Category Archives: great days

Crimes, Dogs and Bugs

Valerie35

Shirley took this picture as we said goodby to them

Another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

The atmosphere in the Supreme Court shocked me. The Chief Justice seemed to be in a towering rage all the time, and there was a sense of apprehension in the court. Outside the glass doors at the end of the room a man was hovering. The Chief Justice caught sight of him, and loudly instructed a court official to tell him to take his hat off or go away. And that was the sort of irrational domineering energy with which the whole judicial procedure was conducted.

The police and the crown prosecutor sat with a relaxed and satisfied air, confident that the findings would go their way. The Thomas family and supporters including the farmers and countrymen on the Re-Trial Committee sat and hated them. And I hated the lawyers who were not partisan, but who all knew each other, fenced with each other in court, and joked and chatted outside!

At the end the Crown prosecutor read out his summing up from the second trial with all the lies, distortions and half truths in it which had helped to destroy Arthur Thomas’s credibility and convict him. So all through that night in his hotel room, Patrick (not the dilatory lawyers) went through it fact by fact, line by line and re-butted it all with the truth, the real facts and the new evidence which he’d published in the newspapers over the past eighteen months, and which negated the crown prosecutor’s summing up. As he wrote each page, the counsel’s secretary copied and typed it in her room.

The four other judges (not the Chief Justice) were impressed by this prodigious achievement when Arthur’s counsel read it out in court, but it didn’t change their opinion one little bit. When their findings were published months later they had accepted that Patrick had proved his theory about the cartridge cases, but said they couldn’t rule out the possibility that there were bullets and cartridge cases in existence which could prove the Crown case. This extraordinary logic meant that Arthur Thomas remained in prison.

The rest of the evidence, they glossed over… things like a gold watch wrongly attributed to Arthur in the first trial and covered in blood and mucus. It didn’t figure in the second trial because between trials, the real owner had contacted them to say it was his watch which he’d taken into the jeweller to have it cleaned after pig killing. Patrick learned of this when an anonymous caller rang and said, “Find Fisher”. He had no idea who Fisher was, but sleuthed and finally tracked down the owner of the watch who now lived several hundred miles away. When he went to see him, he asked Fisher if he still had the watch and they found it in his children’s toy box. The helpful mysterious caller must have been an honest policeman.

When Arthur’s supporters including Patrick and Jim Sprott, his father, and the Chairman of the retrial Committee took the case to the Privy Council in London, the same bias operated against them… the Crown Law Office had phrased the appeal to ask for an opinion. When everyone had spent huge amounts of money getting to London, the Privy Council threw it out saying they only dealt in rulings, not opinions.

We were all devastated, and on his return from London Patrick was instructed by his firm to stop his work on the Thomas case – it was the end of the road. But he refused saying that a thing that was wrong didn’t stop being wrong just because they hadn’t won yet. He continued to write stories and place them to keep the case in the public’s mind, and by doing so put his career on the line. We weren’t sure where to go next, but we knew we had to keep going wherever it took us.

He wrote a book called Trial by Ambush and sent a copy to every member of Parliament. It disappeared into a pit of silence, and I suspect that none of them bothered to read it.

While we waited for the results of the court of appeal in Wellington, and Sir Richard Wilde’s judgement, we had enjoyed our first Christmas in our new home, with Patrick’s eldest daughter, husband and grandson joining us, and also a large black and white bull which ambled through the garden and stuck his head in our open bedroom window to greet us on Christmas morning.

With the coming of New Year Bill and Shirley now arrived to spend two days with us. Bill had to report to the police every day, so he had done this first thing in the morning before they left for us and he did so late the next day when they arrived to stay with friends the following evening. This meant, they thought, that they would have the two days with us, when the police would have no idea where they were, and the SIS would be unable to tail them.

This was optimistic. Months later, when Patrick was discussing the trial with one of the Star’s reporters, the reporter said to him, “Of course – the Sutch’s stayed with you at New Year, didn’t they?”… which told us two things – one, that the reporter was an SIS spy, and two, that the SIS must have bugged Bill’s car, and knew exactly where he was – with us.

My letters to Shirley and hers to me would take ten days to reach us and had obviously been steamed open.  Our letters were perfectly innocent but it felt unnerving to know that we were under that level of surveillance. The two days Bill and Shirley spent with us was full of fun and laughter. The shock of the spy arrest had changed Bill, a proud and rather arrogant man – now he had become very gentle, and almost humble… Shirley was her effervescent articulate self, and their conversation was both provocative and thoughtful…

We had a lot in common – including Quakerism, for though neither of them had a belief in God, they had many Quaker friends, and I had been an enthusiastic Quaker attender for years. ( Quakers are committed to non-violence, and a belief in the light in every man)

Our new friends both loved the children – my son, who we jokingly called the mad gardener, who towed his collection of beloved potted plants on his trolley to different parts of the garden which he thought they’d enjoy, before leaving for school every day. Bill gave him advice on how to fix a lawn mower engine to this trolley to make it faster!

My daughter gave them a spirited exhibition of the Maori poi dance, and began a friendship with Shirley sharing their love of art that lasted until she died. Shirley later gave her the wonderful advice that when she went to University she should choose subjects she loved not subjects which would be useful.

We waved goodbye to our guests, who drove off to stay with a friend called John Male who was working with Quakers and other peace lovers to create the New Zealand Peace Foundation of which he became founding president… an unlikely friend, the SIS might have thought for a spy…

Both children were learning the piano and they also wanted to learn the flute and clarinet respectively, and played duets together. We walked our dogs up the lane every day, which now included Patrick’s elegant afghan, and two Cavalier King Charles spaniels, both rescued, and both adored. It was about this time that as we were walking the dogs, my daughter said to me, “You know, most mothers think their geese will grow up to become swans, but you think we’re swans already!”

It was true! And I loved trying to create an idyllic country life for them, going strawberry picking and blackberry hunting, making jam and bread, trying my hand at bottling fruit, crocheting counterpanes for our beds.

We always had a holiday project, once it was applique, another time learning to write in copper plate handwriting, which was a disaster for my son, who’s deeply disturbed teacher at the village school, hated any sort of talent, and mocked him until he gave it up. Another holiday I borrowed a bike, and we explored the country roads on our bikes. We painted, and both children evolved painting what they called Happy Cards, some of which went to Oi, while others ended up in Arthur Thomas’s cell in Paremoremo Maximum Security Prison, two and a half hour’s drive away, when we all visited him.

The children also created Happy Boxes, in which valued objects from shells to cards, photos, letters and other treasures were stored. These began as painted shoe boxes, but as time went by, both children used Christmas money to buy themselves a beautiful antique box each for their collections.

When they’d done their homework and their music practise, I used to read aloud to everyone every night – one husband, two children, and three dogs in the audience – starting with ‘The Little Prince,’ laughing over Toad in ‘The Wind in the Willows,’ agonising over the fate of Boxer being carted off in ‘Animal Farm’, crying our eyes out when Dora died in ‘David Copperfield’, while the death of Gyp, her beloved Cavalier King  Charles  spaniel, delivered the coup de grace to us all. We ended this ritual with Doris Lessing’s ‘Shikasta’ when my son was sixteen.

These were good days and though there were many challenges to come, we all had enough belief in what we were doing to carry us through… challenges which included my car crash, a price on Patrick’s head, and the ignominy of never winning a prize at the annual Flower Show!

To be continued.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

After supper the other night I had the plate of ginger, dates, walnuts and dried figs leftover which we had grazed on instead of pudding. And all the packets containing them were open. So I decided to make one of my favourite cakes.

A reader gave me the recipe forty years ago, and even drove all the way out to our house with a sample cake. I’ve made it ever since ! The basic ingredients are a pound of dried fruit to two cups of flour, half a pound of butter, three eggs, a cup or more of sugar, and a teasp of vanilla, almond essence and orange essence.

But I have played with it and added to it, and each batch is different to the last. I usually add a bit more fruit, and sometimes a dollop of golden syrup as well as the sugar, which is always brown. If I have bits of apricot jam, ginger marmalade or honey sitting in the bottom of jars they go in too… sometimes I do half butter, half oil… sometimes a cup of whole meal instead of all SR flour or a cup of almond meal with all the flour.

This time, the fruit consisted of all the stuff I’d already opened, chopped small, plus a good cup and a half of sultanas, some chopped prunes, and the remains of some Christmas mince which I found in the back of the fridge, and still seemed good to go. Boil the fruit in a cup or more of water. Add the sugar, golden syrup and such-like, then the butter/and or oil. When the mixture has cooled slightly, stir in the beaten eggs one at a time, and the essences. Finally the flour.

If I’ve added more fruit, and all the other ingredients, I’ll often have topped up more butter, another egg and more sugar, which means at this stage, more flour.  I simply add enough to make a firm consistency. It’s as though you can’t go wrong with this cake.  Poured into a couple of greased cake tins, lined with greaseproof paper, I often arrange crystallised ginger on the top, and sprinkle sugar to give it a sweet topping (if I’m going to over-indulge in cake then I want it sweet). I often use loaf tins instead of traditional round cake tins.

If I use this for a Christmas cake then obviously, I top it with marzipan but not always icing… Place in a moderate oven to cook for an hour or until the skewer comes out clean. Cool in the tin, and then, if I’ve made two, one is wrapped in foil and a plastic bag, cut in three and put in the deep freeze for future use when someone calls.

Food for Thought

Some fun from Isaac Asimov:

People who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under animals/pets, cookery/recipes, family, great days, peace, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, uncategorised, Uncategorized, village life

Halcyon days and finding my voice

Valerie33

A Life- another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

The first months were tough… Auckland was one of the world’s largest cities in area back then, and map-reading a strange city is challenging. More challenging was map-reading the events and psychology of a new society when instructed to write a story about the effects of a trade union decision or writing about a fight after a fight at a boxing match.

I wasn’t cut out for this sort of reporting… even when I managed to ferret out the salient details of a story, I found it hard to write without a personal slant, a humorous aside, a detail about character or clothing… none of it suited to the newsroom’s style!

The last straw was an interview with ninety- year- old Dame Flora Macleod, visiting her scattered clan this side of the world. Full of detail, enthusiasm and warmth, to my chagrin, this effusion never made it to the news pages, but was banished to the women’s page- to the regret of many other reporters I heard later.

So it was wonderful when I was transferred to the women’s page which some might have seen as a demotion, but which was for me, a welcome respite from the masculine challenges of the newsroom.

My boss Val, was a friendly six-foot blonde amazon who’d been a champion swimmer, her assistants a fiercely feminist single mother, and a happy pregnant Auckland socialite. They all provided different aspects of life for the page, and I unconsciously began carving out my own niche, when I observed that if Maoris were supposed to be equal members of New Zealand society, it was strange that we never had any stories about them and their doings and achievements. “You can be the Maori news-person”, said my boss.

So began a series of really interesting stories about wonderful Maori women achievers, professors at the university, charity workers, community idealists, political activists, nearly all of them working for a better deal for poor Maoris, women and children.

One rainy morning when we were all fruitlessly racking our brains for ideas for stories to fill the empty page for that afternoon’s edition, I wrote the first of what Val called my ‘think pieces’ which developed into regular columns.

And then I began to realise how tough this pioneering society was on children, especially after an encounter with one of the country’s most distinguished women paediatricians, who also pioneered family planning clinics around the country. Alice Bush, who became a friend, told me that she felt in her forty years of practise that parents were less tolerant now, and more inclined to punish their children physically.

I dropped all my feminist crusading at this and began to campaign in every way that presented itself for a better deal for children. I felt too, that the immense and enthusiastic wave of feminist activity and the drive for equality for women meant that too often children’s needs were being overlooked.

This led to a surprising development. The feminist in the office was closely involved with the very militant students at Auckland University, and I suddenly found I was persona non grata with them and every other feminist in the country, both in the trade unions, the universities, and several influential magazines. I was blacklisted from all women’s conventions and conferences, and even cut dead in the streets by hostile women.

The very real hostility continued for years, and during the concerted campaign to undermine me, a stream of hostile letters were published in the newspaper castigating me and my writing and opinions. The editor was so intimidated by these strong women, both on the newspaper staff and elsewhere, that he caved in and published these attacks on a member of his staff.

One of the aggravating features of this unhappy situation for my adversaries was that I became very successful, the general public loved my columns, and when I became women’s editor and introduced an entirely new concept – a weekly pull-out newspaper for women – it became the talk of the country. I covered every subject that I thought women would be interested in, from breast-feeding, to treatment for cystitis, to bringing up children, to the struggle of women in other countries, from the mothers and grandmothers in Argentina, to Winnie Mandela and Helen Suzman.

The readership reached not just women in the towns and in the country, in rich suburbs and new cheap housing estates, but men, too – judges, surgeons, lawyers – people of all ages and walks of life. In a small country, one size fitted all, there were no niche newspapers or other publications. This was also a challenge – to find a way to appeal to everyone at the same time.

At the same time, I was writing a column for single mothers in the NZ Woman’s Weekly, a wonderful little magazine, which was bought by a quarter of the people in the country, and according sales lore, and the ‘hand-on’ theory, meant it was read by at least two more people, so that at least three -quarters of the population of the country read this publication.

It sat in every waiting room- hairdressers, doctors, dentists, lawyers and so on, and there was hardly a home which it didn’t penetrate. Surveys showed that it was the favourite reading of all females from the age of eight or nine upwards, and the favourite reading of most boys up to the age of fifteen.

It reached a huge readership. One day the editor asked me to do something about a letter which had reached her, from a single or solo mother as they were called. I researched the whole subject and wrote an article for the magazine and I was then deluged with dozens of letters from solo mothers. From then on, every week I wrote a column for them. Thirty years later I was still meeting people or receiving letters from widows or divorced or single women saying that my column had been their life-line – just knowing that someone understood their problems and cared, had helped them through their lonely hard times.

After one letter from a woman whose husband had walked out leaving her with three children under five, including a year old, and how she had to work digging potatoes; how she had to leave the children locked in alone in the house, with no heating which she couldn’t afford, and just bread and milk to eat all day, I realised that there had to be some sort of assistance for women abandoned by their husbands.

Women who became pregnant – out of wedlock- as it was called back then, had no benefit either, apart from a tiny payment which lasted four months, as long as they were breast-feeding. This meant that no-one could afford to keep their baby, and there was a very high rate of adoption in NZ.

So campaigning for assistance for women and children also became one of my priorities, and the following year, the new Labour government which had also reached this conclusion, introduced a benefit for women and children who had been desperate and destitute up till then.

And there were still the plums – the fascination of meeting such luminaries as Doctor Spock, the man whose books were a bible to most mothers back then. He was a big genial man, who cared about more than just bringing up children kindly. He’d been an Olympic rower in his youth, and by the time I met him was deeply involved in political activities which included opposition to the Vietnam War.

His wife Jane listened to our interview, and at the end said to me that she’d like me to interview her as I was not like the aggressive journalists she’d come up against in the States. I did, but the interview was unpublishable. She was a hurt, angry woman, who felt her part in bringing up their sons and providing much of the material and experience that informed her husband’s books, had never been acknowledged… “He just sat behind his big desk, while I brought up the boys and told him what I was doing…”. I wasn’t surprised to hear that they divorced a few years later.

Life was not all work either… John continued to call either at the office or at home, bringing his dogs with him… taking my son for fishing weekends, arriving and gathering us up for a trip to a distant beach with his friends and sitting round a camp fire chatting and singing in the dusk.

There was the fair-haired, blue -eyed Italian aristocrat who would ask me which car I wanted to go to dinner in, his Lancia or his Alfa Romeo, the laughter in the office at another would- be suitor, a bearded be-spectacled man with shorts, hairy legs and sandals who was always bringing my copy to discuss with me; and the perfectly happily married man who stood in front of my desk as I looked up over my typewriter, and declared that he’d crawl across broken glass to have a cup of coffee with me. Words which brought more gales of laughter from my colleagues in the office! They weren’t days of wine and roses, but were definitely days of goodness, fun and freedom, and a respite before the next chapter of our lives.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 Since I shattered my leg two years ago, and prefer not to stand for long, I’ve evolved all sorts of short cuts to get me by when I’m slaving over a hot stove!

First and foremost… I use chopped garlic and ginger from a jar – something I always swore I’d never do, though I still grate fresh Parmesan. When making pommes anna – potatoes in cream and garlic, a fairly common occurrence in this house, I no longer peel the potatoes, but scrub them clean with a pot scourer, and slice them thinly, and it makes no difference to the taste. When making apple crumble or scones, I never rub the butter into the flour any more, but grate cold butter from the fridge, stir it into the flour and it works just as well. I never bother to roll out scones, but simply place the dough on a floured board, nudge it into a shape about an inch  thick, and simply cut it into squares, not bothering with  pastry cutters.

I cook onions in the micro-wave for six minutes, and then fry them for a few more minutes to brown nicely, thus eliminating the time spent formerly standing turning them in the frying pan.

When I cook mashed potato, I do plenty extra to use in leek and potato soup, or to fry with bacon and sausage. And I cook double amounts of spaghetti bolognaise – half for the freezer, half for himself, while the leftover extra cheese sauce from lasagne or macaroni cheese is perfect over broccoli for a small lunch dish for me. Risotto is always a double amount – either re-heated in the micro-wave, or gently fried in a little olive oil to make the crust crisp and delicious. So many other small things which make life easier …

Food for thought

It is as necessary for man to live in beauty rather than ugliness as it is necessary for him to have food for an aching belly or rest for a weary body.

Abraham Maslow, ground-breaking thinker,  therapist and writer

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Filed under cookery/recipes, great days, happiness, Media and interviews, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, uncategorised, Uncategorized, womens issues

Diamonds and dysentery

J.J.’s intriguing home…

Another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

Can’t you find some nice man to marry and look after you, Annette, a diminutive blue-eyed brunette asked me as she joined me on the beach with the children. She’d already given me food for thought by telling me her first husband had died of hepatitis. Since then she had struck gold, and married illustrious journalist, Stanley Karnow who was now working on his definitive book on Vietnam and was a friend of Welles and Pat Hangen.

There were actually plenty of people, but I wasn’t interested in any of them, my whole focus being on the children. The only person I did fancy didn’t want children, whereas all the others enjoyed my four and five- year- olds.  I also attracted the lesbian wife of Larry Adler, who left him, and pursued me for three months or more, with me so anxious about her bouts of depression and weekly delivery of pills sent from England that I was too frightened to be too fierce in my rejection of her.

I was perpetually anxious about the next stunt she would pull to entrap me. The following year, her husband, Larry Adler, the famous harmonica player, flew back to Hong Kong and proposed to me over lunch at the Foreign Correspondents Club where he too was rejected. I had met them both when I went to interview Larry, and they both made a great fuss of me, and I was so naïve that I didn’t recognise all the undercurrents.

And then I developed a plague of boils…   when I was up and running again, I interviewed Andrew Grima, the Queen’s jeweller, a charming, gentle bear of a man, who having been an engineer during the war, had discovered a talent for creating fabulous jewellery when he joined his father-in- law’s firm to run the books. He straddled the worlds of royalty and high society, and the pop world of Carnaby Street, models, musicians and fashion designers. (His gorgeous designs have just some back into fashion again)

We became friends, and he introduced me to the high society of Hong Kong. I suddenly found myself enjoying balls in the marble halls of houses of Victorian colonial splendour, and grand dinners in the homes of Hong Kong’s movers and shakers. One Saturday at the home on the Peak of the Governor’s number two, after a lunch with witty clever conversation and much laughter, we sat on the veranda looking down over Hong Kong below. Andrew emptied out his exquisite jewellery from a big jewel box for us to see.

All the ladies tried on necklaces, earrings and bracelets, with gorgeous designs using Andrew’s signature of chunky unpolished semi- precious stones, set in hammered, textured gold – also his invention. To me, the  most beautiful designs of all were  a series of brooches of delicate gold ivy leaves with diamonds sprinkled across them like drops of dew . ” Have you got something to suit Valerie?” asked my elegant patrician host, as we gasped over this treasure. ” Nothing beautiful enough for her,” replied the jeweller to my astonishment and disappointment.

All this was heady stuff. My neighbour at the lunch table had been J.J. Killough, an elegant young interior designer and we became firm friends. A week later, sitting in his flat at midnight having coffee after a party at the Mandarin, I listened to his life story. I was wearing a black satin, long – sleeved mini dress with white cuffs and collar, long string of pearls and sheer black stockings. As I lounged in one of his wonderful, worn, highbacked leather chairs with carved arms in his fascinating apartment, I felt as glamorous as a Vogue photograph, and savoured this borrowed beauty and splendour.

J.J. – short for James Julius – came from an American family, and adored his mother, and disappointed his father. Doing his compulsory military service, he fetched up in the office of a famously gruff Admiral. He barked at J.J. : “Why would a pansy like you choose the navy?” “Because I liked the colour of the uniform”, replied J.J. undaunted. He said he and the Admiral hammered out a working relationship in spite of this unpromising start.

From the navy he went to London, and into interior decorating, and a love affair which had lasted for some years until the other half found someone else. J.J. was still recovering from a broken heart. Though he’d  mentioned the word pansy, I supposed it was just a figure of speech. I was also surprised to discover that the impression of youth which he gave, slipped late at night when he was feeling lonely and unloved, and he looked his full forty years. I had taken him for late twenties.

His fascinating home was a showcase for his interior decorating skills, and I was charmed by the mix of European and Asian artefacts and antiques, which forty years ago was not as common as it is today. The effect of the elegant, worn leather chairs teamed with a Chinese altar table, wonderful mother of pearl and black lacquer Chinese screens, Philippine carved saints and madonnas found in an abandoned church, huge blue and white Chinese vases, and Italian Renaissance architectural drawings grouped together, leaving other walls completely bare, was grand and satisfying.

Since then I’ve seen his homes in other parts of the world featured in Architectural Digest, and recognised the same furniture, and the same elements. He had great style, and I learned a lot simply by observing his rooms. He was waited on by a very small neat Chinese man servant, who only cooked Chinese food, so J.J. only ate Chinese at home, on fragile Chinese porcelain, with chop-sticks.

He gave a me a precious ivory frog with green malachite eyes for Christmas. As I got to know him, I found he was incredibly visual, and incredibly ignorant and naive about anything outside his decorative world. He struggled through his working relationships by guesswork and wicked intuition and seemed to be always having rows and makeups with his rich clients scattered round the world, who would fly him back to the States to do a room for them, or to transform their log-cabin.

Over Christmas he went to Tokyo, and when he came back, kept ringing me to ask me to go and see him, but I was unusually busy at my journalistic grindstone, and didn’t get there until one day, three weeks later, when he insisted I come for afternoon tea. It was a grey January day. I was wearing a black wool trouser suit, and the hairdresser had piled my long dark hair up into the fashionable Madam Butterfly style.

When I arrived J.J. wasn’t ready for me. The manservant showed me into the drawing room looking down over the wintry harbour, a wistful symphony of soft greys and misty greens, which matched my elegaic mood. Ferries were churning back and forth to Kowloon and Victoria, and junks chugging up and down in the wake of the stately white liner Canberra gliding slowly down the centre of the harbour to her mooring.

As I watched, his voice called out: ” Never do your hair any other way”, and I turned around to see J.J. standing in his bedroom door, with a long, black silk kimono embroidered in scarlet poppies draped around him. He invited me into his bedroom, where he sat on his astonishing, antique, Chinese opium bed to talk. It was a bed fit for a king, encrusted with gold leaf and intricate red painted carving. He was drying his fair hair with a hair-dryer, the first time, in those macho days that I had seen a man using a hair -dryer.

But why not, I inwardly chided myself. He bemoaned the fact that I could wear eye-shadow, and men couldn’t. I began to see what I hadn’t recognised before and began giggling inside at myself and him. The silk kimono was magnificent, and I told him so. “That’s why you’re here,” he replied.

He had brought one back for me, an antique Japanese wedding kimono, in mellow cream silk shot with silver, and embroidered in solid gold thread with cranes. It was immensely long, to tuck over an obi, and lined with red silk. It was the most precious gift anyone had ever given me. In the end it was such a responsibility that I felt I couldn’t look after it properly, and gave it to the Auckland War Memorial Museum, so that it would be cared for as it deserved.

A few weeks after the interlude with Andrew Grima and his Hong Kong friends I had to look for another place to live, as our year was nearly up. I found a charming one in a small block of four apartments, overlooking the sea below Stanley Bay, just around the corner from the bustling Chinese marketplace.

And then I was suddenly ambushed by severe dysentery.  I shed eleven pounds in five days and remember thinking that this was how prisoners died like flies in Japanese prison camps during the war. A friend dropped in on the second day and found the children eating dry bread from the fridge. She rang my doctor, and when he arrived, he took my daughter to stay with him and my friend took my son.

The doctor said he knew I couldn’t afford to go to hospital, and he would let me stay at home if I got someone to be with me at night. I did. Ah Ping, who had left to try to qualify as a nurse a few months earlier – a terrible blow – came to see me.  The mysterious Chinese grape vine had told her I was ill- how they knew I never discovered. She disclosed that the man who had a fruit and vegetable barrow on wheels which he pushed around Repulse Bay to make a scanty living, lived in a tiny pig shed with his wife and children, and who I’d supplied with blankets and clothes, had waved her down and ticked her off for leaving me.

After two weeks of hell, I tottered to my feet and began packing to move house. My lovely Swedish friend, married to an Englishman, wouldn’t return my son until I was stronger she said, and my daughter came home looking tired and a bit grubby, the doctor’s wife didn’t get the children into bed until late. We loved our new home with most of the big windows opening out onto the view of sea and beach below. We watched the junks of the fishing fleet sail out into the sunset, red sails unfurled, and then saw them stream back in the morning and unload their night’s catch on the beach below our window.

We loved exploring the market and narrow alleys crammed with cramped Chinese shops, crammed with strange foods, and pungent smelling condiments. I bought two big earthen-ware jars, about two feet high that stored sugar, and turned them upside down, to use as side tables by the sofa. A large rice wine jar made an unusual base for a lamp with a big shade fitted, and I bought Chinese bowls and pots and china for a song.  One afternoon my son and I were meandering hand in hand through the market on our way to meet the school bus and my daughter, when I heard a low throaty roaring. It reminded me of the awful sound of the baying crowd when I’d been taken to a bullfight. I came on a mass of Chinese men in a tight circle, four or five people deep.

They were shouting and encouraging something, and as I craned to see what was going on, suddenly in a crack of space between the swaying bodies, I saw a tiny skinny six-year -old boy dodging around the tight circle and crying. A strong, crazed- looking youth of about fourteen was brandishing a length of piping which he was bringing down on the child who couldn’t escape as the men enjoying the spectacle barred his way.

Without thinking, I dropped my four -year -old’s hand, and pushed through the throng. I had no idea how I was going to stop it, but the solution appeared as I stepped into the circle. I grabbed the pipe as the youth, who seemed out of his mind and mentally handicapped, raised it above his head to bring it down again. He was so surprised that he stopped for a second, and the child seized his chance and darted away. There was a deep groan of disappointment and the crowd began to disperse.

And now I turned to gather up my son and he was nowhere to be seen. When I found him sometime later, he said he had no idea where I’d gone, so just went on plodding through the market and up the hill! As I put down the phone in the office after accepting another invitation for the children to spend the day with a friend and play in her big leafy garden — a rarity in Hongkong – my junior turned to me and said “You must have the most popular children in Hong Kong. You’re always getting invitations for them.”

It was true. From the day they were born I’d talked to them with the same courtesy that I spoke to my friends, and always checked how I would like to be treated if I was them. It had paid off. They were such co-operative good-natured children – articulate, well-mannered, and dressed in the beautiful clothes from places like Liberty’s sent from England by doting grand- parents, that many people found them irresistible.

Friends with children away at school in England would ‘borrow’ them to cheer themselves up, unmarried friends, both male and female would ask to take them to the ballet and pantomimes, while friends with children always wanted them to play with theirs. Sadly, my friend Pat who was always keen to have them, was now a broken- hearted woman hanging onto a thread of hope that her husband Welles was still alive in Cambodia. He’d been ambushed and beaten to death by the Khymer Rouge, which she didn’t learn  for over twenty years, in 1993.

The only people who weren’t interested in the children were my ‘lodgers’!  I had stopped doing an extra part-time job as PR for the Anglican church, because I felt like a hypocrite since I was anti-God then. The Bishop’s wife had asked me to take on the job, but in the end it felt all wrong. So then I tried to make ends meet by using the children as photographic models in ads and doing radio programmes and TV game shows myself. Finally, I hit on the idea of letting my spare room which was equipped with an en-suite bathroom.

I suppose it was inevitable that it was always odd bods who wanted a room, rather than socially competent achievers. The men were loners, one mummy’s boy who hung around my living area and wanted me to look after him or entertain him, another who had stormed out of his marriage, and was always attended by cohorts of righteous managing friends, or when he was alone, making vicious calls to his ex-wife on my phone. I didn’t need money so badly for them to stay. Three weeks for the first, one week for the second.

The girls were worse. They always had lovers, or fiancees, so I always ended up letting the room to two people instead of one. I could write a book about each one and their love affairs, broken engagements, car crashes, and strange personality quirks which impinged on my life. But I didn’t enjoy them.

I was Women’s Editor now and enjoyed crafting columns and writing about social issues like Hong Kong prisons, abortion, feminism, child care and such-like. My readers seemed to enjoy this mix along with fashion shoots, and makeup advice dished out by cosmetics advertisers, my recipes, and celebrity interviews. But the arithmetic of staying in Hong Kong became impossible when school fees went up, and I now had a second child ready to start school. We decided it was time to start a new life in a new place.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 Meeting two beloved friends for a celebration lunch, we ended our feast with crème brulee accompanied by banana and walnut bread. It was so delicious that I decided to try making some myself.

Sift one and quarter cups of SR flour, one teasp baking soda, and half a teasp salt into a medium bowl and set aside. Whisk two large eggs and half a teasp vanilla together in another container.   Cream half a cup of butter and a cup of sugar until light and fluffy. Gradually pour the egg mixture into the butter and mix. Add three ripe mashed bananas – the mixture will look curdled, but don’t worry.

Gently mix in the flour mixture, fold in half a cup of walnuts and pour the batter into a buttered loaf tin. Bake for 55 minutes in a pre-heated oven at 350F or until a toothpick inserted into the centre of the bread comes out clean. Cool the bread in the pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes then turn it out and let cool completely on the rack. Wrap in plastic wrap, it’s best served the next day, sliced with butter.

I roast the walnuts first, to avoid the danger of them being rancid.

Food for thought

 This was the poem and beautiful words by Richard Wilbur that one of my friends copied into my birthday card:

‘Blow out the candles of your cake

they will not leave you in the dark

who round with grace this dusky arc

of the Grand Tour which souls must take’.

 

 

 

 

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World on Fire

South Vietnamese troops battling the Viet Cong in Saigon during TET offensive

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

My husband’s affairs – in every sense of the word – meant that he and his intended had stumbled into a mine field. When Candida, as I’ll call her, told her naval husband of her plans, he hit the roof. He had no intention of parting with his elegant sweet-natured wife. The thing began to take on diplomatic proportions, and the General and the local naval boss now got involved, and Candida and husband were posted hastily back to England to avoid further scandal.

This meant that my husband was storming tactlessly and angrily around the place, and the padre came to see this cold, unloving wife who had driven her handsome, charming husband out of his unloving home. There was probably more than a grain of truth in this by now, as I certainly didn’t love him any more!

It was that tense turbulent year of 1968 when the world seemed on the edge of drama month after month. After North Korea captured the US ship Pueblo, imprisoning and torturing all eighty- five of her crew at the end of January, the ripples of the surprise Viet Cong Tet offensive in Saigon then reached us. Friends from the office were holidaying in Saigon, and were caught up in that murderous mayhem which continued all through February.

When Martin Luther King was shot in April, I hurried up to see Pat Hangen to somehow try to comfort her. When Robert Kennedy was shot in June, it seemed unbelievable. I shall never forget the silent shock in the newspaper office, before I rushed up to see Pat again…it seemed a devastating thing to be American at this time…

This was also the time of the Prague Spring when another mid European country tried to throw off the Russian yoke. And now in August, we listened with anguish and watched television as the Russian tanks rolled into Prague to crush freedom, as they had done into Hungary nearly nine years before.

We were in the middle of a very destructive typhoon, and in spite of the wooden shutters over the windows, the towels laid along the window sills and carefully led into bowls, were soaking wet. I went from window to window wringing out wet towels and feeling intimidated by the storm while I watched the Czechs being intimidated by the tanks. My heart was wrung for Anton Dubjek as my hands wrung my wet towels!

A few weeks later, I went to the doctor who gave me some pills to check the constant nausea I’d been feeling, and taking one straight away, I only just managed to drive home. Tottering into bed, I woke to consciousness in the evening, having slipped into a coma with pills that had apparently knocked out my liver. The next day the doctor rang and said he was sending an ambulance round straight away – my tests had come back – and I had hepatitis with secondary infections of glandular fever and jaundice.

The children went to play school in the mornings, and before this happened, I’d just organised a gentle, friendly, eighteen-year-old school leaver out from England to come every afternoon to read to the children and play with them. I was worried that their vocabularies might stagnate with just their loving Chinese amah to talk to, and I hoped now that my husband would stay with them in the evenings.

In hospital in Kowloon, I lay in my room overlooking the harbour, and watched the glittering water sparkling in the magical light of the sun at the change of the season. I also put myself together and found my inner strength again. My doctor had given me a book of D.H. Lawrence’s poems, and ‘The Song of the man who has come through’ became a sort of prayer and affirmation.

Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!

A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.

If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!

If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!

If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed

By the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the chaos of the world….

And his other words… ‘It is not easy to fall out of the hands of the living God…”

The Red Cross trolley with library books came round every day, and along with the biographies and books on travel and exploration I gobbled up, there were some Elizabeth Goudge. ‘The Dean’s Watch’, about the power of love, shifted me on from my little local world into a larger perception of all that is, and I was ready after five weeks to go back and transform my little world.

I wrote to my step-grandfather who was still writing to me, and asked him if he could loan me five hundred pounds to get started, but he replied rather pompously that he would have no hand in breaking up a family with young children. (Many years later, when an old man, he wrote to say he had a guilty, nagging feeling that he had let me down over something, and I spared him and wrote to say he had always been a loving friend)

Meanwhile my husband, who was still marking time over his enforced separation from his intended, every now and then suggested that we have another go with our marriage. Not convinced that leopards change their spots I told him that I would be gone in a month, after Christmas, and his response was that he would smash me mentally and physically before then.

Still feeling frail and ill I managed to find a flat for us. It was always hard to compete with Americans who had large housing allowances and lots of money compared to the rest of us. But I drove round Repulse Bay, hoping to find ‘flat to let’ signs. By a miracle I found one hanging outside twelve -foot high, brightly painted gates, with painted peacocks embossed on them, the mansion behind hidden by high walls. It had been built by a Chinese millionaire for his family to come and live with him, but they had refused.

When he showed me the flat, and told me the price, I said I couldn’t afford it. So he said, what can you afford? And when I told him, he said I could have it for a year. I lived for that first year of independence beneath the splendour of chandeliers, with an elegant panelled walnut entrance hall and an amazing, huge, pink marble en-suite bathroom.

Back home, my husband came to me in tears. His bank was threatening to foreclose on his debts, and this would mean being cashiered by the army, and no financial help at all from him for the children. I wrote him a cheque for half my savings and feeling sorry for his humiliation said he didn’t need to write an IOU as he offered, but that I would trust him. I never saw the money again.

I persuaded my husband to ring England and tell his parents what was happening,  and the first response of my father-in-law was to ask if his son had got good legal advice. Yes, he’d been to see an old school friend who was a lawyer. As I listened, I felt a cold hand over my heart. No concern for me, it was going to be a power struggle aided by the law and family. I felt truly alone.

I thought I’d better get some legal advice too. But when I went to see the army legal services, my husband had been there first, so they would have no truck with me. It was the same at the navy and the RAF. All the free legal services were closed to me. My husband had been to see them all, and this debarred them from giving me advice, they each insisted.

The establishment had closed ranks. In those days male chauvinism was alive and well, and it felt as though all the men had ganged up on me. The army lawyer then sent me a letter telling me I was no longer allowed to set foot in the garrison. Being an army daughter, a serving officer and an army wife was a part of my heritage, and I was devastated by what felt like a gratuitous insult.

The result of these snubs was that I was driven to find expensive, civilian legal advice. I contacted a friendly solicitor who I’d met at a party. He felt there was some urgency when I rang him, so that Sunday I spent at his stylish flat, curled up in an elegant orange Arne Jacobson ‘Egg’ chair, dictating my divorce petition to him.

It was a cold winter’s day, and still feeling fragile a couple of weeks out of hospital, his warm, cosy flat in the Mid-levels seemed like a safe haven away from the stress of my own home. As I dictated, my eyes wandered over stacks of beautiful fabric -covered boxes on the bookshelves. They housed his collection of precious snuff bottles, but as a philistine, I thought then the boxes were prettier than the bottles.

He rang a few days later. There was an alarming hitch. It seemed that no woman had ever divorced her husband in Hongkong before – this was 1968 – and there were no legal precedents. He was at a standstill but would try a few other avenues. He came up with something from Indian and Colonial law. It was possible for an Englishwoman in India to get a divorce in that country if she had been resident there for at least three years.

Peter said he would try to get me a divorce quoting this Indian precedent. The element of uncertainty was unnerving. By the date of the hearing my husband had followed his intended wife back to England, so it was a very empty court I attended. I had already left the army quarters, packing all my belongings into the Red Cross ambulance the doctor lent me. I realised as I looked back that nearly every other army wife was standing on her veranda watching the astonishing sight of another wife leaving her husband under their very eyes.

Before the divorce Peter told me the judge was homosexual. I didn’t know how this would affect the outcome in which the custody of the children was at stake. I dressed very carefully in a demure, white dress with a hem at knee level, in this year of mini skirts. When the case began, the judge questioned the validity of it, and Peter provided him with the Indian and Colonial volumes.

I sat in suspense while the judge pored over the pages, and finally agreed the case could go ahead. Called into the witness box, for some routine questions, to my horror I could feel tears coming. I had left my handkerchief in my handbag on my seat, so had to sniff through my answers. The tears were pouring down my cheeks by the time I returned to my seat. And the white dress was wasted, the judge didn’t even look in my direction.

On the way home in my battered Morris Minor convertible – all I could afford after I’d given my husband half my savings – it broke down and ran out of control down the hill to Repulse Bay. Apparently, the rust which held the chassis together had finally weakened, and there was no connection between the steering and the wheels.

It took thirteen monthly instalments to pay the huge bill to patch it up. The floor in the back seat had rusted away, so I tucked cardboard over the holes, and the children would complain their feet were getting wet when it rained. I always had to drive over the Peak in wet weather, as low-lying Wanchai would have flooded it.

I discovered quite by chance that some of my rich American friends thought I’d chosen this broken-down form of transport as part of my English eccentricity. It never crossed their minds that the South China Morning Post paid women so badly that I earned two thirds what a cub reporter earned. Another subtle local distinction was that people recruited from overseas for their jobs earned far more than impecunious “locally employed”.

The first months were tough. The doctors hadn’t told me I would be depressed for six months after my illness, so I didn’t realise until my six- monthly check-up that the fatigue and depression I was felt was normal. Instead, when I thought longingly of walking into the sea and never coming back, it was only the thought of the children that had kept me going. I was so run down that my teeth packed up and I racked up big dentist bills, while my husband’s American bank – one of the many he had swapped around – wanted me to pay his debts.

I worried that I couldn’t afford my son’s play school anymore, and I worried when my husband’s small cheque didn’t arrive, which spelt disaster on my tiny salary. I kept a pocket diary which I filled in every day at the office. No words, just two colours – red for good red-letter days, blue for bad blue days… at first the blue days far outnumbered the red.

I had copied two quotations into it – one from William the Silent: ‘There is no need of hope in order to undertake, or of success in order to persevere’… and the other from Clement of Alexandria: ‘We may not be taken up and transported to our journey’s end, but must travel thither on foot, traversing the whole distance of the narrow way…’ I read these rather grim exhortations regularly to inspire me to ‘just get on with it!’

And with all the struggle, I would gloat to myself that I was an independent woman now. I had two beautiful children, a home through my own efforts, a car, and a job I enjoyed. I knew that life could only get better. And, of course, it did. The worst was behind me.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

When I make one of our favourites, feta cheese and courgette fritters, I usually serve them with chilli jelly, salad and hot rolls. But I really love beetroot relish with them too and decided to stop buying it from the supermarket and make my own.

Place in a pot three peeled and roughly grated beetroots, one finely chopped onion – red if you have it – a cup of brown sugar, half a cup of cider vinegar or balsamic, quarter of a cup of water, a table spoon of olive oil, half a teasp of ground cumin, salt and black pepper. Heat gently for thirty minutes or until the liquid has been absorbed. If it dries up, add enough water to keep it moist and juicy. Place in a jar or bowl and refrigerate until ready to use.

Food for thought

 A certain percentage of those who have survived near-death experiences speak of a common insight which afforded a glimpse of life’s basic lesson plan. We are all here for a single purpose: to grow in wisdom and to learn to love better.

We can do this through losing as well as through winning, by having and by not having, by succeeding or by failing. All we need to do is to show up open-hearted for class. So fulfilling life’s purpose may depend more on how we play than what we are dealt…  Kitchen Table Wisdom by Rachel Naomi Remen

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Nuns, nice habits and strange foibles

Valerie10.jpg

A life –  This is the ninth instalment of an autobiographical series before I revert to my normal blogs

I never had any trouble remembering the date of my baby brother’s birth, because when we arrived back in England from Belsen, we were sent to school at a convent in Yorkshire. It was with the sisters of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, a Belgian teaching order. My brother’s birthday was the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, one of many feast days when we were sent home, presumably so the nuns could pay due reverence to the day, unhampered by their fee- paying pupils, and causing my parents to grumble that they spent all this money in order for us to stay home.

Sometimes, as at Corpus Christi, we were required to attend in order to parade and go to Mass, and draw holy pictures. This was a time of severe mortification for me, because not being Catholic, our parents refused to buy us white dresses and veils to wear on feast days.

On the other hand, thanks to the books I had read with my grandmother, I was bigotedly anti-Catholic, and had no qualms about being different. The nuns themselves were mostly gentle and sophisticated women, many of them French or Belgian, others English. My form teacher, who was also the maths teacher, was the most avidly religious person at the convent and not a nun at all. Rather, she was an Irish Catholic, and, as I discovered later in New Zealand, she embraced a very different brand of Catholicism. ‘

Not to put too fine a point on it, she rammed religion and her devotion down our throats, exhorting us amongst other things, to bring old clothes to her to dispense to the needy. As she gathered them in from everyone except me, she would regularly intone, ” Ah, gurrells, it’s boi moi gude deeds to the puir that I hope to go to heaven.” She would interrupt long division to make us all stand up and say The Angelus, and we would then pray for the parents of all the unfortunate girls who had one Protestant parent. Since both my parents were Protestant, this was a prayer I obstinately refused to join in, as I had no regrets about their situation.

One day, her propaganda about “puir St Thomas Moore”, wicked Protestants and suffering Catholics enraged me so much, that having  just finished one of my father’s books, a history of the Borgia family, I had enough ammunition, I felt, with the Inquisition and the scandal of the Avignon Popes, to take her on. I never got beyond the Borgia Pope and a quick mention of the Inquisition, before she clapped her hands over her ears, and drowned me out by shouting: “What a pack of Protestant lies.” No-one liked me very much after that, and I would always be left to last when they were picking teams for netball and rounders.

One person who did like me, perhaps a little too much, was Mother Michael, a rather coarse -looking Englishwoman compared with the refined foreign nuns. She was not a teacher so much as our house- mother, and she was obsessed with long hair. My long, almost black, thick plaits were meat and drink to her. Every lunch hour I was dragged off to the big, sunny cloakroom-cum ante-room, and had my plaits ceremoniously undone, and brushed out.

The brushing went on all through play-time, and I never got to play with anyone. As the time for the bell drew near, she’d plait the blessed things up again, refusing to let me do them. She dragged the hair round my face quite differently to the way I scraped my hair back myself, and I’d get home every day, looking quite unlike the school girl who had set out in the morning.

Every day my stepmother would ask what was going on, and when I told her about the brushing and the plaiting, she’d say “It’s got to stop”. But I didn’t know how to stop it, so it went on until Mother Michael fell in love with another girl with long plaits.

The nuns wore elegant, plum- red gaberdine habits, with a long swinging pleated skirt, and a thick, beautiful cord with long tassels round their waist. Their rosaries also hung from this fat cord, and they had long, soft white wool veils which swung in the wind when they borrowed our roller skates and took a turn round the rink in the evenings when everyone was inside, doing their homework. The garden beside the skating rink plunged down towards Our Lady’s grotto, and then to the River Tees.

I would gaze out of the classroom window in our annexe called The Hermitage, in winter, and see the black, lacy boughs of the empty trees, the black running water of the river, white snow, and sometimes a flame- coloured squirrel silhouetted in the trees against the pale winter sky. The main convent building was grim, grey, Victorian Gothic, with long, shiny, lino-floored corridors where feet and voices echoed. It smelt of incense and wax candles, lino polish, and nearer the kitchens, carbolic soda and grease. In alcoves at regular intervals along the echoing corridors, painted statues of saints draped with rosaries presided. I glared at them like a latter-day Oliver Cromwell as our crocodile straggled to chapel for prayers every day after lunch.

I always enjoyed Retreat, three or four days of silence when we spent most of our time drawing and painting holy pictures, instead of wrestling with fractions, and going to chapel for mass, as well as the regular after- lunch prayers, and then Benediction. I hated the priest who came to the convent for the occasion, and whom all the nuns fluttered around and flattered and fawned upon. To the cynical ten-year-old looking coldly on, he looked like a very boring, not very bright man, who relished in an unspiritual fashion, the entirely undeserved attention he received.

I was happy to go to chapel as often as we did during Retreat, as I had figured out that God was everywhere so it didn’t matter where you were beating his ear. I had no idea why we were doing all this, but then, a lot of things puzzled me… so I loved the reverent silence of the whole day, including the silent meals with severe, beautiful Mother John standing at her lectern, reading from the lives of saints. During these meals we ate Assumption Tart, known to us all as Sumpies.

The story of the three fashionable Belgian Victorian women who decided to found the Order was read aloud as we ate the tart. None of them knew how to cook, clean, or sew, and so in the first week, the lady nun assigned to cooking duties threw together some ingredients in a panic and produced the hard, yellow crust of almost inedible pastry on which jam was smeared and which we still ate. We all welcomed Sumpies on the menu, as at least the jam was sweet, the only ingredient which had any taste. The convent food was still obviously flung together by nuns who could not cook.

During Retreat, our class was visited by both Reverend Mother, and Mother Superior, causing an outbreak of curtsying and crossing ourselves. Since no-one ever explained anything to children in those days, I couldn’t work out why a young Reverend Mother seemed more important than a Mother Superior. Reverend Mother was Polish, about twenty-eight, very young to have reached such rank, and had an indefinable air of holiness about her. She also had an amazing complexion, pale skin and brilliant red cheeks. She received total devotion from everyone, and she fascinated me. Sometimes she wasn’t well enough to come to our weekly audience with her, so Mother Adelaide, Mother Superior, came instead.

My father adored Mother Adelaide. She was just the sort of woman he loved, witty and wise, French, sophisticated, clever and rather beautiful. Long after, when I heard that Reverend Mother had died the following year of TB, I realised that Mother Adelaide had left her duties as superior of the order, to come over from Belgium to keep things going with as little disturbance to everyone, including the beloved young nun.

After a while, it was decided that my sister would do better at school on her own. So I agreed to ” sit the scholarship” in order to go to the local grammar school. My stepmother was then summoned for an interview with the county education authorities. She told me that they informed her that my maths was so abysmal there was no way I could qualify for higher education. But my English and general knowledge were so far ahead of my age, that there was no way they could not give me a scholarship. Nothing much has changed since then, my maths are still abysmal.

To be continued

Food for threadbare gourmets

I had some wonderful coloured -peppers, red, yellow and orange, and instead of cooking them in my usual way, I tried a Jamie Oliver recipe – with adaptations! I chopped the three peppers and added them to a chopped onion, plenty of garlic and olive oil to sweat them until cooked. When soft I added a good glug of balsamic vinegar and boiled it all together, and then salt and pepper to taste.

This is where Jamie Oliver comes in. He recommended tossing in a generous handful of parmesan cheese and some table spoons of mascapone or cream cheese.  Stir it all together until everything is melted and amalgamated. He served it with pasta and I served it with steak and mushrooms, and it was delicious.. It may have been better with pasta but I won’t be using the cream cheese again.

Food for thought

If you truly get in touch with a piece of carrot, you get in touch with the soil, the rain, the sunshine. You get in touch with Mother Earth and eating in such a way, you feel in touch with true life, your roots, and that is meditation. If we chew every morsel of our food in that way we become grateful and when you are grateful, you are happy.
Thich Nhat Hanh. Vietnamese Buddhist teacher

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Was I a snowflake?

Image result for radipole weymouth dorset
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

Image result for victorian interiors

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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