Category Archives: life/style

Nuns, nice habits and strange foibles

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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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Ducal splendour and daily deprivation

On my tenth birthday -wearing my pearlsInline image 1

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

There was a legend that there were no birds in Belsen, that they had fled this dreadful place. That I don’t remember, but I do remember the strange energy, a sense of shifting sands, and unknown menace. The Germans seemed hostile (understandably), and refugees from East Germany trudging past were distant, pre-occupied with despair.

And as well as the British Army, there were also posse’s of Yugoslav soldiers in navy-blue greatcoats, armed with rifles, who constantly patrolled the place, guarding it, though I never discovered what they were guarding it from or why they were there. They had a reputation for being dangerous and unpredictable, and every now and then, one would shoot himself or a comrade.

And our succession of German maids left constantly, Helena after stealing tea, Elsa taking nylon stockings, Hilde our meagre meat ration, and finally Hannah who left to get married;  Kuntz, the big taciturn batman, suddenly disappeared in a rush of joy, when he had word that his wife who he had thought was dead, had surfaced in Berlin.

Behind our house was a pine forest, rich in bilberries, where the local Germans would come in autumn to pick this source of food in a starving land, and beyond that, a mile down the road, was the DP’s camp. Displaced Persons were the survivors of Belsen, still waiting for passports or permission to make their way back home across the bomb- blasted continent to find their scattered families.

One fine summer’s day they torched the pine forest, and our homes were in danger until the fire was checked. The DP’s had set the forest on fire as a desperate gesture to show their frustration and get some action from post -war authorities. I don’t think it made the slightest difference to their plight.

The Allied authorities were dealing with twenty million people trying to get back to homes and families after the war. Many had no homes, families or countries to go to. The problem grew under our eyes, as refugees, another two million in the next four years, fled from Eastern Europe and the Soviets. They came straggling down Hoppenstadt Strasse carrying bulging bundles wrapped in blankets on the end of sticks hoisted over their shoulders like pictures of Dick Whittington.

Unlike him they were not seeking streets paved with gold, but something more precious – freedom. Sometimes they were found sleeping or sheltering in our empty garages, or taking desperately needed clothes from the washing line, and were hurried on or arrested by the implacable Military Police.

The currency was changed from the cardboard money we knew, to the new currency, the Deutschemark. This triggered the months of tension, which even we children were conscious of, when Russia began the process of harassing and then blocking all traffic in and out of Berlin, by road or river. This finally culminated in the historic Berlin Airlift to save the citizens of West Berlin.

Stalin‘s intention was to starve and freeze the Berliners into submission and oust the Allies. He failed, thanks to the extraordinary air-lift when planes flew in and out of Berlin every four minutes bringing in food and fuel for over two million Berliners, and World War Three was averted.

The conquerors shared the hardships of ravaged Europe. Our meagre rations were delivered once a fortnight in a cardboard box. I remember my stepmother looking at a small pile of cucumbers, our vegetables for the next two weeks, and asking in despair what we could do with cucumbers for a fortnight. We only ever had revolting, evaporated, tinned milk to drink for there was no organised milk supply and no pasteurised herds.

Every night for two hours from six till eight the electricity was switched off to save power, and we sat in the darkness playing games like twenty questions to while away the pitch- black hours. There were no candles. Our puppy seized the darkness as an opportunity to chew the rubbers/erasers my father used for the crossword.

The Daily Telegraph crossword was one of the most popular diversions in the regiment, and I achieved minor fame and popularity in the officers mess then. Whoever wrote the crosswords had a penchant for using ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘The Wind in the Willows’ for clues, and a phone call would come from the mess for me. This would then put my parents on to the clue if they hadn’t already. In retrospect, I think there must have been a daily sweepstake for first past the post, judging by the competition to get the thing finished.

The officers mess was the Duke of Hanover’s palace, a little way out of Belsen, and splendid it was. (What had he made of the concentration camp on his doorstep?) We went there occasionally for drinks before lunch on Sundays, and for the children’s Christmas Party, when we played musical chairs in the ballroom under the shining chandeliers, slipping and sliding on the marble floor while little gilt chairs were subtracted from the circle. Then, when the party ended, like nearly every other party of my childhood, we danced Sir Roger de Coverley, with all the parents standing round clapping in time to the music.

Some weekends, we drove out to the Duke’s hunting lodge in the middle of a pine forest, where deer darted out onto the road, and wild boar lurked. This gemutlich little pile was now the officers club, run by a friendly middle-aged German couple. Had they always been the stewards of this place, I wondered later? Did they transfer their loyalties to their new employers in the interim, and hold the place in trust until the Duke regained his ancestral homes – if indeed he did?

Anyway, their speciality were delicious, lavishly sugared doughnuts, stuffed with butter icing. The glory of these doughnuts in a life of total gastronomic deprivation and war-time rations was utterly memorable (Did the Duke enjoy them too, before and after us?) My parents managed to get some of these dough-nuts for my tenth birthday.

It was the first birthday I had ever spent with my father, who went off to war when I was ten -months- old and my mother was pregnant with my sister. The previous year when I was nine, we were still in Yorkshire while he was battling his way to Belsen. He seemed more excited than I. The night before, when I went into the garden to say good-night to them, sitting in wicker chairs with their gin and tonics, I was allowed to stay up beyond seven o’clock, so my father could give me my birthday presents.

He was too excited to wait until morning. He gave me a string of pearls and a black fountain pen with a gold clip and nib. When the next birthday came, it was different, for he and my stepmother had a baby son, and my sister and I were rather a chore by then.

My stepmother had learned German and French at school, and rather fancied herself as a linguist. So she seized this opportunity to try to turn us into cosmopolitans too. Thanks to the puppy we’d become friendly with the local German vet from Bergen village five miles away. His twenty year old  daughter Suzanne became our German teacher, and she came every Sunday afternoon to teach us nouns and verbs and the endless der, die, and das, to be sorted through and applied to each noun.

She left us with piles of homework to do, and extraordinary medieval -looking text books with print that looked like something straight off Caxton’s press. The print was extra black, and the S’s and F’s and W’s and V’s expressly designed to trick baffled and ignorant nine and ten- year- olds.

She also told us how lucky we were, because her younger sister Hildegarde and brother Carljurgen had no paper and pencil at school, just broken, leftover stubs, and had to write in the margins of printed books when they wrote answers and essays. I didn’t always feel lucky. Her father, Herr Muller, called regularly, whether our various dogs needed his attentions or not. He regarded my parents as friends – or at any rate, their gin bottle.

In return for the generous helpings of gin he sipped – unobtainable in civilian Germany – he would bring my stepmother a specimen of the many extraordinary varieties of exotic orchids which he grew. I thought they were awful, not like flowers at all, but fantastically petalled and bearded and contorted in strange fluorescent pinks and acid greens and sharp yellows. He would arrive bearing this gift, and bend over my stepmother’s hand, clicking his heels together and bowing, in a strange old- fashioned Prussian ritual.

After some months of laborious social intercourse – his English becoming more broken with the quantity of gin consumed – we were invited to his house in Bergen to meet his wife. We had tea on exquisite Meissen china, but because they could get sugar at the time, but no flour, we had no cakes or biscuits, but dipped sour apples from the garden into the sugar, as a substitute for cake. The grownups managed with a cup of tea.

The vet’s wife was a fair-haired, washed-out, melancholy woman. When I exclaimed enthusiastically over the beautiful porcelain, she told me that they’d hidden it with all their other treasures in a hole under the cellar, so the invaders wouldn’t loot them. Even as a child I thought this was rather tactless. Invaders? Was she talking about us?

She also reminisced about the awfulness of the war to my parents, she and her daughter Suzanne, our teacher, describing the anguish of seeing their poor, wounded soldiers in blood- stained bandages in passing trains. Back home I heard my stepmother snort indignantly: “If they saw those trains, how come they didn’t know about the others!”

Since I didn’t understand what she was talking about it stuck in my mind, but some years later, I realised she was referring to the trains of the condemned heading for Belsen. In her book “The Children’s House of Belsen,” Hetty Verolme describes the platform at Celle lined with thirty SS men and Alsation dogs straining at the leash as her train pulled in from Holland. They then, eleven hundred young and old, sick and exhausted, hungry and thirsty, straggled the fifteen  miles or so to Belsen on foot and apparently unobserved by the local population, who denied all knowledge of the camp when the British authorities discovered it and questioned them.

But the friendship limped on. One summer’s day, Hildegarde and Carljurgen, the one with long fair plaits, and wearing a dirndl skirt and long, white, lace socks, the other, just as fair haired and blue-eyed, wearing leather lederhosen, long, white lace socks and black boots, took me driving in their farm cart, rumbling and swaying down narrow farm tracks between fields of blazing blue and purple lupins shimmering with tiny butterflies in the sunshine. Carljurgen let me hold the reins. He avoided that other field, where there were miles and miles of burnt -out German tanks my parents had shown us one dank winter’s day.

My father said I was learning to ride like a Prussian officer. The army stables were run by an aristocratic Prussian officer- not, of course, using his military rank now – but known merely as Herr Freiser. He took great pains with me, never guessing that I was terrified of the huge jumps he put me over. Fear runs along the reins, I would remember from reading Black Beauty, and hope I was bluffing the huge, far -too- big military horse I rode regularly. A big brushwood jump was one thing, but the fence on the wall was too much, and I came off every time, never knowing what had happened until it was all over.

Herr Freiser’s blonde, classically beautiful Prussian wife regarded me with loathing, as though I was a pet cockroach her husband was training. But I decided she hated all English, and was probably still a Nazi lady. They lived in the groom’s quarters by the stables, and were lucky to have a job and a home in their ruined country, though she obviously didn’t think so.

Their gilded furniture, rescued no doubt from their Prussian schloss, was piled right up to the ceiling in one room, while they lived in the other. Herr Freiser seemed as frightened of her as I was. She would stalk through the stable yard in her immaculate jodhpurs, her glare like a blue flame from her icy blue eyes.

To be continued –  back to England

Food for threadbare gourmets

Having eaten a lot of curry in hot climates like tropical Malaya and humid Hongkong, it seems quite normal to me to eat it in our hot humid summer days at the moment. Curry Tiffin on Sunday in the Officers Mess was a hallowed ritual, and I used to love the choice of beef, lamb or chicken curry, gently simmering in large casseroles on the long polished table. These days, since I shattered my leg, and am less interested in standing for hours over a hot stove, I’m always looking for short cuts and now use some quick ingredients I’ve shunned in the past.

So I used both ready-made chopped garlic from a jar and also ginger for this old recipe, and it worked like a treat. I mostly do vegetarian curries these days… chop an onion and a couple of tomatoes, and in a blender whizz them to a paste with two cups of water, a dessert spoonful of prepared garlic, half a dessert spoon of ginger, several dessert spoons of tomato paste, a dessert spoon of curry powder, a good sprinkling of turmeric and half a teaspoon of stevia powder, or brown sugar.

Tip half this mixture into a pan with half a cup of cream, and let it boil and reduce while five or six chopped mushrooms are gently frying in butter or olive oil.

Combine the two when the curry mixture has thickened, and add some ginger marmalade to soften the sharpness if necessary. Hard boil an egg and chop it over the curry. This amount serves one greedy person, and I ate it with chopped steamed cauliflower instead of rice. (I try to avoid rice since I read that it contains two to three times the amount of carbohydrate than bread. I would also eat this mix with lentils)

The other half of the curry sauce I freeze for another time, when I would curry cauliflower and peas instead of mushrooms, or even some chicken.

Food for thought

Nobody is superior, nobody is inferior, but nobody is equal either. People are simply unique, incomparable. You are you, I am I.                                                                         Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh  Indian guru

Some facts about post-war Bergen-Belsen for those who may be interested…

Adults didn’t tell us much back then… so I’ve done a lot of research to try to understand what was going on around me then. First of all, I discovered, Belsen became the holding place for DP’s from many other camps, who were unable to return to their homes behind the Iron Curtain. The facilities were the best, since they were accommodated in a Panzer training depot next door to the camp, and we all know that Hitler’s military got the best!

But many DP’s were not only depressed and traumatised but hostile to all authority after their experiences, and not all refugees were upright, honest pillars of the community – there was riff-raff as well. They were very difficult for the British to deal with – who were also tired and traumatised after six years of war, and their own social problems like returning to families who hadn’t seen them for six years.

The Jewish leader in the camp, Josef Rosensaft, a charismatic Belsen survivor, would only communicate with the frustrated British in Yiddish, even though he was a perfectly fluent English- speaker. He agitated for everyone to go to Palestine, as it then was, instead of trying to find other countries. (The Americans were still only taking in tiny numbers of refugees or displaced persons) And the British were constrained by the Mandate, (a responsibility given them after World War 1) and were not allowed to let unlimited refugees into Palestine.

The Arabs – rightly as it turns out -were concerned about their place in their own country. After the Balfour declaration, a quota of Jews had trickled in, but this didn’t bother them, when it was two thousand a year. Come Hitler, numbers jumped to 60,000 the first year and continued to rise, until the Arabs were fearful they would be outnumbered (they were right to be fearful). The British were caught in the middle of this.

Also, Europe was in chaos at the time, and the British Zone had very little farming land, so food was a real problem for the British authorities, both in England and in their zone of Germany. Labour Prime Minister Attlee considered at one stage reducing the ration for the English to 1700 calories a day, they were so up against it, with paying off the huge loans to the Americans for Lend lease – which they finally paid with all the interest in 2006.

This was also the time of the changing of the currency and the Berlin Airlift. At the same time the Black Market was a nightmare for the authorities, and it was discovered that Belsen was the biggest hub of the Black Market. British Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Morgan, chief of “displaced persons” operations for UNRRA, recorded in his memoir that :‘under Zionist auspices there had been organized at Belsen a vast illegitimate trading organization with worldwide ramifications and dealing in a wide range of goods, principally precious metals and stones. A money market dealt with a wide range of currencies.’

The British wanted to go in and search the place, and stamp it out. But Josef Rosensaft held them off for nine months, stalling over the idea of German police or British soldiers trespassing on their hallowed refuge after all they’d been through with the Nazis. By the time the British got into the camp, the evidence had been hidden or destroyed. All these events built up real hostility and dislike, which is why, I suppose, so many people, unable to distinguish between the ‘goodies and the baddies’, became unsympathetic to the D.P.s.

Ninety-six young English medical students volunteered to help the doctors and nurses coping with the disaster they had found in 1945. In the two months following, 14,000 more people died, too far gone from disease and starvation to save. Many could literally no longer stomach food, and many solutions were tried. Apart from the trials of Kramer, his infamous women guards/tormentors, and a dozen or so other guards from Auschwitz as well as Belsen, by the British, no-one else was ever held to account by the Germans for the deaths of more than 50,000 people.

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Christmas in Antarctica

Image result for antarctica

 

The lady in the cancer book shop where I regularly search the shelves for a good bargain as well as a good read, told me she was spending Christmas in the Antarctic. ‘Very expensive,’ she murmured. ‘Really?’ I replied, naive and astonished, thinking of a tough Christmas in Scott’s hut. ‘Surely not? Do you stay in a B and B?” I asked incredulously. “No, no,” she laughed, “a cruise ship.”

This I find fascinating… just over a hundred years after Scott’s dreadful journey and death, we now go to spend holidays in the big chill. Expensive… yes, I bet – with a grand Christmas dinner – turkey and roast potatoes, Christmas pudding and a full complement of wines thrown in on board the warm floating hotel.

On the other hand, I shudder to think of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Christmas dinner with Wilson and Oates and Bowers and Evans at the South Pole. Scott recorded what he grandly termed four courses. ” The first, pemmican, full whack, with slices of horse meat flavoured with onion and curry powder and thickened with biscuit; then an arrowroot, cocoa and biscuit hoosh sweetened; then a plum pudding; then cocoa with raisins, and finally a dessert of caramels and ginger.”

(Pemmican was the classic polar food – preserved and dried meat) Birdie Bowers, and Taff Evans (there were two E. Evans on the expedition) both felt so filled with warmth and human kindness after this extraordinary collection of unpalatable rubbish, that they decided that when they got back to England they would “get hold of all the poor children we can and just stuff them full of nice things, ” in bachelor Bowers’ words. Sadly there are even more ‘poor’ hungry children today in a world of affluence…

Bowers was responsible for the Christmas celebration, having smuggled the food over and above the allowed weights for the journey. Once the recalcitrant and desperate Mongolian ponies – who had suffered so terribly on the sea journey to the Antarctic, and who had then struggled endlessly in appalling weather and conditions on food they couldn’t eat – had been killed, every man carried his own food and equipment on the heavy sleds. Bowers had always sneaked his night-time biscuit to his pony. On the night before they were all killed, Wilson, St Francis’s man, gave his whole biscuit ration to the poor creatures, like the condemned man’s last meal.

Scott’s men unwittingly starved to death. For most of the journey they suffered from hunger, and spent long reveries dreaming about food as they trudged through the snow and icy winds, watching each other like hawks as the pan of hoosh was handed round at night. There was no variety. Every night the same, pemmican, cocoa and biscuit. The cocoa was cooked in the same pan as the pemmican, so it tasted of pemmican anyway. Though they had planned their rations according to known standards of nutrition at the time, they failed to take into account the human body’s needs for vitamins.

The more I learned about this historic expedition which has stayed in the collective memory of the world, the more Scott’s society seemed like a bees’ tight-knit society, Scott himself being queen-bee. As in the bee-hive, there was no crime in Scott’s world, and very little discord – restraint kept most grievances tightly bottled up… Scott was king, as well as queen bee, distant, demanding, admired, respected, deferred to – to their disadvantage, sometimes. Oates wanted to take some of the weaker ponies as far south along their route as possible, to kill and leave to eat on the long Polar return journey, but Scott vetoed this idea. It could have saved their lives.

They kept themselves amused through the endless black polar days and nights with a variety of imaginative ploys…Apsley Cherry-Garrard was the editor of the South Polar Times, a publication typically initiated by Shackleton on Scott’s first expedition, and revived in 1911, type-written with illustrations consisting of line drawings and coloured sketches by Wilson. It carried, among other things, a flourishing letters to the editor page.

There was also a piano and a wind-up gramophone to amuse the lads, donated by HMV before they left. They read – Laurie Oates, nicknamed ‘Titus’ after the notorious seventeenth century conspirator of the same name, read ‘Napier’s History of the Peninsula Wars, Cherry -Garrard, the complete Kipling, Day devoured Dickens, while others read Victorian poets and popular novels. They played chess and backgammon and cards. Significantly Scott was always beaten at chess by Nelson, so took to playing with Atkinson, a man he could beat. Scott also organised lectures to occupy the sixteen – strong company, a diverse group ranging from a non- English-speaking Russian groom, to the scientists, sailors and adventurers. They were English, Norwegian, Canadian and Australian.

Cavalryman Captain Oates, who in spite of being taciturn, was a very potent presence and a penetrating observer, unimpressed by Captain Scott, spent a great deal of time trying to cosset his ponies, and many hours crouching with them in their freezing stalls, coaxing them to eat their in-edible rations, or rescuing harness, headstalls and any other object which the bored and ravenous animals were tempted to devour. Oates’s cronies who shared one side of the cramped hut while wintering at Cape Evans, consisted of Bowers, Cherry-Garrard, Atkinson and Meares, who were known as The Tenement Dwellers, anti- feminist, anti-scientist, conservative and spartan – and, one has to add – narrow-minded and philistine.

The other side of the twenty-five- foot wide hut were the scientists, who made a dainty attempt at home-making, mocked by Oates who called their space The Opium Den. They draped a curtain, scrounged from photographer Ponting, across their bunks to give themselves privacy. One added a branch acetylene light, another stained everything stainable with Condy’s fluid, making it a uniform red brown, the Norwegian, Gran, put red borders made from photographers’ material on their shelves, while another adorned his bunk with a piece of dark blue material which had started life as part of a Sunday altar cloth.

With all this, they danced together (the fiendishly difficult Lancers), sang together (at church services), reminisced together, and confided in each other (typically Oates’s confidences were about his old nanny in Yorkshire, and his commanding officer in India – Douglas Haig, soon to command the armies on the Western Front in WW1). Each man had his own duties, and shared the rest with every-one else. They were usually busy, or exhausted. No-one shirked or dodged. They looked out for each other. They too, were busy as bees, and the devil never found any idle hands. Each man knew his place in the scheme of things, and the hierarchy was as rigid and unchanging as that in the bee-hive.

Understatement was the preferred mode of communication. When they’re fighting for their lives and baling endlessly during terrible storms they use code words like “interesting ” and “exciting” to cope with their fear and their feelings. Oates writes to his mother about the Antarctic before he gets there: ” the climate is very healthy although inclined to be cold”. No-one ever seems to get cross or impatient, according to Scott, who records his own assessments of members of the expedition in his diary.

They relied on each other for company and comfort, succour and safety. They knew that their survival depended on each other, and perhaps in this way discovered for themselves the truth of the ideal society in which all life and all things and all men are connected to each other. No-one is separate from the whole, a truth civilisation has forgotten.

Writing in his book ‘The Worst Journey in the World’ of the expedition to Cape Crozier he made with Bowers and Wilson to collect Emperor penguin eggs, Cherry Garrard said ‘ And we DID stick it… We did not forget the Please and Thank you, which mean much in such circumstances, and all the little links with decent civilisation which we could still keep going. I’ll swear there was still a grace about us as we staggered in. And we kept our tempers – even with God.’ A bond of mysticism carried these three men through.

Tactful Dr Bill Wilson, secret disciple of St Francis, and known as Uncle Bill, was the advisor, peace-maker and comforter in the tiny Polar society. Birdie Bowers, bachelor, tiger for punishment, endlessly strong and tireless long after everyone else was fainting with exhaustion was the other closet mystic in the party – ” The purpose of life” he wrote, “… is to make a great decision – to choose between the material and the spiritual, and if we choose the spiritual we must work out our choice, and then it will run like a silver thread through the material… nothing that happens to our bodies really matters…

In spite of their failure to be the first to reach the South Pole – Amundsen beat them to it in a race they hadn’t bargained for – the triumph of their spirits over the terrible adversities they faced, has made their journey unforgettable. Scott’s biographer, Crane goes further, saying Scott’s “ letters, diary and last message extend our sense of what it is to be human. No one else could have written them; no one else, at the point of defeat and dissolution, could have so vividly articulated a sense of human possibilities that transcend both.” And in spite of their deaths, Scott’s scientific measurements, researches and discoveries were of enduring value to later explorers.

So at the edge of the world, on the edge of starvation, at the end of their tethers and at the end of their lives all four of the returning four Pole team members manifested courage, courtesy, kindness, decency and transcendent humanity … including heroic Oates limping out into the blizzard to die so his fellows might save themselves. These qualities are sometimes felt to be out of date in our modern times, but they are the qualities fostered by the Christian faith which is what Christmas celebrates, something sometimes forgotten in the general feasting, shopping, partying, gift giving and receiving.  I wonder how the Christian festival will be remembered on that passenger liner in the Antarctic – and how Scott and his men will be remembered too…

Food for threadbare gourmets

I’d made an extra pastry quiche shell, so I tried a new recipe, using pumpkin and kumara/sweet potato. Take a chunk of pumpkin weighing between four and five hundred grams, and grate. Grate a kumara, and mix them together in a largish bowl. Stir in half a cup of flour, and two cups of grated cheese. Beat six eggs with three quarters of a cup of cream, and stir into the mix, along with a tablespoon of mild curry powder and cumin each. Salt and pepper to taste, spread in a deep pastry shell and bake in a moderate oven for roughly 45 minutes. I served it with green beans and a few rashers of bacon for the resident carnivore! It was good cold too.

Food for thought

We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love… and then we return home.                           Australian Indigenous people’s proverb

 

 

 

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Let them eat ( Christmas ) cake!

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Poor Marie Antoinette. She never said it. But she’s suffered from that blighting propaganda ever since. What she needed, and still needs, is a good spin doctor to right her dreadful wrongs, but until she gets one, her name is indelibly associated with cake. (She was actually a devoted and intelligent mother, and I think I’d have gone mad if I’d been her, and known of the barbaric treatment the revolutionaries meted out to her eight- year -old son after she was beheaded during The Terror. Her son died two years later, by then completely mute, disease-ridden, covered in scars from beatings, and unable to walk. The past was sometimes as cruel as the present…)

But to return to the subject of cake. In the days when a woman’s place was in the home, and preferably in the kitchen, cake was part of that equation. I grew up in the fifties when women were still supposed to be there, and watched my stepmother struggle with the expectations around cake in those days. Her steak and kidney puddings had to be tasted to be believed, her steak pies with perfect pastry were sumptuous, as were her heavenly steamed ginger puddings and apple pies, but cakes were not her thing.

The pinnacle of cake-makings skills back then was the Victoria sponge. A pretty boring version of cake, and now long out of favour, but back then, the classic Victoria sponge was a firm cake cooked in two tins, and glued together with raspberry jam, the top sprinkled with icing sugar. Simple, but like all simple things, more difficult than it looks.

I would come home from school in the afternoon, and find my stepmother had had another go at a sponge, and was pretty down in the mouth, because as usual, it had sunk in the middle. As much as we were allowed to do, I fell on these failures, and revelled in the sunken, soggy, sweet middle – the best part of the cake, I thought. Sadly, years later, I discovered that my stepmother thought I was sending her up when I enthused about how delicious it was.

A few years later, living in Malaya, she was rescued from the kitchen by an amah who certainly didn’t bake cakes. Instead, like every other amah, she delivered a tea tray with rich tea biscuits and tiny Malayan bananas to the bedroom every day at four o’clock, to wake the dozing memsahibs from their afternoon rest in the tropical heat. With the pressure to produce the perfect sponge lifted from her shoulders, my stepmother began to be more interested in cake, and one holiday I came home from boarding school and was invited to experiment with making something called a boiled fruit cake – no creaming and beating, just a bit of mixing and boiling before baking.

So began the process of producing a cake in the tropics in the fifties. First the flour had to be sieved to get the weevils out. Every egg had to be broken into a separate cup to make sure none of them were bad, as indeed, many of them were. The rest of the makings came out of the food safe, which was a primitive cupboard made with wire mesh to ensure some movement of air in the sticky heat. It stood on legs two feet off the floor. The legs were placed in used sardine tins or similar, which were kept filled with water, to deter ants from invading the food.

The cake was simply a mix of all the ingredients and then baked. It wasn’t just soggy and sweet in the middle, it was soggy and sweet all through – just my sort of cake.

When I had my own kitchen, my ambition to eat cake was permanently at war with my determination never to get bogged down with the hard labour of creaming and beating that seemed to be involved in making a cake. But I found a temporary solution in the first months of my marriage – a cake that didn’t even have to be cooked – it was made from mostly crushed biscuit crumbs, melted butter and chocolate and finished off in the fridge. It was even a success with an old school friend who’d mastered the whole baking thing, and could even do a crème brulee.

But the real break-through came when reading the old Manchester Guardian, as it was called back then. Highbrow though the women’s pages were, Guardian women were not too cerebral to eat cake. And hidden away one day in a sensible article on cakes – nothing frivolous, just egalitarian, down to earth, common sense advice – I found the answer to cake-making. Instead of creaming the butter, or beating it with the eggs or the sugar, all we had to do was MELT the butter and stir it in.

This simple technique I applied to chocolate cakes, lemon cakes, you- name- it cakes. It‘s carried me through a life-time of eating cake and I’ve never even considered making a Victoria sponge.

But now I have another triumphant addition to my cake making repertoire – just in time for Christmas too. The NZ genius known as Annabel Langbien, who invented the three ingredient scones I wrote about, has also invented the three ingredient Christmas cake. This of course, is meat and drink to me, though being the over-the top person I am, (if half is delicious – twice as much must be twice as delicious!) I did actually embellish this gloriously simple recipe.

1kg mixed dried fruit, 2½ cups (600ml) milk or almond milk, 2¾ cups self-raising flour , 1 tbsp sherry, rum or whiskey, to brush (optional)

icing sugar, to dust (optional)

Place dried fruit in a bowl, cover with milk and leave to soak overnight in the fridge.

The next day, preheat oven to 160°C and line a medium (23cm diameter) springform cake tin with baking paper.

Stir flour into fruit mixture until evenly combined and smooth into prepared tin. Bake until it is risen, set and golden and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean (check after about 1¼ hours and return to oven for a little longer if needed). Remove from oven and, while still hot, brush with sherry, rum or whisky, if using. Cool in the tin before turning out. Stored in an airtight container, it will keep for 3-4 weeks.

My embellishments included soaking the fruit in brandy and lapsang souchong cold tea, using a cup of almond meal and one and a half cups of  flour…plus a cup of melted butter, cup of brown sugar and three beaten eggs…then I couldn’t resist adding a teasp of vanilla essence, plus two teasp mixed together of nutmeg, cinnamon and mixed spice –  and then a good table spoon of golden syrup… (still simple, No creaming beating etc – just all mixed together and utterly delicious).

I ‘m also thinking of going the whole hog when I unwrap it to eat, and layering on apricot jam to hold some marzipan, and icing on top of that. Otherwise I would arrange crystallised ginger on the top before baking.

I also cooked the cake very slowly, for far longer than Annabel suggests – wrapping the tin in layers of thick brown paper.

I wrote the first half of this blog on 5 June 2012… but thought I must share the updated version with this blindingly simple recipe for Christmas cake.

 

Food for thought

Thought control is the highest form of prayer. Therefore think only on good things, and righteous. Dwell not in negativity and darkness.

And even in those moments when things look bleak – especially in those moments – see only perfection, express only gratefulness, and then imagine only what manifestation of perfection you choose next.

In this formula is found tranquillity. In this process is found peace. In this awareness is found joy.

Donald Neale Walsch   Conversations with God Book 3

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The present needs the past

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I began sorting through drawer loads of recipes collected since the early sixties. I’ve dragged them around more twenty- six homes and three countries, and frequently can’t find the one I want; and though I try to keep my favourites altogether, they still stray into other collections of ‘intending to try’, and ‘must try’. After hours spent sorting them into piles, and several rubbish bags filled with the unwanted trimmings of yellowing newsprint and magazine borders, I realised that this truly was what is called a back-breaking job. I hadn’t even handled a quarter of the clippings.

Method: sort through the whole lot, putting them into cake, pudding, pasta, rice, chicken, fish piles, soups, salads, suppers, savouries, sauces and so on. Then sort the piles, throw out the duplicates, and trim yet again, to fit into scrapbooks, and stick them in. The cake book was huge, almond, fruit, lemon, plum, rhubarb, apple, madeira, chocolate, coffee, the whole nine yards. It has taken me days to get this far.

The interesting thing is that I recognise most of the recipes, know where we were living then, and even remember with many of them, how and when I tore or cut them out, right back to 1964, when we were living in a country house called  Newney Hall in the hidden country-side of Essex.

I can remember many of the dinner parties and the people who were there and the menus. Crocenbouche in the height of a Hongkong summer, with no air-conditioning in the kitchen, dripping with sweat, as I baked choux pastry balls, whipped up cream with cointreau, and made the caramel to dribble over the pyramid of puff pastry balls. Biskotten torte, a Danish coffee and walnut confection which could be made a week beforehand, given to me when I was engaged, by my stepmother’s best friend, staying with them in Shrewsbury; vol-au-vent, one of my father’s favourites, and mint and orange salad, a Robert Carrier special from the then new Sunday Times colour supplement.

Then there were the handwritten ones, salmon slice from Jenny, fruit cake from some people who read my columns, and who delivered a cake personally – then a recipe which the children still hanker after – a vegetarian meat loaf, made principally from pea-nuts, garlic, carrots and herbs, this sent by a reader in Tauranga, after a column on vegetarianism – Marianne’s beetroot relish, Frances’s apple cake, Evelyn’s strawberry jam. So the whole exercise raked over old memories, stretching back for fifty years. Many of the favourites had greasy or jammy finger-marks all over them, splotches of grease, or wine-stains!

I now have three thick scrapbooks catalogued into easily discovered sections, and decorated with beautiful pictures of food, fruit or vegetables cut out from magazines, and when I need a new idea for a meal, I go to leaf through them, and find something to inspire me.

In another day and age, I would have bequeathed them to my daughter, and they would have become family heirlooms like the treasured notebooks in browning spidery hand-writing of previous generations. But alas, already, even I now go to the internet for a quick fix on how to cook asparagus in the micro wave, and when I asked my daughter for a recipe for hot cheese scones we’d had for lunch, she sent me the internet reference.

I have shelves of cookbooks I used to love reading, but which I rarely ever open these days… apart from Elizabeth Luard’s book on family life which includes a number of my favourite recipes, and I can’t cut them out and ruin the book, so there they stay.

So it seems to me that my recipe scrapbooks are as obsolete as the family photograph albums. As with cookbooks, I have a shelf groaning with photograph albums. Not many from my early years, I have to admit – not much photographing went on in our family during the war, with my father overseas for seven years at the war, and my mother gone. But some from schooldays as a teenager, a precious few of previous generations – when taking a photo was serious stuff – and dozens and dozens of pictures of my children and grand- children. They and I used to pore over them when they were little, and reminisce about their childhoods. Maybe one day they would have been interested, not just in the records of their childhoods, but in the older family photos too, the records as it were, of their ancestors.

But it’s been many years since I received any up to date physical photos of my family to insert into an album. Lots yes, on the internet, but will they still be there in twenty years? Will this generation and succeeding ones have any of the family records that we, and previous generations have had since the camera was invented by Frenchman Louis Daguerre in1838 and Englishman William Fox- Talbot in 1839? Even before then, portraits, miniatures, sketches, silhouettes provided some family records.

But today, we seem to have lost something precious, something perhaps that we only appreciate as we get older. Young people are too busy taking their selfies, and posting on Facebook and all the other social media outlets to realise that the impermanence of this new technology has its drawbacks.

Then, I think to myself, is it just me that sees it this way? And then another inner voice stoutly proclaims that honouring the past, recognising the lives and achievements of our ancestors matters; knowing where we come from gives us a standard to live by, a knowledge that our forbears have faced and overcome great challenges in their lives, and therefore, so can we.

Even the trivial recognitions as we peer at good-looking Great-Aunt Jessie and recognise our nose, our eyes, and realise that we are part of a long chain of lives and family, gives us a sense of rootedness, and a feeling of permanence. Seeing faded pictures of poor Great – Uncle Arthur and remembering that he died on HMS Vanguard which un-explainedly exploded in Scapa Flow in 1917 taking him and another 799 sailors to the bottom, puts us in touch with history; learning about valiant Great-Aunt Violet who overcame childhood polio, lived with painful irons on her legs all her life with no complaint, and brought up a happy family, can inspire us to believe that we too have profound inner strengths with which to face the challenges of our own lives.

So yes, in some ways, as I look at my proud achievement of those gathered recipes into thick scrapbooks, I feel sad, as they symbolize so many other facets of life absent in this brave new world of convenience and technology. And yes, I know too, that there is no turning back, so that like my ancestors I must make the best of it, suspecting that my descendants have no idea of what they might have lost!

As wave is driven by wave
And each, pursued, pursues the wave ahead,
So time flies on and follows, flies, and follows,
Always, for ever and new. What was before
Is left behind; what never was is now;
And every passing moment is renewed.”
Ovid wrote this sometime before the birth of Christ… he also wrote that everything changes and nothing perishes – his words are my conundrum, my lesson and my answer.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

My daughter gave me delicious hot cheese and bacon scones when I dropped in at lunch time. “Only three ingredients,” she boasted, “apart from the bacon which I added”.  I couldn’t wait to try them myself! Annabel Langbein, a NZ  cookery writer invented them: two  and a half cups of SR flour, two and a half cups  of grated cheddar cheese, and two cups of Greek yogurt, plus salt and pepper. Mix them all together, drop spoon-fuls onto a greased tray, and cook in a moderate oven for ten to fifteen minutes. Mine took a bit longer than the stated time to cook because I simply put the whole lot on the tray in one piece and cut it into triangular segments. But they were good. Next time I’ll add some chopped cooked bacon, and might add some Parmesan too.

PS I experimented with last week’s recipe for broad beans etc, and found that by leaving out the garlic, and using nutmeg instead, it was subtler and to my taste, more delicious…

Food for thought

The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you, the better you will hear what is happening outside. And only she who listens can speak.

Dag Hammarskjold Swedish Secretary-General of the UN for eight years. He died in a mysterious plane crash in Africa in 1961 at the age of forty-seven, and JFK described him as one of the greatest statesmen of our time.

 

 

 

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All people great and small

 dresser
 He wrote to a ninety-one- year old woman begging to be allowed to be a footman in her household, even if it was just for a day. Her secretary wrote back to the young Fijian and said yes, this could be arranged.

So a few weeks later, when the Queen entered a state room to meet an assortment of ambassadors, governors and other Very Important People, the young Fijian was in attendance, resplendent in his Royal household footman’s uniform. She saw him straight away and ignoring all the Very Important People waiting to exchange a few pallid jokes and platitudes with her, she walked straight across the room to talk to her newest recruit. The guests probably assumed he was an even more important person then they were….

I love such little vignettes which give an unexpected insight into character. On this occasion, the Queen’s humanity would have meant an unforgettable experience for the young man from the Commonwealth and the other side of the world.

I think of the story I read in a blog, when a South African blogger I used to follow was taking her dying daughter for a specialist appointment. While they were waiting outside the lift, the daughter sitting in her wheelchair, the doors opened, and out stepped a tall African. On seeing the mother and daughter, he walked over to them, and bent down and had a few gentle words with the dying woman, before smiling at her mother and continuing on his way… another act of kindness and connectedness – from Nelson Mandela who could well have just continued on his busy way.

I loved reading about Albert Schweitzer, the famous doctor, musician and founder of the hospital at Lambarene in Africa, standing on a train platform in the US where he had been invited. One minute the old man was talking to his group, the next, he was nowhere to be seen. And then someone saw him down at the end of the platform, carrying the suitcases of an old woman, helping her onto the train.

The Queen’s mother was famous for these sort of spontaneous kindly deeds, though one of my favourite stories was of her as a young woman… she had a sweet tooth even then and was happily chewing a caramel as she drove through Liverpool… she caught the eye of a young policeman, and tossed him a caramel, which he caught! Did he chew it too, or keep it in a glass cabinet as an unlikely relic?

A shopkeeper whose shop was on her route to Cheltenham races once wrote to her to say he would like to present her with a bunch of flowers when she drove past on her annual visit. She replied, and for the next eighteen years, until she stopped attending the race meeting, she stopped to talk to him on her way. By then, a crowd was always waiting too, and she never failed to stop and chat with her faithful admirer.

Her grandson’s wife, Diana, not one of her favourites, also had this gift. Few people know of the time when she was visiting this country as a twenty-one -year old. She came out of a reception in Wellington, the country’s capital, and a noisy group of IRA sympathisers was waiting for her with hostile banners and angry shouts. Gathering her courage so as not to disappoint the other people who were waiting to see her, this brave young woman walked over to them, and ignoring the heckling of the Irish, talked to the others. That took real character.

And later, in Auckland, she came out of a banquet late at night, and seeing a little girl standing in a knot of spectators, crossed the road in the pouring rain, red shoes and white tulle dress getting soaked, and bent down to talk to her and take the posy being offered.

General de Gaulle has never been one of my favourite people. Hating the British who sheltered him, gave him offices, staff, aeroplanes, money to support him throughout the war, he could rudely say to Mr and Mrs Churchill while lunching with them at Number 10, and discussing how to handle the French fleet in North Africa, he said it would give the French great satisfaction to turn their guns  onto the British. This, of course, was the man who was able to write a history of the French Army without ever mentioning Waterloo.

But many years later, sitting next to Churchill’s youngest daughter Mary, when she was the wife of the British ambassador, he asked how she passed her time. She blurted out, ‘walking my dog’, and was deeply touched that he spent the rest of the lunch discussing the best places to do this. Even de Gaulle had a heart! He showed it again, writing a tender and touching letter to Lady Churchill on the first anniversary of Churchill’s death.

And talking of animals James Herriott the Yorkshire vet who wrote the popular series ‘All Creatures Great and Small’, was the vet to some of my closest friends. He lived up to his reputation. Anthony told me that when they first moved to Yorkshire and signed up with Herriott, then just an unknown country vet, their cat seemed unwell. It was Sunday but they rang their vet anyway. Herriott was enjoying Sunday drinks before lunch at a friend’s home, but he dropped everything and came to the house to treat Anthony’s cat.

These are not great acts of heroism, but little random acts of goodness, kindness or humanity, spontaneous responses in circumstances where pomp and ceremony were often the order of the day… and that’s why they are so revealing… they demonstrate character and connectedness. And there are many people who are not public figures who also respond to everyday situations with spontaneity and kindness, and we never hear of them… let us now praise famous men, as the psalmist wrote… and some there be which have no memorial.

When I listed all the beautiful gifts a friend had given me over the years, and all her acts of kindness and imagination towards me, my love said why don’t you write and tell her. I said I have and I do…. But I made a mental note to tell all my other friends too, how much their friendship and love have meant to me over many years.

I thought about all the wonderful things people tell about their loved ones at their funerals. I always hope the spirits of the dead may be hovering to hear these words of love and appreciation. But how much more they would have enjoyed these tributes during their lifetimes. So one of my resolutions for the rest of my life-time is to make sure those I know and love also Know how much they are loved and valued… not just for their deeds or gifts but for the essence of who they are. Seeing a person’s essence is to recognise their soul. There can be nothing more satisfying than to know you have been Seen, that you have been recognised for who you are, and that who you are is precious, beautiful and utterly loveable.

This is a priceless gift which should be the birthright of every child, and this is my daily prayer: that the parents of all children may see and love the essence of each child, so they grow up undiminished by self- doubt. Then they can feel, and are, whole and happy and loving themselves. A world of loving souls would be a world without fear, and a world of peace, the sort of world we all long for – where peace and goodwill to all men would obliterate the divisions of race, religion and other limiting ideas which separate and divide us. For, as Thich Nhat Hahn says: ‘We are here to awaken from the illusion of separateness.’

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

The picture is my kitchen dresser groaning with summer produce. We’ve had lots of fresh asparagus this spring, but I had reached satiety with asparagus with melted butter, asparagus with vinaigrette dressing, and asparagus with a complicated Japanese dressing. So when I was the grateful recipient of a harvest of fresh broad beans from my daughter-in law’s garden, I decided to try something else. This is it!.

Wrap enough asparagus stalks for two in a sheet of kitchen paper, putting the join underneath so it doesn’t blow open. Sprinkle the paper with water, and cook the asparagus for just over a minute in the micro-wave. At the same time, chop and fry in a little butter a small piece of good thick ham, then pour in cream, a capful of brandy, a couple of chopped garlic cloves, (I used chopped garlic from a jar!) and half a teaspoon of Dijon mustard. Boil it all up until it thickens.

Blanch the broad beans -enough for two. Cook in boiling water until tender – I used small fresh ones, so didn’t need to pop then out of their outer skin. Then cut the asparagus stalks in two, and add them and the broad beans to the ham and cream mix. Eat with good bread to mop up the delicious juices – and I had a glass of champagne too, to enhance the feeling of well-being!

Food for thought

Until he extends his circle of compassion to include all living things, man will not himself find peace.  Albert Schweitzer

 

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Chickens coming home to roost

Nobel prize-winner Malala Yousafzai

I’ve wondered why I’ve been so fascinated by it. I normally never read the news, especially salacious negative or destructive items, but I’ve been rivetted to the Harvey Weinstein story.

As I finished the washing up after lunch today, I realised why, and what I’ve been trying not to remember… all those times it was happening every day and as part of life when I was growing up.

I thought of the maths teacher when I was fourteen. When I started this school, my new friends warned me that when he called me out to his desk to go over some maths problem, he would run his hand up under my gym slip, and massage my thigh. Whether the massaging was more than that and my friends couldn’t bring themselves to say, I don’t know, because I was a very immature, slow developer, and he never tried it on me.

I remembered joining the army when I was eighteen, and being measured for my uniform by the regimental tailor. Afterwards when we compared notes back in the barrack room, we all found we’d had the same experience of him feeling our breasts as he took our measurements.  And I thought of a night at cadet school a few months later, when eleven of us were sitting around late at night over a cup of hot chocolate, and we discovered that nine out of the eleven of us had had the experience of a man exposing his hairy genitals to us as a child.

The following year one of us who had been to a wedding in Scotland, was raped in the sleeper on the train back from Edinburgh.  Jo – as I’ll call her – a gentle sweet-natured girl, was so intimidated by the notice which said the fine was five pounds for pulling the emergency chain un-necessarily, that she didn’t dare reach over to pull it and save herself.

There were plenty of us who felt intimidated like that back in the fifties and sixties. When I worked on the South China Morning Post in Hongkong supporting my children on my meagre pay, the managers brought in a time and motion expert from the UK to assess whose job was necessary or financially worthwhile. The expert took a fancy to me, and I was over a barrel between trying to avoid him by fleeing the office and inventing interviews, and being seen conscientiously bending over my type-writer justifying my existence and my salary.

It became a joke on the women’s page that  he was always asking where I was, but it was no joke to me. Finally, I could avoid having dinner with this married man having a bit of fun while he was away from his family no longer, and at the end of the evening, feeling completely powerless, I ended up on the sofa at his flat. I escaped as he undid his zipper, and then had the anguish for weeks of wondering if, when he wrote his report, I would still have a job.

I’ve often wondered since why I didn’t just say no thank you when he pressed me to go up to his flat after dinner, replying:’ I have to get my children up for school in the morning, and get to the office on time!’ End of story. But I was too fearful then of men’s power as I battled for custody of my children, and struggled to keep my job.

Just as when the editor sent me to interview a friend of his a few weeks later, and the blonde handsome Swede behaved as though I was a call girl. Once again, as I escaped his clutches, I knew it was no use complaining to the editor about his influential friend… I would just have been a trouble maker, who couldn’t take it. I wasn’t just trying to get a job like the Hollywood stars I’ve been reading about, I was trying to keep a job which paid me half what a man was paid, in order to house and feed my children.

The choices are just as bad for so many women even now… there are Filipino maids all over the world putting up with all sorts of forms of exploitation and wicked treatment because their families are relying on the money they send home. I read that it is now illegal for men in India to rape their teenage or child wives. But how many child brides know their rights, and how many would dare to offend a strong powerful man who had total power over her life?

There are women and children both in Africa and England and everywhere in between, who endure the horrors of Sharia law, which often includes genital mutilation. There are states in a western country like the US where it’s legal for a husband to beat his wife, while both fundamental Muslims as well as fundamental Christians also claim this right. And many women stay in abusive relationships in order to protect their children and try to bring them up, while leaving a violent marriage simply isn’t a financial possibility for too many other women.

So-called honour killings – when a woman or a girl has been raped – means that in many Muslim countries, it is the woman who is punished for the crime – often with death by stoning or barbaric whipping. That old joke, a woman’s place is in the wrong, is no joke in those countries. Yazidi women raped by Isis, school girls captured by Boko Haram soldiers, women forced to hide behind, and under, curtains of black material invented by men to deny their uniqueness, are up against something much worse than the harassment of Hollywood actresses and their fear for their careers that we’ve been reading about.

Nobel peace prize-winner Malala Yousafzai was a school-girl when she was shot by Taliban in Pakistan for advocating education for women. Since then, she’s recovered from her dreadful wounds, though she’s lost the hearing in one ear. She went to England for medical treatment and to be educated safely away from the murderous men who wanted her dead, and now she’s just started her degree studies at Oxford. She has never given up her cause, and says: “I raise up my voice – not so I can shout but so that those without a voice can be heard…we cannot succeed when half of us are held back.”

There are unheard voices all over the world, and if this scandal about harassed actresses can remind us of those other unseen, unheard women, it will be a service to them all. Because I’m human it feels good to know that one bully is being held to account for his actions, but the other part of me wants to feel that something good  can also come out of this story of human frailty.

When truth is revealed it can be the catalyst for change. I hope this story is big news everywhere, so that people everywhere get the message that it’s not okay to misuse power and terrify or deprive women; that they learn that women do have the right to all the freedoms and goodness in the world that men enjoy too.  Let’s hope that this change of heart and mind can work its way into the consciousness of all men everywhere because of the public downfall of one powerful man.

Not into the consciousness of the many good men who do care about women, but into the hearts and minds of men whose cultures have taught them that it’s okay or even de rigeuer to oppress and suppress the feminine – whether it’s their wives or daughters or other women, or the feminine in their own natures.  The qualities of the feminine – gentleness, nurturing, empathy, creativity, are the things that most of us want in our homes and families, and societies, as well as the masculine qualities of strength and power. Balance, wholeness, the middle way, are what makes for health in people and in societies and honouring both sides of our natures is the way to this balance and goodness.

A tacky scandal in the western world of entertainment may seem trivial when set against the appalling suffering of so many silenced women all over the rest of the world. But good can come out of this saga of silence if it causes a change of heart and mind beyond the homes and habitats of Hollywood and its power brokers. I do so hope so.

Food for threadbare gourmets

Spring is coming to this end of the world and I feel like different food. With cold chicken the other day I used a favourite way with avocado. To half a cup each of chopped avocado and cucumber, use three quarters of a cup of cream, a quarter of a cup of lemon juice, one finely chopped onion, two cloves of chopped garlic, salt and black pepper, and put it all in a blender. Whizz until smooth. I love this with raw or cooked vegetables as well as with chicken, cold turkey or ham.

Food for thought

Feminism has never been about getting a job for one woman. It’s about making life more fair for women everywhere. It’s not about a piece of the existing pie; there are too many of us for that. It’s about baking a new pie.” Gloria Steinem

 

 

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