Category Archives: life/style

It isn’t racist to be disappointed

Queen Mary Diamond Bandeau Tiara worn by Meghan Markle on her wedding day

diamond bandeau filigree tiara queen mary meghan markle united kingdom

Hitler said she would make a good queen. He was referring to Wallis Simpson, by then the Duchess of Windsor, after they’d had a friendly get together in pre-war Germany.

I thought of this when I read that someone in the US had said what a good queen Meghan Markle, now Duchess of Sussex would make. And I thought too that neither Hitler, or even Ms Markle had any idea what the concept of the British monarchy was all about as I read the latest press release from a ‘source close to the Duchess’. The release informed us that the Duchess would not be joining the Royal family for Christmas and would be spending Thanksgiving at Frogmore Cottage with her mother, when they would visit a homeless shelter to ‘help the homeless cook traditional stuffed turkey and pumpkin pie’.

This essentially New World party has no relevance to the British, so I did wonder at the announcement of a visit to a local homeless shelter, weeks in advance. Most intending Mother Theresa’s or Lady Bountiful’s perform this sort of philanthropy unobtrusively and without fanfare, with no virtue signalling publicity or photographers on hand.

I wondered too how these lonely desperate people, with no warm home and loving family around, would feel when confronted with a beaming stranger either dressed up to the nines in Givenchy, or sporting skinny jeans and an over-size shirt, and accompanied by the de rigueur security men – slightly bewildered I wouldn’t be surprised.

People who criticise the American addition to the Royal family are usually accused of racism, but this lazy and one-size-fits-all label is not accurate. Prince Harry’s bride was welcomed with open arms, for the sake of the little boy who’d walked behind his mother’s coffin and who had a special place in many English hearts. Everyone bent over backwards to make their union work.

The Queen did an unprecedented thing and invited Meghan to Sandringham for Christmas, to spend with the ‘family she’d never had’, as besotted Prince Harry explained tenderly on radio. Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge was not invited until she was well married, like all the previous fiancees.

When Prince Charles remarried a divorcee, he could not be married in a church according the Church of England rules, and had to have a registry office wedding, and a church blessing afterwards. This requirement was waived for Meghan, also a divorcee, who enjoyed the full panoply of royal privileges, including the traditional loan of one of the Queen’s tiaras, and a carriage ride through Windsor, costing the British taxpayers millions in security. Her wedding cost both the Queen and the taxpayer over $40,000,000 pounds. No one begrudged it. The new bride was welcomed with enthusiasm.

But she never said thank you. What she did do was buy more expensive couture clothes than any other English or European Royal, only a quarter of which were made by British designers.  She flew to New York by private jet for a $350,000 baby shower, she sat in splendid isolation after turfing forty British Wimbledon spectators out of the seats which they had queued and paid for, and assuming that two people who were taking selfies of themselves with Federer in the background were photographing her, had her security guards stop them using their phones.

When her friend Serena Williams was beaten, she showed her disappointment, but did not congratulate the winner, a Canadian girl who was a member of the Commonwealth for which Meghan had been made an ambassador by the Queen. She left as soon as Serena’s match was over, when it would have been both polite and diplomatic as a member of the Royal Family to watch the British Wimbledon champion Andie Murray, who was next up, play his match.

The dog loving English people were puzzled that a dog lover should leave her two rescue dogs behind in Toronto in spite of the unconvincing explanations. They were also puzzled when she and her Prince left the splendour of Kensington Palace, to spend over $3,000,000 on a house at Windsor, with all the extra costs to the taxpayer of security, which were covered when all the Royals shacked up at KP, as Kensington Palace is known.

Writing woke messages saying ‘you are loved’ and ‘you are brave’ on bananas to give to sex workers provoked national hilarity, but it wasn’t seen as so funny when Meghan embarrassingly dodged her royal duty by claiming maternity leave in order not to meet President Trump. Yet she surfaced a few days later to sit in a carriage and stand on the balcony of Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s birthday celebrations.

Turning up to parade down the red carpet at the glamorous ‘Lion King’ London premier in a hideously expensive dress costing $4,924, when Prince Harry should have been at a solemn memorial service with the Royal Marines didn’t go down well either. Telling an African-American star in the line-up, who’d congratulated her on the great job she was doing, that ‘They don’t make it easy for us”, a reference to the English people/plebs who support her extravagant life-style, went down like a brick too.

Neither did it go down well that the couple refused to share the date of their baby’s birth, the names of his godparents or issue any photos of him – traditional Royal custom – which is part of the unspoken contract between the Royals and the public. There was more heartburning when it was discovered that various American TV personalities, including Ellen de Generes, who Meghan had never met before, had had invitations to tea  and were able to boast – on TV – that they had cuddled the baby who was off-limits to the British public.

And more ire, when pictures of good old Archbishop Tutu were taken with the hitherto invisible baby. Many people, myself included, felt that it should have been Thomas Markle, his grandfather, seeing the baby. This is the man who brought up Meghan when her mother was not around during her childhood, and paid for her expensive schooling, university and overseas trips – on one of which Meghan was photographed posing outside Buckingham Palace – though she had told the public that she’d never heard of Prince Harry before she met him!

Thomas Markle is the old man who to date has met neither his son-in-law or his grandson, but according to his daughter, in happier days when she was worried about her freckles, lovingly consoled her with the words that a face without freckles would be like a sky without stars. While he was working at the TV studios, she would turn up after school, and he’d steer her away from facets of the filming he thought in-appropriate for a little girl to watch – a caring father coping with parenting alone while he worked for their living …

The apparent snubs to the Queen in turning down not just the Sandringham Christmas get together, but also the traditional summer gathering of the Royal family at Balmoral, and then zapping off to New York a few days later to watch her friend Serena’s tennis final, has not endeared the Duchess to the British public. None of these faux pas, extravagances, and many other ill-judged actions have anything to do with race.

They are the justified criticisms made of a woman who seems to have no interest in the customs and culture of the family and society she chose to marry into; a woman who, while enjoying all the perks of her extraordinary new life, insists on privacy, and at the same time goes out of her way to be photographed and publicise her doings and achievements on Instagram.

Criticism of the new arrival in the family who has ‘singlehandedly modernised the Royal Family’ according to her PR team, stems from disappointment, not racism. In the unspoken contract and loyalty between the Sovereign and the people, the Royals have various rituals and duties to perform as a quid pro quo for their immensely privileged life-style.

Their profession and ‘career’ is service to their country, to be performed in whatever way the government of the time requires, and observance of ancient precedents. The public knows it’s a daunting task to learn the ropes of this 1,000 -year-old institution, so all they expect is for a new entrant to learn the ways and customs of the institution, using humility, a desire to learn, and determination to do the job.

So the arrival of Meghan who said she was going to hit the ground running, and who seems to feel it’s her role to change the lives of the English people who’ve enjoyed a free society and democracy all their lives; a newbie attempting to educate them about climate change, female empowerment, racism, and other self- appointed missions, irritates them.

They don’t want their lives changed (unless they can enjoy some of the perks of her privileged life-style). They don’t want to be lectured about carbon emissions by someone who flies in private jets, and hops across oceans and continents for holidays, weddings and celebrity occasions.

It doesn’t go down well for someone from another country to seem to criticise the British culture and members of the Royal Family on TV, to tell us that the British stiff upper lip is ‘internally damaging’, and that in spite of no money worries, a healthy baby, a loving husband, a luxurious home, and a wardrobe to die for, she finds life tough and no-one has asked ‘are you okay?’

It was her decision during maternity leave to ask Vogue editor, Edward Enninful, to allow her to guest-edit a controversial edition of that luxury magazine, and her decision too, to organise the design of some fairly ordinary clothes for a charity which had been up and running for some years before. Since most of us cope with our babies plus other challenges without nannies and staff, for their PR staff to use the word ‘gruelling’ to describe their lives (several holidays, overseas trips to tennis and a Rome wedding this year) seems puzzling.

Most people have tough hardworking lives, and find self-pity, a sense of entitlement, and what feels like hypocrisy when actions don’t match words, unattractive. So for all these reasons, and many others, the second American woman to marry into the British Royal family is almost as unpopular as the first one. And as in the case of Wallis, there is great relief that Meghan is not likely to become queen either, barring a complete annihilation of four or five other members of the family.

The saddest thing of all is that so much genuine goodwill towards Prince Harry and Meghan seems to have been squandered, despite the in-ept rescue attempts by their American publicity team, and this has left many loyal supporters of the monarchy throughout the Commonwealth feeling disappointed. To bowdlerise a great Englishmans’s words, ‘never has so much been lost, so quickly, by so few.’

As for the 93- year- old Queen, adapting Shakespeare’s words would no doubt be sadly true for her at the moment: ‘Uneasy lies the head that bears the crown’.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

The cupboard was bare – and the fridge. All I could rustle up the day before our big shop, was one chicken drum stick, half a parsnip, two carrots, half a leek, plenty of onions and my staple, red lentils.

While the onions were having a quick zap to soften them up in the micro- wave, I fried the chicken leg to seal it, and chopped carrots, parsnip and leek small, keeping one carrot back to grate, to give the intending mess of pottage some texture. Onions, chicken and vegetables went into a saucepan, along with two thirds of a cup of washed lentils, garlic, salt, pepper and a chicken cube.

Boil gently for half an hour or until the chicken is falling off the bone. This collection of scraps turned into a thick comforting soup on a cold day.

 

 

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Castaway Books

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I sometimes torture myself by imagining I’m on a desert island and can only take ten books with me. I look around at the walls of book-shelves  in the sitting room and bedroom and spare room, and wonder how to whittle them down to the ten most treasured books I wouldn’t want to be without.

As in the BBC radio programme, no Shakespeare or the Bible allowed, though I’d be sad to let the Bible go – not for religious reasons – but for the sheer poetry of the prose and the beauty of so much of the writing, for some of the stories embedded in the teachings… like the story of Ruth for example, or the Song of Solomon… and the Beatitudes, and ringing phrases like: ‘I am as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal if I have not charity’ .. or the exquisite words of Psalms like 139, which ends with: ‘…’if I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall thy hand find me, and thy right hand shall hold me’.

But having surrendered the Bible what would I take? Bernadine Evaristo, this year’s Booker prize-winner, says she hates Jane Austen and Virginia Wolfe… but while l’d agree about Virginia, as an afficionado who used to read Jane Austen’s six novels once a year, I’d have to disagree with her findings on Jane. (Real Austen fans are called Janeites. I once wrote a piece for an anthology of raves about Jane Austen, and attending the book launch party was somewhat bemused to find myself among some fans wearing long Regency dresses, and sporting shawls and fans)

Which of the six would I take? No contest. In my younger days, I’d have plumped for ‘Pride and Prejudice’… or ‘Persuasion.’ But now I’d go for ‘Mansfield Park’ which I used to think was the dullest of her books. Now it’s my favourite. I love the picture of Georgian country life, the amateur theatricals with all the tensions and emotional turmoil, and the irritating, contradictory and sparkling array of people, especially the two villains, who’re the most attractive characters in the book. But most of all, I love that picture of elegant English country life in my favourite period of history before the Industrial Revolution, when squalor and hardship and smoking factory chimneys had not altered forever a peaceful pastoral society.  (Even if they didn’t have good dentists).

To balance that picture of aristocratic country life I’d take Thomas Hardy’s ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’, my favourite of all his books, crammed with authentic country lore and farming custom, just slightly later in time that Austen’s novel.

And to round off this wallowing in homesickness for another time and place while on that desert island, I’d take George Eliot’s tome, ‘Middlemarch’, a great book described by the despised Virginia as  ‘the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels for grown-up people.’

It’s a huge canvas describing with acute psychological insight many typical characters of both town and country in early Victorian England. For me, it’s a picture not just about English town life of that period, but a profound study of character, both shallow and profound, of good and evil in the shape of materialism, and of the compromises demanded by society. So, nostalgia and homesickness sorted – there’s several more choices to go.

Top of the list would be Barbara Tuchman’s splendid history, ‘The Guns of August’, an account of the first ten days of WW1, but fleshed out with vivid and witty accounts of how Europe got to that point, and an analysis of the main protagonists… fascinating history, accurate psychology, and telling insights, all delivered with wit and humour, so that often I find myself chuckling as we traverse the terrible terrain of one of the great turning points in the history of Europe.

I would have to take ‘The Snow Leopard’ with me, by Peter Matthiesson. It’s the story of his journey into the remotest regions of the Himalayas on his search for the then almost never seen and legendary snow leopard. It’s a many layered tale with deep spiritual undertones, and read like all these other books, many, many times.

Getting a bit panicky now, with only three more choices to go. I think I’ll reach for Truman Capote’s story of love and war, ‘The Grass Harp’. It’s told with deceptive simplicity, the characters utterly loveable, and gloriously eccentric as despair drives them to desperate measures. They are the odd ones out, who finally step outside the norms of society to assert their individuality, and when they say what they feel, they slice through the hypocrisies and cruelty of narrow-minded small-town officialdom.

I love diaries and have a huge collection of them, ranging across time, from seventeenth century Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn in Charles 11 reign, to Georgian Parson Woodford and Parson Gilbert White, Victorian Francis Kilvert, through to the two world wars, to the randy diaries of Alan Clark, the notorious womaniser and politician, and the delicious, hilariously funny fictional diaries of Adrian Mole, my favourite being ‘Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass- Destruction.

I toyed with the last of the Bloomsberry’s, Frances Partridge’s  ‘A Pacifist’s War’, her diary filled with details of an idyllic life in the beautiful country house where the painter Carrington lived with writer Lytton Strachey before his death and her suicide. Her war years are peopled with a stream of intriguing/incestuous Bloomsberry illuminati who came and feasted with Ralph Partridge and Frances while dwelling on their moral high-ground as conscientious objectors.

I decided on something more uplifting. Inspiring integrity was what I was looking for. Should I take Alanbrooke’s war-time diaries, or Cadogan’s account of appeasement and diplomacy before and during the war, or Klemperer’s diary chronicling the terror of the Nazis, and his worry about the fate of his beloved cat? It finally had to be put down when Jews were no longer allowed to keep pets. Klemperer, a distinguished university professor, ended up in the bombing of Dresden which allowed his wife and he to disappear in the chaos, the only positive thing I’ve heard about that raid.

No… I finally settled on the two volumes of John Colville’s diaries. He was Churchill’s private secretary during the war, and the parade of kings, queens, statesmen and generals, society ladies and foreign diplomates makes absorbing reading, quite apart from the affectionate and admiring portrait of the great man himself.

Throughout the cliff-edge years of war, Churchill is revealed as an irascible but brilliant, kind, intelligent and chivalrous aristocrat in the best sense of those words, without a trace of snobbery or small mindedness. Perhaps too original and spontaneous to be described in conventional terms as a gentleman, he emerges as a magnificent human being who poured his huge stores of energy, humanity and vision into his country and the struggle against one of the greatest tyrannies in history.

The last and tenth book is a tantalising choice, trying to choose between two of my favourite diaries. ‘Mrs Milburn’s Diary’ is written by a woman with no literary talent, but an abiding love for her only son, who was captured before Dunkirk and endured POW camp for the rest of the war. Her letters sent via the Red Cross, and his to her were usually months old by the time they reached their destination, so she began writing a diary chronicling life in his home and family and community.

It’s a prosaic day to day telling about the price of woollen vests going up, the annoying man at Matins every week who coughs all the way through and ruins the service, the evacuees who stay briefly, the long cold nights sitting in their primitive underground air raid shelter in the garden – doubly important to them-  as they lived in the country outside Coventry, and lost many friends in the catastrophic bombing raid which destroyed that city. It’s an insight into a way of life now gone… when, even during the war, she picked primroses every spring in the woods, packing them up in damp cotton wool and sending them to friends in the city.

She records the routines of church going, weekly shopping, Mother’s Union meetings, working for the WVS (Women’s Voluntary Service) dealing with the erratic gardener, the feckless land girls, a chaste glass of sherry shared with old friends. The annual rhythms of the seasons’ rituals celebrate a slice of civilisation which had its own small satisfactions, sorrows and minor victories.

Or, do I go for ‘Burning,’ a diary of a year living in the Blue Mountains in Australia? Kate Llewellyn is a poet, and her book is crammed with exquisite metaphors and similes, quirky people, precious moments of beauty, meditations on history, recipes, travels and gardening. I read it often, not just for the drama of human tragedy and pain which also takes place during that year, but for the sheer beauty of the writing.

As CS Lewis observed, ‘we do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties’. He also suggested that someone who only reads a book once is ‘unliterary’, whatever that means! But I certainly agree with him on both counts when he says “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”

So I can’t decide between these two life stories – regularly ‘savoured’, and will beg my invisible and sadistic inner voice to let me have them both… to have whittled down my choices to eleven from hundreds of books is no mean feat, which meant leaving out precious favourites like Leigh-Fermor’s ‘A Time of Gifts’, his vivid description of European civilisation before the Nazis destroyed it

As I mulled over this imaginary exercise, and visualised myself roaming a tropical paradise, alone like Robinson Crusoe, I realised that by choosing a handful of books to be my companions in this solitary life, I wasn’t using any carbon footprint, and many of the books were recycled – bought from second-hand bookshops around the world via the internet, or acquired from op-shops and the like.

Many of them of them too, like Capote’s ‘The Grass Harp’, I’ve owned since the sixties, and are worn from regular loving re-readings when I savoured every aspect of the writing and the human condition. In a book on educating children read in the seventies, I found a wonderful thought, that literature is the logbook of human experience, and that’s how it seems to me too.

For this solitary island existence, Christopher Morley, an American writer, gave me words that seem particularly apt: ‘when you get a new book, you get a new life –love and friendship and humour and ships at sea at night -… all heaven and earth in a book.’

The written word survives e-books, the internet, texting and all the other apparent advantages of technology. It has been with us from the earliest times, when the Sumerian civilisation evolved writing around 3,000 BC, and the first literature was created by a Sumerian author a thousand years later. Books and words may be the one blessing and means of communication that survive in the aeons to come.

Books will always be the ‘log-book of human experience’, and can hand on the riches of our civilisation to generations still unborn. And for the present, they can be a comfort, a companion and a treasure. They inform and educate, amuse, console, entertain and inspire. They are indispensable and irreplaceable. They make life on a desert island bearable!

Food for Threadbare gourmets

We’re living dairy free at the moment for various reasons, and I discovered to my delight that it’s perfectly possible to make a decent white sauce using olive oil instead of butter.

So using the juices from a roasted chicken from the night before, I made a rechauffe… fried some chopped bacon and mushrooms, made the sauce, and stirred a bouillon cube and the chopped cooked chicken, bacon and mushrooms into it. Flavoured the mix with salt, pepper and nutmeg, and served it on rice.

To cheer up the plain boiled rice, I fried a grated courgette in olive oil and garlic, plenty of salt and pepper and stirred it into the rice. We ate it all with green beans and didn’t miss the cream or milk at all!

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Light footfalls in the Forest

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I’m back… after a lull and a few health issues, can’t resist coming back to blogging. I’ve kept up with reading all my old friends, under the radar, and am up with the play on the health and antics of various cats and dogs and pigs, and people! And thanks to the magic of technology, the internet has kept me up to date on the strange happenings around the world. I hesitate to put a name to the events which fill today’s headlines.

Here in our remote rainforest, politics and pollution, carbon footprints and climate change feel a long way away. Though I did calculate our carbon footprint today, and since we make one trip into town a week, amounting to fifty kilometres, catch our own water from the roof, and purify it, don’t waste water since we have a compost toilet, build our house with re-cycled windows, doors, kitchen bench, neighbour’s cast-off extractor hood and other donations, and only use electricity for heating, our footprint is fairly light.

D, my love, has used skateboard wheels to create a sliding door which purrs every time it’s opened, while a steel knitting needle and some big beads from a necklace have been used to fashion a light fitting that can be adjusted and moved above the dining table depending how many guests we have. He’s made exquisite sounding bells from divers cast off tanks which function as warning bells for us, and become presents for the people who are enchanted with the sound of the bells, and want one too.

A friend gave us an unwanted Italian stone plinth which, with a great, perfectly round concrete ball cast by D for me for Christmas, has become the focal point of my new garden; another friend delivered a ten foot pallet he wanted to dispose of, which has, with a few extra pieces of wood nailed on, become an elegant trellis barrier painted black and swathed in white wisteria, honeysuckle and star jasmine, dividing drive from garden.

Along the top of the trellis are ranged a row of perfect round black balls. They were once the feet of an armoire, and so ugly that I had them cut off, and have carted them around for the last nineteen years, hoping to find a use for them someday. That day has arrived. Painted black, and augmented with a big central one made by D, they have come into their own. The honeysuckle was grown from cuttings taken from the side of the road. The stubs of used candles are melted down and blended together to make candles for the storm lanterns down the drive when friends visit.

Arum lilies, dug up from a field at a friend’s farm, and roses grown from cuttings, fill the urns and pots, and on finding half a dozen miniature pink buckets in an op shop, I filled with them with pink cyclamens and lined them up on the steps to the house. I fill any gaps in the garden with big white marguerite daisies grown from cuttings – the original plant I bought back in 2003, and have kept supplies of these generous sized daisies ever since. At this moment in the porch are twenty- four flourishing little green rootlets waiting to be transferred to wherever they are needed. Ivy cuttings are also rooting quietly after a walk past an overgrown wall.

A raised vegetable garden is the next step… to be tackled when D has finished inserting two beautiful coloured lead light windows into the bathroom wall which looks out into the forest. They came from a dresser we bought for a song at the local rubbish tip shop. The hinges on the doors and handles would have cost more than we paid for the whole dresser if he had bought them new, D says.

And as well as the hardware, we have the lead light doors to the cupboard now transformed into windows, and the bottom shelves, divested of doors, painted white and flossied up with a bit of moulding, matching another sturdy bookshelf the other side of the room.

The satisfaction of this way of life is immense. Though we are surrounded in the forest by splendid architect designed dwellings furnished with architect-speak fashionable furniture, black leather Mies van der Rohe-like loungers, cow-hide rugs, low backed sofas, I am unmoved by this elegance. I still love my ancient seven-foot sofa, bought from an acquaintance twenty- five years ago when it was already twenty- five years old. New feet gave it a new lease of life, and loose covers made from hemp twenty years ago are still as good as new.

My antique French Provincial arm chairs are still comfortable, even though the cat appropriated them all the years of her life, and the old painted peasant looking chest of drawers gives me as much pleasure as our walnut and rosewood antiques of yesteryear. Pretty china, rugs and cushions, lamps and books have been the same companions for the last four decades.

And books continue to find their way in. Last week it was a book on Tuscany found for a dollar at the local rubbish tip shop. It’s a big illustrated hymn to Tuscany by Frances Mayes, whose other books on finding her Italian house have always enchanted me. This one is filled with exquisite pictures, disquisitions on art and architecture,  wine, and food and recipes. She tells us that when children are born in Italy, they say they have entered the light. The poetry and beauty of this idea of emerging from the darkness of the womb into the light of the world I find very moving.

Mayes says that Italians have the lowest rate of suicide in the world. She puts it down to the contentment of living amid so much deeply satisfying beauty. She also says that Italians are very low on obesity scales compared with other countries, and she puts this down to the fact that they eat such nourishing delicious food, that they feel satisfied and don’t need to fill up with junk food and sugar treats.

So needless to say, I bustled into my kitchen, and began experimenting with her take on Tuscan food, which doesn’t rely on fancy ingredients, and at a quick glance just seems to require good olive oil, good bread, fresh vegetables, including garlic, fennel and mushrooms and devotion to good food! That devotion I have in spades.

Watch this space!

 

 

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Another Bright Beautiful Spirit

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The chapel at Oi’s home

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

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.

With no family around us, friends of all ages were always important and she mattered to us as much as Philippa. Edith Oiroa was born in 1900- called Edith by conventional people but Oi by kindred spirits. She was the youngest of ten, born to a father who was sixty years old, and she died when she was a hundred and two – so the two life-times covered a hundred and sixty- two years, and went back to 1840. Her father had been 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 with which to start his life here.

Robert Batley, 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 was born, the generous chief had given them some 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 – William Gummer – who worked with the famous Edwin Lutyens in England, and is sometimes known as NZ’s Frank Lloyd Wright. He created many of Auckland’s great buildings, 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, Mother Julian 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. My other musical friend, Phillipa, whose unbearable life was slightly improved by taking clarinet lessons, and who longed to play in an orchestra, 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 the children, plus her six-month-old baby, were adrift in a lifeboat in a violent storm. I spent all day praying and  imagining her anguish and exhaustion trying to keep the children warm in an open boat, never realising that they were already dead.

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.

Their loss was our gain, and in some ways Oi became a  part of our family. She gave me many of 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 at over a hundred, fourteen years ago, but her loving wisdom sustains me still.

When my life began taking some strange turns, becoming involved with an innocent man accused of a double murder, our phone being tapped, death threats, drug lords, and other frightening developments, Oi was always there encouraging us and supporting us.

To be continued

 Food for Threadbare Gourmets

 I love puddings – hot, cold, chocolate, lemon, fruit, baked, steamed, chilled – you name it. I haven’t made clafoutis for ages, but decided, it being winter, we could do with a hot pudding, and dug out this old recipe from my clippings. It has more eggs in it than some clafoutis recipes, but when I was worried about the children getting enough protein when we were vegetarian, this was one of the dishes that stilled my anxieties.

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Butter a pie dish or oven proof dish. In a large bowl, whisk together six eggs, eight tablespoons of sugar, a teasp of vanilla, until the sugar is dissolved. Add twelve tablespoons of flour and whisk until smooth. Pour the batter into the pie dish.

Now add two and a half cups of pitted cherries, fresh or frozen if you have them – or any other berries. If using frozen don’t melt them, but toss them in frozen. You can also use plums, or tinned peaches. Sprinkle some sugar over the top and bake until the clafoutis is beautifully puffed and golden, 35–40 minutes. Serve immediately – with cream or even good ice-cream.

Food for Thought

 Lovers of God do not belong to any caste.

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa

 

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Another mansion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

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

Food for thought

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

 

 

 

 

 

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Diamonds and dysentery

J.J.’s intriguing home…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

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

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

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

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

Food for thought

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

‘Blow out the candles of your cake

they will not leave you in the dark

who round with grace this dusky arc

of the Grand Tour which souls must take’.

 

 

 

 

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Sunset over Hong Kong

Image result for images of old hong kong harbourHong Kong in the mid-sixties

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

Before we left England, we enjoyed two quintessential English events. The in -laws gave us their tickets for the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, one of the glamorous fixtures on the London calendar fifty years ago. I watched with interest the people and clothes, as well as the pictures. Standing next to a woman dressed in exquisite soft pale blue suede with matching knee length suede boots, I recognised the heiress Tessa Kennedy, famous for her elopement at eighteen with painter Dominic Elwes.

They had fled to Havana to escape the English courts and marry there, before eventually fleeing Cuba on a raft during the anarchy of Castro’s era… I watched the President of the Academy reverently ushering through the galleries the fascinating Dorelia, Augustus John’s mistress, then partner for over fifty years. She was tall and stately, her gypsy beauty undimmed, her bright draperies fluttering as she moved. The famous and the fashionable thronged the beautiful galleries.

Earlier in June I had sat in Whitehall- dressed in a big navy straw hat, coral linen dress, and navy court shoes, feeling deliciously elegant- this time in seats obtained by my father, for us to watch the Queen’s Birthday Parade close up. She rode side saddle into the great parade square, escorted by the Royal Dukes on horseback, all gold braid, chain mail, spurs, bearskins and majesty. The Guards and the Household Cavalry trotted and wheeled and manoeuvred in their timeless rituals as the colours were trooped, and we sat spellbound on a perfect summer’s day, the glorious trees of the parks all around framing the pageantry and splendour.

We returned to old Thomas Twining’s two hundred and forty-three year old house down by the Thames, also surrounded by ancient trees, where squirrels scampered along the top of the high Georgian garden walls. A hundred yards away, a small boat was moored. This was an ancient ferry crossing, and a boat had waited there since medieval times, ready to ferry passengers across the river to Ham Common and the beautiful country on the other side of the river.

History and historic houses, parks and woodland dotted the banks along this stretch of the river. I loved it all. And had I known then that I was leaving this blessed plot, this beloved place, ‘this precious stone set in a silver sea’ – this England – forever, I would have been rent with grief.

But then, simply looking forward to our next adventure I set blithely off. Expecting the gentle energy and rich tropical environment of Malaya, I had a terrible shock when we landed in Hong Kong. The army had laid on a bus to take us from Kaitak airport and deposit us at our hotel and as I looked out of the windows in horror at the traffic, black exhaust smoke, pollution and shoddy blocks of flats, there just below our window, was a truck filled with bloody red animal carcasses covered in flies. This nauseating sight accompanied us the whole way to Kowloon and coloured forever my feelings about this extraordinary place.

Our hotel turned out to be plum in the middle of the thriving and noisy red- light district of Kowloon. The girls whose beauty had bowled me over at first with their elegant cheongsams, beautifully coiffed chignons of shining black hair and immaculate make -up turned out to be prostitutes plying what looked like a prosperous trade with the legions of cropped headed American servicemen on R and R – Rest and Recreation – from Vietnam.

Nights were made hideous with the sound of rows and roistering in the bedroom next door, as well as the traffic outside, and honking of horns and shouts of hawkers who never seemed to go to bed. But after various vicissitudes, we eventually found a beautiful flat in Deepwater Bay, across the harbour on Hong Kong Island. It was ideal, as all the other flats were occupied with young families like us, and there was never any lack of playmates.

We had arrived in the blistering heat of summer, but in September something magic happened. The humidity dropped, and the air became crystal, clear and shimmering and the light glittered on the blue and silver sea. The atmosphere changed too and became charged with a beautiful and haunting nostalgia.

After that first year, I waited for the day, and every year the same magic suddenly returned to the strident city, and transmuted for a few glorious weeks, the raucous harshness of the place and people. Some people never noticed the poetry which suddenly flooded those days and nights. Those who did, likened it to the light of the Greek islands. It lasted for a month to six weeks, before ebbing away into the grey mistiness of winter.

The rest of the time for me, Hong Kong was a place to be endured. Yet now, since China has grasped the prize, I sometimes think back with nostalgia to those years spent on that amazing rock, ten miles by five miles, where then, nearly four million people hawked and spat and bargained and gambled and drank and starved and jockeyed for the biggest profits and built the highest high rises.

In the mid-sixties, with Vietnam and flower power both at their zenith, Hong Kong was both a place of rest and recreation for American troops slogging it out in Vietnam, and a place too, where some draft dodgers quietly eked out an alternative life style.

There were also the  grand, old-established British families of several generations who had built up the great English Hongs, or business houses, there were colonies of newsmen, especially from most of the top American news agencies, from CBS and NBC, Life and Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times – to name a few – there were birds of flight from New Zealand and Australia, working their way across to Europe for their OE – overseas experience- refugees from South Africa and apartheid, army and navy contingents, the Foreign Office and government clusters, the Indian community, Portuguese- Chinese immigrants from Macau, the rich Chinese and the endless army of poor Chinese, most of whom had fled China in different waves, ever since the Communist takeover.

This was also the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Just before coming to Hong Kong, I’d read the history of the Boxer Rebellion. It struck me then, even in the mid-twentieth century, that China was a good place to stay away from. At a dinner party one night soon after we had arrived, a handful of us farewelled a lowly foreign office official, named Ray Whitney.

After learning Chinese like my husband and all those dining with us, he’d left the army to join the foreign office and was now posted to what was still known as Peking. Sitting next to Ray after dinner I naively suggested to him that it was a dangerous posting with the Cultural Revolution in full swing, and shades of the Boxer Rebellion. He swung his whole person round to look at me. “My dear young lady”, he exclaimed, ” I regard this as an adventure”.

A few days later, we read the reports of him and his colleague being beaten up on Shanghai Station and smeared with glue. When they reached the British Embassy in Peking, it became their prison. The diplomats there were beaten up while hordes of Chinese Red Guards chanted Kill! Kill! and part of the embassy was set on fire. Back inside, they were besieged, and no-one could leave for nearly eighteen months.

Requests would reach Hong Kong for Italian cook books and the latest novels with which to while away the captivity of an embassy of bored, beleaguered, idle diplomats. (Ray Whitney, a lovely man, had a distinguished career after this, knighted for his very real services, becoming an MP and a member of many influential offices and commissions.)

Reports were also reaching us of cruel mock trials of intellectuals and artists and other Enemies of the People. Old men were made to parade around in dunce’s caps at their trial and sentencing. It was a grotesque gesture by Chinese hooligans who had no idea of the history of Duns Scotus’s medieval hat. The Red Guards had now transformed the symbol for a dunce into a ritual for sadistic humiliation.

This was the year too of the Star Ferry Riots, when the government tried to raise the price of the Star Ferry tickets by one cent, the first rise since 1947. Those riots were just over when we arrived, and the next riots were soon to begin, fuelled by the unrest in China.

A curfew was laid upon the island. Everyone had to be in their homes by some ridiculously early hour like six o clock. I climbed into our turquoise Volkswagon and drove round from Deepwater Bay to a look-out on the Peak. I was the only disobedient soul outside and as an army wife, I felt slightly guilty. I looked down to Victoria, the town centre. Nothing moved.

Trams sat abandoned on the sides of the roads, cars were left empty and parked. The streets were silent and empty. The throngs of shoppers, the hurrying workers, the hawkers and Hakka women in their rattan hats trimmed with black, the street vendors, the prostitutes and the students, the toddlers who lived and played on the pavements, the school children crouched on the side-walk doing their homework in the shelter of a sewing machine or street stall, the rick-shaw men, and the porters in white vests and black shorts and wooden clogs, the business men in grey suits, the camera-laden tourists – all had disappeared.

It was eerie and frightening in the same decade as films of nuclear war and lethal clouds of radio-active dust destroying all life, leaving cities full of dead but still standing. That was how Hongkong looked that night, silent and empty. The silence was almost more un-nerving than the emptiness.

The unrest went underground, and suddenly erupted one hot summer’s afternoon. Perhaps as karma for disobeying the curfew, I found myself in the middle of the next round of dissent. I was driving up Garden Road with the children to see Pat Hangen. She and her children lived on the Peak with her husband Welles, NBC Bureau chief, always away in Vietnam and who later disappeared forever in Cambodia.

I had only recently learned to drive, and uphill starts were still a challenge, though there was only one junction where I might be called upon to use them, I thought. But, as I passed the Helena May Hostel for Young Women, I came on a mass of white-clothed Chinese youths, all shouting and waving Mao’s Little Red Books in the air.

I slowed down, and another group converged from another direction. I tried to edge out of the crowd, but more and more columns kept coming from all directions. I slowed right down to walking pace, and realised I was in the middle of a hostile, fanatical mob, and if I made one mistake, like running back or edging forward too quickly, it would be more than dangerous for me and the two now very silent toddlers in the back.

I wound all the windows up so that air came in through only a crack at the top, and the heat became stifling.   Sweat ran down my face and spine in rivers, soaking my thin cotton dress. The children’s hair was plastered to their heads with sweat and I could smell the musty smell of their damp scalps, and something else – our fear.

There were thousands and thousands of young men shouting in unison and waving their red books in the air. As they moved at slow walking pace, I was obliged to shift the car at the same speed, crunching the hand brake on and off, as we slowly revved up the steep incline. Then, suddenly, I could see where it all ended. They were all advancing on the Governor’s Residence off to our right. Thankfully I left the Governor to it, and made our way to Pat, shaking all over from the tension.

And after that, things took on another momentum, with bombs exploding all over the place, and many areas placed out of bounds to Europeans. The Bank of China in the middle of the city began a propaganda war of noise, blaring out raucous, Chinese communist marching songs and party chants. The deafening noise was augmented by the childish response of the authorities, who used the tower of the Hilton Hotel across the road from the bank, to play decadent, western rock and roll to drown out the Chinese music.

It seemed to go on all summer. What also went on all summer, was the Chinese water torture. Hongkong and the New Territories relied on water supplies from China, and some years, flexing her muscles, and also to annoy, China restricted the water. This revolutionary year was no different and for the four long hot months of sweltering summer, we were severely rationed in order to survive.

There was no water for three days out of four. On the fourth day, water was piped for four hours in the evening, during which time we had the opportunity to fill baths, buckets and every available jug, bottle and kettle with water to last for the next four days. We all also seized the opportunity to shower or bath during this precious four hours.

Unfortunately, our flat was at the top of a twelve-storey building, and the pressure didn’t build up until the water had been on for two hours, so we only had the precious stuff for two hours every four days.

And we were the lucky ones. The Chinese living down in Wanchai and among slums built on the sides of hills from boxes and cardboard, queued for several hundred yards by the intermittent taps. They had to manage with buckets and containers small enough to carry back to their dwelling places. These were the people who had fled China after the Communist takeover and it was their teenage children who were now demonstrating in Hong Kong, mimicking the excesses of the Red Guards under Mao.

The much-maligned Colonial rule in Hong Kong prevented the same victimisation and destruction here. Yet at the same time that these rebellious Hong Kong teenagers were enjoying their Maoist demonstrations, dissidents were risking their lives to escape from China, in the continual exodus which had never ceased since the Nationalists under Mao Tse Tung had driven out the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai Check back in 1949. In 1949 alone, the population of Hong Kong had  doubled.

Since then, the borders had been closed, and now most people slipped across the border in darkness or swam across, and were picked up in the New Territories. These refugees arrived undernourished and dressed in patched rags, testimony to the poverty that reigned in China under Mao. The society they now joined was a heartless one. Many once penniless Chinese had made good in the years since they too had arrived destitute.

They had obliterated their peasant past and educated their children at western schools and universities, penetrating established, rich society. Others had arrived from places like Shanghai with all their riches and built lordly homes on the upper slopes of the great rock which meant safety to them all. But they were indifferent to the plight of the newest arrivals. There were no charitable organisations to help them or the struggling poor. Philanthropy was not a characteristic of Hong Kong society.

A hundred and fifty years before, in 1812, the city of London with a population of a million, had free hospitals, alms houses, dispensaries and nearly three hundred free schools educating, feeding and clothing nearly twenty thousand children. Arthur Bryant, the historian who gathered these facts, wrote that ‘London could claim her real palaces were hospitals. Wren’s Greenwich and Chelsea; Gibb’s St Bartholomew’s with its Hogarth staircase; St Thomas’s with its four great quadrangles treating and discharging 11,000 patients a year; the new “Bethlem” and St Luke’s for the insane, with their enormous classical facades, were buildings that a king might have been proud to inhabit.”’

By contrast there were only two hospitals provided by the government here in Hong Kong for three and a half million people – huge rabbit warrens – not palaces. There were no facilities for the handicapped or insane at all. In a population of four million, there would have been a minimum of 200,000 mentally and physically handicapped, judging by the normal ratio of such figures per head of population. No-one knew where they were, though there were stories of deranged figures chained to verandas.

There were stories of goodness too. Two English teachers received a divine message to go to Hong Kong where a task lay before them. Obediently they packed up and came. Once in the colony, they had no idea what the task might be. They ‘waited on the Lord,’ and seemed to feel they should buy an old house in the New Territories. This they did, still having no idea why.

After a few weeks, they found a baby girl on the doorstep one morning. They took her in. And then the unwanted babies kept coming. They knew their task now, but they had no money. So they prayed for what they needed. And whenever they needed money or assistance, they prayed and it arrived. They called this place the Home of Loving Faithfulness.

The Dean of Hong Kong Cathedral and his wife were very pleased to have a new house built for them among the old trees just behind the Cathedral. It was handy, central, and of course, unlike most vicarages, new and efficient. In order to build this house, a destitute old lady who squatted beneath the trees, and scavenged enough food to cook small meals on a tiny stove, had had to be moved on.

But she always came back. The dean, a good man, and his wife, equally good, then organised a real home in a new block for the old lady, and there she was taken. By the following week she had found her way back, squatting where she had always squatted, which was now the veranda of the brand-new house. There she stayed, her acrid cooking smells drifting through the windows into the house. This was her home, so we have no right to force her to leave, said these worthy representatives of a sometimes-maligned church. So she stayed.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 I love the idea of thrifty ways to avoid wasting food. I found a recipe the other day in one of my scrapbooks for using up the remains of salad leaves to make a good pesto. Whatever the leaves, and someone else tells me she’s used radish leaves – put them in a blender with olive oil, garlic, and grated walnuts, salt and pepper. Whizz enough to make a textured mix – I use it over pasta, or with poached salmon. Amounts of olive oil etc depend on how much wilting lettuce you have in the fridge !!! I grate the nuts in my parmesan cheese grater.

 Food for thought

 This poem by Wendell Berry soothes my soul and brings me peace:

I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

 

 

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