Tag Archives: Malaya

Ducal splendour and daily deprivation

On my tenth birthday -wearing my pearlsInline image 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The conquerors shared the hardships of ravaged Europe. Our meagre rations were delivered once a fortnight in a cardboard box. I remember my stepmother looking at a small pile of cucumbers, our vegetables for the next two weeks, and asking in despair what we could do with cucumbers for a fortnight. We only ever had revolting, evaporated, tinned milk to drink for there was no organised milk supply and no pasteurised herds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My father said I was learning to ride like a Prussian officer. The army stables were run by an aristocratic Prussian officer- not, of course, using his military rank now – but known merely as Herr Freiser. He took great pains with me, never guessing that I was terrified of the huge jumps he put me over. Fear runs along the reins, I would remember from reading Black Beauty, and hope I was bluffing the huge, far -too- big military horse I rode regularly. A big brushwood jump was one thing, but the fence on the wall was too much, and I came off every time, never knowing what had happened until it was all over.

Herr Freiser’s blonde, classically beautiful Prussian wife regarded me with loathing, as though I was a pet cockroach her husband was training. But I decided she hated all English, and was probably still a Nazi lady. They lived in the groom’s quarters by the stables, and were lucky to have a job and a home in their ruined country, though she obviously didn’t think so.

Their gilded furniture, rescued no doubt from their Prussian schloss, was piled right up to the ceiling in one room, while they lived in the other. Herr Freiser seemed as frightened of her as I was. She would stalk through the stable yard in her immaculate jodhpurs, her glare like a blue flame from her icy blue eyes.

To be continued –  back to England

Food for threadbare gourmets

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

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

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

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

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

Food for thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Time, like an ever-rolling stream

a traditional Cotswold village hotel, England, UK

A life  – Part one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued

Food for threadbare gourmets

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

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

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

Food for thought

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

Annie Dillard – American writer and mystic

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Let them eat ( Christmas ) cake!

Image result for christmas cake images free

Poor Marie Antoinette. She never said it. But she’s suffered from that blighting propaganda ever since. What she needed, and still needs, is a good spin doctor to right her dreadful wrongs, but until she gets one, her name is indelibly associated with cake. (She was actually a devoted and intelligent mother, and I think I’d have gone mad if I’d been her, and known of the barbaric treatment the revolutionaries meted out to her eight- year -old son after she was beheaded during The Terror. Her son died two years later, by then completely mute, disease-ridden, covered in scars from beatings, and unable to walk. The past was sometimes as cruel as the present…)

But to return to the subject of cake. In the days when a woman’s place was in the home, and preferably in the kitchen, cake was part of that equation. I grew up in the fifties when women were still supposed to be there, and watched my stepmother struggle with the expectations around cake in those days. Her steak and kidney puddings had to be tasted to be believed, her steak pies with perfect pastry were sumptuous, as were her heavenly steamed ginger puddings and apple pies, but cakes were not her thing.

The pinnacle of cake-makings skills back then was the Victoria sponge. A pretty boring version of cake, and now long out of favour, but back then, the classic Victoria sponge was a firm cake cooked in two tins, and glued together with raspberry jam, the top sprinkled with icing sugar. Simple, but like all simple things, more difficult than it looks.

I would come home from school in the afternoon, and find my stepmother had had another go at a sponge, and was pretty down in the mouth, because as usual, it had sunk in the middle. As much as we were allowed to do, I fell on these failures, and revelled in the sunken, soggy, sweet middle – the best part of the cake, I thought. Sadly, years later, I discovered that my stepmother thought I was sending her up when I enthused about how delicious it was.

A few years later, living in Malaya, she was rescued from the kitchen by an amah who certainly didn’t bake cakes. Instead, like every other amah, she delivered a tea tray with rich tea biscuits and tiny Malayan bananas to the bedroom every day at four o’clock, to wake the dozing memsahibs from their afternoon rest in the tropical heat. With the pressure to produce the perfect sponge lifted from her shoulders, my stepmother began to be more interested in cake, and one holiday I came home from boarding school and was invited to experiment with making something called a boiled fruit cake – no creaming and beating, just a bit of mixing and boiling before baking.

So began the process of producing a cake in the tropics in the fifties. First the flour had to be sieved to get the weevils out. Every egg had to be broken into a separate cup to make sure none of them were bad, as indeed, many of them were. The rest of the makings came out of the food safe, which was a primitive cupboard made with wire mesh to ensure some movement of air in the sticky heat. It stood on legs two feet off the floor. The legs were placed in used sardine tins or similar, which were kept filled with water, to deter ants from invading the food.

The cake was simply a mix of all the ingredients and then baked. It wasn’t just soggy and sweet in the middle, it was soggy and sweet all through – just my sort of cake.

When I had my own kitchen, my ambition to eat cake was permanently at war with my determination never to get bogged down with the hard labour of creaming and beating that seemed to be involved in making a cake. But I found a temporary solution in the first months of my marriage – a cake that didn’t even have to be cooked – it was made from mostly crushed biscuit crumbs, melted butter and chocolate and finished off in the fridge. It was even a success with an old school friend who’d mastered the whole baking thing, and could even do a crème brulee.

But the real break-through came when reading the old Manchester Guardian, as it was called back then. Highbrow though the women’s pages were, Guardian women were not too cerebral to eat cake. And hidden away one day in a sensible article on cakes – nothing frivolous, just egalitarian, down to earth, common sense advice – I found the answer to cake-making. Instead of creaming the butter, or beating it with the eggs or the sugar, all we had to do was MELT the butter and stir it in.

This simple technique I applied to chocolate cakes, lemon cakes, you- name- it cakes. It‘s carried me through a life-time of eating cake and I’ve never even considered making a Victoria sponge.

But now I have another triumphant addition to my cake making repertoire – just in time for Christmas too. The NZ genius known as Annabel Langbien, who invented the three ingredient scones I wrote about, has also invented the three ingredient Christmas cake. This of course, is meat and drink to me, though being the over-the top person I am, (if half is delicious – twice as much must be twice as delicious!) I did actually embellish this gloriously simple recipe.

1kg mixed dried fruit, 2½ cups (600ml) milk or almond milk, 2¾ cups self-raising flour , 1 tbsp sherry, rum or whiskey, to brush (optional)

icing sugar, to dust (optional)

Place dried fruit in a bowl, cover with milk and leave to soak overnight in the fridge.

The next day, preheat oven to 160°C and line a medium (23cm diameter) springform cake tin with baking paper.

Stir flour into fruit mixture until evenly combined and smooth into prepared tin. Bake until it is risen, set and golden and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean (check after about 1¼ hours and return to oven for a little longer if needed). Remove from oven and, while still hot, brush with sherry, rum or whisky, if using. Cool in the tin before turning out. Stored in an airtight container, it will keep for 3-4 weeks.

My embellishments included soaking the fruit in brandy and lapsang souchong cold tea, using a cup of almond meal and one and a half cups of  flour…plus a cup of melted butter, cup of brown sugar and three beaten eggs…then I couldn’t resist adding a teasp of vanilla essence, plus two teasp mixed together of nutmeg, cinnamon and mixed spice –  and then a good table spoon of golden syrup… (still simple, No creaming beating etc – just all mixed together and utterly delicious).

I ‘m also thinking of going the whole hog when I unwrap it to eat, and layering on apricot jam to hold some marzipan, and icing on top of that. Otherwise I would arrange crystallised ginger on the top before baking.

I also cooked the cake very slowly, for far longer than Annabel suggests – wrapping the tin in layers of thick brown paper.

I wrote the first half of this blog on 5 June 2012… but thought I must share the updated version with this blindingly simple recipe for Christmas cake.

 

Food for thought

Thought control is the highest form of prayer. Therefore think only on good things, and righteous. Dwell not in negativity and darkness.

And even in those moments when things look bleak – especially in those moments – see only perfection, express only gratefulness, and then imagine only what manifestation of perfection you choose next.

In this formula is found tranquillity. In this process is found peace. In this awareness is found joy.

Donald Neale Walsch   Conversations with God Book 3

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There are more things in heaven and earth…

Image result for wisteria

We had moved to a little house up a valley, where we overlooked the glittering Firth up which Captain James Cook had sailed as he explored the new land he’d discovered, and where we also looked back and up into the misty mountains where clouds formed and dissolved in hot sunshine. A tumbling stream hurtled through the valley below the house, and the sound of the rushing water mingled with the sweet song of tuis and bellbirds, and later, a thrush warbling to the clear blue evening.

The house had a rambling garden, with beehives in one corner, and lemon, orange and grapefruit trees in the other; and everywhere flowers and shrubs… camellias and azaleas, and one glorious purple wisteria which had spread into the trees around the garden and which engulfed us in fragrant scent and a purple curtain in spring.

My husband worked in the city and came home at weekends, which I loved as it gave me time to write as much as I wanted, eat when I remembered, and dream and wander the valley with the little dogs. Then I became conscious that we had a ghost in the house.

In fact, I heard it every night, but just pushed the knowledge into the back of my mind. After several weeks, I suddenly realised that I’d been hearing these sounds every night after I’d gone to bed, and it was always the same – someone walking across the sitting room which was the original part of the house.

We knew the house had been built for an old lady called Amy, who lived alone in this valley then, though Ben and Flo, the Maori couple living at the gate to the private road up the valley remembered her. She had planted the camellias and apple trees and wisteria which made the garden so appealing, but finally, her health and her mind gave out. Her son took her away, and she died some time later in a mental home.

I knew the ghost would have to be Amy, who hadn’t wanted to leave, and still didn’t. I waited till the next night, and then as soon as I heard the footsteps, I sat up in bed, and called through to Amy. ” Amy, you’re alright now, you know. You feel better now, but there are all the people you love waiting for you. They’re all waiting for you in your new home.

“You could stay here, but they’d miss you, and you’d miss them. They’re waiting for you in your wonderful new home. So go to the light now, Amy, go towards the light, and you’ll find your loved ones and your new home. May you be happy in your new home Amy, may you be happy with all your loved ones. Turn to the light, and walk to the light and the love.” And then I settled down for the night and went to sleep. As I suspected, we never heard another sound.

Some people see ghosts, some people sense them, in this case I heard the unmistakable sounds of a person/ghost. But I don’t have that sixth sense that some do.

A few years later, having moved back to the city to be near our new grandchildren, I popped into my daughter’s house, to slip a tiny chocolate bar on each child’s pillow for them to find when they went to bed. (bad for their teeth I know, but good for their souls). The youngest was still at home at two and a half, with his nanny. She was quite upset when I walked in.

The playroom was upstairs at the other end of the big house and my little grandson loved playing up there. His nanny told me he’d just been down and told her he’d been playing with the black man again, and she’d rushed upstairs thinking she’d left the front door open, and an intruder had slipped in. My grandson followed her. There was no-one in the room, and she heaved a sigh of relief. And then was transfixed.

My grandson, pointed to a corner, and said, “there he is”. He picked up a book and walked over to the corner, and held the book open, showing the invisible figure the pages, and talking to him.

“What’s he like?” gasped his nanny. My grandson described a tall dark- skinned man, with patterns (tattoos) on his face, and said he was wearing a grass skirt. Persuading the little boy to come downstairs and have a snack, they left the room, and this was when I arrived. We agreed we had always felt some sort of presence up there.

I told her it was okay, and went upstairs. I walked up to the corner, and spoke to the invisible energy as I had talked to Amy, tailoring my words to a Maori warrior. When I felt complete, I went back downstairs, and the nanny and I agreed we wouldn’t discuss it with anyone else, and unsettle them. And that was the end of the story. Occasionally I’ve felt the presence of dead Maori warriors – several around our house by the sea, which was a perfect look-out point for warring tribes. I always say the same thing, and I always have a sense of peace when I’ve finished… imagination? Who knows.

What matters to me is that if there are puzzled, anxious trapped energies, they should be released. There are so many instances of haunted battle fields all over the world, that we can’t all be deluded. My father used to worry about soldiers killed with no time to prepare, fearing they would be stuck in the moment of death, unable to move on.

When I lived in Malaya, there was a notorious field in Ipoh, where apparently British soldiers had been chained and starved and tortured by the Japanese. Malayans who lived nearby, claimed they could hear voices praying in a foreign language, reciting poetry, singing … later the sounds were identified as being the Lord’s Prayer, Shakespeare, and hymns. Hauntings were quite a common phenomenon when I lived in Malaya… unquiet spirits, stuck in time it so often seemed.

It always bothers me every time I hear the report of teenage Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife, who was suspected of having affairs, and inevitably would be sentenced by her psychopathic husband to be beheaded, running along a corridor at Hampton Court shrieking in terror when she was arrested. She wrongly thought the King was in the Chapel, and wanted to beg for mercy.  Her ghost is said to still be seen or heard in this corridor, shrieking in terror. Why don’t those who do rescue work, or Deliverance as I’m told the phrase is, go and rescue her, I wonder?

Shakespeare was right when he wrote in Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy“. I haven’t used the word para-normal talking of these things, because who knows what is normal in our mysterious world? When we are open to possibilities, different layers of time, shadowy levels of existence, and other planes of being, we can admit that there really are more things in heaven and earth than most of us can even dream of.

Food for threadbare gourmets

Short cuts. As a lazy cook I’ve evolved a number of ways of producing food with as little effort as possible. Some people might find these short cuts useful.

  1. I love hot scones with strawberry jam, apple and other fruit crumbles, mince tarts, made from my own pastry. But what always puts me off, is the labour of crumbling the butter, and making breadcrumbs of the flour and butter, and getting the stuff under my nails. Hey presto – bring the butter out of the fridge – and grate it on a grater. It then mixes perfectly well with the flour and other ingredients without having to do any more…
  2. Chopping parsley with it jumping away from the knife bores me. I used to use Mrs Beeton’s tip – plunging the stalks into boiling water for a minute, and then chopping them. This turns the parsley a brilliant emerald green and looks spectacular. Nowadays I go for an easier way, I simply put a bunch of parsley in the deep freeze, and bring out whatever I need, still frozen. I crumble it with my fingers, as it breaks easily, and then end up chopping it finely – quick and easy.
  3. Now that I’ve mastered – or am mastering – using a micro-wave, I’m evolving short cuts here. Instead of frying onions for ages until soft, I simply put them in the micro-wave dotted with butter and covered, for four or five minutes… easy… and instead of laboriously re-heating minced beef in the oven for shepherd’s pie – in the micro-wave it goes, and then I spread the hot mashed potato on the hot minced beef, and brown it under the grill for a few mins.

Food for thought

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

He also said :

There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.

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“Old soldiers …”

Image result for 14/20th king's hussarsLeafing through an old notebook looking for a blank page to pull out to write a shopping list, I found these words I’d forgotten I’d written.

Timing isn’t always everything I decided, and though I’m late, these words still count…

Parade on Armistice Day

Behind that stern moustache

And row of clinking coloured medals

And Desert Rat insignia,

Service dress, and highly polished Sam Browne belt and sword holster

Stood a man.

 

A man who loved and laughed and grieved and swore and smoked and drank,

And played poker sitting on a petrol drum

Beside his tank in the desert.

He hated the beat of the Funeral March from ‘Saul’,

And he never forgot the ones who were ‘brewed up’.

This was the nightmare he fought most nights for the years of peace.

 

It had been a daily nightmare back then.

It had loomed while he shaved in half a mug of water,

And haunted his thoughts as he drank a mug of strong tea

To cut that terrible desert drought.

And he never forgot the spring flowers that bloomed in Tunisia.

 

Just like five weary years before,

He had never forgotten the women of Plymouth,

Who waited with steaming mugs of tea

For the cold, hungry men who landed at dawn

After escaping from Cherbourg,

Three long weeks after the miracle of Dunkirk.

 

In all the years between, he had been there,

And the names of his battles had

Reverberated through my childhood:

Bardia and Benghazi, Sidi Rezegh, and Sidi Barani,

Tobruk, Tunisia, Salerno and all the others…

He loved his friends and didn’t hate his foes.

Like Abou Ben Adhem, he loved his fellow men.

This was my father.

 

He was a cavalryman, and proud of the history of his historic regiment – an officer from his regiment was dispatched by the Duke of Wellington to take the news of Waterloo to London. It’s the regimental  cap badge at the top of this piece.

Though he survived the war, he didn’t live to old age, and like his other children I still miss him, and I regret not talking to him when I was old enough, or mature enough, to appreciate him the way his friends and his soldiers did. Both groups loved him.

One soldier in the British Army took leave from his posting in Gibraltar to come to London and find my father in his office at Whitehall to give him a watch. Ten years earlier, when we  were in Malaya, this man had been fighting the British. My father on patrol in the jungle, captured him, starving and nearly dead from scurvy.

My father helicoptered the ‘bandit’, as the insurgent communists were called, out of the jungle, and rushed him to the only grocery store for miles around, where we happened to be shopping at the time. He leapt out of the army vehicle, calling to my stepmother to buy a box of oranges. While she did this, he carried the soldier from the jeep into the back of our saloon car. Peeling an orange, he fed segments to the nearly unconscious ’bandit’, and then, as he began to revive, gestured to him to go on eating the oranges.

The man was taken to a rehabilitation centre, where he regained his health, renounced his communism, learned English, and finally joined the British Army. He never forgot my father and came to London ten years later to thank him for saving his life.

Armies and soldiers are sometimes reviled, often by people who do not know soldiers. But like most of his fellows, my father was a good and courageous man, a kind and tolerant man  – like most of the men of all ranks, that I grew up knowing on army camps around the world. Honor virtutis praemium.

Food for threadbare gourmets

For a celebratory birthday lunch the other day that wouldn’t take hours to cook, even though I felt roast chicken would be appropriate, I compromised. I had a couple of chicken breasts in the deep freeze, so after de-frosting slowly in the fridge, I trimmed them open a bit more, and spread a stuffing of whole grain breadcrumbs, onions and mushrooms chopped and cooked in butter, and lots of chopped sage and parsley, salt and pepper on one breast.

Placing the other breast on top, I wrapped them in rashers of bacon, making a parcel, and holding the rashers in place with toothpicks. Scrubbing a couple of Agria potatoes, I pricked them all over, rolled them in olive oil, and cooked them in their skins at the same time as the chicken. (Hot oven for about 45 minutes, or until ready). When cooked, the potatoes were mashed with lots of butter, salt and pepper.

Spinach and carrots completed the meal, along with good gravy made from chicken juices in the pan, while the chicken was ‘resting’ in a warm place. It was as good as if I’d cooked a whole chicken, and took half the time to cook

Food for thought

I am not interested to know whether Vivisection produces results that are profitable to the human race or doesn’t. … The pains which it inflicts upon unconsenting animals is the basis of my enmity towards it, and it is to me sufficient justification of the enmity without looking further.

Mark Twain. American writer, publisher, river boat pilot and many other things. One of his claims to fame was that he was born when Halley’s Comet showed up in 1835 and died, as he predicted, the day after it came back in 1910.

 

 

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The preciousness of people

100_0218
A knock on the door revealed a stranger holding a white enamel colander full of strawberries. We had moved into this house in town the day before, and he introduced himself as a neighbour.

That was a very meagre description of what he was, he was a glorious eccentric who I watched every day cycle slowly past on a very high old fashioned bike with a basket on the front, which gave the impression of being far too big for his small skinny frame, and liable to go out of control at any minute. He was on his way to the docks where he was a dock worker – a somewhat unconventional one I imagine.

Again a meagre description of this blue- eyed, wildly bearded, elderly Irishman, who revealed to us that he was a sort of remittance man, exiled from Ireland by his despairing family to make his somewhat erratic way in the antipodes.

He was a poet, he told us. I believed him though I never saw any of his work. His life was a poem. We went to his house, which was a poky little state house. Inside it gave the impression of being a miniature stately home, along the lines of an Irish demense… a few good but battered antiques, the odd oil painting and large old-fashioned sofa and chairs covered in old fashioned country house flowered linens.

This splendid impression of stateliness continued into the garden, which was quite big, being on a corner. He had transformed this rocky site into a miniature paradise, grass walks edged with pleached fruit trees, a vegetable patch, a strawberry bed, a tiny terrace and lawn, and best of all, a deep pond edged with large rocks, which he had created by levering the huge rocks day after day over a period of six months, until a deep hole had been carved out of the stony ground.

He was an eccentric, one of the many who, when I look back, have enriched our lives and given us fun and pleasure. There was Mr Macdonald, a direct descendant of Beatrix Potter’s Mr Mcgregor, who was our neighbour in the country, another Irishman. He only wore a pink woollen vest with long sleeves  and braces, all summer and winter, except on Sundays when he looked quite unnatural, shaved and spruced up in a short sleeved shirt in which he looked very ill at ease. Every spring he would arrive at my door in his pink vest, braces and hob-nailed boots, bearing a huge bunch of sweet-smelling narcissi which I had once told him reminded me of spring in England. He never missed a year thereafter.

There was Alf, an Englishman who served in the Malayan Police, and every three years when his leave was due, not having any family he wished to return to, he would sail to the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula. There he would buy a large flock of goats, and then proceed to drive them through the desert, using the goats as food and currency, until he reached Port Said. There he would get a boat to Liverpool, make a quick visit to his sister there, and then return to his tropical home in Kota Bahru.

Here too, lived Mammy, a giant White Russian, over six feet tall, wearing thick pebble specs for her short sighted grey eyes, and wearing the first caftans I ‘d seen over her enormous frame, all in brilliant colours and garish patterns . Mammy ran the local hotel where everyone gathered in Kota Bahru, and was a local joke too. As a seventeen year old I didn’t think she was such a joke. She and her husband had escaped the revolution in Russia, and made it safely to Shanghai like so many other White Russians.

They had survived the rigours of Japanese occupation and then fled Mao’s Communist takeover, ending up in Singapore. There, one afternoon, Mammy’s husband had walked down the road to buy an evening newspaper, and had never returned. No-one knew whether he had run away or was the victim of some crime. And Mammy was now surviving in this rather heartless superficial society in the remotest part of Malaya but creating laughter and fun all around her – actually rather more than a survivor.

Another neighbour was our Dutch friend Andrea, who had an antique shop full of the most exquisite items of a particular sensitivity, many of which I still posses. She was as nutty about animals as I, and far more lawless, striding into a bikie house to steal/rescue weeping puppies with no tails. I revelled in her poetic garden and laughed to see her huge magenta magnolia blossoms each wrapped in a plastic bag to protest them from the wind… not a good look actually!

Her house was beautiful in that glorious Dutch interior way of Pieter de Hooch and Vermeer, her pottery made you want to hold it and stroke it – and I have some – and her paintings were romantic and exquisite, and I have some of them too. I could actually write a book about her…

These memories were prompted by a conversation with a neighbour on my walk this morning. Since some of them read my blog, I cannot reveal what we talked of, or his glorious quirks of personality, but he reminded me of the joy of being with people who allow their personalities to flower, with no thought of what anyone else may think. Eccentricity is simply individuality, unself-consciousness, and the courage to be and do what feels right. When we are in the company of such people it feels as though ‘the waters of life’ are flowing, there are no limitations, and all things are possible.

Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher wrote that: ‘Everyone has in him something precious that is in no one else. But this precious something in a man is revealed to him only if he truly perceives his strongest feeling, his central wish, that in him which stirs his inmost being.’

P.S. The picture is of an antique English drinking jar given me by my friend Andrea.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

A faithful follower e-mailed me yesterday and asked if I had a recipe for Simnel cake. This is the light fruit cake that’s traditional at Easter, so I told her I’d blog it today. I use Nigella Lawson’s recipe with my own adaptations.

When I make it, I prepare the tin as usual, and then cream 175 g of soft unsalted butter with 175 g of caster sugar. Then mix 225 g of SR flour with half a teasp of cinnamon, a quarter of a teasp of ginger and 25 g of ground almonds. Add one egg with some of the flour mixture to the butter mixture, and mix two more eggs into the rest of the mix in the same way, before adding two tblsp of milk. Finally, fold in 500g of mixed dried fruit, plus some chopped glace cherries if you like them.

At this stage I put half the cake mix in the tin, roll out about 400g of marzipan, cut into a cake sized circle and place on the cake mix, then cover with the rest of the cake. Bake for an hour at 170 C, then turn it down to 150C and cook for another hour and a half. It’s cooked when it’s risen and firm. Let it cool completely on a rack before taking it from the tin.

When cool, paint the top with apricot jam, and roll out another 400g of marzipan and stick it on. With 200g of marzipan, make balls representing the eleven apostles – Judas surplus to requirements here – and stick them on using an egg white – beaten to just frothy. Some people quickly put it under the grill to make it look slightly toasted.

 

 

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The nuts and bolts of writing

100_0100The man who tried to teach me to write was a very patrician academic, who wrote book reviews for The Times and was also an army officer. He was my charismatic headmaster at boarding school in Malaya, tall, elegant, witty and charming. School was in the cool of the Cameron Highlands, surrounded by jungle which hid both the aborigine Sakai people, and also the communist bandits.

 We travelled to school in what were known as coffins, and they felt like it. They were metal boxes on wheels with tiny slits to let in the stifling tropical air. This convoy of coffins was escorted by armoured cars between each one. It usually took me two days to get to school, flying out by a light Auster plane from Kota Bahru to Bangkok, via a change at a lonely air-strip at Alor Star. In Bangkok I changed planes for Kuala Lumpur. Here I spent the night and joined everyone else for the train journey up to the rendezvous with the coffins. We then had another six hours of tough travel before reaching the Highlands in the evening.

 We never knew the date of the beginning or end of term until the day before, so the bandits couldn’t ambush us. We children didn’t worry terribly. We might have felt differently had we realised that our school food was so awful because the cooks were giving our rations to the bandits surrounding us in the jungle. I learned this from the headmaster some years after I’d left school, by which time they’d uncovered the problem. Every night the school was patrolled by armed guards, but somehow I never really believed the bandits could be so close. In hindsight, the fact that they were depending on our food was our best protection! I lost half a stone every term.

 Robin, my headmaster, decided that the new A level exams which had been introduced a couple of years before, were a challenge that he and I could rise to, and that he would coach me to pass them in one year instead of two. This was a stretch, but I had a one- on-one lesson with him most days.

 I would sit side by side with him at a table in the school library while he neurotically smoked his way through a round tin of fifty cigarettes, lighting each one, taking a few puffs and then stubbing out three quarters of the cigarette before lighting up the next. He, like so many army officers I knew then, was still suffering from the effects of the war, only in those days there was no counselling or understanding of their trauma.

 I quickly discovered that I was a sloppy thinker, with very little idea of how to write. This uncomfortable realisation hit me after my first essay, when I referred to ‘the naked truth’. Robin ( I learned to call him this later) made me look up the meaning of the word ‘naked’ in the dictionary, and it was a lesson I never needed to learn again – to make sure I actually knew the meaning of a word before I used it, and forget about clichés !

 He taught me to write short simple sentences, to use short Anglo –Saxon words, and not pompous, pretentious Latin words. He’d say chuck instead of throw, and taught me to write direct simple prose… though you may not believe this now. He also tried to teach me to think for myself, and once when I had written an obsequious essay on Anthony and Cleopatra, he teasingly wrote at the bottom: “Beware too slavish an adulation of the Bard!”

 The best training he gave me was to do a précis nearly every day, of a piece of weighty Elizabethan or Restoration prose, reducing each piece to a third of its length. It was a rigorous exercise, which trained me to express meaning in the most efficient and simplest way. It taught me to understand the meaning of words so I could translate them into a simpler briefer version, and sharpened up my whole writing style. Years later, when I was worried about my children’s exam results, and they in their turn were worried about theirs, I found the passages still marked in my battered Oxford Book of English Prose, and gave them all the same exercises, and they worked the same magic for them too.

 And that was it – the nuts and bolts. When I hear or read of people’s experiences with gifted teachers today, I marvel at the creative opportunities they have; but on the other hand, these simple rules he gave me have been a useful scaffolding on which to build a writing life. Yes, I missed out on the metaphors and similes, and creative flights of fancy. I just had simple guide-lines for communicating clearly, with no tiresome tics of speech or writing, no frills or clichés, no worn-out phrases, un-necessary words, purple passages or exhibitionist long words.

 And though we revelled in Shakespeare’s exuberant inventions and plays on words, Robin reminded me that the vocabulary of the exquisite King James Bible is only about eight thousand words.  I learned to write truthfully, and to avoid sentimentality – I think! And this for me, is still the challenge of writing, over half a century later; truth means finding the exact word, no compromises, which means knowing how I truly feel.

 A month before the exams, my best friend and I went for a walk and ended up having afternoon tea of tomato sandwiches – nothing else was ever on offer – at the Cameron Highlands Hotel, a privilege for prefects if, and when, their pocket money would stretch.

 At the hotel my friend saw a young officer she’d met during the holidays, and he and his fellow officer joined us. We had great fun, and then they took us up to inspect their gun emplacements from where they had just started blasting into the jungle. Whether they actually hit any bandit camps I never knew, but the noise was hateful: the sound of crashing broken trees and the thunder of guns echoing around the mountains and blue sky, followed by a moment of horrified silence – the shock of a peaceful world rended by this vandalism – and then the screams and cries of terrified birds.  Then a pause, and then the whole dreadful sequence began over and over again.

 The chaps took us back to school in their land-rover, so we were back in time. As we reported in, and the land-rover drove off, the young duty mistress gave us stick for hobnobbing with the young men… but we thought she was just jealous. It turned out  she was – she had assumed they were her property. She reported us to Robin, and said we had lied about where we were going. We were both stripped of our prefect’s badges and gated for six months by a very angry righteous headmaster who refused to believe that we had not lied.

 The next day, feeling sore and angry, I had my usual lesson with him and was shocked to realise that in our study of Francis Bacon that day, we were about to discuss his essay: ‘ What is truth, saith jesting Pilate?’  As I took in the implications of this horrid coincidence, and waited for the head to arrive in the library, I wanted the floor to swallow me up, cliché or no cliche. His courtesy got us through this embarrassing session…though I was in a state of agonising hyper-sensitivity for the whole hour.

 A few weeks later the exams arrived, and as I sat alone in the classroom with an invigilator, battling through three and a half hours of rigorous examining, the chaps began their artillery barrage into the jungle again (we hadn’t seen or heard of them since). As they fired over our heads, it was like sitting in the trenches of World War One, or enduring the barrage before the Battle of the Somme,

 As I tried to maintain my concentration and keep scribbling, Robin came in silently, took my exam paper, and wrote the time on it, with a note and his signature saying the barrage had begun. When it ended two hours later, he came back in and did the same again. I always hoped that it had influenced the examiners to have pity on me and excuse me any blunders I had made during what felt like the fog of war!

 After I’d left school, and he and I were back in England, I used to visit him and his wife who I loved. He would write me zany poems about kipper trees, and do witty parodies of Shakespeare over the lunch-table. He invited me to meet minor Royalty on a ceremonial occasion and came to my commissioning ceremony. And when I became engaged and brought my first husband to meet him, I felt a faint disappointment from him that I wasn’t going to be putting his lessons to better use.

 

 Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Such beautiful cauliflowers at the moment, so after running the gamut of my cauliflower recipes, I decided to make soup. This recipe is called Crème du Barry after Louis XV’s mistress, and it’s delicious. You need a cauliflower that weighs about a pound or half a kilo. In some butter I sauted the white part of a chopped leek, half a chopped celery stick and a good sized knob of finely chopped ginger. When this is soft, but not coloured, add small florets of cauliflower. Add a litre of stock, salt, cover and boil until the cauliflower is soft, ten to fifteen minutes.

Puree and return to the pan. Stir about three quarters of a cup of cream or crème fraiche, and season with nutmeg, and a little lemon juice if you wish.

 Food for Thought

Minds are like parachutes. They only function when they are open.

Sir James Dewar, eminent Scottish physicist. 1842 -1923

 

 

 

 

 

 

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