It isn’t racist to be disappointed

Queen Mary Diamond Bandeau Tiara worn by Meghan Markle on her wedding day

diamond bandeau filigree tiara queen mary meghan markle united kingdom

Hitler said she would make a good queen. He was referring to Wallis Simpson, by then the Duchess of Windsor, after they’d had a friendly get together in pre-war Germany.

I thought of this when I read that someone in the US had said what a good queen Meghan Markle, now Duchess of Sussex would make. And I thought too that neither Hitler, or even Ms Markle had any idea what the concept of the British monarchy was all about as I read the latest press release from a ‘source close to the Duchess’. The release informed us that the Duchess would not be joining the Royal family for Christmas and would be spending Thanksgiving at Frogmore Cottage with her mother, when they would visit a homeless shelter to ‘help the homeless cook traditional stuffed turkey and pumpkin pie’.

This essentially New World party has no relevance to the British, so I did wonder at the announcement of a visit to a local homeless shelter, weeks in advance. Most intending Mother Theresa’s or Lady Bountiful’s perform this sort of philanthropy unobtrusively and without fanfare, with no virtue signalling publicity or photographers on hand.

I wondered too how these lonely desperate people, with no warm home and loving family around, would feel when confronted with a beaming stranger either dressed up to the nines in Givenchy, or sporting skinny jeans and an over-size shirt, and accompanied by the de rigueur security men – slightly bewildered I wouldn’t be surprised.

People who criticise the American addition to the Royal family are usually accused of racism, but this lazy and one-size-fits-all label is not accurate. Prince Harry’s bride was welcomed with open arms, for the sake of the little boy who’d walked behind his mother’s coffin and who had a special place in many English hearts. Everyone bent over backwards to make their union work.

The Queen did an unprecedented thing and invited Meghan to Sandringham for Christmas, to spend with the ‘family she’d never had’, as besotted Prince Harry explained tenderly on radio. Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge was not invited until she was well married, like all the previous fiancees.

When Prince Charles remarried a divorcee, he could not be married in a church according the Church of England rules, and had to have a registry office wedding, and a church blessing afterwards. This requirement was waived for Meghan, also a divorcee, who enjoyed the full panoply of royal privileges, including the traditional loan of one of the Queen’s tiaras, and a carriage ride through Windsor, costing the British taxpayers millions in security. Her wedding cost both the Queen and the taxpayer over $40,000,000 pounds. No one begrudged it. The new bride was welcomed with enthusiasm.

But she never said thank you. What she did do was buy more expensive couture clothes than any other English or European Royal, only a quarter of which were made by British designers.  She flew to New York by private jet for a $350,000 baby shower, she sat in splendid isolation after turfing forty British Wimbledon spectators out of the seats which they had queued and paid for, and assuming that two people who were taking selfies of themselves with Federer in the background were photographing her, had her security guards stop them using their phones.

When her friend Serena Williams was beaten, she showed her disappointment, but did not congratulate the winner, a Canadian girl who was a member of the Commonwealth for which Meghan had been made an ambassador by the Queen. She left as soon as Serena’s match was over, when it would have been both polite and diplomatic as a member of the Royal Family to watch the British Wimbledon champion Andie Murray, who was next up, play his match.

The dog loving English people were puzzled that a dog lover should leave her two rescue dogs behind in Toronto in spite of the unconvincing explanations. They were also puzzled when she and her Prince left the splendour of Kensington Palace, to spend over $3,000,000 on a house at Windsor, with all the extra costs to the taxpayer of security, which were covered when all the Royals shacked up at KP, as Kensington Palace is known.

Writing woke messages saying ‘you are loved’ and ‘you are brave’ on bananas to give to sex workers provoked national hilarity, but it wasn’t seen as so funny when Meghan embarrassingly dodged her royal duty by claiming maternity leave in order not to meet President Trump. Yet she surfaced a few days later to sit in a carriage and stand on the balcony of Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s birthday celebrations.

Turning up to parade down the red carpet at the glamorous ‘Lion King’ London premier in a hideously expensive dress costing $4,924, when Prince Harry should have been at a solemn memorial service with the Royal Marines didn’t go down well either. Telling an African-American star in the line-up, who’d congratulated her on the great job she was doing, that ‘They don’t make it easy for us”, a reference to the English people/plebs who support her extravagant life-style, went down like a brick too.

Neither did it go down well that the couple refused to share the date of their baby’s birth, the names of his godparents or issue any photos of him – traditional Royal custom – which is part of the unspoken contract between the Royals and the public. There was more heartburning when it was discovered that various American TV personalities, including Ellen de Generes, who Meghan had never met before, had had invitations to tea  and were able to boast – on TV – that they had cuddled the baby who was off-limits to the British public.

And more ire, when pictures of good old Archbishop Tutu were taken with the hitherto invisible baby. Many people, myself included, felt that it should have been Thomas Markle, his grandfather, seeing the baby. This is the man who brought up Meghan when her mother was not around during her childhood, and paid for her expensive schooling, university and overseas trips – on one of which Meghan was photographed posing outside Buckingham Palace – though she had told the public that she’d never heard of Prince Harry before she met him!

Thomas Markle is the old man who to date has met neither his son-in-law or his grandson, but according to his daughter, in happier days when she was worried about her freckles, lovingly consoled her with the words that a face without freckles would be like a sky without stars. While he was working at the TV studios, she would turn up after school, and he’d steer her away from facets of the filming he thought in-appropriate for a little girl to watch – a caring father coping with parenting alone while he worked for their living …

The apparent snubs to the Queen in turning down not just the Sandringham Christmas get together, but also the traditional summer gathering of the Royal family at Balmoral, and then zapping off to New York a few days later to watch her friend Serena’s tennis final, has not endeared the Duchess to the British public. None of these faux pas, extravagances, and many other ill-judged actions have anything to do with race.

They are the justified criticisms made of a woman who seems to have no interest in the customs and culture of the family and society she chose to marry into; a woman who, while enjoying all the perks of her extraordinary new life, insists on privacy, and at the same time goes out of her way to be photographed and publicise her doings and achievements on Instagram.

Criticism of the new arrival in the family who has ‘singlehandedly modernised the Royal Family’ according to her PR team, stems from disappointment, not racism. In the unspoken contract and loyalty between the Sovereign and the people, the Royals have various rituals and duties to perform as a quid pro quo for their immensely privileged life-style.

Their profession and ‘career’ is service to their country, to be performed in whatever way the government of the time requires, and observance of ancient precedents. The public knows it’s a daunting task to learn the ropes of this 1,000 -year-old institution, so all they expect is for a new entrant to learn the ways and customs of the institution, using humility, a desire to learn, and determination to do the job.

So the arrival of Meghan who said she was going to hit the ground running, and who seems to feel it’s her role to change the lives of the English people who’ve enjoyed a free society and democracy all their lives; a newbie attempting to educate them about climate change, female empowerment, racism, and other self- appointed missions, irritates them.

They don’t want their lives changed (unless they can enjoy some of the perks of her privileged life-style). They don’t want to be lectured about carbon emissions by someone who flies in private jets, and hops across oceans and continents for holidays, weddings and celebrity occasions.

It doesn’t go down well for someone from another country to seem to criticise the British culture and members of the Royal Family on TV, to tell us that the British stiff upper lip is ‘internally damaging’, and that in spite of no money worries, a healthy baby, a loving husband, a luxurious home, and a wardrobe to die for, she finds life tough and no-one has asked ‘are you okay?’

It was her decision during maternity leave to ask Vogue editor, Edward Enninful, to allow her to guest-edit a controversial edition of that luxury magazine, and her decision too, to organise the design of some fairly ordinary clothes for a charity which had been up and running for some years before. Since most of us cope with our babies plus other challenges without nannies and staff, for their PR staff to use the word ‘gruelling’ to describe their lives (several holidays, overseas trips to tennis and a Rome wedding this year) seems puzzling.

Most people have tough hardworking lives, and find self-pity, a sense of entitlement, and what feels like hypocrisy when actions don’t match words, unattractive. So for all these reasons, and many others, the second American woman to marry into the British Royal family is almost as unpopular as the first one. And as in the case of Wallis, there is great relief that Meghan is not likely to become queen either, barring a complete annihilation of four or five other members of the family.

The saddest thing of all is that so much genuine goodwill towards Prince Harry and Meghan seems to have been squandered, despite the in-ept rescue attempts by their American publicity team, and this has left many loyal supporters of the monarchy throughout the Commonwealth feeling disappointed. To bowdlerise a great Englishmans’s words, ‘never has so much been lost, so quickly, by so few.’

As for the 93- year- old Queen, adapting Shakespeare’s words would no doubt be sadly true for her at the moment: ‘Uneasy lies the head that bears the crown’.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

The cupboard was bare – and the fridge. All I could rustle up the day before our big shop, was one chicken drum stick, half a parsnip, two carrots, half a leek, plenty of onions and my staple, red lentils.

While the onions were having a quick zap to soften them up in the micro- wave, I fried the chicken leg to seal it, and chopped carrots, parsnip and leek small, keeping one carrot back to grate, to give the intending mess of pottage some texture. Onions, chicken and vegetables went into a saucepan, along with two thirds of a cup of washed lentils, garlic, salt, pepper and a chicken cube.

Boil gently for half an hour or until the chicken is falling off the bone. This collection of scraps turned into a thick comforting soup on a cold day.

 

 

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Filed under family, life/style, Queen Elizabeth, Royals, shakespeare, Uncategorized

Time has told, Small IS Beautiful

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They don’t make it easy, to quote Megan Markle speaking on quite another subject. I was actually trying to wrest the immoveable foil covering off the plastic milk bottle, and as usual was giving up, finding a sharp pointed knife, and prizing it off.

I thought of the good old days, when we had shiny aluminium tops on glass bottles, which were washed out every day to be exchanged for a fresh bottle of milk the next day. It was usually delivered by the milkman driving his horse and milk cart – the horse, so familiar with the routine – that he stopped and started at each house, while the milkman ran in and out of each gate to leave the milk bottles on the door-step.

He was an un-official social worker as well as a milkman, and if the milk went uncollected for more than a day he’d check in the house or alert the neighbours, and many an old person was rescued from illness or accident in this way.

Before the aluminium tops, we had cardboard lids on the bottle with a little cut-out circle indented in the centre which we pushed open, if the sparrows hadn’t got there before us. They enjoyed the cream as much as we did – yes, we had cream in our milk in those days, you could either pour it off to save and consume as cream, or you shook the bottle up, and distributed the cream throughout the milk.

Sometimes at school, instead of drinking our half pint of milk given to us every day by a benevolent state, we shook up the bottle for fun until we’d made a knob of butter from the cream, and later spread it on our lunch-time potatoes. We also used the cardboard circle from the bottle to wind wool round and make bobbles, or thread on a ribbon and paint for Christmas decorations

Prising the top off the milk isn’t the only strongman feat I’m forced to perform every day. If I want to open a bottle of vitamins there’s a tight clear plastic wrapper bonded to the bottle and the lid. When, with a pair of nail scissors I’ve managed to break into this casing, and unscrewed the lid, there’s the same sort of stiff foil lid stuck irrevocably to the bottle as with the milk. More jabbing with knife or scissors, and when I finally wriggle into the jar, there’s a long wad of cotton wool to drag out into the light of day. The pile of plastic rubbish from just one small bottle of vitamins is outrageous.

A packet of bacon? Plastic wrapped cheese sweating in the casing? A new toothbrush – that truly is the worst – it’s almost impossible to break into all the wrappings, both plastic and cardboard, that bar entry to a simple toothbrush.

I waste hours of my life trying to gain access to items of food and household products which were once sold loose, but now need equipment in order to eat, drink, use or cook.

When I used to read the Manchester Guardian in my salad days I was transfixed with wonder, when a woman wrote to say she was tired of trying to break into biscuit packets. Back then in 1965, it seemed like a miracle that biscuit manufacturers got the message, listened to a woman and provided consumers with a tab to pull, so as to gain entry to said biscuits. We really can be heard, and can change things, I gloated, somewhat prematurely it seems.

For today, health and safety and hygiene requirements, techniques for packaging to extend ‘shelf life’, marketing strategies to make products seem more desirable, have meant that most food items are now locked away behind plastic, unless it’s an unwashed potato . So even though we virtue signal with plastic bags banned in our supermarkets, we still have mountains of plastic rubbish after each shopping trip, be it a new shirt, or a bag of rice. The sort of plastic rubbish that pollutes oceans and clogs up the stomachs of whales and sea-birds, fouling the oceans and killing the wild life.

And speaking of potatoes, in my youth we bought muddy potatoes in a small hemp sack. The mud preserved the minerals in the spuds, and the darkness of the sack kept them fresh, so even at the bottom, the potatoes were still good to eat. Washed potatoes in a see-through plastic bag, the very opposite of mud and sack, means that the soil around the potatoes which preserved them has gone, so they go stale and lose much of their nourishment, while the clear plastic lets in light so they deteriorate quicker. And what about parabens?

So I buy unwashed potatoes, and being somewhat lazy, I now get the mud off by washing and scrubbing them with pan scourer, kept especially for the purpose.

A friend gave me some of her new laid eggs from her hens and brought back long forgotten childhood memories as she wrapped each egg in a small piece of torn newspaper, before laying them in my little basket. There was something very sweet in the gentle handling and detailed care with which she wrapped and packed them. It felt a world away from the dull supermarket routine of shopping in bulk.

Before the coming of super-markets, we shopped every few days, meeting and greeting neighbours and other shoppers as we walked to the grocer, who was often ‘on the corner’. It’s now acknowledged that this simple routine was a wonderful boost to everyone’s emotional well-being as they connected with neighbours, and nodded to strangers who became familiar during the regular shop. We took baskets and string bags and no-one expected a shop to wrap everything we bought.

Shops had regular hours, so when you ran short of sugar or needed an onion, you had no 24- hour dairy or superette to fall back on. Instead you fell back on your neighbours, and a child was often dispatched to borrow half a cup of sugar, or a jug of milk. These small inter-actions and friendly connections stimulated a sense of community. The sharing of garden produce, small helpful deeds and kindnesses, borrowing and returning, nourished human relationships, friendships and neighbourhoods, fostering small societies, and creating villages within villages.

And back then there were plentiful bus services and little local railway branch lines, so people didn’t need cars. It was easy to move from village to town, or town to city on reliable public transport, and there were no roads clogged up with parked cars or traffic jams of weary people. I don’t remember pollution either…

When we all get down to the serious business of becoming carbon free, and relinquishing our right to car ownership, maybe the powers that be will re-instate these antiquated forms of transport. The one thing I do hope no-one suggests, be they government agencies or climate campaigners, is to use a horse and trap, or other animals as beasts of burden. The blessing of the motor car was that we gave up exploiting animals to get us around, flogging them to death, with overwork or not enough food.

Yet at the moment we still seem to have a mind-set which involves the right to own our own transport. The car industry estimates that there are 1.3 billion cars on the road at the moment and projections rise to two billion by 2035. Cars are a passion, both in the first world and the third world, and technology is forever coming up with new ideas for a driving future. Yet all this effort, which is now going in the direction of self-driving electric cars, seem self-defeating to me, since each such vehicle requires the equivalent of 40 desk top PC’s in energy consumption for the computer brain. Then there’s the energy needed for the battery. So much for reducing carbon emissions.

Maybe the challenge of tackling transport, climate change, pollution, the plague of plastic and all the other problems of our wasteful throwaway and over packaged society is to find a way of life which is as simple as the one I remember. It was a way of life in which we lived ‘care-fully’, buying food in small amounts so we had no wastage, a way of life in which we used public transport and helped each other in small, kind and ‘care-full ways’. ‘Small is Beautiful’, Schumacher’s creed, now overtaken by globalism, may be the answer to the huge problems of over-consumption, wasteful habits and huge soul-less cities, whether buying the family groceries, owning a car, or finding a happy home.

A Guardian article some years ago wrote that; ‘Schumacher warned against exactly the issues we are now dealing with as levels of mental illness – depression, anxiety, panic attacks, stress – rise and the World Health Organisation predicts that depression will be the second most common health problem in western developed nations by 2020.This was what Schumacher feared, and his answer was “small is beautiful”.’

Schumacher’s thesis was that we should go back to the human scale: human needs and human relationships. He felt that from that small scale would spring the ethical response of stewardship to the environment.

And as we re-create such small kind communities, I’d be grateful if we could also solve the plastic crisis, and mountains of resulting rubbish. The wasted hours spent tackling the menace of packaging could be used for so many other small and beautiful pleasures. Dwight Eisenhower once remarked that in his childhood, “Our pleasures were simple – they included survival”. That could well be the case in the future.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Though I love leftovers, leftover slices of slices of breast from a roast chicken can be boring. My way round this last night was to combine leftover mushrooms, cooked in garlic, cream and parsley, with the chicken. To top up this mix, I added more garlic and parsley, and the essence poured off from the hot chicken the day before. A little cream to make it thick and delicious, and the chicken was transformed. Eaten with mashed potatoes, peas and fresh spring asparagus it was as good as the original roasted chicken.

 

 

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Filed under cookery/recipes, environment, happiness, philosophy, pollution, sustainability, technology, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, village life

What’s wrong with a stiff upper lip?

war  The East End of London during the Bitz. The woman on the right lived in the bombed building opposite. Their food was cooked on a campfire in the basement.

 

Victors or victims? These thoughts came to me when I chanced upon these words in a book I’d written some time ago.

“I’ve been re-reading Robert Massie’s ‘Dreadnought’ very slowly, trying to take in and remember all the detail. As I worked my way through all the biographical stuff on the various late Victorian and Edwardian English statesmen of the period, I began to notice a rather surprising pattern – which was not repeated in the biographies of their German counterparts.

“It began with an account of the great Lord Salisbury’s childhood, and how he survived his mother’s death before he was ten and the indifference and hostility of his father who thought he was hopeless. Then there was his brilliant and equally successful nephew, Arthur Balfour, who also became prime minister like his uncle. Balfour’s father died when he was seven, and his highly-strung mother Blanche struggled to bring up a large family alone.

“ Herbert Asquith, another prime minister of that time, grew up in an impoverished solo parent home after his father died when he was eight, of a twisted intestine after a village cricket match. My favourite statesman of the period, Sir Edward Grey (“ the lights are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”), was also fatherless by the age of eight, while Admiral Jackie Fisher, the great mover and shaker of the navy, was sent back from Ceylon at the age of six, never to see his father again, who died when he was sixteen, and Fisher was an adult before seeing his indigent and disinterested mother again.

“Winston Churchill’s childhood was famously deprived, brought up by his nanny, deprived of her when sent to boarding school at eight, and writing letters begging his parents to come and see him – they never did. On one occasion his mother, a famous beauty, returned his letter after reading one page. She required him to write to her in French, and she told him his French was so appalling, she had no intention of reading any further. The emotional deprivation and abuse he suffered is legendary, yet not he, nor any of the others, ever made excuses that the challenges of their childhoods interfered with living a useful constructive life. They lived lives full of achievement, unhampered by chips on their shoulders, theories of deprivation and emotional maladjustment or of feeling victim.

“It was much the same with an earlier hero, the great philanthropist Lord Shaftesbury, who among many other causes, stopped the employment of children as young as five in coal mines. He also opened Ragged Schools for slum children, opposed vivisection, and stopped climbing boys being sent up hot sooty chimneys from the age of five onwards, (small boys, because only small boys could squeeze up the chimneys to clean them).

“Like Churchill, he too was neglected and emotionally deprived by his hostile parents, and the only love he received as a child was also from his nanny, Maria Mills, who died when he was nine. Then there was wonderful William Wilberforce, orphaned at nine when his father died, and a year later sent to live with relatives. These men also endured dreadful years at bullying, inhumane schools.

“Yet in spite of all the angst we hear now, about children of single parents being handicapped in the so-called race of life, these people all achieved great things, and apart from Balfour, who never married, all had loving marriages too. Was it because the communities they grew up in were united by values, principles and religion? They also all believed in a Divine Source to sustain them, and perhaps just as important, their sole parent usually had no money worries, so that they were properly educated and thus equipped to make their way.”

During the years I was a solo parent, I was constantly coming up against the stereotype of one parent children being handicapped or deprived, which caused me much heart-ache. This lasted until my son’s teacher, a solo parent herself, asserted that many of the children in her class came from dysfunctional two-parent families, and that loved children with a sane intelligent mother were the lucky ones. I took her at her word.

One of the common features of these men and others, was that they were the possessors of that much maligned British stiff upper lip. I may even have possessed one myself. Laugh and the world laughs with you, weep and you weep alone, was always in my mind, as I navigated disasters that sometimes felt overwhelming.

When I was at boarding school, several of my friends has been passengers on the troopship Empire Windrush when it caught fire in the Mediterranean and sank.  They only referred to it in terms of having lost all their clothes and possessions. Recently I Googled the Windrush, and found several newsreels about the disaster. On them is recorded the amazing behaviour of all the women and children as well as the military wounded and servicemen from Korea.

The electricity was affected by the fire, so the life boats couldn’t be lowered and were eventually dropped into the sea. Neither could the intercom work, so all the passengers had to be awakened at 6.30 and they climbed off the ship into the life boats in their dressing gowns and pyjamas.

I watched moving newsreels of mothers holding their babies, children holding the hands of toddlers, all in their night clothes, climbing off a rescue ship which conveyed them to Tangiers. They walked in a quiet orderly procession along the dock, no tears, no hysterics, just calmly disciplined. No panic, no fuss, just that wonderful stiff upper lip as all ages coped efficiently and courageously. This was the story my school friends had omitted to tell when they mentioned in a matter of fact way that they’d lost all their possessions when their ship caught fire on their way home from the East.

That same stiff upper lip was what carried my parent’s generation through the second world war, living through perils and dangers, deprivation and destruction. The bombing, sleeplessness from air-raids, invasion fears, stern rationing, black outs, no petrol for travel, working in factories, on the land, in the army and the navy and air force in horrendous conditions, families traumatised by years of separation and sometimes death in battle, or at sea, or in the air, and the nightmares and undiagnosed PTSD, all had to be endured and survived.

No tranquillisers, anti-depressants, therapists or other emotional support were available. Cigarettes were the nearest thing! They didn’t see themselves as victims, both civilians and servicemen just stoically soldiered on for six years until they achieved victory.

It was another Edwardian, Captain Scott of the Antarctic who famously gave voice to the stoicism and courage which is disguised by that stiff upper lip. Once a hero, then derided by revisionist historians, he has had his reputation restored to heroic status recently, by the advances of science.

Researchers and modern scientists have discovered that when the dog teams with food  failed to rendezvous in spite of Scott’s written orders, his party were abandoned in the ten-day Antarctic winter blizzard. Scott and his men perished in a blizzard which was a once in a thousand-year event and the cold was colder than anyone had ever experienced, – 40 degrees Fahrenheit, too cold for human beings to survive in.

As he lay dying in his snow bound tent, the others already dead, Captain Scott wrote the immortal words in which he took full responsibility for their fate – never complaining, never making excuses, never wallowing in self-pity.

He didn’t see himself as a victim. Instead he wrote: “We took risks, we knew we took them: things have come out against us and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined to do our best to the last”.

The difference between being a victor or a victim is simply a change of perspective. When we can accept that the choices we made, have brought us to this point (and some believe that these choices were made before we returned to this plane of existence), we can see the events of our lives from a different perspective.

We can choose to see our lives through a different lens. The quickest way to shift from the misery of self-pity and victim-hood, to the freedom of accepting responsibility, is to begin to feel grateful for our life, the highs and the lows, knowing there is a point or a purpose to all challenges. We may not see them straight away but when we look back, we see there are no accidents and no mis-steps. We can see that all our actions and decisions have led us to this point.

English House and Garden magazine editor, Sue Crewe began keeping a daily gratitude diary after a period of heartbreak in her life. Every day she listed five things. Some years later she wrote:

‘The most transformative revelation is the power of gratitude itself: it takes up so much room that everything coercive and depressing is squeezed to the margins. It seems to push out resentment, fear, envy, self-pity and all the other ugly sentiments that bring you down, leaving room for serenity, contentment and optimism to take up residence.’

What a glorious way to live life.

Food for threadbare gourmets

Potatoes without butter are not the same… mashed potatoes, potatoes baked in their jackets, potatoes baked in cream, new potatoes anointed with melted butter… what is a potato without butter or cream?

The answer is potatoes cooked the way I’ve discovered! Simply cube them, peeled or unpeeled -not too small, about three-quarters of an inch squarish. Boil them till soft but still firm. Drain, and tip flour over them. Put the lid back on the pan, and toss the potatoes in the flour before frying batches in hot oil. When crisp, drain them on kitchen paper as you tackle each batch, and keep them warm. They end up crisp outside and soft inside. Serve these delicious crisp morsels with sea-salt, and chicken, sausages or whatever takes your fancy.

P.S. For an extraordinary story of courage and stiff upper lip, GP Cox’s blog today, about Mrs Ruby Boye in the Pacific War takes some beating.

 

 

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Filed under cookery/recipes, happiness, history, life and death, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, world war two

Castaway Books

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I sometimes torture myself by imagining I’m on a desert island and can only take ten books with me. I look around at the walls of book-shelves  in the sitting room and bedroom and spare room, and wonder how to whittle them down to the ten most treasured books I wouldn’t want to be without.

As in the BBC radio programme, no Shakespeare or the Bible allowed, though I’d be sad to let the Bible go – not for religious reasons – but for the sheer poetry of the prose and the beauty of so much of the writing, for some of the stories embedded in the teachings… like the story of Ruth for example, or the Song of Solomon… and the Beatitudes, and ringing phrases like: ‘I am as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal if I have not charity’ .. or the exquisite words of Psalms like 139, which ends with: ‘…’if I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall thy hand find me, and thy right hand shall hold me’.

But having surrendered the Bible what would I take? Bernadine Evaristo, this year’s Booker prize-winner, says she hates Jane Austen and Virginia Wolfe… but while l’d agree about Virginia, as an afficionado who used to read Jane Austen’s six novels once a year, I’d have to disagree with her findings on Jane. (Real Austen fans are called Janeites. I once wrote a piece for an anthology of raves about Jane Austen, and attending the book launch party was somewhat bemused to find myself among some fans wearing long Regency dresses, and sporting shawls and fans)

Which of the six would I take? No contest. In my younger days, I’d have plumped for ‘Pride and Prejudice’… or ‘Persuasion.’ But now I’d go for ‘Mansfield Park’ which I used to think was the dullest of her books. Now it’s my favourite. I love the picture of Georgian country life, the amateur theatricals with all the tensions and emotional turmoil, and the irritating, contradictory and sparkling array of people, especially the two villains, who’re the most attractive characters in the book. But most of all, I love that picture of elegant English country life in my favourite period of history before the Industrial Revolution, when squalor and hardship and smoking factory chimneys had not altered forever a peaceful pastoral society.  (Even if they didn’t have good dentists).

To balance that picture of aristocratic country life I’d take Thomas Hardy’s ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’, my favourite of all his books, crammed with authentic country lore and farming custom, just slightly later in time that Austen’s novel.

And to round off this wallowing in homesickness for another time and place while on that desert island, I’d take George Eliot’s tome, ‘Middlemarch’, a great book described by the despised Virginia as  ‘the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels for grown-up people.’

It’s a huge canvas describing with acute psychological insight many typical characters of both town and country in early Victorian England. For me, it’s a picture not just about English town life of that period, but a profound study of character, both shallow and profound, of good and evil in the shape of materialism, and of the compromises demanded by society. So, nostalgia and homesickness sorted – there’s several more choices to go.

Top of the list would be Barbara Tuchman’s splendid history, ‘The Guns of August’, an account of the first ten days of WW1, but fleshed out with vivid and witty accounts of how Europe got to that point, and an analysis of the main protagonists… fascinating history, accurate psychology, and telling insights, all delivered with wit and humour, so that often I find myself chuckling as we traverse the terrible terrain of one of the great turning points in the history of Europe.

I would have to take ‘The Snow Leopard’ with me, by Peter Matthiesson. It’s the story of his journey into the remotest regions of the Himalayas on his search for the then almost never seen and legendary snow leopard. It’s a many layered tale with deep spiritual undertones, and read like all these other books, many, many times.

Getting a bit panicky now, with only three more choices to go. I think I’ll reach for Truman Capote’s story of love and war, ‘The Grass Harp’. It’s told with deceptive simplicity, the characters utterly loveable, and gloriously eccentric as despair drives them to desperate measures. They are the odd ones out, who finally step outside the norms of society to assert their individuality, and when they say what they feel, they slice through the hypocrisies and cruelty of narrow-minded small-town officialdom.

I love diaries and have a huge collection of them, ranging across time, from seventeenth century Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn in Charles 11 reign, to Georgian Parson Woodford and Parson Gilbert White, Victorian Francis Kilvert, through to the two world wars, to the randy diaries of Alan Clark, the notorious womaniser and politician, and the delicious, hilariously funny fictional diaries of Adrian Mole, my favourite being ‘Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass- Destruction.

I toyed with the last of the Bloomsberry’s, Frances Partridge’s  ‘A Pacifist’s War’, her diary filled with details of an idyllic life in the beautiful country house where the painter Carrington lived with writer Lytton Strachey before his death and her suicide. Her war years are peopled with a stream of intriguing/incestuous Bloomsberry illuminati who came and feasted with Ralph Partridge and Frances while dwelling on their moral high-ground as conscientious objectors.

I decided on something more uplifting. Inspiring integrity was what I was looking for. Should I take Alanbrooke’s war-time diaries, or Cadogan’s account of appeasement and diplomacy before and during the war, or Klemperer’s diary chronicling the terror of the Nazis, and his worry about the fate of his beloved cat? It finally had to be put down when Jews were no longer allowed to keep pets. Klemperer, a distinguished university professor, ended up in the bombing of Dresden which allowed his wife and he to disappear in the chaos, the only positive thing I’ve heard about that raid.

No… I finally settled on the two volumes of John Colville’s diaries. He was Churchill’s private secretary during the war, and the parade of kings, queens, statesmen and generals, society ladies and foreign diplomates makes absorbing reading, quite apart from the affectionate and admiring portrait of the great man himself.

Throughout the cliff-edge years of war, Churchill is revealed as an irascible but brilliant, kind, intelligent and chivalrous aristocrat in the best sense of those words, without a trace of snobbery or small mindedness. Perhaps too original and spontaneous to be described in conventional terms as a gentleman, he emerges as a magnificent human being who poured his huge stores of energy, humanity and vision into his country and the struggle against one of the greatest tyrannies in history.

The last and tenth book is a tantalising choice, trying to choose between two of my favourite diaries. ‘Mrs Milburn’s Diary’ is written by a woman with no literary talent, but an abiding love for her only son, who was captured before Dunkirk and endured POW camp for the rest of the war. Her letters sent via the Red Cross, and his to her were usually months old by the time they reached their destination, so she began writing a diary chronicling life in his home and family and community.

It’s a prosaic day to day telling about the price of woollen vests going up, the annoying man at Matins every week who coughs all the way through and ruins the service, the evacuees who stay briefly, the long cold nights sitting in their primitive underground air raid shelter in the garden – doubly important to them-  as they lived in the country outside Coventry, and lost many friends in the catastrophic bombing raid which destroyed that city. It’s an insight into a way of life now gone… when, even during the war, she picked primroses every spring in the woods, packing them up in damp cotton wool and sending them to friends in the city.

She records the routines of church going, weekly shopping, Mother’s Union meetings, working for the WVS (Women’s Voluntary Service) dealing with the erratic gardener, the feckless land girls, a chaste glass of sherry shared with old friends. The annual rhythms of the seasons’ rituals celebrate a slice of civilisation which had its own small satisfactions, sorrows and minor victories.

Or, do I go for ‘Burning,’ a diary of a year living in the Blue Mountains in Australia? Kate Llewellyn is a poet, and her book is crammed with exquisite metaphors and similes, quirky people, precious moments of beauty, meditations on history, recipes, travels and gardening. I read it often, not just for the drama of human tragedy and pain which also takes place during that year, but for the sheer beauty of the writing.

As CS Lewis observed, ‘we do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties’. He also suggested that someone who only reads a book once is ‘unliterary’, whatever that means! But I certainly agree with him on both counts when he says “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”

So I can’t decide between these two life stories – regularly ‘savoured’, and will beg my invisible and sadistic inner voice to let me have them both… to have whittled down my choices to eleven from hundreds of books is no mean feat, which meant leaving out precious favourites like Leigh-Fermor’s ‘A Time of Gifts’, his vivid description of European civilisation before the Nazis destroyed it

As I mulled over this imaginary exercise, and visualised myself roaming a tropical paradise, alone like Robinson Crusoe, I realised that by choosing a handful of books to be my companions in this solitary life, I wasn’t using any carbon footprint, and many of the books were recycled – bought from second-hand bookshops around the world via the internet, or acquired from op-shops and the like.

Many of them of them too, like Capote’s ‘The Grass Harp’, I’ve owned since the sixties, and are worn from regular loving re-readings when I savoured every aspect of the writing and the human condition. In a book on educating children read in the seventies, I found a wonderful thought, that literature is the logbook of human experience, and that’s how it seems to me too.

For this solitary island existence, Christopher Morley, an American writer, gave me words that seem particularly apt: ‘when you get a new book, you get a new life –love and friendship and humour and ships at sea at night -… all heaven and earth in a book.’

The written word survives e-books, the internet, texting and all the other apparent advantages of technology. It has been with us from the earliest times, when the Sumerian civilisation evolved writing around 3,000 BC, and the first literature was created by a Sumerian author a thousand years later. Books and words may be the one blessing and means of communication that survive in the aeons to come.

Books will always be the ‘log-book of human experience’, and can hand on the riches of our civilisation to generations still unborn. And for the present, they can be a comfort, a companion and a treasure. They inform and educate, amuse, console, entertain and inspire. They are indispensable and irreplaceable. They make life on a desert island bearable!

Food for Threadbare gourmets

We’re living dairy free at the moment for various reasons, and I discovered to my delight that it’s perfectly possible to make a decent white sauce using olive oil instead of butter.

So using the juices from a roasted chicken from the night before, I made a rechauffe… fried some chopped bacon and mushrooms, made the sauce, and stirred a bouillon cube and the chopped cooked chicken, bacon and mushrooms into it. Flavoured the mix with salt, pepper and nutmeg, and served it on rice.

To cheer up the plain boiled rice, I fried a grated courgette in olive oil and garlic, plenty of salt and pepper and stirred it into the rice. We ate it all with green beans and didn’t miss the cream or milk at all!

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May only love prevail!

lion lovr

I try not to hate. But I do hate experiments on animals. Reading a dying girl’s account of her last months, and the things which sustained her, I came across this story. It was an experiment on animals, and horrible though it was, it gave me food for thought, and some real joy, as it did her.

Healthy laboratory rats were being injected/ infected with cancer, in order to test a cure, but the researchers were puzzled that one batch of rats remained healthy. Investigating the rat’s life cycle to discover why they were immune to cancer, they asked the laboratory technician looking after them what their routines were. He told that them before he fed each rat, he couldn’t resist cuddling and stroking them.

So, these intelligent, lovely creatures, experiencing love, were able to resist deadly infection. I’ve thought a lot about love since, and what it means and how it manifests itself in all creatures and all forms of life.

It’s that time of year here, when the calves have been born, and their mothers demonstrate the same sort of mother love that our supposedly superior species do too. When the calves are born, the mother cow washes them and nuzzles them, and the washing and nuzzling and warm contact – love – is vital to keep them alive and anchor them in this world. The mothers feed them, and they nurture them. And when the calf is taken from them after a few days, depending on the farmer’s routines or whims, they grieve terribly, their bellows of pain echoing across the fields.

Thanks to this annual ordeal we are able to enjoy milk and butter and cheese, and thereby keep up our calcium levels and build strong bones. Being human is a terrible dilemma, where compassion is at war with what we perceive to be our needs or our enjoyment.

The intelligence and life force in everything around us is a constant miracle to me. I read today that plants, which all have their own individual scents, emit a warning smell to all plants around them when they’ve been attacked by a snail or an insect nibbling a morsel out of a leaf. And though all plant species have their unique scent, this warning scent they send out is the same for all different species… an amazing, intelligent and altruistic response to danger… Could Kant argue against altruism in plants as he did in human beings? I think not, there’s no advantage to a plant to warn fellow plants of all kinds, that they should beware… it must be pure love…

Loving plants! I think of trees, how scientist have discovered that the biggest, mother tree, apparently communicates with other younger trees around her, via fungi spores, and how dying trees send their energy along the spores to other healthy trees, a legacy of love from a dying tree.

And getting back to snails, the enemy of gardeners, and delicious delight to gourmets – we under-rate their feelings and intelligence as we do every other living thing except ourselves. I’ve been re-reading Elizabeth Luard’s book about bringing up her family in Spain and Provence, a medley of recipes and rich experiences.

A carnivore as well as afficionado of the bull fight, she unashamedly ate what the local people eat, with no scruples. So in the Languedoc, she and her children gathered snails by the bucket full, and then starved them for a few days on just a few herbs like thyme and rosemary, to clear their digestive system. But snails ain’t stoopid!

She described countless mornings coming downstairs into the kitchen, to find the snails had banded together in a concerted effort, lifted the bucket lid and escaped. ‘Snail break-out!’ she’d call and the household would tumble downstairs to search for the clever little gastropods.

Snails are altruistic too. I once read of two snails being observed in a garden with very poor pickings for a snail. One of them was sick, and the other seemed to abandon it by climbing the garden wall and finding a healthier environment down below. But he came back and accompanied the sick snail to greener healthier pastures. Which leads me to believe that snails can communicate with each other, and feel kindness and responsibility to a fellow snail! Maternal mother snails lay their eggs in little clumps, and visit them regularly until they hatch.

Though it seems amazing to read of solving the riddles of outer space, I find the incredible miracle of life on earth even more amazing, and I know that at this moment, our understanding of it is only scratching the surface of all that is underfoot and all around.

For so long homo sapiens has claimed superiority over all the earth’s creatures, and not just those who read Genesis which tells us we have dominion over all creatures… Buddhism seems to be one of the few creeds which honours other forms of life. While so-called philosophers like Descartes have encouraged mankind to ignore the feelings of animals and given us carte blanche to treat them as though they are mindless unfeeling machines.

Yet the beauty, the intelligence, the goodness, the love and the life in the whole of creation, is, it seems to me, reason for admitting that all creatures are equal in the sight of the Creator, the Source, or whatever we want to call the First Cause. (Reading of the way women are treated in some countries and some cultures, I feel the same about them too.)

One of the most powerful images of love is that of Christian the lion, racing down the African hill-side to leap into the arms of the two men who had brought him up, to hug them and lick them. The men had bought him from Harrods, and he lived with them in London until they were able to re-wild him as a teenager, with the help of George Adamson. It was a dreadful wrench to leave him in Africa and return to London, and they went back to visit him a year later. Christian saw and recognised them from afar, and crying and making heartfelt noises, tore down the hill to be re-united with the people he loved.

Sometime later, when they returned again, Christian had a wife and cubs, and led his two former guardians into the wild to meet them. The two men sat there quietly all day in the hot sun among the rocks with Christian and his wife and children, the very picture of Edward Hicks’ painting of ’The Peacable Kingdom. ‘

Over the years our family lived with fifteen rescued dogs, three at a time. They were all breeds, two afghans, boxer, cavalier King Charles spaniels (six), borzoi, labrador, bull mastiff, salukis. We also had several dogs who were ‘chosen’, not rescued, and much as I loved them, there was a particular quality about the love our rescued dogs gave us… it was as though they never forgot their past, and were utterly devoted to us who were their new owners. It always seemed wrong to say we owned them – we cared for them.

The gifts of love they gave us meant that the house seemed always to be brimming with love and fun, the same sort of love and fun which fills a house with toddlers in it. And when I read of experiments when different bowls of rice are treated to indifference, or interest – one ignored, the others greeted – and the subsequent decay of the ignored rice, and flourishing health of the others, it sends a powerful message.

It tells me that love is behind all life. Indifference is the opposite of love and is a killer. But love gives life, and health and hope. Scientific experiments have shown us that the observer can change the behaviour of what is observed, so maybe loving thoughts are as powerful as loving deeds. Maybe the rats would have survived the experiments supposed to make them ill, if they had just sensed and felt that the lab technician loved them.

This thought encourages me to use that lovely mantra: ‘may only love prevail’, in all circumstances, even when someone has stolen my parking place or overtaken me dangerously! Love your enemies said a great Teacher… I think I begin to understand what He was talking about.

I also love food… and for many of us cooking is a tangible way of loving our loved ones. I’m always looking for new ways to cook for my loved ones, and the other day hit the jackpot with a super-easy way of cooking organic chicken thighs…saute in butter and set aside. Pour a glass of wine into the pan, a generous teaspoon each of Dijon mustard and whole grain mustard. Boil them up, add a cup or more of cream, heat it, and pour over the chicken with salt and pepper. Cook in a moderate oven for half an hour or until tender.

We ate it with plain boiled rice and spinach – it was good. With the one piece left and some of the leftover cream, I made quick cream of chicken soup for a light lunch the next day, while Himself enjoyed something more substantial.

I added a chopped leek sauted in butter, some garlic, and half a tin of condensed chicken soup. With a chicken stock cube, boiled and whizzed smooth, a dollop of cream and some nutmeg, it was a treat. As Orson Welles advised “Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.”

 

 

 

 

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A merrier world and a beautiful one

 

Tropical islands poised to benefit from ocean power

The story of a sixteen-year old fighting climate change always moves and excites and inspires me.

Jadav Payeng has been planting a forest single-handedly since 1979 when he saw a pile of dead snakes and realised they had died for lack of both water and shade. Jadav Payeng, the son of a poor buffalo trader from a marginalized tribal community in the region of Assam, India, is now a poor farmer; but he has let nothing stand in the way of the task he set himself. He’s planted a tree a day in the forty years ever since. Elephants and tigers and all the indigenous wild life of the area have returned and are inhabitants of the forest he’s planted, which is now bigger than Central Park in New York.

I can’t help contrasting his story with the story of another sixteen-year old, an angry frightened Swedish teenager.

As I watched her speaking at the UN, I wondered, not for the first time, where her parents were to protect her, and also to help her to get some balance… yes, climate change is real, but no-one has stolen her childhood, living in a privileged western society like Sweden. While on the other hand, millions of children elsewhere are starving, enslaved and truly hopeless, and the millions of us in WW2 and other times, as well as children growing up in fear of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, could claim to have had our childhoods stolen… except that self- pity and blame gets us nowhere!!!

And it isn’t just climate change which is a problem for the future… we face polluted oceans, destruction of the world’s forests, over-population, the extinction of other living species, and many other pressing issues. Yet the future is not actually all doom and gloom, and I wish someone would help Greta see the other side of the story.

After watching a video called 13 Misconceptions about Climate Change, I began to feel a lot better about the future, while there are other signs of progress which make me feel truly hopeful.

For starters, there’s the so-called destruction of Pacific Islands by the rising ocean, which the UN Secretary General described when he spoke after Greta at the UN. Actually, the story of the Pacific Islands is fascinating. A research team, which included a professor from Auckland University, have been studying the problem, and their findings show the gloomy forecast of flooding and inundation is unjustified.

Previous research by the team, which used aerial photos going back as far as 1943 to track changes to the 101 islands that make up the Tuvalu archipelago, found that overall there was a net gain in land area of 2.9 percent or 73.5ha over the past 40 years.

They found that the height of the atolls increased at the same time as the rising water, that sand and sediment shifted as the atolls responded to the environmental changes: that the elevation of the atoll crest – the highest ground – mirrored the rise in sea levels, which suggests sea level may be an important controlling factor on island elevation.

Co-researcher Dr Murray Ford, also from the University of Auckland, says the study shows islands are more resilient than previously thought, able to change shape or physically adjust to higher sea levels and more severe storms.

Then there’s the Great Green Wall of China where they are planting an area of forest bigger than Ireland every year, and have drafted in 60,000 soldiers to help with the planting. While they have had their problems and are still working on them, the project is heartening, while all the re-wilding and regeneration going on in England, Scotland, Denmark, Spain and other European countries is setting a new paradigm.

Great tracts of land are being returned to their ancient state – at Knepp Farm in Kent for instance, they’ve pulled up all the fences, sold all the farm machinery, and introduced as many original species onto the land as possible. No aurochs now, which used to roam the land in Neolithic times, so they introduced the nearest thing – long horn cattle, Exmoor ponies instead of wild horses to keep too many trees from spreading, three species of deer and pigs. Nature designed each animal to have its own function, they all graze differently, while the pigs rootling in the hard clay soil open up spaces for seeds to germinate. The results of this system include improving soil quality, flood control, water purification and pollination.

Rare bats, birds, butterflies, insects, flowers, fish, which haven’t been seen for centuries, are returning to this paradise, only a short way from London. The cattle are gently led – no violence being chased by dogs or motorbikes to round them up – and culled and sold as the highest quality meat, so there is no over-grazing in what is still an enclosed space, with other traditional farms around, hemming them in. This was the mistake made in the celebrated Netherlands project, where the animals flourished so well that in a hard winter many died from starvation, so now some animals have to be culled to maintain the health of the others.

As the years have gone by at Knepp Farm, swamps and wetland have returned, trees and scrub and rare wild flowers have spread, birds sing, butterflies dance over blossoms, and the whole area exudes a sense of calm and beauty. Glamping has become an off-shoot of this wonderful experiment.

The famous return of wolves to Yellowstone Park has shown that by introducing the top predator, the whole ecosystem can heal and regenerate. Rumania has one of the last and biggest swathes of forest, where vast areas are flourishing with all the wild creatures roaming, , which have disappeared elsewhere in Europe, and though during the Communist rule the forests began to be logged, they are now protected.

In Scotland where a number of philanthropists and trusts have bought up huge areas of land, they are re-wilding or regenerating the land in other ways…John Muir, of the John Muir Trust, one of the largest landowners, said that: ‘thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity’. This is why of course, that eco-tourism is on the rise which may or may not be a good thing, with concern over carbon footprints.

Modern factory farming, with all the attendant soil erosion, animal cruelty, chemical poisoning through the use of herbicides, pesticides, and anti-biotics, and water degradation, is also being addressed by dedicated experts. In the wonderful half hour documentary called ‘Unbroken Ground’ we learn of efforts to breed strains of grain which don’t require annual re-planting with the resultant ploughing and soil loss. Another farmer has transformed the over-grazed barren waste of his land caused by cattle grazing, by introducing bison, the original inhabitants, and their presence has restored the eco-system, while their meat is organic and unsullied by anti-biotics or other modern methods of increasing yield.

In fact, farming like this turns out to be more productive than modern farming methods, while respecting the land and the animals. All over the world farmers are taking up ‘re-generative farming’, letting the land dictate the results, allowing trees to grow for shade for animals and to prevent soil erosion, increase the world’s stock of trees, and as a by-product make the land both beautiful and productive.

This method of farming aims for topsoil regeneration, increasing biodiversity, improving the water cycle, enhancing eco-system services, increasing resilience to climate change, and strengthening the health and vitality of farm soil.

And even fishing is being tackled by one co-operative fishing company on Lummi Island in the States. They’ve perfected a way of catching salmon without stress, returning the unwanted catch to the sea unharmed, and treating the salmon with gentleness and respect. Now that scientists have proved what many of us have always believed, that fish can feel pain, it’s a great step forward to see that fishing can be humane; and perhaps in our brave new world, we will see this respect and care for all living things, including our planet, penetrate the consciousness of us all.

This revolution in our thinking towards the world can start at home. In small town gardens and plots, where gardeners grow native species, or plants that attract bees, or birds, they create tiny oases in urban deserts. A balcony or a window box, a bird feeder or a bowl of fresh water can attract insect and bird life, and even leaving dandelions to flower, the bees favourite food, is a small gift to the planet. We don’t need a farm or acres of land to do what we can to nurture nature. Some people plant road-sides, railway embankments and waste land in cities… sometimes they’re called guerrilla gardeners, and they are among the unsung saviours of the planet.

So if I could speak to sad and anxious sixteen year old Greta, I would give her the words of Max Ehrman in Desiderata:

“Go placidly amid the noise and the haste … Speak your truth quietly and clearly…  And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore, be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”

The beauty is a gift, but happiness is a decision I sometimes think… remembering the words of the anarchic Monty Python gang in The Life of Brian – always look on the bright side of things! And much happiness for me is to be found chopping and stirring and beating and eating in the kitchen… hence our Tuscan binge after reading Frances Mayes…’Giusi’s hen, hunter style’ was our first go at peasant cooking, and not having the guinea fowl required in the recipe I used eight boneless chicken breasts. We started with ‘odori’, which is a base made of two carrots, two stalks of celery, one onion, 2 cloves of garlic, and parsley. Chop them finely, saute in olive oil and put aside.

Saute the chicken for ten minutes, add salt and pepper and the odori. When the mix looks golden, pour in a glass of white wine. When it’s almost evaporated add two cups of tomato sauce and cook slowly for another twenty minutes. I took the advice and let it sit until the next day.

There was enough for two meals, the first we ate with creamy mashed potatoes, and the next day with pasta, accompanied by green beans – and of course a glass of good wine.

Being inclined to short cuts these days I used grated garlic in a jar, and a tin of tomatoes. It still seemed pretty delicious even with these non-Tuscan deviations!  And as that wise old man Tolkien once said:” If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Light footfalls in the Forest

dresser.jpg

I’m back… after a lull and a few health issues, can’t resist coming back to blogging. I’ve kept up with reading all my old friends, under the radar, and am up with the play on the health and antics of various cats and dogs and pigs, and people! And thanks to the magic of technology, the internet has kept me up to date on the strange happenings around the world. I hesitate to put a name to the events which fill today’s headlines.

Here in our remote rainforest, politics and pollution, carbon footprints and climate change feel a long way away. Though I did calculate our carbon footprint today, and since we make one trip into town a week, amounting to fifty kilometres, catch our own water from the roof, and purify it, don’t waste water since we have a compost toilet, build our house with re-cycled windows, doors, kitchen bench, neighbour’s cast-off extractor hood and other donations, and only use electricity for heating, our footprint is fairly light.

D, my love, has used skateboard wheels to create a sliding door which purrs every time it’s opened, while a steel knitting needle and some big beads from a necklace have been used to fashion a light fitting that can be adjusted and moved above the dining table depending how many guests we have. He’s made exquisite sounding bells from divers cast off tanks which function as warning bells for us, and become presents for the people who are enchanted with the sound of the bells, and want one too.

A friend gave us an unwanted Italian stone plinth which, with a great, perfectly round concrete ball cast by D for me for Christmas, has become the focal point of my new garden; another friend delivered a ten foot pallet he wanted to dispose of, which has, with a few extra pieces of wood nailed on, become an elegant trellis barrier painted black and swathed in white wisteria, honeysuckle and star jasmine, dividing drive from garden.

Along the top of the trellis are ranged a row of perfect round black balls. They were once the feet of an armoire, and so ugly that I had them cut off, and have carted them around for the last nineteen years, hoping to find a use for them someday. That day has arrived. Painted black, and augmented with a big central one made by D, they have come into their own. The honeysuckle was grown from cuttings taken from the side of the road. The stubs of used candles are melted down and blended together to make candles for the storm lanterns down the drive when friends visit.

Arum lilies, dug up from a field at a friend’s farm, and roses grown from cuttings, fill the urns and pots, and on finding half a dozen miniature pink buckets in an op shop, I filled with them with pink cyclamens and lined them up on the steps to the house. I fill any gaps in the garden with big white marguerite daisies grown from cuttings – the original plant I bought back in 2003, and have kept supplies of these generous sized daisies ever since. At this moment in the porch are twenty- four flourishing little green rootlets waiting to be transferred to wherever they are needed. Ivy cuttings are also rooting quietly after a walk past an overgrown wall.

A raised vegetable garden is the next step… to be tackled when D has finished inserting two beautiful coloured lead light windows into the bathroom wall which looks out into the forest. They came from a dresser we bought for a song at the local rubbish tip shop. The hinges on the doors and handles would have cost more than we paid for the whole dresser if he had bought them new, D says.

And as well as the hardware, we have the lead light doors to the cupboard now transformed into windows, and the bottom shelves, divested of doors, painted white and flossied up with a bit of moulding, matching another sturdy bookshelf the other side of the room.

The satisfaction of this way of life is immense. Though we are surrounded in the forest by splendid architect designed dwellings furnished with architect-speak fashionable furniture, black leather Mies van der Rohe-like loungers, cow-hide rugs, low backed sofas, I am unmoved by this elegance. I still love my ancient seven-foot sofa, bought from an acquaintance twenty- five years ago when it was already twenty- five years old. New feet gave it a new lease of life, and loose covers made from hemp twenty years ago are still as good as new.

My antique French Provincial arm chairs are still comfortable, even though the cat appropriated them all the years of her life, and the old painted peasant looking chest of drawers gives me as much pleasure as our walnut and rosewood antiques of yesteryear. Pretty china, rugs and cushions, lamps and books have been the same companions for the last four decades.

And books continue to find their way in. Last week it was a book on Tuscany found for a dollar at the local rubbish tip shop. It’s a big illustrated hymn to Tuscany by Frances Mayes, whose other books on finding her Italian house have always enchanted me. This one is filled with exquisite pictures, disquisitions on art and architecture,  wine, and food and recipes. She tells us that when children are born in Italy, they say they have entered the light. The poetry and beauty of this idea of emerging from the darkness of the womb into the light of the world I find very moving.

Mayes says that Italians have the lowest rate of suicide in the world. She puts it down to the contentment of living amid so much deeply satisfying beauty. She also says that Italians are very low on obesity scales compared with other countries, and she puts this down to the fact that they eat such nourishing delicious food, that they feel satisfied and don’t need to fill up with junk food and sugar treats.

So needless to say, I bustled into my kitchen, and began experimenting with her take on Tuscan food, which doesn’t rely on fancy ingredients, and at a quick glance just seems to require good olive oil, good bread, fresh vegetables, including garlic, fennel and mushrooms and devotion to good food! That devotion I have in spades.

Watch this space!

 

 

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