Tag Archives: truth

Observing light and love

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It must be over forty years since I rummaged in that wastepaper basket in the office. I salvaged a photo I’d seen the photographer toss into it disgustedly – saying it was double exposed, and there was no way his camera should have produced such a useless image.

It’s guaranteed not to, he had exclaimed. So I looked at it, and recognised what I was seeing. The little old woman sitting in the chair with piercing brown eyes and a deeply wrinkled face was Mother Teresa, who had visited this country back in the early seventies.

I was working on a woman’s magazine. I had given up any belief in God, or the Supernatural a few years before, when my life seemed so awful that I blamed the Deity, and decided to get on without It. And I didn’t like Mother Teresa.

But the picture I was looking at was one of authentic holiness. The light around this woman ringed her body, and was not obliterated by the arms of the chair, but carried on around her form. I still have this photo, feeling that it is an historic one.

In the early pictures of saints, in western Renaissance pictures, Byzantine ikons, middle Eastern paintings, to Indian Jain and Hindu representations of holiness, artists have usually painted a halo around the head of a person. But this was a light which completely ringed Mother Teresa. Maybe it was her aura – which was filled with light.

I’ve never been very impressed by the efforts of the Catholic church to establish sainthood based on the person having performed at least two miracles of healing. Healing is not that rare, even among healers the Catholic church would not recognise as saints.

Healers to me are of rather a different order, and maybe some can see the light in their souls that is not obvious to us lesser mortals. Nelson Mandela, a great man, whose great work of healing is now being undone in South Africa, would be one of those healers… maybe Princess Diana, who brought comfort and hope and re-introduced the word ‘love’ into the vocabularies of some who never used it, was a healer. Albert Schweitzer, the great musician and theologian, turned doctor, who brought healing to the sick or dying Africans who came to him at Lambarene in Africa, was a great healer and a great man, but has never been called a saint.

The face of Major Keeble, who fought in the Falklands War is marked with that same spirituality which makes a difference in our world. He was second in command of his regiment, when Col H. Jones, a VC hero, was killed during the Battle of Goose Green. A devout Catholic, Keeble took command at a stage when one in six of his men were killed or wounded, they were largely out of ammunition, had been without sleep for 40 hours, surrounded by burning gorse bushes, and were vulnerable to a counter-attack. A hopeless situation in fact.

After kneeling alone in prayer amongst the burning gorse, he returned to his men, ordered them to ceasefire, and released several Argentine prisoners of war with a message to their commander to surrender or risk more casualties. The offer was accepted, no more killing and a peaceful surrender of the opposing Argentine forces was the result of his action/Guidance. Now retired and still making a difference, Keeble has  established a consultancy and lectures on the: “ethic of business transformation with the ethic of peoples’ flourishing”.

I have seen two halos. One was during a personal growth course when the forty-five of us there were being really challenged, and floundering. Then someone spoke up, joyful words of inspiration, courage and wisdom. I looked across at him with amazement, and saw a ring of light around his head, just as depicted in those ancient paintings.

The man with a halo was a gay who worked with Aids sufferers. He came to this course because two friends had persuaded him. His two friends were as ‘holy’ as he was – whole in the real sense of the word. I loved them both for their goodness and simplicity. Both were selfless teachers who loved their boys in the purest sense of the word. The last time I saw one of them, he was sitting on the pavement, his feet in the gutter in the pouring rain, with his arm around the shoulders of a desperate drunk.

The other time I saw a halo was when I looked across at a ten- year- old child, lost in playing an old church organ. Another photographer from the same magazine couldn’t resist taking a photo of her, and when it was developed, there was that ring of light emanating from the crown of her head. I can’t explain it. Neither could the photographer with his state of the art camera.

Years later, I was talking to a grandchild, the same age as the girl. He was surprised to discover from me, that not everyone saw the light that he saw, shining from people’s hands and sometimes all around them. Later that night, as I tucked him into bed, he sat up and said to me earnestly, “Grannie, everything that God creates comes from the light”.

Malcolm Muggeridge, the initially sceptical English journalist who went to India to see what Mother Teresa was up to, went to the tatty, ill-equipped hospital where the dying, lying destitute on the streets, were brought to her and her gentle loving nuns. He wrote that the hospital was filled with a light, which also felt like joy.

I can’t explain any of this. I’m just recording and revelling in the little that I have observed about light and love.

PS     Since leaving my other internet provider at the beginning of the year, I have struggled with my new one, discovering after some months, a second e-mail account where all the blogs I follow have been accumulating for months. So I have hundreds of e-mails to sort through, as well as thousands of others that this new email provider dug up from somewhere in the past, and generously deposited in my files. So I’m taking a break from writing my blog for a few weeks while I wade through this mystifying and mountainous back-log… be bak sun, as they say!!!

Food for threadbare gourmets

Deciding to sip our spicy pumpkin soup from cups made me re-think croutons, which I love. So instead of frying cubes of sour dough bread in olive oil, I fried squares and fingers of the bread instead, put them on a plate, and let people help themselves. They were so delicious and so successful that I will probably never bother with fiddly croutons ever again. Guests waxed nostalgic about fried bread from their childhood… don’t we do fried bread anymore?.

Food for thought

This made me laugh, another version of a famous prayer, but still – to some extent – true!

Lord, give me coffee to find the courage to do the things that I can change, and give me whisky to help me accept the things I cannot change…

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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 Royals, the truth, and The Crown Part 2

She does a marvellous job conveying the goodness, sincerity and intelligence of the Queen, but Claire Foy’s performance misses one thing – the Queen’s sparkling wit and flashing smile which lights up her whole face.

I was lucky enough to experience this wit and its quickness, and that wonderful smile at a reception on board her royal yacht Britannia. It’s an accepted convention not to repeat the conversations had with Royalty, one often ignored nowadays, so I won’t repeat my conversation with the Queen, any more than I will repeat the fun and intelligent talk I enjoyed with the Duke. Even at fifty he was still the good looking, charming man who married his princess, and quite unlike the charmless, bad-mannered person he was portrayed as in The Crown.

Since the series opens with their wedding I’ll go back there too, when Philip, who only had his navy pay to live on at that point, had enough innate self- esteem to be married in his old well-worn navy uniform, rather than borrow or cheat on rationed clothing coupons for the sake of looking smart for the in-laws, courtiers or anyone else.

The muttered conversation between Queen Mary and the Queen Mother denigrating Philip and his background could only have been a figment of the writer’s imagination, since Philip was far more royal than the then Princess Elizabeth. His pedigree goes back to the Tsars of Russia on one side (Nicolas II and the Tsarina attended his parent’s wedding in 1905 – the last big Royal wedding) plus a more direct line of inheritance from Queen Victoria than Elizabeth.

Of the two Queens who were supposedly bemoaning his background, Elizabeth’s mother was an aristocrat with no royal blood, and Queen Mary had been born a Serene Royal Highness, since her Hungarian father was not royal, though her mother, known as ‘Fat Mary’ (she was enormous, and no-one wanted to marry her until Francis of Teck was winkled out of Hungary) was George III’s grand-daughter.

Just as inaccurate were Churchill’s muttered remarks about Philip’s sisters being ‘prominent Nazis’ … One sister had been killed in an air accident that claimed her whole family in 1937, and a teenage Philip had walked to their funeral as he later walked with his grandsons at Diana’s funeral. Another sister’s husband had been a Nazi from the beginning, since like many others he thought Hitler would protect them from the Bolshevism which had assassinated their close Russian relatives – the Tsarina was his aunt.

But as time went on the relationships with Hitler and the Nazis foundered, this sister’s husband was killed in a mysterious air accident, while his brother was imprisoned in the concentration camp at Dachau, and his wife, Princess Mafalda had died in Flossenberg, another notorious concentration camp.

Liberal Prince Max of Baden – married to another sister – had funded Dr Hahn into his progressive Salem School. He lay low after the Nazis closed the school and Hahn escaped to Switzerland, and thence to Scotland via England. There Hahn had founded Prince Philip’s old school Gordonstoun. So that’s all the sisters and their husbands accounted for, and so much for that imaginary throwaway remark.

The apparently reluctant ennobling of Philip by the King was also very unlikely… the Royal family had known Philip even before he  was a frequent visitor to Windsor on his navy leaves, during the war. He always remained his own man, and when required to wear a kilt at Balmoral like all the royal family, curtsied to the King when he met him, causing great laughter all round.

As the years went by (with none of the marital aggro constantly featured  in the Crown) – no affairs – as Philip once famously responded to a reporter questioning him: “Good God, woman,” he thundered at her, “have you ever stopped to think that for the past 40 years I have never moved anywhere without a policeman accompanying me? So how the hell could I get away with anything like that?”

Pat Kirkwood, who had spent a night dining and dancing with Philip and her current boyfriend, the photographer called Baron, who’d brought Philip along with them, used to say that that one night in Philip’s company had ruined her whole life and even robbed her of a medal in the honours list. But as Philip wrote to her when she wanted him to issue a denial about a supposed affair, “Short of starting libel proceedings there is absolutely nothing to be done. Invasion of privacy, invention and false quotations are the bane of our existence”.

It’s true Philip was deeply hurt by the establishment opposition to his name, but his marriage remained the love match that it still is after seventy years. Staff tell of a younger Philip chasing Elizabeth up the stairs pinching her bottom, and her laughing and protesting before they disappeared into their bedroom.

Andrew Duncan, in his book ‘The Reality of the Monarchy’, tells of a fracas at a Brazilian reception, where he watched the Queen look miserably at Philip as he tried to restore order. ‘He smiled, touched her arm, and she relaxed, smiling nervously back, a tender look of tragic implications… theirs was a relationship… scrutinised everywhere, derided by critics, devalued by schmaltz’…  Andrew Duncan saw this ’non-public smile’ and wrote he was  reminded that ’this was a genuine love story and love match.’

Philip had resolved to support his wife while finding his own niche, which would lead in the following decades to the active patronage of more than 800 different charities embracing sports, youth, wildlife conservation, education, and environmental causes.

Within the family, Philip also took over management of all the royal estates, to “save her a lot of time,” he said. But even more significantly, as Prince Charles’s official biographer Jonathan Dimbleby wrote in 1994, the Queen “would submit entirely to the father’s will” in decisions concerning their children, so Philip became the ultimate domestic arbiter in their family.

Another biographer has described Philip’s caring fathering. He was recorded for example, saying amongst many other useful parenting tips, that one should never immediately say no to anything children want to do, but to think it over, and if eventually you have to say no they will accept it more easily … for contrary to popular belief he was not an authoritarian father.

In ‘The Crown’  when the couple were in Kenya before her accession, much was made of the Princess claiming  that she knew all about cars as she’d trained on them in the army. This is a well-honed legend, which doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. I was in the army too, and know how such things work.

For six months the Princess was chauffeured to an ATS  (Auxiliary Territorial  Service) detachment near Windsor every day and collected to return to the castle in the late afternoon. In her well pressed uniform or clean fresh dungarees cleaned and ironed by a maid, she joined carefully screened army personnel like Mary Churchill, the Prime Minister’s daughter, but she never lived in an army unit, got close to ordinary soldiers, polished her own shoes, or actually experienced army life.

In those moments in Kenya when she became Queen, I wondered where were the staff – Lady Pamela Mountbatten, lady in waiting, Mike Parker, Philip’s aide, Ruby MacDonald, the Queen’s dresser, Martin Charteris, private secretary, the housekeeper, maids, butler, waiters and so on?  I blenched at the incredibly dowdy mac and chiffon scarf Claire Foy was decked out in on her way to the airport having just become Queen, looking like a fifties suburban housewife going shopping.

The Queen had a full bosom, a tiny waist and elegant legs, and she wore dresses that displayed them to advantage. She would have died of heat wearing that tatty mac in Kenya. Neither did she wear all those dowdy blouses and cardigans. Only at Balmoral did she wear tailored shirts with kilts and cardy, though in her young days she was photographed playing with Prince Charles and Princess Anne wearing an elegant suit with nipped-in waist.

And I felt for the ghost of Sir Anthony Eden, played by a grim faced Jeremy Northam. Eden,  the famously handsome, charming, well dressed foreign secretary, was sporting  in-appropriate town clothes when in-appropriately barging into the King’s shooting party. After a life-time as a tactful diplomat, he’d never have worn the wrong clothes or turned up at the wrong moment!

And with all this whimpering about the series, I loved it for the beautiful interiors photographed in stately homes, lovely furniture, fabrics, scenery, and play of character… though the history was rickety, the drama was fascinating. But as one of the commenters in my last blog said so cogently: ‘If characters are not strong enough to stand on their own history as the stuff of narrative, then find other subjects. If they are, then why not stick to the facts?’

Thank you for those words, good friend at https://colonialist.wordpress.com/

I’ll round off this series next week when I can’t resist covering Princess Margaret’s shenanigans…  pity the producers didn’t use that wonderful line from the inimitable Sir Alan Lascelles, who, when Townsend told him he was going to marry the Princess, replied using that famous phrase about the poet Byron: ‘Are you mad, or bad?”

Food for threadbare gourmets

I had enough pasta for two left over from supper with friends, but instead of preserving it in cold water a la advice from those who know, I mixed it with enough olive oil to stop the lasagne from sticking, and it was much tastier than if it had had a cold bath.

For a quick lunch the next day I sauted an onion in good olive oil, and when soft added a tin of Italian tomatoes, plenty of garlic, a squish of balsamic vinegar and sweet stevia powder to taste, to give it that tangy and sweet flavour. Salt and freshly ground black pepper of course.  When it had all bubbled up, and become a nice thick mixture, I sprinkled lots of grated cheese over the lasagne in a casserole, poured the tomato mix over it, and then tipped plenty more cheese on top of that.

Three minutes in the microwave, cheese melted, and lunch was hot and ready to eat…. with a glass of the Riesling from last night too…..

Food for thought

To every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven… a time to keep silence and a time to speak. Ecclesiastes III verses 1 and 7

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Netflix-The Crown-The truth about the Royals?

Once upon a time, as all good fairy tales start (does anyone tell them nowadays?) I was commissioned to write a book about the Royals who had visited this country (New Zealand). They were many, beginning with the first Duke of Edinburgh, Queen Victoria’s second son, and continuing with today’s crop of Royals, including Charles and Diana.

Though I was only given five months in which to write this masterpiece, (I deduced that someone fitter than I had dropped out of the project at the last minute) I couldn’t resist doing a mass of quite unnecessary research, which meant that in the end I was reduced to writing from seven am in the morning to seven pm at night.

I was already well placed to write this book, though when I received the phone call from the publishers asking if I would a write a book for them, my flippant reply – ‘as long as it’s not a book on engineering…’ – did not endear me to the humour-less editor I worked with.

But years before, in idle moments in the magazine office I worked in, I had found a tome on Queen Mary. It was written by James Pope-Hennessey, who was what the Royal family call “a safe pair of hands”, meaning they were prepared to talk to him, open the archives, let him read letters and trust him not to say anything derogatory. His book started me off on all the other Royal biographies long before writing my book. Thus, Harold Nicolson writing his matching tome on George V, Queen Mary’s husband, was also considered a ‘safe’ pair.

So Pope-Hennessey for example, refrained from telling us that Queen Mary was a famous kleptomaniac. And well-placed gossip has it that after her death, her grand-daughter, this Queen and daughter in law, Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, had to make a number of embarrassing visits to stately homes around England in order to return various items of value to their rightful owners.

I am not a ‘safe ‘pair of hands, but I am a ‘truthful’ one, and was therefore quite bothered when watching Netflix’s work of fiction masquerading as fact. So much so that when I read they were hoping for a congratulatory phone call from the palace, I laughed out loud… I don’t think they should hold their breath. I don’t think the Queen would appreciate seeing her handsome intelligent, hard-working husband portrayed as a temperamental, insensitive, adolescent lout.

He once wrote, in a resigned letter to the film and stage star Pat Kirkwood, with whom he was accused of having an extra-marital affair: ‘Invasion of privacy, invention and false quotations are the bane of our existence.’ The facts in this case were that Baron the photographer, was Pat Kirkwood’s boyfriend and he took Philip to meet her after her show. They spent the night dining, dancing and ended up in Baron’s flat having scrambled eggs for breakfast. (more on this later)

Philip’s ancestry was much more royal than the Queen’s (she was only half royal, her mother simply being an aristocrat) and he was as accustomed to princes and palaces as she was. He had experienced the discipline of the navy since he was a teenager, and had a gallant war record, so he would never have shirked his Royal duties in the adolescent way Netflix writers portrayed… but back to him in the next blog.

There’s so much to say that I just have to take it in  chronological order. Eileen Atkins does a peerless job at portraying Queen Mary, but lots of fictional scenes there too… on the other hand, they missed a wonderful true moment of the real Queen Mary advancing on the prime minister, Mr Baldwin during the Abdication crisis, wringing her hands, and exclaiming in a distraught and un-queenly fashion quite unlike her – “Here’s a pretty kettle of fish!”.

The subject of this remark, her son and son of her husband, George V, who had said: “The boy will ruin himself in twelve months,” was the new King Edward. (He did it in eight months.) Alex Jennings who plays him- and who played Prince Charles memorably in the film ‘The Queen’ – portrays a much stronger and slightly more likeable character than the real flaky king and prince.

Private secretary Sir Tommy Lascelles – played with great veracity in the film – had resigned from his service when he was Prince of Wales, appalled by the Prince’s louche and reckless way of life, woman-ising, drinking, and neglecting his duties. Now the reluctant new King Edward inherited the reluctant Lascelles from George V who had re-employed Lascelles, and the carelessness and irresponsibility of Edward were even more marked now, to the dismay of everyone close to him, not just his private secretary.

Government officials began censoring the documents they sent to him for signature in the red boxes for example, after state papers and documents were returned with wine-stains and finger marks, and it was rumoured that they were being passed around the social set partying around his desk – Mrs Simpson among them. It’s notable that in all the years of this Queen’s reign she has never shown the contents of the red  boxes to her trustworthy husband.

It was strident, social-climbing, twice married Mrs Simpson who is credited with links to Ribbentrop, the infamous German ambassador hanged at the Nuremburg Trials and influencing Edward in his notorious pro-Nazi views. She was also famous for flaunting around London the wonderful jewels the besotted Edward showered upon her, and which caused so much gossip at the time. (There were people who felt a statue should be raised in her honour, they were so thankful to her for being instrumental in getting rid of a king who would probably have brought down the throne.)

Unlike the Netflix version, the ex-king was never short of money – he was in fact, a very rich man, having amassed a fortune from the Duchy of Cornwall all the time he was Prince of Wales, (like the present holder of the title) and sold Balmoral and Sandringham to his rather more cash-strapped brother, the reluctant new King. Once on the loose, married to the woman he loved, the now Duke of Windsor set the pattern of endless socialising he and the Duchess became famous for.He also gallivanted off to see Hitler, who planned to re-instate him, and went on record as saying that the Duchess of Windsor ‘would have made a good queen’ – nuf’ said.

I won’t go into their disloyal war record, which began with the Duke (who had been given the rank of general) deserting without leave his military post in Paris when the Germans were arriving, without even letting their devoted, but unpaid staff know. On the other hand, they arranged for the Germans to guard their Paris apartments, which the Germans did, sealing and protecting them throughout the war… the Windsor’s were probably the only people in the whole of Europe whose home and possessions were intact after the war.

Windsor never had cosy little breakfasts discussing helpful tips on kingship with the present Queen, a la the Crown and Netflix. Apart from his visit to England for George VI ‘s funeral, she didn’t meet him until 1965 when he came to England for a visit, and then in ‘67. Finally, on a state visit to Paris in 1972, she took tea with him.

Sir Tommy’s Lascelles diaries are an invaluable record of much of this time, witty, irascible, authoritative, erudite, in the know… and almost family. In the photo of his daughter’s wedding in ‘45, the whole Royal family (what he termed a ‘pride of Royals’) were there, from Queen Mary and the King,  down to Princess Margaret – with Townsend in the background.

The good looking and elegant Townsend he termed: ‘a devilish bad equerry’. Among other true-to-life portraits was his picture of Churchill dining at Buckingham Palace the night news from Alamein was hoped for. At last, unable to wait any longer, the Prime Minister excused himself and went off and telephoned his office.

He returned with Lascelles, ambling down the golden corridor  singing ‘with little evidence of musical talent’ in Lascelles’ acid account: ‘Roll out the barrel’ with gusto, to the astonishment of the footmen standing to attention. This story, as with so many other references to Churchill dining at the palace, gives the lie to the ridiculous scene of the Prime Minister refusing to sit before his new sovereign with all the daft waffling about not sitting in her presence.

He’d sat in her presence and that of his previous sovereign, plenty of times over the last eight or more years, and had known Elizabeth more or less for most of her life, remarking favourably on her appearance when she was two and taking time out from running the war and the country in 1941, to send her red roses on her fifteenth birthday.

I can’t resist writing in my next blog about the skewed facts and in-accuracies about George VI and his daughters – Princess Margaret and the present Queen – and the truth about Prince Philip. The same writer who wrote the successful West-end play and film called ‘The Audience’, about the Queen and her prime ministers, wrote this series.

I walked out of that film after half an hour, in spite of Helen Mirren, as I found it painful watching so many imaginative reconstructions then! So no wonder I find this series hard to swallow. I know it’s meant to be entertainment but the facts are just as entertaining as the fiction being served up… and the fiction seems rather hurtful to some of the characters.

“More to come”, as we used to write at the bottom of each page of a story in the newsroom before the days of computers ended hand delivered copy! As a journalist for most of my life, facts matter. Concocting a good story is not my line…

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

It seems appropriate to share a recipe with a Royal theme, so the first version of this dish known as Coronation Chicken was created for the Queen’s coronation. This version by Lady Maclean is the one I prefer.

Taking enough cold cooked chicken for four, stir it into a mix of good mayonnaise, curry power, golden syrup and cream to make a creamy consistency, and deliciously tangy and sweet taste.

The key is the cold rice which is served with it. Make a good vinaigrette dressing with a teaspoonful each of Dijon mustard, and sugar, plus plenty of black pepper. Defrost a cupful or more of green peas, and soak them in boiling water until soft.

Do the same with a good handful of sultanas. In a frying pan quickly toast a generous cupful of slivered almonds (watch them – they burn quickly). Finely chop a generous handful of parsley, and just before serving, mix all these ingredients with the rice.

Food for Thought

This poem was written by fifteen -year- old Minnie Haskell, and George VI recited it in his 1939 Christmas speech, the first Christmas of the war. The Queen, who was 13 at the time, gave it to him, she had found it in a privately printed book of poetry….

THE GATE OF THE YEAR

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

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Pit-stop for blogging

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The vicissitudes of the life, the overwhelming winter, the pressures of people – friendly or otherwise, have caused me to go into overload, to take my eye off the ball, or in this case, my focus off the blog. Like the notice in the door of our village shop occasionally, this is a coded one reading ‘ back in five mins’, or ’gone for lunch,’ or ‘bak sun’.

But since this blog is like an opportunity shop, with a ragbag of ideas and opinions strewn around ( probably second-hand), I invite any readers who stray into the op-shop to feel free to rifle through the shelves of old or pre-loved blogs if they have nothing better to do …

In Auckland in the late sixties, early seventies there was a Love Shop. One of my first assignments on arriving here in NZ, was to cover the closing down of the Love Shop. Queues of people lined the pavement outside to take for free, or in exchange for a metaphorical song, the odds and ends cluttering the shelves.  Similarly, if anyone strays into this little op-shop, they too are welcome to the pre-loved blogs lining the shelves of the archives…

Among my favourites were: ‘Precious Objects’, ‘Places in the Heart’ and ‘Storms of Delight’… though a real delight is when sometimes people write and tell me they’ve re-read an old blog.

So I will leave any stray readers/ shoppers who pop in, to roam through shelves of blogs from the past if they wish, while I hang up my notice – Bak (quite) Sun.

 

Food for thought

..” It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top”…    Virginia Woolf

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The nuts and bolts of writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 Food for Threadbare Gourmets

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

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

 Food for Thought

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

Sir James Dewar, eminent Scottish physicist. 1842 -1923

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hollywood, Ruined Reputations and Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love this story for its humanity and decency.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

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

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

 

Food for Thought

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

Jiddhu Krishnamurti  1895 – 1986 Teacher, philosopher

 

 

 

 

 

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