Audiobook Version of The Virtuoso is Released on Audible!

“Someone needs to buy a radio station, then play nothing but audio books, with a different genre of book played at set times. That way we can always have something new to read, no matter where we are.” ~ Shana Chartier

I’ve been wanting to produce an audiobook version of The Virtuoso for about 18 months. Looking at the next step for my debut novel it seemed logical; audiobooks are a fast growing market in publishing (both in the UK and USA), a new way of reaching readers (or should I say listeners), that an author may not have access to via traditional print or ebook.

Image by Siddharth Bhogra on Unsplash

I diligently researched narrators on ACX, a time consuming process which quickly became overwhelming. The choice was phenomenal and my shortlist had a hundred names on it. I was determined to find a narrator, but I didn’t have a clue how to choose with such a dazzling array of talent on offer. I began to feel slightly dispirited.

Then, out of the blue, at a local networking event I met Cheryl Tissot, and whilst she wasn’t in a position to narrate my fiction novel she introduced me to a colleague of hers, talented voice artist Rachael Beresford.

I’m so glad I went to that meeting…

Long story short, Rachael was happy to narrate my book, which was a big relief. The moment I heard her voice I knew she would be perfect for The Virtuoso.

A few months passed before I was ready to proceed, and Rachael began working with the leading independent audiobook producer in the UK, White House Sound. My production date was booked in and I saved assiduously to pay for a professional production.

Image by Findaway Voices on unsplash

Chris Perks managed my project; he was patient with my inexperience and explained everything clearly – a total delight to work with.

The sound files came through during lockdown, lifting my spirits no end. After the uploading process I waited for approval from ACX, and last week my title went live.

I loved the way Rachael breathed life into Isabelle Bryant and the entire cast of characters, she did a brilliant job.

As an audiobook narrator, Rachael has recorded bestselling books, including titles nominated for the International Man Booker Prize and Waterstones Children’s Book of the Year 2017.

Apparently, audiobooks are more captivating than movies! Some interesting nuggets in 5 Things you didn’t know about audiobooksAuthor Mark Haddon on the magic of audiobooks.

I’m now on a mission to garner some audiobook reviews. As such, to celebrate the launch I am giving away five free audio review copies of The Virtuoso on Audible:

Redeem the one-time use codes below here 

  • 3U5Z4MJFJXFNU
  • 44HJYMBRLRFLC
  • 5M5B4R6BB2828
  • 64B7D3QR69XZJ
  • 8RGN5WPPD7J3C

Happy listening!

“Here is a nice fact books and ebooks take a lot of time to be read, but audiobooks just for one day or 2 you finish them… this is a great fact!”
~ Deyth Banger

4 Fascinating Neurological Processes to Help Fulfill Dreams

“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come along with patience and equanimity.” ~ Carl Jung

It’s amazing to think that we all walk around with a brain, the control centre of our body; a soft, grey squidgy piece of matter protected by the cranial cavity inside our skull, possibly the most complex organism in the universe.

Cranium – Image by Gordon Johnson via Pixaby

The human brain contains one hundred billion neurons (nerve cells). Each neuron makes links with ten thousand other neurons to form an incredible three dimensional grid containing a thousand trillion connections – that’s 1,000,000,000,000,000 (a quadrillion).

If you struggle to get your head round that number try visualising each connection in this grid as a disc that’s one millimetre thick.  According to molecular biologist Nessa Carey, if you were to stack up the quadrillion discs on top of each other they would reach the sun (which is ninety-three million miles from the earth) and back, three times over!

Those incredible, powerful connections are all happening inside our heads…

My last post about brain power focused on neuroplasticity, as neuro science is a subject that fascinates me, and lately I’ve been reading Neurowisdom: The New Brain Science of Money, Happiness and Success by Mark Robert Waldman and Chris Manning, PhD.

I’ve learnt some fascinating facts already, but it’s putting those findings and aha moments into practice that counts.

That is a consistent lifelong activity!

“Happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated and defended privately by each person.”
~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The authors wanted to define that ineffable quality that we all aspire to feel every day – happiness.

Measuring happiness…

According to data published by the National Opinion Research Center at Chicago University over nearly forty years (1972 – 2010) consisting of accumulated worldwide statistics – money predicts happiness.

Further research undertaken in 2012 by the Wharton School of Business took their findings even further, having found no evidence of a saturation point. In other words, the more income we make, the more happiness we will experience. But just as income appears to be the primary indicator of happiness, there are other important factors in the measurement of happiness.

But we have probably all read about miserable millionaires with dysfunctional lives in news stories and conversely know happy every day people who are content with their lot.

In 2015 the United Nations published the World Happiness Report, containing the six most powerful indicators for happiness, in descending order of importance. Interestingly, the report also found that those who make more money are happier, and those who are happier tend to live longer.

The World Happiness Report identified another major aspect of happiness: wellbeing. Wellbeing is defined as a life that is filled with enjoyment and feelings of safety, alongside the absence of anger, worry, sadness, depression, stress and pain.

In a 2015 issue of the Lancet it was reported that an ongoing sense of wellbeing lowers your risk of physical and emotional disease, tripling your survival rate and extending your life.

The Six Qualities of Happiness

  1. Spending Power (economic capital)
  2. Friends, family and community support (social capital)
  3. Healthy life expectancy
  4. Freedom to make decisions
  5. Financial generosity to others
  6. Absence of corruption in business and government (don’t get me started on this last one!!)

Whilst we still have significant challenges in Western societies (including a shared global pandemic at the moment), they pale in comparison to those caught up in cruel dictatorships and war ravaged regions, with limited opportunities of improving these six fundamental factors for happiness. The severe lack of these factors in certain parts of the world is driving mass migration.

Then there are the profound impacts that climate change could have for our species in all those areas.

It comes as no surprise that money is in the number one spot.

“Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.”
~ Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

The dark side of money

Money is neutral until it is used by a person. People used to bandy about the saying “money won’t make you happy” or as the bible warns: “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Money can be used for good, and just like another neutral object, a knife, it can be used to butter your toast or to harm another person.

Being obsessed with money is shown to increase greed, narcissism, feelings of entitlement, selfishness, risky behaviour and insensitivity towards others.

Research has shown that making money increases happiness, but using money wisely predicts long-term satisfaction.

Spending one’s hard-earned dosh on experiential purchases, such as holidays, cultural events, courses and lessons, hobbies and helping others, will make you happier than spending it purely on material objects.  That’s not to say those purchases won’t make you happy, but shared experiences with and for others can be more fulfilling.

“A wise man should have money in his head, but not in his heart.”
~ Jonathan Swift

Researchers reviewed 259 studies comparing money and happiness, and a clear pattern was revealed: the more people focused purely on materialistic wealth, the more dissatisfied they felt with their lives.

It was even noted that if others perceive you as being overtly selfish and greedy they will want you to fail, and may even go so far as to try and sabotage your success.

When people feel they have been unfairly treated, especially where money is concerned, they may take steps to punish the greedy individual, even if it means there is a personal cost in doing so. This reaction is known as Altruistic Punishment.

As a population we can punish unethical, polluting, greedy and poisoning corporations by not buying their products, lobbying for changes in the law, in the same way we can avoid voting for dishonest, unintegrous politicians (unless sucked in by their shallow charisma and empty promises).

The crucible of a happy, healthy, successful life therefore is mastering the balance between inner and outer wealth, as well as integrating material, social and personal desires.

I hear you – this is easier said than done!

Our brains are programmed to seek outer wealth, including any object or activity we perceive to be valuable. Inner wealth is rooted in the brain’s desire to experience pleasure, whether through social interaction or the involvement in any experience that provides greater meaning, purpose, satisfaction and a lasting sense of wellbeing.

The philosophers of ancient Greece discovered that there are two types of happiness: Hedonic and Eudaimonic. Both are necessary to wellbeing, but the latter is more conducive to long-term sustainable happiness.

Triumph of Bacchus by Michaelina wautier c. 1650

Hedonism is the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake, an immediate fulfillment of a particular desire.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a distinguished professor of psychology had an erudite take on this form of happiness:

“Pleasure is an important component of the quality of life, but by itself it does not bring happiness. Sleep, rest, food and sex provide restorative homeostatic experiences that return consciousness to order after the needs of the body intrude and cause psychic entropy to occur. But they do not produce psychological growth.  They do not add complexity to the self. Pleasure helps to maintain order, but by itself cannot create new order in consciousness.”

On the other hand, the eudaimonic path cultivates enjoyment from daily activities:

“Without enjoyment, life can be endured, and it can even be pleasant. But it can be so only precariously, depending on luck and the cooperation of the external environment. To gain personal control over the quality of experience, however, one needs to learn how to build enjoyment into what happens day in, day out.” 

I feel the Baroque and contemporary paintings are brilliantly executed art depictions of Greek Mythology in relation to the subject matter. The link under Apollo and Dionysus highlights the artist’s concept.

Apollo and Dionysus by Leonid Ilyukhin

To better achieve these markers of happiness in our lives we need to master four neurological processes the authors cite as being the foundational pillars of inner and outer wealth – defined as the combination of money, happiness, success, and personal contentment.

The four pillars of wealth:

  1. Motivation
  2. Decision making
  3. Creativity
  4. Awareness

MOTIVATION

Desire – Curiosity – Pleasure

Motivation is the motive for action. A download of dopamine gives us the essential desire to seek out new goals and go about our business. Instinct and curiosity are the key elements of motivation.

Dopamine is a powerful neurochemical that stimulates pleasure and desire and is essential to mental health, the immune system and overall wellbeing. If the brain does not secrete enough dopamine the brain can become lethargic, and we can slip into depression, losing the drive to work towards meaningful rewards. This is a good reason to engage in new and interesting activities throughout your life.

Gut-Brain Axis

I’m not going to dwell on this as I will be writing future gut health posts, and I touched on the links between the bacteria living inside the gastrointestinal tract and mental health in a previous post. But suffice to say, if you want optimal brain function you need to look after your gut!

There are around 100 million neurons lining the gut, it has been termed the second brain. Various drug factories (aka trillions of bacteria) in your gut produce all kinds of neurotransmitters, including dopamine, noradrenaline, serotonin, GABA and oxytocin to name a few. Communication between the gut brain (Enteric Nervous System) and the head brain (Central Nervous System) happens instantaneously via the Vagus Nerve.

It is a two way street, but majority of messages travel from the gut to the brain. This is the source of food cravings – pathogenic bacteria yelling at the brain that they need more sugar!

If your gut is out of balance it’s likely your hormones could be too, and this will hamper these neurological processes.

The M-Drive

The motivation-reward circuit is located in the Nucleus Accumbens, in part of the most ancient area of the brain, the Limbic system, responsible for sensory and emotional processing and midbrain activity. The authors refer to this circuit as the M-Drive.

When something emotionally excites you or captures your imagination, your brain is deciding whether to move towards the object of desire or away from any perceived threats. This motivational drive is fundamental to the survival of humans and every organism.

As I explain when I do my music education talks, learning an instrument and listening to music stimulates dopamine release. It’s a random fact I know, but so does yawning!

“I can give you high blood pressure just on the phone by criticizing you. On the other hand, I can send a tweet to somebody in China and give them a dopamine hit.”
~ Deepak Chopra

There is a flip side though; your brain can release too much dopamine when it perceives a highly rewarding activity or object, which can cause potentially destructive addictions.

Too much pleasure may override the brain’s ability to make sensible and wise decisions, encouraging risky behaviour.  Roll call adrenaline junkies. Everyone is different, and we each become aware through our thoughts and behaviour of what floats our boat in terms of activating our motivation-reward circuits.

What causes a conflagration of desire and pleasure that becomes overwhelming?

Infatuation and obsession are two powerful states that spring to mind.  But there are many others. The list of human foibles is rather a long one.

Image by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

We can get stuck in the dopamine loop before we even realise what has happened. I have experienced this on occasions, and eventually, through great effort, I’ve been able to shift myself away from a destructive cycle.

But it’s not easy, you have to have the will to do it once you become aware of what is happening in the M-Drive!

“Science has learned recently that contempt and indignation are addictive mental states. I mean physically and chemically addictive. Literally! People who are self-righteous a lot are apparently doping themselves rhythmically with auto-secreted surges of dopamine, endorphins and enkephalins. Didn’t you ever ask yourself why indignation feels so good?”
~ David Brin

Another perspective on the same subject from an advanced spiritual teacher:

“Everyone gets a secret pleasure from resentments, from being the martyr or the victim, and from feeling misunderstood, unappreciated, etc.[…]To undo the ego, one must be willing to abandon this payoff game, with its grandstanding of emotions and repetitive rehashing of data and stories to justify its positions.[…] When the ‘inner juice’ is abandoned, it is replaced by inner peace.”
~ Dr. David Hawkins, I: Reality and Subjectivity

This was also ancient knowledge:

“Undisturbed calmness of mind is attained by cultivating friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and indifference toward the wicked.”
~ Patanjali (The Yoga Sutras)

Dopamine is potent, our job is to direct it into healthy pursuits – in other words being of service. Deeply held altruistic values and beliefs will stimulate more balanced desires.

According to Waldman and Manning whatever obstacles a person may be facing, the more optimistic they feel, the more motivated they will become. Apparently it is possible to sublimate our more pessimistic tendencies of cognitive awareness and literally build stronger neural circuits of optimism. Over 100 published studies exist showing that optimism is essential for physical and emotional health.

Even the anticipation of future rewards can stimulate dopamine, improve mood, motivation and decision-making. This is why pleasure/dream boards can keep our motivation going, which is the precursor for the next neurological process of decision-making.

DECISION-MAKING

Goals – Consciousness – Language

After being released from the Nucleus Accumbens dopamine travels to a newer part of the brain, the frontal lobe, giving us the ability to plan out strategies and activities to help us reach our goals. Here the brain helps us turn desire into action. This process may involve learning new skills, developing new habits, developing greater emotional intelligence, control and self-esteem.

Maybe this is why I find I’m more creative and productive immediately after a violin practise…

The frontal lobe helps us to consciously find ways to satiate the yearning and ambition ignited by desire. We begin to have ideas to solve problems or acquire something, and this helps us to make the decisions we need to act and work towards achieving our dreams.

This process involves habitual behaviour, the regulation of moods, and helps keep you focused on your desired outcome.

However, decision-making can be disrupted by stress, worry and doubt, so positive affirmations can help train our brain to stay focused, confident and optimistic, even when we experience setbacks.

The only time I delay making important decisions is when I’m upset, because I know that my executive function will be temporarily impaired by an emotional episode.  But in the longer term, not making a decision is a decision.

CREATIVITY

Imagination – Intuition – Daydreaming

I wrote a post a while back specifically about mind-wandering, a part of this crucial process on our journey to greater fulfilment. This unique state of consciousness, when the brain is in the default mode network helps to prevent mental exhaustion, by use of small scheduled time pockets to actively engage in daydreaming and the use of intuitive imagination to solve problems.

Imagination is so fundamental it led Einstein to declare that it was more important than intelligence!

“Do not let the memories of your past limit the potential of your future. There are no limits to what you can achieve on your journey through life, except in your mind.”
~ Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart

Day dreaming has traditionally been frowned upon, and teachers may berate young students for zoning out when they should be focused. But this is a natural process and a helpful one in the right amounts, one that is essential for learning new information and revitalising the brain.

Deliberate mind-wandering is recommended to alleviate stress or if struggling with a difficult problem or emotional issue.

When we imagine a scenario, putting ourselves into another time, place or situation, we can use the subtle senses as part of this envisioning process. Unlike the physical senses, when the subtle senses are engaged in multi-directional thinking there are no limits. We can recall the sound of someone’s voice, the smell of roses, the taste of strawberries, the sound of the sea rolling rhythmically onto the beach, rain falling gently onto the window pane, a certain physical sensation; we can create an entire experience that hasn’t happened yet in intricate detail in our mind’s eye.

Creativity is the journey from the formless to phenomena to form. 

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the world’s foremost researchers on creativity and optimal performance, found that creative people tend not to lose their sense of awe and wonder in the world, and are less likely to be trapped by repetitive daily routines. They maintain a childlike curiosity about everything, exploring various different avenues of interest not necessarily related to their core work.

His research suggests looking for things that are unusual or different, or seeing familiar things with a fresh perspective – in other words aim to be unquenchably curious and surprise yourself and others every day.

Divergent and convergent thinking

Csikszentmihalyi also recommends practising both divergent and convergent thinking. You may recognise divergent thinking from the term ‘thinking outside the box’.  This kind of thinking is considered open-ended, non-linear and irrational when seeking solutions to problems.

I imagine some people thought Wilbur and Orville Wright were off their trolleys in attempting to fly in a powered machine at the start of the 20th century, but now, a mere 117 years later we can fly around the world, exceed the speed of sound and travel into space!

We also need to become adept in convergent thinking, dealing with the minutiae of daily details and decisions, selecting one of just a few options or ideas.

I also explored the source of creativity in a previous post.

AWARENESS

Fairness – Empathy – Self-knowledge

The newest part of the brain, evolutionary speaking, is where awareness occurs. When we participate in self-reflection it stimulates circuits of empathy, compassion and self-love. This process helps us to develop more self-awareness, become more socially aware and more spiritually aware of our values, better equipping us to meet the needs of others as well as our own.

Image by Levi XU on Unsplash

In this way mutual trust and cooperation expand, work becomes more meaningful, purposeful and satisfying.

Awareness grows as we age, for the neural circuits involved in self and social awareness (the insula and anterior cingulate), don’t become fully functional until a person is well into their thirties.

This is why I try to have patience with my children, because they have less understanding of how their actions affect and influence others. Selfishness is the default position of a young person’s brain.

From childhood into early adulthood an individual has not yet developed the neurological capacity for empathy and moral reasoning, and are prone to taking greater risks and making mistakes. We all make mistakes, but with age and wisdom they will likely decrease. Mistakes are an essential feedback tool and not proof of failure.

One of the best ways I have found to enhance the conscious knowledge of my character, personality and everything else about me, as well as how my actions might influence others, is through meditation and honesty.

When we fully own the good, the bad and the ugly, nothing holds any power over us. We already know the worst, experiencing both the shadow and the light.

I have learnt to accept myself, flaws and all, with compassion. Patience isn’t a natural strength of mine, so I need to focus on practising it daily, with myself and my family!

Meditation, mindfulness and relaxation strengthens the areas of the brain concerned with confidence, optimism, emotional regulation, happiness, self-love and compassion for others.

There are varying levels of awareness: encompassing bodily sensations, positive and negative thoughts and feelings, awareness of old and new habits and behaviours, self-image and self-esteem, belief systems, purpose and values, awareness of other people’s thoughts and feelings, the social consequences of actions and awareness of awareness itself.

Heightened states of awareness facilitate ‘aha moments’, those sudden insights and ideas that can be applied into different aspects of your life.

The four pillars are interconnected, as when mindfulness/meditation increases awareness, so does motivation, hence you will make better decisions and your creativity will be unleashed. As the connectivity between the four pillars is strengthened a person will begin to take a greater interest in the welfare of others.

In NeuroWisdom they list the 23 traits of moral character (something we should look more closely for in politicians, business leaders, and across the social stratum).

Contemporary research in Positive Psychology identifies the following character traits as associated with happiness, wellbeing and success: compassion, kindness, fairness, open-mindedness, forgiveness, appreciation, gratitude, leadership, social sensitivity, social responsibility, bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality, creativity, curiosity, love of learning, wisdom, hope humour, humility, prudence and spirituality.

Not a bad list to aspire to…

“When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds; your mind transcends limitations; your conscious expands in every direction; and you find yourself in a great, new and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.”
~ Patanjali

Life After Life is a Book That Will Make You Think

“‘There are some Buddhist philosophers (a branch referred to as Zen) who say that sometimes a bad thing happens to prevent a worse thing happening,’ Dr Kellet said. ‘But, of course, there are some situations where it’s impossible to imagine anything worse.’” ~ Kate Atkinson, Life After Life

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is one of those books that will make you question the nature of reality. It is certainly thought provoking and provides some historical learning, it will also make you laugh and cry, as well as entertain you. In short it is a literary masterpiece!

Do you believe in reincarnation?

I am coming round to the idea more and more these days. One life just isn’t long enough to experience and learn everything an immortal soul would strive to achieve.

I’ve often pondered about when people die young, the tragedy of a life cut short: the pain of their loss on loved ones, missing their presence and wondering what they might have done had they survived.  So much unfinished business. And then there is how their death impacts other lives to the extent of what they do going forward.

A few days before my 20th birthday, unexpectedly my first love perished in a motorcycle accident. He was 22 years old. I had been on the back of his motorcycle many times before, (I still am something of a speed freak), but I never got on a motorbike again after his untimely and tragic death.

I couldn’t accept that he had just disappeared; here one minute, gone the next. I was in a dreadful state and moped around the house for many weeks. I couldn’t stop myself thinking about having seen him lying at the undertakers. It was the first and only time I have seen a dead body. It didn’t look like him. His life force was not animating his body. I began think about where his spirit or soul energy had gone.

Did it exist outside of time and space?

I had the sensation that his spirit was near and around me in those early days, a feeling that’s hard to describe.

It was at that time I started to believe in the divine nature of the soul.  It comforted me to think of him as an immortal soul occupying a temporary body, having a human experience; as opposed to a mere body that originates in oblivion and returns there.

When we do have spiritual experiences it is like returning to our natural state. What Deepak Chopra terms as ‘lightness of being’. He asserts that we are light beings in essence.

I feel like I am the watcher, the sentient being, the spark of consciousness that pervades the universe, just as every human is; aware of being alive, able to use sensory outlets and emotions to heighten experiences.  According to Chopra we are the infinite creators, conscious agents in the matrix of the microbiome of life!

It’s an intriguing idea that every sentient being is an aspect of infinite consciousness experiencing the finite, entangled into a genetic uniform and personality.

How can we explain why we are drawn to certain people, places or careers, why we enjoy certain activities or the talents we have, why we make the choices we do?

Perhaps our choices reflect our level of consciousness or soul wisdom in any given moment…

“Most people muddled through events and only in retrospect realised their significance.” ~ Kate Atkinson, Life After Life

There are particular phenomena I’ve gone through, such as having an out of body experience and various moments of déjà vu, the feeling of having lived in a particular place,  (such as Paris), meeting some individuals you feel like you’ve known your whole life after only a few minutes.

Then there are some people you just resonate with.

I suppose that’s why this book’s premise drew me in; I needed a profound read as I set aside moments to rest over the last few weeks.  I’ve experienced a litany of unpleasant after effects recovering from the coronavirus, and I knew that reading a good book would hook me, forcing me to spend some quiet time.

Life After Life did not disappoint…

“What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she take her first breath.

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.

What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact, an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?

The baby in question is Ursula Todd, and her stories also revolve around her family: mother Sylvie, father Hugh, siblings Maurice, Pamela, Teddy and Jimmy and her wayward aunty Izzie. Not forgetting the acerbic cook, Mrs Glover, and the scullery maid, Bridget who live at the idyllic ‘Fox Corner’ in rural Beaconsfield (not far from me).

The novel’s time span runs from 1910 to just after the Second World War.  There are plenty of opportunities to die between two world wars…

“At times life seems to be a cruel game. The only justification for it is that in reality it is only a dream. That is why there are so many differences in the world. Some people are poor, some are rich, some healthy, some sick, and so on. You have had many experiences through many incarnations and you will have others in future incarnations, but they should not frighten you. You must play all parts in the motion picture of life, inwardly saying: ‘I am Spirit.’ This is the great consolation that wisdom gives us.”
~ Paramahansa Yogananda

If I could get to the crux of the genius of this book, it is how the author creates such lifelike, vivid characters, building on and altering their circumstances during each of Ursula’s lives in a way that is not repetitive or dull.

Their characters don’t change through each incarnation, but their life paths are modified depending on the choices that Ursula makes.

There are quite a few childhood deaths, handled with sensitivity by the author, but nonetheless still sad. Then there are the incarnations that Ursula has where she has made it to and sometimes through World War 2, and the amazing descriptions of her lives in London during the horror of the blitz.

“We cannot turn away,” Miss Woolf told her, “we must get on with our job and we must bear witness.” What did that mean, Ursula wondered. “It means,” Miss Woolf said, “that we must remember these people when we are safely in the future.”
“And if we are killed?”
“Then others must remember us.”

Even the people she meets in that phase of her blitz lives are memorable, like Mrs Appleyard and her infant Emil, the Nesbit sisters, her senior warden at the ARP, Miss Woolf, Mr Durkin, the violinist Mr Zimmerman and Mr Bullock.

September 1940 is revisited a couple of times in Life After Life:

The multiple deaths that occur around Armistice due to the Spanish Flu are poignant, especially given our current Covid-19 situation, and how Atkinson weaves slightly different scenarios each time, all leading to the same inevitable fate – except one.

Two of the saddest lives Ursula has are when she is raped by a friend of her older brother on her sixteenth birthday and becomes pregnant and that lifetime ultimately ends in tragedy. In another life she meets him again on the same birthday, but handles the situation differently and so does not end up being violated.

11 November 1918
“Everything familiar somehow. It’s called déjà vu, Sylvie said. “It’s a trick of the mind. The mind is a fathomless mystery. ‘ Ursula was sure she could recall lying in the baby carriage beneath the tree. ‘No,’ Sylvie said, ‘no one can remember being so small,’ yet Ursula remembered the leaves, like great green hands, waving in the breeze and the silver hare that hung from the carriage hood, turning and twisting in front of her face. Sylvie sighed. ‘You do have a very vivid imagination, Ursula.’ Ursula didn’t know whether this was a compliment or not but it was certainly true that she often felt confused between what was real and what was not. And the terrible fear – fearful terror – that she carried around inside her. The dark landscape within. ‘Don’t dwell on such things,’ Sylvie said sharply when Ursula tried to explain.  ‘Think sunny thoughts.’”

The other life is when she first has an ominous encounter with her future husband, Derek Oliphant while studying at secretarial school. I wept through that chapter (Like a Fox in a Hole), as anyone likely would who has been in an abusive relationship. It touched a raw nerve that I didn’t even realise was exposed.

Then there are the lives where she spends her mature years in Germany, where she becomes friends with Eva Braun…

Life After Life is not just clever but totally absorbing. After a certain amount of lives Ursula’s feelings of déjà vu begin to surface during her childhood and into adulthood, as her various realities are lived out, with her subtly making different choices that impact her outcomes and those of her friends and family.

She develops a kind of inexplicable intuition, an instinctual, emotional palimpsest of past realities that influence her thoughts and feelings.

Whilst I don’t personally believe in reincarnation into the same body and life, (I lean towards the school of thought that we take different forms with each go around the mortal block over aeons of time), it did not stop me from immensely enjoying Life After Life. It is utterly brilliant.

Reading Life After Life also made me feel that as difficult as things are at the moment for all of us, it does not compare to the hardships earlier generations went through for many years during these conflicts.

I think I need to leave some time for this book to fully settle in my psyche before I read her highly acclaimed follow-on novel, A God in Ruins (focusing on Ursula’s younger brother Teddy’s time in the RAF).

“Become such as you are, having learned what that is.” ~ Kate Atkinson, Life After Life

The Value of Innovation, Imagination and Vision in Lockdown

Where there is no vision, the people perish. ~ Proverbs 29:18

I sincerely hope you are safe, healthy and mentally strong during this strange and unprecedented time.

After lockdown I was so caught up in getting stuff done I was overdoing it. I didn’t pay attention to the mild cold I couldn’t seem to shift as home quarantine came into effect, and boy did I regret that. I have come out the other side of a rough exchange with Covid-19 and I’m grateful to be here writing!

After three weeks of convalescence (2 of which were complete rest) I am almost back to normal. Whatever normal is. Some of my friends have also been laid up for weeks and have experienced similarly scary symptoms.

I have resolved to make less excuses to myself for all that I haven’t yet done and at the same time be proud of all that I have achieved in half a century. I am reminded that life is a journey, not a destination, and part of the joy is in travelling…

The Coronavirus has profound implications for each of us, for humanity collectively and for our planet. At worst it is utterly devastating – thousands of families have lost loved ones, jobs are on hold, households are coping with reduced income, and many are frightened and anxious about the future.

Mankind is being tested on every front. The situation humanity now faces is nothing less than the management of evolutionary change in order to survive long-term.  

Across the world difficult decisions about when and how to come out of lockdown must be taken.

If you live in the UK, where our incompetent and culpable government was slow to react with testing, contact tracing, providing PPE, (even for just our frontline medical staff), initiating nationwide lockdown, closing borders and introducing quarantine measures for new arrivals etc. then it will be all the harder.

There is now strong evidence this Brexit government refused vital life-saving equipment from the EU on ideological grounds.  They are lacking in both humanity and ability; ergo the biblical quote I started with sadly sums up our predicament.

I am hopeful that having been treated so well at St. Thomas’s Hospital that Mr Johnson will have a new found respect for our NHS and pull out all the stops to do whatever they can to get on top of the situation, even though the Corona-horse has already bolted.

I was also lost for words that a president could advocate injecting bleach! It’s easy to feel disheartened with such numpties in charge; so it’s all the more important for each of us to handle our particular circumstances as best we can.

I am reminded of the famous JFK quote: Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.

Of course we expect the nation’s safety to be prioritised, and I for one hope there will be full enquiry into the government’s mishandling of the crisis. But also we have the ability as individuals to act, to help ourselves, our families and our community. I have seen so many heart-warming stories among the corona carnage and tragic stories.

For every example of ‘covidiots’ ignoring social distancing advice and leaders exacerbating already difficult situations, there have been instances of mass collaboration on a global as well as local scale. Billions of us are in self-quarantine to protect the more vulnerable in society and help prevent the overwhelm and collapse of health systems.

It’s amazing what we can collectively do when we agree on a beneficial shared outcome, despite different backgrounds, cultures and beliefs. If we can do it for our health, then surely we can also do it for the planet?

A heartwarming video of animals encroaching on human territory for once!

In the UK Captain Tom Moore has been one of these selfless and courageous individuals. So far he has raised over 32 million pounds for the NHS, as of today, his 100th birthday! And just as importantly, he has raised the nation’s morale.

Now that life has slowed down for many who have either been furloughed or made redundant, people are communicating more and re-establishing lapsed connections.

Musicians have been live streaming from their homes and making vital contributions to our cultural and creative life in lieu of being able to attend concerts and theatres. I had the pleasure of meeting the virtuoso violinist Maxim Vengerov a few years ago in Oxford:

Some of us are working harder than ever – namely our frontline healthcare professionals, medical support staff, grocery workers and supply chains. The NHS staff are risking their lives every day to treat the constant influx of Covid-19 patients. When I was briefly in Stoke Mandeville Hospital they were amazing. But they did not have face visors and scrubs.

It’s right that we support and applaud nurses and doctors, they are real life heroes. I’m sure this proposed payment from the government will be helpful to bereaved NHS families, but surely they would rather have their loved ones alive and well, kitted out with the correct protective gear!

Parents are now teachers, and as much as I love my kids it has added considerable stress and work to my already overloaded life. I’ve since learnt to let go of the worry and embrace the chaos.

Need I say more…

Before I got sick I wrote about focusing on what we have control over. It’s the best way to alleviate anxiety about the uncertainty. We are living in uncharted territory right now, but through all the disruption, chaos and fear there is hope for a brighter future if we have vision.

If there’s one thing we are being made to do it is to adapt. Accepting and adapting to the way things are will help us through this challenging time in the best way possible. Leadership isn’t just something we expect of elected politicians, we can develop leadership qualities to serve each other and our communities.

Imagination and Innovation during historical epidemics

Our ancestors had to cope with the Bubonic Plague, Black Death and Spanish Flu of 1918 to name but a few historical scenarios.

The Decameron (or Human Comedy) was written by Giovanni Boccaccio in Florence following the 1348 plague, and was completed by 1353. The collection of one hundred short tales is told by a group of 7 women and 3 men as they hunker down in a Tuscan villa to avoid plague ridden Florence. Stories within a story.

A Tale from The Decameron – John William Waterhouse c.1916

Being the 14th Century there is no social media or television, and without distractions they each set to storytelling for ten days. They tell tales of love, life, fortune and power, much as we might do right now if we were suddenly deprived of the internet! The work provides a snapshot into life at that time and influenced Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales.

A fascinating book talk on The Decameron by Marilyn Migiel:

The famous diarist, Samuel Pepys wrote about his melancholy experience of living in London during the Great Plague of 1665. Some of his entries in Lapham’s Quarterly make sobering reading.

Albert Camus’s 1947 novel, The Plague is having something of a renaissance at the moment. A substantial body of literary works over the ages serve as an escape from reality (well, almost), but perhaps not this one!

William Shakespeare was no stranger to existential angst, growing up and writing during outbreaks of the Plague. His works are immortal…

It was commonly believed that Sir Isaac Newton found inspiration at Trinity College Cambridge during the plague, although this interesting article in The New Yorker points out he was well on his way with his learning and research both before and after the plague.

Whatever you are doing in lockdown, I hope it is nourishing your soul in some way.

There was a particular quote by Napoleon Hill that kept flitting in and out of my mind over the last few weeks as I was feeling sorry for myself and struggling to regain my energy, joie de vivre and motivation.

“Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.”

Covid-19 has wrought adversity, failure and heartache on the world like nothing in living memory. Aside from our personal and collective suffering over the pandemic, the Coronavirus has also shown us the dysfunction we have created in the world, effectively holding up a mirror…

Not just to the plundering of the natural world and the pollution we are responsible for, but our corrupt political systems and economic wastage. Philip Pullman makes a compelling case for change…

Douglas Rushkoff illuminates the way forward with the economy in the USA, but the principles of supporting local businesses rather than just large corporations could be applied in principle anywhere.

Humanity is at a cross roads. What can we learn from this pandemic?

From a health perspective an urgent priority is finding a vaccine and an accurate antibody test,  and people are rightly focusing on their health and what they can do to improve it, (also a passion of mine), but it would be prudent to assess the fundamental issues of how we operate in the world.

Maybe the next great clean energy project will come out of this…

And the world will be watching China, where somehow the coronavirus jumped from bats to humans. Will China keep its ban on wildlife sales?

For the time being we are breathing cleaner air around the world:

Out of our darkest periods in history there always springs new hope and fresh ideas.

Spring is in full swing in the Northern Hemisphere, unfurling her burgeoning, colourful buds. Perhaps you have been able to enjoy the solace nature has provided during lockdown. I’m now getting back to doing my regular walk in the woods.

Just as nature signals rebirth, regeneration and renewal, so it can be internally.

Detail of the procession and musicians in Spring by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema c. 1894

Will we choose to do things differently? Work together to make a better, safer, more sustainable, inclusive world?

During my bed rest I asked myself what the Coronavirus had meant for me and my family. What did I need to face? I had some uncomfortable but necessary revelations.

It was a forced time of reflection that has brought about renewed clarity and purpose. It felt good to live more simply and to spend time with my family rather than working myself to the bone to cross off a list of never-ending chores.

Everyday minutiae become immaterial in those moments you fear might be your last. You remember what is truly important in life. I have renewed my daily gratitude practise. I am thankful that I managed to get my health into a strong position and was able to weather my personal Covid-19 storm.

I have vowed to be kinder to myself and those around me and work towards my inner vision with joy in my heart despite the circumstances.  I take each day as it comes, while simultaneously holding a vision for where I want my life to be.

As much as this time is placing restrictions on us it is also a moment of opportunity. It’s our job to sow the seeds of hope, to be diligent farmers of our own lives in order to reap a more abundant future harvest.

Lockdown doesn’t have to be stagnation, we can innovate, imagine and plan for the future with forward motion.

“Commitment and creativity cannot be captured and handcuffed. Inspiration cannot be jailed. The heart cannot be contained.” ~ Gary Zukav

Facing an Uncertain Future in the Age of Humans – Part 2

“Anyone who believes in indefinite growth on a physically finite planet is either mad, or an economist.”
~ Sir David Attenborough

So far 2020 seems to be throwing everything but the kitchen sink at us… Humanity is lurching from surviving environmental paroxysms to coping with germ warfare!

Since I last posted the Coronavirus has become a serious global health threat, possibly a pandemic, if infection rates continue to grow and the mortality rate increases. Risk of death rises with age, diabetes and heart disease. 

The hubris of Homo sapiens

There is no doubt that our species has achieved some truly amazing feats.

But we have made many mistakes too, some with serious ramifications. Man’s innate curiosity led him to explore his surroundings and then spread further afield until he covered the planet in his search for a better life for his ‘tribe’.

But the current hegemony of Homo sapiens will be short lived, in evolutionary terms, if we don’t have the humility and hindsight to take responsibility for how we got here.

“It is worse, much worse, than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all, and comes to us bundled with several others in an anthology of comforting delusions: that global warming is an Arctic saga, unfolding remotely; that it is strictly a matter of sea level and coastlines, not an enveloping crisis sparing no place and leaving no life undeformed; that it is a crisis of the “natural” world, not the human one; that those two are distinct, and that we live today somehow outside or beyond or at the very least defended against nature, not inescapably within and literally overwhelmed by it; that wealth can be a shield against the ravages of warming; that the burning of fossil fuels is the price of continued economic growth; that growth, and the technology it produces, will allow us to engineer our way out of environmental disaster; that there is any analogue to the scale or scope of this threat, in the long span of human history, that might give us confidence in staring it down. None of this is true. But let’s begin with the speed of change. The earth has experienced five mass extinctions before the one we are living through now, each so complete a wiping of the fossil record that it functioned as an evolutionary reset, the planet’s phylogenetic tree first expanding, then collapsing, at intervals, like a lung: 86 percent of all species dead, 450 million years ago; 70 million years later, 75 percent; 125 million years later, 96 percent; 50 million years later, 80 percent; 135 million years after that, 75 percent again. Unless you are a teenager, you probably read in your high school textbooks that these extinctions were the result of asteroids. In fact, all but the one that killed the dinosaurs involved climate change produced by greenhouse gas. The most notorious was 250 million years ago; it began when carbon dioxide warmed the planet by five degrees Celsius, accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane, another greenhouse gas, and ended with all but a sliver of life on Earth dead. We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate; by most estimates, at least ten times faster. The rate is one hundred times faster than at any point in human history before the beginning of industrialization. And there is already, right now, fully a third more carbon in the atmosphere than at any point in the last 800,000 years—perhaps in as long as 15 million years. There were no humans then.”
~ David Wallace-WellsThe Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming

We must now harness the creative and critical thinking edge that the Cognitive Revolution birthed, and that catapulted us into the Anthropocene, to figure out how we can repair much of the destruction left in our wake; now that we have woken up to the fact that it threatens our survival.

One could argue that our rise to the Age of Humans is ‘progress’, a necessary evolution, but such progress comes with responsibilities. We cannot accept a continuing  attitude that the end justifies the means. Unless we curb and alter our progress it will prove to be the road to perdition for Homo sapiens.

Homo sapiens means ‘wise man’, but for a species credited with such erudition we have certainly demonstrated ignorance in equal measure…

O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.
Isabella (Act 2, Scene 2)
~ William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

The four horsemen of the apocalypse could prove to be greed, arrogance, apathy and indifference.

As well as conveying the beauty, awe and wonder of Earth in his latest programme, Seven Worlds, One Planet, Sir David Attenborough repeated the ongoing message of habitat destruction and climate change.

Despite the Coronavirus, the fact remains that climate change is the single biggest threat to all life on Earth in the Age of Humans.

Biodiversity and sustainability

At the launch of the spectacular Netflix nature programme Our Planet, Sir David Attenborough gave a clear message: we must find a way to survive that does not entail decimating the natural world, because biodiversity equals stability.

SUSTAINABILITY should be our new watch word, a global standard that helps to protect biodiversity in the interest future generations.

If we managed two mass extinctions as hunter-gatherers, (the decimation of two continent’s mega-fauna with just hand tools), imagine what damage we can inflict now, thousands of years later, with efficient machines in this industrial and technological age?

Rapid, wholesale destruction of rainforests by agribusiness for short term profit over long term ecological stability is crazy, and should not be allowed to continue unabated.

We cannot continue to bludgeon our way through our planet’s natural resources with no regard for the consequences.

Over the last year I have phased out processed food from our diet (apart from the odd treat), and I look carefully at the ingredients and buy brands like Nairn’s that only use sustainable palm oil.

This passage from Sapiens illustrates how Homo sapiens have evolved too quickly, thus creating massive environmental problems for ourselves and the planet:

Genus Homo’s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle. For millions of years, humans hunted smaller creatures and gathered what they could, all the while being hunted by larger predators. It was only 400,000 years ago that several species of man began to hunt large game on a regular basis, and only in the last 100,000 years – with the rise of Homo Sapiens – that man jumped to the top of the food chain.

That spectacular leap from the middle to the top had enormous consequences. Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into that position very gradually, over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances that prevent lions and sharks from wreaking too much havoc. As lions became deadlier, so gazelles evolved to run faster, hyenas to co-operate better, and rhinoceroses to be more bad-tempered.

In contrast, humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana-republic dictator.  Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.

~ Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens)

On our way to the top of the food chain humans domesticated fire, gaining control of a powerful, obedient and potentially limitless force. Unlike other animals, humans could decide when and where to ignite a flame and use it for numerous tasks. Our use of fire was not limited by our physical form, structure or strength. A child with a fire stick could burn down an entire forest.

Metaphorically, this seems like exactly what our still relatively ‘young’ species has done to the planet!

The Cognitive Revolution

The Cognitive Revolution was probably the defining moment in humanity’s evolution thus far – the ability of our species to communicate, to gossip, to develop ever larger social structures, to organise ourselves, collaborate and plan and imagine outcomes. It was the beginning of creativity and storytelling.

No other creature on Earth has developed this mental capacity.

Creation of Man by Michelangelo

We lived for millennia in a similar fashion to our closest genetic cousins, chimpanzees; who survive still in small hierarchical communities lead by an alpha male, having to intervene in squabbles when necessary, and deal with challenges to his authority from younger males who would usurp him, along with his right to sire many of the infants in his group and continue his blood line.

The atmosphere can be aggressive at times, but it is permeated with playfulness, loving mothers, friendships and sub groups that garner support by giving and receiving favours such as picking out fleas and grooming.

You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours… It’s a well known fact in psychology that people respond in kind.

What is the American president but the alpha male of the United States, if not the world? Or for that matter, the Pope is the alpha male of the Catholic Church.

Current political favours and manoeuvrings aren’t so far removed from our ancestral chimp roots, just more sophisticated.

Image by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Brutality is cloaked by bullies in suits: corruption, corporate malfeasance and brainwashing in the media and all the machinations of imperfect democracies.

What is democracy but millions of people choosing to believe in certain imagined realities?

Feminism

Female chimpanzees are not able to look at and study the example of the more balanced and loved-up societies of Bonobos, which are run by their more emancipated female relatives, and translate that learning into more freedom and peace for themselves in their own environments.

But the rise of feminism in human society arose from women’s collective desire for a fairer, more meaningful and egalitarian life. It is, of course, an ongoing challenge in a patriarchal society.

Such dramatic changes in behaviour do not occur in the animal kingdom unless environmental pressures or mutations in DNA initiate them.

But since the Cognitive Revolution humans have been able to change their thoughts and pass on new ideas and behaviours to future generations without any need of genetic or environmental change.

This ability to transform our social structures, the nature of interpersonal relations and our economic activities is a beacon of hope that we can collectively adapt our social behaviours in relation to conservation, waste management, consumption, future innovation and living more cleanly in respect to climate change.

Environmental pressure is certainly driving our continued evolution!

Our species’ nascent curiosity all those thousands of years ago made us think and ask: what would it be like to sail to another land?

The diverse cultures that we are part of and can experience through travelling could not have grown without a curiosity about the world and our place in it.

The temples and pyramids we have built, the gods we have worshipped, the land we have tilled and shaped, the art and music we have expressed (even from the days of cave men) has all been possible because of the Cognitive Revolution.

The freedom to think and act gave us power, and we’re still learning how to wield it.

Sophisticated language and the ability to create ‘imagined realities’ meant that humans could go from living in small groups to creating cities and empires, religions and ideologies, law and order. We could co-operate on hitherto unknown scales.

Money was, and is, the most universally successful creation that mankind invented. Even two people who are born in different geographical locations, and diametrically opposed in their beliefs, their lifestyles and outlooks will both use money in their everyday lives. It is humanity’s common denominator – as is nature and our home planet, Earth.

How do you get millions of people to act in a certain way? It comes down to common goals and shared beliefs. We are individuals, but still able to work together for perceived mutual benefit.

We may be able to disagree on one or two issues, but have many other overriding positive connections that outweigh any disagreements. That is the beauty of freedom of speech and social interaction. The challenges occur when we can’t overcome our differences or agree on a particular imagined reality.

Brexit springs to mind!

Once Homo sapiens started telling stories we never stopped. We evolved our capacity to craft and learn from stories. Myths and stories are the glue of our social connections.

Our physical evolution may have continued at the normal glacial pace, but our imagination raced ahead, enabling us to build networks of mass co-operation.

Social media amplifies this ability to a truly staggering global level.

All the leaders in history have used stories to their advantage, and the best ones used them for the good of humanity. We still tell and read stories that were written years, decades and centuries ago, because we continue to find value and entertainment in them.

Now it is time to tell the most important story in modern history, the one that’s uncomfortable and sometimes frightening to hear, about how we are destroying our planet.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” ~ Albert Einstein

Dystopian climate disaster movies that have been portrayed on the silver screen are now becoming an all too frequent reality in different areas of the planet.

A few months ago the ex-governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, issued dire warnings about the consequences of climate change to business and continued investment in fossil fuels.

“Fully half of British emissions, it was recently calculated, come from inefficiencies in construction, discarded and unused food, electronics, and clothing; two-thirds of American energy is wasted; globally, according to one paper, we are subsidizing the fossil fuel business to the tune of $5 trillion each year. None of that has to continue.”
~ David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming

It’s one thing to hear that elephants, tigers, lions, bees, dolphins and whales are going extinct, and that the earth is becoming uninhabitable, and quite another to experience an unthinkable reality that moves us emotionally into action.

Big Think on global warming.

Whether driven by love or fear, we need lots of new stories about climate change, biodiversity, mass extinctions, pollution and human disease to be told in different ways to different audiences.

It’s our only chance of making such rapid changes to create a paradigm shift on how we have contributed to the problems facing humanity and how we can solve them. It no longer serves us to be insatiable consumers of natural resources, our fictional realities now need to focus on being the protectors, custodians and lovers of our dwindling abundance.

Conservation

International co-operation is key. Leaders of nations need to come together and set aside large areas of land and sea as protected from human activity, purely for conservation. Nature has shown she can recover if we give her a helping hand.

Sir David Attenborough used the example of a group of islands in south east Asia as an example. Massive over fishing depleted the waters and the coral reefs significantly declined.

The screen filled with eerie images of thousands of giant jellyfish undulating below the surface – the consequence of there being no fish. This is what awaits us beneath the ocean if we continue in that vein. However, this group of islands was declared a national marine park, and within a decade it had recovered most of its biodiversity.

Sir David stated that a third of coastal seas on our planet should be protected as marine parks in this way, so that they can recover from over fishing.

The wasteland of Chernobyl is another example of nature recovering free from human interference:

Sir David Attenborough with some solutions:

The giant Australian marsupial Diprotodon became extinct because it couldn’t adjust in time to develop a fear of humans, who duly massacred them all.

The irony is, nature is now forcing us to adapt to ourselves…

Spiritual evolution

There is no one single historical antecedent to the Anthropocene.

What we call ‘history’ is us recording and looking back at our fictions and imaginations and the outcomes our actions shaped.  This elusive, mysterious quality of mind was the driving force behind our evolution.

To me, the logical next step in our evolution is that of the spirit – the unseen.

Moving from being a person that purely experiences the world through just their five senses, to being multi-sensory beings; developing awareness of our inner motivations, emotions and behaviour, being comfortable with stillness, the oneness of all that is, developing empathy, gratitude, a loving nature and a love for nature, becoming highly intuitive and learning to transcend our evolutionary animal inheritance from our chimpanzee days – the ego.

I feel strongly that healing the planet will be achieved with more insight and awareness, and more rapidly, if we can first take responsibility for ourselves and care for each other.

World domination never succeeded (at least for very long), on an individual level, national or empirical level. Just look at Hitler, Stalin and countless other despots, egomaniacs and repressive regimes.

Collectively we influence each other and the planet, to the extent that the consequences of our actions are magnified and compounded in the Age of Humans.

If we all adopted the attitude of asking  what serves all of life, rather than what just serves humanity, or purely what serves me, where could we be?

In today’s world, amid efforts to combat a myriad of crises of climate, politics, medicine, and socioeconomics, we are in a constant state of emergency…

Which leads to forced adaptation rather than evolution.

But in order to evolve to our highest potential, individually and as a species, we must access and cultivate the innate and largely unexplored capabilities already within us.

~ Steve Farrell, Worldwide Executive Director – Humanity’s Team

We don’t have to become monks, saints, or even permanently altruistic beings, we can still follow our dreams and aspirations, enjoy our lives; but with an increased awareness of the impact of our actions.

We each have more power than we think.

A profound solution – Consciousness creates reality:

I heard a beautiful explanation of intuition by Gary Zukav, he said that it is the voice of the non-physical world. Cognition could be exponentially more powerful when we are aligned with a higher purpose and the non physical part of ourselves – the soul.

To give future souls a chance at evolving we must preserve the physical stage upon which they can do so – planet Earth.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
~ William Shakespeare (from All the World’s a Stage speech) As You Like It

Facing an Uncertain Future in the Age of Humans – Part 1

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” ~ Albert Einstein

What with all the global turbulence of late I got to thinking: What is our evolutionary destiny as a species?

It’s a difficult and provocative question to ask, let alone to answer!

But we must ask it, if we are to understand where we are now and where we are heading. If we don’t, how can we create a happier, more bountiful and sustainable existence not just for ourselves, but for all creation, than we have thus far?

In my small slithers of time I have been reading Yuval Noah Harari’s brilliant book, Sapiens. I’m only half way through, but am finding it compelling and sobering reading.

I’m expanding on my interest in Anthropology as part of my research for my next novel, (a corporate conspiracy thriller), but it’s also insightful for a blog post or two!

The challenges of the Anthropocene

Scientists have named the new epoch of our planet the Anthropocenethe age of humans.

Human activity has impacted the face of the planet and its animal inhabitants to such a degree that we now largely hold the fate of the entire planet’s biodiversity in our hands. A scary fact, considering our past record!

There is little that we have failed to plunder or indirectly affect and use for our advantage over aeons of our species’ existence. We should heed Einstein’s advice and ruminate extensively on the challenges and opportunities of this new human epoch.

According to Sir David Attenborough we are now experiencing the 6th wave of mass extinction on our planet, and (I’m sorry to go all ‘doomsday’), unless we radically alter our trajectory it could be the precursor to the extinction of Homo sapiens. We are the masters of our fate, one way or another.

We face untold misery unless we rapidly develop a global awareness of what’s happening and how we can adjust our behaviour to avoid cataclysm. Otherwise, as scientists continue to tell us, we will reap a bitter and devastating harvest…

This has been painfully demonstrated with the destruction of the Amazon and as this article in The Guardian points out, deforestation damage goes far beyond the Amazon.

The world has watched in horror at the devastating, unprecedented bushfires that are continuing to ravage Australia.

In addition to the devastating stories there have also been uplifting stories of heroism, altruism and love.

This article highlights visually the conditions that have exacerbated the fires in Australia.

It is thought close to a BILLION animals have perished in the bushfires: koalas, kangaroos, flying foxes and other precious wildlife. If like me, you feel devastated by this and wish to do something to help in addition to prayer, you can donate to Australia’s Wildlife Emergency fund on the WIRES website.

It has been heartbreaking to see the level of suffering. And yet, Australia’s impotent PM, Scott Morrison, is an outright climate change denier and has demonstrated a dire lack of leadership to his nation. More also needs to be done to heed the advice of the indigenous aboriginal population.

My grandfather grew up in a mining town just beyond the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. I have happy memories of the time I was there. I just want to sit and weep when I read of the impact of these fires.

Morrison is not the only leader to have failed miserably in his responsibility – Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro should be put on trial for his role in the Amazon’s destruction – and by default the global impact it is having.

“If you had to invent a threat grand enough, and global enough, to plausibly conjure into being a system of true international cooperation, climate change would be it—the threat everywhere, and overwhelming, and total. And yet now, just as the need for that kind of cooperation is paramount, indeed necessary for anything like the world we know to survive, we are only unbuilding those alliances—recoiling into nationalistic corners and retreating from collective responsibility and from each other. That collapse of trust is a cascade, too.”
~ David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming

To better understand the immense challenges and opportunities of the Anthropocene we should take a peek into the distant past – through millennia, into the history of Homo sapiens.

The red hand print in the cave at Chauvet-Pont d’Arc, imprinted c. 30,000 years ago.

The history of Homo sapiens

It’s an incredible history, peppered with highs and lows, successes and failures, but mainly it highlights the ingenuity, imagination and endless march of Homo sapiens to become the dominant species on planet Earth.

For better or worse, we have arrived at the Anthropocene – a precarious point in our evolution.

This timeline (plus a few of my own additions), is laid out in Sapiens.

Timeline in years before the present:

4.5 billion – Formation of planet Earth.

3.8 billion – Emergence of organisms, the beginning of biology.

66 million – Extinction of the dinosaurs.

6 million – The last common grandmother of humans and chimpanzees.

2.5 million – Evolution of the genus Homo in Africa. First stone tools.

2 million – Humans spread from Africa to Eurasia. Evolution of different human species.

500,000 – Neanderthals evolve in Europe and the Middle East.

300,000 – Daily use of fire by Homo erectus, Neandertals and the forefathers of Homo sapiens. Some scholars advocate the link between cooking food and the shortening of the human intestinal tract and the growth of the brain.

200,000 – Homo sapiens evolves in East Africa.

70,000 – The Cognitive Revolution. Emergence of fictive language and imagination. Sapiens spread out of Africa.

50,000 – Extinction of Homo sloensis and Homo erectus

45,000 – Sapiens settle Australia. Extinction of Australian mega-fauna. Extinction of Homo denisova. Up to 6% of the DNA of Melaniesians and Aboriginal Australians is Denisovan DNA.

30,000 – Extinction of Neandertals. In 2010 the Neandertal genome was mapped, and scientists discovered that 4% of the DNA of modern populations of Homo sapiens in the Middle East and Europe is Neandertal DNA.

16,000 – Sapiens settle America. Extinction of American mega-fauna.

13,000 – Extinction of Homo floresiensis.

12,000 – The Agricultural Revolution. Domestication of plants and animals. Permanent settlements. Sapiens now the only surviving human species in the genus Homo.

11,500 – Göbekli Tepe built by hunter-gatherer communities in Turkey.

5,000 – First kingdoms, script and money. Polytheistic religions.

4,500 – Stonehenge is built in southern England.

4,250 – First Empire – the Akkadian Empire of Sargon.

4,000 – The beginning of Hinduism in India.

2,500 – Invention of coinage – a universal money. The Persian Empire – a universal political order ‘for the benefit of all humans’. Buddhism in India – a universal truth ‘to liberate all beings from suffering’.

2,300 – The ancient library is built in Alexandria.

2,000 – Han Empire in China. Roman Empire in the Mediterranean. Christianity.

1,400 – Islam

500 – The Scientific Revolution. Humankind acknowledges its ignorance and begins to acquire unprecedented power. Europeans begin to conquer America and the oceans. The entire planet becomes a single historical arena. The rise of capitalism.

200 – The Industrial Revolution. Family and community are replaced by state and market. Massive extinction of plants and animals.

133 – The American legal system grants companies status as ‘legal entities’ or ‘corporate personhood’ as if they were flesh blood beings. Companies are the main players in the economic arena. Yet they only exist as ‘imagined realities’.

The Present – The Age of Humans (The Anthropocene). Humans transcend the boundaries of planet Earth. Nuclear weapons threaten the survival of humankind. Organisms are increasingly shaped by intelligent design rather than natural selection.

The future – Intelligent design becomes the basic principle of life? The development of Artificial Intelligence? Homo sapiens either extinct or replaced by superhumans?

The paradox of evolutionary success

Based on the latest scientific warnings and reports, it seems we are faced with a stark choice: adapt or die.

According to Charles Darwin the premise underlying all evolution is how a species adapts genetically and behaviourally to its environment over vast expanses of time to ensure its continued existence. Herbert Spencer summarised this theory as ‘survival of the fittest’.

But the situation humanity currently faces couldn’t be more critical. According to scientists we don’t have millennia, we have just decades to solve a crisis of our own making; arising it seems, from the activities of our evolutionary success…

Image by Rob Curran on Unsplash

Our current limited measure of evolutionary success is the number of DNA copies of a species. And being as humans (Homo sapiens) account for 96% of the mass of mammals living on the planet, I’d say, based solely on that criteria, we made it big.

We took our domesticated plants and animals with us too. Behind Homo sapiens, cattle, pigs and sheep are the second, third and fourth most widespread large mammals. 70% of the birds alive today are domesticated poultry.

It’s estimated there are some 25 billion chickens around the globe!

As far as plant life goes, wheat crops represent the largest landmass, covering over 220 million hectares.  Our dependence on wheat, a cereal food containing gluten and lectins, two substances that are natural destroyers of gut health, and by default overall health, has been compounding for 7,000 years, when humans began farming in the Levant (Middle East).

The Agricultural Revolution

Gradually our diets switched from diverse forager staples like nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables such as mushrooms and meats like rabbit, deer and mammoth (who disappeared around the same time as Neanderthals), to a reliance on a narrower range of less nutritious crops such as wheat, rice and potatoes.

Image by Evi Radauscher on Unsplash

As our progression from foragers to farmers occurred over several thousand years, so our populations expanded in line with an increased intake of calories. It wasn’t a utopia though; we had to maintain and protect crops through climate cycles and raids from other tribes. We became vulnerable. We had all our eggs in one basket.

By the time humans had achieved significant population growth through complex agricultural societies, it was too late to go back to our hunter-gatherer way of life – it simply could not sustain the new structure of radically bigger communities.

What started out as a way of filling our stomachs more efficiently thousands of years ago somehow morphed into a beast that now controls us.

Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.”
~ Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens)

Our species’ evolutionary success has come at a high price, with mass extinctions in marine, plant and animal life.

Homo sapiens have destroyed much of their natural capital: 50% of the world’s rainforest and coral reefs are gone, over fishing has depleted our oceans and hundreds of tons of plastic waste is killing marine life and polluting our oceans.

Polar bear and plastic cone – image by Andrea Bohl on Pixaby

Many fish are going into the human food chain full of harmful toxins such as PCBs, mercury and other heavy metals. Our water supplies are saturated with chlorine and fluoride and our air quality is full of persistent organic pollutants (POPs).

Also, the process of biomagnification has a serious impact on human health.

Some time ago I read a recent news story about a new world record for the time and depth of a submersible at the bottom of the Mariana Trench (the deepest place on Earth). Among some wonderful new discoveries of deep sea species there was a more depressing sighting of a plastic bag on the sea bed – seven miles down!

Given the mess we’re collectively in, is it not timely to measure and define evolutionary success outside of the narrow criteria of survival and reproduction?

We have not considered quality of life and diversity on our climb to world domination. Especially not for plant life, the animal kingdom or our domesticated livestock, and not in many cases, for large human populations around the world.

The profits and growth obtained from earth’s natural resources are finite. We cannot eat, drink or breathe money.

“Even though we now have a decent picture of the planet’s climatological past, never in the earth’s entire recorded history has there been warming at anything like this speed- by one estimate, around ten times faster than at any point in the last 66 million years. Every year, the average American emits enough carbon to melt 10,000 tons of ice in the Antarctic ice sheets- enough to add 10,000 cubic meters of water to the ocean. Every minute, each of us adds five gallons.”
~ David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming

In part two I’ll cover the Cognitive Revolution, biodiversity and some solutions. I’ll aim to be more upbeat, but the facts are the facts, no matter how much we might wish they were otherwise.

Book Review: Once Upon a River – by Diane Setterfield

It was the longest night of the year, when the strangest thing happened…

I hope you’ve had a wonderful Christmas and Happy New Year to you!

I tend to lose track of time between Christmas and New Year, and this year was no different. I found myself in a kind of soporific stupor; my limbs were leaden after weeks of shopping, lifting, housework, wrapping, preparing and cooking. My mind seemed suitably blank – it needed to empty its contents after the craziness of the preceding weeks, aided by a stomach laden with comfort food: sweet and juicy clementines, chocolates, soups, mince-pies, cheese and biscuits and cold turkey.

I can relate to Michael Macintyre on this!

I wandered aimlessly around the house in my PJs lamenting at the mess left behind from the festive celebrations of a large family. I decided to indulge in a novel I had purchased before Christmas alongside other gifts, just the excuse I needed to rest-up after a crazy few weeks and recharge my batteries.

Once Upon a River was the perfect antidote to my post-Christmas malaise. Setterfield’s amazing tale transported me to a different time and place – albeit only just up the Thames in the neighbouring county – but one I knew little of until now.

“As is well known, when the moon hours lengthen, human beings come adrift from the regularity of their mechanical clocks. They nod at noon, dream in waking hours, open their eyes wide to the pitch-black night. It is a time of magic. And as the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds. Dreams and stories merge with lived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, the past and the present touch and overlap. Unexpected things can happen.”
~ Diane Setterfield, Once Upon a River

I am new to the author – Once Upon a River is actually Setterfield’s third novel, and I can honestly say it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read! I can’t heap enough praise on it. Once Upon a River is more a work of art than a mere book. I shall definitely read her other two books: The Thirteenth Tale and Bellman and Black.

The writing itself is what impressed me most. It is a pleasure to read for the fine prose as much as for the story, which is beguiling, absorbing and dark. The characterisations are off the chart brilliant!

The people who populate Once Upon a River are totally vivid and life-like.

I felt like a surreptitious local drinking at The Swan at Radcot, among the gravel-diggers, bargemen, cressmen and farmers during the winter solstice, eavesdropping on their stories and watching the dramatic opening event unfold, open mouthed at the heroics of the inn keepers Margot, Joe, their many daughters (the little Margots), young Jonathon and the competent, no-nonsense nurse Rita Sunday.

I fell in love with these characters. I wept with them, understood their bafflement, felt their hardships and injustices, their grief and joy, their hopes and dreams – all these human emotions thrown into sharp relief through the lens of the often cruel and brutal Victorian era.

Their authentic dialogue made me feel like I was part of their conversations. They were completely real to me. They don’t just come to life on the page, they leap off it!

What literary sorcery could manifest them so magically in ink? I had no answer. I could only marvel at Setterfield’s supernatural skill. A modern day Dickens removed from London to rural Oxfordshire!

Picturesque Bampton Village – also a filming location in Downton Abbey

In addition to the Swan’s inhabitants the main characters are made up of two families: the Vaughans and the Armstrongs (farmer Robert Armstrong was my favourite), long suffering Lily White, the vile and beyond redemption Victor Nash, the patient and kind Parson and Henry Daunt (based on real-life Thames photographer, Henry Taunt).

Then there are the three wee lasses around which the mystery of Once Upon a River is expertly crafted: Amelia, Alice and Ann – all thought and hoped to be the enigmatic and fair haired four year old girl saved from drowning by a badly injured Henry Daunt. The story pivots around the rescued girl’s identity, as she is beloved by everyone who comes into contact with her.

But all is not as it seems.

The minor characters were no less colourful: Ben, (the butcher’s son at Bampton) was completely endearing, the knowing and helpful Mrs Constantine, poor naïve and maligned nursemaid, Ruby and the wicked Mrs Eavis.

The river Thames is another important element, as the lives of the characters revolve around its watery banks. In fact the landscape could be considered the main character. It lies at the heart of the story. Who knew there were so many wonderful ways to describe water?

The River Thames at Kelmscott

“For one thing, the river that flows ever onwards is also seeping sideways, irrigating the fields and land to one side and the other. It finds its way into wells and is drawn up to launder petticoats and be boiled for tea. It is sucked into root membranes, travels up cell by cell to the surface, is held in the leaves of watercress”
~ Diane Setterfield, Once Upon a River

After the initial flurry of the rescue of the dead girl and her miraculous return to life on the winter solstice, Setterfield slowly but surely weaves the tributaries of the river’s tale together.

And like a small, unanchored wooden vessel I was carried along the insistent current, twisting this way and that, caught in the ebb and flow of their lives, as powerless as if I was physically caught up in the relentless motion of the river Thames.

Radcot Bridge – the site of The Battle of Radcot Bridge on 19th December 1387

Once Upon a River is both poignant and riveting, heart breaking and heart-warming.

Human nature in all its eternal complexity is laid bare on every page, with the river Thames and Oxfordshire landscape burned indelibly on my mind.

I now also have a better understanding of pigs!

“Pigs were funny creatures. You could almost think they were human the way they looked at you sometimes. Or was the pig remembering something? Yes, she realized, that was it. The pig looked exactly as if she were recollecting some happiness now lost, so that joy remembered was overlaid with present sorrow.”
~ Diane Setterfield, Once Upon a River

The scenes where flooding is described echoed exactly what I had seen prior to Christmas, en-route to my mum’s place in Charlton-on-Otmoor. Whole fields lining the M40 motorway glinted like giant mirrors – miles and miles of serene, shallow lakes. In some places the water had crept up to the fringes of civilisation – villages were almost submerged.

The story is told in and around the the villages of Radcot, Kelmscott, Buscot and Bampton. I discovered that Ye Old Swan Inn at Radcot actually exists, as does Brandy Island.

Ye Old Swan Inn at Radcot

“Standing at the helm as Collodion powered along, Daunt had to acknowledge that the river was too vast a thing to be contained in any book. Majestic, powerful, unknowable, it lends itself tolerantly to the doings of men until it doesn’t, and then anything can happen.  One day the river helpfully turns a wheel to grind your barley, the next it drowns your crop. He watched the water slide tantalisingly past the boat, seeming in its flashes of reflected light to contain fragments of the past and of the future.”
~ Diane Setterfield (Once Upon a River)

When I finished Once Upon a River the hairs on my arms and legs stood spontaneously on end. It literally gave me the shivers!

This novel is masterful in every respect. Especially the rich and evocative characters and descriptions, the complex plot, zigzagging like the river it centres upon; you get to one bend and can only see so far along the bank until it turns from sight.  Her employment of foreshadowing was impeccable.

Once Upon a River surprised me – this rarely happens when I read fiction. I can usually see where things are headed. I could see to a certain extent with this book, but not entirely, I was both satisfied and curious, immersed and blissfully on the edge of my seat.

As book lovers will attest to, you get sucked into a reader’s ecosystem – a kind of fictive fug where bodily functions are temporarily suspended as eyes devour word after word, hungry for more, breathing-in the same air for hours on end…

I also gained an appreciation of the sense of community that existed in rural villages a century ago – and most likely still does today. It reminded me of what it means to be part of a close knit community – a rarity in modern urban towns and cities.

Aerial view of Kelmscott Manor

The other surprising and crucial element of this novel’s superlative recipe is how it is steeped in folklore and superstition, highlighting the role of stories in an age before mass entertainment. Stories sustained these communities, as moral guidance, news, time passing and as a creative outlet.

If you found yourself in the water, the Ferryman, Mr Quietly, was either to be welcomed or feared, depending on whether your time was up or not. It had shades of Greek mythology running through it – only the transport between the worlds of the living and the dead was not the Styx but the Thames.

Alongside the myth was the burgeoning presence of the Darwinian era of science and reason – the age of discovery, and Setterfield blends facts and folklore in delightful ways.

Buscot Park – which I think may have been the inspiration for Buscot Lodge, the home of Helena and Anthony Vaughan.

Once Upon a River will stay with me for a long time. It will be reread some-time in the future, out of sheer admiration, as well as for study and pleasure. It is a work of gravitas, beauty, tragedy and love. Its gothic charm, prose and story was reminiscent of The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, which I greatly enjoyed, but not as much as this.

While I’m at it, I should mention The Second Sleep by Robert Harris – another great read. It has a thought provoking premise and is a superbly written novel.

I finished reading Once Upon a River late on New Year’s eve – perhaps a timely metaphor for completing an eventful and amazing year with a nugget of closure, a happy ending.

I hope 2020 meets your heart’s desires and that the coming decade is full of joy, adventure, health and abundance. There are bound to be challenges and disappointments, every year has them, but they can be overcome with love and persistence.

My Latin motto for 2020 is “Aut viam inveniam aut faciam”, which translates to: “I shall either find a way or make one.”

#FindaWay will be at the forefront of my thoughts when I am vulnerable to accept excuses from myself in the coming months.

Thank you for reading whatever you have read on rhap.so.dy in words in 2019, I aim to bring you interesting, inspiring and fun content in 2020 and beyond!

“Well, then,” the cressman concluded sagely, “just ’cause a thing’s impossible don’t mean it can’t happen.”
~ Diane Setterfierld, Once Upon a River

Project ‘She Shed’ Comes to Fruition!

“We shape our buildings: Thereafter, they shape us.”
~ Winston Churchill

The rise of the She Shed…

The rise of the #SheShed is no surprise to me! Mothers who have typically sacrificed either their time, money, career, space, privacy, sanity – or even all of these, are now claiming back some much needed space for their own projects.

Like other women, I have reached a point in my life where I feel justified in being a little bit selfish. It’s hard to feel good about being selfish, because I’m used to putting my children’s needs first. I love them unconditionally, but selfishness is a necessity that enables me to continue giving most of my energy, (and pretty much everything I have) to my family.

In my case, selfishness comes in the form of a dedicated garden office to write, study and hold meetings in.

Except, oh, wait a minute – my son beat me to it!!!

My perfect offspring, who walks around with a bright halo gleaming above his head most of the time, suddenly threw me the biggest curve-ball of his life two weeks ago.

I had not long sorted out an ongoing situation and emergency for my eldest son in New Zealand, and then the builders had a quiet week, so our bathroom and water damaged ceiling were ripped out and our home resembled a building site.

Chaos reigned.

I had been busy organising new furniture and moving my files, books and stationary across to the garden, looking forward to the peace and tranquillity it would afford; when he chose his moment to strike.

It is just as well the cabin was built, or I would be even more stressed than I am right now. For reasons which I won’t go into, I will have to wait until the summer to move in full-time.

On the plus side it also means my daughter has her birthday/early Christmas present – a new piano to practice on when she comes home from school. She is preparing for her ABRSM Grade 1 exam.

#ProjectSheShed

Project She Shed began in the summer, with clearing the overgrown area at the bottom of our garden. I am grateful that we do have a relatively long, flat garden in the first place, otherwise a She Shed wouldn’t have been an option.

Once the land was cleared by my step father and step brother the builders created a base and built the structure (which was delivered mostly in planks of varying sizes and thicknesses, except for the windows and roof panels), like giant Ikea furniture.

I opted for extra insulation knowing that I’m prone to feeling the cold, and I’m glad I did now. My next novel definitely won’t get written with icicles hanging off my nose and my teeth chattering. My dad supplied two heaters which will keep out the chill this winter.

I spent many hours in the late summer and early autumn coating the cabin with protective undercoat and paint.

A local electrician updated the main electrics board of our 1930 built house and wired a Cat5 cable down the garden – then I had power and broadband. He even fixed motion sensor lights outside should inspiration strike in the middle of the night. But, I fully admit that’s unlikely to occur in the middle of winter!

The oak wood floor was laid and my anticipation grew…

I had visions of meditating, journaling, planning, reading, writing and placing mind-maps around the walls, spreading out scene cards and getting stuck into my next novel.

“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”
~ Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

Even the cats were keen to join me and test out my plush new seating arrangements with their muddy paws.

Sammy boldly ventures into the unpacking labyrinth…

Waiting to be admitted

Simba gives the sofa his seal of approval

However, in the tradition of being stoical, I have deferred to my family once again. I just hope there are no more curve-balls waiting to knock me sideways before Christmas.

The festive season gets pretty crazy chez Burges.

I don’t mean to come across as whingeing when there are so many people suffering in the world.  I am learning to embrace challenges and be thankful for my many blessings. My mother admonishes me whenever she senses a whiff of a moan, pointing out that there are plenty of people worse off.

And she is right.

A close relative is battling an extremely aggressive form of cancer and we thought we might lose her a few months ago.

Thanks to a stent she has been able to go home – hospital was not helping her – the machine she was hooked up to bleeped incessantly and so she rarely slept. To our horror she appeared to be wasting away over the weeks she was confined to a hospital bed.

But with the help of her iron will, nutritionally therapeutic supplements, a loving, supportive family and ongoing care, she is getting stronger and showing us all what grace under pressure looks like.

We are grateful and overjoyed to have her with us still, and hopefully for Christmas.

Despite life’s challenges, if we have our health, that, in my opinion, will always be the greatest wealth.

I love and appreciate my family for everything they have done to make this project happen. I feel what’s needed at this point is a hefty dose of patience rather than increased productivity.

I visited Dylan Thomas’s writing shed a couple of years ago whilst on  a trip to Laugharne with my family, and it has the most stunning view out over the estuary. I think I would just sit and stare out the window all day…

I am fortunate to have my new She Shed sanctuary, (the place where my creativity will be unleashed and future novels will be written) waiting for me, one day…

“Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.” ~ Franz Kafka

Remarkable Women: The Life and Times of Virginia Hall (Part 2)

“Those of us who had the chance of meeting her ‘in action’…  could never forget this very remarkable figure of the Resistance army.” ~ Count Arnaud de Vogue (Colonel Colomb)

When we take the time to reflect upon our lives a realisation emerges: it becomes apparent that the most pivotal, life-changing moments often arise from the most prosaic ones.

Whether we realise it at the time or not, momentous meetings, ideas or realisations can occur during mundane activities; leading us to explore our potential and  tread the path leading towards our destiny…

Certainly with Virginia this was the case. On a searing day in late August 1940, whilst travelling through Spain, (also a fascist state headed up by General Franco), but supposedly neutral, Virginia came into contact with George Bellows at Irun Station. She was arranging a rail ticket to Portugal from where she intended to sail to Britain. She did not know that he was an undercover British Agent, and after George approached her they struck up a guarded conversation.

Bellows learned of her daring ambulance driving, and the deteriorating conditions in the south, the so-called Unoccupied Zone under Pétain and his collaborating Vichy government.

Irun station early in the 20th century – an unlikely place for an important brief encounter.

Bellows did not give away his true identity, but was impressed by Virginia’s courage and powers of observation and was probably the first person to appreciate her potential. He passed her a card with a contact in London who he said might be able to help her with work.

The contact was none other than Nicolas Bodington, a senior officer in the newly created F Section of a controversial British secret service, SOE (Special Operations Executive).

Recruitment into SOE

The Special Operations Executive had been formed by Churchill on the same day that Hitler made a triumphant speech at the Reichstag in Berlin, tasking them with subvertion, sabotage and spying. He wanted SOE to fan the flames of resistance and pioneer a new type of revolutionary warfare that would enable the French to rise above their Nazi oppressors, ready for the day British and allied troops would once again land on French soil.

And so Virginia Hall’s date with destiny had arrived – she was in the right place at the right time – SOE were struggling to find and train recruits that were willing to be secretly infiltrated into France with no plan B if things went south.

On arrival in London Virginia had an uncharacteristic change of heart, not wanting to put her mother through any more worry and doubting she could be of any help to the British (which was hardly surprising given the amount of rejection she had already faced from the State Department).

She reported to the American Embassy seeking a temporary job whilst her repatriation was organised.

Virginia wrote them a detailed report of her recent experience, about the curfew and food shortages. She served as a secretary to the military attaché and, probably like most of the population, spent sleepless nights as London faced the blitz. She tried to get home for Christmas but was no longer eligible for an official ticket as it had been a year since she resigned from the State Department.

Now marooned in London, Virginia dug up the number George Bellows had handed to her in Irun. Nicolas Bodington invited her to dinner at his a house in Mayfair where he and his American wife put on a welcoming meal for her. She was unaware of his secret war-time role and his increasing frustration at SOE’s lack of success in infiltrating a single agent after six months of trying.

Virginia regaled him with her desire to return to France, now that her attempts to return home had been thwarted. She outlined how she planned to pressure her old contact in the State Department to arrange her visa, and how she would travel via Barcelona to reach the Riviera where she intended to help the Quaker refugee efforts and also report back to newspapers at home.

Her host was informed that as a neutral American she could travel quite freely around France…

The next morning Bodington hurried to the SOE office at 64 Baker Street and dictated the following memo to F Section: “It strikes me that this lady, a native of Baltimore might well be used for a mission and that we might facilitate her voyage there and back, and stand her expenses on her trip in exchange for what service she could render us.”

He became more convinced that her American nationality would prove beneficial and arranged her cover as a journalist with the help of the New York Post.

Virginia was duly recruited and trained, then travelled by boat across the channel at night back into France.  Nobody could have guessed just how effective she would be. Over several months she became their most valuable agent in the Free Zone. Her cover as journalist meant that she could encode intelligence in her published reports.

French Occupation Zones

During her first post in Vichy she won over Suzanne Bertillon, chief sensor of the foreign press in Vichy’s Ministry of Information.  The two became friends.

Not only did Suzanne not censor any of Virginia’s articles, she actively curated a network of 90 contacts (military, farming and industrial), enabling the collection of information on fuel depots, troop movements, and even knowledge of the construction of a secret Nazi submarine base at Marseille, which was subsequently destroyed by allied bombs before it could be completed.

After a month in Vichy Virginia decided her efforts would be better served by moving to Lyon, seventy miles to the south-east. Lyon’s geography and confusing layout was perfect for establishing an underground movement. Here she would be out from under the nose of the American Ambassador to Vichy, Admiral William Leahy, who had forbidden his staff to get involved in clandestine activities, preferring a strictly diplomatic route.

The traboules (a labyrinth like network of interconnecting passages through and between buildings), would become invaluable to the resistance.  Due to massive overcrowding when she arrived, Virginia was offered shelter by the nuns of the Sainte Elisabeth convent. It would be one of SOE’s best safe houses in the city.

A Traboule courtyard and staircase in Lyon.

Her first Post de Commande was the Grand Nouvel Hotel in the centre of town, where she registered under the false name of Brigitte Lecontre, using the false papers issued to her by SOE.

Virginia became used to changing her appearance, re-styling her hair, wearing glasses or a hat, and as the trousers that she loved to wear from her time in Paris were frowned upon by Pétainists, she dressed to avoid arousing suspicion.

The American Vice-consul in Lyon, George Whittinghill, shared her fervour for freedom and was recruited to her cause. With his help she was able to smuggle her intelligence reports to the American Embassy in Berne via the diplomatic pouch, where Colonel Barnwell Legge sent them back to SOE in London. He also forwarded on replies and money from London.

Reading Sonia Purnell’s A Woman of no Importance gave me a real sense of the daily danger and fear that she faced and the relentless loneliness agents experienced. The slam of a door or the sound of footsteps could indicate imminent betrayal or discovery. Informants were well paid. Dropping her guard for even a minute could prove fatal.

Virginia regularly took SOE supplied Benzedrine pills to keep awake and alert when operations required her to be up all night, or for days at a time. Under such physical and mental exhaustion the likelihood of mistakes was raised. It’s hard to comprehend how intense it must have been. Towards the end of the war Virginia found insomnia was one of the unwelcome side effects from years of regular Benzedrine consumption.

Another ‘supply’ was potassium cyanide pills, as Virginia had a licence to kill. They could be swallowed whole and pass through the body with no harm done, but if they were bitten into and the outer shell destroyed, death would follow within 45 seconds. They were a last resort for agents who, once captured, could not bear torture.

“There are endless nightmares of uncertainty. The tensions, the nerve strain and fatigue, the all-demanding alertness of living a lie, these are (the agent’s) to meet, accept and control. They are never, really, conquered.” ~ An SOE agent comment featured in A Woman of no Importance by Sonia Purnell.

Virginia suffered in the cold winters with little food under the noses of the Vichy regime, and risked running out of the special medical socks that kept her stump protected when she undertook lengthy train journeys.

Virginia went far beyond her initial brief of collecting information and intelligence by establishing a comprehensive network (hers was named Heckler), making Lyon the hub of underground resistance activity in the Free Zone.

According to SOE, Virginia had become the ‘universal aunt to all our people in trouble and anyone in difficulties immediately called upon her’.

One such SOE agent was Ben Cowburn (an engineer from Lancashire), who Virginia ably assisted whenever he was parachuted into the area on strategic sabotage operations. Hugo Bleicher of the Abwehr (furnished with information from the abbé Robert Alesch), began to close in on her network, and after a spate of arrests, Ben urged her to get out of France, horrified at the risks she continued to take. She had always put others first, even when her own life was in danger.

Having read of the torture methods Klaus Barbie employed on female prisoners makes her courage all the more astounding. She had told SOE that ‘it was her neck, and she was prepared to put a crook in it’.

Their respect and friendship was mutual, as both Virginia Hall and Ben Cowburn regarded each other as the greatest SOE agent in France.

The Resistance was still operating in small, separate pockets, with no clear overriding strategy, so were not effective at this stage of the war. Indeed, the assassination of a German colonel in Nantes had sparked brutal reprisals, including the execution of 48 innocent citizens.

Virginia was able to exploit the growing hatred of the population towards the Vichy regime and its German masters, giving rise to the possibility of establishing a national resistance movement that would be coordinated and strategic, working with the Allies rather than undertaking their own separate sabotage missions.

Mousetrap in Marseille

Despite her ‘diplomatic’ line of conversation with London, it proved necessary to have instant communication with SOE to arrange parachute drops of new agents and supplies.

At the time there were only two operational radio operators in France: Georges Bégué (working with another agent 200 miles away) and Gilbert Turck, who was captured by Vichy police after he was rendered unconscious from his parachute landing. He was given the code name Cristophe, but was later released on the orders of Vichy high command.

During September 1941 multiple agents and wireless operators were parachuted into France by SOE’s F Section; among them Jean-Philippe Le Harviel, who was to travel to Lyon to undertake the role of wireless operator for Virginia, and another agent, George Douboudin, Alain.

The SOE safe-house that all these new agents were directed to was the Villa des Bois, a gated residence in Marseille. Upon his release by the Vichy authorities, Cristophe had been holed up there. Unfortunately another agent who had landed four miles off course had also been picked up by Vichy police, who found a piece of paper in his pocket with a map showing the location of the Villa des Bois. From that moment on they were all unknowingly compromised.

Vichy’s Sûreté was more feared than the Gestapo for their ability and skill in laying traps and infiltrating the Resistance.

In the meantime, Georges Bégué (working for five fledgling circuits in the Free Zone) contacted the only other wireless operator, Cristophe, who proceeded to contravene security rules and invited all the known agents in Southern France to meet with him at the Villa des Bois.

Disaster awaited them. One by one, as they were lured to the Villa des Bois they were captured by the Sûreté, facing the prospect of imprisonment, torture and a firing squad.

Virginia, although feeling lonely in Lyon, had decided not to join her SOE colleagues at the Villa des Bois. Her independent streak urged her to decline, preferring to continue establishing her Heckler network in Lyon. And if her work wasn’t challenging enough, her new radio operator (Le Harviel), had been one of the men arrested at the Villa des Bois.

SOE’s radio operator’s (known as pianists), were particularly vulnerable to capture, either from the constant patrol of the Abwehr’s ominous black radio detection vans or through informants or betrayal, yet they were invaluable to Allied intelligence.

The ‘Mousetrap in Marseille’ that had captured two dozen newly trained and infiltrated agents had meant that SOE was left without a single radio operator at liberty in the whole of France.

Luckily for them Virginia Hall remained in the field, although she was not a wireless operator she was still recruiting helpers and resistance members and supplying vital intelligence back to Baker Street via Berne.

At that precarious time the success or failure of Allied intelligence rested on the shoulders of a disabled woman who had been overlooked and rejected for most of her adult life.

Masterminding and organising the Mauzac prison break

The twelve men (half British, half French) captured at the Villa des Bois, referred to as Clan Cameron by SOE, were imprisoned in ‘degrading and humiliating’ conditions at Perigueux Prison while awaiting trial.

Gaby Bloch, the wife of former French deputy Jean Pierre-Bloch, (who had been captured together) was subsequently released. She had spent much of January visiting her husband and struggling to win support for his cause. Jean knew of Virginia through the resistance grapevine and instructed Gaby to meet with her in Lyon.

Virginia must have recognised a kindred spirit in Gaby Bloch, and after hearing about the tough conditions her colleagues were subjected to she created a plan of action to get them out.

On a communication with SOE over the matter Virginia reported: “if they cannot come out officially, they will come out unofficially.”

Virginia then travelled to Vichy to meet with Admiral Leahy and used all her skills of persuasion to see if he could pull any strings. On the 14th March came the nugget of hope she had been waiting for – a telegram announcing that the Camerons were being moved from Perigueux to the Vichy run internment camp at Mauzac.

Her initial plan to free them during the transfer was aborted after she learned of their weakened state – there was no way they could run, plus they would be chained and their guards under orders to shoot any escapees.

Fortunately the conditions at Mauzac were much better. The Camerons, now growing stronger from an improved diet got to work on the inside, with Michael Trotobas giving them physical training drills every morning.

Also, their innocent games of boules allowed them to throw balls in certain directions and ascertain the time needed to cross between the barracks and the fencing, noting any blind spots from the watchtowers and which patches of land would best hide their tracks and getting to know the times of patrols.

Mauzac Prison during WWII

Virginia could not show her face near the camp so she drilled Gaby in how to recruit some of the guards as messengers and identify potential helpers. It was fraught with risk.

Supplied with funds from Virginia, Gaby travelled 35 miles three times a week to visit Jean and made herself known in the local hotel bar where many guards drank. She would drop hints about an Allied victory and the potential rewards for those that could help speed up the end of the war.

The first few guards who showed an interest did not work out, but the last guard she befriended, Jose Sevilla, proved true to his word. His only request was to be taken back to London to join de Gaulle’s followers.

One of Sevilla’s first contributions was to persuade the camp commandant that Watchtower 5 (closest to the Camerons) should not be manned at night, claiming it swayed in the wind making the ladder to the platform unsafe in the dark.

In order to smuggle vital messages in Virginia endowed Gaby with clean clothes, books and large amounts of food and black-market groceries for her visits, and her apparent largesse often meant she was searched. They did not find the tiny file concealed in one of the jars of jam, or a pair of wire cutters hidden in some fresh laundry, or the small screwdriver and hammer or tins of sardines for their quality reusable metal that were placed inside hollowed out books.

Virginia’s ingenuity teamed with Gaby’s extraordinary bravery meant that Georges  Bégué was able to collate all he needed to make a key for the door of the barracks, using bread from the prison canteen to take a mould of the lock.  Their choir group would sing heartily in the evening to drown out their filing and hammering.

Virginia drafted in a useful contact she had used many times on the escape line to find safe houses for the Camerons and to organise their eventual passage over the Pyrenees. She recruited a getaway driver,  arranged for twelve sets of false papers, ration cards and train tickets.

In a brilliant move they located a hideaway relatively close to the camp for those first few nail biting hours and days of freedom, when the danger of recapture was at its highest. Virginia’s field skills and organising abilities were being put to the test.

Virginia then had a bold and brilliant idea to help them finalise the plans and communicate with the prisoners – in the form of a jovial 70 year old French priest, a veteran of World War 1 who had lost his legs in action and was confined to a wheel chair.

His pastoral visits to the Camerons raised no questions, but on one such visit he asked to be lifted out of his wheelchair into their hut. Once inside with sentry’s posted at the windows and door he beckoned the men to peek under his cassock, only to reveal a transmitter.

Apparently Georges Bégué exclaimed, “Great Scott! It’s a Piano!” To which the priest responded, “Yes, I was given to understand that you can get plenty of music out of it. It has been nicely tuned… Hide it and, of course, forget how it got here.”

Bégué became adept at transmitting with London from inside Mauzac. Their escape had been planned to take place at new moon between 8th and 15th July. However, the newly made key did not turn the lock and they had to rapidly refashion the key.

Virginia and Gaby also smuggled messages to the Camerons within tubes of aspirin which were brought in by another ‘friendly’ guard. The men would communicate with them by throwing the tube back over the fence to a warder on their inside team, who would pass on the messages to a colleague he knew to be in contact with Gaby on her visits. He would slip the messages into the coat pocket of the friendly guard left hanging in the mess.

However, the message pertaining to the key problem he mistakenly placed into the mess sergeant’s jacket. On arrival Gaby was summoned to the mess sergeant’s office, where, in terror, she was confronted with their imminent escape plan.

However, to Gaby’s relief the mess sergeant changed tack and offered to help them in return for 50,000 francs. Virginia was able to avert this disaster by swiftly supplying the funds to him.

Meanwhile, the men had timed their movements to the second, as they would need to run to the fence in two stages and then work their way through several yards of barbed wire in the dark in under a minute.

Gaby visited Jean on Bastille Day with their children, highly anxious as she knew their escape would take place the following night. Shortly after 4 pm on 15th July Virginia signalled to the men that the escape was on.

Sevilla had arranged for the guard manning watchtower 7 to light a cigarette which would be the all-clear signal for the men to move. However, he did not appear, perhaps fearful of the consequences of assisting an escape; and the men waited anxiously.  At 3 am Sevilla, who had been monitoring the situation, managed to slip away from his inebriated chief and clamber up the tower himself, lighting a pipe.

This time the key turned in the lock and the men ran to fence, where they used string from behind the wire: one tug meant all-clear, and three short tugs signalled danger. Another friendly guard on patrol chided them to be quieter before turning a blind eye to the twelve men wriggling under the wire.

In a total of 12 minutes 12 men had escaped: Trotobas, Bégué, Langelaan, Jumeau, Pierre-Bloch, Garel, JB Hayes, Le Harviel, Liewer, Robert Lyon, Roche and Sevilla.

They were met outside by the mess sergeant and made their way in twos and threes cross country to a leafy hollow a couple of miles away, where their getaway driver, a Corsican named Albert Rigoulet, was waiting for them.  He whisked them off into the night unseen and unheard.

The guards only discovered their absence at daybreak, when a manhunt was launched.

It seems Virginia had thought of everything – she advised Gaby Bloch to create a cast-iron alibi for the day and night of the escape, and made sure she was in meetings in Vichy. She was arrested but then released as she was able to produce witnesses as to her whereabouts.

Virginia even got her local contacts to gossip about the escape, alluding to the fact that the escapees had been flown out by RAF bombers, thus spreading the idea that the men were no longer on French soil.

In fact the Camerons had hunkered down in a well stocked safe house arranged by Virginia, waiting for the fuss to die down. After a fortnight her informants passed on information that the police believed they were back in England and the search had been called-off.

They carefully made their way to Lyon by truck and train, where they were separated into different safe houses to avoid drawing attention to a group. Plans were then made for their international travel.

All 12 men eventually made it back to London, with some spending time in a Spanish prison.

Virginia and Gaby Bloch, along with other helpers, had pulled off a spectacular prison break that would become the stuff of legend in SOE. The official SOE historian, M.R.D. Foot described the Mauzac prison break as ‘one of the war’s most useful operations of the kind’.

In recognition of Gaby Bloch’s valour SOE arranged for her and her children to be transported to London to rejoin her husband. Both went on to serve the French security services in London and were recipients of the Legion d’honneur, with Gaby being recommended for the King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom.

Virginia continued her hard work in the wake of the Mauzac escape; that August she had worked with 25 SOE trained organisers and 6 pianists in the Free Zone, and 8 different circuits across the whole of France. She helped them with sabotage, parachute drops, intelligence-gathering and received two thousand pounds of supplies delivered by sea.

Escape over the Pyrenees

Virginia’s own escape from the Abwehr and Gestapo had been only slightly less dramatic. By October she suspected Robert Alesch of being a German agent, but by then the damage had already been done, and soon her network would unravel. Alesch swaggered around Paris, now a wealthy dandy from Abwehr cash payments, gifts of looted art and stolen SOE funds from captured agents.

Virginia realised that the recent liquidation of MI6’s WOL network and the impending arrival of German troops into the Free Zone meant it was time to get out of France. She did not want to leave her faithful informants but was unaware at that point of the extent of information the Abwher had on her and her network.

A captured agent of hers, Brian Stonehouse, (Celestin), who had been a fashion illustrator for Vogue in civilian life, refused to reveal Virginia’s name or whereabouts under the most horrific torture. His incredible bravery bought her a few more days.

That November, with the German military arrival in Lyon imminent, Virginia packed up some clothes and supplies and walked two miles to the station. She made the last train out of Lyon at eleven o’clock, by the skin of her teeth. She had told no one of her departure and the fact that she was travelling to Perpignan, 300 miles away.

The journey required a nerve wracking change of train in Marseille, under the watchful eyes of Gestapo officers. It is reasonable to assume that she knew the Gestapo were on to her and had assumed a disguise.

Once in Perpignan, close to the Pyrenees, she checked in to a hotel owned by SOE sympathisers and waited for her contact to arrive. She was known as Germaine to Gilbert, who arrange a guide (passeur) to escort her and two other agents (Leon Guttman and Jean Alibert) over a dangerous mountain pass eight thousand feet high. It was well known as a treacherous and difficult path even in summer, let alone in winter, and there were stories of passeurs shooting stragglers or leaving them to the wolves if they couldn’t keep up.

Virginia now had an unbearable trek ahead of her with her wooden leg, Cuthbert. Carrying her luggage, with a steep ravine on one side, they began their gruelling climb.

She must have combated the pain in her stump by sheer willpower, which was bleeding with the effort of keeping up with the men in heavy snow. Not even the hardships of war would come close to the agony she had to endure during her escape.

Cuthbert was not built for mountaineering and was beginning to crumble, the rivets slowing working loose under the strain of the climb.  Descending the other side proved even more tricky as she had to lean forward to combat the lack of flexibility in her false left ankle.

But she made it, and an official report at the end of the war described Virginia’s escape as ‘a record all by itself’.

As the three of them reached San Juan early in the morning, exhausted but hopeful, they were spotted by a Civil Guard patrol and questioned. Virginia used her Spanish to explain she was an American and that they had been enjoying the mountains. But, being close to collapse they must have looked terrible, and were arrested as ‘undocumented and destitute refugees’.

She had come within an hour of safety, but now found herself behind bars; weak, gaunt and suffering with a rash across her back. Virginia spent the long hours of incarceration trying to figure out how she could escape. She could barely walk now that Cuthbert was in tatters.

Virginia befriend a fellow prisoner, a prostitute from Barcelona, who was soon to be released. She smuggled out a coded letter from Virginia and passed it to the American consulate upon her release. American diplomats intervened, (likely with the aid of a financial incentive) for the Spanish authorities, and Virginia was released on parole a week later.

She gave herself two days to recover in the Barcelona consulate before cabling the New York Post for funds in order to help the people she had left behind in Lyon. She also pressured London to aid with the relsease of Guttman and Ailbert from the camp at Miranda de Edbro, as she wanted to work with them in the future.

In 2017 Craig R. Gralley retraced Virginia’s escape over the Pyrenees and recorded his journey in his document – Virginia Hall’s Steps.

Virginia had been SOE’s longest surviving agent in the field, where she had successfully cultivated vast networks, rescued various agents and laid the foundations of the resistance that would prove vital in the battles to come. She was already a legend within SOE.

Now that the wehrmacht had taken over the Free Zone a brutal and bloody crackdown had begun against the resistance. Prior to Virginia’s narrow escape, SOE agent Francis Cammaerts had warned London of the ‘reign of terror’ that would ensue, and indeed the central area of France was subjected to burning farms, shootings and hangings.

Back in the French field with the OSS

In the wake of the Gestapo discovering Virginia’s identity along with the scope of her Heckler network, the chief of SOE’s F Section, Maurice Buckmaster had ruled out her returning to France on a mission for them.

It was madness in his view, to subject her to such danger after she had been well and truly brûlée (burnt).

Virginia undertook an assignment in Madrid, assisting SOE in what she considered a boring clerical role, and on return to London convinced SOE to train her in wireless transmissions.

Still thwarted in her attempt to be sent back into occupied France, and wanting to help those in her network who had been left behind or captured, Virginia requested a transfer to the American equivalent of SOE, the newly formed American Office of Special Services, (OSS).

Both organisations had agreed to operate from the joint Special Forces Headquarters (SFHQ) in London, with the goal of forming groups of maquisards, who after training would be capable of supporting the Allied D-Day operation by performing strategic sabotage missions as well as hit and run attacks on German convoys.

Virginia now had a successful track record in the field, and was one of the few officers to cross over from SOE to OSS.

Sixteen months after she had escaped the clutches of Klaus Barbie, (who was now based at the Hôtel Terminus in Lyon), her pursuers were still as keen as ever to locate the limping lady.

Hôtel Terminus Lyon – now Mercure

Virginia had refused plastic surgery to alter her features, opting for a Hollywood make-up artist’s makeover into an old lady. Her hair was dyed grey and her face made to appear suitably haggard. She would wear long, full skirts and shuffle along to hide her limp. A brave move considering she was still a hunted woman.

Under her new OSS code name Diana, Virginia returned to France with another male agent (Aramis), disguised as a peasant woman named Marcelle Montagne. It soon became apparent to her that Aramis was unsuitable spy material and was more of a liability than a useful partner.

They had to casually pass Gestapo officers at Paris’s Gare Montparnasse, Virginia carrying her wireless transmitter in her suitcase, doing her best to resemble a harmless old woman.

After a brief stint with her contact in Paris, Madame Long, Virginia headed to La Creuse with the hapless Aramis in tow. Her local contacts put her in touch with a sympathetic farmer, Eugene Lopinat, who hid her in a one room ramshackle hut with no electricity or running water.

Her priority was to recruit, train and bring in much needed weapons by air from Britain to form an effective guerrilla unit. Time was running out, she knew that D-Day was not far off, and all agents needed to prepare the resistance for when it arrived.

Part of Virginia’s routine was delivering milk to the locals on her daily rounds, where she enlisted the help of the mayor’s secretary and the postman. Farmers and farm hands were particularly helpful.

Virginia at Box Horn Farm – her childhood experience with animals came in handy during her clandestine work.

“I cooked for the farmer, his old mother and the hired hand over an open fire as there was no stove in the house. I drove his cows to pasture, and in the process found several good fields for parachute drops.” ~ From a report by Virginia Hall to SFHQ in London.

In order to get a picture of German troop movements in the area she would amble along the roadside with cattle and sell cheeses to them. Nobody suspected the elderly Madame Marcelle, who in the course of her work listened in on their conversations, being fluent enough in German to understand and later radio the intelligence back to London.

A close call!

Having narrowly escaped the Gestapo with her epic journey across the Pyrenees, Virginia had another close call after re-entering France for the OSS. One day, shortly after she had completed a radio transmission to London at Eugene Lopinat’s farmhouse in Maidou-sur-Crozant, she heard an engine and hastily stored her radio case under some crates in the loft.

Still in her peasant woman disguise, Madame Marcelle answered the officer leading a group of German soldiers standing before her as to why she was in the farmhouse alone. With the most authentic raspy voice as she could manage, Virginia explained that she cooked and tended cows for the farmer.  The officer was not entirely convinced and ordered his men to search the premises.

At this point most people might actually lose it and give themselves away, but Virginia remained calm on the exterior, hoping she had hidden the radio well enough. Its discovery would have preceded capture, discovery of her true identity and certain death. A wanted poster from her time in Lyon had been distributed throughout the army who were still on the lookout for Artemis.

She could hear the place being ransacked and was ready to use her excuse that as an old woman she could not climb the ladder to the loft.

One of the soldiers presented an item to the officer and he approached her. Virginia’s heart must have been ready to explode as she prayed her fake wrinkles would fool him close up, and miraculously, he seemed to recognise her as the old cheese lady they had met out the road before. He held up a block of her cheese, proclaiming it to be good produce and helped himself to more, before scattering a few coins at her feet as they departed.

Shortly after, London agreed to a change of base. Two other agents she had been working with in the area brought her a smaller, lighter radio in a ‘biscuit box’. One of these agents was subsequently captured, and Virginia, now fully rattled, headed back to Paris to stay with a Madame Long to figure out her next move.

Battling machismo as well as Nazism in the Haute-Loire

Virginia’s final active posting of the war was in the Haute-Loire region, training a guerilla unit (known as the Diane Irregulars), that had been bolstered by two Allied agents that were parachuted in. One of them was Paul Golliot. They became lovers and were married after the war.

Painting by Jeff Bass of Virginia Hall transmitting from Lea Lebrat’s farm in the Haute-Loire in 1944, with Edmond Lebrat providing the power with an adapted bicycle. The original lives in the CIA Fine Arts Collection.

She was much loved as La Madone in this region, being able to supply sorely needed finances, weapons and supplies to the local groups that she was in charge of.  But she had to work hard to win the trust and respect of certain egotistical Frenchmen. A local Maquis commander, Pierre Fayol, who willingly accepted her cash and weapons proved less than amenable to taking orders from a woman.

He must have felt threatened by this charismatic and strong woman, and his enmity towards her made her job more difficult.  He cruelly referred to her as ‘the ginger witch’.

Despite Fayol’s hostile behaviour and attitude Virginia continued to work with him, as well as various other FFl leaders in the area. Their combined efforts severely hampered German reinforcements prior to and in the aftermath of D-Day, speeding up the end of the war.

In the wake of the Allied victory Pierre Fayol felt remorse and recognised the error of his ways, realising just how pivotal her role had been. He subsequently became one of Virginia’s most devoted admirers, fiercely championing her achievements for decades.

“Diane’s intervention made the proper arming  of our men possible, and consequently the rapid liberation of the department…well in advance of the Allied columns… All of us…esteemed the complete devotion to duty and the exceptional courage which Diane showed.” ~ Pierre Fayol

Honours

In the wake of Virginia’s success in Lyon and her leading role in organising and overseeing the Mauzac prison break, SOE put her forward for a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire), Britain’s highest civilian honour.

“She has devoted herself whole-heartedly to our work without regard to the dangerous position in which her activities would place her if they were realised by the Vichy authorities. She has been indefatigable in her constant support and assistance for our agents, combining a high degree of organising ability with a clear-sighted appreciation of our needs… Her services for us cannot be too highly praised.”
~ SOE Citation for Virginia Hall’s CBE

Unbelievably she was turned down. SOE’s citation did not do her justice and could not include operational details for security reasons, but an internal F Section memo dated 21st November 1944  recorded her true valour: …many of our men owe their liberty and even their lives’ to Virginia Hall.

She had not been granted a CBE, but the following year, (in July 1943) she was duly awarded an MBE (Order of the British Empire), but as she was still active in the field so there was no public announcement.

Virginia receiving her Distinguished Service Cross from General Donovan, Sep 1945

The British weren’t the only ones who recognised Virginia’s bravery and effectiveness in covert operations and espionage – she was also awarded the Croix de Guerre for her unwavering service to France, and was the only civilian woman to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism against the enemy by the OSS, which was presented to her in a low key ceremony on 27th September 1945 by ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan (head of the OSS) in Washington DC.

Virginia proved herself stoic in the face of unimaginable hardships, brave to the point of self-sacrifice and smarter than many men in the field who thought her less capable. She sought opportunities to serve, without the need to boast of her contribution to the course of the war.

“We know perfectly well just how much we owe her. Virginia’s spirit soared above the plateau, and for those who knew her from those days she was forever ‘La Madone’.”
~ Pierre Fayol (from his 1990 book Le Chambon-sur-Lignon sous l’Occupation)

Remarkable Women: The Life and Times of Virginia Hall (Part 1)

“Her amazing personality, integrity and enthusiasm was an example and inspiration for us all.” ~ Gerry Morel (Senior F Section Agent who Virginia helped escape occupied France)

My youngest daughter came home from school yesterday with a new reading book that she had chosen herself, duly presenting it to me with a flourish of anticipation. I could not believe my eyes when she pulled out a children’s book about World War 2 spy, Virginia Hall!

She did not know that I had been recently learning about Virginia’s life with a view to writing about her on my blog. I think she chose the book in part because we have the same christian name, but it was a wonderful, serendipitous moment! In fact Virginia was born only three days before me in the same month, (albeit sixty four years earlier),  and my maiden name of Haley means we also had the same initials.

I have been blown away by the sheer determination, will power, mind boggling courage and service to others that Virginia Hall embodied. Her example certainly puts everyday challenges into perspective, and I feel a desire and a duty to do her justice.

Virginia received such little recognition during her life; not that she desired it, her only aim was to restore freedom and justice, and in doing so she paved the way for not just women in the traditional male environment of espionage, but for anyone with a disability.

As Sonia Purnell so eloquently stated:

“The fact that a young woman who had lost her leg broke through the tightest of restrictions and overcame prejudice and even hostility to help the Allies win the Second World War is astonishing. The fact that a female guerrilla leader of her stature remains so little known is incredible.”

Virginia Hall went by various code names, sobriquets and noms de guerre given by both the Allies and the Nazis during her time in France. Her affectionate family nickname was ‘Dindy’, but her first code name for SOE was Marie Monin. She also went by Diana (the Roman goddess of the hunt) later in the war.

No matter the name, to me she is a total heroine…

The freedom fighters of the Resistance in the Haute-Loire affectionately called her the ‘Madonna of the Mountains’, (La Madone) suggesting she worked miracles, which she did!

The ‘Butcher of Lyon’, the brutal and much feared Klaus Barbie, was desperate to get his torturing hands on ‘the limping lady’, whom the Gestapo thought to be Canadian, and gave her the code name Artemis.

Through her time in hardship and silent competence in occupied France, the Gestapo regarded Virginia Hall as the most dangerous allied spy of World War 2.

Many of her methods of clandestine operation have been adopted as the foundation of modern espionage.

Virginia Hall’s remarkable life was lived out of the limelight, the antithesis of our celebrity obsessed culture, with her achievements little known about until now. Sonia Purnell’s thoroughly researched and brilliantly written book, A Woman of no Importance, casts a luminous glow of erudition and appreciation into the shadows of that ignorance.

Sonia refers to Virginia as an enigma – the very skills that made her so successful as a spy obscured the way to finding out about her wartime deeds and building up a picture of her character. Time and record keeping also added their inherent problems.

The author spent three years researching Virginia; investigations that took her in search of the scattered extant documents at the National Archives in London, the Resistance files in Lyon, the judicial dossiers of Paris, to the parachute drop zones in the Haute-Loire and even the marble corridors of the CIA in Langley.

As the first female member of the CIA Virginia had many obstacles placed in her path by prejudiced and inexperienced bureaucrats, but after her death her heroic efforts during the Second World War were finally recognised and celebrated.

In 2016 the CIA named a building used to train new recruits after her: The Virginia Hall Expeditionary Center.

The current (and first female) Director of the CIA, Gina Haspel, pays tribute to her female forebears, of which Virginia Hall is mentioned at 3.46 mins:

In order to complete Virginia’s biography Sonia passed through nine levels of security clearance, recovering lost files in the process.

Still some documents remain classified for another generation. The devastating fire at the French Archives in the 1970s meant more official files relating to Virginia Hall and her jaw-dropping exploits had gone up in flames.

But the account Sonia Purnell has written is not at all sketchy, it is both comprehensive and compelling – it reads like a thriller, making it even more jaw-dropping to know it actually happened!

A film of Virginia’s life is being made, based on Sonia’s book. I believe Daisy Ridley is set to portray Virginia.

Childhood and education

Virginia Hall was born on 6th April 1906 to a wealthy Baltimore family – and was especially close to her father, Edwin Lee Hall (aka Ned). Growing up she was athletic, independent, free spirited and took pleasure in flouting convention. What we might now call a tomboy. Virginia spent many idyllic childhood summers with her older brother on Box Horn Farm in Maryland.

She loved animals and outdoor pursuits, and was not interested in settling down as a dutiful wife, much to her mother’s chagrin. Barbara had high hopes of a society marriage for her only daughter.

In 1920 women were given the vote in America, and Virginia’s generation took a more active role in politics and enjoyed dancing and socialising, bridling against the restrictions placed on them by marriage.

She had a close call with an engagement to a local wealthy man, but he turned out to be a serial cheater and she broke off with him.

Virginia set the tone of her life to come when she wrote in her school leaver’s book in 1924: “I must have liberty, with as large a charter as I please.”

Her father allowed her to study for the next seven years at five prestigious universities.

In 1926 she travelled to Paris, which drew many fashionable, cultured, well-heeled and freedom loving young ladies from across the Atlantic. Virginia enrolled at the École Libre des Sciences Politiques on the Rive Gauche.

Here she found liberation in the bohemian atmosphere of art, music, literature and liberty that pervaded Paris, a far cry from Prohibition, rigid constraints on women and the racial segregation that was rife in her home country. Virginia was able to let her hair down in the cafes of Saint-Germain and the jazz clubs of Montmarte; mingling and meeting with actresses, singers, racing drivers, intellectuals and ambitious politicians.

This was the scene that had drawn writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and the legendary dancer Josephine Baker, who wowed audiences at the Folies Bergère with her Charleston performances and who later became involved with the Resistance.

Her time in Paris had instilled a deep love for France and the freedoms its society had offered her, and became what Virginia called her ‘second country’. In Paris she was able to be herself, revelling in the atmosphere of liberté, égalité and fraternité.

This vintage film gives a rare glimpse into what Paris was like at the time Virginia first lived there:

Virginia continued her ‘European’ lifestyle in Austria, when she moved to Vienna in the autumn of 1927 to attend the Konsular Akademie University, where she studied languages, economics and the press.

Being tall, slender, striking and sophisticated, she caught the attention of a young Polish officer called Emil, who took her for romantic walks along the Danube.

Ned must have been fearful for his Dindy and forbid her to marry Emil, and despite her fervent belief in women’s emancipation, Virginia obeyed her father’s wishes and ended the relationship. (It is thought that Emil was executed in cold blood by the Russian Secret Police in the spring of 1940).

By now Virginia had a working knowledge of French, Spanish, German, Italian and Russian, and a grasp of European culture, geography and politics.

During her time in Vienna Virginia sometimes encountered  fascist groups on the rampage, and on trips across the border she even saw Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist party rise in popularity on the heels of his pledge to ‘put Germany first’ and his rallies in Nuremberg displaying Nazi political power. In Italy democracy was all but demolished; Mussolini had already built up a police state.

Virginia had witnessed first-hand the gathering dark clouds of Nationalism that would tear Europe apart just over a decade later.

Early career

Virginia arrived back home at Box Horn Farm in July 1929, not long before her family’s fortune was wiped out in the Wall Street Crash and the Depression that followed.

Virginia wanted more than anything else at that time to apply to the State Department to pursue a post as a professional diplomat, a career that was not normally open to a young American woman of that era. Only six out of fifteen hundred Foreign Service officers were women, and despite her extensive education and ambition she was summarily rejected.

This was undoubtedly a tough time for Virginia, as shortly afterwards her father Ned died at the tender age of fifty-nine from a massive heart attack in January 1931.

After some months at home Virginia left for Warsaw, where she had a job as a clerk in the American Embassy where she would earn two thousand dollars a year. Poland was precariously sandwiched between the military powers of Germany and Russia, and Virginia had great sympathy for the Poles, remembering her love affair with Emil. It was here that she received her first training in coding and a glimpse into the shadowy world of Intelligence.

However, Virginia felt that her extensive studies were being wasted in administrative work. She obtained permission from her vice-consul, Elbridge Durbrow to re-take the diplomatic corps entrance exam. Sadly she was thwarted again by the higher echelons of male colleagues, and mysteriously her oral papers never turned up (she had scored 100% the first time around) and so she missed the deadline for the application.

Frustrated but still determined, Virginia applied for a post in Smyrna (now Izmir) in Turkey, where she began work in April 1933.

Tragedy strikes

It was while she was stationed in Turkey that a terrible accident in the marshes, (where the Gediz River flows into the Aegean Sea), would change her life forever. Virginia had always been keen on hunting from her youth, and was using the 12-bore shotgun gifted by her late father, as her group set off to shoot Snipe.

Gediz River

Sonia Purnell speculates that maybe Virginia’s competitive nature and keenness to bag one of the ‘famously well-camouflaged’ birds may have distracted her and so she forgot to apply the safety catch that fateful day…

As Virginia traversed the reeds of the wetlands she clambered over a wire fence and tripped. Her gun slipped off her shoulder and got caught in her long coat. In trying to reach it she fumbled and accidentally fired the shotgun at point blank range into her left foot.

Her friends quickly tied a tourniquet, as a full load of spherical lead pellets had been blasted into her flesh and blood was oozing into the muddy, soggy delta around them. They rushed her to hospital, where doctors in Smyrna did their best. Virginia seemed to recover over the next three weeks, but a virulent infection had taken hold in her wound and her foot soon swelled up and turned black.

The head doctor from the American Hospital in Istanbul travelled to Smyrna to diagnose the worst possible outcome: gangrene.

Antibiotics were not yet available, leaving only one course of action to save her life. On Christmas Day in 1933, the doctors removed her left leg just below the knee. Virginia was twenty seven years old, and the amputation that saved her life was also the cause of her ensuing despair.

One can only imagine her misery at being in such physical and mental pain at that age, confined to a bed for weeks, recriminating and tormenting herself over her carelessness.

Naturally her mother was devastated upon receiving the news. Just when it was thought Virginia was out of danger and recovering from the amputation a new danger in the form of sepsis emerged.

The doctors worked heroically, changing poison soaked bandages and injecting her knee with special serums, a necessary agony for the patient who was often delirious with fever and pain.

The chances of surviving such a set-back today are not much better than they were back then. On one such night Virginia described having a vision of her late father at her bedside, instructing her not to give up. Ned told her that ‘it was her duty to survive’, but if she could genuinely not bear her suffering he would ‘come back for her’.

Even though Virginia was not religious it was a powerful vision which affected her actions throughout her life: the belief that she had been saved for a purpose greater than she could have known at the time.

She battled alone to survive, save for her father’s ghost and pulled through, now with a sense of resilience that she could handle whatever life threw at her. Her early convalescence progressed in Istanbul, but soon she was shipped back to the states where she underwent a series of repair operations and was fitted with a new prosthesis.

Modern for the 1930s, it was attached by leather straps that went round her waist, which chafed her skin in the hot weather. The pain must have been immense when her stump blistered and bled.

She undertook months of rehabilitation on the farm, learning to walk again whilst fighting off infections under the ever present dark cloud of depression. With true grit Virginia was working again by November 1934, posted this time in Venice, a walking city of 400 hump-backed bridges! It could not have been more challenging to her situation.

Aerial shot of Venice by @canmandawe on Unsplash

Her creative input on the dilemma soon devised a solution in the form of her own gondola. She won over a local man named Angelo, who would help her row and steady her when the sea was rough. Her natural charm was already working its magic as others seemed happy to go out of their way for her.

From her balcony she had a sweeping view of the Grand Canal, and settled into work at the American Consulate. Virginia impressed her bosses and undertook tasks normally reserved for diplomats rather than clerks. She rarely took a day off and never allowed her disability to interfere with her work.

She felt the need to prove herself even more so now she had a wooden leg – who she affectionately named Cuthbert.

Virginia was surrounded by a tide of fascism; Hitler was now Chancellor of Germany, she was working in a one party fascist state, and in Russia, Stalin ruled with a ruthless iron grip. Extremism on the left and the right had taken over through propaganda, sloganeering and unprincipled media manipulation.

As democracy was dying in Europe, she found herself a natural supporter of Franklin D Roosevelt, having been taught at Barnard by one of his chief advisers, Professor Raymond Moley. To her frustration America was still wary of getting involved in Europe’s troubles.

Virginia sailed home in January 1937 with the blessing of her boss in Venice so she could apply for a third time to be a diplomat. Her application was brutally rejected on the basis of an obscure rule that barred amputees from diplomacy.

Virginia returned to Venice dejected but determined to fight the decision. With the help of a powerful family friend who lobbied President Roosevelt on her behalf, he summoned the Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, who, most likely offended at having been side lined, insisted that Virginia was only capable of a clerical position.

FDR had overcome semi-paralysis from polio himself, to reach the highest office in the land, so it was ironic that he did not ultimately override the decision. It must have been painful for her at the time, but had he done so she surely would not have played such a pivotal role in the development of the French Resistance and the outcome of the war.

Soon after, in a humiliating demotion, Virginia was sent to Tallinn in the Baltic state of Estonia. En-route Virginia decided to stop over in Paris and spend some time with her old friends and have repairs on Cuthbert. No-one there knew that she was wearing special hosiery to disguise her wooden leg and cushion the stump.

The outbreak of war

When she finally arrived in Tallinn her salary was the same as it had been throughout her seven years of service. She noticed that Estonia had been overtaken by nationalist fever also, and the press was heavily censored.

Bored by her menial work, stereotyped as a disabled woman with all hopes of promotion dashed, and fearful of the future of Europe, Virginia resigned from the State Department in March 1939.

She was still living in Tallinn when Hitler invaded Poland on 1st September 1939 and so she caught a last minute ship to London, where she volunteered form the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the British Army. Again she was rejected, this time on the grounds that she was foreign.

Not one to be deterred Virginia went back to Paris where she signed up in February 1940 to drive ambulances for the Service de Santé des Armées. She held a driving licence and was given a course in first aid. By May she was on duty near Metz when  Nazi forces broke through the undefended Belgian woodlands of the Ardennes.

When the Germans stormed unchallenged into Paris on 14th June Virginia was on her way to the Loire Valley to assist a retired French Colonel who was collecting the wounded and driving them 200 hundred miles for treatment in the capital.

The searing, stifling French heatwave of May 1940 was the backdrop to the largest refugee exodus of all time.

French refugees massacred by German troops in May 1940 – the sort of gruesome scene Virginia would have witnessed during her ambulance driving.

Private Virginia Hall had driven through carnage on the roads; past burned out cars, on miles of cratered tarmac strewn with dead bodies, animals and families seeking cover in ditches being attacked from above. She had endured enemy fire in the course of her duty, and looked on with scorn at French army deserters. For her, it was all-out war against the Third Reich.

By then the new far-right leader, Marshal Philippe Pétain had seized control and signed an armistice with Hitler on 22nd June in Compiègne – an action that signalled complete capitulation to the Nazis.

Virginia wanted more than anything to see France and her people regain their freedom and set off for London, where she was to find her true role in the battle for truth over tyranny.

Part 2 will focus on Virginia’s wartime activities!

“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped.  Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centersof energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls…”
~ Robert F. Kennedy (from his speech at the University of Cape Town, 6th June 1966).