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

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

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

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

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

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

As Sonia Purnell so eloquently stated:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Childhood and education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early career

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tragedy strikes

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

Gediz River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aerial shot of Venice by @canmandawe on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The outbreak of war

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 2 will focus on Virginia’s wartime activities!

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

The Significance and Value of Stories to Human Survival

“Every man’s life is a fairy tale written by God’s fingers.” ~ Hans Christian Andersen

Calliope bestowed me with a mother lode on Sunday morning. My circuits were almost on overload; frantically trying to record the flood of questions and stream of consciousness that I could not have stemmed even if I wanted to. A rare occurrence!

My hand scribbled as if on auto-pilot, struggling to keep up with the incoming thoughts, jumbled as they were, one leading to another in a febrile firing of unstoppable synapses.

Maybe it was the artistry of the prose of the book I was reading, or the fact that both my daughters were away at the time, and the ensuing solitude and relief from the tumult of the last few weeks that allowed my muse to be heard. Maybe it was a combination of all of it. I’m not complaining!

Now comes the hard part, placing them into a cohesive structure that makes sense, but also captivates, much like a story…

My muse wanted to talk about stories. I know I have shared posts on this subject before, but if you’ll indulge me I’ll try and come at it from a fresh angle, so that any repetition can be forgiven.

A Reading from Homer by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

It’s such a profound subject I don’t think I could ever tire of it, but you my dear reader are entitled to feel differently!

What is a story?

There are many definitions for a collection of words that we deem to be a story. A body of words, strung together with a certain arrangement and architecture, style and voice; sometimes poetical in nature, perhaps enchanting, beguiling, suspenseful, mysterious, erotic, brutal or shocking. We are held rapt under their spell, either in awe or disgust, joy or sorrow, and every emotion in between – a voluntary prisoner to their unfolding.

These ordered black marks on the page evoke pictures in our minds, each word itself perhaps unremarkable, yet together, they are a collection of something magical: a work of art. Stories are the rich imaginal tapestry upon which consciousness records itself.

Why do stories matter?

Stories are greater than the sum of their literary parts – for their effect is transformational. The transformation can be emotional, mental, physical and even spiritual.

I dream of writing a book that will suck someone in and spit them out at the end forever altered. That, for me, is a worthwhile endeavour and contribution.

Stories are nebulous in nature because they come from nothing but an electrical spark. That spark, which is a memory or a thought, enables further sparks, which in combination coalesce into a form of expression through the lens and hand of a creator – a human being.

The Novel Reader by Vincent van Gogh c. 1888

The same could be said of music and art, of all creative, artistic endeavour.

Maybe stories and art hold such fascination and appeal because as human beings we are bound by flesh and blood, contained by our physical borders, but our imagination knows no such limits. There are no frontiers closed off to our imagination.  Einstein grasped this concept when he asserted that imagination is more important than intelligence. Travel in the imagination is instantaneous and immersive.

Once notated onto paper or screen, outside the cranial cavity of the author, stories and characters can take on a life of their own.

The likes of Sir Lancelot, Guinevere, King Arthur, Merlin, Hamlet, Robin Hood, Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit, Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy, Ebenezer Scrooge, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, Sherlock Holmes, Scarlett O’Hara, Alice in Wonderland, The Great Gatsby, James Bond and Harry Potter to name just a few, have become stalwarts of our culture.

Strand magazine Vol iv.1892. Page page 646. illustration The Adventure of the Silver Blaze by Sidney Paget.

A story is an escape rooted in reality that can come into existence and stay with us (in one form or another), through millennia and centuries. Stories, both real (historical) and fictional can leave an enduring legacy.

Stories beget and shape whole religions and belief systems, (Adam and Eve squarely put the blame for everything on women), with numerous epic tales that have been told over the ages; stories which are so deeply rooted and embedded in our collective unconscious that their effects will always be felt on some level.

“Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.” ~ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Tales and poems told by bards, philosophers, sages, scribes, scholars and age-old greats like Hesiod, Homer, Ovid and Herodotus.

The ancient Greeks left their mark on western culture with their vivid descriptions of how the world was created, of Titans and mythological gods and goddesses, usually behaving badly and abusing their power in the course of their wondrous deeds. Despite their very great strength and ability their flaws and foibles are all too human…

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel:

If anything the stakes are higher now that humans possess nuclear warheads, biological weapons and the means to destroy entire ecosystems (and potentially all life on earth including our own), as a result of our aggregated economic activities, buying habits and behaviour.

Whether great tomes or tales of brevity, such immortal stories act as bridges to other worlds; ones that we usually cross willingly, if sometimes with a tinge of trepidation, nonetheless determined to reach the other shore.

The Bookworm by Carl Spitzweg

Stories capture our yearning for adventure, our quest for discovery, and our innate curiosity. But most of all they fulfil perhaps the greatest of human needs: love and connection. That sense of connection gives meaning to our own experiences.

As the Oxford University professor, Jack (aka renowned author, C.S. Lewis) in Richard Attenborough’s moving film Shadowlands, when asking his writing students, “Why do we read?” is given his favourite eloquent answer: “so that we know we are not alone.”

This clip comes at the end of the film. I can feel myself welling up just from these brief minutes.

Stories are to humans as life is to death: there cannot be one without the other. When we read, (either fact or fiction) we deliberately enter a temporary hallucination, a vacuum in space and time where we can live vicariously through the reveries of the writer.

A story, then, could be classified as a chimera of the soul; a fundamental system on which to create an experiential palette, an understanding of life. Stories are the nearest thing we have to a map of the soul’s journey.

Maybe that is the purpose of a soul incarnated into physical form – to make it all up as it goes along. Charting a physical path to know itself as a divine being, free to make choices and live by the consequences of those choices. Free to create varying experiences and help other souls do the same.  As such, we all participate to a lesser or larger degree in each other’s stories.

A skilfully crafted story can reawaken dormant ideas, hopes, dreams, and memories,  show us what is possible no matter how absurd or fantastical it may seem.

The wisdom of the Native American culture is perfectly illustrated in this timeless folktale.

A Cherokee elder is sitting around a bonfire with his grandchild, teaching him the lessons of life:

“There is a battle going on inside me,” he says to the child. “It is a constant fight, and it is between two wolves. One wolf is filled with anger, envy, jealousy, fear, regret, shame, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, false pride, superiority, and ego.

“The other wolf is filled with humility, gratitude, acceptance, patience, joy, peace, love, hope, kindness, empathy, generosity, truth, and compassion.”

He leans in close to his grandchild and whispers: “The same fight is going on inside you, my sweet boy – and inside every other person too.”

The child grows silent, thinking about the profound nature of this lesson, and then asks, “So Grandfather…which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee smiles a knowing look and replies, “The one you feed.”

A story can open up new perspectives, capture a mood, a zeitgeist, or an intimate interaction, exposing a kernel of truth and transforming it into something truly iconic; something that inhabits the consciousness of generations that follow and lasts long after the author has passed.

Since time immemorial humans have been telling tales. They have evolved with us, from the simple to the complex, cautionary and heroic, enabling shared values and co-operation between peoples on a massive scale.

No matter the content, a really good story will challenge and change the reader in some way. That transition can be subtle or life-changing, and can even help shape opinion, as did Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Archetypes

There’s a reason we tell fairy tales to children – it’s a simple and effective way of getting to grips with our species’ archetypal energies. Kids can learn lessons by way of other people’s wisdom. The Grimm brothers certainly didn’t sugar coat their stories.

Girl reading a book by James Charles

But these archetypes don’t just live in fairy tales and folklore, they are more nuanced in adult fiction, but we can still recognise them:

  • The Fool/Jester – Henry VIII’s court jester was the only person that could say anything to the monarch without having his head decapitated. Jack and the Beanstalk is a tale about an honest fool overcoming the odds. In fiction there are some great examples in Shakespeare and their modern equivalents.

    Norse trickster god Loki, from an 18th century Icelandic manuscript.

  • The Fairy – These magical creatures take many forms. Peter Pan’s Tinkerbell is an enduring favourite, but not all fairies are well intentioned and some are downright meddlesome. There have been times in my life when I wanted so badly to have a benevolent fairy godmother!

    Dancing Fairies from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by Sir Arthur Rackham

  • The Witch/Crone/Wicked Stepmother – These characters can be beautiful on the surface, but ugly on the inside, being capricious and cruel in the extreme. Snow White’s evil mother gets her punishment, as they usually eventually do.
  • Prince Charming – usually involved in some type of daring rescue, he can kiss life back into heroines, but now and then his looks are more chiselled than his courage.
  • The King – The egotistical King Lear and rapacious King Midas with his golden touch are perhaps the most tragic of monarchs.

    The Judement of Midas by Abraham Janssens

  • Princess/Damsel in Distress – We’ve all felt the intense pangs of love that beset Romeo and Juliet, or the feeling of being trapped, just like Rapunzel.
  • Pauper/Peasant – Mark Twain’s wonderful historical novel, The Prince and the Pauper explores the theme of mercy, clearly inspired by one of Shakespeare’s finest speeches: the quality of mercy is not strained.
  • Orphan – Oliver Twist and Jane Eyre are characters who wear their troubles on their sleeves. Their emotional wounds and difficult lives make them relatable. They show us that a bad start in life doesn’t have to seal a person’s fate, but can provide the crucible for positive change.
  • Greek Mythology – This subject alone is forming the basis of a new talk I will be giving to The Women’s Institute. I found Stephen Fry’s book, Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold absolutely entrancing.

    Aphrodite’s rock/birthplace in Paphos, Cyprus

Archetypes rather than stereotypes allow us to put flesh on memorable character’s bones. Characters are therefore the same but different, as their attributes cling to a central support – the archetype.

A fascinating introduction to Jungian Archetypes:

The same goes for the structure of the story – how the plot unfolds. Films and novels tend to use the three act structure, but whichever format or formula a writer uses, the best ones allow for freedom of creative flow and don’t stifle the story.

Just as humans all have a skeleton that consists of the same bones in the same order, on the exterior we all look and sound different, and behave according to our own values, beliefs and experiences. This is also the case with a story, as the author layers its unique ‘features’ on top.

The elements of a story – the characters, the plot, the landscape/setting and era are woven together in a way that speaks to us collectively and as individuals. They bring the unconscious into consciousness – buried pain, lost loves, past trauma, moral dilemmas and personal victories shift into the here and now, to be indirectly relived and integrated.

The hero’s journey is the protagonist’s journey as experienced by a reader. The soul has to be breached to be opened, and wounds do the breaching. The deeper the wound the richer the story will be, and the greater the journey and more satisfying the transformation.

“You’re never going to kill storytelling, because it’s built in the human plan. We come with it.” ~ Margaret Atwood

There are many theories about what makes a good story – being a highly subjective art form.

First edition of Peter Rabbit from 1902

The antithesis of a good story is boredom and ambivalence. Connection to characters and emotion balanced with action is surely its beating heart. It’s a tough task to both surprise a reader and give them what they want at the same time!

Human neurobiology has evolved around the eternal clock face of time with stories, but it is the soul that craves them.

Some acrostic thoughts on the properties of stories:

Seductive sparks firing,

Tales of inner journeys and outer travels

Of other

Realms and realities,

Illusory, ingrained, immortal

Essence and expression of human condition

Sharing seminal ideas

We can each feel something similar or different about a story according to our own subjective perceptions, background and imagination. Some stories devour me and become part of my DNA.

It is perhaps the greatest of compliments to be called a storyteller, a teller of tales, a spinner of yarns. Sharing one’s sparks is a challenging and courageous undertaking. I’m grateful for all the writers (in the present and past), who have changed my life.

Fiction writers don’t know what will happen in their own lives, but on paper at least, they can be masters of other people’s fates!

I am looking forward to hearing my first published novel, The Virtuoso being narrated for audio book format early next year.

I have just finished reading a biography that has gripped me from the start, a story of life and death that is so compelling I can’t stop thinking about it. Placing myself in that person’s shoes has filled me with awe and inspiration. Needless to say I will be sharing a post on it in the near future.

The stories we tell ourselves and others have the power to shape our destiny on a personal level and also as a species. The world needs storytellers (of all genres) who can contribute to humanity’s conscious evolution now more than ever…

I feel I should end this post with a beginning – and what a beginning it is. Probably the best (and longest) opening line in fiction that was ever written, and for me embodies more than just the title of the book it starts. To me it conveys the wisdom, folly and contradictions of human nature – it is nothing less than visionary!

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
~ Charles Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities)

The Wisdom and Wonder of Waterfalls

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” ~ JawaHarlal Nehru

It feels like an age since our summer holiday. Inevitably the days are drawing slowly shorter as autumn’s early whispers bring cooler temperatures.

My children are back at school (my youngest has her 11+ exam on Thursday), I’ve nearly finished painting my office cabin, and I finally have some quiet time to reflect on and share the incredible two week family road trip we took this summer; a touring holiday that took us to three countries.

Our adventure began in Iceland, with awestruck admiration for its volcanic, Hawaii-esque scenery, a spectacular waterfall around almost every corner, before jetting off to the urban jungle and iconic skyline that is New York, to spend some time with the American branch of our family.

Together we made an epic drive through the stunning landscape of New York State, (via Letchworth State Park) to Buffalo, and a hotly anticipated meal for my son at the original ‘home’ of Buffalo Wings.

The canyon that runs through Letchworth State park

From the shores of Lake Erie we entered into Canada and spent two amazing days at the horseshoe falls in Niagara. To say Niagara Falls is breath-taking doesn’t do it justice. I thought I might feel a bit jaded after the many magnificent waterfalls we had seen in Iceland, but Niagara was the crowning glory.

I saw more waterfalls on this trip than I had previously seen in a lifetime!

My photo of the horseshoe falls from Table Rock

There is something magical, ephemeral and transcendent about waterfalls that invigorates the mind, body and soul.

It was hot the day we arrived – and a national holiday in Canada so it was also heaving, but to walk along the promenade and feel the spritz of the water was refreshing.  We loved our little excursion into the spray filled cauldron on the Hornblower, a totally different and more immersive perspective from water level.

Depending on where the measurement is taken, the horseshoe falls are 54 – 58 metres high, and 675 metres across from Table Rock to Goat Island on the American side. Around a million gallons of water per minute cascades down, producing its own roaring symphony, (we could even hear it from high up in our hotel room).

The next morning we ventured into the tunnels that go down and behind the falls. There are two openings, the Cataract Portal and the Great Falls Portal, the latter being 200 metres along the falls, almost one third of the width of the falls.

Behind the falls at the Great Falls Portal

On 24th October 1901 Annie Edson Taylor was the very first person to ‘go over’ the falls in a barrel and survive. She was a widow and school teacher. Amazingly she sustained only cuts and bruises. Annie was certainly courageous. Many others weren’t so lucky…

The word ‘Niagara’ is thought to originate from the Onguiaahra tribe of the Haudenosaunee society around 3000 years ago. The first European reported to have discovered Niagara was Etienne Brule, a crew member of Samuel de Champlain, but the first actual, (and in my opinion quite eloquent) eye-witness account of the falls was written by Father Louis Hennepin who visited Niagara in 1678:

“…four leagues from Lake Frontenac there is an incredible Cataract of water-fall which has no equal… Betwixt the Lake Ontario and Erie, there is a vast and prodigious cadence of water which falls down after a surprising and astonishing manner, insomuch that the Universe does not afford its parallel. “

Lake Superior and Lake Michigan feed into Lake Huron which (via the Detroit River) joins Lake Erie, and flows into Lake Niagara. The water from Niagara Falls drains into Lake Ontario. The great lakes of North America contain one fifth of the world’s fresh water supply.

After Niagara we drove through the flat vineyard lands surrounding the southern tip of Lake Ontario, along the north-west shore for a fleeting meeting with Toronto, mostly viewed from the CN Tower.

Further up the lake we took an overnight pit-stop at Trenton. Poor weather prevented us from exploring Prince Edward Island, so we wound our way up into Quebec and Montreal. I can recommend Tommy’s for a fab brunch and the children persuaded me to do my first urban zip wire over the old port as we explored the city and its French origins.

From Montreal we drove south back into the US and through the Adirondack Mountains into Vermont, to the secluded old-world resort of Basin Harbor, nestled quietly since 1886 on the shores of Lake Champlain.

Basin Harbor on Lake Champlain

Some of the highlights included water-skiing, tubing, biking, hiking and water trampolines. After three nights in one place I was beginning to get settled, but then we needed to return to Connecticut. It’s probably just as well, as the American Plan (basically everything you can possibly eat in a buffet in one go three times a day) was taking its toll on our waistlines and our finances were already depleted. Plus the mosquitoes were feasting on us…

We had one last day in New York to take in some culture at the Met Museum and do some sightseeing in Central Park before flying back to the UK via Iceland.

View from Bow Bridge of the Manhattan skyline

We did A LOT of driving, but felt like explorers nonetheless. The kids were mostly well behaved, considering such long stints in close proximity. I don’t think I heard one “are we there yet?” from the back seat!

Iceland

None of us had been to Iceland before, immortalised and popularised on TV by Game of Thrones, and we weren’t disappointed. Located in the middle of the North Atlantic, just four degrees outside the Arctic Circle, we landed at 10.30 pm and the sun was a bright ball on the horizon. It never really got pitch black, even after the sun disappeared shortly after 11 pm.

These long, light days lent themselves to touring, and we duly hired a car from Reykjavik Airport and based ourselves in a delightful Airbnb apartment in Grindavik.

Iceland is essentially one big, moss and mountain covered lava flow, an island of multiple geothermal hotspots – home to around 130 volcanoes – many of which are active. The 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull caused massive disruption to flights to and from Europe. We saw a glimpse of its shrouded slopes from a viewing point en-route to Gulfoss.

The volcano has erupted four times since the island was settled, with 2010 being the last eruption.

Iceland is the land of fire and ice, boasting mountains, volcanoes, glaciers, waterfalls, lakes, black sand beaches and verdant fields with an abundance of grazing horses.

Its dramatic, untamed and pristine landscape has a primordial power, you feel like you have gone back in time in some respects. You can drive for hours and only see handful of homes or farms, and I loved that they built tiny, American style churches in these remote communities.

Church at Thingvellir

Their language is Germanic based, but unlike the languages of Europe it has not evolved or been altered from outside influences and is essentially the same language as it was 10,000 years ago.

It felt significantly colder than the UK, especially only days after one of our hottest days on record. The weather was cool, cloudy and rainy for the most part, except on the last day when we visited the geothermal springs at the Blue Lagoon, when the sun eventually came out.

The Blue Lagoon

I would have liked to experience the relaxing heat of the Blue Lagoon in the snow…

We soon got used to the faint smell of rotten egg, but I wouldn’t recommend doing it on the day you fly as the warmth of the water puts you into a kind of soporific state, and we sort of lost track of time. That, coupled with slow service in the restaurant, (although delicious food) meant we only just caught our flight to New York.

Surprisingly Iceland is the largest producer of bananas in Europe. We saw a massive distribution centre sized glass house, which lit up the night sky running on geothermal power.

The glacier topped volcano of Snæfellsjökull, 120 kilometers north-west of Reykjavik inspired Jules Verne in his 1864 novel ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’, but sadly that glacier (and others), are now rapidly melting. With lava formed slopes and volcanic caves this dormant volcano provided the perfect fictional entrance to the passage leading into the Earth’s core! We didn’t have time to visit it, but maybe if we can ever afford another visit we’ll do a trip to its summit, 1448 metres above sea-level.

Pretty much everything, but especially food, is eye-wateringly expensive in Iceland, so save your pennies! I took my gut-friendly pea protein shakes and plenty of nuts, which sorted breakfast.

Elements of Iceland:

Gulfoss

“No waterall in Europe can match Gulfoss. In Wildness and fury it outdoes the Niagara Falls of the United States. Thousands of unharnessed horsepower flow continuously into the gorge, year in and year out.” ~ Taken from a travel book by two Danes in the retinue of King Frederick VII after a visit to Gulfoss in 1907.

The first thing I remember about Gulfoss was seeing a rainbow. As you walk closer you see the mist and hear the water.

It flows down a rocky incline before descending into a steep gorge, pummelling the earth with incredible force and sheer radiance.

Luckily for us, Gulfoss and the surrounding area were made a nature reserve in 1979 to give people the best opportunity to experience this natural phenomenon.

Geysir

We saw two of the world’s largest geysers at Geysir, where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge cuts Iceland into two parts. These two plates are drifting away from each other at a rate of 2 cm per year.

Scenery at Geysir

The high temperatures of Icleand’s geothermal areas are located in the volcanic zone, and Geysir has a base temperature of around 250 degrees celsius.

Thingvellir National Park

We spent several hours in Thingvellir National Park, the geographic location of Iceland’s culture, history and national identity. We did quite a bit of walking here, but I hasten to add we didn’t dive or snorkel where the American continental plate is drifting apart from the Eurasian continental plate.

We walked along the scenic path by the side of the steep escarpment of the American plate.

One of the more macabre facts we learnt about Thingvellir National Park (the site of Iceland’s first government), was that they used certain areas for executions. Seventy-two people were put to death between 1602 and 1750: 30 men were beheaded, 15 hanged, and 9 burned at the stake. Eighteen women were drowned at Drekkingarhylur.

The Drowning Pool (Drekkingarylur).

Skogafoss

Skogafoss is another impressive and beautiful waterfall. High and majestic, falling over ancient coastal cliffs, like Gulfoss, its source is glacial.

We ventured close to the foot of the 62 metre high and 15 metre wide Skogafoss, and boy was it powerful! We spent the drive back wishing we had bought head to toe waterproof gear…

Afterwards we pushed on further along the coast to the black beach at Reynisfjara – a bleak but stunning vista, yet another location where filming for GoT took place.

5 Observations of the wisdom and wonder of waterfalls:

Water – that simple chemical composition of H2O, so vital to our health and well-being and that of our planet – yet not all sources are equal, depending on where in the world you are. It’s contradictions matter: abundant or scarce, pure or polluted, the ultimate elixir of life, maybe even a kind of spiritual life-blood…

It’s hard to put into words how being near a waterfall affects you.

  1. To respect the raw, untamed power of nature and enjoy its beauty.
  2. Flow’ is everything…
  3. Energy can be harnessed from waterfalls, both physically (hydro-electric power) and spiritually. Waterfalls make you feel alive and connected to a higher power.
  4. The natural circulation of water helps to oxygenate and irrigate the surrounding plant life.
  5. They emit negative ions, which are beneficial to humans.

Only Victoria Falls and Iguazu Falls to cross off my bucket list now!

“A waterfall cannot be silent, just as the wisdom! When they speak, the voice of power speaks!” ~ Mehmet Murat Ildan

Talk about post-holiday blues – I think I spent two weeks continuously doing laundry, and other ongoing distressing challenges arose the moment we landed.

I have finally downloaded the gazillion photos I took on the trip. I’ll share some photographic highlights in the galleries below. Please contact me if you wish to use any of these images.

Iceland Gallery

USA Gallery

Canada Gallery

An Appreciation of the Natural World

“A walk is only a step away from a story, and every path tells.”
~ Robert Macfarlane

I hope you are having a good summer!  Yesterday, here in the UK, we had the hottest day of the year, and the second hottest day ever of recorded temperatures in the UK – a scorching 38.1 degrees. Heaven knows how people in Paris coped with 42 degrees!

For my part, I was helping to lug timbers for my garden cabin from the driveway to the back garden, with my son and the builders. I was feeling like a wilted flower after that…

It’s a short one from me today, as we are travelling in a few hours, but I’ll be back (hopefully rejuvenated and invigorated), after my holiday.

I make it a habit (most days), to take a short walk in and around the mini-meadow and woods near our home after I drop my daughter at school.  It gets my blood flowing, ideas streaming and just sets me up for the day. That quiet time spent in the natural world revitalises my mind, body and spirit, connects me to nature and fills me with gratitude for the beauty on my doorstep.

A recent report has cited the importance of getting at least 2 hours per week in nature to promote health and well-being. It’s important for our microbiome too, being in contact with mud, bark, leaves and all the bacteria that live outdoors that we need for inner diversity.

I’m looking forward to exploring parts of different landscapes with my family in Iceland, the USA and Canada over the next two weeks.

I’m aware I need to practice poetry, it’s not easy for me, but I still enjoy the discipline of expressing my thoughts in that medium when the mood takes me.

The Mini-meadow

Body wanders where spirit directs me,

A mini meadow beckons; green show-stopper,

Crisscrossed by perambulating bees,

Drawn to hypnotic strumming of grasshoppers,

Accompanied by pigeons, softly cooing,

As wild flowers sway in the breeze,

A small, but vibrant oasis blooming,

Butterflies flit from flowers to trees.

Here, in the long grass, energy abounds,

Nature’s summer symphony astounds…

Blackberry buds are preparing to ripen,

Berries cluster, fulsome and shiny,

Mossy stumps are covered in lichen,

Early morn, here, in this magical prairie,

A weary soul escapes to soar,

Up beyond the wood’s silent sentinels,

Their boughs whispering to reassure:

Cherish the canopied path; Earth’s angels.

Insects mate on a pure bed of petals,

Avoiding the prickly purple thistles.

Striding beneath the dappled sunlight,

Soles cushioned on withered acorns,

Roaming like Artemis: a goddesses’ delight

Fills my veins; unbridled freedom born,

Relishing the sensory arousal of wilderness,

The twitching of tails and fleeting glimpses,

Of squirrels darting – spritely grey litheness,

Birds warbling and singing, sonic spritzes.

The woods and mini meadow are my sanctuary,

Urban antidote – a place to linger and tarry.

By Virginia Burges

Walks in the Austrian countryside inspired Beethoven’s evocative and beautifully bucolic 6th symphony. We certainly had a storm like his musical one two nights ago!

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a true poet of the natural world, Robert Macfarlane, talking about the landscape and the human heart:

“There is no mystery in this association of woods and otherworlds, for as anyone who has walked the woods knows, they are places of correspondence, of call and answer. Visual affinities of colour, relief and texture abound. A fallen branch echoes the deltoid form of a streambed into which it has come to rest. Chrome yellow autumn elm leaves find their colour rhyme in the eye-ring of the blackbird. Different aspects of the forest link unexpectedly with each other, and so it is that within the stories, different times and worlds can be joined.”
~ Robert Macfarlane, The Wild Places

Compelling HBO Drama Exposes the Truth of What Actually Happened at Chernobyl

  “Show me a fantasy novel about Chernobyl – there isn’t one! Because reality is more fantastic.” ~  Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

Fiction writers understand the importance of telling lies that reveal human truths – it’s the basis of all good storytelling. In fiction though, the lies have to be believable, but sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction.

The recent HBO/Sky five-part miniseries Chernobyl, created and written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck, shows in chilling detail the chain of events that led to the worst peacetime nuclear disaster in human history.

Finding out the truth, no matter the personal cost, is the central tenet of this gripping drama, which seamlessly blends fact and some fiction (in a small amount of artistic license), that respectfully tells the untold story of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986.

Part historical and political thriller, part scientific drama, part disaster biopic, it brings home in startling intimacy and authenticity the impact of Chernobyl on those who were there, as well as the wider consequences of a nuclear reactor explosion.

Chernobyl highlights the unseen heroism of the firefighters, miners, engineers and scientists, as well as the conscripted men brought in to contain the spread of radiation, exposing with intelligent and dramatic flair, the incompetence of the Chernobyl power plant management and the Soviet State in relation to safety issues and propaganda.

I was 16 years old when reactor 4 of the RBMK nuclear power plant at Chernobyl exploded – something that was thought to be impossible by the Soviet establishment.

The drama reminded me a little of the Titanic, (the ship they said couldn’t sink), only the hubris and ignorance that lead to Chernobyl was far more deadly.

The Cold War was at its zenith in the eighties, and there was a nuclear bunker not far from my rural childhood home. I remember the dreadful fear of nuclear war that plagued me for most of my teens. Had I understood the true scale of the disaster at that time, I don’t think I could have functioned properly.

The show creator on how society detaches itself from the truth:

This Sky/HBO miniseries utterly captivated me for five emotional episodes,  depicting the horrific fate of the plant workers, those first on the scene, residents living nearby in Pripyat, the town built to service the power plant at Chernobyl; as well as the ensuing challenges of the two men ordered to deal with the immediate and long-term aftermath of the disaster.

In the course of their investigation and intervention, the main protagonists prevented what would have been a further inevitable nuclear meltdown just days after the reactor blew – but that was only part of their difficulties – which encompassed the subsequent battle to dismantle the lies of the Soviet State surrounding Chernobyl, in order to prevent a similar catastrophe occurring in the future.

Chernobyl draws a bleak picture of the impossible tasks assigned to the brave souls who did their duty to prevent the premature deaths of over 50 million people living in the Ukranian SSR, Belarus and across Europe.

Chernobyl is now the most popular and highly rated drama ever to air, (9.6 on IMDb) – a position it well deserves. The fact that it is based on actual events and real people’s lives makes it truly heart breaking to watch. The quality of the script, the acting and the visceral storytelling all combine to make it a powerful and impactful viewing experience.

The first episode’s podcast on Chernobyl:

Real-life heroes

The key characters in Chernobyl are Soviet inorganic chemist, First Deputy Director of the Kuchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, Valery Legasov, clearly an intelligent, kind, rational, complicated and conflicted man, (played to perfection by Jared Harris) and senior Soviet politician, Boris Shcherbina, who was head of the Bureau for Fuel and Energy.

Stellan Skaarsgard gives a stellar performance of a brash, acerbic man with a raspy, fifty-a-day voice, initially filled with contempt for the scientist he must work with – Valery Legaslov.

Boris had no inkling of the danger and calamity that awaited him when he was appointed head of the Chernobyl Commission by the then General Secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev.  Valery’s sickened expression, as he is summoned to give the committee scientific advice, indicates he knows he will be a dead man walking if he is ordered to go to Chernobyl.

The cast and crew discuss making Chernobyl:

Emily Watson portrayed the strong and determined fictional character of nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk, a composite of the dedicated Russian scientific community who collaborated with Valery and Boris to mitigate the effects of the disaster.

Chernobyl made my blood run cold. It also took me back to my teens for a few hours.

Actual BBC news footage of the disaster from 1986:

Valery Legasov being interviewed on NBC in 1986 (most likely with KGB presence nearby) :

The first episode begins with Valery Legasov dictating his memoirs. The air in his small, dingy apartment is thick with smoke and a bloodied handkerchief on the table indicates a radiation related illness.

The first words we hear are: “What is the cost of lies? Who is to blame? If we hear enough lies, we no longer recognise the truth.”

We learn that deputy chief engineer and control room supervisor, Anatoly Dyatlov was officially blamed, sentenced to ten years in a prison labour camp, and we hear the resignation in Legasov’s voice for the short-term punishment for his criminal mismanagement. But he is also scathing about the deeper issues underlying the disaster, citing far greater criminals.

He hides his tapes from the KGB and feeds his cat before hanging himself – an ignominious end to a hero’s life.

We are then introduced to real-life characters Ludmilla and her husband, fireman Vasily Ignatenko, in their Pripyat apartment late at night. From their high-rise window Ludmilla witnesses the initial explosion in a flash of bright light as the building shakes momentarily, as it would perhaps from an earthquake tremor, and dogs bark in alarm.

After the initial blast they see an eerie, glowing jet of radiation, spewing up in a relentless beam, seemingly beyond the bounds of Earth’s atmosphere. Her husband is then required to attend the incident at Chernobyl, at this point completely ignorant of the catastrophic nature of it.

Their friends go out to stand on a nearby railway bridge to get a better view, but Ludmilla is wary and stays home, clearly worried about her husband.

We are then taken into the control room of reactor four, as the stunned power plant workers struggle to process what has just happened. Anatoly Dyatlov barks an order at junior engineer Leonid Toptunov, “Get water moving through the core!” The shocked and terrified Toptunov repsonds, “There is no core.”

The mercurial Dyatlov goes into another rant, shouting and scolding the men that a core can’t explode, it has to be the tank. Disbelief and panic permeates throughout the control room.

Meanwhile, firemen are hosing flames at the now demolished reactor building, and it’s like a scene from Dante’s Inferno. A man picks up a chunk of graphite from the ground, not knowing its a small part of the obliterated reactor core, and the equivalent to holding 4 million X-rays in his hand!

He screams and takes off his glove, his hand is badly burned. Many of the men are vomiting and their faces are visibly reddening with radiation burns.

Back at the reactor control centre Dyatlov continues to berate his colleagues, in complete denial of the facts. Paul Ritter does an excellent job of portraying a thoroughly vile man: arrogant, intimidating, volatile and abhorrent; willfully disregarding safety precautions in his pursuit of promotion. He was going to complete that safety test no matter what.

At 2.30 am the power plant director, Viktor Bryukhanov and his chief engineer, Nikolai Fomin meet in the Chernobyl underground bunker with an unrepentant Dyatlov. The brusk Bryukhanov opens with: “Looks like the safety test didn’t go well.” That being the understatement of the year!

They summon the local executive committee, who are rightly concerned about the safety of their families. There are no safety announcements made as radioactive ash falls on Pripyat.

A gnarled, older member of the party drones on about the apparatus of the state and Soviet socialism, encouraging them to have faith in the state. No order is given to evacuate and the phone lines are cut in order to prevent ‘misinformation’ getting out. The irony being that they are all operating under the gross misinformation that it’s just a rooftop fire and the radiation level is at a relatively safe 3.6 roentgen, given from a maxed-out, low-level dosimeter reading.

In episode two we are introduced to Ulana at the Minsk Institute. Her colleague happens to open a window to circulate some air, when a radiation alarm goes off. Ulana duly wipes off the outer grime and runs a test confirming it’s radioactive. She calls Chernobyl, but ominously there is no answer…

In Moscow, the full scale of the problem is slowly starting to dawn on the politicians, as Legasov educates the committee about the reactor’s Uranium 235 fuel, telling them in his eloquent manner, but with a heavy heart, that every atom of reactor fuel is like a bullet travelling at the speed of light, penetrating everything in its path. Every gram of fuel contains a billion, trillion atoms, and now 300 million grams have been released into the atmosphere from the reactor core explosion – unleashing a terrifying and incomprehensible number of uranium bullets, contaminating water, food and air for at least a hundred years, maybe for as long as 50,000 years…

On the helicopter ride to Chernobyl, Boris asks Valery how a nuclear reactor works. We get the answer that it makes electricity from steam generated by nuclear fission, and that neutrons in motion are known as ‘flux’. Meanwhile my body is in a state of flux as I watch with my heart in my mouth.

Boris orders the helicopter pilot to fly over the massive plume of back smoke coming from what was left of the reactor so that he can see if it is, in fact, still there, and when Valery becomes alarmed at this, Boris threatens the pilot with being shot. Valery musters all his courage to plead with the pilot not to fly directly over the radioactive smoke, telling him, “If you do, I promise you you’ll be begging for that bullet!”

Ulana’s warnings to the local governor about issuing iodine pills and evacuating the region fall on deaf ears. He would rather listen to the spin from Moscow than protect lives.

Over the course of the five episodes it struck me how everything looked like the seventies rather than the eighties behind the iron curtain, with characters (perhaps a tad stereotypical), drinking copious amounts of vodka and chain smoking. The suits are dour and Valery Legasov’s thick rimmed glasses look virtually the same as the ones the real Valery wore.

On the ground, Valery suggests cladding a vehicle with a lead shielding and attaching a high-level dosimeter on the front so that they can ascertain the true level of radiation. After a nervous wait they come back with the news that it’s at 15,000 roentgen, meaning the core is open. Legasov explains that amount is twice the radiation of Hiroshima, and because of the length of time the radioactive material has been spewing out, it’s equivalent to 40 nuclear bombs by now.

Boris’s ebullience and blind faith in the state has quickly evaporated and been replaced by fear of the indisputable, sobering facts that he and Valery uncover. He is starting to respect Valery’s knowledge and his increasing concern for the population.

Boris asks if the fire can be put out with water, but Valery tells him it’s not a normal fire, and at 2,000 degrees, the water will simply vaporise. He suggests their only course of action is to drop sand and boron over the reactor.

The challenge of the brave pilots who had to fly dangerously close to the reactor perimeter in order to get the pay-load dropped was distressing to watch – as was pretty much every scene in every episode – there is no escaping the stark human and ecological cost of the disaster.

In a quiet moment Boris asks Valery how long he can expect to live, and receives the sobering reply of probably not more than another five years, given their proximity to, and time spent at the site. Boris agrees to evacuate nearby Pripyat, but it’s now 36 hours after the explosion.

When they arrive back to Moscow to report on their progress there is more bad news: the solution of sand and boron, although suffocating the blaze, is causing the temperature to rise, creating lava. Gorbachev asks in disbelief, “You created lava?”

The water tanks beneath the core that Valery had assumed were empty are in fact full of water, which apparently was a very big problem!

In the scene Ulana is with them, and she explains to the committee that 7,000 cubic metres of this super-heated material will cover a radius of 30 km and the shock wave from the thermal explosion of around 2-4 megatons will travel as far as 200 km and ignite the remaining three reactors at Chernobyl.

Just as they are absorbing this new cataclysm, she goes on to say that it would kill everyone living in Kiev, as well as many in Minsk and impact all of Europe. She calmly states that they have 48-72 hours before the meltdown will occur…

The horror of what they had to deal with is unimaginable. Perhaps it’s for the best that the general public in Europe was not aware of any of this.

It becomes apparent they need plant workers to go into the basement full of radioactive water to release the sluice gate valves and open the water flow so they can drain the tanks. Boris and Valery have to persuade three men from a room full of engineers to do their duty in the face of likely death.

Boris makes an impassioned speech about them having a thousand years of sacrifice in their veins. It’s a tense scene when they go in, dosimeters clicking like mad, their flash lights dimming and going out. Those three men deserve all the praise in the world for what they did.

There are devastating scenes in Moscow’s Hospital 6 as a pregnant Ludmilla bribes her way in so she can see her husband. He looks a bit better, and she hugs him against the nurse’s advice. But soon we see the horrific effects of radiation poisoning, and within two  weeks he and his fellow firemen die gruesome deaths.

Boris and Valery pass on their success in Moscow, but despite their jubilation there is still imminent danger to millions of people as the meltdown has begun and the concrete pad won’t be sufficient to stop it seeping into the water reserves that supply a huge chunk of Europe.

Valery suggests they use heat exchangers to halt the meltdown, and Boris asks Gorbachev for all the liquid nitrogen available in the Soviet Union!

In a tense phone call, Gorbachev enquires when Chernobyl will be made safe, and Legasov blurts out not for 24,000 years, so not in their lifetimes…

Chernobyl brings home the absolute disregard for human life by Soviet party officials, and how they made uniformed decisions that would affect millions of people.

View of Chernobyl from Pirpyat

View of Chernobyl from Pripyat

One scene that brought a lump to my throat was when Boris asks Valery what a high radiation dose does to the body. His reply is really grim; essentially it tears cellular structure apart. The lesser steady dose that they had been exposed to would not be strong enough to destroy their cells, but would certainly damage their DNA, inevitably causing cancer.

Valery and Ulana discuss the cause of the explosion, trying to get their heads around how the core exploded, as it should not have been possible for this to happen. He urges Ulana to interview Akimov, Toptunov and Dyatlov in hospital to find out from them exactly what happened so that it could not happen again.

In those dreadful scenes Toptunov and Akimov’s human forms are blistered almost beyond recognition. They both tell her that they followed Dyatlov’s orders, and when they realised the reactor was out of control they pressed the button to shut it down: AZ-5.

Unbeknown to them, this supposed ‘safety feature’ had the opposite effect – causing the chain reaction that sealed their fate.

They also drafted in around 400 miners to build tunnels beneath the heat exchangers, telling their supervisor (played by Alex Ferns) that they only have six weeks to complete their work to avoid a nuclear meltdown. These tough men laboured round the clock and completed their work in just four weeks, excavating the area under the reactor by hand so that it would not disrupt the ground beneath the melting core. It was very hot work and they could not use fans, so they worked naked. They were absolute heroes.

As Boris and Valery work to establish the cause of the disaster and prevent nuclear meltdown, they are aware that they are being followed and monitored by the KGB and its soulless chairman, Charkov, a character devoid of decency; grey haired and bespectacled, wielding absolute power, present at every committee meeting.

In the Kremlin, as they report to Gorbachev and the committee, despite the good news of the miner’s efforts and the narrowly averted thermo-nuclear meltdown, Valery spells out the huge amount of work still to be done to set-up an exclusion zone.

Entire regions have to be evacuated, the remaining animals terminated so as not to spread contamination, the surrounding forests have to be razed and the top soil has to be ripped up over an area of 100 square metres. He tells them to create a containment structure to cover the reactor. He notes that it will take approximately 750,000 men around three years to complete this thorough clean-up.

There are sad scenes of coffins being placed inside lead ones, then placed in a mass grave and covered in concrete. Ludmilla watches holding a pair of Vasily’s shoes. She later miscarries their baby. She has a happier ending than some, in that in real life she went on to remarry and have a son.

The scenes where they are forced to conscript men to clear the radioactive debris from the reactor roof are disturbing to watch. The first attempt to use a lunar vehicles fails, as the intense radiation particles shred its circuitry. It comes to light that the ‘state’ had told the German manufacturers a much lower level of radiation than there actually was, rendering the vehicle useless.

The men had to go onto the roof in protective gear for up to 90 seconds, throwing the graphite blocks back into the exposed core. There were three rooftops that were littered with graphite, nicknamed Katya, Mina and Marsha. Marsha was the most lethal of the three, with radiation levels of 12,000 roentgen, enough to kill a man after just three minutes of exposure.

Valery: “Boris, it would be fair to say that piece of roof is the most dangerous place on earth.”

The pet extermination scenes are horrible and harrowing. There is also a poignant scene where a young soldier tries to evacuate an elderly woman from her home. She refuses to leave, citing the wars and famine that she has survived for nearly a century, and unconcerned, continues to milk her cow. In frustration, the soldier shoots her cow.

Episode five brings the timeline of the chain of events together in flashbacks as the 1988 trial of Anatoly Dyatlov, Viktor Brukhanov and Nikolai Fomin unfolds. In real life Valery Legasov wasn’t there, but the drama still conveys what he and his colleagues had uncovered, and how the information disseminated from the scientific community forced the Soviet State to take action in the wake of the disaster.

The Safety Test

The Chernobyl disaster boiled down, paradoxically, to a long overdue safety test. As Boris points out in the trial, reactor four had been operational since December 20th 1983, and director Bryukhanov and his deputy Fomin had fudged the paperwork to say that all relevant safety tests had successfully been carried out.

Spoiler alert! You may not want to watch these clips if you haven’t yet seen the drama:

Valery Legasov’s fictional testimony:

The official death toll released by the Soviet State in 1987 was 31. However it’s estimated that the deaths caused by Chernobyl range from 4,600 to as many as 93,000.

Valery’s valour should be widely known and applauded, especially after the Soviet State did their best to scrub him from the history books. He deserves posthumous recognition for his role in ensuring such a tragic situation would never happen again, and the Chernobyl miniseries achieves that to some degree.

In 2017 a new 2 million euro safe containment structure was completed at Chernobyl, designed to last for another 100 years.

Inside the clean-up of Chernobyl:

Mikhail Gorbachev wrote in 2006 that he considered Chernobyl to be the main reason for the break-up of the Soviet Union.

HBO Chernobyl featurette:

The Chernobyl miniseries has rightly inspired much interest and discussion:

I remember David Attenborough commenting on Our Planet how wildlife was now flourishing in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, free from human interference for three decades. This eerie drone footage shows Chernobyl and Pripyat in 2016:

Tourism has sprung up in the region over the last few years, with people taking tours to Pripyat. I can’t say it’s at the top of my ‘must see’ list!

The future of nuclear power

Of course, nuclear power has a PR problem in the wake of Chernobyl, and to a lesser degree, Fukushima. But there is the controversial view that when run properly and safely, nuclear power contributes to a cleaner atmosphere as part of a nation’s energy portfolio.

Michael Shellenberger, an American author and environmental policy writer, was once part of the anti-nuclear movement, but now advocates nuclear power as the way forward to combat climate change.

So, if like me you have been scared witless by Chernobyl, I would recommend watching this!

“I’m not afraid of God. I’m afraid of man.” ~ Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

How to Surround Yourself with Positive Energy – Guest Blog by Amanda Turner

Sometimes the world can feel like a wonderful place to live, but that is not always the case. And when you begin to feel negative energy taking over your experience, you may wonder what to do.

The good news is, even though you may have to regularly deal with negativity in life, there is always the opportunity to shift into a more positive vibe as well. Like two polarities of a battery, you can choose which side will power your life in any given moment.

If you’ve been wondering lately how to surround yourself with positive energy, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

Laugh more often

All too often, we get caught up in the seriousness of life. And while certain situations do require a calm, collected approach, if you need a boost of positive energy it may be time for a good laugh.

Photo by Frank Busch on Unsplash

When you laugh more often you bring in a hefty dose of goodness and light, which could be just what you need to chase that negative energy out the door. It’s a full body response that can reset even the most challenging day, brightening your outlook in the process.

Let go of limiting beliefs

Another common obstacle to bringing in positive energy is an abundance of negative self-talk. The stories we tell ourselves about our own abilities tend to impact the kind of action we take in our lives. If you can listen to, and be aware of what you say to yourself and others, both externally in conversation and internally, the kinds of words you use will highlight if you are subscribing to negative or limiting beliefs.

So if you have been holding onto limiting beliefs, now is the time to let them go. Without those false truths getting in the way, you’ll feel better about yourself. When you feel good, the energy around you shifts to match it – making way for you to express your creativity, enabling your full potential to unfold in tune with your highest abilities.

Use affirmations

One way to rewrite that negative self-talk and turn our limiting beliefs around is to use positive affirmations. This can be a word or short phrase that captures how you want to feel about yourself or the situation at hand. Whenever you feel yourself spiralling into negativity, you can use your affirmations to climb back into a more supportive head space. The action of focusing your energy on positivity and goodness will charge the energy around yourself with love and light.

Keep your home healthy

The places we spend our time also can support or detract from the positive energy we are seeking to establish.

Photo by Kelsey Dody on Unsplash

Although we may not be able to control every environment, we spend time in, the home is one place that can be completely customised to your needs. To maintain positive energy in your home, be sure to keep your space as healthy and functional as your body by getting routine maintenance, decluttering, and deep cleaning your home on a regular basis.

Breathe deeply

Positive energy isn’t something that happens to us, but that we can co-create. And one of the first places we can create energy is with our breath. Mindful breathing has been shown to reduce stress. So whenever you need to actively and immediately change the energy around you, just take a moment to breathe in and breathe out.

Count your blessings

Genuine appreciation for all our blessings helps us to look for the good in our lives; even in the midst of difficult situations. Heartfelt gratitude instantly makes us feel happier, raising our energetic vibration. We are giving thanks to the universe for all the gifts that it has bestowed on us – a wonderful attitude in which to receive even more abundance.

One method is the three daily gratitudes: giving thought to something you are thankful for in your past, present and future.

Spend time with people you love

While all of these steps are things you can do on your own, they will be magnified if done with other people.

Spending time with the people you love is one of the most powerful ways to bring more positive energy into your life. When you surround yourself with other positive, supportive individuals, you’ll create stronger positive energy that surrounds not just you, but everyone in the room.

When life gets complicated and challenging, bringing in positive energy can feel like the ultimate challenge. The good news is that there are very real steps that you can take to prioritise the positive energy in your life today, tomorrow, and well into the future.

Amanda Turner is a freelance writer and recent graduate who is exploring her passions through writing. 

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’.