Tag Archives: art

Glorious London

Image result for perronneau a girl with a kitten

A life –  This is the eleventh instalment of an autobiographical series before I revert to my normal blogs

When I was eleven I went to spend several weeks of the summer holidays with my step-grandmother. I travelled down from Yorkshire on the Flying Scotsman, ate my egg sandwiches for lunch, taking them out of their grease-proof paper wrapping and brown paper bag, and felt thirsty with no drink.

I sat and worried the whole journey about how I was going to get my suitcase down from the luggage rack when we arrived at King’s Cross. There, the thundering, hissing steam engines and the noise of all the milling crowds of people were overwhelming, and then it was out into the heat and traffic. London seemed like hell at first, but I grew to love it.

I loved waking in the morning and seeing the shafts of sunlight stabbing through the heavy, floor -length, apple- green velvet curtains. Outside, veiling the view of the street, was the thick screen of plane trees, pollarded every year, but now in high summer, green and leafy. I listened to the clop of the horse’s hooves as the milk man jingled down the road at 6.30 in the morning, and felt a great sense of well- being.

As long as I was polite and well-mannered and helped with the chores, no-one ever got cross here, and it was so easy to be good. My stepmother’s parents were in this sense, perfect grandparents – uncritical.

Every morning at about eleven, my step-grandfather arrived to take me for an expedition. They were glorious. London in 1949 was a still a blackened, blitzed city… black from the coal fires of the industrial revolution, blitzed from the bombs of the Luftwaffe… so among the blackened sooty edifices of the city, there were still deep bomb craters filled with rubble and pink rose bay willow growing on these derelict monuments to World War Two – Wren’s precious, now ruined churches,  elegant, destroyed townhouses, fashionable shops, and humble homes…

Uncle Bill walked me all over this London, telling me the names of the streets, and the history of all the places, and the names and stories of the heroes and soldiers, statesmen and artists commemorated in all the statues. We strode down Constitution Hill, past the Palace, No I, London, also known as Apsley House – the Iron Duke’s London home- through the parks, Admiralty Arch, Whitehall, where King Charles I was executed, Westminster, along the Embankment, into the City.

Other days he took me to the Abbey, the Tower, Kew Gardens, Hampton Court, and on the river bus to Greenwich, or the other way to Kew. He opened my eyes to the layers of history and beauty of this ancient city, centuries of life and death, trade and plague, culture and violence  …we walked up streets with fascinating medieval names like Threadneedle Street, home of the Bank of England, where a detachment of Guards, he told me, have marched to guard it nearly every day since the Gordon Riots in 1780; we discovered the corner of Cock Lane, once known as Pie Corner, where the Great Fire of London ended, having started in Pudding Lane… we marvelled at St Paul’s, which Sir Christopher Wren had  built to replace the old Gothic Cathedral destroyed by the Great Fire…

We meandered through Georgian London with its elegant Nash facades and lingered outside Rules famous restaurant opened by Thomas Rule in 1798, round the corner from Covent Garden, and favourite meeting place for artistic life from Dickens and Thackeray, to Laurence Olivier and Clark Gable;  Edwardian London we  acknowledged at Admiralty Arch, built by Edward the Seventh to honour his mother, Queen Victoria… Victorian London, and the statue of the Queen outside Buckingham Palace… Elizabethan London, where Good Queen Bess had ridden as a girl beneath the ancient oaks in Greenwich Park, and where Charles II’s wonderful Hospital for Seamen, Wren’s glorious masterpiece, still stands as a monument to public charity and architectural beauty. When we saw it, it had become the Naval College where we admired the famous Painted Hall and I gazed with ghoulish interest at the brown blood- stains on the cotton vest worn by Nelson when he died on the decks of the Victory.

Norman London meant Westminster Hall, William the Conqueror’s masterpiece, with its unique 240 feet hammer – beam ceiling, as well as his menacing Tower of London, where I listened to the story of the death of the Little Princes in the White Tower several hundred years later, as told by a Beefeater guide, and recalled the cruel executions of sad seventeen -year- old Lady Jane Grey, and tragic Anne Boleyn before her, as well as Sir Walter Raleigh.

To the Abbey, all the poets in their corner, and the tomb of the Unknown Warrior, memorial to the dead of what my other grandmother called The Great War…and where it is said the ghost of John Bradshaw who signed Charles 1’s death warrant, is sometimes seen – then across the way, to magnificent Boadicea in her chariot by the river, Queen of the Iceni before the Romans settled the city as Londinium… many believe that she’s buried at Kings Cross under Platform 10!   I had learned about this legendary woman from my history teacher when I was eight, and she fascinated me…

Writer Anna Quindlen wrote: ‘London… is divided into chapters, the chapters into scenes, the scenes into sentences; it opens to you like a series of rooms, door, passage, door. Mayfair to Piccadilly to Soho to the Strand.’ And that was how it felt. At Trafalgar Square I was moved by beautiful Nurse Edith Cavell’s memorial from the First World War,  while in Piccadilly, Uncle Bill told me of stepping over fire hoses from the previous night’s bombing in World War Two, then in Downing Street he pointed out the window from which Chamberlain had waved to the crowds after bringing back ‘peace in our time’ from Munich.

And the best days of all, were when he took me to the National Gallery and the Tate. I had already read, re-read and read again, umpteen times, a book belonging to my parents called ‘The Outline of Art’ by Sir William Orpen. It was probably printed during the war because the only colour illustration was a picture of his own, a particularly hideous painting of a butcher’s shop in all its bloody detail. For the rest, every glorious picture was in black and white, so I imagined what the colours were. It was a dreadful disappointment when I first saw Rossetti’s ‘The Beloved’ in colour, and discovered the Beloved was wearing emerald green, instead of the madonna blue I had visualised her in.

And so it was too with Christina Rossetti in ‘The Annunciation’. The pictures and the painters I learned to love in this black and grey world, have remained my favourites ever since, which is a chastening thought that having formed my taste at eleven it has never developed since.

But I still love the dignity and gentleness of Fra Angelica, and the sheer beauty of Fra Filippo Lippi and Botticelli. I still dislike Mona Lisa and love Beatrice d’Este. Da Vinci’s ‘Virgin on The Rocks ‘ still takes my breathe away, and his angels and cartoons ravished me then and now. I loved, and still love, Holbein and Van Eyck, and the wonderful line and delicacy of Durer. Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch still feed some pool of serenity deep inside me. Rembrandt, alas, didn’t re-produce well in black and white, but I took Orpen’s word for him, and he was right.

And, oh, the glory of Gainsborough, from Mr and Mrs Robert Andrews sitting beneath the tree in their ripe cornfield, to the society beauties and ravishing children he painted later. Constable didn’t show up very well in black and white either, so I came to love him later.

The Pre-Raphaelites are all the rage now, but I loved them back in ’49, especially Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and Lord Leighton, and also Picasso in his blue period. And Hoppner and Romney. Sir Joshua Reynolds ‘Samuel’, I loved because my grandmother had told me his story… “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth”… Samuel Palmer didn’t seem to be in ‘The Outline of Art’ – perhaps he didn’t reproduce well in black and white either. But I fell in love with him on our return from Malaya.

At the first opportunity I had hot-footed it down to the Tate, passing through the Turners, which never appealed to me (p’raps the black and white had killed him for me!) and found in a corner by the door, an exquisite little painting of people coming from church, and a golden moon shining down on them. Samuel Palmer. That picture, and he, caught my heart, and I still have the postcard I bought then, in its battered little gold  frame, and I still love his golden cornfields and fat sheep and the mystical light of his other paintings

So I was ripe for my first visit to the National Gallery. At the end of a long exciting afternoon, Uncle Bill asked which picture had been my favourite. I panicked. I was still mortified from the mockery of the reading I had done before I met my parents – and I didn’t know him well enough, or trust him enough not to laugh at me for being religious. So I lied, and said Perroneau’s ‘Girl with a Kitten’, and van Gogh’s ‘ Chair ‘. And so I was punished for my lie, because he bought me copies of them both, instead of my favourite picture, da Vinci’s sublime ‘Virgin on the Rocks’.

The picture is, of course, Perroneau’s  ‘A girl with a kitten’

To be continued… The Edwardians

Food for threadbare gourmets

Courgettes/zucchini are one of my favourite vegetables, sliced in long thin ribbons or sliced across in penny shaped pieces, and cooked I olive oil and garlic, they are delectable…  grated and stirred into a risotto, with lemon zest added, they’re delicious; courgette and feta fritters and courgette slice, using either chopped bacon or a tin of salmon, make a lovely lunch, and I use them in ratatouille, instead of aubergines – which are anathema to me  (though  I do buy them just to enjoy their purple beauty in a bowl of fruit and vegetables).This courgette loaf is a fragrant way to enjoy courgettes with a cup of coffee in the morning, or with a cup of tea in the afternoon.

In a bowl, beat three medium sized courgettes, 150 gm of sugar, one egg andn125ml of light olive oil. In a separate bowl, sift together 200 gm of SR flour, half a teasp of salt, quarter teasp of baking soda, a teasp of cinnamon and two teasp lemon zest. Stir the flour mixture into the courgette mixture just until blended. Pour the batter into a greased loaf tin and bake for forty- five minutes, at 160C or gas mark 3. When cool I like a layer of lemon icing spread over it.

Food for thought

We manufacture everything ( in our manufacturing cities) except men; we blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar, and shape pottery; but to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages.

John Ruskin. Victorian write, art critic, philosopher

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Was I a snowflake?

Image result for radipole weymouth dorset
A life – part four

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued.

 Food for threadbare gourmets

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

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

Food for thought

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

 

 

 

 

 

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Do we have a choice between technology or love?

Am I a dinosaur – surely not … or a flat earther – perish the thought … or maybe a Luddite… perhaps!

I’ve just been reading about the latest ideas in schooling… apparently instead of teaching children to spit out facts like a computer, we should be teaching them the six C’s.  They are defined as collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation and confidence – listed in order of importance.

And this is why I sometimes feel as though I was born into the Stone Age or something similar… I’m not even sure the people who taught me had even heard of the now unfashionable 3R’s. And my grandmother, a Victorian, was firmly of the belief that if I could read, there was nothing  I couldn’t learn… but she had probably never heard of calculus, Einstein’s theory, or even Pythagoras, though she was a mathematical whizz unlike her grand-daughter.

I look back to my school days, when I was so shy and retiring that it actually never occurred to me to tell the infant teacher I could read, so I spent the first year in total boredom chanting letters of the alphabet with everyone else, and following rudimentary stories on an illustrated frieze around the classroom wall. I remember feeling indignant too, when a girl called Manon Tipper started, and the teacher told the rest of my awed classmates that Manon’s parents were teachers and had taught her to read. So can I, I remember thinking to myself.

Things looked up the next year with a wonderful history teacher who galloped through the Ice Age, the Beaker people, Romans, right up Henry V in enthralling lessons that I soaked up, getting ten out of ten on the narrow strip of torn off paper (no exercise books because of the war) on which we wrote short answers to his questions at the beginning of every lesson.

The art lessons were a disappointment to my way of thinking. Lesson one was learning to draw a straight line using short feather strokes. This skill acquired by the class of restless six- year olds, we went on to mastering the perspective of drawing a rectangular box in succeeding lessons. Then the joy of bursting out into colour arrived (no finger painting for us) we had to bring a mottled, spotty, yellowy -green laurel leaf to school, to paint it, red berries and all. But our uncooperative front garden hedge had no berries, so no red for me. I think we were learning to observe as well as train the hand and eye…

Besides the boring, daily chanting of the times tables, (which has stood me in good stead!) we had a bout of mental arithmetic which I hated, but I quite enjoyed learning to write the copper-plate handwriting demanded of us. We spent hours copying a letter of the alphabet in our printed copybooks, using a dip pen and ink – often crossing the nib during our efforts (does anyone know what a crossed nib is anymore?) Using ‘joining up’ writing, nowadays called cursive, instead of printing was a sign of maturity for us.

A waste of time? Perhaps not – again – it taught both concentration and hand and eye coordination. And talking of such things, the boring throwing of bean bags and balancing on an upturned bench as well as bunny hops over them in our regular physical training sessions may not have been as interesting as today’s adventure playgrounds, but they did the job.

We had singing lessons when we learned the folk songs that had been handed down for generations, as well as some of the great classics like ‘Jerusalem’, which meant that everyone could sing together like they still do at the Last Night of the Proms in London every year; and we learned poetry which trained our memories and fed our souls.

For lack of a cell phone so we could ring each other from one end of the playground to the other as my granddaughter explained to me, we played games. We would swing a long rope and run in and out to skip until we missed a beat and tripped, or join a line of others skipping at the same time. At the same time, we chanted: ‘Wall flowers, wall flowers, growing up so high, we’re all the old ones, and we shall surely die, excepting:’ – and here we chanted the names of all the girls who were still skipping, until they tripped and fell out. We practised ball games, and at home alone, bounced it against a convenient bit of wall, swinging it under our legs or swiftly turning around, and learning to juggle two balls or more.

We couldn’t exercise our thumb muscles the way today’s children do on their phones and game boys (which I’m told are a thousand years old now) but we learned the dozens of variations of cats cradles, and played five stones, catching them up in the air on the back of our hand, holding them between our fingers, and tossing, and catching… there were many more and more difficult variations  – it took extreme skill and hours of practise and concentration – much more, it seems to me, than pressing a button on a computerised toy.

Then there were the hopscotch crazes, chalking the squares and numbers on the playground or a pavement when we were home, hopping, jumping – more muscle skill –  the marble crazes, the tatting sessions, French knitting – pushing coloured wools in and out of four tacks nailed into the top of a wooden cotton reel and making a long woollen tube (plastic reels nowadays, and useless for this ) and learning to knit properly. My grandmother taught me dozens of sewing stitches (yes, there are dozens) including hemming stitch, running stitch, herring bone, blanket, daisy chain and more.

When we went to birthday parties we played games like musical chairs and memory games like Kim’s game (a tray of small objects displayed for a minute, then whisked away while we quickly wrote down what we’d seen. I usually won this one). And when we left after dancing Sir Roger de Coverley, the only person who had had a present was the birthday girl herself – no party bags back then..

The difference between that rich but simple life with no TV, computer games or pop concerts, and the life of an eight-year -old today can best be illustrated by one of my first memories – watching a great tired dray horse pulling an overloaded hay wain along the narrow country lane where we lived, leaving horizontal drifts of hay draped along the high hawthorn and hazel hedges. Today I look on fields where huge green plastic rolls lie around waiting to be gathered up in the prongs of a tractor and delivered to a pile of more giant things, while farmers haven’t discovered a way of disposing or re-using the efficient, beastly plastic.

The latest theory on education, the six C’s – collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation and confidence sounds wonderfully vague, and idealistic too. I’m sure creative arguments can be raised for these C- words. But I rather fancy a way of assessing children’s abilities that I read a few years ago.

More educationalists are now taking into account other aspects of life and learning apparently, and as I remember them, apart from assessing children’s reading, writing and general knowledge, other talents are now being recognised. They included musical ability, physical skills, ethical understanding, and empathy with animals and the environment. Spiritual aptitude, which has nothing to do with religion, theology or dogma, was the last quality listed, and is perhaps the crown of a civilised life – which surely should the point of education/civilisation ….

The qualities of genuine spiritual understanding would and could encompass many of the ideals of the six C’s, I feel.  In fact, sometimes I think most of the qualities of the six C’s could be reduced to one or two simple, spiritual four-letter words, which cover sensitivity to the needs of others, and therefore collaboration, communication, content, confidence and creativity. Those two four letter words are kind and love. Kindness is easier than loving – love being the highest gift or skill or quality of all, and the simplest and most important. We ask if children are clever or talented, but do we ever ask if they are loving?

Food for threadbare gourmets

Deciding to fall back on my store cupboard for supper, I un-earthed a tin of pink salmon and decided to make pancakes filled with salmon. First make the pancake mixture… six ounces more or less of flour, an egg, and milk. Gently beat the egg into the flour, adding the milk in several goes. Beat until there are no lumps and leave for half an hour in the fridge. Beat again before using.

While the pancake mixture is settling, drain off the liquid from the salmon and make a fairly thick white sauce, using the salmon juice as well as warm milk. Chop plenty of parsley and stir into the sauce, then add the salmon, salt and pepper.

Keeping this warm, begin making the pancakes. As each is cooked, spoon some salmon mixture down the centre, and fold over each side. Sprinkle with grated parmesan, and lay on a fire-proof dish. When you’ve used up the pancake and salmon mixtures, put them in a moderate oven for a few minutes to melt the parmesan cheese, and enjoy… salad or green vegetables make this a cheap and filling meal.

Two pancakes a person is usually more than enough… this makes five or six generously, or more if the mixture is stretched out.

Food for thought

Your pain is not prescribed by your creator, He is the healer thus not giver of misery.
…. lay the blame where it belongs.
Mankind is responsible for its environment and culture….                                                   The day we take responsibility for our actions, will be the day God walks through the door smiling.”

Zarina Bibi – Sufi

 

 

 

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Words, words words…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend,

My dearest friend is dead and laid in grave.

In grave he rests until the world shall end.

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

All things must have an end that Nature wrought…

Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for threadbare gourmets

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

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

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

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

Food for thought

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

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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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