3 Excellent Daily Actions to Make the Most of Your Year

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

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

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

Image courtesy of Valeriy Andrushko on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelangelo in black and white

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

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

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

Do something hard every day

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

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

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

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

Earth News – New Scientist

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

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

Image courtesy of Mikito Tateisi on Unsplash

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

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

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

Do something fun every day

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

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

Even on bad days, give yourself this gift.

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

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

Just in case you need more convincing about fun!

Do something to serve others everyday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least this post has accomplished them for today!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Frozen Thames by Abraham Hondius c. 1677

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Census at Bethlehem – detail of Joseph and Mary

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

The Census at Bethlehem – detail of the crowded inn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Census at Bethlehem – detail of the castle ruins

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

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

The Census at Bethlehem – detail of the children

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

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

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

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

The Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Breughel the Younger

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

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

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525–69)

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m shivering just looking at it!

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

Bruegel in Vienna this winter…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Current political and national turmoil in the UK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flames In Realm – Exit!

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

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

Not your average Thursday evening…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fire engines blurred

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

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

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

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

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

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

At this point I was feeling anything but calm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fire engines

Job done, getting ready to go.

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

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

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

I thanked them profusely!

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

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

A careless moment can have serious consequences…

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gift of Humour: Laugh Your Way Through Life… 😀😆😂🤣

“When humor goes, there goes civilization.” – Erma Bombeck

Life can be a serious business. A little too serious sometimes. Whenever I’m feeling the strain, I usually notice that my energy feels heavier and more sluggish, and my enthusiasm drops. Then I know it’s time to lighten up, be more playful, and most of all, to laugh.

Have you ever laughed so hard your stomach muscles ached, and your eyes streamed?  When was the last time you had a deep, spontaneous, belly rupturing chuckle? If you can’t remember it’s probably been too long.

The only thing worse than not being able to laugh is trying to stifle laughter because you may feel it’s inappropriate at that moment to let out an unbridled guffaw; which is virtually impossible to contain!

There have been moments when my children have completely taken the wind out of my sails at a tense moment, with an innocent yet hilarious quip, not even realising how funny they were.

It’s good to be immersed in the joy of life. There’s enough hardship and suffering on this planet to fill the vast, fiery vaults of hell; so anything that lightens the tone and helps us experience the playful side of life has a divine aspect in my humble opinion.

Laughter is the oil that lubricates the engine of life. Without it our various cogs and pistons seize up and our vehicle becomes stationary. Potentially with a puff of smoke emanating from under the hood…

Perhaps our creator gifted us with the capacity for humour as an antidote to the ups and downs of physical existence. A kind of spiritual hack to combat the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that Shakespeare so eloquently penned, or should I say quilled?

“Humour is something that thrives between man’s aspirations and his limitations. There is more logic in humor than in anything else. Because, you see, humour is truth.” – Victor Borge

Victor Borge’s musical humour was loved the world over:

Another hilarious, class act in Autumn Leaves:

There’s a well-worn saying: laugh and the whole world laughs with you, but when you cry you cry alone. No doubt we’ve also all felt that magical and infectious atmosphere that pervades a room of people laughing.

An experiment was conducted on the tube in London that highlighted this very phenomena. An actor would suddenly start cracking up and before long most of the carriage are smiling and some are openly laughing.

A smile show’s your heart’s at home. It’s free to give away, and makes someone else feel happier, more loved and appreciated.

Science also concludes that if you physically smile (even though you may not be feeling happy), the act of smiling will make you so. It’s bizarre, but it does work. Sometimes we like to wallow in our misery. The ego is always uptight.

Laughter is a liberator. It liberates us from our egos. When we loosen up and laugh every day it relieves stress, tension, seriousness and worry. It puts you in a different energetic space, so that you’re more likely to better deal with whatever was causing you to have a sense of humour failure in the first place.

I had a situation recently that was getting on top of me, but after I laughed at it, almost disbelieving, I was able to step out of my anger and frustration better. I became unstuck from my emotions. Humour is a wonderful way of letting go of negative attachments and emotions.

When we shift our perception and context, absurdity reveals itself. A sense of humour helps us contextualise life. It helps us to become more compassionate. Humour is innate in a loving being. Humour highlights the paradoxes of life, which tend to be comical.

“Gautam Buddha said as his last statement: ‘Be a light unto yourself’. The day I leave the body please remind me, so that I can make my last statement: ‘Be a joke unto yourself’. That is far more joyful than being a light unto yourself. What are you going to do with a light? Light your cigars, or burn people’s houses? But being a joke unto yourself, you will be a bliss for everyone.” ~ OSHO

Anthony McCarten on Laughter:

Sometimes I watch my favourite comedians to lift me out of a funk, it helps to know that other people have stuff to deal with too, and they can make us see the funny side…

I always find I learn better in lessons, lectures or talks when humour is involved. I try to make fun of myself when I’m doing speeches and get the audience to laugh. If only to make me feel less nervous!

If you can see your own flaws and faults and be able to laugh at yourself, no-one can then hold anything against you that you haven’t already accepted and owned. If we hold up a mirror of the human condition, (which we do when we laugh at ourselves), we can more readily forgive ourselves and others, for we are all prisoners of the ambiguity of the human condition.

“Humour is characteristic of liberation and genuine spiritual teaching.” ~ Dr. David R Hawkins

Humour shows us what it means to be human. Many comedians are spiritually evolved and highly acute. They reveal the oddities of mankind. To bring forth your own capacity for humour is healing.

Quite a few years ago, (more than I care to remember), I worked for Qantas Airways, and have recently flown to Turin and back, so found this sketch by the brilliant late Dave Allen most amusing:

When I watch Maxim Vengerov give masterclasses to violin students, I notice he employs a wonderful dose of humour in with his expertise. He makes music fun!

James Altucher on comedy:

Comedians are the modern philosophers. It’s the hardest skill on the planet. Yes, it’s harder than heart surgery. It’s more difficult than making a rocket ship to fly to Mars (which is a stupid thing anyway).

Comedians see the world differently. They look for the things that are weird, or make them angry, or make them annoyed, or the things nobody else sees.

This is also what entrepreneurs do. But comedians do it all day long and entrepreneurs do it once or twice.

Then comedians have to figure out how to change that angry-looking thing they saw into words that will make other people laugh.

Do you know how hard that is?

The average child laughs 300 times a day. But the average adult laughs just…five times a day.

A comedian doing a five minute set makes the average adult laugh 20 times in just those five minutes.

That’s so hard it’s almost impossible.

Skills comedians have to master according to JA:

  • overwhelming confidence on stage (“the party is where I AM AT. You’re just invited.”)
  • You won’t laugh at a comedian you don’t like. And you have to get total strangers to like you in the first ten seconds.
  • Control of the crowd. If the audience takes control, the comedian is doomed.
  • Crowd work. Talking to individual members of the crowd and making their boring commentary filled with fun and laughter.
  • Comedians have their set of jokes. But as Mike Tyson says, “Everyone has a plan until they are punched in the face.” Comedians often have to make up stuff on the fly within micro-seconds (if there is silence or heckling, etc.) or they lose the crowd.
  • It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Watch a Dave Chappelle video. If he just said his jokes, maybe 1/10 of the people would laugh. It’s HOW he says it.
  • Half the humor is in how the comedian performs it. Different than timing.
  • Reading people. You have about one second to look at the audience and size up every single individual sitting in the club. This helps in negotiating, sales, relationships, everything.
  • The UNEXPECTED. People laugh when they expect you to say one thing and you say something totally different, and totally truthful, that they didn’t expect.
  • The “Unexpected” are the seeds you must plant in the brain and water every day.

Peter Sellars was a comic genius as the incompetent, bungling Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films:

Watching Rowan Atkinson as Prince Blackadder, or the gormless idiot Mr Bean, and some of his other sketches always lifts my spirits!

I laughed until my sides split when he met the Queen…

Our car developed what seems to be a fatal engine fault at the start of the week, and as I type it’s still being dismantled to ascertain the cost of repair – yikes!

You’ll hear me laughing hysterically all the way to the bank…

As the Pink Panther is on my banner I’m just going to have to leave you with Inspector Clouseau and Dreyfus laughing…

“It is a curious fact that people are never so trivial as when they take themselves seriously.” – Oscar Wilde

The Transformation of Pain Helps us see Value in Suffering

“Behind every beautiful thing, there’s some kind of pain.” ~ Bob Dylan

Pain – either physical or emotional, is something most of us seek to avoid. Yet our pain is just as valuable as our joy.

Such perceived undesirable feelings are at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from joy and ecstasy, but are essentially all part of the same energetic material. Pain is one of those things that we strive to remove and resolve once we’re feeling it, yet it has immense value to our lives if we can use it constructively. As a form of feedback it is invaluable.

It can lead us to an expanded awareness and an equanimity that would not otherwise have been possible, but for our moments of pain.

Pain that has been transcended can be compared to the physical pain of childbirth: it hurts like hell at the time, you have no idea how long the labour will last, how long you can bear the intensity, but when it’s finally over you have a priceless gift – a new life. After a few months it’s not possible to recall the acute pain of childbirth, it is consigned to a murky memory; all you know is that it was worth it, because you brought a human being into the world.

What recondite depths have inspired composers, writers, poets, artists, social entrepreneurs and people from all walks of life, wanting to make the world a better place for others?

Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo
In 1939 Frida and Diego divorced. She was devastated and her emotions were reflected in this painting. She drew two identical Fridas, but with different personalities. One is the “Mexican Frida;” the one Diego Rivera fell in love with. The other is “European Frida” – the new and independent artist that’s recognized worldwide, but also, the woman her husband abandoned.
Their hearts are exposed over their clothing, and there is a thin vein passing through them both, uniting them. Victorian Frida holds surgical scissors that cut the vein in her lap, and the blood spills on her white dress. Frida was experiencing real sorrow, the kind of sorrow that made her feel she could bleed from the pain. Both women are holding hands as if the artist accepted she was the only person who understood her, loved her, and could help her to move on. ~ Matador Network

Such motivations do not normally emanate from pain free lives. When we have experienced profound pain we genuinely develop more compassion and empathy, and are probably more willing to help alleviate suffering if we come across someone going through a similar situation.

Pain is a powerful motivator: it can spur us into action, prompt us to change course, widen our perception, and in many cases, make us more accepting and less judgmental and align us to a meaningful purpose.

“Numbing the pain for a while will make it worse when you finally feel it.” ~ J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

For me, intense pain formed the bedrock of my determination to follow my dreams and made me a stronger, more resilient person. I learned to listen to the inner longing that wasn’t based in my head.

Through pain I liken myself to a carbon atom that has been pressured, pulverised and heated inside the earth’s mantle; a violent process that forms a striking crystalline structure which is dense yet clear, still rough around the edges, yet with further cutting and refining will one day gleam with the best of them.

I have taken the gems (no pun intended!) of my own suffering, and used them in a coalescence of knowledge, experience and imagination in the form of my novel, The Virtuoso. 

There was a time in my life when I considered making an early exit from existence, but fortunately I decided against that idea. My love for my family spurred me to turn my life around. One day at a time.

It has been said that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Most people don’t want to consciously end their life, they want to end their pain. Sadly, not every one can get past their pain.

The Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis

Tarquin and Lucretia by Titian c. 1571

The other day I was reading an email from Vishen Lakhiani, the founder of Mindvalley, telling a very personal story about how a painful experience became the catalyst for the values he lives by.

In Vishen’s words:

Your values became the healing you want to give to the world because of past pain.

My first core value was sparked from a horrible incident in 2003.

Just imagine, for a minute, being forced to leave the country you love because you were put on a watchlist based on a bullsh*t idea that, because of your place of birth, you were somehow a potentially dangerous immigrant.

But that was the situation I was placed in 2003 while living in America. I don’t blame anyone…it was the years following September 11th. And this was part of global politics. But boy was it painful…

I had lived in America for a decade and it was a place I had called home. My wife from Estonia and I lived in New York. We were newly married and I’d been living in the United States for 9 straight years. This was our home and I wanted my son born as an American.

But then – one day in 2003 arriving at JFK airport I was taken into a special room and told that I could no longer travel as freely. I had been added to an early version of the same Muslim-watchlist that Trump has been recently pushing for.

See, because I happened to be an immigrant from a Muslim-dominant country (Malaysia), I, alongside 80,000 other men, weren’t afforded the same freedom of movement as everyone else. I could no longer board flights or get off a plane without enduring 2 to 3 hrs in interviews in tiny rooms at the limited airports I was allowed to fly from.

Worse, I was expected to report to the government every 28 days. Interrogated for hours, get my picture taken, and have my credit card purchases scrutinized. Sometimes after waiting in line for up to 4 hours. And I had to repeat this. Every. Four. Weeks.

The funny thing was that I was not even a Muslim. Nor should that even matter.

Waiting 4 hours in the cold New York weather every 28 days just to be subjected to a really degrading process was something I could only tolerate for so long.

That was it.

And I had enough.

I was deeply saddened that I had to leave America this way, but I felt I didn’t really have a choice but to relocate Mindvalley to Malaysia.

In the end, in 2008 the then-new President Obama ruled the whole dumb process unconstitutional and this Bush-era regulation was tossed into the garbage bin.

I was finally free to travel.

But this pain served me. It set me up for the value of UNITY.

Unity is the idea that we align not with our country, our flag, our religion, or our ethnicity first — but that we align first and foremost with humanity as a whole.

My kids are half-Indian and half-white. You know what that means? It means they look middle-eastern. I don’t want MY children ever ending up on some stupid “watchlist” because fact-challenge old men with racist tendencies think something like a Muslim-ban is somehow a good idea.

So, I made it my mission to bring humanity together.

And the result was the value of Unity in everything we do at Mindvalley.

For example, our events typically welcome people from 40 different countries. Our team of 300 people now come from 49 countries.

And we make effort to represent the under-represented. Mindvalley University for example had 55% women speakers. Our courses feature people of all ethnicities and sexual orientations.

And we actively stand up for pro-Unity politics.

Unity was a value that made me who I am.

I was once on the popular talk show “Impact Theory” and the host Tom Bilyeu asked me.

“Are you an entrepreneur or a philosopher?”

I replied that I think the label ‘entrepreneur’ is pointless. Anyone can be an entrepreneur.

“What defines a person”, I said, “is not the label – but what they stand for.”

I could lost my business. I guess that happens to many people. But it won’t make me lose my identity.

But if I lost my stand. And my stand is Unity. I would not be Vishen Lakhiani. Everything I do, including Mindvalley, is designed to bring unity to the human race.

That’s how deeply entrenched unity is in my DNA.

And you can see how PAIN – can lead to the strongest values.

The healing, transforming power of music

Nowhere is the transformative quality of pain more evident, accessible and immediate than in the experience of listening to, performing and writing music. Like all the creative arts, music can be a miraculous medium for ameliorating pain – leaving a legacy of great benefit to many people, no matter if they are alive at the same time in history.

The Violinist by Joseph Rodefer DeCamp

All types of music fulfill this role for people. Some prefer rock, pop, country, jazz, tango, rap, heavy metal, dance anthems, not forgetting the more established and earlier types such as romantic, classical and baroque.  I find my mood and activity selects the music, but the kind that reaches the parts others cannot is – surprise, surprise – classical music.

I have included a few examples of pieces that continue to resonate with audiences centuries later, due to the emotion that was fundamental to their creation. It seems many of the most loved and enduring musical works were hammered out on the anvil of pain…

As you can imagine, keeping this list short is quite impossible for me, so forgive my alacrity if we’re not on the same musical page.

The andante con moto of Schubert’s chamber masterpiece ‘Death and the Maiden’ speaks to me deeply of pain. When I hear it, any unresolved pain I feel comes through and tells me it’s there…

It connects me to the composer, to myself and to humanity.  It has even inspired the title of a trilogy of psychological thrillers, quietly brewing in my psyche.

Schubert composed the String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, D. 810 in 1824, after he had been seriously ill and realised that he was dying. It is Schubert’s testament to death. The quartet takes its name from the lied ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’, a setting of a poem of the same name by Matthias Claudius which Schubert wrote in 1817.

Only one who suffered such as Schubert could have written it. Much of Schubert’s music reflects the deep chasm of human emotion. It some of the most heart-felt music I think I will ever hear.

“My compositions spring from my sorrows. Those that give the world the greatest delight were born of my deepest griefs.”
~ Franz Schubert

An incredibly moving performance of Schubert’s Piano Fantasie in F minor, D. 940 for four hands, by Dutch brothers Lucas and Arthur Jussen:

The bittersweet quality of the melody and their sensitive, nuanced interpretation makes me well up.

The touch of a master makes the Impromptu No. 3 Op. 90 sound like it’s coming straight from Schubert’s heart…

“The wound is the place where the light enters you.” ~ Rumi
Variations on this sentiment:
“There is a crack in everything God has made.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Antelope Canyon – by Madhu Shesharam on Unsplash

“The crack is where the light gets in.” ~ Leonard Cohen
“Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light.” ~ Groucho Marx

Beethoven similarly expressed profound depths through his music, in way too many pieces to share here. Works that could only have come about because of his physical and emotional wretchedness. He was the epitome of the tortured genius!

The Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 (Apassionata), was written at a time of great political and personal turmoil, and it seems that Beethoven has bared his soul within the notes. The famous triadic motif from his fifth symphony can be heard in the opening movement, indeed, it pervades much of his musical output.

You can hear the violent rage, anguish, torment, passion and determination expressed either consciously or unconsciously by Beethoven, as if he is unashamedly showing us his inner core, which was clearly on a stormy setting at the time.

He was reeling from a broken heart, just when his brother Karl announced his marriage to Johanna, a woman Beethoven despised. He could not bring himself to dismount from his moral high horse and be happy for them.

Oh my, it was quite the maelstrom… I think Richter played it like the mercurial maestro would have:

Prior to publication of the Apassionata, Beethoven erupted with fury in a disagreement with a great patron of the arts, his aristocratic benefactor, Prince Lichnowsky. The altercation supposedly took place one stormy night at the prince’s country estate near Graz.

Lichnowsky asked Beethoven if he would perform for him and some of Napoleon’s officers he was playing host to. Beethoven refused in his combustible, irascible manner, and strode off into the rainy night with his Appassionata score under his arm; but not before telling Lichnowsky that there were many princes, but only one Beethoven!

The blotches caused by the contact of rain and ink from that fated evening are still visible on the original autograph manuscript.

Even though Beethoven never quite forgave Lichnowsky for his transgression, he still wrote to his estranged patron sometime later to complain of his “thoroughly lacerated heart.”

The pain of parting is so beautifully transferred to the ivories by Alfred Brendel in this recording of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 26 in E-flat major, Op. 81a, ‘Les Adieux’:

In his brilliant analysis of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Charles Hazlewood highlights that the piano and orchestra are in a conversation; a dialogue that becomes increasingly tense through the first and second movements.

He enthuses that Beethoven created a new era for the role of the piano by not starting the concerto with a grand orchestral opening, as was the custom, but instead with a tentative phrase on the piano, which seeks to dictate terms to the orchestra.

Discord permeates each phrase of the conversation as the tension becomes more pronounced in the andante con moto. When the piano finally breaks out it seems that the gulf between the piano and the orchestra is unbridgeable, until the third movement brings about resolution and reconciliation. The piano mollifies the orchestra and they unite musically.

I could not leave out the incomparable second movement of his Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat Major minor, Op.  73 (Emperor), which seems to encompass the entire history of mankind at the molecular level within its sublime, poignant melody.

The whispered opening makes me hold my breath for eight unbearably beautiful minutes, floating in suspended animation, soaking up the apotheosis of all that is…

James Rhodes blends notes and emotion perfectly in the third movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109:

Backed by Stanford University’s Ensemble in Residence, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, Robert Kapilow, (composer and radio commentator), explores the notion of illness as a potent source of creativity, (e.g. appreciation for existence) through Beethoven’s ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’, which Beethoven wrote in thanksgiving after recovering from a life-threatening illness.

Tchaikovksy could also pack in the pathos, as expressed in his Serenade Melancolique Op. 26, via Itzhak Perlman on his violin:

The sobriquet ‘Suffocation’ is a fitting description for Chopin’s Prelude No. 4 in E minor, Op. 28:

I think the addition of the cello brings out a lyrical, lugubrious quality to the melody:

The original lyrics to ‘So Deep is the Night’ by André Viaud and Jean Marietti were set to Chopin’s Etude No. 3 in E Major, Op. 10 ‘Tristesse’, perfect on its own:

In the medium of opera and vocal works suffering finds an outlet through the voice. I find  Camille Saint-Saëns’s ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix’ from Samson et Dalila one of the most moving arias ever written. Maria Callas was no stranger to emotional pain, and you can hear it as she pours out her heart:

Callas is also unmatched as Norma in Bellini’s eponymous opera singing the aria Casta Diva:

Puccini and Pavarotti are a match made in heaven…

I love the strong sentiment in this interpretation by Marita Solberg of Edvard Grieg’s ‘Solveig’s song’ from his Peer Gynt Suite:

Bach’s eternal, prayerful and beseeching ‘Erbarme dich mein Gott‘ (Have mercy Lord, My God) from his epic St. Matthew Passion:

Get the tissues ready for Handel’s signature aria ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from his Opera Rinaldo.

Let me weep

over my cruel fate,

and sigh for freedom.

Let my sorrow break the chains

of my suffering, out of pity.

Dimitry Shostakovich takes us to the abyss as he performs the andante from his Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major, Op. 102 in this vintage recording:

Albinoni finds a sorrowful voice for the oboe in the adagio of his concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 9:

I couldn’t leave out maestro Mozart, who proved he was equally at home with a deep and meaningful as well as a galloping allegro.

Vladimir Horowitz always takes me to another dimension with this recording of the adagio of Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488. The heartache is palpable…

In my humble opinion this is no ‘feeble adagio’ as Brahms had labelled the slow movement of his Violin Concerto in D Major. The oboe, bassoon, brass and violin share the profound melody.

To me it is poetic and purifies the soul.

Franz Liszt wasn’t always a showman, as he proves in his nostalgic and tender Consolation No. 3:

Love hurts and pleasures at the same time when Wagner gets involved! The immortal Tristan und Isolde, Prelude & Liebestod:

The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is a symphony in three movements, composed by Henryk Górecki in Katowice, Poland, between October and December 1976.

In the second movement a solo soprano sings the Polish message written on the wall of a Gestapo cell during World War II, from the perspective of a child separated from a parent. The dominant themes of each of the three movements of the symphony are motherhood and separation through war.

The symphony is constructed around simple harmonies, set in a neo-modal style which makes use of the medieval musical modes. The nine-minute second movement is for soprano, her words are supported by the orchestra and the movement culminates when the strings hold a chord without diminuendo for nearly one and a half minutes.

The final words of the movement are the first two lines of the Polish Ave Maria, sung twice on a repeated pitch by the soprano.

Maternal Affection by Adolphe Jourdan c. 1860

Górecki dedicated the work to his wife, Jadwiga Rurańska. He never sought to explain the symphony as a response to a political or historical event. Instead, he maintained that the work is an evocation of the ties between mother and child.

You can certainly feel the fathomless pain of parental separation, as well as the music’s roots in the Holocaust, and indeed every war:

Honestly, I could go on forever, but I think you get the idea!

In his book, The Joy of Music, Leonard Bernstein makes a point about the futility of trying to extract the meaning of music, contending that it stands in a special lonely region, unlit…

The composer and musical artist bring their own ‘wounds’ and life experience to their work. In the process there is catharsis, release, healing, beauty and meaning. For them, and for us.

For violinist Ji-Hae Park, music was part of the pain and the resolution:

One could go as far as to say that a completely happy life provides no substance for a creative individual.

Hirzel, Switzerland by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

I have had my fair share of pain, but also incredible joy, and it makes you appreciate the good times. I’m reminded every day to extract every drop of life from each precious, present moment…

Letting go

Letting go of pain takes patience and practice. At least for me.

When I finally decided I was sick of the perverse way my ego was getting off on my pain, I decided to let it go. I could stand in the fire and not be burnt by it. But that took time and awareness.

In hindsight we can understand how our painful experiences have made us who we are, and how they may have served us, but rarely is this possible when we are in the thick of it.

When we step out of the victim archetype we regain our power.

I find this profound teaching by Dr. David R Hawkins (in terms of the paradigm of Content and Context) really helpful in managing and transcending pain. The best course of action is to focus on the totality of the experience, (context) and not the specifics, (content).  He was a wise and wonderful real-life Yoda!


I recently had a candid chat with a good friend of mine, who happens to be a spiritual coach, and I was relaying what a horrendous first six months of the year I’d had, and how I’d struggled to maintain my usual positive outlook and get back on track with my plans. I put on a humorous slant, relieved that I’d got through it. She listened and smiled, and gave me the most amazing advice.

She said, “Ginny, be the bowl!”

I must have looked a bit dim and confused, because she went on to explain that in Japan, they have a custom of not throwing out damaged or broken things. So a precious vase that may have been knocked over and smashed is glued back together using a special gold lacquer.

Rather than cover up the imperfection of the object or throw it away, they appreciate and celebrate it.

I really love that ethos. The practice is known as Kintsugi.

I thought #BeTheBowl would make a great hashtag  to embrace life in all its manifestations.

We all go through rough patches, but rather than bury the hurt, or wallow in it, we can always bring it into the light to mend it with our personal application of liquid gold.

Our life experience comes moment by moment through our thoughts, emotions, words and deeds, and to expect that it will always be perfect is setting us up for unnecessary suffering. We have to just roll with the punches, knowing that they are coming, but not necessarily how hard, how many, where or when…

It seems a much more reasonable proposition to love and accept each other despite our random gold seams.

#BeTheBowl is my new mantra whenever I’m feeling low or the proverbial hits the fan.

#BeTheBowl helps me see myself and humanity as a work in progress.

Khalil Gibran’s poem On Pain, from his timeless book, The Prophet,  is a great reminder that pain is the divine taking us to a different dimension of life. It’s futile to oppose and resist the inevitable.

The only reason we suffer with our pain is that we don’t want to accept its existence and don’t recognize its value. We think that pain is not fair, that we didn’t deserve to experience it, that perhaps we are being punished for something we have or haven’t done.

My biggest question to God during the depths of my despair was always, ‘why me?’ In truth, pain chooses us when it sees that we are ready for transformation.

“Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say “My tooth is aching” than to say “My heart is broken.” ~ C.S. Lewis (The Problem of Pain)

I can’t think of anyone who transformed his pain into such beauty and an enduring legacy more than Beethoven…except Jesus!

As I tell the W.I. ladies whenever I do a fiction talk, there is no greater fodder for your fiction than that of your life, or the lives of loved ones.

Grampians National Park, Australia by Manuel Meurisse on Unsplash

The soul has to be breached to be opened, and wounds do the breaching. The deeper the wound, the richer your story will be, the greater the journey, and the more satisfying the transformation.

This is just as true for real life as it is for fiction.

“Only the wounded physician heals.” ~ Carl Jung

Breathtaking Memories of the Alhambra – A Rare Jewel of the World

“Though the shadows of these walls have long since gone, the memory of them will live on as the final refuge of dreams and art. And then the last nightingale to breath on this earth will build its nest and sing its farewell song among the glorious ruins of the Alhambra.” ~ F. Villaespesa (plaque beside the Gate of the Pomegranates).

Lately I have been tearing around preparing three of my kids (two for new schools), like something of a Mad Hatter on caffeine overload. The moment we arrived back from holiday I had an extra guest in the form of my eldest prodigal son, and various activities all requiring mum’s taxi service. GCSE results day was soon upon us, followed by a grammar school sixth form interview, as well as making sure our kittens weren’t able to produce more kittens…

It turns out my worries were unfounded. An embarrassed phone call from the vets confirmed that the one we thought was a she (including an earlier vet inspection), is actually a he, so I hastily renamed Saffron Samson!! Fortunately he seems to have recovered from the early gender confusion.

Amid the recent chaos I have tried to eek out, here and there, some precious time to reflect on a holiday that wasn’t particularly restful, but certainly had its highlights – one of which was a visit to the Alhambra.

The Mirador of Lindaraja – Palace of the Lions

Alongside numerous other tourists from all over the world, in a state of high anticipation, we entered the ancient city walls of the Alhambra Palace in Granada; nestled at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Southern Spain.

Our arrival was marred by the fact that Iberia had lost three of our cases due to a delayed outbound flight from Heathrow and a rushed connection through Madrid.

Our brief time spent visiting the Palacios Nazarias (palaces of the Nasrid dynasty), will stay with me forever. I enjoyed it despite a petulant youngest who made it clear she didn’t want to look around and was determined to moan and do her best to make us leave as soon as possible, (which included getting herself lost).

Cultural sightseeing with a reluctant child is enough to test the patience of saint, let alone an overheated parent’s patience!

I got the ‘why are you making me do this?’ stare from my youngest at the start of the tour in the Golden Courtyard of the Mexuar Palace.

Now that I have seen the historical, architectural and cultural gem that is the Alhambra with my own eyes, I can fully reminisce and revel in the music ‘Recuerdos de la Alhambra’ performed by John Williams and composed by Francisco de Asís Tárrega:

The Nasrid Palaces of the Alhambra took my breath away. The Sultans of the Nasrid Dynasty certainly knew how to express their power, as well as utilise nature to their full advantage and pay homage to the divine hand of creation.

I was bowled over by the intricate stucco decorations and sublime geometric patterns carved and tiled by long dead hands onto the floors, walls, arches and ceilings. There is a sheer timeless effulgence to the Alhambra – it dazzles in every respect!

It is quite simply jaw-dropping.

“The only conqueror is God.” ~ Nasrid motto inscribed in numerous epigraphs at the Alhambra.

The fusion of indoor and outdoor spaces is in perfect harmony with the landscape, designed to incorporate nature and paradise into a man made masterpiece.

Somehow it transcends the searing Andalusian summer heat.

The clever design of the palace and the orientation of the columns means that they can be effectively used as sun dials, being aligned from north to south to within tenths of degrees.

Shade in the Courtyard of the Lions

Apparently the rooms receive much more light during the winter months than in summer, mainly because of the wide, overhanging eaves and cornices. Certain secluded corners are said to be warmed by the slanting winter sun but sheltered from the wind.

During the summer the sun is so high that its rays rarely penetrate the sheltered corridors to warm the marble walls and floors. The places that receive most sun in winter stay in the shade in summer so many of the south-facing rooms remain as cool as they would if they were air-conditioned.

The name Alhambra has evolved from the original Madinat al-Hamra, meaning ‘the red one’, thought to be a reference to the colour of the soil of the hill itself and the red clay used in the building materials.  It could also allude to part of the name of the founder of the Nasrid dynasty: Muhammed ibn al-Ahmar ibn Nasr.

The Hill of the Alhambra Granada by Samuel Colman

I noticed the pervading redness of the ground inside the walls of the Alhambra, apparently due to oxidisation of the soil. The plateau on which the fortress and palace complex sits is aptly named ‘The Red Hill’.

The Fortress of the Alhambra by David Roberts

Our timed entry was mid-morning. In order to preserve this very special and unique UNESCO World Heritage site, a limited number of people are allowed in to the Nasrid Palaces at any one time on any given day.  Even the Alhambra’s existing quotas felt like too much. It’s crowded on and off as new groups are admitted, which makes decent photography limited. It didn’t help that we visited during peak season.

Having said that, it’s still a magical experience.

Apart from the middle-age fort of the Alcazaba, the Nasrid Palaces are the earliest buildings of the Alhambra, (consisting of the Mexuar, Comares and Leones), which were inhabited and expanded through the centuries by each subsequent Nasrid generation.

They were eventually altered in places and added to by the conquering catholic monarchs, to encompass the sprawling fortress complex that commands the hill top today.

Luckily the technology of the present enables audio recordings to help visitors understand the aims and achievements of the palaces and their previous royal inhabitants.

The Mexuar

The Hall of the Mexuar is one of the oldest surviving parts of the royal palaces. The council met within the square formed by the four columns to decide upon important judicial matters, being the royal court of justice originally.

Elaborate wooden coffered ceilings in the Hall of the Mexuar

Facade of the Comares Palace in the Courtyard of the Mexuar

Comares Palace – The Courtyard of the Myrtles

Substantial amounts of water are harnessed throughout the gardens, palaces and especially in the Courtyard of the Myrtles; which is both stunning and serene.

Courtyard of the Myrtles – view towards the North Gallery and Comares Tower.

“Water forms the mysterious life of the Alhambra: it allows the gardens to grow exuberantly green, it gives birth to the splendour of flowering shrubs and bushes, it rests in the pools reflecting the elegantly arcaded halls, it dances in the fountains and murmurs in rivulets through the very heart of the royal residence.
Just as the Koran describes paradise, ‘An orchard flowing with streams.'” ~ Titus Burckhardt

The Courtyard of the Myrtles has inspired quite a few artists in recent centuries…

The Court of Myrtles Alhambra by David Roberts

A more detailed view of the North Gallery by the American Orientalist Edwin Lord Weeks:

A Court in the Alhambra in the time of the Moors by Edwin Lord Weeks c. 1876

The Courtyard of the Myrtles and Comares Tower by Impressionist painter Childe Hassam c. 1883

The tower and archways of the North Gallery are reflected from the water at the entrance to the majestic Sultan’s throne room in the Comares Tower, magnifying the sultan’s power as well as symbolising abundance. It may have also served to amplify the elusiveness of ‘reality’. The use of water to mirror the structure above it was also employed centuries later to great effect by the builders of the Taj Mahal.

The combination of natural and man-made elements mingle in ethereal movements of space, air and light in the Alhambra like nothing I have ever seen.

The Alhambra feels like an eternal Moorish Elysium: a sanctuary made up of gardens, fountains, pools, halls, towers and courtyards; perched high above fertile plains, yet with a view of lofty, mountainous terrain.

View towards the South Gallery from the Hall of the Boat

Perfect and secluded, yet an intrinsic part of the rugged and ruddy landscape, the Alhambra is now a well restored and preserved physical window into Spain’s Moorish past.

Comares Tower – The Hall of the Ambassadors

The Comares Palace was built between 1333 – 1354 during the reign of sultan Yusuf I, during which time Europe was beset by the Plague and the 100 Years War began. His son Mohammad V, decorated the Comares Tower in some style between 1362 – 1391.

The Hall of the Ambassadors was the symbolic centre of Nasrid power, and contains the faded but still magnificent vestiges of the last Muslim court in Europe.

Windows and ceiling of the Throne Room – Comares Tower

The ceiling of the Hall of the Ambassadors (or Throne Room), in the Comares Tower is a sight to behold. The mosaic roof contains 8,017 separate pieces of wood in seven concentric circles with cedar wood adornments and a mocarabe boss in the centre.

During repair work a wooden peg was found protruding which had written on it the original colour scheme, that surely would have appeared even more stunning with whites, reds, ochres and greens a few centuries back…

The sultan would have had a psychological advantage over his subjects and visiting dignitaries when seated resplendent in the hall, surrounded by glowing, golden walls and vivid colours streaming in from the stained windows behind him.

The centuries have taken their toll. The windows are still impressive, even without their once colourful stained glass.

The explosion of a gunpowder factory in the valley below in 1590 destroyed the stained glass, which was geometric in design to complement the surrounding tiled dados.

The Hall of the Two Sisters

The cupola of mocárabes contains an astounding 5,416 alabaster pieces.  As the square walls meet the base of the ceiling they become octagonal in shape, with two windows placed in each plane of the octagon. These windows were said to be of stained glass until the late 16th century, giving the effect of movement on the ceiling, imparted by the light according to its angle at any given moment.

There is a poem inscribed in the walls of the Hall of the Two Sisters which extends around the room above the dado, written by Ibn Zamrak, comparing the beauty of the room with a garden.

Here is an excerpt that relates to the cupola of mocárabes, (honeycombed gesso):

“How much pleasure there is here for the eyes! In this place the soul will find idyllic reveries. The dreamer will be accompanied by the five Pleiades and will wake to the gentle morning breeze. An incomparable cupola shines with beauties both hidden and open to the gaze. “

My photograph does not do justice to the incredible cupola of mocárabes in the Hall of the Two Sisters

My gaze floated up over the exquisite honeycombed arches, as if being drawn into shimmering celestial realms. There is so much beauty and symmetry throughout the Nasrid Palaces it’s hard to take in.

My brain was on aesthetic overload!

The Hall of the Abencerrages

The hall is accessed through the Courtyard of the Lions, but the lore of its violent history does not detract from its magnificence.

It is said that in Granada legend and history are so so closely intertwined it is impossible to distinguish between the two. The name of the hall is derived from the Abencerrage family who played an important part in the politics of their day.

A conspiracy was engineered by a rival family, the Zenete, involving the Sultana in an amorous affair. In a fit of jealousy and rage against the offending Abencerrages, the sultan invited 36 men from the Abencerrage family to celebrate in the hall and then had them slaughtered in it.

Portrayal of the slaughter of the Abencerrages in the Alhambra by romantic painter Mariano Fortunay c. 1871

The russet veins in the bottom of the marble fountain are cited as the bloodstains of the murdered courtiers in such perfidious circumstances and manner. Others believe it is the oxidisation in the marble itself.

Ceiling of the Hall of the Abencerrages

The Courtyard of the Lions

This would have been the focal point of the sultan’s private dwellings, (including his nearest and dearest), and possibly also used for some aspects of the sultan’s political and diplomatic affairs.

My eyes absorbed the timeless radiance shining forth from every facet of this cloistered style courtyard, and its seven hundred year old energy filled my whole being.

As I passed through the entrance to the Courtyard of the Lions I was rendered speechless. I could see it was having a similar effect on other tourists too. We were  wandering around in awe, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, taking photos from every possible angle as we spotted new, alluring vistas of shadows and light against the pearl like marble and fine filigree arches.

Courtyard of the Lions by Orientalist painter John Frederick Lewis, resident at the Alhambra between 1833-34.

It’s interesting to see how much more foliage was growing in the Nasrid Palaces (as depicted in various Romantic art works), compared to now.

The 19th century literary guest of the Alhambra, Washington Irving, wasn’t a fan of the gardens: “The court is laid out in flower-beds, instead of its ancient and, appropriate pavement of tiles or marble; the alteration, an instance of bad taste was made by the French when in possession of Granada.”

The Courtyard of the Lions by Leon Auguste Asselineau c. 1853

“Space in the Alhambra is as open as in the desert, where intimacy itself is to be found beneath the stars. The Courtyard of the Lions isn’t a house with a garden but a garden containing a house, which should be looked at from its corners at floor height…”

The shaded central chamber, (east pavilion) the privileged area for the sultan and his retinue.

Symmetry and perfection adorn the exterior of the eastern pavilion of the Courtyard of the Lions.

View from west to east in the Courtyard of the Lions

The Palace of Charles V looms in the background over the Courtyard of the Lions.

I can but try, but in reality the Alhambra defies description. You have to trace over centuries of vanished footsteps to properly experience and appreciate first-hand the artistic brilliance and reverence of the craftsmanship embedded in the fabric of its architecture.

The elegantly cloistered entrance has been described as ‘walking through a forest of gilded pillars, which little by little began to appear like “gold fringes of lace hanging from the sky”’.

Heavenly archways crown a pavilion of the Courtyard of the Lions

“The architecture, like that in most parts of the interior of the palace, is characterised by elegance rather than grandeur, bespeaking a delicate and graceful taste, and a disposition to indolent enjoyment. When one looks upon the fairy traces of the peristyles, and the apparently fragile fretwork of the walls, it is difficult to believe that so much has survived the wear and tear of the centuries, the shocks of earthquakes, the violence of war, and the quiet, though no less baneful, pilferings of the tasteful traveller: it is almost sufficient to excuse the popular tradition, that the whole is protected by a magic charm.”
~ Washington Irving (Tales of the Alhambra)

I later passed through the governor’s rooms in the Lindaraja wing of the Palace of the Lions, famously inhabited for several months in 1829 by American writer Washington Irving. He duly fell under the spell of the Alhambra and revealed her legends and secrets in his book: Tales of the Alhambra.

The Hall of the Kings

The Hall of the Kings runs along the whole of the east side of the Courtyard of the Lions and is divided into five separate areas. This design creates a wonderful interplay of light and shade among the richly decorated three larger chambers that open out onto the court, bordered by the two smaller closed porticos.

Light, shade and decoration in the Hall of the Kings.

Al-Andalus by Wilhem Meyer (The Hall of the Kings)

The Hall of the Kings Alhamba by Leon Auguste Asselineau

Alhambra – Hall of the Kings by David Roberts

Isaac Albeniz – En la Alhambra, with Juan Carlos Garvayo on the piano:

The history of the Alhambra

The Alcazaba (old citadel), was first constructed in 889 by Sawar ben Handum, at the same time Alfred the Great was King of Wessex. The founder of the Nasrid Dynasty in Granada, Muhammad I, (1238 – 1273), rebuilt and extended the Alcazaba as his feudal residence, and his ancestors each built and consolidated the three Nasrid Palaces.

The Alhambra covers an area of around thirteen hectares enclosed by more than two kilometres of walls reinforced by thirty towers, of which twenty or so are still standing.

The 14th century witnessed the zenith of the great Muslim builders: the sultans Yusef I and his son Moahmmad V, during whose time the Palace of Comares, the Comares Tower and the Palace of the Lions were constructed.

Muslim rule in al-Andalus lasted for seven centuries, and the Alhambra is an outstanding example of medieval Islamic art that has its roots in Persia and North Africa.

Entrance to the Alhambra on foot can be made through the Justice Gate

Gate of Justice Alhambra by David Roberts

The last Arab monarch to rule in Granada was Abu-Abd-illiah Muhammad XII. To the Castilians he was known as Boabdil, and his retreat from Granada ended Muslim rule in southern Spain during the reign of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in January 1492.

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were originally laid to rest in the monastery, and I saw the alcove where they had lain for a time before their remains were transferred to the Royal Chapel at el Escorial, the final resting place of Spanish monarchs.

It was Ferdinand and Isabella’s daughter, Catherine of Aragon, who eventually married King Henry VIII of England. She was the aunt of King Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain.

The Departure of Boabdil’s Family from the Alhambra by Manuel Gomez-Moreno c. 1880

The Capitulation of Granada by Francisco Pradilla Ortiz

Palace of Charles V

The Nasrid Palaces became dilapidated and left to ruin in the wake of the Reconquista. The neglect would last until the 19th century, when the stories, poems and art that was produced by the romantics helped to instigate renewed interest and restoration to its former Moorish glory.

The importance of Granada as a royal site ultimately proved beneficial in its preservation.

The undisputed queen of Celtic music, Loreena Mckennit performs her evocative and lilting songs inspired by the Alhambra, and of course her Celtic roots, in a special concert inside the Palace of Charles V :

The New Royal House, the Palacio Carlos V, was conceived as a grand new monument by Charles I of Spain 1500 – 1558 (also Charles V Holy Roman Emperor 1519 – 1558), built to consolidate the powerful role of Granada in political and royal life without destroying the existing Muslim architecture.

It was thus differentiated from the Nasrid Palaces, which were referred to as the Old Royal House.

The Marquis of Mondejar, (governor of the Alhambra), was in charge of the new palace’s construction, but the actual building of it was entrusted to Pedro Machua, who had trained in Rome with both Michelangelo and Rafael. His legacy was to create a monument in the Italian Renaissance style that was popular at the time, but never fully completed.

The Palace of Charles V stands on an old Christian quarter in the lower annex to the Nasrid city.

Washington Irving also had an opinion on that era’s architecture too:

“In front of the esplanade is the splendid pile commenced by Charles V., and intended, it is said, to eclipse the residence of the Moorish kings. Much of the Oriental edifice intended for the winter season was demolished to make way for this massive pile. The grand entrance was blocked up so that the present entrance to the Moorish palace is through a simple and almost humble portal in a corner. With all the massive grandeur and architectural merit of the Palace of Charles V., we regarded it as an arrogant intruder, and passing by it with a feeling of almost of scorn, rang at the Moslem portal.”


We were fortunate to stay in a small boutique establishment, Hotel America, (one of only two hotels inside the Alhambra’s walls), close to the Parador de Granada (once the Friary of San Francisco).

Hotel America Alhambra

Hotel America is a far cry from the elaborate Moorish Islamic art that attracts millions of visitors every year to the Alhambra. However, I loved its authentic colonial style and the cosy vine covered courtyard for dining.

Its simplicity was refreshing. Some rooms had small balconies that opened up over the courtyard. Sparrows made their home there and were not afraid of guests as they darted from floor to table in a bid to grab morsels of food.

The night we arrived we had a traditional meal at the café of the Parador, overlooking the valley and the Generalife. For a while we could hear the voices, guitars and castanets from a nearby flamenco evening. We were able to walk among the gardens of the old monastery which were lovingly landscaped with exotic plants and flowers from all over the world.

View towards the Generalife from the Gardens of the Parador (Monastery)

You can’t help but be filled with a sense of tranquility and peace. The setting sun was casting a warm glow over the distant peaks of the Sierra Nevada and the sacredness of this site filled my being.

The 1926 live performance of Sviatoslav Richter performing “Soirée dans Grenade” from Debussy’s Estampes (composed 1903):

I wished I’d had more time (and willing offspring), to explore every amazing nook and cranny of the Alhambra, but the portion I was fortunate enough to see was an unforgettable experience.

If you haven’t yet been to the Alhambra I’d recommend putting it near the top of your bucket list.

As Washington Irving so eloquently stated in his book of tales:

“My object is merely to give the reader a general introduction into an abode where, if so disposed, he may linger and loiter with me…”

Alhambra Photo Gallery

Could this Year be the Perfect, Blissful Summer…?

“My soul is in the sky.” ~ William Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

It’s been a struggle to find time for my blog lately, what with end of term craziness, juggling my ‘working mum’ balls and looking after ginger tabby kittens Simba and Saffron; plus another exciting project I’m keeping under wraps for the time being.

I feel like a little poetry and an inconsequential natter about the weather might hit the spot. We need something to combat the frequent depressing news headlines about Brexit…

A recent sunset

The ongoing searing temperatures in the UK have been reminiscent of the summer of 1976.  I remember it quite clearly as a slip of a girl: splashing around in the paddling pool with my brother, who to our mum’s dismay, also took an unscheduled plunge into the murky garden pond.

Wow, it’s been a long time since us Brits have really had a decent summer! We always bemoan the drizzly, wet weather that mostly visits our shores, so I have been determined not to complain about the heat. I think we are slowly getting used to it…

Or not.

A selection of recent tweets about #heatwaveuk

The extreme temperatures have been challenging at times, even my computer is whirring grumpily and refusing to operate at its normal speed. Oh well, school is out for summer as of lunchtime today, and my children are officially on manana time.

Summer is symbolic of life, love and abundance. The opening lyrics to Gershwin’s jazz aria ‘Summertime’ from his opera Porgy and Bess springs to mind.

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy… Well, at least it’s meant to be.

Mostly people are more relaxed and tend to be quite sociable; we spend more time enjoying nature and outdoor pursuits. And who doesn’t love alfresco dining on balmy evenings?

My brood have always loved the simple pleasure of picnics and barbecues with friends and family. It’s been so hot lately we’ve been able to take a few refreshing dips in the Wycombe Rye Lido.

I feel like celebrating with a light-hearted mix of music, art and poetry, and perhaps a sip or two of Pimms and lemonade, hic!

Dance at the Moulin de la Galette by Pierre Auguste Renoir

As a mum I also love that my never-ending laundry dries in a nanosecond at the moment!

But can we have too much of a good thing?

Not when it comes to music.

Rimsky Korsakov – Flight of the Bumblebee with the Russian National Orchestra and Mikhail Pletnev:

Mendelssohn – Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream for clarinet and piano with Alexey Gorokholinsky and Vassily Primakov:

In the summer of 1717 composer Georg Friedrich Händel was commissioned by King George I to write some suitably regal music to accompany his grand flotilla of royal boats as they set sail down the river Thames. The result was his Water Music Suite in F Major, HWV 348 performed by fifty musicians (a large number for the time period), on the banks of the river.

Canaletto – London, The Thames on Lord Mayor’s Day c. 1750

It must have been quite an occasion, one that’s easy to visualise when you listen to the English Baroque Soloists with Sir John Eliot Gardiner:

The Heatwave

Intense heat: blasting, humid, relentless, baking the land,

Verdant, manicured lawns – turning the colour of sand

Butterflies dance and flit among hazy meadows,

Pollen seeking bees casually meander in hedgerows.

Golden Summer, Eaglemont by Arthur Streeton. This was the first Australian Impressionist painting that was sent to Europe for display in London in 1891 and Paris in 1892.

English roses, wild and cultivated, open then wilt,

The cadence of nature’s eternal rhythm and lilt

Soft, sweet flesh of fruits, hastens to ripe,

Even walking makes damp brows to wipe.

The Basket of Apples by Paul Cézanne

Hear the birds, chirping in a chorus of mirth,

Eager to pluck juicy worms from parched earth

Heady scent of honeysuckle hangs in the air,

Long, lethargic days, perfect for a summer fair.

Wild Honeysuckle by Pierre Andre Brouillet

Skin craves the cooling caress of a soft breeze,

Throw off layers, constraints; wander like Uylsses

Seeking adventure across kingdoms, never to yield,

Abundance thrives, opening up a flower filled field.

Poppy field near Argenteuil by Claude Monet c. 1873

Torpid days fade away in vibrant, orangey balls,

Horizons bathed in luminous hues, as darkness falls

My thoughts drift like weightless dandelion seeds,

Scattered. Where they will land? Which will take heed?

Pont Boieldieu Rouen at sunset by Camille Pissarro c. 1896

Summer’s gifts are bountiful; but no rain drops!

Without swimming, drinking or bathing we flop;

Halted, by an unquenchable thirst, dehydrated pores,

Water, wine and crisp cider are liberally poured.

Frederick Carl Frieseke

The last summer I remember as this, was seventy-six,

A young girl was I, unburdened by politics – polemics

Carefree in the garden, to dream of woodland sprites,

Tales by Barrie and Shakespeare create magical nights.

By Virginia Burges

The Adagio from Vivaldi’s Concerto for solo baroque violin and strings in G Minor, ‘Summer’ (L’Estate, RV 315), performed by Cynthia Miller Freivogel and the early music ensemble, Voices of Music beautifully captures the languor of a hot, humid day:

Summer Sun 

Great is the sun, and wide he goes

Through empty heaven with repose;

And in the blue and glowing days

More thick than rain he showers his rays.


Though closer still the blinds we pull

To keep the shady parlour cool,

Yet he will find a chink or two

To slip his golden fingers through.


The dusty attic spider-clad

He, through the keyhole, maketh glad;

And through the broken edge of tiles

Into the laddered hay-loft smiles.


Meantime his golden face around

He bares to all the garden ground,

And sheds a warm and glittering look

Among the ivy’s inmost nook.


Above the hills, along the blue,

Round the bright air with footing true,

To please the child, to paint the rose,

The gardener of the World, he goes.

by Robert Louis Stevenson

Frederick Delius composed ‘Summer Night on the River’ after being inspired by the sights and sounds of the River Loing, which he would sit and ponder during long evenings from the back of his villa in the village of Grez. The impressionist tone poem recreates the gentle lapping of the waves and boats bobbing in the summer breeze:

Boating on the Seine by Pierre August Renoir

Staying on a nautical theme, Debussy’s En Bateau makes me want to be in and on the water, especially with Fritz Kreisler at the helm!

Anthony Hopkins reads The Lake Isle of Innisfree by W.B. Yeats:

The Poppy

Summer set lip to earth’s bosom bare;

And left the flushed print in a poppy there:

Like a yawn of fire from the grass it came,

And the fanning wind puffed it to flapping flame.

By Francis Thompson

Maurice Ravel’s iconic ballet Boléro, with its hypnotic drum beat and mesmerising flute melody, building up slowly and deliberately to a dramatic conclusion is perfect for sultry summer nights.

Ravel worked on Boléro over the Summer of 1927 at the behest of the Russian actress and dancer, Ida Rubinstein. Here is a wonderful ballet version choreographed by Maurice Bejart with Nicolas Le Riche and orchestre de Paris:

I can’t end without the bard’s immortal Sonnet No. 18 – Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Tom Hiddleston’s velvet voice was meant for Shakespeare:

Have a fabulous, sizzling summer!

A Fascinating Tour of the Historic Heart of Trinity College Cambridge

“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” ~ Sir Isaac Newton

Monday 25th June was an important date in my diary. My job was to take my younger son, William, to visit Trinity College Cambridge for an Arts Open Day. The invite had come via his school, and I was determined that he shouldn’t miss the opportunity to get an idea of what it might be like to study at one of the most respected universities in the UK, if not the world.

Trinity College – the Great Court and fountain

Until now, Will has not considered attending university; he wants to go to a specialist drama school after A-Levels. But he now has another option depending on his academic results at GCSE and A-Level over the course of the next two years.

The invite came as part of the university’s drive to take on students from more diverse and less privileged backgrounds than they traditionally would consider.

Trinity College Cambridge – Clock Tower

Trinity’s motto is Virtus Vera Nobilitas (Virtue is true nobility), a fitting slogan for all who aspire to achieve, no matter their circumstances.

I was hoping the experience would inspire William and create a belief that anything is possible regarding his future – if he is prepared to work hard. He has shown an incredible work ethic in year 11 and while studying for his GCSEs, to the point that his school have bestowed an award for his attitude to learning which will be formally presented at a special ceremony on 17th July.

Trinity College – the Great Gate from inside the Great Court

Trinity College – Dining Hall – presided over by Henry VIII!

There is no doubt that Will was impressed by Trinity, and he is absorbing the information he received during the visit. He would not be able to study drama there, but under the subjects encompassed in Arts & Humanities he could read History. Trinity only take around 10 – 12 students per year as undergraduates in History, so he would have to get top grades in history and across the board, as well as pass an entrants exam and interview.

History is probably his favourite after drama, and one of his chosen A-Level subjects.

I don’t have a glass ball with which to predict the future, but I do know that if he sets his mind to something he will move heaven and earth to make it happen.

“History provides an intellectual training and a stimulus to the imagination: it enables one to put expertise into its human context.” ~ Trinity College Cambridge

Whilst Will was involved in his history discussion subject, as a parent, I was permitted to have a tour of the college.

Trinity College Cambridge – view of the Dining Hall from Nevile’s Court beneath the Wren Library

Trinity College Cambridge – Bowling Green off the Great Court.

I would have been rather at a loose end in Cambridge for most of the day after I dropped Will off to register and attend the welcoming lecture, as no parents were allowed to accompany their children. My dad and step mum live near Colchester and so met up with me for a leisurely lunch on the terrace at Prezzo’s, watching the punts go by on the peaceful and serene River Cam.

River Cam

River Cam by Queen’s College, Cambridge

We then returned to Trinity for our tour of the college. It was the hottest day of the year so far, marking the start of the current heat wave sweeping the UK. I don’t think we could have asked for a more beautiful day to see the college.

Afterwards we strolled along past Gonville & Caius College, King’s College, Corpus Christi and Queens College before a much needed drink to cool off in The Anchor.

The Corpus Clock and Chronophage in Cambridge, photo taken at 3.13pm

There’s an amazing, if somewhat bizarre, clock on the route, the Corpus Clock:

King’s College Chapel, Cambridge

A recording of the famous King’s College Choir inside King’s College Chapel from 2011:

Entrance to King’s College Cambridge

A university side street

Corpus Christi College Cambridge

Will loving the Cambridge vibe…

The Round Church (Holy Sepulchre) in Cambridge c. 1130

Short history of Trinity College Cambridge

Trinity College was founded by King Henry VIII in 1546, as an amalgamation of King’s Hall (founded in 1317 by Edward II) and Michaelhouse (founded by Hervey de Stanton in 1324).

1575 map of Trinity College Cambridge

Henry was hell-bent on plundering the monasteries, abbeys and church lands, (as touched on in a previous post about Tintern Abbey), and Cambridge University may well have suffered the same fate, but for the intervention of his sixth wife, Catherine Parr; who persuaded her husband to create a new college from existing ones rather than shutting them down.

Henry’s statue on the exterior of the Great Gate commemorates his forming of Trinity College.

Trinity College Cambridge – The Great Gate from Trinity Street

The Great Court

Just stepping inside the Great Court makes you feel intelligent! Perhaps it’s a sense of being part of something bigger than even the University of Cambridge and its constituent colleges such as Trinity, Corpus Christi, St. John’s and King’s – the act of higher education itself.

The centuries of learning that has taken place on this site has somehow seeped into the bricks and permeates the air with inspiration…

Trinity College Cambridge – the Great Court (Great Gate and fountain).

The Great Court was designed and conceived by Thomas Nevile (Master of Trinity from 1593 to 1615), who adapted buildings where necessary and added new ones, including the Great Hall in the early 1600s, to what is essentially still in daily use.

Unknown artist – Thomas Nevile (1548-1615), Master (1593-1615), Dean of Peterborough (1590-1597) and Dean of Canterbury (1597-1615); Trinity College, University of Cambridge

Print of the Great Court and Nevile’s Court of Trinity College by David Loggan c. 1690

Trinity College Cambridge – Dining Hall from the Great Court, adjoining the ivy covered Master’s Lodge.

Trinity College Cambridge – Lavender around the fountain in the Great Court.

The Great Court Run is a long running tradition; an all-out 400 yard dash undertaken by freshers around the court on the day of their matriculation dinner, (portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire about the British Olympic runners of 1924).

Trinity College Chapel

It was especially wonderful to experience the college chapel, built in the Gothic Tudor style, and Grade 1 listed like much of the college. The chapel construction dates to the mid 16th century by order of Queen Mary,  completed by Queen Elizabeth I.

The only part of Trinity College Chapel seen from Trinity Street

The chapel is on the right as you enter through the Great Gate. We were fortunate to hear choral undergraduates rehearsing. Their voices resembled a choir of angels, rising like ethereal vibrations into the vaulted ceiling, wafting peace and tranquility over us  mortals below…

Trinity College Cambridge – entrance to the chapel from the Great Court

Trinity College Chapel during a choral rehearsal

Beautiful windows inside the chapel

Trinity College Chapel – Royal crests on the ceiling

Marble statues of Tennyson, Newton, Bacon and other great alumni are placed in the entrance to the chapel.

Trinity College Chapel – Tennyson

Trinity College Chapel – Sir Francis Bacon

Trinity College Chapel – Sir Isaac Newton

The Wren Library

As the name suggests, Thomas Nevile also built the smaller, eponymous Nevile’s Court in 1614, between the Great Court and the River Cam.

Trinity College Cambridge – the cloisters of Nevile’s Court

Trinity College Cambridge – facing the Wren Library from the opposite side of Nevile’s Court

Its elegant cloistered space remained three sided until the addition of the prestigious Wren Library, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and built between 1676 and 1695 to house the college’s burgeoning requirement for books and keep up with Trinity’s growth and diversity of interest.

My dad admiring the Wren Library

View from the lower stairs at the back of the Wren Library over the River Cam.

I could have spent all day in there, but it is a place of scholarly reading and not generally open to the public. I was thrilled to see one of two of Shakespeare’s First Folios housed in the library, alongside a handwritten poetry book (which preceded paradise Lost), by John Milton – the only known example of his handwriting.  My eyes devoured original writings by Alfred Lord Tennyson, A.A. Milne and A.E. Houseman.

The Wren Library also holds Sir Isaac Newton’s own original copy of Principa Mathematica, (Will was stoked to see that and took a sneaky photo).

The Wren Library – Newton’s Principa Mathematica

There have been many notable and famous alumni across diverse fields of study and achievement: science, mathematics, politics, literature, music, history and philosophy.

“Cambridge has seen many strange sights. It has seen Wordsworth drunk, it has seen Porson sober. I am a greater scholar than Wordsworth and I am a greater poet than Porson. So I fall betwixt and between.”
~ A. E. Housman, in Richard Perceval Graves A.E. Housman: The Scholar Poet 

Two British composers that had much success here included Sir John Villiers Stanford, who would go on to teach Trinity Alumni Ralph Vaughan Williams at the RCM as a post graduate.

“Stanford’s music the sense of style, the sense of beauty, the feeling of a great tradition is never absent. His music is in the best sense of the word Victorian, that is to say it is the musical counterpart of the art of Tennyson, Watts and Matthew Arnold.”
~ Ralph Vaughan Williams

Portrait of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford at the top of the stairs leading to the Wren Library

Stanford’s most well-known composition is probably ‘The Blue Bird’, set to words by Mary E. Coleridge:

“The lake lay blue below the hill.

O’er it, as I looked, there flew

Across the waters, cold and still,

A bird whose wings were palest blue.


The sky above was blue at last,

The sky beneath me blue in blue.

A moment, ere the bird had passed,

It caught his image as he flew”.

My favourite composition by Ralph Vaughan Williams is The Lark Ascending, for violin and orchestra, closely followed by Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis:

Land and investments

Trinity is thought to be the richest of the Oxbridge colleges, with a landholding alone worth £800 million. Trinity is sometimes suggested to be the third or fourth wealthiest landowner in the UK (or in England) – after the Crown Estate, the National Trust and the Church of England. In 2005, Trinity’s annual rental income from its properties was reported to be in excess of £20 million.

Trinity purportedly owns:

  • 3400 acres (14 km2) housing facilities at the Port of Felixstowe, Britain’s busiest container port
  • The Cambridge Science Park
  • The O2 Arena in London (formerly the Millennium Dome)

There is so much history and greatness embedded within these ancient, sandy walls, but as you would expect, plenty of learning, debating, drinking, socialising and unabashed fun as part of atavistic university life.

I would be thrilled if he made it into their hallowed ranks, but either way, I’m immensely proud of him.

“I am looking forward very much to getting back to Cambridge, and being able to say what I think and not to mean what I say: two things which at home are impossible. Cambridge is one of the few places where one can talk unlimited nonsense and generalities without anyone pulling one up or confronting one with them when one says just the opposite the next day.”
 ~ Bertrand Russell, Letter to Alys Pearsall Smith (1893)

Remarkable Women: The Life and Times of Alice Herz-Sommer (Part 1)

“Every day is a miracle. No matter how bad my circumstances, I have the freedom to choose my attitude to life, even to find joy. Evil is not new. It is up to us how we deal with both good and bad. No one can take this power away from us.”
~ Alice Herz-Sommer

After reading a moving and inspiring book about the life of Alice Herz-Sommer (A Century of Wisdom by Caroline Stoessinger), I’ve come to the conclusion that the word remarkable doesn’t exactly do her justice.

Alice Herz-Sommer was a phenomenon.

So many facets of her life were outstanding, her musical ability, her attitude and resilience, and her extraordinary longevity. Alice Herz-Sommer is known as the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor. She was born on 23rd November 1903 in Prague, which was then part of the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire. Alice both experienced and witnessed the highs lows of the twentieth century before she passed away on 23rd February 2014 at the impressive age of 110.

What’s even more astounding is that Alice was practicing her piano for at least three hours a day when she was 107! Alice’s musical discipline proves that playing an instrument can keep the mind sharp and fertile right up to the end. There was no sign of atrophy in her grey matter, which included her amazing memory. She must have had a huge hippocampus!

Alice was probably as close to a flesh and blood angel as you can get.

Reading about her life has frequently moved me to tears, and made me reflect and re-evaluate my own attitudes. You can’t help but be drawn in by her warm, radiant smile and the twinkle in her eyes, or fail to be inspired by Alice’s pearls of wisdom when you watch her interviews.

Even though Alice’s mother and husband were murdered in Nazi concentration camps, and she and her son endured the horrors of internment at Theresienstadt (Terezin), for two years, she did not have an ounce of hatred in her.

She never succumbed to self-pity, bitterness or hating; she simply focused on what was beautiful in her life. For Alice that was mainly two things: her love for her son, Rafi, and her passion for the piano and classical music. One of Alice’s sayings was, “My world is music. Music is a dream. It takes you to paradise.”

She was young at heart because of her ‘joie de vivre’, and perhaps her deliberate immersion in beauty played a part in her longevity.

Her childhood friend, Franz Kafka, seems to have summed it up perfectly:  “Youth is happy because it has the ability to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.”

Several aspects of Alice’s personality stand out for me: her unquenchable and eternal optimism, her work ethic, her curious mind and love of learning, her early exposure to culture and music which inspired her career path, her gift for teaching as well as performing, and her sweet, sanguine nature. Alice seems to have been friendly to all who came into contact with her. These formidable attributes combined were greater than the sum of their parts, the basis and core of her incredible life.

Alice’s life is an example to all for experiencing a richer, happier existence in the face of the seemingly random vicissitudes that we all face at times. It is surely a gift to humanity.

Malcolm Clarke and Nick Reed’s short documentary film about Alice, The Lady in Number Six won an Oscar in 2014. Filmed shortly before her passing, it is a poignant portrait of a beautiful spirit:

Childhood in Czechoslovakia

Alice grew up in the heart of Bohemia during its cultural zenith. Alice had a twin sister, Marianne (Mitzi), an older sister Irma and two brothers, Georg and Paul.

‘Alice’ in Czech means ‘of the noble kind’, a most fitting name for a truly wonderful lady.

Her Moravian mother, Sofie, was raised in a cultured environment. Her parents ensured that she was highly educated and she became a fine pianist who loved music. She instilled her own cultural education as best she could in her children. Sofie’s parents were friends with Gustav Mahler’s parents, so they played together as children. As an adult, Sofie moved in circles of the great artists, musicians, composers, writers, scientists and thinkers of the day; such as Gustav Mahler, Rainer Maria Rilke, Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig.

In her wonderful book, Caroline mentions seeing an old photograph of a bearded man in Alice’s London flat, presumed to have been taken by her mother. Alice explained that it was Sigmund Freud.

Also born in Moravia, Freud had met Sofie through mutual family friends in Vienna. Alice recounted the story of a visit to a relative in Vienna with her mother in the late 1920s, who happened to live near Freud’s office on Berggasse. They would often run into him on their walks and Freud would always stop and engage with them in a brief conversation.

As a child Alice knew and spent time with Franz Kafka, whose best friend married her older sister Irma. She shared her treasured memories of him with the writer and pianist Caroline Stoessinger. Kafka would take Alice and her twin sister Mitzi on walks in the countryside outside Prague and regale them with stories. In Alice’s recollections of Kafka to Caroline she would remember him as an ‘eternal child’.

Kafka would often say to Alice, “Writing is a kind of prayer,” and although he did not know anything about music, he understood Alice’s respect for music. Alice mirrored his his sentiment in her view that listening to music, playing concerts, and practicing is a kind of prayer.

Through his friendship with Kafka, the journalist, biographer and music critic Max Brod also became a firm friend of the Herz family.

“Children must study music. It helps with everything in life. This beauty is always in my mind.” ~ Alice Herz-Sommer

Sofie had taken Alice to Vienna with her in November 1907 to attend Mahler’s farewell concert of his Second Symphony, just before her 4th birthday. No doubt this partly inspired Alice to take up the piano. They chatted with Mahler after the performance and stood among the crowd to wave his train off alongside composer Arnold Schoenberg the following morning.

The Israel Philharmonic, the Prague Philharmonic Choir under the baton of Zubin Mehta perform Mahler’s 2nd Symphony ‘Auferstehung’ (Ressurection):

The theme of this symphony appears to be in harmony with Alice’s views on death, which were greatly influenced by Spinoza’s writings that death and life are part of the same infinity of God. Alice believed that the soul lives on without the body, as do I. She listened to Mahler’s epic work again and again, finding solace in the song ‘Urlicht’ (primal light), at the begininning of the 4th movement. The opening words of the song appear to have served as her spiritual theme song: I come from God and I will return to God.

Alice’s father, Freidrich Herz ran a local engineering factory, and was known to be kind and generous in spirit, something he clearly passed on to his daughter.

At some point in her childhood, Sofie had made it clear to Alice that Freidrich hadn’t been her first choice of husband, for she had previously been in love with another man, but had ultimately acquiesced to her parent’s choice of suitor. They made it work, but perhaps there had been some lingering resentment on her mother’s side at having to give up the love of her life. Alice remembered how her mother loved to play the piano, commenting, “It was one of her diversions from melancholy.”

A grand piano took pride of place in their living room, a precious heirloom passed down from Alice’s grandmother.

The Herz’s hosted many musical soirees and concerts in their welcoming salon. Alice and Paul would play Schumann’s ‘Träumerei’ together, Alice on piano and Paul on the violin, as well as sonatas and concertos.

I imagine they slept well if they played it anything like this:

“Music was always all around me. I mean live music, people playing or singing, not recordings. That came years later.” ~ Alice Herz-Sommer (A century of Wisdom by Caroline Stoessinger).

It is heart-warming to hear Alice reminisce about those early chamber sessions with her brother and how they stayed with her over the years. We should never underestimate the power of music in the home for our children.

Life as a piano virtuoso

Alice’s sister Irma, an accomplished pianist herself, began to teach Alice the piano in 1910.  In her lessons she imbued in her younger sibling her love of practicing. Their twelve year age gap worked well, as there was no jealousy or rivalry between them.

Alice was dedicated to improving and followed her sister’s instructions and guidance in the early years. As she progressed and showed talent and commitment, Irma took her to play for her former music teacher, the Czech musicologist and pianist Václav Štěpán, widely considered Prague’s finest pedagogue.

Alice performed an early Beethoven sonata at the audition, and Štěpán had been so impressed with her passion that he agreed to see her once a month (even though he did not normally teach younger children), while Irma continued her weekly lessons. A few years later Alice took lessons in earnest with Václav Štěpán, whom she revered as her mentor and friend.

During her time studying the piano at the Prague Conservatory as a young woman, Alice came under the tutelage of Franz Liszt’s former pupil, Conrad Ansorge. Whilst the brilliance of his playing wasn’t in question, it seemed Alice didn’t rate him as a teacher.

A vintage recording of Conrad Ansorge playing Mozart in 1928, only two years before his death:

She was surrounded by brilliant musicians who had been only one generation away from the immortal talents of Brahms, Liszt and Chopin.

Alexander Zemlinsky, (the founder of the German Prague Conservatory) befriended Alice. Himself once a favoured student of Brahms, he had been bequeathed the composer’s grand piano. She also learned from the pianists Wilhelm Backhaus and Moris Rosenthal, both students of Chopin’s pupil Karol Mikuli.

After Alice graduated from the conservatory Václav Štěpán arranged for her first debut as a soloist with the Czech Philharmonic, coaching her performance of Chopin’s E minor piano concerto. He also invited Max Brod to the concert, who was spellbound by her technique and tone. He duly wrote a glowing review, and Alice was launched in her promising career as a concert pianist.

“Stage fright comes mainly from caring more about what others think than about the music itself. The only possible fear that I might have had was of my own inner critic. But once I began to play, even that anxiety disappeared.” ~Alice Herz-Sommer (A Century of Wisdom by Caroline Stoessinger)

Alice took masterclasses with Eduard Steurmann and Artur Schnabel, but rather than inspiring her they impressed upon Alice the need to trust her own judgement, and in the process she learned to teach others.

It speaks volumes about Alice’s character that she believed her life as a committed artist in search of excellence came before her performance career. To successfully experience the latter, the former is fundamental.

Alice was a frequent soloist with the Czech Philharmonic and she also undertook commercial recordings prior to the Second World War.

Here she is, playing Chopin’s Waltz in C sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2 by memory with arthritic hands, just before her 108th birthday!

Alice’s musical inspiration

I share Alice’s admiration and reverence for the genius of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. When asked in a private moment in her apartment by Golda Meir, (who she developed a close friendship with in Israel after the war) about her religion, Alice responded:

“I am Jewish, but Beethoven is my religion.”

Her inspiration came from playing the works of the great baroque, classical and romantic composers, which included her compatriots Bedřich Smetana and Antonín Dvořák, who had achieved international fame and recognition.

“When I play Bach, I am in the sky.” ~ Alice Herz-Sommer

Her early duets with her brother Paul and her evening performances also inspired a deep appreciation for the works of Schumann, Chopin and Strauss.

Alice talking about how music takes us to another world:

Their family entertainment was mainly in the form of the Hauskonzerte (house concerts). It wasn’t just the Herz’s who indulged in this form of enjoyment; many families who had everyday professions were skilled amateur musicians and held house concerts.

Hauskonzerte by Giacomo Mantegazza

The word amateur is derived from the Latin word amator – lover – and during the Bohemian zeitgeist, music was, for many, their grandest love affair. I don’t think I’ll say I’m only an amateur anymore, because it somehow belittles the fact that music is an amatory activity.

I can’t think of a better pastime for improving memory, keeping your brain, body and spirit healthy, as well as bringing joy…

In her beautiful book, Caroline explained that Alice often talked about Beethoven, saying, “As I grow older, I appreciate Beethoven’s depth more and more.”

Alice would extol how Beethoven created new music dictated by fearless talent, breaking the bonds of established rules when necessary; becoming the first musician to call himself an artist, and about how he searched for meaning in life, keeping a journal and notebook of musical sketches and philosophical quotations.

Alice loved that Beethoven was free from conventional prejudice, standing up to royalty and nobility when he disagreed with them. She told Caroline, “Beethoven would not have been afraid to stand up to Hitler.”

Her love of Beethoven would provide Alice with moral and spiritual courage throughout her imprisonment in Theresienstadt.

“In the camp, I sometimes felt that I was protesting against the inhumanity of the Nazis when I played Beethoven. I could feel the audience breathing, feeling with me as they clung to their memories of a better time.”

Caroline marvelled at seeing Alice throw her head back in hearty laughter when she found a new solution to a difficult passage that she had already been practicing for at least one hundred years!

Alice’s work ethic is unmatched, because apart from her being the oldest Holocaust survivor, she was also the world’s oldest concert pianist.

“I am an artist. Some days I admire myself. Not bad, I think. But the longer I work, the more I learn that I am only a beginner. No matter how well I known a work of Beethoven, for example, I can always go deeper, and then deeper still. One of the rewards of being a musician is that it is possible to practice the same piece of music and discover new meaning without boredom for at least a hundred years. I study the language of music with the same fervour that scholars re-examine the holy scriptures. The artist’s job is never done. It is the same with life. We can only strive towards rightness. As with music, I search for meaning. I practice life.”
~ Alice Herz-Sommer (A Century of Wisdom, by Caroline Stoessinger).

She was most certainly on the same page as Nietzsche in his view that, “Without music life would be a mistake.” Alice had many interests to sustain her throughout her long and rich life; she loved poetry, art, philosophy and architecture, but she agreed with Schopenhauer that music is the highest of all the arts.

This lovely chat with Tony Robbins highlights Alice’s philosophy on life:

Marriage and Motherhood

Alice met Leopold Sommer in the wake of a personal tragedy. Her close friend Daisy had died aged twenty from an infection that could have been cured if she had had access to antibiotics. Alice was devastated, it was one of the few times she stopped playing the piano.

Shortly after Daisy’s funeral Alice’s friend Trude mentioned that her good friend in Hamburg, Leopold Sommer, had written her a comforting letter. She showed Leopold’s thoughtful words to Alice who then resumed her practice regimen. Leopold was himself a fine amateur violinist, also raised in Prague, but he had decided to carve out his professional path in the business world. Alice met Leopold at a Hauskonzerte hosted by their mutual friend Trude.

Their relationship quickly blossomed, and Leopold made many trips from Hamburg (where he was working), to visit her in Prague, and was there for Alice when her father died suddenly from a heart attack. As their relationship deepened Leopold began to seek employment in Prague. They decided to get married during a romantic walk around Prague Castle one evening, with the city lights glimmering beneath them.

Alice and Leopold were married in 1931. Alice’s career as a concert pianist was burgeoning, and for a time life was good. At their wedding breakfast I love that they both performed Beethoven’s Spring Sonata together as a fitting symbol of their union.

“I grew up in friendship. I fell in love with my future husband’s mind and his knowledge. In marriage, friendship is more important than romantic love.” ~ Alice Herz-Sommer

Alice and Leopold lived in an apartment in the same neighbourhood as her mother and sister Irma, and Alice was gifted a Forster grand piano by Leopold’s parents. Alice practiced on her new piano and began giving lessons to young students.

Their son came into the world on June 21st 1937. They named him Štěpán after her beloved piano mentor, but he later changed his name to the Hebrew Raphael, and was always affectionately referred to as ‘Rafi’ by his mother.

Rafi was only six years old when the Sommer family were sent to the Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt. He was one of the few children to survive; most likely because of his mother’s musical skill and determination to protect him.

Sadly, in 1944 Leopold was moved to Auschwitz and later Dachau, where he perished just six weeks before the camp was liberated. His last act before being wrenched away from his wife and son was to save their lives.

Alice spoke of how Leopold told her not to volunteer for anything that the Nazi’s offered; no matter how appealing it might sound.

Soon after Leopold and many of the other men had been deported, the wives and children were given the opportunity to be with their husbands. Alice declined as per Leopold’s instructions. None of the mothers and children who took the offer and boarded the special trains ever returned.

Rafi had been taught to play the piano by his mother, but around age 11 he decided that the cello was his first musical love. He studied in earnest at the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem and was fortunate to meet and play for the legendary cellist Paul Tortelier during a Kibbutz. Tortelier became a teacher, friend and mentor to Rafi, who, like his mother, was an outstanding musician and conductor.

Rafi’s sudden death at the age of 65, after performing a concert of Beethoven chamber works with his Salomon Trio in Jerusalem was a devastating blow for Alice. At almost 98 years of age, her closest friends worried that it might be the catalyst for her own passing, but their love and support and her connection to music sustained Alice through the immense sorrow.

Alice’s stoic approach to life and her concern for Rafi’s widow and her two grandsons also kept her going. You could forgive her for indulging in self-pity at such a time, but she told Caroline, “After all, I am not the only mother who has lost her son. Maybe I draw from the strength of Clara Schumann, who one hundred years before me lost two of her children, Felix and Julia. Music kept her going until she closed her eyes for the last time.”

In part two, I will cover Alice’s harrowing time in Theresienstadt, her immediate post war recovery in Prague, her new life in Israel, her formidable contributions as a teacher and mentor to her students, and her final years in London.

I feel it’s right to end part one with a video of her beloved son Raphael Sommer, playing the first movement of Beethoven’s Cello Sonata Op. 5 No. 2 with unbelievable emotional intensity and beauty:

“A sense of humour keeps us balanced in all circumstances, even death.” ~ Alice Herz-Sommer