Monthly Archives: January 2014

Poignant symbolism

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‘Mummy doesn’t like carnations,’  the nine year old told him coldly, her information holding a world of meaning as she correctly assessed that the man at the front door was a suitor.

She was right, and though he persevered on that occasion, he never gave me carnations again. It’s a shame about carnations, but at the time I could only see the sad, scentless etoliated versions wrapped in cheap cellophane and sold on garage fore-courts. They symbolised the  capitalism and commercialism that exploits and corrupts even beauty.

The real thing has a big, heavy deliciously clove- scented head, with a tangle of frilly petals, and was originally used by the Romans for wreaths and garlands, known in Latin as corona. When these flowers first came to England with the legionaries nearly 2000 years ago, their name was coronation, until the word evolved into carnation.

I was just as dismissive about daffodils, when I was presented with a bouquet – or rather some bouquets – which I rather regret now. In my salad days when I was a twenty two year old in the army, and stationed outside a beautiful village in Shakespeare country, I was the only girl in an all male officers’ mess. I had my own little cottage where I lived with the mongrel I’d rescued and dignified by calling him Rupert.

Late one night there was a loud knocking, so I dragged myself from deep sleep, hurried on my pink dressing gown, and stumbled to the door.  Grouped there were all the young officers who had gone to watch a rugby match at Twickenham. It had taken them many hours to get back here, judging by the time – two o’ clock in the morning – and one of the things which had delayed them, apart from merrymaking at every pub on the way back, was that they had also stopped at every roundabout, it seemed, between my cottage and London.

Each roundabout they had stripped of its spring flowers, and here at my door was the result of their labours. Each young man was wearing a proud grin and holding a big bunch of golden daffodils in the moonlight. Sadly, I was not amused, deeply disapproved, and was more intent on getting them to go away, and stopping Rupert from barking and waking senior officers slumbering nearby, than in being grateful for their generosity at the expense of every town council between here and London!

So I did know how my three year old grand- daughter felt when I gave her a disappointing bunch of flowers. I’d chosen a big blowsy thank you bouquet  for her mother, and had as much pleasure in choosing the flowers as my daughter- in –law had in receiving them. My grand-daughter was also ravished by them, so I decided to walk back to the shop through the bitter Melbourne winter’s day and get her the little bunch of flowers I’d refrained from getting on the first visit.

I brought home a posy of exquisite purple violets, the perfect symbol, I thought, for my exquisite flower-like little grand-daughter. She took one look at the dainty flowers and burst into indignant tears, and then threw an uninhibited tantrum in which she expressed her un-utterable disappointment at not having a big grown-up bunch of flowers like her mother’s. Mortified, I could see her point.

Two years later a small posy of white rosebuds with one word ‘Mummy’ on Princess Diana’s coffin reduced half a world to tears.

The symbolism of flowers is far more profound that the sentimental Victorian descriptions of the language of flowers. The flaming red poppy, whose name is now synonymous with the word Flanders, is a poignant reminder still, of every young man who died in the terrible war that my grandmother called The Great War.

And in the next terrible war  flowers softened another battlefield. I remember my father telling me how the hills of Tunisia were smothered in glorious spring flowers as his tank regiment fought their way to join up with Montgomery’s army.

Bruce Chatwin painted an unforgettable image of flowers in that same war, in his book ‘The Songlines’. On the first page he wrote of a Cossack from a village near Rostov on Don, who was seized by the Germans to be carted off for slave labour to Germany. One night, somewhere in the Ukraine, he jumped from the cattle-truck shunting him and other captives away from their homelands and fell into a field of sunflowers.

Soldiers in grey uniforms hunted him up and down the long lines of yellow sunflowers, but somehow he managed to elude them. I can still see in my mind those rows of strong, towering green stalks and leaves,  great, yellow tangled- petalled heads benignly sheltering the fugitive crouched beneath.

I can never forget the endless fields of shimmering purple lupins alive with dancing blue butterflies, stretching along- side thousands of burnt -out tanks in post-war Germany just after the war.  And I could never bear the pink rose bay willowherb, which grew on every English bomb site… the only plant that seemed to thrive in those derelict tragic places. They came to symbolise for me as a small girl, all the horror and sadness and destruction of the war I didn’t understand.

But perhaps the most powerful flower image of all, is that glorious girl on an American campus in the sixties, walking up to a row of armed, helmeted men, and tremblingly pushing a flower into the barrel of a gun pointed at her, her hand shaking slightly as she dared the outrageous.  A girl and a flower speaking the in-effable language of peace.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Sometimes home-made mayonnaise can seem a bit heavy, but I use a quick and easy French recipe to lighten it up, learned from my French neighbour. After making the mayonnaise, beat the white of an egg until stiff, and then gently beat it into the freshly made mayonnaise. It gives it a lovely creamy texture, and is particularly good with fish like freshly poached salmon. Another variation is to use a clove of garlic when making the mayonnaise and then add finely chopped avocado with the egg- white. This is a good accompaniment to the chicken mousse from the last post.

Food for thought

That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter. That mankind has in this sense been cowardly has done life endless harm; the experiences that are called ‘visions’, the whole so-called “spirit-world,” death, all those things that are so closely akin to us, have by daily parrying been so crowded out of life that the senses with which we could grasp them are atrophied. To say nothing of God.         Rainer Maria Rilke 1875 – 1926  Austrian mystical poet

 

 

 

 

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Blogging – antidote to writers’ heartbreak

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“Writers don’t go to hell”, said Anthony Howard, an English writer, “they have such hell on earth with their publishers, that when they die, they go straight to heaven.”

As a mere journalist at the time who didn’t dare call myself a writer, I shuddered at what abysses of despair that remark revealed, and  thanked my lucky stars that my fate would never be to agonise over a publisher.

Times change, and I’ve discovered what he meant… the anguish of  clumsy editors who think they understand the English language better than you do, seems to be the fate of too many writers. I remember my husband writing his umpteenth book, and on receiving the proofs, finding his manuscript had been improved by a feminist editor who’d replaced words like ‘ mankind’ with ‘personkind’, and’ brotherhood’ with ‘personhood.’

I, on the other hand, was once gifted with an editor who had just started at the publishing house, and bright- eyed and bushy-tailed, wanted to prove her worth to her new employers. After she’d completely re-written my first chapter, I suggested she might as well write the rest of the book, and they could dispense with me. They found another editor!

When asked to edit a book or an article, I use the lightest of pencils, knowing well the lacerated feelings of an author whose copy has been ‘improved’, the rhythm of sentences destroyed, words replaced, or others inserted.  And I am living proof that editors often don’t have any understanding of the book they’re working on.

I was once asked to edit a gold- plated leather- bound copy of The World Book of Rugby. My husband swears he actually saw my jaw drop when an emissary from the publisher called in and asked me to take the job on, as their previous editor had just crashed out (probably with boredom).

Conscious of the angst of all writers whose precious words are deemed  unsuitable by an insensitive know-all who has probably never written a book, I  only really checked the spellings of names and teams, grammar and punctuation – not a strong point with sports writers – or me either -and tried to master rugby terms like loosies, flankers, dropped goals and the like – which are different in the two hemispheres..

My finest hour was when I was groaning over the teams for South Africa and Australia at an important test match, and the computer that is our mind clicked into place. There were two players, Jason Small and James Little, and when I looked at the teams, something told me their names had been transposed. They were both playing in the same positions but on the wrong sides. Looking up the records I was right – a huge blunder but an easy mistake.

And that’s what proof-readers and editors are for, to my mind. They are not there to re-write the copy. How people like Dylan Thomas and James Joyce got their eccentric words, constructions and sentences past the eyes of people who think they can write better prose than the writer submitting his precious baby to them I don’t know. So there are obviously some wonderful publishers too… but it’s getting to them that’s the challenge…

So often writers wrestle with language (especially the English language), puzzle over plot and construction, assemble their research and marshal their facts, and then day after day, or night after night, write and re-write and eliminate and polish and check and then re-write and re-think, and finally offer up the fruit of this silent, dedicated labour and joy to someone who doesn’t seem to give a damn for their exquisite prose and potential masterpiece!

And then there are the reviewers and critics. When a craftsman makes a beautiful chest, people don’t look at it and say: ‘did you think of using the grain a different way?’… or: ‘ were you conscious that that leg isn’t quite straight?’  They don’t say to a painter: ‘did you really feel that composition was quite satisfying? … ‘had you really thought through that colour palette?’ or: ‘I just feel that brush-stroke there is a bit clumsy’.

A composer can write his song or his symphony without someone suggesting it would sound better in B minor instead of C minor, or that that crescendo seemed a little over the top in the context of the slow movement.  But it seems as though writing is fair game for everyone who thinks they’ve got a degree in English – or not.

The only other artists who have to endure the pain of their sensitive souls being bruised like ours, are actors and singers. And my heart bleeds for them when pundits pull their performance apart and mention that the soprano cracked on a high D, or the bass is over the hill and past his best.

And this is where blogging is saving the souls of frustrated writers. We can write and experiment and develop our style and stretch our talents without anyone cutting us down to size. Other bloggers are supportive, understanding, and discriminating, but not judgemental.

So writers who blog may now begin to savour what heaven is – writing because you have no choice but to write – and writing knowing that the fear of those precious words being mangled and misunderstood, improved or deleted, is no longer our fate. Blogging allows us to climb out of the pits of despair, rejection and criticism into the sunshine of writing for the joy of it. The gods are not crazy after all.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Chicken mousse is a lovely summer dish and it doesn’t need gelatine, which I never use. Just melt two oz of butter in a basin over a pan of boiling water. Add 3oz of breadcrumbs, half a pint of cream, salt and a good punch of nutmeg. Stir for about five minutes until it thickens. Add three eggs and three table spoons of dry sherry, beat them together and then stir in eight oz of chopped chicken. Pour the mixture into a buttered soufflé dish or similar, cover with foil and bake in a moderate oven until firm – about half an hour. When cool, serve with a creamy mayonnaise with a chopped avocado in it. Delicious.

 

Food for thought

… Man’s real home is not a house, but the Road and… life itself is a journey to be walked on foot…              Bruce Chatwin  1940- 1989.  From his Book ‘What am I doing here”.

Life is a bridge. Cross over it, but build no house upon it.        Indian proverb

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The eternal search – for the perfect coffee

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I lost my wallet the other day. Going to pay for the dry cleaning, I found my big red Guy Laroche wallet given to me by my generous daughter had disappeared. Panic. The last place I’d had it was at the garden centre a mile away. And since I’d paid for the plants, the wallet must still be sitting in the trolley. More panic.

I ran through the things that mattered in my mind… credit cards … but ‘they’ wouldn’t know my pin number. Pain to have to cancel… forget them for now. Money? Who cared. But oh, my photographs of the grandchildren and moments caught in time that I wanted to remember… they were irreplaceable… and the two little love letters with terrible spelling and seven year old scrawls from them … one which I had found written in the diary they always used to keep when they came to stay with me… on this occasion they had decided that they would stay permanently and be home-schooled by me:

‘Five time a week I have fun. It can be so wonderful. I will like to say that I am writing this because it came from my hart and I kodn’t get it out of my hed….I hope that we can stay heer for homeschool it will be so fun and it will asol be fun because I love my granny so much it can be fun every day but I love staying heer and I like feeding the eels’… how could I replace a letter like that? My heart curled over at the thought of such a loss…

What else?  Oh … my collection of coffee cards. Each one stamped for every coffee I’d had, and nearly ready for a free coffee. The restaurant down by the river, the cafe in the garden where they make pottery, the lovely place where they also make hand-made chocolates, my stopping off place in town…

Zipping up my stiff upper lip I hurried back to the garden centre, and there was the red wallet, waiting for me at the office. (gardeners are good  people!) “It was my coffee cards I was worried about,” I explained when I picked it up, and everyone laughed because they knew how I felt.

I have travelled the length and breadth of one country, which shall remain nameless for fear of hurting millions of people’s feelings, looking for a decent cup of coffee. I finally found one in a far-flung cathedral crypt cafe.  I will drive for miles for the sake of that elusive perfect cup.

I know as soon as it’s put in front of me if it’s going to be a good one. The cream will be thick and won’t just dwindle into a thin froth when stirred. It will be smooth and not too creamy and not too strong. The most memorable coffee I’ve ever had was in an Italian restaurant in Melbourne.

Creating this ambrosia obviously came naturally to the maker… and in that search for the perfect cup, I’ve discovered that the maker actually matters. Yes, I know the machine has to be properly cleaned so the coffee doesn’t taste bitter, and the milk the right temperature, but there’s more to it than that. And the deciding factor in the quality of a cup of coffee for me, seems to be the person.

Everyone makes the coffee the same way on the same sort of machines I’m assured, but it doesn’t work out like that. Every barista is different and so is their coffee. A grumpy barista does not produce a good cup of coffee. A good cup of coffee is hand-crafted and a work of love, so I know if it’s going to be delicious by the quality of the barista’s smile. A nice person makes great coffee! They even do lovely patterns in the froth, like a Christmas tree at Christmas time, or a flower or smiley face at other times!

And what despair and thwarted desire when I arrive at a favourite coffee place to find a new member of staff, or the nice coffee person has taken off overseas, and we have to start all over again, with a learner driver as it were!  Or the tantalising times when the best coffee maker is busy cutting cake or sorting spoons, and not at her post, and I have to make do with a cup which I know won’t be as good as hers.  C’est la vie, but coffee is so much more than beans, milk and water!

And when the perfect coffee arrives, what sybaritic pleasure – the delicate sinking of the spoon into the froth, and a gentle stirring. Sometimes a fragrant teaspoon of coffee crystals for the sheer pleasure of stirring and dissolving them in the glorious liquid. And then a sip, and a contented settling into satisfaction as I slowly savour one of civilisation’s minor works of art.

Sadly the second cup never reaches the same level of pleasure as the first. And I’ve even read that scientific research has proved this to be true. No wonder it matters that that first cup is as good as it can get!

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

One of my favourite coffee places serves gingerbread with their coffee. I love it. To make it myself, I use two eggs, a cup of sugar, a cup of milk and a cup of golden syrup (the cup rinsed out with oil before measuring the syrup). Beat them together. Melt 225g butter. Mix two cups SR flour, two teasp or more of ground ginger, a teasp each of mixed spice and of cinnamon, and a teasp of baking soda into the egg mixture and then stir in the melted butter.

Pour into a loaf tin with the base lined with baking paper. Bake at 180 degrees for an hour. If you’re using a fan-bake oven test after 45 minutes. Let it cool in the tin for 30 minutes before turning out. You can ice it, but I like it cut into slices and spread with a little butter.

Food for Thought

“The artist’s task is to save the soul of mankind; and anything less is a dithering while Rome burns. If artists cannot find the way, then the way cannot be found.”
Terence McKenna  (1946 –  2000) was an American philosopher, ethnobotanist, lecturer, writer and author of several books.. He was also the creator of a mathematical theory of time based on patterns found in the I Ching which he termed novelty theory.[1]

 

 

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A rose is a rose is a hose !

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This was supposed to be a picture of a rose. When I developed it, it turned out to be a picture of a hose. I was shocked. How could I have been so one-eyed, and not seen what was shouting at me in a loud turquoise voice? I only see what I want to see, and eliminate even the obvious, it seems.

So when I went for my walk in the summer evening, I reminded myself to actually look, and not to assume or to expect. I wanted to see what was there, not what I thought was there. Down near the harbour where I usually turn around I always end up by a bougainvillaea sprawling through the trees, and just out its reach, a queen of the night holding her own. Braving bougainvillaea prickles, I can just reach the greenery-yallery sprigs of tiny flowerheads.

Two nights ago I broke one off and carried it back with me, sniffing the glorious fragrance, and ending up sitting on the warm marble bench in the cemetery at the other end of the peninsula, still smelling the sweet blossoms. I did what I’d never thought of doing before, and took it in and put it in a glass in the bed-room. The scent filled the whole room, and whenever I turned over in my sleep, the scent was drifting past.

The next day the tiny pale green flowers closed up, and the sprig sat nondescriptly on the window- sill all day, before bursting into glorious scent in the evening again. So now I plan to keep a permanent supply of these modest blossoms that don’t look big enough to be able to scent a whole room… The scent lasts for three nights I’ve discovered.

Walking back tonight with a fresh sprig of blossom, I passed a big shrub on the road where it dips and there’s a muddy spring.  Before now I’ve smelt its fragrance, but not given it a passing glance. Its reputation as a deadly poison and hallucinogen had somehow got in the way of me actually seeing this innocent plant. Tonight I looked at it, and ended up gently holding one incredibly beautiful flower-head after another, each one slightly different, gazing at their two layers of frilly white petals, and seeing deep inside the long white tube, white stamens pushing their way up to the light. The pendulous buds are so yellow it’s a surprise that the flowers are so white

The slender pale green calyx was smooth and soft and somehow tender to touch and to hold, and ended where the green- veined white trumpet – shaped flower began. Its ugly official name is brugmansia, but its folk name is angels trumpets. Angels trumpets spread their scent so far that long before I get there I can smell them.

Enchanted now with the idea of white scented flowers, I noticed the exquisite waxy looking candle-shaped buds of the king magnolia further down the road, the dark shiny leaves supporting each smooth creamy bud like a candlestick. Only one flower had opened, but it was enough. The scent of just one flower wafted past me.

I walked down the long drive to some friends’ house, knowing they were not there, but that they wouldn’t mind me visiting the frangipani plant flourishing by their veranda. The scent of frangipani takes me back to Singapore when it was still an eastern city and I was a girl, where all the alleys were hung with long bamboo poles suspended from every window on each floor, drying thin cotton tropical clothes in the brilliant un-ending sunshine.

We were staying in a hotel just around the corner from the famous Raffles Hotel, and the entrance was flanked with rows of frangipani trees.  Their fragrance followed us into the hotel courtyard and drifted in through the big open bedroom windows where we slept with no air conditioners, but beneath draped mosquito nets.

And when the velvet tropical night had fallen promptly at six thirty, every night in the darkness I would look down from the bedroom and see small groups of people squatting on the pavement in a circle. They would have tiny flickering lights and little spirit stoves in their midst to cook their dinner, delicious smells rising tantalisingly through the frangipanis, and I would hear their soft chatter and their laughter.

There were no blossoms on the frangipani growing here in New Zealand… wrong time of year perhaps. Back home, there was one white gardenia open.  I savoured the perfume before bringing it inside and putting it in a shallow bowl, floating on the water. So though no angels trumpets, I have queen of the night, gardenia and creamy honeysuckle from the porch scenting the house – even the names are poetry.

I don’t know whether I did what I intended when I began my walk, or whether I saw what was really there, but just by looking – truly looking at the beautiful angels trumpets – unnoticed before –  the walk turned into something else – a successful quest for white scented flowers. And like all successful quests, that was good enough.

And I wonder if this is how life is… we set off in one direction and find that imperceptibly we’ve drifted down other unsuspected paths; and looking back, we see that it was the perfect journey, and our travelling had a purpose, and was not random at all.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Friends for dinner before they left after the summer holiday to go back to the city. On a summer evening cold food seemed appropriate. So we had chicken with curry mayonnaise on rice salad. The cooked chicken chopped and mixed into a bowl of good bought mayonnaise, with about a big tablesp of golden syrup and desert sopn of curry powder to taste… I taste until I like it. Stir through enough cream to make it a soft consistency to stick to the chicken.

Cold basmati rice is jollied up with a vinaigrette dressing with salt, plenty of freshly ground black pepper, mustard, and sugar. Add to the rice generous helpings both of peas and sultanas soaked in boiling water, lots of crunchy chopped almonds lightly toasted in a frying pan, and lots of chopped parsley. Nice with a salad and chilled pinot gris .

In deference to our French connections we now have the cheese course before the pudding! This was some of our plums cooked to Nigella’s lovely recipe in red wine, one star anise, two cloves, teasp of cinnamon and a bay leaf, plus honey to taste. We had them with a mix of plain yogurt, whipped cream and runny honey stirred gently together, and a little shortbread biscuit.

 

Food for thought

That mighty power that sways the tides and works the million miracles of spring is ranged forever on the side of love.

The writer: known only to God .  Seen on an embroidered sampler hanging over a bedroom fireplace in an English cottage

 

 

 

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Nuns and their habits

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I can’t help feeling that nuns are getting a bad press at the moment after seeing the film Philomena, and like everyone else in the cinema, running out of tissues. I thought back to the nuns at my convent… mostly French or Belgian, a couple of English and a few Polish ones. Some were old, some were beautiful, some were wise and some were silly – at least to a bigoted ten year old.

My father didn’t know about my past in which I’d  read all my grandmothers anti-Popish books, which included Westward Ho, and Foxe’s Martyrs, a catalogue of the three hundred people Mary Tudor burned for being Protestant. So sending me to a convent for a good education seemed a good idea to him.

I didn’t discuss it with him, for on our first day with our new parents, I’d been told I had to do exactly as I was told – always – so there didn’t seem to be any room for discussion. So a prejudiced Protestant got to observe the strange Catholic goings-on at her new school!

The nuns all looked wonderful in their no-expense spared rich plum-red gabardine habits, with wide swinging pleated skirts and wide sleeves. They wore a long snowy  white veil over the wimple which framed their faces and had a splendid thick knotted red cord round their waists to which they attached their rosaries.

We had a roller skating rink where we skated most days, and obsessed about how many ball-bearings our skates had. At night when I boarded for a while, and when everyone was supposed to be in bed and asleep, we could look down from the gabled windows, and see the nuns swirling round the rink on our borrowed roller skates,red  habits swinging, veils flying. An unforgettable sight.

The order had been formed by three aristocratic Belgian ladies, and we heard their history interminably when we sat in silence in the refectory at lunch, while tall, serious, severely beautiful Mother John stood at the carved lectern and read it to us during retreats. Retreats and the numerous saints Feast Days were a wonderful way of not doing schoolwork, which my parents disapproved of, since they were paying school fees.

During retreat, for several days we never spoke (which I loved even then), and did nothing but pray, draw holy pictures, tally what good deeds we’d managed to perform each day, using a flower as a symbol (I used a violet), process around the school grounds singing hymns, and if we were Catholic, celebrate mass with a portly priest imported for the job. I couldn’t bear him and the way all the nuns fawned over and spoiled the only man who ever came into their orbit! Apart from no speaking and mass, Feast Days were the same round of prayers and processing.

Mother Michael was our housemistress, a tall bony woman, English, and almost the only nun there who had no charm. She wore thick horn-rimmed spectacles, and I noticed uncharitably that in the chapel at prayers every day after lunch, she twiddled her Bride of Christ gold wedding ring and didn’t seem particularly devout.

I rather enjoyed this lunch-time prayer ritual, it also cut into time for lessons, as we walked in a long crocodile along the corridors on miles of polished linoed floors, passing numerous statues of saints frequently adorned with rosaries or necklaces. I thought most of the statues were ‘soppy’, a word we used then, and actually I think they probably were – mass-produced, sentimental, pastel- coloured and idealised images. I glared at them all like a latter-day Cromwell.

Chapel however, with its scent of incense was a pleasure, and a respite from effort and intrigue. Yes, the convent was a hotbed of intrigue and occasionally swept by gusts of vague hysteria – what convent girls would probably call ‘scharmerei’ – with favourites, crushes and gossip part of the mix.

I was Mother Michael’s favourite for more than a term. It was, in a good Catholic phrase – purgatory – because I was imprisoned every day in the airy second floor cloakroom in the Georgian house which was the home of the junior girls. It was a pleasant sunny room, but it might just as well have been a dungeon because I was chained, as it were, to a chair, and every lunch break Mother Michael undid my long dark brown plaits and spent the rest of the lunch hour break brushing my hair.

Friends came and went, washing their hands and changing their indoor shoes, but I was pinned to my penitential chair with my hair loose. Just before the bell Mother Michael would re-plait it, dragging it round my face like a Victorian orphan, and every day when I got home my stepmother would ask what was going on, and when I told her, say it had to stop. I would have loved it to stop, but I didn’t know how to make it stop.

It went on until Mother Michael found another pair of promising plaits, not as long as mine, but long enough. The new favourite was rather smug to me, but I knew what she was in for, and watched with some pleasure as Barbara found herself nailed to the chair, and like me,  unable to join in the games of skipping and hopscotch, playing five stones and weaving cats cradles going on outside. Mother Michael had seriously interfered with my social life, and I felt no pity for her next victim.

The other nuns were civilised and kind, unbigoted and happy. Unlike the only teacher who wasn’t a nun, and who constantly tried to outdo them in piety and holiness. She was the maths teacher, so it was inevitable that our relationship would founder.

In fact it never recovered from the day when I finally rebelled and tried to speak my mind. As an Irishwoman, her constant theme was the ‘puir’ persecuted Catholics and all the dreadful things Protestants had done to them, including  executing Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators – we never celebrated Guy Fawkes day at the convent – and ‘puir ‘ St Thomas More, beheaded by Henry VIII.

Baulking at having to pray for the souls of my Protestant parents because they weren’t Catholic – after we’d interrupted long division yet again to recite the Angelus – my stroppy ten-year old self started to tell her about the Inquisition, and Borgia Popes etc.  But I got no further than the Inquisition. “Oh what a pack of Protestant lies!“ she shrieked dramatically, clapping her hands over her ears.

Not only was my relationship soured with Miss Cummins, but it never recovered from the disapproval of all the other Catholics in the room either… I paid the price for this rebellion, and was always left until last to be picked for rounders teams and  netball. I left the convent after a year without regret, and yet looking back I’ve had more fun from my memories of that unique environment than from some of my more conventional schools.

The beautiful High Victorian Gothic building, which housed the foreign nuns so far from their homes in Europe, and generations of schoolgirls, has now been turned into smart flats, surrounded by the glorious trees and grounds where we played so happily, watched by little red squirrels perched in the black branches of bare trees silhouetted against the snow.

I wonder if the skating rink is still there. I think no-one since would have enjoyed it as much as those gentle souls swirling silently around in the dusk, plum coloured habits swaying, veils flying and rosaries swinging. I do hope they bypassed purgatory and skipped straight into heaven.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Going cold turkey day after day post Christmas is not my idea of enjoying food. So after the second day I chop it into small pieces and freeze it. Yesterday we were ready to eat more turkey, so I defrosted it, stirred small pieces into a thick white sauce with plenty of nutmeg, some parsley and plenty of chopped mushrooms fried in butter. Served over savoury rice, it was good. Into the hot basmati rice I stir a chopped fried onion, plus a handful of peas, a handful of sultanas soaked in boiling water to plump them out, and plenty of toasted slivered almonds, salt and pepper plus more parsley. It beats the boredom of cold turkey.

Food for thought

The angels keep their ancient places;

Turn but a stone, and start a wing!

‘Tis ye, ‘tis your estranged faces,

That miss the many splendoured thing

Francis Thompson 1859-1907, great English poet, mystic, vagrant who lived on the streets for most of his drug-addicted life.

 

 

 

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Summer song

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Walking around the cemetery on New Year’s Eve the sky was still and clear, no silver, almost transparent moon yet, rising above the sea looking like a silver sliver of dried honesty in the pale night sky. Instead there were gulls circling silently and intently overhead, weaving endlessly in and out, never touching or interrupting the arc of another bird.

After a while I chose one single gull, and watched its movements, following its wide circles and trajectories and swoops until finally it headed out to sea in the direction of Little Barrier Island, which hovers, misty indigo, on the horizon.

It felt like a holy silence, the tracery of the gulls’ flight woven like a network of silver filaments overhead, the cemetery a cathedral, silent, sacred and undisturbed. The Universe may have been un-aware that it was New Year’s Eve around Planet Earth, but surely that thought -form which meant we were all conscious of this moment in time, must have created that charged and sacred energy which I was feeling then.

Today it has rained. Things can start growing again, and I can stop watering – for a few days anyway. The countryside has the richness of high summer. The trees are billowing with green foliage, the fields have been cut for hay, and the grass in the meadows is so high that when the calves lie down, their heads just peep out of the tops of grass heads, plantains, buttercups and clover. I thought I saw a flight of big brown butterflies the other day, and it was the tips of their velvet ears reaching out of the pasture. The thrush in the garden sings continuously between pecking at the apple nailed to the top of the fence.

Tonight I was strolling round the cemetery, and the harbour below was the deep dark green of an Arthurian mere. It was as still as a mere too, and the boats at anchor were reflected with perfect clarity. Turning to face out to sea, the ocean was quite colourless with a deep band of blue on the horizon.

I’m constantly re-filling the dogs’ water bowl by the pavement. I hear them slurping away, as people walk past to the beach, thirsty Labradors and dobermans, bitzers and bichon frises, poodles and pointers… even a bulldog.

Earlier today, reading James Lees-Milne’s diaries, listening to the summer rain, I discovered his description of an English summer night in 1946: “the smell of new-mown hay and hedgerows, of eglantine and elder… how I love these long gentle Shakespearean summer evenings…”  Me too. The scent of the queen of the night comes drifting in from the open window at night here. It’s sweet and lovely… but I miss that indefineable atmosphere of those English summer nights.

Those nights throb with nostalgia and a richness. Somehow, it’s as though the layers and layers of lives lived in those parts, the echoes of history stretching back beyond memory and beyond record, the people in the millenniums before Christ, who trod out the ancient paths that still thread across hills and ridges and valleys and fords, can all still be sensed. The voices are silent, but their presence still lingers, as one century after another passes across the meadows and the woods.

The oak and the ash, the hazel and the hawthorn, the holly and the honeysuckle have been growing there since the last ice-age twelve thousand years ago. The smells, the sweet blossom, the new mown hay, the whiff of manure, the fresh rain, the damp leaves, have smelt the same in every age and every summer since. Standing in a quiet English lane on a soft summer night, you can feel those long centuries, and it is very touching.  I haven’t experienced a summer evening for a long time. I’ve always been back in autumn or in winter. But I must savour a June night once more!

Feeling homesick for the English country-side, I got “Far from the Madding Crowd” and “Tess of the D’Urbervilles off the top shelf of the book-case, and had an orgy of Hardy. Tess first, and the sweetness of Talbothays farm, then Bathsheba and her story… I read it differently this time, not so much for the drama of the story, but for the feeling of the country.

So I really took in for the first time, the delicious characters of the farm-folk, and the details of farming life, from the signs of an approaching storm, to the rituals processing through the year of lambing and dipping, and fattening and shearing, to the yearly sheep fair, the shearing supper and the harvest supper.

It was a way of life which had existed for over a thousand years when Laurie Lee in the enchanting ‘Cider with Rosie’, told the story of his childhood, and an archaic way of life  which then vanished forever, with the combine harvester, chemical farming, agri-business and of course the destruction of communities  by the carnage of the First World War.

I’m always struck in Hardy’s books, and in Jane Austen’s letters, by the isolation and “localness” of country life back then. So many people hardly ever left their village, unless they were gentry, and the next village was a foreign country. So when people fell in love in these tiny societies, and lost the object of their affections, through death, departure or rejection, there was often no-one else to love. People literally did grieve and die in different ways, from broken hearts.

Hardy’s description of the hopeless love by the dairy-maids at Talbothays farm for the un-attainable gentleman, Angel Clare, had the unmistakeable ring of truth.  I remembered from closed societies I lived in when I was young, whether in an English village, or a tiny colonial community far away from any other European habitation, how intense relationships were when there were no others. No-one could console themselves before the population explosion, and peripatetic habits of the twentieth century, that there were plenty of other pebbles on the beach. There weren’t.

Yet now, though I live in a tiny village with only four hundred souls, we are no longer prisoners of geography. Not only do people take off to holiday in Alaska and Italy, and their families return from Vancouver and Hanoi, but we all have the world of the internet at our fingertips, to use that well-worn, but accurate cliché in this instance.

It’s eighty- six years since Thomas Hardy died, and in those years our worlds and our lives and maybe our minds have expanded beyond imagining. The world is our village, and the internet is our community. There are pebbles past counting and wherever we direct our vision, we can find the glory of summer somewhere around the globe at the push of our buttons.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Apart from being full of healthy fats, potassium and Vitamin E, avocados are delicious.  I sometimes use them as a dressing over a salad. To one avocado you need  ground coriander – I use a quarter of a teasp, but less is more… the juice of a lime or a lemon, quarter of a teasp of ground cumin, a tblsp of apple cider vinegar, salt, and about half a cup of water. Whizz these ingredients until smooth and creamy, and use straight away.

 

Food for thought

To write or even speak English is not a science but an art. Whoever writes English is involved in a struggle that never lets up even for a sentence. He is struggling against vagueness, against obscurity, against the lure of the decorative adjective, against the encroachment of Latin and Greek, and, above all, against the worn-out phrases and dead metaphors with which the language is cluttered up.

George Orwell, English writer 1903 -1950.  Wikipedia records that : ‘His work is marked by lucid prose, awareness of social injustice, opposition to totalitarianism, and commitment to democratic socialism.’ Animal Farm and 1984 have continuing relevance.

 

 

 

 

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