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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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Do we have a choice between technology or love?

Am I a dinosaur – surely not … or a flat earther – perish the thought … or maybe a Luddite… perhaps!

I’ve just been reading about the latest ideas in schooling… apparently instead of teaching children to spit out facts like a computer, we should be teaching them the six C’s.  They are defined as collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation and confidence – listed in order of importance.

And this is why I sometimes feel as though I was born into the Stone Age or something similar… I’m not even sure the people who taught me had even heard of the now unfashionable 3R’s. And my grandmother, a Victorian, was firmly of the belief that if I could read, there was nothing  I couldn’t learn… but she had probably never heard of calculus, Einstein’s theory, or even Pythagoras, though she was a mathematical whizz unlike her grand-daughter.

I look back to my school days, when I was so shy and retiring that it actually never occurred to me to tell the infant teacher I could read, so I spent the first year in total boredom chanting letters of the alphabet with everyone else, and following rudimentary stories on an illustrated frieze around the classroom wall. I remember feeling indignant too, when a girl called Manon Tipper started, and the teacher told the rest of my awed classmates that Manon’s parents were teachers and had taught her to read. So can I, I remember thinking to myself.

Things looked up the next year with a wonderful history teacher who galloped through the Ice Age, the Beaker people, Romans, right up Henry V in enthralling lessons that I soaked up, getting ten out of ten on the narrow strip of torn off paper (no exercise books because of the war) on which we wrote short answers to his questions at the beginning of every lesson.

The art lessons were a disappointment to my way of thinking. Lesson one was learning to draw a straight line using short feather strokes. This skill acquired by the class of restless six- year olds, we went on to mastering the perspective of drawing a rectangular box in succeeding lessons. Then the joy of bursting out into colour arrived (no finger painting for us) we had to bring a mottled, spotty, yellowy -green laurel leaf to school, to paint it, red berries and all. But our uncooperative front garden hedge had no berries, so no red for me. I think we were learning to observe as well as train the hand and eye…

Besides the boring, daily chanting of the times tables, (which has stood me in good stead!) we had a bout of mental arithmetic which I hated, but I quite enjoyed learning to write the copper-plate handwriting demanded of us. We spent hours copying a letter of the alphabet in our printed copybooks, using a dip pen and ink – often crossing the nib during our efforts (does anyone know what a crossed nib is anymore?) Using ‘joining up’ writing, nowadays called cursive, instead of printing was a sign of maturity for us.

A waste of time? Perhaps not – again – it taught both concentration and hand and eye coordination. And talking of such things, the boring throwing of bean bags and balancing on an upturned bench as well as bunny hops over them in our regular physical training sessions may not have been as interesting as today’s adventure playgrounds, but they did the job.

We had singing lessons when we learned the folk songs that had been handed down for generations, as well as some of the great classics like ‘Jerusalem’, which meant that everyone could sing together like they still do at the Last Night of the Proms in London every year; and we learned poetry which trained our memories and fed our souls.

For lack of a cell phone so we could ring each other from one end of the playground to the other as my granddaughter explained to me, we played games. We would swing a long rope and run in and out to skip until we missed a beat and tripped, or join a line of others skipping at the same time. At the same time, we chanted: ‘Wall flowers, wall flowers, growing up so high, we’re all the old ones, and we shall surely die, excepting:’ – and here we chanted the names of all the girls who were still skipping, until they tripped and fell out. We practised ball games, and at home alone, bounced it against a convenient bit of wall, swinging it under our legs or swiftly turning around, and learning to juggle two balls or more.

We couldn’t exercise our thumb muscles the way today’s children do on their phones and game boys (which I’m told are a thousand years old now) but we learned the dozens of variations of cats cradles, and played five stones, catching them up in the air on the back of our hand, holding them between our fingers, and tossing, and catching… there were many more and more difficult variations  – it took extreme skill and hours of practise and concentration – much more, it seems to me, than pressing a button on a computerised toy.

Then there were the hopscotch crazes, chalking the squares and numbers on the playground or a pavement when we were home, hopping, jumping – more muscle skill –  the marble crazes, the tatting sessions, French knitting – pushing coloured wools in and out of four tacks nailed into the top of a wooden cotton reel and making a long woollen tube (plastic reels nowadays, and useless for this ) and learning to knit properly. My grandmother taught me dozens of sewing stitches (yes, there are dozens) including hemming stitch, running stitch, herring bone, blanket, daisy chain and more.

When we went to birthday parties we played games like musical chairs and memory games like Kim’s game (a tray of small objects displayed for a minute, then whisked away while we quickly wrote down what we’d seen. I usually won this one). And when we left after dancing Sir Roger de Coverley, the only person who had had a present was the birthday girl herself – no party bags back then..

The difference between that rich but simple life with no TV, computer games or pop concerts, and the life of an eight-year -old today can best be illustrated by one of my first memories – watching a great tired dray horse pulling an overloaded hay wain along the narrow country lane where we lived, leaving horizontal drifts of hay draped along the high hawthorn and hazel hedges. Today I look on fields where huge green plastic rolls lie around waiting to be gathered up in the prongs of a tractor and delivered to a pile of more giant things, while farmers haven’t discovered a way of disposing or re-using the efficient, beastly plastic.

The latest theory on education, the six C’s – collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation and confidence sounds wonderfully vague, and idealistic too. I’m sure creative arguments can be raised for these C- words. But I rather fancy a way of assessing children’s abilities that I read a few years ago.

More educationalists are now taking into account other aspects of life and learning apparently, and as I remember them, apart from assessing children’s reading, writing and general knowledge, other talents are now being recognised. They included musical ability, physical skills, ethical understanding, and empathy with animals and the environment. Spiritual aptitude, which has nothing to do with religion, theology or dogma, was the last quality listed, and is perhaps the crown of a civilised life – which surely should the point of education/civilisation ….

The qualities of genuine spiritual understanding would and could encompass many of the ideals of the six C’s, I feel.  In fact, sometimes I think most of the qualities of the six C’s could be reduced to one or two simple, spiritual four-letter words, which cover sensitivity to the needs of others, and therefore collaboration, communication, content, confidence and creativity. Those two four letter words are kind and love. Kindness is easier than loving – love being the highest gift or skill or quality of all, and the simplest and most important. We ask if children are clever or talented, but do we ever ask if they are loving?

Food for threadbare gourmets

Deciding to fall back on my store cupboard for supper, I un-earthed a tin of pink salmon and decided to make pancakes filled with salmon. First make the pancake mixture… six ounces more or less of flour, an egg, and milk. Gently beat the egg into the flour, adding the milk in several goes. Beat until there are no lumps and leave for half an hour in the fridge. Beat again before using.

While the pancake mixture is settling, drain off the liquid from the salmon and make a fairly thick white sauce, using the salmon juice as well as warm milk. Chop plenty of parsley and stir into the sauce, then add the salmon, salt and pepper.

Keeping this warm, begin making the pancakes. As each is cooked, spoon some salmon mixture down the centre, and fold over each side. Sprinkle with grated parmesan, and lay on a fire-proof dish. When you’ve used up the pancake and salmon mixtures, put them in a moderate oven for a few minutes to melt the parmesan cheese, and enjoy… salad or green vegetables make this a cheap and filling meal.

Two pancakes a person is usually more than enough… this makes five or six generously, or more if the mixture is stretched out.

Food for thought

Your pain is not prescribed by your creator, He is the healer thus not giver of misery.
…. lay the blame where it belongs.
Mankind is responsible for its environment and culture….                                                   The day we take responsibility for our actions, will be the day God walks through the door smiling.”

Zarina Bibi – Sufi

 

 

 

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Gossip is good for us

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I am an unashamed gossip. Gossip to me is the spice of life, a valuable tool of information, and the oil that greases human relations.

Years ago I was shocked when an acquaintance said to me in reply to my query, ‘what’s going on for her?’ – “I’ve given up gossip”.

I was so taken aback that I retreated, feeling in-adequate and really rather nasty, as though I had been caught out in some secret disreputable, or unmentionable sin.

I thought about it for some days, and then my common sense re-asserted itself. If someone didn’t pass on to me that a mutual acquaintance had a life threatening illness then I could miss out on the chance to support them. If someone didn’t tell me a couple were breaking up, I could tactlessly invite the couple for dinner, and rub salt in their wounds with my ignorance. If I didn’t know that a child had gone off the rails or was in hospital I could be blithely unconscious of their need for help, whether emotional support or a hot meal delivered to a family under stress.

Too often gossip is confused with back-biting, whereas to me, gossip is passing on information that is useful or even valuable in our inter-actions with each other.

And there’s another aspect to gossip – not just useful vital information that enables us to respond appropriately, but sometimes it also gives innocent pleasure !

Yes, I remember the fascination with which I listened to the story of a party where two guests had had a row, and one had tipped a glass over the other…and wished I had been there to see it… drama always happens when I’m in the next room, I felt. So is this voyeurism or schadenfreude I asked myself?

And I also remember reading years ago, that Lord Butler, an English stateman who knew the Queen, reported that like ‘all intelligent women’, she enjoyed gossip. First, I was delighted to think that an enjoyment of good gossip was almost a virtue, and meant that I was intelligent, but it also made me look at what gossip actually is.

It’s the tiny facets of personality or of life that can illuminate a whole character, or light up a situation by showing the human interest behind the dry bones of fact.

When reading history, it’s the delicious details of human conduct that rivet me – reading that Charles 11 loved his cavalier King Charles spaniels so much that he allowed them to whelp in his own sumptuous four posters beds… causing distaste and disgust among his courtiers – ‘God bless the King and damn his dogs,’ one quipped. This gossip made me love him.

I loved to read of George V fulminating about his son wearing ‘vulgar turn-ups’ on his trousers, and loud checks, and Queen Victoria complaining about her second son’s sartorial habits too. Even better is the unexpected and almost outrageous, like hearing of the love between Nehru and Lady Mountbatten, which gossip had informed me of long before the current spate of film and biography.

Just knowing that this beautiful high -minded man who ruled India, had fallen in love with the elegant witty aristocrat married to the semi- royal Viceroy, made them both so much more human, and therefore interesting. To read that she was found dead with all his letters opened on her bed, to be re-read before she went to sleep, and that the heart- broken statesman had sent a destroyer to her committal beneath the sea, to sprinkle showers of marigold petals on her coffin as it sank beneath the waves, was beautiful.

And to discover that the Queen Mother – who gossip tells us had a wicked tongue – quipped that: “dear Edwina always liked to make a splash,” gave me another frisson of pleasure.

‘One shares gossip as one should share good wine. It is an act of pleasure,’ wrote Sarah Sands, a journalist in an essay on gossip ‘There is an art to gossip, which is really a moment of memoir. Philosophers of the human heart… or heartless but comic diarists … tell us more about social history, politics and humanity than autobiographies of public record… I always learn more from a gossip than a prig. Life is a comedy…’

This is gossip as fun. But gossip is also the passing on of important information that we may need. Not the cruel behind their backs stuff, but the details that may help us all. We can be kinder and more tolerant or even forgiving, if we know the pain or difficulties behind some-one’s inconsiderate or strange behaviour.

Women have a well-deserved reputation for gossip, but it’s often this sort of passing on of useful information. On the other hand when I was the only girl in an all-male officers mess, I was shocked at the sometimes cruel and careless gossipy remarks of the men I overheard. Yet my experience of living in an all-female community had been that kindness was acceptable, but catty comments were not.

So yes, I am a defender of the art of gossip…I relish the flashes of insight which an apt morsel of gossip can bestow. This is not gossip as slander, back-biting, envy, jealousy or small mindedness that so many arbiters of human nature have condemned. This is gossip demonstrating the endless fascination of human nature, and as an aid to understanding ‘what’s going on’ for each other.

And if, as Socrates said, strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people, there speaks a man who doesn’t understand the value of emotional ties and the genuine connections between people which make the world go round.

The picture is Chatterboxes by Thomas Kennington

Food for threadbare gourmets

We were meeting friends off the ferry, half an hour’s drive away, and bringing them back home for lunch. Which meant being organised. So while a hot winter’s lunch was heating up in the oven, I needed a little something to keep them going. So spicy pumpkin soup which could be quickly re-heated, it was.

Steam chunks of pumpkin, and scrape it off the skin when soft. Fry some onions and garlic until soft, and add the pumpkin. In the whizzer put portions of this mixture, adding enough warm chicken stock to make a thick smooth mixture, and then return to the pan.

Add salt and pepper and either nutmeg or curry powder to taste, and heat it up. Just before serving, add cream to taste, and serve with fingers of crisp crunchy fried bread, fried in olive oil or hot fat.

 

Food for thought

The angels keep their ancient places–

Turn but a stone and start a wing!

‘Tis ye, ’tis your estrangèd faces,

That miss the many-splendored thing.

Francis Thompson

 

 

 

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Observing light and love

Image result for st francis

 

It must be over forty years since I rummaged in that wastepaper basket in the office. I salvaged a photo I’d seen the photographer toss into it disgustedly – saying it was double exposed, and there was no way his camera should have produced such a useless image.

It’s guaranteed not to, he had exclaimed. So I looked at it, and recognised what I was seeing. The little old woman sitting in the chair with piercing brown eyes and a deeply wrinkled face was Mother Teresa, who had visited this country back in the early seventies.

I was working on a woman’s magazine. I had given up any belief in God, or the Supernatural a few years before, when my life seemed so awful that I blamed the Deity, and decided to get on without It. And I didn’t like Mother Teresa.

But the picture I was looking at was one of authentic holiness. The light around this woman ringed her body, and was not obliterated by the arms of the chair, but carried on around her form. I still have this photo, feeling that it is an historic one.

In the early pictures of saints, in western Renaissance pictures, Byzantine ikons, middle Eastern paintings, to Indian Jain and Hindu representations of holiness, artists have usually painted a halo around the head of a person. But this was a light which completely ringed Mother Teresa. Maybe it was her aura – which was filled with light.

I’ve never been very impressed by the efforts of the Catholic church to establish sainthood based on the person having performed at least two miracles of healing. Healing is not that rare, even among healers the Catholic church would not recognise as saints.

Healers to me are of rather a different order, and maybe some can see the light in their souls that is not obvious to us lesser mortals. Nelson Mandela, a great man, whose great work of healing is now being undone in South Africa, would be one of those healers… maybe Princess Diana, who brought comfort and hope and re-introduced the word ‘love’ into the vocabularies of some who never used it, was a healer. Albert Schweitzer, the great musician and theologian, turned doctor, who brought healing to the sick or dying Africans who came to him at Lambarene in Africa, was a great healer and a great man, but has never been called a saint.

The face of Major Keeble, who fought in the Falklands War is marked with that same spirituality which makes a difference in our world. He was second in command of his regiment, when Col H. Jones, a VC hero, was killed during the Battle of Goose Green. A devout Catholic, Keeble took command at a stage when one in six of his men were killed or wounded, they were largely out of ammunition, had been without sleep for 40 hours, surrounded by burning gorse bushes, and were vulnerable to a counter-attack. A hopeless situation in fact.

After kneeling alone in prayer amongst the burning gorse, he returned to his men, ordered them to ceasefire, and released several Argentine prisoners of war with a message to their commander to surrender or risk more casualties. The offer was accepted, no more killing and a peaceful surrender of the opposing Argentine forces was the result of his action/Guidance. Now retired and still making a difference, Keeble has  established a consultancy and lectures on the: “ethic of business transformation with the ethic of peoples’ flourishing”.

I have seen two halos. One was during a personal growth course when the forty-five of us there were being really challenged, and floundering. Then someone spoke up, joyful words of inspiration, courage and wisdom. I looked across at him with amazement, and saw a ring of light around his head, just as depicted in those ancient paintings.

The man with a halo was a gay who worked with Aids sufferers. He came to this course because two friends had persuaded him. His two friends were as ‘holy’ as he was – whole in the real sense of the word. I loved them both for their goodness and simplicity. Both were selfless teachers who loved their boys in the purest sense of the word. The last time I saw one of them, he was sitting on the pavement, his feet in the gutter in the pouring rain, with his arm around the shoulders of a desperate drunk.

The other time I saw a halo was when I looked across at a ten- year- old child, lost in playing an old church organ. Another photographer from the same magazine couldn’t resist taking a photo of her, and when it was developed, there was that ring of light emanating from the crown of her head. I can’t explain it. Neither could the photographer with his state of the art camera.

Years later, I was talking to a grandchild, the same age as the girl. He was surprised to discover from me, that not everyone saw the light that he saw, shining from people’s hands and sometimes all around them. Later that night, as I tucked him into bed, he sat up and said to me earnestly, “Grannie, everything that God creates comes from the light”.

Malcolm Muggeridge, the initially sceptical English journalist who went to India to see what Mother Teresa was up to, went to the tatty, ill-equipped hospital where the dying, lying destitute on the streets, were brought to her and her gentle loving nuns. He wrote that the hospital was filled with a light, which also felt like joy.

I can’t explain any of this. I’m just recording and revelling in the little that I have observed about light and love.

PS     Since leaving my other internet provider at the beginning of the year, I have struggled with my new one, discovering after some months, a second e-mail account where all the blogs I follow have been accumulating for months. So I have hundreds of e-mails to sort through, as well as thousands of others that this new email provider dug up from somewhere in the past, and generously deposited in my files. So I’m taking a break from writing my blog for a few weeks while I wade through this mystifying and mountainous back-log… be bak sun, as they say!!!

Food for threadbare gourmets

Deciding to sip our spicy pumpkin soup from cups made me re-think croutons, which I love. So instead of frying cubes of sour dough bread in olive oil, I fried squares and fingers of the bread instead, put them on a plate, and let people help themselves. They were so delicious and so successful that I will probably never bother with fiddly croutons ever again. Guests waxed nostalgic about fried bread from their childhood… don’t we do fried bread anymore?.

Food for thought

This made me laugh, another version of a famous prayer, but still – to some extent – true!

Lord, give me coffee to find the courage to do the things that I can change, and give me whisky to help me accept the things I cannot change…

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Eating for Easter

Image result for pics of hot cross buns

A beloved friend coping with laryngitis wrote to say she intended to cure herself by eating Easter eggs. An idea, which, as my delicious daughter would say, ‘had legs’, but which was not one which appealed to me.

My preference for Easter is hot cross buns, spicy, and with a good, sweet cross, heated up gently in the oven, and eaten with lashings of butter for breakfast on Good Friday.

Food marks the seasonal calendar as much as the religious reason for the various festivals. One of my favourites, Pancake Day, aka Shrove Tuesday, evolved in order to use up the butter, eggs and sugar which were no-no’s during the penitential Lenten days leading up to Easter.

In England, it was once known as a half holiday which began when church bells were rung at 11 am. and then pancake races were and are run in towns and villages all over the country, even today. Legend has it that in 1445 a housewife in Olney, Buckinghamshire was so busy making pancakes that she forgot the time until she heard the church bells ringing.

She raced out of the house to church, still carrying her frying pan and tossing the pancake so as to stop it burning in her hot, probably iron, pan. Today, the rules for the race are strict, and it’s mostly run by women, who must wear an apron and a head scarf, and must toss the pancake at the beginning and end of the race.

This jollification is not so different from the Lenten carnivals held in more extrovert Latin countries…. The word carnival evolves from the Medieval Latin carnelevamen  – “the putting away of flesh”, and this was the last opportunity to put away not just meat, but also the pleasures of the flesh, eating and drinking and celebrating before the hard, hungry, deprived days of Lent.

Easter, marking the end of the forty days of Lent, is, as everyone knows, never the same date every year, but is calculated according to a full moon, and what are called The Golden Numbers which are too complicated for me as a maths  dud, to even try to explain. (I have an antique Anglican prayer book printed in 1745, in which the golden numbers and the dates of Easter, have been worked out up to the year two thousand, which must have seemed like an infinite eternity to the mathematician who calculated these figures).

Then there was a brief opportunity to indulge the pleasures of the flesh on Mothering Sunday, which fell on the third Sunday before Easter. I remember as a girl picking wild daffodils to take to my step-mother on this Sunday, which has now evolved into another wholesale commercial festival with bought flowers, chocolates, and gifts of every description, including taking mum out to tea or lunch.

In the eighteenth century, servant girls were given the day off to visit their mothers, and were usually given some food or clothes by the ‘big house’ to take with them.  But long before then, joyous people had been celebrating Mothering Sunday with a simnel cake, a delicious confection with two layers of marzipan (not your pallid shop-bought stuff, but the real thing, almonds pounded with an egg white… sweet and rich). One layer went inside the cake for the baking, and one layer went on top to be toasted. Yum…

Apart from the Christmas feasting, there’s another delicious foodie ritual for those who observe the rhythms of the Christian calendar, and that’s ‘Stir-up Sunday’. This happens on the last Sunday before Advent, (meaning the coming of Christ) which means it’s five Sundays before Christmas… often the last one in November, but like everything else in the Christian calendar, it varies every year, and so is a moveable feast.

The name comes from a prayer that Christians have been using for over a thousand years, originally in Latin, and translated into Archbishop Cranmer’s beautiful English in 1549. It goes: ‘Stir up’, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people”… but for centuries the stirring has also been associated with the making of the Christmas pudding. Stir-up Sunday means mixing all the spices, fruits, suet, sugars, in a big bowl, and everyone takes a turn in stirring the mixture, and usually making a wish. There are religious rituals too, but I’m talking food here.

Some families leave the bowl for a week to ‘mature,’ and also leave a bottle of brandy by the bowl, for passing family members to sling a slug into the pudding, and give it a stir. Eventually the flour and other ingredients are added, and then the whole thing is bundled into basins, wrapped and boiled and stored for Christmas.

We always had a goose for Christmas when I was a child, much more delicious than the turkey which has become fashionable since then. On Boxing Day, my father used to give me a slice of good bread covered in cold goose dripping sprinkled with salt and pepper. Few children today would ever know how utterly delicious this simple pleasure was. I tried to re-create it one Christmas in this country, but when the farmer’s wife told me the goose she had decided some weeks earlier to fatten up to sell to me, knew, and ran off all over the farm to escape her, I never ate goose again!

Which brings us full circle back to Easter, and those chocolate Easter eggs. Most people know Easter eggs have an association with a pagan goddess called Eostre, and the Easter egg custom percolated into Europe from Mesopotamia, and the Greek Orthodox church, but my interest is in chocolate Easter eggs. I discovered that a splendid old Quaker, Joseph Fry, started a chocolate business in 1759, and his sons later invented not only my favourite chocolate – Fry’s Cream in 1866 – but the chocolate Easter egg in 1873, getting on for a hundred and fifty years ago.

Quakers dominated the chocolate industry in England, Cadbury, Rowntree, Terry, Fry, were all owned by Quakers, just as so many banks were, including Barclays and Lloyd’s, and firms like Clarks Shoes and Bryant and May matches. This was because Quakers, as non-conformists, were barred from universities and the professions, but because their word was their bond, they prospered because everyone trusted them.

They became incredibly rich, which bothered them, so their money went into charitable causes, including the first model town Bournville, for Cadbury employees who were given free health and dental care amongst other advantages.

And the reason all these Quakers were in the chocolate business was because they invented chocolate drinks for the poor to drink, instead of beer and alcohol. This meant that the poor had to boil their water, a healthy practice in a time when water was not always pure, and the chocolate flavour was neither addictive nor debilitating, unlike alcohol.

Which is a good and Christian thought, that we all enjoy our chocolate treats because a group of high-principled men tried to find something delicious but not in-ebriating for us all to eat and drink! So yes, let us eat chocolate Easter eggs, even if they don’t cure laryngitis!

Food for threadbare gourmets

I’m still thinking in emergency mode, since our region is officially in a state of civil defence emergency as we endure Cyclone Cook.… and thinking of all the things I can do to improve the taste of tinned or packaged food, if necessary. I have a packet of pumpkin soup which I will jolly up with some chicken bouillon, a knob of butter and a little cream, and either some curry powder to ‘hot’ it up, or nutmeg to spice it.

Tins of tomato soup I jazz up with vegemite or marmite, about half a tea-spoon, plus the butter and cream. A tin of baked beans I’ll ‘improve’ by stirring in tomato puree, a slurp of balsamic vinegar, and some stevia to taste, even a little molasses…and then there’s tins of salmon – well I could write a whole book about ways to use a tin of salmon, but will curb my enthusiasm now, as we batten down our hatches. I’m posting this blog early, while we still have electricity.

 Food for thought 

Learn to wish that everything should come to pass exactly as it does.

Epictetus Ad 50 – 135  Roman Stoic philosopher, whose teaching sustained the late Rear-Admiral James Stockdale throughout his seven years captivity, torture and solitary confinement during the Vietnam War.

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