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Fashion and fun

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As I mulled over the ins and outs and ups and downs of buying a grey T-shirt – I’m short of cool T-shirts as my clothes are still packed up in my old school trunk, (few people know what these are nowadays) where they’ve been since we moved to the forest. We’re building onto the little cabin we inherited when we moved here, and I’m still, as it were, existing on the iron rations I put into a small suit case when we came here. Somehow I hadn’t envisaged managing without my extensive wardrobe for months.

There’s a word for Foodies like me – is there also one for clothes maniacs… clothies? If there is, that’s me. But my frivolous machinations ground to a halt when I stumbled on an article about the latest exhibition of Diana’s clothes.  Everyone knows who Diana is, don’t they? The ingenuous teenager who married her Prince, and discovered on their honeymoon that he was still in touch with his long- term married mistress? The anorexic skinny beauty who blossomed into a glorious woman, who wore heavenly clothes throughout the various stages of her life? She’d have been fifty-six  this year.

The exhibition seems to chronicle the trajectory of the Princess’s life, from the ingenue soft blouses and dresses worn by the young bride, through to some of the ravishing evening dresses she began wearing as she gained her confidence. Then come the dresses which showed off her figure and astonishing beauty… and with the clothes, all those photos showing her a step away from Prince Charles, with symbolic distance between them, as they arrived together with her wearing these beautiful clothes.

She found her confidence when she embarked on her affair with her riding instructor, Guards officer James Hewitt, the man who’s since earned the well-deserved name of ‘Love-rat’. He wrote several books, and made millions out of publishing her letters and detailing their affair, which began when a miserable Diana had discovered that Charles had re-newed his affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles.

The legions of Diana’s admirers (I was one of them) were furious that, as the Guardian once put it: ‘an older woman with no dress sense and birds-nest hair had trounced the people’s fairy-tale Princess? Who did she think she was?’

The story goes that some of her infuriated supporters even pelted the hapless Camilla with bread rolls when she went shopping in her local Wiltshire supermarket. Which reminded me of a previous Charles and his mistress, the much more attractive Charles the second. His witty lover, Nell Gwyn, was subjected to much the same abuse, only verbal as her carriage passed. The angry citizens thought this was the carriage of Charles’ French Catholic mistress. Nell pulled down her carriage window, and smiling at the hostile faces confronting her, uttered the immortal words: “Good people, I am the Protestant whore.” Which dispersed the crowds.

There’s no record of Camilla’s reaction to the bread rolls – in fact, throughout the years, she always remained silent.

But back to our muttons–or moutons in French. The dresses chart Diana’s life, but don’t, I think, include the famous little black dress she wore the night Charles admitted adultery on television. The tall, slim ravishing blonde with legs to die for, stole his thunder effortlessly in the sensational black dress, which she had had in her wardrobe for two years and never worn before.

All her dresses had built-in bras, so no bra straps showing – and they were also designed so there was never the dreaded ‘visible panty line (VPL). Disappointingly to me, the red jacket and purple skirt she wore when sitting in front of the Taj Mahal, alone and making a statement, is not in the exhibition. Red and purple – who else would wear such a brilliant combination?

That was one of the things I missed after Diana’s tragic and devastating death, the fun of filling my eyes with her gorgeous outfits. And then the jewels –  costume brooches worn in unexpected places, dancing with a priceless emerald necklace turned into an American Indian type head-band worn across her forehead, faux pearls slung backwards and knotted over a plunging backless velvet dress…

Diana’s successor, the ex- Kate Middleton, or Katherine as she is known to her family, often seems a careful, rather dull dresser, except on grand occasions when she looks wonderful.  So I’ve become an afficionado of other less well known royals on the world stage, though apparently doted on in their own countries.

The most flamboyant is Queen Maxima of the Netherlands, former business woman and daughter of a minister in one of  Argentina’s murderous and tyrannical regimes. She overcame this hurdle to marrying the heir to the Dutch throne, and has now evolved an interesting style of dressing. I marvel at her huge hats, ponchos, and daring colour combinations.

The Belgian Queen Mathilde, born a noblewoman in Belgium and formerly speech therapist and psychologist, is another blonde beauty with a great sense of style, and great legs too. She wears bright colours and elegant matching hats… the Royal way of dressing Queen Elizabeth has pioneered and perfected. Queen Letizia, the ex-television anchor and newsreader on Spanish TV, who also captured a Crown Prince, has a severe, solemn beauty. Her exquisite clothes have the same rather austere, elegant quality, but I don’t feel the joyfulness of Diana’s style – which for me was the benchmark of fun and fashion.

Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, the former Australian PR consultant, who spent three years learning Danish before marrying her Prince, is an attractive brunette like Kate, and they look like sisters when seen together. She always looks stylish, poised, and wears interesting clothes. But somehow with all these lovely Royals, there’s none of the excitement and joie de vivre that Diana projected in her gorgeous clothes. Queen Maxima comes the nearest to projecting that excitement while doing her round of good works and international visits like all the rest of them – shaking hands with popes, presidents, sovereigns and sheiks.

Needless to say, all these women sport magnificent jewels and glittering tiaras when required. I doubt that the latest fashionista to loom on our horizon owns a tiara – but then again – her extraordinary husband may have bought one to demonstrate that he can mix it with the best of them! If so, it’s hidden away at the back of a wardrobe in Trump Tower – or more likely stashed away at the bank.

When Melania Trump appeared at her husband’s inauguration in that delicious, pale blue outfit, I thought, aha, another glorious clothes horse in the mould of a previous beautiful First Lady. But we see so very little of her. When we do, her clothes are gorgeous… yet there’s so much controversy swirling around her, that rather like Carla Bruni, President Zarkozy’s beautiful model wife, it’s hard to enjoy the spectacle whole-heartedly.

‘The apparel oft proclaims the man,’ Polonius advised his son Laertes, and like everything in Shakespeare’s famous speech, it still rings true. So how does my grey T-shirt stand up to all these gorgeous outfits worn by glamorous women?

I want to wear it with grey trousers brought from Marks and Sparks in Plymouth, Devon, over ten years ago when flares had come back briefly, and with flat, grey lace-ups which assist my broken leg to walk – a special offer from a mail order catalogue – two pairs for fifteen dollars – how could I go past them? I’ll wear a grey, black and red scarf to brighten up the grey – I’ve had it for twenty years – it was a Christmas present from a Dutch friend who told me she’d found it on a second- hand stall at the local market. And of course – red dangly earrings – all so appropriate in a remote forest far from the fashion centres of the world. But as you can see, I never give up!!!

Food for threadbare gourmets

Caught on the hop when invited to an impromptu lunch tomorrow by a bachelor neighbour. Can I bring something I foolishly asked? Yes, something sweet, was the prompt reply. We don’t want to go into town to shop for another few days and I haven’t bothered to keep all my stocks of goodies since we are staying of sweet stuff, and I only cook the barest minimum since my game leg finds it hard to stand.

I finally remembered my emergency store –  tiny pastry tartlets in a sealed pack, and lemon curd in the fridge. I usually serve them with crème fraiche, and am leary of whipped cream separating. So will just have to bite the bullet and whip the cream with icing sugar which helps it to stay stiff. I simply use two tablespoons to a cup of cream… so much for giving up sugar!

Food for thought

Lift up the self by the Self.

And don’t let the self droop down

For the Self is the self’s only friend

And the self is the Self’s only foe.

Bhagavad Gita   Chapter 6, verse  5

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My drug of choice

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“I thought I’d make a cup of tea”, were the last murmured words of the mother of Janet Frame, NZ writer, as she died in her husband’s arms in the kitchen. They could well be mine… tea for me marks waking up and going to bed, a break mid-morning and that indispensable cup in the afternoon, the cup that cheers when a friend calls, or the one that sustains after a shock or a long day’s retail therapy.

I felt the would-be murderess Mrs McWilliams who shot her enemy Mrs Dick in the Tudor Tea Rooms in Christchurch NZ was a kindred spirit. When she was disarmed after her pot- shot she retorted: “Oh, give me a cup of tea, that’s what I came here for.”
When told that her victim was not dead or even much hurt the redoubtable Mrs McWilliams replied, “Oh isn’t she, what a pity.” (She got seven years jail for her failed attempt to eliminate her enemy)

We can sheet back this country’s addiction to tea to our discoverer Captain Cook, who concocted the first brews from leaves of the manuka tree, which he called, and many still do, the tea tree. He experimented with it in 1769, brewing the leaves in the hope of preventing scurvy, and wrote in his journal ( men write journals – women are downgraded to writing diaries): “The leaves were used by many of us as tea which has a very agreeable bitter scent and flavour when they are recent…. when the infusion was made strong it proved emetic to some in the same manner as green tea.”

In some ways, tea was the answer to coffee… men had gathered to gossip in coffee houses in London and elsewhere, for several centuries, while women had nowhere acceptable to congregate. The first tea-rooms opened in Glasgow in the 1870’s and tea-rooms quickly became as important to women as coffee houses to men in previous centuries.

Afternoon tea at home also became an institution… it was a relaxed time when women took off their corsets before changing into finery for dinner, and wore soft floating tea gowns. The great French food philosopher Brillat-Savarin called afternoon tea: “an extraordinary meal … in that, being offered to persons that have already dined well, it supposes neither appetite nor thirst, and has no object but distraction, no basis but delicate enjoyment…”

I’ll say – and not just for tea but for chocolate cake and shortbread, meringues and cucumber sandwiches. I used to think tea was an occasion just for ladies to enjoy… I couldn’t imagine inviting a man to tea… but then I remembered the delicate courtships conducted over silver tea- pots by the fireside in Edwardian times, and realised what pleasures we have forfeited in our nine to five world. I also wondered if this was the raison d’etre for those loose floating tea gowns… easier for making love?

Portly philanderer, Edward the Seventh used to visit his lady loves for afternoon tea, arriving in an elegant black carriage with his coat of arms on the door. Inside, his inamoratas awaited him. They could be the ravishing Lily Langtry, the Jersey Lily, as famous for her beauty which adorned postcards, as Kim Kardashian is today; or others, like Winston Churchill’s gorgeous mother Jennie, or even Camilla Parker Bowles’, (aka Prince Charles’ second wife) great-grandmother, Mrs Alice Keppel. She was Edward’s mistress for twelve years and was invited to his death-bed by his generous wife, Queen Alexandra.

Afternoon tea for me has never been graced by the presence of king, prince, or even lover… my most un-forgettable afternoon tea was at a Catholic convent in Ipoh, Malaya. The Chinese nuns in this little convent had been accredited to examine children taking GCE, the Cambridge University secondary schools exam, in oral French. So accordingly, I and nine classmates, embarked on the day- long journey in stifling armoured vehicles (to protect us from lurking Chinese bandits) and then by train, from the Cameron Highlands down to Ipoh.

Arriving in the early evening after travelling all day, we went to sleep in a dormitory with other Chinese teenagers who all, to our amazement, managed to get undressed and shower without showing an inch of flesh. This proved quite a challenge to us less inhibited girls trying to do in Rome as the Romans did. The next day we hung around until afternoon in the steamy convent grounds, and then I was first in alphabetical order for the exam.

I was shown into a little room, where a bowing, smiling, gentle little Chinese nun in heavy black horn-rimmed spectacles and starched veil awaited me. It would have been bad enough trying to understand a Chinese person’s French, spoken by someone who had never been to France or met a French person, but worse was to come. She made a cup of tea and offered me a cake, baked especially for us all, she explained in broken English.

So there we were, an Asian nun, performing, not the tea ceremony of her culture, but an adulterated version of a western ritual, and speaking a foreign language to a person who couldn’t make out a word she was saying, and who knew that shortly an even greater ordeal awaited, in which two people who already couldn’t understand each other, were about to embark on a conversation in a language foreign to them both.

But it was the preliminary that almost silenced me. I bit into the cake, and discovered with horror that the nuns knew no more about baking English cakes than they did about speaking French. They had obviously used sawdust held together, not with butter and eggs, but with some sort of inedible glue. With the first bite drying out my mouth and clogging my throat, I realised that now I had to struggle through the whole of this un-eatable culinary disaster, as well as bluff my way through the exam. Each bite nearly choked me, and I still had to look as though it was delicious.

Somehow I got to end of this terrible experience, and there seemed to be an unspoken agreement that if I ate the cake, she would find my school girl French understandable and acceptable to her Chinese ears. I left with us both bowing and smiling, with great good humour, and walked into my classmate waiting to go in. She raised her eye-brows questioningly, and I smiled maliciously, which she optimistically took for re-assurance… later our profane school- girlish post mortems and accusations would have curled the ears of these innocent kindly nuns.

Other teas, with silver teapots, even a white-capped maid, tiers of scrumptious cakes, and lace napkins have never blotted out the memory of this ordeal. And now, a law unto myself, I break all the rules of the English ritual afternoon tea, which is a very different thing to tea ceremonies in parts of the world where tea drinking originated. My most daring break with convention is to put the milk in first, considered so vulgar by generations of tea drinking aficionados.

And having discovered that tea tastes much nicer when the milk goes in first, I have now also discovered that science supports my taste buds. According to research carried out by the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2003,”… if milk is poured into hot tea, individual drops separate from the bulk of the milk and come into contact with the high temperatures of the tea for enough time for significant denaturation or degradation of the milk to occur.” There you go, as they say in this country…

I have n’t space to touch on one of the most thrilling aspects of drinking tea, which used to be illegal in this country, and provoked fiery debate by male Members of Parliament; and now since 1981, it’s become illegal again ( MEN !!!). I refer to the innocent pastime of reading the tea leaves… but that is too vast and esoteric a subject for this little blog to tackle!

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Cucumber sandwiches are de rigueur for the ritual English afternoon tea, and very dull they can be too. These I served for a friend’s birthday party, and we gobbled them up… with relish….
Apart from white bread sliced as thinly as possible – even supermarket sliced does the job… you need peeled and thinly sliced cucumber, eight ounces of softened cream cheese, quarter of a cup of mayonnaise, a good sprinkling of onion powder, garlic powder and a pinch of lemon pepper if you have it.
Mix everything except the bread and cucumber, spread the mix on the bread, and arrange the cucumber on top. Cover with another slice of bread also spread with the mixture. Press down firmly, and cut into dainty bite-sized sandwiches. Irresistible.

Food for thought

By experts in poverty I do not mean sociologists, but poor men.
GK Chesterton

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Ordeal by wardrobe

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There will not be many people wearing soft fuchsia coloured leather gloves in the North Island of New Zealand this winter, but I will be one of them.

They were a gift from my daughter last Christmas. She brought forward the present giving ceremony, and insisted that I open my presents first before anyone else opened theirs, because she wanted to see the look on my face when I saw them. She’d brought them back from London months before. I hoped my face showed everything she hoped when I unwrapped them. I can’t put them away. They sit on my dressing table – a symbol – of many things.

But her solicitude for my wardrobe doesn’t stop at leather gloves. This weekend she pounced, and said that the following day we were going to go through my clothes, and I was going to sort everything into keep, store and throw away! I had a friend who had also undergone this ordeal by wardrobe, when her daughters dismissed all her lovely clothes as ‘tragic,” so I knew what I was in for.

I had to agree that something had to be done, as I was always losing things in the muddle of too many hangars on the rail. As the morning wore away, it got easier and easier to let go.

“You’ve got too many white T-shirts.” was the first pronouncement. “There are five days in the week, how many do you think you can wear?” Resisting the temptation to correct her arithmetic I feebly tried to think why I would want more than a dozen white T-shirts, but nothing came to mind…

“No more brown, or dull sludgy colours” was the next diktat. “They don’t suit you. You need bright clear colours.” No arguing with the considered opinion of an expert… so out went two thirds of my wardrobe.

I tried to salvage a few comfortable jumpers and slide them into the store –and- second- thoughts pile. “No,” said the arbiter  – “how long is it since you bought that? – fifteen years?  – Well it may have looked nice then, but it’s hopelessly out of date now – anyway, it’s got moth holes”…

No, that’s worn, no, that’s got pilling, no, that’s the wrong colour … gradually the wardrobe emptied, and the to-keep pile was pitifully small. The throw- out pile (for the womens’ refuge) was huge.

“No, you have to give up labels”, she pronounced. “But I always cut mine out,” I protested… “Yes, but look – you just said ‘but that’s a Jaeger, ‘when I tried to throw away that jumper.”

“Okay, I get it”, I sighed. “I can’t believe you’d have bought this,” she exclaimed, holding up a black and gold embroidered evening coat.” “No, I can’t either,” I agreed, “so I’ve never worn it”. “Right, Trademe”, she said. “Anything with tags you haven’t worn we can sell and just think, even if you only get five dollars each for all this stuff you’ve never worn, it’s all money towards a new wardrobe!”

By now she’d found various un-worn shirts I had had made that had never worked.“I hope by the time I’m your age, I’m not making these sort of mistakes,” she muttered…“What are these?” she cried, holding up a pair of well tailored tartan pyjamas beautifully piped in red. “What on earth have you got these for? How long have you had them?”

“Exactly nineteen years,” I replied truthfully. “I saw a picture in a magazine of a model wearing pyjamas like these, cuddled up in front of a log fire with a cup of hot chocolate, looking so cosy and glamorous.” She looked at me disbelievingly. “Have you ever worn them, have you ever done that?”“Not yet”, I admitted, “but I might.” She opened her mouth to say something withering, but then took pity on me –“OK, you can have your dreams,” she said, and dropped the pyjamas on the to-keep pile.

By now we had descended into the bottom of the wardrobe to the shoe department. While I sat on a small stool scrabbling around in the darkness, she took the opportunity to tweet her friends. “Sorting my mum’s wardrobe” went the message – “keep, store and throw.” Back came a flutter of twitters from people who obviously had time on their hands that morning. The opinion seemed to be unanimous – too hard basket for them… I thought to myself, now at least one third of Auckland knows I’m throwing away my clothes.

There had been a time when my daughter needed a whole cupboard for her shoe fetish, but no more, it seems. “If I buy a new pair, I gash another pair,” she lectured me… so out went shabby oldies,  Moroccan slippers, shoes that pinched, boots that had the wrong sort of heel… the good news was that I found a pair of beautiful black suede indoor shoes that I’d never even worn and had lost about seven years ago. Needless to say a whole harvest of handbags was dissipated. “But you know I’m a bag lady,” I whimpered….

At the end she shook her head in a tolerant and kindly way.  ”I’m proud of you, I never thought you’d do it so quickly and easily – now don’t you feel better?” she coaxed…” A lot lighter?”  “Definitely a lot lighter”, I answered, looking at the giant pile destined for the womens’ refuge… a smaller pile that I could have second thoughts about and store, and then the  emasculated line of shirts and skirts, trousers and jackets hanging on the rail.

But as I looked, I had to admit she was right. She’d even hung them so I could see what to wear with what. Best of all, I’d found the three jackets she’d lavished on me last year that I’d forgotten about – one Jaeger and two Ralph Lauren… labels, I said!

Yes, there is nothing like a daughter… and thankfully, they keep you on your toes, as they can always see room for improvement. I do hope she approves of what I choose to wear with the fuchsia pink leather gloves when winter comes. Maybe I‘d better get her advice – after she‘s finished stacking the three metres of fire-wood sitting in my garage…  there really is nothing like a daughter!

PS. She checked out this story, and said she could add a few more items – what about that lost evening bag you were so thrilled to find under a pile of jumpers? Enough is enough, I said firmly.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Our neighbours have a banana tree which is weighed down with small sweet bananas, and they don’t eat them. This largesse comes our way, and I use this recipe when we have too many to eat.

Mash a cup of bananas, and melt 150gms of butter. Put both in a dish and add two eggs and a cup of sugar… I often use brown for the taste. Mix them together and then add two cups of self raising flour. Dissolve a teasp of baking soda in 3 tablspns of milk, and stir that in too. Beat lightly, before tipping the mixture into a greased 20cm cake tin, the base lined with baking paper. Bake at 180 degrees for 50 to 55 minutes. It’s cooked when the cake springs back when lightly touched. Lovely with thick lemon icing.

Food for thought

Comparison is the thief of joy. Anonymous

 

 

 

 

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The eternal search – for the perfect coffee

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I lost my wallet the other day. Going to pay for the dry cleaning, I found my big red Guy Laroche wallet given to me by my generous daughter had disappeared. Panic. The last place I’d had it was at the garden centre a mile away. And since I’d paid for the plants, the wallet must still be sitting in the trolley. More panic.

I ran through the things that mattered in my mind… credit cards … but ‘they’ wouldn’t know my pin number. Pain to have to cancel… forget them for now. Money? Who cared. But oh, my photographs of the grandchildren and moments caught in time that I wanted to remember… they were irreplaceable… and the two little love letters with terrible spelling and seven year old scrawls from them … one which I had found written in the diary they always used to keep when they came to stay with me… on this occasion they had decided that they would stay permanently and be home-schooled by me:

‘Five time a week I have fun. It can be so wonderful. I will like to say that I am writing this because it came from my hart and I kodn’t get it out of my hed….I hope that we can stay heer for homeschool it will be so fun and it will asol be fun because I love my granny so much it can be fun every day but I love staying heer and I like feeding the eels’… how could I replace a letter like that? My heart curled over at the thought of such a loss…

What else?  Oh … my collection of coffee cards. Each one stamped for every coffee I’d had, and nearly ready for a free coffee. The restaurant down by the river, the cafe in the garden where they make pottery, the lovely place where they also make hand-made chocolates, my stopping off place in town…

Zipping up my stiff upper lip I hurried back to the garden centre, and there was the red wallet, waiting for me at the office. (gardeners are good  people!) “It was my coffee cards I was worried about,” I explained when I picked it up, and everyone laughed because they knew how I felt.

I have travelled the length and breadth of one country, which shall remain nameless for fear of hurting millions of people’s feelings, looking for a decent cup of coffee. I finally found one in a far-flung cathedral crypt cafe.  I will drive for miles for the sake of that elusive perfect cup.

I know as soon as it’s put in front of me if it’s going to be a good one. The cream will be thick and won’t just dwindle into a thin froth when stirred. It will be smooth and not too creamy and not too strong. The most memorable coffee I’ve ever had was in an Italian restaurant in Melbourne.

Creating this ambrosia obviously came naturally to the maker… and in that search for the perfect cup, I’ve discovered that the maker actually matters. Yes, I know the machine has to be properly cleaned so the coffee doesn’t taste bitter, and the milk the right temperature, but there’s more to it than that. And the deciding factor in the quality of a cup of coffee for me, seems to be the person.

Everyone makes the coffee the same way on the same sort of machines I’m assured, but it doesn’t work out like that. Every barista is different and so is their coffee. A grumpy barista does not produce a good cup of coffee. A good cup of coffee is hand-crafted and a work of love, so I know if it’s going to be delicious by the quality of the barista’s smile. A nice person makes great coffee! They even do lovely patterns in the froth, like a Christmas tree at Christmas time, or a flower or smiley face at other times!

And what despair and thwarted desire when I arrive at a favourite coffee place to find a new member of staff, or the nice coffee person has taken off overseas, and we have to start all over again, with a learner driver as it were!  Or the tantalising times when the best coffee maker is busy cutting cake or sorting spoons, and not at her post, and I have to make do with a cup which I know won’t be as good as hers.  C’est la vie, but coffee is so much more than beans, milk and water!

And when the perfect coffee arrives, what sybaritic pleasure – the delicate sinking of the spoon into the froth, and a gentle stirring. Sometimes a fragrant teaspoon of coffee crystals for the sheer pleasure of stirring and dissolving them in the glorious liquid. And then a sip, and a contented settling into satisfaction as I slowly savour one of civilisation’s minor works of art.

Sadly the second cup never reaches the same level of pleasure as the first. And I’ve even read that scientific research has proved this to be true. No wonder it matters that that first cup is as good as it can get!

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

One of my favourite coffee places serves gingerbread with their coffee. I love it. To make it myself, I use two eggs, a cup of sugar, a cup of milk and a cup of golden syrup (the cup rinsed out with oil before measuring the syrup). Beat them together. Melt 225g butter. Mix two cups SR flour, two teasp or more of ground ginger, a teasp each of mixed spice and of cinnamon, and a teasp of baking soda into the egg mixture and then stir in the melted butter.

Pour into a loaf tin with the base lined with baking paper. Bake at 180 degrees for an hour. If you’re using a fan-bake oven test after 45 minutes. Let it cool in the tin for 30 minutes before turning out. You can ice it, but I like it cut into slices and spread with a little butter.

Food for Thought

“The artist’s task is to save the soul of mankind; and anything less is a dithering while Rome burns. If artists cannot find the way, then the way cannot be found.”
Terence McKenna  (1946 –  2000) was an American philosopher, ethnobotanist, lecturer, writer and author of several books.. He was also the creator of a mathematical theory of time based on patterns found in the I Ching which he termed novelty theory.[1]

 

 

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Nuns and their habits

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I can’t help feeling that nuns are getting a bad press at the moment after seeing the film Philomena, and like everyone else in the cinema, running out of tissues. I thought back to the nuns at my convent… mostly French or Belgian, a couple of English and a few Polish ones. Some were old, some were beautiful, some were wise and some were silly – at least to a bigoted ten year old.

My father didn’t know about my past in which I’d  read all my grandmothers anti-Popish books, which included Westward Ho, and Foxe’s Martyrs, a catalogue of the three hundred people Mary Tudor burned for being Protestant. So sending me to a convent for a good education seemed a good idea to him.

I didn’t discuss it with him, for on our first day with our new parents, I’d been told I had to do exactly as I was told – always – so there didn’t seem to be any room for discussion. So a prejudiced Protestant got to observe the strange Catholic goings-on at her new school!

The nuns all looked wonderful in their no-expense spared rich plum-red gabardine habits, with wide swinging pleated skirts and wide sleeves. They wore a long snowy  white veil over the wimple which framed their faces and had a splendid thick knotted red cord round their waists to which they attached their rosaries.

We had a roller skating rink where we skated most days, and obsessed about how many ball-bearings our skates had. At night when I boarded for a while, and when everyone was supposed to be in bed and asleep, we could look down from the gabled windows, and see the nuns swirling round the rink on our borrowed roller skates,red  habits swinging, veils flying. An unforgettable sight.

The order had been formed by three aristocratic Belgian ladies, and we heard their history interminably when we sat in silence in the refectory at lunch, while tall, serious, severely beautiful Mother John stood at the carved lectern and read it to us during retreats. Retreats and the numerous saints Feast Days were a wonderful way of not doing schoolwork, which my parents disapproved of, since they were paying school fees.

During retreat, for several days we never spoke (which I loved even then), and did nothing but pray, draw holy pictures, tally what good deeds we’d managed to perform each day, using a flower as a symbol (I used a violet), process around the school grounds singing hymns, and if we were Catholic, celebrate mass with a portly priest imported for the job. I couldn’t bear him and the way all the nuns fawned over and spoiled the only man who ever came into their orbit! Apart from no speaking and mass, Feast Days were the same round of prayers and processing.

Mother Michael was our housemistress, a tall bony woman, English, and almost the only nun there who had no charm. She wore thick horn-rimmed spectacles, and I noticed uncharitably that in the chapel at prayers every day after lunch, she twiddled her Bride of Christ gold wedding ring and didn’t seem particularly devout.

I rather enjoyed this lunch-time prayer ritual, it also cut into time for lessons, as we walked in a long crocodile along the corridors on miles of polished linoed floors, passing numerous statues of saints frequently adorned with rosaries or necklaces. I thought most of the statues were ‘soppy’, a word we used then, and actually I think they probably were – mass-produced, sentimental, pastel- coloured and idealised images. I glared at them all like a latter-day Cromwell.

Chapel however, with its scent of incense was a pleasure, and a respite from effort and intrigue. Yes, the convent was a hotbed of intrigue and occasionally swept by gusts of vague hysteria – what convent girls would probably call ‘scharmerei’ – with favourites, crushes and gossip part of the mix.

I was Mother Michael’s favourite for more than a term. It was, in a good Catholic phrase – purgatory – because I was imprisoned every day in the airy second floor cloakroom in the Georgian house which was the home of the junior girls. It was a pleasant sunny room, but it might just as well have been a dungeon because I was chained, as it were, to a chair, and every lunch break Mother Michael undid my long dark brown plaits and spent the rest of the lunch hour break brushing my hair.

Friends came and went, washing their hands and changing their indoor shoes, but I was pinned to my penitential chair with my hair loose. Just before the bell Mother Michael would re-plait it, dragging it round my face like a Victorian orphan, and every day when I got home my stepmother would ask what was going on, and when I told her, say it had to stop. I would have loved it to stop, but I didn’t know how to make it stop.

It went on until Mother Michael found another pair of promising plaits, not as long as mine, but long enough. The new favourite was rather smug to me, but I knew what she was in for, and watched with some pleasure as Barbara found herself nailed to the chair, and like me,  unable to join in the games of skipping and hopscotch, playing five stones and weaving cats cradles going on outside. Mother Michael had seriously interfered with my social life, and I felt no pity for her next victim.

The other nuns were civilised and kind, unbigoted and happy. Unlike the only teacher who wasn’t a nun, and who constantly tried to outdo them in piety and holiness. She was the maths teacher, so it was inevitable that our relationship would founder.

In fact it never recovered from the day when I finally rebelled and tried to speak my mind. As an Irishwoman, her constant theme was the ‘puir’ persecuted Catholics and all the dreadful things Protestants had done to them, including  executing Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators – we never celebrated Guy Fawkes day at the convent – and ‘puir ‘ St Thomas More, beheaded by Henry VIII.

Baulking at having to pray for the souls of my Protestant parents because they weren’t Catholic – after we’d interrupted long division yet again to recite the Angelus – my stroppy ten-year old self started to tell her about the Inquisition, and Borgia Popes etc.  But I got no further than the Inquisition. “Oh what a pack of Protestant lies!“ she shrieked dramatically, clapping her hands over her ears.

Not only was my relationship soured with Miss Cummins, but it never recovered from the disapproval of all the other Catholics in the room either… I paid the price for this rebellion, and was always left until last to be picked for rounders teams and  netball. I left the convent after a year without regret, and yet looking back I’ve had more fun from my memories of that unique environment than from some of my more conventional schools.

The beautiful High Victorian Gothic building, which housed the foreign nuns so far from their homes in Europe, and generations of schoolgirls, has now been turned into smart flats, surrounded by the glorious trees and grounds where we played so happily, watched by little red squirrels perched in the black branches of bare trees silhouetted against the snow.

I wonder if the skating rink is still there. I think no-one since would have enjoyed it as much as those gentle souls swirling silently around in the dusk, plum coloured habits swaying, veils flying and rosaries swinging. I do hope they bypassed purgatory and skipped straight into heaven.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Going cold turkey day after day post Christmas is not my idea of enjoying food. So after the second day I chop it into small pieces and freeze it. Yesterday we were ready to eat more turkey, so I defrosted it, stirred small pieces into a thick white sauce with plenty of nutmeg, some parsley and plenty of chopped mushrooms fried in butter. Served over savoury rice, it was good. Into the hot basmati rice I stir a chopped fried onion, plus a handful of peas, a handful of sultanas soaked in boiling water to plump them out, and plenty of toasted slivered almonds, salt and pepper plus more parsley. It beats the boredom of cold turkey.

Food for thought

The angels keep their ancient places;

Turn but a stone, and start a wing!

‘Tis ye, ‘tis your estranged faces,

That miss the many splendoured thing

Francis Thompson 1859-1907, great English poet, mystic, vagrant who lived on the streets for most of his drug-addicted life.

 

 

 

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The magic of a letter

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You cannot tie up an e-mail in blue ribbon and place it tenderly in a casket containing others like it, to leave for a grateful posterity to find and marvel over its touching sentiments, and even write a blog about their great-grannie and the beautiful or scandalous love letters she received!

I miss letters which aren’t bills and rates demands. There was so much more to decipher in a real letter than just words. First of all there was the paper it was written on. Cheap, thin, lined paper or coloured paper was a no-no, and spoke volumes about the taste of the unfortunate writer. Discriminating letter writers used a thick writing paper like Basildon Bond in white or pale blue. Even fussier ones tried to afford thicker, expensive, crisp, cream deckle- edged paper, bought from specialist stationers. Yes, there were shops in those days that sold nothing but high quality stationery, often beautifully boxed, and of course, fountain pens.

Fountain pens had the same competitive edge then, that an Apple or an I-Pad has now (or am I out-of date?)… sporting a gold nib, a gold hook to clip it into your suit pocket if you were a man, and a gold clip to pull back for the ink to be sucked up into the pen. You had to remember to empty it if you were flying, or the pressure caused the ink to flood out and stain the suit. I particularly loved the mottled versions, a bit like the marbled end papers on old books.

The ink had to be black or blue…green was vulgar, red was for money matters! The hand –writing was usually based back then on a form of copper-plate. From the age of six onwards, we used horrible crossed nibs from over-use, and dip pens to copy rows and rows of letters in long-hand. It was actually good hand- to- eye co-ordination in retrospect, and there was all sorts of etiquette round that too.

A capable girl named the ink monitor (never me) filled the inkwells and handed them out. The pens were shared out, and our copy books sorted. Woe be-tied the careless child (usually a tiresome boy!) who spilled his inkwell over the desk. And unless you learned to hold the pen correctly, it was impossible to actually form the letters – so you had to learn – unlike the way children hold pencils nowadays, in all sorts of strange postures.

There was a lot of un-official lore around hand-writing. We gathered that a hand that sloped backwards, showed the person was deceitful – oh dear – that when the dots to ‘I’s’ were flung wildly far from the ‘I,’ that showed the person was wildly imaginative. My dots remained firmly in place over the ‘I’s’ in my tightly controlled handwriting, which disguised the anxious persona underneath my vivacity.

I read that if a person used the word ‘ I’ more than every seven words in a sentence, this showed how egotistical they were… I wonder if that’s why it was so popular to say, “one thinks”, instead “I think.” I even had a friend who referred to herself in the third person.

Graphology, the art of reading character from hand-writing, turns out to be rather accurate in the hands of a skilled practitioner. When my brother worked for a London recruitment agency, a potential employer asked for a graphologist’s report on a possible employee.  Sceptical, my brother had his hand-writing analysed first, and was amazed when the report came back even detailing the problems he had had at birth!

But even an unskilled interpreter could enjoy the impressions that hand-writing displayed… scrawling, well-formed, exuberant – to un-readable – lots of that! Old people’s handwriting often became indecipherable, and what was always called ‘crabbed’, which seemed to mean it looked a bit spidery and wavery, thanks to arthritis.

Then there was the envelope – which had to match the writing paper, and here we come to one of writer Nancy Mitford’s famous jokes, or teases as she called them! She decreed that non-U (Non-Upper class) people called it ‘notepaper’, while the others opted for ‘writing paper’. Envelopes which displayed their owner’s regimental crest on the back were particularly prized when we were young – a symbol of the boy-friend’s status. But the fat envelopes stuffed with a thick wodge of pages of scrawl, sharing, gossip, and fun written by girl-friends were even better. They came through the letter-box, until I came to NZ, where we have boxes by the gate and I used to enjoy a stroll out to the letter-box to find these treasures.

Inside, the greeting obviously varied from dear, dearest and darling, to the more formal,’ dear sir or madam’, while the endings – here etiquette ruled with an iron hand. ‘Yours faithfully,’ and a full signature if a business letter… I think ‘yours truly’ was next in line, before getting to ‘yours sincerely’, which could be signed with full name or just Christian name depending on the level of intimacy.

No-one ever signs off: ‘I am, sir, your obedient servant’, these days or: ‘yours respectfully’, or even: ‘yours affectionately’, which rather appeals to me. And how I loved in those old romances the signing off by rejected suitors: “I beg of you to believe that now and always I am your very obedient servant to command” …those were indeed the days. Such chivalry seems dead when most of our e-mail communications seem to end either with Kind Regards – or Regards – so formal, so cold, so colourless.

Some of my favourite books are collections of letters. Will there ever be such collections again? Who keeps e-mails? Maybe some print them off or transfer them into a Keep File. But too often, it’s too easy just to hit ‘delete’ when the in-box gets too full. The one good thing about e-mails is that they’re easy to write so maybe we are in touch more often.

I had one friend whose hand-written letters were delightful puzzles. She was dyslexic and there were great and crucial gaps on every page where she’d left a space in order to go and check the spelling in the dictionary, and had then forgotten and sealed it and sent it. Dear Jackie would have loved the spell-checker… maybe she’s found a heavenly spell-checker in the land of her fathers, where she now rests in peace!

Food for threadbare gourmets

Home after another day gadding about with friends, and feeling guilty about leaving my husband with a scratch lunch, and I hadn’t planned a decent supper either. In the freezer I found some cooked pork sausages which he loves, and thought I’d better dress them up to make a decent meal. Lots of leeks gave me inspiration, and I adapted a recipe of Elizabeth Luard’s.

I sauted several large chopped leeks in butter till almost soft. I added some stock, and let it boil to finish cooking the leeks. At this stage I put the sausages into the leek mixture, then added a teasp of Dijon mustard, and a good sprinkling of nutmeg, salt and black pepper, plus plenty of cream to bubble up and thicken. Delicious, eaten with new potatoes, and green vegetables.  I was having a little cold salmon, so I used some of the leeks as a sauce with it, and that worked well too.

Food for thought

There is no greater sin than desire, no greater curse than discontent,
No greater misfortune than wanting something for oneself.
Therefore he who knows that enough is enough will always
have enough.

Lao tsu

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So what is gumption?

100_0509“Use your elbow–grease,” my grandmother would chide me good humouredly… or ask: “where’s your gumption?” Where indeed? I searched my somewhat limited seven year old soul but could find no trace of these desirable qualities – whatever they were – for I had no idea. I was completely puzzled, and sad to disappoint her.

However the lack of these mystifying gifts ceased to matter when at a fortnight’s notice, I left my grandmother forever, to join my father just returned from Egypt with his new wife. After a month he disappeared to Germany, and my stepmother and I waited for his summons until a house had been found for us. During those months, instead of going to school, my stepmother gave me lessons in the afternoon. Looking back, though a fully trained physiotherapist, she may not have been quite so well qualified to teach small children, but those were more carefree times, when anything went, and often did.

In my case, we didn’t do much maths, thankfully, but I learnt lots of poetry, mainly, I think, the poets my stepmother had ‘done’ at school in the thirties. These included Sir Walter Scott, Elizabeth Browning, Wordsworth and chunks of Longfellow’s Hiawatha. She was hot on spelling – and as a nine year old, lists of words like phlegm, diaphragm, diphthong, delphinium, rhododendron, asthma, psychology, diarrhoea had to be memorised every day. If I’d ended up in the medical profession this vocabulary might have stood me in good stead, but since then I’ve often wished that I had instead mastered how to spell ‘receive’ and all the exceptions of’ ie’, as well as ‘commitment’, both my constant stumbling blocks.

When it came to composition – as it was called – I was a disappointment to her, the way I’d felt with my grandmother, when I lacked elbow grease and gumption. But what I was lacking now, was imagination. “Use your imagination,” she’d say, and once again, I had no idea what imagination was, though I thought it might have something to do with writing about fairies, which I felt was childish.

I felt mysteriously depressed, as at school I’d always been quite good at composition. But the problem of imagination didn’t seem so important once we got to war-torn Europe. We travelled through apocalyptic scenes – cities of mountains of bricks, with half buildings with crooked pictures still on the wall, a door open and chairs still at a table, and skeletons of ruined churches –  before finally reaching the infamous place called Belsen, where our new home was the Beast of Belsen’s old digs.

Those were bleak times in Europe and I often felt bleak too. Now my father, almost unknown after years away at war, expected me to have common sense. This seemed more important than gumption, elbow grease, or imagination all put together, and just as un-attainable. I think they thought I was sensible when my best friend was murdered. I had gone to fetch her for our early morning riding lesson, but she didn’t answer the door. When I got home after riding, Mary had been found shot in the kitchen, and her younger brother was shot at the door as he had tried to escape. Her father had then shot himself because his wife had left him.

I never spoke to my new parents about this, my chief worry being Mary’s brother’s  feelings as he dashed for the door, and also that Mary mightn’t have made it into heaven, which I knew my parents didn’t believe in. I cried every night in bed, and begged God to let her in. But though I was apparently phlegmatic, the magic of common sense still eluded me – as in: “do use your common sense, child,” or the unanswerable question: “haven’t you got any common sense?”  When I joined the army as a teenager at my father’s behest, I knew he hoped I might now discover some hidden well of this commodity which he seemed to think I really needed for a successful life.

But here was another pitfall. An officer was supposed to have initiative and to use it! This, as a very young officer, I quickly realised, was dangerous. Initiative was a two-edged sword, with unknown consequences, which not everyone appreciated. So it was with relief that I looked forward to marriage, when, I supposed with blind optimism, none of these things would be required of me.

But on the third day into married life, I discovered that things were not as I had thought they were, had to write a big cheque which cleaned me out, and then faced an unpredictable, precarious, and impoverished life on shifting sands. The upside was that I discovered I did have gumption after all! And I needed it.

Elbow grease, on the other hand, was something quite prosaic I came to realise, and was only needed for wax-polishing antique furniture, the idea being that the intense pressure of the elbow grease created friction, and the resultant heat melted the invisible wax crystals, causing them to meld together and create those shining surfaces. Frankly, it was easier just to put the dusters in the oven, and polish with hot dusters instead of elbow grease. The only other use for elbow grease seemed to be for scrubbing burnt saucepans, an activity I have always strenuously avoided.

Common sense? Well I’ve discovered that common sense is merely a matter of opinion, and that one man’s common sense is another man’s madness… so to take a somewhat extreme example, Hitler’s idea of common sense would not be mine – so I’ve flagged common sense. And initiative doesn’t bother me any more – I’m in sole command, and don’t have to answer to any superior officers!

Which leaves me with that lack of imagination. Well, it’s something I’ve got used to, and have had to realise that I never could produce an interesting imaginative novel! I recognise imagination in great works of art, both literary and artistic, in fine blogs, in glorious architecture and opera, in gardening and interior decoration, even in solving problems… but I’m still digging for it in myself…

Jane Austen has sometimes been un-imaginatively accused of lacking imagination, and I used to cling to her definition of her art in a letter to her brother Edward, in which she refers to her: ‘little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush’, but to be brutally realistic, this is not really much comfort, since she painted masterpieces on her little bit of ivory with her fine brush. For me, lacking the flights of fancy that come with a soaring imagination, all I can do is to notice and to describe, and I did find some consolation in these words by the enigmatic writer Fernando Pessoa.

He wrote: “What moves lives. What is said endures. There’s nothing in life that’s less real for having been described. Small-minded critics point out that such and such a poem, with its protracted cadences, in the end says merely that it’s a nice day. But to say it’s a nice day is difficult, and the nice day itself passes on. It’s up to us to conserve the nice day in a wordy, florid memory, sprinkling new flowers and new stars over the fields and skies of the empty, fleeting outer world.”

These words hearten me for I too, can at least conserve the day in wordy, florid memories, try to sprinkle new flowers over the fields and skies of the fleeting outer world, and thoroughly enjoy myself while I’m sprinkling! So here’s to florid memories and new flowers!

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

This is the strawberry season, so it’s crazy to serve anything else for pudding besides these luscious fruits. Friends for dinner meant a quick foray to the nearest strawberry fields. The ones I wanted, where the strawberries are grown by a Vietnamese genius, whose berries are the biggest, sweetest and cheapest, hadn’t opened, so I had to fall back on the other strawberry fields. I usually find theirs a bit tough and tart, but solved the problem by hulling them, and putting them in a dish out in the sun. As the day went by, the delectable scent of soft, sweet, ripe strawberries warm from the sun tempted my taste-buds every time I passed them.

With them I usually do Chantilly cream. One of my grandsons will eat this neat, and has learned how to make it for himself, a useful skill when he goes flatting at University! Take one cup of thick cream, two table spoons of icing sugar and a few drops of vanilla and whip them together. I usually make three times this amount, just tripling all the ingredients.

 

Food for thought

So long as a bee is outside the petals of the lotus and has not tasted its honey, it hovers around the flower buzzing. But when it is inside the flower it drinks the nectar silently. So long as a man quarrels about doctrines and dogmas, he has not tasted the nectar of the true faith; once he has tasted it he becomes still.

Sri Ramakrishna  1883- 1886 Famous Hindu teacher and mystic, who believed that all religions led to the same God, and who practised  both Christianity and Islam

 

 

 

 

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