Tag Archives: writing

Tropical learning curves

15

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

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

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

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

The man who tried to teach me to write was a very patrician academic, who wrote book reviews for The Times and was also an army officer. He was our charismatic headmaster – tall, elegant, witty and charming. He didn’t normally teach but he decided to coach me himself for the newly introduced A levels.

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

He taught me to write short simple sentences, to use short Anglo -Saxon words, and never pompous, pretentious Latin words. He’d say chuck instead of throw and tried to teach me not just to write good direct prose, but to think for myself too, and once when I had written an obsequious essay on Anthony and Cleopatra, he teasingly wrote at the bottom: “Beware too slavish an adulation of the Bard!”

The best training he gave me was to write a précis nearly every day, of a piece of weighty Elizabethan or Restoration prose, reducing each piece to a third of its length. It was a rigorous exercise, which trained me to express meaning in the most efficient and simplest way. It taught me to understand the meaning of words so I could translate them into a simpler briefer version and sharpened up my whole writing style. And that was it – the nuts and bolts of writing.

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

I learned to write truthfully, and to avoid sentimentality – I think! And this for me, is still the challenge of writing, over half a century later; truth means finding the exact word with no compromises, which means knowing how I truly feel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

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

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

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

 Food for thought

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

~ Iyanla Vanzant

 

 

 

 

 

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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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A hiatus

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

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

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

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Blogging – antidote to writers’ heartbreak

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“Writers don’t go to hell”, said Anthony Howard, an English writer, “they have such hell on earth with their publishers, that when they die, they go straight to heaven.”

As a mere journalist at the time who didn’t dare call myself a writer, I shuddered at what abysses of despair that remark revealed, and  thanked my lucky stars that my fate would never be to agonise over a publisher.

Times change, and I’ve discovered what he meant… the anguish of  clumsy editors who think they understand the English language better than you do, seems to be the fate of too many writers. I remember my husband writing his umpteenth book, and on receiving the proofs, finding his manuscript had been improved by a feminist editor who’d replaced words like ‘ mankind’ with ‘personkind’, and’ brotherhood’ with ‘personhood.’

I, on the other hand, was once gifted with an editor who had just started at the publishing house, and bright- eyed and bushy-tailed, wanted to prove her worth to her new employers. After she’d completely re-written my first chapter, I suggested she might as well write the rest of the book, and they could dispense with me. They found another editor!

When asked to edit a book or an article, I use the lightest of pencils, knowing well the lacerated feelings of an author whose copy has been ‘improved’, the rhythm of sentences destroyed, words replaced, or others inserted.  And I am living proof that editors often don’t have any understanding of the book they’re working on.

I was once asked to edit a gold- plated leather- bound copy of The World Book of Rugby. My husband swears he actually saw my jaw drop when an emissary from the publisher called in and asked me to take the job on, as their previous editor had just crashed out (probably with boredom).

Conscious of the angst of all writers whose precious words are deemed  unsuitable by an insensitive know-all who has probably never written a book, I  only really checked the spellings of names and teams, grammar and punctuation – not a strong point with sports writers – or me either -and tried to master rugby terms like loosies, flankers, dropped goals and the like – which are different in the two hemispheres..

My finest hour was when I was groaning over the teams for South Africa and Australia at an important test match, and the computer that is our mind clicked into place. There were two players, Jason Small and James Little, and when I looked at the teams, something told me their names had been transposed. They were both playing in the same positions but on the wrong sides. Looking up the records I was right – a huge blunder but an easy mistake.

And that’s what proof-readers and editors are for, to my mind. They are not there to re-write the copy. How people like Dylan Thomas and James Joyce got their eccentric words, constructions and sentences past the eyes of people who think they can write better prose than the writer submitting his precious baby to them I don’t know. So there are obviously some wonderful publishers too… but it’s getting to them that’s the challenge…

So often writers wrestle with language (especially the English language), puzzle over plot and construction, assemble their research and marshal their facts, and then day after day, or night after night, write and re-write and eliminate and polish and check and then re-write and re-think, and finally offer up the fruit of this silent, dedicated labour and joy to someone who doesn’t seem to give a damn for their exquisite prose and potential masterpiece!

And then there are the reviewers and critics. When a craftsman makes a beautiful chest, people don’t look at it and say: ‘did you think of using the grain a different way?’… or: ‘ were you conscious that that leg isn’t quite straight?’  They don’t say to a painter: ‘did you really feel that composition was quite satisfying? … ‘had you really thought through that colour palette?’ or: ‘I just feel that brush-stroke there is a bit clumsy’.

A composer can write his song or his symphony without someone suggesting it would sound better in B minor instead of C minor, or that that crescendo seemed a little over the top in the context of the slow movement.  But it seems as though writing is fair game for everyone who thinks they’ve got a degree in English – or not.

The only other artists who have to endure the pain of their sensitive souls being bruised like ours, are actors and singers. And my heart bleeds for them when pundits pull their performance apart and mention that the soprano cracked on a high D, or the bass is over the hill and past his best.

And this is where blogging is saving the souls of frustrated writers. We can write and experiment and develop our style and stretch our talents without anyone cutting us down to size. Other bloggers are supportive, understanding, and discriminating, but not judgemental.

So writers who blog may now begin to savour what heaven is – writing because you have no choice but to write – and writing knowing that the fear of those precious words being mangled and misunderstood, improved or deleted, is no longer our fate. Blogging allows us to climb out of the pits of despair, rejection and criticism into the sunshine of writing for the joy of it. The gods are not crazy after all.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Chicken mousse is a lovely summer dish and it doesn’t need gelatine, which I never use. Just melt two oz of butter in a basin over a pan of boiling water. Add 3oz of breadcrumbs, half a pint of cream, salt and a good punch of nutmeg. Stir for about five minutes until it thickens. Add three eggs and three table spoons of dry sherry, beat them together and then stir in eight oz of chopped chicken. Pour the mixture into a buttered soufflé dish or similar, cover with foil and bake in a moderate oven until firm – about half an hour. When cool, serve with a creamy mayonnaise with a chopped avocado in it. Delicious.

 

Food for thought

… Man’s real home is not a house, but the Road and… life itself is a journey to be walked on foot…              Bruce Chatwin  1940- 1989.  From his Book ‘What am I doing here”.

Life is a bridge. Cross over it, but build no house upon it.        Indian proverb

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Summer song

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Walking around the cemetery on New Year’s Eve the sky was still and clear, no silver, almost transparent moon yet, rising above the sea looking like a silver sliver of dried honesty in the pale night sky. Instead there were gulls circling silently and intently overhead, weaving endlessly in and out, never touching or interrupting the arc of another bird.

After a while I chose one single gull, and watched its movements, following its wide circles and trajectories and swoops until finally it headed out to sea in the direction of Little Barrier Island, which hovers, misty indigo, on the horizon.

It felt like a holy silence, the tracery of the gulls’ flight woven like a network of silver filaments overhead, the cemetery a cathedral, silent, sacred and undisturbed. The Universe may have been un-aware that it was New Year’s Eve around Planet Earth, but surely that thought -form which meant we were all conscious of this moment in time, must have created that charged and sacred energy which I was feeling then.

Today it has rained. Things can start growing again, and I can stop watering – for a few days anyway. The countryside has the richness of high summer. The trees are billowing with green foliage, the fields have been cut for hay, and the grass in the meadows is so high that when the calves lie down, their heads just peep out of the tops of grass heads, plantains, buttercups and clover. I thought I saw a flight of big brown butterflies the other day, and it was the tips of their velvet ears reaching out of the pasture. The thrush in the garden sings continuously between pecking at the apple nailed to the top of the fence.

Tonight I was strolling round the cemetery, and the harbour below was the deep dark green of an Arthurian mere. It was as still as a mere too, and the boats at anchor were reflected with perfect clarity. Turning to face out to sea, the ocean was quite colourless with a deep band of blue on the horizon.

I’m constantly re-filling the dogs’ water bowl by the pavement. I hear them slurping away, as people walk past to the beach, thirsty Labradors and dobermans, bitzers and bichon frises, poodles and pointers… even a bulldog.

Earlier today, reading James Lees-Milne’s diaries, listening to the summer rain, I discovered his description of an English summer night in 1946: “the smell of new-mown hay and hedgerows, of eglantine and elder… how I love these long gentle Shakespearean summer evenings…”  Me too. The scent of the queen of the night comes drifting in from the open window at night here. It’s sweet and lovely… but I miss that indefineable atmosphere of those English summer nights.

Those nights throb with nostalgia and a richness. Somehow, it’s as though the layers and layers of lives lived in those parts, the echoes of history stretching back beyond memory and beyond record, the people in the millenniums before Christ, who trod out the ancient paths that still thread across hills and ridges and valleys and fords, can all still be sensed. The voices are silent, but their presence still lingers, as one century after another passes across the meadows and the woods.

The oak and the ash, the hazel and the hawthorn, the holly and the honeysuckle have been growing there since the last ice-age twelve thousand years ago. The smells, the sweet blossom, the new mown hay, the whiff of manure, the fresh rain, the damp leaves, have smelt the same in every age and every summer since. Standing in a quiet English lane on a soft summer night, you can feel those long centuries, and it is very touching.  I haven’t experienced a summer evening for a long time. I’ve always been back in autumn or in winter. But I must savour a June night once more!

Feeling homesick for the English country-side, I got “Far from the Madding Crowd” and “Tess of the D’Urbervilles off the top shelf of the book-case, and had an orgy of Hardy. Tess first, and the sweetness of Talbothays farm, then Bathsheba and her story… I read it differently this time, not so much for the drama of the story, but for the feeling of the country.

So I really took in for the first time, the delicious characters of the farm-folk, and the details of farming life, from the signs of an approaching storm, to the rituals processing through the year of lambing and dipping, and fattening and shearing, to the yearly sheep fair, the shearing supper and the harvest supper.

It was a way of life which had existed for over a thousand years when Laurie Lee in the enchanting ‘Cider with Rosie’, told the story of his childhood, and an archaic way of life  which then vanished forever, with the combine harvester, chemical farming, agri-business and of course the destruction of communities  by the carnage of the First World War.

I’m always struck in Hardy’s books, and in Jane Austen’s letters, by the isolation and “localness” of country life back then. So many people hardly ever left their village, unless they were gentry, and the next village was a foreign country. So when people fell in love in these tiny societies, and lost the object of their affections, through death, departure or rejection, there was often no-one else to love. People literally did grieve and die in different ways, from broken hearts.

Hardy’s description of the hopeless love by the dairy-maids at Talbothays farm for the un-attainable gentleman, Angel Clare, had the unmistakeable ring of truth.  I remembered from closed societies I lived in when I was young, whether in an English village, or a tiny colonial community far away from any other European habitation, how intense relationships were when there were no others. No-one could console themselves before the population explosion, and peripatetic habits of the twentieth century, that there were plenty of other pebbles on the beach. There weren’t.

Yet now, though I live in a tiny village with only four hundred souls, we are no longer prisoners of geography. Not only do people take off to holiday in Alaska and Italy, and their families return from Vancouver and Hanoi, but we all have the world of the internet at our fingertips, to use that well-worn, but accurate cliché in this instance.

It’s eighty- six years since Thomas Hardy died, and in those years our worlds and our lives and maybe our minds have expanded beyond imagining. The world is our village, and the internet is our community. There are pebbles past counting and wherever we direct our vision, we can find the glory of summer somewhere around the globe at the push of our buttons.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Apart from being full of healthy fats, potassium and Vitamin E, avocados are delicious.  I sometimes use them as a dressing over a salad. To one avocado you need  ground coriander – I use a quarter of a teasp, but less is more… the juice of a lime or a lemon, quarter of a teasp of ground cumin, a tblsp of apple cider vinegar, salt, and about half a cup of water. Whizz these ingredients until smooth and creamy, and use straight away.

 

Food for thought

To write or even speak English is not a science but an art. Whoever writes English is involved in a struggle that never lets up even for a sentence. He is struggling against vagueness, against obscurity, against the lure of the decorative adjective, against the encroachment of Latin and Greek, and, above all, against the worn-out phrases and dead metaphors with which the language is cluttered up.

George Orwell, English writer 1903 -1950.  Wikipedia records that : ‘His work is marked by lucid prose, awareness of social injustice, opposition to totalitarianism, and commitment to democratic socialism.’ Animal Farm and 1984 have continuing relevance.

 

 

 

 

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Time for a tea-break

100_0266I have kept my blogging vows: to write regularly, for better or worse – (you be the judge),   for richer for poorer – (mostly poorer), in sickness – (sometimes) and in health, till circumstances do us part.

But recently I’ve let the other half of my blogging commitment slip – the agreement to read and follow and like and comment. Circumstances have been squeezing me, so that I’ve been lagging guiltily behind on this part of the blogging commitment.

So, it feels like time for a tea-break. Thanks to Clanmother recommending the fascinating book: ‘For all the Tea in China’, after reading my blog on tea – I now know I couldn’t make a healthier choice. Apparently wherever tea drinking caught on, those societies became healthier- they were boiling their water for the tea, and didn’t have to slake their thirst with polluted water, beer or wine.

So they remained sober, and sustained by calories in the cheap sugar from the Colonies, and protein in the milk for their tea! It’s even suggested that tea-drinking societies like the British were fifty years ahead in the Industrial Revolution because the workers were kept alert over their machines, having tea-breaks instead of becoming drowsy or sozzled with another sip of wine or beer. (Over dinner last night, a friend described Italian workers falling off the scaffolding after another sip of wine in the blazing heat as they toiled over Brunelleschi’s Dome – he had wine diluted with water brought up to them to save them the long journey up and down !)

So  here’s to: ‘ the cup that cheers but doth not in-ebriate!’  Lapsang Souchong of course !

The circle of friendship in our blogging world never fails to amaze me and move me, and though technology is what has brought us together, in the end, it’s the written word that’s made it possible. As a writer, I treasure the words of Carl Sagan who said that: ”Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, bringing together people who never knew each other, citizens of different epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

For me, it seems that blogging has become the book of life for many of us, the magic of the written word bringing us together in time and space, and showing us how connected we all are. These connections are ties that won’t be broken, even when circumstances, in my case, have dictated a tea-break.

So though this is a break, it is not an ending, and I send to all my dear friends and fellow bloggers, the (Good) witches blessing:

Merry meet, and merry part, and merry meet again!

Food for Thought

Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.                             Virginia Woolf 1882 -1941  Great English novelist

 

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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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