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Behind every great….

100_0087‘Behind every great man stands a great woman’, one of my dearest friends declared, a propos Winston Churchill and the love of his life, his wife Clementine, and of Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor. We were lunching at the latest fashionable eatery for ladies who lunch, and I rather lowered the tone by quipping that behind every great man is a woman with nothing to wear!

As I sort through years of accumulation in this house, ready to take my next steps forward, I thought of this conversation, and thought of a much ignored and rather valiant woman who stood behind a great man. Her influence over a hundred years later is behind the room I sit in.

I looked around at this white room, white walls and cream curtains, white French furniture and if not white, then painted white and distressed by me, the guts of the rooms being created by the richness of books, and the colour of china. Only three pieces of furniture are the exception to the reigning white – the pine dresser in the dining area, and the antique round Dutch rosewood table laden with piles of books, and a battered old French bench painted in soft grey and cream.

After years of blue rooms, red rooms and yellow rooms this pale restful room is how I want to live these days. Syrie Maugham, Somerset Maugham’s ex-wife, is usually credited with inventing all-white rooms in the thirties. She bleached and pickled and painted furniture and floors, had carpets specially woven in white, and white on white became all the rage.

But the first white rooms in interior decorative history were Mrs Oscar Wilde’s drawing room and dining room in Tite Street, Chelsea.

The poet W. B Yeats described: ” a white drawing room… with white panels, and a dining room all white, chairs, walls, mantel-pieces, carpets…” The Wildes were leaders of fashion, and the much under-rated Constance Wilde edited the Rational Dress Society’s Gazette, often detailing accidents which had befallen women owing to the restrictions or impracticality of their dress.

Her white dining room may have been impractical, but she was an unusual Victorian parent who allowed her two sons to romp and play in its pristine whiteness – and they also scandalised some – as their unconventional mother allowed them to do this naked.

Though not as talented as the wickedly brilliant Oscar, (arriving in America and being asked what he had to declare, he replied, ‘Nothing but my genius!’) she more than held her own, collaborating with him in many of his projects, writing books for children, as well as writing in, and editing her magazine, while creating the artistic and aesthetic environment which had such an influence on their circle and their times.

Constance was also interested in the spiritual life, and became involved with the famous metaphysical and mystical society The Order of The Golden Dawn, where amongst others, well known personalities like WB Yeats, Maud Gonne, famous mystic Evelyn Underhill and even wicked Aleister Crowley before his fall, used to meet.

After the difficult birth of their second son the Wilde’s sexual relationship dwindled, and it was then that Oscar became involved with the love life (what his lover famously described as ‘the love that dare not speak its name ‘) that ended his career and the happiness of them all.

It’s only recently that it’s been understood that the mysterious and crippling illness which blighted Constance’s life, and probably their marriage in the five years before Oscar’s downfall, was the onset of multiple scelerosis. It was a condition which had only been recognised a few years before, and which Constance’s doctors were obviously not aware of.

This too, must have made a huge difference to the quality of the Wilde’s marriage, though they both obviously loved each other. Constance continued to support Oscar’s achievements after his disgrace and was the first to praise the poignant ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’. But his inability to keep at a distance the beautiful but destructive and heartless “Bosie” Douglas, the other half in the scandal, finally drove husband and wife apart.

Constance took her two boys to Italy to escape the scandal, and died there a couple of years later from the dangerous quack treatment she sought for her increasingly debilitating illness.

There’s been much sympathy and rightly so, for Oscar Wilde and his trials and tragedy, but Constance is often the forgotten one in this tribulation which affected them all. Not only does a fine woman stand behind most great men, but behind every disgraced man stands a humiliated and heartbroken wife…

Since I learned her story many years ago, Constance Wilde has always had a place in my heart… I can never resist women who make the best of things, however bad the things … and as Eleanor Roosevelt so memorably said: “A woman is like a tea bag – you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water.”

Food for threadbare gourmets
After my grandsons had been for lunch and I had made gallons – as it were – of chocolate sauce, I wondered what to do with all the sauce left over. Luckily I had a friend for supper a few days later, and decided to put the chocolate sauce to good use.

I gently stewed some peeled and cored pears in hot water with maple syrup, ginger wine, a few cloves, star anise and a bay leaf added. When soft I left them to steep in this juice, and later, boiled it away until it was thick and syrupy.

Served with whipped cream, re-heated chocolate sauce, and a little shortbread biscuit, it was wickedly delicious to one who has renounced sugar!

Food for thought

There is that which has always been there,
Which has never left your side,
Which has always been present,
Whatever the feeling, the circumstance.
When you turn your attention to trusting that,
You surrender to yourself.
Anon

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Dancing to the music of time

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I climbed up the rusty fire escape smothered in trails of blue flowering morning glory and stepped onto the veranda of a very big two- storied, shabby white house built on the side of a volcano. The morning glory swung from trees, twisted up the fire escape, and swathed both house and garden in carpets of greenery and purple trumpet shaped flowers. With pillars, porticoes, verandas and banisters all festooned in drooping creeper, it looked like a romantic, deserted Southern mansion.

Once on the veranda I peered through the windows, and beckoned to my slightly reluctant partner in crime to join me. It was obviously the home of students or alternative life stylers on this floor, the only unusual thing about their chaotic living arrangements being the live rabbits who were hopping about the grubby carpets. Downstairs a motor bike gang who seemed to have wrecked the place, had their bikes parked inside the entrance hall.

Reader – to quote Charlotte Bronte – we bought the house. It took time to track down the owner and persuade him to sell, but we did. The room where the rabbits had bred was forever known as the rabbit room during our years in the house. The occupants moved out, but that was all. It was up to us to break down partitions, rip up revolting carpets, clean, scrub, paint and restore – including dozens of missing banisters – used no doubt for firewood. The bikies had left behind more than indescribable squalor but awful energy as well. But for the first time since its original owner the house had become a family home again, not a collection of shabby flats.

The house had been built in 1875 by a French architect for himself, described on the title as Jean le Bailly Hervei, gentleman. The first thing we did was to rip out a partition and remove a door and two huge cupboards. This revealed Jean’s conception of a huge central hall, twelve feet high, thirty feet long and ten feet wide, stretching down the centre of the house, and looking out over the harbour and then to distant hills beyond. When I stood at the huge French doors and watched the flaming sunsets or the black clouds scudding in from the hills so that I knew what the weather would be like in half an hour, I felt close to Jean le Bailly Hervei.

He designed this splendid roomy house with every French window and door opening towards the sun and these magnificent views, and each room led off from the airy hall on both the top and the bottom floors. The floor of the top hall I painted a rich pumpkin colour which picked up the shades of pumpkin and rose and purple and cream in a long Kelim rug which fitted the space. The bottom hall which matched the top, I painted white, including the floor, and blue and white curtains and matching table cloth over a round table obliterated traces of the former tenants and their bikes. My son painted his bedroom floor lime green to go with his colour scheme.

The children and the little frolicking dogs brought life and fun into the house, and music rang through all the spacious rooms – the children played the piano and their flute and clarinet – me – the stereo –  mostly Bach’s Brandenburg concertos, Beatles, Joan Baez and Cat Stevens.

One day while clearing the garden of morning glory, I found a three foot high, concrete garden gnome hidden under the greenery. We dragged him inside, and since we had friends staying and my birthday feast that night, I invited the gnome to dinner too. He presided in a chair at the head of the table and we had lots of laughter at his expense.

When we moved on, children gone, the psychiatrist who bought the house from us, an hour after it went on the market, asked me six months later at a party, what we had done to remove the brutal vibrations of drugs, alcohol, violence and fear which we had inherited. I was fascinated that a conventional medicine man should acknowledge that old energy, and that he had thought about it.

We brought colour and energy into the house, I said, along with all the books and precious things we’d loved and collected, including tapestry and patchwork cushions and crocheted bedspreads I’d made. We had bowls of pot-pourri and flowers, and often used candle- light. But the two things that must have made the real difference, I told him, were that we all meditated, and there was always music being played. I think more than anything, it was the meditation and the music, I said.

These memories came back to me today when I was reading that world-renowned neuro-scientist Oliver Sacks says that music affects the brain more than any other discipline. It is, he says, the only discipline that actually changes the physical appearance of the brain. We are designed for music, for ‘its complex sonic pattern woven in time, its logic, its momentum, and its unbreakable sequences’

In Australia in a school where they have a Music Excellence programme the students spend many hours playing rehearsing and having music lessons. At prize-givings, eighty percent of the top students receiving awards for academic excellence were also music students.

They mostly spend more than ten hours a week involved in their music and have almost no behaviour problems or any upsetting emotional or social issues even though they come from both rich and poor homes, single parent homes and every the other variation on backgrounds which could spell problems for children.

Do we know whether the music acts as a stress release, or whether it builds such emotional equilibrium and peace of mind that its practitioners can weather all sorts of stresses without problems? Maybe it doesn’t matter. What does matter to us is that we recognise the value of music, and allow ourselves to receive and enjoy its healing and strengthening properties. Some research has shown that people who learn a musical instrument are less likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s.

Music is supposed to teach basic skills such as concentration, counting, listening, and cooperation, help with understanding of language, improve memory, and help learning in all other areas. But actually, it doesn’t matter what the benefits are, it’s the sheer joy of music that enriches our lives. Perhaps it should be compulsory in schools, and be ranked along with writing and arithmetic as one of the necessities of life.

And what I find amazing is that music healed a house. Once it had dissolved the top layers of fear and anger and violence, it seemed to penetrate to other layers of energy and atmosphere… reaching through levels of sadness and regret and loss, until finally the sweetness of the music uncovered all the layers of time, and we reached the gentleness and joy of Jean the Bailly Hervei .

It was a voyage of discovery travelling back into the past and becoming aware of the lives of so many who had lived there before us. Music gathered together threads of sweet feelings from the past, and stitched them into the tapestry of life that we were adding our colours to. And it was the invisible vibrations of music which conducted us gently through those layers of time and feeling so we were able to hand on to the next owners the intangible beauty of a well-loved house. .

Food for threadbare gourmets

For these hot, dry, sunny days of Indian summer, sitting on the veranda, cicadas clattering, I like to make a spinach and salmon quiche which is good hot or cold. After lining a quiche dish or similar with thin short crust pastry – though I have used filo too, I simply pour the filling in and bake in a moderate oven for 40 minutes or until gently firm. For the filling I use 150 gm of chopped smoked salmon, a packet of frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry, 300 to 400mls of thick cream, three large eggs, salt and pepper. Mix everything together, adding the spinach and salmon last, and either a little grated nutmeg or a little parmesan cheese if you fancy, and pour into the partly cooked pastry case. Good with salad of course…

Food for thought

I think the sages are the growing tip of the secret impulse of evolution… I think they embody the very drive of the Kosmos towards greater depths and expanding consciousness. I think they are riding the edge of a light beam, racing towards a rendezvous with God.

From ‘ A Brief History of Everything’, by Ken Wilber, Influential American writer and philosopher.

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