The necessity of beauty


Pamela was my lodger. She was living in the third bedroom in my flat for the same reasons that Mr Micawber pronounced the immortal words:”Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.”

I’d tried to fill the gap between my meagre salary (women were paid far less than men in the Hongkong I lived in ) and my expenditure, by doing TV quiz shows,  radio programmes, using the children as photographic models and even doing PR for the Anglican church until I could stand being hypocritical no longer. So Pamela was my next attempt at solvency. While she lived with me my life was filled with her dramas, love affairs, crises and disasters.

She arrived with one fiancée, dressed demurely in twinset and pearls, tweed skirt and silk head –scarf. Soon she found a more exciting prospect, and changed her style  to newly fashionable jeans, her hair swung up into dashing styles and lots of makeup. The new fiancée lent her his new VW while he went back to England to sort out his divorce, and hereby hangs the tale. Pamela rolled the car her first night in possession of it, and I was awakened in the middle of the night by a Chinese policeman who couldn’t speak English.

I pieced together that Pamela had had an accident, and was in a Chinese hospital since she had no insurance to cover her for a European one.  The next morning the children, four and five years old, and I, packed up a few things for Pamela and made an expedition to the enormous  building which housed some thousands of sick and penniless Chinese.

We found our way through a maze of corridors to Pamela’s ward, and by the time I reached her bed I was deeply shocked. The ward held eighty women. They were all dressed in faded brown cotton shifts including Pamela. The noise was horrendous. Cantonese is the noisiest language on earth. To hear our amah chatting to another outside the kitchen was deafening. To hear seventy- nine women chatting in a confined space was probably higher than the safe decibel level.

Pamela was bruised and shocked but not injured. After doing our duty, and promising to return that afternoon with more things she wanted, the children and I went home, leaving her with a little bunch of camellias I’d picked. Only six blossoms because that was all that were flowering.

When we returned in the afternoon, something had changed. There was a hush in the ward and a sense of peace, and all eyes were on the gwailo (long- nose) and her children. Being watched was something one accepted as part of life then, but this felt different. And the hush was a sort of reverence. Pamela whispered to me what had happened after I left.

When we walked out of the ward, the women came crowding round her to see the flowers and smell the fragrance. They were ecstatic at this exquisite beauty in their harsh unfriendly environment. Deprived as the women were, of all colour and texture and smell and beauty, the flowers brought something like heaven into their lives.

They didn’t speak English, and Pamela didn’t speak Cantonese, but with the aid of the ward sister’s few words of English, they worked out a roster for the flowers. Each woman would have one camellia by her bed-side in a glass for three hours in every twenty-four. Pamela had one all the time, and the sixth flower which had fallen off its stem, the ward sisters had in their office, floating in a saucer.

Back at the office the next day I rang the dean of the cathedral and several hotels and they agreed to send their flowers to the hospital whenever they changed them. I wonder if they still do.

The great Catholic thinker Monsignor Hildebrand wrote that: ‘the poor need not only bread. The poor also need beauty’. But it’s not just the poor. We all need beauty.

It’s strange to me that Abraham Maslow in his hierarchy of needs didn’t include beauty. Sometimes beauty is the the only thing that keeps us going. As Resistance fighter Odette Churchill was being locked back in her cell after a bout of torture by the Gestapo, she snatched up the skeleton of a leaf being blown in the door with her. The beauty of that leaf sustained her and gave her hope and courage and a belief in goodness that carried her through her  dreadful ordeal.

Quaker writer, Caroline Graveson wrote that: ‘ there is a daily  round for beauty as well as for goodness, a world of flowers and books and cinemas and clothes and manners as well as mountains and masterpieces.’ She talked of beauty: ‘not only in the natural beauty of the earth and sky, but in all fitness of language and rhythm, whether it describe a heavenly vision or a street fight, a Hamlet or a Falstaff, a philosophy or a joke: in all fitness of line and colour and shade, whether seen in the Sistine Madonna or a child’s knitted frock…’

The sad thing is that those deprived Chinese women in that joyless hospital ward, came from a culture, which before the blight of industrialisation and the tyranny of plastic, was incapable of producing anything that wasn’t beautiful – from their baskets to their bowls, to their porcelain and their poetry.  And there was something very beautiful about buying a kati of vegetables in the markets and watching them being skilfully wrapped in a beautifully folded sheet of re-cycled Chinese newspaper, or a large leaf, and tied with a knotted reed.

Perhaps their own sage should have the last word, Confucius said that everything is beautiful, to those who can see it….

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Salady food feels right in the Antipodean Christmas season.This is one of my favourites. Boil new potatoes for the number of people you have, plus hardboiled eggs. Chop them and mix them with sliced artichoke hearts fresh from the delicatessen or from a jar. Gently toss in a good vinaigrette  dressing, and sprinkle with capers if desired. Delicious on its own with crusty rolls, or with cold chicken or cold salmon.


Filed under colonial life, cookery/recipes, culture, flowers, food, great days, life/style, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized

68 responses to “The necessity of beauty

  1. Dearest Valerie,

    You have explained why I prize your blog above all others. You are the Camellia blossom in my hospital ward, the rainbow after a squall, the reason to strive.

    Thank you for sharing your beauty.

    Kia Ora,



  2. That’s quite sad Valerie that a section of society can appreciate beauty but doesn’t have access to it. I also hope the flowers you arranged are still being delivered, it can be a great aid to getting well.
    It does say much for your lodger that she could share her flowers with others no matter how few.
    Happy New Year wonderful Lady
    xxx Hugs Galore xxx


    • Good to hear from you David… your comments are so true.. yes, it was a lovely moment in that sad environment that Pamela was able to share, wasn’t it…but she was the lucky one, with beauty spread out in her life…
      Happy new year to you too, David….


  3. This reminds me of a saying, and i cannot find the reference now though i have been saying it for years, if you only have enough money for a loaf of bread, buy a bunch of flowers.. .. well… you and I know about not having enough for the bread and I am sure we would both opt for the flowers .. This is a very beautiful story, the flowers floating about the ward.. lovely.. c


    • Thank you dear Celi… love that saying… yes, I think we are at one over the flowers ! I’m glad you liked the story… I always think it’s magical…hope you’re all keeping snug and warm on the Farmy XXX


  4. Juliet

    Valerie, what a beautiful and touching story. I do love the way you unfold a theme so gracefully, with delightful twists, tucks and turns.
    I’ve been reading more of ‘The Sound of Water’ on the beach today, and am continuing to love it.


    • Dear Juliet, as a skilled writer yourself, I really appreciate the things you say about this post, thank you so much.
      So glad you’re enjoying my book. I’m finding yours – ‘Spiritual Aging’, fascinating..I’m terribly impressed with the technical expertise, the lay-out and the way you’ve organised it. And I’m also impressed with how you tackled the subject, and love the quotes….you write so well, it’s such an impressive achievement. I think I’m going to find it very useful in about ten years !!!
      Good, I’m glad you’re happy to be inveigled up here!!!!


      • Juliet

        Thank you Valerie, for your kind comments. I note that you, along with many others, convert the title of my book from ‘Spirited Ageing’ to ‘Spiritual Ageing’ – isn’t that interesting? It is being read by people from 40 to 92, so I love what you say about continuing to find it useful in 10 years time.


      • Hello Juliet, I grovel over wrongly naming your book – so sorry… I suppose that’s where we’re at ! By my comment I actually meant I’d Start using it in ten years !!!! I don’t admit yet that I’m aging !!! See you soon !


  5. In the darkest hours, I close my eyes and visualize beauty. Sometimes it is in the form of a sunset, a flower, a gentle stream; but mostly, it is in the words of a compassionate storyteller who understands that beauty is the outflow of love and joyfulness.

    I will take your message with me into a fresh New Year. Looking forward to our ongoing dialogue! 🙂


    • Thank you Rebecca – I hope you don’t have too many of those dark hours, I so love your words that beauty is the outflow of love and joyfulness… though i also think it’s an intrinsic quality of Creation…
      Happy new year to you, and lots more fascinating posts to read, please !!!


  6. How wonderful to think of those few flowers making a world of difference to so many. (Was that the secret of the 5 loaves and 2 fishes? That they were beautiful 😉 ) I do hope the flowers are still sent to the hospital. The flowers in your photo are beautiful too but how do you manage to keep the star jasmine alive in the vase? I have tried to use it several times, very unsuccessfully.


  7. Hello Gallivanta, good to hear from you…yes it would be so good to know that sending the flowers to hospital had become a permanent habit…
    How observant you are to notice the star jasmine… it did only last a couple of days, unfortunately… shame isnt it, the fragrance is so beautiful and it’s such a graceful addition to a vase…


  8. What a beautiful story. I’ve often been conscious for the need we have for beauty. Even when I had little money, I would pick up a pretty candle at the dollar store, or a plant on sale, to add a touch of beauty to my life. Somehow, beauty nurtures our soul.


  9. Dear Valerie,

    This morning your words are the flowers adding some beauty to a current sad and brown situation. I smile through intermittent tears. Thank you for the reminder to appreciate beauty in unexpected places.

    Kia ora and shalom,



  10. I love this story so much, it’s really touched me on a wild and windy day here in the UK. There’s beauty in so many things and that, I think, is what makes life worth living.


  11. Pingback: The unexpected year | Harvesting Hecate

  12. Valerie- such a truly beautiful story. Completely brightened a gloomy return-to-work day with the reminder of the importance of maintaining even small elements of beauty at all times. Thank you!


  13. Reblogged this on Dianne Johnston and commented:
    A must read for a new year attitude ajustment.


  14. You have refreshed my soul with your words. Thank You.


  15. Luanne

    Valerie, this made me cry. Thank you for the beauty you bring to my life.


  16. Enthralling as usual. I agree that Maslow’s theories are often wrong. Even when basic needs haven’t been met there is a drive towards art and beauty – sometimes even resulting in those needs being neglected.


  17. Thank you so much – I found your comment fascinating – I hadn’t thought about it, but you’re right, the drive towards art and beauty does sometimes mean that the basic needs are neglected… even by the artist starving in his garret, instead of trying to make a living more mundane !


  18. Valerie, I was nodding my head as I read your lovely post. To be beauty-less in a culture that has produced so much beauty is so very sad. Beauty doesn’t have to be big and expensive and it can be found almost everywhere. I found that because I take photos, I’m always looking and finding beauty, even in the most unexpected places.

    As an avid reader, I like beauty in writing. Too often these days, a book that’s filled with a good story has little beauty in it. Have you ever read any Elizabeth Goudge? She has some of the most beautiful writing and stories that I’ve ever read and I often come back to her books when I’ve had a surfeit of bad language, violence and other situations. I think you’d like her.

    I hope you had a beautiful Christmas and have a blessed 2014.



  19. What a lovely comment Janet, so glad you enjoyed the post.
    I know just what you mean about Elizabeth Goudge – I’ve been a devoted fan since I read Green Dolphin Country when I was sixteen – never guessing that I’d end up living in Green Dolphin Country myself – New Zealand!.
    Among my other treasures of hers are two poetry anthologies ‘A Book of Comfort’ and ‘A Book of Peace”… so glad we share a passion for such a beautiful soul as well as a writer…
    Thank you,yes, I had a lovely Christmas, and I hope you did too… and a happy new year to you, Valerie


  20. Such a lovely story about the hospital flowers. So touching !!

    Big hug. Ralph xox 😀


      • Ralph, You’re wonderful, thank you so much. I don’t understand a word of the correspondence with Time thief, but will contact my printer who does things to my blog when I’m stuck, and ask him to sort it. I am so grateful to you. Have you had the same problem? Has my problem infected everyone else – I do hope not… I had no idea people would want to waste so much time pointlessly !!! I have just been spamming them, but they do take up time and space. So thank you so much again, Ralph, my knight in shining armour, with gratitude, Valerie


      • WordPress Staff are not going to stop them commenting. It is suggested that you Moderate Comments by going into Dashboard/Settings/Discussion and checking/ticking “Before a comment appears Comment must be manually approved ” Save the page then trash or spam any future bad comments as they come in.

        I had 36 which I sent into spam.

        It may seem silly to you but I work with forces, the good guys, in other realms, preceding the Return of Christ. The comment idiots will be taken down hard and anyone else like them. WP Staff do not have the will to clear such commenters from their organisation. But it will be done.

        Well done Valerie. You are doing the right thing in clearing your blog of this infestation. I am proud of you. Big hug xox


      • Dear Ralph, Thank you for all your efforts on my behalf. I certainly don’t think it’s silly to be working on other levels for the return of Christ… I too am in contact with other levels of consciousness … life would be very one-dimensional without that …. Is just kicking the stuff straight into spam and then delete enough? I suppose I’d better send them in peace too !!! XXX


      • You are doing everything you can Valerie and doing it right. Well done.
        I hope that you are having a lovely summer. 😀


  21. Anonymous

    Everything is beautiful if we only can see is so right and so perfect to your story! I am so impressed with the life you have lived, you make mine seem so bland by comparison!

    Happy 2014, Dear Friend!
    ¸.•*¨*•♪♫♫♪HAPPY NEW YEAR ♪♫•*¨*•.¸¸♥


  22. I find I am smiling through tears at this story. You are a compassionate and beautiful soul, I am always filled with gratitude after reading you.



  23. Valerie, your post made me remember the documentary Beauty Matters by the Brits philosopher Roger Scruton in which he presents a provocative essay on the importance of beauty in the arts and in our lives.

    See it; it is wonderful, spot on and leaves you with a tear.

    I wish you a wonderful NYE and a happy start of 2014.


    • Dear Paula, thank you so much for this marvellous video, I’ve watched it several times and am sending it to all my friends – it says exactly what people like you and I have always felt in our bones, I’m sure !
      May you enjoy our new year, 2014, dear Paula,
      love Valerie


  24. LadyBlueRose's Thoughts Into Words

    within each visit I see such a wonderful combination of strength and beauty…
    this was an amazing story as all of them are, but something about flowers, their beauty creating a shroud of quiet appreciation…
    Thank you…for another story that touches the soul and makes me *sigh*
    I hope your holiday was full of bliss and joy,….
    and of course beauty….
    Take Care…You Matter…


  25. What a beautiful story! It reminds me of the old American labor movement slogan (I think it was the International Workers of the World, not positive):
    “Give us bread, but also give us roses”

    Thank-you, Valerie!


  26. sue marquis bishop

    Valerie, a lovely post. Sue


  27. Such a beautiful, touching story, Valerie. You so often remind us that the smallest outreach can make a big difference. It’s one of the reasons I love reading your posts so much.

    All the best for a wonderful new year!


    • Dear Letizia, lovely to hear from you, and I’m so glad you enjoyed the story…. I love it that you enjoy my posts, but you know I don’t set out to remind us of anything… I write what’s on my mind ! and it’s wonderful that you enjoy reading it!
      I look forward to more of your intriguing posts this year too, with very best wishes to you too for a happy 1914


  28. This is really beautiful!


  29. Sam

    RE: Maslow and Beauty, see his B-values. Beauty was very important.


  30. It’s amazing that those few flowers could be so transformative. But if the hospital ward was as bleak as you describe it, I understand. Beauty is more than a luxury. Abraham Maslow really should have included it in his hierarchy of needs.
    At our Saturday Market in the summer here, the flower vendors do a brisk business. I find it such a pleasure to see people walking back to their cars or homes with their arms full of flowers.


  31. A beautiful story, Valerie. It seems to me that beauty puts us in touch with our souls. It takes us out of the mundane and into a place where hope and joy abide. Perhaps the world would be happier if the arts were celebrated more instead of being the first cuts from school and community programs.


    • Good to hear from you Shirley, and thank you for your comments. I absolutely agree – Beauty is truth and truth is beauty as Keats said, and we simply don’t get that food for our souls in school or anywhere else these days it seems, unless we know where to look for it…


  32. So wonderful, the smell and the sight of a single flower keeping the mind too satiated for the pain to intrude.I have always striven to live in a beautiful place, where I could look out my window and see a flower, a tree branch, a bit of blue sky. Beauty has always filled my heart and made me feel a little less alone.


    • Thank you so much for your lovely comment. I know exactly what you mean about always living in a beautiful place, and yes, I too have sometimes just relied on the beauty of a rose to keep me going through despair and desolation !!!It is the gift and comfort of the universe.


  33. While I was reading your wonderful and impressive story I thought of one of my favourite books for very young children.

    In that story the mice are spending the summer collecting nuts, seeds and berries for the long winter. All except Frederick who collects colours, sounds, rays of sun and beautiful summer memories. The other mice think he is a bit lazy or weird and some even laugh at him. But when the long cold winter moves along and the last grain is eaten, Frederick still has plenty of colour, sound, sun rays and summer memories to share which the other mice now cherish.

    Somebody gifted that book to me when I was a very young child, myself, and I always felt that it holds so much beautiful truth. Later in life I learned that Frederick who can see the beauty in everything gives a great excample to us. And the experience you shared here, shows that we can all use a bit of that in our lives.

    I so hope the cathedral and hotels are still sending those flowers to that hospital in Honkong.

    Much love,


    • Dear Steffi, what a lovely thoughtful comment. I loved the story of Frederick – so many layers of meaning, including the realisation that artists, dreamers, story-tellers have something very valuable to give the world…thank you for these thoughts…love Valerie


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s