Sunday, 16 October 2016

Something New Sunday ...

Someone living here has a house-guest, and since it isn't me I decided to make myself scarce for a few hours to give the couple a little time alone

 A wet and windy Sunday, where to go?

I drove to Oxford, intent on the Ashmolean. And there I spent an hour or so rushing hither and thither without purpose, trying to take in too much, always the over-achiever, slow down, take your time, you do not have to do it all in a day, except that sometimes I worry that there will not be enough time left and so I must try to do as much as possible, as quickly as possible.

I paused and went to drink a latte in the café. And then I had a word with myself, as we say here. And I told myself that quality beats quantity, at least when it comes to museum visits, and that there will be other days and so I climbed the stairs to Gallery 45, Dutch Art, I think, and was amazed and entranced by the little Rembrandt's First Paintings -  Sensation exhibition.

Rembrandt's First Paintings

The Senses, temporarily on display at the Ashmolean, are the earliest surviving works by the most famous of all Dutch artists, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606–1669).
Painted when he was around eighteen years old, the four panels depict representations of 'Sight', 'Touch', 'Hearing' and 'Smell', the fifth – 'Sense of Taste' – remains undiscovered. This is the very first time that the four surviving panel paintings have been on show together in public, after 'Smell' was rediscovered in 2015.

The Senses were created around 1624–25 when Rembrandt was still a teenager. They are clearly the creations of a young artist who is still developing his own style but they already show great promise. The Senses reveal glimpses of the celebrated painter Rembrandt would become: his bold use of bright colours, his broad brushwork, his ability to capture human expressions, as well as his experimental treatment of light.
The five senses were a popular allegorical theme in the art of the Low Countries. Traditionally each was represented as a female figure, for instance an elegant woman holding a flower symbolised smell. Gradually the five senses were interpreted in a more moralising fashion, underlining that their excessive indulgence could result in sin. From the 17th century onwards the senses were depicted as genre scenes featuring debauched peasants, where drunkenness might represent taste and amorous couples embracing might symbolise touch. Rembrandt's Senses clearly belong to this later type and depict three half-length figures in constricted spaces, engaged in an activity related to the specific sense. Rembrandt also incorporated a subtle undertone of satire in each painting.


A Pedlar of Spectacles

(Sense of Sight)

A pedlar of eye glasses persuading two poor people to try his wares. Rembrandt is said to have meant this as a double-meaning, in Dutch the expression 'to sell someone glasses' also means 'to deceive someone', and in those days the pedlar's turban and gold earrings were often used to symbolise untrustworthy people.


The Unconscious Patient

(Sense of Smell)

The young man has probably fainted after a blood-letting session. The old woman is attempting to revive him with smelling salts while the surgeon watches.

Interestingly, this painting was only recently discovered, less than a year ago, at an auction house in New York.

The Stone Operation

(Sense of Touch)

The barber-surgeon is operating on a man who is clearly in pain. In Rembrandt's time such surgery was performed by quacks allegedly to relieve headaches. Again, the oriental dress and that damning gold earring worn by the assistant with the candle, suggest that he was not an honest man. Another double-meaning, the Dutch 'to cut out a stone' can also mean 'to fool someone'.

The Three Singers

(Sense of Hearing)

An elderly couple and their son singing from a song book in the father's hands. Rembrandt may have intended to suggest the failing hearing of the parents since there are Dutch proverbs that compare the beautiful voices of the young to the wavering voices of the old.

The fifth sense is not represented.
The painting has yet to be found.
So if you come across a sense of taste then please let the Ashmolean know!

I knew very little about Rembrandt before today. I'm still no expert but I have a DVD about his life and works, a book and postcards of these paintings to study in more detail. Bu the main thing, the best thing, was the something new, the stepping outside of routine and habit and the familiar, and into a new world.

Art for art's sake.

And I needed that. Yesterday a stranger, an elderly woman who I do not know, ranted and raved at me in the road outside my house for no apparent reason. I was deeply upset. I blamed myself. What had I done to her? It wasn't until later, after much soul-searching and thinking I concluded that her anger had nothing to do with me, that I had been an innocent passer-by caught up in her anger. But still ...

It's tough, isn't it? Learning not to feel  responsible for everyone else. Tough, but sometimes we have to say sorry, not my problem, and walk away. For our own sake.

Meanwhile, inspired by Rembrandt's Sensations I am writing some flash fiction, five short stories of 500 words on each of the sense. When all else fails, words are then answer.    

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Food as Medicine ... Pepper, tomato, chilli and garlic goodness in a soup

Since I became an independent adult, and thus not at the mercy of my parents' ideas about food and nutrition, I like to think that I've enjoyed a very healthy diet, and the more so since The Ragazzi became my family. Which has meant home-grown vegetables, as much as my modest little garden plot would produce, and actually, it produced quite a lot, especially French beans and lettuces, and as much organic produce as I could find and afford, all turned into home-cooked, home-baked, home-preserved food.

I'm no paragon, of course, please don't think I am claiming to be, I enjoy chocolate and crisps and other 'non-food' treats, especially in times of stress, which is ironic since that's precisely when a good, healthy diet is important, but there you are. A long time evolving to what we Homo sapiens are now and the too-rapid rate of technological changes that we have created, means that our bodies often mistake emotional/work-related/environmental stresses for real physical threats and so we are prone to piling on the pounds to protect ourselves against future famine, cold seasons, physical injuries etc.    
Where was I?
Oh yes, eating a healthy diet and food as medicine.

I've just returned from Brittany where, in response to my attempt to give a friend in the village a small gift of a few locally-collected walnuts, a coffee and walnut cake and a bottle of  'walnut wine' to express my gratitude for his help with a rampant rambling rose, he responded (when my back was turned) by returning my carrier bag filled with tomatoes. And not just any tomatoes but orange, green, yellow and red varieties of tomatoes. Organically-grown in his own garden.   

So today, having overdone my organic vegetable order, and needing to find room in the fridge for the fresh produce, I thought that a nice pepper, tomato and chilli soup would be just the thing. Easy, tasty and packed-full of goodness.     

Such a simple soup to make, especially if you take shortcuts, as I do.

Three red, orange or yellow peppers 
Six large and ripe tomatoes
Two red chillis sliced in half and seeds removed (maybe use one if you are not a chilli fanatic)
Three garlic cloves
Olive oil 

Cut the peppers in half and remove the seeds. Place them skin side up in a large roasting tin and drizzle with the olive oil. Slice the chillis, remove the seeds and add to the tin with the unpeeled garlic cloves. Roast for 15 - 20 minutes.

Skin the tomatoes by scoring the tops and popping them into boiling water. When the skin peels back easily cut in half and remove as many of the seeds as possible but don't stress if some remain. Pop the tomatoes in the roasting tin with the peppers and return to the oven for another 15 minutes.

Peel the skins from the peppers. You can do this by putting them in a plastic bag and shaking it about a bit or, if you like to get hands-on with your food, do it by manually. If the peppers are well-roasted the skins should just slide off anyway. The cloves of garlic will also pop out of  their skins easily.

Put the peppers, chilli, tomatoes and garlic into a blender and whizz until smooth.

Add a little vegetable stock, sufficient to make the soup the consistency you like. Personally, I prefer mine quite thick. You can season it if you have a taste for salt. I only use salt on chips and in rice but, hey, à chacun son goût.  

And then gently re-heat and sprinkle with croûtons, a little cheese, some seeds, perhaps a swirl of flavored oil, some herbs, whatever you like to fancy up your soup. Today I ate mine without further fuss because I am eager to get back to the novel that I'm reading.

And enjoy.   

Incidentally, orange-coloured fruits and vegetables contain excellent anti-cancer compounds and garlic and chillis are good immune-boosters, so this really is food as medicine.   

Saturday, 8 October 2016

A Sleepover at Worcester College, Oxford

I know not why adult sleepovers are not A Thing.
And I daresay that someone will now tell me about all of the sleepovers that I have missed during the last few decades, which would be ironic, but does anyone else think it a shame that we grown-ups do not have sleepovers in interesting places, such as the Egyptology department at The British Museum, (yes I am up for a night next to a mummy), or The London Aquarium, or the dungeons at The Tower of London, (what would I give to chat to the ghost of Anne Boleyn at the witching hour!)

But it seems that such delights are the exclusive preserve of the children. And that is a shame.

Still, I am becoming quite good at finding different places in which to unpack my PJs and toothbrush, not to mention my Worry Bear, bought in California on a business trip who accompanies me whenever I am away from home, and several books, without which I could not leave home, and if I am to spend my nights at the mercy of insomnia, I might as well be somewhere interesting.

Last month I had a sleepover at Worcester College, Oxford.
I was there to attend the Resurgence 50 conference, about which I had known very little beforehand, unusually for me, because it's all about people and the planet and being kind and spiritual, and I've supported Greenpeace and WWF for decades, but I was a newbie to that particular scene and was really there as much to experience the inside of one of those closed-to-the-common-folk-colleges as for the conference.  Two birds with one stone ... 

A last minute panic meant that I missed two of the the really interesting talks, one seemingly about how our genes are not set in stone, as it were, and that environmental factors affect our DNA and thus determine our health as much as do the sequences of amino acids that we inherited from our parents. You may know that I am convinced that my own cancer was caused by the stresses with which I've lived for the last eight years, and so that talk would have been particularly relevant, but I had elected to travel to Oxford by bus and, boy, was the traffic appalling in Abingdon that day, so I arrived late.

I picked up my room key from the Porter. Now if you've been a student at an Oxbridge college, as was The Ex, who left Clare College, Cambridge with a double first in Theoretical Physics, you won't understand how exciting I found that simple experience.

The room itself was located as far from the lodge as, I think, it would have been possible to site it. And had it not been for the helpful signs to The Cafe I, and many other visitors, would still be wandering the college grounds lost now.

A simple, modern room. I have to say that if I were a student it would not do - insufficient book shelving, the shower flooded the bathroom, the nearby fire door slammed shut every time someone walked through it,  no net curtain for privacy - but  for one night it sufficed. And there was a walnut tree outside the window.

I left my monk's cell of  a room and went wandering...

Someone was playing the organ so I wandered in to the chapel for a quiet moment with my god who belongs to no particular religion, and to all religions. If that makes sense.

I did wonder if I could ask the organist to play some Bach but decided that would probably not be the done thing. It wasn't karaoke night at the local pub.

So I simply walked quietly round, admiring the chapel, and especially the carved animals on the ends of the pews.

Too many to post so here's a selection:

There were afternoon sessions in a marquee on the lawn. And during one of them - UPLIFT -  I realised that I am no longer as moved by the notion of spiritual awakening and hippy culture and eastern mysticism as I once was. Indeed, the talks by the orange-robed director of the Divine Shakti Foundation, and that by the founder of UPLIFT failed to inspire me. Worse than that, I felt almost cynical as I sat half-listening to them and half-watching the rest of the audience who were, apparently, spell-bound. And that was, for me, quite a shock because it meant that I have changed a great deal in the last decade and I am not sure how I feel about that. Wasn't I a nicer person when I was more involved in that kind of thing? Or did I just like to think so? 

Cynicism aside, I was, however, deeply moved by the video produced by this guy, Prince EA, who spoke about 'labels', those of age, race, sex, shape and, size, colour etc. I think the practicality and common sense of his message meant more to me than the woman who spoke about sitting by the Ganges and becoming enlightened. 

I find myself taking that approach more and more lately. When people are Tweeting 'solidarity and support and slogans' for people who are suffering I can't help thinking, 'that's all well and good, and it's nice that you care, but is there nothing practical that we can do to stop the suffering in the first place? And does Tweeting and wearing badges and lighting candles make us lazy and complacent?'

Story-telling through dance...


There was dinner in the college dining hall. A grand but companionable affair, all of the attendees at long tables, the conference speakers and guests at the top table, the provost rushing us through grace in Latin with the speed of a bolting horse, speeches between the delicious vegetarian courses, some of the opinions expressed were such that I wanted to stand up and argue, a young woman on my right choosing to ignore me while her friends and I shared stories and experiences and got on wonderfully, a retired school head who kept us all giggling and his wife, a teacher, with whom I discussed genetics and human evolution and who hugged me when we parted company, a handful of people who were pushy and in possession of an over-developed sense of their own importance who were making asses of themselves, candles and portraits of past provosts gazing down on us, lovely servers who did a fantastic job of looking after us, and then wandering in the college gardens, being careful not to stray too close to the lake because the wine had flowed freely, and then to bed.

After breakfast a guided meditative walk, 

And another revelation when two strangers grabbed my hands and we circled a tree and they closed their eyes and communed with nature. I am a frequent talker to trees but I prefer to do it alone and without spoken words and chants, in the same way that I prefer to speak with my god, I suppose.

I have always been somewhat of a loner but I hadn't realised just how much I dislike being in crowds, until I found myself in the company of several hundred enthusiastically sociable people all determined to reach out and touch me.

One amusing incident, a woman sitting next to me turned and asked, "How was your journey?" to which I replied, "I came by bus" and she laughed and said, "No, I meant your spiritual journey," at which I laughed and said, "I think saying I came by bus is pretty accurate, someone else drove me here and I arrived late and a bit cross!"  

At the end of the intense couple of days it was quite a relief to escape. I fled to the anonymity and familiarity of The Ashmolean where, while leaving my bags in a locker I overheard a couple of American visitors discussing their lack of a £1 coin, so offered them a spare one of mine. They tried to give me the 73p they had in change and I declined, "Please, no, no fuss I just want to help," I insisted.

Which pretty much sums up why I didn't buy into all the soul-searching that was going on at Worcester College. A bit more action and a bit less navel-gazing, that's what this world needs.

Goodness, what a miserable old grump I have become! 
It's little wonder I am never invited to sleep-overs!

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Here's the thing...

I've been riding since I was old enough to point to a pony and squeal.

Not regularly, money was too tight for my parents to have been able to pay for me to have proper riding lessons, not with all the associated expense of a hat, boots, gloves, let alone the jodhpurs, gilets etc that serious riders wear, so I waited until I had birthday and Christmas money, or until I'd saved pocket money, and then negotiated with my father to take time out on his weekend to drive me to the local riding school. That probably happened four or five times a year.    

When I reached ten years old and we were living in Watford I had a friend who helped out at a riding school in Radlett, and sometimes I was allowed to go and stay with her after school on a Friday so that we could go to the stables together. And we'd spend a blissful day collecting the ponies from the field in the cold, dawn light, grooming and feeding them, tacking them up for the first of the riders, sometimes mucking out the horses that were stabled, cleaning tack and then, after twelve hours of hard labour, we got to ride the ponies bareback back to the field.

What can I say? I loved it. And I'd probably happily do it again, if a little sixty year old woman wouldn't look ridiculous playing with ponies and hanging out with the teenage girls at the yard.

When I was earning my own living I had regular lessons. And, if I say it myself, I was not a bad rider. I could take a horse round a cross-country course, tackle a show-jumping arena, sometimes, with a fair wind and the right horse, I could even manage a passable dressage display. I was never going to win rosettes or compete at the Horse of the Year Show, and the Spanish Riding School were never going to employ me, but I did ok.

I taught The Rags to ride. Properly, at a really good riding school. Fully kitted-out in the jodhpurs and waxed jackets, the leather boots and gloves that I could never afford when I was their ages. On properly schooled ponies. With skilled instructors.  The Ragazza rides well, she has a good seat, she's elegant and precise. The Ragazzo rides more like me. What he lacks in style he makes up for in enthusiasm. Sadly they were never keen enough to want their own ponies and I did not push my frustrated childhood ambitions onto them. It was enough, for them, that we rode together from time to time and had fun.

I hadn't ridden for 9 years.
Until today.
Today I went to a riding school close to my home and had a lesson. With the children. With the children who were all, I suspect, under 10 years of age. And we walked round the arena, and we trotted in circles, and over poles, and in and out of cones. And we practised sitting to the trot, and rising to the trot, and steering their ponies and my horse, and it was tame and it was beginner's stuff, and it was enough for me. In fact it was almost too much for me.

You see, and here's the thing, through all of last year, after my cancer diagnosis, and all of the MRI and CT scans, the biopsies and ultrasounds, the mastectomy and lymph node removal, the chemotherapy, the radiotherapy, the Herceptin injections, the oncologist appointments, through all of that I held it all together because I had to. I had to be brave for my Ragazzi and I had to be strong because my employers  of eight years were, excuse me swearing, bloody useless. No practical support, no emotional support, save for a weekly, "How you doing kiddo?" from a manager at the end of a group conference call and from the other side of the world. No financial support - they even neglected to tell me I was eligible for a critical illness payment that would have enabled me not to have to work through the treatment. To have been able to relax and take time out, to have been able to take a real holiday post surgery, before chemotherapy.

They gave me nothing, rien, niente. They did tell me I would not be paid after I'd exhausted my statutory sick leave. They did not tell me about the critical illness insurance. They did blame me for not questioning the incompetent HR man, they did not think they had done anything wrong.

Do I sound angry?
You bet I am angry!

So, I held it together for eighteen months and then, last month, I fell apart.
I've been trying to work out why.
And then today, as I sat on that horse and tried to pluck up the courage to ride, I realised that I no longer have any confidence in my own body's ability simply to survive. And I really wanted to bail out. To say, "I'm sorry, this is a mistake, I can't do this. I am going to get off this horse and go home and never go near another horse again."

But if I'd done that...  well, when we stop fighting we die.

So I stayed in the saddle, holding the reins. Physically and, I think, metaphorically.

It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves (Sir Edmund Hillary)