Category Archives: happiness

Time has told, Small IS Beautiful

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They don’t make it easy, to quote Megan Markle speaking on quite another subject. I was actually trying to wrest the immoveable foil covering off the plastic milk bottle, and as usual was giving up, finding a sharp pointed knife, and prizing it off.

I thought of the good old days, when we had shiny aluminium tops on glass bottles, which were washed out every day to be exchanged for a fresh bottle of milk the next day. It was usually delivered by the milkman driving his horse and milk cart – the horse, so familiar with the routine – that he stopped and started at each house, while the milkman ran in and out of each gate to leave the milk bottles on the door-step.

He was an un-official social worker as well as a milkman, and if the milk went uncollected for more than a day he’d check in the house or alert the neighbours, and many an old person was rescued from illness or accident in this way.

Before the aluminium tops, we had cardboard lids on the bottle with a little cut-out circle indented in the centre which we pushed open, if the sparrows hadn’t got there before us. They enjoyed the cream as much as we did – yes, we had cream in our milk in those days, you could either pour it off to save and consume as cream, or you shook the bottle up, and distributed the cream throughout the milk.

Sometimes at school, instead of drinking our half pint of milk given to us every day by a benevolent state, we shook up the bottle for fun until we’d made a knob of butter from the cream, and later spread it on our lunch-time potatoes. We also used the cardboard circle from the bottle to wind wool round and make bobbles, or thread on a ribbon and paint for Christmas decorations

Prising the top off the milk isn’t the only strongman feat I’m forced to perform every day. If I want to open a bottle of vitamins there’s a tight clear plastic wrapper bonded to the bottle and the lid. When, with a pair of nail scissors I’ve managed to break into this casing, and unscrewed the lid, there’s the same sort of stiff foil lid stuck irrevocably to the bottle as with the milk. More jabbing with knife or scissors, and when I finally wriggle into the jar, there’s a long wad of cotton wool to drag out into the light of day. The pile of plastic rubbish from just one small bottle of vitamins is outrageous.

A packet of bacon? Plastic wrapped cheese sweating in the casing? A new toothbrush – that truly is the worst – it’s almost impossible to break into all the wrappings, both plastic and cardboard, that bar entry to a simple toothbrush.

I waste hours of my life trying to gain access to items of food and household products which were once sold loose, but now need equipment in order to eat, drink, use or cook.

When I used to read the Manchester Guardian in my salad days I was transfixed with wonder, when a woman wrote to say she was tired of trying to break into biscuit packets. Back then in 1965, it seemed like a miracle that biscuit manufacturers got the message, listened to a woman and provided consumers with a tab to pull, so as to gain entry to said biscuits. We really can be heard, and can change things, I gloated, somewhat prematurely it seems.

For today, health and safety and hygiene requirements, techniques for packaging to extend ‘shelf life’, marketing strategies to make products seem more desirable, have meant that most food items are now locked away behind plastic, unless it’s an unwashed potato . So even though we virtue signal with plastic bags banned in our supermarkets, we still have mountains of plastic rubbish after each shopping trip, be it a new shirt, or a bag of rice. The sort of plastic rubbish that pollutes oceans and clogs up the stomachs of whales and sea-birds, fouling the oceans and killing the wild life.

And speaking of potatoes, in my youth we bought muddy potatoes in a small hemp sack. The mud preserved the minerals in the spuds, and the darkness of the sack kept them fresh, so even at the bottom, the potatoes were still good to eat. Washed potatoes in a see-through plastic bag, the very opposite of mud and sack, means that the soil around the potatoes which preserved them has gone, so they go stale and lose much of their nourishment, while the clear plastic lets in light so they deteriorate quicker. And what about parabens?

So I buy unwashed potatoes, and being somewhat lazy, I now get the mud off by washing and scrubbing them with pan scourer, kept especially for the purpose.

A friend gave me some of her new laid eggs from her hens and brought back long forgotten childhood memories as she wrapped each egg in a small piece of torn newspaper, before laying them in my little basket. There was something very sweet in the gentle handling and detailed care with which she wrapped and packed them. It felt a world away from the dull supermarket routine of shopping in bulk.

Before the coming of super-markets, we shopped every few days, meeting and greeting neighbours and other shoppers as we walked to the grocer, who was often ‘on the corner’. It’s now acknowledged that this simple routine was a wonderful boost to everyone’s emotional well-being as they connected with neighbours, and nodded to strangers who became familiar during the regular shop. We took baskets and string bags and no-one expected a shop to wrap everything we bought.

Shops had regular hours, so when you ran short of sugar or needed an onion, you had no 24- hour dairy or superette to fall back on. Instead you fell back on your neighbours, and a child was often dispatched to borrow half a cup of sugar, or a jug of milk. These small inter-actions and friendly connections stimulated a sense of community. The sharing of garden produce, small helpful deeds and kindnesses, borrowing and returning, nourished human relationships, friendships and neighbourhoods, fostering small societies, and creating villages within villages.

And back then there were plentiful bus services and little local railway branch lines, so people didn’t need cars. It was easy to move from village to town, or town to city on reliable public transport, and there were no roads clogged up with parked cars or traffic jams of weary people. I don’t remember pollution either…

When we all get down to the serious business of becoming carbon free, and relinquishing our right to car ownership, maybe the powers that be will re-instate these antiquated forms of transport. The one thing I do hope no-one suggests, be they government agencies or climate campaigners, is to use a horse and trap, or other animals as beasts of burden. The blessing of the motor car was that we gave up exploiting animals to get us around, flogging them to death, with overwork or not enough food.

Yet at the moment we still seem to have a mind-set which involves the right to own our own transport. The car industry estimates that there are 1.3 billion cars on the road at the moment and projections rise to two billion by 2035. Cars are a passion, both in the first world and the third world, and technology is forever coming up with new ideas for a driving future. Yet all this effort, which is now going in the direction of self-driving electric cars, seem self-defeating to me, since each such vehicle requires the equivalent of 40 desk top PC’s in energy consumption for the computer brain. Then there’s the energy needed for the battery. So much for reducing carbon emissions.

Maybe the challenge of tackling transport, climate change, pollution, the plague of plastic and all the other problems of our wasteful throwaway and over packaged society is to find a way of life which is as simple as the one I remember. It was a way of life in which we lived ‘care-fully’, buying food in small amounts so we had no wastage, a way of life in which we used public transport and helped each other in small, kind and ‘care-full ways’. ‘Small is Beautiful’, Schumacher’s creed, now overtaken by globalism, may be the answer to the huge problems of over-consumption, wasteful habits and huge soul-less cities, whether buying the family groceries, owning a car, or finding a happy home.

A Guardian article some years ago wrote that; ‘Schumacher warned against exactly the issues we are now dealing with as levels of mental illness – depression, anxiety, panic attacks, stress – rise and the World Health Organisation predicts that depression will be the second most common health problem in western developed nations by 2020.This was what Schumacher feared, and his answer was “small is beautiful”.’

Schumacher’s thesis was that we should go back to the human scale: human needs and human relationships. He felt that from that small scale would spring the ethical response of stewardship to the environment.

And as we re-create such small kind communities, I’d be grateful if we could also solve the plastic crisis, and mountains of resulting rubbish. The wasted hours spent tackling the menace of packaging could be used for so many other small and beautiful pleasures. Dwight Eisenhower once remarked that in his childhood, “Our pleasures were simple – they included survival”. That could well be the case in the future.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Though I love leftovers, leftover slices of slices of breast from a roast chicken can be boring. My way round this last night was to combine leftover mushrooms, cooked in garlic, cream and parsley, with the chicken. To top up this mix, I added more garlic and parsley, and the essence poured off from the hot chicken the day before. A little cream to make it thick and delicious, and the chicken was transformed. Eaten with mashed potatoes, peas and fresh spring asparagus it was as good as the original roasted chicken.

 

 

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Filed under cookery/recipes, environment, happiness, philosophy, pollution, sustainability, technology, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, village life

What’s wrong with a stiff upper lip?

war  The East End of London during the Bitz. The woman on the right lived in the bombed building opposite. Their food was cooked on a campfire in the basement.

 

Victors or victims? These thoughts came to me when I chanced upon these words in a book I’d written some time ago.

“I’ve been re-reading Robert Massie’s ‘Dreadnought’ very slowly, trying to take in and remember all the detail. As I worked my way through all the biographical stuff on the various late Victorian and Edwardian English statesmen of the period, I began to notice a rather surprising pattern – which was not repeated in the biographies of their German counterparts.

“It began with an account of the great Lord Salisbury’s childhood, and how he survived his mother’s death before he was ten and the indifference and hostility of his father who thought he was hopeless. Then there was his brilliant and equally successful nephew, Arthur Balfour, who also became prime minister like his uncle. Balfour’s father died when he was seven, and his highly-strung mother Blanche struggled to bring up a large family alone.

“ Herbert Asquith, another prime minister of that time, grew up in an impoverished solo parent home after his father died when he was eight, of a twisted intestine after a village cricket match. My favourite statesman of the period, Sir Edward Grey (“ the lights are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”), was also fatherless by the age of eight, while Admiral Jackie Fisher, the great mover and shaker of the navy, was sent back from Ceylon at the age of six, never to see his father again, who died when he was sixteen, and Fisher was an adult before seeing his indigent and disinterested mother again.

“Winston Churchill’s childhood was famously deprived, brought up by his nanny, deprived of her when sent to boarding school at eight, and writing letters begging his parents to come and see him – they never did. On one occasion his mother, a famous beauty, returned his letter after reading one page. She required him to write to her in French, and she told him his French was so appalling, she had no intention of reading any further. The emotional deprivation and abuse he suffered is legendary, yet not he, nor any of the others, ever made excuses that the challenges of their childhoods interfered with living a useful constructive life. They lived lives full of achievement, unhampered by chips on their shoulders, theories of deprivation and emotional maladjustment or of feeling victim.

“It was much the same with an earlier hero, the great philanthropist Lord Shaftesbury, who among many other causes, stopped the employment of children as young as five in coal mines. He also opened Ragged Schools for slum children, opposed vivisection, and stopped climbing boys being sent up hot sooty chimneys from the age of five onwards, (small boys, because only small boys could squeeze up the chimneys to clean them).

“Like Churchill, he too was neglected and emotionally deprived by his hostile parents, and the only love he received as a child was also from his nanny, Maria Mills, who died when he was nine. Then there was wonderful William Wilberforce, orphaned at nine when his father died, and a year later sent to live with relatives. These men also endured dreadful years at bullying, inhumane schools.

“Yet in spite of all the angst we hear now, about children of single parents being handicapped in the so-called race of life, these people all achieved great things, and apart from Balfour, who never married, all had loving marriages too. Was it because the communities they grew up in were united by values, principles and religion? They also all believed in a Divine Source to sustain them, and perhaps just as important, their sole parent usually had no money worries, so that they were properly educated and thus equipped to make their way.”

During the years I was a solo parent, I was constantly coming up against the stereotype of one parent children being handicapped or deprived, which caused me much heart-ache. This lasted until my son’s teacher, a solo parent herself, asserted that many of the children in her class came from dysfunctional two-parent families, and that loved children with a sane intelligent mother were the lucky ones. I took her at her word.

One of the common features of these men and others, was that they were the possessors of that much maligned British stiff upper lip. I may even have possessed one myself. Laugh and the world laughs with you, weep and you weep alone, was always in my mind, as I navigated disasters that sometimes felt overwhelming.

When I was at boarding school, several of my friends has been passengers on the troopship Empire Windrush when it caught fire in the Mediterranean and sank.  They only referred to it in terms of having lost all their clothes and possessions. Recently I Googled the Windrush, and found several newsreels about the disaster. On them is recorded the amazing behaviour of all the women and children as well as the military wounded and servicemen from Korea.

The electricity was affected by the fire, so the life boats couldn’t be lowered and were eventually dropped into the sea. Neither could the intercom work, so all the passengers had to be awakened at 6.30 and they climbed off the ship into the life boats in their dressing gowns and pyjamas.

I watched moving newsreels of mothers holding their babies, children holding the hands of toddlers, all in their night clothes, climbing off a rescue ship which conveyed them to Tangiers. They walked in a quiet orderly procession along the dock, no tears, no hysterics, just calmly disciplined. No panic, no fuss, just that wonderful stiff upper lip as all ages coped efficiently and courageously. This was the story my school friends had omitted to tell when they mentioned in a matter of fact way that they’d lost all their possessions when their ship caught fire on their way home from the East.

That same stiff upper lip was what carried my parent’s generation through the second world war, living through perils and dangers, deprivation and destruction. The bombing, sleeplessness from air-raids, invasion fears, stern rationing, black outs, no petrol for travel, working in factories, on the land, in the army and the navy and air force in horrendous conditions, families traumatised by years of separation and sometimes death in battle, or at sea, or in the air, and the nightmares and undiagnosed PTSD, all had to be endured and survived.

No tranquillisers, anti-depressants, therapists or other emotional support were available. Cigarettes were the nearest thing! They didn’t see themselves as victims, both civilians and servicemen just stoically soldiered on for six years until they achieved victory.

It was another Edwardian, Captain Scott of the Antarctic who famously gave voice to the stoicism and courage which is disguised by that stiff upper lip. Once a hero, then derided by revisionist historians, he has had his reputation restored to heroic status recently, by the advances of science.

Researchers and modern scientists have discovered that when the dog teams with food  failed to rendezvous in spite of Scott’s written orders, his party were abandoned in the ten-day Antarctic winter blizzard. Scott and his men perished in a blizzard which was a once in a thousand-year event and the cold was colder than anyone had ever experienced, – 40 degrees Fahrenheit, too cold for human beings to survive in.

As he lay dying in his snow bound tent, the others already dead, Captain Scott wrote the immortal words in which he took full responsibility for their fate – never complaining, never making excuses, never wallowing in self-pity.

He didn’t see himself as a victim. Instead he wrote: “We took risks, we knew we took them: things have come out against us and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined to do our best to the last”.

The difference between being a victor or a victim is simply a change of perspective. When we can accept that the choices we made, have brought us to this point (and some believe that these choices were made before we returned to this plane of existence), we can see the events of our lives from a different perspective.

We can choose to see our lives through a different lens. The quickest way to shift from the misery of self-pity and victim-hood, to the freedom of accepting responsibility, is to begin to feel grateful for our life, the highs and the lows, knowing there is a point or a purpose to all challenges. We may not see them straight away but when we look back, we see there are no accidents and no mis-steps. We can see that all our actions and decisions have led us to this point.

English House and Garden magazine editor, Sue Crewe began keeping a daily gratitude diary after a period of heartbreak in her life. Every day she listed five things. Some years later she wrote:

‘The most transformative revelation is the power of gratitude itself: it takes up so much room that everything coercive 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.’

What a glorious way to live life.

Food for threadbare gourmets

Potatoes without butter are not the same… mashed potatoes, potatoes baked in their jackets, potatoes baked in cream, new potatoes anointed with melted butter… what is a potato without butter or cream?

The answer is potatoes cooked the way I’ve discovered! Simply cube them, peeled or unpeeled -not too small, about three-quarters of an inch squarish. Boil them till soft but still firm. Drain, and tip flour over them. Put the lid back on the pan, and toss the potatoes in the flour before frying batches in hot oil. When crisp, drain them on kitchen paper as you tackle each batch, and keep them warm. They end up crisp outside and soft inside. Serve these delicious crisp morsels with sea-salt, and chicken, sausages or whatever takes your fancy.

P.S. For an extraordinary story of courage and stiff upper lip, GP Cox’s blog today, about Mrs Ruby Boye in the Pacific War takes some beating.

 

 

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Filed under cookery/recipes, happiness, history, life and death, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, world war two

A merrier world and a beautiful one

 

Tropical islands poised to benefit from ocean power

The story of a sixteen-year old fighting climate change always moves and excites and inspires me.

Jadav Payeng has been planting a forest single-handedly since 1979 when he saw a pile of dead snakes and realised they had died for lack of both water and shade. Jadav Payeng, the son of a poor buffalo trader from a marginalized tribal community in the region of Assam, India, is now a poor farmer; but he has let nothing stand in the way of the task he set himself. He’s planted a tree a day in the forty years ever since. Elephants and tigers and all the indigenous wild life of the area have returned and are inhabitants of the forest he’s planted, which is now bigger than Central Park in New York.

I can’t help contrasting his story with the story of another sixteen-year old, an angry frightened Swedish teenager.

As I watched her speaking at the UN, I wondered, not for the first time, where her parents were to protect her, and also to help her to get some balance… yes, climate change is real, but no-one has stolen her childhood, living in a privileged western society like Sweden. While on the other hand, millions of children elsewhere are starving, enslaved and truly hopeless, and the millions of us in WW2 and other times, as well as children growing up in fear of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, could claim to have had our childhoods stolen… except that self- pity and blame gets us nowhere!!!

And it isn’t just climate change which is a problem for the future… we face polluted oceans, destruction of the world’s forests, over-population, the extinction of other living species, and many other pressing issues. Yet the future is not actually all doom and gloom, and I wish someone would help Greta see the other side of the story.

After watching a video called 13 Misconceptions about Climate Change, I began to feel a lot better about the future, while there are other signs of progress which make me feel truly hopeful.

For starters, there’s the so-called destruction of Pacific Islands by the rising ocean, which the UN Secretary General described when he spoke after Greta at the UN. Actually, the story of the Pacific Islands is fascinating. A research team, which included a professor from Auckland University, have been studying the problem, and their findings show the gloomy forecast of flooding and inundation is unjustified.

Previous research by the team, which used aerial photos going back as far as 1943 to track changes to the 101 islands that make up the Tuvalu archipelago, found that overall there was a net gain in land area of 2.9 percent or 73.5ha over the past 40 years.

They found that the height of the atolls increased at the same time as the rising water, that sand and sediment shifted as the atolls responded to the environmental changes: that the elevation of the atoll crest – the highest ground – mirrored the rise in sea levels, which suggests sea level may be an important controlling factor on island elevation.

Co-researcher Dr Murray Ford, also from the University of Auckland, says the study shows islands are more resilient than previously thought, able to change shape or physically adjust to higher sea levels and more severe storms.

Then there’s the Great Green Wall of China where they are planting an area of forest bigger than Ireland every year, and have drafted in 60,000 soldiers to help with the planting. While they have had their problems and are still working on them, the project is heartening, while all the re-wilding and regeneration going on in England, Scotland, Denmark, Spain and other European countries is setting a new paradigm.

Great tracts of land are being returned to their ancient state – at Knepp Farm in Kent for instance, they’ve pulled up all the fences, sold all the farm machinery, and introduced as many original species onto the land as possible. No aurochs now, which used to roam the land in Neolithic times, so they introduced the nearest thing – long horn cattle, Exmoor ponies instead of wild horses to keep too many trees from spreading, three species of deer and pigs. Nature designed each animal to have its own function, they all graze differently, while the pigs rootling in the hard clay soil open up spaces for seeds to germinate. The results of this system include improving soil quality, flood control, water purification and pollination.

Rare bats, birds, butterflies, insects, flowers, fish, which haven’t been seen for centuries, are returning to this paradise, only a short way from London. The cattle are gently led – no violence being chased by dogs or motorbikes to round them up – and culled and sold as the highest quality meat, so there is no over-grazing in what is still an enclosed space, with other traditional farms around, hemming them in. This was the mistake made in the celebrated Netherlands project, where the animals flourished so well that in a hard winter many died from starvation, so now some animals have to be culled to maintain the health of the others.

As the years have gone by at Knepp Farm, swamps and wetland have returned, trees and scrub and rare wild flowers have spread, birds sing, butterflies dance over blossoms, and the whole area exudes a sense of calm and beauty. Glamping has become an off-shoot of this wonderful experiment.

The famous return of wolves to Yellowstone Park has shown that by introducing the top predator, the whole ecosystem can heal and regenerate. Rumania has one of the last and biggest swathes of forest, where vast areas are flourishing with all the wild creatures roaming, , which have disappeared elsewhere in Europe, and though during the Communist rule the forests began to be logged, they are now protected.

In Scotland where a number of philanthropists and trusts have bought up huge areas of land, they are re-wilding or regenerating the land in other ways…John Muir, of the John Muir Trust, one of the largest landowners, said that: ‘thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity’. This is why of course, that eco-tourism is on the rise which may or may not be a good thing, with concern over carbon footprints.

Modern factory farming, with all the attendant soil erosion, animal cruelty, chemical poisoning through the use of herbicides, pesticides, and anti-biotics, and water degradation, is also being addressed by dedicated experts. In the wonderful half hour documentary called ‘Unbroken Ground’ we learn of efforts to breed strains of grain which don’t require annual re-planting with the resultant ploughing and soil loss. Another farmer has transformed the over-grazed barren waste of his land caused by cattle grazing, by introducing bison, the original inhabitants, and their presence has restored the eco-system, while their meat is organic and unsullied by anti-biotics or other modern methods of increasing yield.

In fact, farming like this turns out to be more productive than modern farming methods, while respecting the land and the animals. All over the world farmers are taking up ‘re-generative farming’, letting the land dictate the results, allowing trees to grow for shade for animals and to prevent soil erosion, increase the world’s stock of trees, and as a by-product make the land both beautiful and productive.

This method of farming aims for topsoil regeneration, increasing biodiversity, improving the water cycle, enhancing eco-system services, increasing resilience to climate change, and strengthening the health and vitality of farm soil.

And even fishing is being tackled by one co-operative fishing company on Lummi Island in the States. They’ve perfected a way of catching salmon without stress, returning the unwanted catch to the sea unharmed, and treating the salmon with gentleness and respect. Now that scientists have proved what many of us have always believed, that fish can feel pain, it’s a great step forward to see that fishing can be humane; and perhaps in our brave new world, we will see this respect and care for all living things, including our planet, penetrate the consciousness of us all.

This revolution in our thinking towards the world can start at home. In small town gardens and plots, where gardeners grow native species, or plants that attract bees, or birds, they create tiny oases in urban deserts. A balcony or a window box, a bird feeder or a bowl of fresh water can attract insect and bird life, and even leaving dandelions to flower, the bees favourite food, is a small gift to the planet. We don’t need a farm or acres of land to do what we can to nurture nature. Some people plant road-sides, railway embankments and waste land in cities… sometimes they’re called guerrilla gardeners, and they are among the unsung saviours of the planet.

So if I could speak to sad and anxious sixteen year old Greta, I would give her the words of Max Ehrman in Desiderata:

“Go placidly amid the noise and the haste … Speak your truth quietly and clearly…  And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore, be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”

The beauty is a gift, but happiness is a decision I sometimes think… remembering the words of the anarchic Monty Python gang in The Life of Brian – always look on the bright side of things! And much happiness for me is to be found chopping and stirring and beating and eating in the kitchen… hence our Tuscan binge after reading Frances Mayes…’Giusi’s hen, hunter style’ was our first go at peasant cooking, and not having the guinea fowl required in the recipe I used eight boneless chicken breasts. We started with ‘odori’, which is a base made of two carrots, two stalks of celery, one onion, 2 cloves of garlic, and parsley. Chop them finely, saute in olive oil and put aside.

Saute the chicken for ten minutes, add salt and pepper and the odori. When the mix looks golden, pour in a glass of white wine. When it’s almost evaporated add two cups of tomato sauce and cook slowly for another twenty minutes. I took the advice and let it sit until the next day.

There was enough for two meals, the first we ate with creamy mashed potatoes, and the next day with pasta, accompanied by green beans – and of course a glass of good wine.

Being inclined to short cuts these days I used grated garlic in a jar, and a tin of tomatoes. It still seemed pretty delicious even with these non-Tuscan deviations!  And as that wise old man Tolkien once said:” If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under cookery/recipes, environment, gardens, happiness, pollution, sustainability, Uncategorized, wild life

Heaven is a Place on Earth

TLot18againOur home in the forest

This is the last instalment of my autobiography before I resume my normal blogs

I asked the Salvation Army’s Missing Person’s Bureau to find my mother when I was nearly fifty. It took them three years, and when they did, I immediately flew to London to see her.

We met on neutral ground at the Tate Gallery, and sat on a leather bench in front of a masterpiece. I have no idea what the picture was, but the pattern of the red brocade wall- covering surrounding it is stamped on my memory forever. We stayed there for hours until the gallery attendant gently told us they were closing, and then we paced the Embankment trying to catch up on a lifetime.

In the end we never did bridge the gap of that lost time as she only seemed to remember the good times we had had, while I remembered the bad times, but what I learned about her broke my heart over and over again. Her father had left before she was born, and two stepfathers died of cancer.

When she was eight months pregnant with my younger sister she lived through the angst of waiting for her husband to return at Dunkirk. He didn’t. He escaped two weeks later. Two years after this, when he returned to do his officer training she became pregnant again, and gave birth to that child on her own as well.

And now, she met a farmer from the Channel Islands, who was working on Pluto – Pipe- Line Under the Ocean, a top -secret invention to supply fuel to the armies at D-Day. They planned to marry when the war was over and take us children to live on his family farm. There was an accident and he was killed. My mother was pregnant, and in despair she fled.

She couldn’t afford to keep the baby, adopted her, emigrated to Australia to start a new life, and eventually re-married a man she’d met on the voyage out. Back in London she had a daughter with her new husband, and when that baby was a few months old, this man went into a sanatorium with TB and when he recovered, never returned to her and their child.

She brought up that child alone, and became an efficient civil servant. On her retirement she sold her house in order to move and buy a house near her sister. Shopping for a new sofa, she learned from the hushed gossip in the local shop that her solicitor had hanged himself after embezzling all his clients’ money including hers.

She had a few thousand pounds left, which she blued on a trip to China, to fulfil at least one life’s dream. She had whiled away the long lonely years by learning Chinese, attending cookery classes, playing chess and listening to opera. And when I met her, she was living in a council retirement flat. She was a gentle, refined woman, and never at any time when I met her at intervals before her death, made any complaint about her life; and though she was sad, she was never bitter.

After a forty-year silence, I met my stepmother again too. And the weeks I now spent in her company were amongst the happiest in my life. All the dislike, hostility and coldness she had shown me had dropped away. And all the hurt and pain and anger I had felt at being rejected also dissolved. The love between us was so complete and miraculous, it felt as though we had transitioned to the next plane of being, when we see each other clearly, and recognise the love and beauty of each other’s soul.

My father died fifty years ago. He shaped the person I am today. Back from the war when I was aged ten, he used to stop at a second- hand book stall set up by his bus stop on Friday nights. There he chose his old favourites for me, like Lord Lytton’s ‘The Last Days of Pompeii,’ and ‘Harold’, Kingsley’s Westward Ho and my very favourite – read and re-read – Hypatia, the Greek woman philosopher and mathematician who came to a sticky end, thanks to men! Then there was David Copperfield and so many others.

When we moved to Catterick, he shared the books he was reading then, which included Sir Nigel and the White Company, Conan Doyle’s historical romances set in France in 1366, C.S. Forester’s Hornblower Books, and Napier’s History of the Peninsula Wars. And every night, when I’d finished my homework, he read aloud to my eleven- year- old self from H.M. Trevelyan’s ‘English Social History,’ setting up my fascination with history.

Still eleven, he taught me the value of money and compassion. Sitting at the dining table I had suggested my stepmother buy some sheepskin boots because her feet were cold, “they only cost five pounds,” I blithely chirruped.

“Look out of the window,” my father ordered. A worn working man with a deeply-lined face and shabby clothes covered in grime from a building site, was dragging tiredly past. “That man earns five pounds a week to feed his family”, my father grimly pointed out, and lectured me on extravagance in words that would have profited Marie Antoinette.

Later in Malaya, when I was sixteen, and we entertained the Indian quarter -master to tea with his wife in her colourful saris, and I had to give them my books on the Royal family who they loved, he demonstrated tolerance and the opposite of racism.

Back in England in the mid- fifties, he taught me to accept homo-sexuality at a time when it was scarcely mentioned. I commented on a strange man on the bus who wore a brown striped suit with flared trousers, a wide brimmed brown felt hat and thick makeup. He laughed, told me he was a wonderful old ‘queen’ and was such a punishing boxer that no-one dared jeer at him.

He demanded respect for all his soldiers, telling me they’d fought through the war, were bringing up families on a pittance, and were fine decent people. Like Abou Ben Adhem, he ‘loved his fellow men.’

Later when I was twenty-one, he suggested that my outlook was a bit narrow, and that I should read The Manchester Guardian. Back then it had a reputation for fine writing, tolerant humane values, and wide culture. I became a sensible feminist, reading Mary Stott on the women’s pages, learned about good food, enjoyed witty TV criticism, discovered avenues of musical appreciation, and acquired a burning social conscience, which cut me off from all my family and many of my friends!

When he retired from the army at forty-five he commuted/cashed up his army pension to pay for his youngest son’s expensive schools, and so condemned himself to working to support his family for the rest of his life. But he died in 1968 at fifty-four.

I wonder if anyone will remember me, fifty years after I am dead? At the moment, I am far from dead, and know that he would have loved to know what risks I have taken to live my life as fully as I can and to be able to love as deeply as I do now.

When I began blogging, I inadvertently stumbled on an unusual blog when I was looking for some poetry I’d enjoyed. When I left a comment on this rather beautiful blog, which was not poetry, the writer replied with such courtesy that I was enchanted. In the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein’s words – I ‘grocked’ him. Which meant I felt I knew him, and recognised him, and understood him at a very deep level.

We began ‘following’ each other, and our comments reflected a mutual admiration. My new follower wrote exquisite remarks on my blogs, but when a rather malicious stalker I’d attracted from the day I first began writing, began sneering at my “followers massaging my ego,” I feared that he might recognise the underlying message of love in the sensitive, perceptive words my new friend wrote on my blog. I feared that my stalker’s spite could spoil this friendship.

So I wrote to my friend, suggesting that we write privately instead, to avoid any unpleasantness. Two years and two thousand letters later, my friend – now my love- left his country, his home of forty- five years, the job he loved at a world-famous observatory, his family, and his friends and came to begin a life with me.

I read recently:”I don’t think genuinely falling in love is negotiable. The heart goes where the heart goes. Age has nothing to do with it.” This is true – he’s much younger than me, cherishes me the way I’ve never been cared for before, we share the same spiritual values, and revel in a life of love and freedom.

Like me, he had left behind not just his home, but most of his assets too, so we looked for a place where we could afford to live, that would give us the environment we both wanted. It was waiting for us. Just as out of over eighty million bloggers we had  found each other, so we discovered the perfect place that we could not only afford, but which turned out to be a haven of beauty, peace, and community.

We bought a tiny one room log cabin set on forty acres of covenanted podocarp forest, where we look across a valley like an amphitheatre and gaze up to our own mountain. We listen to our streams tumbling over rocks below, and hear birds singing from the dawn chorus in the morning to the moreporks/owls through the night. Our property is home to various almost extinct species of frog, lizards, geckoes, to more than three hundred species of butterfly and moths – or lepidoptera as I’ve learned to call them – and to rare plants and trees. People come from the universities and world-wide societies to study these precious vanishing species in this time of the sixth great extinction.

Our neighbours, hidden in the forest, have a shared environmental commitment to keeping the sprawling hills and ranges free of pests and to nurturing the creatures who’ve made their homes here for milleniums. These neighbours come from all walks of life – an architect, a musician, zoologist and landscape professors, a geologist and several engineers, a restauranteur, a painter, a therapist and others. They are all nationalities, Swiss, English, Australian, Belgian, Dutch, Maori, Russian, Mongolian, American.

Behind our high wrought iron gates, we share a civilised social life, and work together to preserve the forest. On our property, we’ve extended our original tiny dwelling, planted fragrant flowers, created architectural flights of steps, made melodious bells from diver’s tanks, re-cycled doors and windows and other found objects, and live a blissful life of creativity and harmony.

I wake in the morning and look out of the window to where the dawn shines gold on the peak of the mountain. I turn to my love and whisper, “the sun is on the mountain.” And another day begins of a quiet mystical life of love and beauty.

The end

 Food for Threadbare Gourmets

 I love Indonesian food, and a friend gave me a little booklet of recipes years ago. One page in particular is stained and dog-eared… with the recipe for sambel goreng telor on it – this means eggs in coconut milk.

For two people hard boil four eggs, cut them in two and put in a deep dish. Fry a chopped onion, and when soft add tomato, clove of garlic, half a red pepper, a table spoon of brown sugar and salt to taste. When they’re soft, add half a cup of coconut milk, heat and pour over the eggs. Delicious with plain boiled rice.

Food for Thought

 Hear our humble prayer, O God, for our friends the animals, especially for animals who are suffering; for any that are hunted or lost or deserted or frightened or hungry; for all that must be put to death.

We entreat for them all thy mercy and pity and for those who deal with them we ask a heart of compassion, gentle hands and kindly words.

Make us ourselves to be true friends to animals and so to share the blessings of the merciful.

Albert Schweitzer, doctor, humanitarian, writer,  musician, organist and organ restorer

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Extraordinary year, strange events, fascinating people

Image result for bill sutch nz

Bill Sutch with his wife and daughter after his trial

Another instalment of my autobiography before reverting to my normal blogs

 It was an extraordinary year, but it just seemed ordinary at the time! After Bill and Shirley’s visit at the start of 1975, our family plunged into village life, which included the annual flower show, probably the most important event of the year in our valley. We were still visited regularly by our extra-terrestrial visitors, and the whole family became accustomed to their presence.

We were also visited by different members of Arthur Thomas’s family, his parents, his various brothers, his wife…all needing to chew over the cud and somehow wring some shreds of hope out of their visits, after which I usually felt totally drained.

A few weeks after the end of the summer holidays, the children and I set off for a distant country school across the ranges, where a district sports day was to be held. With both children in the back seat, we could manage one more child there, though I resolutely refused to let any child sit in the front seat by me, in these pre-seat-belt days.

So when we skidded sharply over fresh gravel on a hair pin bend with a steep drop one side, and rode up the steep bank the other side, it was only me who shot through the wind-screen when the car turned upside down. I was pinned with my arm crushed between the roof of the car and the road, but luckily all three children were able to climb out of the back, with only the petrol from the tank spilling on them as they crawled out.

Another car full of children now rounded the corner, and then another, and the farmers driving them were able to extract me. They were so concerned, that I felt anxious and quite protective towards them.  I sat and thought, so this is what an accident feels like.

Later in hospital, I had a four-hour operation to get all the glass and grit out of my shattered hand. A dentist had to cut my rings off as there were shards of glass sticking out all the way down each finger. I returned home a few days later with my broken arm in a half plaster cast, and swathed in bandages for the lacerated hand and wrist.

At home, I found a certain amount of chaos. My son now lapsed into shock and wandered round the garden sucking his thumb, and holding his pillow. My daughter checked on what we expected to get from the insurance for the car which was a write-off, and began scanning the for-sale columns of the newspaper for a replacement car at the same price. Bill and Shirley were on their way to spend a weekend with us, and Patrick had been unable to track them down on their journey north, to ask them not to come.

They arrived half an hour after I did, and at the same time as the wonderful district nurse, who came to suss me out and check on my bandages. She then soaked my arm in warm salt water in a deep antique Victorian bowl, the salt water a home remedy far more helpful than anything else.

The chaos was compounded by a neighbour’s teenage daughter seeking safety in tears of fright because she said a man in a car was following her. The one thing I didn’t have to worry about was food. The whole community had rallied round and delivered pies and casseroles and cakes of every description.

Shirley bustled off to a law conference, leaving us with a very frail-seeming Bill to look after. So he was unable to rescue me when I went for a one- armed walk with the three dogs on leads, who darted into a bramble bush after an enticing smell, and dragged me in with them. There we stood until a neighbour passed by in her car, and untangled us all, the long haired afghans and cavalier King Charles spaniel!

The arm took three months to heal, and the doctors told me I’d never have the use of my hand again. But as the months went by I felt the pain and stiffness drain out of each finger while I was meditating and within months was back to normal – able to crochet, play the piano, and peel potatoes!

I only missed writing one column in the week of the accident, and immediately got back to work the second week, typing with one hand and one finger for the most part!. We couldn’t afford for me to miss my payments, as we were terribly hard up since Patrick was paying two thirds of his salary to his first family.

Our life never stopped while I coped with the aftermath of the accident, friends like John and Oi came and went,  and another new friend, Richard Hirsch, came often too. Before we met him he had been director of the Auckland Art Gallery, but after much- publicised internecine struggles with the staff, he resigned and then threw himself out of the window of his apartment on the top floor.

When he came out of hospital, he had lost a leg, and on my way into the Star to deliver one of my weekly columns, I suddenly realised that this person slowly negotiating the hill down to the Auckland Star on crutches, and then making his way to the reading room, was Richard. Work in the reading room was all he could find to do after all his misfortunes.

I suggested to Patrick that he could stop on his way to the newspaper every day, and give Richard a lift, and so developed a friendship. Richard’s parents had been part of the group of rich artistic American friends who had supported the poet Kahlil Gibran, author of ‘The Prophet’ and Richard had grown up being the only focus of his doting parents, who thought he was too special and precious to go to school like ordinary mortals.

So though he passed his childhood in places like Paris and New York and Switzerland, he was deeply angry and bitter at never having had a normal childhood, and he found it hard to sustain any relationships at all, hence his problems at the art gallery.

He found some solace in his friendship with my children. Underneath his pain and rage and bitterness was a loving and gentle soul, and it leapt in recognition of those same qualities in the children. I longed for him never to move away from this essence of himself, but his deep rage and unhappiness exploded even in an innocent conversation when drying the dishes.

Inevitably Richard became the recipient of Happy Cards too, and once after my daughter had sent him a picture he wrote: “Thank you so much. There are a number of varieties of pictures. Some are pretty or merely alright. And then there are others which I call nourishing – like yours. Nourishing? Well, yes. Have you ever thought that the eyes are hungry all the time? A good meal – and you won’t feel hunger for hours. But your eyes roam all the time – hunting for patterns. Hunting for them everywhere in the room. Toys for the eyes to play with. Nobody ever talks about the games the eyes play every minute of the day… So thank you for providing such a lovely toy for the hungry eye.”

Richard died a few years later from cancer of the throat, choked, I felt, by his un-assuaged pain. But for a time I felt we gave him a little joy.

Now came Bill’s trial in this year of milestones. I couldn’t bear to read the reports of what was a sensational event in New Zealand’s history. The trial turned out to be black comedy. The charge was that Bill gave ‘unspecified information’ to the Russians, in spite of him having retired years before and having no worthwhile information. All his various appointments to talk to the Russians were written in his diary, so there was actually nothing secretive about them. And someone must have tipped off the SIS who observed every meeting with his Russian friend.

The agents were revealed as incompetents who lost dates, muffed places and times, and actually didn’t have any evidence against Bill. Their strongest card seemed to be the journey he had made across the top of the world as an adventurous young man in the early twenties, when he explored places like Tashkent, Samarkand, Afghanistan and northern India. This proved he must be a communist! (though this was not illegal in a free country like NZ !) Bill was not a communist and he was acquitted. But he didn’t recover from the ordeal of the trial. For a patriot like Bill who had spent his whole life working for his country, it had been a betrayal.

As autumn turned to winter, the nights turned cold and we awoke to frost, beautiful and sparkling in the clear bright sunshine. And now the friend I had helped to start Alcoholics Anonymous in Hong Kong, came to visit, bringing her alcoholic husband, three daughters and toddler son. They stayed for two weeks, and we had long intimate talks, family feasts, evenings dancing and laughing while my son played the piano, playing games, and showing them the beautiful country-side where we now lived.

Though I was sad to see them go, I was also exhausted from cooking for ten of us, and looking after everyone, plus the dogs, one of whom was feeling so neglected that she made her feelings known by peeing in our bed.

Oi suggested that I come and spend a restful day with her. Hardly had I arrived at her tranquil home hidden amid trees and by a stream in the prosperous Auckland suburb where she lived, than Patrick rang me from the office. He told me that my friend Phillipa’s ship was on fire, and she was in a life-boat.

I spent the day praying for my gallant friend and her children. By the end of the day it was obvious there was no hope. The next evening, I rang the hotel where Jean, her husband, was staying. I heard the recognition and relief in his voice when he heard me say who I was, and as soon as he had dealt with the aftermath of the disaster he came out to stay with us.

It was an excruciating time. He spent long hours walking through the valley, and I never see white clematis now without remembering Jean who climbed a tree and brought me back a spray.

We drove up to Whangarei for the funeral, though my daughter refused to come. ‘God will hear my prayers just as well from here,’ she said.  I arranged for her to spend the day with friends. At the ceremony in the church, Jean wore his naval uniform, and with his great height, pale skin and huge black haunted eyes looked like a remote, carved stone figure, a medieval knight rather than a twentieth century sea captain.

After the ceremony, we drove to the harbour at Tutukaka, where a police launch was waiting. We piled the overpoweringly sweet-scented spring flowers from the church, which we’d brought in our car, into the cabin, and then made our way out to sea. We rounded the point and moved slowly across to Whananaki where Philippa had died. It was a sparkling winter’s day with smooth glassy water, cloudless blue sky overhead, and in the distance, the line of yellow sand on the beach where a solitary policeman stood watching and waiting.

“Here,” said Jean, and as the launch slowed to a stop we were surrounded with an exquisite fragrance. Then the door from the cabin was opened and the church flowers were brought out. We caught our breath – they had a different perfume to the other- worldly fragrance which had been surrounding us … was it the Presence of Love, or Philippa – it has always been an unsolved riddle…

Now, deep in his pain, Jean slowly tossed the flowers overboard as he said his last goodbyes to those he loved. With great courtesy, he gently gave the last bouquet to the only child there – my son – to throw into the sea. This ritual with the flowers was an old Breton custom in the fishing community Jean came from on the other side of the world.

Back in our country home, Jean continued to visit until he left New Zealand. We didn’t tell him we were about to celebrate our marriage – it seemed too cruel. And when we wrote to invite Bill and Shirley, Shirley replied saying that Bill was dying from cancer of the liver, and had only another week to live. He died after he had held his new born grandson in his arms.

A week or so later Patrick and I married in a quiet Anglican church not far away. I felt the absence of our cherished friends, but we now began a new chapter of our lives, in which the plight of Arthur Thomas continued to dominate, and into which was added a  dreadful new dimension of drug-runners, and their threats and dangerous actions which dogged us during these years of drama and derring-do.

To be continued

 Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Sometimes I want a quick refreshing pudding and this one made with fresh oranges is the answer. Allow two or three oranges for each person. Peel, cut in half and then thinly slice across the fruit. Pile into a glass bowl and pour over a glass of wine and four heaped table spoons of caster sugar. Leave in the fridge until needed. Then spoon into small glass bowls and top with a dollop of whipped cream.

Food for Thought

Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are engines of change (as the poet said), windows on the world and lighthouses erected in the sea of time. They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print.        Barbara Tuchman historian

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Another mansion

House, 24 Domain Drive, Parnell by John Fields
Our new home

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

 With a job under my belt, working on a liberal family- owned afternoon newspaper, The Auckland Star, I now had to find somewhere to live. I stumbled into the perfect place, in a good suburb only a few minutes drive from my office, with a good school in walking distance, and a small community of interesting neighbours.

Once again, John was behind my find. A friend of his contacted a friend of hers, and within a week I was ensconced in a beautiful second floor apartment in a huge old house on the edge of the Domain, a splendid botanical park which was a buffer between the business heart of the city and our little suburb.

The Victorian house had been built by a rich wine merchant on the lines of the American Belle Epoque mansions, only doubling its size. Architectural experts loftily said the house had no value except for the beautiful fanlight above the front door. But the ballroom on the ground floor which housed an exquisite carved marble fireplace, and sash windows with the bottom pane high enough for a Victorian crinolined lady to step out onto the wide pillared veranda was intriguing in itself; while the wide curving staircase and banister ascending to my apartment was a small boy’s dream to slide down.

My new home sported a sitting room, twenty- two feet long and eighteen feet wide, with floor length windows in the big bay at the end of the room, overlooking lawns and then the huge plane trees which edged the Domain.

It wasn’t too promising when I first saw it, a hodge-podge of elements cobbled together to make it a flat. But the landlord who lived downstairs decided to improve it for me. I chose plain blue tiles for the kitchen, bathroom and loo floors – to his amazement – wouldn’t I want different patterns in every room? The hideous – patterned coloured wallpapers in each room he promised to re-paper over time, room by room, and was astonished when I said I just wanted them painted over in white, and everything – paintwork, carved wooden fireplaces – all covered in white.

The only thing left was the dreadful green patterned carpet with sprays of red, brown and blue flowers. But I got his permission to dye it. Every night for six months I came home with small tins of blue dye from the chemist. When the children were in bed, I changed into my bikini, so as not to spoil my clothes and scrubbed boiling dye into the carpet with a stiff nail brush.

Even with rubber gloves, I could only manage three square feet of the scalding hot dye a night, and the blue splashes easily washed off my arms and legs and torso when I’d finished. I sewed blue curtains by hand, finding beautiful fabrics in sales, and made blue velvet cushions for the second- hand arm chairs discovered in junk shops. I found a big chesterfield sofa with brown Sanderson flowered linen loose covers and dyed them blue in the washing machine. By the time I’d finished I had a beautiful blue and white room adorned with the treasures I’d brought from Hong Kong- a pair of Bokhara rugs, lamps, blue and white china, pictures, and books.

The house was set back from the road in a big garden and surrounded by trees. The first day we moved in, I looked out and saw the two children lying on their stomachs on the soaking wet grass. I flung open the window and called – “what are you doing?” “Looking at the grass, “ they called back, after four years of living in a concrete jungle. We bought precious nasturtium seeds and planted them, and then, astounded, ripped them out again when the gardener confronted us to ask why we were planting ‘weeds’ in ’his’ garden. They spread everywhere, he grumbled. Now I grow them everywhere!

Our first weekend in our new home, when we still just had new beds, and a tiny eighteen- inch square side table that had been left in the flat by a previous occupant, we knelt around it having our porridge for breakfast, and then put on coats and jackets and walked around the corner to the beautiful Anglican cathedral, the largest wooden building in the southern hemisphere.

I didn’t realise then, but we were a striking threesome – a tall  woman in black, holding the hands of two children immaculately dressed in red quilted coats and red trousers. I had bought three polo necked ribbed jumpers each for them in black, white and red, so they could get dressed quickly and always look neat. I had my own formula for speedy mindless dressing too, – black trousers and jackets and red, black and white jumpers.

When we arrived, the dean of the cathedral came across to greet us, and showed us to a pew, and after matins ushered us into the adjoining parish hall for morning tea, where he introduced us to his other parishioners. One of them was a kind practical woman with children the same age as mine, who offered to have the children for three weeks on their way home after school, until they got used to walking home alone.

So began a friendship which progressed through her husband’s elevation to bishop, archbishop and then Governor General, during which time we enjoyed meals in their vicarage, then bishop’s house, archbishop’s residence, and finally governor general’s stately home. The Dean also became a good and helpful friend, calling regularly to chat in my blue and white room, enjoying a glass of sherry. I had other regular callers too, including my landlord, who came so often for a tot of sherry that I used to joke to others that what I didn’t pay in rent I paid in sherry.

The children settled into their new school, and I trained them to come back to the unlocked home, eat a snack and a drink waiting for them, and then have a nap. As they got older and I acquired a television, they watched until I got home, until my daughter, always gregarious, began to explore our neighbourhood.

She was going on seven now, and before long, she was the trusted friend and helper to our landlady downstairs who had an ulcerous leg, making tea for her, chatting and keeping her company. She watched TV with Peggy the childless taxi-driver’s wife across the road, and frequently kept Mrs Andre – the doctor’s wife round the corner – company while she had her early pre-dinner sherry and gave my daughter lemonade.

She played patience with crusty, chain-smoking Lady Barker, a recluse of seventy- plus, who lived behind locked and barred doors. I never discovered how she and my daughter got to know each other. She helped Mr Buchanan, our grocer who delivered every Friday, to unpack his butter and bread, and fetch and carry stuff in his shop. Melanie, the drug-addict’s wife on the corner with three small boys, relied on her for company, help in amusing her boys, and even helping to paint her kitchen.

While I found myself battling social welfare for Melanie’s payments to arrive on time for her, and creating mayhem with surgeons on her behalf when the hospital kept cancelling her appointment for an operation, my daughter was her daily prop and stay. I tried to avoid this sad depressing woman, who used to call on me to come and sort out the dramas when her violent husband turned up to make trouble, but my daughter was able to lift her spirits most days.

I also came home from work a few times, to find this enterprising child had co-opted her brother into picking the garden flowers, setting up a stall on the pavement and selling the flowers to passers-by. And she would ring me at the office to tell me she’d been reading the newspaper, and found an ad which said if I got to a certain shop in Karangahape Road by such and such a time, I could buy toilet rolls with ten cents off. They were funny, happy days…

When Princess Alexandra came to Auckland, and was dining at the Auckland Memorial Museum, a few hundred yards from our home, my daughter insisted on my taking her to watch the Princess arrive. In the darkness of the winter night, she scoured the garden for some dahlias, wrapped them in a creased brown paper bag from the kitchen drawer, and when the Princess in shimmering evening dress arrived at the Museum, stepped up to her and smilingly presented the little bouquet. I still have the press photos of the moment and was told that Alexandra had carried the unlikely bouquet all night.

Her brother, meanwhile, was engaged in small boy activities which included helping the taxi-driver to wash his treasured limousine, exploring with his mates what was known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail back then- a wild path down by the railway- and to my horror when I discovered, scrambling across a huge drainage pipe which stretched for over a mile across a deep muddy tidal creek down by the harbour. He also haunted demolition sites on his way home from school, filling his trouser legs and arms with pieces of wood when he could carry no more.

It took him hours to make his way home thus burdened and stiff-legged, unable to bend his knees for the splints of wood in his trousers, and as I said to a friend, if I’d asked him to carry these huge unwieldy loads, he wouldn’t have done it. They were of course destined for a ‘hut’ hidden in the garden.

When our landlady banned him from sliding down the banister on the grounds that he’d fall and break his leg, he would slowly walk down the stairs instead, mimicking the sound of his sliding, and poor Pat would rush out to catch him, and be met by a gap-toothed small boy smiling blandly at her. These times were some of my favourite memories … gentle and happy …

And I was carving out a career on The Auckland Star. I knew nothing about journalism when I had bluffed my way into a job, having only learned to write stories after a fashion. But the nuts and bolts of the profession, the art of finding facts, knowing who to go to and how to find information, were a closed book to me. So I felt I was walking a tight-rope of ignorance for the first few months until I found my feet. And as time went by, things changed.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 We had half a bought cooked chicken left over after an emergency meal, and the weather was far too wintery for cold chicken salad to be appealing.So I made a thickish white sauce, using chicken stock, chopped the chicken into it, and lightly flavoured it with cheese.While this was cooking, pasta of the sort used for macaroni cheese was cooking. Tipping the drained pasta into a casserole, I added the chicken mixture, and stirred in enough grated cheese to lightly flavour the already flavoured sauce. Covering the top with grated parmesan, it went under the grill for a crisp brown topping, and turned out to be a delicious lunch, with a salad.

Food for thought

“There are only two kinds of people in the world. Those who are alive and those who are afraid.”     Rachel Naomi Remen,  inspirational writer and therapist

 

 

 

 

 

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