Category Archives: life and death

A friend and The Golden Key

My friend Oi ( pronounced O-ee) had ideas so advanced that even Quaker Meeting – that most liberal and open- minded Christian group – threw her out.

She was born in 1900, the youngest of ten, to a father who was sixty years old, and she died when she was a hundred and four – so the two life-times covered a hundred and sixty four years, and went back to 1840. Her father was a cabin boy on a ship that was wrecked on the NZ coast in 1856. Local Maoris formed a human chain to rescue him, and he stayed with them for some time, becoming very close to the chief. After returning to England, he came back with a seventeen-year-old bride, and the Maori chief gave him land to start his life here.

Robin, Oi’s father, established a huge sheep farm, built a big beautiful house, cottages for his shepherds, barns, wool-sheds and an exquisite little chapel, where Oi and her nine brothers and sisters played the organ and helped hand out prayer books to the shepherds and their families as they entered.. As each child arrived, the generous chief had given them Maori land. He ceremonially adopted Oi, and gave her the Maori name Oiroa, which roughly translated, means: ‘compassion for those in need’. Though it was shortened to Oi, she lived up to her name always, and when I met her was beloved by many people for very good reasons.

She married a distinguished Auckland architect – sometimes known as NZ’s Frank Lloyd Wright – who created many of Auckland’s great buildings, like the Railway Station, and beautiful private homes including some famous ones in the Hawkes Bay. Oi herself was very musical, and played the piano, and was so deeply involved in the musical life of her adopted city, that in the early thirties she and another musical aficionado, started the first orchestra in the city, whose descendant is still thriving.

She was beautiful –  and open-hearted and sweet-natured. She was also unhappily married to a much older controlling, jealous and angry man. Other men loved her, and I picked up hints over the years of tempestuous scenes and dramatic confrontations, one in which her loyal cleaning lady divested a desperate suitor of his shotgun at the front door. Oi received and declined her last proposal in her eighties.

Her zest for life never diminished, in spite of a son’s suicide, a difficult life, and much loneliness. Neither did her kindness fail, or her energy, for that matter. I was sure her inner life kept her young. She was often busy driving “old ladies” shopping until well into her nineties. She obviously didn’t feel she qualified for that label – yet! Her spontaneity and authenticity, happiness and serenity, endeared her to all ages.

I met her at Quaker meeting, where we were both what is called attenders, as opposed to members. On occasion when the beautiful and mystical silence was gently broken by a deeply felt message, if it was Oi, as she was known for short, it would be a profoundly mystical and eminently practical thought.

Throughout her life she was drawn to mysticism, a branch of the spiritual life which has always been mistrusted by organised religion, as its devotees seek union with the Source, whatever it is called, thus bypassing the need for priests, mullahs, rabbis, gurus or whatever. Whether these mystics were Muslim, as in the case of Rumi and the Sufis, or Christians like Master Eckhart, or St John of the Cross, they often came to a sticky end at the hands of their respective religions.

Luckily in the twentieth century, this fate is not so common, and Oi escaped lightly by just being blackballed by Quakers! She explored most branches of both Western and Eastern mysticism, and in her thirties, became a lover of Ramakrishna’s teachings, keeping a photo of him by her bed-side always. He practised several religions, including Hindu, Islam and Christianity, and taught that in spite of the differences, all religions are valid and true, and they lead to the same ultimate goal- God.

After Oi introduced herself to me, and invited me to her beautiful house (I had not been long in NZ then), we became close, and she became my mentor. My two small children looked on her as a grandparent and we loved going to her serene and peaceful home.

Though it was in the city, it sat among mature trees and a rambling, flowery garden with a stream. Her architect son had designed it for her. Music, in her mid-seventies, was still her passion. Sometimes I would arrive at the garden entrance, and hear the glorious sounds of a trio or a quartet streaming out of the windows, and I’d stand silently outside under the persimmon tree, listening to Mozart or Mahler.

When the children and I were there, we‘d often end up singing round the piano with the student who boarded with her, and was a brilliant pianist and lovely tenor. We’d all sing favourites as diverse as Handel’s, ‘Where e’er you walk”, to: “Feed the birds,” from Mary Poppins. I had another musical friend, Phillipa, whose unbearable life (a romance I ‘ll tell another time) was slightly improved by taking clarinet lessons, and since her ambition was to play in an orchestra, she needed practice playing with others.

Hearing about her, typically, Oi offered to play with her, and through music-making, they learned to love each other too. I was spending the day with Oi when I learned that the ship Phillipa was sailing on had caught fire, and she and her two small children, one handicapped, plus her six-month-old baby, were adrift in a lifeboat in a violent storm. I never saw them again.

Oi’s unorthodox thinking, which of course, was not confined to spiritual practises, but spread into all areas of her life, alienated her family who were very religious and ultra- conservative. She rarely saw them, so she began spending Christmas with us until one son who disapproved of us too, was shamed into inviting her for Christmas after many years.

So it was that her funeral – which was attended by all those people from all walks of life, whose lives she had touched with love and compassion – was a very traditional one… which slightly puzzled me, as I was sure Oi would have wanted something different.

At the end her family left, and only five of us gathered round Oi’s coffin as it was lowered into the void – the student – now a judge, her cleaning lady for the last twenty years, my two now grownup children, and I.

The judge said to us, “That wasn’t the sort of funeral I expected Oi to have”.                    “No,” piped up the cleaning lady, “I still have a copy of what she wanted!”

I suddenly remembered how Oi, when she was too old to cope with driving in inner-city traffic, had asked her lawyer to call in and take possession of her will for her funeral. She had showed it to me – an exquisite collection of sayings on love, from mystics of all faiths. To my horror, the lawyer had charged this beautiful old lady in her mid-nineties, an exorbitant fee.

Standing by her coffin now, the judge wept over this betrayal of Oi’s wishes. “One more thing for her to forgive her sons for,” he sobbed. We all wept with him.

Before she died, Oi gave me the books which had sustained her, and influenced her thinking, and which had helped her  find her path to expanded consciousness and freedom. One of the joys of reading them was that she’d underlined or marked the passages which sang to her. Not only did I find this a wonderful aid to a deeper understanding, both of the texts and of Oi, but it also taught me the pleasure of marking and making my books my own, which I had never dared to do before.

I’d grown up learning that books should be treated as sacred, and never marked, turned down, or in any way treated as familiar friends. I do it all the time now, knowing that others who eventually find their way to them will – or might – enjoy the same pleasures of insight and intimacy as I have done.

Oi’s words still remain in my mind, and often come back to me. When there was a problem she would close her eyes, and focus for a minute, then open them and say firmly: “You cannot know the solution.  You can only pray that the situation evolves for the highest good of you, and everyone else involved. And know that this will happen, and let it go.”

She’d quote T.S. Eliot: “It is not our business what others may think of us,”… or: “God wastes nothing”. She’d say : “Let go and let God.”… and, “Happiness is like water in the palm of your hand. If you gently hold your palm open, it will stay. But if you clutch it and try to hang onto it, you lose it.” She died thirteen years ago, but her loving wisdom sustains me still.

The gift she gave me, which I treasure the most, and use constantly, is ‘The Golden Key’, a tiny spiritual masterpiece of only a few words. I give it now with love, as Oi did, to anyone who thinks it may be useful to them… https://morningstar.netfirms.com/goldenkey.html

Food for threadbare gourmets – those of us who qualify for this description will go hungry today, as I feel this post is so long, I can’t expect you all to go on reading, while Food for thought is contained in Oi’s sayings and in her life…


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Man and animals caught in the net of life and time

Wenka was born on the 21 May 1954, which makes her sixty- three years old this year. She has been in prisons and endured forms of torture, as well as abandonment, much grief and loneliness, throughout her whole life.

She was born in a laboratory in Florida and taken from her mother the day she was born, to be used in a vision experiment which lasted seventeen months. Wenka was ‘only’ a chimp and thus could be used and has been used for the cruel purposes of men all her life.

After the experiment she was sold to a family in North Carolina. Four years later, instead of finding an animal refuge for their pet, they returned her to the Yerkes National Primate Research Centre, as she was supposed to be too big to handle.

Since losing her family – because undoubtedly she would have felt they were –  she has been used for experiments ever since – alcohol use, oral contraceptives, aging, and cognitive studies. She has also given birth six times, and I have no information about her babies. Researchers  obviously didn’t take these opportunities to study chimp maternal behaviours, feeding techniques etc. And they obviously didn’t study grief in Non- Human Primates when deprived of their babies either.

Chimpanzees tend to be used repeatedly over decades, rather than used and killed as with most laboratory animals. But researchers lament that one of the disadvantages of using non- human primates is that they can be difficult to handle, and various methods of physical restraint have to be used. (Researchers also shorten the term to NHP, which makes these intelligent, feeling creatures sound like a tool or non- human object)

Yes, I would resist researchers /torturers, since I have 98.8 per cent the same DNA as these almost human creatures, which is why they are used for research and called non human primates. A ‘gentle-man’ (I use the word sarcastically) from the Wisconsin Regional Primate Research Centre writes that scientists may be unaware of the way their research animals are treated, and this could have an effect on their results. He doesn’t say that it would be fear or despair skewing the results.

This scientist, called Reinhardt, writes instead,  of ‘uncontrollable methodological variables’, and goes on: ‘Numerous reports have been published demonstrating that non-human primates can readily be trained to cooperate rather than resist during common handling procedures such as capture, venipuncture, injection and veterinary examination.’

Reinhardt then lists common restraint methods as: squeeze-back cages, manual restraint, restraint boards, restraint chairs, restraint chutes, tethering, and nets. He also suggests using the drug ketamine, which I know from recent personal experience in the helicopter on the way to hospital (see a previous blog) paralyses you and causes terrifying hallucinations. When you’ve survived those, you come to, and find you can think clearly, and therefore know you’re paralysed and can do nothing to defend yourself or even turn your head, which is also a terrifying experience.

In the US 65,000 non- human primates were used for experiments in 2012 – a figure which has remained the same since 1973. The latest figures for the UK are 2,202 non- human primates used for experiments. But no licences have been issued there for experiments on great apes since 1998. Many countries are now working towards protection for these creatures so near to us in intelligence and all emotions – which is why they are used for experiments of course.

The Great Ape Project (GAP), argues that great apes (gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos) be given limited legal status and the protection of three basic interests: the right to live, the protection of individual liberty, and the prohibition of torture.

In 2008 Spain became the first country to extend these rights to great apes,  ‘torture’ which includes medical experiments will be outlawed, while imprisonment –  as in circuses, or for films – is also banned.  Hurray! Austria, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK are all now working to ban experimenting on primates, which includes great apes, chimps, gibbons and all the other varieties used in what some scientists believe is unreliable testing. The EU has also had strict guidelines  on animal testing since 2013.

At the moment great apes are the most protected, with too many other species of non- human primates still fair game for people/researchers who will never say their work is ended, that their experiments have now proved/discovered all that they wanted to know, and thus talk themselves out of a job. I used to love reading in the newspaper the results of experiments which reveal different characteristics in people, until I suddenly realised that to find out these results, animals had to have been used.

That’s when I began to research the use of animals in experimentation, and the facts are hideous. Millions of animals other than non- human primates are used for cruel and useless experiments every year in the US, by drug or chemical companies and others who have no interest in the well- being of the tragic creatures born in captivity, tortured with cruel experiments, and then killed.

We have become the Non-Humane Primates.

Charles Darwin held that animals had the same emotions as human beings. Years ago I read an article in Time magazine which quoted instances of animal intelligence, and their capacity for emotion. At the end, it dismissed the whole idea, in spite of the last conclusive example, a talking parrot.

The pet parrot was being left at the vet for treatment and it cried out as his owner left, ‘please don’t leave me – I’ll be good’. The article did not explore the various strands of this cry – the parrot’s immediate understanding that he was being left, as well as his promise to be good – which is the response of many small children when left in hospital or when their parents die, or leave. They believe it is their fault.

Many will have seen the Youtube videos of Christian, the huge lion, rushing a year later, to put his arms around his owners who had brought him from London and freed him to live in Africa; or the lion behind bars in a zoo, trying to cuddle the woman who had saved him five years before.

Most people who have lived with animals know the depth of their love, loyalty, kindness. Animals nurture their offspring, and do not neglect or abuse them. They do not lie or betray (unless they’ve been badly treated) and therefore can be said to live lives of integrity that many human beings fail to do. And we feel free to treat them in the unspeakable way that we do.

Nature writer Henry Beston says it best: ‘We need another and a wiser and perhaps more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilisation surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby…. the whole image in distortion,

‘We patronise them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate in having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.

‘They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow travellers of the splendour and the travail of the earth.’

When will we begin to honour and respect our fellow travellers, who too often never get to savour the splendour of the earth?

Food for threadbare gourmets

Nothing much in the cupboard, except bacon, spinach, mushrooms and opened noodle packets with the chicken stock packet used for other purposes. So, lots of noodles to use up.

Chopped the bacon and fried it in a little olive oil and some butter for the taste, added the mushrooms, grated a courgette in for thickening, and then added cream, garlic, pepper, and nutmeg plus a chicken stock cube. When the cream had bubbled and thickened, I added torn leaves of spinach – subtle way of getting vegetables into those who don’t like them.

Towards the end, I cooked the instant noodles, and then served them with the cream mixture over and some grated parmesan.  A good lunch.

Food for thought

 I believe deeply that children are more powerful than oil, more beautiful than rivers, more precious than any other natural resource a country can have.

Danny Kaye   Comedian

He also said: Life is a great big canvas; throw all the paint  you can at it.

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Netflix Royals -Margaret, the wild card – last instalment

She was a woman who in her time played many parts, to misquote Shakespeare.

Starting life as her father’s pet, she became fashion’s darling, tragic heroine, the centre of swinging London with her brilliant randy husband, England’s first famous cougar and tabloid fodder, a ‘loose cannon’, and finally the sad woman known as ‘walking wounded’ in London circles.

No, the touching scene where their father made the Princesses promise undying loyalty to each other, didn’t really happen. Much more dramatic was the real moment missed by script-writers,  when he came back to his cosy non-royal home in Piccadilly after the abdication, and was greeted by his daughters aged ten and six in the hall, who both curtsied to him deeply, which shook him to his core (his wife was upstairs in bed with flu, overcome by all the long-drawn abdication dramas).

Princess Elizabeth soon began her apprenticeship, coached by her father, and tirelessly overseen by Queen Mary, who took the Princesses on cultural outings, checked on their education, and told their mother, the Queen, they needed more books. Typical of her light-hearted and fun-loving nature. the Queen responded by buying the complete works of P.G. Wodehouse! She also frequently interrupted the children’s lessons to take them off for some fun, to the chagrin of their governess, ‘Crawfie”.

Margaret didn’t have to study the way her sister did, and grew up to be the source of her father’s entertainment and relaxation. This special relationship ended when she was twenty-one and he died so unexpectedly. With no father and no role, equerry Peter Townsend became even more important to her than he had been since she fell in love with him in 1947, when the Royal family were touring South Africa. She was very demanding towards the man she loved, who was eighteen years older than her, and never took any account – as neither had the Royal family – of his duty to his wife and children.

Much has always been made of the fact that he was the “innocent party” in the ensuing divorce, but a husband who neglects his wife and children for his devotion to his employer, and the employer’s pretty daughter, has as much responsibility as has a lonely wife seeking love and support elsewhere.

The fact of his so-called innocence encouraged both he and Margaret to feel they could marry. Unlike the court, particularly Alan Lascelles, the Queen’s authoritative private secretary, (“are you mad or bad?”) the Queen was sympathetic.

The situation burst upon the consciousness of the world at the Coronation when Princess Margaret, decked out in diamonds and diadem and long velvet train, stood outside the Abbey chatting to the handsome equerry, and in a familiar and intimate gesture flicked an imaginary piece of fluff off his uniform as she smiled up into his eyes. The picture went around the world.

The Netflix scenes of Townsend standing on the steps of the aircraft taking the Queen to Ireland, and waving back to the imaginary cheers of the crowd were mind-bogglingly crass. Townsend was a sensible, sensitive man, far too intelligent to behave in such a tactless way, any more than he would have called the Queen by her private childhood nickname,’ Lilibet’, (I cringed as he did). He didn’t go to Ireland, but to Brussels to wait out his time.

These were the years when five foot two, blue-eyed Margaret with an eighteen-inch waist, became the darling of fashion. It was at the first Ascot of the reign when she really made her mark. It was, like ‘My Fair Lady’, a black and white Ascot, as the court were still in six months mourning for the King. By June, ladies were permitted to wear black and white, or grey, and the Princess appeared in an elegant, grey chiffon dress which set all the fashion watchers talking.

Like the Queen she also wore striking black and white outfits on the other racing days and her reputation was made. She became the most glamorous princess in the world,  photographed in an exquisite Christian Dior dress on her twenty first birthday at Balmoral (she’d always hankered for a Dior dress, like just about everyone back then) and almost as dazzling as Diana before her .

When Townsend returned from Brussels, and the pair spent their anguished time together in a friend’s country house, the Netflix script writers missed a rather delicious touch… the lurking press were getting most of their inside information from the ten-year-old daughter of the host and hostess. She was having the time of her life creeping out of the house to give reporters the latest on what was going on inside the house!

Margaret’s decision, which was couched in heroic terms, had more to do with the fact that their marriage wasn’t going to work – he had no money or home – couldn’t afford even one servant. Princess Margaret, on the other hand, was accustomed to the grandest of life-styles and loved the high life. She simply wouldn’t have been able to fill her time with genteel coffee-parties with other RAF wives, or live a quiet life out of circulation, away from all her rich, grand friends. The renunciation was a recognition that she couldn’t live without her Royal status and money, rather than a religious decision

Townsend himself wrote in his autobiography years later: “She could have married me only if she had been prepared to give up everything—her position, her prestige, her privy purse. I simply hadn’t the weight, I knew it, to counterbalance all she would have lost.”

With a bleak Townsend back in Brussels, the Princess embarked on her heady life of partying with all the richest, titled, and most eligible men of the time, who became known as the Margaret Set. It was during this time that she also became famous for what can only be called bitchiness -snobbish put-downs, spilling her glass of wine over the dress of a girl in a more fetching dress than hers, making people stay up into the small hours when they were tired or pregnant, obligatory curtseying, trading on her Royalty, which she did for the rest of her life.

She was twenty-nine when Townsend wrote to tell her he was marrying a Belgian girl much younger than her. Shortly afterwards she announced her engagement to the bohemian, Eton-educated society photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones. Courtiers and many others were shocked (all the officers in the mess I was stationed in at the time were angry that she was throwing herself away!)

However, Tony the commoner was created Earl of Snowdon, and got on famously, not just with the Queen and Prince Philip, but with the Queen Mother too. They remained friends until her death, and Snowdon continued to photograph the Royal family all his life.

The witty, brilliant, sexy Princess and the witty, brilliant, sexy photographer had more in common than most people realised, and for some years, they were the centre of the sixties hedonistic, sparkling world, surrounded by writers, painters, actors, wits and most of the names of swinging high society.

The marriage finally foundered on their in-ability to compromise with each other – and it has to be said, by the petty irritations of Royal life – the Princess’s maid would bring her a cup of tea in the morning but not Tony, while their nanny resisted him ever visiting the nursery. They both began affairs -Margaret’s rather more transient than Tony’s, and her first one in 1966 only a few years after their marriage .

Margaret then took up with a young man seventeen years her junior, an aristocratic out-of-work hippie and sometime gardener, Roddy Llewellyn. This was the most exciting tabloid fodder the press had had in years, on top of all the rumoured affairs, rows, and royal rages. Pictures were taken of them frolicking in the sea on holiday on Mustique, the West Indian island where Margaret had a house. This triggered Princess and Snowdon into announcing they were divorcing.

Newspapers demanded Margaret be taken off the Civil List which paid her a large sum, while Labour MPs denounced her as “a royal parasite” and a “floosie”. On 11 July 1978, the Snowdons’ divorce was finalised.  In December that same year, Snowdon re-married. Margaret never did. When after some years, Roddy Llewellyn told her he was marrying someone he’d known for years, Margaret never found another real lover, though she had plenty of friendships.

For the rest of her life she was known as ‘walking-wounded’ in London society. She continued to smoke and drink heavily, party with her friends on Mustique, and eventually to enjoy her grandchildren by her admirably well-adjusted children, David and Sara.

She had several mild strokes, and then, in Mustique, she stepped into a bath which she didn’t realise was scalding. Her badly burned legs never healed, and neither did she. She spent her remaining years in a wheel chair and died at seventy-two, four months before her mother, in 2002.

It’s said that her chief legacy is that her divorce made it easier for her sister’s children – Prince Charles, Prince Andrew and Princess Anne – to divorce. Her ashes were placed inside her father’s tomb, and she wrote her own rather revealing epitaph. It’s carved on a memorial stone in St Georges Chapel Windsor:

We thank thee Lord who by thy spirit doth our faith restore
When we with worldly things commune & prayerless close our door
We lose our precious gift divine to worship and adore
Then thou our Saviour, fill our hearts to love thee evermore.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

What to do with two pork chops? I decided we’d have them for lunch, since I prefer a very light supper. I fried them until they were nearly done, then poured in cream, grated a large courgette into the bubbling cream, added a chicken bouillon cube, a teaspoonful of garlic from a jar (lazy), a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, and plenty of grated nutmeg and black pepper. I let this all bubble until the cream was thick and crusty round the edges, the chops cooked, and then stirred in torn up leaves of spinach. Served with creamy mashed potato, we had all our vegetables suffused with the fragrant creamy sauce.

Food for Thought

Think not of the amount to be accomplished, the difficulties to be overcome, or the end to be attained, but set earnestly at the little task at your elbow, letting that be sufficient for the day.

Sir William Osler,  famed physician 1849 – 1919

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Helicopters, hallucinations and hospital

.It only took two seconds. But since the consequences of those two seconds have dominated my life for the last six months, and promise to do so for some months yet, I feel faintly justified in sharing them.

Stepping blithely onto the back of the sofa to put a book back on the highest shelf, I lost my balance and fell backwards. Lying on the floor in a strange position, I knew without even looking that I had broken my leg and announced this to my love as he came to help me. Luckily the sofa is seven feet long, so he was able to get me onto it so I could lie there in unbelievable agony.

Even in that short time when I looked at my knee it was about ten inches across. I foolishly thought this was just swelling.

Abandoning the idea of driving to our nearest hospital an hour and a half away along a winding, precipitous road above the sea, we rang 111 instead. In half an hour the blessed ambulance arrived, with two angels who pumped me full of morphine, got me onto a special stretcher which didn’t entail lifting me, and decided I had to go by helicopter to the big area hospital.

After the interminable drive down the long winding gravel road during which time they stopped regularly to allow me to be sick, we reached the air strip and the waiting helicopter.

The last words I heard before I even had time to say goodbye to Himself, were: “I’m giving you ketamine for the pain. Some people get hallucinations.” I did.

Suddenly I was hurtling through outer space – tumbling into a vortex between intricate patterns of gold and black, and being sucked into the centre into the black hole. It seemed to go on endlessly. Eventually I said if I’m dying, I’m ready to die, but this didn’t stop the tumbling through space, the diving into the black hole again and again, and the patterns closing in around me. Then suddenly, I was back in the real world, unable to move a limb, totally paralysed, with the blazing sun beating down on my face through the glass about a foot away.

Unable to move or attract attention, I somehow survived this ordeal by sunburn, and arriving on terra firma was immediately surrounded by helpful, efficient people and wheeled away into a white tunnel which is what seems to pass for an X-ray these days apparently.

Then up to the operating theatre, and more blissful unconsciousness while they put on a plaster from thigh to toes, which had to last until the specialist could operate five days later. They told me the top bone was jammed down on the bottom bone, shattering it – a very nasty injury they assured me… not sure what happened to the knee in between, and I never got to ask…

Wheeled into a ward, addled with drugs and shock, I got used to the other drug-crazed, injured people around me! There were six of us and they included a secret smoker in one corner, and a young Maori woman who wore dark glasses all the time so she didn’t have to speak to any of us. The one time she was roused into vehement speech was on my behalf on the third day.

I had drawn what I called the Short Straw, a nurse who was looking after me that day who was so stout, it was a real effort I felt, to keep on her feet all those hours, and deaf too, so I wasn’t sure whether she was a bit dim or whether she just hadn’t heard me. Her ministrations were slow and reluctant, and when I told her I felt sick and she ignored me, I wasn’t sure whether she didn’t think it was worth taking any notice of me, or whether she just hadn’t heard. Seconds later, I called urgently for a receptacle and then filled three large ones with blood. “I wonder what caused that?” she kept saying in a helpless, puzzled way.

Apparently enraged, the Maori girl sat up in bed, took off her dark glasses, and using the odd four letter word, said words to the effect: “what do you expect when you fill her full of F… tramadol. Of course it’s tramadol doing it, you dimwit.” I trust the Short Straw only heard some of this.

The doctors decided it was the infamous drug tramadol too, combined with the rest of my cocktail, so I was downgraded to morphine and daily injections, instead of taking anti-coagulants. The result of this was that I had damaged my stomach, but didn’t know what to eat, so ate nothing but yogurt or mashed potato for some time, since otherwise I felt so ill that the pain of my leg paled into insignificance.

The operation duly took place and I wore a heavy black lycra and metal brace from thigh to foot for the next two months, unable to set foot to the ground. The operation also left me with a numb foot and shin, which I still have, accompanied by nerve pain which means I still enjoy/consume a full cocktail of painkilling drugs, and which makes it hard to walk.

The months were passed in a little cottage hospital where thirty-five of us were all coping with long-term injuries. In our little ward with four of us, we sympathised with each other, listened to each other’s life stories, gossiped about our favourite nurses, and moaned about the rigours of trips by ambulance back to base hospital to see the specialists at regular intervals.

I was humbled by the dedication and commitment of the staff, none of whom ever dawdled but who were on the run all day,   scurrying down long corridors of an old style building, walking between ten and twelve miles a day.

I set myself to be a low maintenance patient, but many of the patients needed help even in getting out of bed, (depending on the injury this was an art in itself), into a shower, dressing or eating, and no nurse ever be-grudged the time they spent with anyone. Two patients died unexpectedly while I was there, and red-eyed nurses showed me how much they cared.

The doctor who visited several times a week knew everyone’s names, joshed us all, and usually ended his visits in the big sitting room, where he sat at the piano and played old favourites for anyone who wanted to listen. One of my favourite nurses was a delicious and beautiful Indian who brought her children and nephews to do Indian dancing for us… exquisite…others brought their dogs, and one jumped straight up on my bed, and cuddled into me – bliss…

Most people were old, and alone at home so they couldn’t manage, and were sheltered safely here until they were ready to cope. I was a rarity with my leg stuck out in front of me in a wheel chair. But what I learned as I observed the others was that I was one of the only lucky ones there.

Though I was older than many, I was almost the only man or woman there with my own teeth, who didn’t have a hearing aid, who didn’t have dementia in some form, and who was strong and active, healthy and able to do yoga and all the other things that kept me young(ish) and flexible. In other words, I had been lucky enough to afford to go to the dentist, to be educated about a healthy diet and life-style, could afford them both, and had enjoyed a life fairly unencumbered and unstressed by money worries.

These frail people brought home to me as never before how life expectancy and/or the enjoyment of good health depends on income, which dictates education, health care, mental health, housing, and everything else we need for a good life.

I listened to the life stories of my companions in pain, and heard how one woman brought up her six children when her husband died when her youngest was five, working at sewing factory uniforms at home from dawn to dusk to make a living and look after the children, and helping in the local shop when she had any spare hours; the lady in the bed across from me who had had two children and adopted two more, shared the trials of coping with deeply disturbed children and then their adult problems; the beautiful, feisty woman in the next bed was going home to look after an alcoholic and bloody-minded, middle-aged son she’d brought up alone, and the severely mentally handicapped sister she also cared for.

And then there were the incidental friendships. A visiting son who had raised thousands of dollars to rescue, doctor and re-home over six thousand feral cats. When he ran out of money and still had thirty-six cats to re-home, he sold his house and he and his wife moved into the country into a smaller house with land where rescued dogs, ducks, ponies, goats, pigeons and every other needy creature came to live with him and be loved. All the cats came and were named and loved until they died. This lovely man worked at night driving a bull-dozer to make enough money, and he also did a lovely tango across the ward to amuse his mother! It was my enthusiastic applause which connected us !

A young woman came with her dog to visit an old neighbour, and she told me she and her sister and her mother, rescue and re-home more dogs than the local animal charity, who often turn to them for help. They used up every penny they earned caring for desperate creatures.

Listening to these stories, and the life-stories of my fellow patients, I felt humble and so grateful for the life I had been able to lead. Even having the time to write and to blog, and to own a computer is something only the fortunate can do.

Breaking my leg, and now hobbling around with my stick, waiting for everything to heal has been a blessing. It has opened my eyes to how so many good, kind women live their whole lives coping with inescapable burdens. That son reminded me of how much hidden goodness there is in the community, and I was shown how much beauty,  compassion and dedication so many women pour into their lives and their careers in the hospitals where they work. I was reminded that women are wonderful.

And I left this wonderful place with a full complement of much needed pain-killers, a walking frame, crutches,  stool for the bathroom and a high stool to sit on in the kitchen. I was offered care at home, plus someone to clean, and free physio for as long as I needed it. I will never grumble about paying taxes again! I give thanks for being fortunate enough to live in a western society where care and compassion for those who need it, is a way of life.

Food for threadbare gourmets

This is the first year of my adult life that I haven’t made my own Christmas mince pies – for obvious reasons (see above !!!). But I found some decent bought ones, prized off their lids and spooned oodles more good mince- meat into them, replacing the lids, and heating them up as required. Before serving I sprinkle them with caster sugar … this IS Christmas isn’t it??

I also like to serve them with a dollop of brandy butter – why keep anything so delicious just for Christmas pudding? I make it by ear as it were, using two ounces of softened butter – preferably unsalted, but not necessarily… and adding icing sugar and brandy… I go on beating with a fork, or a beater, and adding butter and icing sugar and brandy until it tastes the way I want it, and is the right soft consistency. I also add a few drops of vanilla. Once tasted, no mince pie is complete without it… though cream is also good…      A  Merry Christmas… to threadbare gourmets and to all those who are neither gourmets nor threadbare !

Food for thought

Lord, forgive us that we feast while others starve.           Grace before a banquet, said by John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester in the reign of Henry VIII.         Just as appropriate now as then…

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War and Peace

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I stumbled on a quote from Winston Churchill at the beginning of the chapter of a book I was reading. He was talking to the boys of Harrow, his old school, just after the Battle of Britain… the leader of the free world with his back against the wall, found time to talk to schoolboys in the middle of a World War when his capital city was being pounded in the Blitz…

He said: “Do not let us speak of darker days, let us rather speak of sterner days. These are not dark days; these are the greatest days our country has ever lived.” (I can just hear him growling through his speech impediment and his false teeth)
Those words made me think of those sterner days, and what stern days we have all lived through since the end of the long peace from Waterloo to the First World War.
My ancestors lived peaceful lives between the downfall of one warlord – Napoleon in 1815, and the attack of another warlord – the Kaiser in 1914.

But things changed for them then, as for everyone, and my family would be a microcosm of that change. My grandfather fought at Gallipoli of tragic memories, my great- uncle was one of eight hundred men who ‘went down, “as my grandmother would say – in the Vanguard, when it exploded and sank in 1917.

My step-grandfather was one of the 60,000 men killed or wounded on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in June 1916, when he was shot as he stepped out in the first line after the whistle blew to advance in the early morning sunshine. Unlike that heart-stopping last scene in ‘Blackadder goes forth’, they didn’t run, but stepped out to a measured pace, and were mown down by machine guns raking along the long lines of men moving across the grass as they walked into the ‘jaws of death’….

These were peaceful men, called up from their homes and villages to fight for their country and for peace – they thought – unlike the highly trained aggressive army of martial men which faced them. They had actually thought that the Battle of the Somme would end the carnage.

The next generation faced the sterner days of another warlord, Hitler. My father escaped from France a fortnight after Dunkirk, and then spent the rest of the war as a famed Desert Rat, escaping from the siege of Tobruk, fighting across North Africa and then up through Italy. After the war he was stationed at Belsen, the concentration camp where I joined him to live with him for the first time since he had left when I was ten months old.

His brother served with the Long Range Desert Group which fought behind the German lines in North Africa waging guerrilla war. Captured, and ending up in prisoner of war camp in Italy, he escaped and hid and starved in the mountains, until rejoining the Allied Armies as they fought their way up Italy. My only other uncle manned anti –invasion posts around England before becoming part of the liberation forces in Europe. He listened in horror as they drove away to the sound of gun-shots after handing over Russian PoW’s back to the Soviets, who shot them all, there and then. My former father- in- law, a padre, landed on the beaches of Normandy and was so badly wounded that he lived with the after- effects for the rest of his life.

My first memory was of watching the Battle of Britain – not that I knew it was – I just saw white crosses diving across the sky and puffs of white. I was looking for dogs, since I heard the adults saying there’s another dog-fight. That summer has remained in the memory of those who lived through it – even me at two – as being one of unforgettable beauty. Historian Sir Arthur Bryant wrote of England then: “The light that beat down on her meadows, shining with emerald loveliness, was scarcely of this world… the streets of her cities, soon to be torn and shattered, were bathed in a calm serene sunshine…”

Later, I cowered in bed hearing the dreadful wail of the air- raid sirens, trailed downstairs in my night clothes to crouch in the air-raid shelter, listened for the planes overheard, saw with terror the flames in the red sky, and the next morning gathered up shrapnel in the garden and once, stood on the edge of a huge bomb crater, marvelling. And finally traversed bombed- out Germany on the train to Belsen.

I spent much of the rest of my childhood living in army camps around the world, hearing the sound of reveille across the fields where the soldiers lived in barracks, and drifting off to sleep to the haunting strains of the Last Post.

Inevitably I joined the army, as did both my brothers, who saw service in Aden, Borneo, Germany, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar… and as my first child was born, my army husband was posted at twenty four hours notice to a sudden outbreak of warfare in Cyprus. I came out of the labour ward to find a telegram: “Gone to Cyprus”. So my daughter felt the effects of war as soon as she came into this world and didn’t meet her father until she was six months old. Later her father served in Hong Kong and Germany and Northern Ireland.

My grandchildren are the fifth generation and the first not to feel the effects of war. They‘re aware of violence – who could not be after the world-wide shock at the attacks on the World Trade Centre. But like other children of the West, they seem to see their future and their challenges differently. Unlike the children of Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, my fortunate grandchildren have known only peace, and tucked away in the farthest corner of the globe, they have optimism. They do not see these days as stern ones, though the children in war-torn Middle East must do. They do not see the anxieties that older people agonise over, pollution, dwindling food supplies, over-population, melting ice-caps, ravaged oceans…

They see instead the solutions. One grandson, having gained a degree in philosophy, transferred his search for truth to science, and from first deciding to tackle world hunger by experimenting with growing food from the spores of mushrooms ( I’m sure I’ve hopelessly oversimplified that ) he’s now embarked on a project to discover new forms of anti-biotics, and combat disease.

The other youngsters all have a serene belief that science, and creative understanding will solve the problems that loom so large for older generations. They’re not worried! I find that’s magic. Is this because they live in this peaceful place in the Antipodes, or do all young people have this calm belief in the future?

A friend told us that she had always loudly proclaimed at home that it is selfish and self-indulgent to have a child and bring another soul into this troubled world. She told us with great joy, that her fifteen year old grandson said he didn’t agree. “Life is a gift” this wonderful boy told her. Hearing that wisdom was a gift to us oldies.

Hearing that made me feel too, we can all rest easy. Young people know where they’re going, and know what they can do. Though we hear of mayhem and misery every day, if we oldies step back from it, avoid reading the stuff that make us sad (young people don’t seem to read newspapers! ), we can remember to be as positive and imaginative as that young generation.

And maybe too, to bowdlerise Churchill’s words – these are the greatest days our world has ever lived, when consciousness takes the leap into other dimensions of unity and peace. Christopher Fry wrote that: “Affairs are now soul size,” and that we are ready to:” take the longest stride of soul men ever took.”

This is what we can feel in the hearts of this generation that does not want war and dissension –  the domain of the grey tired thinking of politicians of old. Young people want peace and hope and they deserve it as they face the new challenges that baffle older people. “Young people”, as a friend once wrote in Latin, in a card to me, “are the hope and salvation of the world”. And they need all our loving support and belief in them, as they take that long stride of soul into a future we oldies cannot even imagine.

Food for threadbare gourmets
I had some dainty ham sandwiches left over from a little gathering. Rather than waste them I had them for supper. I whipped up an egg with salt and pepper and a soupcon of milk, and poured it onto a plate. I dipped the sandwiches in on both sides, and the egg mixture glued them together. Fried in a little butter, they were delicious. And no waste!

Food for thought
Close your eyes and you will see the truth,
Be still and you will move forward on the tide of the spirit,
Be gentle and you will need no strength,
Be patient and you will achieve all things,
Be humble and you will remain entire.
Taoist meditation

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Snakes alive !

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Mrs Tiggywinkle, her rounded figure enveloped in her apron, sweet face framed by a ruff of prickles and a frilly white bonnet, quizzical grey eyes gazing kindly out on the world, catching up with her ironing and piles of laundry is one of those childhood images that remain with most children who have encountered her.
Thanks to the genius of Beatrix Potter this little creature who has snuffled around the planet for thirty million years or so, is one of the most beloved of small animals. Fluffy little red Squirrel Nutkin isn’t far behind in the beloved stakes either, another creature with a pedigree going back fifty to thirty million years. Their images, once impregnated in the memory in early childhood ensured their imperishable hold on the imagination and affection of anyone who encountered them.

But there’s another even older species, a hundred million years old, which enjoys none of this fondness and protection. Instead, in the western world, it is reviled and seen as an object of evil. Thanks to the Old Testament – a late Bronze Age work of literature as some see it, or the words of God according to others – and the legend of Adam and Eve and the Temptation, snakes have had a bad time through the ages… through no fault of their own. The sin of the original apocryphal snake has been visited upon them for millennia.

Even as a child I felt sorry for the snake… that he got the blame, as well as Eve, for wanting to know… since I always wanted to know I couldn’t see what the problem was…

Many who’ve never touched a snake assume that it’s slimy… but it isn’t…its skin is dry and supple, and when it loses its skin this has become a metaphor for spiritual transformation for those who can accept the snake as an innocent creature who only bites when attacked, and for the most part lies curled up in beautiful sinuous folds and curves. Different species have exquisite markings and colours which is not surprising since they are a part of the glorious beauty of creation, and it’s not logical to exclude them on the strength of the ancient and apocryphal story.

Other cultures untouched by Judaic snake prejudices have seen the snake as a healing symbol both in ancient Egypt and in Greece, where it was used as a symbol of healing, twined around the staff of Aesculapius, the god of medicine. Even the unprejudiced talk about our reptilian brain -the earliest part of our evolutionary growth – as having a rather unlovable set of qualities – the word reptilian evokes thoughts of coldness, calculation, and lack of emotion…

My dearest friend had a garter snake as a pet as a child. It lived in a terrarium, with stones and branches to give the snake a feeling of home from home. The lid was perforated with holes. My friend hadn’t realised that the snake was pregnant and it quickly gave birth to lots of small four inch long baby snakes. The mother snake then did the most extraordinary thing.

She coiled herself around the branch, so that the top of her body and head reached the roof, making a bridge across the gap from the branch to the roof. Her babies then slithered up the branch and then up their mother’s body out into freedom and fresh air.

There was nothing reptilian about this amazing behaviour, it was pure unconditional mother love, combined with incredible intelligence and imagination. She knew that freedom for her children lay beyond the roof of her prison, and she worked out the way for them all to escape. They all disappeared before my friend had time to prevent their exodus from the snake pit or catch any.

I used to think that eels were a branch of snake species, but they are actually fish. When my grandsons were seven and eight, a river ran past the bottom of our garden, and one day they announced they wanted to go fishing. I found some bamboo poles, and string, and we tied some scraps of bacon on the end of the string, and off they went.

They came back shortly after, bursting with excitement … a couple of eels had come and eaten the bacon. So they wanted more of course. We tied a chicken carcase to the string, thinking it would last them forever. But to their delight, not one, not two, but thirteen eels appeared from beneath stones and rocks and the over- hanging river bank.

Every time the children went down to the river with their fish food supplies (my bacon bill soared during their stay) the eels appeared as if from no-where. They were all sizes from eighteen inches to more than four feet. How did they know… how did the message pass downstream or upstream that the goodies were on offer again.

Eels are still one of nature’s unsolved mysteries… after fourteen or more years, depending on whether they are male or female, the full- grown New Zealand eels return to their breeding grounds, there to spawn and die. No-one knows where these breeding grounds are, though they think it may be near New Caledonia. Having spawned, the eels die, and their progeny, armed with their inherited memory or instinct, set off on the long journey back to where their parents came from. They begin life as larvae, then grow into tiny glass eels, which finally mature into elvers – young eels. These young eels are capable of making their way up waterfalls to reach their ancestral homes. And there they stay until they hear the call to go back to their spawning ground and pass on new life.

My grandsons were so entranced by our eels, that when I found an extraordinary story about a German eel, I made one of those grandmotherly illustrated letters telling them the tale. A German father caught an eel, and brought it home alive, intending to kill it and serve it up as fresh eel. But his children raised such a clamour, that he put off the evil day and popped it in the bath over-night. And there it stayed, for 25 years until someone dobbed them in with the local animal protection society.  He was called Elie.

When anyone wanted a bath, they simply put a bucket in the water and Elie would swim into it and lie coiled up until he was lowered back into the bath and could swim out again. By the time he was discovered, the children had long gone, but there can be no doubt that he must have felt loved, by that peculiar osmosis that other creatures have and we can only guess at.( You’d have to love him to live with an eel in your bath for twenty five years !) I never heard the end of the story – whether he had been separated from the people he knew and loved, and sent off to swim in strange cold waters or not….

The most unbelievable and beautiful story about an eel and love is contained in this one minute video below:
http://www.wimp.com/befriendeel/#comments

If this isn’t love, then as Shakespeare wrote:
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Food for threadbare gourmets
One of my closest friends and neighbours is a Frenchwoman, and we spend long satisfying hours talking about food. We both love making soups out of nothing, having kept in the fridge all the stock our vegetables were boiled in.

I made such a soup last night. I had a big dollop of cauliflower cheese left over, not enough for another meal, so I thought it would be a good start for one of these soups… I gently fried in butter some chopped onions, a stick of chopped celery, the heads of the green leaves from two leeks, a grated carrot and a couple of garlic cloves.

When they were soft, I added the cauliflower cheese, the stock, a chicken bouillon cube, salt and pepper, and gently brought it to the boil. When it was soft I whizzed it with the whizz stick, but still left plenty of texture. With some good bread I made croutons in olive oil and with a sprinkling of parmesan, and a dash of cream it was a light satisfying supper.
Food for thought
Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgement, self-abuse and regret.      Miguel Ruiz

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The world – our village

100_0841 - CopyWhenever we hear the sound of a helicopter circling overhead, we know that someone is in trouble in our little village. The helicopter lands on the school playing field, and the one in need is whisked away to hospital.

Last year it rescued an elderly resident who’d slipped down a cliff, the year before, a village teenager with broken legs and arms after coming off his new motor cycle.

This time it was a profound tragedy when a young mother was suddenly rushed to hospital with a killer illness that struck out of the blue, and who only lived for another two hours. Everyone wants to surround the family and the small children with love and care and food and anything that would assuage the grief that can never be assuaged.

That’s how a village works. When I had a car accident many years ago, the family were swamped with food and help both while I was in hospital and afterwards. My daughter- in- law has the beautiful knack of creating a village wherever she lives or works, whether it’s a block of flats and her work place in London, or her suburban street and her children’s school here in New Zealand.

I’ve often wondered how she does it… I think it’s a mixture of care, interest in everyone around her, a willingness to become involved with their lives, and a sense of responsibility to the world and to her neighbours, however you define neighbour. And tolerance.

I think of other villages where those were the things that not only defined the village but made them unique, and two spring to mind immediately.
At a time when France allowed over 80,000 Jewish men, women and children to be deported to concentration camps, the community of Le Chambon- sur- Lignon in France hid some thousands throughout the war. This tiny community of only several thousand themselves, took Jewish children and families into their homes, and though most were poor, and hard put to feed themselves, they fed and protected their charges throughout the years of Nazi occupation.

No-one was ever turned away. The Germans knew this was happening and several times tried to intimidate the villagers and their leader, Pastor Andre Trocme, arriving with buses to take the Jews away. Whenever the Germans came, the villagers hid their refugees in the forest, and when the Germans had left the villagers would go into the forest, and sing a song. The Jews would then emerge from their hiding place and go back to their homes in the village.

Later one of the villagers said: “We didn’t protect the Jews because it was moral or heroic, but because it was the human thing to do”.

One other village in Occupied Europe also did this human thing. In the tiny village of Nieuwlande in the Netherlands, every one of the one hundred and seventeen villagers took a Jewish person or family into their home and kept them safe throughout the Nazi occupation. The pastor’s son, Arnold Douwe was the moving force behind this act of compassion and unbelievable courage.

The people in both villages showed incredible moral and heroic fortitude, not just for a day or a week or a year, but for years, never knowing how long their ordeal would last. Philosophers may argue about whether altruism exists, but as far as this naive human being is concerned, this was altruism of the highest order.

These apparently ordinary people put themselves and their families in mortal danger, and coped with daily drudgery too – would you want the inconvenience of sharing your home with strangers indefinitely? They did this for no reward except for knowing they had done their best for other human beings, and in doing so were themselves truly human.

Such generosity and compassion in a community can still happen. We all saw on the news the loving welcome the people of Germany offered to the tragic human beings who arrived on their doorstep in the last few days, after their months of unfathomable misery and un-imaginable hardship.

The heart-rending picture of one small boy lying dead on a sunny beach has reached the hearts of most people in the world, and shown us once again that we really are a village. The actions of western governments and power plays of western nations have destroyed these decent, ordinary people’s lives and countries, their towns and their villages. So now perhaps it’s time for the world to remember that it is a global village, and to show with action the loving compassion of village life in societies all over the world.

Maybe every village in the western world could pledge to share their peace and plenty with a refugee family…

And maybe, like Cecil the Lion, whose cruel and untimely death raised the consciousness of the world about the value and nobility of animals, these terrible scenes of refugees struggling to find safety and peace for their children, will raise the consciousness of the world too. These lines of exhausted refugees, and frail boats filled with desperate families, sinking in the sea, are reminding us of our common humanity.

They are reminding us of all that we have in common – love for our families, a love of peace, a longing for freedom, enough food, and education for our children – blurring the lines of division, whether race, religion, nationality or gender.
These strange times could be a turning point in the history of the world if we could use this crisis as an opportunity to bury our differences, and work for a common cause… which is peace on earth and goodwill to all men, women and children.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

One of my favourite dishes is risotto, and I have lots of variations. This one is a very subtle version, using leeks instead of onions. Rinse and chop two medium leeks very finely and gently cook them in butter. Don’t let them brown, as they will turn bitter. When soft stir in a cup of risotto rice, I use arborio, and then a glass of white wine or Noilly Prat.
Let it boil up until the alcohol has evaporated, and then add the hot chicken stock in the usual way. When cooked, stir in a knob of butter and four tablespoons of grated parmesan.
Meanwhile grill six rashers of streaky bacon or pancetta if you have it, cut it into small pieces, and when the rice is cooked, stir them into the mix, and serve with more parmesan.

 

Food for thought

Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible. Dalai Lama

 

 

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