The necessity of beauty

Image result for images of gardeniasImage result for gardenias


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 gardenias 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 gardenia 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 vital 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….

I published this post nearly four years ago … it’s one of my favourites and many readers will have forgotten it, or never seen it….

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I needed a quick pudding for unexpected guests, so I took out of the deep freeze a couple of brioche I’d stored for such an occasion. Once thawed, I gently fried them in butter, then made a sauce with rum and brown sugar, and poured it over the brioche. I served  them hot with whipped cream, and though not rum babas, they  tasted almost as good.

Food for Thought

People travel to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars; and they pass by themselves without wondering.       St Augustine  199 AD



Filed under beauty, colonial life, consciousness, cookery/recipes, culture, flowers, happiness, perfume, spiritual, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, uncategorised, Uncategorized

34 responses to “The necessity of beauty

  1. Dear Valerie,

    I’m trying to remember if this is one that I read. At any rate, it’s wonderful to either read it for the first time or again.
    I am greatly touched by the image of these poor women crowding around flowers because they are so beauty deprived. And secondly, the St. Augustine quote also resonates. We human creatures of habit get so caught up in our lives, we forget the simple touches of beauty all around us and within ourselves.
    Thank you for this lovely reminder of what is truly important.




  2. I remember this lovely piece. Flower power!


  3. I’ve never read this before. What a wonderful story! The beauty doesn’t have to be expensive, either, and nature can provide a great deal of it. That’s one reason I like green spaces and flowers in public areas. This post stirs up so many thoughts that I can’t even begin to put them all down here. Thanks!



    • Thank you Janet, lovely to hear from you, and thank you for your lovely words too… it’s so rewarding to know that you enjoyed my old story ..
      I agree with you, green spaces, trees and flowers in public spaces lift the spirits – and are probably conducive to health – transmuting fumes and pollution…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I know how excited I get when I see the first blooms in the spring. The flowers must have brought great joy to these women!


  5. I well remember this one Valerie, it was such a powerful post about what a little beauty can do.


    • Thank you Andrea for your lovely words … I’m so touched that you should have remembered my old story … this is one of the few that I do remember writing, I’m always faintly surprised as I go back through old files, and find stories I’d forgotten I’d written!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This was a new read for me. I was reminded of the beautiful silk bags all my purchases in China were placed in – even the cheapest articles! What a delightful idea to perk up our economy. I am imagining my Walmart stuff wrapped in silk bags – Ha. Thank You for making my morning fill with pleasure.


    • Thank you Dianne.. good to hear from you… I was fascinated by your silk bags in China.. sounds beautiful … I do have one which holds a cashmere sweater my daughter bought for me in Italy… but the idea of lots of silk bags really appeals to me !


  7. I love reading your writing! And I so is peace…we so forget that sometimes.

    Your writing always does that for me…fills me with peaceful pleasure.

    Love you!


  8. Behind the Story

    I did read this before, but I fully enjoyed reading it again. Thank you.

    It’s summer here, and the street corners of my town are filled with little flower gardens. I think I’ll take a walk downtown this afternoon.


    • Thank you Nicki, thank you for re-reading, and amazing that you remember reading it before !
      This is one of the few that I do remember writing, I’m always faintly surprised as I go back through old files, and find stories I’d forgotten I’d written!


  9. I’d not read this before. It’s beautiful, Valerie.

    It’s why every place we’ve ever had, no matter how transient, I’ve planted one of those Mediterranean red geraniums on a deck, in a conservatory, or on a windowsill.


    • Hello Mark, good to hear from you, and hope retirement is not too busy !!!
      Thank you for your comment, I really appreciate it… and also know how you feel about having a red geranium … love it….


  10. Beautiful thoughts, beautifully expressed, thank you. I will look at the flowers in my garden with fresh eyes and those women in my mind.


    • Ele, thank you so much for your generous and beautiful comment… some things stick in the mind, don’t they… I’ve never forgotten those women though it happened 47 years ago …


  11. Juliet

    Valerie, what a beautiful, touching story. I love beauty too; it feeds my soul. Your blog speaks to its far-reaching effects. Thank you.


  12. I had not read this so thank you for reposting. A very pertinent story for me since I have been contemplating the necessity of beauty in language — of finding the right word, of creating a certain sense of rhythm to give those words added power. Your posts capture that sort of beauty and provide me with the same sensation the six gardenias gave to the sick women.


    • What a generous and beautiful comment … I really value what you have said about this story, thank you …I don’t think you need to worry about language and beauty, having read your posts… the desire to tell a story in the simplest and most accurate words is the most powerful tool I think we writers have at our disposal … maybe there’s a whole discussion to be had there !!!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Of course I cried at the women in the hospital so starved for beauty. You are so right about the importance of beauty. And maybe some people need it more than others. Or are more sensitive to it. Do you think that is possible?


    • Thank you for your lovely words, Luanne… which also made me think… I have a feeling you may be right about being sensitive to beauty, simply because I think the more we educate our eyes and ears and all the senses, the more we do become more sensitive to beauty… and those of us who have the opportunity to do this, through life-style, education, geography, income, and so on, are the fortunate ones…

      Liked by 1 person

      • It might be that the more fortunate one is, the more one learns some of the sensitivity, but there are people who haven’t had the advantages who still are sensitive to it, I am guessing. Maybe it’s both? The education and so on can “exercise” the emotion?


  14. I remember this, loved it the first time and it is still a beautiful story. There is nothing more uplifting than beauty lighting darkness. As I am just starting to read and write again after a long hiatus it is lovely to see you and your wonderful story.


  15. I always love hearing from you Val, and am so glad you’re going to be back ‘on air’ again. Amazing that you should remember this story… it gives me heart that our words don’t just get lost, that there is a place in the memory for some of them, and therefore some point in continuing to write, even though I’m nearly eighty …


  16. What a beautiful piece. I love the Gardenias being shared around that bleak ward and, almost more, that Odette had a delicate skeleton leaf in her cell. Beauty in all forms is so good for our souls sand it is true that the more we look the more we see. 🙂


  17. gahlearner

    I was sent here by Rochelle from the Friday Fictioneers and have to agree with her, this is such a beautiful and touching story, at the same time sad and uplifting.


  18. Thank you so much for taking the time to cross over here, to read my story, and to give me such a generous bouquet … thank you again..Valerie


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