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

If Music be the Food of Love, Play on…

“And still, after all this time,

The sun never says to the earth,

“You owe Me.”

Look what happens with

A love like that,

It lights the Whole Sky.” ~ Hafez

Happy Valentine’s Day! I hope you are able to share it with someone who loves and respects you.  Not everyone is involved in a romantic, intimate relationship when the 14th February rolls around, but you will almost certainly have friends or family who will show you that you’re in their hearts and minds.

love-osho

There are as many shades and facets of love as there are surfaces on a finely cut diamond, and each touches us and lights up our life in a unique and special way. The most important thing is that somewhere in your life you give and feel love, even if it’s for yourself. Traditionally Valentine’s Day focuses on romantic attachments, but love is too all-encompassing to be identified as purely a romantic attachment.

Love kept even our best philosophers busy identifying its purpose and meaning;  but probably the most beautiful words used to express it came from the Sufi poet Rumi.

love-rumi-soul

However, that being said, the voice of a lover is music to savour, as are the notes that spring from a composer’s quill onto lined parchment in a fever pitch of delirium. Their passions and desires, those deep feelings for the object of their affection that would make their heart explode if they weren’t cathartically hauled and wrung from their chest cavity, bursting with love and in some cases, anguish.

The most beautiful, exquisite and soul piercing music has arisen from heartbreak. Unrequited love is such agony, even as it is for two people who long to be together but must live apart. Sometimes being in an unhappy relationship is worse than being alone.

love-rumi-heart

For those in the early stages of romantic love it is like nothing you’ve ever felt. But you are not in control. Those crazy, heady sensations that take over your mind and body whenever that someone special is near is disconcerting. Even if they are far, they are always there, by proxy in your heart. It is like being at sea with no compass and no sails, at the mercy of the elements. Even after the heat of the initial infatuation has cooled a bit, there will be something you cherish from that bond. You can never truly erase such a powerful connection.

And nor should we, because the highs and lows and everything in between make us who we are. We suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and we survived.  If you were a composer, a songwriter or writer, you cleansed the pain by creative force of will. But you first had to be consumed by the searing flames to do it.

love-rumi-quote-light-up-the-fire-of-love-inside-and-blaze-the-thoughts

There must be more music and songs written in the name of love than any other subject. Those souls caught in the throws of passion or the depths of despair can relate to what someone else once lived through, what they transmuted into art and culture for the benefit of others.

Is it possible to define this emotion that dominates us so? The lack of it in childhood can cause untold misery, or betrayal turn love into hate. For we cannot have one without the other, the constant companions of our duality. But what if love is more than a feeling? Feelings and emotions are fleeting, by their nature temporary.

‘It struck me tonight how music mirrors life. Fleeting ephemeral moments, made up of beauty, sadness, joy, hope and despair. The melodies are created in both major and minor keys. Flowing and fleeting. You can’t hold onto it, or keep it from changing. Our emotions possess the evanescence of a note.’ ~ The Virtuoso

Real, true love is transcendent and unconditional; a state of being in the world. It’s treating all beings with kindness, compassion, benevolence and lovingness.

love-rumii-will-be-waiting-here

Lust is too destructive and romantic love without a deeper regard will never blossom into a more lasting relationship. It would be hard to cope with everyday life if one were permanently in a state of euphoria and ecstasy. Although some historical figures gave it their best shot, such as the infamous Marquis de Sade. He took something divine in nature and used it for his own perverted pleasure and hedonistic impulses.

Intoxication and rapture by their very nature can be addictive…

love-rumi-journeys

Let’s not beat about the bush, we’re all here because two people once loved each other and physically embraced their love. It’s a miracle and not to be treated lightly. However, the Garden of Eden has many thorns and stinging nettles growing in its pristine beds. As Shakespeare so perfectly put it, the course of true love never did run smooth…

So let’s celebrate this invisible force called love, this ethereal yet palpable potion that is strong enough to make men kill and women weep. It can bring untold joy, or pain like no other. Blessed are we who have basked in its magnificent rays, for however long.

love-rumi-in-your-light-i-learn-how-to-love

I have often pondered how and why two people are attracted to each other and at what point that becomes love. Perhaps each possessed an energy field that the other needed? Their coming together fulfilled the yin and yang of each other’s energy. But there’s also alignment – of one’s values, interests and outlook. We each speak a different archetypal language, so there are many twists and turns for us to navigate to our happy ever afters!

The concept that Plato suggested that we each have a twin soul is an intriguing one. The other half of our soul…

And if you did ever feel like your heart had been ripped out and stomped on, that person gave you the opportunity and reason to love yourself again.

love-rumi-universe

Maybe the closest definition I can come to is that love’s purpose is to put us in-touch with our higher selves, to imbue us with soul stamina, to evolve and grow our capacity to love.  We are all worthy of love, and when we give love there is never any shortage from this infinite well. It keeps us in tune with our heart.

Now to poetry and music. I’m merely following Shakespeare’s advice because I’m an inveterate romantic and glutton when it comes to love!

Rumi’s eternal love verses are succour for the soul….

Byron:

Shakespeare, from one of my all-time favourite films!

Percy Bysshe Shelley:

There is nothing more powerful than music to capture feelings and as a portal to our emotions, to a time, a place or a person…

Baroque Beauties:

Thomas Tallis – If ye love me:

 Purcell – ‘My dearest, my fairest’ (Jaroussky & Scholl):

The Fairy Queen – If love’s a sweet passion by Veronique Gens:

Handel – Semele ‘Endless Pleasure, Endless Love’ by Kathleen Battle:

In 1852 the young Richard Wagner became infatuated with a beautiful writer, poet and song composer, Mathilde Wesendonck, also the wife of the wealthy businessman who had bestowed his generous patronage on Wagner.

Mathilde Wesendonck by Karl Ferdinand Sohn c. 1850

Mathilde Wesendonck by Karl Ferdinand Sohn c. 1850

Their love affair seems to have been intense, (at least from Wagner’s perspective), occurring at the same time he was working on his Tristan poem. The final consummation of Tristan’s hopeless love for Isolde, the wife of his liege lord, could only be achieved in death. Wagner also set his beloved’s poetry to music, in his Wesendonck Lieder. Their relationship was hastily ended when Wagner’s first wife Minna discovered a love letter and threatened to show it to Mathilde’s husband Otto.

There can be no doubt that Mathilde was Wagner’s Isolde…

In Tristan and Isolde he perfectly expresses the hopeless, languid longing that was clearly pulling at his own heart strings:

 Tchaikovsky’s immortal Rome and Juliet Fantasy Overture:

Beethoven – Violin Romance No. 2 in F major, Op. 50 with Christian Ferras:

Beethoven – Romance Cantabile in E Minor for piano, flute, bassoon and orchestra:

Brahms – Violin Concerto in D Major, ‘Adagio’, with love oozing from Itzhak Perlman:

Dvořák – Romance for Violin and Orchestra in F minor, Op. 11 with Jodef Suk:

Kriesler – ‘Liebeslied’ (love’s sorrow) with Yo-Yo ma and patricia Zander:

Liszt – Romance oubliée with Guido Schiefen and Eric Le Van:

Liszt – ‘Liebestraume’ No. 3 in E-Flat Major (Love Dream) Harpist unknown:

Liszt – Consolation No. 3 with Nathan Milstein and Georges Pludermacher:

Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 20 K. 466, 2nd movement ‘Romance’ with Friedrich Gulda:

Chopin – Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11, 2nd movement ‘Romance’:

Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No. 2, the romantic, dreamy 2nd movement:

Contemporary Classical:

Paul de Senneville – Mariage d’Amour with Richard Clayderman:

Nino Rota gets the sax treatment with Kenny G:

Adam Hurst – Longing:

Jazz:

My Funny Valentine:

A Kiss to Build a Dream on:

Opera:

Opera arias are in a league of their own when it comes to love!

‘O sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe’ (‘Descend, o night of love’) from Act II of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Tristan and Isolde rapturously hail their ‘night of love’ to an exquisite melody drawn from ‘Träume’ (‘Dreams’) of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder:

Mozart – Voi che sapete with Cecilia Bartoli and Jean-Yves Thibaudet:

Bellini – A Te, O Cara from I Puritiani – Pavarotti & Sutherland:

Berlioz – Les Troyens ‘Nuit d’ivresse et d’extase infinie’ (‘O night of intoxication and infinite ecstasy’) from Act IV. Dido and Aeneas finally admit their love in this exquisite duet:

Saint-Saens – ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix’ from Samson et Delilah:

Bizet – Carmen ‘La Fleur Que Tu M’avais Jetée’ by Plácido Domingo:

Puccini – Tosca ‘E lucevan le stelle’ (and the the stars were shining), Pavarotti:

Beethoven’s beautiful aria of wedded love, ‘O namenlose Freude’ from Fidelio:

Verdi – La Traviata (the fallen one) – Maria Callas is supreme in this heart-rending performance of E strano! E strano!

Duke Orsino:

If music be the food of love, play on,

Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken, and so die.

~ William Shakespeare (Twelfth Night Act 1, scene 1, 1–3)

Purcell and the King’s Singers:

Until the next time, with all my love!

La La Land Will Make You Feel Like ‘Fools Who Dream’

On a rainy Saturday afternoon just over a week ago, I took my daughters to see the highly acclaimed film La La Land. They were a little reticent, and quite frankly so was I. What kind of title is La La Land?

I’d heard a lot of hype about La La Land since it sashayed across theatre screens, and wasn’t sure it would be my cup of tea. Although I do like happy-go-lucky, it suits my temperament, and even though I love music, I’m not usually a great fan of musicals. Give me one or the other – a film or an album, a song. It’s tough to combine drama with music and pull it off in a classy, meaningful way.

La La Land does all this and more!

The dreamy, melancholy theme tune, the catchy songs, the romantic and life-affirming story line, the sheer relatability to the central characters and their situation, the acting, the dancing, not to mention its aura of heyday glitz, the bright colours, the panache of the cinematography and lavish, golden Hollywood style will ensure this film becomes a classic.

Behind the scenes featurette:

As I alluded to in the title – to writer and director Damien Chazelle, composer Justin Hurwitz, actors Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone and the entire crew, thank you for reminding me that I’m a fool who dreams! It’s easy to lose sight of them when challenges pile up.

This film really got under my skin. I can’t get the songs and music out of my head (such irresistible, infectious ear worms), and the story told itself into my heart. Like it will into the heart of anyone who’s ever had a dream. It shone a spotlight onto all the raw moments and the beautiful ones that have made up my life thus far…

How did they manage to convey the heartbreak of shattered dreams, the hopefulness that dampens with every perceived failure, and yet so wonderfully capture the beauty of life, the fleeting encounters in those ordinary moments when all seems lost, yet can still change the course of our lives?

What a work of genius…

And who doesn’t need reminding about falling in love, about their dreams, and why they matter?

Mia and Sebastian

At the centre of this heart-warming and poignant tale are Mia and Sebastian. Mia Dolan is an aspiring actress, hoping to get her first part and struggling to hold down her thankless job as a barista in a coffee shop on the movie studio grounds, whilst attending every audition she can. She’s fresh faced, honest, talented and likeable, yet she just can’t seem to catch a break.

Someone in the Crowd:

Sebastian Wilder is a gifted and passionate jazz pianist, down on his luck, cynical about the world, hiding his pain under the surface of an overly ambivalent attitude towards his life.

“I’m letting life hit me until it gets tired. Then I’ll hit back. It’s a classic rope-a-dope.”

Two souls – lonely in the pursuit of their dreams under the sparkling sky of the city of stars – destined to meet. Their first inauspicious encounter happens in a bout of road rage on the rush hour freeway. From the moment of their first narky confrontation we see their separate days unfold – badly. It’s Christmas, but the joy of the season is not reaching either of them.

City of Stars:

Mia’s car is towed away that evening and she walks home after yet another shallow, hedonistic tinsel town party, only to pause outside an upmarket supper club – Lipton’s. There’s something about the sound of the piano emanating from within that draws her to step inside and listen. She instantly recognises the handsome man at the piano as the very same one who’d rudely beeped her as he passed her in her car that morning.

There’s something about his playing, she’s ready to make another friendlier introduction, but on his way out, he pushes past her without acknowledging her. What she doesn’t know is that he just got his head chewed off and was fired by the restaurant owner for straying from the set list of carols and playing his own jazz music.

At this point they’re an unlikely couple, but fate has another hand to play, this time at another party. They soon meet again: Mia as a guest, trying to shake off unwanted attentions of a bore, and Sebastian as a portable piano player in the two-bit band entertaining them. This time they have a conversation and overcome a little of the resentment each feels towards the other.  After the party they walk down the hill and discover it’s actually a lovely night.

A Lovely Night:

Gradually they strike up a friendship and romance, including the dreamy, dazzling Planetarium scene.

Sebastian draws Mia into his world of jazz. He shows her the magic made by jazz musicians jamming in the Lighthouse Cafe together, sharing their emotions through their instruments, recreating the atmosphere that defined a whole era, indeed a whole city. But jazz is dying, and Sebastian wants to invigorate it and show the world how amazing it is. He wants to open his own jazz club. The trouble is, he doesn’t have the money and he’s picked a lousy name.

“I think you should call it Seb’s because no one will come to a place called Chicken on a Stick.”

Mia gives him the name and draws out his logo, but his ego won’t listen. She tells him of her aunt, the one who inspired her love of writing and drama. He suggests she writes her own material to perform, that way she’ll get taken more seriously. She names her one-woman play ‘Farewell Boulder City’, after her home town.

They fall deeply in love, both striving for themselves and encouraging each other in their dreams, but inevitably, as it usually does, life gets in their way. Sebastian is asked to play the piano part in a new, upcoming jazz group, the Messengers, who like to perform a fusion of traditional and modern jazz. He’s not sure at first, he doesn’t quite trust the singer Keith, but the money is good and they’ve already got a record deal, but they have to go on tour.

“How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.”

Mia is naturally concerned, she will miss him, but she tries to point out that it’s taking him away from his dream of opening him own more traditional club. Mia works on her play, and gets a chance to perform it at a small, local theatre. She’s full of excitement and anticipation on her opening night, but when she steps out on the stage there’s only a handful of people in the audience, and crucially, Sebastian isn’t one of them.

He’s busy at a photo shoot for the Messengers that he thought wasn’t until a week later, only to arrive at the theatre after a demoralised Mia has finished with acting and with him.

It’s a fact of life that many of us give up after overhearing an unkind remark, we assume that’s how everyone probably thinks, and decide we can’t do it. Mia is devastated, her play has flopped and worst of all, she has no support from her boyfriend on the night she needed it the most. She leaves Los Angeles and Sebastian to return home to her parents in Boulder City.

Her dream is in tatters and her relationship over. But the next morning a dazed Sebastian gets a phone call from an unknown person looking for Mia. It turns out to be a film producer, she had seen and loved Mia’s performance and wanted her to audition for a film set in Paris.

“I guess I’ll see you in the movies.”

Sebastian promptly jumps into his vintage, open top car and high tails it to Boulder City. All he knows is that Mia had told him she lived opposite the library. He parks and beeps, much to the chagrin of the neighbourhood and a surprised Mia.

This was a magical moment for me. Mia had retreated into her shell, all vestige of self-confidence seemingly gone, even after hearing the good news, there’s no way she’s going back to Hollywood just to be humiliated again. But Sebastian won’t take no for an answer. He makes her an offer, he’ll pick her up at 8 am and if she’s there he’ll take her to the audition, if she’s not then it’s over, she wasn’t really serious about her dream.

At this point in the third act of the film we see them living more in their essence than their identities, and the turning point in both their lives is inexorable.

Luckily Mia shows up, and her audition is brilliant. It made me cry. From that point on I couldn’t stop crying. I’d had a lump in my throat almost from the start.

Fools Who Dream:

I won’t reveal the ending; I don’t want to spoil it for you, other than to say it’s perfect.

I know it’s figments of imagination, but it re-affirmed to me that it’s okay to be fools who dream. And that’s what stories are meant to do, open us up to possibilities, let you live in someone else’s shoes for a while, because they’re not that different to yours. We all live vicariously through the written word and the big screen.

There has to be a fire burning inside, it’s the best way we bring light and warmth into other people’s lives.

“People love what other people are passionate about.”

What Could Have Been:

Even if you don’t like musicals or jazz, this film will make you see the beauty of your dreams, and for that reason alone you should go and see it. In my humble opinion, La La Land deserves all the awards and accolades that have been heaped on it to date, as well as the ones to come…

Oscars anybody?

#SundayBlogShare – The Sound of Silence

Some days there’s so much noise around me I think I’m going to lose my mind. Noise from thoughts, caterwauling from the kids, traffic, horns, sirens, TV, radio and so on. Some days I long for silence; to retreat into an inner sanctum, where there’s respite from the onslaught of the world. Meditation helps, and so does playing the violin. Sometimes I long to hear the sound of your voice. But sometimes only silence will do…

THE SOUND OF SILENCE

The sound of silence, substrate of creation…

Noise of nothingness filling, expanding senses,

Priming them to detect violent vibrations,

Scales of dainty decibels, sonorous caresses.

Listen well; distinguish subtle intonations,

Auditory input on waves of turbulent air,

A tendency to love pulsing impressions,

Emanating forth, emulating, wishing to share…

silence-harp-in-concert

Silence surrounds; the base note of existence…

Without that peace, would I appreciate sound?

Lilting of inner voice, harmony not dissonance,

A palette on which to speak, sing and listen is profound.

Silence: a constant companion, blank canvas for music,

The space between notes, said Claude Debussy,

Clasping violin, I perform my favourite acoustic,

Exploring the infinite waters of a fathomless sea.

silence-panorama

Sounds can nourish – biting into crunchy apple,

Or jangle cells, like long finger nails on a blackboard,

The terrifying cacophony of war, sound of battle,

Some are sweet, like a lover’s kiss, desired, adored.

Some are jolting, startling – a sudden, strident scream,

Soft tears of God; comforting, steady rain drops,

Splashing onto Earth, in relentless, rhythmic stream,

Solace for my soul, time to ponder, until it stops.

silence-rain

Sounds carry me to exotic, far flung places,

Where turbulent waves crash over distant lands,

Creatures howl and cry, endless echoes, many faces,

Inaudible grains of sand slip through my hands.

Floating on a breeze, flowers whisper the joy of scent,

Icy, cruel winds have their own sharp language,

Thunder fulminates across quivering landscapes, spent,

Hear my heartbeat; primordial thud – free from anguish.

silence-barn-thunderstorm

Life force emanates from all that is – eternal silence,

Out of the divine shroud a rustle, a breath: quiet, loud,

Familiar sounds bond to heart, enable resilience,

Earth’s endless maelstrom, amorphous as clouds.

Energy fields to immerse in, align with…

No tone goes unheard by the universe,

Flight – the whirring of gossamer wings will give,

A soprano’s broken heart, on an audience does disperse.

silence-maria-bayo-orchestra

Silence sets the stage, from birth to old age,

In-tune with tranquil Self, absorb oscillations,

To travel down memory lane, from same page,

Exulting in emotions of pitch and modulation.

Healing human wounds, retreating back to source,

Stillness resides there, diaphanous spark of essence,

Surrender to the vibrations, relinquish force,

Return always, into the sound of silence…

By Virginia Burges

silence-stained-glass

What You Need to Know About the Most Influential Organ in Your Body

You could be forgiven for thinking that the most influential organ in your body is your brain or your heart, but I’m going to suggest otherwise. All our organs are important, however the most influential organ that directly affects our brain, our heart, our digestion, our mood, our weight, our immunity and our overall health, is in fact not actually human…

It’s the microbiome.

microbiome_sm

Our own cells though much bigger in volume and weight, are outnumbered ten to one by the cells of the microbes that live in and on us, our trillions of bacteria known as microbiota, the total sum of which constitutes the human microbiome.

#MicrobiomeMorsels

Right now, your body is hosting 100 trillion micro-organisms, a thriving megapolis of living, hardworking microbes. These colonies of microbiota that make us their ‘home’ live in environments as diverse as the geography of Earth. They may be small, but they are essential. Your inner ‘eco-system’ consists of over ten thousand identified species in strains and numbers unique to each of us, and when our inner eco-system flourishes so do we.

  • Did you know that only 10% of your cells contain your human DNA?
  • The other 90% consists of bacteria, fungi and microflora – termed by science as your microbiome; and it’s crucial to perform life sustaining functions.
  • The human microbiome could be considered an additional organ.
  • We all carry approximately 1-2 kg of microbes in our gut.
  • Astonishingly, up to 75 – 80% of your immune system is located in your gut.
  • Our microbiome is constantly evolving and is sensitive to food, air, toxins, antibiotics and cosmetics.

microbiome-10-percent-human

A healthy gut flora benefits us in a myriad of ways, by performing life enhancing functions such as synthesising essential vitamins, phytonutrients and breaking down tough plant fibres.

Scientists are now discovering that inflammation starts in the gut, something that Hippocrates, the erudite father of medicine postulated thousands of years ago  when he said, “All disease begins in the gut”.

“This perception of the microbial side of ourselves is giving us a new view of our individuality. A new sense of our connection to the microbial world. A sense of the legacy of our personal interactions with our family and environment early in life. It’s causing us to pause and consider that there might be another dimension to our human evolution.”  ~ Professor Jeffrey Gordon

Think of the gut as the centre (or hub) of a wheel, with spokes leading to the neurological system, the vascular system, digestive system, lymphatic system, skin, hormonal system and saliva, (the oesophagus).

The glorious gut

If the environment of our gut is well balanced – meaning ‘good’ bacteria outweigh harmful bacteria, it allows our immune system to operate effectively and judge friend from foe in our bodies. It is the first, second and third line of defence: skin, mucous membrane and the gut.

microbiome-hmp-ibd-image

A healthy digestive system is crucial for the breakdown of food and optimal absorption of nutrients. If disease causing pathogens get out of control and start to rule the roost, ill health will follow. The scientific community believe that a toxic microbiome is the initiator of metabolic illness such as obesity and Cardiometabolic Syndrome.

A direct correlation can be seen between the consumption of simple carbohydrates, processed, shelf-stable foods, a more toxic environment and the rise in obesity over the last 60 years. Whether we like it or not, we are part of the largest nutrition experiment in the history of mankind. It doesn’t seem to be going too well for us collectively at the moment…

Scientific American: How Gut Bacteria Help Make Us Fat and Thin

Despite our advancements in medicine, there is a global health pandemic that is costing the NHS and health care providers in America almost 3 trillion dollars a year.

Does the Gut Microbiome Play a Role in Autoimmune Disease?

Allergies, digestive disorders, obesity, autoimmune conditions such as diabetes, MS, rheumatoid arthritis, crohn’s disease and lupus are a result of our bodies being in ‘metabolic dysfunction’.

This is how cardio metabolic health issues develop:

Inflammation > Metabolic Dysfunction > Insulin Resistance > Fat Deposition > Cardio Metabolic Syndrome.

Modern plagues: Cardiometabolic Syndrome

It seems we have eradicated infectious diseases that were rife in the 19th Century, such as smallpox, measles and polio; but in their place modern plagues have risen from the wastelands of our increasingly toxic microbiomes.

microbiome

You may know children, family or friends who suffer from asthma, hay fever, diabetes, nut allergies and eczema. Allergies affect around half the population in developed countries. I can’t be the only one who thinks this is not normal…

Innocuous and harmless substances such as pollen, dust, pet hair, milk, eggs and nuts are being treated by the body as harmful pathogens, so the immune system dutifully attacks what is perceived as germs that need to be removed from the body. And when the body’s immune system goes really rogue, it attacks the body’s own cells.

Type 1 Diabetes

In 1898 hospital records from Massachusetts General Hospital which were kept over 75 years for 500,000 patients indicated that there were only 21 cases of childhood type 1 Diabetes. By the time official records were created just before the Second World War the prevalence of type 1 diabetes could be tracked. Around 1 or 2 children in every 5,000 were affected in the US, UK and Scandinavia.

By 1973 type 1 diabetes was occurring 6 to 7 times more frequently than it had in the Thirties. In the Eighties the rise leveled off to 1 in 250 children. The rise in diabetes has been matched by an equivalent rise in obesity and autoimmune diseases.

Should we accept the increase in illness as a fact of life in the 21st century, when we have more knowledge and scientific advancement at our fingertips?

microbiome-ehp-infographic

Could it be that we have overlooked the fundamental role our colonies of bacteria and basic nutrition play in our well-being? Over the past decade emerging research and cutting-edge science into the human microbiome is answering that question with a resounding YES.

The Human Genome Project (HGP):

Scientists have turned to our genes, the blueprint of life, for answers to 21st century illnesses. The Human Genome Project unearthed genes that when mutated result in disease. But to blame our DNA entirely for the modern epidemic is unwise. The gene variant that might make someone more likely to become obese is not likely to become dramatically more common in the population as a whole inside a single century.

Evolution does not progress that quickly! Gene variants only grow more common though natural selection if they are beneficial to the species, or their detrimental effects are mitigated.

Science is left with two areas that are common to modern diseases: the immune system and the gut.

microbiome-hgp

When the Human Genome was decoded and mapped fully in 2003 and we could sequence our DNA, scientists were shocked to learn that human body has just shy of 21,000 genes, less than the water flea with 31,000 and half the number of the rice plant. Humans have a similar amount of genes as that of The Worm.  Holy cow, how could something as complex as a human being only have the same number of genes as a worm?!

The language of how God created life and the supposed key to our humanity did not live up to its hoped for power to heal diseases as President Clinton declared it would at the time.

The Human Microbiome Project (HMP)

The DNA sequencing technology invented during the HGP enabled another major genome-sequencing programme: The Human Microbiome Project.

The micro-organisms living in and on the human body contain a staggering 4.4 million genes.

microbiome-the-economist-cover

Now molecular biology has the tools to investigate how and why the microbiome is so fundamental to our well-being.

We have evolved over millennia by outsourcing our digestion to vast communities of bacteria. Our own 21,000 genes together with the 4.4 million genes of our collective microbiota collaborate in a mutually beneficially arrangement to run our bodies.

The HMP has revealed far more about what it means to be human than our own genome ever has.

Microbes matter

Another discovery was that the human appendix is far from a defunct organ as originally thought by Charles Darwin in his Descent of Man, (the follow up to The Origin of Species). For the hundred years that followed it earned a reputation as something of useless organ, exacerbated by its tendency to sometimes cause life threatening eruptions. By the 1950’s removal of the appendix was one of the most commonly performed operations in the developed world.

microbiome-joke

But natural selection did not eliminate the appendix, and scientists now know that the appendix serves as a safe haven for life sustaining microbes; a microbial stockpile that comes in handy when food poisoning or gastrointestinal infection strikes, enabling the gut to be repopulated with its friendly inhabitants that were lurking in the appendix.

Public sanitation systems in the developed world are relatively recent inventions in the history of our species. To some degree they have masked the fact that we utterly depend on our microbiota for health and happiness.

Antibiotics – the nemesis of our gut-flora

Doctors are only just waking up to the damage that widespread over prescribing broad spectrum antibiotics is doing, not just solely because pathogens are developing resistance to them, but more so now in how they wage chemical warfare on our colonies of friendly bacteria, adversely altering our microbiome and body chemistry.

It’s devastating when a wild fire rips through forests and woodlands, destroying all plant life. This is what happens to the diverse, friendly bacteria when you take a 7 day course of antibiotics. Scientists have found that just one round of antibiotics can disrupt your gut flora for up to two years. Multiple rounds of antibiotics are wreaking havoc on the very microbes we depend on for our health in new generations.

Studies have shown that only 6% of American children have the microbe H. Pylori in their microbiome by the time they reach age fifteen. H. Pylori communicate directly with the brain about Ghrelin levels. Grhelin tells your brain you are hungry. If Ghrelin is unregulated you never feel full.

microbiome-images

After reading about the microbiome and the relevant scientific evidence I almost started to view myself not so much as an individual, as more a vessel for my microbiota!

But as Alanna Collen, author of 10% Human puts it:

“I see us – myself and my microbes as a team. But, as in any relationship I will only get what I give. I am their provider and protector, and in return they sustain and nourish me. I find myself thinking about my meal choices in terms of what my microbes would be grateful or, and my mental and physical health as markers of my worthiness as a host to them. They are my own personal colony, and their preservation is worth as much to me as the well-being of the cells of my own body.”

I’ll be getting inside our guts in more detail in future posts, covering the link between the gut and the brain, why we get cravings, the microbiome in infancy, the nutrients and diet we need to heal, and a detoxification, cleansing and re-balancing solution.

Tackling the root cause of illness means focusing on the microbiome and the gut. Fix the gut and you fix the problem!

But for now, just remember: whatever you eat also feeds your microbiota, both the good and bad – you never dine alone!

One of the Most Powerful Performances I’ve ever Seen… 🎼🎧🎻

“Music says that which cannot be said, but which cannot remain silent.” ~ Victor Hugo

When a composer and a musician are both emotionally and musically in tune, the result can be an unforgettable recording that speaks to your soul. Such heart-felt performances usually manifest in glorious interpretations that create some of the most legendary, memorable, mind-blowing and totally magical moments in musical history.

sibelius-vc-allegro-moderato

A section of the Allegro moderato from my violin score

Such performances give you the sense that the musician really understood what the composer wanted the listeners and audience to feel and experience. As Beethoven, (played to perfection by Gary Oldman) so eruditely stated in the film Immortal Beloved:

“It is the power of music to carry one directly into the mental state of the composer. The listener has no choice. It is like hypnotism.”

I’ll probably post these pairings as and when I become struck by their brilliance. For my first example I feel compelled to share a performance by the late French violin virtuoso, Christian Ferras.

Photograph of Ferras taken on a tour of South Africa in 1965, dedicated to the organiser Hans Adler.

Photograph of Ferras taken on a tour of South Africa, dedicated to the organiser Hans Adler.

I recently learned of his existence (I know right, how can a violinist not have heard of Christian Ferras), and I’ve been completely captivated by his talent and romantic Gallic style. For me, he’s up there with Heifetz, Menuhin, Oistrakh and Perlman. This has been a musical discovery to relish and to cherish.

I was impressed with many of his performances, but the one that stood out the most was his vintage recording of the melancholy Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor. There are many wonderful recordings of this lyrical, challenging and thrilling work, but none have reduced me to rubble in quite the same way as Monsieur Ferras!

My emotional defences were penetrated and disarmed by the honest, visceral and virtuosic nature of this particular mid 1960’s performance, under the baton of the young Indian maestro Zubin Mehta.

I’ll save the superlatives for later, now it’s time to kick back, relax and enjoy their outstanding music making:

You may not agree with my musings after listening and viewing, (not everyone does, as per this review in Gramophone), but to me this sublime rendition is full of beauty, passion and pathos. In the Adagio di molto he has tears streaming down his face. Maybe he was suffering from a broken heart and the music ‘spoke’ to him. It oozed out of his eyes and his bow, his fingers and his soul via his Stradivarius.

There is a mournful purity to his sound that cannot be matched. Sibelius and Ferras is truly a match made in heaven.

A section of the beautiful 2nd movement from my score.

A section of the beautiful 2nd movement from my score.

Perhaps the ‘dark’ melody of the Sibelius violin concerto was what resonated with Ferras’s lugubrious temperament. The Allegro moderato (1st movement) and the allegro, ma non troppo (3rd movement) are exhilarating and electrifying.

You can see that he is deeply connected to the soul of Sibelius and to the music. Everything is there for me; flawless technique infused with fire and emotion that produces such wonderful colours, phrasing and nuances that take me to the stratosphere…

Context

I think it helps to understand why this is such a powerful, timeless performance when you know that Sibelius poured his love of the violin into this now popular and widely performed concerto in the classical violin repertoire.

“Dreamt I was twelve years old and a virtuoso.” ~ Jean Sibelius (diary entry from 1915 aged 50)

Jean Sibelius (8th December 1865 – 20th September 1957)

As a young man Sibelius had dreams of being a violin virtuoso and could play the Mendelssohn violin concerto, but his course changed after he failed his audition for the Vienna Philharmonic due to stage nerves. Perhaps that’s why he wrote his only violin concerto, as an expression of that deeply held, but ultimately thwarted dream.

What may have felt like a disaster at the time may have turned out to be a blessing in disguise. His true gift however, was expressed through his writing of music. He may not have made such an impact on the world had he stuck to performance alone, but his compositions will never fade.

Portrait of Sibelius by Albert Edelfeldt c. 1904

Portrait of Sibelius by Albert Edelfeldt c. 1904

Violinist Dean Wang gives his take on the Sibelius Violin Concerto:

An icy image of nature is a good to have in mind when listening to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’s Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47, completed in 1903 and revised in 1905. The reason for revision is that the 1904 premiere was largely unsuccessful since the concerto proved too difficult. The 1905 version is considerably less challenging and also perhaps less cluttered.

The concerto starts with soft strings supporting a tranquil and noble solo violin melody. As the music continues, the violin grows more impassioned and suddenly drops from the highest to the lowest registers of the instrument. The violin part grows more and more virtuosic as the orchestra is given an increasingly active role. After a dark second subject in the orchestra, a passionate motif played in parallel sixths in the extreme upper register of the violin, and then a “travelling” theme in the orchestra, the orchestra stops, the exposition (the first part of a traditional sonata form movement) ends, and the solo violin begins an extensive and extremely virtuosic cadenza.

In this sonata-form movement, the cadenza takes on the role of development (the middle section of the sonata form where the composer takes existing musical ideas and transforms them in inventive and interesting ways). The recapitulation (a varied repetition of the exposition) starts even before the cadenza ends, easing us back into the first melody. The movement closes in a brilliant coda with virtuosic violin octaves and inspired counterpoint fusing previously heard themes together.

After the cold intensity of the first movement, the concerto’s second movement provides some degree of relaxation after a melancholic introduction in the winds. We now hear a warm, singing melody in the violin’s lowest register accompanied by horns and bassoons. The largely lyrical movement provides contrasts excellently with the brilliance and relentlessness of the outer two.

The third movement follows the adagio with relentless dance rhythms; some critics note that these “long-short-short-long” rhythms are similar to those found in polonaises, a popular type of dance from Poland. The connection to dance is made even clearer by Sibelius having reportedly described the movement as a “danse macabre” — a dance of death. The dance is combined with intense virtuosic elements in the violin. The violin’s parallel octaves coupled with heavy orchestration bring the dance to a close.

From Wikipedia:

The initial version was noticeably more demanding on the advanced skills of the soloist. It was unknown to the world at large until 1991, when Sibelius’s heirs permitted one live performance and one recording, on the BIS record label; both were played by Leonidas Kavakos and conducted by Osmo Vänskä. The revised version still requires a high level of technical facility on the part of the soloist. The original is somewhat longer than the revised, including themes that did not survive the revision. Certain parts, like the very beginning, most of the third movement, and parts of the second, have not changed at all. The cadenza in the first movement is exactly the same for the violin part. Some of the most striking changes, particularly in the first movement, are in orchestration, with some rhythms played twice as slow.

Christian Ferras was known to have been plagued with lifelong depression, a condition that tragically drove him to commit suicide on  14th September 1982 (aged 49) at the height of his career.

He was one of the pre-eminent violin virtuoso’s of the late 20th century, but his untimely death seems to have curtailed his stardom in a way that never happened with his contemporaries. He just wasn’t around long enough.

Christian Ferras and Yehudi Menuhin were both taught by the Romanian genius George Enescu, and performed the Bach Double Violin Concerto together:

I’m doing my bit to raise awareness of his recordings; such a talent should never be forgotten.

I’d love to hear what you think. Does this performance get inside you like it did me? If not, are there others that grab you in a similar way as the one I have waxed lyrical about between Ferras and Sibelius?

A Day to Remember at the Stunning Temple of Stonehenge

“Stanenges, where stones of wonderful size have been erected after the manner of doorways…no one can conceive how such great stones have been so raise aloft, or why they were built there.” ~ Henry Huntingdon (History of the English People c. 1130).

When we arrived at Stonehenge early on 30th December 2016 it was shrouded in a thick mist and we couldn’t see much. It felt cold too. We were surrounded by a soft, ethereal light however, as the sun was trying to burn the mist away, it suffused the air with a warm shimmer.

By the time our American and London relations arrived the mist was thinning, and the patches of visible sky were bright blue and devoid of cloud. It illuminated beautifully the captivating atmosphere of an ancient, Stone Age landscape that had been so venerated by our early ancestors.

close-up-with-mist

I’d never visited Stonehenge before. I’d been close by several times, but I’m glad we did it that day. I’ve included a selection of my photographs.

When we finally got on the bus and walked up close to the stones it took my breath away. Along the walk information plaques were placed so that you could learn about the actual site in its entirety, not just the stones.  Most of us had audio guides, which were highly informative, but I had to concentrate on what my daughters were doing so I couldn’t totally immerse myself.

emily-and-ruby-at-stones

The Neolithic temple of Stonehenge is something to behold. You may wonder why a group of old, sturdy stones elicits such touristic fervour, (1.3 million people visited the site during 2013), and I’m not sure I can quite put my finger on it, except to say it’s something of a spiritual experience.

Even though other people are milling around you, the general mood is one of quiet fascination. To be so close to something that was built with such skill and precision four and a half thousand years ago that is still standing tends to pull an all-encompassing blanket of awe over you!

close-up-panoramic

I’m sure the Pyramids at Giza (built around the same time period), would do that and more, but for us Brits, Stonehenge is a profound and enduring monument of determination, perseverance, ingenuity and devotion. The crows seemed to admire the sarsen stones as well, they were hopping about on top of them and circling above the horseshoe while we were there.

The stones have an intense air of mystery about them, as if they are proclaiming their sacred heritage and history, but at the same time keeping some of their recondite secrets to themselves…

When I saw the news today in The Guardian that the government has given the go ahead for a new road tunnel under the site my heart sank. I can’t help feeling this is a terrible mistake. I understand they are trying to reduce congestion, which is considerable, but in the process of coming up with a solution to one problem they are perhaps creating an even bigger one.

Stonehenge stretches over a huge area. Although the actual stones only cover a limited space, the burial mounds, the avenue and surrounding land is sizable. Surely such disruption will damage the aesthetics and archaeology of the site, making it less of an attraction? This smacks of putting profits before protection and preservation.

surrounding-landscape

Overview

The audio guides made it clear that although they do know a lot about how the site was created and amended over the centuries, the materials that were used and the type of dwellings that the builders lived in, they still don’t know the exact reason for its construction.

One of the clear ways in which it was used was to measure and track the movements of the sun and the changing seasons.

Brooding painting of Stonehenge by John Constable.

Brooding painting of Stonehenge by John Constable.

Winter would have brought immense hardship for the Neolithic and Bronze Age people, not just because of the cold weather and lack of light, but scarcity of food and crops. They would have been keen to know the turning point in the levels of daylight during the sun’s annual journey. They must have been very in-tune with nature, for the alignment and positioning of the stones was achieved with startling accuracy to highlight the shortest day of the year: the Winter Solstice.

Alignment

The axis of Stonehenge creates an alignment that runs north-east to south-west, up the straight section of the avenue and through the enclosure entrance. Because of the way the sun moves through the sky during the course of the year, the sunset at the winter solstice occurs on exactly the opposite side of the horizon from the midsummer sunrise.

sun-up2

When the Great Trilithon stood intact the effect would have been even more dramatic than it is today, with the setting sun dropping rapidly down the narrow gap between the two upright sarsen stones.

Burial and worship

Other thoughts were that it was a place of burial, (cremated and buried human remains have been found at the site), as well as animal bones and artefacts in the surrounding ditch, it therefore also served as a place of worship and procession. One theory is that the stones represented their ancestors and the wooden equivalents present at the time represented living people.

stonehenge-an-early-henge

The name Stonehenge is derived from the large, outer ditch and bank (a ‘henge’, meaning ‘hanging’) enclosing the stone circle within. It was used for cremation burials early in the area’s history.

Unbeknown to me there is a Woodhenge site not far from Stonehenge, to the south of Durrington Walls, also built in 2500 B.C., which was 50m in diameter and held large upright oak timbers. It was discovered in 1925 after aerial photographs revealed it to be a levelled henge.

The stones used in Stonehenge

The five large sarsen trilithons (from the Greek word for three stones), are arranged with a pair facing each other across the open end of the horse shoe, and the tallest, the Great Trilithon (only one stone now remains upright of this pair), which is 7.3 metres high and one of the tallest standing stones in Britain, faces the enclosed entrance. It has been noticed that of each pair, one seems deliberately more upright and well-shaped and the other is rougher.  Perhaps this was meant to signify male and female or art nature?

close-up-of-stones

“How grand! How wonderful! How incomprehensible! ~ Sir Richard Colt Hoare (Ancient History of Wiltshire)

On 3rd January 1797 an entire trilithon collapsed and was the first recorded fall of stones at Stonehenge.

These epic sarsen stones were taken from areas relatively close to Stonehenge, the Salisbury Plain and the Marlborough Downs. Still, transportation must have been a major undertaking. It’s thought they were maneuvered onto large wooden sledges with rollers that were pulled by a team of up to 200 people. Our ancestors knew a thing or two about teamwork and co-operation.

ruby-at-outdoor-museum

They were erected with considerable engineering skill considering the basic tools that were available to the builders, with the sarsens being put some way into the ground and the stone lintels sitting atop each pair were fixed into place using the tongue and groove method. Pretty impressive!

stonehenge-first-raised

The other type of stone that was used in the temple are the bluestones.  It’s thought that originally as many as  60 of these were placed in inner concentric circles to the sarsens, much of which is now fragmentary, indicating that many were moved or destroyed sometime after construction. The bluestones are a particular type of volcanic stone found in the Preseli Hills in Wales; an amazing achievement by itself to transport them a distance of 150 miles.

The Heel Stone

This massive, unshaped sarsen boulder was thought to be the only stone to originate from Stonehenge, and stands just outside the earthwork enclosure and within the line of the avenue.

heel-stone

It was raised to its upright position, being the first stone to be deliberately placed at Stonehenge. Although it stands alone today in a small ditch, archaeologists discovered a hole next to it in the roadside verge in 1979. The second stone may have held the heel stone in place or been placed as a pair with the Heel Stone as two upright sarsens just outside the entrance to the enclosure.

The builders

It’s thought that people travelled down from the far north of Scotland as well as from the south and from the continent to work on Stonehenge. Ancient Britons were the builders, perhaps a collective of farmers, engineers and tool makers etc. Local excavations have provided information about the types of dwellings they lived in.

bronze-age-dwelling

All I can say is they would have been a tad drafty in winter!

This documentary by Emeritus Professor of European Archaeology at Oxford University,  Barry Cunliffe and Social anthropologist Lionel Sims explain in much more detail than I can here; if you want to delve into the history and mystery of Stonehenge:

Excavations and restoration

Among the entire site items such as Roman coins (Roman Emperor Commodus) dating to about 186-7, as well as brooches and pottery were found during William Gowland’s excavations at Stonehenge in 1901. One theory is that the Romans altered and tried to adapt the site as their own shrine.

The earliest surviving painting of Stonehenge - a watercolour by a Dutch traveller, Lucas de Heere c. 1574

The earliest surviving painting of Stonehenge – a watercolour by a Dutch traveller, Lucas de Heere c. 1574

In 1883 Stonehenge was officially recognised as being of national importance and included in the monuments listed in the Ancient Monuments Protection Act. This did not offer any real protection in practical terms and Stonehenge remained neglected and crumbling a the close of the 19th century. On 31st December 1900 another stone fell.

Ongoing repairs and restoration were mostly undertaken during the 20th century and early into the current time period. Stonehenge was granted World Heritage status in 1986.

stonehenge-with-ruby

The visitor centre is fabulous. It comprises a spacious café, a shop and a museum/exhibition area, complete with artefacts, interactive media, historical stories and information about the Stonehenge site, and even a carbon-dated human skeleton complete with facial reconstruction, which provides a fascinating window into a mysterious past.

If you get the chance to go it’s definitely worth a visit, especially before they dig out the tunnel under it!

Pile of Stone-henge! So proud to hint yet keep

Thy secrets, thou lov’st to stand and hear

The plain resounding to the whirlwind’s sweep

Inmate of lonesome Nature’s endless year.

~ William Wordsworth

7 Brilliant Blogs to Help You Get the Most Out of the Year Ahead

“We all get the exact same 365 days. The only difference is what we do with them.” ~ Hillary DePiano

Happy New Year! I hope you enjoyed the festive holiday season. Time marches mercilessly on, and 2017 has arrived with the usual flurry of fireworks and fizz.

I’ve had a wonderful, whirlwind time with my family, especially since Emily and Ruby’s aunt, uncle and cousins were over from Connecticut between Christmas and New Year. It’s been a reminder of what’s truly important to me. I’ll probably share some of our travels and escapades in another post.

But to kick things off for 2017, in the time honoured tradition of taking stock of life – of scrutinising circumstances and getting in-tune with hopes, goals and dreams at the beginning of a new year – I have been scouring the web for some inspiration.

magic-and-dreams

There are 7 particular articles which have inspired me and helped me to start 2017 as I mean to go on.

I’ve done away with resolutions. They set you up to fail. Last January I wrote two detailed posts (Part 1 & Part 2), on goal-setting.

The biggest achievement for me in 2016 was that I revolutionised my health and helped others to do the same. I started a new business focusing on elite health and I’m now on the right path and following its evolution.

person-at-summit

This year I’m concentrating on themes, which will encompass all my goals and guide my decisions for 2017. My main themes are presence and productivity. By increasing presence I can be more productive than ever. It’s a tricky combination because if I focus too much on either theme at the expense of the other it could prove counter intuitive.

Presence will infuse every decision as awareness (or lack of), underpins all thoughts. Productivity has connotations with big business and bottom line, but when it’s achieved through a conscious work/life balance and not at the expense of health or other priorities, you can truly make the most of your time; however you spend it.

surfer

For instance, it takes time out of my busy schedule to play my violin, but it’s something I love doing, and after a violin practice my creativity is usually buzzing and I’m generally more productive. Productivity isn’t only working, it’s being able to enjoy and accomplish the activities and objectives that are meaningful to you…

I have big goals this year. It overwhelms me a bit, but I usually bite-off more than I can chew, so why change the habit of a lifetime? I need to feel inspired otherwise what’s it all for? I’m open and ready for new opportunities and spontaneous action!

I hope you can find some golden nuggets out of these 7 brilliant blog posts:

  1. You Will Not Be Denied — Develop Your Daily Inspirational Routine
  2. 7 Life Lessons from a Guy Who Can’t Move Anything but His Face
  3. Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives
  4. Intentions
  5. 3 Principles for 2017
  6. 9 Ways to Kick Ass and Conquer the World in 2017
  7. Buckle Up for a Reality check! 11 Things We Can’t Change This New Year

As always, at the start of a new year, I like to watch ‘The Pale Blue Dot’ by Carl Sagan:

I hope 2017 brings you much joy, health and success.

“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” ~ C.S. Lewis