Tag Archives: art

Words, words words…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend,

My dearest friend is dead and laid in grave.

In grave he rests until the world shall end.

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

All things must have an end that Nature wrought…

Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for threadbare gourmets

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

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

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

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

Food for thought

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

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The gifts that keep on giving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for threadbare gourmets

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

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

Food for thought

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

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

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Kintsugi, art and life

I wrote a column about my collection of cracked and chipped blue and white china thirty years ago. Some people received the idea of a collection of cracked china with derision and laughter… something cracked or chipped had lost its value, usefulness and good looks was the unspoken message, or I must be too poor to have such a pointless collection instead of perfect objects.

Undeterred, in the years since, I’ve saved shattered fragments of blue and white china when I’ve dropped or broken something, intending to stick them all together in a splendid mould and make a bird bath. I still have all the bits … but though the spirit has been willing, the body has been weak, alas.

So when a few weeks ago a possum knocked a precious piece of pottery off the bird table I was heart-broken. It was a large platter given to me by its maker, a potter of some renown, whose pieces now on sale in the national museum cost more than I could ever have dreamed.

But my platter came into my hands over thirty years ago when I used to take my daughter for piano lessons with a beautiful woman who played the cello in the city orchestra and taught the piano. While my daughter tackled the music of civilisation’s finest composers, I whiled away the time chatting to her teacher’s husband, the potter, admiring his work which was all around and even then, out of my reach to afford.

They lived in an enchanting house he had built himself, and where in the romantic rambling garden black and white speckly bantam hens roamed, kicking up the flower beds with their stubby tufted legs and fearsome claws. One day the potter gave me one of his platters and a few months later by chance, another came into my hands.

I’ve always treasured them, and since I love using beautiful things for mundane purposes have always used them as bird baths. Now in our forest, I use them as bird tables for bird seed, balanced on pedestals made from other treasured ceramics. A possum must have clambered up and knocked the platter off. It had broken into three pieces. I found it when I awoke and got up to fill it with bird seed and scatter seed on the ground for our visiting quails.

Going back to bed with my early morning tea I brooded over this unexpected event, and idly let my mind roam over the five hundred-year-old Japanese art of kintsugi, when cracks or breaks in a piece of pottery or porcelain are pieced together again with glue and gold… the name means golden repairs. They become so beautiful that some pieces have been broken deliberately in order to restore them with veins of gold.

Mentioning this to my love, he immediately Googled, and over the weeks he mastered the technique, and the platter was returned to me on Christmas Day with beautiful veins of gold now holding the broken pieces together… the platter is even more beautiful than before… which is the idea … this exquisite art form has developed to become part of the Japanese philosophy of life… where respecting the past with ‘awe and reverence’ adds to the beauty of the object. It is not seen as flawed or broken, but as re-stored… not to wholeness, but to a beauty reflecting life, its impermanence and poignancy.

Since discovering the concept of kintsugi I’ve thought how though it is an old instinct brought to perfection by Japanese craftsmen, it’s also been used by so many others for so many centuries … I thought of the ancient ruined monasteries scattered around England, dissolved by Henry VIII in the 1530’s in order to enrich himself and turfing out the monks, leaving them homeless and destitute.

Local people were the ones who ruined those abandoned monasteries, dismantling exquisite abbeys, priories and friaries, and using the stones to build or enrich their own homes. Even in this day and age, I have stopped the car in a muddy lane in Cumberland to exclaim over a carved Gothic window blocked up to make part of the wall in a rough stone barn – relic of a local monastery.

I used to walk in a Devon village where the red post box was set into the thick wall of a house rising straight out of the street, which would once have been a cart-track, and next to it in the wall was a small beautifully carved blocked up window from another medieval building. These small architectural gems ennobled the old stone walls they were set in – another Japanese concept – ‘wabi sabi ‘– finding beauty in old or broken things

Shakespeare found beauty in old things, and using the principles of kintsugi, rewrote the ancient legends he had learned in his classical education at Stratford Grammar School, re-creating and transforming the stories of Anthony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar or Troilus and Cressida – to name a few – into enduring works of art.

Not sublime works of art, but definitely kintsugi, are the pre-loved clothes – as they’re sometimes called – which a friend finds. By changing the buttons, adding a trimming, altering the neckline, edging hemlines or cuffs with contrasting fabric she turns each found item into an enviable work of art as well as a desirable item of clothing.

And there’s something touching and very sweet about the darns or patches in a piece of old linen, or a carefully repaired scrap of precious old lace. I love the chips and worn places on old painted furniture and the scratches on the polished wood of an antique table, or the kicked legs of a well-used chair.

These are the scars of a life well lived, and to iron them out, re-paint, sand them away and restore them to what is so often wrongly called ‘their former glory,’ chills my heart.  I know this means their honourable scars have been destroyed, and their character obliterated. In trying to make things look as good as new we are not honouring their past… the spirit of kintsugi.

When we were told on our personal growth courses to turn sour milk into yogurt, this was the same thing, re-creating and restoring the broken, cracked or scratched parts of our lives, and using them to teach us strength, compassion, insight. Acknowledging the hard places and tough times we had come through, and the buried pain, we were able then to see how they had shaped us.

We learned to face these times with ‘awe and reverence’, and with gratitude too, since without these scars, we would not be the people we had become. Our lives regained both magic and poignancy as we learned to see the mysterious patterns of events which we had endured and previously dismissed or de-valued.

Patterns of pain, loss, anger or despair, once recognised, became our golden repairs, our kintsugi, which enriched us and gave us a sense of the beauty of our lives. The cracks of character and kindness round our mouths, the lines of laughter softening our eyes, the deep furrows of thought and intellect above our brows became testimony to strength of character, to acceptance of the challenges faced, and rejection of bitterness or resistance.

Maybe this is why I find the faces of celebrities who have had a face lift or a botox injection rather sad… they are not honouring the medals earned by a well-lived life.

The most precious example of kintsugi in this place where we live is a diver’s rusty old tank, found while we scoured a demolition yard for re-cycled goodies. It was brought joyfully home, carefully cut in two, sanded, gently polished and re-painted, so it is a dull antique grey, with a few antique coins stuck to the circumference.

It’s mounted at the bottom of our drive with a striker made from an old fishing weight attached to a handle of weathered wood sitting by it. When visitors arrive, they ring the bell to tell us they’re here. Every day at dawn, and in the gloaming we ring our bell in gratitude. It reminds us that life is precious. And so we honour life.

Food for threadbare gourmets

We always used to have goose at Christmas when I was a child, but on the one occasion we had turkey I remember my father saying he wasn’t going to eat cold turkey or turkey sandwiches for the next week. So he devised a rechauffe of turkey eaten on rice.

Faced with lots of left-over turkey this year, I decided to follow his example. I had saved all the turkey juices, so after frying mushrooms and chopped bacon in butter, I stirred in a table spoon of flour to thicken the mixture and added the turkey juices. When this had thickened, I added chopped turkey and a little cream, salt and pepper, nutmeg to taste, and a small chicken bouillon cube.

Served on boiled rice, with peas, chopped parsley and butter stirred through, it was much better than cold turkey sandwiches!

Food for Thought

The self-actualising person is not a normal person with something added, but a normal person with nothing taken away.         Abraham Maslow

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So what is gumption?

100_0509“Use your elbow–grease,” my grandmother would chide me good humouredly… or ask: “where’s your gumption?” Where indeed? I searched my somewhat limited seven year old soul but could find no trace of these desirable qualities – whatever they were – for I had no idea. I was completely puzzled, and sad to disappoint her.

However the lack of these mystifying gifts ceased to matter when at a fortnight’s notice, I left my grandmother forever, to join my father just returned from Egypt with his new wife. After a month he disappeared to Germany, and my stepmother and I waited for his summons until a house had been found for us. During those months, instead of going to school, my stepmother gave me lessons in the afternoon. Looking back, though a fully trained physiotherapist, she may not have been quite so well qualified to teach small children, but those were more carefree times, when anything went, and often did.

In my case, we didn’t do much maths, thankfully, but I learnt lots of poetry, mainly, I think, the poets my stepmother had ‘done’ at school in the thirties. These included Sir Walter Scott, Elizabeth Browning, Wordsworth and chunks of Longfellow’s Hiawatha. She was hot on spelling – and as a nine year old, lists of words like phlegm, diaphragm, diphthong, delphinium, rhododendron, asthma, psychology, diarrhoea had to be memorised every day. If I’d ended up in the medical profession this vocabulary might have stood me in good stead, but since then I’ve often wished that I had instead mastered how to spell ‘receive’ and all the exceptions of’ ie’, as well as ‘commitment’, both my constant stumbling blocks.

When it came to composition – as it was called – I was a disappointment to her, the way I’d felt with my grandmother, when I lacked elbow grease and gumption. But what I was lacking now, was imagination. “Use your imagination,” she’d say, and once again, I had no idea what imagination was, though I thought it might have something to do with writing about fairies, which I felt was childish.

I felt mysteriously depressed, as at school I’d always been quite good at composition. But the problem of imagination didn’t seem so important once we got to war-torn Europe. We travelled through apocalyptic scenes – cities of mountains of bricks, with half buildings with crooked pictures still on the wall, a door open and chairs still at a table, and skeletons of ruined churches –  before finally reaching the infamous place called Belsen, where our new home was the Beast of Belsen’s old digs.

Those were bleak times in Europe and I often felt bleak too. Now my father, almost unknown after years away at war, expected me to have common sense. This seemed more important than gumption, elbow grease, or imagination all put together, and just as un-attainable. I think they thought I was sensible when my best friend was murdered. I had gone to fetch her for our early morning riding lesson, but she didn’t answer the door. When I got home after riding, Mary had been found shot in the kitchen, and her younger brother was shot at the door as he had tried to escape. Her father had then shot himself because his wife had left him.

I never spoke to my new parents about this, my chief worry being Mary’s brother’s  feelings as he dashed for the door, and also that Mary mightn’t have made it into heaven, which I knew my parents didn’t believe in. I cried every night in bed, and begged God to let her in. But though I was apparently phlegmatic, the magic of common sense still eluded me – as in: “do use your common sense, child,” or the unanswerable question: “haven’t you got any common sense?”  When I joined the army as a teenager at my father’s behest, I knew he hoped I might now discover some hidden well of this commodity which he seemed to think I really needed for a successful life.

But here was another pitfall. An officer was supposed to have initiative and to use it! This, as a very young officer, I quickly realised, was dangerous. Initiative was a two-edged sword, with unknown consequences, which not everyone appreciated. So it was with relief that I looked forward to marriage, when, I supposed with blind optimism, none of these things would be required of me.

But on the third day into married life, I discovered that things were not as I had thought they were, had to write a big cheque which cleaned me out, and then faced an unpredictable, precarious, and impoverished life on shifting sands. The upside was that I discovered I did have gumption after all! And I needed it.

Elbow grease, on the other hand, was something quite prosaic I came to realise, and was only needed for wax-polishing antique furniture, the idea being that the intense pressure of the elbow grease created friction, and the resultant heat melted the invisible wax crystals, causing them to meld together and create those shining surfaces. Frankly, it was easier just to put the dusters in the oven, and polish with hot dusters instead of elbow grease. The only other use for elbow grease seemed to be for scrubbing burnt saucepans, an activity I have always strenuously avoided.

Common sense? Well I’ve discovered that common sense is merely a matter of opinion, and that one man’s common sense is another man’s madness… so to take a somewhat extreme example, Hitler’s idea of common sense would not be mine – so I’ve flagged common sense. And initiative doesn’t bother me any more – I’m in sole command, and don’t have to answer to any superior officers!

Which leaves me with that lack of imagination. Well, it’s something I’ve got used to, and have had to realise that I never could produce an interesting imaginative novel! I recognise imagination in great works of art, both literary and artistic, in fine blogs, in glorious architecture and opera, in gardening and interior decoration, even in solving problems… but I’m still digging for it in myself…

Jane Austen has sometimes been un-imaginatively accused of lacking imagination, and I used to cling to her definition of her art in a letter to her brother Edward, in which she refers to her: ‘little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush’, but to be brutally realistic, this is not really much comfort, since she painted masterpieces on her little bit of ivory with her fine brush. For me, lacking the flights of fancy that come with a soaring imagination, all I can do is to notice and to describe, and I did find some consolation in these words by the enigmatic writer Fernando Pessoa.

He wrote: “What moves lives. What is said endures. There’s nothing in life that’s less real for having been described. Small-minded critics point out that such and such a poem, with its protracted cadences, in the end says merely that it’s a nice day. But to say it’s a nice day is difficult, and the nice day itself passes on. It’s up to us to conserve the nice day in a wordy, florid memory, sprinkling new flowers and new stars over the fields and skies of the empty, fleeting outer world.”

These words hearten me for I too, can at least conserve the day in wordy, florid memories, try to sprinkle new flowers over the fields and skies of the fleeting outer world, and thoroughly enjoy myself while I’m sprinkling! So here’s to florid memories and new flowers!

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

This is the strawberry season, so it’s crazy to serve anything else for pudding besides these luscious fruits. Friends for dinner meant a quick foray to the nearest strawberry fields. The ones I wanted, where the strawberries are grown by a Vietnamese genius, whose berries are the biggest, sweetest and cheapest, hadn’t opened, so I had to fall back on the other strawberry fields. I usually find theirs a bit tough and tart, but solved the problem by hulling them, and putting them in a dish out in the sun. As the day went by, the delectable scent of soft, sweet, ripe strawberries warm from the sun tempted my taste-buds every time I passed them.

With them I usually do Chantilly cream. One of my grandsons will eat this neat, and has learned how to make it for himself, a useful skill when he goes flatting at University! Take one cup of thick cream, two table spoons of icing sugar and a few drops of vanilla and whip them together. I usually make three times this amount, just tripling all the ingredients.

 

Food for thought

So long as a bee is outside the petals of the lotus and has not tasted its honey, it hovers around the flower buzzing. But when it is inside the flower it drinks the nectar silently. So long as a man quarrels about doctrines and dogmas, he has not tasted the nectar of the true faith; once he has tasted it he becomes still.

Sri Ramakrishna  1883- 1886 Famous Hindu teacher and mystic, who believed that all religions led to the same God, and who practised  both Christianity and Islam

 

 

 

 

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Seize the day!

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Today was not one of those days, but One of Those Days.  Yesterday, as I watched the tiny, greenery- yallery birds we call silver- eyes in the trees, hunting for insects and the like, I thought how I hadn’t seen the cock pheasant for months. He must have found another home, I thought.

When I awoke this morning I jumped out of bed and looked out of the open window to the sea as usual. There, right below my window, was the pheasant, in the garden bed with the bromeliads. He slowly pecked and ambled his way down through the vegetable beds to the petanque court, and then sauntereded off down the path into the wild patch. A moment earlier or later, and I would have missed him. Do I believe in coincidences, or did the pheasant pick up my wave-length?

It was one of those glorious late summer days. The colours bright, the air sparkling.  In the morning I rendezvoused with two old friends at an art gallery in the next village, to see an exhibition in a barn in the orchard. The gnarled branches of the old fruit trees were blanketed in fluffy celadon-green lichen, and hung with knobbly green quinces and pink and yellow apples. The barn was full of pottery, paintings, sculpture and furniture.

Robin knew one of the painters, who told us a dealer had wanted to see her work, so the painter had suggested that the dealer come to the exhibition. The artist led the dealer into the barn, and before she could show off her vividly coloured abstract flower paintings, the poor painter told us with some chagrin, that the dealer had instead pounced on a set of black and brown geometrical abstracts, and said she’d buy the lot. These black and brown works of art were composed of cow dung, clay and other mixtures, and smelt richly of a farm yard!

After a cup of coffee by the river, and a whip round the gallery there, we drove on to Tawharanui National Park, and the “Exhibition in a Woolshed”. Never has the sea looked so blue, the islands so green and purple, and the sands so white. The rolling hills were burnt gold in the flaming sun, and the gum trees which lined the last stretches of the dusty, winding gravel road gave us grateful dappled shade.

At the National Park we enjoyed the pungent smell of a real woolshed, and savoured the integrity of the wooden slats and fences, smoothed and polished by the hands of generations of sheep shearers – hands – no doubt, impregnated with oil from the fleeces. Another collection of absorbing paintings, pottery and sculpture, and then a walk around the sculpture park edging the turquoise sea.

The day flowed from one treat to another. Late in the afternoon we arrived at another cafe for lunch, exhausted with art and walking in the midday sun. We sat outside in the shade of the trees, where we could see the waterfall. We go back through twenty nine years of gruelling growth courses, endless lunches, regular birthday parties, shared experiences and watching our children grow up, marry, have their children, break-up, divorce and struggle on, in sickness and in health…

Two of the paintings in the woolshed were accompanied by poems by Fernando Pessoa. They were numbered and called “The Keeper of the Sheep”…. my favourite lines from number 11 were:                                                                                                                                                      “The world wasn’t made for us to think about it…                                                                                                                                                                          But to look at it and to be in agreement”.

And then, number XXX1X:                                                                                                                                                                                                                        “… the only hidden meanings of things                                                                                                                                                                                                   Is that they have no hidden meaning.                                                                                                                                                                                                        … things are really what they seem to be                                                                                                                                                                                          And there’s nothing to understand.”

Words which were a wonderful antidote to artistic pretension and cow dung! As we left the woolshed, outside in the sheep pen there was a battered old farm noticeboard which read:

‘Cows: bulls, steers, heifers, calves.’

Sheep:  rams, wethers, ewes, hoggets lambs.’                                                                                                                                                                                 The names were as evocative as a poem, a hymn to a rural past that few people now remember or experience.

Sheep seem to be in my consciousness at the moment. Last night, I’d been reading an artist’s account of her decision to find a lamb to photograph while she was painting Jesus, so she’d get it right. She went to a local market, but saw only a sorry collection of scraggly mixed breeds – no lambs. She was about to turn away when a sparkling white ewe emerged from the flock and approached her. She was pregnant.

The artist decided to buy her, and the dealer told her the sheep’s breed was a ‘mouflon’. On the way home, she was suddenly struck by the fear that the sheep might be some sort of new hybrid which had not existed when Jesus had been on earth, since she had never seen a sheep like her, in spite of growing up on a ranch.

After establishing the sheep in her new home, the artist set off for the library, where she found that the mouflon was the oldest domesticated breed of sheep in Europe, and had  been herded in the Middle East two thousand years ago. Since they were living in the US, it was an amazing synchronicity to find the exact type of sheep she needed, especially since she hadn’t known that she did need it!

The perfection of the interlocking factors in this story reflect a little of how I feel today. It’s as though I know in my heart, and not just in my mind, that all is well, and that if we let go trying to make the right thing happen, the perfect thing happens. And it may not be what we planned or thought we wanted. This means a sense of peace, a calm, and a certainty. There is no need to keep striving, because when we surrender, life falls into place anyway.

And I’m learning to let go the distinction between the earthly and the spiritual. There is no distinction. Everything is sacred. So the laughter of today has the same value as this morning’s early meditation. As I hummed the pop song:  “Take my heart to higher ground’, a la Streisand, I felt it was as sacred as a Bach cantata. Feeling that every moment has a hidden significance, means the days are lived at a particular level of commitment

Making the most of each day, and knowing that the sum of these days add up to life well lived, is its own reward, and so in the words of that old Jewish saying, we can go on our way stringing pearls for heaven. And maybe try for heaven on earth… and carpe diem.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Browsing through Sally’s latest blog at mybeautifulthings@wordpress.com , I saw her picture of lunch at Falmouth – salmon fishcakes, spinach, poached egg and Hollandaise sauce. My taste buds sizzled, and I thought this is what we’re going to have for supper. I actually had some salmon, plenty of Agria potatoes – best for mashing, and all the trimmings – fresh eggs, spinach in the deep freeze, and a recipe for a quick hollandaise sauce.

Here’s my recipe for the quick hollandaise sauce. Blend the juice and zest of two lemons, four egg yolks and two teasps of mild mustard.  Melt the butter, and keeping the motor running, pour the butter into the eggs in a slow stream. Process until just thickened and no more. Season to taste, and keep at room temperature until using it. This makes two cups. Extravagant and delicious!

I used fresh smoked salmon and dill in the fish cakes and rolled them in flour before frying them in a mix of butter and oil. I think if I was feeling threadbare, a tin of red salmon, or even pink salmon jazzed up with plenty of herbs would work.

Food for Thought

I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big success. I am for those tiny, invisible loving human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets…

William James 1842 -1910   Sometimes called the father of American psychology, and also best known for his book ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience.’

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Art and soul – do they matter?

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On Sunday I discovered that I am a member of a tiny minority. I belong to a group of around three million people world- wide who watch the live performances of opera filmed from the New York Metropolitan Opera House! And when I watched film of the Met audience, I decided that I must also belong to an even more select group, a blogger who watches opera.  I don’t know what a blogger actually looks like, but to my mind, this collection of elegant, groomed rich people didn’t look like bloggers- would they have the time to sit over a computer? Not did my home audience of mostly elderly people look like bloggers either!

It was a Mozart opera, ‘La Clemenza di Tito‘. Then on Tuesday I spent ages poring over Clanmother’s beautiful blog with Renoir’s pictures. On Wednesday I went back to see the opera again, unable to resist it, and on Friday I rushed in to see the film ‘Anna Karenina’  before it went off. A week you could say, of culture and art. The theme of the opera was goodness and mercy, though it took even worse liberties with history than Hollywood does. This didn’t matter.

The music was sublime, the costumes and scenery a feast for the eyes, and the voices were among the best in the world. Two of the parts were what are known in opera as trouser roles – that is they were written for women’s voices, but the characters were men. Anyone who saw singer Susan Graham all in white as the long legged elegant Rosenkavalier will know just how ravishing women dressed up as men are, and these two were delectable.

Opera singers are born, not made, but to achieve the mastery needed to sing opera well takes years of voice training, learning music theory and music history, if possible mastering an instrument, learning French, German and Italian since most operas are written in these languages, learning drama, acting skills, and sometimes ballet, and for men, sword fighting  skills. For the rest of their lives, opera singers have to continue to practise and train their voices to sing different sorts of opera. Mozart’s music is the most testing and the finest training according to singers. And many have to work at day jobs to make a living.

This opera was written in the last three months of Mozart’s life, when he was travelling around the music capitals of Europe looking for a post to support his family in 1791. It appeared in the first week in September; a week later he produced another great opera,’ The Magic Flute‘, and then some cantatas, a clarinet concerto, a piano concerto, and finally his great Requiem before dying on the 6 December. What inspired creativity in the last three months of his life, and typical of his lifelong astonishing output, having begun composing when he was five .

The pictures of Renoir throb with joie de vivre and utter beauty. Each exquisite picture, whether flowers, dancers, portraits or landscape are radiant with life and light. To see one is exciting, to see a collection of them is breath-taking … In spite of acute arthritis in his hands, Renoir went on painting into extreme old age, and the joyousness and celebration of beauty are always there.

‘Anna Karenina’ is considered to be one of the greatest novels in western literature… though some beg to differ, myself among them. At the end of this sumptuous production, with jewels and dresses to die for, I felt a distaste at having watched a collection of worldly people with no self awareness make a hash of their lives! This novel, along with ‘War and Peace’ are Tolstoy’s masterpieces, for he spent most of his later adult life trying unsuccessfully to reform his errant ways, and then trying to reform the world, gaining a controversial reputation as a reformer. He preached peace and inspired both Ghandi and Martin Luther King.

So in one week I had had a feast of some of the world’s great artists. Beverley Sills, the American soprano once said that: “arts are the signature of civilisation”, and it worries me sometimes that this signature is getting more and more illegible. In a film on Beethoven a couple of years ago, I heard a magnificent German bass agonising over what he called the dumbing down of our culture – referring amongst other things to cheap music, Facebook communication,  and the shallow snippets of sensational news on radio and TV – he was comparing them with the profundity of Beethoven .

I would also have added to his list new Bible translations which are no longer literature, but banal religious tracts, and the sort of art that wins prizes these days – someone’s unmade bed adorned with stubbed out fag-ends and grubby sheets, or a skull covered in diamonds. Both the perpetrators of these masterpieces are now rich and famous on the strength of them…

Taoist philosophy suggests that art awakens a response in the mind and soul and it is important that it should evoke the higher not the lower nature. And that is what the art that I revelled in this week did for me. It lifted me above the daily round and common task, the disappointments and frustrations of a rather difficult week, and reminded me of actress Stella Adler’s words: ‘Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one.’ Yes, I think art matters…

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Frangipane is the delicious almond base in many fruit tarts. It’s easy as…you just need four oz of butter and four oz of sugar, two eggs, one oz flour, 5 oz ground almonds, one teasp vanilla essence, and half a teasp of almond essence. Just beat them all together, and spread on top of the pastry. Then press down in it the fruit of your choice. This is only one of many recipes, some use more eggs, others use more almonds. I keep my ground almonds in the deep freeze so that they are fresh and don’t go rancid.

 

Food for Thought

Oh great Creator, grant us one more hour to perform our art and perfect our lives.     Jim Morrison 194 – 1971  Poet and songwriter who died unexpectedly in Paris at 27

 

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Acorns Oaks and Art

Spring, and the oak tree we planted in the gully beyond the sitting room window has suddenly shimmered into leaf.

I treasure these first days when the young fretted edge of the bright leaves are still frilly, and brilliant green and translucent. They’ll weather into darker green,  leathery- looking foliage as the summer months go by, but this is spring, and the word is verdant. This particular oak belongs to a group known as marcescent , which means they keep their brown leaves until spring, so it’s gone from brown to green in the space of a few weeks.

One of my toddler grandsons and I grew it from an acorn which had rooted itself in one of my pots. Every time we moved house I carefully lugged it along, and every time the grandson came to stay, or visit, he inspected ‘his’ tree. Once I planted it, and it flourished for three years in a corner where it would bug no-one else by taking their light or stealing their space. But then after another heart scare for my husband, we left that three level house to squeeze ourselves into this little cottage by the sea next door to my daughter’s holiday home.

I couldn’t leave the oak behind. It was like one of my grand-children and had enjoyed nearly as much feeding and nurturing as them. So we dug it up, and re-instated it here. It’s not even on our land, but on a paper road, which legend has it was mapped out by a surveyor in England in the nineteenth century, and thus he didn’t realise he’d planned it to run straight down into the sea. So the road will never be activated, and this is a safe space for my tree.

It doesn’t spoil anyone else’s view, and there’s plenty of room for it to spread its branches. It’s grown so much in the six years we’ve been here, that it now hides the neighbouring house across the reserve, and gives me shade in summer, and lets the sun into the sitting room in winter.,

All in all, an ideal tree! I was reading the wonderful American writer Annie Dillard the other day, and she describes communing with a sycamore. She goes on to describe Xerxes, King of Persia – who on one of his marches through Asia Minor with his huge army – came upon a single exquisite plane tree, the same family as a sycamore. He was so ravished by its beauty that he halted his army and stayed there for several days in contemplation of this work of nature. She imagines his army halted, puzzled, thirsty and weary, waiting on the hot and treeless plain. And after a few days, still rapt with the glory of creation, Xerxes, warlord, invader, builder of monstrous palaces which are now lost demesnes, orders a goldsmith to be rooted out of the tents, to come and forge a medal to preserve that moment forever.

But though the Xerxes and his goldsmith couldn’t really manage to embalm that moment in time, the great composer Handel did. Written over two thousand years after Xerxes died, Handel’s opera Serse, opens with the king singing “Tender and beautiful fronds of my beloved plane tree”, from the famous largo: ’Ombre mai fu’, one of the best known pieces of classical music

However, loving beauty didn’t make Xerxes a nice person – it doesn’t, it seems… murderous Nazis like Hermann Goering collected beauty, but it didn’t rub off on them! Xerxes was the man who had the Hellespont whipped with three hundred strokes and chains dumped in it when a storm destroyed his fleet!  We won’t go into what Goering did.

But my oak, unlike Xerxes’ plane tree, is a stranger in a strange land – what is known as an exotic tree in New Zealand, where it is not a native. In its native land – England – it’s host to 284 plants, insects, birds and animals, compared with five in a chestnut, and one in a plane tree. Like my oak here, they are both alien species in England.

So in England, my oak would be hosting birds, plants, insects and creatures, from the oak bush crickets which browse in its crown, to the roe and fallow deer which seek its shade. There are bugs that feed on oak flowers, beetles that eat the bark, and caterpillars that eat the young leaves. The insects attract birds – nuthatch, tree creeper, pied flycatcher, wood warbler, (wonderful names) while the great spotted woodpecker nests in holes drilled in rotten branches.

Acorns feed jays and squirrels,  and all the wild life attracts predators like weasels and sparrowhawks.  Indigenous wildflowers grow at its roots, bluebells, primroses and wood anemones. Lichens and fungus grow on it, and mistletoe, of course, famously grows on the oak for the use of both Druids and Christmas revellers. Though the acorns are poisonous to other domestic animals, pigs thrive on them.

Yet here in New Zealand, I look out on an empty oak, which actually makes me sad. No bugs or beetles, or birds. I have to treasure it for its changing beauty alone, in a country where nearly all the trees are evergreen, and which never change with the seasons. Neither will it last for an age like ancient English oaks planted in the time of Elizabeth the First. My tree has catapulted skywards, and like the other oaks here, will reach its prime in a hundred years, and then slowly decay for the next fifty years.

So like Xerxes and his goldsmith, I just have an impression of an oak. I don’t have the essence of an oak, supporting dozens and dozens of tiny lives and plant growth, but just have to make the most of what the tree and I share – mutual love and memories of all the places we’ve lived in together. Xerxes had his tree immortalised  by Handel’s genius, so perhaps I can lay claim on Handel too, and celebrate my oak tree with  his lovely song from another opera, Semele: ‘Where e’er you walk, cool gales shall fan the breeze, trees where you sit shall cast into a shade’.

 

PS  You can listen to both Handel’s songs on Youtube, both food for the soul. Enjoy beautiful Kathleen Battle or exquisite Andreas Scholl singing ‘Ombre mai fu’, and the matchless Kathleen Ferrier or legendary Leontyne Price singing ‘Where’er you walk’. I hope you love them too.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Morning tea with friends in their airy house overlooking the harbour, all the windows open in the sunshine on the first day after we put the clocks forward for summer. Amongst other goodies we had coffee and gingerbread, and my friend gave me the recipe.

Melt 250 gm butter with a firmly packed cup of molasses or dark cane sugar, stirring to mix. Take off the heat, and add half a cup of dark rum, three quarters of a cup of full cream milk, half a cup of ginger marmalade, two large eggs and the grated rind of three oranges. Meanwhile, in a large bowl sift three cups of SR flour, two teasp baking soda, two tablesp of ground ginger, two teasp of cinnamon, one teasp each of ground nutmeg and cardamom, half a teasp of ground cloves and make a well in the centre.

Pour in the melted mixture stirring to form a smooth batter. Beat in about 120 gm of chopped crystallised ginger. Pour into a greased lined tin 23 cm square according to this recipe. Bake at 180 degrees for an hour and a half until well risen and firm to the touch. Cool in the tin. It’s better kept for two days wrapped in an air tight container before eating, and butter when you cut into slices. The recipe used marmalade instead of ginger marmalade, but I don’t like orange marmalade, and it also suggested the grated rind of two limes and lemons as well as the oranges. I wouldn’t. But I can’t wait to try my bowdlerised version, and I think I’d sprinkle some sugar on the top before baking.

 

Food for Thought.

Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one.

Stella Adler  1901 – 1992 Actress, and founder of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in NY, and Stella Adler Academy of Acting in Los Angeles. Her students included Marlon Brando, Judy Garland, Warren Beatty, Martin Sheen, Robert de Niro, Melanie Griffiths, Harvey Keitel and others.

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