Tag Archives: Richard Wilbur

Diamonds and dysentery

J.J.’s intriguing home…

Another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

Can’t you find some nice man to marry and look after you, Annette, a diminutive blue-eyed brunette asked me as she joined me on the beach with the children. She’d already given me food for thought by telling me her first husband had died of hepatitis. Since then she had struck gold, and married illustrious journalist, Stanley Karnow who was now working on his definitive book on Vietnam and was a friend of Welles and Pat Hangen.

There were actually plenty of people, but I wasn’t interested in any of them, my whole focus being on the children. The only person I did fancy didn’t want children, whereas all the others enjoyed my four and five- year- olds.  I also attracted the lesbian wife of Larry Adler, who left him, and pursued me for three months or more, with me so anxious about her bouts of depression and weekly delivery of pills sent from England that I was too frightened to be too fierce in my rejection of her.

I was perpetually anxious about the next stunt she would pull to entrap me. The following year, her husband, Larry Adler, the famous harmonica player, flew back to Hong Kong and proposed to me over lunch at the Foreign Correspondents Club where he too was rejected. I had met them both when I went to interview Larry, and they both made a great fuss of me, and I was so naïve that I didn’t recognise all the undercurrents.

And then I developed a plague of boils…   when I was up and running again, I interviewed Andrew Grima, the Queen’s jeweller, a charming, gentle bear of a man, who having been an engineer during the war, had discovered a talent for creating fabulous jewellery when he joined his father-in- law’s firm to run the books. He straddled the worlds of royalty and high society, and the pop world of Carnaby Street, models, musicians and fashion designers. (His gorgeous designs have just some back into fashion again)

We became friends, and he introduced me to the high society of Hong Kong. I suddenly found myself enjoying balls in the marble halls of houses of Victorian colonial splendour, and grand dinners in the homes of Hong Kong’s movers and shakers. One Saturday at the home on the Peak of the Governor’s number two, after a lunch with witty clever conversation and much laughter, we sat on the veranda looking down over Hong Kong below. Andrew emptied out his exquisite jewellery from a big jewel box for us to see.

All the ladies tried on necklaces, earrings and bracelets, with gorgeous designs using Andrew’s signature of chunky unpolished semi- precious stones, set in hammered, textured gold – also his invention. To me, the  most beautiful designs of all were  a series of brooches of delicate gold ivy leaves with diamonds sprinkled across them like drops of dew . ” Have you got something to suit Valerie?” asked my elegant patrician host, as we gasped over this treasure. ” Nothing beautiful enough for her,” replied the jeweller to my astonishment and disappointment.

All this was heady stuff. My neighbour at the lunch table had been J.J. Killough, an elegant young interior designer and we became firm friends. A week later, sitting in his flat at midnight having coffee after a party at the Mandarin, I listened to his life story. I was wearing a black satin, long – sleeved mini dress with white cuffs and collar, long string of pearls and sheer black stockings. As I lounged in one of his wonderful, worn, highbacked leather chairs with carved arms in his fascinating apartment, I felt as glamorous as a Vogue photograph, and savoured this borrowed beauty and splendour.

J.J. – short for James Julius – came from an American family, and adored his mother, and disappointed his father. Doing his compulsory military service, he fetched up in the office of a famously gruff Admiral. He barked at J.J. : “Why would a pansy like you choose the navy?” “Because I liked the colour of the uniform”, replied J.J. undaunted. He said he and the Admiral hammered out a working relationship in spite of this unpromising start.

From the navy he went to London, and into interior decorating, and a love affair which had lasted for some years until the other half found someone else. J.J. was still recovering from a broken heart. Though he’d  mentioned the word pansy, I supposed it was just a figure of speech. I was also surprised to discover that the impression of youth which he gave, slipped late at night when he was feeling lonely and unloved, and he looked his full forty years. I had taken him for late twenties.

His fascinating home was a showcase for his interior decorating skills, and I was charmed by the mix of European and Asian artefacts and antiques, which forty years ago was not as common as it is today. The effect of the elegant, worn leather chairs teamed with a Chinese altar table, wonderful mother of pearl and black lacquer Chinese screens, Philippine carved saints and madonnas found in an abandoned church, huge blue and white Chinese vases, and Italian Renaissance architectural drawings grouped together, leaving other walls completely bare, was grand and satisfying.

Since then I’ve seen his homes in other parts of the world featured in Architectural Digest, and recognised the same furniture, and the same elements. He had great style, and I learned a lot simply by observing his rooms. He was waited on by a very small neat Chinese man servant, who only cooked Chinese food, so J.J. only ate Chinese at home, on fragile Chinese porcelain, with chop-sticks.

He gave a me a precious ivory frog with green malachite eyes for Christmas. As I got to know him, I found he was incredibly visual, and incredibly ignorant and naive about anything outside his decorative world. He struggled through his working relationships by guesswork and wicked intuition and seemed to be always having rows and makeups with his rich clients scattered round the world, who would fly him back to the States to do a room for them, or to transform their log-cabin.

Over Christmas he went to Tokyo, and when he came back, kept ringing me to ask me to go and see him, but I was unusually busy at my journalistic grindstone, and didn’t get there until one day, three weeks later, when he insisted I come for afternoon tea. It was a grey January day. I was wearing a black wool trouser suit, and the hairdresser had piled my long dark hair up into the fashionable Madam Butterfly style.

When I arrived J.J. wasn’t ready for me. The manservant showed me into the drawing room looking down over the wintry harbour, a wistful symphony of soft greys and misty greens, which matched my elegaic mood. Ferries were churning back and forth to Kowloon and Victoria, and junks chugging up and down in the wake of the stately white liner Canberra gliding slowly down the centre of the harbour to her mooring.

As I watched, his voice called out: ” Never do your hair any other way”, and I turned around to see J.J. standing in his bedroom door, with a long, black silk kimono embroidered in scarlet poppies draped around him. He invited me into his bedroom, where he sat on his astonishing, antique, Chinese opium bed to talk. It was a bed fit for a king, encrusted with gold leaf and intricate red painted carving. He was drying his fair hair with a hair-dryer, the first time, in those macho days that I had seen a man using a hair -dryer.

But why not, I inwardly chided myself. He bemoaned the fact that I could wear eye-shadow, and men couldn’t. I began to see what I hadn’t recognised before and began giggling inside at myself and him. The silk kimono was magnificent, and I told him so. “That’s why you’re here,” he replied.

He had brought one back for me, an antique Japanese wedding kimono, in mellow cream silk shot with silver, and embroidered in solid gold thread with cranes. It was immensely long, to tuck over an obi, and lined with red silk. It was the most precious gift anyone had ever given me. In the end it was such a responsibility that I felt I couldn’t look after it properly, and gave it to the Auckland War Memorial Museum, so that it would be cared for as it deserved.

A few weeks after the interlude with Andrew Grima and his Hong Kong friends I had to look for another place to live, as our year was nearly up. I found a charming one in a small block of four apartments, overlooking the sea below Stanley Bay, just around the corner from the bustling Chinese marketplace.

And then I was suddenly ambushed by severe dysentery.  I shed eleven pounds in five days and remember thinking that this was how prisoners died like flies in Japanese prison camps during the war. A friend dropped in on the second day and found the children eating dry bread from the fridge. She rang my doctor, and when he arrived, he took my daughter to stay with him and my friend took my son.

The doctor said he knew I couldn’t afford to go to hospital, and he would let me stay at home if I got someone to be with me at night. I did. Ah Ping, who had left to try to qualify as a nurse a few months earlier – a terrible blow – came to see me.  The mysterious Chinese grape vine had told her I was ill- how they knew I never discovered. She disclosed that the man who had a fruit and vegetable barrow on wheels which he pushed around Repulse Bay to make a scanty living, lived in a tiny pig shed with his wife and children, and who I’d supplied with blankets and clothes, had waved her down and ticked her off for leaving me.

After two weeks of hell, I tottered to my feet and began packing to move house. My lovely Swedish friend, married to an Englishman, wouldn’t return my son until I was stronger she said, and my daughter came home looking tired and a bit grubby, the doctor’s wife didn’t get the children into bed until late. We loved our new home with most of the big windows opening out onto the view of sea and beach below. We watched the junks of the fishing fleet sail out into the sunset, red sails unfurled, and then saw them stream back in the morning and unload their night’s catch on the beach below our window.

We loved exploring the market and narrow alleys crammed with cramped Chinese shops, crammed with strange foods, and pungent smelling condiments. I bought two big earthen-ware jars, about two feet high that stored sugar, and turned them upside down, to use as side tables by the sofa. A large rice wine jar made an unusual base for a lamp with a big shade fitted, and I bought Chinese bowls and pots and china for a song.  One afternoon my son and I were meandering hand in hand through the market on our way to meet the school bus and my daughter, when I heard a low throaty roaring. It reminded me of the awful sound of the baying crowd when I’d been taken to a bullfight. I came on a mass of Chinese men in a tight circle, four or five people deep.

They were shouting and encouraging something, and as I craned to see what was going on, suddenly in a crack of space between the swaying bodies, I saw a tiny skinny six-year -old boy dodging around the tight circle and crying. A strong, crazed- looking youth of about fourteen was brandishing a length of piping which he was bringing down on the child who couldn’t escape as the men enjoying the spectacle barred his way.

Without thinking, I dropped my four -year -old’s hand, and pushed through the throng. I had no idea how I was going to stop it, but the solution appeared as I stepped into the circle. I grabbed the pipe as the youth, who seemed out of his mind and mentally handicapped, raised it above his head to bring it down again. He was so surprised that he stopped for a second, and the child seized his chance and darted away. There was a deep groan of disappointment and the crowd began to disperse.

And now I turned to gather up my son and he was nowhere to be seen. When I found him sometime later, he said he had no idea where I’d gone, so just went on plodding through the market and up the hill! As I put down the phone in the office after accepting another invitation for the children to spend the day with a friend and play in her big leafy garden — a rarity in Hongkong – my junior turned to me and said “You must have the most popular children in Hong Kong. You’re always getting invitations for them.”

It was true. From the day they were born I’d talked to them with the same courtesy that I spoke to my friends, and always checked how I would like to be treated if I was them. It had paid off. They were such co-operative good-natured children – articulate, well-mannered, and dressed in the beautiful clothes from places like Liberty’s sent from England by doting grand- parents, that many people found them irresistible.

Friends with children away at school in England would ‘borrow’ them to cheer themselves up, unmarried friends, both male and female would ask to take them to the ballet and pantomimes, while friends with children always wanted them to play with theirs. Sadly, my friend Pat who was always keen to have them, was now a broken- hearted woman hanging onto a thread of hope that her husband Welles was still alive in Cambodia. He’d been ambushed and beaten to death by the Khymer Rouge, which she didn’t learn  for over twenty years, in 1993.

The only people who weren’t interested in the children were my ‘lodgers’!  I had stopped doing an extra part-time job as PR for the Anglican church, because I felt like a hypocrite since I was anti-God then. The Bishop’s wife had asked me to take on the job, but in the end it felt all wrong. So then I tried to make ends meet by using the children as photographic models in ads and doing radio programmes and TV game shows myself. Finally, I hit on the idea of letting my spare room which was equipped with an en-suite bathroom.

I suppose it was inevitable that it was always odd bods who wanted a room, rather than socially competent achievers. The men were loners, one mummy’s boy who hung around my living area and wanted me to look after him or entertain him, another who had stormed out of his marriage, and was always attended by cohorts of righteous managing friends, or when he was alone, making vicious calls to his ex-wife on my phone. I didn’t need money so badly for them to stay. Three weeks for the first, one week for the second.

The girls were worse. They always had lovers, or fiancees, so I always ended up letting the room to two people instead of one. I could write a book about each one and their love affairs, broken engagements, car crashes, and strange personality quirks which impinged on my life. But I didn’t enjoy them.

I was Women’s Editor now and enjoyed crafting columns and writing about social issues like Hong Kong prisons, abortion, feminism, child care and such-like. My readers seemed to enjoy this mix along with fashion shoots, and makeup advice dished out by cosmetics advertisers, my recipes, and celebrity interviews. But the arithmetic of staying in Hong Kong became impossible when school fees went up, and I now had a second child ready to start school. We decided it was time to start a new life in a new place.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 Meeting two beloved friends for a celebration lunch, we ended our feast with crème brulee accompanied by banana and walnut bread. It was so delicious that I decided to try making some myself.

Sift one and quarter cups of SR flour, one teasp baking soda, and half a teasp salt into a medium bowl and set aside. Whisk two large eggs and half a teasp vanilla together in another container.   Cream half a cup of butter and a cup of sugar until light and fluffy. Gradually pour the egg mixture into the butter and mix. Add three ripe mashed bananas – the mixture will look curdled, but don’t worry.

Gently mix in the flour mixture, fold in half a cup of walnuts and pour the batter into a buttered loaf tin. Bake for 55 minutes in a pre-heated oven at 350F or until a toothpick inserted into the centre of the bread comes out clean. Cool the bread in the pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes then turn it out and let cool completely on the rack. Wrap in plastic wrap, it’s best served the next day, sliced with butter.

I roast the walnuts first, to avoid the danger of them being rancid.

Food for thought

 This was the poem and beautiful words by Richard Wilbur that one of my friends copied into my birthday card:

‘Blow out the candles of your cake

they will not leave you in the dark

who round with grace this dusky arc

of the Grand Tour which souls must take’.

 

 

 

 

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