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Tropical learning curves

15

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

We sometimes played hockey on the padang at Tanah Rata, the nearby township where I quickly learned to play on the wing after my first attempt at playing centre. As we bullied with our hockey sticks in the slight dip where water had collected, my legs became covered with small red leeches. Trying to prise these horrifying bloodsuckers off was a practical demonstration of the phrase ‘he stuck to him like a leech.’

I also played fast and furious tennis with three teachers (one who had been a Junior Wimbledon champion) who needed a fourth on Saturday afternoons, and as head girl started the school magazine; I made a wonderfully arrogant and stupid Lady Catherine de Burgh in the school play of Pride and Prejudice, arranged the flowers for church every week, and ignored various nice boys (in retrospect) who tried to get my interest.

My best friend and I also enjoyed infuriating two young but frumpy teachers who we knew thought we were bumptious and too big for our boots. Apart from this friendship with my best friend which has lasted our life-times, the greatest gift I took away from this school was the ability to write clearly.

The man who tried to teach me to write was a very patrician academic, who wrote book reviews for The Times and was also an army officer. He was our charismatic headmaster – tall, elegant, witty and charming. He didn’t normally teach but he decided to coach me himself for the newly introduced A levels.

I quickly discovered that I was a sloppy thinker, with very little idea of how to write. This uncomfortable realisation hit me after my first essay, when I referred to ‘the naked truth’. Robin (I learned to call him this later) made me look up the meaning of the word ‘naked’ in the dictionary, and it was a lesson I never needed to learn again – to make sure I actually knew the meaning of a word before I used it and forget about clichés!

He taught me to write short simple sentences, to use short Anglo -Saxon words, and never pompous, pretentious Latin words. He’d say chuck instead of throw and tried to teach me not just to write good direct prose, but to think for myself too, and once when I had written an obsequious essay on Anthony and Cleopatra, he teasingly wrote at the bottom: “Beware too slavish an adulation of the Bard!”

The best training he gave me was to write a précis nearly every day, of a piece of weighty Elizabethan or Restoration prose, reducing each piece to a third of its length. It was a rigorous exercise, which trained me to express meaning in the most efficient and simplest way. It taught me to understand the meaning of words so I could translate them into a simpler briefer version and sharpened up my whole writing style. And that was it – the nuts and bolts of writing.

When I hear or read of people’s experiences with gifted teachers today, I marvel at the creative opportunities they have; but on the other hand, these simple rules he gave me have been a useful scaffolding on which to build a writing life. Yes, I missed out on the metaphors and similes, and creative flights of fancy. I just had simple guide-lines for communicating clearly, with no tiresome tics of speech or writing, no frills or clichés, no worn-out phrases, un-necessary words, purple passages or exhibitionist long words.

I learned to write truthfully, and to avoid sentimentality – I think! And this for me, is still the challenge of writing, over half a century later; truth means finding the exact word with no compromises, which means knowing how I truly feel.

Every holidays, I seemed to go back to a different house or hotel. One Easter, my parents met me at the station, and I was whisked back to the rest house at Port Dickson, situated right on the beach. We spent a week here, with the usual routine of lazy morning, tea and bananas served after siesta, shower and change for dinner, dinner, post -prandial stroll along the empty moonlit sands, before moving to Malacca and a government bungalow on a cliff edge outside the town.

It was a big, two-story house with magnificent views. At night, looking out over the sea, and up into the clear night sky, my father pointed out to me the North Star and the Southern Cross in the same starry sky as we stood almost on the equator.

Malacca by daylight had the charm which was missing from every other Malayan town. The Malayan kampongs in jungle clearings were attractive, traditional communities constructed from indigenous materials, wood and coconut leaves, and composed of small groups of dwelling places on stilts. By contrast, the towns were simply concrete shells with shops in the bottom usually owned by Chinese merchants, and crude dwellings over the shop.

Garish signs and raucous music from the radio were also elements of these depressing environments. To enter these un-attractive townships, or rather, small tropical slums, one ran the gauntlet of terrible smells from rubber factories, and then from durian, a fruit whose smell is legendary. Brave people said it tasted delicious, but few were brave enough to battle past the smell.

Malacca had an architectural European past, both Portuguese and Dutch. The Portuguese buildings, dating from 1511, included the old fortress, parts of which were still standing when we explored in 1954, over four hundred years later. Eventually Protestant Dutch traders arrived in 1641.

The Dutch built much of the old town that remained when I saw it, a little corner of the Netherlands transplanted to the tropics. Fifteen years later, when I stayed in Macau, occupied by the Portuguese in 1557, it too had the same charming atmosphere of an alien architecture dreaming far from home.

But whereas Macau was Portuguese and Mediterranean, and the architecture had a certain suitability for the climate, the little Dutch red-tiled buildings were derived from a northern style designed to keep the warmth in. It was strangely incongruous in the humid sunshine of the old sea-port, by then silted up, trade gone and only Malayan fishing boats crowding the moorings.

The British got here in 1795, and in spite of the modern tendency to sneer at all colonial activities, the policy of the British then was to preserve the sultanates, the Muslim faith and the Malay way of life, and those aspects of Malayan life still dominate the modern country of Malaysia today.  We visited the Malacca museum and listened to a music box playing Mozart which Dutch exiles would have heard nearly two hundred years before, admired the Dutch-built church, now Anglican, the old Dutch government offices, and explored intriguing little shops for jewellery and non-existent treasures.

In the afternoons while every-one else slept, I read dog-eared orange and cream -covered Penguin books left behind by previous visitors, including the unforgettable Ambrose Bierce and, in cheap editions, Helen Waddell and Mary Webb, Robert Graves and Stefan Zweig. Or I’d play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on 78’s, piling them up on the long central column, so that they plonked down one after the other.

Or I’d walk along the golden, empty sands below and swim, till one day I foolishly swam half a mile out to a fish trap, not realising that it was sited there precisely to catch the current. I slowly became aware that no matter how much I swam, I was getting no nearer the fish trap, but a very long way out to sea.

Trying not to panic, I remembered that to get out of a current you have to swim with it, and across it. It took me over an hour to get back to shore, miles away from the rest-house, pursued, I was quite sure, by sharks. Jack London’s horrible book ‘ The Sea-Wolf’ had already made an indelible impression on me. That afternoon, it haunted me, with every splash of my tired feet probably being the snap of a shark’s jaws. Once back at the rest-house, I kept this escapade to myself.

The next holiday was spent in an army quarter in Mentekab, a garrison built in the middle of a clearing in the jungle, it seemed. Now, I felt I had finally emerged as an adult. I was sixteen, and one of the subalterns in the regiment asked my father if he could take me out. I didn’t know him at all, apart from a dance the previous week, but I jumped at this opportunity for my first grownup date.

The day arrived, and so did he. My stepmother had provided us with a picnic basket. He drove to Temerloh, where we embarked in a long Malayan rowing boat, and he rowed us down the wide, muddy brown river edged with endless palm trees down to the water’s edge. Mile after mile was the same.

Two complete strangers faced each other in the boat, with nothing to even remark on as the miles slipped past. I sat, apparently entranced, as he described in a self- conscious monotone, stories about Japanese opera which he had seen while on leave in Tokyo. Now I’ve seen some myself, I’m even more amazed that he should have bothered to watch. The women’s magazines I had read said that men liked girls who listened to them, and who hung on their words.

They also said men liked a touch of white at the neck, and the daisy- fresh look of white gloves. No hope of that in this dripping heat, alas. I sweltered in a tight, waist- cinching, fashionable, elastic waspie, and a frou of frilly white petticoat I’d made myself – all the rage in northern climates, but as unsuitable for the tropics as the Victorian crinolines and Edwardian bustles of previous memsahibs and missies in this sticky climate.

The young man suddenly spied a small patch of what passed for grass in this part of the world and rowed across to it. By the time we had tied up, spread the prickly wool tartan rug, undone the flask and poured the hot tea which brought out fresh beads of sweat on brow and upper lip, the inhabitants of the nearest kampong had materialised and stood around us in a circle, giggling and chattering in Malay.

They must have thought we were deaf, or that they couldn’t be heard in a foreign language, for they called out to friends who hadn’t yet arrived, and generally carried on as though we were the afternoon’s entertainment. As we were. They were obviously deeply interested in European courting rituals, observing every bite of our picnic, and commenting loudly to each other on our every movement.

Finally, I opened the raffia box in which my stepmother had tastefully packed an iced chocolate cake and started back horrified as a horde of ants tumbled out with it.

At this, we abandoned the whole expedition and followed by waves of what felt like derisive laughter from the indigenous peoples, made our way painfully back up the river. At the other end, my father was waiting mischievously with his speciality, dinner of spaghetti Bolognaise made with the longest spaghetti he could find – extremely difficult to eat with dignity, his subtle plan to embarrass the poor young man and sabotage an occasion which was already an anti-climax to put it kindly.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

I love Caesar salad, but don’t like bought Caesar dressings. This dressing is worth the little extra effort for a delicious salad.

Place the following ingredients in a stick blender: one egg yolk, one tbsp Dijon mustard, two to three cloves crushed garlic, one small chopped shallot, four or five chopped anchovies fillets, and the juice of one lime. I use a lemon if I haven’t got a lime. Gradually add 75ml oil –  extra virgin olive oil and canola oil mixed, and continue to blend. When thick stir in a few handfuls of finely grated  Parmesan.

If you have time, make the dressing ahead and let it sit for a while so the flavours meld together.

 Food for thought

 “When a relationship stops working, it usually means that someone has grown.
Someone is now ready to receive more and have more than the relationship offers.
Someone is ready to be loved, honoured, and treated the way they really want to be treated. Could that someone be you?”

~ Iyanla Vanzant

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under army, colonial life, cookery/recipes, family, history, life/style, literature, Thoughts on writing and life, travel, Uncategorized, writing

Kingdom by the sea

Image result for lulworth cove
A life – this is another instalment of an autobiographical series before I revert to my normal blogs.

Three years, three schools. During the next three years I went to three different schools, as my father went from one army posting to another.  Richmond High School was unusual. It had been built just before the war started, and was a no- expense-spared, state of the art modern building with even the chairs and tables designed ergonomically and in harmony with each-other and the architecture.

Unlike the historic boy’s grammar school nestled down in the town opposite the medieval parish church, the girls’ school was built high above the River Swale on the edge of the town looking across rolling farmland.

Designed by Denis Clarke Hall, a modernist architect, whose father was one of the founders of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children – NCPCC – it broke new ground for school design. Building was completed in 1940, the windows arriving miraculously from Switzerland, and the school furniture was designed by the great Finnish designer Alvar Aalto.

From the entrance hall the staff rooms, and library led off to the right, the assembly hall to the left, and straight ahead stretched a long, blue- tiled light-filled corridor for about a hundred yards. On the right, three short blue-tiled corridors or stalks as they were known, branched off from the main corridor at intervals, and at the end, divided into two classrooms. The classrooms were large, high-ceilinged airy rooms with windows stretching along two sides, from desk height to ceiling, and equipped with full- length Venetian blinds – very modern in 1950.

In the cloakroom, we each had our own hooks for hats and coats, and beneath them fitted benches equipped with shoe boxes for our indoor shoes. Similarly, in the gym cloakroom and showers, we had our own hooks for shorts and gym vest, towel and shoe racks. It was a perfect example of architecture actually working for the purpose it was designed, with no fish-hooks in it. It also educated my eye, so I was already in tune with the lines of Scandinavian architecture and furniture design which became the rage during the fifties and sixties.

From here I went to Aldershot Grammar, an old fashioned red brick building, over-used and over-crowded, and I missed the beauty of Yorkshire, the charm of old Richmond, the great achingly-empty spaces of the moors, the thick leafy trees in the dale, and rushing water of the River Swale, ruined abbeys, medieval churches and the Norman castle. Then, moving from the built-up Aldershot garrison town and rather grim grammar school, I started yet again at Swanage Grammar, another red brick building, this time on the edge of a sea-side town.

It had a joyous atmosphere, partly due to the constant creativity nurtured within its walls. The annual arts festival was the focus of our lives for a large chunk of the year, during which we wrote and painted and rehearsed, and the classrooms rang with choirs practising, soloists practising their instruments and voices singing and declaiming poetry and speeches…

The festival was so devised that everyone could find some talents to develop and was required to enter four events… I won the short story competition, and the declamation prize, making my mark with Shakespeare’s ‘This royal throne of kings’.

Today, these three schools no longer exist. The first was merged with the medieval boy’s grammar school and local secondary modern schools, the second seems to have disappeared so thoroughly it’s not even in records, and the third stands empty, merged with other area schools. I find it sad.

Each school I went to belonged to a different examining board, the Oxford, Cambridge and London, so I had to start afresh with a different syllabus at each one, and this was where my reading stood me in good stead, though it didn’t help with my disjointed maths career. My navy school uniform which had lasted me since the first school, just made it to the day I left to go to Malaya, darned and skimpy and about to collapse! In the two schools with brown uniform I had stood out like a sore thumb.

After my London holiday, my next was in France, an adventure I wrote about in my blog called My Tour de France. The last summer holiday before leaving England was at Lulworth Cove. We lived there for a year, and to get to school at Swanage  I had to catch a bus at 7am, change to catch a train at Wareham, arriving in Swanage to catch another bus up to school. The return journey saw me wearily arrive home at six o’ clock.

It was a hard year. I cooked my own breakfast- one egg, one rasher of bacon and a piece of bread-  at six thirty, fed and let out the twelve chickens and two geese we had invested in to feed the whole family at Christmas, and left the sleeping household undisturbed as I went to catch the bus. A finicky eater, I couldn’t stomach the dreadful school lunches, but since my stepmother was sure that I had had a good midday meal, and was also sure that I had eaten it, tea back home was just some toast, followed by cornflakes before I went to bed after finishing my homework. I was always hungry.

I used my penny for the bus up to school and back to the train, to buy a dough-nut for the return train journey like every- one else, until my step-mother discovered this. Always hard-up, she decided that if I could walk and run the last mile to school and back, I didn’t need the penny each way, so I sat in the train and watched everyone else eat their snack, pretending my stomach was not rumbling with hunger.

As soon as I got home, there were the chickens and the geese to round up and feed, and shut up for the night in their respective huts. Homework and then bed at eight completed the day. But a bookworm can’t stop reading so I would read whatever book was obsessing me, kneeling by the bedroom door to use the crack of light from the hall, until my parents went to bed.

This was the year I discovered Thomas Hardy, beginning with Tess of the D’Urbervilles. This was Hardy country, we all read him, and talked about him, and echoes of his words haunted every corner of this beautiful place once known as Summerlands.

The Dorset country-side was enchanting, old grey stone cottages, and historic unchanging villages, nestled in the folds of the valleys on the Isle of Purbeck, where hedges were bent against the prevailing wind from the Channel, fat lowland sheep grazed, and ancient churches dreamed through all the days. History and folk lore and old memories brought each place alive for me.

Every morning on the bus, we drove past the grey stone Elizabethan manor house where Tess spent the first night of her honeymoon with Angel Clare… round the corner in Wool was the ruined abbey where Angel carried her when he was sleep walking…  While Norman Corfe Castle, where the Roundheads in 1645 had twice besieged and finally overcome Lady Mary Bankes and her Royalist garrison by a betrayal from inside – and which was then ruined on Cromwell’s orders – was a historical landmark on our journey.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of history was a moment in our present. At eight o clock on the 28th January 1953, just as the train pulled out of Wareham Station, we looked at the time, and silence fell on the carriage of eight girls of different ages. We sat there in a long tense vigil, and it was a long time before anyone broke the silence, as we all lived and died the last few moments of nineteen- year -old Derek Bentley’s short life as he was hanged in London.

It seemed utterly unbearable that a life should be taken in such a brutal way, that a life should just be obliterated while we sat with bated breath in our little train travelling towards school for another day of life and laughter and learning. (Sixteen- year- old Christopher Craig, who actually shot and killed the policeman in the case, served ten years and on release became a plumber.)

That summer of my fourteenth birthday, my stepmother’s nephew came to spend the long holidays with us. She adored him, and gave him wonderful memories of idyllic weeks with picnics and expeditions every day. This was idyllic for me too, since I was the one taking him for the picnics and long walks and jaunts to the different beaches and bays.

With our satchels filled with egg sandwiches and sometimes ginger pop, we would set off, our favourite place being a remote bay down a steep cliff, called Man o’ War Bay. We walked up the hill past a fascinating Lutyens house, through fields, down crumbling steps to reach the pebbly beach and blue water, clear as crystal, and played and swam until time to come home.

Back home, my stepmother who never made cakes, had a magnificent high tea waiting for us with scrambled eggs or baked beans on toast followed by warm, freshly baked, utterly delicious date cake. The whole holiday felt like something out of Enid Blyton, ‘Four Go Away on Holiday’ sort of thing, without a care in the world.

Most weekends for the rest of the year, I explored remote bays and paths that few walkers could ever use, for I roamed across the shooting ranges of the Gunnery School where my father was second in command. So I was able to reach forbidden and forbidding Arish Mell Gap, and to explore the desolately lovely village of Tyneham – commandeered by the army in 1943 to practise firing on the land surrounding it. In the early fifties, the two hundred villagers had only been gone for ten years, so their homes hadn’t suffered too much damage from gunnery shells or the decay of desertion. Back then it was a particularly beautiful English village, haunted by its past and untouched by the present, where time had stood still.

From there I’d scramble up to the 2,500 -year- old Iron Age fort, where later, the Romans had eventually wrestled it from the local Durotriges tribe and then maintained their own watch, and I’d look down on Worbarrow Bay, also out of bounds. In the other direction, I went for solitary swims right round at the furthest edge of the curve of the circle of Lulworth Cove, the legendary beauty spot on the Jurassic Coast. Once I swam in mist so dense I couldn’t see further than a few yards, just deep green water surrounding me and feeling long slippery strands of sea-weed waving between my legs…

When it rained, I would kneel on the sheep skin rug on the floor in my bedroom and lose myself in my latest library book. Though none of my school friends lived nearby, I was never lonely, as I had a rich interior life – books, art, music, the history of ballet, ancient Egypt, history, poetry – all these interests meant I was never bored, but always dreaming, always in the midst of some absorbing passion. So I was overcome by grief at the end of The Mill on the Floss, mesmerised by autocratic Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre, irritated by Emma, loathed Becky Sharp,  hated Jack London’s Sea Wolf, loved Prince Andrei and Natasha, mystified by Virginia Wolff’s allusive writing and learned by heart ‘Annabel Lee’, in her kingdom by the sea.

I spent a lot of time painting. My father would bring me long strips of cardboard from the packings of the shells they fired every day on the ranges. These strips were about eighteen inches wide and three feet long, and on them I depicted in the vivid poster paints always given to me for Christmas – nursey rhyme characters like Wee Willie Winkie, Little Boy Blue, Miss Moffat and all the others. These pictures adorned not just my brother’s bedroom, but the toddler’s bedrooms of many of my stepmother’s friends.

Years later one mother told me she still had these pictures. I was known as ‘good with children’, so often these same friends would borrow me to amuse their toddlers in those days before play groups and kindergartens. One mother even borrowed me for a fortnight to look after her toddler while she was recovering from the birth of her second child.

While we lived here by the sea, with the help of the army padre I was confirmed in Salisbury Cathedral, and shortly after, the King suddenly died on 6th February 1952. We still, in those days, stood when he had given his speech after Christmas dinner and the National Anthem was played. The radio – no TV for us then – only played chamber music, as it was called – for a week, the newspapers were framed in black, and we all felt we were part of a huge national event.

The new Queen was young and beautiful… and now after the passage of time, and the longest reign in English history, it will seem perhaps even more apocalyptic when her spoiled elderly heir inherits that ‘royal throne of kings’.

The following year sweets came ‘off ration’ in the week before we sailed for Malaya. For the first time in my life sweet shops were full of sweets/candy instead of running out of stocks in the first few hours, and it was possible to buy as much chocolate we wanted, without waiting in a long queue and having to count out a measure of measly sweet coupons!

To be continued

Food for threadbare gourmets

 I’ve always loved date cake since that year by the sea… and this recipe brings back those days. Soak 250 gms of dates in a cup and a half of boiling water and a teasp of bicarbonate of soda for about 30 minutes until the dates are soft. Beat 125 gms of softened butter, three quarters or more of a cup of brown sugar, and a teasp of vanilla. When pale and creamy add two eggs one at a time, and then stir in the date mixture and two cups of SR flour.

Pour into a greased tin, the bottom lined with greaseproof paper (I use a loaf tin) and a bake in an oven at 180 degrees C for about forty minutes, or until a blade comes out clean. I often sprinkle the top with extra white sugar, just because if I’m going to indulge in sugar, it might as well be really sweet!

Food for thought

 Don’t take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

The Second Agreement from The Four Agreements by Miguel Ruiz

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under books, cookery/recipes, family, history, life/style, literature, Thoughts on writing and life, uncategorised, Uncategorized, world war two

The passing of an era

Image result for victorian interiors

A life – part three

My grandmother was my favourite person. Whereas I had always felt responsible for my baby brother and younger sister, when she came to look after us when my mother left, I felt I could hand over the burden.

When she moved in to pick up the reins, she brought all her Victorian past with her. Up went the heavy, red velvet curtains in the bay window in the front room where my sister and I had watched the big girls playing on their roller skates across the road, peering through the brown sticky paper, taped across the windows in diamond shapes, to stop the glass shattering in a bombing raid.

I loved the texture and the colour and richness of the velvet. I loved the shiny brass rods with the rings that clanked when the curtains were pulled, and the big brass knobs at each end. I loved the aspidistra in its brass pot standing on its tall, spindly, three -legged table. On the other hand, I hated the Staffordshire figures which were her great pride. I thought them ugly and clumsy – and still do, for that matter, though I did like her Meissen angels.

Upstairs in the bedrooms, our little utility divans were replaced with deep feather mattresses into which we sank in blissful security. The dark mahogany and rosewood wardrobes and dressing tables filled my senses with deep satisfaction. The sheen, the grain, and their generous size were comforting and solid in a world which in my experience had been bleak and insecure, able to be blown away by a bomb in the red sky of night.

I remember the pleasure of sitting at the oak dining table as I dreamily chewed my bread and jam, and gazing at her knick-knacks on the oak sideboard the other side of the room – deep, blue Wedgwood biscuit barrel for chocolate biscuits, silver- bound oak biscuit barrel for plain Vienna biscuits, and the silver stag standing at bay on a writing tray which held all her letters and bills. Brass candle sticks stood each side of the biscuit barrels. The tall, wooden, barley-sugar twisted ones on the kitchen mantelpiece over the coal range now stand on my dining table.

She boiled the kettle for afternoon tea in winter on a little cast-iron stand which hooked onto the side of the grate in the dining room fire. And there was the bliss of making toast over that fire with a long brass toasting fork. It tended to taste of flames and soot, but was warm and crisp and a great treat. The thick red and blue patterned turkey rug in front of that fire was my favourite place. Kneeling with my elbows on the rug I would bury myself in a book while I was supposed to be watching the butter soften by the fireside.

Deep in my book and oblivious to butter, duty or anything else, I would be discovered crouched by the saucer of swimming, melted, precious, rationed butter. But if I was reading I was excused. No-one ever got into trouble for reading in her house. Until the day she died she was encouraging her great-grandchildren to read, as she had always encouraged me.

Not that I needed it. I longed passionately to be able to read grownup books. My mother had already taught me to read when I finally started school at five and a half, having stayed home to keep my sister company until she was old enough to start school with me. I was forever bored as the class limped along the wall friezes which said things like ‘A for apple, ‘B’ for bat’. The teacher didn’t know I could read, and it never occurred to me to tell her. I was so shy I rarely spoke at all. I read every textbook as soon as they gave it to us, a habit I took into secondary school, so I already knew all the answers in class.

Books for children were scarce, presumably because few were printed during the war. So, when my grandmother arrived with her box loads of books, it seemed like treasure. The children’s books were my father’s First World War and Edwardian boys’ books, the plots mostly centred on some pious crisis of conscience, but which I read nonetheless. I was particularly fond of my grandmother’s bound volumes of Victorian ladies’ journals, rows of red leather binding and gold tooling, with pictures as well as stories inside.

They tended to be about Evangelical but highborn young men who possessed crisp, fair curls, and wore boaters and striped blazers, and often went punting, and they also featured swooning young women, often orphaned, but in truth, of noble blood!! I learned a lot about mourning from these tomes, and the fact that ladies wore lots of black crepe – whatever that was – and black jet jewellery for such occasions. Not that I had the faintest idea what mourning was, except that it made people cry.

My grandmother also pressed on me her books from her  Victorian childhood. ‘Froggie’s Little Brother’ was the most memorably painful, about a family living and dying in various stages of starvation and violence in the East End of London (my brother and I laughed years later that we were probably the last two people in the world to read this grim novel). There were The Wide Wide World’, ‘The Lamplighter’ and ‘Behind the Scenes’, all tales about orphans. I wept buckets over them. When I had surfaced from these agonies, there was’ A Crown of Thorns’, a suitable tale for a seven -year -old about Dutch Protestants being buried alive by the Spanish Inquisition during the time of Elizabeth 1.

I baulked at ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. My grandmother’s big volume with the original illustrations, with Christian stuck in the Slough of Despond, and the depravities of Vanity Fair and all the rest, depressed me more than any of her other books which included ‘Foxe’s Book of Martyrs’…

Editions of Mallory and tales of Arthur, Merlin and Morgan Ie Fay in Arts and Crafts bindings, and Pre-Raphaelite illustrations with art nouveau drawings educated my eye as well as my mind. I laboriously read Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’ in one of the original editions – which my grandmother collected – another large leather-bound tome with engravings protected by tissue paper, like ‘Pilgrim’s Progress ‘and Foxe’s ‘Martyrs.’ I still remember the terrible shock when Crusoe and I found Man Friday’s footsteps on the beach!

And I read Swift’s account of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, and later found the children’s watered-down version pallid and boring. My favourite book then is still one of my favourites, ‘John Halifax, Gentleman’. When I re- read it as an adult, I recognised many of the ethical imperatives in the novel as having influenced my thinking ever since, while ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ introduced me to the concept of slavery and abolition.

Later when I unguardedly revealed to my recently returned father and his new wife  that I enjoyed ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy,’ and they laughed themselves silly over its Victorian sentiment, I feared the rest of my reading was also material for mockery, and buried its existence in the back of my mind. And since my new parents did not want to be bored with tales of our past, I never discussed these books, and much else, so was never able to put them in context.

Even the green and gold Tate and Lyle golden syrup tin which sat on the table at breakfast to use instead of rationed sugar, was worth reading and squinting at as I spooned the treacle over my porridge…’ out of the strength cometh forth sweetness’ it proclaimed. My grandmother was very pleased with me for taking her injunctions about reading so literally, and boasted to her friends about it. So whenever I was due for a present they dug into their shelves for a book suitable for a seven- year- old bookworm, with the result that I had more copies of Aesop’s fables than any other child in history, I would imagine.

She introduced me to gardening. She gave us a small plot of our own, and we went to the news-agent where they sold seeds as well as sweets, newspapers and bread, and chose the seeds we wanted to grow. I loved the name Love-in-a-mist, and since they were also blue, my favourite colour, I took several packets. Every day for the next three weeks I rushed outside in the morning to peer at my little plot of earth until the glorious dawn when I detected a faint green haze – the first sign of the green mist through which the blue flowers were going to emerge.

Like many gardeners, my grandmother couldn’t resist breaking off twigs and cuttings wherever she was, if the opportunity presented itself with dignity. But once her scruples were nearly undone by a hidden fern we passed regularly when we all walked down to the beach with my brother in his push chair. Every time my grandmother passed this wire fence with the little fern nestling there, unloved, and unseen by the people whose garden it was, she fantasised about bringing a trowel one day, and leaning over to dig it up. Finally, she couldn’t trust herself any more, and to my great relief removed herself from temptation, by going the long way round.

She was deeply religious and never missed a Sunday at the Salvation Army, which she had joined in its early days when she was a girl at the turn of the century. She told me tales of marching through the squalor of the East End being pelted with tomatoes, and trying to give the ‘War Cry ‘ to drunks outside pubs. Because the rest of the family disapproved of her ties to the Salvation Army, she sent us to a church Sunday School near us, and made sure we were as regular as she was. Consequently, I became immersed in religion. She and I were never ones to skim over a thing lightly, so I read more Bibles and Bible stories than most children of my generation.

She was obviously a highly intelligent woman who had been frustrated for most of her life – clever, feisty, quick-tempered and even in her eighties – a rebel. She could add a column of figures faster than anyone else, and her memory was phenomenal. I inherited the memory, somewhat watered down, but not the ability with figures. While her elder sister Lizzie, who was famous for being bossy, trained as a nurse, became matron of a hospital in Leeds, and shockingly for those times, lived happily with a married man, Mabel, my grandmother, married young, and unhappily. With her religious beliefs, it was a great shame to her that she was divorced.

Her memories of her late Victorian childhood fascinated me and stretched my imagination. Most important of all her stories was not her grandfather captaining the first paddle steamer up the Thames and receiving the Freedom of London when he stepped ashore, but her description of the night Woolwich Arsenal blew up.

She and her sister Jessica were in their bedroom and the windows blew out, the dressing table mirror was shattered, and the sky was red and filled with flames.’We threw ourselves down on the floor and prayed’, she said ‘We thought the end of the world had come’.

Not having the faintest idea what Woolwich Arsenal was, I was instead riveted by the phrase ‘the end of the world’. The possibility had never occurred to me, and it teased my mind with the same horror as the Victorian bogeyman she threatened to call on, who apparently had a similar facility for descending chimneys as Father Christmas.

She taught me to knit and sew and do French knitting, and embroider dozens of stitches I’d forgotten till leafing through an old Mrs Beaton cook book recently – daisy stitch, herringbone stitch, blanket stitch, chain stitch, back stitch, buttonhole stitch, cross stitch. She told me the names of flowers and saints and cousins I’d never seen, the stories of dead great uncles, of people who lived in our street – like the woman detective who went to meet the SS Montrose when it docked – to arrest the famous murderer, Dr Crippen and his mistress Ethel le Neve, who was disguised as a boy. She gave me a wealth of information and taught me prayers and proverbs and family history. Her love for me and mine for her was one of the rocks at the base of my life.

I never really knew my grandfather, her husband, and met him only a few times. He had loved another woman for seven years before my grandmother finally gave in, and they settled for divorce. The other woman’s husband was so incensed that he threw acid in her face, disfiguring her for life. My one memory of her as a four- year- old was a gentle woman with a pink blob for a face, which I had to kiss. My grandfather loved her till the day she died, some years before he did.

And since he had willed their house to her, thinking she would outlast him by years, she unwittingly made him homeless when a distant nephew inherited the house from her and turned the old man out.

To be continued.

Food for threadbare gourmets

It’s too hot to cook a meal at midday, so we’re having salady wraps instead. He has wholemeal and I have spinach, and I spread them with either mayonnaise or Caesar salad dressing. Torn crunchy iceberg lettuce leaves are spread over this, and then chopped ham, grated cheese and green peppers for him are arranged, and the whole thing rolled up and held in place with tooth-picks. I have hard- boiled egg moistened with a little vinaigrette dressing, and then chopped tomato, and grated carrot along with the lettuce and tooth-picks… filling and refreshing on a hot day. We’ll have chicken tomorrow, pastrami for him and an assortment of vegetables including cucumber, avocadoes and thinly sliced red onion…

Food for thought

When we re-examine what we really want, we realize that everything that happens in our lives – every misfortune, every slight, every loss, and also every joy, every surprise, every happy accident – is a teacher, and life is a giant classroom.   Arianna Huffington

 

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Words, words words…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend,

My dearest friend is dead and laid in grave.

In grave he rests until the world shall end.

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

All things must have an end that Nature wrought…

Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for threadbare gourmets

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

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

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

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

Food for thought

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

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The gifts that keep on giving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for threadbare gourmets

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

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

Food for thought

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

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

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Blogging – antidote to writers’ heartbreak

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“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

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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.

 

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