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Country Life, UFO’s and Russian Spies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued

 Food for Threadbare Gourmets

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

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

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

Food for Thought

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

 

 

 

 

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The end of the golden weather

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a6/The_ruined_Church_of_St_James%2C_Lancaut_-_geograph.org.uk_-_202262.jpg

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

So we sailed away from the golden weather and un-ending sun-shine, back to a world that had changed since we had sailed east three years before. The journey reflected this. We couldn’t leave the ship at beautiful Colombo, there were strikes on the docks, and it was deemed unsafe for us to land. At Aden we were allowed to land but not to roam the town. We were whisked straight up to the RAF Officers club where we enjoyed a swim in the blazing heat and sun.

Sailing through the desert on the Suez Canal in late February meant scarlet dawns and blazing sunsets seen across the desert sands in sparkling clear air. These were the last moments of golden weather and beauty. At a cold rainy Port Said the presence of two menacing uniformed Egyptian guards at the top of the gangway deterred us all from leaving the boat…we were warned there was no guarantee we would get our passports back or be able to re-board. This was just a few months before the nationalisation by ‘The Dancing Major, ‘as President Nasser was known then. I realised then that Pax Brittanica had passed.

We landed in a cold misty dawn amid the grim grey docks of Liverpool, and by the time we reached London on the boat train from the docks, I was so cold and so depressed that England seemed very unwelcoming. I still had some months to go before taking my last A  levels, so I was enrolled in the University Entrance Department of the Regent Street Polytechnic, my scholarship still opening doors for me.

My first day there felt so bleak and intimidating, that by lunch-time I had fled, and walking blindly down Park Lane, head down dodging the icy rain, sought refuge in Apsley House, The Iron Duke Wellington’s London pad where it was warm. When it was time to go back home, I caught the tube, and didn’t divulge where I’d spent the time. Days passed, the only heating in the whole building seemed to be the miniscule coal fire in the common room, which I could never get near.

I shivered uncontrollably with cold, prompting one student who arrived every day in a chauffeur driven Daimler to chide me kindly and ask why I didn’t wear warmer clothes. I was wearing all I had – a short-sleeved white muslin blouse, thin white cardigan and grey flannel skirt donated by my step-grandmother with whom we were staying. I was already at my new educational establishment when the rest of the family had taken themselves off to Simpsons in Piccadilly to get kitted out with warm clothes.

I felt totally intimidated by my fellow students –  including the sophisticated girl delivered every day in the Daimler. I noticed a beautiful Indian youth from a princely family, a woman in her thirties who attended classes as a way of passing the time instead of working, an exquisitely mannered and groomed Jewish girl I became friendly with, some arrogant young chaps from Eton, a blonde elegant girl famous for being a general’s daughter, and a plain young man, the inheritor of a shoe – making empire who took me out in his green MG until I couldn’t bear being with him just for the sake of the MG.

There were others too, like the charming Polish girl who told me of starving in the ruins of bombed out Berlin as they fled west from Poland to escape the Soviet soldiers; and another Polish girl -this one fair-haired, blue eyed, and Jewish -who had endured unspeakable things.

These hard-up refugee girls somehow knew their way around a sort of student underground, knowing where to buy good second- hand clothes before the term vintage had been invented, getting their hair beautifully styled by trainee hairdressers needing models, having their teeth done by trainee dentists needing someone to practise on and getting free tickets to concerts and student activities.

Eventually I became part of a foursome who stuck together, Vera, a Hungarian Jewish refugee with a cloud of fair curls, blue eyes, and an anxious manner, Joanna, a calm gentle girl who lived in Hampstead, and Winifred, slim, elegant and as naïve as me. Joanna had been at school with Jackie Collins, before the budding actress had been expelled at fifteen and Joanna regaled us with stories of both Jackie and her older sister, Joan Collins. My history teacher was Mary Quant’s father, while one of the rich girls was the daughter of the man at the head of the cool new TV station, ITV.

All these hints of a larger world made us feel as though we lived on the fringes of glamour and excitement. Bill Haley’s Rock around the Clock shocked our elders, when teenagers – a term just invented – began dancing in the cinema aisles to this song. We would gather to dance this new rage of rock and roll too, at the central hall in the Regent Street Headquarters, though I was still too shy to dance and watched from a balcony with Winifred.

When we broke up for the Easter holidays, I caught the tube to Acton, where I had heard there were lots of factories. I walked down a long road lined with them and seeing a sign saying ‘vacancies’ went in and signed on. When I got back to my step-grandmother’s where we were staying, every one reacted as though I had said I was joining a brothel, but I ignored the disapproval and went anyway.

I lasted the week until Easter, packing thousands of yellow plastic lemons that would hold lemon juice. I became so bored that I ended up scribbling verses from Omar Khayyam inside the cardboard boxes, in the hope that someone, somewhere, would read them… sort of message in a bottle sent from a factory…

With the five pounds so hardly earned I took myself off to Marks and Spensers and bought a blue and white pinstriped blouse, a grey flannel pleated skirt and a cardigan. Back at Regent Street, I ended up making other good friends as well as my close foursome, and having lots of fun, skipping classes to see Ingmar Bergman’s incomprehensible ‘The Seventh Seal’, an exquisite Russian version of Twelfth Night, great lover Rudolf Valentino in The Sheik and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and lots of goodies at the Baker Street Classic. The wondrous Wallace Collection was just around the corner, and museums and art galleries all within walking distance.

One day Joanna said her parents were away, and invited the four of us to their rambling house in Hampstead to try out a oujia board. With great enthusiasm and much ignorance, the four of us gathered around a table, and wrote the letters of the alphabet on separate squares of paper which we arranged in a circle. In the centre we placed a glass. We then each put a finger on the glass and sat in silence.

When the glass began to move, we each laughingly accused one another of pushing it with our finger, but then it seemed to gather a momentum all its own. In silent disbelief we watched it glide from letter to letter, and then hurried to write down each letter so we could work out the words and the sentences. As the séance progressed we all became more and more un-easy. The messages we were getting seemed rather malevolent, telling us that people we knew were untrustworthy, another was entangled with the wrong person, and other personal details.

Feeling we were playing with danger we broke off the session, made ourselves some coffee and dispersed across London to our various homes. I was so frightened by what felt like a mischievous and unpredictable energy that I didn’t dare switch off the light in my bedroom back at my step-grandmother’s flat that night. Nor did I switch it off for some weeks until the memory of the nastiness had faded.

As for my education – I never caught up with my Latin – though I  enjoyed the lessons, as the Anglican church in North Audley Street was just through the classroom wall, and the organist was always either rehearsing or playing for a wedding – mostly the wonderful Trumpet Voluntary – a small compensation for my struggles with the subjunctive and ‘The Aeniad’.

My lovely history tutor, Mr Quant – didn’t teach my history period. I begged him to just let me swot myself and recommend some reading as I couldn’t face starting somewhere else, and we hobbled towards the finishing line together, and somehow I passed. Thus ended my schooldays, but not my education.

I now joined my parents in Monmouthshire, where they were living in a house belonging to friends who were overseas. Here I walked in a field golden with buttercups, edged with high hawthorn hedges. Here I felt again the sweetness and gentleness and ancientness of the English countryside that I had hungered for in the tropical heat when the only flowers apart from frangipani, were yellow cannas, purple bougainvillea and the scarlet flame tree.

I was eighteen and this was how I had remembered the scenes of my childhood… shades of Sir Walter Scott’s:

Breathes there the man with soul so dead

Who never to himself hath said,

This is my own, my native land…

We were living in a house lent to us by friends, far out in green hills and deep valleys. The name of the house revealed that it was built on the site of an Iron Age fort. Offa’s Dyke was reputed to end in our garden, just above a huge S-bend in the River Wye. Offa lived from 757 to 796 and invented the penny. His dyke separated Mercia from Wales and stretched for ninety-eight miles from north to south. Whatever the truth of the rumour, behind the un-used stables there was a large mound stretching into the back garden from the fields and woods beyond and covered in hazel and hawthorn.

The house was part Queen Anne and part Georgian, with a charming regency style wrought iron porch stretching along the garden side of the house. It looked over a lawn, where two ancient lime trees hummed with bees in summer, and which seemed like silent sentinels in the wintry mist which hovered among their thick tangle of branches in  winter. Beyond the lawn was a ha-ha, but not deep enough to keep out the piebald pony who led a small herd of young steers through the gate-posts, up the drive, avoiding the ha-ha and across the lawn while every-one else was at church parade one morning.

By the time I’d rushed downstairs to shoo them away, they had meandered on into the little sheltered garden with a sundial, and pushed their way through the scraggy hedge which gave onto a lane, leaving only their deep hoof-prints.

The lane led down to a farm house, but before I got there, I would branch off through the woods with my puppy and take the winding path which meandered down to the river. Just below the tree-line, and in the grass which bordered the riverside was the ruin of the tiny sixth century church of St James, only its outer walls still standing, empty windows framing the sky, ivy climbing part of the grey stone walls, and tangled brambles guarding the foundations. In spring the woods were filled with bluebells and windflowers.

The house was faded and gentle, dreaming in the silence of the country-side, no neighbours within sight. My bedroom had pretty flowered wallpaper, pale green painted thirties furniture and long windows looking over the garden. It had a soft sweet atmosphere. The other place that I loved, and where I spent solitary afternoons engrossed in a book was the so-called ballroom. Not a grand one, its claim to fame being the ceiling which had been copied from some famous library in a country house.

Apart from the large and somewhat threadbare faded old carpet on the polished floor, the only other furniture in the room was a big drab-green brocade-covered Knole sofa, and a large gilt mirror hanging over the carved fireplace. That was all I needed. On sunny days I sat on the cushioned window seat, on other days I curled up on the sofa. When I shut the door the silence and the solitude were absolute.

So I dreamed around the place, head in the clouds or in a book, picking flowers, adopting two wild kittens as well as the puppy, my dreaminess driving my parents mad. I didn’t know anyone, but once a boy nearby invited me to a hunt ball at Tintern, and the rather erudite and elegant bachelor who lived on the corner further down, in a house filled with books and good furniture invited us to a pre-ball party. I thought he was much more interesting than my escort, and found the ball very dull, spoiled with too many in Malaya.

It was around now that both the Suez crisis blew up, and the Hungarian revolution was crushed by Soviet tanks. The Suez crisis didn’t bother me much… there had always been tanks and guns rumbling somewhere throughout my life, though this felt nearer, having so recently traversed that contested strip of territory. It seemed to get tangled up in the drama of the Hungarian tragedy. I cried my heart out when I heard on the radio the last words that came out of Budapest from Radio Rakoczi on October 23:

“This is Hungary calling! The last remaining station! … For the sake of God and freedom, help Hungary.” Then a horrifying silence.  It felt unbearable that the west that I was part of, wouldn’t lift a finger to help the Hungarians.

I mooned around, not sure what to do with my life. I wanted to go to university but didn’t know how to go about it, and also shrank from more difficult years of trying to mask my scanty wardrobe and lack of funds. I’d never been able to save as my stepmother used to ask me if I had any money when she sent me shopping, and so my Christmas and birthday postal orders had dwindled away on potatoes and bacon and sausages.

I tried to repeat my factory stint by signing up to work in a local brush factory, and also tried to apply for a job interview at the local hotel for a receptionist. Both these schemes were vetoed by my father, who said he didn’t want to see his daughter behind the hotel desk when he fetched up there for a drink with his friends. So I continued to drift, until the day my father came home and said he’d made an appointment for me with the recruiting officer in Cardiff.

Which was how I ended up joining the army. I left home in the dark at six thirty, one cold January morning.  My parents put me on the bus to the station with my suitcase, gave me three pounds, and I left my childhood behind.

( the picture is St James Church with acknowledgements to Mercurius Politicus)

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

To cheer up lunch, which was just bread and cheese and chutney, I decided to knock up a courgette and cheese loaf to make life more interesting!

So easy… two cups of SR flour, a cup of grated cheese, a cup of  grated courgette, quarter of a cup of oil, an egg, salt, a teaspoon of mild curry powder and a cup and a half – or more if needed – of milk. Just mix them altogether, and tip into a greased loaf tin. Cook for forty minutes or so in a hot oven, and there you have it… serve warm or cold, it’s just as moist the second day, and particularly delicious with soft blue cream cheese. I’ve also served it with cold meats…

Food for thought

 There are three forms of culture: worldly culture, the mere acquisition of information; religious culture, following rules; elite culture, self development.  Revelation of the Mystery by Sufi master Al-Hujwiri

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Nuns, nice habits and strange foibles

Valerie10.jpg

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

I never had any trouble remembering the date of my baby brother’s birth, because when we arrived back in England from Belsen, we were sent to school at a convent in Yorkshire. It was with the sisters of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, a Belgian teaching order. My brother’s birthday was the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, one of many feast days when we were sent home, presumably so the nuns could pay due reverence to the day, unhampered by their fee- paying pupils, and causing my parents to grumble that they spent all this money in order for us to stay home.

Sometimes, as at Corpus Christi, we were required to attend in order to parade and go to Mass, and draw holy pictures. This was a time of severe mortification for me, because not being Catholic, our parents refused to buy us white dresses and veils to wear on feast days.

On the other hand, thanks to the books I had read with my grandmother, I was bigotedly anti-Catholic, and had no qualms about being different. The nuns themselves were mostly gentle and sophisticated women, many of them French or Belgian, others English. My form teacher, who was also the maths teacher, was the most avidly religious person at the convent and not a nun at all. Rather, she was an Irish Catholic, and, as I discovered later in New Zealand, she embraced a very different brand of Catholicism. ‘

Not to put too fine a point on it, she rammed religion and her devotion down our throats, exhorting us amongst other things, to bring old clothes to her to dispense to the needy. As she gathered them in from everyone except me, she would regularly intone, ” Ah, gurrells, it’s boi moi gude deeds to the puir that I hope to go to heaven.” She would interrupt long division to make us all stand up and say The Angelus, and we would then pray for the parents of all the unfortunate girls who had one Protestant parent. Since both my parents were Protestant, this was a prayer I obstinately refused to join in, as I had no regrets about their situation.

One day, her propaganda about “puir St Thomas Moore”, wicked Protestants and suffering Catholics enraged me so much, that having  just finished one of my father’s books, a history of the Borgia family, I had enough ammunition, I felt, with the Inquisition and the scandal of the Avignon Popes, to take her on. I never got beyond the Borgia Pope and a quick mention of the Inquisition, before she clapped her hands over her ears, and drowned me out by shouting: “What a pack of Protestant lies.” No-one liked me very much after that, and I would always be left to last when they were picking teams for netball and rounders.

One person who did like me, perhaps a little too much, was Mother Michael, a rather coarse -looking Englishwoman compared with the refined foreign nuns. She was not a teacher so much as our house- mother, and she was obsessed with long hair. My long, almost black, thick plaits were meat and drink to her. Every lunch hour I was dragged off to the big, sunny cloakroom-cum ante-room, and had my plaits ceremoniously undone, and brushed out.

The brushing went on all through play-time, and I never got to play with anyone. As the time for the bell drew near, she’d plait the blessed things up again, refusing to let me do them. She dragged the hair round my face quite differently to the way I scraped my hair back myself, and I’d get home every day, looking quite unlike the school girl who had set out in the morning.

Every day my stepmother would ask what was going on, and when I told her about the brushing and the plaiting, she’d say “It’s got to stop”. But I didn’t know how to stop it, so it went on until Mother Michael fell in love with another girl with long plaits.

The nuns wore elegant, plum- red gaberdine habits, with a long swinging pleated skirt, and a thick, beautiful cord with long tassels round their waist. Their rosaries also hung from this fat cord, and they had long, soft white wool veils which swung in the wind when they borrowed our roller skates and took a turn round the rink in the evenings when everyone was inside, doing their homework. The garden beside the skating rink plunged down towards Our Lady’s grotto, and then to the River Tees.

I would gaze out of the classroom window in our annexe called The Hermitage, in winter, and see the black, lacy boughs of the empty trees, the black running water of the river, white snow, and sometimes a flame- coloured squirrel silhouetted in the trees against the pale winter sky. The main convent building was grim, grey, Victorian Gothic, with long, shiny, lino-floored corridors where feet and voices echoed. It smelt of incense and wax candles, lino polish, and nearer the kitchens, carbolic soda and grease. In alcoves at regular intervals along the echoing corridors, painted statues of saints draped with rosaries presided. I glared at them like a latter-day Oliver Cromwell as our crocodile straggled to chapel for prayers every day after lunch.

I always enjoyed Retreat, three or four days of silence when we spent most of our time drawing and painting holy pictures, instead of wrestling with fractions, and going to chapel for mass, as well as the regular after- lunch prayers, and then Benediction. I hated the priest who came to the convent for the occasion, and whom all the nuns fluttered around and flattered and fawned upon. To the cynical ten-year-old looking coldly on, he looked like a very boring, not very bright man, who relished in an unspiritual fashion, the entirely undeserved attention he received.

I was happy to go to chapel as often as we did during Retreat, as I had figured out that God was everywhere so it didn’t matter where you were beating his ear. I had no idea why we were doing all this, but then, a lot of things puzzled me… so I loved the reverent silence of the whole day, including the silent meals with severe, beautiful Mother John standing at her lectern, reading from the lives of saints. During these meals we ate Assumption Tart, known to us all as Sumpies.

The story of the three fashionable Belgian Victorian women who decided to found the Order was read aloud as we ate the tart. None of them knew how to cook, clean, or sew, and so in the first week, the lady nun assigned to cooking duties threw together some ingredients in a panic and produced the hard, yellow crust of almost inedible pastry on which jam was smeared and which we still ate. We all welcomed Sumpies on the menu, as at least the jam was sweet, the only ingredient which had any taste. The convent food was still obviously flung together by nuns who could not cook.

During Retreat, our class was visited by both Reverend Mother, and Mother Superior, causing an outbreak of curtsying and crossing ourselves. Since no-one ever explained anything to children in those days, I couldn’t work out why a young Reverend Mother seemed more important than a Mother Superior. Reverend Mother was Polish, about twenty-eight, very young to have reached such rank, and had an indefinable air of holiness about her. She also had an amazing complexion, pale skin and brilliant red cheeks. She received total devotion from everyone, and she fascinated me. Sometimes she wasn’t well enough to come to our weekly audience with her, so Mother Adelaide, Mother Superior, came instead.

My father adored Mother Adelaide. She was just the sort of woman he loved, witty and wise, French, sophisticated, clever and rather beautiful. Long after, when I heard that Reverend Mother had died the following year of TB, I realised that Mother Adelaide had left her duties as superior of the order, to come over from Belgium to keep things going with as little disturbance to everyone, including the beloved young nun.

After a while, it was decided that my sister would do better at school on her own. So I agreed to ” sit the scholarship” in order to go to the local grammar school. My stepmother was then summoned for an interview with the county education authorities. She told me that they informed her that my maths was so abysmal there was no way I could qualify for higher education. But my English and general knowledge were so far ahead of my age, that there was no way they could not give me a scholarship. Nothing much has changed since then, my maths are still abysmal.

To be continued

Food for threadbare gourmets

I had some wonderful coloured -peppers, red, yellow and orange, and instead of cooking them in my usual way, I tried a Jamie Oliver recipe – with adaptations! I chopped the three peppers and added them to a chopped onion, plenty of garlic and olive oil to sweat them until cooked. When soft I added a good glug of balsamic vinegar and boiled it all together, and then salt and pepper to taste.

This is where Jamie Oliver comes in. He recommended tossing in a generous handful of parmesan cheese and some table spoons of mascapone or cream cheese.  Stir it all together until everything is melted and amalgamated. He served it with pasta and I served it with steak and mushrooms, and it was delicious.. It may have been better with pasta but I won’t be using the cream cheese again.

Food for thought

If you truly get in touch with a piece of carrot, you get in touch with the soil, the rain, the sunshine. You get in touch with Mother Earth and eating in such a way, you feel in touch with true life, your roots, and that is meditation. If we chew every morsel of our food in that way we become grateful and when you are grateful, you are happy.
Thich Nhat Hanh. Vietnamese Buddhist teacher

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Flowers, beauty, architecture and antiquity

Image result for image of The Old Parsonage Hurworth Co durham
The Old Parsonage
A life –  Part  six

After a few weeks in London we packed up again and travelled north. I remember the cooing of wood pigeons and the enchantment of high summer in unspoiled country on the borders of Durham and Yorkshire, where my parents had found a house belonging to a friend of the family. It was in a village by the River Tees, described in the guide books as a ‘late medieval house, with studded front door with affixed carved oak female head, under ogee-shaped lintel (door said to have come from a demolished Saxon chapel).

‘The date on the lintel above the door is c1450, the reign of Henry VI. The house had been through many hands since then, had been extended in the 17th century, altered in the 18th and equipped with modern comforts in the 20th. Fashionable pantiles from the Low Countries were used to re-roof the house in the 17th century. Today it’s been altered again, and one wing converted into another dwelling.’

It was set in a high walled garden at the end of the village, and we spent most of our time in the sitting room, a wood panelled room with huge Tudor fireplace and inglenook. If I stood on the head of the tiger on the striped tiger-skin rug, I could just reach the chamfered 17th century beams as a nine- year- old. The casement windows looked onto the garden, and beyond the garden walls, hills and woods stretched to the sky-line.

We children were rarely allowed into the drawing room, and then, only if we knocked on the door beforehand. Mostly we stood at the door with whatever it was we wanted to say, but were allowed to sit there when guests came or when we had our lessons. I hankered to spend time in that room, a Georgian addition with French windows into the garden. It was simply furnished with soft flowered chintz, but it had a different atmosphere to the rest of the house – a refined, gentle energy compared with the robust Tudor architecture elsewhere.

I loved the slightly faded thirties linen prints on the loose covers on the sofas and chairs, and the black and white tiled hall with its antique chests and barometer. I developed a love of interior decoration and from then on felt uncomfortable in rooms that were ugly or tasteless, and was hungry for beauty when it was absent.

My new stepmother, who was lonely, and needed someone to talk to, unconsciously educated me too, looking through the pages of Vogue with me, and discussing the famous and controversial New Look by Dior. She wore clothes that I could appreciate, well-cut grey flannel trousers with a red jacket, elegant suits, nifty little hats with a bit of veil, perched at an angle, incredibly high navy suede court shoes, and severe beautifully cut evening dresses.

Everything was new and interesting, the stones in her jewellery, discussing menus, the intriguing friends who dropped in on their return from overseas, learning to distinguish crystal from glass, china from pottery. We didn’t always see eye-to eye. I was deeply upset when the revolving Victorian summer house with stained glass windows, a pointed pitched roof, and a circular table like a wheel which turned the house in the direction of the sun, was demolished, and the circle of soil now exposed, planted with grass. It seemed barbaric to smash this thing of beauty. My stepmother condemned it as Victorian. Anything Victorian was despised by both my parents.

This rambling house was a splendid place to curl up in and bury myself in a book. They were in short supply here. The owner had put hers away, and ours were all packed up. My stepmother gave me her textbooks on ancient history, so I learned about Pericles and Alexander, Carthage and Hannibal, there was Tanglewood Tales’, a book on Greek legends by Nathanial Hawthorne, and ‘ Black Beauty’, that animal classic which has influenced me more than any other for the rest of my life, I suspect.

Whatever the curse of the motor car, I am glad horses are no longer ill-used, neglected and exploited every day on the streets and in the country-side. “Little Women’, also among my stepmother’s books, had the same potent moral influence on me, as on so many other girls before and after. Interesting that the Quaker background of Anna Sewell, and the Transcendentalism of Louisa M. Alcott should have influenced so many generations of children.

I grazed through Palgrave’s ‘Golden Treasury’, which our stepmother used for our lessons. She was not strong on child psychology, but we learned a lot of poetry from the Golden Treasury, including: “Breathes there the man with soul so dead,” from Walter Scott, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ” What was he doing, the great God Pan, down in the reeds by the river?” I can still declaim them both in the overblown elocution class style required of us. Longfellow’s Hiawatha was another favourite of my stepmother, and we learned to recite long passages of this too.

My sister got very ratty if she didn’t do the same things as me, so she tried to learn them as well. But she never mastered the esoteric spelling my stepmother required of a nine- year- old and an eight- year -old. The words included phlegm and haemorrhage, diaphragm, delphinium and rhododendron. By now, my father had long since departed for his next army posting and we were alone with our new stepmother, who was struggling with early pregnancy as well as the malaria she’d picked up in Egypt, though we were unaware of either. Sixty years later, she confided over an affectionate dinner together that:” You never played me up – you could have, but you never did.”

We didn’t go to the village school, and never knew anyone from the village except the gardener, Mr Appleby. He took a fancy to me and taught me the names of his flowers in the garden. He certainly behaved as though they were his. His deep red, rich pink, and white peonies were his greatest joy, and had a beauty all their own, as I picked them for my stepmother’s crystal vases. They were as lovely as roses, dripping with dew on their bright green leaves, and droplets nestled in the big flower heads layered with petals like an old-fashioned rose.

Since we had our lessons in the afternoon, it was my job in the morning to re-fill and refresh all the flower vases in every room in the house. This was perfect. It got me away from the parents who I was very nervous with – never sure of what was required of me and possible disgrace – and I could spend as much time in the garden as I wanted. Mr Appleby let me pick the best pink and red peonies, there were fat, pink, peppermint-scented pinks, sweet- scented roses, multi-coloured wallflowers and  purple penstemons, fragrant white stocks, spiky blue delphiniums and stocky lupins. Snow- in- summer and blue campanula sprawled in crevices on the terrace by the house.

He started bringing me treats from his own garden, huge, juicy, golden Williams pears, the fattest, hairiest, rosiest gooseberries I’d ever seen, juicy purple plums with golden flesh. My sister was furious that he never brought her any treats. Then he offered to take me for walks around the surrounding country-side.

The first walks were magic. Mr Appleby was probably in his sixties, a wiry little man with red apple cheeks and black stubble, who wore a grubby shirt with no collar and shabby black jackets and worn trousers that would be described as ‘rusty’. He had lived here all his life and knew every path and stream and hill and dale for miles around. He showed me mice nests slung between corn stalks, rubbed the ears off barley for me to taste, showed me the flowers that grew in bean fields and corn fields, where bird’s nests were, and where fish jumped in the pools which gathered between great slabs of flat rock in the river.

He explained who owned this field and that great house, he took me by shallow streams he called becks, and up steep cliffs he called scars. The walks extended from five miles at the beginning, to over eight miles one afternoon, up hills and along narrow paths, when I was so tired I thought I’d never take another step. I was always exhausted at the end of these marathons.

And then one day he said something I didn’t believe I’d heard. So he said it louder. ” Give us a kiss, then.” How could I be ungrateful after all the things he’d done to give me pleasure. I dabbed a quick peck on his horrid unshaven cheek. He did the same on the next walk. I avoided him in the garden as much as I could. I felt so sick the following week when he came for the Tuesday afternoon expedition that I hid in the top of the pear tree.

My stepmother called and called, until my sister revealed my hiding place, and I was sent on my way with admonitions not to be so rude. I dragged behind him for most of the way for the rest of those walks, but there was always a point when at some place he asked for the unwilling kiss. Once, I tried to tell my stepmother about it, but she stared at me disbelievingly, which effectively closed the conversation, and now I look back sadly, and see an achingly lonely and love-starved old man.

I loved that country-side.  I remember walking by myself to the next village on an errand for my stepmother, dawdling past the long, grey stone wall of an estate, with dark, shiny rhododendron bushes reaching over the top, and hearing the cooing of wood pigeons. There was a clear blue sky, the empty, cobbled village street, no sounds of traffic, nothing but bird song, sunshine, the church clock chiming, shady trees and the perfect happiness of being on my own with nothing to do but walk in this perfect place.

A Shell guidebook in the 70’s described our village as consisting of one street 3/4 mile long. ” One side of the road is a wide green behind which extremely attractive 18th and early 19th century houses face equally good houses behind a narrow green on the other side of the road. The village is sited on a ridge immediately above the bank of the Tees, and the river and rich farmland beyond can be glimpsed between the trees and houses. It is remarkably unspoilt… New houses are discreetly sited, so that they do not detract from the atmosphere of a more gracious age than our own. It is a village of many greens, sundials, river views, trees, and attractive door-casings, and its centre has changed very little since Jane Austen’s day.”

In 1947, it had changed even less, and there were no new houses, rather, it resembled the very village scenes observed by Emma… “her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from the shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker’s little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread…”

The only difference between 1815, when Jane Austen wrote these words at the end of one European war, and 1947 at the end of another European war, was the lack of horses and ginger bread. Food rationing was still as stringent as ever, with Europe on the verge of starvation, while lack of petrol meant no cars spoiled the peace of this north country village.

And all this was about to change as we sailed from Harwich to the Hook of Holland on our journey to join my father at Belsen, the notorious concentration camp in the heart of hungry, war-ravaged Germany.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 My tomato plants are flourishing, so I have a glorious glut of tomatoes. This was my solution the other day. Fry the chopped tomatoes gently in olive oil… the skins come off easily as they cook. When soft, pour in lots of cream, and as it boils to thicken, stir in a small lump of Dijon mustard, salt and pepper, and let them all meld together.

Two- minute noodles were a quick answer to some padding for the tomatoes which were poured over them. With fresh parmesan grated over the tomatoes it was a fragrant, delicious light lunch. A small glass of red or white wine is a great enhancement!

Food for Thought

 The people who are compelled to write down what they feel are the ones who feel it hardest… Briana Wiest

I discovered this quote and much more on a beautiful wordpress blog at: Deborah J. Brasket Living on the Edge of the Wild

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Tour de France

Image result for french chateaus

 

France in 1950 was unspoilt by either holidaymakers or tourists. I was there to spend a month with friends, and improve my French.

Alex, the son of the friends, came to stay with us first, a sophisticated fourteen- year -old who bullied me, took shameless advantage of my literal interpretation of my father’s instructions to be a good hostess, and used me as dogsbody, maid and batman all in one. After one of our regular rows he came downstairs from his room and his dictionary, and in front of my parents announced to me: ” You are ‘aughty, arrogant and proud.”

Coming from a quiet Yorkshire country town, Paris seemed a massive city of radiant light and celebration. Looking down from the family home in the heart of the city, I watched rainbows of light rolling along the wide roads, as hundreds of cars sped round the boulevards.

Having a bath that night was an ordeal in which I seemed to be accompanied by a crowd as my reflection followed me round a huge, mirrored bathroom. The flat was empty except for a resident maid and the chauffeur who was to drive us down to the chateau. It was huge and overwhelming and Alex was more arrogant than ever. It seemed that his father hadn’t briefed him on being a good host.

However, the next day, he and the chauffeur took me on a whirl around Paris – Notre Dame, cavernous and crowded and Catholic. I was disappointed. I had expected the sacred silence of empty Anglican cathedrals, but this was bustling with chattering people treating the place like their home, and selling souvenirs at stalls by the door. Twelve-year old-righteousness remembered stalls being overturned in another temple.

Today, of course, every Anglican cathedral in England  bustles with tourists too, the whispers and commentaries coiling up the perpendicular arches, and bouncing off the roof and coming back down magnified a million times. But in Notre Dame that day they managed to pray amidst the din.

From the steps of the cathedral we drove past the Louvre, circled the Arc de Triomphe and ended up at the Eiffel Tower – which turned out to be closed on Sundays. It didn’t matter – Paris in summer, nearly seventy years ago, was a beautiful, fragrant city, where people lounged outside on the pavements beneath the trees, and where, when we walked beside the Seine in the sun-shine, it was uncrowded and peaceful.

After lunch, I persuaded Alex to show me how to get out of the flat, and wandered onto the streets, looking for a bookstall. A terrible thought had suddenly wriggled into my consciousness. I had nothing to read! The worst thing that could happen to me! At a corner shop, my eyes raced over the shelves as the full horror of my situation became clear. Everything was literally a closed book- it was all in French. I came out with the only two English language publications in the shop- a copy of Life magazine, which was mostly pictures, and the August 1950 copy of Reader’s Digest, a magazine I’d never seen before.

Though I soon became bored with its banal, monotonous, uniform prose, I read it regularly for the next month, until I knew most of it by heart. I read ad nauseam about some chap called Billy Graham and how he had met and married his sweetheart, ‘The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Met’ finally palled, the jokes got worse as the month went by, but ‘How To Improve Your Word Power’ was a winner, I got a hundred per cent before the month was out.

The first reading got me through the evening in Paris, and the next morning we set off for Vienne. Our destination at the chateau was everything that a romantic, unformed imagination could have visualised. We approached it down a long avenue of ancient trees. Those which had succumbed to old age had been chopped down to a height of three feet, hollowed out, and planted with foaming pink geraniums spilling out over the stumps.

The chateau was a moated, ivy-covered, turreted, thirteenth century family home. The moat had been filled in with sand, where the smaller children played. Where the drawbridge had once been, there was now a wide bridge leading to the iron- studded front door which was always open. From the high, dark hall hung with family portraits and armour and weapons, one door led to the dining room, a very solemn place, and the other to the salon, a light, airy room furnished with a variety of gilt sofas and chairs of different periods, mirrors, and objets d’art, while at the end of the hall, a staircase rose to the family quarters.

All seven brothers and sisters returned every summer with their families for the shooting, and they all had their own family accommodation. Alex and his family had a self-contained flat at the other end of the chateau but I was placed in one of the spare bedrooms of the main chateau, a beautiful room hung with toile de jouy in pale green with its own bathroom. The elegant, shuttered windows were hung around with more ivy, and from it would emerge huge, black, long-legged spiders, bigger and hairier than any English variety that had terrorised me in the bath at home, and which perched themselves on the mouldings in corners of the ceiling.

The ceiling was far too high to reach with a broom and a chair, so Alex and his cousins would troop in every evening with their pop guns and have great sport shooting the hairy beasts. I went to bed every night in this gorgeous room, wondering if I would wake and find another monster had somehow insinuated itself through the shutters and into the hangings round my bed.

Breakfast was taken en famille, and was the one meal of the day I enjoyed, though I didn’t do as they all did, and dip my buttered toast into my bowl of coffee. The bread was freshly baked and brought from the village by one of the maids when she came on duty before breakfast. In the afternoon, another delivery of fresh bread was made by a boy on a bike, and we would eat it for gouter at about three o’clock, we children standing around in the kitchen, illegally eating great slices of this heavenly bread, spread with runny home- made confiture which I called jam.

Those were the good times. Lunch and dinner in the stately main dining room, with at least thirty of us round the enormous, oval table was a long drawn- out ordeal. No allowance was made for an Anglo-Saxon barbarian who was accustomed to eat with a knife and fork. Every course was eaten with a fork only and I fought a losing battle with pastry and delicate vegetable dishes served whole, or legs of chicken and partridge.

My appetite would go before we began these marathon meals, so it was with no pangs that my half-eaten courses were taken away, after I had given up the struggle to keep the food on the plate while I chased it round with the fork. But then a solicitous adult, or maid serving the next course would enquire if I hadn’t enjoyed it, or try to coax me to eat a little more. Neither could I stomach the richness of it all after a life-time of grim war-time English rations.

Every lunch time began with a slice of orange melon. In the beginning, I loved it, but by the end I could scarcely bear the smell of it when the maid placed it in front of me. No-one ever skipped or left a course, so neither could I. The melon was followed by vegetable courses or soup, and then the meat course. I hated the meat on its own without the vegetables, it tasted too rich for my austere war-time palate. After cheese and fruit, we would have what everyone else considered a great delicacy. It was called fromage blanc. It looked like whipped meringue, and we could sprinkle a little sugar on it to mask the sourness. I could barely swallow it without retching.

Dinner was a variation on lunch, but whereas after lunch the adults retired to snooze in the hot afternoon, after dinner, we all trooped into the salon. Coffee was served in exquisite little coffee cups, and the children had to sit and make polite conversation until we younger ones were sent to bed.

I had a particular friend, one of the cousins, the same age as me. She spelt her surname for me and wrote it down with pride, telling me she had a very proud surname. She was right and it was only years later that I recognised it as one of the great names in French history. Josephine and I had very little of each other’s language but we made it work for us.

She took me with her maid to pick champignons one misty morning, and as the sun rose, the mist rolled away, and revealed a field of tiny, blue flowers shimmering with hosts of tiny, iridescent blue butterflies the same blue as the flowers. The dusty, country lanes were festooned with sweet, juicy bunches of blackberries as big as grapes, and everywhere there were shrines and crucifixes.

We played tennis together on the court set a little way back from the chateau. In the afternoon when the adults and toddlers were resting, we were roped in for deadly games of croquet on a long lawn well away from the shuttered windows where dozing parents wouldn’t hear the vicious battles and bullying of the victors, and tears and tantrums of the defeated. The girls were mostly the defeated. I tried desperately to hold back my tears as my ball disappeared regularly into the rhododendrons. They were all such terrible sports I felt it my duty to try to maintain the Anglican tradition of good sportsmanship, but my sang froid crumbled very easily.

Other days, we were lined up for the partridge shooting, and issued with white rags on sticks. We then had to advance in line across the vine yards and fields, driving the birds in front of us in the cruel time- honoured method. I did it without a pang, because I had no idea what we were doing, since the instructions were in rapid French. It wouldn’t have made any difference if I had understood, I was too handicapped by trying to be a good guest to voice any objections.

It was fun of course. We grabbed bunches of purple grapes to stuff into our mouths as we advanced slowly, and then dropped them as we came upon a bigger and better bunch a few yards on. When the shoot was over, we children were transported to the chateau whose land we were shooting over. There were four or five other chateaus within a few miles of our village, several which I could see on the sky-line – romantic and elegant eighteenth century pavilions.

On one day after tumbling around and sliding down the hay in the barns, frightening the hens, we were taken to clean up, and then ushered into the salon for afternoon tea. I was fascinated, for not only was our hostess beautiful, but so was the room. Whereas the salon at Persac was a higgledy-piggledy mixture of French furniture of different styles which had simply accumulated over the centuries in order to seat the family, this was a room with great style and elegance, even to my ignorant eyes.

The colours were clear, pale pastels, with gleaming gilt or pale, painted furniture. The portraits were not heavy oils, and sturdy worthies, like Persac, but delicate, gilt- framed frivolous likenesses, and translucent miniatures. The chairs and sofas and gilt tables were arranged with a wonderful sense of symmetry. There were flowers everywhere and big windows with the light streaming in – I fell in love with the place. I wanted to ask them how come they hadn’t they been obliterated in the French Revolution and the chateau destroyed? How come you got away with it, I longed to ask, but didn’t dare.

These people were cousins, as were all the people in the neighbouring chateaux, but they had quite a different atmosphere to the rather provincial heaviness of Persac. I was sad to go back to the ivied, spidered chateau. But it was necessary. I was secretly feeding the farm dog, who slunk around the farm yard some way away from the Chateau, but within the grounds. It was a real French farm yard, with ducks and geese waddling around, a dung heap and a fetid pond, chickens clucking over their new laid eggs in the hay filled barns, and an assortment of cows, pigs and horses.

Patou, the starving farm dog, seemed the only animal who wasn’t looked after, presumably because he wasn’t intended for eating. The maids in the kitchen let me have a few stale crusts, and I lobbied them every day for more for the poor creature. Patou -which the mads said meant ugly – was the first of many animals who have ruined my holidays.

One afternoon I was herded with the other children into the narrow  grey cobbled streets of the village at the gates of the chateau. The whole village seemed to be standing there, including old ladies dressed entirely in black, and others who leaned out of shuttered windows overlooking us. As I stood there feeling bewildered, a column of bikes suddenly  hurtled past us to the cheers and waves of all the spectators. That, I was proudly informed, when they had passed, was the Tour de France. No outriders, no loudhailers, no crowd control, no yellow jerseys – just tanned -looking men on bikes pedalling hell – for- leather.

Shortly after, I caught an early plane back to London, driving through grey, early morning streets of Paris craning to see elegant ladies of fashion. ” There weren’t any,” I told my parents disgustedly. My stepmother pointed out that they hadn’t even woken at that hour in the morning, and all I had seen was people going to work. This was my tour de France.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

 I love cake, but if I’m making one myself it has to be easy. So this recipe which I found years ago was perfect. It’s called Hurry-up coffee cake and uses left-over percolator coffee. I particularly love coffee and walnut cake with lashings of coffee icing…

In a large bowl put one and a half cups of self -raising flour, two table spoons of cornflour, a good cup of brown sugar, 125 grammes of softened butter, half a cup of strong black coffee, two eggs beaten, a few drops of vanilla, and three quarters of a cup of chopped walnuts. Beat all this together until smooth, spoon into a greased cake tin and bake in a moderate oven (180C or 350F) for thirty minutes. When cool, cut in half and spread with coffee icing – a cup of icing sugar, two tablespoons of softened butter and one tablespoon of strong black coffee.

Food for thought

“And remember, as it was written, to love another person is to see the face of God.”  Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

 

 

 

 


 

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The necessity of beauty

Image result for images of gardeniasImage result for gardenias

 

Pamela was my lodger. She was living in the third bedroom in my flat for the same reasons that Mr Micawber pronounced the immortal words:” Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.”

I’d tried to fill the gap between my meagre salary (women were paid far less than men in the Hongkong I lived in ) and my expenditure, by doing TV quiz shows,  radio programmes, using the children as photographic models and even doing PR for the Anglican church until I could stand being hypocritical no longer. So Pamela was my next attempt at solvency. While she lived with me my life was filled with her dramas, love affairs, crises and disasters.

She arrived with one fiancée, dressed demurely in twinset and pearls, tweed skirt and silk head – scarf. Soon she found a more exciting prospect, and changed her style  to newly fashionable jeans, her hair swung up into dashing styles and lots of makeup. The new fiancée lent her his new VW while he went back to England to sort out his divorce, and hereby hangs the tale. Pamela rolled the car her first night in possession of it, and I was awakened in the middle of the night by a Chinese policeman who couldn’t speak English.

I pieced together that Pamela had had an accident, and was in a Chinese hospital since she had no insurance to cover her for a European one.  The next morning the children, four and five years old, and I, packed up a few things for Pamela and made an expedition to the enormous  building which housed some thousands of sick and penniless Chinese.

We found our way through a maze of corridors to Pamela’s ward, and by the time I reached her bed I was deeply shocked. The ward held eighty women. They were all dressed in faded brown cotton shifts including Pamela. The noise was horrendous. Cantonese is the noisiest language on earth. To hear our amah chatting to another outside the kitchen was deafening. To hear seventy- nine women chatting in a confined space was probably higher than the safe decibel level.

Pamela was bruised and shocked but not injured. After doing our duty, and promising to return that afternoon with more things she wanted, the children and I went home, leaving her with a little bunch of gardenias I’d picked. Only six blossoms because that was all that were flowering.

When we returned in the afternoon, something had changed. There was a hush in the ward and a sense of peace, and all eyes were on the gwailo (long- nose) and her children. Being watched was something one accepted as part of life then, but this felt different. And the hush was a sort of reverence. Pamela whispered to me what had happened after I left.

When we walked out of the ward, the women came crowding round her to see the flowers and smell the fragrance. They were ecstatic at this exquisite beauty in their harsh unfriendly environment. Deprived as the women were, of all colour and texture and smell and beauty, the flowers brought something like heaven into their lives.

They didn’t speak English, and Pamela didn’t speak Cantonese, but with the aid of the ward sister’s few words of English, they worked out a roster for the flowers. Each woman would have one gardenia by her bed-side in a glass for three hours in every twenty-four. Pamela had one all the time, and the sixth flower which had fallen off its stem, the ward sisters had in their office, floating in a saucer.

Back at the office the next day I rang the dean of the cathedral and several hotels and they agreed to send their flowers to the hospital whenever they changed them. I wonder if they still do.

The great Catholic thinker Monsignor Hildebrand wrote that: ‘the poor need not only bread. The poor also need beauty’. But it’s not just the poor. We all need beauty.

It’s strange to me that Abraham Maslow in his hierarchy of vital needs didn’t include beauty. Sometimes beauty is the the only thing that keeps us going. As Resistance fighter Odette Churchill was being locked back in her cell after a bout of torture by the Gestapo, she snatched up the skeleton of a leaf being blown in the door with her. The beauty of that leaf sustained her and gave her hope and courage and a belief in goodness that carried her through her dreadful ordeal.

Quaker writer, Caroline Graveson wrote that: ‘There is a daily round for beauty as well as for goodness, a world of flowers and books and cinemas and clothes and manners as well as mountains and masterpieces.’ She talked of beauty: ‘not only in the natural beauty of the earth and sky, but in all fitness of language and rhythm, whether it describe a heavenly vision or a street fight, a Hamlet or a Falstaff, a philosophy or a joke: in all fitness of line and colour and shade, whether seen in the Sistine Madonna or a child’s knitted frock…’

The sad thing is that those deprived Chinese women in that joyless hospital ward, came from a culture, which before the blight of industrialisation and the tyranny of plastic, was incapable of producing anything that wasn’t beautiful – from their baskets to their bowls, to their porcelain and their poetry.  And there was something very beautiful about buying a kati of vegetables in the markets and watching them being skilfully wrapped in a beautifully folded sheet of re-cycled Chinese newspaper, or a large leaf, and tied with a knotted reed.

Perhaps their own sage should have the last word, Confucius said that everything is beautiful, to those who can see it….

I published this post nearly four years ago … it’s one of my favourites and many readers will have forgotten it, or never seen it….

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I needed a quick pudding for unexpected guests, so I took out of the deep freeze a couple of brioche I’d stored for such an occasion. Once thawed, I gently fried them in butter, then made a sauce with rum and brown sugar, and poured it over the brioche. I served  them hot with whipped cream, and though not rum babas, they  tasted almost as good.

Food for Thought

People travel to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars; and they pass by themselves without wondering.       St Augustine  199 AD

 

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Little happinesses and big happiness

 

Image result for rowland hilder paintings

 

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

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

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

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

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

Each person is born with an unencumbered spot…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

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

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

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

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

 

Food for thought

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

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

 

 

 

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