Tag Archives: animals

Heaven is a Place on Earth

TLot18againOur home in the forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end

 Food for Threadbare Gourmets

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

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

Food for Thought

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Man and animals caught in the net of life and time

Wenka was born on the 21 May 1954, which makes her sixty- three years old this year. She has been in prisons and endured forms of torture, as well as abandonment, much grief and loneliness, throughout her whole life.

She was born in a laboratory in Florida and taken from her mother the day she was born, to be used in a vision experiment which lasted seventeen months. Wenka was ‘only’ a chimp and thus could be used and has been used for the cruel purposes of men all her life.

After the experiment she was sold to a family in North Carolina. Four years later, instead of finding an animal refuge for their pet, they returned her to the Yerkes National Primate Research Centre, as she was supposed to be too big to handle.

Since losing her family – because undoubtedly she would have felt they were –  she has been used for experiments ever since – alcohol use, oral contraceptives, aging, and cognitive studies. She has also given birth six times, and I have no information about her babies. Researchers  obviously didn’t take these opportunities to study chimp maternal behaviours, feeding techniques etc. And they obviously didn’t study grief in Non- Human Primates when deprived of their babies either.

Chimpanzees tend to be used repeatedly over decades, rather than used and killed as with most laboratory animals. But researchers lament that one of the disadvantages of using non- human primates is that they can be difficult to handle, and various methods of physical restraint have to be used. (Researchers also shorten the term to NHP, which makes these intelligent, feeling creatures sound like a tool or non- human object)

Yes, I would resist researchers /torturers, since I have 98.8 per cent the same DNA as these almost human creatures, which is why they are used for research and called non human primates. A ‘gentle-man’ (I use the word sarcastically) from the Wisconsin Regional Primate Research Centre writes that scientists may be unaware of the way their research animals are treated, and this could have an effect on their results. He doesn’t say that it would be fear or despair skewing the results.

This scientist, called Reinhardt, writes instead,  of ‘uncontrollable methodological variables’, and goes on: ‘Numerous reports have been published demonstrating that non-human primates can readily be trained to cooperate rather than resist during common handling procedures such as capture, venipuncture, injection and veterinary examination.’

Reinhardt then lists common restraint methods as: squeeze-back cages, manual restraint, restraint boards, restraint chairs, restraint chutes, tethering, and nets. He also suggests using the drug ketamine, which I know from recent personal experience in the helicopter on the way to hospital (see a previous blog) paralyses you and causes terrifying hallucinations. When you’ve survived those, you come to, and find you can think clearly, and therefore know you’re paralysed and can do nothing to defend yourself or even turn your head, which is also a terrifying experience.

In the US 65,000 non- human primates were used for experiments in 2012 – a figure which has remained the same since 1973. The latest figures for the UK are 2,202 non- human primates used for experiments. But no licences have been issued there for experiments on great apes since 1998. Many countries are now working towards protection for these creatures so near to us in intelligence and all emotions – which is why they are used for experiments of course.

The Great Ape Project (GAP), argues that great apes (gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos) be given limited legal status and the protection of three basic interests: the right to live, the protection of individual liberty, and the prohibition of torture.

In 2008 Spain became the first country to extend these rights to great apes,  ‘torture’ which includes medical experiments will be outlawed, while imprisonment –  as in circuses, or for films – is also banned.  Hurray! Austria, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK are all now working to ban experimenting on primates, which includes great apes, chimps, gibbons and all the other varieties used in what some scientists believe is unreliable testing. The EU has also had strict guidelines  on animal testing since 2013.

At the moment great apes are the most protected, with too many other species of non- human primates still fair game for people/researchers who will never say their work is ended, that their experiments have now proved/discovered all that they wanted to know, and thus talk themselves out of a job. I used to love reading in the newspaper the results of experiments which reveal different characteristics in people, until I suddenly realised that to find out these results, animals had to have been used.

That’s when I began to research the use of animals in experimentation, and the facts are hideous. Millions of animals other than non- human primates are used for cruel and useless experiments every year in the US, by drug or chemical companies and others who have no interest in the well- being of the tragic creatures born in captivity, tortured with cruel experiments, and then killed.

We have become the Non-Humane Primates.

Charles Darwin held that animals had the same emotions as human beings. Years ago I read an article in Time magazine which quoted instances of animal intelligence, and their capacity for emotion. At the end, it dismissed the whole idea, in spite of the last conclusive example, a talking parrot.

The pet parrot was being left at the vet for treatment and it cried out as his owner left, ‘please don’t leave me – I’ll be good’. The article did not explore the various strands of this cry – the parrot’s immediate understanding that he was being left, as well as his promise to be good – which is the response of many small children when left in hospital or when their parents die, or leave. They believe it is their fault.

Many will have seen the Youtube videos of Christian, the huge lion, rushing a year later, to put his arms around his owners who had brought him from London and freed him to live in Africa; or the lion behind bars in a zoo, trying to cuddle the woman who had saved him five years before.

Most people who have lived with animals know the depth of their love, loyalty, kindness. Animals nurture their offspring, and do not neglect or abuse them. They do not lie or betray (unless they’ve been badly treated) and therefore can be said to live lives of integrity that many human beings fail to do. And we feel free to treat them in the unspeakable way that we do.

Nature writer Henry Beston says it best: ‘We need another and a wiser and perhaps more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilisation surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby…. the whole image in distortion,

‘We patronise them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate in having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.

‘They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow travellers of the splendour and the travail of the earth.’

When will we begin to honour and respect our fellow travellers, who too often never get to savour the splendour of the earth?

Food for threadbare gourmets

Nothing much in the cupboard, except bacon, spinach, mushrooms and opened noodle packets with the chicken stock packet used for other purposes. So, lots of noodles to use up.

Chopped the bacon and fried it in a little olive oil and some butter for the taste, added the mushrooms, grated a courgette in for thickening, and then added cream, garlic, pepper, and nutmeg plus a chicken stock cube. When the cream had bubbled and thickened, I added torn leaves of spinach – subtle way of getting vegetables into those who don’t like them.

Towards the end, I cooked the instant noodles, and then served them with the cream mixture over and some grated parmesan.  A good lunch.

Food for thought

 I believe deeply that children are more powerful than oil, more beautiful than rivers, more precious than any other natural resource a country can have.

Danny Kaye   Comedian

He also said: Life is a great big canvas; throw all the paint  you can at it.

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A tearful (sob) tale !

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If I’m going to cry I want it to be when I’m laughing. I think that may be one of my favourite pleasures, to laugh till I cry… but it’s not something that can be planned… such moments seize us out of the blue, and swoop down without any warning. And then it’s bliss…I love it – having laughed my way not just to good health but to aching sides and streaming eyes.

Tears come more easily to some than others… my tear ducts are the sort that let me down and embarrass me constantly… it was about the only thing I had in common with Princess Diana, being neither blonde, rich, thin, Royal or any of the other things she was…. but she cried easily… she cried waving goodbye to her fiancée when he flew off to NZ for a couple of weeks, she cried, bless her, when the band played God Bless the Prince of Wales on her honeymoon, and she cried among other times, when she was complimented on her work on the day her separation was announced. By contrast her sister-in-law Princess Anne has only gone on record crying once… when she waved farewell to any more cruises on the royal yacht Britannia as it was de-commissioned.

The tough and the strong are sometimes tempted to despise we weaker vessels, and that’s when tears are so humiliating, if we forget that some of the sweetest moments in life, and the most memorable, are those which move us to tears. Tears are one of the things that make us human beings – though I have watched that heart-breaking video when an elephant who had been starved and beaten for fifty years was finally freed, and he wept – rivers of tears slowly trickling down his wrinkled old grey cheeks -and I wept too.

So yes, tears reveal us as feeling human beings… and though times of hormonal change… those teenage years, pregnancy, post-natal months, menopause, depression, even the wrong medical drugs can cause unexpected floods of tears, nevertheless, tears should not be sniffed at. A baby’s tears are his only means of showing his hunger, hurt, fear, anger, discomfort, insecurity and other problems…. but as we grow older and find less direct forms of communication, tears assume a different place in our lives.

They still mark emotions like fear, misery, anger, grief, hurt, but as we grow older – joy too. So why does our culture sneer at tears and try to train children not to cry, with the jeer: ‘cry baby’ or ‘softie’ being an allowed insult in the playground or even worse: ‘don’t be such a girl’.

When I landed in New Zealand in the middle of winter many years ago, my luggage two small children, tears of fright flowed behind my huge black sunglasses in spite of all my efforts at control. And there have been many other moments since when tears marked unforgettable moments of joy and sorrow… including watching first my children, and then my grand-children’s nativity plays… I cried when I watched my tall, skinny thirteen year old son walking away from his childhood into ‘big’ school, head and shoulders above the others his age… at my daughter’s wedding, and my grandchild’s christening… a perfect watering can.

‘Don’t cry when you say goodbye to us’, my eight year old daughter had said before they took off across the world to see their father. So I smiled and waved, and tried to pretend tears weren’t coursing down my cheeks in great rivers. Later, the exquisite voice of Joan Sutherland singing in concert brought tears to my eyes and to many others. Few of us could define what these involuntary tears were triggered by but they were precious, and the moments memorable. I’ve heard other great singers in person including the incomparable Kathleen Battle, but none of them drew that spontaneous tribute.

When my first baby was born the midwife who delivered her did so in floods of tears… she said she always cried when a baby was born. Now, tenderised by life, I know what she means. I only have to see a new born to feel those tears start gushing. It’s hard not feel embarrassed or humiliated by these ever-ready tear ducts.

I am famous in the family for beginning to cry in the cinema at the beginning of a film. As the credits went up on the film ‘The Young Winston’… the traditional ride of the Adjutant on his white horse, up the flight of steps to the library at the end of the Passing- Out Parade at Sandhurst filled me with such nostalgia for my military childhood that I was lost at the first frame.

And I remember lingering in the cinema loo mopping my eyes with my best friend as we tottered out after Disney’s ‘Old Yeller’ (about a Labrador) had ended, ravaged with tears and nearly blinded with clogged mascara. I can go to a funeral of someone I hardly know, as a courtesy to a family member, and become a tearful wreck… not quite sure whether I’m crying in sympathy with those who are really mourning, whether tears are contagious like yawns, or whether I’m touching into old and forgotten griefs.

In the end it’s animals who really pull the heart-strings and have provoked so many gallons of tears I could fill buckets with them … I was ten when I wept over the shooting of the ponies in the film ‘Scott of the Antarctic’… blow the men dying heroically in the snow, it was the ponies I cried over. The deaths of our fifteen or more rescued dogs and a cat was always a tear- streaked nightmare over the years, and it isn’t just me who’s reduced to an emotional wreck by animals.

On one particular personal growth course, a man who had remained unmoved by harrowing moments supposed to break down our innermost defences, went home one night to find his precious bull terrier fighting for her life, and losing it in child birth. The next day, as he told us all about his beloved ‘Maggie’, he dissolved into heart- broken sobs, as did all the women and most of the strong men in the room. Loved animals in distress can make even the toughest weep.

Broken with grief, this man was then able to do the inner work he had come for, the tears had dissolved his emotional barriers, and he became a softer, kinder, warmer person overnight. So in spite of the superiority of those who have well controlled tear ducts, it does seem that weeping is good for the soul, even though it’s terrible for the complexion. Doesn’t seem to matter whether we’re weeping from laughter or weeping from grief, or weeping from any other emotion, tears seem to loosen us up.

Yet mostly, tears don’t seem to come in the moments of great crisis… then the mind is focussed. Shock and intense attention keep us icy cold, functioning unhampered by anguish or emotion… so maybe tears are a bit like Wordsworth’s definition of poetry: emotion recollected in tranquillity, but in the case of tears: emotion when there’s time for it. I rather treasure the words of Kahlil Gibran, who puts tears and laughter into perspective, as ever… that they are both – in the pompous self-mocking phrase of a friend – part of ‘life’s rich pageant’!

Gibran says: “I would not exchange the laughter of my heart for the fortunes of the multitudes; nor would I be content with converting my tears, invited by my agonized self, into calm. It is my fervent hope that my whole life on this earth will ever be tears and laughter.”

So weepers of the world – unite! Hang onto your sodden tissues, and leave off your mascara. Don’t feel intimidated by the stiff upper lips or cold embarrassment of stronger mortals, our ability to cry at the drop of a hat means that we’re living, breathing, sentient beings,
Yours tearfully…

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

A friend for supper on a cold winter’s night meant that I wanted to spoil her with comfort food, and what more comforting than blackberry and apple crumble?

I had the apples, and a tin of blackberries, though I prefer fresh or frozen, and also often use boysenberries instead. I tipped the cold, cooked sliced apples and the blackberries into a pie dish, with plenty of juice, and sugar to taste; then the crumble was spread on top, baked in a moderate oven for forty minutes, tested with a knitting needle to make sure the crumble was cooked, and served with cream… delicious and she loved it.
The trick is the crumble… eight ounces of flour, four ounces of cold butter, grated and mixed with the flour, six ounces of brown sugar, the grated rind of a lemon, and two ounces of ground almonds. Mixed altogether, it only takes a few minutes to prepare, and not much more to eat!

 

Food for thought

All children long for recognition and acceptance of their essence – secretly so do most adults. The insistent question inside all of us is: do you see me, not only my body, but my essence; the gifts, potential, needs, wounds, character and quality of soul that shape me individually?
Professor Richard Whitfield

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When the cows come home

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The cows were lined up by the fence as I drove to a halt by the stop sign and orange traffic cones. Lovely chunky brown and white ones with thick white curls on their foreheads.

They were curious, and interested… this small hiccup on the road was a break in the monotony of their lives in a field hemmed in by fences. Back in the mists of time they would have roamed free, grazing, not just on boring green grass, but also on a variety of herbs and other grasses they were drawn to in order to maintain their good health. They reminded me of when I was staying with my best friend in the Forest of Dean in England. We were crossing a field to get to the Forest for a long walk.

The notes of a flute floated across the meadow, and then we saw a ring of cows –in fact every cow in the vicinity – gathered around the tree from whence came the music. Black Friesians. A man was sitting in the tree playing to them… a delicious eccentric – and after an intriguing exchange – my friend was mystified by the idea of a man playing music to cows, we carried on down to the Forest. I was fascinated… the cows confirmed all I had ever wondered about them. They were so curious and fascinated themselves, they couldn’t tear themselves away from the tree and the new sounds.

The definition of curiosity is a desire to learn and acquire knowledge… and how often do we credit cows with these qualities? When we want to describe someone disparagingly, who is slow, we call them bovine, and the dictionary definition of this word is being ‘slow and un-intelligent like cows and cattle.’

I think of the Welsh farmer who was gored by his bull, and fell to the ground unconscious, his leg broken. When he recovered consciousness, all his cows were spaced in a ring around him, protecting him from further attacks. As he began to drag himself to the gate at the edge of the field, his cows moved with him, keeping him safe. Faced with an emergency they had never encountered before, they solved it efficiently and cooperatively. What an example of goodness, intelligence, and can I say it – humanity? We credit mankind with humanity as though it was something unique to mankind… though sometimes one wonders what has happened to humanity in today’s world.

The dictionary defines humanity as having the qualities of compassion, brotherly love, kindness, understanding, consideration, mercy, generosity, sympathy, goodness… I find that all these words could be applied to the actions of these cows in protecting their owner… plus two more, intelligence and imagination.

In New Zealand we have an annual country custom called calf club day. Every year a child on a farm is given a lamb or a calf to nurture and train, and on calf club day they all bring their pet lamb or calf to school, and parade them and they are judged – most obedient, prettiest etc. When I was asked to judge, I couldn’t and gave everyone a ribbon … and then the next day, life is turned on its head for these gently reared and nurtured creatures.

The lambs go off to market in a trailer to be sold and eaten, the calves get turned out into the field with all the others. Once as we walked past a herd of jerseys grazing peacefully, admiring their long lashes and silky coats, one of them broke away from the herd, and ran towards us. As we talked to her and stroked her, we sighed – someone’s pet calf we murmured.

And so, lonely, missing her childhood companion, she was doomed to the monotony and heartbreak of a cow’s life – doomed to breed and produce a calf every year, doomed to have it torn away from her within a few hours or days, doomed to give up her milk and live her life in boredom and sadness. The sound of a cow bellowing in anguish when her calf has been taken from her, and the pitiful cries of the calves as they get used to being parted are part of the nightmare of country life.

Not to mention the terrified male /bobby calves lying in crates by the farm gate waiting to be gathered up in a cattle truck and after long hours of being thrown around the truck, ending up at the meatworks… I haven’t been able to eat anything with gelatine ever since I discovered how we get it… much of it derived from the skin and bones of calves… and hidden even in products like yogurt to bulk it up and make it creamier.

This is the reality of modern farming many will say, and so it is…. and yet organic farmers show how it can be done differently, keeping calves with their mothers, and still getting milk from the cows. Remembering that cows are not milking machines, but intelligent, loving consciousnesses could make a difference perhaps to the lives of millions of creatures who share this planet with us… and who as sentient beings, need the same protection and consideration that all life deserves.

My heart stopped at the pictures the other day of a woman matador in the South of France, holding aloft in gleeful triumph the ears of the magnificent bull she had just killed in torment, its blood running down her hands. Killed in torment to give so-called humanity some fun…

Yes, creatures have a different consciousness to human beings, and yet also share many of the same emotions… but since we have established – in the words of the Bible – ‘dominion over all creatures’ so we also have the responsibility to make sure that life for the creatures who give us life, is not also hell on earth.

‘We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals’ wrote the great writer on the natural world, Henry Beston… ‘Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilisation surveys the creature through his own knowledge… and the whole image in distortion. We patronise them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate in having taken form so far below ourselves.

‘And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow travellers of the splendour and the travail of the earth.’

Many years ago a group was formed in Wales, calling itself Women for Life on Earth… I like to think that we could all be un-official members of this wonderful sounding circle of goodness.

Food for threadbare gourmets

Sometimes I just need a quick and easy something to give guests at morning coffee time, or to cheer up a soup meal. These cheese muffins do the trick. I always have grated cheese ready in the deep freeze, so with a heaped cup of grated cheese, and another of self raising flour, I add a pinch of salt and cayenne pepper, and mix it all with one egg and three- quarters of a cup of warm milk. Spoon the mixture into greased muffin tins – I use tiny ones- and these take fifteen minutes in a 200 degree oven.

Food for thought

O servant, where dost thou seek Me?
Lo! I am beside thee.
I am neither in temple nor in mosque: I am neither in Kaaba nor in Kailash:
Neither am I in rites and ceremonies, nor in Yoga and renunciation.
If thou art a true seeker, thou shalt at once see Me: thou shalt meet Me in a moment of time.

Sufi poet Kabir, translated by Rabindranath Tagore

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Storms of Delight

100_0377I awoke to the roaring of a savage sea hurling itself onto the rocks below. The window is always open so that I can hear the sea.

Looking out, it was a grey wolf sea, with a steel-grey haze obliterating the islands that hover on the horizon. White capped rollers raced in across cruel grey and glacier- green water, and when the waves hit the rocks spilled over in sheets of white foam blowing high in the air. Low tide is almost more spectacular than high tide, because the water hits the rocks instead of flowing over most of them.

 Later, I put on a hood and jacket and walked out into the storm. The wind was thrashing the trees and making much the same sound as the roaring sea. First I walked to the garden of some friends overlooking the little harbour. It’s usually like a shining green jewel set deep in high rock and forested walls. It was calm, the only sign of the storm being the muddy-looking water.

 These friends own the goats and are away overseas for some weeks, so I pocketed the lemons lying under the tree. It was only a little tree, but had been so nurtured and well fed, that where one lemon would normally hang, between five and ten weighted down each fragile branch. The scent of the blossom still growing swirled round the tree before flying in the wind.

 As I walked down their long drive, between two rows of palm trees, three little speckled red hens came running out of a nearby garden, and solemnly picked their way behind me in single file. I felt like turning round to stroke them, but they weren’t keen on this. The way they followed me reminded me of Konrad Lorenz’s imprinted geese, and I hoped these little hens weren’t busy imprinting themselves on me. They gave up in the end, and returned home to where their supper was awaiting them in the hands of a pretty girl in a cream poncho.

 Strolling back in the flying rain I walked down the cul de sac to say hello to the three goats, and give them a little leafy, twiggy treat. Robert, the grumpy old billy- goat, would keep dropping his mouthful in order to snatch the little darlings’ twigs from their mouths. So I had to do a dodgy dance to try to fend him off while the babies managed an uninterrupted munch for a few minutes.

 As I turned round to come home, I heard a piteous whine. It was Zeb, the black and white pointer who lives opposite the goats, and sometimes escapes to come and see me. She had her head to the fence, hoping I’d come and say hello to her too. Of course I did, and while I was doing so, Kate, her owner, came out and asked if I’d like some new-laid eggs. Would I? So when Zeb and I had finished our tete- a- tete, I returned home the delighted carrier of six fresh eggs.

 I laid them carefully with the glowing yellow lemons on the garden seat at the top of the steps, and continued my wander in the storm. We live on a tiny peninsula sticking out into the sea, our house facing one way, and on the other side of the little neck of land, the old village graveyard faces out to sea in the other direction. Beneath spreading trees, it holds the graves of the earliest settlers in this place, and the latest inhabitants.

 I walked on the wet grass between the graves, heading for the end of the cemetery where it ends in a deep crevasse where the sea throws itself against this neck of land. Here I look down on a flat rock fifty feet below. The seas crash over it in rough weather, or lap against the sides on calm days, revealing tempting still green depths and white rock below the waterline, where I’d love to swim if I could get down there. Today it was almost invisible beneath thick sheets of green water swirling over it and spumes of foam flying through the air.

As I stood looking down here, as I so often do, I realised that every time I come here, I think of Pincher Martin, and William Golding’s description of hell. Pincher Martin scrabbling desperately to escape the raging seas, and clinging onto the slippery rock and slipping back down again into the tormenting cauldron of murderous waves… over and over again … not a pleasant remembrance, and one I try to banish, but it always comes back … just as I never see the spire of Salisbury Cathedral, in the flesh or in pictures, without thinking of Golding’s ‘The Spire’ and his painful story of spiritual disintegration. Thank goodness I’ve avoided reading ‘The Lord of the Flies’, as I know I would be tormented by that too.

Today, the wind crashing through the old pohutakawa trees – which were probably growing here when my hero, Captain James Cook sailed past in 1769 – was bringing down lots of small twigs and gnarly broken branches. When they’re dry they’re wonderful to start the fire with, and the peasant in me can’t resist gathering bundles. This was a successful foray and I returned home with a big armful of wet branches and twigs to dry out in the garage. Pohutakawa trees grow to the size of a good oak tree, and have dark green, hard, crunchy leaves all the year round. They’re sometimes called the New Zealand Christmas tree because at Christmas they’re smothered in flaming red blossom, and here, where the whole coast is ringed with them, they are a unique sight.

 And so back home to a blazing log fire, with the haunting and tender sounds of Handel’s opera Julius Caesar still ringing through my head. I went to see it for the second time in three days yesterday, five hours of it, and would see it again – and again, if it was available. Today I Googled Caesar and Cleopatra, since I only knew of Anthony and Cleopatra. And yes, Handel hadn’t messed around with history, Caesar and Cleopatra had had a love affair, she had borne his only son, and she stayed with him in Rome until his assassination.

 So well before her alliance with Mark Anthony, she had loved Caesar, and he her.Knowing this made the exquisite songs of their love affair in opera seem even more poignant.Cleopatra inveigled her way into Caesar’s presence rolled up in a carpet, and in the opera sang a song of enchantment for him. I read somewhere that Cleopatra’s glorious song to Caesar:  “v’adoro pupille” (I adore you, eyes,) is the most seductive love song ever written. I can believe it. In Natalie Dessay’s version she didn’t seduce, she poured out her heart. It was beautiful.

 And this life seems so beautiful too, with all its gifts and grace notes, allusive thoughts and memories, the stormy seas and wild winds, the hens and the goats, the centuries of music and aeons of love, the lemons, the eggs and the firewood!

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

 The pantry was bare. So I made a treat I haven’t made for years – cheese aigrettes. All I needed were things like eggs, flour, and grated Parmesan which I always have in the deep freeze. So into a saucepan went two oz butter and half a pint of water. When boiling I added 4 oz flour and stirred hard until the whole mixture was coming away from the sides of the saucepan, leaving it clean.

 Off the heat I mixed in 3oz Parmesan and two egg yolks, beating them in separately. Add salt and pepper, and then fold in the stiffly whisked egg whites.That’s the easy part. When the mixture is cold, drop small rough pieces, about a teasp size or bigger, into hot fat. Don’t fry too quickly or the outside will brown before it’s cooked inside. But if the fat is too cold, the aigrettes will become greasy. It takes about four minutes for  each batch to cook.

Fish them out with a slotted spoon onto some kitchen paper to drain, and serve with grated parmesan sprinkled over, and a dash of cayenne pepper. With salad, they’re crunchy, filling and delicious.

 Food for Thought

 Life, for all its agonies of despair and loss and guilt, is exciting and beautiful, amusing and artful and endearing, full of liking, and of love, at times a poem and a high adventure, at times noble and at times very gay; and whatever (if anything) is to come after it, we shall not have this life again.

From Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay English novelist 1881 – 1958

 

 

 

 

 

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Buying a New Car

My daughter has finally winkled me out of my ancient and large white car with the bribe of going halves on a new one. An irresistible offer! A nippy little silver job, easy to park, and flies like the swift it’s named after.

But first, there was the old car to dispose of. Cleaning it out was a bit like moving house. The glove box obviously, was a mess – old sunglasses, handbook, old warrant of fitness bills, old maps – out of date – and a heavy choke chain and lead for a big dog. The middle shelves gave up a hoard of tooth picks- the wooden sort and the plastic brushes with a plastic lid – peppermints, a box of matches, a pen, some packets of almonds for hungry emergencies, loose change for wind-screen washers at traffic lights, a couple of elastoplasts, a defunct key-ring and a lipstick. The compartment in the door had to be cleared of tissues – clean- a bottle of Yardley’s lavender water, peppermint wrappers and a small choke chain and small dog lead.

The back seat was divested of rug, a basket containing a bottle of water, a pair of gloves, a nearly empty bottle of Chanel No 5, and some empty egg boxes for re-cycling. The pocket in the back seat had another out- of- date book of maps and some dog biscuits. On the floor were a couple of shopping bags, and a large Tupperware box to be returned to a friend in the city when I was going her way. In the back window, two purple umbrellas, purple because they had a loop handle to go over the arm, and also dozens of spines instead of the usual five or six, to stop them blowing inside out. Purple because that was the only colour they had!

In the boot, a big towel for wiping wet rescued dogs, a child’s plastic beach bucket and a big bottle of water for thirsty dogs, a walking stick in case my husband forgets his, a picture and frame to be taken to have the glass repaired when I find a good picture framer, a bag of books to take to a hospice shop, and another bag with some of my own books as – just occasionally – people I meet ask to buy one.

I’ve got so much gear for dogs because if there is a lost dog within a hundred miles of me, it will eventually cross my path. In the past I’ve had a springer spaniel found in a forest, two over-sized muddy mongrels escaped from home, a lost retriever found on the road late at night, and stowed in the garage with a message left on the draining board for my husband – ‘Warning. Large dog in garage’. I’ve found a labrador puppy, whose teeth marks still deface the arm-rest in the front, and a Staffordshire bull terrier who leant gratefully against the back seat, knowing he was now safe; there was a huge shaggy German shepherd, and a little dog who I lured into the car by giving him my husband’s steak for dinner, and throwing a blanket over him as he ate. He turned out to be a well known local tramp, accurately named Scruffy. Then there were the sealyham and the scottie wandering down a country road late at night, two retriever puppies stranded on a busy city roundabout… and a litter of sheepdog puppies gambolling down another country road on a summer’s night on our way out to dinner…and these are just the ones I remember!

The now empty car needed a good vacuuming, getting pine cone crumbs off the back seat, when I couldn’t get mesh bags of them into the boot because I’d forgotten to empty it of some boxes my daughter had asked me to put in her garage, the odd mouldy chicken nugget retrieved from under the seat, the fossilised relic of a grandchild’s snack, and the general mess from carting bags of compost, potting mix, bark, plants and the rest.

I took the old car to a car wash and gave it the works, and then drove it to my daughter’s where the new car awaited me. By now I was beginning to feel a bit weepy, as though I was abandoning a beloved friend. It had carried me faithfully for over eleven years, done thousands of miles especially when I was doing a six hundred mile round trip once a week to see my grand-children. It had never let me down, and in turn I faithfully oiled and watered and serviced it. I thanked it each time it passed its six months warrant check, and felt grateful for its loyalty, reliability and dogged service.

I’ve laughed in it, and prayed in it, sung in it, meditated in it, cried in it, enjoyed friends in it, and carried my grandchildren in it- even my grand-daughter’s dollies propped up in the back seat when she wanted them to have some fresh air. I look back on moments like the one when the fourteen year old was asleep on the back seat, after we’d had a long adventurous day out together. As we returned to civilisation and approached the harbour bridge, I called out to him to sit up and put his seat belt on. “I’m too tired, Grannie”, he murmured from the depths of the seat. ” Well, I could be caught and fined by the traffic police you know”, I replied. “No, you won’t Grannie,” he answered, “they’ll just think you’re a dear old grannie, and let you off!”

And another child at four years old, sitting in the front seat going home after the weekend, looking wizened and sad in the middle of an asthma attack. He asked a question, and after I’d given him the answer, he looked grumpily at me with his big brown eyes, and said; “How come you know everything Grannie?”  I gulped, and then came up with the answer: “Because I’m so old”. This seemed to satisfy him!

So this car, a heap of metal, was much more than that to me. I loved it and it held so many memories. Martin Buber, the great Jewish teacher once wrote that: ’no encounter with a being or a thing lacks a hidden significance’. He said that: ’the people we live with or meet with, the animals that help us with our farmwork, the soil we till, the material we shape, the tools we use, they all contain a mysterious spiritual substance which depends on us for helping it towards its pure form, its perfection’. Recognising the part that this big heap of metal had played in my life – this old car which seemed to have its own personality –  and remembering Martin Buber’s words, made me feel less foolish at being so upset at saying goodbye to it.

I just hope its next owner loves it too.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

The lemon chutney I made the other day is wonderful with cheese or cold meat, and also makes a lovely gift. At this time of year in New Zealand the trees are laden with citrus fruits, and it’s a particularly good year for lemons.

You need seven or eight  lemons –  the thin skinned sort. Cut them in eight wedges and pick out the pips. Put them in a bowl and sprinkle the lemon flesh with one and a half tablespoons of salt, and leave for two days. Put it all in a blender with 500grammes of raisins and four cloves of garlic, and blitz.  Tip the mixture into a large saucepan with two teaspoons of horseradish sauce, one teaspoon chilli powder, a tablespoon of freshly grated ginger, a cup and a half of cider, and 500grammes of brown sugar. Bring to the boil and simmer gently without a lid until thick. Pour into clean hot jars and seal. Yum!

Food for Thought

If it is to be, it is up to me.       Advice for life to his boys, by an anonymous English headmaster.

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