Category Archives: The Sound of Water

Was I a snowflake?

Image result for radipole weymouth dorset
A life – part four

 

When we occasionally walked past what was known as the elementary school in those days, I used to shudder. The grim Victorian building, the concrete playground and iron railings, the noise and roughness of it horrified me. I was so grateful, even as a small child, that I went to my sheltered little school.

Unlike most prep schools one reads about in that period my private school was neither cruel, sadistic or frightening – perhaps because it was owned by a woman and all our teachers were women, except for the wonderful history teacher.

Miss MacFarlane-Watts, owner and head mistress, was a tall commanding woman with thick, grey hair cut almost as short as a man’s. She wore white shirts with a tie, heavy pleated skirts, tweed jackets, thick stockings and flat lace- up shoes. Without ever having heard the word lesbian or even a discussion about genders, I knew she was different… and we all accepted her as such. School was a large Edwardian house set in tree- ringed grounds and lawns, not far from where we lived.

As a fashionista even at that age, I rather enjoyed our school uniform… white blouses and navy blue pleated tunics with a braid belt for the girls, and grey shorts and jumpers for the boys. Our hats were my real pride and joy, a big brimmed, deep crowned navy- blue, thick, velour hat for winter with a striped ribbon with the school colours, and a wide-brimmed Panama hat for summer – they were so big that we little girls must have looked like mushrooms beneath them, and it was amazing that items of such quality were still available at this point in the war. We kept these expensive hats from flying off in a wind with a piece of elastic which went under our chins. Even our gabardine macintoshes were the finest quality.

Clothes had always figured largely in my life even as a toddler, when I remember the broiderie anglais edging my white petticoat, and relished my delicate little smocked ninon dresses, one in pink, the other in blue… does anyone even know what ninon is today … a fine net covered in tiny balls of fluff is my recollection.

My grandmother inevitably had somewhat old- fashioned ideas about clothes, one of which was to kit us out in liberty bodices… a sort of cotton layer worn on top of a vest and under a jumper, with buttons round the waist to hook a skirt on. They weren’t too bad, but I shrivelled with embarrassment when she sent me to school in antique leather gaiters to keep warm. They stretched the length of my leg, and the tiny buttons running that whole length had to be prized open with a button hook to get them off… this experiment was abandoned when I couldn’t cope with getting them off for physical education!

The day we arrived at this school, the infant mistress – who seemed  enormous to me – swung my tiny blonde  sister up in the air, looked into  her big blue eyes fringed with impossibly long black lashes, and said  “Oh, what a little Topsy!”  She didn’t take to me… children always know… and a few days later, she said to my bewildered little sister: “If your sister put her head in a bucket of water, you would too, wouldn’t you?” To which my sister baldly replied “Yes”.

It was a kind environment. A few years later, when I was eight and one of the big girls, my brother started school. He was so frightened by the experience that he was sent up to my classroom, and was allowed to sit by my side at my desk for days until he was ready to cope on his own.

Lessons were archaic. We learned to write copperplate, often using badly crossed nibs to write rows of letters over and over again until we got the right angle and shape of each letter. On handwriting days, the ink monitor – (never me – I was such an introvert that no-one even knew if I could cope with such responsibility, and I was happy to be overlooked) brought the tray of inkwells in, and they were passed along the rows of desks… then the pens… inevitably there would be spills – usually by a hapless boy.

Each day began with chanting boring times tables, while we sat with our arms folded, and I sometimes think the ritual may have been a calming meditative exercise too, for we never had any rowdiness or fuss to disturb the quiet orderliness of the classroom.

Art lessons nearly broke my heart. I was so excited when it was announced that we were now old enough to begin art lessons. But it was a huge let-down. We had to learn to draw a straight line, making short feathery strokes with our pencils. After a couple of lessons when we had mastered this arcane skill, we graduated to drawing a rectangular box and tackling perspective. With this accomplishment behind us we were now ready to be introduced to colour ! Hurray! We were instructed to bring a laurel leaf with red berry attached to the stalk to school the next day. Alas, our laurel hedge had no berries, so no lovely red for me, just boring green and yellow spotted leaves.

No computers then, so we competed with pencil cases, and collections of hard-to- come- by coloured pencils. We marked our pencils by slicing off a sliver of wood to make a flat surface at the top and then inked our name on it. Indelible pencils were much sought after… you licked the lead, and this made the writing indelible… as for rubbers (erasers if you’re American) – if you lost one, or broke it in half by using it too strenuously, war-time replacements were scarce… whispers criss-crossed the classroom – “can I borrow your rubber”, “can you lend me your red pencil?”

At Christmas we were all dragooned into the Nativity play. I had no idea what it was we were doing… which was not unusual… I spent so much time dreaming that I often missed important information. On this occasion, we all trooped down to the hall nearby, and I found I was an angel along with the other small girls. I was given a triangle to ching on at various not very obvious intervals to me.

The boys seemed to have all the best parts as wise men, wicked kings, shepherds – and of course, Joseph. They also had all the best musical instruments – tambourines, and trumpets, drums and the rest- this was the moment I realised somewhat bitterly that boys/ men had advantages that we girls did not seem to have. And while we stood around in our angel nightgowns in the freezing hall, the teachers seemed to endlessly move rows of chairs around. It was all a complete enigma to me then.

The next year we passed on the nativity play as we’d lost the use of the hall to the American soldiers who used it as their dining hall. They seemed noisy and enormous – wore fur-trimmed jackets – air crew I learned later – and since our back garden abutted onto the back of this hall, showered us with chewing gum, wrapped cubes of sugar – much prized – and sometimes bars of chocolate.

My grandmother gave us three pence pocket money every week, and with this I bought a bar of chocolate every Friday from Mr Duscherer, the German grocer just up the road on the corner. Everyone knew he was German, but I never once heard a word of disparagement about him. He was a big kindly man and I used to watch with pleasure as he prized a wire through a big round of cheese when you ordered a quarter of a pound or whatever the ration was then.

He had a huge machine that cut bacon the way you wanted it – smoky, thick or thin, streaky or back… he would weigh half a pound of biscuits out from big Peak and Frean biscuit tins into brown paper bags – did biscuits not get soggy then, I’ve often wondered, as I try to break into thick layers of cellophane to get into a biscuit packet these days. He sold stamps, posted parcels – usually wrapped in scarce and re-used brown paper, tied with re-used string and sealed with red sealing wax- no ubiquitous cellotape then, and he also stocked Sunny Stories, Enid Blyton’s weekly magazine for children with the long running serial The Faraway Tree in it.

Life seemed simple and safe and satisfying, especially after my grandmother bought me a little blue bicycle, and I no longer needed to make sure that all my dolls were safely tucked up in their cot and had been kissed good night, a ritual which I needed to do when my mother was still with us, and I now recognise as psychological transference.

And with the end of the war it was all about to change dramatically.

To be continued.

 Food for threadbare gourmets

Today, I had one duck leg left over after a little feast yesterday, using a tin my son had given me, so I made a duck risotto. It was delicious. Did the usual, onions, cooked half a dozen finely chopped mushrooms, fried the rice in butter, threw in a glass of good white wine to evaporate, and then added hot stock and a good pinch of dried thyme. When it was nearly cooked, added a generous dollop of cream, some green peas, and the duck meat which shredded beautifully. And then, with duck and orange in mind, added the grated rind of an orange and the orange juice.

When ready, I covered it for ten minutes to sit and mature, then stirred in a big knob of butter and some parmesan. Served with more parmesan, green salad and glass of chilled Riesling, it was rather good.

Food for thought

It is never too late to be what you might have been.      George Eliot, great Victorian woman novelist

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under cookery/recipes, culture, family, great days, happiness, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, uncategorised, Uncategorized, village life

Bombs and a baby

Image result for d-day planes

A Life – Part two

We are familie-e-e-e-ee

I was staying with my grandmother when I was three. She must have had her hands full, looking after me, nursing her sister Jessie who was dying from kidney disease in the big bedroom, and coping with her maverick younger son, who was staying with her before embarking for the Western desert, to join the maverick Long Range Desert Group – a match made in heaven!

My uncle, who was unmarried, childless, and in his early twenties, spoiled me the way everyone did since I was the eldest of only two grandchildren. So now he said he would take me with him when he went to say his last goodbyes to the other side of the family. It would be an opportunity for me to meet my great-grandmother for the first time too.

We crossed London by double decker bus, and arrived at a house filled, it seemed to me, with lots of old people in dreary black and dark clothes. I was made to kiss all these tall elderly people towering over me (they were probably not more than forty!) and then we sat down to tea round a big oval table laden with cake-stands on the lace table-cloth.

The grownups got on with their conversation, and my great-grandmother, a fearsome little lady, grey and wizened, but sharp as a button, leaned down from the head of the table with a plate of small cakes, and offered me one. I reached out to take one, then drew back, realising they had currants in them. “No thank you,” I said politely.

“Why don’t you want one?” My ancient relative asked sharply.

“I don’t like currants,” I replied.

“You’ll have one,” she snapped, “I made them myself.”

So I took one obediently, and sat quietly picking out the currants so I could eat the cake parts, while the conversation flowed around me.

Suddenly a stick landed hard on my knuckles, and I cried out in pain. My great-grandmother was leaning down the tea table and had hit me with her walking stick. I pushed back my chair, slid off it, and fled into the kitchen where I buried my head in some-one’s lap (a maid?) who was sitting there, and cried my heart out. Before long, my uncle came in and I was hustled out of the house in disgrace.

When we caught the bus, with my uncle still be-rating me for my naughtiness, I was so upset, I jumped off the open double decker, and rolled into the road. I wasn’t hurt, but everyone on the bus seemed to be very angry with my poor uncle for upsetting a little girl so much that she did something so drastic to get away from him!

Back at my grandmother’s, the poor young man related the whole sorry saga to my disbelieving grandparent. “But she’s always so good”, she kept repeating as he tried to get her to understand how unfortunate the afternoon had been. My grandmother just cuddled me, and he was miffed.

Later she came to stay with us in Dorset, and I repaid her kindness by flinging myself into her lap to give her a hug, and knocking her spectacles off her nose, and smashing them. It was difficult to get anything repaired with everyone concentrated on the war effort, but she returned a few months later, and stepped down from the train smiling, wearing her repaired specs. I leapt rapturously into her arms, and knocked them off again. They lay shattered on the station paving. And she forgave me again.

When I stayed with her in London, while my brother was born back in Dorset, she taught me proverbs and rhymes and skipping games. I learned to skip down in the disused cobbled stable-yard, happily singing and chanting these traditional rhymes to myself. But I hurried inside from the garden in the dusk, fearful that Germans might be hiding behind the laurel bushes.

They might get me if I strayed too far from the big Edwardian house in which she had a flat, and I never lingered near the head- stones and graves for dead dogs, because there were so many places where the Germans might be hiding. When she visited her friends and took me with her, I overheard their conversations about where the bombs had been falling and realised that the world was a very dangerous place.

I was just four my father came to stay before returning to North Africa after being commissioned. But then he and my mother had a row, and he packed his suitcase and strode out of the door. My mother stood weeping in the doorway, watching him go, and then she sent me after him. I ran down the lane, and he stopped, put down his suitcase, kissed me, and came home. But then it happened all over again, and this time when my mother stood in the doorway weeping, and sent me after him, he was angry, and sent me back crying.

I stood in the door with my mother and watched him go back to the war, and my heart was like a stone. I cried because he hadn’t loved me enough to come back, and I cried because I had failed my mother. There were other memories. The songs my mother sang me. She loved singing. She sang ‘Cherry ripe’, and ‘ Where the bee sucks, there suck I, and ‘One fine day’, from Madame Butterfly as lullabies…

Nine months after my father had disappeared back to the war, my baby brother was born, and we moved to a red brick villa on the outskirts of Weymouth. She used to sing the words of a pop-song then: ” You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are grey…” It was many years before I heard those songs again, and nearly fifty years before I could bear to hear ‘you are my sunshine.’ My mother disappeared a little over a year after we moved to Weymouth. The skies had often seemed grey before she left.

After the baby was born she seemed to have lost interest in us. She had always been somewhat erratic even to a small watching child, but now she would read a book at meal-times so we couldn’t talk to her. She was often out, and we would be so hungry with no food in the house, and I felt so despairing, that I used to look for comfort at a picture in a hymnbook my grandmother had given me. It was a painting of Jesus floating on a cloud, and underneath were the words from a hymn: ‘There’s a friend for little children above the bright blue sky’.

I learned to mash Farley’s rusks with milk to feed the baby, and can remember when we had been away for the weekend with our mother, rushing in to rescue the abandoned baby in his cot, change his nappy, and make scrambled egg for the starving child. When I stood on a chair at the ironing board to iron our school uniform for the expensive private school we attended, she laughed, and said, “you’re my little slave, aren’t you – but don’t tell anyone I said that”.

The worst times were at night. If I woke I would creep along to her bedroom and very quietly open the door to see if she was there. If she was, she smacked me hard, but I didn’t mind, because she was home. If she was out, when the air raid siren screamed, I had to get my younger sister and the baby downstairs and into the air raid shelter. One night as we lay on a mattress in the shelter, my nose began to bleed heavily. I couldn’t stop it, and finally must have slipped into unconsciousness, because the next thing I knew, I was wrapped in a blanket, with my mother holding me and fire blazing in the hearth.

The worst night of all was when I lay awake for hours frozen with fear, hearing planes flying over endlessly, and certain that this was Hitler come to get us. It was only recently that I realised that this was the night of D-Day, when people all over the South of England were standing outside in their night clothes watching this great armada flying to the invasion. It was round about this time that my mother disappeared, and my grandmother left her home and friends to come and care for us – a six- year- old, a five-year- old and a traumatised fourteen- month-old baby. The next few years were the good ones.

To be continued

Food for threadbare gourmets

Having read a blog about not wasting food I felt challenged… I don’t think I do, but to be on the safe side, I used up left-overs today. I had a good serving of cooked rice, so decided to make kedgeree. Did my normal thing now of cooking the onion in the microwave before adding it to the frying pan, sprinkled a heaped teaspoon of curry powder, half a teasp each of cumin, coriander and turmeric, plenty of garlic and let them cook with the onion for a few minutes.

Having soaked half a cup of frozen peas and sultanas in boiling water, I added them to the mix to absorb the curry flavours, and then stirred in the cold cooked long grain rice. I had no smoked salmon left after making blinis endlessly for all the celebrations we’ve been attending, so opened a tin of shrimps, and stirred them in. Tasting it, I added some more curry powder, and salt. I didn’t have any fresh parsley to chop, but with a chopped hard- boiled egg each, it was a good lunch.

Food for thought

Intuition, not intellect, is the ‘open sesame’ of yourself. Albert Einstein

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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The present needs the past

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I began sorting through drawer loads of recipes collected since the early sixties. I’ve dragged them around more twenty- six homes and three countries, and frequently can’t find the one I want; and though I try to keep my favourites altogether, they still stray into other collections of ‘intending to try’, and ‘must try’. After hours spent sorting them into piles, and several rubbish bags filled with the unwanted trimmings of yellowing newsprint and magazine borders, I realised that this truly was what is called a back-breaking job. I hadn’t even handled a quarter of the clippings.

Method: sort through the whole lot, putting them into cake, pudding, pasta, rice, chicken, fish piles, soups, salads, suppers, savouries, sauces and so on. Then sort the piles, throw out the duplicates, and trim yet again, to fit into scrapbooks, and stick them in. The cake book was huge, almond, fruit, lemon, plum, rhubarb, apple, madeira, chocolate, coffee, the whole nine yards. It has taken me days to get this far.

The interesting thing is that I recognise most of the recipes, know where we were living then, and even remember with many of them, how and when I tore or cut them out, right back to 1964, when we were living in a country house called  Newney Hall in the hidden country-side of Essex.

I can remember many of the dinner parties and the people who were there and the menus. Crocenbouche in the height of a Hongkong summer, with no air-conditioning in the kitchen, dripping with sweat, as I baked choux pastry balls, whipped up cream with cointreau, and made the caramel to dribble over the pyramid of puff pastry balls. Biskotten torte, a Danish coffee and walnut confection which could be made a week beforehand, given to me when I was engaged, by my stepmother’s best friend, staying with them in Shrewsbury; vol-au-vent, one of my father’s favourites, and mint and orange salad, a Robert Carrier special from the then new Sunday Times colour supplement.

Then there were the handwritten ones, salmon slice from Jenny, fruit cake from some people who read my columns, and who delivered a cake personally – then a recipe which the children still hanker after – a vegetarian meat loaf, made principally from pea-nuts, garlic, carrots and herbs, this sent by a reader in Tauranga, after a column on vegetarianism – Marianne’s beetroot relish, Frances’s apple cake, Evelyn’s strawberry jam. So the whole exercise raked over old memories, stretching back for fifty years. Many of the favourites had greasy or jammy finger-marks all over them, splotches of grease, or wine-stains!

I now have three thick scrapbooks catalogued into easily discovered sections, and decorated with beautiful pictures of food, fruit or vegetables cut out from magazines, and when I need a new idea for a meal, I go to leaf through them, and find something to inspire me.

In another day and age, I would have bequeathed them to my daughter, and they would have become family heirlooms like the treasured notebooks in browning spidery hand-writing of previous generations. But alas, already, even I now go to the internet for a quick fix on how to cook asparagus in the micro wave, and when I asked my daughter for a recipe for hot cheese scones we’d had for lunch, she sent me the internet reference.

I have shelves of cookbooks I used to love reading, but which I rarely ever open these days… apart from Elizabeth Luard’s book on family life which includes a number of my favourite recipes, and I can’t cut them out and ruin the book, so there they stay.

So it seems to me that my recipe scrapbooks are as obsolete as the family photograph albums. As with cookbooks, I have a shelf groaning with photograph albums. Not many from my early years, I have to admit – not much photographing went on in our family during the war, with my father overseas for seven years at the war, and my mother gone. But some from schooldays as a teenager, a precious few of previous generations – when taking a photo was serious stuff – and dozens and dozens of pictures of my children and grand- children. They and I used to pore over them when they were little, and reminisce about their childhoods. Maybe one day they would have been interested, not just in the records of their childhoods, but in the older family photos too, the records as it were, of their ancestors.

But it’s been many years since I received any up to date physical photos of my family to insert into an album. Lots yes, on the internet, but will they still be there in twenty years? Will this generation and succeeding ones have any of the family records that we, and previous generations have had since the camera was invented by Frenchman Louis Daguerre in1838 and Englishman William Fox- Talbot in 1839? Even before then, portraits, miniatures, sketches, silhouettes provided some family records.

But today, we seem to have lost something precious, something perhaps that we only appreciate as we get older. Young people are too busy taking their selfies, and posting on Facebook and all the other social media outlets to realise that the impermanence of this new technology has its drawbacks.

Then, I think to myself, is it just me that sees it this way? And then another inner voice stoutly proclaims that honouring the past, recognising the lives and achievements of our ancestors matters; knowing where we come from gives us a standard to live by, a knowledge that our forbears have faced and overcome great challenges in their lives, and therefore, so can we.

Even the trivial recognitions as we peer at good-looking Great-Aunt Jessie and recognise our nose, our eyes, and realise that we are part of a long chain of lives and family, gives us a sense of rootedness, and a feeling of permanence. Seeing faded pictures of poor Great – Uncle Arthur and remembering that he died on HMS Vanguard which un-explainedly exploded in Scapa Flow in 1917 taking him and another 799 sailors to the bottom, puts us in touch with history; learning about valiant Great-Aunt Violet who overcame childhood polio, lived with painful irons on her legs all her life with no complaint, and brought up a happy family, can inspire us to believe that we too have profound inner strengths with which to face the challenges of our own lives.

So yes, in some ways, as I look at my proud achievement of those gathered recipes into thick scrapbooks, I feel sad, as they symbolize so many other facets of life absent in this brave new world of convenience and technology. And yes, I know too, that there is no turning back, so that like my ancestors I must make the best of it, suspecting that my descendants have no idea of what they might have lost!

As wave is driven by wave
And each, pursued, pursues the wave ahead,
So time flies on and follows, flies, and follows,
Always, for ever and new. What was before
Is left behind; what never was is now;
And every passing moment is renewed.”
Ovid wrote this sometime before the birth of Christ… he also wrote that everything changes and nothing perishes – his words are my conundrum, my lesson and my answer.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

My daughter gave me delicious hot cheese and bacon scones when I dropped in at lunch time. “Only three ingredients,” she boasted, “apart from the bacon which I added”.  I couldn’t wait to try them myself! Annabel Langbein, a NZ  cookery writer invented them: two  and a half cups of SR flour, two and a half cups  of grated cheddar cheese, and two cups of Greek yogurt, plus salt and pepper. Mix them all together, drop spoon-fuls onto a greased tray, and cook in a moderate oven for ten to fifteen minutes. Mine took a bit longer than the stated time to cook because I simply put the whole lot on the tray in one piece and cut it into triangular segments. But they were good. Next time I’ll add some chopped cooked bacon, and might add some Parmesan too.

PS I experimented with last week’s recipe for broad beans etc, and found that by leaving out the garlic, and using nutmeg instead, it was subtler and to my taste, more delicious…

Food for thought

The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you, the better you will hear what is happening outside. And only she who listens can speak.

Dag Hammarskjold Swedish Secretary-General of the UN for eight years. He died in a mysterious plane crash in Africa in 1961 at the age of forty-seven, and JFK described him as one of the greatest statesmen of our time.

 

 

 

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All people great and small

 dresser
 He wrote to a ninety-one- year old woman begging to be allowed to be a footman in her household, even if it was just for a day. Her secretary wrote back to the young Fijian and said yes, this could be arranged.

So a few weeks later, when the Queen entered a state room to meet an assortment of ambassadors, governors and other Very Important People, the young Fijian was in attendance, resplendent in his Royal household footman’s uniform. She saw him straight away and ignoring all the Very Important People waiting to exchange a few pallid jokes and platitudes with her, she walked straight across the room to talk to her newest recruit. The guests probably assumed he was an even more important person then they were….

I love such little vignettes which give an unexpected insight into character. On this occasion, the Queen’s humanity would have meant an unforgettable experience for the young man from the Commonwealth and the other side of the world.

I think of the story I read in a blog, when a South African blogger I used to follow was taking her dying daughter for a specialist appointment. While they were waiting outside the lift, the daughter sitting in her wheelchair, the doors opened, and out stepped a tall African. On seeing the mother and daughter, he walked over to them, and bent down and had a few gentle words with the dying woman, before smiling at her mother and continuing on his way… another act of kindness and connectedness – from Nelson Mandela who could well have just continued on his busy way.

I loved reading about Albert Schweitzer, the famous doctor, musician and founder of the hospital at Lambarene in Africa, standing on a train platform in the US where he had been invited. One minute the old man was talking to his group, the next, he was nowhere to be seen. And then someone saw him down at the end of the platform, carrying the suitcases of an old woman, helping her onto the train.

The Queen’s mother was famous for these sort of spontaneous kindly deeds, though one of my favourite stories was of her as a young woman… she had a sweet tooth even then and was happily chewing a caramel as she drove through Liverpool… she caught the eye of a young policeman, and tossed him a caramel, which he caught! Did he chew it too, or keep it in a glass cabinet as an unlikely relic?

A shopkeeper whose shop was on her route to Cheltenham races once wrote to her to say he would like to present her with a bunch of flowers when she drove past on her annual visit. She replied, and for the next eighteen years, until she stopped attending the race meeting, she stopped to talk to him on her way. By then, a crowd was always waiting too, and she never failed to stop and chat with her faithful admirer.

Her grandson’s wife, Diana, not one of her favourites, also had this gift. Few people know of the time when she was visiting this country as a twenty-one -year old. She came out of a reception in Wellington, the country’s capital, and a noisy group of IRA sympathisers was waiting for her with hostile banners and angry shouts. Gathering her courage so as not to disappoint the other people who were waiting to see her, this brave young woman walked over to them, and ignoring the heckling of the Irish, talked to the others. That took real character.

And later, in Auckland, she came out of a banquet late at night, and seeing a little girl standing in a knot of spectators, crossed the road in the pouring rain, red shoes and white tulle dress getting soaked, and bent down to talk to her and take the posy being offered.

General de Gaulle has never been one of my favourite people. Hating the British who sheltered him, gave him offices, staff, aeroplanes, money to support him throughout the war, he could rudely say to Mr and Mrs Churchill while lunching with them at Number 10, and discussing how to handle the French fleet in North Africa, he said it would give the French great satisfaction to turn their guns  onto the British. This, of course, was the man who was able to write a history of the French Army without ever mentioning Waterloo.

But many years later, sitting next to Churchill’s youngest daughter Mary, when she was the wife of the British ambassador, he asked how she passed her time. She blurted out, ‘walking my dog’, and was deeply touched that he spent the rest of the lunch discussing the best places to do this. Even de Gaulle had a heart! He showed it again, writing a tender and touching letter to Lady Churchill on the first anniversary of Churchill’s death.

And talking of animals James Herriott the Yorkshire vet who wrote the popular series ‘All Creatures Great and Small’, was the vet to some of my closest friends. He lived up to his reputation. Anthony told me that when they first moved to Yorkshire and signed up with Herriott, then just an unknown country vet, their cat seemed unwell. It was Sunday but they rang their vet anyway. Herriott was enjoying Sunday drinks before lunch at a friend’s home, but he dropped everything and came to the house to treat Anthony’s cat.

These are not great acts of heroism, but little random acts of goodness, kindness or humanity, spontaneous responses in circumstances where pomp and ceremony were often the order of the day… and that’s why they are so revealing… they demonstrate character and connectedness. And there are many people who are not public figures who also respond to everyday situations with spontaneity and kindness, and we never hear of them… let us now praise famous men, as the psalmist wrote… and some there be which have no memorial.

When I listed all the beautiful gifts a friend had given me over the years, and all her acts of kindness and imagination towards me, my love said why don’t you write and tell her. I said I have and I do…. But I made a mental note to tell all my other friends too, how much their friendship and love have meant to me over many years.

I thought about all the wonderful things people tell about their loved ones at their funerals. I always hope the spirits of the dead may be hovering to hear these words of love and appreciation. But how much more they would have enjoyed these tributes during their lifetimes. So one of my resolutions for the rest of my life-time is to make sure those I know and love also Know how much they are loved and valued… not just for their deeds or gifts but for the essence of who they are. Seeing a person’s essence is to recognise their soul. There can be nothing more satisfying than to know you have been Seen, that you have been recognised for who you are, and that who you are is precious, beautiful and utterly loveable.

This is a priceless gift which should be the birthright of every child, and this is my daily prayer: that the parents of all children may see and love the essence of each child, so they grow up undiminished by self- doubt. Then they can feel, and are, whole and happy and loving themselves. A world of loving souls would be a world without fear, and a world of peace, the sort of world we all long for – where peace and goodwill to all men would obliterate the divisions of race, religion and other limiting ideas which separate and divide us. For, as Thich Nhat Hahn says: ‘We are here to awaken from the illusion of separateness.’

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

The picture is my kitchen dresser groaning with summer produce. We’ve had lots of fresh asparagus this spring, but I had reached satiety with asparagus with melted butter, asparagus with vinaigrette dressing, and asparagus with a complicated Japanese dressing. So when I was the grateful recipient of a harvest of fresh broad beans from my daughter-in law’s garden, I decided to try something else. This is it!.

Wrap enough asparagus stalks for two in a sheet of kitchen paper, putting the join underneath so it doesn’t blow open. Sprinkle the paper with water, and cook the asparagus for just over a minute in the micro-wave. At the same time, chop and fry in a little butter a small piece of good thick ham, then pour in cream, a capful of brandy, a couple of chopped garlic cloves, (I used chopped garlic from a jar!) and half a teaspoon of Dijon mustard. Boil it all up until it thickens.

Blanch the broad beans -enough for two. Cook in boiling water until tender – I used small fresh ones, so didn’t need to pop then out of their outer skin. Then cut the asparagus stalks in two, and add them and the broad beans to the ham and cream mix. Eat with good bread to mop up the delicious juices – and I had a glass of champagne too, to enhance the feeling of well-being!

Food for thought

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

 

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The necessity of beauty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

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

Food for Thought

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

 

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Gossip is good for us

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I am an unashamed gossip. Gossip to me is the spice of life, a valuable tool of information, and the oil that greases human relations.

Years ago I was shocked when an acquaintance said to me in reply to my query, ‘what’s going on for her?’ – “I’ve given up gossip”.

I was so taken aback that I retreated, feeling in-adequate and really rather nasty, as though I had been caught out in some secret disreputable, or unmentionable sin.

I thought about it for some days, and then my common sense re-asserted itself. If someone didn’t pass on to me that a mutual acquaintance had a life threatening illness then I could miss out on the chance to support them. If someone didn’t tell me a couple were breaking up, I could tactlessly invite the couple for dinner, and rub salt in their wounds with my ignorance. If I didn’t know that a child had gone off the rails or was in hospital I could be blithely unconscious of their need for help, whether emotional support or a hot meal delivered to a family under stress.

Too often gossip is confused with back-biting, whereas to me, gossip is passing on information that is useful or even valuable in our inter-actions with each other.

And there’s another aspect to gossip – not just useful vital information that enables us to respond appropriately, but sometimes it also gives innocent pleasure !

Yes, I remember the fascination with which I listened to the story of a party where two guests had had a row, and one had tipped a glass over the other…and wished I had been there to see it… drama always happens when I’m in the next room, I felt. So is this voyeurism or schadenfreude I asked myself?

And I also remember reading years ago, that Lord Butler, an English stateman who knew the Queen, reported that like ‘all intelligent women’, she enjoyed gossip. First, I was delighted to think that an enjoyment of good gossip was almost a virtue, and meant that I was intelligent, but it also made me look at what gossip actually is.

It’s the tiny facets of personality or of life that can illuminate a whole character, or light up a situation by showing the human interest behind the dry bones of fact.

When reading history, it’s the delicious details of human conduct that rivet me – reading that Charles 11 loved his cavalier King Charles spaniels so much that he allowed them to whelp in his own sumptuous four posters beds… causing distaste and disgust among his courtiers – ‘God bless the King and damn his dogs,’ one quipped. This gossip made me love him.

I loved to read of George V fulminating about his son wearing ‘vulgar turn-ups’ on his trousers, and loud checks, and Queen Victoria complaining about her second son’s sartorial habits too. Even better is the unexpected and almost outrageous, like hearing of the love between Nehru and Lady Mountbatten, which gossip had informed me of long before the current spate of film and biography.

Just knowing that this beautiful high -minded man who ruled India, had fallen in love with the elegant witty aristocrat married to the semi- royal Viceroy, made them both so much more human, and therefore interesting. To read that she was found dead with all his letters opened on her bed, to be re-read before she went to sleep, and that the heart- broken statesman had sent a destroyer to her committal beneath the sea, to sprinkle showers of marigold petals on her coffin as it sank beneath the waves, was beautiful.

And to discover that the Queen Mother – who gossip tells us had a wicked tongue – quipped that: “dear Edwina always liked to make a splash,” gave me another frisson of pleasure.

‘One shares gossip as one should share good wine. It is an act of pleasure,’ wrote Sarah Sands, a journalist in an essay on gossip ‘There is an art to gossip, which is really a moment of memoir. Philosophers of the human heart… or heartless but comic diarists … tell us more about social history, politics and humanity than autobiographies of public record… I always learn more from a gossip than a prig. Life is a comedy…’

This is gossip as fun. But gossip is also the passing on of important information that we may need. Not the cruel behind their backs stuff, but the details that may help us all. We can be kinder and more tolerant or even forgiving, if we know the pain or difficulties behind some-one’s inconsiderate or strange behaviour.

Women have a well-deserved reputation for gossip, but it’s often this sort of passing on of useful information. On the other hand when I was the only girl in an all-male officers mess, I was shocked at the sometimes cruel and careless gossipy remarks of the men I overheard. Yet my experience of living in an all-female community had been that kindness was acceptable, but catty comments were not.

So yes, I am a defender of the art of gossip…I relish the flashes of insight which an apt morsel of gossip can bestow. This is not gossip as slander, back-biting, envy, jealousy or small mindedness that so many arbiters of human nature have condemned. This is gossip demonstrating the endless fascination of human nature, and as an aid to understanding ‘what’s going on’ for each other.

And if, as Socrates said, strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people, there speaks a man who doesn’t understand the value of emotional ties and the genuine connections between people which make the world go round.

The picture is Chatterboxes by Thomas Kennington

Food for threadbare gourmets

We were meeting friends off the ferry, half an hour’s drive away, and bringing them back home for lunch. Which meant being organised. So while a hot winter’s lunch was heating up in the oven, I needed a little something to keep them going. So spicy pumpkin soup which could be quickly re-heated, it was.

Steam chunks of pumpkin, and scrape it off the skin when soft. Fry some onions and garlic until soft, and add the pumpkin. In the whizzer put portions of this mixture, adding enough warm chicken stock to make a thick smooth mixture, and then return to the pan.

Add salt and pepper and either nutmeg or curry powder to taste, and heat it up. Just before serving, add cream to taste, and serve with fingers of crisp crunchy fried bread, fried in olive oil or hot fat.

 

Food for thought

The angels keep their ancient places–

Turn but a stone and start a wing!

‘Tis ye, ’tis your estrangèd faces,

That miss the many-splendored thing.

Francis Thompson

 

 

 

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