Tag Archives: Malaya

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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Hollywood, Ruined Reputations and Truth

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In the New Zealand Parliament this week the leader of one of the parties put up a motion congratulating the New Zealand  Ambassador and his second secretary for “their courageous and commendable” role in offering refuge and “significant help”  in 1979, at their Tehran embassy during the US hostage crisis in Iran.

He termed the film ‘Argo’ a “grave misrepresentation” of the part the NZ diplomats had played, which had placed both themselves, and their country’s policies and trade at risk.

The motion was passed unanimously. Ben Affleck has admitted in a press conference that he had been unjust both to the British and to the New Zealanders, who’d both risked themselves and their countries by helping the US hostages. But he said it was a better story if he falsified the facts.

I can’t imagine how it must feel to be held up as a coward to the whole world, when you’ve actually acted generously and courageously. But such thoughtless arrogance  is nothing new. Hollywood has been falsifying history and making heroic war films about Americans using the exploits of British servicemen for years.

And this is why I prefer facts to fiction. The story I tell now is true, and is such a perfectly rounded story with a neat plot and unexpected ending that if it was fiction it would be said to be too neat, and therefore improbable.

It’s about my father who belonged to a distinguished cavalry regiment, and had fought in tanks throughout the war. After the war, playing a leading role in a huge military exercise, the last of its kind ever held in England, he was concerned about the lack of proper treatment of the real accidentally wounded, as opposed to the dummy wounded, and he became a whistleblower.

We all know that whistleblowers are not popular, and like many another whistleblower, he had ruined his career. So he left his regiment in which he now had no future, and volunteered to go to Malaya as an infantryman, to serve where communist Chinese guerrillas were terrorising the local populations and killing British rubber planters and the like. The conflict in Malaya was called an Emergency at the request of the planters, as otherwise the insurance companies wouldn’t cover them for losses, if it was a war!

The Chinese guerillas called themselves a Liberation Army, and received their orders from Moscow. Their leader was a Chinese called Chin Peng, who had trained in guerrilla warfare against the invading Japanese during the war. These guerrilla “freedom” fighters were ruthless and brutal in their methods of intimidation.

Vulnerable and frightened Malays and Chinese labourers living on the edges of the jungle were re-settled in safe New Villages, where they had better conditions and pay than ever before – and after British pressure, were allowed to buy land and have the vote – so they didn’t need to support the ‘bandits’ as everyone else called them. Measures were put in place to stop the bandits getting food from the terrified local populations, and since the bandits also extorted food from the Sakai’s  – the aborigines – in the jungle, the Sakai’s hated them too.

This meant that in the end the bandits could be starved out of their hideouts. A lot of thought went into winkling them out of the dense jungle, while not antagonising the local populations. Troops, who consisted of some British and Ghurka regiments, and some Malay regiments, tracked them down in the jungle. My father was in a Malay regiment, and small detachments were dropped into the jungle at the end of a rope by helicopter, to spend six weeks tracking, hoping to find bandit camps, disband them and send the demoralised and hungry bandits to rehabilitation camps. Inevitably there was shooting. But while the British authorities offered surrender, no Britons who were captured by the bandits ever survived. The military operation was called ‘Winning Hearts and Minds”….

We lived in a tiny military camp in the middle of the jungle in Pahang, central Malaya. I came home for school holidays with a large armoured car escort, in case of ambush. On this day, we had gone to the nearest village where the only grocery shop for hundreds of square miles was to be found. The shop was owned by a magnificent old Chinese trader, known as Mr Tek Seng, and when shopping there we all had to go into his back room and drink tea while our groceries were packed up.

As we left Tek Seng’s, my father, who we thought was still in the jungle, raced up to the entrance in an army jeep, and called out to my stepmother to get some oranges and hurry, hurry. When she returned with a box a few minutes later, he was half carrying an emaciated Chinese man in ragged clothes, and putting him into the back seat of our car. He sat the man down, and sat on the seat beside him, peeling an orange. He then gave the man segments to eat. When he’d finished one orange, my father indicated to the man to go on eating them, and help himself from the box. We then drove home with him.

Back at camp, the man was taken to the guardroom, and I heard later that as soon as he began eating the oranges, he began to recover. He was at death’s door with starvation and  scurvy when my father had found him in the jungle. (Early Renaissance explorers lost two thirds of their crews from scurvy, as did all the navies until the 18th century) But as soon as a person gets some vitamin C into them, they start to recover. And that was that with the bandit, I thought.

We returned to England after Merdeka – self government – was declared in Malaya in 1956, and got on with our lives. Chin Peng, meanwhile, the Communist leader, eventually retired to live in Beijing since there was nothing to fight for since Malaya achieved peaceful independence without him!

A few years later, my father retired too, and took a job in Whitehall, central London. Some seven years after the bandit had been captured and rescued from the jungle, a soldier from the Royal Signals Corps came to my father’s office, and asked to see him. It was the bandit.

He had emerged from rehabilitation camp a changed man, and had joined the British Army. He was now stationed with his unit in Gibraltar, and he came to London to seek out my father and to give him a watch. To thank him.

I love this story for its humanity and decency.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

The threadbare gourmets in this house feasted rather well today. Friends had brought us some fresh fillets of fish which they had caught this morning. We ate them with buttered new potatoes bought from a stall on the road home, and local tomatoes also bought from a road-side stall. And afterwards we had fragrant ripe figs, from another friend’s garden. They were beautiful to look at, stained with dark purple and green on the outside, and inside, pale pink and translucent green.

I cooked the fish quickly in butter and with chopped dill. I also cooked the soft little tomatoes with them so the juices would flavour the cream. When both were not quite cooked, I tipped a tblsp of brandy in the pan and let it bubble up, then added salt and pepper and thick cream and let it bubble and thicken a bit more. We ate it immediately with the new potatoes and parsley, and some green beans.

 

Food for Thought

If you lose touch with nature you lose touch with humanity. If there’s no relationship with nature then you become a killer; then you kill baby seals, whales, dolphins, and man either for gain, for sport, for food, or for knowledge. Then nature is frightened of you, withdrawing its beauty. You may take long walks in the woods or camp in lovely places but you are a killer and so lose their friendship. You probably are not related to anything but to your wife or your husband…

Jiddhu Krishnamurti  1895 – 1986 Teacher, philosopher

 

 

 

 

 

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Travels in Foodie Heaven

Food was not a topic of much joy in my war-time childhood. Green ration books for us children, cream ones for adults. If you went shopping without them, it was a waste of time, and you had to get a bus back home to pick them up and start all over again, standing at the back of the queue at every shop.

The biggest foodie thrill I can remember back then was the one orange a year, stuffed in the bottom of my Christmas stocking. Things looked up slightly on my tenth birthday, the first I had ever spent with my father. (I was ten months old when he went to war in 1939, returning for two weeks leave in 1945, before finally coming home in 1947. But we only saw him for a month before he was posted to Belsen).We qualified for an army quarter by the time my birthday arrived, and joined him. To my parents’ horror it was the former home of the Beast of Belsen, the sadistic commandant of the concentration camp.

Knowing nothing of this, I concentrated on my birthday. My new parents took me for a treat to the Officers Club. The palace of the Princes of Hanover now served as the Officers Mess, where we children were allowed for the children’s Christmas party; it was held in the marbled, mirrored, chandeliered ballroom, with satin and gilt chairs to fall over during musical chairs. And the Prince’s hunting lodge deep in pine forests running with deer and wild boar, was now the Club.

The speciality of the German couple who ran it was their sugary doughnuts with butter cream and jam inside (Had the Hanoverian princelings also enjoyed these goodies before us?) I had never tasted anything like them -the nearest thing to heaven in my gastronomically deprived childhood. This may have been the moment when I became a foodie.

The next high point in my foodie career was staying in Vienne in central France a few years later. We were still on rationing in England at the time, and the rich French provincial food was a shock to my spartan system. But here I discovered real French bread. It was brought up from the village to the chateau by one of the maids every day, fresh and warm for breakfast. And in the afternoon a fresh supply was delivered to the kitchen by a boy on a bike. We children would gather illegally in the kitchen and annoy the maids by tearing into the warm bread and eating it with delectable runny confiture dripping onto the floor.

Malaya was another foodie milestone. We lived in a hotel on the edge of the sea in Penang for over a year, and ate in a dining room reminiscent of the forecourt of St Pauls Cathedral. Great pillars stretched the length of the ballroom. We walked this length between palms and pillars three times a day for every meal, and subsided at the end of it in the dining area, still pillared and palmed. We ate the same meals every week, in the same order and my favourite day was Friday when we had nasi goring, the only nod in the direction of the local cuisine.

I’ve tried to get Malayan friends to replicate it, I’ve tried myself, but nothing has ever had the same texture, tastes, variety and delicacy. I can copy most of the culinary joys of the past, but that one has proved impossible – it’s just a fragrant regretted memory.

In Majorca, when few people had even heard of it, at a little fishing village called Cala Ratjada, we stayed in the first hotel to be built there,( there are now over fifty) which they were just finishing, and the water for the shower came speeding through the bidet, and the hand basin only had water in short bursts. But down by the sea was a fish restaurant, and there I tasted two foodie classics, a genuine paella, and a lobster salad which is still fresh in my memory. I was beginning to sensitise my taste buds.

France a year later, this time a hamlet somewhere between San Tropez and Le Lavandou, where every meal eaten under the vine covered terrace was like ambrosia – never a dud. My lasting memories of this bliss were the fresh croissants for breakfast with unsalted butter and delicious homemade apricot jam, and aoli.  Eating aoli was like discovering the secret of culinary life- the simplicity of it, the exquisiteness of it, the white china, the perfect egg, the salad and the aoli. I decided there and then that I’d learn to make it when I had my own kitchen. (Living in an officers mess didn’t give me much scope for cooking experiments at the time.)

Later, driving back from Bonn with a girlfriend, we stopped at Aix (shades of “How they brought the good news from Aix to Ghent!”) for a coffee. We ordered rum babas and though it was fifty years ago, I can still remember the shocked delight at the taste of the rum and the cream and the yeasty cake. They were a benchmark for all rum babas eaten since, and none of them have measured up to the rum babas of Aix. We sat by a river in the sun, with dappled leaves reflected in the water, tall, grey eighteenth century buildings lining the other side of the road.

The next foodie revelation was staying with an old school friend in Winchester, who had become a talented cook in one year of marriage. We started the meal with shrimps in mayonnaise in half a pear, a very 50’s thingie and followed this with roast duck and orange. By the time we got to the crème brulee poor Brenda had fled the room to cope with not morning sickness, but evening sickness.

Her husband and I somewhat unconcernedly tackled the heavenly crème brulee she had left behind. I’d never tasted it before, cream not having been freely available in my past, so this was another taste bud sensation. To this day I can’t go past crème brulee however much I may have eaten beforehand.

Hong Kong? Oh yes, lots of lovely Chinese dishes, but what I remember from those days was the bombe Alaska at a place called Jimmy’s Kitchen. A girl friend and I would skip out from the office at lunchtime and order a bombe Alaska each. Fortified by this self-indulgent mix of sponge and fruit and ice-cream, brandy and meringue, we would totter reluctantly back to our desks to resume writing our boring little stories about fashion parades and new cosmetics for the woman’s pages.

So now, after a lifetime of enjoying food, here in New Zealand, land of milk and manukau honey, what gluttonous delights light my fire? Well, there are two things I cannot live without these days. One is a nice cup of tea. And the other is a nice cup of coffee!

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

When the crusty Duke of Wellington came back from his campaigns in foreign parts, legend has it that all he wanted was a slice of hot buttered toast. What he was talking about was comfort food, and it’s different for each of us. Mine is cornflakes if I’m on my uppers, or creamy mashed potatoes, or scrambled egg. My husband believes that scrambled egg is the apex of my culinary skills, but others have been known to recoil in horror clutching their hearts, when they discover how many eggs and how much butter and cream have gone into them!

For your run of the mill ordinary breakfast scrambled egg, I use a generous sized walnut of butter, and about two tablespoons of milk. I melt them, and then break the eggs in and stir to mix. The trick is to have the buttered toast ready, and then stir the scrambled egg in the pan very gently so it forms large curds. Cook it very slowly, if it’s cooked too fast, it becomes stringy, tough and watery. As soon as the curds are almost cooked, I tip it onto the waiting toast, as it still goes on setting while it’s hot. For softer, creamier scrambled eggs, add more butter and use cream – delectable.

Food for Thought

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

From a speech in Washington in 1953, by President Dwight. D. Eisenhower 1890 -1969

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