BEAUTIFUL THINGS

BEAUTIFUL THINGS

We went to Oxford this weekend to see an exhibition in the Ashmolean of Japanese embroideries, and to visit our friends, Elizabeth and Jonathan.   It was immensely enjoyable in many ways.

The visit had been delayed twice because of the weather, but on the day there was no  difficulty.   We know Oxford well, of course, and it was as lovely as always.   We parked in a Disabled bay right opposite the museum, and since parking is the big bugbear of Oxford, we knew the Fates were smiling upon us.

The Ashmolean has always been a rich and interesting collection, but was a rather old fashioned building, so we were amazed and delighted to see its transformation into an exciting modern exhibition space, with innovative displays and large panels of glass offering enticing glimpses of other collections to pull you further in.   We had coffee and shortly afterwards our friends arrived, looking well, and we fell into conversation with them, as you do with good and old friends, as if we had just seen them yesterday.

The exhibition, which was busy but not unpleasantly so, was a delight.   The embroideries were mostly of birds and animals, and were of such a high standard of technical excellence as to be slightly depressing!   There was a dramatic and vivid depiction of storks and wisteria.   There were peacocks; tigers; monkeys; ducks…   These works were of a standard as might have been hung in a national parliament building, or presented to a visiting Head of State.

My personal favourites however included a study in blacks and whites of an eagle on a snow covered branch, a pale monochrome picture of ducks on dark water, and a series of preparatory drawings on a folding screen, which included a full moon glimpsed through a bed of reeds.   We bought – at VAST expense – the exhibition catalogue.   I looked for postcards but as ever no favourite of mine was anywhere to be had for sale.   After this we had lunch, and then the men went to examine paintings, and we looked at textiles and ceramics, where as usual the elegant simplicity of the Japanese ware made everything else look clumsy or over-decorated.

We then drove the short distance to the village where our friends live.   Their house is the most interesting contrast of ancient cottage with all its quirky charm, and the modern wing that they have added, though the two merge attractively.   Our hosts had most kindly lent us their own bedroom and this was a great delight.   On our last visit John had offered a little assistance on a section of the work which really called for two pairs of hands, so he was especially pleased to see the delightful  room which had eventually resulted.   We lay in their bed in the morning and feasted our eyes on this generous room, its ancient and exposed beam, their lovely furniture of different periods but melding charmingly together, how spacious and comfortable and unusual it was, and considered ourselves very privileged.

And our conversations were rewarding.   Elizabeth and I have always been intimate.   She’s one of the few people who have the power to repeatedly surprise me with the insight and originality of her observations.   We come from entirely different backgrounds.   We both had childhoods which, in very different ways, were difficult but rewarding.    Whereas you might liken my thinking process to an arrow in flight, fast, targeted and penetrative, hers is apparently unfocussed and ambulatory, almost circular, she idles round a subject, you can’t see where she’s headed, and then suddenly and invariably, she hits the bullseye faster than your eye can follow.   I love talking with her.

The food was good!

We returned from our short visit feeling as if we’d had a long holiday, refreshed and encouraged, with many lovely things to remember and much to turn over in our minds and discuss.

So here’s to old friends, fine buildings, arts and crafts, the beautiful Oxford, and the elegance of the Japanese.

 

Things best forgotten… ?

John and I recently watched a recording of Ben Hur on our TV.   The film had been shown some time over the Christmas period.

It can be fraught, re-watching a well remembered film.   I recall being terribly impressed with the epic Cleopatra when I first saw it.   Watching it years later, I was struck by what a bad actress Elizabeth Taylor was, and that Richard Burton looked ridiculous in his ‘Roman’ uniform because his legs were too short.

This year, my enjoyment of Ben Hur was marred from the start because my expectations were entirely wrong.   It seemed to me to be in the wrong country, Charlton Heston was wearing the wrong clothes, I didn’t recall Christ or Pontius Pilate being in the film, and where was Sophia Loren?    At this point John pointed out to me that it wasn’t ‘El Cid’ and I realised I was watching the ‘wrong’ film.

In old films, the acting tends to be so bad to our modern eyes – contrived, melodramatic, ridiculous accents, slow.   Charlton Heston was not too bad, and whoever played Pontius Pilate was  actually very good – but the women were stilted and wooden and the actor playing Marcellus, the villainous counterpoint to Heston’s heroic Ben Hur was simply dreadful.

I have never been a friend or admirer of Rome.  I had a vigorous argument at Bognor when a guide extolled to Alexandra the magnificence of Rome’s engineering and their promotion of skills and crafts.   When I responded that they had done so by enslaving other nations and were therefore to be despised and not praised, and that any free thinking people would spit at the very memory of their greed and cruelty, and that no technical advancement could possibly excuse the evils they had committed, he looked quite shaken.   So you would expect I would be sympathetic to this film, but as it lumbered on I became increasingly irritated and impatient.

Heston, whom I once admired, of course besmirched his reputation in his – let us give a  kind interpretation here – senility by his support for the gun lobby.   He was probably one of those who think a solution to the Columbine problem is to arm every primary school teacher.

All in all, Ben Hur was a disappointment.

But there were two good things.

Christ, although visible in the film, did not show his face, and I thought this was clever, for any face would be  a  disappointment.

And then this film is like an opera where you have to sit through interminable dross for one superb aria.   For I have to say, the chariot scene is still a magnificent spectacle, all the more so when you remember that it had been enacted in reality, and is not a computer animation.   Then you look and wonder at the technical difficulties, how many takes they needed, how much it cost, the danger involved etc.

So there’s my impression of Ben Hur.    It’s not El Cid.

GRAVY TALE

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This is us on Christmas Day.   We are laughing because in recognition of  Sarah’s effort in making gravy, and in us being willing to adopt new family traditions in this our first Christmas since our marriage with us not in charge of proceedings (which was very pleasant indeed!) – I am accepting a small amount of gravy.    As a general rule, I never take gravy – I don’t really know why.     For once I have no long remembered quarrel  with anybody about it.

My father was very eccentric about his food (and indeed about everything) and decided in our childhood that he would become vegetarian.   This meant of course that we would ALL be vegetarian.    I had a pragmatic attitude to this.   (I had eaten the forbidden meat before his edict, and I remembered that I liked it.)    My family was vegetarian and I quite liked vegetarian food but I was never vegetarian.    My father of course was ever changeable, and he ‘shifted his position’ for things he liked and for occasions when he pleased.

When I began to be taken out to eat (in the early 70s) vegetarian options were unappetising and limited, and I cheerfully abandoned the non-meat-eating position.   When I was married, there was no question of our being vegetarian, John being an unapologetic carnivore.

But as a result of this I had only very limited experience of cooking meat.    So I took my Cordon Blue French cook book (translated into English!) and set about learning.   As a result for this aspect of cooking, my habits are not at all in the British tradition.

When I cook a roast – let us say lamb, which is our favourite – I place the joint in a large oval lidded tin (bought in Dieppe) on an ample bed of rosemary.   I spike it with garlic.   Then I pour over it wine, or wine and water depending on supplies, and I put it in the oven at the highest possible heat for half to one hour.   Then I turn it down to tiny peep, and leave it for at least several hours, or all day.   Half an hour from serving, I turn  the oven up to cook the roast potatoes which I have previously parboiled.   This appears to produce, for all its unscientific vagueness, a moist delicious joint which I serve with a sauce of recurrent jelly, mint and orange.

I serve chicken with a lemon inside the carcase, and beef rare-ish with mustard or horseradish sauce.   I can’t make and don’t eat Yorkshire Puddings unless absolutely unavoidable, and I have never made gravy.

When we were first married we lived in the Scottish mining down of Bo’ness.   Though we were absolutely not one of their own, they were tolerant of us and I remember the town with some affection.    The butcher however was a no-nonsense fellow.    I would consult my French cookery book and trip down to his shop where he  regarded me with ill-concealed suspicion.   I would smile and prettily ask him for  whatever cut the recipe had recommended.   The butcher would turn wearily to his assistant.   “Och, Archie,” he would  say.    “The lassie wants –   “ (whatever I had asked for, repeating my words in mincing anglified tones.     “What do we have that the English cry —.?”)   (I never did decide whether he was being deliberately insulting in this, or whether he genuinely thought  that since I didn’t speak in the local patois and couldn’t call a cut of beef by its proper name, therefore I must be foreign.)      Archie however was younger and better natured.   He would question me as to what the recipe instructed, and they always produced a cut of meat that performed well enough in the eating.   But of course they muttered to themselves in their dialect, so I had no better an idea of what to call the cut next time.   At times I thought it was definitely easier to be a vegetarian!

Anyway, here’s to tasting new things and being open to new experiences.     My meat cooking may not be in the British tradition, but there’s nothing  wrong with our – I could say our cuisine, but I’ll be like the butcher, and reject the fancy French word and  say, nothing wrong with British food.    And no-one would want to stand with Jacques Chirac after all, (and lose the Olympics in the process.)

FOR UNTO US A SON IS BORN

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Although of course I have seen my new  grandson, Ewan, several times already, I ‘met’ him    for the first time on Christmas Day.   At last his own personality has emerged from the protesting, squawking baby stage, and what an absolute charmer he is!

He holds his head up high and he looks with bold interest out of his eyes at the passing world like the Armstrong he is.   He ‘squinges’ at his mother like a kitten does at the cat, and he has tender eyes for his father too.   He looked at Rory across the kitchen table, at first rather anxiously, carefully comparing his grandfather and his father before assuring  himself that, yes, Rory was indeed his Daddy-O.   Then he beamed his pleasure and performed a little dance of delight.

John already has a very nice grandson, Craig, who performed so well turning the pages for Audrey, the pianist at Elisabeth’s and Rob’s wedding, but although I am rich in lovely granddaughters, Ewan is my first grandson.   He is a strong boy who takes his weight on his own feet and ‘walks’ on your knee.   His mother reports that when he is displeased with something he hops on one foot on her knee, so some Rumpestiltskin tendencies  there perhaps?

His mother of course is the beautiful goddess of his world.    When he gets tense in your arms, you can feel him relax when she merely appears in his view.   He was in his mother’s arms when I came down to the  sitting room on the morning of Boxing Day and looked at me with surprise and recall that he had seen me yesterday.   Had he said, Are you still here then? – his thought could not have been clearer.

To see his individual personality emerge from the new born baby stage is a delight.   There are some compensations for growing older,  and a gorgeous baby boy, smiling and blowing bubbles and ‘talking’   (he has a grasp of the give and take of conversation far superior to many adults!) is definitely one of them.

Ewan John, first child of our own darling  son and Sarah his lovely wife, what a pleasure to meet you!

(Photographs, of Sarah with her son on Christmas Day, 2012; and Rory with his son and his mother on Christmas Day 2012, are courtesy of John.)

A PAUSING THOUGHT

A PAUSING THOUGHT

Here we are once more in the space between the years.   Sixty three times I have seen  the sun rise once again from the darkness.   In our youth we take our summers for granted, but now I am a woman of many winters, I find each extra year I’m granted a minor miracle.

Often at this time of year we just look forward to our goals and expectations.   But I thought I might briefly look backwards, especially since in many ways I belong to the ‘ever onwards’ school of  thought and don’t ‘waste time’ looking over my shoulder or regretting what is past.

Firstly, at my mature point in life, I’m glad to have survived the year.    John and I have been blessed with many lovely children, all of whom have delightful families of their own and are successfully getting on with their lives as they see fit.   Occasionally however, in conversation with them, you are suddenly struck by an unexpected pang of anxiety – they are for all their maturity and capability, still very young with a long and hazardous journey ahead of them.    There are mot many compensations for growing old – and no doubt they in their turn look at our signs of increasing  age with concern, and rejoice in their own strength and youth – and this is just as it should be.    But I myself would not return to my youth – not for a wilderness of monkeys.   There is comfort in knowing that you do not regret your decisions in life and though of course you could have done many things better, on the whole you are happy with the path you walked;  and would walk it all again if given the choice once more.

I have come to realise how much we owe  to previous generations, and how unstintingly they gave to us.    Of course we can all find fault with our parents – no doubt our children have faults with us.   But looked at from a mature standpoint, what do these minor errors matter compared with  the magnitude of what they bequeathed to us?

There are the unwitting gifts that flow out from the banks of the DNA of our ancestors.   Our strength, health, intellect, beauty – we do not count these among our assets in any financial calculation, yet they are an inheritance of unsurpassing value for which we made no effort at all.

Then there is the love and attention lavished on us by our parents.   As you watch the huge effort made by your own children over your grandchildren, how they battle on both tireless and exhausted, you recall that you did similarly, and you look back in time and sense that your parents and your ancestors in all their generations more than likely did likewise.   No doubt they made mistakes, but generally these were due to an excess of love, and not to any selfish indifference.

We stand who we are in the 21ast century still supported by the love of our ancestors for their children generations back.   I suppose I reflect on these things now because the death of my mother leaves John and me with no surviving parents between us.   Suddenly we are the oldest generation.

Often we deliberate in our own minds about small actions in life – should we do this or that, and does it matter very much?   But I think it is in the small acts of kindness and love that people’s best character is shown and it is in the memory of these acts that other perhaps more obvious failings will be forgiven and set aside.

As for me, it has been my great good fortune that people have always been much kinder to me than I have any right to expect.   When I consider how much this has meant to me – not only in the actual things done for me, the warm things said, the gifts made, the help sensitively offered –  but in the sense of well-being that one feels basking in the sunlight of other people’s regard, then I think I should perhaps pay more attention to my often quoted self reproach, Could have been kinder.

Now I long ago decided to make no more New Year Resolutions.   I never keep them.   So I’m not going to promise that I’ll turn over a new leaf and become a tolerant, good-natured, easy going person.   It’s never going to happen.   It only needs some especially stupid person to be so insensitive as to meddle with me and all my tender resolutions disappear out the window before you can say, A quiet answer turneth away wrath.   I can of course try and BE more tolerant, good-natured etc but this leaves me so much room for manoeuvre that it is not measurable.   So the most I’ll promise myself is that I’ll try and see the beacon, Be Kinder, and act accordingly, and not just wait to see the flashing verdict, Could Have Been Kinder.

And I trust to the generosity – and yes, kindness – of my friends, not to point out too harshly when I fall short of my ideal!

May the Fates bless you in all your endeavours.   I thank you for all your kindnesses.