Thursday, 9 November 2017

Advent Invitation

A year ago today the Americans elected a new president – what a lot has happened since then. I don’t think anyone could describe Trump’s first twelve months as “dull” – new laws (many now mired in dispute or which needed amending), Trump has signed over 40 bills, promises have been made but not yet delivered, scandals in the White House and beyond, no sign of a wall but less people are trying to cross into America from Mexico, and a constant flow of gasp-inspiring tweets. 

The USA is not alone in having complex political problems: here in the UK we have had resignations from two Cabinet ministers within the past week and a weak government (since the misguided decision earlier in the year to call an election in the hope of cementing a Conservative majority), sexual harassment and abuse testaments/allegations are rife and we seem to be making slow progress in negotiating Brexit. 

Saudi Arabia is in the midst of an investigation into top-level corruption. Europe has its own issues; following elections there are still no formal governments in the Netherlands or Germany and there is social unrest and economic concern in many areas across the region.

In the past twelve months there have been many terrible events, including:

  • the terrorist bombing at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, on May 22nd;
  • the repeated testing of missiles by North Korea and a mounting crisis that could be devastating for us all;
  • the on-going wars in Syria, Yemen, Iraq;
  • the Nangarhar airstrike in Afghanistan, when the U.S. dropped the world’s largest non-nuclear weapon on an ISIL base;
  • humanitarian issues in Miramar and Yemen;
  • rioting and deaths in Kenya;
  • floods in South Asia killing over 1,000 people;
  • Hurricane Harvey caused mayhem and death in August, followed by Hurricanes Irma and Maria – that devastated the Caribbean;
  • the rising tensions between America and Russia;
  • the horrific earthquake in Mexico in September, killing 369 people;
  • Las Vegas shooting in October;
  • the vast truck bomb in Somalia;
  • terrorist attacks using vehicles as weapons in Israel, Sweden, France, Canada, America, the UK and Spain;
  • 76% decline over 27 years in flying insects according to German scientists; and
  • the list goes on

For many it feels as though we live in dark times.

However, all is not bleak. In 2017 there have been many amazing scientific breakthroughs and discoveries, including final proof of gravitational waves, which validates Einstein’s theory of general relativity; hugh strides in gene comprehension with scientists in Portland successfully editing out a heart condition from a human embryo; metallic hydrogen has been created for the first time which could enable better technology through a more efficient superconductor; regenerative medicine (where we are able to grow new organs and human tissue in a lab) is now becoming probable - scientists at Wake Forest have found ways of speeding up the process, in the future it may even be possible to grow a limb; Google's Deep Mind is making extraordinary strides within AI with technology now able to navigate complex environments and learn from itself; new species of animals and plants have been discovered including a luminous frog, a new species of orangutan and a pistol shrimp that makes such a noise it has been named Synalpheus pinkfloydi; 

a therapy has been discovered in the Netherlands that reverses aging in mice; a spider's venom has been discovered to potentially halt stoke damage; after much searching a new antibiotic may have been found in the mucus secreted by an Indian frog; more than 450 Stonehenge like formations have been found in Brazil that may shed light on our past; an eighth continent has been found, beneath New Zealand, in the south Pacific and may be named Zealandia; there are so many new discoveries and breakthroughs that the future undoubtedly looks exciting.

So, to the point - why don't you do your bit by adding to people's knowledge, But, some things do not change – The Advent Blogs Series will be published again this year and I am both delighted an honoured to be the host. However, I cannot do it without your help…

By way of an explanation to those who are new - traditional Advent calendar windows start being opened from the 1st of December, with a new surprise being revealed daily. The Advent Blog series is the same, in that a new post is published each day. However, despite being called the Advent Blog series, these blogs are not a religious countdown and the series is not limited to just 24 posts. In recent years the contributions have continued well into the New Year, with people contributing posts from around the world and from a mixture of backgrounds and outlooks. All authors are welcome. I remain indebted to Alison Chisnell for founding the series back in 2011; it is a credit to her and all the contributors’ enthusiasm that the Advent Blogs have now become a much-loved annual tradition.

Last year’s series, under the heading of “Heights, Hearts and Hollows” was amazing, with people commenting on a range of personal highs and lows, as well as individual family reminiscences and topical observations. This year’s theme is “Darkness and Dawn”. I hope at least one or both of these will resonate and inspire you to compose a piece to be included for the pleasure of all who follow and read the series.

So, what is the story that you want to share this year? What dark times have you endured, what new exciting projects have you been involved in?

Perhaps you find the warm hug of darkness a source of comfort

and find the view of the future disturbing, waking you into action like a terrifying alarm clock.

The Wake Up Machine - invented by Simone Giertz, an alarm clock with slapping rubber arm

What light have you shed over the past 12 months?

Has someone else helped open your eyes to a new way of being?

What are you aiming to achieve next year, what do you want to be different or better?

For me, one of the best things about the Advent Blog series is that people use it as a place to be themselves – open, honest, no sales or spin, just a global group of individuals, from diverse backgrounds, doing something together, simply for the pleasure of doing so and for each other. Each contribution is unique – every submission makes its own personal impact, and as a whole they create an extraordinary series.

If you would like to be part of it, please get in touch with me via the comments section below, on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or by any means that you can find to track me down. I’d love to hear what you’ve got to say.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

I Spy

I am on vacation with my family in Croatia. Last night we were about to head into Zagreb to find something to eat, and my husband and I were waiting by the hotel reception for our sons to join us. Seeing us there, the helpful receptionist asked me what time we would like breakfast in the morning and whether we wanted a cooked “full English” or a “continental”. I sent a text to the boys asking what they wanted and messages passed to and fro for a while, with me informing the receptionist of their requests, until my eldest typed that he could hear the relayed discussion, as he was seated just out of sight in an alcove. This prompted me to say aloud that, given that he could hear the conversation, it would make better sense for him to come and join the discussion rather than our continuing to SMS each other.  

A delightful Canadian lady standing nearby burst into laughter at this and commented that she had teenage sons and so understood.

At breakfast this morning (without the boys as they had overslept), we found the Canadian couple seated at a table near us and so we exchanged pleasantries and then fell into conversation. They are both voice-over specialists – he an actor and she runs an agency (which is how they first met). He specialises in cartoon voices (it’s not every day that you speak to a rock star of the animated boulder variety). We chatted about the day being the anniversary of Bambi’s initial release in the UK (back on 8th August 1942) 

and that the voice of Bambi had been provided by a chap called Donnie Dunagan, who later went into the US Marines. Throughout his distinguished military career Mr. Dunagan never told a soul about what he had done as a child – it is only now that he is comfortable speaking out – perhaps it was this discussion that triggered my thoughts about people’s perceptions and hence the theme of this post.

Returning to the breakfast discussions – the couple explained that this was their first trip abroad without their sons. They had come to Europe to celebrate her 60th – he had arranged for them to assist at the 20th World Body Painting Festival in Austria, which was held in late July – body painting being an art form that they both appreciate. 

The Ship - a contestant in the 2017 WBP Festival
They were responsible for calming contestants prior to judging and making sure that things ran smoothly behind the scenes – certainly a memorable way of commemorating a milestone birthday. 

A finalist in the 2017 Festival competition
Body painting is an extraordinary art form so transient in itself, although photos remain once the paint and brushwork has been washed away. As a modern art form it has its roots in the 1960s with Veruschka (AKA Vera Lehdorff) being viewed by many as the godmother of the modern movement. 

Body painting, which entails disguising or transforming a model through paint, is a laborious process usually taking over eight hours for the finished artwork to be completed and at least 40 minutes to photograph. 

2017 Festival finalist
It is usually an illusion, transforming a person into something else, but also a way of expressing or making the viewer react, observe and/or think in a different way. 

We covered many topics during breakfast (art, world affairs, politics, travel and parenting), and then moved on to careers. I really liked his tale of how the husband embarked on his career as a voice-over specialist and gained his influential professional mentor and so I will share it here…

voice-over microphone
Being gifted as a mimic and able to produce a range of sounds and voices, he knew from when he was a child that he wanted to be an actor and do voice-overs. Aged 16 he wrote to Paul Frees, who was recognised as being the leading expert in the field and even today is known as the “Man of a Thousand Voices”. He drafted a letter to him “Dear Mr Frees, I am writing because I wish to become a voice-over specialist…” then crossed this out and, on the same sheet of paper wrote “ This is an important letter, Dear secretary or assistant to Mr Frees, I appreciate that you probably receive and have to respond to many letters such as this. I admire Mr Frees work and wondered whether he would be prepared to offer some advice…” , he then scored this too out on the page and underneath commenced writing again “Dear Cleaner, thank you for un-crushing this ball of crumpled waste paper you have found in the trash. It was a letter to Mr Frees seeking his advice and guidance, but he is a busy man…” He then popped the letter in an envelope and posted it to Paul Frees in California. Frees wrote back saying “the cleaner gave me your letter…” Frees asked for a demo tape and said that if it was good he would try to help him but that if it was not up to the required standard he would not respond. Frees liked the tape and a friendship was formed with Frees acting as a mentor and valued advisor until his death in 1986. The impact of the letter composed by an ambitious 16 year old just goes to show how important first impressions can be.

After breakfast we bid our farewells – the Canadian couple to continue their post-Festival tour of Eastern Europe, while I and my family decided to visit the Museum of Illusions here in Zagreb. There were no transformational body paintings, although there were a number of trompe l’oeil and other mind-baffling illusions. I enjoyed the Ames room, which tricks the viewer into believing that two people apparently standing in adjacent corners of a room are respectively a lanky giant and a fat midget – as demonstrated in this picture of my son and me.

I have seen this used to great effect in theatrical shows – most recently at the excellent immersive show, Alice’s Adventures Underground, in London. Appearances are important, but perhaps not as important as knowing who you are, as Alice says to the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland:

''I can't explain myself, I'm afraid, sir' said Alice, 'because I'm not myself, you see.''

This leads me to a point made by Edward de Bono, when he was interviewed in the Guardian back in 2007 (it is an article worth reading in full):

“Studies have shown that 90% of error in thinking is due to error in perception. If you can change your perception you can change your emotion and this can lead to new ideas.”

I must confess that I rather wish that both President Trump and Kim Jong-Un would consider donning different hats (as recommended by de Bono); escalating aggression seldom resolves conflict and the current bellicose threatening of ‘fire and fury” does not seem to me to be likely to result in a positive outcome for any of us. But then, it all comes down to perception.

Monday, 22 May 2017

An intake of breath

I’m in the grip of nervous anticipation; this week I will have my first conversation with Chantelle, an enterprising young woman and entrepreneur, based in South Africa, who, whilst studying to become a clinical psychologist, has found the time to establish a charity, Educating Athletes, which seeks to support aspiring athletes from disadvantaged backgrounds through their secondary education, by providing financial, academic and emotional assistance. Chantelle and I have been paired through the Queen’s Young Leaders Programme, with whom I have been a mentor since the Programme was established. The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust, in partnership with Comic Relief and the Royal Commonwealth Society, created the Queen’s Young Leaders Programme in honour of The Queen’s 60 years of service to the Commonwealth, with the goal of helping the next generation to achieve their aspirations.

Chantelle will be my third Queen’s Young Leaders mentee and I can’t wait to get to know her. I hope in some small ways I can help her achieve her goals. I find it immensely rewarding being a mentor; I learn so much from the people to whom I am introduced, not just about them, their challenges, visions and hopes, but also I gain an insight into myself, and a better appreciation of what I value. The Young Leaders really are inspirational – they blow new energy and insights into me, and the others who come into contact with them. (The etymology of “inspirational” comes from the Latin “spirare” meaning “to breathe” and was originally used to refer to a divine or supernatural being imparting a deep truth or idea – each of the Leaders I have met to date is driven by strong personal values and a vision of what they hope to achieve).

If you are interested in mentoring an extraordinary young person, and, by doing so, helping them to make the world a better place, then contact Frances Brown, the Education and Mentoring Director for the Programme. She is based at Cambridge University, in the UK and her email is Over the course of its five-year life span, the Programme aims to discover, celebrate and support young people from every Commonwealth nation to transform their own lives and the lives of others around them. I have had the good fortune to mentor Edmund, who is based in Kenya and has founded a thriving charity, the Xavier Project, that is now functioning in a number of countries, it provides support to refugees and their families; and a young lady, Seini, who works as a volunteer in Papua New Guinea and champions equality for women and the necessity of learning from past generations so as to reduce the negative impact of decisions that we make and the actions we take now.

In some ways, Seini’s vision is the theme of the ballet I went to see on Saturday night - Ghost Dances, performed by Rambert at Sadler’s Wells

Ghost Dances was inspired by the moving book written by Joan Jara, the widow of the Chilean teacher, theatre director and folk singer, Victor Jara, who was kidnapped and then murdered shortly after General Pinochet’s brutal coup in 1973. Joan wrote her heart-rending record of events in Victor: An Unfinished Song, it describes the rise and then loss of this inspirational and creative man.

Victor Jara
Her words have moved others into confronting the horrors of oppression and have inspired many to strive for a compassionate and more humane world. Chile suffered a period of intense and ruthless repression following the coup, an estimated 35,000 civilians were put to death and thousands more imprisoned and tortured. Ghost Dances was last performed at Sadler’s Wells 14 years ago, which is where I first saw it. The memory of that performance has stuck with me as if it was yesterday. Each time I have seen the ballet I have been reduced to tears. I remain appalled by the horrific manner in which we treat our fellow man – we seem incapable of learning from our past - look at the ghastly bombing in Manchester this week, the ongoing war in Syria, terrorism in Nigeria, Sudan and Mexico, the list feels endless. We will only change the world for the better if we take personal responsibility and inspire others to do the same.

Some who disappeared in Chile during Pinochet coup
picture taken during demonstration in Santiago on 40th anniversary of coup.

So, what makes a person inspirational?

Do people who inspire have to have overcome something in order to make an impact on others? Probably not, but they do need to demonstrate bravery, hence the phrase “having the courage of their convictions”. Most of the inspirational people I have known have willingly walked a different path from those around them and have not been afraid to buck the trend. My grandmother has been a major source of inspiration for me (and still is, despite no longer being here to act as my mentor) – she was born the illegitimate daughter of a housemaid in rural southwest Scotland. Through her own drive and determination she studied hard, qualified as a nurse, emigrated, married an engineer (who was involved in pioneering exploration in the Middle East) and she herself became a significant influence in the region and in London on their return. Her husband died when she was still young, but she raised two children – both of whom became notable people – my father was the Attorney General of Hong Kong, he is an exceptional lawyer and remains a Bencher of Middle Temple, and his sister married my father’s best friend from Cambridge and became the wife of the Lord Mayor of London as well as a champion of charitable causes. Humble roots need not hold you back if you have values, drive and determination. My grandmother was very popular with my father’s friends - her flat became a haven, a place where they could study and debate topics of interest. She always encouraged people to think, to believe in themselves and to act with integrity. Every day I think of her (and miss her) but her spirit and lessons, in how to live life well, remain with me.

My grandmother

Inspirational people clearly care – and are usually driven by a greater cause, rather than their own self-aggrandisement.

They have an understanding of their environment and are aware and appreciative of others, but they are also self-aware and comfortable in their own skin. Empathy and authenticity – both are needed to carry people with you.

Most of the inspirational people I have met have been humble and very grateful for the opportunities they have had – be that an education or the ability to mix with and help others and/or the assistance others have given to them – they seldom seem to appreciate that people give to them and support them in their cause because of who they are and what they do.

A person cannot be inspirational through fine words alone – they need to “walk their talk”. I know that I will never be inspirational because, all too often, I fail to follow my own advice, when I should be leading by example. For example, I work stupid hours instead of spending time with precious loved-ones. I’m not aware of anyone when on their deathbeds saying: “Thank goodness I finished that extra spread sheet” – in the modern workplace it is all too easy to get sucked into the morass of demands and timelines and thereby lose sight of what’s important.

Working late - by TULP
Most inspirational people are surprisingly pragmatic and well-grounded – they know their goals, but are willing to adapt the path and pace in order to ensure that they get there. They seldom take themselves too seriously as they know that the praise and accolades (when they come) are for what they do and not just for who they are. In ancient Rome a victorious General was permitted to process in Triumph in a four-horse chariot through the streets, wearing a laurel crown and a toga of imperial purple. For that day he was viewed as above other mortals and near divine. However, he was required to conduct himself with dignified humility - a slave would travel with, standing behind him in the chariot, whispering reminders of his mortality to help him escape hubris. The Ancient Greeks and Romans even had specific goddesses who enacted retribution against people who succumbed to hubris – in the ancient Greek religion it was Nemesis and in Roman times, Invidia.

A panel from a Roman sarcophagus showing the Triumph of Marcus Aurelius
Capitoline Museum, Rome

Truly inspirational people do not engender envy in others, instead they encourage people to become the best they can be.

Inspirational people seem to breathe encouragement and confidence to do the right thing into those around them. No wonder I am waiting to speak with Chantelle with bated breath and a degree of nervous anticipation. It is nearing my time to inhale.

"Breathe" - Pink Floyd

Breathe, breathe in the air
Don't be afraid to care
Leave but don't leave me
Look around and choose your own ground

For long you live and high you fly
And smiles you'll give and tears you'll cry
And all you touch and all you see
Is all your life will ever be

Run, rabbit, run
Dig that hole, forget the sun,
And when at last the work is done
Don't sit down, it's time to dig another one

For long you live and high you fly
But only if you ride the tide
And balanced on the biggest wave
You race toward an early grave.