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The truth about Dunkirk

Image result for dunkirk images

 

Dunkirk is a word that probably means something to some Britons these days, and very little to the rest of the world. But to people of my generation the word conjures up a tragic and magic moment in British history that means courage and fortitude and dignity which transformed defeat into something shining and inspirational.

These thoughts, of course, were triggered by watching the film of that name. I’d read the rave reviews by historians I’d thought were knowledgeable, and laughed with the rest of the world with the American critic who enjoyed the film, apart from commenting that there no women or people of colour portrayed in this epic retreat from the French port of Dunkerque.

Well, there were plenty of women in the Forces at that moment but not overseas on active service. All women between eighteen and forty were called up for service, unless they had children. They had freed men up for fighting by doing all the jobs men used to do – working as drivers, cooks, clerks, interpreters, cipher clerks, aircraft plotters, signals operators, radar operators, working at ammunition depots, firing Ack-Ack guns – anti-aircraft guns – Mary, Churchill’s daughter manned such a post in Hyde Park, shooting at Goering’s planes. Women worked in munitions factories,  factories, on the land, and were nurses, Red Cross workers, and did many other vital jobs.

And yes, there were no blacks in the army either… once the Lord Chief Justice Lord Mansfield made his historic ruling in 1772 that any slaves arriving in the country automatically became free men, few negroes came to England for the next century or more. The fourteen thousand or so black slaves already there, now intermarried with the English, so that the ethnicity of their descendants was not obvious in the society in which they were born.

With no slave trade allowed in England, and the Royal Navy maintaining a permanent squadron patrolling the seas for sixty years to try to stamp out the infamous traffic in people – at a cost of 22,000 sailors’ lives as they fought with traders, and millions of taxpayer’s pounds – people of African descent had disappeared by 1940. The Africans rescued by the navy, chained to each other in the bowels of slave ships in horrendous conditions, were taken to Sierra Leone where an African king had sold a strip of land to the British for the purpose of re-settling them. Plenty of ‘diversity’ in the UK now, but that didn’t start until the emigration of West Indians to England in the early nineteen fifties.

So, no women or  people of colour– no ‘diversity’- as the young American critic had called it. But I had other misgivings as I watched this much- praised epic.

The ‘ornery’ Brits sailing their tiny boats across the Channel to save their fellow men were the stars in this film! The chap and his son in their fair isle pullovers and polo ribbed sweater moved me to tears… the sheer ordinariness, and utter decency and lack of pretentiousness of them, their deep in- the- bone goodness, and their amazing kindness,  forbearance and understanding of the rescued shell – shocked nut- case –  in spite of his shocking actions – were so typical of their time and class….

But some things bugged me. Anyone who’s served in the army knows that every ten men in a regiment are a section and they have a corporal to look after them. Three sections make a platoon, who have a sergeant and a second lieutenant to look after them. Three platoons means nine corporals, three sergeants and three lieutenants. Three platoons make up a company with a captain and a company sergeant major to look after them, plus all the adjutants, 2/i/c’s (second in command) plus colonel of the regiment, etc.

There was no trace of all these chaps who actually were the ones who kept the lines in order, going forward over the sandy dunes to the rescue ships, and who, importantly, kept up their men’s morale. Not to mention the staff of all the generals in an army of 300,000 (those numbers were not obvious on the beach in the film either – it was packed to the gills in real life)

Alan Brooke was there, Montgomery was there, Lord Gort, C-in-C was there, and a host of others. Most poignant of all, and what would have made a wonderful moment of film, was General Harold Alexander, who was commanding the last troops on the beach. When everyone had gone, he travelled along the shoreline in a small motor boat at two am in the morning, with a loud hailer, calling out to check if there was anyone left. Few historians ever mention this revealing moment of character.

These people, I felt didn’t get their rightful due, and the order and dignity and courage of the retreat would probably not have happened if they hadn’t done their duty…

The navy didn’t get its due either -there were over four hundred  Navy ships shuttling to and fro, and on the worst day, seven out of ten navy ships taking on troops  were sunk at the Mole… my partner noticed there seemed to be only three ships used over and over again in the film…  being a navy man himself ! Funny they didn’t do some skilled computer generated imagery to make it look more realistic ….

Nit picking, perhaps, but I felt the film was somewhat one dimensional because of these omissions… Kenneth Branagh made a wonderful  character, which I felt owed much to Kenneth More in  ‘The Longest Day ‘, who played the Beachmaster on one of the British beaches on D-Day… with his bull dog!!!.

There are so many stories about this time in history that now are lost, and have never been recorded by historians. Reading Francis Partridge’s autobiographical ‘A Pacifist’s War’, I discovered one of the most intriguing and  little- known stories about the real Dunkirk. Her brother- in- law was the officer in charge of everyone landing at Dover and siphoning wounded and dead and living to their destinations. He told her he realised that so many troops had brought rescued dogs with them, that he organised a dogs’ cage on the beach where each dog was given labels and addresses before going to quarantine and then being sent to their owners!!  Such a typical story of British soldiers… reminding me of all the pi- dogs, as they were called, that my father’s tank regiment rescued and adopted in the desert in North Africa.

And then there was the story my brother’s general used to tell at Guest Nights in the officers’ mess. The general had been a young second lieutenant at Dunkirk, and when he’d got his men stowed away safely on a passenger ferry, he staggered up to the bar, absolutely exhausted, and put his elbows on the counter, his head between his hands, and asked the barman who was busily polishing glasses with bombs going off, ships sinking all around them, if there was any chance of a drink. To which the barman replied righteously: “Good gracious, no sir – we’re still within the three -mile limit “!!

Another little- known book told me of a father who woke in the night dreaming of his son. A very rich man, he donned his clothes, and drove off in his Rolls- Royce to the bewilderment of his wife. Abandoning the expensive car at a port, he wangled his way determinedly on a rescue ship returning to pick up more men at Dunkirk. Once at Dunkirk he strode off over the beaches, up into the town and onto the outskirts. On the side of a road, he found a mangled motor bike and his dead son – a dispatch rider – beside it, as he had seen in his dream. Somehow, in a daze he made his way back to England, a changed man.

These are the stories that fascinate me, stories of truth and courage and heartbreak and fortitude. They are stories which have now almost disappeared as those men have now disappeared too. Some will have been handed on by word of mouth to children as bored probably, as I was, in my ignorant, arrogant salad days when my father tried to tell me something of his long war. They are not stories telling of brave deeds in battle, but accounts of how people survived and coped and rose above terrible circumstances in terrible times. That famous, much derided stiff upper lip often saved them.

And the lesson of Dunkirk was that even when all seems lost, imagination, courage and determination can still save the day, even if it meant having to decide then, in Churchill’s words, to: ‘fight on the seas and oceans ….
we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender’.

Those simple powerful words were a turning point in the history of the free world and western civilisation… this is a small thank you to those men who made that history.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

A grass widower for supper, so I needed not a grand show-off turn,  but something tasty and welcoming and above all simple. I prefer not cooking at night these days. I found an old recipe I’d forgotten about and have no idea where I found it.

Rice and chicken, but all cooked together. I fried an onion and garlic until soft, and spread them in the bottom of a shallow casserole with plenty of butter. Add a cup of long grain rice, and two cups of hot chicken stock, salt and pepper. Cover and bake in a moderate oven for twenty minutes.  Score skinless chicken thighs with a mix of chopped garlic, ginger and grated lemon, and add the chicken to the rice, fluffing it up. At this point I add some more knobs of butter to the rice. Bake for another twenty to twenty- five minutes, adding hot water if the rice needs it.

Served with salad, this is an easy satisfying dish. Pudding was the ersatz rum babas from a previous recipe. It went down a treat..  rum puddings never seem to fail!

Food for thought

Elegance is usually confused with superficiality, fashion, lack of depth. This is a serious mistake: human beings need to have elegance in their actions and in their posture because this word is synonymous with good taste, amiability, equilibrium and harmony. Paul Coelho
 

 

 

 

 

 

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The love of three women who changed the world

Taking a small blue hard back book down from my parent’s shelves I began reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s book: “Travels with a Donkey”. I persevered, but the relentless beating and prodding of what he described as the ‘delicate little donkey’ upset me too much to find out how their journey progressed.

I tried it again as an adult, but the same heartless beatings had the same effect on me. Quite different to the way I felt about Black Beauty – that eminently sensible Anglican horse – as H.G. Wells referred to him. Black Beauty is one of the best sellers of all time I’m glad to say, and must have affected the attitudes of people to horses and animals in general for all time too.

Since I read it at ten years old, I’ve always been grateful for the motor car, tractors and other machines, no matter how much they clog up streets, create pollution, or are responsible for dreadful accidents. At least no horses suffer now the way they did, as Quaker Anna Sewell so graphically describes in the one book she wrote, and which was published just before she died, always having suffered from ill health.

It was written in Black Beauty’s voice, itself a sensation at the time, and his story showed how horses were not just the victims of the vagaries or cruelties of their owners, but that if they became scarred they were no longer valued, and then began the downward slide to become worn- out under-fed beaten cab horses, flogged and half-starved until they dropped dead from exhaustion.

Anna, who lived from 1820 to 1871, didn’t live through a major war, so she didn’t mention the use of horses in war. But anyone who has seen the 1970 film of Waterloo, which was filmed in Russia, will have seen the horror of a war horse’s life, as they charged and were shot dead in battle, or left to die untended from their wounds. (No-one is quite sure whether the horses were as endangered as they looked in this violent film, only that fifty circus stunt riders performed with the horses in bloody battle scenes on churned- up muddy slopes. But we do know that a hundred horses died in the making of Ben-Hur)

It wasn’t much better for horses in World War One and even in World War Two, when the Germans were still using horses and mules to pull guns and supply vehicles, and the British took their beautiful hunters and cavalry horses out to the Middle East, and then had to leave them there when their regiments became mechanized -ie supplied with tanks and armoured cars.

In her delicious diary: ‘To War With Whittaker’, Lady Hermione Ranfurly writes a heart-breaking description of going to say goodbye to her husband’s two precious hunters and then going to each other horse in the regimental stables to farewell them.

A decade before Hermione’s description of the Sherwood Foresters’ horses, Dorothy Brooke, another Englishwoman   who loved horses, and whose husband commanded the cavalry in Cairo, discovered the old war horses sold off to local Arab tradesmen and workers after the previous war. She decided to seek out and rescue the starving, broken- down old horses, who had formerly known kindness and consideration instead of blows, but had spent the years since being worked to death by owners who often didn’t know how to care for them or didn’t have the means or the will to feed them well.

In 1934 Dorothy Brooke formed the Old War Horses Memorial Association, and with the help of many people, including senior officers and other wives and locals – and even George V after she wrote to the Telegraph – she tracked down and raised the money to buy back five thousand emaciated old horses from their owners, who she never blamed or judged. They were all that remained of the 22,000 sold off after the Allenby campaigns and other cavalry operations in the First World War. They’d already had a hard war, carrying as much as 22 stone in weight, suffering rationing, piercing cold, extreme heat, dust clouds and exhaustion as well as some wounds.

Now she wrote : “As their ill-shod misshapen hooves felt the deep tibbin [broken barley straw] bed beneath them, there would be another doubting disbelieving halt. Then gradually they would lower their heads and sniff as though they could not believe their own eyes or noses. Memories, long forgotten, would then return when some stepped eagerly forwards towards the mangers piled high, while others, with creaking joints, lowered themselves slowly on to the bed and lay, necks and legs outstretched. There they remained, flat out, until hand fed by the syces ( grooms).”

Dorothy Brooke never gave up, and her small animal hospital continued to grow. She died at her Heliopolis home in 1955, but her work continued and was eventually re-named the Brooke in 1961. It now operates out of London, all over Africa and employs nine hundred people who do their best to rescue and treat horses and donkeys and re-educate their owners.

When it comes to donkeys, they too owe a debt of gratitude to another woman, Doctor Elisabeth Svendson, who died in 2011. Since setting up her Donkey Sanctuary in Devon, starting with one rescued donkey, it’s now visited by over 300,000 people a year, and her donkey rescue missions have also spread all over the world, from Belgium to Egypt, Ethiopia to India, and of course in the British Isles.

The Donkey Sanctuary has given over 15,500 donkeys and mules in need, lifelong care in the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe. Donkeys are rescued and cared for and sometimes re-homed or given to guardians, for donkeys live till fifty, which is a long time to guarantee a pet’s welfare or well-being.

Donkeys have always been overworked and under-valued, unlike their noble cousins the horse, who does get loved and admired. I remember the creaking of a treadmill above a well just below the bedroom window of the hotel where I was staying in Majorca, many years ago. In the blazing afternoon sun while we all took siestas, a little black donkey trudged around the treadmill with no respite. I lay there listening in agony, unable to slip into a happy afternoon nap while he laboured alone and unrelentingly.

The gentle donkey with his big ears and delicate legs, staggering along under huge loads has been the object of derision for centuries, but as Chesterton wrote:

The tattered outlaw of the earth, Of ancient crooked will;

Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,

I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;  One far fierce hour and sweet:

There was a shout about my ears,

And palms before my feet.

. ‘Mighty oaks from little acorns grow,’ and these three women, Anna, Dorothy and Elisabeth, could never have known how their small actions for the creatures they loved would have such great and noble outcomes. In her Christmas speech, Queen Elizabeth quoted Mother Teresa’s words about doing small things with great love. No-one knows how their small actions will change their own world, or the larger world around them, but these women who had so much love, are an inspiration for us all.

Food for Threadbare gourmets

One more day before the turkey would have been past its use-by date, so instead of freezing it, we ate it – a sort of turkey hash, eaten with noodles – I think they’re called Remen noodles in the U.S.

It was very quick and easy. While I fried an onion in olive oil, I chopped some bacon, mushrooms, and the remains of the turkey – in this case just over a cup full. I put one packet of noodles in a basin with boiling water, and put a plate over the basin to keep the steam in.

Cook the bacon, mushrooms with the onion and finally add the turkey when the onion is soft. When the mixture is hot pour over it two beaten eggs. Drain the noodles, and after stirring the eggs through the mix for about a minute, stir in the noodles and add soya sauce and sesame oil to taste. Serve straight away… this makes enough for two, but you could stretch it out to four with another packet of noodles and a bit more turkey…but now: P.S. I forgot to include nutmeg to taste in the recipe for turkey in the last blog. I’ve amended it now in case anyone decides they want to try it…

Food for thought

Looking after oneself, one looks after others.
Looking after others, one looks after oneself.
How does one look after others by looking after oneself?
By practicing mindfulness, developing it, and making it grow.
How does one look after oneself by looking after others?
By patience, non-harming, lovingkindness, and caring.

(Samyutta Nikaya 47.19) a Buddhist scripture

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Helicopters, hallucinations and hospital

.It only took two seconds. But since the consequences of those two seconds have dominated my life for the last six months, and promise to do so for some months yet, I feel faintly justified in sharing them.

Stepping blithely onto the back of the sofa to put a book back on the highest shelf, I lost my balance and fell backwards. Lying on the floor in a strange position, I knew without even looking that I had broken my leg and announced this to my love as he came to help me. Luckily the sofa is seven feet long, so he was able to get me onto it so I could lie there in unbelievable agony.

Even in that short time when I looked at my knee it was about ten inches across. I foolishly thought this was just swelling.

Abandoning the idea of driving to our nearest hospital an hour and a half away along a winding, precipitous road above the sea, we rang 111 instead. In half an hour the blessed ambulance arrived, with two angels who pumped me full of morphine, got me onto a special stretcher which didn’t entail lifting me, and decided I had to go by helicopter to the big area hospital.

After the interminable drive down the long winding gravel road during which time they stopped regularly to allow me to be sick, we reached the air strip and the waiting helicopter.

The last words I heard before I even had time to say goodbye to Himself, were: “I’m giving you ketamine for the pain. Some people get hallucinations.” I did.

Suddenly I was hurtling through outer space – tumbling into a vortex between intricate patterns of gold and black, and being sucked into the centre into the black hole. It seemed to go on endlessly. Eventually I said if I’m dying, I’m ready to die, but this didn’t stop the tumbling through space, the diving into the black hole again and again, and the patterns closing in around me. Then suddenly, I was back in the real world, unable to move a limb, totally paralysed, with the blazing sun beating down on my face through the glass about a foot away.

Unable to move or attract attention, I somehow survived this ordeal by sunburn, and arriving on terra firma was immediately surrounded by helpful, efficient people and wheeled away into a white tunnel which is what seems to pass for an X-ray these days apparently.

Then up to the operating theatre, and more blissful unconsciousness while they put on a plaster from thigh to toes, which had to last until the specialist could operate five days later. They told me the top bone was jammed down on the bottom bone, shattering it – a very nasty injury they assured me… not sure what happened to the knee in between, and I never got to ask…

Wheeled into a ward, addled with drugs and shock, I got used to the other drug-crazed, injured people around me! There were six of us and they included a secret smoker in one corner, and a young Maori woman who wore dark glasses all the time so she didn’t have to speak to any of us. The one time she was roused into vehement speech was on my behalf on the third day.

I had drawn what I called the Short Straw, a nurse who was looking after me that day who was so stout, it was a real effort I felt, to keep on her feet all those hours, and deaf too, so I wasn’t sure whether she was a bit dim or whether she just hadn’t heard me. Her ministrations were slow and reluctant, and when I told her I felt sick and she ignored me, I wasn’t sure whether she didn’t think it was worth taking any notice of me, or whether she just hadn’t heard. Seconds later, I called urgently for a receptacle and then filled three large ones with blood. “I wonder what caused that?” she kept saying in a helpless, puzzled way.

Apparently enraged, the Maori girl sat up in bed, took off her dark glasses, and using the odd four letter word, said words to the effect: “what do you expect when you fill her full of F… tramadol. Of course it’s tramadol doing it, you dimwit.” I trust the Short Straw only heard some of this.

The doctors decided it was the infamous drug tramadol too, combined with the rest of my cocktail, so I was downgraded to morphine and daily injections, instead of taking anti-coagulants. The result of this was that I had damaged my stomach, but didn’t know what to eat, so ate nothing but yogurt or mashed potato for some time, since otherwise I felt so ill that the pain of my leg paled into insignificance.

The operation duly took place and I wore a heavy black lycra and metal brace from thigh to foot for the next two months, unable to set foot to the ground. The operation also left me with a numb foot and shin, which I still have, accompanied by nerve pain which means I still enjoy/consume a full cocktail of painkilling drugs, and which makes it hard to walk.

The months were passed in a little cottage hospital where thirty-five of us were all coping with long-term injuries. In our little ward with four of us, we sympathised with each other, listened to each other’s life stories, gossiped about our favourite nurses, and moaned about the rigours of trips by ambulance back to base hospital to see the specialists at regular intervals.

I was humbled by the dedication and commitment of the staff, none of whom ever dawdled but who were on the run all day,   scurrying down long corridors of an old style building, walking between ten and twelve miles a day.

I set myself to be a low maintenance patient, but many of the patients needed help even in getting out of bed, (depending on the injury this was an art in itself), into a shower, dressing or eating, and no nurse ever be-grudged the time they spent with anyone. Two patients died unexpectedly while I was there, and red-eyed nurses showed me how much they cared.

The doctor who visited several times a week knew everyone’s names, joshed us all, and usually ended his visits in the big sitting room, where he sat at the piano and played old favourites for anyone who wanted to listen. One of my favourite nurses was a delicious and beautiful Indian who brought her children and nephews to do Indian dancing for us… exquisite…others brought their dogs, and one jumped straight up on my bed, and cuddled into me – bliss…

Most people were old, and alone at home so they couldn’t manage, and were sheltered safely here until they were ready to cope. I was a rarity with my leg stuck out in front of me in a wheel chair. But what I learned as I observed the others was that I was one of the only lucky ones there.

Though I was older than many, I was almost the only man or woman there with my own teeth, who didn’t have a hearing aid, who didn’t have dementia in some form, and who was strong and active, healthy and able to do yoga and all the other things that kept me young(ish) and flexible. In other words, I had been lucky enough to afford to go to the dentist, to be educated about a healthy diet and life-style, could afford them both, and had enjoyed a life fairly unencumbered and unstressed by money worries.

These frail people brought home to me as never before how life expectancy and/or the enjoyment of good health depends on income, which dictates education, health care, mental health, housing, and everything else we need for a good life.

I listened to the life stories of my companions in pain, and heard how one woman brought up her six children when her husband died when her youngest was five, working at sewing factory uniforms at home from dawn to dusk to make a living and look after the children, and helping in the local shop when she had any spare hours; the lady in the bed across from me who had had two children and adopted two more, shared the trials of coping with deeply disturbed children and then their adult problems; the beautiful, feisty woman in the next bed was going home to look after an alcoholic and bloody-minded, middle-aged son she’d brought up alone, and the severely mentally handicapped sister she also cared for.

And then there were the incidental friendships. A visiting son who had raised thousands of dollars to rescue, doctor and re-home over six thousand feral cats. When he ran out of money and still had thirty-six cats to re-home, he sold his house and he and his wife moved into the country into a smaller house with land where rescued dogs, ducks, ponies, goats, pigeons and every other needy creature came to live with him and be loved. All the cats came and were named and loved until they died. This lovely man worked at night driving a bull-dozer to make enough money, and he also did a lovely tango across the ward to amuse his mother! It was my enthusiastic applause which connected us !

A young woman came with her dog to visit an old neighbour, and she told me she and her sister and her mother, rescue and re-home more dogs than the local animal charity, who often turn to them for help. They used up every penny they earned caring for desperate creatures.

Listening to these stories, and the life-stories of my fellow patients, I felt humble and so grateful for the life I had been able to lead. Even having the time to write and to blog, and to own a computer is something only the fortunate can do.

Breaking my leg, and now hobbling around with my stick, waiting for everything to heal has been a blessing. It has opened my eyes to how so many good, kind women live their whole lives coping with inescapable burdens. That son reminded me of how much hidden goodness there is in the community, and I was shown how much beauty,  compassion and dedication so many women pour into their lives and their careers in the hospitals where they work. I was reminded that women are wonderful.

And I left this wonderful place with a full complement of much needed pain-killers, a walking frame, crutches,  stool for the bathroom and a high stool to sit on in the kitchen. I was offered care at home, plus someone to clean, and free physio for as long as I needed it. I will never grumble about paying taxes again! I give thanks for being fortunate enough to live in a western society where care and compassion for those who need it, is a way of life.

Food for threadbare gourmets

This is the first year of my adult life that I haven’t made my own Christmas mince pies – for obvious reasons (see above !!!). But I found some decent bought ones, prized off their lids and spooned oodles more good mince- meat into them, replacing the lids, and heating them up as required. Before serving I sprinkle them with caster sugar … this IS Christmas isn’t it??

I also like to serve them with a dollop of brandy butter – why keep anything so delicious just for Christmas pudding? I make it by ear as it were, using two ounces of softened butter – preferably unsalted, but not necessarily… and adding icing sugar and brandy… I go on beating with a fork, or a beater, and adding butter and icing sugar and brandy until it tastes the way I want it, and is the right soft consistency. I also add a few drops of vanilla. Once tasted, no mince pie is complete without it… though cream is also good…      A  Merry Christmas… to threadbare gourmets and to all those who are neither gourmets nor threadbare !

Food for thought

Lord, forgive us that we feast while others starve.           Grace before a banquet, said by John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester in the reign of Henry VIII.         Just as appropriate now as then…

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Dancing to the music of time

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I climbed up the rusty fire escape smothered in trails of blue flowering morning glory and stepped onto the veranda of a very big two- storied, shabby white house built on the side of a volcano. The morning glory swung from trees, twisted up the fire escape, and swathed both house and garden in carpets of greenery and purple trumpet shaped flowers. With pillars, porticoes, verandas and banisters all festooned in drooping creeper, it looked like a romantic, deserted Southern mansion.

Once on the veranda I peered through the windows, and beckoned to my slightly reluctant partner in crime to join me. It was obviously the home of students or alternative life stylers on this floor, the only unusual thing about their chaotic living arrangements being the live rabbits who were hopping about the grubby carpets. Downstairs a motor bike gang who seemed to have wrecked the place, had their bikes parked inside the entrance hall.

Reader – to quote Charlotte Bronte – we bought the house. It took time to track down the owner and persuade him to sell, but we did. The room where the rabbits had bred was forever known as the rabbit room during our years in the house. The occupants moved out, but that was all. It was up to us to break down partitions, rip up revolting carpets, clean, scrub, paint and restore – including dozens of missing banisters – used no doubt for firewood. The bikies had left behind more than indescribable squalor but awful energy as well. But for the first time since its original owner the house had become a family home again, not a collection of shabby flats.

The house had been built in 1875 by a French architect for himself, described on the title as Jean le Bailly Hervei, gentleman. The first thing we did was to rip out a partition and remove a door and two huge cupboards. This revealed Jean’s conception of a huge central hall, twelve feet high, thirty feet long and ten feet wide, stretching down the centre of the house, and looking out over the harbour and then to distant hills beyond. When I stood at the huge French doors and watched the flaming sunsets or the black clouds scudding in from the hills so that I knew what the weather would be like in half an hour, I felt close to Jean le Bailly Hervei.

He designed this splendid roomy house with every French window and door opening towards the sun and these magnificent views, and each room led off from the airy hall on both the top and the bottom floors. The floor of the top hall I painted a rich pumpkin colour which picked up the shades of pumpkin and rose and purple and cream in a long Kelim rug which fitted the space. The bottom hall which matched the top, I painted white, including the floor, and blue and white curtains and matching table cloth over a round table obliterated traces of the former tenants and their bikes. My son painted his bedroom floor lime green to go with his colour scheme.

The children and the little frolicking dogs brought life and fun into the house, and music rang through all the spacious rooms – the children played the piano and their flute and clarinet – me – the stereo –  mostly Bach’s Brandenburg concertos, Beatles, Joan Baez and Cat Stevens.

One day while clearing the garden of morning glory, I found a three foot high, concrete garden gnome hidden under the greenery. We dragged him inside, and since we had friends staying and my birthday feast that night, I invited the gnome to dinner too. He presided in a chair at the head of the table and we had lots of laughter at his expense.

When we moved on, children gone, the psychiatrist who bought the house from us, an hour after it went on the market, asked me six months later at a party, what we had done to remove the brutal vibrations of drugs, alcohol, violence and fear which we had inherited. I was fascinated that a conventional medicine man should acknowledge that old energy, and that he had thought about it.

We brought colour and energy into the house, I said, along with all the books and precious things we’d loved and collected, including tapestry and patchwork cushions and crocheted bedspreads I’d made. We had bowls of pot-pourri and flowers, and often used candle- light. But the two things that must have made the real difference, I told him, were that we all meditated, and there was always music being played. I think more than anything, it was the meditation and the music, I said.

These memories came back to me today when I was reading that world-renowned neuro-scientist Oliver Sacks says that music affects the brain more than any other discipline. It is, he says, the only discipline that actually changes the physical appearance of the brain. We are designed for music, for ‘its complex sonic pattern woven in time, its logic, its momentum, and its unbreakable sequences’

In Australia in a school where they have a Music Excellence programme the students spend many hours playing rehearsing and having music lessons. At prize-givings, eighty percent of the top students receiving awards for academic excellence were also music students.

They mostly spend more than ten hours a week involved in their music and have almost no behaviour problems or any upsetting emotional or social issues even though they come from both rich and poor homes, single parent homes and every the other variation on backgrounds which could spell problems for children.

Do we know whether the music acts as a stress release, or whether it builds such emotional equilibrium and peace of mind that its practitioners can weather all sorts of stresses without problems? Maybe it doesn’t matter. What does matter to us is that we recognise the value of music, and allow ourselves to receive and enjoy its healing and strengthening properties. Some research has shown that people who learn a musical instrument are less likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s.

Music is supposed to teach basic skills such as concentration, counting, listening, and cooperation, help with understanding of language, improve memory, and help learning in all other areas. But actually, it doesn’t matter what the benefits are, it’s the sheer joy of music that enriches our lives. Perhaps it should be compulsory in schools, and be ranked along with writing and arithmetic as one of the necessities of life.

And what I find amazing is that music healed a house. Once it had dissolved the top layers of fear and anger and violence, it seemed to penetrate to other layers of energy and atmosphere… reaching through levels of sadness and regret and loss, until finally the sweetness of the music uncovered all the layers of time, and we reached the gentleness and joy of Jean the Bailly Hervei .

It was a voyage of discovery travelling back into the past and becoming aware of the lives of so many who had lived there before us. Music gathered together threads of sweet feelings from the past, and stitched them into the tapestry of life that we were adding our colours to. And it was the invisible vibrations of music which conducted us gently through those layers of time and feeling so we were able to hand on to the next owners the intangible beauty of a well-loved house. .

Food for threadbare gourmets

For these hot, dry, sunny days of Indian summer, sitting on the veranda, cicadas clattering, I like to make a spinach and salmon quiche which is good hot or cold. After lining a quiche dish or similar with thin short crust pastry – though I have used filo too, I simply pour the filling in and bake in a moderate oven for 40 minutes or until gently firm. For the filling I use 150 gm of chopped smoked salmon, a packet of frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry, 300 to 400mls of thick cream, three large eggs, salt and pepper. Mix everything together, adding the spinach and salmon last, and either a little grated nutmeg or a little parmesan cheese if you fancy, and pour into the partly cooked pastry case. Good with salad of course…

Food for thought

I think the sages are the growing tip of the secret impulse of evolution… I think they embody the very drive of the Kosmos towards greater depths and expanding consciousness. I think they are riding the edge of a light beam, racing towards a rendezvous with God.

From ‘ A Brief History of Everything’, by Ken Wilber, Influential American writer and philosopher.

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Our best friends

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This magnificent creature was making the most of the water in the dog’s bowl at my gate. He could have been Captain Scott’s dog Osman, the wonderful husky who saved so many dog’s lives when the team fell into a deep icy crevasse. Gallant Osman hung on at the brink, taking the whole weight of the dogs and the sleds until they were rescued. This hero survived Scott’s disastrous Antarctic expedition, and ended his days here in New Zealand.

If I’m reading history, it isn’t the dates and the battles that stick in my mind but the children and the animals, and I hate to read in the news that a head of state has donated two Russian wolf-hounds, or a splendid race horse on a state visit. The poor creatures are torn away from their homes and given to uninterested strangers speaking a foreign language.

To this day, I sorrow for Mary, Queen of Scots’ little Skye terrier who came with her to the block, hidden in her long skirts. When the Queen’s head had been severed, the faithful creature rushed out and stood howling between the body and the head. Nothing would entice the little dog away from the remains of the person she was devoted to. Finally, when the Queen’s body was removed the little dog was repeatedly washed by her grieving ladies to remove the blood and the smell, but she refused to eat, and died shortly after of a broken heart.

Marie Antoinette’s pet- dog who shared her solitary confinement, was left behind when the white-haired, dignified Queen was hustled out to the guillotine, and was adopted by the prison governor – we don’t know for how long that little dog pined.

And Joy, the Russian Tsarevich’s spaniel, was found in the deserted house in Ekaterinberg, eight days after the massacre of the Russian Royal family, when an army of White Russians took the city and a group of officers rushed to the Ipatiev house where the family had been imprisoned. The little dog was starving and wandering around looking for his master. History does not put my mind at rest as to the fate of this little dog. (It also seems to suggest that being the beloved of royalty is a dangerous destiny.)

But just as bad was the fate of Joseph Banks’ dogs. Banks was the naturalist who sailed with Captain Cook on his first great voyage in 1768. Besides cluttering up the tiny ship with four servants, Banks also brought his two pet greyhounds with him.

After two years voyaging, still at sea, the Endeavour called at Savu Island, and after a drunken night dining with the local Rajah who wanted an English sheep and an English dog, Cook gave him the last sheep on board, and Banks gave him one of his greyhounds. What the sensitive greyhound went through pining and parted from his life-time companion, and the men who he knew and loved, to be abandoned on a tropical island among people who had no idea of what a dog or a sheep was, doesn’t bear thinking of – not by me at any rate.

And at Matavai Bay, Tahiti, ten years later, the captain of another English ship, the Mercury, reported that an English pointer left behind by a previous ship: “singled them out, showing its joy by every action the poor animal was capable of.” Which tells us that the dog was capable of distinguishing between races, and was homesick, and was probably hoping to go back to its old familiar home across the sea when it recognised the sailors. I wish I knew that the sailors had taken it back home, but I fear they didn’t.

Then there was Mackenzie, from New Zealand’s South Canterbury, a cattle rustler. His dog was brought into Lyttleton court as a witness. She slipped her chain and ran over to the dock, scratching and whining, trying to get in and join her master. The red- bearded rustler, who’d refused to speak a word until then, began to weep. He begged to keep the dog and take any punishment the court meted out.

“I ‘ll make your roads, I’ll break your stones… only let me keep her.” They didn’t let him keep her of course, being men of stone themselves, and the little black dog was sold to a farmer who she refused to work for, only knowing commands in Gaelic. We don’t know the end of either her or her master.

But what we do know is that too often it’s only their owners who care about their dogs. Once the person who loved them is no longer there, a dog’s life is an uncertain one. Which is why I love the wonderful people – and many of them are bloggers – who rescue and adopt the dogs who have been left behind. And in my experience there is no dog as devoted as one who has been rescued. I used to have three at a time, and wherever I walked, from kitchen to garden, from bedroom to study, fourteen feet moved

The gratitude of a rescued dog never ends. They know that all their happiness is the gift of love from a stranger who becomes their beloved.Last year, when his mistress died, Lochi, a rescued German shepherd, a beautiful silvery creature, went to mass every day at the church of San Donaci in Italy as soon as he heard the bells ringing. He sat where his owner last lay in her coffin. He died two months after her of a broken heart. (wonderfully, so as not to disturb him, the local priest served mass down in the church instead of at the altar.)

If only people had hearts as big and loving as dogs we wouldn’t have places like Syria and Palestine, Ukraine and Afghanistan and all the other broken hearts in the world. There is a mantra : let only love prevail…

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Still lotus-eating at the end of the long dry summer, I sat in a bower in my dearest friend’s green garden, enjoying a long talk and a simple lunch with her. Just a delicious glass of chilled rose, a slice of salmon on a bed of brown rice with goodies in it, and a salad of green leaves, translucent slices of ripe pear, and parmesan flakes mixed through with the vinaigrette, followed by coffee and a chocolate truffle… what more could one desire… love and lotus –eating !

The brown rice had been cooked and then marinated in soya sauce. Sun flowers seeds, sultanas soaked until plump, chopped apricots,  spring onions, and walnuts then mixed through. Delicious with the salmon, but just as good with warm lamb or chicken I suspect…

 

Food for thought

You might quiet the whole world for a second if you pray.       And if you love, if you really love,      our guns will wilt.

St John of the Cross, translated by Daniel Ladinsky

 

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Buying a New Car

My daughter has finally winkled me out of my ancient and large white car with the bribe of going halves on a new one. An irresistible offer! A nippy little silver job, easy to park, and flies like the swift it’s named after.

But first, there was the old car to dispose of. Cleaning it out was a bit like moving house. The glove box obviously, was a mess – old sunglasses, handbook, old warrant of fitness bills, old maps – out of date – and a heavy choke chain and lead for a big dog. The middle shelves gave up a hoard of tooth picks- the wooden sort and the plastic brushes with a plastic lid – peppermints, a box of matches, a pen, some packets of almonds for hungry emergencies, loose change for wind-screen washers at traffic lights, a couple of elastoplasts, a defunct key-ring and a lipstick. The compartment in the door had to be cleared of tissues – clean- a bottle of Yardley’s lavender water, peppermint wrappers and a small choke chain and small dog lead.

The back seat was divested of rug, a basket containing a bottle of water, a pair of gloves, a nearly empty bottle of Chanel No 5, and some empty egg boxes for re-cycling. The pocket in the back seat had another out- of- date book of maps and some dog biscuits. On the floor were a couple of shopping bags, and a large Tupperware box to be returned to a friend in the city when I was going her way. In the back window, two purple umbrellas, purple because they had a loop handle to go over the arm, and also dozens of spines instead of the usual five or six, to stop them blowing inside out. Purple because that was the only colour they had!

In the boot, a big towel for wiping wet rescued dogs, a child’s plastic beach bucket and a big bottle of water for thirsty dogs, a walking stick in case my husband forgets his, a picture and frame to be taken to have the glass repaired when I find a good picture framer, a bag of books to take to a hospice shop, and another bag with some of my own books as – just occasionally – people I meet ask to buy one.

I’ve got so much gear for dogs because if there is a lost dog within a hundred miles of me, it will eventually cross my path. In the past I’ve had a springer spaniel found in a forest, two over-sized muddy mongrels escaped from home, a lost retriever found on the road late at night, and stowed in the garage with a message left on the draining board for my husband – ‘Warning. Large dog in garage’. I’ve found a labrador puppy, whose teeth marks still deface the arm-rest in the front, and a Staffordshire bull terrier who leant gratefully against the back seat, knowing he was now safe; there was a huge shaggy German shepherd, and a little dog who I lured into the car by giving him my husband’s steak for dinner, and throwing a blanket over him as he ate. He turned out to be a well known local tramp, accurately named Scruffy. Then there were the sealyham and the scottie wandering down a country road late at night, two retriever puppies stranded on a busy city roundabout… and a litter of sheepdog puppies gambolling down another country road on a summer’s night on our way out to dinner…and these are just the ones I remember!

The now empty car needed a good vacuuming, getting pine cone crumbs off the back seat, when I couldn’t get mesh bags of them into the boot because I’d forgotten to empty it of some boxes my daughter had asked me to put in her garage, the odd mouldy chicken nugget retrieved from under the seat, the fossilised relic of a grandchild’s snack, and the general mess from carting bags of compost, potting mix, bark, plants and the rest.

I took the old car to a car wash and gave it the works, and then drove it to my daughter’s where the new car awaited me. By now I was beginning to feel a bit weepy, as though I was abandoning a beloved friend. It had carried me faithfully for over eleven years, done thousands of miles especially when I was doing a six hundred mile round trip once a week to see my grand-children. It had never let me down, and in turn I faithfully oiled and watered and serviced it. I thanked it each time it passed its six months warrant check, and felt grateful for its loyalty, reliability and dogged service.

I’ve laughed in it, and prayed in it, sung in it, meditated in it, cried in it, enjoyed friends in it, and carried my grandchildren in it- even my grand-daughter’s dollies propped up in the back seat when she wanted them to have some fresh air. I look back on moments like the one when the fourteen year old was asleep on the back seat, after we’d had a long adventurous day out together. As we returned to civilisation and approached the harbour bridge, I called out to him to sit up and put his seat belt on. “I’m too tired, Grannie”, he murmured from the depths of the seat. ” Well, I could be caught and fined by the traffic police you know”, I replied. “No, you won’t Grannie,” he answered, “they’ll just think you’re a dear old grannie, and let you off!”

And another child at four years old, sitting in the front seat going home after the weekend, looking wizened and sad in the middle of an asthma attack. He asked a question, and after I’d given him the answer, he looked grumpily at me with his big brown eyes, and said; “How come you know everything Grannie?”  I gulped, and then came up with the answer: “Because I’m so old”. This seemed to satisfy him!

So this car, a heap of metal, was much more than that to me. I loved it and it held so many memories. Martin Buber, the great Jewish teacher once wrote that: ’no encounter with a being or a thing lacks a hidden significance’. He said that: ’the people we live with or meet with, the animals that help us with our farmwork, the soil we till, the material we shape, the tools we use, they all contain a mysterious spiritual substance which depends on us for helping it towards its pure form, its perfection’. Recognising the part that this big heap of metal had played in my life – this old car which seemed to have its own personality –  and remembering Martin Buber’s words, made me feel less foolish at being so upset at saying goodbye to it.

I just hope its next owner loves it too.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

The lemon chutney I made the other day is wonderful with cheese or cold meat, and also makes a lovely gift. At this time of year in New Zealand the trees are laden with citrus fruits, and it’s a particularly good year for lemons.

You need seven or eight  lemons –  the thin skinned sort. Cut them in eight wedges and pick out the pips. Put them in a bowl and sprinkle the lemon flesh with one and a half tablespoons of salt, and leave for two days. Put it all in a blender with 500grammes of raisins and four cloves of garlic, and blitz.  Tip the mixture into a large saucepan with two teaspoons of horseradish sauce, one teaspoon chilli powder, a tablespoon of freshly grated ginger, a cup and a half of cider, and 500grammes of brown sugar. Bring to the boil and simmer gently without a lid until thick. Pour into clean hot jars and seal. Yum!

Food for Thought

If it is to be, it is up to me.       Advice for life to his boys, by an anonymous English headmaster.

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Another Milestone

I’m not sure if I could choose, which is more satisfying- going to the henhouse to check for new laid eggs in the morning, or going to switch on my computer as soon as I’ve had my morning tea in bed, to check for new laid ‘likes ‘and comments.  (Not that I have hens these days)

When I wrote a roundup of my first month of blogging, I hadn’t begun to get beyond the frontiers of this new world I’m venturing into. Four weeks ago, all I knew was doing the writing, and seeing numbers and places and countries popping up on the charts in the morning. But now I’m beginning to get to know some of the inhabitants of this fascinating new world. I’m told that there are 156 million blogs!

And I’m always amazed that any of them make contact with me. For a start, I’m so technologically incompetent, that I haven’t worked out how to find other blogs, and I have no idea how people find mine. So it’s  a bit like someone hobbling along on one leg, I’ve had to try to find other people’s blogs by clicking on the bloggers on the sites that have contacted me. Sometimes I can find their sites, other times I’m baffled by comments like ‘This URL is illegal’ – I’m hoping to discover what my URL is one day.

Whenever I try to obey the instructions in order to make a comment, and type in the name that seems logical to me, it turns out to be verboten, and I get another stern slap over the wrist from the distant all-seeing Great God of Technology – “This name is not yours”. I cower and switch off in panic, hoping the God doesn’t know what my real name is – but if he does, I wish he’d tell me! I don’t know what a widget is, and I don’t know how to do all sorts of things that appear on my charts… my computer is basically a bully and refuses to divulge who my followers are. It lets me click on everything else but won’t let me see the one thing I’m longing to see. It just keeps repeating:  ‘error on the page’. So I’ll have to drive for half an hour into town with the lap-top, to have a session with the computer repair man.

I realise that experts reading this – if they can bear to get this far- are probably steaming with frustration at the amateurish ignorance of this age-challenged blogger – but que sera sera…

BUT, the big but, has been the unexpected fun and enjoyment of contacting other people out there. Wonderful people, like the man who’s given me the lowdown on wind farms, the mountaineer who shared glorious photos of Canadian mountains in  the pink light of dawn, the aunt raising money for her handicapped nephew and writing warm witty posts about the journey, the man setting sail for a new life in Sweden, the Russian historian, the wonderful Indian gourmet-cook, the men and women who care about grammar and punctuation and writing and literature,  and communicate their passion with wit and kindness. I’ve followed the couple in their travelling home, and seen their photographs of the battlefield at Gettyburg – the turning point of the American Civil War – and also envied them their freshly caught lunch by a Canadian lake. I’ve read about the site of the Battle of Naseby, the pivot of the English Civil War.

I’ve read about the plight of Chinese farmers – what a terrible life – and caught up on historical moments like the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and the day of the first landing on the moon. I’ve read some wonderful cookery columns, not just your elegant recipes, but lovely witty discussions about food, which is the real fun; and I’ve read and shared with friends the spiritual poetry of a man in Manipur, a place which I’d never even heard of before. I’ve enjoyed reading about the books that other bloggers have read, the funny encounters in an American supermarket, and the afternoon shopping in a little English town.

Above all, I’ve been enchanted by bloggers’ etiquette – the good manners, the acknowledgement of any comment or communication, the friendliness, the courtesy and the kindness of bloggers. They support each other, they click the ‘like’ button, they write friendly comments and they share their points of view with no aggro, just humour and patience. They ‘follow’ and they encourage. There’s no criticism or sniping, it’s a world of open mindedness and tolerance. Everyone’s point of view is accepted, and the amazing thing is, that so far everyone I’ve discovered, has written such sane and sensible, wise and informative viewpoints. What a world we would live in if everyone behaved like bloggers!

So now I’m proud to tell my friends that I have a new career as a blogger – I like the sound of it… it reminds me of old English bodgers, who went into the forest every day to chop and turn chair legs and stretchers. They were craftsmen who worked alone. I like to think that I too am a craftsman, working alone in my distant little fishing village in the Antipodes.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Several readers were so taken with the idea of enjoying greed, that I thought I’d share the ultimate in greed. Having nothing but pudding for lunch! When my children were home in the holidays we always had fun, and on this day we agreed that I’d bake them a Bombe Alaska so they knew just how delicious it was. And because it was so much effort we all agreed – three of us – that that would be all we’d eat for lunch.

Step one was to switch on the oven to heat up to really hot, and lay the kitchen table. We cut the base of a sponge cake to fit a baking tray, and soaked it in brandy. Then we piled on the fruit salad. Using some good vanilla ice-cream we covered   the fruit salad with great gobs of it, and when the fruit salad was completely covered in a thick layer of ice-cream, we put it in the deep freeze.

 For the meringue we needed four egg whites and two tablespoons of castor sugar for each egg white – eight tablespoons. This was whipped until the egg-whites stood in peaks and then the sugar added in three lots, beating till stiff each time. Once the meringue was ready, out came the base from the freezer, the meringue was smeared all over the ice-cream, and then the white tower went into the hot oven for three or four minutes until the meringue was browned.

The children were waiting expectantly at the table, each accompanied by their cavalier King Charles spaniel, and Sheba the afghan sitting underneath the table, when out came the glorious confection of sponge, brandy, fruit and ice cream, and lashings of meringue. There was no point in trying to save any because it wouldn’t keep! Delectable, delicious and disgustingly fattening!

Food for Thought

Walk on a rainbow trail; walk on a trail of song, and all about you will be beauty. There is a way out of every dark mist, over a rainbow trail.            Navajo Song

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