Category Archives: culture

The Soldiers – ‘A Richer Dust Concealed’

100_0584The beginning of July is pock- marked for me with remembrances, memorials and history… the birthday of my father, the day I shattered my leg four years ago, spending two and a half months in hospital, and the unforgettable anniversary of one of the worst battles of the First World War.

It was a hundred and four years ago,  when my step-grandfather stepped out with thousands of other young men on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The first of July, 1916.

He was a north countryman from Northumberland, and the four Northumberland regiments were the first to walk into battle at 7 30 am on a blue sunny morning with the birds singing. The four Geordie regiments stepped purposefully towards the German lines which were supposed to have been bombarded into nothing after five days of thunderous firing – the barbed wire cut by the bombardment also.

For a moment, these fine young men walked into the sudden silence, and then the German machine guns began to fire. The bombardment had neither cut the wire nor killed the enemy, who had moved out of range. The German guns now simply swept the battle field, as their targets continued walking steadily towards them, and line after line of brave young men fell. These regiments belonged to what was known as the New Army, bodies of men who had joined up from their towns, villages and workplaces, calling themselves names like the Grimsby Chums, and the Manchester Pals. They were, to use a cliché which has meaning in this context, the flower of the country’s youth. They had set off that morning believing that this battle would end the war.

Percy, my step-grandfather, didn’t become one of the 60,000 dead British soldiers killed on that one day, but just one of over 30,000 wounded. He was a young officer, and like them all, easily distinguishable to the German machine-gunners. Officers went into battle wearing their service dress, collar and tie, shining leather Sam Browne belts, and carrying a pistol, not a rifle. By the end of the day, seventy five per cent of officers had been killed, compared with fifty per cent of men. The three colonels of the four Geordie regiments were dead, the fourth badly wounded.

Percy was shot in the face, and later buried in a huge crater after a mine had exploded. He was found four days later, still alive – just – and he grabbed a helmet lying on the ground to drink from it and quench his terrible thirst. The helmet was full of chemicals and poisons from the battlefield, and Percy ruined his insides. The face wound healed, he returned to the battlefield, and unlike so many of the men who endured the hell of the First World War, he survived to see peace.

The day that 60,000 brave young men died on the Somme was the worst day of that terrible war. Waterloo was accounted a bloody battle, but Wellington lost only 25 per cent of his army, 8458 men. El Alamein, an eleven- day battle, cost 1,125 men a day, while on D-Day the British and Canadian casualties cost 4000 men.

So my step-grandmother, living in a north country village, had seen all the young men march proudly through the streets on their way to fight for their country, trumpets blowing, banners flying, girls throwing flowers. Now all the houses had their blinds down, mourning their sons and husbands, brothers and fiancees, friends and neighbours. It wasn’t the same back in Germany. The Germans had not been slaughtered. For every seven British soldiers killed, they had lost one, from a much bigger population.

Paddy Kennedy, a soldier with the Manchester Pals, another regiment which was destroyed that day, helped to take a German post at Montauban. In the German trenches he found a small black frightened kitten, the pet of a dead soldier. Feeling sorry for it, he fastened it inside his pack, and took it with him. During lulls in the fighting he took it out and played with it. A few days later, he gave it to the company cooks as a mascot, and got on with his job… the following year, the kitten, now known as Nigger, went back to England hidden in a soldier’s battledress.

The young man took it home on leave to his family in Rochdale, and left it with them. He was killed at Passchendale shortly afterwards. But Paddy Kennedy, who’d gone back home to Manchester after the war, had not forgotten the cat. Throughout the twenties he went to visit Nigger at Rochdale.

This reminded me of the Dogs Cage on the beach at Dover. As the soldiers arrived back from Dunkirk in 1940, hungry, wounded, shattered, they brought with them dogs and puppies which they’d rescued from the deserted, burning town of Dunkirk. Since rabies could not be allowed to invade the British Isles, the commanding officer at Dover organised for the dogs to be labelled, and their addresses recorded; and after six months in quarantine, these French dogs were delivered to their rescuer’s homes around the British Isles. I suppose that by then they knew what ‘sit,’ and ‘stay’ were in English…

These loving actions by soldiers in the midst of fighting, somehow ease the heart when one reads the horror of those battles. So when I think of Percy and all those other wonderful young men, whose deaths wring the heart – “theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die”, I think of their kindness and courage and decency – and try not to think of the warmongers who forced war on the world, of the devastated people in Belgium and Northern France, who suffered atrocities perpetrated by Germans, not Nazis, who conveniently took the blame for similar atrocities in the next world war.

When some of those young men rescued the frightened black kitten, they lovingly gave it a name which is now anathematized in some parts of the western world, and I wonder what those brave young men would have thought of our world now.

Of the million white slaves in the Middle East, some would have been the ancestors of these soldiers, some would have ancestors who slaved in the mines, others impressed in the navy for seven years, and many more who scurried up and down stairs as over-worked and underpaid servants. Most soldiers would have come from families whose members had always been poor, overworked, and downtrodden throughout the history of their country.

But they loved it, and wanted to protect it. They didn’t want to impose it and their way of life, and their culture on others. And they died trying to save it.

The title comes from Rupert Brooke’s famous (and now unfashionable) poem, The Soldier.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I’m just emerging from a bad bout of ‘flu, so apologies to all the wonderful friends who commented on my previous post, and I will be getting back to you. I also had a posse of zoo researchers coming to dinner, before they began their nights research into our almost extinct species of frogs and lizards in the forest.

I wondered how I was going to put on dinner for five – the spirit was willing but the body was weak, so I turned to my newly acquired slow cooker for rescue. Brilliant! Into the pre-heated container went chopped onion, garlic, a stick of chopped celery, chopped mushrooms, and a few rashers of chopped bacon. Then a layer of chopped chicken- good sized chunks – I used boneless thighs and tenderloins, then smothered the whole with a tin of condensed chicken soup plus a chicken stock cube and hot stock, plus a liberal helping of cream, and salt and pepper.

I put the lid on, and it cooked for four hours on high. Then I added a packet of lasagne, made sure the liquid covered it, by adding a bit more hot chicken stock, and continued cooking for another hour and a bit till the pasta was ready. With a green salad, and freshly grated parmesan, it was a doddle.

And for an easy pudding, I whipped up cream, added the same amount of apricot yogurt, plus succulent chopped peaches I’d freezed in summer, some sugar, and a tin of mandarin oranges to decorate the top. In a crystal dish, it looked good enough to eat!

Food for Thought

Lord, Thou knowest how busy I must be this day. If I forget Thee, do not Thou forget me.

The prayer of Cavalier, Sir Jacob Astley before the Battle of Edgehill 1642

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Filed under army, battle of somme, british soldiers, cookery/recipes, culture, history, life and death, military history, slavery, Uncategorized, world war one

Take a knee

The Great War in France - battlefields sites and monuments

“Military men are just dumb, stupid animals to be used as pawns in foreign policy.”  Said Henry Kissinger.

I had thought of these callous words when I copied the food for thought in my last post: “The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”

As a military daughter, wife, sister, serving officer myself, and descendant of soldiers, I’ve sometimes found myself defending military men, as I did once at a Quaker meeting where everyone is committed to pacifism. And I thought of these stories of profound wisdom by three military men in recent wars.

In 2005, Dan Baum wrote this inspiring tale in the New Yorker: “During the early weeks of the Iraq war, the television set in my office was tuned all day to CNN, with the sound muted. On the morning of April 3rd, as the Army and the Marines were closing in on Baghdad, I happened to look up at what appeared to be a disaster in the making. A small unit of American soldiers was walking along a street in Najaf when hundreds of Iraqis poured out of the buildings on either side. Fists waving, throats taut, they pressed in on the Americans, who glanced at one another in terror.

“I reached for the remote and turned up the sound. The Iraqis were shrieking, frantic with rage. From the way the lens was lurching, the cameraman seemed as frightened as the soldiers. This is it, I thought. A shot will come from somewhere, the Americans will open fire, and the world will witness the My Lai massacre of the Iraq war.

“At that moment, an American officer stepped through the crowd holding his rifle high over his head with the barrel pointed to the ground. Against the backdrop of the seething crowd, it was a striking gesture—almost Biblical. “Take a knee,” the officer said, impassive behind surfer sunglasses.

“The soldiers looked at him as if he were crazy. Then, one after another, swaying in their bulky body armour and gear, they knelt before the boiling crowd and pointed their guns at the ground. The Iraqis fell silent, and their anger subsided. The officer ordered his men to withdraw.”

It took Dan Baum two months to track down Lieutenant Colonel Chris Hughes to hear his story, and his spontaneous reaction to the peril he and his men were in.

Major Chris Keeble was a British soldier fighting in the Falklands War. During the Battle of Goose Green, he inherited command of the 2nd Battalion of The Parachute Regiment when Lieutenant-Colonel H. Jones was killed in action. Keeble was a devout Christian. The battalion was at a point when its attack upon the Argentine Army position had broken down, having lost one in six of its men; it had almost run out of ammunition, had been without sleep for 40 hours, and was in a debilitated condition in Arctic conditions facing the unknown potential of a counter-attack from the Argentine forces all around.

After kneeling alone in prayer amongst the burning gorse seeking guidance as to what to do, Major Keeble conceived the idea of refraining from more attacks to try a psychological ploy. He released several captured Argentine prisoners of war in the direction of their Goose Green garrison, carrying messages to the commander requiring its surrender or threatening it with a fictitious large-scale assault by the British forces, supported by artillery. The Argentine commander, subsequently surrendered the garrison to the Parachute Regiment without further fighting.

Keeble said later that: “perhaps the most profound factor of all, was that 112 civilians were locked up in the Community Hall in Goose Green! This fact, discovered overnight, re-emphasized the need to use more subtle means than the bayonet! After all, we had not journeyed 8,000 miles merely to destroy the very people we had come to save.

“And so, standing in a small tin shed on the airfield next day, with the Battery Commander, and our two bewildered journalists, Robert Fox and David Norris, we confronted the Argies.” They surrendered their forces which were three times bigger than the British forces.

And these are the spontaneous and noble, almost Shakespearean words of another soldier – the eve-of-battle speech made by Colonel Tim Collins to the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment in Iraq in 2003. Luckily there was a reporter there who took down in shorthand the only record of these inspiring words.

“We go to liberate, not to conquer. We will not fly our flags in their country. We are entering Iraq to free a people and the only flag which will be flown in that ancient land is their own. Show respect for them.

“There are some who are alive at this moment who will not be alive shortly. Those who do not wish to go on that journey, we will not send. As for the others, I expect you to rock their world. Wipe them out if that is what they choose. But if you are ferocious in battle remember to be magnanimous in victory.

“Iraq is steeped in history. It is the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood and the birthplace of Abraham. Tread lightly there. You will see things that no man could pay to see – and you will have to go a long way to find a more decent, generous and upright people than the Iraqis.

“You will be embarrassed by their hospitality even though they have nothing. Don’t treat them as refugees for they are in their own country. Their children will be poor, in years to come they will know that the light of liberation in their lives was brought by you.

“If there are casualties of war then remember that when they woke up and got dressed in the morning they did not plan to die this day. Allow them dignity in death. Bury them properly and mark their graves.

“It is my foremost intention to bring every single one of you out alive. But there may be people among us who will not see the end of this campaign. We will put them in their sleeping bags and send them back. There will be no time for sorrow.

“The enemy should be in no doubt that we are his nemesis and that we are bringing about his rightful destruction.  As they die they will know their deeds have brought them to this place. Show them no pity.

“It is a big step to take another human life. It is not to be done lightly. I know of men who have taken life needlessly in other conflicts. I can assure you they live with the mark of Cain upon them.

“If someone surrenders to you then remember they have that right in international law and ensure that one day they go home to their family. The ones who wish to fight, well, we aim to please.

“If you harm the regiment or its history by over-enthusiasm in killing or in cowardice, know it is your family who will suffer. You will be shunned unless your conduct is of the highest – for your deeds will follow you down through history.

“We will bring shame on neither our uniform or our nation. As for ourselves, let’s bring everyone home and leave Iraq a better place for us having been there. Our business now is North. “

No, Mr Kissinger, military men are not just dumb stupid animals, their lives and words and deeds matter. As Rudyard Kipling wrote:

‘For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”

But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot…

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

At a little end- of- lockdown soiree, I made these nibbles, which disappeared very fast. Cut parsnips into fingers, slightly thicker than a finger. Dunk them thoroughly in beaten egg, and then roll them in freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Arrange in a baking tin so they don’t touch each other. Bake in a hot oven for twenty minutes or so, until cooked. Eat warm or cold.

 

 

 

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Filed under army, british soldiers, culture, history, life and death, military history, shakespeare, Uncategorized

Letter to a Protesting Grandson in London

100_0106Thank you for your letter darling. As a veteran of pro-peace, Anti-Vietnam marches, Anti-Apartheid protests, even walking for Save the Whales, it’s good to know that you’re following in your grandmother’s and mother’s footsteps!

And thank you too…. will go and follow up your Wiki research on BLM… you have set my mind at rest somewhat. There seemed so much destruction and hate, and though I can understand how bitter and sad black people and their families are, who have suffered both in the present and in the past, it doesn’t help the cause when white people join in the vandalism and add to the hate and divisiveness on both sides of the ‘divide’. Martin Luther King said: “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”

Of course I whole-heartedly agree with what you say about the dreadful injustices both past and present…I’ve always thought it was abominable that the film ‘Gone With The Wind’ was written, filmed, and enjoyed – when it was actually a hymn of praise to the South and slavery … But I just wish the protestors would stop tampering with British history which is not as black as they paint it!

Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice ruled in, I think it was 1772, that any slave who set foot in Britain was automatically free – slavery had no part in English law, he said. (The case of Somersett, a slave – I wrote about it in my book ‘The Sound of Water’). This was nearly a hundred years before it was abolished in the US.

For sixty years between 1800 and 1860 the Royal Navy maintained a permanent anti-slavery squadron, which cost not just millions of pounds, but more importantly, the lives of over two thousand sailors as they battled traders and rescued captives on slave transports all over the Atlantic. The RN rescued at least 150,000 Africans who they re-settled in Liberia. Britain was the first nation to propose a motion calling on all European nations to end slavery at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

During the American Civil War, in 1862-6, cotton workers at the mills in Manchester and around, refused to buy cotton from the South, thereby aiding the North, and plunging themselves into penury… just as when Britain voted to abolish slavery in all its colonies, this caused a huge rise in prices for everything for people all over Britain… Dear old William Wilberforce, who campaigned all his life against slavery (remember that film I took you to – ‘Amazing Grace’) – was also one of the founders of the RSPCA….

The  Indian writer, VS Naipul, went on record as saying that for every year since the British left India, the country has gone back ten years… as a woman, I feel that one of the best things the Brits did was to abolish suttee – the burning of widows on their husband’s funeral pyre!!!

And when I was researching China’s slow march to world domination about eight years ago, I read of some African leader whose country has been infiltrated by China and Chinese workers, (he had of course been in prison in the last years of British rule, for sedition – most African rulers seemed to do a stint in prison as part of their careers as activists back then!) wishing the British were back, they employed us and built hospitals and schools and roads, he said….The really brutal colonists were the Dutch and Belgian….

I suppose because I actually lived in a colony-  Malaya- during the last years of colonial rule – before they achieved Merdeka -freedom, the year after I left, and seeing the intelligent, humane and decent rule of law there, and the respect for the Muslim culture and way of life, I feel sad at the distorted and one-sided view of history which so many un-informed people have.

Ulysses Grant, the great US Civil War General, one of my heroes, and whose diaries I have, wrote that of all the colonial nations Britain seemed to have achieved the best balance, and relationship with the peoples they ruled – (He was another animal lover, an amazing horse-rider, punished his soldiers if they ill-treated their horses, and refused to attend a bull fight put on in his honour in Mexico when he was President…)

One protestor, as he defaced the statue of Winston Churchill, was reported as saying Churchill didn’t fight for blacks – he fought for colonialism, whereas he actually fought to save Britain and the world from one of the most evil regimes in the history of the world

Reading the English newspapers this morning, I see that another of my heroes, Captain James, Cook, a straight up and down working class Yorkshire lad, who rose to become not just a captain in the British Navy, but also one of the greatest explorers and cartographers in history, whose explorations also saw him initiate a new science of anthropology, is also on the list of statues threatened with demolition by British BLM protestors.

Cook had nothing to do with slavery, though his discoveries did have a lot to do with the eventual expansion of the British Empire. In their sealed instructions, the Royal Navy told Cook not only to map the coastline of any new land, but also “to observe the genius, temper, disposition and number of the natives, if there be any, and endeavour by all proper means to cultivate a friendship and alliance with them… You are also with the consent of the natives to take possession of convenient situations in the country, in the name of the King of Great Britain.”

Which is why we all now live in New Zealand. When your mother was six, I decided after living in the horrendously crowded island of Hongkong for four years, I didn’t want to go back to another crowded island, England. So we came here to a country the same size as the UK, but with only three million inhabitants. After fifty years we now have four million people, but we still have plenty of space!

In that fifty years, the population in my beloved birthplace, has grown from fifty-five million to over sixty-six million. And maybe that’s why we’ve been able to beat Covid 19 in this country. We all banded together and observed lockdown scrupulously, with only twenty-two deaths, and have had no more cases for nearly three weeks.

I continue to be shocked by the way both young doctors and nurses are treated by our health system… the huge rewards for different workers, – like Ceo’s and lawyers, seem so unfair compared with the under-paid, essential and self-sacrificing people like health workers and others…I admire your brother’s beautiful doctor girlfriend enormously for her persistence, dedication and intelligence, and sticking with such a demanding and difficult calling…

Love talking to you darling, you give me fresh viewpoints and lots to think about…

Much love Grannie

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

With my bad back still dogging me – in a manner of speaking – I’ve perfected a number of dishes for a hungry man without too much angst for the cook.

Take for example, half a dozen chicken drumsticks, and brown them on both sides in the frying pan. Then arrange them on a bed of chopped onions. Pour some olive oil over the chicken, and a little water among the onions. Salt and pepper.

Cook them in a hot oven for about an hour. When the chicken is ready, put in the microwave a packet of pre-cooked rice for the prescribed minute and a half. Pour the juices from the pan over the rice, and if you have the energy, rustle up some broccoli, peas, or salad to eat with the chicken, onions and rice…

Food for Thought

The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war. …

I don’t know who said this, but after re-watching Band of Brothers for the last few nights, it rings very true.

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Filed under army, colonial life, cookery/recipes, culture, history, slavery, The Sound of Water, Uncategorized

Those were the days, my friends…

100_0532

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

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

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

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

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

Food for Thought

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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Castaway Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for Threadbare gourmets

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

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

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

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Extraordinary year, strange events, fascinating people

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Bill Sutch with his wife and daughter after his trial

Another instalment of my autobiography before reverting to my normal blogs

 It was an extraordinary year, but it just seemed ordinary at the time! After Bill and Shirley’s visit at the start of 1975, our family plunged into village life, which included the annual flower show, probably the most important event of the year in our valley. We were still visited regularly by our extra-terrestrial visitors, and the whole family became accustomed to their presence.

We were also visited by different members of Arthur Thomas’s family, his parents, his various brothers, his wife…all needing to chew over the cud and somehow wring some shreds of hope out of their visits, after which I usually felt totally drained.

A few weeks after the end of the summer holidays, the children and I set off for a distant country school across the ranges, where a district sports day was to be held. With both children in the back seat, we could manage one more child there, though I resolutely refused to let any child sit in the front seat by me, in these pre-seat-belt days.

So when we skidded sharply over fresh gravel on a hair pin bend with a steep drop one side, and rode up the steep bank the other side, it was only me who shot through the wind-screen when the car turned upside down. I was pinned with my arm crushed between the roof of the car and the road, but luckily all three children were able to climb out of the back, with only the petrol from the tank spilling on them as they crawled out.

Another car full of children now rounded the corner, and then another, and the farmers driving them were able to extract me. They were so concerned, that I felt anxious and quite protective towards them.  I sat and thought, so this is what an accident feels like.

Later in hospital, I had a four-hour operation to get all the glass and grit out of my shattered hand. A dentist had to cut my rings off as there were shards of glass sticking out all the way down each finger. I returned home a few days later with my broken arm in a half plaster cast, and swathed in bandages for the lacerated hand and wrist.

At home, I found a certain amount of chaos. My son now lapsed into shock and wandered round the garden sucking his thumb, and holding his pillow. My daughter checked on what we expected to get from the insurance for the car which was a write-off, and began scanning the for-sale columns of the newspaper for a replacement car at the same price. Bill and Shirley were on their way to spend a weekend with us, and Patrick had been unable to track them down on their journey north, to ask them not to come.

They arrived half an hour after I did, and at the same time as the wonderful district nurse, who came to suss me out and check on my bandages. She then soaked my arm in warm salt water in a deep antique Victorian bowl, the salt water a home remedy far more helpful than anything else.

The chaos was compounded by a neighbour’s teenage daughter seeking safety in tears of fright because she said a man in a car was following her. The one thing I didn’t have to worry about was food. The whole community had rallied round and delivered pies and casseroles and cakes of every description.

Shirley bustled off to a law conference, leaving us with a very frail-seeming Bill to look after. So he was unable to rescue me when I went for a one- armed walk with the three dogs on leads, who darted into a bramble bush after an enticing smell, and dragged me in with them. There we stood until a neighbour passed by in her car, and untangled us all, the long haired afghans and cavalier King Charles spaniel!

The arm took three months to heal, and the doctors told me I’d never have the use of my hand again. But as the months went by I felt the pain and stiffness drain out of each finger while I was meditating and within months was back to normal – able to crochet, play the piano, and peel potatoes!

I only missed writing one column in the week of the accident, and immediately got back to work the second week, typing with one hand and one finger for the most part!. We couldn’t afford for me to miss my payments, as we were terribly hard up since Patrick was paying two thirds of his salary to his first family.

Our life never stopped while I coped with the aftermath of the accident, friends like John and Oi came and went,  and another new friend, Richard Hirsch, came often too. Before we met him he had been director of the Auckland Art Gallery, but after much- publicised internecine struggles with the staff, he resigned and then threw himself out of the window of his apartment on the top floor.

When he came out of hospital, he had lost a leg, and on my way into the Star to deliver one of my weekly columns, I suddenly realised that this person slowly negotiating the hill down to the Auckland Star on crutches, and then making his way to the reading room, was Richard. Work in the reading room was all he could find to do after all his misfortunes.

I suggested to Patrick that he could stop on his way to the newspaper every day, and give Richard a lift, and so developed a friendship. Richard’s parents had been part of the group of rich artistic American friends who had supported the poet Kahlil Gibran, author of ‘The Prophet’ and Richard had grown up being the only focus of his doting parents, who thought he was too special and precious to go to school like ordinary mortals.

So though he passed his childhood in places like Paris and New York and Switzerland, he was deeply angry and bitter at never having had a normal childhood, and he found it hard to sustain any relationships at all, hence his problems at the art gallery.

He found some solace in his friendship with my children. Underneath his pain and rage and bitterness was a loving and gentle soul, and it leapt in recognition of those same qualities in the children. I longed for him never to move away from this essence of himself, but his deep rage and unhappiness exploded even in an innocent conversation when drying the dishes.

Inevitably Richard became the recipient of Happy Cards too, and once after my daughter had sent him a picture he wrote: “Thank you so much. There are a number of varieties of pictures. Some are pretty or merely alright. And then there are others which I call nourishing – like yours. Nourishing? Well, yes. Have you ever thought that the eyes are hungry all the time? A good meal – and you won’t feel hunger for hours. But your eyes roam all the time – hunting for patterns. Hunting for them everywhere in the room. Toys for the eyes to play with. Nobody ever talks about the games the eyes play every minute of the day… So thank you for providing such a lovely toy for the hungry eye.”

Richard died a few years later from cancer of the throat, choked, I felt, by his un-assuaged pain. But for a time I felt we gave him a little joy.

Now came Bill’s trial in this year of milestones. I couldn’t bear to read the reports of what was a sensational event in New Zealand’s history. The trial turned out to be black comedy. The charge was that Bill gave ‘unspecified information’ to the Russians, in spite of him having retired years before and having no worthwhile information. All his various appointments to talk to the Russians were written in his diary, so there was actually nothing secretive about them. And someone must have tipped off the SIS who observed every meeting with his Russian friend.

The agents were revealed as incompetents who lost dates, muffed places and times, and actually didn’t have any evidence against Bill. Their strongest card seemed to be the journey he had made across the top of the world as an adventurous young man in the early twenties, when he explored places like Tashkent, Samarkand, Afghanistan and northern India. This proved he must be a communist! (though this was not illegal in a free country like NZ !) Bill was not a communist and he was acquitted. But he didn’t recover from the ordeal of the trial. For a patriot like Bill who had spent his whole life working for his country, it had been a betrayal.

As autumn turned to winter, the nights turned cold and we awoke to frost, beautiful and sparkling in the clear bright sunshine. And now the friend I had helped to start Alcoholics Anonymous in Hong Kong, came to visit, bringing her alcoholic husband, three daughters and toddler son. They stayed for two weeks, and we had long intimate talks, family feasts, evenings dancing and laughing while my son played the piano, playing games, and showing them the beautiful country-side where we now lived.

Though I was sad to see them go, I was also exhausted from cooking for ten of us, and looking after everyone, plus the dogs, one of whom was feeling so neglected that she made her feelings known by peeing in our bed.

Oi suggested that I come and spend a restful day with her. Hardly had I arrived at her tranquil home hidden amid trees and by a stream in the prosperous Auckland suburb where she lived, than Patrick rang me from the office. He told me that my friend Phillipa’s ship was on fire, and she was in a life-boat.

I spent the day praying for my gallant friend and her children. By the end of the day it was obvious there was no hope. The next evening, I rang the hotel where Jean, her husband, was staying. I heard the recognition and relief in his voice when he heard me say who I was, and as soon as he had dealt with the aftermath of the disaster he came out to stay with us.

It was an excruciating time. He spent long hours walking through the valley, and I never see white clematis now without remembering Jean who climbed a tree and brought me back a spray.

We drove up to Whangarei for the funeral, though my daughter refused to come. ‘God will hear my prayers just as well from here,’ she said.  I arranged for her to spend the day with friends. At the ceremony in the church, Jean wore his naval uniform, and with his great height, pale skin and huge black haunted eyes looked like a remote, carved stone figure, a medieval knight rather than a twentieth century sea captain.

After the ceremony, we drove to the harbour at Tutukaka, where a police launch was waiting. We piled the overpoweringly sweet-scented spring flowers from the church, which we’d brought in our car, into the cabin, and then made our way out to sea. We rounded the point and moved slowly across to Whananaki where Philippa had died. It was a sparkling winter’s day with smooth glassy water, cloudless blue sky overhead, and in the distance, the line of yellow sand on the beach where a solitary policeman stood watching and waiting.

“Here,” said Jean, and as the launch slowed to a stop we were surrounded with an exquisite fragrance. Then the door from the cabin was opened and the church flowers were brought out. We caught our breath – they had a different perfume to the other- worldly fragrance which had been surrounding us … was it the Presence of Love, or Philippa – it has always been an unsolved riddle…

Now, deep in his pain, Jean slowly tossed the flowers overboard as he said his last goodbyes to those he loved. With great courtesy, he gently gave the last bouquet to the only child there – my son – to throw into the sea. This ritual with the flowers was an old Breton custom in the fishing community Jean came from on the other side of the world.

Back in our country home, Jean continued to visit until he left New Zealand. We didn’t tell him we were about to celebrate our marriage – it seemed too cruel. And when we wrote to invite Bill and Shirley, Shirley replied saying that Bill was dying from cancer of the liver, and had only another week to live. He died after he had held his new born grandson in his arms.

A week or so later Patrick and I married in a quiet Anglican church not far away. I felt the absence of our cherished friends, but we now began a new chapter of our lives, in which the plight of Arthur Thomas continued to dominate, and into which was added a  dreadful new dimension of drug-runners, and their threats and dangerous actions which dogged us during these years of drama and derring-do.

To be continued

 Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Sometimes I want a quick refreshing pudding and this one made with fresh oranges is the answer. Allow two or three oranges for each person. Peel, cut in half and then thinly slice across the fruit. Pile into a glass bowl and pour over a glass of wine and four heaped table spoons of caster sugar. Leave in the fridge until needed. Then spoon into small glass bowls and top with a dollop of whipped cream.

Food for Thought

Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are engines of change (as the poet said), windows on the world and lighthouses erected in the sea of time. They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print.        Barbara Tuchman historian

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Country Life, UFO’s and Russian Spies

Image result for victorian villas in nzAnother installment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

As the Thomas Case unfolded, we were putting together a new life, and moving out of the city.

I’d imagined living in a village, but the New Zealand country-side is not like that. Instead there are a few scattered small towns among dairy or cattle farms which spread in great swathes across rolling hills and fields.

We, of course, didn’t want a farm, but somewhere to live not too far from Auckland to work. We found it. A half- acre of abandoned tennis courts forty minutes from the city. It lay in a valley mostly farmed by descendants of the original settlers, and who, we learned later, were well known in those parts for somewhat antique life styles and opinions which had not changed much since their ancestor’s distant pioneering days.

In the beginning we were an exotic phenomenon. Half the farmers were Catholic, so Patrick was a familiar personality to them through the Catholic newspaper, and as such we were disapproved of … were we married or not? Others decided we were Jews, which was not a term of approval. Others were not too keen on people who were undermining the justice system, and trying to get a guilty man who’d murdered one of their kind out of prison. ( All this information came home via the children at the village school)

As time went on I compounded this mistrust by campaigning in my columns (which were read) against the spraying of the fields with a dioxin pesticide, 245T – now discontinued – felling of trees, treatment of animals and other unpopular causes.

We found an old Victorian villa, with traditional white lacy carving along the verandas, and moved it out to our little piece of land, transforming the wrecked shell into a warm, colourful and beloved home, and planted trees and grass and flowers over time.

While we were still settling into the house and the community, I flew to the South Island to open a solo parent conference in the mountains above Nelson, a beautiful little city. On the way I stopped in Wellington, the capital, to have lunch with a well- known lawyer and civil rights activist- Shirley Smith- who had contacted me. She was married, I learned, to another well-known New Zealander, Bill Sutch, historian, writer, top civil servant, ex-diplomat, now retired and Chairman of the Queen Elizabeth Arts Council.

The diminutive, untidy sweet- faced woman who met me at the airport was quite unlike the elegant sophisticated lawyer I’d expected. She had a wonderful simple directness, as well as being articulate, warm and intelligent. Being a somewhat disorganised housewife, she stopped at corner shops on the way up Wellington hills to pick up butter, bread and various things for lunch.

And then this highly civilised woman took me into her house on the hill where I enjoyed her conversation and the resources of her remarkable mind. It’s a rare pleasure in these times, for someone to be able to fall back on ancient poetry or history to illustrate a point, and when few people are fluent in Greek and Latin, French and German- and also Anglo-Saxon- which she had learned to keep pace with her daughter when she was at University.

I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the house designed by renowned Austrian architect Ernst Plishke and filled with fascinating and precious objects…walls of books, tribal rugs, a large T’ang horse, pictures by famous painters stacked because there was nowhere else to put them, brass Buddhas, ancient terracotta Etruscan figurines, Eskimo carvings, antique pewter. I learned later that her husband Bill’s collection was famous.

Bill himself now came in from the garden, which was his pride and joy, and in which he’d created a Mediterranean micro-climate to grow olive trees and protect other exotic fragile plants from the cold Wellington winds. He was wearing an old red checked shirt pinned together with safety pins at irregular intervals where there had long ago been buttons, and wearing battered corduroy trousers…

He was shabby and courteous and delightful. As time went by, I loved him for his sense of humour and incredible erudition, for his love of sophisticated art and his joy in simple things like my blackberry and apple tart or bunch of buttercups on our dining table.

On this day, lunch was eaten at their table, laid with fragile German china on a Mexican tablecloth, with reminisces about how these things had ended up in Bill and Shirley’s home, mixed with anecdotes about Bill’s time in politics, with UNRRA after the war, and at the United Nations in its earliest days… places and people from the headlines of my childhood, from all over Europe and all over the world… at the League of Nations and watching Anthony Eden battling at Geneva before the war, Eleanor Roosevelt after the war, his struggle to keep Unicef going when the UN wanted to close it down, (one commentator has said that Bill should have been included in Unicef’s Nobel Peace Prize) Bill tramping across Tashkent, Samarkand, Afghanistan, into North-western India in the twenties, exploring Mexico together, and Shirley’s memories of pre-war Oxford when she was studying classics.

Shirley’s simplicity was the polarity of Bill’s immense complicatedness. Bill cared for the under-privileged because it was the duty of all upright people to do so. Shirley loved the poor and the oppressed. She was incapable of passing by anyone who needed help, and spent most of her time in her law practise helping those whom others wouldn’t help, acting for those who couldn’t afford legal expenses. She never made a penny out of her practise.

When they delivered me back to the airport, I was drunk on the glory of enjoying what Mr Eliot in Persuasion described as the best company – “clever well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation.”

I continued my journey to Nelson, wearing what Patrick used to describe as my Russian spy outfit, consisting of a long high-necked black coat trimmed with fur, black trousers and long black boots, and large black sunglasses. This was quite relevant when Patrick rang me the following Friday afternoon.

“That charming gentleman you had lunch with last week”, he said, “has just been arrested as a Russian spy”. He added – “I hate to think what the SIS made of you arriving at the airport in your Russian spy outfit, going up to their house, and returning to the airport to fly out again”. “I don’t believe it,” I replied, and sat down to write to Shirley. I learned afterwards that many of their friends deserted them after this appalling incident.

Shirley was in a state of shock after the Secret Intelligence Service- SIS – had crashed into their house late at night after they’d arrested Bill- who didn’t drive – walking up the street with a bottle of milk from the dairy…having been seen talking to a Russian diplomat. The SIS men went through the house, taking out every book in the shelves, searching for any incriminating evidence – none of which they found.

Bill’s trial – the first and only spy trial in this country, was set down for the next year, but now in December, we were caught up again in the Thomas Case. I used to say we ate, drank and slept the Thomas Case, with phone calls, conferences, Thomas family calling in to see us, angry, desperate Vivian visiting, public meetings, and now the Court of Appeal in Wellington.

Patrick was the go-between and principal mediator between the different branches of the campaign, including the Thomas family, his parents and all his brothers and sisters, the lawyers, the Retrial Committee, the police, the newspapers, and the politicians.

While Patrick was in Wellington battling the arrogant bullying Chief Justice and his panel of mainly prejudiced judges, I stayed behind with the children and had the first of many extraordinary experiences. At the Guy Fawkes gathering, and over tea at the Country Women’s Institute I had heard people claim to have seen UFO’s in the valley.

Farmers up at four o clock in the morning for early milking saw them, one woman was terrified when she saw them and locked her doors, others were more pragmatic and curious. I didn’t know what to think… farmers tend not to be fanciful…

On this evening, at about seven o’ clock on a summer’s night, when it was still light, with no stars in the sky, I saw a large light hanging above the hill opposite our house. As I stood there, wondering if this was a UFO. I became convinced. It was too large for any star. It hung there silently and unmoving. Then suddenly it shot up vertically and without a sound at enormous speed, and disappeared and I was left with a strange sense of joy and peace.

The next day I flew down to Wellington to the Court of Appeal and sat through the drama and hate and pain which pervaded the court room.

To be continued

 Food for Threadbare Gourmets

 A friend was coming unexpectedly for supper last week when the cupboard was somewhat bare… we’re half anhour away down a muddy tortuous road to the nearest shops, so there’s no chance to nip to a corner shop for emergency supplies. So out of the deep freeze that afternoon came a packet of frozen pumpkin soup and some frozen chicken. I boiled the chicken with onion, carrot, celery and garlic, which gave me chicken stock and chicken.

I flossied up the pumpkin soup with a chicken bouillon cube, stirred in some butter, cream and nutmeg, and this cheered up a bought soup. I made a risotto with the chicken stock, white wine, onion, garlic, chopped mushrooms and arborio rice, and at the end grated a courgette into it before adding the chopped chicken, cream, salt and pepper and some fresh parmesan.

We were having this meal on our knees on a cold winter’s night, so the soup was served in cups to sip. The risotto with extra parmesan was easy to eat on our knees, especially since I’d put the vegetables in the dish, so we didn’t have to cope with salad. My friend was trying to lose weight so I didn’t make a pudding but arranged on a pretty plate dates, walnuts, dried figs and crystallised ginger so she could graze if she wished. She did – strict diet not withstanding! And we all downed with gusto the pink champagne she had bought.

Food for Thought

We are not going to be able to operate our Spaceship Earth successfully nor for much longer unless we see it as a whole spaceship and our fate as common. It has to be everybody or nobody. R. Buckminster Fuller

 

 

 

 

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Another Bright Beautiful Spirit

 Moawhango memorial chapel

The chapel at Oi’s home

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

My friend Oi (pronounced O-ee) had ideas so advanced that even Quaker Meeting – that most liberal and open- minded Christian group – threw her out.

With no family around us, friends of all ages were always important and she mattered to us as much as Philippa. Edith Oiroa was born in 1900- called Edith by conventional people but Oi by kindred spirits. She was the youngest of ten, born to a father who was sixty years old, and she died when she was a hundred and two – so the two life-times covered a hundred and sixty- two years, and went back to 1840. Her father had been a cabin boy on a ship that was wrecked on the NZ coast in 1856.

Local Maoris formed a human chain to rescue him, and he stayed with them for some time, becoming very close to the chief. After returning to England, he came back with a seventeen-year-old bride, and the Maori chief gave him land with which to start his life here.

Robert Batley, Oi’s father, established a huge sheep farm, built a big beautiful house, cottages for his shepherds, barns, wool-sheds and an exquisite little chapel, where Oi and her nine brothers and sisters played the organ and helped hand out prayer books to the shepherds and their families as they entered. As each child was born, the generous chief had given them some Maori land.

He ceremonially adopted Oi, and gave her the Maori name Oiroa, which roughly translated, means: ‘compassion for those in need’. Though it was shortened to Oi, she lived up to her name always, and when I met her was beloved by many people for very good reasons.

She married a distinguished Auckland architect – William Gummer – who worked with the famous Edwin Lutyens in England, and is sometimes known as NZ’s Frank Lloyd Wright. He created many of Auckland’s great buildings, and beautiful private homes including some famous ones in the Hawkes Bay. Oi herself was very musical, and played the piano, and was so deeply involved in the musical life of her adopted city, that in the early thirties she and another musical aficionado, started the first orchestra in the city, whose descendant is still thriving.

She was beautiful – and open-hearted and sweet-natured. She was also unhappily married to a much older controlling, jealous and angry man. Other men loved her, and I picked up hints over the years of tempestuous scenes and dramatic confrontations, one in which her loyal cleaning lady divested a desperate suitor of his shotgun at the front door. Oi received and declined her last proposal in her eighties.

Her zest for life never diminished, in spite of a son’s suicide, a difficult life, and much loneliness. Neither did her kindness fail, or her energy, for that matter. I was sure her inner life kept her young. She was often busy driving “old ladies” shopping until well into her nineties. She obviously didn’t feel she qualified for that label – yet! Her spontaneity and authenticity, happiness and serenity, endeared her to all ages.

I met her at Quaker meeting, where we were both what is called attenders, as opposed to members. On occasion when the beautiful and mystical silence was gently broken by a deeply felt message, if it was Oi, as she was known for short, it would be a profoundly mystical and eminently practical thought.

Throughout her life she was drawn to mysticism, a branch of the spiritual life which has always been mistrusted by organised religion, as its devotees seek union with the Source, whatever it is called, thus bypassing the need for priests, mullahs, rabbis, gurus or whatever. Whether these mystics were Muslim, as in the case of Rumi and the Sufis, or Christians like Master Eckhart, Mother Julian or St John of the Cross, they often came to a sticky end at the hands of their respective religions.

Luckily in the twentieth century, this fate is not so common, and Oi escaped lightly by just being blackballed by Quakers! She explored most branches of both Western and Eastern mysticism, and in her thirties, became a lover of Ramakrishna’s teachings, keeping a photo of him by her bed-side always. He practised several religions, including Hindu, Islam and Christianity, and taught that in spite of the differences, all religions are valid and true, and they lead to the same ultimate goal- God.

After Oi introduced herself to me, and invited me to her beautiful house (I had not been long in NZ then), we became close, and she became my mentor. My two small children looked on her as a grandparent and we loved going to her serene and peaceful home.

Though it was in the city, it sat among mature trees and a rambling, flowery garden with a stream. Her architect son had designed it for her. Music, in her mid-seventies, was still her passion. Sometimes I would arrive at the garden entrance, and hear the glorious sounds of a trio or a quartet streaming out of the windows, and I’d stand silently outside under the persimmon tree, listening to Mozart or Mahler.

When the children and I were there, we‘d often end up singing round the piano with the student who boarded with her, and was a brilliant pianist and lovely tenor. We’d all sing favourites as diverse as Handel’s, ‘Where e’er you walk”, to: “Feed the birds,” from Mary Poppins. My other musical friend, Phillipa, whose unbearable life was slightly improved by taking clarinet lessons, and who longed to play in an orchestra, needed practice playing with others.

Hearing about her, typically, Oi offered to play with her, and through music-making, they learned to love each other too. I was spending the day with Oi when I learned that the ship Phillipa was sailing on had caught fire, and she and the children, plus her six-month-old baby, were adrift in a lifeboat in a violent storm. I spent all day praying and  imagining her anguish and exhaustion trying to keep the children warm in an open boat, never realising that they were already dead.

Oi’s unorthodox thinking, which of course, was not confined to spiritual practises, but spread into all areas of her life, alienated her family who were very religious and ultra- conservative. She rarely saw them, so she began spending Christmas with us until one son who disapproved of us too, was shamed into inviting her for Christmas after many years.

Their loss was our gain, and in some ways Oi became a  part of our family. She gave me many of the books which had sustained her and influenced her thinking, and which had helped her find her path to expanded consciousness and freedom. One of the joys of reading them was that she’d underlined or marked the passages which sang to her.

Not only did I find this a wonderful aid to a deeper understanding, both of the texts and of Oi, but it also taught me the pleasure of marking and making my books my own, which I had never dared to do before.

I’d grown up learning that books should be treated as sacred, and never marked, turned down, or in any way treated as familiar friends. I do it all the time now, knowing that others who eventually find their way to them will – or might – enjoy the same pleasures of insight and intimacy as I have done.

Oi’s words still remain in my mind, and often come back to me. When there was a problem she would close her eyes, and focus for a minute, then open them and say firmly: “You cannot know the solution.  You can only pray that the situation evolves for the highest good of you, and everyone else involved. And know that this will happen, and let it go.”

She’d quote T.S. Eliot: “It is not our business what others may think of us,” or: “God wastes nothing”. She’d say: “Let go and let God.” – and, “Happiness is like water in the palm of your hand. If you gently hold your palm open, it will stay. But if you clutch it and try to hang onto it, you lose it.” She died at over a hundred, fourteen years ago, but her loving wisdom sustains me still.

When my life began taking some strange turns, becoming involved with an innocent man accused of a double murder, our phone being tapped, death threats, drug lords, and other frightening developments, Oi was always there encouraging us and supporting us.

To be continued

 Food for Threadbare Gourmets

 I love puddings – hot, cold, chocolate, lemon, fruit, baked, steamed, chilled – you name it. I haven’t made clafoutis for ages, but decided, it being winter, we could do with a hot pudding, and dug out this old recipe from my clippings. It has more eggs in it than some clafoutis recipes, but when I was worried about the children getting enough protein when we were vegetarian, this was one of the dishes that stilled my anxieties.

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Butter a pie dish or oven proof dish. In a large bowl, whisk together six eggs, eight tablespoons of sugar, a teasp of vanilla, until the sugar is dissolved. Add twelve tablespoons of flour and whisk until smooth. Pour the batter into the pie dish.

Now add two and a half cups of pitted cherries, fresh or frozen if you have them – or any other berries. If using frozen don’t melt them, but toss them in frozen. You can also use plums, or tinned peaches. Sprinkle some sugar over the top and bake until the clafoutis is beautifully puffed and golden, 35–40 minutes. Serve immediately – with cream or even good ice-cream.

Food for Thought

 Lovers of God do not belong to any caste.

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa

 

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The end of the golden weather

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a6/The_ruined_Church_of_St_James%2C_Lancaut_-_geograph.org.uk_-_202262.jpg

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

So we sailed away from the golden weather and un-ending sun-shine, back to a world that had changed since we had sailed east three years before. The journey reflected this. We couldn’t leave the ship at beautiful Colombo, there were strikes on the docks, and it was deemed unsafe for us to land. At Aden we were allowed to land but not to roam the town. We were whisked straight up to the RAF Officers club where we enjoyed a swim in the blazing heat and sun.

Sailing through the desert on the Suez Canal in late February meant scarlet dawns and blazing sunsets seen across the desert sands in sparkling clear air. These were the last moments of golden weather and beauty. At a cold rainy Port Said the presence of two menacing uniformed Egyptian guards at the top of the gangway deterred us all from leaving the boat…we were warned there was no guarantee we would get our passports back or be able to re-board. This was just a few months before the nationalisation by ‘The Dancing Major, ‘as President Nasser was known then. I realised then that Pax Brittanica had passed.

We landed in a cold misty dawn amid the grim grey docks of Liverpool, and by the time we reached London on the boat train from the docks, I was so cold and so depressed that England seemed very unwelcoming. I still had some months to go before taking my last A  levels, so I was enrolled in the University Entrance Department of the Regent Street Polytechnic, my scholarship still opening doors for me.

My first day there felt so bleak and intimidating, that by lunch-time I had fled, and walking blindly down Park Lane, head down dodging the icy rain, sought refuge in Apsley House, The Iron Duke Wellington’s London pad where it was warm. When it was time to go back home, I caught the tube, and didn’t divulge where I’d spent the time. Days passed, the only heating in the whole building seemed to be the miniscule coal fire in the common room, which I could never get near.

I shivered uncontrollably with cold, prompting one student who arrived every day in a chauffeur driven Daimler to chide me kindly and ask why I didn’t wear warmer clothes. I was wearing all I had – a short-sleeved white muslin blouse, thin white cardigan and grey flannel skirt donated by my step-grandmother with whom we were staying. I was already at my new educational establishment when the rest of the family had taken themselves off to Simpsons in Piccadilly to get kitted out with warm clothes.

I felt totally intimidated by my fellow students –  including the sophisticated girl delivered every day in the Daimler. I noticed a beautiful Indian youth from a princely family, a woman in her thirties who attended classes as a way of passing the time instead of working, an exquisitely mannered and groomed Jewish girl I became friendly with, some arrogant young chaps from Eton, a blonde elegant girl famous for being a general’s daughter, and a plain young man, the inheritor of a shoe – making empire who took me out in his green MG until I couldn’t bear being with him just for the sake of the MG.

There were others too, like the charming Polish girl who told me of starving in the ruins of bombed out Berlin as they fled west from Poland to escape the Soviet soldiers; and another Polish girl -this one fair-haired, blue eyed, and Jewish -who had endured unspeakable things.

These hard-up refugee girls somehow knew their way around a sort of student underground, knowing where to buy good second- hand clothes before the term vintage had been invented, getting their hair beautifully styled by trainee hairdressers needing models, having their teeth done by trainee dentists needing someone to practise on and getting free tickets to concerts and student activities.

Eventually I became part of a foursome who stuck together, Vera, a Hungarian Jewish refugee with a cloud of fair curls, blue eyes, and an anxious manner, Joanna, a calm gentle girl who lived in Hampstead, and Winifred, slim, elegant and as naïve as me. Joanna had been at school with Jackie Collins, before the budding actress had been expelled at fifteen and Joanna regaled us with stories of both Jackie and her older sister, Joan Collins. My history teacher was Mary Quant’s father, while one of the rich girls was the daughter of the man at the head of the cool new TV station, ITV.

All these hints of a larger world made us feel as though we lived on the fringes of glamour and excitement. Bill Haley’s Rock around the Clock shocked our elders, when teenagers – a term just invented – began dancing in the cinema aisles to this song. We would gather to dance this new rage of rock and roll too, at the central hall in the Regent Street Headquarters, though I was still too shy to dance and watched from a balcony with Winifred.

When we broke up for the Easter holidays, I caught the tube to Acton, where I had heard there were lots of factories. I walked down a long road lined with them and seeing a sign saying ‘vacancies’ went in and signed on. When I got back to my step-grandmother’s where we were staying, every one reacted as though I had said I was joining a brothel, but I ignored the disapproval and went anyway.

I lasted the week until Easter, packing thousands of yellow plastic lemons that would hold lemon juice. I became so bored that I ended up scribbling verses from Omar Khayyam inside the cardboard boxes, in the hope that someone, somewhere, would read them… sort of message in a bottle sent from a factory…

With the five pounds so hardly earned I took myself off to Marks and Spensers and bought a blue and white pinstriped blouse, a grey flannel pleated skirt and a cardigan. Back at Regent Street, I ended up making other good friends as well as my close foursome, and having lots of fun, skipping classes to see Ingmar Bergman’s incomprehensible ‘The Seventh Seal’, an exquisite Russian version of Twelfth Night, great lover Rudolf Valentino in The Sheik and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and lots of goodies at the Baker Street Classic. The wondrous Wallace Collection was just around the corner, and museums and art galleries all within walking distance.

One day Joanna said her parents were away, and invited the four of us to their rambling house in Hampstead to try out a oujia board. With great enthusiasm and much ignorance, the four of us gathered around a table, and wrote the letters of the alphabet on separate squares of paper which we arranged in a circle. In the centre we placed a glass. We then each put a finger on the glass and sat in silence.

When the glass began to move, we each laughingly accused one another of pushing it with our finger, but then it seemed to gather a momentum all its own. In silent disbelief we watched it glide from letter to letter, and then hurried to write down each letter so we could work out the words and the sentences. As the séance progressed we all became more and more un-easy. The messages we were getting seemed rather malevolent, telling us that people we knew were untrustworthy, another was entangled with the wrong person, and other personal details.

Feeling we were playing with danger we broke off the session, made ourselves some coffee and dispersed across London to our various homes. I was so frightened by what felt like a mischievous and unpredictable energy that I didn’t dare switch off the light in my bedroom back at my step-grandmother’s flat that night. Nor did I switch it off for some weeks until the memory of the nastiness had faded.

As for my education – I never caught up with my Latin – though I  enjoyed the lessons, as the Anglican church in North Audley Street was just through the classroom wall, and the organist was always either rehearsing or playing for a wedding – mostly the wonderful Trumpet Voluntary – a small compensation for my struggles with the subjunctive and ‘The Aeniad’.

My lovely history tutor, Mr Quant – didn’t teach my history period. I begged him to just let me swot myself and recommend some reading as I couldn’t face starting somewhere else, and we hobbled towards the finishing line together, and somehow I passed. Thus ended my schooldays, but not my education.

I now joined my parents in Monmouthshire, where they were living in a house belonging to friends who were overseas. Here I walked in a field golden with buttercups, edged with high hawthorn hedges. Here I felt again the sweetness and gentleness and ancientness of the English countryside that I had hungered for in the tropical heat when the only flowers apart from frangipani, were yellow cannas, purple bougainvillea and the scarlet flame tree.

I was eighteen and this was how I had remembered the scenes of my childhood… shades of Sir Walter Scott’s:

Breathes there the man with soul so dead

Who never to himself hath said,

This is my own, my native land…

We were living in a house lent to us by friends, far out in green hills and deep valleys. The name of the house revealed that it was built on the site of an Iron Age fort. Offa’s Dyke was reputed to end in our garden, just above a huge S-bend in the River Wye. Offa lived from 757 to 796 and invented the penny. His dyke separated Mercia from Wales and stretched for ninety-eight miles from north to south. Whatever the truth of the rumour, behind the un-used stables there was a large mound stretching into the back garden from the fields and woods beyond and covered in hazel and hawthorn.

The house was part Queen Anne and part Georgian, with a charming regency style wrought iron porch stretching along the garden side of the house. It looked over a lawn, where two ancient lime trees hummed with bees in summer, and which seemed like silent sentinels in the wintry mist which hovered among their thick tangle of branches in  winter. Beyond the lawn was a ha-ha, but not deep enough to keep out the piebald pony who led a small herd of young steers through the gate-posts, up the drive, avoiding the ha-ha and across the lawn while every-one else was at church parade one morning.

By the time I’d rushed downstairs to shoo them away, they had meandered on into the little sheltered garden with a sundial, and pushed their way through the scraggy hedge which gave onto a lane, leaving only their deep hoof-prints.

The lane led down to a farm house, but before I got there, I would branch off through the woods with my puppy and take the winding path which meandered down to the river. Just below the tree-line, and in the grass which bordered the riverside was the ruin of the tiny sixth century church of St James, only its outer walls still standing, empty windows framing the sky, ivy climbing part of the grey stone walls, and tangled brambles guarding the foundations. In spring the woods were filled with bluebells and windflowers.

The house was faded and gentle, dreaming in the silence of the country-side, no neighbours within sight. My bedroom had pretty flowered wallpaper, pale green painted thirties furniture and long windows looking over the garden. It had a soft sweet atmosphere. The other place that I loved, and where I spent solitary afternoons engrossed in a book was the so-called ballroom. Not a grand one, its claim to fame being the ceiling which had been copied from some famous library in a country house.

Apart from the large and somewhat threadbare faded old carpet on the polished floor, the only other furniture in the room was a big drab-green brocade-covered Knole sofa, and a large gilt mirror hanging over the carved fireplace. That was all I needed. On sunny days I sat on the cushioned window seat, on other days I curled up on the sofa. When I shut the door the silence and the solitude were absolute.

So I dreamed around the place, head in the clouds or in a book, picking flowers, adopting two wild kittens as well as the puppy, my dreaminess driving my parents mad. I didn’t know anyone, but once a boy nearby invited me to a hunt ball at Tintern, and the rather erudite and elegant bachelor who lived on the corner further down, in a house filled with books and good furniture invited us to a pre-ball party. I thought he was much more interesting than my escort, and found the ball very dull, spoiled with too many in Malaya.

It was around now that both the Suez crisis blew up, and the Hungarian revolution was crushed by Soviet tanks. The Suez crisis didn’t bother me much… there had always been tanks and guns rumbling somewhere throughout my life, though this felt nearer, having so recently traversed that contested strip of territory. It seemed to get tangled up in the drama of the Hungarian tragedy. I cried my heart out when I heard on the radio the last words that came out of Budapest from Radio Rakoczi on October 23:

“This is Hungary calling! The last remaining station! … For the sake of God and freedom, help Hungary.” Then a horrifying silence.  It felt unbearable that the west that I was part of, wouldn’t lift a finger to help the Hungarians.

I mooned around, not sure what to do with my life. I wanted to go to university but didn’t know how to go about it, and also shrank from more difficult years of trying to mask my scanty wardrobe and lack of funds. I’d never been able to save as my stepmother used to ask me if I had any money when she sent me shopping, and so my Christmas and birthday postal orders had dwindled away on potatoes and bacon and sausages.

I tried to repeat my factory stint by signing up to work in a local brush factory, and also tried to apply for a job interview at the local hotel for a receptionist. Both these schemes were vetoed by my father, who said he didn’t want to see his daughter behind the hotel desk when he fetched up there for a drink with his friends. So I continued to drift, until the day my father came home and said he’d made an appointment for me with the recruiting officer in Cardiff.

Which was how I ended up joining the army. I left home in the dark at six thirty, one cold January morning.  My parents put me on the bus to the station with my suitcase, gave me three pounds, and I left my childhood behind.

( the picture is St James Church with acknowledgements to Mercurius Politicus)

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

To cheer up lunch, which was just bread and cheese and chutney, I decided to knock up a courgette and cheese loaf to make life more interesting!

So easy… two cups of SR flour, a cup of grated cheese, a cup of  grated courgette, quarter of a cup of oil, an egg, salt, a teaspoon of mild curry powder and a cup and a half – or more if needed – of milk. Just mix them altogether, and tip into a greased loaf tin. Cook for forty minutes or so in a hot oven, and there you have it… serve warm or cold, it’s just as moist the second day, and particularly delicious with soft blue cream cheese. I’ve also served it with cold meats…

Food for thought

 There are three forms of culture: worldly culture, the mere acquisition of information; religious culture, following rules; elite culture, self development.  Revelation of the Mystery by Sufi master Al-Hujwiri

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Coronation, luxury, opera and Latin

Image result for runnymede hotel penang
The Runnymede Hotel from the sea

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

The Queen’s Coronation was big in Malaya and it was big for me too! On our drive down to Taiping to join my father and his regiment for the celebrations we passed through one kampong after another, with a richly coloured Coronation arch festooned with flowers and streamers and pictures of the Queen welcoming us into every village … everyone seemed to be involved.

When we had arrived from the train and ferry at the Runnymede Hotel several months before, it was discovered that the porter who picked up the trunk with my clothes in it amongst other things, had disappeared with it. This meant that my new summer dress and my new and unworn swimming costume had gone, and I now had little more than the clothes I stood up in- a well-used green striped skirt cut down from a summer dress of my stepmother’s two years before, and a green air-tex shirt.

My stepmother had coped with this disaster with insouciance, but I was in despair since I knew my clothes were unlikely to be replaced any time soon. I managed to make a new skirt with some fabric given to me, and as time went on, different people bequeathed dresses which they said they no longer wanted and which I learned how to alter to fit me.

But the loss of the swimming costume was a misery in the tropics where everyone swam most days. Now in Taiping for the week of the Coronation, I was staying with a couple whose daughter was in hospital with appendicitis, and after we had visited her once a day, these two lovely people took it upon themselves to spoil me. Not only did they buy me a swimming costume, but a pair of shoes – I had been managing with some humiliatingly ugly tartan cloth ones my stepmother had bought for me in the local Chinese market. The wife also gave me one of her dresses and let me try on all her evening dresses and her makeup. It all felt wonderful.

When I turned up for the Coronation Parade and re-joined my parents in my new finery, I saw my stepmother looking rather coldly at these kind people and I, but my cup was overflowing, and I didn’t worry.

After the festivities and two weeks holiday spent amid clouds and cool forests at the top of a mountain called Maxwell Hill we all went back to Penang, where I waited another three months before being accepted into the boarding school in the Cameron Highlands. Apart from my school terms I spent eighteen months living beside the water in this beautiful environment.

Each day began with the long walk between pillars which seemed as big as those on the portico of St Paul’s Cathedral, but in this case, they were holding up the huge ballroom, about a hundred feet long. At the end was the dining area, where the Chinese maitre d’hotel met each family and conducted them to their regular table with as much flourish as though they had been pre-war English milords, miladies, famous writers and intrepid tourists in the thirties. (He had probably been on the staff then himself, having somehow survived the Sook Ching massacres -the wholesale killings of the local Chinese – by the Japanese during the war) My step-mother was one of the ladies he met with particular deference and a favoured smile.

Our service was always quicker than less favoured mortals. It had nothing to do with my father’s mediocre rank or mediocre income. I supposed it had something to do with my step-mother’s unbending dignity and courtesy -she ‘nothing common did or mean’… it took me a while to see that others did do mean things, I was so used to her being, as my father’s sergeant -major put it -” a lady.” (Which didn’t mean to say I found it pleasant living with her. She might not manage anything common or mean, but she had ways of dealing with people like me who she didn’t like!).

After a hearty English breakfast beginning with cereal, ending with toast and marmalade, and bulked out with sausages, bacon and egg in the middle, coffee or tea, we all filtered back up the stairs to our rooms. The amahs had already tidied them and made the beds, so we prepared ourselves for the day – for the wives, a little shopping, ending at the Cold Storage Co. for feasts of iced coffee and sundaes in blissful icy air-conditioning to which I was sometimes invited. Or it might be a trip to the swimming pool, and hot curry puffs and ginger beer shandies in deck chairs round the pool… having no swimming costume I just sat around enviously.

Wives who were happy to leave their toddlers with an amah would sit on the hotel verandah by the sea, just by the huge flame tree where the children took turns on the swing, while their mothers played canasta or mah-jong. Or they just gossiped over coffee.

Husbands sometimes managed to get back for a weekend with their families every few weeks. One regiment stationed at Alor Star had its hands full with constant bandit activity, and at the last minute their leave would be cancelled for an emergency. A mock groan was the only outward sign of disappointment the wives allowed themselves when the message came, and when one young woman, newly- pregnant, couldn’t bite back her tears of disappointment before the others noticed, there was much comment at her lack of control.

There were some who didn’t follow the regular routines of the others… they were outsiders, who didn’t join the regimental groups or the more exclusive cliques. They may have been free spirits, and seemed to have busier, more satisfying lives than the daily routines of the others, but, sometimes too, I felt their loneliness.  The other women wordlessly disapproved, as though being an army wife was being part of a team that the outsiders were refusing to join.

After a generous lunch with several courses from soup or a starter through to pudding and cheese in the great dining room, the hotel would fall silent. Every-one retired to their room for a nap – including, I suspect, all the staff -because the place was deserted between two and four. Except for the amahs and house-boys, who were busy whitening  shoes and doing the dhobi, washing, ironing, and starching our full-skirted cotton dresses – Horrockses were the prettiest and most sought- after. Some wives had their dresses made up locally but you could tell at a glance when fashion trends took about two years to reach us.

During this silent two hours in the afternoon, the various teenagers in the hotel would coalesce, playing tennis, giggling, talking, and sharing, I remember, the whole series of books on Tarzan in the jungle. Unfortunately for me, I quickly became bored with them and Tarzan, and after a few weeks was back on my own, stemming boredom with what my stepmother dismissively called, my highbrow pleasures- whatever poetry and history I could find, all and any literature. This left me indifferent to Tarzan.

Some childless friends of my parents who lived in Penang permanently took a fancy to me, and began inviting me to their fascinating house filled with books and art. They introduced me to opera on their new-fangled long- playing records and took me to a film of Faust. I was hooked and took back with me to school a precious gift from them of a 78 record of Joan Hammond’s standard, “Oh, my beloved daddy”. I never got to play it. It warped in the heat during the way up from Tapah on the journey to school in the Cameron Highlands.

Between four and four-thirty, all over Malaya, in rest-houses and residencies, homes and hotels, the amah knocked on the door of every bedroom, and deposited a tray with a pot of tea, a plate of rich tea biscuits and a clump of the tiny, sweet, Malayan bananas. This we would consume at leisure, dressed in a cool cotton housecoat, and if we were lucky, enjoy for an hour the coolness of convection rain which fell at the same time every day, in sudden sheets. The coolness lasted only as long as the rain, and then the sun would return, and steam would rise and it would feel hotter and stickier than before.

Simultaneously with the tea-tray, the house-boy would deliver the clean laundry, our stiff, rustling, starched dresses, and white shoes cleaned with white Meltonian polish. After a shower, we dressed for dinner, and descended the stairs for the ritual of salted pea-nuts in cut glass saucers and drinks before dinner. Sometimes one of my father’s friends would ask if they could include me in a round of Pimms, which I thought the height of sophistication, but usually it was lemonade for me, or better still, a delicious fresh lime.

And then for the third time in a day, the long walk down the pillared ball-room for another stately meal at our own tables, before sitting on the veranda under the stars in the warm tropical night, sipping coffee with dreadful tinned and boiled milk from tiny, old fashioned coffee cups. The scent of frangipani hovered amidst the inevitable cigarette smoke, and sometimes a sampan with a single fisherman would drift silently past where the sea lapped against the garden wall, and as he scooped his net, or dragged his oars, a shower of gleaming phosphorescence would show us where he was on the dark water.

During the months I was waiting to be accepted into boarding school in the Cameron Highlands, my parents arranged tutoring for me in the mornings. To keep up with my Latin, I attended a Chinese convent where they had a Latin class every morning at seven o’clock, so I set out to walk through the deserted streets at six thirty. I nearly died  of embarrassment as no European was ever seen actually walking at that hour in the morning, and everyone stared at me.

It was a pointless exercise, because I couldn’t understand the accents of the Chinese nuns reading Latin. I was completely defeated, and never kept up with the place in Virgil that we were supposed to be translating.

I came up against this problem again, during my French oral exam for School Certificate the following year. We were laboriously ferried down from school to Tapah, with all the palaver of armoured transport, troop carriers, guns and all, and on to Ipoh to visit a Chinese convent where the nuns spoke French, and were accredited to examine us.

This was a ponderous joke, which we all mutually recognised but never acknowledged, because they knew that our school-girl French was not up to understanding their Chinese -French, and they couldn’t understand our clumsy Anglo- French. So they gave us the benefit of the doubt and we all passed our French oral.

To be continued

Food for threadbare gourmets

When we’d eaten all we could of the roast chicken at Easter, I boiled up the carcass. The resulting jelly was too good to put in a soup. I made a risotto with it instead. I pre-cooked an onion in the micro-wave, and then tipped ut into a frying pan, lubricated with chicken fat from the roast chicken. Three chopped mushrooms and a teaspoon of garlic (from a jar!) went in next, and adding more chicken fat, I poured in a cup of Arborio rice.

When it was translucent I added a glass of good white wine, and before it had all boiled away started adding the chicken stock which also had small chunks of chicken from the carcass in it. There was enough to cook the rice completely, and when I started to run out at the end I added some milk… then cream, then a good knob of butter. When the rice was soft, I stirred in a couple of table spoons of freshly grated parmesan, and covered the pan for five minutes.

When we tucked in, I nearly swooned with greedy delight… each grain of rice glistening with stock and butter and cream was sumptuous. It didn’t even need any more parmesan, it was so delicious. I will never cook risotto again unless I have real chicken stock… bouillon cubes just don’t cut it any more!

Food for thought

 Always say “yes” to the present moment. What could be more futile, more insane, than to create inner resistance to what already is? what could be more insane than to oppose life itself, which is now and always now? Surrender to what is. Say “yes” to life — and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you.                               Eckhart Tolle, spiritual teacher

 

 

 

 

 

 

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