Category Archives: colonial life

The necessity of beauty

Image result for images of gardeniasImage result for gardenias

 

Pamela was my lodger. She was living in the third bedroom in my flat for the same reasons that Mr Micawber pronounced the immortal words:” Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.”

I’d tried to fill the gap between my meagre salary (women were paid far less than men in the Hongkong I lived in ) and my expenditure, by doing TV quiz shows,  radio programmes, using the children as photographic models and even doing PR for the Anglican church until I could stand being hypocritical no longer. So Pamela was my next attempt at solvency. While she lived with me my life was filled with her dramas, love affairs, crises and disasters.

She arrived with one fiancée, dressed demurely in twinset and pearls, tweed skirt and silk head – scarf. Soon she found a more exciting prospect, and changed her style  to newly fashionable jeans, her hair swung up into dashing styles and lots of makeup. The new fiancée lent her his new VW while he went back to England to sort out his divorce, and hereby hangs the tale. Pamela rolled the car her first night in possession of it, and I was awakened in the middle of the night by a Chinese policeman who couldn’t speak English.

I pieced together that Pamela had had an accident, and was in a Chinese hospital since she had no insurance to cover her for a European one.  The next morning the children, four and five years old, and I, packed up a few things for Pamela and made an expedition to the enormous  building which housed some thousands of sick and penniless Chinese.

We found our way through a maze of corridors to Pamela’s ward, and by the time I reached her bed I was deeply shocked. The ward held eighty women. They were all dressed in faded brown cotton shifts including Pamela. The noise was horrendous. Cantonese is the noisiest language on earth. To hear our amah chatting to another outside the kitchen was deafening. To hear seventy- nine women chatting in a confined space was probably higher than the safe decibel level.

Pamela was bruised and shocked but not injured. After doing our duty, and promising to return that afternoon with more things she wanted, the children and I went home, leaving her with a little bunch of gardenias I’d picked. Only six blossoms because that was all that were flowering.

When we returned in the afternoon, something had changed. There was a hush in the ward and a sense of peace, and all eyes were on the gwailo (long- nose) and her children. Being watched was something one accepted as part of life then, but this felt different. And the hush was a sort of reverence. Pamela whispered to me what had happened after I left.

When we walked out of the ward, the women came crowding round her to see the flowers and smell the fragrance. They were ecstatic at this exquisite beauty in their harsh unfriendly environment. Deprived as the women were, of all colour and texture and smell and beauty, the flowers brought something like heaven into their lives.

They didn’t speak English, and Pamela didn’t speak Cantonese, but with the aid of the ward sister’s few words of English, they worked out a roster for the flowers. Each woman would have one gardenia by her bed-side in a glass for three hours in every twenty-four. Pamela had one all the time, and the sixth flower which had fallen off its stem, the ward sisters had in their office, floating in a saucer.

Back at the office the next day I rang the dean of the cathedral and several hotels and they agreed to send their flowers to the hospital whenever they changed them. I wonder if they still do.

The great Catholic thinker Monsignor Hildebrand wrote that: ‘the poor need not only bread. The poor also need beauty’. But it’s not just the poor. We all need beauty.

It’s strange to me that Abraham Maslow in his hierarchy of vital needs didn’t include beauty. Sometimes beauty is the the only thing that keeps us going. As Resistance fighter Odette Churchill was being locked back in her cell after a bout of torture by the Gestapo, she snatched up the skeleton of a leaf being blown in the door with her. The beauty of that leaf sustained her and gave her hope and courage and a belief in goodness that carried her through her dreadful ordeal.

Quaker writer, Caroline Graveson wrote that: ‘There is a daily round for beauty as well as for goodness, a world of flowers and books and cinemas and clothes and manners as well as mountains and masterpieces.’ She talked of beauty: ‘not only in the natural beauty of the earth and sky, but in all fitness of language and rhythm, whether it describe a heavenly vision or a street fight, a Hamlet or a Falstaff, a philosophy or a joke: in all fitness of line and colour and shade, whether seen in the Sistine Madonna or a child’s knitted frock…’

The sad thing is that those deprived Chinese women in that joyless hospital ward, came from a culture, which before the blight of industrialisation and the tyranny of plastic, was incapable of producing anything that wasn’t beautiful – from their baskets to their bowls, to their porcelain and their poetry.  And there was something very beautiful about buying a kati of vegetables in the markets and watching them being skilfully wrapped in a beautifully folded sheet of re-cycled Chinese newspaper, or a large leaf, and tied with a knotted reed.

Perhaps their own sage should have the last word, Confucius said that everything is beautiful, to those who can see it….

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

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

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

Food for Thought

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

 

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My drug of choice

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“I thought I’d make a cup of tea”, were the last murmured words of the mother of Janet Frame, NZ writer, as she died in her husband’s arms in the kitchen. They could well be mine… tea for me marks waking up and going to bed, a break mid-morning and that indispensable cup in the afternoon, the cup that cheers when a friend calls, or the one that sustains after a shock or a long day’s retail therapy.

I felt the would-be murderess Mrs McWilliams who shot her enemy Mrs Dick in the Tudor Tea Rooms in Christchurch NZ was a kindred spirit. When she was disarmed after her pot- shot she retorted: “Oh, give me a cup of tea, that’s what I came here for.”
When told that her victim was not dead or even much hurt the redoubtable Mrs McWilliams replied, “Oh isn’t she, what a pity.” (She got seven years jail for her failed attempt to eliminate her enemy)

We can sheet back this country’s addiction to tea to our discoverer Captain Cook, who concocted the first brews from leaves of the manuka tree, which he called, and many still do, the tea tree. He experimented with it in 1769, brewing the leaves in the hope of preventing scurvy, and wrote in his journal ( men write journals – women are downgraded to writing diaries): “The leaves were used by many of us as tea which has a very agreeable bitter scent and flavour when they are recent…. when the infusion was made strong it proved emetic to some in the same manner as green tea.”

In some ways, tea was the answer to coffee… men had gathered to gossip in coffee houses in London and elsewhere, for several centuries, while women had nowhere acceptable to congregate. The first tea-rooms opened in Glasgow in the 1870’s and tea-rooms quickly became as important to women as coffee houses to men in previous centuries.

Afternoon tea at home also became an institution… it was a relaxed time when women took off their corsets before changing into finery for dinner, and wore soft floating tea gowns. The great French food philosopher Brillat-Savarin called afternoon tea: “an extraordinary meal … in that, being offered to persons that have already dined well, it supposes neither appetite nor thirst, and has no object but distraction, no basis but delicate enjoyment…”

I’ll say – and not just for tea but for chocolate cake and shortbread, meringues and cucumber sandwiches. I used to think tea was an occasion just for ladies to enjoy… I couldn’t imagine inviting a man to tea… but then I remembered the delicate courtships conducted over silver tea- pots by the fireside in Edwardian times, and realised what pleasures we have forfeited in our nine to five world. I also wondered if this was the raison d’etre for those loose floating tea gowns… easier for making love?

Portly philanderer, Edward the Seventh used to visit his lady loves for afternoon tea, arriving in an elegant black carriage with his coat of arms on the door. Inside, his inamoratas awaited him. They could be the ravishing Lily Langtry, the Jersey Lily, as famous for her beauty which adorned postcards, as Kim Kardashian is today; or others, like Winston Churchill’s gorgeous mother Jennie, or even Camilla Parker Bowles’, (aka Prince Charles’ second wife) great-grandmother, Mrs Alice Keppel. She was Edward’s mistress for twelve years and was invited to his death-bed by his generous wife, Queen Alexandra.

Afternoon tea for me has never been graced by the presence of king, prince, or even lover… my most un-forgettable afternoon tea was at a Catholic convent in Ipoh, Malaya. The Chinese nuns in this little convent had been accredited to examine children taking GCE, the Cambridge University secondary schools exam, in oral French. So accordingly, I and nine classmates, embarked on the day- long journey in stifling armoured vehicles (to protect us from lurking Chinese bandits) and then by train, from the Cameron Highlands down to Ipoh.

Arriving in the early evening after travelling all day, we went to sleep in a dormitory with other Chinese teenagers who all, to our amazement, managed to get undressed and shower without showing an inch of flesh. This proved quite a challenge to us less inhibited girls trying to do in Rome as the Romans did. The next day we hung around until afternoon in the steamy convent grounds, and then I was first in alphabetical order for the exam.

I was shown into a little room, where a bowing, smiling, gentle little Chinese nun in heavy black horn-rimmed spectacles and starched veil awaited me. It would have been bad enough trying to understand a Chinese person’s French, spoken by someone who had never been to France or met a French person, but worse was to come. She made a cup of tea and offered me a cake, baked especially for us all, she explained in broken English.

So there we were, an Asian nun, performing, not the tea ceremony of her culture, but an adulterated version of a western ritual, and speaking a foreign language to a person who couldn’t make out a word she was saying, and who knew that shortly an even greater ordeal awaited, in which two people who already couldn’t understand each other, were about to embark on a conversation in a language foreign to them both.

But it was the preliminary that almost silenced me. I bit into the cake, and discovered with horror that the nuns knew no more about baking English cakes than they did about speaking French. They had obviously used sawdust held together, not with butter and eggs, but with some sort of inedible glue. With the first bite drying out my mouth and clogging my throat, I realised that now I had to struggle through the whole of this un-eatable culinary disaster, as well as bluff my way through the exam. Each bite nearly choked me, and I still had to look as though it was delicious.

Somehow I got to end of this terrible experience, and there seemed to be an unspoken agreement that if I ate the cake, she would find my school girl French understandable and acceptable to her Chinese ears. I left with us both bowing and smiling, with great good humour, and walked into my classmate waiting to go in. She raised her eye-brows questioningly, and I smiled maliciously, which she optimistically took for re-assurance… later our profane school- girlish post mortems and accusations would have curled the ears of these innocent kindly nuns.

Other teas, with silver teapots, even a white-capped maid, tiers of scrumptious cakes, and lace napkins have never blotted out the memory of this ordeal. And now, a law unto myself, I break all the rules of the English ritual afternoon tea, which is a very different thing to tea ceremonies in parts of the world where tea drinking originated. My most daring break with convention is to put the milk in first, considered so vulgar by generations of tea drinking aficionados.

And having discovered that tea tastes much nicer when the milk goes in first, I have now also discovered that science supports my taste buds. According to research carried out by the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2003,”… if milk is poured into hot tea, individual drops separate from the bulk of the milk and come into contact with the high temperatures of the tea for enough time for significant denaturation or degradation of the milk to occur.” There you go, as they say in this country…

I have n’t space to touch on one of the most thrilling aspects of drinking tea, which used to be illegal in this country, and provoked fiery debate by male Members of Parliament; and now since 1981, it’s become illegal again ( MEN !!!). I refer to the innocent pastime of reading the tea leaves… but that is too vast and esoteric a subject for this little blog to tackle!

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Cucumber sandwiches are de rigueur for the ritual English afternoon tea, and very dull they can be too. These I served for a friend’s birthday party, and we gobbled them up… with relish….
Apart from white bread sliced as thinly as possible – even supermarket sliced does the job… you need peeled and thinly sliced cucumber, eight ounces of softened cream cheese, quarter of a cup of mayonnaise, a good sprinkling of onion powder, garlic powder and a pinch of lemon pepper if you have it.
Mix everything except the bread and cucumber, spread the mix on the bread, and arrange the cucumber on top. Cover with another slice of bread also spread with the mixture. Press down firmly, and cut into dainty bite-sized sandwiches. Irresistible.

Food for thought

By experts in poverty I do not mean sociologists, but poor men.
GK Chesterton

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The preciousness of people

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A knock on the door revealed a stranger holding a white enamel colander full of strawberries. We had moved into this house in town the day before, and he introduced himself as a neighbour.

That was a very meagre description of what he was, he was a glorious eccentric who I watched every day cycle slowly past on a very high old fashioned bike with a basket on the front, which gave the impression of being far too big for his small skinny frame, and liable to go out of control at any minute. He was on his way to the docks where he was a dock worker – a somewhat unconventional one I imagine.

Again a meagre description of this blue- eyed, wildly bearded, elderly Irishman, who revealed to us that he was a sort of remittance man, exiled from Ireland by his despairing family to make his somewhat erratic way in the antipodes.

He was a poet, he told us. I believed him though I never saw any of his work. His life was a poem. We went to his house, which was a poky little state house. Inside it gave the impression of being a miniature stately home, along the lines of an Irish demense… a few good but battered antiques, the odd oil painting and large old-fashioned sofa and chairs covered in old fashioned country house flowered linens.

This splendid impression of stateliness continued into the garden, which was quite big, being on a corner. He had transformed this rocky site into a miniature paradise, grass walks edged with pleached fruit trees, a vegetable patch, a strawberry bed, a tiny terrace and lawn, and best of all, a deep pond edged with large rocks, which he had created by levering the huge rocks day after day over a period of six months, until a deep hole had been carved out of the stony ground.

He was an eccentric, one of the many who, when I look back, have enriched our lives and given us fun and pleasure. There was Mr Macdonald, a direct descendant of Beatrix Potter’s Mr Mcgregor, who was our neighbour in the country, another Irishman. He only wore a pink woollen vest with long sleeves  and braces, all summer and winter, except on Sundays when he looked quite unnatural, shaved and spruced up in a short sleeved shirt in which he looked very ill at ease. Every spring he would arrive at my door in his pink vest, braces and hob-nailed boots, bearing a huge bunch of sweet-smelling narcissi which I had once told him reminded me of spring in England. He never missed a year thereafter.

There was Alf, an Englishman who served in the Malayan Police, and every three years when his leave was due, not having any family he wished to return to, he would sail to the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula. There he would buy a large flock of goats, and then proceed to drive them through the desert, using the goats as food and currency, until he reached Port Said. There he would get a boat to Liverpool, make a quick visit to his sister there, and then return to his tropical home in Kota Bahru.

Here too, lived Mammy, a giant White Russian, over six feet tall, wearing thick pebble specs for her short sighted grey eyes, and wearing the first caftans I ‘d seen over her enormous frame, all in brilliant colours and garish patterns . Mammy ran the local hotel where everyone gathered in Kota Bahru, and was a local joke too. As a seventeen year old I didn’t think she was such a joke. She and her husband had escaped the revolution in Russia, and made it safely to Shanghai like so many other White Russians.

They had survived the rigours of Japanese occupation and then fled Mao’s Communist takeover, ending up in Singapore. There, one afternoon, Mammy’s husband had walked down the road to buy an evening newspaper, and had never returned. No-one knew whether he had run away or was the victim of some crime. And Mammy was now surviving in this rather heartless superficial society in the remotest part of Malaya but creating laughter and fun all around her – actually rather more than a survivor.

Another neighbour was our Dutch friend Andrea, who had an antique shop full of the most exquisite items of a particular sensitivity, many of which I still posses. She was as nutty about animals as I, and far more lawless, striding into a bikie house to steal/rescue weeping puppies with no tails. I revelled in her poetic garden and laughed to see her huge magenta magnolia blossoms each wrapped in a plastic bag to protest them from the wind… not a good look actually!

Her house was beautiful in that glorious Dutch interior way of Pieter de Hooch and Vermeer, her pottery made you want to hold it and stroke it – and I have some – and her paintings were romantic and exquisite, and I have some of them too. I could actually write a book about her…

These memories were prompted by a conversation with a neighbour on my walk this morning. Since some of them read my blog, I cannot reveal what we talked of, or his glorious quirks of personality, but he reminded me of the joy of being with people who allow their personalities to flower, with no thought of what anyone else may think. Eccentricity is simply individuality, unself-consciousness, and the courage to be and do what feels right. When we are in the company of such people it feels as though ‘the waters of life’ are flowing, there are no limitations, and all things are possible.

Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher wrote that: ‘Everyone has in him something precious that is in no one else. But this precious something in a man is revealed to him only if he truly perceives his strongest feeling, his central wish, that in him which stirs his inmost being.’

P.S. The picture is of an antique English drinking jar given me by my friend Andrea.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

A faithful follower e-mailed me yesterday and asked if I had a recipe for Simnel cake. This is the light fruit cake that’s traditional at Easter, so I told her I’d blog it today. I use Nigella Lawson’s recipe with my own adaptations.

When I make it, I prepare the tin as usual, and then cream 175 g of soft unsalted butter with 175 g of caster sugar. Then mix 225 g of SR flour with half a teasp of cinnamon, a quarter of a teasp of ginger and 25 g of ground almonds. Add one egg with some of the flour mixture to the butter mixture, and mix two more eggs into the rest of the mix in the same way, before adding two tblsp of milk. Finally, fold in 500g of mixed dried fruit, plus some chopped glace cherries if you like them.

At this stage I put half the cake mix in the tin, roll out about 400g of marzipan, cut into a cake sized circle and place on the cake mix, then cover with the rest of the cake. Bake for an hour at 170 C, then turn it down to 150C and cook for another hour and a half. It’s cooked when it’s risen and firm. Let it cool completely on a rack before taking it from the tin.

When cool, paint the top with apricot jam, and roll out another 400g of marzipan and stick it on. With 200g of marzipan, make balls representing the eleven apostles – Judas surplus to requirements here – and stick them on using an egg white – beaten to just frothy. Some people quickly put it under the grill to make it look slightly toasted.

 

 

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The necessity of beauty

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Pamela was my lodger. She was living in the third bedroom in my flat for the same reasons that Mr Micawber pronounced the immortal words:”Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.”

I’d tried to fill the gap between my meagre salary (women were paid far less than men in the Hongkong I lived in ) and my expenditure, by doing TV quiz shows,  radio programmes, using the children as photographic models and even doing PR for the Anglican church until I could stand being hypocritical no longer. So Pamela was my next attempt at solvency. While she lived with me my life was filled with her dramas, love affairs, crises and disasters.

She arrived with one fiancée, dressed demurely in twinset and pearls, tweed skirt and silk head –scarf. Soon she found a more exciting prospect, and changed her style  to newly fashionable jeans, her hair swung up into dashing styles and lots of makeup. The new fiancée lent her his new VW while he went back to England to sort out his divorce, and hereby hangs the tale. Pamela rolled the car her first night in possession of it, and I was awakened in the middle of the night by a Chinese policeman who couldn’t speak English.

I pieced together that Pamela had had an accident, and was in a Chinese hospital since she had no insurance to cover her for a European one.  The next morning the children, four and five years old, and I, packed up a few things for Pamela and made an expedition to the enormous  building which housed some thousands of sick and penniless Chinese.

We found our way through a maze of corridors to Pamela’s ward, and by the time I reached her bed I was deeply shocked. The ward held eighty women. They were all dressed in faded brown cotton shifts including Pamela. The noise was horrendous. Cantonese is the noisiest language on earth. To hear our amah chatting to another outside the kitchen was deafening. To hear seventy- nine women chatting in a confined space was probably higher than the safe decibel level.

Pamela was bruised and shocked but not injured. After doing our duty, and promising to return that afternoon with more things she wanted, the children and I went home, leaving her with a little bunch of camellias I’d picked. Only six blossoms because that was all that were flowering.

When we returned in the afternoon, something had changed. There was a hush in the ward and a sense of peace, and all eyes were on the gwailo (long- nose) and her children. Being watched was something one accepted as part of life then, but this felt different. And the hush was a sort of reverence. Pamela whispered to me what had happened after I left.

When we walked out of the ward, the women came crowding round her to see the flowers and smell the fragrance. They were ecstatic at this exquisite beauty in their harsh unfriendly environment. Deprived as the women were, of all colour and texture and smell and beauty, the flowers brought something like heaven into their lives.

They didn’t speak English, and Pamela didn’t speak Cantonese, but with the aid of the ward sister’s few words of English, they worked out a roster for the flowers. Each woman would have one camellia by her bed-side in a glass for three hours in every twenty-four. Pamela had one all the time, and the sixth flower which had fallen off its stem, the ward sisters had in their office, floating in a saucer.

Back at the office the next day I rang the dean of the cathedral and several hotels and they agreed to send their flowers to the hospital whenever they changed them. I wonder if they still do.

The great Catholic thinker Monsignor Hildebrand wrote that: ‘the poor need not only bread. The poor also need beauty’. But it’s not just the poor. We all need beauty.

It’s strange to me that Abraham Maslow in his hierarchy of needs didn’t include beauty. Sometimes beauty is the the only thing that keeps us going. As Resistance fighter Odette Churchill was being locked back in her cell after a bout of torture by the Gestapo, she snatched up the skeleton of a leaf being blown in the door with her. The beauty of that leaf sustained her and gave her hope and courage and a belief in goodness that carried her through her  dreadful ordeal.

Quaker writer, Caroline Graveson wrote that: ‘ there is a daily  round for beauty as well as for goodness, a world of flowers and books and cinemas and clothes and manners as well as mountains and masterpieces.’ She talked of beauty: ‘not only in the natural beauty of the earth and sky, but in all fitness of language and rhythm, whether it describe a heavenly vision or a street fight, a Hamlet or a Falstaff, a philosophy or a joke: in all fitness of line and colour and shade, whether seen in the Sistine Madonna or a child’s knitted frock…’

The sad thing is that those deprived Chinese women in that joyless hospital ward, came from a culture, which before the blight of industrialisation and the tyranny of plastic, was incapable of producing anything that wasn’t beautiful – from their baskets to their bowls, to their porcelain and their poetry.  And there was something very beautiful about buying a kati of vegetables in the markets and watching them being skilfully wrapped in a beautifully folded sheet of re-cycled Chinese newspaper, or a large leaf, and tied with a knotted reed.

Perhaps their own sage should have the last word, Confucius said that everything is beautiful, to those who can see it….

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Salady food feels right in the Antipodean Christmas season.This is one of my favourites. Boil new potatoes for the number of people you have, plus hardboiled eggs. Chop them and mix them with sliced artichoke hearts fresh from the delicatessen or from a jar. Gently toss in a good vinaigrette  dressing, and sprinkle with capers if desired. Delicious on its own with crusty rolls, or with cold chicken or cold salmon.

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Paradise is not lost

100_0559 In this country the sun is reputed to shine twice as often as it does in England, and it shines with especial clarity on Coromandel, so called when a ship of that name anchored where the township is now. The Coromandel peninsula is a rugged line of purple ranges and deep ravines where clear bright streams and rivers rush over rocks to the sea. Once the peaks of Coromandel were clothed in primeval kauri forests, and once too, those peaks hid seams of ancient gold. But now these two sources of gold have long been mined, the hills are covered in secondary growth, and the mine shafts are empty.

It’s always been a place of passion and politics, where potters and painters, poets  and philosophers have fought to defend their way of life in these empty, unpolluted and un-peopled places. Ringing this neck of land, pohutakawa trees flaunt their red flowers along the rocky coast-line, and distant blue horizons beckon to unexplored peaks and impenetrable bush.

Our house on the side of a narrow valley leading down to the water’s edge, looked up to the steep foot hills of the Coromandel ranges behind us. And we faced the Firth of Thames, where the light on the water had a mystic quality in the winter sunshine; where the line of Miranda beach on the opposite shore could just be glimpsed; and where flights of godwits gathering for their heroic autumn journey to Siberia, could be imagined.

Further down the coast was the place where Captain Cook first came ashore in this country.  Young Nick, the cabin boy who sighted land, gave his name to Young Nick’s Head, and where Captain Cook observed the transit of Mercury, he called the bay where they anchored, Mercury Bay.

When the Endeavour came sailing into Mercury Bay it was watched by a nine year old boy. Eighty-three years later the magnificent old man told his story. As he watched the great canoe with huge white sails skimming towards them, he was amazed when the ship’s crew then rowed ashore in the time-honoured fashion with their backs in the direction in which they were going.

“Yes, it is so,” said the old people watching with him, “these people are goblins, their eyes are in the back of their heads.” Eventually Horeta Te Taniwha, as he was called, gathered the courage to climb on board the ship with the older people.

“I and my two companions did not walk about on board the ship – we were afraid lest we be bewitched by the goblins; and we sat still and looked at everything at the home of these goblins… the chief goblin… came up on deck again to where I and my boy-companions were, and patted our head with his hand, and he put out his hand towards me and spoke to us at the same time, holding the nail out to us.

“My companions were afraid and sat in silence; but I laughed, and he gave the nail to me. I took it in my hand and said “Ka-pai” (very good), and he repeated my words, and again patted our heads with his hand, and went away.

“My companions said: “This is the leader of the ship, which is proved by his kindness to us; and also he is very fond of children. A noble man – one of noble birth – cannot be lost in a crowd”

“I took my nail and kept it with great care, and carried it wherever I went, and made it fit to the point of my spear, and also used it to makes holes in the side-boards of the canoe, to bind them onto the canoe. I kept this nail until one day I was in a canoe and she capsized in the sea and my god (the nail) was lost to me…”

The descriptions of the pristine land that Cook discovered in 1769, sound as fragrant and unspoiled as the descriptions of Roanoke in 1584. I ache to have seen Auckland harbour as it was then–the first accounts tell of the silence and the sunshine, the flaming pohutakawa trees bending over the still, clear water as the first white men glided spell-bound up the harbour in their sailing ships – it was a magical, mysterious country which seemed like the most exquisite place on earth to those early explorers. On the other side of the coast, where the other great harbour of Manukau lies, they found forests teeming with strange birds, great trees of more than ten metres in girth towering to the skies, cloudy waterfalls, black sand beaches  and steep jagged cliffs facing the turbulent Tasman..

 Songbirds fluted in the dense forests. Sir Joseph Banks, the great naturalist on board the Endeavour with Cook, wrote at Queen Charlotte Sound: “ the ship lay at a distance of somewhat less than a quarter of a mile from the shore, and in the morning we were awakened by the singing of the birds: the number was incredible. And they seemed to strain their throats in emulation of each other. This wild melody was infinitely superior to any that we had ever heard of the same kind: it seemed to be like small bells most exquisitely tuned.”

Civilisation has made life easier and more comfortable at one level, dentists, drains, and all the rest, and destroyed the planet in the process. And we all know it and yearn for the original untouched Garden of Eden. To have been alive then, and to have savoured this untouched land… it makes me feel homesick just to think of it. So-called civilisation of course, has changed so much of this. From 1840 onwards, the settlers did their best to destroy the forests, using the giant kauris for ships masts, and building wooden homes, wood being the quickest material to use to build a home in a new country. On the newly barren hills they planted grass for the millions of sheep which have brought prosperity to this country, and now erosion means that in some places, the rivers are no longer clear, but sluggish muddy currents.

They took the gold, and now they want the oil. Yet so many of us still want keep this country as unpolluted and unspoiled as possible; so we try to save the native birds, we enclose huge national parks,  we preserve the swathes of native bush and forest still here, and we oppose the multi-national oil companies. And nothing can change or spoil the silent, snow-capped mountains and wild waterfalls, the great lakes and endless miles of solitary beaches in an empty land the size of England, which is home to only four million people.

I now live an hour’s drive north of Auckland, looking out on green fields one side, and blue sea the other; and I walk the long deserted stretches of yellow sands, and can only hear larks singing high above the dunes, and the waves breaking on the shore. In a crowded world, where solitude and silence are hard to find, this place still seems like paradise – last, loneliest, loveliest – as Rudyard Kipling once described Auckland.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

I love vegetable dishes. This fennel dish I can eat as a meal, and my husband can have it with his steak, though it also goes well with lamb and pork. Allow a fennel bulb for each person, though if I’m having it as a meal, I usually have two. Cut the fennel in half from root to stalk and blanch in boiling salted water and drain well. Cut the fennel again, into quarters, and lay them in a well- buttered baking dish… it doesn’t matter if they break up. Scatter pieces of fried and chopped bacon over the fennel along with a finely chopped garlic clove. Whisk a teasp of flour into 250 ml of cream and pour over the fennel. Bake for about 25 minutes in an oven set at 190 degrees. Check it’s soft with a sharp knife. Eaten with a crusty roll or wholemeal bread, it’s very satisfying.

Food for thought

It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.

CS Lewis, 1898 – 1963 English novelist, poet, medievalist and literary critic. Best known for his books ‘The Screwtape Letters’ and ‘Chronicles of Narnia’.

 

 

 

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Hollywood, Ruined Reputations and Truth

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In the New Zealand Parliament this week the leader of one of the parties put up a motion congratulating the New Zealand  Ambassador and his second secretary for “their courageous and commendable” role in offering refuge and “significant help”  in 1979, at their Tehran embassy during the US hostage crisis in Iran.

He termed the film ‘Argo’ a “grave misrepresentation” of the part the NZ diplomats had played, which had placed both themselves, and their country’s policies and trade at risk.

The motion was passed unanimously. Ben Affleck has admitted in a press conference that he had been unjust both to the British and to the New Zealanders, who’d both risked themselves and their countries by helping the US hostages. But he said it was a better story if he falsified the facts.

I can’t imagine how it must feel to be held up as a coward to the whole world, when you’ve actually acted generously and courageously. But such thoughtless arrogance  is nothing new. Hollywood has been falsifying history and making heroic war films about Americans using the exploits of British servicemen for years.

And this is why I prefer facts to fiction. The story I tell now is true, and is such a perfectly rounded story with a neat plot and unexpected ending that if it was fiction it would be said to be too neat, and therefore improbable.

It’s about my father who belonged to a distinguished cavalry regiment, and had fought in tanks throughout the war. After the war, playing a leading role in a huge military exercise, the last of its kind ever held in England, he was concerned about the lack of proper treatment of the real accidentally wounded, as opposed to the dummy wounded, and he became a whistleblower.

We all know that whistleblowers are not popular, and like many another whistleblower, he had ruined his career. So he left his regiment in which he now had no future, and volunteered to go to Malaya as an infantryman, to serve where communist Chinese guerrillas were terrorising the local populations and killing British rubber planters and the like. The conflict in Malaya was called an Emergency at the request of the planters, as otherwise the insurance companies wouldn’t cover them for losses, if it was a war!

The Chinese guerillas called themselves a Liberation Army, and received their orders from Moscow. Their leader was a Chinese called Chin Peng, who had trained in guerrilla warfare against the invading Japanese during the war. These guerrilla “freedom” fighters were ruthless and brutal in their methods of intimidation.

Vulnerable and frightened Malays and Chinese labourers living on the edges of the jungle were re-settled in safe New Villages, where they had better conditions and pay than ever before – and after British pressure, were allowed to buy land and have the vote – so they didn’t need to support the ‘bandits’ as everyone else called them. Measures were put in place to stop the bandits getting food from the terrified local populations, and since the bandits also extorted food from the Sakai’s  – the aborigines – in the jungle, the Sakai’s hated them too.

This meant that in the end the bandits could be starved out of their hideouts. A lot of thought went into winkling them out of the dense jungle, while not antagonising the local populations. Troops, who consisted of some British and Ghurka regiments, and some Malay regiments, tracked them down in the jungle. My father was in a Malay regiment, and small detachments were dropped into the jungle at the end of a rope by helicopter, to spend six weeks tracking, hoping to find bandit camps, disband them and send the demoralised and hungry bandits to rehabilitation camps. Inevitably there was shooting. But while the British authorities offered surrender, no Britons who were captured by the bandits ever survived. The military operation was called ‘Winning Hearts and Minds”….

We lived in a tiny military camp in the middle of the jungle in Pahang, central Malaya. I came home for school holidays with a large armoured car escort, in case of ambush. On this day, we had gone to the nearest village where the only grocery shop for hundreds of square miles was to be found. The shop was owned by a magnificent old Chinese trader, known as Mr Tek Seng, and when shopping there we all had to go into his back room and drink tea while our groceries were packed up.

As we left Tek Seng’s, my father, who we thought was still in the jungle, raced up to the entrance in an army jeep, and called out to my stepmother to get some oranges and hurry, hurry. When she returned with a box a few minutes later, he was half carrying an emaciated Chinese man in ragged clothes, and putting him into the back seat of our car. He sat the man down, and sat on the seat beside him, peeling an orange. He then gave the man segments to eat. When he’d finished one orange, my father indicated to the man to go on eating them, and help himself from the box. We then drove home with him.

Back at camp, the man was taken to the guardroom, and I heard later that as soon as he began eating the oranges, he began to recover. He was at death’s door with starvation and  scurvy when my father had found him in the jungle. (Early Renaissance explorers lost two thirds of their crews from scurvy, as did all the navies until the 18th century) But as soon as a person gets some vitamin C into them, they start to recover. And that was that with the bandit, I thought.

We returned to England after Merdeka – self government – was declared in Malaya in 1956, and got on with our lives. Chin Peng, meanwhile, the Communist leader, eventually retired to live in Beijing since there was nothing to fight for since Malaya achieved peaceful independence without him!

A few years later, my father retired too, and took a job in Whitehall, central London. Some seven years after the bandit had been captured and rescued from the jungle, a soldier from the Royal Signals Corps came to my father’s office, and asked to see him. It was the bandit.

He had emerged from rehabilitation camp a changed man, and had joined the British Army. He was now stationed with his unit in Gibraltar, and he came to London to seek out my father and to give him a watch. To thank him.

I love this story for its humanity and decency.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

The threadbare gourmets in this house feasted rather well today. Friends had brought us some fresh fillets of fish which they had caught this morning. We ate them with buttered new potatoes bought from a stall on the road home, and local tomatoes also bought from a road-side stall. And afterwards we had fragrant ripe figs, from another friend’s garden. They were beautiful to look at, stained with dark purple and green on the outside, and inside, pale pink and translucent green.

I cooked the fish quickly in butter and with chopped dill. I also cooked the soft little tomatoes with them so the juices would flavour the cream. When both were not quite cooked, I tipped a tblsp of brandy in the pan and let it bubble up, then added salt and pepper and thick cream and let it bubble and thicken a bit more. We ate it immediately with the new potatoes and parsley, and some green beans.

 

Food for Thought

If you lose touch with nature you lose touch with humanity. If there’s no relationship with nature then you become a killer; then you kill baby seals, whales, dolphins, and man either for gain, for sport, for food, or for knowledge. Then nature is frightened of you, withdrawing its beauty. You may take long walks in the woods or camp in lovely places but you are a killer and so lose their friendship. You probably are not related to anything but to your wife or your husband…

Jiddhu Krishnamurti  1895 – 1986 Teacher, philosopher

 

 

 

 

 

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Travels in Foodie Heaven

Food was not a topic of much joy in my war-time childhood. Green ration books for us children, cream ones for adults. If you went shopping without them, it was a waste of time, and you had to get a bus back home to pick them up and start all over again, standing at the back of the queue at every shop.

The biggest foodie thrill I can remember back then was the one orange a year, stuffed in the bottom of my Christmas stocking. Things looked up slightly on my tenth birthday, the first I had ever spent with my father. (I was ten months old when he went to war in 1939, returning for two weeks leave in 1945, before finally coming home in 1947. But we only saw him for a month before he was posted to Belsen).We qualified for an army quarter by the time my birthday arrived, and joined him. To my parents’ horror it was the former home of the Beast of Belsen, the sadistic commandant of the concentration camp.

Knowing nothing of this, I concentrated on my birthday. My new parents took me for a treat to the Officers Club. The palace of the Princes of Hanover now served as the Officers Mess, where we children were allowed for the children’s Christmas party; it was held in the marbled, mirrored, chandeliered ballroom, with satin and gilt chairs to fall over during musical chairs. And the Prince’s hunting lodge deep in pine forests running with deer and wild boar, was now the Club.

The speciality of the German couple who ran it was their sugary doughnuts with butter cream and jam inside (Had the Hanoverian princelings also enjoyed these goodies before us?) I had never tasted anything like them -the nearest thing to heaven in my gastronomically deprived childhood. This may have been the moment when I became a foodie.

The next high point in my foodie career was staying in Vienne in central France a few years later. We were still on rationing in England at the time, and the rich French provincial food was a shock to my spartan system. But here I discovered real French bread. It was brought up from the village to the chateau by one of the maids every day, fresh and warm for breakfast. And in the afternoon a fresh supply was delivered to the kitchen by a boy on a bike. We children would gather illegally in the kitchen and annoy the maids by tearing into the warm bread and eating it with delectable runny confiture dripping onto the floor.

Malaya was another foodie milestone. We lived in a hotel on the edge of the sea in Penang for over a year, and ate in a dining room reminiscent of the forecourt of St Pauls Cathedral. Great pillars stretched the length of the ballroom. We walked this length between palms and pillars three times a day for every meal, and subsided at the end of it in the dining area, still pillared and palmed. We ate the same meals every week, in the same order and my favourite day was Friday when we had nasi goring, the only nod in the direction of the local cuisine.

I’ve tried to get Malayan friends to replicate it, I’ve tried myself, but nothing has ever had the same texture, tastes, variety and delicacy. I can copy most of the culinary joys of the past, but that one has proved impossible – it’s just a fragrant regretted memory.

In Majorca, when few people had even heard of it, at a little fishing village called Cala Ratjada, we stayed in the first hotel to be built there,( there are now over fifty) which they were just finishing, and the water for the shower came speeding through the bidet, and the hand basin only had water in short bursts. But down by the sea was a fish restaurant, and there I tasted two foodie classics, a genuine paella, and a lobster salad which is still fresh in my memory. I was beginning to sensitise my taste buds.

France a year later, this time a hamlet somewhere between San Tropez and Le Lavandou, where every meal eaten under the vine covered terrace was like ambrosia – never a dud. My lasting memories of this bliss were the fresh croissants for breakfast with unsalted butter and delicious homemade apricot jam, and aoli.  Eating aoli was like discovering the secret of culinary life- the simplicity of it, the exquisiteness of it, the white china, the perfect egg, the salad and the aoli. I decided there and then that I’d learn to make it when I had my own kitchen. (Living in an officers mess didn’t give me much scope for cooking experiments at the time.)

Later, driving back from Bonn with a girlfriend, we stopped at Aix (shades of “How they brought the good news from Aix to Ghent!”) for a coffee. We ordered rum babas and though it was fifty years ago, I can still remember the shocked delight at the taste of the rum and the cream and the yeasty cake. They were a benchmark for all rum babas eaten since, and none of them have measured up to the rum babas of Aix. We sat by a river in the sun, with dappled leaves reflected in the water, tall, grey eighteenth century buildings lining the other side of the road.

The next foodie revelation was staying with an old school friend in Winchester, who had become a talented cook in one year of marriage. We started the meal with shrimps in mayonnaise in half a pear, a very 50’s thingie and followed this with roast duck and orange. By the time we got to the crème brulee poor Brenda had fled the room to cope with not morning sickness, but evening sickness.

Her husband and I somewhat unconcernedly tackled the heavenly crème brulee she had left behind. I’d never tasted it before, cream not having been freely available in my past, so this was another taste bud sensation. To this day I can’t go past crème brulee however much I may have eaten beforehand.

Hong Kong? Oh yes, lots of lovely Chinese dishes, but what I remember from those days was the bombe Alaska at a place called Jimmy’s Kitchen. A girl friend and I would skip out from the office at lunchtime and order a bombe Alaska each. Fortified by this self-indulgent mix of sponge and fruit and ice-cream, brandy and meringue, we would totter reluctantly back to our desks to resume writing our boring little stories about fashion parades and new cosmetics for the woman’s pages.

So now, after a lifetime of enjoying food, here in New Zealand, land of milk and manukau honey, what gluttonous delights light my fire? Well, there are two things I cannot live without these days. One is a nice cup of tea. And the other is a nice cup of coffee!

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

When the crusty Duke of Wellington came back from his campaigns in foreign parts, legend has it that all he wanted was a slice of hot buttered toast. What he was talking about was comfort food, and it’s different for each of us. Mine is cornflakes if I’m on my uppers, or creamy mashed potatoes, or scrambled egg. My husband believes that scrambled egg is the apex of my culinary skills, but others have been known to recoil in horror clutching their hearts, when they discover how many eggs and how much butter and cream have gone into them!

For your run of the mill ordinary breakfast scrambled egg, I use a generous sized walnut of butter, and about two tablespoons of milk. I melt them, and then break the eggs in and stir to mix. The trick is to have the buttered toast ready, and then stir the scrambled egg in the pan very gently so it forms large curds. Cook it very slowly, if it’s cooked too fast, it becomes stringy, tough and watery. As soon as the curds are almost cooked, I tip it onto the waiting toast, as it still goes on setting while it’s hot. For softer, creamier scrambled eggs, add more butter and use cream – delectable.

Food for Thought

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

From a speech in Washington in 1953, by President Dwight. D. Eisenhower 1890 -1969

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