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.

The malice of a good thing is the barb that makes it stick!

Don’t you just love Alec Baldwin’s oh-so-close to the knuckle portrayal of Donald Trump in Saturday Night Live? Last week’s show offered up a short-term (no-one mention multi-term) future in 2018 with the US facing an alien invasion force from the planet Zorblatt 9. The ‘skit’ featured Baldwin/Trump visiting a military base with the irrepressible ‘POTUS’ trumpeting (sorry couldn’t resist it) inspiration to the troops via a classic piece of tawdry trumpery (aka a speech). If that weren’t enough to keep us rolling in the aisles, guest host Scarlett Johanssen did a total number on ‘First Daughter’ Ivanka Trump in a spoof commercial promoting a new perfume, Complicit. Genius!

I read a report a while ago that laughing at other people is very good for us. Not WITH you understand, AT. Who knew? To be honest, I think we all did, but there’s nothing like a report to add legitimacy to what the world, his wife and dog already know! Anyway, turns out there is a fair body of scientific (and not-so-scientific) evidence that advocates the healing power of laughter. In fact, help is even available through the counseling services of ‘laughologists’ and ‘laugh therapists’ … yes really … try Googling them! That laughter is good for us is hard to argue with as a premise. Seems more like a statement of the bleeding obvious as it is, after all, “such fun” (thank you Miranda).

In terms of laughing at, rather than with, I’m thinking all those TV shows where people submit their home video ‘funnies’ in order to win what seems like a small amount of dollars in relation to the humiliation quotient involved. Then there are the formulaic Wipeouts and Fear Factors where we can voyeuristically enjoy other people making complete prats of themselves. And talking of prats, we do love our ‘prat falls’ don’t we? If you think you’re made of better stuff, cast your mind back to any episode of the above mentioned Miranda and consider whether you were able to keep a straight face as she literally went arse over tit in front of Gary, the man she so desperately wanted to impress.

Prat falls are a reminder that random shit happens, and to anyone. A queen can just as easily slide on a banana skin as a commoner, or a president trip on an uneven path and do a spectacular head plant in front of the world’s media. And the more celebrated the faller, the funnier it actually is. The Germans call it schadenfreude or pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.

But there’s a darker truth running through all this mirth. Since ancient times, writers have understood the potential for laughter to undermine authority and fuel regime change. The use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or send up to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices —the medium known as satire — has long been used to shape opinion. At its best, it is extremely witty and often very funny, although the subject matter can be deadly serious. While making its point by entertaining, it holds human, societal or individual vices up to censure through ridicule. To succeed, its subject must be widely known.

For more than a decade between 1984 and 1996 Spitting Image, the hugely successful television programme starring latex puppets of celebrities and politicians, wowed people with the accuracy and malevolence of its send ups. No cow was sacred. Targets included the British Royal Family and Ronald and Nancy Reagan who starred in a spoof drama, The President’s Brain is Missing. Then there was Margaret Thatcher and her Cabinet of Vegetables. Besotted, with Reagan she (the puppet) became progressively more demented as the series went on. Underlying the humour were hard-hitting social and political commentaries about what opponents saw as the harsh realities of Thatcherism. This portrayal may even have contributed to ‘The Iron Lady’s’ ultimate fall. Go Baldwin, McKinnon and the other Saturday Night Livers — on this basis, if you keep up the good work, you might achieve the same result with Trump!

Satire played an important role in the fight for the basic rights and freedoms that the Western world now takes for granted. But its golden age was the period from the end of the seventeenth century to the mid-nineteenth, a time of enormous social change in Europe as industrialisation transformed how people lived and worked and how societies were organised. From the pens of the great novelists of the era came biting attacks on social wrongs, corruption and moral lassitude; Charles Dickens took on the atrocious conditions suffered by the growing urban working class; Jane Austen shone a spotlight on the plight of women; Jonathan Swift savaged the corruptness of the political establishment and William Thackeray and Anthony Trollope skewered the double whammies of class and privilege. Other leading satirists from this period include Moliere, Ben Johnson, John Dryden, Alexander Pope and George Meredith.

The title of this blog post is taken from the play School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751 – 1816), the archetypal ‘comedy of manners’.  First staged in 1777 in London, School for Scandal is a social satire that portrays English high society as being mired in gossip, calumny and sexual intrigue. The intention of the piece was to highlight the lack of honor, lax morality, and superficiality of the idle rich, whose primary pastime is jockeying for advancement by destroying the reputations of their peers. Sheridan used exaggeration, clever language, rapier-smart dialogue and telling character names (Ladies Sneerwell and Candour for example) to send up their frailty and folly de grandeur.

During this golden period, cartoon and caricature also came into their own as compelling additions to the satirical toolbox. In eighteenth century England, the etchings of William Hogarth such as Gin Lane, showing the horrific effects of gin abuse by the urban poor, were a powerful protest against prevailing social conditions. In France in the following century, Honoré Daumier created some of the finest political caricatures for the magazine La Charivari during the 1830s. Henri Toulouse Lautrec, at the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, continued this graphic tradition of social satire in his depictions of Parisian society.

While Daumier was creating for La Charivari until censorship drew its sting, in England Henry Mayhew established Punch Magazine in 1841. It began as a democratic weekly, regularly featuring harsh depictions of Queen Victoria and her family, particularly the foreign Prince Albert who was deeply unpopular with the British public. It later became an upper class weekly whose readers enjoyed seeing their own foibles, and those of their servants, tradesmen and recognizable types like social climbers, being exposed. Vanity Fair was launched in competition in 1868. Both publications aimed at a public “in the know”, people who enjoyed the send-up of famous figures and types in every strata of life. Publications of this sort sprang up throughout Western Europe and were forceful channels for molding public opinion. The editorial cartoons in all our current newspapers continue this tradition.

To achieve their goals, satirists often knowingly risk reprisals. The genius of good satire has always been in the cleverness of the disguise. In masking the individuals or issues in question and avoiding libel whilst still ensuring the audience is in no doubt who or what the subject is. Roman poets Horace (65 – 8 BC) and Juvenal (active in late 1st and ealy 2nd centuries AD) went to extreme lengths to stay on the right side of their political masters in their work. In Medieval times jesters or fools provided a mechanism to filter unpalatable issues and opinions to the monarch through the parody of court politics and personalities. They trod a very fine line between mockery and treason. Getting this balance wrong could result in a short, and very unfunny, step to the gallows. Voltaire, one of the greatest of the Enlightenment’s writers and philosophers, famous for his wit and advocacy of civil liberties including freedom of religion, freedom of expression, free trade and the separation of church and state, was an outspoken supporter of social reform. His work and ideas influenced the key movers behind both the American and French Revolutions. In an era of harsh penalties for the breaking of censorship laws, Voltaire was an occasional visitor to the Bastille prison in Paris, as was his compatriot Daumier.

That was an age when the entire fabric of society underwent the seismic shift from a predominantly rural agrarian economy to an urban, manufacturing one. The Industrial Revolution saw huge numbers migrating to cities where they — particularly women and children — lived and worked in shocking conditions. Without any effective legislation, abuses by employers went largely unchecked. Archaic laws, perpetuated by absolutist monarchies and aristocratic and ecclesiastic dominated governments, protected the interests of the old order and put a premium on property in preference to people. Growing disenchantment saw electoral reform become a burning issue at a time when the right to vote was extremely limited and based entirely on property ownership. War between the old elite and a rising new liberal order was inevitable. The bloody French Revolution that erupted in 1789 attempted to create a lasting republic based on the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity was the most extreme example of the winds of change moving throughout Europe at the time. Satire was a brutal weapon used by both sides in this struggle.

Our current Technological Revolution has opened up a new set of social challenges not least being the replacement of growing numbers of jobs with automation, particularly in the manufacturing sector. Many people feel disenfranchised and bewildered by the scale, scope and rapidity of change and how they can assimilate into this brave new world. The rich seemingly get richer while the poor get poorer. We liberals have been well intentioned in our struggle for gender and social equity. But the road to Hell is, of course, paved with good intentions. Our intellectual elitist approach to addressing social issues is at odds with the feelings of the people everywhere that Hilary Clinton disastrously dubbed ‘deplorables’ in the US, who feel patronised and misunderstood. All of this laid the foundations for the all the unthinkable ‘events’  last year — Brexit, Trump, the rise and rise of the ‘alt-right’, the future of European liberal democracy, Putin and his monumental megalomania. It feels as if political insanity is the new black, with Trump in the vanguard, seemingly intent on reversing all the incredible advances in global stability and basic human rights. That is not to say that that things don’t need to change. They do;  conventional thinking and mores are failing us. We need new social models and better ways to prepare our children to live happy, successful lives in a very different future to the one we (Boomers) inherited.

BUT, we can change without losing our humanity. Without trashing the aspirations enshrined in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights which committed all member states to “promote universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”. While this declaration is just that — aspirational — it’s language remains potent and it’s incredible that these aspirations have so suddenly come under fire. But every cloud has a silver lining. Maybe the current silver lining takes the form of a wake up call to identify and defend what we believe in. If that hasn’t yet extended to manning the barricades, people in droves have been grabbing the placards and marching to protest their indignation at the assault on these values and the lack of concern for our world and ALL its people.

Censorship of the press has been an all-too-frequent counter measure by which the establishment or ruling classes have historically gagged reformers and enforced control when pressure-valves looked like blowing. A disturbing parallel between Trump and his ‘fake news is the enemy of the people’ mantra wouldn’t you say? Satire is a powerful weapon that the liberal media is already using to great effect. In this strangest of strange times it is likely to again play a central role in keeping the metaphorical vandals from our gates. I count myself lucky to have lived in a time and place where I’ve been able to enjoy freedom of speech and expression. I’m unlikely to face any sanctions for writing this opinion piece. But it scares me to see the media, whose role is to serve up truth no matter how unpalatable, being vilified — it’s a slippery slope from this to censorship and repression. In the ‘post truth’ world of ‘alternative facts’ and outright lying, we risk that there won’t be actually any need for formal gagging orders and persecution that past writers face. We may simply lose the ability to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not and whoever shouts loudest will carry the day.

According to an article in NY Times this week, “traditional television, a medium considered so last century, has seen audiences drift away for the better part of a decade. Now, rattled liberals are surging back, seeking catharsis, solidarity and relief. The old analog favorites are in, with comfort-food franchises like “ Saturday Night Live” drawing its highest Nielsen numbers in 24 years. Despite a dizzying array of new media choices, viewers are opting for television’s mass gathering spots, seeking the kind of shared experience that can validate and reassure.”

The article argues that television offers people a sense that “we’re in this together” and that others are “equally outraged”. This bonding is not limited to the US. If the world is truly a global village, then we all bleed when the leader of  the Western alliance vents his spleen on Twitter and appears to believe, like Hitler, that if you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed. So I say to Baldwin, McKinnon, Johanssen and your ilk; I salute your activism. Keep it coming. Send up the sexism and stentorian stupidities. Ridicule the ridiculous. Make mockery of the monstrous. Lampoon the liars. Use your wit and your waggishness to protect us from the posturing, puffery and purile prattling. As Leonard Cohen so famously said, “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Find the crack. Let the light in. Keep us honest, free, truthful and on the side of the angels.

Where’s the ‘honour’ in killing?

A few years ago I wrote a novelette — shorter than a novella and longer than a short story — about Anne Boleyn’s last days. Recently I read something that caused me to dust off this minor opus and look at it through a slightly different lens; not just as the story of one wronged woman, but as a story that is part of a deeper context of all wronged women.

Anne Boleyn’s story has always moved me. The Anger of Princes is Death was an attempt to imagine how this extraordinary woman’s last days and hours might have unfolded. What on earth would go through your mind as you walk towards a scaffold where a swordsman is waiting to hack your head from your body? You are an anointed queen and you have sworn before God you are innocent of the charges against you. Your trial was a trumped up farce — you weren’t even allowed the right to defend yourself. Most of your friends and family have deserted you. In many cases they even testified against you. A man who once loved you with a passion that caused him to move heaven and earth to marry you signed your death warrant and is now waiting eagerly for the cannon fire that will tell him he’s free to marry his new love. Your adored brother and some of your dearest friends — cited as your lovers —have already been tried and killed.

It must surely have been a gruesome vigil waiting for your date with death. Then finally, the last short but seemingly interminable walk from The Queen’s Apartments in the Tower of London to the scaffold. A walk not of shame as your enemies saw it, but of turbulent emotions — a desperate wish to cling to life mixed with a profound longing for the ordeal to be over. And yet, witnesses say Anne Boleyn took those last few steps to her death with dignity and self-control, and without protest against the system that had condemned her.

Many contemporaries saw Anne’s execution as the cynical killing of a woman, who was ‘past her sell-by-date’ and who’d become an inconvenient nuisance to Henry VIII, a view point most historians now agree with. Every time I think about it, I’m disturbed all over again. It’s not as if I knew her or she were my friend or even a friend of a friend. It’s nearly five centuries since this drama unfolded, but her ghost haunts me because of the circumstances and the overwhelming feeling of injustice involved.

It has to be said that Royal Courts, such as that of Henry VIII were notoriously visceral. Power and wealth were there for the taking through service to the monarch, but much pride went before many falls for people who over-reached. Anne Boleyn’s dazzling rise and spectacular plummet is just one example. While the other beheading of a queen of Henry’s, Katherine Howard, his fourth wife and Anne’s first cousin, is still a repulsive act, there isn’t the same sense of injustice because the evidence of adultery is very compelling. Few at the time or since really questioned her guilt. She was a foolish girl and paid a very high price for her folly. While one can argue a whole bunch of things about the wrongness of any form of death penalty, by the norms of the day, she was likely guilty of a capital offence.

Anne Boleyn however, was anything but a foolish girl. She was a spirited woman of the Renaissance. Talented, well educated and intellectually curious, Anne is credited with playing a significant part in the Reformation of the Church in England through her friendship with and advocacy of some of its leading figures and her influence on Henry VIII. It is likely the worst she was actually guilty of was over-arching ambition, arrogance and the inability to produce a male heir for her mercurial and often cruel husband. It seems Henry did convince himself somewhat conveniently that the charges against her were true and while he expressed outrage at her betrayal, the reality seems to be that he had fallen out of love with her and Anne’s execution opened up the possibility of his marriage to someone else who could legitimately bear him heirs.

There are few monarchs or rulers in history that can match the beguiling awfulness of Henry VIII who cemented the House of Tudor on the English throne after the Wars of the Roses (1455-1487). His reign became notorious for his break with the Church of Rome in order to marry Anne Boleyn, after which he made himself head of the Church in England and dissolved the abbeys, significantly enriching his exchequer. Under his watch came the Reformation which caused deep religious divisions in the country and a growing pile of corpses belonging to the many people who didn’t agree with him, most famously Thomas More, his one time friend. And then there were his celebrated marital excesses. The sheer theatricality of the six wives, two of whom were careless enough to end up without their heads, retains a morbid fascination that often eclipses the much more significant events that were taking place.

My interest in history goes as far back as can remember. But as a kid, the concept of history was little more than a parade of kings, queens, princes and princesses and my friends and I fixated on the ‘gory’ bits. Henry VIII provided endless grist to our imaginative little mills. We used to recite the old “divorced (Catherine of Aragon) … beheaded (Anne Boleyn) … died (Jane Seymour) … divorced (Anne of Cleves) … beheaded (Katherine Howard) … survived (Catherine Parr)” mnemonic in primary school to remember their order. Technically of course, divorce is incorrect as the marriages were annulled, but that was too complicated for children playing Henry VIII and his wives in a school playground! Even as a child it was easy to feel that the last wife, Catherine Parr, had a lucky escape when Henry died and she could marry her true love, Thomas Seymour. But Anne Boleyn was always the romantic heroine of the piece and we all fought to be the one to play her.

But I digress. Through the ages, most royal and noble women have been considered and treated as little more than chattels. They moved from the domination of their father to that of their husband and often they had no or little say in whom that would be. Their principle duties were to be virgins at the time of the marriage, reproduce as often as possible, remaining faithful till death so there could be no question about the legitimacy of their children. For the wives of kings, adultery was treasonous and generally carried the death penalty. Very Game of Thrones! (George RR Martin apparently drew his inspiration from the Wars of The Roses.)

But looking at Anne Boleyn’s treatment through my different lens, I see shades of what we now call ‘honour killing’. This is defined as the killing of a family member by other members of the family, due to their belief that the victim has brought shame or dishonor upon the family or has violated the principles of a community or religion. One of the most common ‘crimes against honour’ is of course adultery, although there are many others. In Anne’s case, mirroring that of so many other women before and since, alleged charges — if you exclude the testimony of a young musician gained under torture — were all that were needed to convict her.

The concept of killing adulterous wives and unchaste daughters has a long and inglorious history and is by no means limited to practitioners of fundamental religions. Some examples include The Lex Julia de Adulteris Coercendis enacted by Caesar Augustus which gave the Roman pater familias the right, as a point of honour, to kill his unmarried sexually active daughters or his adulterous wife. Aztec and Inca societies apparently punished adultery by death. In France, the Napoleonic Code of 1810 made it legal for husbands to murder unfaithful wives and partners, but wives did not have the same right in respect of adulterous husbands. Scarily, this law wasn’t formally repealed until 1975 although it’s hard to imagine any court by then condoning such murders! The Napoleonic Code inspired similar legislation in some of the Middle Eastern countries where France’s influence was strong. Throughout Mediterranean Europe the concept of familial and community honour was a way of life and defined the lives, customs and values of many peoples — the Sicilian Mafia being just one example.

What’s so insidious about honour killing is the whole vicious cycle: the killers often take pride or self-righteous justification in their actions, the community leaders protect the killers and the authorities connive the cover up. While it isn’t only women that are killed for honour, women are its main victims. Apparently, instances of this barbaric practice are on the rise. It’s unconscionable in this day and age that, all over the world, women from all walks of life, irrespective of class, ethnicity or religious background are treated as the property of the men with the power of life and death over them. You don’t even have to be a prince for your anger to mean death!

Clearly writing a short story about a long-dead queen does nothing to change this. But re-reading my story, reminded me of the on-going need to speak up against inequality wherever it occurs, particularly when it’s based on outdated and frankly ridiculous concepts of masculine honour and pride. Death is just the most extreme outcome for such women in a world where life is not fair and there is no justice to be had.

If you’d like to read my small, but perfectly formed novellette, The Anger of Princes is Death, it’s available as a kindle book on Amazon.