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.

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.