Pit-stop for blogging

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The vicissitudes of the life, the overwhelming winter, the pressures of people – friendly or otherwise, have caused me to go into overload, to take my eye off the ball, or in this case, my focus off the blog. Like the notice in the door of our village shop occasionally, this is a coded one reading ‘ back in five mins’, or ’gone for lunch,’ or ‘bak sun’.

But since this blog is like an opportunity shop, with a ragbag of ideas and opinions strewn around ( probably second-hand), I invite any readers who stray into the op-shop to feel free to rifle through the shelves of old or pre-loved blogs if they have nothing better to do …

In Auckland in the late sixties, early seventies there was a Love Shop. One of my first assignments on arriving here in NZ, was to cover the closing down of the Love Shop. Queues of people lined the pavement outside to take for free, or in exchange for a metaphorical song, the odds and ends cluttering the shelves.  Similarly, if anyone strays into this little op-shop, they too are welcome to the pre-loved blogs lining the shelves of the archives…

Among my favourites were: ‘Precious Objects’, ‘Places in the Heart’ and ‘Storms of Delight’… though a real delight is when sometimes people write and tell me they’ve re-read an old blog.

So I will leave any stray readers/ shoppers who pop in, to roam through shelves of blogs from the past if they wish, while I hang up my notice – Bak (quite) Sun.

 

Food for thought

..” It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top”…    Virginia Woolf

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What IS so wicked about knitting?

 

0000674Knitting was for old ladies or dowdy ones when I was a child. My stepmother and her friends, or anyone with pretensions to chic would not have been seen dead with a pair of knitting needles in their hands… tapestry, petit- point, yes, but not knitting needles… while as for a crochet hook… that belonged to the dark ages along with that funny little thing even older ladies used for tatting.

But knitting has a become deliciously domestically subversive activity these days, the latest yarn storming being perpetrated by a wonderful group of women, who are using knitting as their medium of protest… knitting against racism and sexism… which just about covers most problems of the western world, since these words are an umbrella for any number of ills, from poverty, lack of equal pay, discrimination etc etc.

This group of imaginative and courageous women meet at a coffeehouse on the south side of St Louis, where they discuss how to knit, purl and dismantle white supremacy. They are The Yarn Mission, a collective formed in October 2014 in response to the violence and police brutality in nearby Ferguson, Missouri.

They aim to “use yarn to promote action and change to eradicate racism, sexism, and other systems of oppression”. Founded by CheyOnna Sewell, a PhD student in criminology, the group seeks to spark conversation about race and police brutality by engaging with curious passersby as they knit, all the while providing a comforting activity for beleaguered activists.

Their courage and their cause reminds me of the women of the Black Sash in South Africa… who though not knitters, wore a black sash to protest against apartheid for over twenty years, and who still work for the disadvantaged in their country. When meeting in groups was banned, these brave women stood alone with their banners and placards, lone figures of courage and conscience in a cruel world.

More recently, the KNAGs have evolved their own unique women’s protest. KNAG stands for Knitting Nanas against Gas, and they, through their knitting and demos are trying to preserve their Australian countryside against gas drilling and other threats to the land, the air and the water of their regions. Knitting grannies – against big business and environmental destruction – mothers and matriarchs – are the conscience of the country.

Over thirty years ago the very name of a Welsh group who called themselves Women for Life on Earth, gave me comfort when I felt isolated and as though I was mad in a farming community where hard- hearted practises towards animals and the earth were accepted as normal.

These women were the start of another unique women’s protest.
Women for Life on Earth evolved into the great woman’s peace protest at Greenham Common. In 1981, thirty six women and mothers protested against the US nuclear missile base at Greenham Common and were inevitably arrested. The following year, 30,000 women gathered to demonstrate peacefully against nuclear war, holding hands around the perimeter of the base. And the next year, 1983, 70,000 women came to hold hands along the fourteen- mile stretch of road between Greenham Common, the Aldermaston Nuclear site and Burghfield, the ordnance factory.

This peaceful women’s protest lasted for nineteen years, and during that time many women camped there for years… and were often arrested and frequently maligned in the media, parliament and everywhere else… Many mothers brought their baby’s booties and tied them on the wire around the camp. The tiny flower-like knitted baby shoes hanging on the wire symbolised that this was a protest by mothers, who wanted to protect their children and make the world safe for them.

It made me cry when I read about it. It was a very feminine protest, in that it evoked so many of the deepest feelings of women and of men who oppose violence… emotions like tenderness, sharing, caring, peacefulness , acceptance, and a deep connection to the planet being pillaged by the masculine energies of the world.

And when they weren’t linking hands around perimeter of cruise missile sites or getting arrested, what were these women doing? Knitting of course – a very centre-ing and meditative occupation when alone, and a very social one when in company. So it was fitting that a couple of years ago when a fourteen mile memorial march was made from Greenham Common past Aldermaston nuclear energy site to the ordnance factory site at Burghfield, it was marked by knitting.

For a year beforehand, knitters of the world, people from all over the globe had been knitting metre- long strips in pink wool, and on the day these strips were joined up the whole length of the march. Pink – the most gentle, peaceful colour in the spectrum, symbolising caring, feminine maternal energy.

In this subversive feminine warfare, wool against weapons, the colour pink has always played a role. In May 2006 in Copenhagen’s main square, a World War II tank was covered from cannon to caterpillar tracks with more than 4,000 pink squares, woven together from the handiwork of hundreds of knitters as a symbolic act of protest against Denmark’s involvement in the Iraq war, along with everyone else. Passersby stopped and helped sew the squares and cover the tank.

Knitting has had a long history of subversion… we all know about the fearsome Madame Defarge from ‘A Tale of Two Cities”, but in 1914 knitting also played a part in that war. Belgian officials encouraged elderly women to help in the war effort against the invading Germans.

BBC Radio 4 reported, “they would contact little old ladies who sat in their houses that happened to have windows that overlooked railway marshalling yards, and they would do their knitting and they’d drop one for a troop train, purl one for an artillery train and so and so on…” Because of this the official US and UK censors banned posted knitting patterns in the Second World War, in case they contained coded messages.

Even in my remote neck of the woods, we have our own yarn bombers, and even though their knitted graffiti is only fun, the fun police do their best to stamp it out. One Christmas, they knitted big red and white trimmed Santa hats for the two giant carved faces symbolising the sexes for the swept- up new public loos, only to have them whipped away the following day. But undeterred, the knitting subversives tried again, and this time their fun lasted a bit longer.

I caused raised eyebrows thirty years ago when I took my crochet into a long drawn out Royal Commission of Enquiry. I was using up scraps of wool, not on crochet squares but on one square which got bigger and bigger as the months went by. I watched with furtive amusement the veiled horror on the faces of the three judges on the first day as I sat among grave police and scientific experts, flaunting my coloured wools, and plying my crochet hook, and knew that most of the men were itching to tell me to take it away… they never dared try !

I was intrigued to discover a traditional knitting pattern in the English Guardian newspaper, entitled,’ Knit your own purse grenade’. At the end of the bona fide instructions it tells the knitter how to assemble the pieces, ending with: “you are now ready to throw your grenade”.

So knitting is not all it seems – it is much more than it seems, and a wonderful, wickedly mischievous way of making a stand. It’s a potent protest against all the ills that plague us; perhaps most satisfyingly of all, it annoys the politically correct… because the subversive quality of knitting is so hard to pin down. What IS so wicked about knitting?

 

 

PS An ironic tail piece. My subversive uncle and aunt used to set up a soup stall and sell soup to the CND anti- nuclear disarmament marchers whose annual protest march passed their door. Over the years with the money they earned, they were able to subsidise a new women’s wing at the local hospital, which the Queen Mother opened, and unwittingly congratulated my aunt on her fund-raising.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Two beloved grandsons with hollow legs for lunch today. Not having much time to prepare I did a quick and easy pudding… ice-cream with hot chocolate sauce. I couldn’t lay my hands on my Mrs Beeton cook book recipe with my infallible hot choc sauce, so I improvised with this hot chocolate fudge sauce.

Place in a heavy- bottomed saucepan two ounces or so of butter, four heaped tablespoons of brown sugar and about half a cup of cream. Bring this to the boil and add two chopped up Mars Bar, or squares of black chocolate, a teaspoon of vanilla, and boil stirring all the time until the chocolate is melted. Let it boil a little longer stirring all the time and just re-heat when you want it… easy-peasy! I’ve also used Toblerone bars for this… just as good, and I would think some rum would be good for the right audience!

 

Food for thought
Our spiritual destiny is to be in the Right place at the Right time. Anon

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Living takes up all my time

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As I drove home this morning I wondered how often I had driven along that same country road with all its winds and curves and hills and one way bridges… ruminating about this, I went back randomly to my diary six years ago to see what has changed… this is what I found:

“ I had the house to myself today – the solitude I’ve always wanted. In his early diaries, Thomas Merton moaned on about not having solitude and silence. I know how he feels, but how could these things be missing in a Trappist monastery? And it’s a lot easier to be alone in a crowd surely, than one in a one-on-one relationship! Silence is easier than solitude. I never have the radio on, rarely the TV, and sometimes go for weeks without playing any music.

‘The days have seemed calm and beautiful. Ken Wilber’s understanding of how to ground the insights of the spiritual life, reminded me of Brother Laurence’s practise of the Presence of God.
It was reported of him that, ‘in the greatest hurry of business in the kitchen he still preserved his recollections and heavenly-mindedness. He was never hasty nor loitering, but did each thing in its season, with an even uninterrupted composure and tranquillity of spirit…’  mindfulness then…

‘I had made a cake from a recipe on the last page of Nigella Lawson’s book ‘Feasts’. This was a funeral cake, but the beautiful loaf in its tin with a long sprig of rosemary for remembrance on top inspired me. It was absolutely delicious, and has entered my repertoire with a fanfare. So yesterday, I got up in good time to make another rosemary cake for morning tea with Kate and Jocelyn. This time I used twice the amount of cooked apple and lemon, more sugar and added vanilla.

‘It was a triumph. The big, tender, golden loaf with a sugary top, infused with the taste of lemon and rosemary, and with the rosemary sprig down the centre, was a culinary poem just to look at. It had a pure, classic feeling, qualities which can be applied to things other than music or sculpture! We all felt it was a work of art, which didn’t stop us devouring it in large moist chunks, and Jocelyn took the recipe.

‘ Both girls very pure, so we had apple tea instead of coffee, (I didn’t realise it was solid sugar) and we talked for hours, until nearly one o’ clock. Jocelyn brought a jar of her fig and ginger jam, Kate, a fragrant bouquet of herbs and pink and violet flowers. I had laid a table with a linen cloth with a heavy crochet lace border, and with the curving regency-style silver tea-pot, the bone china rosebud sprigged cups and saucers edged with gold, silver king’s pattern cake-knives, white lace and linen napkins, it looked like one of those romantic magazine photographs. I left it, cake, crumbs, rosemary sprigs and all, untouched all day long to savour.

Today, I fell off the wagon. Went shopping and doing errands in town, and I never seemed to get into my stride. Going into the spare bedroom to work out where I would start doing paint touch-ups, I found a book left there by the last occupant, Alexander McCall Smith’s, ‘The Sunday Philosophy Club’, which I read till I had finished. Charming, erudite and civilised – art, music, ethics – all merging seamlessly. But apart from meditating, I hadn’t been present all day, just for the sake of blobbing out with a book, going absent without leave as it were. So no mindfulness then…

Thank heavens for Rumi, who I turned to this morning and his wonderful:
Come, come, come, whoever you are! Wanderer,
Worshipper, lover of learning
This is not a caravan of despair.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve
Broken your vow a thousand times
Still and yet again
Come!’

Driving home through the bay, I saw a mother duck shepherding her family of tiny brown fluffy babies along the footpath, while she calmly brought up the rear. There must have been at least a dozen, and one hadn’t managed to make it up onto the low step-up of the pavement, and was now trying to keep up, anxiously scurrying along in the gutter!

Cara (the cat) is still asleep on the unmade bed, a flat, black semi-circle. She slept all night stretched up against me, seeming to be purring every time I awoke. Maybe she was making amends for a dreadful incident last night in the cemetery. As I strolled towards the look-out where I habitually inspect the flat rock far below with waves splashing over it at high tide, a cock pheasant ran across and into the undergrowth on the edge of the cliff.

Cara was a long way behind, and hadn’t seen it, so I thought all was well. But when she reached me, she stood and sensed the area. She could have been a pointer, the way she sussed out the presence of the bird. Ignoring my peremptory calls, she purposefully plunged down the cliff. I attempted to grab her, but it was too dangerous. Occasionally, as I peered into the undergrowth, I would catch sight of her blackness skulking through the bushes. I went home with my arms full of pohutukawa twigs as usual, to use as firewood, and then came back in the hope of tracking her.

She turned out to be sitting behind a grave-stone, and when she attempted to escape me again I grabbed her by a foreleg, and carried her firmly home, where I made sure she stayed. I hope it’s not the breeding season. ‘

Reading this, I realised that much has changed in six years … though I still fall off the wagon regularly, but the beloved cat has gone to a soft cushion in the sky, I am now alone, and have also given up eating sugar… so fewer delicious cakes. But the rhythm of the seasons continues, the full moon still shines across the water as I stand at the cliff’s edge, the mother ducks are still moving majestically across the road shepherding their broods… some friends have moved on, new friends have changed my life in many ways, and life is often a baffling adventure.

But whatever hidden meaning there may be in it, I remember Montaigne’s words: “Alas, I have done nothing this day !”
“What? Have you not lived? It is not only the fundamental but the noblest of your occupations”. So be it. I live.

 

Food for Threadbare gourmets
Here’s that delicious cake by Nigella Lawson with my wild additions. (I belong to that abandoned school of thought that feels if one thing is delicious, twice as much must be twice as delicious ! I also subscribe to the Hebrew saying that we will be held accountable for all the permitted pleasures we failed to enjoy).

So, first you cook until soft a sliced eating apple with a teaspoon of caster sugar, zest and juice of half a lemon, a teaspoon of butter and a small sprig of fresh rosemary. Fish out the rosemary, leave the apple to cool, and then mash or blitz to a pulp. Line a one pound loaf tin with greased baking paper.

To the pulped apple add 225 grams melted butter, 150 grams of sugar, 3 large eggs and 300 grams of flour. I use self raising, and also double the apple mixture and add a scant teaspoon of vanilla. Mix it quickly to a smooth batter, and pour into the tin. Dredge the top generously with caster sugar, and then lay a long sprig of fresh rosemary down the middle of the cake top. The oil from the herb scents the cake deliciously as it cooks – oven 170C or 325 F, for approximately fifty minutes. Let it cool etc. before cutting and devouring with abandon!

 

Food for thought
The unexamined life is not worth living.     Socrates died 399 BC

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The wrong lion?

The man who killed Cecil the lion, seems to be contrite about killing the wrong lion. He is reported as saying that he hadn’t realised he was hunting a protected one. But killing any lion (and all the other precious endangered species he’s slaughtered) in a world where we are now beginning to realise that animals have a different consciousness to ours, and have gifts that are a closed book to our different intelligences, seems not just wrong, but cruel and crass.

Yet I discover that in this country too, as in South Africa, and presumably other places, gangs of rich white men fly in to shoot animals penned up in enclosures … all for the fun of killing a captive lion or deer, or whatever. I read that an Englishman, also run to earth for his killing of these great creatures on safari, refuses to comment, saying it’s a private matter. But it isn’t of course.

These creatures are dying out because these men are killing them, and our planet and our children and grand-children will be deprived of a vital source of life as well as beauty. Scientists say that our survival depends on the survival of the large animals. So we ARE all involved in this killing by rich white men, as well as poor poachers, even if we think we aren’t.

Let’s hope Cecil’s death helps to change humankind’s thinking about our place on this planet… for we are not so much homo sapiens as homo murderous.

Avaaz has a petition we can sign in an effort to stop the hunting of lions. Perhaps it would be a start to stop calling these magnificent creatures ‘big-game’, and to stop calling the killing ‘trophy hunting’. There are other more appropriate names for this destruction of life on earth .

Google  Avaaz, RIP Cecil if you want to help.

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My drug of choice

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“I thought I’d make a cup of tea”, were the last murmured words of the mother of Janet Frame, NZ writer, as she died in her husband’s arms in the kitchen. They could well be mine… tea for me marks waking up and going to bed, a break mid-morning and that indispensable cup in the afternoon, the cup that cheers when a friend calls, or the one that sustains after a shock or a long day’s retail therapy.

I felt the would-be murderess Mrs McWilliams who shot her enemy Mrs Dick in the Tudor Tea Rooms in Christchurch NZ was a kindred spirit. When she was disarmed after her pot- shot she retorted: “Oh, give me a cup of tea, that’s what I came here for.”
When told that her victim was not dead or even much hurt the redoubtable Mrs McWilliams replied, “Oh isn’t she, what a pity.” (She got seven years jail for her failed attempt to eliminate her enemy)

We can sheet back this country’s addiction to tea to our discoverer Captain Cook, who concocted the first brews from leaves of the manuka tree, which he called, and many still do, the tea tree. He experimented with it in 1769, brewing the leaves in the hope of preventing scurvy, and wrote in his journal ( men write journals – women are downgraded to writing diaries): “The leaves were used by many of us as tea which has a very agreeable bitter scent and flavour when they are recent…. when the infusion was made strong it proved emetic to some in the same manner as green tea.”

In some ways, tea was the answer to coffee… men had gathered to gossip in coffee houses in London and elsewhere, for several centuries, while women had nowhere acceptable to congregate. The first tea-rooms opened in Glasgow in the 1870’s and tea-rooms quickly became as important to women as coffee houses to men in previous centuries.

Afternoon tea at home also became an institution… it was a relaxed time when women took off their corsets before changing into finery for dinner, and wore soft floating tea gowns. The great French food philosopher Brillat-Savarin called afternoon tea: “an extraordinary meal … in that, being offered to persons that have already dined well, it supposes neither appetite nor thirst, and has no object but distraction, no basis but delicate enjoyment…”

I’ll say – and not just for tea but for chocolate cake and shortbread, meringues and cucumber sandwiches. I used to think tea was an occasion just for ladies to enjoy… I couldn’t imagine inviting a man to tea… but then I remembered the delicate courtships conducted over silver tea- pots by the fireside in Edwardian times, and realised what pleasures we have forfeited in our nine to five world. I also wondered if this was the raison d’etre for those loose floating tea gowns… easier for making love?

Portly philanderer, Edward the Seventh used to visit his lady loves for afternoon tea, arriving in an elegant black carriage with his coat of arms on the door. Inside, his inamoratas awaited him. They could be the ravishing Lily Langtry, the Jersey Lily, as famous for her beauty which adorned postcards, as Kim Kardashian is today; or others, like Winston Churchill’s gorgeous mother Jennie, or even Camilla Parker Bowles’, (aka Prince Charles’ second wife) great-grandmother, Mrs Alice Keppel. She was Edward’s mistress for twelve years and was invited to his death-bed by his generous wife, Queen Alexandra.

Afternoon tea for me has never been graced by the presence of king, prince, or even lover… my most un-forgettable afternoon tea was at a Catholic convent in Ipoh, Malaya. The Chinese nuns in this little convent had been accredited to examine children taking GCE, the Cambridge University secondary schools exam, in oral French. So accordingly, I and nine classmates, embarked on the day- long journey in stifling armoured vehicles (to protect us from lurking Chinese bandits) and then by train, from the Cameron Highlands down to Ipoh.

Arriving in the early evening after travelling all day, we went to sleep in a dormitory with other Chinese teenagers who all, to our amazement, managed to get undressed and shower without showing an inch of flesh. This proved quite a challenge to us less inhibited girls trying to do in Rome as the Romans did. The next day we hung around until afternoon in the steamy convent grounds, and then I was first in alphabetical order for the exam.

I was shown into a little room, where a bowing, smiling, gentle little Chinese nun in heavy black horn-rimmed spectacles and starched veil awaited me. It would have been bad enough trying to understand a Chinese person’s French, spoken by someone who had never been to France or met a French person, but worse was to come. She made a cup of tea and offered me a cake, baked especially for us all, she explained in broken English.

So there we were, an Asian nun, performing, not the tea ceremony of her culture, but an adulterated version of a western ritual, and speaking a foreign language to a person who couldn’t make out a word she was saying, and who knew that shortly an even greater ordeal awaited, in which two people who already couldn’t understand each other, were about to embark on a conversation in a language foreign to them both.

But it was the preliminary that almost silenced me. I bit into the cake, and discovered with horror that the nuns knew no more about baking English cakes than they did about speaking French. They had obviously used sawdust held together, not with butter and eggs, but with some sort of inedible glue. With the first bite drying out my mouth and clogging my throat, I realised that now I had to struggle through the whole of this un-eatable culinary disaster, as well as bluff my way through the exam. Each bite nearly choked me, and I still had to look as though it was delicious.

Somehow I got to end of this terrible experience, and there seemed to be an unspoken agreement that if I ate the cake, she would find my school girl French understandable and acceptable to her Chinese ears. I left with us both bowing and smiling, with great good humour, and walked into my classmate waiting to go in. She raised her eye-brows questioningly, and I smiled maliciously, which she optimistically took for re-assurance… later our profane school- girlish post mortems and accusations would have curled the ears of these innocent kindly nuns.

Other teas, with silver teapots, even a white-capped maid, tiers of scrumptious cakes, and lace napkins have never blotted out the memory of this ordeal. And now, a law unto myself, I break all the rules of the English ritual afternoon tea, which is a very different thing to tea ceremonies in parts of the world where tea drinking originated. My most daring break with convention is to put the milk in first, considered so vulgar by generations of tea drinking aficionados.

And having discovered that tea tastes much nicer when the milk goes in first, I have now also discovered that science supports my taste buds. According to research carried out by the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2003,”… if milk is poured into hot tea, individual drops separate from the bulk of the milk and come into contact with the high temperatures of the tea for enough time for significant denaturation or degradation of the milk to occur.” There you go, as they say in this country…

I have n’t space to touch on one of the most thrilling aspects of drinking tea, which used to be illegal in this country, and provoked fiery debate by male Members of Parliament; and now since 1981, it’s become illegal again ( MEN !!!). I refer to the innocent pastime of reading the tea leaves… but that is too vast and esoteric a subject for this little blog to tackle!

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Cucumber sandwiches are de rigueur for the ritual English afternoon tea, and very dull they can be too. These I served for a friend’s birthday party, and we gobbled them up… with relish….
Apart from white bread sliced as thinly as possible – even supermarket sliced does the job… you need peeled and thinly sliced cucumber, eight ounces of softened cream cheese, quarter of a cup of mayonnaise, a good sprinkling of onion powder, garlic powder and a pinch of lemon pepper if you have it.
Mix everything except the bread and cucumber, spread the mix on the bread, and arrange the cucumber on top. Cover with another slice of bread also spread with the mixture. Press down firmly, and cut into dainty bite-sized sandwiches. Irresistible.

Food for thought

By experts in poverty I do not mean sociologists, but poor men.
GK Chesterton

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Saying yes to beauty

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Sitting on the sofa, sipping my afternoon cup of tea, I craned to watch a sooty blackbird. It was pecking with its orange beak at the apple nailed to the fence outside the window. Beyond the fence is a wild gully, where I’ve encouraged blue and white agapanthus and arum lilies, pink impatiens and orange nasturtiums to spread. I planted flax for the tuis to feed on their flowers, and encouraged thickets of swan plants or milkweed as they’re also known, to feed the monarch butterflies.

Dominating the gully is an oak tree, grown from an acorn by my grandsons and I. It’s flourished and become a large tree in the years we’ve been here, and I love it for all that it symbolizes about those happy years of my grand-children’s childhood.

As I watched the blackbird, two smoky black tuis arrived, the iridescent sheen of their dark turquoise tail feathers gleaming in the clear winter sun. They hovered to swoop on another apple further up the fence, the little curl of white feathers on the front of their neck quivering – the early settlers here called them the parson birds because of the likeness to the white neck frill and black clothes of a missionary.

Then I noticed movement the other side of the gully. It was a cock pheasant, flaunting his long, gorgeous tail and his bright blue and red and russet colouring stalking through the long grass. I was ridiculously thrilled… I haven’t seen him for several years… is it the same cock pheasant I’ve gloated over before, or one of his descendants? How long do they live?

Lonely Roman soldiers shivering in the icy Northern wastes, guarding Hadrian’s Wall back in around 200 AD brought pheasants from Georgia, near- Asia, to England as pets. They came from a place called Phasis, hence their name pheasants. When the Romans left after four centuries, pheasants were well established all over the British Isles and shooting them became a favourite pastime of the rich and heartless. They have spread all over the world in the centuries since the Romans. But here at least in this hidden gully, this one is safe from being hunted and shot.

And as I watched, a little flock of half a dozen tiny, green silver-eyes descended on the apple halves. They’re smaller than a baby sparrow, with soft grey breasts, and rosy pink markings either side. Their velvety green feathered wings make them look like little balls of soft green moss, and they have bright eyes ringed in white.
The ancestors of these tiny birds which flit rather than fly, did actually fly the thousand miles across the Tasman Sea from Australia to get to this Land of the Long White Cloud, back in 1856… why, I wonder, did a whole species set off across a huge waste of ocean, clinging exhaustedly to the masts of any ships they encountered, and finally making it ashore to these islands.

After the attentions of all these sharp little beaks, the two apple halves are simply a rosy translucent bowl, the core a skeleton in the middle. I watched the scene without feeling any guilt at spending so much time just gazing out of the window. Savouring the beauty and the wonder of the world seems more important these days than any apparently more productive activity.

Whenever I gaze fondly at my oak tree, I think of savage and sensitive Xerxes, King of Kings, back in the fourth century BC, halting his great armies as they rolled across the empty Asiatic plains, so that he could revel in the sight of a single sycamore tree. He stayed there for several days in a state of ecstasy, while his puzzled warriors camped around the dusty desert, and he even commanded a goldsmith to strike a gold medallion to commemorate the moment and the tree.(goldsmiths were obviously essential to the well being of conquering heroes in ancient times!)

John Constable, the English landscape painter was another who loved trees. His friend and biographer described him admiring: ‘a fine tree with an ecstasy of delight like that with which he would catch up a beautiful child in his arms’. He particularly loved elms, the great trees which were such a distinctive feature of the English countryside for millenniums, and which all died of Dutch elm disease back in the seventies after a shipment of rock elm logs brought the elm bark beetle from the US.

In times past, elms were planted as sentinels to mark the old ways, the drovers ‘ roads, so that they could be followed in mist… the elms were way-finders, map-markers, so majestically tall that they towered above the bands of English mist… Elms are still trying to survive in hedgerows, but as soon as they grow beyond twelve feet, they become infected… perhaps in times to come they will recover and enhance the landscape again with their once well-loved silhouettes.

Here in New Zealand we are trying to discover why the great kauri trees – some a thousand years old or more – are mysteriously dying. At least with the elms they knew why… in New Zealand we are still puzzling over the slow death of the fabled kauris, whose trunks can grow to a diameter of forty feet or more.

These were my thoughts as I sipped my tea, and watched the beauty of the birds clustered around the red-skinned apples on the fence. And then I remembered an unforgettable vignette in Robert Byron’s book ‘The Road to Oxiana’. He wrote:
‘There was no furniture in the room. In the middle of the floor stood a tall brass lamp, casting a cold white blaze over the red carpets and bare white walls. It stood between two pewter bowls, one filled with branches of pink fruit blossom, the other with a posy of big yellow jonquils wrapped round a bunch of violets.’ By the jonquils sat the Governor… by the blossom sat his young son, whose oval face, black eyes and curving lashes were the ideal beauty of the Persian miniaturist. They had nothing to occupy them, neither book nor pen, nor food. Father and son were lost in the sight and smell of spring.’

Beauty on beauty on beauty, the scene, the meaning and the telling. It reminded me that no time is ever wasted when we are enjoying beauty. Caroline Graveson, a Quaker, wrote: ‘there is a daily round for beauty, as for goodness, a world of flowers and books and cinemas and clothes and manners as well as mountains and masterpieces’.

Yes, beauty is as necessary to the well-being of the spirit as bread is to the body.
Yet beauty doesn’t make us good or better people … even Hitler and Goering collected glorious art … it’s just that beauty is necessary to us all, and beauty just is. A world without beauty would be dead, so nourishing it and revelling in it is life… so – yes to beauty and to life.

Food for threadbare gourmets

I’m continuing my love affair with the crock pot, and made a very satisfying French onion soup the other day. Just tip plenty of finely chopped onions – a pound to two pounds – into the pot with two tablespoons of unsalted butter and two of olive oil, lots of freshly ground black pepper, and salt.
Leave it in the crock pot on low for twelve hours, or over-night which is what I did.

By then the onions will have caramelised into a thick jammy mixture, so I then added 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, lots of stock – depending how much you want to make, and a nice slurp of brandy… about three tablespoons.

Leave it on low for six hours to eight hours or more… the flavour intensifies the longer you leave it.
Then if you wish, you can do the toasted slice of sour dough thing with cheese on top and grilled, to place in the bowls of piping hot soup… I just served it with hot rolls and grated cheese on top.

Food for thought
A loving person lives in a loving world. A hostile person lives in a hostile world. Everyone you meet is your mirror. Ken Keyes

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The power of one

100_0347Continued from Eyewitness to history…

Christmas at Belsen was rather different to homely war-time Christmas in the quiet Dorset village where I’d lived before being uprooted to join my new parents.

Having been at war since I was a baby, my father had more experience of leading tanks into battle than bringing up a shy nine- year- old girl, while my stepmother knew nothing about children. We all had to make the best of it, and one of the best things was visiting the Duke of Hanover’s palace, a little way out of Belsen – and splendid it was. (What had he made of the concentration camp on his doorstep?)

I was taken occasionally for Sunday lunch there, and for the children’s Christmas Party. We played games like pass- the – parcel, and then musical chairs in the ballroom lined with huge gilt mirrors, under shining chandeliers, slipping and sliding on the marble floor while little gilt chairs were subtracted from the circle. Then, when the party ended, like nearly every other party of my childhood, we danced Sir Roger de Coverley, with the parents standing round clapping in time to the music.

Some weekends, we drove out to the Duke’s hunting lodge in the middle of a dark pine forest, where deer darted out onto the road, and wild boar lurked. This gemutlich little pile was now the officers club, run by a friendly middle-aged German couple.

Had they always been the stewards of this place, I wondered later? Did they transfer their loyalties to their new employers in the interim, and hold the place in trust until the Duke regained his ancestral homes – if indeed he did? Anyway, their speciality was delicious, lavishly sugared doughnuts, stuffed with butter icing. The glory of these doughnuts in a life of total gastronomic deprivation and war-time rations was utterly memorable (Did the Duke enjoy them too, before and after us?)

Doctor Muller, the German vet, called on us regularly, whether our various dogs needed his attentions or not. He regarded my parents – or at any rate, their gin bottle – as friends. In return for the generous helpings of gin and tonic he sipped – unobtainable in civilian Germany – he would bring my stepmother specimens of the many amazing varieties of exotic orchids which he grew. I thought they were awful, not like flowers at all, but fantastically petalled and bearded and contorted in strange sharp pinks and acid greens and yellows. He would arrive bearing this gift, and bend over my stepmother’s hand, clicking his heels together and bowing.

After some months of laborious social intercourse – his English became more broken with the quantity of gin consumed – we were invited to his house in Bergen to meet his wife.

We had tea on exquisite Meissen china, but because they could get sugar at the time, but no flour, we had no cakes or biscuits, but dipped sour apples from the garden into the sugar, as a substitute for cake. The grownups managed with a cup of tea. The doctor’s wife was a fair-haired, washed-out, melancholy woman. When I exclaimed over the beautiful porcelain, she explained that they’d hidden it with all their other treasures in a hole under the cellar, so the invaders wouldn’t loot them.

Even as a child I thought this was rather tactless. Invaders? Was she talking about us? She also reminisced about the awfulness of the war to my parents, and she and her daughter Suzanne, described the anguish of seeing their poor, wounded soldiers in blood- stained bandages in passing trains. Back home I heard my stepmother snort: “If they saw those trains, how come they didn’t know about the others!”

Years later, I realised she was referring to the trains of the condemned heading for Belsen. In her book: ‘The Children’s House of Belsen, Hetty Verolme described the platform at Celle lined with thirty SS men and Alsation dogs straining at the leash as the train pulled in. They then, eleven hundred young and old from Holland, sick or exhausted, straggled all the miles to Belsen on foot and apparently unobserved by the local population, who denied all knowledge of the camp when the British authorities discovered it and questioned them.

But the friendship limped on. One summer’s day, the vet’s two younger children, Hildegarde and Carljurgen, thirteen and fourteen, the one in dirndl skirt and long, white lace socks, the other in leather lederhosen, long, white lace socks and black boots, took me driving in their farm cart.

We rumbled and swayed down narrow farm tracks between fields of blazing blue and purple lupins shimmering with tiny butterflies in the sunshine. Carljurgen let me hold the reins. He avoided that other field, where there were miles and miles of burnt -out German tanks my parents had shown me one dank winter’s day.

It was another ten years before I read Anne Franck’s diaries. It came as a shock to me then, to realise that I had been living in the same place where she had lived briefly, suffered and died.

I’m a chronic re-reader of most books I’ve read, yet I cannot bear to re-read her chronicle of life lived beneath the terror of Nazi inhumanity. But as the years have gone by, her shining spirit has risen above the degradation of that Nazi oppression, and has become a beacon of light.

Though the evil that was Nazism destroyed her physical body, the power of her courage, intelligence, thirst for life, and sheer goodness was not destroyed. She still inspires people from all over the world to visit the building where she and her family hid, and they travel to the memorial to her and her sister Margot at Bergen- Belsen.

It‘s mainly due to Anne Franck that the world today is conscious of Bergen- Belsen… there were many other concentration camps just as bad all over the Nazi empire – nearly three hundred – and many of them are forgotten. But Bergen- Belsen has become symbolic of them all, and serves to remind us all of events and atrocities that must never be repeated.

Teenager Anne wrote prophetically: ‘I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death! And that’s why I’m so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all that’s inside me.’
In death this is exactly what she did achieve, she has gone on living, her words have been both useful and enjoyable, and her life and her death an amazing and triumphant testament to the power of One.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets
Winter and comfort food, and a love affair with the crock pot. Last week I discovered it was possible to bake whole potatoes in their jackets in the crock pot, instead of using the oven for just one potato! Just prick them with a fork, drizzle a bit of olive oil over them and wrap them in foil. I cooked two medium sized potatoes on high for three to four hours… it depends on the size… but they come to no harm when checked for softness towards the end of the cooking time. Sliced in half horizontally, gently mashed with butter and sprinkled with grated cheese they’re a filling, comforting meal on their own. Naturally, virtuous people have some green vegetables with them… I had some Brussels sprouts!

Food for thought
To be nobody but yourself in a world that is doing its best night and day to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle any human being ever fights and never stop fighting.
e.e.cummings.

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Filed under army, british soldiers, consciousness, cookery/recipes, history, life and death, spiritual, Thoughts on writing and life, uncategorised, world war two