Category Archives: bloggers

Ode to friendship

Wherever I look there are the tokens, and maybe calling them tokens is a misuse of the word.

On the bookcase is a round blue stone, and written on it are the words: ‘ In the bonds of love we meet,’ which are lines from the NZ national Anthem. It was a birthday present from Friend, which is what I Ching calls a person who is in a ‘familial or love relationship’.

In a fat white jug with all my pens is a sandalwood fan, sitting there at the ready to be used when needed… my Friend brought it to choir practice on a baking hot evening nearly twenty years ago – the sort of evening when we all melted in the airless church hall as we practised our Hallelujahs, or softer Bach anthems. On this day, she produced the fan to keep me cool.

By the bedside is a long thin delicate bamboo stick with a hand at the end with claws on it – a Chinese back scratcher – in constant use by my love. This is the relic of a Christmas lunch thirty years ago. A gang of us used to meet for Christmas lunch in the park, taking over the beautiful little band rotunda, and bringing lace table-cloths, silver candlesticks, champagne and the works.

We started a ritual of bringing presents for everyone, and they could cost no more than two dollars… a tiny amount even in NZ currency. All year we subconsciously looked for some delicious little token, and this was Friend’s gift one year, practical and treasured ever since.

In hospital, an hour and half drive from her home, she and her husband visited me, bringing gifts … a sheepskin to lie on and ease my discomfort, a bag full of miniature bottles of wine – a glass and half to each one – for me to sip with my fairly dreary suppers… an orchid so beautiful that everyone who came by, stopped to admire – it made me many friends… lanolin to rub on my face so my skin wouldn’t dry out in hospital warmth, fluffy red, possum-wool slippers with non-stick soles for my cold feet, vitamin C capsules to aid my healing, and most delicious of all… I had said I wished I had asked my love to try and find my magnifying mirror as I was beginning to look like Freida Kahlo, so a splendid magnifying mirror on a stand came with all the other goodies.

We have been together at births and funerals, personal growth courses, anniversaries and jolly parties. Best of all have been the long, happy lunches, and the times she and Friend Two have come to stay, armed with bottles of wine donated by helpful husbands. We’ve listened to the latest visiting guru, and then celebrated with riotous dinners, visited massage ladies and spiritual channellers, sat with an aura soma intuitive for a reading, and travelled long distances just to go and commune with a lady who told fortunes reading tea-leaves, or for lunch at a good winery.

During one famous lunch I happened to mention I’d seen some enormous candlesticks I’d love to get, but feared they might be a bit over the top. We had hardly downed our rose than we all set off to inspect the said candlesticks. The three of us emerged from the store with two pairs each… one to keep as gilt, the other to hand over to Friend Two, an artist, who was going to paint them to look aged and antique and precious. Friend moaned, “K – will kill me for bringing more candlesticks into the house”, but it did not deter her.

Friend has given me Reiki massages, and I have given her the same. After a severe operation I came to give her one, and after sitting with her for three hours while she slept deeply, I crept away. On Christmas morning we gathered for white-bait fritter brunch at her lovely house, and on birthdays, we three nearly always managed to meet.

Now, I sit on the sofa, and lean against a deep red taffeta cushion with a large rosette made of dozens of exquisite, hand-stitched, tiny rosettes, made for me by Friend Two. I look up at the beautiful picture she painted for me, and still revel in the painted candle sticks. We laugh because I haven’t bought a lipstick in years- instead she gives me all her mistakes, and they work for me. Guests for lunch exclaim over the beautiful French plates they’re eating from, a gift that both Friends had brought on one of their visits. The memories of their generosity, creativeness, fun and love are all around me.

I have other friends who are precious too… true friendship is never exclusive, but always inclusive.  Somewhere I have read, and forgive me, the lovely person who wrote this – I don’t know who you are… but they wrote: :’ A friend is what the heart needs all the time. True friendship multiplies the good in life and divides its evils. Strive to have friends, for life without friends is like life on a desert island… to find one real friend in a lifetime is good fortune; to keep him is a blessing.’

In a very difficult life I have had many friends. I also read once that most people only have five close friends… I have many more than that, and they are treasured and beloved. One friend has been my treasured and loyal, loving friend since our school days. Another, just as treasured, just as loyal and loving and supportive, has been there since we were young officers of twenty-one. (She sent me a precious seven-leaved clover she had found, for luck, when I was in hospital.) The roll call of a life-time’s well-loved names is one of my greatest treasures.

These are the people who have never judged me, but who have seen me and accepted me, in spite of what they saw !!!!. Aristotle said that friendship is a slow ripening fruit… for me friendship has been one of the most precious fruits of my life. And now blogging has added another dimension of friendship bringing fruits and gifts I couldn’t have imagined.

Some of these friends have not been around for a while, and I know are coping with illness, looking after sick mothers, or a handicapped child, or are just travelling or having fun;  but the knowledge of their friendship, the connection of spirit across the globe, the meetings of minds through our blogs and comments, from friends both absent and present, are treasured. Greetings to all these true friends.

PS This brief TV clip is about my son and his step-daughter. It’s about courage.

: http://www.newshub.co.nz/home/new-zealand/2017/01/teen-left-tetraplegic-after-horse-accident-determined-to-walk-again.html

Food for threadbare gourmets

I un-freezed too many things, not thinking straight. And then I cooked a lovely risotto, forgetting I had the other food waiting to be cooked. The fish wouldn’t last, so I quickly fried it in butter and put it in the fridge. I wondered what to do with cold fish the next day…

So I cooked some tomatoes in butter, stripping off their skins when cooked, so they melded with the cream I poured over them, (Friend calls me the Queen of Cream) and let them blend together. Then added the cold fish, and gently reheated it, sprinkled lots of dill in … and it was delicious with new potatoes and green beans.

Food for thought

Be careful of reading health books. You may die of a misprint.

Mark Twain 1835 – 1910 (born the year when Halley’s Comet neared earth, died the year it returned)

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Helicopters, hallucinations and hospital

.It only took two seconds. But since the consequences of those two seconds have dominated my life for the last six months, and promise to do so for some months yet, I feel faintly justified in sharing them.

Stepping blithely onto the back of the sofa to put a book back on the highest shelf, I lost my balance and fell backwards. Lying on the floor in a strange position, I knew without even looking that I had broken my leg and announced this to my love as he came to help me. Luckily the sofa is seven feet long, so he was able to get me onto it so I could lie there in unbelievable agony.

Even in that short time when I looked at my knee it was about ten inches across. I foolishly thought this was just swelling.

Abandoning the idea of driving to our nearest hospital an hour and a half away along a winding, precipitous road above the sea, we rang 111 instead. In half an hour the blessed ambulance arrived, with two angels who pumped me full of morphine, got me onto a special stretcher which didn’t entail lifting me, and decided I had to go by helicopter to the big area hospital.

After the interminable drive down the long winding gravel road during which time they stopped regularly to allow me to be sick, we reached the air strip and the waiting helicopter.

The last words I heard before I even had time to say goodbye to Himself, were: “I’m giving you ketamine for the pain. Some people get hallucinations.” I did.

Suddenly I was hurtling through outer space – tumbling into a vortex between intricate patterns of gold and black, and being sucked into the centre into the black hole. It seemed to go on endlessly. Eventually I said if I’m dying, I’m ready to die, but this didn’t stop the tumbling through space, the diving into the black hole again and again, and the patterns closing in around me. Then suddenly, I was back in the real world, unable to move a limb, totally paralysed, with the blazing sun beating down on my face through the glass about a foot away.

Unable to move or attract attention, I somehow survived this ordeal by sunburn, and arriving on terra firma was immediately surrounded by helpful, efficient people and wheeled away into a white tunnel which is what seems to pass for an X-ray these days apparently.

Then up to the operating theatre, and more blissful unconsciousness while they put on a plaster from thigh to toes, which had to last until the specialist could operate five days later. They told me the top bone was jammed down on the bottom bone, shattering it – a very nasty injury they assured me… not sure what happened to the knee in between, and I never got to ask…

Wheeled into a ward, addled with drugs and shock, I got used to the other drug-crazed, injured people around me! There were six of us and they included a secret smoker in one corner, and a young Maori woman who wore dark glasses all the time so she didn’t have to speak to any of us. The one time she was roused into vehement speech was on my behalf on the third day.

I had drawn what I called the Short Straw, a nurse who was looking after me that day who was so stout, it was a real effort I felt, to keep on her feet all those hours, and deaf too, so I wasn’t sure whether she was a bit dim or whether she just hadn’t heard me. Her ministrations were slow and reluctant, and when I told her I felt sick and she ignored me, I wasn’t sure whether she didn’t think it was worth taking any notice of me, or whether she just hadn’t heard. Seconds later, I called urgently for a receptacle and then filled three large ones with blood. “I wonder what caused that?” she kept saying in a helpless, puzzled way.

Apparently enraged, the Maori girl sat up in bed, took off her dark glasses, and using the odd four letter word, said words to the effect: “what do you expect when you fill her full of F… tramadol. Of course it’s tramadol doing it, you dimwit.” I trust the Short Straw only heard some of this.

The doctors decided it was the infamous drug tramadol too, combined with the rest of my cocktail, so I was downgraded to morphine and daily injections, instead of taking anti-coagulants. The result of this was that I had damaged my stomach, but didn’t know what to eat, so ate nothing but yogurt or mashed potato for some time, since otherwise I felt so ill that the pain of my leg paled into insignificance.

The operation duly took place and I wore a heavy black lycra and metal brace from thigh to foot for the next two months, unable to set foot to the ground. The operation also left me with a numb foot and shin, which I still have, accompanied by nerve pain which means I still enjoy/consume a full cocktail of painkilling drugs, and which makes it hard to walk.

The months were passed in a little cottage hospital where thirty-five of us were all coping with long-term injuries. In our little ward with four of us, we sympathised with each other, listened to each other’s life stories, gossiped about our favourite nurses, and moaned about the rigours of trips by ambulance back to base hospital to see the specialists at regular intervals.

I was humbled by the dedication and commitment of the staff, none of whom ever dawdled but who were on the run all day,   scurrying down long corridors of an old style building, walking between ten and twelve miles a day.

I set myself to be a low maintenance patient, but many of the patients needed help even in getting out of bed, (depending on the injury this was an art in itself), into a shower, dressing or eating, and no nurse ever be-grudged the time they spent with anyone. Two patients died unexpectedly while I was there, and red-eyed nurses showed me how much they cared.

The doctor who visited several times a week knew everyone’s names, joshed us all, and usually ended his visits in the big sitting room, where he sat at the piano and played old favourites for anyone who wanted to listen. One of my favourite nurses was a delicious and beautiful Indian who brought her children and nephews to do Indian dancing for us… exquisite…others brought their dogs, and one jumped straight up on my bed, and cuddled into me – bliss…

Most people were old, and alone at home so they couldn’t manage, and were sheltered safely here until they were ready to cope. I was a rarity with my leg stuck out in front of me in a wheel chair. But what I learned as I observed the others was that I was one of the only lucky ones there.

Though I was older than many, I was almost the only man or woman there with my own teeth, who didn’t have a hearing aid, who didn’t have dementia in some form, and who was strong and active, healthy and able to do yoga and all the other things that kept me young(ish) and flexible. In other words, I had been lucky enough to afford to go to the dentist, to be educated about a healthy diet and life-style, could afford them both, and had enjoyed a life fairly unencumbered and unstressed by money worries.

These frail people brought home to me as never before how life expectancy and/or the enjoyment of good health depends on income, which dictates education, health care, mental health, housing, and everything else we need for a good life.

I listened to the life stories of my companions in pain, and heard how one woman brought up her six children when her husband died when her youngest was five, working at sewing factory uniforms at home from dawn to dusk to make a living and look after the children, and helping in the local shop when she had any spare hours; the lady in the bed across from me who had had two children and adopted two more, shared the trials of coping with deeply disturbed children and then their adult problems; the beautiful, feisty woman in the next bed was going home to look after an alcoholic and bloody-minded, middle-aged son she’d brought up alone, and the severely mentally handicapped sister she also cared for.

And then there were the incidental friendships. A visiting son who had raised thousands of dollars to rescue, doctor and re-home over six thousand feral cats. When he ran out of money and still had thirty-six cats to re-home, he sold his house and he and his wife moved into the country into a smaller house with land where rescued dogs, ducks, ponies, goats, pigeons and every other needy creature came to live with him and be loved. All the cats came and were named and loved until they died. This lovely man worked at night driving a bull-dozer to make enough money, and he also did a lovely tango across the ward to amuse his mother! It was my enthusiastic applause which connected us !

A young woman came with her dog to visit an old neighbour, and she told me she and her sister and her mother, rescue and re-home more dogs than the local animal charity, who often turn to them for help. They used up every penny they earned caring for desperate creatures.

Listening to these stories, and the life-stories of my fellow patients, I felt humble and so grateful for the life I had been able to lead. Even having the time to write and to blog, and to own a computer is something only the fortunate can do.

Breaking my leg, and now hobbling around with my stick, waiting for everything to heal has been a blessing. It has opened my eyes to how so many good, kind women live their whole lives coping with inescapable burdens. That son reminded me of how much hidden goodness there is in the community, and I was shown how much beauty,  compassion and dedication so many women pour into their lives and their careers in the hospitals where they work. I was reminded that women are wonderful.

And I left this wonderful place with a full complement of much needed pain-killers, a walking frame, crutches,  stool for the bathroom and a high stool to sit on in the kitchen. I was offered care at home, plus someone to clean, and free physio for as long as I needed it. I will never grumble about paying taxes again! I give thanks for being fortunate enough to live in a western society where care and compassion for those who need it, is a way of life.

Food for threadbare gourmets

This is the first year of my adult life that I haven’t made my own Christmas mince pies – for obvious reasons (see above !!!). But I found some decent bought ones, prized off their lids and spooned oodles more good mince- meat into them, replacing the lids, and heating them up as required. Before serving I sprinkle them with caster sugar … this IS Christmas isn’t it??

I also like to serve them with a dollop of brandy butter – why keep anything so delicious just for Christmas pudding? I make it by ear as it were, using two ounces of softened butter – preferably unsalted, but not necessarily… and adding icing sugar and brandy… I go on beating with a fork, or a beater, and adding butter and icing sugar and brandy until it tastes the way I want it, and is the right soft consistency. I also add a few drops of vanilla. Once tasted, no mince pie is complete without it… though cream is also good…      A  Merry Christmas… to threadbare gourmets and to all those who are neither gourmets nor threadbare !

Food for thought

Lord, forgive us that we feast while others starve.           Grace before a banquet, said by John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester in the reign of Henry VIII.         Just as appropriate now as then…

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Our beautiful world

The wind is blowing in the trees. It sounds like the sea. The sun is on the mountain. And outside the house, a pair of nesting quails are foraging among the bird seed that has spilled from the bird table.

When I step outside, I hear the sound of many wings… I have disturbed the green finches feeding, and their flight is like the sound of many muffled hands clapping.

This place is my new home, forty acres of forest, where our little wood cabin looks down a valley and up to a forest covered mountain. Where we hear the sound of our two streams meeting down below long before they join others to make the river. It flows beside the long winding road of blind u-shaped bends and gravel and often mud, which is the only way to reach us. When intrepid travellers finally reach the top of the forested mountain range, on this road famous for its degree of difficulty, and which only the brave or the ignorant attempt, they come to our big iron gates, and the elusive gate code, only available to those who are welcome.

We live several miles further on inside the gate, down a well-tended paved road, over-hung at this moment by the manukau trees frosted with scented white blossom  providing food for bees who make the healing manukau honey. We pass the steep hidden drives of the other occupants of this magic place, a forest which is covenanted and preserved for whatever the future holds for the planet.

There are about twenty-five of us, like-minded people who, on settling here, have agreed not to have  dogs or cats or introduce plants or trees which are not native to this place. So because this podocarp forest is covenanted, and these agreements are in place, the silence is never disturbed by the sound of a barking dog, and the only man-made sound is the distant hum of a car snaking slowly along the road.

And yet it is never silent. Tuis flute their glorious song during the day, the shining cuckoo sings its melody, while green finches cheep, and sometimes flights of red, blue, green and yellow rosellas come chattering by. A kingfisher, making his sharp repetitive call, sits on a dead branch a few yards away from the cabin, and dives into the long grass to snatch up in his sharp beak a grasshopper or other insect which his beady eyes have detected.

At night, a morepork – the New Zealand owl, so named because his call sounds like those words – perches on the same branch and hoots softly across the valley from where answering calls return. When birds are silent in the heat of the day, the all- pervasive buzzing of bees and flies and other insects fill the space, and then there is the glory of cricket and cicada each in their appointed time sending out their nostalgic rasping, warning us that summer does not last forever.

I listen to try to hear the moment when cricket takes over from cicada, but am never mindful enough. We have now watched the sun move across the horizon opposite for one whole year, and know that when it reaches the point of the ridge on midsummer’s day, it will begin once again to move inexorably back to the dip in the ridge halfway across the other side, towards the shortest darkest day. And we have watched the moon now for a whole year, as it rises in the sky to the side of the cabin, and then shines over the mountain and the trees, shedding gold light and mystery over the silent forest.

When it rains we gaze across the misty view which echoes a Chinese painting, and the beauty catches our breath. A myriad of different species of trees inhabit this unspoiled place, the different greens and shapes sprawling like a huge tapestry over the hills. When I gaze at them in the sunshine they  shine, almost as though they were lit up with the lights that stopped Xerxes, King of Kings in his tracks, when his great army rolled across the dusty plains of Asia. Transfixed by a mystical, shining sycamore tree he remained there for two days to the amazement of his soldiers.

And here, as the sun moves across the sky, shadows deepen the colours of towering trees, and reveal deep folds of green hills and gorges, and one mountain crowding another. Hidden deep beneath the canopy are rare and cherished species of trees and ferns and also exquisitely camouflaged frogs and lizards, moths and insects, one lizard so rare that only twelve others have been sighted in the rest of the world.

We had the privilege of seeing such a lizard when a neighbour found her with her tail gone and a blood-shot eye. She was rushed to the zoo several hours drive away, and there nurtured back to health. When healed a few weeks later, she was returned to her home grounds, and a group of residents gathered to inspect the precious creature – about four inches long – to witness her return to the wild. This shared concern makes a warm community hard to find anywhere else, particularly when that concern is cemented with good wine and cheese to fortify us before returning to our own native habitats!

We achieved brief fame on the estate when we discovered an Archey’s frog, another endangered species, down our drive. These finds are logged and we have to provide the time of day, the weather, the habitat and many other tiny details to enlarge the knowledge of environmentalists. Since then others have been found, and we realise that this place has become a haven for endangered species.

Are we an endangered species? Sometimes it feels like it. Knowing as we do that the world is changing, that climate change is a fact, whatever climate-deniers, big business and flat-earthers think, that ice caps are melting, our oceans depleted and polluted, that bees are dying from strange viruses and pesticides, and trying to get our heads around the fact that people are still killing the great animals which ensure our survival on the planet – the future of mankind seems as misty as our cloud covered hills.

There is something deeply awe-full and dread-full about the words ‘the Sixth Great Extinction’ which we are now living through according to scientists. So grasping at small straws of comfort can help us to come to terms with this extraordinary time in the history of the world. Living here in this precious piece of preserved forest and rare species has made us much more aware of other safe places and of so many other people dedicated to nurturing the planet.

So wonderful Bill Gates and the other billionaire philanthropists who are devoting huge sums of their money to work on long term alternative green energy sources make me feel hopeful. And I read today that Catholic priests have been instructed by the Vatican to preach about the environment, climate change and preserving the world. It’s what used to be called ‘spreading the word’.

It’s about each of us doing what we can, where we are. I have a friend who never goes anywhere without a plastic bag folded in her pocket. Whether on a walk on the beach with her, or on an overseas trip, staying in a rubbish strewn camp ground, she fills her bag. Single handed she can’t clear all the rubbish, but she does her bit.

Yes, on our own we cannot save our world, but like my friend we can all find ways, however small, of mitigating the damage. I know everyone who reads this blog is already committed to preserving life on earth, so I’m merely sharing one aspect of my new life, which is all about the environment. Tell you more next time!!!!

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Having broken my leg badly six months ago and due to side effects still having difficulty walking, I’m actually listening to my doctor for once. She gave me a leaflet full of calcium – rich recipes, and one of them has transformed my idea of breakfast. It’s delicious as well as nutritious.

Leave quarter of a cup of oats soaking in quarter of a cup of hot water overnight if possible, but for at least four hours. Peel and grate an apple and mix into the oats with a tablespoon of lemon juice. Stir in two tablespoons of cream, quarter of a cup of natural sweetened yogurt and a tablespoon of honey – I use the healing manukau honey.

Fruit if desired… it’s a filling and satisfying breakfast, especially when topped off with a freshly brewed cup of lapsang souchong, the favourite drop of the cup that cheers but doth not in-ebriate !

And a PS… many months ago my computer collapsed, taking blog, addresses, etc, etc. Before I had a chance to rehabilitate myself and come to terms with a new computer and the dreaded Windows 10, disaster struck, and I disappeared into hospital for two and a half months. Still rusty trying to climb back on the computer deck, and still clambering  clumsily around trying to master the new technology . So please excuse any infelicities you detect!

 

Food for Thought

I don’t know who wrote this, but I like it:

dawdling,
not doubting,
intrepid all the way,
walk toward clarity
with keen eye,
With sharpened sword
clear cut the path
to the lucent surprise
of enlightenment.
At every crossroad
be prepared to bump into wonder

 

 

 

 

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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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The wrong lion?

The man who killed Cecil the lion, seems to be contrite about killing the wrong lion. He is reported as saying that he hadn’t realised he was hunting a protected one. But killing any lion (and all the other precious endangered species he’s slaughtered) in a world where we are now beginning to realise that animals have a different consciousness to ours, and have gifts that are a closed book to our different intelligences, seems not just wrong, but cruel and crass.

Yet I discover that in this country too, as in South Africa, and presumably other places, gangs of rich white men fly in to shoot animals penned up in enclosures … all for the fun of killing a captive lion or deer, or whatever. I read that an Englishman, also run to earth for his killing of these great creatures on safari, refuses to comment, saying it’s a private matter. But it isn’t of course.

These creatures are dying out because these men are killing them, and our planet and our children and grand-children will be deprived of a vital source of life as well as beauty. Scientists say that our survival depends on the survival of the large animals. So we ARE all involved in this killing by rich white men, as well as poor poachers, even if we think we aren’t.

Let’s hope Cecil’s death helps to change humankind’s thinking about our place on this planet… for we are not so much homo sapiens as homo murderous.

Avaaz has a petition we can sign in an effort to stop the hunting of lions. Perhaps it would be a start to stop calling these magnificent creatures ‘big-game’, and to stop calling the killing ‘trophy hunting’. There are other more appropriate names for this destruction of life on earth .

Google  Avaaz, RIP Cecil if you want to help.

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The dangers of words

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When Boxer was driven from ‘Animal Farm’ in a knacker’s van, the whole family dissolved in tears. I’d been worried that the syllabus at the children’s schools didn’t seem to cover the riches of English literature, so we began a nightly practise of all gathering around the fire, including the two Cavalier King Charles spaniels and a lanky afghan, for nightly reading sessions. ‘Animal Farm’ was a favourite even to those of us who were unaware of its deeper political meaning.

‘David Copperfield’ was another favourite… though I could hardly get past David’s childhood sitting cold and alone in his freezing bedroom terrified of Mr and Miss Murdstone. It reminded me too uncomfortably of a period of my childhood. “Don’t go on reading,” my children begged as the tears streamed down my face. “We’ll get there”, I’d say, mopping my cheeks. Peggotty saved us.
How did she know, I used to wonder when I read ‘David Copperfield’ as a child, that ‘Barkis is willing’, meant he wanted to marry her… ‘Barkis is willing’ must be the most phlegmatic proposal in literature.

The night that silly sweet Dora died was the night my husband was working late, and it was a cold dark winters’ night, just as it was in the book. So we all piled into our big bed, children and me under the duvet, Cavalier King Charles’s and the afghan on top. As we read of Dora slipping away, we all wept, but the coup de grace was the death the same night, of Dora’s spoiled little spaniel, Jip, who lived in a pagoda which was too big and tripped everyone up. Jip had also walked all over the dining table and put his paws in the butter and barked at Traddles, their first dinner guest… So when the man of our house returned, there was just a sodden heap of dogs and people to greet him.

Traddles, of course, was the man whose hair was so irrepressibly unruly, standing upright on his head, that his fiance’s sisters made jokes about keeping a lock of his hair in a book with a heavy clasp to try to keep it flat. Yes, we laughed and cried all through David C.

We laughed through ‘The Wind in the Willows’ too, especially Toad’s adventures and his come-uppance at the hands of the washerwoman. Later, we cried when Hereward the Wake was escaping from William the Conqueror’s army. Fleeing through the fens in the dark, with his great faithful mare swimming behind the boat, he cut her throat and she sank silently into the black waters.

I don’t know whether the children were any the wiser about English literature after those years of reading aloud together, but what fun we had. Reading aloud was the way most people enjoyed their books in times past. One person with a candle could keep the whole room enthralled, and it was only in recent times that silent reading became the norm for every-one. The early saints read their missals and bibles aloud, and it was cause for remark when St Augustine came upon his mentor, Bishop Ambrose, silently reading the words without moving his lips. Augustine was so amazed that he described it in his ‘Confessions’.

Dickens, like Orwell and many another, was a subversive writer. Dickens was trying to change society and arouse compassion by telling stories of injustice and pain. Orwell, on the other hand, was trying to warn us of what was to come. And what he wrote has come to pass.

The cliche that the pen is mightier than the sword is true; words can change people’s minds, open their hearts, give them insight, knowledge and hope, and move them to tears or laughter, while the sword can only silence them.

I have a beautiful coffee table book called ‘Women Who Read are Dangerous’… this could also apply to men of course. But in this instance, the book makes the point that men in the past have resisted the idea of women reading – precisely because men unconsciously realised that reading was subversive, and allowed women to escape, to start thinking for themselves, to explore ideas and reach for larger worlds than the circumscribed one that so many women were forced to inhabit.

Alan Bennett wrote a witty little book called’ The Uncommon Reader’, in which he outlines just this scenario. The reader is the Queen. She stumbles on the travelling library van parked in Buckingham Palace kitchen courtyard when the corgis have run off. Driven by a life-time of in-escapable good manners and a desire to set the librarian at ease, she chooses a book – a very difficult book – but again, propelled by her sense of duty, forces herself to finish it. Returning it, she feels she should seem to have enjoyed it, so the librarian presses another book on her.

Gradually the Queen becomes a dedicated reader… begins to neglect her duties, reads a book in her lap when she should be waving to crowds from the car, doesn’t care what she’s wearing as she’s more interested in finishing her book… and finally decides she wants to find her own voice, and write too. The horrified prime minister points out that this is dangerous and unconstitutional, as the truth would make devastating reading. So she abdicates so that she can write her truth

Writing the truth is what makes a writer’s life so fraught with peril. Writer Stephen King says: “if you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered”. He could just as truthfully have said your days as a member of your family are numbered too, as what is truth to one person is seen as slander, untruth or simply bad taste to others.

Nancy Mitford’s parents, described in ‘The Pursuit of Love’ were upset about their portraits, though James Lees-Milne, a close friend, vouched for the truth of Uncle Mathew and Aunt Sadie – now two of the great comic characters of English literature. James Lees-Milne himself often rued the day he‘d published his fascinating diaries of living through World War Two, as he and his wife encountered cold shoulders and black looks from those who saw the truth differently.

So if reading is seen as dangerous, it is as nothing compared to the dangers of writing. Insipid romances or doctored memoirs may satisfy some writers, but true writers need to write the truth as they see it. It’s a responsibility and a necessity. Which may be why so many writers and journalists end up in prison or worse, both in the past, and sadly, in the present.

Today, many bloggers share that fate too, and risk their lives to write the truth on the internet. And their lives, like other writers, are in danger at this moment in history, because in closed totalitarian societies, words are recognised for what they are… the most powerful weapons in the world. Words are the weapons that can change lives and whole societies. And we bloggers get to play with them.

Food for threadbare gourmets

I love potatoes cooked every which way. This way is a favourite, and this recipe is a refined version of the way I’ve always made what some call crispy potato cakes, and others might call latkes.

To three large potatoes like agria or other type with a high starch content, you need 75grams of melted butter. Grate the potatoes coarsely, dropping them in cold water as you go. I often just scrub them instead of peeling. Drain them and squeeze them as dry as you can. I use several layers of kitchen paper on a clean kitchen towel.

Mix them in a bowl with the melted butter and salt and black pepper just before cooking. Drop spoonfuls into hot oil in a heated heavy frying pan, and keep them warm in the oven as you go. Don’t fry too quickly or the inside won’t be cooked. They taste good with anything, and especially with freshly picked mushrooms from the grass outside my gate, and bacon from happy pigs, for a quick meal. In New Zealand we call this Freedom food…freedom from cruelty etc. etc.

Food for thought

What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lot of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently in your head, directly to you.
Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, bringing together people who never knew each other, citizens of different epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic. Carl Sagan

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Back Again!

When I read one of my favourite blogs, Cecilia at http://thekitchensgarden.com/2015/04/01/did-you-find-your-voice/#comments I felt the torpor of my hiatus dissolving…
So greetings to the friends who have been by my side during this long absence… it’s been one of the wonders of blogging to discover from messages and comments left on my blog, and private letters, that blogging friends care, they don’t forget and they don’t go away. Thank you, lovely friends who’ve sustained me during my absence from our blogging world. And thank you to dear Celi and her Fellowship of the Farmy. Reading their conversation enticed me back, to use my voice again. These were my thoughts yesterday, as I pondered Celi’s words about finding our voices. This is also something of an experiment as I try to find my way round the new systems which have evolved since I last posted!

BEFORE THERE WAS FEMINISM
Sorting through old piles of letters I came on a clipping from the Daily Telegraph – the obituary of one of my dearest friends.
We’d been in the army together and known each other since we were nineteen. She died nearly twenty years ago at fifty six. In the beginning, Jackie was a bit of a joke… always a bit harum- scarum when we were required to be constantly immaculate and impeccably punctual… and always bubbling with fun, and deadly serious about saving to buy a car. She’d been saving since she was eight, and even now, every penny she earned went into her car fund, so she missed out on quite a lot of fun with the rest of us.
When she was posted to Germany, she found to her ecstatic surprise that by buying a Morris Minor and having it shipped overseas, she didn’t have to pay purchase tax, and she could at last afford her dream. Not long after, she married a man as kind and decent as she. And later I visited her in hospital during her miscarriages, and called in on her during trips back to England, sometimes having to sleep in her absent son’s bed, because her elderly and doting bachelor admirers couldn’t tear themselves away from her warm- hearted home and spare room. She was a generous godmother to my son and a loving friend.
Re-reading her obituary I was as awed as I had been on first reading it. Jackie was deliciously dyslexic, leaving big spaces in her letters while she went to look up the dictionary and then forgot and posted the letters anyway. In spite of what could be seen as a handicap, at forty she began writing in ‘Soldier’, the British army’s magazine for soldiers. For the next seventeen years until just before she died, she campaigned for unemployment benefits for army wives serving overseas, maternity benefits for serving women soldiers, fought for the rights of separated and divorced women, and found night shelters for London’s homeless ex-servicemen.
She crusaded for compensation for solders injured in training, for anti-Aids packs for British soldiers and their families serving in Africa, and for improvements to married quarters. She worked for better care for soldiers suffering from combat stress, set up the Army Playgroup Associations, and helped start the Federation of Army Wives. This is only a short list of all that she achieved before dying of cancer, not to mention the loving and beautiful home she had created.
As I thought about Jackie, I thought of my other friends. My oldest school friend who became a local body politician and the first Labour councillor for the city of Winchester, and who, besides learning to upholster furniture, became a gourmet cook, talented gardener, bee-keeper and honey-maker, and dedicated mother. She also completed a three year diploma in dying, spinning and weaving, before becoming a secretary at the House of Commons, running her MP’s constituency for him! She now writes cookery books.
My other army friends included Anne, my dearest friend, who’s still a riding instructor, exquisite interior decorator, and like my school friend, graduated from college as a mature student with a diploma in arcane skills like weaving and soft furnishings, upholstery and other arts. Now in her mid seventies, still caring for her dogs and horses, children and grandchildren, she’s about to walk the El Camino Pilgrim trail in Spain.
And then there is Cordelia who started Alcoholics Anonymous in Hongkong – so greatly needed that there are now 17 branches there – and a single mother who supported her children by modelling, doing radio programmes, exquisite sewing, and making sought- after soft furnishings, before becoming a county councillor in local government until recently, and is now a painter …
And Perfect Prue – enviably beautiful, clever and talented, tennis champion, fencing champion, darling of all the senior officers to our chagrin. She married the man of her dreams – she’d loved him since her teens – and found jobs for him, and when he walked out on each one she bought a country house and turned it into a Michelin rated restaurant and hotel, while the husband chatted to guests over gin and tonic, and finally disappeared.
All these wonderful achieving women came from that generation which notoriously wasn’t trained for anything, and who were expected to stay home and look after their husbands and children… and maybe garden and play bridge. They were never feminists – too busy getting things done in their own lives to even think they were being discriminated against. And they probably were, but they learned to work around the system, and didn’t waste their time repining.
The next generation took up the torch of feminism, but these women just accepted Bill Gates’ dictum: ‘life isn’t fair’ – and made the most of it… no grumbles, no sense of victim, just a joyous commitment to making the best of things. They nearly all made their own clothes, some baked their own bread, and Anne still scours hedgerows for hips for rose-hip jelly, elderberries for wine, blackberries for jams.
Life often wasn’t easy for them, the war had done dreadful things to their childhoods, but they never looked back in anger or self-pity. They cherished their families and tried to improve the lot of others. They weren’t into saving the world or marching for peace, they just did what needed to be done in the small worlds they lived in. They were gentle and kind and were what would have been called ladies back in their day.
All these lives – like all lives – seem like a miracle and a mystery, in which the years have enfolded secret sorrows, public joys, wearying challenges and unworldly wisdom. And now these friends from my youth are devoted grandmothers, back-stops and rocks in tough times, and often indispensable to their families and communities. I treasure them, and yet I sometimes wonder too, how other generations perceive them….tiresome oldies, or beloved matriarchs – or both? … Another of life’s mysteries!

Food for threadbare gourmets
A girl’s dinner and I needed something between nibbles and hors d’oevres to soak up our first glass of champagne. I made a very garlicky aoli, and chopped some cucumber half an hour beforehand, cut out the seeds, and let it sit in some salt and sugar. I patted the chunks dry before arranging them on each plate, and gently fried some fat king prawns in butter and garlic, arranging them on the bed of chopped cucumber, with a big dollop of aoli in the middle. Served with a little napkin and small fork, this went down very nicely with the champagne. I thought it would be rather nice too for a light lunch with some warm crusty rolls.

Food for thought

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You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink. G.K. Chesterton

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