Tag Archives: books

Words, words words…

100_0360

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

Advertisements

31 Comments

Filed under books, consciousness, cookery/recipes, culture, happiness, history, human potential, literature, love, philosophy, poetry, self knowledge, shakespeare, Thoughts on writing and life, uncategorised, Uncategorized, writing

The gifts that keep on giving

100_0101

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

28 Comments

Filed under books, cookery/recipes, culture, flowers, food, gardens, great days, history, life/style, literature, Thoughts on writing and life, uncategorised, Uncategorized

Blogging – antidote to writers’ heartbreak

100_0221

“Writers don’t go to hell”, said Anthony Howard, an English writer, “they have such hell on earth with their publishers, that when they die, they go straight to heaven.”

As a mere journalist at the time who didn’t dare call myself a writer, I shuddered at what abysses of despair that remark revealed, and  thanked my lucky stars that my fate would never be to agonise over a publisher.

Times change, and I’ve discovered what he meant… the anguish of  clumsy editors who think they understand the English language better than you do, seems to be the fate of too many writers. I remember my husband writing his umpteenth book, and on receiving the proofs, finding his manuscript had been improved by a feminist editor who’d replaced words like ‘ mankind’ with ‘personkind’, and’ brotherhood’ with ‘personhood.’

I, on the other hand, was once gifted with an editor who had just started at the publishing house, and bright- eyed and bushy-tailed, wanted to prove her worth to her new employers. After she’d completely re-written my first chapter, I suggested she might as well write the rest of the book, and they could dispense with me. They found another editor!

When asked to edit a book or an article, I use the lightest of pencils, knowing well the lacerated feelings of an author whose copy has been ‘improved’, the rhythm of sentences destroyed, words replaced, or others inserted.  And I am living proof that editors often don’t have any understanding of the book they’re working on.

I was once asked to edit a gold- plated leather- bound copy of The World Book of Rugby. My husband swears he actually saw my jaw drop when an emissary from the publisher called in and asked me to take the job on, as their previous editor had just crashed out (probably with boredom).

Conscious of the angst of all writers whose precious words are deemed  unsuitable by an insensitive know-all who has probably never written a book, I  only really checked the spellings of names and teams, grammar and punctuation – not a strong point with sports writers – or me either -and tried to master rugby terms like loosies, flankers, dropped goals and the like – which are different in the two hemispheres..

My finest hour was when I was groaning over the teams for South Africa and Australia at an important test match, and the computer that is our mind clicked into place. There were two players, Jason Small and James Little, and when I looked at the teams, something told me their names had been transposed. They were both playing in the same positions but on the wrong sides. Looking up the records I was right – a huge blunder but an easy mistake.

And that’s what proof-readers and editors are for, to my mind. They are not there to re-write the copy. How people like Dylan Thomas and James Joyce got their eccentric words, constructions and sentences past the eyes of people who think they can write better prose than the writer submitting his precious baby to them I don’t know. So there are obviously some wonderful publishers too… but it’s getting to them that’s the challenge…

So often writers wrestle with language (especially the English language), puzzle over plot and construction, assemble their research and marshal their facts, and then day after day, or night after night, write and re-write and eliminate and polish and check and then re-write and re-think, and finally offer up the fruit of this silent, dedicated labour and joy to someone who doesn’t seem to give a damn for their exquisite prose and potential masterpiece!

And then there are the reviewers and critics. When a craftsman makes a beautiful chest, people don’t look at it and say: ‘did you think of using the grain a different way?’… or: ‘ were you conscious that that leg isn’t quite straight?’  They don’t say to a painter: ‘did you really feel that composition was quite satisfying? … ‘had you really thought through that colour palette?’ or: ‘I just feel that brush-stroke there is a bit clumsy’.

A composer can write his song or his symphony without someone suggesting it would sound better in B minor instead of C minor, or that that crescendo seemed a little over the top in the context of the slow movement.  But it seems as though writing is fair game for everyone who thinks they’ve got a degree in English – or not.

The only other artists who have to endure the pain of their sensitive souls being bruised like ours, are actors and singers. And my heart bleeds for them when pundits pull their performance apart and mention that the soprano cracked on a high D, or the bass is over the hill and past his best.

And this is where blogging is saving the souls of frustrated writers. We can write and experiment and develop our style and stretch our talents without anyone cutting us down to size. Other bloggers are supportive, understanding, and discriminating, but not judgemental.

So writers who blog may now begin to savour what heaven is – writing because you have no choice but to write – and writing knowing that the fear of those precious words being mangled and misunderstood, improved or deleted, is no longer our fate. Blogging allows us to climb out of the pits of despair, rejection and criticism into the sunshine of writing for the joy of it. The gods are not crazy after all.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Chicken mousse is a lovely summer dish and it doesn’t need gelatine, which I never use. Just melt two oz of butter in a basin over a pan of boiling water. Add 3oz of breadcrumbs, half a pint of cream, salt and a good punch of nutmeg. Stir for about five minutes until it thickens. Add three eggs and three table spoons of dry sherry, beat them together and then stir in eight oz of chopped chicken. Pour the mixture into a buttered soufflé dish or similar, cover with foil and bake in a moderate oven until firm – about half an hour. When cool, serve with a creamy mayonnaise with a chopped avocado in it. Delicious.

 

Food for thought

… Man’s real home is not a house, but the Road and… life itself is a journey to be walked on foot…              Bruce Chatwin  1940- 1989.  From his Book ‘What am I doing here”.

Life is a bridge. Cross over it, but build no house upon it.        Indian proverb

64 Comments

Filed under books, cookery/recipes, great days, life/style, literature, philosophy, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, writing

The noble art of reading in bed

 

 

 

100_0088cropped bedroomWhen I was young and naive, and a novice journalist, I wrote an article in a woman’s magazine which began:’ I got most of my education under the bed-clothes’, and went on to discuss children’s reading. Some wag must have been reading his wife’s copy, and the clipping appeared on the office notice-board amid crude male guffaws. Thank you chaps, I got the message! Not a quick learner, but I got there in the end!

Reading under the bed – clothes was the refuge of a child who was sent to bed at seven o clock every night, and allowed to read for fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes! When I got older, and had more homework bed was set back to seven thirty, but the fifteen minute reading restriction still applied.  Only a non-reader could have stipulated this ridiculous time limit, so under the bed clothes it was. When I had no torch I knelt for hours, freezing in my night clothes squinting to read by the crack of light under the door from the hall light.

Occasionally I tried the loo or the bathroom, but this was risky, as books aren’t easily hidden by a skinny child under a thin nightie. When I was fourteen I picked up Jane Eyre in the library. It exploded into my consciousness. I felt dazed and obsessed by the strange, compelling self-centred story. I could think of nothing else. I read it over and over again.  I read it under the desk at school, in the bus and on the train, and of course, in bed.

Once the parents had gone to bed, I switched my light on with impunity, and read until I had finished Jane Eyre, and then started  ‘Villette’, by which time it was heading for five o clock in the morning. Since I had to get up at six to cook my breakfast and catch the school bus at seven am, it seemed safer to stay awake, and soldier on. And having done it once, and finding it was possible to keep going without sleep, I quite often sacrificed my sleep for a good book after that.

Boarding school was tricky, but once again, there was always the bathroom. When I left home and became my own master, reading in bed became one of my favourite pastimes. Mostly literature and poetry in those palmy days. And usually then I had a bowl of apples to munch meditatively as the hours went by, or better still, a bar of chocolate. Sometimes decadence overcame me and I had a glass of lemonade. Marriage and motherhood dished all that of course, and reading in bed became a distant remembered pleasure.

But in the last few years since my husband’s snores have become so loud they wake me even when I’m sleeping in another room, we’ve taken a page out of the Royal Family’s domestic habits, and now sleep in separate rooms. This means I can read without disturbing him, and I’ve raised this noble pastime to a fine art.

Usually three books go to bed with me… something that I call mental knitting, a relaxing series like Georgette Heyer, (a much under-rated, very funny, witty and clever writer) or other light-hearted books like the hilarious Adrian Mole Diaries, or ‘The Jane Austen Book Club’. Georgette Heyer is sort of Jane Austen lite – but the  blessed Jane is also a regular companion, along with the Thomas Hardy’s, George Eliot’s, Anthony Trollope’s, to re-read for the sheer pleasure of enjoying their writing again. In theory too, because I know the story, I kid myself I won’t be tempted to read too late. But that is a false premise.  And as CS Lewis said, ‘I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.

And then there’s the third category – those which are on the go, sometimes a new novel – Barbara Kingsilver at the moment, but not many of those – a biography, a history, a diary. And for real relaxation I sink into nature journals,  often a classic like Flora Thompson’s: ‘Lark Rise at Candleford’ …  Annie Dillard, Henry Beston or Ronald Lockley…  mostly accounts of gentle, unpolluted country life.

But reading in bed isn’t just books. The bed matters too… preferably by the window… in summer with cool white linen- cotton blend sheets that have a silky feel, in winter comforting coloured flannelette to match the duvet. Pillows – plenty of them, to lean back on and others to support the elbows. Electric blanket a must in cold weather… I use it a bit like the hot tap in the bath… whenever it seems a bit chill, I switch it on until the bed is like toast again, and then prudently switch off again until the next time.

In summer, there’s the bliss of going to bed in day-light, knowing you have hours in front of you before dusk creeps up, before finally switching on the light. In winter, lamps on, curtains pulled, wood fire still burning in the sitting room to keep the house warm for when I emerge to make a cup of tea. And the bed, pyjamas warmed under the bed clothes on the electric blanket, cosy sheets and pillow slips,  red mohair rug edged with wine-red satin, and a stash of peppermints to slowly chew as I turn the pages. No sounds, just the murmur of the soft sea, a distant owl, and occasionally a scuffle on the roof as a possum scrambles across. The sound of rain on the roof is good too.

The art of reading in bed is a silent, sybaritic, solitary joy and has nothing to do with going to sleep. It has everything to do with the pleasure of reading, frequently to the detriment of sleep. So I have to confess, in the words of L.M.Montgomery that : ‘I am simply a ‘book drunkard.’ Books have the same irresistible temptation for me that liquor has for its devotee. I cannot withstand them.’

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Running out of inspiration, I took an organic free range chicken out of the deep freeze, and after de-frosting it slowly in the fridge for two days, stuffed it with a pierced lemon and put it on to steam. After an hour and three quarters, I placed around it in the steamer, new potatoes, carrots, leeks, small onions and parsnips.

When the chicken is ready so are the vegetables. I usually make a parsley sauce to serve with this, but didn’t feel like a heavy floury sauce, so instead chopped garlic cloves very finely, sauted them in butter, and added a vegetarian oxo cube and cream. I boiled and stirred until it was thickened, and added lots of chopped parsley. It turned out rather well. The bonus of steaming is a wonderful chicken stock, as the chicken juices drip into the boiling water beneath the steamer. More on that next time!

Food for Thought

Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, power to re-tell it, to re-think it, deconstruct it, joke about it and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.

Sir Salman Rushdie – famous Indian writer, educated in England, lives in America, and winner of many prizes and honours.

 

75 Comments

Filed under books, cookery/recipes, culture, food, great days, humour, jane austen, life/style, literature, philosophy, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized

Books and real people

100_0233

So many bloggers write about their experiences writing fiction that I’ve begun to look long and hard at what I read.  Mostly diaries, letters, biography, autobiography and history.

Why? I’ve been asking myself. I think of a panorama of people, living and dead and what I love about these accounts of real life are the moments of humanity and truth that emerge, lighting up the character of each person, and giving me such an insight into the goodness, variety, and endless capacity for living which we humans are capable of.

Though fiction gives us these moments too, I love to see them embedded in the life of people we know in history, and to see how we have changed so much – and not changed at all.

So there’s the Venerable Bede, who introduced the terms AD and BC into our language and wrote dozens of books in ‘Englisch’ for the first time in history. This gentle, scholarly man was a foodie in the seventh century, and spiced up the basic monastery fare in remote Northumbria by using rare and expensive peppercorns. He bequeathed his little store to his fellow monks when he died…and also his handkerchiefs… another luxury in that far-off century.

And talking of food – what an intriguing insight into the character of Ulysses Grant – to read that this great soldier, who was responsible for sending hundreds of thousands of men to their deaths in the struggle between the Union and the Confederates – hated the sight of blood. All his meat was overcooked to the point of being crisp. He never went hunting, refused to attend a bull – fight held in his honour in Mexico when he was president, and was probably the first horse whisperer, a superb horseman who could do anything with any horse.

Another great general, Wellington – whose horse Copenhagen, was as famous as Robert E. Lee’s Traveller – loved dancing, and any officer on his staff had to fulfill the job description of being a good dancer. Onlookers were surprised by their frivolity and their dedicated efficiency, but between battles, these dashing young aristocrats danced their way around Vienna, Brussels and Paris, their most famous dancing date being the Duchess of Richmond’s ball on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. When Napoleon surprised Wellington (“Humbugged, by God!” exclaimed Wellington) many of these officers had to rush straight from the ballroom to the battle in their dancing shoes.

I read seventeenth century John Evelyn’s diaries, and his account of passing Stonehenge in a carriage, and attempting an act of vandalism, hammering at one of the huge stones, and failing to make a dent. He reaches across the centuries when his eldest son, five year old Jack died suddenly, and he wrote what so many bereaved parents feel: “Here ends the joy of my life, for which I go mourning to the grave.”

On the other hand, famous philanderer, English MP Alan Clark, shows that the hard arrogant swashbuckling man is a complex unpredictable human being, when he writes of seeing the heron who’s been poaching the fish in his moat. (He lived in a castle… doesn’t everyone?) and seizing his rifle shoots it. He describes the slow dignified ebbing of life as the beautiful creature keels over, and he weeps in horror as he feels the enormity of what he has done.

I love the story of Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, who had had a dreadful carriage accident with two bolting horses. As he lay in pain in bed at home, missing all the action and excitement around the start of Lincoln’s second term, Lincoln came to visit him, on his return from Richmond. He lay down on the bed, alongside the agonised man, propped himself on one elbow, and told him all that was going on, asked his advice, and made him feel he was still an important and valuable cog in the wheels, instead of a sick bystander. The tenderness and sensitivity of the long, lanky President lying on the bed, looking into the eyes of his suffering colleague moves me deeply.

As does the picture of Isabella Burton, the famous explorer Sir Richard Burton’s wife, sitting on the dusty ground in her voluminous Victorian skirts at their house in Damascus, cradling her pet panther in her arms until he died. He’d been poisoned by a neighbour.

Yes, I love fiction, especially the oldies like George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, the inimitable Jane, and others, but it’s that feeling of recognition and empathy that I love when reading about the humanity of these ordinary, or great or historical people. Like crusty old King George V complaining about his eldest son’s suits, with turn-ups on his trousers, and Queen Victoria writing to her second son Alfie ticking him off for his smoking, putting his hands in his pockets, parting his hair in the middle, as well as his “frightful stick-ups” – high collars – they remind us that parents’ disapproval of their childrens’ clothes and habits is a long- standing tradition.

Waiting in a stuffy men’s club, I saw a book- case filled with old books. One title jumped at me – the memoirs of Count Lichnowsky. I had no idea who he was, and became entranced by his historic and vivid descriptions of being German Ambassador in England on the outbreak of World War One. He wrote of his heartbreak as he left London where he admired and respected all the statesmen there, and I read all his frantic telegrams to the Kaiser, trying to stop the immoral invasion of Belgium which triggered the conflict in France.

But best of all, I read his description of Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary who spoke those immortal words on the eve of World War One: “The lights are going out all over Europe.” Sir Edward, a humble and rich man who rode a bicycle to get to and from friend’s houses – up to thirty miles away –  used to feed by hand the red squirrels who came to the window of his house in Scotland.

Tender glimpses of real people, moments of gentleness, of love and goodness… these are the reasons I love non-fiction … insights into men and women’s souls, windows into their lives… the history of the human race in these moments of truth and intimacy. And this, of course, is why blogs are such addictive reading. They give me the same connection with truth and reality.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

One of the things that I’m never without are packets of chipped or slivered almonds (not flaked). They make a difference to every dish I use them in. I toast them in a dry frying pan  and sprinkle them over cauliflower cheese, and they give it a wonderful crunch to contrast with the smooth cheese sauce and soft cauliflower. I toast them to add to raw cauliflower salad for that crunch too.

And they are wonderful in rice salad. This is the basis for a cold chicken salad, which I’ll share in the next post. The rice has peas, juicy soaked sultanas, chopped parsley- plenty – and lots of toasted almonds for the crunch factor. At the last minute, add a vinaigrette dressing and gently mix it through.

Food for Thought

“Oh King, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time which is unknown to us, it seems like the swift flight of a sparrow through the banqueting hall wherein you sit at supper in winter with your thanes and counsellors.

In the midst there is a good fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. The sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another.

While he is inside, he is safe from winter storms; but after a short space of fair weather, he vanishes out of your sight into the dark winter from which he came. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before or what is to follow, we know nothing.

The Venerable Bede  AD 672/3 – 735   Monk, historian, teacher

61 Comments

Filed under books, cookery/recipes, great days, history, literature, philosophy, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized

A Blogger’s Farewell

This is a sad goodbye. Before I drop one of many balls in the air, I have to make a decision.

I’m in the middle of self –publishing a collection of my earlier blogs for family and friends who don’t have a computer or don’t read blogs… a little Christmas stocking filler….

Self-publishing is quite time- consuming, especially when you live an hour away from the printer, and want to discuss spacing, type-faces, size of headings, capitals, design the page lay-out, whether to up or change the italics, design the cover, edit and proof read and lots of other details .

I do my own editing and proof-reading since it’s been part of my work experience (my proudest boast is that knowing nothing of rugby, I edited a gold plated edition of the World Book of Rugby, and picked up when the rugby writer himself  had muddled James Small with Jason Little!). Editing takes time – tightening up sentence construction, and grammar, weeding out unnecessary words, especially adverbs, making sure all the verbs are active and not passive apart from the obvious spelling and punctuation. And then the proof-reading.

I’ve been doing this, as well as spending one day a week with clients who come for counselling, and am also in the midst of writing another book, and have to revise the completed manuscript of another book. I also write articles for a parenting magazine, and do proof reading. And I’m selling my recent book ‘The Sound of Water’ – packing it up to send to libraries and to post to people. I didn’t put it into bookshops, as they take most of the profit on a book. But by doing radio interviews, local newspaper interviews and talking to groups – I’m speaking at another book club next week – the book sells.

I’ve managed to juggle these balls with the time spent on blogging, which as we all know isn’t just writing a blog, but is also a very time-consuming activity!

The ball that I can’t drop, is my 83 year old husband, whose health has taken a dive, and we are into a round of regular hospital visits and side-trips to doctor, x-ray departments, and all the paraphernalia of modern medicine. (As an alternative treatment addict myself, this is all anathema to me.) And I also have family and friends who need me at different levels of engagement.

So I’ve decided that blogging, which has been an amazing distraction from everyday problems, and an enjoyment of unsuspected depths, is the thing that for now has to go on the back burner. The thing that really twists my heart is saying good-bye to the wonderful, loving friends I’ve made.

Reading people’s blogs means that you also read their soul, for blogging is not just creative but a very deep emotional engagement with bloggers who are living lives of challenge and emotional depths. Bloggers share their self doubts, their pain, their heart-aches, and their interests, their joys, their spiritual search. And it’s been very precious to experience that depth of tenderness and vulnerability from the beautiful men who blog. With women we are not surprised to experience their emotional open-ness, but to have that same experience with men, feels very rare and beautiful.

The people – men and women – I’m talking about, will all know who they are, and they are beloved.

I shall miss the animals too, Fuzzy and Boomer, Zoey the Cool cat, fat piggie Charlotte and Ton-ton in his smart blue coat, Sunni’s mischievous little darlings, and Sharla’s kitty-kats who enjoy sitting on the dashboard on long journeys and watching the road ahead. Buckminster and Amber, what will I do without you? How will you manage in Sweden? I shall still follow silently the stories of your lives and quietly click the ‘likes’. But for now, I have to cope with my life.

I’ve learned and discovered so much from reading other’s blogs… blogging has been an education for me. And thank you, wonderful friends who’ve encouraged me, given me the confidence to become more direct and honest in my own writing, and showed me that we can all be accepted for who we are, and not for what we do. It’s been such a privilege to enter this world, and to be accepted, and to make such deep and loving connections. I can’t bear to say goodbye to you, so will continue to read you and to love you.

P.S. If you’re interested in my next book, it’s called ‘Chasing The Dragon – an addiction to life.’ It’s 195 pages.

The ebook version is out now and it will be available free for a limited time on:

Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/254812

and on some platforms Smashwords distributes to (Apple, Barnes and Noble, etc);

and on Amazon Kindle here: http://www.amazon.com/Chasing-Dragon-addiction-living-ebook/dp/B00A99RERO/ref=sr_1_3?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1353492963&sr=1-3&keywords=chasing+the+dragon

for 99 cents (that is currently their minimum price).

It will also be available as a paperback on Amazon for US$12. 99 plus postage.

To order the printed in New Zealand book (with flaps and deckle edges, printed on Munken Cream paper) which is available now at NZ $30, US $24, and 15 UK pounds, contact Valerie Davies at:

Merlincourtpress@gmail.com

Or  Merlincourt Press,

P.O. Box 161

Leigh 0947, Rodney

New Zealand

169 Comments

Filed under bloggers, books, Forthcoming books, great days, happiness, love, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized

Books That Taught Us The Secrets of Life

As I listened to the Whiffenpoof Yale Choir singing ” As I was young and foolish”, at their concert  last night, I thought I know all about that… I was twelve in 1950 when we were given a lecture during science on human reproduction. It was very boring, nine tenths of it was a film about rabbits , and the last tenth was a diagram of stick figures with arrows demonstrating that the sperm passed from the man to the woman.

“Any questions?” said the science mistress at the end of this, in a very repressive voice, to which I was totally insensitive. I pressed brashly on.  “Yes, how did it get from the man to the woman”, I asked? “You should have watched the film.” she snapped, as the whole class took a deep collective in-breath. “But I did”, I protested. End of lesson. It didn’t really matter, I was more pre-occupied with Baroness Orxy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel at that stage… “they seek him here, they seek him there….”

A year later I got the lowdown on the rudiments of human reproduction in the school train. Rude was what it seemed to me, and I looked with utter distaste at the forty year old English master whose wife was having a baby. How could an elderly man like him – I thought to myself – how could he?

The next step in my education was the publication of Nevil Shute’s “A Town Like Alice”, which was the subject of hushed talk in the Lower Fourth. Most people think it’s about a couple who fall in love during their brutal imprisonment by the Japanese. But we were n’t interested in that. There were two sentences in the whole book which riveted us. The couple found each other after the war, and went off on holiday to try to re-capture their original feelings. One night she wore a sarong like the one she’d worn in Malaya, and this did the trick apparently. We read with bated breath the words “Did what I think happened last night really happen?” and read with some horror, her strange reply: “Well, I’m covered in bruises.” This was puzzling on several counts. What on earth goes on, we pondered.

Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the Durbervilles” was the next heroine who furthered my general knowledge on this rather arcane subject back then. I discovered from this book that human reproduction was a very risky business, which in Tess’s case, led from seduction to unwanted pregnancy, a husband who abandoned her on their honeymoon when she told him, and then the seducer rescuing Tess from poverty and despair, until the husband pops up again. In her rage she stabs the wretched seducer, and ends up being hanged. Not a good look for ignorant teenagers searching for information.

But it came in a much more attractive package when I was at boarding school. This blue book was wrapped in brown paper so that none of the teachers knew we had it. It was furtively passed around the senior girls’ dormitory, and I was at the end of the line, being the most recent arrival. Finally I got to the pages of Frank Yerby’s  “The Foxes of Harrow”, which were causing all the excitement. I discovered from this sex manual that women could be frigid – what on earth was that? And the hero of this tale – if hero he could be called – got so fed-up with his frigid wife that he packed her off to town to be de-fridged by a sort of white witch, who was actually a Black American.

When she returned to her home, and expectant husband, they both couldn’t wait to get up to the bedroom, where the husband stripped off her clothes as fast as he could. But his patience gave out when he fumbled with her pearl necklace, and to our collective relish, he ripped it apart, and priceless pearls cascaded unheeded around the bedroom. Wow, we all thought!  You don’t wear jewellery in bed! This couple too, seemed to have had a rough ride, because in the morning, one or other of them had a back which had, in the words of the story, been “raked” by fingernails. Hell’s teeth! as my father would have said.

Finally Gone with The Wind fell into my eager hands. Not much sex here, but a manual on childbirth for me. Melanie Wilkes giving birth while Atlanta burned around her, and stifling her groans of agony by wringing her hands on a knotted towel stood me in good stead.

When I gave birth to my first child, having moved house as an army wife, and having slipped too through the cracks of any ante-natal classes – if indeed they existed then – I only had Melanie’s example to guide me. I lay on my bed of pain, sunk into the deepest, blackest pit, suppressing my groans like Melanie had done. Somewhere high up above me I heard the midwife say to my husband you might as well go home, she’s asleep.

So off he went, and I didn’t see him for another six months. When I was wheeled back to my room in the morning, there was a brief telegram:” Gone to Cyprus”. The unspoken other half of this communication was: “to be shot at by Greeks and Turks.” His regiment had been bundled off to Cyprus to quell another insurrection.

We were too young to qualify for army allowances, so back home, sans money, family, neighbours, phone and car – since I couldn’t drive the one holed up in the garage, I needed help. I turned to Dr Spock.

Pregnant again as soon as the husband returned unharmed by Greeks or Turks, for the next few years the only book I read was Dr Benjamin Spock’s child rearing manual, as I wrestled with colic and constipation, solids and sleep deprivation. And since those desperate days, the raunchy reading of my youth hasn’t had the same allure. We called them Blue books back then, though they probably weren’t,  and I can’t see me thumbing through Fifty Shades of Grey now… especially since a survey has shown that a surprisingly large number of readers never bother to read to the end!

Dr Spock, on the other hand, I read from cover to cover. Not once but many times, hoping to enlighten my ignorance on how to cope with babies. But really, I needed more than Dr Spock, just as I needed more than Melanie.

Recipe for Threadbare Gourmets

Yesterday I ran out of time and ingredients, and was feeling guilty that I’d been out two nights running leaving the old chap with a cold meal. One night at a concert listening to The Whiffenpoofs, the Yale Choir, and last night, Tai Chi. So I felt I had to cook, and an omelette didn’t seem good enough. Though this is a real threadbare meal, it’s one we love. You need a cup of long grain rice, well washed, and put on to boil with two scant cups of water, salt, three cloves and quarter to half a teaspoon of cinnamon.

Clamp the lid on tightly and boil on as low as possible for twenty minutes. Then pull off the heat and leave covered for another ten minutes. Meanwhile gently fry one or two onions, and two cups of chopped celery, adding several cloves of chopped garlic towards the end. At this stage I either chop up some cooked chicken, open a tin of shrimps, or fish out some frozen prawns, and stir whatever it is into the onion mixture. Allow two eggs for two people, but three eggs for four – and this amount of rice is probably enough for four reasonable people – beat the eggs lightly and stir into the pan for fifty seconds. Then add the rice, gently stirring to mix it all up. If I have spring onions to hand, I chop them in. Eat immediately with some green salad. (Just don’t try to eat the cloves.) It’s a very delicately flavoured meal.

Food for Thought

The snow goose need not bathe to make itself white. Neither need you do anything but be yourself.          Lao-Tse     Ancient Chinese philosopher, author of the Tao Te Ching, and considered to be the founder of Taoism

41 Comments

Filed under books, cookery/recipes, culture, food, great days, life/style, literature, philosophy, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life