Category Archives: life/style

Keeping body and soul together

daisies

About a month before the full extent of the crisis which is now overtaking the whole world was obvious, I began quietly accumulating food-stuffs in my store cupboard. Two of this or three of that instead of just one. So when the catastrophe reached this country, and we went into lockdown within a few days of the first cases of the plague arriving in these shores, I didn’t need to do any panic shopping, just last minute perishables like milk, mushrooms and courgettes.

When the drawbridge went down and we all retreated to our own castles, I felt like a biblical wise virgin – perhaps not – a wise crone perhaps, with the oil in my lamp, ready for the challenge, not of spiritual growth but of living without all the amenities that we take for granted in the western world. We had stocked up on gas for the cooker, and petrol for the generator in case the power went down, filled the car and checked the oil.

The old freezer we’d replaced when a friend bequeathed her up-to-date appliance while re-modelling her kitchen, was still sitting here. No-one else had wanted it. So it came back into service in this emergency and absorbed all the bulky things like bread, and the extras like the butter and grated cheese and pastrami that we weren’t going to be shopping for in the foreseeable future. We felt ready for anything.

I can live off baked beans for a month, my love bravely declared. There’s no need, I kept re-iterating, we’ve got plenty of everything. And now we seem to have so much more time than we did before the Great Retreat, I’ve also had more time to think about food, and how to marshal our resources; and also to read new recipes and ideas.

We seem to be living rather luxuriously, rather than frugally… though that may come. So instead of just putting together my normal macaroni cheese which is a favourite in this house, I found a French recipe which we tried last night.

I left out the tomato puree, which I didn’t fancy, and for lack of a bacon hock, just chopped up and lightly fried some rashers of good bacon. Instead of making a normal cheese sauce, I broke into the packet of mascarpone nestling in the fridge as per the recipe, and beat it into the yolks of two eggs.

I added grated cheese, no Gruyere in the house, just good old Cheddar, leavened with some Gouda with cumin seeds, found at the back of the fridge and grated, which added a layer of je ne sais quoi to the mix.  With plenty of black pepper, the bacon, the cooked pasta and all, was tipped into a casserole with a layer of grated parmesan on top, and left with enough time in the oven to warm it up and grill the top till crisp.

Even the pasta wasn’t macaroni. I had several packets of two-minute noodles sitting in the cupboard, having previously used their sachets of chicken stock for flavouring soups. I simply pour boiling water over the noodles, and leave them for a few minutes until they’re soft and ready to drain and use. Combined with all the other ingredients, their humble origin didn’t matter. The whole dish took only as long as separating the eggs, frying the bacon at the same time, and soaking the noodles, before ten minutes or so in the hot oven.

This is my idea of cooking these days – something quick, easy and delicious, using for the most part good ingredients, and not shying away from short cuts. I do a lot of things now, that I inwardly swore when I was young, I’d never do, like using chopped garlic from a jar, buying grated cheese, and even using pre-cooked packets of rice, when I lack the energy to slave over a hot stove. These packets of basmati, long grain and jasmine rice, which are more expensive of course than loose rice, were the despised unwanted items left on supermarket shelves during the Great Shopping Rush, but for me, they are a gift.

They mean a fried rice, or a kedgeree, or a curry in a few minutes instead of the hard labour of thoroughly washing and rinsing, boiling and draining of the real thing.  Nearly fifty years ago, I remember watching in Stanley Market in Hongkong, an old Chinese lady, wispy white hair scraped up into a tight bun, wearing clogs and grey sam-fu with black trousers, crouched by a tap on the edge of the pavement, washing and rinsing rice in a battered aluminium pot, over and again.

She poured in the water, swishing it about with her hands, draining it carefully out through her old wrinkled fingers, never losing a single precious grain, and then beginning the whole process over again until the water ran clear into the gutter.I think of her, every time I cook rice, but no longer feel guilty at cutting corners to save my energy, as I used to.

Energy is precious, and so is time; and while plenty of time is the gift of the Great Retreat, energy is not so plentiful. Yet this too is the gift of this unexpected home detention, isolation, withdrawal, lockdown, whatever we call it. Time is our own. We can measure our energy, plan our time, listen to our inner clock, and nurture the needs of our mind and soul as well as our body.

Those of us who are retired, and those who have no duties of care for children, or family who need us, are fortunate. We can still enjoy human contact by phone, the internet, skyping, even blogging. Even those of us who don’t have pets to nurture, and be nourished by, still have the time to enjoy the pleasures of books, music, knitting and other pastimes we often don’t have space for in our busy western lives.

I’ve been painting a new porch and veranda black – posts and roof and steps and lovely curved front, a bit Japanese looking, jutting out into the forest. Bitten by the bug, I then painted the wicker chairs black, and then a white side table which had once been gilt and then white, became black, and a big pot which had once been black, and then white, is also black again!

And so now we have another place from which we can look into the trees, watch the weather, listen to bird song,  gaze at the sunset, and see the moon rise. So many people in their homes and apartments, in so many places throughout the world, are cut off from the outside world, and yet by a strange paradox they are now savouring the growth of spring in the northern hemisphere, watching the clouds and the rain, becoming conscious of the sun rising and the moon waning, and connecting more and more with the natural world. So too, are we, in the southern hemisphere, as autumn creeps up on us. For once, in the poet’s words, we all have the time to stand and stare.

 

Food for Housebound Gourmets

 For those who fancy trying my fancy French macaroni cheese, here are the amounts for four people:250 gms crème fraiche, 2 egg yolks, 225 gms macaroni, 115 gms gruyere cheese, and a sprinkling of parmesan

Stir crème fraiche and egg yoks together, add cooked pasta and all the other ingredients, including pepper. Sprinkle parmesan over the mix and bake until hot and the top golden. Enough for four, and we will have it again tomorrow jazzed up with salad etc.

I would use cream instead of creme fraiche next time, as I like a looser cheese sauce… or I’d use my other short cut… cook the pasta and stir in a tin of condensed chicken soup, grated cheese, black pepper and nutmeg, loosen it to taste with cream or milk – and hey presto.

I’m keeping a record of what we’re eating and will be fascinated to see how it works out over the time. So far:

Day one: Coq au vin using chicken legs.

Day two: pork chops, plus leftover risotto from the deep freeze, fried onions for him, kumara/sweet potato for me, and acid free tomatoes cooked in butter and cream a la famous chef, Dr de Pomiane.

Day three: spaghetti Bolognaise for him, egg/avocado/tomato salad for me.

Day four: chopped cooked chicken from deep freeze stirred into a white sauce flavoured with chopped bacon, chopped mushrooms and nutmeg, the sauce made with some meaty stock made from scraping the pork chop pan the other night. (plus cream!)served on rice with green beans.

Day five: baked chicken drumsticks cooked on a bed of chopped onions, with rice, mushrooms and tomatoes for him, kedgeree with hard-boiled egg for me, and enough to store half in the deep freeze..

Day six: macaroni cheese.

Ah, food, glorious food.  As someone once said, “The only thing I like better than talking about food is eating it.”

Food for Thought

 Over three hundred years ago a prisoner in the Tower of London carved on the wall of his cell during his long imprisonment: ‘It is not adversity that kills, but the impatience with which we bear adversity.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under cookery/recipes, life/style, sustainability, Uncategorized, world war two

Dynasties, duties and decisions

liz
The Queen on her way to open her first Parliament  in 1952
When I worked on a magazine, in an idle moment I picked up a tome lying around. It was a biography of Queen Mary, this Queen’s grandmother, and written by James Pope Hennessy, who the Royal family considered a ‘safe pair of hands.’ So he had access to all the Windsor archives. (sadly, being a safe pair of hands wasn’t enough to stop him being murdered by his gay lover a few years later)

The book became an obsession, filled with trivial delicious gossip and detail as well as history, and ending with flimsy folded pages of yard long pull-out family trees of all the British and European monarchies, their marriages and inter-marriages, offspring, ancestors… and genealogy became another hobby.

A friend gave me my own copy of the book, and I followed it up with the acquisition of biographies of everyone else, from Queen Victoria and her numerous offspring, who became Queens, Grand Duchesses and Empresses of duchies, kingdoms and empires all over Europe. I gobbled up the histories of her successors, the Edwards, the George’s, Alexandra, Elizabeth’s, and so on.

I devoured Victoria’s letters to her daughter, the Princess Royal who became Empress of Germany, who with her tragic husband  battled Bismarck  and then Bismarck’s pupil, her son, the notorious Kaiser Wilhelm; Victoria’s letters to her second daughter Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse-Darmstadt, and the disaster of both haemophilia and diphtheria which claimed her family. And Alice’s six-year-old son saying why can’t we all go together, as another sibling died. And the eerie events that followed, when his sister Tsarina Alexandra and all her family died together in the cellar at Ekaterinburg, and he, by now, Grand Duke, dying in an air crash with all his family, wife, children, mother in law, on their way to a wedding in England, and finally Mountbatten, Alice’s grandson, dying with members of his family and others in the IRA atrocity in Ireland.

I learned about Edward the Seventh’s  affairs, including his longest and deepest commitment to Mrs Keppel, the present Duchess of Cornwall’s great grandmother, the anorexia and vanity of ravishingly beautiful Empress Elizabeth of Austria who used to wear damp skin-tight leather riding habits to accentuate her figure, and was assassinated by an anarchist as she walked to a  ferry in Geneva; poor George who became King when his brother abdicated, in agony for much of his childhood from splints to correct knock knees, and the physical strictures he suffered from having to stop being left handed – no wonder he stammered as an adult.

I absorbed Sir Charles Petrie’s acute psychological analysis of the ruling house of Britain when he described the brutal Cumberland streak,  a reference to Queen Victoria’s sadistic uncle; the conscientious Coburg inheritance, from noble Prince Albert, whose last action as he was dying of typhoid was to avert war between the US and Britain in 1861, a war which could have changed the course of history; and the artistic, self-indulgent, party-loving, charming Hanoverian streak inherited from the Prince Regent who was known as Prince Charming back in the 1840’s, and personified more recently by Princess Margaret. These personality types are still obvious to this day in each generation of the Royals.

So when a publisher commissioned me to write a book on the Royal’s relationship with NZ, I had already primed the pump, as it were. One of the fascinating aspects of following such a well -documented family is to see how heredity plays its part in each generation – including William’s conscientious Coburg nature, like his grandmother the Queen’s, to Harry’s red Spencer hair, a legacy of Sarah, first Duchess of Marlborough three hundred years ago. She had a mane of glorious red hair which in one of her famous rages, she chopped off to spite her devoted husband, John. After this great Duke of Marlborough died, she found a box with her hair in it, lovingly preserved by her husband. That red hair has descended through every generation of the Spencer – Churchill family including to Winston Churchill and Princess Diana’s brothers and sisters.

So when Prince Harry married his American bride with her exotic heritage, like everyone else I was fascinated and intrigued for all the many reasons commenters and pundits have expounded. And fascinated too, by the enthusiasm with which the British people took the newcomer to their hearts – great crowds wherever the couple went, huge mobs of thrilled and enthusiastic spectators at their lavish wedding and the excitement when a new baby was announced ( though somewhat mixed, since the announcement seemed timed to overshadow the Queen’s grand daughter’s wedding)

Since then as everyone knows, the fairy story has dissolved in the light of common day, diverse personalities and controversial decisions. As the opposing sides have argued, Royal Family fans versus the Sussex’s, I’ve been saddened by the distortions of truth, which have ended up tarnishing the Queen and Catherine, William’s blameless wife.

For example, the defenders of Meghan’s decision not to bring Archie, the Queen’s great grandson, to see his family, argued that the Queen left her two eldest toddlers for six months. She did. But she left them with their doting grandmother, the Queen Mother, and their aunt Princess Margaret.

She had no choice. When she took up the tour of the Commonwealth to thank each country for their support during WW2, which George VI had been unable to do because of ill health, it was aborted in Kenya on the death of her father. The following year she tried again and during my research for the book I’d been commissioned to write, I found they stayed nearly every night at a different town and new hotel all over the world.

Even when they wearily got to their destination each night in this country, choirs came and serenaded them outside, every evening, so they had to go out and thank them before collapsing inside. No point in dragging their toddlers from one strange place to another every day. By contrast, when Charles and Diana brought William, he learned to crawl on the lawn of Government House in Auckland where they were able to make their base.

Others pointed to Catherine leaving her children for a week’s second honeymoon, but again they were with their doting grand- parents, not just a friend of their mother’s. Which is one of the odd things about Arche’s situation, that his grandmother, his only other family member, doesn’t do what most devoted grand-parents do, and take the opportunity to be with him when his parents aren’t. Though Meghan says she’s done the right thing as she wants her son to grow up in a loving fun-filled environment, he’s actually been wrenched away from his wider family, with a clutch of happy fun-filled young cousins, family summer holidays at Balmoral and Christmases at Sandringham.

The worst thing of all, to me, is the way both the Royal Family and the UK have been vilified in order to justify what many people feel is a dereliction of duty. To call the family ‘toxic’, and the country ‘racist’ is not just untrue but deeply hurtful to everyone involved. To those who call England racist I can only point to the front bench of the present government. The three great offices of state in Britain are the First Lord of the Treasury, the Prime Minister’s formal title, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Home Secretary. The last two offices are held at this moment by the sons and daughters of Pakistani and Ugandan immigrants. The Lord Mayor of London is the son of Muslim Pakistani immigrants. Similarly, the Labour party is well stocked with WOC and even Men of Colour both from the West Indies and other parts of the world!

Sadly these accusations are repeated by some vocal and disaffected men and women of colour and others, both in England, and on American television and in their media, blackening England’s name and reputation as a kind and tolerant society, which it always has been, which is why so many refugees have made their way to it over the centuries.

It was in England that Lord Chief Justice Lord Mansfield, made the first great declaration on freedom and slavery, when he decreed in 1772 that the slave Somersett, who had escaped his American master, should be free, and that any slave who set foot on English soil automatically became free. Slavery, he said, was odious and had no basis in English common law. It was finally abolished in 1834 throughout the much-maligned British Empire, and the Royal Navy patrolled the seas for sixty years with a special anti-slavery squadron to stamp out slave trafficking by other nations. It cost some thousands of sailor’s lives, as well as money.

George Orwell wrote in 1940 that ‘England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box.‘

Sadly the huge rent in the fabric of the Royal family with the defection of two senior members, is being reflected in the country as a whole; in a split between the voices of common sense and tradition, and the voices of woke, liberal elites – the ones George Orwell was describing eighty years ago. The voices of common sense and tradition were those which rejected ‘isms and ideologies of the ‘woke’ factions in the recent election.

And these decent hardworking people are for the most part, patriotic – anathema to liberal elites. Yet as Orwell explained: ‘By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power.’

The people who cheered on Meghan and Harry at their wedding, were patriots, and they welcomed the introduction of a lively new foreign addition to their ranks. Yet now those same decent people of England with their proud history of tolerance, and of opposition  to racism/slavery when it was still accepted elsewhere, are having to live with the label of racism pinned on them by their own much-loved Prince Harry and his wife of less than two years.

And the Royal family who welcomed that wife are having to live with the label she gave them of being ‘toxic.’ As usual they are carrying on, keeping on, doing their duty to their dynasty and to their country. The monarch has the daily three-hour long perusal and signing of Parliamentary business, and constant reception of overseas diplomats and potentates, as well as the obvious tasks – like opening a sewerage plant in Norfolk, (as the 93- year- old Queen did a few weeks ago).

She and other family members carry on with the cutting of ribbons in Wolverhampton, planting trees in Abergavenny, visiting hospitals in Scunthorpe, meeting ambassadors, conferring with charities who need their support, visiting the regiments of the armed forces, pinning medals on veterans, marking anniversaries and state occasions, shaking hands, making small talk, oiling diplomatic relations between countries and peoples, bringing a sense of caring and continuity to society, swotting up  the details of the people they’re meeting and the places they’re visiting, doing the boring unglamorous aspects of being in service, and living their motto: never complain, never explain. It’s served them well for nearly a thousand years. They also know that privilege entails responsibility. It’s called noblesse oblige.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I needed a cake, but didn’t have the time to nurture a long bake in the oven, so I experimented with this cake that only takes 20 minutes to cook. It was a great success, but tasted even better the next day. It’s all mixed in a saucepan in which 250 gms of butter, one cup of sugar, 2 tablsp of cocoa and one tablesp of golden syrup are melted. Don’t let it boil. When cool, add 2 cups SR flour, one cup of almond meal, a teasp of vanilla essence and a pinch of salt. Mix it all together. No eggs.

Grease and line a cake tin, and bake for 20 minutes only, so it’s a little fudgy. When cool ice with chocolate icing… icing sugar, butter, cocoa and a little milk beaten till smooth. Next time I make it I might experiment with brown sugar …

Food for Thought

Folksinger Pete Seeger has been called America’s tuning fork. He said: ‘I feel most spiritual when I’m out in the woods. I feel part of nature. Or looking up at the stars. I used to say I was an atheist… According to my definition of God, I’m not an atheist. Because I think God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God. Whenever I’m listening to something I’m listening to God… And maybe I am… I think God is literally everything, because I don’t believe that something can come out of nothing. And so there’s always been something. Always is a long time.’

 

 

 

 

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Filed under consciousness, cookery/recipes, life/style, Queen Elizabeth, Royals, slavery, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized

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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Filed under family, life/style, Queen Elizabeth, Royals, shakespeare, Uncategorized

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

dresser.jpg

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

 Moawhango memorial chapel

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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