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 bit 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 believe 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. 

I’m sorry, you’re not equal!

I read an on-the-money article in the NY Times after the womens’ marches on 21 January. Another one of those ‘I wish I’d said that’ scenarios. Apparently a post had been doing the rounds on social media along the lines of “I’m am not a disgrace to women because I don’t support the march … I do not feel I am a second class citizen because I am a woman … “

Dina Leygerman’s piece was a blistering masterpiece of yeah right! Although it was largely a blast at American women in the American context, it resonated strongly with me because truth is truth wherever you are. Dina took no hostages in rebutting the idea that we’re equal — ‘wrapped in your delusion of equality’ — citing statistics about abuse, objectification, unequal pay and opportunities to back up her commentary. She also listed many of the American giants on whose shoulders we’ve stood to be able to make our own choices, speak and be heard, vote, work, control our bodies, and defend ourselves and our families.

Co-incidentally I went to a funeral last week that was celebrating the life of Dame Laurie Salas, one of New Zealand’s own giants who fought tirelessly for human rights, gender equality, nuclear disarmament and peace throughout her long life. I didn’t know Dame Laurie. I sing in the same choir that one of her daughters does, and this daughter put out an all points bulleting asking if any of the choir would be able to sing at her mother’s funeral. Being your own boss does have some real advantages like not having to get permission for such things, so I said yes, not knowing anything about her mother. Just seemed like a good thing to do. And it was a good decision as it turned out. As I listened to her family and the other speakers sharing their memories of her incredible life, I was humbled and inspired by Dame Laurie’s story. In addition to being a life member of the National Council for Women, a past President and honorary member of the United Nations Association of New Zealand amongst many others she also raised six children who clearly adored her, as did her friends and colleagues from cabinet ministers to women in refuges.

What I found particularly uplifting was that Dame Laurie did not come across as a firebrand. She was passionately committed, but measured and articulate and convincing. She mentored many younger women and seemingly lived the change she wanted to see. Sounded like she really exemplified the ‘love trumps hate’ message that is so important in the current climate.

NYT’s Dina mentioned New Zealand in despatches — we apparently have the smallest gender gap in wages at 5.6%. Good to see, but not quite true. NZ’s Ministry for Women put this at 12% in 2016 and I don’t’ think it would have dropped that much in less than a year. However you calculate the number it’s still much worse in the States at 20%. But the fact that we have a gap at all is still an outrage!

For sure in NZ, we’re not the worst when it comes to gender equality. After all, we were the first country in 1893 where women got the vote — thank you Kate Shepherd and your indomitable peers, the ‘first wave’ feminists. We’ll be celebrating the 125th Anniversary of this ground-breaking event next year. Sounds good huh? But women still couldn’t stand for Parliament until 1919 and the first female Member of Parliament wasn’t actually elected until 1933, 40 years later. And, the number of female MPs didn’t reach double figures until the mid-1980s and we’re still under-represented in parliament. We’ve had a couple of female prime ministers — homage to Jenny Shipley (1997-1999) and Helen Clark (1999-2008) — for doing what Hilary Clinton couldn’t and breaking the ultimate glass ceiling here.

Unlike so many other places in the world where women are still little more than chattels, we enjoy the protection afforded through a strong statutory framework giving us full and equal rights and we have a small but effective Ministry for Women. New Zealand is an active participant in annual international meetings focused on the advancement of women and maintains a strong and consistent voice for women’s rights and advancement globally. Our Government is (allegedly) committed to ensuring all women have the opportunity to realise their strengths and achieve social and economic success.

Still sounds good? Keep reading …

  • The female unemployment rate is still higher than the male
  • As noted above, the pay gap remains
  • We do far more unpaid work than men — 63% to 35%.
  • We are still strongly at the mercy of the men in our lives:
    • 1 in 3 women experience physical and/or sexual violence from a partner in their lifetime
    • 76 per cent of recorded assaults against females are committed by an offender that is identified as family.
    • In the four years from 2009 to 2012, 76% of intimate partner violence-related deaths were perpetrated by men, 24% women.

Clearly we still have a long way to go and we’re moving backwards not forward! The World Economic Forum ranks countries annually in its Global Gender Gap Index based on health, education, economic and political indicators. NZ has consistently ranked in the top 10, but recently we dropped to 13. We do some things well — in education for example 61% of tertiary graduates are women. But that’s cold comfort really when you graduate with an equal qualification to your male peers only to likely get paid less when you enter the workforce!

There are many reasons behind this, but topping the list according to people who should be in the know (that I know) appear to be that our current government (nearing the end of its second term) is not pro-active and we don’t have a national plan for moving towards gender equality, despite a lot of rhetoric to the contrary. But there’s also the complacency thing that Dina was railing against and it’s apparent everywhere. All too often women are accepting the endemic, perhaps often subconscious (being generous) sexism that’s ‘always on’ when you cut to the chase. So many entrenched attitudes and subtle or not so subtle put downs remain despite all the progress.

There are compelling arguments for gender equality — and yes, it’s about more than just women’s rights. It’s about ALL people having the same opportunities. World Bank research shows a positive correlation between economies with greater equality and economic performance. Dow Jones has found successful venture-backed start-ups have more than double the median proportion of female executives than failed startups and it’s recognised that companies with gender-diverse boards make more money. Countries with the best gender equality have lower rates of violence against women. In New Zealand itself, it’s estimated that we could add 10% to our GDP annually if we maximised the working potential of all our women. A 2014 report estimated the cost of NZ’s family violence at $4.1 billion — we only have a total population of just over 4m, so that’s a staggering number per capita — and it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Imagine what we could do with all that money otherwise!

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been an individualist with a profound and deeply held belief that the playing field should be even for all. Throughout my (now quite long) career I’ve tilted hard at any glass ceiling in sight and supported other women in my orbit to do the same. I’ve been on the receiving end of significant and often highly depressing prejudice — so damaging to one’s sense of adequacy, acceptance and self-belief. Many women have chosen to distance themselves from feminism because of the often unappealing stereotypes involved.

But to me, feminism is not something any female can detach from. I’m with Maya Angelou, “I’m a feminist. I’ve been a female for a long time now. I’d be stupid not to be on my own side.” Feminism doesn’t have to come with hairy legs and no lippie — that’s simply a choice. The non negotiable is that we cannot be complacent now or ever. After all, feminism is only the radical notion that women are human beings (Cheris Kramarae). In any case, who would go back to what we had even 40 years ago?

Dina Leygerman finished her article, ‘Open your eyes. Open them wide. Because I’m here to tell you, along with millions of other women that you are not equal. Our equality is an illusion. A feel-good sleight of hand. A trick of the mind. I’m sorry to tell you, but you are not equal. And neither are your daughters.”

As Hilary Clinton rightly said, “I believe the rights of women and girls is the unfinished business of the 21st century.” I echo that sentiment wholeheartedly… let’s stand on the shoulders of giants like Dame Laurie Salas and get the job done!

Sealed with a loving kiss

Be still my beating heart … Valentine’s Day is upon us again! Whatever our feelings about this annual opportunity to worship at the shrine of the Gods of Love, there’s no denying the continued mass appeal of Valentine’s Day.

While strewing rose petals in the path of one’s beloved and other similarly romantic gestures have been part of the deal in the West for many years, it seems that Valentine’s Day (or VD as I will call it from this point as I can’t resist the childish glee in doing so) fever is now infecting people in places like China and India. A real triumph of cross border cultural exchange I’m sure you’ll agree! But then, we’ve survived years of ‘made in China’ tat, so I guess there is some justice. In any case, after Mao’s tenderly crafted Cultural Revolution, VD might perhaps fill some gaping void in the Chinese national psyche that the Latter Day Communists have been unable to do.

In the land of Bollywood and Bling, it’s not difficult to imagine VD going down a storm there after all those Monsoon Weddings, although it is hard to credit the possibility that India could have room for a festival in its already crowded calendar.

But hey India, China or Timbuktu, romance is romance and we all know that VD is highly contagious. I have no doubt that the World Health Organisation will soon cotton on to its pandemic status and start pouring billions that could otherwise be usefully spent finding ways to feed all those Slumdogs and Chinese who haven’t managed to yet become elevated to the ranks of middle-classdom into developing a vaccine against it and spoiling all the fun.

In a fit of mild curiosity (pique could be a more accurate way of describing it) last VD, I decided to do a bit of research to find out where it all began … and whether I could name, shame and blame anyone. So I surfed the net for a while in a sort of cursory way in order to achieve some superficial understanding of the subject and frankly ended up little the wiser.

Theories abound; some think VD is celebrated on 14 February because it is the Saint’s Day of at least two early Christians called Valentine, who seem to have been indistinguishable from each other. Others believe that VD has nothing to do with any Saint Valentine. Rather, it is thought to be a lovers’ festival related to either the Roman fertility festival of the Lupercalia on February 15 or the start of the mating season of birds. With me so far?

Verses and Valentine’s Greetings appear to have been popular from the Middle Ages when lovers said or sang their greetings to the objects of their passion. Written Valentine Cards began to appear after 1400. Paper Valentine’s cards were commonly exchanged in Europe and were especially popular in England. Incidentally, this means that we can’t blame VD on the Americans as I had thought. They don’t get let off the hook entirely though — while the ‘Poms’ can take the credit for the first cards, the ‘Yanks’ are clearly responsible for taking them to the cultural heights we now enjoy! ZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

Whatever! In case you hadn’t clocked it, academic research isn’t really my thing, so if you want more clarity get Googeling, there’s more information than even the most enthusiastic of Mastermind candidates could soak up.

Love it or hate it, there can be few people who are entirely immune. Who don’t experience a mild frisson and a momentary intake of breath at the sight of a courier bearing a luscious bouquet in the direction of their desk, images of secret admirers flicking through their mind at the speed of a Rolodex in the hands of an experienced networker? Then the inevitable lurch of disappointment as said courier bears the fragrant floral trophy inexorably onwards to another desk. Be still my beating heart indeed.

Happy Valentine’s Day!