Tag Archives: poetry

Words, words words…

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William Shakespeare was ‘the onlie begetter’ of those words, which have been in my mind in this month of poetry.

I’ve discovered that in the United States, very few children learn poetry by heart any more, and I suspect that the same is true of education in most Anglo- Saxon cultures. I think it’s a shame… my mind still teams with the phrases and rhymes,  and the glorious words of poets and prayers learned throughout my distant childhood. They sustain me in good times and in bad… and though there’s so much beautiful poetry written today, does anyone recite them anymore?

I go back to my childhood, learning my first poem when I was four… Charles Kingsley’s, ‘I once had a dear little doll, dears’ – it came from a fat book of children’s poems – with no pictures. By eight I had decided to become a poet, by nine I was learning the poems of Water Scott and Elizabeth Barret Browning, at eleven we were learning ‘Quinquireme of Nineveh’, ‘doing’ ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, at school, and learning the exquisite poetry of Shakespeare …’ I know a bank whereon the wild thyme grows’… the next year it was ‘The Tempest’… ‘Come unto these yellow sands,’… ‘Julius Caesar’… ‘I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him’, and ‘Henry V’… ‘Now all the youth of England are on fire, and silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies,’… ‘Once more into the breach, dear friends,’… ‘we few, we happy few, we happy band of brothers,’… ‘Richard II’… ‘This royal throne of kings, this scept’red isle,’… ‘The Merchant of Venice’… ‘The quality of mercy is not strained, it blesseth him that gives and him that takes,’… ‘Hamlet’, ‘words, words, words’, indeed, and not least that amazing speech, ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’, and so many phrases we still use today…including: ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’… ‘to shuffle off our mortal coil’… ‘’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished’…

And finally, in the Upper Sixth, Anthony and Cleopatra… ‘Age shall not wither her, nor the years condemn’, words I have hugged to myself as a hope and example, as I near four score years. Our acquaintance with Shakespeare was cursory but better than the nothing that seems to rule in schools today.

It was a matter of pride among my friends to be able to recite poetry – in the third form we all learned Walter de la Mare’s long poem ‘The Listeners’…. ‘Is there anybody there? asked the Traveller, Knocking on the moonlit door,’… and some of us even tackled ‘The Ancient Mariner’, and though no-one got to the end, we never forgot phrases like ‘A painted ship upon a painted ocean’. No difficulty remembering the exquisite rhythms and quatrains of Omar Khayyam… ‘Awake ! for morning in the bowl of night has flung the stone which put the stars to flight’….

‘Lo! some we loved, the loveliest and best
That Time and Fate of all their Vintage prest,
Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to Rest’…

‘They say the lion and the lizard keep the courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep’…

But poetry was more than beautiful words and pictures and ideas. It opened up our hearts and minds to deeper meanings, ideas and symbols, and to the beauty of rhyme and rhythm. When my father died unexpectedly when I was in my twenties, and far from home, I turned to John Davies of Hereford’s dirge for his friend Thomas Morley:

‘Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend,

My dearest friend is dead and laid in grave.

In grave he rests until the world shall end.

The world shall end, as end all things must have.

All things must have an end that Nature wrought…

Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend…

I rocked to and fro to the rhythm of the words, and found a bleak comfort to tide me over into the next stage of grief. The insistent beat of that poem was a distant memory of the comfort of the rhythmic rocking which all babies receive, whether floating in the womb, rocked in their mother’s arms or pushed in a rocking cradle. Rhythm is one of the deepest and oldest memories for human beings. And rhyme is a joy that even toddlers discover as they chant simple verses, before stumbling onto the deliciousness of alliteration as words become their treasure.

For my generation the glory of words, poetry, rhyme and rhythm didn’t stop in the classroom. Every day in assembly we sang hymns with words that still linger in my memory, and swim to mind appropriately… like the glorious day looking from my cliff-top cottage and the lines, ‘cherubim and seraphim , casting down their golden crowns beside the glassy sea’ made land. We sang ‘Morning has broken’ long before Cat Stevens made it famous.

We listened to daily readings from the King James Bible and the poetry embedded itself in our consciousness… ‘to everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven’…. ‘If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there; if I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me’…’And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds’…

When we weren’t listening to our daily dose of the Bible, we were using the exquisite words of Archbishop Cranmer’s 1553 Prayerbook,… ‘now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word’… ‘come unto me all ye that are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’… ‘Oh God, give unto thy people that peace which the world cannot give…’Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee oh Lord, and by thy great mercy defend us from all the dangers and perils of the night’… words and phrases that lifted the spirit and gave comfort when needed, in times to come.

The vocabulary of roughly eight thousand words of the King James Version of the Bible, printed in 1611 had a ‘majesty of style’… and has had more influence on the English language that any other book, apart, perhaps, from Shakespeare’s works, with a vocabulary of sixty thousand or so words. In the past, the words, the rhythms and cadences of these two influences shaped the speech and the writing, and seeped into the consciousness of people all over the world, who grew up speaking English.

They thought and wrote and spoke without even thinking, in the beautiful, simple rhythmic prose they heard every week at church, and throughout their schooldays. Sullivan Ballou’s famous and profound letter written to his wife before his death at the First Battle of Bull Run in the American Civil War, is as much a product of that heritage as the wonderful last lines of John Masefield’s ‘The Everlasting Mercy’.

It saddens me that this common heritage of prose and poetry and prayer, those wonderful words of beauty and meaning, has dribbled away under neglect, lack of appreciation and understanding. Modern education seems to treasure instead new and shallower ideas.

Alan Bennett’s brilliant play and film, ‘The History Boys’ encapsulates my point of view perfectly! It made me feel I was not alone in my regrets at the passing of our rich poetic literature, and so much that has added to the sum of civilisation.  I love much that is new – too much to list –  and there’s so much to explore… but the learning by heart, the exploration of the genius of Shakespeare, the absorption of great prose and poetry often seems less important in today’s education system, than technological expertise and business knowhow, women’s studies and sporting prowess.

This is called progress I know, and I know too, I am old fashioned, but in these matters, I am a believer in not throwing out the baby with the bath-water. Hic transit gloria mundi… thus passes the glory of the world.

PS I completely forgot to answer the comments on my last blog while we were cleaning up after our massive storm/cyclone.. apologies, I loved them, and will be answering them shortly

Food for threadbare gourmets

Saturday supper with friends, and something we could eat on our laps round the fire. So, it was salmon risotto. Just the usual recipe – onions in butter, arborio rice added and fried until white, plus garlic, then a glass of good white wine poured in. I no longer bubble it away, but add the hot stock quite quickly, plus a teaspoonful of chicken bouillon.

For a fishy risotto, it should be fish stock but I had some good leek and potato stock saved, and I also used the liquid from poaching the salmon. All the recipes tell you to use lots of different types of fish, but I only had prawns, and salmon. I had thought I’d also use smoked salmon, but at the last minute changed my mind, and then wished I had more of the poached salmon … (which I’d eaten for lunch with freshly made mayonnaise!)

Anyway, I added cream and some fennel when the rice was almost soft and just before serving, threw in a grated courgette to get some green colour from the skin in, plus a handful of baby spinach leaves… and after stirring around, added the fish and more cream…. forgot parsley! And then the Parmesan of course….

Amounts? To one large onion, I used a cup of rice, several garlic cloves – medium sized – glass of dry white wine, hot stock as it needed it… a cup of prawns, and half a fillet of salmon – should have used more – plus the courgette and spinach as you fancy. Half a cup of cream, depending on how moist the risotto already is …  or I might use a big knob of butter and not so much cream…This doesn’t stick to any of the recipes… I just use what I have…this was enough for four.

Food for thought

“I want to be as idle as I can, so that my soul may have time to grow.” Elizabeth von Arnim, author of ‘Elizabeth and her German Garden’ and other books

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The wilder shores of love

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I’m a sucker for romance, passion, adventure – is there a woman who isn’t? Not the bodice ripper stories of the supermarkets racks but the real thing… the: ’Love is an ever-fixed mark ‘ stuff of life.

I admit I revelled in The Prisoner of Zenda as a teenager, the ‘I did not love thee dear so much, loved I not honour more’, and the red rose delivered once a year to the ravishing queen from her honourable and faithful cavalier, a very English gentleman. And it took me a while to recognise Ashley Wilke’s gutless having his cake and eating it with Melanie and Scarlet, I was so dazzled by his weary elegance and assumption of honour.

But it’s the real thing that hooks me now… the courage to dare and love and think the world well lost in order to follow the heart. So how could I resist Jane Digby? Not her famous descendant, Pamela Digby.

She married the famously un-likeable Randolph Churchill, becoming Winston Churchill’s daughter- in- law, lover of Averill Harriman during the war, mistress of every millionaire, playboy and sex symbol in the post war years… Prince Aly Khan, Marquis de Portago, Fiat heir Gianni Agnelli, Baron Elie de Rothschild, and Stavros Niarchos amongst others. Ed Murrow intended to give up his wife for her, and returned home to fix it, and reneged. She became the fifth wife of impresario Leland Hayward, and finally, when he was eighty-one, snaffled Averill Harriman again, this time in marriage, and became powerful and respectable as US Ambassador to France. No, Pamela Digby’s quest feels like something other than love.

But her beautiful ancestor Jane Digby was something else. Jane was married very young to a man twice her age, who dallied with a servant girl on their honeymoon, and not surprisingly the marriage never took off. Left to her own devices while Lord Ellenborough devoted himself to his political career, she not surprisingly fell in love with a gorgeous playboy, Prince Felix Schwarzenberg, who was besotted with her. Jane, young and naive, never thought of hiding her love, and of course they came to grief.

The Prince was withdrawn from London in the interests of his glittering diplomatic career, Ellenborough divorced Jane – a horrendous and tortuous decision which entailed Jane’s actions being dragged through the House of Lords and the House of Commons and her becoming a pariah – and she followed her lover to Paris where she gave birth to a daughter. Schwarzenberg kept her on a string for some years, and Jane was too blinded by love to see it.

Finally she left and went to Munich, where the King Ludwig, a clever intelligent man became a close and loving friend, and an upright but ultimately boring German aristocrat wooed her for some years before she gave in… and then she fell in love with a handsome Greek count. Her husband Baron Karl von Vennigen fought a duel with Count Spiridion Theotsky… and Jane ended by running off with her glamorous Greek. They enjoyed a lotus- eating life in places like Corfu, before ending up at the court in Athens. Von Vennigen never stopped loving the fascinating Jane and wrote to her until he died.

In Athens her Greek husband became unfaithful so Jane took up with a sixty- year old white mustachioed Pallikari bandit chieftan , Cristos Hadji-Petros.
She entered  into mountain life wholeheartedly, dressing like the peasant women of the tribe, and learning to cook, make feta cheese, sleep in the open air on goats-hair blankets, galloping on horseback around the mountains, drinking retsina and making mad, passionate love with the wicked old bandit.

It all fell to pieces when Jane’s maid told her she having trouble fending off the calculating rough brigand who smelt of garlic and too few baths. Jane and her maid disappeared from Athens, Jane now sad and depressed and nearly fifty… and she decided to explore all the ancient cities and historical sites now under the sway of the latest bandits, Isis.

She negotiated a bodyguard to escort her to the glorious ruins of Palmyra. Even back in 1853, tourists were drawn to the dangerous journey to this fabled city, and the Bedouin tribes competed against each other to guard travellers from other tribes who threatened to rob the Europeans. Sheik Medjuel el Mesrab was the Bedouin chief who commanded Jane’s bodyguard, and by the time they had reached Palmyra, he had proposed to Jane and offered to give up his wife.

She didn’t succumb straightaway, and later had to fend off an offer from another determined Arab sheik. Feeling depressed and lonely she continued travelling before returning to Damascus. But Medjuel had kept tracks on her, and as she approached Damascus he rode out to meet her, with an Arab mare as a gift of welcome, and his wife already sent back to her people with her dowry.

They fell deeply in love and married. Jane spent the last twenty five years of her life living partly in Damascus and partly in the desert whenever her husband had to take his flocks and people to different areas of grazing, or to fight other tribes. Jane rode with him into battle. She was a brilliant horsewoman and broke in many of Medjuel’s Arab thoroughbreds, she spoke nine languages, was a witty conversationalist and a talented artist. Her exquisite manners, gentleness, beauty and charm won over both the reluctant tribe and the disapproving local community.

Jane threw herself into the life of the Bedouins when they camped in the desert, and dyed her long fair hair and eyebrows black as the Arabs felt that fair hair attracted the Evil Eye. She plaited her hair in two long braids which reached to her feet and wore the clothes of the Bedouin women, learning to milk camels, prepare her husband’s food, and stand and wait on him, and wash his hands and hair, face and feet. Medjuel on the other hand, impressed everyone who met him with his refinement, intelligence, and elegance.

In her home in Damascus she had a huge menagerie of creatures and created one of the most famous gardens in a city famous for its gardens. She and Medjuel had a passionate and tempestuous relationship which never lost its intensity in over twenty five years. Nearing seventy four, she wrote in her diary: “it is now a month and twenty days since Medjuel last slept with me. What can be the reason?“ Though younger than Jane, Medjuel was feeling his age by now, and this year stayed close to his wife instead of joining his tribe. Not long after writing these words, she faded away after an attack of dysentery, Medjuel by her side.

The Sheik was persuaded to ride in a closed black carriage to her funeral, until suddenly overcome by grief and needing open space he bolted from the carriage and fled in the opposite direction to the cortege. Everyone was shocked by this breach of funeral etiquette. But as the clergyman was intoning: ‘ashes to ashes’, Medjuel galloped up on his wife’s favourite black Arabian mare. He sat motionless staring down into the grave and no-one moved or spoke. Moments passed as he sat there in anguish and then the Bedouin Chief rode away.

Jane would have loved her husband’s farewell. He returned to the grave once more. He brought a rough slab of Mazoni rock, carved to fit over the base of Jane’s tomb. He carved her name: Madame Digby el Mezrab on it in Arabic and disappeared into the desert.

A missionary who knew her well described her life as: ‘wild, passionate and reckless’, while her devoted friend, the explorer Sir Richard Burton said that her ‘life’s poetry never sank to prose’. Her life is an inspiration to a romantic. By following her heart she finally found the one person in the world, in Truman Capote’s touching words in The Grass Harp:’ … from whom nothing is held back…’ and: ‘to whom everything can be said’.

And those words, it seems to me, are the definition of true love. They mean perfect trust. No co-dependency, neediness or misunderstandings through lack of communication. But trust takes courage, and maybe to paraphrase the words of that haunting song ‘The Rose’, true love is only for the brave … like Jane Digby el Mesrab.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

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

 

Food for Thought

He either fears his fate too much,
Or his deserts are small,
That puts it not unto the touch
To win or lose it all…
From ‘My dear and only love’, John Graham, Marquis of Montrose

 

Lesley Blanch who died this year at 103 wrote The Wilder Shores of Love

 

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A hiatus

100_0584Dear friends and fellow bloggers, the writing gods have withdrawn their inspiration from me, and have made it clear that this is a moment for Hestia, the goddess of peace and replenishment, solitude and silence to make her entrance.

So for now, it is a hiatus – an interruption. I shall follow you all from afar, knowing that you too will come and go in the rhythms of life; and lacking all inspiration myself at the moment, I will share and sign off with words from an inspirational poet, Rabindranath Tagore. It is our golden autumn here in the southern hemisphere, and this is how it was in Bengal a hundred years ago when Tagore was writing:

Autumn
Today the peace of autumn pervades the world.
In the radiant noon, silent and motionless, the wide stillness rests like a tired bird spreading over the deserted fields to all horizons its wings of golden green.
Today the thin thread of the river flows without song, leaving no mark on its sandy banks.
The many distant villages bask in the sun with eyes closed in idle and languid slumber.
In the stillness I hear every blade of grass, in every speck of dust, in every part of my own body, in the visible and invisible worlds, in the planets, the sun, and the stars, the joyous dance of the atoms through endless time – the myriad murmuring waves of Rhythm surrounding Thy throne.

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A rose is a rose is a hose !

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This was supposed to be a picture of a rose. When I developed it, it turned out to be a picture of a hose. I was shocked. How could I have been so one-eyed, and not seen what was shouting at me in a loud turquoise voice? I only see what I want to see, and eliminate even the obvious, it seems.

So when I went for my walk in the summer evening, I reminded myself to actually look, and not to assume or to expect. I wanted to see what was there, not what I thought was there. Down near the harbour where I usually turn around I always end up by a bougainvillaea sprawling through the trees, and just out its reach, a queen of the night holding her own. Braving bougainvillaea prickles, I can just reach the greenery-yallery sprigs of tiny flowerheads.

Two nights ago I broke one off and carried it back with me, sniffing the glorious fragrance, and ending up sitting on the warm marble bench in the cemetery at the other end of the peninsula, still smelling the sweet blossoms. I did what I’d never thought of doing before, and took it in and put it in a glass in the bed-room. The scent filled the whole room, and whenever I turned over in my sleep, the scent was drifting past.

The next day the tiny pale green flowers closed up, and the sprig sat nondescriptly on the window- sill all day, before bursting into glorious scent in the evening again. So now I plan to keep a permanent supply of these modest blossoms that don’t look big enough to be able to scent a whole room… The scent lasts for three nights I’ve discovered.

Walking back tonight with a fresh sprig of blossom, I passed a big shrub on the road where it dips and there’s a muddy spring.  Before now I’ve smelt its fragrance, but not given it a passing glance. Its reputation as a deadly poison and hallucinogen had somehow got in the way of me actually seeing this innocent plant. Tonight I looked at it, and ended up gently holding one incredibly beautiful flower-head after another, each one slightly different, gazing at their two layers of frilly white petals, and seeing deep inside the long white tube, white stamens pushing their way up to the light. The pendulous buds are so yellow it’s a surprise that the flowers are so white

The slender pale green calyx was smooth and soft and somehow tender to touch and to hold, and ended where the green- veined white trumpet – shaped flower began. Its ugly official name is brugmansia, but its folk name is angels trumpets. Angels trumpets spread their scent so far that long before I get there I can smell them.

Enchanted now with the idea of white scented flowers, I noticed the exquisite waxy looking candle-shaped buds of the king magnolia further down the road, the dark shiny leaves supporting each smooth creamy bud like a candlestick. Only one flower had opened, but it was enough. The scent of just one flower wafted past me.

I walked down the long drive to some friends’ house, knowing they were not there, but that they wouldn’t mind me visiting the frangipani plant flourishing by their veranda. The scent of frangipani takes me back to Singapore when it was still an eastern city and I was a girl, where all the alleys were hung with long bamboo poles suspended from every window on each floor, drying thin cotton tropical clothes in the brilliant un-ending sunshine.

We were staying in a hotel just around the corner from the famous Raffles Hotel, and the entrance was flanked with rows of frangipani trees.  Their fragrance followed us into the hotel courtyard and drifted in through the big open bedroom windows where we slept with no air conditioners, but beneath draped mosquito nets.

And when the velvet tropical night had fallen promptly at six thirty, every night in the darkness I would look down from the bedroom and see small groups of people squatting on the pavement in a circle. They would have tiny flickering lights and little spirit stoves in their midst to cook their dinner, delicious smells rising tantalisingly through the frangipanis, and I would hear their soft chatter and their laughter.

There were no blossoms on the frangipani growing here in New Zealand… wrong time of year perhaps. Back home, there was one white gardenia open.  I savoured the perfume before bringing it inside and putting it in a shallow bowl, floating on the water. So though no angels trumpets, I have queen of the night, gardenia and creamy honeysuckle from the porch scenting the house – even the names are poetry.

I don’t know whether I did what I intended when I began my walk, or whether I saw what was really there, but just by looking – truly looking at the beautiful angels trumpets – unnoticed before –  the walk turned into something else – a successful quest for white scented flowers. And like all successful quests, that was good enough.

And I wonder if this is how life is… we set off in one direction and find that imperceptibly we’ve drifted down other unsuspected paths; and looking back, we see that it was the perfect journey, and our travelling had a purpose, and was not random at all.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Friends for dinner before they left after the summer holiday to go back to the city. On a summer evening cold food seemed appropriate. So we had chicken with curry mayonnaise on rice salad. The cooked chicken chopped and mixed into a bowl of good bought mayonnaise, with about a big tablesp of golden syrup and desert sopn of curry powder to taste… I taste until I like it. Stir through enough cream to make it a soft consistency to stick to the chicken.

Cold basmati rice is jollied up with a vinaigrette dressing with salt, plenty of freshly ground black pepper, mustard, and sugar. Add to the rice generous helpings both of peas and sultanas soaked in boiling water, lots of crunchy chopped almonds lightly toasted in a frying pan, and lots of chopped parsley. Nice with a salad and chilled pinot gris .

In deference to our French connections we now have the cheese course before the pudding! This was some of our plums cooked to Nigella’s lovely recipe in red wine, one star anise, two cloves, teasp of cinnamon and a bay leaf, plus honey to taste. We had them with a mix of plain yogurt, whipped cream and runny honey stirred gently together, and a little shortbread biscuit.

 

Food for thought

That mighty power that sways the tides and works the million miracles of spring is ranged forever on the side of love.

The writer: known only to God .  Seen on an embroidered sampler hanging over a bedroom fireplace in an English cottage

 

 

 

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Nuns and their habits

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I can’t help feeling that nuns are getting a bad press at the moment after seeing the film Philomena, and like everyone else in the cinema, running out of tissues. I thought back to the nuns at my convent… mostly French or Belgian, a couple of English and a few Polish ones. Some were old, some were beautiful, some were wise and some were silly – at least to a bigoted ten year old.

My father didn’t know about my past in which I’d  read all my grandmothers anti-Popish books, which included Westward Ho, and Foxe’s Martyrs, a catalogue of the three hundred people Mary Tudor burned for being Protestant. So sending me to a convent for a good education seemed a good idea to him.

I didn’t discuss it with him, for on our first day with our new parents, I’d been told I had to do exactly as I was told – always – so there didn’t seem to be any room for discussion. So a prejudiced Protestant got to observe the strange Catholic goings-on at her new school!

The nuns all looked wonderful in their no-expense spared rich plum-red gabardine habits, with wide swinging pleated skirts and wide sleeves. They wore a long snowy  white veil over the wimple which framed their faces and had a splendid thick knotted red cord round their waists to which they attached their rosaries.

We had a roller skating rink where we skated most days, and obsessed about how many ball-bearings our skates had. At night when I boarded for a while, and when everyone was supposed to be in bed and asleep, we could look down from the gabled windows, and see the nuns swirling round the rink on our borrowed roller skates,red  habits swinging, veils flying. An unforgettable sight.

The order had been formed by three aristocratic Belgian ladies, and we heard their history interminably when we sat in silence in the refectory at lunch, while tall, serious, severely beautiful Mother John stood at the carved lectern and read it to us during retreats. Retreats and the numerous saints Feast Days were a wonderful way of not doing schoolwork, which my parents disapproved of, since they were paying school fees.

During retreat, for several days we never spoke (which I loved even then), and did nothing but pray, draw holy pictures, tally what good deeds we’d managed to perform each day, using a flower as a symbol (I used a violet), process around the school grounds singing hymns, and if we were Catholic, celebrate mass with a portly priest imported for the job. I couldn’t bear him and the way all the nuns fawned over and spoiled the only man who ever came into their orbit! Apart from no speaking and mass, Feast Days were the same round of prayers and processing.

Mother Michael was our housemistress, a tall bony woman, English, and almost the only nun there who had no charm. She wore thick horn-rimmed spectacles, and I noticed uncharitably that in the chapel at prayers every day after lunch, she twiddled her Bride of Christ gold wedding ring and didn’t seem particularly devout.

I rather enjoyed this lunch-time prayer ritual, it also cut into time for lessons, as we walked in a long crocodile along the corridors on miles of polished linoed floors, passing numerous statues of saints frequently adorned with rosaries or necklaces. I thought most of the statues were ‘soppy’, a word we used then, and actually I think they probably were – mass-produced, sentimental, pastel- coloured and idealised images. I glared at them all like a latter-day Cromwell.

Chapel however, with its scent of incense was a pleasure, and a respite from effort and intrigue. Yes, the convent was a hotbed of intrigue and occasionally swept by gusts of vague hysteria – what convent girls would probably call ‘scharmerei’ – with favourites, crushes and gossip part of the mix.

I was Mother Michael’s favourite for more than a term. It was, in a good Catholic phrase – purgatory – because I was imprisoned every day in the airy second floor cloakroom in the Georgian house which was the home of the junior girls. It was a pleasant sunny room, but it might just as well have been a dungeon because I was chained, as it were, to a chair, and every lunch break Mother Michael undid my long dark brown plaits and spent the rest of the lunch hour break brushing my hair.

Friends came and went, washing their hands and changing their indoor shoes, but I was pinned to my penitential chair with my hair loose. Just before the bell Mother Michael would re-plait it, dragging it round my face like a Victorian orphan, and every day when I got home my stepmother would ask what was going on, and when I told her, say it had to stop. I would have loved it to stop, but I didn’t know how to make it stop.

It went on until Mother Michael found another pair of promising plaits, not as long as mine, but long enough. The new favourite was rather smug to me, but I knew what she was in for, and watched with some pleasure as Barbara found herself nailed to the chair, and like me,  unable to join in the games of skipping and hopscotch, playing five stones and weaving cats cradles going on outside. Mother Michael had seriously interfered with my social life, and I felt no pity for her next victim.

The other nuns were civilised and kind, unbigoted and happy. Unlike the only teacher who wasn’t a nun, and who constantly tried to outdo them in piety and holiness. She was the maths teacher, so it was inevitable that our relationship would founder.

In fact it never recovered from the day when I finally rebelled and tried to speak my mind. As an Irishwoman, her constant theme was the ‘puir’ persecuted Catholics and all the dreadful things Protestants had done to them, including  executing Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators – we never celebrated Guy Fawkes day at the convent – and ‘puir ‘ St Thomas More, beheaded by Henry VIII.

Baulking at having to pray for the souls of my Protestant parents because they weren’t Catholic – after we’d interrupted long division yet again to recite the Angelus – my stroppy ten-year old self started to tell her about the Inquisition, and Borgia Popes etc.  But I got no further than the Inquisition. “Oh what a pack of Protestant lies!“ she shrieked dramatically, clapping her hands over her ears.

Not only was my relationship soured with Miss Cummins, but it never recovered from the disapproval of all the other Catholics in the room either… I paid the price for this rebellion, and was always left until last to be picked for rounders teams and  netball. I left the convent after a year without regret, and yet looking back I’ve had more fun from my memories of that unique environment than from some of my more conventional schools.

The beautiful High Victorian Gothic building, which housed the foreign nuns so far from their homes in Europe, and generations of schoolgirls, has now been turned into smart flats, surrounded by the glorious trees and grounds where we played so happily, watched by little red squirrels perched in the black branches of bare trees silhouetted against the snow.

I wonder if the skating rink is still there. I think no-one since would have enjoyed it as much as those gentle souls swirling silently around in the dusk, plum coloured habits swaying, veils flying and rosaries swinging. I do hope they bypassed purgatory and skipped straight into heaven.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Going cold turkey day after day post Christmas is not my idea of enjoying food. So after the second day I chop it into small pieces and freeze it. Yesterday we were ready to eat more turkey, so I defrosted it, stirred small pieces into a thick white sauce with plenty of nutmeg, some parsley and plenty of chopped mushrooms fried in butter. Served over savoury rice, it was good. Into the hot basmati rice I stir a chopped fried onion, plus a handful of peas, a handful of sultanas soaked in boiling water to plump them out, and plenty of toasted slivered almonds, salt and pepper plus more parsley. It beats the boredom of cold turkey.

Food for thought

The angels keep their ancient places;

Turn but a stone, and start a wing!

‘Tis ye, ‘tis your estranged faces,

That miss the many splendoured thing

Francis Thompson 1859-1907, great English poet, mystic, vagrant who lived on the streets for most of his drug-addicted life.

 

 

 

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Birds of a feather

100_0479My heart was in my mouth. I was sitting at the traffic junction in our small town where six roads meet and compete for the lights.  Would the traffic stop? A duck was slowly waddling across the road with a clutch of tiny ducklings in tow. They made it to the pavement which would lead them along to the river in the middle of town, with just one hiccup over two slow ducklings who stopped to drink from a puddle, and which an impatient woman nearly cleaned up as she got tired of waiting.

This is the duck season. We become very conscious of them as they shepherd their progeny across busy roads, oblivious of the killing machines skidding to a halt yards from them.

A friend told me how in the middle of the busy village street, he stopped to let a mother pass while her babies all scuttled to safety on the pavement, but she wouldn’t move from the middle of the road. As he wondered how long she was going to obstinately stand there, suddenly two recalcitrant toddlers made a dash from the other side to catch up with their mother and siblings. Ducks can count!

The same thrush (I think) who made life difficult for us last year, by nesting in the honeysuckle by the side door of the garage has returned, and I in-advertently uncovered this year’s nest as I began to trim the overhanging ivy on the arch into the garden from the garage. I saw with horror a beautiful blue egg in the exquisitely woven little nest, and hastily covered it with strands of the trimmed ivy.

I blocked the arch with a rake and a hoe and a plank of wood across the top of the steps to stop anyone using it, so now everyone has to go the long way round from the garage. (see pic above!) I tiptoed up the next day, to check if the bird had returned, and as I stood peering intently into the tangle of ivy leaves, I suddenly realised that a beady yellow- rimmed eye was staring at me. I backed away very slowly, apologising softly for my intrusion.

A grey heron unexpectedly circled in front of my car as I drove between spring- green trees and hawthorn hedges encrusted with white blossom this morning; and I noticed that the striking paradise ducks with black, white and sherry coloured plumage who mate for life, seem to have disappeared from their usual haunts – to tend their nests too, I presume.

Driving home in the dusk a few nights ago, I saw what I thought were burrs on the road in front of me, but they were moving. As I swerved, I realised that the tiny balls of black fluff rolling to the side of the road were probably paradise duck babies. They all start off as balls of fluff, and then the brown mallards develop tiny yellow legs and webbed feet that scurry frantically across the road, beautiful little creatures with not an ugly duckling among them.

Years ago as we walked down the lane by our house, being towed by two shaggy afghan hounds and a cavalier King Charles spaniel, I was consoling the children about the village fete, and their spurned handicraft entries.  “The thing is,” said my ten year old daughter, “other mothers think their ugly ducklings will grow into swans, but you think we’re swans already!”

Not surprising when I thought about it… swans had been part of my life as a child. We lived close to a lake called the Backwater. It had once been a tidal inlet, until the local authorities had built a bridge which blocked the flow from Weymouth Harbour. Until then the tide had washed up and down this long channel, where there’s evidence that the Romans once had a small port at the end of the inlet where we lived. There’s a legend that later, when the Vikings made their first raid on England at Portland just round the corner, they also pushed their way up the Backwater in AD 787.  Later the Saxons settled around here among local British tribes who‘d been inhabiting the area since Mesolithic times – 12,500 BC. (Genetic experiments have shown that a significant segment of the modern population here are descended from those original Mesolithic inhabitants.)

 When I knew the Backwater, neither  Stone Age coracle nor Viking long-boat could have rowed up the now tide-less water, for thick beds of reeds had spread to give safe cover for the big, white mute swans to build their nests and hide their cygnets. I used to walk my dolls pram down to the edge of the lake and throw them bits of bread. On the grass the other side of the road edging the water, the Americans had had all their tanks and armoured vehicles lined up row on row before they left for D-day, thus reversing the ancient pattern of invasion, and taking fire and sword back to the mainland.

There are so many legends and folk tales about swans, the commonest being that their nearly ten foot wide wing span can break a man’s arm. This is one of the long-running jokes in Sue Townsend’s gloriously funny book, ‘Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction.’ Adrian buys a trendy flat in a disused warehouse alongside the river, and discovers too late that a posse of swans consider this place to be their territory. Everyone who visits the hapless Adrian ends up warning him, “A swan can break a man’s arm, you know”.

They mate for life too, and I love the names of the different species: as well as the mute swans, there are trumpeter swans, whooper swans, tundra swans, and the Bewick, a sub-tribe of the tundra clan. The biggest populations of wild swans live in Russia, and it’s believed that the only reason swans didn’t become extinct in England un medieval times – since they were good eating – was that though everyone cut a notch in the feet of their own swans, birds without the notch were considered to be the sovereign’s property and protected by a royal swan herdsman. This preserved the native species. And as for cygnets, who can forget the all male corps de ballet who performed at Covent Garden, and then made their breath-taking and tantalisingly  brief appearance in the film ‘Billy Eliot?’

We only have the non-native black swan here, immigrants from Australia who now populate various lakes around the North Island in great numbers. I remember my disbelief when I saw the one black swan on the lake at Kew Gardens as a little girl. I love them now. The evil black swan queen in Swan Lake gives black swans an undeserved bad name – they are elegant, peace-loving family-oriented birds, loyal to each other, male and female raising their families of cygnets together year after year. 

It seems appropriate that all our swans here are black, when I consider that New Zealand’s  national colour is black… the All-Blacks play rugby, the NZ cricket team wears black, as does our Olympic team, the America’s Cup yachtsmen  and all other sports teams. And statuesque Maori women look magnificent in their black mourning with wreaths of green leaves around their heads, as they perform the ancient karakia or grieving  chants with their graceful waving arm movements. Black is indeed Beautiful in this country !

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

A green-thumbed – or is it green fingered –  neighbour generously left a bag of goodies outside the door the other day. Among them were delicious, tender young leeks and green cauliflower. They deserved a dish of their own so I used a recipe I’d just found. Steam enough cauliflower to fill a cup when mashed. Cut the leeks into rounds, and sauté in butter until tender. (I always put a little oil in too, so the butter doesn’t burn) Mix the cauliflower and tender leeks with an egg, a good quarter of a cup of flour, two tablesp of parsley and one of chopped dill, a good grinding of black pepper and half a teasp of salt. Form the mixture into patties and fry on both sides. I sprinkled them with plenty of Parmesan, but I would think crumbled goats cheese would be good too. Next time I try them I shall use coriander, and mix in some crumbled goats cheese.

 

Food for thought

From Midrashim: Proverbs 6.6

Go to the ant, you sluggard,

and watch it lug an object

forward single file

with no short breaks for

coffee, gossip, a croissant,

And no stopping to apostrophize

blossom, by-passed because

pollen is not its job,

no pause for trampled companions:

consider her ways – and be content.

David Curzon, born 1951 – poet, essayist, translator and United Nations official retiring in 2001.

 

 

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We are all witnesses

100_0442Who would have thought that when a group of murderous men attempted to kill a fourteen year old girl that they would have made her a global heroine and given her cause world-wide coverage?  Malala Yousafzai is extraordinary.  It’s hard to believe that a school girl should have become such a threat to the oppressive policies of the Taliban that they should try to suppress her and her campaign for women. And so heartening to know that two years later, in spite of her terrible wounds, she is living in peace in England, has written a book, and is still campaigning for the right for all women to an education.

Her poise, beauty and intelligence as I watched her fluently explaining the situation on TV and how she came to be such a campaigner was so moving, that it seemed even the interviewer  was nearly in tears. The next day she had tea with the most powerful man in the world and fearlessly asked him to stop killing her people with drones – that anyone should have to ask – since when has it been OK to kill innocent citizens of countries who are allies – and is reported to have told the President that it was counter-productive and caused resentment. A simple enough deduction that one would think the highly educated men in the White House could have reached for themselves!

But what is so exciting about sixteen year old Malala is that she is free to spread her message and to resist oppression and tyranny. She can speak and be heard. Her country and her people listen, and it’s only extremists who want to silence her.

Hers is such a contrast to the life of another inspiring and famous woman who was not free and who had to keep silent. Anna Akhamatova was the beautiful Russian poet whose husband was shot in the Stalin’s terror, and whose son was in and out of gulags until 1956 for the crime of having the parents that he had. In her long poem ‘Requiem’, which took four years to write between 1935 and 1940, she wrote these lines, having resisted the temptation to flee to the West like so many creative people whose lives were also in danger:

No foreign sky protected me,

no stranger’s wing shielded my face.

I stand as witness to the common lot,

survivor of that time, that place.’

Later, when the poem was published in 1961, she wrote: ‘Instead of a Preface’.

‘In the terrible years of the Yeshov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):

“Can you describe this?”

And I said: “I can.”

Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.’

Simply because she was a poet, whose writing the Soviet authorities condemned with the usual epithet – bourgeois – Anna’s life was perpetually in danger, and she was banned from most activities. She could have fled, but she stayed to be with her people – their witness – her only weapon, silent passive resistance. Active resistance would simply have meant the anonymity of being one of between forty and fifty million Russians shot, starved or worked to death in the gulag – the common fate of Soviet citizens under Stalin.

Poets met secretly, they wrote their poems in secret, and read them to each other. They each memorised them, and then the dangerous and incriminating pieces of paper were burned. So Anna became a witness. Witnessing was the only thing she could do.

And when Stalin died, and conditions eased, she emerged and she described. Her poetry was published and she became famous, and an inspiration to all who had resisted, and a lesson to those who came after her. Her words meant that no-one could forget.

I’ve often thought about Anna, and how witnessing matters so much to each person who suffers – somehow, to have a witness dignifies and validates the suffering and mitigates the loneliness. And women seem to have always instinctively been witnesses – witnesses at birth and death – witnesses to war, witnesses to life. Watching, validating, and by the very act of being there, loving.

It’s an unsung gift, but when I listen to a friend who works in a hospice, I realise that it’s one of the greatest gifts. Witnessing requires no words. It’s commitment and unspoken love, whether it’s Anna Akhamatova witnessing her country and her people’s agony and being there for it, or the mother, the daughter, the sister, the friend who watches through the night when the great life dramas of birth or death are being played out.

And often it isn’t even as dramatic as that. My daughter was driving a lonely immigrant who had no family, to hospital for a breast cancer operation. As she got out of the car, she saw the woman’s face. My daughter rushed round to her side, and stood, arms around her, just holding her, tears flowing down both faces. Frantic, she called out to the door attendant – “is it alright to park here?”  “Of course,” this beautiful man replied, “it’s for people like you”. They stayed holding each other until the friend felt strong enough to go inside – my daughter with her.

And one image is forever imprinted on my mind. I was sitting on a bus with the rain pouring down, dusk just beginning to darken the overcast skies. Something made me look out. There was a man I had got to know on a series of consciousness- raising courses. I hadn’t seen Brian for a while. He was sitting in the gutter in the rain with his arm around the shoulders of a drunk. Being there. Witnessing.

Food for threadbare gourmets

Trying to keep to my resolution to simplify life, and stop giving useless objects to people who lack for nothing, I’m making a jar of lemon curd for a friend who has a birthday. I’ve collected over time some of the nicely shaped Bon Maman French jam jars with red and white check screw- top lids – perfect.

Juice three lemons, and grate the zest. Put in a saucepan with ¾ cup of sugar, 150g of cubed butter, and six free range or organic beaten eggs. Stir over a medium heat until the butter is melted and the mixture has thickened. Don’t boil, take off the heat before it does. Pour into sterilised heat proof containers, and leave to set. Cover and keep in the fridge, and it will last for a month or so.

Food for thought

To organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-wracking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence.

Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated  without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.

E.F. Schumacher 1911 – 1977 – discussing Buddhist economics in ‘Small is Beautiful’. Schumacher was an international economist whose thoughts on economics evolved to cover many aspects of environmental protection, as well as the preservation of the  integrity of small local economies.

 

 

 

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