Monday, 28 December 2009

Pop-top jars for jam and preserves (for Americans - 'canning')

Pop-top jars are great and I collect them wherever I find them.  As long as the lids are still in good shape they will reseal time and again.   They make the whole process of making jam and preserves relatively simple and hassle-free.  I do encourage readers to have a go using this method which I found far easier than others.  In this article I explain how the jars can be re-used.  In other articles I share all my recipes.  To find them refer to the index tags at the end of this article.  Once you get the hang of it you'll very likely wonder why you haven't been doing it for years!

This photograph shows a sample of what I've used pop top jars for:
Preserves: nectarines, apricots, apples, pears, black boy peaches and gooseberries.
Jam: plum, apricot and gooseberry; also red currant syrup.

Some years ago when I was first learning about jam and preserves I puzzled at length over what seemed like the complicated business of sterilizing boiling hot jars and fiddling about with various seals and bands.  I did my best but tied myself in knots in the process, got lots of sticky juice over most surfaces in the kitchen, and cracked more than one jar!  I got hot, bothered and rather cross.  I subsequently discovered that none of this was necessary.  Using pop-top jars makes the process easy.

This is an example of what the lids look like.  Note the raised dome in the middle of the lid.  If the dome is sucked down the jar is sealed; if the dome is raised the seal is broken.  If you're still not sure, push the dome down with your finger.  If it moves at all the jar isn't sealed.

I'll write about the process of preparing and cooking fruit and tomatoes elsewhere as the requirements vary from one sort to another.  In this item my focus is on the aspect to do with the jars and getting them to seal.  This process is the same for anything you want to seal in a glass jar.

If opened carefully pop-tops can be re-used many times, so you can gradually build up your own collection for free from any food you happen to buy which has this sort of lid.

If you get serious about it you'll need plenty: think how many pots of jam and tins of fruit you buy a week, then multiply it for the duration of a year and you'll find you'll have plenty of use for a large number!  And if, after all that, you're up to making pickles and relishes as well, you'll need even more!  So far I haven't been quite that energetic.  Even so, I have about 150 which isn't enough.

Most people don't know how to easily open these jars, which is the key to getting a good supply.  And most people who have ever saved them for me wreck the lids in the process - and in any case usually forget they said they would do so after about a week!  Take heart - here is how it can be done - easily.  I've included photographs so you can't be mistaken:
  • Firstly, you need a kitchen implement or any kind of metal tool which has a flat edge about a centimetre long such as you can see on the topmost edge of this tin opener.  Any shorter edge is unlikely to work.

  • You then place that flat edge in the groove between the lid and the adjacent screw-edge of your nice glass jar thus:

    •  ...and rotate it slightly.  This lets just enough air into the jar to relax the seal, and that's it!  No hot water and towels, no banging on the bench, just a little twist and you're done!

    The next requirement for this method is plenty of really hot water and detergent and a fresh kitchen sponge - clean your bench, sink, dish-rack and most of all your jars and lids, really thoroughly. 

    I could not do any of this without a pair of flock-lined rubber kitchen gloves so that I can manage the hot water and handle the jars which get even hotter as the hot liquids are ladled into them.

    Go through the usual process of cooking up whatever it is you are bottling. I have two large stock-pots, one is stainless steel and the other has a non-stick surface; both are easy to use and to clean.

    For cooking and storing food I always use stainless steel and glass where possible. 

    Have the sink filled with really hot water - what you can get from the kitchen tap will probably be hot enough, and lay as many jars as you think you will need in it so that they are fully immersed.

    Place the lids in a heat-proof pot or bowl, and when the fruit is nearly ready, pour boiling water over them.

    At this point, re-fill the sink with the hottest water the tap will produce so that your jars are also really hot.  You don't want them to crack from too great a change of temperature, or to cool the fruit before the lid is on.  If you are preserving fruit as opposed to making jam, have your kettle near the boil so you can top up your jars if you don't have quite enough syrup to reach the very top of the rim. This shouldn't be necessary if you have enough syrup in the pot, which is why it's better to have a little too much syrup than not enough.

    I have a dinner plate next to my pot of boiling fruit and on it a heat-proof bowl partially filled with hot water.  This is so that I can stand my jar in it while I'm ladling fruit into it if I want to, without getting syrup everywhere.
    • When making preserved fruit (which Americans call 'canning') I slightly overfill the jars so that I can be sure that there is no air space in the top of the jar.  When you've filled your jar right to the top, fish a matching lid out of the bowl they are in, quickly flick your gloved finger tip around the rim of the jar to make sure it's clear of pieces of fruit, and carefully screw the lid into place.  If you've overfilled it with syrup as I do, screwing the lid down will force a little excess syrup out.  
    • When filling jars with jam it is not necessary to fill them right to the brim - you can leave a bit of space at the top.
    That's it !!!

    Within five to ten minutes each pop-top will give a loud click as the seal sucks down showing it's successful and you know it's fine.  All you have to do after that is wash the jar and label it.  If you have the occasional jar which doesn't click it means either that the lid is no good, or that it hasn't been screwed into place properly.  Because the sealing becomes evident so quickly, fruit can easily be decanted either back into the pot for re-heating and then re-bottling, or, if you are lucky, simply poured briskly into a waiting very hot jar.  I've got away with that a few times!

    In the five or so years I've been doing this I've had no jars at all go 'off', so the sterilization of the jars as described has been perfectly adequate.  Good luck with yours!

    Later note (22nd Oct 2010): I can see a query on the web about jars that are not actual pop-tops and wondering if these can also be made to seal.  The answer is that if the jar you have has been sealed for supermarket sale you will be able to see a thin rubber seal where the lid fits against the rim of the glass jar.  If the lid has been opened carefully and not wrecked these can be used similarly - it's just that you can't be so sure that they have fully sealed.  The success of the seal can be fairly accurately gauged by the centre having sucked down a little.  I have heaps of these jars and use them for jam if I run out of the others as sealing isn't as crucial as it is for preserves.  As it's turned out I've had no problem with them.  Good luck!

    My method of jam-making can be found in the article:
    My method of making preserves can be found in the article:

    Further instructions for how to make a wide range of jams and preserves can be found via the following link:

    Sunday, 27 December 2009

    Dearest Frank - Rest in Peace

    One sunny afternoon early in 2005 when Anna, Frank and I were sitting in their garden I asked Frank if he had a favourite poet or poem. He considered this thoughtfully for a minute or so, then quietly recited this poem by Francis Thompson. It is:
    "In no strange land: the kingdom of God is within you".
    Those of you who knew him will remember his deep, well modulated voice and careful speech.

    O world invisible, we view thee,
    O world intangible, we touch thee,
    O world unknowable, we know thee,
    Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!

    Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
    The eagle plunge to find the air -
    That we ask of the stars in motion
    If they have rumour of thee there?

    Not where the wheeling systems darken,
    And our benumbed conceiving soars!
    The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
    Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.

    The angels keep their ancient places; -
    Turn but a stone, and start a wing!
    Tis ye, ‘tis your estrang├Ęd faces,
    That miss the many-splendoured thing.

    But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
    Cry; - and upon thy so sore loss
    Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
    Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

    Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
    Cry, - clinging Heaven by the hems;
    And lo, Christ walking on the water,
    Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!

    Frank, we weep for our loss, and offer our gratitude for your friendship, generosity, sensitivity and love.

    Other tributes can be found at:

    Later Note:
    Grace's tribute photograph of the delicately pink lotus reminds me of an occasion when Frank invited me to visit so that I could see the blossom on their flowering cherry trees. Naturally the invitation was accepted immediately. When he opened the front door, the first thing he did after greeting me was to lead the way to where I could best see them.  The two trees were exquisite, with their white and pale pink blossom seeming to be luminous, even in the sunshine.

    I enjoyed a leisurely visit of some hours, and then when I was saying my good-byes, Frank said "Come and see the blossom one more time" and led me back for one last look.  I was touched that he appreciated their beauty so particularly and also that he wanted me to see them too.  It is a very fond memory.

    These photographs are of a different tree but it is perhaps a little similar.

    Zoe's fruit loaf ~ made with tea

    Here is a favourite recipe given to me by a dear friend many years ago:

    Overnight soak:
    1 pound of mixed fruit (500 grams)
    2 cups of cold tea
    1/2 cup of brown sugar
    Then add:
    2 cups of self-raising flour (if using standard flour add 2 tsp baking powder)
    1 well beaten egg.
    Mix well, pour into a well-greased loaf tin. 

    The original recipe says to bake for up to 2 hours in a moderate oven (300 degrees Fahrenheit or 150 degrees Celcius). Oven's vary, and I've found this to be too long for mine.  I suggest you check progress after an hour and possibly leave it in for another ten or twenty minutes or so.  A well-cooked loaf is likely to be a deep golden brown and have a good firm crust. 

    Once baked to your satisfaction take it out and leave it until the following day before cutting - if possible - it isn't!  The years have proved this to be so! 

    I've found that packs of mixed fruit vary in moisture content, and that the amount of tea needed varies.  The main thing is to be sure that whatever fruit you have has enough tea in which to soak so that it can absorb as much as it will hold, so starting the soaking process with enough tea to cover the fruit works well.

    Once combined with other ingredients the mixture should drop off the spoon easily, so it pays to have some additional cold tea to hand in case it seems too stiff. 

    If using double the amount of fruit the mixture can easily be adapted to make three loaves.  They freeze well.  When serving you'll find loaves moist and not in need of butter.

    'Gooseberry-licious' ~ a little like a sorbet

    The name of this recipe is my own as its original name has been lost for the moment.  It's a contraction of Gooseberry-delicious, of course! Althought it can be served by itself, it's the perfect foil for red currant fool - or fruit loaf. The flavour is tangy so a little goes a long way.

    Take any quantity of fruit and about half its weight in sugar. Put it in a cooking pot and add enough water to just about cover it. Add some generously sized sprigs of mint - yes, that's right, mint! Cook until tender, which isn't long. Check the flavour for sweetness, and add a little more sugar if required. Take it off the heat, pick out the mint, then remove the skins by pushing the mixture through a fairly fine sieve over a bowl. Allow to cool, then pour into a flat dish or container and put it in the freezer. Once frozen it's ready to serve. Remove it from the dish by scratching it up with a turned over fork which breaks it up nicely. Serve it in party glasses with pretty teaspoons if you have them. The mint somehow makes the gooseberry flavour more gooseberry-ish!  :-)

    Thanks to Penelope for the recipe - if you remember the name let me know!

    Red Currant Fool - or Gooseberry Fool, if you choose

    The richness of this dessert is offset by the tang of the fruit   The only variation in the recipe for the different fruit may be the amount of sugar required - adjust according to taste. 

    The basic method is simplicity itself: take any quantity of red currants or gooseberries and simmer with a little water along with about a third of the weight of fruit in sugar.  Gooseberries may require more than currants.  When the fruit is mushy take it off the heat and strain into a bowl by pushing the mixture through a fairly fine sieve to remove the skins and stalks.  In the bowl underneath you'll now have a delicious syrup - very simple!  Chill it and then fold in a little whipped cream.  Serve in party glasses with pretty teaspoons if you have them.  It's scrumptious!

    When I made this for four of us I used about 500 grams of currants and about 160 grams of sugar.  Once these were in the pot I added enough water so that I could see it but it didn't cover the fruit.   The fruit is so juicy that it rapidly contributes a lot of its own liquid!  I might have whipped about a cup of cream.  The important thing is to fold the cream into the fruit, rather than the fruit into the cream as you don't want to overwhelm the flavour of the fruit.  Surprisingly, the cream seems to bring out the flavour of the fruit, so that one gets more of its delicate piquancy in the 'fool' than in the syrup by itself.  Both are delicious however. 

    I liked this so much I preserved some of the syrup so that I could enjoy it during the winter months.

    Following further experimentation I find I prefer the chilled syrup served just as is with the whipped cream on top rather than mixed in.   

    These summery delights are the perfect accompaniment for fruit loaf, Christmas cake or fruit mince pies.

    Other fool recipes: 
    In a favourite book entitled "Miss Mapp" by E F Benson, red currant fool is a prominent feature at the bridge parties of a rather stuffy set of middle aged Edwardian characters, and on one memorable occasion we see the appearance of a very different version.  This extract is from page 43:
    'I believe I was wrong,' she said. 'There is something in it beyond egg and cream. Oh, there's Boon; he will tell us.'
    She made a seductive face at Boon, and beckoned to him.
    'Boon, will you think it very inquisitive of me,' she asked archly, 'if I ask you whether you have put a teeny drop of champagne into this delicious red-currant fool?'
    'A bottle and a half, Miss,' said Boon morosely, 'and half a pint of old brandy. Will you have some more, Miss?'
    Miss Mapp curbed her indignation at this vulgar squandering of precious liquids, so characteristic of Poppits. She gave a shrill little laugh.
    'Oh, no, thank you, Boon!' she said. 'I mustn't have any more. Delicious though.'
    Major Flint let Boon fill up his cup while he was not looking....

    I've written more about red currants in my later article:
    And more about gooseberries, most of which can be found here:
    Leigh in the kitchen ~ click here to find all my recipes and food articles

    Berry fruit and summer tea parties

    In New Zealand Christmas coincides with the beginning of summer and the bounty of berry fruit.  I'm particularly fond of red currants and gooseberries, and recently made a very nice festive morning tea which included both along with a tasty fruit loaf.  Each recipe is the simplest thing imaginable so I'd like to share them. They are for red currant fool, 'gooseberry-licious' and Zoe's fruit loaf. I'll write them as individual 'posts' so that they are easy to find and refer to.

    Wednesday, 9 December 2009

    Iris delight

    The irises in my garden are a source of much pleasure:

    It must be at least ten years since these last flowered which was before we packed up our Auckland home and moved south.  They originally came from my childhood home in the South Island so were valuable enough firstly to take to Auckland, and then to pluck up once more when I moved back.  Before being planted here a couple of years ago they had most unfairly been wedged into a single pot with a bare covering of earth - watered, yes; fed, no!  They survived - what tenacity that shows! And now they are blooming fit to bust.  I'm pleased to have this connection and continuity from the garden that nurtured me as I grew up.  It reassures me of the goodness in life.

    The colours are enchanting.  To the golden-brown, mauve-blue and purple from home I have already added one of buttercup yellow and have arranged to exchange some of my purple with a some of a friend's who has a grove of them in royal blue.

    Their petals are tissue thin and delicately shaped.  We've had a lot of wind lately and as I've sat looking out on my garden I have watched them being battered relentlessly.  To my surprise most of their petals survived intact with few signs of bruising.

    Dividing and planting irises is described here in very simple and easy-to-follow terms:


    The rest of the garden is coming on well.   My runner beans are climbing their framework and the silver beet seedlings get bigger every day.  The tomatoes are romping away.   I'm ever reluctant to trim things back, so have missed taking off some of the laterals which I should have done at least a fortnight or so ago.  I love so much to see things grow, it seems a shame to pick things back when they are doing so well - I know I'm being (a bit) impractical!

    My nettles have gained height, and each day I look among them for the caterpillars of the Admiral butterflies.   The Admirals have been about so the eggs should be hatching soon if they haven't already.

    My main job just now is to get the gooseberries in jars - some as preserves, and some as jam.  Gooseberries provide one of the many glorious nectars of summer.

    The garden is an enduring source of well-being and pleasure: when I look out on it and especially when I'm out in it I breathe in its beauty and vitality and bless its bounty.   I give thanks to the Good Earth - how fortunate we are.

    ...I've just been outside and noticed again that the hedge by the front door is humming with bees. They've been very busy there lately.  They're all over it, along with many other insects. It's a rather untidy hedge but covered with flowers at present, hence the bees.  We need these bees, make no mistake, and the butterflies and other insects.  They all participate in the vast web of life which makes our lives possible, some pollinating our fruit and vegetables, and others breaking down dead matter.  At one time our landlord suggested pulling out the hedge in favour of a fence.  Now, although I know that fences have their uses, in my view a hedge is almost always a better choice: a fence is made of dead wood, whereas a hedge is alive and supports other life.  Choose life, I say.

    Click on the link below to find my other articles about gardening:

    Monday, 7 December 2009

    Ice cream recipe ~ an easy treat

    Ice cream is a pleasant summer treat which I've discovered is very easy to make - thanks to Pete of the "Kai time on the road" television show for mouthwatering inspiration and the Edmonds recipe book for getting me going!

    I'm still experimenting with the ingredients. When I first made it I did three samples: one with cream and no yoghurt, one with yoghurt and no cream, and one with a mixture of both.

    This one was made with all cream and no yoghurt. It was deliciously, well, creamy!

    A number of people enjoyed sampling the three and the most popular flavour was combination of the two. The yoghurt gives it a mild tang. I expect it could be made with less sugar. Readers will no doubt enjoy arriving at their own favourite version!

    The basic recipe I arrived at is scrumptious, easy to make and requires only five ingredients. It's comparable in price to shop-bought ice cream depending on which yoghurt you buy. Cyclops is fairly costly but has the advantage not only of being delicious but also seems to be one of the few available in New Zealand supermarkets which exclude gelatin. It is also distinguished by being made from organic milk and containing the beneficial bacteria acidophilus. The low fat variety is fine.

    The following ingredients make a bit over two litres of ice cream. 
    If you want to make less the quantities are easily divisible by either two or three.
    Cream - 300 ml / half an imperial pint / a cup and a half
    Yoghurt, unsweetened - 500 gms / a cup and a half
    Castor sugar - a cup and a half
    Vanilla essence - a teaspoon and a half
    6 eggs - separated.

    For an even simpler version using a third of the ingredients use: 
    1 cup or cream (no yoghurt)
    Half a cup of castor sugar
    Half a teaspoon of vanilla essence and
    Two eggs.
    This is a great way to use up the last cream in the bottle which might otherwise go to waste.  Then you can have a bit in the fridge to scoop out when you feel like something a bit special to have with a slice of cake or a little preserved fruit.
    It makes enough to mostly fill three 250 gram cottage cheese containers!

    The method: 
    This requires that all ingredients are beaten thoroughly so an electric beater may be helpful. However an ordinary egg beater would be fine, just require a bit more effort!

    In addition to the egg beater I use three large mixing bowls and a couple of spoons. Also required is a metal or plastic container with a lid in which to freeze the ice cream.

    The following method works well:
    Separate the egg yolks and put the whites in one bowl and the yolks in another. Pour the cream into the third bowl and add the vanilla essence to it.

    Add a pinch of salt to the egg whites and beat until stiff. Add half the sugar and beat until the whites turn glossy.

    Beat the cream until it's nicely 'whipped'.

    To the egg yolks in the third bowl add the remaining sugar and beat until the mixture turns pale and resembles creamed butter and sugar. Add the yoghurt to it and beat it in well. The idea is not just to combine it thoroughly but to aerate it as much as possible. Add the whipped cream and continue beating. Add the egg white mixture and beat until everything is evenly combined and smooth.

    Your mixture is now ready to freeze.

    If you want to add further flavouring fold in additional syrup and or fruit at this point.

    Pour into your container, cover it and place it in the freezer. It will freeze fully in about twenty four hours. Yum!!!!!!!!!!

    Later Notes:
    I've been experimenting with this recipe and have found out a number of things:
    1. Whole pieces of fruit, either fresh or preserved, really aren't suitable for inclusion - they freeze along with the mixture and are then encountered as hard lumps which aren't all that flavoursome.  
    2. Syrup made from blended or mashed fruit is fine - yummy in fact. Last time I made it I used two thirds of the quantities given here and added in a cup of pulp from preserved apricots. It set just as usual and had a good texture and a delicate flavour, so the other ingredients can perfectly well accommodate that much fruit pulp. 
    3. It tends to get a little icicly on keeping, which I suspect is due to exposure to air, and / or changes in temperature from going in and out of the freezer, however briefly. Whatever the reason, it works best to freeze it in smallish containers.
    4. In any case, a little goes a long way - for example, a third of the quantity given above, ie: 2 eggs, half a cup each of cream, yoghurt and castor sugar and half a teaspoon of vanilla essence makes a generous amount for up to two to four people, depending on your appetites and whatever else you serve with it. 
    5. The aeration which comes from the whipped egg-whites, etc, does contribute quite a bit of volumn - if you re-blend the mixture after freezing it - or allow it to melt completely (but why waste it!) you'll find it reduces in volume to about half the size.  So, if you have a nice sized helping and imagine that half of it is cream.... it isn't!  :-)
    My purpose in sharing this recipe, along with others, isn't to present the perfect formula, but to pass on what I have enjoyed (and found remarkably easy) in the hope that it will encourage others to experiment and also enjoy!

    An even later note (March 2010):
    I have amended my notes at the beginning of the recipe to recommend only the one variety of yoghurt which I know is suitable, rather than the two which were there previously.  I experimented with the second brand and found it wasn't suitable at all: although perfectly delicious by itself or on porridge, the texture and flavour it gave the ice cream seemed somewhat starchy and tasted all wrong. This surprised me. I mention this in case you find that your ice cream isn't as pleasing as I have led you to believe it should be - it might be worth trying a different brand of yoghurt. I'm sure there will be other brands which I haven't yet tried which will be fine.

    Sunday, 8 November 2009

    "You should let me love you" ~ Stan the Man

    Australian Idol is a lot of fun and I include an entry here for those of you who have not yet had this pleasure. I resisted watching it initially - I'd been hooked on American Idol for two seasons and was sure it would be disappointing in comparison. I could not have been more wrong. In fact I actually like Australian Idol more - the Australians seem more natural to me, but perhaps this is my own cultural bias - I think New Zealanders and Australians stand on more similar ground in this respect.

    The music is reason enough to watch but it's the personalities that make it compelling, and as the show progresses the musicians become more skilled and their music a weekly highlight. And because they're human their performances vary in quality and impact. The judges critique each performance but once the number of contestants is reduced to twelve it's the public who decide who stays and who goes.

    One special feature of the show is the guest appearance of well-known musicians who coach the contestants during the week and also give their own performance on the night. Liza Minnelli's coaching was especially heart-warming. Here she is being introduced to the audience by the host followed by a clip of her coaching Toby Moulton.
    Toby's subsequent performance of "Find me somebody to love" was a favourite, also his rendition of a Radiohead song which I think may be called "Exit music".
    Last week Toby announced he was withdrawing as his calling to primary school teaching is stronger than that of a career in music. He stood aside for those he knew wanted that career. Judges, fellow contestants and audience alike were shocked and dismayed but respected his choice and gave him a standing ovation. He's been an outstanding person to watch both for his character as well as his performances. I think he could have won. Never sang in public before entering the contest... Amazing!

    Liza's coaching of Nathan Brake also produced a remarkable performance, and this clip of her with him is touching, both for the level at which she chose to engage as teacher and fellow dramatist, and also his response to her.
    Nathan's subsequent performance received thunderous applause, so Liza's coaching was put to good use! Disappointingly I didn't find a link to it on YouTube.

    Let's not leave out the women: the two top ranked women are Kate Cook and Hayley Warner. Neither is your average pin-up; they are both unusual and very likable.

    Kate is a lesbian who left her job at an abattoir to participate in the contest and further her career in music. Here she is giving a very sensitive performance of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide"
    I liked Kate's unvarnished naturalness. Her mother committed suicide when she was a teenager which has left her with visible vulnerability, yet her manner is often at odds with this. She addressed the judges with responses such as "Yeah mite [mate], no worries mite" and a broad grin. One of the judges once asked, with an element of despair, if she was ever going to wear a dress on stage. Long pause... "Yeah-nah!" came the response! She has since left the contest and I agree with the judges - she is missed.

    Hayley is still in it. She got involved in music only when trouble with her legs prevented her from pursuing her interest in sports. In some ways she looks like a scruffy kid and in other ways, such as in her musical confidence and ability to strut the stage, she seems much older than her seventeen years. She too is very likable. Her performance of Pink's song "This used to be a fun house" was energetic and great fun - the crowd went crazy!!! And let's not forget "Stone Cold Sober"! Thanks John, for a tele that can handle the sound - wind it UP!

    All these contestants are great and remarkable in their own ways, but Stan Walker is my favourite - the Maori man with the most. The most what? An astonishing voice and a captivating ability to pulse out from the depths and take us all with him. The Madden brothers of Good Charlotte fame were just two of the guest judges who felt similarly.

    Later note:
    Disappointingly most of the YouTube clips originally included in this item have been removed due to 'terms of use' violations. I have adapted the text accordingly.

    Stan did go on to win the the title and deservedly so, and Hayley was a fine runner up. Favourite performances of Stan's from during the competition were: "Under my Umbrella", "Sweet Dreams" by Beyonce, Leonard Cohen's much copied "Hallelujah," and although the judges panned the musical arrangement I loved "You should let me love you." Yes, Stan, yes - we love to love you too! Bravo and well done!

    Thursday, 29 October 2009

    In praise of nettles ~

    Planting the tomatoes was a much faster, simpler job than getting the beans in, and I was pleased to have done it but it was finding the nettle seedlings that was really exciting - I thought they'd all evaporated! There are quite a few and hopefully more will follow. These are the small variety of nettle - Urtica urens, not the much bigger variety which in New Zealand is referred to as Perennial Nettle. The latter is classed a notifiable pest in Otago as well as in a number of other regions due to it's invasive tendencies. The smaller one represents no such threat.

    When I mention this enthusiasm I usually get two responses which follow each other in quick succession, the first being "You what...?" or similar, then "But they sting! People are allergic to them". This is true, they certainly do sting, and yes, some people do have an allergic reaction, but nettles are a lot easier to handle than the average rose, which draws no similar complaint, and people can be allergic to many things, even foods that are of great benefit to others, such as eggs and nuts! The sting doesn't bother me much. I usually cover my skin and wear gardening gloves so it's seldom a problem, and if I do get 'stung' I pretend to ignore it as I'm such a fan.

    The reason nettles are so special is because they are the host plant of larval caterpillars of Admiral butterflies. They seem to eat little or nothing else. In New Zealand we have the Yellow and the Red Admiral.
    Here is a Yellow one inspecting my nettles last summer:

    And of course, once the butterflies hatch they need nectar to feed on. The hebe is a favourite. There are two butterflies in this image. See if you can find the second one!

    Butterflies, along with bees, are major pollinators and vital in our production of fruit and vegetables. Without them we could be very hungry indeed. Sadly, butterflies and moths are in decline around the world. Part of the reason seems to be loss of habitat as well as the extensive use of chemical horticultural sprays. The following two websites mention this. In the first one David Attenborough launches a campaign to address this alarming issue, in which he is supported by David Bellamy. The second is more general.

    While I was looking for background information I was pleased to find this article by Kennedy Harris, a fellow nettle and butterfly enthusiast.
    Having a clump of nettles in the garden is one way in which I contribute to the world conservation effort. It's easy and free, and watching the caterpillars and butterflies is a happy occupation. Not all of them make it to adulthood of course, but some of them do, and with them the cycle of renewal continues.

    Tuesday, 20 October 2009

    "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are"

    This quotation comes from Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States. He lived from 1858 to 1919, quite a while back, yet much of what he said remains contemporary. The quote is one I often call to mind when I'm overwhelmed - either by too much or too little.

    In relation to the 'too much' scenario it brings me back to myself when the world at large seems alien and out of control, of helping me focus instead on what my situation is, what my most immediate needs are, on what I am doing to stay sane and calm and active in my own small way.

    In relation to the 'too little' scenario, my concern is usually to do with too little control, too little money, or a paucity of stamina.

    Note repetition of the control theme in each case. Some may see this as an indication of a controlling personality, and there may be those who perceive me this way. However, loss of personal power is known to be a major stress factor, which possibly impacts more on thoughtful people like me who see themselves as outsiders.

    I do tend to panic about issues which affect us now and look set to increase incrementally in the near future: global warming, climate disaster, food shortages, economic and political turmoil... It seems that how we respond to these challenges now is going to define what happens on this planet for a very long time to come.

    Reading the on-line article entitled "The global food crisis: the end of plenty" by Joel K Bourne Jr, (National Geographic magazine, June 2009) drove this home eloquently. Thanks for the link, Grace, and I agree, everyone should read it.

    The article clearly outlines, not the likelihood but the certainty, that as the world's population increases, which it will massively, pressure on resources will also increase which will force the price of basic foods ever higher. Noticed how these have already been hiking up over the last year or so? This trend is not confined to 'undeveloped' economies - it's just that it affects them worse. In previous decades the problem of world food shortages has been addressed by intensive and increasingly artificial methods of food production. While these solutions have worked wonders for a while, there are parts of the world where resulting issues have already brought the food shortages back to crisis point and with local resources in a worse state than before.

    We have to get our heads straight about this. It's not a problem that requires huge braininess, but it does require applied intelligence and shared commitment if we are to survive the environmental impact of our collective stupidity.

    In searching for the origin of the above quote (a military handbook!) I found other interesting speeches made by President Roosevelt. They show not only that he was a visionary and man of action but also that we haven't changed at all. The problems he identified are still with us, casting longer darker shadows with the increase of population, our technological capability for harming each other, the toxic waste we create and our heedlessness of others. In using the term 'others' I refer not only to our fellow humans but to all other life forms. They have after all been here far longer than we have.

    In 1912 he included these statements in a speech made to the Senate and the House of Representatives:
    "The conservation of our natural resources and their proper use constitute the fundamental problem which underlies almost every other problem of our National life. We must maintain for our civilization the adequate material basis without which that civilization can not exist. We must show foresight, we must look ahead. [...] The reward of foresight for this Nation is great and easily foretold. But there must be the look ahead, there must be a realization of the fact that to waste, to destroy, our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified and developed. For the last few years, through several agencies, the Government has been endeavoring to get our people to look ahead and to substitute a planned and orderly development of our resources in place of a haphazard striving for immediate profit."
    And further on in his speech:
    "Optimism is a good characteristic, but if carried to an excess it becomes foolishness. We are prone to speak of the resources of this country as inexhaustible; this is not so. The mineral wealth of the country, the coal, iron, oil, gas, and the like, does not reproduce itself, and therefore is certain to be exhausted ultimately; and wastefulness in dealing with it to-day means that our descendants will feel the exhaustion a generation or two before they otherwise would. But there are certain other forms of waste which could be entirely stopped--the waste of soil by washing, for instance, which is among the most dangerous of all wastes now in progress in the United States, is easily preventable, so that this present enormous loss of fertility is entirely unnecessary. The preservation or replacement of the forests is one of the most important means of preventing this loss. We have made a beginning in forest preservation, but it is only a beginning."
    The speech is complex and lengthy, wide-ranging in subject matter, in vision and in multiple practical applications. If interested you can read it in full here.

    Having located this material and made jottings I once more felt overwhelmed, and, I have to say, distressed. I remembered another quote which helps me at such times: Anne Frank's father, the only survivor of his family following their incarceration in concentration camps, maintained his willingness to vote for life - he said:
    "If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would still plant a tree today."
    Thank you, Otto.

    I went outside and planted the bean seedlings, which was constructive and calming.

    Growing things, including at least some of the vegetables we eat, bottling locally produced fruit and tomatoes, baking using New Zealand grown flour, buying things second hand, walking rather than using the car when I can are some of the things I can control. Talking about it, sharing some of my skills and insights, is another way I can contribute. What happens on a grand scale I can't control, but that is made up of all our little contributions be they active or passive, so I encourage the reader to step out of the modern tide of superficial non-sense, fear and clutter which is so depressing and wasteful, and to consciously exert what influence you can.
    "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."

    Monday, 19 October 2009

    Rhubarb and ginger muffins

    This recipe is a favourite of ours and makes quite the most delicious muffins I've come across. It can be baked as a cake in a ring tin, but I like it so well as muffins I've never tried that alternative. Fancy a special dessert? This recipe may be just what you're after.

    Note that quite a bit of preparation time is needed as dicing the rhubarb and crystallised ginger is fairly time consuming. And don't even think of making it without the cystallised ginger!

    Rhubarb, raw – chopped into 1 cm cubed pieces – 4 cups or 450 gms [1 pound]. This is a lot of rhubarb - about six to eight stalks depending on their size.
    Brown sugar – 1 cup – well packed, or 135 gms [4 and ½ oz]
    Flour – 1 and ¼ cups, or 170 g [6 oz]
    Baking soda – 1 tsp
    Ginger, ground – ½ tsp, or 1 tsp if you like ginger as much as I do!
    Oil – ½ cup
    Egg – one
    Ginger, crystallised - ½ cup or 90 gms [3 and ½ oz]
    Icing sugar for dusting

    Chop the rhubarb and place in a mixing bowl with the brown sugar. Stir well and leave to stand for about 15 minutes. The sugar will liquefy from contact with the fruit.
    Preheat the oven to 160 degrees Celsius.
    Grease the muffin pans or cake tin.
    Dice the crystallised ginger reasonably finely.
    Sift together the flour, baking soda and ground ginger and set aside.
    Beat the egg with the oil and pour into the rhubarb mixture
    Add the crystallised ginger and stir to combine.
    Stir in the dry ingredients.
    The mixture will seem runny and to consist mostly of fruit, which is correct.
    Spoon into the muffin pans or baking tin.
    Place in the oven.
    If baking muffins the cooking time may be 20 – 30 minutes.
    If baking a cake the specified cooking time is one and a quarter hours.
    In either case cook until well browned and springy to touch.

    These muffins are at their most delicious when eaten hot. If you're careful they can be eased out of their tins soon after being taken out of the oven.
    If baking a cake allow it to cool fully before turning out.
    Dust with icing sugar just before serving. If you do this any earlier it will tend to melt in and simply add to the general sweetness which isn't needed. The original recipe suggests serving with yoghurt or whipped cream, which I don't think is needed. I've tried serving them with a number of other foods - fruit, custard, etc, and each time like them best by themselves - with a cuppa, of course. :-)

    Source: newspaper column, the origin of which has been lost. It was passed on to me by my sister - thanks Big Sis!

    Saturday, 17 October 2009

    Glad to wake up ~

    My cat woke me up by clawing the curtains, and although I usually find this extremely annoying this morning I was glad of it. I had been dreaming I was somewhere in Auckland, alone, didn't know where I was and was walking to an unknown destination in completely the wrong direction. I had walked a very long way, and by the time my dreaming self realised this it was late in the day and the light would soon be fading. So it was a relief to wake up and find myself comfortably in bed! Once properly awake the day outside seemed mighty civilized in comparison. Grey, mizzly and cold it might be, but sitting in the front room, warmly wrapped with a cup of best tea and some munchy jammy toast I could feel my dreamtime angst melting away.

    I had my chair facing the window of course, so I could admire my garden: my favourite rose, Tequila Sunrise, is doing very well and the rhubarb has sprung up so vigorously that I'll be able pick some any time I feel like it, a welcome treat after its winter quiescence. The irises have put on a lot of new growth and I'm hoping they will produce flowers this season, which they didn't the last one due no doubt to recovering from subsisting in a single pot for years. It would help if I checked that the corms are partially exposed to the air. It could be a good day for getting my tomato plants in, also the bean seedlings... These possibilities passed pleasantly through my mind while I sipped my tea. Gardening is great: a little work here and there and now and again, and while you're not exerting yourself at all, up it springs and creates all manner of wonders! Just at present it's in a state where I could do work in it, or not, which is a comf0rtable place to be, a position of choice, to busy myself with whatever I fancy.

    My cat goggled at me appealingly through the window. She is small, black, fluffy and intense. Her name is Louisa. At my encouragement she made her practiced leap through the open window. It's a big jump as this window is high so she has to think about it carefully first; she springs at the lower window, runs up it as it were, hooks her front paws over the window ledge so she can haul herself up, then she's over and in. This time she chose to linger on the sill pirouetting first one way then the other, fanning her fluffy tail with feminine charm while I petted her. She was damp from the misty air so I decided that the tomatoes and beans in their pots could wait. Maybe I'd clear the pile of papers in my workroom that I've neglected for too long. But that seems far too business-like for this early in the morning; far easier and more pleasant to write a little entry about waking up. My home is a good place to find myself, a good place to wake up in, thank God.

    Later: I find I'm dissatisfied with how I've closed the above. I wanted to offer thanks, but to whom or what? Meaning no disrespect, 'God' sounds too religious for where I'm at at present. 'Thank the Lord' has a rather better ring to it but is unsuitable for the same reason but more so. 'Thank goodness'? Quite apart from having already used the word 'good' twice in the same sentence it's too vague; 'Heaven' didn't work either, since it wasn't Heaven I was grateful for, it was the Earth. Ah, the Earth. We don't seem to to be much in the habit of thanking the Earth, without which we wouldn't be waking up from our dreams, either good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant. So saying I thank the Earth, and pull on my gardening shoes.

    Tuesday, 13 October 2009

    Being neighbourly ~

    This morning I found out that Harry is off work on Accident Compensation. He's been having trouble with the carpal tunnels in his wrists which is expected to require surgery. Even holding a cup makes his hands tingle, which is a big worry and hugely limiting.

    Harry has never sought us out socially but can be quite chatty if we happen to meet outside. Most of his front teeth are missing which you forget after about the first five minutes, and although he is very much a plain dresser and a no-frills man he has been at pains to let me know that he is most particular about keeping his place just so.

    He has a cat called Rex, of some 14 years, who reflects his character to some degree. Rex allows us a nodding acquaintance but makes it clear he doesn't look for anything more! I always chat to Rex when I see him around the place, and sometimes he will give me the time of day but usually he turns his ears sideways, from which I can tell that he's heard me, and keeps his nose pointing straight ahead as he continues on his way without pausing. Although Harry often volunteers conversation there is a certain angular dourness about both of them.

    When Harry shared his news with Rewi this morning, Rewi remarked that Rex would be pleased to have him at home more. "Don't know about that" Harry responded. "Have you asked him", Rewi teased. No, he hadn't, Harry replied no doubt with a glimmer of a smile but certainly nothing more. He expressed similar reserve when remarking on his daughter Shelley's move back home. She had chucked her job as a nanny on an inland farm - too much expected for too little, and so on and so on. I know he's very fond of her from comments he's made on earlier occasions, but perhaps the prospect of her undiluted company was a bit of a damper. Anyway, both pieces of news accounted for more than the usual coming and going of late.

    I can't imagine how Harry will occupy himself. He's a practical man and a hard worker. Some months ago when business slowed his hours dropped from full-time to sometimes full-time and sometimes not and he was at a distinctly loose end: on one Saturday when he'd been home since Thursday he remarked that he'd done all he wanted to "Yesterday". I found this staggering and was quite envious (briefly) as I've always got dozens of projects which I struggle to get around, quite apart from the ordinary domestic commitments. How different we all are!

    In the neighbouring unit where Margaret lives with her two teenage sons there has also been drama but of quite a different sort: they came to live here the best part of a year ago after Margaret's marriage broke up and they've been waiting for the family home to be sold. Well, it's just sold, so I expect she's already looking for a new place and we'll have the prospect of new tenants before Christmas. We will all be crossing our fingers that the next people will be as easy to have next door. ...I already am!

    The previous occupants, a couple with two children, were a disaster zone - regularly at war with each other and the woman particularly volatile. As tensions mounted she got in the habit of shouting abuse at both the landlord and landlady as well as her partner, and when they finally moved out left a horrendous mess and an eye-opening quantity of unpaid rent. Amazing how the blame for who's responsible can shift around!

    In contrast we've hardly known that Margaret and the boys have been there, apart from the occasional blast of loud music which Kerry, the younger of the two, says is always his brother's. One time when I was out in the garden Bart, the elder boy, was vacuuming his car out with the car stereo going full bore. Since his taste in music didn't chime with mine, I went over to ask him to turn it down. He could see me but not hear, so I put my hands up to my ears. He turned the sound down so we could talk. Was the music too loud? he asked politely. Yes it was rather and would he mind turning it down a bit, I asked. No problem. Which demonstrates the value of knowing people, even if only superficially.

    This afternoon when we walked down to the shops Rewi drew my attention to children calling out, and we crossed back over the road to see the young girls who used to live next door. I often used to have them over to do various art and craft activities, so we'd been good friends before they moved away and I hadn't seen them for months. I'd been quite resentful about that actually and felt dumped. All that time and effort I'd given them and they'd never bothered to keep in touch. However, a day or so ago I'd overcome my annoyance enough to e-mail their parents about a cat which has been hanging about which I thought might have been one of theirs. They responded that it wasn't which I was pleased to rule out as a possibility and now today I'd met them on the street.

    It's odd the way these things happen. I'd been so resentful yet when they'd sent me a cheery e-mail it started a thaw, and when I saw them today all that melted as we greeted each other with real pleasure. I'm not good at letting go. Today I was careful not to talk for more than a few minutes before saying goodbye, and I didn't reiterate my invitation for them to come around. They know where I am and I don't want to be a doormat - or to get hurt again. And I'm sure they don't mean to hurt me. It's just the way things are sometimes.

    So lots has been going on. It's good to know people, and to be known, a little bit anyway.

    Sunday, 11 October 2009

    The view ~ inside looking out

    Yesterday when I was sitting at my desk here busily typing away I could see that our new neighbours were moving in. We live in a block of three units and the one at the other end had been empty for some time. My workroom is on the upper level of the house and the desk faces the window which gives me a good view into the street where I see all kinds of comings and goings. Although I am mildly curious about the new people I didn't feel inclined to go across to meet them right away - we'll meet in due course, probably sometime in the coming week and that will be soon enough. I could see that they were making a fairly serious commitment to the place though, from the amount of stuff they were bringing: first the red ute with the tray-back heavily laden, then the red ute again with a further load. An hour or so later a really big truck parked right across the front of all three units and disgorged its contents. Later still in the day, and rather to my surprise, yet another truck arrived, smaller this time, but a truck nonetheless.

    Not too much else happened, other than landlord Neil arriving home from his week whitebaiting on the West Coast. I saw him turn in the drive in his shiny black ute, and later unpack his fishing rod. I remarked on this to my partner, Rewi. "Did he go whitebaiting with that?" he remarked absurdly. For those of you who aren't familiar with what whitebait are, the term for both one and many is the same, and a single creature is of similar size and proportion to a modestly sized earthworm. Whitebait come in with the tide at certain times of the year and are caught in nets.

    Where ever I am I need a view of some kind. The view here is very much one of people coming and going and pottering about. It's suburban but with pleasantly green surrounding hills which I can see through skeins of power lines. I've learnt to disregard the ugliness of the lines and enjoy the hills. Hopeless for photos though, except for along the street!

    The building we live in sits at an angle to the bend in the street so from my workroom I can see well in both directions. From the other side of the house there is an expansive view of the rest of the property which includes the block of two units at the back, then the back of other properties beyond that which face the other way. Over the fence at the northern end I can see into the back yards of other neighbours in the next block of units. I know most of the people who live nearby by name and others by sight. They are all amiable in their way, which is just as well as we live at fairly close quarters, for New Zealand anyway.

    Where I grew up we had a very different view from a very different setting. Our home was on a rambling tree-clad hill section with the view focused mainly on the estuary below and the ocean beyond. To the left we could see the distant city and beyond that the mountains. Above it all the sky seemed vast. I haven't lived anywhere else where the sky looked so endless, so high and so wide. We were fairly isolated from other houses and families so we were very much absorbed with each other and the semi-rural area in which we lived.

    It wasn't until I moved to surburban Auckland that I realised how much the view meant to me and how ill-equipt I was for life in the city. I missed that long and restful view, and the garden with its glades. Whenever I was on a beach or hill I was aware that I rested my gaze on whatever was far away. And when I didn't have the distance to look at I still found myself habitually looking out the window. I still do. If I'm upstairs here I'm always aware of what it's like outside and what's going on. If I'm downstairs I like to sit and look out into the little courtyard garden at the front. It rests me. I planted the entire garden here myself with the exception of the tall hedge, and I am constantly looking at my garden and examining everything minutely, or simply gazing at it. My need for a view probably stimulated my interest in creating gardens in the first place. I don't want to look just at a fence - I want texture and beauty and growing things, life.

    Living in this somewhat restricted spot hemmed in as we are by all these other households is not my first choice at all, but it was what we could get at the time, and there are lots of good things about it. And actually it's been good for me to have to relate to other locals up to a point. I'd so much rather live away in the country, somewhere that I can create my own forest groves and charmed gardens, and write and breathe undisturbed. Which is pretty much the sort of setting in which I grew up. I feel so fortunate to have had that experience, which may not come again.

    But as things turned out I've had to learn to relate to people better, to rub along with them as if I belong, which I don't feel I do. I've always been an outsider and fairly solitary, a bit of a loner. Strange as it might seem, being a librarian helped me with this enormously, strange because you might think it would be the ideal job for an introvert, which it isn't: I learnt that I could get along in a friendly enough though superficial way, which is all most people are ever likely to want from me. My role as a service provider in a small community library meant that we had to interact and we got used to each other. I even enjoyed it to some degree. I learnt to like people better. It was good practice.

    A number of people helped me learn more about living comfortably, even to enjoy living in a community, but one person takes pride of place: that person is author E. F. Benson whose Lucia and Mapp series continues to be a touchstone, always a reminder to get the very most out of every social situation imaginable, even the unpleasant ones, by observing everything closely, appreciating both drama and boredom, of conjecturing endlessly about all kinds of minute details and above all by participating in it as theatre in which one is both actor and audience. It's harmless, free of charge and wonderfully entertaining. Hence the state of my neighbour Samantha's clothesline becomes an important feature: how much of the washing is actually pegged on today and how much has simply fallen on the ground, and how long has it been there? Harry down the back, who is loves to tinker with his car, and can so often be seen replacing some part or other: last weekend it was the wiper blades; the weekend before that it was something to do with the power steering. Kevin over the back fence spends a lot of time cultivating a large vegetable garden; he has a weather vane which is useful to observe on a windy day, and a revolving clothesline which complains in the wind, but only if there's a load of washing on it, which drives me nuts. If there's a power saw going it's likely to be either Neil, who is often working on something or other out the back, or the man at the end property next to the walkway cutting up yet more firewood on his circular saw.

    And I am part of this. How do the neighbours see me? Their chief impression is likely to be of a sun-hatted middle aged woman, moderately friendly, often to be seen doubled over in the garden in her oldest clothes, or - gazing out the window - again! (What can she be looking at?) Taking an interest in all these details means it's never dull here. People who set themselves apart from the little things in life miss out on so much. This discovery was a surprise to me. And through my view I am the richer.

    Saturday, 10 October 2009

    "The New Encyclopedia of the Occult" - sifting through history

    No booklist of mine would be complete without an entry about this remarkable book which was published in 2004. The author, John Michael Greer, is described in the front of the book as having been "a student and practitioner of the Western mystery traditions since 1975".

    When I first came across it I was a little put off by the cover: it gave the impression of perhaps containing spells under whose influence I might fall, so I was a bit nervous when I started reading. It turned out to be a gold mine and exactly what I needed - a more objective view of the occult aspects of spiritual and religious practices than I had found elsewhere by an author who was willing to talk about what was true and what was not. This is what proper education should be about: the promotion of dialogue and informed discussion, a characteristic which is conspicuously lacking in the vast majority of literature about religion and spirituality generally.

    In the introduction Mr Greer describes the book as "a reference work for practitioners of the many occult traditions of the Western world, as well as for people who are simply curious about magic, alchemy, astrology, Pagan spirituality, or any of the other fields of lore and practice that make up the complex, lively realm of modern Western occultism".

    He points out the value of such a book being written by an occult practitioner, and brings a scholarly approach to seeking out historical facts which have often been obscured by mis-interpretation, lack of information, even deliberate fraud.

    Testimony to the human desire to be convinced of the supernatural can be found in a range of instances in which the public has resolutely refused to believe disclosures of fraud when these have been made plain, a notable example being the Palladian Order. This determination of the public has given rise to certain untruths being perpetuated as historical fact, which in some cases came to form the basis of cults. The writer chronicles all this with a careful pen and good humour.

    It certainly hit the mark for me. When I came across it I was struggling with what amounted to a loss of faith. I had dismantled all my belief systems and had miserably come to the conclusion that most of what I had previously held dear and true was imaginative fiction. Most of my beliefs had centered on New Age 'teachings'. Those of you who are practicing Christians may be nodding your heads sagely. With good reason, you say? Well, you're right, but just so that we are clear, I'll add that I'm not in your camp either. At present I'm standing back from 'believing' and looking rather for what I find contributes to my ability to live a positive, creative and useful life.

    One particularly prominent character in the New Age pantheon is Saint Germain. An artist's rendering of him hung on the wall of my childhood home, and in times of trial I would think of him as a source of strength, protection even. I could think of Jesus too, but with somewhat lesser efficacy on account of the dreariness I associated with the Christian church. The literature I had formerly come across described Saint Germain as a French count and part of the French court prior to the revolution. I was familiar with the story of his 'ascension' from the mortal realm to loftier and divine heights from which he could appear and disappear at will. I had also heard of his attempt to warn the French court of the coming revolution after his supposed ascension. As my disenchantment with all things New Age grew, a question mark formed over this personality. What did Mr Greer have to say about him? Here is a small portion of the detailed entry:

    "Saint-Germain, Comte de." (Note the hyphen.) "European adventurer, 1691?-1784. Very little is known for sure about this extraordinary person. [...] He was fluent in at least six languages, a brilliant raconteur and conversationalist as well as a skilled musician, painter, chemist and physician. [...] He was also compulsively boastful and vain, surprisingly inept as a diplomat, and not above some exceptionally shady financial dealings." He had many aliases. Mr Greer continues: "The mystery Saint-Germain cultivated lived on after him and his reputation grew uncontrollably after his death." Then, to cap it all: "His last host [...] reported that when the two of them talked about philosophy or religion, Saint-Germain held purely materialist views and rejected both religion and occultism."

    As for him appearing to the French court warning of imminent disaster this was a deliberate fraud invented by "a nineteenth century hack writer who made a living from forging fraudulent memoirs." Mr Greer describes these remarks as having been endlessly re-quoted by occult writers. It is a lengthy and colourful entry and closes with the remark that his name remained "one to conjure with".

    Oh dear! Despite my increasingly jaded view of New Age and Theosophy-derived thinking I was shocked to read this somewhat sordid tale. Shocked, but not altogether surprised, and after taking time to reflect I concluded that the character of Saint Germain was like the material that grew up around him - full of illusions which appear to have the loftiest content and turn out to be as insubstantial and misleading as fools gold. In fairness to the natural world I must add that minerals which are mistaken for gold are not at fault, it is we who make the mistake in identifying them as such. I do not extend this indemnity to the perfidious if charming Count, so called. Saint he certainly was not.

    It's a large book and contains hundreds of entries. Want to read about the history of palmistry or the tarot? It's there. Curious about Madam Blavatsky, the history of alchemy, Gnosticism and the Masonic Lodges, the origin of the mythology of Atlantis? It's all there. Ever heard of the Shaver mystery? Read all about it. Readers with a Christian background need not be put off by there being an entry about "Jesus of Nazareth". It's simply a different view from the one to which you may be accustomed. I found it all fascinating and spent hours wandering from one set of entries to another.

    The author closes his introduction with the following: "As this may suggest, the realm of the occult contains truth and nonsense, profound wisdom and prodigious folly. While human beings confront the realms of transformative power that lie just outside the ambit of ordinary consciousness, they reveal their humanity most completely - with all the strengths and weaknesses, brilliance and blundering that this implies. I have tried to present all sides of the picture as clearly as possible; the traditions themselves deserve no less. I hope you, the reader, find the result as entertaining and enlightening to read as it was for me to research and write."

    It was. Thank you, Mr Greer!

    Book shop links for interested NZ readers:
    The New Encyclopedia of the Occult

    Friday, 9 October 2009

    Madeleine Albright and Sister Pauline O'Regan

    A number of first rate books have helped me establish my new world view and reinforced fresh emphasis on reason and communication. Madeleine Albright's splendid book, "The Mighty and the Almighty: reflections on Power, God and World Affairs" (2006) was one of these. She was Bill Clinton's Secretary of State and is a first class writer. Not surprisingly she also lectures on Foreign Service.

    The book is part autobiography, part history and religious studies lesson. It is bound together with lively and forthright discussion of topics which are of growing global concern. The author's central point is that while religion is best not combined directly with government it is increasingly important to acknowledge it as a profound influence on people's motivation and behaviour. If we take this into account we are much more likely to understand those whose views are different from our own and to be able to work through differences.

    She includes a wealth of background information, especially about Islam which has much more in common with Christian teachings than many readers might imagine. Even so, the culture in some Muslim countries is very different to our own and at times I found myself awe-struck as Ms Albright recounted addressing powerful Muslim men on issues such as women's rights along with matters of state. Even though she was a dignitary herself this must have taken considerable courage and conviction, and a firm belief that good could come of it.

    Her stories of meetings and discussions with heads of state in far flung areas of the globe take the reader on a fascinating and informative journey. In many ways this is the news behind the news we are more likely to have seen on television.

    At a time when international tensions are to some degree fueled by news bulletins focusing on violence and disaster such a book is helpful in shifting ones impressions to a more knowledgeable, peaceable and hopeful place.

    Quite apart from the very readable text, the chapter notes and bibliography at the back are worth reading for themselves alone: these are extensive, and the sources of quotations and information many and various, a decisive factor in the book's authority. Not only has the author met and talked with many of the dignitaries she quotes, she also took the further step of submitting her entire draft to both Jewish and Islamic experts for comment and verification, as well as consulting Christians and any number of other people. However, she is careful to emphasize that her decided views and conclusions are her own. I was filled with admiration of her gutsy self-confidence which seems based on a thorough knowledge of her topics, endless dialogue with disparate parties and knowing her own convictions very well indeed!

    "There is hope for a tree" by Catholic nun, Sister Pauline O'Regan (1995), was an excellent companion read. Here the writer chronicles aspects of her association with her Church. It is a thoughtful and beautifully written book, and the author's observations are colourful, witty, wise, and at times acerbic. Her description of a social visit to a Catholic home in Northern Ireland in the company of a Presbyterian (Protestant) minister is as astonishing as it is moving. It would seem that reconciliation between such agonisingly opposed groups may be better accomplished directly between ordinary individuals rather than by politicians and soldiers.

    Both books strongly underline how important it is that we wish to understand, especially when we don't, and that in tackling conflict that we be willing to communicate constructively for as long as it takes. Both women have committed to this for the long haul in the face of what seem like overwhelming odds. I found I wanted to join them. Inspirational.

    Purchasing links for interested NZ readers: - other editions available including audio.  To find them click on the author link of this editions author details.
    The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs