The Practice of Meditation By the autumn of this year, 2020, I will have been practising meditation for fifty years. I began as an undergraduate, when I joined a Buddhist class to learn Samatha meditation, which focuses primarily on the breath. Later I changed to a different, Western practice which uses an inner sound as its focus. Meditation itself is subtle, but the most effective practices tend to use very simple methods to help still the mind, paying attention to breath, sound, or an image. There is no striving for effects; the aim is to bypass the ‘busy mind’. Trains of thought, rising and falling emotions, and physical sensations can be acknowledged, but are not dwelt on. We cannot stop these entirely, but we can learn to let them go, and thereby open up to a different, spacious and more inclusive form of consciousness.
‘The essence of meditation is the engagement and holding of a mental object, which can be a sound, image, or movement like walking. As the mind stays with this object it gradually magnetises all the mental movements, flurries of thought and feelings, associative chattering etc. towards a single vector, rather like iron filings turning in one direction. And so random thought activity tends to die down, and settle, not so much around, as near the object, which itself gets finer and finer as does the breath. The seed-object can disappear, or hover on the edge of awareness, and pure consciousness rest within itself like fine wine upon its lees.’
(Tessellations, Lucy Oliver – Matador, 2020, p.51)
In the traditions I’ve studied and encountered, regular practice is crucial, along with an experienced teacher or ‘checker’, at least in the early years, to help you stay on track. Meditation as such can’t really be learnt from books. And it also takes time. My first meditation teacher described the practice as being like a drip, drip, drip of water – a drop a day, perhaps – until the cistern eventually fills up and you have a reservoir. Regular meditation is not exciting or instantly gratifying, although it can and does bestow a sense of calm, and helps to centre one’s being. Over time, though, it becomes a core practice, which can become the quiet centre of your daily life.
I’ve written this brief overview of meditation as a prelude to introducing a more specific and defined kind of practice. This is the Moon Meditation of Kuan Yin: a combination of meditation and visualisation. I suggest though that rather than using it a core meditation practice, it’s perhaps best attempted occasionally, or for short periods. It does not need a teacher as such, and is something that might be rewarding to try, whether you’re already a regular meditator or not. As I’ll outline, it focuses on a female figure – archetype, goddess, spirit of the feminine as you will – that of Kuan Yin.
Spirit of the feminine in meditation
Meditation generally aspires to reach a level of consciousness which transcends male and female differences. But it could be argued that some practices are at least more outwardly orientated to a masculine or feminine approach. So how do you approach a more feminine form of meditation? A few years ago, I was delighted to come across a tradition of meditation which does just that, and is associated with the archetypal figure of Kuan Yin, also known as ‘the universal goddess of compassion’. Since then, I have often practised Kuan Yin Moon Meditation at times when I wish to strengthen my contact with the feminine spirit, perhaps when life has been particularly bruising. ‘She Who Hears the Cries of the World’ is a calming and helpful presence.
Discovering Kuan Yin I first discovered Kuan Yin’s temples when visiting Hong Kong, Penang and Singapore on different occasions. Each one was a feast for the senses, decked in rich, red and gold colours, imbued with the heavy scent of incense, and enlivened by the constant clatter of divination sticks shaken in brass cylinders. The temple is also an oracle, and so it’s possible to ask Kuan Yin personal questions through the 100-stick divination system, each of which has its own interpretation. Here, I watched worshippers young and old, male and female, as they piled fruit and flowers on Kuan Yin’s shrines, and sought her guidance. Later, looking into the mythology of her origins, I found that she is one of the most widely prevalent forms of the divine feminine spirit, who cannot be pinned down to one religion or culture. She slips from Buddhism to Taoism and Shintoism. She has connections both with Christianity, and the ancient religion of Egypt. And, strictly speaking, she is neither a goddess, immortal spirit, nor Madonna, but embraces all these definitions. Her predominant qualities are that of mercy and benevolence.
Kuan Yin’s Meditation The meditation that I share here is a traditional one, based on her long association with the moon and the ocean. (She has other attributes, but these are the most relevant here.) In her Moon form, she represents the waters of compassion, and the gentle light of healing.
This Moon Meditation can be practised without having a particular religious or cultural affiliation. The version that I use comes from the account of an old Chinese nun, who had practised it constantly during her lifetime.* Here, Kuan Yin is seen robed in white, a lady of the seas, who rises above the waves to unite sky and sea, moon and earth. This is the theme of the meditation, where she is invited to shine forth, and – if we’re lucky – bring comfort and wisdom to our hearts.
Practising Kuan Yin meditation may be particularly appropriate at certain times in our lives. For women, it may be when we long to re-connect with a tender, intimate version of the feminine spirit. For men, the practice of opening the heart via the feminine spirit can help to awaken subtle emotions. For both, the practice can be consoling in times of need. And beyond the personal level, the aim of this meditation is to help generate compassion for the good of all our fellow human beings.
Here is how I’ve formulated this ancient practice, and taught it to others in accordance with modern needs:
The meditation can be practised for between ten minutes and half an hour, but I suggest you aim for something shorter to begin with. It’s suitable for practising either within a group, with someone who can lead it from stage to stage, or else as a personal contemplation, where you go at your own pace. It’s necessary to conduct it in a quiet place, which is likely to be in a room indoors, although the traditional instructions suggest it can also be done on a hilltop, or under an open sky. Do everything gently: no forcing, just allowing. You are activating this sequence, and envisaging images as needed, but in a spirit of gentle calmness.
Sit quietly, with your eyes closed, and let your mind go still. Release any thoughts or images, and gradually glide into neutral. Relax the breathing, until it finds a natural, unhurried level.
Now let your internal gaze rest on an empty expanse, as if on a dark, empty sky, or as if you are looking into darkness before your eyes adjust to what is there. This might sound difficult, but is quite easy in practice, and you only need to hold this for a few seconds.
Then, something comes into view. You can now see the sea in front of you, and you witness the moon rising above in the night sky. The moon bathes the sea with a soft brightness, rippling with little silver-topped waves. Allow yourself to gaze now at the moon, and to feel calm and happy. Give this a few minutes to develop.
Then observe how the moon is getting smaller, but brighter. It becomes so bright and so small that it reduces to a dazzling pinprick of light, a radiant tiny pearl in the night sky. Then this seed of light begins to grow, and, as it does so, it becomes the figure of Kuan Yin herself. She stands tall against the sky, robed in gleaming white. Around her head is a halo of light. Her feet float on the crest of the waves.
Kuan Yin smiles, and you feel her affection, love and compassion. Allow yourself to rest in her presence. You can allow emotions to arise and fade away again, like the lapping of the water. Let the meditation take its course: Kuan Yin may stay with you for a long time, or just for a brief spell. As she leaves, your image of her gets smaller and smaller until she vanishes, along with the sea and the sky. All that is left is space. Relish this space; become a part of it, and know that you are not separate from it.
As with all meditation practices, it’s advisable to make a definite ending, but to do so calmly and slowly. Now return gently to sensing your body; observe your posture, and allow sensation in your limbs. Then open your eyes, and collect yourself, body and mind. If it seems appropriate, offer thanks for the experience.
*The original description of this meditation is contained in Bodhisattva of Compassion: the Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin, John Blofeld (p.124 in my edition).
Other References The Kuan Yin Oracle: The Voice of the Goddess of Compassion, by Stephen Karcher Kuan Yin: Myths and Revelations of the Chinese Goddess of Compassion, by Martin Palmer, Jay Ramsay & Kwok Man-Ho The Meditator’s Guidebook: Pathways to Greater Awareness & Creativity, by Lucy Oliver; see also her website ‘Meaning by Design’
Robert is sweeping out the dust and straw from the long, covered alley where the horses come to be groomed and fed. Bill, the chief horseman around here, removes the last saddles and bridles from their pegs, while the dogs sniff around eagerly, aware that something unusual is happening. It’s the day of the art exhibition. My husband, Robert Lee-Wade, is a painter in the impressionist style, a member of the Royal Ulster Academy and widely exhibited in various countries abroad. But never before in a stable block in the South of France.
Robert and I have been at Mas la Chevalerie for several weeks now. We’re staying in a gite on a ranch owned by retired actors Bill Homewood and Estelle Kohler on an extended stay to paint (Robert), write (Cherry) and enjoy the landscape of the Languedoc and the Camargue. It’s September in the South of France, and the grape harvest is coming along, in this idyllic spot. And so is Robert’s art – Bill has helped him to set up a makeshift studio in his capacious office, where he (Bill) also records audio books for Naxos.
Estelle, I should say, was my heroine when I was sixteen and she was a very young actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford. At that time, newly arrived from South Africa, she was playing Ophelia to David Warner’s Hamlet. The innovative production by Peter Hall captured my teenage imagination, and with friends from school in Birmingham, we saw the play several times, usually on cheap stand-by tickets. I never imagined that I might become friends with Estelle so many years later.
‘Let’s have an exhibition!’ said Bill, after Robert had been painting for several weeks. He and Estelle have been here for decades, and know practically everyone in the Fressac area. They count up who they might invite – the mayor (of course), the baker, the restaurant owner, the dressage specialist, the Danish sculptor, the ex-rock drummer and a whole long list of others. We are to provide the refreshments; being France this must be wine, and being near the Camargue, this must include brandade, a paste made of salted cod. And definitely some baguettes. So be it.
The alleyway is nearly clear now, except that another friend of Bill’s has chosen to bring his exquisite white Camargue stallion for some extra training in Bill’s manège. We’ve had our own exciting encounter with Camargue horses on this trip, taking a three day break down in the marshes to ‘ride the white horses to the sea’.
The pictures are up, the guests arrive. ‘Everyone will come,’ we’re told. ‘They love a chance to socialise and have an apéro.’ They do, and they mingle, looking carefully at the paintings first– some sales are made – and then it’s time to get down to the serious business of eating and drinking. The party grows merry – why not let the horses join in the fun?
Several hours later, it’s quiet again. Bill and Estelle choose a painting as a gift for their help – it’s ‘Where the Nightingales Sing’, which captures the essence of this magical place. We have also seen golden orioles here, and once, a bee-eater in technicolour glory.
We’ll soon be packing our hatchback car and making the long drive back to the UK. We all talk of doing the same thing another year, but although Robert and I will come back for shorter visits, this exhibition is one of those delightful comings-together that can only happen once. And it’s probably all the more memorable for that reason.
Paintings from the Camargue, by Robert Lee-Wade RUA
This post is being published a couple of days earlier than the usual Sunday morning slot, to celebrate VE Day. I’m proud to be sharing Noel’s story with you to mark the occasion.
Many ordinary lives conceal extraordinary stories. I’ve had the opportunity to listen to some of these stories, sometimes when researching for a book, sometimes just out of a strong personal interest. This is the first of an occasional series of posts about such lives, Noel Leadbeater’s story of what she did in World War Two. In the current state of the coronavirus crisis, many of us may be thinking about how the challenges and restrictions compare with wartime, and wondering about the efforts that people made to try and keep their country safe. Some of these were never revealed until many years later.
Noel Leadbeater (née Davies) would never tell us what she did in the war. Her daughter Helen was one of my closest friends, since after my parents moved house as I was about to go into the Sixth Form, I lived with the Leadbeater family in term time. Noel was one of the liveliest, most amusing and kind-hearted people I have ever met. She was also a natural raconteur. However, ask her about wartime, and she clammed up. She might mention the Land Army and the ATS in passing. ‘My lips are sealed. I signed the Official Secrets Act,’ she’d say dramatically, when pressed for more detail.
Finally, the secrecy around the operations evaporated, and she was free to tell her story. She had become a member of a hidden army of Morse Code operators, trained to record German signals. The coded messages they took down were then sent to be deciphered at Bletchley Park. Which, as you may be aware, was the place that broke the highly-encrypted messages sent by the Germans via the Enigma Machine.
I visited Noel in 2010, just before her 90th birthday, so that I could record this story in full, and preserve it not just for her family but for a wider audience too. It’s presented here in a slightly shortened narrative version. On my visit, she was full of life and fun as usual, and as bright and sharp as ever. But it was the last time I was to see her, since she died just over a year later.
Noel at the start of World War Two Noel, née Davies, was born and brought up in Birmingham, where she was one of a large working-class family. Although intelligent and keen to learn, any proper education was out of the question as she was expected to to help at home with her siblings, and to go out to work as soon as legally possible. Nevertheless, as the story will show, her abilities were clearly recognised in wartime, and in later life she educated herself in literature, worked as a teaching assistant, and completed an Open University degree.
Early on in the War, Noel joined the Land Army: ‘Not because I loved the land, or anything else, but I just loved the uniform!’ However, she became ill after the very strenuous work, and switched to factory work instead, working with a company called Avery’s who made weighing scales. There was quite a lot of bombing in Birmingham, so I never knew when I went into work whether the office would be still standing, but it was all right.’ Luckily for Noel, she didn’t stay there too long, since a history of W. & T. Avery records: ‘During the second world war the company also produced various types of heavy guns. At that time the site underwent severe damage from parachute mines and incendiary bombs.’
Call-Up, and the ATS Then came the compulsory call-up for women, and Noel joined the ATS (Auxilliary Territorial Services) : ‘I had to report to a little town called Droitwich which is near Birmingham, in Worcestershire, and I went on the train with several other girls from Birmingham. We were met at the station by a corporal and a sergeant.’ There, they were put into threes, and told to march into the town. ‘But one unfortunate girl called Janice, her mother had insisted on coming with her! And this woman, she couldn’t march in the road because the sergeant wouldn’t let her, so she was hopping on and off the pavement, into the road and back again. And the poor girl was saying, “Our Mum, our Mum! Do go ‘ome again, our Mum!” But the mother said, “I promised your Dad I’m going to see you into those barracks, and that’s what I’m going to do.”’
At their destination, a hotel that had been commandeered, Janice’s mother was speedily sent home, and the girls were kitted out. ‘We had to go into what must have been the garage earlier on, and we were issued with our kit. Well, we lined up and marched into the garage, and there was a sergeant there – she didn’t bother with things like measuring tapes, she just looked us up and down and said, “Tall – thin – skinny – number three!” Or, “Short -fat – number one!” And we processed along a counter where we were issued clothing. Two skirts, two tunics, shirts and collars and blue stripe pyjamas, and then it came to the greatcoats. The girl behind the counter looked me up and down and said, “Haven’t got your size.” She spoke to the sergeant who said, “There’s some men’s greatcoats in there. Give her one of those!” So I was issued with a man’s six-foot greatcoat.’
In their allocated huts, the new recruits got ready to transform their status: “We all proceeded to put on our uniform, because we were very proud of it. But we were all different sizes, and some of the skirts came nearly down to the ground, and some were – oh, we did look a mess! And when I put my great coat on there were hoots of laughter, because it was nearly on the floor, and the sleeves covered my hands. But when I grumbled to the sergeant about it she said, “Oh you don’t have to wear it dear! As long as you’ve got it. When you get to your next posting, just go to the stores, and they’ll change it for you.” Which really was very typical of the army, I thought.’
The first day ended with the ‘Lights Out’ bugle call at 9pm. ‘Which to me was wonderful because I thought, “Well, now you know you’re in the army!”’ Their training was general to start with – learning about the ranks of the army and taking various tests. Then they were asked what section they would like to be in. Noel’s first choice was to be a driver, but as she couldn’t drive already, that was refused. ‘So then I said I would try “Ack-Ack”, which was anti-aircraft guns. We had to do various tests for that, lying on our backs and looking through binoculars – all sorts of things. And I thought, “Oh well, I shall enjoy this.” But then one day, one of the officers called me in to speak to her, and we had quite a long conversation. And she said, “I think I’ve got a job which would be better for you, and that you’d like, but you mustn’t tell anybody about it. It’s very hush hush, and you’ll have to go up to London for some more tests.”’
This was the start of her transition into the Signallers, and her Morse Code training. To begin with, she was posted to London, staying in a hostel in Gower Street which had previously been accommodation for shop workers – it was usual at the time for the bigger London stores like Heal’s or Gorringe’s to house their female workers ‘safely’ in hostels. ‘The main test was to see if we would be suitable to take down Morse. They didn’t send Morse as such, but they sent sounds.’ She recited a string of ‘da-dee-da’ syllables in varied pitch and rhythm. ‘You had to put a tick or a cross whether it was the same sound or not. Then we had to write an essay – there were all sorts of tests, and in the end, some people went back to their unit. But some of us were then held in Gower Street until there was a place for us at the training centre, which was at Trowbridge in Wiltshire. There were thirty girls, and we were going to be known as 37 Squad.’
ATS in the Film Studio
One day, as they lined up to be assigned their daily chores, like washing the windows or cleaning the dining room, the officer in charge said, ‘I want six girls who can play table tennis.’ Noel hesitated: ‘I couldn’t play table tennis, and my father, who had been in the First World War, had said to me, “Never volunteer for anything! Keep your head down.” But I thought, “Oo- table tennis – that’ll be nice!”’
She stepped forward, and she and five others were then given travel warrants. Much to their astonishment, they were sent off to a film studio. ‘And for that day, we were ATS in a film called The Gentle Sex.’ The film was made as propaganda, showing a somewhat romanticised but detailed version of life in the ATS. The set for Noel’s scene was designed to look like an ATS recreation room in an ATS centre. ‘Then a chap called Lesley Howard, who was a film star and also a director, came in and said, “Now, you are supposed to be playing table tennis in this scene, so come along to the table.” I’m afraid that not one of us could actually play table tennis! And he was really, really cross. So in the end, they got one of the cameramen to play at one end, and one of the stars at the other. But of course you only saw his hand, and the bat – you never saw him. And we were all in disgrace. So we stood there, and he suddenly pointed at me, and said, “You!” I almost fainted and just managed to say “Ye-es?” Then he said, “You’re too tall! Stoop down or something.” I did what he told me, and made like Quasimodo, and crouched there. And this went on practically all morning – this poor cameraman, sending the ball, and the film star sending it back.’
She and her ATS comrades were told to stand around, admire the game and clap. But they were just a backdrop to the ATS actresses. ‘They didn’t wear the same uniforms as we did. Their uniforms were all carefully tailored, in a different material, and they looked super in them! And there was us in our rough tweed and serge, looking terrible.’
But it wasn’t all bad news. They dined in the canteen with the stars: ‘We sat where we could observe them. Oh, and they all smelt lovely! Their lovely perfume…and our Lifebuoy and Wright’s Coal Tar soap faded into the background.’ And after a further brief stint of filming after lunch, they were actually paid – a welcome surprise: ‘I think we were given something like seven shillings, or eight shillings. I’ve seen the film, of course, many times, and honestly – that day’s work is condensed into about three minutes. You just see my head bobbing up and down! But we did enjoy it, and of course when we got back the other girls were furious.’ The next day, when the officers asked for seven recruits, plenty of the girls who’d missed out stepped forward eagerly, but they were only signed up for domestic tasks rather than the glamour of a film studio!
Images for The Gentle Sex, a propaganda film, showing a factual though somewhat romanticised version of life in the ATS.
The next stage ‘Well, then, as I said, thirty of us formed this 37 Squad and went down to Trowbridge in Wiltshire.’ This is where the Morse training began, going at a very slow pace. It was a long process to accustom fresh ears to distinguish the different Morse signals, some nine months in all. ‘Longer than an air crew, because it had got to be perfect. We were told we could not make mistakes’ If they weren’t sure of a letter, then they had to leave a blank and not put it down. Otherwise: ‘It could cause such a lot of trouble. This was dinned into us, and of course the need for secrecy. We had to sign the Official Secrets Act.’
‘We did our training in Nissen huts in a sea of mud.’ That was a disaster for Noel’s new shoes. ‘They couldn’t fit me with two pairs of shoes, so I had one ordinary pair and one officer’s pair. Oh, the lovely pair! I used to polish them every day. But of course with this mud, they didn’t look so good.’ (On reading this transcript, Noel’s daughter Helen said: ‘She was still talking about those officers’ shoes, years later. I don’t think she ever had a pair of shoes she liked as much.’)
The huts and the sea of mud caused other problems too. Once, Noel was sent off to see a major in his hut for a review, and when she left, she couldn’t work out which direction she’d come from! ‘I stood in the mud and thought: “Which hut did I come out of?” I hadn’t got a clue, because they all looked the same! So I went across to the nearest hut and opened the door, and they were all men, signallers, and they wolf whistled and shouted, and their sergeant said, “Shut up!” I backed out quickly, and went to another hut. These were girls, but not any girls that I knew. So after visiting about four huts, I said to the sergeant in charge, “I’m in 37 Squad, and I don’t know where it is!” She said, “Try that one.” Much to Noel’s horror, when she entered the door pointed out, she found herself back in the major’s hut again. ‘I could have died! And he said, “You’ve just been in here! And your shoes are dirty.” And I, forgetting where I was, said, “Yours would be dirty if you’d just walked through all this mud!” So that wasn’t very successful. I’ve never made up into corporal or anything, and I think it was that interview that did it.’
Marriage and the Isle of Man The training began in the autumn 1942, and the following January Noel was given an extra week off, known as Marriage Leave, for her wedding with Raymond Leadbeater. In her absence, the rest of the squad was told that they were leaving Trowbridge, to finish their training in Douglas on the Isle of Man. ‘It was very hush hush.’ Noel had to follow later, after her honeymoon, catching a boat alone and suffering terrible sea sickness en route.
‘I kept thinking, “Oh please let a submarine come and shoot us down, and we can go to the bottom of the sea!” But the minute my feet were on the ground, I was OK.’ OK enough to go off with her friends who were waiting on the quayside, for a free meal of egg and chips.
Squad 37 was billeted in boarding houses, where apparently Italian internees had been living. ‘I didn’t understand what they’d written on the walls, but the powers-that-be sent soldiers with whitewash to cover it up!’ Every day, the squad members marched up the hill to ‘quite a nice hotel’ for their Morse sessions. The two male drill instructors, one short and squat, the other tall and thin, sent the girls into fits of uncontrollable giggles when they gave out orders for the drill. ‘They used to get so mad, and scream at us, “Stop that!”’ Although the girls liked their instructors, they couldn’t curb those giggles. ‘We just couldn’t – we just couldn’t.’
But it was becoming a serious business. ‘We now became aware that we were going to listen in on German messages.’ They were trained to get used to background noise, and to pick out the individual ‘voice’ of their operator. ‘And this was quite difficult. But in the end, we all passed, and we then really became Signallers.’
The return crossing to England was smooth, and Noel travelled back to her home town of Birmingham by train on April 30th, 1943. She remembers what a delight it was to see the countryside again. ‘There are not many trees in Douglas – it was so lovely to see all the trees, so green and fresh. And I had a week’s leave at home – of course I was married by then.’
Final training After this, the ‘girls’ were sent to Loughborough, in Leicestershire. ‘There we did the final training for the job we were going to do. It really was quite traumatic because we had all this noise and interference, and you had to learn – in the way that you recognise a friend’s writing on an envelope – we had to learn our Jo’s method of sending the Morse. They were all different – it was amazing!’
The skill was not just in notating the Morse, but in finding their individual ‘Jo’ (probably a term for a Jerry or a German) on the wavebands. The transmitters often changed frequency. ‘So we had to carefully track them down and be sure that it was ‘our’ chap.’ Noel thought it was likely that each ‘Jo’ they followed was also being followed by another trained operator in the UK, as a double-check.
Beaumanor – a ‘Y’ Intercept Listening Centre In Leicestershire, the squad was stationed in the village of Woodhouse Eaves, once again in huts in a field. However, the actual work was carried out at Beaumanor house, a grand stately home, to which they were transported by troop carriers. As a recent article about the centre says:
Beaumanor was a highly strategic “Intercept Station”, concerned with monitoring the enemy’s main channels of wireless traffic and communications. The “Y” Intercept Listening Service operated from 1941 to 1945 and its wartime activities were as top secret as those at the Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. By the end of the war, there were more than 1,200 ATS women operators and 300 male civilians working at Beaumanor. Much of the monitoring took place in specially built huts in the grounds of Beaumanor, many disguised as cricket pavilions and greenhouses to confuse spies and nosey neighbours. Civilians and girls of the Auxiliary Training Service were the main members of staff, each having their own allocated part of a radio waveband to monitor for Morse-coded messages.Leicester Mercury, 7 Feb 2020
Despite the seriousness of the work, the recruits learned to unwind and enjoy each other’s company.
‘Oh, it was quite fun really! We did have a lot of fun, in spite of the work. I mean, we all knew it was absolutely vital, but at the same time, we were only girls. And we did have our fun.’
The job itself was so strenuous, requiring such extended concentration, that they weren’t asked to do any extra chores. Once they were qualified to join these ‘ops’, they worked in four watches throughout the 24 hours. ‘So the Set Room, as they called it, where all the wireless sets were, was never ever empty.’ Transitions from one shift to another went as seamlessly as possible. The other girl would just get up and say, “He’s here,” and show us where on the dial.’ But even that didn’t hold, since the frequency could move, and the signal would have to be tracked down all over again. ‘We really, really did work so hard. But, as I say, we did have a lot of fun. Sometimes the girls would get a tin of condensed milk, and we’d make toffee over the stove in our hut. We got to know the girls we were with very well, of course, and I was friendly with so many of them. It was a lovely, lovely time – I mean, it wasn’t a lovely time! It was terrible with everything that was going on – but the companionship was so wonderful. I’ve never really found that since. And we all felt that we were really doing a very good job in the work that we did.’
‘All our messages went to Bletchley, either by motorbike or on the tele-printer. The work we were doing was monitoring the German army. Sometimes it was Gestapo.’ (The operators could tell this by the way the letters were sent.) ‘And oh God, it really upset us, that did.’
The messages were taken down in ordinary English letters in blocks of five, which in themselves were strings of meaningless letters. ‘But it was interesting in as much as we knew that we’d got to get it right. As I say, if we weren’t sure, we didn’t guess, we put a blank. And then these were sent to Bletchley, who then had to decode them. They were so clever, those people, really, really clever.’
By the time Noel was a qualified operator, the team at Bletchley Park had cracked the Enigma Code. She recalls the Enigma machine: ‘It was like a typewriter. But in addition to the Qwerty things, there was above that another keyboard with lights. At the beginning of the war, the Poles got hold of an Enigma Machine and passed it to our people. Otherwise I don’t think we could have done it. Also, one of our ships intercepted a submarine, and they were able to lift an Enigma machine, and a code book from the submarine’
Just Ordinary Girls… ‘We were so keen, and just ordinary girls. And yet, this secret never got out. It was wonderful. I’m really proud of the fact that we did that work, and that we kept the secret. And all through the years, I’ve kept in touch with people that were with me then, and there are still a few of us left. You really felt you had done something towards the war effort. What you had done, mattered.’
Links to other accounts by other women who trained as WW2 Morseoperators
‘The Gentle Sex’ (1943) can be viewed on Amazon Prime Video. It’s surprisingly interesting and entertaining, following the fictional progress of seven recruits, but showing different sides of genuine training in the ATS. The table tennis clip comes about 21m 30s into the film – and lasts for about 3 seconds!
Many years ago, I bought a calendar at a jumble sale: the Whitbread Zodiac Calendar for 1957. It was already well out of date by some twenty years, so no use in the conventional sense. But it chimed in with my interest in astrology, and I could see that it was a little work of art in its own right. On every page there was a rich, complex painting representing a zodiac sign, prefaced by a printed tissue leaf detailing the characteristics of the sign in question. I hung it on our wall at home, and enjoyed turning over a page per month, ignoring the discrepancy between dates and days of the week.
But I thought no more about the calendar’s origins until I studied an MA course on ‘Cultural Astronomy and Astrology’ in the early 2000s. I needed a research project for one of the modules, and it suddenly dawned on me that the calendar would be ideal. But where was it? Had it survived several house moves? Eventually, I discovered it safely stowed away in a box of papers in the attic. Apart from the tissue page description for Scorpio, now missing, it was intact.
Using the listings on the frontispiece, I began by checking out the artist, Anna Zinkeisen, followed by the author of the commentary, Peter Fleming, and ‘adviser’ Jacintha Buddicom. Soon I was uncovering the fascinating story of this remarkable artist, and the role she and her sister Doris had played in war-time, along with tantalising titbits for the other two individuals. My findings served the project well, but now, researching for this post, still more has come to light. I can now put all these pieces together.
The Whitbread Calendars First, some background to the calendar itself, published in 1957. The twelve zodiac images it contains are reproduced from specially commissioned large-scale oil paintings. At that time, Whitbread was a leading brewery (it’s now a large hospitality company), which had a tradition of both philanthropy and patronage of the arts. In 1935 they took rather bold step of commissioning four paintings by well-known artists, including Stanhope Forbes and Alfred Munnings. After exhibiting the works in the Royal Academy and the Burlington Galleries, prints of these appealing scenes – of hop picking, oast houses, brewing and an old Inn – were hung on the walls of Whitbread’s own pubs. This is said to have been the first time that licensed premises showed works of art! Whitbread also made its mark on literature, offering prizes now known as the Costa Book Awards (Costa being one of their subsidiaries).
Two of the paintings commissioned by Whitbread’s Brewery: On the left is Woolpack InnbyStanhope Forbes’, and on the right what is believed to be ‘Hop Picking’ by T. C. Dugdale,
The first Whitbread Calendar followed in 1938, with four paintings of scenes from the company’s history by the Belgian artist, Mark Severin. (A quick look-up for this artist shows that his speciality was producing erotic book plates! I will leave readers to do their own research.) Gradually more calendars followed, especially after the war when the brewery published a series of calendars on different themes, such as, ‘Little Ships’, ‘The Brewer’s Art’, and the ‘Calendar of Flowers’, all with original artwork by different living artists. These calendars are now collectors’ items, and the Zodiac calendar rarely comes up for sale.
The Zinkeisen family But who was Anna Zinkeisen? I quickly discovered that there were two sisters from the Zinkeisen family working as artists – sisters Anna and Doris. They were brought up in Scotland, but the family on her father’s side was a mix of Eastern European, Prussian and Russian ancestry. Anna, the younger of the two, was born in 1901, and lived until 1976. She and Doris attended Harrow Art School, and both then won scholarships to the Royal Academy. In those days, it was much harder for women to get into the Academy , and when they began to exhibit, some newspapers railed at them for being female upstarts. However, this blew over, since Anna had significant all-round talent as an artist, not just as a painter of note, but as a ceramicist, sculptor, and graphic artist. Commissions began to come in, and as well as the Whitbread Calendar she painted murals for the Queen Mary cruise liner, and posters for the London Underground. Her illustrations for children’s books can be seen in works by Noel Streitfeild and Enid Blyton. She was also a very fine portrait painter, completing over one hundred portraits in her lifetime. Probably her most illustrious commission was to paint the the Duke of Edinburgh in his flying kit, in 1955, surrounded by much royal protocol. ‘I think it is a simply splendid picture of the Duke,’ wrote the Air Chief Marshall in a letter of thanks. Anna’s self-portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, London.
War artists Perhaps her most challenging brief came during the war. In the mornings she worked as a volunteer nurse on the wards of St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington , and in the afternoons as their official war artist, drawing and painting what she saw in the operating theatre. Her sister Doris, equally accomplished as a portrait artist and best-known as a theatre designer, had an even more gruelling wartime commission: she was sent to the concentration camp of Belsen just after it was liberated, to record the scenes there. Apparently, Doris never completely recovered from the experience, and had nightmares for the rest of her life.
A female line of artists The Zinkeisens are a stunningly talented family, mostly it seems through the female line. I spoke to Julia Heseltine, Anna’s daughter, who is also a professional illustrator, and she told me that her female cousins, Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone, the daughters of Doris Zinkeisen, are illustrators too. Julia also helped to shed light on some of the other details about the Whitbread Calendar.
Astrology Was Anna herself an astrologer? I asked her. Not exactly, she answered; Anna was interested in astrology, but wasn’t knowledgeable about it. Jacintha (also known as Jacinthe) Buddicom was the specialist, brought in to verify the astrological information, and in the process, she also drew up Anna’s horoscope for her, startling Anna with its accuracy.
The calendar is based on a Zodiac sign for each month, also known as ‘birth signs’ or ‘sun signs’. Sun signs do not exactly overlap with each calendar month, so there’s compromise in lining them up this way. However, the write-up for each sign does make it clear that, for instance, Aries runs between 21st March and 21st April (though even this can vary slightly from year to year).
Capricorn leading in the Whitbread Calendar for January 1957; Aries is the usual start of the zodiac at the Spring Equinox
‘Sun sign’ astrology I’m going to briefly explain the difference between ‘sun sign’ astrology, as on the Whitbread Calendar, and the tradition of the astrological horoscope. This means compressing 2500 years of astrological history into a small nutshell, so I hope I’ll be able to give some clarity. If you’re already familiar with this, or want to focus on the calendar itself, just skip to the next section.
Sun sign astrology became popular in magazines and newspapers during the second half of the 20th century, precisely because you can identify your sign out of the twelve, simply by your date of birth, without any complicated calculations. Editors soon realised that an astrology column was good for readership, and began to hire astrologers to produce a popularised version of this old and complex art.
The twelve sun signs may indeed have validity in the way that they are characterised, but in a full horoscope, the position of the sun is just one factor in what constitutes a unique ‘map’ for each individual. The complete astrological chart depicts the positions of the whole solar system – sun, moon and planets – according to the signs they were in and the precise relationship between them for that exact moment and place of birth. This is precise astronomically too, the difference being that astrology interprets this chart through an ancient system of symbolic correspondences. Each person is thus considered as a kind of imprint of the universe for that unique combination of time and place, and their nature can be deciphered through the language of astrology. And using this system, that imprint can be ‘read’ in considerable depth in terms of character and circumstances. Atrology was only divorced from astronomy in the 18th century, and to anyone who finds its premise strange, I’d suggest asking a reputable astrologer to draw up your chart, and then decide by the results. It is not a religion, and no one has to ‘believe’ in it, but it is a remarkable tool for understanding ourselves and our place in the universe.
Jacintha Buddicom Jacintha was ‘a tiny person’ living in a ‘tiny house’ in Pond Place, London, according to Julia, Anna’s daughter. Other sources reveal that she was one of a pair of spinster sisters, a childhood friend of George Orwell, and an astrological assistant to Margaret Hone in adult life. Hone wrote practical and much-acclaimed manuals of astrology, which helped to pave the way for those who wanted to learn astrology during its 20th century revival.
On a tangent – because this calendar has several fascinating side tracks! – Jacintha also wrote rather touching poems about cats. ‘Angel Cat’ is still a popular choice for people to post as a tribute after the loss of their own beloved feline. We know a little more about Jacintha’s own cats too: writer Kathryn Hughes had personal encounters as a child with the Buddicom sisters. Each summer, she and her family camped in close proximity to them. She recalls how the sisters ‘shared their temporary home with two cats which were able to come and go as they pleased thanks to a special step-ladder with tiny paw-sized rungs propped against the open window of their caravan’s cab.’
Peter Fleming, author and adventurer, seen on the right in Brazil, 1932
Peter Fleming What about Peter Fleming? He had the distinction of being the brother of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. He too was a writer, best known for News from Tartary, a study of Central Asia. Less well-known is that both he and Ian were interested in the occult – Ian was drawn to astrology, and Peter to spirit communication. Ian and Peter worked together on special missions during the war. There may be more to this than meets the eye, since it’s known that Ian was tasked with trying to lure Rudolf Hess to Britain on the basis of astrological predictions.
It’s not clear exactly what his connection was to Anna Zinkeisen, but Julia Heseltine thinks the two may have met at a friend’s house. Or through the famous Whitbread family, to which both the Flemings and the Zinkeisens had a connection. Indeed, Doris Zinkeisen painted a traditional-style family portrait of the Whitbreads, taking tea at their home in Southill Park, Biggleswade. For Peter, writing and editing the Whitbread Calendar may have been a way of earning much-needed cash, as it’s known that he also worked on a Midland Bank calendar during the same period for the sake of his finances. It sounds as though he was hired to jazz up Jacintha’s solid, cautious textbook astrology into something more flamboyant for the Whitbread Calendar. As a ‘British adventurer, journalist, soldier and travel writer’, he could do the job.
Whitbread Astrology How valid is the astrology in the Zodiac Calendar, in terms of accepted astrological principles? Well, I would say – it’s not bad! Although it does contain some rather odd and over-precise attributions, such as: ‘One of your habits, unfortunately, is that of catching colds’ for Pisces, or ‘You have a musical but sometimes rather listless voice’ for Libra. Though I cannot deny, for my sign Aquarius: ‘Your handwriting has an untamed, individual air and is not distinguished for its legibility or grace.’ There’s also a surprising reliance on classical mythology to delineate the signs, which doesn’t chime in with the usual astrological tradition. ‘Cancer is the crab. It owes its position in the Zodiac to Juno, who persuaded Jupiter to put it there.’ Really? But in general, the temperaments of each sign are well captured. Here are some of the salient points from the calendar which do accord with traditional astrological teaching. They’re listed in the order found on the calendar, which is the prescribed Roman view of the year, starting in January, rather than the Zodiac sequence which begins with Aries at the spring equinox.
The Twelve Signs Capricorn is serious-minded, organising and reliable, with occasional fits of recklessness Aquarius is detached, sensitive, secretive and humanitarian Pisces is imaginative, patient, intuitive and can be sentimental. Aries is ardent, shows leadership, ambitious but also explosive Taurus is constructive, stubborn, and practical, with an artistic flair Gemini is quick-witted, wide-ranging, alert and restless Cancer is shy, self-contained and protective, and something of a gambler Leo is bold, frank, cheerful and loyal, but unsubtle Virgo is an intellectual, capable, good at detail, but a worrier Libra is fair-minded, considerate and affectionate, but tends to be indecisive. Scorpio is secretive…. which is why my sheet for Scorpio must have gone missing! Sagittarius is liberal-minded, cheerful and tolerant, if boastful.
Hart-Davis, Duff, Peter Fleming: A Biography (London: Jonathan Cape 1974)
McCormick, Donald, The Life of Ian Fleming (London: Peter Owen, 1993)
Julia Heseltine (personal communication)
Nicholas Barritt Redman, Company Archivist The Story of Whitbread plc – 1742-1990 – Uplodaded as PDFby the University of Glasgow
At the time of my initial research in the early 2000s, there was surprisingly little information about these talented artists. In 2008, however, Highly Desirable: The Zinkeisen sisters and their Legacy by Philip Kelleway was published, which helped to establish their reputation as painters of note. There was also an earlier tribute to Anna Zinkeisen published after her death: Anna: Memorial Tribute to Anna Zinkeisen, by Josephine Walpole (1978)
You can also read about Anna Zinkeisen’s war work and association with the Order of St John (better known as St John’s Ambulance Service), for whom she painted recruitment posters and portraits.