Monthly Archives: March 2020

Keeping body and soul together

daisies

About a month before the full extent of the crisis which is now overtaking the whole world was obvious, I began quietly accumulating food-stuffs in my store cupboard. Two of this or three of that instead of just one. So when the catastrophe reached this country, and we went into lockdown within a few days of the first cases of the plague arriving in these shores, I didn’t need to do any panic shopping, just last minute perishables like milk, mushrooms and courgettes.

When the drawbridge went down and we all retreated to our own castles, I felt like a biblical wise virgin – perhaps not – a wise crone perhaps, with the oil in my lamp, ready for the challenge, not of spiritual growth but of living without all the amenities that we take for granted in the western world. We had stocked up on gas for the cooker, and petrol for the generator in case the power went down, filled the car and checked the oil.

The old freezer we’d replaced when a friend bequeathed her up-to-date appliance while re-modelling her kitchen, was still sitting here. No-one else had wanted it. So it came back into service in this emergency and absorbed all the bulky things like bread, and the extras like the butter and grated cheese and pastrami that we weren’t going to be shopping for in the foreseeable future. We felt ready for anything.

I can live off baked beans for a month, my love bravely declared. There’s no need, I kept re-iterating, we’ve got plenty of everything. And now we seem to have so much more time than we did before the Great Retreat, I’ve also had more time to think about food, and how to marshal our resources; and also to read new recipes and ideas.

We seem to be living rather luxuriously, rather than frugally… though that may come. So instead of just putting together my normal macaroni cheese which is a favourite in this house, I found a French recipe which we tried last night.

I left out the tomato puree, which I didn’t fancy, and for lack of a bacon hock, just chopped up and lightly fried some rashers of good bacon. Instead of making a normal cheese sauce, I broke into the packet of mascarpone nestling in the fridge as per the recipe, and beat it into the yolks of two eggs.

I added grated cheese, no Gruyere in the house, just good old Cheddar, leavened with some Gouda with cumin seeds, found at the back of the fridge and grated, which added a layer of je ne sais quoi to the mix.  With plenty of black pepper, the bacon, the cooked pasta and all, was tipped into a casserole with a layer of grated parmesan on top, and left with enough time in the oven to warm it up and grill the top till crisp.

Even the pasta wasn’t macaroni. I had several packets of two-minute noodles sitting in the cupboard, having previously used their sachets of chicken stock for flavouring soups. I simply pour boiling water over the noodles, and leave them for a few minutes until they’re soft and ready to drain and use. Combined with all the other ingredients, their humble origin didn’t matter. The whole dish took only as long as separating the eggs, frying the bacon at the same time, and soaking the noodles, before ten minutes or so in the hot oven.

This is my idea of cooking these days – something quick, easy and delicious, using for the most part good ingredients, and not shying away from short cuts. I do a lot of things now, that I inwardly swore when I was young, I’d never do, like using chopped garlic from a jar, buying grated cheese, and even using pre-cooked packets of rice, when I lack the energy to slave over a hot stove. These packets of basmati, long grain and jasmine rice, which are more expensive of course than loose rice, were the despised unwanted items left on supermarket shelves during the Great Shopping Rush, but for me, they are a gift.

They mean a fried rice, or a kedgeree, or a curry in a few minutes instead of the hard labour of thoroughly washing and rinsing, boiling and draining of the real thing.  Nearly fifty years ago, I remember watching in Stanley Market in Hongkong, an old Chinese lady, wispy white hair scraped up into a tight bun, wearing clogs and grey sam-fu with black trousers, crouched by a tap on the edge of the pavement, washing and rinsing rice in a battered aluminium pot, over and again.

She poured in the water, swishing it about with her hands, draining it carefully out through her old wrinkled fingers, never losing a single precious grain, and then beginning the whole process over again until the water ran clear into the gutter.I think of her, every time I cook rice, but no longer feel guilty at cutting corners to save my energy, as I used to.

Energy is precious, and so is time; and while plenty of time is the gift of the Great Retreat, energy is not so plentiful. Yet this too is the gift of this unexpected home detention, isolation, withdrawal, lockdown, whatever we call it. Time is our own. We can measure our energy, plan our time, listen to our inner clock, and nurture the needs of our mind and soul as well as our body.

Those of us who are retired, and those who have no duties of care for children, or family who need us, are fortunate. We can still enjoy human contact by phone, the internet, skyping, even blogging. Even those of us who don’t have pets to nurture, and be nourished by, still have the time to enjoy the pleasures of books, music, knitting and other pastimes we often don’t have space for in our busy western lives.

I’ve been painting a new porch and veranda black – posts and roof and steps and lovely curved front, a bit Japanese looking, jutting out into the forest. Bitten by the bug, I then painted the wicker chairs black, and then a white side table which had once been gilt and then white, became black, and a big pot which had once been black, and then white, is also black again!

And so now we have another place from which we can look into the trees, watch the weather, listen to bird song,  gaze at the sunset, and see the moon rise. So many people in their homes and apartments, in so many places throughout the world, are cut off from the outside world, and yet by a strange paradox they are now savouring the growth of spring in the northern hemisphere, watching the clouds and the rain, becoming conscious of the sun rising and the moon waning, and connecting more and more with the natural world. So too, are we, in the southern hemisphere, as autumn creeps up on us. For once, in the poet’s words, we all have the time to stand and stare.

 

Food for Housebound Gourmets

 For those who fancy trying my fancy French macaroni cheese, here are the amounts for four people:250 gms crème fraiche, 2 egg yolks, 225 gms macaroni, 115 gms gruyere cheese, and a sprinkling of parmesan

Stir crème fraiche and egg yoks together, add cooked pasta and all the other ingredients, including pepper. Sprinkle parmesan over the mix and bake until hot and the top golden. Enough for four, and we will have it again tomorrow jazzed up with salad etc.

I would use cream instead of creme fraiche next time, as I like a looser cheese sauce… or I’d use my other short cut… cook the pasta and stir in a tin of condensed chicken soup, grated cheese, black pepper and nutmeg, loosen it to taste with cream or milk – and hey presto.

I’m keeping a record of what we’re eating and will be fascinated to see how it works out over the time. So far:

Day one: Coq au vin using chicken legs.

Day two: pork chops, plus leftover risotto from the deep freeze, fried onions for him, kumara/sweet potato for me, and acid free tomatoes cooked in butter and cream a la famous chef, Dr de Pomiane.

Day three: spaghetti Bolognaise for him, egg/avocado/tomato salad for me.

Day four: chopped cooked chicken from deep freeze stirred into a white sauce flavoured with chopped bacon, chopped mushrooms and nutmeg, the sauce made with some meaty stock made from scraping the pork chop pan the other night. (plus cream!)served on rice with green beans.

Day five: baked chicken drumsticks cooked on a bed of chopped onions, with rice, mushrooms and tomatoes for him, kedgeree with hard-boiled egg for me, and enough to store half in the deep freeze..

Day six: macaroni cheese.

Ah, food, glorious food.  As someone once said, “The only thing I like better than talking about food is eating it.”

Food for Thought

 Over three hundred years ago a prisoner in the Tower of London carved on the wall of his cell during his long imprisonment: ‘It is not adversity that kills, but the impatience with which we bear adversity.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under cookery/recipes, life/style, sustainability, Uncategorized, world war two

Comfort and Calm in the Crisis

Lot18again

This is the first day of our NZ lockdown. We are in self-isolation in our forest, enjoying peace, solitude and solicitude.

Not just words, and offers of help from our little caring community, but the delivery of a bag of organic fruit and vegetables and a dozen big brown free-range eggs from neighbours who also have a farm-let some hour’s drive away.

The doctor rang me, so I didn’t have to drive into town to see her, and wrote a prescription which I can collect from the chemist.

When we ventured into town briefly yesterday before lockdown, to pick up a prescription for Douglas, both chemists had a table at their door, where drugs were handed to customers. The queues at each place stretched along the pavement in the gentle autumn sunshine because everyone was observing the six feet rule between each person. The atmosphere was calm, sensible and caring.

At the supermarket there were far fewer people than normal and no loaded trolleys. People seemed to be picking up last minute items, as we were. No pasta or tins of tomatoes left, and intriguingly, shelves bare of chocolate. Lots of fresh fruit and vegetables and no panic.

Douglas insisted on us washing the beautiful apples, pears and squash from our friends, after watching a video which had showed how germs travel and last on surfaces. I hard boiled one of the precious eggs for my lunch, and nestled the peeled egg into a bed of steamed leeks, poured some cream over them and topped them off with a thick layer of grated parmesan leftover from the previous night’s supper.

A few minutes under the grill turned it into a crunchy gold topping. I had forgotten what an almost sweet taste and texture a fresh egg from a happy hen was like. This delicious little lunch ended with one of the crisp, freshly picked apples from a tree which had never come in contact with a chemical.

Himself had tender pork sausages for his lunch… I boil them now to cook them, and then they just need a few minutes in the frying pan acquiring a crisp golden skin.

In the soft sun-light I sat on the sofa looking out through the open French doors across the green valley. The urgent call of a covey of distant quails were the background to the sounds of swallows twittering as they circled and dived around the house, and I heard  the first autumn serenade from a cicada. Though I am concerned about my beloved family, this place felt peaceful and nurturing.

Like everyone else, my family is scattered and coping with this unprecedented crisis. One grandson is in London, another has had his business closed down for the lockdown, the end of which is uncertain and unknown. Our tetraplegic step-grand-daughter, who only has thirty percent use of her lungs and a totally compromised immune system has had her three daily carers leave… the family don’t know who they would have come in contact with, the risk too great, so the huge burden of 24 hour daily care has fallen on my son’s wife. He has to work from home so as not to bring infection into their isolated little bubble of comparative safety.

Other family members who were going to share the load can no longer do so under ‘lockdown’ since they don’t live there. My daughter who is president of boards and clubs, and director of national organisations, is coping with total chaos across every facet of her normally hectic life. And I can only watch from the distance. I am like every other older person, watching sadly from the sidelines as our children and grand-children and other family struggle, while this tsunami engulfs their lives and their livelihoods and threatens every known certainty.

The actual illness seems almost like a sideshow compared with the dire effects of it on the whole world. And yet when I woke this morning with the dry thyroid cough I often have, and remembered the head-ache I’d had in the night, and felt the slight soreness in my throat, I had a sudden moment of panic – these are the symptoms of the bug. Then I had a drink and the throat returned to normal, and the fear faded, and I remembered my firm intention not to join the crowd!

I looked across to the window, where outside, the sun was shining on the mountain, and the jitters – a word that emerged in the early days of the Second World War, evaporated in the peace and beauty of this blessed place.

Now the day is ending, night is drawing nigh, shadows of the evening, steal across the sky – the first lines of a hymn my grandmother taught me during WW11. The first day is ending of our long retreat into self-isolation, night is drawing nigh. It has been a good day for us. I just long to share that goodness with others, before the shadows steal across so many lives.

Afterword.

It may cheer some to know that ISIS’s Health and Safety Department – fancy a terrorist group having such a thing – have advised their enthusiastic jihadis who are all dying to create mayhem, to steer clear of western infidel countries in order to avoid infection from the virus. So there is a silver living to every cloud!

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Filed under beauty, birds, family, food, life and death, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, village life

Dynasties, duties and decisions

liz
The Queen on her way to open her first Parliament  in 1952
When I worked on a magazine, in an idle moment I picked up a tome lying around. It was a biography of Queen Mary, this Queen’s grandmother, and written by James Pope Hennessy, who the Royal family considered a ‘safe pair of hands.’ So he had access to all the Windsor archives. (sadly, being a safe pair of hands wasn’t enough to stop him being murdered by his gay lover a few years later)

The book became an obsession, filled with trivial delicious gossip and detail as well as history, and ending with flimsy folded pages of yard long pull-out family trees of all the British and European monarchies, their marriages and inter-marriages, offspring, ancestors… and genealogy became another hobby.

A friend gave me my own copy of the book, and I followed it up with the acquisition of biographies of everyone else, from Queen Victoria and her numerous offspring, who became Queens, Grand Duchesses and Empresses of duchies, kingdoms and empires all over Europe. I gobbled up the histories of her successors, the Edwards, the George’s, Alexandra, Elizabeth’s, and so on.

I devoured Victoria’s letters to her daughter, the Princess Royal who became Empress of Germany, who with her tragic husband  battled Bismarck  and then Bismarck’s pupil, her son, the notorious Kaiser Wilhelm; Victoria’s letters to her second daughter Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse-Darmstadt, and the disaster of both haemophilia and diphtheria which claimed her family. And Alice’s six-year-old son saying why can’t we all go together, as another sibling died. And the eerie events that followed, when his sister Tsarina Alexandra and all her family died together in the cellar at Ekaterinburg, and he, by now, Grand Duke, dying in an air crash with all his family, wife, children, mother in law, on their way to a wedding in England, and finally Mountbatten, Alice’s grandson, dying with members of his family and others in the IRA atrocity in Ireland.

I learned about Edward the Seventh’s  affairs, including his longest and deepest commitment to Mrs Keppel, the present Duchess of Cornwall’s great grandmother, the anorexia and vanity of ravishingly beautiful Empress Elizabeth of Austria who used to wear damp skin-tight leather riding habits to accentuate her figure, and was assassinated by an anarchist as she walked to a  ferry in Geneva; poor George who became King when his brother abdicated, in agony for much of his childhood from splints to correct knock knees, and the physical strictures he suffered from having to stop being left handed – no wonder he stammered as an adult.

I absorbed Sir Charles Petrie’s acute psychological analysis of the ruling house of Britain when he described the brutal Cumberland streak,  a reference to Queen Victoria’s sadistic uncle; the conscientious Coburg inheritance, from noble Prince Albert, whose last action as he was dying of typhoid was to avert war between the US and Britain in 1861, a war which could have changed the course of history; and the artistic, self-indulgent, party-loving, charming Hanoverian streak inherited from the Prince Regent who was known as Prince Charming back in the 1840’s, and personified more recently by Princess Margaret. These personality types are still obvious to this day in each generation of the Royals.

So when a publisher commissioned me to write a book on the Royal’s relationship with NZ, I had already primed the pump, as it were. One of the fascinating aspects of following such a well -documented family is to see how heredity plays its part in each generation – including William’s conscientious Coburg nature, like his grandmother the Queen’s, to Harry’s red Spencer hair, a legacy of Sarah, first Duchess of Marlborough three hundred years ago. She had a mane of glorious red hair which in one of her famous rages, she chopped off to spite her devoted husband, John. After this great Duke of Marlborough died, she found a box with her hair in it, lovingly preserved by her husband. That red hair has descended through every generation of the Spencer – Churchill family including to Winston Churchill and Princess Diana’s brothers and sisters.

So when Prince Harry married his American bride with her exotic heritage, like everyone else I was fascinated and intrigued for all the many reasons commenters and pundits have expounded. And fascinated too, by the enthusiasm with which the British people took the newcomer to their hearts – great crowds wherever the couple went, huge mobs of thrilled and enthusiastic spectators at their lavish wedding and the excitement when a new baby was announced ( though somewhat mixed, since the announcement seemed timed to overshadow the Queen’s grand daughter’s wedding)

Since then as everyone knows, the fairy story has dissolved in the light of common day, diverse personalities and controversial decisions. As the opposing sides have argued, Royal Family fans versus the Sussex’s, I’ve been saddened by the distortions of truth, which have ended up tarnishing the Queen and Catherine, William’s blameless wife.

For example, the defenders of Meghan’s decision not to bring Archie, the Queen’s great grandson, to see his family, argued that the Queen left her two eldest toddlers for six months. She did. But she left them with their doting grandmother, the Queen Mother, and their aunt Princess Margaret.

She had no choice. When she took up the tour of the Commonwealth to thank each country for their support during WW2, which George VI had been unable to do because of ill health, it was aborted in Kenya on the death of her father. The following year she tried again and during my research for the book I’d been commissioned to write, I found they stayed nearly every night at a different town and new hotel all over the world.

Even when they wearily got to their destination each night in this country, choirs came and serenaded them outside, every evening, so they had to go out and thank them before collapsing inside. No point in dragging their toddlers from one strange place to another every day. By contrast, when Charles and Diana brought William, he learned to crawl on the lawn of Government House in Auckland where they were able to make their base.

Others pointed to Catherine leaving her children for a week’s second honeymoon, but again they were with their doting grand- parents, not just a friend of their mother’s. Which is one of the odd things about Arche’s situation, that his grandmother, his only other family member, doesn’t do what most devoted grand-parents do, and take the opportunity to be with him when his parents aren’t. Though Meghan says she’s done the right thing as she wants her son to grow up in a loving fun-filled environment, he’s actually been wrenched away from his wider family, with a clutch of happy fun-filled young cousins, family summer holidays at Balmoral and Christmases at Sandringham.

The worst thing of all, to me, is the way both the Royal Family and the UK have been vilified in order to justify what many people feel is a dereliction of duty. To call the family ‘toxic’, and the country ‘racist’ is not just untrue but deeply hurtful to everyone involved. To those who call England racist I can only point to the front bench of the present government. The three great offices of state in Britain are the First Lord of the Treasury, the Prime Minister’s formal title, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Home Secretary. The last two offices are held at this moment by the sons and daughters of Pakistani and Ugandan immigrants. The Lord Mayor of London is the son of Muslim Pakistani immigrants. Similarly, the Labour party is well stocked with WOC and even Men of Colour both from the West Indies and other parts of the world!

Sadly these accusations are repeated by some vocal and disaffected men and women of colour and others, both in England, and on American television and in their media, blackening England’s name and reputation as a kind and tolerant society, which it always has been, which is why so many refugees have made their way to it over the centuries.

It was in England that Lord Chief Justice Lord Mansfield, made the first great declaration on freedom and slavery, when he decreed in 1772 that the slave Somersett, who had escaped his American master, should be free, and that any slave who set foot on English soil automatically became free. Slavery, he said, was odious and had no basis in English common law. It was finally abolished in 1834 throughout the much-maligned British Empire, and the Royal Navy patrolled the seas for sixty years with a special anti-slavery squadron to stamp out slave trafficking by other nations. It cost some thousands of sailor’s lives, as well as money.

George Orwell wrote in 1940 that ‘England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box.‘

Sadly the huge rent in the fabric of the Royal family with the defection of two senior members, is being reflected in the country as a whole; in a split between the voices of common sense and tradition, and the voices of woke, liberal elites – the ones George Orwell was describing eighty years ago. The voices of common sense and tradition were those which rejected ‘isms and ideologies of the ‘woke’ factions in the recent election.

And these decent hardworking people are for the most part, patriotic – anathema to liberal elites. Yet as Orwell explained: ‘By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power.’

The people who cheered on Meghan and Harry at their wedding, were patriots, and they welcomed the introduction of a lively new foreign addition to their ranks. Yet now those same decent people of England with their proud history of tolerance, and of opposition  to racism/slavery when it was still accepted elsewhere, are having to live with the label of racism pinned on them by their own much-loved Prince Harry and his wife of less than two years.

And the Royal family who welcomed that wife are having to live with the label she gave them of being ‘toxic.’ As usual they are carrying on, keeping on, doing their duty to their dynasty and to their country. The monarch has the daily three-hour long perusal and signing of Parliamentary business, and constant reception of overseas diplomats and potentates, as well as the obvious tasks – like opening a sewerage plant in Norfolk, (as the 93- year- old Queen did a few weeks ago).

She and other family members carry on with the cutting of ribbons in Wolverhampton, planting trees in Abergavenny, visiting hospitals in Scunthorpe, meeting ambassadors, conferring with charities who need their support, visiting the regiments of the armed forces, pinning medals on veterans, marking anniversaries and state occasions, shaking hands, making small talk, oiling diplomatic relations between countries and peoples, bringing a sense of caring and continuity to society, swotting up  the details of the people they’re meeting and the places they’re visiting, doing the boring unglamorous aspects of being in service, and living their motto: never complain, never explain. It’s served them well for nearly a thousand years. They also know that privilege entails responsibility. It’s called noblesse oblige.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I needed a cake, but didn’t have the time to nurture a long bake in the oven, so I experimented with this cake that only takes 20 minutes to cook. It was a great success, but tasted even better the next day. It’s all mixed in a saucepan in which 250 gms of butter, one cup of sugar, 2 tablsp of cocoa and one tablesp of golden syrup are melted. Don’t let it boil. When cool, add 2 cups SR flour, one cup of almond meal, a teasp of vanilla essence and a pinch of salt. Mix it all together. No eggs.

Grease and line a cake tin, and bake for 20 minutes only, so it’s a little fudgy. When cool ice with chocolate icing… icing sugar, butter, cocoa and a little milk beaten till smooth. Next time I make it I might experiment with brown sugar …

Food for Thought

Folksinger Pete Seeger has been called America’s tuning fork. He said: ‘I feel most spiritual when I’m out in the woods. I feel part of nature. Or looking up at the stars. I used to say I was an atheist… According to my definition of God, I’m not an atheist. Because I think God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God. Whenever I’m listening to something I’m listening to God… And maybe I am… I think God is literally everything, because I don’t believe that something can come out of nothing. And so there’s always been something. Always is a long time.’

 

 

 

 

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Filed under consciousness, cookery/recipes, life/style, Queen Elizabeth, Royals, slavery, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized