Monthly Archives: August 2015

Behind every great….

100_0087‘Behind every great man stands a great woman’, one of my dearest friends declared, a propos Winston Churchill and the love of his life, his wife Clementine, and of Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor. We were lunching at the latest fashionable eatery for ladies who lunch, and I rather lowered the tone by quipping that behind every great man is a woman with nothing to wear!

As I sort through years of accumulation in this house, ready to take my next steps forward, I thought of this conversation, and thought of a much ignored and rather valiant woman who stood behind a great man. Her influence over a hundred years later is behind the room I sit in.

I looked around at this white room, white walls and cream curtains, white French furniture and if not white, then painted white and distressed by me, the guts of the rooms being created by the richness of books, and the colour of china. Only three pieces of furniture are the exception to the reigning white – the pine dresser in the dining area, and the antique round Dutch rosewood table laden with piles of books, and a battered old French bench painted in soft grey and cream.

After years of blue rooms, red rooms and yellow rooms this pale restful room is how I want to live these days. Syrie Maugham, Somerset Maugham’s ex-wife, is usually credited with inventing all-white rooms in the thirties. She bleached and pickled and painted furniture and floors, had carpets specially woven in white, and white on white became all the rage.

But the first white rooms in interior decorative history were Mrs Oscar Wilde’s drawing room and dining room in Tite Street, Chelsea.

The poet W. B Yeats described: ” a white drawing room… with white panels, and a dining room all white, chairs, walls, mantel-pieces, carpets…” The Wildes were leaders of fashion, and the much under-rated Constance Wilde edited the Rational Dress Society’s Gazette, often detailing accidents which had befallen women owing to the restrictions or impracticality of their dress.

Her white dining room may have been impractical, but she was an unusual Victorian parent who allowed her two sons to romp and play in its pristine whiteness – and they also scandalised some – as their unconventional mother allowed them to do this naked.

Though not as talented as the wickedly brilliant Oscar, (arriving in America and being asked what he had to declare, he replied, ‘Nothing but my genius!’) she more than held her own, collaborating with him in many of his projects, writing books for children, as well as writing in, and editing her magazine, while creating the artistic and aesthetic environment which had such an influence on their circle and their times.

Constance was also interested in the spiritual life, and became involved with the famous metaphysical and mystical society The Order of The Golden Dawn, where amongst others, well known personalities like WB Yeats, Maud Gonne, famous mystic Evelyn Underhill and even wicked Aleister Crowley before his fall, used to meet.

After the difficult birth of their second son the Wilde’s sexual relationship dwindled, and it was then that Oscar became involved with the love life (what his lover famously described as ‘the love that dare not speak its name ‘) that ended his career and the happiness of them all.

It’s only recently that it’s been understood that the mysterious and crippling illness which blighted Constance’s life, and probably their marriage in the five years before Oscar’s downfall, was the onset of multiple scelerosis. It was a condition which had only been recognised a few years before, and which Constance’s doctors were obviously not aware of.

This too, must have made a huge difference to the quality of the Wilde’s marriage, though they both obviously loved each other. Constance continued to support Oscar’s achievements after his disgrace and was the first to praise the poignant ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’. But his inability to keep at a distance the beautiful but destructive and heartless “Bosie” Douglas, the other half in the scandal, finally drove husband and wife apart.

Constance took her two boys to Italy to escape the scandal, and died there a couple of years later from the dangerous quack treatment she sought for her increasingly debilitating illness.

There’s been much sympathy and rightly so, for Oscar Wilde and his trials and tragedy, but Constance is often the forgotten one in this tribulation which affected them all. Not only does a fine woman stand behind most great men, but behind every disgraced man stands a humiliated and heartbroken wife…

Since I learned her story many years ago, Constance Wilde has always had a place in my heart… I can never resist women who make the best of things, however bad the things … and as Eleanor Roosevelt so memorably said: “A woman is like a tea bag – you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water.”

Food for threadbare gourmets
After my grandsons had been for lunch and I had made gallons – as it were – of chocolate sauce, I wondered what to do with all the sauce left over. Luckily I had a friend for supper a few days later, and decided to put the chocolate sauce to good use.

I gently stewed some peeled and cored pears in hot water with maple syrup, ginger wine, a few cloves, star anise and a bay leaf added. When soft I left them to steep in this juice, and later, boiled it away until it was thick and syrupy.

Served with whipped cream, re-heated chocolate sauce, and a little shortbread biscuit, it was wickedly delicious to one who has renounced sugar!

Food for thought

There is that which has always been there,
Which has never left your side,
Which has always been present,
Whatever the feeling, the circumstance.
When you turn your attention to trusting that,
You surrender to yourself.
Anon

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Pit-stop for blogging

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The vicissitudes of the life, the overwhelming winter, the pressures of people – friendly or otherwise, have caused me to go into overload, to take my eye off the ball, or in this case, my focus off the blog. Like the notice in the door of our village shop occasionally, this is a coded one reading ‘ back in five mins’, or ’gone for lunch,’ or ‘bak sun’.

But since this blog is like an opportunity shop, with a ragbag of ideas and opinions strewn around ( probably second-hand), I invite any readers who stray into the op-shop to feel free to rifle through the shelves of old or pre-loved blogs if they have nothing better to do …

In Auckland in the late sixties, early seventies there was a Love Shop. One of my first assignments on arriving here in NZ, was to cover the closing down of the Love Shop. Queues of people lined the pavement outside to take for free, or in exchange for a metaphorical song, the odds and ends cluttering the shelves.  Similarly, if anyone strays into this little op-shop, they too are welcome to the pre-loved blogs lining the shelves of the archives…

Among my favourites were: ‘Precious Objects’, ‘Places in the Heart’ and ‘Storms of Delight’… though a real delight is when sometimes people write and tell me they’ve re-read an old blog.

So I will leave any stray readers/ shoppers who pop in, to roam through shelves of blogs from the past if they wish, while I hang up my notice – Bak (quite) Sun.

 

Food for thought

..” It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top”…    Virginia Woolf

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What IS so wicked about knitting?

 

0000674Knitting was for old ladies or dowdy ones when I was a child. My stepmother and her friends, or anyone with pretensions to chic would not have been seen dead with a pair of knitting needles in their hands… tapestry, petit- point, yes, but not knitting needles… while as for a crochet hook… that belonged to the dark ages along with that funny little thing even older ladies used for tatting.

But knitting has a become deliciously domestically subversive activity these days, the latest yarn storming being perpetrated by a wonderful group of women, who are using knitting as their medium of protest… knitting against racism and sexism… which just about covers most problems of the western world, since these words are an umbrella for any number of ills, from poverty, lack of equal pay, discrimination etc etc.

This group of imaginative and courageous women meet at a coffeehouse on the south side of St Louis, where they discuss how to knit, purl and dismantle white supremacy. They are The Yarn Mission, a collective formed in October 2014 in response to the violence and police brutality in nearby Ferguson, Missouri.

They aim to “use yarn to promote action and change to eradicate racism, sexism, and other systems of oppression”. Founded by CheyOnna Sewell, a PhD student in criminology, the group seeks to spark conversation about race and police brutality by engaging with curious passersby as they knit, all the while providing a comforting activity for beleaguered activists.

Their courage and their cause reminds me of the women of the Black Sash in South Africa… who though not knitters, wore a black sash to protest against apartheid for over twenty years, and who still work for the disadvantaged in their country. When meeting in groups was banned, these brave women stood alone with their banners and placards, lone figures of courage and conscience in a cruel world.

More recently, the KNAGs have evolved their own unique women’s protest. KNAG stands for Knitting Nanas against Gas, and they, through their knitting and demos are trying to preserve their Australian countryside against gas drilling and other threats to the land, the air and the water of their regions. Knitting grannies – against big business and environmental destruction – mothers and matriarchs – are the conscience of the country.

Over thirty years ago the very name of a Welsh group who called themselves Women for Life on Earth, gave me comfort when I felt isolated and as though I was mad in a farming community where hard- hearted practises towards animals and the earth were accepted as normal.

These women were the start of another unique women’s protest.
Women for Life on Earth evolved into the great woman’s peace protest at Greenham Common. In 1981, thirty six women and mothers protested against the US nuclear missile base at Greenham Common and were inevitably arrested. The following year, 30,000 women gathered to demonstrate peacefully against nuclear war, holding hands around the perimeter of the base. And the next year, 1983, 70,000 women came to hold hands along the fourteen- mile stretch of road between Greenham Common, the Aldermaston Nuclear site and Burghfield, the ordnance factory.

This peaceful women’s protest lasted for nineteen years, and during that time many women camped there for years… and were often arrested and frequently maligned in the media, parliament and everywhere else… Many mothers brought their baby’s booties and tied them on the wire around the camp. The tiny flower-like knitted baby shoes hanging on the wire symbolised that this was a protest by mothers, who wanted to protect their children and make the world safe for them.

It made me cry when I read about it. It was a very feminine protest, in that it evoked so many of the deepest feelings of women and of men who oppose violence… emotions like tenderness, sharing, caring, peacefulness , acceptance, and a deep connection to the planet being pillaged by the masculine energies of the world.

And when they weren’t linking hands around perimeter of cruise missile sites or getting arrested, what were these women doing? Knitting of course – a very centre-ing and meditative occupation when alone, and a very social one when in company. So it was fitting that a couple of years ago when a fourteen mile memorial march was made from Greenham Common past Aldermaston nuclear energy site to the ordnance factory site at Burghfield, it was marked by knitting.

For a year beforehand, knitters of the world, people from all over the globe had been knitting metre- long strips in pink wool, and on the day these strips were joined up the whole length of the march. Pink – the most gentle, peaceful colour in the spectrum, symbolising caring, feminine maternal energy.

In this subversive feminine warfare, wool against weapons, the colour pink has always played a role. In May 2006 in Copenhagen’s main square, a World War II tank was covered from cannon to caterpillar tracks with more than 4,000 pink squares, woven together from the handiwork of hundreds of knitters as a symbolic act of protest against Denmark’s involvement in the Iraq war, along with everyone else. Passersby stopped and helped sew the squares and cover the tank.

Knitting has had a long history of subversion… we all know about the fearsome Madame Defarge from ‘A Tale of Two Cities”, but in 1914 knitting also played a part in that war. Belgian officials encouraged elderly women to help in the war effort against the invading Germans.

BBC Radio 4 reported, “they would contact little old ladies who sat in their houses that happened to have windows that overlooked railway marshalling yards, and they would do their knitting and they’d drop one for a troop train, purl one for an artillery train and so and so on…” Because of this the official US and UK censors banned posted knitting patterns in the Second World War, in case they contained coded messages.

Even in my remote neck of the woods, we have our own yarn bombers, and even though their knitted graffiti is only fun, the fun police do their best to stamp it out. One Christmas, they knitted big red and white trimmed Santa hats for the two giant carved faces symbolising the sexes for the swept- up new public loos, only to have them whipped away the following day. But undeterred, the knitting subversives tried again, and this time their fun lasted a bit longer.

I caused raised eyebrows thirty years ago when I took my crochet into a long drawn out Royal Commission of Enquiry. I was using up scraps of wool, not on crochet squares but on one square which got bigger and bigger as the months went by. I watched with furtive amusement the veiled horror on the faces of the three judges on the first day as I sat among grave police and scientific experts, flaunting my coloured wools, and plying my crochet hook, and knew that most of the men were itching to tell me to take it away… they never dared try !

I was intrigued to discover a traditional knitting pattern in the English Guardian newspaper, entitled,’ Knit your own purse grenade’. At the end of the bona fide instructions it tells the knitter how to assemble the pieces, ending with: “you are now ready to throw your grenade”.

So knitting is not all it seems – it is much more than it seems, and a wonderful, wickedly mischievous way of making a stand. It’s a potent protest against all the ills that plague us; perhaps most satisfyingly of all, it annoys the politically correct… because the subversive quality of knitting is so hard to pin down. What IS so wicked about knitting?

 

 

PS An ironic tail piece. My subversive uncle and aunt used to set up a soup stall and sell soup to the CND anti- nuclear disarmament marchers whose annual protest march passed their door. Over the years with the money they earned, they were able to subsidise a new women’s wing at the local hospital, which the Queen Mother opened, and unwittingly congratulated my aunt on her fund-raising.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Two beloved grandsons with hollow legs for lunch today. Not having much time to prepare I did a quick and easy pudding… ice-cream with hot chocolate sauce. I couldn’t lay my hands on my Mrs Beeton cook book recipe with my infallible hot choc sauce, so I improvised with this hot chocolate fudge sauce.

Place in a heavy- bottomed saucepan two ounces or so of butter, four heaped tablespoons of brown sugar and about half a cup of cream. Bring this to the boil and add two chopped up Mars Bar, or squares of black chocolate, a teaspoon of vanilla, and boil stirring all the time until the chocolate is melted. Let it boil a little longer stirring all the time and just re-heat when you want it… easy-peasy! I’ve also used Toblerone bars for this… just as good, and I would think some rum would be good for the right audience!

 

Food for thought
Our spiritual destiny is to be in the Right place at the Right time. Anon

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Living takes up all my time

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As I drove home this morning I wondered how often I had driven along that same country road with all its winds and curves and hills and one way bridges… ruminating about this, I went back randomly to my diary six years ago to see what has changed… this is what I found:

“ I had the house to myself today – the solitude I’ve always wanted. In his early diaries, Thomas Merton moaned on about not having solitude and silence. I know how he feels, but how could these things be missing in a Trappist monastery? And it’s a lot easier to be alone in a crowd surely, than one in a one-on-one relationship! Silence is easier than solitude. I never have the radio on, rarely the TV, and sometimes go for weeks without playing any music.

‘The days have seemed calm and beautiful. Ken Wilber’s understanding of how to ground the insights of the spiritual life, reminded me of Brother Laurence’s practise of the Presence of God.
It was reported of him that, ‘in the greatest hurry of business in the kitchen he still preserved his recollections and heavenly-mindedness. He was never hasty nor loitering, but did each thing in its season, with an even uninterrupted composure and tranquillity of spirit…’  mindfulness then…

‘I had made a cake from a recipe on the last page of Nigella Lawson’s book ‘Feasts’. This was a funeral cake, but the beautiful loaf in its tin with a long sprig of rosemary for remembrance on top inspired me. It was absolutely delicious, and has entered my repertoire with a fanfare. So yesterday, I got up in good time to make another rosemary cake for morning tea with Kate and Jocelyn. This time I used twice the amount of cooked apple and lemon, more sugar and added vanilla.

‘It was a triumph. The big, tender, golden loaf with a sugary top, infused with the taste of lemon and rosemary, and with the rosemary sprig down the centre, was a culinary poem just to look at. It had a pure, classic feeling, qualities which can be applied to things other than music or sculpture! We all felt it was a work of art, which didn’t stop us devouring it in large moist chunks, and Jocelyn took the recipe.

‘ Both girls very pure, so we had apple tea instead of coffee, (I didn’t realise it was solid sugar) and we talked for hours, until nearly one o’ clock. Jocelyn brought a jar of her fig and ginger jam, Kate, a fragrant bouquet of herbs and pink and violet flowers. I had laid a table with a linen cloth with a heavy crochet lace border, and with the curving regency-style silver tea-pot, the bone china rosebud sprigged cups and saucers edged with gold, silver king’s pattern cake-knives, white lace and linen napkins, it looked like one of those romantic magazine photographs. I left it, cake, crumbs, rosemary sprigs and all, untouched all day long to savour.

Today, I fell off the wagon. Went shopping and doing errands in town, and I never seemed to get into my stride. Going into the spare bedroom to work out where I would start doing paint touch-ups, I found a book left there by the last occupant, Alexander McCall Smith’s, ‘The Sunday Philosophy Club’, which I read till I had finished. Charming, erudite and civilised – art, music, ethics – all merging seamlessly. But apart from meditating, I hadn’t been present all day, just for the sake of blobbing out with a book, going absent without leave as it were. So no mindfulness then…

Thank heavens for Rumi, who I turned to this morning and his wonderful:
Come, come, come, whoever you are! Wanderer,
Worshipper, lover of learning
This is not a caravan of despair.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve
Broken your vow a thousand times
Still and yet again
Come!’

Driving home through the bay, I saw a mother duck shepherding her family of tiny brown fluffy babies along the footpath, while she calmly brought up the rear. There must have been at least a dozen, and one hadn’t managed to make it up onto the low step-up of the pavement, and was now trying to keep up, anxiously scurrying along in the gutter!

Cara (the cat) is still asleep on the unmade bed, a flat, black semi-circle. She slept all night stretched up against me, seeming to be purring every time I awoke. Maybe she was making amends for a dreadful incident last night in the cemetery. As I strolled towards the look-out where I habitually inspect the flat rock far below with waves splashing over it at high tide, a cock pheasant ran across and into the undergrowth on the edge of the cliff.

Cara was a long way behind, and hadn’t seen it, so I thought all was well. But when she reached me, she stood and sensed the area. She could have been a pointer, the way she sussed out the presence of the bird. Ignoring my peremptory calls, she purposefully plunged down the cliff. I attempted to grab her, but it was too dangerous. Occasionally, as I peered into the undergrowth, I would catch sight of her blackness skulking through the bushes. I went home with my arms full of pohutukawa twigs as usual, to use as firewood, and then came back in the hope of tracking her.

She turned out to be sitting behind a grave-stone, and when she attempted to escape me again I grabbed her by a foreleg, and carried her firmly home, where I made sure she stayed. I hope it’s not the breeding season. ‘

Reading this, I realised that much has changed in six years … though I still fall off the wagon regularly, but the beloved cat has gone to a soft cushion in the sky, I am now alone, and have also given up eating sugar… so fewer delicious cakes. But the rhythm of the seasons continues, the full moon still shines across the water as I stand at the cliff’s edge, the mother ducks are still moving majestically across the road shepherding their broods… some friends have moved on, new friends have changed my life in many ways, and life is often a baffling adventure.

But whatever hidden meaning there may be in it, I remember Montaigne’s words: “Alas, I have done nothing this day !”
“What? Have you not lived? It is not only the fundamental but the noblest of your occupations”. So be it. I live.

 

Food for Threadbare gourmets
Here’s that delicious cake by Nigella Lawson with my wild additions. (I belong to that abandoned school of thought that feels if one thing is delicious, twice as much must be twice as delicious ! I also subscribe to the Hebrew saying that we will be held accountable for all the permitted pleasures we failed to enjoy).

So, first you cook until soft a sliced eating apple with a teaspoon of caster sugar, zest and juice of half a lemon, a teaspoon of butter and a small sprig of fresh rosemary. Fish out the rosemary, leave the apple to cool, and then mash or blitz to a pulp. Line a one pound loaf tin with greased baking paper.

To the pulped apple add 225 grams melted butter, 150 grams of sugar, 3 large eggs and 300 grams of flour. I use self raising, and also double the apple mixture and add a scant teaspoon of vanilla. Mix it quickly to a smooth batter, and pour into the tin. Dredge the top generously with caster sugar, and then lay a long sprig of fresh rosemary down the middle of the cake top. The oil from the herb scents the cake deliciously as it cooks – oven 170C or 325 F, for approximately fifty minutes. Let it cool etc. before cutting and devouring with abandon!

 

Food for thought
The unexamined life is not worth living.     Socrates died 399 BC

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