Category Archives: philosophy

Earth’s greatest treasure

Lot18again
In this place, I look up to the stars at night and there is nothing apart from the clouds to hide them from my gaze… the Milky Way seems an infinite cloud of light, the Southern Cross pointing as it has guided centuries of sailors, Orion’s Belt clear and bright.

I watch the moon from a fingernail of light right through to the fullness of it, and the delicious phase we call a gibbous moon. I see the sun move across the horizon with the months and then at the farthest point of winter, see it begin its journey back to the sunlit mountain behind which it sets in summer. We are halfway across as I write this and the sun sets behind ‘our mountain’.

Though we live here and bought the acres of forest we technically own, we have no nonsense of ownership… we are simply the fortunate tenants of this beautiful podocarp forest, teeming with species of tree and plant life.

Here are hidden species of frogs and lizards and fungi, almost extinct in the rest of the world, rare butterflies are still seen here. Fungi in colours that are psychedelic, brilliant blue and purple and orange, green and red grow in the dense green canopy which shelters them from the brilliant New Zealand sun-shine.

Because it is spring, on distant vistas there are patches of white to be seen scrambling up to the tops of tall trees and the sun-light – the fragrant white clematis. It grows too, on some of the ancient trees surrounding our little home in the woods. The birds we feed are gathering as spring advances, and we hear the sound of the tuis bell-like call, the heavy flapping of the wood pigeon’s wings as they circle  our valley, the harsh call of the quails who visit us to enjoy the bird seed we dispense, and the soft hooting of the moreporks – the New Zealand owl – connecting with each other across the dark forest through the night. We watch the kingfisher perching on the branch where the moreporks also sit, and see him dive like lightning into the grass to grab a morsel of food – be it grasshopper or beetle.

Those tend to be the only sounds we hear, just occasionally the drone of a distant aircraft and the rushing water of our stream after heavy rain. We feel the wind on our faces, and hear it in the trees, we savour the soft spring rain filling our water tank, and keeping the forest moist and green.  We feel the springy ground beneath our feet, centuries of humus which have accumulated undisturbed.

We feel the mysterious life around us, knowing that beneath the surface the trees are connected and communicate with each other through their root systems; that the abundant life of bees and beetles, moths and grasshoppers, birds and tiny ancient species of reptile are part of a vital chain of life which has existed millennia before homo sapiens conquered the planet. We sit in the sun, and feel the warmth on our faces, and hold smooth sun-warmed stones, and feel a connectedness with the earth and with the natural life that many people who live amid concrete, steel and glass cities, can lose.

Technology has tamed the cold and the heat with air conditioning and central heating; we have tamed the seasons, with imported food bringing us fruit and vegetables from all over the globe, regardless of whether it’s summer or autumn or winter. We may even have become unconscious of the rhythm of our own bodies, of the way we once responded to the passing of the seasons and of the years, as our culture devotes itself to prolonging youthful bodies and a belief that we can conquer the ravages of age and the vagaries of climate – until a hurricane or earthquake shatter some of these illusions.

It seems to me that when we lose this sense of connection with the life which throbs around us, with the rhythms of the sun and the moon and the movements of the starry sky, and the dance of joy in a greater whole, we may lose something very precious… and that in the end, we may in Cardinal Newman’s words: ‘choke up all the avenues of the soul through which the light and breath of heaven may come to us.’

We know that we do not own these acres that we live on and look out across. We call it our mountain but we know that that is just our figure of speech. We are simply the present guardians of this patch of our precious planet. We’ve signed a covenant that we will not disturb the forest, cut down any trees, or despoil any part of it. We cherish its silent solitude, and share the seasons with it. Does this place know or feel how sacred, cherished and unpolluted it is, I wonder?

Robert Macfarlane writes in his wonderful book ‘The Wild Places’, that even on the beaches of the Isle of Skye in the remote north of Scotland, the beaches were littered with: “milk bottle crates, pitted cubical chunks of furniture foam cigarette butts, bottle caps, aerosol canisters…”

Here in this empty place we have escaped that blight of the so- called civilised world. Even the beaches on this remote peninsula are unsullied and unspoiled. We are the fortunate ones, I know, and my heart aches at the knowledge of the poisoned polluted oceans devoid of the teeming fish and life Thor Heyerdahl wrote of during the Kon Tiki Expedition, seventy years ago this year.

John Aspinall was a successful gambler, who, while stripping rich men of their money in London during the sixties and seventies, used his ill-gotten gains to establish two zoos, which are now famous for being animal refuges where he successfully bred species and returned them to the wild, a policy his son Damian is still pursuing (you can follow his work on Youtube)

Before he died, John Aspinall wrote his creed: “I believe in Jus Animalium, the Rights of Beasts, and Jus Herbarum, the Rights of Plants. The right to exist as they have always existed, to live and let live. I believe in the Buddhist concept of Ahimsa – justice for all animate things. I believe in the greatest happiness for the greatest number of species of fauna and flora that the Earth can sustain without resultant deterioration of habitat and depletion of natural resources.

“I believe in the sanctity of the life systems, not in the sanctity of human life alone. The concept of sanctity of human life is the most damaging sophism that philosophy has ever propagated – it has rooted well. Its corollary – a belief in the insanctity of species other than man – is the cause of that damage. The destruction of this idea is a prerequisite for survival.

“I believe that wilderness is Earth’s greatest treasure. Wilderness is the bank on which all cheques are drawn. I believe our debt to nature is total, our willingness to pay anything back on account, barely discernible. I believe that unless we recognise this debt and renegotiate it, we write our own epitaph.

“I believe that there is an outside chance to save the earth and most of its tenants. This outside chance must be grasped with gambler’s hands.

“I believe that terrible risks must be taken and terrible passions aroused before these ends can hope to be accomplished. If a system is facing extreme pressures, only extreme counter-pressures are relevant, let alone likely to prove effective.

“I believe that all who subscribe to these testaments must act now; stand up and be counted. What friends Nature has, Nature needs.”

In the twenty-first century, in the face of overpopulation, pollution and climate change, his words remind us of the urgency of the task. It still isn’t too late to stand up and be counted. And I feel that Lao Tzu’s words written two and a half thousand years ago, can still point the way for us all:

If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.

If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.

If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbours.

If there is to be peace between neighbours,
There must be peace in the home.

If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.

The picture is our house in the forest

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

The cupboard was bare so imagination was needed. Pasta did the trick…  with a couple of rashers of bacon chopped and fried with sliced mushrooms while the pasta was cooking. I added cream to the bacon mix, boiled it up to thicken it, added a grated courgette, chopped parsley, a small dollop of mustard, and a sprinkling of nutmeg, salt and pepper. This mixture was poured over the cooked pasta, and then sprinkled with grated parmesan. It went down well !

 

 

 

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There are more things in heaven and earth…

Image result for wisteria

We had moved to a little house up a valley, where we overlooked the glittering Firth up which Captain James Cook had sailed as he explored the new land he’d discovered, and where we also looked back and up into the misty mountains where clouds formed and dissolved in hot sunshine. A tumbling stream hurtled through the valley below the house, and the sound of the rushing water mingled with the sweet song of tuis and bellbirds, and later, a thrush warbling to the clear blue evening.

The house had a rambling garden, with beehives in one corner, and lemon, orange and grapefruit trees in the other; and everywhere flowers and shrubs… camellias and azaleas, and one glorious purple wisteria which had spread into the trees around the garden and which engulfed us in fragrant scent and a purple curtain in spring.

My husband worked in the city and came home at weekends, which I loved as it gave me time to write as much as I wanted, eat when I remembered, and dream and wander the valley with the little dogs. Then I became conscious that we had a ghost in the house.

In fact, I heard it every night, but just pushed the knowledge into the back of my mind. After several weeks, I suddenly realised that I’d been hearing these sounds every night after I’d gone to bed, and it was always the same – someone walking across the sitting room which was the original part of the house.

We knew the house had been built for an old lady called Amy, who lived alone in this valley then, though Ben and Flo, the Maori couple living at the gate to the private road up the valley remembered her. She had planted the camellias and apple trees and wisteria which made the garden so appealing, but finally, her health and her mind gave out. Her son took her away, and she died some time later in a mental home.

I knew the ghost would have to be Amy, who hadn’t wanted to leave, and still didn’t. I waited till the next night, and then as soon as I heard the footsteps, I sat up in bed, and called through to Amy. ” Amy, you’re alright now, you know. You feel better now, but there are all the people you love waiting for you. They’re all waiting for you in your new home.

“You could stay here, but they’d miss you, and you’d miss them. They’re waiting for you in your wonderful new home. So go to the light now, Amy, go towards the light, and you’ll find your loved ones and your new home. May you be happy in your new home Amy, may you be happy with all your loved ones. Turn to the light, and walk to the light and the love.” And then I settled down for the night and went to sleep. As I suspected, we never heard another sound.

Some people see ghosts, some people sense them, in this case I heard the unmistakable sounds of a person/ghost. But I don’t have that sixth sense that some do.

A few years later, having moved back to the city to be near our new grandchildren, I popped into my daughter’s house, to slip a tiny chocolate bar on each child’s pillow for them to find when they went to bed. (bad for their teeth I know, but good for their souls). The youngest was still at home at two and a half, with his nanny. She was quite upset when I walked in.

The playroom was upstairs at the other end of the big house and my little grandson loved playing up there. His nanny told me he’d just been down and told her he’d been playing with the black man again, and she’d rushed upstairs thinking she’d left the front door open, and an intruder had slipped in. My grandson followed her. There was no-one in the room, and she heaved a sigh of relief. And then was transfixed.

My grandson, pointed to a corner, and said, “there he is”. He picked up a book and walked over to the corner, and held the book open, showing the invisible figure the pages, and talking to him.

“What’s he like?” gasped his nanny. My grandson described a tall dark- skinned man, with patterns (tattoos) on his face, and said he was wearing a grass skirt. Persuading the little boy to come downstairs and have a snack, they left the room, and this was when I arrived. We agreed we had always felt some sort of presence up there.

I told her it was okay, and went upstairs. I walked up to the corner, and spoke to the invisible energy as I had talked to Amy, tailoring my words to a Maori warrior. When I felt complete, I went back downstairs, and the nanny and I agreed we wouldn’t discuss it with anyone else, and unsettle them. And that was the end of the story. Occasionally I’ve felt the presence of dead Maori warriors – several around our house by the sea, which was a perfect look-out point for warring tribes. I always say the same thing, and I always have a sense of peace when I’ve finished… imagination? Who knows.

What matters to me is that if there are puzzled, anxious trapped energies, they should be released. There are so many instances of haunted battle fields all over the world, that we can’t all be deluded. My father used to worry about soldiers killed with no time to prepare, fearing they would be stuck in the moment of death, unable to move on.

When I lived in Malaya, there was a notorious field in Ipoh, where apparently British soldiers had been chained and starved and tortured by the Japanese. Malayans who lived nearby, claimed they could hear voices praying in a foreign language, reciting poetry, singing … later the sounds were identified as being the Lord’s Prayer, Shakespeare, and hymns. Hauntings were quite a common phenomenon when I lived in Malaya… unquiet spirits, stuck in time it so often seemed.

It always bothers me every time I hear the report of teenage Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife, who was suspected of having affairs, and inevitably would be sentenced by her psychopathic husband to be beheaded, running along a corridor at Hampton Court shrieking in terror when she was arrested. She wrongly thought the King was in the Chapel, and wanted to beg for mercy.  Her ghost is said to still be seen or heard in this corridor, shrieking in terror. Why don’t those who do rescue work, or Deliverance as I’m told the phrase is, go and rescue her, I wonder?

Shakespeare was right when he wrote in Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy“. I haven’t used the word para-normal talking of these things, because who knows what is normal in our mysterious world? When we are open to possibilities, different layers of time, shadowy levels of existence, and other planes of being, we can admit that there really are more things in heaven and earth than most of us can even dream of.

Food for threadbare gourmets

Short cuts. As a lazy cook I’ve evolved a number of ways of producing food with as little effort as possible. Some people might find these short cuts useful.

  1. I love hot scones with strawberry jam, apple and other fruit crumbles, mince tarts, made from my own pastry. But what always puts me off, is the labour of crumbling the butter, and making breadcrumbs of the flour and butter, and getting the stuff under my nails. Hey presto – bring the butter out of the fridge – and grate it on a grater. It then mixes perfectly well with the flour and other ingredients without having to do any more…
  2. Chopping parsley with it jumping away from the knife bores me. I used to use Mrs Beeton’s tip – plunging the stalks into boiling water for a minute, and then chopping them. This turns the parsley a brilliant emerald green and looks spectacular. Nowadays I go for an easier way, I simply put a bunch of parsley in the deep freeze, and bring out whatever I need, still frozen. I crumble it with my fingers, as it breaks easily, and then end up chopping it finely – quick and easy.
  3. Now that I’ve mastered – or am mastering – using a micro-wave, I’m evolving short cuts here. Instead of frying onions for ages until soft, I simply put them in the micro-wave dotted with butter and covered, for four or five minutes… easy… and instead of laboriously re-heating minced beef in the oven for shepherd’s pie – in the micro-wave it goes, and then I spread the hot mashed potato on the hot minced beef, and brown it under the grill for a few mins.

Food for thought

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

He also said :

There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.

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The meaning of the world?

Image result for van gogh

I’ve been having some time out with leisure to read and re-read some of my old favourites. A sentence from one of my favourite thinkers, Ken Wilbur, jumped out at me on a day when I was trying to avoid knowing what news of disaster, human misery and insensitive ineptitude were filling the airwaves and media.  Ken Wilbur wrote that: “Every single thing you perceive is the radiance of Spirit itself, so much so that Spirit is not seen apart from that thing: the robin sings, and just that is it, nothing else…”

And yet when I wrestle with the harsh prospect around the world, terrorism in the name of ‘God/Allah’, threats of war, lack of love, and try to accept that this is Spirit, that everything is perfect, I also see that man has created so many seeming imperfections that these beautiful words are hard to swallow. Violence has spread from strife between people and nations to the destruction of our planet and robins singing are harder and harder to find.

This violence and lack of reverence for all forms of life has meant tampering with our world’s ecology; from re-shaping the climate by destroying forests and draining lakes and rivers; spraying with chemicals which interfere with wild-life as well as food, to over-stocking, whether it’s Mongolian tribesmen whose herds die from starvation in a terrible winter there, or New Zealand farmers cramming fields and hills with livestock- all these actions and many others in order to make as much profit from the land as possible.

All this is not the radiance of Spirit, is it? And yet all is perfect the mystics tell us… that paradox that sometimes seems resolvable, and sometimes isn’t. In fact, to resolve it, one has to rise above it, and accept that there is a bigger picture. If one could understand the Mind of God, all the human circuits of the mind would probably blow.

As I mulled over these negative ideas an unlikely gentleman cheered me up and led me into another train of thought on how to live in, and on our tiny world… I’ve been reading an interpretation of Crito’s and Phaedo’s Dialogues about the death of Socrates.

After Socrates’ trial when he was found guilty and sentenced to death for corrupting the young, and the impiety of inventing new gods  – neither of which charges he was guilty of –  Crito, a friend, urges Socrates to escape and go into exile. But Socrates refuses, and discusses his philosophy.

He says that the important thing is not just to live, but to live well, which means doing no wrong. He explains that by evading the sentence of the court, he would be breaking the laws of Athens, which he has agreed to live his life by. To run away would break the contract that he has with the state, and would be dishonourable.

Phaedo then describes Socrates’ last hours in prison before taking hemlock. (It’s always seemed to me the most humane form of death sentence I’ve heard of. Just a herbal drink, and slow coldness and paralysis until it reaches the head, and death. I hope they invent a hemlock pill quite soon for those us who have no ambition to dwindle into helpless old age)

Socrates, while he waited for the hemlock to be delivered, had a bath, said goodbye to his wife and children, and then discussed with his friends, his acceptance of death. He felt that our souls are immortal, and that a good man had no need to fear death.

The prison guard came in apologising for what he had to do, but Socrates told him not to delay. As the poison worked, Socrates’ last words were to Crito, telling him to sacrifice a cock to Aesculapius. Aesculapius was the god of healing, and sacrifices of gratitude were made to him by those who had been healed.

What a way to go, with gratitude! After a life of integrity, a death with serenity. What a man! I’ve read this account many times, but it has never struck into my heart before. Socrates joins the short list of heroes I love, which includes the Venerable Bede, William Penn, William Wilberforce, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, and Nelson Mandela. Gandhi, I admire, but do not find lovable.

I look at this list, and wonder if there’s a common denominator… Bede I love for his trust in God, goodness and erudition, Penn for his trust in God, idealism, determination and courage, Wilberforce for his trust in God, goodness, courage, and compassion for animals and all people, as well as slaves. Lincoln, I loved for his goodness and courage, and compassion, and Sam Grant for his integrity and simplicity, love of animals and commitment to civil rights for black Americans and American Indians. Mandela also, for his courage, and for living his beliefs. They all had integrity. What is interesting is how many of them were involved in the struggle to make a better world for black people, from Wilberforce through to Mandela.

When I look for women who inspire me, the list of specific women is shorter, for historical reasons, since we know less about women, and their achievements. Also, because women’s heroism is often the hidden sort, caring for the young, the handicapped, the old, the sick, quietly at home for no reward or recognition … nurturing the talents and gifts of husbands, and sons, who so often had better opportunities for public deeds, heroism or philanthropy.

My short list of heroines includes Elizabeth Fry, the Quaker who revolutionised the treatment of people, especially women, in prison, worked to abolish the death penalty, and among numerous other philanthropic deeds, opened a school for training nurses. She is said to have inspired Florence Nightingale, who I admire for her fierce intelligence, compassion, and persistence, but don’t find lovable. Then there’s Edith Cavell, the English nurse shot by the Germans for helping British soldiers to escape from Belgium into neutral Holland in the First World War.

Knowing how dangerous this was, she persisted, saying: “I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved.” Before she was executed, having also helped wounded German soldiers, she spoke the famous words: “Patriotism is not enough”, words of insight and spiritual understanding which were probably not appreciated or understood in those days of jingoism and chauvinism, and maybe, not even today. Another woman I love and admire is Helen Suzman for her courage, persistence and compassion in a life-time of resisting Apartheid, and then there is the utterly lovable Kwan Yin, the Chinese Goddess of Compassion. So the thread which binds these women is courage and compassion, not so different from the men I admire.

The courage and compassion of my heroes and heroines are the inspiration for me to try to live Christopher Fry’s words: ‘We must each find our separate meaning in the persuasion of our days until we meet in the meaning of the world’. To understand those words and the meaning of the world is also the path to understanding that radiance of Spirit which Ken Wilbur describes. Like all great truths, it’s very simple and yet very puzzling, until it’s felt and seen. So I’m still working on it…

PS So many pictures by Van Gogh are shining with radiance of Spirit, and it’s so hard to choose just one….

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

One of our winter favourites is macaroni cheese – a nice cheesy thick sauce stirred into macaroni, and the top grilled to a golden brown. I try to make it more interesting as the weeks go by… adding chopped hard boiled eggs, or stirring through onion and tomato fried until soft. Or I sprinkle the top with grated parmesan which makes a lovely crisp topping. And then there’s the trick with leftover bolognaise sauce. The macaroni and the cheese sauce transform it into a sort of poor man’s lasagne – just three layers, meat, macaroni and the cheese sauce poured over and stirred through the pasta. Quick and easy and comforting! I’ve also tried this with a tin of salmon as the bottom layer, and the macaroni cheese on top…

 

Food for thought

Thank God our time is now when wrong

Comes up to face us everywhere.

Never to leave us till we take

The longest stride of soul men ever took.

Affairs are now soul size…

It takes so many thousand years to wake,

But will you wake for pity’s sake?    Christopher Fry

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Words, words words…

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William Shakespeare was ‘the onlie begetter’ of those words, which have been in my mind in this month of poetry.

I’ve discovered that in the United States, very few children learn poetry by heart any more, and I suspect that the same is true of education in most Anglo- Saxon cultures. I think it’s a shame… my mind still teams with the phrases and rhymes,  and the glorious words of poets and prayers learned throughout my distant childhood. They sustain me in good times and in bad… and though there’s so much beautiful poetry written today, does anyone recite them anymore?

I go back to my childhood, learning my first poem when I was four… Charles Kingsley’s, ‘I once had a dear little doll, dears’ – it came from a fat book of children’s poems – with no pictures. By eight I had decided to become a poet, by nine I was learning the poems of Water Scott and Elizabeth Barret Browning, at eleven we were learning ‘Quinquireme of Nineveh’, ‘doing’ ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, at school, and learning the exquisite poetry of Shakespeare …’ I know a bank whereon the wild thyme grows’… the next year it was ‘The Tempest’… ‘Come unto these yellow sands,’… ‘Julius Caesar’… ‘I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him’, and ‘Henry V’… ‘Now all the youth of England are on fire, and silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies,’… ‘Once more into the breach, dear friends,’… ‘we few, we happy few, we happy band of brothers,’… ‘Richard II’… ‘This royal throne of kings, this scept’red isle,’… ‘The Merchant of Venice’… ‘The quality of mercy is not strained, it blesseth him that gives and him that takes,’… ‘Hamlet’, ‘words, words, words’, indeed, and not least that amazing speech, ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’, and so many phrases we still use today…including: ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’… ‘to shuffle off our mortal coil’… ‘’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished’…

And finally, in the Upper Sixth, Anthony and Cleopatra… ‘Age shall not wither her, nor the years condemn’, words I have hugged to myself as a hope and example, as I near four score years. Our acquaintance with Shakespeare was cursory but better than the nothing that seems to rule in schools today.

It was a matter of pride among my friends to be able to recite poetry – in the third form we all learned Walter de la Mare’s long poem ‘The Listeners’…. ‘Is there anybody there? asked the Traveller, Knocking on the moonlit door,’… and some of us even tackled ‘The Ancient Mariner’, and though no-one got to the end, we never forgot phrases like ‘A painted ship upon a painted ocean’. No difficulty remembering the exquisite rhythms and quatrains of Omar Khayyam… ‘Awake ! for morning in the bowl of night has flung the stone which put the stars to flight’….

‘Lo! some we loved, the loveliest and best
That Time and Fate of all their Vintage prest,
Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to Rest’…

‘They say the lion and the lizard keep the courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep’…

But poetry was more than beautiful words and pictures and ideas. It opened up our hearts and minds to deeper meanings, ideas and symbols, and to the beauty of rhyme and rhythm. When my father died unexpectedly when I was in my twenties, and far from home, I turned to John Davies of Hereford’s dirge for his friend Thomas Morley:

‘Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend,

My dearest friend is dead and laid in grave.

In grave he rests until the world shall end.

The world shall end, as end all things must have.

All things must have an end that Nature wrought…

Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend…

I rocked to and fro to the rhythm of the words, and found a bleak comfort to tide me over into the next stage of grief. The insistent beat of that poem was a distant memory of the comfort of the rhythmic rocking which all babies receive, whether floating in the womb, rocked in their mother’s arms or pushed in a rocking cradle. Rhythm is one of the deepest and oldest memories for human beings. And rhyme is a joy that even toddlers discover as they chant simple verses, before stumbling onto the deliciousness of alliteration as words become their treasure.

For my generation the glory of words, poetry, rhyme and rhythm didn’t stop in the classroom. Every day in assembly we sang hymns with words that still linger in my memory, and swim to mind appropriately… like the glorious day looking from my cliff-top cottage and the lines, ‘cherubim and seraphim , casting down their golden crowns beside the glassy sea’ made land. We sang ‘Morning has broken’ long before Cat Stevens made it famous.

We listened to daily readings from the King James Bible and the poetry embedded itself in our consciousness… ‘to everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven’…. ‘If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there; if I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me’…’And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds’…

When we weren’t listening to our daily dose of the Bible, we were using the exquisite words of Archbishop Cranmer’s 1553 Prayerbook,… ‘now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word’… ‘come unto me all ye that are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’… ‘Oh God, give unto thy people that peace which the world cannot give…’Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee oh Lord, and by thy great mercy defend us from all the dangers and perils of the night’… words and phrases that lifted the spirit and gave comfort when needed, in times to come.

The vocabulary of roughly eight thousand words of the King James Version of the Bible, printed in 1611 had a ‘majesty of style’… and has had more influence on the English language that any other book, apart, perhaps, from Shakespeare’s works, with a vocabulary of sixty thousand or so words. In the past, the words, the rhythms and cadences of these two influences shaped the speech and the writing, and seeped into the consciousness of people all over the world, who grew up speaking English.

They thought and wrote and spoke without even thinking, in the beautiful, simple rhythmic prose they heard every week at church, and throughout their schooldays. Sullivan Ballou’s famous and profound letter written to his wife before his death at the First Battle of Bull Run in the American Civil War, is as much a product of that heritage as the wonderful last lines of John Masefield’s ‘The Everlasting Mercy’.

It saddens me that this common heritage of prose and poetry and prayer, those wonderful words of beauty and meaning, has dribbled away under neglect, lack of appreciation and understanding. Modern education seems to treasure instead new and shallower ideas.

Alan Bennett’s brilliant play and film, ‘The History Boys’ encapsulates my point of view perfectly! It made me feel I was not alone in my regrets at the passing of our rich poetic literature, and so much that has added to the sum of civilisation.  I love much that is new – too much to list –  and there’s so much to explore… but the learning by heart, the exploration of the genius of Shakespeare, the absorption of great prose and poetry often seems less important in today’s education system, than technological expertise and business knowhow, women’s studies and sporting prowess.

This is called progress I know, and I know too, I am old fashioned, but in these matters, I am a believer in not throwing out the baby with the bath-water. Hic transit gloria mundi… thus passes the glory of the world.

PS I completely forgot to answer the comments on my last blog while we were cleaning up after our massive storm/cyclone.. apologies, I loved them, and will be answering them shortly

Food for threadbare gourmets

Saturday supper with friends, and something we could eat on our laps round the fire. So, it was salmon risotto. Just the usual recipe – onions in butter, arborio rice added and fried until white, plus garlic, then a glass of good white wine poured in. I no longer bubble it away, but add the hot stock quite quickly, plus a teaspoonful of chicken bouillon.

For a fishy risotto, it should be fish stock but I had some good leek and potato stock saved, and I also used the liquid from poaching the salmon. All the recipes tell you to use lots of different types of fish, but I only had prawns, and salmon. I had thought I’d also use smoked salmon, but at the last minute changed my mind, and then wished I had more of the poached salmon … (which I’d eaten for lunch with freshly made mayonnaise!)

Anyway, I added cream and some fennel when the rice was almost soft and just before serving, threw in a grated courgette to get some green colour from the skin in, plus a handful of baby spinach leaves… and after stirring around, added the fish and more cream…. forgot parsley! And then the Parmesan of course….

Amounts? To one large onion, I used a cup of rice, several garlic cloves – medium sized – glass of dry white wine, hot stock as it needed it… a cup of prawns, and half a fillet of salmon – should have used more – plus the courgette and spinach as you fancy. Half a cup of cream, depending on how moist the risotto already is …  or I might use a big knob of butter and not so much cream…This doesn’t stick to any of the recipes… I just use what I have…this was enough for four.

Food for thought

“I want to be as idle as I can, so that my soul may have time to grow.” Elizabeth von Arnim, author of ‘Elizabeth and her German Garden’ and other books

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Eating for Easter

Image result for pics of hot cross buns

A beloved friend coping with laryngitis wrote to say she intended to cure herself by eating Easter eggs. An idea, which, as my delicious daughter would say, ‘had legs’, but which was not one which appealed to me.

My preference for Easter is hot cross buns, spicy, and with a good, sweet cross, heated up gently in the oven, and eaten with lashings of butter for breakfast on Good Friday.

Food marks the seasonal calendar as much as the religious reason for the various festivals. One of my favourites, Pancake Day, aka Shrove Tuesday, evolved in order to use up the butter, eggs and sugar which were no-no’s during the penitential Lenten days leading up to Easter.

In England, it was once known as a half holiday which began when church bells were rung at 11 am. and then pancake races were and are run in towns and villages all over the country, even today. Legend has it that in 1445 a housewife in Olney, Buckinghamshire was so busy making pancakes that she forgot the time until she heard the church bells ringing.

She raced out of the house to church, still carrying her frying pan and tossing the pancake so as to stop it burning in her hot, probably iron, pan. Today, the rules for the race are strict, and it’s mostly run by women, who must wear an apron and a head scarf, and must toss the pancake at the beginning and end of the race.

This jollification is not so different from the Lenten carnivals held in more extrovert Latin countries…. The word carnival evolves from the Medieval Latin carnelevamen  – “the putting away of flesh”, and this was the last opportunity to put away not just meat, but also the pleasures of the flesh, eating and drinking and celebrating before the hard, hungry, deprived days of Lent.

Easter, marking the end of the forty days of Lent, is, as everyone knows, never the same date every year, but is calculated according to a full moon, and what are called The Golden Numbers which are too complicated for me as a maths  dud, to even try to explain. (I have an antique Anglican prayer book printed in 1745, in which the golden numbers and the dates of Easter, have been worked out up to the year two thousand, which must have seemed like an infinite eternity to the mathematician who calculated these figures).

Then there was a brief opportunity to indulge the pleasures of the flesh on Mothering Sunday, which fell on the third Sunday before Easter. I remember as a girl picking wild daffodils to take to my step-mother on this Sunday, which has now evolved into another wholesale commercial festival with bought flowers, chocolates, and gifts of every description, including taking mum out to tea or lunch.

In the eighteenth century, servant girls were given the day off to visit their mothers, and were usually given some food or clothes by the ‘big house’ to take with them.  But long before then, joyous people had been celebrating Mothering Sunday with a simnel cake, a delicious confection with two layers of marzipan (not your pallid shop-bought stuff, but the real thing, almonds pounded with an egg white… sweet and rich). One layer went inside the cake for the baking, and one layer went on top to be toasted. Yum…

Apart from the Christmas feasting, there’s another delicious foodie ritual for those who observe the rhythms of the Christian calendar, and that’s ‘Stir-up Sunday’. This happens on the last Sunday before Advent, (meaning the coming of Christ) which means it’s five Sundays before Christmas… often the last one in November, but like everything else in the Christian calendar, it varies every year, and so is a moveable feast.

The name comes from a prayer that Christians have been using for over a thousand years, originally in Latin, and translated into Archbishop Cranmer’s beautiful English in 1549. It goes: ‘Stir up’, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people”… but for centuries the stirring has also been associated with the making of the Christmas pudding. Stir-up Sunday means mixing all the spices, fruits, suet, sugars, in a big bowl, and everyone takes a turn in stirring the mixture, and usually making a wish. There are religious rituals too, but I’m talking food here.

Some families leave the bowl for a week to ‘mature,’ and also leave a bottle of brandy by the bowl, for passing family members to sling a slug into the pudding, and give it a stir. Eventually the flour and other ingredients are added, and then the whole thing is bundled into basins, wrapped and boiled and stored for Christmas.

We always had a goose for Christmas when I was a child, much more delicious than the turkey which has become fashionable since then. On Boxing Day, my father used to give me a slice of good bread covered in cold goose dripping sprinkled with salt and pepper. Few children today would ever know how utterly delicious this simple pleasure was. I tried to re-create it one Christmas in this country, but when the farmer’s wife told me the goose she had decided some weeks earlier to fatten up to sell to me, knew, and ran off all over the farm to escape her, I never ate goose again!

Which brings us full circle back to Easter, and those chocolate Easter eggs. Most people know Easter eggs have an association with a pagan goddess called Eostre, and the Easter egg custom percolated into Europe from Mesopotamia, and the Greek Orthodox church, but my interest is in chocolate Easter eggs. I discovered that a splendid old Quaker, Joseph Fry, started a chocolate business in 1759, and his sons later invented not only my favourite chocolate – Fry’s Cream in 1866 – but the chocolate Easter egg in 1873, getting on for a hundred and fifty years ago.

Quakers dominated the chocolate industry in England, Cadbury, Rowntree, Terry, Fry, were all owned by Quakers, just as so many banks were, including Barclays and Lloyd’s, and firms like Clarks Shoes and Bryant and May matches. This was because Quakers, as non-conformists, were barred from universities and the professions, but because their word was their bond, they prospered because everyone trusted them.

They became incredibly rich, which bothered them, so their money went into charitable causes, including the first model town Bournville, for Cadbury employees who were given free health and dental care amongst other advantages.

And the reason all these Quakers were in the chocolate business was because they invented chocolate drinks for the poor to drink, instead of beer and alcohol. This meant that the poor had to boil their water, a healthy practice in a time when water was not always pure, and the chocolate flavour was neither addictive nor debilitating, unlike alcohol.

Which is a good and Christian thought, that we all enjoy our chocolate treats because a group of high-principled men tried to find something delicious but not in-ebriating for us all to eat and drink! So yes, let us eat chocolate Easter eggs, even if they don’t cure laryngitis!

Food for threadbare gourmets

I’m still thinking in emergency mode, since our region is officially in a state of civil defence emergency as we endure Cyclone Cook.… and thinking of all the things I can do to improve the taste of tinned or packaged food, if necessary. I have a packet of pumpkin soup which I will jolly up with some chicken bouillon, a knob of butter and a little cream, and either some curry powder to ‘hot’ it up, or nutmeg to spice it.

Tins of tomato soup I jazz up with vegemite or marmite, about half a tea-spoon, plus the butter and cream. A tin of baked beans I’ll ‘improve’ by stirring in tomato puree, a slurp of balsamic vinegar, and some stevia to taste, even a little molasses…and then there’s tins of salmon – well I could write a whole book about ways to use a tin of salmon, but will curb my enthusiasm now, as we batten down our hatches. I’m posting this blog early, while we still have electricity.

 Food for thought 

Learn to wish that everything should come to pass exactly as it does.

Epictetus Ad 50 – 135  Roman Stoic philosopher, whose teaching sustained the late Rear-Admiral James Stockdale throughout his seven years captivity, torture and solitary confinement during the Vietnam War.

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Simple pleasures- they may not be what you think !

Image result for pics of nasturtiums

For some it’s a nice hot bath, for others it’s sitting in front of a roaring log fire – surely one of the most primeval pleasures – so what are your simple pleasures? One of mine is a hot croissant eaten with unsalted butter, good apricot jam, accompanied by a pot of freshly made coffee, and delivered to me in bed… perhaps not so simple, given the various components required to deliver this perfection!

Then there is the simple pleasure of sitting in the sun on the garden bench by the profusion of rambling nasturtiums, and gently feeling beneath the round flat leaves to find the clusters of green ribbed seeds left by the flowers that have bloomed… my harvest to sow for next year’s pleasure.

These thoughts were prompted by browsing through one of my favourite books which positively encourages hedonism, though hedonism of the sweetest, simplest kind… most of these simple pleasures cost nothing. It’s an anthology by sixty fine writers, and they’ve given their thoughts and services to the National Trust, the body which maintains and protects historic sites and buildings in England.

In the introduction, Dr James le Fanu, after discussing how our genomes are virtually inter-changeable with either a mouse or a primate, goes on to write: ‘It is remarkable the difference it makes to acknowledge that we no longer know… the nature of those genetic instructions. Suddenly the sheer extraordinariness of that rich diversity of shape and form jostling for attention on the fishmonger’s counter – and the florist’s and the greengrocer’s and the whole glorious panoply of nature – is infused with a deep sense of wonder of ‘how can these things be?’

So since one of the simple pleasures of reading an anthology is flicking back and forth, sampling the joys and wonders it holds, I dive into a page which reads: …’and as you take the long single track road snaking down the shady side of Inkpen Beacon, it’s as though you feel the centuries fall away behind you.

‘You pass the ramparts of an Iron Age fort, and then the gibbet  on the Beacon, a reminder of the eighteenth century. You twist  between hawthorne and wild brambles, and now you’re in Civil War Britain. Pass the old church, and you’re back in Norman times. Then in the village itself, there are flinty tracks and beech hedges, and what Orwell in exasperation called the deep, deep sleep of the English countryside … an unspoilt, timeless view of fields, safely grazing sheep and the sound of rooks chattering contentiously in the beech trees overhanging the lane …old Wessex, Alfred’s ancient kingdom…. Watership Down just over the hill…King Charles fought the battle of Newbury in nearby fields’ … this from Robert McCrum who has written a book on P.G.Wodehouse amongst others.

And then to a delicious essay by Sally Muir, knitting designer…’I was taught by Mother Mary Joseph… it was the sort of thing you did in a convent in the 1960’s. It wasn’t all Carnaby Street and The Beatles for most of us. I think the nuns were working on ‘the devil makes work for idle hands ‘principle, and in a way they were right. One great advantage of an evening spent knitting is that you can’t easily smoke, play video games, buy things from Amazon, or inject drugs at the same time. In fact there are all sorts of things you can’t do, as both hands are fully occupied….’

I dip into ‘Grooming the dog’, and ’In love with the clarinet’, savour ‘Collecting the eggs’, and ‘Picking up litter’, and the arcane discussion of the best litter-picking-up devices, and relish ‘In praise of zoos’, much as I hate them. Philosopher Alain de Botton writes: ‘A zoo unsettles in simultaneously making animals seem more human and humans more animal… in May 1842 Queen Victoria  visited Regents Park zoo, and in her diary, noted of the new orang-utan from Calcutta: ‘He is wonderful, preparing and drinking his tea, but he is painfully and disagreeably human.’ (reading this, I imagine being captured and placed in a cage like a room in a Holiday Inn, with three meals a day passed through a hatch, and nothing to do other than watch TV – while a crowd of giraffes look on at me, giggling and videoing, licking giant ice-creams, while saying what a short neck I have.)’

Alain de Botton, I learn, having enjoyed many of his books, is also the founder of two organisations, Living Architecture and The School of Life, the first dedicated to promoting beauty, and the second to wisdom – oh Yes !!!

As I flick the pages of this tiny book – five inches by three and a half – Christmas stocking size, which I bought six copies of to give to friends, I can’t resist ‘Gossip’, written by journalist Sarah Sands. She discovers by chance that historian Simon Schama is ’an A-grade gossip’. ‘How exciting that a man of such an elevated mind is happy to trade in gossip as well as ideas… Gossip is what makes a great historian a delightful dinner companion… the bond of intimacy. One shares gossip as one should share good wine. It is an act of pleasure.

‘There is an art to gossip, which is really a moment of memoir. Philosophers of the human heart… or heartless but comic diarists …, tell us more about social history, politics and humanity than autobiographies of public record… I always learn more from a gossip than a prig. Life is a comedy, it is not Hansard.’ (Hansard is the English Parliamentary record)

The two most thought-provoking of these simple pleasures come at the end of this delicious little book. Historian Anthony Seldon was the headmaster of Wellington College when he wrote his essay. Wellington College is one of the tougher English private schools. I wonder if he changed that reputation, for he writes of the joys of meditation and yoga.

He ends by saying: ‘Most exciting of all is the sense I have that the happiness and joy I experience are only the tip of the iceberg. They cost nothing, harm nobody and I feel connected to life in all its fullness. The future promise is that the joy will only get deeper year by year, and the fear of crossing that divide from dry land into the water, from life into death, fades into utter inconsequence.’

Sue Crewe has edited the splendid magazine English House and Garden with zest and skill since 1994 –  not the sort of person I would have expected to write the exquisite little gem that ends this book. Over the years I’ve followed from afar her career, and noted that she had had what she bravely describes as a ‘period of turbulence’, and which I knew had been full of heartbreak.

She describes how a friend gave her a little book in which she had to write five things she was grateful for, every day. A simple practice which over the years has grown into what she describes as ‘several feet of bookshelves’. She tells how for the first five years she kept to the five one-liners, and how at first she groped for entries, and fell back on being grateful for her warm bed, or being well fed. Then she felt brave enough to branch out into what she calls ‘free-range gratitude diary-keeping’ and expanded her thoughts.

Now she writes: ‘Almost imperceptibly, free-floating anxiety and feelings of discontent with myself and the world were replaced by contentment and a clearer understanding of what I found acceptable and unacceptable about my own and other people’s behaviour…. It did and does help me keep things in perspective…

‘But the most transformative revelation is the power of gratitude itself: it takes up so much room that everything corrosive and depressing is squeezed to the margins. It seems to push out resentment, fear, envy, self-pity and all the other ugly sentiments that bring you down, leaving room for serenity, contentment, and optimism to take up residence.’

On this glorious note, one of my favourite books ends… full of such simple pleasures, those which don’t just add joy to life, but also enlightenment. I feel nothing but gratitude to all these writers when I re-read this little book yet again… and gratitude too, for the reminder of the power of words. The right words can transform our own thoughts and lives, and this reminder of the power of words, reminds me too, of the power of our blogs – each one mostly written with pleasure, and with words from the heart, to reach other hearts in that extraordinary network of friends and souls around the world.

Simple Pleasures – Little things that make life worth living. Published by Random House.

Food for threadbare gourmets

Made a pile of ham sandwiches for lunch, and some were left over. My thrifty soul decided to wrap them tightly in silver foil and store them in the fridge to have for supper that night. But I forgot, and several days later found this anonymous packet of foil on a shelf with butter and yogurt. Cautiously opening it, I discovered the now somewhat stale ham sandwiches. Undeterred, I decided it was ham sandwiches for me that night. I dunked them in egg like French toast and fried them in a little olive oil and butter. They were absolutely delicious – the best way to have ham sandwiches!!!

Food for thought

‘The world will never starve for want of wonders, but only for want of wonder.’    G.K.Chesterton

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Kintsugi, art and life

I wrote a column about my collection of cracked and chipped blue and white china thirty years ago. Some people received the idea of a collection of cracked china with derision and laughter… something cracked or chipped had lost its value, usefulness and good looks was the unspoken message, or I must be too poor to have such a pointless collection instead of perfect objects.

Undeterred, in the years since, I’ve saved shattered fragments of blue and white china when I’ve dropped or broken something, intending to stick them all together in a splendid mould and make a bird bath. I still have all the bits … but though the spirit has been willing, the body has been weak, alas.

So when a few weeks ago a possum knocked a precious piece of pottery off the bird table I was heart-broken. It was a large platter given to me by its maker, a potter of some renown, whose pieces now on sale in the national museum cost more than I could ever have dreamed.

But my platter came into my hands over thirty years ago when I used to take my daughter for piano lessons with a beautiful woman who played the cello in the city orchestra and taught the piano. While my daughter tackled the music of civilisation’s finest composers, I whiled away the time chatting to her teacher’s husband, the potter, admiring his work which was all around and even then, out of my reach to afford.

They lived in an enchanting house he had built himself, and where in the romantic rambling garden black and white speckly bantam hens roamed, kicking up the flower beds with their stubby tufted legs and fearsome claws. One day the potter gave me one of his platters and a few months later by chance, another came into my hands.

I’ve always treasured them, and since I love using beautiful things for mundane purposes have always used them as bird baths. Now in our forest, I use them as bird tables for bird seed, balanced on pedestals made from other treasured ceramics. A possum must have clambered up and knocked the platter off. It had broken into three pieces. I found it when I awoke and got up to fill it with bird seed and scatter seed on the ground for our visiting quails.

Going back to bed with my early morning tea I brooded over this unexpected event, and idly let my mind roam over the five hundred-year-old Japanese art of kintsugi, when cracks or breaks in a piece of pottery or porcelain are pieced together again with glue and gold… the name means golden repairs. They become so beautiful that some pieces have been broken deliberately in order to restore them with veins of gold.

Mentioning this to my love, he immediately Googled, and over the weeks he mastered the technique, and the platter was returned to me on Christmas Day with beautiful veins of gold now holding the broken pieces together… the platter is even more beautiful than before… which is the idea … this exquisite art form has developed to become part of the Japanese philosophy of life… where respecting the past with ‘awe and reverence’ adds to the beauty of the object. It is not seen as flawed or broken, but as re-stored… not to wholeness, but to a beauty reflecting life, its impermanence and poignancy.

Since discovering the concept of kintsugi I’ve thought how though it is an old instinct brought to perfection by Japanese craftsmen, it’s also been used by so many others for so many centuries … I thought of the ancient ruined monasteries scattered around England, dissolved by Henry VIII in the 1530’s in order to enrich himself and turfing out the monks, leaving them homeless and destitute.

Local people were the ones who ruined those abandoned monasteries, dismantling exquisite abbeys, priories and friaries, and using the stones to build or enrich their own homes. Even in this day and age, I have stopped the car in a muddy lane in Cumberland to exclaim over a carved Gothic window blocked up to make part of the wall in a rough stone barn – relic of a local monastery.

I used to walk in a Devon village where the red post box was set into the thick wall of a house rising straight out of the street, which would once have been a cart-track, and next to it in the wall was a small beautifully carved blocked up window from another medieval building. These small architectural gems ennobled the old stone walls they were set in – another Japanese concept – ‘wabi sabi ‘– finding beauty in old or broken things

Shakespeare found beauty in old things, and using the principles of kintsugi, rewrote the ancient legends he had learned in his classical education at Stratford Grammar School, re-creating and transforming the stories of Anthony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar or Troilus and Cressida – to name a few – into enduring works of art.

Not sublime works of art, but definitely kintsugi, are the pre-loved clothes – as they’re sometimes called – which a friend finds. By changing the buttons, adding a trimming, altering the neckline, edging hemlines or cuffs with contrasting fabric she turns each found item into an enviable work of art as well as a desirable item of clothing.

And there’s something touching and very sweet about the darns or patches in a piece of old linen, or a carefully repaired scrap of precious old lace. I love the chips and worn places on old painted furniture and the scratches on the polished wood of an antique table, or the kicked legs of a well-used chair.

These are the scars of a life well lived, and to iron them out, re-paint, sand them away and restore them to what is so often wrongly called ‘their former glory,’ chills my heart.  I know this means their honourable scars have been destroyed, and their character obliterated. In trying to make things look as good as new we are not honouring their past… the spirit of kintsugi.

When we were told on our personal growth courses to turn sour milk into yogurt, this was the same thing, re-creating and restoring the broken, cracked or scratched parts of our lives, and using them to teach us strength, compassion, insight. Acknowledging the hard places and tough times we had come through, and the buried pain, we were able then to see how they had shaped us.

We learned to face these times with ‘awe and reverence’, and with gratitude too, since without these scars, we would not be the people we had become. Our lives regained both magic and poignancy as we learned to see the mysterious patterns of events which we had endured and previously dismissed or de-valued.

Patterns of pain, loss, anger or despair, once recognised, became our golden repairs, our kintsugi, which enriched us and gave us a sense of the beauty of our lives. The cracks of character and kindness round our mouths, the lines of laughter softening our eyes, the deep furrows of thought and intellect above our brows became testimony to strength of character, to acceptance of the challenges faced, and rejection of bitterness or resistance.

Maybe this is why I find the faces of celebrities who have had a face lift or a botox injection rather sad… they are not honouring the medals earned by a well-lived life.

The most precious example of kintsugi in this place where we live is a diver’s rusty old tank, found while we scoured a demolition yard for re-cycled goodies. It was brought joyfully home, carefully cut in two, sanded, gently polished and re-painted, so it is a dull antique grey, with a few antique coins stuck to the circumference.

It’s mounted at the bottom of our drive with a striker made from an old fishing weight attached to a handle of weathered wood sitting by it. When visitors arrive, they ring the bell to tell us they’re here. Every day at dawn, and in the gloaming we ring our bell in gratitude. It reminds us that life is precious. And so we honour life.

Food for threadbare gourmets

We always used to have goose at Christmas when I was a child, but on the one occasion we had turkey I remember my father saying he wasn’t going to eat cold turkey or turkey sandwiches for the next week. So he devised a rechauffe of turkey eaten on rice.

Faced with lots of left-over turkey this year, I decided to follow his example. I had saved all the turkey juices, so after frying mushrooms and chopped bacon in butter, I stirred in a table spoon of flour to thicken the mixture and added the turkey juices. When this had thickened, I added chopped turkey and a little cream, salt and pepper, nutmeg to taste, and a small chicken bouillon cube.

Served on boiled rice, with peas, chopped parsley and butter stirred through, it was much better than cold turkey sandwiches!

Food for Thought

The self-actualising person is not a normal person with something added, but a normal person with nothing taken away.         Abraham Maslow

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