Category Archives: gardens

The gifts that keep on giving

100_0101

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

Advertisements

28 Comments

Filed under books, cookery/recipes, culture, flowers, food, gardens, great days, history, life/style, literature, Thoughts on writing and life, uncategorised, Uncategorized

A friend and The Golden Key

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.

She was born in 1900, the youngest of ten, to a father who was sixty years old, and she died when she was a hundred and four – so the two life-times covered a hundred and sixty four years, and went back to 1840. Her father was 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 to start his life here.

Robin, 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 arrived, the generous chief had given them 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 – sometimes known as NZ’s Frank Lloyd Wright – who created many of Auckland’s great buildings, like the Railway Station, 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, 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. I had another musical friend, Phillipa, whose unbearable life (a romance I ‘ll tell another time) was slightly improved by taking clarinet lessons, and since her ambition was to play in an orchestra, she 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 her two small children, one handicapped, plus her six-month-old baby, were adrift in a lifeboat in a violent storm. I never saw them again.

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.

So it was that her funeral – which was attended by all those people from all walks of life, whose lives she had touched with love and compassion – was a very traditional one… which slightly puzzled me, as I was sure Oi would have wanted something different.

At the end her family left, and only five of us gathered round Oi’s coffin as it was lowered into the void – the student – now a judge, her cleaning lady for the last twenty years, my two now grownup children, and I.

The judge said to us, “That wasn’t the sort of funeral I expected Oi to have”.                    “No,” piped up the cleaning lady, “I still have a copy of what she wanted!”

I suddenly remembered how Oi, when she was too old to cope with driving in inner-city traffic, had asked her lawyer to call in and take possession of her will for her funeral. She had showed it to me – an exquisite collection of sayings on love, from mystics of all faiths. To my horror, the lawyer had charged this beautiful old lady in her mid-nineties, an exorbitant fee.

Standing by her coffin now, the judge wept over this betrayal of Oi’s wishes. “One more thing for her to forgive her sons for,” he sobbed. We all wept with him.

Before she died, Oi gave me 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 thirteen years ago, but her loving wisdom sustains me still.

The gift she gave me, which I treasure the most, and use constantly, is ‘The Golden Key’, a tiny spiritual masterpiece of only a few words. I give it now with love, as Oi did, to anyone who thinks it may be useful to them… https://morningstar.netfirms.com/goldenkey.html

Food for threadbare gourmets – those of us who qualify for this description will go hungry today, as I feel this post is so long, I can’t expect you all to go on reading, while Food for thought is contained in Oi’s sayings and in her life…


33 Comments

Filed under consciousness, gardens, happiness, human potential, life and death, life/style, love, music, spiritual, uncategorised, Uncategorized

The wilder shores of love

100_0542
I’m a sucker for romance, passion, adventure – is there a woman who isn’t? Not the bodice ripper stories of the supermarkets racks but the real thing… the: ’Love is an ever-fixed mark ‘ stuff of life.

I admit I revelled in The Prisoner of Zenda as a teenager, the ‘I did not love thee dear so much, loved I not honour more’, and the red rose delivered once a year to the ravishing queen from her honourable and faithful cavalier, a very English gentleman. And it took me a while to recognise Ashley Wilke’s gutless having his cake and eating it with Melanie and Scarlet, I was so dazzled by his weary elegance and assumption of honour.

But it’s the real thing that hooks me now… the courage to dare and love and think the world well lost in order to follow the heart. So how could I resist Jane Digby? Not her famous descendant, Pamela Digby.

She married the famously un-likeable Randolph Churchill, becoming Winston Churchill’s daughter- in- law, lover of Averill Harriman during the war, mistress of every millionaire, playboy and sex symbol in the post war years… Prince Aly Khan, Marquis de Portago, Fiat heir Gianni Agnelli, Baron Elie de Rothschild, and Stavros Niarchos amongst others. Ed Murrow intended to give up his wife for her, and returned home to fix it, and reneged. She became the fifth wife of impresario Leland Hayward, and finally, when he was eighty-one, snaffled Averill Harriman again, this time in marriage, and became powerful and respectable as US Ambassador to France. No, Pamela Digby’s quest feels like something other than love.

But her beautiful ancestor Jane Digby was something else. Jane was married very young to a man twice her age, who dallied with a servant girl on their honeymoon, and not surprisingly the marriage never took off. Left to her own devices while Lord Ellenborough devoted himself to his political career, she not surprisingly fell in love with a gorgeous playboy, Prince Felix Schwarzenberg, who was besotted with her. Jane, young and naive, never thought of hiding her love, and of course they came to grief.

The Prince was withdrawn from London in the interests of his glittering diplomatic career, Ellenborough divorced Jane – a horrendous and tortuous decision which entailed Jane’s actions being dragged through the House of Lords and the House of Commons and her becoming a pariah – and she followed her lover to Paris where she gave birth to a daughter. Schwarzenberg kept her on a string for some years, and Jane was too blinded by love to see it.

Finally she left and went to Munich, where the King Ludwig, a clever intelligent man became a close and loving friend, and an upright but ultimately boring German aristocrat wooed her for some years before she gave in… and then she fell in love with a handsome Greek count. Her husband Baron Karl von Vennigen fought a duel with Count Spiridion Theotsky… and Jane ended by running off with her glamorous Greek. They enjoyed a lotus- eating life in places like Corfu, before ending up at the court in Athens. Von Vennigen never stopped loving the fascinating Jane and wrote to her until he died.

In Athens her Greek husband became unfaithful so Jane took up with a sixty- year old white mustachioed Pallikari bandit chieftan , Cristos Hadji-Petros.
She entered  into mountain life wholeheartedly, dressing like the peasant women of the tribe, and learning to cook, make feta cheese, sleep in the open air on goats-hair blankets, galloping on horseback around the mountains, drinking retsina and making mad, passionate love with the wicked old bandit.

It all fell to pieces when Jane’s maid told her she having trouble fending off the calculating rough brigand who smelt of garlic and too few baths. Jane and her maid disappeared from Athens, Jane now sad and depressed and nearly fifty… and she decided to explore all the ancient cities and historical sites now under the sway of the latest bandits, Isis.

She negotiated a bodyguard to escort her to the glorious ruins of Palmyra. Even back in 1853, tourists were drawn to the dangerous journey to this fabled city, and the Bedouin tribes competed against each other to guard travellers from other tribes who threatened to rob the Europeans. Sheik Medjuel el Mesrab was the Bedouin chief who commanded Jane’s bodyguard, and by the time they had reached Palmyra, he had proposed to Jane and offered to give up his wife.

She didn’t succumb straightaway, and later had to fend off an offer from another determined Arab sheik. Feeling depressed and lonely she continued travelling before returning to Damascus. But Medjuel had kept tracks on her, and as she approached Damascus he rode out to meet her, with an Arab mare as a gift of welcome, and his wife already sent back to her people with her dowry.

They fell deeply in love and married. Jane spent the last twenty five years of her life living partly in Damascus and partly in the desert whenever her husband had to take his flocks and people to different areas of grazing, or to fight other tribes. Jane rode with him into battle. She was a brilliant horsewoman and broke in many of Medjuel’s Arab thoroughbreds, she spoke nine languages, was a witty conversationalist and a talented artist. Her exquisite manners, gentleness, beauty and charm won over both the reluctant tribe and the disapproving local community.

Jane threw herself into the life of the Bedouins when they camped in the desert, and dyed her long fair hair and eyebrows black as the Arabs felt that fair hair attracted the Evil Eye. She plaited her hair in two long braids which reached to her feet and wore the clothes of the Bedouin women, learning to milk camels, prepare her husband’s food, and stand and wait on him, and wash his hands and hair, face and feet. Medjuel on the other hand, impressed everyone who met him with his refinement, intelligence, and elegance.

In her home in Damascus she had a huge menagerie of creatures and created one of the most famous gardens in a city famous for its gardens. She and Medjuel had a passionate and tempestuous relationship which never lost its intensity in over twenty five years. Nearing seventy four, she wrote in her diary: “it is now a month and twenty days since Medjuel last slept with me. What can be the reason?“ Though younger than Jane, Medjuel was feeling his age by now, and this year stayed close to his wife instead of joining his tribe. Not long after writing these words, she faded away after an attack of dysentery, Medjuel by her side.

The Sheik was persuaded to ride in a closed black carriage to her funeral, until suddenly overcome by grief and needing open space he bolted from the carriage and fled in the opposite direction to the cortege. Everyone was shocked by this breach of funeral etiquette. But as the clergyman was intoning: ‘ashes to ashes’, Medjuel galloped up on his wife’s favourite black Arabian mare. He sat motionless staring down into the grave and no-one moved or spoke. Moments passed as he sat there in anguish and then the Bedouin Chief rode away.

Jane would have loved her husband’s farewell. He returned to the grave once more. He brought a rough slab of Mazoni rock, carved to fit over the base of Jane’s tomb. He carved her name: Madame Digby el Mezrab on it in Arabic and disappeared into the desert.

A missionary who knew her well described her life as: ‘wild, passionate and reckless’, while her devoted friend, the explorer Sir Richard Burton said that her ‘life’s poetry never sank to prose’. Her life is an inspiration to a romantic. By following her heart she finally found the one person in the world, in Truman Capote’s touching words in The Grass Harp:’ … from whom nothing is held back…’ and: ‘to whom everything can be said’.

And those words, it seems to me, are the definition of true love. They mean perfect trust. No co-dependency, neediness or misunderstandings through lack of communication. But trust takes courage, and maybe to paraphrase the words of that haunting song ‘The Rose’, true love is only for the brave … like Jane Digby el Mesrab.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Sometimes I just want a plate of roast vegetables, but also feel I must need some protein. I kid myself that this pea-nut sauce will fill the gap. It’s quite unlike the traditional pea-nut sauce, and was dreamed up in front of me by a chef at a demonstration.
In a stick blender, I spoon a cup or more of pea-nut butter, the skin thinly peeled from a lemon, plus the juice, a good teaspoon or more to taste of dried thyme, a couple of garlic cloves, a tea-spoon of fish sauce, a dessert-spoon or more to taste of brown sugar, plenty of salt and black pepper, and a cup or more of olive oil. Just whizz everything together. And add more olive oil if you need it. It lasts for plenty of time in the fridge, and is good with baked or sauted vegetables for a light meal, and also with baked salmon.

 

Food for Thought

He either fears his fate too much,
Or his deserts are small,
That puts it not unto the touch
To win or lose it all…
From ‘My dear and only love’, John Graham, Marquis of Montrose

 

Lesley Blanch who died this year at 103 wrote The Wilder Shores of Love

 

26 Comments

Filed under cookery/recipes, gardens, great days, happiness, history, life/style, love, Thoughts on writing and life, travel, uncategorised

The preciousness of people

100_0218
A knock on the door revealed a stranger holding a white enamel colander full of strawberries. We had moved into this house in town the day before, and he introduced himself as a neighbour.

That was a very meagre description of what he was, he was a glorious eccentric who I watched every day cycle slowly past on a very high old fashioned bike with a basket on the front, which gave the impression of being far too big for his small skinny frame, and liable to go out of control at any minute. He was on his way to the docks where he was a dock worker – a somewhat unconventional one I imagine.

Again a meagre description of this blue- eyed, wildly bearded, elderly Irishman, who revealed to us that he was a sort of remittance man, exiled from Ireland by his despairing family to make his somewhat erratic way in the antipodes.

He was a poet, he told us. I believed him though I never saw any of his work. His life was a poem. We went to his house, which was a poky little state house. Inside it gave the impression of being a miniature stately home, along the lines of an Irish demense… a few good but battered antiques, the odd oil painting and large old-fashioned sofa and chairs covered in old fashioned country house flowered linens.

This splendid impression of stateliness continued into the garden, which was quite big, being on a corner. He had transformed this rocky site into a miniature paradise, grass walks edged with pleached fruit trees, a vegetable patch, a strawberry bed, a tiny terrace and lawn, and best of all, a deep pond edged with large rocks, which he had created by levering the huge rocks day after day over a period of six months, until a deep hole had been carved out of the stony ground.

He was an eccentric, one of the many who, when I look back, have enriched our lives and given us fun and pleasure. There was Mr Macdonald, a direct descendant of Beatrix Potter’s Mr Mcgregor, who was our neighbour in the country, another Irishman. He only wore a pink woollen vest with long sleeves  and braces, all summer and winter, except on Sundays when he looked quite unnatural, shaved and spruced up in a short sleeved shirt in which he looked very ill at ease. Every spring he would arrive at my door in his pink vest, braces and hob-nailed boots, bearing a huge bunch of sweet-smelling narcissi which I had once told him reminded me of spring in England. He never missed a year thereafter.

There was Alf, an Englishman who served in the Malayan Police, and every three years when his leave was due, not having any family he wished to return to, he would sail to the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula. There he would buy a large flock of goats, and then proceed to drive them through the desert, using the goats as food and currency, until he reached Port Said. There he would get a boat to Liverpool, make a quick visit to his sister there, and then return to his tropical home in Kota Bahru.

Here too, lived Mammy, a giant White Russian, over six feet tall, wearing thick pebble specs for her short sighted grey eyes, and wearing the first caftans I ‘d seen over her enormous frame, all in brilliant colours and garish patterns . Mammy ran the local hotel where everyone gathered in Kota Bahru, and was a local joke too. As a seventeen year old I didn’t think she was such a joke. She and her husband had escaped the revolution in Russia, and made it safely to Shanghai like so many other White Russians.

They had survived the rigours of Japanese occupation and then fled Mao’s Communist takeover, ending up in Singapore. There, one afternoon, Mammy’s husband had walked down the road to buy an evening newspaper, and had never returned. No-one knew whether he had run away or was the victim of some crime. And Mammy was now surviving in this rather heartless superficial society in the remotest part of Malaya but creating laughter and fun all around her – actually rather more than a survivor.

Another neighbour was our Dutch friend Andrea, who had an antique shop full of the most exquisite items of a particular sensitivity, many of which I still posses. She was as nutty about animals as I, and far more lawless, striding into a bikie house to steal/rescue weeping puppies with no tails. I revelled in her poetic garden and laughed to see her huge magenta magnolia blossoms each wrapped in a plastic bag to protest them from the wind… not a good look actually!

Her house was beautiful in that glorious Dutch interior way of Pieter de Hooch and Vermeer, her pottery made you want to hold it and stroke it – and I have some – and her paintings were romantic and exquisite, and I have some of them too. I could actually write a book about her…

These memories were prompted by a conversation with a neighbour on my walk this morning. Since some of them read my blog, I cannot reveal what we talked of, or his glorious quirks of personality, but he reminded me of the joy of being with people who allow their personalities to flower, with no thought of what anyone else may think. Eccentricity is simply individuality, unself-consciousness, and the courage to be and do what feels right. When we are in the company of such people it feels as though ‘the waters of life’ are flowing, there are no limitations, and all things are possible.

Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher wrote that: ‘Everyone has in him something precious that is in no one else. But this precious something in a man is revealed to him only if he truly perceives his strongest feeling, his central wish, that in him which stirs his inmost being.’

P.S. The picture is of an antique English drinking jar given me by my friend Andrea.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

A faithful follower e-mailed me yesterday and asked if I had a recipe for Simnel cake. This is the light fruit cake that’s traditional at Easter, so I told her I’d blog it today. I use Nigella Lawson’s recipe with my own adaptations.

When I make it, I prepare the tin as usual, and then cream 175 g of soft unsalted butter with 175 g of caster sugar. Then mix 225 g of SR flour with half a teasp of cinnamon, a quarter of a teasp of ginger and 25 g of ground almonds. Add one egg with some of the flour mixture to the butter mixture, and mix two more eggs into the rest of the mix in the same way, before adding two tblsp of milk. Finally, fold in 500g of mixed dried fruit, plus some chopped glace cherries if you like them.

At this stage I put half the cake mix in the tin, roll out about 400g of marzipan, cut into a cake sized circle and place on the cake mix, then cover with the rest of the cake. Bake for an hour at 170 C, then turn it down to 150C and cook for another hour and a half. It’s cooked when it’s risen and firm. Let it cool completely on a rack before taking it from the tin.

When cool, paint the top with apricot jam, and roll out another 400g of marzipan and stick it on. With 200g of marzipan, make balls representing the eleven apostles – Judas surplus to requirements here – and stick them on using an egg white – beaten to just frothy. Some people quickly put it under the grill to make it look slightly toasted.

 

 

32 Comments

Filed under colonial life, cookery/recipes, culture, food, gardens, great days, life/style, philosophy, spiritual, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, village life

Ant or grasshopper?

100_0809

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

55 Comments

Filed under cookery/recipes, environment, flowers, gardens, great days, happiness, life/style, philosophy, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, village life

Poignant symbolism

100_0812

‘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

 

 

 

 

45 Comments

Filed under army, cookery/recipes, family, flowers, gardens, great days, history, humour, life/style, philosophy, princess diana, spiritual, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, world war one, world war two

A rose is a rose is a hose !

100_0532

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

 

 

 

73 Comments

Filed under cookery/recipes, flowers, food, gardens, great days, happiness, life/style, love, perfume, spiritual, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized