Category Archives: Thoughts on writing and life

“Old soldiers …”

Image result for 14/20th king's hussarsLeafing through an old notebook looking for a blank page to pull out to write a shopping list, I found these words I’d forgotten I’d written.

Timing isn’t always everything I decided, and though I’m late, these words still count…

Parade on Armistice Day

Behind that stern moustache

And row of clinking coloured medals

And Desert Rat insignia,

Service dress, and highly polished Sam Browne belt and sword holster

Stood a man.

 

A man who loved and laughed and grieved and swore and smoked and drank,

And played poker sitting on a petrol drum

Beside his tank in the desert.

He hated the beat of the Funeral March from ‘Saul’,

And he never forgot the ones who were ‘brewed up’.

This was the nightmare he fought most nights for the years of peace.

 

It had been a daily nightmare back then.

It had loomed while he shaved in half a mug of water,

And haunted his thoughts as he drank a mug of strong tea

To cut that terrible desert drought.

And he never forgot the spring flowers that bloomed in Tunisia.

 

Just like five weary years before,

He had never forgotten the women of Plymouth,

Who waited with steaming mugs of tea

For the cold, hungry men who landed at dawn

After escaping from Cherbourg,

Three long weeks after the miracle of Dunkirk.

 

In all the years between, he had been there,

And the names of his battles had

Reverberated through my childhood:

Bardia and Benghazi, Sidi Rezegh, and Sidi Barani,

Tobruk, Tunisia, Salerno and all the others…

He loved his friends and didn’t hate his foes.

Like Abou Ben Adhem, he loved his fellow men.

This was my father.

 

He was a cavalryman, and proud of the history of his historic regiment. It’s his cap badge at the top of this piece. An officer from his regiment was dispatched by the Duke of Wellington to take the news of Waterloo to London.

Though he survived the war, he didn’t live to old age, and like his other children I still miss him, and I regret not talking to him when I was old enough, or mature enough, to appreciate him the way his friends and his soldiers did. Both groups loved him.

One soldier in the British Army took leave from his posting in Gibraltar to come to London and find my father in his office at Whitehall to give him a watch. Ten years earlier this soldier had been fighting the British in Malaya. My father on patrol in the jungle, captured him, starving and nearly dead from scurvy.

My father helicoptered the ‘bandit’, as the insurgent communists were called, out of the jungle, and rushed him to the only grocery store for miles around, where we happened to be shopping at the time. He leapt out of the army vehicle, calling to my stepmother to buy a box of oranges. While she did this, he carried the soldier from the jeep into the back of our saloon car. Peeling an orange, he fed segments to the nearly unconscious ’bandit’, and then, as he began to revive, gestured to him to go on eating the oranges.

The man was taken to a rehabilitation centre, where he regained his health, renounced his communism, and finally joined the British Army. He never forgot my father and came to London ten years later to thank him for saving his life.

Armies and soldiers are sometimes reviled, often by people who do not know soldiers. But like most of his fellows, my father was a good and courageous man, a kind and tolerant man  – like most of the men of all ranks, that I grew up knowing on army camps around the world.

Food for threadbare gourmets

For a celebratory birthday lunch the other day that wouldn’t take hours to cook, even though I felt roast chicken would be appropriate, I compromised. I had couple of chicken breasts in the deep freeze, so after de-frosting slowly in the fridge, I trimmed them open a bit more, and spread a stuffing of whole grain breadcrumbs, onions and mushrooms chopped and cooked in butter, and lots of chopped sage and parsley, salt and pepper on one breast.

Placing the other breast on top, I wrapped them in rashers of bacon, making a parcel, and holding the rashers in place with toothpicks. Scrubbing a couple of Agria potatoes, I pricked them all over, rolled them in olive oil, and cooked them in their skins at the same time as the chicken. (Hot oven for about 45 minutes, or until ready). When cooked, the potatoes were mashed with lots of butter, salt and pepper.

Spinach and carrots completed the meal, along with good gravy made from chicken juices in the pan, while the chicken was ‘resting’ in a warm place. It was as good as if I’d cooked a whole chicken, and took half the time to cook

Food for thought

I am not interested to know whether Vivisection produces results that are profitable to the human race or doesn’t. … The pains which it inflicts upon unconsenting animals is the basis of my enmity towards it, and it is to me sufficient justification of the enmity without looking further.

Mark Twain. American writer, publisher, river boat pilot and many other things. One of his claims to fame was that he was born when Halley’s Comet showed up in 1835 and died, as he predicted, the day after it came back in 1910.

 

 

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Little happinesses and big happiness

 

Image result for rowland hilder paintings

 

I love Autumn… I loved it in England, those early morning mists burnt off by the morning sun… the scents of bonfires and blackberries, picking hazel-nuts from the hedgerows, finding silky, shining conkers and kicking up the rustling leaves, crackling them under my shoes… freshly ploughed fields, and that sense of gentle melancholy, a poetic nostalgia for the last pale days of sunshine before winter crept in…

Later in Hongkong, the end of summer came quite suddenly overnight, when the light changed, and for a month or six weeks a light pervaded the harsh hectic city, and turned the island into a place of surpassing beauty.  I waited for those weeks every year. The gleaming days and shining waters of the harbour seemed rapturous for no particular reason, and those who noticed this magical transformation said the light was like the light of the Greek isles.

And now in the antipodes, autumn is the best season of the year – soft, golden days and crisp, starry nights.
We live in a covenanted podocarp forest of evergreen trees which stretches across high peaks and shadowed gorges. Some days we wake to find the sun shining on our mountain, and then see the gold light move down the slopes until the whole forest shines. Other mornings mist shrouds the peaks, and hovers in the valleys… last night the high wind blasted the last leaves of autumn from the trees along the roads, leaving just the fretted gold leaves of the gingko trees.

So today it feels as though autumn has passed, and winter is setting in. With deep pleasure, I get out the warm winter clothes, and start to think about winter food, hot and comforting, snug evenings with the curtains pulled, and warm sheets on the bed. These are ‘small happinesses’, a phrase my daughter introduced me to a few months ago.

This morning when I put the kettle on for my early morning cup of tea, the sun was on the mountain, a small happiness. Taking the tray back to bed, I checked my e-mails, gloating over the beauty of the latest photos sent from France by my daughter… yesterday Chartres, today Monet’s garden at Givernay, tomorrow Mont St Michel… Then I found a poem by Mark Nepo, sent by a dear friend, with phrases that gave me more small happinesses…

Each person is born with an unencumbered spot…

… an umbilical spot of grace… the last lines were: the incorruptible spot of grace resting at our core.

Holding these words in my mind, my love and I went shopping to a small town an hour and a quarter away. Every mile we travelled past weathered crags, misty mountains and green fields was beautiful. Finally, we reached the narrow coast road, where pohutakawa trees arched overhead, their roots clinging to the side of the cliff.

The wide silver stretch of still water, shimmering with light, lay alongside, and I watched birds dive for food in a small feeding frenzy, marvelled at the shag colony, where up in the pohutakawa trees, the big white breasted birds sat erect on their great nests concocted from twigs, while a gull flew overhead at 35 miles an hour. We passed the curving sandy bay black with hosts of black oyster catchers standing patiently on the shores of the estuary, white breasts and sharp, orange beaks facing the high tide, waiting for the water to recede and their food to return.

We did our shopping – small, kind, cheery encounters that are the building blocks of the goodness of life. A visit to the re-cycle centre yielded a satisfying bargain and a small happiness … two pretty pressed glass Victorian dishes for a dollar each, and then the building re-cycling yard had more treasures, including the perfect windows for our building project.

Feeling contented we relaxed in our favourite café, with hot chocolate and a blueberry muffin. We sat in the courtyard under the pollarded plane trees and watched a small flock of sparrows fall on each table as it emptied, diving into cake crumbs and pulling at a rasher of left-over bacon. A speckle- breasted thrush sat in an olive tree growing in a large pot, and pecked at the clusters of pale green olives. The sage green leaves were silhouetted against a rosy brick wall and the sinuous curves of branches and leaves looked like William Morris’s famous willow pattern.

I must keep a diary again, I exclaimed, I want to remember these moments of beauty. But writing this blog is the closest I get to it at the moment. This day was like all our days living in this remote place where we are the guardians of the forest, where species of plants and creatures that are almost extinct elsewhere, still live their tranquil lives hidden deep beneath the green canopy. I once said to my love that I knew people who were living quiet, mystical lives of love and beauty, and we agreed that we would make it happen for us.

Occasionally a note of discord strikes when a person who has other agendas intrudes into our peace, but since I take Don Miguel Ruiz’s Third Agreement seriously, and try never to take anything personally, our peace of mind is rarely perturbed. I also remember a meme which says: ‘negativity can only affect you if you’re on the same frequency – vibrate higher.’ So we try.

We forget to play music because the silence is so full of sound, the wind in the trees, the birdsong, the stream rushing down below. Living in this place, it’s easy to believe in that “incorruptible spot of grace” resting at our core. It’s easy to believe too, that the mystery of love and truth and beauty do still exist, in spite of what often seems like suffering and chaos in the outer world, but which, hidden from our limited understanding, may have a larger purpose. We only have to believe in love and truth and beauty, to see them – in people, in nature, in the universe, and in the deep silent mystery of the life unfolding around us.

So the roots of the trees in this forest grow deep in the earth, sustained by creatures of the dark, the snails, slugs, earthworms, flatworms and nematodes that degrade organic matter. The rain and the sun sustain them. Tiny frogs and rare lizards hide deep in their secret habitats, bees push into the flowers of the manukau trees, butterflies hover above the flowers, birds sing, the kingfisher plunges down into the grass for a morsel, morepork owls hoot across our valley in the moonlight, and nature continues to sustain them all, and the planet, and us too… what a big happiness!!!

PS   The picture is by Rowland Hilder who specialised in  painting nostalgic autumn and winter scenes.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

I needed a pudding for a gluten- intolerant friend, so fell back on our tried and true chocolate mousse… just eggs, butter and good dark chocolate… though I can never resist tweaking the simple recipe.

So after separating the eggs, melt a knob of butter in a saucepan, and I add a table spoon of brandy or strong black coffee or even sherry, and break the chocolate in. For every egg, use six squares of plain chocolate, and a little bit more butter.

Stirring the mix until the chocolate melts, take it off the heat before it goes grainy. Whip the whites of eggs until peaks form, and at this stage I often add one or two tablespoons of icing sugar and whip again until stiff. Stir the yolks into the chocolate mixture, and then gently fold this into the egg whites. Pour the mix into small individual bowls, chill in the fridge for at least six hours, and serve with cream.

I gave this to my children often when we were vegetarian, as it was an easy way to make sure they had enough protein.

 

Food for thought

“The best and most beautiful things in this world cannot be seen or even heard, but must be felt with the heart.”

Helen Keller, who overcame the handicaps of being deaf, blind and dumb to gain a degree and live a life of service to others.

 

 

 

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Aliens, Narnia and our dog, Murphy

Image result for image of world from space

 

My latest devouring passion (perhaps passions keep you alive and hungry for the fascination and excitement of life!)  is for films about aliens… I especially love the ones with encounters between them and us… those with peace and a desire to communicate.

The film ‘Arrival’ sparked this unlikely interest, and I’ve watched it several times, and have been working backward from ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’, in which Keanu Reeves played the solemn and idealistic alien, ‘ET’ of course, and my favourite, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. At the end of any film I’ve watched, I then go into a frenzy Googling the cast, reviews, and interviews with directors and any other interesting facts, etc.

When watching ‘Close Encounters…’ again last night, I registered for the first time the dead decoy carcases of sheep and cattle. I noticed too, the tortured dog entrapped in a crude home-made gas mask by his owner, who was trying to sell animal gas masks at the crowded railway station crammed with evacuees. I put aside my disquiet at the killing of the sheep and cattle in order to immerse myself in the mystical, magical encounter with the space-ship and its aliens.

But in my researches afterwards, my misgivings returned. Reading Spielberg explaining that before disguising a group of local school children as the child aliens he had tried to use an orang-utan encased in a silver lycra suit and roller skates strapped to his feet upset me dreadfully. The poor creature undid the skates and crawled back to its owner, so Spielberg had to switch to using children.

As usual, my heart turned over at the idea of using an animal for the purposes of entertainment and causing it distress and discomfort. Not as bad as bull fighting obviously, or as bad as the experience of the tiger in ‘The Life of Pi’. This glorious creature became the victim of the very people who were supposed to be looking after him, and nearly drowned because his keepers were so pre-occupied with the affair they were enjoying.

I’m been suspicious of the use of animals in films ever since the makers of Narnia had wanted to use our magnificent bull mastiff. We had taken Murphy – a rescue dog – to the vet, who was impressed with his splendid mastiff good looks. The vet told us that the makers of the film Narnia were on the look- out for big, handsome bull mastiffs like this. They needed six apparently.

We thought about it, desultorily, and finally asked what it would involve. It would have meant gentle, devoted Murphy – who’d cried with relief all the way home from a ‘Club Med for Critters’ where we’d left him for a weekend once – going away for training for six weeks. And what would the training be, we asked. He would learn to snarl and growl and spring upon people on demand, we learned.

We were absolutely horrified. While he would be pining, and wondering why he had been taken away from us, Murphy’s gentle, friendly nature would have been warped for the purposes of film makers who obviously would not have his best interests at heart. How would they teach a friendly courteous animal to snarl and growl and attack, I wondered, appalled.

Since learning about this, I’ve been very conscious of the way film-makers seem to lack a conscience about how animals are used on set. I no longer believe those PC disclaimers: ‘No animal has suffered any cruelty in the making of this film.’ Certainly, the carnage, when over a hundred horses were killed in the making of Ben Hur, would not be tolerated today, but what constitutes cruelty is entirely subjective…

I cried my heart out over Old Yeller, like most of my generation, my best friend and I mopping up our blotched mascara in the ladies cloakroom after the film… but I sometimes wonder now, after our experience with Narnia , how Old Yeller was trained when he had to snarl and growl before rabies set in…

Lassie is another story, with his waving tail and cheerful demeanour. The most fascinating thing about him is that his character is based on a true story, and on the heroism of a real Lassie.

Wikipedia tells us that writer Nigel Clarke in the “Shipwreck Guide to Dorset and South Devon”, gives the original Lassie story. Half collie, Lassie was owned by the landlord of the Pilot Boat, a pub in the little sea-side town of Lyme Regis. On New Year’s Day in 1915, the battleship “HMS Formidable” was torpedoed by a German submarine off Start Point in South Devon, with the loss of more than 500 men. In a storm that followed, a life raft containing bodies was blown along the coast to Lyme Regis. The owner of the Pilot Boat offered his cellar as a morgue.

When the bodies had been laid out on the stone floor, Lassie found her way down amongst them, and began to lick the face of one of the victims, Able Seaman John Cowan. She stayed beside him for more than half an hour, nuzzling him and keeping him warm with her fur. To everyone’s astonishment, Cowan eventually stirred. He was taken to hospital and went on to make a full recovery. He visited Lassie again when he returned to thank all those who had saved his life.

The sinking of the ship was a severe blow and when RN officers heard the story of Lassie, and what she did to rescue Cowan, they told the story again and again to anyone who would listen, as it was so inspirational and heart-warming. The story travelled to Hollywood and Lassie and the generations of Lassies who followed her, became one of the immortals.  Hers is a feel-good story, as also was the real- life filming of Babe.

In this film, there were six trainers acting as department heads, supervised by an American trainer, and assisted by over fifty-seven animal handlers from the United States, Australia and New Zealand. It took a year and a half of training, and six months of filming to make the film. Wherever there was any violence or an incident in which an animal might suffer discomfort, animatronic models were used; and the pigs were so clever that animatronic models were hardly used in their scenes.

The filming of Babe was a triumph for the humane treatment of other creatures. Interestingly, James Cromwell, who played Farmer Hogget, who was already a vegetarian, became a vegan after making it. Many children, including my granddaughter, stopped eating bacon after seeing this film… And when we remember how often the word ‘pig’ is used in such derogatory ways, it was beautiful and heart- warming that pigs were portrayed at last as the intelligent and loveable creatures that they are.

I’ve strayed a long way from aliens, but I like to think that the noble alien in ‘The Day The World Stood Still’, who came to save the planet, but not the undeserving people, would approve of this film, realising that humans are changing, that they can cherish all life, and not just our own species. (They can even give up eating bacon!)

Technology update. I discovered that my extraordinary overload of e-mails was a file I didn’t know existed, and it contained every blog I have ever received, plus every like, comment, follower, since May 2012. There were nearly ninety thousand, and I’m down to just under seventy- three thousand, deleting them in chunks of fifty which is the best ‘they’ will let me do.

Four fascinating bloggers used to send between five and twenty blogs a day each, which was one reason for the huge back-log… but now at least I know what I’m up against and try to clear between five hundred and a thousand every day … time consuming especially when a title leaps out at me, and I simply have to stop and read it. I’m back as far as December 2015, so you can imagine what a task I still face…this may explain my tardiness in sometimes getting back to you… but nil desperandum.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Not much in the fridge, except the makings of courgette and feta fritters, a favourite for us both. First, grate two large courgettes and put them to drain on kitchen paper. I’m using leeks at the moment instead of onions, so cut half a leek in four lengthways and chop it. Gently fry the leek in olive oil. In a large bowl mix the leeks, grated courgettes, two beaten eggs, a crumbled packet of feta (about 225 gr) two tablespoons of flour, lots of salt and pepper, and plenty of chopped parsley and fresh thyme. Drop tablespoonfuls into hot olive oil, and slightly flatten, turn when brown on one side, and then drain on kitchen paper while you cook the rest.

Sometimes I use coriander instead of parsley and thyme, sometimes nutmeg. We eat the fritters with chilli jelly or sweet chilli sauce, or beetroot relish, with salad – and hot buttered rolls for hungry people. This amount of fritters is enough for three greedy people or four reasonable people!

Food for thought

You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.        William Wilberforce who campaigned against slavery and cruelty to animals.

 

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Words, words words…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend,

My dearest friend is dead and laid in grave.

In grave he rests until the world shall end.

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

All things must have an end that Nature wrought…

Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for threadbare gourmets

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

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

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

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

Food for thought

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

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Eating for Easter

Image result for pics of hot cross buns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for threadbare gourmets

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

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

 Food for thought 

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

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

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Who cares?

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While other squires were out raping maidens and oppressing the poor, or so legend has it, John Scrimgeour, the lord of the manor who lived at Stedham Hall, occupied himself instead with spreading cheer and happiness in the village he owned.

At the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, he was busy putting in the village’s water supply and installed a bathhouse and a reading room for his tenants. He gave the villagers an eight-acre playing field, and he built three-bedroom houses for newlyweds.

And when he built the houses for his parlour maids, he realised they were sited alongside the road facing east, which is one of the coldest angles in a climate like England. So he ordered them to be built end-on to the road, so they faced south. Back-to-front houses, with day-long sunshine.

When I read the story of John Scrimgeour and his community, I felt a warm glow. But I didn’t feel a warm glow when I saw a picture of the latest super-yacht with its helipad, swimming pool, guest bed-rooms for twelve – and so on – you’ll be familiar with these sort of stories which go right back to Aristotle Onassis and his Impressionists and Old Masters dotted around the walls of his yacht… they weren’t called super-yachts back then… perhaps because they weren’t.

I happen to know a chef on one of these floating palaces, and his stories shock me … not just the lengths he has to go to satisfy the outlandish whims of his employers and their guests, but the outrageous demands made on him too – dragged out of bed at three a.m. to rustle up bacon and eggs for a guest who can’t sleep; having to put up with the rudeness and lack of courtesy of spoiled children who complain to their autocratic parents if the staff don’t comply with their childish tantrums and demands; meals with half a dozen starters, entrees, main course, pudding and bonne bouches…

My friend is continually head-hunted from yacht to yacht by owners who want to enjoy his expertise, so he has seen a number of these billionaire establishments, and they are all similar, with no expense spared for personal trivial self-indulgences by these newly rich billionaires.

When I saw the picture of the latest and biggest super-yacht, my thoughts went back to a young man I saw in photos at his father’s funeral. I had already been struck by the sensitivity and goodness as well as his good looks in photos of him as godfather to Princess Charlotte of Cambridge. On the death of his father a few months ago, this twenty-six year old young man became Duke of Westminster. Not only is he now one of the richest men in England, but he inherits a dukedom with an astonishing reputation for philanthropy over several generations.

In one impoverished area of Scotland bought by a previous Duke, he and his agent planted thousands of trees, bought a redundant fishing business, developed the harbour and established transport which created a new community, so the Duke also built a school, and gave it to the local council. There was little, if any gain to the Duke from this enterprise, which was, and still is, typical of the activities of this rich family.

In another example the Duke bought Annacis Island in Canada and developed it, providing employment for thousands. The Dukes have given land in London to the Westminster City Council so work people could be housed near their place of work, and in the Depression they gave back fifty per cent of their rents to their tenants. Over the last seventy years this family have developed many schemes with no thought of gain – one of the most touching examples of their noblesse oblige being their generosity  to Norman Tebbitt after the Brighton bombing by the IRA in 1984….

Five members of Margaret Thatcher’s government were killed, while Tebbitt has limped ever since from his injuries, and his wife was permanently paralysed and has lived in a wheelchair ever since. The 6th Duke gave the Tebbitts a beautiful house near Parliament at a peppercorn rent (an old English term meaning literally a peppercorn) so Tebbitt could continue his ministerial duties, as well as care for his wife, and this generosity has continued ever since.

This 6th Duke has always repudiated the word philanthropy for his activities and simply calls it ‘caring’. Now his young son has taken over this mantle of caring while his three sisters are all involved in careers which involve service to others and ’caring’. The family, whose surname is Grosvenor, has an unbroken pedigree stretching back to 1066, when Gilbert le Gros Veneur landed in England with William the Conqueror.

The present descendant is the inheritor of a thousand years of both riches and responsibility. How long will it take the billionaires floating around the world, to develop that same sense of caring? At this moment eight billionaires own fifty percent of the world’s riches. Some of them, like Bill and Melissa Gates, and Warren Buffet are indeed the inheritors of aristocratic generosity and responsibility, but many others seem more intent on safeguarding their gains and living as though there were no tomorrows.

Unlike so many of the rich men of previous eras, these are men whose very businesses have nothing to plough back into the world. In previous ages, rich English landowners cared for the land, for this was where their riches came from; rich men endowed schools and art galleries, universities and homes for the poor. They  supported artists, collected art, built architectural gems to live in, planted beautiful parks and gardens, and as early as seventeen hundred were opening them and sharing them with the public, just as they do now. Altruism was common when Christianity united communities.

Today, generosity seems to be a characteristic of the internet instead, when the generosity of people with little to give when compared to the rich, becomes a groundswell of many small contributions to help individual cases of need. But the grand gifts, those that last for generations or change whole communities, as in the case of the English benefactors I’ve mentioned, don’t seem to be so common among today’s Russian oligarchs, internet moguls or mega- rich pop stars.

There are of course, many film stars and other celebrities who do ‘care’ and who work for caring organisations and green causes,  and it’s up to the rest of us to ‘care’ too, in the words of the Duke of Westminster. We CAN take responsibility, and though we think our voice or our efforts can’t make the difference we long for, this is not true.

I do believe the inspiring words of writer, Dean Koontz, who has given over two and a half million dollars to charity: “Each smallest act of kindness reverberates across great distances and spans of time, affecting lives unknown to the one whose generous spirit was the source of this good echo, because kindness is passed on and grows each time it’s passed, until a simple courtesy becomes an act of selfless courage years later and far away … Likewise, each small meanness, each expression of hatred, each act of evil.”

Few of us are capable of acts of evil, but it is easy to fall into the trap of hating oppressors like Assad and others. But this doesn’t help the world, while these reminders do. They sound like the perfect blueprint for the good life, be we billionaire or happy blogger!

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

After several episodes of global warming , or once- in-a – fifty-year storms, or Cyclone Debbie flooding, (however the weather forecasters explain it) in which we were cut off by landslips on one road, and flooding on the other, I’m planning a sort of mini-hoard for the next once -in- a -fifty year storm, whatever ‘they’ call it  – iron rations, emergency rations, whatever we choose to call them.

I searched my soul and found that there are several things I depend on… always plenty of cheese, some bacon and some Parmesan cheese in the fridge … plenty of olive oil, pasta, tins of tomatoes, and maybe minced beef in the deep freeze. With these staples, we can have spaghetti Bolognaise, lasagne, and when really up against it, pasta with butter and parmesan, or pasta with an egg, cream and Parmesan whisked together, and stirred immediately into the hot spaghetti. Simple, but one of my favourites … especially with crisp chopped bacon sprinkled on top. And there’s nothing like grilled cheese on toast when the cupboard is bare.

Food for thought

We can’t help everyone, but we can all help someone.    Ronald Reagan

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The gifts that keep on giving

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I’m always slightly envious when people reminisce lovingly about their mothers, since mine disappeared when I was six, not to be found again until I was in my fifties when it was too late to rebuild bridges.

But when I look back over my memories of the gifts that different people gave me, I realise that my rather erratic mother gave me a gift that is still valuable today. My earliest memories of her are the songs she sang as I went to sleep. I didn’t hear them again for years, but recognised them as soon as the notes rang out…among them, ‘Where the bee sucks, there suck I’, and ‘One fine day,’ from the opera Madame Butterfly, and even: ‘You are my sunshine,’ a pop song from the forties that moved me to tears when I heard it again in middle age.

That gift – a love of good music – has been my pleasure and companion ever since, so I was ripe for Beethoven and Bach, Handel and Purcell as soon as I heard them when growing up, while opera became a passion, which I learned when I met her again, had also been a passion with my mother.

As I mused about this gift she gave me, I remembered all the other gifts that so many other people gave me. When my grandmother came to look after us, she brought with her, her collection of precious Meissen and Staffordshire china, and I learned to love china, a love which anyone visiting my house would recognise.

She also collected books, and many of them were illustrated and designed with prints and patterns from William Morris and fine artists like Aubrey Beardsley and Arthur Rackham, so that from the age of six, my eye was educated by their exquisite artistry. This discrimination meant that when I was introduced to Walt Disney – staple children’s fare – I found the cartoons crude, and the lack of light and shade and detail bored me.

The other gift my grandmother gave me was the love of reading, and for lack of children’s books, I devoured classics like ‘John Halifax, Gentleman’, ‘Robinson Crusoe’ in an original edition, a huge heavy book with engravings protected by flimsy tissue paper, the dreadful ‘Foxe’s Martyrs’, ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’ ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ – all these in magnificent antique quarto versions, apart from many other history books and even the Bible.

A man gave me my next gift, a dry, elderly, retired history teacher who had taught in boy’s prep schools all his life, and who came to help out at my little private school during a war-time dearth of teachers. At seven, he introduced me to history, and I soaked up every period he ran through with us, from the Beaker people and the Stone Age, to Julius Caesar and the Romans, Boadicea  and Caracticus, Pope Gregory on captured Anglo-Saxon children with blonde hair and blue eyes, dragged through Rome in triumphal marches, saying, ‘Not Angles but angels,’  Alfred the Great, and Aethelred the Unready, Harold and the Conqueror, the Black Prince and English archers,  and all the march of history up to Agincourt and Henry V.

Living in Yorkshire when the war was over, our gardener, Mr Appleby, took a fancy to me, and spent much time teaching me the names of all the flowers…hearts-ease and snow-in-summer in crevices amongst paving stones, the herbaceous borders crammed with red hollyhocks, blue delphiniums and pastel pink and blue lupins, ravishing red peonies and pastel coloured grannie’s bonnets,  multi-coloured snapdragons and delicious sweet smelling pinks, the rose Dorothy Perkins scrambling over the trellis hiding the dust-bins … I revelled in this knowledge and his gift to me.

We didn’t go to school while we were in Yorkshire, and had lessons at home in the afternoon. My new stepmother, who was a physiotherapist and had no idea of how to teach children – or how to bring them up for that matter – gave me an extraordinary gift, apart from teaching me social skills, and that was how to spell. She demanded that at nine I could spell words like phlegm and diarrhoea, rhododendron and diaphragm. This is a gift that keeps on giving, like all the gifts that these adults gave me.

My father returned from the war in ’47, when I was nine, and his gift was to give me all the books he had enjoyed, so I went from a diet of Lord Lytton and books like ‘Harold’ (killed at Hastings) to Kingsley’s ‘Hypatia’, and ‘The Last Days of Pompei’, to Walter Scott’s ‘Ivanhoe’ and ‘Guy Mannering’ ( “go thy ways Ellangowen, go thy ways”… cursed the gypsy) and Napier’s history of the Peninsula Wars with Wellington, to CS Forester’s riveting: ‘The General’, about the First World War, and many more. Enid Blyton and Rupert the Bear were banned !

When I was ten and eleven years old I was put in a train from Yorkshire to Kings Cross, to spend a couple of weeks of the summer holidays with my step-grandparents. My grandfather took me walking around London nearly every day. We explored places like Threadneedle Street and the City, tramped down Constitutional Hill and through Hyde Park Corner, passing No I Piccadilly – Apsley House – the Iron Duke’s home, as well as the King’s home – Buckingham Palace (still George VI then).

We spent blissful hours loitering in front of Duccio, da Vinci and Van Gogh in the National Gallery, and wondering over the Turners in the Tate, gazing at all the statues of historic figures, from beautiful Nurse Edith Cavell at Charing Cross, to tragic Charles I, examined the famous poets and painter’s monuments in Westminster Abbey, and climbed around inside the dome of St Pauls. London was still the bombed, shabby city of the Blitz, with rose bay willow herb flourishing on empty desolate sites. But I know that great and ancient city more intimately than any other. And I have known my way around it ever since.

The following year I went on another solitary journey via Air France to spend the summer with French friends in their chateau in Vienne. There, the gift was an insight into French food and French architecture… while my first mother-in-law, a fearsome lady, was a talented amateur interior decorator. From her, I absorbed a knowledge of antiques, a love of colour, fabric and design and have enjoyed restoring and decorating houses ever since.

As I look back at all these gifts, which have enriched the fabric of my life, expanded my mind, and given me pleasures that never fade, I realise how blessed I’ve been. I’ve had many vicissitudes, bitter sorrows, painful partings, terrible decisions to take, and terrifying leaps off that metaphorical cliff in my life. But I’ve also had some sweet joys and learned how to be happy. And the music, the books, the flowers, the history, the beautiful china are all extra gifts that have made life rich and bearable in the bad times.

I wonder what gifts I’ve been able to pass on to those both near and dear, and even just to those casually encountered. We all have such rich gifts to share with others, and sometimes we do it knowingly, and other times, unconsciously. This is how our civilisation endures, and is handed down from every generation.

And maybe it’s more important than we know… the handing on and handing down of simple pleasures, facts and names, skills and events… these things are the handing on of our past, the hard-won experience and knowledge of our ancestors, and even of the fabric and treasures of our civilisation. That civilisation is changing fast, but it could go into future shock unless we value the past as well as the future. The gifts we can share may be more valuable than we can ever guess or measure or imagine.

Footnote. I took this picture for a blog several years ago. It illustrates perfectly different strands of my life.. the flowers are magnolias, the books are on France and French food, Axel Vervoordt is a famous Belgian interior decorator, the china is antique Crown Derby  Imari, while the portrait in the tiny frame comes from the medieval Book of Hours.

Food for threadbare gourmets

It’s that time of year here in the Antipodes when the delicious  Victoria peaches are available. I always snap them up. I don’t bottle any more, I freeze them instead. They have a different texture but are just as good. Being a lazy cook too, I just take out their stalk and then boil them whole, with a syrup made of water, stevia to taste, and a few star anise and a stick of cinnamon. When the peaches are soft I leave them to cool before parcelling them out into various plastic receptacles (I know, I know, sometimes we have to live with parabens!)

When I want them, I un-freeze them, and gently re-heat them with some brown sugar or maple syrup, and ginger wine, rum or brandy added to the syrup… served with ice-cream or crème fraiche, a whole peach drenched in the unexpected flavours of the syrup is a good easy pudding.

Food for thought

“There is divine beauty in learning… To learn means to accept the postulate that life did not begin at my birth. Others have been here before me, and I walk in their footsteps. The books I have read were composed by generations of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, teachers and disciples. I am the sum total of their experiences, their quests. And so are you.”

Elie Wiesel, writer, academic, activist, concentration camp survivor and Nobel Laureate

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