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Words, words words…

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William Shakespeare was ‘the onlie begetter’ of those words, which have been in my mind in this month of poetry.

I’ve discovered that in the United States, very few children learn poetry by heart any more, and I suspect that the same is true of education in most Anglo- Saxon cultures. I think it’s a shame… my mind still teams with the phrases and rhymes,  and the glorious words of poets and prayers learned throughout my distant childhood. They sustain me in good times and in bad… and though there’s so much beautiful poetry written today, does anyone recite them anymore?

I go back to my childhood, learning my first poem when I was four… Charles Kingsley’s, ‘I once had a dear little doll, dears’ – it came from a fat book of children’s poems – with no pictures. By eight I had decided to become a poet, by nine I was learning the poems of Water Scott and Elizabeth Barret Browning, at eleven we were learning ‘Quinquireme of Nineveh’, ‘doing’ ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, at school, and learning the exquisite poetry of Shakespeare …’ I know a bank whereon the wild thyme grows’… the next year it was ‘The Tempest’… ‘Come unto these yellow sands,’… ‘Julius Caesar’… ‘I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him’, and ‘Henry V’… ‘Now all the youth of England are on fire, and silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies,’… ‘Once more into the breach, dear friends,’… ‘we few, we happy few, we happy band of brothers,’… ‘Richard II’… ‘This royal throne of kings, this scept’red isle,’… ‘The Merchant of Venice’… ‘The quality of mercy is not strained, it blesseth him that gives and him that takes,’… ‘Hamlet’, ‘words, words, words’, indeed, and not least that amazing speech, ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’, and so many phrases we still use today…including: ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’… ‘to shuffle off our mortal coil’… ‘’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished’…

And finally, in the Upper Sixth, Anthony and Cleopatra… ‘Age shall not wither her, nor the years condemn’, words I have hugged to myself as a hope and example, as I near four score years. Our acquaintance with Shakespeare was cursory but better than the nothing that seems to rule in schools today.

It was a matter of pride among my friends to be able to recite poetry – in the third form we all learned Walter de la Mare’s long poem ‘The Listeners’…. ‘Is there anybody there? asked the Traveller, Knocking on the moonlit door,’… and some of us even tackled ‘The Ancient Mariner’, and though no-one got to the end, we never forgot phrases like ‘A painted ship upon a painted ocean’. No difficulty remembering the exquisite rhythms and quatrains of Omar Khayyam… ‘Awake ! for morning in the bowl of night has flung the stone which put the stars to flight’….

‘Lo! some we loved, the loveliest and best
That Time and Fate of all their Vintage prest,
Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to Rest’…

‘They say the lion and the lizard keep the courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep’…

But poetry was more than beautiful words and pictures and ideas. It opened up our hearts and minds to deeper meanings, ideas and symbols, and to the beauty of rhyme and rhythm. When my father died unexpectedly when I was in my twenties, and far from home, I turned to John Davies of Hereford’s dirge for his friend Thomas Morley:

‘Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend,

My dearest friend is dead and laid in grave.

In grave he rests until the world shall end.

The world shall end, as end all things must have.

All things must have an end that Nature wrought…

Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend…

I rocked to and fro to the rhythm of the words, and found a bleak comfort to tide me over into the next stage of grief. The insistent beat of that poem was a distant memory of the comfort of the rhythmic rocking which all babies receive, whether floating in the womb, rocked in their mother’s arms or pushed in a rocking cradle. Rhythm is one of the deepest and oldest memories for human beings. And rhyme is a joy that even toddlers discover as they chant simple verses, before stumbling onto the deliciousness of alliteration as words become their treasure.

For my generation the glory of words, poetry, rhyme and rhythm didn’t stop in the classroom. Every day in assembly we sang hymns with words that still linger in my memory, and swim to mind appropriately… like the glorious day looking from my cliff-top cottage and the lines, ‘cherubim and seraphim , casting down their golden crowns beside the glassy sea’ made land. We sang ‘Morning has broken’ long before Cat Stevens made it famous.

We listened to daily readings from the King James Bible and the poetry embedded itself in our consciousness… ‘to everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven’…. ‘If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there; if I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me’…’And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds’…

When we weren’t listening to our daily dose of the Bible, we were using the exquisite words of Archbishop Cranmer’s 1553 Prayerbook,… ‘now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word’… ‘come unto me all ye that are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’… ‘Oh God, give unto thy people that peace which the world cannot give…’Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee oh Lord, and by thy great mercy defend us from all the dangers and perils of the night’… words and phrases that lifted the spirit and gave comfort when needed, in times to come.

The vocabulary of roughly eight thousand words of the King James Version of the Bible, printed in 1611 had a ‘majesty of style’… and has had more influence on the English language that any other book, apart, perhaps, from Shakespeare’s works, with a vocabulary of sixty thousand or so words. In the past, the words, the rhythms and cadences of these two influences shaped the speech and the writing, and seeped into the consciousness of people all over the world, who grew up speaking English.

They thought and wrote and spoke without even thinking, in the beautiful, simple rhythmic prose they heard every week at church, and throughout their schooldays. Sullivan Ballou’s famous and profound letter written to his wife before his death at the First Battle of Bull Run in the American Civil War, is as much a product of that heritage as the wonderful last lines of John Masefield’s ‘The Everlasting Mercy’.

It saddens me that this common heritage of prose and poetry and prayer, those wonderful words of beauty and meaning, has dribbled away under neglect, lack of appreciation and understanding. Modern education seems to treasure instead new and shallower ideas.

Alan Bennett’s brilliant play and film, ‘The History Boys’ encapsulates my point of view perfectly! It made me feel I was not alone in my regrets at the passing of our rich poetic literature, and so much that has added to the sum of civilisation.  I love much that is new – too much to list –  and there’s so much to explore… but the learning by heart, the exploration of the genius of Shakespeare, the absorption of great prose and poetry often seems less important in today’s education system, than technological expertise and business knowhow, women’s studies and sporting prowess.

This is called progress I know, and I know too, I am old fashioned, but in these matters, I am a believer in not throwing out the baby with the bath-water. Hic transit gloria mundi… thus passes the glory of the world.

PS I completely forgot to answer the comments on my last blog while we were cleaning up after our massive storm/cyclone.. apologies, I loved them, and will be answering them shortly

Food for threadbare gourmets

Saturday supper with friends, and something we could eat on our laps round the fire. So, it was salmon risotto. Just the usual recipe – onions in butter, arborio rice added and fried until white, plus garlic, then a glass of good white wine poured in. I no longer bubble it away, but add the hot stock quite quickly, plus a teaspoonful of chicken bouillon.

For a fishy risotto, it should be fish stock but I had some good leek and potato stock saved, and I also used the liquid from poaching the salmon. All the recipes tell you to use lots of different types of fish, but I only had prawns, and salmon. I had thought I’d also use smoked salmon, but at the last minute changed my mind, and then wished I had more of the poached salmon … (which I’d eaten for lunch with freshly made mayonnaise!)

Anyway, I added cream and some fennel when the rice was almost soft and just before serving, threw in a grated courgette to get some green colour from the skin in, plus a handful of baby spinach leaves… and after stirring around, added the fish and more cream…. forgot parsley! And then the Parmesan of course….

Amounts? To one large onion, I used a cup of rice, several garlic cloves – medium sized – glass of dry white wine, hot stock as it needed it… a cup of prawns, and half a fillet of salmon – should have used more – plus the courgette and spinach as you fancy. Half a cup of cream, depending on how moist the risotto already is …  or I might use a big knob of butter and not so much cream…This doesn’t stick to any of the recipes… I just use what I have…this was enough for four.

Food for thought

“I want to be as idle as I can, so that my soul may have time to grow.” Elizabeth von Arnim, author of ‘Elizabeth and her German Garden’ and other books

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The gifts that keep on giving

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I’m always slightly envious when people reminisce lovingly about their mothers, since mine disappeared when I was six, not to be found again until I was in my fifties when it was too late to rebuild bridges.

But when I look back over my memories of the gifts that different people gave me, I realise that my rather erratic mother gave me a gift that is still valuable today. My earliest memories of her are the songs she sang as I went to sleep. I didn’t hear them again for years, but recognised them as soon as the notes rang out…among them, ‘Where the bee sucks, there suck I’, and ‘One fine day,’ from the opera Madame Butterfly, and even: ‘You are my sunshine,’ a pop song from the forties that moved me to tears when I heard it again in middle age.

That gift – a love of good music – has been my pleasure and companion ever since, so I was ripe for Beethoven and Bach, Handel and Purcell as soon as I heard them when growing up, while opera became a passion, which I learned when I met her again, had also been a passion with my mother.

As I mused about this gift she gave me, I remembered all the other gifts that so many other people gave me. When my grandmother came to look after us, she brought with her, her collection of precious Meissen and Staffordshire china, and I learned to love china, a love which anyone visiting my house would recognise.

She also collected books, and many of them were illustrated and designed with prints and patterns from William Morris and fine artists like Aubrey Beardsley and Arthur Rackham, so that from the age of six, my eye was educated by their exquisite artistry. This discrimination meant that when I was introduced to Walt Disney – staple children’s fare – I found the cartoons crude, and the lack of light and shade and detail bored me.

The other gift my grandmother gave me was the love of reading, and for lack of children’s books, I devoured classics like ‘John Halifax, Gentleman’, ‘Robinson Crusoe’ in an original edition, a huge heavy book with engravings protected by flimsy tissue paper, the dreadful ‘Foxe’s Martyrs’, ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’ ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ – all these in magnificent antique quarto versions, apart from many other history books and even the Bible.

A man gave me my next gift, a dry, elderly, retired history teacher who had taught in boy’s prep schools all his life, and who came to help out at my little private school during a war-time dearth of teachers. At seven, he introduced me to history, and I soaked up every period he ran through with us, from the Beaker people and the Stone Age, to Julius Caesar and the Romans, Boadicea  and Caracticus, Pope Gregory on captured Anglo-Saxon children with blonde hair and blue eyes, dragged through Rome in triumphal marches, saying, ‘Not Angles but angels,’  Alfred the Great, and Aethelred the Unready, Harold and the Conqueror, the Black Prince and English archers,  and all the march of history up to Agincourt and Henry V.

Living in Yorkshire when the war was over, our gardener, Mr Appleby, took a fancy to me, and spent much time teaching me the names of all the flowers…hearts-ease and snow-in-summer in crevices amongst paving stones, the herbaceous borders crammed with red hollyhocks, blue delphiniums and pastel pink and blue lupins, ravishing red peonies and pastel coloured grannie’s bonnets,  multi-coloured snapdragons and delicious sweet smelling pinks, the rose Dorothy Perkins scrambling over the trellis hiding the dust-bins … I revelled in this knowledge and his gift to me.

We didn’t go to school while we were in Yorkshire, and had lessons at home in the afternoon. My new stepmother, who was a physiotherapist and had no idea of how to teach children – or how to bring them up for that matter – gave me an extraordinary gift, apart from teaching me social skills, and that was how to spell. She demanded that at nine I could spell words like phlegm and diarrhoea, rhododendron and diaphragm. This is a gift that keeps on giving, like all the gifts that these adults gave me.

My father returned from the war in ’47, when I was nine, and his gift was to give me all the books he had enjoyed, so I went from a diet of Lord Lytton and books like ‘Harold’ (killed at Hastings) to Kingsley’s ‘Hypatia’, and ‘The Last Days of Pompei’, to Walter Scott’s ‘Ivanhoe’ and ‘Guy Mannering’ ( “go thy ways Ellangowen, go thy ways”… cursed the gypsy) and Napier’s history of the Peninsula Wars with Wellington, to CS Forester’s riveting: ‘The General’, about the First World War, and many more. Enid Blyton and Rupert the Bear were banned !

When I was ten and eleven years old I was put in a train from Yorkshire to Kings Cross, to spend a couple of weeks of the summer holidays with my step-grandparents. My grandfather took me walking around London nearly every day. We explored places like Threadneedle Street and the City, tramped down Constitutional Hill and through Hyde Park Corner, passing No I Piccadilly – Apsley House – the Iron Duke’s home, as well as the King’s home – Buckingham Palace (still George VI then).

We spent blissful hours loitering in front of Duccio, da Vinci and Van Gogh in the National Gallery, and wondering over the Turners in the Tate, gazing at all the statues of historic figures, from beautiful Nurse Edith Cavell at Charing Cross, to tragic Charles I, examined the famous poets and painter’s monuments in Westminster Abbey, and climbed around inside the dome of St Pauls. London was still the bombed, shabby city of the Blitz, with rose bay willow herb flourishing on empty desolate sites. But I know that great and ancient city more intimately than any other. And I have known my way around it ever since.

The following year I went on another solitary journey via Air France to spend the summer with French friends in their chateau in Vienne. There, the gift was an insight into French food and French architecture… while my first mother-in-law, a fearsome lady, was a talented amateur interior decorator. From her, I absorbed a knowledge of antiques, a love of colour, fabric and design and have enjoyed restoring and decorating houses ever since.

As I look back at all these gifts, which have enriched the fabric of my life, expanded my mind, and given me pleasures that never fade, I realise how blessed I’ve been. I’ve had many vicissitudes, bitter sorrows, painful partings, terrible decisions to take, and terrifying leaps off that metaphorical cliff in my life. But I’ve also had some sweet joys and learned how to be happy. And the music, the books, the flowers, the history, the beautiful china are all extra gifts that have made life rich and bearable in the bad times.

I wonder what gifts I’ve been able to pass on to those both near and dear, and even just to those casually encountered. We all have such rich gifts to share with others, and sometimes we do it knowingly, and other times, unconsciously. This is how our civilisation endures, and is handed down from every generation.

And maybe it’s more important than we know… the handing on and handing down of simple pleasures, facts and names, skills and events… these things are the handing on of our past, the hard-won experience and knowledge of our ancestors, and even of the fabric and treasures of our civilisation. That civilisation is changing fast, but it could go into future shock unless we value the past as well as the future. The gifts we can share may be more valuable than we can ever guess or measure or imagine.

Footnote. I took this picture for a blog several years ago. It illustrates perfectly different strands of my life.. the flowers are magnolias, the books are on France and French food, Axel Vervoordt is a famous Belgian interior decorator, the china is antique Crown Derby  Imari, while the portrait in the tiny frame comes from the medieval Book of Hours.

Food for threadbare gourmets

It’s that time of year here in the Antipodes when the delicious  Victoria peaches are available. I always snap them up. I don’t bottle any more, I freeze them instead. They have a different texture but are just as good. Being a lazy cook too, I just take out their stalk and then boil them whole, with a syrup made of water, stevia to taste, and a few star anise and a stick of cinnamon. When the peaches are soft I leave them to cool before parcelling them out into various plastic receptacles (I know, I know, sometimes we have to live with parabens!)

When I want them, I un-freeze them, and gently re-heat them with some brown sugar or maple syrup, and ginger wine, rum or brandy added to the syrup… served with ice-cream or crème fraiche, a whole peach drenched in the unexpected flavours of the syrup is a good easy pudding.

Food for thought

“There is divine beauty in learning… To learn means to accept the postulate that life did not begin at my birth. Others have been here before me, and I walk in their footsteps. The books I have read were composed by generations of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, teachers and disciples. I am the sum total of their experiences, their quests. And so are you.”

Elie Wiesel, writer, academic, activist, concentration camp survivor and Nobel Laureate

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Simple pleasures- they may not be what you think !

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For some it’s a nice hot bath, for others it’s sitting in front of a roaring log fire – surely one of the most primeval pleasures – so what are your simple pleasures? One of mine is a hot croissant eaten with unsalted butter, good apricot jam, accompanied by a pot of freshly made coffee, and delivered to me in bed… perhaps not so simple, given the various components required to deliver this perfection!

Then there is the simple pleasure of sitting in the sun on the garden bench by the profusion of rambling nasturtiums, and gently feeling beneath the round flat leaves to find the clusters of green ribbed seeds left by the flowers that have bloomed… my harvest to sow for next year’s pleasure.

These thoughts were prompted by browsing through one of my favourite books which positively encourages hedonism, though hedonism of the sweetest, simplest kind… most of these simple pleasures cost nothing. It’s an anthology by sixty fine writers, and they’ve given their thoughts and services to the National Trust, the body which maintains and protects historic sites and buildings in England.

In the introduction, Dr James le Fanu, after discussing how our genomes are virtually inter-changeable with either a mouse or a primate, goes on to write: ‘It is remarkable the difference it makes to acknowledge that we no longer know… the nature of those genetic instructions. Suddenly the sheer extraordinariness of that rich diversity of shape and form jostling for attention on the fishmonger’s counter – and the florist’s and the greengrocer’s and the whole glorious panoply of nature – is infused with a deep sense of wonder of ‘how can these things be?’

So since one of the simple pleasures of reading an anthology is flicking back and forth, sampling the joys and wonders it holds, I dive into a page which reads: …’and as you take the long single track road snaking down the shady side of Inkpen Beacon, it’s as though you feel the centuries fall away behind you.

‘You pass the ramparts of an Iron Age fort, and then the gibbet  on the Beacon, a reminder of the eighteenth century. You twist  between hawthorne and wild brambles, and now you’re in Civil War Britain. Pass the old church, and you’re back in Norman times. Then in the village itself, there are flinty tracks and beech hedges, and what Orwell in exasperation called the deep, deep sleep of the English countryside … an unspoilt, timeless view of fields, safely grazing sheep and the sound of rooks chattering contentiously in the beech trees overhanging the lane …old Wessex, Alfred’s ancient kingdom…. Watership Down just over the hill…King Charles fought the battle of Newbury in nearby fields’ … this from Robert McCrum who has written a book on P.G.Wodehouse amongst others.

And then to a delicious essay by Sally Muir, knitting designer…’I was taught by Mother Mary Joseph… it was the sort of thing you did in a convent in the 1960’s. It wasn’t all Carnaby Street and The Beatles for most of us. I think the nuns were working on ‘the devil makes work for idle hands ‘principle, and in a way they were right. One great advantage of an evening spent knitting is that you can’t easily smoke, play video games, buy things from Amazon, or inject drugs at the same time. In fact there are all sorts of things you can’t do, as both hands are fully occupied….’

I dip into ‘Grooming the dog’, and ’In love with the clarinet’, savour ‘Collecting the eggs’, and ‘Picking up litter’, and the arcane discussion of the best litter-picking-up devices, and relish ‘In praise of zoos’, much as I hate them. Philosopher Alain de Botton writes: ‘A zoo unsettles in simultaneously making animals seem more human and humans more animal… in May 1842 Queen Victoria  visited Regents Park zoo, and in her diary, noted of the new orang-utan from Calcutta: ‘He is wonderful, preparing and drinking his tea, but he is painfully and disagreeably human.’ (reading this, I imagine being captured and placed in a cage like a room in a Holiday Inn, with three meals a day passed through a hatch, and nothing to do other than watch TV – while a crowd of giraffes look on at me, giggling and videoing, licking giant ice-creams, while saying what a short neck I have.)’

Alain de Botton, I learn, having enjoyed many of his books, is also the founder of two organisations, Living Architecture and The School of Life, the first dedicated to promoting beauty, and the second to wisdom – oh Yes !!!

As I flick the pages of this tiny book – five inches by three and a half – Christmas stocking size, which I bought six copies of to give to friends, I can’t resist ‘Gossip’, written by journalist Sarah Sands. She discovers by chance that historian Simon Schama is ’an A-grade gossip’. ‘How exciting that a man of such an elevated mind is happy to trade in gossip as well as ideas… Gossip is what makes a great historian a delightful dinner companion… the bond of intimacy. One shares gossip as one should share good wine. It is an act of pleasure.

‘There is an art to gossip, which is really a moment of memoir. Philosophers of the human heart… or heartless but comic diarists …, tell us more about social history, politics and humanity than autobiographies of public record… I always learn more from a gossip than a prig. Life is a comedy, it is not Hansard.’ (Hansard is the English Parliamentary record)

The two most thought-provoking of these simple pleasures come at the end of this delicious little book. Historian Anthony Seldon was the headmaster of Wellington College when he wrote his essay. Wellington College is one of the tougher English private schools. I wonder if he changed that reputation, for he writes of the joys of meditation and yoga.

He ends by saying: ‘Most exciting of all is the sense I have that the happiness and joy I experience are only the tip of the iceberg. They cost nothing, harm nobody and I feel connected to life in all its fullness. The future promise is that the joy will only get deeper year by year, and the fear of crossing that divide from dry land into the water, from life into death, fades into utter inconsequence.’

Sue Crewe has edited the splendid magazine English House and Garden with zest and skill since 1994 –  not the sort of person I would have expected to write the exquisite little gem that ends this book. Over the years I’ve followed from afar her career, and noted that she had had what she bravely describes as a ‘period of turbulence’, and which I knew had been full of heartbreak.

She describes how a friend gave her a little book in which she had to write five things she was grateful for, every day. A simple practice which over the years has grown into what she describes as ‘several feet of bookshelves’. She tells how for the first five years she kept to the five one-liners, and how at first she groped for entries, and fell back on being grateful for her warm bed, or being well fed. Then she felt brave enough to branch out into what she calls ‘free-range gratitude diary-keeping’ and expanded her thoughts.

Now she writes: ‘Almost imperceptibly, free-floating anxiety and feelings of discontent with myself and the world were replaced by contentment and a clearer understanding of what I found acceptable and unacceptable about my own and other people’s behaviour…. It did and does help me keep things in perspective…

‘But the most transformative revelation is the power of gratitude itself: it takes up so much room that everything corrosive and depressing is squeezed to the margins. It seems to push out resentment, fear, envy, self-pity and all the other ugly sentiments that bring you down, leaving room for serenity, contentment, and optimism to take up residence.’

On this glorious note, one of my favourite books ends… full of such simple pleasures, those which don’t just add joy to life, but also enlightenment. I feel nothing but gratitude to all these writers when I re-read this little book yet again… and gratitude too, for the reminder of the power of words. The right words can transform our own thoughts and lives, and this reminder of the power of words, reminds me too, of the power of our blogs – each one mostly written with pleasure, and with words from the heart, to reach other hearts in that extraordinary network of friends and souls around the world.

Simple Pleasures – Little things that make life worth living. Published by Random House.

Food for threadbare gourmets

Made a pile of ham sandwiches for lunch, and some were left over. My thrifty soul decided to wrap them tightly in silver foil and store them in the fridge to have for supper that night. But I forgot, and several days later found this anonymous packet of foil on a shelf with butter and yogurt. Cautiously opening it, I discovered the now somewhat stale ham sandwiches. Undeterred, I decided it was ham sandwiches for me that night. I dunked them in egg like French toast and fried them in a little olive oil and butter. They were absolutely delicious – the best way to have ham sandwiches!!!

Food for thought

‘The world will never starve for want of wonders, but only for want of wonder.’    G.K.Chesterton

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The love of three women who changed the world

Taking a small blue hard back book down from my parent’s shelves I began reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s book: “Travels with a Donkey”. I persevered, but the relentless beating and prodding of what he described as the ‘delicate little donkey’ upset me too much to find out how their journey progressed.

I tried it again as an adult, but the same heartless beatings had the same effect on me. Quite different to the way I felt about Black Beauty – that eminently sensible Anglican horse – as H.G. Wells referred to him. Black Beauty is one of the best sellers of all time I’m glad to say, and must have affected the attitudes of people to horses and animals in general for all time too.

Since I read it at ten years old, I’ve always been grateful for the motor car, tractors and other machines, no matter how much they clog up streets, create pollution, or are responsible for dreadful accidents. At least no horses suffer now the way they did, as Quaker Anna Sewell so graphically describes in the one book she wrote, and which was published just before she died, always having suffered from ill health.

It was written in Black Beauty’s voice, itself a sensation at the time, and his story showed how horses were not just the victims of the vagaries or cruelties of their owners, but that if they became scarred they were no longer valued, and then began the downward slide to become worn- out under-fed beaten cab horses, flogged and half-starved until they dropped dead from exhaustion.

Anna, who lived from 1820 to 1871, didn’t live through a major war, so she didn’t mention the use of horses in war. But anyone who has seen the 1970 film of Waterloo, which was filmed in Russia, will have seen the horror of a war horse’s life, as they charged and were shot dead in battle, or left to die untended from their wounds. (No-one is quite sure whether the horses were as endangered as they looked in this violent film, only that fifty circus stunt riders performed with the horses in bloody battle scenes on churned- up muddy slopes. But we do know that a hundred horses died in the making of Ben-Hur)

It wasn’t much better for horses in World War One and even in World War Two, when the Germans were still using horses and mules to pull guns and supply vehicles, and the British took their beautiful hunters and cavalry horses out to the Middle East, and then had to leave them there when their regiments became mechanized -ie supplied with tanks and armoured cars.

In her delicious diary: ‘To War With Whittaker’, Lady Hermione Ranfurly writes a heart-breaking description of going to say goodbye to her husband’s two precious hunters and then going to each other horse in the regimental stables to farewell them.

A decade before Hermione’s description of the Sherwood Foresters’ horses, Dorothy Brooke, another Englishwoman   who loved horses, and whose husband commanded the cavalry in Cairo, discovered the old war horses sold off to local Arab tradesmen and workers after the previous war. She decided to seek out and rescue the starving, broken- down old horses, who had formerly known kindness and consideration instead of blows, but had spent the years since being worked to death by owners who often didn’t know how to care for them or didn’t have the means or the will to feed them well.

In 1934 Dorothy Brooke formed the Old War Horses Memorial Association, and with the help of many people, including senior officers and other wives and locals – and even George V after she wrote to the Telegraph – she tracked down and raised the money to buy back five thousand emaciated old horses from their owners, who she never blamed or judged. They were all that remained of the 22,000 sold off after the Allenby campaigns and other cavalry operations in the First World War. They’d already had a hard war, carrying as much as 22 stone in weight, suffering rationing, piercing cold, extreme heat, dust clouds and exhaustion as well as some wounds.

Now she wrote : “As their ill-shod misshapen hooves felt the deep tibbin [broken barley straw] bed beneath them, there would be another doubting disbelieving halt. Then gradually they would lower their heads and sniff as though they could not believe their own eyes or noses. Memories, long forgotten, would then return when some stepped eagerly forwards towards the mangers piled high, while others, with creaking joints, lowered themselves slowly on to the bed and lay, necks and legs outstretched. There they remained, flat out, until hand fed by the syces ( grooms).”

Dorothy Brooke never gave up, and her small animal hospital continued to grow. She died at her Heliopolis home in 1955, but her work continued and was eventually re-named the Brooke in 1961. It now operates out of London, all over Africa and employs nine hundred people who do their best to rescue and treat horses and donkeys and re-educate their owners.

When it comes to donkeys, they too owe a debt of gratitude to another woman, Doctor Elisabeth Svendson, who died in 2011. Since setting up her Donkey Sanctuary in Devon, starting with one rescued donkey, it’s now visited by over 300,000 people a year, and her donkey rescue missions have also spread all over the world, from Belgium to Egypt, Ethiopia to India, and of course in the British Isles.

The Donkey Sanctuary has given over 15,500 donkeys and mules in need, lifelong care in the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe. Donkeys are rescued and cared for and sometimes re-homed or given to guardians, for donkeys live till fifty, which is a long time to guarantee a pet’s welfare or well-being.

Donkeys have always been overworked and under-valued, unlike their noble cousins the horse, who does get loved and admired. I remember the creaking of a treadmill above a well just below the bedroom window of the hotel where I was staying in Majorca, many years ago. In the blazing afternoon sun while we all took siestas, a little black donkey trudged around the treadmill with no respite. I lay there listening in agony, unable to slip into a happy afternoon nap while he laboured alone and unrelentingly.

The gentle donkey with his big ears and delicate legs, staggering along under huge loads has been the object of derision for centuries, but as Chesterton wrote:

The tattered outlaw of the earth, Of ancient crooked will;

Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,

I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;  One far fierce hour and sweet:

There was a shout about my ears,

And palms before my feet.

. ‘Mighty oaks from little acorns grow,’ and these three women, Anna, Dorothy and Elisabeth, could never have known how their small actions for the creatures they loved would have such great and noble outcomes. In her Christmas speech, Queen Elizabeth quoted Mother Teresa’s words about doing small things with great love. No-one knows how their small actions will change their own world, or the larger world around them, but these women who had so much love, are an inspiration for us all.

Food for Threadbare gourmets

One more day before the turkey would have been past its use-by date, so instead of freezing it, we ate it – a sort of turkey hash, eaten with noodles – I think they’re called Remen noodles in the U.S.

It was very quick and easy. While I fried an onion in olive oil, I chopped some bacon, mushrooms, and the remains of the turkey – in this case just over a cup full. I put one packet of noodles in a basin with boiling water, and put a plate over the basin to keep the steam in.

Cook the bacon, mushrooms with the onion and finally add the turkey when the onion is soft. When the mixture is hot pour over it two beaten eggs. Drain the noodles, and after stirring the eggs through the mix for about a minute, stir in the noodles and add soya sauce and sesame oil to taste. Serve straight away… this makes enough for two, but you could stretch it out to four with another packet of noodles and a bit more turkey…but now: P.S. I forgot to include nutmeg to taste in the recipe for turkey in the last blog. I’ve amended it now in case anyone decides they want to try it…

Food for thought

Looking after oneself, one looks after others.
Looking after others, one looks after oneself.
How does one look after others by looking after oneself?
By practicing mindfulness, developing it, and making it grow.
How does one look after oneself by looking after others?
By patience, non-harming, lovingkindness, and caring.

(Samyutta Nikaya 47.19) a Buddhist scripture

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Living takes up all my time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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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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Blogging – antidote to writers’ heartbreak

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“Writers don’t go to hell”, said Anthony Howard, an English writer, “they have such hell on earth with their publishers, that when they die, they go straight to heaven.”

As a mere journalist at the time who didn’t dare call myself a writer, I shuddered at what abysses of despair that remark revealed, and  thanked my lucky stars that my fate would never be to agonise over a publisher.

Times change, and I’ve discovered what he meant… the anguish of  clumsy editors who think they understand the English language better than you do, seems to be the fate of too many writers. I remember my husband writing his umpteenth book, and on receiving the proofs, finding his manuscript had been improved by a feminist editor who’d replaced words like ‘ mankind’ with ‘personkind’, and’ brotherhood’ with ‘personhood.’

I, on the other hand, was once gifted with an editor who had just started at the publishing house, and bright- eyed and bushy-tailed, wanted to prove her worth to her new employers. After she’d completely re-written my first chapter, I suggested she might as well write the rest of the book, and they could dispense with me. They found another editor!

When asked to edit a book or an article, I use the lightest of pencils, knowing well the lacerated feelings of an author whose copy has been ‘improved’, the rhythm of sentences destroyed, words replaced, or others inserted.  And I am living proof that editors often don’t have any understanding of the book they’re working on.

I was once asked to edit a gold- plated leather- bound copy of The World Book of Rugby. My husband swears he actually saw my jaw drop when an emissary from the publisher called in and asked me to take the job on, as their previous editor had just crashed out (probably with boredom).

Conscious of the angst of all writers whose precious words are deemed  unsuitable by an insensitive know-all who has probably never written a book, I  only really checked the spellings of names and teams, grammar and punctuation – not a strong point with sports writers – or me either -and tried to master rugby terms like loosies, flankers, dropped goals and the like – which are different in the two hemispheres..

My finest hour was when I was groaning over the teams for South Africa and Australia at an important test match, and the computer that is our mind clicked into place. There were two players, Jason Small and James Little, and when I looked at the teams, something told me their names had been transposed. They were both playing in the same positions but on the wrong sides. Looking up the records I was right – a huge blunder but an easy mistake.

And that’s what proof-readers and editors are for, to my mind. They are not there to re-write the copy. How people like Dylan Thomas and James Joyce got their eccentric words, constructions and sentences past the eyes of people who think they can write better prose than the writer submitting his precious baby to them I don’t know. So there are obviously some wonderful publishers too… but it’s getting to them that’s the challenge…

So often writers wrestle with language (especially the English language), puzzle over plot and construction, assemble their research and marshal their facts, and then day after day, or night after night, write and re-write and eliminate and polish and check and then re-write and re-think, and finally offer up the fruit of this silent, dedicated labour and joy to someone who doesn’t seem to give a damn for their exquisite prose and potential masterpiece!

And then there are the reviewers and critics. When a craftsman makes a beautiful chest, people don’t look at it and say: ‘did you think of using the grain a different way?’… or: ‘ were you conscious that that leg isn’t quite straight?’  They don’t say to a painter: ‘did you really feel that composition was quite satisfying? … ‘had you really thought through that colour palette?’ or: ‘I just feel that brush-stroke there is a bit clumsy’.

A composer can write his song or his symphony without someone suggesting it would sound better in B minor instead of C minor, or that that crescendo seemed a little over the top in the context of the slow movement.  But it seems as though writing is fair game for everyone who thinks they’ve got a degree in English – or not.

The only other artists who have to endure the pain of their sensitive souls being bruised like ours, are actors and singers. And my heart bleeds for them when pundits pull their performance apart and mention that the soprano cracked on a high D, or the bass is over the hill and past his best.

And this is where blogging is saving the souls of frustrated writers. We can write and experiment and develop our style and stretch our talents without anyone cutting us down to size. Other bloggers are supportive, understanding, and discriminating, but not judgemental.

So writers who blog may now begin to savour what heaven is – writing because you have no choice but to write – and writing knowing that the fear of those precious words being mangled and misunderstood, improved or deleted, is no longer our fate. Blogging allows us to climb out of the pits of despair, rejection and criticism into the sunshine of writing for the joy of it. The gods are not crazy after all.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Chicken mousse is a lovely summer dish and it doesn’t need gelatine, which I never use. Just melt two oz of butter in a basin over a pan of boiling water. Add 3oz of breadcrumbs, half a pint of cream, salt and a good punch of nutmeg. Stir for about five minutes until it thickens. Add three eggs and three table spoons of dry sherry, beat them together and then stir in eight oz of chopped chicken. Pour the mixture into a buttered soufflé dish or similar, cover with foil and bake in a moderate oven until firm – about half an hour. When cool, serve with a creamy mayonnaise with a chopped avocado in it. Delicious.

 

Food for thought

… Man’s real home is not a house, but the Road and… life itself is a journey to be walked on foot…              Bruce Chatwin  1940- 1989.  From his Book ‘What am I doing here”.

Life is a bridge. Cross over it, but build no house upon it.        Indian proverb

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