Tuesday, March 21, 2023

 Wyndham Hewitt

Picture a man, handsome, titled parents, King’s Scolar at Eton, racing driver, pioneer aviator, yacht-owner, homes in the South of France, Brittany and England, brilliant engineer, lover and (several wives, mostly famous models), bon viveur, accepted in Parisien society, cook, rather close relationship with royalty, and I am sure much else - my goodness, what a splendid person he must have been. But he wasn’t. And using a descriptive word of his times - a cad. And a very selfish one at that. 

Wyndham Hewitt was my uncle, my mother’s brother. Wyn, as he was known, had a famous anaesthetist father who helped to safv King Edward VII’s life just before his intented coronation, and was knighted for it. His mother was a beauty at court and those who now know the tastes of the king know what that might imply. In fact, stilll in the family is a magnificent brooch of blue enamel and many bordering diamonds, surrounding a royal cypher of diamonds. What might it have been for?

My first recollection of Wyn was a a child of perhaps four or five years. He had come to stay with us at our house in Silchester in the Hampshire countryside. That is where we first fell out, as I called him a pansy. A pansy to me was a flower, having, at the time, no idea at all that the word had a second meaning. 

We were to meet many times later, almost invariably when I was to be of use to him. These “uses” over the following years were generally to house-sit in one of his South of France places. In Cabris I had to feed the dogs and parrot, and pay the gardener and maid. This was fine for me as it was a chance to get away from my very small London Council rooms above the railway lines of Victoria station to have access to good food and wine and to swim in his pool in the sunshine.

I made a friend for life in the delightful form of a Yale Professor of History who had rented a villa nearby to write a book. Also nearby lived the mistress of a French scent baron with her six black poodles. The latter I met when painting a landscape, when each day she ran past my easel in heavy army boots while exercising herself and the dogs. 

I thought I had timed this particular stay beautifully as Wyn would return when arranged and then I could meet up with a fellow art school friend from England and drive to Italy. 

But the weather was unseasonable in Brittany where Wyn would usually spend the hot summer months. But it was cold in the North this time and he returned unexpectedly.

He learned that I had eaten not in his dark mid-Surrey heavely mahogonied dining room, but in the kitchen with the old and rather plain but perfectly pleasant maid. People of my standing did not eat in the kitchen with the cook. Also I had thrown stones for his bull terrier to retrieve - ruining the dog’s mouth. I drank local red wine which I collected in containers from Grasse, like the peasants, and made friends with the parrot that bit him but played swirling-arround games with me. I was told to leave. 

I was sad to part from dogs and parrot but had made two friends, both of whom invited me to stay - one of whom I did not want to distract from his writing and the other, soaked in perfume from Paris that was used mainly to keep ants at bay - without much success.

That was the last time that I went to Wyn’s house.

He died when still married to his 6th? wife, a Parisien model of note.

Wyn did have a daughter with whom he was estranged as he divorced her mother for having the  baby. She now lives, I believe, in Canada.

What happended to his wealth is uncertain as far as I  know. But he did keep gold bars for emergencies. These were somewhere hidden in the loft of his house in Cabris and were moved to a house he built in Mougins. There, we believe, they were actually built into the fabric of the house. They may still be there.

With the combination of French laws and lawyers, everything he owned went to his French wife who died shortly after he did. 

Friday, February 17, 2023

The Panorama Mesdag

The Panorama Mesdag

The Hague is very important for the Dutch. But for the outsider it is dull and a bit bleak and not a patch on Amsterdam where you can hardly turn without seeing canals and architecture of extreme beauty.

But The Hague offers some great surprises. Vermeers and Rembrants are to be enjoyed, a Chinese restaurant, called Fat Kee, and also a number 1 tram to take you in one direction to Delft and the other to the pier and seaside at Scheveningen. But, to me, there is something very special to see - something magical. 

On a road towards the Scheveningen direction (at Zeestraat 65) is an underplayed entrance to a museum of unexceptional paintings, leading to a staircase to climb. And at the top of that staircase you suddenly find yourself standing on a sand dune in about the year of 1880.

You are now in the midde of a late 19th century landscape with the sea on one side and the other overlooking the small fishing town of Scheveningen. This is the Panorma Mesdag, painted on the inside of a circular canvas contrived and executed by the artistic family Mesdag.

The boats, animals and figures do not actually move, but you are there - absolutely there. 

Boats are on the sand being unloaded of their fish and other goods. Horses and carts are there to transport these goods inland. Boats are under repair, sails are attended to and flap in the breeze. A regiment on horseback have appeared to exercise along the shoreline, children play, a minor seaside palace awaits the arrival of its royal owner, people scurry along narrow streets. You can smell the tar and the fish, hear the waves and bask in the light winds.

Few panoramas remain in these days of easy transport, but in their day you could visit the seaside from well inland. 

And for me, to be there is the best experience to be had in the Netherlands.  

Monday, January 23, 2023

Silchester - random recollections (some of the following I have written about elsewhere)

I was born on the 5th of February 1925 at the family home of Sawyers’ Lands, Silchester, near Reading, Berkshire, and delivered by Dr Daly, a Cambridge friend of my maternal grandfather’s. 

I was born for free in the days before National Health because Dr Daly had been involved in some sort of trouble at university and been helped out of it by my grandfather. So we were never charged for medical services.

When I was born my father had come out of the First World War after a nasty bullet wound inflicted by the Turks in Mesopotamia (Iraq). 

For an athlete who had been a scratch golfer, a fine tennis player and one who played cricket for his county, it was hardship indeed. He was on crutches when he married my mother in St George’s, Hanover Square, London.

Even in ’14 - ’18 wartime it was a normal society wedding, my mother ’s father being a knighted anaesthetist to King Edward VII. I still have somewhere a tissue paper souvenir handout as given to spectators outside the church who wanted to know who was getting married.

Together they built a house and started a chicken farm. My father had, before the war, been to Marlborough and Wye Agricultural College. Farming matters and nature were in his blood. Because of this, my father planned the setting for the house. From the road, the driveway led to a pear-shaped back drive. Around this grassy lawn were the ex-army hut barns, one for chicken food and ground-up oyster shell, and the other as  accommodation for the farm help. This was on one side of the pear and the back door to the house on the other. A shorter driveway led to the front door of the house. Then there was a barn for the car and stables. 

Tradesmen, like the baker, fish monger and wine merchant delivered to the back door around the pear. Wine and beer bottles were all recycled. And it was from the dregs of wine bottles that I drank must surely have given me a taste in the future for wine in a more generous quantity.

The kitchen garden and orchard were enclosed by a cupressus hedge as was a grass tennis court. The latter was of great importance to my father and was almost weed-free. In fact, there were times when we children were rewarded if we were able to find a weed. There was a summer house next to the court that housed an ACTO mower. And the wooden building could be turned to face any direction on a circular rail system. The drink for tennis parties was wonderful homemade lemonade.

My parents were poor. But being poor in those days was tolerable if one was well, or reasonably well connected. So, with my grandfather a knight, my uncle a knight and MP, my other grandfather a vicar to the Duke of Wellington and President of The National Rose Society, and my great uncle a Dean of Salisbury, we counted, I suppose, as being reasonably well connected. So we fitted into local society. Even when my parents played bridge, someone would volunteer to cover their losses. Yet I recall my mother in tears when the local brass band appeared in our drive at Christmastime to play carols and we had no money to give them.

My sister June, was firstborn, later to become quite an athlete. My brother, Nigel, was so small at birth that his early days were spent in a hatbox on cotton wool soaked in olive oil. And then, unwanted, came me, my mother trying all the then ploys to be rid of me - like having boiling hot baths, swilling down lots of gin, and taking concoctions from quacks in London’s Soho. Obviously none were effective.

In the 1920s, like more recently, war surplus was available. So our barns were previously army huts, as were the chicken sheds on iron wheels. The wheels with bulbous tyres for our carts were from unwanted RFC wartime bomber aeroplanes.

Sport was of the greatest importance for my father. Despite his foot being held up with a spring attached to a collar around his leg, he still played golf and took great interest in other sport, so much so that he was not particularly interested in his children’s academic education but very keen on their prowess at sport. At a sports day where my brother was at school and told to work on his lessons instead of being on the sports field, my father packed up Nigel’s possessions and immediately took him away from that school.

We had a PYE radio that held an array of glowing valves that looked like light bulbs, and needed a wet battery, like a car battery, and a dry battery that was a heavy lump with several places in which to plug apparatus. This radio was able to tune into Australia via an aerial strung from it to the top of a nearby tree so that my father could listen to the cricket Test Match score from the other side of the world. When the wet battery needed recharging, it was sometimes my turn to cart it over an adjoining field to the Firth’s house. There they had an electricity-generating machine where the floor was covered in batteries to which ours was connected for recharging. The machine had a single cilinder and a flywheel. The room smelled of acid. 

Water for our house came from a nearby well, cut deep through gravel. It was pumped to a tank in the roof space by a Swift car engine set in concrete. When we couldn’t get this car engine to work, we all took turns at a hand-operated pump in the kitchen. 

My father was a dab-hand at water divining with a forked ash stick. He would often be asked for advice on where new house builders should sink a well. We had another well for the farm, located in the centre of a field, its supply being located originally and tracked by my father’s divining. 

The house, downstairs, was lit by a lovely system of petrol, and, I suppose, air. This was made by a shiny, green drum with cog teeth and was powered by a weight at the end of a cable strung between the machine and the top of a tree. We had to wind up the weight when it was seen to be too low.

The farm was the working centre of our life, even though my mother, whose upbringing had been in royal circles, found being a farmer’s wife not to her liking, though she virtually ran the farm, my father not having a head for business.

Beside tennis, there were plenty of other entertainments available. There were lots of dances and, when at our house, our sprung floor was much appreciated. My father was the drummer and saxophonist in a jazz band. I recall a “Nine to Ninety” dance where a comely lady wearing a backless dress of the day’s fashion, bent over to expose her well-formed breasts. As a boy I thought that was disgusting. There were whist drives and plays put on by the villagers in the village hall. Bridge was popular, to which I was sometimes taken. On these dull occasions at a particular house I was usually given marrons glacés, when I would have much preferred a Mars bar.

Weekend cricket was much enjoyed by all classes. And at our village field we children kept ourselves busy by harvesting wild strawberries that were plentiful outside the boundary. We all had bicycles, and as our village was completely hemmed in by fords, we would much enjoy riding through the water. Summer picnics were a regular treat. We were never bored, summer or winter.

Aeroplanes and flying took a major part in our lives. Not only were aeroplanes still in their infancy and naturally interesting, but we boys were devoted to making small models of them from Sybird kits. These were bought in a box holding pine and balsa wood, a lead pilot, some mica and a sheet of plans, with the purchaser left to carve and construct models of British and German aircraft. When Alan Cobham rented a farmer’s field in the district, we would visit to watch his aeroplanes. I flew as passenger in an Avro Tutor biplane for 7/6 that included a loop-the-loop. We would drive to the Solent to watch seaplanes race for the Schneider Trophy, and admire private aeroplanes, like Mew Gulls and Flying Fleas, when they flew low near our house in the handicapped King’s Cup Air Race. 

In a Fokker Trimotor plane, and in 7 days, my Uncle Wyndham Hewitt flew as flight engineer with Kingsford Smith in a record breaking Christmas mail flight in 1931 from Australia to Croydon Aerodrome in London. From Croydon Nigel and I were flown around London in a Klem Bat - a modern, cantilever wing monoplane, built by Germans to train pilots for yet another war. Kingsford Smith was due to come to see us in an aeroplane. We set out a landing T with sheets to show him the wind direction so that he could land upwind, but he never arrived, being very unreliable and rather keen on spending his non-flying time on women and booze.

Food at home was very much country food consisting  of steamed puddings, hearty stews, many vegetables and, especially cakes as we had a chicken farm. We children would beg Connie, the maid, to lick out her cake-mixing bowls. Fruit, both fresh and home-bottled, featured prominently, and my father, being a bit of a health freak, liked to boil cabbage in a pressure cooker placed on top of our kitchen range - a range that not only heated the kitchen in winter but supplied the hot water for the house from its back boiler. Game featured in winter but was hung for such a long time that the final taste would be unrecognisable today. Stilton cheese, again, was treated with port and was considered to be perfect when almost alive. We children were given the choice of menu on our birthdays. And despite living on a chicken farm, we would always choose roast chicken. It was, of course, free range and wonderful.

Digging in the vegetable garden and bordering the road, we would often find Roman coins. These were so commonplace that we just threw them into a hamper - where they eventually were destroyed when our cottage around the pear was burnt to the ground during the war.

My father once grew some impressively large gooseberries in the kitchen garden. He was about to show some at the village fete and bottle the rest, when at dead of night, gypsies from Tadley broke in through the hedge that separated our garden from the road, and stole them - every single one, and in the dark, too.

We preserved fruit and vegetables in sealed glass jars for winter consumption. Making jam was important as it was used in puddings and on bread  for tea. Wild food featured prominently. Bilberries (blueberries) were harvested in the woods, mushrooms dried and blackberries gathered from brambles for pies and being cooked with apples for pudding fillings.

Bread was very special as most villages had access to a baker nearby and bread from each tasted better than loaves from our own bakery.

Cheese was made in many a farm. We would bike to Sherfield-on-Loddon’s Lilly Mill for a variety of Cheddar, and near to Silchester Pound for a type of Camembert.

At Yates, the local grocery shop, bacon was cut from the smoked side of a pig. Salt was cut from a large block and sold by weight in a sugar-paper bag, as were currants. Butter was cut from a large block and shaped with two wooden paddles. And at Ellinghams, the sweets and tobacco shop, we children bought lemonade crystals to lick from the bag, chocolate drops, and sherbet fountains where sherbet was sucked up from a paper tube via a hollow licorice stick. 

We children did not live stagnant lives at Silchester. Strathfield Saye Rectory, just a five mile bike ride away, was the home of my grandfather and then the Rev John Barker who was married to my aunt Nancy, one of my father’s sisters. There we would stay and have the run of my grandfather’s Glebe Lands and the river Loddon in which to swim, fish and catch crayfish. And it was there that another aunt (Dorothy) ran the Brownies, of which I was made one, being the right age but not the right sex. 

And we would often stay at Shelleys, in Knockholt, Kent, the home of yet another of my father’s sisters (Margery) who was married to uncle Waller (Sir Waldon Smithers MP). There I got on well with the gardener who, when I was there recuperating from TB plied me with the best vegetables to take back to London.

At home in Silchester we had governesses. One of them was Jenevieve Chapuis who came from Vevey, in Switserland. We remained friends with her, and I was staying in Vevey, supposedly to learn French, 14 years old, when the Second World War was about to begin. I was put on a train and made my way back to England. All I recall about my brief stay with the Chapuis’s family was the wooden, slatted slide down which we slid into the water of Lac Léman. But first one had to slosh water down the slide to give it an element of slipperiness, which I failed to do - causing meaty burn stripes on my backside.

Connie, our maid at Silchester, did about everything, cooking cleaning, bathing us and much else. Her lover was the local steamroller man, who would leave his bike in bushes at the bottom of the drive and climb through a very small window into her downstairs room, when it would have been far easier to turn around a corner of the house and use a much larger window. 

Connie’s family came from Tadley, where the gypsies came from. I went to her house once to see, just inside the front door, a huge black pig hanging from a hook.  I suppose it was to be de-bristled and butchered. But for a small boy it was a rather sudden and yet impressive sight. 

An occasional visitor to our house at Silchester was my formidable grandmother (Lady Hewitt). She always wore black clothes and was rather grand and ladylike.

I was a bit of a dab-hand at snaring rabbits for the pot. One day, when she was staying, I had caught a rabbit and was returning to the house to deal with it, when grandmother said that she would like to paunch and skin it. So she rolled up her sleeves, cut and cleared out its innards, skinned it, and then cut it into pieces suitable for the pot. 

From then on, never having known of her Irish origins, we concluded that she might have been a farmer’s or a butcher’s daughter. 

So I suppose, those early days of childhood at Silchester did influence my later life of becoming an RAF pilot, artist and a writer of books, articles and blogs. 

So I suppose, those early days of childhood at Silchester did influence my later life of becoming a RAF pilot, artist and a writer of books, articles and blogs.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

A Simple Standard Lamp

Some years ago we bought and transported home a standard lamp from Holland that had magic in its makeup, inasmuch as near to its bulb was a small stem that by touching it with one's fingers it would change the volume of light from degrees of dull to brightness.

As with all electrical goods, planned obsolescence or not, it came to the end of its life. We had to find a replacement.

This replacement had to be simple, unobtrusive, and to spread light around generally and in particular upwards and downwards.

To find one should have been simple. But somehow standard lamps are generally "feature" items, with fancy mouldings, tassels, voluptuous shaped shades and all the rest. So to find a simple and practical design turned out to be extremely difficult. 

That was, until, when browsing around a Scandinavian shop when looking for A4 picture frames, I spied on a shelf just the kind of lamp that I had been looking for - but was unavailable at the time. The                price? £7.

I persevered. And on another occasion I spoke to a supervisor, who found the last one in the shop. I thought it was a mistake when a smallish cardboard box was handed over in exchange for £7. "Is that really it?" I queried. "You have to make it up yourself." came the reply. 

For that price one doesn't expect precision engineering. So to make it up would require patience and imagination. 

The pictorial instructions were cursory. And the manufacturer had difficulty in describing how a springy bit of material in a paper tube could be converted into a circular lampshade.

Much later and with the help of four hands, two clamps and superglue, the shade took shape. Bits that parted from the construction too easily were superglued in place. Finally plugged in, the lamp was in one piece and just what was wanted.

Then when I was turning the Dutch one into small pieces for the dustmen to cart away, I found that its shade was not only well made, but fitted over the Scandinavian one as if they were meant to be together. Again, with the invaluable superglue, the old shade was used to partially cover the smaller new one and the result was not unlike lights of the 1960s that had louvers to direct their beams of light.

It is unique, charming and, well, all for £7. 

As this will be the last blog of the year 2022, we would like to wish all our loyal readers a very happy, healthy and prosperous New Year. 

Friday, December 09, 2022

Smoke, Fog, Lung, and Work or Peasouper

 The war had ended. There was no further a need for pilots, so I was grounded and became an RAF Photographic Intelligence Officer.

Having missed the years I should have been at school because of the war, I used the "grounded" time to acquire enough qualifications to become a medical student at St Thomas's Hospital.

Having joined the RAF when I was old enough in 1942, I had to await my turn to be demobilised after the war had ended (first in first out).

Just before that date I was found to have contracted TB in the lung. There was no cure at that time. I must have acquired the affliction in 1947 when the winter was exceptionally cold and both fuel and food were rationed (even for those in services).

So, after being invalided out of the RAF, I started to become a medical student. But after more spitting of blood, it had to be the conclusion of my medical ambitions.

Then came the start of what turned out to be a seven-year process of being screened every week or so, and having a thick needle shoved between my ribs to allow air to enter an induced gap between my ribs and lung. This was thought to "rest" the lung, and was as unpleasant to put up with as it sounds.

Being invalided out of the RAF entitled me to a Council flat. This consisted of two minuscule rooms above the railway lines outside Victoria Station.

It was still the age of steam trains, coal burning, smoke and dense fogs. Below my window, steam engine drivers kept their engines boilers in readiness by the continuous burning coal. This meant more smoke. From my abode, the general noise of railways was punctuated by the occasional shock-inducing blast from the release of excess steam. 

Inside my studio room I kept warm by burning coal in a small grate, thus adding to the atmosphere that could become thick fog. One of these "peasoupers" as they were called, was so thick that the only way of navigation outside was to walk with one foot on the pavement and the other in the road.

I needed to move to cleaner air, and did so by buying a bombed-out house in the Fulham Road and restoring it (less the top floor, because of the cost) to become a comfortable place in which to live and work.

In the meantime I went to the Central School of Art to paint with Bernard Meninsky and then to the Old Vic School of theatre design. 

Now working as a scene painter at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and then designing and constructing sets for repertory theater and touring shows, and creating sets for television (black and white then - actually various greys). I still managed to paint landscape that sold well from several of the best London galleries.

It seems extraordinary that breathing in the dirty air of that period, and coping with the building work and food rationing, not to mention the almost weekly high dose of screening radiation involved with the chest pneumothorax, that far from killing me I seemed to have thrived on it. 

(A119 (A1)

Thursday, November 24, 2022


 Foxes seem to have been part of my life.

As a child they were the enemy and I was somewhat afraid of them.

We had a chicken farm (all free range then) where the chicken houses, where the birds laid their eggs, were old army huts on iron wheels. These were moved around a large field. 

At night, if foxes gained entry to a shed they would slaughter all the chickens there, just, it seems, for the pleasure of it.

Gamekeepers may have trapped or killed foxes, but mostly they were the target of The Hunt.

The various hunts in that part of Hampshire/Berkshire met in front of some large mansion or other with men and women on horseback, surrounded by a pack of excited hounds. The men wore pink (red) coats, and the ladies, often riding sidesaddle, wore black.

After draughts of sloe gin or brandy, handed up to them on their horses, the horsemen and women would move off (blow away) under the control of the master, to find, and kill a fox. The sounds of the master's hunting horn would indicate to hounds and people what was happening and what to do, like "blowing away" (start) or the long note calling the hounds ("blowing out").

It was then that we youngsters with bicycles, who knew the country well, would position ourselves where the foxes might run. There we would see them in daytime and witness the hunt in full cry after them, as their quarry raced across open land from copse to copse to escape death.

When close to a fox in the open one felt a sense of danger, magnified by the noise of the hunting horn, the shouting and the baying and barking of the hounds.

So I saw foxes as dangerous creatures and, for the sake of the farm, the more killed by the hounds the better.

Those were country foxes. Now I see town foxes.

My first town fox was spied from an underground train, above ground, basking in the sunshine beside the track. It made a fine sight with its sleek shape and chestnut colouring.

Now they are commonplace around the London streets where I live.

They do damage in town, trashing gardens in a comprehensive manner and, in a neighbour's case, leaving a cat's head behind.

Two doors away, after hearing much squealing we saved a cat from being mauled to death by a fox. The owner of the house where this occurred contacted the cat's owner, who, because of the animal's serious injuries, suggested that it be put down. But it was taken to the vet, patched up, and has turned out to be a charming cat, but a wild one, which would much rather be wild like the foxes than cooped up, like it is, as a house cat.

When I get up at night I look into the still, lamp-lit night outside and sometimes foxes running (fox trotting, I suppose) along the road and pavement. But recently I have seen in the early hours, a fox curled up, apparently asleep, right in the centre of the road outside the house. From that position it is able to see up to two streets.

Is it just a warm place on which to curl up and pass the time of night? Or is it guarding a corner of its territory?

Like dogs, let sleeping foxes lie. So I would not think of disturbing it. Indeed, I have to admit I'm still a little afraid of them. 

Friday, November 04, 2022

An Apple Store

 I have recorded previously in my An Autobiography in Words and Pictures about how, as an airman posted to RAF Hornchurch in late 1944, I volunteered to be a roof slater of bombed-out housing while waiting for a posting abroad for pilot training.

When at last, I was waiting no longer and on my way, the first move was by train to Liverpool to board the New Mauritania liner bound for Canada.

We were allotted hammock space, and I was given the job of being in charge of the refrigerated apple store.

This had the advantage of, having left a strictly raisioned nation, I now had access to as many apples as I wanted. They were American apples of a deep red colour, all perfectly shaped, and scented the one-bulb-lit cold store in which I would spend my refrigerated days.

That was an advantage. A disadvantage was my location should we be attacked by Nazi submarines.

In eight days we docked in Moncton, New Brunswick, and were offloaded into barracks. 

There, my only recollection was of a hill where gravity worked the other way around. One peddled a bicycle down the hill and free-wheeled up it.

We (our Flight of about 100) were soon on a train to the USA, specifically to the RAF, 3 B.F.T.S airfield near to Miami, Oklahoma.

From being transported from war-torn England, where strict rationing was in force, we were bombarded with kindness at railway stops where locals came aboard to ply us with candy, tobacco and much else. This bountiful generosity seemed quite unreal to us ordinary airmen. It was as if we were heroes.

(A 113)