Category Archives: culture

Rubbing shoulders with the rich, the famous, and the forgotten

I wish I could remember what Dr Seuss said when I was interviewing him back in the late sixties. (I’ve never kept clippings of my articles, which I sometimes regret)

All I can remember at this distance is his shining energy, his charm, good looks, good humour and integrity. I know we talked about his books – my children were young fans of four and five at the time – and how this childless man tried to give a subliminal positive message in many of his stories, like: “trust yourself”, or “be kind to everyone”.

Then there was the other doctor – Doctor Spock. At a moment’s notice, I was sent out to interview him, along with the newspaper’s star writer … the editor suddenly had a brainstorm and thought he’d like a different angle from a practising mother! No time to do any research. And now, how I wish, thanks to Google, that I had – he was so much more than his famous child-rearing book, a radical and protester at the time of the Vietnam War amongst other things.

When I had finished my probably rather pallid interview, Dr Spock’s gentle, lady-like wife took me aside, and asked me to interview her, to my amazement. I did, and listened to a hurt, angry woman, who said that her husband’s great reputation was based on her hard work bringing up their sons practically alone, while he picked her brains and dispensed her wisdom/experience from behind his desk. I couldn’t write this, and wasn’t surprised when they divorced a few years later.

Then there was the inimitable Barbara Cartland, who took me to her bosom when I told her that one of my best friends, John, was her son’s best friend, who she was devoted to. Her son and John had been at Harrow together, and when John married she lent him a cottage at the bottom of her garden. (with no plumbing)

As she roamed around her hotel bedroom talking animatedly, I decided that her crusade about honey and vitamins must work, she was so lithe and her movements so youthful at seventy-four. She was still writing prolifically her romantic novels, which she told me laughingly had their biggest sales in India.

When she died at ninety-nine, she had had over seven hundred bodice-rippers published, and left the manuscripts of a hundred and fifty more, which her sons are releasing as e-books every month. She wasn’t just a one trick pony though, one of her interests being gliding, and back in the early thirties she invented the idea of them being towed for long distances which led to troop carrying gliders. Later she was awarded a medal by the flying industry.

When her daughter, Lady Dartmouth – not yet married to Lord Spencer and so becoming Princess Diana’s stepmother – came to Hongkong, she was just as kind to me as her mother had been. She was a ravishing beauty with the kind of porcelain pink and white complexion and huge blue eyes that actress Valerie Hobson also had. (both utterly charming and beautifully mannered)

My interview with Raine, Lady Dartmouth, (known as ‘acid -rain’ by Diana and her siblings) was not as predictable as many others.  I had some juicy material to work with, like her famous scene at Heathrow airport over dirty tea-cups in the restaurant, her campaign to save Covent Garden, at twenty three being the youngest County Councillor for Westminster, and becoming a member of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. A life less ordinary than the traditional fashionable life with ladies who lunch.

Iris Murdoch, famous author, was another interesting person to interview. I did so where she was staying and met her donnish husband – played so beautifully in the film ‘Iris’, by Jim Broadbent –  after she had died of Altzheimers.  Being young and crass, I wondered how such a plain woman could have found such a devoted husband, and only later discovered that not only she did have lovers male and female, but that her fierce intelligence was as sexy as a pretty face!

It was with great trepidation that I approached Robert Helpmann, the famous ballet dancer, producer, and great talent. I had been terrified by him in the famous film: ‘Tales of Hoffman’ as a child, and could never get his Mephistophelian power out of my mind as he flicked his long, black velvet cloak with its long tassel out of the door… even the tassel seemed to convey malice.

With no Google in 1969, I had no idea that he had started his career in the legendary Anna Pavlova’s company, but at least I knew that in the ballet world he had an enormous reputation. He was a delight –  elegant, kind and charming –  and even gave me advice about my ballet-mad daughter… don’t let her start until she’s at least eight, and no en point until after fourteen.

So many fascinating people … from princesses to prime ministers … feminists and activists. Princess Alexandra, the Queen’s cousin, appalled that I was a single mother. “How do you manage? ” she asked… presumably because as well as no husband, I had no chauffeur, nanny, cook, housemaid, butler, or gardener!  She was exquisite and elegant in a pale lavender suede coat and matching lavender wide brimmed hat… the Maori Queen, a plain, ordinary woman who grew into a beautiful, wise one; a glamorous, blonde Italian round-the-world yachtswoman, a Polynesian prime minister’s wife; a glorious Indian woman with yard-long black hair that hung loose, vivacious and intelligent, her greatest claim to fame being lover of racing driver Stirling Moss – then a household name – now, like so many of these people – forgotten.

And yet, of all the people I met and interviewed, the one I treasure most is another forgotten name now, even by the organisation he helped to found. On a cold, wet Sunday afternoon in June 1972, I went down to Westhaven marina in Auckland, at the request of Quaker friends.

Leaving the children in the car with snacks and books, I threaded my way along the gang-planks to the 38 foot yacht, Vega. On it, I met David McTaggart, one of the founders of Greenpeace, just setting off on his historic journey to Mururoa to protest against the French atomic tests. He was in a great hurry, loading last minute supplies before setting sail, but we did it, and I gloat that that was one of the first stories about Greenpeace to get into print.

McTaggart was a hero… in spite of their unwanted presence and refusal to be bullied away, the French set off the deadly bomb anyway. The following year when he returned, they beat him so savagely that he lost the sight in one eye for several months. That story went around the world. And yet these days when I am approached outside the supermarkets by eager young enthusiasts to get me to sign up for Greenpeace, they’ve never even heard of David McTaggart.

Meeting such people was one of the special privileges of being a journalist, but so often, as a single mother I didn’t make the most of such opportunities, being too pre-occupied with how to make ends meet, or if the amah would remember to meet my tiny daughter from the school bus. These were not celebrities in today’s use of the word, but people of character and substance who had carved a niche for themselves, and by their talent or originality become well known.

I look back to my young, ignorant self and cringe. If only I had known then what I know now. And I also look back and see these people so differently… I understand more about them as I understand more about myself. If only I had had the ability then to really do them justice. This feels familiar – of course – it’s what most parents say about their parenting – if only I had known then what I know now!

Greater understanding, insight, knowledge – even wisdom – are  gifts we acquire if we’re lucky, as we grow older. Yet it’s when we’re young that we have to step up, and so often blunder blindly into the unknown, sometimes realising fearfully that we don’t know, or often, thinking we know better.

So now, new generations and bright young people are setting off on their own journeys to follow their own dreams, and they will find their own heroes – talented innovators, creators and explorers in their brave new world. Some of their heroes will become rich, some will become famous, and many of them will inevitably be forgotten … and like the heroes of my day – in the words of Ecclesiasticus – they too will have no memorial.

Food for threadbare gourmets

An unexpected gathering of the neighbours for drinks the next day, and no time to do a dash into town, half an hour away, to find something to take with me. Remembering an intriguing recipe for sardines I’d used years ago, I rummaged in my store cupboard and found two tins of sardines in olive oil, and then rummaging on the internet for a recipe for sardine pate spread, I found a blog by someone called Manami. I’m grateful to her for digging me out of my hole.

Picking out the little silver bits and bones, I drained the sardines and mashed them up with two tablespoons of mayonnaise, two teaspoons of finely chopped onion, quarter of a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, a teaspoon of lemon juice and a teaspoon of black pepper.

Apart from sprinkling it with chopped parsley, that was all there was to it. Served with small cracker biscuits – I used rice crackers, they filled a need.

Food for thought

The Highest Thought is always that thought which contains joy. The Clearest Words are those words which contain truth. The Grandest Feeling is that feeling you call love.

Joy, truth, love.

These three are interchangeable, and one always leads to the other. It matters not in which order they are placed.

Neale Donald Walsche. Conversations with God Book I

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Kintsugi, art and life

I wrote a column about my collection of cracked and chipped blue and white china thirty years ago. Some people received the idea of a collection of cracked china with derision and laughter… something cracked or chipped had lost its value, usefulness and good looks was the unspoken message, or I must be too poor to have such a pointless collection instead of perfect objects.

Undeterred, in the years since, I’ve saved shattered fragments of blue and white china when I’ve dropped or broken something, intending to stick them all together in a splendid mould and make a bird bath. I still have all the bits … but though the spirit has been willing, the body has been weak, alas.

So when a few weeks ago a possum knocked a precious piece of pottery off the bird table I was heart-broken. It was a large platter given to me by its maker, a potter of some renown, whose pieces now on sale in the national museum cost more than I could ever have dreamed.

But my platter came into my hands over thirty years ago when I used to take my daughter for piano lessons with a beautiful woman who played the cello in the city orchestra and taught the piano. While my daughter tackled the music of civilisation’s finest composers, I whiled away the time chatting to her teacher’s husband, the potter, admiring his work which was all around and even then, out of my reach to afford.

They lived in an enchanting house he had built himself, and where in the romantic rambling garden black and white speckly bantam hens roamed, kicking up the flower beds with their stubby tufted legs and fearsome claws. One day the potter gave me one of his platters and a few months later by chance, another came into my hands.

I’ve always treasured them, and since I love using beautiful things for mundane purposes have always used them as bird baths. Now in our forest, I use them as bird tables for bird seed, balanced on pedestals made from other treasured ceramics. A possum must have clambered up and knocked the platter off. It had broken into three pieces. I found it when I awoke and got up to fill it with bird seed and scatter seed on the ground for our visiting quails.

Going back to bed with my early morning tea I brooded over this unexpected event, and idly let my mind roam over the five hundred-year-old Japanese art of kintsugi, when cracks or breaks in a piece of pottery or porcelain are pieced together again with glue and gold… the name means golden repairs. They become so beautiful that some pieces have been broken deliberately in order to restore them with veins of gold.

Mentioning this to my love, he immediately Googled, and over the weeks he mastered the technique, and the platter was returned to me on Christmas Day with beautiful veins of gold now holding the broken pieces together… the platter is even more beautiful than before… which is the idea … this exquisite art form has developed to become part of the Japanese philosophy of life… where respecting the past with ‘awe and reverence’ adds to the beauty of the object. It is not seen as flawed or broken, but as re-stored… not to wholeness, but to a beauty reflecting life, its impermanence and poignancy.

Since discovering the concept of kintsugi I’ve thought how though it is an old instinct brought to perfection by Japanese craftsmen, it’s also been used by so many others for so many centuries … I thought of the ancient ruined monasteries scattered around England, dissolved by Henry VIII in the 1530’s in order to enrich himself and turfing out the monks, leaving them homeless and destitute.

Local people were the ones who ruined those abandoned monasteries, dismantling exquisite abbeys, priories and friaries, and using the stones to build or enrich their own homes. Even in this day and age, I have stopped the car in a muddy lane in Cumberland to exclaim over a carved Gothic window blocked up to make part of the wall in a rough stone barn – relic of a local monastery.

I used to walk in a Devon village where the red post box was set into the thick wall of a house rising straight out of the street, which would once have been a cart-track, and next to it in the wall was a small beautifully carved blocked up window from another medieval building. These small architectural gems ennobled the old stone walls they were set in – another Japanese concept – ‘wabi sabi ‘– finding beauty in old or broken things

Shakespeare found beauty in old things, and using the principles of kintsugi, rewrote the ancient legends he had learned in his classical education at Stratford Grammar School, re-creating and transforming the stories of Anthony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar or Troilus and Cressida – to name a few – into enduring works of art.

Not sublime works of art, but definitely kintsugi, are the pre-loved clothes – as they’re sometimes called – which a friend finds. By changing the buttons, adding a trimming, altering the neckline, edging hemlines or cuffs with contrasting fabric she turns each found item into an enviable work of art as well as a desirable item of clothing.

And there’s something touching and very sweet about the darns or patches in a piece of old linen, or a carefully repaired scrap of precious old lace. I love the chips and worn places on old painted furniture and the scratches on the polished wood of an antique table, or the kicked legs of a well-used chair.

These are the scars of a life well lived, and to iron them out, re-paint, sand them away and restore them to what is so often wrongly called ‘their former glory,’ chills my heart.  I know this means their honourable scars have been destroyed, and their character obliterated. In trying to make things look as good as new we are not honouring their past… the spirit of kintsugi.

When we were told on our personal growth courses to turn sour milk into yogurt, this was the same thing, re-creating and restoring the broken, cracked or scratched parts of our lives, and using them to teach us strength, compassion, insight. Acknowledging the hard places and tough times we had come through, and the buried pain, we were able then to see how they had shaped us.

We learned to face these times with ‘awe and reverence’, and with gratitude too, since without these scars, we would not be the people we had become. Our lives regained both magic and poignancy as we learned to see the mysterious patterns of events which we had endured and previously dismissed or de-valued.

Patterns of pain, loss, anger or despair, once recognised, became our golden repairs, our kintsugi, which enriched us and gave us a sense of the beauty of our lives. The cracks of character and kindness round our mouths, the lines of laughter softening our eyes, the deep furrows of thought and intellect above our brows became testimony to strength of character, to acceptance of the challenges faced, and rejection of bitterness or resistance.

Maybe this is why I find the faces of celebrities who have had a face lift or a botox injection rather sad… they are not honouring the medals earned by a well-lived life.

The most precious example of kintsugi in this place where we live is a diver’s rusty old tank, found while we scoured a demolition yard for re-cycled goodies. It was brought joyfully home, carefully cut in two, sanded, gently polished and re-painted, so it is a dull antique grey, with a few antique coins stuck to the circumference.

It’s mounted at the bottom of our drive with a striker made from an old fishing weight attached to a handle of weathered wood sitting by it. When visitors arrive, they ring the bell to tell us they’re here. Every day at dawn, and in the gloaming we ring our bell in gratitude. It reminds us that life is precious. And so we honour life.

Food for threadbare gourmets

We always used to have goose at Christmas when I was a child, but on the one occasion we had turkey I remember my father saying he wasn’t going to eat cold turkey or turkey sandwiches for the next week. So he devised a rechauffe of turkey eaten on rice.

Faced with lots of left-over turkey this year, I decided to follow his example. I had saved all the turkey juices, so after frying mushrooms and chopped bacon in butter, I stirred in a table spoon of flour to thicken the mixture and added the turkey juices. When this had thickened, I added chopped turkey and a little cream, salt and pepper, nutmeg to taste, and a small chicken bouillon cube.

Served on boiled rice, with peas, chopped parsley and butter stirred through, it was much better than cold turkey sandwiches!

Food for Thought

The self-actualising person is not a normal person with something added, but a normal person with nothing taken away.         Abraham Maslow

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Following your bliss

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Follow your bliss, urged the great Joseph Campbell – this used to sound like heaven. Just doing everything you wanted!

Later – just slightly wiser- I supposed this heaven was probably self-actualization – which always sounded like one step below enlightenment, both impossible goals for the likes of me. But then I discovered that self-actualisation was not quite the Everest I had thought.

It was the need to be good, to be fully alive and to find meaning in life – according to Abraham Maslow, one of the grandfathers of personal growth. And yet according to him, all other needs like food, love etc had to be fulfilled before achieving the nirvana of being a free person – another ringing phrase of personal growth.

Research suggests that when people live lives which are different from their true nature and capabilities, they are less likely to be happy than those whose goals and lives match. So pursuing the elusive goal of this self-realisation means we feel more creative and happier, more ‘fully alive’, and ‘find meaning in life’.

And yet it seems to me that happiness isn’t the whole story, and fulfilling our needs isn’t either. Great souls like Nelson Mandela and Victor Frankl have been called self-actualising, and yet their needs can hardly be said to have been met in prison or concentration camp. But their capacity for living, love and forgiveness, wisdom and insight seem more saintly and more profound than the stories of many saints.

They both, like other so- called self-actualisers, had accepted who they were and where they were, and made the best of it, in giant, heroic terms. But self- actualising isn’t just for the heroic and the saintly, I discover, but can be for all of us. Maslow described the fulfilment of following such a path and as I understand it, his description of life as a fully- realised person would be something like this:
We would experience life like a child, with full absorption and concentration and joy and we’d try new things instead of sticking to safe paths; we’d listen to our feelings and inner voice instead being victim to habit and the voice of tradition, authority or the majority.

We’d dare to be ourselves – authentic, in Maslow’s word- and avoid pretence (‘game playing’). And we’d have the courage be unpopular if we didn’t agree with the views of the majority.

We’d take responsibility and work hard; and try to identify our ego defences and be brave enough to give them up, meaning to be honest with ourselves. This also means being vulnerable, which I don’t think Maslow mentions, but this to me, means having the courage to be tender and open hearted and to develop the capacity to feel deeply.

Apart from knowing that we are following our spiritual destiny in becoming the whole person we can be, the rewards seem to be a deeper enjoyment and engagement in life, a profound appreciation of the goodness of life, and therefore less stress and anxiety, and a genuine trust, in Mother Julian’s words, that all will be well.

It sounds like something we could all do, though when we have commitments to children, those duties have to be honoured first … otherwise becoming self – realised can seem more like self-centredness! Hindus recognise this stage of life as ‘householder’, before seeking their own ‘liberation’.

Those making this pilgrimage towards wholeness and authenticity often find that the path to freedom is not an easy one. That road less travelled may be pitted with puddles and pain-filled treks. And the person who’s throwing off the shackles of duty and listening to their inner voice may often be misunderstood or misinterpreted.

The stars that kept me on track as I have tried to walk this way were actually words from the sages and poets – and I have clung to them. From Ibsen’s belief in our ‘sacred duty’ to ourselves, to T.S. Eliot’s dictum that it is not our business what other people think of us, the words of literature – the logbook of the human race as one writer put it – pointed the way.

Trying to become a free person, letting go old self-defeating patterns of doubt and distrust, old fears – those critical inner voices that don’t serve us – means changing many things in our lives and in ourselves … and it’s not always obvious where this is taking us. Werner Erhard once said confusion led to a higher state of consciousness, a belief I have clung to, hoping it to be true!

These transitions take trust and courage and a belief in the goodness of Life. And I am learning that we have to listen to the voice of life and not be tempted by the easy way out – and never settle for less. To reach the end of our days and to realise that we had settled for less, for the sake of pleasing others or making life easier for ourselves, would be the ultimate betrayal of the gift of life.

Loyal, loving friends support us – where would we be without our friends? But in those dark moments which we all have to endure alone when we try to walk this path, the words of Oriah Mountain Dreamer can sustain us.

She wrote: “I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul. If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.” (Warning : this hurts !) One friend said to me: “I feel stripped”, as she picked her painful way along the path. And it’s only by staying fully conscious and hanging on to all our reserves of courage that we can reach the end of this road victoriously.

When we strike out, off the beaten track, it can push the buttons of others, living safe conventional lives, sticking to conservative values, and maybe not wanting to tread any but the known way – and maybe feeling uncomfortable when confronted with uncertainty or risk.

But to be free is to stride fearlessly into and through a cloud of unknowing – as the beautiful, extraordinary and self – actualised Helen Keller amazingly said: ‘If life is not an adventure then it is nothing at all’. So like so many others, I have had to step out of my constricted and uncomfortable comfort zone in order to be free. And just as Eliot said it’s not our business what others think of us, so he might also have said that we cannot expect to be understood either.

The words of another poet, Montrose, encourage travellers to find the courage to take what seem like huge steps into the unknown with his words:
He either fears his fate too much,
Or his deserts are small,
That puts it not unto the touch
To win or lose it all…

And so though while we are in process, we may think we have lost all to win all – or maybe in the words of the Spanish proverb – have taken what we wanted and paid for it – freedom is worth the price. It’s freedom from self-limiting beliefs and doubts and from compromising with our own truth and inner knowing. It’s daring to open our hearts, do the unthinkable, find new ways of being, connect with the beating heart of the world and know that when we take these terrible risks, somehow the universe supports us.

So yes, such a life is an adventure, and also laughter and love and truth and beauty, friends and fun. And now I think this is what Joseph Campbell may have meant when he said follow your bliss.

Food for threadbare gourmets

I’ve sometimes thought I could/should write a cookery book called a million ways with chicken – an exaggeration perhaps – but not far off!
I love chicken recipes, and this one I acquired over forty years ago from Clement Freud (yes, Sigmund’s grandson) when he was in his heyday.
It’s a cold mousse, and you need eight ounces of cooked, chopped chicken, two ounces of butter, three eggs, three ounces of fresh white breadcrumbs, three table spoons of dry sherry, quarter of a pint of single cream, salt and nutmeg.
Melt the butter in a large basin over a pan of boiling water. Pour in the cream and breadcrumbs, salt and a good pinch of nutmeg and stir for about five minutes until the mixture thickens. Beat the eggs and sherry together, and add to the basin, followed by the chopped chicken.
Pour this mixture into a buttered soufflé dish, cover with foil and bake in a moderate oven until firm – about half an hour. Let it cool before serving. Freud recommends serving it with a slightly garlicky mayonnaise with mashed avocado added, and for a really creamy texture stirring in a stiffly beaten egg-white.
It’s all rather delicate and delicious.

 

Food for thought

“Nobody can give you the meaning of your life.
It is your life, the meaning has also to be yours.
Nobody except you can come upon it.
It is your life and it is only accessible to you.
Only in living will the mystery be revealed to you.”
-Rajneesh

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Behind every great….

100_0087‘Behind every great man stands a great woman’, one of my dearest friends declared, a propos Winston Churchill and the love of his life, his wife Clementine, and of Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor. We were lunching at the latest fashionable eatery for ladies who lunch, and I rather lowered the tone by quipping that behind every great man is a woman with nothing to wear!

As I sort through years of accumulation in this house, ready to take my next steps forward, I thought of this conversation, and thought of a much ignored and rather valiant woman who stood behind a great man. Her influence over a hundred years later is behind the room I sit in.

I looked around at this white room, white walls and cream curtains, white French furniture and if not white, then painted white and distressed by me, the guts of the rooms being created by the richness of books, and the colour of china. Only three pieces of furniture are the exception to the reigning white – the pine dresser in the dining area, and the antique round Dutch rosewood table laden with piles of books, and a battered old French bench painted in soft grey and cream.

After years of blue rooms, red rooms and yellow rooms this pale restful room is how I want to live these days. Syrie Maugham, Somerset Maugham’s ex-wife, is usually credited with inventing all-white rooms in the thirties. She bleached and pickled and painted furniture and floors, had carpets specially woven in white, and white on white became all the rage.

But the first white rooms in interior decorative history were Mrs Oscar Wilde’s drawing room and dining room in Tite Street, Chelsea.

The poet W. B Yeats described: ” a white drawing room… with white panels, and a dining room all white, chairs, walls, mantel-pieces, carpets…” The Wildes were leaders of fashion, and the much under-rated Constance Wilde edited the Rational Dress Society’s Gazette, often detailing accidents which had befallen women owing to the restrictions or impracticality of their dress.

Her white dining room may have been impractical, but she was an unusual Victorian parent who allowed her two sons to romp and play in its pristine whiteness – and they also scandalised some – as their unconventional mother allowed them to do this naked.

Though not as talented as the wickedly brilliant Oscar, (arriving in America and being asked what he had to declare, he replied, ‘Nothing but my genius!’) she more than held her own, collaborating with him in many of his projects, writing books for children, as well as writing in, and editing her magazine, while creating the artistic and aesthetic environment which had such an influence on their circle and their times.

Constance was also interested in the spiritual life, and became involved with the famous metaphysical and mystical society The Order of The Golden Dawn, where amongst others, well known personalities like WB Yeats, Maud Gonne, famous mystic Evelyn Underhill and even wicked Aleister Crowley before his fall, used to meet.

After the difficult birth of their second son the Wilde’s sexual relationship dwindled, and it was then that Oscar became involved with the love life (what his lover famously described as ‘the love that dare not speak its name ‘) that ended his career and the happiness of them all.

It’s only recently that it’s been understood that the mysterious and crippling illness which blighted Constance’s life, and probably their marriage in the five years before Oscar’s downfall, was the onset of multiple scelerosis. It was a condition which had only been recognised a few years before, and which Constance’s doctors were obviously not aware of.

This too, must have made a huge difference to the quality of the Wilde’s marriage, though they both obviously loved each other. Constance continued to support Oscar’s achievements after his disgrace and was the first to praise the poignant ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’. But his inability to keep at a distance the beautiful but destructive and heartless “Bosie” Douglas, the other half in the scandal, finally drove husband and wife apart.

Constance took her two boys to Italy to escape the scandal, and died there a couple of years later from the dangerous quack treatment she sought for her increasingly debilitating illness.

There’s been much sympathy and rightly so, for Oscar Wilde and his trials and tragedy, but Constance is often the forgotten one in this tribulation which affected them all. Not only does a fine woman stand behind most great men, but behind every disgraced man stands a humiliated and heartbroken wife…

Since I learned her story many years ago, Constance Wilde has always had a place in my heart… I can never resist women who make the best of things, however bad the things … and as Eleanor Roosevelt so memorably said: “A woman is like a tea bag – you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water.”

Food for threadbare gourmets
After my grandsons had been for lunch and I had made gallons – as it were – of chocolate sauce, I wondered what to do with all the sauce left over. Luckily I had a friend for supper a few days later, and decided to put the chocolate sauce to good use.

I gently stewed some peeled and cored pears in hot water with maple syrup, ginger wine, a few cloves, star anise and a bay leaf added. When soft I left them to steep in this juice, and later, boiled it away until it was thick and syrupy.

Served with whipped cream, re-heated chocolate sauce, and a little shortbread biscuit, it was wickedly delicious to one who has renounced sugar!

Food for thought

There is that which has always been there,
Which has never left your side,
Which has always been present,
Whatever the feeling, the circumstance.
When you turn your attention to trusting that,
You surrender to yourself.
Anon

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Living takes up all my time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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My drug of choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

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

Food for thought

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

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Saying yes to beauty

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Sitting on the sofa, sipping my afternoon cup of tea, I craned to watch a sooty blackbird. It was pecking with its orange beak at the apple nailed to the fence outside the window. Beyond the fence is a wild gully, where I’ve encouraged blue and white agapanthus and arum lilies, pink impatiens and orange nasturtiums to spread. I planted flax for the tuis to feed on their flowers, and encouraged thickets of swan plants or milkweed as they’re also known, to feed the monarch butterflies.

Dominating the gully is an oak tree, grown from an acorn by my grandsons and I. It’s flourished and become a large tree in the years we’ve been here, and I love it for all that it symbolizes about those happy years of my grand-children’s childhood.

As I watched the blackbird, two smoky black tuis arrived, the iridescent sheen of their dark turquoise tail feathers gleaming in the clear winter sun. They hovered to swoop on another apple further up the fence, the little curl of white feathers on the front of their neck quivering – the early settlers here called them the parson birds because of the likeness to the white neck frill and black clothes of a missionary.

Then I noticed movement the other side of the gully. It was a cock pheasant, flaunting his long, gorgeous tail and his bright blue and red and russet colouring stalking through the long grass. I was ridiculously thrilled… I haven’t seen him for several years… is it the same cock pheasant I’ve gloated over before, or one of his descendants? How long do they live?

Lonely Roman soldiers shivering in the icy Northern wastes, guarding Hadrian’s Wall back in around 200 AD brought pheasants from Georgia, near- Asia, to England as pets. They came from a place called Phasis, hence their name pheasants. When the Romans left after four centuries, pheasants were well established all over the British Isles and shooting them became a favourite pastime of the rich and heartless. They have spread all over the world in the centuries since the Romans. But here at least in this hidden gully, this one is safe from being hunted and shot.

And as I watched, a little flock of half a dozen tiny, green silver-eyes descended on the apple halves. They’re smaller than a baby sparrow, with soft grey breasts, and rosy pink markings either side. Their velvety green feathered wings make them look like little balls of soft green moss, and they have bright eyes ringed in white.
The ancestors of these tiny birds which flit rather than fly, did actually fly the thousand miles across the Tasman Sea from Australia to get to this Land of the Long White Cloud, back in 1856… why, I wonder, did a whole species set off across a huge waste of ocean, clinging exhaustedly to the masts of any ships they encountered, and finally making it ashore to these islands.

After the attentions of all these sharp little beaks, the two apple halves are simply a rosy translucent bowl, the core a skeleton in the middle. I watched the scene without feeling any guilt at spending so much time just gazing out of the window. Savouring the beauty and the wonder of the world seems more important these days than any apparently more productive activity.

Whenever I gaze fondly at my oak tree, I think of savage and sensitive Xerxes, King of Kings, back in the fourth century BC, halting his great armies as they rolled across the empty Asiatic plains, so that he could revel in the sight of a single sycamore tree. He stayed there for several days in a state of ecstasy, while his puzzled warriors camped around the dusty desert, and he even commanded a goldsmith to strike a gold medallion to commemorate the moment and the tree.(goldsmiths were obviously essential to the well being of conquering heroes in ancient times!)

John Constable, the English landscape painter was another who loved trees. His friend and biographer described him admiring: ‘a fine tree with an ecstasy of delight like that with which he would catch up a beautiful child in his arms’. He particularly loved elms, the great trees which were such a distinctive feature of the English countryside for millenniums, and which all died of Dutch elm disease back in the seventies after a shipment of rock elm logs brought the elm bark beetle from the US.

In times past, elms were planted as sentinels to mark the old ways, the drovers ‘ roads, so that they could be followed in mist… the elms were way-finders, map-markers, so majestically tall that they towered above the bands of English mist… Elms are still trying to survive in hedgerows, but as soon as they grow beyond twelve feet, they become infected… perhaps in times to come they will recover and enhance the landscape again with their once well-loved silhouettes.

Here in New Zealand we are trying to discover why the great kauri trees – some a thousand years old or more – are mysteriously dying. At least with the elms they knew why… in New Zealand we are still puzzling over the slow death of the fabled kauris, whose trunks can grow to a diameter of forty feet or more.

These were my thoughts as I sipped my tea, and watched the beauty of the birds clustered around the red-skinned apples on the fence. And then I remembered an unforgettable vignette in Robert Byron’s book ‘The Road to Oxiana’. He wrote:
‘There was no furniture in the room. In the middle of the floor stood a tall brass lamp, casting a cold white blaze over the red carpets and bare white walls. It stood between two pewter bowls, one filled with branches of pink fruit blossom, the other with a posy of big yellow jonquils wrapped round a bunch of violets.’ By the jonquils sat the Governor… by the blossom sat his young son, whose oval face, black eyes and curving lashes were the ideal beauty of the Persian miniaturist. They had nothing to occupy them, neither book nor pen, nor food. Father and son were lost in the sight and smell of spring.’

Beauty on beauty on beauty, the scene, the meaning and the telling. It reminded me that no time is ever wasted when we are enjoying beauty. Caroline Graveson, a Quaker, wrote: ‘there is a daily round for beauty, as for goodness, a world of flowers and books and cinemas and clothes and manners as well as mountains and masterpieces’.

Yes, beauty is as necessary to the well-being of the spirit as bread is to the body.
Yet beauty doesn’t make us good or better people … even Hitler and Goering collected glorious art … it’s just that beauty is necessary to us all, and beauty just is. A world without beauty would be dead, so nourishing it and revelling in it is life… so – yes to beauty and to life.

Food for threadbare gourmets

I’m continuing my love affair with the crock pot, and made a very satisfying French onion soup the other day. Just tip plenty of finely chopped onions – a pound to two pounds – into the pot with two tablespoons of unsalted butter and two of olive oil, lots of freshly ground black pepper, and salt.
Leave it in the crock pot on low for twelve hours, or over-night which is what I did.

By then the onions will have caramelised into a thick jammy mixture, so I then added 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, lots of stock – depending how much you want to make, and a nice slurp of brandy… about three tablespoons.

Leave it on low for six hours to eight hours or more… the flavour intensifies the longer you leave it.
Then if you wish, you can do the toasted slice of sour dough thing with cheese on top and grilled, to place in the bowls of piping hot soup… I just served it with hot rolls and grated cheese on top.

Food for thought
A loving person lives in a loving world. A hostile person lives in a hostile world. Everyone you meet is your mirror. Ken Keyes

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