Category Archives: great days

Eating for Easter

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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 !

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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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The magic and mystery of cats

Cat, Black, Sun, Meadow

“I have lived with several Zen masters”, wrote master and mystic Eckhart Tolle, and went on to say they were all cats. Well, I have lived with one zen master, a small black witchy cat who entered my life with purpose. Black cats are notoriously hard to adopt from rescue centres because so many people associate them with the myths of witches, having absorbed the ancient male propaganda about women and healers (but that’s another story).

I’ve always thought I was a dog person, having nurtured seventeen rescued dogs (three at a time, but that’s also another story), yet when I look back on my chequered past, I see there are just as many cats as dogs who have entered my life – some  at a distance.

All those cats who did, had those mysterious feline qualities of dignity and free spiritedness. Two strays were the first, Black Kitty and Wild Kitty – a beautifully marked tabby – both unnamed, a subtle way of not alarming my parents into thinking I wanted to keep them, and also I couldn’t bear to give them names and then have to relinquish them. But after a few weeks my parents softened, and expertly using the thin end of the wedge, I managed a balancing act between the kittens and the puppy I had also acquired over my parents’ dead bodies.

I was eighteen and I wonder now how I could never have looked into the future and realised that I wouldn’t be around to care for these fragile little creatures. We moved house a couple of months after acquiring them, and I was immensely relieved  to find that my parents were including my animals among items to come with us.  The journey in the back seat of the car with an excitable puppy, two terrified kittens on the loose with long claws, and my loudly protesting eight-year-old brother was an ordeal never to be repeated.

At the new house, Black Kitty was run over, but Wild Kitty established a comfortable possie behind the warm boiler in the kitchen. I left to join the army a few months later.  When I returned months later for a weekend leave, the parents had moved to another house the other side of the town, and Wild Kitty was missing – apparently she had left home when I did. The family moved back to an army quarter a year later, half a mile away from the house I’d left, and miraculously Wild Kitty turned up when I came home for the weekend.

From then on Wild Kitty appeared when I came home on leave and then pushed off when I left. The last time she was seen was when she walked across the grass to show us her line of tiny kittens straggling behind her.

Decades later in this country, I received the usual Christmas presents from irresponsible townies who dumped two tiny tortoiseshell kittens at our gate. Tins of cat-food for a year until they were caught.  Another pair again another year, and then a cat and her kitten when we moved to a new house, a gentle stray in Norfolk Island who nestled on our bed, and waited for us every day while we were on holiday, more tins of cat food, followed by starving kittens in Fiji outside a restaurant…only scraps for them…

Some years later, back in town to be near new grand- children, we lived in a house on the side of Mt Eden, an extinct volcano. Our garden stretched steeply up the slope and ended in overgrown shrubs and trees and wilderness. One day I noticed a stray cat in the garden. Feeling sorry for it, I put out some food the next day. In a few days there were five cats, so carefully keeping the doors shut so no cat-chasing King Charles spaniels could do their worst, I put another dish or two out.

By the end of three weeks I had fifteen stray/ wild/dumped cats waiting neatly and patiently on the steps leading up the hillside. I put out five bowls night and morning, and they shared with perfect good manners, and then quietly left with dignity. They always knew the time I would put the food out, and would be lined up expectantly and hungrily for about twenty minutes before, and there was never any squabbling or pushing in when the food arrived .

When we downsized to a little town house, and I had to leave them, I used a possum trap to catch them one by one, and take them to the vet, as I couldn’t bear to think of them starving on the hillside. I caught them all except three tom cats who were too clever to get themselves trapped.

Then, not enjoying living in town, we moved back to the country. We’d only been there a week when we went out into the garden, and there on a log in the sun was a tiny black cat. She got up, stretched, and came over and nuzzled us endlessly, followed us inside the house, and all but said: ‘I’ve been waiting for you’.

She refused to go back home, which was on the next-door acre of land. For weeks I resisted, refraining from feeding her, and yet every time I opened the door, there she was on the front door mat. Eventually I put a deep linen basket with a soft cushion in the bottom for her by the front door, and finally, when I heard a fight  in the middle of the night, with the big marmalade tom cat who had come- it seemed- to fetch her back home, I opened the door to her. She ran straight in and settled down on the bed, and for the next ten years ran my life. She was a small oasis of calm and character, whose endless antics amused and entertained; while her wilfulness and intelligent curiosity and mysterious inner life fascinated me.

Whenever her previous owner saw us out walking the dogs with Cara, the cat, skipping along with us, he’d wind down his car window and shout “traitor! “at her. The end of Cara’s story is in the first blog I ever wrote, called ‘Goodbye Cat.’

My last encounter with a cat was more like sitting in that boat with a tiger in ‘The Life of Pi.’ A panther-like black cat had terrorised both cats and owners in our small village for many years, and my friend who had a small gentle cat who was being monstered, decided something had to be done to save her cat. I arrived at my friend’s house just as her Altzheimers husband was putting a blanket over the possum trap and cat, which they had arranged according to my instructions!!!

Feeling responsible, I volunteered to drive friend and captured cat to the vet. We carefully put the trap on the back seat, which was covered in a rug to protect the seat. Chatting happily, I suddenly felt sharp claws dig viciously into my back and shoulders, and a black body hurtled past my ear to land on the dash board. A panting black creature with blood literally dripping from its fangs from where it had forced the door of the cage up, using the crack from the seat rug to lever it, and with fierce yellow eyes glaring at me, crouched there – ready to spring.

It did, back into the back seat, shaving my ear the other side as it hurtled past. Driving was impossible … I pulled unsteadily into a farm drive, not having the faintest idea what to do, and my friend, who was bulky enough for the angry desperate creature not to tackle her side of the car, cringed in horror. The cat continued to leap back and forward past my ears in a frenzy, raking my shoulders and back with its claws each time. Luckily a car was coming down the drive… I flashed the hazard lights, tooted and did everything to show I needed help.

We dared not lower the windows to talk in case the frantic, mangy, bleeding animal escaped to terrorise a fresh territory. The farmer shouted through the glass, telling us to go to the vet – impossible – which he soon realised as the cat continued to launch itself to and fro past my head. The end of the dreadful story came when we quickly eased ourselves out of the car doors, and while we cowered in a farm shed, the helpful farmer opened the car, and shot the poor creature as it made a dash for freedom.

I took my expensive blood-stained cream cardigan straight to the dry cleaners, and had a stiff cup of coffee- I really needed a stiff glass of something stronger. Back home, I washed the blood off all the windows and the dashboard and rubbed antiseptic cream into all my weals and wounds. The next morning, I went out to go shopping, and found to my dismay that there was still blood everywhere. As I washed them off, I counted twenty-eight blood-stains on the inside roof of the car alone. Alas, the blood never came off my cardigan.

Cats – here? No, no danger of strays or bullies here. We live in a covenanted forest with an agreement that we have neither cats nor dogs in order to preserve the native birds, most of whom don’t fly. So no more temptation, no more catching or herding cats, or even black panthers. Sadly, all these encounters with cats have mostly been the result of man’s inhumanity, or irresponsibility.

Unlike the dogs we rescued, I was usually unable to do anything to better their lot, and also unlike the wonderful people all over our city who visit colonies of strays every night to feed them. Sometimes these cat-lovers manage to catch them and get them de-sexed or healed of their illnesses, but I still feel sad that they don’t have homes, which once-domesticated animals long for.

Robert Heinlein, science fiction writer who some feel was also a seer, once wrote that: “How we behave toward cats here below determines our status in heaven.” He may well be right – if there is a heaven – so maybe I’ll see you there! And maybe those dignified, elegant creatures we have encountered in this life will be there too in all their mysterious beauty to love us still, in their own idiosyncratic way.

Food for threadbare gourmets

I had some chicken nibbles in the fridge bought to use for a chicken risotto, but when it came to it, boiling them up for stock etc didn’t appeal, so instead I marinaded them in half a cup of honey, nearly the same of soy sauce, a good glug of sesame oil, lemon juice from a juicy lemon, a generous teaspoonful of minced ginger and the same of garlic. After a couple of hours resting in this mixture, thirty-five minutes in a hot oven, and eaten with sour dough bread, they made a quick tasty lunch.
Food for thought

I don’t believe there was ever anybody who loved being happy as much as I did. What I mean is that I was so acutely conscious of being happy, so appreciative of it; that I wasn’t ever bored, and was always and continuously grateful for the whole delicious loveliness of the world.”

Elizabeth von Arnim. Author of Elizabeth and her German Garden

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The kannabis trail

100_0087

I’m sitting on my cream sofa as I write on my little lap-top. It doesn’t need recovering, though I had these loose covers made twenty years ago … they are, you could say in that time-honoured phrase – as good as new – and have a lovely linen -like texture.

They are made from hemp, the brother, so to speak, of marijuana. I’ve never sampled marijuana, though now that I’m getting to the end of my appointed time (maybe not) I wish I had. But in my younger days, when all around me were urging me to have a go – young lawyers, an architect, teacher, professional men – even a doctor and several nurses who dared the system – I didn’t dare.

I feared too much that I would get caught by the punitive laws fifty years ago, and if found puffing the forbidden weed, would have my two small children taken away from me, and lose them. Though I was often subjected to constant pressure- what’s wrong with you… why are you so inhibited – the thought of my children made me adamant – no experimenting for me…

Several things have made me change my mind now I’m past three score and ten. One was watching the moving French film and true story, ‘The Intouchables,’ and seeing the relaxed enjoyment of life that the tetraplegic experienced when his outrageous carer introduced him to pot. I was reminded of the sadness I had felt some years ago, when a tetraplegic in this country was mercilessly sentenced to prison, even though he claimed that the ‘weed’ alleviated his pain. In the past six months that I’ve been taking powerful painkillers for nerve pain in my numb foot and shin, unwelcome leftovers from my broken leg, I’ve wished that I too could take some of this helpful weed.

The law has been changed in the last few weeks, and it is now legal for a local health board to okay the taking of medicinal marijuana in cases of need. And today I read on a Facebook this thread discussing legalising the drug:

(It’s not as though) ‘there is … an army of NZer’s waiting to smoke it, but don’t because it’s illegal. OK! People smoke it regardless of the law. Legalizing it would put Cannabis dealers out of business, free up resources to tackle P, reduce the amount of people in prison, increase tax revenue as Cannabis could then be sold commercially under the same restrictions of alcohol, and most importantly allow hemp to be grown on large scales across the country creating jobs, and allowing NZ to produce super eco-friendly hemp products for global export.’

Ah, this to me is the crux of the matter, because this plant has been grown and used for many purposes for over 10,000 years, according the anthropologists and others of their ilk. According to Wikipedia: ‘Cannabis is believed to be one of the oldest domesticated crops. Throughout history, humans have grown different varieties of cannabis for industrial and medical uses.

‘Tall, sturdy plants were grown by early civilizations to make a variety of foods, oils and textiles, such as rope and fabrics. These plants were bred with other plants with the same characteristics, leading to the type of cannabis we now know as hemp. Other plants were recognized for being psychoactive and were bred selectively for medical and religious purposes. This led to unique varieties of cannabis that we now know as marijuana.’

According to a Canadian company that specializes in cannabis cultivation technology, ‘the core agricultural differences between medical cannabis and hemp are largely in their genetic parentage and cultivation environment.’ Apparently it’s one of the fastest growing plants and was also one of the first plants to be spun into fibre in the dawn of mankind..

Nowadays, it can be turned into a variety of commercial items including paper, textiles like my beautiful sofa covers, clothing, biodegradable plastics, paint, insulation, biofuel, food, and animal feed. It’s been used for ropes for centuries, and animal bedding as well as feed. In France, one of the biggest producers of hemp, much of it is used to make cigarette papers.

France, Russia, China and Canada are the biggest growers of this wonderful plant with so many uses for mankind, and yet it’s still a crime to grow it in many countries, like my own, where the law has not yet distinguished between the different types of plants- medicinal and commercial.

Kannabis, the ancient Greeks called this ancient plant. Whenever I hear the police helicopter hovering around the sky near us, I know they are hoping to discover some illegal plots of bright green cannabis. Apparently, a local township has  lived on the proceeds of this plant for years, I learned in conversation with some of the older residents who live here.

A significant chunk of the economy of the township was based on it, and the local shops understood that the locals would run out of money until the next growing season, when the growers would pay off their accounts after the harvest. Because their livelihood was dependent on the growing of marijuana, the community fiercely resisted the highly addictive Methamphetamine- P for short – and there is apparently no P culture in the little town. It is a peaceful, unconventional community with many old- fashioned hippies!

All these thoughts ran through my head as I sat down on my old sofa… which is older than the hemp loose covers. I bought the sofa from a friend of a friend when it was yellow and I had wanted a yellow sofa for ages. This yellow sofa was already twenty- five years old when I brought it home in triumph, and that was twenty- four years ago. I took it to be re-sprung or whatever it needed a few years ago, and the upholsterer said all it needed was new modern feet. So back home it came with its unblemished cream hemp covers to seat us for another twenty years or so.

It had been a very expensive sofa when it was bought so many years ago, and the piped and fitted loose cream covers had cost a bomb too. They both remind me of those telling words of Benjamin Franklin who so truly said: ‘The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.’ But I enjoy the sweetness of high quality along with the pleasures of thrift and re-cycling, and the deep satisfaction of sitting on a fabric with an ancestry as old as mankind’s.

PS. The pic is from my old house, with a rose spattered quilt covering the cream hemp,

Food for threadbare gourmets

We have been enduring a horrific and un-ending storm in this country, and though we live at the top of the hill, we are trapped by a land slip one side of the road, and floods at the bottom of the other end. So I decided to cheer us up with a good lunch and try a recipe a la Annabel Langbein, a NZ Food writer.

I had some pork belly in the deep freeze, which was defrosted overnight. After patting the crackling dry, put a couple of bay leaves and some fresh sage leaves in a baking tin, and lay the pork on top. Blitz it in a very hot oven for half an hour, and then pour in milk two thirds of the way up the meat. Reduce the heat to medium or less, and cook for at least another hour and a half, longer if the meat is not falling off the bone by then.The crackling was divine.

We ate it with mashed potatoes beaten with lots of butter and some cream, and green beans… it went down a treat…

Food for Thought

Trapped in the forest by the storm, we are watching Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Here is that memorable quote, when Bilbo says: …  ” I wish none of this had happened. ”

And Gandalf replies:  ‘So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us….’

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Ode to friendship

Wherever I look there are the tokens, and maybe calling them tokens is a misuse of the word.

On the bookcase is a round blue stone, and written on it are the words: ‘ In the bonds of love we meet,’ which are lines from the NZ national Anthem. It was a birthday present from Friend, which is what I Ching calls a person who is in a ‘familial or love relationship’.

In a fat white jug with all my pens is a sandalwood fan, sitting there at the ready to be used when needed… my Friend brought it to choir practice on a baking hot evening nearly twenty years ago – the sort of evening when we all melted in the airless church hall as we practised our Hallelujahs, or softer Bach anthems. On this day, she produced the fan to keep me cool.

By the bedside is a long thin delicate bamboo stick with a hand at the end with claws on it – a Chinese back scratcher – in constant use by my love. This is the relic of a Christmas lunch thirty years ago. A gang of us used to meet for Christmas lunch in the park, taking over the beautiful little band rotunda, and bringing lace table-cloths, silver candlesticks, champagne and the works.

We started a ritual of bringing presents for everyone, and they could cost no more than two dollars… a tiny amount even in NZ currency. All year we subconsciously looked for some delicious little token, and this was Friend’s gift one year, practical and treasured ever since.

In hospital, an hour and half drive from her home, she and her husband visited me, bringing gifts … a sheepskin to lie on and ease my discomfort, a bag full of miniature bottles of wine – a glass and half to each one – for me to sip with my fairly dreary suppers… an orchid so beautiful that everyone who came by, stopped to admire – it made me many friends… lanolin to rub on my face so my skin wouldn’t dry out in hospital warmth, fluffy red, possum-wool slippers with non-stick soles for my cold feet, vitamin C capsules to aid my healing, and most delicious of all… I had said I wished I had asked my love to try and find my magnifying mirror as I was beginning to look like Freida Kahlo, so a splendid magnifying mirror on a stand came with all the other goodies.

We have been together at births and funerals, personal growth courses, anniversaries and jolly parties. Best of all have been the long, happy lunches, and the times she and Friend Two have come to stay, armed with bottles of wine donated by helpful husbands. We’ve listened to the latest visiting guru, and then celebrated with riotous dinners, visited massage ladies and spiritual channellers, sat with an aura soma intuitive for a reading, and travelled long distances just to go and commune with a lady who told fortunes reading tea-leaves, or for lunch at a good winery.

During one famous lunch I happened to mention I’d seen some enormous candlesticks I’d love to get, but feared they might be a bit over the top. We had hardly downed our rose than we all set off to inspect the said candlesticks. The three of us emerged from the store with two pairs each… one to keep as gilt, the other to hand over to Friend Two, an artist, who was going to paint them to look aged and antique and precious. Friend moaned, “K – will kill me for bringing more candlesticks into the house”, but it did not deter her.

Friend has given me Reiki massages, and I have given her the same. After a severe operation I came to give her one, and after sitting with her for three hours while she slept deeply, I crept away. On Christmas morning we gathered for white-bait fritter brunch at her lovely house, and on birthdays, we three nearly always managed to meet.

Now, I sit on the sofa, and lean against a deep red taffeta cushion with a large rosette made of dozens of exquisite, hand-stitched, tiny rosettes, made for me by Friend Two. I look up at the beautiful picture she painted for me, and still revel in the painted candle sticks. We laugh because I haven’t bought a lipstick in years- instead she gives me all her mistakes, and they work for me. Guests for lunch exclaim over the beautiful French plates they’re eating from, a gift that both Friends had brought on one of their visits. The memories of their generosity, creativeness, fun and love are all around me.

I have other friends who are precious too… true friendship is never exclusive, but always inclusive.  Somewhere I have read, and forgive me, the lovely person who wrote this – I don’t know who you are… but they wrote: :’ A friend is what the heart needs all the time. True friendship multiplies the good in life and divides its evils. Strive to have friends, for life without friends is like life on a desert island… to find one real friend in a lifetime is good fortune; to keep him is a blessing.’

In a very difficult life I have had many friends. I also read once that most people only have five close friends… I have many more than that, and they are treasured and beloved. One friend has been my treasured and loyal, loving friend since our school days. Another, just as treasured, just as loyal and loving and supportive, has been there since we were young officers of twenty-one. (She sent me a precious seven-leaved clover she had found, for luck, when I was in hospital.) The roll call of a life-time’s well-loved names is one of my greatest treasures.

These are the people who have never judged me, but who have seen me and accepted me, in spite of what they saw !!!!. Aristotle said that friendship is a slow ripening fruit… for me friendship has been one of the most precious fruits of my life. And now blogging has added another dimension of friendship bringing fruits and gifts I couldn’t have imagined.

Some of these friends have not been around for a while, and I know are coping with illness, looking after sick mothers, or a handicapped child, or are just travelling or having fun;  but the knowledge of their friendship, the connection of spirit across the globe, the meetings of minds through our blogs and comments, from friends both absent and present, are treasured. Greetings to all these true friends.

PS This brief TV clip is about my son and his step-daughter. It’s about courage.

: http://www.newshub.co.nz/home/new-zealand/2017/01/teen-left-tetraplegic-after-horse-accident-determined-to-walk-again.html

Food for threadbare gourmets

I un-freezed too many things, not thinking straight. And then I cooked a lovely risotto, forgetting I had the other food waiting to be cooked. The fish wouldn’t last, so I quickly fried it in butter and put it in the fridge. I wondered what to do with cold fish the next day…

So I cooked some tomatoes in butter, stripping off their skins when cooked, so they melded with the cream I poured over them, (Friend calls me the Queen of Cream) and let them blend together. Then added the cold fish, and gently reheated it, sprinkled lots of dill in … and it was delicious with new potatoes and green beans.

Food for thought

Be careful of reading health books. You may die of a misprint.

Mark Twain 1835 – 1910 (born the year when Halley’s Comet neared earth, died the year it returned)

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