Category Archives: happiness

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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Filed under animals/pets, army, bloggers, british soldiers, cookery/recipes, environment, happiness, life and death, spiritual, sustainability, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, uncategorised, Uncategorized

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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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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The Land between the Rock and the Hard Place

1962.jpg

Am too technically incompetent to reduce the size of this outrageously large picture

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

I loved my time in the army. I made friends I still have today. I could afford holidays with them in Provence, and Majorca when it was still empty and unknown. I had beautiful clothes. I had a social life that swung between visiting married friends at weekends, to parties with dashing cavalry officers and staying with their titled parents, to holidays on my own roaming the beloved dales and the moors of Swaledale, or riding across Exmoor and Lorna Doone country on my best friend’s horses with her family.

My army career blossomed, I received promotions very early and was given responsibility far beyond my rank and years, being promoted to captain when I was twenty- two. My last dream job was lecturing all over England and Wales armed with a car and a driver, which also meant staying in the best hotels and in my spare time exploring cathedral towns and remote villages in glorious country-side.

It all came crashing down one day at home on leave. A letter arrived for me from my step-grandfather. I thought it might be a suggestion to meet for lunch as we sometimes did. But it was a deeply underlined request to come to his flat secretly one evening – and tell no-one – in capital letters.

My stepmother saw her father’s hand-writing and insisted on reading it. She hit the roof and accused me of having a fully- fledged affair with him. Her dislike for me – we could only be in each other’s company for short periods before her hostility began to manifest – now crystallised into loathing, and she blamed me for leading him on, and aiming to get my hands on his money – a gold digger she called me.

I left home feeling I could never return, and when my father, who had never taken the episode seriously, began secretly coming to see me I felt that I must be causing trouble between him and my stepmother. I felt the only way out of the impasse was to get married and make a home of my own, and then it would be natural that I wouldn’t be coming home.

With that intention I soon met someone, convinced myself that I loved him, and we became engaged. The engagement survived the freezing legendary winter of ‘62/63, driving around in his unheated MG in a sheepskin coat, and I was grateful too, that this was the year woolly tights were invented.

My engagement ring somehow symbolised the future. I had just wanted an in-expensive antique ring, but my future mother- in- law apparently deemed this unsuitable. She invited me to tea, and as we finished our cherry cake, a knock on the door produced the local jeweller with a tray of conventional rings with no price tags. I was mortified, but chose the ring I disliked least, feigning delight, and knowing that she was paying for it, not my fiancée.

Trying to be like all my friends and pretending that I had a normal loving home like everyone else – it had always felt so shameful not to be loved – I organised a traditional wedding and paid for it…from the engagement notices in the Times and Telegraph and printed invitations, to the flowers and church, the wedding cake and reception, the cars and the white satin dress. During this time, I had returned home, and paid my stepmother an in-ordinate sum for the privilege of sleeping on the sofa, since my step-grandmother now lived in my bedroom.

My new husband had grandiose ideas, so we were booked into the Savoy Hotel for the first night of our honeymoon, before travelling first class to Cornwall, where after a night in another expensive hotel we caught a plane to the Scilly Isles for two weeks in another expensive hotel.

Our first night in the Scilly Isles life came crashing down again.                                             My husband asked me for a cheque to pay for the honeymoon, pay off all his debts, and his overdraft at the bank. “I promised the bank manager I’d pay it with your money as soon as we were married”, he told me. (I’ve sometimes wondered what the bank manager must have thought of this promise)

The amount swallowed nearly all my savings after the expense of the wedding. It felt as though a prison cell door had just banged shut behind me. I wept and rolled around on the bed in agony. My husband simply couldn’t understand why I was so upset. He simply couldn’t see why it felt like a betrayal. And I was right to fear the future. This was only the first of many betrayals awaiting me.

Somehow, I put the misery to one side, and tried to make the best of things. Just as well, as within a couple of weeks I was felled with morning sickness. Only it wasn’t morning sickness. It was all day sickness. I carried a saucepan around with me, in the house and in the car. In 1963, two years after thalidomide had been withdrawn, the doctor was not going to give me anything to help, he just said it would pass, so I tried every folk remedy from raw carrots to ginger biscuits!

I also got hopelessly behind with things like the washing! Being something of a dandy, my husband owned fifty- two shirts, and one hot June day we came to the end of them. They were all piled into the dirty linen basket. With a handful of other young married couples, we had gathered in someone’s army quarter to pass round The News of The World and read the latest instalment of the Profumo scandal.

My husband was down to his last shirt – so old it had no sleeves, but he’d hidden this deficiency with a tweed sports jacket. Everyone ribbed him mercilessly until he ruefully took off the jacket – with an apologetic glance in my direction – revealing the humiliating shirt and my in-adequacy!

It was worse when we were visiting his mother at Christmas. She was a perfectionist who ruled her family with an iron hand, but not with that velvet glove. She found her precious son was wearing summer pyjamas in winter. She was mystified – I gave him lots of warm viyella pyjamas – she kept saying until I confessed they were all stuffed in the dirty linen basket… but pregnancy was no excuse for not looking after her son properly!

Towards the end of November, sitting on the sofa, feeling ill as usual, and waiting for my husband to come home, he arrived through the door in some haste at twenty-past seven. He hurried to the radio and turned it on saying President Kennedy had been shot. As I was pooh-poohing any truth in it, citing De Gaulle’s escape from 140 bullets the year before, the Archers – the long running farming serial –  was interrupted.

An announcer told us that President Kennedy had just died. Like everyone else, we were stunned – it seemed unbelievable. The life and light of a leader who personified hope for the world just snuffed out. The inspiration of our generation gone, with no warning. Only grief and disbelief left to us.

Two days later we were at dinner in Winchester with my oldest school friend from Malaya. Her husband turned on the television to watch the news. As we watched, still shaken and shocked from the assassination, we saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald, there under our very eyes as we watched – at that very moment in time. That, too, seemed unbelievable. The whole world seemed to rock.

Lack of money beset us from the start of the marriage, as my new husband was a year too young to receive ration allowance, which started when officers were twenty-five. The idea was to discourage early marriage so young officers were keener to go out and be killed fighting than if they had a wife and family!

With all my savings gone, in the last few weeks of pregnancy we were so skint, that I gave my husband the only good piece of jewellery I had ever bought for myself – an amethyst ring – to go and sell to raise some money. Predictably we didn’t get very much… just enough to buy food for that weekend.

We had moved house, from a posting in Wiltshire to an army quarter in Essex, in the last month of pregnancy, and I had managed to get a bed in a London teaching hospital. Still vomiting to the last, I weighed a stone less the day after the birth. To the envy of the other mothers, my clothes were hanging off me after the baby was born – unscathed by her mother’s ordeal- bouncing, bonny and over seven and a half pounds.

I had never gone back to the unhelpful doctor, so had missed out on pre-natal information, and had no idea what birth was actually about, my best information being from’ Gone with the Wind’ and Melanie hanging onto a knotted towel so as not to groan.

No knotted towel, but gritted teeth meant that I heard the nurse in the labour ward tell my husband he might as well go home since I was asleep. So he did, even though I raised my head and said I was awake! When the baby was born later that night, it was one of the most beautiful moments of my life when she was placed in my arms already sucking her thumb.

That beautiful moment was somewhat marred some hours later when a trainee African doctor from Khartoum who hardly spoke any English, and didn’t seem to have heard of anaesthetics, marched in, ignored my protests and sewed me up with nothing to dull the pain.

When that was over, I was handed a telegram which had just reached the hospital. The words simply said: “Gone to Cyprus”. My husband’s regiment had been sent – as the last men standing – to douse the flames of civil war in Cyprus. The month before in January, after  Zanzibar had exploded, the armies of Tanganyika, Uganda and Kenya had  mutinied over pay and conditions, and each government had asked Britain to send troops to help. It felt as though half Africa was in a state of insurrection with British troops flying everywhere.

My husband’s regiment was on standby for the next emergency, and it had arrived- Greeks and Turks at each other’s throats in Cyprus. The Daily Express wrote that “25,000 Turks have already been forced to leave their homes”, and the Guardian reported a massacre of Turkish-Cypriots at Limassol on 16 February 1964, the day my daughter was born.

It’s hard to explain how vulnerable I felt – psychologically I needed someone to care for me while I cared for the new baby, while we were suddenly much worse off financially with me in one place, and him in another. I hardly knew the house we had just moved to, and I was terrified of my new born baby, not having any idea how to care for her.

I left hospital after a week and went to stay with my in-laws for two weeks. Then my father drove me back to the army quarter I’d briefly lived in. Painters had come in while I was away, and the house was cold, damp and depressing with white paint spots over everything, including my bright new, stainless steel, wedding present pop-up toaster. The painters had obviously not bothered to use drop cloths. All my neighbours –  other army wives – had packed up and gone home to their families, so I was high and dry and alone.

I couldn’t drive the car parked in the garage, had no phone, and had to walk pram and baby through the cold foggy February weather to the village shop two miles away, to get shillings to feed the gas meter for heating. I was frightened and depressed. And the baby had colic. She cried for most of the day and night while I paced up and down with her in my arms, before collapsing with a fierce migraine when she was six weeks old.

So now, like the other wives, I packed up too and went to stay with my in-laws in London for a few weeks before taking the train to Manorbier at the furthest tip of Wales, where my best friend from our army days now lived. Her baby was a year older, and the weeks spent here were full of joyful jokes, as though we were still carefree and unmarried. Her friendly husband watched us in tolerant amusement. We still hark back in our letters to the fun we had then, and I turned my life around in that time. My daughter thrived and I got my courage back again.

When I returned to the house in Essex, I had enough energy now to tackle the over grown lawn, mowing three square feet with a push lawn mower every night after the baby was in bed, until I completed it. I began walking the pram into town a couple of miles away and attending the baby clinic every week for weighing and measuring, until they said I only needed to bring the baby every two weeks. It never occurred to me to tell them that this was the only time I saw anyone to talk to.

And now a few old friends came to stay, and one or two families trickled back into neighbouring army quarters.  I stopped fearing that my husband would be shot by Greeks or Turks. His regiment had now become part of the UN peacekeeping force, patrolling the Green Line.

After six months he returned and I was rather taken aback to find a cache of new clothes made by a local tailor in his luggage, and also to discover that he had learned to swim, thanks to the friendship of a girl from the Foreign Office. He hadn’t mentioned either of these things in his in-articulate weekly letters, but I pushed my surprise to the back of my mind.  The second day he was back, I realised as we sat in the sunshine in the garden, that I was bored, and supposed that this was one of the inevitable stages of marriage.

To be continued…

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 I’m not really a meat eater, especially when it comes to beef. So cooking one of Himself’s favourite things – spaghetti Bolognaise  – is always a bit of a chore. But I’ve just discovered the answer for me – in the Daily Mail of all places. Only three ingredients needed, and the whole thing can bubble away while I beef up the Bolognaise! I halved the amount, so used one tin of tomatoes, the recommended onion, and three tablespoons of butter. For four people, double the ingredients, apart from the onion. Don’t chop the onion, just peel and cut in half. Put everything in a saucepan and let it all bubble gently for forty -five minutes, stirring occasionally. Just before serving, fish out the onion. The resulting rich smooth tomato sauce over pasta and sprinkled with freshly grated parmesan is food for the gods. Who needs beef?

 Food for thought

‘Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one.’ Stella Adler – actress and acting teacher

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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