Tag Archives: life

The future in the distance

100_0404I know I said this would be the last instalment of my autobiography, but as it turns out, there is one more chapter to come.

 When I was in the army as a twenty- two- year old lieutenant, I had to take a detachment of my girls to help at a local fete at Stratford-on -Avon. My job was to look after John Mills, the film star, and his daughter Juliet, also a film star. They were opening the village fete.

When this not-too- onerous task had been completed, I was free to wander round the fair ground, though feeling somewhat conspicuous in my dark green army uniform. I ducked inside a fortune teller’s tent for fun and sat down in front of her crystal ball. She took my hand, and peered at it. “There’s writing in this hand,” she said. “you’re going to start writing and you’ll never stop. It’s all through the rest of your life.”

Nothing was further from my thoughts at the time, and I dismissed it as a fortune teller’s fantasy. It took another seven years before her prophesy came true, and I’m still writing! During the years of Patrick’s retirement when he was still churning out a weekly column and editing a grey power magazine, I was still writing too.

Not only did I write for his magazine – interviews, columns, and cookery articles, (all unpaid) helping him design covers and acting as courier to and from the printers, but I also checked his books before they went to the printer, thought of titles like: ‘Sons of the Sword’, ‘Dangerous Journeys’, and provided material to give them extra depths like the extracts from the Mahabharata about a nuclear explosion, when he wrote of Hiroshima in ‘Sons of the Sword’.

When he ran out of ideas for his column, I’d cook up a reader’s letter for him to discuss, or find and research a topic for him, and as he grew less able, I’d check over every column trying to re-write confused sentences and connect unconnected trains of thought. He used to get very angry with me at correcting his work, and I dreaded doing it every week, but it had to be done to maintain his credibility.

A publisher commissioned me to write sixteen illustrated books on New Zealand, I wrote for a parent’s magazine, and for my pleasure also began writing a book called ‘The Sound of Water.’ Through all the sadness and despair of the last years of our marriage this writing energised me and gave me pleasure.

Patrick had six major operations during this time, and they were always followed by complications. When we could still afford private care, it was daunting to discover that once the operation had been completed, and paid for- we were out on the street! Not even any help into the car with a severely disabled heavy patient, and there was no follow-up care.

When we had to fall back on the state health system, the follow-up care was meticulous and took a great weight off my mind; but we still had the long treks into the pain clinic, the geriatric department, the heart unit, operations for cataracts, endless visits to the hearing clinic for hearing aids, and regular trips to the doctor… I was now facing what so many women who marry much older husbands have to cope with.

When he fell over, a frequent occurrence, I would have to ring the local volunteer fire brigade for help in lifting a heavy and inert old man – it would take four men to get him off the floor, and then onto a stretcher and into an ambulance to hospital.

The army of medical practitioners involved in his care all told me that now was the time to ask for family help, ‘you can’t go it alone’. But like so many other families, mine too was spread around the globe or coping with their own burdens.

Though I was frequently ambushed with depression in this time, and so stressed that heart pains made me wonder if I was having a heart attack, the support of friends, coffee, lunch or little get- togethers kept me going. And now I discovered opera, becoming an afficionado of the New York Met’s filmed operas which showed at our local cinema regularly.

Back home I’d compare different versions on Youtube, and found solace and stimulation in this new passion. And then blogging became a hobby too – more writing! And because I always looked bright and efficient, loved my garden, books, music, clothes, good food and friends, no-one ever thought I wasn’t coping.

Once I organised a two week stay of what was called ‘respite care’ in a nearby retirement home, paid for by the health service, and Patrick’s children were appalled at my callousness. During this time, I was so exhausted I slept most of the time, which I’m told is typical for carers. I began to wonder guiltily if I would ever have any life left to enjoy, when this long period of illness and frailty was over for a husband – who in spite of all his operations and constant illness was still, it seemed, indestructible.

I began to seek comfort in the words of people like Ibsen:

‘ELMER: But this is disgraceful. Is this the way you neglect your most sacred duties?
NORA: What do you consider is my most sacred duty?
HELMER: Do I have to tell you that? Isn’t it your duty to your husband and children?
NORA:I have another duty, just as sacred.
HELMER: You can’t have. What duty do you mean?
NORA: My duty to myself.’

I found the lines in Oriah Mountain Dreamer’s poem gave me courage:

‘… I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul. If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.’

And Hillel’s words written two thousand years ago: ’If not you – who? If not now – when?

So in the end, after giving him a rousing eighty-fifth birthday party which all but two of the children were able to attend, I decided I had to make a decision. Three weeks later, with my doctor’s encouragement, I told him I couldn’t go on any longer, and that I’d found several good retirement homes for him, which of course he refused to consider, saying he was not ready for that yet.

It happened, and I incurred odium and ostracism from all his family and most of the people connected with him. Even during the first year on my own, struggling with too little money, a burden of guilt, and legal woes, I was happier than I’d been for years.

Patrick lived in a luxury retirement home, where his daughter was the manager. He was immediately assessed as needing to be in the hospital wing, which I felt justified my decision. Family and work associates all made the trek out to see him regularly, though no-one had bothered to do this when I was looking after him!

He was still collecting Japanese artifacts and still writing his monumental and unreadable history of Japan and the Pacific War. I moved to the Coromandel peninsula, a four hour drive away, and when I received a phone call one evening three years later, saying he was ill and unlikely to last beyond the next day, I drove through the night to see him.

He was unconscious, and I sat by his bed for three hours until I felt his daughter wanted me to go. I bent over to kiss him and say goodbye, and he opened his eyes and looked straight into mine.

He had been twenty-one when he joined his beloved Auckland Star. On its masthead back then were the lines:

For the cause that needs assistance,

For the wrong that needs resistance,

For the future in the distance,

For the good that we can do.

He faithfully and steadfastly lived those words for the next sixty- eight years of his life until he died at nearly eight-nine.

At his funeral, as the hearse was about to pull away, an elderly man stepped forward and placed a flower on the coffin. It was Arthur Thomas.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

 This is a wonderful lunch dish for a special occasion. I found it in a magazine a few years ago, and now that spring is here, am about to dust off my quiche tin for it. Having prepared and cooked a short crust pastry shell, the recipe suggests to cook six sliced red onions in two tablesp of oil and four tablesp of brown sugar until soft. When golden leave to cool. Mix five egg yolks with three hundred g of crumbled blue cheese, 22 g mascarpone, six slices of prosciutto or thin streaky bacon and eighty g of pine nuts. Stir in the onions and spread the mixture into the pastry case. Bake at 180 degrees for 20-30 minutes or until cooked. If the top starts to brown too fast, lower the oven to 160 degrees.

I like it with half cheddar and half blue cheese, use cream instead of mascarpone, and chopped fried  streaky bacon – still good…The magazine recommends six small onions, and the quiche is double the normal size I cook, serving ten people. When I make it in a normal sized quiche tin for five/six people, I use two onions, and 100g of blue cheese plus several ounces of cheddar and a good helping of cream.. I also use five whole eggs. Hope this answers your query Nicki, from Expat Alien… I’d feel the same if I saw those amounts recommended by the magazine !

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Filed under army, consciousness, cookery/recipes, family, gardens, uncategorised, Uncategorized, writing

Life and loss, love and death

Image result for south  bay hk

Deepwater Bay

Another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to writing my normal blogs

Ensconced in Deepwater Bay, life now took on the tone and routines that shaped our lives until the final disintegration of our marriage. My husband would go off to University every day and return home in time for dinner. After dinner he would take off back to Victoria – to the officers mess, he would say, to see Henry or Richard or whoever… I assumed for some time that he was bonding with the other people on his course, in spite of having spent all day with them.

Later he would say there was a party or a get together. And later still, when the whole saga had ended, friends would tell me that I had no idea of how many girl- friends there had been – “You didn’t know the half of it”….

I tried everything, and one night I remember in despair taking the car before he did and driving round to beautiful South Bay, an empty semi- circle of still water, ringed with flame trees, and where I watched the flaming sunset. The beauty was so moving, I felt I must share it with him, and drove back home, and persuaded him to come back to South Bay with me. He did, and then took the car and drove off- somewhat delayed – to whatever rendezvous he had in town.

Two things helped me through this time. I had found a wonderful amah, Ah Ping, a shy eighteen- year- old girl with very little English, and a lovely nature. She adored the children, and we had a little competition at bath-time over which of us was going to enjoy bathing the youngest, still very much a baby. She learned to speak English with my accent and tone, so that people thought it was me when she answered the phone. She helped to maintain the happy atmosphere for the children and they  loved her.

The other thing that sustained me, was my first foray into writing. I studied the woman’s pages of the South China Morning Post, the main English speaking newspaper in Hong Kong, and realised that the one element missing was cookery.

Cheekily I offered my services to the woman’s editor, a childless and fashionable young woman, Jane, the same age as me. Feeling plain and boring by now, I somehow managed to keep my end up with her at my interview and got the go ahead to write a cookery column on Fridays. I had no qualifications for this of course, apart from an abiding love of food, but I managed to make it sound as though I knew what I was talking about.

After six weeks, I was offered another bite of the cherry, when Jane suggested I write a story to fill Thursday’s page – she wanted something about bringing up children, and now she had as it were, a captive mother, I filled the bill. This was meat and drink to me and writing about children and parenting became one of my areas of expertise and was something I only stopped doing fifty years later at seventy- seven.

My husband’s social life was costing us, and debts had begun to pile up, so the money I now earned was important to me, as I knew I could always feed the children with it. I could also afford to visit the famous alleys, and find cheap lengths of gorgeous fabric, which I sewed by hand, making glamorous new summer dresses. I had new friends, and was making a life, but I still felt miserable and longed to be loved. I tried to fill the emptiness by playing Bob Dylan and the Beatles and they left me feeling even more alone and bereft. I also started having blinding migraines which took five days out of life every time they struck.

One evening my husband came home and said we’d been invited to a party at the naval base on the commander’s ship. I put on a red dress from my pre-marriage party days and set off, feeling like I always did these days, in-adequate and plain.

At the gangplank we were warmly greeted by a man with piercing blue eyes and golden hair. His wife was a ravishing blonde ex-ballet dancer with huge brown eyes, beautiful features, and a pile of hair pinned up,   so long that when it fell to her ankles when we were dancing, she looked like Rapunzel. Her chic little black dress showed off her ballet dancer’s figure to perfection. I was in awe of both these glamorous people.

Later we went back to their house where we all sat down at the dining table for an impromptu dinner. Our host sat me at his right hand and talked to me as though I was actually interesting. I felt such gratitude for his kindness. We continued to meet at parties as our friends were old childhood friends of them both. At each occasion he sought me out, raising his glass to me across many crowded rooms before making his way through the throng to us.

And then one night as he handed me out of his car after a party, he squeezed my hand. The next party we went to was at a French officer’s house. He and his wife were a gentle couple, and we played silly childish games, since we were a mixture of French and English couples with few of us speaking each other’s language, so conversation was difficult.

During one game if a player won some sort of forfeit, they placed a cushion in front of the person of their choice and knelt and gave them a kiss. My naval friend placed his cushion in front of me when it was his turn, and I said to myself if he does it again, I will know that he meant it. And he did. The next two months were a dizzy time of love and longing set against the back drop of riots and curfews and water rationing and our move into army quarters in Repulse Bay, where we became neighbours. Neither of us ever said a word but were drawn to each other at every meeting.

At the same time, I was fascinated by his ravishing wife, and couldn’t believe that he could care for me, when he had such a spell-binding partner, who I knew he’d loved since they were children. I could see that she was scatter-brained and sometimes strangely childish, but still found her beauty entrancing.

The night before they left to return to England we all met for one last time. As we danced he told me he loved me. I said I thought it might have been a sailor’s girl in every port, and he reproached me. He told me that his fey, feckless wife was a millstone round his neck, and that we both had “to make a go of it”.

They flew out the next day, and I went into a sort of collapse. I literally couldn’t get out of bed for a few weeks, and somehow struggled on into the grey winter like a zombie. The migraines ambushed me more and more often. I felt too fragile and depressed to write to my father.

My husband now asked me not to leave him alone with the husband of a woman I’d thought was my best friend because he feared being beaten up. The husband had discovered that my husband and his wife had been having an affair. I felt shocked and betrayed by my friend, but then, I found my husband was having another affair with another colleague’s wife, and I stopped caring.

After Christmas Jane, the woman’s editor offered me a fulltime job, and I began in January. A few weeks later, I woke up one morning, looked out at the sea, watched the fishing boats streaming back after their night’s fishing, and felt different. It was as though a huge grey cloud had lifted from me, and my first thought was – now I can write to my father. Because I was still trying to juggle my job and the children, and learning the ropes at work, I put it off until I had a moment to sit down and enjoy communicating again.

A few nights later I dreamt that one of my father’s good friends who was in Hong Kong, was sitting on my bed with its beautiful blue and green patterned Venetian bedspread, with his arms around me, comforting me. When I awoke in the morning I inwardly castigated myself that I was so desperate that I was dreaming about my father’s friends!

That night, as I slept, I heard the phone go, and my husband answer it. I heard him say: “Thank you, I’ll tell her.” When he walked into the bedroom I sat up in bed, and cried out, “Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”

“Your father’s dead.” he said. The War Office had rung.

I immediately rang my father’s friend Ian, and unwittingly destroyed a dinner party. Ian came straight round, and as he sat on the bed and put his arms around me, my dream came back to me.

It felt as though the bedrock of my life had been ripped from beneath me. It seemed like the worst thing that had ever happened to me, even though I knew it happened to everyone.  But he was only fifty- four. My siblings who were scattered around the globe on various rocks – Gibraltar, St Helena, Aden gathered, but I was too far away. No-one contacted me. I never heard from my stepmother again for nearly forty years when she was in her late eighties. My father-in-law wrote and told me about my father’s funeral, and now I was alone.

I had leant Pat Hangen my copy of Towers of Trebizond in which was a poem I felt I needed. As soon as day broke after the phone call, I rang and asked her to return it. The poem was like a lifeline back to sanity. Every time I was overwhelmed with grief, I read it again and it brought me back to a place where I could still stand being alive. It was John Davies of Hereford’s dirge for his friend Thomas Morley:

Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend.

My dearest friend is dead and laid in grave.

In grave he rests until the world shall end.

The world shall end as end all things must have.

All things must have an end that nature wrought.

Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend.

The rhythm of these lines helped somehow, while the words of the gurus did not. “Participate joyfully in the sorrows of life.” Joseph Campbell once said, and: ‘we can choose to live in joy’. But had he ever  experienced the sorrows of life, in his long, happy,  childless relationship (with none of the agonies and ecstasies of parenthood) and his sheltered affluent university life-style? Words like his seemed to mock.

In my world, enduring the sorrows of life, it took weeks to move beyond the pain of grief and despair, and my husband lost patience with me. Then both children developed bad cases of measles. It took the spots ten days to come out for my son, and with his high temperature I feared he’d develop encephalitis. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. My daughter developed bronchitis and was very sick at the end of her bout of measles.

One night, as I lay by her side in bed anxiously watching her, my husband came to the bed room door. I’d been so pre-occupied with the children’s sickness, that I hadn’t really noticed that his party round had been even more frenetic that usual. He stood in the doorway, looking dreamy and dazed, and said to me, “I’ve just met the woman I’m going to marry.”

I replied coldly, “Well, you’re still married to me.” But inside, I felt a surge of relief. We must be on the home straight! We were. I even stopped having my debilitating migraines. I began saving my earnings for when I would need then.

Now too, my job became really interesting. I began interviewing all the interesting people who came to Hong King. They included charming, handsome Dr Seuss, a man of goodness and integrity. Writer Iris Murdoch was a challenge, and I wish I could do it again now that I know more about life. But then I was so naive that I wondered how such a plain woman could have found a husband! John Bailey, the husband who later betrayed her when she had Altzheimers, was vague and donnish when I met him. Robert Helpman, the great ballet dancer was a joy, gentle, charming, and kind.

Barbara Cartland, so exuberant and full of life at seventy- four (honey and vitamins she told me) took me to her bosom- literally – when I mentioned one of my closest friends who was her son’s best friend. When Raine, Lady Dartmouth, her daughter, came to Hong Kong a few months later, she was just as friendly and charming, seeking me out with all eyes on her as she walked across the dining room to greet me while I was lunching in the Eagles Nest of the Hilton. She was radiantly beautiful, tall and elegant, with big china blue eyes and peaches and cream complexion like the Queen’s. It was hard to see her as the wicked stepmother of Princess Diana in the years that followed.

I don’t think I was very good at writing interviews, but I did uncover a talent for writing columns which blossomed when I moved to another country. I also discovered that journalism could be a powerful force for good when a woman rang me one day and asked to see me at my home. She gave me what she said was a false name.

I opened the front door to a tall, fair-haired sweet-faced woman with great poise and dignity. She wanted to talk to me about setting up Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon, the family support group in Hong Kong. I ended up attending meetings of both, and then writing several stories. Both groups took off, and today, the woman, who became one of my closest friends, tells me there are at least seventeen groups now flourishing in the territory, three of them for Europeans.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 I’m still on my what to do with lettuce and greens jag and have adapted this recipe for lettuce soup from my old copy of the one and only Mrs Beaton. I use four spring onions if I have them and soften them with a couple of thinly sliced onions, a chopped garlic clove and a finely chopped carrot. When this is soft I pour in three cups of heated chicken stock. The lettuce then goes in, torn into small pieces, and a cup and a half of frozen peas, salt and pepper. Cook for eight to ten minutes and remove from heat while the soup is still bright green. Whizz in the blender until smooth. One of my oldest friends combs the hedgerows in the Forest of Dean for edible wild plants, and she would add leaves like nettles to this soup. I am not so brave…

Food for thought

You start dying slowly
If you do not change your life when you are not satisfied with your job, or with your love,
If you do not risk what is safe for the uncertain,
If you do not go after a dream,
If you do not allow yourself,
At least once in your lifetime,
To run away from sensible advice… by poet Pablo Neruda

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Sunset over Hong Kong

Image result for images of old hong kong harbourHong Kong in the mid-sixties

A life – another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

Before we left England, we enjoyed two quintessential English events. The in -laws gave us their tickets for the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, one of the glamorous fixtures on the London calendar fifty years ago. I watched with interest the people and clothes, as well as the pictures. Standing next to a woman dressed in exquisite soft pale blue suede with matching knee length suede boots, I recognised the heiress Tessa Kennedy, famous for her elopement at eighteen with painter Dominic Elwes.

They had fled to Havana to escape the English courts and marry there, before eventually fleeing Cuba on a raft during the anarchy of Castro’s era… I watched the President of the Academy reverently ushering through the galleries the fascinating Dorelia, Augustus John’s mistress, then partner for over fifty years. She was tall and stately, her gypsy beauty undimmed, her bright draperies fluttering as she moved. The famous and the fashionable thronged the beautiful galleries.

Earlier in June I had sat in Whitehall- dressed in a big navy straw hat, coral linen dress, and navy court shoes, feeling deliciously elegant- this time in seats obtained by my father, for us to watch the Queen’s Birthday Parade close up. She rode side saddle into the great parade square, escorted by the Royal Dukes on horseback, all gold braid, chain mail, spurs, bearskins and majesty. The Guards and the Household Cavalry trotted and wheeled and manoeuvred in their timeless rituals as the colours were trooped, and we sat spellbound on a perfect summer’s day, the glorious trees of the parks all around framing the pageantry and splendour.

We returned to old Thomas Twining’s two hundred and forty-three year old house down by the Thames, also surrounded by ancient trees, where squirrels scampered along the top of the high Georgian garden walls. A hundred yards away, a small boat was moored. This was an ancient ferry crossing, and a boat had waited there since medieval times, ready to ferry passengers across the river to Ham Common and the beautiful country on the other side of the river.

History and historic houses, parks and woodland dotted the banks along this stretch of the river. I loved it all. And had I known then that I was leaving this blessed plot, this beloved place, ‘this precious stone set in a silver sea’ – this England – forever, I would have been rent with grief.

But then, simply looking forward to our next adventure I set blithely off. Expecting the gentle energy and rich tropical environment of Malaya, I had a terrible shock when we landed in Hong Kong. The army had laid on a bus to take us from Kaitak airport and deposit us at our hotel and as I looked out of the windows in horror at the traffic, black exhaust smoke, pollution and shoddy blocks of flats, there just below our window, was a truck filled with bloody red animal carcasses covered in flies. This nauseating sight accompanied us the whole way to Kowloon and coloured forever my feelings about this extraordinary place.

Our hotel turned out to be plum in the middle of the thriving and noisy red- light district of Kowloon. The girls whose beauty had bowled me over at first with their elegant cheongsams, beautifully coiffed chignons of shining black hair and immaculate make -up turned out to be prostitutes plying what looked like a prosperous trade with the legions of cropped headed American servicemen on R and R – Rest and Recreation – from Vietnam.

Nights were made hideous with the sound of rows and roistering in the bedroom next door, as well as the traffic outside, and honking of horns and shouts of hawkers who never seemed to go to bed. But after various vicissitudes, we eventually found a beautiful flat in Deepwater Bay, across the harbour on Hong Kong Island. It was ideal, as all the other flats were occupied with young families like us, and there was never any lack of playmates.

We had arrived in the blistering heat of summer, but in September something magic happened. The humidity dropped, and the air became crystal, clear and shimmering and the light glittered on the blue and silver sea. The atmosphere changed too and became charged with a beautiful and haunting nostalgia.

After that first year, I waited for the day, and every year the same magic suddenly returned to the strident city, and transmuted for a few glorious weeks, the raucous harshness of the place and people. Some people never noticed the poetry which suddenly flooded those days and nights. Those who did, likened it to the light of the Greek islands. It lasted for a month to six weeks, before ebbing away into the grey mistiness of winter.

The rest of the time for me, Hong Kong was a place to be endured. Yet now, since China has grasped the prize, I sometimes think back with nostalgia to those years spent on that amazing rock, ten miles by five miles, where then, nearly four million people hawked and spat and bargained and gambled and drank and starved and jockeyed for the biggest profits and built the highest high rises.

In the mid-sixties, with Vietnam and flower power both at their zenith, Hong Kong was both a place of rest and recreation for American troops slogging it out in Vietnam, and a place too, where some draft dodgers quietly eked out an alternative life style.

There were also the  grand, old-established British families of several generations who had built up the great English Hongs, or business houses, there were colonies of newsmen, especially from most of the top American news agencies, from CBS and NBC, Life and Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times – to name a few – there were birds of flight from New Zealand and Australia, working their way across to Europe for their OE – overseas experience- refugees from South Africa and apartheid, army and navy contingents, the Foreign Office and government clusters, the Indian community, Portuguese- Chinese immigrants from Macau, the rich Chinese and the endless army of poor Chinese, most of whom had fled China in different waves, ever since the Communist takeover.

This was also the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Just before coming to Hong Kong, I’d read the history of the Boxer Rebellion. It struck me then, even in the mid-twentieth century, that China was a good place to stay away from. At a dinner party one night soon after we had arrived, a handful of us farewelled a lowly foreign office official, named Ray Whitney.

After learning Chinese like my husband and all those dining with us, he’d left the army to join the foreign office and was now posted to what was still known as Peking. Sitting next to Ray after dinner I naively suggested to him that it was a dangerous posting with the Cultural Revolution in full swing, and shades of the Boxer Rebellion. He swung his whole person round to look at me. “My dear young lady”, he exclaimed, ” I regard this as an adventure”.

A few days later, we read the reports of him and his colleague being beaten up on Shanghai Station and smeared with glue. When they reached the British Embassy in Peking, it became their prison. The diplomats there were beaten up while hordes of Chinese Red Guards chanted Kill! Kill! and part of the embassy was set on fire. Back inside, they were besieged, and no-one could leave for nearly eighteen months.

Requests would reach Hong Kong for Italian cook books and the latest novels with which to while away the captivity of an embassy of bored, beleaguered, idle diplomats. (Ray Whitney, a lovely man, had a distinguished career after this, knighted for his very real services, becoming an MP and a member of many influential offices and commissions.)

Reports were also reaching us of cruel mock trials of intellectuals and artists and other Enemies of the People. Old men were made to parade around in dunce’s caps at their trial and sentencing. It was a grotesque gesture by Chinese hooligans who had no idea of the history of Duns Scotus’s medieval hat. The Red Guards had now transformed the symbol for a dunce into a ritual for sadistic humiliation.

This was the year too of the Star Ferry Riots, when the government tried to raise the price of the Star Ferry tickets by one cent, the first rise since 1947. Those riots were just over when we arrived, and the next riots were soon to begin, fuelled by the unrest in China.

A curfew was laid upon the island. Everyone had to be in their homes by some ridiculously early hour like six o clock. I climbed into our turquoise Volkswagon and drove round from Deepwater Bay to a look-out on the Peak. I was the only disobedient soul outside and as an army wife, I felt slightly guilty. I looked down to Victoria, the town centre. Nothing moved.

Trams sat abandoned on the sides of the roads, cars were left empty and parked. The streets were silent and empty. The throngs of shoppers, the hurrying workers, the hawkers and Hakka women in their rattan hats trimmed with black, the street vendors, the prostitutes and the students, the toddlers who lived and played on the pavements, the school children crouched on the side-walk doing their homework in the shelter of a sewing machine or street stall, the rick-shaw men, and the porters in white vests and black shorts and wooden clogs, the business men in grey suits, the camera-laden tourists – all had disappeared.

It was eerie and frightening in the same decade as films of nuclear war and lethal clouds of radio-active dust destroying all life, leaving cities full of dead but still standing. That was how Hongkong looked that night, silent and empty. The silence was almost more un-nerving than the emptiness.

The unrest went underground, and suddenly erupted one hot summer’s afternoon. Perhaps as karma for disobeying the curfew, I found myself in the middle of the next round of dissent. I was driving up Garden Road with the children to see Pat Hangen. She and her children lived on the Peak with her husband Welles, NBC Bureau chief, always away in Vietnam and who later disappeared forever in Cambodia.

I had only recently learned to drive, and uphill starts were still a challenge, though there was only one junction where I might be called upon to use them, I thought. But, as I passed the Helena May Hostel for Young Women, I came on a mass of white-clothed Chinese youths, all shouting and waving Mao’s Little Red Books in the air.

I slowed down, and another group converged from another direction. I tried to edge out of the crowd, but more and more columns kept coming from all directions. I slowed right down to walking pace, and realised I was in the middle of a hostile, fanatical mob, and if I made one mistake, like running back or edging forward too quickly, it would be more than dangerous for me and the two now very silent toddlers in the back.

I wound all the windows up so that air came in through only a crack at the top, and the heat became stifling.   Sweat ran down my face and spine in rivers, soaking my thin cotton dress. The children’s hair was plastered to their heads with sweat and I could smell the musty smell of their damp scalps, and something else – our fear.

There were thousands and thousands of young men shouting in unison and waving their red books in the air. As they moved at slow walking pace, I was obliged to shift the car at the same speed, crunching the hand brake on and off, as we slowly revved up the steep incline. Then, suddenly, I could see where it all ended. They were all advancing on the Governor’s Residence off to our right. Thankfully I left the Governor to it, and made our way to Pat, shaking all over from the tension.

And after that, things took on another momentum, with bombs exploding all over the place, and many areas placed out of bounds to Europeans. The Bank of China in the middle of the city began a propaganda war of noise, blaring out raucous, Chinese communist marching songs and party chants. The deafening noise was augmented by the childish response of the authorities, who used the tower of the Hilton Hotel across the road from the bank, to play decadent, western rock and roll to drown out the Chinese music.

It seemed to go on all summer. What also went on all summer, was the Chinese water torture. Hongkong and the New Territories relied on water supplies from China, and some years, flexing her muscles, and also to annoy, China restricted the water. This revolutionary year was no different and for the four long hot months of sweltering summer, we were severely rationed in order to survive.

There was no water for three days out of four. On the fourth day, water was piped for four hours in the evening, during which time we had the opportunity to fill baths, buckets and every available jug, bottle and kettle with water to last for the next four days. We all also seized the opportunity to shower or bath during this precious four hours.

Unfortunately, our flat was at the top of a twelve-storey building, and the pressure didn’t build up until the water had been on for two hours, so we only had the precious stuff for two hours every four days.

And we were the lucky ones. The Chinese living down in Wanchai and among slums built on the sides of hills from boxes and cardboard, queued for several hundred yards by the intermittent taps. They had to manage with buckets and containers small enough to carry back to their dwelling places. These were the people who had fled China after the Communist takeover and it was their teenage children who were now demonstrating in Hong Kong, mimicking the excesses of the Red Guards under Mao.

The much-maligned Colonial rule in Hong Kong prevented the same victimisation and destruction here. Yet at the same time that these rebellious Hong Kong teenagers were enjoying their Maoist demonstrations, dissidents were risking their lives to escape from China, in the continual exodus which had never ceased since the Nationalists under Mao Tse Tung had driven out the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai Check back in 1949. In 1949 alone, the population of Hong Kong had  doubled.

Since then, the borders had been closed, and now most people slipped across the border in darkness or swam across, and were picked up in the New Territories. These refugees arrived undernourished and dressed in patched rags, testimony to the poverty that reigned in China under Mao. The society they now joined was a heartless one. Many once penniless Chinese had made good in the years since they too had arrived destitute.

They had obliterated their peasant past and educated their children at western schools and universities, penetrating established, rich society. Others had arrived from places like Shanghai with all their riches and built lordly homes on the upper slopes of the great rock which meant safety to them all. But they were indifferent to the plight of the newest arrivals. There were no charitable organisations to help them or the struggling poor. Philanthropy was not a characteristic of Hong Kong society.

A hundred and fifty years before, in 1812, the city of London with a population of a million, had free hospitals, alms houses, dispensaries and nearly three hundred free schools educating, feeding and clothing nearly twenty thousand children. Arthur Bryant, the historian who gathered these facts, wrote that ‘London could claim her real palaces were hospitals. Wren’s Greenwich and Chelsea; Gibb’s St Bartholomew’s with its Hogarth staircase; St Thomas’s with its four great quadrangles treating and discharging 11,000 patients a year; the new “Bethlem” and St Luke’s for the insane, with their enormous classical facades, were buildings that a king might have been proud to inhabit.”’

By contrast there were only two hospitals provided by the government here in Hong Kong for three and a half million people – huge rabbit warrens – not palaces. There were no facilities for the handicapped or insane at all. In a population of four million, there would have been a minimum of 200,000 mentally and physically handicapped, judging by the normal ratio of such figures per head of population. No-one knew where they were, though there were stories of deranged figures chained to verandas.

There were stories of goodness too. Two English teachers received a divine message to go to Hong Kong where a task lay before them. Obediently they packed up and came. Once in the colony, they had no idea what the task might be. They ‘waited on the Lord,’ and seemed to feel they should buy an old house in the New Territories. This they did, still having no idea why.

After a few weeks, they found a baby girl on the doorstep one morning. They took her in. And then the unwanted babies kept coming. They knew their task now, but they had no money. So they prayed for what they needed. And whenever they needed money or assistance, they prayed and it arrived. They called this place the Home of Loving Faithfulness.

The Dean of Hong Kong Cathedral and his wife were very pleased to have a new house built for them among the old trees just behind the Cathedral. It was handy, central, and of course, unlike most vicarages, new and efficient. In order to build this house, a destitute old lady who squatted beneath the trees, and scavenged enough food to cook small meals on a tiny stove, had had to be moved on.

But she always came back. The dean, a good man, and his wife, equally good, then organised a real home in a new block for the old lady, and there she was taken. By the following week she had found her way back, squatting where she had always squatted, which was now the veranda of the brand-new house. There she stayed, her acrid cooking smells drifting through the windows into the house. This was her home, so we have no right to force her to leave, said these worthy representatives of a sometimes-maligned church. So she stayed.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 I love the idea of thrifty ways to avoid wasting food. I found a recipe the other day in one of my scrapbooks for using up the remains of salad leaves to make a good pesto. Whatever the leaves, and someone else tells me she’s used radish leaves – put them in a blender with olive oil, garlic, and grated walnuts, salt and pepper. Whizz enough to make a textured mix – I use it over pasta, or with poached salmon. Amounts of olive oil etc depend on how much wilting lettuce you have in the fridge !!! I grate the nuts in my parmesan cheese grater.

 Food for thought

 This poem by Wendell Berry soothes my soul and brings me peace:

I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

 

 

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A soldier’s life is terrible hard! (says Alice)

Image result for duchess of kent in wrac uniform

A life  – another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

Gentle in manner, resolute in deed, was the motto of the lady-like group of women I now joined – no rifles, mud-covered faces, raucous corporals or killing fields for us. The picture above is our Colonel Commandant, the Duchess of Kent, and my company commander, Major Betty Metcalfe- veteran of the war, and a blonde, elegant blue- eyed woman.

The recruiting officer had sent me to the Regular Commissions Board to see if I was officer material. Here I had had a pleasant surprise – though I was the youngest, everyone else was young and full of fun –  and life began to look up. I jumped through all the hoops for three days, and was eventually informed that I was indeed officer material.

Back home waiting for the date to join up, when I continued to drive my parents mad dreaming around the place, and my father had uttered with relish threats like: “they’ll wake you up when you join the army”, and: “you’re going to get the shock of your life when you get there”, I wasn’t too worried.

I got to the WRAC Depot on the wrong day, just as I’d got the dates wrong all my life, taking half term holidays when every-one else was at school, arriving to catch the plane as it landed the other end, taking a train to Chester instead of York, or Birmingham instead of Cardiff.

My unheralded arrival at the depot caused great consternation, and several anxious conferences I discovered later. It was decided to park me with the recruit company which was already half way through its training. The quartermaster resolutely refused to issue me with a uniform, because it would screw up her account books, but was prevailed upon to allow me a pair of shoes in order to do all the marching I was about to embark on.

Not knowing the procedure, when they took me to the quartermaster’s stores, I took fitting my shoes as seriously as though I was in Russell and Bromley buying some fabulously expensive gear. I pinched the toes, checked the heels, worried about the width, and walked up and down trying several different ones for size, while the quartermaster’s staff looked on in dumb disbelief, and allowed me to get away with it, since I was obviously away with the fairies! Later I discovered that it was just a question of saying your size and taking what you were given. Ignorance/innocence was bliss…

I was then escorted to the barrack-room, with a corporal helping me to carry my suit case. As we neared the entrance, I heard the clatter of seventy pairs of shoes thundering along wooden floors, and can still remember my subconscious thought, “Oh, they must have taken the carpets up for cleaning…”

Since the quartermaster – a fearsome figure – had dug her toes in over my uniform, I had to trail around at the end of the squad in my old red raincoat, the only thing I had to wear. Every time the Colonel – another fearsome figure – saw my red mac, it was worse than a red rag to a bull, because she then trounced the harried Adjutant for the incompetence of everyone down the chain of command who hadn’t issued me with uniform. Thus, unbeknown to me, I became famous or rather, infamous throughout the depot.

Meanwhile I solemnly got on with the job of being a recruit, with a lot of help from my fellows, who thought I was going to be a clerk or a cook like them. Since I was out of sequence with the other officer cadets, I was in with a room of diverse and fascinating girls, some escaping the slums, some escaping their parents, others escaping an unhappy marriage, or a cruel employer. There were also two girls from the Gorbals, the notorious Glasgow slums, whose speech was salted with curses and swear words – most of them new to my ears.

One night, after another exhausting day of: “by the right, by the left”, right wheeling, left wheeling, right form, and lectures, with the same programme awaiting us the next day, I got tired of their strident voices and obscenities keeping us all awake while we tried to get our much- needed sleep. I said to them very crisply in my pukka Queen’s English, down the length of the barrack room – “Good Bloody Night !” There followed a deafening silence and I went straight off to sleep.

At lunch-time the next day, a deputation from the barrack room came to me, and asked me very seriously not to be corrupted, and start using bad language. They gently told me I’d been brought up properly, and they didn’t want me to be influenced by people who didn’t know any better! I promised them I’d be a good girl, thinking of my father, and wondering if he would think I was getting that shock to the system that was going to wake me up!

Because I’d muddled up my dates, when I emerged as a fully- fledged recruit, my fellow officer cadets were still some weeks behind me, so I was a spare wheel. They invented a temporary rank for me, and I was called a Senior Private. I had the job of marching the new recruits to the cookhouse, which was no sinecure, because you had to remember the right military words of command, shout them loud enough for a long column to hear, and get them timed for the right feet to come to a halt in sequence.

My counting was a shambles so the girls stumbled instead of coming to a brisk halt, and the worst time was when we’d reached the cook house and I couldn’t remember the word for Halt! Finally, as they were in danger of piling up against the door, continuing to march with no word of command to halt them, I shouted “Stop!” in desperation, and I could hear them all muttering things like, “we didn’t get the right foot… she didn’t give us the right command… what’s wrong with her”… responsibility is a terrible thing, I would have told Alice.

By now I was in a new barrack room with all the tough old hands, and one morning in the first week, someone dropped their highly polished shoes for parade, and exclaimed: “Shit”. There was a heavy intake of breath around the room, and then silence. She turned to me and said “I’m sorry”. “Why apologise to me?” I asked in amazement. “Because we all decided we wouldn’t swear when you came into this room,” she said!

My poor father would have been sadly disappointed – coddled and protected, when was I going to wake up?  But a soldier’s life was terrible fun! So after my somewhat chequered career as a recruit I set off for officer cadet school with the rest of my intake – all eleven of us who had surfaced from the forty other applicants.

I learned later that it was no coincidence that the Colonel happened to come past the transport as we left, looking keenly at me! Oblivious to the impact I had had on various unfortunates at the depot, I discovered that officer cadet school was just like going back to boarding school, only better – I got paid!. As the youngest, and just out of school, I probably found it easier than the rest who had enjoyed their freedom. But to me, regular study periods, meals in the dining room, putting on uniform every day, was just more of the same.

Cadet school was set in a camp left behind by the Canadians after D –Day. Our nearest neighbours were the TB patients in the next- door sanatorium. No potential there for hobnobbing with the opposite sex. The camp was surrounded by silver birch woods, which stretched for miles to the nearest village, and on still June nights I would wake to hear nightingales singing in the moonlight.

The only difference to boarding school was the hours spent on the huge parade ground being drilled by a tiny sergeant major, less than five feet tall, whose mighty voice echoed not just around the parade square but on and beyond to the main Portsmouth road. As the eleven of us wheeled and drilled, and right formed, and fell into line, came to a halt, and about turned, a line of lorry drivers would pull up on the side of the road to watch us for their amusement, while they ate their sandwiches for lunch.

Thus it felt all the more humiliating, when dreaming about the un-read pages of the timid love letter stuffed hastily into my battledress top to read in our break, that I missed a step, failed to hear the word of command and carried on marching in the opposite direction when the rest had about turned. Love letters – or what passed for them – were a fairly scarce commodity at cadet school, as we might as well have been in a nunnery, we saw so few men or even boys.

The highlights of each term were the invitations to the house of an elderly couple who invited batches of Sandhurst cadets and us girls to hear talks on Moral Re-Armament. Their house just missed being stately, their servants were helpful, their food was heavenly, the worthy talks were utterly boring to frivolous young women, but the chaps might be interesting, we hoped. They never were but hope always sprang eternal.

Apart from the daily morning parades, and the hours spent perfecting our drill and learning to shout commands that one day would be directed at our platoons when we took them on parade, we spent a great deal of time in lectures on arcane subjects like pay scales, army regulations, map-reading and leadership.

No rifle drill for us, but instead lectures from a series of university lecturers on constitutional history, current affairs, scientific trends and something called Clear Thinking, which involved logic, and fallacies and syllogisms – all considered necessary for a well-educated officer back in 1957!

Constitutional history was taught by the scion of a famous German intellectual family who’d escaped Hitler before the war, but the name of this gentleman was so long that generations of philistine and irreverent cadets just called him ‘Footy’, which he pretended not to know. He also pretended not to know that we never listened to a word he told us about constitutional history and the balance of power between the Commons and the House of Lords, but sat instead endlessly practising our signatures, or planning what to wear on our next trip to London.

Scientific Trends was taught by another mid-European lecturer, only unlike Footy who’d grown up in England, this very gentle man had a very thick accent and a deadly monotone. He showed films to illustrate the latest scientific trends, and as his lectures were conducted in the cadet sitting room, where there was a film screen, we just curled up in an arm chair in the dark with a bar of chocolate, and usually dozed off.

The rest of the syllabus was devoted to giving us an understanding of life, and the background many of our future charges came from, so we visited a Lyons Swiss roll factory to see what life on a conveyor belt was like, attended a Petty Sessions where we saw sad souls parade before the magistrates, and I felt like a voyeur, and worst of all, went to the Old Bailey. The day we were there we watched a murderer condemned to death, after a crime passionel. His voice after sentence had been passed was like the rustling of dry leaves.

The most challenging part of officer training was the two days I spent in the cook house, discovering how hard life really was. My worst crime was to leave the potatoes so long in the potato peeling machine that they came out the size of marshmallows. The kindly cooks who actually had to deal with this catastrophe, covered up for me, and my copybook was not as blotted as it might have been.

A handful of lectures on strategy and army organisation at Sandhurst were memorable for the lunch breaks when we mingled with the Sandhurst cadets. My most lasting memory is going for a punt on the lake, and it sinking, and my partner in this exploit – John Blashford-Snell, who has since become a famous explorer who did the first descent of the Blue Nile, explored the whole Congo River, and the Amazon, shooting many rapids unscathed – had to wade ignominiously back to shore, towing me sitting on the end of the leaky vessel.

The one thing I did master while at cadet school were the steps to the Charleston, then back in fashion. I perfected the knock knees, pigeon toes and tight sideways kick by holding onto the back of my chair in the lecture room as we waited for the next lecturer to arrive. I practised my dancing until I was foot perfect, and by the time we Passed- Out was acknowledged as top of the class by my peers in this useful social accomplishment.

At the end of this gruelling training, interspersed with dances, parties and uniformed guest nights – when we practised the solemn ritual of Passing the Port – you Never lift the decanter from the table and only slide it in the coaster from right to left so it goes around in a circle, using Only the right hand – five of us emerged as second lieutenants. And now reality hit us.

Second lieutenants, we discovered, were despised by all, except new recruits. Everyone knew we hadn’t the faintest idea of what we had to do, from the regimental sergeant major down to the newest corporal. We were saluted, and called ma’am, but we knew that behind this ritual was the thinly concealed contempt of ‘old hands’.  Wet behind the ears, my father would have called us.

Many of the old hands had been through the war, like my motherly platoon sergeant who told me they knew D-Day must be in the offing, when they had to give up all the sheets from their beds, so that the huge new detachments of American soldiers arriving nearby could have the same sheets on their beds! And in the end, it was my platoon sergeant and the company sergeant major who taught me what I needed to know. Which seemed to be mostly to do what they told me!

Their commands varied from: “Here’s the pay books to sign, ma’am”, to: “Time to inspect the recruits, ma’am”, to: “Time to have your tea ma’am”. My requests varied from: “What shall I do now, Sergeant Major?” to: “D’you know where Private Smith is ?  She hasn’t made the tea yet.” A soldier’s life is terrible hard…with apologies to AA Milne and Christopher Robin

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 Raw food isn’t really my thing, but I found this recipe for mushroom pate rather delicious. Chop twelve to fifteen baby mushrooms or two really big portobello mushrooms, and marinate them in two tablespoons of olive oil and the same of tamari soya sauce, for half an hour. Put half a cup of walnuts in a food processor and pulse until slightly broken down, and add the mushrooms and a clove of garlic. Pulse until the mixture is slightly chunky and add salt and black pepper to taste. Good on crackers with a glass of wine, or sherry…

Food for thought

Clanmother sent me this time ago, and I love it.  She wrote:   ”  J.R.R. Tolkien lost his best friends in WWI. One of my favourite quotes on war comes from his work, “The Return of the King,”
‘It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Nuns, nice habits and strange foibles

Valerie10.jpg

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

I never had any trouble remembering the date of my baby brother’s birth, because when we arrived back in England from Belsen, we were sent to school at a convent in Yorkshire. It was with the sisters of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, a Belgian teaching order. My brother’s birthday was the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, one of many feast days when we were sent home, presumably so the nuns could pay due reverence to the day, unhampered by their fee- paying pupils, and causing my parents to grumble that they spent all this money in order for us to stay home.

Sometimes, as at Corpus Christi, we were required to attend in order to parade and go to Mass, and draw holy pictures. This was a time of severe mortification for me, because not being Catholic, our parents refused to buy us white dresses and veils to wear on feast days.

On the other hand, thanks to the books I had read with my grandmother, I was bigotedly anti-Catholic, and had no qualms about being different. The nuns themselves were mostly gentle and sophisticated women, many of them French or Belgian, others English. My form teacher, who was also the maths teacher, was the most avidly religious person at the convent and not a nun at all. Rather, she was an Irish Catholic, and, as I discovered later in New Zealand, she embraced a very different brand of Catholicism. ‘

Not to put too fine a point on it, she rammed religion and her devotion down our throats, exhorting us amongst other things, to bring old clothes to her to dispense to the needy. As she gathered them in from everyone except me, she would regularly intone, ” Ah, gurrells, it’s boi moi gude deeds to the puir that I hope to go to heaven.” She would interrupt long division to make us all stand up and say The Angelus, and we would then pray for the parents of all the unfortunate girls who had one Protestant parent. Since both my parents were Protestant, this was a prayer I obstinately refused to join in, as I had no regrets about their situation.

One day, her propaganda about “puir St Thomas Moore”, wicked Protestants and suffering Catholics enraged me so much, that having  just finished one of my father’s books, a history of the Borgia family, I had enough ammunition, I felt, with the Inquisition and the scandal of the Avignon Popes, to take her on. I never got beyond the Borgia Pope and a quick mention of the Inquisition, before she clapped her hands over her ears, and drowned me out by shouting: “What a pack of Protestant lies.” No-one liked me very much after that, and I would always be left to last when they were picking teams for netball and rounders.

One person who did like me, perhaps a little too much, was Mother Michael, a rather coarse -looking Englishwoman compared with the refined foreign nuns. She was not a teacher so much as our house- mother, and she was obsessed with long hair. My long, almost black, thick plaits were meat and drink to her. Every lunch hour I was dragged off to the big, sunny cloakroom-cum ante-room, and had my plaits ceremoniously undone, and brushed out.

The brushing went on all through play-time, and I never got to play with anyone. As the time for the bell drew near, she’d plait the blessed things up again, refusing to let me do them. She dragged the hair round my face quite differently to the way I scraped my hair back myself, and I’d get home every day, looking quite unlike the school girl who had set out in the morning.

Every day my stepmother would ask what was going on, and when I told her about the brushing and the plaiting, she’d say “It’s got to stop”. But I didn’t know how to stop it, so it went on until Mother Michael fell in love with another girl with long plaits.

The nuns wore elegant, plum- red gaberdine habits, with a long swinging pleated skirt, and a thick, beautiful cord with long tassels round their waist. Their rosaries also hung from this fat cord, and they had long, soft white wool veils which swung in the wind when they borrowed our roller skates and took a turn round the rink in the evenings when everyone was inside, doing their homework. The garden beside the skating rink plunged down towards Our Lady’s grotto, and then to the River Tees.

I would gaze out of the classroom window in our annexe called The Hermitage, in winter, and see the black, lacy boughs of the empty trees, the black running water of the river, white snow, and sometimes a flame- coloured squirrel silhouetted in the trees against the pale winter sky. The main convent building was grim, grey, Victorian Gothic, with long, shiny, lino-floored corridors where feet and voices echoed. It smelt of incense and wax candles, lino polish, and nearer the kitchens, carbolic soda and grease. In alcoves at regular intervals along the echoing corridors, painted statues of saints draped with rosaries presided. I glared at them like a latter-day Oliver Cromwell as our crocodile straggled to chapel for prayers every day after lunch.

I always enjoyed Retreat, three or four days of silence when we spent most of our time drawing and painting holy pictures, instead of wrestling with fractions, and going to chapel for mass, as well as the regular after- lunch prayers, and then Benediction. I hated the priest who came to the convent for the occasion, and whom all the nuns fluttered around and flattered and fawned upon. To the cynical ten-year-old looking coldly on, he looked like a very boring, not very bright man, who relished in an unspiritual fashion, the entirely undeserved attention he received.

I was happy to go to chapel as often as we did during Retreat, as I had figured out that God was everywhere so it didn’t matter where you were beating his ear. I had no idea why we were doing all this, but then, a lot of things puzzled me… so I loved the reverent silence of the whole day, including the silent meals with severe, beautiful Mother John standing at her lectern, reading from the lives of saints. During these meals we ate Assumption Tart, known to us all as Sumpies.

The story of the three fashionable Belgian Victorian women who decided to found the Order was read aloud as we ate the tart. None of them knew how to cook, clean, or sew, and so in the first week, the lady nun assigned to cooking duties threw together some ingredients in a panic and produced the hard, yellow crust of almost inedible pastry on which jam was smeared and which we still ate. We all welcomed Sumpies on the menu, as at least the jam was sweet, the only ingredient which had any taste. The convent food was still obviously flung together by nuns who could not cook.

During Retreat, our class was visited by both Reverend Mother, and Mother Superior, causing an outbreak of curtsying and crossing ourselves. Since no-one ever explained anything to children in those days, I couldn’t work out why a young Reverend Mother seemed more important than a Mother Superior. Reverend Mother was Polish, about twenty-eight, very young to have reached such rank, and had an indefinable air of holiness about her. She also had an amazing complexion, pale skin and brilliant red cheeks. She received total devotion from everyone, and she fascinated me. Sometimes she wasn’t well enough to come to our weekly audience with her, so Mother Adelaide, Mother Superior, came instead.

My father adored Mother Adelaide. She was just the sort of woman he loved, witty and wise, French, sophisticated, clever and rather beautiful. Long after, when I heard that Reverend Mother had died the following year of TB, I realised that Mother Adelaide had left her duties as superior of the order, to come over from Belgium to keep things going with as little disturbance to everyone, including the beloved young nun.

After a while, it was decided that my sister would do better at school on her own. So I agreed to ” sit the scholarship” in order to go to the local grammar school. My stepmother was then summoned for an interview with the county education authorities. She told me that they informed her that my maths was so abysmal there was no way I could qualify for higher education. But my English and general knowledge were so far ahead of my age, that there was no way they could not give me a scholarship. Nothing much has changed since then, my maths are still abysmal.

To be continued

Food for threadbare gourmets

I had some wonderful coloured -peppers, red, yellow and orange, and instead of cooking them in my usual way, I tried a Jamie Oliver recipe – with adaptations! I chopped the three peppers and added them to a chopped onion, plenty of garlic and olive oil to sweat them until cooked. When soft I added a good glug of balsamic vinegar and boiled it all together, and then salt and pepper to taste.

This is where Jamie Oliver comes in. He recommended tossing in a generous handful of parmesan cheese and some table spoons of mascapone or cream cheese.  Stir it all together until everything is melted and amalgamated. He served it with pasta and I served it with steak and mushrooms, and it was delicious.. It may have been better with pasta but I won’t be using the cream cheese again.

Food for thought

If you truly get in touch with a piece of carrot, you get in touch with the soil, the rain, the sunshine. You get in touch with Mother Earth and eating in such a way, you feel in touch with true life, your roots, and that is meditation. If we chew every morsel of our food in that way we become grateful and when you are grateful, you are happy.
Thich Nhat Hanh. Vietnamese Buddhist teacher

 

 

 

 

 

 

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War-time and Peace-time

Image result for weymouth harbour

 

A life – part five

Adults talked of ‘War-time’ and ‘Before the War’, and ‘When Peace-time comes’. I couldn’t imagine what Peace-time was like, since it had always been War-time for as long as I could remember. Peace-time sounded something like Christmas, when we would have plenty of food, no clothes coupons and lots of toys.

But when it came, it didn’t seem like that at all. There was a big parade for something called VE day, which had something to do with Peace-time, a lot of fireworks, which I’d never seen before, and then life went back to all the same old things, only worse. The grownups seemed to be worrying about not having enough bread and potatoes, shuddering over tinned meat called Spam and outraged over the idea of eating whale-meat. But the toys, the sweets, the goodies they’d all talked about, never came.

The first big change had actually come as soon as all those hundreds of planes had flown over us to D-Day almost frightening me out of my wits. When we went down to the beach to play in the sand in the small area cordoned off with high rolls of barbed wire, the barbed wire had gone. So had all the thousands of armoured cars, tanks, lorries, guns, jeeps that had covered the beach as far as the eye could see, and all the American soldiers. (They had all gone to the dreadful ordeal of Omaha Beach I learned many years later).

All the spikes in the sea to stop the Germans coming and which stretched all along the line of beach had also gone. Until then I had thought that all beaches were covered in khaki war machines, with camouflage netting stretched over them and that all seas were ringed with big black spikes. But now we had the whole beach and were allowed to walk along the pier, attend concerts on the grandstand and meander round the ancient harbour where the Black Death had first entered England, killing up to sixty per cent of the population, and where the first death had occurred in June 1348.

Now in 1945, the next big change was when my uncle came home from Prisoner of War camp. He was no longer the gay, carefree and happy- go- lucky young man who used to bring me coloured chocolate smarties when I was a toddler. His experiences in POW camps, his life- threatening escapes and starvation in Italy behind the German lines, where he hid in a goat- hut in the mountains, and then in Florence until the allies and his brother with the 8th army liberated it, had of course changed him.

Back home at the end of the war he took up civilian life again, and began his new career as a reporter on the local newspaper. Like so many returned soldiers he was deeply hurt and angry. I was the nearest soft target for this anger and I didn’t realise that the teasing I endured was indirect anger and the result of his war… to me it felt harsh and hurtful, and I often ended up in tears.

When my father returned for a brief leave it was the same, and he was as strict as my grandmother had warned. No more Enid Blyton. No more reading the Express and the Mail, my grandmother’s favoured newspapers. Only the Telegraph or the Times. He only had a fortnight’s leave before he went back to Egypt, but had a good go at under-mining my belief in Christianity, Brown Owl and the Brownies. He drew pictures of fat angels standing on clouds with harps and in long nighties with flies on their noses, hoping that mockery would dislodge the horrifying belief in religion he had discovered in this unknown daughter. All that happened was more tears from me.

Unbeknown to me until many years later, my grandmother dissuaded him from putting these unknown children into a convent, and an orphanage for the toddler son he didn’t know, so he went back to Egypt with our futures unresolved.

It wasn’t a very good basis for beginning a new life with him and his new wife, in the spring of ‘47. I was already frightened of him, and though I had longed to have a mother, I eventually became even more terrified of my new one than of my father. In the beginning it had been different. My father was coming home with a new mother, we were told. I was so excited at the idea of being like everyone else again, with a mother and a father, that I rushed out of the house and told some complete strangers passing by, that we were going to have a new mother.

Later I pieced together the facts, that they had met on a blind date at the legendary and glamorous Shepheards Hotel in Cairo – now famous after appearing in The English Patient – but actually burned down in the riots of 1952 . My stepmother was in the Red Cross, and keeping her best friend company. The best friend and her boyfriend broke up in the end, and the two blind dates married. Like Tess of the D’Urbervilles, they spent their honeymoon at Woolbridge Manor, the beautiful Elizabethan manor I used to pass with my mother on the way to the village. Now they were now coming to claim us.

My father arrived and took us to meet her. They were staying at a hotel in town, and when my sister and I stepped out of the taxi at the foot of the long flight of white steps, a very tall lady in a navy- blue coat and very high heeled court shoes, ran down the steps towards us, and swept us into her arms with a hug and a kiss. I just loved it.

Then we spent the afternoon together, first of all having lunch and fizzy lemonade – which seemed a bit more like I’d imagined Peace-time, – and then we went for a walk round the ancient harbour, into a park, and for afternoon tea back to a place by the harbour with big oil-paintings on the walls. For the first time I looked at paintings and saw the brush strokes and the way the painter had used colour. The whole afternoon felt like stepping into a magic new world.

A week later my father came to collect us for good. I left behind my dolls and dolls pram, black board and easel, my bicycle, and our brother, on the understanding that all these things would be collected later. I never saw them again, never had another doll, and didn’t see my brother or grandmother again for years as she refused to part with my brother, causing a huge family rift. Neither did I see my uncle for many years as he had become an energetic Communist, and association with him would have destroyed my father’s security rating in the army.   So now we went to London, where our new mother was waiting. She gave us beef stew for lunch, which neither my sister or I liked, and we refused to eat it.

After lunch the father we hardly knew, except for the fortnight the previous year, took us for a walk around grey, London streets in the cold April afternoon. He told us grimly that from now on we would eat everything that was put in front of us. And from now on, we would do exactly as we were told – immediately. The afternoon seemed to get colder and greyer as he spoke, and when we went back I was totally crushed. My sister, clever, feisty and quick tempered like my grandmother, had more spirit.

The next day we went shopping, and came home with shorts and shirts like the children in Enid Blyton’s ” The Adventurous Four”, three blue summer dresses for me, blue and white stripes, blue and white checks, and a blue silk dress with tiny flowers on it. I had a new tweed  coat in blue, with a dark blue velvet collar, and my fair haired, blue-eyed sister had a yellow tweed coat with a red velvet collar.

The clothes my grandmother had made for us disappeared, my favourite tartan skirt and bolero and fine ninon blouse that went with it, a primrose coat, a pink satin party dress – all went, regardless of entreaty. I had immediate remedial exercises for my lisp, elocution lessons to rid us of lingering Dorset accents, and physiotherapy and exercises for the splay feet which I had carefully cultivated to be grownup like my grandmother. I had what would be called today, a complete makeover. It seemed after a few weeks that I was a different child… and even more insecure and uncertain. And I loved both my new parents. Especially my harsh, handsome father.

He loved books as I did. He must have learned it from his mother who he couldn’t stand.

To be continued…

 Food for threadbare gourmets

Sometimes I just want a plate of roast vegetables, but also feel I must need some protein. I kid myself that this pea-nut sauce will fill the gap. It’s quite unlike the traditional pea-nut sauce, and was dreamed up in front of me by a chef at a demonstration.
In a stick blender,  spoon a cup or more of pea-nut butter, the skin thinly peeled from a lemon, plus the juice, a good teaspoon or more to taste of dried thyme, a couple of garlic cloves, a tea-spoon of fish sauce, a dessert-spoon or more to taste of brown sugar, plenty of salt and black pepper, and a cup or more of olive oil. Just whizz everything together. And add more olive oil, thyme, pea-nut butter if you need it. It lasts for plenty of time in the fridge, and is good with baked or sauted vegetables for a light meal, and also with baked or poached salmon.

Food for thought

Most people die before they are fully born. Creativeness means to be born before one dies.                                               Erich Fromm, German philosopher, writer, psychologist and psychoanalyst who fled Nazi Germany, eventually seeking refuge in the US.

 

 

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A composer, a journalist and an activist

Image result for welles hangen

 

A composer, a journalist and an activist.  One of the great boons of technology is the ability to find about people I’m curious about, have known in the past, or want to know about now!.

I was looking up on Google to find out more about the Polish priest, Jerzy Popieluszko, hideously martyred during the struggle for Solidarity in Poland. In the text I found the name of Andrzej Panufnik, who had written a piece of music commemorating Popieluszko, so I followed this up, discovering that he was a much more interesting person than the  rather weary, elegant, middle-aged composer I had met on Christmas evening at Twickenham Vicarage, my in-law’s house, back in 1964.

He had refused a Christmas mince pie then, thinking that we crude Anglo-Saxons were eating beef mince pies, after all the previous Christmas feasting earlier in the day. I felt he had not been entirely convinced even after having it explained in very simple English.” Too much food, too much food”, he kept murmuring.  (My problem on meeting him was that I was young, unhappy, ignorant and probably crass).

His life, surviving in war-time Warsaw, composing and playing music at cafes – the only way Poles could hear live music since the Germans had forbidden public meetings – and then escaping with his mother just before the Warsaw Uprising, sounded harrowing in the extreme. When he returned to bury his brother and collect his music manuscripts, he found they had all been destroyed, including his ‘Songs for the Underground Resistance’. It got worse. Under Communism, he was required to reflect in his music ‘the realities of socialist life’, and even his symphonies for peace were considered politically unsafe, while his links with other great, but suspect composers, like Shostakovich and Khatchaturian in Russia, were also unhelpful. He was criticised for ‘Formalism’!

In the end he managed to defect. Visiting Switzerland in 1954 to conduct a specially arranged concert, organised so that he could defect, he ended up in a chase in a Zurich taxi, escaping from the pursuing Polish Secret Police.  Reaching England, he was supported by other sympathetic composers, including Vaughan Williams, until he established himself. At the same time he was declared a traitor and a non-person by the Communists after his much-publicised flight from Poland.

Eventually he married his second wife, Camilla, an heiress, photographer, and efficient organiser, who lived in a beautiful old house on the banks of the Thames, near my in-laws. From then on he pursued a tranquil and distinguished career, composing and conducting, and was knighted by the Queen. Yehudi Menuhin commissioned a violin concerto from him and Rostropovich, a cello concerto. Compositions streamed out of him, including a ‘Paean” written for the Queen Mother’s eightieth birthday. England, happy marriage, prosperity and professional success, must have seemed like heaven after the perils and dangers of Poland, during and after the war. His obituaries described him as one of the most ‘potent voices in music in the twentieth century’.

Still playing on Google, I found Welles Hangen, head of the NBC Bureau in Hong Kong when I was there. He had disappeared in Cambodia in 1970. I had lost touch with Pat, his wife, one of my close friends when I first came here. I felt she had no energy for anything but the search for Welles. I had spent the last day in Hong Kong with her, the children playing together for the last time. She gave me some delicate dark green jade earrings, with a gold setting in Chinese characters meaning happiness and good fortune, to take with me on my terrifying expedition into the unknown – New Zealand. Welles had given them to her.

In the stories about Welles on Google, I found an account of the Christmas party I went to in their palatial white house with walls of windows, looking down over the harbour from the Peak. A woman who was a war-correspondent, just arrived in Vietnam, had written it. Her description of the fabled party was totally unlike my perception of it. I saw no glamorous Chinese courtesans in exotic cheongsams, circling the room looking for “foreign devils” to subsidise them, nor even any CIA agents, or any other conspirators.

I just saw a sea of middle-aged Yankees – many of whose stout, slightly boring wives I had met at the American Women’s Association lunches, talks and fairs that Pat always took me to. And I was stuck at one of the little round tables with a handful of them, eating dinner with a group of people talking their own private language of acquaintances and domestic doings, which I could hardly hear anyway, above the din of conversation all round. I left early.

When I arrived, wearing an Edwardian-style turquoise crepe blouse, and a quilted silk, darker turquoise ankle-length skirt, my long dark hair piled up into a Japanese geisha chignon, I climbed the steps to the terrace behind Robert Elegant, the English writer and correspondent and his wife, who had had a reputation as a beauty. Welles greeted them at the top of the steps, and then turned to me, took my hands in his, and paid me a glowing compliment. Mrs Elegant swung round and glared at me. For the first time I understood the chagrin of growing older, when I saw it written in her face.

The next morning, party over, Welles left at five am to return to the chaos in Cambodia. Pat, their adopted children, a son, four year old Dana, and Claire, the plump little blue- eyed blonde toddler they’d brought back from the States the previous year, celebrated Christmas without him. A few weeks later, Pat showed me the elegant writing desk she had had designed by an architect, to give to Welles for his 40th birthday when he returned. It was waiting in his study, standing on one of the oriental rugs he’d brought home, literally loaded over his shoulders, when they lived in the Middle East. The desk was simply two elegant rosewood trestles and a sheet of black glass suspended over them.

Welles never saw it. The last news Pat had of him was that he and his camera-man had been captured. She went into a frenzy of effort, ringing and writing, and answering the phones endlessly, and even – in this night-mare – collaborating with “the underground”. Actually, Quakers, who were equipping a ship with medical supplies to sail to the stricken North Vietnam. Previously scornful of pacifists, now, if helping the enemy would help Welles, Pat would help them. She bought up stocks of bandages, quinine, and everything else she thought could be useful from all the chemists in Hong Kong, hoping that somehow a good deed to the North Vietnamese would ricochet into better treatment for Welles, wherever he was.

Later, and shortly after I arrived in New Zealand, I had a dream of Welles. He came to me and asked me to tell Pat that he was alive, but that he was also dead. He was very insistent that I let her know this, so she would stop waiting for him. But in the cold light of morning I didn’t dare write such a letter to Pat, to rob her of the hope which was her equilibrium. Hope was what was keeping her going, and capable of continuing to mother the children, a role which never came easily to her, much as she loved them.

She was the most unhandy and clueless mother I ever knew. She had collected Dana from the New York orphanage the night of the huge power black-out in New York, and had been stuck in a strange unlit house with a hungry crying baby she didn’t even know how to feed. She was in her forties, and had a busy life, so Dana, and then Claire, spent much time with a rather bored, unprepossessing Chinese amah. Which was why Pat loved my children coming to play with hers. I always felt I had let Welles down by not doing as he asked.

I learned from Google that Pat and the children stayed on in Hong Kong for another two and a half years, before returning to family in San Francisco. And there too, was the story of Welles’s end, and the discovery of his remains, in 1993, when the Americans were finally allowed back into Cambodia to investigate, twenty-three years after his disappearance. According to a local peasant, Welles and the others had been captured by the Viet Cong and Khymer Rouge, taken to a hut, kept for a few days, then marched to the riverbed and beaten to death.

Investigations revealed the four bodies, which were identified, and then Pat attended a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, where Welles’ ashes were interred. Two years later Pat was laid to rest beside him. Earlier, at Arlington Cemetery, she had said she would have preferred to go on hoping, but at least now she had finality.

And then there was Cheryl. I didn’t need to google her, she was a friend and  back from her world-wide conference in Melbourne. She told me of a woman from a remote community in the Arctic Circle. The woman lives in a village of two-hundred-and- seventy-eight souls, and they depend on fish and caribou for their food. The fish, they know are now contaminated by the poisons we flush into the world’s oceans. So this year, conscious of dwindling fish stocks world-wide, and in the interests of responsible conservation, they agreed to limit themselves to catching two-hundred-and-twenty fish this season. They caught eight.

And because the summer had been so warm, the snow had melted on the caribou’s feeding grounds. When winter came the tundra froze over, and the caribou cannot break through the ice with their hooves to get to their food below the surface. So the caribou were starving.

Cheryl is an interesting person. I know she is highly distinguished, and even has a papal knighthood, but when she talked of her Journey at a meeting of souls, I couldn’t fathom where this exceptionality was hidden in her. But the more I have met her, the more I see what deep wisdom she has. She must have – she understands the concepts I’m talking of, when no-one else does!!! At each encounter, she says something that illuminates, and I think about it for days.

This time, after her story about the Inuit village, we were talking of summer, and how we have both planted queen of the night for its scent. She mentioned how she listens for that moment during each day, when the rasping of the cicadas turns into the clicking of the crickets. I was fascinated, and realised that I had never even thought about it. I shall now. And I shall listen. Among many of her activities, she seeks out and shows films about the planet and global warming to her community, and has started a local chapter of the Red Hat Society (that is a story in itself))

These are some of the rare people I treasure having encountered, or having loved in my life… yes, there are so many more, because every person is so unique – a uniqueness that shines through in every blog I read. So vive all our differences and specialness and uniqueness… there is no-one else like us and never will be – everyone who reads these words is not just unusual but a one-off – what a thought!

Food for threadbare gourmets

I needed a quick, quick meal – we were starving. Chopped mushrooms and chopped bacon quickly fried. At the same time a packet each of instant noodles was soaking in boiling water. Salt, pepper and some cream tipped into the mushroom mixture and boiled up to reduce slightly. Noodles drained, mixture tipped over, and a sprinkling of grated parmesan from the deep freeze. Supper ready in five minutes!

Food for thought

Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, power to re-tell it, to re-think it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.      Salman Rushdie, novelist.

 

 

 

 

 

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