Category Archives: consciousness

Fifty Shades of Green

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It was a term of derision thirty years ago when someone referred to me mockingly as a ‘brown- rice greenie’. These days however, eating brown rice is respectable and being green is mainstream. But I’ve just discovered there are different degrees of greenery!

Feeding the birds has always been a pleasure of mine, but now I find I’m feeding the wrong birds!  This can be construed as non-environmentally friendly since it encourages non- native birds in a place where only native birds are valued… meaning places where others are trying to return the area to its pre-European pristine purity.

Ironically, the increase of non-native species where I live is a result of an ongoing and increasingly successful predator control programme which has meant many more fledglings survive since there are now fewer rats to prey upon the bird populations. But my feeding of the wrong birds – green finches, quails and chaffinches around our little potted garden –  is sometimes perceived as a problem!

So though I thought our environmental footprint was a reasonably small one, in that we have a compost loo, which means using at least thirty per cent less water than if we had a normal loo, we only run one car, we don’t use up jet-fuel by travelling overseas, so don’t participate in producing the prodigious gas emissions of jet exhaust, we ‘re not really very green in other people’s eyes.

We eat very little meat, tending to the organic chicken spectrum and free-range eggs, and I never buy fish since we over -fish the oceans so dreadfully, but in the scales of green virtue these private attempts to preserve the planet don’t seem to balance out the detrimental practise of feeding introduced species of birds.

I was staggered to read that during a recent typhoon China recalled its fleet of more than 18,000 fishing boats in the interests of safety. My mind boggled! Eighteen thousand boats going out every day to strip the seas!  Then there are the fishing fleets of all the other seven countries surrounding the South China Sea, not to mention the vast fishing fleets that range across all the other oceans of the world.

When David Rothschild replicated the voyage of the Kon-Toki across the Pacific a few years ago, they couldn’t live off the ocean like Thor Heyerdahl’s crew seventy years back … there were no fish left to catch. In the waters surrounding this remote country, Japanese, Taiwanese, South Korean and Soviet fishing vessels trawl perpetually … the Japanese still indulging in whale hunting to the despair of many who live here.

The fishing fleets of Europe have so denuded the waters in the north Atlantic, that cod, once the cheapest and most plentiful of fishes when I was a child is now a delicacy… so yes, in this household, fish is off the menu.

Much of our house is built of re-cycled materials, even the foundations are concrete set in the big plastic water bottles in which we had to buy water when we first came here, and were waiting for a water tank to arrive. Whenever neighbours undertake renovations, we’re the often recipients of their unwanted or extra insulation, wood, kitchen fittings, etc.

My partner uses an environmentally friendly manual earth re-structuring implement for all his earth-moving work on site, which requires no fuel to operate, makes no noise- polluting sound and cost very little compared to a digger. This spade is one of our most useful possessions, and has slowly changed the contours of this building site with no impact on the environment.

But degrees of green-ness mean that in some doctrinaire eyes we probably aren’t green at all. I grow flowers instead of vegetables, and try not to feel guilty about it, telling myself that it’s good for the bees anyway. But this brings me to another degree of green-ness.

Being a vegan is not an option for me, attractive though the idea is, of being able to exist without exploiting any form of life. (I can’t digest soya beans, which provide much needed nutrients in a non- meat, non- egg non-dairy diet.) But now I read that even vegans can be up against it in this strange interlocking world, where so many natural processes now seem under threat from our various polluting or destructive modern practices.

The vegan – vegetarian options of eating avocadoes which provide so much badly needed protein in a vegan diet, drinking almond milk in preference to exploiting cows for dairy food, and eating almond meal for those needing gluten free options are now suspect apparently.

Because both avocadoes and almonds for western markets tend to be grown in California, where bees are now rare forms of life, bee-hives are carted around from different growing areas to pollinate the avocado and almond trees. No-one is sure at the moment if this is detrimental to the well-being of bees, but it’s a good guess that they may be conscious and dislike these upheavals. So if you’re a vegan because you don’t want to exploit or cause distress to other forms of life, suddenly there’s a new dilemma.

Up till now I have withstood the muted dis-approval of supermarket check-out staff when I opt for plastic bags instead of using my collection of hessian shopping bags and old baskets. This is because I use those despised plastic bags to line wastepaper baskets and for non-compostable rubbish to go into the rubbish bin, including the endless plastic wrappings which come with everything, from jars of vitamins to cucumbers and bread, packets of bacon or biscuits.

Now plastic bags are banned from our local supermarket I ask myself what we wrapped our rubbish in when it went into the dust-bin before plastic bags exploded into our lives, and I realise we used sheets of newspaper. But newspapers are almost as environmentally unfriendly as plastic bags in that they require acres of trees to be chopped down every day. World demand for trees for paper has risen by four hundred per cent per cent in the last forty years – two and a half million trees are cut down every day.

In the USA in one year, two billion books, three hundred and fifty million magazines, and twenty- four billion newspapers are published. To get the paper for these books requires consuming over thirty- two million trees. And those figures don’t include the huge output of books and newspapers everywhere else in the world.

The average American uses seven trees a year in paper, wood, and other products made from trees. This amounts to about 2,000,000,000 trees per year! Apart from papermaking, unbelievably, more than two hundred thousand acres of rainforest are burned every day. That is more than one hundred and fifty acres lost every minute of every day, and seventy-eight million acres lost every year!

The profligate destruction of trees is so awful that I rarely buy new books any more, and second hand book-shops are my go-to place for reading matter – just finished John Mortimer’s ‘Paradise Postponed’ from the St John’s Op Shop, and before that a fascinating book about Mary Magdalen found in the re-cycle shop at the local dump. Gibbons ‘Decline and fall of the Roman Empire’, from the Cancer Charity Bookshop is waiting in the wings! Can I justify writing any more books myself? Better stick to blogging.

Trying to reconcile the conflicting claims of environmental correctness is one of the ethical challenges of our day, and we all have different points of view, depending on whether one is a western greenie, a third world farmer, a fisherman, a miner, or even a writer! Intelligent, sensitive and aware people who compost, grow vegetables and native plants, support environmental projects and live on a green moral high ground, yet can own several cars and enjoy a rich calendar of overseas travel are as inconsistent as I am.

I feel that my environmentally incorrect pastime of feeding non-native birds can be seen as another facet of the green debate in these times of the Sixth Great Extinction. (Greenfinch populations have plunged by 59 per cent in the UK in the last ten years)

Yet feeding the birds has also been found to be good for emotional and mental health according to an article in a bird watcher’s magazine. So that’s good enough for me… preserving my emotional and mental health is one of my top priorities. Green is a state of mind and there are myriad shades of green! Vive les differences.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I’ve discovered this tasty recipe in an old scrapbook for a sauce to eat with raw vegetables or a baked potato… all it needs is quarter of a pint of mayonnaise, half a green pepper chopped very finely, two sticks of chopped celery, a cup of finely chopped cucumber, clove of garlic, crushed with some salt, six table spoons of tomato sauce/ketchup, and a table spoon of horseradish sauce. Mix all the ingredients together, add salt and pepper if needed, and chill before serving.

Food for Thought

“I saw a Divine Being. I’m afraid I’m going to have to revise all my various books and opinions.”

A.J.Ayer, British philosopher and atheist

 

 

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Filed under birds, consciousness, cookery/recipes, environment, flowers, gardens, philosophy, pollution, uncategorised, Uncategorized

The future in the distance

100_0404I know I said this would be the last instalment of my autobiography, but as it turns out, there is one more chapter to come.

 When I was in the army as a twenty- two- year old lieutenant, I had to take a detachment of my girls to help at a local fete at Stratford-on -Avon. My job was to look after John Mills, the film star, and his daughter Juliet, also a film star. They were opening the village fete.

When this not-too- onerous task had been completed, I was free to wander round the fair ground, though feeling somewhat conspicuous in my dark green army uniform. I ducked inside a fortune teller’s tent for fun and sat down in front of her crystal ball. She took my hand, and peered at it. “There’s writing in this hand,” she said. “you’re going to start writing and you’ll never stop. It’s all through the rest of your life.”

Nothing was further from my thoughts at the time, and I dismissed it as a fortune teller’s fantasy. It took another seven years before her prophesy came true, and I’m still writing! During the years of Patrick’s retirement when he was still churning out a weekly column and editing a grey power magazine, I was still writing too.

Not only did I write for his magazine – interviews, columns, and cookery articles, (all unpaid) helping him design covers and acting as courier to and from the printers, but I also checked his books before they went to the printer, thought of titles like: ‘Sons of the Sword’, ‘Dangerous Journeys’, and provided material to give them extra depths like the extracts from the Mahabharata about a nuclear explosion, when he wrote of Hiroshima in ‘Sons of the Sword’.

When he ran out of ideas for his column, I’d cook up a reader’s letter for him to discuss, or find and research a topic for him, and as he grew less able, I’d check over every column trying to re-write confused sentences and connect unconnected trains of thought. He used to get very angry with me at correcting his work, and I dreaded doing it every week, but it had to be done to maintain his credibility.

A publisher commissioned me to write sixteen illustrated books on New Zealand, I wrote for a parent’s magazine, and for my pleasure also began writing a book called ‘The Sound of Water.’ Through all the sadness and despair of the last years of our marriage this writing energised me and gave me pleasure.

Patrick had six major operations during this time, and they were always followed by complications. When we could still afford private care, it was daunting to discover that once the operation had been completed, and paid for- we were out on the street! Not even any help into the car with a severely disabled heavy patient, and there was no follow-up care.

When we had to fall back on the state health system, the follow-up care was meticulous and took a great weight off my mind; but we still had the long treks into the pain clinic, the geriatric department, the heart unit, operations for cataracts, endless visits to the hearing clinic for hearing aids, and regular trips to the doctor… I was now facing what so many women who marry much older husbands have to cope with.

When he fell over, a frequent occurrence, I would have to ring the local volunteer fire brigade for help in lifting a heavy and inert old man – it would take four men to get him off the floor, and then onto a stretcher and into an ambulance to hospital.

The army of medical practitioners involved in his care all told me that now was the time to ask for family help, ‘you can’t go it alone’. But like so many other families, mine too was spread around the globe or coping with their own burdens.

Though I was frequently ambushed with depression in this time, and so stressed that heart pains made me wonder if I was having a heart attack, the support of friends, coffee, lunch or little get- togethers kept me going. And now I discovered opera, becoming an afficionado of the New York Met’s filmed operas which showed at our local cinema regularly.

Back home I’d compare different versions on Youtube, and found solace and stimulation in this new passion. And then blogging became a hobby too – more writing! And because I always looked bright and efficient, loved my garden, books, music, clothes, good food and friends, no-one ever thought I wasn’t coping.

Once I organised a two week stay of what was called ‘respite care’ in a nearby retirement home, paid for by the health service, and Patrick’s children were appalled at my callousness. During this time, I was so exhausted I slept most of the time, which I’m told is typical for carers. I began to wonder guiltily if I would ever have any life left to enjoy, when this long period of illness and frailty was over for a husband – who in spite of all his operations and constant illness was still, it seemed, indestructible.

I began to seek comfort in the words of people like Ibsen:

‘ELMER: But this is disgraceful. Is this the way you neglect your most sacred duties?
NORA: What do you consider is my most sacred duty?
HELMER: Do I have to tell you that? Isn’t it your duty to your husband and children?
NORA:I have another duty, just as sacred.
HELMER: You can’t have. What duty do you mean?
NORA: My duty to myself.’

I found the lines in Oriah Mountain Dreamer’s poem gave me courage:

‘… I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul. If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.’

And Hillel’s words written two thousand years ago: ’If not you – who? If not now – when?

So in the end, after giving him a rousing eighty-fifth birthday party which all but two of the children were able to attend, I decided I had to make a decision. Three weeks later, with my doctor’s encouragement, I told him I couldn’t go on any longer, and that I’d found several good retirement homes for him, which of course he refused to consider, saying he was not ready for that yet.

It happened, and I incurred odium and ostracism from all his family and most of the people connected with him. Even during the first year on my own, struggling with too little money, a burden of guilt, and legal woes, I was happier than I’d been for years.

Patrick lived in a luxury retirement home, where his daughter was the manager. He was immediately assessed as needing to be in the hospital wing, which I felt justified my decision. Family and work associates all made the trek out to see him regularly, though no-one had bothered to do this when I was looking after him!

He was still collecting Japanese artifacts and still writing his monumental and unreadable history of Japan and the Pacific War. I moved to the Coromandel peninsula, a four hour drive away, and when I received a phone call one evening three years later, saying he was ill and unlikely to last beyond the next day, I drove through the night to see him.

He was unconscious, and I sat by his bed for three hours until I felt his daughter wanted me to go. I bent over to kiss him and say goodbye, and he opened his eyes and looked straight into mine.

He had been twenty-one when he joined his beloved Auckland Star. On its masthead back then were the lines:

For the cause that needs assistance,

For the wrong that needs resistance,

For the future in the distance,

For the good that we can do.

He faithfully and steadfastly lived those words for the next sixty- eight years of his life until he died at nearly eight-nine.

At his funeral, as the hearse was about to pull away, an elderly man stepped forward and placed a flower on the coffin. It was Arthur Thomas.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

 This is a wonderful lunch dish for a special occasion. I found it in a magazine a few years ago, and now that spring is here, am about to dust off my quiche tin for it. Having prepared and cooked a short crust pastry shell, the recipe suggests to cook six sliced red onions in two tablesp of oil and four tablesp of brown sugar until soft. When golden leave to cool. Mix five egg yolks with three hundred g of crumbled blue cheese, 22 g mascarpone, six slices of prosciutto or thin streaky bacon and eighty g of pine nuts. Stir in the onions and spread the mixture into the pastry case. Bake at 180 degrees for 20-30 minutes or until cooked. If the top starts to brown too fast, lower the oven to 160 degrees.

I like it with half cheddar and half blue cheese, use cream instead of mascarpone, and chopped fried  streaky bacon – still good…The magazine recommends six small onions, and the quiche is double the normal size I cook, serving ten people. When I make it in a normal sized quiche tin for five/six people, I use two onions, and 100g of blue cheese plus several ounces of cheddar and a good helping of cream.. I also use five whole eggs. Hope this answers your query Nicki, from Expat Alien… I’d feel the same if I saw those amounts recommended by the magazine !

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Filed under army, consciousness, cookery/recipes, family, gardens, uncategorised, Uncategorized, writing

Closing Circles

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The penultimate instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

A year after Arthur Thomas’s pardon, a Royal Commission condemned the policeman who’d planted the cartridge, and said Arthur should never have been charged. I sat through the weeks of testimony, crocheting a colourful rug from all the scraps of wool I had, and I think driving the male chauvinists around me quite mad!

I was back home towards the end when Patrick took time off from his office to hear the last stages of the inquiry which was all based on his findings. He rang and said they were being asked to put in a claim for what the investigation had cost them, and Jim Sprott was claiming $150,000. Patrick said it didn’t feel right climbing on this bandwagon of claims… so I told him about the painter Whistler’s damages of a farthing in England when he sued Ruskin for defamation in 1870, and suggested Patrick likewise claim a dollar – otherwise you’ll be written out of the court’s findings, I said.

So he did claim a dollar. Arthur was given a million dollars in compensation, and Patrick was rewarded with an OBE. The following year the Queen presented it to him, at the same time that my daughter received her Gold Medal from the Duke of Edinburgh

While all these dramas were playing out, I resigned as Woman’s Editor of the Star, feeling that the increased attacks and hostility from feminists would lose their sting if I wasn’t there, and the women’s pages might become unmolested!

I took the children to England for a holiday, and when we returned took up writing my columns again, and was commissioned to write several books. I once calculated that fifteen years of writing two columns of a thousand words a week, probably added up to about 780,000 words, and that didn’t include all the articles and interviews I wrote in that time as well. At least half as much again, I suspect.

A column which covered vivisection and the experiments and horrible operations that people like South African heart surgeon Dr Christian Barnard performed on animals, caused huge repercussions. It revived the moribund anti-vivisection society known as SAFE, (Save Animals from Experimentation) and Patrick and I became president and vice-president.

This column also triggered a big meeting of angry doctors at the Medical School at Auckland University where they reportedly discussed: ‘What to do about Valerie Davies’. At the time I had also castigated the practise of every medical student having their own rat to kill – they  bashed it on the table by holding its tail, before dissecting it.

They sent my article to Christian Barnard in South Africa, who’d become a high-living celebrity by then, and he responded by sue-ing me and the Star. The Star cravenly paid up the money he demanded, but I refused, telling my solicitor I’d rather go to jail. The children were devastated, and my son even had tears rolling down his cheeks when I explained what I was doing.

In the event my clever lawyer wrote told Barnard’s solicitor that my defence would be that I’d found all the hideous boasts about making a two headed dog, and the screams of a baboon wrenched from his mate to take his heart for an experiment, in Dr Barnard’s own autobiography, and a TV interview. We heard no more!

I continued writing columns that enraged people, writing of the barbaric treatment of calves in modern farming, to the use of 245T (a dioxin based pesticide) the indiscriminate felling of trees, and other environmental concerns. After a column on climate change and the ozone layer, a university professor wrote a scathing letter to the paper calling me a ‘knee-jerk environmentalist’, while a professor of paediatrics, rang me at home he was so furious when I wrote that babies should never be left to cry as it broke their trust in their parents.

Now all the research into brain function has proved me right. Child psychology preaches the benefits of cuddling and of feel- good pheromones  connecting in the brain, and the dangers of cortisone building up in the brain if babies are left to cry, which leaves them prone to depression and a host of problems as they grow older…

Sometimes, in the rain and misery of the Springbok winter, traipsing in and out to the Royal Commission in the city- an hour’s drive each way- struggling with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, living on willpower, not energy, seeing the miseries of modern farming as I drove past fields with bleak herds of cows deprived of their new calves, stopping the car to untangle desperate goats tied up and used as lawn-mowers on the road-side, I used to wonder what was wrong with me.

Why was I so out of step with everyone and everything? And then I discovered a group in England called Women for Life on Earth, and I knew I wasn’t mad after all, and that my concerns were those of many others too. Knowing this restored my confidence and gave me heart. (This group morphed into the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, and their historic resistance to nuclear weapons.)

My illness had got worse. I couldn’t bear light, and had tortoise shell rattan blinds on every window as well as curtains, I had difficulty understanding speech and used to exhort the children and my husband to speak clearly. I couldn’t bear any music except formal baroque tunes, and was in constant pain.

Somehow, I kept up with driving the children around, having friends and Patrick’s family to stay, his other four children and their friends for meals, walking the dogs twice a day, cooking decent nutritious food on time, fulfilling numerous speaking engagements – teachers conferences, school prize-givings, parents groups, schools, Rotary and other clubs, even the annual lunch of accountants – to mention a few – writing the columns which generated so much controversy and so many letters to answer, not to mention the dreaded housework. I paid the teenage children to help… my daughter to do the washing, my son to clean the bathrooms.

And at the end of this hard, sad winter we left our dream home in the country, where no-one had waved or spoken to us in over a year, and moved back to town, where friends welcomed us, strangers called in with fruit and flowers and cakes, and we felt we had come home.

A young, unprejudiced and open-minded woman doctor friend dropped in to see me, while I was having an episode of CFS. Mimi introduced me to Re-birthing, a system of connected breathing which was all the rage at that time, and this was a turning point for me. The breathing got me on my feet, and I was now strong enough to become involved with a personal growth group, Self-Transformation, which I helped to establish in this country.

It grew exponentially. This was the early eighties, when groups like EST were breaking down so many barriers, and people all over the world were ready to start their journey towards self-actualisation. Jung was often the starting point, his book and his theme ‘Modern Man in Search of his Soul’ in tune with the new age.

Abraham Maslow, Ken Wilbur, then Dipak Chopra, Jean Houston, Caroline Myss, one after another, names and techniques came crowding into our consciousness, and people like me couldn’t get enough…meditation, yoga, Reiki, shiatsu, rolfing, holotropic breathing, aromatherapy, sweat lodges and other methods of bodywork we explored put us in touch with our emotional blocks and old traumas, and kept us busy for years.

Buddhism, the Essenes, Hawaian Kahunas, Shamanism, gurus from Ram Dass to Sai Baba, Raj Neesh, and the Dalai Lama held many in thrall – though gurus were not for me – and this is only to touch on a few of the influences, techniques and people who influenced my friends and I as we journeyed on. I sold most of my precious things to pay for all this… silver from my first marriage, oriental rugs I’d collected over the years, a precious French provincial table… it was worth it.

It was all a mystery to my husband, who called me a New Age Nutter, which didn’t bother me at all. I tried often to explain what I was doing, and it didn’t matter how often I did, he never understood or remembered.

He had a different journey. He had ten jobs in twenty years, travelling from radio back to newspapers, then magazines to public relations, radio again, magazines, to teaching journalism and back to newspapers, finally becoming editor- in- chief of a group of suburban newspapers when he was in his early seventies. They were years of financial insecurity, when he was badly paid, and I was glad to still have some money from my writing and then the counselling practise that I managed to operate for all those years until I was in my mid-seventies.

In every job he found, pressure would build-up, and he would be unable to see eye- to-eye with his boss, just as he had been so often at the Star. It’s only as I look back that I realise that this was his modus operandi.

He’d come home and I’d sympathise and take on the angst and the anxiety. We moved house often, buying old wrecks which I restored and beautified, each time hoping that by reducing the mortgage or making life easier at home, with less travelling, or some other excuse, it would reduce his stress. It never did.

He had also become obsessed with Japan, and apart from writing books about it, studying its history and customs, and collecting anything Japanese, he became an expert on samurais, Japanese sword-play – kendo and eido- and antique Japanese swords, which were hugely expensive. He was always buying more and more precious ones, as he learned more and more about them, and went to Japan half a dozen times.

As my car fell to pieces, because we couldn’t afford to replace it, he was ‘investing’ he assured me, in his swords, which would pay for our old age, so we didn’t need to save or pay off the mortgage. I believed him.

And so we came to the end of our roads. As Paul Coelho wrote: “It is always important to know when something has reached its end. Closing circles, shutting doors, finishing chapters, it doesn’t matter what we call it; what matters is to leave in the past those moments in life that are over.”

Next week is the last instalment of this series. The Who-dun-it of the Thomas case will be told in an Appendix the week after that.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

 

As we talked about our go-to puddings over a nice drop of affogato in our favourite restaurant, one of my closest friends asked me for the recipe for my hot chocolate sauce for ice-cream I was boasting about. This is for her.

It comes from good old Mrs Beeton, and my children loved it over ice-cream, while I serve it for guests now with pears baked in wine plus ice-cream.

Blend together a rounded dessert spoon of cornflour, two rounded dessertspoons of cocoa powder, and three rounded dessertspoons of sugar with a little cold water measured from half a pint. Boil the rest of the half pint of water and pour on the mixture. Pour into a saucepan and boil for two minutes, stirring all the time. Add three drops of vanilla and half an ounce of butter. Simple and  delicious.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under consciousness, cookery/recipes, environment, Japan, self knowledge, The Sound of Water, Uncategorized, womens issues

Strong Spirit – Bright Beautiful and Beloved

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Another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

I first saw Philippa as I stood in line at the chemist. Like me she was waiting for a prescription for her son. Unlike me, her four- year- old son was sitting in a push chair, obviously unable to walk, while around her, enfolding her exquisite Pre-Raphaelite beauty was a miasma of pain.

A few weeks later, I discovered at a parent teacher meeting that this unforgettable young woman was my son’s new teacher. As I worried about him, she told me fiercely that children from single homes were no more disadvantaged than children from two parent homes, which were often more dysfunctional than single parent homes.

A few weeks later when she was passing my gate, pushing her four- year- old spina bifida son, Mua, and her younger son Tane, walking beside her, I rushed out and asked her to come in for a cup of coffee. We became the closest of friends, and I marvelled at her amazing courage, tenacity and intelligence. She had married a Fijian-Indian, and gone to live in a Fijian village where life became unbearable with the birth of her handicapped son who everyone rejected. One fearsome night, as a tempest raged and floods rose, she seized the opportunity amid the fear and confusion, and fled taking both children, and returned to New Zealand.

On her first Sunday back with her parents, her father insisted that she go to church, knowing she had rejected their Catholic faith. She had the choice – church or banishment. Her integrity and courage intact, she left her home, rather than compromise herself.

Life with two pre-schoolers, one a toddler, the other suffering all the worst aspects of his birth defect,  needing constant operations, and having no financial support was an un-ending struggle. She could only cope by going back to teaching, putting her elder son in a home for other handicapped children during the week, and taking her toddler to play centre every day.

She loved coming to see me in what she called ‘my blue room’ and said how the life we’d made for ourselves  gave her courage that she could have a good life too. Every time she was depressed I’d raid my wardrobe to cheer her up with an exotic garment. She looked amazing in the orange quilted Chinese tunic I gave her to wear to parties, but which she wore with black trousers to school, and also the turquoise satin embroidered Indian robe which must have cheered up the staff room no end! Driving to school, I’d see a beautiful figure walking down the road in jodpurs or hot-pants and crane to see the front of this fascinating person, and it would be Philippa.

She agreed to me writing a story about the life she led, with no support or understanding from the community, in which even a bus driver bellowed at her when she was slow climbing onto the bus, carrying the inert body of one child on one hip, and the toddler on her other hip. He yelled at her: “It’s not my fault he’s handicapped.” So she never went on a bus again.

There were the hours spent waiting in hospital waiting rooms for surgeons to see her for another patch up operation on her child – “He thinks because he plays the harpsichord and drugs my child into a vegative state to numb his pain that he‘s doing something wonderful for humanity,” she raged bitterly.

I wrote about the misery of carrying her heavy child as she toiled up the steep staircase of the condemned house where she’d managed to find cheap lodgings – and even made it look like a home, with pretty bits of glass and pottery and coloured fabrics draped across the windows and beds. Amazingly, Philippa had borrowed a friend’s clarinet, and managed every now and then to get a lesson. This was her life-line, and she doggedly worked away at the instrument.

The effect of the newspaper story was magic. A charity sprang into action, helped her find a good ground floor lodging, and carpeted it, so her son wasn’t dragging himself around on a bare floor. They bought a washing machine and dryer for her, to cope with her son’s incontinence, and the play centre stopped charging fees for her toddler son’s attendance. Between her headmaster, her doctor and I, we were able to cobble together a living allowance for her based on a sick benefit, so she could rescue her son from the crippled children’s home which he hated, and give up teaching as her health was giving out.

From now on I also had a friend who would always have my children on their sick days or during holidays, which had always been my greatest anxiety. The four children all became close, and my two would go with Philippa to help her with Mua at his swimming therapy. Philippa now became accomplished on a clarinet which she bought on hire purchase, and began teaching at schools, to earn some extra money.

And then she met a handsome French sea captain, who was as good as he was kind. He adored Mua, and took the whole family off to Sydney where he was based on land for a year. Philippa attended the Conservatorium of Music, and Jean took the children skiing, having secretly taught Mua to balance on his calipers to surprise his mother. Jean bought a state of the art wheel chair for him and the only car big enough then to accommodate the wheel chair. When they returned to Auckland the following year, Philippa was pregnant and even more beautiful. But I was terribly concerned. I wondered if she was going to die in child birth. I felt there was some awful fate awaiting her.

I was right. When the baby was a few months old, the family embarked on what Philippa had decided would be their last sea trip across the Pacific with Jean before settling into their house and children’s schools. It was their last trip. After a happy evening in the company of musician friends who came on board and made music with Philippa, who played the expensive new clarinet Jean had bought for her – his ship, the Capitaine Bougainville – sailed for the Islands.

A few hours later a vicious storm blew up, and in the pounding seas further up the coast of NZ, a tool fell off the bulkhead in the engine room, and cut the fuel pipe, feeding the engine. The engine caught fire, and there was no way of putting it out. The life boats were lashed onto the roof of the engine room, and Jean had to make a decision to wait on the burning ship to be rescued, or  leave the flames and escape in the lifeboats before they were destroyed in the fire.

His Mayday message was never received, so he had to take the dreadful decision to launch into the mountainous seas. A sailor took each one of the children, but each time the life boat capsized, another child was lost. After three hours Philippa died of exposure and exhaustion and slipped from Jean’s grasp as his feet touched sand.  He was tossed and tumbled in the surf, vomiting salt water before collapsing on the sand. He told me he had to resist turning back into the sea to end his life then, rather than face the years without Philippa. But forcing himself to get to his feet, he ran to the nearest house where he found a holidaying family at breakfast and raised the alarm.

A few survivors made it to shore, but twelve sailors as well as my friend and her children were drowned. A few days later, Mua’s little body was washed up, and we drove the five hours up to Whangarei for his funeral and for his mother, brother and baby sister Jasmine. Jean then travelled to the islands visiting the families of all his sailors who had drowned. In the months that followed, Jean often came to stay with us at our new home in the country where we now lived with my new husband. His pain was terrible.

Eventually he returned to his home in Brittany, and captained a cross channel ferry to England. He married again and returned to this country a few years ago to be present at the ceremony marking the monument being erected on the beach, in memory of those who had been lost. He wrote a long poem straight after the tragedy which he sent to my children… he wrote of saying goodbye to my bright beautiful beloved friend before she stepped over the gun-wale to reach the bucking life-boat below: ’Your smile and your serenity, Your only luggage for eternity’…

To be continued

Food for threadbare gourmets

 I didn’t get the food back home quick enough and found the frozen peas were too soggy to go into the deep freeze. Chagrined, I couldn’t bear to waste them, so made a quick and easy pea soup with a chopped onion zapped in the microwave and added to a generous helping of chicken stock.

When the stock was boiling I tipped in most of the peas and cooked them until the peas were soft but still bright green. After being whizzed smooth in the blender, I added cream… and the soup ended up being sipped for lunch, and the other half ended up in the deep freeze anyway!

Food for thought

“It is not the strength of the body that counts, but the strength of the spirit.”
J.R.R. Tolkien

 

 

 

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World on Fire

South Vietnamese troops battling the Viet Cong in Saigon during TET offensive

A life- another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

My husband’s affairs – in every sense of the word – meant that he and his intended had stumbled into a mine field. When Candida, as I’ll call her, told her naval husband of her plans, he hit the roof. He had no intention of parting with his elegant sweet-natured wife. The thing began to take on diplomatic proportions, and the General and the local naval boss now got involved, and Candida and husband were posted hastily back to England to avoid further scandal.

This meant that my husband was storming tactlessly and angrily around the place, and the padre came to see this cold, unloving wife who had driven her handsome, charming husband out of his unloving home. There was probably more than a grain of truth in this by now, as I certainly didn’t love him any more!

It was that tense turbulent year of 1968 when the world seemed on the edge of drama month after month. After North Korea captured the US ship Pueblo, imprisoning and torturing all eighty- five of her crew at the end of January, the ripples of the surprise Viet Cong Tet offensive in Saigon then reached us. Friends from the office were holidaying in Saigon, and were caught up in that murderous mayhem which continued all through February.

When Martin Luther King was shot in April, I hurried up to see Pat Hangen to somehow try to comfort her. When Robert Kennedy was shot in June, it seemed unbelievable. I shall never forget the silent shock in the newspaper office, before I rushed up to see Pat again…it seemed a devastating thing to be American at this time…

This was also the time of the Prague Spring when another mid European country tried to throw off the Russian yoke. And now in August, we listened with anguish and watched television as the Russian tanks rolled into Prague to crush freedom, as they had done into Hungary nearly nine years before.

We were in the middle of a very destructive typhoon, and in spite of the wooden shutters over the windows, the towels laid along the window sills and carefully led into bowls, were soaking wet. I went from window to window wringing out wet towels and feeling intimidated by the storm while I watched the Czechs being intimidated by the tanks. My heart was wrung for Anton Dubjek as my hands wrung my wet towels!

A few weeks later, I went to the doctor who gave me some pills to check the constant nausea I’d been feeling, and taking one straight away, I only just managed to drive home. Tottering into bed, I woke to consciousness in the evening, having slipped into a coma with pills that had apparently knocked out my liver. The next day the doctor rang and said he was sending an ambulance round straight away – my tests had come back – and I had hepatitis with secondary infections of glandular fever and jaundice.

The children went to play school in the mornings, and before this happened, I’d just organised a gentle, friendly, eighteen-year-old school leaver out from England to come every afternoon to read to the children and play with them. I was worried that their vocabularies might stagnate with just their loving Chinese amah to talk to, and I hoped now that my husband would stay with them in the evenings.

In hospital in Kowloon, I lay in my room overlooking the harbour, and watched the glittering water sparkling in the magical light of the sun at the change of the season. I also put myself together and found my inner strength again. My doctor had given me a book of D.H. Lawrence’s poems, and ‘The Song of the man who has come through’ became a sort of prayer and affirmation.

Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!

A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.

If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!

If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!

If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed

By the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the chaos of the world….

And his other words… ‘It is not easy to fall out of the hands of the living God…”

The Red Cross trolley with library books came round every day, and along with the biographies and books on travel and exploration I gobbled up, there were some Elizabeth Goudge. ‘The Dean’s Watch’, about the power of love, shifted me on from my little local world into a larger perception of all that is, and I was ready after five weeks to go back and transform my little world.

I wrote to my step-grandfather who was still writing to me, and asked him if he could loan me five hundred pounds to get started, but he replied rather pompously that he would have no hand in breaking up a family with young children. (Many years later, when an old man, he wrote to say he had a guilty, nagging feeling that he had let me down over something, and I spared him and wrote to say he had always been a loving friend)

Meanwhile my husband, who was still marking time over his enforced separation from his intended, every now and then suggested that we have another go with our marriage. Not convinced that leopards change their spots I told him that I would be gone in a month, after Christmas, and his response was that he would smash me mentally and physically before then.

Still feeling frail and ill I managed to find a flat for us. It was always hard to compete with Americans who had large housing allowances and lots of money compared to the rest of us. But I drove round Repulse Bay, hoping to find ‘flat to let’ signs. By a miracle I found one hanging outside twelve -foot high, brightly painted gates, with painted peacocks embossed on them, the mansion behind hidden by high walls. It had been built by a Chinese millionaire for his family to come and live with him, but they had refused.

When he showed me the flat, and told me the price, I said I couldn’t afford it. So he said, what can you afford? And when I told him, he said I could have it for a year. I lived for that first year of independence beneath the splendour of chandeliers, with an elegant panelled walnut entrance hall and an amazing, huge, pink marble en-suite bathroom.

Back home, my husband came to me in tears. His bank was threatening to foreclose on his debts, and this would mean being cashiered by the army, and no financial help at all from him for the children. I wrote him a cheque for half my savings and feeling sorry for his humiliation said he didn’t need to write an IOU as he offered, but that I would trust him. I never saw the money again.

I persuaded my husband to ring England and tell his parents what was happening,  and the first response of my father-in-law was to ask if his son had got good legal advice. Yes, he’d been to see an old school friend who was a lawyer. As I listened, I felt a cold hand over my heart. No concern for me, it was going to be a power struggle aided by the law and family. I felt truly alone.

I thought I’d better get some legal advice too. But when I went to see the army legal services, my husband had been there first, so they would have no truck with me. It was the same at the navy and the RAF. All the free legal services were closed to me. My husband had been to see them all, and this debarred them from giving me advice, they each insisted.

The establishment had closed ranks. In those days male chauvinism was alive and well, and it felt as though all the men had ganged up on me. The army lawyer then sent me a letter telling me I was no longer allowed to set foot in the garrison. Being an army daughter, a serving officer and an army wife was a part of my heritage, and I was devastated by what felt like a gratuitous insult.

The result of these snubs was that I was driven to find expensive, civilian legal advice. I contacted a friendly solicitor who I’d met at a party. He felt there was some urgency when I rang him, so that Sunday I spent at his stylish flat, curled up in an elegant orange Arne Jacobson ‘Egg’ chair, dictating my divorce petition to him.

It was a cold winter’s day, and still feeling fragile a couple of weeks out of hospital, his warm, cosy flat in the Mid-levels seemed like a safe haven away from the stress of my own home. As I dictated, my eyes wandered over stacks of beautiful fabric -covered boxes on the bookshelves. They housed his collection of precious snuff bottles, but as a philistine, I thought then the boxes were prettier than the bottles.

He rang a few days later. There was an alarming hitch. It seemed that no woman had ever divorced her husband in Hongkong before – this was 1968 – and there were no legal precedents. He was at a standstill but would try a few other avenues. He came up with something from Indian and Colonial law. It was possible for an Englishwoman in India to get a divorce in that country if she had been resident there for at least three years.

Peter said he would try to get me a divorce quoting this Indian precedent. The element of uncertainty was unnerving. By the date of the hearing my husband had followed his intended wife back to England, so it was a very empty court I attended. I had already left the army quarters, packing all my belongings into the Red Cross ambulance the doctor lent me. I realised as I looked back that nearly every other army wife was standing on her veranda watching the astonishing sight of another wife leaving her husband under their very eyes.

Before the divorce Peter told me the judge was homosexual. I didn’t know how this would affect the outcome in which the custody of the children was at stake. I dressed very carefully in a demure, white dress with a hem at knee level, in this year of mini skirts. When the case began, the judge questioned the validity of it, and Peter provided him with the Indian and Colonial volumes.

I sat in suspense while the judge pored over the pages, and finally agreed the case could go ahead. Called into the witness box, for some routine questions, to my horror I could feel tears coming. I had left my handkerchief in my handbag on my seat, so had to sniff through my answers. The tears were pouring down my cheeks by the time I returned to my seat. And the white dress was wasted, the judge didn’t even look in my direction.

On the way home in my battered Morris Minor convertible – all I could afford after I’d given my husband half my savings – it broke down and ran out of control down the hill to Repulse Bay. Apparently, the rust which held the chassis together had finally weakened, and there was no connection between the steering and the wheels.

It took thirteen monthly instalments to pay the huge bill to patch it up. The floor in the back seat had rusted away, so I tucked cardboard over the holes, and the children would complain their feet were getting wet when it rained. I always had to drive over the Peak in wet weather, as low-lying Wanchai would have flooded it.

I discovered quite by chance that some of my rich American friends thought I’d chosen this broken-down form of transport as part of my English eccentricity. It never crossed their minds that the South China Morning Post paid women so badly that I earned two thirds what a cub reporter earned. Another subtle local distinction was that people recruited from overseas for their jobs earned far more than impecunious “locally employed”.

The first months were tough. The doctors hadn’t told me I would be depressed for six months after my illness, so I didn’t realise until my six- monthly check-up that the fatigue and depression I was felt was normal. Instead, when I thought longingly of walking into the sea and never coming back, it was only the thought of the children that had kept me going. I was so run down that my teeth packed up and I racked up big dentist bills, while my husband’s American bank – one of the many he had swapped around – wanted me to pay his debts.

I worried that I couldn’t afford my son’s play school anymore, and I worried when my husband’s small cheque didn’t arrive, which spelt disaster on my tiny salary. I kept a pocket diary which I filled in every day at the office. No words, just two colours – red for good red-letter days, blue for bad blue days… at first the blue days far outnumbered the red.

I had copied two quotations into it – one from William the Silent: ‘There is no need of hope in order to undertake, or of success in order to persevere’… and the other from Clement of Alexandria: ‘We may not be taken up and transported to our journey’s end, but must travel thither on foot, traversing the whole distance of the narrow way…’ I read these rather grim exhortations regularly to inspire me to ‘just get on with it!’

And with all the struggle, I would gloat to myself that I was an independent woman now. I had two beautiful children, a home through my own efforts, a car, and a job I enjoyed. I knew that life could only get better. And, of course, it did. The worst was behind me.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

When I make one of our favourites, feta cheese and courgette fritters, I usually serve them with chilli jelly, salad and hot rolls. But I really love beetroot relish with them too and decided to stop buying it from the supermarket and make my own.

Place in a pot three peeled and roughly grated beetroots, one finely chopped onion – red if you have it – a cup of brown sugar, half a cup of cider vinegar or balsamic, quarter of a cup of water, a table spoon of olive oil, half a teasp of ground cumin, salt and black pepper. Heat gently for thirty minutes or until the liquid has been absorbed. If it dries up, add enough water to keep it moist and juicy. Place in a jar or bowl and refrigerate until ready to use.

Food for thought

 A certain percentage of those who have survived near-death experiences speak of a common insight which afforded a glimpse of life’s basic lesson plan. We are all here for a single purpose: to grow in wisdom and to learn to love better.

We can do this through losing as well as through winning, by having and by not having, by succeeding or by failing. All we need to do is to show up open-hearted for class. So fulfilling life’s purpose may depend more on how we play than what we are dealt…  Kitchen Table Wisdom by Rachel Naomi Remen

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A beautiful woman

Image result for affluent tree lined london streets

A life –  This is the thirteenth instalment of an autobiographical series before I revert to my normal blogs

My step grandparents accepted me for better or worse, but not as a grandchild, so I called one Uncle Bill, which wasn’t his real name, the other Nana. She was a tall, slim, elegant woman with a cloud of white hair piled up on her head. When she went out, she wore little, high-crowned, fashionable forties hats with a black veil tipped over her fine brown eyes.

She wore expensive and beautifully- cut black or grey suits in wool or gaberdine, with slim straight skirts, and flimsy, white blouses, in silk, finest lawn or crepe, which buttoned to the neck or tied in a bow. She always wore high heeled, black suede shoes by the Swiss makers Bally, the style called Toby, and she never wore anything else, summer or winter.

She lived happily alone in her flat in a wide quiet street lined with large Victorian houses, in an affluent leafy suburb, which was as unchanging then as she was. I loved her walnut sideboard with elegant mirror hanging over it, and the Imari bowl on a stand on the piano which rang when your finger tapped it. On the mantelpiece she had a pair of fine bronze statues, a pair of large art nouveau urns with tulips on them, and over it, another large mirror.

We sat in deep grey and black velvet sofas and chairs round the fire. She always sat in the same chair, or rather, perched in it, at an angle, with her elegant long legs crossed, and her back unbending. Even when alone, she sat in this way reading The Telegraph, living out her vision of herself as a beautiful lady.

On the refectory dining table in the window, set with high backed comfortable chairs, she always had a vase of beech leaves, verdant green in spring, somewhat darker and leathery in summer, and in autumn, sprays of brown leaves. She bought them from the same florist, year after year. On a trolley by the kitchen door a set of cups and saucers, sugar bowl and milk jug with a net cover weighted with beads over it, sat ready for a cup of tea to be made. She herself lived on tea and toast fingers. She said they helped her keep her figure, and they certainly did, until old age, when her system collapsed with shingles.

She had no friends, except perhaps, the two nuns who called once a year, collecting clothes for the poor. These callers she welcomed in, and laid her finest china and crispest napkins, and plied them with afternoon tea. They must have known that this visit was one of their most valuable acts of charity, for they never failed to make time for this occasion.

She told me once, that when she was a young wife, she saw a tramp outside, so she invited him in, and laid a tray with her best china and linen, and gave him a slap-up meal in grand style. She loved style, and she was obsessed with privacy. She could open up to the strangers at her gate, but to no-one else.

There were pictures of herself and her separated husband in the spare bedroom, where I slept when I stayed. She was a beautiful young woman with wide, large eyes, a mass of dark hair, and a whimsical smile playing round a firm, well-shaped mouth and strong chin. Her husband was in his World War 1 officer’s uniform, a fine-featured, handsome, young man quite unlike the rather gross, heavy-jowled old man I knew.

The only remnant of his former beauty was his fine, well-shaped nose. Neither of their children had inherited these good looks, but neither had they inherited their parent’s personalities either. The son was as courteous and good-humoured as his father was irascible and unpredictable, and the daughter was as gay and energetic as her mother was withdrawn and languid.

I lived with her for six months when I attended the Regent Street Polytechnic after I returned from Malaya. She gave me her favourite book to read, ‘Testament of Youth’ by Vera Brittain. In the mid- fifties Vera Brittain hadn’t become fashionable again, but I read it, and was ravaged by it, in spite of having to overcome my resistance to her pompousness and priggishness at the beginning.

I understood my step-grandmother much better after reading this. She told me she had watched her fiancee march gallantly off to war in 1914, bands playing, banners waving, flowers flying through the air. The tiny remnant which survived returned to the little north country town, to be met by a shattered community. She never really recovered from the loss of her fiancee, but settled for second best, rather than be left on the shelf.

So they both suffered, but her vanity supported her through the long, lonely years of her life. She told me about the doctor who told his sister he had seen the girl he was going to marry, and his chagrin when he saw her pushing her baby’s pram, the clothes she had worn then, and on other occasions, and which outfits won her flowery compliments.

She described the floating thirties chiffon dress she wore to the garden party at Shrewsbury School when she met the Prince of Wales, the complimentary things that sales girls said to her out shopping, or having tea at Fullers, telling her that she and her daughter were the nicest mother and daughter who came regularly… and she told me about the second war, the war which came to civilians, when they hid under the stairs night after night as the planes came over, and stepping over the fire hoses in Leicester Square, going to see ” Gone With The Wind” after a heavy night’s bombing.

She told me these things, not because she was close to me, but because I was interested, and I was someone to talk to. I don’t think she ever felt any affection for me, but she was never unkind to me. Our relationship was one of unchanging good manners and consideration. I was polite and grateful, she was kind and courteous.

As the years went by, the drawers in the walnut sideboard stuck, the handles became loose, and a hinge fell off the cupboard door. The art nouveau vases on the mantelpiece developed a jigsaw of tiny cracks, while the velvet chairs sagged, and the springs went, but she went on perching upright in the corner on the springs, nibbling her toast fingers and sipping her tea. Until one day, it all caught up with her. She was very ill and never recovered.

Now she began to disintegrate. She needed constant nursing, so they found a good nursing home. The respite only lasted a month or so, and then she was expelled. This pattern continued for the rest of her life. No nursing home could handle her. So she came home. Now, after a life of food deprivation she had become a foodaholic and was forever raiding the kitchen wherever she was.

After starving herself all her life, now she couldn’t stop eating. She became a hugely fat old lady. Everything in the kitchen at home was locked up, but she would even stand on a stool dangerously balanced on a chair, to reach cold mashed potato hidden at the top of a high Victorian cupboard.

The last time I saw her was on my wedding day. Wearing her fluffy pink dressing gown, she called me into her bedroom where she had permanently sequestered herself, and produced, from heaven knows where, a box with a beautiful little coffee set in it. It was finest white porcelain, with a deep blue and gold border, cups, saucers, sugar bowl, jug and coffee pot, unchipped and perfect. She told me it had been given to her on her wedding day. I never used it, but I carried it around the world for years.

A few years later in Hongkong, I had a brief letter from my stepmother – the only one she ever wrote to me. It consisted of two sentences, one which said she hoped life was still treating me royally – had it ever really treated me so, I wondered? And the next sentence told me her mother had died.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

We had gone to a barbecue supper with some neighbours, but since it turned out that they rarely ate red meat like us, there was a lot of barbecued steak left over after we’d eaten. Rather than condemn themselves to eat it, they pressed it on us, so nothing daunted, my love suggested they come the next night to eat it with us! What to do with cooked steak? I found a recipe which sounded just the job- beef stroganoff.

I made it as simple as possible – whizzed the chopped onion in the micro wave, gently cooked lots of sliced mushrooms with garlic, added a good glug of red wine and let it boil-up, then stirred in a heaped table spoon of flour. I’d made stock by boiling all the mushroom stalks, and I now stirred this into the mushroom mix, added the onion, stirred them altogether, and added a dash of Dijon mustard and a stock cube.

When we were ready to serve, I stirred in the steak, chopped into thin bite-size pieces, plus half a cup of cream –( I should have used sour cream for a stroganoff, but in deference to a toddler, I went for something less sharp), plenty of black pepper, and served it with rice and salad, and sliced courgettes cooked in olive oil and garlic. It was as good as re-cooked steak could get!!!

Food for thought

“I have one major rule: Everybody is right. More specifically, everybody — including me — has some important pieces of truth, and all of those pieces need to be honoured, cherished, and included in a more gracious, spacious, and compassionate embrace.”
― Ken Wilber – philosopher, writer, teacher

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Nuns, nice habits and strange foibles

Valerie10.jpg

A life –  This is the ninth instalment of an autobiographical series before I revert to my normal blogs

I never had any trouble remembering the date of my baby brother’s birth, because when we arrived back in England from Belsen, we were sent to school at a convent in Yorkshire. It was with the sisters of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, a Belgian teaching order. My brother’s birthday was the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, one of many feast days when we were sent home, presumably so the nuns could pay due reverence to the day, unhampered by their fee- paying pupils, and causing my parents to grumble that they spent all this money in order for us to stay home.

Sometimes, as at Corpus Christi, we were required to attend in order to parade and go to Mass, and draw holy pictures. This was a time of severe mortification for me, because not being Catholic, our parents refused to buy us white dresses and veils to wear on feast days.

On the other hand, thanks to the books I had read with my grandmother, I was bigotedly anti-Catholic, and had no qualms about being different. The nuns themselves were mostly gentle and sophisticated women, many of them French or Belgian, others English. My form teacher, who was also the maths teacher, was the most avidly religious person at the convent and not a nun at all. Rather, she was an Irish Catholic, and, as I discovered later in New Zealand, she embraced a very different brand of Catholicism. ‘

Not to put too fine a point on it, she rammed religion and her devotion down our throats, exhorting us amongst other things, to bring old clothes to her to dispense to the needy. As she gathered them in from everyone except me, she would regularly intone, ” Ah, gurrells, it’s boi moi gude deeds to the puir that I hope to go to heaven.” She would interrupt long division to make us all stand up and say The Angelus, and we would then pray for the parents of all the unfortunate girls who had one Protestant parent. Since both my parents were Protestant, this was a prayer I obstinately refused to join in, as I had no regrets about their situation.

One day, her propaganda about “puir St Thomas Moore”, wicked Protestants and suffering Catholics enraged me so much, that having  just finished one of my father’s books, a history of the Borgia family, I had enough ammunition, I felt, with the Inquisition and the scandal of the Avignon Popes, to take her on. I never got beyond the Borgia Pope and a quick mention of the Inquisition, before she clapped her hands over her ears, and drowned me out by shouting: “What a pack of Protestant lies.” No-one liked me very much after that, and I would always be left to last when they were picking teams for netball and rounders.

One person who did like me, perhaps a little too much, was Mother Michael, a rather coarse -looking Englishwoman compared with the refined foreign nuns. She was not a teacher so much as our house- mother, and she was obsessed with long hair. My long, almost black, thick plaits were meat and drink to her. Every lunch hour I was dragged off to the big, sunny cloakroom-cum ante-room, and had my plaits ceremoniously undone, and brushed out.

The brushing went on all through play-time, and I never got to play with anyone. As the time for the bell drew near, she’d plait the blessed things up again, refusing to let me do them. She dragged the hair round my face quite differently to the way I scraped my hair back myself, and I’d get home every day, looking quite unlike the school girl who had set out in the morning.

Every day my stepmother would ask what was going on, and when I told her about the brushing and the plaiting, she’d say “It’s got to stop”. But I didn’t know how to stop it, so it went on until Mother Michael fell in love with another girl with long plaits.

The nuns wore elegant, plum- red gaberdine habits, with a long swinging pleated skirt, and a thick, beautiful cord with long tassels round their waist. Their rosaries also hung from this fat cord, and they had long, soft white wool veils which swung in the wind when they borrowed our roller skates and took a turn round the rink in the evenings when everyone was inside, doing their homework. The garden beside the skating rink plunged down towards Our Lady’s grotto, and then to the River Tees.

I would gaze out of the classroom window in our annexe called The Hermitage, in winter, and see the black, lacy boughs of the empty trees, the black running water of the river, white snow, and sometimes a flame- coloured squirrel silhouetted in the trees against the pale winter sky. The main convent building was grim, grey, Victorian Gothic, with long, shiny, lino-floored corridors where feet and voices echoed. It smelt of incense and wax candles, lino polish, and nearer the kitchens, carbolic soda and grease. In alcoves at regular intervals along the echoing corridors, painted statues of saints draped with rosaries presided. I glared at them like a latter-day Oliver Cromwell as our crocodile straggled to chapel for prayers every day after lunch.

I always enjoyed Retreat, three or four days of silence when we spent most of our time drawing and painting holy pictures, instead of wrestling with fractions, and going to chapel for mass, as well as the regular after- lunch prayers, and then Benediction. I hated the priest who came to the convent for the occasion, and whom all the nuns fluttered around and flattered and fawned upon. To the cynical ten-year-old looking coldly on, he looked like a very boring, not very bright man, who relished in an unspiritual fashion, the entirely undeserved attention he received.

I was happy to go to chapel as often as we did during Retreat, as I had figured out that God was everywhere so it didn’t matter where you were beating his ear. I had no idea why we were doing all this, but then, a lot of things puzzled me… so I loved the reverent silence of the whole day, including the silent meals with severe, beautiful Mother John standing at her lectern, reading from the lives of saints. During these meals we ate Assumption Tart, known to us all as Sumpies.

The story of the three fashionable Belgian Victorian women who decided to found the Order was read aloud as we ate the tart. None of them knew how to cook, clean, or sew, and so in the first week, the lady nun assigned to cooking duties threw together some ingredients in a panic and produced the hard, yellow crust of almost inedible pastry on which jam was smeared and which we still ate. We all welcomed Sumpies on the menu, as at least the jam was sweet, the only ingredient which had any taste. The convent food was still obviously flung together by nuns who could not cook.

During Retreat, our class was visited by both Reverend Mother, and Mother Superior, causing an outbreak of curtsying and crossing ourselves. Since no-one ever explained anything to children in those days, I couldn’t work out why a young Reverend Mother seemed more important than a Mother Superior. Reverend Mother was Polish, about twenty-eight, very young to have reached such rank, and had an indefinable air of holiness about her. She also had an amazing complexion, pale skin and brilliant red cheeks. She received total devotion from everyone, and she fascinated me. Sometimes she wasn’t well enough to come to our weekly audience with her, so Mother Adelaide, Mother Superior, came instead.

My father adored Mother Adelaide. She was just the sort of woman he loved, witty and wise, French, sophisticated, clever and rather beautiful. Long after, when I heard that Reverend Mother had died the following year of TB, I realised that Mother Adelaide had left her duties as superior of the order, to come over from Belgium to keep things going with as little disturbance to everyone, including the beloved young nun.

After a while, it was decided that my sister would do better at school on her own. So I agreed to ” sit the scholarship” in order to go to the local grammar school. My stepmother was then summoned for an interview with the county education authorities. She told me that they informed her that my maths was so abysmal there was no way I could qualify for higher education. But my English and general knowledge were so far ahead of my age, that there was no way they could not give me a scholarship. Nothing much has changed since then, my maths are still abysmal.

To be continued

Food for threadbare gourmets

I had some wonderful coloured -peppers, red, yellow and orange, and instead of cooking them in my usual way, I tried a Jamie Oliver recipe – with adaptations! I chopped the three peppers and added them to a chopped onion, plenty of garlic and olive oil to sweat them until cooked. When soft I added a good glug of balsamic vinegar and boiled it all together, and then salt and pepper to taste.

This is where Jamie Oliver comes in. He recommended tossing in a generous handful of parmesan cheese and some table spoons of mascapone or cream cheese.  Stir it all together until everything is melted and amalgamated. He served it with pasta and I served it with steak and mushrooms, and it was delicious.. It may have been better with pasta but I won’t be using the cream cheese again.

Food for thought

If you truly get in touch with a piece of carrot, you get in touch with the soil, the rain, the sunshine. You get in touch with Mother Earth and eating in such a way, you feel in touch with true life, your roots, and that is meditation. If we chew every morsel of our food in that way we become grateful and when you are grateful, you are happy.
Thich Nhat Hanh. Vietnamese Buddhist teacher

 

 

 

 

 

 

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