Category Archives: poetry

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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A hiatus

100_0584Dear friends and fellow bloggers, the writing gods have withdrawn their inspiration from me, and have made it clear that this is a moment for Hestia, the goddess of peace and replenishment, solitude and silence to make her entrance.

So for now, it is a hiatus – an interruption. I shall follow you all from afar, knowing that you too will come and go in the rhythms of life; and lacking all inspiration myself at the moment, I will share and sign off with words from an inspirational poet, Rabindranath Tagore. It is our golden autumn here in the southern hemisphere, and this is how it was in Bengal a hundred years ago when Tagore was writing:

Autumn
Today the peace of autumn pervades the world.
In the radiant noon, silent and motionless, the wide stillness rests like a tired bird spreading over the deserted fields to all horizons its wings of golden green.
Today the thin thread of the river flows without song, leaving no mark on its sandy banks.
The many distant villages bask in the sun with eyes closed in idle and languid slumber.
In the stillness I hear every blade of grass, in every speck of dust, in every part of my own body, in the visible and invisible worlds, in the planets, the sun, and the stars, the joyous dance of the atoms through endless time – the myriad murmuring waves of Rhythm surrounding Thy throne.

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Heaven’s scent

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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

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Souvenirs of life

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These stones and feathers and shells can tell the story of my life in the last few decades… shells collected with the children on a Northland beach, a black and white feather lying outside the door when I opened it on our first day in a new house –  greeting from a tui… the brown and cream morepork feather found on a long walk around the harbour with the thoughts and dreams of that afternoon threaded through its fronds.

An ancient stone from a river bed in the Blue Mountains of Australia was picked up after a day spent abseiling in abject terror, another from a cold pebbled beach in Devon, the chill of the Atlantic  breakers still embedded in it after all these years, while the polished brown stone came from an underground cave in the central North Island where glow-worms illuminated the roof, and a river flowed through.  These things are the stuff of my life… as they are of every life in which they are valued.

As I looked at them I thought of how other collections can also tell the story of a life. When I renewed my passport recently I found all my old ones, going back to when I was twelve and going to France on my own to learn French. In that passport photo two frightened brown eyes gazed out at the world. I had been so appalled at this picture that I promptly destroyed the evidence.

Which left the rest – a twenty one year old about to go on holiday to Spain, well- groomed hair, immaculate lipstick, and veiled blank eyes… the next, an exhausted mother of two toddlers about to go to Hong Kong, badly cut hair, eyes sad and resigned. And then, a picture of a thirty five year old woman, lots of dark hair piled up confidently, smiling eyes, relaxed smile. Life to be lived now, not endured. In the decades since, the hair has got shorter and then faded, and the last photo was so awful I hoped to be un-recognisable, but the story of a life is told in those passport photos.

Another can tell the story of their life in their jewellery, the coral necklace given at a christening, the charm bracelet for a little girl, pearls for a twenty-first, the engagement ring and the gold band…  a gift to mark the first child,  a clumsy pottery brooch made  at school and proudly presented to a beloved mother… the ring inherited from a grandmother, the eternity ring at a silver wedding…  such precious collections can mark out the steps of a life quite as well as a photograph album.

I wonder if there is even a market these days for photograph albums now all our photos are taken on phones and I-pads. I was never much  of a photographer, so that the photos of my honeymoon were on the same roll of film as the pictures of my first baby. But I did have a memory.

I remember one summer’s afternoon when the children were three and four as they tumbled around on the grass, one wearing a sun-suit in glorious colours of pink and orange and red, the other in matching shirt and orange shorts. As I looked at them, revelling in their laughter, their shining hair, and sparkling eyes, pearly teeth and glowing sun-tanned faces, I thought to myself, I’m going to remember this moment forever.

It was a turning point, because I found I did never forget that moment. So now, I know I can fasten those moments I want to remember with that little intention, and our minds are so obedient that they obey the instructions, and can call up the images whenever they are wanted. On the other hand, I wonder if the ease of communication, the instant photos, the selfies sent from Rome or Khatmandu which reach every member of the family all over the world the same day, make it easy to forget. We don’t have to remember, because it’s all there, on Facebook or in the picture file on the computer.

But for how long? Until the internet crashes? Or some other disaster hits the net? The computer is stolen? Few people will be able to pick up old albums in the future and leaf through them re-living their own lives, or discover the lives of their ancestors. And how will biographers fare in the future? In the past we’ve had portraits and miniatures in pre-photography days; then the wonderful stilted posed photos of the early days of photography, with the expert’s head hidden under a black cloth over a tripod while he captured forever the people and that moment in their time.

Then came the brownie box camera and all the other simple do- it- yourself cameras, and families recorded their events and special moments themselves. Biographies of the famous from the twenties until the sixties are full of revealing snaps, but what will there be for future  writers and historians wanting to illustrate their books about the powerful and famous? Not much, I suspect.

In the past, many anonymous photos turned out to be records of history – impromptu black and white snaps of Battle of Britain pilots ‘scrambling’, shots of families crouched in air –raid shelters from London to Leningrad, soldiers in Africa or Italy taking grainy pictures of each other to send back home… joyful hugs and kisses of victory – all these spontaneous pictures of humanity enduring both the ordeals and the pleasures of the twentieth century, captured in black and white film, are the stuff of history.

But I wonder what history is being preserved today in our somewhat ephemeral records? Will collections of jewellery or stones, in the end be the things to jog people’s memories in the future? Maybe the photos in passports and on driving licenses will the best concrete records we will have… time to get a decent picture taken for these official documents perhaps !

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Summer salads don’t always mean lettuce for me… One of my favourites is grated cauliflower, mixed with chopped hard- boiled egg, some chopped Medjuel dates, toasted slivered almonds, and lots of chopped parsley. Then stir in enough good mayonnaise to the consistency you like. Chopped apple or banana is a variation, but actually anything can be added, and it still tastes good. But it can’t sit around, or it turns watery. I eat it on its own, but it’s also good with cold chicken.

Food for thought

And a poet said, Speak to us of Beauty. And he answered: Where shall you seek beauty, and how shall you find her unless she herself  be your way and your guide?  Beauty is not a need but an ecstasy. It is… a heart inflamed and a soul enchanted … a garden forever in bloom and a flock of angels in flight.

‘The Prophet’ by Kahlil Gibran, Lebanese poet, 1883 -1931. ‘The Prophet’ has never been out of print since it was published in 1923.

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Birds of a feather

100_0479My heart was in my mouth. I was sitting at the traffic junction in our small town where six roads meet and compete for the lights.  Would the traffic stop? A duck was slowly waddling across the road with a clutch of tiny ducklings in tow. They made it to the pavement which would lead them along to the river in the middle of town, with just one hiccup over two slow ducklings who stopped to drink from a puddle, and which an impatient woman nearly cleaned up as she got tired of waiting.

This is the duck season. We become very conscious of them as they shepherd their progeny across busy roads, oblivious of the killing machines skidding to a halt yards from them.

A friend told me how in the middle of the busy village street, he stopped to let a mother pass while her babies all scuttled to safety on the pavement, but she wouldn’t move from the middle of the road. As he wondered how long she was going to obstinately stand there, suddenly two recalcitrant toddlers made a dash from the other side to catch up with their mother and siblings. Ducks can count!

The same thrush (I think) who made life difficult for us last year, by nesting in the honeysuckle by the side door of the garage has returned, and I in-advertently uncovered this year’s nest as I began to trim the overhanging ivy on the arch into the garden from the garage. I saw with horror a beautiful blue egg in the exquisitely woven little nest, and hastily covered it with strands of the trimmed ivy.

I blocked the arch with a rake and a hoe and a plank of wood across the top of the steps to stop anyone using it, so now everyone has to go the long way round from the garage. (see pic above!) I tiptoed up the next day, to check if the bird had returned, and as I stood peering intently into the tangle of ivy leaves, I suddenly realised that a beady yellow- rimmed eye was staring at me. I backed away very slowly, apologising softly for my intrusion.

A grey heron unexpectedly circled in front of my car as I drove between spring- green trees and hawthorn hedges encrusted with white blossom this morning; and I noticed that the striking paradise ducks with black, white and sherry coloured plumage who mate for life, seem to have disappeared from their usual haunts – to tend their nests too, I presume.

Driving home in the dusk a few nights ago, I saw what I thought were burrs on the road in front of me, but they were moving. As I swerved, I realised that the tiny balls of black fluff rolling to the side of the road were probably paradise duck babies. They all start off as balls of fluff, and then the brown mallards develop tiny yellow legs and webbed feet that scurry frantically across the road, beautiful little creatures with not an ugly duckling among them.

Years ago as we walked down the lane by our house, being towed by two shaggy afghan hounds and a cavalier King Charles spaniel, I was consoling the children about the village fete, and their spurned handicraft entries.  “The thing is,” said my ten year old daughter, “other mothers think their ugly ducklings will grow into swans, but you think we’re swans already!”

Not surprising when I thought about it… swans had been part of my life as a child. We lived close to a lake called the Backwater. It had once been a tidal inlet, until the local authorities had built a bridge which blocked the flow from Weymouth Harbour. Until then the tide had washed up and down this long channel, where there’s evidence that the Romans once had a small port at the end of the inlet where we lived. There’s a legend that later, when the Vikings made their first raid on England at Portland just round the corner, they also pushed their way up the Backwater in AD 787.  Later the Saxons settled around here among local British tribes who‘d been inhabiting the area since Mesolithic times – 12,500 BC. (Genetic experiments have shown that a significant segment of the modern population here are descended from those original Mesolithic inhabitants.)

 When I knew the Backwater, neither  Stone Age coracle nor Viking long-boat could have rowed up the now tide-less water, for thick beds of reeds had spread to give safe cover for the big, white mute swans to build their nests and hide their cygnets. I used to walk my dolls pram down to the edge of the lake and throw them bits of bread. On the grass the other side of the road edging the water, the Americans had had all their tanks and armoured vehicles lined up row on row before they left for D-day, thus reversing the ancient pattern of invasion, and taking fire and sword back to the mainland.

There are so many legends and folk tales about swans, the commonest being that their nearly ten foot wide wing span can break a man’s arm. This is one of the long-running jokes in Sue Townsend’s gloriously funny book, ‘Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction.’ Adrian buys a trendy flat in a disused warehouse alongside the river, and discovers too late that a posse of swans consider this place to be their territory. Everyone who visits the hapless Adrian ends up warning him, “A swan can break a man’s arm, you know”.

They mate for life too, and I love the names of the different species: as well as the mute swans, there are trumpeter swans, whooper swans, tundra swans, and the Bewick, a sub-tribe of the tundra clan. The biggest populations of wild swans live in Russia, and it’s believed that the only reason swans didn’t become extinct in England un medieval times – since they were good eating – was that though everyone cut a notch in the feet of their own swans, birds without the notch were considered to be the sovereign’s property and protected by a royal swan herdsman. This preserved the native species. And as for cygnets, who can forget the all male corps de ballet who performed at Covent Garden, and then made their breath-taking and tantalisingly  brief appearance in the film ‘Billy Eliot?’

We only have the non-native black swan here, immigrants from Australia who now populate various lakes around the North Island in great numbers. I remember my disbelief when I saw the one black swan on the lake at Kew Gardens as a little girl. I love them now. The evil black swan queen in Swan Lake gives black swans an undeserved bad name – they are elegant, peace-loving family-oriented birds, loyal to each other, male and female raising their families of cygnets together year after year. 

It seems appropriate that all our swans here are black, when I consider that New Zealand’s  national colour is black… the All-Blacks play rugby, the NZ cricket team wears black, as does our Olympic team, the America’s Cup yachtsmen  and all other sports teams. And statuesque Maori women look magnificent in their black mourning with wreaths of green leaves around their heads, as they perform the ancient karakia or grieving  chants with their graceful waving arm movements. Black is indeed Beautiful in this country !

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

A green-thumbed – or is it green fingered –  neighbour generously left a bag of goodies outside the door the other day. Among them were delicious, tender young leeks and green cauliflower. They deserved a dish of their own so I used a recipe I’d just found. Steam enough cauliflower to fill a cup when mashed. Cut the leeks into rounds, and sauté in butter until tender. (I always put a little oil in too, so the butter doesn’t burn) Mix the cauliflower and tender leeks with an egg, a good quarter of a cup of flour, two tablesp of parsley and one of chopped dill, a good grinding of black pepper and half a teasp of salt. Form the mixture into patties and fry on both sides. I sprinkled them with plenty of Parmesan, but I would think crumbled goats cheese would be good too. Next time I try them I shall use coriander, and mix in some crumbled goats cheese.

 

Food for thought

From Midrashim: Proverbs 6.6

Go to the ant, you sluggard,

and watch it lug an object

forward single file

with no short breaks for

coffee, gossip, a croissant,

And no stopping to apostrophize

blossom, by-passed because

pollen is not its job,

no pause for trampled companions:

consider her ways – and be content.

David Curzon, born 1951 – poet, essayist, translator and United Nations official retiring in 2001.

 

 

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We are all witnesses

100_0442Who would have thought that when a group of murderous men attempted to kill a fourteen year old girl that they would have made her a global heroine and given her cause world-wide coverage?  Malala Yousafzai is extraordinary.  It’s hard to believe that a school girl should have become such a threat to the oppressive policies of the Taliban that they should try to suppress her and her campaign for women. And so heartening to know that two years later, in spite of her terrible wounds, she is living in peace in England, has written a book, and is still campaigning for the right for all women to an education.

Her poise, beauty and intelligence as I watched her fluently explaining the situation on TV and how she came to be such a campaigner was so moving, that it seemed even the interviewer  was nearly in tears. The next day she had tea with the most powerful man in the world and fearlessly asked him to stop killing her people with drones – that anyone should have to ask – since when has it been OK to kill innocent citizens of countries who are allies – and is reported to have told the President that it was counter-productive and caused resentment. A simple enough deduction that one would think the highly educated men in the White House could have reached for themselves!

But what is so exciting about sixteen year old Malala is that she is free to spread her message and to resist oppression and tyranny. She can speak and be heard. Her country and her people listen, and it’s only extremists who want to silence her.

Hers is such a contrast to the life of another inspiring and famous woman who was not free and who had to keep silent. Anna Akhamatova was the beautiful Russian poet whose husband was shot in the Stalin’s terror, and whose son was in and out of gulags until 1956 for the crime of having the parents that he had. In her long poem ‘Requiem’, which took four years to write between 1935 and 1940, she wrote these lines, having resisted the temptation to flee to the West like so many creative people whose lives were also in danger:

No foreign sky protected me,

no stranger’s wing shielded my face.

I stand as witness to the common lot,

survivor of that time, that place.’

Later, when the poem was published in 1961, she wrote: ‘Instead of a Preface’.

‘In the terrible years of the Yeshov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):

“Can you describe this?”

And I said: “I can.”

Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.’

Simply because she was a poet, whose writing the Soviet authorities condemned with the usual epithet – bourgeois – Anna’s life was perpetually in danger, and she was banned from most activities. She could have fled, but she stayed to be with her people – their witness – her only weapon, silent passive resistance. Active resistance would simply have meant the anonymity of being one of between forty and fifty million Russians shot, starved or worked to death in the gulag – the common fate of Soviet citizens under Stalin.

Poets met secretly, they wrote their poems in secret, and read them to each other. They each memorised them, and then the dangerous and incriminating pieces of paper were burned. So Anna became a witness. Witnessing was the only thing she could do.

And when Stalin died, and conditions eased, she emerged and she described. Her poetry was published and she became famous, and an inspiration to all who had resisted, and a lesson to those who came after her. Her words meant that no-one could forget.

I’ve often thought about Anna, and how witnessing matters so much to each person who suffers – somehow, to have a witness dignifies and validates the suffering and mitigates the loneliness. And women seem to have always instinctively been witnesses – witnesses at birth and death – witnesses to war, witnesses to life. Watching, validating, and by the very act of being there, loving.

It’s an unsung gift, but when I listen to a friend who works in a hospice, I realise that it’s one of the greatest gifts. Witnessing requires no words. It’s commitment and unspoken love, whether it’s Anna Akhamatova witnessing her country and her people’s agony and being there for it, or the mother, the daughter, the sister, the friend who watches through the night when the great life dramas of birth or death are being played out.

And often it isn’t even as dramatic as that. My daughter was driving a lonely immigrant who had no family, to hospital for a breast cancer operation. As she got out of the car, she saw the woman’s face. My daughter rushed round to her side, and stood, arms around her, just holding her, tears flowing down both faces. Frantic, she called out to the door attendant – “is it alright to park here?”  “Of course,” this beautiful man replied, “it’s for people like you”. They stayed holding each other until the friend felt strong enough to go inside – my daughter with her.

And one image is forever imprinted on my mind. I was sitting on a bus with the rain pouring down, dusk just beginning to darken the overcast skies. Something made me look out. There was a man I had got to know on a series of consciousness- raising courses. I hadn’t seen Brian for a while. He was sitting in the gutter in the rain with his arm around the shoulders of a drunk. Being there. Witnessing.

Food for threadbare gourmets

Trying to keep to my resolution to simplify life, and stop giving useless objects to people who lack for nothing, I’m making a jar of lemon curd for a friend who has a birthday. I’ve collected over time some of the nicely shaped Bon Maman French jam jars with red and white check screw- top lids – perfect.

Juice three lemons, and grate the zest. Put in a saucepan with ¾ cup of sugar, 150g of cubed butter, and six free range or organic beaten eggs. Stir over a medium heat until the butter is melted and the mixture has thickened. Don’t boil, take off the heat before it does. Pour into sterilised heat proof containers, and leave to set. Cover and keep in the fridge, and it will last for a month or so.

Food for thought

To organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-wracking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence.

Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated  without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.

E.F. Schumacher 1911 – 1977 – discussing Buddhist economics in ‘Small is Beautiful’. Schumacher was an international economist whose thoughts on economics evolved to cover many aspects of environmental protection, as well as the preservation of the  integrity of small local economies.

 

 

 

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Serendipity and the Private Life of Rabbits

100_0379I don’t know what made me ask. Serendipity. A visiting friend had said his wife hadn’t come with him to see us because they had guests from overseas – a palaeontologist and partner.

Out popped the words, “Not Ronald Lockley’s son?”  I’d once been told that his son was a palaeontologist. It was, and he came, and we were a mutual admiration group for his father. Synchronistically I had just been re-reading his father’s autobiographical book ‘Orielton’. Mostly because I wanted to refresh my mind about rabbits!

Ronald Lockley was the brilliant naturalist who did the research on rabbits which was the basis for Richard Adams’ famous book: ‘Watership Down’. Richard Adams made millions out of this book which has never been out of print, while Ronald wrote over sixty five books to keep the wolf from his door!

But in ‘Orielton’ he tells not only how he organised his amazing research into the life and domestic habits of wild rabbits, but how he also gained an insight into rabbit psychology, when he adopted an injured baby rabbit. His son – the one who came to talk – helped to keep it alive overnight and then That Rabbit, or TR as she was called, became part of the household.

The household lived in a remote and rambling beautiful Georgian manor surrounded by parkland of lakes, woodland, farms and gardens in Wales. A succession of other famous naturalists, Spanish domestics and would-be students and helpers passed through it, and the family and its animals lived a rich and lively life. Ronald’s interests and observation ranged over the private life of the large spiders inhabiting his home, to the badgers, birds, bats, rabbits, hares, and stoats, otters, ants and bees ranging the estate. This house which had rung with laughter, music, wit and brilliance from the likes of Ronald and Julian Huxley and Ludwig Koch, he finally handed over to the Field Studies Council, before leaving England.

Ronald was already well known among naturalists before he published his four year study of “The Private Life of the Rabbit”, having lived on, and written about the uninhabited island of Stokkum, off the Welsh Coast. Here  from 1928, he pioneered studies of migratory birds, established the first British bird observatory in 1933, and carried out extensive pioneering research on breeding Manx Shearwaters, Atlantic Puffins and European Storm-petrels – wonderful names… In the thirties he had made an Oscar winning film on gannets with Julian Huxley, but here at Orielton it was rabbits that took up most of his attention.

That Rabbit – TR – slept in the cat basket by the fireside, and when she was awake was “excessively playful” according to Ronald. She invented a version of hide and seek which she played on the stairs with anyone who would join in, and would chew through the string of s cotton reel Ronald used to roll around for her, seize the reel in her mouth and rush off dodging through the furniture as though playing rugby, enticing Ronald to chase her. If he was busy, she’d chew through his slippers, wreck his socks, and if all else failed, leap onto his type writer and push her face into his to get his attention.

After an unfortunate incident with a stoat, Ronald devised a system of In and Out doors which closed behind TR so the stoat couldn’t chase her inside. She learned immediately how to work this system, just as she had instantly worked out how to organise her toiletry, and never messed inside.

For afternoon tea in the garden with the rest of the family, she enjoyed weak tea with milk and a little sugar … and as time went by, Ronald realised that if he had not had this relationship with TR, he would never, as he said, have understood the soul of a rabbit. Even as an adult, TR sought out his company and showed a deep attachment to him.

The end of the story came when on one of their walks together, TR encountered a young buck rabbit… and then again. She left home and set up house with one of her own kind. But this was not the end of the story.

One night when everyone was sitting round the fire they heard the In-door, and TR came hopping through. She went straight to the cat basket, and grabbed in her teeth the dolls blanket which she used to cuddle up in, and then made a dash for the Out- door.

She had remembered as she prepared her burrow for her first litter of babies, that soft warm rug by the fire-side that she had always used!

Ronald had given me ‘Orielton’, with several others of his books, and I was such an ungrateful insensitive person in my younger days that I’d never got round to reading them. Natural history just didn’t do it for me then, and I was too wrapped up in my teenagers and complicated life generally.

I used to meet him when I was delivering my weekly column to the newspaper, and Ronald was delivering his naturalist column. (no e-mail copy then!) He had come to this country to live, because he felt that the UK was not committed to looking after the environment. We loved each other, and yet when I left Auckland to live in the country, we lost touch. It makes me sad now, Ronald was never really appreciated in this country – no-one really knew or recognised  his work back then in the seventies and eighties.

But as usual he made his mark on the place. He was involved in setting up the bird sanctuary at Miranda where every year, hundreds of thousands of godwits gather to begin their stupendous flight to the other side of the world – Siberia – to breed. He also created a little protected reserve around the house on the cliff where he lived, overlooking the sea on the edge of Auckland. I still have the book he gave me about his life in that: “House Above The Sea”, as it was called.

If fame means having an obituary in the New York Times, an entry in Wikipaedia and in various biographical tomes, Ronald does have fame. But I actually feel that the words from Ecclesiasticus describe him best: “and some there be which have no memorial…. these were merciful men, whose righteousness has not been forgotten.”

Richard Adams, who made a fortune out of Ronald’s research – which he acknowledged – said of Ronald that he was a “sensitive and clear-sighted lover of this beautiful earth.” The gentle humorous man I knew was also a lover of all beauty. He died in 2000 at ninety-six, and as I wrote this, these words came into my mind: “Swim with the dolphins deep in the sea, Soar in the sky with the birds and be free…”

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I needed a cake in a hurry the other day, and it was serendipitous too, because there was enough left for coffee when my expected visitors arrived the next day to talk of Ronald Lockley.

For this easy lemon cake you need 225 g each of soft butter, caster sugar and SR flour, four eggs and a lemon. Just beat the butter, sugar, eggs and grated lemon rind. When creamy, add the flour and beat gently. When blended pour into a medium sized greased and floured loaf tin and bake for fifty minutes at 160 deg C. I make a glaze of the juice of the lemon, a tablesp of caster sugar, and a teasp of butter. Melt and stir together and brush over the loaf when cooked.

 

Food for Thought

In a Bath Teashop

“Let us not speak, for the love we bear one another –

Let us hold hands and look.”

She, such a very ordinary little woman;

He, such a thumping crook;

But both, for a moment, little lower than the angels

In the teashop’s ingle-nook.

John Betjeman  1906 -1984  Much loved and much read Poet Laureate, and eccentric. As an under-graduate he took his teddy-bear Archibald Ormsby-Gore to Oxford with him, which was immortalised in the book: ‘ Brideshead Revisited’  by Evelyn Waugh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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