As someone who came to The Great British Bake Off late, I was very pleased to discover that the Good Food channel is showing the whole of the 2011 second series of the show on week nights at the moment. I’ve been catching up with all the technical bakes and show-stoppers that I missed and last night was the biscuits episode and for their first signature challenge many of the contestants produced biscuits based on recipes they had been taught as children by their grandmothers.
My father’s mother died before I was born and I have no memories of being taught to bake by my mother’s mother at all. That’s not surprising, really, given that my grandparents lived in North Wales and I spent my childhood on the other side of the world in Malaysia. I would see my grandparents in the holidays when we would brave the 24-hour journey from Kuala Lumpur to the UK, but we didn’t visit that often, so when we did arrive back in North Wales, we had more pressing things to do than organise cooking lessons with my grandmother.
My grandparents also visited us once in Malaysia. They were on their way to New Zealand to visit an uncle who had emigrated there years before and they stopped off in Kuala Lumpur on the way to break up their incredibly long trek across the globe. My memories of my childhood are mostly vague, but I do recall heading to Singapore with my parents and grandparents to visit the Kranji War Cemetery which is where many of the allied servicemen killed in the Second World War are buried. I was ten, and we spent what felt like a great deal of time walking along the rows of thousands of white headstones until we finally found what we had come to see: the grave of my great-uncle, my grandfather’s brother, who had died defending Singapore and Malaya during the Second World War.
Both my grandfathers served in World War Two and as a teenager I was struck by what seemed to be a massive difference between their two experiences of the same conflict. My maternal grandfather, who had been stationed in the Far East with his brother, came back at the end of the war and never again spoke of his time serving his country. I was not sure my grandmother knew very much of what happened to him either. Much later in life, as Alzheimer’s began to rob him of his memories, we encouraged my grandfather to talk about his past so that we had some sort of record we could pass on, but dementia fogged what remained of his memory and my grandfather took most of his war stories to the grave.
From listening to my paternal grandfather’s stories, on the other hand, you would have thought he had single-handedly defeated Hitler whilst wheeling and dealing his way across North Africa. As a teenager, I thought my father’s father had had a much easier time of it during the war. Years later at his funeral the minister spoke very movingly about my grandfather’s faith and how, after being demobbed, my grandfather had travelled through the Holy Land tracing the life of Jesus, before returning home. It was a story I had never heard and didn’t match the jollier stories he had told of his time as a soldier.
As as teenager, I thought my grandfathers had had wildly different experiences of war. As I grew older, I realised that I was assuming far too much and that, more likely, both men came back from the war wanting to protect their families from the horrors of conflict and doing just that in two differing ways. My mother’s father chose not to address his war experiences at all, shielding us from the terrible things he must have faced by not talking about them. My father’s father also wanted to shield us, I think, so he concentrated solely on the positive experiences he brought back from North Africa: the funny stories he could tell and the friendships he was able to forge during combat. Once back from his travels through the Holy Land, my father’s father decided he had seen enough of the world and determined never to leave his home town again. The only exception he ever made, and he made it quite regularly, was to travel by train to Kettering to stay with another soldier who had served in the same regiment, with whom he had forged a great friendship that ended only with death.
After I left school I went to live in Germany for a year to improve my language skills, working as an unpaid intern at a school in the Black Forest. I managed to scrape a living giving English tuition, but I really only survived there for a year thanks to the help of many people in the town in which I was living. A wonderful family offered me bed and board, and the school organised charity events so that I could raise enough money to pay them something towards housing me for as long as they did. When I returned at the end of my year, my paternal grandfather was pleased to see me back and, having heard my stories of my host family’s generosity remarked, kindly but completely unbelievably, that he had “always liked the Germans”.
I would like to think of myself as the strong, silent type, dealing with problems with a stoic resolve, rather like my maternal grandfather. In reality I deal with difficulty by trying to find the humour in the situation. Cracking a joke and smiling helps me protect those I love, and I realise why my father’s father downplayed his part in the war. So although I didn’t inherit a family biscuit recipe that I could use if I ever apply for a future series of the Bake Off, I certainly inherited something from my grandparents.
The London office of akg-images will be observing the two-minute silence at 11am on Armistice Day, 11 November. You can find out more and donate at the Royal British Legion website.