Category Archives: perfume

The necessity of beauty

Image result for images of gardeniasImage result for gardenias

 

Pamela was my lodger. She was living in the third bedroom in my flat for the same reasons that Mr Micawber pronounced the immortal words:” Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.”

I’d tried to fill the gap between my meagre salary (women were paid far less than men in the Hongkong I lived in ) and my expenditure, by doing TV quiz shows,  radio programmes, using the children as photographic models and even doing PR for the Anglican church until I could stand being hypocritical no longer. So Pamela was my next attempt at solvency. While she lived with me my life was filled with her dramas, love affairs, crises and disasters.

She arrived with one fiancée, dressed demurely in twinset and pearls, tweed skirt and silk head – scarf. Soon she found a more exciting prospect, and changed her style  to newly fashionable jeans, her hair swung up into dashing styles and lots of makeup. The new fiancée lent her his new VW while he went back to England to sort out his divorce, and hereby hangs the tale. Pamela rolled the car her first night in possession of it, and I was awakened in the middle of the night by a Chinese policeman who couldn’t speak English.

I pieced together that Pamela had had an accident, and was in a Chinese hospital since she had no insurance to cover her for a European one.  The next morning the children, four and five years old, and I, packed up a few things for Pamela and made an expedition to the enormous  building which housed some thousands of sick and penniless Chinese.

We found our way through a maze of corridors to Pamela’s ward, and by the time I reached her bed I was deeply shocked. The ward held eighty women. They were all dressed in faded brown cotton shifts including Pamela. The noise was horrendous. Cantonese is the noisiest language on earth. To hear our amah chatting to another outside the kitchen was deafening. To hear seventy- nine women chatting in a confined space was probably higher than the safe decibel level.

Pamela was bruised and shocked but not injured. After doing our duty, and promising to return that afternoon with more things she wanted, the children and I went home, leaving her with a little bunch of gardenias I’d picked. Only six blossoms because that was all that were flowering.

When we returned in the afternoon, something had changed. There was a hush in the ward and a sense of peace, and all eyes were on the gwailo (long- nose) and her children. Being watched was something one accepted as part of life then, but this felt different. And the hush was a sort of reverence. Pamela whispered to me what had happened after I left.

When we walked out of the ward, the women came crowding round her to see the flowers and smell the fragrance. They were ecstatic at this exquisite beauty in their harsh unfriendly environment. Deprived as the women were, of all colour and texture and smell and beauty, the flowers brought something like heaven into their lives.

They didn’t speak English, and Pamela didn’t speak Cantonese, but with the aid of the ward sister’s few words of English, they worked out a roster for the flowers. Each woman would have one gardenia by her bed-side in a glass for three hours in every twenty-four. Pamela had one all the time, and the sixth flower which had fallen off its stem, the ward sisters had in their office, floating in a saucer.

Back at the office the next day I rang the dean of the cathedral and several hotels and they agreed to send their flowers to the hospital whenever they changed them. I wonder if they still do.

The great Catholic thinker Monsignor Hildebrand wrote that: ‘the poor need not only bread. The poor also need beauty’. But it’s not just the poor. We all need beauty.

It’s strange to me that Abraham Maslow in his hierarchy of vital needs didn’t include beauty. Sometimes beauty is the the only thing that keeps us going. As Resistance fighter Odette Churchill was being locked back in her cell after a bout of torture by the Gestapo, she snatched up the skeleton of a leaf being blown in the door with her. The beauty of that leaf sustained her and gave her hope and courage and a belief in goodness that carried her through her dreadful ordeal.

Quaker writer, Caroline Graveson wrote that: ‘There is a daily round for beauty as well as for goodness, a world of flowers and books and cinemas and clothes and manners as well as mountains and masterpieces.’ She talked of beauty: ‘not only in the natural beauty of the earth and sky, but in all fitness of language and rhythm, whether it describe a heavenly vision or a street fight, a Hamlet or a Falstaff, a philosophy or a joke: in all fitness of line and colour and shade, whether seen in the Sistine Madonna or a child’s knitted frock…’

The sad thing is that those deprived Chinese women in that joyless hospital ward, came from a culture, which before the blight of industrialisation and the tyranny of plastic, was incapable of producing anything that wasn’t beautiful – from their baskets to their bowls, to their porcelain and their poetry.  And there was something very beautiful about buying a kati of vegetables in the markets and watching them being skilfully wrapped in a beautifully folded sheet of re-cycled Chinese newspaper, or a large leaf, and tied with a knotted reed.

Perhaps their own sage should have the last word, Confucius said that everything is beautiful, to those who can see it….

I published this post nearly four years ago … it’s one of my favourites and many readers will have forgotten it, or never seen it….

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I needed a quick pudding for unexpected guests, so I took out of the deep freeze a couple of brioche I’d stored for such an occasion. Once thawed, I gently fried them in butter, then made a sauce with rum and brown sugar, and poured it over the brioche. I served  them hot with whipped cream, and though not rum babas, they  tasted almost as good.

Food for Thought

People travel to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars; and they pass by themselves without wondering.       St Augustine  199 AD

 

Advertisements

34 Comments

Filed under beauty, colonial life, consciousness, cookery/recipes, culture, flowers, happiness, perfume, spiritual, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, uncategorised, Uncategorized

Heaven’s scent

100_0542

The first time I smelt it was at sea. One of my dearest friends had drowned there a few days before with her baby and two small children. Her husband’s ship, trading between New Zealand and the Islands, had caught fire in a heavy storm just off the coast not far from here, and they had had to take to the life-boats. Their mayday signal was never picked up, and the life-rafts, which are reputed to be safer near the coast, had broken away. So my friend and her children didn’t survive the mountainous waves.

Her heroic and tragic story before this happened, is too long to tell here, but her partner, a French sea captain, did survive. He came to stay with us for the next few days until the body of one child was washed ashore.

We all trekked up to Northland, and after the heart-wrenching funeral, Jean asked us to take all the flowers to a nearby bay. There, a police launch was waiting, and with a few close friends we loaded the flowers into the cabin – then thankfully shut the door on the overpowering scent of freesias, jasmine and other spring flowers, and took off for the bay where my beautiful friend had died.

When we reached the spot where she had slipped from his grasp, Jean stopped the launch, and then, in an old Breton custom, went to toss the flowers into the sea. As the launch stopped, the sun was shining, the blue sea was calm, and the line of golden sand on the shore, still guarded by a watching policeman, lay ahead. Only another mile from here, but a mile too far for my friend.  We sat silently and breathed in the heavenly fragrance wafting around us. Exquisite. Then the door to the cabin was opened and the scent of the flowers inside was entirely different.

When we talked about this to a friend, he told us about the writer Rosamund Lehman, whose daughter had died suddenly – of polio, I think – in Indonesia. A heavenly fragrance permeated the hall outside Rosamund’s flat. People didn’t believe it until they went to visit her, and then were overwhelmed by the perfume.

A few years later, we began to experience the same wafts of flowery perfume in our sitting room. I searched for the source, but it came from none of the flowers in the room. The scent cut through the smell of the coal fire, and every other momentary odour. In the end, we gave up, and just accepted, as a friend said, that we had angels there. After a week of this, one of our cavalier King Charles spaniels was diagnosed with an untreatable disease. We gave ourselves five agonising last days with him, and then took him to the vet for the last time.

When I got back home my nine year old daughter was waiting on the veranda, home with flu. She couldn’t wait to tell me. “The flowers came from that patch on the floor where Sheba used to lie to get cool,” she cried. (Sheba was an afghan who’d died the previous year) “She was warning us about Benedick.”

When we went inside, the fragrance had gone, but later, as I sat by the fire crocheting and wiping stray tears, I suddenly smelt a strong scent of lavender. Knowing well that I hadn’t got any, I still searched my knitting basket for a bottle of lavender. I called through to my daughter in bed – ‘have you spilt some lavender water?’

Then we realised that my son had picked a bunch of lavender and camellias to go with Benedick on his last journey… the scent was a last message from his little dog.

Since then we’ve heard of other instances of these heavenly perfumes. In her beautiful account of a year living in the Blue Mountains, Australian poet Kate Llewellyn, describes sitting next to two nuns on a train, and their gentle simple conversation with her. After they had left, she felt that she could smell violets… “the odour of sanctity,” she called it.

The Catholic Church calls it the ‘odor of sanctity’, but always associates it with the bodies of saints who have died. But these heavenly scents are like a gift sent from who knows where, and have nothing to do with sanctity. Rather, they are like gifts from a benevolent and loving source who for some reason allows these emanations of beauty to visit and to comfort. No-one has to be holy or to deserve them, they are simply a manifestation of another order of beauty and wholeness that we may be conscious of, but can never see or grasp.

They are the moments that we can hold onto in a world where man can create so much pain and misery. Beyond this world created by man is this other level of love. And how exquisite that it’s the fragrance of flowers that delivers this message of hope – that the world doesn’t have to be the way we make it – that there are other worlds of truth and beauty and peace that these fragrances remind us exist.

Rabindranath Tagore talked of the air filling with the perfume of promise… sometimes I wonder if that is what these flowery messages are – both a consolation and a promise.

Food for threadbare gourmets

With a family of gluten free addicts, I’m always looking for recipes without wheat. This is a lovely chocolatey treat. I melt 125 g of butter and 150 of dark cooking chocolate gently in a large saucepan. Stir in half a cup of sugar and a teasp of vanilla. Next, stir in three egg yolks and a cup of ground almonds. Beat the egg whites until peaks form and then beat in two tablsp of sugar.  Using a slotted spoon, gently fold the whites into the chocolate mixture. Line a 20 cm cake tin with a base of cooking paper, and bake at 180 degrees for 25 minutes. The cake will come out soft, and will sink and firm when cool. It’s very rich, so a sprinkling of icing sugar on top is all it needs.

Food for thought

In a rich moonlit garden, flowers open beneath the eyes of entire nations terrified to acknowledge the simplicity of the beauty of peace…

Aberjhani, American historian, novelist, poet and blogger

45 Comments

Filed under animals/pets, cookery/recipes, flowers, great days, life and death, love, peace, perfume, philosophy, poetry, spiritual, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized

A rose is a rose is a hose !

100_0532

This was supposed to be a picture of a rose. When I developed it, it turned out to be a picture of a hose. I was shocked. How could I have been so one-eyed, and not seen what was shouting at me in a loud turquoise voice? I only see what I want to see, and eliminate even the obvious, it seems.

So when I went for my walk in the summer evening, I reminded myself to actually look, and not to assume or to expect. I wanted to see what was there, not what I thought was there. Down near the harbour where I usually turn around I always end up by a bougainvillaea sprawling through the trees, and just out its reach, a queen of the night holding her own. Braving bougainvillaea prickles, I can just reach the greenery-yallery sprigs of tiny flowerheads.

Two nights ago I broke one off and carried it back with me, sniffing the glorious fragrance, and ending up sitting on the warm marble bench in the cemetery at the other end of the peninsula, still smelling the sweet blossoms. I did what I’d never thought of doing before, and took it in and put it in a glass in the bed-room. The scent filled the whole room, and whenever I turned over in my sleep, the scent was drifting past.

The next day the tiny pale green flowers closed up, and the sprig sat nondescriptly on the window- sill all day, before bursting into glorious scent in the evening again. So now I plan to keep a permanent supply of these modest blossoms that don’t look big enough to be able to scent a whole room… The scent lasts for three nights I’ve discovered.

Walking back tonight with a fresh sprig of blossom, I passed a big shrub on the road where it dips and there’s a muddy spring.  Before now I’ve smelt its fragrance, but not given it a passing glance. Its reputation as a deadly poison and hallucinogen had somehow got in the way of me actually seeing this innocent plant. Tonight I looked at it, and ended up gently holding one incredibly beautiful flower-head after another, each one slightly different, gazing at their two layers of frilly white petals, and seeing deep inside the long white tube, white stamens pushing their way up to the light. The pendulous buds are so yellow it’s a surprise that the flowers are so white

The slender pale green calyx was smooth and soft and somehow tender to touch and to hold, and ended where the green- veined white trumpet – shaped flower began. Its ugly official name is brugmansia, but its folk name is angels trumpets. Angels trumpets spread their scent so far that long before I get there I can smell them.

Enchanted now with the idea of white scented flowers, I noticed the exquisite waxy looking candle-shaped buds of the king magnolia further down the road, the dark shiny leaves supporting each smooth creamy bud like a candlestick. Only one flower had opened, but it was enough. The scent of just one flower wafted past me.

I walked down the long drive to some friends’ house, knowing they were not there, but that they wouldn’t mind me visiting the frangipani plant flourishing by their veranda. The scent of frangipani takes me back to Singapore when it was still an eastern city and I was a girl, where all the alleys were hung with long bamboo poles suspended from every window on each floor, drying thin cotton tropical clothes in the brilliant un-ending sunshine.

We were staying in a hotel just around the corner from the famous Raffles Hotel, and the entrance was flanked with rows of frangipani trees.  Their fragrance followed us into the hotel courtyard and drifted in through the big open bedroom windows where we slept with no air conditioners, but beneath draped mosquito nets.

And when the velvet tropical night had fallen promptly at six thirty, every night in the darkness I would look down from the bedroom and see small groups of people squatting on the pavement in a circle. They would have tiny flickering lights and little spirit stoves in their midst to cook their dinner, delicious smells rising tantalisingly through the frangipanis, and I would hear their soft chatter and their laughter.

There were no blossoms on the frangipani growing here in New Zealand… wrong time of year perhaps. Back home, there was one white gardenia open.  I savoured the perfume before bringing it inside and putting it in a shallow bowl, floating on the water. So though no angels trumpets, I have queen of the night, gardenia and creamy honeysuckle from the porch scenting the house – even the names are poetry.

I don’t know whether I did what I intended when I began my walk, or whether I saw what was really there, but just by looking – truly looking at the beautiful angels trumpets – unnoticed before –  the walk turned into something else – a successful quest for white scented flowers. And like all successful quests, that was good enough.

And I wonder if this is how life is… we set off in one direction and find that imperceptibly we’ve drifted down other unsuspected paths; and looking back, we see that it was the perfect journey, and our travelling had a purpose, and was not random at all.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Friends for dinner before they left after the summer holiday to go back to the city. On a summer evening cold food seemed appropriate. So we had chicken with curry mayonnaise on rice salad. The cooked chicken chopped and mixed into a bowl of good bought mayonnaise, with about a big tablesp of golden syrup and desert sopn of curry powder to taste… I taste until I like it. Stir through enough cream to make it a soft consistency to stick to the chicken.

Cold basmati rice is jollied up with a vinaigrette dressing with salt, plenty of freshly ground black pepper, mustard, and sugar. Add to the rice generous helpings both of peas and sultanas soaked in boiling water, lots of crunchy chopped almonds lightly toasted in a frying pan, and lots of chopped parsley. Nice with a salad and chilled pinot gris .

In deference to our French connections we now have the cheese course before the pudding! This was some of our plums cooked to Nigella’s lovely recipe in red wine, one star anise, two cloves, teasp of cinnamon and a bay leaf, plus honey to taste. We had them with a mix of plain yogurt, whipped cream and runny honey stirred gently together, and a little shortbread biscuit.

 

Food for thought

That mighty power that sways the tides and works the million miracles of spring is ranged forever on the side of love.

The writer: known only to God .  Seen on an embroidered sampler hanging over a bedroom fireplace in an English cottage

 

 

 

73 Comments

Filed under cookery/recipes, flowers, food, gardens, great days, happiness, life/style, love, perfume, spiritual, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized

A perfumed garden and an old gardener

100_0497The white wisteria wafts its scent across the veranda. I can smell it as I sit here writing with the French doors open. The pale purple blossoms of the melia tree, sometimes called the Persian lilac, are scenting the night air too, this tree being the nearest we can get to the real thing in this too temperate climate. Lilac is my favourite shrub, I keep meaning to order a root from afar – actually the South Island – and pile ice around it in winter to fool it into thinking it’s living in a cold climate. I miss not having any lilac.

The cabbage tree- not an attractive name – puts out long stems of blossom at this time of year covered with the sweetest smelling tiny flowers, which turn a creamy brown when dried, with black stems; like the melia tree the scent seems strongest in the evening. Sweet alyssum wafts its fragrance in sunshine, and best of all, my precious Reine de Violette rose in the pot by the front door is now blooming.

I’ve carried it in a big square terracotta pot from garden to garden, and its scent pervades the little courtyard by the door for the month that its deep pinky-purple tightly layered petalled heads bloom. So many petals – between 50 and 75 – according to the official description, and bred in France in 1860. Grown from a cutting given by a friend.  Later in the summer, the blue petunias in pots will send their sweet smell through the garden, also strongest at night. My summer garden would be incomplete if I didn’t have masses of foaming pale blue petunias in pots – Cambridge blue is their description. And in midsummer we’ll have the strong, night scent of queen of the night, and the datura tree growing in the wilderness part of the garden which spreads its pervasive sweetness when the sun is going down.

In a few weeks fragrant star jasmine will be blooming, it’s crawling up the walls below the veranda, sprawling over the arch with pink Albertine roses and ivy, and growing outside the bathroom window. And I’ve topiary-ed it so it billows out of two big blue pots the same blue as the petunias, just outside the French doors. The scent will drift everywhere… I’d love to have the exquisite perfume of sweet peas in the garden, but alas, I’ve never been able to grow them successfully.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve whittled down the elements I want in my garden, and top of the list is fragrance, closely followed by white flowers which show up in the dusk. So apart from my blue petunias and pink roses, there are always plenty of white lilies, white geraniums, Shasta daisies, fragrant syringa, white Japanese anemones, marguerites, self-seeded valerian, white agapanthus as well as blue, and my favourite white climbing rose Alberic Barbier. That isn’t to say that there aren’t blue hydrangeas shimmering under the trees, a glorious pale gold rose called Crepuscule clambering up a telegraph pole out on the road,( see above) or pink beauties like Jean Ducher which bloom palely all the year. And then there’s Mutatibilis rose which looks like a bush covered in deep pink butterflies about to take flight.

There are two other requirements for my garden – masses of green – so ivy everywhere, box plants and acanthus, and I also ask my long-suffering plants to be undemanding and easy-care, though I contract to water them through the droughts. It’s not a tidy or orderly garden, but an exuberant, prolific little plot, with wilful self-seeded plants welcomed wherever they choose to settle, and every chosen flower and shrub scrambling into its neighbours, cosying up, sharing their space, flaunting their freedom.

Rampant growers like honeysuckle and ivy are allowed to enjoy themselves, instead of wilting under the criticism of real gardeners who despise them for being so invasive. Wandering flaming red and orange nasturtiums have even turned themselves into climbers and threaded themselves through the climbing rose up to the roof, and entangled themselves in an orgy of colour among the pinks and blues of ageratum and lavatera down below in the garden. If it grows, it’s welcome… so though I’m not a discriminating gardener, I am a grateful one!

I learned about flowers from our appropriately named gardener called Mr Appleby.  I was nine, and we were living in a rambling Tudor house in Yorkshire while waiting to go to post-war Germany. It had been a monastery before Henry VIII’s Dissolution, and behind it stretched a high walled garden,  built of weathered rose-coloured bricks. On either side of the lawn were deep herbaceous beds, the fashion of those times, and indeed, since Edwardian times. At the end, sheltered by the high wall was the vegetable garden, and after we had been to see Bertram Mills circus and I had fallen in love with the trapeze artist, Lady Elizabeth, I tried to practise my rudimentary trapeze skills on top of this wall, unseen from the house.

The end of the lawn was dominated by a big pear tree, where we sat in striped deckchairs in its shade having afternoon tea, and where my step-grandfather would sit on summer evenings reading the Times while he smoked a cigar, it’s rich aroma  reaching my bedroom window as I peeped out.

I didn’t go to school while we lived there, and had lessons in the afternoon. In the morning it was my job to arrange the flowers in every room throughout the beautiful old house, and keep them freshly topped up and watered. It was bliss. I had carte blanche to pick flowers! Mr Appleby tended to guard his glorious peonies from me, but let me have enough to keep the vases looking quite ravishing. He taught me the names of his precious plants, and became a great buddy. From his big saggy pockets, he would drag out for me giant gooseberries from his garden, pinkish with long soft hairs all over them, his biggest strawberries, juicy, golden William’s pears, yellow-fleshed purple Victoria plums and red russet apples. I used to hide in the pear tree so as not to have to share these treats.

He told me the names of the tall, smoky blue delphiniums, rosy hollyhocks, pink foxgloves, serried ranks of pastel coloured lupins, and golden rod. They were massed at the back of the borders. Then there were the middling sized flowers, lavender, peonies, pink and white and deep red, dahlias, (I didn’t pick them, too many earwigs crawling around inside) purple irises, stocks and phlox and larkspurs, day lilies in deep maroon, snapdragons massed in mixed jewel colours, delicate grannies bonnets, scented sweet Williams; in the front of the borders were clusters of cat-mint, the soft, furry sage-coloured leaves and pink flowers of lambs lugs,(the country term for ears), yellow cotton lavender and clumps of pinks, the fluffy ones with a gorgeous pepperminty smell.

Then there was purple ajuga and harebell-blue campanula, and snow-in-summer nestling in crevices among the stone flags of the terrace. The names felt like poetry. And smothering the trellis which hid the dustbins outside the kitchen door were pink Dorothy Perkins roses.

Mr Appleby was a weather-beaten, wiry little Yorkshire-man, who wore battered old trousers and an unbuttoned jacket which in novels would be called rusty black, with a grubby white shirt with no collar – in those days you changed the collar, not the shirt, using collar studs, front and back. On his head he wore a flat cap, and he had bright, beady black eyes. He spoke with a broad Yorkshire accent that was hard to understand. Sometimes he took me on walks around the countryside where I learned the North country lingo of becks and scars and fells, which I later learned were the ancient Viking words for stream and cliff and moor. Once he showed me a tiny field mouse peeping out of its miniature nest which was a round grass ball, slung between the top of the stems of two cornstalks growing amidst a forest of other golden stalks, blue cornflowers and red poppies.

Those things I learned from Mr Appleby one summer nearly sixty five years ago have never been forgotten. Who knows what we ourselves unwittingly leave in the memory of the children we encounter? What words, what thoughts, unconscious sharing of experience, spontaneous gifts given without intent, moments that lingered down the years… what imperishable knowledge that helped to lighten ignorance and enlarge understanding, what fragments of fact that sparked a child’s consciousness ?  To be the person behind those memories  … that must be a very special sort of immortality.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

This is a filling meal I make for my husband when I can’t think of anything to give him! Dr de Pomiane, the French-Polish food writer adapted it from a French peasant dish, and this recipe is a much dollied up version of his solid peasant dish. Remove the skin and pips from a medium sized tomato (soaking the tomato in boiling water loosens the skin).

Toast two thick slices of sour dough bread on one side. Spread the untoasted sides with Dijon mustard, grate two ounces of cheese – Gruyere is recommended for purists – I usually use cheddar which is in the fridge – and pile the cheese mixed with the tomato on the mustard side of the bread.  Grill until the cheese goes golden, then lay a couple of rashers of streaky bacon on the cheese mixture. Grill until the bacon starts to brown, and serve with black pepper. (De Pomiane didn’t use bacon or tomato – instead when thick slices of cheese had been grilled, he put butter ON the melted cheese!)

 

Food for thought

“The characteristics of the English are largely unsensational, and since they do not readily fire the imagination they easily slip the memory, but they are nevertheless fundamental and formidable. A love of law and order and a respect for government by consent. A belief in honest administration. A dislike of hurting people and if a hurt be done a great effort to put it right. A tolerant people, offering a hand to victims of intolerance. Skill in devising ways of improving the lot of mankind but a dreadful inability to follow those ideas through. A sweet countryside, but appalling ways of cooking what that countryside produces.”

President Truman describing the English, on being honoured with an honorary degree at Oxford after his retirement.    Dreadfully honest, I suppose you could call this somewhat measured and restrained tribute !

 

 

 

54 Comments

Filed under british soldiers, cookery/recipes, culture, environment, food, great days, life/style, perfume, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized