Remarkable Women: The Life and Times of Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd, (Warrior Princess of Wales)

On a cloudy afternoon in March my son and I stood at the top of the tallest tower of Cydweli Castle in Kidwelly, Wales. Sleety rain dispersed over us, cold droplets like tiny needles driven into our flushed faces on the crest of a biting wind. Panting and puffing, our breath mingled with the boisterous breeze as we recovered from a steep and winding climb up the tower, our feet carefully treading over centuries of narrow, worn stone.

Towers and battlements of Cydweli Castle

A low lying mist shrouded the rolling green landscape around us. On one side the view looked over the coast of Camarthenshire, a narrow estuary and marshland that had been developed with housing, leading to the village and the surrounding fields and hills.

Over a thousand years of history lay silent around us except the rushing of the elements and the occasional whooping of my daughters elsewhere in the castle.

We looked out over Maes Gwenllian (Gwenllian’s Field), about 500 metres from the castle, near woodland. The once stirring battle cries of the brave warrior princess, Gwenllian echoing silently down over the centuries through the legend of her deeds.

After I learnt of her story I was inspired by her courage and sacrifice and felt she deserved to be remembered in my writings.

Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd (1100 – 1136)  

Princess Gwenllian was the youngest daughter and child of Gruffydd ap Cynan (1055 – 1137), King of Gwynedd, and his wife Angharad. Born at the family seat in Aberffraw, she had four older sisters (Mared, Rhiannell, Susanna and Annest) and three older brothers (Cadwallon, Owain and Cadwaladr). She was said to be beautiful with long, flame red hair, intelligent and well educated.

After the French Norman Invasion led by William the Conqueror in 1066 turmoil had been unleashed across the kingdom. The Welsh lords had lost many of their lands and possessions to the Normans, who built impressive fortifications and castles in Aberystwyth, Cardigan, Camarthen, Pembroke and Cydweli.

These castles stood on land that had once belonged to the Kingdom of Deheubarth.

Map of Welsh regions c. 1093 when Rhys ap Tewdwr died.

It was in this environment of repression, rebellion and Welsh patriotism that she was raised. Even though physically striking she was no wilting violet, having been taught how to use a sword by her father!

Gwenllian was about 13 years old when she first met the love of her life, Gruffydd ap Rhys, prince of Deheubarth. He had received a warm welcome from her elderly father and promptly fell in love with his spirited daughter Gwenllian.

The couple eloped to Gruffydd’s castle home of Dinefwr in the Tywi Valley, Deheubarth. They had four sons: Morgan (1116 – 1136), Maelgwyn (1119 – 1136), Maredudd (1130 –1155) and Rhys (1132 – 1197). Gwenllian and Gruffydd were a kind of medieval version of Robin Hood and Maid Marion, making daring raids on the Normans in Deheubarth, redistributing their goods and wealth among the local Welsh population.

Their raids would surely have been an annoyance for the Normans, but no significant turning point came until early 1136, shortly after the passing of Henry 1st, the Norman King of England. His death had created a power struggle between his nephew, Stephen of Blois and his daughter, The Empress Matilda, in a civil war known as ‘The Anarchy’.

A revolt began in South Wales, where a Welsh army lead by Hywel ap Maredudd, Lord of Brycheiniog defeated Maurice de Londres at Llwchwr near Swansea. The Norman lord fled back to Cydweli Castle.

Sensing the Normans were on the run, Gruffydd and Gwenllian made the fateful decision for Gruffydd to ride north with his men to gather support and the forces of her father based in Gwynedd in the north. An army of that size would have been able to drive the Normans out of Deheubarth.

Battle and betrayal at Cydweli Castle

With her husband and the majority of his men away, Gwenllian and her sons were left vulnerable. In the early hours of the 28th of February 1136 Gwenllian received news that the Normans were amassing an army at Cydweli Castle, likely aware that Gruffydd and his men were away. Gwenllian had already decided to fight should the need arise, and after making sure her two younger sons Maredudd and Rhys were safe she rallied support from the local men.

Working men from the Tywi Valley left their labours to join Gwenllian in defence of their lands. Maybe she said something like:

“Men of Deheubarth, will you join me in battle? I am the daughter of a king, but you are the sons of Wales. This is your land, and the Normans have already stolen much of our birthright. Shall we let them steal even more?”

Gwenllian, the Warrior Princess, led her army consisting of her two eldest sons and around two hundred ill-equipped local men and by the afternoon they had reached Cydweli Castle. The short winter daylight hours meant they had to camp nearby. She decided on two strategies, namely lightning raids which she had organised before with her husband, while waiting for his return to launch a major offensive.

She split her troops in half; one group to remain with her at their camp in the woodland to the north of the castle, intent on cutting-off supplies to Maurice de Londres in the castle, while the other group, headed by a local chieftan, took men by boat to stop the Normans landing on the coast.

This may well have worked, had it not been for the traitor in her midst. Gwenllian was betrayed by no less than her chieftan, Gruffydd ap Llewellyn, who instead of cutting-off the coastal landings as instructed, met with Maurice de Londres and gave away Gwenllian’s position.

She had lost the element of surprise and was the victim of a surprise attack herself as Gruffydd ap Llewellyn and the Normans descended from Cydweli Castle along the banks of Gendraeth Fach, their banners fluttering in the wind. Soon they had surrounded Gwenllian’s camp.

A fierce battle ensued, with archers and dagger men, and eventually Gwenllian was felled from her horse. Her eldest son Morgan was killed trying to protect her, and Maelgwyn was made to watch as his injured but defiant mother was captured.

The cruel Norman Lord, Maurice de Londres, who instead of acting in a chivalrous manner towards a woman captive (which was the etiquette of the time), decided she should be executed.

Poor Gwenllian was spared being burned at the stake but was beheaded there and then on the battlefield. A gruesome but quick death. It is said that a spring welled up in the place where she died, fighting to the end for Welsh freedom.

When her husband Gruffydd ap Rhys and her brothers Owain and Cadwalar heard that Gwenllian and her two sons had perished at the hands of the Normans they were filled with grief and vowed revenge. Her death was the catalyst for the Great Revolt of 1136.

Revenge for Gwenllian!

The furious Welshmen attacked the castles of north Ceredigon, slaughtering the Normans there. They had a further victory at Cardigan in 1136, but Gruffydd ap Rhys died only a year after his wife. Of their four sons only the youngest Rhys ap Gruffydd lived to old age.

There is a touching monument to Princess Gwenllian at Cydweli Castle, and stories abound of her headless ghost roaming the field where she was so mercilessly slain. For centuries after her death Welshmen used the battle cry, “Revenge for Gwenllian!”

For decades after her death the welsh and the Normans battled over castles and territories, but eventually her youngest son Rhys ap Gruffydd (The Lord Rhys), became the greatest Welsh lord of his time. He regained many of the lands his family had lost in Deheubarth and won others to boot.

In 1159 he retook Cydweli Castle from the Normans avenging his mother’s murder. He rebuilt the fortress in 1190 and held it until his death in 1197. Rhys also claimed Cardigan Castle, where in 1176 he founded the first Welsh Eisteddfod. Thus was started a festival tradition that continues to this day. Singers and musicians have performed for centuries, long after the court poets, harpists and bards of Lord Rhys’ era.

Royal descendants

The title of ‘Prince of Wales’ may well have first been used by the Lord Rhys. He must have been a man of vigour as he was known to have fathered at least nine sons and eight daughters. There was a bitter feud between his eldest legitimate son, Gruffydd ap Rhys (II) and his eldest, illegitimate son, Maelgwn ap Rhys.

Two of his daughters were named Gwenllian after his legendary mother, but the younger Gwenllian (1178 – 1236) married Ednyfed Fychan, seneschal of Gwynedd under Llywelyn the Great, and through her offspring her grandmother, Gwenllian ferch Gruffyd became an ancestor of the Tudor dynasty.

Posthumous bust of Henry VII by Pietro Torrigiano made with Henry’s death mask c. 1509 – 1511

Through the Tudors inter-marrying with the House of Stuart, Gwenllian is an ancestor to the House of Windsor and also an ancestor of several ruling houses in Europe. When Henry Tudor landed in Pembrokeshire, Wales in 1485 to make a bid for the English throne, his descent from the Lord Rhys (and Gwenllian), was one of the factors which enabled him to attract Welsh support (Henry flew a Welsh dragon banner at the battle of Bosworth Field).

Caniad Hun Gwenllian

Gwenllian is remembered in a traditional Welsh lullaby known as the ‘Caniad Hun Gwenllian’, by Meilyr Brydydd (1100 – 1137), chief bard at the court of Gruffydd ap Cynan, King of Gwynedd.

Sleep, Gwenllian  

Sleep, Gwenllian, my heart’s delight

Sleep on through shivering spear and brand,

An apple rosy red within thy baby hand;

Thy pillowed cheeks a pair of roses bright,

Thy heart as happy day and night!

Mid all our woe, O vision rare!

Sweet little princess cradled there,

Thy apple in thy hand thy all of earthly care.

Thy brethren battle with the foe,

Thy sire’s red strokes around him sweep,

Whilst thou, his bonny babe, art smiling through thy sleep

All Gwalia shudders at the Norman blow!

What are the angels whispering low

Of thy father now

Bright babe, asleep upon my knee,

How many a Queen of high degree

Would cast away her crown to slumber thus like thee!

Our Welsh sojourn was fun and fascinating, summed up for posterity on a blog with photographs (Wales is Always Poetic, Even in the Rain).  For me Gwenllian really embodies the spirit of Wales, wild, beautiful, patriotic, cultured and courageous, having left a tremendous historic legacy on the UK and the world.

The Great Virtuoso Violinists/Composers of the 19th Century: Vieuxtemps

“Vieuxtemps’ art – expressive, human, romantic and distinctive – belongs not only to history, but to the contemporary world as well”. ~ Prof. Lev Ginsburg

To my shame and consternation I have never played a piece of music by Vieuxtemps on my violin. I honestly wasn’t that familiar with his repertoire before reading up about him. I knew of him, but I had no idea just how beautiful and virtuosic his music really is.

Henri Vieuxtemps by Marie Alexandre Alophe

An outstanding virtuoso violinist of the romantic era, he mastered his performance craft and was completely in tune with what was and wasn’t possible on the violin; pushing soloists to their technical limits in his violin concertos.

He had almost certainly been influenced by the brilliance of the famous violinist Paganini. The two met in London in 1834 when Paganini was in the twilight of his career and Vieuxtemps had given his debut in the city. Both were said to be mutually impressed with each other’s talents, but differed in their musical philosophy.

Vieuxtemps eschewed excessive showmanship, and although his compositions were undoubtedly rhapsodic and extremely technically challenging, he never sacrificed unbridled virtuosity at the expense of the music. This philosophy was impressed upon his renowned Belgian pupil, Eugène Ysaÿe, who quoted his teacher: “Not runs for the sake of runs – sing, sing!”

If one could know a person through his creative output I would say that Vieuxtemps possessed a great love for the violin and wanted to explore what it was capable of within the parameters of aesthetic enjoyment.  It seems that the virtuosity in his music is the epitome of his flair and improvisational skills, but it is never misplaced or garish.

A man of taste, passion and emotional intelligence, his numerous qualities translated into his solo career and romantic concertos, an enduring legacy for the most poignant and expressive instrument of all…

Henri Vieuxtemps (17 February 1820 – 6 June 1881)

 Although Henri Vieuxtemps, (literally translated as Henry ‘old times’) was incredibly popular during his lifetime his work has slipped into comparative obscurity today.

The young Henri Vieuxtemps – Portrait of a Violinist by Barthelemy c. 1820s

His early development seems to follow a similar path to that of others I have written about in the violin virtuoso/composer series, in that he was a child prodigy from the age of four. Oh what it must be like to be gifted from the get-go! Henri was initially tutored by his father, a weaver by trade, but also an amateur violinist and luthier.

Vieuxtemps the virtuoso

Vieuxtemps made his first public debut playing a violin concerto by Pierre Rode aged six, and later came to the attention of illustrious violinist/composer Charles Auguste de Bériot  at one of a series of concerts in Brussels and Liege. De Bériot became his private tutor and took the young Henri to Paris in 1829, where he made his debut with another Rode violin violin concerto.

The July Revolution of 1830 in Paris and de Bériot’s marriage to Maria Malibran forced his return to Brussels where he continued to perform for a time with Pauline Garcia, de Bériot’s sister-in-law.

During a tour of Germany in 1833 Henri met and became friends with Louis Spohr and Robert Schumann. He also garnered the attention and admiration of Hector Berlioz during his touring of various European cities.

Now established on the European classical circuit Vieuxtemps also made three concert tours of the USA, firstly in 1843 – 44, in 1853 and again 1857 – 58.

Henri Vieuxtemps standing (with his Guarneri violin), alongside noted musicians and composers who performed in John Ella’s 1853 season of the Musical Union. Louis Spohr is seated with his score, with Berlioz next to him.

Perhaps it was the influence of traditional American folk music that inspired his composition of the ‘Yankee Doodle’ Souvenir d’Amérique.

A brilliant encore by Joshua bell:

Vieuxtemps in Vienna

Not content with performance alone he studied composition with Simon Sechter in Vienna, after having performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major as his debut in the composer’s home city. A mature work indeed for a tender teenager of fourteen, and a concerto he would champion throughout his career. He also became a pupil of Antonin Reicha in Paris.

Franco-Belgian School

Vieuxtemps was an influential performer, composer and teacher, especially in the history of the Franco-Belgian School of violin during the mid nineteenth century. The school dates back to the evolution of the modern violin bow such as those made by François Tourte, often referred to as the Stradivari of the bow.

Qualities favoured by the Franco-Belgian School (and most likely epitomised by Vieuxtemps) included elegance, a full tone with a sense of drawing a ‘long’ bow with no jerks, precise left hand techniques, and bowing using the whole forearm while keeping both the wrist and upper arm quiet, (as opposed to Joseph Joachim’s German school of wrist bowing and Leopold Auer’s Russian concept of using the whole arm.)

Vieuxtemps the composer

What stood out for me listening to and discovering his violin music and overall oeuvre was the singing, ‘bel canto’ quality of the violin, especially in the higher registers. This is a quality that Tartini also embodied. The works aren’t overly violin dominated but encompass the entire orchestra in partnership with the violin and are richer for it.

Whilst he may not be on par with Beethoven in terms of composition, (whom he admired and performed), alongside Bach, Mozart and Mendelssohn, he certainly used his intimate knowledge as a player to bring out the emotion, rising above the obstacles of technical difficulty.

His violin music has a freedom to express emotion that is most endearing and attractive for a soloist; enabling a player to impart their own style and personality on the music.

Vieuxtemps’ violin concertos

Henri Vieuxtemps wrote seven violin concertos, the first being completed in 1836, but published as number 2 in F sharp minor, opus 19. Hrachya Avanesyan does the honurs:

Violin Concerto No.1 in E-major, Op. 10 (actually his 2nd), performed by Misha Keylin with Dennis Burkh and the Janácek Philharmonic Orchestra:

Violin concerto No. 3 in A Major, Op. 25 composed in 1844, performed by Misha Keylin:

Violin Concerto No. 4 in D minor, Op. 31

The most famous of his violin concertos was number 4 in D minor, composed while he was in Saint Petersburg as the court violinist to Tzar Nicholas 1 of Russia in 1846. Unusually for a violin concerto it has four movements, which Vieuxtemps (rather astutely in his experience as a performer), advised that the challenging ‘off-beat’ third movement was optional for programming purposes.

The orchestra’s opening few bars of the concerto are gentle, lush and romantic, with a dramatic, if slightly melancholy melody that soon reaches a crescendo infused with a dark edge, hinting at unknown depths…

When the violin makes its expressive and singing entrance, free and interpretive, forward moving with increasing tempo and power in the higher notes, a certain forcefulness in the chords, virtuosity in the runs and harmonics – a drifting and energetic solo using the whole range of the instrument – you have a concerto worthy of immortality!

I love this fantastic performance by Hilary Hahn and the Berlin Philharmonic. Hilary has been playing this concerto since the age of ten, and rightly knows it inside and out! She brings a certain ‘je ne sais quois’ to it:

To my mind it’s better and more complete with the 3rd movement included; said to be difficult even for professional violinists with its the tricky rhythm between soloist and orchestra, but at the same time lilting and lyrical with a rather playful quality, especially in Hahn’s gorgeous interpretation.

The final runs in the 4th movement indicate a March like theme with impressive motifs and changing melodies. It’s what Hilary Hahn refers to as a ‘finger twister’!

I am in awe of anyone who can play this concerto, especially the section in the finale that requires the fingers of left hand to move in alternating small and large increments whilst the right, bow arm and hand keep the pressure in the sweet spot so that 3 strings are simultaneously depressed; a violin multi-tasking mind bender!!

Another performance of this beautiful concerto I really like is by the late Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux:

Violin Concerto No. 5 in A minor, Op. 37 ‘Grétry’ written in 1861, played by Shlomo Mintz:

Violin Concerto No. 7 in A minor, ‘À Jenő Hubay’, Op. 49 c. 1870 (Op. 3 posthumous) with Misha Keylin:

Salon, concert and chamber works

I adore this rather operatic style composition for violin and orchestra, the Fantasia Appassionata in G minor, Op. 35 in this wonderful 1980 recording performed by Gidon Kremer and the London Symphony Orchestra with Riccardo Chailly:

Ballade et Polonaise Op. 38 with Heifetz:

Romance sans paroles Op. 7 Nos 2 & 3 with David Oistrakh:

Vieuxtemps ‘Reverie’ with Lola Bobesco:

David Nadien plays Vieuxtemps’s Regrets:

Duo Brilliante in A Major, Op 39 for violin, cello and orchestra with Aaron Rosand:

Elegie for Viola and Piano Op. 30 with Robert Diaz and Robert Koenig:

Capriccio in C minor for Solo viola ‘Hommage à Paganini’ played with heart and soul by Anna Serova on the Amati 1615 ‘La Stauffer’ Viola:

The ‘Vieuxtemps’ Guarneri del Gesù Violin – the most expensive violin in the world

Famed violin maker Guarneri del Gesù made the violin in 1741, three years before his death, and it was used extensively by Henri Vieuxtemps in his performances as a virtuoso violinist.

Later musicians who played the Vieuxtemps Guarneri included Yehudi Menuhin, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Joshua Bell.

The violin’s excellent condition and undisputed provenance led to a steady increase in price and the instrument was sold to an anonymous buyer in 2012 by J & A Beares in London in conjunction with Paolo Alberghini and master violin restorer, Julie Reed-Yeboah. The final record-breaking price was said to be somewhere in the region of $16 million, with the purchaser gifting lifetime use of the ‘Viuextemps’ to the ecstatic virtuoso violinist, Anne Akiko Meyers.

As Anne says, with other legendary violins owned and played by Paganini, Kreisler and Heiftez now resting largely unheard in museums, it is a precious gift to have the ‘Viuextemps’ being played on!

Anne gave this moving interview after receiving the violin – ‘Art and Soul’ of World’s Most Expensive Violin:

Anne Akiko Meyers History of  ex-Vieuxtemps Guarneri Del Gesu:

‘Vieuxtemps’ Guarneri Del Gesu Returns To The Concert Stage…

News coverage of the sale by npr.

Russian legacy

Henri Vieuxtemps achieved great success and popularity in Russia. He made two concert tours there in 1837 and 1840 as well as his later 5 year stint at the Imperial Court. Perhaps his lasting legacy from his most revered time in Saint Petersburg (1846 – 1851), was his founding of the Violin School of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory and his early guidance of the ‘Russian School’.

The teachers that followed him in Saint Petersburg were violin luminaries Henryk Wieniawski and Leopold Auer, whose students inlcuded some of the greatest violinists of the twentieth century, such as Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, Efrem Zimbalist, Georges Boulanger, and Oscar Shumsky.

Final Years

An excerpt from Robert Cummings’s Biography sums up Vieuxtemps’ final years:

“He took a teaching post at the Brussels Conservatory in 1871, where his students included Eugène Ysaÿe, and two years later suffered a stroke resulting in paralysis of his right arm. This episode effectively ended his career as a soloist, though he eventually regained enough ability to perform chamber music in private concerts. He was also able to compose in his last decade. In 1879, he moved to Algeria where his daughter lived. His inability to play with proficiency in his final years was a source of great frustration for him.”

I feel strongly that Henri Vieuxtemps deserves more recognition and to be heard regularly on stage and in recordings.

Memorial to Henri Vieuxtemps in Verviers

I hope you have enjoyed his music as much as I have during my venerative Vieuxtemps interlude!

A Sunny Sunday at the Beautiful and Bucolic Blenheim Palace

One never needs an excuse for a family picnic. As Sunday was my birthday, and rather fortuitously, the sunniest and hottest day of the year to date, we drove to Woodstock and spent a fabulous few hours at Blenheim Palace.

Roughly 25 years have flown by since my first visit and my children have never been, so we decided to explore the vast park and gardens that have been home to the Dukes of Marlborough for 300 years.

Blenheim was also the birthplace and ancestral home to former UK Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, being a grandson of the 7th Duke of Marlborough and a direct descendant of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough.

“Under the auspices of a munificent sovereign this house was built for John Duke of Marlborough, and his Duchess Sarah, by Sir J Vanbrugh between the years 1705 and 1722, and the Royal Manor of Woodstock, together with a grant of £240,000 towards the building of Blenheim, was given by Her Majesty Queen Anne and confirmed by act of Parliament . . . to the said John Duke of Marlborough and to all his issue male and female lineally descending.”

~ Plaque above the East gate of Blenheim Palace

It was fascinating picking up bits of history through an exhibition in the stables, just off the main front courtyard.

Aerial views of Blenheim in winter:

The Battle of Blenheim

During the War of the Spanish Succession, John Churchill 1st Duke of Marlborough proved to be a canny general and diplomat. England was allied with the Dutch Republic, Austria and the Holy Roman Empire, together forming the Grand Alliance against Louis XIV in his brazen attempt at dynastic rule over Spain and their European territories.

The Battle of Blenheim (fought at Blindheim, Bavaria on 13th August 1704), was won under John’s leadership in alliance with Prince Eugene of Savoy, and was a major turning point in deciding the European balance of power.

Rather than engaging in siege warfare against Marshall Tallard and his French forces, Churchill made a strategic, surprise attack forcing an open battle. It was hard fought and hard won, with many casualties on both sides.

The Duke of Marlborough signing the despatch at Blenheim c. 1704

He won further victories at Ramillies in 1706, in Oudenarde in 1708 and Malplaquet in 1709, elevating and securing his position as one of the most successful and respected generals in Europe. The Battle of Blenheim was such an important turning point for Great Britain and its emergence as a military and political leader in Europe, that the estate in Woodstock was gifted to John and Sarah Churchill by a grateful monarchy.

Despite the glorious victory that preceded and heralded Blenheim’s existence, much acrimony surrounded its construction. Blenheim’s birth was not an easy one!

Plan of Blenheim Palace and Gardens c. 1835

A major reason for discord between the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough was John’s controversial choice of architect, Sir John Vanbrugh.

Aided by Nicholas Hawksmoor, he designed and built Blenheim Palace in the English Baroque Style. However the duchess, Sarah Churchill, a close confidante of Queen Anne, had wanted to employ Sir Christopher Wren, who was unassailable after St. Paul’s Cathedral. There was constant bickering between the Duchess and Vanbrugh.

The two could not agree about the fate of the existing Woodstock Manor and lodge, which had served as a royal retreat since the time of King Henry I.

Princess Elizabeth, before ascending to the English throne had been held captive in the lodge between 1554 and 1555 by her half-sister and Queen, Mary Tudor. It had lain in ruins after its destruction at the hands of Oliver Cromwell and his Parliamentarians since the Civil War.

Ruby in the perfect climbing tree near our picnic spot.

All but a stone pillar was swept away before construction of Blenheim Palace at the behest of the duchess; against the wishes of Vanbrugh, who had wanted to conserve what remained of the original dwelling.

Political infighting with the Tories and Whig Party and a fall out with Queen Anne sent the Churchill’s into ignominious exile on the continent, only returning after Queen Anne’s death in 1714. They took up residence in the east wing of the then unfinished Blenheim, and found themselves back in favour with the new monarchy, the Hanoverian dynasty.

Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough

Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough first cousin of Winston, inherited his dukedom in 1892 under the shadow of personal and family bankruptcy.

The debts incurred by the extravagant spending habits of George Spencer-Churchill, 5th Duke of Marlborough, which John Winston Spencer Churchill, 7th Duke of Marlborough had not been able to stem, even after selling off many of the family’s heirlooms, forced him into a mercenary and loveless marriage with Consuelo Vanderbilt; the beautiful, young American railroad heiress in 1895.

9th Duke of Marlborough with Consuelo and their sons, by John Singer Sargent

New world Vanderbilt money ensured old world Blenheim’s survival, but the Duke and Duchess were unhappy together. They had two sons to carry on the Marlborough line, but separated in 1906 and divorced in 1921, after which Charles had their marriage annulled.

Consuelo Vanderbilt by Carolus Duran c. 1900

We didn’t go into the house, my daughters made it clear that walking round a stately home would be a fate worse than death; but we did enjoy parts of Blenheim’s formidable 2,000 acres of gardens and grounds.

The Fountain Terraces (complete with sculptures from Bernini’s Italian studio) and lakeside walk are a pleasure to amble through on a sunny afternoon. An ice cream treat doesn’t go amiss either!

Blenheim Palace is unique as a country house in that it is the only non-royal residence (apart from the Church of England’s Lambeth Palace) allowed the status of ‘palace’. Its grandeur had even beguiled Hitler, who instructed that it not be bombed during World War 2, eyeing it as a possible residence should he invade the UK. Fortunately that nightmare scenario did not prevail!

Blenheim Palace was first opened to the public in 1950 and made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.

The estate is now home to the 12th Duke of Marlborough and his family, who in his younger, reckless days was labelled the ‘Black Sheep’ of the family by his estranged father John Spencer-Churchill, 11th Duke of Marlborough, also a cousin of Winston Churchill and given the nickname ‘Sunny’, (but not due to his temperament). Eventually father and wayward eldest son were reconciled.

The millions of visitors each year provide the funds for Blenheim’s onerous upkeep.

Before we departed I wandered over the Grand Bridge built and designed by Sir John Vanbrugh, with the Column of Victory looming before me.  Ruby was very tired and had taken to dragging her feet whilst pulling my arm and wailing intermittently.

She begged me mercilessly to let her roly-poly down the steep hill, but I decided the generous amounts of geese poo and the thought of her rolling straight into the lake prohibited that particular fancy…

Grand Bridge and Victory Column

The sun was slowly sinking, its fading light reflected as brilliant, squint inducing starbursts off the water, shimmering and glinting at passers-by, illuminating every last drop of Blenheim’s peace and tranquility.

I eventually turned to head back to our picnic spot to search for Emily’s lost bracelet, but took a moment to admire the distant sandy coloured façade and columns of the palace, standing noble and proud to this day. Blenheim will always be an emblem of courage, fortitude and empire that presides over its Capability Brown landscape and beyond.

William also admiring the view!

Blenheim Palace is the legacy of its founding father and his outstanding military achievement, but each generation of its famous chateleins, (the Spencer-Churchill family), have left their mark in the process of preserving Blenheim for future generations – a national treasure with a magnificent, historic heritage.

“At Blenheim I took two very important decisions: to be born and to marry. I am content with the decision I took on both occasions.” ~ Sir Winston Churchill

The temple of Diana, where Winston Churchill rather romantically proposed to Clementine Hozier during a rain storm in 1908. He later wrote: “My most brilliant achievement was my ability to be able to persuade my wife to marry me.”

Bust of Sir Winston Churchill in the WC Memorial Garden

I hope you like my photographs of the grounds and gardens. It’s well worth a visit if you’re ever in the vicinity of Oxford. It will be especially fun for families this Easter weekend. Happy Easter!

A Courageous Experiment that will Make you See Music and Beauty Differently

“Spontaneity is a meticulously prepared art.” ~ Oscar Wilde

At 7.51 am on Friday 12th January 2007, an unassuming lone male figure dressed in a long sleeved T-shirt and baseball cap played the most spiritually uplifting violin music there is, on a £3.5 million Stradivarius, to oblivious passing commuters at the L’Enfant Plaza on the Washington Metro.

The subway experiment:

Normally classical music fans, and in particular, violin aficionados pay around $100 to attend a Joshua Bell concert, for the chance to listen to one of the greatest living violinists.

I saw Joshua Bell in a performance of Schubert with Jeremey Denk in Vienna a few years back. It was very special. I got to meet him briefly afterwards, and I cannot think of a more down to earth, approachable and lovely person as he. It also helps that he’s pretty much flawless on the violin too…

Joshua Bell in Vienna

The experiment was thought up by Joshua Bell and Gene Weingarten, a Washington Post journalist, curious to see if someone of Joshua’s fame and reputation would elicit large crowds and a hefty amount of coinage in his case.

The outcome of the 45 minute busking session was shocking – of the 1097 people that passed by Joshua that morning, only 7 people stopped to listen for a minute or longer, and the ones who tended to want to stop most were children.  Joshua had received little over $32 for the entire session.

I’m not sure many other professional violinists would have undertaken a similar experience…

For lesser virtuoso’s that kind of reception would likely have cleaved a severe dent in their ego, but Joshua Bell, I think, was able to look objectively at what happened. It had no bearing on his skill on the violin.

It had everything to do with perception, placement and people’s capacity to enjoy something despite its context and their preconceived ideas.

Buskers, although many are highly talented, are not usually in the same league as a concert soloist. We tend to disregard them unless we like what we hear. No matter their skill level my children always stop for buskers.

It was early in the morning and people were naturally rushing to work so they weren’t really focused on anything else. The dismal results highlight how often we can live in a kind of manic, 21st century stress bubble.

Our schedules are crammed to the hilt; we don’t appear to have a nanosecond to enjoy the finer things in life. But such a blinkered attitude means we miss out on what’s really around us.

“Some of the most thrilling things in life are done on impulse.” ~ Syrie James (The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen)

It’s time to open up our awareness and take a deep, abdominal sniff of the roses – really smell and devour their glorious scent – make it a part of us.  Let that divine aroma mingle in our blood as it pulses around our body and nourishes our cells.

Stop and listen to the music if you can, it’s highly beneficial for human beings. Pause and appreciate a work of art, read an excerpt of a classic text and truly digest what message, what heart-felt passion and skill went into its creation.

One of the best violinists in the world was playing music that speaks to the soul on a Golden Period Stradivarius, and barely anyone could truly appreciate it. This wasn’t just any old music played on a shoddy instrument by an amateur – this was mastery – mastery of composition, of violin construction and musicianship.

It makes you think what else we might miss if our radar isn’t attuned to art, nature, beauty, literature and music, our whatever it is that elevates our soul. The universe is ‘speaking’ to us all the time, but are we listening?

Many opportunities for joy may pass us by if we are in a kind of awareness stupor, only concerned with the banalities of life. To be fair, maybe some people didn’t recognise or know who Joshua Bell is; but surely the heavenly music would have roused them from their cultural cocoons for just a minute?

It’s a sad day when a person’s life is so devoid of feeling or joy that they cannot spare such a short time to enrich it.

Here’s the article that Gene wrote after the experiment in the Washington Post.

The Man with the Violin

The experiment prompted children’s author Kathy Stinson to write a glorious book about it: The Man with the Violin. Kathy put herself in the shoes of one of one of the children who may have passed Joshua that cold wintry morning and wrote it from a young boy’s point of view.

When I discovered this book I had already seen the experiment and knew that my daughters would love it. They do, and so do I, because it reminds me to pay attention to what my children pay attention to, and to live in and enjoy the moment.

It’s beautifully written with a beautiful message and evocative illustrations.

Context

One of the lessons of this enlightening experiment was context. It turns out that time and place matter, that expectation has an impact on our experience and enjoyment. When we have paid a considerable amount of money to sit in a concert hall and hear the amazing acoustics of a hotly billed soloist we are in the right frame of mind to get the most out of that experience.

Spontaneity is not something that the majority of people who passed him seemed to possess. It also demonstrated that people tend not to value something unless they pay for it.

His follow-up performance at Washington Union Station in 2014 was much more successful! It helped that the event was publicised, so people knew in advance what was happening.

Joshua Bell is very eloquent when he talks about the experience and classical music in general:

I love his passion for children to have a musical education and how that impacts on their lives as well as their test scores. Music (of any kind) is not a nice to have, it’s as essential as maths and literature. It’s fundamental to our well-being on a mental, emotional, physical and spiritual level.

So whatever floats your boat, be it music, literature, art, or being in nature, take time to enjoy it and let its beauty infiltrate your life and revitalise your soul.

“No matter how many plans you make or how much in control you are, life is always winging it.” ~ Carol Bryant

Ultimate Brain Hack: How to Avoid Losing Your Mind

“To keep the body in good health is a duty…otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.” ~ Buddha

Recently I was fortunate to attend a workshop on brain health run by Jenny Phillips of Inspired Nutrition. Jenny did a popular guest blog a while back for rhapsody in words on breast health and screening, and as a cancer survivor has written a book everyone should read: Eat to Outsmart Cancer.

With alarming rates of early onset dementia and an ever increasing number of the population suffering with Alzheimer’s disease, she has been fascinated by recent research from the US showing that early cognitive decline can be reversed.

Jenny has a proactive attitude towards health that I wholeheartedly share. Her aim is to help others proactively adopt a lifestyle that will reduce the risk and help to prevent cognitive decline. If we can optimise our biochemistry we can influence the expression of our genes for a positive outcome.

Although Alzheimer’s disease mainly affects older people, according to the WHO it is not a normal part of aging.

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, the umbrella term for a group of neuro cognitive disorders (NCDs); characterised by a decline in cognitive functioning. Symptoms include memory loss, difficulty with language, thinking and problem solving. In severe cases it has the potential to steal our independence and personality. Alzheimer’s was named after the man who discovered this cognitive condition, Dr. Aloysius Alzheimer (1864 – 1951).

From Jenny’s brain health manual:

AD is caused by parts of the brain shrinking (atrophy), which affects the structure and function of particular brain areas. People with AD may have abnormal protein deposits in their brains (amyloid plaques), neurofibrillary tangles (containing tau, an important brain protein), imbalances in a brain chemical called acetylcholine and vascular damage. This affects communication between neurones and results in cell death. Over time the damage spreads and symptoms progress.

The first area of the brain that is usually affected by Alzheimer’s is the Hippocampus, the part of the brain that stores, retrieves and makes our memories.

Early onset of Alzheimer’s can very often cause difficulty in forming new memories or recalling recent actions and events. Older, childhood memories tend to remain longer as they are stored in different parts of the brain. We should be able to remember at least 6 numbers or more as a sign of a healthy memory.

There are 3 stages of Alzheimer’s Disease: early – middle – late. Ideally, we should put in place strategies before any early signs appear.

The role of genes

Jenny talked about increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s for those that have the ApoE4 gene and how it is expressed according to environmental influences. She pointed out that if anyone has a history of dementia in their family it might be worth getting a genetic profile done. Knowledge is power, so armed with this information it may encourage people to take their health more seriously and adjust their lifestyle accordingly, to stack the odds in their favour.

Prevention is always preferable to, and easier than cure. There are many ‘hidden’ costs associated with cognitive decline; such as not being able to work, the emotional, physical and mental strains on the individual as well as their family and friends, being unable to perform activities such as driving and many other actions/interactions we may take for granted.

According to the WHO (World Health Organisation), “There is no treatment currently available to cure dementia or to alter its progressive course.”

This view is perhaps a touch pessimistic, and Jenny gave us hope by sharing the latest research. She carefully presented the facts and managed to make a complex subject easy to understand with her relaxed and logical teaching style.

We each inherit 23 pairs of chromosomes from our parents, the blueprint of our genetic makeup; ‘the recipe book of you’ as Jenny calls it. If there are mutations or spelling mistakes this can cause trouble later in life if we are not diligent in managing our lifestyle.

Jenny covered three main areas where we can impact our brain functioning: root cause resolution, optimal performance and protection.

Root cause resolution:

We covered the ingredients for a healthy brain; the raw materials that make it grow.

“For the brain to flourish you’ve got to nourish.” ~ Jenny Phillips

Our brains are 60% fat, which means they need replenishing with essential fats such as omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA). In addition to diet I personally supplement with Dr. Mercola’s krill oil as it’s high in these nutrients and sustainably sourced.

Healthy dietary fats include coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil (uncooked), and butter. The trans-fats that are in margarine and other oils cause oxidative damage to our cells and should be avoided at all costs.

B vitamins help the brain make and use neurotransmitters. The brain also requires amino acids, vitamins and minerals such as magnesium, which has been dubbed the ‘master mineral’ as it is a co-factor in every process in the body. Good digestion and gut health is also fundamental to brain health (as I will elaborate on in a future post).

Optimal performance:

The brain’s main source of energy is glucose. For those in varying degrees of metabolic syndrome (waistline and weight is an indicator), and who have developed insulin resistance this is significant for the brain, as it can’t get the glucose it requires into the cells, as insulin takes sugar into the cells. Anyone with a diet high in sugar and refined, processed foods is at risk. Treatment of insulin resistance may reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Lowering sugar intake, insulin regulation and energy from nutrients such as healthy fats, magnesium and CoQ10 all contribute towards brain health.

An alternative source of energy is when the body breaks down fat into ketones, known as ketosis.

Another risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s is poor oral hygiene. Gum disease arises when there is an overgrowth of bacteria in the mouth, and is linked to increased inflammation. The cold sore virus can also cause Alzheimer’s disease.

Stress

When we are feeling stressed our body produces the hormone cortisol, and lengthy periods of un-managed stress means that we are living off our adrenals and this is bad news. Long term high levels of cortisol increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Jenny suggested meditation as a great way of reducing and managing stress. I have found meditating for over a decade has been invaluable. I meditate for an hour a day with Holosync, but there are other similar programmes, and even half an hour a day of clearing your mind in whatever way suits you best will be of benefit.

Use it or lose it

The phrase ‘use it or lose it’ applies to the brain, (our mental muscle), so it’s important to undertake activities that give your grey cells a workout; such as playing a musical instrument, hobbies that induce relaxed concentration like chess, puzzles, crosswords, sudoku, knitting, writing, reading, any kind of crafts or brain training games.

Exercise

Regular physical activity  is crucial to brain health and overall well-being. Getting at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, such as walking, dancing or an active hobby. I’m aware that as a writer I am sitting for long periods, so I have to be consciously moving around every 2 hours.

Office work can also lead to a sedentary lifestyle which is something our early ancestors never had to deal with due to a radically different way of life.

Sleep

This one area where I struggle to get enough hours of pushing out the zeds! Jenny recommended a minimum of 7 hours per night to give your body a chance to heal, repair and rejuvenate and distribute Human Growth Hormone (HGH), so that we can function to the best of our ability the next day.

Protection:

Jenny talked about the dangers of high levels of homocysteine in the blood, an aggressive molecule strongly linked to Alzheimer’s disease. We should look to increase our intake of vitamin B12 (liver is a rich source), folate and glutathione. High alcohol intake robs our body of B vitamins and also destroys helpful bacteria in the gut.

Jenny advised that we can’t go wrong by eating the rainbow, a diverse range of fruits and vegetables of all colours. Bone broth can be made in the slow-cooker and is incredibly nutritious for maintaining the integrity of the gut lining and supporting digestion.

Toxicity in the body strains the liver so powerful antioxidants are needed to combat aging and free radicals that cause cellular degeneration.

Diet concerns:

  • Dependency on refined foods and simple carbohydrates
  • Not enough fresh vegetables – limit or cut out processed/shelf stable foods
  • Confused about facts (e.g. misleading information from government bodies about a low fat diet). Jenny recommended a book: Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill
  • Too much alcohol
  • Sodium : potassium ratio needs to be in balance

Sadly, the food industry as a whole isn’t concerned about health, it appeals to your taste buds with sophisticated marketing. Labels can also be misleading and you should read the ingredient list carefully. Interesting article on junk food.

21st century life has solved many challenges for humanity, but in doing so, our drive for a more convenient life has unwittingly created other problems. Diet is a biggie, hence the rise in obesity, diabetes, digestive, auto-immune disorders and cognitive decline.

It’s worth having an individual genetic test to assess your risk factors. This could give you peace of mind about what you are already doing or motivate you to make any necessary changes.

Cognitive decline does not happen overnight but is a result of environmental factors influencing the way your genes express themselves. Our daily habits hold the key to health and longevity.

Jenny gave us some very promising data that was being garnered by Professor Dale Bredesen and his colleagues at the Buck Institute, who, unencumbered with the need for funding and the hidden agendas that usually accompany such investment, are working on solving problems of the aged. He speaks of Alzheimer’s disease being akin to a ‘roof with 36 holes’ – where no one therapy will ever come close to plugging all the gaps.

Reversing Alzheimer’s Disease – Dr. Dale Bredesen, MD:

Bredesen wrote a 2014 paper: Reversal of Cognitive Decline around the results he achieved with his patients using his MEND therapeutic programme, which included discreet eating and the lifestyle indicators Jenny spoke of.

7 Pillars of Brain Health:

  • Nutrition
  • Fasting
  • Gut health
  • Exercise
  • Sleep
  • Stress Reduction
  • Brain stimulation

After the study section of our workshop was completed Jenny treated us to a healthy home-made juice with pineapple, spinach, ginger and celery, followed by a delicious, nutritious lunch of salmon, avocado, sweet potato and a beautiful salad with a choice of brain healthy dressings.

We were also given a short manual that recapped on what we had learnt with helpful dietary advice and the best brain healthy foods. Included at the back was a health dashboard to enable us to focus on the fundamental elements of brain health and overall well-being and write any notes about what we decide to put into action along with results.

I’m very grateful to Jenny for sharing her knowledge! We left feeling empowered to implement the changes we each needed to reduce our risks of developing a neuro degenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s.

For more information about future brain health workshops, nutrition and advice on brain health contact Jenny via her website.

Other useful websites:

Photosynthesis: Connections to Life, Growth and Perspective

“I want my words to illuminate like the sun, as I give my daily lecture on photosynthesis to my houseplants.” ~ Jarod Kintz

In my daily watering of the fresh basil, parsley and coriander plants that sit on my kitchen window sill, I began to notice that over a period of a few days their slender stalks and rounded, green leaves lean markedly towards the window and the light streaming in. So much so, that if I don’t turn them they get tangled up with one another and almost start to climb the pane.

I move the herbs every few days to keep them balanced and limit any lopsided growth. Sure enough, each time they start to lean again, reaching for their source of energy and life.

It’s a complex, natural process – science calls it photosynthesis. Plants, flowers and nature as a whole never stray or deviate from what benefits them the most; they instinctively know that air, light and water enables and promotes life.

As I was tending to my sweet, fragrant herbs this observation sparked a thought, and here I am, duly expounding my extemporaneous insights!

Humans on the other hand, have a tendency to lean towards the shadows: thoughts and actions that don’t serve us. That is the divine burden, blessing and responsibility of conscious thought, infinite choices, free-will and intelligence.

Perception and perspective…

It’s easy to reach for the light when things are going well.  We are bursting with energy, and more likely to be happy and positive.

It’s when we are beset by problems, dealing with trauma, challenges and difficult situations that we can become caught in the shadows. We’ve all experienced times in our life when it felt like we were an unfortunate character trapped in a dystopian novel – enveloped in a story so unpleasant that even Charles Dickens couldn’t imagine or describe it!

“Please sir, I want some more” ~ Oliver Twist

We can become entrenched in our views that God and the universe have it in for us, and nothing will ever be good again. There was once a time when I was at rock bottom that I believed the implacable march of fate was against me. But perception and perspective is everything…

“Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison. Well, then it isn’t one to you, since nothing is really good or bad in itself—it’s all what a person thinks about it. And to me, Denmark is a prison.” ~ William Shakespeare (Hamlet – Act 2, Scene 2)

How do we interpret such events and times? That’s the hard part. We can get down on ourselves, others, or our lot in life, or we can put it down to experience and try and glean something positive from such moments and move forwards. I’ve often exacerbated a tricky situation by self-sabotaging myself.

However, my greatest spiritual learning, growth and development has always arisen from my deepest and most intense suffering. Not that I relish suffering, none of us do, but part of life is embracing both the ups and the downs, the duality of existence.

I find it helpful to accept everything that constitutes my life experience, that way I recover quicker and put more energy into solving and improving things instead of grumbling and having a pity party. It doesn’t always happen straight away though!!

Rudyard Kipling had it right in his poem If, when he advised us to meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same.

I have to constantly remind myself to practice gratitude. I like to think of 3 things: something/someone or a happening from my past, present and future. The last one takes a creative licence and leap of faith that things will be better. Afterwards I always feel happier. The problems are still there, but the difference is I’m better equipped to handle my life when I’m in a higher vibration and reaching for the light.

I’m quicker to notice when I start moaning and gently forgive myself for holding myself back. That has taken years to master. Other strategies are to do more of the things that bring me happiness and fulfillment, look to where and when I’m in flow and unencumbered by the cares of the world.

So when we get pulled off course and away from the light; whether it be a short deviation or a lengthy detour,  it requires being aware and taking steps to alter direction, just like a weed or flower will grow through the tiniest crack in a block of concrete; it is indefatigable in seeking the light.

It’s never fun wallowing in the shadows, and if we’re not careful it can be an addictive form of energy that our ego feeds off. Just like the leaves of the kitchen herbs lose their vibrant, green lustre and wilt if deprived of light and water, we too become spiritually, mentally and physically jaded. Being unplugged from our source is debilitating.

“Four elements, Hydrogen, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, also provide an example of the astonishing togetherness of our universe. They make up the “organic” molecules that constitute living organisms on a planet, and the nuclei of these same elements interact to generate the light of its star. Then the organisms on the planet come to depend wholly on that starlight, as they must if life is to persist. So it is that all life on the Earth runs on sunlight.”  ~ George Wald (referring to photosynthesis)

Something simple like deep abdominal breathing, going for a walk, or being in nature can give an instant lift and help us through the moment.

Just as the leaves of plants will turn brown, crinkle and die if left untended, so we must dig deep and look to our strengths and sources of joy to lift us out of the gloom and bloom once more. Love is light.

Plants have no choice but to grow and nourish themselves. It is an automatic chemical reaction when carbon dioxide, water and sunlight are present; life-sustaining energy will be produced. Energy that not only benefits the plant, but also humanity, for the oxygen we breath and the food we eat.

For all you budding scientists out there!

Soul stamina

Our collective soul stamina was sorely tested this week, with the horrific events in London, and it is right to mourn and fully support those affected. Wisdom urges that we do not wallow in victim hood but tackle such evil at its root cause – the twisted, de-humanising and hate preaching ideology of extremists. Weak minded individuals who use religion as an excuse to vent their sick sense of puritanical outrage and violent tendencies. They live in the shadows, the unconscious.

Our anger at such heinous acts can make us bitter and resentful, but this is unhelpful if we wish to create a safer, happier and more prosperous world for the human diaspora.

The British mantra of ‘keep calm and carry on’ seems very fitting right now…

The terrible news of Wednesday’s events made me feel sad and tearful, but also grateful for another day with my family. None of us knows what will happen when we step outside our front doors. The brave PC Keith Palmer could not have known that fateful day would not turn out like any other normal day at Westminster, until he made the ultimate sacrifice to protect our democracy. The stories of the other souls who died in the attack (indeed, from all terror attacks, wars and their effects), are equally heartbreaking. Grief stricken parents, children and families who will not see their loved ones return home.

Whatever we may be dealing with, there is always someone who has it worse somewhere in the world.

In fact, millions do, the global challenges are great – but we can each make a brighter future if we follow Gandhi’s advice and endeavour to BE the change we wish to see in the world.

I’ll bid you farewell with a final analogy of the herbs reaching for the light. Let’s take a leaf out of nature’s book and adopt photosynthesis for our mind, body and soul!

Oxygen is the lifeblood of our respiratory system, powering our cells and movements, the influx of fresh ideas and zest for life. If you can’t escape a polluted area, have plants around you. Chlorophyll is the green pigment in plants which when consumed, keeps our blood and organs in an alkaline state – being as huge swathes of the population live in a toxic environment.

Water is the fluidity of our mind set and attitude; it needs topping up daily, and perhaps filtering to remove any impurities, (those stagnant, self-limiting and negative thoughts), thus hydrating our motivation and belief as well as our cells.

Sunlight, converts vitamin  D3 in our bodies and can be likened to our higher Self, our soul, the source from which we manifest physicality and spiritual resilience, even transcendence. It is our guide and home, showing us the way.

All these biological elements in photosynthesis are needed for an organism to grow and thrive. Our mind, body and soul are dynamic systems, each needs the right form of energy in order to follow our dreams and live life to the full. If we can only reach up into the golden rays of consciousness, those invisible photons of the soul, even on bad days…

What’s in a Painting? Taking a Closer Look at Peter Paul Rubens’ Masterpiece: Massacre of the Innocents (c. 1611-12)

“I’m just a simple man standing alone with my old brushes, asking God for inspiration.”  ~ Peter Paul Rubens

With so much violence being perpetrated in Syria, across the Middle East and in pockets around the world, it seems timely to revisit a powerful anti-war artwork by one of history’s greatest artists – the Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens.

Rubens’ visceral and heart-stopping visual depiction of the biblical story about the slaughter of the firstborn male babies in Bethlehem fills me with horror. It’s almost as if the heinous, frenzied energy portrayed within the lifelike pigments on the canvas spill out onto the viewer. It’s impossible to remain passive and calm while looking at Massacre of the Innocents.

Massacre of the Innocents by Sir Peter Paul Rubens c. 1611- 12 oil on canvas, 182 x 142 cm

The Massacre of the Innocents now hangs as the pièce de résistance  in the Art Gallery of Ontario, to whom it was donated by Kenneth Thomson; a generous gift to the people of Toronto. After its initial time hanging in the National Gallery, (side by side once again with the painting that preceded it, Samson and Delilah) it was sent to its permanent home in Toronto in 2008. I wished I had seen it while it was in London…

Provenance and Misattribution

The Massacre of the innocents was the first of two works on the biblical subject painted by Rubens, commencing in 1611 just three years after his return to Antwerp from an eight year stint in Renaissance Italy.

Alongside Rubens’ earlier masterpiece, Samson and Delilah, the Forchondt Brothers sold the works to a patron of the arts and an avid Rubens collector, Hans-Adam, the Prince of Liechtenstein in around 1700. The paintings remained in the Liechtenstein family collection for two centuries, and at one point were hung together in the Garden Palace in Vienna.

The first misattribution occurred in 1767, when the Massacre of the Innocents was categorised by Vincenzio Fanti as a Franciscus de Neve (II) and the second mistake happened in 1780 when it was catalogued as being by Jan van den Hoecke, one of Rubens’ assistants. The painting was subsequently sold to an Austrian family in 1920, and then loaned in 1923 to Reichersberg Abbey, a monastery of Augustinian canons in northern Austria.

When the Massacre of the Innocents came up for sale it was brought to the attention of Sotheby’s and the National Gallery in London where David Jaffé helped to identify the work as a Rubens.

He compared it with Samson and Delilah (already hanging in the National Gallery) and recognised the artist’s distinctive style and artistic ‘handwriting’ immediately.

Samson and Delilah by Peter Paul Rubens c. 1609 – 10

It strikes me as more than co-incidence that these two works by Rubens have crossed paths multiple times throughout their history!

Some statistics:

Once the Massacre of the Innocents had been attributed to an Old Master its perceived value increased exponentially.  It was the most expensive painting ever sold in the UK and Europe when  the hammer crashed down with the winning bid at a thrilling Sotheby’s auction in 2002.

The purchaser was the Canadian billionaire and art enthusiast Kenneth Thomson, who stumped up the eye-watering amount of £49.5 million; a world record for an Old Master. It’s in the top ten of the world’s most expensive paintings. No painting has reached more at auction in the UK and Europe to this day.

On 1st March 2017, Gustav Klimt’s ‘Bauerngarten’ painting was sold by Sotheby’s in London for a record price of £47,971,250 ($59,321,248), making it the second highest painting in British and European history after Rubens’ Massacre of the Innocents.

Bauerngarten by Gustav Klimt

However, if one includes sculptures as works of art, they were both eclipsed in 2010 when Alberto Giacometti’s life size Walking Man was sold for £65 million by Sotheby’s.

Previous to the sale of Massacre of the Innocents only two other paintings fetched more at auction: Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet at $82.5 million in 1990 and Renoir’s Au Moulin de la Galette, which fetched $78.1 million in the same year, both in New York.

Anti-war sentiments:

Rubens grew up in the aftermath of violence and war, as a protestant led rebellion was crushed when his home city of Antwerp was laid to waste by the Spanish on 4th November 1576 during the Eighty Years War. This brilliant article by Jonathon Jones in The Guardian gives an insight into the life and times of Peter Paul Rubens and his social commentary on violence and war via his art, and in particular, his epic painting of the Massacre of the Innocents.

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” ~ Elie Wiesel

The genius of the Massacre of the Innocents

When you get over the sheer revulsion of the subject matter – it’s not easy to look at infants being slaughtered, or the anguish on mothers’ faces as they desperately try to save their sons from the cruel attack of Herod’s soldiers – you can appreciate the skill of Rubens in creating a scene of pure drama, of the wretched bodies trapped in time, in their epic struggle for survival.

The impressive blend of shades of light and dark epitomise the influence of Caravaggio imbued from his travels in Italy.

Massacre of the Innocents by Sir Peter Paul Rubens c. 1611- 12 oil on canvas, 182 x 142 cm

The luminous and deathly grey skin tones, the rippling muscles, the terror on the faces, the contortion of bodies in a confined space make for a powerful painting. It’s not glorifying violence, it’s condemning it.  Rubens fought against warmongering with his paint brush, (it’s not just the pen that is mightier than the sword).

My eyes are drawn to the central figure, the young, fair haired mother with her back turned to us and being pushed downwards by an older woman about to be run-through by a soldier. She is grasping her baby in her left hand, shielding him beneath her fleshy, alabaster shoulder, whilst her right hand reaches up to claw and gouge the face of the soldier who is grabbing at her son’s loin cloth. The silky, deep crimson skirt has a sombre sheen, as if it is meant to represent their spilled blood.

Above and behind them, orange streaks across the sky and a ruined, classical city provide the back drop for one of art and history’s unspeakable deeds. Rubens has a way of making spectators become involved in his paintings, his visual storytelling.

David Jaffé on The Massacre of the Innocents by Peter Paul Rubens:

Perhaps the outrage evoked by this 406 year old painting should be seared onto the minds and hearts of politicians all over the world.  Innocents are still being massacred and exploited in one way or another. Maybe that will never change; human nature has shown us repeatedly that we are slow to learn from the lessons of history.

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” ~ Eli Wiesel

Peter Paul Rubens (28 June 1577 – 30 May 1640)

Born as one of three children to Jan Rubens and Maria Pypelincks, Rubens was well educated as a humanist scholar, familiar with Latin and classical literature. He remained a devout Roman Catholic throughout his life. He began painting at age 14, and studied under two leading late Mannerist artists of the time, Adam van Noort and Otto van Veen.

Peter Paul Rubens – self portrait c. 1623

Sir Peter Paul Rubens was not only a prodigious painter (with around 1400 works of art to his name), but a scholar, diplomat and businessman. He was knighted by both Philip IV of Spain and Charles 1 of England.

His works were mostly religious and historical in subject; usually bold, ebullient and colourful, with a classical aesthetic for muscular, full-figured human anatomy and reverence to a more natural, realistic way of portraying people, places and scripture, that defined Flemish Baroque art.

The artist and his first wife, Isabella Brandt – The Honeysuckle Bower by Peter Paul Rubens c. 1609

During his years of study in Italy, Rubens drew many statues and sculptures from antiquity and learnt the techniques of High Renaissance painters from Venice such as Giorgione and in particular, Titian, who he revered especially for his use of colour; as well as the towering figures of Raphael, da Vinci and Michelangelo in Rome.

He also embraced the edgier Baroque artists such as Carracci and Caravaggio and reflected each of their styles in his unique body of work as he became established in his own right in Antwerp. He fused these iconic influences into his own unique perspective, and is probably considered to be the greatest painter of the Dutch Masters.

I’ll sign off with a short documentary by Andrew Graham Dixon which gives a fascinating insight into the genius of this extraordinary man:

“My talent is such that no undertaking, however vast in size… has ever surpassed my courage.” ~ Peter Paul Rubens

Welcome to the Most Original and Unique Contemporary African Art Gallery in the UK

It’s my very great pleasure to introduce you to Debs Digby, creator and curator of Fillingdon Fine Art. I first met Debs through our Athena business networking group, and she talked about her colourful contemporary African Art gallery. Honestly, she had me at hello!

I’ve been to all her exhibitions since then, and normally have to be forcefully dragged away (just like my daughters), from her beautiful, meticulously prepared and stunning gallery. I’ve always found high quality, unique gifts there, (for every budget), plus the odd treat for myself!

gold-leaf-pottery

I asked her to share her wonderful passion for contemporary African art with you, as it’s well worth a visit if you live withing driving distance. If it’s a few hours you can make a day of it, with the village of West Wycombe, West Wycombe Park and also the Hell Fire Caves located just five minutes up the road, so there’s plenty to combine on a day trip.

If you like what you see I strongly recommend having a look on the Fillingdon Fine Art website. Debs is more than happy to ship the item of your dreams directly to you if you’re unable to visit the gallery during the upcoming spring exhibition.

That’s all from me,  it’s time to discover these gems from Debs!

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“No-one’s wife, mother or daughter” is how I describe my status when I am on a sourcing trip, and any wife, mother or daughter will know how liberating that feels! For 26 years I have returned annually to the continent of my birth, to roam freely through the studios of artists, sculptors, potters, weavers, glass-blowers, wood-carvers and jewellery makers, hunting and gathering for my gallery.

zebra

From the majestic Drakensberg Mountains to the floor of the Rift Valley; from the rolling vineyards of the Cape to the shores of Lake Kariba; from The Kingdom of Swaziland overlooking Mozambique to the crashing of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans; I seek, I love, I buy.

Photographer heike@kayenne.net

Photographer heike@kayenne.net

Artistic creativity is inherent in Africa and natural materials such as wood, stone and minerals abound, as well as an ethic of self-sufficiency and a history of home adornment and personal embellishment.  Not seeing any work of quality from Africa in London in the late 80’s, and wanting to be my own mistress if and when I began a family; I resigned my marketing job in the food sector and opened a contemporary African art and craft gallery in Knightsbridge in 1991.

Marriage and motherhood followed with a move to the country, and the gallery seamlessly relocated to its new home in a rustic 300 year old barn nestling in the Chiltern Hills.

sign-road

Three times a year, our distinctive sign goes up on the A40 in Buckinghamshire, and the public are invited to view the latest curated exhibition; always a large mixed show with original paintings, sculpture, ceramics, jewellery and craft by over 100 different artists from Africa, who are not big enough to supply department stores or the mainstream galleries in UK.

Likening ourselves to ‘the slow art version of slow food’ we aim to be the complete antithesis of the urban shopping mall experience.  With two and a half acres of Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, parking is plentiful; riders and ramblers are welcome; dogs, kids and grannies are encouraged; refreshments in the garden are available and excess home-grown produce is often given away as a ‘going home present’.

Everything is complimentary until the point of purchase, but we do encourage a donation for refreshments to the worthy charity Farm Africa (registered charity number 326901).

sculptures

Many of our crafts are created in rural communities, and selected deprived agricultural areas benefit greatly from long-term assisted programs initiated by impressive organisation.  To date, we are proud to have raised over five and a half thousand pounds for Farm Africa through our refreshment donations alone.

But rural, friendly and aesthetic ethos must not be mistaken for unprofessional.  By personally choosing all the work; having reciprocal knowledge of the artists and 26 years’ experience of the market; customers can have confidence in our taste, judgement and expertise.

2016-lion

We promote each artist through our comprehensive website and work can always be viewed and purchased from there, in-between or concurrent to exhibitions.  We are happy to pack & post at cost, and have recently sent work to USA, Australia, mainland Europe and Dubai.

We also issue customers with information sheets to complement their purchases.  This is particularly popular for pieces which are gifts, as it enhances their provenance and originality as one-off unique works of art.

glass-vase

Having been chosen, commissioned and bought, the work is finalised before being packed ever so carefully by the artists themselves, and collated by a freight agent in Africa before flying overnight to London.  Taxes and duties are all paid before the boxes are delivered to Fillingdon Farm and the great unpack begins, with my heart in my mouth, hoping nothing is broken and salvaging as much packaging as we can in the name of recycling.

debs-unpacking

We pride ourselves on paying the asking price to our artists as we are firm believers in, where possible, ‘trade not aid’.  A fair price in exchange for perfect, beautiful and original work is our policy and it has never let us down.

Photographing, measuring, cataloguing, stock-listing and pricing are all the mundane necessities of running a gallery, alongside the important work of loading the website and posting on social media. We are @DebsFFA on Twitter and we’re also on Facebook.

PR, marketing and networking are all essential, as there is little point in having a fabulous product if no-one knows about it.

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But by far the least glamorous job is cleaning.  A gallery space – especially one in the country – does not stay spider-free for long!  So a vacuum cleaner, long-handled broom and mop and bucket are employed amongst the ancient rafters, before my trusty little blue ladder comes out and the fun job of hanging begins.

barn-preparation

We open and end a show on Saturdays, with the final Sunday being dismantle-day and one when customers can collect any artwork they have bought and left on show for the duration of the exhibition.  Once we are up and running, we are open for fifteen days flat, including Sundays, 10am – 4pm.

We get so many lovely repeat customers, knowing they can find an original quality gift; happy they can meet their friends over an unhurried cup of tea; or comfortable just to enjoy the peace, colour and creativity of the show.  But, like all businesses, we need fresh blood too, so referrals are appreciated and new faces are very welcome.

interior

Our forthcoming exhibition “Freshly Found” opens on 25th March and runs until 8th April.  As always, all details are on our website www.fillingdon.com and you can subscribe there to our newsletters so you will always be informed about our shows. 

We have planted 1000 new daffodil bulbs down our drive which we hope will be a dancing ribbon of yellow to welcome you, and perhaps the first bluebells might be out in the nearby woods, so do bring your walking boots.

If you can’t make this spring exhibition, make a note of the July dates; 15th – 29th, and come and enjoy the magnificence of large stone sculptures from Zimbabwe set amongst a traditional English summer garden in full bloom.  Finally, we’ll close the year with our ever-popular Christmas exhibition in November, where glass angels twinkle; decorations sparkle and a plethora of unique handcrafted items solve perennial gift dilemmas.

flower-painting

Come to one, two or all three shows, or visit the website.  Whichever way, know you will be supporting Africa and her creative community as well as enjoying something unique and special.  Let us be your guilty secret; you won’t be disappointed.

17 Quotes on Vulnerability that will inspire an Authentic Life

Vulnerability is the language of the soul and the voice of the heart. ~ Virginia Burges

To open up to life is to be vulnerable. To follow a dream is to be vulnerable. To be who YOU truly are is to be vulnerable. Whenever we strike up a friendship, embark on a relationship, start a new project, or pretty much any activity; we are vulnerable.

Every time we close our eyes and go to sleep we are vulnerable, and we trust that after our dreaming we will soon open them again…

Sleeping Beauty by Henry Meynell Rheam

Sleeping Beauty by Henry Meynell Rheam

I feel vulnerable every time I publish a blog post. A part of me always hopes that it will be helpful and interesting to at least one person! I’m exposing my inner self, a tiny voice in the vastness of the universe. But I’m not the only one, we’re all in this thing called ‘life’ together.

One of the biggest things in my life that forced me to be vulnerable was being pregnant and becoming a mother. You have no choice but to trust what is happening inside your body, and that you can support another life.

vulnerability-baby-hand

A new mum with a baby to care for can be vulnerable to the well meaning opinion of others, to sheer exhaustion, to not knowing what she is doing. We rely on the help and support of family, midwives, partners and other mums. But eventually we find our own way, and we realise how rewarding being a parent is, we embrace the responsibility of raising another human being; even though we are vulnerable as parents and they are vulnerable as children.

Suffering also made me accept and own my vulnerability. Being creative invites learning and growth, but also risks ridicule. When I published my novel I was terrified of what feedback might come my way.

Dr. Brené Brown really connected with me through her TED talk about the power of vulnerability.  A short summary of her wisdom and insights:

The first thing I usually feel like doing after a setback, a rejection or a failure is to retreat back into my shell. My inner voice pronounces, “You can’t do it, you’re not good enough,” triumphant in its ‘I told you so’ moment – just when I’m at my most vulnerable. I listen to it to be polite, (there’s no avoiding freedom of speech when it comes from within), and then I mentally reply, “Thank you for your opinion, but I’m doing it anyway. You can go back to your little corner now!”

In the spirit of vulnerability I’m going to wear my heart on my sleeve. It’s quite a worn sleeve, frayed at the edges, but the material has a certain faded toughness about it after all these years…

vulnerability-rumi

It seems to me that vulnerability is the only true path to your authentic self, the ultimate form of surrender; leading to what Brené Brown calls whole-hearted living: embracing compassion, courage and connection. But it’s a path strewn with pot holes of uncertainty, stones of insecurity and boulders of disappointments. It is the path less travelled.

I hope you enjoy these few verses; however, as promised in the title, I’ve saved the heavy hitting to the quotes that follow!

Vulnerability

Vulnerability opens up all possibility;

Tantalising outcome shrouded from view,

Emotions are unguarded, genuine,

To lower defences, let others in.

vulnerability-lone-tree

Hiding behind high walls, we are safe,

But life is not a medieval siege,

Vulnerability requires a two-way trade;

Open the gate and reception is made.

vulnerability-chateau-de-chenonceau

Over protection is airless, like a vacuum,

Do we breathe vulnerability or stifling safety?

Extreme caution leads to emptiness, numbness;

Is your life locked away inside a fortress?

vulnerability-girl-travelling-in-asia

We risk everything to show our light

And lay bare our earthly plight.

We may be misunderstood, maligned,

But also loved, appreciated and aligned.

vulnerability-elephants

The path to fulfillment and passion

Can only be navigated with the soul;

It knows the terrain, where to travel,

No light is hidden under a bushel.

vulnerability-tea-lights

A broken heart understands all hearts,

A failure procures respect for all who try;

A wounded soul does not aim verbal blows,

If it embraces the vulnerability we all know..

vulnerability-heart-rope

Introspection – arch enemy of arrogance,

Vulnerability tenderly accepts warts and all,

Blame vainly attempts to dissipate pain,

But without vulnerability it will remain.

vulnerability-bridge-hoikku-gorge

We may be rejected, insulted, ignored,

But shame and guilt win if we shield

Ourselves from joy, happiness and gratitude;

Forgive – move on, relax our attitude.

vulnerability-leopard

Flowers do not refuse to open tightly curled buds,

They do not fuss over a passing opinion,

Never ask admiration of their beauty, from seeing;

They simply blossom into a glorious statement of being.

vulnerability-wild-rose

Vulnerability keeps us humble, honest – alive.

Vulnerability embraces risk, uncertainty,

Vulnerability shows our true self, limits control;

Vulnerability is a map for the journey of the soul…

By Virginia Burges

17 inspiring quotes on vulnerability:

  1. “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” ~ Brené Brown
  2. “The strongest love is the love that can demonstrate its fragility.” ~ Paulo Coelho, (Eleven Minutes)
  3. “What happens when people open their hearts?” “They get better.” ~ Haruki Murakami, (Norwegian Wood)
  4. “To share your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable; to make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength.” ~ Criss Jami
  5. “Being vulnerable means being open, for wounding, but also for pleasure. Being open to the wounds of life means also being open to the bounty and beauty. Don’t mask or deny your vulnerability: it is your greatest asset. Be vulnerable: quake and shake in your boots with it. The new goodness that is coming to you, in the form of people, situations, and things can only come to you when you are vulnerable, i.e. open.” ~ Stephen Russell (Barefoot Doctor’s Guide to the Tao: A Spiritual Handbook for the Urban Warrior)
  6. “We are at our most powerful the moment we no longer need to be powerful.” ~ Eric Micha’el Leventhal
  7. “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” ~ Brené Brown
  8. “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.” ~ C.S. Lewis
  9. “There can be no vulnerability without risk; there can be no community without vulnerability; there can be no peace, and ultimately no life, without community. “ ~ M. Scott Peck
  10. “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” ~ Hellen Keller
  11. “Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strengths.” ~ Sigmund Freud
  12. “Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.” ~ Brené Brown
  13. “I feel like I’m a much better person when I’m developing my imagination and my innocence and my vulnerability. I like that version of me better than the version where I’m just working on my analytical mind.” ~ Brit Marling
  14. “Heroes are higher than their vulnerability. That is why they are heroes.” ~ Amit Kalantri
  15. “And maybe that was love. Being so vulnerable and allowing someone else in so far they could hurt you, but they also give you everything.” ~ Christine Feehan, (Water Bound)
  16. “What makes you vulnerable, makes you beautiful.” ~ Brené Brown
  17. “I think one’s relationship with one’s vulnerability is a very delicate and precious relationship. Most people try to hide, disguise that vulnerability, and in doing that, you, I think, diminish a great source of power.” ~ Philip Schultz

Until the next time- stay vulnerable!

Surreal Synapses: Stories – The Miracle of the Creative Mind

“Narration created humanity.” ~ Pierre Janet

The unique ability of humans to weave fact and fantasy into stories may have elevated our species more than any other single factor during our time on Earth. It’s miraculous enough that we can mentally time travel in our own minds, but to be able to mentally time travel into other minds (and thanks to the written word, even in ones that are no longer with us), opens up an unparalleled panoply of experience, knowledge, wisdom and imagination that can benefit every person alive.

The Storyteller by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo c. 1773

The Storyteller by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo c. 1773

I would even suggest that the term ‘survival of the fittest’, first coined by Herbert Spencer and published by Darwin, (also referred to as ‘Natural Selection’ in evolutionary terms), should be upgraded to something like: survival of the finest and most prolific storytellers, or survival of the most imaginative!

The literary scholar John Niles postulated that our species, Homo Sapiens, should be renamed to Homo Narrans – the storytellers.

“Fiction is as important a truth as truth.” ~ Michael Morpurgo

The sharing of our ‘mind wanderings’ has opened up whole new worlds as we collectively meander through many epochs and countless lives. History as we know it is a collection of stories about the past.

We all share a common ancestral heritage – our forebears roamed the African Savannah during the Pleistocene Period, the last ‘Ice Age’, dating from as far back as 2.6 million years ago to the last 12,000 years, during which time modern humans evolved. Storytelling is literally in our DNA! Human connection is a neurobiological need and stories connect us in a powerful, compelling way.

Albert Anker Grossvater

Albert Anker Grossvater

Tribal wisdom about how to survive the harsh conditions and not be eaten by a sabre tooth tiger would have been important information to pass on, along with the hunter-gatherer experiences of foraging for food and useful items to use and keep us warm.

Cave paintings were the earliest non-verbal stories, before conventional language developed. It was perhaps the most important of our social skills, and was usually reserved for the elders and best orators of the tribe, to ensure that their younger members learnt the techniques of hunting and about their food sources. In this way stories of individuals became the experiences of a social group.

Aboriginal art from Carnarvon Gorge

Aboriginal art from Carnarvon Gorge

Indigenous Australians have told stories dating back 50,000 years, from their first arrival in Australia after their journey from Africa. Preliterate tales of discovery and heroism prevailed through gestures and the spoken word down through the generations, until the written word became a game changing moment in humanity’s evolution.

“Stories are just data with a soul.” ~ Dr. Brené Brown

Stories are so powerful that they can create cultural beliefs and bind people together. The Aboriginal Dreamtime is one such example, and many religions developed from stories. Who hasn’t heard of Adam and Eve?

We only have to look at enduring ancient myths and creation stories that still prevail today, either in their original form or retold with with a modern spin. Such tales are pervasive in cultures all over the world.

A Tales of The Decameron by John William Waterhouse

A Tale of The Decameron by John William Waterhouse

Stories kept us alive and helped us to thrive, and they are still doing the same today, albeit in a more sophisticated way.

Imaginary adventures stem from play – an attribute that tends to be discarded after childhood, but which is essential for learning and development. My children are oblivious to everything when they are at play, engrossed in their imaginations.

The importance of childhood fairy tales cannot be underestimated. Those beguiling opening words: Once upon a time…lead them onto adventures with elements of danger that they can experience in safety and a playful environment that may stand them in good stead when they encounter an actual fearful situation in real life.

Interesting Story by Laura Muntz Lyall

Interesting Story by Laura Muntz Lyall

Stories open up new possibilities that would take many years of painful experience to learn otherwise.

A great animation about why stories matter:

Language

It is thought that vocal linguistics grew from gestural movements, naturally using arms, hands and facial expressions. Communities could come to agree on meanings, ensuring clarity in communication. Sign language is a perfect example of a conventionalised gestural language specifically for deaf communities.

A fascinating passage from The Wandering Mind by Michael  C. Corballis:

“The vocal calls of monkeys and apes are largely useless for storytelling. The hands, in contrast, are used in a flexible, intentional way, and seem almost custom-designed for conveying information about events. Indeed, the notion of grasping still seems embedded, if only metaphorically, in our very speech. The word grasp is itself often used to mean ‘understand’, if you grasp my meaning. Comprehend and apprehend derive from Latin Prehendre, ‘to grasp’: intend, contend and pretend derive from Latin tendere, ‘to reach with the hand’; we may press a point, and expression and impression also suggest pressing. We hold conversations, point things out, seize upon ideas, grope for words – if you catch my drift.”

It’s thought there are some 7,000 languages in use around the world, each with their own set of ‘rules’ or grammar. English is classified as an SVO language – Subject – Verb – Object, but the majority of languages, such as Latin, are SOV, placing the verb last. All six possible orders are to be found in mankind’s numerous languages, the rarest of which are OSV languages, of which 4 are known: the Warao in Venezuela, Nadëb in Brazil, Wik Ngathana in north-eastern Australia, and Tobati in West Papua, New Guinea.

No matter how a language is structured it is a device that enables the teller to set a scene or an event in a time and place and tell stories of complexity limited only by memory, powers of description and ability to sustain attention, venturing into the minds of others. Something William Shakespeare was quite adept at!

After the invention of writing and later the printing press, epic tales were told as long poems with rhyme and metre, which were popular as an aid to memory, and the earliest known story in literature is thought to be the epic tale of Gilgamesh, about a Sumerian King.

Gilgamesh at the Louvre

Gilgamesh at the Louvre

Fiction

The story of Gilgamesh provided a basis for later works of fiction, and such stories contain a full range of emotions and establish heroes and villains that act as models for the way people behave in society.

fiction (n.)

early 15c., ficcioun, “that which is invented or imagined in the mind,” from Old French ficcion “dissimulation, ruse; invention, fabrication” (13c.) and directly from Latin fictionem (nominative fictio) “a fashioning or feigning,” noun of action from past participle stem of fingere “to shape, form, devise, feign,” originally “to knead, form out of clay,” from PIE *dheigh- “to build, form, knead” (source also of Old English dag “dough;” see dough).

Meaning “prose works (not dramatic) of the imagination” is from 1590s, at first often including plays and poems. Narrower sense of “the part of literature comprising novels and short stories based on imagined scenes or characters” is by early 19c. The legal sense (fiction of law) is from 1580s. A writer of fiction could be a fictionist (1827). The related Latin words included the literal notion “worked by hand,” as well as the figurative senses of “invented in the mind; artificial, not natural”: Latin fictilis “made of clay, earthen;” fictor “molder, sculptor” (also borrowed 17c. in English), but also of Ulysses as “master of deceit;” fictum “a deception, falsehood; fiction.”

Other examples are the famous Greek poems, The Iliad and Odyssey by Homer, written in around the 8th century BC, as well as more recent iconic works: Inferno by Dante, Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, Paradise Lost by John Milton and poems such as Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Coleridge Taylor and Don Juan by Lord Byron.

The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo c. 1773

The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo c. 1773

These days we have novels, plays, radio, film and television; stories are much more varied and widely dispersed through a substantial range of media, but the structure of a story is still crucial to its popularity, longevity and influence.

It was only a matter of time before our beloved Jane Austen would be infiltrated by zombies!!

Fiction is essentially a rhetorical art – which means that the author or novelist persuades us to share a certain view of the world for the duration of the reading experience, effecting, when successful, that rapt immersion in an imagined reality that Edward John Poynter captured so well in his painting of a lady reading.

edward-john-poynter-lady-reading

“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” ~ Albert Camus

In order to spin a good yarn one’s mind has to wander off the beaten path, it has to transcend time and space, as well as purvey these mental time travels in a way that will entertain and educate. To make a living from mind wandering is a noble calling, but it’s not as easy as one might think.

Fiction cannot be a meandering set of scenes that don’t flow on to create a cohesive, compelling story and fail to pull us into that fictive dream. I wrote down the definition of a story I found really helpful from a creative writing webinar:

A story is a single, unavoidable, external problem that grows, escalates and complicates, forcing the protagonist to make an internal change in order to solve it.

We all have books that stayed with us long after we turned the last page – because the changes that the protagonist went through and the obstacles they overcame resonated with similar emotions or circumstances in our own lives. It took us on a meaningful journey.

“Fiction is life with the dull bits left out.” ~ Clive James

A great talk by Lisa Cron – Wired for story. I love that she calls storytelling a superpower hiding in plain sight:

Moral values can be reinforced through the medium of crime fiction for example, where readers can travel through time, (thanks to Arthur Conan Doyle) with the likes of the analytical and unsentimental Sherlock Holmes into other people’s minds and motivations to encounter danger and intrigue and solve a mystery.

Charles Dickens’ stories provide a vivid insight into 19th century London and the often dystopian conditions the poor lived in. Except his fiction was drawn from reality. His theme was social commentary. Dickens was the first novelist to pioneer the serialisation of novels, leaving readers to eagerly anticipate his next book.

“We read so that we know we are not alone.” ~ C.S. Lewis teaching in Shadowlands

Some of our society’s best loved stories were created from pure fantasy, such as Star Wars, and you might think that it can only serve purely as entertainment and to escape the every day drudgery of life. I’ll let you in on a secret: there have been times when I doubted myself and had to mentally give myself a pep talk and tell myself that the force is with me!

Studies show that fiction increases empathy and improves mind-reading, making us better able to understand others. There is scientific evidence that the architecture of our brains is hardwired for story because it gives us context, emotion and feeling.

reading-at-the-cafe

We can thank Aristotle for his erudition on the structure for engaging and memorable stories; namely an emotional connection to the main character and pity over the situation they did not deserve, keeping them reading through worsening situations, obstacles and jeopardy that they now fear from the central conflict, driving them to the conclusion and catharsis, the emotional payoff, the happiness drug that is literally released by the brain when struggle has been overcome, perhaps as fulfilling as some other recreational activities!

“Brain-imaging has shown overlap between areas of the brain activated by reading narrative stories and those involved in theory of mind. One study measured the amount of fiction and non-fiction that people read, and found that empathy was correlated positively with the amount of fiction read, but negatively with the amount of non-fiction. Another study carried the headline ‘Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind.'”  ~ Michael C. Corballis

For me, writing and being creative is a combination of mind wandering and focus, and equally reading can set off ideas and mind wandering.

The telling of stories is unique to mankind, allowing us to expand our mental and emotional lives to unlimited horizons. Storytelling is the imaginary portal between our past, present and our future.

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“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” ~ Philip Pullman