Category Archives: spiritual

Castaway Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for Threadbare gourmets

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

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

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

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May only love prevail!

lion lovr

I try not to hate. But I do hate experiments on animals. Reading a dying girl’s account of her last months, and the things which sustained her, I came across this story. It was an experiment on animals, and horrible though it was, it gave me food for thought, and some real joy, as it did her.

Healthy laboratory rats were being injected/ infected with cancer, in order to test a cure, but the researchers were puzzled that one batch of rats remained healthy. Investigating the rat’s life cycle to discover why they were immune to cancer, they asked the laboratory technician looking after them what their routines were. He told that them before he fed each rat, he couldn’t resist cuddling and stroking them.

So, these intelligent, lovely creatures, experiencing love, were able to resist deadly infection. I’ve thought a lot about love since, and what it means and how it manifests itself in all creatures and all forms of life.

It’s that time of year here, when the calves have been born, and their mothers demonstrate the same sort of mother love that our supposedly superior species do too. When the calves are born, the mother cow washes them and nuzzles them, and the washing and nuzzling and warm contact – love – is vital to keep them alive and anchor them in this world. The mothers feed them, and they nurture them. And when the calf is taken from them after a few days, depending on the farmer’s routines or whims, they grieve terribly, their bellows of pain echoing across the fields.

Thanks to this annual ordeal we are able to enjoy milk and butter and cheese, and thereby keep up our calcium levels and build strong bones. Being human is a terrible dilemma, where compassion is at war with what we perceive to be our needs or our enjoyment.

The intelligence and life force in everything around us is a constant miracle to me. I read today that plants, which all have their own individual scents, emit a warning smell to all plants around them when they’ve been attacked by a snail or an insect nibbling a morsel out of a leaf. And though all plant species have their unique scent, this warning scent they send out is the same for all different species… an amazing, intelligent and altruistic response to danger… Could Kant argue against altruism in plants as he did in human beings? I think not, there’s no advantage to a plant to warn fellow plants of all kinds, that they should beware… it must be pure love…

Loving plants! I think of trees, how scientist have discovered that the biggest, mother tree, apparently communicates with other younger trees around her, via fungi spores, and how dying trees send their energy along the spores to other healthy trees, a legacy of love from a dying tree.

And getting back to snails, the enemy of gardeners, and delicious delight to gourmets – we under-rate their feelings and intelligence as we do every other living thing except ourselves. I’ve been re-reading Elizabeth Luard’s book about bringing up her family in Spain and Provence, a medley of recipes and rich experiences.

A carnivore as well as afficionado of the bull fight, she unashamedly ate what the local people eat, with no scruples. So in the Languedoc, she and her children gathered snails by the bucket full, and then starved them for a few days on just a few herbs like thyme and rosemary, to clear their digestive system. But snails ain’t stoopid!

She described countless mornings coming downstairs into the kitchen, to find the snails had banded together in a concerted effort, lifted the bucket lid and escaped. ‘Snail break-out!’ she’d call and the household would tumble downstairs to search for the clever little gastropods.

Snails are altruistic too. I once read of two snails being observed in a garden with very poor pickings for a snail. One of them was sick, and the other seemed to abandon it by climbing the garden wall and finding a healthier environment down below. But he came back and accompanied the sick snail to greener healthier pastures. Which leads me to believe that snails can communicate with each other, and feel kindness and responsibility to a fellow snail! Maternal mother snails lay their eggs in little clumps, and visit them regularly until they hatch.

Though it seems amazing to read of solving the riddles of outer space, I find the incredible miracle of life on earth even more amazing, and I know that at this moment, our understanding of it is only scratching the surface of all that is underfoot and all around.

For so long homo sapiens has claimed superiority over all the earth’s creatures, and not just those who read Genesis which tells us we have dominion over all creatures… Buddhism seems to be one of the few creeds which honours other forms of life. While so-called philosophers like Descartes have encouraged mankind to ignore the feelings of animals and given us carte blanche to treat them as though they are mindless unfeeling machines.

Yet the beauty, the intelligence, the goodness, the love and the life in the whole of creation, is, it seems to me, reason for admitting that all creatures are equal in the sight of the Creator, the Source, or whatever we want to call the First Cause. (Reading of the way women are treated in some countries and some cultures, I feel the same about them too.)

One of the most powerful images of love is that of Christian the lion, racing down the African hill-side to leap into the arms of the two men who had brought him up, to hug them and lick them. The men had bought him from Harrods, and he lived with them in London until they were able to re-wild him as a teenager, with the help of George Adamson. It was a dreadful wrench to leave him in Africa and return to London, and they went back to visit him a year later. Christian saw and recognised them from afar, and crying and making heartfelt noises, tore down the hill to be re-united with the people he loved.

Sometime later, when they returned again, Christian had a wife and cubs, and led his two former guardians into the wild to meet them. The two men sat there quietly all day in the hot sun among the rocks with Christian and his wife and children, the very picture of Edward Hicks’ painting of ’The Peacable Kingdom. ‘

Over the years our family lived with fifteen rescued dogs, three at a time. They were all breeds, two afghans, boxer, cavalier King Charles spaniels (six), borzoi, labrador, bull mastiff, salukis. We also had several dogs who were ‘chosen’, not rescued, and much as I loved them, there was a particular quality about the love our rescued dogs gave us… it was as though they never forgot their past, and were utterly devoted to us who were their new owners. It always seemed wrong to say we owned them – we cared for them.

The gifts of love they gave us meant that the house seemed always to be brimming with love and fun, the same sort of love and fun which fills a house with toddlers in it. And when I read of experiments when different bowls of rice are treated to indifference, or interest – one ignored, the others greeted – and the subsequent decay of the ignored rice, and flourishing health of the others, it sends a powerful message.

It tells me that love is behind all life. Indifference is the opposite of love and is a killer. But love gives life, and health and hope. Scientific experiments have shown us that the observer can change the behaviour of what is observed, so maybe loving thoughts are as powerful as loving deeds. Maybe the rats would have survived the experiments supposed to make them ill, if they had just sensed and felt that the lab technician loved them.

This thought encourages me to use that lovely mantra: ‘may only love prevail’, in all circumstances, even when someone has stolen my parking place or overtaken me dangerously! Love your enemies said a great Teacher… I think I begin to understand what He was talking about.

I also love food… and for many of us cooking is a tangible way of loving our loved ones. I’m always looking for new ways to cook for my loved ones, and the other day hit the jackpot with a super-easy way of cooking organic chicken thighs…saute in butter and set aside. Pour a glass of wine into the pan, a generous teaspoon each of Dijon mustard and whole grain mustard. Boil them up, add a cup or more of cream, heat it, and pour over the chicken with salt and pepper. Cook in a moderate oven for half an hour or until tender.

We ate it with plain boiled rice and spinach – it was good. With the one piece left and some of the leftover cream, I made quick cream of chicken soup for a light lunch the next day, while Himself enjoyed something more substantial.

I added a chopped leek sauted in butter, some garlic, and half a tin of condensed chicken soup. With a chicken stock cube, boiled and whizzed smooth, a dollop of cream and some nutmeg, it was a treat. As Orson Welles advised “Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.”

 

 

 

 

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Heaven is a Place on Earth

TLot18againOur home in the forest

This is the last instalment of my autobiography before I resume my normal blogs

I asked the Salvation Army’s Missing Person’s Bureau to find my mother when I was nearly fifty. It took them three years, and when they did, I immediately flew to London to see her.

We met on neutral ground at the Tate Gallery, and sat on a leather bench in front of a masterpiece. I have no idea what the picture was, but the pattern of the red brocade wall- covering surrounding it is stamped on my memory forever. We stayed there for hours until the gallery attendant gently told us they were closing, and then we paced the Embankment trying to catch up on a lifetime.

In the end we never did bridge the gap of that lost time as she only seemed to remember the good times we had had, while I remembered the bad times, but what I learned about her broke my heart over and over again. Her father had left before she was born, and two stepfathers died of cancer.

When she was eight months pregnant with my younger sister she lived through the angst of waiting for her husband to return at Dunkirk. He didn’t. He escaped two weeks later. Two years after this, when he returned to do his officer training she became pregnant again, and gave birth to that child on her own as well.

And now, she met a farmer from the Channel Islands, who was working on Pluto – Pipe- Line Under the Ocean, a top -secret invention to supply fuel to the armies at D-Day. They planned to marry when the war was over and take us children to live on his family farm. There was an accident and he was killed. My mother was pregnant, and in despair she fled.

She couldn’t afford to keep the baby, adopted her, emigrated to Australia to start a new life, and eventually re-married a man she’d met on the voyage out. Back in London she had a daughter with her new husband, and when that baby was a few months old, this man went into a sanatorium with TB and when he recovered, never returned to her and their child.

She brought up that child alone, and became an efficient civil servant. On her retirement she sold her house in order to move and buy a house near her sister. Shopping for a new sofa, she learned from the hushed gossip in the local shop that her solicitor had hanged himself after embezzling all his clients’ money including hers.

She had a few thousand pounds left, which she blued on a trip to China, to fulfil at least one life’s dream. She had whiled away the long lonely years by learning Chinese, attending cookery classes, playing chess and listening to opera. And when I met her, she was living in a council retirement flat. She was a gentle, refined woman, and never at any time when I met her at intervals before her death, made any complaint about her life; and though she was sad, she was never bitter.

After a forty-year silence, I met my stepmother again too. And the weeks I now spent in her company were amongst the happiest in my life. All the dislike, hostility and coldness she had shown me had dropped away. And all the hurt and pain and anger I had felt at being rejected also dissolved. The love between us was so complete and miraculous, it felt as though we had transitioned to the next plane of being, when we see each other clearly, and recognise the love and beauty of each other’s soul.

My father died fifty years ago. He shaped the person I am today. Back from the war when I was aged ten, he used to stop at a second- hand book stall set up by his bus stop on Friday nights. There he chose his old favourites for me, like Lord Lytton’s ‘The Last Days of Pompeii,’ and ‘Harold’, Kingsley’s Westward Ho and my very favourite – read and re-read – Hypatia, the Greek woman philosopher and mathematician who came to a sticky end, thanks to men! Then there was David Copperfield and so many others.

When we moved to Catterick, he shared the books he was reading then, which included Sir Nigel and the White Company, Conan Doyle’s historical romances set in France in 1366, C.S. Forester’s Hornblower Books, and Napier’s History of the Peninsula Wars. And every night, when I’d finished my homework, he read aloud to my eleven- year- old self from H.M. Trevelyan’s ‘English Social History,’ setting up my fascination with history.

Still eleven, he taught me the value of money and compassion. Sitting at the dining table I had suggested my stepmother buy some sheepskin boots because her feet were cold, “they only cost five pounds,” I blithely chirruped.

“Look out of the window,” my father ordered. A worn working man with a deeply-lined face and shabby clothes covered in grime from a building site, was dragging tiredly past. “That man earns five pounds a week to feed his family”, my father grimly pointed out, and lectured me on extravagance in words that would have profited Marie Antoinette.

Later in Malaya, when I was sixteen, and we entertained the Indian quarter -master to tea with his wife in her colourful saris, and I had to give them my books on the Royal family who they loved, he demonstrated tolerance and the opposite of racism.

Back in England in the mid- fifties, he taught me to accept homo-sexuality at a time when it was scarcely mentioned. I commented on a strange man on the bus who wore a brown striped suit with flared trousers, a wide brimmed brown felt hat and thick makeup. He laughed, told me he was a wonderful old ‘queen’ and was such a punishing boxer that no-one dared jeer at him.

He demanded respect for all his soldiers, telling me they’d fought through the war, were bringing up families on a pittance, and were fine decent people. Like Abou Ben Adhem, he ‘loved his fellow men.’

Later when I was twenty-one, he suggested that my outlook was a bit narrow, and that I should read The Manchester Guardian. Back then it had a reputation for fine writing, tolerant humane values, and wide culture. I became a sensible feminist, reading Mary Stott on the women’s pages, learned about good food, enjoyed witty TV criticism, discovered avenues of musical appreciation, and acquired a burning social conscience, which cut me off from all my family and many of my friends!

When he retired from the army at forty-five he commuted/cashed up his army pension to pay for his youngest son’s expensive schools, and so condemned himself to working to support his family for the rest of his life. But he died in 1968 at fifty-four.

I wonder if anyone will remember me, fifty years after I am dead? At the moment, I am far from dead, and know that he would have loved to know what risks I have taken to live my life as fully as I can and to be able to love as deeply as I do now.

When I began blogging, I inadvertently stumbled on an unusual blog when I was looking for some poetry I’d enjoyed. When I left a comment on this rather beautiful blog, which was not poetry, the writer replied with such courtesy that I was enchanted. In the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein’s words – I ‘grocked’ him. Which meant I felt I knew him, and recognised him, and understood him at a very deep level.

We began ‘following’ each other, and our comments reflected a mutual admiration. My new follower wrote exquisite remarks on my blogs, but when a rather malicious stalker I’d attracted from the day I first began writing, began sneering at my “followers massaging my ego,” I feared that he might recognise the underlying message of love in the sensitive, perceptive words my new friend wrote on my blog. I feared that my stalker’s spite could spoil this friendship.

So I wrote to my friend, suggesting that we write privately instead, to avoid any unpleasantness. Two years and two thousand letters later, my friend – now my love- left his country, his home of forty- five years, the job he loved at a world-famous observatory, his family, and his friends and came to begin a life with me.

I read recently:”I don’t think genuinely falling in love is negotiable. The heart goes where the heart goes. Age has nothing to do with it.” This is true – he’s much younger than me, cherishes me the way I’ve never been cared for before, we share the same spiritual values, and revel in a life of love and freedom.

Like me, he had left behind not just his home, but most of his assets too, so we looked for a place where we could afford to live, that would give us the environment we both wanted. It was waiting for us. Just as out of over eighty million bloggers we had  found each other, so we discovered the perfect place that we could not only afford, but which turned out to be a haven of beauty, peace, and community.

We bought a tiny one room log cabin set on forty acres of covenanted podocarp forest, where we look across a valley like an amphitheatre and gaze up to our own mountain. We listen to our streams tumbling over rocks below, and hear birds singing from the dawn chorus in the morning to the moreporks/owls through the night. Our property is home to various almost extinct species of frog, lizards, geckoes, to more than three hundred species of butterfly and moths – or lepidoptera as I’ve learned to call them – and to rare plants and trees. People come from the universities and world-wide societies to study these precious vanishing species in this time of the sixth great extinction.

Our neighbours, hidden in the forest, have a shared environmental commitment to keeping the sprawling hills and ranges free of pests and to nurturing the creatures who’ve made their homes here for milleniums. These neighbours come from all walks of life – an architect, a musician, zoologist and landscape professors, a geologist and several engineers, a restauranteur, a painter, a therapist and others. They are all nationalities, Swiss, English, Australian, Belgian, Dutch, Maori, Russian, Mongolian, American.

Behind our high wrought iron gates, we share a civilised social life, and work together to preserve the forest. On our property, we’ve extended our original tiny dwelling, planted fragrant flowers, created architectural flights of steps, made melodious bells from diver’s tanks, re-cycled doors and windows and other found objects, and live a blissful life of creativity and harmony.

I wake in the morning and look out of the window to where the dawn shines gold on the peak of the mountain. I turn to my love and whisper, “the sun is on the mountain.” And another day begins of a quiet mystical life of love and beauty.

The end

 Food for Threadbare Gourmets

 I love Indonesian food, and a friend gave me a little booklet of recipes years ago. One page in particular is stained and dog-eared… with the recipe for sambel goreng telor on it – this means eggs in coconut milk.

For two people hard boil four eggs, cut them in two and put in a deep dish. Fry a chopped onion, and when soft add tomato, clove of garlic, half a red pepper, a table spoon of brown sugar and salt to taste. When they’re soft, add half a cup of coconut milk, heat and pour over the eggs. Delicious with plain boiled rice.

Food for Thought

 Hear our humble prayer, O God, for our friends the animals, especially for animals who are suffering; for any that are hunted or lost or deserted or frightened or hungry; for all that must be put to death.

We entreat for them all thy mercy and pity and for those who deal with them we ask a heart of compassion, gentle hands and kindly words.

Make us ourselves to be true friends to animals and so to share the blessings of the merciful.

Albert Schweitzer, doctor, humanitarian, writer,  musician, organist and organ restorer

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Footprints of the Nazis

Image result for hanover in world war two
Post-war Hanover

A life – This is the seventh instalment of an autobiographical series before I revert to my normal blogs)

Postwar Europe was a unforgettable monument to Hitler’s destructive genius. The train which was supposed to take us to Hanover got lost in the chaos that still existed in Europe in 1947. We took a wrong loop of the track and traversed areas of Northern Germany, reaching Hamburg before turning back.

We arrived at Hanover eight hours late, having rattled uncertainly through endless suburbs of ruined cities, nothing but mountains of broken bricks, and half houses still standing, looking like the half of a doll’s house where you can re-arrange the furniture. In these grotesque rooms, pictures were askew on walls, and cupboard doors hung open, chairs still sat round marooned dining tables and empty fireplaces waited to be lit by ghosts.

I was awed into silence by these gross and hellish scenes. But at nine, I couldn’t even begin to guess the human tragedies, the broken lives, the blasted families, and never realised that maimed and starving people were actually trying to live in these apocalyptic holes and hills of smashed bricks and rubble. At the station where we stopped to disgorge some of the people crushed into the crammed carriages, thin white – faced children banged on the windows begging for food, and scrabbled at the side of the tracks looking for odd lumps of coal.

We were seated in the restaurant car, eating the first white bread that we had ever seen, quite unlike our war- time rations, but the thrill of this exciting new food was dulled by the pale dust- smeared faces outside the window.

Finally, Hanover at midnight. The station was the usual bedlam, the engine hissing and roaring, people calling and shouting and waving, and the lighting so poor that it took longer than usual for everyone to sort themselves out and find each other. When everyone had trickled off and the train had pulled away again, my stepmother and sister and I were still waiting on the platform.

My father was nowhere in sight. What felt like a very long time later, loaded down with our luggage, we found our way to the Ahtee-o, which I later learned meant RTO, or Railway Transport Office. We didn’t seem to be particularly welcome at that time of the night, but something had to be done with us.

The telephone lines through to Belsen to contact my father were simply the military ones, and though Belsen was only about twenty miles away, it seemed to be a very difficult operation to find him. Every conversation was filled with a hail of military terms and abbreviations which flew back and forth like a secret code. Through bleary, sleep-filled eyes I watched the impatient RTO sergeant trying to raise a distant Orderly Officer, who had to get through to the Officers Mess to find my sleeping and delinquent father.

Halfway through, my sister wanted to use the loo. This caused consternation. The nearest ladies was miles away in another part of the station. But we three females set off. The next shock was ready to rise up and hit us. I had assumed that all the people I had seen at the station were in the process of going or coming – to catch a train or leave one. Now we discovered that they had all settled down for the night again, thousands and thousands of people sleeping on every available bit of floor- draped up and down stairs, propped up against walls where there was no room to stretch out.

We had to step over all these sleeping bodies, avoid their belongings and move half a dozen people out of the public lavatory in order to use it. The ragged, hungry refugees did not seem very happy to be woken by three well- dressed English females in the middle of the night. It certainly wasn’t a comfort stop for us. My stepmother seemed to be as anxious and insecure as I felt. And then there was the long drag back to what seemed now, like the comfort and familiarity of the RTO.

Finally, at three o clock, unable to raise my father, it was decided that we should be taken to spend the rest of the night in a transit camp – another unfamiliar military term. Once again, we braved the sleeping, homeless hordes, and emerged at the front door of the station to climb into a waiting jeep. As we walked down the steps, I looked out towards the city, and there through the black ruined outline of a broken church window, the moon shone in a clear pale sky.

We were awakened next morning by the embarrassed arrival of my father, who had given up waiting for the train to arrive the previous afternoon, since no-one knew what had happened to it. I knew my stepmother felt that he had let us down, and I thought so too. He took us to our new home where my sister and I had to feel out a whole lot of new rules. Not only was my new parents’ honeymoon over, but so was ours.

When we had lived in Yorkshire my stepmother had worn very fashionable clothes, to my old- fashioned eyes, which I knew my grandmother would have thought were ” very fast”. But my stepmother would wear these wonderful clothes to breakfast, and when she heard a favourite tune on the wireless, she would jump up and waltz round the room with my father, humming and laughing and even kissing him. My sister and I hardly knew where to look during this extraordinary adult behaviour, but now, that was all over. No more smart grey trousers, no more incredibly high -heeled, navy suede court shoes, which I hoped she would leave to me in her will. Just the same boring old skirts and flowered tops day after day. No-one told us that these were maternity clothes.

On the 11 February, 1948 our stepmother was not at the breakfast table. While the maid served breakfast, our father told us she had gone into hospital in the night. When we asked why, he said he didn’t know. At school we felt both scared and important. At play-time everyone discussed it, with guesses as to what the matter might be. They ranged from appendicitis to her death bed.

Finally, someone said: ” She was getting a bit fat. D ‘you think she’s going to have a baby?” “She wasn’t getting fat”, I replied indignantly. “And anyway, they’d have told us if they were going to have a baby.” Back home for lunch, our father was sitting at the dining table waiting for us. He was smiling broadly. “You’ve got a baby brother,” he said.

By then, we knew the right way to behave, so we both exclaimed with excitement. But underneath I felt a little pain in my chest. I never examined it, but I knew that it was because they hadn’t wanted to share it with us. After that we seemed to be two groups in the family. My sister and I who were there because there was nowhere else to be, and my father, stepmother, and the baby, who I adored. Them and us. We had bread and jam at afternoon tea. “They” had biscuits or cake.

And now life took on a darker tone… We slept on one side of the house, my parents at the other end. Every night they would march into the bedroom to say good night. If we had been good, it was okay, and it was usually okay for me as I was chronically law-abiding.

But my sister was always in ‘trouble’, and every night after the post mortem she was spanked. Then the two tall adults who seemed to tower over us, marched out again, leaving my sister to cry herself to sleep. To my eternal shame I didn’t cross across to her bed to comfort her, but lay wretchedly curled up in my own bed trying not to hear her sobs.

After my best friend was murdered by her father, who shot the whole family one night, I was moved to a small bedroom near my parents. I was the first person at the scene, I had knocked repeatedly on the door to collect Mary for our early morning riding lessons, but there was no answer. By the time I got to school later, the door had been broken down and the heart-rending scene discovered.

I suppose my parents thought I might need some support, but I never talked to them about it, as I was worried that Mary and her brother had gone to hell, and used to send myself to sleep praying that they had gone to heaven instead. Since my parents didn’t believe in God there was no point in talking to them about it. It’s only now as I write that I realise how it must have been for my eight -year- old sister left alone to cope on her own at the other side of the house when I was moved.

We lived in the only residential street in the concentration camp, known as Hoppenstadt Strasse with notices each end in German and English – Langsam fahren kinder – Drive slowly children.

The houses we lived in had been the homes of the German prison guards during the war. Now, one side of the street was reserved for officers’ families, and we each had one floor of the houses, which meant that we had two flats which had been roughly connected to make a roomy home. Our home, I learned many years later from my stepmother, had had the distinction of having housed Josef Kramer, the notorious commandant of the camp, known as the Beast of Belsen. It never felt like a happy home.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 Having a long car journey to and fro from a very sad funeral, leaving at 5am, I couldn’t face eating bready sandwiches for breakfast -on- the -run during the dash to be there by 10am, so the day before, I made something from my recipe book, called Jenny’s zucchini slice, to eat instead.

Grate three good sized zucchini/courgettes. In a large bowl, beat five eggs, and add three chopped slices of bacon, a cup of grated cheese, a cup of self- raising flour, half a cup of oil, and an onion (did my usual, and pre-cooked it in the micro wave), the grated zucchini, salt and pepper. Stir everything together and spread in a shallow, greased baking tin. The mix should be about an inch and a half deep. Bake in a moderate oven for roughly three quarters of an hour, or until a knife slides out clean. It’s delicious hot or cold, eaten with salad for a meal, or cut into slices to eat on a journey like ours.

 Food for thought

 “I can choose either to be a victim of the world or an adventurer in search of treasure. It’s all a question of how I view my life.”            Paul Coelho

 

 

 

 

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Time, like an ever-rolling stream

a traditional Cotswold village hotel, England, UK

Image result for dorset villages

A life  – Part one

Diarist Frances Partridge wrote”… I have a passionate desire to describe what I’ve felt, thought or experienced, for its own sake – to express, communicate or both? And I can hardly bear not to pin down the fleeting moments.”

This year is when I turn eighty, the sort of birthday one can never imagine will happen to oneself, and I still have  that:  ‘passionate desire to describe what I’ve felt, thought or experienced, for its own sake – to express. communicate…’ and above all, to savour and revel in the joy of everything – love, food, family, friends, ideas, music, books, the sea and the wind, the birds and the flowers… infinite treasures and gifts.

My years seem to have been packed with incident and tragedy, drama and amazement, travel and wonder. I look back at the people I’ve known and loved, and also to the people, who to my puzzlement and sadness have hated me and sabotaged me, and I know that each one has given me gifts of love and insight, and in the case of my enemies, strength and tolerance… I can’t say that I ’love them that hate’ me in Jesus’s words, but I try to see the point of their presence in my life, and to let them go… forgiveness is not a word I use… I’d rather come to terms with the past and the sadness of knowing that others are hostile, and then release them from my life.

What I have learned from the hostility and jealousy of those people who do actually hate me – and they are family rather than strangers-  is that their words reflect who they are, rather than telling me anything about myself.

One of the wonderful things about living the years that I have, is that Time has taught me so much about myself. In doing so, Time and opportunity have set me free to be the essence of who I really am, rather than the person who has been beset by the grief of bereavement, abandonment, divorce, poverty, pain and rejection. The insights that Time has allowed me to gather, have set me free from those profound and painful experiences to be joyful, fearless, and – I hope -loving…

And like Frances Partridge, I have this urge to write about the fleeting moments, even if no-one reads them… just writing the story of time past will be satisfying, fulfilling, and, I suspect, will give me fresh insights with which to live the rest of life, however long it may be. My intention is also to go forth on the next journey, singing and dancing, heading off joyfully into that other plane of existence which awaits us all.

Maybe writing my story will seem self-indulgent to some readers, but to those who stick around and find it interesting, I thank you in advance.

Most of us were touched by history in the 20th century, and many of our lives touched too. Sometimes, the connections are obvious, sometimes they remain hidden. And sometimes history, events or people have reached out from other centuries and other segments of time and beckoned for attention. The past is always with us – our own and the pasts of other people and other times. Consciousness of these peoples and these pasts enrich the experience of our present.

And, oh, the pleasure of acquaintance with personalities then and now, their quirks and foibles and wonderful, mystifying uniqueness. And there is too, the indefinable uniqueness of the places around the planet where human beings have settled and, in the taming of the place, evolved their own particular culture.

Skyscrapers and fast food chains may try to obliterate the personality of modern megalopolises, but rock and sand, climate and sea still exert their shaping influence. Rock and sea hem in the millions who cluster upon Hongkong, and mould their lives as they push and punch for space, while among the mountains and islands, volcanoes and lakes of New Zealand, people have obliterated forests and swamps and become a pastoral people.

For a while I lived on the rock that is Hongkong, and among the mountains, lakes and plains that are New Zealand; I shared the hardships of survivors in dis-membered Germany and battered Britain, grew up in Malayan jungles and attended school set among tea plantations in the highlands.

The story that I write is like the story of us all, in that it’s my interpretation of the past, my remembrance and re-living and reworking of the segments of time  inherited from my forbears and family.

Begin at the beginning, commanded Alice, but, like most of us, my own stories only begin halfway though. Glints of sunlight and moments of beauty remain embedded in the dull, grey mass of unremembered early years. That pink dress with tiny tucks and frills, a blue balloon sailing away in the wind, the taste of a warm cherry pulled from a drooping branch, the honey scent of golden gorse flowers, these are my beginnings. But where did they lead and where am I still travelling?

Dorset in 1940 was a different world. It was my world. With no pylons or pollution, undefiled by progress, it still lay dreaming in that deep content described by Thomas Hardy. Once known as Summerlands, it seemed always to be summer in my two and three- year- old’s memory. Hardy’s description: ” The languid perfume of the summer fruits, the mists, the hay, the flowers, formed therein a vast pool of odour which at this hour seemed to make the animals, the very bees and butterflies drowsy…” was how it was for me.

The skies were clear and blue, and the bright sun blindingly gold. Dragonflies darting and dipping over the water seemed one moment emerald-green, the next, electric blue. Wisps of freshly- gathered hay lay in long horizontal strips high up on hawthorn hedges, where the heavily laden dray, hauled by a huge, patient cart horse had swayed and creaked down the narrow lane past our home in the dusk. The scent of honeysuckle and the taste of pink and yellow cherries warmed by the sun still transports me back to those times.

My twenty-three -year- old mother had fled the Blitz and was living in great discomfort in a tiny farm cottage. It had no electricity, which was not unusual then, and she walked regularly to the village shop to replenish the oil for the lamps she used at night. I dragged along holding the handle of the pushchair while my baby sister sat in it. We passed the grey stone manor, scene of Tess of the D’Urberville’s honeymoon, and plodded over the ancient Elizabethan bridge to a shop before the level crossing. The dark little shop had fly papers hanging in it with dying flies buzzing. Their misery appalled me.

Sometimes, I lay on my stomach and pushed my head between the struts of  the small bridge nearby to watch the currents of the stream. Other times I stood on tiptoes high enough to peer over the  lichen-encrusted stone of the big bridge over the river, and gazed into the shiny water flowing below, and at the sharp emerald- green of the long strands of water-weed forever rippling with the current. If I forgot time, I discovered that my mother seemed miles away with the push-chair, and ran in panic to catch up.

The only thing which shattered the silence of those quiet days, was the terrible tanks which ground ear-splittingly along the road from the nearby military camp. Once, as we crossed the grey bridge over the Frome, a column of tanks caught us halfway across. We sheltered in one of the mossy alcoves for pedestrians trapped in former ages by farm carts, horses and carriages. The caterpillar tracks, which seemed to smash into fragments the very air we breathed, were higher than my ears. Their noise felt like hearing the sound of hell. No-one told me this was the sound of war

At two I had few words, but I understood what the adults were saying, and they often puzzled me. The biggest puzzle of all was when they gathered in a little knot of excitement, and looked up to those clear, blue skies, saying: ” There’s another dog-fight”. Hard though I squinted up into the cloudless blue sky, I could see no dogs, only  tiny white crosses, and white puffs following the crosses, diving across the sky. Now I know this was the Battle of Britain.

There was a framed photograph of me on the kitchen wall. Thick dark hair cut straight across my forehead, dark eyes, my neck and shoulders fading away. I looked at it often, wondering when my arms and the rest of me grew. And there were other memories too, like snapshots in colour, with no knowledge of what happened before or after.

Pulling on my Wellingtons and staggering outside, very proud to have managed it un- aided, and the pain at the burst of laughter when the adults saw the boots were on the wrong feet. The grass snake in the puddle. Putting my arms round a huge, hairy, grey and white dog called Mollie. The perfect happiness of the day I was big enough to fit the blue, pink and yellow flowered sun-suit, when the big children from the farm let me join them, and we ran up a hill where sunshine streamed between the trunks of pine trees in golden columns of light.

These older girls taught me their country games, dances and songs, some harking back to the eighteenth century: ‘Poor Jennie is a-weeping on a fine summer’s day’, a haunting tune that has stayed with me all my life, and: ‘I sent a letter to my love and on the way, I dropped it. One of you has picked it up and put it in your pocket…’

These are some of the fleeting moments that reach back to that past more than seventy- seven years ago … ‘Time, like an ever-rolling stream, Bears all its sons away, They fly forgotten, as a dream Dies at the opening day.’

To be continued

Food for threadbare gourmets

After all that rich Christmas food we needed something to re-set our digestive juices ! I craved curry, wanted something quick and easy, and also wanted to use up scraps. I only had half an onion, plenty of mushrooms, the green top of a leek, and tomatoes. Giving the chopped onion a quick zap in the microwave, I added it to the frying pan with olive oil,  sliced mushrooms, the leek chopped very finely, and a couple of chopped tomatoes.

When they were soft, feeling lazy, I stirred in a generous teaspoon of prepared garlic from a jar, a teasp of ginger from a jar, a good sprinkling of ground cumin, coriander and even more of turmeric to taste, plus a teasp of mild curry powder for good measure. When the spices had cooked for a few minutes in the oil, I added water, and let the mix boil … after tasting, I added a generous dollop –  a heaped tablespoon – of ginger marmalade to take the sharpness off the curry and a good squirt of tomato paste from a tube. After letting all this gently simmer, I added some cream before serving, but another time would try yogurt.

We ate it with dahl – lentils – and a hard- boiled egg each. I couldn’t be bothered to cook rice as well, but the lentils soaked the curry up instead. This quick simple economical vegetarian curry was even better when it had mellowed the next day, when we had it again…

Food for thought

The dedicated life is the life worth living. You must give with your whole heart.

Annie Dillard – American writer and mystic

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Angels and the third man


About twenty years ago a veranda on a house in Wellington collapsed under the weight of a Christmas party and all the revellers were hurled to the ground some way below.

I kept the newspaper clipping of this accident for some years to show my grandchildren. Not for any ghoulish reason, but for the story a pregnant partygoer told. She landed upright, unharmed, unlike the others, many of whom were injured. She said she felt absolutely no fear, because at the split second the veranda began to fall, a great white being held her, and deposited her safely. I wanted my grandchildren to hear from another source than their Grannie, about the reality of angels.

My lovely cleaning lady Rebecca also told me about her encounter with an angel. She was a tiny little thing, and at the time she was working on a fishing boat. It was hard physical labour for a woman trying to keep her end up in tough male society and on this voyage, she developed excruciating toothache, as well as a really bad back. Sitting on her bunk on her six- hour sleep shift, she began to weep from pain and exhaustion. Suddenly a column of light appeared beside her, and she felt enveloped in love and peace. She drifted off into a deep sleep, and when she awoke her toothache and bad back had gone, and she felt strong, happy and revived.

There are many stories of angels, and they always fill me with joy. I find the mysterious story of the extra presence on Shackleton’s expedition, when they were in dire straits very moving. As he and two other exhausted starving team members struggled over glaciers and mountains in South Georgia to get help for everyone else stranded on Elephant Island, having just endured an eight-hundred- mile voyage in an open boat through mountainous seas and hurricanes, they reported that there was always this extra person, and yet when they came to count it, it was never there.

Yet the presence was continually there, sustaining them throughout their dreadful journey, on which the lives of everyone else depended. Shackleton wrote: “during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia, it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.”

TS Eliot alludes to this in ‘The Waste Land.’

‘Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
— But who is that on the other side of you.

This is sometimes called the Third Man Factor, and many survivors of shipwrecks, avalanches, fires, polar expeditions etc, describe it. Scientists and researchers rationalise that this is some sort of projection of the mind to protect us when we are in danger, or at the last gasp of our strength, which is why it happens for so many explorers, mountaineers, and in the case of the last man out alive from the World Trade Centre. That man, Ron Di Francesco described a Being who led him out of the inferno just before it collapsed on 9/11.

But what happened in what I am about to describe was different to the Third Man phenomenon, for I was in no danger, and was being cared for.

I have never seen an angel, but I felt their magic Presence on this occasion. It happened a few years ago, when I came home from a dinner party, deeply upset by the way a group of old friends had ganged up on one very vulnerable person. It was totally unlike them all, but puzzlngly, it had happened. Too churned up to go to bed, I decided to make a cup of tea, but didn’t bother to switch on the kitchen light, since the hall light dimly illuminated the space.

This was my downfall, because in the half light, I poured the boiling water from the kettle over my hand. I stepped back away from the scalding water now running over the bench, and my high heels slipped in the water spilling onto the floor. I fell backwards, pulling the kettle on top of me, thus scalding my stomach as well as both hands.

Almost insane with the pain, with the skin hanging off my fingers, I somehow rang a help-line for advice on what to do, and they sent an ambulance. Morphine and more blessed morphine got me to hospital, and once there, the doctor treating me warned me about the seriousness of the burns, and the likelihood of long-term nerve damage. My arm would be in a sling for three months and I would need long-term treatment and physiotherapy. Then I was wheeled into a side room until someone had time in Emergency to transfer me to a ward.

I lay there for three hours, during which I experienced the most blissful moments of my life. As I felt the company of heaven enveloping me in an un-earthly love, peace, joy, glory, I thanked them ecstatically over and over again for the accident, which had brought me to this place.

When I was wheeled into a ward, I felt quite wild with bliss. Back home the next day, when the nurse called to change the bandages, I knew when she took them off, there would be no wounds, and I was right. The burns were completely healed apart from some sore red patches on my stomach, on which the nurse smeared honey every day for a week, which completed the healing.

The few people I shared this experience with were divided into those who believed it, and those who said it was the effect of the morphine… except that I never needed even an aspirin for pain afterwards, since I had no pain or scars. And when I shattered my leg last year and was in hospital and on morphine for months, I never felt how I had felt that night. The Company of Heaven cannot be explained away.

So now, Christmas is here again, and probably Christmas angels are with us as usual, even though we may not see them, or feel them, or believe in them, and I remember the lovely lines of Francis Thompson:

‘The angels keep their ancient places;

Turn but a stone and start a wing!

‘Tis ye, ’tis your estranged faces,

That miss the many-splendoured thing.’

And though we may not see the many-splendoured thing, we can take comfort if we wish, in knowing that the angels do still keep their ancient places… that ’angels and archangels and all the company of heaven’ in the words of the Anglican prayer book, are not just a fancy, but a truth.

A Happy and a Merry Christmas to all my friends who read this blog.

The picture is by Guercino. An angel in flight, c.1648. Red chalk, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

We had a little party to celebrate arriving in our forest two years ago… I cooked these little cheese biscuits to nibble, these amounts make about twenty. You need four ounces of butter, eight ounces of finely grated cheese, 3 ounces of plain flour, half teasp English mustard powder, quarter teasp cayenne pepper, and salt.

Cream butter and cheese with a fork, and add flour a tablespoon at a time, then the other ingredients. On a piece of baking parchment roll the mixture into a sausage about one and a half inches in diameter, and chill in the fridge. This can be made in advance and frozen if need be. Before baking, cut the roll into thin pieces the size of a coin, and cook on a baking tray for eight to ten minutes at 190C or 375 F… cool on cake rack. They’re best baked the day you need them.

 

Food for thought

Loveliness does more than destroy ugliness. A mere touch of it in a room, in a street, even on a door knocker, is a spiritual force. Ask the working-man’s wife, and she will tell you there is a moral effect even in a clean table cloth.

Henry Drummond, Scottish inspirational writer.

 

 

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Christmas in Antarctica

Image result for antarctica

 

The lady in the cancer book shop where I regularly search the shelves for a good bargain as well as a good read, told me she was spending Christmas in the Antarctic. ‘Very expensive,’ she murmured. ‘Really?’ I replied, naive and astonished, thinking of a tough Christmas in Scott’s hut. ‘Surely not? Do you stay in a B and B?” I asked incredulously. “No, no,” she laughed, “a cruise ship.”

This I find fascinating… just over a hundred years after Scott’s dreadful journey and death, we now go to spend holidays in the big chill. Expensive… yes, I bet – with a grand Christmas dinner – turkey and roast potatoes, Christmas pudding and a full complement of wines thrown in on board the warm floating hotel.

On the other hand, I shudder to think of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Christmas dinner with Wilson and Oates and Bowers and Evans at the South Pole. Scott recorded what he grandly termed four courses. ” The first, pemmican, full whack, with slices of horse meat flavoured with onion and curry powder and thickened with biscuit; then an arrowroot, cocoa and biscuit hoosh sweetened; then a plum pudding; then cocoa with raisins, and finally a dessert of caramels and ginger.”

(Pemmican was the classic polar food – preserved and dried meat) Birdie Bowers, and Taff Evans (there were two E. Evans on the expedition) both felt so filled with warmth and human kindness after this extraordinary collection of unpalatable rubbish, that they decided that when they got back to England they would “get hold of all the poor children we can and just stuff them full of nice things, ” in bachelor Bowers’ words. Sadly there are even more ‘poor’ hungry children today in a world of affluence…

Bowers was responsible for the Christmas celebration, having smuggled the food over and above the allowed weights for the journey. Once the recalcitrant and desperate Mongolian ponies – who had suffered so terribly on the sea journey to the Antarctic, and who had then struggled endlessly in appalling weather and conditions on food they couldn’t eat – had been killed, every man carried his own food and equipment on the heavy sleds. Bowers had always sneaked his night-time biscuit to his pony. On the night before they were all killed, Wilson, St Francis’s man, gave his whole biscuit ration to the poor creatures, like the condemned man’s last meal.

Scott’s men unwittingly starved to death. For most of the journey they suffered from hunger, and spent long reveries dreaming about food as they trudged through the snow and icy winds, watching each other like hawks as the pan of hoosh was handed round at night. There was no variety. Every night the same, pemmican, cocoa and biscuit. The cocoa was cooked in the same pan as the pemmican, so it tasted of pemmican anyway. Though they had planned their rations according to known standards of nutrition at the time, they failed to take into account the human body’s needs for vitamins.

The more I learned about this historic expedition which has stayed in the collective memory of the world, the more Scott’s society seemed like a bees’ tight-knit society, Scott himself being queen-bee. As in the bee-hive, there was no crime in Scott’s world, and very little discord – restraint kept most grievances tightly bottled up… Scott was king, as well as queen bee, distant, demanding, admired, respected, deferred to – to their disadvantage, sometimes. Oates wanted to take some of the weaker ponies as far south along their route as possible, to kill and leave to eat on the long Polar return journey, but Scott vetoed this idea. It could have saved their lives.

They kept themselves amused through the endless black polar days and nights with a variety of imaginative ploys…Apsley Cherry-Garrard was the editor of the South Polar Times, a publication typically initiated by Shackleton on Scott’s first expedition, and revived in 1911, type-written with illustrations consisting of line drawings and coloured sketches by Wilson. It carried, among other things, a flourishing letters to the editor page.

There was also a piano and a wind-up gramophone to amuse the lads, donated by HMV before they left. They read – Laurie Oates, nicknamed ‘Titus’ after the notorious seventeenth century conspirator of the same name, read ‘Napier’s History of the Peninsula Wars, Cherry -Garrard, the complete Kipling, Day devoured Dickens, while others read Victorian poets and popular novels. They played chess and backgammon and cards. Significantly Scott was always beaten at chess by Nelson, so took to playing with Atkinson, a man he could beat. Scott also organised lectures to occupy the sixteen – strong company, a diverse group ranging from a non- English-speaking Russian groom, to the scientists, sailors and adventurers. They were English, Norwegian, Canadian and Australian.

Cavalryman Captain Oates, who in spite of being taciturn, was a very potent presence and a penetrating observer, unimpressed by Captain Scott, spent a great deal of time trying to cosset his ponies, and many hours crouching with them in their freezing stalls, coaxing them to eat their in-edible rations, or rescuing harness, headstalls and any other object which the bored and ravenous animals were tempted to devour. Oates’s cronies who shared one side of the cramped hut while wintering at Cape Evans, consisted of Bowers, Cherry-Garrard, Atkinson and Meares, who were known as The Tenement Dwellers, anti- feminist, anti-scientist, conservative and spartan – and, one has to add – narrow-minded and philistine.

The other side of the twenty-five- foot wide hut were the scientists, who made a dainty attempt at home-making, mocked by Oates who called their space The Opium Den. They draped a curtain, scrounged from photographer Ponting, across their bunks to give themselves privacy. One added a branch acetylene light, another stained everything stainable with Condy’s fluid, making it a uniform red brown, the Norwegian, Gran, put red borders made from photographers’ material on their shelves, while another adorned his bunk with a piece of dark blue material which had started life as part of a Sunday altar cloth.

With all this, they danced together (the fiendishly difficult Lancers), sang together (at church services), reminisced together, and confided in each other (typically Oates’s confidences were about his old nanny in Yorkshire, and his commanding officer in India – Douglas Haig, soon to command the armies on the Western Front in WW1). Each man had his own duties, and shared the rest with every-one else. They were usually busy, or exhausted. No-one shirked or dodged. They looked out for each other. They too, were busy as bees, and the devil never found any idle hands. Each man knew his place in the scheme of things, and the hierarchy was as rigid and unchanging as that in the bee-hive.

Understatement was the preferred mode of communication. When they’re fighting for their lives and baling endlessly during terrible storms they use code words like “interesting ” and “exciting” to cope with their fear and their feelings. Oates writes to his mother about the Antarctic before he gets there: ” the climate is very healthy although inclined to be cold”. No-one ever seems to get cross or impatient, according to Scott, who records his own assessments of members of the expedition in his diary.

They relied on each other for company and comfort, succour and safety. They knew that their survival depended on each other, and perhaps in this way discovered for themselves the truth of the ideal society in which all life and all things and all men are connected to each other. No-one is separate from the whole, a truth civilisation has forgotten.

Writing in his book ‘The Worst Journey in the World’ of the expedition to Cape Crozier he made with Bowers and Wilson to collect Emperor penguin eggs, Cherry Garrard said ‘ And we DID stick it… We did not forget the Please and Thank you, which mean much in such circumstances, and all the little links with decent civilisation which we could still keep going. I’ll swear there was still a grace about us as we staggered in. And we kept our tempers – even with God.’ A bond of mysticism carried these three men through.

Tactful Dr Bill Wilson, secret disciple of St Francis, and known as Uncle Bill, was the advisor, peace-maker and comforter in the tiny Polar society. Birdie Bowers, bachelor, tiger for punishment, endlessly strong and tireless long after everyone else was fainting with exhaustion was the other closet mystic in the party – ” The purpose of life” he wrote, “… is to make a great decision – to choose between the material and the spiritual, and if we choose the spiritual we must work out our choice, and then it will run like a silver thread through the material… nothing that happens to our bodies really matters…

In spite of their failure to be the first to reach the South Pole – Amundsen beat them to it in a race they hadn’t bargained for – the triumph of their spirits over the terrible adversities they faced, has made their journey unforgettable. Scott’s biographer, Crane goes further, saying Scott’s “ letters, diary and last message extend our sense of what it is to be human. No one else could have written them; no one else, at the point of defeat and dissolution, could have so vividly articulated a sense of human possibilities that transcend both.” And in spite of their deaths, Scott’s scientific measurements, researches and discoveries were of enduring value to later explorers.

So at the edge of the world, on the edge of starvation, at the end of their tethers and at the end of their lives all four of the returning four Pole team members manifested courage, courtesy, kindness, decency and transcendent humanity … including heroic Oates limping out into the blizzard to die so his fellows might save themselves. These qualities are sometimes felt to be out of date in our modern times, but they are the qualities fostered by the Christian faith which is what Christmas celebrates, something sometimes forgotten in the general feasting, shopping, partying, gift giving and receiving.  I wonder how the Christian festival will be remembered on that passenger liner in the Antarctic – and how Scott and his men will be remembered too…

Food for threadbare gourmets

I’d made an extra pastry quiche shell, so I tried a new recipe, using pumpkin and kumara/sweet potato. Take a chunk of pumpkin weighing between four and five hundred grams, and grate. Grate a kumara, and mix them together in a largish bowl. Stir in half a cup of flour, and two cups of grated cheese. Beat six eggs with three quarters of a cup of cream, and stir into the mix, along with a tablespoon of mild curry powder and cumin each. Salt and pepper to taste, spread in a deep pastry shell and bake in a moderate oven for roughly 45 minutes. I served it with green beans and a few rashers of bacon for the resident carnivore! It was good cold too.

Food for thought

We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love… and then we return home.                           Australian Indigenous people’s proverb

 

 

 

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