Category Archives: great days

Was I a snowflake?

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A life – part four

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued.

 Food for threadbare gourmets

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

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

Food for thought

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

 

 

 

 

 

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The passing of an era

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A life – part three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued.

Food for threadbare gourmets

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

Food for thought

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

 

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Little happinesses and big happiness

 

Image result for rowland hilder paintings

 

I love Autumn… I loved it in England, those early morning mists burnt off by the morning sun… the scents of bonfires and blackberries, picking hazel-nuts from the hedgerows, finding silky, shining conkers and kicking up the rustling leaves, crackling them under my shoes… freshly ploughed fields, and that sense of gentle melancholy, a poetic nostalgia for the last pale days of sunshine before winter crept in…

Later in Hongkong, the end of summer came quite suddenly overnight, when the light changed, and for a month or six weeks a light pervaded the harsh hectic city, and turned the island into a place of surpassing beauty.  I waited for those weeks every year. The gleaming days and shining waters of the harbour seemed rapturous for no particular reason, and those who noticed this magical transformation said the light was like the light of the Greek isles.

And now in the antipodes, autumn is the best season of the year – soft, golden days and crisp, starry nights.
We live in a covenanted podocarp forest of evergreen trees which stretches across high peaks and shadowed gorges. Some days we wake to find the sun shining on our mountain, and then see the gold light move down the slopes until the whole forest shines. Other mornings mist shrouds the peaks, and hovers in the valleys… last night the high wind blasted the last leaves of autumn from the trees along the roads, leaving just the fretted gold leaves of the gingko trees.

So today it feels as though autumn has passed, and winter is setting in. With deep pleasure, I get out the warm winter clothes, and start to think about winter food, hot and comforting, snug evenings with the curtains pulled, and warm sheets on the bed. These are ‘small happinesses’, a phrase my daughter introduced me to a few months ago.

This morning when I put the kettle on for my early morning cup of tea, the sun was on the mountain, a small happiness. Taking the tray back to bed, I checked my e-mails, gloating over the beauty of the latest photos sent from France by my daughter… yesterday Chartres, today Monet’s garden at Givernay, tomorrow Mont St Michel… Then I found a poem by Mark Nepo, sent by a dear friend, with phrases that gave me more small happinesses…

Each person is born with an unencumbered spot…

… an umbilical spot of grace… the last lines were: the incorruptible spot of grace resting at our core.

Holding these words in my mind, my love and I went shopping to a small town an hour and a quarter away. Every mile we travelled past weathered crags, misty mountains and green fields was beautiful. Finally, we reached the narrow coast road, where pohutakawa trees arched overhead, their roots clinging to the side of the cliff.

The wide silver stretch of still water, shimmering with light, lay alongside, and I watched birds dive for food in a small feeding frenzy, marvelled at the shag colony, where up in the pohutakawa trees, the big white breasted birds sat erect on their great nests concocted from twigs, while a gull flew overhead at 35 miles an hour. We passed the curving sandy bay black with hosts of black oyster catchers standing patiently on the shores of the estuary, white breasts and sharp, orange beaks facing the high tide, waiting for the water to recede and their food to return.

We did our shopping – small, kind, cheery encounters that are the building blocks of the goodness of life. A visit to the re-cycle centre yielded a satisfying bargain and a small happiness … two pretty pressed glass Victorian dishes for a dollar each, and then the building re-cycling yard had more treasures, including the perfect windows for our building project.

Feeling contented we relaxed in our favourite café, with hot chocolate and a blueberry muffin. We sat in the courtyard under the pollarded plane trees and watched a small flock of sparrows fall on each table as it emptied, diving into cake crumbs and pulling at a rasher of left-over bacon. A speckle- breasted thrush sat in an olive tree growing in a large pot, and pecked at the clusters of pale green olives. The sage green leaves were silhouetted against a rosy brick wall and the sinuous curves of branches and leaves looked like William Morris’s famous willow pattern.

I must keep a diary again, I exclaimed, I want to remember these moments of beauty. But writing this blog is the closest I get to it at the moment. This day was like all our days living in this remote place where we are the guardians of the forest, where species of plants and creatures that are almost extinct elsewhere, still live their tranquil lives hidden deep beneath the green canopy. I once said to my love that I knew people who were living quiet, mystical lives of love and beauty, and we agreed that we would make it happen for us.

Occasionally a note of discord strikes when a person who has other agendas intrudes into our peace, but since I take Don Miguel Ruiz’s Third Agreement seriously, and try never to take anything personally, our peace of mind is rarely perturbed. I also remember a meme which says: ‘negativity can only affect you if you’re on the same frequency – vibrate higher.’ So we try.

We forget to play music because the silence is so full of sound, the wind in the trees, the birdsong, the stream rushing down below. Living in this place, it’s easy to believe in that “incorruptible spot of grace” resting at our core. It’s easy to believe too, that the mystery of love and truth and beauty do still exist, in spite of what often seems like suffering and chaos in the outer world, but which, hidden from our limited understanding, may have a larger purpose. We only have to believe in love and truth and beauty, to see them – in people, in nature, in the universe, and in the deep silent mystery of the life unfolding around us.

So the roots of the trees in this forest grow deep in the earth, sustained by creatures of the dark, the snails, slugs, earthworms, flatworms and nematodes that degrade organic matter. The rain and the sun sustain them. Tiny frogs and rare lizards hide deep in their secret habitats, bees push into the flowers of the manukau trees, butterflies hover above the flowers, birds sing, the kingfisher plunges down into the grass for a morsel, morepork owls hoot across our valley in the moonlight, and nature continues to sustain them all, and the planet, and us too… what a big happiness!!!

PS   The picture is by Rowland Hilder who specialised in  painting nostalgic autumn and winter scenes.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

I needed a pudding for a gluten- intolerant friend, so fell back on our tried and true chocolate mousse… just eggs, butter and good dark chocolate… though I can never resist tweaking the simple recipe.

So after separating the eggs, melt a knob of butter in a saucepan, and I add a table spoon of brandy or strong black coffee or even sherry, and break the chocolate in. For every egg, use six squares of plain chocolate, and a little bit more butter.

Stirring the mix until the chocolate melts, take it off the heat before it goes grainy. Whip the whites of eggs until peaks form, and at this stage I often add one or two tablespoons of icing sugar and whip again until stiff. Stir the yolks into the chocolate mixture, and then gently fold this into the egg whites. Pour the mix into small individual bowls, chill in the fridge for at least six hours, and serve with cream.

I gave this to my children often when we were vegetarian, as it was an easy way to make sure they had enough protein.

 

Food for thought

“The best and most beautiful things in this world cannot be seen or even heard, but must be felt with the heart.”

Helen Keller, who overcame the handicaps of being deaf, blind and dumb to gain a degree and live a life of service to others.

 

 

 

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Eating for Easter

Image result for pics of hot cross buns

A beloved friend coping with laryngitis wrote to say she intended to cure herself by eating Easter eggs. An idea, which, as my delicious daughter would say, ‘had legs’, but which was not one which appealed to me.

My preference for Easter is hot cross buns, spicy, and with a good, sweet cross, heated up gently in the oven, and eaten with lashings of butter for breakfast on Good Friday.

Food marks the seasonal calendar as much as the religious reason for the various festivals. One of my favourites, Pancake Day, aka Shrove Tuesday, evolved in order to use up the butter, eggs and sugar which were no-no’s during the penitential Lenten days leading up to Easter.

In England, it was once known as a half holiday which began when church bells were rung at 11 am. and then pancake races were and are run in towns and villages all over the country, even today. Legend has it that in 1445 a housewife in Olney, Buckinghamshire was so busy making pancakes that she forgot the time until she heard the church bells ringing.

She raced out of the house to church, still carrying her frying pan and tossing the pancake so as to stop it burning in her hot, probably iron, pan. Today, the rules for the race are strict, and it’s mostly run by women, who must wear an apron and a head scarf, and must toss the pancake at the beginning and end of the race.

This jollification is not so different from the Lenten carnivals held in more extrovert Latin countries…. The word carnival evolves from the Medieval Latin carnelevamen  – “the putting away of flesh”, and this was the last opportunity to put away not just meat, but also the pleasures of the flesh, eating and drinking and celebrating before the hard, hungry, deprived days of Lent.

Easter, marking the end of the forty days of Lent, is, as everyone knows, never the same date every year, but is calculated according to a full moon, and what are called The Golden Numbers which are too complicated for me as a maths  dud, to even try to explain. (I have an antique Anglican prayer book printed in 1745, in which the golden numbers and the dates of Easter, have been worked out up to the year two thousand, which must have seemed like an infinite eternity to the mathematician who calculated these figures).

Then there was a brief opportunity to indulge the pleasures of the flesh on Mothering Sunday, which fell on the third Sunday before Easter. I remember as a girl picking wild daffodils to take to my step-mother on this Sunday, which has now evolved into another wholesale commercial festival with bought flowers, chocolates, and gifts of every description, including taking mum out to tea or lunch.

In the eighteenth century, servant girls were given the day off to visit their mothers, and were usually given some food or clothes by the ‘big house’ to take with them.  But long before then, joyous people had been celebrating Mothering Sunday with a simnel cake, a delicious confection with two layers of marzipan (not your pallid shop-bought stuff, but the real thing, almonds pounded with an egg white… sweet and rich). One layer went inside the cake for the baking, and one layer went on top to be toasted. Yum…

Apart from the Christmas feasting, there’s another delicious foodie ritual for those who observe the rhythms of the Christian calendar, and that’s ‘Stir-up Sunday’. This happens on the last Sunday before Advent, (meaning the coming of Christ) which means it’s five Sundays before Christmas… often the last one in November, but like everything else in the Christian calendar, it varies every year, and so is a moveable feast.

The name comes from a prayer that Christians have been using for over a thousand years, originally in Latin, and translated into Archbishop Cranmer’s beautiful English in 1549. It goes: ‘Stir up’, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people”… but for centuries the stirring has also been associated with the making of the Christmas pudding. Stir-up Sunday means mixing all the spices, fruits, suet, sugars, in a big bowl, and everyone takes a turn in stirring the mixture, and usually making a wish. There are religious rituals too, but I’m talking food here.

Some families leave the bowl for a week to ‘mature,’ and also leave a bottle of brandy by the bowl, for passing family members to sling a slug into the pudding, and give it a stir. Eventually the flour and other ingredients are added, and then the whole thing is bundled into basins, wrapped and boiled and stored for Christmas.

We always had a goose for Christmas when I was a child, much more delicious than the turkey which has become fashionable since then. On Boxing Day, my father used to give me a slice of good bread covered in cold goose dripping sprinkled with salt and pepper. Few children today would ever know how utterly delicious this simple pleasure was. I tried to re-create it one Christmas in this country, but when the farmer’s wife told me the goose she had decided some weeks earlier to fatten up to sell to me, knew, and ran off all over the farm to escape her, I never ate goose again!

Which brings us full circle back to Easter, and those chocolate Easter eggs. Most people know Easter eggs have an association with a pagan goddess called Eostre, and the Easter egg custom percolated into Europe from Mesopotamia, and the Greek Orthodox church, but my interest is in chocolate Easter eggs. I discovered that a splendid old Quaker, Joseph Fry, started a chocolate business in 1759, and his sons later invented not only my favourite chocolate – Fry’s Cream in 1866 – but the chocolate Easter egg in 1873, getting on for a hundred and fifty years ago.

Quakers dominated the chocolate industry in England, Cadbury, Rowntree, Terry, Fry, were all owned by Quakers, just as so many banks were, including Barclays and Lloyd’s, and firms like Clarks Shoes and Bryant and May matches. This was because Quakers, as non-conformists, were barred from universities and the professions, but because their word was their bond, they prospered because everyone trusted them.

They became incredibly rich, which bothered them, so their money went into charitable causes, including the first model town Bournville, for Cadbury employees who were given free health and dental care amongst other advantages.

And the reason all these Quakers were in the chocolate business was because they invented chocolate drinks for the poor to drink, instead of beer and alcohol. This meant that the poor had to boil their water, a healthy practice in a time when water was not always pure, and the chocolate flavour was neither addictive nor debilitating, unlike alcohol.

Which is a good and Christian thought, that we all enjoy our chocolate treats because a group of high-principled men tried to find something delicious but not in-ebriating for us all to eat and drink! So yes, let us eat chocolate Easter eggs, even if they don’t cure laryngitis!

Food for threadbare gourmets

I’m still thinking in emergency mode, since our region is officially in a state of civil defence emergency as we endure Cyclone Cook.… and thinking of all the things I can do to improve the taste of tinned or packaged food, if necessary. I have a packet of pumpkin soup which I will jolly up with some chicken bouillon, a knob of butter and a little cream, and either some curry powder to ‘hot’ it up, or nutmeg to spice it.

Tins of tomato soup I jazz up with vegemite or marmite, about half a tea-spoon, plus the butter and cream. A tin of baked beans I’ll ‘improve’ by stirring in tomato puree, a slurp of balsamic vinegar, and some stevia to taste, even a little molasses…and then there’s tins of salmon – well I could write a whole book about ways to use a tin of salmon, but will curb my enthusiasm now, as we batten down our hatches. I’m posting this blog early, while we still have electricity.

 Food for thought 

Learn to wish that everything should come to pass exactly as it does.

Epictetus Ad 50 – 135  Roman Stoic philosopher, whose teaching sustained the late Rear-Admiral James Stockdale throughout his seven years captivity, torture and solitary confinement during the Vietnam War.

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Who cares?

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While other squires were out raping maidens and oppressing the poor, or so legend has it, John Scrimgeour, the lord of the manor who lived at Stedham Hall, occupied himself instead with spreading cheer and happiness in the village he owned.

At the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, he was busy putting in the village’s water supply and installed a bathhouse and a reading room for his tenants. He gave the villagers an eight-acre playing field, and he built three-bedroom houses for newlyweds.

And when he built the houses for his parlour maids, he realised they were sited alongside the road facing east, which is one of the coldest angles in a climate like England. So he ordered them to be built end-on to the road, so they faced south. Back-to-front houses, with day-long sunshine.

When I read the story of John Scrimgeour and his community, I felt a warm glow. But I didn’t feel a warm glow when I saw a picture of the latest super-yacht with its helipad, swimming pool, guest bed-rooms for twelve – and so on – you’ll be familiar with these sort of stories which go right back to Aristotle Onassis and his Impressionists and Old Masters dotted around the walls of his yacht… they weren’t called super-yachts back then… perhaps because they weren’t.

I happen to know a chef on one of these floating palaces, and his stories shock me … not just the lengths he has to go to satisfy the outlandish whims of his employers and their guests, but the outrageous demands made on him too – dragged out of bed at three a.m. to rustle up bacon and eggs for a guest who can’t sleep; having to put up with the rudeness and lack of courtesy of spoiled children who complain to their autocratic parents if the staff don’t comply with their childish tantrums and demands; meals with half a dozen starters, entrees, main course, pudding and bonne bouches…

My friend is continually head-hunted from yacht to yacht by owners who want to enjoy his expertise, so he has seen a number of these billionaire establishments, and they are all similar, with no expense spared for personal trivial self-indulgences by these newly rich billionaires.

When I saw the picture of the latest and biggest super-yacht, my thoughts went back to a young man I saw in photos at his father’s funeral. I had already been struck by the sensitivity and goodness as well as his good looks in photos of him as godfather to Princess Charlotte of Cambridge. On the death of his father a few months ago, this twenty-six year old young man became Duke of Westminster. Not only is he now one of the richest men in England, but he inherits a dukedom with an astonishing reputation for philanthropy over several generations.

In one impoverished area of Scotland bought by a previous Duke, he and his agent planted thousands of trees, bought a redundant fishing business, developed the harbour and established transport which created a new community, so the Duke also built a school, and gave it to the local council. There was little, if any gain to the Duke from this enterprise, which was, and still is, typical of the activities of this rich family.

In another example the Duke bought Annacis Island in Canada and developed it, providing employment for thousands. The Dukes have given land in London to the Westminster City Council so work people could be housed near their place of work, and in the Depression they gave back fifty per cent of their rents to their tenants. Over the last seventy years this family have developed many schemes with no thought of gain – one of the most touching examples of their noblesse oblige being their generosity  to Norman Tebbitt after the Brighton bombing by the IRA in 1984….

Five members of Margaret Thatcher’s government were killed, while Tebbitt has limped ever since from his injuries, and his wife was permanently paralysed and has lived in a wheelchair ever since. The 6th Duke gave the Tebbitts a beautiful house near Parliament at a peppercorn rent (an old English term meaning literally a peppercorn) so Tebbitt could continue his ministerial duties, as well as care for his wife, and this generosity has continued ever since.

This 6th Duke has always repudiated the word philanthropy for his activities and simply calls it ‘caring’. Now his young son has taken over this mantle of caring while his three sisters are all involved in careers which involve service to others and ’caring’. The family, whose surname is Grosvenor, has an unbroken pedigree stretching back to 1066, when Gilbert le Gros Veneur landed in England with William the Conqueror.

The present descendant is the inheritor of a thousand years of both riches and responsibility. How long will it take the billionaires floating around the world, to develop that same sense of caring? At this moment eight billionaires own fifty percent of the world’s riches. Some of them, like Bill and Melissa Gates, and Warren Buffet are indeed the inheritors of aristocratic generosity and responsibility, but many others seem more intent on safeguarding their gains and living as though there were no tomorrows.

Unlike so many of the rich men of previous eras, these are men whose very businesses have nothing to plough back into the world. In previous ages, rich English landowners cared for the land, for this was where their riches came from; rich men endowed schools and art galleries, universities and homes for the poor. They  supported artists, collected art, built architectural gems to live in, planted beautiful parks and gardens, and as early as seventeen hundred were opening them and sharing them with the public, just as they do now. Altruism was common when Christianity united communities.

Today, generosity seems to be a characteristic of the internet instead, when the generosity of people with little to give when compared to the rich, becomes a groundswell of many small contributions to help individual cases of need. But the grand gifts, those that last for generations or change whole communities, as in the case of the English benefactors I’ve mentioned, don’t seem to be so common among today’s Russian oligarchs, internet moguls or mega- rich pop stars.

There are of course, many film stars and other celebrities who do ‘care’ and who work for caring organisations and green causes,  and it’s up to the rest of us to ‘care’ too, in the words of the Duke of Westminster. We CAN take responsibility, and though we think our voice or our efforts can’t make the difference we long for, this is not true.

I do believe the inspiring words of writer, Dean Koontz, who has given over two and a half million dollars to charity: “Each smallest act of kindness reverberates across great distances and spans of time, affecting lives unknown to the one whose generous spirit was the source of this good echo, because kindness is passed on and grows each time it’s passed, until a simple courtesy becomes an act of selfless courage years later and far away … Likewise, each small meanness, each expression of hatred, each act of evil.”

Few of us are capable of acts of evil, but it is easy to fall into the trap of hating oppressors like Assad and others. But this doesn’t help the world, while these reminders do. They sound like the perfect blueprint for the good life, be we billionaire or happy blogger!

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

After several episodes of global warming , or once- in-a – fifty-year storms, or Cyclone Debbie flooding, (however the weather forecasters explain it) in which we were cut off by landslips on one road, and flooding on the other, I’m planning a sort of mini-hoard for the next once -in- a -fifty year storm, whatever ‘they’ call it  – iron rations, emergency rations, whatever we choose to call them.

I searched my soul and found that there are several things I depend on… always plenty of cheese, some bacon and some Parmesan cheese in the fridge … plenty of olive oil, pasta, tins of tomatoes, and maybe minced beef in the deep freeze. With these staples, we can have spaghetti Bolognaise, lasagne, and when really up against it, pasta with butter and parmesan, or pasta with an egg, cream and Parmesan whisked together, and stirred immediately into the hot spaghetti. Simple, but one of my favourites … especially with crisp chopped bacon sprinkled on top. And there’s nothing like grilled cheese on toast when the cupboard is bare.

Food for thought

We can’t help everyone, but we can all help someone.    Ronald Reagan

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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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Simple pleasures- they may not be what you think !

Image result for pics of nasturtiums

For some it’s a nice hot bath, for others it’s sitting in front of a roaring log fire – surely one of the most primeval pleasures – so what are your simple pleasures? One of mine is a hot croissant eaten with unsalted butter, good apricot jam, accompanied by a pot of freshly made coffee, and delivered to me in bed… perhaps not so simple, given the various components required to deliver this perfection!

Then there is the simple pleasure of sitting in the sun on the garden bench by the profusion of rambling nasturtiums, and gently feeling beneath the round flat leaves to find the clusters of green ribbed seeds left by the flowers that have bloomed… my harvest to sow for next year’s pleasure.

These thoughts were prompted by browsing through one of my favourite books which positively encourages hedonism, though hedonism of the sweetest, simplest kind… most of these simple pleasures cost nothing. It’s an anthology by sixty fine writers, and they’ve given their thoughts and services to the National Trust, the body which maintains and protects historic sites and buildings in England.

In the introduction, Dr James le Fanu, after discussing how our genomes are virtually inter-changeable with either a mouse or a primate, goes on to write: ‘It is remarkable the difference it makes to acknowledge that we no longer know… the nature of those genetic instructions. Suddenly the sheer extraordinariness of that rich diversity of shape and form jostling for attention on the fishmonger’s counter – and the florist’s and the greengrocer’s and the whole glorious panoply of nature – is infused with a deep sense of wonder of ‘how can these things be?’

So since one of the simple pleasures of reading an anthology is flicking back and forth, sampling the joys and wonders it holds, I dive into a page which reads: …’and as you take the long single track road snaking down the shady side of Inkpen Beacon, it’s as though you feel the centuries fall away behind you.

‘You pass the ramparts of an Iron Age fort, and then the gibbet  on the Beacon, a reminder of the eighteenth century. You twist  between hawthorne and wild brambles, and now you’re in Civil War Britain. Pass the old church, and you’re back in Norman times. Then in the village itself, there are flinty tracks and beech hedges, and what Orwell in exasperation called the deep, deep sleep of the English countryside … an unspoilt, timeless view of fields, safely grazing sheep and the sound of rooks chattering contentiously in the beech trees overhanging the lane …old Wessex, Alfred’s ancient kingdom…. Watership Down just over the hill…King Charles fought the battle of Newbury in nearby fields’ … this from Robert McCrum who has written a book on P.G.Wodehouse amongst others.

And then to a delicious essay by Sally Muir, knitting designer…’I was taught by Mother Mary Joseph… it was the sort of thing you did in a convent in the 1960’s. It wasn’t all Carnaby Street and The Beatles for most of us. I think the nuns were working on ‘the devil makes work for idle hands ‘principle, and in a way they were right. One great advantage of an evening spent knitting is that you can’t easily smoke, play video games, buy things from Amazon, or inject drugs at the same time. In fact there are all sorts of things you can’t do, as both hands are fully occupied….’

I dip into ‘Grooming the dog’, and ’In love with the clarinet’, savour ‘Collecting the eggs’, and ‘Picking up litter’, and the arcane discussion of the best litter-picking-up devices, and relish ‘In praise of zoos’, much as I hate them. Philosopher Alain de Botton writes: ‘A zoo unsettles in simultaneously making animals seem more human and humans more animal… in May 1842 Queen Victoria  visited Regents Park zoo, and in her diary, noted of the new orang-utan from Calcutta: ‘He is wonderful, preparing and drinking his tea, but he is painfully and disagreeably human.’ (reading this, I imagine being captured and placed in a cage like a room in a Holiday Inn, with three meals a day passed through a hatch, and nothing to do other than watch TV – while a crowd of giraffes look on at me, giggling and videoing, licking giant ice-creams, while saying what a short neck I have.)’

Alain de Botton, I learn, having enjoyed many of his books, is also the founder of two organisations, Living Architecture and The School of Life, the first dedicated to promoting beauty, and the second to wisdom – oh Yes !!!

As I flick the pages of this tiny book – five inches by three and a half – Christmas stocking size, which I bought six copies of to give to friends, I can’t resist ‘Gossip’, written by journalist Sarah Sands. She discovers by chance that historian Simon Schama is ’an A-grade gossip’. ‘How exciting that a man of such an elevated mind is happy to trade in gossip as well as ideas… Gossip is what makes a great historian a delightful dinner companion… the bond of intimacy. One shares gossip as one should share good wine. It is an act of pleasure.

‘There is an art to gossip, which is really a moment of memoir. Philosophers of the human heart… or heartless but comic diarists …, tell us more about social history, politics and humanity than autobiographies of public record… I always learn more from a gossip than a prig. Life is a comedy, it is not Hansard.’ (Hansard is the English Parliamentary record)

The two most thought-provoking of these simple pleasures come at the end of this delicious little book. Historian Anthony Seldon was the headmaster of Wellington College when he wrote his essay. Wellington College is one of the tougher English private schools. I wonder if he changed that reputation, for he writes of the joys of meditation and yoga.

He ends by saying: ‘Most exciting of all is the sense I have that the happiness and joy I experience are only the tip of the iceberg. They cost nothing, harm nobody and I feel connected to life in all its fullness. The future promise is that the joy will only get deeper year by year, and the fear of crossing that divide from dry land into the water, from life into death, fades into utter inconsequence.’

Sue Crewe has edited the splendid magazine English House and Garden with zest and skill since 1994 –  not the sort of person I would have expected to write the exquisite little gem that ends this book. Over the years I’ve followed from afar her career, and noted that she had had what she bravely describes as a ‘period of turbulence’, and which I knew had been full of heartbreak.

She describes how a friend gave her a little book in which she had to write five things she was grateful for, every day. A simple practice which over the years has grown into what she describes as ‘several feet of bookshelves’. She tells how for the first five years she kept to the five one-liners, and how at first she groped for entries, and fell back on being grateful for her warm bed, or being well fed. Then she felt brave enough to branch out into what she calls ‘free-range gratitude diary-keeping’ and expanded her thoughts.

Now she writes: ‘Almost imperceptibly, free-floating anxiety and feelings of discontent with myself and the world were replaced by contentment and a clearer understanding of what I found acceptable and unacceptable about my own and other people’s behaviour…. It did and does help me keep things in perspective…

‘But the most transformative revelation is the power of gratitude itself: it takes up so much room that everything corrosive and depressing is squeezed to the margins. It seems to push out resentment, fear, envy, self-pity and all the other ugly sentiments that bring you down, leaving room for serenity, contentment, and optimism to take up residence.’

On this glorious note, one of my favourite books ends… full of such simple pleasures, those which don’t just add joy to life, but also enlightenment. I feel nothing but gratitude to all these writers when I re-read this little book yet again… and gratitude too, for the reminder of the power of words. The right words can transform our own thoughts and lives, and this reminder of the power of words, reminds me too, of the power of our blogs – each one mostly written with pleasure, and with words from the heart, to reach other hearts in that extraordinary network of friends and souls around the world.

Simple Pleasures – Little things that make life worth living. Published by Random House.

Food for threadbare gourmets

Made a pile of ham sandwiches for lunch, and some were left over. My thrifty soul decided to wrap them tightly in silver foil and store them in the fridge to have for supper that night. But I forgot, and several days later found this anonymous packet of foil on a shelf with butter and yogurt. Cautiously opening it, I discovered the now somewhat stale ham sandwiches. Undeterred, I decided it was ham sandwiches for me that night. I dunked them in egg like French toast and fried them in a little olive oil and butter. They were absolutely delicious – the best way to have ham sandwiches!!!

Food for thought

‘The world will never starve for want of wonders, but only for want of wonder.’    G.K.Chesterton

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