MEDITATION

IMG_0469

 

There is much talk about meditation and mindfulness these days. A couple of weeks ago Ruby Wax was in Bath to talk about her new book on how to be human, and recently I heard her being interviewed, together with a neuroscientist, on BBC Radio 4 about the benefits of meditation. John Humphreys remained sceptical.

In the 1970s, whilst I was living in Brussels, I joined the School of Philosophy, which claimed to help solve some of life’s problems, its teachings being based on universal spiritual principles. As part of the teaching, we were initiated into meditation. Aside from a short break, I have been meditating ever since.

At that time, I was very unhappy, suffering from depression and sometimes feeling suicidal. Meditation changed me from being very nervous and anxious to becoming very calm. I became much more centered and rooted in the present moment. All this took place over a period of time, of course.

I can only speak for myself, but I put down my good health, my equanimity (mostly), and the fact that my mental faculties are still intact, to this practice of meditation.

The other day the Skype system on my desktop broke down. I use it mainly for writing purposes. I had been planning to Skype with a friend, also a writer, to discuss the book I am writing. I was looking forward to it, not least because I was hoping to clarify some of my ideas on how to get it done.

I must admit here that internet problems send me round the bend, and my equanimity flies out the window!

For whatever reason, we could not connect. My friend said that I was not ‘on line’, I said that I was, since it was up on my screen. We spent several fruitless minutes on the phone trying to correct the problem. In the end, we gave up.

I am sure everyone recognises that feeling of frustration and powerlessness when confronted with the mysteries of modern technology.

My mind was in a turmoil, my heart was beating, I felt agitated and very upset. So I sat down and meditated. It took me probably ten minutes or more before my mind quietened down sufficiently for me to sit in a restful silence.

It then came to me to use this free space which was suddenly available to me. I went into Bath to do some shopping. I bought some special art paper that I needed, I went to the Body Shop to get some more toilet articles, and I bought a Clean Me Green detox kit from Neal’s Yard that I have been intending to use for Lent. All this in the space of an hour and I was able to get the next bus home. I spent the afternoon baking, and I made some Banana Bread using a new recipe I had been given. That felt good.

By the end of the day I was back to my normal self. The following day the IT man came, fixed my Skype problem, which wasn’t so difficult after all – its just a question of knowing how – and all was well again.

I am not saying that meditation is the only way of sorting out our problems, but what interested me was that during this period my mind went haywire, my thoughts were all over the place and I could not find the words I wanted. My mind had been broken into a thousand disjointed bits.

Dementia is such a current problem these days, more and more people seem to be suffering from it. They say it is due to our living longer, but I wonder if it is not due to the stressful lives so many of us lead nowadays. To my mind, meditation is a way of counteracting these stresses. It might even help to delay the onset of these diseases of the brain.

I am only a layman and so can only speak from my own personal experience.

From a secular point of view, mediation can be looked upon as a useful tool. But for me it has become a spiritual practice. Meditation has, in fact, been practiced for thousands of years, particularly in the East. Only now in the West is it slowly beginning to be recognised and acknowledged as a Way of life.

 

“Stillness within one individual can affect society beyond measure”

Father Bede Griffiths

OLD MAID

 

IMG_1014 (1)

 

When I was in my twenties, in the 1950s, I was working and living in London and shared a rented flat with my mother. I was making £4 a week and my mother had her pension. We both supplemented our incomes by having extra jobs at night and at weekends. I worked as an usherette in the cinema or the theatre, or found typing jobs, and my mother did odd cooking jobs.

So, although we were poor, we were able to make enough money to go on holiday, which was usually a cheap package tour to Spain. One particular year, it might have been 1954, we went to Mallorca. I was excited at arriving in this strange new country, new surroundings. We arrived at our small hotel, feeling tired after our journey.

I started unpacking the suitcases, putting our clothes away in the wardrobe and drawers. My mother was resting on the bed, watching me, when she said:

“You’re just an old maid, really.”

I remember feeling very hurt by this remark, but I said nothing. It was indicative of our whole relationship. Later on in the holiday, when I remarked on the long curly eyelashes of our good looking tour guide, she expressed surprise that I had noticed them.

In truth, I was a romantic. In those days my one idea was to find a husband and have a family. I would dream of marrying a writer or an artist, and we would live in a ramshackle old house in the country, with a brood of children, an idyllic existence.

I have, in fact, ended up being an ‘old maid’ or whatever the equivalent for it is nowadays.

Thinking back, I can see now that my mother, though always very proud of my academic achievements, never paid me any compliments on my appearance. Once, when I was in my forties, she told me she did not like the way I was doing my hair. I remarked that she never told me when she liked my hair.

“Oh” she replied, “I never tell you when I like something, only when I don’t !”

This must be the reason why, for many years, I never had any confidence in my own appearance.

In the past, being an ‘old maid’ had a pejorative meaning, a lonely old woman who lived with her cat. Today there are many single women leading fulfilled lives. I never achieved my dreams, and although I live on my own, I lead a creative life, painting, singing and writing. I live in a small cottage, not quite in the countryside, and I have many friends. And yes, I do have a cat!

SELF DEVELOPMENT

It is the time of year when we all make New Year resolutions, and then promptly break or forget them. I have not made any resolutions for a long time, knowing that I will not keep them. This year is different, because I have started with an intention, and my intention is to complete my book.

I have not written anything for a long time, not since my last blog when I wrote about my dear friend Rezza, who died last January. Since that time I have been wallowing in a slough of despond, from which I have been trying to extricate myself through various means. Now, at the beginning of a new year, I have done it.

I have recovered my self belief and my self confidence. I had lost the belief that I had a story worth telling, and any ability to actually tell it. Now I know that my story is worth telling and I am ready to start again. In another blog I may relate how I was able to regain my self belief.

At the beginning of the year I wrote a new Prologue to my book, which is called – for now –  “Journeys round my life”.  The book is in two parts, the first one, which I am calling “Journeys round my mother”, covers my life up to the age of forty six when my mother died. This is completed and I intend to publish it on Kindle. The second part, which covers the rest of my life up to the present, will be called “Journeys round my Self”. This part I have still to write.

Here is my Prologue:

“I remember a moment when I was living in Paris in the early sixties – I was in my thirties – and I had made the tremendous leap of moving to Paris, bringing my mother with me, to work in NATO.

I was sitting in a café with my Romanian friend Arlette. It was one of those cafés, probably on the Left Bank, where one could sit for hours just conversing. I had made many attempts to make some French friends, and the closest I had come to it was Arlette. She had been born in France, but had never quite managed to fit in, and we had met at a club for foreigners. She was striking to look at, with jet black curly hair and flashing brown eyes. She was flamboyant, loquacious and full of creative ideas, and I was happy to follow in her wake.

So  –  there I was  –  in this café with two of her friends, and they had given us a game to play: it was a psychological game. On a piece of paper they asked us to draw three vertical lines, evenly spaced, and one horizontal line across the middle, producing six squares. In each of these squares we had to draw a symbol, a dot, a curve, a straight line and so on. We then had to complete and add to the symbol in our own way. Each of the squares represented some aspect of our personality. I remember particularly the first one, which was a dot, and represented the Self.

I had drawn lines radiating out from the dot, and then a circular line around the rays, turning the image into a wheel.

“Oh, that’s interesting”, said one of them, “that means self development.”

“Yes, we haven’t seen that one for a long time,” said the other.

It is interesting what one forgets, and what one remembers. That I have always remembered.

I have always been an observer, one who sits on the edge of life, observing others. Since I have started to write my own story, I have become the observer of my own life, and I can now see how much I have evolved and grown from those early years. I am still evolving and growing, a fact which astonishes me and fills me with gratitude.

I find my own story a fascinating one. I hope that you, the reader, will find it too.”

 

 

REZZA

 

My friend Rezza has died.  She got her unusual name when she married her third husband, Simon, who did not like her name Blanche at that time, and renamed her Rezza from the the musical term ‘tenerezza’, meaning  ‘with tenderness.’

She was 93 when she died, a good age, but she had seemed indestructible. Even when her daughter rang me about two weeks before her death, she called out from her bed:

“I’m not dying, I’m getting better.’

I almost believed her, after all, she had cured herself of cancer by going on a carrot juice diet, thus depriving the cancer of anything it could feed on. She knew everything there was to know about diet, and about her own body, just as she knew everything about plants and how to grow them, and their values and properties.

It is still early days,  and it has not quite registered that I will no longer be able to ring her and hear her familiar voice:

“Hello darling ……”

and then have a long conversation lasting about an hour, during which time we will discuss everything, from the state of the world, old books we have both read, her children, my writing, from which I will always emerge feeling refreshed, energised, and full of hope again. She has been a lifesaver in my life for so long. How will I survive? I almost felt I wanted to die too when Rebecca said:

“Rezza died last night.”

I first met Rezza in the 1970s when I was living in Brussels. I was going to the School of Philosophy and my friend Rozel had met her, then named Blanche, at a health spa in England, and had invited her over to Brussels.

I was very shy, retiring, and very earnest. Rezza knew how to penetrate my defences. She was a natural chatterbox and communicator, lively but at the same time intuitive, generous and kind. She made me laugh, she knew about books, she gave me advice on diet, about which she knew a great deal. She was deeply spiritual, but not in any conventional sense.

“There is no security in life” she said, “you must not hang on to anything.”

We became firm friends, and she became my confidante, my mentor and guide. Five years before I retired I was able to buy a small house in Bath. She visited me there, the house was unfurnished apart from two camp beds and a bean bag. We would sit in the front room by the gas fire and she would talk about Simon, whom she had just met: she was madly in love with him and trying to resist it. He was a priest. I was in love  with my boss, who was a married man. We confided in and commiserated with each other.

Rezza married Simon. They had met whilst both of them were doing charitable work looking after the disabled. He was very musical and had a beautiful voice. It was his voice that she fell in love with, she said. He also had psychological problems and Rezza was determined that she could cure him, through diet and her loving care. She was sixty and he was five years younger, they were like a couple of teenagers together. She rode a motorbike and he was a crazy driver. He drove her everywhere at great speed, to Devon and Cornwall, along the rocky coastline, and to Dartmoor where they went for long walks, and talked and talked. Rezza loved it all.

When I retired back to England in 1989 I would visit them. Simon was now a priest in Sidbury in Devon. He was not a conventional priest, which upset some of the older members of his congregation, but he was a very caring man and soon gathered a devoted group of old ladies around him, which made Rezza laugh. She herself never played the role of vicar’s wife.

Wherever she lived Rezza had a garden, where she would grow flowers, vegetables and herbs. She was a vegetarian and cooked beautiful vegetarian meals, which she made Simon eat, though I think he often enjoyed meat when he was out with his parishioners.This would upset her, as she had very firm ideas about diet and food values and what was good for him.

Rezza loved nature and all growing things, she had a natural affinity with the earth,and a sensitivity to plants and flowers and trees. She communicated with them.She was never happier than when out in her garden, digging and planting.

rezza-and-rebecca

Rezza with her daughter Rebecca in her garden. She was about eighty.

After I retired I visited Rezza often, driving down to Devon in my red Vauxhall car.

 

rezza-and-daphne

Rezza and Daphne. We looked like sisters, which Rezza said we were.

Over the years Rezza’s life changed and became more difficult. Simon retired and they had to move from their lovely home. Then he became ill and Rezza, now in her eighties, could no longer look after him. They moved down to Ditchling, near Rezza’s daughter, Simon in a home, Rezza in a small, dark, damp flat, which was all she could afford, no garden.

She did still have her allotment, nearby, where she used to go every day to care for her precious plants, and then two allotments, one for her daughter. She was delighted when she received the silver cup for best allotment, two years running!  She no longer travelled. Every day she would visit Simon, who was still angry with her for having him put in a home, which hurt her deeply.

I phoned every week, she was always cheerful, and funny, with the occasional moan, inevitable in the circumstances. We even talked of trying to live together in a retirement home, but I knew in my heart it would not work.

The last time I saw her was three years ago, when she was ninety. I travelled down to Ditchling and stayed in a b&b.  She was wafer thin, her eyesight was very poor, we walked slowly over to her allotment and sat there, in the sunshine, in companionable silence.

A short time after I heard she was giving up her allotments. This was a great grief to her, they were her lifeline, but she could no longer see to cross the road. Then Simon died, after six long years in a home in a vegetative state. In one sense it was a release for him, and for her a shattering loss.

Last June, when the country voted for Brexit, Rezza finally had to leave her flat as her landlady had decided to sell it. Another flat was found which seemed ideal, a granny flat on the ground floor, with a garden, in a private house. It was the beginning of the end. Rezza, now blind, was finding it difficult to cope in her new surroundings. She was no longer in charge. Whenever I rang, our conversations became shorter and shorter. The last time I spoke to her was just before Christmas.

Rezza died on the 17th January, in her own bed, peacefully, her son and daughter by her side, of old age.

She was a remarkable woman. She was born in the East End of London, a real cockney girl with a love for dance. I can imagine her, a wild bright child, dancing round the streets. Somewhere along the line she lost her cockney accent.

She was a land girl during the war, then she trained to become a teacher and taught small children. She married three times, she was too young the first time, she said. In those days she was a communist and her second husband, was a high ranking Communist official. She had two children with Harry, a boy and a girl. The marriage did not last  and they divorced. When I met her she was bringing up her children on her own.

Her health suffered and she consulted a naturopath. Dr. Latto. She began to study diet, she became a vegetarian and started to advise others on their health problems. Whatever she did, she did thoroughly. She found her spiritual path through Ken, a master, a teacher, who lived in Wales. She attended his groups and followed his teaching from then on. She studied yoga and became a yoga teacher.rezza-at-80-in-her-garden

Rezza at 80 in front of the apple tree

All the time I knew Rezza she never read a newspaper, never listened to radio or watched television. She had her books and her record player. She knew what was going on in the world, she said. She introduced me to new writers, Jacob Needleman, Ken Wilber, she gave me a copy of Rilke’s Book of Hours. We had both read and loved Charles Morgan in our youth, a sign of our age!

She had a favourite poem, called My Body Effervesces by Anna Swir.

”  I am born for the second time .  I am light as the eyelash of the wind. I froth, I am froth. I walk dancing, if I wish, I will soar.”

This was how she was, a bright and free spirit.

When she could no longer read, she relied on her spiritual practices, a combination of physical, mental and spiritual meditations, to maintain her equanimity and balance. Even though she was now almost blind, she was still able do her own cooking  and move around in her small flat.

One of her favourite authors was Edward Monckton, a comic poet and writer. She would quote him often.

“Let us be lovely and let us be kind. Let us be silly and free. It won’t make us famous, it won’t make us rich. But dammit how HAPPY we’ll be!”

That is how I shall remember her, laughing, happy and free.

rezza-at-90-in-lotus-1

Rezza at 93 in lotus position

 

 

 

 

WHERE ARE WE ALL GOING?

images

This is a photograph of Bede Griffiths, the Benedictine monk who went out to India to find, as he said, the other half of his soul. There he took charge of an ashram called Shantivanam. in Tamil Nadu in southern India. The Indians, in the small village community where the ashram was situated, all looked upon him as a saint.

I never had the good fortune to meet Father Bede, though I had tried a couple of times. I did, however, visit his ashram in December, 1993. Bede had died in May of that year, and the place was still full of his presence. I felt it profoundly as I sat in the hut where he had lived, or in front of the Library where he liked to sit, gazing out over the landscape.

I was fortunate, though, to meet Brother Martin, the guest master who took over from Bede Griffiths in giving the afternoon talks. I did not, at that time, feel I was a  really committed Christian, but listening to Brother Martin made me see Christianity in an entirely new light. In fact, I was bowled over by him.

Recent events in the political world have been profoundly disturbing, not least the election of Donald Trump as the president of the United States, the most powerful nation in the world. This is a man who seems set to overthrow our present system of democracy and liberal ideals and replace it by a narrow, self serving, fear laden, racist and isolationist ideology, based on greed, self aggrandisement and an appeal to man’s lower instincts.

How did we get here? How did all this come about? I have recently been watching two films, one a short film, three quarters of an hour, one a full length film of an hour and half. The last one, WN, by Zadie Smith, I nearly turned off. I thought ‘I don’t want to watch this, but I did watch it as I always get hooked by a story, and it did, in fact, have a good and sweet ending. The other film had two stories, based on greed and pornography: both had their comeuppance in the law.

So many films nowadays are based on murder and crime of some sort, and on people’s unhappy lives, which must reflect the state of our society. Most of my friends do not live this kind of life. Why, I wonder, do the people who make these films think we would want to watch them. There must be sufficient numbers of people watching to make it worth their while. I think this surely must have a drip drip effect on people’s psyche, because willy nilly one does end up watching some of them.

There was a man called Gurdjieff, he came from Armenia, in the early part of the twentieth century, who used to say that men were half asleep, their minds were disconnected from their bodies, and so they lived in a semi hypnotic state, barely conscious of what was going on in their lives. His aim was to try and bring people into the present, in much the same way as Eckhart Tolle is trying to do today.

The media has played a large part in the manipulation of people’s minds, and the advertising industry very cleverly manipulates people into buying certain products.

I think this present situation has come about because the majority of people no longer have a religious faith, and they no longer believe in God, the Creator. Yet they are still looking, searching for a deeper meaning to their lives. Having a car, money, possessions, even a loving relationship, does not entirely fulfil them.

At the same time, I know that a lot is going on at grass roots level. It seems to me that the world is being polarised, the forces of darkness against the forces of light. I think what I am trying to say is that all those who are on the side of the light must come together, must work together, to combat these dark forces. We need to be aware, we need to be vigilant, we must not fall asleep, for we are indeed living in very dangerous times.

I started off with an image of Bede Griffiths, a wise and holy man. I would like to end by talking about Cynthia Bourgeault, an American Episcopal priest, an equally wise and holy woman. She recently came to Bristol and gave a talk at St James’ Priory on centering prayer and inner awakening. She has written two books on the subject.  The theme of her talk was finding God through silence and stillness, she described it as ‘standing still in the centre.’ It can reduce stress and anxiety and bring equanimity and balance.

She was in England just at the time of the presidential election results in the States. Back in her hermitage in Maine, she recorded a brief reflection on the election result. I would like to share it with you here. It is worth listening to. You can find it on: http://www.vimeo.com/191109234.  We need all the wisdom we can muster in these dark times.

 

 

PEACE BE WITH YOU

SELF PORTRAIT

A friend of mine has pointed out that I have no images of Michou, my cat, on my blog  –  so, here is one.

 

img_0402

 

Looking at all the objects on the mantelpiece in my bedroom, I thought to myself: “all these objects are like a self portrait.”  So here we go.

First on the left there is a photo of a lotus flower, pale pink on a bluey grey background. In December 1993 I went on a trip to India, visiting the sacred sites of southern India. Here we are visiting the ashram of Sri Aurobindo, the Indian saint. He had a close companion, a Frenchwoman who was called The Mother. She took beautiful photographs of flowers, and this is one of them which I have kept. I like it for its simplicity and purity.

In from of it is a small photo, in a round decorative frame, of Prittiwi, my first cat, sitting on the window ledge and reaching out with her paw to a plant of purple heather. She was a Chartreuse, a continental breed, blue grey with chocolate undertones.This was a favourite breed with Colette, the French writer, who has written some wonderful stories about cats. I was living in Brussels at the time and studying Sanskrit, so I gave her a Sanskrit name.  Prittiwi means earth, or earth goddess.  She was a rescue cat and always very timid, but beautiful and gentle. I loved her dearly.

Next there is a photo of an adorable ginger cat asleep. Her name is Mela and she belongs to the Ty Mawr convent in Wales where I go on retreats.

In front of this is a small photo of my mother in a silver frame. She is arranging flowers in our flat in Brussels. She must be in her eighties. I love this photo. It shows her complete absorption in any task she is doing, be it cooking, sewing, or arranging flowers. It is a very graceful photo, her white hair is swept back in a chignon, her expression is attentive, her hand stretched out towards the flowers. I have caught her unawares.

Behind her is a postcard. It shows a painting by Lucian Freud of his mother, Lucy. On the back, dated February 1988, is a message from my friend Katie. She has just been to visit his exhibition. Lucian painted several portraits of his mother, of which this is one of the last and the one which, I think, shows her most at peace. Katie took care of his mother during her final years. She had taken an overdose after her husband died.  I always felt that Katie, through her love and care, had brought Lucy back to life. This card reminds me of Katie, one of my dearest friends, who played an important part in my life.

In front of Lucy is a small and very beautiful bronze Buddha, emanating that sense of stillness which all Buddhas do.

Next to it another circular, decorative frame, this one is old, about the 1900s? and contains a photo of my mother’s Pekinese dog, showing just her arm holding the Peke. She adored him and this reminds me of her when she was young.

img_0459

Behind him – more cats! A postcard of a painting by Elizabeth Blackadder showing three cats.

Half hidden behind a succulent plant in an apricot orange pot is a photo of Amma, the healing Indian saint. I met her once, in Ireland, when she gave me a great bear hug which nearly knocked the breath out of me, and then a second time when we had a good laugh together. She emanated huge warmth and energy, an experience never forgotten.

Still behind the plant is a card from a friend, another cat lover. It is a painting of two cats, one black one sitting behind a tortoise shell cat. It has the delicacy of a Japanese print and it has come from the Ixelles Museum in Brussels.

In front is a pebble, covering up a bare patch in the paint.

Almost at the end now on the far right is a photo of my mother in a silver frame. She was seventeen, wearing a white cotton blouse falling in folds from the neckline, soft and pretty. She has a pensive look on her face, which is beautiful, gentle and sensitive. She had light brown hair and blue eyes. Did she have any presentiment of the life ahead for her?

When I was born my mother was forty two, and when I was nine she started working very hard, as a cook housekeeper in boarding schools. I had only known my mother as worried, careworn, and old. When I saw this photo for the first time in my thirties, my eyes filled with tears.

Last of all on the right hand side is a photo of my oldest and dearest friend, Rezza. Now ninety three, she has been a land girl during the war, a teacher of small children, dietician, yoga teacher, and teacher of circle dancing. She has been my guide and mentor for many years. She can still sit cross legged on the floor and bring her legs right up to her head. When her daughter published this photo on Facebook it got over a hundred hits, as they say.  “Fame at last!” said Rezza.

Above the mantelpiece is a painting of the plains of Saskatchewan, where my mother was born, painted by me.

These objects do not, of course, give an exhaustive picture, but I hope they will have given a glimpse into who I am.

Here is a poem which I wrote on one of my retreats at Ty Mawr convent. It is called In the Stillness Dancing.

 

 

REFUGEES

syria_appeal_donate_beseiged_cities_114610_save_the_children_1

 

I recently went to see a remarkable exhibition at St. Michaels Without church in Bath. In mediaeval times it was the first church outside the city walls when going out of the North Gate, hence its name. Now, in the centre of Bath, it is a light, airy church, with tall slim pillars. The pews have been replaced with chairs and there is a feeling of spaciousness.

 

The exhibition was designed to raise awareness of the plight of the refugees, and for me it did exactly that. The first thing I saw on going in was a large table covered with crocheted hearts in different colours and sizes. I was invited to choose a heart and then to thread it through the metal fencing on which were hung portraits of refugees, on either side of the central aisle leading down to the altar.

 

I chose a dark pink heart. There was a safety pin attached to the end piece of wool and scissors were there to snip it off, so I could pin it onto my jacket. With my heart, now loosely unravelling, I walked down the aisle, threading my heart in and out of the fencing and looking at the portraits of the refugees, men, women and children, which had been skilfully painted by the artist Penny Faux, from photos provided by the UNHR Council. By each portrait there was a record of that refugee’s story, many of them already known to us. As I walked along, looking and reading, and saw the multi-coloured threads of wool running zigzag up and down the fencing – two tents had been placed on either side outside the perimeter fencing – I found the symbolism deeply moving.

bapg20160826c-006_c
 PHOTO BY: PAUL GILLIS 
bapg20160826c-015_c
Painting by Penny Fraux, “Hope” PHOTO BY: PAUL GILLIS 

The whole exhibition, put together in such an imaginative way, was created by two women, one a painter, the other an installation artist. As Penny said: “It’s to keep people aware of the crisis and the need to help others. These are not masses of people who we should be frightened of.”

bapg20160826c-003_c
Local artists Anne Egan and Penny Faux  PHOTO BY: PAUL GILLIS

Following on my visit to the exhibition I saw that our local Tory MP was going to have a surgery in my village. I am not a political animal, though I am a humanitarian one, and I have never done such a thing in my life before, but I went to see him.

 

He was a very nice young man, with nice eyes behind his glasses. An old friend of mine used to say of all politicians – does he have a human face?

 

My visit was very timely, he said, as they were just in the process of negotiations with the French government. I mentioned the unaccompanied children in the ‘Jungle’ in Calais, with relatives in Britain. They were trying to trace and identify all these children, he said. Some of them were only two and three years old, and only knew their name. It could take months to trace them all.

 

My heart sank. What could happen to these young children in that space of time? I did receive a long and comprehensive letter from my MP. With the best of intentions, it did little to reassure me. The wheels of bureaucracy grind exceedingly slow.

 

I have been listening to John le Carré reading extracts from his fascinating memoir on Radio 4.

 

In 1974 he went to Cambodia with a journalist friend. There he found himself in the thick of combat, and he soon realised he was not a brave man. One of the bravest people he had ever met, he said, was Yvette Pierpaoli. He described her as a ‘small, sparky, tough, provincial Frenchwoman.’ With her partner, she ran a business selling small planes, tractors and chemicals. By 1974 a large number of refugees were pouring into Phnom Penh, fleeing the advance of the Khmer Rouge. She was moved by their plight, and spent much of her time helping the refugee children. She had no scruples when trying to get cash from people whose money, she considered, would be better off in the hands of the needy.

 

There is a story that she decided to take a number of children to France, and went to the French Consulate to obtain passports. The official asked who was their mother. “They are all mine” she declared. He looked astonished at so many children around the same age. “Yes, they are all quadruplets”, she declared. She got her passports!

 

She returned to France and continued her humanitarian work. She demonstrated that a single person can sometimes achieve what large organisations cannot. She said “people assumed that a project had to have ideas, personnel and materials and funds. In my mind, things happened in the opposite way …”

 

In 1992 she published her autobiography Woman of a Thousand Children. She also became European Representative of Refugees International. In 1999 she was killed in a car crash whilst on a mission to assist refugees from Kosovo.

 

Le Carré said he based his book The Constant Gardener, later made into a film, on her character.

 

Perhaps we need more people like Yvette Pierpaoli around today, people who can cut through the red tape and get things done.

 

The Water Babies

For my eighth birthday I was given a copy of The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley. I loved this book. We were then living in Jersey where my mother was working as a cook housekeeper in a family home. I remember reading the book in her sitting room for hours on end, poring over all the long words which I did not understand. A lot of it was above my head, the social implications and the scientific information, but I think the moral message it contained was loud and clear.

Water babies

I loved the story of little Tom, the chimney sweep covered in soot, who jumped into the river after being accused of stealing, where he became immediately cleansed and was turned into a water baby. There followed all his adventures with the creatures in the river, and then in the sea. Tom was not always a good little boy, and so he met Mrs Bedonebyouasyoudid, who punished him. He tried to be better and was rewarded by meeting Mrs Doasyouwoudbedoneby, who cuddled and kissed him. Tom’s adventures led him to Mother Carey, the grand old lady who created all things, or rather made them ‘make themselves’, until he finally landed back on the earth, where he met Miss Ellie again, into whose room he had originally fallen down the chimney.

water_babies_inline

Time expands and contracts, and different characters mysteriously become one and the same, all very fascinating to a young mind. It is interesting too that Charles Kingsley’s world is presided over by goddesses.

The other day a film of The Water Babies, made in 1979, was shown on BBC4. I watched the film, because I had loved the book. It was not very good, but it was followed by a commentary on the book by Richard Coles, which was much more interesting. He explored it as a social tract, which actually had an impact on the politics of the day, as shortly afterwards a law was passed in Parliament on child labour. It was full of scientific facts which seemed to show that he was in some agreement with Charles Darwin, and finally it was a Christian parable, peopled by feminine deities. All this a way above my head then.

My mother was an atheist and so I had little religious input after leaving the nuns, and what I did have made little impact on me. But I have a feeling that the message of The Water Babies had a profound effect on me, and I still remember reading it, for hours, absorbed by the story.

When I retired I started going to a writing class. I came across this piece the other day, it was an exercise on the senses at the age of five. Following on the theme of childhood, I thought I would do a podcast from it. Here it is.

 

 

 

 

Five Finger Exercise

I was saddened recently to read of the death of Peter Shaffer, the playwright, although he had reached a goodly age, he was ninety years old.

Peter Shaffer played an important rôle in my life. I was working in London, I was thirty years old, a repressed, studious and earnest young woman – living with my mother – we shared a comfortable bed sitting room in a flat belonging to a Jewish couple in Hampstead and I was working as a secretary at ICI on the Embankment. I hated my job, I had tried unsuccessfully to make my way in publishing, and so finally opted for a better paid job.

In 1958 Peter Shaffer’s first play, Five Finger Exercise, was produced in London by John Gielgud and I went to see it. I loved the theatre and saw many plays, usually without my mother, she was not with me on that occasion. Being deaf it was hard for her to hear.

     I no longer remember the details of the play, it was about family tensions, but the catalyst for me appears to have been a scene where one of the characters was making an Indian curry; he was doing something that he loved doing.

Indian Meal

There was little in my life at that time that I loved doing. I disliked my job, I did not know what to do next, and I was full of a sense of duty about looking after my mother. I remember how the play struck me like a revelation; it was akin to Joseph Campbell’s idea of ‘following your bliss’. I sent Peter Shaffer an enthusiastic fan letter.

He was 32 years of age and this was his first play on the London stage. I received a handwritten, two page reply from him, dated Jan. 22nd, 1959, in which he said: “it is so enheartening to receive a letter like yours, although I don’t believe a word of those fine things you said about me.” He went on: “if only one used anything like one’s total abilities as a person, I think we go through life being half-people or quarter-people. I’m delighted my play affected some kind of resolution of tension inside you, that’s a wonderful thing for me to know. Even if the resolution is only partial (as you indicated), it’s good I think – relaxation leads to relaxation.”

Of course I prized this letter, and I am wondering now how instrumental this was in my applying for a job at NATO in Paris.

I had fallen in love with Paris on my 21st birthday, the 14th of July, when I was driving through it on a coach on my way to Spain. We drove along the Champs Elysees to the Place de la Concorde. The sun was shining, there were flags and bunting everywhere, and the Parisians were out en masse celebrating. I was entranced.

Monet-montorgueil

To work in Paris seemed like a dream, and I did in fact move there in July 1959, that very same year. This move was to change the course of my life.

I went to see all of Peter Shaffer’s plays, Amadeus, in the cinema and on the stage, The Royal Hunt of the Sun, and Equus, this last one after I had retired to Bath. I thought he was an extraordinary playwright, and I would like to think that my early fan letter was an encouragement to him at the start of his career, just as his reply to me and his play helped me to change my own life.