Friday, February 10, 2012

The Singleton Strikes Back!

An op-ed piece in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago was centered on the fact that more people are living alone than ever before, with the USA actually lagging behind Europe in the number of singletons making their way in the world without a partner at their side. In fact, the author, Erik Klinenberg, says “singleton” is his word, but I could have sworn Helen Fielding arrived there first with the inimitable Bridget Jones.   About ten years ago, Meghan Daum wrote a similar article for the Los Angeles Times, when the 2000 census report was published, showing a rise in the number of people living alone.  “And you can bet most of those people are women,” she said.

This sort of observation is far from new, as readers of this blog know.  A generation of British women lived alone following the end of the Great War, and were even the subject of a 1921 pamphlet entitled, “The Problem of the Surplus Women.”  As I said in my introduction to the blog, when I launched it last year (click on the Introduction to the Blog link on the right if you haven’t read it), I’ve been collecting books for and by this generation for a long time now, so it’s time to break out one of my favorites – interestingly enough, written by an American author, and published in 1935.  Live Alone and Like It by Marjorie Hillis is a fun read – I have an original copy, but it was republished in 2008.  I’ll be looking at similar books in future posts, but let’s consider some sage words from Live Alone and Like It, which the author described as being “A Guide for the Extra Woman.” 

 Solitary Refinement is the title of the first chapter – and it sets the tone for the rest of the book, though the author is a bit dismissive of the “lonely hearts” types and says that, “There is a technique about living alone successfully … whether you view your one-woman ménage as Doom or Adventure (and whether you are twenty-six or sixty-six), you need a plan, if you are going to make the best of it.”  Ah yes, a plan for singlehood.  If you read Singled Out, recommended in an earlier post, you’ll know that many women in post-WW1 Britain definitely made the best of it, if not the most  of it, with some choosing singlehood even when the opportunity for marriage presented itself.    Hillis, though, suggests, “ … the basis of successful living alone is determination to make it successful..”  With that in mind, here are a few of the chapter headings:

Who do you think you are?
When A Lady Needs A Friend
Your Leisure, If Any
The Great Uniter

That sentiment behind first chapter title has inspired a whole raft of self-help books in recent years.  You can almost feel Marjorie Hillis wagging her finger and warning you to “act as if …” in a very take-no-prisoners fashion. Indeed, she says it behooves the single woman to acts as if she were a duchess, or deserved nothing less than orchids.  “It’s a good idea,” she says, “to get over the notion (if you have it) that your particular situation is a little bit worse than anyone else’s.”  I could almost hear my grandmother saying that, starting her tirade with something along the lines of, “If you think you’ve got it bad, think of (add deprived person, whether the starving, the poor, the sick.)”  It worked, that “just get on with it” attitude.  Here’s some more advice from Hillis:  “Never, never, never let yourself feel that anybody ought to do anything for you.  Once you become a duty you also become a nuisance.”  Ouch, I bet that hurt a few of her original readers, and maybe a few of her more recent followers.

Listening well, attention to matters of one’s personal grooming, care with alcohol consumption, and friendship are all discussed, along with advice on the spending and saving of money.  Though Live Alone & Like It was one of many such books written during the between-the-wars period, it is certainly one of the most entertaining.  I’ve often imagined the kind of women, in that era, who might have bought this book.  I think it would have made them feel not quite so alone, knowing that they were, in fact, part of a trend.  Now, according to those recent articles, though there’s an assumption that most single people living alone are women, increasingly men are choosing the solitary life.   The interesting thing is that the dynamics are different now, when compared to those faced by Britain’s “surplus women” of the 1920’s – we have enhanced travel, social media, all sorts of ways to feel connected.  Yet so many are choosing to live alone and please themselves.

The final page of Live Alone And Like It has a Q & A, and includes the question, “May a woman traveling alone talk to men who are fellow travelers without being introduced – especially on shipboard?
Answer:  If you are old enough to travel on shipboard alone, you are old enough to talk to anyone who interests you.

I like Marjorie’s no-nonsense approach, though she sounds a little like the headmistress of a girls’ school who has transitioned into being a life coach.  Klinenberg closes his New York Times op-ed piece with the words, “All signs suggest that living alone will become even more common in the future, at every stage of adulthood and in every place where people can afford a place of their own.” 

Taking into account the advice of women like Marjorie Hillis, it seems that if you want to like how you live, whoever you are, whether you are alone – or, indeed, with a partner or family – an element of being able to do what you want to do, when you want to do it is an absolute necessity.

Next time:  The Women Who Spied in WW1

Thursday, February 2, 2012

On Beauty ...

My paternal Grandmother died when I was eighteen.  Her passing was particularly sad for me because, having been raised many miles from London, where she lived, I had just started college a few miles from her home, and was enjoying popping in to see her on a Saturday afternoon, or dropping by on a weeknight.  She always sent me back to my digs with a packet of chocolate digestive biscuits (you Anglophiles know what those are), or she’d put a few coins in my hand, reminding me to call my parents – this from a woman who didn’t have a telephone.   

Nan had suffered a dreadful fall down a steep flight of stairs.  Her neck was broken, so we all knew she had very little time.  I remember my mother coming back from the hospital, where Nan had asked her to wash her face.  My mother told me, “It was like touching a baby’s skin, so soft and smooth.”  Her skin was something people talked about, it was so unblemished – and she had never worn make-up in her life.  That life had been a hard one.  She had left school – and home – at twelve to go into domestic service.  Her father brought her back at thirteen when her mother died – she was needed to care for the house and three younger brothers.  She married my grandfather in 1917 – a soldier who was still recovering from physical and psychological wounds sustained at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and who was about ten years her senior.  She must have been all of 18.  To the day she died, she never had a washing machine, but instead completed all her household tasks with little in the way of labor saving devices (I think she had a wringer, because I remember her telling me to keep my fingers out of the way when I was a little girl and had been sent to stay for a week in the summer), yet her face remained barely lined even to her death in her late seventies.

I remember visiting Nan when I was about sixteen.  I was sitting at the kitchen table when she stopped whatever she was doing – you hardly ever saw her sitting down – and took my chin in her hand and moved my face from side to side, scrutinizing me through her thick spectacles.  “Time to get you some rosewater and glycerine, my girl,” she said.  So that afternoon we walked down to the shops, stopping in at the pharmacy.  She asked for, “My usual rosewater.”  I watched as the pharmacist brought out two large demijohns, each marked in gold lettering.  He blended equal measures of rosewater and glycerine in a plain bottle, marked the label and handed it to her. It was cheap.  Much cheaper than anything else I’d been using on my skin. Nan instructed me that upon waking and before bed I was to soak a small ball of cotton wool with the solution, and to cleanse my face completely.  She also told me that the sun was not my friend. Why I didn’t stick with her advice, I don’t know.

I thought of Nan this week, while reading an article written in 1926 for a woman’s magazine, and I wondered how far we women had come, really, where care of the skin is concerned.  Tackling the question of what makes a fine complexion, here’s what the writer said: “To do her best for her appearance is every woman’s duty towards herself and her surroundings.”  Her surroundings?  Might my living room be doomed if I forget to moisturize?  Mind you, maybe our foremothers knew there was a link between personal care and a respect for one’s environment, and thus, one another. Or perhaps an untidy house leads to – heaven forbid – wrinkles!

Here’s something I think I always knew, but of course in a more modern article wouldn’t get a mention: the relationship between discomfort and poor skin.  Those women who came of age in the early part of the last century knew this.  Nan always said, “If you’re bad on your feet, you’re bad all the way through.” I never saw her in more than one inch heels.  And here’s what the author of the 1926 article said:  “Take for granted that your health is in trim, that you have no corns or sore feet that tend to giving your features a pained expression (the beginning of wrinkles!), and that you take a sufficient amount of daily exercise and fresh air.”  A suggested beauty regime followed, which I would basically describe as “soap and water” cleansing (and remember, soap was often pure of chemicals in those days), but then our writer asks the question, “Does the so-called beauty culture result in anything worth having?” 

Can you imagine that question in today’s magazines, when any regime seems to be worth having – and at great cost?  Here’s the 1926 answer:  “While some of it may be useful, a great deal of it is positively harmful.  The powders clog the pores, which are the ‘breathers’ of the skin.  The paints and lipsticks encase the face so that the captivating muscular twinkling movements stop; the dimples lose the art of ‘dimpling’ and every kind of animation of the face disappears.”

What would they say about Botox?

My grandmother’s face was beautifully animated.  Her smile was broad and her gray-blue eyes twinkled as a grandmother’s eyes should.  My father has her skin, and so does my cousin Celia, who took that sage advice and kept out of the sun.  Unlike me.

Unfortunately, I never kept up with the glycerine and rosewater, though I have always tried to keep things fairly simple regarding my skin. However, after sustaining a hamstring injury some months ago, I decided to take one of those joint and ligament supplements that are supposed to help with movement. I did my research and picked a good one, but missed the observation of many reviewers that, while their joints felt better, their skin was adversely affected by the supplement.  Uh-oh, if you could have seen my skin.  My grandmother would have brought out the carbolic soap and a scrubbing brush!  I was so miserable, and couldn’t bear to be near a mirror.  But Nan must have spoken to me from the beyond, because in my despair, I went online and found a bottle of Glycerine & Rosewater.  Within hours of applying the water, in the way my grandmother instructed, my skin had calmed, and a few days later, there was even a bit of a glow.  Now, many years after she took my adolescent chin in her hand and inspected my complexion, I know without a doubt that my grandmother knew best.

So, what tips about skincare did you learn from your mothers and grandmothers?  And did you stick with them?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Those Magnificent Women In Their Flying Machines

It was in 2008 that the last female veteran of WW1,  passed away.  Though her passing was covered by the press in both her native Britain, and in Canada, her adopted home, her death didn’t seem to garner the attention that the old soldiers – men such as Harry Patch – attracted in their final years.  To be sure, her experience was different – Harry Patch had marched into battle, and saw action again in the second world war. He was a remarkable man who had no truck with limelight-seeking politicians who sidled along to pay their respects at a timely moment for a photo-opportunity – good old Harry made Tony Blair wish he had kept well away.

But let’s get back to Gladys Stokes.

She transferred from the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps to the newly formed Women’s Royal Air Force in April 1918, where she became a Leading Aircraftswoman.  Her story is a remarkable one, with early adventures that are the stuff from which books are written, however, the fact that she was an aircraftswoman – who was responsible for certain aspects of aircraft production in the Great War – fascinated me, and led me to look a little further into the lives of women who took to the air during the 1914-18 war, and in the years that followed.  We’ve all heard of Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson, but they were simply following in the steps of some truly intrepid flyers – and if you think that women flying combat missions is something new, then think again!

 Female pilots volunteering for military service in WW1 included the following brave women:  Helene Dutrieu, who made flights from Paris to check on German troop movements. Marie Marvingt flew bombing missions over Germany.  
A cadre of Russian aviatrix included Princess Eugenie Shakovskaya, an artillery and reconnaissance pilot, and Princess Sophie Dolgorukaya who was a pilot and an observer.  Courageous women, all.  Is it any surprise, then, that so many women took to the air in the post-WW1 years?

I remember listening to recordings of women who had lived through the Great War, and whose lives were changed not only by their experiences, but by the huge shifts in society following the conflict. One woman was asked about being a “flapper” in the 1920’s and in reply commented, “They called us flappers because we were like butterflies breaking out of the cocoon and flapping our wings so we could fly.” And fly they did, socially, educationally – and quite literally.

While I was in England in October last year, I came across a series of articles in an annual written in the 1930’s, and one just fascinated me:  Flying As A Career For Girls.   Here’s how it begins:
“For some years now flying has been a delightful hobby for wealthy girls, but at last it is beginning to take its place as providing a career for the not-so-well-off.”  The article points out that some fledgling female pilots prefer to be taught by their own sex, and commented on the number of flying clubs with “girl instructresses.”  I think I would have stuck at my flying lessons if I hadn’t been instructed aloft by a half-bored pilot with a smoldering cigar that never left his mouth, even as he was shouting commands at me (and that was only my first lesson!).

The records established by women are inspiring even today. The author describes New Zealander Jean Batten as being, “The gamest little airwoman in the world.” Batten was often in the news given her flying exploits, especially when she established the record of flying solo from Port Darwin, Australia to Kent, England (8,615 miles in 5 days, 18 hours, 15 minutes).  
Other intrepid airwomen include Harriet Quimby,  the first women to fly at night, and to pilot her own ‘plane across the English Channel (1912).  
Alys McKey Bryant, the first woman pilot in Canada (1913)
And one I really love – Bessie Coleman, the first African American, man or woman, to earn a pilot’s license. 
There’s a list that goes on and on of women’s accomplishments in the field of aviation in the first 40 years of the last century.  Author Dorothy Carter, herself a pilot, wrote many stories for girls and young women, generally featuring an intrepid aviatrix who could not only teach others to fly, but who could teach the men a thing or two about aircraft.  I love glancing through these old stories, and reading the biographies of women who took to the skies, especially that extraordinary generation of women between the wars who seemed to be game for almost anything.  And I wonder how girls and young women today could be inspired by their stories – they may not want to take to the air, but every woman, in her own way, wants to fly.

“We swung over the hills and over the town and back again, and I saw how a man can be master of a craft, and how a craft can be master of an element. I saw the alchemy of perspective reduce my world, and all my other life, to grains in a cup. I learned to watch, to put my trust in other hands than mine. And I learned to wander. I learned what every dreaming child needs to know -- that no horizon is so far that you cannot get above it or beyond it.”  Beryl Markham, West With the Night

Friday, January 6, 2012

Downton Abbey - It's Baaaack!

I know so many of you can’t wait for the arrival of Downton Abbey’s second series to hit the screens in the USA this weekend. I’m afraid I couldn’t wait, so I ordered the UK DVD set and was able to watch the whole series over a three-day period some weeks ago (one of my best investments – a code-free DVD player!).  Not only am I rather hooked on the series, but this time – as you know – I was particularly interested in how the Great War would be depicted on the home front, especially given the wires that seem to ensnare this particular cast of characters, whether upstairs or below stairs.

I’m not going to give any spoilers here, that would be so unfair, however, I’ll just say I was interested to see how the women were portrayed in this series, especially given my interest in women’s lives during the 1914-18 war, and how those changes impacted their futures in the following decades.  It seemed that each of the Crawley sisters represented the different ways in which women became more independent, how they experienced having a voice and a choice, and then exercised that new freedom.  In them we see both the joys of discovery and the disappointments that  can accompany taking a road never before traveled.  See what you think when the series airs, and in the meantime, I’ll be coming back, posting on this blog about the lives of women during that era.

The naysayers were out in force when the second series of Downton Abbey aired in the UK. There were criticisms regarding language (for example, the fact that someone’s young man was referred to as her “boyfriend” – which was not used in those days), and comments about costumes and whether so-and-so really would have worn tweeds, or whatever.  While I like to see authenticity, we have to remember that this is a story, and in a story sometimes to keep the viewer engaged, one has to sacrifice fact to get to the truth.  And I don’t think the overall truth of the time period was compromised – the series focuses on a family in the upper echelons of society, with only brief glimpses of those on the ladder’s lower rungs.  The impact of war is a bit rosier than it might have been, but you get a sense of how some aspects of life will never go back to the way it was before, no matter how much the Dowager might want the pre-war status quo established again.

I still think, though, one of the most poignant moments is when the young Lady Sybil says, Sometimes it feels as if all the men I ever danced with are dead.”   And that’s what interests me and brings me back to this period in history time and again:  750,000 young men killed in Britain alone, 1,350,000 severely wounded, and – according to the latest estimates – over 200,000 profoundly shell-shocked.  And after the war, two million women of marriageable age for whom there was little chance of finding a partner to share life and have a family, were considered “surplus.”  Now I’m looking forward to Series 3 – I want to know what happens to those Crawley girls.  And of course there’s – uh-oh, better not say any more ...

Enjoy your visit to Downton Abbey this weekend.  I'm expecting the DVD of the "Christmas Special" which aired on December 25th in Britain to arrive any day now.  Waiting was never my strong suit!

Next week:  Those Magnificent Women & Their Flying Machines.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Very Special Brave Lady

When I sent an email to my friends about my new blog, one of the women I ride with replied with this message: “If you’re writing about women who’ve been to war, you’d better include this brave lady.”  So I clicked on the link she'd added, and was soon engrossed in the life of a gal I knew nothing about, a Marine Staff Sergeant whose courage in battle has slipped from the story of America in the 20th century, even though the lady in question was featured in Life magazine’s, “Celebrating Our Heroes,” edition.  Listed alongside Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, & Martin Luther King is a small Mongolian mare named Reckless, who became the greatest war heroine horse in American history. She was a lovely lady who won the hearts of her fellow marines with her courage and quirky ways.  Here’s her story ….

Reckless was recruited into the Marine Corps in October of 1952 by Lieutenant Eric Pedersen. Pedersen was the commanding officer of the Recoilless Rifle Platoon, Antitank Company, Fifth Marine Regiment. Given the long distance endured by ammunition carriers as they took their precious cargo to the front lines, and the threat of enemy engagement along the way, Lt. Pedersen recognized the value of having a horse to help transport ammunition for his platoon's recoilless rifles.  After receiving permission from regimental commander, Colonel Eustace P. Smoak, Pedersen and two other Marines set off for the Seoul racetrack. It was there that Pedersen first laid his eyes on the little red racehorse who would later distinguish herself in battle and become a decorated combat veteran.  The Marine lieutenant bought her for $250 - and it was his own money.

During the first few nights with the Marines, Reckless, as they named her, was tied in her bunker. This didn't last long because she was soon given free rein to roam around. She visited the Marines in their tents and even spent some restless nights with them. They would just move their sleeping bags to one side and make room for their new recruit. On very cold nights, Sgt Latham, her designated carer/trainer would invite her into his tent to sleep standing up next to the stove. Sometimes she'd even lie down and stretch out.  Her early days with the Marine Corps were filled with Sgt Latham putting his new recruit through training. He taught her how to get in and out of a jeep trailer - Reckless had to be quite nimble since the trailer was only 36in by 72in. "She'd jump in the trailer and go in catty-cornered, and I'd tie her down," recalled the Marine.

Latham taught Reckless how to take cover while on the front lines. When tapped on the front leg, she would lay down. The training proved invaluable on many occasions when Reckless was making journey after journey on her own. Latham trained the mare to go straight to a bunker when incoming rounds hit behind the lines. "We'd get incoming there too, and they'd [the enemy] lay it on you. If Reckless was in the back, she'd go to a bunker. All I had to do was yell, "Incoming, incoming!' and she'd go." During training, Latham offered Reckless her first Coke. She liked the fizzy drink so much, she nudged Latham and asked for more.  He consulted naval hospital corpsman George Mitchell, who advised she not be given more than a couple of bottles a day – though he wasn’t a veterinarian, "Doc" Mitchell became the go-to guy when issues of Reckless' health came up.

 There’s are a few YouTube clips that tell the tale of Reckless. I was amazed at the pluck and intelligence of this little lady, who would be sent on her way to the front line, often alone with her load of ammunition. She never failed to find her guys, and always came home to her base.  Here’s what Life magazine had to say about Reckless:
During the Battle for Outpost Vegas in March 1953, on one day alone, Reckless made 51 trips from the Ammunition Supply Point to the firing sites, most of the time on her own. She carried 386 rounds of ammo on her back (over 9,000 lbs) and walked over 35 miles through open rice paddies and up steep mountains with enemy fire coming in at the rate of 500 rounds per minute. Wounded twice, she never stopped. She shielded Marines going up to the line, and helped carry the wounded to safety. They’d take the wounded off her back, load her up with ammunition, and send her on her way up to the guns. There’s no telling how many lives she helped save.

Reckless was brought home to the United States after the Korean War, and first stepped onto American soil on November 10th 1954. There are wonderful stories of her homecoming, including her presence as an honored guest at parties and receptions (one on the 10th floor of the Marines Memorial Club in San Francisco).  It was at Camp Pendleton, where she spent the rest of her days, that she was promoted to Staff Sergeant, with a march-past of 1700 marines – and her sons, Fearless and Dauntless in attendance.

The sorrel mare was retired on Nov. 10, 1960, with full military honors.  An article in the San Diego Union stated that General David M. Shoup, then-Commandant of the Marine Corps, had issued this order: "SSgt Reckless will be provided quarters and messing at the Camp Pendleton Stables in lieu of retired pay.”  Reckless' decorations included two Purple Hearts, Good Conduct Medal, Presidential Unit Citation with star, National Defense Service Medal, Korean Service Medal, United Nations Service Medal, and Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation, all of which she wore on her scarlet and gold blanket – and if I know horses, she would have understood exactly how impressive she looked in that blanket.
On May 13, 1968, the Marine Corps lost a dear friend when Reckless was injured and had to be put to sleep.  Reports put her age at 19 or 20 when she was laid to rest.
Surprisingly, there is no official memorial in Washington DC to SSgt Reckless, who could teach some of us a lesson or two about bravery.  I say “surprisingly” because I had assumed that the Life magazine citation would have brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars – but that didn’t happen.  I know there’s the argument that money would be better spent on our returning heroes, and that’s fair comment – but there’s something about the selfless contribution of animals in a time of war that touches hearts and brings attention to the fact that the suffering caused by conflict is as deep as it is broad. 
On Christmas Day, Steven Spielberg’s epic film, The War Horse opens. I will be one of the first in line to watch the movie as soon as the theater doors are drawn back.  As a horse lover I have always been moved by the role played by horses in a time of war – I’ve read Michael Morpugo’s book that inspired both the stage play and Spielberg’s movie – and I know I will be in tears before the opening credits are up (I cried buckets when I saw the stage play in London).  In the Great War, Britain lost hundreds of thousands of horses; one report suggests some 500,000 went into battle and to their deaths, one for every two British soldiers killed.  In Germany, the Trakehner breed - an ideal cavalry horse - was almost wiped out by 1917.  The War Horse will draw attention – I hope – to the role of animals in wartime. And I hope very much that someone, somewhere – perhaps a TV celebrity known for an affinity with horses, or a movie star, or a much-read journalist – will give a mention to Reckless. It’s about time the long hoped-for memorial to Reckless was built in Washington DC.  America’s true war horse deserves nothing less.
For more information on SSgt. Reckless, go to:
To see her on YouTube:
For this post I have sourced information from various places, and in particular an article about Reckless written by Nancy Lee White Hoffman in 1992:
And if I knew how to embed those links, life would be made easier for you – apologies for my non-technical approach to imparting online information links.
Finally, here’s wishing you Happy Holidays, and many blessings in the year to come.

Next post:  Can’t resist it – more on Downton Abbey, and those women of the Great War.