Remembering Dr. Leonore Goldschmidt

Buildings are vessels of history and Folkestone is a town rich in historical buildings. On the corner of Earls Ave and Shorncliffe Road stands a handsome brick and stone-dressed residence, once the summer home of the Boddam Whetham family. Since the late 19th century, however, it has served as an academic institution.

In 1895, the building was Athelstan College for the ‘daughters of gentlemen’, advertising to its Commonwealth clients in the Trinidad and Tobago Mirror. In the 1960s it was Folkestone Technical College and in the 1980s it became the Adult Education Centre. Today it is home to Earlscliffe, a residential Sixth Form school, providing a full A level curriculum to overseas students.

Alongside a strict academic programme, students at Earlscliffe learn life skills such as communication, critical thinking and community service. The school’s six boarding houses have live-in staff who provide practical and pastoral support. In 2023 Earlscliffe was given a five star rating in Fortune 500’s guide to the world’s leading boarding schools.

Overseas students who choose to study in England are faced with a different set of challenges to their native-speaking counterparts. They must learn to communicate in a language that may not be their own and adapt to life in a country in which they did not grow up. They are separated from their families and far away from all that is familiar to them. The benefits of a good education, however, are considered to be worth any personal challenges they may encounter.

Haven For Refugees

Overseas students were also encountering a new life in Earlscliffe’s Shorncliffe Road building 85 years ago when, for a brief period at the start of WWII, it  housed the Dr Leonore Goldschmidt Schule for Jewish refugees. In 1939, as Hitler’s armies advanced across Europe, enrolments at Athelstan College on Shorncliffe Road had slowed to a trickle. It was Canon Hyla Holden, a Folkestone vicar, who offered the Headmistress, Miss Godfrey, a possible solution.

Holden had heard of the plight of Dr Goldschmidt, a German Jewish teacher seeking to escape Berlin with her students. Since Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), coordinated actions of anti-semitic violence across German territories on 8 and 9 November 1938, the British government had been supporting the evacuation of Jewish children from Nazi Germany via the Kindertransport. Miss Godfrey agreed, with the proviso that her one remaining pupil, whose parents were in India, could join Dr Goldschmidt’s charges.

Four years earlier, Goldschmidt had been dismissed from her position at a Berlin public school and told that in future she could teach no more than five non-Jewish students at a time. In the summer of 1934, her cousin, Alexander Zweig and his wife, were murdered on  The Night of the Long Knives. As the couple had no children, Leonore and her husband received a substantial inheritance which, to honour the memory of the Zweigs, they used to open a private Jewish boarding school. As the political situation grew increasingly dangerous, Jewish children enrolled in ever greater numbers at the four-storey house with its orchard garden in a leafy suburb of Berlin.

Goldschmidt always remained one step ahead of the Nazis. She realised that she needed to prepare the children for new lives outside Germany and so she employed native English speakers and registered her school as an official examination centre for the University of Cambridge. Her hope was that this would facilitate Jewish emigration to the US and UK. “Education,” said Goldschmidt, “is our highest good and sometimes it can even serve as a survival tool.”

Escaping Nazi Germany

In July 1939 the Goldschmidt family emigrated to England. Initially settling in a boarding house in Sandgate, Leonore took over Athelstan College on 1 September 1939. Three days later, the UK was at war with Germany and the borders were closed. Some German Jewish children had escaped via the Kindertransport programme. Now, via the UK branch of the Jewish aid organisation the B’nai B’rith, they started to arrive at the new Goldschmidt school in Folkestone.

“My memory of the first few weeks is of liberation” recalls Otto Fendrich, a former student. “We were trusted to go out by ourselves, to keep any pocket money we had and our letters were not censored. The accommodation and the food were also much better. The general atmosphere was very congenial, and although there certainly was discipline, it was not obtrusive or draconian. Dr. Goldschmidt, as headmistress, was clearly in charge of every aspect of the school and more than capable of laying the law down when necessary (and it quite often was necessary) but even at the height of the storm one was aware of an undercurrent of affection and humour”.

The teaching was also of a high standard. The students studied Shakespeare, George Eliot and Sheridan with their teacher, Miss Smith from Elham. As more refugees arrived, the school expanded across the road to Earlscliffe House.

Contact with the children’s families in Germany had become almost impossible. Providing a sense of community, therefore, was crucial. Birthdays were celebrated and, in the evenings, they played games, sang songs and read aloud in German. Encouraged by a new-found stability the Goldschmidts unpacked the silver, the carpets and the grand piano and rented rooms to the Workers Educational Association.

In May 1940, following Germany’s invasion of Holland, the British government announced the internment of all B-Class male aliens over the age of 16. Ernst, Leonore’s husband, was detained and she and her students were evacuated to South Wales, from where she worked tirelessly to ensure that they were able to sit the school certificate examinations that summer.

After the war, Dr. Goldschmidt continued her teaching career in England. She died in London in 1983 at the age of 85.

The Leonore Room at 29 Shorncliffe Road is dedicated to Dr. Goldschmidt’s memory. And on Holocaust Memorial Day in January 2023, Earlscliffe named their newest residence Goldschmidt House in recognition of her courage and determination.

Originally published in ‘Folkestone Foghorn’, Spring 2024

A Brilliant Disguise

In 2007 I attended the memorial and burial of the writer and philosopher, Douglas Edison Harding. My presence at his graveside that day was a co-incidence and not due to any personal connection to the family. To be honest, I had never heard of the man C.S. Lewis once described as a writer of ‘the highest genius’. I was in Suffolk that day because my husband had offered to drive three Buddhist monks to the funeral and I went along for the ride.

Harding’s wife, Catherine, was born and raised in France. When she heard that I had a degree in French she gifted me a copy of her children’s book*, written in her native language and based on the philosophy of her husband’s now spiritual classic On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious (1961).

Douglas Harding was born into the Exclusive Plymouth Brethren, a Christian fundamentalist sect. In his early twenties he broke away from the group, was immediately excommunicated and remained estranged from his family for the rest of his life. According to his obituary questioning all things that could not be verified by direct observation, taking nothing on trust, Harding began with the attitude of a scientist and ended with the insights of a mystic **

His premise was simple. We each have a head, one that we ourselves are unable to see without the assistance of a mirror or a shop front window. We can’t see our own heads but we can look out from inside them and encounter a world of thoughts and feelings that are completely unique to each one of us. Every person we meet lives at the centre of a world no one else can see. We learn that who we are to ourselves can be different to how we are seen by others. We realise that our behaviour adapts according to the person we are with – friend, parent, teacher.

As Harding so succinctly put it: I am the sole and final authority on me. Mostly however, we take other people’s word for who we are. Only you are in a position to say what it’s like being you at this time.

I was intrigued and began to consider Harding’s ideas in terms of the work I was doing with primary and secondary school students.

Twelve year-old Jackie arrived in my office one morning, accused of having sworn at a teacher in the corridor. When I asked her what had prompted her to lose her temper, she replied. He was looking at me funny. As a member of the Traveller community, Jackie often experienced her world as judgmental, critical and excluding and so she interpreted her teacher’s expression as disparaging. He, in turn, experienced her reaction as insulting.

I suggested that what she read as a critical look might have had nothing at all to do with her. Perhaps the teacher had narrowed his eyes because the sun was shining in his face; perhaps he had been reflecting on a personal problem that had nothing at all to do with Jackie. She couldn’t see inside her teacher’s head and he couldn’t see inside hers. To ourselves we are headless and what happens on the outside, in our expressions and reactions, may not accurately reflect what we are experiencing on the inside.

We spent some time talking about all the things that made Jackie proud to be who she was – a tomboy, someone who could stand up for herself, a sense of being part of an extended community that was adaptable, but also refused to be pushed into a corner. We talked about the thoughts and feelings of others and the responsibility we all have for what we think, say and do.

Sometimes I used Art or Music to help students experience ‘headlessness’. Both art forms exist beyond reality, beyond the known world and so can be used imaginatively and in a very personal way. There’s no right or wrong answer when we use music or painting to represent what we are experiencing. The reality is internal. As a child once observed It’s an inside truth. As Douglas Harding said Nobody is in a position to tell me what my direct experience is.

It’s important for young people to learn about the world around them and it’s important for them to learn about the world inside them. What do you see when you are not looking at your physical reflection? What do others see? How can you differentiate between who you are to yourself and who you are to others? The journey to personal stability, whilst balancing our personal relationships, is honed and refined over the course of a lifetime.

In the words of Bruce Springsteen: Is that you – or just a brilliant disguise?



*Les Explorateurs du Vrai Monde par Catherine Harding.

** Douglas Harding obituary, The Independent, February 15th, 2007










A Renaissance Man

The term ‘Renaissance Man’ is rarely used today. It appears to have fallen away in this 21st century of self-appointed authorities and experts. Of course you’d never describe yourself as a Renaissance Man (or Woman). This would be the preserve of others, most likely after your death, perhaps in an obituary or eulogy.

A Renaissance Man is well-educated in both the Arts and Sciences. An effortless learner, he is often self-taught and presents as an original and sometimes controversial thinker. A gifted musician, artist and linguist, she is equally comfortable with complex mathematical theory, politics and finance. Renaissance people are highly social and able to communicate with ease across culture and class.

Richard Houghton Van Kleeck was such a man. Known to his friends and colleagues as ‘Squeek’, he was born in Boston in 1928 and graduated from Harvard and Harvard Business School. He subsequently spent ten years as a teacher of French and English at Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, Massachusetts. It was at ‘Nobles’ that he and my father, Peter O’Connell, met and forged a lifelong friendship.

Squeek has a passion for artistic purity, private sweat in reading and writing and a strong dislike for the short-cut. It is our glory to have such a radical tory, utterly self deleting. Nobles is his bed, board, wife and floozie, writes a fellow master in 1959. He has English 3A and 2A now. He swoops them into stratospheres. I re-gather them and remind them of earth between their toes. It makes no pattern, but they’re bigger because of the wildcat exposure. I disagree with some of Squeek’s neon generalizations; I’m for the text myself. Still we work harmoniously in the main. Perhaps our variety of outlook is a value. My chief fear is that he’ll destroy himself by over-exertion. 1

Van Kleeck was also a director of the Civic Symphony Association of Boston and took lead roles in productions at the Footlight Club, the oldest amateur theatrical group in the United States.

In 1959, the Ford Foundation funded a US$600,000 project designed to replace 11th grade English courses with a new television curriculum. Heralded as the most important medium of communication developed since the invention of movable type, the educational television project was to cover drama, philosophy, painting, sculpture, architecture, music and dance. Van Kleeck was horrified and spearheaded a vigorous campaign against it, threatening to resign from Nobles if it went ahead. The Foundation eventually decided that the project, although new and exciting, wasn’t quite the silver bullet they had hoped it would be. Funding was withdrawn and everyone went back to the text. Squeek was delighted: English has reverted to English and so we are stuck, fortunately, with Shakespeare, he writes. He subsequently launched his own Arts course for seniors at Nobles. Squeek’s Fine Arts course is tremendous. I doubt whether any school can match us. Even the seniors, who came to scoff, learned to genefluct. I never thought I’d overhear three boys arguing whether a certain church was High or Late Gothic! Van Kleeck is one of Nobles’ crown jewels. 

In the Nobles Bulletin of 2008, James Wood, Class of ’59, reflected on his twenty-five years as Director of the Art Institute of Chicago and his subsequent role as President of the Getty Trust. It was, he said, a direct result of Van Kleeck’s art appreciation and classical music classes that led him to study at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.

David Woods, who knew Squeek as a teacher and later as a friend wrote in 2018:

I considered Squeek my most important mentor. In his Fine Arts class, he had a way of capturing the essence of an artist in a word or two. Van Ruysdael was ‘clouds’. Brahms was ‘craggy’. Beethoven was all about ‘accents in the wrong places’. He could read any music, no matter how harmonically complicated and he played (and owned) a harpsichord.

He also tutored me in Physics during my freshman year in college. He had an uncanny way of explaining anything scientific and could multiply three-digit numbers together in his head. And yet, he was a teacher of English and French. He may have had the highest IQ in New England in his youth.

In the summer of 1958, Squeek worked as a housepainter before he and David travelled out to Western Oregon and spent ten weeks with the Weyerhauser Timber Company. David recalls driving across country in an old German Kraftwagen with a two-cycle engine while Squeek looked up words and encyclopaedic facts in his Larousse dictionary. We worked the ‘swing’ shift (5pm – 1.45am) at the mill, where we pulled lumber – up to 100 tons per night – off a conveyor belt wrote Squeek in a letter to Peter. We would return to our miniscule apartment and relax with a cocktail before having dinner and retiring about 4am – getting up the next afternoon to swim or play tennis before going off to the mill. What was most enjoyable was our fellow workmen, whom we got to know and, surprisingly enough, be accepted by – as rough a crew as one could imagine (caused by the rather hazardous and energetic nature of the occupation), but willing to do anything for you. We plunged into union activities – I’m still an old stick-in-the-mud reactionary, but what this company needed was a good strike. I even got up and spoke at a meeting of Local 7-261 International Wood Workers of America, AFL-CI0. David and I both felt that the experience was invaluable – it  certainly gave us an opportunity to see and meet (and enjoy) a different society and a chance to see our own world in a different perspective.

The following summer, Van Kleeck was commissioned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to update its slide collection. Reb Forte was his driver and assistant. The two of them sailed first class from New York to Southampton and visited us in Essex before travelling to Europe:  We went to the Tate, the Prado, the Louvre, the Hermitage and the Vatican, where Squeek photographed the world’s great masterpieces. We always got preferential treatment and often after-hours access to the museums. It was an impressive experience for a seventeen year old. wrote Reb in 2019.

After he left Nobles, Squeek moved to Asheville, North Carolina where he catalogued the Vanderbilts’ private art collection at Biltmore House. He subsequently returned to Boston to work as an estate and financial planner at the National Shamut Bank. He was also a research analyst with Bradford and Co and served as Vice President of United Chemical Company. In 1969 he moved back to North Carolina and became the co-ordinator for the Asheville Art Museum. For a decade he wrote a weekly arts column for the Sunday Citizen Times.

When he died, at the age of 56, Richard ‘Dick’ Van Kleeck was working in Washington, where he had recently served as staff assistant to former Congressman William Hendon.  When the Senate convened on July 20th, 1984, the Senator from Hawaii rose from his seat:

Mr. President, I rise in tribute today to a gentleman and devoted public servant: Mr. Richard H. Van Kleeck of the Senate Republican Conference staff, who died June 16th after a valiant struggle with cancer.

Dick was well-known to many here on Capitol Hill for his meticulous and detailed grasp of the complexities of the legislative process. He was cherished by the conference staff, as much for genial humour and courtly manners as for his erudition and professional expertise.

In his final days of staff service, Dick, though wracked with physical pain, was a paradigm of the quiet courage which sustains the bravest and best of our people. He will be sadly missed, but never forgotten by those of us who had the privilege to work beside him.

Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that a tribute to him, published in the June 18 edition of the Asheville Citizen, be printed in the Congressional Record following my remarks.

There being no objection, the article was ordered to be printed in the Record.

Squeek was an exceptional talent and, although not a public person himself, he had formative influence on people who were. He was an excellent role model, a man of integrity, generosity and kindness. Richard Houghton Van Kleeck was the perfect example of a Renaissance man.



A Good Man is Hard to Find

One of my mother’s favourite television programmes in the 1960s and 70s was The Val Doonican Show. Doonican was an Irish singer, known for his soothing baritone voice,  knitted sweaters and signature wooden rocking chair. I think my mother secretly wished she’d married a man like Val Doonican, rather than a man like my father. They were both Irish, both winsome, although Dad wore silk cravats rather than Irish jumpers. Mum never missed a Saturday evening with Val and would settle in to watch the show with a glass of champagne and a bowl of peanuts.

At the age of 11, I had my own version of Val Doonican: Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees. I was better placed than my mother because Barry, at 23, was unmarried (well, divorced …). I joined the Barry Gibb Fan Club when it launched in 1970 and received my first typed newsletter from Teresa ‘Trees’ Daligan, the Club secretary. She invited my opinion on personalised photos and pens and suggested a raffle with things belonging to Barry as prizes. I thought this last idea was a particularly good one. It was all super friendly and inclusive. I felt like part of the family. In my imagination ‘Trees’ would leave her post, around the time I left school, and I would slip seamlessly into her shoes as the next BG Fan Club secretary. It was the first step in my plan towards matrimony and a forever life as Mrs. Barry Gibb (Number Two).

Everything was going swimmingly until the next letter arrived with the devastating news that, on his 24th birthday, Barry had secretly married Linda Gray. Trees, in her usual folksy style, shared details with the fans. Mrs. Gibb (a former Miss Edinburgh) had looked beautiful in her crochet-lace wedding dress and gifts to the couple included sheets and blankets, a paper weight, a decanter and some glass fish ornaments. Unable to locate the hotel they had booked for their wedding night (how is that possible?) Barry and Linda drove back to their home in Eaton Square and ended up sleeping on two single beds in the spare room (the house being full of visiting family). I was utterly devastated by this news which, in an instant, destroyed all hope of any future happiness in my life. As the song goes: How can you mend a broken heart? How can you stop the rain from falling down? (The Bee Gees, 1971). It took me a long time to recover and, if I’m honest, Davy Jones of the Monkees was a poor substitute.

Val Doonican and Barry Gibb were both known for their winning smiles and perfectly capped teeth. Val’s soulful ballads, slacks and patterned cardigans contrasted sharply with Barry’s high falsetto, skin-tight pants and silver bomber jackets. For all their obvious differences, the two men had much in common. They were perfectionists but also modest and aware of their own limitations. We are not as important to the outside world as we are sometimes led to believe, said Doonican in 2010. He chose his profession, he explained, because he loved music and strove always to be the best Val Doonican possible.

Barry Gibb, although the handsomest of the Bee Gee brothers never failed to recognise that he was part of a whole, a sum of several parts, one of three brothers who, together, formed a unique sound that could not be re-created if one or more Bee Gee was missing. Today, at 76, Barry is the last brother still alive. Maurice died in 2003 and his twin, Robin died in 2012. Everything stops and ends at some point, said Barry in a 2017 interview, no matter who you are nor how well-known.

Barry and Val both had homes in Beaconsfield, a sleepy Buckinghamshire town, west of London. Co-incidentally for two years in the late 1970s I dated someone from Beaconsfield and so could have bumped into either one of them at the Saracen’s Head, on Memorial Green or at the local branch of Boots.

Doonican recorded more than 50 albums over 62 years in the music industry. He left TV in 1986 and spent his later years performing live shows in the afternoon which, he explained at the time, suit me and my ageing fans well. We can all be home before bedtime. He was devoted to Lynette, his wife of 54 years and together they enjoyed golf, cooking and spending time with their children and grandchildren. I have had a wonderful time and a wonderful life, he said in 2010. Michael Valentine Doonican died in 2015 at the age of 88.

Barry Alan Crompton Gibb received a knighthood from the Queen in 2018. He and his brothers sold over 200 million records worldwide. The song he is most proud of, he says, is To Love Somebody. He wrote it, he said, for his wife Linda, the woman who has consistently inspired not only his music but his life. They have been married for 53 years and have five children.

It seems my Mum and I had good instincts. We each recognised a good man when we saw one. It’s nice to know that fairy tales can come true and that some stories really do end happily.




The Footsteps of a Thousand Years

On May 17th, 2023 Sotheby’s New York auctioned The Codex Sassoon. Acknowledged to be the oldest complete copy of the Hebrew Bible, it was written on sheepskin parchment more than a thousand years ago. Although the Dead Sea Scrolls are older, they are incomplete. The Codex Sassoon is a world treasure, on which all our culture rests. Last week it sold for 38.1 million dollars.

For a very brief period in its very long history (1940 – 1971), The Codex Sassoon belonged to the family who lived across the street from our house in Letchworth. It was the centrepiece of the David Sassoon Library.

David Solomon Sassoon was a prolific collector of Judaica and accumulated the world’s most significant private library of rare manuscripts. He travelled extensively in Yemen, Syria, China and the Himalayas in search of Hebrew bibles, scrolls and lithographs. The Codex Sassoon, as it is now known, was written by a single scribe in the Levant in 900 BCE. It found its way to a Syrian synagogue in the 13th century and, when the building was destroyed in the late 14th century, it was given to a member of the community to safeguard until such time as the synagogue was restored. It was never re-built and the manuscript disappeared for more than 500 years. It re-emerged in 1929 when David Sassoon bought it for £350 (£35,000 in today’s money).

He once described his holy books as more precious and dear to me than much fine gold. In 1940, to escape the Blitz, he moved his family and his library from Mayfair to Letchworth Garden City, where he purchased 15 Sollershott East. When David died, just two years later, his son, Solomon David Sassoon inherited his library.

Solomon was a rabbi and his interest lay not in acquiring more books but in studying the texts he already owned in order to develop his research and writing. He was generous in making his library available to other scholars and he published some of its manuscripts. Rabbi Solomon also ran an after-school Talmud Torah programme for local children. In Jewish Letchworth: A Microcosm of the Jewish Communal Experience, Yanky Fachler, who grew up at 37 Sollershott East, describes a unique community where orthodox and non-orthodox Jews coexisted harmoniously.

Shabbat was held every week at the Sassoon residence. Susan, who grew up at No. 14, had a Saturday job at the Sassoons, doing the necessary housework and preparation. She recalls the abundance of dishes prepared for the Shabbat meal and how generous the family was in sharing their food with her.

There was a regular stream of visitors to the house. Many came to seek advice from Rabbi Solomon; some came to view his library, including the Codex, which was housed in a fire and theft-proof strong room in an out-building. The family’s hospitality was legendary. Even the postman would be invited, each day, to sit down for a cup of tea. Sassoon was also a life-long philanthropist and people travelled great distances in search of his support for their charitable causes. According to Fachler, the Rabbi eventually bought a caravan which he parked in the garden and to which he retired when he wished to avoid visitors. The family was instructed to tell those who asked that he was in Scotland.

The pilgrimages continued long after the Sassoons left Letchworth in 1971. Until the pandemic of 2020, visitors would regularly arrive in taxis from the train station or in private minibuses from London. Salvatore and Alice, who bought the property in the 1990s, would discover strangers walking around the garden or peering through the window of their tool shed, the former strong-room that had housed Codex Sassoon. Alice shares not only a name with Rabbi Solomon’s wife, but, like Alice Beyla-Sassoon, she too is Dutch. For many years, Salvatore and Alice would invite the unannounced visitors into their home and offer them tea. Later however, they followed the Rabbi’s lead and laid low until the pilgrims had left the premises.

In 1964, Rabbi Sassoon of Letchworth was tipped to become the first-ever joint Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel (by virtue of his mother, who was Ashkenazi and his father who was Sephardi). He said he wasn’t interested and admitted to Yanky Fachler that he didn’t wish to be swallowed up in politics and bureaucracy.

Rabbi Solomon Sassoon is remembered by those who knew him as an enlightened thinker and a man of great generosity and integrity. He accepted everyone, regardless of their level of observance, and emphasized communal unity and family.

In 1971 Solomon and Alice moved to Jerusalem and the house was sold to Michael Markham, an artist and lecturer at Hitchin College. It was later purchased by a Soviet (now Belarus) company who converted the building into flats to accommodate senior management. One day the managers vanished and never returned. Today, the brick, Dutch-gabled house at 15 Sollershott East has been lovingly renovated and restored by Salvatore and Alice.

The Sassoon family estate was gradually broken up and sold to cover the astronomical cost of UK death duties. Codex Sassoon was auctioned by Sotheby’s Zurich in 1978 and bought by the British Rail Pension Fund. It was then briefly exhibited at the British Museum in 1982 before it came up for auction in 1989, again through Sotheby’s. Bought by a dealer for just over two million pounds, it was sold on to a Syrian-Lebanese-Swiss investor, Jacqui Safra from Geneva.

When Professor Yosef Ofer from Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv was writing a critical work about The Codex Sassoon, Safra gave him permission to spend four days in a room with the sacred manuscript. While he worked, guards stood watch outside the door.

It was Safra who returned The Codex Sassoon to the open market earlier this year.

I was pleased to learn last Wednesday that Codex Sassoon had been purchased, not by another wealthy private investor, but by Alfred H. Moses, on behalf of the ANU Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv where it is to be preserved for generations to come as the centrepiece and gem of the entire and extensive display and presence of the Jewish story.








A Good Brew

‘Bless ordinary every day afternoon tea’
Agatha Christie

The Swiss have long been a nation of coffee drinkers. It is perhaps no co-incidence that in 2001 Starbucks chose Zurich, rather than say Vienna or Milan, for its first venture into continental Europe. When I land at a Swiss airport, before I even check the train timetable, I go in search of a cafe crème. The Swiss, in my opinion, make the best coffee.

Tea, however, is another matter entirely. Order black tea in Switzerland and you will be given a tall glass mug filled with hot water from an urn. It is served with a tea bag on the side, a sealed, plastic pot of UHT cream, a paper twist of sugar and a tiny packet of artificial sweetener. I would often stare, impatiently, at the fast cooling water as it sat on the counter, awaiting delivery to my table. Thirty years ago kettles were practically unknown in Switzerland and I boiled the water for my afternoon tea in a saucepan. The tea, of course, came from England, as did the teapot and the tea cosy.

If I asked Swiss people who came to my home whether they would like to join me in a pot of tea, the answer was invariably ‘No, thank you. I only drink tea when I’m ill’.  One friend, generally a very confident person, grew anxious and doubtful when it came to preparing me a cup of tea and would call me into the kitchen to supervise the process: How long to steep the bag; when to add the milk; should she warm the cup?

Tea was first introduced to England in 1660 by the East India Trading Company. The king, Charles II, placed an excise duty of eight pence on every gallon of tea sold. Consequently, it was only the very wealthy who could afford to buy tea and the masses continued to drink ale. Water at the time was a public health hazard.

The ladies of London kept their tea in exquisite caddies, many of which were made by the English cabinetmaker, Thomas Chippendale.  The unlocking of the caddy was as much a part of the ritual of serving tea as the drinking of it.

On December 16th, 1773, the people of Boston, Massachusetts decided they had had enough of the English and their taxes and the East India Company’s entire cargo of tea was tipped into Boston  harbour. Three years later, the British Prime Minister reduced the tax on tea from 119% to 12%, thus making the drinking of tea available to everyone.

Noble Fearnley Hutchinson Fleming, known to all as ‘Toby’, was my father’s first cousin and a tea taster for the Thomas J. Lipton Company. Born in Wales, Toby Fleming joined Lipton as a young apprentice and was sent to India to learn the trade. This marked the beginning of a 50 year career spent on tea plantations in India, Sri Lanka, China and East Africa. Toby was in search of the perfect leaf and his assessments were based on soil, elevation, rainfall, temperature and quality of management. According to his obituary in the New York Times Mr. Fleming and his handful of experts would study the tone of the leaves (brightness indicated enhanced flavor), place them in white bone china cups lined up in rows, steep them in purified water, add a precise amount of skim milk and then sip. Based on the taste-testing, he would tell his agents what to buy at auction.

To clear his palate before tasting, Toby would eat an apple and to avoid bloating from the hundreds of sips he took in a single day, he would use chrome-plated cuspidors. He was also the man responsible for creating Lipton’s Ice tea in its current form. Using orange pekoe, the youngest and smallest leaves on the plant, he succeeded in producing a blend that doesn’t cloud. The cold tea remains clear in the glass.

Toby Fleming was long considered to be the industry’s leading tea taster, a man who oversaw half the United States’ total tea sales. He might have been surprised, therefore, by a report, published this week about the current habits of British tea drinkers. Sales of speciality and herbal teas now lead black tea sales by more than five million pounds a year.

The English crime writer, Dorothy L. Sayers, once reflected that there was something ‘hypnotic’ about the word tea. Whatever the weather, whatever the occasion and wherever I am in the world, I endeavour to be within reach of a kettle (or a saucepan) and I carry my own mug and tea bags. There’s nothing quite like wrapping your fingers around a cup, lowering your lips to the porcelain and taking that first sip of hot tea.


Noble Fearnley Hutchinson Fleming –  born March 7th 1919 died February 24th 2012




Catching Your Death

In 1973 I went to a Dustin Hoffman double bill at the Cannon cinema in Folkestone. The Graduate was a 15 certificate and Straw Dogs was today’s equivalent of 18+ (R/Restricted Viewing). Nobody had IDs back then and my friend and I must have looked older than our 14 years. Straw Dogs was subsequently banned from video for 20 years as a result of its violent content, which included two rape scenes. I credit my current inability to watch physical and sexual on-screen violence to the distress I experienced after seeing Straw Dogs. Sam Peckinpah’s film was re-made in 2011 and, unlike its predecessor, it bombed at the box office.

I recognise that my inability to de-sensitize myself to on-screen violence means that I often miss out on well-acted, well-written drama. I am, nonetheless, curious as to why death, and particularly violent death, is such an intrinsic part of mainstream entertainment. Why is explicit cruelty so compelling? What purpose does it serve?

Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross, the Swiss-American psychiatrist who pioneered the study of death and dying in the 1960s wrote: Perhaps the biggest obstacle anyone faces in the effort to understand death is that it’s impossible for the unconscious mind to imagine an end to its own life. The only aspect it can understand is a sudden, frightening interruption of life, a tragic killing, a murder, one of several gruesome diseases. In other words –  horrible pain.

So it’s a distancing technique. But if it exists everywhere, all the time, then are we not at risk of being anesthetized to death? Most of us, of course, will not die as a result of murder, suicide or a tragic accident. Most of us will die slowly, over a long or a short period of time, in a care home, in a hospital or in hospice. We are uncomfortable with the inevitability of ordinary death, which is so often concealed, sanitized and managed by a third party.

On March 23rd, 2004, the Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz, launched the first Cafe mortel (or Death Cafe  as it is known outside Switzerland) at the Restaurant du Theatre du Passage in Neuchatel. His goal was to draw death out of the shadows; he wanted people to talk freely about death, not behind closed doors, but in a social space that was accessible to all. Anyone could be part of the conversation, either through joining the group (although no one is required to share or even speak at a Death Cafe), or through ‘eavesdropping’.

Death is not private or confidential. It is a given. It is the one thing we all have in common. By talking about death and dying, you prepare yourself a little for your own death, so you’re not terrified of it, said Crettaz in an interview with Swiss Public Radio. Traditionally the Cafes mortels took place in restaurants and bistros where people gathered to eat, drink and talk. Wine and cheese were provided and no financial donations were accepted. There are already too many issues surrounding money and death, he said.

Bernard Crettaz was born in 1938 in Vissoie in the val d’Anniviers. The dark-stained chalets and the ancient chapels in this remote part of Switzerland are framed by a mountain range known as La Grande Couronne – The Great Crown. In these communities there are clear rituals around death and dying. At a young age, Bernard’s mother taught him how to dress the house in mourning using sacred objects from her tiroir du mort, or ‘death drawer’. His father took him to the cellar and showed him the oak barrels of wine and the aging cheese destined to be served at their funerals alongside fresh bread, baked in the village oven. In previous generations, the funeral wine and cheese were laid down at the same time as the couple planned their wedding celebrations. The vine, the cow and the field are symbols of our relationship with the earth, explained Crettaz.

Funerals are public events, a communal act of kinship among mourners and the bereaved. Death is both serious and extremely commonplace.

In 1979, at the age of 41, Crettaz received his doctorate in sociology from the University of Geneva, where he was a lecturer. Together with his wife, the anthropologist Yvonne Preiswerk, he founded an organisation that studied funeral rites and customs. When Preiswerk died in 1999, Crettaz took early retirement and returned to Vissoie where he devoted himself to writing. Five years later, he launched the Cafes Mortels, which he convened until 2010.

The Death Cafes followed in 2011 (hot drinks and cake have replaced wine and cheese). They now exist in 83 countries. Although there is a convenor, the discussions are group-led and there is no agenda, no objective and no judgement. The Death Cafe provides an accessible, respectful and confidential space without intention to lead participants to any conclusion, product or course of action. They are not grief or counselling sessions. The one I went to earlier this year was held in a public library. We talked about suicide and inheritance. The demographic was broad – from funeral director to pagan.

There is no right or wrong to dying, just a time, a place and a readiness. The Irish writer, Kevin Toolis, compares death to a marathon that you know you will have to run at some point. It’s compulsory and you can’t get out of it.  One day, without warning, the bell will toll and you will have to drop everything and go. Instead of pretending it isn’t going to happen, Toolis  suggests we get a little practice in beforehand, even if it’s just a few laps around the local park.

This is what Bernard Crettaz and the Cafes Mortels, sought to achieve. He wanted to help people better manage their grief and better face their death, because Death, he said, is a lesson in life.


Bernard Crettaz born May 29th 1938 died November 28th 2022

Cafes mortels: Sortir la mort du silence, by Bernard Crettaz, 2010 Editions Labor et Fides.

My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach Us to Live, Love and Die by Kevin Toolis, 2017, W+N


Roadside Assistance

In 2014 I attended a one-week course at Schumacher College in Devon with the poet, David Whyte and the activist Satish Kumar. Satish was born in India and, in 1962 when he was 26, he left Delhi on a peace walk to Washington DC, covering 13,000 miles over a two and a half year period. He and his companion carried no money, relying entirely on the kindness of strangers. As they crossed the border from India into Pakistan, a woman handed Satish a parcel of food, warning him that, as a Hindu, he risked going hungry in an Islamic country. Satish, though appreciative of the woman’s generosity, described what she had given him as ‘little packets of distrust’. If I travel as a Hindu, he told her, I will meet a Muslim. If I travel as an Indian, I will meet an Iranian, but … if I travel as a human being, I will meet a human being.

In the summer of 1981, my husband, Dan walked from Barre, Massachusetts to Auriesville, New York, as part of his Jesuit formation. Like Satish he carried no money. He travelled as a mendicant, relying entirely on what people gave him. Forced to relinquish control and rely on the unknown, Dan, like Satish, travelled as a human being, trusting in the generosity of other human beings.

The idea of leaving my house without any money or indeed snacks for the road is beyond my imagination. My motto in life is be self-reliant and don’t go bothering people. The glove compartment of my car is always well stocked with nuts and sweets. I carry a flask of hot tea, a blanket and a book in case of traffic delays or severe weather. I am, of course, a member of the Automobile Association. All this preparation enables me to travel light in terms of obligation.

Earlier this month, as I was exiting a parking lot onto a busy road, I misjudged the turn and drove with full force over a low brick wall. The car jolted but didn’t stall. I kept going. At the next traffic light, a silver sedan pulled up alongside me and the driver pointed to my rear tyre.

It’s completely flat he shouted. You’re driving on the metal rim.

I thanked him and pulled into a side street. Moments later, there he was, the man in the silver sedan.

Do you know how to change a tyre? he asked.

No, I answered, but don’t worry I’ll call my husband. Or the AA. Or I’ll drive to Halfords. In my head I raced on to increasingly extreme alternatives: ‘Or I’ll leave the car and buy a new one. Thanks though. Goodbye’.

Would you like me to change the tyre for you?

At this point, my stomach contracted into a solid rubber ball and I heard a voice in my head shout. ‘No. Go away. I don’t want to be the victim of a scam. Neither do I want your kindness intruding on my chaos. I don’t want to be beholden or grateful to a complete stranger, so please go away. Right now’.

Instead I said Gosh, that’s really kind of you. Thank you so much. But … you’ve probably got somewhere you need to be. I’ll be fine. Really…  

The man parked his car and got out. He looked as though he spent a lot of time at the gym. He stood very close to me when he spoke and I could feel his breath on my face. In the passenger seat of the car was a young boy, about fourteen years old. As the two of them began to empty the boot of my Volkswagen, I slipped my bag off the front seat and hung it over my shoulder. Just in case.

You might want to learn how to change a tyre, the man said – in a kind voice though, not in a condescending one. Your husband could probably teach you. My son here knows. I taught him how.

The rubber ball inside me began to soften until I could no longer feel it. This is really kind of you, I said, as I watched him jack up the car, his hands and his t-shirt smudged with tarmac and rubber. No worries, he replied, it’s what anyone would do, right?

No it isn’t I said …. a little too vehemently, perhaps. It’s not what anyone would do. Most people drive by. 

You’re the second person I’ve stopped for this week, he continued. On Tuesday I came across a Dutchman whose electric car had run out of battery power. Anyway, he added, it’s good karma, right?

I had only £15 in my wallet and, rather awkwardly, I offered it to the man. He stepped back, visibly shocked. I was embarrassed. My gesture was clumsy, perhaps even insulting. Beneath my awkwardness, however, I felt close to tears. I thanked him and I told the young man that he was lucky to have such a kind father. They followed me all the way to Halfords, but when I turned back to wave goodbye, they were gone. I don’t even know their names.

The Heroes We Worship

In his memoir, Undercover University, Frank Bell writes: In the friendly co-operation that is found in study and learning lies the greatest hope for the future of mankind. As in no other sphere of life, enmity and jealousy cannot flourish when the welfare of common humanity is in view.

Peter O’Connell at the School of English Studies, Folkestone and Frank Bell at the Bell School, Cambridge were pioneers in the field of language learning during the 1960s and 70s. These were the halcyon days of TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) when school principals were friends rather than competitors: new developments were not protected for the financial benefit of individual schools but shared for the greater good of students and their teachers.

In 1971, SES welcomed a group of teachers from China. The People’s Republic was still living under the dictatorship of Chairman Mao. The teachers had all been hand-picked by the Ministry of Education and each one was an expert in a particular aspect of English culture. They spent four months at SES before going to the University of Bath. They were the most marvellous group of 14 people I have ever met and I loved every minute I spent with them, wrote Peter. He considered them to be a teacher’s dream, always seeking knowledge like the Holy Grail but never dour or pompous. Much about life in England was new and unfamiliar to them, and this had to be factored into the teaching programme. They had never heard of the London Stock Exchange and had no experience of press conferences or indeed of a free press. One afternoon they were taken to visit a local farmer and his wife who lived in a mock-Tudor mansion. Over tea, the leader enquired: How many families live in this house?

The Chinese were conspicuous figures wherever they went. The twelve men and two women all wore ‘Mao’ suits, cut their hair in the same style and never touched cigarettes or alcohol. They were all married but laughed merrily when commiserated with for being separated from their spouses and children. They not only lived in pairs in their host families, but never moved anywhere without a companion or a group. If one was separated and became involved in a discussion with an English person, it wasn’t long before another quietly moved in and joined the conversation. They were much loved, not only by their teachers, but also by their host families, who described them as tidy and clean, beloved by the children, punctual and courteous. They enjoyed taking their host family’s children to the swings and it was not unusual to see a brace of boiler-suited Chinese in the company of their English charges at local parks. Perhaps these outings were a comfort to them in the absence of their own children.

Peter prided himself on the fact that although he admired China and the Chinese people, he never hesitated to state his opinion that Marxism was a theory and not a science or a chemical formula. Clearly, his Chinese teachers did not pay him much mind, and when he invited them to write an essay on the organisation and characteristics of the ideal society for which they were fighting, they all wrote synopses of Marxist dialectics. He was disappointed that his otherwise perfect students were unable to break out of their ideology and the dogmatic inflexibility of their thinking.  He startled the group one day by saying how much he admired them because they were so profoundly religious. Their disapproving expressions changed to indulgent smiles when he added that he realised their religion was a secular one, but that it was nevertheless based on faith – faith in the sacred texts and the infallibility of their prophets. Peter asked one man what his view was of Stalin, to which he replied that Stalin was in the same category as Marx, Engels and Lenin. These are the heroes we worship, he declared. Worship? my father echoed. There …. I told you that you were religious, at which the entire group erupted in gales of laughter. The group leader, Lu Bong Hung, often commented that they had come to England to learn the language and make friends with English people, but even Peter realised that this was not a personal goal but a Peking-specified objective.

Rosemary Chan was both a tutor and host mother and two of the Chinese teachers lived with the Chans during their time in Folkestone. Armand Chan was born in China but raised in Madagascar. Initially, the two men were a little distrustful of Mr. Chan and his questionable status, although once it was understood that his family had left China before the rise of Chairman Mao, they became more relaxed. Armand was clearly not a traitor to the Cultural Revolution and, furthermore, the Chans served more rice than was customary in the English host families of their comrades. The two men shared a room and every morning they would get up early and walk round the garden reading Mao’s Little Red Book.

My own memory of the Chinese group is that they were utterly enthralled by the BBC’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. Once a week, all fourteen of them would gather in front of the television in the Students Common Room and follow the unfolding drama between Emma and Mr. Knightley. The story of characters who spend their time in drawing rooms and ballrooms, discussing social status and the minutiae of romantic love, struck me as a far cry from the world of Mao Tse-tung. I suspect that Jane Austen wasn’t mentioned during the unannounced visits by the Chinese minister-in-charge.

The students loved to sing. All their songs were deeply patriotic and contained the word ‘Mao’ in almost every line. They sang Scotland the Brave but refused to sing Eriskay Love Lilt because, they explained, it put love of people before love of country.

The interpreter for the group was a man named Shen Xulun. Shen was raised in a scholarly family in Northern China and studied ancient Chinese culture and language at university. During the Cultural Revolution, intellectual  values were ferociously attacked and replaced by proletarian and peasant ideals. In 1966, Shen Xulun escaped from the Red Guards and travelled 1,200 miles on a bicycle from his hometown to Canton. As he made the journey through a country in turmoil, Shen kept a diary that attempted to reconcile his own idealistic view of the Maoist revolution with the corruption and exploitation of the officials he encountered around him. In 1977 Peter spent two months teaching in China and he smuggled a copy of Shen’s diary back to England. He spent several years trying, unsuccessfully, to find a publisher in the UK, America and Australia.

Westerners who have lived in south-east Asia for many years say that the Chinese character is impenetrable and, therefore, unknowable. In the West, people are used to speaking out about their problems, but the Chinese, certainly at that time, were not accustomed to self-examination: the Confucian concept of character has always taught that men are healed by constraints imposed from outside, not by releasing tensions from within. Rosemary Chan once served rhubarb and custard to her Chinese students, a dish they quite clearly found revolting. She urged them to leave it on their plates but they carefully explained that they had taken it and so they must eat it. It was, she told me, quite distressing to watch.

Excerpt from I Have Come to Say You Goodbye: A History of the School of English Studies Folkestone 1959 – 2017  by Una Suseli O’Connell


Swallows and Amazons in Post-war Dover

Sam thought about Grandad being ten or eleven at the end of the war. It was very hard to think of him as a boy’ *

Jane Phillips’ book The Clarendon Boys* was inspired by her husband, John’s childhood growing up in the Clarendon district of Dover.

John Buss was born one month before Hitler invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939.  That first year, John told me, in a recent interview at his home in Kent, was often referred to as ‘the phoney war’ because not a lot happened. Ships were sunk at sea but there were no bombs on land. It wasn’t until the spring of 1940 when the Germans began moving long-range guns around Calais, closely followed by the retreat from Dunkirk, that the war began in earnest. No other town in the country suffered more than Dover during WWII: 215 civilians were killed and more than 10,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed.

The Buss family, on both sides and across three generations, were Dovorians. John’s father, Joe worked as a welder in the Dockyards, a reserved occupation which meant that he wasn’t allowed to enlist. He was involved in several admiralty projects, including the construction of anti-submarine netting in the Channel. In September 1940, after a very large piece of shrapnel landed on the garden path immediately behind his wife and their infant son, Joe decided that Eileen and John should be evacuated to the Midlands. For the next five years, they were billeted with Mr. Read, a delightful man who became my surrogate father explained John. Due to the constraints of war, Joe was only able to visit his family three times a year.

John was six years old when, in the spring of 1945, he and his mother came home to 185 Clarendon Street. The town lay in ruins and while Dover dusted itself down, John and his friends formed a gang. They played on the streets and in bombed-out houses before discovering The Western Heights. This extensive network of fortifications, started during the Napoleonic Wars and completed in the 1860s, consists of tunnels, bridges, dry moats, ditches, pillboxes and immense forts, including the North Centre Bastion, Drop Redoubt, The Grand Shaft and the Citadel, where the soldiers were stationed and guns and ammunition were stored. The boys explored the tunnels, with no idea where they might lead nor whether they were safe from sudden collapse. They scrambled down cliffs to the beach and collected driftwood to build bonfires, carefully sweeping the sand as they walked to avoid disturbing unexploded objects. We read Swallows and Amazons. We drew maps and imagined finding buried treasure. There was a tremendous spirit of freedom and adventure and virtually no constraints, recalled John. All we ever told our parents was that we were going out for the day. I don’t think they worried about us.

On one occasion, the four friends discovered an unexploded mine rolling around in the waves. John knew a boy along Clarendon Street who had picked up a hand grenade which subsequently exploded. He lost his hand and had to wear a black leather glove. He looked rather sinister recalled John. They kept their distance from the mine and reported it to the signalman on the railway line.

At high tide, we used to jump off the stern of the beached destroyer, HMS Codrington, near the clock tower in Dover. At Samphire Hoe we once saw a Heinkel, a German bomber that had been shot down by Spitfires at Hawkinge. It was wedged in the rocks and we could see the bullet holes in the fuselage and the wings.

The boys found all kinds of war detritus on the beach, including dead horses that had been washed or thrown overboard. As their confidence and sense of adventure increased, they extended their explorations to the Warren in Folkestone. One afternoon, they were caught by the tide and decided to walk home through the railway tunnel. These were the days of steam trains so the tracks weren’t electrified but there were no fences either. The father of one of the boys worked on the railways and so they knew about the recesses in the brickwork. They knew too that if you put your ear to the line you could hear the train when it was still several miles away. Shakespeare Tunnel is almost a mile long but it is also dead straight. If the light at the far end was blocked, John explained, they knew that a train was coming and they needed to hurry to the closest lay-by.

Tramps and ‘vagrants’ often sheltered in the tunnels and the boys made friends with a man they called ‘Old Ted’ who used to walk between the Dover and Elham workhouses.

The gang broke up in 1950 when they sat the 11+. Of the four of them, only John passed the exam and went on to Dover Grammar School.

The Western Heights remains pretty much the way it was 150 years ago. The outside space is accessible all year round. There is no entrance fee and, on a clear day, there are fine views across the hills, down the cliffs to Dover Harbour and out to sea. Today The Heights are managed by a preservation society. The Citadel was converted into a Young Offenders unit, an immigration centre and finally a film location studio. As of 2023, there are plans in the pipeline to renovate and repurpose the fort as a hotel and leisure complex.


The Clarendon Boys by Jane Phillips pub. 2015, by Crumps Barn Studios

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, pub. 1930