Category Archives: ballet

Rubbing shoulders with the rich, the famous, and the forgotten

I wish I could remember what Dr Seuss said when I was interviewing him back in the late sixties. (I’ve never kept clippings of my articles, which I sometimes regret)

All I can remember at this distance is his shining energy, his charm, good looks, good humour and integrity. I know we talked about his books – my children were young fans of four and five at the time – and how this childless man tried to give a subliminal positive message in many of his stories, like: “trust yourself”, or “be kind to everyone”.

Then there was the other doctor – Doctor Spock. At a moment’s notice, I was sent out to interview him, along with the newspaper’s star writer … the editor suddenly had a brainstorm and thought he’d like a different angle from a practising mother! No time to do any research. And now, how I wish, thanks to Google, that I had – he was so much more than his famous child-rearing book, a radical and protester at the time of the Vietnam War amongst other things.

When I had finished my probably rather pallid interview, Dr Spock’s gentle, lady-like wife took me aside, and asked me to interview her, to my amazement. I did, and listened to a hurt, angry woman, who said that her husband’s great reputation was based on her hard work bringing up their sons practically alone, while he picked her brains and dispensed her wisdom/experience from behind his desk. I couldn’t write this, and wasn’t surprised when they divorced a few years later.

Then there was the inimitable Barbara Cartland, who took me to her bosom when I told her that one of my best friends, John, was her son’s best friend, who she was devoted to. Her son and John had been at Harrow together, and when John married she lent him a cottage at the bottom of her garden. (with no plumbing)

As she roamed around her hotel bedroom talking animatedly, I decided that her crusade about honey and vitamins must work, she was so lithe and her movements so youthful at seventy-four. She was still writing prolifically her romantic novels, which she told me laughingly had their biggest sales in India.

When she died at ninety-nine, she had had over seven hundred bodice-rippers published, and left the manuscripts of a hundred and fifty more, which her sons are releasing as e-books every month. She wasn’t just a one trick pony though, one of her interests being gliding, and back in the early thirties she invented the idea of them being towed for long distances which led to troop carrying gliders. Later she was awarded a medal by the flying industry.

When her daughter, Lady Dartmouth – not yet married to Lord Spencer and so becoming Princess Diana’s stepmother – came to Hongkong, she was just as kind to me as her mother had been. She was a ravishing beauty with the kind of porcelain pink and white complexion and huge blue eyes that actress Valerie Hobson also had. (both utterly charming and beautifully mannered)

My interview with Raine, Lady Dartmouth, (known as ‘acid -rain’ by Diana and her siblings) was not as predictable as many others.  I had some juicy material to work with, like her famous scene at Heathrow airport over dirty tea-cups in the restaurant, her campaign to save Covent Garden, at twenty three being the youngest County Councillor for Westminster, and becoming a member of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. A life less ordinary than the traditional fashionable life with ladies who lunch.

Iris Murdoch, famous author, was another interesting person to interview. I did so where she was staying and met her donnish husband – played so beautifully in the film ‘Iris’, by Jim Broadbent –  after she had died of Altzheimers.  Being young and crass, I wondered how such a plain woman could have found such a devoted husband, and only later discovered that not only she did have lovers male and female, but that her fierce intelligence was as sexy as a pretty face!

It was with great trepidation that I approached Robert Helpmann, the famous ballet dancer, producer, and great talent. I had been terrified by him in the famous film: ‘Tales of Hoffman’ as a child, and could never get his Mephistophelian power out of my mind as he flicked his long, black velvet cloak with its long tassel out of the door… even the tassel seemed to convey malice.

With no Google in 1969, I had no idea that he had started his career in the legendary Anna Pavlova’s company, but at least I knew that in the ballet world he had an enormous reputation. He was a delight –  elegant, kind and charming –  and even gave me advice about my ballet-mad daughter… don’t let her start until she’s at least eight, and no en point until after fourteen.

So many fascinating people … from princesses to prime ministers … feminists and activists. Princess Alexandra, the Queen’s cousin, appalled that I was a single mother. “How do you manage? ” she asked… presumably because as well as no husband, I had no chauffeur, nanny, cook, housemaid, butler, or gardener!  She was exquisite and elegant in a pale lavender suede coat and matching lavender wide brimmed hat… the Maori Queen, a plain, ordinary woman who grew into a beautiful, wise one; a glamorous, blonde Italian round-the-world yachtswoman, a Polynesian prime minister’s wife; a glorious Indian woman with yard-long black hair that hung loose, vivacious and intelligent, her greatest claim to fame being lover of racing driver Stirling Moss – then a household name – now, like so many of these people – forgotten.

And yet, of all the people I met and interviewed, the one I treasure most is another forgotten name now, even by the organisation he helped to found. On a cold, wet Sunday afternoon in June 1972, I went down to Westhaven marina in Auckland, at the request of Quaker friends.

Leaving the children in the car with snacks and books, I threaded my way along the gang-planks to the 38 foot yacht, Vega. On it, I met David McTaggart, one of the founders of Greenpeace, just setting off on his historic journey to Mururoa to protest against the French atomic tests. He was in a great hurry, loading last minute supplies before setting sail, but we did it, and I gloat that that was one of the first stories about Greenpeace to get into print.

McTaggart was a hero… in spite of their unwanted presence and refusal to be bullied away, the French set off the deadly bomb anyway. The following year when he returned, they beat him so savagely that he lost the sight in one eye for several months. That story went around the world. And yet these days when I am approached outside the supermarkets by eager young enthusiasts to get me to sign up for Greenpeace, they’ve never even heard of David McTaggart.

Meeting such people was one of the special privileges of being a journalist, but so often, as a single mother I didn’t make the most of such opportunities, being too pre-occupied with how to make ends meet, or if the amah would remember to meet my tiny daughter from the school bus. These were not celebrities in today’s use of the word, but people of character and substance who had carved a niche for themselves, and by their talent or originality become well known.

I look back to my young, ignorant self and cringe. If only I had known then what I know now. And I also look back and see these people so differently… I understand more about them as I understand more about myself. If only I had had the ability then to really do them justice. This feels familiar – of course – it’s what most parents say about their parenting – if only I had known then what I know now!

Greater understanding, insight, knowledge – even wisdom – are  gifts we acquire if we’re lucky, as we grow older. Yet it’s when we’re young that we have to step up, and so often blunder blindly into the unknown, sometimes realising fearfully that we don’t know, or often, thinking we know better.

So now, new generations and bright young people are setting off on their own journeys to follow their own dreams, and they will find their own heroes – talented innovators, creators and explorers in their brave new world. Some of their heroes will become rich, some will become famous, and many of them will inevitably be forgotten … and like the heroes of my day – in the words of Ecclesiasticus – they too will have no memorial.

Food for threadbare gourmets

An unexpected gathering of the neighbours for drinks the next day, and no time to do a dash into town, half an hour away, to find something to take with me. Remembering an intriguing recipe for sardines I’d used years ago, I rummaged in my store cupboard and found two tins of sardines in olive oil, and then rummaging on the internet for a recipe for sardine pate spread, I found a blog by someone called Manami. I’m grateful to her for digging me out of my hole.

Picking out the little silver bits and bones, I drained the sardines and mashed them up with two tablespoons of mayonnaise, two teaspoons of finely chopped onion, quarter of a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, a teaspoon of lemon juice and a teaspoon of black pepper.

Apart from sprinkling it with chopped parsley, that was all there was to it. Served with small cracker biscuits – I used rice crackers, they filled a need.

Food for thought

The Highest Thought is always that thought which contains joy. The Clearest Words are those words which contain truth. The Grandest Feeling is that feeling you call love.

Joy, truth, love.

These three are interchangeable, and one always leads to the other. It matters not in which order they are placed.

Neale Donald Walsche. Conversations with God Book I

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Birds of a feather

100_0479My heart was in my mouth. I was sitting at the traffic junction in our small town where six roads meet and compete for the lights.  Would the traffic stop? A duck was slowly waddling across the road with a clutch of tiny ducklings in tow. They made it to the pavement which would lead them along to the river in the middle of town, with just one hiccup over two slow ducklings who stopped to drink from a puddle, and which an impatient woman nearly cleaned up as she got tired of waiting.

This is the duck season. We become very conscious of them as they shepherd their progeny across busy roads, oblivious of the killing machines skidding to a halt yards from them.

A friend told me how in the middle of the busy village street, he stopped to let a mother pass while her babies all scuttled to safety on the pavement, but she wouldn’t move from the middle of the road. As he wondered how long she was going to obstinately stand there, suddenly two recalcitrant toddlers made a dash from the other side to catch up with their mother and siblings. Ducks can count!

The same thrush (I think) who made life difficult for us last year, by nesting in the honeysuckle by the side door of the garage has returned, and I in-advertently uncovered this year’s nest as I began to trim the overhanging ivy on the arch into the garden from the garage. I saw with horror a beautiful blue egg in the exquisitely woven little nest, and hastily covered it with strands of the trimmed ivy.

I blocked the arch with a rake and a hoe and a plank of wood across the top of the steps to stop anyone using it, so now everyone has to go the long way round from the garage. (see pic above!) I tiptoed up the next day, to check if the bird had returned, and as I stood peering intently into the tangle of ivy leaves, I suddenly realised that a beady yellow- rimmed eye was staring at me. I backed away very slowly, apologising softly for my intrusion.

A grey heron unexpectedly circled in front of my car as I drove between spring- green trees and hawthorn hedges encrusted with white blossom this morning; and I noticed that the striking paradise ducks with black, white and sherry coloured plumage who mate for life, seem to have disappeared from their usual haunts – to tend their nests too, I presume.

Driving home in the dusk a few nights ago, I saw what I thought were burrs on the road in front of me, but they were moving. As I swerved, I realised that the tiny balls of black fluff rolling to the side of the road were probably paradise duck babies. They all start off as balls of fluff, and then the brown mallards develop tiny yellow legs and webbed feet that scurry frantically across the road, beautiful little creatures with not an ugly duckling among them.

Years ago as we walked down the lane by our house, being towed by two shaggy afghan hounds and a cavalier King Charles spaniel, I was consoling the children about the village fete, and their spurned handicraft entries.  “The thing is,” said my ten year old daughter, “other mothers think their ugly ducklings will grow into swans, but you think we’re swans already!”

Not surprising when I thought about it… swans had been part of my life as a child. We lived close to a lake called the Backwater. It had once been a tidal inlet, until the local authorities had built a bridge which blocked the flow from Weymouth Harbour. Until then the tide had washed up and down this long channel, where there’s evidence that the Romans once had a small port at the end of the inlet where we lived. There’s a legend that later, when the Vikings made their first raid on England at Portland just round the corner, they also pushed their way up the Backwater in AD 787.  Later the Saxons settled around here among local British tribes who‘d been inhabiting the area since Mesolithic times – 12,500 BC. (Genetic experiments have shown that a significant segment of the modern population here are descended from those original Mesolithic inhabitants.)

 When I knew the Backwater, neither  Stone Age coracle nor Viking long-boat could have rowed up the now tide-less water, for thick beds of reeds had spread to give safe cover for the big, white mute swans to build their nests and hide their cygnets. I used to walk my dolls pram down to the edge of the lake and throw them bits of bread. On the grass the other side of the road edging the water, the Americans had had all their tanks and armoured vehicles lined up row on row before they left for D-day, thus reversing the ancient pattern of invasion, and taking fire and sword back to the mainland.

There are so many legends and folk tales about swans, the commonest being that their nearly ten foot wide wing span can break a man’s arm. This is one of the long-running jokes in Sue Townsend’s gloriously funny book, ‘Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction.’ Adrian buys a trendy flat in a disused warehouse alongside the river, and discovers too late that a posse of swans consider this place to be their territory. Everyone who visits the hapless Adrian ends up warning him, “A swan can break a man’s arm, you know”.

They mate for life too, and I love the names of the different species: as well as the mute swans, there are trumpeter swans, whooper swans, tundra swans, and the Bewick, a sub-tribe of the tundra clan. The biggest populations of wild swans live in Russia, and it’s believed that the only reason swans didn’t become extinct in England un medieval times – since they were good eating – was that though everyone cut a notch in the feet of their own swans, birds without the notch were considered to be the sovereign’s property and protected by a royal swan herdsman. This preserved the native species. And as for cygnets, who can forget the all male corps de ballet who performed at Covent Garden, and then made their breath-taking and tantalisingly  brief appearance in the film ‘Billy Eliot?’

We only have the non-native black swan here, immigrants from Australia who now populate various lakes around the North Island in great numbers. I remember my disbelief when I saw the one black swan on the lake at Kew Gardens as a little girl. I love them now. The evil black swan queen in Swan Lake gives black swans an undeserved bad name – they are elegant, peace-loving family-oriented birds, loyal to each other, male and female raising their families of cygnets together year after year. 

It seems appropriate that all our swans here are black, when I consider that New Zealand’s  national colour is black… the All-Blacks play rugby, the NZ cricket team wears black, as does our Olympic team, the America’s Cup yachtsmen  and all other sports teams. And statuesque Maori women look magnificent in their black mourning with wreaths of green leaves around their heads, as they perform the ancient karakia or grieving  chants with their graceful waving arm movements. Black is indeed Beautiful in this country !

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

A green-thumbed – or is it green fingered –  neighbour generously left a bag of goodies outside the door the other day. Among them were delicious, tender young leeks and green cauliflower. They deserved a dish of their own so I used a recipe I’d just found. Steam enough cauliflower to fill a cup when mashed. Cut the leeks into rounds, and sauté in butter until tender. (I always put a little oil in too, so the butter doesn’t burn) Mix the cauliflower and tender leeks with an egg, a good quarter of a cup of flour, two tablesp of parsley and one of chopped dill, a good grinding of black pepper and half a teasp of salt. Form the mixture into patties and fry on both sides. I sprinkled them with plenty of Parmesan, but I would think crumbled goats cheese would be good too. Next time I try them I shall use coriander, and mix in some crumbled goats cheese.

 

Food for thought

From Midrashim: Proverbs 6.6

Go to the ant, you sluggard,

and watch it lug an object

forward single file

with no short breaks for

coffee, gossip, a croissant,

And no stopping to apostrophize

blossom, by-passed because

pollen is not its job,

no pause for trampled companions:

consider her ways – and be content.

David Curzon, born 1951 – poet, essayist, translator and United Nations official retiring in 2001.

 

 

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