Tag Archives: Wellington

Country Life, UFO’s and Russian Spies

Image result for victorian villas in nzAnother installment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

As the Thomas Case unfolded, we were putting together a new life, and moving out of the city.

I’d imagined living in a village, but the New Zealand country-side is not like that. Instead there are a few scattered small towns among dairy or cattle farms which spread in great swathes across rolling hills and fields.

We, of course, didn’t want a farm, but somewhere to live not too far from Auckland to work. We found it. A half- acre of abandoned tennis courts forty minutes from the city. It lay in a valley mostly farmed by descendants of the original settlers, and who, we learned later, were well known in those parts for somewhat antique life styles and opinions which had not changed much since their ancestor’s distant pioneering days.

In the beginning we were an exotic phenomenon. Half the farmers were Catholic, so Patrick was a familiar personality to them through the Catholic newspaper, and as such we were disapproved of … were we married or not? Others decided we were Jews, which was not a term of approval. Others were not too keen on people who were undermining the justice system, and trying to get a guilty man who’d murdered one of their kind out of prison. ( All this information came home via the children at the village school)

As time went on I compounded this mistrust by campaigning in my columns (which were read) against the spraying of the fields with a dioxin pesticide, 245T – now discontinued – felling of trees, treatment of animals and other unpopular causes.

We found an old Victorian villa, with traditional white lacy carving along the verandas, and moved it out to our little piece of land, transforming the wrecked shell into a warm, colourful and beloved home, and planted trees and grass and flowers over time.

While we were still settling into the house and the community, I flew to the South Island to open a solo parent conference in the mountains above Nelson, a beautiful little city. On the way I stopped in Wellington, the capital, to have lunch with a well- known lawyer and civil rights activist- Shirley Smith- who had contacted me. She was married, I learned, to another well-known New Zealander, Bill Sutch, historian, writer, top civil servant, ex-diplomat, now retired and Chairman of the Queen Elizabeth Arts Council.

The diminutive, untidy sweet- faced woman who met me at the airport was quite unlike the elegant sophisticated lawyer I’d expected. She had a wonderful simple directness, as well as being articulate, warm and intelligent. Being a somewhat disorganised housewife, she stopped at corner shops on the way up Wellington hills to pick up butter, bread and various things for lunch.

And then this highly civilised woman took me into her house on the hill where I enjoyed her conversation and the resources of her remarkable mind. It’s a rare pleasure in these times, for someone to be able to fall back on ancient poetry or history to illustrate a point, and when few people are fluent in Greek and Latin, French and German- and also Anglo-Saxon- which she had learned to keep pace with her daughter when she was at University.

I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the house designed by renowned Austrian architect Ernst Plishke and filled with fascinating and precious objects…walls of books, tribal rugs, a large T’ang horse, pictures by famous painters stacked because there was nowhere else to put them, brass Buddhas, ancient terracotta Etruscan figurines, Eskimo carvings, antique pewter. I learned later that her husband Bill’s collection was famous.

Bill himself now came in from the garden, which was his pride and joy, and in which he’d created a Mediterranean micro-climate to grow olive trees and protect other exotic fragile plants from the cold Wellington winds. He was wearing an old red checked shirt pinned together with safety pins at irregular intervals where there had long ago been buttons, and wearing battered corduroy trousers…

He was shabby and courteous and delightful. As time went by, I loved him for his sense of humour and incredible erudition, for his love of sophisticated art and his joy in simple things like my blackberry and apple tart or bunch of buttercups on our dining table.

On this day, lunch was eaten at their table, laid with fragile German china on a Mexican tablecloth, with reminisces about how these things had ended up in Bill and Shirley’s home, mixed with anecdotes about Bill’s time in politics, with UNRRA after the war, and at the United Nations in its earliest days… places and people from the headlines of my childhood, from all over Europe and all over the world… at the League of Nations and watching Anthony Eden battling at Geneva before the war, Eleanor Roosevelt after the war, his struggle to keep Unicef going when the UN wanted to close it down, (one commentator has said that Bill should have been included in Unicef’s Nobel Peace Prize) Bill tramping across Tashkent, Samarkand, Afghanistan, into North-western India in the twenties, exploring Mexico together, and Shirley’s memories of pre-war Oxford when she was studying classics.

Shirley’s simplicity was the polarity of Bill’s immense complicatedness. Bill cared for the under-privileged because it was the duty of all upright people to do so. Shirley loved the poor and the oppressed. She was incapable of passing by anyone who needed help, and spent most of her time in her law practise helping those whom others wouldn’t help, acting for those who couldn’t afford legal expenses. She never made a penny out of her practise.

When they delivered me back to the airport, I was drunk on the glory of enjoying what Mr Eliot in Persuasion described as the best company – “clever well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation.”

I continued my journey to Nelson, wearing what Patrick used to describe as my Russian spy outfit, consisting of a long high-necked black coat trimmed with fur, black trousers and long black boots, and large black sunglasses. This was quite relevant when Patrick rang me the following Friday afternoon.

“That charming gentleman you had lunch with last week”, he said, “has just been arrested as a Russian spy”. He added – “I hate to think what the SIS made of you arriving at the airport in your Russian spy outfit, going up to their house, and returning to the airport to fly out again”. “I don’t believe it,” I replied, and sat down to write to Shirley. I learned afterwards that many of their friends deserted them after this appalling incident.

Shirley was in a state of shock after the Secret Intelligence Service- SIS – had crashed into their house late at night after they’d arrested Bill- who didn’t drive – walking up the street with a bottle of milk from the dairy…having been seen talking to a Russian diplomat. The SIS men went through the house, taking out every book in the shelves, searching for any incriminating evidence – none of which they found.

Bill’s trial – the first and only spy trial in this country, was set down for the next year, but now in December, we were caught up again in the Thomas Case. I used to say we ate, drank and slept the Thomas Case, with phone calls, conferences, Thomas family calling in to see us, angry, desperate Vivian visiting, public meetings, and now the Court of Appeal in Wellington.

Patrick was the go-between and principal mediator between the different branches of the campaign, including the Thomas family, his parents and all his brothers and sisters, the lawyers, the Retrial Committee, the police, the newspapers, and the politicians.

While Patrick was in Wellington battling the arrogant bullying Chief Justice and his panel of mainly prejudiced judges, I stayed behind with the children and had the first of many extraordinary experiences. At the Guy Fawkes gathering, and over tea at the Country Women’s Institute I had heard people claim to have seen UFO’s in the valley.

Farmers up at four o clock in the morning for early milking saw them, one woman was terrified when she saw them and locked her doors, others were more pragmatic and curious. I didn’t know what to think… farmers tend not to be fanciful…

On this evening, at about seven o’ clock on a summer’s night, when it was still light, with no stars in the sky, I saw a large light hanging above the hill opposite our house. As I stood there, wondering if this was a UFO. I became convinced. It was too large for any star. It hung there silently and unmoving. Then suddenly it shot up vertically and without a sound at enormous speed, and disappeared and I was left with a strange sense of joy and peace.

The next day I flew down to Wellington to the Court of Appeal and sat through the drama and hate and pain which pervaded the court room.

To be continued

 Food for Threadbare Gourmets

 A friend was coming unexpectedly for supper last week when the cupboard was somewhat bare… we’re half anhour away down a muddy tortuous road to the nearest shops, so there’s no chance to nip to a corner shop for emergency supplies. So out of the deep freeze that afternoon came a packet of frozen pumpkin soup and some frozen chicken. I boiled the chicken with onion, carrot, celery and garlic, which gave me chicken stock and chicken.

I flossied up the pumpkin soup with a chicken bouillon cube, stirred in some butter, cream and nutmeg, and this cheered up a bought soup. I made a risotto with the chicken stock, white wine, onion, garlic, chopped mushrooms and arborio rice, and at the end grated a courgette into it before adding the chopped chicken, cream, salt and pepper and some fresh parmesan.

We were having this meal on our knees on a cold winter’s night, so the soup was served in cups to sip. The risotto with extra parmesan was easy to eat on our knees, especially since I’d put the vegetables in the dish, so we didn’t have to cope with salad. My friend was trying to lose weight so I didn’t make a pudding but arranged on a pretty plate dates, walnuts, dried figs and crystallised ginger so she could graze if she wished. She did – strict diet not withstanding! And we all downed with gusto the pink champagne she had bought.

Food for Thought

We are not going to be able to operate our Spaceship Earth successfully nor for much longer unless we see it as a whole spaceship and our fate as common. It has to be everybody or nobody. R. Buckminster Fuller

 

 

 

 

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Books and real people

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So many bloggers write about their experiences writing fiction that I’ve begun to look long and hard at what I read.  Mostly diaries, letters, biography, autobiography and history.

Why? I’ve been asking myself. I think of a panorama of people, living and dead and what I love about these accounts of real life are the moments of humanity and truth that emerge, lighting up the character of each person, and giving me such an insight into the goodness, variety, and endless capacity for living which we humans are capable of.

Though fiction gives us these moments too, I love to see them embedded in the life of people we know in history, and to see how we have changed so much – and not changed at all.

So there’s the Venerable Bede, who introduced the terms AD and BC into our language and wrote dozens of books in ‘Englisch’ for the first time in history. This gentle, scholarly man was a foodie in the seventh century, and spiced up the basic monastery fare in remote Northumbria by using rare and expensive peppercorns. He bequeathed his little store to his fellow monks when he died…and also his handkerchiefs… another luxury in that far-off century.

And talking of food – what an intriguing insight into the character of Ulysses Grant – to read that this great soldier, who was responsible for sending hundreds of thousands of men to their deaths in the struggle between the Union and the Confederates – hated the sight of blood. All his meat was overcooked to the point of being crisp. He never went hunting, refused to attend a bull – fight held in his honour in Mexico when he was president, and was probably the first horse whisperer, a superb horseman who could do anything with any horse.

Another great general, Wellington – whose horse Copenhagen, was as famous as Robert E. Lee’s Traveller – loved dancing, and any officer on his staff had to fulfill the job description of being a good dancer. Onlookers were surprised by their frivolity and their dedicated efficiency, but between battles, these dashing young aristocrats danced their way around Vienna, Brussels and Paris, their most famous dancing date being the Duchess of Richmond’s ball on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. When Napoleon surprised Wellington (“Humbugged, by God!” exclaimed Wellington) many of these officers had to rush straight from the ballroom to the battle in their dancing shoes.

I read seventeenth century John Evelyn’s diaries, and his account of passing Stonehenge in a carriage, and attempting an act of vandalism, hammering at one of the huge stones, and failing to make a dent. He reaches across the centuries when his eldest son, five year old Jack died suddenly, and he wrote what so many bereaved parents feel: “Here ends the joy of my life, for which I go mourning to the grave.”

On the other hand, famous philanderer, English MP Alan Clark, shows that the hard arrogant swashbuckling man is a complex unpredictable human being, when he writes of seeing the heron who’s been poaching the fish in his moat. (He lived in a castle… doesn’t everyone?) and seizing his rifle shoots it. He describes the slow dignified ebbing of life as the beautiful creature keels over, and he weeps in horror as he feels the enormity of what he has done.

I love the story of Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, who had had a dreadful carriage accident with two bolting horses. As he lay in pain in bed at home, missing all the action and excitement around the start of Lincoln’s second term, Lincoln came to visit him, on his return from Richmond. He lay down on the bed, alongside the agonised man, propped himself on one elbow, and told him all that was going on, asked his advice, and made him feel he was still an important and valuable cog in the wheels, instead of a sick bystander. The tenderness and sensitivity of the long, lanky President lying on the bed, looking into the eyes of his suffering colleague moves me deeply.

As does the picture of Isabella Burton, the famous explorer Sir Richard Burton’s wife, sitting on the dusty ground in her voluminous Victorian skirts at their house in Damascus, cradling her pet panther in her arms until he died. He’d been poisoned by a neighbour.

Yes, I love fiction, especially the oldies like George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, the inimitable Jane, and others, but it’s that feeling of recognition and empathy that I love when reading about the humanity of these ordinary, or great or historical people. Like crusty old King George V complaining about his eldest son’s suits, with turn-ups on his trousers, and Queen Victoria writing to her second son Alfie ticking him off for his smoking, putting his hands in his pockets, parting his hair in the middle, as well as his “frightful stick-ups” – high collars – they remind us that parents’ disapproval of their childrens’ clothes and habits is a long- standing tradition.

Waiting in a stuffy men’s club, I saw a book- case filled with old books. One title jumped at me – the memoirs of Count Lichnowsky. I had no idea who he was, and became entranced by his historic and vivid descriptions of being German Ambassador in England on the outbreak of World War One. He wrote of his heartbreak as he left London where he admired and respected all the statesmen there, and I read all his frantic telegrams to the Kaiser, trying to stop the immoral invasion of Belgium which triggered the conflict in France.

But best of all, I read his description of Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary who spoke those immortal words on the eve of World War One: “The lights are going out all over Europe.” Sir Edward, a humble and rich man who rode a bicycle to get to and from friend’s houses – up to thirty miles away –  used to feed by hand the red squirrels who came to the window of his house in Scotland.

Tender glimpses of real people, moments of gentleness, of love and goodness… these are the reasons I love non-fiction … insights into men and women’s souls, windows into their lives… the history of the human race in these moments of truth and intimacy. And this, of course, is why blogs are such addictive reading. They give me the same connection with truth and reality.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

One of the things that I’m never without are packets of chipped or slivered almonds (not flaked). They make a difference to every dish I use them in. I toast them in a dry frying pan  and sprinkle them over cauliflower cheese, and they give it a wonderful crunch to contrast with the smooth cheese sauce and soft cauliflower. I toast them to add to raw cauliflower salad for that crunch too.

And they are wonderful in rice salad. This is the basis for a cold chicken salad, which I’ll share in the next post. The rice has peas, juicy soaked sultanas, chopped parsley- plenty – and lots of toasted almonds for the crunch factor. At the last minute, add a vinaigrette dressing and gently mix it through.

Food for Thought

“Oh King, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time which is unknown to us, it seems like the swift flight of a sparrow through the banqueting hall wherein you sit at supper in winter with your thanes and counsellors.

In the midst there is a good fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. The sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another.

While he is inside, he is safe from winter storms; but after a short space of fair weather, he vanishes out of your sight into the dark winter from which he came. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before or what is to follow, we know nothing.

The Venerable Bede  AD 672/3 – 735   Monk, historian, teacher

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