the city of Jerusalem beyond either the eastern or northern gate - archeologists are divided on the precise location - and was stoned to death for blasphemy. In the Acts of the Apostles he is spoken of as one of the Christian Deacons of Jerusalem. Here, below, is a remarkable painting by Jacopo and Domenico Tintoretto of the stoning of Stephen. It is the altarpiece of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice.

and here the stoning of Stephen by Paolo Uccello

I have been gazing at these two paintings while sipping my morning coffee. I have been pondering a society that allows a man to be stoned to death because he speaks up for what he believes, because his philosophy is different. 2016 has been a wretched year for barbaric acts justified by righteousness.   I am as impotent as the next when I read of or watch recordings of massacres such as we have witnessed this year in Nice, or a few days ago in Berlin to name but two.

Boxing Day has become a commercial affair - the first day of the sales in certain countries. Important though, I think, to remember its earlier meaning. 
A new year approaches. One that will trigger many changes: Brexit in Britain which might cause the reinstatement of border control between Northern Ireland and the Republic, the presidency of Donald Trump, an election in France where the extreme right is hoping to gain a majority control along with many other events that threaten to override tolerance. What I wish for tomorrow, for 2017, is that we can as a universe, as a species open our hearts to one another. If, every day, one tiny act of tolerance, a gesture for peace, is expressed we might begin to turn the tide of hate and intolerance that is threatening to engulf us.

Happy holidays. Peace on Earth.

Sunday 25 December 2016

Merry Dog Day by Miranda Miller

   I think we’re all feeling rather battered by the pace of change over the last year. How would it feel to be living through a period of really cataclysmic revolution?

“Bliss was it in that dawn was it to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven,”

as Wordsworth wrote in his Prelude. But was it? In principle I tend to be on the side of changing the world but I’m not sure how much many new ideas I could really accept. The generation of French people who managed to survive the Revolution were certainly challenged.

   They had to get used to a new social and legal system as well as a new system of weights and measures, which became the metric system. The Catholic church was of course seen as a pillar of the ancien régime and ‘dechristianisation’ aimed to excise religion from French society. Talleyrand, the bishop of Autun and one of the few clerics to support the measure, argued that all Church property rightfully belonged to the nation and that its return, by helping to bring about a better society, should therefore be viewed as a ‘religious act’. In October 1793 public worship was forbidden and over the next few months all visible signs of Christianity were removed. Churches were sold, closed or converted into Temples of Reason, warehouses, factories or stables. Church bells were melted down, ostensibly to help the war effort, crosses were taken from churches and cemeteries and religious statues, relics and works of art were seized and sometimes destroyed.

   Priests who continued to practise were arrested or deported to French Guiana. Under threat of death, imprisonment, military conscription, and loss of income, about twenty thousand constitutional priests were forced to abdicate and hand over their letters of ordination, and thousands more agreed or were coerced into marriage. Some of those who had abdicated continued to minister in secret.

   As the old Gregorian calendar was of course Christian, the Republican Calendar was adopted in 1793 by the Jacobin controlled National Convention. There is something rather magnificent about this doomed attempt to reinvent time itself. 1789 became Year I of Liberty and months were named after the seasons. Nivose, from the Latin nivosus, or snowy, started on December 21. A new ten-day week eliminated Sunday as a day of rest and worship and each day was named after a seed, tree, flower, fruit, animal, or tool and was divided into ten hours. Each hour was divided into 100 decimal minutes, and each decimal minute into 100 decimal seconds. Special clocks were made to display this new decimal time.

   Christmas became Le Jour du Chien and Boxing Day the Day of Lava. Carols were altered by changing the lyrics so that the names of political leaders were substituted for royal or religious characters. Hark the Constituent Assembly Sing? As traditional street nativities were banned, French families started to reproduce the scene in their own house in miniature versions with clay figurines and it seems inevitable that other Christmas traditions continued behind closed doors.

   For many the Revolution itself had become a religious cult; they commemorated revolutionary martyrs as saints and regarded the tricolour cockade and red liberty cap as sacred symbols. A new state religion. the Cult of the Supreme Being, was introduced. The Festival of the Supreme Being was held on 8 June 1794 throughout France and presided over by Robespierre in Paris, where Notre Dame was “de-baptized” for the occasion.

   “The first festival of reason, which took place in Notre Dame, featured a fabricated mountain, with a temple of philosophy at its summit and a script borrowed from an opera libretto. At the sound of the Hymne à la Liberté, two rows of young women, dressed in white, descended the mountain, crossing each other before the ‘altar of reason’ before ascending once more to greet the goddess of Liberty.”

   The Republican Calendar was abolished on 1 January 1806 by the Emperor Napoleon I. However, it was revived during the brief Paris Commune, which lasted from 6–23 May 1871 (or from  16 Floréal–3 Prairial An LXXIX).

Saturday 24 December 2016

CHRISTMAS AT WAR: A letter home in 1943

My father-in-law, William James Hicks joined the army in his late teens soon after the start of World War II.  Born in Shoreditch and then moving to Nottingham, he was an extremely pragmatic youngster from an impoverished background. His father was a semi-illiterate butcher's delivery man and slaughter house worker. His mother was a factory worker. He had been brought up with love, but at the school of hard knocks. He knew what was real and what was pretentious.

When he volunteered for his country, he freely admitted to his family later that he was volunteering with the intention of keeping his own hide intact. His plan was to become ground crew for the RAF, because even if there were still dangerous moments, it was still safer than some of the other gigs on offer.  However, that particular idea was stymied when a physical fitness test revealed that he was severely colour blind.  

Instead he found himself assigned to the infantry. Trained as a signals officer he wound up on a troop ship bound for North Africa, where later he was to become a tank commander and find himself in the thick of heavy fighting at El Alamein. From there he was posted to Sicily and Greece.  The attrition rate at times was terrible. He saw and did things that he mostly kept to himself, but sometimes a story would emerge when he had had one over the odds to drink, or he saw a Hollywood film depicting fighting and would say 'That's rubbish.  Men don't die like that.'  
Somewhere in North Africa
He emerged from the war with the rank of serjeant major and just 23 years old. The army asked him to stay on and make a career of it, but he refused and went instead to work at Raleigh Bicycles for the rest of his life. He was not ambitious. He was a highly intelligent man, but he cared little for the trappings of society and had his own idiosyncratic views on life.  The war scarred him as it scarred many.  At first once home in civvy life, he could not believe that he was going to live to see tomorrow. He drank heavily for a time, but gradually he healed himself.  The way he coped was to always live in the moment. The past was gone and you couldn't do anything to change it.  The future would be what it would be and there was no use worrying about that either. Live now, because that's all you have.  And be joyous about it, because what's the point in being down in the dumps?  You'll never have that moment again.

And he was always joyous. He married and fathered five children of which my husband is the second, and he lived a happy, ordinary life in the moment - a sort of inner city Hobbit who knew what really mattered and what didn't and who had one of the truest life compasses I have ever seen.

Playing at lions with the first 2 of his five children. My husband is the toddler.
When going through his effects when he passed away in 2011 just short of his 89th birthday (he was still going to the gym with us 3 months before he died), we found the two letters below.  One was written by him to his family at Christmas 1943 when he was in Italy.  The other is the circular letter from General Montgomery to the troops at this time.

On Christmas Eve 2016,  I think General Montgomery's words from 1943, remain spot on.

 "A Happy Christmas To you all and to your families wherever they may be."



Hicks  5.12.1943

Dear Mother,

Well just for a start here's wishing you a Merry Xmas And a very happy New Year. Sorry can't be with you to celebrate it, but I'll certainly be thinking of you about dinnertime Christmas Day. What's cooking anyway? Rabbits, turkeys or chicken? No, no, don't tell me, you are going to inflict them with mince pies again. Dad'S stomach lining will never stand it. We have been very lucky with our Christmas dinner, we have amassed in the last two days, three stray ducks, one portly tame rabbit, one turkey, and two chickens, that was going to be between four of us,  but as certain people passed allusions to travelling farmyards, we cut down to 3 ducks. Not that we wouldn't rather have kept the turkeys and chickens, but common sense dictated ducks because they are the slowest runners and our livestock has a distinct tendency to take a powder at every favourable opportunity. You should have seen me and the sergeant major catching the turkey. We chased it up cliffs, through cabbage patches, round shell holes, the sergeant major nearly breaking his neck down one of the latter. Luckily there was some thick mud at the bottom to break his fall, but he didn't seem to look on it as lucky at the time. In the end I cornered it in the outhouse of a farmhouse, and the darned thing had the cheek to peck me. Still  I have avenged those pecks. I gnawed his bones all last night in revenge.
When I get some brown paper and a slack period I shall be sending another parcel. It may not be sent for a few weeks or so yet though because I have not been able to get Dad anything yet and I want to avoid if I can any remark by him about poor old Bill being the onion! I did get a brand-new trilby the other day but I had the bright idea of folding it up in a parcel flat and I'm afraid the finished effort completely convinced me that trilbies do not fold. Tell him to hurry up and start smoking again before his poor son goes grey.
Enclosed as you may have noticed one of my maiden efforts at photography, what a mess. Still now I know what all the knobs and gadgets are for I may do better next time – that is of course when the  films arrive. 
Wish all the best to the neighbours, the best for Christmas especially to that dear old lady at number 14, and Mrs Ward and Mr Redburn. 
Love to all

Personal Message from the Army commander

Christmas 1943

To be read out to all Troops

1. Once again the eighth Army spends Christmas in the field.
This time last year we were in Tripolitania having just broken through the famous Agheila position;  now, we are well north of an East and West line through Rome.
And I would say to you, soldiers of the eighth Army, that you have every right to be very proud of what you have achieved during the past year; every officer and man has done his duty in a manner that is beyond all praise.

2. And so this Christmas 1943, I send to every officer and man in the great family of the eighth Army, my best wishes and my hearty greetings. And I send greetings from us all to your loved ones and friends in your homelands;  they are, indirectly, part of this great army in that their courage and fortitude is essential to the morale of the army itself.
And I know you will wish me to send our greetings also to all the workers on the home front; without their hard work in the factories and mines, we could win no victories in the field.

3. And today we recall the Christmas message:-


Surely this describes what we are fighting for?

Let us therefore Take it as our battlecry and our motto; and in doing so let us affirm that between us, you and I, we will see this thing through to the end.

4. And when peace has come, I like to think that the spirit of the eighth Army will be a factor for good in the unsettled and difficult days that will lie ahead.

Wherein lies the strength of this great Army?
It lies in its team spirit, in the firm determination of every man to do his duty, and in its high morale. This army is a great family with an ARMY "esprit de corps" and spirit the like of which can seldom have been seen before.
When the war is over and we all scatter to our various tasks, let us see to it that the spirit of the eighth Army lives on; may it be a great and powerful influence in the rebuilding of the nations.
The Christmas message will be our battle cry, not only now but in the years to come.

5. A Happy Christmas To you all and to your families wherever they may be.

B..L. Montgomery
General  Eighth Army