There are people who are almost the opposite of idlers — not many, but a few. They are not necessarily the most intelligent people, nor the deepest thinkers: what must be done seems obvious to them. That it will be difficult, both we and they take for granted; we prefer the term, “impossible.” These are not, usually, the most attractive people, though a strange light or charm may summon impressive allies. This is different from the “charisma” we normally associate with politicians, however, and which is the mark of a fraud.

Monstrous energy is the mark of the heroic non-idler. He may be put out to pasture, but he won’t stay there. Like goats, these heroes can’t be still unless sleeping, and don’t much sleep. They have their missions, they cannot be stopped. Like, notoriously, honey badgers, or weasels (another animal hard to herd), they are mission-focused, and cannot be distracted. Snakes, especially, dislike them.

For they do not give up. They are, because focused, quick studies, and very hard to outwit. They are easy to underestimate, however. Put one on a job, and if he lives, it gets finished. One thinks of Donald Trump, or Florence Nightingale. I could name more.

But as it is Armistice Day, I will think of Florence Nightingale, and her medical mission to the troops in Crimea. Later, her invention almost from scratch of modern nursing techniques.

She had her millions of admirers, in Victorian times, although she was privately detested by the élites. Partly, this was because she got things done, that they knew to be impossible; and forgot to flatter them. Soon after her death (in 1910, neatly at the end of the Edwardian), the snakes came out again, from under their rocks. (One thinks of Lytton Strachey, and his Eminent Victorians, among the most scabrous and despicable books I have read.)

Was she an imperialist and militarist? (We are back to Miss Nightingale.) You bet. That is why she is misunderstood in a time of “rampant,” ideological pacifism. The idea that winning a war, that needs winning, is compatible with true charity towards one’s own troops, and even those of the enemy, is beyond the intellectual capacity of the progressive mind — for which enemies are for killing, and friends are for throwing under the bus.

Currently, I wish to champion Miss Nightingale as a heroine of cuisine. The words below the asterisk are frankly plagiarized, from some food column I wrote decades ago, that just happened to recycle itself, under my wet flipflops. This surviving fragment starts by invoking Thermopylae, Salamis, Plataea; and Vimy Ridge.


“An army moves on its stomach” [I wrote], but it is hard to find anywhere in history an example of an army that cared much for the gourmand. Actually, I have misstated this entirely. It is hard to find examples of officers who cared for what the troops were eating — so long as it was nutritious and sufficient and did not contribute to mutiny. For the most part military food has been indistinguishable from prison food, and presented similarly.

This is partly understandable. War is not a picnic. I [used to] find it difficult to cook in the proximity of squalling children; I suppose the rattle of gunfire, incendiary bombs, and the whistle of incoming mortars might be equally distracting to the higher sort of culinary exercise.

But the circumstances of a field kitchen are not wholly grim. Dried herbs and spices are very light to carry, and wherever one happens to be on campaign, there are the fruits of that countryside. Moreover, as most old soldiers will recall, and the readers of their diaries and memoirs in their absence, most days are not that exciting. There is plenty of time to think about food. There are long periods of boredom and waiting with nothing to look at but the sky; interspersed with short periods of pant-shitting terror.

Supposing, for a moment, a bit of imagination on the part of quartermasters and cooks, and a semi-intelligent rationing authority, a war might be conducted with a bit of style. There could be rivalry between regimental kitchens, or between the galleys in Her Majesty’s fleet. Food could be made a powerful inducement in the recruitment drives.

There are some little sparks like this, in history. In the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale, that extraordinary lantern-bearing angel, procured the voluntary help of Alexis Soyer, the leading London hotel chef of the day, to advise her on the organization of field hospital kitchens. These quickly became the place to eat — almost worth getting wounded. M. Soyer applied his very broad mind to analyzing the limitations of field cookery, then turning each limitation into a strength. (I recommend his Culinary Campaign in the Crimea, 1857.)

Morale is not a small thing in the conduct of war. A hot meal served in defiance of logistics in the cold wet of a hideous trench, comes to remind us of victory, in the very face of the enemy.

Instead, our military food traditions seem to descend from the Scots — those bold, hardy warriors sweeping through Northumbria in the 14th century, without baggage carts. In Froissart’s Chronicle we read of their diet: under-done meat from rustled local cattle, thin oatmeal cakes, and river water.

Perhaps that’s the way it has got to be. Certainly it’s the way it was, from what I learnt asking veterans (including my papa, and his papa).

So in remembering the men, and women, who served, we might put off breakfast today until eleven. Perhaps then the sludge should be eaten from a tin bowl, with a slab of stale bread (no butter). Not from any desire to fast, but to help us remember them; and those for whom such a meal was their last, this side of paradise.