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Tropical learning curves

15

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

We sometimes played hockey on the padang at Tanah Rata, the nearby township where I quickly learned to play on the wing after my first attempt at playing centre. As we bullied with our hockey sticks in the slight dip where water had collected, my legs became covered with small red leeches. Trying to prise these horrifying bloodsuckers off was a practical demonstration of the phrase ‘he stuck to him like a leech.’

I also played fast and furious tennis with three teachers (one who had been a Junior Wimbledon champion) who needed a fourth on Saturday afternoons, and as head girl started the school magazine; I made a wonderfully arrogant and stupid Lady Catherine de Burgh in the school play of Pride and Prejudice, arranged the flowers for church every week, and ignored various nice boys (in retrospect) who tried to get my interest.

My best friend and I also enjoyed infuriating two young but frumpy teachers who we knew thought we were bumptious and too big for our boots. Apart from this friendship with my best friend which has lasted our life-times, the greatest gift I took away from this school was the ability to write clearly.

The 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 our charismatic headmaster – tall, elegant, witty and charming. He didn’t normally teach but he decided to coach me himself for the newly introduced A levels.

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 never pompous, pretentious Latin words. He’d say chuck instead of throw and tried to teach me not just to write good direct prose, but to think for myself too, 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 write 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. And that was it – the nuts and bolts of writing.

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.

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 with no compromises, which means knowing how I truly feel.

Every holidays, I seemed to go back to a different house or hotel. One Easter, my parents met me at the station, and I was whisked back to the rest house at Port Dickson, situated right on the beach. We spent a week here, with the usual routine of lazy morning, tea and bananas served after siesta, shower and change for dinner, dinner, post -prandial stroll along the empty moonlit sands, before moving to Malacca and a government bungalow on a cliff edge outside the town.

It was a big, two-story house with magnificent views. At night, looking out over the sea, and up into the clear night sky, my father pointed out to me the North Star and the Southern Cross in the same starry sky as we stood almost on the equator.

Malacca by daylight had the charm which was missing from every other Malayan town. The Malayan kampongs in jungle clearings were attractive, traditional communities constructed from indigenous materials, wood and coconut leaves, and composed of small groups of dwelling places on stilts. By contrast, the towns were simply concrete shells with shops in the bottom usually owned by Chinese merchants, and crude dwellings over the shop.

Garish signs and raucous music from the radio were also elements of these depressing environments. To enter these un-attractive townships, or rather, small tropical slums, one ran the gauntlet of terrible smells from rubber factories, and then from durian, a fruit whose smell is legendary. Brave people said it tasted delicious, but few were brave enough to battle past the smell.

Malacca had an architectural European past, both Portuguese and Dutch. The Portuguese buildings, dating from 1511, included the old fortress, parts of which were still standing when we explored in 1954, over four hundred years later. Eventually Protestant Dutch traders arrived in 1641.

The Dutch built much of the old town that remained when I saw it, a little corner of the Netherlands transplanted to the tropics. Fifteen years later, when I stayed in Macau, occupied by the Portuguese in 1557, it too had the same charming atmosphere of an alien architecture dreaming far from home.

But whereas Macau was Portuguese and Mediterranean, and the architecture had a certain suitability for the climate, the little Dutch red-tiled buildings were derived from a northern style designed to keep the warmth in. It was strangely incongruous in the humid sunshine of the old sea-port, by then silted up, trade gone and only Malayan fishing boats crowding the moorings.

The British got here in 1795, and in spite of the modern tendency to sneer at all colonial activities, the policy of the British then was to preserve the sultanates, the Muslim faith and the Malay way of life, and those aspects of Malayan life still dominate the modern country of Malaysia today.  We visited the Malacca museum and listened to a music box playing Mozart which Dutch exiles would have heard nearly two hundred years before, admired the Dutch-built church, now Anglican, the old Dutch government offices, and explored intriguing little shops for jewellery and non-existent treasures.

In the afternoons while every-one else slept, I read dog-eared orange and cream -covered Penguin books left behind by previous visitors, including the unforgettable Ambrose Bierce and, in cheap editions, Helen Waddell and Mary Webb, Robert Graves and Stefan Zweig. Or I’d play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on 78’s, piling them up on the long central column, so that they plonked down one after the other.

Or I’d walk along the golden, empty sands below and swim, till one day I foolishly swam half a mile out to a fish trap, not realising that it was sited there precisely to catch the current. I slowly became aware that no matter how much I swam, I was getting no nearer the fish trap, but a very long way out to sea.

Trying not to panic, I remembered that to get out of a current you have to swim with it, and across it. It took me over an hour to get back to shore, miles away from the rest-house, pursued, I was quite sure, by sharks. Jack London’s horrible book ‘ The Sea-Wolf’ had already made an indelible impression on me. That afternoon, it haunted me, with every splash of my tired feet probably being the snap of a shark’s jaws. Once back at the rest-house, I kept this escapade to myself.

The next holiday was spent in an army quarter in Mentekab, a garrison built in the middle of a clearing in the jungle, it seemed. Now, I felt I had finally emerged as an adult. I was sixteen, and one of the subalterns in the regiment asked my father if he could take me out. I didn’t know him at all, apart from a dance the previous week, but I jumped at this opportunity for my first grownup date.

The day arrived, and so did he. My stepmother had provided us with a picnic basket. He drove to Temerloh, where we embarked in a long Malayan rowing boat, and he rowed us down the wide, muddy brown river edged with endless palm trees down to the water’s edge. Mile after mile was the same.

Two complete strangers faced each other in the boat, with nothing to even remark on as the miles slipped past. I sat, apparently entranced, as he described in a self- conscious monotone, stories about Japanese opera which he had seen while on leave in Tokyo. Now I’ve seen some myself, I’m even more amazed that he should have bothered to watch. The women’s magazines I had read said that men liked girls who listened to them, and who hung on their words.

They also said men liked a touch of white at the neck, and the daisy- fresh look of white gloves. No hope of that in this dripping heat, alas. I sweltered in a tight, waist- cinching, fashionable, elastic waspie, and a frou of frilly white petticoat I’d made myself – all the rage in northern climates, but as unsuitable for the tropics as the Victorian crinolines and Edwardian bustles of previous memsahibs and missies in this sticky climate.

The young man suddenly spied a small patch of what passed for grass in this part of the world and rowed across to it. By the time we had tied up, spread the prickly wool tartan rug, undone the flask and poured the hot tea which brought out fresh beads of sweat on brow and upper lip, the inhabitants of the nearest kampong had materialised and stood around us in a circle, giggling and chattering in Malay.

They must have thought we were deaf, or that they couldn’t be heard in a foreign language, for they called out to friends who hadn’t yet arrived, and generally carried on as though we were the afternoon’s entertainment. As we were. They were obviously deeply interested in European courting rituals, observing every bite of our picnic, and commenting loudly to each other on our every movement.

Finally, I opened the raffia box in which my stepmother had tastefully packed an iced chocolate cake and started back horrified as a horde of ants tumbled out with it.

At this, we abandoned the whole expedition and followed by waves of what felt like derisive laughter from the indigenous peoples, made our way painfully back up the river. At the other end, my father was waiting mischievously with his speciality, dinner of spaghetti Bolognaise made with the longest spaghetti he could find – extremely difficult to eat with dignity, his subtle plan to embarrass the poor young man and sabotage an occasion which was already an anti-climax to put it kindly.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

I love Caesar salad, but don’t like bought Caesar dressings. This dressing is worth the little extra effort for a delicious salad.

Place the following ingredients in a stick blender: one egg yolk, one tbsp Dijon mustard, two to three cloves crushed garlic, one small chopped shallot, four or five chopped anchovies fillets, and the juice of one lime. I use a lemon if I haven’t got a lime. Gradually add 75ml oil –  extra virgin olive oil and canola oil mixed, and continue to blend. When thick stir in a few handfuls of finely grated  Parmesan.

If you have time, make the dressing ahead and let it sit for a while so the flavours meld together.

 Food for thought

 “When a relationship stops working, it usually means that someone has grown.
Someone is now ready to receive more and have more than the relationship offers.
Someone is ready to be loved, honoured, and treated the way they really want to be treated. Could that someone be you?”

~ Iyanla Vanzant

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under army, colonial life, cookery/recipes, family, history, life/style, literature, Thoughts on writing and life, travel, Uncategorized, writing

Guns and exams, ancient peoples and bandits

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A life – an0ther instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

The first eclipse I ever watched was at school in the Cameron Highlands in Malaya. School was on a plateau surrounded by tea plantations and hill farms, and we had a clear view. They were dangerous times, the hundred and twenty children who attended the school were transported from all over the Malayan Peninsula in the greatest secrecy so that ‘the bandits’ wouldn’t ambush us. ( ‘Bandits’ were Communist Chinese guerrilla/freedom fighters who wanted to take over the country). We never knew the date of the beginning of term or the beginning of the holidays until the last minute.

When I lived in a remote jungle station in the middle of Pahang, I travelled in a convoy especially convened for me. The army sat me in an open jeep (stupid in hindsight) with my officer escort, in the middle of a long convoy of armoured cars escorting me to Kuala Lumpur. Here I stayed the night, before joining everyone else on the school train to Ipoh. We were then taken to Tapah, the staging post at the foot of the Cameron Highlands, where we gathered from all over the country.

After lunch at Tapah we were all packed into what were known as ‘coffins’ for the forty- mile drive. The coffins were armoured boxes on wheels with a few narrow slits about a foot wide, which could be opened when it was supposed to be safe. There were low, narrow wooden benches to sit on, and a dozen of us would crouch on them, sweltering in the tropical heat, locked up in these metal cages with nothing to eat or drink. Between each coffin in the convoy was an armoured car, and overhead a plane patrolled back and forth, until one term it crashed, so the authorities decided that one danger outweighed the other and didn’t replace it.

Halfway up the 600 or so hairpin bends of the mountain road, the convoy stopped for us to crouch behind clumps of pampas grass on the side of the road to have a pee. Since we were ringed with soldiers with their rifles cocked, ready to spring into action when the bandits fell on us, I could never muster much enthusiasm for this so -called break. I was never sure that I would actually be in private for the occasion. We’d finally reach our destination after dark, having travelled for two days. When my family moved to Kota Bahru up on the East Coast, the journey took even longer, beginning with the flight to Kuaka Lumpur in an Auster light plane via Bangkok, where I caught a connecting flight.

The bandits had a more sinister effect on our lives than anyone realised. It was only after I left, that the authorities discovered that our cook, Mr Su, Mrs Su, his wife. Ah Yu his son, and his two minions Wong and How, were feeding the bandits our food. Every term we were weighed at the beginning and end, and I would always have lost half a stone. I nearly died of hunger, I felt so ravenous all the time. But the food we were given was inedible. I realise now that everything was mixed with water or oil, to stretch it, so that the bulk of the rations could be sent to the bandits who invisibly surrounded us m the deep jungle.

Some children managed on this diet, but those of us who were accustomed to good food couldn’t stomach what was served. Mr Su and his team were several times given an in-depth cooking course, and while the team of instructors were there, we feasted like kings. But as soon as they left, we were back to watered down baked beans, butter that tasted like lard, grey- black potatoes, thin watery jam and stale bread. I used to hang around the staff room after break and afternoon tea, in the hope that the teachers had left some of their dainty sandwiches. A quick dive in before Wong or How came to clear the table, and the raging hunger might be momentarily cheated. But not for long.

Every night a platoon of soldiers arrived to guard us, and the thud of their boots as they patrolled past our dormitories in the moonlight punctuated our sleep. In retrospect, our food guaranteed our safety much more effectively than their guns.

One of the few privileges of being a senior girl was that one could get permission to go for a run before breakfast. Our route went around the golf course overlooked by the Cameron Highlands Hotel. My best friend and I did this, not because we had the slightest interest in athletics, but because on our return we could ask for an extra piece of toast to keep us going till breakfast.

Early one morning while dawn was still breaking we were stopped in our tracks in the cold mist. From out of a thicket a single file of  very small people emerged from the trees, like no others we had ever seen. We were riveted to the ground with fear. We didn’t know whether if they saw us there, they would raise their blow-pipes and dispatch us with their poisoned darts. There were half a dozen lean, long-legged, warriors leading the tribe carrying their long blow-pipes, the women and stick-like old people following, bearing large loads, while the children kept up in the middle of the group.

They moved swiftly and silently, practically naked. Unlike the known indigenous Sakai tribes, this tiny handful of people were a much older race, the Senoi, a tribe of Orang Asli, and were long-limbed, delicately made, almost pygmy people. We had heard of them by repute, but they were rarely seen back then. Looking neither to right or left, they disappeared as quickly as they had appeared, and we were released from our spell of fear and amazement. And I think we forgot about them after we’d eaten our hot toast back at school.

Thanks to a wonderful music master, music was one of the passions that lightened our days, and we sang to Gilbert and Sullivan, listened with delight to Dvorak and Greig, marvelled over Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, swooned to Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, danced to Scottish reels, waltzed to popular songs and sang in the school choir. When the music master acquired a copy of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, conducted by Toscanini, we senior girls were invited to listen to the sacred record. It was a Sunday afternoon and we sat shyly and solemnly in the staff-room and were overwhelmed by it.

And when the music master found the art master thundering out the last movement on the piano in the assembly hall, a great feud erupted between them which lasted the whole term, the art master seeing no reason for not extemporising on the piano, and the music master condemning him for bowdlerising and cheapening Beethoven’s masterpiece. It seemed to matter terribly. Those who liked the art master were on his side. Those who didn’t like him were for the music master.

This was in 1954. Music was hard to come by then, and so far more significant than it is today. And we made our own. Some nights during the holidays we sat outside our house by the river at Kota Bahru, when a group of chaps used to come, and all the generations sat and sang to someone’s flute – songs like ‘The foggy, foggy dew’, ‘On top of Old Smoky’. Lots of Burl Ives.

We didn’t sing well, we just enjoyed singing. Where we sat under the stars by the river, the Japanese had passed in their motor boats at dawn, twelve years before, on the morning they invaded Malaya at the same time that they bombed Pearl Harbour. The line of bullet holes from their machine guns was still there in the pink stucco walls, testimony to their random brutality.

Guns also punctuated my exams. Artillery had been positioned on a ridge across the valley from school, and when the guns aimed into the jungle, the thunder of their firing was followed by the terrible crashing of trees, cries of birds and endless echoes around the mountains. It was a continuous and thunderous bombardment which totally destroyed concentration or peace of mind. This went on for weeks.

The firing began again during my A level exams, which lasted for  three hours. When the overwhelming noise began, the head master came quietly into the exam room where I scribbled alone with an invigilator, the only one taking English A levels. He took my paper, noted the time when the firing began, and came back to log the time when the thunder of the barrage ceased several hours later. I always hoped these unusual entries would cause the examiners to deal leniently with me… and maybe they did as I was pleased with my marks.

Living in the remote places that we did, my parents didn’t often manage to get up to the Cameron Highlands Hotel, though they, like everyone else so soon after the war, were tickled by the address book, with its historic page dated ‘January 1942’ and inscribed with what felt like an arrogant flourish: “Nippon”.

There were no further entries until 1945, when British troops re-took the hotel, and triumphantly defaced the next page with the scrawl -” Nip-off”.

My father had now transferred to a Malayan regiment, which like the Gurkhas, was staffed by English officers and NCO’s. So we left Penang and all moved to a clearing in the jungle in Pahang, which was called Mentekab. It’s a thriving town now, but then, it was just lines of barracks, officers and sergeants messes and families quarters.

My father quickly achieved the highest “kill” of bandits, being extremely good at jungle warfare, in spite of having spent the war in tanks. One day, we were shopping at the local Chinese grocery store in Temerloh, Tek Seng’s, the only source of food in the middle of the Pahang jungle. My father was spending the normal six- week spell in the jungle, so we were surprised when he arrived at speed, and with company – a Chinese man in tattered clothes.

He practically lifted the man into the back of our car and told my mother to run back into the shop, as quickly as possible and get a box of oranges. When she returned, he peeled one, and fed segments to the wilting man in the back seat, put the rest of the oranges on the seat beside him, telling him with hand signals to eat them, and then drove off. I had to follow in the army vehicle.

The wilting man turned out to be a Chinese bandit, and the policy of starving bandits out of the jungle was working so well in this particular area, that this one was half dead and suffering from starvation and scurvy. Hence the oranges. With hospital treatment he eventually recovered and went to a rehabilitation camp. Here he recanted his Communist beliefs and then joined the army.  Seven years later, my father was in his office at Whitehall in London, when a Chinese soldier asked to see him. It was the bandit. He was now serving in the Royal Signals in Gibraltar and had got leave to come and present my father with a wrist watch as a thank you for saving his life. We wondered later how he had managed to track down my father.

Gallivanta sent me the link to this photo of the convoys up to school with the coffins and armoured cars

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 Invited for lunch with a group of neighbours, I volunteered to bring pudding. Carrying food is always a challenge, so I decided on a tart which couldn’t spill or spoil. So pear and almond tart it was. This is my quick fix on it short cuts and all. I used some quality bought short crust pastry for a base. Spread a layer of plum jam on this cooked base. Drain a tin of pears, and when about to use, pat them as dry as possible with kitchen paper, and slice horizontally, keeping the shape of each pear half.

Cream 6 ounces of butter and seven good tablespoons of sugar together, then stir in an egg. When smooth, add a teaspoon each of vanilla and almond essence, then an ounce of SR flour, and eight ounces of ground almonds. Mix well and spoon this mixture into the pastry case, and gently arrange the pear halves in the almond mixture – don’t press them down or they disappear during baking. Bake for 55 minutes in a moderate oven or until cooked. Good hot, cold, or warm with cream.

Food for thought

 “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.” Lao Tzu, reputed author of the Tao Te Ching

 

 

 

 

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Coronation, luxury, opera and Latin

Image result for runnymede hotel penang
The Runnymede Hotel from the sea

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

The Queen’s Coronation was big in Malaya and it was big for me too! On our drive down to Taiping to join my father and his regiment for the celebrations we passed through one kampong after another, with a richly coloured Coronation arch festooned with flowers and streamers and pictures of the Queen welcoming us into every village … everyone seemed to be involved.

When we had arrived from the train and ferry at the Runnymede Hotel several months before, it was discovered that the porter who picked up the trunk with my clothes in it amongst other things, had disappeared with it. This meant that my new summer dress and my new and unworn swimming costume had gone, and I now had little more than the clothes I stood up in- a well-used green striped skirt cut down from a summer dress of my stepmother’s two years before, and a green air-tex shirt.

My stepmother had coped with this disaster with insouciance, but I was in despair since I knew my clothes were unlikely to be replaced any time soon. I managed to make a new skirt with some fabric given to me, and as time went on, different people bequeathed dresses which they said they no longer wanted and which I learned how to alter to fit me.

But the loss of the swimming costume was a misery in the tropics where everyone swam most days. Now in Taiping for the week of the Coronation, I was staying with a couple whose daughter was in hospital with appendicitis, and after we had visited her once a day, these two lovely people took it upon themselves to spoil me. Not only did they buy me a swimming costume, but a pair of shoes – I had been managing with some humiliatingly ugly tartan cloth ones my stepmother had bought for me in the local Chinese market. The wife also gave me one of her dresses and let me try on all her evening dresses and her makeup. It all felt wonderful.

When I turned up for the Coronation Parade and re-joined my parents in my new finery, I saw my stepmother looking rather coldly at these kind people and I, but my cup was overflowing, and I didn’t worry.

After the festivities and two weeks holiday spent amid clouds and cool forests at the top of a mountain called Maxwell Hill we all went back to Penang, where I waited another three months before being accepted into the boarding school in the Cameron Highlands. Apart from my school terms I spent eighteen months living beside the water in this beautiful environment.

Each day began with the long walk between pillars which seemed as big as those on the portico of St Paul’s Cathedral, but in this case, they were holding up the huge ballroom, about a hundred feet long. At the end was the dining area, where the Chinese maitre d’hotel met each family and conducted them to their regular table with as much flourish as though they had been pre-war English milords, miladies, famous writers and intrepid tourists in the thirties. (He had probably been on the staff then himself, having somehow survived the Sook Ching massacres -the wholesale killings of the local Chinese – by the Japanese during the war) My step-mother was one of the ladies he met with particular deference and a favoured smile.

Our service was always quicker than less favoured mortals. It had nothing to do with my father’s mediocre rank or mediocre income. I supposed it had something to do with my step-mother’s unbending dignity and courtesy -she ‘nothing common did or mean’… it took me a while to see that others did do mean things, I was so used to her being, as my father’s sergeant -major put it -” a lady.” (Which didn’t mean to say I found it pleasant living with her. She might not manage anything common or mean, but she had ways of dealing with people like me who she didn’t like!).

After a hearty English breakfast beginning with cereal, ending with toast and marmalade, and bulked out with sausages, bacon and egg in the middle, coffee or tea, we all filtered back up the stairs to our rooms. The amahs had already tidied them and made the beds, so we prepared ourselves for the day – for the wives, a little shopping, ending at the Cold Storage Co. for feasts of iced coffee and sundaes in blissful icy air-conditioning to which I was sometimes invited. Or it might be a trip to the swimming pool, and hot curry puffs and ginger beer shandies in deck chairs round the pool… having no swimming costume I just sat around enviously.

Wives who were happy to leave their toddlers with an amah would sit on the hotel verandah by the sea, just by the huge flame tree where the children took turns on the swing, while their mothers played canasta or mah-jong. Or they just gossiped over coffee.

Husbands sometimes managed to get back for a weekend with their families every few weeks. One regiment stationed at Alor Star had its hands full with constant bandit activity, and at the last minute their leave would be cancelled for an emergency. A mock groan was the only outward sign of disappointment the wives allowed themselves when the message came, and when one young woman, newly- pregnant, couldn’t bite back her tears of disappointment before the others noticed, there was much comment at her lack of control.

There were some who didn’t follow the regular routines of the others… they were outsiders, who didn’t join the regimental groups or the more exclusive cliques. They may have been free spirits, and seemed to have busier, more satisfying lives than the daily routines of the others, but, sometimes too, I felt their loneliness.  The other women wordlessly disapproved, as though being an army wife was being part of a team that the outsiders were refusing to join.

After a generous lunch with several courses from soup or a starter through to pudding and cheese in the great dining room, the hotel would fall silent. Every-one retired to their room for a nap – including, I suspect, all the staff -because the place was deserted between two and four. Except for the amahs and house-boys, who were busy whitening  shoes and doing the dhobi, washing, ironing, and starching our full-skirted cotton dresses – Horrockses were the prettiest and most sought- after. Some wives had their dresses made up locally but you could tell at a glance when fashion trends took about two years to reach us.

During this silent two hours in the afternoon, the various teenagers in the hotel would coalesce, playing tennis, giggling, talking, and sharing, I remember, the whole series of books on Tarzan in the jungle. Unfortunately for me, I quickly became bored with them and Tarzan, and after a few weeks was back on my own, stemming boredom with what my stepmother dismissively called, my highbrow pleasures- whatever poetry and history I could find, all and any literature. This left me indifferent to Tarzan.

Some childless friends of my parents who lived in Penang permanently took a fancy to me, and began inviting me to their fascinating house filled with books and art. They introduced me to opera on their new-fangled long- playing records and took me to a film of Faust. I was hooked and took back with me to school a precious gift from them of a 78 record of Joan Hammond’s standard, “Oh, my beloved daddy”. I never got to play it. It warped in the heat during the way up from Tapah on the journey to school in the Cameron Highlands.

Between four and four-thirty, all over Malaya, in rest-houses and residencies, homes and hotels, the amah knocked on the door of every bedroom, and deposited a tray with a pot of tea, a plate of rich tea biscuits and a clump of the tiny, sweet, Malayan bananas. This we would consume at leisure, dressed in a cool cotton housecoat, and if we were lucky, enjoy for an hour the coolness of convection rain which fell at the same time every day, in sudden sheets. The coolness lasted only as long as the rain, and then the sun would return, and steam would rise and it would feel hotter and stickier than before.

Simultaneously with the tea-tray, the house-boy would deliver the clean laundry, our stiff, rustling, starched dresses, and white shoes cleaned with white Meltonian polish. After a shower, we dressed for dinner, and descended the stairs for the ritual of salted pea-nuts in cut glass saucers and drinks before dinner. Sometimes one of my father’s friends would ask if they could include me in a round of Pimms, which I thought the height of sophistication, but usually it was lemonade for me, or better still, a delicious fresh lime.

And then for the third time in a day, the long walk down the pillared ball-room for another stately meal at our own tables, before sitting on the veranda under the stars in the warm tropical night, sipping coffee with dreadful tinned and boiled milk from tiny, old fashioned coffee cups. The scent of frangipani hovered amidst the inevitable cigarette smoke, and sometimes a sampan with a single fisherman would drift silently past where the sea lapped against the garden wall, and as he scooped his net, or dragged his oars, a shower of gleaming phosphorescence would show us where he was on the dark water.

During the months I was waiting to be accepted into boarding school in the Cameron Highlands, my parents arranged tutoring for me in the mornings. To keep up with my Latin, I attended a Chinese convent where they had a Latin class every morning at seven o’clock, so I set out to walk through the deserted streets at six thirty. I nearly died  of embarrassment as no European was ever seen actually walking at that hour in the morning, and everyone stared at me.

It was a pointless exercise, because I couldn’t understand the accents of the Chinese nuns reading Latin. I was completely defeated, and never kept up with the place in Virgil that we were supposed to be translating.

I came up against this problem again, during my French oral exam for School Certificate the following year. We were laboriously ferried down from school to Tapah, with all the palaver of armoured transport, troop carriers, guns and all, and on to Ipoh to visit a Chinese convent where the nuns spoke French, and were accredited to examine us.

This was a ponderous joke, which we all mutually recognised but never acknowledged, because they knew that our school-girl French was not up to understanding their Chinese -French, and they couldn’t understand our clumsy Anglo- French. So they gave us the benefit of the doubt and we all passed our French oral.

To be continued

Food for threadbare gourmets

When we’d eaten all we could of the roast chicken at Easter, I boiled up the carcass. The resulting jelly was too good to put in a soup. I made a risotto with it instead. I pre-cooked an onion in the micro-wave, and then tipped ut into a frying pan, lubricated with chicken fat from the roast chicken. Three chopped mushrooms and a teaspoon of garlic (from a jar!) went in next, and adding more chicken fat, I poured in a cup of Arborio rice.

When it was translucent I added a glass of good white wine, and before it had all boiled away started adding the chicken stock which also had small chunks of chicken from the carcass in it. There was enough to cook the rice completely, and when I started to run out at the end I added some milk… then cream, then a good knob of butter. When the rice was soft, I stirred in a couple of table spoons of freshly grated parmesan, and covered the pan for five minutes.

When we tucked in, I nearly swooned with greedy delight… each grain of rice glistening with stock and butter and cream was sumptuous. It didn’t even need any more parmesan, it was so delicious. I will never cook risotto again unless I have real chicken stock… bouillon cubes just don’t cut it any more!

Food for thought

 Always say “yes” to the present moment. What could be more futile, more insane, than to create inner resistance to what already is? what could be more insane than to oppose life itself, which is now and always now? Surrender to what is. Say “yes” to life — and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you.                               Eckhart Tolle, spiritual teacher

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A composer, a journalist and an activist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for threadbare gourmets

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

Food for thought

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

 

 

 

 

 

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The gifts that keep on giving

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I’m always slightly envious when people reminisce lovingly about their mothers, since mine disappeared when I was six, not to be found again until I was in my fifties when it was too late to rebuild bridges.

But when I look back over my memories of the gifts that different people gave me, I realise that my rather erratic mother gave me a gift that is still valuable today. My earliest memories of her are the songs she sang as I went to sleep. I didn’t hear them again for years, but recognised them as soon as the notes rang out…among them, ‘Where the bee sucks, there suck I’, and ‘One fine day,’ from the opera Madame Butterfly, and even: ‘You are my sunshine,’ a pop song from the forties that moved me to tears when I heard it again in middle age.

That gift – a love of good music – has been my pleasure and companion ever since, so I was ripe for Beethoven and Bach, Handel and Purcell as soon as I heard them when growing up, while opera became a passion, which I learned when I met her again, had also been a passion with my mother.

As I mused about this gift she gave me, I remembered all the other gifts that so many other people gave me. When my grandmother came to look after us, she brought with her, her collection of precious Meissen and Staffordshire china, and I learned to love china, a love which anyone visiting my house would recognise.

She also collected books, and many of them were illustrated and designed with prints and patterns from William Morris and fine artists like Aubrey Beardsley and Arthur Rackham, so that from the age of six, my eye was educated by their exquisite artistry. This discrimination meant that when I was introduced to Walt Disney – staple children’s fare – I found the cartoons crude, and the lack of light and shade and detail bored me.

The other gift my grandmother gave me was the love of reading, and for lack of children’s books, I devoured classics like ‘John Halifax, Gentleman’, ‘Robinson Crusoe’ in an original edition, a huge heavy book with engravings protected by flimsy tissue paper, the dreadful ‘Foxe’s Martyrs’, ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’ ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ – all these in magnificent antique quarto versions, apart from many other history books and even the Bible.

A man gave me my next gift, a dry, elderly, retired history teacher who had taught in boy’s prep schools all his life, and who came to help out at my little private school during a war-time dearth of teachers. At seven, he introduced me to history, and I soaked up every period he ran through with us, from the Beaker people and the Stone Age, to Julius Caesar and the Romans, Boadicea  and Caracticus, Pope Gregory on captured Anglo-Saxon children with blonde hair and blue eyes, dragged through Rome in triumphal marches, saying, ‘Not Angles but angels,’  Alfred the Great, and Aethelred the Unready, Harold and the Conqueror, the Black Prince and English archers,  and all the march of history up to Agincourt and Henry V.

Living in Yorkshire when the war was over, our gardener, Mr Appleby, took a fancy to me, and spent much time teaching me the names of all the flowers…hearts-ease and snow-in-summer in crevices amongst paving stones, the herbaceous borders crammed with red hollyhocks, blue delphiniums and pastel pink and blue lupins, ravishing red peonies and pastel coloured grannie’s bonnets,  multi-coloured snapdragons and delicious sweet smelling pinks, the rose Dorothy Perkins scrambling over the trellis hiding the dust-bins … I revelled in this knowledge and his gift to me.

We didn’t go to school while we were in Yorkshire, and had lessons at home in the afternoon. My new stepmother, who was a physiotherapist and had no idea of how to teach children – or how to bring them up for that matter – gave me an extraordinary gift, apart from teaching me social skills, and that was how to spell. She demanded that at nine I could spell words like phlegm and diarrhoea, rhododendron and diaphragm. This is a gift that keeps on giving, like all the gifts that these adults gave me.

My father returned from the war in ’47, when I was nine, and his gift was to give me all the books he had enjoyed, so I went from a diet of Lord Lytton and books like ‘Harold’ (killed at Hastings) to Kingsley’s ‘Hypatia’, and ‘The Last Days of Pompei’, to Walter Scott’s ‘Ivanhoe’ and ‘Guy Mannering’ ( “go thy ways Ellangowen, go thy ways”… cursed the gypsy) and Napier’s history of the Peninsula Wars with Wellington, to CS Forester’s riveting: ‘The General’, about the First World War, and many more. Enid Blyton and Rupert the Bear were banned !

When I was ten and eleven years old I was put in a train from Yorkshire to Kings Cross, to spend a couple of weeks of the summer holidays with my step-grandparents. My grandfather took me walking around London nearly every day. We explored places like Threadneedle Street and the City, tramped down Constitutional Hill and through Hyde Park Corner, passing No I Piccadilly – Apsley House – the Iron Duke’s home, as well as the King’s home – Buckingham Palace (still George VI then).

We spent blissful hours loitering in front of Duccio, da Vinci and Van Gogh in the National Gallery, and wondering over the Turners in the Tate, gazing at all the statues of historic figures, from beautiful Nurse Edith Cavell at Charing Cross, to tragic Charles I, examined the famous poets and painter’s monuments in Westminster Abbey, and climbed around inside the dome of St Pauls. London was still the bombed, shabby city of the Blitz, with rose bay willow herb flourishing on empty desolate sites. But I know that great and ancient city more intimately than any other. And I have known my way around it ever since.

The following year I went on another solitary journey via Air France to spend the summer with French friends in their chateau in Vienne. There, the gift was an insight into French food and French architecture… while my first mother-in-law, a fearsome lady, was a talented amateur interior decorator. From her, I absorbed a knowledge of antiques, a love of colour, fabric and design and have enjoyed restoring and decorating houses ever since.

As I look back at all these gifts, which have enriched the fabric of my life, expanded my mind, and given me pleasures that never fade, I realise how blessed I’ve been. I’ve had many vicissitudes, bitter sorrows, painful partings, terrible decisions to take, and terrifying leaps off that metaphorical cliff in my life. But I’ve also had some sweet joys and learned how to be happy. And the music, the books, the flowers, the history, the beautiful china are all extra gifts that have made life rich and bearable in the bad times.

I wonder what gifts I’ve been able to pass on to those both near and dear, and even just to those casually encountered. We all have such rich gifts to share with others, and sometimes we do it knowingly, and other times, unconsciously. This is how our civilisation endures, and is handed down from every generation.

And maybe it’s more important than we know… the handing on and handing down of simple pleasures, facts and names, skills and events… these things are the handing on of our past, the hard-won experience and knowledge of our ancestors, and even of the fabric and treasures of our civilisation. That civilisation is changing fast, but it could go into future shock unless we value the past as well as the future. The gifts we can share may be more valuable than we can ever guess or measure or imagine.

Footnote. I took this picture for a blog several years ago. It illustrates perfectly different strands of my life.. the flowers are magnolias, the books are on France and French food, Axel Vervoordt is a famous Belgian interior decorator, the china is antique Crown Derby  Imari, while the portrait in the tiny frame comes from the medieval Book of Hours.

Food for threadbare gourmets

It’s that time of year here in the Antipodes when the delicious  Victoria peaches are available. I always snap them up. I don’t bottle any more, I freeze them instead. They have a different texture but are just as good. Being a lazy cook too, I just take out their stalk and then boil them whole, with a syrup made of water, stevia to taste, and a few star anise and a stick of cinnamon. When the peaches are soft I leave them to cool before parcelling them out into various plastic receptacles (I know, I know, sometimes we have to live with parabens!)

When I want them, I un-freeze them, and gently re-heat them with some brown sugar or maple syrup, and ginger wine, rum or brandy added to the syrup… served with ice-cream or crème fraiche, a whole peach drenched in the unexpected flavours of the syrup is a good easy pudding.

Food for thought

“There is divine beauty in learning… To learn means to accept the postulate that life did not begin at my birth. Others have been here before me, and I walk in their footsteps. The books I have read were composed by generations of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, teachers and disciples. I am the sum total of their experiences, their quests. And so are you.”

Elie Wiesel, writer, academic, activist, concentration camp survivor and Nobel Laureate

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A friend and The Golden Key

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Kintsugi, art and life

I wrote a column about my collection of cracked and chipped blue and white china thirty years ago. Some people received the idea of a collection of cracked china with derision and laughter… something cracked or chipped had lost its value, usefulness and good looks was the unspoken message, or I must be too poor to have such a pointless collection instead of perfect objects.

Undeterred, in the years since, I’ve saved shattered fragments of blue and white china when I’ve dropped or broken something, intending to stick them all together in a splendid mould and make a bird bath. I still have all the bits … but though the spirit has been willing, the body has been weak, alas.

So when a few weeks ago a possum knocked a precious piece of pottery off the bird table I was heart-broken. It was a large platter given to me by its maker, a potter of some renown, whose pieces now on sale in the national museum cost more than I could ever have dreamed.

But my platter came into my hands over thirty years ago when I used to take my daughter for piano lessons with a beautiful woman who played the cello in the city orchestra and taught the piano. While my daughter tackled the music of civilisation’s finest composers, I whiled away the time chatting to her teacher’s husband, the potter, admiring his work which was all around and even then, out of my reach to afford.

They lived in an enchanting house he had built himself, and where in the romantic rambling garden black and white speckly bantam hens roamed, kicking up the flower beds with their stubby tufted legs and fearsome claws. One day the potter gave me one of his platters and a few months later by chance, another came into my hands.

I’ve always treasured them, and since I love using beautiful things for mundane purposes have always used them as bird baths. Now in our forest, I use them as bird tables for bird seed, balanced on pedestals made from other treasured ceramics. A possum must have clambered up and knocked the platter off. It had broken into three pieces. I found it when I awoke and got up to fill it with bird seed and scatter seed on the ground for our visiting quails.

Going back to bed with my early morning tea I brooded over this unexpected event, and idly let my mind roam over the five hundred-year-old Japanese art of kintsugi, when cracks or breaks in a piece of pottery or porcelain are pieced together again with glue and gold… the name means golden repairs. They become so beautiful that some pieces have been broken deliberately in order to restore them with veins of gold.

Mentioning this to my love, he immediately Googled, and over the weeks he mastered the technique, and the platter was returned to me on Christmas Day with beautiful veins of gold now holding the broken pieces together… the platter is even more beautiful than before… which is the idea … this exquisite art form has developed to become part of the Japanese philosophy of life… where respecting the past with ‘awe and reverence’ adds to the beauty of the object. It is not seen as flawed or broken, but as re-stored… not to wholeness, but to a beauty reflecting life, its impermanence and poignancy.

Since discovering the concept of kintsugi I’ve thought how though it is an old instinct brought to perfection by Japanese craftsmen, it’s also been used by so many others for so many centuries … I thought of the ancient ruined monasteries scattered around England, dissolved by Henry VIII in the 1530’s in order to enrich himself and turfing out the monks, leaving them homeless and destitute.

Local people were the ones who ruined those abandoned monasteries, dismantling exquisite abbeys, priories and friaries, and using the stones to build or enrich their own homes. Even in this day and age, I have stopped the car in a muddy lane in Cumberland to exclaim over a carved Gothic window blocked up to make part of the wall in a rough stone barn – relic of a local monastery.

I used to walk in a Devon village where the red post box was set into the thick wall of a house rising straight out of the street, which would once have been a cart-track, and next to it in the wall was a small beautifully carved blocked up window from another medieval building. These small architectural gems ennobled the old stone walls they were set in – another Japanese concept – ‘wabi sabi ‘– finding beauty in old or broken things

Shakespeare found beauty in old things, and using the principles of kintsugi, rewrote the ancient legends he had learned in his classical education at Stratford Grammar School, re-creating and transforming the stories of Anthony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar or Troilus and Cressida – to name a few – into enduring works of art.

Not sublime works of art, but definitely kintsugi, are the pre-loved clothes – as they’re sometimes called – which a friend finds. By changing the buttons, adding a trimming, altering the neckline, edging hemlines or cuffs with contrasting fabric she turns each found item into an enviable work of art as well as a desirable item of clothing.

And there’s something touching and very sweet about the darns or patches in a piece of old linen, or a carefully repaired scrap of precious old lace. I love the chips and worn places on old painted furniture and the scratches on the polished wood of an antique table, or the kicked legs of a well-used chair.

These are the scars of a life well lived, and to iron them out, re-paint, sand them away and restore them to what is so often wrongly called ‘their former glory,’ chills my heart.  I know this means their honourable scars have been destroyed, and their character obliterated. In trying to make things look as good as new we are not honouring their past… the spirit of kintsugi.

When we were told on our personal growth courses to turn sour milk into yogurt, this was the same thing, re-creating and restoring the broken, cracked or scratched parts of our lives, and using them to teach us strength, compassion, insight. Acknowledging the hard places and tough times we had come through, and the buried pain, we were able then to see how they had shaped us.

We learned to face these times with ‘awe and reverence’, and with gratitude too, since without these scars, we would not be the people we had become. Our lives regained both magic and poignancy as we learned to see the mysterious patterns of events which we had endured and previously dismissed or de-valued.

Patterns of pain, loss, anger or despair, once recognised, became our golden repairs, our kintsugi, which enriched us and gave us a sense of the beauty of our lives. The cracks of character and kindness round our mouths, the lines of laughter softening our eyes, the deep furrows of thought and intellect above our brows became testimony to strength of character, to acceptance of the challenges faced, and rejection of bitterness or resistance.

Maybe this is why I find the faces of celebrities who have had a face lift or a botox injection rather sad… they are not honouring the medals earned by a well-lived life.

The most precious example of kintsugi in this place where we live is a diver’s rusty old tank, found while we scoured a demolition yard for re-cycled goodies. It was brought joyfully home, carefully cut in two, sanded, gently polished and re-painted, so it is a dull antique grey, with a few antique coins stuck to the circumference.

It’s mounted at the bottom of our drive with a striker made from an old fishing weight attached to a handle of weathered wood sitting by it. When visitors arrive, they ring the bell to tell us they’re here. Every day at dawn, and in the gloaming we ring our bell in gratitude. It reminds us that life is precious. And so we honour life.

Food for threadbare gourmets

We always used to have goose at Christmas when I was a child, but on the one occasion we had turkey I remember my father saying he wasn’t going to eat cold turkey or turkey sandwiches for the next week. So he devised a rechauffe of turkey eaten on rice.

Faced with lots of left-over turkey this year, I decided to follow his example. I had saved all the turkey juices, so after frying mushrooms and chopped bacon in butter, I stirred in a table spoon of flour to thicken the mixture and added the turkey juices. When this had thickened, I added chopped turkey and a little cream, salt and pepper, nutmeg to taste, and a small chicken bouillon cube.

Served on boiled rice, with peas, chopped parsley and butter stirred through, it was much better than cold turkey sandwiches!

Food for Thought

The self-actualising person is not a normal person with something added, but a normal person with nothing taken away.         Abraham Maslow

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