Category Archives: village life

Country Life, UFO’s and Russian Spies

Image result for victorian villas in nzAnother installment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

As the Thomas Case unfolded, we were putting together a new life, and moving out of the city.

I’d imagined living in a village, but the New Zealand country-side is not like that. Instead there are a few scattered small towns among dairy or cattle farms which spread in great swathes across rolling hills and fields.

We, of course, didn’t want a farm, but somewhere to live not too far from Auckland to work. We found it. A half- acre of abandoned tennis courts forty minutes from the city. It lay in a valley mostly farmed by descendants of the original settlers, and who, we learned later, were well known in those parts for somewhat antique life styles and opinions which had not changed much since their ancestor’s distant pioneering days.

In the beginning we were an exotic phenomenon. Half the farmers were Catholic, so Patrick was a familiar personality to them through the Catholic newspaper, and as such we were disapproved of … were we married or not? Others decided we were Jews, which was not a term of approval. Others were not too keen on people who were undermining the justice system, and trying to get a guilty man who’d murdered one of their kind out of prison. ( All this information came home via the children at the village school)

As time went on I compounded this mistrust by campaigning in my columns (which were read) against the spraying of the fields with a dioxin pesticide, 245T – now discontinued – felling of trees, treatment of animals and other unpopular causes.

We found an old Victorian villa, with traditional white lacy carving along the verandas, and moved it out to our little piece of land, transforming the wrecked shell into a warm, colourful and beloved home, and planted trees and grass and flowers over time.

While we were still settling into the house and the community, I flew to the South Island to open a solo parent conference in the mountains above Nelson, a beautiful little city. On the way I stopped in Wellington, the capital, to have lunch with a well- known lawyer and civil rights activist- Shirley Smith- who had contacted me. She was married, I learned, to another well-known New Zealander, Bill Sutch, historian, writer, top civil servant, ex-diplomat, now retired and Chairman of the Queen Elizabeth Arts Council.

The diminutive, untidy sweet- faced woman who met me at the airport was quite unlike the elegant sophisticated lawyer I’d expected. She had a wonderful simple directness, as well as being articulate, warm and intelligent. Being a somewhat disorganised housewife, she stopped at corner shops on the way up Wellington hills to pick up butter, bread and various things for lunch.

And then this highly civilised woman took me into her house on the hill where I enjoyed her conversation and the resources of her remarkable mind. It’s a rare pleasure in these times, for someone to be able to fall back on ancient poetry or history to illustrate a point, and when few people are fluent in Greek and Latin, French and German- and also Anglo-Saxon- which she had learned to keep pace with her daughter when she was at University.

I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the house designed by renowned Austrian architect Ernst Plishke and filled with fascinating and precious objects…walls of books, tribal rugs, a large T’ang horse, pictures by famous painters stacked because there was nowhere else to put them, brass Buddhas, ancient terracotta Etruscan figurines, Eskimo carvings, antique pewter. I learned later that her husband Bill’s collection was famous.

Bill himself now came in from the garden, which was his pride and joy, and in which he’d created a Mediterranean micro-climate to grow olive trees and protect other exotic fragile plants from the cold Wellington winds. He was wearing an old red checked shirt pinned together with safety pins at irregular intervals where there had long ago been buttons, and wearing battered corduroy trousers…

He was shabby and courteous and delightful. As time went by, I loved him for his sense of humour and incredible erudition, for his love of sophisticated art and his joy in simple things like my blackberry and apple tart or bunch of buttercups on our dining table.

On this day, lunch was eaten at their table, laid with fragile German china on a Mexican tablecloth, with reminisces about how these things had ended up in Bill and Shirley’s home, mixed with anecdotes about Bill’s time in politics, with UNRRA after the war, and at the United Nations in its earliest days… places and people from the headlines of my childhood, from all over Europe and all over the world… at the League of Nations and watching Anthony Eden battling at Geneva before the war, Eleanor Roosevelt after the war, his struggle to keep Unicef going when the UN wanted to close it down, (one commentator has said that Bill should have been included in Unicef’s Nobel Peace Prize) Bill tramping across Tashkent, Samarkand, Afghanistan, into North-western India in the twenties, exploring Mexico together, and Shirley’s memories of pre-war Oxford when she was studying classics.

Shirley’s simplicity was the polarity of Bill’s immense complicatedness. Bill cared for the under-privileged because it was the duty of all upright people to do so. Shirley loved the poor and the oppressed. She was incapable of passing by anyone who needed help, and spent most of her time in her law practise helping those whom others wouldn’t help, acting for those who couldn’t afford legal expenses. She never made a penny out of her practise.

When they delivered me back to the airport, I was drunk on the glory of enjoying what Mr Eliot in Persuasion described as the best company – “clever well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation.”

I continued my journey to Nelson, wearing what Patrick used to describe as my Russian spy outfit, consisting of a long high-necked black coat trimmed with fur, black trousers and long black boots, and large black sunglasses. This was quite relevant when Patrick rang me the following Friday afternoon.

“That charming gentleman you had lunch with last week”, he said, “has just been arrested as a Russian spy”. He added – “I hate to think what the SIS made of you arriving at the airport in your Russian spy outfit, going up to their house, and returning to the airport to fly out again”. “I don’t believe it,” I replied, and sat down to write to Shirley. I learned afterwards that many of their friends deserted them after this appalling incident.

Shirley was in a state of shock after the Secret Intelligence Service- SIS – had crashed into their house late at night after they’d arrested Bill- who didn’t drive – walking up the street with a bottle of milk from the dairy…having been seen talking to a Russian diplomat. The SIS men went through the house, taking out every book in the shelves, searching for any incriminating evidence – none of which they found.

Bill’s trial – the first and only spy trial in this country, was set down for the next year, but now in December, we were caught up again in the Thomas Case. I used to say we ate, drank and slept the Thomas Case, with phone calls, conferences, Thomas family calling in to see us, angry, desperate Vivian visiting, public meetings, and now the Court of Appeal in Wellington.

Patrick was the go-between and principal mediator between the different branches of the campaign, including the Thomas family, his parents and all his brothers and sisters, the lawyers, the Retrial Committee, the police, the newspapers, and the politicians.

While Patrick was in Wellington battling the arrogant bullying Chief Justice and his panel of mainly prejudiced judges, I stayed behind with the children and had the first of many extraordinary experiences. At the Guy Fawkes gathering, and over tea at the Country Women’s Institute I had heard people claim to have seen UFO’s in the valley.

Farmers up at four o clock in the morning for early milking saw them, one woman was terrified when she saw them and locked her doors, others were more pragmatic and curious. I didn’t know what to think… farmers tend not to be fanciful…

On this evening, at about seven o’ clock on a summer’s night, when it was still light, with no stars in the sky, I saw a large light hanging above the hill opposite our house. As I stood there, wondering if this was a UFO. I became convinced. It was too large for any star. It hung there silently and unmoving. Then suddenly it shot up vertically and without a sound at enormous speed, and disappeared and I was left with a strange sense of joy and peace.

The next day I flew down to Wellington to the Court of Appeal and sat through the drama and hate and pain which pervaded the court room.

To be continued

 Food for Threadbare Gourmets

 A friend was coming unexpectedly for supper last week when the cupboard was somewhat bare… we’re half anhour away down a muddy tortuous road to the nearest shops, so there’s no chance to nip to a corner shop for emergency supplies. So out of the deep freeze that afternoon came a packet of frozen pumpkin soup and some frozen chicken. I boiled the chicken with onion, carrot, celery and garlic, which gave me chicken stock and chicken.

I flossied up the pumpkin soup with a chicken bouillon cube, stirred in some butter, cream and nutmeg, and this cheered up a bought soup. I made a risotto with the chicken stock, white wine, onion, garlic, chopped mushrooms and arborio rice, and at the end grated a courgette into it before adding the chopped chicken, cream, salt and pepper and some fresh parmesan.

We were having this meal on our knees on a cold winter’s night, so the soup was served in cups to sip. The risotto with extra parmesan was easy to eat on our knees, especially since I’d put the vegetables in the dish, so we didn’t have to cope with salad. My friend was trying to lose weight so I didn’t make a pudding but arranged on a pretty plate dates, walnuts, dried figs and crystallised ginger so she could graze if she wished. She did – strict diet not withstanding! And we all downed with gusto the pink champagne she had bought.

Food for Thought

We are not going to be able to operate our Spaceship Earth successfully nor for much longer unless we see it as a whole spaceship and our fate as common. It has to be everybody or nobody. R. Buckminster Fuller

 

 

 

 

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Sacred space

Image result for dial house twickenham londonRambling house down by the River Thames where my in-laws lived and I spent much time.

A life – another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

I loved the ordinariness of the countryside. It wasn’t spectacular country, but it contained all the elements of the things which are now becoming rarer. There were thick hedgerows, and wild flowers and long grass in the orchard where the fox sometimes slipped through, on his way to the field where the donkey grazed: little copses, with their bare, spare branches etched against the pale winter sky, or billowing with green foliage against a blue sky in summer: woodpigeons cooed, cuckoos called, thrushes sang, and the smells of cut grass and manure, of wet leaves and sweet lilacs scented the clean air.

There was no hum of traffic from a distant motorway and few  sounds apart from the occasional drone from a tractor, the creaking braying of the donkey, and contented cows mooing on their way to  milking.

There were other things which showed me the dark side of modem farming. Henry the farmer, who gently patted his thirty prize cows on their rumps as they slowly filed past to the milking shed, where they stood and gave up their warm, creamy milk to the strains of Viennese waltzes, showed me with pride, his solitary calves. Each one was alone and imprisoned in iron cradles where they stood unable to move, turn or lie down, trapped in compartments in pitch-dark sheds, preparing to become white veal. I’ve never eaten veal since.

The house had no mod cons – everything was as it had been since the Victorian aunt’s childhoods. We had never been able to afford a washing machine for the babies’ nappies, so the lack of one was no drawback for me. So, while each baby luxuriated in smocked viyella nighties from the White House in Bond Street and was aired daily in the expensive pram bought by doting paternal grandparents, their nappies were washed the old-fashioned way. In a boiler.

This was filled with a hose from the kitchen tap. I then switched on the heater in the boiler and let the water boil, bubbling and swirling the soap-sudded nappies. They always had the same smell, those boiled soap suds. At the end of the boiling operation which filled the kitchen with steam, I wheeled the pulsating monster to the kitchen sink, and gingerly prised the lid off. Then, with a pair of wooden tongs in theory, but in practise with a wooden spoon, I poked around the scalding nappies until one became hooked on the spoon. With a quick swing it was transferred from boiler to sink, and then the endless rinsing process began.

Nappy by nappy was hooked and swung from boiler to sink, steam misting up the windows, and billowing out through the kitchen door to the rest of the house. My fingers became so swollen that I couldn’t wear my rings any more. Some days I was only one dry nappy ahead of the babies. Now Newney Hall didn’t even have a boiler, but at least Napisan, (hurray,) had arrived on the market, and banished my boiling days forever, however un-hygienic the nappies may have been.

The amenities of the house began and ended with the calor gas stove, while the bathroom and loo were directly above the kitchen, presumably to economise on plumbing. Since the staircase was the other end of the house, this meant walking or running the whole length of the house twice to get upstairs to the bathroom, but at twenty- seven years old the inconveniences didn’t seem to matter.

Living so far away from the shops didn’t matter either. The village grocer delivered our food for the week on Friday afternoons. The butcher called in his van three times a week, as did the baker. The greengrocer called twice a week, and the milkman called every day to supply not just milk to use up the baby coupons, but also yogurt and butter.

My husband left first thing in the morning for the London train, taking the old Morris Traveller with him to the station. I found expensive purchases hidden in the back of that car – a hat from Lock’s, the oldest hat makers in the world, who’d been in business since 1676 – Nelson was wearing one of their tricornes at Trafalgar). There was a shirt from Gieves  (Nelson was wearing a suit made by the original Mr Gieves at Trafalgar too). I worried my extravagant husband was getting into debt again while I couldn’t afford a new lipstick). When we’d waved him away, toddler peeping over the stable door of the kitchen, the baby perched on my hip, we returned to the kitchen table to finish our breakfast.

After hastily scrubbing the high chair before the spat- out cereal set like concrete, polishing the chrome on the pram so my mother- in- law would not silently notice spots or rust marks, I handwashed cobweb-like shawls and lacy matinee jackets in cold water so that my mother-in-law could not suggest I’d turned them yellow by washing them in hot water.

And then more vacuuming, (why did I think it all had to be done every day? – ready for inspection, ma’am – my mother-in-law lived miles away ) sweeping, dusting, regular stoking of the fire, the acres of red and white tiled kitchen floor to be washed free of mud, all kept me busy till the baby woke and lunch loomed, and then the sieving and straining and mashing began, before more face-washing and bib-tying and strapping baby into his high chair and hoisting the toddler onto a cushion on a kitchen chair.

The slow routine of spooning and cooing to the baby and answering the toddler’s continuous eighteen- month- old chatter ended, with more face-washing and changes of nappies, before putting both children down for an afternoon sleep. This was the one hour in the day to myself. I ate my lunch standing at the draining board – cheese and biscuits – reading the newspapers –  Guardian and Telegraph from front to back – I’ve never been better informed. I didn’t dare read a book as I would have forgotten the time and my duties.

I was so tired I didn’t dare sit down either, or I would never have got up again. I hadn’t had an unbroken night’s sleep since the first child was born, and now, with the baby’s night feeds and the other’s broken nights ever since her father had returned from Cyprus, I was so ground down that I couldn’t imagine what it felt like to be normal. Staying for Christmas with the in -laws, my mother- in- law told her son, who told me – how plain I had become. She was right!

The newspapers only lasted till the first child woke, and then their faithful slave would bound up the stairs or rush outside to the pram, checking the nappies, and freshening up their faces before we got dressed for our walk.

Living in a northern climate one becomes accustomed to the hours spent preparing to go outside into the cold or the rain. It must have taken twenty minutes or more to swathe each child in coats, hoods and zip-up jackets, ease tiny, bunched feet into warm boots, and wriggle fat, plasticine-like fingers into gloves or mittens. Then the strapping into the pram, buckling the harness, propping baby up on the pillows, tucking in the rugs to keep out the draughts, and finally, flinging on my sheepskin and gloves, wandering out at snail’s pace or toddler-pace, to gasp fresh air in lanes where the pram would go.

We never met another soul, looking across the frosty, bare, ploughed fields. We were five miles from the village and buried in primeval privacy. Back home, we watched the cows go past for milking, which was the signal for our tea-time. This meal, composed of much the same ingredients as lunch, but including any cakes I might have found time to make during my lunch break, began around four- thirty. This I know, because I switched on the radio when we started, to catch the five ‘o clock news, and so as not to disturb the children’s concentration by leaping up to switch on during their meal.

So I became a captive listener to ‘Mrs Dales’ Diary’, as I waited for the news to come on, and spooned food and baby talk into thrush-like, open mouths around the fireside. I listened with stilled breath to the Congo disasters, the Rhodesian Declaration of Independence, the bombing in Vietnam, the mistakes and injustices of authority all over the world, it seemed, yet these were almost incidental. The pressing reason for listening to the news was for the sheer pleasure of hearing another adult voice, to break the boredom and monotony of the endlessly repeated trivial tasks.

In summer, at twenty- past five every day, we watched the goose spoon water with her beak over her two goslings at the duck pond, before climbing the stairs for our baby bath-time and bed- time. It was always early – because they were ready for it, I said, and needed their sleep. So by six o’clock every night silence reigned. Perhaps they did need it – they certainly never argued and fell asleep straight away – but the real reason was that I needed it. People used to comment on how beautifully behaved they were – because they were always attended to – instantly!

Before the words ‘suburban neurosis’ had been coined, I’d have been ashamed to admit the boredom to anyone, but a wave of relief swept over me, unacknowledged every night, as I walked downstairs and poured a drink into a civilised, crystal sherry glass, for my one leisurely tot before beginning the cookhouse stint for my husband’s  dinner.

My marriage was breaking down already though my husband refused to go for counselling with marriage guidance. But before we left for Hong Kong, I had made a life for myself and found a circle of friends, Margery, the farmer’s wife who wrote poetry and read her poems aloud with a group called Poetry in Pubs. My nearest neighbour, was the Hon Jean, who had children the same age, which was the only thing we had in common, but she seemed to need me. Lady Selina, who divided her time equally between her painting, the stables and her children, and was both a Quaker, and a sort of enfant terrible was stimulating, while sweet Jennifer, whose children always fought with mine, shared a passion with me for interior decoration and gardening.

Eventually we left that enchanted house to go to Hong Kong, where the hectic life and chaos of those times almost obliterated the memories of that year in the country. But for years I have dreamt of that beloved house. In my dreams it’s bigger, and there are many more rooms. The furniture is more elegant and the rooms more beautiful.

There’s one room which is filled with such treasures that I only go into it sometimes… it feels sacred. I have no idea why I dream so often of this house I lived in for a short year so long ago. I don’t know what it symbolizes. I’ve lived in other houses and places just as magical…  no doubt a psychologist would mine some profound Jungian theory from these dreams, delving into the unconscious and maybe coming up with an archetype!

We spent the last few weeks in England with the in-laws at their rambling red brick Georgian house down by the river Thames. Built by Thomas Twining of the tea family in 1722, a big sun dial told the hours on the front of the house above the front door. Inside it was decorated with glorious colours and filled with treasures and exquisite antiques and china collected by my deaf, difficult, demanding mother- in- law, whose creativity and taste taught me so much.

The night we left, as we sat in a big car lent by friends of the in-laws to accommodate all our luggage, we four and the in-laws who were seeing us off on our plane, I looked up at the old house, illuminated by the street lights and wondered when I would see it again. No presentiment warned me it would be twelve years before I saw that sun dial again, after what had seemed like a life-time of heart-break, adventure, life in a far country, second marriage and extraordinary experiences.

To be continued

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

 A friend who has her mahjong foursome to stay here in the forest for a weekend once a year, usually brings them to my place for afternoon tea and we have a great girls natter. They always love my scones and want the recipe. This is it, so quick and easy: eight to ten ounces of SR flour, pinch salt and two to two and a half ounces of butter – I simply grate it cold from the fridge. Mix this altogether with an egg beaten in a cup of milk until it all comes together. Use more milk if you need, to make a soft dough.

I don’t bother to roll it or use a pastry cutter. Just gently knead it into a square, about an inch thick, cut it into small squares, and place with a space between them on a greased baking tin. Some say leave it in the fridge to cool… sometimes I do – if I don’t have time – que sera sera. Bake in hottish oven for fifteen minutes or until risen and done. Serve hot with butter, strawberry jam and whipped cream if you have it. If there are any left over (not often) I fry them with bacon and fried egg… nice…

Food for thought

You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to satisfy me… CS Lewis – a man after my own heart.

 

 

 

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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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Simple pleasures- they may not be what you think !

Image result for pics of nasturtiums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for threadbare gourmets

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

Food for thought

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

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The kannabis trail

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I’m sitting on my cream sofa as I write on my little lap-top. It doesn’t need recovering, though I had these loose covers made twenty years ago … they are, you could say in that time-honoured phrase – as good as new – and have a lovely linen -like texture.

They are made from hemp, the brother, so to speak, of marijuana. I’ve never sampled marijuana, though now that I’m getting to the end of my appointed time (maybe not) I wish I had. But in my younger days, when all around me were urging me to have a go – young lawyers, an architect, teacher, professional men – even a doctor and several nurses who dared the system – I didn’t dare.

I feared too much that I would get caught by the punitive laws fifty years ago, and if found puffing the forbidden weed, would have my two small children taken away from me, and lose them. Though I was often subjected to constant pressure- what’s wrong with you… why are you so inhibited – the thought of my children made me adamant – no experimenting for me…

Several things have made me change my mind now I’m past three score and ten. One was watching the moving French film and true story, ‘The Intouchables,’ and seeing the relaxed enjoyment of life that the tetraplegic experienced when his outrageous carer introduced him to pot. I was reminded of the sadness I had felt some years ago, when a tetraplegic in this country was mercilessly sentenced to prison, even though he claimed that the ‘weed’ alleviated his pain. In the past six months that I’ve been taking powerful painkillers for nerve pain in my numb foot and shin, unwelcome leftovers from my broken leg, I’ve wished that I too could take some of this helpful weed.

The law has been changed in the last few weeks, and it is now legal for a local health board to okay the taking of medicinal marijuana in cases of need. And today I read on a Facebook this thread discussing legalising the drug:

(It’s not as though) ‘there is … an army of NZer’s waiting to smoke it, but don’t because it’s illegal. OK! People smoke it regardless of the law. Legalizing it would put Cannabis dealers out of business, free up resources to tackle P, reduce the amount of people in prison, increase tax revenue as Cannabis could then be sold commercially under the same restrictions of alcohol, and most importantly allow hemp to be grown on large scales across the country creating jobs, and allowing NZ to produce super eco-friendly hemp products for global export.’

Ah, this to me is the crux of the matter, because this plant has been grown and used for many purposes for over 10,000 years, according the anthropologists and others of their ilk. According to Wikipedia: ‘Cannabis is believed to be one of the oldest domesticated crops. Throughout history, humans have grown different varieties of cannabis for industrial and medical uses.

‘Tall, sturdy plants were grown by early civilizations to make a variety of foods, oils and textiles, such as rope and fabrics. These plants were bred with other plants with the same characteristics, leading to the type of cannabis we now know as hemp. Other plants were recognized for being psychoactive and were bred selectively for medical and religious purposes. This led to unique varieties of cannabis that we now know as marijuana.’

According to a Canadian company that specializes in cannabis cultivation technology, ‘the core agricultural differences between medical cannabis and hemp are largely in their genetic parentage and cultivation environment.’ Apparently it’s one of the fastest growing plants and was also one of the first plants to be spun into fibre in the dawn of mankind..

Nowadays, it can be turned into a variety of commercial items including paper, textiles like my beautiful sofa covers, clothing, biodegradable plastics, paint, insulation, biofuel, food, and animal feed. It’s been used for ropes for centuries, and animal bedding as well as feed. In France, one of the biggest producers of hemp, much of it is used to make cigarette papers.

France, Russia, China and Canada are the biggest growers of this wonderful plant with so many uses for mankind, and yet it’s still a crime to grow it in many countries, like my own, where the law has not yet distinguished between the different types of plants- medicinal and commercial.

Kannabis, the ancient Greeks called this ancient plant. Whenever I hear the police helicopter hovering around the sky near us, I know they are hoping to discover some illegal plots of bright green cannabis. Apparently, a local township has  lived on the proceeds of this plant for years, I learned in conversation with some of the older residents who live here.

A significant chunk of the economy of the township was based on it, and the local shops understood that the locals would run out of money until the next growing season, when the growers would pay off their accounts after the harvest. Because their livelihood was dependent on the growing of marijuana, the community fiercely resisted the highly addictive Methamphetamine- P for short – and there is apparently no P culture in the little town. It is a peaceful, unconventional community with many old- fashioned hippies!

All these thoughts ran through my head as I sat down on my old sofa… which is older than the hemp loose covers. I bought the sofa from a friend of a friend when it was yellow and I had wanted a yellow sofa for ages. This yellow sofa was already twenty- five years old when I brought it home in triumph, and that was twenty- four years ago. I took it to be re-sprung or whatever it needed a few years ago, and the upholsterer said all it needed was new modern feet. So back home it came with its unblemished cream hemp covers to seat us for another twenty years or so.

It had been a very expensive sofa when it was bought so many years ago, and the piped and fitted loose cream covers had cost a bomb too. They both remind me of those telling words of Benjamin Franklin who so truly said: ‘The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.’ But I enjoy the sweetness of high quality along with the pleasures of thrift and re-cycling, and the deep satisfaction of sitting on a fabric with an ancestry as old as mankind’s.

PS. The pic is from my old house, with a rose spattered quilt covering the cream hemp,

Food for threadbare gourmets

We have been enduring a horrific and un-ending storm in this country, and though we live at the top of the hill, we are trapped by a land slip one side of the road, and floods at the bottom of the other end. So I decided to cheer us up with a good lunch and try a recipe a la Annabel Langbein, a NZ Food writer.

I had some pork belly in the deep freeze, which was defrosted overnight. After patting the crackling dry, put a couple of bay leaves and some fresh sage leaves in a baking tin, and lay the pork on top. Blitz it in a very hot oven for half an hour, and then pour in milk two thirds of the way up the meat. Reduce the heat to medium or less, and cook for at least another hour and a half, longer if the meat is not falling off the bone by then.The crackling was divine.

We ate it with mashed potatoes beaten with lots of butter and some cream, and green beans… it went down a treat…

Food for Thought

Trapped in the forest by the storm, we are watching Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Here is that memorable quote, when Bilbo says: …  ” I wish none of this had happened. ”

And Gandalf replies:  ‘So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us….’

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The world – our village

100_0841 - CopyWhenever we hear the sound of a helicopter circling overhead, we know that someone is in trouble in our little village. The helicopter lands on the school playing field, and the one in need is whisked away to hospital.

Last year it rescued an elderly resident who’d slipped down a cliff, the year before, a village teenager with broken legs and arms after coming off his new motor cycle.

This time it was a profound tragedy when a young mother was suddenly rushed to hospital with a killer illness that struck out of the blue, and who only lived for another two hours. Everyone wants to surround the family and the small children with love and care and food and anything that would assuage the grief that can never be assuaged.

That’s how a village works. When I had a car accident many years ago, the family were swamped with food and help both while I was in hospital and afterwards. My daughter- in- law has the beautiful knack of creating a village wherever she lives or works, whether it’s a block of flats and her work place in London, or her suburban street and her children’s school here in New Zealand.

I’ve often wondered how she does it… I think it’s a mixture of care, interest in everyone around her, a willingness to become involved with their lives, and a sense of responsibility to the world and to her neighbours, however you define neighbour. And tolerance.

I think of other villages where those were the things that not only defined the village but made them unique, and two spring to mind immediately.
At a time when France allowed over 80,000 Jewish men, women and children to be deported to concentration camps, the community of Le Chambon- sur- Lignon in France hid some thousands throughout the war. This tiny community of only several thousand themselves, took Jewish children and families into their homes, and though most were poor, and hard put to feed themselves, they fed and protected their charges throughout the years of Nazi occupation.

No-one was ever turned away. The Germans knew this was happening and several times tried to intimidate the villagers and their leader, Pastor Andre Trocme, arriving with buses to take the Jews away. Whenever the Germans came, the villagers hid their refugees in the forest, and when the Germans had left the villagers would go into the forest, and sing a song. The Jews would then emerge from their hiding place and go back to their homes in the village.

Later one of the villagers said: “We didn’t protect the Jews because it was moral or heroic, but because it was the human thing to do”.

One other village in Occupied Europe also did this human thing. In the tiny village of Nieuwlande in the Netherlands, every one of the one hundred and seventeen villagers took a Jewish person or family into their home and kept them safe throughout the Nazi occupation. The pastor’s son, Arnold Douwe was the moving force behind this act of compassion and unbelievable courage.

The people in both villages showed incredible moral and heroic fortitude, not just for a day or a week or a year, but for years, never knowing how long their ordeal would last. Philosophers may argue about whether altruism exists, but as far as this naive human being is concerned, this was altruism of the highest order.

These apparently ordinary people put themselves and their families in mortal danger, and coped with daily drudgery too – would you want the inconvenience of sharing your home with strangers indefinitely? They did this for no reward except for knowing they had done their best for other human beings, and in doing so were themselves truly human.

Such generosity and compassion in a community can still happen. We all saw on the news the loving welcome the people of Germany offered to the tragic human beings who arrived on their doorstep in the last few days, after their months of unfathomable misery and un-imaginable hardship.

The heart-rending picture of one small boy lying dead on a sunny beach has reached the hearts of most people in the world, and shown us once again that we really are a village. The actions of western governments and power plays of western nations have destroyed these decent, ordinary people’s lives and countries, their towns and their villages. So now perhaps it’s time for the world to remember that it is a global village, and to show with action the loving compassion of village life in societies all over the world.

Maybe every village in the western world could pledge to share their peace and plenty with a refugee family…

And maybe, like Cecil the Lion, whose cruel and untimely death raised the consciousness of the world about the value and nobility of animals, these terrible scenes of refugees struggling to find safety and peace for their children, will raise the consciousness of the world too. These lines of exhausted refugees, and frail boats filled with desperate families, sinking in the sea, are reminding us of our common humanity.

They are reminding us of all that we have in common – love for our families, a love of peace, a longing for freedom, enough food, and education for our children – blurring the lines of division, whether race, religion, nationality or gender.
These strange times could be a turning point in the history of the world if we could use this crisis as an opportunity to bury our differences, and work for a common cause… which is peace on earth and goodwill to all men, women and children.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

One of my favourite dishes is risotto, and I have lots of variations. This one is a very subtle version, using leeks instead of onions. Rinse and chop two medium leeks very finely and gently cook them in butter. Don’t let them brown, as they will turn bitter. When soft stir in a cup of risotto rice, I use arborio, and then a glass of white wine or Noilly Prat.
Let it boil up until the alcohol has evaporated, and then add the hot chicken stock in the usual way. When cooked, stir in a knob of butter and four tablespoons of grated parmesan.
Meanwhile grill six rashers of streaky bacon or pancetta if you have it, cut it into small pieces, and when the rice is cooked, stir them into the mix, and serve with more parmesan.

 

Food for thought

Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible. Dalai Lama

 

 

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Pit-stop for blogging

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The vicissitudes of the life, the overwhelming winter, the pressures of people – friendly or otherwise, have caused me to go into overload, to take my eye off the ball, or in this case, my focus off the blog. Like the notice in the door of our village shop occasionally, this is a coded one reading ‘ back in five mins’, or ’gone for lunch,’ or ‘bak sun’.

But since this blog is like an opportunity shop, with a ragbag of ideas and opinions strewn around ( probably second-hand), I invite any readers who stray into the op-shop to feel free to rifle through the shelves of old or pre-loved blogs if they have nothing better to do …

In Auckland in the late sixties, early seventies there was a Love Shop. One of my first assignments on arriving here in NZ, was to cover the closing down of the Love Shop. Queues of people lined the pavement outside to take for free, or in exchange for a metaphorical song, the odds and ends cluttering the shelves.  Similarly, if anyone strays into this little op-shop, they too are welcome to the pre-loved blogs lining the shelves of the archives…

Among my favourites were: ‘Precious Objects’, ‘Places in the Heart’ and ‘Storms of Delight’… though a real delight is when sometimes people write and tell me they’ve re-read an old blog.

So I will leave any stray readers/ shoppers who pop in, to roam through shelves of blogs from the past if they wish, while I hang up my notice – Bak (quite) Sun.

 

Food for thought

..” It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top”…    Virginia Woolf

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