Category Archives: flowers

The necessity of beauty

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Pamela was my lodger. She was living in the third bedroom in my flat for the same reasons that Mr Micawber pronounced the immortal words:” Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.”

I’d tried to fill the gap between my meagre salary (women were paid far less than men in the Hongkong I lived in ) and my expenditure, by doing TV quiz shows,  radio programmes, using the children as photographic models and even doing PR for the Anglican church until I could stand being hypocritical no longer. So Pamela was my next attempt at solvency. While she lived with me my life was filled with her dramas, love affairs, crises and disasters.

She arrived with one fiancée, dressed demurely in twinset and pearls, tweed skirt and silk head – scarf. Soon she found a more exciting prospect, and changed her style  to newly fashionable jeans, her hair swung up into dashing styles and lots of makeup. The new fiancée lent her his new VW while he went back to England to sort out his divorce, and hereby hangs the tale. Pamela rolled the car her first night in possession of it, and I was awakened in the middle of the night by a Chinese policeman who couldn’t speak English.

I pieced together that Pamela had had an accident, and was in a Chinese hospital since she had no insurance to cover her for a European one.  The next morning the children, four and five years old, and I, packed up a few things for Pamela and made an expedition to the enormous  building which housed some thousands of sick and penniless Chinese.

We found our way through a maze of corridors to Pamela’s ward, and by the time I reached her bed I was deeply shocked. The ward held eighty women. They were all dressed in faded brown cotton shifts including Pamela. The noise was horrendous. Cantonese is the noisiest language on earth. To hear our amah chatting to another outside the kitchen was deafening. To hear seventy- nine women chatting in a confined space was probably higher than the safe decibel level.

Pamela was bruised and shocked but not injured. After doing our duty, and promising to return that afternoon with more things she wanted, the children and I went home, leaving her with a little bunch of gardenias I’d picked. Only six blossoms because that was all that were flowering.

When we returned in the afternoon, something had changed. There was a hush in the ward and a sense of peace, and all eyes were on the gwailo (long- nose) and her children. Being watched was something one accepted as part of life then, but this felt different. And the hush was a sort of reverence. Pamela whispered to me what had happened after I left.

When we walked out of the ward, the women came crowding round her to see the flowers and smell the fragrance. They were ecstatic at this exquisite beauty in their harsh unfriendly environment. Deprived as the women were, of all colour and texture and smell and beauty, the flowers brought something like heaven into their lives.

They didn’t speak English, and Pamela didn’t speak Cantonese, but with the aid of the ward sister’s few words of English, they worked out a roster for the flowers. Each woman would have one gardenia by her bed-side in a glass for three hours in every twenty-four. Pamela had one all the time, and the sixth flower which had fallen off its stem, the ward sisters had in their office, floating in a saucer.

Back at the office the next day I rang the dean of the cathedral and several hotels and they agreed to send their flowers to the hospital whenever they changed them. I wonder if they still do.

The great Catholic thinker Monsignor Hildebrand wrote that: ‘the poor need not only bread. The poor also need beauty’. But it’s not just the poor. We all need beauty.

It’s strange to me that Abraham Maslow in his hierarchy of vital needs didn’t include beauty. Sometimes beauty is the the only thing that keeps us going. As Resistance fighter Odette Churchill was being locked back in her cell after a bout of torture by the Gestapo, she snatched up the skeleton of a leaf being blown in the door with her. The beauty of that leaf sustained her and gave her hope and courage and a belief in goodness that carried her through her dreadful ordeal.

Quaker writer, Caroline Graveson wrote that: ‘There is a daily round for beauty as well as for goodness, a world of flowers and books and cinemas and clothes and manners as well as mountains and masterpieces.’ She talked of beauty: ‘not only in the natural beauty of the earth and sky, but in all fitness of language and rhythm, whether it describe a heavenly vision or a street fight, a Hamlet or a Falstaff, a philosophy or a joke: in all fitness of line and colour and shade, whether seen in the Sistine Madonna or a child’s knitted frock…’

The sad thing is that those deprived Chinese women in that joyless hospital ward, came from a culture, which before the blight of industrialisation and the tyranny of plastic, was incapable of producing anything that wasn’t beautiful – from their baskets to their bowls, to their porcelain and their poetry.  And there was something very beautiful about buying a kati of vegetables in the markets and watching them being skilfully wrapped in a beautifully folded sheet of re-cycled Chinese newspaper, or a large leaf, and tied with a knotted reed.

Perhaps their own sage should have the last word, Confucius said that everything is beautiful, to those who can see it….

I published this post nearly four years ago … it’s one of my favourites and many readers will have forgotten it, or never seen it….

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I needed a quick pudding for unexpected guests, so I took out of the deep freeze a couple of brioche I’d stored for such an occasion. Once thawed, I gently fried them in butter, then made a sauce with rum and brown sugar, and poured it over the brioche. I served  them hot with whipped cream, and though not rum babas, they  tasted almost as good.

Food for Thought

People travel to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars; and they pass by themselves without wondering.       St Augustine  199 AD

 

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The gifts that keep on giving

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I’m always slightly envious when people reminisce lovingly about their mothers, since mine disappeared when I was six, not to be found again until I was in my fifties when it was too late to rebuild bridges.

But when I look back over my memories of the gifts that different people gave me, I realise that my rather erratic mother gave me a gift that is still valuable today. My earliest memories of her are the songs she sang as I went to sleep. I didn’t hear them again for years, but recognised them as soon as the notes rang out…among them, ‘Where the bee sucks, there suck I’, and ‘One fine day,’ from the opera Madame Butterfly, and even: ‘You are my sunshine,’ a pop song from the forties that moved me to tears when I heard it again in middle age.

That gift – a love of good music – has been my pleasure and companion ever since, so I was ripe for Beethoven and Bach, Handel and Purcell as soon as I heard them when growing up, while opera became a passion, which I learned when I met her again, had also been a passion with my mother.

As I mused about this gift she gave me, I remembered all the other gifts that so many other people gave me. When my grandmother came to look after us, she brought with her, her collection of precious Meissen and Staffordshire china, and I learned to love china, a love which anyone visiting my house would recognise.

She also collected books, and many of them were illustrated and designed with prints and patterns from William Morris and fine artists like Aubrey Beardsley and Arthur Rackham, so that from the age of six, my eye was educated by their exquisite artistry. This discrimination meant that when I was introduced to Walt Disney – staple children’s fare – I found the cartoons crude, and the lack of light and shade and detail bored me.

The other gift my grandmother gave me was the love of reading, and for lack of children’s books, I devoured classics like ‘John Halifax, Gentleman’, ‘Robinson Crusoe’ in an original edition, a huge heavy book with engravings protected by flimsy tissue paper, the dreadful ‘Foxe’s Martyrs’, ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’ ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ – all these in magnificent antique quarto versions, apart from many other history books and even the Bible.

A man gave me my next gift, a dry, elderly, retired history teacher who had taught in boy’s prep schools all his life, and who came to help out at my little private school during a war-time dearth of teachers. At seven, he introduced me to history, and I soaked up every period he ran through with us, from the Beaker people and the Stone Age, to Julius Caesar and the Romans, Boadicea  and Caracticus, Pope Gregory on captured Anglo-Saxon children with blonde hair and blue eyes, dragged through Rome in triumphal marches, saying, ‘Not Angles but angels,’  Alfred the Great, and Aethelred the Unready, Harold and the Conqueror, the Black Prince and English archers,  and all the march of history up to Agincourt and Henry V.

Living in Yorkshire when the war was over, our gardener, Mr Appleby, took a fancy to me, and spent much time teaching me the names of all the flowers…hearts-ease and snow-in-summer in crevices amongst paving stones, the herbaceous borders crammed with red hollyhocks, blue delphiniums and pastel pink and blue lupins, ravishing red peonies and pastel coloured grannie’s bonnets,  multi-coloured snapdragons and delicious sweet smelling pinks, the rose Dorothy Perkins scrambling over the trellis hiding the dust-bins … I revelled in this knowledge and his gift to me.

We didn’t go to school while we were in Yorkshire, and had lessons at home in the afternoon. My new stepmother, who was a physiotherapist and had no idea of how to teach children – or how to bring them up for that matter – gave me an extraordinary gift, apart from teaching me social skills, and that was how to spell. She demanded that at nine I could spell words like phlegm and diarrhoea, rhododendron and diaphragm. This is a gift that keeps on giving, like all the gifts that these adults gave me.

My father returned from the war in ’47, when I was nine, and his gift was to give me all the books he had enjoyed, so I went from a diet of Lord Lytton and books like ‘Harold’ (killed at Hastings) to Kingsley’s ‘Hypatia’, and ‘The Last Days of Pompei’, to Walter Scott’s ‘Ivanhoe’ and ‘Guy Mannering’ ( “go thy ways Ellangowen, go thy ways”… cursed the gypsy) and Napier’s history of the Peninsula Wars with Wellington, to CS Forester’s riveting: ‘The General’, about the First World War, and many more. Enid Blyton and Rupert the Bear were banned !

When I was ten and eleven years old I was put in a train from Yorkshire to Kings Cross, to spend a couple of weeks of the summer holidays with my step-grandparents. My grandfather took me walking around London nearly every day. We explored places like Threadneedle Street and the City, tramped down Constitutional Hill and through Hyde Park Corner, passing No I Piccadilly – Apsley House – the Iron Duke’s home, as well as the King’s home – Buckingham Palace (still George VI then).

We spent blissful hours loitering in front of Duccio, da Vinci and Van Gogh in the National Gallery, and wondering over the Turners in the Tate, gazing at all the statues of historic figures, from beautiful Nurse Edith Cavell at Charing Cross, to tragic Charles I, examined the famous poets and painter’s monuments in Westminster Abbey, and climbed around inside the dome of St Pauls. London was still the bombed, shabby city of the Blitz, with rose bay willow herb flourishing on empty desolate sites. But I know that great and ancient city more intimately than any other. And I have known my way around it ever since.

The following year I went on another solitary journey via Air France to spend the summer with French friends in their chateau in Vienne. There, the gift was an insight into French food and French architecture… while my first mother-in-law, a fearsome lady, was a talented amateur interior decorator. From her, I absorbed a knowledge of antiques, a love of colour, fabric and design and have enjoyed restoring and decorating houses ever since.

As I look back at all these gifts, which have enriched the fabric of my life, expanded my mind, and given me pleasures that never fade, I realise how blessed I’ve been. I’ve had many vicissitudes, bitter sorrows, painful partings, terrible decisions to take, and terrifying leaps off that metaphorical cliff in my life. But I’ve also had some sweet joys and learned how to be happy. And the music, the books, the flowers, the history, the beautiful china are all extra gifts that have made life rich and bearable in the bad times.

I wonder what gifts I’ve been able to pass on to those both near and dear, and even just to those casually encountered. We all have such rich gifts to share with others, and sometimes we do it knowingly, and other times, unconsciously. This is how our civilisation endures, and is handed down from every generation.

And maybe it’s more important than we know… the handing on and handing down of simple pleasures, facts and names, skills and events… these things are the handing on of our past, the hard-won experience and knowledge of our ancestors, and even of the fabric and treasures of our civilisation. That civilisation is changing fast, but it could go into future shock unless we value the past as well as the future. The gifts we can share may be more valuable than we can ever guess or measure or imagine.

Footnote. I took this picture for a blog several years ago. It illustrates perfectly different strands of my life.. the flowers are magnolias, the books are on France and French food, Axel Vervoordt is a famous Belgian interior decorator, the china is antique Crown Derby  Imari, while the portrait in the tiny frame comes from the medieval Book of Hours.

Food for threadbare gourmets

It’s that time of year here in the Antipodes when the delicious  Victoria peaches are available. I always snap them up. I don’t bottle any more, I freeze them instead. They have a different texture but are just as good. Being a lazy cook too, I just take out their stalk and then boil them whole, with a syrup made of water, stevia to taste, and a few star anise and a stick of cinnamon. When the peaches are soft I leave them to cool before parcelling them out into various plastic receptacles (I know, I know, sometimes we have to live with parabens!)

When I want them, I un-freeze them, and gently re-heat them with some brown sugar or maple syrup, and ginger wine, rum or brandy added to the syrup… served with ice-cream or crème fraiche, a whole peach drenched in the unexpected flavours of the syrup is a good easy pudding.

Food for thought

“There is divine beauty in learning… To learn means to accept the postulate that life did not begin at my birth. Others have been here before me, and I walk in their footsteps. The books I have read were composed by generations of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, teachers and disciples. I am the sum total of their experiences, their quests. And so are you.”

Elie Wiesel, writer, academic, activist, concentration camp survivor and Nobel Laureate

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Heaven’s scent

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The first time I smelt it was at sea. One of my dearest friends had drowned there a few days before with her baby and two small children. Her husband’s ship, trading between New Zealand and the Islands, had caught fire in a heavy storm just off the coast not far from here, and they had had to take to the life-boats. Their mayday signal was never picked up, and the life-rafts, which are reputed to be safer near the coast, had broken away. So my friend and her children didn’t survive the mountainous waves.

Her heroic and tragic story before this happened, is too long to tell here, but her partner, a French sea captain, did survive. He came to stay with us for the next few days until the body of one child was washed ashore.

We all trekked up to Northland, and after the heart-wrenching funeral, Jean asked us to take all the flowers to a nearby bay. There, a police launch was waiting, and with a few close friends we loaded the flowers into the cabin – then thankfully shut the door on the overpowering scent of freesias, jasmine and other spring flowers, and took off for the bay where my beautiful friend had died.

When we reached the spot where she had slipped from his grasp, Jean stopped the launch, and then, in an old Breton custom, went to toss the flowers into the sea. As the launch stopped, the sun was shining, the blue sea was calm, and the line of golden sand on the shore, still guarded by a watching policeman, lay ahead. Only another mile from here, but a mile too far for my friend.  We sat silently and breathed in the heavenly fragrance wafting around us. Exquisite. Then the door to the cabin was opened and the scent of the flowers inside was entirely different.

When we talked about this to a friend, he told us about the writer Rosamund Lehman, whose daughter had died suddenly – of polio, I think – in Indonesia. A heavenly fragrance permeated the hall outside Rosamund’s flat. People didn’t believe it until they went to visit her, and then were overwhelmed by the perfume.

A few years later, we began to experience the same wafts of flowery perfume in our sitting room. I searched for the source, but it came from none of the flowers in the room. The scent cut through the smell of the coal fire, and every other momentary odour. In the end, we gave up, and just accepted, as a friend said, that we had angels there. After a week of this, one of our cavalier King Charles spaniels was diagnosed with an untreatable disease. We gave ourselves five agonising last days with him, and then took him to the vet for the last time.

When I got back home my nine year old daughter was waiting on the veranda, home with flu. She couldn’t wait to tell me. “The flowers came from that patch on the floor where Sheba used to lie to get cool,” she cried. (Sheba was an afghan who’d died the previous year) “She was warning us about Benedick.”

When we went inside, the fragrance had gone, but later, as I sat by the fire crocheting and wiping stray tears, I suddenly smelt a strong scent of lavender. Knowing well that I hadn’t got any, I still searched my knitting basket for a bottle of lavender. I called through to my daughter in bed – ‘have you spilt some lavender water?’

Then we realised that my son had picked a bunch of lavender and camellias to go with Benedick on his last journey… the scent was a last message from his little dog.

Since then we’ve heard of other instances of these heavenly perfumes. In her beautiful account of a year living in the Blue Mountains, Australian poet Kate Llewellyn, describes sitting next to two nuns on a train, and their gentle simple conversation with her. After they had left, she felt that she could smell violets… “the odour of sanctity,” she called it.

The Catholic Church calls it the ‘odor of sanctity’, but always associates it with the bodies of saints who have died. But these heavenly scents are like a gift sent from who knows where, and have nothing to do with sanctity. Rather, they are like gifts from a benevolent and loving source who for some reason allows these emanations of beauty to visit and to comfort. No-one has to be holy or to deserve them, they are simply a manifestation of another order of beauty and wholeness that we may be conscious of, but can never see or grasp.

They are the moments that we can hold onto in a world where man can create so much pain and misery. Beyond this world created by man is this other level of love. And how exquisite that it’s the fragrance of flowers that delivers this message of hope – that the world doesn’t have to be the way we make it – that there are other worlds of truth and beauty and peace that these fragrances remind us exist.

Rabindranath Tagore talked of the air filling with the perfume of promise… sometimes I wonder if that is what these flowery messages are – both a consolation and a promise.

Food for threadbare gourmets

With a family of gluten free addicts, I’m always looking for recipes without wheat. This is a lovely chocolatey treat. I melt 125 g of butter and 150 of dark cooking chocolate gently in a large saucepan. Stir in half a cup of sugar and a teasp of vanilla. Next, stir in three egg yolks and a cup of ground almonds. Beat the egg whites until peaks form and then beat in two tablsp of sugar.  Using a slotted spoon, gently fold the whites into the chocolate mixture. Line a 20 cm cake tin with a base of cooking paper, and bake at 180 degrees for 25 minutes. The cake will come out soft, and will sink and firm when cool. It’s very rich, so a sprinkling of icing sugar on top is all it needs.

Food for thought

In a rich moonlit garden, flowers open beneath the eyes of entire nations terrified to acknowledge the simplicity of the beauty of peace…

Aberjhani, American historian, novelist, poet and blogger

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Ant or grasshopper?

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The weather forecasters are calling it an Indian summer. This appals me – sitting here looking out of the French windows, watching butterflies flitting over the hydrangeas, I thought we were still gently making our way through an antipodean summer. Has the time flown so fast that we are in that gap between high summer and early autumn? The din of the cicadas should have warned me, as should the scattered pink blossoms on the plum tree. This bewildered specimen flowers every autumn – fruitlessly – before doing its spring burst of glory.

Driving along the roads to town, the verges are blooming with the autumn flowering of scarlet mombretia which have spread through the long golden grass. White oxe-eye daisies grow in clumps among the mombretias, and there are still some red- hot pokers and a few roses flowering as I drive past unkempt hedge-rows bright with a heavy harvest of red hawthorn berries.

 If it was the northern hemisphere I would repeat to myself the old country lore that we must be going to have a hard winter, and nature is providing for the hungry birds. But we never have hard winters where I live, so I just savour the bounty with no fear for the future. Instead we long for rain.

Every year now we have a drought, and it becomes a struggle to keep the garden alive;  I use up our precious water to save the white Japanese anenomes for their burst of autumn flowering, and to stop the roses wilting. The purple salvia looks after itself. Glorious scented Jean Ducher, and bright mutabilis keep the cycle of roses going all the year round. And littered around the garden are the shallow plant holders filled with water for thirsty hedgehogs to drink, and where I also see wasps sipping and even a pair of snails making their way together down to the water in a deep bowl.

When I looked out of the bedroom window this morning at silent dawn, the sea looked like wet aluminium, the curve of bay on the distant horizon was steel grey, and the clouds overhead, silver- grey. But by the time I drove into town for shopping, the sun had come out.  The fields are so dry they are burned to a pale gold, and the pennyroyal is now flowering, making a carpet of purple.

That rich purple carpet always reminds me of when I was in France, staying in an ivy- turreted, moated chateau in deepest Vienne as a twelve year old… my best friend there, Josephine, invited me to go mushrooming with her and her maid, so equipped with baskets we set off to find “champignons”, chattering in fractured French and broken English.

Two little girls dressed in flowery cotton summer dresses made their way through long wet grass and dewy paths lined on either side with blackberry bushes heavy with fat juicy fruit as big as grapes.

 We walked through early morning mist, and it suddenly cleared. There in the bright sun-shine in front of us, stretched a shimmering field of tiny pale purple-blue flowers, with hundreds of miniature, deep blue butterflies hovering and fluttering above them. That world was alive with birds and butterflies.

Farmers here are feeding out to the cows already, and I fear for the thirsty birds and hedgehogs. As I drove past the agistement fields outside the village, I saw all eight mares spread out round the field in a circle, with their heads thrust deep into bright red plastic buckets; and by the side of each one, their long-legged foal stood patiently,  waiting for mother to finish.

At lunch with friends was a person I’d never met, who used to be a dressage and eventing rider. She told a fascinating story of when she was part of the NZ team at the Olympics when Mark Todd won his first gold medal. The New Zealand team were in third place when their last rider came on. This person did the round without a fault, but so slowly that the team lost forty points and slipped right down the order. Mark Todd, beside himself, strode up to the rider, and exploded; “Why did you do it?”

“I was saving the horse,” was the reply, to which Todd cried despairingly: “What for?” I have used this thought constantly since, so every time I go to save something, I ask myself, what for, and mentally come back to the present, and seize the day!

On my own the other day, I decided to lay my lunch on a tray and take it out to the veranda where I look down to the sea through the gnarled branches of spreading pohutakawa trees. It’s shaded from the mid-day sun by dappled light filtered through leaves of the white wisteria. Suddenly I thought – why not use my precious antique green French plates – and green wine glasses – and the best silver – what am I saving them for? This is not seizing the day, I chided myself.

This thought has spread into other parts of my consciousness… I’m raiding my store-cupboard – if not now – when ? Why not eat these goodies now?  Time to start emptying the deep freeze – what am I saving all this food for? Those pretty shoes – why not wear them today, even if I’m not going anywhere?

Maybe I’m becoming a grasshopper – singing the summer through, taking no heed for the morrow – and the prudent ant in me is having a hard job trying to make itself heard. But being a grasshopper seems to mean feeling much satisfaction, joy and being right here in the present. If not now – when? Saving it  – what for?  Two phrases which are life-changing, ring with truth, and which mean that other cliché – seize the day. So I’ve come to terms with the Indian summer, and revel in these days of softer sun and autumn flowers and golden trees.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

It’s the time of year for the apple harvest. One of my favourite ways to use them for pudding when we have friends is to allow one apple per person. Take out the cores, and fill the hollow with brown sugar and sultanas, or as I usually do, with left-over Christmas mincemeat.

Put them either in an enamel dish or other oven-proof dish, but I love the homely look of an old-fashioned enamel dish for this. Pour cream and whisky over them to come up to about half an inch in the dish. Cover and bake until soft. They’re delicious served on their own or with a crisp biscuit, or for something filling, with a creamy rice pudding.

 Food for thought

“If we do not contest the violation of the fundamental right of free people to be left unmolested in their thoughts, associations, and communications–to be free from suspicion without cause–we will have lost the foundation of our thinking society. The defence of this fundamental freedom is the challenge of our generation,”

Edward Snowden NSA whistleblower and hero.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Poignant symbolism

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‘Mummy doesn’t like carnations,’  the nine year old told him coldly, her information holding a world of meaning as she correctly assessed that the man at the front door was a suitor.

She was right, and though he persevered on that occasion, he never gave me carnations again. It’s a shame about carnations, but at the time I could only see the sad, scentless etoliated versions wrapped in cheap cellophane and sold on garage fore-courts. They symbolised the  capitalism and commercialism that exploits and corrupts even beauty.

The real thing has a big, heavy deliciously clove- scented head, with a tangle of frilly petals, and was originally used by the Romans for wreaths and garlands, known in Latin as corona. When these flowers first came to England with the legionaries nearly 2000 years ago, their name was coronation, until the word evolved into carnation.

I was just as dismissive about daffodils, when I was presented with a bouquet – or rather some bouquets – which I rather regret now. In my salad days when I was a twenty two year old in the army, and stationed outside a beautiful village in Shakespeare country, I was the only girl in an all male officers’ mess. I had my own little cottage where I lived with the mongrel I’d rescued and dignified by calling him Rupert.

Late one night there was a loud knocking, so I dragged myself from deep sleep, hurried on my pink dressing gown, and stumbled to the door.  Grouped there were all the young officers who had gone to watch a rugby match at Twickenham. It had taken them many hours to get back here, judging by the time – two o’ clock in the morning – and one of the things which had delayed them, apart from merrymaking at every pub on the way back, was that they had also stopped at every roundabout, it seemed, between my cottage and London.

Each roundabout they had stripped of its spring flowers, and here at my door was the result of their labours. Each young man was wearing a proud grin and holding a big bunch of golden daffodils in the moonlight. Sadly, I was not amused, deeply disapproved, and was more intent on getting them to go away, and stopping Rupert from barking and waking senior officers slumbering nearby, than in being grateful for their generosity at the expense of every town council between here and London!

So I did know how my three year old grand- daughter felt when I gave her a disappointing bunch of flowers. I’d chosen a big blowsy thank you bouquet  for her mother, and had as much pleasure in choosing the flowers as my daughter- in –law had in receiving them. My grand-daughter was also ravished by them, so I decided to walk back to the shop through the bitter Melbourne winter’s day and get her the little bunch of flowers I’d refrained from getting on the first visit.

I brought home a posy of exquisite purple violets, the perfect symbol, I thought, for my exquisite flower-like little grand-daughter. She took one look at the dainty flowers and burst into indignant tears, and then threw an uninhibited tantrum in which she expressed her un-utterable disappointment at not having a big grown-up bunch of flowers like her mother’s. Mortified, I could see her point.

Two years later a small posy of white rosebuds with one word ‘Mummy’ on Princess Diana’s coffin reduced half a world to tears.

The symbolism of flowers is far more profound that the sentimental Victorian descriptions of the language of flowers. The flaming red poppy, whose name is now synonymous with the word Flanders, is a poignant reminder still, of every young man who died in the terrible war that my grandmother called The Great War.

And in the next terrible war  flowers softened another battlefield. I remember my father telling me how the hills of Tunisia were smothered in glorious spring flowers as his tank regiment fought their way to join up with Montgomery’s army.

Bruce Chatwin painted an unforgettable image of flowers in that same war, in his book ‘The Songlines’. On the first page he wrote of a Cossack from a village near Rostov on Don, who was seized by the Germans to be carted off for slave labour to Germany. One night, somewhere in the Ukraine, he jumped from the cattle-truck shunting him and other captives away from their homelands and fell into a field of sunflowers.

Soldiers in grey uniforms hunted him up and down the long lines of yellow sunflowers, but somehow he managed to elude them. I can still see in my mind those rows of strong, towering green stalks and leaves,  great, yellow tangled- petalled heads benignly sheltering the fugitive crouched beneath.

I can never forget the endless fields of shimmering purple lupins alive with dancing blue butterflies, stretching along- side thousands of burnt -out tanks in post-war Germany just after the war.  And I could never bear the pink rose bay willowherb, which grew on every English bomb site… the only plant that seemed to thrive in those derelict tragic places. They came to symbolise for me as a small girl, all the horror and sadness and destruction of the war I didn’t understand.

But perhaps the most powerful flower image of all, is that glorious girl on an American campus in the sixties, walking up to a row of armed, helmeted men, and tremblingly pushing a flower into the barrel of a gun pointed at her, her hand shaking slightly as she dared the outrageous.  A girl and a flower speaking the in-effable language of peace.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Sometimes home-made mayonnaise can seem a bit heavy, but I use a quick and easy French recipe to lighten it up, learned from my French neighbour. After making the mayonnaise, beat the white of an egg until stiff, and then gently beat it into the freshly made mayonnaise. It gives it a lovely creamy texture, and is particularly good with fish like freshly poached salmon. Another variation is to use a clove of garlic when making the mayonnaise and then add finely chopped avocado with the egg- white. This is a good accompaniment to the chicken mousse from the last post.

Food for thought

That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter. That mankind has in this sense been cowardly has done life endless harm; the experiences that are called ‘visions’, the whole so-called “spirit-world,” death, all those things that are so closely akin to us, have by daily parrying been so crowded out of life that the senses with which we could grasp them are atrophied. To say nothing of God.         Rainer Maria Rilke 1875 – 1926  Austrian mystical poet

 

 

 

 

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A rose is a rose is a hose !

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This was supposed to be a picture of a rose. When I developed it, it turned out to be a picture of a hose. I was shocked. How could I have been so one-eyed, and not seen what was shouting at me in a loud turquoise voice? I only see what I want to see, and eliminate even the obvious, it seems.

So when I went for my walk in the summer evening, I reminded myself to actually look, and not to assume or to expect. I wanted to see what was there, not what I thought was there. Down near the harbour where I usually turn around I always end up by a bougainvillaea sprawling through the trees, and just out its reach, a queen of the night holding her own. Braving bougainvillaea prickles, I can just reach the greenery-yallery sprigs of tiny flowerheads.

Two nights ago I broke one off and carried it back with me, sniffing the glorious fragrance, and ending up sitting on the warm marble bench in the cemetery at the other end of the peninsula, still smelling the sweet blossoms. I did what I’d never thought of doing before, and took it in and put it in a glass in the bed-room. The scent filled the whole room, and whenever I turned over in my sleep, the scent was drifting past.

The next day the tiny pale green flowers closed up, and the sprig sat nondescriptly on the window- sill all day, before bursting into glorious scent in the evening again. So now I plan to keep a permanent supply of these modest blossoms that don’t look big enough to be able to scent a whole room… The scent lasts for three nights I’ve discovered.

Walking back tonight with a fresh sprig of blossom, I passed a big shrub on the road where it dips and there’s a muddy spring.  Before now I’ve smelt its fragrance, but not given it a passing glance. Its reputation as a deadly poison and hallucinogen had somehow got in the way of me actually seeing this innocent plant. Tonight I looked at it, and ended up gently holding one incredibly beautiful flower-head after another, each one slightly different, gazing at their two layers of frilly white petals, and seeing deep inside the long white tube, white stamens pushing their way up to the light. The pendulous buds are so yellow it’s a surprise that the flowers are so white

The slender pale green calyx was smooth and soft and somehow tender to touch and to hold, and ended where the green- veined white trumpet – shaped flower began. Its ugly official name is brugmansia, but its folk name is angels trumpets. Angels trumpets spread their scent so far that long before I get there I can smell them.

Enchanted now with the idea of white scented flowers, I noticed the exquisite waxy looking candle-shaped buds of the king magnolia further down the road, the dark shiny leaves supporting each smooth creamy bud like a candlestick. Only one flower had opened, but it was enough. The scent of just one flower wafted past me.

I walked down the long drive to some friends’ house, knowing they were not there, but that they wouldn’t mind me visiting the frangipani plant flourishing by their veranda. The scent of frangipani takes me back to Singapore when it was still an eastern city and I was a girl, where all the alleys were hung with long bamboo poles suspended from every window on each floor, drying thin cotton tropical clothes in the brilliant un-ending sunshine.

We were staying in a hotel just around the corner from the famous Raffles Hotel, and the entrance was flanked with rows of frangipani trees.  Their fragrance followed us into the hotel courtyard and drifted in through the big open bedroom windows where we slept with no air conditioners, but beneath draped mosquito nets.

And when the velvet tropical night had fallen promptly at six thirty, every night in the darkness I would look down from the bedroom and see small groups of people squatting on the pavement in a circle. They would have tiny flickering lights and little spirit stoves in their midst to cook their dinner, delicious smells rising tantalisingly through the frangipanis, and I would hear their soft chatter and their laughter.

There were no blossoms on the frangipani growing here in New Zealand… wrong time of year perhaps. Back home, there was one white gardenia open.  I savoured the perfume before bringing it inside and putting it in a shallow bowl, floating on the water. So though no angels trumpets, I have queen of the night, gardenia and creamy honeysuckle from the porch scenting the house – even the names are poetry.

I don’t know whether I did what I intended when I began my walk, or whether I saw what was really there, but just by looking – truly looking at the beautiful angels trumpets – unnoticed before –  the walk turned into something else – a successful quest for white scented flowers. And like all successful quests, that was good enough.

And I wonder if this is how life is… we set off in one direction and find that imperceptibly we’ve drifted down other unsuspected paths; and looking back, we see that it was the perfect journey, and our travelling had a purpose, and was not random at all.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Friends for dinner before they left after the summer holiday to go back to the city. On a summer evening cold food seemed appropriate. So we had chicken with curry mayonnaise on rice salad. The cooked chicken chopped and mixed into a bowl of good bought mayonnaise, with about a big tablesp of golden syrup and desert sopn of curry powder to taste… I taste until I like it. Stir through enough cream to make it a soft consistency to stick to the chicken.

Cold basmati rice is jollied up with a vinaigrette dressing with salt, plenty of freshly ground black pepper, mustard, and sugar. Add to the rice generous helpings both of peas and sultanas soaked in boiling water, lots of crunchy chopped almonds lightly toasted in a frying pan, and lots of chopped parsley. Nice with a salad and chilled pinot gris .

In deference to our French connections we now have the cheese course before the pudding! This was some of our plums cooked to Nigella’s lovely recipe in red wine, one star anise, two cloves, teasp of cinnamon and a bay leaf, plus honey to taste. We had them with a mix of plain yogurt, whipped cream and runny honey stirred gently together, and a little shortbread biscuit.

 

Food for thought

That mighty power that sways the tides and works the million miracles of spring is ranged forever on the side of love.

The writer: known only to God .  Seen on an embroidered sampler hanging over a bedroom fireplace in an English cottage

 

 

 

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The necessity of beauty

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Pamela was my lodger. She was living in the third bedroom in my flat for the same reasons that Mr Micawber pronounced the immortal words:”Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.”

I’d tried to fill the gap between my meagre salary (women were paid far less than men in the Hongkong I lived in ) and my expenditure, by doing TV quiz shows,  radio programmes, using the children as photographic models and even doing PR for the Anglican church until I could stand being hypocritical no longer. So Pamela was my next attempt at solvency. While she lived with me my life was filled with her dramas, love affairs, crises and disasters.

She arrived with one fiancée, dressed demurely in twinset and pearls, tweed skirt and silk head –scarf. Soon she found a more exciting prospect, and changed her style  to newly fashionable jeans, her hair swung up into dashing styles and lots of makeup. The new fiancée lent her his new VW while he went back to England to sort out his divorce, and hereby hangs the tale. Pamela rolled the car her first night in possession of it, and I was awakened in the middle of the night by a Chinese policeman who couldn’t speak English.

I pieced together that Pamela had had an accident, and was in a Chinese hospital since she had no insurance to cover her for a European one.  The next morning the children, four and five years old, and I, packed up a few things for Pamela and made an expedition to the enormous  building which housed some thousands of sick and penniless Chinese.

We found our way through a maze of corridors to Pamela’s ward, and by the time I reached her bed I was deeply shocked. The ward held eighty women. They were all dressed in faded brown cotton shifts including Pamela. The noise was horrendous. Cantonese is the noisiest language on earth. To hear our amah chatting to another outside the kitchen was deafening. To hear seventy- nine women chatting in a confined space was probably higher than the safe decibel level.

Pamela was bruised and shocked but not injured. After doing our duty, and promising to return that afternoon with more things she wanted, the children and I went home, leaving her with a little bunch of camellias I’d picked. Only six blossoms because that was all that were flowering.

When we returned in the afternoon, something had changed. There was a hush in the ward and a sense of peace, and all eyes were on the gwailo (long- nose) and her children. Being watched was something one accepted as part of life then, but this felt different. And the hush was a sort of reverence. Pamela whispered to me what had happened after I left.

When we walked out of the ward, the women came crowding round her to see the flowers and smell the fragrance. They were ecstatic at this exquisite beauty in their harsh unfriendly environment. Deprived as the women were, of all colour and texture and smell and beauty, the flowers brought something like heaven into their lives.

They didn’t speak English, and Pamela didn’t speak Cantonese, but with the aid of the ward sister’s few words of English, they worked out a roster for the flowers. Each woman would have one camellia by her bed-side in a glass for three hours in every twenty-four. Pamela had one all the time, and the sixth flower which had fallen off its stem, the ward sisters had in their office, floating in a saucer.

Back at the office the next day I rang the dean of the cathedral and several hotels and they agreed to send their flowers to the hospital whenever they changed them. I wonder if they still do.

The great Catholic thinker Monsignor Hildebrand wrote that: ‘the poor need not only bread. The poor also need beauty’. But it’s not just the poor. We all need beauty.

It’s strange to me that Abraham Maslow in his hierarchy of needs didn’t include beauty. Sometimes beauty is the the only thing that keeps us going. As Resistance fighter Odette Churchill was being locked back in her cell after a bout of torture by the Gestapo, she snatched up the skeleton of a leaf being blown in the door with her. The beauty of that leaf sustained her and gave her hope and courage and a belief in goodness that carried her through her  dreadful ordeal.

Quaker writer, Caroline Graveson wrote that: ‘ there is a daily  round for beauty as well as for goodness, a world of flowers and books and cinemas and clothes and manners as well as mountains and masterpieces.’ She talked of beauty: ‘not only in the natural beauty of the earth and sky, but in all fitness of language and rhythm, whether it describe a heavenly vision or a street fight, a Hamlet or a Falstaff, a philosophy or a joke: in all fitness of line and colour and shade, whether seen in the Sistine Madonna or a child’s knitted frock…’

The sad thing is that those deprived Chinese women in that joyless hospital ward, came from a culture, which before the blight of industrialisation and the tyranny of plastic, was incapable of producing anything that wasn’t beautiful – from their baskets to their bowls, to their porcelain and their poetry.  And there was something very beautiful about buying a kati of vegetables in the markets and watching them being skilfully wrapped in a beautifully folded sheet of re-cycled Chinese newspaper, or a large leaf, and tied with a knotted reed.

Perhaps their own sage should have the last word, Confucius said that everything is beautiful, to those who can see it….

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Salady food feels right in the Antipodean Christmas season.This is one of my favourites. Boil new potatoes for the number of people you have, plus hardboiled eggs. Chop them and mix them with sliced artichoke hearts fresh from the delicatessen or from a jar. Gently toss in a good vinaigrette  dressing, and sprinkle with capers if desired. Delicious on its own with crusty rolls, or with cold chicken or cold salmon.

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