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Dancing to the music of time

Image result for world war two photos of us soldiers marching to the docks before d day

I was born in 1938, and have always been fascinated by what was happening in the world at that point in time when I was conceived and born, because the atmosphere and events of those times would have had huge and unknown emotional pressures on the people who bore me.

My father was an army reservist and had been re-called to the army by the time I was ten months. He didn’t return home until I was nearly nine, and when he did, came with a new step-mother. It was like being adopted by strange people who didn’t know me. My own mother had disappeared when I was six.

And in that time of first emerging into this world –  my world, and the world of everyone else – was convulsed by war. That world was on fire and I didn’t know it. Battles raged in the sky overhead, warships ranged the sea a few miles away, the country-side and the towns prepared for siege. And I didn’t know it.

So I have tried to track what was happening when I lived in this world, but was unconscious of it, and have read so many diaries which tell me far more than official histories…  I’ve read the inner stories of housewives and politicians, pacifists and generals, and have a shelf of books telling how it was for those who lived through the mayhem.

I’ve just finished reading the diaries of Sir Alec Cadogan, who was Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office from the last two years of Appeasement, and then during, and after the war. I learned so much from him that isn’t in the history books.  I’d first come across him, when Churchill was wrestling with Stalin over the Russian plans for that tragic country, Poland. His advice, based on the fact that Britain had gone to war to defend Poland, put the moral viewpoint un-erringly.

And the tragedy was that Britain was in no position to risk a third world war by defying Stalin, supported as Stalin was at that time, by Roosevelt. The Free Poles had been based in London throughout the war, and Churchill, Eden, Cadogan and company had had to placate, comfort, and put up with – what I hadn’t realised until reading Cadogan’s diary – the Poles, nagging away all the time, plus fending off the aggressive resident Russians at the Russian Embassy.

The British were also juggling de Gaulle and the internecine rivalries of the resident Free French, plus the touchy Dutch, the slippery Turks, trying to keep them neutral, the belligerent Yugoslavs, the Americans and their suspicions of the English, as well as of de Gaulle, (Roosevelt and his advisers preferred the Vichy government),  the Spanish and problems over them supplying the Germans with wolfram, the Portuguese and negotiations to use the Azores, and the Greeks and their Communists, to mention only a few of Cadogan’s continuing diplomatic challenges. And then there were all the floating kings and queens who had fled Europe, been deposed, or abdicated. London must have been a fascinating place to be then.

Reading of the sixteen hours a day spent in cabinet meetings and conferences, puzzling over how best to handle Hitler during the last period of Appeasement was a revelation to me. Appeasement has been seen as so shameful, but as Cadogan kept advising his political masters, they just didn’t have the military muscle to do anything But negotiate. While they had only ten out of fifteen battleships with the other five in dry dock, the navy was impotent, as was the non-existent air force, and the tiny ill-equipped army, still managing on World War One weapons. On the other hand, Germany, after breaking the Versailles agreements, had built up a modern army and air force equipped with the latest weapons.

To read the endless agonising over the exact words of a telegram to Hitler, trying to gauge the impact of each word, whether it would conciliate, offend, alienate, deter, appease, buy time to re-arm, while at the same time juggling with Roosevelt’s imperious interference, even though at the time he had no intention of becoming involved, left me awed and admiring at the brilliance, industry, patience, and implacable integrity of Cadogan.

He was a direct descendant of the first Earl Cadogan who had been the principal Staff Officer and Director of Intelligence in ten campaigns for the Duke of Marlborough, Churchill’s famous ancestor. On the eve of a battle in Flanders in 1702, Marlborough reconnoitred the positions. He threw down his glove, and harshly told Cadogan to pick it up, which he did. That night, when Marlborough said he wanted the main battery set up at the place where he dropped his glove, Cadogan was able to say that it was already in place. His intuition was so finely tuned to his chief, that he had understood immediately the purpose of the supposed insult.

On 13 June 1940, Churchill took his Cadogan with him to Tours when he flew over to try to stiffen the collapsing French Government.  Seeing them together as “they listened to the agonising tale at Tours”, Sir Edward Spears, who was interpreting, wrote: “ here were the descendants of the two great leaders, brought together as their forebears had been by virtue of the services their Houses have rendered, generation after generation, to the country…. I thought how fortunate England has been to be served through the centuries by such men, and by others imbued with the same transcendent loyalty, though bearing lesser names… at that moment… the old story of the Flanders battlefield… flashed in my mind… as I watched the two men in that small room at Tours.”

It was Cadogan who framed the formulae at Dumbarton Oaks which became the basis of the UN Charter. And at San Franscisco, Cadogan, who was the permanent British representative, despaired over the obstructions of the Russians. I particularly enjoyed the story of the UN being broadcast all around America, and as a particularly verbose bore got up to speak, Cadogan could be heard groaning to himself in his clipped English tones, “Oh God!”

I finished the book last night, and regretted doing so. I read it slowly over about three weeks, all seven hundred pages or more. He would go down to Kew Gardens in London like we used to do, to see the magnolias out, or the bluebells, or the autumn trees. He never failed to notice the first crocuses of spring, and watched with approval the progress of the tulips and the wall flowers in the gardens as he paced through Green Park and St James on his way to his office in Whitehall. His idea of relaxation at the end of a tough week, if he wasn’t painting, was to dig over a garden bed, and plant it. This book was a good two dollars- worth from Trademe, and worth ten times the price.

More than any of the books I’ve read as I’ve tried to piece together the world as it was when I entered it, this one filled in many blanks and felt like a logbook of human experience. And more than that, while I was reading it, it gave me the experience of living with someone of the utmost integrity and unself-conscious goodness. In a world still convulsed with problems of an immensity that mankind seems to feel powerless to solve, goodness is precious and inspiring.

Fifteen-year-old Anne Frank, who was destroyed by the world I grew into, wrote these indestructible words back then: ‘In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever- approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquillity will return again.’

This is the sort of goodness and optimism that we needed then and we still need now too.

The picture is of US troops marching to the docks to embark for D-Day… It looks like Weymouth where I spent the war years.

Food for threadbare gourmets

I want to eat masses of vegetables at the moment, and cook meals consisting of nothing else some days… wilted greens, a mix of broccolini, spinach, grated or sliced courgettes or asparagus lightly steamed, is one of my favourite combinations at the moment, and is good with meat or eaten on its own. Lightly cook the broccolini and asparagus, gently fry the courgettes in a little butter and then add the torn spinach leaves. When all these vegetables are lightly cooked, toss them together in a little dijon mustard. In a separate bowl mix together a table spoon of horseradish sauce, quarter of a cup of sour cream, and a few table spoons of cream, pour over the vegetables and boil up quickly. I sometimes slice cooked new potatoes into this mix too, and it’s satisfying and filling. It’s good with grilled chicken.

Food for thought

We are each made for goodness, love and compassion. Our lives are transformed as much as the world when we live these truths.

Archbishop Edmund Tutu

 

 

 

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Filed under army, books, british soldiers, cookery/recipes, history, life and death, military history, Thoughts on writing and life, uncategorised, Uncategorized, world war two

Chickens coming home to roost

Nobel prize-winner Malala Yousafzai

I’ve wondered why I’ve been so fascinated by it. I normally never read the news, especially salacious negative or destructive items, but I’ve been rivetted to the Harvey Weinstein story.

As I finished the washing up after lunch today, I realised why, and what I’ve been trying not to remember… all those times it was happening every day and as part of life when I was growing up.

I thought of the maths teacher when I was fourteen. When I started this school, my new friends warned me that when he called me out to his desk to go over some maths problem, he would run his hand up under my gym slip, and massage my thigh. Whether the massaging was more than that and my friends couldn’t bring themselves to say, I don’t know, because I was a very immature, slow developer, and he never tried it on me.

I remembered joining the army when I was eighteen, and being measured for my uniform by the regimental tailor. Afterwards when we compared notes back in the barrack room, we all found we’d had the same experience of him feeling our breasts as he took our measurements.  And I thought of a night at cadet school a few months later, when eleven of us were sitting around late at night over a cup of hot chocolate, and we discovered that nine out of the eleven of us had had the experience of a man exposing his hairy genitals to us as a child.

The following year one of us who had been to a wedding in Scotland, was raped in the sleeper on the train back from Edinburgh.  Jo – as I’ll call her – a gentle sweet-natured girl, was so intimidated by the notice which said the fine was five pounds for pulling the emergency chain un-necessarily, that she didn’t dare reach over to pull it and save herself.

There were plenty of us who felt intimidated like that back in the fifties and sixties. When I worked on the South China Morning Post in Hongkong supporting my children on my meagre pay, the managers brought in a time and motion expert from the UK to assess whose job was necessary or financially worthwhile. The expert took a fancy to me, and I was over a barrel between trying to avoid him by fleeing the office and inventing interviews, and being seen conscientiously bending over my type-writer justifying my existence and my salary.

It became a joke on the women’s page that  he was always asking where I was, but it was no joke to me. Finally, I could avoid having dinner with this married man having a bit of fun while he was away from his family no longer, and at the end of the evening, feeling completely powerless, I ended up on the sofa at his flat. I escaped as he undid his zipper, and then had the anguish for weeks of wondering if, when he wrote his report, I would still have a job.

I’ve often wondered since why I didn’t just say no thank you when he pressed me to go up to his flat after dinner, replying:’ I have to get my children up for school in the morning, and get to the office on time!’ End of story. But I was too fearful then of men’s power as I battled for custody of my children, and struggled to keep my job.

Just as when the editor sent me to interview a friend of his a few weeks later, and the blonde handsome Swede behaved as though I was a call girl. Once again, as I escaped his clutches, I knew it was no use complaining to the editor about his influential friend… I would just have been a trouble maker, who couldn’t take it. I wasn’t just trying to get a job like the Hollywood stars I’ve been reading about, I was trying to keep a job which paid me half what a man was paid, in order to house and feed my children.

The choices are just as bad for so many women even now… there are Filipino maids all over the world putting up with all sorts of forms of exploitation and wicked treatment because their families are relying on the money they send home. I read that it is now illegal for men in India to rape their teenage or child wives. But how many child brides know their rights, and how many would dare to offend a strong powerful man who had total power over her life?

There are women and children both in Africa and England and everywhere in between, who endure the horrors of Sharia law, which often includes genital mutilation. There are states in a western country like the US where it’s legal for a husband to beat his wife, while both fundamental Muslims as well as fundamental Christians also claim this right. And many women stay in abusive relationships in order to protect their children and try to bring them up, while leaving a violent marriage simply isn’t a financial possibility for too many other women.

So-called honour killings – when a woman or a girl has been raped – means that in many Muslim countries, it is the woman who is punished for the crime – often with death by stoning or barbaric whipping. That old joke, a woman’s place is in the wrong, is no joke in those countries. Yazidi women raped by Isis, school girls captured by Boko Haram soldiers, women forced to hide behind, and under, curtains of black material invented by men to deny their uniqueness, are up against something much worse than the harassment of Hollywood actresses and their fear for their careers that we’ve been reading about.

Nobel peace prize-winner Malala Yousafzai was a school-girl when she was shot by Taliban in Pakistan for advocating education for women. Since then, she’s recovered from her dreadful wounds, though she’s lost the hearing in one ear. She went to England for medical treatment and to be educated safely away from the murderous men who wanted her dead, and now she’s just started her degree studies at Oxford. She has never given up her cause, and says: “I raise up my voice – not so I can shout but so that those without a voice can be heard…we cannot succeed when half of us are held back.”

There are unheard voices all over the world, and if this scandal about harassed actresses can remind us of those other unseen, unheard women, it will be a service to them all. Because I’m human it feels good to know that one bully is being held to account for his actions, but the other part of me wants to feel that something good  can also come out of this story of human frailty.

When truth is revealed it can be the catalyst for change. I hope this story is big news everywhere, so that people everywhere get the message that it’s not okay to misuse power and terrify or deprive women; that they learn that women do have the right to all the freedoms and goodness in the world that men enjoy too.  Let’s hope that this change of heart and mind can work its way into the consciousness of all men everywhere because of the public downfall of one powerful man.

Not into the consciousness of the many good men who do care about women, but into the hearts and minds of men whose cultures have taught them that it’s okay or even de rigeuer to oppress and suppress the feminine – whether it’s their wives or daughters or other women, or the feminine in their own natures.  The qualities of the feminine – gentleness, nurturing, empathy, creativity, are the things that most of us want in our homes and families, and societies, as well as the masculine qualities of strength and power. Balance, wholeness, the middle way, are what makes for health in people and in societies and honouring both sides of our natures is the way to this balance and goodness.

A tacky scandal in the western world of entertainment may seem trivial when set against the appalling suffering of so many silenced women all over the rest of the world. But good can come out of this saga of silence if it causes a change of heart and mind beyond the homes and habitats of Hollywood and its power brokers. I do so hope so.

Food for threadbare gourmets

Spring is coming to this end of the world and I feel like different food. With cold chicken the other day I used a favourite way with avocado. To half a cup each of chopped avocado and cucumber, use three quarters of a cup of cream, a quarter of a cup of lemon juice, one finely chopped onion, two cloves of chopped garlic, salt and black pepper, and put it all in a blender. Whizz until smooth. I love this with raw or cooked vegetables as well as with chicken, cold turkey or ham.

Food for thought

Feminism has never been about getting a job for one woman. It’s about making life more fair for women everywhere. It’s not about a piece of the existing pie; there are too many of us for that. It’s about baking a new pie.” Gloria Steinem

 

 

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Tour de France

Image result for french chateaus

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

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

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

Food for thought

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

 

 

 

 


 

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Officially sanctioned ghosts

Image result for battle of edgehill

 

I learned about ghosts when I was a twenty-one- year old army officer stationed in Warwickshire. History seemed like the present in such a place – Banbury Cross was still there, Warwick and Warwick Castle were nearby, Stratford-on-Avon not far away, while behind our camp at Kineton lay the village of Warmington, which was near the site of the Battle of Edgehill, one of the first important battles of the English Civil War, fought in 1642. The Royalist army under Charles 1 (sometimes called Cavaliers) met the Parliamentarians, Oliver Cromwell’s troops here. (they were nicknamed Roundheads from their short chopped hair-do’s)

Nearly every English child back then, used to know the Prayer of Sir Jacob Astley which he murmured here after positioning the Royalist infantry which he commanded, on the morning of the battle: “Oh Lord, Thou knowest how busy I shall be this day. If I forget Thee, do not Thou forget me”.

The Royalist army  – 18,000 on foot and horseback- trumpets blaring and drums beating, had straggled through Warmington village on its way to the battlefield. (It was only Prince Rupert who used the new-fangled method of marching his troops in those days). People in the gracious grey stone manor house, and from the many gabled cottages still standing from that time, stood and watched the army go by.

After the indecisive but bloody struggle, some of the dead were buried in the churchyard, but many, both Royalist and Roundhead, died and were buried on the battlefield.

The Battle of Edgehill seemed to dominate the memories of people in the area, even though this was 1960. Or rather, the ghosts of the Battle of Edgehill. The site of the battle encroached onto army land, and there was an area where the guard dogs refused to patrol, or if they were dragged into it, they growled and barked, and their hackles rose. A single- track railway line was used to carry ammunition to various points (this was an ammunition depot), and at night, to convey the guards and their dogs to the perimeter of the camp, which covered some miles.

One of the legends of the battle which continually surfaced in people’s conversation was that anyone who saw the ghost of Sir Edmund Verney, Charles 1’s standard bearer, who was killed in the battle, would be involved in some disaster. The latest such victim was a man who had seen the ghost as a boy growing up in the village of Warmington.

As a man, he drove the train carrying men and goods around the camp. One foggy winter’s night, he thought he saw the ghost again, just as the train he was driving, carrying men and dogs on their way to guard duty, inexplicably left the rails, killing and injuring some of them.

It was no wonder that the memories and the legends of the battle should surface so often. Most of the people who lived in that place were descendants of the country people who had seen the event – Prince Rupert’s cavalry charges into the Roundhead infantry, and the flight of panicking, bleeding soldiers through their village. The villagers had lived through the long, cold frosty night of Sunday, October 23 when both sides stayed where they were on the battle field, the dead and the wounded around them.

They would have heard the groans and cries of wounded and dying men lying in the muddy fields which those farming folk later ploughed and planted, reaped and harvested for the rest of their lives. The memories of that day and that night would have stayed with them, and would be revived wherever and whenever they walked and worked over that land in the succeeding years, and those memories would have been passed onto their children and their children, until they reached us over three hundred years later.

The reliability of folk memory has probably not been scientifically proved, but for example, the country people in Turkey and what used to be Persia, still threaten their children with Alexander the Great if they are naughty. His conquest of their ancestors in 331 BC is still part of their reality today.

So the people in the villages and farms around Edgehill, Kineton and Warmington were never far away from their history either, and the anniversary of the battle was always remembered in those parts. The actual date, October 23, had become confused, owing to the changing from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar in 1752 in England. The Julian calendar had over-estimated the length of a year by some minutes. Over the centuries, the minutes had built up to some thirteen extra days by 1582, when Italy went into Gregorian time.

The changeover was always accompanied by the same sort of resistance as the 20th century opposition to decimal currency, which is why it took another two hundred years for England to change her calendar. (The old calendar is still in use in Mt Athos monasteries) It took some calculation to work out what the original October 23 was in the new Gregorian calendar, but the members of the Society for Psychical Research had been up to the challenge, and one of their number turned up the year I was there.

He brought a tape recorder, in the hope of recording the sounds of battle which were often heard on the anniversary. There was also the hope of seeing the Standard Bearer, to try to clear up the mystery of why his feet seemed to be below the surface of the fields, for he could only be seen from the ankles upwards.

The Society rather thought that the land must have risen by about six inches since 1642. This theory was based on the fact that when a group of ghostly Vikings were sighted hewing and slashing away in battle on some island off the coast of Northern England, they could only be seen from the knees upward, and geological evidence showed that the island had risen by some eighteen to twenty inches since then.

The researcher sat in my sitting room, and told me all this one night before the date of their enterprise. He also explained that ghosts needed exorcising, and that the Society had a team of tame priests who practised the rite of exorcism. He told me lurid stories of possession, of candles being seized by invisible entities, (evil of course), and priests standing fast, holding up the cross, chanting the Lord’s Prayer, or calling on His name.

It was only when I encountered a medium and healer nearly twenty years later in New Zealand, that I discovered that exorcism didn’t need to be a dramatic ceremony with bell, book, and candle.

This man who I’ll call Colin, worked with a tiny group of other mediums, doing what is known in his trade, as “rescue work”. They deliberately go into other planes of energy or consciousness, to find the lost souls who are what we call ghosts. According to him, and to others who quietly do this work, these ghostly energies haunt the place they have known when they were alive, or, in the case of people who have died suddenly, from accident, murder, or war, they remain trapped where it happened – so suddenly – that their consciousness hasn’t realised the body has died.

Colin explained that it’s very delicate work, because often, if you tell ghosts they are dead, they either don’t believe you, or they become so shocked and panic-stricken, that they remain stuck where they are, and the whole point of the exercise is defeated.

He told me about the ghost of a little girl who’d died before World War One. She had been searching for her kitten, when she heard it mewing from the bottom of a dis-used gold-mine near Waihi. Trying to rescue it, she fell in too, and was killed. Colin worked with another medium, a local traffic policeman, who gave up the work after this, in case word got out, and his career was endangered. The traffic cop was able to convey what the little girl was feeling, lost and lonely waiting to be rescued at the bottom of the mine.

” It was weird hearing this great big man talking in a frightened little girl’s voice,” Colin reminisced.

” We didn’t dare tell her she’d been dead for years. We also had to be careful about what we said about heaven and Jesus, because she remembered everything she’d been taught at Sunday School, and she had some mighty strange beliefs.

” It was real touch and go, winning her confidence, and then not saying anything that would upset her, in case we lost contact again.

” We nearly had her ready to go to her new home, where people she loved were, and Jesus too, when she suddenly remembered Sooty.

” ‘Oh, I can’t leave Sooty”, she cried. “They won’t let me take an animal to heaven’.  Well, we worked on that, and convinced her that Jesus would welcome a kitten to heaven, and then we heard her voice slowly fading, and then we heard her excitement when she saw someone she recognised. When I brought Tim back, we were exhausted. It had taken several hours. We were so relieved we were practically in tears.”

On the strength of these stories, I did my own exorcisms when needed, which I’ll write about next week, as this blog is already rather long. I’ll be fascinated to know the experiences of others too.

These thoughts and memories were inspired by a blog on ghosts I’ve just discovered: https://bookemjanoblog.wordpress.com/

Googling the battle I found this postscript : ‘Uniquely though, as a result of the Royal Commission’s investigation, the Public Record Office officially recognises the Edgehill ghosts. They are the only British phantoms to have this distinction’.

Food for threadbare gourmets

 

We were watching a car rally go past our gate, in the company of our neighbours, and we all gathered for a pot lunch afterwards. I had made a big plate of ham sandwiches, using beautiful ham off the bone, and when I brought those that were left home, I decided to use them for a quick supper.

I’ve mentioned them before, but some readers might like to be reminded. I dunked the sandwiches in a couple of eggs whipped up with milk, and then fried them in olive oil. Some had mustard on the ham, others were just bread and butter and ham. They were delicious, and seem quite different to ham sandwiches when cooked like this, Since they’re piping hot, they need to be eaten with a knife and fork.

 

Food for thought.

Sometime I like a good joke, and ‘1066 and All That’  by WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman is one of them.

They wrote about the Civil War that : The Cavaliers were wrong but romantic, and the Roundheads were right but repulsive.

 

 

 

 

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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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Religion, relevance and Planet Earth

Image result for bishops rings images

Bishop’s ring

( this is a bit of fun, with a serious twist at the end )

Religion doesn’t get a very good press these days… too often associated with bishops covering up the unsavoury misdemeanours of their juniors, or straying into politics and alienating those who don’t agree with them.

I have memories of bishops before these trendy chaps (rarely women) strayed from their narrow paths of bland conformity. Trollope’s Bishop Proudie was the first bishop I felt I knew… timid and hen-pecked husband of the redoubtable and unforgettable Mrs Proudie, the undefeated power behind the episcopal throne of fictional, but very believable Barchester Towers.

But my first actual encounter with a bishop was in Salisbury Cathedral when I was fourteen. I was there with a dozen others to be confirmed in a small private ceremony. My parents had given up on the church some years previously, were late arriving, and kept the bishop waiting for them. Then my stepmother, who had a talent for easing sticky social occasions with gay laughter and light- hearted jokes, scandalised the  waiting bishop by joking that they’d given him plenty of time to have a quick tipple of the communion wine. Which my father told me afterwards, went down like a ton of bricks.

Maybe, I thought later, this explained why no beam of golden light shone down on my head when the grumpy bishop laid his hands on it, and I had felt no magic sense of godliness or even goodness. Instead I embarked on a career of crashing down heavily in a faint on the stone floor in church during communion, and returning home with bruised swollen jaw, black eyes and the rest, until my stepmother insisted on me having breakfast before I left.

Bishops were not in evidence during my years in the army, but once married to a vicar’s son I had an inside look at the workings of the Anglican religion… and charity forbids me to say more. While in Hongkong bishops became part of my life for a brief season. Bishop Hall, an intrepid son of the church who’d retaliated to Japanese invasion by ordaining a Chinese lady as vicar to secretly tend his bereft flock in Macao, handed over to a more prosaic, but kindly man while I was there.

And while the Archbishop of Canterbury back in England and safely out of reach of the brutal Japanese invaders, had unfrocked the poor Chinese lady vicar, this bishop managed to get two women into the ministry while they were still arguing about ordaining women in England years later…

I got to know Bishop Baker quite well, when his interesting and strong minded American wife (a power behind the throne, but not in the same class as Mrs Proudie) approached me to offer a part-time job as a PR consultant for the Anglican diocese in Hongkong. This entailed going to an office in Bishop’s House every morning, and twiddling my thumbs, before going to my day job on the newspaper, unless I had a depressing visit to the teeming slums of Kowloon with a visiting Anglican dignitary that I could write about and slip into the South China Morning Post.

There was also the monthly purgatory of the parish breakfast, when all the diocese clerics – mostly non- English- speaking Chinese gentlemen, gathered for a jolly brotherly breakfast in the cathedral hall. I was required to attend and try to mingle… the only redeeming feature of the occasion being the freshly baked and delicious bread rolls carted over from Macao by a generous cleric.

I only lasted for six months in this extra-mural job, badly though I needed the money… but I couldn’t go on pretending to be enthusiastic about the church to the kindly bishop’s wife.

For the next few years, both in Hongkong, and then in New Zealand deans were more likely to cross my path than bishops, though thanks to my friendship with his wife, I knew a Maori vicar who shot up the ladder of promotion to become Archbishop of New Zealand. He then ditched his churchly purple and bishop’s gold regalia to climb to even higher things, the political appointment of a Maori as Governor- General. I suppose even an archbishop found the lure of a knighthood and visits to and from the Queen more attractive than rubbing shoulders with his Maker. And being referred to as His Excellency must have been more exalting than a mere His Grace…

So thanks to him, my last encounter with a bishop was a beaut, as they say in Australia. His Excellency invited us to a ceremonious, but small and intimate dinner at Government House, where we rubbed shoulders with half a dozen illustrious citizens, among whom was the conqueror of Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary. The Gov-General/ ex-Archbishop of New Zealand, had invited one of his old buddies to this occasion, and I was sitting next to him. He was the Archbishop of New York, a tall, somewhat dour personage who took due note of the fact that he had been tactlessly seated opposite a large dominating portrait of George III – still not a popular personage in the US – even though the poor chap had lived over two hundred years ago…

During the grand and boring meal, I became conscious that the Gov-General’s corgi was roaming the carpet under the table. So I slipped him a morsel of my bread roll and he thus became a fixture at my feet. As the meal progressed he and I became more and more friendly. Come the cheese course, I ran out of cheese biscuits to give him, so I turned to his Grace, the Archbishop, and asked him for one of his, lying un-eaten on his plate.

He obviously didn’t hear me, so I tried again, but he still seemed not to have heard. Never one to be deterred, and thinking my neighbour must suffer from deafness, I repeated quite loudly for the third time, the request for a biscuit for the corgi. At which the august personage turned to me and snapped: “I heard you the first time – and NO !”

I was staggered, was there no milk of human kindness running in those American veins? Maybe it was because he was not English, and didn’t care for dogs. But did he have no chivalry either – to refuse a lady – or no good manners? Certainly, no charm.

Bishops, it seems, are not what they once were… instead of dwelling quietly behind their splendid palace walls waiting to have their  amethyst and gold rings kissed, they now make controversial statements, enjoy the worldly pleasures of hobnobbing with celebrities, and much more interesting, some are now taking part in an experiment to see if taking drugs increases levels of mystical experience. This experiment includes leaders of most faiths, except for those who refused – those who follow Islam and Hinduism. Presumably Hindus already know about these things with their centuries of meditation and mysticism – Islam – who knows?

The participants report that the experiment so far has made them more tolerant and open to other faiths. How amazing that religious leaders could be so bigoted that they would think that the Maker of Heaven and Earth would care whether they used a rosary to pray, thought sex was not for making love but for making babies, wore a tiny scrap of fabric on the back of their head, or thought that only their founder knew the truth, and therefore everyone else deserved to be killed.  How amazing that each religion should seriously think they have the only direct line to the Creator and that everyone else is wrong or deluding themselves.

The Quaker silence has felt the holiest religious gathering I’ve attended. Like the Baha’i faith, Quakers – or Friends as they call themselves – accept that there are many paths to heaven, and that no beliefs are more ‘right’ than others. They respect all people.  Genuine Quakers don’t have bishops. Instead, every year each meeting elects twelve elders. They meet once a month to work out the running of the meeting, and if all the elders do not agree, then no decision is reached at that meeting or succeeding meetings. Until there is consensus, no action is taken.

This seems to me to be the ideal way for Planet Earth to run its affairs. Twelve good women and men, idealistic and practical, experienced and knowledgeable, paid a pittance so that no ambition mars their decisions, and elected every couple of years from the four corners of the world so they can’t make the post a career, but elect to serve as a privilege – surely this could be a true meeting of nations which would work for the good of mankind.

No more fingers on triggers, knee jerk threats, old enmities, or profit-driven exploitation, but cooperation, peace, justice and mechanisms to make life worthwhile not just for all members of the human race, but also for ‘all creatures that on earth do dwell’, to slightly adapt the words of a Protestant hymn sung since 1561. This could be: ’a new order of the ages’, in pre-Christian Virgil’s words, words which are also the words of the motto on the Great Seal of the United States – and worth remembering in our so- called New Age. As US President John F Kennedy said: ‘Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

Food for threadbare gourmets

I love leftovers… they are often tastier than first time round food. So when I had some mince from spaghetti bolognaise, but not enough to make a lasagne with, I turned to my tried and true method of stretching leftovers. I made some pancakes again, as in the recipe in blog called ‘Do we have a choice between technology and love’. and made a really tasty cheese sauce, with plenty of cheese in it.

Spread some meat in each pancake, roll it in three, and place in an ovenproof dish. Pour the cheese sauce over the pancakes, and heat up, gently browning the sauce topping. With salad or vegetables – delicious.

 

Food for thought

I am neither in temple nor in mosque: I am neither in Kaaba nor in Kailash:
Neither am I in rites and ceremonies, nor in Yoga and renunciation.
If thou art a true seeker, thou shalt at once see Me: thou shalt meet Me in a moment of time.   Kabir, Sufi poet 1440-1518

 

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The necessity of beauty

Image result for images of gardeniasImage result for gardenias

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

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

Food for Thought

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

 

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