Monday, June 30, 2014


The villagers of West Wycombe and Medenham, about 30 miles from London, knew something sinister was afoot. From time to time, crouched on the riverbank after dark, they’d hear the bawdy laughter as boatloads of women passed up the river Thames. Those who were bold enough to hide among the yew trees and willows watched as coaches unloaded parties of men dressed as monks outside the Gothic arch that led to the mysterious chalk caves under West Wycombe Hill. There were rumors of pagan rites, orgies, Black Masses, and even Satanic rituals.
         Could it be true, the locals wondered, that the man behind this debauchery was Sir Francis Dashwood, their landlord? It hardly seemed likely. After all, he was a friend of the Prime Minister, and himself a Member of Parliament for 20 years. They’d have been even more convinced of his innocence had they known that, later in life, he’d become Chancellor of the Exchequer, then Postmaster General, and finally treasurer to King George himself.
It was indeed Sir Francis, the 15th in a line of barons who, born in 1708, inherited his father’s title and estate when he was sixteen. He grew up to be one of the great rakes of his century, presiding over a secret society that called itself The Monks of Medenham, The Order of the Knights of Medenham and, ironically, The Knights of St. Francis of Wycomb. But whatever they called their mysterious group, it became notorious throughout England and beyond as The Hellfire Club.
         Sir Francis grew up at West Wycombe Park, a magnificent Palladian mansion in the county of Buckinghamshire. In his early twenties he made the Grand Tour of Europe, and spent long enough in Italy to fall in love with its history, its classical buildings, its rich mythology, and at the same time develop a deep a hatred of the Catholic Church. All of these influences had a profound effect on his life. On his travels he became absorbed with the Freemasons, the Rosicrucians, Satanism and the pagan cultures of Ancient Britain. In France he even attended a Black Mass as a fascinated observer.
On his return to England, Sir Francis founded The Society of the Dillettanti in London that, like many other such clubs for drinking and womanizing, was frequented by young royals and aristocrats like himself. But after five years, mere debauchery may have grown too tame for his tastes, and he embraced a more depraved interest much closer to home. In Medenham, a few miles from the Dashwood mansion in West Wycombe, he acquired a ruined abbey on the bank of the River Thames. Originally built by Cistercian monks in the 12th Century, the abbey was a long walk from the nearest road, and well hidden in a triangular wood. The best way to reach it was by boat on the river, which made it easy for those attending the profane rituals to come and go unseen.
         Dashwood spent a huge amount of money rebuilding the abbey, with marble columns, painted ceilings and stained glass windows. Charles Johnstone, a contemporary novelist, was clearly alluding to goings on at Medenham Abbey when he described a “group of noted persons who met on an Island in the Thames . . . for the purpose of indulging in nameless vices, and worshiping the Devil.” He describes the ceiling of the chapel as “covered with emblems and devices too gross to require explanation, and portraits . . . in attitudes and actions horrible to imagine.”
Other writings describe the surroundings of the abbey as a “garden of lust.” It was said that the little groves around the abbey were “filled with statuary in indecent poses,” and there was a cave that contained images of  “sexually robust animals and birds.” In one room the walls were hung with paintings copied from indecent Roman frescoes. Another contained portraits of notorious English prostitutes.
         To remind members about the secrecy of the rituals practiced at the abbey, statues of two historic figures were said to stand at each end of the dining hall, both with fingers to their lips – Angerona, the little known Roman goddess of secrecy, and Harpocrates (not Hippocrates), her Egyptian counterpart. Dashwood’s ‘knights’ and ‘monks’ must have taken the gods’ message seriously, because little is known about the rites and rituals at their meetings. However, after seeing the artwork, anyone with only half an imagination could provide several interpretations of the words of Rabelais carved over the Abbey’s entrance in archaic French – “Fay Ce Que Voudras” – “Do what you wish.”
         If  Medenham Abbey was intriguing, a new temple that Sir Francis built was no less macabre. Three years before he acquired the abbey, Dashwood rebuilt a two mile stretch of road near West Wycombe, allegedly to give work to locals ruined by recent failed harvests. To obtain chalk for the road he burrowed into some long-neglected caves at the bottom of a hill on which the village church stood. The caves were said to have been catacombs for pagan worship in England’s earliest history. Workers in Dashwood’s ‘chalk quarry’ noticed that the place had such a strange lacework of tunnels and chambers that many believed to have some magical or occult purpose. At the far end of the tunnels, a quarter of a mile from the entrance, lay a little circular chamber that seemed to have some quite different intended use.
         A few years after he bought Medenham Abbey, Dashwood began developing the caves under West Wycomb hill as a meeting place for his ‘monks’ and ‘friars.’ A number of the small chambers were furnished and used by members of the club to entertain the ‘nuns’ and other visiting women. Further down, across a subterranean stream they called The Styx, (a river to the underworld in Greek mythology) beyond which various ceremonies took place in the little circular chamber, said to include Black Masses conducted over the naked bodies of aristocratic women.
         Yet another mystery is a golden ball, twenty-two feet in circumference, built by Sir Francis in 1752 atop the spire of West Wycombe’s St. Lawrence Church, on the hill above the caves. There were wooden seats inside, where several people could sit in a tight little circle. All that seems to be known about the use of the tower was that, in the words of John Wilkes, himself a ‘friar,’ there was singing “very unfit for the profane ears of the world below.”
         When writer Charles Johnstone described the members of the Knights of St. Francis as “a group of noted persons,” he was right. Mike Howard, a present day writer about cults and witchcraft, claims that suspected members included the Prince of Wales, Thomas Potter, the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and John Wilkes, a radical Member of Parliament and Lord Mayor of London. Others were William Hogarth, Britain’s greatest satirical artist, Sir Horace Walpole, Britain’s first Prime Minister, and the Earl of Bute, another Prime Minister.
Perhaps the most unlikely suspect of all was Ben Franklin, who was Postmaster to the Colonies when Sir Francis held the same post for the British Isles. Franklin had three long summer stays at Dashwood’s country seat. They no doubt talked business and, incongruously, collaborated on an abridgement of the Church of England Book of Common Prayer. However, a book called Temple and Lodge, published in the US in the 90s, claimed that “this proponent of temperance, frugality . . . moderation and cleanliness, while primly exhorting his readers not to use ‘venery,’ became a member of Dashwood’s ‘Franciscans.’”
          Were all the stories true about Dashwood and his elite club? It’s hard to say. There’s ample written and physical evidence that he was a hard drinking, whoring and depraved rake. But Satanism, occult rituals, pagan rites?  Some believe that Dashwood was no more than a dirty-minded and debauched joker, and a brilliant publicist who’d found a way to titillate and befriend the leaders of the British Establishment. Then again, maybe it was no more than an ingeniously concocted façade, and the club simply  “a cross between the Dead Poets Society and a risqué Playboy club,” in the words of the family archives of one of the ‘friars,’ Lord Sandwich.
I guess we’ll never know.


Thursday, May 8, 2014


It’s insidious. If you live in a house,  it’ll be lurking upstairs, downstairs, and almost certainly in your garage, basement and garden shed. And if, like me, you live in the more restrictive space of an apartment, it’s even tougher to cope with.
If you have too much of this pernicious thing, it multiplies itself over time until, like some monster organism in a sci-fi movie, it begins to take over the house.
I and my wonderful wife, Lynn, declared war against this invader when we lived in a lakeside house in Connecticut. We had no weapons, suffered no casualties and took no prisoners, because our war wasn’t against terrorists or tin-pot tyrants. No, our enemy was stuff.
The need to act became obvious when we were were spring cleaning in the cellar. Among the things we discovered down there – besides dead spiders, dead creepy-crawlies and sawdust from my last attempt at woodworking – were that we had, for example, no fewer than six screwdrivers, umpteen wrenches and countless years old seed packets with long expired use-by dates, and a hoard of empty propane bottles. Scarce shelf-space was taken up by two dozen old jars of unassorted nails, screws, nuts and bolts, and a stack of one-gallon cans of dried-up paint. Other useless objects lurked in the shadows, including derelict heaters and fans, and several infant-sized life jackets and car seats, all of which were now useless, since the oldest  of our thirteen grandchildren is a mother in her thirties.
That part of our private war on stuff was relatively simple. A few of our adult children were happy to take a tool or a paintbrush or two, while the rest of it could be bagged up in the garbage, or driven to the town dump. But, emotionally, it was much harder to part with clothes and other household things. You can get pretty sentimental about the pair of pajamas you bought for your honeymoon, or that Hindu thingummy that dear old Aunt Gertie brought back from India. Getting rid of that sort of thing calls for a hardening of the heart, and repeated reassurance from your partner that you'll never wear that garment, or put that ornament or whatnot on the mantle or credenza again. After that it's easy.
Upstairs, we each started with our own clothes closets. In mine, the garments were so crowded together on their hangers that it was almost impossible to elbow them apart to select one.  How many shirts, sweaters and cardigans does a man need?  And since I wear one maybe three times a year, why do I still have more than fifteen designer, regimental and club ties from my working days dangling from a rotary tie-dispenser whose batteries died years ago?  There were enough pairs of shoes to turn Imelda Marcos green with envy; black and brown formal shoes, sneakers, gardening shoes, canvas beach shoes, sandals, wellies, and some hiking boots with soles like tractor-tires that I haven’t worn for ages.
The hardest decisions of all were about suits and blazers.  The suits came in formal and casual styles in shades of grey and navy in weights for winter, summer and tropical wear. These, and a tux I now wear about as rarely as a tie, were reduced to two suits, which is probably one too many.
Lynn went through the same process, but was much more deliberate and relentless about it. Aren’t women meant to be more sentimental than men? I was amazed to see how easily she could turn her back on once-cherished suits and dresses like so many scorned, discarded lovers. To me, those outfits were landmarks of some of our happiest and most poignant moments of life together over all these decades. 
Finally we progressed to drawers stuffed with underwear and so many socks that you had to lean against the drawers to close them.  Even the dining room revealed surplus china, table mats, coasters, glasses and a treasure trove of cutlery.
In the end, bolstering each other’s determination not to squirrel away this or that item for another decade, we had overcome the enemy. By the time we were finished – and the process took more than two days – the kitchen and the space around the back door were jam-packed with a mountain of bulging plastic bags.  We were ready for the final act of disposal.
There was a nice thrift shop along Route 202  that benefited our local hospital.
“Put them over there,” said a decidedly upper-crust volunteer lady, pointing toward a corner stacked to eye-level with a dowdy pile of cast-off clothes.
Nothing impresses these people. No eyes opened a little wider at such a display of, say, Brooks Brothers and Jaeger labels and the distinctive styles of Gucci and Hermes. To them they were so much, well, stuff.
Wherever you go these days you see those anonymous-looking self-storage places where they’ll lock away your unused clothes and household items in window-less, temperature-controlled rooms. I’m sure these have their uses, but I’ll bet many of them would be half-empty if their customers adopted our simple war cry – if you don't need it, junk it.


Friday, April 11, 2014



Salty and pungent, it has the appearance and consistency of axle grease, and smells and tastes like no other food on earth. The few Americans who have tried this British savory spread think it looks and tastes disgusting. Yet in Britain and many of its former territories, despite its unappealing appearance, it’s held in high esteem.
They call it Marmite, and it would be true to say that it’s as much a national institution as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, or fish and chips. Babies love it, usually spread on finger-size strips of toast that are, for some reason, called 'soldiers', and kids take sandwiches spread with it to school in their Spider Man lunchboxes. I recently dug up a whole collection of recipes using the stuff.  They include commonplace snacks such as Marmite, Sausage and Baked Beans, Marmite and Hummus Crumpets, Marmite and Carrot Soup, and also more ambitious if not exactly haute cuisine dishes like Marmite Chicken, Marmite and Banana Grill and – no, I’m not making it up – Marmite and Rice Crispies.
There's a national affection for Marmite in Britain that Americans, especially the ones who were brave enough to sample it, simply can’t fathom. Earlier this Year the New York Times quoted an American literary agent who recalled, “In 1961, I was on the deck of the Queen Mary when they came around with Marmite sandwiches. I literally gagged on one, and I think I even threw it overboard.”
But to millions of Britons the product’s very name conjures up homey scenes of winter teatimes with the drapes (well, we call them curtains) drawn closed. They hear the rain pelting down outside, see a roaring coal fire in the grate, and a plate of Marmite sandwiches alongside the teapot with its floral tea cozy, and willow pattern cups and saucers. Those with longer memories may recall breakfasts in the kitchen with the nanny or a maid in their early years, dipping their ‘soldiers’ into soft-boiled eggs, while Daddy sat with Mummy in the dining room and read The Daily Telegraph, tucking into tea and eggs and bacon.
The Australians have their own version of Marmite that they call Vegemite. I once tried both in a blind tasting down-under, and confess I couldn’t tell the difference.  Down there they’ll swear blind that there's no comparison between the two, that Vegemite is the true product, and that Marmite is for the birds. The Aussies eat their imitative version in much the same way as we Brits do our own original product, and they regard it with equal respect.
Even at home on its own hallowed ground, Marmite is not so sacred a national treasure that it’s immune to a little caustic comment, even from the BBC. In a radio program this year, a commentator dared to say that, “viscous in consistency, Marmite is deceptively like crude oil in appearance. Indeed, this is what many would believe it to be, were it not for its list of ingredients. After all, the main ingredient in Marmite is spent brewers yeast. How on earth the inventor decided that spreading fungus on a piece of toast may in fact taste quite nice is a mystery.  However, considering that it’s a by-product of the fermentation of sugars into alcohol, one theory is that the inventor was drunk, and that it probably seemed like the right thing to do at the time."
But disregard this beastly blasphemy. The important point is that Marmite tastes delicious and that, more importantly, it’s so full of good things that it must be good for you. Look at the ingredients listed on the little pot-bellied brown bottle: yeast extract, vegetable extract, niacin, thiamin and salt, which means it contains five kinds of B vitamins, including B12.
In wartime, Marmite made an important contribution to preventing vitamin deficiency diseases such as beri-beri among the armed forces, civilians and prisoners-of-war, especially in Europe, North Africa and Asia.
A while ago, along with the late Queen Mum’s, the makers of Marmite celebrated the spread’s 100th birthday amid a deluge of press coverage and hype that would have astonished but gratified their long dead founders. At about the same time, Britain’s once notorious insularity and standoffishness came to the fore when a former government minister, Tony Banks, drew the anniversary to the attention of his fellow members in the House of Commons. “We take intense satisfaction,” Banks said, “from the essential Britishness of the product, and its lack of appeal for the majority of the world’s population.”
All right, then. We may no longer be a superpower, but you have to admit that we can still tell a good thing when we see it.

                              * * *

Saturday, February 15, 2014


I've never posted any verse on this blog but, just for a change of pace, here's a  poem.  But wait! It's not some soppy Moon-in-June jingle, but something I wrote only a few years ago as a memory of the Nazi Blitz on England during World War II. 

In the early 1940s I was about ten years old, living in farming country in the south-east England county of Kent. The Kent coast was only 21 miles across the English Channel from Nazi-occcupied France, and we were on the most direct route for German bomber planes on their way from France to their devastating raids on London.

Autumn Flights

That place was paradise,
there were owls at night, and foxes barked.
By day we walked among the orchards
under leafless apple trees that smelled of tar,
their fresh-sprayed bark a milky blue.
Too late now to search the lush grass
for mushrooms big as dinner plates.

At other times we’d stroll through empty woods,
ankle-deep in crispy autumn leaves.
High in the leaf-lorn trees hung empty nests,
the crows’ a careless mess of sticks and,
lower down, the neat painstaking weavings
of more patient birds.
Elsewhere stood dormant hills of wood ants,
three feet high, like miniature volcanoes on the leafy floor.

But we always stayed close to home, for things could
happen suddenly. One never knew.
We were at war when, bound for London,
German bombers ran the gauntlet
of Spitfires and Hurricanes like angry hornets,
and sandbagged batteries of guns.
Mostly they came at night, but sometimes,
staring into a summer sky, we saw it black with
bombers heading west, always in orderly formation,
their escort fighters twirling and
weaving on their flanks

When they came at night we’d hear the banshee
siren call. Rising, we’d drag on warmer clothes,
and pick our way unsteadily down unlit stairs.
Out in the chilly garden, we headed down the gravel path,
between the cabbages and Brussels sprouts,
to clamber down our shelter’s narrow steps,
and heave open the heavy steel door.
Once inside, our father, fumbling with
damp matches, lit a candle.
It was frigid in that little cell, with its
floor of bare cement, and an arched ceiling
of corrugated iron. Two double-level bunks,
fashioned from unfinished pine,
stood side by side.
We’d sit, two-and-two upon the lower bunks,
our shoulders draped with blankets,
facing each other across the narrow space
between them.
David, my older brother, with my father,
their faces blanched in candle light,
and me with Mother.
She talked incessantly, part because of nerves,
and part to occupy our minds.

Yet we were safe enough, ten feet down
in solid Kentish chalk, under a concrete roof
topped with earth, beneath a neat rock garden.
Out there, beyond the bolted metal door,
we knew that searchlights pierced the late night sky,
their beams swept, crisscrossed and swung apart.

First came the sound of Nazi planes.
“Those are Dorniers!” my brother said,
his pale face turned upward.
So distinctive were their throbbing engines
that even a child could tell their signature.
And then we’d hear the anti-aircraft guns,
first some single sighting shots, and then
when the sky was full of spot-lit silver planes,
a crescendo of thumping, pumping volleys.
On and on the firing went, at wave after wave
of planes, until the sky was quiet again.

Then we’d wait an hour or two,
taking edgy naps, awaiting their return.
They’d fly faster on the homeward run,
having spent their bombs on London, lightening their load.
Or else, harassed by gunfire,
seeing their comrades plunging to the ground,
they’d turn about and flee,
and jettison their lethal load like ballast
on towns and villages, or empty countryside
-- our woods, our orchards.

Finally, we’d hear the reassuring all clear sound.
(Sixty years on, it’s still here in my head.)
Unlike the warning call, the siren played a single,
constant note, mournful, note
carried over frosty fields.
So we emerged, breathing the fresh, early morning air.
In the garden, jagged silver shrapnel lay around.

As time passed, often, playing in the woods,
we’d find a fallen plane, unguarded, its crew gone,
buried or imprisoned.
We’d scramble in, awed by the alien language
on the cockpit’s controls and dials,
with little swastikas and eagles.
Crouched in the pilot’s seat,
we’d re-fight the battle, yelling oaths
and orders in invented German.
One village boy, finding an airman’s damaged glove,
slipped in his hand to find a putrid severed finger.

So life went on: the autumn plowing; the pruning
and spraying of the last fruit trees;
the drone of tractors in the fields; convoys of
horse-drawn carts clopping to market,
loaded with beets and turnips, and baled hay.
And the last geese, in orderly formation,
this time flying south.