Monthly Archives: November 2013

The magic of a letter

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You cannot tie up an e-mail in blue ribbon and place it tenderly in a casket containing others like it, to leave for a grateful posterity to find and marvel over its touching sentiments, and even write a blog about their great-grannie and the beautiful or scandalous love letters she received!

I miss letters which aren’t bills and rates demands. There was so much more to decipher in a real letter than just words. First of all there was the paper it was written on. Cheap, thin, lined paper or coloured paper was a no-no, and spoke volumes about the taste of the unfortunate writer. Discriminating letter writers used a thick writing paper like Basildon Bond in white or pale blue. Even fussier ones tried to afford thicker, expensive, crisp, cream deckle- edged paper, bought from specialist stationers. Yes, there were shops in those days that sold nothing but high quality stationery, often beautifully boxed, and of course, fountain pens.

Fountain pens had the same competitive edge then, that an Apple or an I-Pad has now (or am I out-of date?)… sporting a gold nib, a gold hook to clip it into your suit pocket if you were a man, and a gold clip to pull back for the ink to be sucked up into the pen. You had to remember to empty it if you were flying, or the pressure caused the ink to flood out and stain the suit. I particularly loved the mottled versions, a bit like the marbled end papers on old books.

The ink had to be black or blue…green was vulgar, red was for money matters! The hand –writing was usually based back then on a form of copper-plate. From the age of six onwards, we used horrible crossed nibs from over-use, and dip pens to copy rows and rows of letters in long-hand. It was actually good hand- to- eye co-ordination in retrospect, and there was all sorts of etiquette round that too.

A capable girl named the ink monitor (never me) filled the inkwells and handed them out. The pens were shared out, and our copy books sorted. Woe be-tied the careless child (usually a tiresome boy!) who spilled his inkwell over the desk. And unless you learned to hold the pen correctly, it was impossible to actually form the letters – so you had to learn – unlike the way children hold pencils nowadays, in all sorts of strange postures.

There was a lot of un-official lore around hand-writing. We gathered that a hand that sloped backwards, showed the person was deceitful – oh dear – that when the dots to ‘I’s’ were flung wildly far from the ‘I,’ that showed the person was wildly imaginative. My dots remained firmly in place over the ‘I’s’ in my tightly controlled handwriting, which disguised the anxious persona underneath my vivacity.

I read that if a person used the word ‘ I’ more than every seven words in a sentence, this showed how egotistical they were… I wonder if that’s why it was so popular to say, “one thinks”, instead “I think.” I even had a friend who referred to herself in the third person.

Graphology, the art of reading character from hand-writing, turns out to be rather accurate in the hands of a skilled practitioner. When my brother worked for a London recruitment agency, a potential employer asked for a graphologist’s report on a possible employee.  Sceptical, my brother had his hand-writing analysed first, and was amazed when the report came back even detailing the problems he had had at birth!

But even an unskilled interpreter could enjoy the impressions that hand-writing displayed… scrawling, well-formed, exuberant – to un-readable – lots of that! Old people’s handwriting often became indecipherable, and what was always called ‘crabbed’, which seemed to mean it looked a bit spidery and wavery, thanks to arthritis.

Then there was the envelope – which had to match the writing paper, and here we come to one of writer Nancy Mitford’s famous jokes, or teases as she called them! She decreed that non-U (Non-Upper class) people called it ‘notepaper’, while the others opted for ‘writing paper’. Envelopes which displayed their owner’s regimental crest on the back were particularly prized when we were young – a symbol of the boy-friend’s status. But the fat envelopes stuffed with a thick wodge of pages of scrawl, sharing, gossip, and fun written by girl-friends were even better. They came through the letter-box, until I came to NZ, where we have boxes by the gate and I used to enjoy a stroll out to the letter-box to find these treasures.

Inside, the greeting obviously varied from dear, dearest and darling, to the more formal,’ dear sir or madam’, while the endings – here etiquette ruled with an iron hand. ‘Yours faithfully,’ and a full signature if a business letter… I think ‘yours truly’ was next in line, before getting to ‘yours sincerely’, which could be signed with full name or just Christian name depending on the level of intimacy.

No-one ever signs off: ‘I am, sir, your obedient servant’, these days or: ‘yours respectfully’, or even: ‘yours affectionately’, which rather appeals to me. And how I loved in those old romances the signing off by rejected suitors: “I beg of you to believe that now and always I am your very obedient servant to command” …those were indeed the days. Such chivalry seems dead when most of our e-mail communications seem to end either with Kind Regards – or Regards – so formal, so cold, so colourless.

Some of my favourite books are collections of letters. Will there ever be such collections again? Who keeps e-mails? Maybe some print them off or transfer them into a Keep File. But too often, it’s too easy just to hit ‘delete’ when the in-box gets too full. The one good thing about e-mails is that they’re easy to write so maybe we are in touch more often.

I had one friend whose hand-written letters were delightful puzzles. She was dyslexic and there were great and crucial gaps on every page where she’d left a space in order to go and check the spelling in the dictionary, and had then forgotten and sealed it and sent it. Dear Jackie would have loved the spell-checker… maybe she’s found a heavenly spell-checker in the land of her fathers, where she now rests in peace!

Food for threadbare gourmets

Home after another day gadding about with friends, and feeling guilty about leaving my husband with a scratch lunch, and I hadn’t planned a decent supper either. In the freezer I found some cooked pork sausages which he loves, and thought I’d better dress them up to make a decent meal. Lots of leeks gave me inspiration, and I adapted a recipe of Elizabeth Luard’s.

I sauted several large chopped leeks in butter till almost soft. I added some stock, and let it boil to finish cooking the leeks. At this stage I put the sausages into the leek mixture, then added a teasp of Dijon mustard, and a good sprinkling of nutmeg, salt and black pepper, plus plenty of cream to bubble up and thicken. Delicious, eaten with new potatoes, and green vegetables.  I was having a little cold salmon, so I used some of the leeks as a sauce with it, and that worked well too.

Food for thought

There is no greater sin than desire, no greater curse than discontent,
No greater misfortune than wanting something for oneself.
Therefore he who knows that enough is enough will always
have enough.

Lao tsu

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Am I not a man and a brother?

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My husband took one look at my ravaged face, and retreated to his study. I had just returned from seeing the film ‘The Butler.’ Instead of the gracious meander through history at the White House that I’d expected from the trailer, I had watched another episode of the American Civil War which I thought had ended in 1856.

Too appalled even for tears, at the end of the film was I shell – shocked to hear that many of the freedoms fought for in that bitter sixties campaign I’d just watched, had later been repealed, replaced or blocked by President Reagan. ( I’d like to think that information was wrong )

It’s hard to get my head round this long-running disaster for humanity. Having grown up in a country where people joyously belt out: “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves”, in their annual singing orgy at the Albert Hall on the Last Night of the Proms, slavery under its many names had been something I grew up thinking  had disappeared from the civilised world,

It ended in England before the founding of the US, when in 1772 the Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield, decreed that anyone who set foot in England was automatically a free man. By this act he initiated the beginning of the abolition movement, led by William Wilberforce, and his supporters who included Quakers and Evangelicals. (Quakers on both sides of the Atlantic had been agitating for emancipation in the ‘Citty upon a Hill’ since George Fox, founder of Quakerism, visited the States, and preached against it in 1672)

Though a sick man, who took opium for most of his life to alleviate his pain, the heroic and persistent Wilberforce brought his anti – slavery bills before Parliament for over twenty years, until finally, Parliament voted against the slave trade in 1807. In 1808 the US also voted to end it, but not slavery itself, and so slaves were still bought and sold in the States. As a result of the British vote, the British Navy created the West Africa Squadron to patrol the African shores to prevent slave trading. The navy patrolled for sixty years, and at times, one sixth of the navy’s ships were at sea on this mission. Freed slaves were taken to Freetown in British Sierra Leone where they were safe from being re-captured. Over 150,000 Africans were freed in this way.

By 1834, England- as personified by Parliament – had come round to the idea of emancipation, and slaves were freed in most of the British colonies, including Canada and South Africa, and slave owners compensated at huge expense to the government. It meant that 800,000 slaves were gradually freed, and it also meant that many imports into England now cost a lot more. In the sometimes unhappy history of the British Empire this is one brownie point.

When Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it had bigger sales in England than America, and as one of her readers, as well as being an afficionado of the American Civil War, I had thought all had ended well for the slaves when the South was defeated. ‘Gone With The Wind’ did incalculable damage to the thinking of ignorant people like me.

The picture it painted of a noble, benevolent society with happy, contented slaves living in harmony with masters they loved, was a travesty of truth, I discovered –  no hint of anyone being bought and sold, families destroyed, and later, lynch mobs, Klu Klux Klan or Billie Holiday’s song ‘ Bitter Fruit’- which came out in the same year as the film. The rude way black people were spoken to and humiliated, even in benign films like ‘Driving Miss Daisy’, shocked me. As did the true story of Hadley Hemingway losing all Hemingway’s manuscripts, and when she was too shattered to tell him, he finally confronted her with the thing he dreaded most: “You’ve been sleeping with a Negro.”

Twenty years ago when  Ken Burns’ moving films introduced me to the Civil War, I also read a fascinating and horrifying series of reports which jobless students were commissioned to write during the Depression. They interviewed and recorded the memories of the slaves who were still alive in the thirties, and those memories were harrowing, whether before or after Emancipation. Singer and actress, Hattie McDaniels, who played Mammy in ‘Gone With The Wind’ was the daughter of slaves, and her lot was not much better.

She was asked not to attend the opening night of the film in Atlanta in 1939, and when she won Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars, had to sit alone in specially segregated seating. She was also not allowed to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery which even practised segregation in death! When I learned this, I was still not aware of how the South had been gradually winning the Civil War with Jim Crow laws, and especially in the twenties and thirties, suppressing black civil rights, expanding segregation, and passing laws like the ‘one drop of negro blood’ in 1924, which condemned innocent people to a ‘shadow’ existence.

‘Shadow’ families were those like Thomas Jefferson’s children, born to a slave, Sally Hemings. She was herself more than half white, and thanks to the exploitation of slave women then, was also an aunt of Jefferson’s legitimate daughter through Jefferson’s wife.  Jefferson’s and Sally’s children were seven- eighths white. If they hadn’t already disappeared into white society back before the Civil War, they would have been trapped by these creeping race rulings.

A friend whose ancestor was General Pettigrew, the other general who led Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, gave me a biography of the general which had been published recently. As I read it I became increasingly puzzled, for the general was such a heroic paragon , who apparently embodied all the chivalric qualities of a noble cavalier, that even his predilection for quarrelling and the resultant duels were held to be virtues, and typical of his aristocratic society.

The barbarians of the North, inhospitable, dour, materialistic Protestants, had destroyed both this magnificent young man and the civilisation of the ‘old South’ that he represented, according to the writer. In the end, I Googled him, and light dawned. He was still fighting the Civil War! Not only was this writer a man of great reputation in the South, but he had founded a league of Southern gentlemen, which some people – like me – would feel that in the light of Southern men’s record, was an oxymoron.

There’s another film due to come out about slavery, the true story of a free black American living in the North who was kidnapped, and sold into slavery in the South. His horrendous ordeal lasted for twelve years, and when he escaped he wrote his story, which has gradually been forgotten.

Two black Englishmen have produced this film, and I won’t be watching it. I know enough. I already believe in the cause of freedom, and I’m too much of a coward to watch the cruelties and inhumanities that I saw in the trailer. The title to this blog comes from a medallion struck in 1787 by Josiah Wedgewood, the great potter, and  supporter of Wilberforce’s abolition campaign. The words go straight into my heart.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I had a big bunch of watercress, and decided to make soup with it. Mrs Beeton, who I consulted, had three recipes for it, and this was the one I fancied. The fiddliest bit was taking the leaves off the stalks, as I have a feeling the stalks taste bitter. Gently sauté the leaves in butter for a couple of minutes, then remove from heat. Mix about a dessertspoonful of cornflour with some milk, whisk it into chicken stock, and add the cress. I leave a few leaves aside, and then whisk everything with my stick whizzer. Quickly re-heat and add cream to taste, and a pinch of cayenne. The rest of the cress leaves float greenly on the top. The amount of stock depends on how much cress you have, and it’s easy to gauge.

Food for Thought

 “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference”                                                                                          Elie Wiesel- born1928.  Writer and survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. When he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, the Norwegian Nobel Committee called him a “messenger of peace”.

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Talking about silence

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A friend went for a happy break away with distant family, and returned home to find the bliss of silence awaiting her. She shared it with her readers, the deep need for solitude and silence, and how simply being with her plants, communing with her creatures, savouring the long views, the huge skies, and never speaking a word, she felt restored and at ease with herself.

Her readers, a band of like minds, responded that silence and solitude were necessities in their lives too. We discovered that we were not strange, we were not eccentric recluses, but that we were all strangely normal !

I thought about this, and realised that this group of women who had responded had probably reached that point in life when we want to experience our Hestia natures. Hestia was the Greek Goddess of the hearth and in her wonderful book, ‘The Goddesses in Everywoman’, Jean Bolen explores Hestia’s nature, and describes the Hestia archetype as being centred on home and family. She suggests that if Hestia wrote a book about her inner process she would call it Zen and the Art of Housekeeping.

Attention to the household, which includes the plants and animals in our care, is almost a spiritual process for a Hestia person. Women with this archetype find a sense of inner harmony as they cherish their surroundings and they know that this  nurturing of their corner of the planet, is a form of mindfulness. Jean Bolen called this time in which the Hestia archetype is totally absorbed in her  activities: ‘kairos’ time, a lovely Greek word describing that sense of being outside time, and feeling completely fulfilled. It’s also time-Less, we emerge from the ‘Zone’ as some call it, to find that time has flown while we were unconscious of the very word.

It feels like a creative activity, which it is, when we are so immersed in our tasks that time is meaningless. This is psychologically  nourishing, and we feel deeply satisfied and energised, powerful and peaceful when we come out of the ‘Zone’; like a writer feels  on completing a piece, a poet when her poem has emerged, or an artist after an inspired day at the easel.

Hestia women need and seek solitude, and as children they often felt out of kilter with their families, finding refuge in books and withdrawing emotionally. As adults, they need ‘A Room of Their Own’. The late Ardis Whitman, free-lance writer quoted  in ‘The Feminine Face of God’, said that: “…when we are surrounded by people, some of the passion and insight natural to us leaks away through the sieve of small talk. At your most daring moments you believe that what is going on is the ultimate human work – the shaping of a soul. The power of life comes from within: go there. Pray, meditate. Reach for those luminous places in yourself”

The obstacle to taking this time for self is women’s guilt. Too often they feel guilty at making time for themselves, fear they are being selfish, and so give away their vital self-nourishment by trying to please others. With maturity and the confidence of age, they can reclaim the time and space they need, knowing the truth of Rabbi Hillel’s ancient imperative: ‘ If not me –who? If not now – when?’

I have a friend whose stepmother is part Native- American. She was brought up by her Native -American grand-parents, and she told me:  “there was no idle chatter in our house. It was silent. My grandparents believed silence was sacred and should not be broken unless we had something of worth to say” …  Whenever I feel the need for silence at home, I say to my husband (politically incorrectly – sorry chaps!):  Red Indians! He gets the message.

Living in an intimate relationship with one person is so demanding when they no longer go to the office every day, in order to regain the silence and solitude that I need, we have a silent Tuesday, when no words are spoken. The house fills with something more than silence, a full, flowery, beautiful essence, which is only present in that magic space. Sometimes we have a Tuesday on a Thursday or a Sunday… whenever we feel we need it.

It isn’t just women who need solitude… I suspect there are many men too, who need the refreshment of peace and quiet… Thoreau famously wrote that he found it “wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time… I love to be alone”, while one of the early Desert Fathers, Abbas Isias said : ‘Love to be silent rather than to speak. For silence heaps up treasure, while speaking always scatters.’

We’re not talking of the harsh, ascetic, masculine discipline of a Trappist silence, but  respite from continual communication. This respite is more like immersing the self in a deep well of nourishment, from which we emerge refreshed and invigorated. In his book ‘A Time to Keep Silence’, famous travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor described his stay at a Benedictine monastery in France. The Benedictine order with its gracious silences and routines was a revelation to him, and he went through three stages – depression and despair for a few days, then days of deep exhausted sleep, from which he emerged feeling purified, energised, joyful and peaceful.  When he remarked one day to the Abbott what a blessed relief it was to refrain from talking all day long, the Abbott replied, ‘Yes, in the outside world, speech is gravely abused.”  And even sixty years ago, C.S. Lewis said: “We live… in a world starved for solitude, silence, and privacy.”

I haven’t mentioned the word introverted, as I feel that Jung has no place in this discussion since he felt that spirituality was a masculine quality. Yet the thoughtful, mindful qualities that both men and women develop when they seek silence, which he would define as introversion, does lead to a greater awareness of the spiritual side of life. This inward turning of focus is a path that both men and women are taking more and more in these turbulent times, and if anything women are more likely to take it than men.

I’ve always loved Hestia, the home-loving, feminine personality who is her own woman. Not all women have this side to their personality, but when we deeply focus on our inner life, or give ourselves time to calmly enjoy our household chores – sorting a cupboard or baking a loaf, we are getting in touch with that aspect of ourselves. We all have other archetypes in our natures, from Aphrodite to Athene, Demeter to Hera, the goddesses of love and careers, motherhood and marriage, but as we grow older and wiser it seems that Hestia is more present in our consciousness.

When I was a child we used to buy Vesta matches in red and yellow oblong boxes. I didn’t know then that Vesta was the Roman name for Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, believed to be present in the living flame. Her sacred fire was supposed to provide light, warmth, and heat for food, and her presence to inspire peace,  meaning, and sanctuary for family. These things seem very precious in our tempestuous times…  they are what can sustain us, and make our homes a serene and happy refuge – and not just for ourselves – but for those we love.

Celi’s post ‘The lack of chatter in the box’ at her beautiful blog  http://www.thekitchensgarden.com    inspired this post.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

The French call them ‘bonne-bouche’, and I needed a little something to start an impromptu supper with friends. To make it fun, I collected together the big pink and maroon shells I’d collected from the beach, lined them with slices of cucumber, arranged on the cucumber four fat prawns lightly sauted in garlicky butter, and dabbed freshly made aoli over them. Sprinkled with finely chopped parsley, they were a hit, eaten with fingers, but served with a paper napkin that matched the rest of the table.

Food for Thought

To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven… a time to keep silence and a time to speak. Ecclesiastes: chapter 3, verses 1 and 7

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So what is gumption?

100_0509“Use your elbow–grease,” my grandmother would chide me good humouredly… or ask: “where’s your gumption?” Where indeed? I searched my somewhat limited seven year old soul but could find no trace of these desirable qualities – whatever they were – for I had no idea. I was completely puzzled, and sad to disappoint her.

However the lack of these mystifying gifts ceased to matter when at a fortnight’s notice, I left my grandmother forever, to join my father just returned from Egypt with his new wife. After a month he disappeared to Germany, and my stepmother and I waited for his summons until a house had been found for us. During those months, instead of going to school, my stepmother gave me lessons in the afternoon. Looking back, though a fully trained physiotherapist, she may not have been quite so well qualified to teach small children, but those were more carefree times, when anything went, and often did.

In my case, we didn’t do much maths, thankfully, but I learnt lots of poetry, mainly, I think, the poets my stepmother had ‘done’ at school in the thirties. These included Sir Walter Scott, Elizabeth Browning, Wordsworth and chunks of Longfellow’s Hiawatha. She was hot on spelling – and as a nine year old, lists of words like phlegm, diaphragm, diphthong, delphinium, rhododendron, asthma, psychology, diarrhoea had to be memorised every day. If I’d ended up in the medical profession this vocabulary might have stood me in good stead, but since then I’ve often wished that I had instead mastered how to spell ‘receive’ and all the exceptions of’ ie’, as well as ‘commitment’, both my constant stumbling blocks.

When it came to composition – as it was called – I was a disappointment to her, the way I’d felt with my grandmother, when I lacked elbow grease and gumption. But what I was lacking now, was imagination. “Use your imagination,” she’d say, and once again, I had no idea what imagination was, though I thought it might have something to do with writing about fairies, which I felt was childish.

I felt mysteriously depressed, as at school I’d always been quite good at composition. But the problem of imagination didn’t seem so important once we got to war-torn Europe. We travelled through apocalyptic scenes – cities of mountains of bricks, with half buildings with crooked pictures still on the wall, a door open and chairs still at a table, and skeletons of ruined churches –  before finally reaching the infamous place called Belsen, where our new home was the Beast of Belsen’s old digs.

Those were bleak times in Europe and I often felt bleak too. Now my father, almost unknown after years away at war, expected me to have common sense. This seemed more important than gumption, elbow grease, or imagination all put together, and just as un-attainable. I think they thought I was sensible when my best friend was murdered. I had gone to fetch her for our early morning riding lesson, but she didn’t answer the door. When I got home after riding, Mary had been found shot in the kitchen, and her younger brother was shot at the door as he had tried to escape. Her father had then shot himself because his wife had left him.

I never spoke to my new parents about this, my chief worry being Mary’s brother’s  feelings as he dashed for the door, and also that Mary mightn’t have made it into heaven, which I knew my parents didn’t believe in. I cried every night in bed, and begged God to let her in. But though I was apparently phlegmatic, the magic of common sense still eluded me – as in: “do use your common sense, child,” or the unanswerable question: “haven’t you got any common sense?”  When I joined the army as a teenager at my father’s behest, I knew he hoped I might now discover some hidden well of this commodity which he seemed to think I really needed for a successful life.

But here was another pitfall. An officer was supposed to have initiative and to use it! This, as a very young officer, I quickly realised, was dangerous. Initiative was a two-edged sword, with unknown consequences, which not everyone appreciated. So it was with relief that I looked forward to marriage, when, I supposed with blind optimism, none of these things would be required of me.

But on the third day into married life, I discovered that things were not as I had thought they were, had to write a big cheque which cleaned me out, and then faced an unpredictable, precarious, and impoverished life on shifting sands. The upside was that I discovered I did have gumption after all! And I needed it.

Elbow grease, on the other hand, was something quite prosaic I came to realise, and was only needed for wax-polishing antique furniture, the idea being that the intense pressure of the elbow grease created friction, and the resultant heat melted the invisible wax crystals, causing them to meld together and create those shining surfaces. Frankly, it was easier just to put the dusters in the oven, and polish with hot dusters instead of elbow grease. The only other use for elbow grease seemed to be for scrubbing burnt saucepans, an activity I have always strenuously avoided.

Common sense? Well I’ve discovered that common sense is merely a matter of opinion, and that one man’s common sense is another man’s madness… so to take a somewhat extreme example, Hitler’s idea of common sense would not be mine – so I’ve flagged common sense. And initiative doesn’t bother me any more – I’m in sole command, and don’t have to answer to any superior officers!

Which leaves me with that lack of imagination. Well, it’s something I’ve got used to, and have had to realise that I never could produce an interesting imaginative novel! I recognise imagination in great works of art, both literary and artistic, in fine blogs, in glorious architecture and opera, in gardening and interior decoration, even in solving problems… but I’m still digging for it in myself…

Jane Austen has sometimes been un-imaginatively accused of lacking imagination, and I used to cling to her definition of her art in a letter to her brother Edward, in which she refers to her: ‘little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush’, but to be brutally realistic, this is not really much comfort, since she painted masterpieces on her little bit of ivory with her fine brush. For me, lacking the flights of fancy that come with a soaring imagination, all I can do is to notice and to describe, and I did find some consolation in these words by the enigmatic writer Fernando Pessoa.

He wrote: “What moves lives. What is said endures. There’s nothing in life that’s less real for having been described. Small-minded critics point out that such and such a poem, with its protracted cadences, in the end says merely that it’s a nice day. But to say it’s a nice day is difficult, and the nice day itself passes on. It’s up to us to conserve the nice day in a wordy, florid memory, sprinkling new flowers and new stars over the fields and skies of the empty, fleeting outer world.”

These words hearten me for I too, can at least conserve the day in wordy, florid memories, try to sprinkle new flowers over the fields and skies of the fleeting outer world, and thoroughly enjoy myself while I’m sprinkling! So here’s to florid memories and new flowers!

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

This is the strawberry season, so it’s crazy to serve anything else for pudding besides these luscious fruits. Friends for dinner meant a quick foray to the nearest strawberry fields. The ones I wanted, where the strawberries are grown by a Vietnamese genius, whose berries are the biggest, sweetest and cheapest, hadn’t opened, so I had to fall back on the other strawberry fields. I usually find theirs a bit tough and tart, but solved the problem by hulling them, and putting them in a dish out in the sun. As the day went by, the delectable scent of soft, sweet, ripe strawberries warm from the sun tempted my taste-buds every time I passed them.

With them I usually do Chantilly cream. One of my grandsons will eat this neat, and has learned how to make it for himself, a useful skill when he goes flatting at University! Take one cup of thick cream, two table spoons of icing sugar and a few drops of vanilla and whip them together. I usually make three times this amount, just tripling all the ingredients.

 

Food for thought

So long as a bee is outside the petals of the lotus and has not tasted its honey, it hovers around the flower buzzing. But when it is inside the flower it drinks the nectar silently. So long as a man quarrels about doctrines and dogmas, he has not tasted the nectar of the true faith; once he has tasted it he becomes still.

Sri Ramakrishna  1883- 1886 Famous Hindu teacher and mystic, who believed that all religions led to the same God, and who practised  both Christianity and Islam

 

 

 

 

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Paradise is not lost

100_0559 In this country the sun is reputed to shine twice as often as it does in England, and it shines with especial clarity on Coromandel, so called when a ship of that name anchored where the township is now. The Coromandel peninsula is a rugged line of purple ranges and deep ravines where clear bright streams and rivers rush over rocks to the sea. Once the peaks of Coromandel were clothed in primeval kauri forests, and once too, those peaks hid seams of ancient gold. But now these two sources of gold have long been mined, the hills are covered in secondary growth, and the mine shafts are empty.

It’s always been a place of passion and politics, where potters and painters, poets  and philosophers have fought to defend their way of life in these empty, unpolluted and un-peopled places. Ringing this neck of land, pohutakawa trees flaunt their red flowers along the rocky coast-line, and distant blue horizons beckon to unexplored peaks and impenetrable bush.

Our house on the side of a narrow valley leading down to the water’s edge, looked up to the steep foot hills of the Coromandel ranges behind us. And we faced the Firth of Thames, where the light on the water had a mystic quality in the winter sunshine; where the line of Miranda beach on the opposite shore could just be glimpsed; and where flights of godwits gathering for their heroic autumn journey to Siberia, could be imagined.

Further down the coast was the place where Captain Cook first came ashore in this country.  Young Nick, the cabin boy who sighted land, gave his name to Young Nick’s Head, and where Captain Cook observed the transit of Mercury, he called the bay where they anchored, Mercury Bay.

When the Endeavour came sailing into Mercury Bay it was watched by a nine year old boy. Eighty-three years later the magnificent old man told his story. As he watched the great canoe with huge white sails skimming towards them, he was amazed when the ship’s crew then rowed ashore in the time-honoured fashion with their backs in the direction in which they were going.

“Yes, it is so,” said the old people watching with him, “these people are goblins, their eyes are in the back of their heads.” Eventually Horeta Te Taniwha, as he was called, gathered the courage to climb on board the ship with the older people.

“I and my two companions did not walk about on board the ship – we were afraid lest we be bewitched by the goblins; and we sat still and looked at everything at the home of these goblins… the chief goblin… came up on deck again to where I and my boy-companions were, and patted our head with his hand, and he put out his hand towards me and spoke to us at the same time, holding the nail out to us.

“My companions were afraid and sat in silence; but I laughed, and he gave the nail to me. I took it in my hand and said “Ka-pai” (very good), and he repeated my words, and again patted our heads with his hand, and went away.

“My companions said: “This is the leader of the ship, which is proved by his kindness to us; and also he is very fond of children. A noble man – one of noble birth – cannot be lost in a crowd”

“I took my nail and kept it with great care, and carried it wherever I went, and made it fit to the point of my spear, and also used it to makes holes in the side-boards of the canoe, to bind them onto the canoe. I kept this nail until one day I was in a canoe and she capsized in the sea and my god (the nail) was lost to me…”

The descriptions of the pristine land that Cook discovered in 1769, sound as fragrant and unspoiled as the descriptions of Roanoke in 1584. I ache to have seen Auckland harbour as it was then–the first accounts tell of the silence and the sunshine, the flaming pohutakawa trees bending over the still, clear water as the first white men glided spell-bound up the harbour in their sailing ships – it was a magical, mysterious country which seemed like the most exquisite place on earth to those early explorers. On the other side of the coast, where the other great harbour of Manukau lies, they found forests teeming with strange birds, great trees of more than ten metres in girth towering to the skies, cloudy waterfalls, black sand beaches  and steep jagged cliffs facing the turbulent Tasman..

 Songbirds fluted in the dense forests. Sir Joseph Banks, the great naturalist on board the Endeavour with Cook, wrote at Queen Charlotte Sound: “ the ship lay at a distance of somewhat less than a quarter of a mile from the shore, and in the morning we were awakened by the singing of the birds: the number was incredible. And they seemed to strain their throats in emulation of each other. This wild melody was infinitely superior to any that we had ever heard of the same kind: it seemed to be like small bells most exquisitely tuned.”

Civilisation has made life easier and more comfortable at one level, dentists, drains, and all the rest, and destroyed the planet in the process. And we all know it and yearn for the original untouched Garden of Eden. To have been alive then, and to have savoured this untouched land… it makes me feel homesick just to think of it. So-called civilisation of course, has changed so much of this. From 1840 onwards, the settlers did their best to destroy the forests, using the giant kauris for ships masts, and building wooden homes, wood being the quickest material to use to build a home in a new country. On the newly barren hills they planted grass for the millions of sheep which have brought prosperity to this country, and now erosion means that in some places, the rivers are no longer clear, but sluggish muddy currents.

They took the gold, and now they want the oil. Yet so many of us still want keep this country as unpolluted and unspoiled as possible; so we try to save the native birds, we enclose huge national parks,  we preserve the swathes of native bush and forest still here, and we oppose the multi-national oil companies. And nothing can change or spoil the silent, snow-capped mountains and wild waterfalls, the great lakes and endless miles of solitary beaches in an empty land the size of England, which is home to only four million people.

I now live an hour’s drive north of Auckland, looking out on green fields one side, and blue sea the other; and I walk the long deserted stretches of yellow sands, and can only hear larks singing high above the dunes, and the waves breaking on the shore. In a crowded world, where solitude and silence are hard to find, this place still seems like paradise – last, loneliest, loveliest – as Rudyard Kipling once described Auckland.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

I love vegetable dishes. This fennel dish I can eat as a meal, and my husband can have it with his steak, though it also goes well with lamb and pork. Allow a fennel bulb for each person, though if I’m having it as a meal, I usually have two. Cut the fennel in half from root to stalk and blanch in boiling salted water and drain well. Cut the fennel again, into quarters, and lay them in a well- buttered baking dish… it doesn’t matter if they break up. Scatter pieces of fried and chopped bacon over the fennel along with a finely chopped garlic clove. Whisk a teasp of flour into 250 ml of cream and pour over the fennel. Bake for about 25 minutes in an oven set at 190 degrees. Check it’s soft with a sharp knife. Eaten with a crusty roll or wholemeal bread, it’s very satisfying.

Food for thought

It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.

CS Lewis, 1898 – 1963 English novelist, poet, medievalist and literary critic. Best known for his books ‘The Screwtape Letters’ and ‘Chronicles of Narnia’.

 

 

 

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A perfumed garden and an old gardener

100_0497The white wisteria wafts its scent across the veranda. I can smell it as I sit here writing with the French doors open. The pale purple blossoms of the melia tree, sometimes called the Persian lilac, are scenting the night air too, this tree being the nearest we can get to the real thing in this too temperate climate. Lilac is my favourite shrub, I keep meaning to order a root from afar – actually the South Island – and pile ice around it in winter to fool it into thinking it’s living in a cold climate. I miss not having any lilac.

The cabbage tree- not an attractive name – puts out long stems of blossom at this time of year covered with the sweetest smelling tiny flowers, which turn a creamy brown when dried, with black stems; like the melia tree the scent seems strongest in the evening. Sweet alyssum wafts its fragrance in sunshine, and best of all, my precious Reine de Violette rose in the pot by the front door is now blooming.

I’ve carried it in a big square terracotta pot from garden to garden, and its scent pervades the little courtyard by the door for the month that its deep pinky-purple tightly layered petalled heads bloom. So many petals – between 50 and 75 – according to the official description, and bred in France in 1860. Grown from a cutting given by a friend.  Later in the summer, the blue petunias in pots will send their sweet smell through the garden, also strongest at night. My summer garden would be incomplete if I didn’t have masses of foaming pale blue petunias in pots – Cambridge blue is their description. And in midsummer we’ll have the strong, night scent of queen of the night, and the datura tree growing in the wilderness part of the garden which spreads its pervasive sweetness when the sun is going down.

In a few weeks fragrant star jasmine will be blooming, it’s crawling up the walls below the veranda, sprawling over the arch with pink Albertine roses and ivy, and growing outside the bathroom window. And I’ve topiary-ed it so it billows out of two big blue pots the same blue as the petunias, just outside the French doors. The scent will drift everywhere… I’d love to have the exquisite perfume of sweet peas in the garden, but alas, I’ve never been able to grow them successfully.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve whittled down the elements I want in my garden, and top of the list is fragrance, closely followed by white flowers which show up in the dusk. So apart from my blue petunias and pink roses, there are always plenty of white lilies, white geraniums, Shasta daisies, fragrant syringa, white Japanese anemones, marguerites, self-seeded valerian, white agapanthus as well as blue, and my favourite white climbing rose Alberic Barbier. That isn’t to say that there aren’t blue hydrangeas shimmering under the trees, a glorious pale gold rose called Crepuscule clambering up a telegraph pole out on the road,( see above) or pink beauties like Jean Ducher which bloom palely all the year. And then there’s Mutatibilis rose which looks like a bush covered in deep pink butterflies about to take flight.

There are two other requirements for my garden – masses of green – so ivy everywhere, box plants and acanthus, and I also ask my long-suffering plants to be undemanding and easy-care, though I contract to water them through the droughts. It’s not a tidy or orderly garden, but an exuberant, prolific little plot, with wilful self-seeded plants welcomed wherever they choose to settle, and every chosen flower and shrub scrambling into its neighbours, cosying up, sharing their space, flaunting their freedom.

Rampant growers like honeysuckle and ivy are allowed to enjoy themselves, instead of wilting under the criticism of real gardeners who despise them for being so invasive. Wandering flaming red and orange nasturtiums have even turned themselves into climbers and threaded themselves through the climbing rose up to the roof, and entangled themselves in an orgy of colour among the pinks and blues of ageratum and lavatera down below in the garden. If it grows, it’s welcome… so though I’m not a discriminating gardener, I am a grateful one!

I learned about flowers from our appropriately named gardener called Mr Appleby.  I was nine, and we were living in a rambling Tudor house in Yorkshire while waiting to go to post-war Germany. It had been a monastery before Henry VIII’s Dissolution, and behind it stretched a high walled garden,  built of weathered rose-coloured bricks. On either side of the lawn were deep herbaceous beds, the fashion of those times, and indeed, since Edwardian times. At the end, sheltered by the high wall was the vegetable garden, and after we had been to see Bertram Mills circus and I had fallen in love with the trapeze artist, Lady Elizabeth, I tried to practise my rudimentary trapeze skills on top of this wall, unseen from the house.

The end of the lawn was dominated by a big pear tree, where we sat in striped deckchairs in its shade having afternoon tea, and where my step-grandfather would sit on summer evenings reading the Times while he smoked a cigar, it’s rich aroma  reaching my bedroom window as I peeped out.

I didn’t go to school while we lived there, and had lessons in the afternoon. In the morning it was my job to arrange the flowers in every room throughout the beautiful old house, and keep them freshly topped up and watered. It was bliss. I had carte blanche to pick flowers! Mr Appleby tended to guard his glorious peonies from me, but let me have enough to keep the vases looking quite ravishing. He taught me the names of his precious plants, and became a great buddy. From his big saggy pockets, he would drag out for me giant gooseberries from his garden, pinkish with long soft hairs all over them, his biggest strawberries, juicy, golden William’s pears, yellow-fleshed purple Victoria plums and red russet apples. I used to hide in the pear tree so as not to have to share these treats.

He told me the names of the tall, smoky blue delphiniums, rosy hollyhocks, pink foxgloves, serried ranks of pastel coloured lupins, and golden rod. They were massed at the back of the borders. Then there were the middling sized flowers, lavender, peonies, pink and white and deep red, dahlias, (I didn’t pick them, too many earwigs crawling around inside) purple irises, stocks and phlox and larkspurs, day lilies in deep maroon, snapdragons massed in mixed jewel colours, delicate grannies bonnets, scented sweet Williams; in the front of the borders were clusters of cat-mint, the soft, furry sage-coloured leaves and pink flowers of lambs lugs,(the country term for ears), yellow cotton lavender and clumps of pinks, the fluffy ones with a gorgeous pepperminty smell.

Then there was purple ajuga and harebell-blue campanula, and snow-in-summer nestling in crevices among the stone flags of the terrace. The names felt like poetry. And smothering the trellis which hid the dustbins outside the kitchen door were pink Dorothy Perkins roses.

Mr Appleby was a weather-beaten, wiry little Yorkshire-man, who wore battered old trousers and an unbuttoned jacket which in novels would be called rusty black, with a grubby white shirt with no collar – in those days you changed the collar, not the shirt, using collar studs, front and back. On his head he wore a flat cap, and he had bright, beady black eyes. He spoke with a broad Yorkshire accent that was hard to understand. Sometimes he took me on walks around the countryside where I learned the North country lingo of becks and scars and fells, which I later learned were the ancient Viking words for stream and cliff and moor. Once he showed me a tiny field mouse peeping out of its miniature nest which was a round grass ball, slung between the top of the stems of two cornstalks growing amidst a forest of other golden stalks, blue cornflowers and red poppies.

Those things I learned from Mr Appleby one summer nearly sixty five years ago have never been forgotten. Who knows what we ourselves unwittingly leave in the memory of the children we encounter? What words, what thoughts, unconscious sharing of experience, spontaneous gifts given without intent, moments that lingered down the years… what imperishable knowledge that helped to lighten ignorance and enlarge understanding, what fragments of fact that sparked a child’s consciousness ?  To be the person behind those memories  … that must be a very special sort of immortality.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

This is a filling meal I make for my husband when I can’t think of anything to give him! Dr de Pomiane, the French-Polish food writer adapted it from a French peasant dish, and this recipe is a much dollied up version of his solid peasant dish. Remove the skin and pips from a medium sized tomato (soaking the tomato in boiling water loosens the skin).

Toast two thick slices of sour dough bread on one side. Spread the untoasted sides with Dijon mustard, grate two ounces of cheese – Gruyere is recommended for purists – I usually use cheddar which is in the fridge – and pile the cheese mixed with the tomato on the mustard side of the bread.  Grill until the cheese goes golden, then lay a couple of rashers of streaky bacon on the cheese mixture. Grill until the bacon starts to brown, and serve with black pepper. (De Pomiane didn’t use bacon or tomato – instead when thick slices of cheese had been grilled, he put butter ON the melted cheese!)

 

Food for thought

“The characteristics of the English are largely unsensational, and since they do not readily fire the imagination they easily slip the memory, but they are nevertheless fundamental and formidable. A love of law and order and a respect for government by consent. A belief in honest administration. A dislike of hurting people and if a hurt be done a great effort to put it right. A tolerant people, offering a hand to victims of intolerance. Skill in devising ways of improving the lot of mankind but a dreadful inability to follow those ideas through. A sweet countryside, but appalling ways of cooking what that countryside produces.”

President Truman describing the English, on being honoured with an honorary degree at Oxford after his retirement.    Dreadfully honest, I suppose you could call this somewhat measured and restrained tribute !

 

 

 

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