Tag Archives: history

The gifts that keep on giving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for threadbare gourmets

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

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

Food for thought

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

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

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Netflix Royals -Margaret, the wild card – last instalment

She was a woman who in her time played many parts, to misquote Shakespeare.

Starting life as her father’s pet, she became fashion’s darling, tragic heroine, the centre of swinging London with her brilliant randy husband, England’s first famous cougar and tabloid fodder, a ‘loose cannon’, and finally the sad woman known as ‘walking wounded’ in London circles.

No, the touching scene where their father made the Princesses promise undying loyalty to each other, didn’t really happen. Much more dramatic was the real moment missed by script-writers,  when he came back to his cosy non-royal home in Piccadilly after the abdication, and was greeted by his daughters aged ten and six in the hall, who both curtsied to him deeply, which shook him to his core (his wife was upstairs in bed with flu, overcome by all the long-drawn abdication dramas).

Princess Elizabeth soon began her apprenticeship, coached by her father, and tirelessly overseen by Queen Mary, who took the Princesses on cultural outings, checked on their education, and told their mother, the Queen, they needed more books. Typical of her light-hearted and fun-loving nature. the Queen responded by buying the complete works of P.G. Wodehouse! She also frequently interrupted the children’s lessons to take them off for some fun, to the chagrin of their governess, ‘Crawfie”.

Margaret didn’t have to study the way her sister did, and grew up to be the source of her father’s entertainment and relaxation. This special relationship ended when she was twenty-one and he died so unexpectedly. With no father and no role, equerry Peter Townsend became even more important to her than he had been since she fell in love with him in 1947, when the Royal family were touring South Africa. She was very demanding towards the man she loved, who was eighteen years older than her, and never took any account – as neither had the Royal family – of his duty to his wife and children.

Much has always been made of the fact that he was the “innocent party” in the ensuing divorce, but a husband who neglects his wife and children for his devotion to his employer, and the employer’s pretty daughter, has as much responsibility as has a lonely wife seeking love and support elsewhere.

The fact of his so-called innocence encouraged both he and Margaret to feel they could marry. Unlike the court, particularly Alan Lascelles, the Queen’s authoritative private secretary, (“are you mad or bad?”) the Queen was sympathetic.

The situation burst upon the consciousness of the world at the Coronation when Princess Margaret, decked out in diamonds and diadem and long velvet train, stood outside the Abbey chatting to the handsome equerry, and in a familiar and intimate gesture flicked an imaginary piece of fluff off his uniform as she smiled up into his eyes. The picture went around the world.

The Netflix scenes of Townsend standing on the steps of the aircraft taking the Queen to Ireland, and waving back to the imaginary cheers of the crowd were mind-bogglingly crass. Townsend was a sensible, sensitive man, far too intelligent to behave in such a tactless way, any more than he would have called the Queen by her private childhood nickname,’ Lilibet’, (I cringed as he did). He didn’t go to Ireland, but to Brussels to wait out his time.

These were the years when five foot two, blue-eyed Margaret with an eighteen-inch waist, became the darling of fashion. It was at the first Ascot of the reign when she really made her mark. It was, like ‘My Fair Lady’, a black and white Ascot, as the court were still in six months mourning for the King. By June, ladies were permitted to wear black and white, or grey, and the Princess appeared in an elegant, grey chiffon dress which set all the fashion watchers talking.

Like the Queen she also wore striking black and white outfits on the other racing days and her reputation was made. She became the most glamorous princess in the world,  photographed in an exquisite Christian Dior dress on her twenty first birthday at Balmoral (she’d always hankered for a Dior dress, like just about everyone back then) and almost as dazzling as Diana before her .

When Townsend returned from Brussels, and the pair spent their anguished time together in a friend’s country house, the Netflix script writers missed a rather delicious touch… the lurking press were getting most of their inside information from the ten-year-old daughter of the host and hostess. She was having the time of her life creeping out of the house to give reporters the latest on what was going on inside the house!

Margaret’s decision, which was couched in heroic terms, had more to do with the fact that their marriage wasn’t going to work – he had no money or home – couldn’t afford even one servant. Princess Margaret, on the other hand, was accustomed to the grandest of life-styles and loved the high life. She simply wouldn’t have been able to fill her time with genteel coffee-parties with other RAF wives, or live a quiet life out of circulation, away from all her rich, grand friends. The renunciation was a recognition that she couldn’t live without her Royal status and money, rather than a religious decision

Townsend himself wrote in his autobiography years later: “She could have married me only if she had been prepared to give up everything—her position, her prestige, her privy purse. I simply hadn’t the weight, I knew it, to counterbalance all she would have lost.”

With a bleak Townsend back in Brussels, the Princess embarked on her heady life of partying with all the richest, titled, and most eligible men of the time, who became known as the Margaret Set. It was during this time that she also became famous for what can only be called bitchiness -snobbish put-downs, spilling her glass of wine over the dress of a girl in a more fetching dress than hers, making people stay up into the small hours when they were tired or pregnant, obligatory curtseying, trading on her Royalty, which she did for the rest of her life.

She was twenty-nine when Townsend wrote to tell her he was marrying a Belgian girl much younger than her. Shortly afterwards she announced her engagement to the bohemian, Eton-educated society photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones. Courtiers and many others were shocked (all the officers in the mess I was stationed in at the time were angry that she was throwing herself away!)

However, Tony the commoner was created Earl of Snowdon, and got on famously, not just with the Queen and Prince Philip, but with the Queen Mother too. They remained friends until her death, and Snowdon continued to photograph the Royal family all his life.

The witty, brilliant, sexy Princess and the witty, brilliant, sexy photographer had more in common than most people realised, and for some years, they were the centre of the sixties hedonistic, sparkling world, surrounded by writers, painters, actors, wits and most of the names of swinging high society.

The marriage finally foundered on their in-ability to compromise with each other – and it has to be said, by the petty irritations of Royal life – the Princess’s maid would bring her a cup of tea in the morning but not Tony, while their nanny resisted him ever visiting the nursery. They both began affairs -Margaret’s rather more transient than Tony’s, and her first one in 1966 only a few years after their marriage .

Margaret then took up with a young man seventeen years her junior, an aristocratic out-of-work hippie and sometime gardener, Roddy Llewellyn. This was the most exciting tabloid fodder the press had had in years, on top of all the rumoured affairs, rows, and royal rages. Pictures were taken of them frolicking in the sea on holiday on Mustique, the West Indian island where Margaret had a house. This triggered Princess and Snowdon into announcing they were divorcing.

Newspapers demanded Margaret be taken off the Civil List which paid her a large sum, while Labour MPs denounced her as “a royal parasite” and a “floosie”. On 11 July 1978, the Snowdons’ divorce was finalised.  In December that same year, Snowdon re-married. Margaret never did. When after some years, Roddy Llewellyn told her he was marrying someone he’d known for years, Margaret never found another real lover, though she had plenty of friendships.

For the rest of her life she was known as ‘walking-wounded’ in London society. She continued to smoke and drink heavily, party with her friends on Mustique, and eventually to enjoy her grandchildren by her admirably well-adjusted children, David and Sara.

She had several mild strokes, and then, in Mustique, she stepped into a bath which she didn’t realise was scalding. Her badly burned legs never healed, and neither did she. She spent her remaining years in a wheel chair and died at seventy-two, four months before her mother, in 2002.

It’s said that her chief legacy is that her divorce made it easier for her sister’s children – Prince Charles, Prince Andrew and Princess Anne – to divorce. Her ashes were placed inside her father’s tomb, and she wrote her own rather revealing epitaph. It’s carved on a memorial stone in St Georges Chapel Windsor:

We thank thee Lord who by thy spirit doth our faith restore
When we with worldly things commune & prayerless close our door
We lose our precious gift divine to worship and adore
Then thou our Saviour, fill our hearts to love thee evermore.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

What to do with two pork chops? I decided we’d have them for lunch, since I prefer a very light supper. I fried them until they were nearly done, then poured in cream, grated a large courgette into the bubbling cream, added a chicken bouillon cube, a teaspoonful of garlic from a jar (lazy), a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, and plenty of grated nutmeg and black pepper. I let this all bubble until the cream was thick and crusty round the edges, the chops cooked, and then stirred in torn up leaves of spinach. Served with creamy mashed potato, we had all our vegetables suffused with the fragrant creamy sauce.

Food for Thought

Think not of the amount to be accomplished, the difficulties to be overcome, or the end to be attained, but set earnestly at the little task at your elbow, letting that be sufficient for the day.

Sir William Osler,  famed physician 1849 – 1919

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The Royals, the truth, and The Crown Part 2

She does a marvellous job conveying the goodness, sincerity and intelligence of the Queen, but Claire Foy’s performance misses one thing – the Queen’s sparkling wit and flashing smile which lights up her whole face.

I was lucky enough to experience this wit and its quickness, and that wonderful smile at a reception on board her royal yacht Britannia. It’s an accepted convention not to repeat the conversations had with Royalty, one often ignored nowadays, so I won’t repeat my conversation with the Queen, any more than I will repeat the fun and intelligent talk I enjoyed with the Duke. Even at fifty he was still the good looking, charming man who married his princess, and quite unlike the charmless, bad-mannered person he was portrayed as in The Crown.

Since the series opens with their wedding I’ll go back there too, when Philip, who only had his navy pay to live on at that point, had enough innate self- esteem to be married in his old well-worn navy uniform, rather than borrow or cheat on rationed clothing coupons for the sake of looking smart for the in-laws, courtiers or anyone else.

The muttered conversation between Queen Mary and the Queen Mother denigrating Philip and his background could only have been a figment of the writer’s imagination, since Philip was far more royal than the then Princess Elizabeth. His pedigree goes back to the Tsars of Russia on one side (Nicolas II and the Tsarina attended his parent’s wedding in 1905 – the last big Royal wedding) plus a more direct line of inheritance from Queen Victoria than Elizabeth.

Of the two Queens who were supposedly bemoaning his background, Elizabeth’s mother was an aristocrat with no royal blood, and Queen Mary had been born a Serene Royal Highness, since her Hungarian father was not royal, though her mother, known as ‘Fat Mary’ (she was enormous, and no-one wanted to marry her until Francis of Teck was winkled out of Hungary) was George III’s grand-daughter.

Just as inaccurate were Churchill’s muttered remarks about Philip’s sisters being ‘prominent Nazis’ … One sister had been killed in an air accident that claimed her whole family in 1937, and a teenage Philip had walked to their funeral as he later walked with his grandsons at Diana’s funeral. Another sister’s husband had been a Nazi from the beginning, since like many others he thought Hitler would protect them from the Bolshevism which had assassinated their close Russian relatives – the Tsarina was his aunt.

But as time went on the relationships with Hitler and the Nazis foundered, this sister’s husband was killed in a mysterious air accident, while his brother was imprisoned in the concentration camp at Dachau, and his wife, Princess Mafalda had died in Flossenberg, another notorious concentration camp.

Liberal Prince Max of Baden – married to another sister – had funded Dr Hahn into his progressive Salem School. He lay low after the Nazis closed the school and Hahn escaped to Switzerland, and thence to Scotland via England. There Hahn had founded Prince Philip’s old school Gordonstoun. So that’s all the sisters and their husbands accounted for, and so much for that imaginary throwaway remark.

The apparently reluctant ennobling of Philip by the King was also very unlikely… the Royal family had known Philip even before he  was a frequent visitor to Windsor on his navy leaves, during the war. He always remained his own man, and when required to wear a kilt at Balmoral like all the royal family, curtsied to the King when he met him, causing great laughter all round.

As the years went by (with none of the marital aggro constantly featured  in the Crown) – no affairs – as Philip once famously responded to a reporter questioning him: “Good God, woman,” he thundered at her, “have you ever stopped to think that for the past 40 years I have never moved anywhere without a policeman accompanying me? So how the hell could I get away with anything like that?”

Pat Kirkwood, who had spent a night dining and dancing with Philip and her current boyfriend, the photographer called Baron, who’d brought Philip along with them, used to say that that one night in Philip’s company had ruined her whole life and even robbed her of a medal in the honours list. But as Philip wrote to her when she wanted him to issue a denial about a supposed affair, “Short of starting libel proceedings there is absolutely nothing to be done. Invasion of privacy, invention and false quotations are the bane of our existence”.

It’s true Philip was deeply hurt by the establishment opposition to his name, but his marriage remained the love match that it still is after seventy years. Staff tell of a younger Philip chasing Elizabeth up the stairs pinching her bottom, and her laughing and protesting before they disappeared into their bedroom.

Andrew Duncan, in his book ‘The Reality of the Monarchy’, tells of a fracas at a Brazilian reception, where he watched the Queen look miserably at Philip as he tried to restore order. ‘He smiled, touched her arm, and she relaxed, smiling nervously back, a tender look of tragic implications… theirs was a relationship… scrutinised everywhere, derided by critics, devalued by schmaltz’…  Andrew Duncan saw this ’non-public smile’ and wrote he was  reminded that ’this was a genuine love story and love match.’

Philip had resolved to support his wife while finding his own niche, which would lead in the following decades to the active patronage of more than 800 different charities embracing sports, youth, wildlife conservation, education, and environmental causes.

Within the family, Philip also took over management of all the royal estates, to “save her a lot of time,” he said. But even more significantly, as Prince Charles’s official biographer Jonathan Dimbleby wrote in 1994, the Queen “would submit entirely to the father’s will” in decisions concerning their children, so Philip became the ultimate domestic arbiter in their family.

Another biographer has described Philip’s caring fathering. He was recorded for example, saying amongst many other useful parenting tips, that one should never immediately say no to anything children want to do, but to think it over, and if eventually you have to say no they will accept it more easily … for contrary to popular belief he was not an authoritarian father.

In ‘The Crown’  when the couple were in Kenya before her accession, much was made of the Princess claiming  that she knew all about cars as she’d trained on them in the army. This is a well-honed legend, which doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. I was in the army too, and know how such things work.

For six months the Princess was chauffeured to an ATS  (Auxiliary Territorial  Service) detachment near Windsor every day and collected to return to the castle in the late afternoon. In her well pressed uniform or clean fresh dungarees cleaned and ironed by a maid, she joined carefully screened army personnel like Mary Churchill, the Prime Minister’s daughter, but she never lived in an army unit, got close to ordinary soldiers, polished her own shoes, or actually experienced army life.

In those moments in Kenya when she became Queen, I wondered where were the staff – Lady Pamela Mountbatten, lady in waiting, Mike Parker, Philip’s aide, Ruby MacDonald, the Queen’s dresser, Martin Charteris, private secretary, the housekeeper, maids, butler, waiters and so on?  I blenched at the incredibly dowdy mac and chiffon scarf Claire Foy was decked out in on her way to the airport having just become Queen, looking like a fifties suburban housewife going shopping.

The Queen had a full bosom, a tiny waist and elegant legs, and she wore dresses that displayed them to advantage. She would have died of heat wearing that tatty mac in Kenya. Neither did she wear all those dowdy blouses and cardigans. Only at Balmoral did she wear tailored shirts with kilts and cardy, though in her young days she was photographed playing with Prince Charles and Princess Anne wearing an elegant suit with nipped-in waist.

And I felt for the ghost of Sir Anthony Eden, played by a grim faced Jeremy Northam. Eden,  the famously handsome, charming, well dressed foreign secretary, was sporting  in-appropriate town clothes when in-appropriately barging into the King’s shooting party. After a life-time as a tactful diplomat, he’d never have worn the wrong clothes or turned up at the wrong moment!

And with all this whimpering about the series, I loved it for the beautiful interiors photographed in stately homes, lovely furniture, fabrics, scenery, and play of character… though the history was rickety, the drama was fascinating. But as one of the commenters in my last blog said so cogently: ‘If characters are not strong enough to stand on their own history as the stuff of narrative, then find other subjects. If they are, then why not stick to the facts?’

Thank you for those words, good friend at https://colonialist.wordpress.com/

I’ll round off this series next week when I can’t resist covering Princess Margaret’s shenanigans…  pity the producers didn’t use that wonderful line from the inimitable Sir Alan Lascelles, who, when Townsend told him he was going to marry the Princess, replied using that famous phrase about the poet Byron: ‘Are you mad, or bad?”

Food for threadbare gourmets

I had enough pasta for two left over from supper with friends, but instead of preserving it in cold water a la advice from those who know, I mixed it with enough olive oil to stop the lasagne from sticking, and it was much tastier than if it had had a cold bath.

For a quick lunch the next day I sauted an onion in good olive oil, and when soft added a tin of Italian tomatoes, plenty of garlic, a squish of balsamic vinegar and sweet stevia powder to taste, to give it that tangy and sweet flavour. Salt and freshly ground black pepper of course.  When it had all bubbled up, and become a nice thick mixture, I sprinkled lots of grated cheese over the lasagne in a casserole, poured the tomato mix over it, and then tipped plenty more cheese on top of that.

Three minutes in the microwave, cheese melted, and lunch was hot and ready to eat…. with a glass of the Riesling from last night too…..

Food for thought

To every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven… a time to keep silence and a time to speak. Ecclesiastes III verses 1 and 7

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The world – our village

100_0841 - CopyWhenever we hear the sound of a helicopter circling overhead, we know that someone is in trouble in our little village. The helicopter lands on the school playing field, and the one in need is whisked away to hospital.

Last year it rescued an elderly resident who’d slipped down a cliff, the year before, a village teenager with broken legs and arms after coming off his new motor cycle.

This time it was a profound tragedy when a young mother was suddenly rushed to hospital with a killer illness that struck out of the blue, and who only lived for another two hours. Everyone wants to surround the family and the small children with love and care and food and anything that would assuage the grief that can never be assuaged.

That’s how a village works. When I had a car accident many years ago, the family were swamped with food and help both while I was in hospital and afterwards. My daughter- in- law has the beautiful knack of creating a village wherever she lives or works, whether it’s a block of flats and her work place in London, or her suburban street and her children’s school here in New Zealand.

I’ve often wondered how she does it… I think it’s a mixture of care, interest in everyone around her, a willingness to become involved with their lives, and a sense of responsibility to the world and to her neighbours, however you define neighbour. And tolerance.

I think of other villages where those were the things that not only defined the village but made them unique, and two spring to mind immediately.
At a time when France allowed over 80,000 Jewish men, women and children to be deported to concentration camps, the community of Le Chambon- sur- Lignon in France hid some thousands throughout the war. This tiny community of only several thousand themselves, took Jewish children and families into their homes, and though most were poor, and hard put to feed themselves, they fed and protected their charges throughout the years of Nazi occupation.

No-one was ever turned away. The Germans knew this was happening and several times tried to intimidate the villagers and their leader, Pastor Andre Trocme, arriving with buses to take the Jews away. Whenever the Germans came, the villagers hid their refugees in the forest, and when the Germans had left the villagers would go into the forest, and sing a song. The Jews would then emerge from their hiding place and go back to their homes in the village.

Later one of the villagers said: “We didn’t protect the Jews because it was moral or heroic, but because it was the human thing to do”.

One other village in Occupied Europe also did this human thing. In the tiny village of Nieuwlande in the Netherlands, every one of the one hundred and seventeen villagers took a Jewish person or family into their home and kept them safe throughout the Nazi occupation. The pastor’s son, Arnold Douwe was the moving force behind this act of compassion and unbelievable courage.

The people in both villages showed incredible moral and heroic fortitude, not just for a day or a week or a year, but for years, never knowing how long their ordeal would last. Philosophers may argue about whether altruism exists, but as far as this naive human being is concerned, this was altruism of the highest order.

These apparently ordinary people put themselves and their families in mortal danger, and coped with daily drudgery too – would you want the inconvenience of sharing your home with strangers indefinitely? They did this for no reward except for knowing they had done their best for other human beings, and in doing so were themselves truly human.

Such generosity and compassion in a community can still happen. We all saw on the news the loving welcome the people of Germany offered to the tragic human beings who arrived on their doorstep in the last few days, after their months of unfathomable misery and un-imaginable hardship.

The heart-rending picture of one small boy lying dead on a sunny beach has reached the hearts of most people in the world, and shown us once again that we really are a village. The actions of western governments and power plays of western nations have destroyed these decent, ordinary people’s lives and countries, their towns and their villages. So now perhaps it’s time for the world to remember that it is a global village, and to show with action the loving compassion of village life in societies all over the world.

Maybe every village in the western world could pledge to share their peace and plenty with a refugee family…

And maybe, like Cecil the Lion, whose cruel and untimely death raised the consciousness of the world about the value and nobility of animals, these terrible scenes of refugees struggling to find safety and peace for their children, will raise the consciousness of the world too. These lines of exhausted refugees, and frail boats filled with desperate families, sinking in the sea, are reminding us of our common humanity.

They are reminding us of all that we have in common – love for our families, a love of peace, a longing for freedom, enough food, and education for our children – blurring the lines of division, whether race, religion, nationality or gender.
These strange times could be a turning point in the history of the world if we could use this crisis as an opportunity to bury our differences, and work for a common cause… which is peace on earth and goodwill to all men, women and children.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

One of my favourite dishes is risotto, and I have lots of variations. This one is a very subtle version, using leeks instead of onions. Rinse and chop two medium leeks very finely and gently cook them in butter. Don’t let them brown, as they will turn bitter. When soft stir in a cup of risotto rice, I use arborio, and then a glass of white wine or Noilly Prat.
Let it boil up until the alcohol has evaporated, and then add the hot chicken stock in the usual way. When cooked, stir in a knob of butter and four tablespoons of grated parmesan.
Meanwhile grill six rashers of streaky bacon or pancetta if you have it, cut it into small pieces, and when the rice is cooked, stir them into the mix, and serve with more parmesan.

 

Food for thought

Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible. Dalai Lama

 

 

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Eye witness to history

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I noticed a report last week that after the Queen left Berlin in a bright yellow outfit, she then changed into a sombre, slate grey coat and hat by the time she reached the concentration camp of Bergen- Belsen.

We just called it Belsen in my day. We had travelled through Hitler’s monument – Post- war Europe – which seemed from the train to be nothing but mountains of bricks and ruined suburbs with a few half houses still standing. They looked like half a doll’s house where you can re-arrange the furniture. In these grotesque rooms, pictures were askew on walls, wardrobe doors hung open, chairs still sat round marooned dining tables and empty fireplaces waited to be lit by ghosts.

I was awed into silence by these gross and hellish scenes. But at nine, I couldn’t even begin to understand the human tragedy, the broken lives, the blasted families, and never realised that maimed and starving people were actually trying to live in these apocalyptic holes and hills of smashed brick and rubble.

At a station where we stopped to disgorge some of the passengers crushed into crammed carriages, thin, white-faced children banged on windows begging for food, and scrabbled at the side of the track looking for odd lumps of coal. We were seated in the restaurant car, eating the first white bread I had ever seen, quite unlike our war-time rations, but the thrill of this exciting food was dulled by the sight of the pale, dust-smeared faces outside the window which didn’t open.

Finally Hanover at midnight. The station was the usual bedlam, the engine hissing and roaring, people calling and shouting and waving, and the lighting so poor that it took longer than usual for everyone to sort them-selves out and find each other, I thought. When all the debarking travellers had trickled off and the train pulled away again, my stepmother and I were the only people still standing waiting to be met. I had assumed that all the people I had seen were in the process of coming or going – now I discovered that they had all settled down for the night again, thousands and thousands of people sleeping on every available inch of floor, draped up and down stairs, lying propped up against walls where there was no room to stretch out.

When we had picked our way over the ragged, hostile bodies to the main entrance of the station to get into a military jeep to take us to a bed for the night, I stood momentarily at the top of the steps. Straight ahead, the moon was shining through a large, gothic-shaped empty window high in the wall of a bombed church. There was no sound of traffic in the ruined city and no street lights, just silence and the un-earthly beauty and light of the silver moon. And then blessed cold fresh air sitting in the open jeep after the foetid atmosphere of the station.

The next day we arrived at the site of the former concentration camp and moved into our new home, the spacious former digs of Josef Kramer, the notorious Beast of Belsen. Hoppenstadt Strasse was the only residential street in the camp, and had been the quarters of the prison guards and their families before the liberation by shocked British soldiers.

We children were not told the history of the place, but it was as though the energies of the past were impregnated in the walls and streets and trees and stones. It felt like living on shifting sands of uncertainty and fear of all the things we didn’t understand and that no one ever explained.

Violence seemed to be the atmosphere we breathed. There were different layers of this violence. One was when I went to collect my best friend for our early morning riding lesson, and couldn’t raise her. Later at school I learned that her single father had shot her and her brother and himself – Mary in the kitchen, her younger brother on his way to the front door. I had nightmares for months about Mary and whether she had gone to heaven or hell, and what her brother’s last moments of terror were like as he fled from his murderous father. I didn’t feel I could discuss this with my new parents, my father just back from ‘abroad’ after seven years overseas, and a new stepmother.

There were hordes of unpredictable Yugoslav guards in navy-blue greatcoats who patrolled the place guarding it, though I never knew what they were guarding it from. They had a reputation for being dangerous, and every now and then one would shoot himself or a comrade. And yet another aspect of the incipient violence was that a single British car on the road at night was such an irresistible target for angry defeated Germans, that my father was run off the road and injured several times travelling between Hanover and Belsen.

Behind our house I played for hours in a pine forest, rich in bilberries, where the hungry Germans would come in autumn to pick this source of food in a starving land and demolish at the same time my little ‘huts’; while a mile down the road was the Displaced Person’s camp, which had previously been a well-appointed Panzer training depot. DP’s, as they were known, were the survivors of Belsen, still waiting for passports or permission to make their way back home across the bomb-blasted continent to find the survivors of their scattered families. To a puzzled child they seemed un-accountably unfriendly when our paths crossed.

One fine summer’s day the DP’s torched the pine forest and our homes were in danger until the fire was checked. They were trying to hurry up the authorities, and it was a desperate gesture to show their frustration. But the Allied authorities were dealing with twenty million people trying to get back to homes and families, and many of the refugees had no homes, families or even countries to return to. The problem grew under our eyes, as German refugees, another two million in the next few years, fled from the eastern sector and the Soviets.

They came straggling down Hoppenstadt Strasse with bundles wrapped in tablecloths, or blankets tied on the end of poles like giant Dick Whittington bundles. Sometimes they were found sleeping in our empty garages, or taking desperately needed clothes off the washing line, and were hurried on or arrested by the implacable Military Police.

These were the times of tension too when Russia began the process of harassing and interfering with traffic to and from Berlin, which finally culminated in the Berlin Airlift with thousands of planes ferrying food into besieged and beleaguered West Berlin. I didn’t understand it, but I felt the anxiety of the grownups. And we had to learn to use new money, which had changed from one set of cardboard to another, I never knew why.

We, the victors, shared the hardships of starving Europe. Our meagre rations were delivered once a fortnight in a cardboard box. I remember my stepmother looking at a small pile of cucumbers, our vegetables for the next two weeks, and asking in despair what we could do with cucumbers for a fortnight. We drank revolting tinned milk, as there was no organised milk supply and no pasteurised herds.

We sat in the dark every night for two hours when the electricity was switched off, and played games like twenty question to while away the pitch black hours. Like everything else, candles were in short supply. We had a puppy who seized the darkness as another opportunity to chew the rubbers that my father used for the Daily Telegraph crossword.

Horses were still an integral part of country life in this part of Germany, and this is where I learned to ride. The British regimental riding stables were run by an aristocratic Prussian officer – not of course using his military rank now- but known merely as Herr Freiser.

I was his star pupil and my father said I was learning to ride like a Prussian officer. Herr Freiser took great pains with me, never guessing that I was terrified of the huge jumps he put me over. Fear runs along the reins, I remembered from reading ‘Black Beauty’, and hoped I was bluffing the far-too-big cavalry horse I rode regularly. A big brushwood jump was one thing, but the fence on the wall was too much, and I came off every time, never knowing what had happened until it was all over.

Herr Freiser’s tall, blonde, classically beautiful Prussian wife regarded me with loathing, as though I was a pet cockroach he was training. I decided she hated all English, and was probably still a Nazi lady.

They lived in the groom’s cottage by the stables and were lucky to have a home and a job in their ruined country, though she obviously didn’t think so. Their gilded furniture, rescued no doubt from their ancestral Prussian schloss, was piled right up to the ceiling in one room, while they lived in the other. Herr Freiser seemed as frightened of her as I was. I realised that he was probably a collaborator with the enemy in her eyes. She would stalk through the stable yard in her immaculate jodhpurs, her glare like a blue flame from her icy blue eyes and thankfully ignored me.

Next week – part two -Belsen – The power of one

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Sometimes the pine nuts in pesto are a bridge too far for a tight budget, so I use walnuts instead. Grate half a cup of walnuts in a grater, and then grate half a cup or more of Parmesan. Finely chop about two cups of basil, plus three chopped cloves of garlic, and mix it all together with enough extra virgin olive oil to make the consistency you want- about half a cup. I then add a few table spoons of the hot pasta water help it all amalgamate. I also like this mixture over broccoli.

Food for thought

‘Ruskin had the romantic’s gift for seeing the inanimate world as if it had that moment left the hand of the Creator’.
Oliver van Oss, scholar, man of letters and great headmaster.

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Can bloggers change the world?

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I’ve been in a situation for the last few weeks where I haven’t seen or read a newspaper, watched TV or listened to the radio.  The only newspaper I’ve seen is the hundred year old front page of The Auckland Star, a now defunct newspaper, and this page was a facsimile, framed, and hanging in odd places in our various homes over the years.

 It was dated 11 February 1913. Two thirds of the page was filled with the main story which had shocked the Empire (there was only one empire back then, and it was British!). The rest of the space was taken up with smaller items, an African revolt in Mozambique, quelled by the Portuguese, the terrible fighting between Serbs and Turks with high casualties, another item in which the Turkish commander of Adrianople on hearing of the proposed neutralisation of the fortress promised ” to take care to put the 40,000 Bulgarians who live here out of the way. I shall confide the women and children to the foreign consuls, turn the guns on all the Bulgarians and then convert Adrianople to a giant rubbish heap”.

 Beneath this was a story about the Turkish Red Cross addressing European sovereigns asking them to recall the law of Christ to stop Christian forces committing the most ghastly outrages and assassinations on Turks witnessed in Europe in modern times. Under this item was the English response to the Australian Cricket Association’s investigation into the behaviour of the team in England, followed by a report from Melbourne on the arrest of two Chinese involved in an enterprise with Hong Kong Chinese to smuggle ‘Chinese persons’ into the Commonwealth.

 A political crisis in Japan had provoked rioting which was put down by the army, and the English House of Lords debated compulsory physical training and elementary military skills to: “lay a foundation … on which a scheme of national defence could be based if unforeseen dangers menaced the country”. At the bottom of the page, an unforeseen menace, the Kaiser, was reported as having unexpectedly addressed the university centenary celebration, and “delivered a fiery panegyric upon German military virtues”.

 And Suffragettes had a smashing time in London, where they broke the windows of the Reform, Carlton, Junior Carlton, Oxford and Cambridge Clubs, and Prince Christian’s house ( what had he done?). “The missiles were of “lead and fireclay balls”.

 The only other news of women was the report of the Kaiser’s daughter’s betrothal to Prince Ernst of Cumberland. Nothing very different there. Serbs killing, refugees being driven from their homes and ‘confided to the care of foreign consuls’, cricketing misdemeanours, African riots, Japanese politics, boat people trying to get into Australia, suffragettes protesting, reports on princelings, are still the stuff of the news today. Substitute Syrians for Serbs, feminists for suffragettes, and it could just as easily be the front page of any newspaper today.

 What made this day in history different was the story which filled the rest of the page and which has grabbed the imagination of the world ever since – the story of a man who failed. First, he failed to achieve his objective, and then he failed to get back safely.

 The main headline reads: “Scott Party Perish”, followed by the next headline: “Five Who Made The Final Dash”, and then another headline: “Lost In A Blizzard.” And then another headline (they made the most of headlines in 1913): “After Reaching The South Pole”. Below, yet another headline: ” A World Wide Sensation”, followed at last by the main story, two sentences, the first saying they’d reached the South Pole on January 18, and perished in a blizzard, the second, listing the five who perished.

 And this story is the only clue to how things really have changed in the last hundred years, even though they may seem to look much the same.  Scott and his men would not have died now – they would have had the latest dietary discoveries to sustain them, they could have gone on tractors or skis, or any of several different ways, and kept in touch with the media and their families with all the different forms of communication we now have at our disposal … they might even have been able to keep us up to date on Facebook, and Twittered their families regularly.

 The marvels of modern communication are what really are changing the world … so that maybe – just maybe – that page of news items may seem very dated in another hundred years.  But the other thing which has changed since that day in 1913 is what we’ve done to our planet in the last hundred years, destruction on a scale that actually threatens the survival of the human race, and prompts some to wonder if it has a future.

 Maybe the biggest change since that day of news in 1913 is the change in our mind-set… we have a United Nations now, which is supposed to help bring peace to troubled hot-spots… at least the intention is there. We have governments who talk about the happiness levels of their people, and maybe best of all, we have the internet to unite us to change things.

 We all know that riots, revolutions and parties can be created with a few text messages, but there’s something deeper and more important happening in the world that we bloggers inhabit. That is the growth of groups and individuals who use this medium to change things for the better.

 The biggest and most successful so far is the group known as Avaaz, which now has millions of members world-wide who create and follow up petitions to governments to rescue women about to be stoned for having been raped, petitions to stop destruction of ancient tribal lands and forests, to tackle Monsanto and their environmental damage, to lobby European countries to stop using pesticides to save our bees.

Their range of concerns cover all the issues of our small world and the more of us who can support them the more likely we are to change this precious world for the better. So far they’ve achieved their aims on many issues both great and small, and saved a few women. And yes – that’s a commercial … and Avaaz is the name!

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

 At last we have some rain, and the autumn mist now hanging over us makes me hope that perhaps we will get some mushrooms springing up in the grass outside our house… some years we do, some we don’t, and I never know why. If we do, and we only have a few, they will go with bacon for my husband. But if we have plenty I’ll cook them in butter with some chopped garlic, add chopped parsley and then some thick cream to bubble up. Poured over toasted sour dough bread, they are tasty and delicious.

Food for thought

When we do dote upon the perfections and beauties of some one creature, we do not love that too much, but all other things too little. Never was anything in this world loved too much, but many things have been loved in a false way; and all in too short a measure.

Thomas Traherne 1636 -1674  English metaphysical poet who remained unpublished for two hundred years.

 

 

 

 

 

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Souvenirs of life

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These stones and feathers and shells can tell the story of my life in the last few decades… shells collected with the children on a Northland beach, a black and white feather lying outside the door when I opened it on our first day in a new house –  greeting from a tui… the brown and cream morepork feather found on a long walk around the harbour with the thoughts and dreams of that afternoon threaded through its fronds.

An ancient stone from a river bed in the Blue Mountains of Australia was picked up after a day spent abseiling in abject terror, another from a cold pebbled beach in Devon, the chill of the Atlantic  breakers still embedded in it after all these years, while the polished brown stone came from an underground cave in the central North Island where glow-worms illuminated the roof, and a river flowed through.  These things are the stuff of my life… as they are of every life in which they are valued.

As I looked at them I thought of how other collections can also tell the story of a life. When I renewed my passport recently I found all my old ones, going back to when I was twelve and going to France on my own to learn French. In that passport photo two frightened brown eyes gazed out at the world. I had been so appalled at this picture that I promptly destroyed the evidence.

Which left the rest – a twenty one year old about to go on holiday to Spain, well- groomed hair, immaculate lipstick, and veiled blank eyes… the next, an exhausted mother of two toddlers about to go to Hong Kong, badly cut hair, eyes sad and resigned. And then, a picture of a thirty five year old woman, lots of dark hair piled up confidently, smiling eyes, relaxed smile. Life to be lived now, not endured. In the decades since, the hair has got shorter and then faded, and the last photo was so awful I hoped to be un-recognisable, but the story of a life is told in those passport photos.

Another can tell the story of their life in their jewellery, the coral necklace given at a christening, the charm bracelet for a little girl, pearls for a twenty-first, the engagement ring and the gold band…  a gift to mark the first child,  a clumsy pottery brooch made  at school and proudly presented to a beloved mother… the ring inherited from a grandmother, the eternity ring at a silver wedding…  such precious collections can mark out the steps of a life quite as well as a photograph album.

I wonder if there is even a market these days for photograph albums now all our photos are taken on phones and I-pads. I was never much  of a photographer, so that the photos of my honeymoon were on the same roll of film as the pictures of my first baby. But I did have a memory.

I remember one summer’s afternoon when the children were three and four as they tumbled around on the grass, one wearing a sun-suit in glorious colours of pink and orange and red, the other in matching shirt and orange shorts. As I looked at them, revelling in their laughter, their shining hair, and sparkling eyes, pearly teeth and glowing sun-tanned faces, I thought to myself, I’m going to remember this moment forever.

It was a turning point, because I found I did never forget that moment. So now, I know I can fasten those moments I want to remember with that little intention, and our minds are so obedient that they obey the instructions, and can call up the images whenever they are wanted. On the other hand, I wonder if the ease of communication, the instant photos, the selfies sent from Rome or Khatmandu which reach every member of the family all over the world the same day, make it easy to forget. We don’t have to remember, because it’s all there, on Facebook or in the picture file on the computer.

But for how long? Until the internet crashes? Or some other disaster hits the net? The computer is stolen? Few people will be able to pick up old albums in the future and leaf through them re-living their own lives, or discover the lives of their ancestors. And how will biographers fare in the future? In the past we’ve had portraits and miniatures in pre-photography days; then the wonderful stilted posed photos of the early days of photography, with the expert’s head hidden under a black cloth over a tripod while he captured forever the people and that moment in their time.

Then came the brownie box camera and all the other simple do- it- yourself cameras, and families recorded their events and special moments themselves. Biographies of the famous from the twenties until the sixties are full of revealing snaps, but what will there be for future  writers and historians wanting to illustrate their books about the powerful and famous? Not much, I suspect.

In the past, many anonymous photos turned out to be records of history – impromptu black and white snaps of Battle of Britain pilots ‘scrambling’, shots of families crouched in air –raid shelters from London to Leningrad, soldiers in Africa or Italy taking grainy pictures of each other to send back home… joyful hugs and kisses of victory – all these spontaneous pictures of humanity enduring both the ordeals and the pleasures of the twentieth century, captured in black and white film, are the stuff of history.

But I wonder what history is being preserved today in our somewhat ephemeral records? Will collections of jewellery or stones, in the end be the things to jog people’s memories in the future? Maybe the photos in passports and on driving licenses will the best concrete records we will have… time to get a decent picture taken for these official documents perhaps !

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Summer salads don’t always mean lettuce for me… One of my favourites is grated cauliflower, mixed with chopped hard- boiled egg, some chopped Medjuel dates, toasted slivered almonds, and lots of chopped parsley. Then stir in enough good mayonnaise to the consistency you like. Chopped apple or banana is a variation, but actually anything can be added, and it still tastes good. But it can’t sit around, or it turns watery. I eat it on its own, but it’s also good with cold chicken.

Food for thought

And a poet said, Speak to us of Beauty. And he answered: Where shall you seek beauty, and how shall you find her unless she herself  be your way and your guide?  Beauty is not a need but an ecstasy. It is… a heart inflamed and a soul enchanted … a garden forever in bloom and a flock of angels in flight.

‘The Prophet’ by Kahlil Gibran, Lebanese poet, 1883 -1931. ‘The Prophet’ has never been out of print since it was published in 1923.

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