Thursday, 12 May 2011

Quince Jelly and the Dalai Lama and WB

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

The brother from Bali calls, on the Skype. There is a little bing bong noise, like the internet is burping, and then I frantically try to locate the correct button, all the while shouting his name out loud, and then his sweet smiling face appears in a tiny box on my screen. It is a sort of miracle.

We talk about death, you will be amazed to hear. But in a light way, in a sense of: here is all of our mortality, and let us have a good look at it. He says that the Balinese describe saying goodbye to someone they love who has died as cutting the cord. I like that very much. It conjures a vivid picture in my mind.

He tells me a funny story about the Dalai Lama. I did not know that the Dalai Lama goes everywhere with two scribes.

'For the pearls of wisdom,' says The Brother.

Apparently the Lama points his finger and says: 'Yes, yes, write it down, write it down.'

The Brother does a pitch perfect DL impersonation. It makes me laugh.

'I want scribes,' I say. I imagine myself marching round the compound, followed by the faithful Pigeon and two writing fellows.

Yes, yes. Write it down, write it down.

A package arrives. It is from my friend The Man of Letters. He has certainly seen me straight and seen me curly. He was with me when I saw an old friend through a brain tumour. The Man of Letters walked in one evening to find me in flooding tears.

'Did he die?' he said, in concern.

'No, no,' I said. 'They got it. He will survive.'

The brilliant surgeons carved a growth the size of a lemon out of my old friend's head and stitched him up again. The tears were of relief.

I don't cry very much in front of people. I tend to go into a room and shut the door and do it in private. It's partly a shyness thing. It may also be slightly to do with vanity. I don't do the misty Hollywood kind of crying, where an elegant tear slips down an alabaster cheek. I do splotchy blotchy ungainly gasping tears; my eyes shrink to two scarlet holes and my entire face turns bright red. I think: no one should really have to see that. The Man of Letters is one of the very few who have. He was very manful about it. I don't forget that.

Anyway, I tore the parcel open to find a perfect pot of homemade quince jelly. The Man of Letters' Beloved had given me a pot of it before, and it was the best thing I ever had. It is the absolute secret to really good gravy. (Well, that, and half a bottle of Madeira.) I had wailed when I ran out, thinking I should never find its like again. So, now, they remembered and sent me a glorious replacement.

The MOL wrote a note with it. I know that a pot of quince jelly is not much in the face of all this, he said.

But you know what? It damn well is much. It was made with love and sent with love. It is an enchanting thing in itself, but the fact that someone should have remembered that it is one of the things in the world that I like the most, should have packed it up and sent it all the way from Suffolk to Scotland, is profoundly touching.

I keep thinking: there should be a book for all this. There should be a manual. There are moments when I wonder what one should do in sorrow, with loss, about death. I want to be able to go and look it up. There are amorphous things I slightly know, liminally, on the edges of my consciousness. Go slowly; let it be; look at the trees. Instinctively I think: concentrate on the Love. There is a lot of that, just now, and I don't take one piece of it for granted.

But still, I would like a book of instruction. The Sister loves A Grief Observed by CS Lewis. I remember being quite floored by the raw brilliance of Joan Didion's meditation on her husband's sudden death. But still, I want more. I want to be able to take down that book and slowly read, as Yeats said, in my favourite of all his poems.

I think again, like I did the day after my father's funeral: maybe I shall have to write it myself. I think: if I ever do, I shall have a whole chapter on why you should send someone a pot of quince jelly.


I am going very, very slowly today, so slowly I did not take any photographs. So here are a few from the last days:

12 May 1

12 May 2

12 May 3

12 May 4

12 May 5

12 May 6

12 May 8

My little Pidge, taken yesterday, with her remembering eyes, in front of the hellebores:

12 May 9

I came upon this photograph of The Duchess yesterday, and gazed at it for a long time. It was taken on the 19th of April. It is hard to imagine that such a majestic, vivid creature is not here any more. I read a lovely thing once, that said something like no one ever truly dies as long as they are still alive in someone's heart. I like that. I think: yes, that is where my dear old Dutch lives now - in my heart:

19th April 12

And the hill, which will live forever:

12 May 12

Oh, and since I am thinking of WB, here is that poem:

When you are old and grey and full of sleep, 
And nodding by the fire, take down this book, 
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look 
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace, 
And loved your beauty with love false or true, 
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, 
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars, 
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled 
And paced upon the mountains overhead 
And hid his face among a crowd of stars.


It's one of the two poems I can still recite from memory. It has two of my favourite tropes in all of literature: your moments of glad grace, and your pilgrim soul. I always wanted a pilgrim soul. I always hoped that if I worked very, very hard at it, I might one day achieve that.

If I do ever write that book, along with the part about the quince jelly, there will be a chapter too on the need for Yeats.


  1. I am sending you this poem by Ben Johnson which was given to us by a close friend when my younger brother Charlie died aged 13. Sometimes it helps to know that it is the quality of life that matters and not the enduring length that we normally expect for those we love.

    The Turne
    It is not growing like a tree
    In bulk, doth make man better be;
    Or standing long an oak, three-hundred year,
    To fall a log at last, dry, bald and sere.
    A lily of a day,
    Is fairer far in May,
    Although it droop and die that night,
    It was the plant and flow'r of light.
    In small proportions we just beauties see;
    And in short measures, life may perfect be.

    X Alex

  2. Tania,
    Please excuse the vulgar self promotion, but I wanted to send this link to you:
    It's about a (possibly imagined) memory of a mother. My mother in fact, written by my brother for the Tramway in Glasgow. years on, he's only just started writing about her. Write everything down now, before it fades.
    Alice x

  3. Dearest Tania: please, please write that book. If it is infused with the same humour, respect, eloquence and sheer damn common sense as BIHH, it would be a Very Important Publication.

  4. Oh no Tania! I feared when you only mentioned the Pigeon what was coming next. I'm so sorry.

    That's my favourite Yeats poem too and it always makes me cry.

    How lovely of Man of Letters to send you a gift. I must try quince when I'm making gravy, I always use redcurrant.

    Please write that book, I can't think of anyone who'd do it more beautifully.

    Thinking of you, love, C xx

  5. I would love to have your capacity to turn grief into beauty - without somehow making it out as a beautiful thing if you know what I mean. I'm really sorry for your losses and I think you are very brave writing about it. I love to read and I'm just sad that all this is happening to you.

  6. Another favourite piece from you - thank you. Just recommended your blog to my sister who has declared 'oh dear another thing to take up my time during the day - but it will be a pleasureful use of time and a must-read'. Then she added 'I feel Tania and myself are soul mates'. I feel that sometimes myself when reading your wise poignant memorable prose; I couldn't write your calibre of prose but I echo many of your sentiments and opinions.


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