Saturday, 13 January 2018

A Place To Think

This room is where I do all my thinking, parked up on an old rattan sofa. The feathers are from Percy, the peacock, that everyone wanted to shoot because they found his crowing early in the morning, quite annoying. Percy was given a reprieve at the last minute, the complaint was mysteriously withdrawn, who knows, perhaps a horse's head in a bed was involved. We'll never know. Percy moulted in October last year and one of his avid supporters, Sue, who just happens to be a hunt saboteur but more on that later, gathered up some feathers for me. I think of Percy every day - may he live a long and happy life.

Photo copyright SvD.

Friday, 12 January 2018

Someone to watch over me

I see this tree which is in a farmer's field near my home every day. There are hundreds of sheep on the farm and had this tree not been protected by the metal fence it would have been munched to the ground long ago. As I walked past the field this morning, the fog was thick, the air damp and the sun, as usual, was nowhere to be seen. The tree shielded behind its metal fence fascinated me. What happens if there is no one to watch over us. No one who takes any interest in whether we manage to survive life with our sanity intact? I get a lot of junk mail and recently a message pinged into my Inbox about homelessness. The stark image of a young child forced to sleep on the streets in this supposed age of prosperity, saddened me. I know quite a lot about tragedy and the ricochet effect of bad experiences. My optimism, by some miracle and in spite of everything, has kept me going. There are those in this life who simply cannot get back up again after they have known only the worst. Is it the government's responsibility or are we our brother's keeper? Where does our obligation to others stand? I go to mass in a Catholic church every Sunday and in all the years I have been attending church, I can say, hand on heart, that Nietzsche  was right when he said the only good Christian was Jesus Christ. Apart from shaking hands and mouthing 'peace be with you', watching everyone genuflect, take communion and absolve themselves of their behaviour, their Christianity doesn't follow them out the door.

We as human beings, have a lot to answer for. We watch others suffer and we do nothing. We claim to be too busy, too wrapped up in our own affairs to be bothered. Just think about the scandal of not caring for our elderly parents and chucking them in residential care homes where they can simply look forward to dying. A friend wrote to me over Christmas that she had not had a holiday in eight years because she was stuck at home looking after her mother but she accepted this was her lot. How many of us could go without a holiday in eight years? It used to be different. Having good health and food on the table used to be enough. Now our expectations consume us and we feel inferior if we can't have it all. Strangely, the notion of happiness doesn't form part of the equation when we are running around exceeding ourselves. Because we convince ourselves that as long as we have it all, we are happy.

The tree surrounded by the metal fence reminds us of the precariousness of life. Why not resolve to be that fence for somebody else?
Photo copyright SvD.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Some pictures tell the whole story of life

This is one of my favourite photos and it was taken as an afterthought as I prepared to leave a French village after a wonderful lunch. I'm not going to explain the how and the when or what the photo is meant to represent. You decide what you see.

 Wissant, France. Photo copyright SvD.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

My kingdom for some proper bread!

Proper bread is hard to come by in our green and pleasant land. When I say proper bread I mean real bread. The best bread I ever tasted was in West Berlin in 1984 before the Wall came down. My very wonderful German boyfriend, Burkhard, lived on the sixth floor in an ancient building with no elevator. How we managed to climb up those stairs after trawling the bars of West Berlin until dawn drinking too much schnapps, remains one of the great adventures of my youth. Our debauched lifestyle was fuelled by enormous breakfasts German style: soft boiled eggs, ham, industrial strength freshly brewed coffee and rye bread with onions, served in thick slices and copiously buttered. The toaster is a very British obsession but both the Germans and Dutch, I have observed, prefer untoasted rye bread. I searched high and low around the world for rye bread with onions and never found it. A few years ago I ran into a Berliner and asked him about the famous bread of my dreams. He replied that it was still available but churned out by the supermarkets in a hybrid, watered down version that resembled nothing like its ancestor I had fallen in love with. I make a version of it now and then but my recipe is not authentic as I'm a lazy kneader; kneading dough is best done by men with huge, strong, hands which I don't have.

In my pursuit of easy, nutritious proper bread, I usually settle on a compromise which involves making rolls not loaves and instead of rye using a mix of one half white flour and one half spelt. These flavorsome Spinach rolls are a favourite of mine- I invented the recipe when faced with a bag of spinach and time on my hands- very unusual and only on a Sunday afternoon. I eat the rolls warm with butter, with bacon, or a sharp cheddar. Spinach and eggs are a marriage made in Heaven so try the rolls sliced in half with a poached egg and Hollandaise sauce.

one bag of spinach leaves
two cloves of garlic
splash of olive oil
knob of butter
pinch salt
grating of black pepper
grating of nutmeg

Rinse the spinach leaves in a colander.  Heat the oil in a pan over medium heat and add the butter and the chopped garlic. Brown the garlic lightly then add the spinach, nutmeg, pepper and salt. Cook over high heat uncovered, stirring occasionally until the spinach has wilted and all liquid has evaporated. Set aside to cool.
3 cups of flour- 1 1/2 spelt and 1 1/2 strong white flour
one sachet yeast
one teaspoon salt
one teaspoon sugar
splash of olive oil

Mix all the ingredients together in a large mixing bowl. Squeeze the spinach to remove excess liquid then chop it coarsely and add to the bowl of dry ingredients. Add 1 1/2 cups of warm water and mix with a wooden spoon until the mixtures comes together. If it is too dry, add a splash more water. Remove from the bowl and turn onto a work surface. Sprinkle a bit of flour onto your hands and knead the mixture until it it is springy and forms into a ball without any wet dough sticking to your hands. This should take around 7 minutes. Return the dough to the bowl and drizzle some olive oil over the top- this will prevent a crust forming. Cover the dough with a damp tea towel and place in a warmed oven (pre-heat the oven at 100 degrees then switch it off before placing the dough inside). Leave the dough to rise for 45 minutes until doubled in size and light and springy to touch. Knock the dough down and cut into half, then quarters and then eighths. Form into balls and place the balls in a lightly greased shallow oven dish. You should get 8-9 nine rolls altogether. Pack the rolls tightly against each other as this will help them to rise. Cover the rolls and leave them to rise for fifteen to twenty minutes. Pre-heat the oven to 250 degrees Celsius. Place the rolls in the pre-heated oven and bake for twenty minutes then cover the rolls with a piece of foil to prevent burning and return to the oven for a further thirty minutes. The finished rolls should be crispy on the outside and soft and light inside. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire tray. Serve warm with butter. The rolls will keep for up to three days in an airtight container.

Recipe and photo copyright SvD.

Monday, 25 December 2017


I began my daily walk through the fields this blustery and grey Christmas morning when the village church bells suddenly rang out loudly, enticing anyone willing to join in the celebration of the birth of Christ. The bell ringer sounded as if he was jumping up and down pulling on the cords and the image of him being catapulted into the top of the bell tower made me laugh out loud. The fields were empty as usual and there I was beneath an expanse of never ending sky. The sensation of being rather minute and irrelevant in the world is best felt under a country sky in an endless, treeless landscape. Nature has always been my inspiration and this morning the grey sky, the passing flock of starlings, the chiming bells felt like a new beginning. Soon the sky will clear, the birds will roost, and the stark landscape will burst into riotous life when spring returns. We unconsciously start anew every single day. When bad things happen to us, we resolve to never let them happen again. And the best proof of the resilience of the human heart is to continue to love in spite of everything. I have metamorphosed several times in my life even as an artist- this is the first painting I ever sold. I found this photo of the painting and wondered how I managed to do something I had never imagined I was capable of. Perhaps that's the secret- start afresh, keep going, keep trying, keep reaching for the impossible which will happen if you want it to.

Merry Christmas. May your hearts be at peace and your eyes full of wonder at this blessed gift of life.

Musing Man, Oil on paperboard, copyright S. van Dalen

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Surviving Christmas On Your Own

This Christmas marriages will break up, old lovers will commit to one another, new lovers will find each other, families will argue, children will hate their presents, vegetarian guests will stick to spuds and sprouts, and granny will overdose on sherry. These people will all have something in common: each other. There is another side to Christmas that is overlooked: those who are alone. The elderly who have passed their use-by date, the divorced singletons who are persona non grata by virtue of being solo, the homeless, and those too impoverished to celebrate Christmas at all. Each of these people will feel desolate and unhappy on Christmas Day - please think of them.

For those who are alone on Christmas Day here's my advice:

Volunteer: Get in touch with a local charity and offer your services over Christmas. This is easier said than done from personal experience as you will have to pass a CRB check and this can take up to two weeks to process. But there's still time if you make contact asap.

Go for a walk: London is eerily silent and deserted on Christmas Day as everyone is indoors or away so why not grab a map and head off at your own pace? You may discover a few new things and perhaps even something about yourself. Walking has always provided me with a period of meditation which in turn lifts my spirits. My preference is the countryside with my beloved hound but if muddy wellies and wet dogs are not your thing, any leisurely stroll in the fresh air is better than none.

Go to church: attending church is free and even if you're not a believer, you might find the experience of reverence inspiring and comforting. Both Church of England vicars and Catholic priests will allow non-believers to take communion and receive a blessing on Christmas Day. My advice is to go to the morning service in order to avoid screaming toddlers. Your day will also be more structured if you get up early and go to church rather than lying around in your pyjamas feeling sorry for yourself. You'll see other people too- some worse off than you and you might start feeling more positive about life. No matter how bad things may seem, remember, there is always darkness before dawn.

Unclutter: Use the opportunity to sift through clutter or to create order in your living environment. It is amazing how much we accumulate in life and how little we actually need. If you haven't used an item in the last twelve months why not box it up to donate to charity, flog it on ebay/amazon or bin it? I have done this three times in the last five years and the effect has been a strangely cathartic. Don't wallow in nostalgia on Christmas Day- be ruthless! Old lovers are not exactly spending Christmas with you so make a bonfire and burn all their silly love letters! Holding onto 'stuff' is refusing to let go of the past and is also stopping the future from finding you.

Someone recently described me as the 'cleanest person they ever met'. I just can't think, relax or feel happy in a messy, chaotic, filthy home. Christmas Day is a good opportunity to take stock, clean up your living environment and also your head. A clean and tidy home will allow you to structure your thoughts and your life and prepare to welcome the New Year.

Read a very old book: make a plan to spend Christmas Day reading something interesting, erudite and thought-provoking. Find an antique book store and start browsing now (your intuition will lead you to the book you need). My favourite antique book store is at the very end of the Kings Road in London. I bought a book on Roman thinkers (£4.99) there that literally transformed my life. I found it uplifting to discover that all the same problems we encounter today were being mulled over by Seneca, Horace, Ovid and the likes more than two thousand years ago and even before Christ! Old books teach us that life is temporary as are our 'problems'.

And finally: we live in an age that is facile, precarious and uncertain. What we see on television is not reflected in our own lives- we can't all be rich, attractive, successful and living a perfect existence. I despair at the frivolity and stupidity that constitutes the mainstream and which we are meant to aspire to. Please consider this: don't buy into an unreality or a fantasy that will never happen because if you really think about it, you probably have that single thing you truly need: the chance to create your own happiness.

May I wish you a Peaceful Christmas.

Photo copyright SvD.

Monday, 18 December 2017

Be inspired

As I walked along the field while the sunset broke, it dawned on me that all the great artists were made great by the inspiration they received. This sunrise evokes Monet and van Gogh for me. I can just imagine them sipping a dark, bitter coffee and gazing towards the rising sun and almost immediately reaching for their brushes. Those dramatic grey strokes in the sky are clouds. The square shadow is the village church. Slumber, awakening, promise of a new day and especially, wonder at the privilege to behold the stirring of the birds, the retreat of the badgers and foxes. Beginnings. And endings.

Be inspired today to observe, to be grateful, to reach for the paintbrush which will define your life.

This morning at 6.45am. Photo copyright SvD.