Only those who follow the vicissitudes of male fashion can understand the drastic fall in hosiery sales which occurs each summer in Milan, that elegant, business-like city of incalculable possibilities. For several years now it has been common among Milanese gentlemen to eschew socks in the summer months. The best way to get a peep at these naked pedal extremities is to watch the cyclists. Between the cuff of a Brioni suit trouser and the soft leather of a Ferragamo loafer you may catch a glimpse of a well-turned ankle, perhaps even the hint of a tasteful tattoo. Of course, Milanese gentlemen are not alone in spurning hosiery in the city; Australians can be seen striding, summer and winter, thonged and sockless, through Sydney; but theirs is not a fashion statement only a desire for convenience and comfort.


Rinascente, situated near the Duomo, is a good place to buy socks. The department store is currently celebrating the centenary of its name, devised by the decadent poet and war hero, Gabriele D’Annunzio who, at the same time, was devising the entire ritual of Fascism, including the Blackshirts and Roman salute that Mussolini adopted. This embarrassing information is prudently omitted from the Exhibition in the Palazzo Reale marking the centennial of the store’s name. It does however emphasise its title of World’s Best Department Store awarded at the Global Department Store Summit in 2016, won by Selfridges of London in the three previous years, although one suspects that Bergdorf Goodman, Libertys and Harrods were either not competing or facing drug bans.

We are not at Rinascente for the socks but for lunch as our favourite restaurant, La Bagutta, has closed its doors for good. Having frequented it for forty years it felt like a death in the family. Another favourite restaurant, Boeucc, which claims to have been here since 1696, is also closed, but only for the holidays. There you will find the best porcini mushrooms, grilled like steak and a genuine escalope Milanese or orecchio di elefante, which means it has the bone attached and is beaten thin to cover the entire plate.


I love the south of France, the sky is clear and blue and there’s a healthy atmosphere of gluttony. Many of the local dishes are difficult to find in an acceptable quality elsewhere – aligot (a blend of mashed potato and tomme), foie gras mi cuit, omelette aux girolles and aigo bouido, a white garlic soup. It’s just the coffee that lets the French down, tasting, as Tom Wolfe says, of ‘incinerated PVC cables’. Pierre-Jacques and I are making the 600 kilometre motorised pilgrimage from Paris to Laguiolle in the Aveyron to pay homage to the culinary arts of Michel Bras, who has hung on to his three Michelin stars for eighteen straight years.


The gargouillou at Michel Bras

The house special is gargouillou, a brilliant fireworks display of edible flowers, vegetables, shoots, leaves, stalks and roots that almost turns me into a vegetarian.

The service, the cuisine, even the place itself, perched on the lip of an escarpment, is outstanding. How was it? asks Honeybee; I tell her the dishes were mouth watering, the prices eye watering.

Apart from Michel Bras, Laguiolle is famous for its table knives. But if it came to a design knife fight the winner is clearly the Opinel, a peasant’s knife, an artisan’s instrument, ideal for whittling driftwood, peeling an orange or pruning a rose; Picasso used one as a sculpting tool. Apart from being inexpensive and useful it is also a work of art in itself and it was an


Laguiolle (top) and Opinel

Opinel, not a Laguiolle, that was included, alongside a Rolex watch and a Porsche 911, in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s 1985 exhibition of the 100 most beautiful products in the world.

The next day we drive west and south, past fields of placid Aubrac cows, through Espalion, Estaing, and Entraygues. At Conques we lunch with pilgrims resting on their 750 kilometre journey from Le Puy to Santiago de Compostela. The pilgrimage becomes more popular each year; 2,491 made the journey in 1986, 277,915 in 2016. Are we becoming more religious, or has El Camino just become another item on a bucket list? We pass many pilgrims on the footpaths and lanes, all bearing the scallop shell or coquille Saint Jacques on their back-packs.

Albi, La Ville Rose, when we reach it in the evening, looks almost Tuscan with its buildings of pink brick. We are here to visit the Toulouse –Lautrec Museum. Why do we like this painter? Because he was born rich and privileged yet worked for his living, because he overcame severe physical handicap to succeed as an artist, because he lived his whole life as he wanted and understood just what had brought him that rare gift. ‘J’ai acheté ma liberté avec mes dessins.’ (I bought my freedom with my drawings’).


The Gare du Nord hasn’t changed much since the 1970s except that now there’s the Eurostar instead of the romantic Golden Arrow boat-train with its individually named Pullman cars and crossed Union and French flags on the engine. Along with faster travel Europeans have become accustomed to bomb scares and when we are herded off the platform while the Gendarmerie check out a suspicious looking suitcase, no one looks surprised let alone alarmed.

Having spent the first twenty six years of my life in London, I feel I’m going home but soon realise I’m not. ‘It’s all over; all rinsed out’, says my cousin, resident since birth in the great city. ‘Town’s nothing but a collection of empty investment properties and Air BnB apartments full of tourists. The clubs are all closing because landlords find it more lucrative to convert them to flats for rich Asians; even Annabels has been forced out of Berkley Square’. My cousin feels the city, perhaps the world, has reached its nadir. But inevitably this age, with its adult videos, tattoos, cage fighting and celebrity worship, will be lamented in its turn, just like the last.

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The Golden Arrow


It’s the ‘summer of love’ at the Globe theatre where the Royal Shakespeare Company is presenting Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night, the latter a splendid production full of add-libs, dancing, music and audience participation that makes you think, yes, this must have been what it was like in Shakespeare’s day. After, we take the Millennium footbridge across the Thames and wander up Fleet Street, now lifeless without its newspapers, their journalists banished long ago to Wapping to hack phones. We have a drink in what was once one of the newsmens’ favourite watering holes, The Cheshire Cheese, now full of Asian tourists using its gloomy 17th century interiors as a backdrop for self-portraits.

In Gough Square we pass the home of Samuel Johnson once also the home of his manservant and friend, Francis Barber. Born Quashey, a slave on a Jamaican sugar plantation, he was brought at the age of seven to London in 1750 by his English owner. After spending five years at school in Yorkshire he was freed, given a small bequest and went to work for Johnson as his valet. Johnson, an eccentric himself, commanded a strange household in which only ‘tolerable concord’ existed. The disharmony between the housekeeper, blind poet Anna Williams, Poll Carmichael, a former prostitute, Dr Levet, a destitute Quack and the cat Hodge was such that Francis ran away and joined the Navy returning to Gough Square in 1760 where he remained until Johnson’s death in 1784. During those last twenty four years he looked after his employer’s affairs, became his loyal and trusted friend and inherited the bulk of his estate. After Johnson’s death he moved to Lichfield in Staffordshire, where Johnson had been born and where he sadly lost most of his inheritance through unwise investments. Barber’s descendants apparently still farm in the area.

The next day we take the train to Norwich, the sort of city, with its 11th century cathedral and cobbled alleys, that the English travel to France to admire. I have a special feeling about Norfolk; I believe it’s the home of my ancestors. Once part of Danelaw, an area of eastern England where Viking law and the 3 Rs – rowing, raping and raiding – prevailed, it’s now a quiet refuge for ancient Britons, green, lush, dripping with willow. At Blickling Hall, where Anne Boleyn was born, there are giant, sculptured yew hedges and at Blakeney, among flocks of sea birds, people mess about in boats in the muddy tidal inlets. If it’s a sunny day and if you are near Thorpe Market then you should lunch at the Gunton Arms, part of art dealer, Ivor Braka’s beautifully restored 18th century estate, complete with herds of deer and cattle. Nowhere else will you find a Damien Hirst painting in the Ladies’ Loo or a Magritte above the residents’ lounge fire-place. The food’s good too; try the spicy wild boar sausage with chilli jam or the slow roast shoulder of lamb with summer bubble and squeak.

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The green, green grass of home

While, unlike London, the countryside remains largely unchanged – the thrush, the newt, the bumble-bee, the oak, the oast-house are all still there – it’s not the countryside I remember. Only AE Houseman can express that sense of a long gone, deeply English (and perhaps imaginary), golden age:

Into my heart on air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

Years ago, on a menu in a restaurant in the port of Piraeus, I came across two local dishes the English translations of which had me in stitches – ‘Tender bowels, stewed’ was one, ‘Lambs Dong’ the other. Regrettably, I did not try either; I suspect the first would have been some kind of tripe and the other, tongue. Since then I’ve been on the look-out for other mirth inducing dishes; so it was a pleasant surprise to find ‘Mixed pig organ congee’ on my breakfast menu at Singapore Airport. This dish I am familiar with and it can be very tasty; it’s just the translation that needs to sound more appetizing. And incidentally, how amazing is the city of Singapore. I was expecting a dry cluster of glass towers full of accountants and hedge-fund managers, endless malls of phone shops and dim sum eateries. Instead there is an inspired blend of outrageous modern architecture and beautifully restored colonial buildings. Plus, I’m told it’s the only place on Earth with a Michelin starred street food stall.

In Chefchaouen, in the Street of Outstretched Hands, my English language version of a lunch menu offers a tantalizing selection of beef leg, giblets, sinew and brains. Checking the French version I found beef leg to be a more understandable ‘Pied de Veau’, while sinew (in French?), turned out to be ‘ox penis’. IMG_6514The latter can be a bit heavy for lunch and so I opted for the beef leg, or more properly the calf’s foot, which turned out to be a bowl of tasty fat surrounded by chickpeas in broth. Delicious! I regret not trying Khlie – lamb, seasoned, sun-dried, cooked in fat, preserved in jars (rather like duck confit) and traditionally served with scrambled egg; a sort of Babel el Squeak.

In Meknes I have my boots polished while lunching al fresco on kofta and chicken brochettes and a cumin-spiced salad of pepper, cucumber, tomato and sweet onion. In the back of the café our guide, Youssef, touches the floor with the seven parts of his body in prayer. Later, after we have finished eating, he carries our leftovers into the streets for the poor and hungry, making me feel, unintentionally, like a cad.

In Essaouira Le Chalet de la Plage had been heavily recommended and first appearances look encouraging. There is a seasoned bar of warm, dark, varnished wood and a view of the sea and the islands in the bay. Over the bar hang photographs of Nicholas Cage, Orson Welles, Ron Dennis and other notables, smiling with the proprietor. Frankly, the meal was disappointing and expensive (by local standards), made bearable by a bottle of the local (Meknes) Château Roslane. The only really bad meal I had in Morocco was the lamb tagine I prepared myself at cooking school. I did complain to the chef.

Freshness, variety, seasonality and hospitality are the keynotes of Moroccan lunching and dining. Much of the food, including sheep, grown or fattened in the field, is on sale at the side of the road. A sale occurs after bargaining and bargaining brings people together. In the narrow alleys of the Fez market there are spices in coloured mountains, camel meat, small fish, eels, oranges, figs and chickens so fresh they are still alive.

It’s Tuesday and market day in Azrou and the roads are filled with slow-moving pick-ups, crammed with a mixture of sheep, goats and family members. Bedouin, whose black tents are visible on the surrounding plain, have brought their scrawny sheep to town to sell to local farmers who will fatten them up for the feast of Eid al-Adha.

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The market at Azrou

They will be eaten as mechoui when the whole sheep is roasted in a clay oven for a few hours. There is no better way to eat lamb. Later, we pass rows of fossil supermarkets selling everything from tiny trilobites to great polished slabs of fossil-filled marble destined for the walls of Joan Collins’ bathroom.


On the road again we are protected from accident and injury by the hand of Fatima dangling from Youssef’s rear-view mirror and reach Tafilalt safely to look down into the great palm oasis, a broad, green ribbon stretching for miles along the bed of the Ziz river. I am reminded of the importance of the palm to desert people and of these opening lines of Roy Campbell’s eponymous poem:

Blistered and dry was the desert I trod
When out of the sky with the step of a god
Victory-vanned, with her feathers out-fanned,
The palm tree alighting my journey delayed
And spread me, inviting, her carpet of shade

In his book ‘Iron John’ another poet, Robert Bly, said that white stands for semen, saliva, water, milk, lakes, rivers, the sea and priesthood, health, strength and all good things and good company and the purity of children and brides. For the Moroccans, green is the sacred colour of Islam and the colour of the doors of those who have made the haj to Mecca; it stands for life, nature and renewal and here, in the oasis, it blazes in contrast to the sun-blasted hills and dun-coloured Ksars.

Among the perfect dunes of the Sahara we will sleep in a black Bedouin tent, complete with en-suite bathroom and air-conditioning. After dark, when the encampment lights are turned off, we look up into the night sky to see what Joyce, in Ulysses, called ‘The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.’ Then straight to bed as we are on the 7.30 camel in the morning.


On the idle hill of summer,
Sleepy with the flow of streams,
Far I hear the steady drummer
Drumming like a noise in dreams.

Far and near and low and louder
On the roads of earth go by,
Dear to friends and food for powder,
Soldiers marching, all to die.

A E Houseman

It’s a sad fact that some questions that should have been asked only take form after the responses are no longer available. Answers to questions I would like to pose now were mine for the asking a long time ago, but lack of curiosity at the moment leads to the lonely vigil of later research. I suppose it should not be surprising that the facts provided by research often fly in the face of the memorized version handed down; after all, one has to allow for the passage of time since the event was witnessed or heard as well as for the long and general tradition of embellishing legend. It was entirely understandable therefore that I was unable to substantiate much of our family’s history passed down by way of mouth. I have been unable to locate among my ancestors a sea captain, although I did find that Able Seaman Stephen Mayne(1) was aboard the Neptune, anchored off Beachy Head when the census for 1861 was taken. I could find no evidence to support my mother’s claims that my maternal grandfather was part-owner of a restaurant in the City of London or that we were somehow associated with the Delaware-Morgans, purported grandees of Belgravia. However, I did substantiate one story my mother used to tell and that concerned the death of her uncle Harry.

Harry, she would tell me, died at the battle of Polygon Wood and this fact alone secured my interest as, from an early age, the Great War had held me spellbound. The roots of this interest lay on the shelves of my bedroom and in a black trunk that sat underneath the window. Among other treasures, the trunk contained a History of the Great War collected by my father in monthly installments in the 1930s and therefore available to be inspected piecemeal each night by torchlight under the blankets. On the shelves, among my sister’s hand-me-downs and my own books were some my father had when he was young and among those a novel of the Great War called “At His Country’s Call” by Albert Lee. Having long ago lost the original, I recently purchased a copy and was able to relive the adventures of Maurice Millard on the Western Front. My new copy is inscribed to Sidney Barron for good behaviour in Church.

Later there were to be more serious books about the Great War – “Goodbye to all That”, “Memoirs of an Infantry Officer”, “All Quiet on the Western Front” and more recently Pat Barker’s “Regeneration” trilogy and Sebastian Faulks’ “Birdsong”. My knowledge of the Great War is therefore remembered more through these novels as well as through the poetry of Wilfred Owens and Siegfried Sassoon than through familiarity with its actual history. Those who watched Captain Blackadder will forever remember the war effort as an attempt to inch Army Chief Douglas Haigh’s cocktail cabinet a little nearer to Berlin. And who can forget the casualty statistics, posted up cheerfully as cricket scores, in Joan Littlewood’s 1963 stage musical “Oh, What a Lovely War”?

It was not until the early 1970s, when I was living in Paris, that I was able to make closer contact with the realities of the Great War. By chance one of my first audit clients was situated close to Armentieres (motto: “Pauvre mais fiere”(2)) a town everyone still remembers through the song, “Madameoiselle from Armentieres”. Originally “Madameoiselle from Bar le Duc”, a French army song of the 1830s resurrected during the war of 1870, it recounted the indiscretions of an innkeeper’s daughter with two German soldiers. It was adapted by British and Canadian soldiers in the early months of the Great War and was still popular in 1940 when Flanagan and Allen used the song as the title of their West End show.

My attention to the ancient killing fields was also drawn by Larry and Bonnie Orsini who had pitched their weekend caravan in a field near Vic sur Aisne. One weekend Larry and I combed through the caves at nearby Confrecourt, where stone quarries had been extended in the Great War to provide subterranean barracks for the French army.

In the early 1970s, stalls at the flea markets at Clignancourt and Bercy were still filled with fading sepia photographs of Poilus and Zouaves, rusting bayonets and lighters and ashtrays constructed from shell casings. Feeling about the war still remained strong, so much so that Stanley Kramer’s 1957 anti-war film “Paths of Glory” depicting the mutinies in the French army after the failed 1917 offensive under General Nivelle, was banned from French cinemas until 1975.

Finally, in 1972, I took a few days leave and went to find Uncle Harry. You don’t have to drive far out of Paris to encounter the battlefields of the Great War. In September of 1914 the Germans had pushed as far as the village of Claye Souilly, a mere taxi ride from Paris and it was in fact 600 taxi cabs, each carrying 5 soldier passengers and their weapons, that transported the Army of Paris to halt the German advance at the First Battle of the Marne. In June of 1918 the Germans were back, this time only 56 miles from Paris. But these actions were in the West and I was travelling North, through Senlis and Compiegne, through St Quentin and Cambrai, headed for Ypres.

My destination was the cemetery at Polygon Wood but I was in no hurry and meandered through Flanders, stopping for bed and breakfast, lingering over the Memorial Park at Beaumont Hamel with its beds of yellow St John’s Wort and magnificent statue of a caribou both in remembrance of the sacrifice made by the Newfoundland Regiment on July 1st 1916(3). The whole of Flanders has a seductive melancholy to it, from the raw brick hamlets to the rows of sodden beet, from the multitude of grim memorials to the songs of Jacques Brel. In the late afternoon of my second day, I arrived at Polygon Wood cemetery. Situated 8 kilometers east of Ypres, it was a beautifully manicured walled garden of green and white. I felt I was going into church as I lifted the latch on the gate and moved amongst the hundred or so graves. Harry was nowhere to be found. His name was not in the register kept in the gate so I walked to the nearby Buttes New British cemetery but Harry’s was not among the 2,109 graves. But on the way to Ypres, where I had decided to spend the night, I stopped to inspect the Menin Gate and there, inscribed on the walls among the 54,896 names of Commonwealth soldiers whose bodies had never been found, was Sergeant Harold Mayne of the 7th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment.

I went back to the Menin Gate, this time in the evening to hear the Last Post played, as it still is, every night. The next day after a visit to the museum I returned home. It was not until thirty years later that I realized I still had not found the right Harry Mayne.

The Harry Mayne my mother talked about was 27 when he took the King’s shilling from the Recruiting Sergeant of the 9th County of London Regiment, Queen Victoria’s Rifles(4), at 56 Davies Street, Mayfair(5). The 1st Battalion was at full complement within 48 hours of war being declared on 4 August 1914 and the 2nd Battalion, to which Harry was assigned, only days later. For the first two weeks the 1,065 men of the 2nd Battalion assembled and were kitted out at Davies Street and then divided, according to social rules of the time, into 3 groups: Public School men, civilians with no knowledge of soldiering and men who had previously served with the 1st Battalion. Harry, a warehouseman, would have belonged to the second group. In the next weeks there was drilling in Richmond and other suburban London parks and, when leave was available, Harry would have been able to see his family at 10 May Place, Peckham(6). On 23rd November the 2/9th set out for St John’s Hill Camp near Crowborough where it underwent strenuous training until the spring of 1915. According to regimental records, the people of Crowborough “set apart recreation rooms for them, allowed them the use of their bathrooms and in a hundred and one ways showed their gratitude to the boys who had come forth to fight in defence of King and country.”(7) Ninety years later, the Station Commander of RAF Wittering would ban Air Force personnel from wearing their uniforms in the town of Peterborough following abuse by sections of the community, while students at University College, London would refuse the military permission to set up recruitment stalls on the College campus.

Among constant but unfulfilled hopes of active service, from the spring of 1915 the 2/9th QVRs marched from Ipswich to Bromeswell Heath, near Woodbridge, back to Ipswich where they stayed in billets until Easter of 1916 and then back again to live under canvas at Bromeswell Heath. Home guard duties were not what the men had hoped for and their marching song, to the tune of “Onward Christian Soldiers” is full of bitter disappointment.

Onward, Queen Victorias
Guarding the railway line
Is this foreign service?
Ain’t it jolly fine?
No we’re not downhearted
Won’t the Huns be sick?
When they meet us over there,
All looking span and spick,
Hope on, Queen Victorias,
Don’t forget the fray,
We shall do our duty
For a bob a day.    

Perhaps they were singing this as they later marched to the coast at Alderton on the Suffolk coast, placing outposts in the same Martello towers that were built during the Napoleonic Wars to repel an invasion by Britain’s current allies. One company, according to the CSM, “put barbed wire between the breakwaters, but was careful not to interfere with the bathing parades.” A company commander gave orders to dig trenches in the sea wall, but next day the local authorities objected and the holes had to be filled in again. In July the brigade was moved to hutments at Longbridge Deverill on Salisbury Plain where it completed its musketry course and waited… and waited. Finally, on Saturday 3rd February 1917 Harry and his mates embarked on the SS La Margarita, and with “smooth sea and a lovely moonlight night” crossed the Channel under an escort of two destroyers disembarking at Le Havre in the early hours of Sunday morning. It was not a warm welcome with 25 degrees of frost freezing the bolts in the soldiers’ rifles. The men were also dismayed to witness the long lines of wounded being transferred from Red Cross train to hospital ship as they assembled on the dockside and set off, in marching order, for the rest camp some five miles distant. On 7th February the battalion was moved in a north-easterly direction by rail through Abbeville to Auxi Le Chateau and then marched 17 miles due west to Sus St Leger where they were billeted in barns to their first sound of gunfire. There was now a week of comparative ease, the men sleeping on straw and enjoying warm meals of mutton stew and boiled chestnuts and the occasional comforting Woodbine before, on February 13th, they were bussed to within 4 or 5 miles of the trenches in front of Berles-au-Bois and Bienvillers, which they were to occupy with two battalions of the Staffords. It was bitterly cold with 3 inches of snow on the ground and the men were made to rub whale oil into their feet before marching the last few miles to the trenches. After six relatively quiet days in the line the battalion marched to Grenas. The snow had melted and the rain set in so the men slogged along in a sea of mud. Apart from a rest from the trenches, Grenas also provided the men with their first bath since arriving in France. Over the next weeks Harry and his mates marched to Gaudiempre to Baillement to Wailly until on March 1st they occupied trenches opposite Blairville, relieving the 1/5 West Riding Regiment and suffered their first casualties.

On March 16th the German army began a strategic withdrawal and the QVRs occupied the enemy line enjoying the superior comforts of the enemy’s trenches, which were 15 feet deep, paved and drained. At the end of March they were at Agny near Arras and in April at Miraumont and then at Achiet le Petit under canvas, continually moving up and down the line, working on roads, training, digging trenches.

In May the battalion was in the front line at Bullecourt suffering 123 casualties from shelling and winning four Military Medals before being relieved by the 2/10th London. Harry and his mates retired to Ecoust St Mein where they were accommodated in an extensive network of tunnels and caves beneath the church, a welcome legacy arising from the persecution of the Huguenots in the eighteenth century during the reign of Louis XV. In June they were in Mory, where a large draft awaited to replenish those battalions decimated by casualties.

On July 22nd the 2/9th finally had their own show near Havrincourt Wood, south west of Cambrai, with orders to raid an enemy position at Mow Cop “creeping forward as a formation until discovered, then rushing with bayonet to overpower any resistance.” Nine enemy were killed, ten wounded and two prisoners were taken; Rifleman Lewthwaite of the 2/9th was shot through the lungs and died a few hours after he was carried back to the trenches. Five others were wounded, one severely. A letter from the Brigade Major congratulated the QVR’s Colonel and the men on the success of the raid.

On July 27th the battalion was transported by light rail to Dainville near Arras, where it underwent extensive training until August 24th when it entrained for the Salient, arriving at Brake Camp (or “Dirty Bucket Camp” as it was known) just outside Ypres. Later they moved into dug-outs(8) on the Yser-Ypres canal bank losing 6 killed and 8 wounded on September 5th to a single shell burst. The QVRs had now been drawn into the Third Battle of Ypres, which had begun on July 31st with the Battles of Pilckem and Langemarck; it would end on November 6th with the capture of the village of Passchendaele and cost the lives of over 300,000 Commonwealth soldiers.

On September 8th, two companies were ordered to capture and hold Jury Farm and establish the line along the Winnipeg-Cemetery-Springfield Road. Things went badly from the outset when12 men of C Company were gassed by a misdirected shell from their own artillery and their commander, Lieutenant Wightwick, and his sergeant were killed in the first minutes of the attack. B Company now came under fire from the mebus (or pill-box) that C Company failed to take and so was forced to retire. The official report contained the usual ghastly balance sheet: 2 officers and 14 other ranks killed (9 by our own gas), 22 wounded. 13 prisoners were taken and 2 enemy killed. Lieutenants McAdam and Spenser-Pryse were both awarded the Military Cross.

Harry’s death warrant came in the form of Order No1 of 24th September signed by the Battalion Adjutant, Captain Harrington, instructing the 2/9th to capture and hold a section of the enemy line located about two and half miles north of Polygon Wood, from which the battle was to take its name. A brigade of the 59th Division would attack on the QVR’s right; the left was to be protected by a demonstration with dummy figures to draw the enemy’s fire. Each man was to carry 48 hours rations (1lb of biscuit, a tin of bully, a bottle of water and a bottle of tea). Harry was almost certainly armed with a Lee Enfield .303 rifle and18inch bayonet. He would be carrying a couple of Mills bombs and gas mask in his haversack and a bandolier with 170 rounds of ammunition over his shoulder. Around each man’s neck would be 2 metal identity discs, one green the other red, both stamped with the bearer’ name, regimental number, unit and religion. A grim addendum to Order No 1, posted on 25th September and marked “Warning” announced that the word “Retire” was not to be used on any account and that “anyone using this word will be treated as an enemy and shot.”

At 10pm on the 25th the battalion, consisting of approximately 400 men and 14 officers, left its dug-outs in the canal bank at Boesinghe where they had been since the 21st and moved up through Essex Farm and Buffs Road to St Julien. At 5.50 am on the 26th, after a biscuit and a spoonful of rum, the troops moved off from the start line, a tape dotted with numbered luminous discs marking the position of each platoon, pushing forward into a thick mist made worse by the clouds of dust and smoke sent up by the creeping artillery barrage. Orders called for a distance of 100 yards between platoons, 200 yards between companies. The QVR’s objectives were the German lines, which traversed Vale House, Clifton House and Aviatek Farm. Let us not imagine that Harry would be crossing fields of ripening wheat or running through orchards towards enemy defended farmhouses. The farms with their coded names were no more than map references, sections of the enemy’s line to be attacked and taken. The towns, villages, fields and woods of the salient had been pounded into a brown porridge of mud studded with bomb craters and littered with the awful detritus of war. Polygon Wood, as a wood, no longer existed; all that was left of the farmhouses were a few bricks screening enemy pill-boxes. Order was impossible in these conditions and communications difficult. Out of telephone, lamps, flags, pigeons, dogs and runner, the last named was still considered by Lieut. Spenser-Pryse to be “the most reliable (form of communication) since the battle of Marathon in 490BC. On the 26th our dogs simply ran round in circles or failed to start; the pigeons were not bad but would not fly after dark.” The attack, met with heavy machine gun and sniper fire, soon bogged down in shell holes short of the enemy line and the QVRs began to take heavy casualties(9). “At 6am, Lieut. John Marshall disappeared into the fog at the head of his platoon. Two platoons of D Company also vanished into the mist and were not seen again”.

Harry may have been in one of those lost platoons; in any event his body was never found. He is remembered on Panel 151 at Tyne Cot(10) cemetery along with the other 34,927 Commonwealth soldiers with no known grave. Harry died at a time when our families (the Lynns, the Maynes and the Roberts) were closer than they would ever be again; my mother, thirteen at the time, was probably very affected by her elder cousin’s death.


Rifleman No 393345 Harry William Mayne of Queen Victoria’s Rifles, killed in action 27th September 1917.


  1. Harry’s grandfather
  2. The first day of the Battle of the Somme. 801 men of the Newfoundland Regiment left the trenches; the next day only 69 answered roll call
  3. This is really the story of the 2/9th Queen Victoria’s Rifles. Harry originally enlisted as Rifleman No 5244 (date unknown) in the 11th London Regiment (“Finsbury Rifles”) and was later transferred to the QVRs probably in June when the QVRs were at Mory
  4. Davies Street runs from Oxford Street to Berkeley Square. No 56 is situated on the corner of St Anselm’s Place
  5. May Place, Peckham no longer exists
  6. All quotations from “History and Records of Queen Victoria’s Rifles 1792-1922” A C Keeson
  7. “Cubby Holes” in soldiers parlance; still used in our family in the 1950s to describe storage space under the stairs at our house in Petts Wood
  8. 5 out of the 14 officers and 73 out of the 400 other ranks were killed in the battle. The number of wounded is not recorded
  9. Tyne Cot so called after the Northumberland Fusiliers compared enemy pill-boxes to Tyneside workers cottages. The cemetery also contains the graves of 11,908 Commonwealth soldiers of which 70% are unknown. It is the largest war cemetery in the world
  10. Harry’s younger brothers George (17 years old in 1914) and Fred (21years old in 1914) both enlisted and returned safely from the war



Last night Nonna made polenta, which she served up with a rich tomato ragu’ of Italian sausage and the remains of yesterday’s barbecued beef ribs. Today we’ll have the rest of the polenta, cut into pieces the size of Tim Tams, baked in the oven then fried and covered with melted gorgonzola. The only drawback with polenta is that it clings to the surface of the saucepan like yellow cement and makes washing up a nightmare. In the Veneto region of Italy polenta used to be a staple before women found the enlightenment to break a culinary tradition that had lasted since the Venetians first introduced maize from the New World in the 17th Century. Now they serve up dishes that relieve them from stirring and scouring pots for half an hour each night.

Fittingly, it was in the Veneto that I first tasted this dish of ground cornmeal prepared in the form of porridge. As a relief from apartment life in the centre of Verona I had bought one of ten or so terraced 18th Century case di contadini grouped around an uneven piazza in the Comune of Mezzane di Sotto, a small village located some 30 kilometres north west of Verona. There was a small plot of land behind the house, a field with a kaki (persimmon) tree, some long-neglected vines, a tangle of silver birch and willow along the bank of a narrow torrente. On weekends we would drive out to the house for a day of gardening and daydreaming of what we would do with the house when we had the funds necessary for its restoration. Our weekly journey took us past the village of Mezzane di Sotto, off the metal road that continued on up to Mezzane di Sopra and onto a “strada bianca” or unmade road that wound through orchards of cherry, Houseman’s “loveliest of trees” [i]. In springtime light winds dusted the track with their bloom and we drove through a tunnel of snow.

cherry trees

The strada bianca that brought us to the hamlet rose sharply into the foothills of the Dolomites passing a medieval stone trough, supplied by a constant trickle of cool spring water and once used for washing the community’s bedding and clothing.


Bordering the hamlet was a torrente, gushing with water from the melted snows at the outset of spring and, in summer, a hot dried bed of white stones overhung with willow and buddleia, teeming with butterflies. In this earthly paradise Antonio, the hamlet’s only permanent resident, hunted all year round with calm disregard for the imposed limits to the seasons and lists of endangered species. Nothing he killed went to waste. The flight and contour feathers of birds were made into dusters, the down into stuffing for cushions and pillows. No part of an entire pig went to waste, and from the ceiling of Antonio’s cellar hung every conceivable type and size of salami while in his shed there were cages of rabbits, wild birds and snails waiting to be served up in a sugo for the nightly polenta. The only animal safe from Antonio’s gun was Stellina, his small, black and white, hyper-active dog that would race down the track to meet and yap at any approaching vehicle.

Antonio, then retired, lived with his wife Adriana and teenage son Andrea, who worked at the local supermarket. Although they lived permanently in the hamlet, the family had no car, no hot water (unless boiled on the wood-fired stove), telephone or indoor toilet. We first met Antonio and his family shortly after we had bought the house. It was while Cristina and I were clearing the garden one warm, Sunday morning that Antonio and Adriana (then in their fifties) appeared from nowhere, scythe and sickle in hand and, without a word, began working alongside us. Later, over bread and cheese and wine, which they had also brought, we were invited to dinner. That evening over a meal of polenta con lumache (snails) we negotiated the exchange of my kaki tree for a cherry tree and began a friendship that would be terminated only by my incessant desire for change.

front door porch

We soon understood that the family ate polenta every evening, Adriana standing, stooped into the fireplace, patiently stirring a cauldron for what seemed hours before pouring the molten porridge onto a wooden board in the shape of a huge ping-pong bat where it was allowed to cool and solidify for a couple of minutes before being cut into serving portions with a length of string. The most popular of the family’s polenta dishes was “con osei” (with sparrows). Cristina was put off by the tiny, brittle feet and beaked skulls that protruded from the polenta, for the birds, plucked and fried, were tossed in and eaten whole. The rest of us crunched away happily. Antonio had his own, unique way of catching the sparrows. Scattering some seed under the kaki tree that sat in the middle of the small yard behind the house, he would stand at the window of the outside toilet and wait until there were a number of birds pecking at the seed when he would release the end of a rope (looped cunningly over the tree’s branches), letting a lampshade fall over the unsuspecting sparrows. After dinner Adriana would scour the polenta pot and then watch the black and white grainy images on their antique television while I would help Antonio manufacture cartridges for the next day’s hunt. One winter evening on a solo visit, I was persuaded to stay overnight. Adriana showed me to my room and pulled back the bedclothes to remove the bed-warmer – a wooden “cage” in which sat a saucepan full of red-hot coals. Pleasantly drowsy after a meal of polenta con coniglio and a bottle of Antonio’s unlabelled Valpolicella, I slipped between the rough, toast-warm sheets, blew out the candle and lay for a while contemplating the cold, starry sky, overcome with a feeling of peace and security. I had been, as I recognized later, experiencing true happiness.

In October of 1986, Antonio and Adriana were at our wedding lunch in Mezzane di Sotto at the Bacco D’Oro. There was Risoules ai carciofi, Tortellini al burro fuso e salvia, Rusteghi alla Selvaggina and Anitra al forno, but no polenta.

Last night I tried to locate our little hamlet at the end of the cherry road using Google’s satellite map but with no success. Perhaps, like Brigadoon, it only appears, briefly, once every hundred years.

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide

Now, of my threescore years and ten
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs is little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

From “A Shropshire Lad”
A E Houseman