The Most Valuable Life Lessons I Gained From Star Wars

“In my experience there is no such thing as luck.” ~ Obi-Wan Kenobi

Happy Star Wars Day! You know what’s coming… #MayThe4thBeWithYou!

There I said it. But the force is strong with all of us. That’s why Star Wars has become the biggest, most iconic modern story on the planet, indeed in galaxies far, far away…

Star Wars fans and geeks are celebrating all over the world, and gaming companies and the likes of Lego are putting out special offers to mark the occasion.

Star Wars isn’t merely a futuristic science fiction fantasy story franchise, it has somehow created its own religion. I think the fact that it seems to have taken on its own mythical status is because it speaks primarily to our human struggles.

It has caught our collective imaginations in a way that no other modern film story has, possibly with the exception of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones.

We had the sad news of the passing of Peter Mayhew, who played Chewbacca a few days ago, may he rest in peace.

We also lost Carrie Fisher in 2016, who played the beautiful, beloved and sometimes prickly, Princess Leia.

I grew up with Star Wars. Episodes IV (A New Hope), V (The Empire Strikes Back) and VI (The Return of the Jedi) and they became ingrained in my psyche, having been watched and devoured multiple times in my childhood. They have a special place in my memories. Usually of family Christmases spent with a tummy full of roast dinner sat around the TV with us children practicing our Jedi moves and chasing each other with wild abandon around the house as storm troopers and fighters for the rebellion.

I’m sure many of my generation have similar experiences. Those films still take me back to my childhood, and my sons also love the Star Wars franchise.

Aside from the stunning visual effects, (the later prequel films seemed to focus more on this element than the story to their detriment), battles of cosmic proportions and the many strange creatures they encountered on different planets, (Ewoks were my favourite), they portrayed the eternal battle between light and dark forces, and the human decision about which side we gravitate to, of course complicated by choices clouded with massive grey areas!

The story arc of Anakin Skywalker; his rise from obscurity to his destiny as a Jedi Knight and his subsequent turn to the ‘dark side’ and becoming Darth Vader, the principle villain, as a result of manipulation of his anger and hate by the Emperor reads like reality. The negative situations in this world are driven and fuelled by anger, fear and hate. We all have a choice at any given moment.

The main actors almost became synonymous with their roles. But these stories that are loved and that continue to inspire millions of people across generations may never have taken off and conquered the universe had it not been for some skillful editing.

The first film cut of A New Hope by George Lucas was rough around the edges and needed quite a bit of work. Which means there’s hope for the rest of us!

This fascinating short film charts the journey from the early scenes to the final film that we saw on our cinema screens:

There are more than five lessons to take away from Star Wars for sure, but as time is short and the house won’t clean itself (I’m still waiting for that technological invention), here are the ones that have helped me.

My top five Star Wars life lessons:

  1. It doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect to begin with

Life is a work in progress. This knowledge takes the pressure off, especially in creative pursuits – the first draft can be pants, as long as you get all your ideas down. It can then evolve into something more polished, as the video above demonstrates.

Imagine if Lucas and his team had not continued to work on the story and improve the audience experience?

Human history has shown us how the first rendering of anything was pretty rubbish compared with subsequent versions or inventions. But that didn’t matter, because it led onto mostly better things. That’s the nature of evolution, the ability of a species to adapt to its environment and improve its existence.

Now, in addition to the Millenium Falcon  we have aeroplanes that can fly at high speed around the world in a matter of hours, phones that enable instant communication across the globe at the touch of a button, plus all of our modern conveniences.

The Renaissance, arguably the greatest period of mankind’s creative flourishing and artistic achievements could not have come without the cultural efforts of the previous eras. You get my drift. We are always editing our lives through feedback, but we have to start somewhere. All that matters is that we start, and keep going.

  1. There is no try, there is only do

Or, to use Yoda’s exact immortal words: “Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.” I love this scene from The Empire Strikes Back where Luke Skywalker’s x-wing has sunk into the swamp on Dagobah, and he feels hopeless, thinking that he’ll never get it out. Master Yoda’s lesson on using the force doesn’t just apply to the film, it applies to us, to everyday life.

How many times have we found ourselves in a position where we felt powerless?

Maybe we find ourselves questioning our purpose in life at certain times. There have been many instances where I dipped my toe into the water rather than plunging in.

I didn’t understand the significance of this scene when I was a girl, but now, whenever I catch myself speaking or using the word ‘try’ in a sentence in relation to my life, I think of this scene, and I correct myself, telling myself: I do, or I do not do. I have to own my power.

That little teeny tiny three letter word TRY almost certainly condemns us to failure.

  1. Family can be perplexing, but we should love them anyway

With modern ‘blended’ families and family dramas unfolding in the news, it’s no surprise that sometimes those who are closest to us tend to cause the greatest challenges in our lives! It can be almost impossible not to be dragged into or embroiled in family drama.

I see the constant media frenzy surrounding Meghan, Duchess of Sussex and her estranged father and my heart goes out to her. Not only are they dealing with their own relationship issues, but are having to do so under intense public scrutiny. Gossip mongers and trolls circle like sharks, waiting for either to stumble. It seems plenty of people are willing to share their opinion and judgement despite only having third hand information and no personal involvement.

Maybe for some it’s easier to distract themselves from their own troubles by focusing on other people’s problems.

In the original Star Wars trilogy Luke Skywalker discovers Princess Leia is his twin sister, and that they were separated at birth, and Leia and Han Solo fall in love while saving the universe.

The characters of the droids R2D2 and C3PO are just as lovable.

The heart breaking moment Luke discovers the identity of his father in The Empire Strikes Back:

Imagine how gutting it would be to discover that your daddy is Darth Vader?! He may want his father’s approval but he has to follow his own path and destroy him in order not to become like him and have history repeat itself:

Have you ever had a family issue? I might as well ask, is the Pope Catholic?

The parallels with our larger family, humanity are also startling. We all need to channel the wisdom of our ‘inner Jedi’ more than ever.

  1. Imagination really is more important than intelligence

This one is partly inspired by Einstein, but the imagination George Lucas expressed through the creation of these characters that we can all relate to in some degree and their adventures across the galaxy continues to inspire creativity and storytelling.

Nothing exists in reality until it first exists in the mind. Ideas and thoughts are the precursor to matter.

  1. Believe in yourself.

This was the core message that the Jedi’s had to embody. The connection between all living beings and ‘the force’, the universal energy that surrounds and fills all living things, (essentially our divine spark), which is the source of their power.

Self mastery was their ultimate goal. They could not control the actions of others, (except with the occasional Jedi mind trick on weak villains), but they could control their own attitude and actions.

Whenever I feel myself living in my head, not being grounded, I know its time to spend more time in nature and allow myself to feel what I feel in the present moment. Being in the ‘flow’ state.

How many times have we talked ourselves out of our greatness? Or not taken a course of action because we doubted ourselves?

This has been the hardest lesson for me to learn so far, and it’s still a work in progress! It takes daily courage and faith to be the Jedi of your own life.

Even though I know what happens in the films and no matter how many times I watch them I never get bored of them, just like listening to my favourite pieces of music. Also, having a great soundtrack can define a movie, and John Williams nailed it with his soundtrack to the original Star Wars trilogy:

A powerful story is timeless, and the vicarious life lessons therein worth seeing again and again. I think I can feel a Star Wars binge session coming on…

The Most Exhilarating Music Concert I’ve Ever Seen

“Music has the power to unite us. It proves that by working together, we can create something truly beautiful.” ~ Pinchas Zuckerman

This time last week I felt a conflagration spreading through my veins. It wasn’t just me that was on fire, it emanated from the orchestra (the Royal Philharmonic) and their illustrious Principal Guest Conductor and virtuoso violinist, Pinchas Zuckerman. I’m sure most of the audience felt it too.

Whatever the range of opinions this large gathering of people may have held politically, it certainly felt like we were brought together by our love of music.  Even though the seemingly endless turbulence, turmoil and uncertainty caused by Brexit continues to ricochet around our island, infecting and inflaming every corner, I was able to banish my anguish and be present with the creative genius of the composers, thanks to a group of amazing musicians.

The music they made floated, soared, and at times, boomed into the cavernous auditorium of the Royal Festival Hall, setting alight the air and delighting all who heard it. I could only make out the odd spare seat – the concert hall was pretty much packed to the rafters.

It was one of the best concerts I have ever been to; a combination of great seats, a buzzing atmosphere and fabulous music with a programme theme of Symphonic Masters.

When musicians come together with a love for music, combined with confidence, experience and solid techniques it creates a magic between them that you cannot replicate in a recording. Live music has that ‘ je ne sais quoi’, an evanescent blessing of unique energy and vibration that moves us.

Ralph Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis

The first piece in the evening’s repertoire was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. I absolutely love the dreamy, folk song nature of this composition, and this was the first time I had heard it performed live.

In fact, seeing the performance at the same time as hearing it added another dimension to my experience, elevating my understanding and appreciation of it. The layers of sound the violins, cellos, violas and double basses produced was quite exquisite.

Keeping true to the composer’s directions, they placed nine of the orchestra’s musicians (four violinists, two cellos, two violas and a double bass) up on the choir bench, behind the main string orchestra.  This physical separation meant their parts added a wonderful texture to the piece. They played in a conversation with the main orchestra, as well as the tutti sections where all the musicians performed together.

The sound seemed to linger in the firmament, it really enhanced the music and created a ravishing effect.

I captured a few photos, but out of respect for the musicians I didn’t take them during the performances.

RPO – applause after Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams

They gave us a wonderful, warm opening, and built up to the crescendos in a subtle and nuanced performance, it was just heavenly. I thought the leader of the orchestra, Duncan Riddell, was superb; his solo sections were sweet and melodic with a pure tone. He demonstrated skillful leadership of the orchestra with considerable panache.

Those blissful fifteen minutes of music filled me with a sense of sangfroid, surrounding us all in a kind of mellifluous and ephemeral protective sound barrier, forcing out the stresses of life.

From the programme:

Vaughan Williams was fascinated by the music of the Tudor period, and particularly liked Tallis’ Third Mode Melody, which he included as Hymn No. 92 in his edition of the English Hymnal and which formed the basis for his string Fantasia . The theme appears almost at once played pizzicato by the double basses, and is then heard in all the lush resonance of the full string orchestra. By way of contrast, the composer makes use of a smaller orchestra (nine players) within the piece, suggesting that this ensemble be placed somewhere somewhere at a distance from the main orchestra. In addition, there are passages for a string quartet, and at times the orchestration is pared down to a solo viola.

Just so you have an idea of the kind of pleasure that was infiltrating my cells, here is a recording of a live performance (sadly with a coughing accompaniment), that vaguely comes close:

Mozart – Violin Concerto No. 5 

The orchestra expanded slightly for the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219, nicknamed The Turkish, adding two oboes and two French horns, and the small group that had been placed in the choir section returned to their normal positions.

It’s thought that Mozart’s first violin concerto was written in 1773 when Wolfgang was just 17 years old, and there is generally consensus among musicologists that concertos 2, 3, 4 and 5 were all completed in 1775 – when he was still only age 19! The speed at which they were written does not in any way detract from their brilliance. A phenomenal achievement among many from the Austrian wunderkind.

The charm, joy and profundity in these last three concertos transcends age. Mozart’s legacy of music proves that divine inspiration flowed in abundance throughout his short but incredible life.

Pinchas Zuckerman with his violin ready to play Mozart.

I relaxed into the elegant opening movement; the uplifting and lilting melody was expressed perfectly by maestro Zuckerman’s light and playful touch, infused with spectacular virtuosity.

His flourishes and stunning cadenza appeared effortless. But as an amateur violinist I know they weren’t half as easy as he made it look! I was astounded by his bow control. His technique, intonation and artistry were jaw dropping, but what impressed me the most was the heart and soul Zuckerman demonstrated throughout his performance; a deep understanding, respect and love for the music that was communicated into our hearts.

I could imagine the teenage Mozart engrossed in the autograph score, feverishly scribbling the black inky notes with his quill, humming the tune maybe, as the candle light flickered on his immortal creation. I feel blessed to have heard such a master play this beautiful, lyrical piece.

The third movement made me want to leap out of my seat and participate in some vigorous air conducting… However, that would have been too distracting for the orchestra and embarrassing for me! The dynamics between the soloist and strings in this rhythmic, ebullient and dance-like tune was magical.

Seeing Pinchas Zuckerman conduct in between his solo passages was fun, using his bow instead of a baton, and even when playing he was able to turn or nod and give subtle clues to the orchestra. It speaks to their professionalism that they need such minimal guidance.

Zukerman’s 1742 Guarneri ‘del Gesu’ violin had a powerful, colourful tone, it really sang into the air, and seemed more deeply resonant than the leader’s instrument, which also sounded gorgeous. The acoustics were great from our seats in the front of the side stalls.

Aside from the performance the Royal Philharmonic and Pinchas Zukerman gave, here is a vintage recording with a similar vibe, from Isaac Stern, Orchestre de Chambre de Radio France conducted by Alexander Schneider:

Pinchas Zuckerman gives a masterclass in New York on Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 with Rebecca Reale:

Pinchas Zuckerman Biography

The next best thing to hearing Zuckerman play live with the orchestra is to buy his recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, alongside some of his Elgar favourites, including the World Premiere Recording of In Moonlight from In the South, with the RPO on the Decca label.

Pinchas Zukerman: Vaughan Williams and Elgar

A snippet of an interview with Pinchas Zuckerman from a documentary, talking about music, Beethoven, Mozart and Wagner:

Beethoven – Symphony No. 5 in C Minor

The orchestra significantly swelled its ranks for the final symphonic master – Beethoven. His fifth symphony barely needs any introduction, even to those not normally ‘into’ classical music.

I wrote a detailed blog a while back (The Secrets of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony), about the political and social influences on Beethoven that shaped the writing of his universally loved, iconic symphony.

Getting ready to play Beethoven’s Fifth as the Conductor, Pinchas Zuckerman steps onto the stage.

The Royal Philharmonic under the baton of Principal Guest Conductor Pinchas Zuckerman gave an electrifying performance. I was astounded by their stamina, (both physical and mental), especially from the strings and conductor/soloist, who had been playing since the start of the concert, whereas the percussion, brass and woodwind section were fresh as daisies.

Their performance was powerful from the outset, with those infamous opening bars unsettling any ‘absent’ listeners. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I had goose bumps through the entire symphony!

The whole symphony took me on a momentous inner journey. How many of us can relate to Beethoven’s passion? Especially when our backs are against the wall and our outer journey is feeling like the music. No matter how many times I hear it, I’m always filled with awe at Beethoven’s innovation, unbridled talent, courage and originality in drawing on the fathoms of his own emotional well. He broke boundaries and defined new ones. He wore his heart on the staves as much as on his sleeve.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the young oboist who was superb in the Mozart and Beethoven performances, his solo parts were particularly worthy of praise. The conductor seemed to single him out in the applause, and rightly so.

Pinchas Zuckerman appreciateing the brass and woodwind sections of the RPO

I also admired Zuckerman’s relaxed and expansive conducting style, the way he opened and closed his arms horizontally as they were building towards the finale, to indicate where he wanted more power or a sustained note. He was equally adept at reigning them in for those more intimate sections.

The thing that struck me about their performance of Beethoven’s fifth was their mastery of its startling dynamics: the difference between the soft and quiet passages (Pianissimo, Piano) and the very strong and loud ones (Forte and Fortissimo) and everything in between. The shimmering crescendos played by the strings in the third movement, known as scrubbing, (achieved by moving the bow very fast up and down on the same note, whilst maintaining the intonation and timing) was stunning.

I felt they truly embodied the spirit of all three composers – the Symphonic Masters – to provide an unforgettable evening.

For future concerts with the RPO and maestro Zuckerman, plus other conductors at British and International venues, here is the what’s on guide.

“Music is the reaching out towards the utmost realities by means of ordered sound.” ~ Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ode to Womankind on International Women’s Day #IWD2019

Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender. ~ Alice Walker

This year, as the world celebrates women’s lives and focuses on our unique contributions, the theme is one of balance. #BalanceforBetter is a meaningful hashtag, at least to me.

Balance is something I find challenging to achieve, and I think many mums at some point in their lives will have experienced overwhelm, feeling out of control, and a lack of time and energy for themselves. That modern day bitter pill of work-life balance.

It’s not just about the balance of opportunity and pay with our male colleagues in the workplace, but also about how to feel unconditional self-love (warts and all), and achieve a state of inner peace, lead fulfilling lives, able to express ourselves fully and be immune to the opinions and judgments of others.  The pressure comes when we struggle to transcended either our own or society’s unrealistic expectations. We need to be kind to ourselves.

My greatest wish for my daughters is that they are happy, confident, creative and courageous, able to seize every opportunity to reach their full potential.

It’s never going to be easy breaking out of deeply entrenched social conditioning; the unrealistic images and portrayals of women in the media, that imply we should look and act a certain way, should always wear makeup, have a perfect home (children always scupper that one), while managing a career and family like the most glamorous of Stepford Wives!!

I was pleased to see that Virgin Atlantic recently announced that they no longer require their female cabin crew to wear makeup or skirts. I applaud that move!

Or are many of these expectations and idealised personas something we as women often place on ourselves?

Like flowers, womankind populates the earth with a myriad of interesting and beautiful creations, each with her own unique characteristics; beautiful shapes, shades and hues, and certain conditions provide the best environment in order to blossom!

Having a strong Artemis Goddess archetype (as well as Demeter, Aphrodite and Athena), I am always keen to support and help my sisters on their path to empowerment. I plan to write about the God and Goddess archetypes from ancient Greek mythology at some point, they are absolutely fascinating.

The Return of Persephone (to Demeter) by Frederic Leighton c.1891 (oil on canvas) 203 x 152 cm

The Homeric Hymn to Demeter

In so many parts of the world women do not enjoy the freedoms and rights that their sisters in the West do. I admire their courage to risk life and limb and imprisonment in such brutal, corrupt and repressive regimes, so they can inspire a brighter future for themselves and all women in their war-torn, troubled regions. My heart goes out to them.

WOMANKIND

Even with softer flesh, womankind is not the weaker sex,

So long abused, raped and repressed by hatred and arrogance,

But the tide of feminism is turning – no longer are we objects

Or possessions to be owned; our gender an excuse for violence,

Mistreated for millennia, our meagre rights, hard fought and won,

We are capable, kind, resilient, intelligent, loving and brave,

Not deserving of being trampled on – we are done

Holding back, not exploring limits; it’s freedom we crave,

Our collective pain and desperation is fuelling change,

Equality and respect is a human right, not a privilege!

Now is the time for patriarchy to respond, rearrange

Their views – see us not as an idealised ‘image’,

Invite mankind to be part of the solution, not the problem,

Love us for who we are; sentient beings that can carry life,

Abolish any sense of entitlement to a perceived collective harem!

Every woman: be she a mother, daughter, sister, friend or wife,

Unshackled, to claim her power and divine feminine birth right,

She deserves to be valued for all her roles and attributes,

Free from fear and brutality, not having to constantly fight

To live on her own terms; parity – not discrimination – in her pursuits,

Men and women in mutual collaboration as normality?

Yin and Yang united: the basis of enlightened humanity.

By Virginia Burges

Yin and Yang

I’m aware that I have shared James Brown’s immortal song, It’s a Man’s World before, but this impromptu rendition by Jennifer Hudson and Sir Tom Jones on The Voice really moved me.

Happy International Women’s Day!

I’ll leave you with some great #IWD2019 tweets:

 

O Shakespeare, Shakespeare, wherefore art thou Shakespeare?

“After God, Shakespeare has created most.” ~ Alexandre Dumas

As February is famed for the commemoration of Saint Valentine, as well as being heart health month in the USA and UK, I thought it would be good to celebrate with a love-in devoted to William Shakespeare. Plus, I never need an excuse for a spot of Bardolatry, especially on a #ShakespeareSunday.

No-one in the canon of the English language has written more about love and its many faces, forms and facets than our Will.

Shakespeare’s insight into the foibles of human nature still resonate over 400 years since he quilled his immortal sonnets and plays. Observations from his frequently performed works often can provide a parallel to our personal lives as well as current events.

Take one of Shakespeare’s most vile villains – Richard III. His ruthless ambition for the crown of England and all the foul deeds he undertook in his quest for power were relinquished in a heartbeat in the face of death at the Battle of Bosworth Field. The last words Shakespeare puts into king Richard’s screaming mouth as, sans steed, he is about to be butchered are: “A horse! A Horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

David Garrick as Richard III by William Hogarth

The small things we take for granted are often the things we miss the most when they’re gone, and our need is great. Robust health is one that springs to mind.

Love is surely the state of being that is taken for granted the most. Those thoughtful acts of kindness and love that are performed daily and thought nothing of are sorely missed by the receiver when the doer is no longer willing or able to perform them.

But unconditional love is a divine blessing, it’s the only emotion that provides an infinite supply. The more you give away the more flows to you and through you.

Shakespeare’s sonnets, poems, comedies, histories and tragedies embody eternal human qualities and struggles, captured with such eloquent expression that the mysteries surrounding his life and his status as a god of literature – one of the greatest writers and dramatists that ever lived – shows no sign of slowing or abating. He is everywhere – almost, dare I say – ubiquitous.

Shakespeare is so often reduced to soundbites, but that’s because he wrote so many fantastic pithy phrases and unforgettable one-liners. Not to mention the plethora of new words he introduced into the English language that we frequently use today, without realising their origin.

When it came to phrase-making, he was second to none! (Also one of his).

“The best known and least known of figures.” ~ Bill Bryson

But the Bard is so much more than the sum of his genius parts. For my part I found Shakespeare heavy going at school, but I have come to love and appreciate his way with words as I have matured.

How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
~ William Shakespeare from Sonnet 97

Shakespeare was, and still is, a man of the people. London’s burgeoning East End was his stomping ground, along with his fellow players of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which became the King’s Men during the reign of James I.

The Opiate of the People

In Shakespeare’s time eighty percent of the population were illiterate. His plays were meant primarily to be seen rather than read.

But you can’t please everyone, and even though he was loved by ordinary people and royalty alike, Shakespeare still had his detractors. He was envied by the playwright Robert Greene, who ungraciously labelled him an ‘upstart crowe’ in his 1592 autobiography. It is poetic justice that no one remembers the critics…

Romeo and Juliet

Probably the first play to be staged that had romantic love as its central theme, with an onstage kiss for good measure! It is based on Arthur Brooke’s 1562 poem, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet.

Anthony, Viscount Montagu (his patron, Henry Wriothesley’s grandfather), may have inspired Shakespeare’s choice of name for the family foes of the Capulets.

Romeo and Juliet by Sir Frank Dicksee c. 1884

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

I always used to think that Juliet was asking, albeit in poetic fashion, the location of her paramour, but in fact, ‘wherefore’ means ‘why’.  She is pondering on the existential crisis of why she had the misfortune to fall in love with a Montague, a sworn enemy of her family.

Blaise Pascale summed it up perfectly: “The heart has its reasons which reason knows not.”

It seems forbidden love (or any kind for that matter), is something humans still fall into in the 21st century, as those in the grasp of its all-consuming intensity will know. There are many wonderful adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, I particularly enjoyed the most recent film (screenplay by Julian Fellowes):

As you may have gathered, the question my title poses is, why Shakespeare, and I’ll leave it to the centuries of brilliant writers and artists to answer that one!

Let’s start with the loving act of friendship on the part of John Heminges and Henry Condell to honour their dead friend and colleague, not solely by publishing 36 of his plays in the First Folio of 1623, but also with this touching preface for the generations of fans to follow:

“To the Great Variety of Readers,
Read him, and again, and again: And if you then do not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger, not to understand him. And so we leave you to other of is friends, whom if you need, can be your guides: if you need them not, you can lead yourselves, and others, and such readers we wish him.”

Henry Crawford’s line in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, (often attributed as Austen’s own view): ‘Shakespeare… is a part of an Englishman’s constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them everywhere; one is intimate with him by instinct.’

Charles Dickens was obsessed with Shakespeare and carried a volume of his plays around with him at all times; he even bought a house because of its associations with Falstaff.  The influence of Shakespeare shines through his novels, including the depiction of family relationships based on Cordelia and Lear, as well as his use of theatrical-style devices borrowed from the plays.

There are echoes of Shakespeare’s Henry V in Winston Churchill’s ‘Their Finest Hour’ speech, and he used a quote from Julius Caesar in a memo to his staff in 1943, the one which begins, ‘There is a tide in the affairs of men…’

From Henry James’ 1876 review of Romeo and Juliet: ‘One never sees Shakespeare played without being reminded at some new point of his greatness’, although aside from his admiration of Shakespeare’s craft, it seemed he had a problem with the Bard being a common oik from Stratford!

Shakespeare was surely one of our greatest exports.

Abraham Lincoln would read his works aloud on many evenings to his aides (who may or may not have been as enamoured of them as their leader), and the French writer, Flaubert said: ‘When I read Shakespeare I become greater, wiser, purer.’

The Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh wrote of how Shakespeare made him feel in a letter to his brother: ‘What touches me… is that the voices of these people, which… reach us from a distance of several centuries, do not seem unfamiliar to us. It is so much alive that you think you know them and see the thing.’

The political prisoners held captive on South Africa’s Robben Island reportedly read a smuggled copy of the Complete Works, disguised as a Hindu Bible. Each of them signed their names by their favourite passages.

Walter Sisulu chose a speech of Shylock’s: Still have I borne it with a patient shrug, / For suff’rance is the badge of all our tribe. Nelson Mandela chose a passage from Julius Caesar, which begins: Cowards die many times before their deaths; / The valiant never taste of death but onceYears later Mandela said, “Shakespeare always seems to have something to say to us.”

Hamlet was one of the first characters in literature to be a fully rounded human being, plagued by doubt, inner conflicts and suicidal thoughts, which Sigmund Freud found perfect case study fodder. Hamlet helped him to explore the concept of the unconscious, and also to illustrate the Oedipus complex – maybe a step too far!

Book titles taken from Shakespeare include: Brave New World, The Sound and the Fury, The Dogs of War, Under the Greenwood tree, Infinite Jest, The fault in Our Stars, By the Pricking of My Thumbs, Remembrance of Things Past, Murder Most Foul, to mention but a few.

Such Sweet Thunder – The title of the jazz suite album and first track, are Duke Ellington’s homage to Shakespeare’s characters, with the title representing Othello:

Shakespeare has been credited with more than 1,000 films and TV shows. According to The Guinness Book of Records he is the most filmed author of all time. Hamlet has around 79 film credits with Romeo and Juliet hot on his heels with 59.

“Shakespeare – the nearest thing in incarnation to the eye of God.” ~ Laurence Olivier

William Hazlitt wasn’t taking any prisoners in the 19th century when he wrote: ‘If we wish to know the force of human genius, we should read Shakespeare. If we wish to see the insignificance of human learning, we may study his commentators.’ Hmm… better stop now!

Venus and Adonis by Titian c. 1560s

Shakespeare’s most successful published work during his lifetime was his long narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, which must have seemed rather racy and titillating to Elizabethan audiences… It was written between 1592 – 94 (when London’s theatres were closed due to the plague), as was another of his long poems, The Rape of Lucrece.

Shakespeare’s perspicacity and ability to illuminate the consequences of a mortal sin, versus the pleasure in committing it are remarkable.

Tarquin ruminates over whether to rape the virtuous Lucretia:

What win I if I gain the thing I seek?
A dream, a breath, a froth of fleeting joy.
Who buys a minute’s mirth to wail a week,
Or sells eternity to get a toy?

After he commits the terrible act, poor Lucretia is tormented with horribly realistic guilt and shame, ending ultimately in her suicide.

Tarquin and Lucretia by Luca Giordano

A poem with hard-hitting themes, which unsurprisingly was not as successful as Venus and Adonis.

Both poems were dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, one of the few occasions that Shakespeare ‘speaks’ to us in his own voice, (even if it is obsequious in tone): ‘The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end, and ‘What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours.’

The Sonnets and the mystery of the ‘Fair Youth’

It is debatable whether these were ever meant for public consumption and may only have been intended for the recipient, or a private audience. The subject is addressed as ‘you’ and known variously as ‘my lovely boy’, ‘lovely youth’ and ‘beauteous and lovely boy’, referred to as the Fair Youth by scholars.

Even though the long poems proved the most financially successful of his literary output during the Bard’s lifetime, his 154 sonnets were not greatly admired when first published in 1609, as this form of poetry was starting to go out of fashion. But they have stood the test of time, and are now perhaps considered the apotheosis of his literary achievements.

The first 126 of the sonnets, labelled the ‘Fair Youth’ poems, are mostly expressions of romantic love, encompassing all the associated emotions such as jealousy, anxiety, mistrust, and they progress into an affair between the youth and the narrator’s ‘Dark Lady’, (who the next 26 sonnets are about, plus a few relating to a ‘rival poet’).

Many of the sonnets are addressed to a man, and they are among the most tender, passionate and downright erotic poems ever written, causing much heated debate and consternation over the centuries.

Was Shakespeare gay? Or at least bisexual, as he was married to Anne Hathaway. Attitudes towards sexuality would surely have differed to what they are today. Either way, what really matters is his legacy of literary gold dust. It is not clear if all 126 poems are addressed to the same man, like one great outpouring, or if they are to different friends and lovers over a number of years.

It has long been argued that the Fair Youth was Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton.  He was a good-looking and debonair chap if his portraits are anything to go by.

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton

Shakespeare scholar Jonathon Bate believes that Henry Wriothesley was indeed the fair youth, and that the sonnets were written for him in the quest for patronage.

However, there is no categorical proof that the poems are autobiographical. To over interpret them surely takes the focus away from their intrinsic beauty. This is the conclusion that James Shapiro came to by the middle of the 19th century: ‘The obsession with autobiographical titbits had all but displaced interest in the aesthetic pleasures of the poems themselves.’

Sonnet 130 is not complimentary to a particular lady, yet expresses genuine feeling in the last two couplets, in a slightly cynical, backhanded sort of way:

Another great British poet, William Wordsworth, was a firm proponent of the idea that Shakespeare revealed his true self in the sonnets.

Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned,

Mindless of its just honours; with this key

Shakespeare unlocked his heart; the melody

Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch’s wound;

A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound;

With it Camöens soothed an exile’s grief;

The Sonnet glittered a gay myrtle leaf

Amid the cypress with which Dante crowned

His visionary brow: a glow-worm lamp,

It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faery-land

To struggle through dark ways; and, when a damp

Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand

The Thing became a trumpet; whence he blew

Soul-animating strains—alas, too few!

By William Wordsworth

To me the sonnets seem too intimate and poignant to be figments of Shakespeare’s imagination, they must have risen up from a deep well… It is not wise to interpret them too literally, but through them his life experiences have left their indelible mark.

The tantalisingly cryptic dedication written on the front was signed by the publisher, Thomas Thorpe (T.T.) and further fuelled ideas that the Fair Youth, possibly Henry Wriothesley, was also the dedicatee with his initials reversed:

One does rather go down a rabbit hole investigating all of this, (I’ll save the ‘Dark Lady’ for another day). A recent hypothesis is that the publisher’s dedication is to William Holme, which seems highly plausible to me.

A detailed exploration of the sonnets’ dedication. Oscar Wilde even wrote a fictional story, The Portrait of Mr. W.H. based on Thomas Tyrwhitt’s theory that the Fair Youth was named William Hughes, based on certain lines contained in Sonnet 20: “A man in hue, all Hues in his controlling”, in which the word Hues is both italicised and capitalised in the original edition.

In her brilliant foreward to the RSC edition of sonnets Fiona Shaw writes:

Shakespeare’s sonnets give us the impetus required for a meaningful analysis of our foolish selves in love and our difficulty in really communicating with one another.

He uses ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ of all our conflicting thoughts and all in the pocketbook size of the sonnet. They are like literary entries in the diary of the human condition. We borrow his words and his rhythm, his hesitancy, his ease with conclusion, and it helps us to do more than merely navigate through the often fraught landscape of love and delight ourselves along the way.

We live in a time where being unable to utter our personal truth seems to hold more integrity. We have become suspicious of words. Shakespeare’s sonnets entice us back to a more precise rendering of emotional reality, and they do it with generous and extravagant language. In a sentence he captures the sound and the terror of feeling.

Sonnet 93 was the first of the sonnets to be subjected to biographical analysis by Edmond Malone in 1780, who proposed that the sonnet might reveal the unhappy state of Shakespeare’s marriage. Not such a big leap, when one considers the geographical distance between William and Anne for much of the time, in addition to scrutiny of the language.

Malone opened a scholar’s Pandora’s Box when he further suggested Shakespeare snubbed Anne Hathaway in his will, (to support his hypotheses), in bequeathing his wife his ‘second best bed’.

Men portraying women on stage

Women’s emancipation had a long way to go in Elizabethan England, when women were prohibited from acting on stage in public. Cue one of my favourite films, Shakespeare in Love. The heroine is Lady Viola de Lesseps, disguised as Thomas Kent for much of the movie, she is shipwrecked at the end of the film, a perfect prequel to Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night is a tale of separation and rediscovery, set in motion by a storm at sea, a popular device used by Shakespeare, (shipwrecks also featured in varying plot degrees in The Tempest, The Comedy of Errors, Pericles and The Winter’s Tale). Maybe there was an excess of nautical props lying around…

Viola’s character dresses up as a man, Cesario, in the employ of Count Orsino; in a comic romp of gender swaps and mistaken identity on the road to love.

Nuggets of Twelfth Night performances:

Stephen Fry and Mark Rylance lend comic genius to an all male cast in a Globe Theatre production:

I can imagine how they must have howled in the 16th century, and how ludicrous and funny it seems to us today when men play female parts. Especially the scenes with Viola, in which a boy pretends to be a girl pretending to be a boy!

This plot may even have put Will’s head in a spin…

As is said in the play: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” I do believe Shakespeare to be in the second category, for he had no noble title at birth and secured his posthumous place in history through his wit, talent and hard work.

Much Ado About Nothing

The banter and brevity of Much Ado About Nothing meant it was a popular play in its day. The wrong done to Hero is technically the main plot line, but the sparring lovers, Beatrice and Benedick supply the most fun. Even King Charles II apparently wrote Benedick and Beatrice next to the play’s title in his personal copy of the Second Folio.

Sparks fly between Kenneth and Emma in Branagh’s wonderful film adaptation:

All is True

Kenneth Branagh talks about portraying Shakespeare in the twilight of his life in All is True:

I must see this film!

I think the fire scene at the end of the trailer might be depicting the unfortunate burning down of The Globe Theatre. It enjoyed much success from its opening in 1599 to its demise in 1613, after a stray spark from a stage cannon in a performance of Henry VIII ignited the thatch roof. Thankfully there were no fatalities. It was rebuilt the following year with a closed tiled roof.

The original title of Henry VIII was All is True, hence the film’s title, and it was changed for the publication of the First Folio to The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth.  

Steamy Southwark and Shoreditch were booming medieval theatre districts, home to not just The Globe, but also The Rose, The Curtain, The Swan and The Hope. What they lacked in sophisticated stage and scenery set-ups they made up for with lavish, colourful costumes and the use of animal organs and blood to lend authenticity to gruesome battle and death scenes.

Can you picture the atmosphere with 3,000 rowdy theatre goers packed tightly together?

The Puritans considered such theatres dens of iniquity and vice, (which they most probably were), and in 1642 they succeeded in closing them all down. The Globe was demolished two years later.

Today’s Globe Theatre on London’s Bankside (again in thatch but with the added benefit of modern water sprinklers), was built a mere 230 metres away from the first Globe’s location. It’s design however, was based on drawings of The Swan, made in 1596 by a Dutch tourist.

What things you make of us! For what we lack
We laugh, for what we have, are sorry; still
Are children in some kind. Let us be thankful
For that which is, and with you leave dispute
That are above our question.”
~ William Shakespeare (The Two Noble Kinsmen)

The above quote, the last words in the play (except for the epilogue), are perhaps the very last words that Shakespeare wrote.

The Tempest was previously thought to be his last play, but The Two Noble Kinsmen, based on Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale,  is now generally accepted as Shakespeare’s final play; a collaboration with John Fletcher. Scholars believe that Shakespeare’s contributions are the writing of Act 1, two scenes in Act 3, and three in Act 5.

It may not be considered such a good swansong as The Tempest, but author Andrew Dickson says of the closing lines, ‘as a conclusion to his career these halting words… are infinitely more painful than anything voiced by Prospero’.

Why Epigenetics is the Most Exciting and Promising Science in the World

“We don’t just inherit our biology, we impact our biology.”
~ David Shenk

I’ve got some bad news and I’ve got some good news: your body’s superstructure is constantly under revision, based on how you live your life.

In the field of epigenetics this is known as gene expression. The brain, mind, genome and microbiome (or second genome), can all act as a single system, influencing our level of well-being at any given moment.

Epigenetics is a seriously hot topic in the scientific community right now, possibly poised on the edge of breakthroughs we can only dream of at the moment. Dr. Bruce Lipton calls it the science of human empowerment.

Epigenetics is the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself. Our genetic blueprint is fixed for life (hardwired), but how our blueprint manifests is not.

Although the recent scientific breakthrough of CRISPR could change that…

Our genes are physical blueprints to make proteins, the primal element of life, and there are around 150,000 proteins in the human body. ‘Protein’ hails from the Latin for ‘primary particle’.

Behind the scenes of your interesting genes

Epi comes from the Greek for ‘upon’, the study of what is on top of genetics. We may have inherited ‘hardwired’ genes from our parents, but the science of epigenetics shows us that it’s environmental signals that control biology.

In physical terms, epi refers to the sheath of proteins and chemicals  that cushion and modify each strand of DNA. The entire amount of epigenetic modification of the DNA in the body is known as the epigenome.

“Our genes are a predisposition, but they are not our fate. The biological mechanisms that affect our health and well-being are often extraordinarily dynamic – for better and for worse. When we eat well, move more, stress less, and love more, our bodies often have a remarkable ability to transform and heal.”
~ Dean Ornish M.D.  (founder and president, Preventative Medicine Research Institute, and Clinical professor of medicine, University of California, San Francisco).

Earth’s 3 billion year old genetic legacy is present inside everyone. Human DNA is an unbroken evolutionary genetic chain containing eons of cellular memory that each of us shares, and it is responsive to everything that happens in our lives.

The DNA that’s present inside our cells is magnificent – a complex combination of chemicals and proteins that holds the entire past, present, and future of all life on our planet.

“If DNA is the storehouse for billions of years of evolution, the epigenome is the storehouse of short-term genetic activities, both very recent and extending back one, two or several generations.
Epigenetics is the study of whether the memory of personal experience – yours, your father’s, your great-grandmother’s may be immediately passed on.”
~ Deepak Chopra & Rudolph Tanzi (Super Genes).

An environmental toxin can trigger epigenetic changes, but so can a strong emotion like fear, as seen in studies on mice.

A basic overview with Dr. Carlos Guerrero-Bosagna :

How we react to our daily life, physically and psychologically can be passed on through ‘soft’ inheritance.

Epigenetics and pregnancy

Sadly, through my pregnancy and at the time my eldest son was born, I was under severe emotional and mental stress, and I’m sure this affected him in utero. I also had gestational diabetes.

I was let down by the health system when he was a young child. It took until his teens to get a diagnosis (high functioning) on the the autism spectrum, and he has battled debilitating bouts of depression, anxiety and insomnia.

In Super Genes I read about a Dutch study which concluded that if new mothers are stressed, their stress actually changes the microbiome of their infants. Disturbances, or dysbiosis of the microbiome is now thought to be a major factor in developing autism.

Photo courtesy of Heather Mount via Unsplash

But there is positive new science about this. This interesting article talks about how the consequences of trauma can be reversed.

Hindsight and education is a wonderful thing…

I have myself experienced a ‘softwired’ memory and love of classical music from my mother, who used to play Chopin and Beethoven piano sonatas when she was pregnant with me.  Music has always played a positive, defining role in my life.

The Hongerwinter

Chopra and Tanzi expand on what they see as the most far-reaching epigentic human study done to date, which was on the effects of the Dutch famine, the Hongerwinter (“hunger winter”).

The Nazis, who were in the early stages of facing defeat, enforced a food and supplies embargo during the harsh winter of 1944-45. Food stocks in Western Holland soon dwindled and daily adult rations in Amsterdam dropped to below 1,000 calories by the end of November 1944, and then to 580 calories by the end of February 1945 – only one quarter of the daily calorific intake required for health and survival in an adult.

The starving population subsisted on mostly hard bread, small potatoes, sugar, and very little protein. Humanity’s evolutionary inheritance has given us the ability to survive long periods of malnutrition; but not without consequences. The body slows down to conserve energy and resources. It’s estimated that 18,000 people perished through starvation and issues relating to malnutrition.

Much of this ability to adapt is from epigenetic changes in the activities of our genes. The Hongerwinter study went on to discover that DNA changes brought on in adult life can be inherited by the next generations. The children born to Dutch famine survivors revealed just this.

Investigators from Harvard University obtained detailed health and birth records from this era, and as expected, babies born during the famine often had severe health issues. Those babies in the womb between the third and ninth month of the famine were born underweight. Surprisingly, babies growing in the mother during the first trimester towards the end of the Hongerwinter, on the cusp before food supplies returned – were actually born larger than average.

There were more surprises in store as these offspring were again studied after they reached adulthood. It was found that those born during the famine were highly prone to obesity compared to those who were born outside the famine. The study found  a doubling of obese individuals among those in the womb in the second and third trimester during the famine.

They concluded that some kind of epigenetic memory was involved.

The Dutch study highlighted the life-long effects of prenatal experiences that cause changes in the genome.

I remember seeing a very moving documentary a few years ago about the beautiful and much loved actress Audrey Hepburn, about when she was a child growing up in the Netherlands during the famine. As an adult she suffered from anemia and bouts of clinical depression.

“No self is of itself alone…the ‘I’ is chained to ancestry by many factors.” ~ Erwin Schrodinger

When we are born in normal circumstances our metabolic systems are in perfect balance, but diet, lifestyle and environment affect our genes on a daily basis. Dr. Bruce Lipton asserts that our genes do not control our biology, but that WE control our genes with consciousness and life experiences.

This implies that we can affect what signals reach our genes by our mindset and lifestyle.

This is good news, as it means that we are not victims! Rather like a river, our genes are fluid, dynamic and responsive to everything we think and do.

What we eat, drink, how we exercise and the stress we endure are all things within our control to a large degree.

Your genes are not your destiny

I explained about the Human Genome Project (HGP) and the Human Microbiome Project (HMP) in a previous post: What You Need to Know about the Most Influential Organ in Your Body.

The Human Epigenome Project (HEP) follows on from the HGP and the HMP, and is all about learning how to make our genes help us, (including our microbial genes which massively outnumber our human genes), assuming the Supergenome is a willing servant waiting for our instructions.

If the genome is the architect’s blueprint of life, the epigenome is the engineer, construction crew, and facilities manager all in one. Mastering the controls is our individual responsibility.

Each of us is incredibly fortunate that our bodies can run automatically with almost total perfection for decades at a time. But unless we participate in our own well-being, sending conscious messages to our own genes, by our intentions and actions, running on automatic isn’t enough.

Radical well-being requires conscious choices. When you make the right choices your genes will co-operate with whatever you want. On the other side of the coin genetic changes can be quite drastic when no one is in control.

The wisdom of cells

Another light bulb moment for me from the book, Super Genes is the observation that cells don’t push themselves beyond their limits. That is a trait of consciousness. A cell heeds the slightest sign of damage  and rushes to repair it. A cell obeys the natural cycle of rest and activity, it embodies the deep understanding of life embedded in its DNA.

When human consciousness and environmental factors are added to the equation we can become disconnected from our body’s innate intelligence.

Microbiomics

“All evolution is co-evolution.” ~ Stuart Kaufmann

As scientists discovered in the HMP, bacteria, (which outnumbers human cells 10 to 1), is fundamental to gene expression. There are more micro-organisms living in the G.I. tract than there are cells in our bodies. Collectively these symbiotic microbial communities, living inside us and on our skin, are termed the Microbiome.

The inner eco-system that constitutes the gut microbiome makes digestion possible.

Your birth is the start of your life and your microbiome

Our microbiome is seeded when we are born. Our gut is sterile in utero and gets its first exposure to bacteria from the birth canal and then through breastfeeding, (as milk contains important prebiotics to feed these essential microbes and build up the gut microbiome). The microbiome becomes stable around age 2-3 and is unique to each individual, like a genetic microbial fingerprint.

There are ramifications to lifelong health for babies that don’t benefit from either natural birth or breastfeeding, which potentially makes them more vulnerable to allergies, food intolerances, autoimmune diseases and childhood obesity, all of which are on the rise.

“In effect, a baby born by C-section is likely to miss out on receiving the special payload of the mother’s vaginal and intestinal microbes. These microbes are supposed to be the first arrivals of the gut microbiome ‘colonisation party’. As we’ll see in the next chapter, a lack of exposure to them could impact the optimal training of the infant immune system.”
~ Toni Harman & Alex Wakeford (The Microbiome Effect).

The authors made an insightful documentary about how the human microbiome is seeded called: Microbirth.

In their brilliant book, SuperGenes, Deepak Chopra and Rudolph Tanzi paint a compelling picture of how everything we are affects everything we are and do. It is fascinating that every person is a biological encyclopedia, and every new generation writes a new chapter in human evolution.

They assert that evolution’s greatest triumph is not the complexity that has risen out of the primordial soup, but ‘memory’. Memory is what made life possible. Chopra and Tanzi go as far to say that the antibodies in our immune system contain the memory of all diseases confronted by the human race.

“Genetics tells us that any past experience, good or bad, is sticky, because it has taken place, using chemical bonds deep inside the cell, in the nucelus where DNA resides. In a molecule of salt, atoms of sodium and chlorine are tightly bound together. A lot depends on their remaining stuck, because if you poured out some salt and it separated into its components, the release of chlorine gas would be poisonous. Life is about the persistence of memory.”
~ Deepak Chopra & Rudolph Tanzi

Identical twins – one on Earth, one in space

NASA used Captain Scott Kelly’s year in space to conduct tests between him and his identical twin brother, Captain Mark Kelly, who remained on Earth. They compared their identical DNA to ascertain the impact of physiological changes on the human body in a zero gravity environment for a prolonged period of time.

The Twins Study did indeed reveal that Scott’s 340 days in space effected epigenetic changes, as preliminary findings showed that 7% of his altered gene expression was yet to return to normal.

Threats to well-being

Let’s face it, ultimately none of us are getting out of here alive, but the goal is to live as old and young as possible. It’s about quality of life. The major constant threats to well-being are illness and aging, a predisposition to certain diseases and genetic mutations.

“But DNA isn’t really like that. It’s more like a script. Think of Romeo and Juliet, for example. In 1936 George Cukor directed Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer in a film version. Sixty years later Baz Luhrmann directed Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in another movie version of this play. Both productions used Shakespeare’s script, yet the two movies are entirely different. Identical starting points, different outcomes.”
~ Nessa Carey, The Epigenetics Revolution

The science of human empowerment

The top six categories to focus on for optimising your genetic destiny all involve the epigenome, microbiome and brain:

  1. Diet
  2. Stress
  3. Exercise
  4. Meditation
  5. Sleep
  6. Emotions

How epigenetics, our gut microbiome and the environment interact to change our lives.

Optimal Health (a state in which all the boy’s systems are operating properly), can be achieved by being proactive in our attitude and habits relating to our well-being. As an elite health coach, my aim is to help people reach their optimal health, what I call elite health – which is the pinnacle of wellness – where age does not dictate ability.

The three main reasons we don’t have optimal health are diet, lifestyle and the environment

Almost a thousand years before DNA revealed its first secret, the mystic Persian poet Rumi took the same journey. He looked over his shoulder to tell us where the road leads:

Motes of dust dancing in the light
That’s our dance too.
We don’t listen inside to hear the music-
No matter.
The dance of life goes on,
And in the joy of the sun
Is hiding a God.

~ Deepak Chopra & Rudolph Tanzi (Super Genes)

In my next post I’ll be covering nutrition, supplementation, lifestyle and environmental factors (especially toxicity), all a major influence on our body’s genetic switching centre.

We should collectively be asking ourselves, how much more vibrant and healthy can we be when we nurture and nourish the 90% of us that is microbial?

Before my life changing experience with a 21 day gut health programme I came to accept that feeling under par was my new normal. I came to accept that my weight gain was an inescapable part of having had four children. But now, in middle age, I am in the best shape of my life since my mid twenties in every respect. I now know what it feels like to have my inner eco-system working for me rather than against me.

This is why I am passionate about helping people re-balance and reset the powerhouse of their health – their gut microbiome. In fact I have turned into something of a gut geek!

If you have made it a goal to achieve better health and energy in 2019, then the gut is the best place to start.

“If there’s one thing to know about the human body; it’s this: the human body has a ringmaster. This ringmaster controls your digestion, your immunity, your brain, your weight, your health and even your happiness. This ringmaster is the gut.” ~ Nancy Mure

Falling Under the Beautiful Spell of The Lost Words

“Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children. They disappeared so quietly that at first almost no one noticed – fading away like water on stone.” ~ Robert Macfarlane (The Lost Words)
The Lost Words

When I purchased The Lost Words for my youngest daughter as a Christmas present I honestly didn’t expect it to be such a hit. Not just with her, but also with me and her older, harder-to-please pre-teen sister.

This book is something special, it’s absolutely magical…

In 2007 the Children’s Oxford English Dictionary removed several words pertaining to the natural world. Words like fern, kingfisher and bluebell were discarded and ditched in order to make room for technological terms like blog, chatroom and database. 

The acclaimed best-selling author Robert Macfarlane teamed up with the talented illustrator and writer, Jackie Morris, to draw attention to the incomprehensible actions of the Children’s Oxford English Dictionary. They weren’t happy that these wonderful words (and the things they represent), had been marginalised in a misguided move by a mainstream publication.

The introduction page to each lost word encourages children to follow the letters and discover the erased word.

Soulless technology words, which can easily be taught in IT lessons at school, were deemed to be more relevant to young people. I was flabbergasted, disgusted and sad when I heard this.

How could the words ACORN, ADDER, BLUEBELL, BRAMBLE, CONKER, DANDELION, FERN, HEATHER, HERON, IVY, KINGFISHER, LARK, MAGPIE, NEWT, OTTER, RAVEN, STARLING, WEASEL, WILLOW and WREN be considered not worthy enough to be part of a child’s vocabulary?

“Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn! You bury it in the ground, and it explodes into an oak!” ~ George Bernard Shaw

Their removal and relegation displays an attitude of sickening insouciance by the faceless powers that be, as they dispassionately move pieces of the landscape in dictionary land. But thanks to Robert and Jackie they have been gloriously restored in The Lost Words.

A ‘spellbook’

Neither of my daughters particularly enjoy reading anything resembling poetry, but they loved Robert Macfarlane’s engaging, beguiling and evocative language in each of the cleverly arranged acrostic poems, or ‘spells’.

The Lost Words is described by the author as a ‘spellbook’ and it has certainly put a spell on us!

“You hold in your hands a spellbook for conjuring  back these lost words. To read it you will need to seek, find and speak. It deals in things that are missing and things that are hidden, in absences and appearances. Its tone is gold – the gold of the goldfinches that flit through its pages in charms – and it holds not poems but spells of many kinds that might just, the old, strong magic of being spoken aloud, unfold dreams and songs, and summon lost words back into the mouth and the mind’s eye.” ~ Robert Macfarlane (The Lost Words)

It will become a modern classic I have no doubt.

I wonder how many generations of children have spent hours immersed in the joy of playing conkers every autumn?

My dad used to help me and my brother rope them up when we were young, and my own children enthusiastically sifted through scrunchy leaves to find them buried beneath the boughs of local horse chestnut trees.

Conker was one of our favourite spells!

Gently blowing on dandelion seeds and watching them float away on the breeze across a field or garden is still a fun activity for my girls, as is making daisy chains.

The natural world in decline

It’s depressing to continually learn of the many natural habitats in decline across the globe, and the animal life that depend on such areas atrophying and becoming extinct through man’s insatiable devouring of our planet’s natural resources, (in many cases without thought or care for the consequences).

Now more than ever, it’s important to teach the next generations about the natural world: to admire its beauty, respect its status and understand its importance in the bigger picture of co-existence.

Where will the future natural world icons and champions like Sir David Attenborough, Steve Irwin and Gerald Durrell emerge from, if we don’t nurture a love of nature in young people?

The natural world is our home – we may live predominantly in the urban spaces that we have built, but nature provides an essential home for the animal kingdom, an oasis for outdoor activities, fresh air, rejuvenation, inspiration, the uplifting of spirits, and peace and quiet. Nature was created by a hand far greater than ours.

Why should dictionaries have the authority to imply that nature is no longer trendy and less important than human concerns? We cannot survive without it, either physically or emotionally. We need nature more than nature needs us.

Human fate is intertwined with the environment of the planet.

The rise of technology

We live in a world where we are increasingly controlled by our technological advancements and smartphone addiction, where children are turning into couch potatoes if allowed to play on phones and gadgets for hours on end.

Is technology worth such a drastic trade off?  Not in my humble opinion.

Whilst there are benefits, it requires walking a fine line. If we lose control we are just storing up all kinds of problems for the decades ahead. Some areas of concern include: cyber bullying, child grooming, health issues, lack of hobbies and interests and reduced social skills, not to mention lack of presence or ‘being in the moment’.

We have a rule in the Burges household that no gadgets of any kind are allowed to be used during a family meal, a sacrosanct technology free zone.

Alarmingly, childhood obesity is on the rise, and the lack of outdoor activity and contact with soil, grass and plants reduces the diversity of children’s gut bacteria, which play a major role in human wellbeing, as does a lack of exercise and sedentary lifestyles.

Forest School

In an innovative move, my daughters’ primary school introduced Forest School for all their pupils a year or so ago.

From the enthusiastic feedback my daughters provided, I could tell they enjoyed it, it seemed very popular with all the kids. I very much believe that if a connection with nature is established in a child’s formative years that it stays with them to some degree into adulthood.

I’m not a complete ogre though, I do let my children use technology, probably too much. It’s an integral part of modern life and they are very adept with it, but I have to be really strict with the amount of time they spend on their devices. It’s incredibly addictive.

Every contact with nature reinforces our connection with it, our co-dependency. I’ve noticed startling changes in just a generation. Cue old crone’s voice: when I was a wee lass, (many moons ago), we didn’t have mobile phones or tablets, so we used our imaginations and spent a lot of time outdoors.

It helped that we grew up in a rural area, and I remember vividly we would go exploring and take long walks. My parents didn’t seem to mind us disappearing for hours on end. There was a deserted farm house in the valley not far from where we lived, with holes in the floor, most likely unsafe, but we found it highly exciting to sneak in and venture tentatively into the rooms, keen to discover what lay inside.

We would climb trees, make dens, have picnics and sleep under the stars. Ah, those halcyon days! It wasn’t quite Swallows and Amazons, but if we’d had a boat and an island nearby I’m sure we would have set sail.

Please excuse me, while I bask for a moment in my self-induced nostalgia…

Kids that don’t have regular outings into a park or rural space are missing out on so many benefits. This is why this Robert Macfarlane’s and Jackie Morris’s beautiful book struck such a chord in me.

Also, it’s huge! We get lost in its glossy pages and because it’s a hardback book it feels weighty and solid.

We love immersing ourselves in its awe inducing spells and stunning pictures, our wonderment in nature reinvigorated with each reading.

After a recent reading of The Lost Words with my youngest, who was quite poorly all last week, she told me very clearly and precisely (even with a blocked nose and a fraction of her voice), that she much preferred living near the countryside than in a big city. I beamed at her.

Robert Macfarlane’s superb article in The Guardian about his quest to reconnect young readers to the natural world.

If you buy the book you’ll be pleased to know that a proportion of the royalties from each copy of The Lost Words will be donated to Action for Conservation, a charity dedicated to inspiring young people take action for the natural world, and to the next generation of conservationists.

A free ‘Explorer’s Guide to The Lost Words‘, written by Eva John and intended especially (but not only) for use by teachers and educators, can be downloaded here.

3 Excellent Daily Actions to Make the Most of Your Year

“Nothing will come of nothing.” ~ William Shakespeare (King Lear).
The concept of ex nihilo nihil fit originated with Parmenides, (Greek Philosopher pre Socrates), regarded with Heraclitus as the founders of Ontology.

Happy New Year folks! It’s generally that time of year when our thoughts turn to the year that lies ahead with excitement and anticipation. Many of us may have taken the opportunity over the holiday period to reflect on 2018 and focus on what we wish to achieve and become in 2019.

Last year was really intense, challenging, tumultuous and exhausting for me, with virtually no let-up. I just couldn’t see the wood for the trees, and in the end accepted that I was kind of lost. The barrage of challenges seem to be spilling into January, with a major plumbing problem that urgently needs sorting – most likely at great expense.

Image courtesy of Valeriy Andrushko on Unsplash

Perhaps I should get my violin out and play a sad tune…

I am more than happy to consign 2018 to history as a ‘stinker’, but upon further introspection I have realised that even though I found it extremely hard, I made considerable progress and positive change, (physically, emotionally and mentally), and experienced some memorable moments that I’ll never forget.

I’m filled with hope that the growth I went through last year will pave the way for a more productive and successful year in 2019.

If 2018 proved to be something of an ‘annus horribilis’ for you also, fear not, for a fresh energy now pervades the universe and you can create a new story. This is what I am planning to do; both literally (with a new novel to write) and metaphorically, with my dreams and plans.

I’m hoping that my new-found creative frenzy does not abate, and that I’ll be able to look back this time next year, and be able to say that I achieved some things my future self would thank me for at the start of 2020.

Someone I respect very much shared three pragmatic and inspiring ideas during his closing speech at a conference in October last year, and they really struck me as I reread my notes recently, as being the perfect focus and wisdom to live my life by for January and beyond. They remind me why I get out of bed every morning.

These actions, when undertaken on a daily basis can propel you forward, no matter your current circumstances, to greater fulfillment, abundance and happiness. Over the span of a lifetime they can create a legacy.

There are numerous helpful articles floating about the net on how to be successful, almost endless distilled nuggets of wisdom on just about any subject.

To me, these simple (but not necessarily easy), three daily ‘dos’ are broad enough to encompass the profound complexity of all human experience, deep enough to embody whole philosophies, and straightforward enough to remember and therefore implement.

Michelangelo in black and white

So without further ado, here are my three daily doses of wisdom, a kind of philosophical manifesto for life:

  1. Do something hard every day
  2. Do something fun every day
  3. Do something to serve others every day

Of course, all three actions could be combined into one, two or three different actions, depending on what you aim to achieve on a given day.

Do something hard every day

If we don’t do something that’s out of our comfort zone we don’t grow, and life can get stagnant and therefore can’t expand into the greatest version of the vision we have. This ‘do’ requires us to be brave, because we are undertaking activities outside our comfort zone. The level of difficulty may be higher on some days than others. I learnt to put myself out there with public speaking last year, and this activity will require continual growth and effort on my part to finesse and feel more comfortable.

Public speaking is the second biggest fear most people have after death, so that is a biggie for me. Any kind of creative output requires courage.

It may entail making a call or series of calls (not my favourite thing to do either), taking a series of steps to complete a project you have, learn a new skill, or create new habits around health or lifestyle.

The conservationists, naturalists, environmental scientists and eco-warriors will have their work cut out…

Earth News – New Scientist

Unfortunately the hard list is endless. Some days just thinking of three things to be grateful for can be a challenge!

It’s best to do this hard thing as early in the day as possible while you still have the energy and willpower. I have found that the longer I leave it procrastination tends to kick in. This has happened to me more times than I can recall: I’ve told myself, I’ll do that later, and life has ended up getting in the way. I either end up forgetting, or have to do it another day, when more hard tasks are piling up.

Image courtesy of Mikito Tateisi on Unsplash

It takes discipline to do the more challenging or unpleasant items on your agenda, but they are essential to progress.  I find this quote by Jim Rohn helps spur me on when I feel like letting myself off the hook:

“We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.” ~ Jim Rohn

I also love Bob Proctor to metaphorically kick my butt! Where the magic is:

Do something fun every day

Life can get rough – not just on a personal level, but in our communities, nationally and globally. There will be dark days no matter what. There are always negative headlines dominating the news. Lightening up brings relief, which I covered in my post about humour recently.

Joy is an essential ingredient in life’s multi-layered cake, so make time for whatever floats your boat and brings you joy. For me that’s playing the violin, writing, reading, doing a Zumba dance class, taking a long hike in the countryside or watching a good drama, or spending time with my family.  Set sail on a sea of enthusiasm and people will want to steer a heading with you.

Even on bad days, give yourself this gift.

“The language of Play is a language that we all spoke fluently in childhood.  By the time we become adults, most of us have forgotten the language of play.  Matt uses play and joy to open people up, allowing them to be creative and impactful – even in places one might expect play to be the last thing on a person’s mind.  His analogy is that we should be so lucky as to work like our dogs.  Enjoy this creative, fun-filled romp through airports, dog parks and even prison.”

Matt Weinstein is my kind of speaker, he loves to dance and have fun:

Just in case you need more convincing about fun!

Do something to serve others everyday

Being a mum this one comes naturally to me. Whilst having a large family brings immeasurable servings of joy, (and a helping of worry), it also contributes to an immense work load, and when I’m feeling the pressure I don’t always do it with good grace. Such is the lot of a working mother.

I console myself that my list of things to do will never be short or accomplished in the time frame I want, as it’s more important that my family are taken care of before my own work is completed. Motherhood is an essential, yet undervalued and underrated job. If collectively we don’t do it to the best of our ability society will suffer. Mums especially know the true meaning of sacrifice.

Service to our family and friends and to our fellow man/woman is a sacred calling. The teaching of ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ is as erudite and instructive today as it was over two thousand years ago.

When I can conquer imposter syndrome and take my mind off myself and focus on another person my ego gets bypassed, and the energy I expended on self-doubt is used in the action of service.

I try to fall in love with the process rather than obsess about the outcome. With hindsight I have found I need to detach myself from the results. What matters is the act of giving of one’s time, talent and love.

“You can’t pay anyone back for what has happened to you, so you try to find someone you can pay forward.” ~ Spokesperson for Alcoholics Anonymous (Christian Science Monitor c. 1944)

It could be a small act, and very often those seemingly insignificant random acts of kindness mean more to someone than the really big gestures.

I don’t advocate forcing a certain kind of help on another if it is unwelcome. We’ve probably all witnessed or experienced the interfering nature of Do-Gooderism. Service is more effective when undertaken in a collaborative spirit. The film Pay it Forward explores the concept of service to others.

Sociologist Wayne Baker offers insight into the concept of generalised reciprocity or ‘paying it forward’.

The world needs more sagacious and integrous leaders, in short: servant leaders. If service comes from the heart it is never in vain.

If I’m honest, I don’t always manage all three actions every day to the level I would like, but the beauty of each new day is to start with the right intentions; and then at least our hearts and minds are open to opportunities and ways to fulfill these actions.

Our daily habits are the checks and balances that add up to a meaningful, purposeful, healthy and happy life.

At least this post has accomplished them for today!

What’s in a Painting? Taking a Closer Look at Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Masterpiece: The Census at Bethlehem (c. 1566)

“You can use a mount of any format you like to cover parts of this extraordinary painting: it will always appear composed. Each element is set out in such a way that, together with the adjacent element, it constitutes a scintillating composition… These seemingly scattered elements could not be more ordered. But this uncanny science is hidden by the work’s engaging nature.  The public does not pay attention to hidden forces.”
~ André Lhote on the Census at Bethlehem (Treatise on Landscape Painting, 1939)

I toyed with the idea of a looking at a Nativity scene for my Christmas masterpiece, and there are certainly plenty of incredible iconic works; but in the end, the more I studied The Census at Bethlehem, the more it related to me on a human level.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder was a Flemish Renaissance Master, an important influence on the Dutch Golden Age, and THE pioneer of winter scenes.

The Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel the Elder c. 1566

The year before The Census at Bethlehem was completed in 1566, the Netherlands and much of Europe had been in the grip of the coldest winter for a hundred years. Hardships were experienced by the population on a biblical scale; such as famine, disease, riots and a brutal occupation by the Spanish, all of which had hit the population hard.

There was no respite from these seasonal struggles, as the winters in Europe for the next 250 years proved to be among the coldest on record, (certainly harsh enough to justify the ominous phrase, “Winter is coming,” used to great effect in Game of Thrones), leading to that time being dubbed as a ‘little Ice Age’. It was so bitterly cold that even the river Thames froze over, which was recorded for posterity on canvas in 1677 by Abraham Hondius, a Dutch painter living in London.

The Frozen Thames by Abraham Hondius c. 1677

You might expect to see a painting of The Census at Bethlehem depicting the central characters of a pregnant Mary and Joseph to actually be in Bethlehem, the ancestral home of Mary’s betrothed, Joseph – but Bruegel takes his subject and his audience on a journey to the City of David in his Flemish homeland – a snowy Brabant village.

According to the Gospel of Luke 21, 1-5:
“And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David. In order to register, along with Mary, who was engaged to him and was with child.”

The decree by Caesar Augustus that all citizens be registered is portrayed on this 116 x 164.5 cm oil on oak panel, and by painting this biblical event in a contemporary setting perhaps Bruegel is also commenting on the hefty taxes imposed by the Spanish regime in the Low Countries.

However, it seems that Luke may have taken poetic licence in his gospel:

“The historical problems with Luke are even more pronounced. For one thing, we have relatively good records for the reign of Caesar Augustus, and there is no mention anywhere in any of them of an empire-wide census for which everyone had to register by returning to their ancestral home. And how could such a thing even be imagined? Joesph returns to Bethlehem because his ancestor David was born there. But David lived a thousand years before Joseph. Are we to imagine that everyone in the Roman Empire was required to return to the homes of their ancestors from a thousand years earlier? If we had a new worldwide census today and each of us had to return to the towns of our ancestors a thousand years back—where would you go? Can you imagine the total disruption of human life that this kind of universal exodus would require? And can you imagine that such a project would never be mentioned in any of the newspapers? There is not a single reference to any such census in any ancient source, apart from Luke. Why then does Luke say there was such a census? The answer may seem obvious to you. He wanted Jesus to be born in Bethlehem, even though he knew he came from Nazareth … there is a prophecy in the Old Testament book of Micah that a savior would come from Bethlehem. What were these Gospel writers to do with the fact that it was widely known that Jesus came from Nazareth? They had to come up with a narrative that explained how he came from Nazareth, in Galilee, a little one-horse town that no one had ever heard of, but was born in Bethlehem, the home of King David, royal ancestor of the Messiah.
~ Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible & Why We Don’t Know About Them

Certain art historians have sometimes interpreted the pig’s slaughter in political terms. It is feasible to see this as a metaphor for the peasants who were bled dry by excessive taxes levied by Philip II of Spain, which were particularly intolerable during the harsh, famine-ridden winters.

Bruegel must have surmised that the painting would hold greater meaning if the people of 16th Century Flanders could relate to the hope of a better future with the happy and uplifting message of the birth of Jesus if it somehow took place in the heart of their own difficult circumstances.

This magnificent painting is now on display at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels, a city Bruegel made his home from 1563 onwards. He was also active as a painter in Antwerp prior to his last decade. His pigments were sourced mainly in Antwerp, and were ground in his studio.

The Census at Bethlehem has an abundance of characters going about their chilly business on Christmas Eve, amidst the religious fervour of the birth of Christ, where the Flemish landscape is also a major component. Everywhere you look there is a hive of activity, the freezing landscape is teeming with life.

I like that we have an elevated view onto the scene, with Joseph leading Mary (her face barely visible), perched on her trusty steed (donkey), with an ox in tow, unobtrusively blending into the centre foreground, heading towards the hubbub at the Inn.

The Census at Bethlehem – detail of Joseph and Mary

The gathering of people clamouring to register is surely a hint that there’s not going to be any room at the Inn, even one with a ruling Habsburg crest on the wall.

The Census at Bethlehem – detail of the crowded inn

The lack of decent accommodation, as we know, meant Mary had to give birth to the Saviour in a stable.

I take my hat off to Mary, there was no such thing as Entonox, epidurals, or any pain relief two millennia back, let alone a comfortable bed. Hay might have been okay, but one can imagine it must have been a tad draughty.  I’m not sure I would have coped with a procession of wise men, shepherds and worshippers just hours after giving birth in such circumstances, but thankfully Mary rose to occasion for the sake of humanity!

The perspective in The Census at Bethlehem pulls our gaze towards the bottom left as this appears closer, and the tall tree with the setting sun visible through its high, barren branches seems to demarcate the painting in invisible diagonals from top left to bottom right and bottom left to top right, intersecting in the middle where a single spoked carriage wheel lays in the snow.

The Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel the Elder c. 1566

Decay and disease is also part of the picture, as a man with leprosy is sheltered in the little hut.

The whiteness of the snow in the centre ground and on the slanting roof tops dazzles against the grey sky and bleakness of unforgiving winter weather, the light in the darkness of winter, as Jesus will become the light of the world.

In the top right we can see a ruined castle, (thought to be based on the towers and gates of Amsterdam Castle), a parallel with the dying of an old belief system, or a Pagan way of life, contrasted with the construction of newer buildings and a church across the frozen river, an allegory for a new religion – Christianity.

The Census at Bethlehem – detail of the castle ruins

Despite the bone numbing cold, many ordinary citizens have ventured out into the snow, from weary travellers to local residents busily preparing for the Christmas mass and celebration.

To think that children over four hundred and fifty years ago were doing just what children would do today, even in the midst of unimaginable cold, generates sympathy with our European ancestors. The joy of skating on ice, throwing snowballs (I loved the touch of white powder stuck to the man’s left shoulder standing with his back to us on the edge of the water), and being generally engaged in wintry play warms your heart.

The Census at Bethlehem – detail of the children

Large barrels of grain are stationary, ready to feed the people with much needed sustenance, even as their souls will be nourished by the coming birth…

The Census at Bethlehem was a popular painting during Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s lifetime, as were pretty much all of his works, which tended to depict the solid, robust and stocky figures of peasants (quite a few engaged in matrimonial and celebratory settings), combining landscapes with ordinary activities, making him an early pioneer of genre painting.

It is said the artist (who would have been categorised as upper-middle class in his day), used to dress as a peasant to gain access to such events and closely observe their activities.

The Census at Bethlehem was copied 14 times, 13 of them were known to be produced by his son, Pieter Brueghel the Younger (spelt conspicuously with an ‘h’); he knew he was on to a good thing! The 14th copy (painted in 1611) caused particular excitement in the art world when it surfaced in 2013 and came to the attention of a respected Old Masters art dealer, Johnny Van Haeften, having been in private ownership for 400 years.

The Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Breughel the Younger

There are subtle differences. The son, a skilled artist in his own right, is bound to stamp his own personality into his art after all, but the most striking for me is the vibrancy of the colour, and it lacks the sunset. It just looks, well cleaner, and not as gritty as his father’s…

Both sons were trained as painters by their maternal grandmother, Mayken Verhulst, a sixteenth-century miniature, tempera and watercolour painter, (hailed as one of the four most important female artists in the Low Countries by Lodovico Guicciardini in 1567), due to the death of their father they were very young. Bruegel’s second son, Jan Brueghel the Elder, differentiated from his brother (who solely focused on replicas of his father’s paintings), with his own original works and became a key figure in the transition to the Dutch Baroque style, frequently collaborating with Peter Paul Rubens.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525–69)

The Painter and the Connoisseur c. 1565 (only known possible self-portrait)

Bruegel was a member of the Antwerp Painter’s Guild. He was known to work by mixing layers that hadn’t dried completely, a technique called ‘alla prima’ or ‘wet on wet’ in English. In contrast to the Flemish artists from the previous century, the light effects are not due to transparency, but the overlay of material and thick impasto brush strokes of colours. This innovation was started by Heironymous Bosch, who was the premier influence on Bruegel, as well as the Italian Renaissance.

In other places, whilst the layers are very thin, Bruegel plays with them to obtain stunning nuances, particularly of the white shades. Bruegel was a master of depicting snowy surfaces and winter skies. Probably his most famous painting is The Hunters in the Snow (c. 1564).  It’s an amazing snowscape that gives a visual gift of desolate beauty and a sense of vast wintry territory in one of the world’s most revered landscapes.

Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder c. 1565

Bruegel’s travels to Italy and the influence of the mountainous landscape he would have encountered on his journey in the form of the Alps are juxtaposed against the flat fields of Flanders.

The Hunters in the Snow captures something elemental about our common experience of winter, a deep need for shelter, security and warmth against the stark nothingness surrounding our existence. It also offers the viewer a cinematic position over the first winter landscape created in western art.

I’m shivering just looking at it!

I am reminded of the toughness and resourcefulness of the people of that time, who didn’t have central heating during the ‘little Ice Age’. My brood complained about not having any heating or hot water for five days after our gas combi boiler was condemned a few weeks ago. Woolly jumpers were promptly resurrected from the bottom of drawers.

Bruegel in Vienna this winter…

To commemorate the 450th anniversary of the death of Pieter Bruegel the Elder a major exhibition of three quarters of his surviving work is being hosted at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Here is a link to his complete oeuvre of ‘Boschian’ allegories, proverbs, religious subjects, landscapes (including human forms) and genre peasant paintings.

Time is rapidly ticking by and I must attend to my brood, plus my usual endless list of last minute preparations, as I am blessed to have all my children together for the first time in a long time this Christmas.

I’d like to take this opportunity to say a big thank you to my readers for the instances you visited or shared my blog in 2018 and wish you all a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year! I hope to bring you some interesting and worthy posts in 2019…

Book Review of Transcription by Kate Atkinson: Fascism’s Dangerous Ideology (and a Brexit Whinge)

“In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” ~ Winston Churchill

Kate Atkinson is such an incredible storyteller. She has gripped me from the very first page to the very last in her latest novel, Transcription.

I bought Transcription in WH Smith at Gatwick Airport on my way to Turin in October. I didn’t actually start reading it in Italy, (which was a good thing), as I’m not sure I would have been able to drag myself away from it to attend a health conference or marvel at the architecture, learn the history (and taste the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had in my life) in this beautiful Piedmont city, thanks to my friend, Maestro Alessandro Fornero.

A table for four in Fiorio, laden with dark hot chocolate. A decadent sensation for those with non sweet taste buds!

Admiring the equestrian statue of Emmanuel Philibert, Duke of Savoy and the Piazza San Carlo

Guarini’s Baroque masterpiece: the dome of The Chapel of the Holy Shroud, which had only been re-opened to the public for a few weeks following its 22 year restoration project after the 1997 fire.

The Fiat test track at Lingotto, immortalised in a scene of the Michael Caine classic film, The Italian Job.

Luckily it was filmed on a sunnier day than when we visited:

Going back to topic I do seem to have a penchant for spy thrillers, but this is not your typical high octane fodder. No, Transcription is an intense and highly personal story about a young and  idealistic wanna-be spy, Juliet Armstrong, after she is recruited by the shadowy figure of Miles Merton into MI5 during the Second World War.

Recently bereaved after the loss of her mother, (she never knew her father), Juliet is alone in the world and ripe for their purposes.

Although initially slow burning, it’s intelligent and totally absorbing, with prose to die for (my writer’s radar was in admiration mode).  So much about this novel felt authentic. I couldn’t tell fact from fiction, although the author openly states that much of it is fiction, albeit fiction based on facts she accessed from the National Archives. The dialogue is totally believable and well written.

The characters are slightly stereotypical to fit the historical slant of the story, but they do seem real. Perhaps because they’re distorted reflections and constructs of actual people. The plot grabs you unawares, as you get pulled in deeper and deeper to the secretive world of MI5’s work on home soil during the war.

The novel covers an aspect of the war I didn’t know anything about; the efforts of the intelligence community (itself riddled with double agents), to draw out and obfuscate the activities of home grown fascists and Nazi sympathisers.

The genius of Miss Juliet Armstrong’s character was that I could relate to her on many levels, despite her wartime era. The bulk of the action is set in 1940 and 1950, with a brief jump in the first and last chapter to 1981.

Juliet is just 18 when she is drafted into a clerical position within MI5. She proves herself capable and is soon promoted to a special operation run by Peregrine (‘call me Perry’) Gibbons.

Perry explain’s Juliet’s role in her new position; to type the transcripts of secret conversations recorded in an adjacent apartment (Dolphin House in London) between British spy Godfrey Toby and various pro Hitler fascists that pose a potential threat to the outcome of the war.

‘I presume you are familiar with the ins and outs of the fifth column, Miss Armstrong?’
‘Fascist sympathizers , supporters of the enemy sir?’
‘Exactly. Subversives. The Nordic League, the Link, the Right Club, the Imperial Fascist League, and a hundred smaller factions. The people who meet with Godfrey are mostly old British Union of Fascists members – Mosley’s lot. Our own home-grown evil, I’m sorry to say. And instead of rooting them out, the plan is to let them flourish – but within a walled garden from which they cannot escape and spread their evil seed.’

Juliet has a crush on Perry, her troubled boss, unaware that it can never be requited due to his suppressed homosexuality. He takes Juliet on various trips such as bird watching in the Chilterns and to the Roman ruins at Verulamium Park, where Juliet hopes she will be seduced, but in reality he is using her to protect his reputation.  I felt that he did genuinely care for her, (just not in the way she wanted), and was a patriot dedicated to serving his country.

“Do not equate nationalism with patriotism,” Perry warned Juliet. “Nationalism is the first step on the road to Fascism.”

Her whole life is shaped by her experience and tragic events during the war, which has unfortunate ramifications for Juliet. At first, she feels like she is embarking on a big adventure, one that grows more exciting as the war progresses and the stakes are raised. But a decade on, Juliet has secrets of her own and the establishment that she once served is ever present.

The paradoxes of her personality put plenty of flesh on her young bones. She is smart but naïve, blithe yet (at times) terrified, plucky but also vulnerable. I loved her sense of humour, which made me chuckle in places and her propensity to quote Shakespeare to her colleagues, which mostly goes over their heads.

This book also filled me with a morose melancholy, not just for the impressionable orphaned Juliet, but for the awful situations she had to navigate in order to do her duty. Transcription is an engaging story that delves into the damage done by the misguided ideology of ordinary citizens as well as the moral implications of spy craft.

The novel makes no bones about the preponderance of anti-semitic sentiment in the UK as Hitler invaded Europe. It ran like an ugly seam throughout British society and was just as prevalent in the upper echelons of the aristocracy as it was in the middle and lower classes of the time.

Her main task, he explained, was to try to infiltrate the Right Club. ‘These people are a cut above our Bettys and Dollys,’ he said. ‘The Right Club is drawn from the establishment – a membership peppered with the names of the great and the good. Brocklehurst, Redesdale, the Duke of Wellington. There’s a book, supposedly- the Red Book – that lists them all. We would very much like to get our hands on it. A lot of its members have been swept up by defence regulation 18b, of course, but there are still many left – too many.’

Further on, after a key sting operation Perry tells Juliet, ‘Mosely’s been arrested as well.’

Sir Oswald Mosely, founder and leader of the British Union of Facists (BUF) married Diana (one of the notorious Mitford sisters), after the death of his first wife, (Lady Cynthia Curzon). They were married in Goebbel’s drawing room at his home in Berlin in October 1936, with Hitler and his inner-circle cronies present.  Even more shocking was Diana’s younger sister Unity Mitford’s devotion to Hitler; she shot herself in the head in Munich on the day Britain declared war.

There is a passage in the book where Juliet goes undercover in her spy pseudonym of Iris Carter-Jenkins at an evening gathering in the Right Club, where she unexpectedly bumps into her high society friend and colleague at MI5, Clarissa. Perhaps a discreet authorial nod to the Mitford sisters, (seeing as their father Baron Redesdale had been mentioned earlier):

These men weren’t funny. They were in charge of the country, one way or another. Were they even now discussing how they would carve up power if Hitler marched along Whitehall?
‘Daddy’s ferociously right-wing, completely pro-German,’ Clarissa said. ‘We met Hitler, you know. In ’36, at the Games.’ (We?) ‘So obviously, I fit the part. You’re doing a good job of not looking shocked. Have a fag, why don’t you?’
Juliet took a cigarette from the familiar gold-crested packet. ‘But you’re not…you know, are you?’
‘One of them? Dear God no. Of course not. Don’t be silly. My sisters are, mind you. And Mummy. And poor Pammy, of course – she worships old Adolf, dreams about having his baby.’

The themes in Transcription are just as relevant today in peace time, when far right, populist politics seem to be gaining ground in the UK, Europe and the USA. It actually scares me.

The enemy may not be a messianic, narcissistic, occultist madman like Hitler, (or the megalomaniac dictators Stalin or Mao for that matter, ) for the discontent he fuelled with his charisma, passionate oratory and malevolent rhetoric enabled him, and those who did his evil bidding, to be responsible for the unimaginable cruelty of the Holocaust, as well as the millions of deaths globally of soldiers and civilians in the Second World War. So many souls that perished directly and as a result of the flawed and dangerous ideology of Fascism and race superiority.

Current political and national turmoil in the UK

The use of the word ‘sovereignty’ was bandied about by hardline Brexiteers like confetti at a wedding during the lead up to the EU referendum. Like we didn’t have it already…

To my mind ‘sovereignty’ was used as a disguised weapon, a veiled forerunner of toxic Nationalism.

The level of vitriol and hate towards migrants, the bare-faced lies and propaganda deployed from positions of power, on social media and ‘fake news’ platforms adversely influences and manipulates people’s thoughts and beliefs.

You only have to look at the chaos, fear and uncertainty that the leave campaign and Brexit has unleashed on the nation. Funnily enough, I don’t recall ever seeing the words ‘economic armageddon‘ plastered on the side of a big red Brexit bus…

We know that the EU is far from perfect, but peace prevailing in Europe for the last 73 years must surely count for something? We have become careless with our hard won freedoms.

Modern politics seems to have descended into fear fuelled extreme rhetoric, sowing division and discord. Where is the centre ground, the pragmatism, the hope, the democracy?

Okay, so the fine margin ‘will of the people’ was obtained by the manipulative and shameless silvery tongues of charlatans and liars, (who may well have believed their fantasies) and like lemmings the whole nation is careering towards an irreversible plunge off the edge of the proverbial Brexit cliff.

Theresa May’s intractable stance is: the people voted unwittingly to jump off a cliff, and I’m going to facilitate a deal to jump off the cliff, no matter what. To rethink jumping off a cliff is an affront to democracy.

Apparently, to readjust a course of action that appears to be a mistake is out of the question!

I don’t doubt the prime minister believes she is doing the right thing and has done her best under the circumstances; but she is afraid to ask the people to review their folly in the harsh light of the government’s ineptitude in negotiating Brexit – to be given a last chance to decide whether to proceed with it or not.

Tally ho, off the edge we go! Head first into a worst of all worlds, whether you voted remain or leave…

Brexit was sold to the nation as ‘taking back control’, not relinquishing it, and MPs now have a crucial vote on 11 December about the future of our country. The former governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, has also entered the fray, (Bloomberg article), as contempt and disgust over May’s proposed Brexit deal mounts.

It seems I’m not the only person to think of lemmings, as Matthew Parris has in this recent article I found in The Spectator.  Nick Cohen at The Guardian also contends that politicians citing the ‘will of the people’ will be judged harshly by society in this brilliant article about post Brexit carnage.

Surely a second referendum could also open up the possibility of positive reform within the EU, as well as avoiding the inevitable hardships that this whole sorry episode in our nation’s long history will bring.

It seems we may be a step closer to this common sense vote after the government suffered three parliamentary defeats in the Commons on Wednesday.

An illuminating TED talk on why fascism is so tempting – and how your data could power it by Yuval Noah Harari:

“…in the end, democracy is not based on human rationality, it’s based on human feelings. During elections and referendums you’re not being asked, ‘What do you think?’ You’re actually being asked, ‘How do you feel?’ And if somebody can manipulate your emotions effectively, democracy will become an emotional puppet show.”~ Yuval Noah Harari

Anyhow, I digress, I just had to get that off my chest!

I couldn’t help but see the parallels of Transcription with the depressing political events unfolding in the UK. This book is so brilliant it makes you think about the scourge of Fascism, and the ways it can re-emerge its foul head.

The story highlights how opinions and actions are heightened during times of war, how collective beliefs are so crucial to the well-being and prosperity of any nation.

It was unusual for Kate Atkinson to start the book describing Juliet’s demise on Wigmore Street in 1981, with the memories of her life being told in the remaining minutes of her life.

The story properly gets going when in 1950 Juliet, (now a producer for the BBC in the Schools department), sees master spy (Godfrey Tobey), from her time at MI5. The tension becomes unbearable as we learn of Juliet’s contribution to the war effort, around the time of the Dunkirk evacuation.

Whether one lived or died seemed completely arbitrary, and risk of death was ever present for spies and double agents. The untimely reappearance of Godfrey Toby sparks her paranoia, which becomes acute as she perceives her life is in danger again, a decade after her wartime efforts.

Although she survives the war, but she carries emotional scars, as do many of the characters, scars that messily heal over but still contain an element of rawness.

I’m still reeling from the twist at the end, which I did not see coming…

My only small criticism of the book is not aimed at the actual ending itself, which was clever, and entirely plausible, but for the fact that I felt short-changed by a lack of foreshadowing. I didn’t have the faintest inkling of the plot twist. In hindsight I could have made more of a leap from Juliet’s love of Shostakovich, her interaction with Flamingo and her meeting at the museum in front of Rembrandt with Miles Merton.

Before I began reading Transcription I wondered what business a flamingo had being on the front cover, as it didn’t seem to have any connection  with the premise of the book, but all that becomes clear towards the end of the novel, being tied up with the major plot twist.

In the end I was disappointed by Juliet, which, after being fully on her side for over 300 pages, felt like a kind of betrayal…

This book will stay with me for a long time, it warrants rereading at some point. It is the first novel I have read by Kate Atkinson, but it certainly won’t be the last.

I’d like to let the author have the last word from a recent interview about Transcription:

‘The mark of a good agent is when you have no idea which aside they’re on.’ It seemed to Juliet that there were some rather blurred boundaries when it came to beliefs – Perry had once been a member of the British Union of Fascists (‘It was useful,’ he said. ‘Helped me understand them’) and Hartley (Hartley, of all people!) had been a member of the Communist Party when he was at Cambridge. ‘But everyone was a Communist before the war,’ he protested.

Flames In Realm – Exit!

“It is your concern when your neighbour’s wall is on fire.”
“Your own safety is at stake when your neighbour’s house is in flames.” ~ Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace)

I’ve never had any cause to consider Horace’s quotes until two nights ago… I’ve had plenty of days where I’ve followed his wonderful advice: Carpe diem, quam minimum credula posero. (Pluck the day, putting as little trust as possible in tomorrow).

Not your average Thursday evening…

I had put the children to bed a few hours earlier, and for the first time all week had not crashed out in heap myself. Instead, I decided I needed to watch some trashy TV to clear my mind and relax before tackling the remains of the home cooked meal I had prepared earlier.

As I sat on the sofa I became aware of a burning smell. I sniffed and queried what I had smelt. Could I smell burning? I sat for a bit longer, but the smell didn’t go away. I got up and wandered into the kitchen; maybe I had left the hob or the oven on?

No – I could not see or smell any sign of any post dinner forgetfulness. I went back into the lounge and the smell hit me again. After a while I went into my office, but there was no sign of any problems or any burning smell in there.

I sat down again, and rather disconcertingly the smell of burning was getting worse. Little did I know that the room directly on the other side of the wall was on fire.

I soon got an inkling of the problem when I saw blue flashing lights rapidly approach and come to a halt outside my window through a gap in the curtains. My adrenaline instantly kicked in and I threw on my coat and ventured into the street.

Fire crews were busy pulling out hoses and donning oxygen tanks and masks from two fire engines, and the reality of the situation hit home. The house joining ours was on fire.

The last thing I expected to see was flames flickering in the window of my neigbour’s house!

fire engines blurred

The picture on my phone is blurry, but smoke is visible in the upper left corner.

The owners had not lived there for a few years, it had been rented out on and off. The incident commander asked me if I knew who lived there. They broke in and began dealing with the situation. Orange lit up the window and smoke was streaming from the chimney and the front door.

Luckily no-one was in the house. Then my thoughts turned to my three children sleeping peacefully a few feet away. A fireman told me that the fire had not had a chance to reach the loft, so it seemed our house was not in danger of burning down. Even so, I still felt an overwhelming urge to get everyone out and the fireman agreed.

I dashed back in and ran upstairs. I had forgotten that I had opened my bedroom window that morning to air the room, and consequently the smoke that had been billowing up from next door was funnelling straight into our house. I couldn’t believe how thick it had become in such a short space of time, even after a few minutes in my room (which was next to and above the room on fire).

Unfortunately our smoke alarms didn’t go off, despite all the false alarms from burnt toast in previous years.

As I entered William’s room I could see the smoke had seeped in under the closed door, and my son leapt out of bed the instant I woke him. My daughters were a little more groggy and confused, but I assured them they should get dressed and get out of the house as quickly and calmly as possible.

At this point I was feeling anything but calm.

Every minute that passed I could sense the smoke becoming thicker and more acrid.

I remembered our eight month old kittens. I tried to get the bigger cat basket that was stored under my bed out. It wouldn’t budge. No matter how I twisted and turned it I couldn’t move it from its wedged position. My throat was literally burning by this point, I couldn’t stop coughing and my eyes were stinging. My daughter came in and dragged me away, telling me to leave it.

It’s hard to comprehend how grim smoke inhalation is, even at a relatively low level. I shudder to think how bad it would be inside a burning building. I can fully appreciate why firemen wear breathing apparatus.

My step father gave me a valuable piece of advice afterwards, should we ever have to face such an unpleasant scenario in the future: to put a damp cloth over your face to help you breath in a smoky room.

I shiver to think that I could have been asleep in a room that was virtually unbreathable in…

Once downstairs where the smoke wasn’t so bad I was relieved to find the cats were both pacing in the lounge. I found a small carrier from a recent visit to the vets. I popped them both unceremoniously into far too small a space, but I think they knew something was wrong and they didn’t scratch or bite me. I got the kids and cats out into the driveway and cold, fresh air, and settled the cat carrier onto the back seat of the car. The children were shocked and simultaneously excited to see the fire engines and a hive of activity outside our house.

I considered going back in to fetch my violin and take it with us to a local hotel, I knew I would have to spend the night in the car with the cats. Luckily it never came to that.

We waited for an hour and a half until the firemen assured us the fire was out next door and it was safe to go back inside. They checked our house and kindly placed two brand new, fully sealed 10 year fire alarms in our hallway and landing and tested them in front of me.

fire engines

Job done, getting ready to go.

I got the kids back into bed and opened all the windows to try and air the house. There was no longer any smoke entering our house from our neighbour’s house, however the overpowering stench in my own room prevented me from sleeping in my bed. I set up a makeshift bed on my sofa, but my adrenaline was still coursing and I couldn’t sleep.

I think in the back of my mind I was worried the fire might flare up again; a totally irrational fear considering how professional and thorough the firemen had been.

I had a cup of tea and eventually dozed off, fully clothed at 4 am. When I woke at 7 am I had a pounding headache and a sore throat, but also an overriding and immense gratitude to the passerby who had noticed the fire from the street and called the High Wycombe Fire Brigade, and for their prompt arrival and hard work in making sure the fire did not spread.

I thanked them profusely!

There is no doubt in my mind that had it been left for another hour or two to burn unhindered the loft would have gone up and at that point so would our house…

Before they departed, when I had queried if the commander knew what had started the fire, he seemed to think an open fire had been left burning in the grate without a fire guard. He told me that the rest of the house was completely blackened through smoke.

A careless moment can have serious consequences…

I feel like angelic forces were protecting us that night, and the experience made me re-evaluate the most important things in my life. The awful smell of smoke in our house has diminished and will continue to fade as the days go by. I am so happy and thankful that we still have a roof over our heads and we are still alive.

I can’t imagine the horror of the residents affected by the Grenfell Tower disaster.

I will try not to let the smaller daily concerns fill me with fear, for when you sense your life may be in danger is the only time to utilise the fear response (fight or flight) and let it do its original job of mortal protection.

Having seen the distressing reports about the California wildfires my heart goes out those affected.

No matter how tough life has been recently, it is infinitely valuable and to be savoured.

“Fire, water and government know nothing of mercy.” ~ Albanian Proverb