Category Archives: cookery/recipes

Those were the days, my friends…

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I’ve only recently discovered that being called a baby boomer is an insult when used by young things intent on saving the planet. Heaven knows what I would be called, being even older than a baby boomer, but hey, it’s been worth the long ride!

The tragedy of the Covid 19 seems to have gone a long way towards meeting the Extinction Rebellion’s movement’s aims. It seems even worse than their favoured methods of bringing attention to the plight of the planet. These seemed to involve bringing the maximum misery and difficulty to the world’s workers who found themselves unable to get to work, get to hospital, late home after a tiring day’s drudgery in their offices and cafes and other work spots, thanks to delayed trains and blocked motorways.

But the other side of the coin of lost loved ones, lost jobs and lockdown in the Pandemic has been the joy it’s brought to the rest of the planet… there have been pictures of hippos surfing on empty South African beaches, and monkeys running amok in deserted Indian squares. There are majestically antlered deer grazing on English village commons, and jellyfish gliding through the newly clear waters of Venice canals. The blue unpolluted skies have restored long lost views of glorious places like the Himalayas, and there are weeds growing between the paving stones in empty Roman piazzas.

Bird-watching societies in England report that their membership has soared by thirty per cent during lockdown, and English optimists are reckoning on a bumper crop of baby hedgehogs, as with empty roads, the populations of amorous adults are getting to the other side without being squashed by continuous traffic. The seas around busy Portsmouth and the Solent, usually a dull muddy brown, are now sparkling tropical turquoise blue; and not only are the skies clear and bright, but with no travel and no aeroplanes the continuous drone of noise in the sky has ceased.

People are hearing the birds again, and fish in the sea, disturbed for so long by the vibrations of tankers, ferries and cruise ships, are able to roam the deep in peace. The beaches in this country, NZ, usually alive with overseas tourists, are now deserted in lockdown and the few observers doing their allowed daily stroll, say it feels as though the land is returning to its pristine beauty before man arrived here.

How can we keep these gains, not just for the planet but for ourselves, when lockdown ends? Will we go back to the extravagant wasteful consumerism of the last decades… or will we try to limit our travel both in our cars and overseas, stop buying cheap Chinese goods ( very difficult when they even make the screws in appliances made in other countries), continue to keep cooking nutritional food at home, and consider the creatures we share the world with?

This would not be difficult for baby boomers, and those like me who lived through an even simpler childhood than theirs. We had few clothes, and usually only one or two pairs of  shoes – an indoor and outdoor pair – which when the soles wore out we took to the cobblers to be repaired. Our clothes were made of natural fibres like wool and cotton -man-made substitutes weren’t available then – and clothes were often homemade and usually too big so we could grow into them. The hems were ‘put up’, and as we grew, they were ‘let down, and I hated the crease which was ineradicable so you could see where it had been lengthened.

We usually knitted our jumpers, and often our socks. We darned holes, repaired tears, and handed them on to smaller or younger siblings, and others. When I was twelve, I remember the glory of a luxurious reversible satin dressing gown – pink one side, blue the other – which the Colonel’s wife handed on to me when her daughter had outgrown it… and her linen flowered pyjamas…

We scraped the butter wrapper with a knife to get the last fragments of the two ounces per person per week – a butter substitute was to mash parsnip with banana essence – not recommended –  I preferred dry bread with a soupcon of rationed jam. We ate dripping from the tiny Sunday roast – our meat ration was five ounces per person per week –  smeared on bread with salt and pepper, while one egg per week per person meant falling back on dried egg substitute – revolting. We never left anything on our plates and never threw food away.

We had larders instead of fridges which didn’t use any power… they were dim and cool and usually had a stone floor, and marble slab for meat and cooked food and leftovers, and shelves on which to store bottled fruit, jams, pickles and tins – if our war-time coupons ran to buying them – and if we could find them in the shops.

Though it was boom-time in America after the war, England and Europe were still struggling with shattered economies, bombed cities, broken bridges and wrecked or neglected infra structures. We endured food rationing for fifteen years until it ended in ‘54. There were no boom-times for boomers. The frugal life of war-time continued into peace-time for many years. Few had TV’s, telephones, fridges, mixers or electric kettles. (the Queen’s coronation in ‘53 prompted a surge in TV ownership) Neither did we use power for washing machines and dryers – we sent our sheets and linen to the laundry every week, and washed the rest ourselves.

There were many women who eked out a living by taking in other people’s washing – boiling, rinsing, starching, mangling, ironing, and we all washed our own cloth nappies. Children felt useful as they were required to run errands and deliver messages to neighbours, since we had no phones or computers…

We listened to the radio for selected programmes and the news, and read books, and knitted and painted and did jigsaw puzzles, played cards and chess, Ludo and Monopoly.One of the features of the news, was that at the end, a solemn voice would say: Here is an SOS message for… they would give the name and last known address and ask them to report to their nearest police station as soon as possible. With no telephone this was the quickest way to contact people in an emergency. Otherwise, the telegram boys would deliver a short cryptic message, in which every word was counted and paid for.

We wrote letters by hand in ink, and posted parcels in re-used (re-cycled we’d say now) brown paper, tied with string which had been used many times before with knots laboriously untied. We used sealing wax to make sure our knots on the parcel didn’t come undone. Envelopes were constantly re-used, with sticky labels to cover the previous address, and a sticky label to seal it.

We’d never heard of takeaways, or drive thru… we queued for fish and chips wrapped in newspaper on Friday evenings, and that was our one bought meal.We had real milk, sold in bottles, which were washed and put out the next morning for the milkman to replace. We didn’t go to a rubbish tip – if there were such things – but when the rag and bone man drove round the streets with his horse and cart, we brought out our inorganic rubbish.

When things were broken, we had them repaired. All these customs and this way of life, meant that these jobs gave many people work – laundering, collecting the metal dustbins, delivering coal and milk and letters and telegrams, cobbling shoes, dress-making, mending clothes, repairing watches, lamps, and a myriad of other household items. Most of these skills and jobs have disappeared now in the disposable society in which today’s millennials, generation X and all the other categories now live.

Boomers couldn’t afford to be wasteful. We lived frugally, and didn’t despoil the planet with travel, tourism, eating foods out of season, flown around the world, throwing away the cheap clothes which shrink or lose their shape.  Actually, we had a quality to our lives – good food grown locally, leather shoes, wool or cotton clothes, and simple pleasures and pastimes.

So though Greta Thunberg (who comes from Sweden where, not having participated in the war, their Boomers didn’t have to cope with the ruin of their country and economy) told us at the UN that we had ruined the lives of her generation; and while the Extinction campaigners rail at us for being Boomers, it isn’t such a badge of dishonour as they would try to make us think.

This wonderful world which has re-emerged during the tragedy of the Pandemic has shown us how it used to be, and it’s up to us all to try to keep it that way. One of the ways in which the world was a kinder gentler place when we grew up, was that people didn’t insult and name-call those whose opinions were different. The spitefulnesses of social media were un-imagineable cruelties.

So the challenge for us all, is to not only try to preserve the planet, but also to preserve the tolerance and kindness, the courtesies and decencies of those times so stigmatised by younger generations. Live and let live so that we can all share a brave new world!

Note: we are indebted to Shakespeare for those ringing words: a brave new world.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Unable to stand for long with my bothersome back, the microwave has become my friend, and this little dish has become my comfort food.

For one person, slice about a third of a leek into thin rounds, arrange in small ovenproof microwave dish, and pour hot water over half the depth of the leeks. Cover with kitchen paper, and zap in the microwave for five minutes.

Remove and cover with cream and a thick layer of grated parmesan, and grill till golden under the grill. When I’m up to it, I shall also chop a hard- boiled egg over the leeks and then cover with Parmesan.

It makes a small meal for a delicate digestion! Better still, for the hale and hearty, would be to enjoy a hot roll and a glass of good white wine with it ….

Food for Thought

Winston Churchill spoke these words during those times of our lives:

‘The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.’

‘All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom; justice; honour; duty; mercy; hope.’

 

PS- a reader has written privately explaining why boomers are condemned, this was my reply:

  • I know it’s fashionable to beat boomers with a stick over consumerism, the environment etc, but maybe some of these positive facts and thoughts may console you for being unfortunate enough to be born a boomer!!!
  • One of the things I’ve always been glad about is the spread of the motor car, so we no longer mistreat overwork and exploit horses to carry us around ! On the other hand, the diminishment of public transport everywhere because of the spread of cheap Japanese cars after people got over their prejudices about their atrocities, has undoubtedly damaged the planet…
  • Wiki. states that …
  • Boomers are often associated with the counterculture of the 1960s, the civil rights movement, and the “second-wave” feminist cause of the 1970s.
  • Boomers
  • 60% lost value in investments because of the economic crisis
  • 42% are delaying retirement
  • 25% claim they will never retire (currently still working)[4
  • Memorable events the boomers were involved in -: the Cold War (and associated Red Scare), the Cuban Missile Crisis, assassinations of JFK, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., political unrest, walk on the moon, risk of the draft into the Vietnam War or actual military service during the Vietnam War, anti-war protests, social experimentation, sexual freedom, drug experimentation, the Civil Rights Movement, environmental movement, women’s movement, protests and riots, and Woodstock

 

  • So Boomers – and not merely American boomers, helped to change the world in many positive ways when you read about their challenges, and what they were involved in.
  • Just saying !!

 

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Filed under cookery/recipes, culture, environment, history, life/style, pollution, sustainability, Uncategorized

Love Actually

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Over forty years ago I found myself visiting a man imprisoned in a psychiatric ward.He had no family, no other visitors, and the story of his life was a search for the only person who had ever loved him. His mother.

He was thirteen when he had his first brush with the law, and was placed in a juvenile delinquent institution after he attacked his mother’s lover with a baseball bat when his mother was the victim of domestic violence. Back then domestic violence was not taken as seriously as it is now.

He ran away to get back to his mother and from then on was placed in stricter and harsher environments. Having no trade, skills or any means of support he ended up robbing a bank. This is a gross simplification of his tragic descent into despair and the appalling experience of solitary confinement in the prison hospital.

His cell was bare, no books or television, yet with all the deprivation of twenty years in and out of prisons, he was an articulate and sensitive man. In retrospect his whole life had been a search for love, and yet he’d had no opportunity  to find or develop relationships, or to find a person to love.

He sat on one side of a table placed across a bleak corridor in the hospital, we sat the other side. With warders standing nearby, he told us that his one amusement was watching the birds from behind the bars of his tiny cell window. He saved crumbs from his meals and fed them to one particular sparrow who came to the window sill. It was obvious as he spoke that he loved that little sparrow, and that the sparrow was giving his life some meaning.

He didn’t need to know whether the sparrow loved him. The sparrow filled his need to love. I still remember when my first great love sent me a Dear John letter. (Dear John oh how I hate to write, dear John I must let you know tonight that my love for you has died )

I was twenty- one. When I read it, my head spun and the world seemed to go black amid the giddyness. As time went on, I realised that one of the worst things about it was feeling was that I could no longer love him. At which I also realised that there was no need to stop loving him… loving was what made me feel less bereft, and loving him filled the gap in my heart until I was able to move on.

A teacher on one of our personal growth courses once observed that when a person lives alone, they often make a loving connection with a creature, if they have no-one to love – pets, birds, wild creatures become their beloved companions. Even snails can become the beloved – Elisabeth Tova Bailey wrote one of the most exquisite books about love, when she became aware that a snail lived in the wild cyclamen a friend had dug up and brought to her sick room.

Her loving descriptions of the tiny creature and its habits, and the knowledge she acquired about one of our humblest companions living alongside us on this planet teeming with life, gave me a deeper understanding of the value of all life. Loving this tiny snail gave the sick woman joy and meaning to her life.

Being loved somehow doesn’t seem as sustaining as loving. ‘Lord grant that I may not so much seek to be loved, as to love,’ was the prayer of St Francis, who loved ‘all creatures great and small’, in the words of the hymn. Krishna Murti described another aspect of love in his journal.

‘He had picked it up, he said, on a beach; it was a piece of sea-washed wood in the shape of a human head. It was made of hard wood, shaped by the waters of the sea, cleansed by many seasons. He had brought it home and put it on the mantelpiece; he looked at it from time to time and admired what he had done.

One day, he put some flowers round it, and then it happened every day; he felt uncomfortable if there were not fresh flowers every day and gradually that piece of shaped wood became very important in his life. He would allow no-one to touch it except himself; they might desecrate it; he washed his hands before he touched it.

It had become holy, sacred, and he alone was the high priest of it; he represented it; it told him of things he could never know by himself. His life was filled with it and he was, he said unspeakably happy…’

This beautiful story electrified me. It showed me that by loving, whatever the object may be, loving gives life and meaning to whatever it touches. My friend Oi, who I’ve written about in another blog once told me about a very rich friend, whose house was filled with opulent treasures, which Oi found overpowering. But, she told me, as the years passed, and she visited her friend, though all the treasures were still there, gleaming and cherished, she felt differently about them. She said they had been so lovingly cared for and cherished by their owner, that they no longer had the patina of wealth, but exuded their intrinsic beauty.

So it’s the loving that matters, that transforms and gives meaning. Which is why the experiment I once read in which people in prison were given an abandoned dog to rehabilitate, were rehabilitated themselves. Love heals.

Here in our forest, where we are not allowed dogs or cats who might kill the threatened species of flightless birds who shelter beneath the thick undergrowth, we have become devoted to the wild quails who make their way into our garden. We began feeding them, discovering that the food they love best is budgie seed.

Every year they return with their tiny fluffy babies, who scamper after their parents like little windup toys; and we now have dozens of beautiful little creatures who push through the undergowth out of the forest and march determinedly down the drive to feast. When they hear our voices, they break into a run. We spend far too much on birdseed, and in lockdown, it is the one thing we make sure we always have plenty of. They start arriving early in the morning and when we hear their sharp call, one or other of us leaps out of bed, still half asleep, to scatter seed

Loving them makes us ‘unspeakably happy’. There must be many other people in these strange days who find that having the time, no longer trying to stuff too many duties and activities into their day, they can now discover the world of small things around them, and find it utterly loveable. Birds singing, leaves unfolding, spiders spinning their miraculous webs – all these things can be food for the soul and can remind us of the goodness of life even in ‘these interesting times’, in the words of the Chinese proverb.

 

Food for Housebound Gourmets

The cupboard is bare – not of food, but of inspiration, Having put my back out and drugged up with painkillers, unable to stir from bed without yelps of pain, I’ve been calling instructions to Himself  in the kitchen, on how to boil an egg, or where to find the butter…

Food for thought

By having a reverence for life, we enter into a spiritual relation with the world. By practicing reverence for life we become good, deep, and alive.  Albert Schweitzer

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Filed under consciousness, cookery/recipes, happiness, love, spiritual, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized

Keeping body and soul together

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About a month before the full extent of the crisis which is now overtaking the whole world was obvious, I began quietly accumulating food-stuffs in my store cupboard. Two of this or three of that instead of just one. So when the catastrophe reached this country, and we went into lockdown within a few days of the first cases of the plague arriving in these shores, I didn’t need to do any panic shopping, just last minute perishables like milk, mushrooms and courgettes.

When the drawbridge went down and we all retreated to our own castles, I felt like a biblical wise virgin – perhaps not – a wise crone perhaps, with the oil in my lamp, ready for the challenge, not of spiritual growth but of living without all the amenities that we take for granted in the western world. We had stocked up on gas for the cooker, and petrol for the generator in case the power went down, filled the car and checked the oil.

The old freezer we’d replaced when a friend bequeathed her up-to-date appliance while re-modelling her kitchen, was still sitting here. No-one else had wanted it. So it came back into service in this emergency and absorbed all the bulky things like bread, and the extras like the butter and grated cheese and pastrami that we weren’t going to be shopping for in the foreseeable future. We felt ready for anything.

I can live off baked beans for a month, my love bravely declared. There’s no need, I kept re-iterating, we’ve got plenty of everything. And now we seem to have so much more time than we did before the Great Retreat, I’ve also had more time to think about food, and how to marshal our resources; and also to read new recipes and ideas.

We seem to be living rather luxuriously, rather than frugally… though that may come. So instead of just putting together my normal macaroni cheese which is a favourite in this house, I found a French recipe which we tried last night.

I left out the tomato puree, which I didn’t fancy, and for lack of a bacon hock, just chopped up and lightly fried some rashers of good bacon. Instead of making a normal cheese sauce, I broke into the packet of mascarpone nestling in the fridge as per the recipe, and beat it into the yolks of two eggs.

I added grated cheese, no Gruyere in the house, just good old Cheddar, leavened with some Gouda with cumin seeds, found at the back of the fridge and grated, which added a layer of je ne sais quoi to the mix.  With plenty of black pepper, the bacon, the cooked pasta and all, was tipped into a casserole with a layer of grated parmesan on top, and left with enough time in the oven to warm it up and grill the top till crisp.

Even the pasta wasn’t macaroni. I had several packets of two-minute noodles sitting in the cupboard, having previously used their sachets of chicken stock for flavouring soups. I simply pour boiling water over the noodles, and leave them for a few minutes until they’re soft and ready to drain and use. Combined with all the other ingredients, their humble origin didn’t matter. The whole dish took only as long as separating the eggs, frying the bacon at the same time, and soaking the noodles, before ten minutes or so in the hot oven.

This is my idea of cooking these days – something quick, easy and delicious, using for the most part good ingredients, and not shying away from short cuts. I do a lot of things now, that I inwardly swore when I was young, I’d never do, like using chopped garlic from a jar, buying grated cheese, and even using pre-cooked packets of rice, when I lack the energy to slave over a hot stove. These packets of basmati, long grain and jasmine rice, which are more expensive of course than loose rice, were the despised unwanted items left on supermarket shelves during the Great Shopping Rush, but for me, they are a gift.

They mean a fried rice, or a kedgeree, or a curry in a few minutes instead of the hard labour of thoroughly washing and rinsing, boiling and draining of the real thing.  Nearly fifty years ago, I remember watching in Stanley Market in Hongkong, an old Chinese lady, wispy white hair scraped up into a tight bun, wearing clogs and grey sam-fu with black trousers, crouched by a tap on the edge of the pavement, washing and rinsing rice in a battered aluminium pot, over and again.

She poured in the water, swishing it about with her hands, draining it carefully out through her old wrinkled fingers, never losing a single precious grain, and then beginning the whole process over again until the water ran clear into the gutter.I think of her, every time I cook rice, but no longer feel guilty at cutting corners to save my energy, as I used to.

Energy is precious, and so is time; and while plenty of time is the gift of the Great Retreat, energy is not so plentiful. Yet this too is the gift of this unexpected home detention, isolation, withdrawal, lockdown, whatever we call it. Time is our own. We can measure our energy, plan our time, listen to our inner clock, and nurture the needs of our mind and soul as well as our body.

Those of us who are retired, and those who have no duties of care for children, or family who need us, are fortunate. We can still enjoy human contact by phone, the internet, skyping, even blogging. Even those of us who don’t have pets to nurture, and be nourished by, still have the time to enjoy the pleasures of books, music, knitting and other pastimes we often don’t have space for in our busy western lives.

I’ve been painting a new porch and veranda black – posts and roof and steps and lovely curved front, a bit Japanese looking, jutting out into the forest. Bitten by the bug, I then painted the wicker chairs black, and then a white side table which had once been gilt and then white, became black, and a big pot which had once been black, and then white, is also black again!

And so now we have another place from which we can look into the trees, watch the weather, listen to bird song,  gaze at the sunset, and see the moon rise. So many people in their homes and apartments, in so many places throughout the world, are cut off from the outside world, and yet by a strange paradox they are now savouring the growth of spring in the northern hemisphere, watching the clouds and the rain, becoming conscious of the sun rising and the moon waning, and connecting more and more with the natural world. So too, are we, in the southern hemisphere, as autumn creeps up on us. For once, in the poet’s words, we all have the time to stand and stare.

 

Food for Housebound Gourmets

 For those who fancy trying my fancy French macaroni cheese, here are the amounts for four people:250 gms crème fraiche, 2 egg yolks, 225 gms macaroni, 115 gms gruyere cheese, and a sprinkling of parmesan

Stir crème fraiche and egg yoks together, add cooked pasta and all the other ingredients, including pepper. Sprinkle parmesan over the mix and bake until hot and the top golden. Enough for four, and we will have it again tomorrow jazzed up with salad etc.

I would use cream instead of creme fraiche next time, as I like a looser cheese sauce… or I’d use my other short cut… cook the pasta and stir in a tin of condensed chicken soup, grated cheese, black pepper and nutmeg, loosen it to taste with cream or milk – and hey presto.

I’m keeping a record of what we’re eating and will be fascinated to see how it works out over the time. So far:

Day one: Coq au vin using chicken legs.

Day two: pork chops, plus leftover risotto from the deep freeze, fried onions for him, kumara/sweet potato for me, and acid free tomatoes cooked in butter and cream a la famous chef, Dr de Pomiane.

Day three: spaghetti Bolognaise for him, egg/avocado/tomato salad for me.

Day four: chopped cooked chicken from deep freeze stirred into a white sauce flavoured with chopped bacon, chopped mushrooms and nutmeg, the sauce made with some meaty stock made from scraping the pork chop pan the other night. (plus cream!)served on rice with green beans.

Day five: baked chicken drumsticks cooked on a bed of chopped onions, with rice, mushrooms and tomatoes for him, kedgeree with hard-boiled egg for me, and enough to store half in the deep freeze..

Day six: macaroni cheese.

Ah, food, glorious food.  As someone once said, “The only thing I like better than talking about food is eating it.”

Food for Thought

 Over three hundred years ago a prisoner in the Tower of London carved on the wall of his cell during his long imprisonment: ‘It is not adversity that kills, but the impatience with which we bear adversity.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under cookery/recipes, life/style, sustainability, Uncategorized, world war two

Dynasties, duties and decisions

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The Queen on her way to open her first Parliament  in 1952
When I worked on a magazine, in an idle moment I picked up a tome lying around. It was a biography of Queen Mary, this Queen’s grandmother, and written by James Pope Hennessy, who the Royal family considered a ‘safe pair of hands.’ So he had access to all the Windsor archives. (sadly, being a safe pair of hands wasn’t enough to stop him being murdered by his gay lover a few years later)

The book became an obsession, filled with trivial delicious gossip and detail as well as history, and ending with flimsy folded pages of yard long pull-out family trees of all the British and European monarchies, their marriages and inter-marriages, offspring, ancestors… and genealogy became another hobby.

A friend gave me my own copy of the book, and I followed it up with the acquisition of biographies of everyone else, from Queen Victoria and her numerous offspring, who became Queens, Grand Duchesses and Empresses of duchies, kingdoms and empires all over Europe. I gobbled up the histories of her successors, the Edwards, the George’s, Alexandra, Elizabeth’s, and so on.

I devoured Victoria’s letters to her daughter, the Princess Royal who became Empress of Germany, who with her tragic husband  battled Bismarck  and then Bismarck’s pupil, her son, the notorious Kaiser Wilhelm; Victoria’s letters to her second daughter Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse-Darmstadt, and the disaster of both haemophilia and diphtheria which claimed her family. And Alice’s six-year-old son saying why can’t we all go together, as another sibling died. And the eerie events that followed, when his sister Tsarina Alexandra and all her family died together in the cellar at Ekaterinburg, and he, by now, Grand Duke, dying in an air crash with all his family, wife, children, mother in law, on their way to a wedding in England, and finally Mountbatten, Alice’s grandson, dying with members of his family and others in the IRA atrocity in Ireland.

I learned about Edward the Seventh’s  affairs, including his longest and deepest commitment to Mrs Keppel, the present Duchess of Cornwall’s great grandmother, the anorexia and vanity of ravishingly beautiful Empress Elizabeth of Austria who used to wear damp skin-tight leather riding habits to accentuate her figure, and was assassinated by an anarchist as she walked to a  ferry in Geneva; poor George who became King when his brother abdicated, in agony for much of his childhood from splints to correct knock knees, and the physical strictures he suffered from having to stop being left handed – no wonder he stammered as an adult.

I absorbed Sir Charles Petrie’s acute psychological analysis of the ruling house of Britain when he described the brutal Cumberland streak,  a reference to Queen Victoria’s sadistic uncle; the conscientious Coburg inheritance, from noble Prince Albert, whose last action as he was dying of typhoid was to avert war between the US and Britain in 1861, a war which could have changed the course of history; and the artistic, self-indulgent, party-loving, charming Hanoverian streak inherited from the Prince Regent who was known as Prince Charming back in the 1840’s, and personified more recently by Princess Margaret. These personality types are still obvious to this day in each generation of the Royals.

So when a publisher commissioned me to write a book on the Royal’s relationship with NZ, I had already primed the pump, as it were. One of the fascinating aspects of following such a well -documented family is to see how heredity plays its part in each generation – including William’s conscientious Coburg nature, like his grandmother the Queen’s, to Harry’s red Spencer hair, a legacy of Sarah, first Duchess of Marlborough three hundred years ago. She had a mane of glorious red hair which in one of her famous rages, she chopped off to spite her devoted husband, John. After this great Duke of Marlborough died, she found a box with her hair in it, lovingly preserved by her husband. That red hair has descended through every generation of the Spencer – Churchill family including to Winston Churchill and Princess Diana’s brothers and sisters.

So when Prince Harry married his American bride with her exotic heritage, like everyone else I was fascinated and intrigued for all the many reasons commenters and pundits have expounded. And fascinated too, by the enthusiasm with which the British people took the newcomer to their hearts – great crowds wherever the couple went, huge mobs of thrilled and enthusiastic spectators at their lavish wedding and the excitement when a new baby was announced ( though somewhat mixed, since the announcement seemed timed to overshadow the Queen’s grand daughter’s wedding)

Since then as everyone knows, the fairy story has dissolved in the light of common day, diverse personalities and controversial decisions. As the opposing sides have argued, Royal Family fans versus the Sussex’s, I’ve been saddened by the distortions of truth, which have ended up tarnishing the Queen and Catherine, William’s blameless wife.

For example, the defenders of Meghan’s decision not to bring Archie, the Queen’s great grandson, to see his family, argued that the Queen left her two eldest toddlers for six months. She did. But she left them with their doting grandmother, the Queen Mother, and their aunt Princess Margaret.

She had no choice. When she took up the tour of the Commonwealth to thank each country for their support during WW2, which George VI had been unable to do because of ill health, it was aborted in Kenya on the death of her father. The following year she tried again and during my research for the book I’d been commissioned to write, I found they stayed nearly every night at a different town and new hotel all over the world.

Even when they wearily got to their destination each night in this country, choirs came and serenaded them outside, every evening, so they had to go out and thank them before collapsing inside. No point in dragging their toddlers from one strange place to another every day. By contrast, when Charles and Diana brought William, he learned to crawl on the lawn of Government House in Auckland where they were able to make their base.

Others pointed to Catherine leaving her children for a week’s second honeymoon, but again they were with their doting grand- parents, not just a friend of their mother’s. Which is one of the odd things about Arche’s situation, that his grandmother, his only other family member, doesn’t do what most devoted grand-parents do, and take the opportunity to be with him when his parents aren’t. Though Meghan says she’s done the right thing as she wants her son to grow up in a loving fun-filled environment, he’s actually been wrenched away from his wider family, with a clutch of happy fun-filled young cousins, family summer holidays at Balmoral and Christmases at Sandringham.

The worst thing of all, to me, is the way both the Royal Family and the UK have been vilified in order to justify what many people feel is a dereliction of duty. To call the family ‘toxic’, and the country ‘racist’ is not just untrue but deeply hurtful to everyone involved. To those who call England racist I can only point to the front bench of the present government. The three great offices of state in Britain are the First Lord of the Treasury, the Prime Minister’s formal title, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Home Secretary. The last two offices are held at this moment by the sons and daughters of Pakistani and Ugandan immigrants. The Lord Mayor of London is the son of Muslim Pakistani immigrants. Similarly, the Labour party is well stocked with WOC and even Men of Colour both from the West Indies and other parts of the world!

Sadly these accusations are repeated by some vocal and disaffected men and women of colour and others, both in England, and on American television and in their media, blackening England’s name and reputation as a kind and tolerant society, which it always has been, which is why so many refugees have made their way to it over the centuries.

It was in England that Lord Chief Justice Lord Mansfield, made the first great declaration on freedom and slavery, when he decreed in 1772 that the slave Somersett, who had escaped his American master, should be free, and that any slave who set foot on English soil automatically became free. Slavery, he said, was odious and had no basis in English common law. It was finally abolished in 1834 throughout the much-maligned British Empire, and the Royal Navy patrolled the seas for sixty years with a special anti-slavery squadron to stamp out slave trafficking by other nations. It cost some thousands of sailor’s lives, as well as money.

George Orwell wrote in 1940 that ‘England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box.‘

Sadly the huge rent in the fabric of the Royal family with the defection of two senior members, is being reflected in the country as a whole; in a split between the voices of common sense and tradition, and the voices of woke, liberal elites – the ones George Orwell was describing eighty years ago. The voices of common sense and tradition were those which rejected ‘isms and ideologies of the ‘woke’ factions in the recent election.

And these decent hardworking people are for the most part, patriotic – anathema to liberal elites. Yet as Orwell explained: ‘By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power.’

The people who cheered on Meghan and Harry at their wedding, were patriots, and they welcomed the introduction of a lively new foreign addition to their ranks. Yet now those same decent people of England with their proud history of tolerance, and of opposition  to racism/slavery when it was still accepted elsewhere, are having to live with the label of racism pinned on them by their own much-loved Prince Harry and his wife of less than two years.

And the Royal family who welcomed that wife are having to live with the label she gave them of being ‘toxic.’ As usual they are carrying on, keeping on, doing their duty to their dynasty and to their country. The monarch has the daily three-hour long perusal and signing of Parliamentary business, and constant reception of overseas diplomats and potentates, as well as the obvious tasks – like opening a sewerage plant in Norfolk, (as the 93- year- old Queen did a few weeks ago).

She and other family members carry on with the cutting of ribbons in Wolverhampton, planting trees in Abergavenny, visiting hospitals in Scunthorpe, meeting ambassadors, conferring with charities who need their support, visiting the regiments of the armed forces, pinning medals on veterans, marking anniversaries and state occasions, shaking hands, making small talk, oiling diplomatic relations between countries and peoples, bringing a sense of caring and continuity to society, swotting up  the details of the people they’re meeting and the places they’re visiting, doing the boring unglamorous aspects of being in service, and living their motto: never complain, never explain. It’s served them well for nearly a thousand years. They also know that privilege entails responsibility. It’s called noblesse oblige.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I needed a cake, but didn’t have the time to nurture a long bake in the oven, so I experimented with this cake that only takes 20 minutes to cook. It was a great success, but tasted even better the next day. It’s all mixed in a saucepan in which 250 gms of butter, one cup of sugar, 2 tablsp of cocoa and one tablesp of golden syrup are melted. Don’t let it boil. When cool, add 2 cups SR flour, one cup of almond meal, a teasp of vanilla essence and a pinch of salt. Mix it all together. No eggs.

Grease and line a cake tin, and bake for 20 minutes only, so it’s a little fudgy. When cool ice with chocolate icing… icing sugar, butter, cocoa and a little milk beaten till smooth. Next time I make it I might experiment with brown sugar …

Food for Thought

Folksinger Pete Seeger has been called America’s tuning fork. He said: ‘I feel most spiritual when I’m out in the woods. I feel part of nature. Or looking up at the stars. I used to say I was an atheist… According to my definition of God, I’m not an atheist. Because I think God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God. Whenever I’m listening to something I’m listening to God… And maybe I am… I think God is literally everything, because I don’t believe that something can come out of nothing. And so there’s always been something. Always is a long time.’

 

 

 

 

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Filed under consciousness, cookery/recipes, life/style, Queen Elizabeth, Royals, slavery, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized

Time has told, Small IS Beautiful

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They don’t make it easy, to quote Megan Markle speaking on quite another subject. I was actually trying to wrest the immoveable foil covering off the plastic milk bottle, and as usual was giving up, finding a sharp pointed knife, and prizing it off.

I thought of the good old days, when we had shiny aluminium tops on glass bottles, which were washed out every day to be exchanged for a fresh bottle of milk the next day. It was usually delivered by the milkman driving his horse and milk cart – the horse, so familiar with the routine – that he stopped and started at each house, while the milkman ran in and out of each gate to leave the milk bottles on the door-step.

He was an un-official social worker as well as a milkman, and if the milk went uncollected for more than a day he’d check in the house or alert the neighbours, and many an old person was rescued from illness or accident in this way.

Before the aluminium tops, we had cardboard lids on the bottle with a little cut-out circle indented in the centre which we pushed open, if the sparrows hadn’t got there before us. They enjoyed the cream as much as we did – yes, we had cream in our milk in those days, you could either pour it off to save and consume as cream, or you shook the bottle up, and distributed the cream throughout the milk.

Sometimes at school, instead of drinking our half pint of milk given to us every day by a benevolent state, we shook up the bottle for fun until we’d made a knob of butter from the cream, and later spread it on our lunch-time potatoes. We also used the cardboard circle from the bottle to wind wool round and make bobbles, or thread on a ribbon and paint for Christmas decorations

Prising the top off the milk isn’t the only strongman feat I’m forced to perform every day. If I want to open a bottle of vitamins there’s a tight clear plastic wrapper bonded to the bottle and the lid. When, with a pair of nail scissors I’ve managed to break into this casing, and unscrewed the lid, there’s the same sort of stiff foil lid stuck irrevocably to the bottle as with the milk. More jabbing with knife or scissors, and when I finally wriggle into the jar, there’s a long wad of cotton wool to drag out into the light of day. The pile of plastic rubbish from just one small bottle of vitamins is outrageous.

A packet of bacon? Plastic wrapped cheese sweating in the casing? A new toothbrush – that truly is the worst – it’s almost impossible to break into all the wrappings, both plastic and cardboard, that bar entry to a simple toothbrush.

I waste hours of my life trying to gain access to items of food and household products which were once sold loose, but now need equipment in order to eat, drink, use or cook.

When I used to read the Manchester Guardian in my salad days I was transfixed with wonder, when a woman wrote to say she was tired of trying to break into biscuit packets. Back then in 1965, it seemed like a miracle that biscuit manufacturers got the message, listened to a woman and provided consumers with a tab to pull, so as to gain entry to said biscuits. We really can be heard, and can change things, I gloated, somewhat prematurely it seems.

For today, health and safety and hygiene requirements, techniques for packaging to extend ‘shelf life’, marketing strategies to make products seem more desirable, have meant that most food items are now locked away behind plastic, unless it’s an unwashed potato . So even though we virtue signal with plastic bags banned in our supermarkets, we still have mountains of plastic rubbish after each shopping trip, be it a new shirt, or a bag of rice. The sort of plastic rubbish that pollutes oceans and clogs up the stomachs of whales and sea-birds, fouling the oceans and killing the wild life.

And speaking of potatoes, in my youth we bought muddy potatoes in a small hemp sack. The mud preserved the minerals in the spuds, and the darkness of the sack kept them fresh, so even at the bottom, the potatoes were still good to eat. Washed potatoes in a see-through plastic bag, the very opposite of mud and sack, means that the soil around the potatoes which preserved them has gone, so they go stale and lose much of their nourishment, while the clear plastic lets in light so they deteriorate quicker. And what about parabens?

So I buy unwashed potatoes, and being somewhat lazy, I now get the mud off by washing and scrubbing them with pan scourer, kept especially for the purpose.

A friend gave me some of her new laid eggs from her hens and brought back long forgotten childhood memories as she wrapped each egg in a small piece of torn newspaper, before laying them in my little basket. There was something very sweet in the gentle handling and detailed care with which she wrapped and packed them. It felt a world away from the dull supermarket routine of shopping in bulk.

Before the coming of super-markets, we shopped every few days, meeting and greeting neighbours and other shoppers as we walked to the grocer, who was often ‘on the corner’. It’s now acknowledged that this simple routine was a wonderful boost to everyone’s emotional well-being as they connected with neighbours, and nodded to strangers who became familiar during the regular shop. We took baskets and string bags and no-one expected a shop to wrap everything we bought.

Shops had regular hours, so when you ran short of sugar or needed an onion, you had no 24- hour dairy or superette to fall back on. Instead you fell back on your neighbours, and a child was often dispatched to borrow half a cup of sugar, or a jug of milk. These small inter-actions and friendly connections stimulated a sense of community. The sharing of garden produce, small helpful deeds and kindnesses, borrowing and returning, nourished human relationships, friendships and neighbourhoods, fostering small societies, and creating villages within villages.

And back then there were plentiful bus services and little local railway branch lines, so people didn’t need cars. It was easy to move from village to town, or town to city on reliable public transport, and there were no roads clogged up with parked cars or traffic jams of weary people. I don’t remember pollution either…

When we all get down to the serious business of becoming carbon free, and relinquishing our right to car ownership, maybe the powers that be will re-instate these antiquated forms of transport. The one thing I do hope no-one suggests, be they government agencies or climate campaigners, is to use a horse and trap, or other animals as beasts of burden. The blessing of the motor car was that we gave up exploiting animals to get us around, flogging them to death, with overwork or not enough food.

Yet at the moment we still seem to have a mind-set which involves the right to own our own transport. The car industry estimates that there are 1.3 billion cars on the road at the moment and projections rise to two billion by 2035. Cars are a passion, both in the first world and the third world, and technology is forever coming up with new ideas for a driving future. Yet all this effort, which is now going in the direction of self-driving electric cars, seem self-defeating to me, since each such vehicle requires the equivalent of 40 desk top PC’s in energy consumption for the computer brain. Then there’s the energy needed for the battery. So much for reducing carbon emissions.

Maybe the challenge of tackling transport, climate change, pollution, the plague of plastic and all the other problems of our wasteful throwaway and over packaged society is to find a way of life which is as simple as the one I remember. It was a way of life in which we lived ‘care-fully’, buying food in small amounts so we had no wastage, a way of life in which we used public transport and helped each other in small, kind and ‘care-full ways’. ‘Small is Beautiful’, Schumacher’s creed, now overtaken by globalism, may be the answer to the huge problems of over-consumption, wasteful habits and huge soul-less cities, whether buying the family groceries, owning a car, or finding a happy home.

A Guardian article some years ago wrote that; ‘Schumacher warned against exactly the issues we are now dealing with as levels of mental illness – depression, anxiety, panic attacks, stress – rise and the World Health Organisation predicts that depression will be the second most common health problem in western developed nations by 2020.This was what Schumacher feared, and his answer was “small is beautiful”.’

Schumacher’s thesis was that we should go back to the human scale: human needs and human relationships. He felt that from that small scale would spring the ethical response of stewardship to the environment.

And as we re-create such small kind communities, I’d be grateful if we could also solve the plastic crisis, and mountains of resulting rubbish. The wasted hours spent tackling the menace of packaging could be used for so many other small and beautiful pleasures. Dwight Eisenhower once remarked that in his childhood, “Our pleasures were simple – they included survival”. That could well be the case in the future.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Though I love leftovers, leftover slices of slices of breast from a roast chicken can be boring. My way round this last night was to combine leftover mushrooms, cooked in garlic, cream and parsley, with the chicken. To top up this mix, I added more garlic and parsley, and the essence poured off from the hot chicken the day before. A little cream to make it thick and delicious, and the chicken was transformed. Eaten with mashed potatoes, peas and fresh spring asparagus it was as good as the original roasted chicken.

 

 

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Filed under cookery/recipes, environment, happiness, philosophy, pollution, sustainability, technology, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, village life

What’s wrong with a stiff upper lip?

war  The East End of London during the Bitz. The woman on the right lived in the bombed building opposite. Their food was cooked on a campfire in the basement.

 

Victors or victims? These thoughts came to me when I chanced upon these words in a book I’d written some time ago.

“I’ve been re-reading Robert Massie’s ‘Dreadnought’ very slowly, trying to take in and remember all the detail. As I worked my way through all the biographical stuff on the various late Victorian and Edwardian English statesmen of the period, I began to notice a rather surprising pattern – which was not repeated in the biographies of their German counterparts.

“It began with an account of the great Lord Salisbury’s childhood, and how he survived his mother’s death before he was ten and the indifference and hostility of his father who thought he was hopeless. Then there was his brilliant and equally successful nephew, Arthur Balfour, who also became prime minister like his uncle. Balfour’s father died when he was seven, and his highly-strung mother Blanche struggled to bring up a large family alone.

“ Herbert Asquith, another prime minister of that time, grew up in an impoverished solo parent home after his father died when he was eight, of a twisted intestine after a village cricket match. My favourite statesman of the period, Sir Edward Grey (“ the lights are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”), was also fatherless by the age of eight, while Admiral Jackie Fisher, the great mover and shaker of the navy, was sent back from Ceylon at the age of six, never to see his father again, who died when he was sixteen, and Fisher was an adult before seeing his indigent and disinterested mother again.

“Winston Churchill’s childhood was famously deprived, brought up by his nanny, deprived of her when sent to boarding school at eight, and writing letters begging his parents to come and see him – they never did. On one occasion his mother, a famous beauty, returned his letter after reading one page. She required him to write to her in French, and she told him his French was so appalling, she had no intention of reading any further. The emotional deprivation and abuse he suffered is legendary, yet not he, nor any of the others, ever made excuses that the challenges of their childhoods interfered with living a useful constructive life. They lived lives full of achievement, unhampered by chips on their shoulders, theories of deprivation and emotional maladjustment or of feeling victim.

“It was much the same with an earlier hero, the great philanthropist Lord Shaftesbury, who among many other causes, stopped the employment of children as young as five in coal mines. He also opened Ragged Schools for slum children, opposed vivisection, and stopped climbing boys being sent up hot sooty chimneys from the age of five onwards, (small boys, because only small boys could squeeze up the chimneys to clean them).

“Like Churchill, he too was neglected and emotionally deprived by his hostile parents, and the only love he received as a child was also from his nanny, Maria Mills, who died when he was nine. Then there was wonderful William Wilberforce, orphaned at nine when his father died, and a year later sent to live with relatives. These men also endured dreadful years at bullying, inhumane schools.

“Yet in spite of all the angst we hear now, about children of single parents being handicapped in the so-called race of life, these people all achieved great things, and apart from Balfour, who never married, all had loving marriages too. Was it because the communities they grew up in were united by values, principles and religion? They also all believed in a Divine Source to sustain them, and perhaps just as important, their sole parent usually had no money worries, so that they were properly educated and thus equipped to make their way.”

During the years I was a solo parent, I was constantly coming up against the stereotype of one parent children being handicapped or deprived, which caused me much heart-ache. This lasted until my son’s teacher, a solo parent herself, asserted that many of the children in her class came from dysfunctional two-parent families, and that loved children with a sane intelligent mother were the lucky ones. I took her at her word.

One of the common features of these men and others, was that they were the possessors of that much maligned British stiff upper lip. I may even have possessed one myself. Laugh and the world laughs with you, weep and you weep alone, was always in my mind, as I navigated disasters that sometimes felt overwhelming.

When I was at boarding school, several of my friends has been passengers on the troopship Empire Windrush when it caught fire in the Mediterranean and sank.  They only referred to it in terms of having lost all their clothes and possessions. Recently I Googled the Windrush, and found several newsreels about the disaster. On them is recorded the amazing behaviour of all the women and children as well as the military wounded and servicemen from Korea.

The electricity was affected by the fire, so the life boats couldn’t be lowered and were eventually dropped into the sea. Neither could the intercom work, so all the passengers had to be awakened at 6.30 and they climbed off the ship into the life boats in their dressing gowns and pyjamas.

I watched moving newsreels of mothers holding their babies, children holding the hands of toddlers, all in their night clothes, climbing off a rescue ship which conveyed them to Tangiers. They walked in a quiet orderly procession along the dock, no tears, no hysterics, just calmly disciplined. No panic, no fuss, just that wonderful stiff upper lip as all ages coped efficiently and courageously. This was the story my school friends had omitted to tell when they mentioned in a matter of fact way that they’d lost all their possessions when their ship caught fire on their way home from the East.

That same stiff upper lip was what carried my parent’s generation through the second world war, living through perils and dangers, deprivation and destruction. The bombing, sleeplessness from air-raids, invasion fears, stern rationing, black outs, no petrol for travel, working in factories, on the land, in the army and the navy and air force in horrendous conditions, families traumatised by years of separation and sometimes death in battle, or at sea, or in the air, and the nightmares and undiagnosed PTSD, all had to be endured and survived.

No tranquillisers, anti-depressants, therapists or other emotional support were available. Cigarettes were the nearest thing! They didn’t see themselves as victims, both civilians and servicemen just stoically soldiered on for six years until they achieved victory.

It was another Edwardian, Captain Scott of the Antarctic who famously gave voice to the stoicism and courage which is disguised by that stiff upper lip. Once a hero, then derided by revisionist historians, he has had his reputation restored to heroic status recently, by the advances of science.

Researchers and modern scientists have discovered that when the dog teams with food  failed to rendezvous in spite of Scott’s written orders, his party were abandoned in the ten-day Antarctic winter blizzard. Scott and his men perished in a blizzard which was a once in a thousand-year event and the cold was colder than anyone had ever experienced, – 40 degrees Fahrenheit, too cold for human beings to survive in.

As he lay dying in his snow bound tent, the others already dead, Captain Scott wrote the immortal words in which he took full responsibility for their fate – never complaining, never making excuses, never wallowing in self-pity.

He didn’t see himself as a victim. Instead he wrote: “We took risks, we knew we took them: things have come out against us and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined to do our best to the last”.

The difference between being a victor or a victim is simply a change of perspective. When we can accept that the choices we made, have brought us to this point (and some believe that these choices were made before we returned to this plane of existence), we can see the events of our lives from a different perspective.

We can choose to see our lives through a different lens. The quickest way to shift from the misery of self-pity and victim-hood, to the freedom of accepting responsibility, is to begin to feel grateful for our life, the highs and the lows, knowing there is a point or a purpose to all challenges. We may not see them straight away but when we look back, we see there are no accidents and no mis-steps. We can see that all our actions and decisions have led us to this point.

English House and Garden magazine editor, Sue Crewe began keeping a daily gratitude diary after a period of heartbreak in her life. Every day she listed five things. Some years later she wrote:

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

What a glorious way to live life.

Food for threadbare gourmets

Potatoes without butter are not the same… mashed potatoes, potatoes baked in their jackets, potatoes baked in cream, new potatoes anointed with melted butter… what is a potato without butter or cream?

The answer is potatoes cooked the way I’ve discovered! Simply cube them, peeled or unpeeled -not too small, about three-quarters of an inch squarish. Boil them till soft but still firm. Drain, and tip flour over them. Put the lid back on the pan, and toss the potatoes in the flour before frying batches in hot oil. When crisp, drain them on kitchen paper as you tackle each batch, and keep them warm. They end up crisp outside and soft inside. Serve these delicious crisp morsels with sea-salt, and chicken, sausages or whatever takes your fancy.

P.S. For an extraordinary story of courage and stiff upper lip, GP Cox’s blog today, about Mrs Ruby Boye in the Pacific War takes some beating.

 

 

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Filed under cookery/recipes, happiness, history, life and death, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, world war two

Castaway Books

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I sometimes torture myself by imagining I’m on a desert island and can only take ten books with me. I look around at the walls of book-shelves  in the sitting room and bedroom and spare room, and wonder how to whittle them down to the ten most treasured books I wouldn’t want to be without.

As in the BBC radio programme, no Shakespeare or the Bible allowed, though I’d be sad to let the Bible go – not for religious reasons – but for the sheer poetry of the prose and the beauty of so much of the writing, for some of the stories embedded in the teachings… like the story of Ruth for example, or the Song of Solomon… and the Beatitudes, and ringing phrases like: ‘I am as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal if I have not charity’ .. or the exquisite words of Psalms like 139, which ends with: ‘…’if I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall thy hand find me, and thy right hand shall hold me’.

But having surrendered the Bible what would I take? Bernadine Evaristo, this year’s Booker prize-winner, says she hates Jane Austen and Virginia Wolfe… but while l’d agree about Virginia, as an afficionado who used to read Jane Austen’s six novels once a year, I’d have to disagree with her findings on Jane. (Real Austen fans are called Janeites. I once wrote a piece for an anthology of raves about Jane Austen, and attending the book launch party was somewhat bemused to find myself among some fans wearing long Regency dresses, and sporting shawls and fans)

Which of the six would I take? No contest. In my younger days, I’d have plumped for ‘Pride and Prejudice’… or ‘Persuasion.’ But now I’d go for ‘Mansfield Park’ which I used to think was the dullest of her books. Now it’s my favourite. I love the picture of Georgian country life, the amateur theatricals with all the tensions and emotional turmoil, and the irritating, contradictory and sparkling array of people, especially the two villains, who’re the most attractive characters in the book. But most of all, I love that picture of elegant English country life in my favourite period of history before the Industrial Revolution, when squalor and hardship and smoking factory chimneys had not altered forever a peaceful pastoral society.  (Even if they didn’t have good dentists).

To balance that picture of aristocratic country life I’d take Thomas Hardy’s ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’, my favourite of all his books, crammed with authentic country lore and farming custom, just slightly later in time that Austen’s novel.

And to round off this wallowing in homesickness for another time and place while on that desert island, I’d take George Eliot’s tome, ‘Middlemarch’, a great book described by the despised Virginia as  ‘the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels for grown-up people.’

It’s a huge canvas describing with acute psychological insight many typical characters of both town and country in early Victorian England. For me, it’s a picture not just about English town life of that period, but a profound study of character, both shallow and profound, of good and evil in the shape of materialism, and of the compromises demanded by society. So, nostalgia and homesickness sorted – there’s several more choices to go.

Top of the list would be Barbara Tuchman’s splendid history, ‘The Guns of August’, an account of the first ten days of WW1, but fleshed out with vivid and witty accounts of how Europe got to that point, and an analysis of the main protagonists… fascinating history, accurate psychology, and telling insights, all delivered with wit and humour, so that often I find myself chuckling as we traverse the terrible terrain of one of the great turning points in the history of Europe.

I would have to take ‘The Snow Leopard’ with me, by Peter Matthiesson. It’s the story of his journey into the remotest regions of the Himalayas on his search for the then almost never seen and legendary snow leopard. It’s a many layered tale with deep spiritual undertones, and read like all these other books, many, many times.

Getting a bit panicky now, with only three more choices to go. I think I’ll reach for Truman Capote’s story of love and war, ‘The Grass Harp’. It’s told with deceptive simplicity, the characters utterly loveable, and gloriously eccentric as despair drives them to desperate measures. They are the odd ones out, who finally step outside the norms of society to assert their individuality, and when they say what they feel, they slice through the hypocrisies and cruelty of narrow-minded small-town officialdom.

I love diaries and have a huge collection of them, ranging across time, from seventeenth century Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn in Charles 11 reign, to Georgian Parson Woodford and Parson Gilbert White, Victorian Francis Kilvert, through to the two world wars, to the randy diaries of Alan Clark, the notorious womaniser and politician, and the delicious, hilariously funny fictional diaries of Adrian Mole, my favourite being ‘Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass- Destruction.

I toyed with the last of the Bloomsberry’s, Frances Partridge’s  ‘A Pacifist’s War’, her diary filled with details of an idyllic life in the beautiful country house where the painter Carrington lived with writer Lytton Strachey before his death and her suicide. Her war years are peopled with a stream of intriguing/incestuous Bloomsberry illuminati who came and feasted with Ralph Partridge and Frances while dwelling on their moral high-ground as conscientious objectors.

I decided on something more uplifting. Inspiring integrity was what I was looking for. Should I take Alanbrooke’s war-time diaries, or Cadogan’s account of appeasement and diplomacy before and during the war, or Klemperer’s diary chronicling the terror of the Nazis, and his worry about the fate of his beloved cat? It finally had to be put down when Jews were no longer allowed to keep pets. Klemperer, a distinguished university professor, ended up in the bombing of Dresden which allowed his wife and he to disappear in the chaos, the only positive thing I’ve heard about that raid.

No… I finally settled on the two volumes of John Colville’s diaries. He was Churchill’s private secretary during the war, and the parade of kings, queens, statesmen and generals, society ladies and foreign diplomates makes absorbing reading, quite apart from the affectionate and admiring portrait of the great man himself.

Throughout the cliff-edge years of war, Churchill is revealed as an irascible but brilliant, kind, intelligent and chivalrous aristocrat in the best sense of those words, without a trace of snobbery or small mindedness. Perhaps too original and spontaneous to be described in conventional terms as a gentleman, he emerges as a magnificent human being who poured his huge stores of energy, humanity and vision into his country and the struggle against one of the greatest tyrannies in history.

The last and tenth book is a tantalising choice, trying to choose between two of my favourite diaries. ‘Mrs Milburn’s Diary’ is written by a woman with no literary talent, but an abiding love for her only son, who was captured before Dunkirk and endured POW camp for the rest of the war. Her letters sent via the Red Cross, and his to her were usually months old by the time they reached their destination, so she began writing a diary chronicling life in his home and family and community.

It’s a prosaic day to day telling about the price of woollen vests going up, the annoying man at Matins every week who coughs all the way through and ruins the service, the evacuees who stay briefly, the long cold nights sitting in their primitive underground air raid shelter in the garden – doubly important to them-  as they lived in the country outside Coventry, and lost many friends in the catastrophic bombing raid which destroyed that city. It’s an insight into a way of life now gone… when, even during the war, she picked primroses every spring in the woods, packing them up in damp cotton wool and sending them to friends in the city.

She records the routines of church going, weekly shopping, Mother’s Union meetings, working for the WVS (Women’s Voluntary Service) dealing with the erratic gardener, the feckless land girls, a chaste glass of sherry shared with old friends. The annual rhythms of the seasons’ rituals celebrate a slice of civilisation which had its own small satisfactions, sorrows and minor victories.

Or, do I go for ‘Burning,’ a diary of a year living in the Blue Mountains in Australia? Kate Llewellyn is a poet, and her book is crammed with exquisite metaphors and similes, quirky people, precious moments of beauty, meditations on history, recipes, travels and gardening. I read it often, not just for the drama of human tragedy and pain which also takes place during that year, but for the sheer beauty of the writing.

As CS Lewis observed, ‘we do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties’. He also suggested that someone who only reads a book once is ‘unliterary’, whatever that means! But I certainly agree with him on both counts when he says “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”

So I can’t decide between these two life stories – regularly ‘savoured’, and will beg my invisible and sadistic inner voice to let me have them both… to have whittled down my choices to eleven from hundreds of books is no mean feat, which meant leaving out precious favourites like Leigh-Fermor’s ‘A Time of Gifts’, his vivid description of European civilisation before the Nazis destroyed it

As I mulled over this imaginary exercise, and visualised myself roaming a tropical paradise, alone like Robinson Crusoe, I realised that by choosing a handful of books to be my companions in this solitary life, I wasn’t using any carbon footprint, and many of the books were recycled – bought from second-hand bookshops around the world via the internet, or acquired from op-shops and the like.

Many of them of them too, like Capote’s ‘The Grass Harp’, I’ve owned since the sixties, and are worn from regular loving re-readings when I savoured every aspect of the writing and the human condition. In a book on educating children read in the seventies, I found a wonderful thought, that literature is the logbook of human experience, and that’s how it seems to me too.

For this solitary island existence, Christopher Morley, an American writer, gave me words that seem particularly apt: ‘when you get a new book, you get a new life –love and friendship and humour and ships at sea at night -… all heaven and earth in a book.’

The written word survives e-books, the internet, texting and all the other apparent advantages of technology. It has been with us from the earliest times, when the Sumerian civilisation evolved writing around 3,000 BC, and the first literature was created by a Sumerian author a thousand years later. Books and words may be the one blessing and means of communication that survive in the aeons to come.

Books will always be the ‘log-book of human experience’, and can hand on the riches of our civilisation to generations still unborn. And for the present, they can be a comfort, a companion and a treasure. They inform and educate, amuse, console, entertain and inspire. They are indispensable and irreplaceable. They make life on a desert island bearable!

Food for Threadbare gourmets

We’re living dairy free at the moment for various reasons, and I discovered to my delight that it’s perfectly possible to make a decent white sauce using olive oil instead of butter.

So using the juices from a roasted chicken from the night before, I made a rechauffe… fried some chopped bacon and mushrooms, made the sauce, and stirred a bouillon cube and the chopped cooked chicken, bacon and mushrooms into it. Flavoured the mix with salt, pepper and nutmeg, and served it on rice.

To cheer up the plain boiled rice, I fried a grated courgette in olive oil and garlic, plenty of salt and pepper and stirred it into the rice. We ate it all with green beans and didn’t miss the cream or milk at all!

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