I had the most delicious hot chocolate in town yesterday. I won’t need any more chocolate for at least a year, I thought afterwards. (A short-lived resolution.) It occurred to me today that it was better than Angelina’s in Paris which is famous for its hot chocolate.
Because we live in a country which is so far from the rest of the world, New Zealanders love to travel. It’s part of growing up to ‘do your OE’ (Overseas Experience) which I did in 1981 for most of the year: South America, Europe, Canada. Subsequently I travelled to various Pacific islands, and to Australia, Japan, the US and China. I have been back to the UK and Europe a few times. I finished my last “must sees” in 2018, travelling to Scandinavia and Portugal. Thank goodness I did, since it hasn’t been possible to travel much at all since 2020. It is my intention to see more of New Zealand rather than travel overseas again.
I enjoyed learning about different cultures, art and architecture, and seeing different ways of living as we did first-hand when we were backpacking and naively taking all sorts of risks in 1981 when we were in our twenties. It was exciting, while middle-aged travel is more sedate somehow. I never travelled for the shopping as people used to when they hankered after things we didn’t have here. Now you can get whatever you might want anywhere in the world.
After that hot chocolate, I realised we are producing our own unbeatable delights. It helped that I was sitting under a delightful chandelier and I could see into the kitchen where the chocolatiers were at their craft.
There were overwhelming varieties of hot chocolate to choose from. At Angelina’s there was just one. It may have been Audrey Hepburn’s favourite cafe, but she hadn’t tried this! The place is She Universe. It’s at the Riverside Market, a hugely popular venue which reminds me of indoor markets I have visited in Ireland, Finland, Portugal and elsewhere – but with distinctive, hand-made New Zealand-designed products, and a multi-cultural and fresh vibrancy.
I also visited the Copenhagen Bakery this week for the first time. It’s a little piece of Denmark right here. What an excellent place to meet friends for a treat and great coffee.
A friend sent me a fantail for my birthday. One you assemble yourself. It sat in its box for a week or two, so I took it to my nephew. He and his siblings also assembled the nano lego I was given a few Christmases ago. Apologies to the gift givers – but I did enjoy watching them being assembled!
I have another fantail which was given to me long ago and which I’m pretty sure I assembled myself. Here are the two fantails and the book I’ve been reading.
The book is fascinating – with chapters on the senses and magnetic sense and emotions of birds. It is also sad. Here’s an excerpt:
I visited New Zealand while writing this book, and when I wasn’t chasing kiwi and kakapo I took a few days off to visit Fiordland on South Island. The weather was perfect and the scenery spectacular, but the most striking aspect of this area was its auditory desolation. I have rarely been anywhere so quiet. Peaceful, yes, but this was a melancholic silence. The birds that once inhabited the forests clothing the steep-sided valleys have all been killed by the predatory stoats and weasels that the early settlers foolishly introduced. Native birdsong is absent across mainland New Zealand and made me wonder whether the introduced dunnocks, blackbirds and thrushes sing more softly in New Zealand than in their native Europe due to the lack of competition.
Some years ago I was shocked to hear that even seagulls are threatened with extinction. And our loveable kea also. Somehow, against all reason, I have collected stuffed toys of our native birds. I’m quite interested in the psychology which goes with adults having stuffed toys, and I expect it shows some emotional need. Perhaps loss and grief.
I bought this little rooster at the Otago Museum after visiting a dear friend I knew I was soon to lose to cancer. Her family had a flock of beautiful hens outside the living room window where we sat together, and somehow buying the toy held that memory. I didn’t know then that I would have my own backyard chickens several years later.
The same friend would buy me owls. Her daughter once sent me a pop-up owl card. I’ve only seen owls – moreporks – twice in the wild, although I’ve heard them when bush walking. The actual sightings were at Anderson’s Park in Invercargill when I was a child, and once at Zealandia several years ago.
Here’s my line up of native bird toys. I suspect I bought them to hold onto something I knew was precarious. The kea (right) was purchased at Aoraki Mount Cook where I was fascinated by the kea perching on the hotel railing. I have seen little blue penguins (second from left) coming in to their burrows in Oamaru. Pukeko (left) can be seen every day as you pass through Travis wetland. I heard kiwi when I was on Rakiura Stewart Island many years ago, but have otherwise only seen them in captivity. Only the moa in this line up is extinct – so far.
Piwakawaka fantails seem less at risk – for now. They flit about my backyard most days, chirping high in the trees, then swooping low and fast, catching insects.
Somehow I discovered the books of Patricia Wentworth – on a list of recommended titles somewhere, perhaps. I found I could download the ebook of her first volume of Miss Silver mysteries from the library. From the first page of the first book I was transported to 1920s London.
I have enjoyed other books set in this time period: The Verity Kent mysteries, the Maisie Dobbs series. They are historical fiction and well-researched. Jill Paton Walsh continued Dorothy L. Sayers’ books, and Ben Schott has written very entertaining Jeeves and Wooster books imitating the style of P.G. Wodehouse. Patricia Wentworth was writing in and of her own time, however, and this makes every detail authentic and intriguing: house interiors, lighting, street scenes, shops, the thick London fog, clothing, language, and manners – as in the stories of Katherine Mansfield. Furthermore, the books are well-written, with interesting and complex characters who consider and question their positions in life. This is particularly so of the women characters. Hilary Carew in the second book is my favourite. She questions her engagement (and, in fact, has just broken it off, or ‘disengaged’ as she calls it) because she finds her fiance overbearing. Her courage, humour (she has a ‘poetic imp’ in her head which makes up rhyming couplets to describe her predicaments) and determination to pursue the mystery she wants to solve, leads her into danger which she meets bravely. She is also self-aware, and the author must have had her tongue in her cheek as she wrote about her. I liked her very much.
Without her fiance to foot the bill for lunch, Hilary finds “she would have to go and have a glass of milk and a bun in a creamery with a lot of other women who were having buns and milk, or Bovril, or milk with a dash of coffee, or a nice cup of tea. It was a most frightfully depressing thought, because one bun was going to make very little impression on her hunger, and she certainly couldn’t afford any more…Hilary found her creamery and ate her bun – a peculiarly arid specimen. There were little black things in it which might once have been currants but were now definitely fossils. Not a good bun. Hilary’s imp chanted mournfully: How bitter when your only bun/Is not at all a recent one.”
Through such characters the author shows what life could be like for a wide range of women dependent on men for money and respectability. Hilary’s situation is a stark contrast to the parallel life of a character who lives in constant fear of her husband (no tongue in cheek here). All three books’ mysteries centre on money, or the lack of, and they all involve wills. A woman having to earn her own living found herself in harsh and compromised situations in her employment, housing and in society in general. The law relating to women is also brought into question. I notice that some sites refer to these books as ‘cozy mysteries’, just as more recent fiction books about the domestic lives of women have been labelled ‘Aga sagas’. Both labels deliberately denigrate palatable forms of fiction for and by women. Jane Austen’s work still gets similarly dismissive comments. My enjoyment of these books was enhanced by the less palatable reading I had done previously, yet I was keenly aware of the serious issues Wentworth explores. Come to think of it, two such unpalatable books, Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam (see previous post Doomed) and The Silence by Don de Lillo are overbearing, like Hilary’s fiance, in that they speculate about possible futures of which we are all too well aware and they have a you-need-to-think-about-this tone – as if we haven’t – forcing it down your throat. Unpalatable.
What is unusual about these books is that Miss Silver is not the main character unlike the detective in all other crime fiction books I can recall. She is an elderly ‘enquiry agent’ who knits and takes notes as she listens to her clients who (at least in the first two books) are well into working on the mystery before she is brought in to help. A link is made with characters from the previous book who recommend her services (Miss Silver is knitting for Hilary’s baby in the third book). She offers advice, uncovers crucial evidence and becomes actively involved at times, but it is the other characters who work to solve the mystery and are central to the plot. Was the author influenced by Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple? It’s possible. Miss Marple first appeared in a short story in a magazine in December 1927, but the first novel featuring her was not published until 1932. The first Miss Silver book was published in 1928. There are 32 books in this series alone (I don’t imagine I’ll read them all) and the author wrote about 72 books in total.
The 1928 publication date astounded me. My 92 year old mother was born in 1929. Yet the book didn’t seem particularly dated in its characterisation or dialogue (unlike Mum who utters: “whacko!” and “corker” and other quaint expressions from time to time) – although, the last book in this set (published in 1939) ended with a monologue in a style which reminded me of old movies in which a man imparts wisdom. The author died in 1961, the same year her 32nd Miss Silver mystery was published. I was six years old then. I wonder if she ever imagined people would still be reading and enjoying her books so many years later – let alone reading them as ebooks with freshly designed covers. Older versions of the covers are like a journey through time in themselves.
The three books were absorbing fire-side reading over a few rainy days.