The preciousness of people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for threadbare gourmets

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

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

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

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


Filed under colonial life, cookery/recipes, culture, food, gardens, great days, life/style, philosophy, spiritual, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, village life

32 responses to “The preciousness of people

  1. Valerie, your posts are almost always like a refreshing glass of water or iced tea and this is one such. What a delightful group of neighbors! The most interesting of our neighbors at our rental house is an eccentric guy across the street who came over to welcome us one of the first days we were here…and then said he’d cut our lawn for $40! 🙂 He began turning up, planting flowers and tomatoes in our yard. Weird. But he has the green thumb because we had more tomatoes on those two vines that I ever seen anywhere. 🙂

    Enjoy the weekend.



  2. A most enjoyable post, Valerie. For some reason your Irish gentleman neighbor made me thing of Mr. Chips. The bike I suppose!


    • So good to hear from you Jamie, and lovely to be reminded of MR Chips… one of those books that I can feel a re-read coming on as I think of it ! Not many of us around who remember him are there?


  3. Juliet

    What a delightful post, Valerie. The world would be a drab place without eccentrics. A friend once accused me of being eccentric, back in my artist days doing collaborative projects and working on the beach. I took it as a compliment. Being an eccentric simply meant daring to be myself.


  4. It seems that the people you describe are being true to themselves and their interests and feelings. (The quote from Martin Buber is perfect.) True eccentrics are quite different from those who strive to shock and gain attention with their unusual looks and ways. The difference is mainly interior, but I think we know it when we see it.


    • What an interesting comment, – you’re so right, there’s a world of difference between peole who set out to be eccentrucs and people who are just themselves.. glad you enjoyed Martin Buber. and so good to hear from you…..


  5. What a wonderful post Valerie. A beautiful way to dip into ones memory and celebrate those differences which give some of us such individuality.
    What a nice world it is when not everyone conforms and allows self expression to creep in.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx


  6. You have painted with words the loveliest portraits of people… “If you cannot be the poet, be the poem” -David Carradine


  7. I am remembering some colourful characters from my past. My present neighbourhood seems dull in comparison. Two amazing personalities/eccentrics were the Misses Parham. I mention them by name because their family history was remarkable, yet you would not have suspected it from their appearance. Have you read any Jack Lasenby? He has some precious people in his books. I laughed (and cried) my way through ‘When Mum went Funny.” So cheers to the Preciousness of People.


    • Hello Amanda, good to hear from you… I must follow up your Misses Parham…. No, Jack Lasenby is a treat to come… but I love the sound of his title…


      • The Misses Parham gave me a typed copy of one of their mother’s precious manuscripts, as a wedding present. I was deeply touched. I have not looked at it for years. It is one of the many treasures stored in the attic.


  8. People i see daily do seem awfully mundane by comparison with that lot! The recollections are delightful!
    My father was … a bit eccentric … One of his many eyebrow-raisers was when he made a small trailer for his motorbike, and then welded prongs onto his helmet. His long surf fishing rod would be transported with butt in trailer and stick part resting over his head.


    • So good to hear from you. That sounds genuinely eccentric – how old were you – did you cringe ????


      • That was just one of many little things like strapping a dustbin to a car as stowage space, transporting a mattress on his head on a bicycle, fitting a backrest and a second set of handlebars to his motorbike, gaining entry to VIP areas not by ‘trying it on’ but by the confident air or someone who belonged there, looping the loop in a Dakota forgetting that he had a load of unstrapped-in troops … oh, i could go on and on.


  9. There are some bloggers I read because they educate me. Others I read because they make me laugh. Still others I read because I am a policy and political wonk, can’t help myself on this one.

    You Valerie, you make my heart soar. You educate, there are times you make me laugh, others you bring me to tears; always though you open my soul and remind me there is beauty in this world worthy of attention, compassion and our embrace.

    I am eternally grateful I found you. This was a wonderful look into your world. I love the people you have allowed in, it gives me great hope.


    • Dear Val,
      What a beautiful gift you have given me in these lovely words. I felt so moved when I read them that that is how you feel, and it gives me such encouragement… you wouldn’t believe how often I hesitate to press publish, in case it isn’t worth reading ! So thank you thank you, for such a gift from someone of such discernment and beauty as you, Love Valerie


  10. I have always been attracted to unconventional people. They are far more interesting and they hold such secrets about their lives that are fascinating if you allow them to tell it. Sounds like you have a collection of neighbors and friends that I would thoroughly enjoy!


  11. Thank you for this lovely and entertaining post Valerie. Precious friends indeed who seem to be the persons of whom Martin Buber writes! They no doubt value you as much as you do them.


  12. What a wonderful collection of people – you make me wish to have known them by describing them so delightfully.


  13. Thank you for inviting me to walk through your neighborhood with you. I thoroughly enjoyed your neighbors and their individuality.

    Let’s have a tea party!


  14. Valerie, the “waters of life” flow through your writing often. Thank you for that.


  15. I do like this post! For you have given me much to think about, as always. There are layers to your writing. Like you, I have met remarkable people over the years. Some have passed on, leaving their mark embedded in my memory, while others. who are in the process of becoming, give hope that they are ready to take the next step forward. These people have one thing in common – they choose to live big lives, despite barriers and obstacles that come their way. While others sit back, they thrive on the challenges. They are true to who they are and shun conformity. When we are lucky to meet up with these individuals, we see the possibilities in our personal lives.
    We are complex creatures! And I am happy for that happy thought.

    “There’s such a lot of different Annes in me. I sometimes think that is why I’m such a troublesome person. If I was just the one Anne it would be ever so much more comfortable, but then it wouldn’t be half so interesting.” L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables


  16. Your first character, especially his home, reminded me of one from Great Expectations. What a dull world it would be without all our little quirks xo


  17. Dear Valerie,

    I used to hate it when my mother would say, “You’ll appreciate me when I’m gone.” She was right of course.

    She was a tiny lady, 4’10” and maybe 100 lbs. (I’m tall by comparison at 5 ft. nothing.) Yet she loved big jewelry, eyeglass frames and carried huge purses. She never apologized for who she was and I’m only now realizing how unique and special she was.

    Your piece gives me pause. it’s so easy to take people for granted. The person who might irritate me today could be the person whose presence I miss tomorrow.

    Thank you as always for your thought provoking words.




  18. LadyBlueRose's Thoughts Into Words

    yes this is what I needed to end my night of wandering 🙂
    your characters are superb, I would love to meet all of them, especially the pot on the bike with a basket….
    you write with the light of each humans eyes I think….
    Thank you for sharing….I enjoyed this very much
    Take Care…You Matter…


  19. Dear Mary Rose,
    So good to know that your enjoyed this… and somehow it gives each of those wonderful people a little immortality to know that you would love to meet them !Love… V


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