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Another mansion

House, 24 Domain Drive, Parnell by John Fields
Our new home

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

 With a job under my belt, working on a liberal family- owned afternoon newspaper, The Auckland Star, I now had to find somewhere to live. I stumbled into the perfect place, in a good suburb only a few minutes drive from my office, with a good school in walking distance, and a small community of interesting neighbours.

Once again, John was behind my find. A friend of his contacted a friend of hers, and within a week I was ensconced in a beautiful second floor apartment in a huge old house on the edge of the Domain, a splendid botanical park which was a buffer between the business heart of the city and our little suburb.

The Victorian house had been built by a rich wine merchant on the lines of the American Belle Epoque mansions, only doubling its size. Architectural experts loftily said the house had no value except for the beautiful fanlight above the front door. But the ballroom on the ground floor which housed an exquisite carved marble fireplace, and sash windows with the bottom pane high enough for a Victorian crinolined lady to step out onto the wide pillared veranda was intriguing in itself; while the wide curving staircase and banister ascending to my apartment was a small boy’s dream to slide down.

My new home sported a sitting room, twenty- two feet long and eighteen feet wide, with floor length windows in the big bay at the end of the room, overlooking lawns and then the huge plane trees which edged the Domain.

It wasn’t too promising when I first saw it, a hodge-podge of elements cobbled together to make it a flat. But the landlord who lived downstairs decided to improve it for me. I chose plain blue tiles for the kitchen, bathroom and loo floors – to his amazement – wouldn’t I want different patterns in every room? The hideous – patterned coloured wallpapers in each room he promised to re-paper over time, room by room, and was astonished when I said I just wanted them painted over in white, and everything – paintwork, carved wooden fireplaces – all covered in white.

The only thing left was the dreadful green patterned carpet with sprays of red, brown and blue flowers. But I got his permission to dye it. Every night for six months I came home with small tins of blue dye from the chemist. When the children were in bed, I changed into my bikini, so as not to spoil my clothes and scrubbed boiling dye into the carpet with a stiff nail brush.

Even with rubber gloves, I could only manage three square feet of the scalding hot dye a night, and the blue splashes easily washed off my arms and legs and torso when I’d finished. I sewed blue curtains by hand, finding beautiful fabrics in sales, and made blue velvet cushions for the second- hand arm chairs discovered in junk shops. I found a big chesterfield sofa with brown Sanderson flowered linen loose covers and dyed them blue in the washing machine. By the time I’d finished I had a beautiful blue and white room adorned with the treasures I’d brought from Hong Kong- a pair of Bokhara rugs, lamps, blue and white china, pictures, and books.

The house was set back from the road in a big garden and surrounded by trees. The first day we moved in, I looked out and saw the two children lying on their stomachs on the soaking wet grass. I flung open the window and called – “what are you doing?” “Looking at the grass, “ they called back, after four years of living in a concrete jungle. We bought precious nasturtium seeds and planted them, and then, astounded, ripped them out again when the gardener confronted us to ask why we were planting ‘weeds’ in ’his’ garden. They spread everywhere, he grumbled. Now I grow them everywhere!

Our first weekend in our new home, when we still just had new beds, and a tiny eighteen- inch square side table that had been left in the flat by a previous occupant, we knelt around it having our porridge for breakfast, and then put on coats and jackets and walked around the corner to the beautiful Anglican cathedral, the largest wooden building in the southern hemisphere.

I didn’t realise then, but we were a striking threesome – a tall  woman in black, holding the hands of two children immaculately dressed in red quilted coats and red trousers. I had bought three polo necked ribbed jumpers each for them in black, white and red, so they could get dressed quickly and always look neat. I had my own formula for speedy mindless dressing too, – black trousers and jackets and red, black and white jumpers.

When we arrived, the dean of the cathedral came across to greet us, and showed us to a pew, and after matins ushered us into the adjoining parish hall for morning tea, where he introduced us to his other parishioners. One of them was a kind practical woman with children the same age as mine, who offered to have the children for three weeks on their way home after school, until they got used to walking home alone.

So began a friendship which progressed through her husband’s elevation to bishop, archbishop and then Governor General, during which time we enjoyed meals in their vicarage, then bishop’s house, archbishop’s residence, and finally governor general’s stately home. The Dean also became a good and helpful friend, calling regularly to chat in my blue and white room, enjoying a glass of sherry. I had other regular callers too, including my landlord, who came so often for a tot of sherry that I used to joke to others that what I didn’t pay in rent I paid in sherry.

The children settled into their new school, and I trained them to come back to the unlocked home, eat a snack and a drink waiting for them, and then have a nap. As they got older and I acquired a television, they watched until I got home, until my daughter, always gregarious, began to explore our neighbourhood.

She was going on seven now, and before long, she was the trusted friend and helper to our landlady downstairs who had an ulcerous leg, making tea for her, chatting and keeping her company. She watched TV with Peggy the childless taxi-driver’s wife across the road, and frequently kept Mrs Andre – the doctor’s wife round the corner – company while she had her early pre-dinner sherry and gave my daughter lemonade.

She played patience with crusty, chain-smoking Lady Barker, a recluse of seventy- plus, who lived behind locked and barred doors. I never discovered how she and my daughter got to know each other. She helped Mr Buchanan, our grocer who delivered every Friday, to unpack his butter and bread, and fetch and carry stuff in his shop. Melanie, the drug-addict’s wife on the corner with three small boys, relied on her for company, help in amusing her boys, and even helping to paint her kitchen.

While I found myself battling social welfare for Melanie’s payments to arrive on time for her, and creating mayhem with surgeons on her behalf when the hospital kept cancelling her appointment for an operation, my daughter was her daily prop and stay. I tried to avoid this sad depressing woman, who used to call on me to come and sort out the dramas when her violent husband turned up to make trouble, but my daughter was able to lift her spirits most days.

I also came home from work a few times, to find this enterprising child had co-opted her brother into picking the garden flowers, setting up a stall on the pavement and selling the flowers to passers-by. And she would ring me at the office to tell me she’d been reading the newspaper, and found an ad which said if I got to a certain shop in Karangahape Road by such and such a time, I could buy toilet rolls with ten cents off. They were funny, happy days…

When Princess Alexandra came to Auckland, and was dining at the Auckland Memorial Museum, a few hundred yards from our home, my daughter insisted on my taking her to watch the Princess arrive. In the darkness of the winter night, she scoured the garden for some dahlias, wrapped them in a creased brown paper bag from the kitchen drawer, and when the Princess in shimmering evening dress arrived at the Museum, stepped up to her and smilingly presented the little bouquet. I still have the press photos of the moment and was told that Alexandra had carried the unlikely bouquet all night.

Her brother, meanwhile, was engaged in small boy activities which included helping the taxi-driver to wash his treasured limousine, exploring with his mates what was known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail back then- a wild path down by the railway- and to my horror when I discovered, scrambling across a huge drainage pipe which stretched for over a mile across a deep muddy tidal creek down by the harbour. He also haunted demolition sites on his way home from school, filling his trouser legs and arms with pieces of wood when he could carry no more.

It took him hours to make his way home thus burdened and stiff-legged, unable to bend his knees for the splints of wood in his trousers, and as I said to a friend, if I’d asked him to carry these huge unwieldy loads, he wouldn’t have done it. They were of course destined for a ‘hut’ hidden in the garden.

When our landlady banned him from sliding down the banister on the grounds that he’d fall and break his leg, he would slowly walk down the stairs instead, mimicking the sound of his sliding, and poor Pat would rush out to catch him, and be met by a gap-toothed small boy smiling blandly at her. These times were some of my favourite memories … gentle and happy …

And I was carving out a career on The Auckland Star. I knew nothing about journalism when I had bluffed my way into a job, having only learned to write stories after a fashion. But the nuts and bolts of the profession, the art of finding facts, knowing who to go to and how to find information, were a closed book to me. So I felt I was walking a tight-rope of ignorance for the first few months until I found my feet. And as time went by, things changed.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 We had half a bought cooked chicken left over after an emergency meal, and the weather was far too wintery for cold chicken salad to be appealing.So I made a thickish white sauce, using chicken stock, chopped the chicken into it, and lightly flavoured it with cheese.While this was cooking, pasta of the sort used for macaroni cheese was cooking. Tipping the drained pasta into a casserole, I added the chicken mixture, and stirred in enough grated cheese to lightly flavour the already flavoured sauce. Covering the top with grated parmesan, it went under the grill for a crisp brown topping, and turned out to be a delicious lunch, with a salad.

Food for thought

“There are only two kinds of people in the world. Those who are alive and those who are afraid.”     Rachel Naomi Remen,  inspirational writer and therapist

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Sailing to the fabled East

EMPIRE TROOPER leaving harbour

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

Southampton 1953. The first night on board ship (shown above) my father took me for a walk around the deck while my stepmother settled my brother and our luggage into our cabin. It was the first time we had gone for a walk together since that memorable and devastating day in London when we first joined him and my stepmother. He had mellowed in the six years since then. There was a joyous bustle and excitement everywhere we walked in these last few hours before we sailed.

Since I was fourteen I was allowed to eat with the adults, which meant attending the formal dinner every night. Though this was a troopship, the elaborate routines and rituals of an ocean-going luxury liner were still maintained. It had been a German ship during the thirties and when captured during the war, had been transformed into the military ship in which we were now travelling, though still with its sweeping curved staircases and ornate dining room, and a waiter who still processed around the corridors banging a soft gong to announce each meal. So every evening, we ate a full Edwardian dinner, course after course, in full evening dress.

My father had deliberately packed his uniforms, which were now buried in the ship’s hold, so he couldn’t dress up in full regimentals. This had earned him a very black mark from the captain, to which he was impervious. All around us, other officers sweltered and swaggered in mess kit, short jackets laden with gold braid, jingling spurs and tight overalls – as their long tight trousers fitting over Wellington boots were called – while my father relaxed in bow tie and dinner jacket.

With my stepmother wearing her long black silk evening dress he apologised to the others at the dining table for looking so funereal, and as he made his witty remarks, I watched the two poised and elegant young naval officers on our table fall under the spell of his debonair charm, like all his young regimental subalterns. These two young men were exquisitely mannered, especially the blonde blue-eyed one with an indefinable air of distinction, who, my father told me, came from a distinguished aristocratic family.

As the voyage progressed, and we sat with the same diners at every meal and got to know each other, both these young naval officers told me what a wonderful man my father was. By then, I was old enough to see something of what they meant. He was handsome and distinguished in his own right, witty and wicked, with a mischievous sense of humour, gay and rather gentle, and exuded integrity and intelligence. Above all, he shared a zest for life, a joy in people, and a laughing disdain for authority.

This was partly why we were on our way to Malaya, where he was going to help form the Federation Regiment. His career as a gunnery expert was soaring when he had complained to the Army Council about the lack of proper treatment for accidentally injured soldiers during a huge army exercise. Whistleblowers always suffer for their intransigence, so this had meant the end of his career. He left the cavalry and became an infantryman, an unusual career move!

He had had a long hard war, and didn’t get away from France until two weeks after Dunkirk.  His tank regiment had been ordered to support the French on the line of the Somme, but the French never turned up to be supported, and his outnumbered, outgunned regiment was in considerable peril from the swiftly advancing German army. They managed to retreat to Cherbourg, where they destroyed all their tanks and equipment, and were packed onto a cargo ship for the dangerous cross channel journey through the night.

Two thousand men were crammed on to the deck, hungry, exhausted and relieved. He said he never forgot the women of Plymouth in the WVS, waiting for them on the docks at dawn with hot tea. He was then sent to Africa, to serve in his tank regiment in the Eighth Army, and then the First Army. He was one of the famous Desert Rats. The names of his battles echoed through my childhood: Tobruk, Sidi Bahrani and Sidi Rezegh, Bardia and Benghazi, Salerno and Cassino…

I knew where he was, because he sent little cream cards with Pharaohs on them, sitting sideways with their arms bent, with long, black hair and black, almond shaped eyes. He also sent little wicker baskets of almond nuts, perhaps when he was in Tunisia. And later, when he was in Italy, he wrote letters and drew pictures of himself drinking wine at the top of steep hills. But then, after my mother disappeared, his letters stopped coming. As though the heart had gone out of him.

So I sat at table now, in the big dining room, and watched as he charmed our dining companions, who included a childless couple, he, very conscious of his grand regiment; she, still living on her memories of being ‘presented’ at court before the war, when, she told me, as a debutante she wore her long white dress with a train and two white feathers in her hair, to make her curtsey to the King and Queen at the evening courts.

I wore a smart new summer dress my stepmother had bought for these occasions, but since the rest of my wardrobe was in tatters, and my only shoes were a pair of gym shoes, she lent me a pair of flat red Russell and Bromley shoes to complete my outfit.

With a life-time of war-time rations behind me, I couldn’t believe my eyes as course after course of delicious food was served, not just at dinner, but at lunch and breakfast, and even afternoon tea. Few adults slumbering in their cabins, bothered with afternoon tea, but to me it was unmissable, with cake stands laden with mille-feuilles, meringues, slices of Battenberg cake, Florentines, petit fours and other delicacies I’d never even seen before. (The waiter named each exotic cake for me)

After the first week or so of this high life, I was approached by a group of young army lieutenants. They had asked my father first if they could include me in a play they were writing. I discovered that they called me Angelina, and I now enjoyed a court of charming young men who spoiled me and made me the heroine of a play they wrote and produced for the entertainment of the other passengers, so I enjoyed a brief moment of glory.

But I was immune to their considerable attractions, as the night my father had walked me round the deck, I had fallen hopelessly and secretly in love with an unknown naval officer with blue eyes, standing with a group of friends having a drink in the bar. I saw him through the open window as we passed. I never knew his name or anything about him, and craned to see him in the dining room, and hoped to see him in the lounge, and never passed him on the deck.

At Port Said we visited the places my parents knew for old times sake, so I never saw him there. At Aden he was nowhere to be seen, and at Columbo, as we sat and had tea at Mt Lavinia, the famed hotel by the sea, I saw he was playing tennis, and my heart turned over. When we disembarked at Singapore, and he sailed on to Hongkong, I cried for days. I must have driven my parents mad, and no doubt they put it down to hormones, since they didn’t know why I was such an emotional wreck!

Sailing into Singapore in the flaming red dawn was a little like approaching Venice from the sea, and this old port was just as fascinating back then before the skyscrapers arose, and the old streets and dwellings had been razed. It was still a maze of narrow alleys, where long bamboo poles festooned with drying clothes protruded from windows high above pedestrians and trishaws, and below them, shops crammed with intriguing foods, clothes and rugs, jewellery and carvings lined the thronged pavements.

We stayed in a hotel just around the corner from the fabled Raffles Hotel. Our hotel was built around a courtyard where tall palms grew and fragrant frangipani scented the air. In the warm, dark tropical night, I looked down from our bedroom windows to where knots of people squatted around the flames of tiny stoves on the pavement and cooked their evening meal… the scents of their spicy food, and the sound of their voices drifted up through the night, and they became a part of the palimpsest of this strange and enchanting Eastern city.

It was still recovering from the years of deprivation, persecution, and near starvation under the brutal occupation by the Japanese during the war, but then I only saw the beauty and fascination of another culture.

For a few weeks we explored the city, visited old friends in the army quarters and every day took a taxi to the beautiful Botanic Gardens in the cooler late afternoon where we fed the monkeys pea-nuts. Then we took the long train journey the length of Malaya, trundling endlessly through palms and past muddy rivers until we reached Penang, another romantic island, approached by ferry this time. We arrived in this beautiful place to another great hotel, the Runnymede, a rambling white stucco building on the edge of the sea, originally built by that splendid Georgian Englishman, Sir Stamford Raffles, as a home for his first wife and family in 1805.

He’s remembered as the founder of Singapore, but he also abolished slavery wherever he was posted, established law and order and free trade, religious freedoms and free schools. He spoke Malay and wrote a history of Java and was one of the founders of the London Zoo, and London Zoological society. Typically, he was frowned on by the English government, which refused him a pension, and fined him twenty- two thousand pounds when he retired because his land reforms meant he hadn’t made enough profit from the territories he administered! It was a risky business and didn’t pay to be a just and creative colonial official!

The Runnymede Hotel had been extended enormously since Raffles’ time and had evolved into one of the legendary hotels of the East, like Raffles Hotel in Singapore, and the Peninsula in Hongkong. Life for the wives in Malaya before independence – or ‘Merdeka’- as it was known, had a thirties flavour. Very little had changed since before the war in this tiny enclosed world. We spent eighteen months living in this luxury hotel on the edge of the sea which had been commandeered by the army to house officer families.

So while the husbands were scattered all over the Malayan peninsula, banging off at Chinese bandits or Communist freedom fighters – depending on your point of view – in steaming, leech-infested swamp and jungle, their wives and children lived lives of bored luxury in Penang. I, of course was one of these fortunate children, and since now my step-mother’s friends had amahs to look after their children my child- amusing duties were redundant.

I was at an awkward age -fourteen and a half – too young to really be included, but useful when they were short of one for canasta. Too young to learn bridge, or to be invited to join them and their friends for a pimms or gin and tonic before dinner, but too old to eat with the children. So I watched them and tried to understand the shifting friendships and social hierarchies.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 We’re having roast chicken on Easter Sunday, so I decided to make  bread sauce, which I haven’t bothered with for years. It’s supposed to be served with turkey or partridge, but I think it’s just as good with chicken. Stick eight cloves in a peeled onion,and put it in a small saucepan with 500mls of milk, two bay leaves and two springs of thyme. Slowly bring to the boil, and then leave to infuse for at least thirty minutes.

Strain the milk, discard the herbs and the onion. Stir into the milk a 100gms of fresh white breadcrumbs (I use sour dough) and slowly bring to the boil stirring all the time to make a thick smooth sauce. I make this the day before. On the day I will add 100 ml of cream, salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. It can be thinned with more cream or left nice and thick which is how I like it.

Food for thought

 According to my parents, I was supposed to have been a nice, churchgoing Swiss housewife. Instead I ended up an opinionated psychiatrist, author and lecturer in the American Southwest, who communicates with spirits from a world that I believe is far more loving and glorious than our own.

Elizabeth Kubler Ross. Pioneer in near death studies

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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All people great and small

 dresser
 He wrote to a ninety-one- year old woman begging to be allowed to be a footman in her household, even if it was just for a day. Her secretary wrote back to the young Fijian and said yes, this could be arranged.

So a few weeks later, when the Queen entered a state room to meet an assortment of ambassadors, governors and other Very Important People, the young Fijian was in attendance, resplendent in his Royal household footman’s uniform. She saw him straight away and ignoring all the Very Important People waiting to exchange a few pallid jokes and platitudes with her, she walked straight across the room to talk to her newest recruit. The guests probably assumed he was an even more important person then they were….

I love such little vignettes which give an unexpected insight into character. On this occasion, the Queen’s humanity would have meant an unforgettable experience for the young man from the Commonwealth and the other side of the world.

I think of the story I read in a blog, when a South African blogger I used to follow was taking her dying daughter for a specialist appointment. While they were waiting outside the lift, the daughter sitting in her wheelchair, the doors opened, and out stepped a tall African. On seeing the mother and daughter, he walked over to them, and bent down and had a few gentle words with the dying woman, before smiling at her mother and continuing on his way… another act of kindness and connectedness – from Nelson Mandela who could well have just continued on his busy way.

I loved reading about Albert Schweitzer, the famous doctor, musician and founder of the hospital at Lambarene in Africa, standing on a train platform in the US where he had been invited. One minute the old man was talking to his group, the next, he was nowhere to be seen. And then someone saw him down at the end of the platform, carrying the suitcases of an old woman, helping her onto the train.

The Queen’s mother was famous for these sort of spontaneous kindly deeds, though one of my favourite stories was of her as a young woman… she had a sweet tooth even then and was happily chewing a caramel as she drove through Liverpool… she caught the eye of a young policeman, and tossed him a caramel, which he caught! Did he chew it too, or keep it in a glass cabinet as an unlikely relic?

A shopkeeper whose shop was on her route to Cheltenham races once wrote to her to say he would like to present her with a bunch of flowers when she drove past on her annual visit. She replied, and for the next eighteen years, until she stopped attending the race meeting, she stopped to talk to him on her way. By then, a crowd was always waiting too, and she never failed to stop and chat with her faithful admirer.

Her grandson’s wife, Diana, not one of her favourites, also had this gift. Few people know of the time when she was visiting this country as a twenty-one -year old. She came out of a reception in Wellington, the country’s capital, and a noisy group of IRA sympathisers was waiting for her with hostile banners and angry shouts. Gathering her courage so as not to disappoint the other people who were waiting to see her, this brave young woman walked over to them, and ignoring the heckling of the Irish, talked to the others. That took real character.

And later, in Auckland, she came out of a banquet late at night, and seeing a little girl standing in a knot of spectators, crossed the road in the pouring rain, red shoes and white tulle dress getting soaked, and bent down to talk to her and take the posy being offered.

General de Gaulle has never been one of my favourite people. Hating the British who sheltered him, gave him offices, staff, aeroplanes, money to support him throughout the war, he could rudely say to Mr and Mrs Churchill while lunching with them at Number 10, and discussing how to handle the French fleet in North Africa, he said it would give the French great satisfaction to turn their guns  onto the British. This, of course, was the man who was able to write a history of the French Army without ever mentioning Waterloo.

But many years later, sitting next to Churchill’s youngest daughter Mary, when she was the wife of the British ambassador, he asked how she passed her time. She blurted out, ‘walking my dog’, and was deeply touched that he spent the rest of the lunch discussing the best places to do this. Even de Gaulle had a heart! He showed it again, writing a tender and touching letter to Lady Churchill on the first anniversary of Churchill’s death.

And talking of animals James Herriott the Yorkshire vet who wrote the popular series ‘All Creatures Great and Small’, was the vet to some of my closest friends. He lived up to his reputation. Anthony told me that when they first moved to Yorkshire and signed up with Herriott, then just an unknown country vet, their cat seemed unwell. It was Sunday but they rang their vet anyway. Herriott was enjoying Sunday drinks before lunch at a friend’s home, but he dropped everything and came to the house to treat Anthony’s cat.

These are not great acts of heroism, but little random acts of goodness, kindness or humanity, spontaneous responses in circumstances where pomp and ceremony were often the order of the day… and that’s why they are so revealing… they demonstrate character and connectedness. And there are many people who are not public figures who also respond to everyday situations with spontaneity and kindness, and we never hear of them… let us now praise famous men, as the psalmist wrote… and some there be which have no memorial.

When I listed all the beautiful gifts a friend had given me over the years, and all her acts of kindness and imagination towards me, my love said why don’t you write and tell her. I said I have and I do…. But I made a mental note to tell all my other friends too, how much their friendship and love have meant to me over many years.

I thought about all the wonderful things people tell about their loved ones at their funerals. I always hope the spirits of the dead may be hovering to hear these words of love and appreciation. But how much more they would have enjoyed these tributes during their lifetimes. So one of my resolutions for the rest of my life-time is to make sure those I know and love also Know how much they are loved and valued… not just for their deeds or gifts but for the essence of who they are. Seeing a person’s essence is to recognise their soul. There can be nothing more satisfying than to know you have been Seen, that you have been recognised for who you are, and that who you are is precious, beautiful and utterly loveable.

This is a priceless gift which should be the birthright of every child, and this is my daily prayer: that the parents of all children may see and love the essence of each child, so they grow up undiminished by self- doubt. Then they can feel, and are, whole and happy and loving themselves. A world of loving souls would be a world without fear, and a world of peace, the sort of world we all long for – where peace and goodwill to all men would obliterate the divisions of race, religion and other limiting ideas which separate and divide us. For, as Thich Nhat Hahn says: ‘We are here to awaken from the illusion of separateness.’

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

The picture is my kitchen dresser groaning with summer produce. We’ve had lots of fresh asparagus this spring, but I had reached satiety with asparagus with melted butter, asparagus with vinaigrette dressing, and asparagus with a complicated Japanese dressing. So when I was the grateful recipient of a harvest of fresh broad beans from my daughter-in law’s garden, I decided to try something else. This is it!.

Wrap enough asparagus stalks for two in a sheet of kitchen paper, putting the join underneath so it doesn’t blow open. Sprinkle the paper with water, and cook the asparagus for just over a minute in the micro-wave. At the same time, chop and fry in a little butter a small piece of good thick ham, then pour in cream, a capful of brandy, a couple of chopped garlic cloves, (I used chopped garlic from a jar!) and half a teaspoon of Dijon mustard. Boil it all up until it thickens.

Blanch the broad beans -enough for two. Cook in boiling water until tender – I used small fresh ones, so didn’t need to pop then out of their outer skin. Then cut the asparagus stalks in two, and add them and the broad beans to the ham and cream mix. Eat with good bread to mop up the delicious juices – and I had a glass of champagne too, to enhance the feeling of well-being!

Food for thought

Until he extends his circle of compassion to include all living things, man will not himself find peace.  Albert Schweitzer

 

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Do we have a choice between technology or love?

Am I a dinosaur – surely not … or a flat earther – perish the thought … or maybe a Luddite… perhaps!

I’ve just been reading about the latest ideas in schooling… apparently instead of teaching children to spit out facts like a computer, we should be teaching them the six C’s.  They are defined as collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation and confidence – listed in order of importance.

And this is why I sometimes feel as though I was born into the Stone Age or something similar… I’m not even sure the people who taught me had even heard of the now unfashionable 3R’s. And my grandmother, a Victorian, was firmly of the belief that if I could read, there was nothing  I couldn’t learn… but she had probably never heard of calculus, Einstein’s theory, or even Pythagoras, though she was a mathematical whizz unlike her grand-daughter.

I look back to my school days, when I was so shy and retiring that it actually never occurred to me to tell the infant teacher I could read, so I spent the first year in total boredom chanting letters of the alphabet with everyone else, and following rudimentary stories on an illustrated frieze around the classroom wall. I remember feeling indignant too, when a girl called Manon Tipper started, and the teacher told the rest of my awed classmates that Manon’s parents were teachers and had taught her to read. So can I, I remember thinking to myself.

Things looked up the next year with a wonderful history teacher who galloped through the Ice Age, the Beaker people, Romans, right up Henry V in enthralling lessons that I soaked up, getting ten out of ten on the narrow strip of torn off paper (no exercise books because of the war) on which we wrote short answers to his questions at the beginning of every lesson.

The art lessons were a disappointment to my way of thinking. Lesson one was learning to draw a straight line using short feather strokes. This skill acquired by the class of restless six- year olds, we went on to mastering the perspective of drawing a rectangular box in succeeding lessons. Then the joy of bursting out into colour arrived (no finger painting for us) we had to bring a mottled, spotty, yellowy -green laurel leaf to school, to paint it, red berries and all. But our uncooperative front garden hedge had no berries, so no red for me. I think we were learning to observe as well as train the hand and eye…

Besides the boring, daily chanting of the times tables, (which has stood me in good stead!) we had a bout of mental arithmetic which I hated, but I quite enjoyed learning to write the copper-plate handwriting demanded of us. We spent hours copying a letter of the alphabet in our printed copybooks, using a dip pen and ink – often crossing the nib during our efforts (does anyone know what a crossed nib is anymore?) Using ‘joining up’ writing, nowadays called cursive, instead of printing was a sign of maturity for us.

A waste of time? Perhaps not – again – it taught both concentration and hand and eye coordination. And talking of such things, the boring throwing of bean bags and balancing on an upturned bench as well as bunny hops over them in our regular physical training sessions may not have been as interesting as today’s adventure playgrounds, but they did the job.

We had singing lessons when we learned the folk songs that had been handed down for generations, as well as some of the great classics like ‘Jerusalem’, which meant that everyone could sing together like they still do at the Last Night of the Proms in London every year; and we learned poetry which trained our memories and fed our souls.

For lack of a cell phone so we could ring each other from one end of the playground to the other as my granddaughter explained to me, we played games. We would swing a long rope and run in and out to skip until we missed a beat and tripped, or join a line of others skipping at the same time. At the same time, we chanted: ‘Wall flowers, wall flowers, growing up so high, we’re all the old ones, and we shall surely die, excepting:’ – and here we chanted the names of all the girls who were still skipping, until they tripped and fell out. We practised ball games, and at home alone, bounced it against a convenient bit of wall, swinging it under our legs or swiftly turning around, and learning to juggle two balls or more.

We couldn’t exercise our thumb muscles the way today’s children do on their phones and game boys (which I’m told are a thousand years old now) but we learned the dozens of variations of cats cradles, and played five stones, catching them up in the air on the back of our hand, holding them between our fingers, and tossing, and catching… there were many more and more difficult variations  – it took extreme skill and hours of practise and concentration – much more, it seems to me, than pressing a button on a computerised toy.

Then there were the hopscotch crazes, chalking the squares and numbers on the playground or a pavement when we were home, hopping, jumping – more muscle skill –  the marble crazes, the tatting sessions, French knitting – pushing coloured wools in and out of four tacks nailed into the top of a wooden cotton reel and making a long woollen tube (plastic reels nowadays, and useless for this ) and learning to knit properly. My grandmother taught me dozens of sewing stitches (yes, there are dozens) including hemming stitch, running stitch, herring bone, blanket, daisy chain and more.

When we went to birthday parties we played games like musical chairs and memory games like Kim’s game (a tray of small objects displayed for a minute, then whisked away while we quickly wrote down what we’d seen. I usually won this one). And when we left after dancing Sir Roger de Coverley, the only person who had had a present was the birthday girl herself – no party bags back then..

The difference between that rich but simple life with no TV, computer games or pop concerts, and the life of an eight-year -old today can best be illustrated by one of my first memories – watching a great tired dray horse pulling an overloaded hay wain along the narrow country lane where we lived, leaving horizontal drifts of hay draped along the high hawthorn and hazel hedges. Today I look on fields where huge green plastic rolls lie around waiting to be gathered up in the prongs of a tractor and delivered to a pile of more giant things, while farmers haven’t discovered a way of disposing or re-using the efficient, beastly plastic.

The latest theory on education, the six C’s – collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation and confidence sounds wonderfully vague, and idealistic too. I’m sure creative arguments can be raised for these C- words. But I rather fancy a way of assessing children’s abilities that I read a few years ago.

More educationalists are now taking into account other aspects of life and learning apparently, and as I remember them, apart from assessing children’s reading, writing and general knowledge, other talents are now being recognised. They included musical ability, physical skills, ethical understanding, and empathy with animals and the environment. Spiritual aptitude, which has nothing to do with religion, theology or dogma, was the last quality listed, and is perhaps the crown of a civilised life – which surely should the point of education/civilisation ….

The qualities of genuine spiritual understanding would and could encompass many of the ideals of the six C’s, I feel.  In fact, sometimes I think most of the qualities of the six C’s could be reduced to one or two simple, spiritual four-letter words, which cover sensitivity to the needs of others, and therefore collaboration, communication, content, confidence and creativity. Those two four letter words are kind and love. Kindness is easier than loving – love being the highest gift or skill or quality of all, and the simplest and most important. We ask if children are clever or talented, but do we ever ask if they are loving?

Food for threadbare gourmets

Deciding to fall back on my store cupboard for supper, I un-earthed a tin of pink salmon and decided to make pancakes filled with salmon. First make the pancake mixture… six ounces more or less of flour, an egg, and milk. Gently beat the egg into the flour, adding the milk in several goes. Beat until there are no lumps and leave for half an hour in the fridge. Beat again before using.

While the pancake mixture is settling, drain off the liquid from the salmon and make a fairly thick white sauce, using the salmon juice as well as warm milk. Chop plenty of parsley and stir into the sauce, then add the salmon, salt and pepper.

Keeping this warm, begin making the pancakes. As each is cooked, spoon some salmon mixture down the centre, and fold over each side. Sprinkle with grated parmesan, and lay on a fire-proof dish. When you’ve used up the pancake and salmon mixtures, put them in a moderate oven for a few minutes to melt the parmesan cheese, and enjoy… salad or green vegetables make this a cheap and filling meal.

Two pancakes a person is usually more than enough… this makes five or six generously, or more if the mixture is stretched out.

Food for thought

Your pain is not prescribed by your creator, He is the healer thus not giver of misery.
…. lay the blame where it belongs.
Mankind is responsible for its environment and culture….                                                   The day we take responsibility for our actions, will be the day God walks through the door smiling.”

Zarina Bibi – Sufi

 

 

 

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Observing light and love

Image result for st francis

 

It must be over forty years since I rummaged in that wastepaper basket in the office. I salvaged a photo I’d seen the photographer toss into it disgustedly – saying it was double exposed, and there was no way his camera should have produced such a useless image.

It’s guaranteed not to, he had exclaimed. So I looked at it, and recognised what I was seeing. The little old woman sitting in the chair with piercing brown eyes and a deeply wrinkled face was Mother Teresa, who had visited this country back in the early seventies.

I was working on a woman’s magazine. I had given up any belief in God, or the Supernatural a few years before, when my life seemed so awful that I blamed the Deity, and decided to get on without It. And I didn’t like Mother Teresa.

But the picture I was looking at was one of authentic holiness. The light around this woman ringed her body, and was not obliterated by the arms of the chair, but carried on around her form. I still have this photo, feeling that it is an historic one.

In the early pictures of saints, in western Renaissance pictures, Byzantine ikons, middle Eastern paintings, to Indian Jain and Hindu representations of holiness, artists have usually painted a halo around the head of a person. But this was a light which completely ringed Mother Teresa. Maybe it was her aura – which was filled with light.

I’ve never been very impressed by the efforts of the Catholic church to establish sainthood based on the person having performed at least two miracles of healing. Healing is not that rare, even among healers the Catholic church would not recognise as saints.

Healers to me are of rather a different order, and maybe some can see the light in their souls that is not obvious to us lesser mortals. Nelson Mandela, a great man, whose great work of healing is now being undone in South Africa, would be one of those healers… maybe Princess Diana, who brought comfort and hope and re-introduced the word ‘love’ into the vocabularies of some who never used it, was a healer. Albert Schweitzer, the great musician and theologian, turned doctor, who brought healing to the sick or dying Africans who came to him at Lambarene in Africa, was a great healer and a great man, but has never been called a saint.

The face of Major Keeble, who fought in the Falklands War is marked with that same spirituality which makes a difference in our world. He was second in command of his regiment, when Col H. Jones, a VC hero, was killed during the Battle of Goose Green. A devout Catholic, Keeble took command at a stage when one in six of his men were killed or wounded, they were largely out of ammunition, had been without sleep for 40 hours, surrounded by burning gorse bushes, and were vulnerable to a counter-attack. A hopeless situation in fact.

After kneeling alone in prayer amongst the burning gorse, he returned to his men, ordered them to ceasefire, and released several Argentine prisoners of war with a message to their commander to surrender or risk more casualties. The offer was accepted, no more killing and a peaceful surrender of the opposing Argentine forces was the result of his action/Guidance. Now retired and still making a difference, Keeble has  established a consultancy and lectures on the: “ethic of business transformation with the ethic of peoples’ flourishing”.

I have seen two halos. One was during a personal growth course when the forty-five of us there were being really challenged, and floundering. Then someone spoke up, joyful words of inspiration, courage and wisdom. I looked across at him with amazement, and saw a ring of light around his head, just as depicted in those ancient paintings.

The man with a halo was a gay who worked with Aids sufferers. He came to this course because two friends had persuaded him. His two friends were as ‘holy’ as he was – whole in the real sense of the word. I loved them both for their goodness and simplicity. Both were selfless teachers who loved their boys in the purest sense of the word. The last time I saw one of them, he was sitting on the pavement, his feet in the gutter in the pouring rain, with his arm around the shoulders of a desperate drunk.

The other time I saw a halo was when I looked across at a ten- year- old child, lost in playing an old church organ. Another photographer from the same magazine couldn’t resist taking a photo of her, and when it was developed, there was that ring of light emanating from the crown of her head. I can’t explain it. Neither could the photographer with his state of the art camera.

Years later, I was talking to a grandchild, the same age as the girl. He was surprised to discover from me, that not everyone saw the light that he saw, shining from people’s hands and sometimes all around them. Later that night, as I tucked him into bed, he sat up and said to me earnestly, “Grannie, everything that God creates comes from the light”.

Malcolm Muggeridge, the initially sceptical English journalist who went to India to see what Mother Teresa was up to, went to the tatty, ill-equipped hospital where the dying, lying destitute on the streets, were brought to her and her gentle loving nuns. He wrote that the hospital was filled with a light, which also felt like joy.

I can’t explain any of this. I’m just recording and revelling in the little that I have observed about light and love.

PS     Since leaving my other internet provider at the beginning of the year, I have struggled with my new one, discovering after some months, a second e-mail account where all the blogs I follow have been accumulating for months. So I have hundreds of e-mails to sort through, as well as thousands of others that this new email provider dug up from somewhere in the past, and generously deposited in my files. So I’m taking a break from writing my blog for a few weeks while I wade through this mystifying and mountainous back-log… be bak sun, as they say!!!

Food for threadbare gourmets

Deciding to sip our spicy pumpkin soup from cups made me re-think croutons, which I love. So instead of frying cubes of sour dough bread in olive oil, I fried squares and fingers of the bread instead, put them on a plate, and let people help themselves. They were so delicious and so successful that I will probably never bother with fiddly croutons ever again. Guests waxed nostalgic about fried bread from their childhood… don’t we do fried bread anymore?.

Food for thought

This made me laugh, another version of a famous prayer, but still – to some extent – true!

Lord, give me coffee to find the courage to do the things that I can change, and give me whisky to help me accept the things I cannot change…

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A friend and The Golden Key

My friend Oi ( pronounced O-ee) had ideas so advanced that even Quaker Meeting – that most liberal and open- minded Christian group – threw her out.

She was born in 1900, the youngest of ten, to a father who was sixty years old, and she died when she was a hundred and four – so the two life-times covered a hundred and sixty four years, and went back to 1840. Her father was a cabin boy on a ship that was wrecked on the NZ coast in 1856. Local Maoris formed a human chain to rescue him, and he stayed with them for some time, becoming very close to the chief. After returning to England, he came back with a seventeen-year-old bride, and the Maori chief gave him land to start his life here.

Robin, Oi’s father, established a huge sheep farm, built a big beautiful house, cottages for his shepherds, barns, wool-sheds and an exquisite little chapel, where Oi and her nine brothers and sisters played the organ and helped hand out prayer books to the shepherds and their families as they entered.. As each child arrived, the generous chief had given them Maori land. He ceremonially adopted Oi, and gave her the Maori name Oiroa, which roughly translated, means: ‘compassion for those in need’. Though it was shortened to Oi, she lived up to her name always, and when I met her was beloved by many people for very good reasons.

She married a distinguished Auckland architect – sometimes known as NZ’s Frank Lloyd Wright – who created many of Auckland’s great buildings, like the Railway Station, and beautiful private homes including some famous ones in the Hawkes Bay. Oi herself was very musical, and played the piano, and was so deeply involved in the musical life of her adopted city, that in the early thirties she and another musical aficionado, started the first orchestra in the city, whose descendant is still thriving.

She was beautiful –  and open-hearted and sweet-natured. She was also unhappily married to a much older controlling, jealous and angry man. Other men loved her, and I picked up hints over the years of tempestuous scenes and dramatic confrontations, one in which her loyal cleaning lady divested a desperate suitor of his shotgun at the front door. Oi received and declined her last proposal in her eighties.

Her zest for life never diminished, in spite of a son’s suicide, a difficult life, and much loneliness. Neither did her kindness fail, or her energy, for that matter. I was sure her inner life kept her young. She was often busy driving “old ladies” shopping until well into her nineties. She obviously didn’t feel she qualified for that label – yet! Her spontaneity and authenticity, happiness and serenity, endeared her to all ages.

I met her at Quaker meeting, where we were both what is called attenders, as opposed to members. On occasion when the beautiful and mystical silence was gently broken by a deeply felt message, if it was Oi, as she was known for short, it would be a profoundly mystical and eminently practical thought.

Throughout her life she was drawn to mysticism, a branch of the spiritual life which has always been mistrusted by organised religion, as its devotees seek union with the Source, whatever it is called, thus bypassing the need for priests, mullahs, rabbis, gurus or whatever. Whether these mystics were Muslim, as in the case of Rumi and the Sufis, or Christians like Master Eckhart, or St John of the Cross, they often came to a sticky end at the hands of their respective religions.

Luckily in the twentieth century, this fate is not so common, and Oi escaped lightly by just being blackballed by Quakers! She explored most branches of both Western and Eastern mysticism, and in her thirties, became a lover of Ramakrishna’s teachings, keeping a photo of him by her bed-side always. He practised several religions, including Hindu, Islam and Christianity, and taught that in spite of the differences, all religions are valid and true, and they lead to the same ultimate goal- God.

After Oi introduced herself to me, and invited me to her beautiful house (I had not been long in NZ then), we became close, and she became my mentor. My two small children looked on her as a grandparent and we loved going to her serene and peaceful home.

Though it was in the city, it sat among mature trees and a rambling, flowery garden with a stream. Her architect son had designed it for her. Music, in her mid-seventies, was still her passion. Sometimes I would arrive at the garden entrance, and hear the glorious sounds of a trio or a quartet streaming out of the windows, and I’d stand silently outside under the persimmon tree, listening to Mozart or Mahler.

When the children and I were there, we‘d often end up singing round the piano with the student who boarded with her, and was a brilliant pianist and lovely tenor. We’d all sing favourites as diverse as Handel’s, ‘Where e’er you walk”, to: “Feed the birds,” from Mary Poppins. I had another musical friend, Phillipa, whose unbearable life (a romance I ‘ll tell another time) was slightly improved by taking clarinet lessons, and since her ambition was to play in an orchestra, she needed practice playing with others.

Hearing about her, typically, Oi offered to play with her, and through music-making, they learned to love each other too. I was spending the day with Oi when I learned that the ship Phillipa was sailing on had caught fire, and she and her two small children, one handicapped, plus her six-month-old baby, were adrift in a lifeboat in a violent storm. I never saw them again.

Oi’s unorthodox thinking, which of course, was not confined to spiritual practises, but spread into all areas of her life, alienated her family who were very religious and ultra- conservative. She rarely saw them, so she began spending Christmas with us until one son who disapproved of us too, was shamed into inviting her for Christmas after many years.

So it was that her funeral – which was attended by all those people from all walks of life, whose lives she had touched with love and compassion – was a very traditional one… which slightly puzzled me, as I was sure Oi would have wanted something different.

At the end her family left, and only five of us gathered round Oi’s coffin as it was lowered into the void – the student – now a judge, her cleaning lady for the last twenty years, my two now grownup children, and I.

The judge said to us, “That wasn’t the sort of funeral I expected Oi to have”.                    “No,” piped up the cleaning lady, “I still have a copy of what she wanted!”

I suddenly remembered how Oi, when she was too old to cope with driving in inner-city traffic, had asked her lawyer to call in and take possession of her will for her funeral. She had showed it to me – an exquisite collection of sayings on love, from mystics of all faiths. To my horror, the lawyer had charged this beautiful old lady in her mid-nineties, an exorbitant fee.

Standing by her coffin now, the judge wept over this betrayal of Oi’s wishes. “One more thing for her to forgive her sons for,” he sobbed. We all wept with him.

Before she died, Oi gave me the books which had sustained her, and influenced her thinking, and which had helped her  find her path to expanded consciousness and freedom. One of the joys of reading them was that she’d underlined or marked the passages which sang to her. Not only did I find this a wonderful aid to a deeper understanding, both of the texts and of Oi, but it also taught me the pleasure of marking and making my books my own, which I had never dared to do before.

I’d grown up learning that books should be treated as sacred, and never marked, turned down, or in any way treated as familiar friends. I do it all the time now, knowing that others who eventually find their way to them will – or might – enjoy the same pleasures of insight and intimacy as I have done.

Oi’s words still remain in my mind, and often come back to me. When there was a problem she would close her eyes, and focus for a minute, then open them and say firmly: “You cannot know the solution.  You can only pray that the situation evolves for the highest good of you, and everyone else involved. And know that this will happen, and let it go.”

She’d quote T.S. Eliot: “It is not our business what others may think of us,”… or: “God wastes nothing”. She’d say : “Let go and let God.”… and, “Happiness is like water in the palm of your hand. If you gently hold your palm open, it will stay. But if you clutch it and try to hang onto it, you lose it.” She died thirteen years ago, but her loving wisdom sustains me still.

The gift she gave me, which I treasure the most, and use constantly, is ‘The Golden Key’, a tiny spiritual masterpiece of only a few words. I give it now with love, as Oi did, to anyone who thinks it may be useful to them… https://morningstar.netfirms.com/goldenkey.html

Food for threadbare gourmets – those of us who qualify for this description will go hungry today, as I feel this post is so long, I can’t expect you all to go on reading, while Food for thought is contained in Oi’s sayings and in her life…


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