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Friday, June 28, 2013

Taking Tea with Ms. Stuart innocuous infusion of the cured leaf of the camellia sinensis tree in hot water.

Hard to believe that this simple leaf has been the cause of wars and was once so priceless it had to be stored in locked cabinets. It is synonymous with the British and the Chinese cultures and the tea ceremonies of Asia, particularly Japan, are complex and fraught with significance. Many a family problem is sorted over a "good, strong cuppa" and it is produced in times of stress and emotion to calm the nerves.

Writing stories set in the seventeenth century means there is little opportunity to introduce tea drinking* (as it did not come into Britain until the 18th century) but in GATHER THE BONES, set in 1923, tea makes a frequent appearance.

I am, of course, anglo saxon in my origins and upbringing. Tea, strong with a good slosh of milk, flows through my veins. One coffee (fresh beans of course - I would die before I drank instant coffee again!) to start the heart in the morning and then a good cup of tea mid-morning and another in the afternoon. It is so much more than just a  drink. It is a punctuation mark in my day. A time to stop and reflect on how the day is going and what needs to be done next. It is a social first instinct on seeing a visitor at the door is to offer them a cup of tea.

My pantry groans with every variety of the good camellia sinensis and a selection of "fruit" and "herbal" teas but when pushed into a corner, I revert to a traditional black tea. Of late I have become rather fond of  Twining's (so called limited edition) Australian Afternoon Tea. It is probably just the sweepings of the floor with a fancy label but who cares, it hits the spot!

Even in British culture there are so many 'traditions' around tea...does one pre heat the tea pot? How many spoons (one per person and one for the pot)? Milk first and then tea or tea first and then milk (I tend to the latter)? Do you take the pot to the cup or the cup to the pot?  Personally I find the tea bag, stick it in nice mug and pour the boiling water over it, BUT I do love an occasion to bring out my lovely Villeroy and Boch tea pot or on high days, my silver tea pot (which pours like a dream).

My favourite tea pot
When I lived in Singapore, that curious blend of cultures eponymised by that small city state came to the fore. Every posh hotel had its own version of "High Tea", a hark back to the languid colonial days when the taking of tea, accompanied by a substantial repaste filled in the long hours of the afternoon and quelled the hunger pains before the formal evening meal (that often did not start until after 8.00 pm).

If it is travel advice you are after, I would advise you resist Raffles and its much hyped High Tea and go instead to the Shangri La Hotel (just off Orchard Road), where a tea menu is presented for your delectation and served in elegant Wedgwood china (also the food is better!).

At the other end of the cultural spectrum, I was a frequent visitor to a tea shop in Chinatown where the proprietor would, with great dignity, talk about the history of tea in Chinese society and take us step by step with the fine art of the Chinese tea ceremony (which involves much sloshing of water in great contrast to a Japanese tea ceremony where the slightest misplaced drop of water would be a disaster). At this tea shop, frequent visitors kept their own blends in a locked cabinet, somewhat akin to a humidifier in a cigar shop. A delicate yum cha always rounded off the visit.

I love my American friends but I am afraid that, culturally, I am yet to meet a decent cup of tea in America. This probably dates from the time someone suggested tea mixed with the water of Boston Harbor might make a heady brew and frankly most tea I have drunk in America still tastes like it has been made with the water of Boston Harbor. I have taken tea at the Grand Hyatt in Washington where the beautifully coiffed grand dames of Washington Society gathered, little pinkies poised (where did that idea come from?) over afternoon tea. Gasping for a decent cup, you can imagine my disappointment when my tea arrived on a well appointed tray with linen napkin and in a proper tea pot...accompanied by whatever white stuff passes for coffee cream, so beloved of the Americans. MILK, people, you drink proper milk with tea - NEVER cream and never, ever, powdered coffee cream!
The Boston Tea Party

On one of our visits to Washington we took time out to visit friends on a posting to the JAG school in Charlottesville. This particular friend is a most proper gentleman so fearing he may be mourning a good gin and tonic, we went stocked with Bombay Sapphire, which he accepted most graciously. With a long face, he said, if he had thought about it, he would have asked for some decent tea and produced from the pantry a packet of dried brown leaves which had the instructions for making tea in a coffee dripolator on the side. He quivered in indignation and I have to agree, having stayed in many American hotels, tea made with hot water from a coffee machine and drunk with powdered coffee cream is the devil's own brew.

So many many cups of tea: Japanese tea ceremonies, Nepalese tea, Russian tea (apparently the national drink of Russia...not vodka), army tea (was it really infused with bromide?), billy tea and damper...these I will save for another day.

It is such a social drink that Ms. Stuart has decided that she will invite her writer friends to partake in the occasional cup with her and discuss books and writing in a civilised fashion. Watch this space for my new column "Taking tea with Ms. Stuart..."
Anna Campbell

In fact Ms. Stuart is delighted that  best selling author and raconteur Ms. Anna Campbell has sent back her card and agreed to be the first to take tea with her. For delightful conversation and the sampling of the camellia sinensis, Ms. Campbell will be taking tea with Ms.Stuart on Friday 5th July. A Giveaway is promised...

All this talk of tea...and a quick glance at the clock reminds me it is time to partake of my morning beverage. Would anyone care to join me, and please if you have a moment, do share a short comment about your favourite type of tea or a tea travel story.

*Post script:  I did however get an opportunity to introduce coffee in THE KING'S MAN. Coffee first arrived in London in the early 1650s

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Superstar and me

I think all generations are defined to a certain extent by the music of their teenage years (I suspect this is for no other reason than teenagers are the only ones with time to devote to listening to music!).  For me that was the 1970s. I completely missed the 1980s (marriage, children et.) and nothing since has impacted on me in the same way as the last of the classically trained musicians did in the 1970s. 

By far the greatest influence on my musical tastes of the time was the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice (up to and including Cats...You can keep Phantom of the Opera). The brilliance of their marketing was in releasing a studio album of their upcoming blockbuster a year before it ever hit the stage, thus ensuring everyone knew the music and was hanging out for the stage show. So it was with Jesus Christ Superstar. Other defining (non Lloyd Webber) musical works of the day included Godspell and Hair (but I was too young to ever be allowed to see Hair and I don't think I have ever seen it!).

The original studio recording
When I was 13, our local church started a "youth group". To show how incredibly cool and hip they were, the leaders procured the just released album of Superstar and devoted an hour each week to playing some of it to us...we would then of course discuss the biblical story and theological implications behind the music. Forget the bible, I was captivated by the music and saving my pocket money, bought that first double LP in its plain brown cover with just the simple logo on it - I think it cost about $5.00 (a huge sum in those days!). I played it almost to death on my parents ghastly 3-in-one "stereo". It still sits in a cupboard, unplayed in these days of CDs).

The first Australian production of Jesus Christ Superstar came to the Palais Theatre in St. Kilda in about 1973. A school excursion was arranged and we were bussed there and back. Deep theological discussions were held on that return trip (it was a C of E girls school!). That first production starred Trevor White, Michelle Fawdon (later Marcia Hines) and the biggest heart throb of all, Jon English - tall and rangy with dark, soulful eyes you could drown in. I've always thought the character of Judas the more interesting of the two leads and Jon made it his own.

The original Australian production - Jon English and Trevor White

There were later productions, including a "concert" tour in the early 1990s with Jon Farnham as Jesus (and Jon Stevens who plays Pilate in the current  production, playing Judas). But there has been no full scale production until the "Arena Spectacular", conceived in Britain and on its "world tour", hit Melbourne last week. 

No dusty Palais Theatre this time...the rock concert venue of the Rod Laver Arena (familiar to lovers of tennis).  I took my 17 year old niece as an excuse, interested in part to see how this new generation, brought up away from the influence of church youth groups, reacted to the story (she loved it but says she still prefers Phantom of the Opera). My generation were there in hordes and even the total strangers we sat next to were happy to reminisce with me about that original 1973 production.

The lights went down, the familiar haunting overture began and I was lost! I could not have forseen how fresh, this re-imagining of Superstar (set vaguely around the "Occupy" movement of 2012)...this now 40 year old musical...could be. You must understand I know EVERY word...I even know the musical interludes so yes, I picked up where they tweaked the words or slipped an extra verse in, but I sat entranced. When it was over I wanted it all to start again. The music of my generation revived and revisited. I was 14 again and seeing it all for the very first time. 

The Arena Spectacular
At interval I slipped out and bought the DVD (so I can watch it all again) and the "digitally remastered" CD of that original studio recording. Now I can play that familiar music again...and again...and again...and this time there will be no parent telling me to "Give it a rest!"

Oh and I have a new heartthrob...sorry Jon English but you have totally been forsaken for Tim Minchin of the eye coal and dreadlocks. He took that role from you and invested such humanity in Judas - thank heavens he is on the DVD...

Tim Minchin as Judas

 So...what music defined your growing up?

Saturday, June 8, 2013

A Traveller's Tales: Catherine's Palace and the Mystery of the Amber Room

The author at Lenin's Mausoleum in Red Square
I have just returned from a trip to Russia. For a child of the cold war, Russia had never been high on my list of “must see” places but an opportunity arose for a 2 week waterways cruise from St. Petersburg to Moscow and who was I to say no? I have to say I loved every minute of the journey which went a long way to dispelling any lingering notions I may have had of Russia as the dark, dismal place of my childhood.

The Cold War Russia of my childhood.
We began our travels in St. Petersburg.  Leningrad, as it was renamed in 1924, is infamous for the 900 day siege by the German forces during World War 2 (Or the "Patriotic War" as the Russians call it). The German advance on Western Russia came so swiftly that Russia was ill prepared for it. The first German attack on Russian sovereignty came in June 1941 and by September of that year they were bombarding Leningrad.  Staff of the Hermitage worked day and night to pack up over one million valuable works of art and 2 trains managed to get away before the blockade. The third train could not get through and the works of art spent the war in storage beneath St. Isaacs Cathedral. For an interesting story based on the life of the staff in the Hermitage, I recommend Debra Dean’s The Madonnas of Leningrad.

The Germans occupied the outer reaches of Leningrad including the palaces of Peterhof and the collection of summer royal residences at Tsarkoye Selo ("Tsar's village"). The principle residence is that known as Catherine’s Palace, a magnificent confection of rococo/baroque/neoclassical architecture first started by Catherine I (the widow of Peter the Great). Other royal residences include the Alexander Palace where Tsar Nicholas II and his family were first imprisoned.

Our visit took us only to Catherine's Palace. Most famous in a palace noted for its excess of decoration was the “Amber Room”, an entire room paneled in amber – the gift of the Prussian Frederick Wilhelm I to Peter the Great.  It is estimated that on final installation it measured 180 square feet, making a room that glowed with six tons of amber and other semi-precious stones. The amber panels were backed with gold leaf, and historians estimate that, at the time, the room was worth $142 million in today's dollars. Over time, the Amber Room was used as a private meditation chamber for Tsarina Elizabeth, a gathering room for Catherine the Great and a trophy space for amber connoisseur Alexander II. (see Smithsonian article).

As the Germans advanced on Tsarkoye Selo the palace staff tried first to disassemble the valuable room but the amber proved to brittle and began to shatter. In an attempted ruse, the panels were covered with wallpaper but it did not take the German officials sent to source valuable works of art long to uncover the ruse and within 36 hours the Amber Room was removed, crated and sent to Germany where it was reassembled in Königsberg's castle museum on the Baltic Coast. That was the last that was ever seen or heard of the Amber Room.

Shelling scars on St. Isaac's Cathedral
Back in Leningrad the siege dragged on. Millions of civilians died of starvation and disease. As a side note even the famed Hermitage cats were not spared the hunt for food! Following the war, cats had to be imported back into the city to take up the important rodent control duties in the Hermitage. Scars of the bombardment can still be seen on some of the buildings in St. Petersburg

The destruction of Catherine's Palace in 1944
The siege was finally lifted in January 1944 and as the Germans were pushed back, in one final act of vandalism they set about intentionally destroying the royal palaces.  This picture, painted contemporaneously, shows the fire engulfing Catherine’s palace. Time bombs set in the cellar of the building failed to detonate.

The Grand Hall post War
Since the end of the war, Russian authorities began a painstaking reconstruction of the great palaces to the extent that a casual visitor would not know that what they are seeing was probably not original.

The Grand Hall in 2013
 I love mysteries and the question remains as to the fate of the Amber Room. It was last seen at Königsberg Castle.  In January 1945 as the war turned against Germany, “possessions” of the German higher echelon began to be moved. Eyewitnesses claimed to have seen crates containing the Amber Room panels waiting on a railway platform, others claim the crates were put aboard a ship that was later sunk or it may have been destroyed by allied bombing in 1944.  Other claims include stories of it being stored in underground bunkers beneath Königsberg (now lost) or in nearby mines.

Since World War 2 extensive searches by groups and treasure hunters have been conducted. See for example this 2011 article in the Daily Mail.  However researches by journalists Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy conclude that the room was most likely destroyed in the 1944 bombing. This theory to some extent is supported by the discovery of one of the original stone mosaics in Germany in 1997, in the possession of the family of one of the soldiers tasked with packing the room up. 

One other theory is that the panels were discovered intact by the advancing Russians safely stored in the cellars of the castle, however for propaganda reasons they decided to keep the discovery quiet. Amber disintegrates if it is not cared for and in the 1960s Soviet authorities destroyed the remains of the castle. Was this to hide the disintegration of this precious relic?

In 2003, the recreation of the Amber Room, based on the pre war black and white photos was opened by Putin. It had taken 20 years and cost  $12million. Even knowing it is a reconstruction, as can be seen from the photos below, it remains jaw droppingly stunning, (as indeed is the whole of the palace).