Uncommon woman – uncommon heroism

 
Warning – this is a long but true detective story about an extraordinary woman.
Back then, cloudless skies were silent, roads empty, white beaches fringed with thick belts and filmy foliage of casuarina trees. Gay painted fishing sampans were lined up at the top of the sands, sailed by fishermen who looked like story book pirates. They wore brightly coloured turbans round their heads, and were lean and handsome.

The women, recipients of both a Thai and a Malayan heritage up there on the border, had the fine sculptured features of the Thais, and the soft voluptuousness of the Malays. They were famed for their beauty, and like their men folk wore richly coloured clothes – sarongs in bright batik patterns of red and turquoise, and orange and cobalt blue, unlike the drab browns of other Malayan batiks.
We lived not far from that long empty beach, one of many in this part of Kelantan, the most famous called: ’beach of passionate love’. (I know the Malayan name, but am not sure how it’s spelled) Our pink stucco house sat on the edge of the river, the river up which the Japanese had sailed in their motor boats early on the morning of 6 December, an hour before they attacked Pearl Harbour. Modern communications might have altered the events which took place on that fateful day, but in this remote corner of Malaya the invading Japanese were able then, unmolested, to rake the house with machine gun fire as they chugged inland.
The line of bullet holes was still there twelve years later when we lived there. We looked across to a small kampong, where a handful of wooden houses thatched with palm, were raised on stilts beneath the coconut palms, and where the grandfather sat motionless all day fishing, and his granddaughters bathed in the green river at sunset every night without taking off their bright sarongs.
Not far from this scene of primeval beauty, was the sleepy town of Kota Bharu, and it was here that the woman I called Mammy ran the newly built Palm Court Hotel. I wrote in a blog in April last year: ” Here too, lived Mammy, a giant White Russian, over six feet tall, wearing thick pebble specs for her short sighted grey eyes, and wearing the first caftans I ‘d seen over her enormous frame, all in brilliant colours and garish patterns . Mammy ran the local hotel where everyone gathered in Kota Bharu, and was a local joke too. As a seventeen year old I didn’t think she was such a joke. She and her husband had escaped the revolution in Russia … and so on …..
Eight months later, I had an e-mail from a man who wanted to know if I knew more about her. He told me she was Madame Luba Ruperti, and had been on not just one, but two ships crammed with women and children sunk by the Japanese as they escaped from Singapore and she was a very important link in the unrecorded story of what had actually happened on those hellish days just after the fall of Singapore.
He sent me all the information he had about her, and from his lists, and delving into the internet and other sources, I pieced together the remarkable story of this unusual woman. Luba Ruperti was a White Russian born in 1896. She fled with her parents from the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918 via Shanghai to the safety of British Singapore, after her sister had been killed by a revolutionary mob.
In 1925, when she was nearly thirty, she married another White Russian, Alexander Ruperti, formerly a Lt Commander in the Imperial Russian Navy, but three years later, newspaper reports show him becoming bankrupt, and he disappeared. Luba, now alone, became a fixture of the social scene attending parties and dances, and opened a hat and dress shop to make her living.
In those years before the war, Luba would have felt safe in this seemingly impregnable British colony. But some weeks after their grim appearance in Kelantan, the Genghis Khan-like hordes of murdering Japanese ( no exaggeration – among their atrocities was tying British soldiers together with barbed wire and setting them alight) reached Singapore. Here they invaded from the unprotected landward side.

It was in that mayhem of murder and bombings, killing of patients in hospital beds, raping of nurses etc. that somehow Luba got to the dock and managed to board SS Kuala, an overloaded ship with five hundred or so other women, children and babies, including a number of Australian and New Zealand nurses.
The next day the Japanese sank the ship, setting it on fire and mothers threw their children overboard trying to get them into the rafts below. As women and children struggled in the sea, wounded, drowning, trying to hold onto rafts and floating debris, they were machine-gunned in the water. Those who survived terrible thirst, hunger, horrendous wounds, madness and burning sun to make it to shore several days later, were machine gunned in the water and as they staggered over rocks and up the beach into the shelter of the trees. They had reached Pom Pong Island which had no food, and only a tiny source of water.
A few days later the SS Tandjong Pinang arrived from Rengat in Sumatra to rescue the small band of between a hundred and a hundred and fifty survivors from the original five hundred, but hardly had they embarked than the Japanese were back, and sank this ship too. Luba was one of only handful of survivors of this second disaster.
The few the Japanese captured on shore ended up suffering and usually dying in the terrible conditions of internment. Luba got away, and ended up somehow or other in India, via Ceylon. Here in February 1943, nearly a year later, she gave her great gift to all those who had died, suffered or survived. She had compiled a long list of the names of the people who had boarded the SS Kuala at Singapore and who had survived to board the SS Tandjong Pindang.
In the chaos and panic during the bombing of the docks in Singapore as frantic passengers tried to board the ship, no records had been taken. No-one knew who had boarded, who had escaped, or who had survived. Families would never have known if their loved ones were still alive in some corner of the world. Luba must have started compiling her lists during their terrible ordeal on Pom Pong island, as there was no way otherwise that she could have known so comprehensively who was there, the names and the children.
It was an act not just of heroism in those hellish days, but of responsibility and altruism in conditions when it could very well have been everyone for himself. Her act of witnessing and recording rescued both the dead and the living from oblivion, and told their story – a story that no one else was able to share with the world for another three years, when the war ended and a pitifully small handful of survivors could then bear witness to their sufferings.
Typically, the next we hear of the resourceful and penniless forty-seven year old Luba is as manageress of the Woodland Hotel, an army hostel in New Delhi, (the rundown hotel is still there) and it was here that she gave her vital and historic list to the military authorities. When the war ended, Luba gave up her secure and safe employment in India and returned to Singapore … where she had several unsuccessful business ventures. When I came across her, as an ignorant seventeen year old in 1955, she was running the newly- built smart Palm Hotel in Kota Bahru, where all the Europeans and rich Chinese went for their fun.
She was over six foot tall, frizzy-haired and be-spectacled and wearing caftans before they’d been invented. She was irrepressible, jolly and welcoming… she may have felt it came with the job. In an archival story I found a reference to her later being back in Singapore by 1958, and by the mid-1960’s nearing seventy, she was: “utterly dependent for her living by making and selling exquisite dolls dressed in the costumes of old Russia, complete with tiny earrings, bracelets and rings on the dolly fingers,” according to quotes from a story in the Singapore Straits Times. The same archival entry comments that: “she appears at this stage of her life to have been still the exuberant woman who had lived through so much fear, chaos and loss without losing her innate spirit”.
I found a mention absolutely characteristic of her when I came across an obscure story about the food Jews created for their festivals in various remote outposts of the world. The story included the celebration of the seder festival in New Delhi, and on the menu was a dish created for them by Madame Luba Ruperti – Boeuf Strogonoff of course – what else from a White Russian … Luba, still in the thick of things, still making a difference to her world with her generosity and commitment to life.
There are many families who may not even know their great debt to this feisty open-hearted woman… who never seemed to be defeated by the perils and tragedies of her extraordinary odyssey from Czarist Russia to post- Colonial Malaya, via Shanghai, Singapore, Indonesia, India and back to Singapore, surviving abandonment and poverty, loneliness, bombings, torpedoed ships and dangerous journeys. I like to think that more than half a century later, some of us will remember her and revel in the thought of her undaunted courage, resourcefulness, intelligence, and joie de vivre, and marvel at the human spirit.
Food for threadbare gourmets
Leafing through piles of old clippings I came across the infallible strawberry jam recipe I thought I’d lost. As I read it I decided to start making this delectable treat again. If one is going to sin with sugar, it might as well be in the most delicious way.
To four pounds of freshly picked strawberries, you need six pounds of sugar (horrendous I know), one and a half teaspoons of butter and an ounce of tartaric acid. Mash half the fruit in a buttered preserving pan and add all the sugar. Add the rest of the hulled strawberries, bring to the boil and boil hard for six minutes. Add the tartaric acid and boil for another six minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand for twenty minutes, stirring occasionally. Bottle in sterilised jars and cover. This makes nine one pound jars, so you could halve the ingredients and just make a small amount. It stays a lovely bright red.
Food for thought

I don’t know who wrote this but I like it.
If a person is living out his destiny, he knows everything he needs to know. There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.

PS if anyone can tell me how to stop word press closing up my paragraphs, I’d be eternally grateful, Valerie

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The dangers of words

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When Boxer was driven from ‘Animal Farm’ in a knacker’s van, the whole family dissolved in tears. I’d been worried that the syllabus at the children’s schools didn’t seem to cover the riches of English literature, so we began a nightly practise of all gathering around the fire, including the two Cavalier King Charles spaniels and a lanky afghan, for nightly reading sessions. ‘Animal Farm’ was a favourite even to those of us who were unaware of its deeper political meaning.

‘David Copperfield’ was another favourite… though I could hardly get past David’s childhood sitting cold and alone in his freezing bedroom terrified of Mr and Miss Murdstone. It reminded me too uncomfortably of a period of my childhood. “Don’t go on reading,” my children begged as the tears streamed down my face. “We’ll get there”, I’d say, mopping my cheeks. Peggotty saved us.
How did she know, I used to wonder when I read ‘David Copperfield’ as a child, that ‘Barkis is willing’, meant he wanted to marry her… ‘Barkis is willing’ must be the most phlegmatic proposal in literature.

The night that silly sweet Dora died was the night my husband was working late, and it was a cold dark winters’ night, just as it was in the book. So we all piled into our big bed, children and me under the duvet, Cavalier King Charles’s and the afghan on top. As we read of Dora slipping away, we all wept, but the coup de grace was the death the same night, of Dora’s spoiled little spaniel, Jip, who lived in a pagoda which was too big and tripped everyone up. Jip had also walked all over the dining table and put his paws in the butter and barked at Traddles, their first dinner guest… So when the man of our house returned, there was just a sodden heap of dogs and people to greet him.

Traddles, of course, was the man whose hair was so irrepressibly unruly, standing upright on his head, that his fiance’s sisters made jokes about keeping a lock of his hair in a book with a heavy clasp to try to keep it flat. Yes, we laughed and cried all through David C.

We laughed through ‘The Wind in the Willows’ too, especially Toad’s adventures and his come-uppance at the hands of the washerwoman. Later, we cried when Hereward the Wake was escaping from William the Conqueror’s army. Fleeing through the fens in the dark, with his great faithful mare swimming behind the boat, he cut her throat and she sank silently into the black waters.

I don’t know whether the children were any the wiser about English literature after those years of reading aloud together, but what fun we had. Reading aloud was the way most people enjoyed their books in times past. One person with a candle could keep the whole room enthralled, and it was only in recent times that silent reading became the norm for every-one. The early saints read their missals and bibles aloud, and it was cause for remark when St Augustine came upon his mentor, Bishop Ambrose, silently reading the words without moving his lips. Augustine was so amazed that he described it in his ‘Confessions’.

Dickens, like Orwell and many another, was a subversive writer. Dickens was trying to change society and arouse compassion by telling stories of injustice and pain. Orwell, on the other hand, was trying to warn us of what was to come. And what he wrote has come to pass.

The cliche that the pen is mightier than the sword is true; words can change people’s minds, open their hearts, give them insight, knowledge and hope, and move them to tears or laughter, while the sword can only silence them.

I have a beautiful coffee table book called ‘Women Who Read are Dangerous’… this could also apply to men of course. But in this instance, the book makes the point that men in the past have resisted the idea of women reading – precisely because men unconsciously realised that reading was subversive, and allowed women to escape, to start thinking for themselves, to explore ideas and reach for larger worlds than the circumscribed one that so many women were forced to inhabit.

Alan Bennett wrote a witty little book called’ The Uncommon Reader’, in which he outlines just this scenario. The reader is the Queen. She stumbles on the travelling library van parked in Buckingham Palace kitchen courtyard when the corgis have run off. Driven by a life-time of in-escapable good manners and a desire to set the librarian at ease, she chooses a book – a very difficult book – but again, propelled by her sense of duty, forces herself to finish it. Returning it, she feels she should seem to have enjoyed it, so the librarian presses another book on her.

Gradually the Queen becomes a dedicated reader… begins to neglect her duties, reads a book in her lap when she should be waving to crowds from the car, doesn’t care what she’s wearing as she’s more interested in finishing her book… and finally decides she wants to find her own voice, and write too. The horrified prime minster points out that this is dangerous and unconstitutional, as the truth would make devastating reading. So she abdicates so that she can write her truth

Writing the truth is what makes a writer’s life so fraught with peril. Writer Stephen King says: “if you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered”. He could just as truthfully have said your days as a member of your family are numbered too, as what is truth to one person is seen as slander, untruth or simply bad taste to others.

Nancy Mitford’s parents, described in ‘The Pursuit of Love’ were upset about their portraits, though James Lees-Milne, a close friend, vouched for the truth of Uncle Mathew and Aunt Sadie – now two of the great comic characters of English literature. James Lees-Milne himself often rued the day he‘d published his fascinating diaries of living through World War Two, as he and his wife encountered cold shoulders and black looks from those who saw the truth differently.

So if reading is seen as dangerous, it is as nothing compared to the dangers of writing. Insipid romances or doctored memoirs may satisfy some writers, but true writers need to write the truth as they see it. It’s a responsibility and a necessity. Which may be why so many writers and journalists end up in prison or worse, both in the past, and sadly, in the present.

Today, many bloggers share that fate too, and risk their lives to write the truth on the internet. And their lives, like other writers, are in danger at this moment in history, because in closed totalitarian societies, words are recognised for what they are… the most powerful weapons in the world. Words are the weapons that can change lives and whole societies. And we bloggers get to play with them.
Food for threadbare gourmets

I love potatoes cooked every which way. This way is a favourite, and this recipe is a refined version of the way I’ve always made what some call crispy potato cakes, and others might call latkes.

To three large potatoes like agria or other type with a high starch content, you need 75grams of melted butter. Grate the potatoes coarsely, dropping them in cold water as you go. I often just scrub them instead of peeling. Drain them and squeeze them as dry as you can. I use several layers of kitchen paper on a clean kitchen towel.

Mix them in a bowl with the melted butter and salt and black pepper just before cooking. Drop spoonfuls into hot oil in a heated heavy frying pan, and keep them warm in the oven as you go. Don’t fry too quickly or the inside won’t be cooked. They taste good with anything, and especially with freshly picked mushrooms from the grass outside my gate, and bacon from happy pigs, for a quick meal. In New Zealand we call this Freedom food…freedom from cruelty etc. etc.
Food for thought

What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lot of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently in your head, directly to you.
Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, bringing together people who never knew each other, citizens of different epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic. Carl Sagan

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Back Again!

When I read one of my favourite blogs, Cecilia at http://thekitchensgarden.com/2015/04/01/did-you-find-your-voice/#comments I felt the torpor of my hiatus dissolving…
So greetings to the friends who have been by my side during this long absence… it’s been one of the wonders of blogging to discover from messages and comments left on my blog, and private letters, that blogging friends care, they don’t forget and they don’t go away. Thank you, lovely friends who’ve sustained me during my absence from our blogging world. And thank you to dear Celi and her Fellowship of the Farmy. Reading their conversation enticed me back, to use my voice again. These were my thoughts yesterday, as I pondered Celi’s words about finding our voices. This is also something of an experiment as I try to find my way round the new systems which have evolved since I last posted!

BEFORE THERE WAS FEMINISM
Sorting through old piles of letters I came on a clipping from the Daily Telegraph – the obituary of one of my dearest friends.
We’d been in the army together and known each other since we were nineteen. She died nearly twenty years ago at fifty six. In the beginning, Jackie was a bit of a joke… always a bit harum- scarum when we were required to be constantly immaculate and impeccably punctual… and always bubbling with fun, and deadly serious about saving to buy a car. She’d been saving since she was eight, and even now, every penny she earned went into her car fund, so she missed out on quite a lot of fun with the rest of us.
When she was posted to Germany, she found to her ecstatic surprise that by buying a Morris Minor and having it shipped overseas, she didn’t have to pay purchase tax, and she could at last afford her dream. Not long after, she married a man as kind and decent as she. And later I visited her in hospital during her miscarriages, and called in on her during trips back to England, sometimes having to sleep in her absent son’s bed, because her elderly and doting bachelor admirers couldn’t tear themselves away from her warm- hearted home and spare room. She was a generous godmother to my son and a loving friend.
Re-reading her obituary I was as awed as I had been on first reading it. Jackie was deliciously dyslexic, leaving big spaces in her letters while she went to look up the dictionary and then forgot and posted the letters anyway. In spite of what could be seen as a handicap, at forty she began writing in ‘Soldier’, the British army’s magazine for soldiers. For the next seventeen years until just before she died, she campaigned for unemployment benefits for army wives serving overseas, maternity benefits for serving women soldiers, fought for the rights of separated and divorced women, and found night shelters for London’s homeless ex-servicemen.
She crusaded for compensation for solders injured in training, for anti-Aids packs for British soldiers and their families serving in Africa, and for improvements to married quarters. She worked for better care for soldiers suffering from combat stress, set up the Army Playgroup Associations, and helped start the Federation of Army Wives. This is only a short list of all that she achieved before dying of cancer, not to mention the loving and beautiful home she had created.
As I thought about Jackie, I thought of my other friends. My oldest school friend who became a local body politician and the first Labour councillor for the city of Winchester, and who, besides learning to upholster furniture, became a gourmet cook, talented gardener, bee-keeper and honey-maker, and dedicated mother. She also completed a three year diploma in dying, spinning and weaving, before becoming a secretary at the House of Commons, running her MP’s constituency for him! She now writes cookery books.
My other army friends included Anne, my dearest friend, who’s still a riding instructor, exquisite interior decorator, and like my school friend, graduated from college as a mature student with a diploma in arcane skills like weaving and soft furnishings, upholstery and other arts. Now in her mid seventies, still caring for her dogs and horses, children and grandchildren, she’s about to walk the El Camino Pilgrim trail in Spain.
And then there is Cordelia who started Alcoholics Anonymous in Hongkong – so greatly needed that there are now 17 branches there – and a single mother who supported her children by modelling, doing radio programmes, exquisite sewing, and making sought- after soft furnishings, before becoming a county councillor in local government until recently, and is now a painter …
And Perfect Prue – enviably beautiful, clever and talented, tennis champion, fencing champion, darling of all the senior officers to our chagrin. She married the man of her dreams – she’d loved him since her teens – and found jobs for him, and when he walked out on each one she bought a country house and turned it into a Michelin rated restaurant and hotel, while the husband chatted to guests over gin and tonic, and finally disappeared.
All these wonderful achieving women came from that generation which notoriously wasn’t trained for anything, and who were expected to stay home and look after their husbands and children… and maybe garden and play bridge. They were never feminists – too busy getting things done in their own lives to even think they were being discriminated against. And they probably were, but they learned to work around the system, and didn’t waste their time repining.
The next generation took up the torch of feminism, but these women just accepted Bill Gates’ dictum: ‘life isn’t fair’ – and made the most of it… no grumbles, no sense of victim, just a joyous commitment to making the best of things. They nearly all made their own clothes, some baked their own bread, and Anne still scours hedgerows for hips for rose-hip jelly, elderberries for wine, blackberries for jams.
Life often wasn’t easy for them, the war had done dreadful things to their childhoods, but they never looked back in anger or self-pity. They cherished their families and tried to improve the lot of others. They weren’t into saving the world or marching for peace, they just did what needed to be done in the small worlds they lived in. They were gentle and kind and were what would have been called ladies back in their day.
All these lives – like all lives – seem like a miracle and a mystery, in which the years have enfolded secret sorrows, public joys, wearying challenges and unworldly wisdom. And now these friends from my youth are devoted grandmothers, back-stops and rocks in tough times, and often indispensable to their families and communities. I treasure them, and yet I sometimes wonder too, how other generations perceive them….tiresome oldies, or beloved matriarchs – or both? … Another of life’s mysteries!

Food for threadbare gourmets
A girl’s dinner and I needed something between nibbles and hors d’oevres to soak up our first glass of champagne. I made a very garlicky aoli, and chopped some cucumber half an hour beforehand, cut out the seeds, and let it sit in some salt and sugar. I patted the chunks dry before arranging them on each plate, and gently fried some fat king prawns in butter and garlic, arranging them on the bed of chopped cucumber, with a big dollop of aoli in the middle. Served with a little napkin and small fork, this went down very nicely with the champagne. I thought it would be rather nice too for a light lunch with some warm crusty rolls.

Food for thought

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You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink. G.K. Chesterton

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A hiatus

100_0584Dear friends and fellow bloggers, the writing gods have withdrawn their inspiration from me, and have made it clear that this is a moment for Hestia, the goddess of peace and replenishment, solitude and silence to make her entrance.

So for now, it is a hiatus – an interruption. I shall follow you all from afar, knowing that you too will come and go in the rhythms of life; and lacking all inspiration myself at the moment, I will share and sign off with words from an inspirational poet, Rabindranath Tagore. It is our golden autumn here in the southern hemisphere, and this is how it was in Bengal a hundred years ago when Tagore was writing:

Autumn
Today the peace of autumn pervades the world.
In the radiant noon, silent and motionless, the wide stillness rests like a tired bird spreading over the deserted fields to all horizons its wings of golden green.
Today the thin thread of the river flows without song, leaving no mark on its sandy banks.
The many distant villages bask in the sun with eyes closed in idle and languid slumber.
In the stillness I hear every blade of grass, in every speck of dust, in every part of my own body, in the visible and invisible worlds, in the planets, the sun, and the stars, the joyous dance of the atoms through endless time – the myriad murmuring waves of Rhythm surrounding Thy throne.

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The preciousness of people

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A knock on the door revealed a stranger holding a white enamel colander full of strawberries. We had moved into this house in town the day before, and he introduced himself as a neighbour.

That was a very meagre description of what he was, he was a glorious eccentric who I watched every day cycle slowly past on a very high old fashioned bike with a basket on the front, which gave the impression of being far too big for his small skinny frame, and liable to go out of control at any minute. He was on his way to the docks where he was a dock worker – a somewhat unconventional one I imagine.

Again a meagre description of this blue- eyed, wildly bearded, elderly Irishman, who revealed to us that he was a sort of remittance man, exiled from Ireland by his despairing family to make his somewhat erratic way in the antipodes.

He was a poet, he told us. I believed him though I never saw any of his work. His life was a poem. We went to his house, which was a poky little state house. Inside it gave the impression of being a miniature stately home, along the lines of an Irish demense… a few good but battered antiques, the odd oil painting and large old-fashioned sofa and chairs covered in old fashioned country house flowered linens.

This splendid impression of stateliness continued into the garden, which was quite big, being on a corner. He had transformed this rocky site into a miniature paradise, grass walks edged with pleached fruit trees, a vegetable patch, a strawberry bed, a tiny terrace and lawn, and best of all, a deep pond edged with large rocks, which he had created by levering the huge rocks day after day over a period of six months, until a deep hole had been carved out of the stony ground.

He was an eccentric, one of the many who, when I look back, have enriched our lives and given us fun and pleasure. There was Mr Macdonald, a direct descendant of Beatrix Potter’s Mr Mcgregor, who was our neighbour in the country, another Irishman. He only wore a pink woollen vest with long sleeves  and braces, all summer and winter, except on Sundays when he looked quite unnatural, shaved and spruced up in a short sleeved shirt in which he looked very ill at ease. Every spring he would arrive at my door in his pink vest, braces and hob-nailed boots, bearing a huge bunch of sweet-smelling narcissi which I had once told him reminded me of spring in England. He never missed a year thereafter.

There was Alf, an Englishman who served in the Malayan Police, and every three years when his leave was due, not having any family he wished to return to, he would sail to the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula. There he would buy a large flock of goats, and then proceed to drive them through the desert, using the goats as food and currency, until he reached Port Said. There he would get a boat to Liverpool, make a quick visit to his sister there, and then return to his tropical home in Kota Bahru.

Here too, lived Mammy, a giant White Russian, over six feet tall, wearing thick pebble specs for her short sighted grey eyes, and wearing the first caftans I ‘d seen over her enormous frame, all in brilliant colours and garish patterns . Mammy ran the local hotel where everyone gathered in Kota Bahru, and was a local joke too. As a seventeen year old I didn’t think she was such a joke. She and her husband had escaped the revolution in Russia, and made it safely to Shanghai like so many other White Russians.

They had survived the rigours of Japanese occupation and then fled Mao’s Communist takeover, ending up in Singapore. There, one afternoon, Mammy’s husband had walked down the road to buy an evening newspaper, and had never returned. No-one knew whether he had run away or was the victim of some crime. And Mammy was now surviving in this rather heartless superficial society in the remotest part of Malaya but creating laughter and fun all around her – actually rather more than a survivor.

Another neighbour was our Dutch friend Andrea, who had an antique shop full of the most exquisite items of a particular sensitivity, many of which I still posses. She was as nutty about animals as I, and far more lawless, striding into a bikie house to steal/rescue weeping puppies with no tails. I revelled in her poetic garden and laughed to see her huge magenta magnolia blossoms each wrapped in a plastic bag to protest them from the wind… not a good look actually!

Her house was beautiful in that glorious Dutch interior way of Pieter de Hooch and Vermeer, her pottery made you want to hold it and stroke it – and I have some – and her paintings were romantic and exquisite, and I have some of them too. I could actually write a book about her…

These memories were prompted by a conversation with a neighbour on my walk this morning. Since some of them read my blog, I cannot reveal what we talked of, or his glorious quirks of personality, but he reminded me of the joy of being with people who allow their personalities to flower, with no thought of what anyone else may think. Eccentricity is simply individuality, unself-consciousness, and the courage to be and do what feels right. When we are in the company of such people it feels as though ‘the waters of life’ are flowing, there are no limitations, and all things are possible.

Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher wrote that: ‘Everyone has in him something precious that is in no one else. But this precious something in a man is revealed to him only if he truly perceives his strongest feeling, his central wish, that in him which stirs his inmost being.’

P.S. The picture is of an antique English drinking jar given me by my friend Andrea.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

A faithful follower e-mailed me yesterday and asked if I had a recipe for Simnel cake. This is the light fruit cake that’s traditional at Easter, so I told her I’d blog it today. I use Nigella Lawson’s recipe with my own adaptations.

When I make it, I prepare the tin as usual, and then cream 175 g of soft unsalted butter with 175 g of caster sugar. Then mix 225 g of SR flour with half a teasp of cinnamon, a quarter of a teasp of ginger and 25 g of ground almonds. Add one egg with some of the flour mixture to the butter mixture, and mix two more eggs into the rest of the mix in the same way, before adding two tblsp of milk. Finally, fold in 500g of mixed dried fruit, plus some chopped glace cherries if you like them.

At this stage I put half the cake mix in the tin, roll out about 400g of marzipan, cut into a cake sized circle and place on the cake mix, then cover with the rest of the cake. Bake for an hour at 170 C, then turn it down to 150C and cook for another hour and a half. It’s cooked when it’s risen and firm. Let it cool completely on a rack before taking it from the tin.

When cool, paint the top with apricot jam, and roll out another 400g of marzipan and stick it on. With 200g of marzipan, make balls representing the eleven apostles – Judas surplus to requirements here – and stick them on using an egg white – beaten to just frothy. Some people quickly put it under the grill to make it look slightly toasted.

 

 

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When is right wrong?

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It’s always been quite easy to be a pacifist in New Zealand for the last fifty years. Vietnam seemed indefensible to many, and our nuclear free policy made it feasible to take the moral high ground and declare that war is wrong.

I was forced to think about this on reading of the First World War project at Paddington Station in London, where a magnificent and moving statue of an unknown warrior stands. In full battle kit and helmet, he is reading a letter. As part of the commemorations marking the start of World War One, writers have been invited to write a letter to him, and Stephen Fry, wit, comedian and actor was amongst the first to write his, and it caused a sensation.

He wrote it as from a pacifist brother. Though he got historic details wrong – a pacifist would not be sitting at home then, he’d either be in prison or working on a farm, his letter moved many people. I’ve always been firmly behind conscientious objectors – (I like the moral high ground!) but this letter made me think hard about what was the right thing to do then, and how the right thing could very easily seem to be the wrong thing.

I thought about the horrific killings at schools and other places in the last few years, where deranged gun-owners shot numbers of their fellows, and if they didn’t end up shooting themselves, were shot, in order to stop them killing any more innocent victims. These incidents made me think when is it wrong to kill another human being, if there is no other way to stop them killing others. As pacifists do we stand and watch while others are killed, or do we intervene in whatever way we can, to protect the innocent?

This was actually the dilemma in the World Wars. Revisionist historians have said that there was no need for Britain to go to war in 1914. But Britain had informally agreed to support France if she was attacked in order to keep the balance of peace and power in Europe. More importantly, she had signed a pact in 1839 with four other countries of Europe, including Germany, to protect Belgium and allow this war-torn corner of Europe to enjoy being a neutral country, safe for the first time in history from being fought over. It was known as the cock-pit of Europe. It took the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, nine years of diplomacy and negotiations to get the five signatories to agree to preserve Belgium, and they included France, Russia and England, and also Germany and Austria.

But Belgium was doomed as soon as the Prussian General Schlieffen began planning a war for German supremacy, because his plans for invading France, took in Belgium first. By then, under Bismarck’s influence, the German nation had become a military one. Invading Belgium didn’t bother them, though it did the honest German ambassador in London, Prince Lichnowsky, whose anguished telegrams begging the Kaiser not to invade, I have read.

In Belgium the Germans did what they did at Lidice in Hungary and Oradour in France in the Second World War, when they blamed the Nazis for these unspeakable atrocities. No Nazis around in the first war, but they still burned villages, hanged one man in ten and sometimes one man in two, and shot women, children and babies, the youngest three weeks old – at Dinant – as reprisals against any Belgians who had attempted to resist. Before the war was four weeks old, towns and villages had been sacked and burned, their people shot, and Louvain, and its ancient library reduced to cinders. So the choice for many Englishmen was clear – stand by and watch as a pacifist, or try to stop what seemed like a barbarian host?

The British soldiers who went to war then, were part of the history of England which had always tried to stop one power dominating and enslaving all of Europe, from Louis the Fourteenth of France to Napoleon. To go to war seemed to many who joined up then, to be a heroic attempt to save civilisation, and even more so in the Second World War, when Hitler was enslaving the civilised world.

The tragedy of resisting a violent and merciless enemy is that too often all the combatants find themselves using the same methods as the aggressor… war. But can we stand by and hang onto our principles of not killing, when all those we love will be destroyed, and not just those we love – our society, our country, and our whole civilisation. This was the choice which thinking people faced in both world wars.

When World War One was declared, England’s army was smaller than Serbia’s – the tiny country where the match had been lit at Sarajevo. So England’s armies were citizen armies, in both wars, made up of peace-loving men called up to defend their country. There’s a lot of research to show that many soldiers when they fired their rifles at the advancing enemy, didn’t actually shoot at the enemy, but aimed to miss, and that even more didn’t shoot at all. They too faced choices on the battle field which are impossible for us to imagine, when like me, we are living in a safe, peace-loving democracy.

So though I believe in peace, and have always supposed I was a pacifist, and attended Quaker meeting, where everyone was a declared pacifist, do I still believe it is possible to be one when the chips are down? I don’t know any more … Aggression turns easy choices upside down, when right – not killing – seems wrong, and wrong – fighting – seems right.

The wonderful story of the American colonel in Iraq, surrounded by an angry mob intent on violence, calling his armed troop to a halt, ordering them to kneel and point their guns to the sky, immediately defused the threat of violence on that occasion. So how do we defuse the violence of would- be psychopathic conquerors who believe that might is right? Maybe only people power can do that – and that can happen – as it did at the Berlin Wall.

Maybe it just needs enough of us to say: “They shall not pass…”
Food for threadbare gourmets

Something to eat with a glass of wine is one of our specialities in this village – among my friends anyway. It’s so easy to share a glass of wine and a nibble on a Friday night, without all the hassle of a dinner party. The latest craze is kumara skins – kumara are the Maori sweet potato that Kiwis pine for when they leave this country, but even ordinary potatoes are good this way.

Boil scrubbed orange and golden kumara until soft, and then cut them into thin wedges, leaving about a cm of flesh. Heat hot oil until it’s just smoking. Dust the kumara with seasoned flour and fry until golden. Drain and sprinkle with sea salt. Eat the skins with sour cream sauce – half a cup of sour cream mixed with a tbsp on mustard, fresh herbs and lemon juice.

Food for thought

There is something that can be found in one place. It is a great treasure, which may be called the fulfilment of existence. The place where this treasure can be found is the place on which one stands.

Martin Buber 1878- 1965  Jewish philosopher

 

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Dancing to the music of time

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I climbed up the rusty fire escape smothered in trails of blue flowering morning glory and stepped onto the veranda of a very big two- storied, shabby white house built on the side of a volcano. The morning glory swung from trees, twisted up the fire escape, and swathed both house and garden in carpets of greenery and purple trumpet shaped flowers. With pillars, porticoes, verandas and banisters all festooned in drooping creeper, it looked like a romantic, deserted Southern mansion.

Once on the veranda I peered through the windows, and beckoned to my slightly reluctant partner in crime to join me. It was obviously the home of students or alternative life stylers on this floor, the only unusual thing about their chaotic living arrangements being the live rabbits who were hopping about the grubby carpets. Downstairs a motor bike gang who seemed to have wrecked the place, had their bikes parked inside the entrance hall.

Reader – to quote Charlotte Bronte – we bought the house. It took time to track down the owner and persuade him to sell, but we did. The room where the rabbits had bred was forever known as the rabbit room during our years in the house. The occupants moved out, but that was all. It was up to us to break down partitions, rip up revolting carpets, clean, scrub, paint and restore – including dozens of missing banisters – used no doubt for firewood. The bikies had left behind more than indescribable squalor but awful energy as well. But for the first time since its original owner the house had become a family home again, not a collection of shabby flats.

The house had been built in 1875 by a French architect for himself, described on the title as Jean le Bailly Hervei, gentleman. The first thing we did was to rip out a partition and remove a door and two huge cupboards. This revealed Jean’s conception of a huge central hall, twelve feet high, thirty feet long and ten feet wide, stretching down the centre of the house, and looking out over the harbour and then to distant hills beyond. When I stood at the huge French doors and watched the flaming sunsets or the black clouds scudding in from the hills so that I knew what the weather would be like in half an hour, I felt close to Jean le Bailly Hervei.

He designed this splendid roomy house with every French window and door opening towards the sun and these magnificent views, and each room led off from the airy hall on both the top and the bottom floors. The floor of the top hall I painted a rich pumpkin colour which picked up the shades of pumpkin and rose and purple and cream in a long Kelim rug which fitted the space. The bottom hall which matched the top, I painted white, including the floor, and blue and white curtains and matching table cloth over a round table obliterated traces of the former tenants and their bikes. My son painted his bedroom floor lime green to go with his colour scheme.

The children and the little frolicking dogs brought life and fun into the house, and music rang through all the spacious rooms – the children played the piano and their flute and clarinet – me – the stereo –  mostly Bach’s Brandenburg concertos, Beatles, Joan Baez and Cat Stevens.

One day while clearing the garden of morning glory, I found a three foot high, concrete garden gnome hidden under the greenery. We dragged him inside, and since we had friends staying and my birthday feast that night, I invited the gnome to dinner too. He presided in a chair at the head of the table and we had lots of laughter at his expense.

When we moved on, children gone, the psychiatrist who bought the house from us, an hour after it went on the market, asked me six months later at a party, what we had done to remove the brutal vibrations of drugs, alcohol, violence and fear which we had inherited. I was fascinated that a conventional medicine man should acknowledge that old energy, and that he had thought about it.

We brought colour and energy into the house, I said, along with all the books and precious things we’d loved and collected, including tapestry and patchwork cushions and crocheted bedspreads I’d made. We had bowls of pot-pourri and flowers, and often used candle- light. But the two things that must have made the real difference, I told him, were that we all meditated, and there was always music being played. I think more than anything, it was the meditation and the music, I said.

These memories came back to me today when I was reading that world-renowned neuro-scientist Oliver Sacks says that music affects the brain more than any other discipline. It is, he says, the only discipline that actually changes the physical appearance of the brain. We are designed for music, for ‘its complex sonic pattern woven in time, its logic, its momentum, and its unbreakable sequences’

In Australia in a school where they have a Music Excellence programme the students spend many hours playing rehearsing and having music lessons. At prize-givings, eighty percent of the top students receiving awards for academic excellence were also music students.

They mostly spend more than ten hours a week involved in their music and have almost no behaviour problems or any upsetting emotional or social issues even though they come from both rich and poor homes, single parent homes and every the other variation on backgrounds which could spell problems for children.

Do we know whether the music acts as a stress release, or whether it builds such emotional equilibrium and peace of mind that its practitioners can weather all sorts of stresses without problems? Maybe it doesn’t matter. What does matter to us is that we recognise the value of music, and allow ourselves to receive and enjoy its healing and strengthening properties. Some research has shown that people who learn a musical instrument are less likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s.

Music is supposed to teach basic skills such as concentration, counting, listening, and cooperation, help with understanding of language, improve memory, and help learning in all other areas. But actually, it doesn’t matter what the benefits are, it’s the sheer joy of music that enriches our lives. Perhaps it should be compulsory in schools, and be ranked along with writing and arithmetic as one of the necessities of life.

And what I find amazing is that music healed a house. Once it had dissolved the top layers of fear and anger and violence, it seemed to penetrate to other layers of energy and atmosphere… reaching through levels of sadness and regret and loss, until finally the sweetness of the music uncovered all the layers of time, and we reached the gentleness and joy of Jean the Bailly Hervei .

It was a voyage of discovery travelling back into the past and becoming aware of the lives of so many who had lived there before us. Music gathered together threads of sweet feelings from the past, and stitched them into the tapestry of life that we were adding our colours to. And it was the invisible vibrations of music which conducted us gently through those layers of time and feeling so we were able to hand on to the next owners the intangible beauty of a well-loved house. .
Food for threadbare gourmets

For these hot, dry, sunny days of Indian summer, sitting on the veranda, cicadas clattering, I like to make a spinach and salmon quiche which is good hot or cold. After lining a quiche dish or similar with thin short crust pastry – though I have used filo too, I simply pour the filling in and bake in a moderate oven for 40 minutes or until gently firm. For the filling I use 150 gm of chopped smoked salmon, a packet of frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry, 300 to 400mls of thick cream, three large eggs, salt and pepper. Mix everything together, adding the spinach and salmon last, and either a little grated nutmeg or a little parmesan cheese if you fancy, and pour into the partly cooked pastry case. Good with salad of course…

Food for thought

I think the sages are the growing tip of the secret impulse of evolution… I think they embody the very drive of the Kosmos towards greater depths and expanding consciousness. I think they are riding the edge of a light beam, racing towards a rendezvous with God.

From ‘ A Brief History of Everything’, by Ken Wilber, Influential American writer and philosopher.

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