Tag Archives: Hongkong

Ducal splendour and daily deprivation

On my tenth birthday -wearing my pearlsInline image 1

A life – This is the eighth instalment of an autobiographical series before I revert to my normal blogs)

There was a legend that there were no birds in Belsen, that they had fled this dreadful place. That I don’t remember, but I do remember the strange energy, a sense of shifting sands, and unknown menace. The Germans seemed hostile (understandably), and refugees from East Germany trudging past were distant, pre-occupied with despair.

And as well as the British Army, there were also posse’s of Yugoslav soldiers in navy-blue greatcoats, armed with rifles, who constantly patrolled the place, guarding it, though I never discovered what they were guarding it from or why they were there. They had a reputation for being dangerous and unpredictable, and every now and then, one would shoot himself or a comrade.

And our succession of German maids left constantly, Helena after stealing tea, Elsa taking nylon stockings, Hilde our meagre meat ration, and finally Hannah who left to get married;  Kuntz, the big taciturn batman, suddenly disappeared in a rush of joy, when he had word that his wife who he had thought was dead, had surfaced in Berlin.

Behind our house was a pine forest, rich in bilberries, where the local Germans would come in autumn to pick this source of food in a starving land, and beyond that, a mile down the road, was the DP’s camp. Displaced Persons were the survivors of Belsen, still waiting for passports or permission to make their way back home across the bomb- blasted continent to find their scattered families.

One fine summer’s day they torched the pine forest, and our homes were in danger until the fire was checked. The DP’s had set the forest on fire as a desperate gesture to show their frustration and get some action from post -war authorities. I don’t think it made the slightest difference to their plight.

The Allied authorities were dealing with twenty million people trying to get back to homes and families after the war. Many had no homes, families or countries to go to. The problem grew under our eyes, as refugees, another two million in the next four years, fled from Eastern Europe and the Soviets. They came straggling down Hoppenstadt Strasse carrying bulging bundles wrapped in blankets on the end of sticks hoisted over their shoulders like pictures of Dick Whittington.

Unlike him they were not seeking streets paved with gold, but something more precious – freedom. Sometimes they were found sleeping or sheltering in our empty garages, or taking desperately needed clothes from the washing line, and were hurried on or arrested by the implacable Military Police.

The currency was changed from the cardboard money we knew, to the new currency, the Deutschemark. This triggered the months of tension, which even we children were conscious of, when Russia began the process of harassing and then blocking all traffic in and out of Berlin, by road or river. This finally culminated in the historic Berlin Airlift to save the citizens of West Berlin.

Stalin‘s intention was to starve and freeze the Berliners into submission and oust the Allies. He failed, thanks to the extraordinary air-lift when planes flew in and out of Berlin every four minutes bringing in food and fuel for over two million Berliners, and World War Three was averted.

The conquerors shared the hardships of ravaged 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 only ever had revolting, evaporated, tinned milk to drink for there was no organised milk supply and no pasteurised herds.

Every night for two hours from six till eight the electricity was switched off to save power, and we sat in the darkness playing games like twenty questions to while away the pitch- black hours. There were no candles. Our puppy seized the darkness as an opportunity to chew the rubbers/erasers my father used for the crossword.

The Daily Telegraph crossword was one of the most popular diversions in the regiment, and I achieved minor fame and popularity in the officers mess then. Whoever wrote the crosswords had a penchant for using ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘The Wind in the Willows’ for clues, and a phone call would come from the mess for me. This would then put my parents on to the clue if they hadn’t already. In retrospect, I think there must have been a daily sweepstake for first past the post, judging by the competition to get the thing finished.

The officers mess was the Duke of Hanover’s palace, a little way out of Belsen, and splendid it was. (What had he made of the concentration camp on his doorstep?) We went there occasionally for drinks before lunch on Sundays, and for the children’s Christmas Party, when we played musical chairs in the ballroom under the shining chandeliers, slipping and sliding on the marble floor while little gilt chairs were subtracted from the circle. Then, when the party ended, like nearly every other party of my childhood, we danced Sir Roger de Coverley, with all the parents standing round clapping in time to the music.

Some weekends, we drove out to the Duke’s hunting lodge in the middle of a pine forest, where deer darted out onto the road, and wild boar lurked. This gemutlich little pile was now the officers club, run by a friendly middle-aged German couple. Had they always been the stewards of this place, I wondered later? Did they transfer their loyalties to their new employers in the interim, and hold the place in trust until the Duke regained his ancestral homes – if indeed he did?

Anyway, their speciality were delicious, lavishly sugared doughnuts, stuffed with butter icing. The glory of these doughnuts in a life of total gastronomic deprivation and war-time rations was utterly memorable (Did the Duke enjoy them too, before and after us?) My parents managed to get some of these dough-nuts for my tenth birthday.

It was the first birthday I had ever spent with my father, who went off to war when I was ten -months- old and my mother was pregnant with my sister. The previous year when I was nine, we were still in Yorkshire while he was battling his way to Belsen. He seemed more excited than I. The night before, when I went into the garden to say good-night to them, sitting in wicker chairs with their gin and tonics, I was allowed to stay up beyond seven o’clock, so my father could give me my birthday presents.

He was too excited to wait until morning. He gave me a string of pearls and a black fountain pen with a gold clip and nib. When the next birthday came, it was different, for he and my stepmother had a baby son, and my sister and I were rather a chore by then.

My stepmother had learned German and French at school, and rather fancied herself as a linguist. So she seized this opportunity to try to turn us into cosmopolitans too. Thanks to the puppy we’d become friendly with the local German vet from Bergen village five miles away. His twenty year old  daughter Suzanne became our German teacher, and she came every Sunday afternoon to teach us nouns and verbs and the endless der, die, and das, to be sorted through and applied to each noun.

She left us with piles of homework to do, and extraordinary medieval -looking text books with print that looked like something straight off Caxton’s press. The print was extra black, and the S’s and F’s and W’s and V’s expressly designed to trick baffled and ignorant nine and ten- year- olds.

She also told us how lucky we were, because her younger sister Hildegarde and brother Carljurgen had no paper and pencil at school, just broken, leftover stubs, and had to write in the margins of printed books when they wrote answers and essays. I didn’t always feel lucky. Her father, Herr Muller, called regularly, whether our various dogs needed his attentions or not. He regarded my parents as friends – or at any rate, their gin bottle.

In return for the generous helpings of gin he sipped – unobtainable in civilian Germany – he would bring my stepmother a specimen of the many extraordinary varieties of exotic orchids which he grew. I thought they were awful, not like flowers at all, but fantastically petalled and bearded and contorted in strange fluorescent pinks and acid greens and sharp yellows. He would arrive bearing this gift, and bend over my stepmother’s hand, clicking his heels together and bowing, in a strange old- fashioned Prussian ritual.

After some months of laborious social intercourse – his English becoming more broken with the quantity of gin consumed – we were invited to his house in Bergen to meet his wife. We had tea on exquisite Meissen china, but because they could get sugar at the time, but no flour, we had no cakes or biscuits, but dipped sour apples from the garden into the sugar, as a substitute for cake. The grownups managed with a cup of tea.

The vet’s wife was a fair-haired, washed-out, melancholy woman. When I exclaimed enthusiastically over the beautiful porcelain, she told me that they’d hidden it with all their other treasures in a hole under the cellar, so the invaders wouldn’t loot them. Even as a child I thought this was rather tactless. Invaders? Was she talking about us?

She also reminisced about the awfulness of the war to my parents, she and her daughter Suzanne, our teacher, describing the anguish of seeing their poor, wounded soldiers in blood- stained bandages in passing trains. Back home I heard my stepmother snort indignantly: “If they saw those trains, how come they didn’t know about the others!”

Since I didn’t understand what she was talking about it stuck in my mind, but some years later, I realised she was referring to the trains of the condemned heading for Belsen. In her book “The Children’s House of Belsen,” Hetty Verolme describes the platform at Celle lined with thirty SS men and Alsation dogs straining at the leash as her train pulled in from Holland. They then, eleven hundred young and old, sick and exhausted, hungry and thirsty, straggled the fifteen  miles or so to Belsen on foot and apparently unobserved by the local population, who denied all knowledge of the camp when the British authorities discovered it and questioned them.

But the friendship limped on. One summer’s day, Hildegarde and Carljurgen, the one with long fair plaits, and wearing a dirndl skirt and long, white, lace socks, the other, just as fair haired and blue-eyed, wearing leather lederhosen, long, white lace socks and black boots, took me driving in their farm cart, rumbling and swaying down narrow farm tracks between fields of blazing blue and purple lupins shimmering with tiny butterflies in the sunshine. Carljurgen let me hold the reins. He avoided that other field, where there were miles and miles of burnt -out German tanks my parents had shown us one dank winter’s day.

My father said I was learning to ride like a Prussian officer. The army stables were run by an aristocratic Prussian officer- not, of course, using his military rank now – but known merely as Herr Freiser. He 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 would remember from reading Black Beauty, and hope I was bluffing the huge, far -too- big military 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 blonde, classically beautiful Prussian wife regarded me with loathing, as though I was a pet cockroach her husband was training. But I decided she hated all English, and was probably still a Nazi lady. They lived in the groom’s quarters by the stables, and were lucky to have a job and a home in their ruined country, though she obviously didn’t think so.

Their gilded furniture, rescued no doubt from their 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. She would stalk through the stable yard in her immaculate jodhpurs, her glare like a blue flame from her icy blue eyes.

To be continued –  back to England

Food for threadbare gourmets

Having eaten a lot of curry in hot climates like tropical Malaya and humid Hongkong, it seems quite normal to me to eat it in our hot humid summer days at the moment. Curry Tiffin on Sunday in the Officers Mess was a hallowed ritual, and I used to love the choice of beef, lamb or chicken curry, gently simmering in large casseroles on the long polished table. These days, since I shattered my leg, and am less interested in standing for hours over a hot stove, I’m always looking for short cuts and now use some quick ingredients I’ve shunned in the past.

So I used both ready-made chopped garlic from a jar and also ginger for this old recipe, and it worked like a treat. I mostly do vegetarian curries these days… chop an onion and a couple of tomatoes, and in a blender whizz them to a paste with two cups of water, a dessert spoonful of prepared garlic, half a dessert spoon of ginger, several dessert spoons of tomato paste, a dessert spoon of curry powder, a good sprinkling of turmeric and half a teaspoon of stevia powder, or brown sugar.

Tip half this mixture into a pan with half a cup of cream, and let it boil and reduce while five or six chopped mushrooms are gently frying in butter or olive oil.

Combine the two when the curry mixture has thickened, and add some ginger marmalade to soften the sharpness if necessary. Hard boil an egg and chop it over the curry. This amount serves one greedy person, and I ate it with chopped steamed cauliflower instead of rice. (I try to avoid rice since I read that it contains two to three times the amount of carbohydrate than bread. I would also eat this mix with lentils)

The other half of the curry sauce I freeze for another time, when I would curry cauliflower and peas instead of mushrooms, or even some chicken.

Food for thought

Nobody is superior, nobody is inferior, but nobody is equal either. People are simply unique, incomparable. You are you, I am I.                                                                         Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh  Indian guru

Some facts about post-war Bergen-Belsen for those who may be interested…

Adults didn’t tell us much back then… so I’ve done a lot of research to try to understand what was going on around me then. First of all, I discovered, Belsen became the holding place for DP’s from many other camps, who were unable to return to their homes behind the Iron Curtain. The facilities were the best, since they were accommodated in a Panzer training depot next door to the camp, and we all know that Hitler’s military got the best!

But many DP’s were not only depressed and traumatised but hostile to all authority after their experiences, and not all refugees were upright, honest pillars of the community – there was riff-raff as well. They were very difficult for the British to deal with – who were also tired and traumatised after six years of war, and their own social problems like returning to families who hadn’t seen them for six years.

The Jewish leader in the camp, Josef Rosensaft, a charismatic Belsen survivor, would only communicate with the frustrated British in Yiddish, even though he was a perfectly fluent English- speaker. He agitated for everyone to go to Palestine, as it then was, instead of trying to find other countries. (The Americans were still only taking in tiny numbers of refugees or displaced persons) And the British were constrained by the Mandate, (a responsibility given them after World War 1) and were not allowed to let unlimited refugees into Palestine.

The Arabs – rightly as it turns out -were concerned about their place in their own country. After the Balfour declaration, a quota of Jews had trickled in, but this didn’t bother them, when it was two thousand a year. Come Hitler, numbers jumped to 60,000 the first year and continued to rise, until the Arabs were fearful they would be outnumbered (they were right to be fearful). The British were caught in the middle of this.

Also, Europe was in chaos at the time, and the British Zone had very little farming land, so food was a real problem for the British authorities, both in England and in their zone of Germany. Labour Prime Minister Attlee considered at one stage reducing the ration for the English to 1700 calories a day, they were so up against it, with paying off the huge loans to the Americans for Lend lease – which they finally paid with all the interest in 2006.

This was also the time of the changing of the currency and the Berlin Airlift. At the same time the Black Market was a nightmare for the authorities, and it was discovered that Belsen was the biggest hub of the Black Market. British Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Morgan, chief of “displaced persons” operations for UNRRA, recorded in his memoir that :‘under Zionist auspices there had been organized at Belsen a vast illegitimate trading organization with worldwide ramifications and dealing in a wide range of goods, principally precious metals and stones. A money market dealt with a wide range of currencies.’

The British wanted to go in and search the place, and stamp it out. But Josef Rosensaft held them off for nine months, stalling over the idea of German police or British soldiers trespassing on their hallowed refuge after all they’d been through with the Nazis. By the time the British got into the camp, the evidence had been hidden or destroyed. All these events built up real hostility and dislike, which is why, I suppose, so many people, unable to distinguish between the ‘goodies and the baddies’, became unsympathetic to the D.P.s.

Ninety-six young English medical students volunteered to help the doctors and nurses coping with the disaster they had found in 1945. In the two months following, 14,000 more people died, too far gone from disease and starvation to save. Many could literally no longer stomach food, and many solutions were tried. Apart from the trials of Kramer, his infamous women guards/tormentors, and a dozen or so other guards from Auschwitz as well as Belsen, by the British, no-one else was ever held to account by the Germans for the deaths of more than 50,000 people.

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Filed under army, birds, british soldiers, cookery/recipes, history, life and death, life/style, military history, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, uncategorised, Uncategorized, world war two

Time, like an ever-rolling stream

a traditional Cotswold village hotel, England, UK

Image result for dorset villages

A life  – Part one

Diarist Frances Partridge wrote”… I have a passionate desire to describe what I’ve felt, thought or experienced, for its own sake – to express, communicate or both? And I can hardly bear not to pin down the fleeting moments.”

This year is when I turn eighty, the sort of birthday one can never imagine will happen to oneself, and I still have  that:  ‘passionate desire to describe what I’ve felt, thought or experienced, for its own sake – to express. communicate…’ and above all, to savour and revel in the joy of everything – love, food, family, friends, ideas, music, books, the sea and the wind, the birds and the flowers… infinite treasures and gifts.

My years seem to have been packed with incident and tragedy, drama and amazement, travel and wonder. I look back at the people I’ve known and loved, and also to the people, who to my puzzlement and sadness have hated me and sabotaged me, and I know that each one has given me gifts of love and insight, and in the case of my enemies, strength and tolerance… I can’t say that I ’love them that hate’ me in Jesus’s words, but I try to see the point of their presence in my life, and to let them go… forgiveness is not a word I use… I’d rather come to terms with the past and the sadness of knowing that others are hostile, and then release them from my life.

What I have learned from the hostility and jealousy of those people who do actually hate me – and they are family rather than strangers-  is that their words reflect who they are, rather than telling me anything about myself.

One of the wonderful things about living the years that I have, is that Time has taught me so much about myself. In doing so, Time and opportunity have set me free to be the essence of who I really am, rather than the person who has been beset by the grief of bereavement, abandonment, divorce, poverty, pain and rejection. The insights that Time has allowed me to gather, have set me free from those profound and painful experiences to be joyful, fearless, and – I hope -loving…

And like Frances Partridge, I have this urge to write about the fleeting moments, even if no-one reads them… just writing the story of time past will be satisfying, fulfilling, and, I suspect, will give me fresh insights with which to live the rest of life, however long it may be. My intention is also to go forth on the next journey, singing and dancing, heading off joyfully into that other plane of existence which awaits us all.

Maybe writing my story will seem self-indulgent to some readers, but to those who stick around and find it interesting, I thank you in advance.

Most of us were touched by history in the 20th century, and many of our lives touched too. Sometimes, the connections are obvious, sometimes they remain hidden. And sometimes history, events or people have reached out from other centuries and other segments of time and beckoned for attention. The past is always with us – our own and the pasts of other people and other times. Consciousness of these peoples and these pasts enrich the experience of our present.

And, oh, the pleasure of acquaintance with personalities then and now, their quirks and foibles and wonderful, mystifying uniqueness. And there is too, the indefinable uniqueness of the places around the planet where human beings have settled and, in the taming of the place, evolved their own particular culture.

Skyscrapers and fast food chains may try to obliterate the personality of modern megalopolises, but rock and sand, climate and sea still exert their shaping influence. Rock and sea hem in the millions who cluster upon Hongkong, and mould their lives as they push and punch for space, while among the mountains and islands, volcanoes and lakes of New Zealand, people have obliterated forests and swamps and become a pastoral people.

For a while I lived on the rock that is Hongkong, and among the mountains, lakes and plains that are New Zealand; I shared the hardships of survivors in dis-membered Germany and battered Britain, grew up in Malayan jungles and attended school set among tea plantations in the highlands.

The story that I write is like the story of us all, in that it’s my interpretation of the past, my remembrance and re-living and reworking of the segments of time  inherited from my forbears and family.

Begin at the beginning, commanded Alice, but, like most of us, my own stories only begin halfway though. Glints of sunlight and moments of beauty remain embedded in the dull, grey mass of unremembered early years. That pink dress with tiny tucks and frills, a blue balloon sailing away in the wind, the taste of a warm cherry pulled from a drooping branch, the honey scent of golden gorse flowers, these are my beginnings. But where did they lead and where am I still travelling?

Dorset in 1940 was a different world. It was my world. With no pylons or pollution, undefiled by progress, it still lay dreaming in that deep content described by Thomas Hardy. Once known as Summerlands, it seemed always to be summer in my two and three- year- old’s memory. Hardy’s description: ” The languid perfume of the summer fruits, the mists, the hay, the flowers, formed therein a vast pool of odour which at this hour seemed to make the animals, the very bees and butterflies drowsy…” was how it was for me.

The skies were clear and blue, and the bright sun blindingly gold. Dragonflies darting and dipping over the water seemed one moment emerald-green, the next, electric blue. Wisps of freshly- gathered hay lay in long horizontal strips high up on hawthorn hedges, where the heavily laden dray, hauled by a huge, patient cart horse had swayed and creaked down the narrow lane past our home in the dusk. The scent of honeysuckle and the taste of pink and yellow cherries warmed by the sun still transports me back to those times.

My twenty-three -year- old mother had fled the Blitz and was living in great discomfort in a tiny farm cottage. It had no electricity, which was not unusual then, and she walked regularly to the village shop to replenish the oil for the lamps she used at night. I dragged along holding the handle of the pushchair while my baby sister sat in it. We passed the grey stone manor, scene of Tess of the D’Urberville’s honeymoon, and plodded over the ancient Elizabethan bridge to a shop before the level crossing. The dark little shop had fly papers hanging in it with dying flies buzzing. Their misery appalled me.

Sometimes, I lay on my stomach and pushed my head between the struts of  the small bridge nearby to watch the currents of the stream. Other times I stood on tiptoes high enough to peer over the  lichen-encrusted stone of the big bridge over the river, and gazed into the shiny water flowing below, and at the sharp emerald- green of the long strands of water-weed forever rippling with the current. If I forgot time, I discovered that my mother seemed miles away with the push-chair, and ran in panic to catch up.

The only thing which shattered the silence of those quiet days, was the terrible tanks which ground ear-splittingly along the road from the nearby military camp. Once, as we crossed the grey bridge over the Frome, a column of tanks caught us halfway across. We sheltered in one of the mossy alcoves for pedestrians trapped in former ages by farm carts, horses and carriages. The caterpillar tracks, which seemed to smash into fragments the very air we breathed, were higher than my ears. Their noise felt like hearing the sound of hell. No-one told me this was the sound of war

At two I had few words, but I understood what the adults were saying, and they often puzzled me. The biggest puzzle of all was when they gathered in a little knot of excitement, and looked up to those clear, blue skies, saying: ” There’s another dog-fight”. Hard though I squinted up into the cloudless blue sky, I could see no dogs, only  tiny white crosses, and white puffs following the crosses, diving across the sky. Now I know this was the Battle of Britain.

There was a framed photograph of me on the kitchen wall. Thick dark hair cut straight across my forehead, dark eyes, my neck and shoulders fading away. I looked at it often, wondering when my arms and the rest of me grew. And there were other memories too, like snapshots in colour, with no knowledge of what happened before or after.

Pulling on my Wellingtons and staggering outside, very proud to have managed it un- aided, and the pain at the burst of laughter when the adults saw the boots were on the wrong feet. The grass snake in the puddle. Putting my arms round a huge, hairy, grey and white dog called Mollie. The perfect happiness of the day I was big enough to fit the blue, pink and yellow flowered sun-suit, when the big children from the farm let me join them, and we ran up a hill where sunshine streamed between the trunks of pine trees in golden columns of light.

These older girls taught me their country games, dances and songs, some harking back to the eighteenth century: ‘Poor Jennie is a-weeping on a fine summer’s day’, a haunting tune that has stayed with me all my life, and: ‘I sent a letter to my love and on the way, I dropped it. One of you has picked it up and put it in your pocket…’

These are some of the fleeting moments that reach back to that past more than seventy- seven years ago … ‘Time, like an ever-rolling stream, Bears all its sons away, They fly forgotten, as a dream Dies at the opening day.’

To be continued

Food for threadbare gourmets

After all that rich Christmas food we needed something to re-set our digestive juices ! I craved curry, wanted something quick and easy, and also wanted to use up scraps. I only had half an onion, plenty of mushrooms, the green top of a leek, and tomatoes. Giving the chopped onion a quick zap in the microwave, I added it to the frying pan with olive oil,  sliced mushrooms, the leek chopped very finely, and a couple of chopped tomatoes.

When they were soft, feeling lazy, I stirred in a generous teaspoon of prepared garlic from a jar, a teasp of ginger from a jar, a good sprinkling of ground cumin, coriander and even more of turmeric to taste, plus a teasp of mild curry powder for good measure. When the spices had cooked for a few minutes in the oil, I added water, and let the mix boil … after tasting, I added a generous dollop –  a heaped tablespoon – of ginger marmalade to take the sharpness off the curry and a good squirt of tomato paste from a tube. After letting all this gently simmer, I added some cream before serving, but another time would try yogurt.

We ate it with dahl – lentils – and a hard- boiled egg each. I couldn’t be bothered to cook rice as well, but the lentils soaked the curry up instead. This quick simple economical vegetarian curry was even better when it had mellowed the next day, when we had it again…

Food for thought

The dedicated life is the life worth living. You must give with your whole heart.

Annie Dillard – American writer and mystic

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Chickens coming home to roost

Nobel prize-winner Malala Yousafzai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for threadbare gourmets

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

Food for thought

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

 

 

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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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Little happinesses and big happiness

 

Image result for rowland hilder paintings

 

I love Autumn… I loved it in England, those early morning mists burnt off by the morning sun… the scents of bonfires and blackberries, picking hazel-nuts from the hedgerows, finding silky, shining conkers and kicking up the rustling leaves, crackling them under my shoes… freshly ploughed fields, and that sense of gentle melancholy, a poetic nostalgia for the last pale days of sunshine before winter crept in…

Later in Hongkong, the end of summer came quite suddenly overnight, when the light changed, and for a month or six weeks a light pervaded the harsh hectic city, and turned the island into a place of surpassing beauty.  I waited for those weeks every year. The gleaming days and shining waters of the harbour seemed rapturous for no particular reason, and those who noticed this magical transformation said the light was like the light of the Greek isles.

And now in the antipodes, autumn is the best season of the year – soft, golden days and crisp, starry nights.
We live in a covenanted podocarp forest of evergreen trees which stretches across high peaks and shadowed gorges. Some days we wake to find the sun shining on our mountain, and then see the gold light move down the slopes until the whole forest shines. Other mornings mist shrouds the peaks, and hovers in the valleys… last night the high wind blasted the last leaves of autumn from the trees along the roads, leaving just the fretted gold leaves of the gingko trees.

So today it feels as though autumn has passed, and winter is setting in. With deep pleasure, I get out the warm winter clothes, and start to think about winter food, hot and comforting, snug evenings with the curtains pulled, and warm sheets on the bed. These are ‘small happinesses’, a phrase my daughter introduced me to a few months ago.

This morning when I put the kettle on for my early morning cup of tea, the sun was on the mountain, a small happiness. Taking the tray back to bed, I checked my e-mails, gloating over the beauty of the latest photos sent from France by my daughter… yesterday Chartres, today Monet’s garden at Givernay, tomorrow Mont St Michel… Then I found a poem by Mark Nepo, sent by a dear friend, with phrases that gave me more small happinesses…

Each person is born with an unencumbered spot…

… an umbilical spot of grace… the last lines were: the incorruptible spot of grace resting at our core.

Holding these words in my mind, my love and I went shopping to a small town an hour and a quarter away. Every mile we travelled past weathered crags, misty mountains and green fields was beautiful. Finally, we reached the narrow coast road, where pohutakawa trees arched overhead, their roots clinging to the side of the cliff.

The wide silver stretch of still water, shimmering with light, lay alongside, and I watched birds dive for food in a small feeding frenzy, marvelled at the shag colony, where up in the pohutakawa trees, the big white breasted birds sat erect on their great nests concocted from twigs, while a gull flew overhead at 35 miles an hour. We passed the curving sandy bay black with hosts of black oyster catchers standing patiently on the shores of the estuary, white breasts and sharp, orange beaks facing the high tide, waiting for the water to recede and their food to return.

We did our shopping – small, kind, cheery encounters that are the building blocks of the goodness of life. A visit to the re-cycle centre yielded a satisfying bargain and a small happiness … two pretty pressed glass Victorian dishes for a dollar each, and then the building re-cycling yard had more treasures, including the perfect windows for our building project.

Feeling contented we relaxed in our favourite café, with hot chocolate and a blueberry muffin. We sat in the courtyard under the pollarded plane trees and watched a small flock of sparrows fall on each table as it emptied, diving into cake crumbs and pulling at a rasher of left-over bacon. A speckle- breasted thrush sat in an olive tree growing in a large pot, and pecked at the clusters of pale green olives. The sage green leaves were silhouetted against a rosy brick wall and the sinuous curves of branches and leaves looked like William Morris’s famous willow pattern.

I must keep a diary again, I exclaimed, I want to remember these moments of beauty. But writing this blog is the closest I get to it at the moment. This day was like all our days living in this remote place where we are the guardians of the forest, where species of plants and creatures that are almost extinct elsewhere, still live their tranquil lives hidden deep beneath the green canopy. I once said to my love that I knew people who were living quiet, mystical lives of love and beauty, and we agreed that we would make it happen for us.

Occasionally a note of discord strikes when a person who has other agendas intrudes into our peace, but since I take Don Miguel Ruiz’s Third Agreement seriously, and try never to take anything personally, our peace of mind is rarely perturbed. I also remember a meme which says: ‘negativity can only affect you if you’re on the same frequency – vibrate higher.’ So we try.

We forget to play music because the silence is so full of sound, the wind in the trees, the birdsong, the stream rushing down below. Living in this place, it’s easy to believe in that “incorruptible spot of grace” resting at our core. It’s easy to believe too, that the mystery of love and truth and beauty do still exist, in spite of what often seems like suffering and chaos in the outer world, but which, hidden from our limited understanding, may have a larger purpose. We only have to believe in love and truth and beauty, to see them – in people, in nature, in the universe, and in the deep silent mystery of the life unfolding around us.

So the roots of the trees in this forest grow deep in the earth, sustained by creatures of the dark, the snails, slugs, earthworms, flatworms and nematodes that degrade organic matter. The rain and the sun sustain them. Tiny frogs and rare lizards hide deep in their secret habitats, bees push into the flowers of the manukau trees, butterflies hover above the flowers, birds sing, the kingfisher plunges down into the grass for a morsel, morepork owls hoot across our valley in the moonlight, and nature continues to sustain them all, and the planet, and us too… what a big happiness!!!

PS   The picture is by Rowland Hilder who specialised in  painting nostalgic autumn and winter scenes.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

I needed a pudding for a gluten- intolerant friend, so fell back on our tried and true chocolate mousse… just eggs, butter and good dark chocolate… though I can never resist tweaking the simple recipe.

So after separating the eggs, melt a knob of butter in a saucepan, and I add a table spoon of brandy or strong black coffee or even sherry, and break the chocolate in. For every egg, use six squares of plain chocolate, and a little bit more butter.

Stirring the mix until the chocolate melts, take it off the heat before it goes grainy. Whip the whites of eggs until peaks form, and at this stage I often add one or two tablespoons of icing sugar and whip again until stiff. Stir the yolks into the chocolate mixture, and then gently fold this into the egg whites. Pour the mix into small individual bowls, chill in the fridge for at least six hours, and serve with cream.

I gave this to my children often when we were vegetarian, as it was an easy way to make sure they had enough protein.

 

Food for thought

“The best and most beautiful things in this world cannot be seen or even heard, but must be felt with the heart.”

Helen Keller, who overcame the handicaps of being deaf, blind and dumb to gain a degree and live a life of service to others.

 

 

 

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The necessity of beauty

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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 camellias 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 camellia 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 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….

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Salady food feels right in the Antipodean Christmas season.This is one of my favourites. Boil new potatoes for the number of people you have, plus hardboiled eggs. Chop them and mix them with sliced artichoke hearts fresh from the delicatessen or from a jar. Gently toss in a good vinaigrette  dressing, and sprinkle with capers if desired. Delicious on its own with crusty rolls, or with cold chicken or cold salmon.

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Travels in Foodie Heaven

Food was not a topic of much joy in my war-time childhood. Green ration books for us children, cream ones for adults. If you went shopping without them, it was a waste of time, and you had to get a bus back home to pick them up and start all over again, standing at the back of the queue at every shop.

The biggest foodie thrill I can remember back then was the one orange a year, stuffed in the bottom of my Christmas stocking. Things looked up slightly on my tenth birthday, the first I had ever spent with my father. (I was ten months old when he went to war in 1939, returning for two weeks leave in 1945, before finally coming home in 1947. But we only saw him for a month before he was posted to Belsen).We qualified for an army quarter by the time my birthday arrived, and joined him. To my parents’ horror it was the former home of the Beast of Belsen, the sadistic commandant of the concentration camp.

Knowing nothing of this, I concentrated on my birthday. My new parents took me for a treat to the Officers Club. The palace of the Princes of Hanover now served as the Officers Mess, where we children were allowed for the children’s Christmas party; it was held in the marbled, mirrored, chandeliered ballroom, with satin and gilt chairs to fall over during musical chairs. And the Prince’s hunting lodge deep in pine forests running with deer and wild boar, was now the Club.

The speciality of the German couple who ran it was their sugary doughnuts with butter cream and jam inside (Had the Hanoverian princelings also enjoyed these goodies before us?) I had never tasted anything like them -the nearest thing to heaven in my gastronomically deprived childhood. This may have been the moment when I became a foodie.

The next high point in my foodie career was staying in Vienne in central France a few years later. We were still on rationing in England at the time, and the rich French provincial food was a shock to my spartan system. But here I discovered real French bread. It was brought up from the village to the chateau by one of the maids every day, fresh and warm for breakfast. And in the afternoon a fresh supply was delivered to the kitchen by a boy on a bike. We children would gather illegally in the kitchen and annoy the maids by tearing into the warm bread and eating it with delectable runny confiture dripping onto the floor.

Malaya was another foodie milestone. We lived in a hotel on the edge of the sea in Penang for over a year, and ate in a dining room reminiscent of the forecourt of St Pauls Cathedral. Great pillars stretched the length of the ballroom. We walked this length between palms and pillars three times a day for every meal, and subsided at the end of it in the dining area, still pillared and palmed. We ate the same meals every week, in the same order and my favourite day was Friday when we had nasi goring, the only nod in the direction of the local cuisine.

I’ve tried to get Malayan friends to replicate it, I’ve tried myself, but nothing has ever had the same texture, tastes, variety and delicacy. I can copy most of the culinary joys of the past, but that one has proved impossible – it’s just a fragrant regretted memory.

In Majorca, when few people had even heard of it, at a little fishing village called Cala Ratjada, we stayed in the first hotel to be built there,( there are now over fifty) which they were just finishing, and the water for the shower came speeding through the bidet, and the hand basin only had water in short bursts. But down by the sea was a fish restaurant, and there I tasted two foodie classics, a genuine paella, and a lobster salad which is still fresh in my memory. I was beginning to sensitise my taste buds.

France a year later, this time a hamlet somewhere between San Tropez and Le Lavandou, where every meal eaten under the vine covered terrace was like ambrosia – never a dud. My lasting memories of this bliss were the fresh croissants for breakfast with unsalted butter and delicious homemade apricot jam, and aoli.  Eating aoli was like discovering the secret of culinary life- the simplicity of it, the exquisiteness of it, the white china, the perfect egg, the salad and the aoli. I decided there and then that I’d learn to make it when I had my own kitchen. (Living in an officers mess didn’t give me much scope for cooking experiments at the time.)

Later, driving back from Bonn with a girlfriend, we stopped at Aix (shades of “How they brought the good news from Aix to Ghent!”) for a coffee. We ordered rum babas and though it was fifty years ago, I can still remember the shocked delight at the taste of the rum and the cream and the yeasty cake. They were a benchmark for all rum babas eaten since, and none of them have measured up to the rum babas of Aix. We sat by a river in the sun, with dappled leaves reflected in the water, tall, grey eighteenth century buildings lining the other side of the road.

The next foodie revelation was staying with an old school friend in Winchester, who had become a talented cook in one year of marriage. We started the meal with shrimps in mayonnaise in half a pear, a very 50’s thingie and followed this with roast duck and orange. By the time we got to the crème brulee poor Brenda had fled the room to cope with not morning sickness, but evening sickness.

Her husband and I somewhat unconcernedly tackled the heavenly crème brulee she had left behind. I’d never tasted it before, cream not having been freely available in my past, so this was another taste bud sensation. To this day I can’t go past crème brulee however much I may have eaten beforehand.

Hong Kong? Oh yes, lots of lovely Chinese dishes, but what I remember from those days was the bombe Alaska at a place called Jimmy’s Kitchen. A girl friend and I would skip out from the office at lunchtime and order a bombe Alaska each. Fortified by this self-indulgent mix of sponge and fruit and ice-cream, brandy and meringue, we would totter reluctantly back to our desks to resume writing our boring little stories about fashion parades and new cosmetics for the woman’s pages.

So now, after a lifetime of enjoying food, here in New Zealand, land of milk and manukau honey, what gluttonous delights light my fire? Well, there are two things I cannot live without these days. One is a nice cup of tea. And the other is a nice cup of coffee!

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

When the crusty Duke of Wellington came back from his campaigns in foreign parts, legend has it that all he wanted was a slice of hot buttered toast. What he was talking about was comfort food, and it’s different for each of us. Mine is cornflakes if I’m on my uppers, or creamy mashed potatoes, or scrambled egg. My husband believes that scrambled egg is the apex of my culinary skills, but others have been known to recoil in horror clutching their hearts, when they discover how many eggs and how much butter and cream have gone into them!

For your run of the mill ordinary breakfast scrambled egg, I use a generous sized walnut of butter, and about two tablespoons of milk. I melt them, and then break the eggs in and stir to mix. The trick is to have the buttered toast ready, and then stir the scrambled egg in the pan very gently so it forms large curds. Cook it very slowly, if it’s cooked too fast, it becomes stringy, tough and watery. As soon as the curds are almost cooked, I tip it onto the waiting toast, as it still goes on setting while it’s hot. For softer, creamier scrambled eggs, add more butter and use cream – delectable.

Food for Thought

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

From a speech in Washington in 1953, by President Dwight. D. Eisenhower 1890 -1969

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