I’m in with the in-crowd

Well actually, I’m not really, but it felt like an attention-grabbling headline and I could do with some more followers! Before anyone feels aggrieved, let me say quickly it’s not completely ‘fake news’. I do know a few people who know important people and in my life I have rubbed shoulders with the odd great or goodie from time to time; junior ministers, MPs, TV/radio types, musicians, sports celebs, poets and scientists laureate etc. After 13 years in London and now 12 in the capital of a country like NZ with a population of only 4.7m, you’d have to be some kind of hermit for this not to be the case. In any case, to justify the title, I did once sit at a table next to the glorious Mr. In-Crowd himself, Bryan Ferry, in an Indian Restaurant in Kensington. Pity I didn’t know I was sitting next to him at the time!

It’s hard to get away from the sheer, unadulterated joy in having bragging rights on an in-crowd moment. My personal best story undoubtedly is the time I swam with the All Blacks (New Zealand’s legendary national rugby team and current world world champions). Think about it. Most people only aspire to swim with dolphins. This wasn’t a sort of sponsored event to raise money for the team. No one took me out on a boat seeking a pod to cosy up to. It was much more prosaic. I was a member of the gym at the Intercontinental Hotel in Wellington for several years and used its pool most lunchtimes. Said hotel is where the ABs (when you’ve swum with them, you’re allowed a bit of familiarity I’d say) stay when in Wellington. Imagine if you will. You open the doors to the pool and there they are. A posse of glorious young men rotating between the sauna, the ice bath on the edge of the pool and the pool itself. You can imagine, dear reader, the flight impulse and unwillingness to unveil the then fifty something body was very strong. But I toughed it out and took the plunge … as it were. In the end, it was a lot of fun. They were utterly charming to everyone there. A story to dine out on forever.

But there’s also the in-ness of knowing someone who knows SOMEONE. The whole concept of reflected glory. A few years ago, the brother of a good friend dated a very (VERY) famous woman who was the ex-wife of an even more famous man … and at least one other not quite so famous one before him. Nearly wrecked the brother’s life, what with being followed and spied on and generally paparazzied (if that’s not a verb, it should be). Not altogether surprisingly, the relationship didn’t flourish and the very famous women somewhat predictably went on to marry another notorious A Lister. Don’t think my friend’s little brother was either famous enough or rich enough to cut it as a permanent fixture, although he certainly was a little of the former by the time his wonder woman jumped ship, and he wasn’t exactly a pauper to begin with. He just wasn’t in the same league as her hat trick of celeb spouses.

It was mind-boggling hearing about the media frenzy that surrounded their affair. My friend’s family was described very patronisingly as ‘socially anonymous’. They weren’t super-wealthy or super-successful or super-anything other than, to my mind, super-nice, but nice doesn’t sell column inches and so they were of utterly no consequence to the editors of prurience. It wasn’t an uplifting experience for any of the family or friends. I was reminded of this story whilst watching the endlessly repeated footage marking the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana in August. Love her or not — my jury has always been out — it has always seemed a cruel and pointless waste of two lives to end up in the mangled wreckage of a Merc in the small hours of the morning because your drunk driver has smashed into the wall of a Paris tunnel speeding to evade a baying pack of papps.

While my friend’s brother was able to retire to relative obscurity when his relationship ended, his experience at the time was yet another example of the collateral damage accompanying the cult of celebrity that’s endemic in our western societies. The Princess Diana story is perhaps one of the most extreme examples of the high price of fame. Even though she was alleged to have manipulated the press big time and was therefore something of a poster girl for the ‘be careful what you wish for’ cautionary tale, no-one deserves the obsessive stalking that she endured.

It’s not just the stalking, there are also all the expectations to be lived up to. How do you retain self-esteem when every inch of you and everything you do is examined and picked over by the media on a daily basis? Having a barrage of cameras shoved in your face every time you venture out is unthinkable to anyone who values a degree of privacy. There’s also the fact that if you in the public eye, you have to compete with your Photoshopped publicity look. Great to be displayed on bill boards and front covers at your air-brushed best, where blemishes have been evened out and even the contours and proportions of your body might have been changed. But how would you ever leave home as the real you?

It’s not surprising people under this sort of scrutiny succumb to diet fads and eating related disorders including bulimia and anorexia. Again Princess Dianna is the poster girl here, but there have been so many others. People who are convinced that 40kgs is the ideal body weight are on the slippery slope to long-term health complications if not pointless and premature death. Then there’s the Siren call of the party scene that’s been a trap for many of an unwary in-crowder and I’m sure the sex, drugs, rock and roll lifestyle is a blast … until it destroys you.

For many, achieving any hall of fame can entail making some unpalatable choices. It’s become all too apparent over the last few weeks that the Weinsteins and Moores of the world use their power base to pray on the wide-eyed people trying to get ahead in their orbit, generally women, further down the food chain. It’s a sad right of passage if you have to run the gauntlet of sexual predation from powerful men whose fame and commercial bankability has, at least until now, protected them from being outed. How many aspiring women have had to put up or shut up to rise through the ranks? Worse, how much talent have we missed out on as women have walked away from promising careers to avoid conflict?

For sure the rich and famous seem to have everything anyone could ever want, but conditions most certainly apply. I know no-one promised famous people a rose garden and they chose to go down the path that led to the red carpet, winning on the international stage, awards, unimaginable wealth and similar. But looking at the price of admission, who in their right minds would want to be in with the in-crowd? I’d much rather be socially anonymous and free to lead my life as I wish. Having said that, I like to have a bit more of the rich bit in my relative anonymity — Croesus levels sprint to mind. It’s the fame bit you can keep!

I blame Coco Chanel!

Clearly I don’t blame La Chanel for everything! She probably can’t be held responsible for Altzheimers … or global warming … or weapons of mass destruction … or reality TV … or Weinstein, Trump et al … or … etc.

In fact, in many ways Coco Chanel was entirely admirable. She had a phenomenal impact on womens’ lives leading their liberation from the constraints of the ‘corsette sillouhette’ to a more sporty casual look that became the standard of feminine style. There was the classic Chanel suit, the ‘go anywhere’ little black dress. Oh yes, and bellbottom trousers, bobbed hair, turtleneck sweaters, trench coats … the list goes on. She also made costume jewellery fashionable.

At its peak, the Chanel couture empire employed 3,500. Coco Chanel is the only fashion designer listed on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century and her achievements have provided inspiration for aspiring career women and female entrepreneurs over the decades. However, there is no getting away from the fact that the ultra-chic and oh-so-famous Chanel must take the blame for some things. To be clear, I’m not talking all that stuff about her being a collaborator and shagging important Germans during WWII, which somewhat un-gilds this otherwise fragrant lily’s legacy. Rather, I’m talking the fact that she has been attributed with making the sun tan fashionable.

With New Zealand heading into summer and the winter outer layers of camouflage clothing being peeled away like so many onion rings, the inconvenient and inescapable truth rears its ugly head; you really are what you eat and drink. After a winter of over-indulgence, I’m contemplating the somewhat depressing and inevitable results and the looming horror of skimpy summer clothes. Clearly, it’s time to reach for the self-tanner and attempt to conceal some of the evidence. But why do I think that being tanned will be an improvement? Fashion that’s why, and it’s all Chanel’s fault!

Chanel regularly vacationed with all the beautiful people in St. Tropez, Cap d’Antibes, Monte Carlo and the other sun-laden playgrounds of the rich and famous that make up the French Riviera. The legend has it that during one of these celeb hangouts on a cruise to Cannes 1923 she unintentionally got sunburnt. Hard to imagine this ultra sophisticated woman all lobster red and peeling, but that’s the story. By the time she got back to Paris, this unwanted blight had turned into what we now know as a tan. This happened at a time when Parisians had also fallen in love with legendary singer Josephine Baker, described at the time as being “caramel-skinned”. The combined social currency of both women sparked a trend; tans became cool and synonymous with health, wealth and luxury in western society.

Cashing in on this new trend, Jean Patou lunched the first sun tan oil “Huile de Chaldee” in 1927 and started a whole new industry of tan-related products. These were designed to help the tidal wave of people who wanted to look as if they were in with the in crowd but didn’t have the in crowd’s available leisure time or money to achieve the desired bronzing. This new trend was a stampede away from the previous peaches and cream beauty standard for caucasian society women who wouldn’t even consider going outside without a parasol — their privideged whiter shade of pale differentiated them as ‘quality’ from the laboring classes with their telltale ruddy complexions from too much time spent outdoors. Many of them even lived in far-flung outposts of empire where they had to contend with the blazing sunshine of tropical climates. For these women, preserving their complexions was a Herculean task, which they stuck to with the tenacity of my late and much beloved Springer Spaniel Oscar on the scent of a possum.

Of course, once the tan became fashionable, there was no going back. Beach clothes shrank in size —disappeared altogether on some beaches — and tanning became a leisure time activity in its own right. The obsession with being tanned led to sun beds, self-tanners, spray on and brush on tanning lotions. Thankfully the ones available now are a vast improvement on the eyesore tangerine tones first on offer and generally associated with those 70s and 80s-spawned medallion men with curly perms. And Trump of course, the leader time forgot, who seems to be stuck in an 80s time warp on just about every count.

But it all still comes back to fashion and perception. Fashion dictates, so shall it be. There was a reason for all those open-shirted men exposing their hairy chests. Fashion! So what, you may well ask? Well, the trouble with fashion is that it’s so easy to become a slave to it. The whole self-image thing for people with less than sculpted bodies springs to mind. The tyrany of the itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny-polka-dot-bikini is one thing. Without putting too fine a point on it, a tan just seems to improve any pale skinned body no matter how fat, thin, wrinkly, wobbly or droopy it might be. But people can also become fashion victims. In the context of tanning, there’s the accelerated ageing effects of too much intense sunlight. It is likely that wrinkled wasn’t something most of us aspired to be when we grew up and over-exposure to UV rays is a sure-fired way of ending up with a face that looks like a relief map of the planet.

Vanity is a wonderful diffuser of logic. I’m thinking the received wisdom of ages — you have to suffer to be beautiful. But risking death in beauty’s name takes this concept to a ludicrous extreme. For sure, this is all slightly tongue in cheek, but the risk of melanoma most definitely isn’t a joke.To be fair to Chanel, in common with many other fun things that have been rumbled over the last few decades like smoking, drinking and sugar, back in her heyday, getting a tan wasn’t ‘scientifically proven’ to be bad for you. She wasn’t burdened with the knowledge of the co-relation between sun and skin cancer. Nor did she live in the Southern Hemisphere under a hole in the ozone layer where burn times in high summer can be as little as 12 minutes and the prospect of melanoma is an everyday concern. For sure, this is all slightly tongue in cheek, but the risk of melanoma most definitely isn’t a joke.

In any case, and somewhat paradoxically, sunshine in the right quantities is very good for us. It’s one of the main sources of vitamin D and the feel-good factor of summer and sunshine is hard to underestimate. It’s even — allegedly — an effective aphrodisiac. But the best thing is that sunshine is an equal opportunities commodity. You don’t need to be wealthy, educated to within an inch of your life or live anywhere special to enjoy it — although some places have a lot more than others. It’s an option for old and young, fat and thin, socialist and capitalist, man and woman (on either of their separate planets) and people from any ethnicity or minority group — why else would there be Birquinis? Such irony in the French response to those!

The tan retains its allure but nowadays conditions apply. Parents slip, slap and slop sun block on their kids and bundle them up in rash suits to keep them safe from the sun, whilst still benefitting from it. All cosmetic ranges have products with built in UV protection. The basting sun oils are still there, but 30+ sun blocks dominate the sun cream categories and there are great cosmetic products that can achieve a ‘natural glow’ as if from the sun.

I still love sunshine. In fact, as soon as I’m done with this blog post, I’m heading out into it. But times change. In my tan-obsessed youth in London, we actually swopped tactics about how to get and stay tanned. These generally included a cheap, early summer ‘bucket shop’ holiday with a drift of friends at one of a number of Mediterranean resorts to get the all important foundation tan that would set us up for the summer. A week of serious sloth, spot-welded to our sun loungers, basting ourselves and turning on our bodily axes like so many roasting chooks, then falling into the water when the heat and boredom got the better of us. OK I exaggerate, but I’m sure you get the picture. After that, through the summer we would continue to chase opportunities for ‘topping up’. Topping up consisted of ‘pegging out’ as we used to call it, on our roof decks or in back gardens slathered in frying oil on any sunny day that happened to coincide with a day off work or hitting the park nearest to work at lunchtime and shedding as many clothes as the standards of decency in the 80s allowed.

This was at a time when it was still considered a bit ‘not done’ for female professionals to go bare-legged to work, even in extreme heat of the summer. My peers and I were in the vanguard of the change, with hard won acceptance based on baring legs that were bronzed (naturally or artificially) rather than the sort of blue white so beloved of washing powder manufacturers. The getting of a tan at times seemed like an obsession and certainly an intricate part of our then beauty regimes. Not being tanned in summer was as unthinkable as …er … that we’ll all wake up and find that Brexit was just a dream.

These days, my sun worshipping is more muted and often limited to a long walk in a wildlife sanctuary where the dappled sunlight filters through the beautiful native bush and makes exotic patterns on the pathways. I still get the benefits from the all-imporant vitamin C without the risks. In any case, in this part of the world, it’s hard not to get tanned simply by spending any time outside. That’s good because I will always prefer the suntanned look to the alternative. The preconditioning runs deep. But while I am clearly a still a bit of a slave to fashion, I certainly don’t intend to be a victim to in. Pity I didn’t have so much common sense earlier. Might have had a few less wrinkles!

A man’s a man for ‘a that

I’m a Scot and a lifelong fan of the poetry of Robert Burns, a pioneer of the Romantic movement. While Burns is more often remembered as something of a ladies man, “the greatest hours that ere I spent were spent among the lasses o”, he was also a towering advocate for social equity.

Reading the headlines over the last few days, one of my favourite of Burns’ poems A Man’s A Man For ‘A That written in 1795, has been often in my mind. More than two hundred and twenty years after his death, the insight and aspiration of the piece remains profound.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

 AMEN!

Carpe Diem Baby!

Sometimes I feel that my life is shrinking before my eyes. I’m nearly sixty — how on earth did that happen? I don’t feel old and we live in the world where 60 is the new forty don’t we? So, clearly I’m not. In any case, my soul or whatever you want to call the internal entity that feels like some sort of mini-me remains obstinately and happily oblivious to the passing of the years. Seems there’s a reason why they’re referred to as our ‘inner children’! I think of mine as my inner-Barbie because — like Peter Pan, she seems to inhabit some sort of Neverland where she is forever young. However, unlike the redoubtable Pan who remained a child, my Barbie seems to have cleverly arrested her growth at that beguiling mid-thirties stage. That wonderful place where chronology hasn’t yet won, the body is still beautiful and the spirit is beyond the myopic self-obsession of earlier ages and stages.

Just for the record, I do know I’m not stuck in a time warp circa 1995. I kind of get that every time I’m called to the dark side and consider buying a pair of flat shoes. (Instead of the gorgeously impractical and increasingly hard to walk in high-heeled varieties I have been seduced by all my life.) In recent years two schoolmates and a couple of dear friends have died, among them my first love. That’s certainly chucked a bucket of very cold water in Barbie’s youthful smiley face I can tell you, and accounted for a fair amount of the feelings of shrinkage. But I’m now also facing that old clichéé where time is speeding up. When you’re young the minutes pass like hours and there is a constant feeling of boredom because time stretches out to infinity. Now, I’ve got to that place the young can’t understand where the hours, days, weeks, months and years speed by like the counter in HG Wells’ Time Machine.

Time to carpe diem I say. Grab each day firmly by the throat and make it count. So much better than being subsumed in a myopic obsession about some much desired future state. Whether this state is a new job, a palatial home, a more exciting partner, a super-yacht, some publisher discovering you, winning a career changing award, the in vitro treatment delivering the longed-for and almost given up on baby, running away to live on an Ashram or joining the crew of the Sea Shepherd, putting everything else on hold until some new state arrives seems to be just plain dumb. Let’s face it, scenarios like the current Trump’s/Jong-un brinksmanship play merry Hell with all of our aspirations. But I’m still loving that it’s a gorgeous winter’s day and I’m free to sift through the Op-eds and indulge myself in writing this post. No fires to fight, no ferryman to pay. The future can go hang. I’m happy in my moment. After all, WTF can I do about the mine’s bigger than yours thing that’s going on between those two equally unappealing and childish so-called men?

The carpe diem aphorism comes from Book 1 of the Roman poet Horace’s work Odes written in 23 BC. Carpe diem has long been used as a standalone phrase which people like me think of in terms of living in the now. But the context from Horace is carpe diem, quam minimum credula poster — “Seize the day, put very little trust in tomorrow (the future)”. Horace’s point being we can’t see what the future will bring, but we should do everything we can today to stack the odds. Not to trust that everything will randomly fall into place.

When I thought about it, the gnarly problem of retirement planning sprang to mind. This is something of a sensitive topic for me at the moment as I’ve taken some significant risks with my financial future by treading the path of an entrepreneurial wannabe. The pot of gold at the end of this rainbow has yet to materialise and was looking frighteningly empty for a while. Putting all your financial eggs in the startup basket is a genius strategy if your name happens to be Bill Gates, but not so flash if you’re a John DeLorean and the expected high returns turn out to be little more than surf breaking on the rocks of hubris and self-delusion. While my investments are currently looking a bit healthier than they were a few months ago for a number of reasons, I still have anxiety dreams about becoming an ageing bag lady wheeling my few possessions round in a shopping trolley — pretty certain that the amount I’ve paid into my pension fund won’t cut it on it’s own.

In all likelihood, Horace’s contemporaries weren’t agonizing about whether their KiwiSaver contributions would see the distance. In those days, apparently if a baby made it through its first year, it could expect to live to the ripe old age of 34. Reaching your fifth year delivered the heady possibility of making relatively ‘old bones’ at 48. That’s a total of 17,520 diems to carpe if you want to get granular. Just as an aside, I wonder what went wrong between the Old Testament expectations of three score years and ten and Roman times? Must have been something to do with all that endless wandering around in the dessert as opposed to stagnating in the stews of Rome. Of course there’s also the thing about being God’s chosen people…

Anyway, in Ancient Rome, it’s thought that less than 5% of the population at any one time would be over 65. What a sensible arrangement!  All those lovely lovely younger generations oozing tax denarii into the exchequer leaving no question about the state’s ability to provide for its aged and infirm. Not that Rome was exactly a trailblazer in the realm of social welfare, so this line of thinking is somewhat pointless. But the Roman equations are interesting in comparison to our ageing ‘Boomer’ reality, which is leaving many people angsting about their financial futures. The upside is that this is a temporary blip. Assuming that the militaristic fat boys step away from their nukes and stand down from the standoff, with the rate at which birth rates are levelling off of or falling in the west, we’ll be back to the healthy Roman proportions of youth to age before you can say “climate change is killing us”.

All joking aside, there’s a balance between living in the moment and leaving the future to chance. In the context of financial planning, for sure there are many variables such as how long we’ll live, how much money will be needed to achieve the twilight years lifestyle we aspire to and what environmental factors will kick in to derail it all, not to mention the whole Pandora’s Box of our health. But that doesn’t means there’s no point. Yay, this is where I get to use all those cliches like failing to plan is planning to fail (Alan Lakein after Churchill and Franklin).  Like, if one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable (Seneca the Younger — and didn’t those ancient Greeks knew a thing or two BTW? Bet their life expectancy was higher than the Romans). Then there’s, it does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations if you live near him (Tolkien). For decades business gurus have been preaching the gospel of vision, mission and values as the foundation to success. Rightly so. Businesses are much more likely to achieve more, do better, make their shareholders wealthier, trade ethically etc. if they have some inkling of what they’re aiming for. It’s no different for us as individuals. Visualising what we want is much more likely to deliver than chasing a series of shiny new things down rabbit holes.

I used to have a friend who was obsessed with spontaneity. She didn’t like being tied into commitments or rules and regulations, preferring instead to live her life on ad hoc terms. We often used to argue a lot about this. Apart from anything else, it was deeply irritating that her need to be spontaneous resulted in her total inability to get anywhere on time. This fed my position which was that I don’t think you can actually be spontaneous unless you live within a structure from which you can break out. If spontaneity is your life mission it’s got to lead to chaos because nothing can ever be achieved. In a similar way, having no life plan invites chaos in. Seizing the day is not only  about visualising and working towards a desired future but also about enjoying the journey no matter what the outcome. As Robert Burns knew so well, “the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.’ Pity to get to where they’ve gone agley and there’s only disappointment and a black hole which sucked in time passed in waiting. The best bit is that with a vision, the whole concept of retirement planning becomes moot because we already know which port we’re sailing to. That we want our days to end in a Disney Castle or an Indian ashram or somewhere in between. Clearly circumstances do frequently rain on this planning parade, requiring regular recalibration, but to me that offers better odds than relying on a Lotto win.

In terms of feeling that my life is shrinking before my eyes, I’m determined to make better use this precious and diminishing time resource that once seemed a commodity. Stop bleeding out on things that don’t matter. Letting time slip away like Dali’s Melting Watch in the featured image. For sure, I need to do what it takes to get some decent returns from all the time I’ve invested in my businesses so the ageing bag lady scenario remains simply a bad dream. But I’m visualising as I write and my scenario always includes enough money to see me out in style and allow me to do all the other things I have factored in.

In this vision, when the bell tolls for me, I plan for it to interrupt something amazing. To continue the annoying references, I will be living my days rather than counting my years. Go to India and Antarctica. Take the sentimental journey home to Scotland and write my memoirs en route. Get therapy for the rampaging arachnophobia that makes any attempt at gardening feel like a journey to Mount Doom! Actually turn up at my orchestra having done more than one cursory run through of the music. Or better, stop beating myself up if I don’t! You get the picture I’m sure? Carpe diem indeed!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder… get it out with Optrex!

 

My elder sister went to art school. On one of her first visits home, she made us laugh with tales of the spectacular graffiti in the women’s toilettes. The one that has stuck with me through the years was “beauty is in the eye of the beholder, get it out with Optrex”. What a great observation! Still makes me smile. And wouldn’t it be great it were true?

If the imprint of beauty could be removed from the eye of the beholder with the simple application of a drop of Optrex how different the world might be? Imagine if Paris had bathed his eyes after his first sighting of Helen — he might never have abducted her and caused her husband Menelaus to launch the 10-year Trojan War to get her back. In that parallel universe, we might still be able to visit Troy. What about Mark Antony whose torrid liaison with Cleopatra ultimately handed ascendency in Rome post-Caesar to Octavian (or Agustus as he was to become) transitioning Rome from Republic to Empire? If Rome had stayed true to its republican virtues instead of dissolving into the lassitude of the late Empire that had no fight in it left when the Vandals came knocking at its gates. If the empire had not fallen, how different would the course of Western History have been? If an eye-drop could have prevented Henry VIII from falling in love with Anne Boleyn and out of love with the Catholic Church (which actually wouldn’t have existed in the earlier scenario if Rome had not fallen), there might not have been a Reformation and we might all still be living in the dark ages deprived of the flowering of the first Elizabethan era.

Optrex wasn’t introduced to the market until the 1930’s so even if it could wash beauty from the hapless beholder’s eye, it was too late to for Troy and Rome. It’s not all bad though, Henry’s VIII’s obsession with Anne Boleyn helped gave us the double whammy of the Reformation and Elizabeth’s amazing reign. In any case, it’s clear that Optrex actually can’t do any such thing, as people have continued to fall in love with the same frequency and occasionally shocking consequences as they did before it’s introduction in the thirties.

I like the idea of beauty being in the eye of the beholder because it allows for the possibility that every one of us can be beautiful to someone. Other than Helen, I’m not entirely clear that any of those spectacular women I’ve just mentioned would be described as classic beauties in the Venus de Milo tradition. Rather their attractiveness and power seems to have stemmed more from their beguiling personalities bringing together intelligence, vivacity, and elegance as well as alluring physical charms. However it’s defined, when we think about beauty, it’s more likely to be the drop-dead gorgeous variety which makes the hormones race rather than the inner type which has a slower burning fuse. Think about it, there’s Angelina Jolie and there’s Dame Judy Dench. While Dame Judy is undoubtedly a beautiful soul, she’s never been in La Jolie’s league physically. Even in her younger days, Dame Judy’s beauty was, like Intel, largely on the inside. I’m sure their mothers loved them equally (although, reading the gossip mags, that may not actually be true), but only one of them had the world (and for many years the divine Brad Pitt) at her feet because of her Helenesque loveliness. It has to be said that unlike the mythical Menelaus, Brad does not appear to have been so beguiled by Angelina that he set out with a flotilla of 1,000 ships to get her back when they broke up. Of course, the peerless Dame Judy also has long had a proportion of the world at her feet, but the adoration is more based on admiration of her art than her drop-dead gorgeousness. That’s not to say that la belle Jolie can’t act, clearly she can, and well. But that skill often gets lost in the hysteria surrounding her looks, eating habits and choices of mate.

Kids at school know the truth — generally before the 17 years it took Janis Ian to understand “that love was meant for beauty queens and high school girls with clear skinned smiles”. Everyone in the playground knows who the cute, adorable ones are. Unfair though it is, beautiful children who grow into beautiful people get more attention, more opportunities and generally more of everything than others. Sifting through articles on the subject, other than the relative ease of finding top quality mates, it’s evident that BPs experience many other advantages. Attractive students get higher grades. Banks and other institutions loan more readily to the lookers (who apparently are less likely to default). In mock criminal trials physically attractive ‘defendants’ are less likely to be convicted and the ones that are get lighter sentences. The BP brigade earns more than their less attractive peers by as much as 10 percent. All of this is hardly news, more like a statement of the bleeding obvious, but in a world where at least a proportion of it’s global citizens are genuinely seeking social equity, this is just another example of the playing field not being even. There’s even is a word for it — lookism. Who knew?

I remember seeing a programme in the early 2000s presented by John Cleese – The Human Face —  which set out to show that there is a mathematical formula for why someone like Liz Hurley (who was Cleese’s muse through the narrative) is so incredibly gorgeous. They used computer technology to aggregate images of many faces into a composite that was considered to be the distillation of the human face at its most beautiful. As I recall, this mathematical grid arrived at heart-shaped face, which the wide range of beauties they then superimposed on the grid all conformed to including the more famous Liz (Taylor), Marilyn, Greta et al.

Youth and beauty, both male and female, have been potent currency since us humans first walked the planet. However unfair, it’s simply a fact of life. But there is also a downside. BPs have to live with the knowledge that they are often not judged on the terms they wish to be. I knew a woman in London who was a Julie Christie look alike. She was truly ravishing — to the point that when she was talking to you, it was hard not to get mesmerised and lose track of what she was saying. It was almost like being under a spell and you just got lost in the glory of looking at her. She said very few people (men or women) looked below the surface to see who she really was as a person. Our circle expected her to marry some A Lister, financial whizz or other distinguished personage. How superficial of us! Eventually she married a really likeable, but pretty run-of-the-mill dude, because she said he actually saw her as a person, not just a beautiful façade and that was good enough for her. In addition to always being taken at face value, as St. Augustine observed, “beauty is indeed a good gift of God; but that the good may not think it a great good, God dispenses it even to the wicked.” Presumably Moors Murderer Ian Bradley found Myra Hyndley (“the most evil woman in Britain”) drop dead gorgeous in the beginning.

Coming back to the opening, if beauty like that possessed by Helen of Troy, Angelina Jolie or Liz Hurley were the only currency for attraction, our species would have become extinct long-since. Imagine the slaughter in Trojan-type wars fought over the limited pool of available lovelies, leaving the rest of us withering on the vine of solitary childlessness and the species unable to reproduce itself. The upside would be that we would have perished sublimely unaware of ticking of The Doomsday Clock as it endlessly re-calibrates the current and very real threats — WMDs, climate change or Donald Trump — that could conspire to destroy us! Thankfully, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, allowing even self professed “ugly duckling girls” like Janis Ian to shine for someone and no amount of Optrex will ever make that different.

About that albatross round your neck

I had a great start to this year. I was on fire with certainty and focus, personally and professionally. For the first time in many years, I’d actually said no to a couple of things, leaving room for a number of pet projects that kept getting side-lined. Following a lengthy drought, I started writing again. Ideas blossomed like desert flowers after rain, some pollenating this blog. I was on a roll at work, striding through business planning like a Colossus on steroids. Quite the little joy germ I can tell you. And then, a few months ago, the wheels fell off and I picked up a business load that someone else had laid down and I’ve been staggering under it’s weight ever since. Throughout, I’ve been wondering if anyone else has been able to see the very large albatross slung round my neck?

For anyone unfamiliar with the concept, having an albatross round your neck is a peculiarly English language idiom that has come to refer to a heavy burden of guilt that becomes an obstacle to success. The original guilt-induced burden was toted by a hapless sailor in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem The Rime of The Ancient Mariner written in 1797-98. Although the idiom is widely used, I would imagine for most of us, the poem that spawned it is only a blurry memory from long ago English classes if it’s known at all. I for one had the vague recollection of a cautionary tale of a dead bird and a lot of bad shit that went down during some sort of voyage somewhere, sometime resolving into some sort of darkly redemptive ending.

Well, that wasn’t really very insightful, so I sent up a prayer of thanks yet again to the Gods of the Internet for Google and Wikipedia and for the ease with which I was able to satisfy my curiosity. The Rime of The Ancient Mariner — let’s call it TROTAM for brevity and because acronyms are so fashionable — relates the experiences of a sailor who has just returned from a long sea voyage. In the words of the author (and what better source could there be really?) it charts the story of “How a Ship having passed the Line was driven by storms to the cold Country towards the South Pole; and how from thence she made her course to the tropical Latitude of the Great Pacific Ocean; and of the strange things that befell; and in what manner the Ancyent Marinere came back to his own Country.” Still not getting it? Then (to use an expression I loathe but which I think is allowable in the context) let’s take a deeper dive …

The narrative begins with a mariner (presumably an ancient one) stopping some random who is on his way to a wedding in the street and regaling this hapless individual with his story. It’s not actually revealed why he picked this particular man or indeed how he knew the man was on his way to a wedding. The poem wasn’t well received at the time. Perhaps the 18th century reading public was as keen on continuity as contemporary filmgoers who notice things like Storm Troopers hitting their heads on bulk ways. Anyway, I digress. The wedding-guest’s reaction turns from bemusement to impatience to fear to fascination as the mariner’s story progresses. Think I might have felt the same. It’s kind of Night of the Living Dead meets Pilgrim’s Progress. At one surreal point our hero is sporting a massive dead bird strung round his neck on a ship sailed by reanimated corpses. Nowadays of course we would have called them Zombies, but Coleridge was happily unaware of this hugely successful genre. The first known use of the word Zombie in English wasn’t until 1819 in a history of Brazil by the poet Robert Southey, Perhaps if he’d called it TROTAM … with Zombies, it would have taken the world by storm instead of bewilderment. Clearly he was ahead of his time or already the opium addict recorded in the last couple of decades of his life.

Oops digressing again … back to the action. Despite initial good fortune, the ship is driven south by a storm, eventually reaching Antarctic waters where it gets stuck in an ice jam. Serendipitously, an albatross soars by and seemingly guides them out of the ice. Quite understandably, the crew is pretty happy about this believing the albatross brought the south wind that led them out of the Arctic. So what does our hero do? At about the time the crew are congratulating themselves for their good fortune, he grabs his crossbow and shoots the bird dead. What was he thinking? Didn’t he know albatrosses are protected? Predictably, his shipmates are a tad irked with the murdering mariner. However, as they sail on, the weather becomes warmer, the mist disappears and all is temporarily forgiven.

Not for long! Killing the albatross appears to bring the wrath of some unspecified and malevolent spirits down on their heads and they transit from “the lands of mist and snow” to uncharted waters near the equator where the ship is becalmed and it’s frankly, hot as Hell. This prompts the one memorable and often quoted line from the entire gruesome load of anarchic tosh, “water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink”. (If you’re a purist, it’s actually “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink”).

In anger, the crew forces the mariner to wear the dead albatross about his neck to show his guilt. Two points here. (1) Why did they still have the dead bird onboard? (2) What a great idea — maybe activist organisations like Sea Shepherd could take on board (as it were) when they encounter idiots doing vile things to marine life!

Anyway, this is all getting a bit long-winded. To cut a (very very) long story short, next they encounter a floating hulk where Death (a skeleton) and Nightmare-Life-in-Death (a deathly pale women) are playing dice for the souls of the crew. Death wins the lives of the crewmembers and LID (Life in Death doh) wins the life of the mariner who … er … yup you got it … must endure a fate worse than death as punishment for his killing of the albatross. Even the Sea Shepherd stalwarts might consider this a little extreme? Anyhoo, the crew die, but the mariner lives on for seven days and nights seeing the curse in the last expressions in the eyes of their corpses.

Ultimately, the mariner’s curse is lifted after he appreciates the sea creatures around him, which he had earlier cursed (lot of cursing in this work) as “slimy things” — he suddenly sees their true beauty — “a spring of love gush’d from my heart and I bless’d them unaware”. Abracadabra, the albatross falls from his neck and he is partially redeemed. Good spirits possess the corpse crew and they help steer the ship to safe harbor. Trancelike by this time (and who can blame him after all the trauma) the mariner hears two of the spirits discussing his fate which is to wander the earth driven by guilt, forced to tell his story over and over and passing on his cautionary tale to those he meets.

On finishing his story, the mariner leaves, and the wedding guest returns home, and wakes the next morning “a sadder and a wiser man”.

THE END

And don’t you wish it was darlings? But suck it up because I haven’t quite done yet. As I said earlier, responses at the time were muted, even from his poet buddies like William Wordsworth. Apart from the fact that TROTAM is written in highly laboured ‘olde englishe’, it’s simply not a very pleasant story … all those dead things!

Whether or not there’s any merit in the poem — I’ll leave you to make your own mind up on that score — the sad thing is that Coleridge’s story gave the albatross such a bad rap as a guilty burden to bear. NZ is home to 14 species of albatross, including one of the two biggest, the Royal Albatross with an average wingspan of 3m (9.8ft) some more than 3.5m. I was lucky enough to visit a colony outside Dunedin at the bottom of our South Island a few years ago — they are truly glorious birds that can live up to 70 year apparently. Check out our Department of Conservation’s RoyalCam which follows a Royal Albatross nest. OK maybe it’s not as dramatic as some of the other better-known cams like this TigerCam, but hey, we don’t have any large predators on our shores, just this very large squid-eating bird so we have to take our wins where we can.

Coming back to the albatross currently decorating my own somewhat fragile neck, I’m pretty close to having completed whatever self-inflicted penance was required to achieve my own arc of redemption although my story was more one of taking responsibility than guilt. In any case, there is now light at the end of this particular tunnel. As I write, I can feel my albatross slowly re-animating and flexing its wings. I know that very soon it will soar off back out to sea in its element, tirelessly gliding over the frigid waters of the Southern Ocean.

British and Irish Lions 2017 tour — a world in union!

I was lucky enough to be given tickets for the second test in the British and Irish Lions 2017 NZ tour last weekend in Wellington. It was epic and that was only the atmosphere in the stadium. To be honest, the atmosphere was what I went for and it didn’t disappoint. The Lions … Lions … Lions chant from the sea of red supporters was electrifying and compulsive and it’s been ringing in my head all week. In my book, the antics of rugby’s ‘Barmy Army’ — the glorious, enthusiastic, contagiously cheerful, campervan-enabled mas of Lions supporters — has been the main event of the tour, rather than the rugby itself. And no one could ever accuse these guys of having succumbed to beige!

There’s something improbably beguiling about tens of thousands of good-natured fans prepared to travel all the way round the world, leaving their summer for our winter to roar on their heroes. In a world where sports followers all too often split into to fanatical nationalist and tribal divisions and go to war, this tour has left it’s eccentric, but heart warming grace in a lot of hearts here.

I would have loved to be at last nights tour finale in Auckland. Instead, I went for the armchair experience helped along by a spectacular dinner and some very good wine. And what a match it was. Nail-biting to the very last with some incredible play. The big disappointment? It ended in a draw and we have to wait so many years for the re-match as the Lions only tour NZ every 12 years. The consolation for a dichotomized ex-pat like me? That it ended in a draw and both sides therefore won.

In truth, the All Blacks should have taken it out — they had their chances, but the British bulldog in me reveled in the doughty ‘we will never surrender’ spirit of my compatriots as they fought on to the last gasp, evening the score in its dying moments. I can tell you, I didn’t know whether to sing Rule Britannia, Swing Low, Flower of Scotland, Men of Harlech, Ireland’s call or Pokarekare ana for that matter.

With an English mother and a Scottish father, I’m a half-breed. Thinking about it, I’m actually more of a ‘bitsa’ if you go back another generation or two. In addition to both of those not always harmonious nationalities vying for prominence in my loyalties having lived in both countries for close to equal time, there’s also Irish, French and German. If you go back even further there’s likely some Viking in the mix. After a couple of decades in NZ, there’s now also a fair dollop of Kiwi super-imposed on it all.

When I was a kid, I used to watch test rugby with my father — one of the few things deemed OK for us kids to stay up late for. I can still remember the excitement building during each pulsating match and dad’s highly vocal ebbs and flows as points were won and lost and Five Nations slugged it out for national glory or against one of the great touring sides like the Springboks. But when the All Blacks were involved there was an extra frisson. An exoticism that few other teams could match. After all, they had the Haka and who could every forget the first time they saw one performed? The spine-chilling moment when the All Blacks line up and lay down the challenge to the opposition. It’s a primal declaration of intent. To my childish eyes, it was truly awesome. Decades later, it still is.

Living in New Zealand, it’s very easy to support our local side. They’re just …er … so good … and they win so often … and this country’s rugby mad … and you get caught up in it all. In all seriousness, the All Blacks truly are one of the world’s great sporting brands and one of this little country’s enduring successes. It’s hard not to succumb to their might and glamour, particularly as supporting Scotland can be bit of a test in its own right. On numerous occasions we may well have sent the English homeward to think again, but we’ve never beaten the All Blacks in 30 attempts, the first being at Murrayfield in 1905. That’s not ever. Never. Not even once. OK there have been two draws so it hasn’t been a complete whitewash and you have to take the wins where you can (as it were), but it is a teeny bit one-sided and depressing even for the most ardent fan. Mostly I’m just happy if we lose respectably. Ditto England, Ireland and Wales in the context of the All Blacks.

But last night I was proud to be a Brit! Progressively during this Lions tour, the land of my fathers (and sisters and cousins and aunts) has reclaimed me. The improbable alliance that is the British and Irish Lions is uplifting in a world where there is so much strife. As once BBC commentator put it, “they (the Lions) have done it once again, from disparate parts and across old enmities. In a modern world often focused on cold commercial gain and a narrow nationalism, they remain an idea apart and a reality to inspire. As you watched the two sides merge for a shared team photograph at the end, red shirts mixing with black, Englishmen with arms round Irishmen, a Welsh skipper congratulating a Welsh man of the match, a Scotsman ending as the tour’s leading try scorer, then you did understand what it was all about, after all.”

If people like these from places with deep-seated ancient grudges and not a few contemporary ones can set them aside and revel in the moment, there’s hope for us humans and our world. 

Photo from The Daily Mail

Sing long and prosper!

I love to sing! Like Barry Manilow, music was my first love and it’s still way ahead of some of my subsequent loves I can tell you! (By the way, where is Bazza now … and does anyone care?) When I was a kid, I used to drive my sister insane by warbling away in the morning from the moment I got up — what a happy little songbird I must have been, trilling away in my own little dawn chorus! To be honest it wasn’t just my sister I irritated. This compulsion to sing has gone on to irritate flatmates, partners, workmates and basically anyone within my orbit in the early morning! I live alone at the moment and I even irritate myself from time to time. But none of this has ever stopped me and I expect, again like the aforementioned Manilow, music will be one of my last loves.

OK, you get it, I really do love music in general and singing in particular. Over the years, I’ve sung in festivals, backed a band (that didn’t make it), formed a duo for music at functions as well as being a member of a number of different choirs. At the moment, I sing with the Orpheus Choir of Wellington. Orpheus is a symphonic choir. That means there are enough of us — up to 150 at any given time — to credibly sing some of the biggest choral works that exist. I’m no Maria Callas, but I’m truly grateful to be able to perform at this level. In the year since I joined, we’ve covered the sublime (Mozart’s seminal Requiem Mass) to the ridiculous (nonsense verses by Ogden Nash set to music), and everything in between. I’ve sung music I didn’t know existed (Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony) as well as life-long favourites (Beethoven’s oh-so-famous Ode to Joy, the finale to his towering Ninth Symphony). We’ve performed everywhere from concert hall to cathedral, from Zoo to street festival.

Last weekend, we staged a couple of the most spectacular and difficult of all choral works; James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross and Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. In the astonishing acoustic of Wellington’s cavernous Art-Deco cathedral, my friend who attended reported that it was a visceral and moving couple of hours.

For sure, this type of music is not to everyone’s taste, but there are so many alternatives to enjoy. Who’s never sung in the shower? Believe me, if you haven’t you’re missing out big time! If that’s not your thing, you can get your armchair rocker on with the help of software like SingStar, hit a Karaoke bar and astonish/amuse your friends or simply let rip to your favourite playlist whilst driving. You don’t even have to be any good at singing to enjoy it. As Henry van Dyke so beautifully put it, “the woods would be a very silent place if no birds sang except those that sang best.”

But the greatest thing about singing — and this is something all singers innately understand — is that it’s not just fun, it’s incredibly good for us. There’s a growing (and credible) body of evidence about the physical and psychological benefits derived from singing; stress relief, better sleep, improved heart and lung capacity, possibly even longer life. Apparently, like eating a bar of chocolate, singing releases those much vaunted feel good endorphins, so beloved of exercise fiends … but without the calories! Singing in a group is thought to be particularly beneficial because of the increased sense of community, belonging and shared endeavour it brings. That’s certainly true for me. Singing is also considered to increase mental awareness, concentration and memory.

While it’s early days for this sort of research, it not difficult to believe. Experts in early human history believe that people sang out their feelings long before they were able to speak their thoughts. This was not singing in the sense that we know it. The fist human utterances were limited to mimicry of the sounds people heard in nature — birdsong, the roaring of animals and the crooning of babies. This early ‘singing’ would have been an individual thing with the individual having no thought of communicating ideas and feelings to anyone else. It’s not known when the singing of meaningful, communicative sounds began, but it was likely a key step in the evolution of language.

Even after the development of language, song retained a central place in building and strengthening communities and societies — I don’t believe there is any race or culture on earth, even the most remote or cut off, that doesn’t sing. Singing is ancient and universal. It’s a means of invoking the gods with prayers and incantations, celebrating rites of passage with chants and songs, and recounting history and heroic feats. Some cultures even have creation myths where they were sung into existence. To this day, song has much more importance in our lives than simply for entertainment. We still lullaby our babies to sleep, hum under our breaths when walking in scary places in the dark, get together and lift up our voices in praise of whatever we feel is worthy of praise, create anthems to imbue national pride and support our sports teams, schools and other social groupings.

As I said at the start, I love to sing. I couldn’t agree more with Marty Rubin’s sentiment, “walking alone I sing to myself and am content.” I love it even more now that science is confirming its connection to my on-going health and wellbeing. Or, as Kathleen Long put it in Chasing Rainbows, “In your life, you either chose to sing a rainbow, or you don’t — keep singing.” That’s what I intend to do and I hope anyone who’s reading this will too. If so, to borrow from the Vulcan, we should all sing long and prosper.

Post Script

We don’t get fooled again?

There it was, a compelling subject in my boring list of emails pulling my eye towards it with the compulsion of a $100 note lying unnoticed on a pavement.

Beware car-jackers in parking lots — read this now!

So I read it …. well you do, don’t you? 

“Imagine: you walk across the parking lot, unlock your care and get inside. Then you lock all your doors, start the engine and shift into reverse. You look in your rear view mirror as you prepare to back out of the parking space and notice a piece of paper (some sort of ad?) stuck on the rear window that’s obscuring the view. You put your car in neutral or park, jump out to remove the paper (or whatever it is). When you reach the back of your car the waiting car-jackers appear out of nowhere and jump into your car and take off. Your engine was running, your handbag is in the car and they practically mow you donw as they speed off. 

BE AWARE OF THIS NEW SCHEME

 Just drive away and remove the paper they’ve stuck to your window later … and be thankful that you read this email and that you forwarded it to your friends.”

Well reader, I was concerned I can tell you and I nearly fell for it. I nearly shared a bogus email and worried all my friends sick for no reason. Apparently this is a hoax that has been doing the rounds since 2004.

Man, we’re guillible as a species! But, they’re so credible these emails or social media shares, and you feel so puffed up with the responsibility of keeping not only yourself safe, but also everyone else you know. Well, you do, don’t you? Your finger hovers on the send/share button for a moment. Maybe it’s a hoax? But it can’t be … can it? No, damn it, it sounds like something I heard on the radio sometime, somewhere … I’ll press send just in case. What harm can it do? If it’s true, I’ve done what I can to alert others, if it’s not true … well … so what really? A few of my circle might momentarily think I’m a plonker, but they’re busy and the moment will pass. More likely, they’ll just hit ‘share’, like me , without questiontioning anyway. It’s not exactly a crime against humanity of the type that got Hermann Göring in front of the Nuremberg Trials.

But on reflection, it’s plain irresponsible to share stuff that’s not true. Along the lines of the bored shepherd boy who cried “wolf” once too many times to get attention and then wasn’t believed when there really was a wolf. Particularly questionable are ones that are partially true, which can have serious consequences. A recent example is the much promoted concept of ordering an Angel Shot if you’re a woman in a bar feeling threatened or unnerved. Bar staff then summon an Uber cab to whisk you to safety — oh the irony of a woman feeling safe in the Uber-verse! While there is some merit in this new form of SOS, it relies on bar staff everywhere knowing the signal and knowing what to do. Being widely publicised also means the perps are likely to have decoded this signal rendering it pointless.

As I said at the beginning, these shares are so very credible and it’s so much easier to hit forward and be done with it, than actually take time our of out of our time poor lives to do a bit of sleuthing first. Particularly when there’s some sort of guilt quotient or not meeting the expectations of friends’ involved in not sharing  In our current reality, many of these fall into the category of fake news, intentionally or not. My sister will kill me for writing this as she’s our family’s expert on not getting fooled and I’m stealing her thunder. (Also, she is a life long and passional fan of The Who and might be annoyed by my hi-jacking the title of one of their greatest hits for the piece.) However, in writing this I’m continuing her crusade with the key message being, ‘help is at hand’. If you’re not sure about something, have a look at one of the fact checking sites like www.snopes.com.

Of course, that assumes that the fact checkers themselves are unbiased in their assessments. When I googled on this point, I came up with a recent cautionary tale in Forbes magazine casting some doubt about Snopes and the processes it uses to make its calls. Snopes is the fact checking site that is partnering with Facebook as its arbitrer of truth, which is a bit of a worry to say the least.

True or false, it really does seems as if a lot of us prefer to awfulise and believe there are horrors lurking round every corner, than check the facts and spoil the story or break the chain! Sadly, it seems we will always get fooled again … because we like being ‘in the know’ and the fake news brigade are past and present masters of playing on our fears, biases and incredulity. As the old saying goes, don’t believe everything you read!

Where have you gone Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby?

Sifting through GoodReads the other day, I came across a section of reviews about a book I loved as a child — Charles Kingsley’s fantasy story The Water-Babies (1863). About half of the reviewers were people like me who remembered this book fondly from childhood. The rest were new to the story. From the comments, it’s clearly very dated and the reviews were mixed to say the least. It was good to see that the magic had remained for quite a few of the second timers and somewhat surprisingly caught the heartstrings of some of the newbies. “A load of smug, moralistic old twaddle,” would be a synthesis of the remainder.

Water-Babies is one of those gloriously stentorian and self-righteous Victorian tales known as a didactic moral fable. It is full of the era’s upper class, Anglican prejudices against just about anyone who did not qualify as “one of us”; Catholics, Irish, Jews, the poor, blacks … even Americans. Because of its now very non-PC attitudes, the book has largely fallen out of favour[1], but it was a mainstay of British children’s literature for decades after its publication. It was one of my childhood favourites and my sister and I listened wide-eyed as our mother read it to us and breathed magic into this story of aquatic adventure full of fantastical creatures.

Semi-satirical in form, the over-arching theme is one of Christian redemption. Kingsley, an Anglican minister, used pertinent character names like Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby to put his points across. Her antithesis was Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid who demonstrated in very tangible ways the consequences of doing bad stuff.  All very hellfire and brimstone! Sitting under this primary theme were several others: the wrongness of child labour, the atrocious treatment in England of the urban poor and also the narrow-minded thinking of many of the scientists of the day. Kingsley was a contemporary of Darwin whose Origin of the Species he somewhat surprisingly (being God-squad) strongly supported.

The plot focuses on a young chimney sweep Tom, who meets upper class girl, Ellie whilst sweeping the chimneys in her house, is chased away for his presumption in talking to her, falls in a river and seemingly drowns. He is then changed into a Water-Baby and begins a journey which serves as a moral education. Ellie becomes a Water-Baby shortly after Tom and joins him on this journey which concludes as he helps his cruel former master Mr Grimes (who is being punished for his mid-deeds, including beating Tom) achieve redemption.  By showing willingness to do ‘right things’ he doesn’t like or want to, Tom earns himself a return ticket to life and human form. Back in the ‘real’ world he becomes a great man of science. He and Ellie (similarly redeemed) are re-united although the book states they never marry. So, the upshot is that they lived sort of happily ever after. Disney would have hated it — no love’s true kiss[2] for this pair!

However, I didn’t start writing with the intention of producing a synopsis or critique of Water-Babies. While the story of the book has faded into little other than fondness in my mind, Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby, left a lasting imprint, and has been something of a guiding light in my life since. The concept of doing as I would be done by has always seemed a very simple aspiration. The question, ‘would I like it if someone did this to me?’ is a sure-fired way of identifying whether an action I’m thinking about is supportable or not. A sort of moral litmus test. I’ve lived my life in the general belief that it doesn’t much matter what you do as long as you don’t hurt others, or yourself, along the way. Having said that, I’m not a saint by any means. I’ve lived a full and varied life. But I do care how my actions affect the people around me and I do my best not to create collateral damage as I skip my merry way through life.

Seriously, it’s been a no-brainer. When I follow the do as you would be done by principle, I feel good. When I don’t, it disturbs me and I feel bad, sometimes even sick. Let me quickly add that you don’t have to be a doormat to do as you would be done by; there are always options and choices which allow us to achieve our own objectives without trashing other people along the way. Of course, doing as you would be done by doesn’t in any way guarantee that other people will do the same.

It often feels that common decency and respect for others have become ‘old hat’. Yet they are the ingredients that make societies civilized. Courtesy and manners are about acknowledging the kindnesses, cleverness and care of the people around us. But they’re also about restraint. About not just saying the first thing that comes to mind. Not responding in kind to other people’s rudeness or anger. Respect allows us freedom of expression without fear, providing there is understanding that rights also come with responsibilities. Respect for the law allows us to live in peace and safety instead of anarchy. Respect for ourselves is a vital part of leading happy fulfilling lives. Respect for others and for our environment also allows families, social groupings, organisations, countries and our much vaunted ‘international community’ to flourish. This respect includes having at least a nodding acquaintance with the concept of a common good instead of the cult of me that has become the bedrock of modern life.

Clearly, respect has to be earned. but if we lose respect for the people and things around us, we cease to care about our world and become uncivilized. Disrespect in the conventional sense is everywhere; noisy neighbours whose booming stereos spoil our weekends, boy racers grinding their gears and revving the hell out of their cars at 2am, people walking five-abreast along a pavement who force you into the gutter … and those are just the tip of the iceberg.

Coming back to Water-Babies, the reviews I read didn’t inspire me to re-read it. I was tempted, but decided to keep my memories as they are. However, I do think it’s a pity that we can’t ignore the bigotry of the time such books were written in and take the eternal currency of their messages on board. The world would be a better place if more people embraced the do as you would be done by creed so individuals start being nicer and less self-obsessed people who understand that working towards the greater good is, in fact, good.

Footnotes:

[1] Despite several recent attempts to find redemption for the book itself — a 2013 update for BBC 4 brought the tale to a newer age with Tom having been trafficked from Nigeria as a child labourer — it’s attitudes don’t resonate with the sensitivities of contemporary audiences (well at least some of them … step away from the ‘Trump bashing moment’).

[2] As a totally useless piece of trivia, Kingsley is credited with inventing the word ‘cuddles’ which first appeared in Water-Babies.