Category Archives: culture

Flowers, beauty, architecture and antiquity

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The Old Parsonage
A life –  Part  six

After a few weeks in London we packed up again and travelled north. I remember the cooing of wood pigeons and the enchantment of high summer in unspoiled country on the borders of Durham and Yorkshire, where my parents had found a house belonging to a friend of the family. It was in a village by the River Tees, described in the guide books as a ‘late medieval house, with studded front door with affixed carved oak female head, under ogee-shaped lintel (door said to have come from a demolished Saxon chapel).

‘The date on the lintel above the door is c1450, the reign of Henry VI. The house had been through many hands since then, had been extended in the 17th century, altered in the 18th and equipped with modern comforts in the 20th. Fashionable pantiles from the Low Countries were used to re-roof the house in the 17th century. Today it’s been altered again, and one wing converted into another dwelling.’

It was set in a high walled garden at the end of the village, and we spent most of our time in the sitting room, a wood panelled room with huge Tudor fireplace and inglenook. If I stood on the head of the tiger on the striped tiger-skin rug, I could just reach the chamfered 17th century beams as a nine- year- old. The casement windows looked onto the garden, and beyond the garden walls, hills and woods stretched to the sky-line.

We children were rarely allowed into the drawing room, and then, only if we knocked on the door beforehand. Mostly we stood at the door with whatever it was we wanted to say, but were allowed to sit there when guests came or when we had our lessons. I hankered to spend time in that room, a Georgian addition with French windows into the garden. It was simply furnished with soft flowered chintz, but it had a different atmosphere to the rest of the house – a refined, gentle energy compared with the robust Tudor architecture elsewhere.

I loved the slightly faded thirties linen prints on the loose covers on the sofas and chairs, and the black and white tiled hall with its antique chests and barometer. I developed a love of interior decoration and from then on felt uncomfortable in rooms that were ugly or tasteless, and was hungry for beauty when it was absent.

My new stepmother, who was lonely, and needed someone to talk to, unconsciously educated me too, looking through the pages of Vogue with me, and discussing the famous and controversial New Look by Dior. She wore clothes that I could appreciate, well-cut grey flannel trousers with a red jacket, elegant suits, nifty little hats with a bit of veil, perched at an angle, incredibly high navy suede court shoes, and severe beautifully cut evening dresses.

Everything was new and interesting, the stones in her jewellery, discussing menus, the intriguing friends who dropped in on their return from overseas, learning to distinguish crystal from glass, china from pottery. We didn’t always see eye-to eye. I was deeply upset when the revolving Victorian summer house with stained glass windows, a pointed pitched roof, and a circular table like a wheel which turned the house in the direction of the sun, was demolished, and the circle of soil now exposed, planted with grass. It seemed barbaric to smash this thing of beauty. My stepmother condemned it as Victorian. Anything Victorian was despised by both my parents.

This rambling house was a splendid place to curl up in and bury myself in a book. They were in short supply here. The owner had put hers away, and ours were all packed up. My stepmother gave me her textbooks on ancient history, so I learned about Pericles and Alexander, Carthage and Hannibal, there was Tanglewood Tales’, a book on Greek legends by Nathanial Hawthorne, and ‘ Black Beauty’, that animal classic which has influenced me more than any other for the rest of my life, I suspect.

Whatever the curse of the motor car, I am glad horses are no longer ill-used, neglected and exploited every day on the streets and in the country-side. “Little Women’, also among my stepmother’s books, had the same potent moral influence on me, as on so many other girls before and after. Interesting that the Quaker background of Anna Sewell, and the Transcendentalism of Louisa M. Alcott should have influenced so many generations of children.

I grazed through Palgrave’s ‘Golden Treasury’, which our stepmother used for our lessons. She was not strong on child psychology, but we learned a lot of poetry from the Golden Treasury, including: “Breathes there the man with soul so dead,” from Walter Scott, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ” What was he doing, the great God Pan, down in the reeds by the river?” I can still declaim them both in the overblown elocution class style required of us. Longfellow’s Hiawatha was another favourite of my stepmother, and we learned to recite long passages of this too.

My sister got very ratty if she didn’t do the same things as me, so she tried to learn them as well. But she never mastered the esoteric spelling my stepmother required of a nine- year- old and an eight- year -old. The words included phlegm and haemorrhage, diaphragm, delphinium and rhododendron. By now, my father had long since departed for his next army posting and we were alone with our new stepmother, who was struggling with early pregnancy as well as the malaria she’d picked up in Egypt, though we were unaware of either. Sixty years later, she confided over an affectionate dinner together that:” You never played me up – you could have, but you never did.”

We didn’t go to the village school, and never knew anyone from the village except the gardener, Mr Appleby. He took a fancy to me and taught me the names of his flowers in the garden. He certainly behaved as though they were his. His deep red, rich pink, and white peonies were his greatest joy, and had a beauty all their own, as I picked them for my stepmother’s crystal vases. They were as lovely as roses, dripping with dew on their bright green leaves, and droplets nestled in the big flower heads layered with petals like an old-fashioned rose.

Since we had our lessons in the afternoon, it was my job in the morning to re-fill and refresh all the flower vases in every room in the house. This was perfect. It got me away from the parents who I was very nervous with – never sure of what was required of me and possible disgrace – and I could spend as much time in the garden as I wanted. Mr Appleby let me pick the best pink and red peonies, there were fat, pink, peppermint-scented pinks, sweet- scented roses, multi-coloured wallflowers and  purple penstemons, fragrant white stocks, spiky blue delphiniums and stocky lupins. Snow- in- summer and blue campanula sprawled in crevices on the terrace by the house.

He started bringing me treats from his own garden, huge, juicy, golden Williams pears, the fattest, hairiest, rosiest gooseberries I’d ever seen, juicy purple plums with golden flesh. My sister was furious that he never brought her any treats. Then he offered to take me for walks around the surrounding country-side.

The first walks were magic. Mr Appleby was probably in his sixties, a wiry little man with red apple cheeks and black stubble, who wore a grubby shirt with no collar and shabby black jackets and worn trousers that would be described as ‘rusty’. He had lived here all his life and knew every path and stream and hill and dale for miles around. He showed me mice nests slung between corn stalks, rubbed the ears off barley for me to taste, showed me the flowers that grew in bean fields and corn fields, where bird’s nests were, and where fish jumped in the pools which gathered between great slabs of flat rock in the river.

He explained who owned this field and that great house, he took me by shallow streams he called becks, and up steep cliffs he called scars. The walks extended from five miles at the beginning, to over eight miles one afternoon, up hills and along narrow paths, when I was so tired I thought I’d never take another step. I was always exhausted at the end of these marathons.

And then one day he said something I didn’t believe I’d heard. So he said it louder. ” Give us a kiss, then.” How could I be ungrateful after all the things he’d done to give me pleasure. I dabbed a quick peck on his horrid unshaven cheek. He did the same on the next walk. I avoided him in the garden as much as I could. I felt so sick the following week when he came for the Tuesday afternoon expedition that I hid in the top of the pear tree.

My stepmother called and called, until my sister revealed my hiding place, and I was sent on my way with admonitions not to be so rude. I dragged behind him for most of the way for the rest of those walks, but there was always a point when at some place he asked for the unwilling kiss. Once, I tried to tell my stepmother about it, but she stared at me disbelievingly, which effectively closed the conversation, and now I look back sadly, and see an achingly lonely and love-starved old man.

I loved that country-side.  I remember walking by myself to the next village on an errand for my stepmother, dawdling past the long, grey stone wall of an estate, with dark, shiny rhododendron bushes reaching over the top, and hearing the cooing of wood pigeons. There was a clear blue sky, the empty, cobbled village street, no sounds of traffic, nothing but bird song, sunshine, the church clock chiming, shady trees and the perfect happiness of being on my own with nothing to do but walk in this perfect place.

A Shell guidebook in the 70’s described our village as consisting of one street 3/4 mile long. ” One side of the road is a wide green behind which extremely attractive 18th and early 19th century houses face equally good houses behind a narrow green on the other side of the road. The village is sited on a ridge immediately above the bank of the Tees, and the river and rich farmland beyond can be glimpsed between the trees and houses. It is remarkably unspoilt… New houses are discreetly sited, so that they do not detract from the atmosphere of a more gracious age than our own. It is a village of many greens, sundials, river views, trees, and attractive door-casings, and its centre has changed very little since Jane Austen’s day.”

In 1947, it had changed even less, and there were no new houses, rather, it resembled the very village scenes observed by Emma… “her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from the shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker’s little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread…”

The only difference between 1815, when Jane Austen wrote these words at the end of one European war, and 1947 at the end of another European war, was the lack of horses and ginger bread. Food rationing was still as stringent as ever, with Europe on the verge of starvation, while lack of petrol meant no cars spoiled the peace of this north country village.

And all this was about to change as we sailed from Harwich to the Hook of Holland on our journey to join my father at Belsen, the notorious concentration camp in the heart of hungry, war-ravaged Germany.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 My tomato plants are flourishing, so I have a glorious glut of tomatoes. This was my solution the other day. Fry the chopped tomatoes gently in olive oil… the skins come off easily as they cook. When soft, pour in lots of cream, and as it boils to thicken, stir in a small lump of Dijon mustard, salt and pepper, and let them all meld together.

Two- minute noodles were a quick answer to some padding for the tomatoes which were poured over them. With fresh parmesan grated over the tomatoes it was a fragrant, delicious light lunch. A small glass of red or white wine is a great enhancement!

Food for Thought

 The people who are compelled to write down what they feel are the ones who feel it hardest… Briana Wiest

I discovered this quote and much more on a beautiful wordpress blog at: Deborah J. Brasket Living on the Edge of the Wild

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Was I a snowflake?

Image result for radipole weymouth dorset
A life – part four

 

When we occasionally walked past what was known as the elementary school in those days, I used to shudder. The grim Victorian building, the concrete playground and iron railings, the noise and roughness of it horrified me. I was so grateful, even as a small child, that I went to my sheltered little school.

Unlike most prep schools one reads about in that period my private school was neither cruel, sadistic or frightening – perhaps because it was owned by a woman and all our teachers were women, except for the wonderful history teacher.

Miss MacFarlane-Watts, owner and head mistress, was a tall commanding woman with thick, grey hair cut almost as short as a man’s. She wore white shirts with a tie, heavy pleated skirts, tweed jackets, thick stockings and flat lace- up shoes. Without ever having heard the word lesbian or even a discussion about genders, I knew she was different… and we all accepted her as such. School was a large Edwardian house set in tree- ringed grounds and lawns, not far from where we lived.

As a fashionista even at that age, I rather enjoyed our school uniform… white blouses and navy blue pleated tunics with a braid belt for the girls, and grey shorts and jumpers for the boys. Our hats were my real pride and joy, a big brimmed, deep crowned navy- blue, thick, velour hat for winter with a striped ribbon with the school colours, and a wide-brimmed Panama hat for summer – they were so big that we little girls must have looked like mushrooms beneath them, and it was amazing that items of such quality were still available at this point in the war. We kept these expensive hats from flying off in a wind with a piece of elastic which went under our chins. Even our gabardine macintoshes were the finest quality.

Clothes had always figured largely in my life even as a toddler, when I remember the broiderie anglais edging my white petticoat, and relished my delicate little smocked ninon dresses, one in pink, the other in blue… does anyone even know what ninon is today … a fine net covered in tiny balls of fluff is my recollection.

My grandmother inevitably had somewhat old- fashioned ideas about clothes, one of which was to kit us out in liberty bodices… a sort of cotton layer worn on top of a vest and under a jumper, with buttons round the waist to hook a skirt on. They weren’t too bad, but I shrivelled with embarrassment when she sent me to school in antique leather gaiters to keep warm. They stretched the length of my leg, and the tiny buttons running that whole length had to be prized open with a button hook to get them off… this experiment was abandoned when I couldn’t cope with getting them off for physical education!

The day we arrived at this school, the infant mistress – who seemed  enormous to me – swung my tiny blonde  sister up in the air, looked into  her big blue eyes fringed with impossibly long black lashes, and said  “Oh, what a little Topsy!”  She didn’t take to me… children always know… and a few days later, she said to my bewildered little sister: “If your sister put her head in a bucket of water, you would too, wouldn’t you?” To which my sister baldly replied “Yes”.

It was a kind environment. A few years later, when I was eight and one of the big girls, my brother started school. He was so frightened by the experience that he was sent up to my classroom, and was allowed to sit by my side at my desk for days until he was ready to cope on his own.

Lessons were archaic. We learned to write copperplate, often using badly crossed nibs to write rows of letters over and over again until we got the right angle and shape of each letter. On handwriting days, the ink monitor – (never me – I was such an introvert that no-one even knew if I could cope with such responsibility, and I was happy to be overlooked) brought the tray of inkwells in, and they were passed along the rows of desks… then the pens… inevitably there would be spills – usually by a hapless boy.

Each day began with chanting boring times tables, while we sat with our arms folded, and I sometimes think the ritual may have been a calming meditative exercise too, for we never had any rowdiness or fuss to disturb the quiet orderliness of the classroom.

Art lessons nearly broke my heart. I was so excited when it was announced that we were now old enough to begin art lessons. But it was a huge let-down. We had to learn to draw a straight line, making short feathery strokes with our pencils. After a couple of lessons when we had mastered this arcane skill, we graduated to drawing a rectangular box and tackling perspective. With this accomplishment behind us we were now ready to be introduced to colour ! Hurray! We were instructed to bring a laurel leaf with red berry attached to the stalk to school the next day. Alas, our laurel hedge had no berries, so no lovely red for me, just boring green and yellow spotted leaves.

No computers then, so we competed with pencil cases, and collections of hard-to- come- by coloured pencils. We marked our pencils by slicing off a sliver of wood to make a flat surface at the top and then inked our name on it. Indelible pencils were much sought after… you licked the lead, and this made the writing indelible… as for rubbers (erasers if you’re American) – if you lost one, or broke it in half by using it too strenuously, war-time replacements were scarce… whispers criss-crossed the classroom – “can I borrow your rubber”, “can you lend me your red pencil?”

At Christmas we were all dragooned into the Nativity play. I had no idea what it was we were doing… which was not unusual… I spent so much time dreaming that I often missed important information. On this occasion, we all trooped down to the hall nearby, and I found I was an angel along with the other small girls. I was given a triangle to ching on at various not very obvious intervals to me.

The boys seemed to have all the best parts as wise men, wicked kings, shepherds – and of course, Joseph. They also had all the best musical instruments – tambourines, and trumpets, drums and the rest- this was the moment I realised somewhat bitterly that boys/ men had advantages that we girls did not seem to have. And while we stood around in our angel nightgowns in the freezing hall, the teachers seemed to endlessly move rows of chairs around. It was all a complete enigma to me then.

The next year we passed on the nativity play as we’d lost the use of the hall to the American soldiers who used it as their dining hall. They seemed noisy and enormous – wore fur-trimmed jackets – air crew I learned later – and since our back garden abutted onto the back of this hall, showered us with chewing gum, wrapped cubes of sugar – much prized – and sometimes bars of chocolate.

My grandmother gave us three pence pocket money every week, and with this I bought a bar of chocolate every Friday from Mr Duscherer, the German grocer just up the road on the corner. Everyone knew he was German, but I never once heard a word of disparagement about him. He was a big kindly man and I used to watch with pleasure as he prized a wire through a big round of cheese when you ordered a quarter of a pound or whatever the ration was then.

He had a huge machine that cut bacon the way you wanted it – smoky, thick or thin, streaky or back… he would weigh half a pound of biscuits out from big Peak and Frean biscuit tins into brown paper bags – did biscuits not get soggy then, I’ve often wondered, as I try to break into thick layers of cellophane to get into a biscuit packet these days. He sold stamps, posted parcels – usually wrapped in scarce and re-used brown paper, tied with re-used string and sealed with red sealing wax- no ubiquitous cellotape then, and he also stocked Sunny Stories, Enid Blyton’s weekly magazine for children with the long running serial The Faraway Tree in it.

Life seemed simple and safe and satisfying, especially after my grandmother bought me a little blue bicycle, and I no longer needed to make sure that all my dolls were safely tucked up in their cot and had been kissed good night, a ritual which I needed to do when my mother was still with us, and I now recognise as psychological transference.

And with the end of the war it was all about to change dramatically.

To be continued.

 Food for threadbare gourmets

Today, I had one duck leg left over after a little feast yesterday, using a tin my son had given me, so I made a duck risotto. It was delicious. Did the usual, onions, cooked half a dozen finely chopped mushrooms, fried the rice in butter, threw in a glass of good white wine to evaporate, and then added hot stock and a good pinch of dried thyme. When it was nearly cooked, added a generous dollop of cream, some green peas, and the duck meat which shredded beautifully. And then, with duck and orange in mind, added the grated rind of an orange and the orange juice.

When ready, I covered it for ten minutes to sit and mature, then stirred in a big knob of butter and some parmesan. Served with more parmesan, green salad and glass of chilled Riesling, it was rather good.

Food for thought

It is never too late to be what you might have been.      George Eliot, great Victorian woman novelist

 

 

 

 

 

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The passing of an era

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A life – part three

My grandmother was my favourite person. Whereas I had always felt responsible for my baby brother and younger sister, when she came to look after us when my mother left, I felt I could hand over the burden.

When she moved in to pick up the reins, she brought all her Victorian past with her. Up went the heavy, red velvet curtains in the bay window in the front room where my sister and I had watched the big girls playing on their roller skates across the road, peering through the brown sticky paper, taped across the windows in diamond shapes, to stop the glass shattering in a bombing raid.

I loved the texture and the colour and richness of the velvet. I loved the shiny brass rods with the rings that clanked when the curtains were pulled, and the big brass knobs at each end. I loved the aspidistra in its brass pot standing on its tall, spindly, three -legged table. On the other hand, I hated the Staffordshire figures which were her great pride. I thought them ugly and clumsy – and still do, for that matter, though I did like her Meissen angels.

Upstairs in the bedrooms, our little utility divans were replaced with deep feather mattresses into which we sank in blissful security. The dark mahogany and rosewood wardrobes and dressing tables filled my senses with deep satisfaction. The sheen, the grain, and their generous size were comforting and solid in a world which in my experience had been bleak and insecure, able to be blown away by a bomb in the red sky of night.

I remember the pleasure of sitting at the oak dining table as I dreamily chewed my bread and jam, and gazing at her knick-knacks on the oak sideboard the other side of the room – deep, blue Wedgwood biscuit barrel for chocolate biscuits, silver- bound oak biscuit barrel for plain Vienna biscuits, and the silver stag standing at bay on a writing tray which held all her letters and bills. Brass candle sticks stood each side of the biscuit barrels. The tall, wooden, barley-sugar twisted ones on the kitchen mantelpiece over the coal range now stand on my dining table.

She boiled the kettle for afternoon tea in winter on a little cast-iron stand which hooked onto the side of the grate in the dining room fire. And there was the bliss of making toast over that fire with a long brass toasting fork. It tended to taste of flames and soot, but was warm and crisp and a great treat. The thick red and blue patterned turkey rug in front of that fire was my favourite place. Kneeling with my elbows on the rug I would bury myself in a book while I was supposed to be watching the butter soften by the fireside.

Deep in my book and oblivious to butter, duty or anything else, I would be discovered crouched by the saucer of swimming, melted, precious, rationed butter. But if I was reading I was excused. No-one ever got into trouble for reading in her house. Until the day she died she was encouraging her great-grandchildren to read, as she had always encouraged me.

Not that I needed it. I longed passionately to be able to read grownup books. My mother had already taught me to read when I finally started school at five and a half, having stayed home to keep my sister company until she was old enough to start school with me. I was forever bored as the class limped along the wall friezes which said things like ‘A for apple, ‘B’ for bat’. The teacher didn’t know I could read, and it never occurred to me to tell her. I was so shy I rarely spoke at all. I read every textbook as soon as they gave it to us, a habit I took into secondary school, so I already knew all the answers in class.

Books for children were scarce, presumably because few were printed during the war. So, when my grandmother arrived with her box loads of books, it seemed like treasure. The children’s books were my father’s First World War and Edwardian boys’ books, the plots mostly centred on some pious crisis of conscience, but which I read nonetheless. I was particularly fond of my grandmother’s bound volumes of Victorian ladies’ journals, rows of red leather binding and gold tooling, with pictures as well as stories inside.

They tended to be about Evangelical but highborn young men who possessed crisp, fair curls, and wore boaters and striped blazers, and often went punting, and they also featured swooning young women, often orphaned, but in truth, of noble blood!! I learned a lot about mourning from these tomes, and the fact that ladies wore lots of black crepe – whatever that was – and black jet jewellery for such occasions. Not that I had the faintest idea what mourning was, except that it made people cry.

My grandmother also pressed on me her books from her  Victorian childhood. ‘Froggie’s Little Brother’ was the most memorably painful, about a family living and dying in various stages of starvation and violence in the East End of London (my brother and I laughed years later that we were probably the last two people in the world to read this grim novel). There were The Wide Wide World’, ‘The Lamplighter’ and ‘Behind the Scenes’, all tales about orphans. I wept buckets over them. When I had surfaced from these agonies, there was’ A Crown of Thorns’, a suitable tale for a seven -year -old about Dutch Protestants being buried alive by the Spanish Inquisition during the time of Elizabeth 1.

I baulked at ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. My grandmother’s big volume with the original illustrations, with Christian stuck in the Slough of Despond, and the depravities of Vanity Fair and all the rest, depressed me more than any of her other books which included ‘Foxe’s Book of Martyrs’…

Editions of Mallory and tales of Arthur, Merlin and Morgan Ie Fay in Arts and Crafts bindings, and Pre-Raphaelite illustrations with art nouveau drawings educated my eye as well as my mind. I laboriously read Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’ in one of the original editions – which my grandmother collected – another large leather-bound tome with engravings protected by tissue paper, like ‘Pilgrim’s Progress ‘and Foxe’s ‘Martyrs.’ I still remember the terrible shock when Crusoe and I found Man Friday’s footsteps on the beach!

And I read Swift’s account of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, and later found the children’s watered-down version pallid and boring. My favourite book then is still one of my favourites, ‘John Halifax, Gentleman’. When I re- read it as an adult, I recognised many of the ethical imperatives in the novel as having influenced my thinking ever since, while ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ introduced me to the concept of slavery and abolition.

Later when I unguardedly revealed to my recently returned father and his new wife  that I enjoyed ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy,’ and they laughed themselves silly over its Victorian sentiment, I feared the rest of my reading was also material for mockery, and buried its existence in the back of my mind. And since my new parents did not want to be bored with tales of our past, I never discussed these books, and much else, so was never able to put them in context.

Even the green and gold Tate and Lyle golden syrup tin which sat on the table at breakfast to use instead of rationed sugar, was worth reading and squinting at as I spooned the treacle over my porridge…’ out of the strength cometh forth sweetness’ it proclaimed. My grandmother was very pleased with me for taking her injunctions about reading so literally, and boasted to her friends about it. So whenever I was due for a present they dug into their shelves for a book suitable for a seven- year- old bookworm, with the result that I had more copies of Aesop’s fables than any other child in history, I would imagine.

She introduced me to gardening. She gave us a small plot of our own, and we went to the news-agent where they sold seeds as well as sweets, newspapers and bread, and chose the seeds we wanted to grow. I loved the name Love-in-a-mist, and since they were also blue, my favourite colour, I took several packets. Every day for the next three weeks I rushed outside in the morning to peer at my little plot of earth until the glorious dawn when I detected a faint green haze – the first sign of the green mist through which the blue flowers were going to emerge.

Like many gardeners, my grandmother couldn’t resist breaking off twigs and cuttings wherever she was, if the opportunity presented itself with dignity. But once her scruples were nearly undone by a hidden fern we passed regularly when we all walked down to the beach with my brother in his push chair. Every time my grandmother passed this wire fence with the little fern nestling there, unloved, and unseen by the people whose garden it was, she fantasised about bringing a trowel one day, and leaning over to dig it up. Finally, she couldn’t trust herself any more, and to my great relief removed herself from temptation, by going the long way round.

She was deeply religious and never missed a Sunday at the Salvation Army, which she had joined in its early days when she was a girl at the turn of the century. She told me tales of marching through the squalor of the East End being pelted with tomatoes, and trying to give the ‘War Cry ‘ to drunks outside pubs. Because the rest of the family disapproved of her ties to the Salvation Army, she sent us to a church Sunday School near us, and made sure we were as regular as she was. Consequently, I became immersed in religion. She and I were never ones to skim over a thing lightly, so I read more Bibles and Bible stories than most children of my generation.

She was obviously a highly intelligent woman who had been frustrated for most of her life – clever, feisty, quick-tempered and even in her eighties – a rebel. She could add a column of figures faster than anyone else, and her memory was phenomenal. I inherited the memory, somewhat watered down, but not the ability with figures. While her elder sister Lizzie, who was famous for being bossy, trained as a nurse, became matron of a hospital in Leeds, and shockingly for those times, lived happily with a married man, Mabel, my grandmother, married young, and unhappily. With her religious beliefs, it was a great shame to her that she was divorced.

Her memories of her late Victorian childhood fascinated me and stretched my imagination. Most important of all her stories was not her grandfather captaining the first paddle steamer up the Thames and receiving the Freedom of London when he stepped ashore, but her description of the night Woolwich Arsenal blew up.

She and her sister Jessica were in their bedroom and the windows blew out, the dressing table mirror was shattered, and the sky was red and filled with flames.’We threw ourselves down on the floor and prayed’, she said ‘We thought the end of the world had come’.

Not having the faintest idea what Woolwich Arsenal was, I was instead riveted by the phrase ‘the end of the world’. The possibility had never occurred to me, and it teased my mind with the same horror as the Victorian bogeyman she threatened to call on, who apparently had a similar facility for descending chimneys as Father Christmas.

She taught me to knit and sew and do French knitting, and embroider dozens of stitches I’d forgotten till leafing through an old Mrs Beaton cook book recently – daisy stitch, herringbone stitch, blanket stitch, chain stitch, back stitch, buttonhole stitch, cross stitch. She told me the names of flowers and saints and cousins I’d never seen, the stories of dead great uncles, of people who lived in our street – like the woman detective who went to meet the SS Montrose when it docked – to arrest the famous murderer, Dr Crippen and his mistress Ethel le Neve, who was disguised as a boy. She gave me a wealth of information and taught me prayers and proverbs and family history. Her love for me and mine for her was one of the rocks at the base of my life.

I never really knew my grandfather, her husband, and met him only a few times. He had loved another woman for seven years before my grandmother finally gave in, and they settled for divorce. The other woman’s husband was so incensed that he threw acid in her face, disfiguring her for life. My one memory of her as a four- year- old was a gentle woman with a pink blob for a face, which I had to kiss. My grandfather loved her till the day she died, some years before he did.

And since he had willed their house to her, thinking she would outlast him by years, she unwittingly made him homeless when a distant nephew inherited the house from her and turned the old man out.

To be continued.

Food for threadbare gourmets

It’s too hot to cook a meal at midday, so we’re having salady wraps instead. He has wholemeal and I have spinach, and I spread them with either mayonnaise or Caesar salad dressing. Torn crunchy iceberg lettuce leaves are spread over this, and then chopped ham, grated cheese and green peppers for him are arranged, and the whole thing rolled up and held in place with tooth-picks. I have hard- boiled egg moistened with a little vinaigrette dressing, and then chopped tomato, and grated carrot along with the lettuce and tooth-picks… filling and refreshing on a hot day. We’ll have chicken tomorrow, pastrami for him and an assortment of vegetables including cucumber, avocadoes and thinly sliced red onion…

Food for thought

When we re-examine what we really want, we realize that everything that happens in our lives – every misfortune, every slight, every loss, and also every joy, every surprise, every happy accident – is a teacher, and life is a giant classroom.   Arianna Huffington

 

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A composer, a journalist and an activist

Image result for welles hangen

 

A composer, a journalist and an activist.  One of the great boons of technology is the ability to find about people I’m curious about, have known in the past, or want to know about now!.

I was looking up on Google to find out more about the Polish priest, Jerzy Popieluszko, hideously martyred during the struggle for Solidarity in Poland. In the text I found the name of Andrzej Panufnik, who had written a piece of music commemorating Popieluszko, so I followed this up, discovering that he was a much more interesting person than the  rather weary, elegant, middle-aged composer I had met on Christmas evening at Twickenham Vicarage, my in-law’s house, back in 1964.

He had refused a Christmas mince pie then, thinking that we crude Anglo-Saxons were eating beef mince pies, after all the previous Christmas feasting earlier in the day. I felt he had not been entirely convinced even after having it explained in very simple English.” Too much food, too much food”, he kept murmuring.  (My problem on meeting him was that I was young, unhappy, ignorant and probably crass).

His life, surviving in war-time Warsaw, composing and playing music at cafes – the only way Poles could hear live music since the Germans had forbidden public meetings – and then escaping with his mother just before the Warsaw Uprising, sounded harrowing in the extreme. When he returned to bury his brother and collect his music manuscripts, he found they had all been destroyed, including his ‘Songs for the Underground Resistance’. It got worse. Under Communism, he was required to reflect in his music ‘the realities of socialist life’, and even his symphonies for peace were considered politically unsafe, while his links with other great, but suspect composers, like Shostakovich and Khatchaturian in Russia, were also unhelpful. He was criticised for ‘Formalism’!

In the end he managed to defect. Visiting Switzerland in 1954 to conduct a specially arranged concert, organised so that he could defect, he ended up in a chase in a Zurich taxi, escaping from the pursuing Polish Secret Police.  Reaching England, he was supported by other sympathetic composers, including Vaughan Williams, until he established himself. At the same time he was declared a traitor and a non-person by the Communists after his much-publicised flight from Poland.

Eventually he married his second wife, Camilla, an heiress, photographer, and efficient organiser, who lived in a beautiful old house on the banks of the Thames, near my in-laws. From then on he pursued a tranquil and distinguished career, composing and conducting, and was knighted by the Queen. Yehudi Menuhin commissioned a violin concerto from him and Rostropovich, a cello concerto. Compositions streamed out of him, including a ‘Paean” written for the Queen Mother’s eightieth birthday. England, happy marriage, prosperity and professional success, must have seemed like heaven after the perils and dangers of Poland, during and after the war. His obituaries described him as one of the most ‘potent voices in music in the twentieth century’.

Still playing on Google, I found Welles Hangen, head of the NBC Bureau in Hong Kong when I was there. He had disappeared in Cambodia in 1970. I had lost touch with Pat, his wife, one of my close friends when I first came here. I felt she had no energy for anything but the search for Welles. I had spent the last day in Hong Kong with her, the children playing together for the last time. She gave me some delicate dark green jade earrings, with a gold setting in Chinese characters meaning happiness and good fortune, to take with me on my terrifying expedition into the unknown – New Zealand. Welles had given them to her.

In the stories about Welles on Google, I found an account of the Christmas party I went to in their palatial white house with walls of windows, looking down over the harbour from the Peak. A woman who was a war-correspondent, just arrived in Vietnam, had written it. Her description of the fabled party was totally unlike my perception of it. I saw no glamorous Chinese courtesans in exotic cheongsams, circling the room looking for “foreign devils” to subsidise them, nor even any CIA agents, or any other conspirators.

I just saw a sea of middle-aged Yankees – many of whose stout, slightly boring wives I had met at the American Women’s Association lunches, talks and fairs that Pat always took me to. And I was stuck at one of the little round tables with a handful of them, eating dinner with a group of people talking their own private language of acquaintances and domestic doings, which I could hardly hear anyway, above the din of conversation all round. I left early.

When I arrived, wearing an Edwardian-style turquoise crepe blouse, and a quilted silk, darker turquoise ankle-length skirt, my long dark hair piled up into a Japanese geisha chignon, I climbed the steps to the terrace behind Robert Elegant, the English writer and correspondent and his wife, who had had a reputation as a beauty. Welles greeted them at the top of the steps, and then turned to me, took my hands in his, and paid me a glowing compliment. Mrs Elegant swung round and glared at me. For the first time I understood the chagrin of growing older, when I saw it written in her face.

The next morning, party over, Welles left at five am to return to the chaos in Cambodia. Pat, their adopted children, a son, four year old Dana, and Claire, the plump little blue- eyed blonde toddler they’d brought back from the States the previous year, celebrated Christmas without him. A few weeks later, Pat showed me the elegant writing desk she had had designed by an architect, to give to Welles for his 40th birthday when he returned. It was waiting in his study, standing on one of the oriental rugs he’d brought home, literally loaded over his shoulders, when they lived in the Middle East. The desk was simply two elegant rosewood trestles and a sheet of black glass suspended over them.

Welles never saw it. The last news Pat had of him was that he and his camera-man had been captured. She went into a frenzy of effort, ringing and writing, and answering the phones endlessly, and even – in this night-mare – collaborating with “the underground”. Actually, Quakers, who were equipping a ship with medical supplies to sail to the stricken North Vietnam. Previously scornful of pacifists, now, if helping the enemy would help Welles, Pat would help them. She bought up stocks of bandages, quinine, and everything else she thought could be useful from all the chemists in Hong Kong, hoping that somehow a good deed to the North Vietnamese would ricochet into better treatment for Welles, wherever he was.

Later, and shortly after I arrived in New Zealand, I had a dream of Welles. He came to me and asked me to tell Pat that he was alive, but that he was also dead. He was very insistent that I let her know this, so she would stop waiting for him. But in the cold light of morning I didn’t dare write such a letter to Pat, to rob her of the hope which was her equilibrium. Hope was what was keeping her going, and capable of continuing to mother the children, a role which never came easily to her, much as she loved them.

She was the most unhandy and clueless mother I ever knew. She had collected Dana from the New York orphanage the night of the huge power black-out in New York, and had been stuck in a strange unlit house with a hungry crying baby she didn’t even know how to feed. She was in her forties, and had a busy life, so Dana, and then Claire, spent much time with a rather bored, unprepossessing Chinese amah. Which was why Pat loved my children coming to play with hers. I always felt I had let Welles down by not doing as he asked.

I learned from Google that Pat and the children stayed on in Hong Kong for another two and a half years, before returning to family in San Francisco. And there too, was the story of Welles’s end, and the discovery of his remains, in 1993, when the Americans were finally allowed back into Cambodia to investigate, twenty-three years after his disappearance. According to a local peasant, Welles and the others had been captured by the Viet Cong and Khymer Rouge, taken to a hut, kept for a few days, then marched to the riverbed and beaten to death.

Investigations revealed the four bodies, which were identified, and then Pat attended a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, where Welles’ ashes were interred. Two years later Pat was laid to rest beside him. Earlier, at Arlington Cemetery, she had said she would have preferred to go on hoping, but at least now she had finality.

And then there was Cheryl. I didn’t need to google her, she was a friend and  back from her world-wide conference in Melbourne. She told me of a woman from a remote community in the Arctic Circle. The woman lives in a village of two-hundred-and- seventy-eight souls, and they depend on fish and caribou for their food. The fish, they know are now contaminated by the poisons we flush into the world’s oceans. So this year, conscious of dwindling fish stocks world-wide, and in the interests of responsible conservation, they agreed to limit themselves to catching two-hundred-and-twenty fish this season. They caught eight.

And because the summer had been so warm, the snow had melted on the caribou’s feeding grounds. When winter came the tundra froze over, and the caribou cannot break through the ice with their hooves to get to their food below the surface. So the caribou were starving.

Cheryl is an interesting person. I know she is highly distinguished, and even has a papal knighthood, but when she talked of her Journey at a meeting of souls, I couldn’t fathom where this exceptionality was hidden in her. But the more I have met her, the more I see what deep wisdom she has. She must have – she understands the concepts I’m talking of, when no-one else does!!! At each encounter, she says something that illuminates, and I think about it for days.

This time, after her story about the Inuit village, we were talking of summer, and how we have both planted queen of the night for its scent. She mentioned how she listens for that moment during each day, when the rasping of the cicadas turns into the clicking of the crickets. I was fascinated, and realised that I had never even thought about it. I shall now. And I shall listen. Among many of her activities, she seeks out and shows films about the planet and global warming to her community, and has started a local chapter of the Red Hat Society (that is a story in itself))

These are some of the rare people I treasure having encountered, or having loved in my life… yes, there are so many more, because every person is so unique – a uniqueness that shines through in every blog I read. So vive all our differences and specialness and uniqueness… there is no-one else like us and never will be – everyone who reads these words is not just unusual but a one-off – what a thought!

Food for threadbare gourmets

I needed a quick, quick meal – we were starving. Chopped mushrooms and chopped bacon quickly fried. At the same time a packet each of instant noodles was soaking in boiling water. Salt, pepper and some cream tipped into the mushroom mixture and boiled up to reduce slightly. Noodles drained, mixture tipped over, and a sprinkling of grated parmesan from the deep freeze. Supper ready in five minutes!

Food for thought

Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, power to re-tell it, to re-think it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.      Salman Rushdie, novelist.

 

 

 

 

 

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Chickens coming home to roost

Nobel prize-winner Malala Yousafzai

I’ve wondered why I’ve been so fascinated by it. I normally never read the news, especially salacious negative or destructive items, but I’ve been rivetted to the Harvey Weinstein story.

As I finished the washing up after lunch today, I realised why, and what I’ve been trying not to remember… all those times it was happening every day and as part of life when I was growing up.

I thought of the maths teacher when I was fourteen. When I started this school, my new friends warned me that when he called me out to his desk to go over some maths problem, he would run his hand up under my gym slip, and massage my thigh. Whether the massaging was more than that and my friends couldn’t bring themselves to say, I don’t know, because I was a very immature, slow developer, and he never tried it on me.

I remembered joining the army when I was eighteen, and being measured for my uniform by the regimental tailor. Afterwards when we compared notes back in the barrack room, we all found we’d had the same experience of him feeling our breasts as he took our measurements.  And I thought of a night at cadet school a few months later, when eleven of us were sitting around late at night over a cup of hot chocolate, and we discovered that nine out of the eleven of us had had the experience of a man exposing his hairy genitals to us as a child.

The following year one of us who had been to a wedding in Scotland, was raped in the sleeper on the train back from Edinburgh.  Jo – as I’ll call her – a gentle sweet-natured girl, was so intimidated by the notice which said the fine was five pounds for pulling the emergency chain un-necessarily, that she didn’t dare reach over to pull it and save herself.

There were plenty of us who felt intimidated like that back in the fifties and sixties. When I worked on the South China Morning Post in Hongkong supporting my children on my meagre pay, the managers brought in a time and motion expert from the UK to assess whose job was necessary or financially worthwhile. The expert took a fancy to me, and I was over a barrel between trying to avoid him by fleeing the office and inventing interviews, and being seen conscientiously bending over my type-writer justifying my existence and my salary.

It became a joke on the women’s page that  he was always asking where I was, but it was no joke to me. Finally, I could avoid having dinner with this married man having a bit of fun while he was away from his family no longer, and at the end of the evening, feeling completely powerless, I ended up on the sofa at his flat. I escaped as he undid his zipper, and then had the anguish for weeks of wondering if, when he wrote his report, I would still have a job.

I’ve often wondered since why I didn’t just say no thank you when he pressed me to go up to his flat after dinner, replying:’ I have to get my children up for school in the morning, and get to the office on time!’ End of story. But I was too fearful then of men’s power as I battled for custody of my children, and struggled to keep my job.

Just as when the editor sent me to interview a friend of his a few weeks later, and the blonde handsome Swede behaved as though I was a call girl. Once again, as I escaped his clutches, I knew it was no use complaining to the editor about his influential friend… I would just have been a trouble maker, who couldn’t take it. I wasn’t just trying to get a job like the Hollywood stars I’ve been reading about, I was trying to keep a job which paid me half what a man was paid, in order to house and feed my children.

The choices are just as bad for so many women even now… there are Filipino maids all over the world putting up with all sorts of forms of exploitation and wicked treatment because their families are relying on the money they send home. I read that it is now illegal for men in India to rape their teenage or child wives. But how many child brides know their rights, and how many would dare to offend a strong powerful man who had total power over her life?

There are women and children both in Africa and England and everywhere in between, who endure the horrors of Sharia law, which often includes genital mutilation. There are states in a western country like the US where it’s legal for a husband to beat his wife, while both fundamental Muslims as well as fundamental Christians also claim this right. And many women stay in abusive relationships in order to protect their children and try to bring them up, while leaving a violent marriage simply isn’t a financial possibility for too many other women.

So-called honour killings – when a woman or a girl has been raped – means that in many Muslim countries, it is the woman who is punished for the crime – often with death by stoning or barbaric whipping. That old joke, a woman’s place is in the wrong, is no joke in those countries. Yazidi women raped by Isis, school girls captured by Boko Haram soldiers, women forced to hide behind, and under, curtains of black material invented by men to deny their uniqueness, are up against something much worse than the harassment of Hollywood actresses and their fear for their careers that we’ve been reading about.

Nobel peace prize-winner Malala Yousafzai was a school-girl when she was shot by Taliban in Pakistan for advocating education for women. Since then, she’s recovered from her dreadful wounds, though she’s lost the hearing in one ear. She went to England for medical treatment and to be educated safely away from the murderous men who wanted her dead, and now she’s just started her degree studies at Oxford. She has never given up her cause, and says: “I raise up my voice – not so I can shout but so that those without a voice can be heard…we cannot succeed when half of us are held back.”

There are unheard voices all over the world, and if this scandal about harassed actresses can remind us of those other unseen, unheard women, it will be a service to them all. Because I’m human it feels good to know that one bully is being held to account for his actions, but the other part of me wants to feel that something good  can also come out of this story of human frailty.

When truth is revealed it can be the catalyst for change. I hope this story is big news everywhere, so that people everywhere get the message that it’s not okay to misuse power and terrify or deprive women; that they learn that women do have the right to all the freedoms and goodness in the world that men enjoy too.  Let’s hope that this change of heart and mind can work its way into the consciousness of all men everywhere because of the public downfall of one powerful man.

Not into the consciousness of the many good men who do care about women, but into the hearts and minds of men whose cultures have taught them that it’s okay or even de rigeuer to oppress and suppress the feminine – whether it’s their wives or daughters or other women, or the feminine in their own natures.  The qualities of the feminine – gentleness, nurturing, empathy, creativity, are the things that most of us want in our homes and families, and societies, as well as the masculine qualities of strength and power. Balance, wholeness, the middle way, are what makes for health in people and in societies and honouring both sides of our natures is the way to this balance and goodness.

A tacky scandal in the western world of entertainment may seem trivial when set against the appalling suffering of so many silenced women all over the rest of the world. But good can come out of this saga of silence if it causes a change of heart and mind beyond the homes and habitats of Hollywood and its power brokers. I do so hope so.

Food for threadbare gourmets

Spring is coming to this end of the world and I feel like different food. With cold chicken the other day I used a favourite way with avocado. To half a cup each of chopped avocado and cucumber, use three quarters of a cup of cream, a quarter of a cup of lemon juice, one finely chopped onion, two cloves of chopped garlic, salt and black pepper, and put it all in a blender. Whizz until smooth. I love this with raw or cooked vegetables as well as with chicken, cold turkey or ham.

Food for thought

Feminism has never been about getting a job for one woman. It’s about making life more fair for women everywhere. It’s not about a piece of the existing pie; there are too many of us for that. It’s about baking a new pie.” Gloria Steinem

 

 

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Saving the West

Image result for hastings uk images

Hastings

We’ve been re-watching a favourite TV series on Youtube from some years back… Foyle’s War. Unlike real life, it’s one of those satisfying forms of entertainment in which the baddies always get their come-uppance, and the goodies triumph – hurray !

Second time around I relish the masterly performances by actors at the top of their art…and notice many little quirks and anachronisms I’d missed first time around. But this time, I’m really aware of Foyle in a way I hadn’t been before. Much water has passed under the bridge since the years when this series – a favourite with watchers on both sides of the Atlantic – was created.

And since then the world has changed in so many ways, which include the upsurge of terrorism with the advent of Isis, the  unprecedented invasion of Europe by another culture – not just by refugees – but  by armies of young men from third world countries looking to improve their lot and enjoy the largesse of western society; and many other factors like the spread of sex changes even among young school children, drunkenness among women in the UK on a scale unheard of previously, homelessness on the streets of many  towns and cities, plus the religion of political correctness which means that on Twitter, another new arrival, people can be metaphorically crucified for using the wrong word…

I try not to equate the pictures of society men and women at various depraved looking parties where guests are encouraged to personify ’filth’, the photos of young people on the streets reduced to zombies by killer drugs, and stories about university students who feel it’s Ok to sue their  instructors for not helping them get better grades, with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire… Society collapsed then for many reasons, not least the gulf between rich and poor, and the bacchanalian  orgies of self- indulgence which we see today with the zillion dollar superyachts, and four or five day weddings of the rich and famous costing millions of pound/dollars, typical of the Roman over-indulgence and selfish hedonism in the last years of that Empire.

Christopher Foyle, the detective chief living in Hastings, the pretty coastal town where William the Conqueror landed, and defeated the defending Anglo-Saxon army in 1066, reminds me of some of the qualities of civilisation that I sometimes fear that Western culture is forgetting. While all around – to mis-quote Kipling – are losing their heads, failing to take responsibility, and blaming the war for profiteering, dishonesty of various degrees, for petty crime, spying, revenge and murder, Foyle remains incorruptible, refusing to cede one iota of the rule of law, built up over the centuries by generations of lawgivers and members of Parliament to create a fair and decent society.

He’s an ordinary person in every way, laconic, kind, and generous, but implacable when it comes to refusing to accept wrong in any form, never sparing family, friends and colleagues, as well as law breakers. He reminds me of Marcus Aurelius’s words: “Whatever anyone does or says, I must be emerald and keep my colour.” He keeps his colour no matter who around him is losing their integrity, and integrity is the word which most describes the quality that is Foyle.

Winston Churchill once said of Ernest Bevin, the great post-war Labour foreign secretary that: ‘he had many of the strongest characteristics of the English race. His manliness, his common sense, his … simplicity, sturdiness and kind heart, easy geniality and generosity, all are qualities which we who live in the southern part of this famous island regard with admiration.’

He called him a great man, and by that measure, so is Foyle. Why do I dwell on this fictional character in a long running detective series – the only one I’ve ever watched since murder, mayhem and mystery don’t tickle my fancy? I do so because this sort of person was not so rare as to be unusual many years ago. I can think back to many fine characters who people the English way of life – the only one I can write about with any knowledge.

People like the great statesman and gentle man, Edward Balfour, noble Sir Edward Grey, foreign secretary who tried to be peacemaker before World War One, to the thoroughly honest, decent, modest man who succeeded Churchill as prime minister – Clement Atlee. Honest politicians were not so unusual back then. They upheld the values of civilisation without even considering that by living lives of integrity this was what they were doing. And every person, however unknown, living such a life, is still today, of inestimable value to their society and civilisation.

Kenneth Clark at the end of his magisterial book ‘Civilisation’, wrote he believed: “that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta… I think that knowledge is better than ignorance and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology… I believe in courtesy, the ritual by which we avoid hurting other people’s feelings by satisfying our own egos. And I think we should remember that we are part of a great whole, which for convenience we call nature. All living things are our brothers and sisters.”

He goes on to say that it is a lack of confidence more than anything else which kills a civilisation, and that we can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion. And this to me is what Foyle is all about. He never succumbs to cynicism and disillusion, but sticks to the great truths of kindness, justice, the rule of law, compassion and courtesy. These are the qualities which can preserve and save our civilisation, despite the depravity of the rich few, and the hopelessness of the homeless and deprived.

Western civilisation, with its ideals of freedom, kindness, fairness, justice for all, value for learning and for literature, for art, music and science, our recognition of the rights of all people and all races, and for all creatures; our care for the environment and for those who need protection, is a way of life worth preserving.

If we do believe this and do not succumb to the belief that we have to cede these freedoms and rights to other cultures and customs which deprive others of freedom, dignity and the right to happiness, cultures which dictate how people should think, what they should wear, and mutilate women in the belief that a Creator demands this, we can still save our own way of life – what one blogger calls ‘the True West” in Arthurian/Camelot terms.

We can still bequeath peace and harmony to our children and grandchildren, and we can try to share these blessings with all people. We can continue to believe in those great words from the American Declaration of Independence written in 1776, that: ‘all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’.

Tolkien defines the task for us in the Lord of the Rings, his epic about saving civilisation: ‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo. ‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’

Food for threadbare gourmets

Cakes- easy ones. This is one of my favourites – combining lemons with the easiest method ever. I adapted it from one of Elizabeth Luard’s recipes, and use 175 gms of SR flour, 175 gms of sugar and the same of mild olive oil, three eggs, pinch of salt and zest and juice of a lemon. I also add a teasp of vanilla into this mix in memory of my grandmother who always used vanilla in her cakes. Stir it all together and tip into a greased lined loaf tin, and sprinkle a generous helping of caster sugar on top. Cook in a moderate oven for about forty minutes or until ready.

Food for thought

Even as our few remaining wilderness areas are threatened, each day more of us venture into these beautiful landscapes to experience the energy for ourselves. And, immersed in the natural rhythms of the earth and the wind and the sky, our minds relax and we view our lives with quiet perspective. We can see our paths and can recognise the synchronicity that has guided our footsteps.
James Redfield from The Tenth Insight

 

 

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Tour de France

Image result for french chateaus

 

France in 1950 was unspoilt by either holidaymakers or tourists. I was there to spend a month with friends, and improve my French.

Alex, the son of the friends, came to stay with us first, a sophisticated fourteen- year -old who bullied me, took shameless advantage of my literal interpretation of my father’s instructions to be a good hostess, and used me as dogsbody, maid and batman all in one. After one of our regular rows he came downstairs from his room and his dictionary, and in front of my parents announced to me: ” You are ‘aughty, arrogant and proud.”

Coming from a quiet Yorkshire country town, Paris seemed a massive city of radiant light and celebration. Looking down from the family home in the heart of the city, I watched rainbows of light rolling along the wide roads, as hundreds of cars sped round the boulevards.

Having a bath that night was an ordeal in which I seemed to be accompanied by a crowd as my reflection followed me round a huge, mirrored bathroom. The flat was empty except for a resident maid and the chauffeur who was to drive us down to the chateau. It was huge and overwhelming and Alex was more arrogant than ever. It seemed that his father hadn’t briefed him on being a good host.

However, the next day, he and the chauffeur took me on a whirl around Paris – Notre Dame, cavernous and crowded and Catholic. I was disappointed. I had expected the sacred silence of empty Anglican cathedrals, but this was bustling with chattering people treating the place like their home, and selling souvenirs at stalls by the door. Twelve-year old-righteousness remembered stalls being overturned in another temple.

Today, of course, every Anglican cathedral in England  bustles with tourists too, the whispers and commentaries coiling up the perpendicular arches, and bouncing off the roof and coming back down magnified a million times. But in Notre Dame that day they managed to pray amidst the din.

From the steps of the cathedral we drove past the Louvre, circled the Arc de Triomphe and ended up at the Eiffel Tower – which turned out to be closed on Sundays. It didn’t matter – Paris in summer, nearly seventy years ago, was a beautiful, fragrant city, where people lounged outside on the pavements beneath the trees, and where, when we walked beside the Seine in the sun-shine, it was uncrowded and peaceful.

After lunch, I persuaded Alex to show me how to get out of the flat, and wandered onto the streets, looking for a bookstall. A terrible thought had suddenly wriggled into my consciousness. I had nothing to read! The worst thing that could happen to me! At a corner shop, my eyes raced over the shelves as the full horror of my situation became clear. Everything was literally a closed book- it was all in French. I came out with the only two English language publications in the shop- a copy of Life magazine, which was mostly pictures, and the August 1950 copy of Reader’s Digest, a magazine I’d never seen before.

Though I soon became bored with its banal, monotonous, uniform prose, I read it regularly for the next month, until I knew most of it by heart. I read ad nauseam about some chap called Billy Graham and how he had met and married his sweetheart, ‘The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Met’ finally palled, the jokes got worse as the month went by, but ‘How To Improve Your Word Power’ was a winner, I got a hundred per cent before the month was out.

The first reading got me through the evening in Paris, and the next morning we set off for Vienne. Our destination at the chateau was everything that a romantic, unformed imagination could have visualised. We approached it down a long avenue of ancient trees. Those which had succumbed to old age had been chopped down to a height of three feet, hollowed out, and planted with foaming pink geraniums spilling out over the stumps.

The chateau was a moated, ivy-covered, turreted, thirteenth century family home. The moat had been filled in with sand, where the smaller children played. Where the drawbridge had once been, there was now a wide bridge leading to the iron- studded front door which was always open. From the high, dark hall hung with family portraits and armour and weapons, one door led to the dining room, a very solemn place, and the other to the salon, a light, airy room furnished with a variety of gilt sofas and chairs of different periods, mirrors, and objets d’art, while at the end of the hall, a staircase rose to the family quarters.

All seven brothers and sisters returned every summer with their families for the shooting, and they all had their own family accommodation. Alex and his family had a self-contained flat at the other end of the chateau but I was placed in one of the spare bedrooms of the main chateau, a beautiful room hung with toile de jouy in pale green with its own bathroom. The elegant, shuttered windows were hung around with more ivy, and from it would emerge huge, black, long-legged spiders, bigger and hairier than any English variety that had terrorised me in the bath at home, and which perched themselves on the mouldings in corners of the ceiling.

The ceiling was far too high to reach with a broom and a chair, so Alex and his cousins would troop in every evening with their pop guns and have great sport shooting the hairy beasts. I went to bed every night in this gorgeous room, wondering if I would wake and find another monster had somehow insinuated itself through the shutters and into the hangings round my bed.

Breakfast was taken en famille, and was the one meal of the day I enjoyed, though I didn’t do as they all did, and dip my buttered toast into my bowl of coffee. The bread was freshly baked and brought from the village by one of the maids when she came on duty before breakfast. In the afternoon, another delivery of fresh bread was made by a boy on a bike, and we would eat it for gouter at about three o’clock, we children standing around in the kitchen, illegally eating great slices of this heavenly bread, spread with runny home- made confiture which I called jam.

Those were the good times. Lunch and dinner in the stately main dining room, with at least thirty of us round the enormous, oval table was a long drawn- out ordeal. No allowance was made for an Anglo-Saxon barbarian who was accustomed to eat with a knife and fork. Every course was eaten with a fork only and I fought a losing battle with pastry and delicate vegetable dishes served whole, or legs of chicken and partridge.

My appetite would go before we began these marathon meals, so it was with no pangs that my half-eaten courses were taken away, after I had given up the struggle to keep the food on the plate while I chased it round with the fork. But then a solicitous adult, or maid serving the next course would enquire if I hadn’t enjoyed it, or try to coax me to eat a little more. Neither could I stomach the richness of it all after a life-time of grim war-time English rations.

Every lunch time began with a slice of orange melon. In the beginning, I loved it, but by the end I could scarcely bear the smell of it when the maid placed it in front of me. No-one ever skipped or left a course, so neither could I. The melon was followed by vegetable courses or soup, and then the meat course. I hated the meat on its own without the vegetables, it tasted too rich for my austere war-time palate. After cheese and fruit, we would have what everyone else considered a great delicacy. It was called fromage blanc. It looked like whipped meringue, and we could sprinkle a little sugar on it to mask the sourness. I could barely swallow it without retching.

Dinner was a variation on lunch, but whereas after lunch the adults retired to snooze in the hot afternoon, after dinner, we all trooped into the salon. Coffee was served in exquisite little coffee cups, and the children had to sit and make polite conversation until we younger ones were sent to bed.

I had a particular friend, one of the cousins, the same age as me. She spelt her surname for me and wrote it down with pride, telling me she had a very proud surname. She was right and it was only years later that I recognised it as one of the great names in French history. Josephine and I had very little of each other’s language but we made it work for us.

She took me with her maid to pick champignons one misty morning, and as the sun rose, the mist rolled away, and revealed a field of tiny, blue flowers shimmering with hosts of tiny, iridescent blue butterflies the same blue as the flowers. The dusty, country lanes were festooned with sweet, juicy bunches of blackberries as big as grapes, and everywhere there were shrines and crucifixes.

We played tennis together on the court set a little way back from the chateau. In the afternoon when the adults and toddlers were resting, we were roped in for deadly games of croquet on a long lawn well away from the shuttered windows where dozing parents wouldn’t hear the vicious battles and bullying of the victors, and tears and tantrums of the defeated. The girls were mostly the defeated. I tried desperately to hold back my tears as my ball disappeared regularly into the rhododendrons. They were all such terrible sports I felt it my duty to try to maintain the Anglican tradition of good sportsmanship, but my sang froid crumbled very easily.

Other days, we were lined up for the partridge shooting, and issued with white rags on sticks. We then had to advance in line across the vine yards and fields, driving the birds in front of us in the cruel time- honoured method. I did it without a pang, because I had no idea what we were doing, since the instructions were in rapid French. It wouldn’t have made any difference if I had understood, I was too handicapped by trying to be a good guest to voice any objections.

It was fun of course. We grabbed bunches of purple grapes to stuff into our mouths as we advanced slowly, and then dropped them as we came upon a bigger and better bunch a few yards on. When the shoot was over, we children were transported to the chateau whose land we were shooting over. There were four or five other chateaus within a few miles of our village, several which I could see on the sky-line – romantic and elegant eighteenth century pavilions.

On one day after tumbling around and sliding down the hay in the barns, frightening the hens, we were taken to clean up, and then ushered into the salon for afternoon tea. I was fascinated, for not only was our hostess beautiful, but so was the room. Whereas the salon at Persac was a higgledy-piggledy mixture of French furniture of different styles which had simply accumulated over the centuries in order to seat the family, this was a room with great style and elegance, even to my ignorant eyes.

The colours were clear, pale pastels, with gleaming gilt or pale, painted furniture. The portraits were not heavy oils, and sturdy worthies, like Persac, but delicate, gilt- framed frivolous likenesses, and translucent miniatures. The chairs and sofas and gilt tables were arranged with a wonderful sense of symmetry. There were flowers everywhere and big windows with the light streaming in – I fell in love with the place. I wanted to ask them how come they hadn’t they been obliterated in the French Revolution and the chateau destroyed? How come you got away with it, I longed to ask, but didn’t dare.

These people were cousins, as were all the people in the neighbouring chateaux, but they had quite a different atmosphere to the rather provincial heaviness of Persac. I was sad to go back to the ivied, spidered chateau. But it was necessary. I was secretly feeding the farm dog, who slunk around the farm yard some way away from the Chateau, but within the grounds. It was a real French farm yard, with ducks and geese waddling around, a dung heap and a fetid pond, chickens clucking over their new laid eggs in the hay filled barns, and an assortment of cows, pigs and horses.

Patou, the starving farm dog, seemed the only animal who wasn’t looked after, presumably because he wasn’t intended for eating. The maids in the kitchen let me have a few stale crusts, and I lobbied them every day for more for the poor creature. Patou -which the mads said meant ugly – was the first of many animals who have ruined my holidays.

One afternoon I was herded with the other children into the narrow  grey cobbled streets of the village at the gates of the chateau. The whole village seemed to be standing there, including old ladies dressed entirely in black, and others who leaned out of shuttered windows overlooking us. As I stood there feeling bewildered, a column of bikes suddenly  hurtled past us to the cheers and waves of all the spectators. That, I was proudly informed, when they had passed, was the Tour de France. No outriders, no loudhailers, no crowd control, no yellow jerseys – just tanned -looking men on bikes pedalling hell – for- leather.

Shortly after, I caught an early plane back to London, driving through grey, early morning streets of Paris craning to see elegant ladies of fashion. ” There weren’t any,” I told my parents disgustedly. My stepmother pointed out that they hadn’t even woken at that hour in the morning, and all I had seen was people going to work. This was my tour de France.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

 I love cake, but if I’m making one myself it has to be easy. So this recipe which I found years ago was perfect. It’s called Hurry-up coffee cake and uses left-over percolator coffee. I particularly love coffee and walnut cake with lashings of coffee icing…

In a large bowl put one and a half cups of self -raising flour, two table spoons of cornflour, a good cup of brown sugar, 125 grammes of softened butter, half a cup of strong black coffee, two eggs beaten, a few drops of vanilla, and three quarters of a cup of chopped walnuts. Beat all this together until smooth, spoon into a greased cake tin and bake in a moderate oven (180C or 350F) for thirty minutes. When cool, cut in half and spread with coffee icing – a cup of icing sugar, two tablespoons of softened butter and one tablespoon of strong black coffee.

Food for thought

“And remember, as it was written, to love another person is to see the face of God.”  Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

 

 

 

 


 

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