Saturday 26 January 2013

The arrogance of youth

I’m still thinking about Oscar Wilde, in particular his comments on the destructive nature of moralizing.  In his prose and literary characters Wilde frequently remarks on the temptation and danger of putting ourselves above another, of thinking ourselves more worthy, of being so cocky about our good character that we interpret events and others harshly, claiming the moral high ground to sometimes play judge and jury.  Of course Wilde packages such themes in colour and humour so audiences find it hysterical.  Yet for all the laughter, the message is a serious one.

The moralizing that Wilde explores in his work is a proud and mean response to disapproval; an ungenerous view of people or actions which don’t fit with our perception of ‘how things should be’.  It is essentially a cold and narrow response to weakness or difference - born from feelings such as discomfort, inadequacy, envy, fear and hatred.

As I’ve said before, David Hare expresses these ideas powerfully in The Judas Kiss.  They are made dramatically effective by the use of Christ as a parallel figure who was widely loved one minute, then shunned the next.  And it is the suddenness of the swing which drives home the cruelty of unforgiving and judgemental behaviour.

Reading further about Wilde, I began to wonder if his ferocious need to ‘live his life his own way’ played into this potential for resentment… if his inability to be anything other than an artist, to strive to be true to his talent and spirit, provoked jealousy in those who found compromise and traditional structure more respectable than self-expression? 

I also wondered if Wilde’s independence and determination to ‘be himself’ was interpreted too readily as arrogance, when what it might have been was honesty and courage?  Of course there is room in any man for both - primary drives of honourable dimension, coupled with elements of imperfection – but such is the tendency to label a man by his fault rather than his strengths that one can imagine how a life lived above the parapet could make for such a target.

Wilde stood apart for good reason.  For many of the qualities which led to misfortune, we remember him still; which is more than we can say for most. 

Nevertheless I’m sure in his youth Wilde (and for that matter Boise) was arrogant.  His gifts gave him reason.  Yet when we all look back on our lives, it’d be rare not to be able to identify occasions when we conducted ourselves with the classic arrogance of youth – the cockiness that we already know everything, that we know better than the previous generation, that our needs and views of the world are pre-eminent.   Can’t we all see that in our past?  Before maturity (hopefully) allowed us to be less zealous and more compassionate?

On the whole I think people in their mid to late 20s (certainly my friends in London and Italy) are more mature than I was at their age.  The world encourages kids to grow up so much sooner now.   So the blindness or ‘arrogance of youth’ of which I speak is perhaps more in evidence with teenagers and early 20s.   Yet at whatever age a person ‘looks back’ they are bound to be reminded of some things which make them cringe.

A couple of examples in my life come to mind.  One time I was rude to a friend of my father’s.  I admired this man immeasurably because my father was deeply fond of him and because he was a professional singer who gave me encouragement to pursue that path.  So, with the black and white vision of youth, I was appalled when I discovered he had been unfaithful to his wife; that he had in fact a long-term girlfriend.  The pedestal I had him on came crashing down, and the next time he arrived at our front door I let my displeasure be known.   

Well, if I didn’t half get a bollicking from my Dad!  “How dare you sit in judgement on a man three times your age”, he said to me sotto voce in the kitchen… “how dare you be rude to a friend of mine in my house”… “until you have lived a little more you won’t understand that things are not all black and white… and Please God you will come to have more compassion… but right now you will go back in there and you will apologise for your bad behaviour”.   He was dead right of course.  I was given the seeds of an important lesson that day and, by showing respect, I managed to repair and preserve the friendship.  I remain grateful too that my Dad challenged me to grow beyond the narrow confines of presumed ‘right and wrong’ and consider the big picture.

Regrettably, however, it took several more mistakes before I took the lesson on board more deeply.  A few years later, while still young enough to not be afraid of what could go wrong, I travelled the world for a year without a companion or the security of email or mobile phones.  I arrived in Ireland where I spent my time drinking Guinness, joining musical jams, hitchhiking and researching our family’s Irish roots.  In one small town on the Shannon I was staying in the home of people I had discovered might be long distant relatives (such is the warmth of the Irish), but who later turned out to be less related than another family with the same name who lived on a farm out of town.  That’s another story… but one Saturday night I went off to Mass with this lovely bunch of people before adjourning for a few pints in the local pub (as you do).  There I sat in high-dungeon pontificating on the fact that the Priest, as I saw it, was unfit to be on the altar.  Ok, he had clearly been drinking.  Ok, he repeatedly burped on the altar like Homer Simpson does after too much Duff Beer.  Ok, some of his antics were so ‘out there’ that I honestly expected to find a Monty Python film crew hidden in the vestry.  And when he lay down on the floor of the altar at one point for a little snooze… I kid you not… I looked around the church in horror that the congregation were so patient and passive.  Outraged I was, that they weren’t more outraged.  So in the pub I went on at length about the need to write to the Bishop and do something about this ‘disrespect’ as I saw it.  Well, if they didn’t just look at me and shake their heads.  “Ah, that’s just Father O’Reilly” they said in a lyrical brogue (a name invented here for the purpose).  “Oh, he’s troubled.  We must just let him be the poor soul.”  Incapable I was, at the time, of seeing grey in the argument… of seeing that it wasn’t necessarily laziness which led to this resignation but admirable compassion. 

A month or so later I found myself back in England having lunch at a friend of my parents where I told the man of the house the story, fully expecting this dentist (don’t ask me why I remember this detail when I can not for the life of me remember his name) to be as morally affronted as I was by an alcoholic priest failing in his duty.  Well, if he didn’t give me a bollicking!  He told me it wasn’t my place to waltz into a country and pass judgement.  He told me I should feel kinder towards someone who was clearly struggling, and an array of other sensible things.  He put some perspective into the situation, as my father had often done, and because of such example, because of the boundaries I was given in which to grow to adulthood, in which to modify the natural zealousness of youth, I became a better person. 

Over the years I’ve often wondered what happened to that priest or that parish?  And thank God, before I sent a letter to the Bishop, I learned to pray for him rather than accuse him. 

It is important for elders to set an example, to guide and to coax the best out of society’s most energetic reservoir.

But, with such lessons behind me, ultimately I can do nothing other than forgive the arrogance of youth when I encounter it – for a feeling of invincibility is the charming flipside… something we all wish we could possess forever. 



Thursday 24 January 2013

The Judas Kiss

I am not a critic.  What I write is commentary.  Stories about the way the arts, life, love and London touch me. 

Consequently I want to say I was so deeply affected by The Judas Kiss at the Duke of York’s Theatre last week that it has stayed with me.  Images and quotes run repeatedly through my mind, and I’m left with not just a memory of an incredible night in the theatre (directed and designed by two Aussies, Neil Armfield and Dale Ferguson)… but a mingled sense of gratitude and sadness that the world still celebrates the great intellect and wit of Oscar Wilde while continuing to tolerate the hypocrisy and bigotry which led to his downfall. 

The play, and the life upon which it is based, is so rich in talent and resonance that you are drawn into a world where your mind and heart are utterly transfixed.  You feel every morsel of love and longing between Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas, Robert Ross, and his absent children and wife, Constance… you ache at the prospect that Ross cannot protect his great friend from the selfish ambitions of the beautiful but spoilt boy known as Bosie… and you wonder endlessly as to why why why Wilde allowed himself to be used as an instrument in a public family brawl when, as a man and artist, he possessed more intellectual rigour and compassion in his little finger than the majority of the Douglas family or the Marquis of Queensbury put together.
Your experience in the theatre is profoundly sad and profoundly satisfying.  You will laugh and you will cry in equal measure. You will be entertained but uncomfortable about the rough pairing of wit and betrayal.  And you will be challenged to reflect on the world in which we live – on the power and privilege of wealth and class; on the sacrificial tendencies of love; on the nature of trust…

Of course Wilde would not be particularly surprised by this cruel state of affairs – and I refer to judgemental intolerance over matters beginning but scarcely ending with homosexuality – for his gift and his scourge was that he could truly see, articulate and lampoon human frailties from the amusing peccadillo to the tragically destructive. In this Wilde has been fairly compared to Shakespeare, though it would seem the Irishman didn’t share the Bard’s instincts for self-preservation or political manoeuvring.  The insightful contemporary playwright, David Hare, suggests the artist he greatly admired was ultimately damned by his own sharp sense of truth and honour, his inability to run and hide, an innate willingness to trust the people he loved, and a gift of vision and human understanding which, brutally, allowed him to see too clearly what was most likely coming his way so that he was pressed to the ground with weighty fatalism.

In Neil Armfield’s impeccable production (transferred to the West End from the Hampstead Theatre, after a production by Armfield at Belvoir Street in Sydney), Rupert Everett gives us an emotional but resigned Oscar Wilde, waiting for his arrest at the Cadogan Hotel, then waiting to be abandoned in Naples by the man for whom he gave up everything.  And the element which creates the most poignancy is Wilde’s dignity – dignity and intellectual power in the face of financial, physical and emotional ruin, in the face of betrayal and unenlightened denial, even in spite of the cruellest blow of all… the loss of his literary voice… the silencing of him as a writer.  As portrayed by Everett this dignity and poise is so admirable yet heartbreaking, that the audience must suppress a collective urge to jump on stage and strangle Boise for sneaking into his pocket the last two quid from the sideboard.  We want revenge - to turn back time and reinstate Oscar Wilde to his rightful place in a more respectful and tolerant world. 

Some might feel Wilde’s lack of action or fight against his decline makes him too passive to be sympathetic.  Some have little patience for the (seeming) contradiction between his robust frankness and a reluctance to publically declare his sexual preferences.  Some might have liked Everett to vary the tone of his performance on occasion so that the glittering and light-hearted aspects of Wilde’s sartorial mirth were brought more to mind – raising the trajectory, if you like, on the arc through which he’ll fall.  Some remain uncomfortable about Everett’s polemical off-stage views about gay fatherhood.

Yet such is Hare’s brilliance - and the perfectly balanced presentation of an array of social dynamics by a cast and creative team without a single weak link - that instead of stocking minor criticisms audiences are pressed to take on board concepts which can never be over-pondered: who are the friends in our lives who we can trust to stand by us in a storm?; can we reconcile ourselves to the prospect of betrayal because when one loves with a whole heart that is inevitably the risk?; at what point does love make a fool of us?; can a severe loss of trust be salvaged?; do we allow ‘holier-than-thou’ attitudes to distort our view of the actions and character of others?; are we comfortable with a society who insists upon penance and conformity as well as punishment?; and how often, in large and small ways, individually and collectively, do we control or condemn others because they simply want to live their life a different way?    

Wilde made the English upper classes uncomfortable about their foibles.  They enjoyed his diversions and smiled at his wit, they socialised with him such that on the surface all appeared well, but they never really thought of him as an equal for at core they were affronted by his freedom, flamboyance and bohemian sensibilities.  So when opportunity arose for them to go after him, the agenda and vehemence was poisoned and enlarged by previous resentment.  It gets one thinking: how often do one’s secret complaints feed into present arguments?  How often do earlier judgements distort one’s ability to assess fairly?  How often does society punish a person, a company, a government, a media organisation for sins which it decides should have been punished earlier?   There is good reason for the law known as Double Jeopardy but in the to and fro of our daily lives how often do we keep a person on trial for the same offence - harbouring anger or jealousies until there is a better opportunity to give them free reign?

When seen from this viewpoint it is nothing short of vicious.  For, it isn’t just politics and 'the establishment' which sent Oscar Wilde down, it is human imperfection and moralistic intolerance.   These questions and more are posed during The Judas Kiss.  And I challenge anyone in the house not to be deeply moved when Boise steps up to Oscar to give a farewell kiss on the cheek.  It is then we realise Wilde has been trapped in the Garden of Gethsemane and that only now will he be released – albeit from one torment to another.  He pads across the room, weakened by two years in prison and the pain of exile, poverty and ignominy, and with a clarity which makes the audience, if not Boise, ache for forgiveness, he tells the man he has loved like no other: (I paraphrase) that really Christ should have received the kiss not from Judas, but from the disciple he dearly loved, from young John, for in that there was the ultimate betrayal. 

We can hurt those who have loved and trusted us most.  In that there is great responsibility.




Wednesday 16 January 2013

The land down under

I adored it when ‘Men At Work’ sang I come from the land down under… at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics.  We got treated that night, too, by an all-singing-all-dancing ensemble with Kylie Minogue performing Dancing Queen, and a fabulous set by ‘Midnight Oil’.  Everyone in the stadium was on their feet and you’d have to have been dead not to enjoy it.

I think Australia’s more rugged than wild or dangerous, but the map and quotes below sent by a mate this week made me giggle. 

(Sorry about the Steve Irwin and Dannii Minogue digs… probably tall-poppy syndrome.)

The set of questions and answers accompanying the map were (apparently) posted on real Australian Tourism Websites.  They are reputed to be the actual responses by officials with a good sense of humour or low tolerance for the drastically ill-informed…

Q: Does it ever get windy in Australia? I have never seen it rain on TV, how do the plants grow? (from the UK)
A: We import all plants fully grown and then just sit around watching them die.

Q: Will I be able to see kangaroos in the street? (from the USA)
A: Depends how much you've been drinking.

Q: I want to walk from Perth to Sydney - can I follow the railroad tracks? (from Sweden)
A: Sure, it's only three thousand miles, take lots of water.

Q: Are there any ATMs (cash machines) in Australia ? Can you send me a list of them in Brisbane, Cairns, Townsville and Hervey Bay? (from the UK)
A: What did your last slave die of?

Q: Can you give me some information about hippo racing in Australia? (from the USA)
A:  Af-ri-ca is the big triangle shaped continent south of Europe.  Aust-ra-li-a is that big island in the middle of the Pacific which does not... Oh forget it. Sure, the hippo racing is every Tuesday night in Kings Cross. Come naked.

Q: Which direction is North in Australia? (from the USA)
A: Face south and then turn 180 degrees. Contact us when you get here and we'll send the rest of the directions.

Q: Can I bring cutlery into Australia? (from the UK)
A: Why? Just use your fingers like we do....

Q: Can you send me the Vienna Boys' Choir schedule? (from the USA)
A: Aust-ri-a is that quaint little country bordering Ger-man-y, which is… Oh forget it. Sure, the Vienna Boys Choir plays every Tuesday night in Kings Cross, straight after the hippo races. Come naked.

Q: Can I wear high heels in Australia? (from the UK)
A: You are a British politician, right?

Q: Are there supermarkets in Sydney and is milk available all year round? (from Germany)
A: No, we are a peaceful civilization of vegan hunter/gatherers. Milk is illegal.

Q: Please send a list of all doctors in Australia who can dispense rattlesnake serum. (from the USA)
A: Rattlesnakes live in A-mer-i-ca which is where YOU come from.  All Australian snakes are perfectly harmless, can be safely handled and make good pets.

Q: I have a question about a famous animal in Australia, but I forget its name. It's a kind of bear and lives in trees. (from the USA)
A: It's called a Drop Bear. They are so called because they drop out of Gum trees and eat the brains of anyone walking underneath them.  You can scare them off by spraying yourself with human urine before you go out walking.

Q: I have developed a new product that is the fountain of youth. Can you tell me where I can sell it in Australia? (from the USA)
A: Anywhere significant numbers of Americans gather.

Q: Do you celebrate Christmas in Australia? (from France)
A: Only at Christmas.

Q: Will I be able to speak English most places I go? (from the USA)
A: Yes, but you'll have to learn it first.

If they did reply this way you couldn’t blame them, could you?

Near the height of my fifteen minutes of fame from Neighbours (but after I’d stopped receiving direct income from it) I remember being asked by a mob of hyperventilating fans in London “OMG, OMG what are you doing on the tube?”
“Oh, well, my helicopter is in for repairs” I replied, expecting to be teased in return.

“Right” they said nodding their heads knowingly… until one bemused admirer added “but why didn’t you take a limo instead?”

I wish.  Sometimes ignorance is bliss.  

I come from a land down under
Where women glow and men plunder
Can't you hear, can't you hear the thunder
You better run, you better take cover…

Classic Aussie talent: 

New Aussie talent:


Tuesday 8 January 2013


The British phenomenon known as Pantomime has evolved since it took shape in the early eighteenth century.  Remarkably, it has also stayed much the same. 

With seeds in Italian Commedia Dell'Arte and European entertainments known as Harlequinades, Pantomime as we know it developed from a rich reservoir of British Music Hall.  Pantomime typically has musical variety, re-worked song lyrics, rhyming verse, sketches and slapstick comedy.  It is based on traditional fairytales and is renowned for stock characters: the good and bad fairy or villain; Principal Boy and the romantic interest (usually a prince and princess); classic comic characters; and the dearly-loved, elaborately costumed, cross-dressing Pantomime Dame. 

Famous people have always been hired to perform in Pantomime, though it’s a modern development to hire reality-television stars and people who’ve never been near a stage before such as Gladiators and sporting celebrities.  The ‘novelty factor’, however, is not new.  I remember being shocked when told I was sharing billing at the Theatre Royal in Bath (for Sleeping Beauty) with Sooty…  but since learning of the affection in which the little puppet is held, and the Victorian habit of including novelty artists from "jugglers and clowns to conjurers, giants and dwarfs", I feel privileged to have had the experience.

For generations Pantomime has been a terrific training ground for children and young talent; the juveniles or babes as they are known.  In most venues today you simply couldn’t have the large choruses if the local dance school (and loads of parents) didn’t enthusiastically co-operate.  Moreover as Pantomime is frequently the first theatre experience for UK children, it is an important vehicle for audience development and the fostering of fascination with live performance.

One of the earliest homes for Pantomime in London was Sadler’s Wells. The famous actor, comedian and clown, Joseph Grimaldi, made an art form of Variety and Pantomime in the early nineteenth century, but there was a long break before the Christmas of 1994 when Pantomime returned to Sadler’s Wells with a traditional (aka pure) Victorian production of Babes in the Wood written and directed by an expert in the field, Roy Hudd. I was thrilled to be cast as Maid Marion in his production (having actually auditioned, as opposed to receiving an offer due exclusively to TV fame), and to work alongside Roy and the peerless Jack Tripp as Dame. Show after show I watched the charming and talented Mr Tripp from the wings, never ceasing to be amazed at the incisiveness of his wit and the immaculate perfection of his comic timing. He was a consummate professional and a delight on stage and off. And he did me the great honour of regularly complimenting me on my singing and stagecraft, at a time when British actors, understandably, were critical of the use of Australian soap stars in cases where individuals lacked stage skills. Other principals included: the brilliant Keith Barron (as Sheriff of Nottingham); a cheeky Geoffrey Hughes (as ‘Orful Onslow) providing light relief in rapid banter with the inimitable Roy Hudd (as ‘Orrible ‘Uddy); the angel-voiced Lisa Hull (as Robin Hood); Howard Leader (as Friar Tuck); Roy Hilton as MD; some novelty from the violinist, Gary Lovini; and the nicest choreographer in the world, Stee Billingsley. I’m sad we’ve lost Jack and Geoffrey to the great theatre in the sky, but such was the positive spirit of this excellent production that, despite time and geography, I am still friends with several members of the ensemble and crew; especially Tim Reed and Sarah Jayne Russell. There’s no doubt in my mind that, as a first experience of London theatre – on the same stage, I might add, as my father had sung in a 1960s production of Arthur Benjamin's Tale of Two Cities - I was incredibly fortunate.

I remember, too, riding in the back of an open-topped sports car, meandering through the streets of Mayfair and Piccadilly on route to turn on the Oxford St Christmas lights. Sitting beside me in the car were the gorgeous babes - beautiful boys and girls who clung to me with love and followed me backstage with utter fascination. I would really like to know what happened to little Adam Coleman, as he and I were especially close, but I adored them all, roughly aged between five and ten, and hated saying goodbye when the show closed.

Two of those precious babes happened to be Scarlett and Summer Strallen - carefully chaperoned by their friendly parents Sandy Strallen and Cherida Langford, and accompanied in chorus numbers by their tiny sister, Zizi. (Or was it Saskia?) 
Now given I’ve been living in Italy and dating younger men - that’s just how it goes over there, so after a while one is left in willing-denial about one’s age - I was both thrilled and horrified to arrive in London in 2012 to find Scarlett starring in Singing In The Rain and Summer in Top Hat.  Can they really have grown up that much?!   At any rate, there’s no doubt they are beautiful, talented and well trained and I felt strangely proud to see their names on the billboard.  

The reason these details have come back to me with such clarity, is because on the weekend I travelled to Weymouth to see Jack and the Beanstalk.  An old mate from drama school was playing the bad fairy, Flesh Creep, in a new production by Magic Beans Productions.  Lynne ate the part up as you’d expect from someone with a solid theatre background and more than a dozen pantomime’s under her belt, proving fame from a soap opera (in Lynne’s case, as Irene in Home and Away) doesn’t necessarily mean a performer isn’t versatile or dynamic.  

I enjoyed, too, the pretty and sweet-voiced Anna Kumble as Fairy Fabulous, Andy Abraham as King Crumble, Paul Laurence Thomas as Simple Simon, and another seasoned cross-dresser, Danny Mills as Dame Trott.  I expected to be dismayed by the inexperience of the romantic leads – Tom Reilly as Jack, and Alexia Collard as Princess Apricott – because media reports declared they’d won a competition to land their first professional gig.  Yet it just goes to show one shouldn’t be snobbish, as they acquitted themselves well in their roles; especially Tom who has a strong voice and maintained a centred presence despite tempting provocation by the comedians.  

The writer, director and producer, Jamie Alexander Wilson, delivered a finely crafted new script with well-placed old gags and resilient new ones.  It cracked along at a good pace, admirably supported by a small but clever band with a talented young musician called Sam Hall at the helm.  The three sets of dancers and babes, choreographed by Kerry Turner and led as dance captain by a busy Sophie Shearer, were also suitably engaging.  The sets and costumes were simple but attractive; there was an impressively large giant; a long-lashed, cute cow; and a colourful and ebullient finale.  All in all, Jack and the Beanstalk was loaded with classic ingredients, shaken and stirred with modern sensibilities and traditional sentimentality.  Jamie and his coproducers Russell Ludwin, Simon Cossons, Jill Wilson and Chris Cantrelle, clearly care enough about pantomime to invest in their productions, artistically and commercially, and for this they deserve to be commended – particularly when consensus is that Weymouth Pavilion has not been well attended in recent years. 

In fact when I heard the local council is considering pulling down the Pavilion, I felt sad not only for the potential loss of a regional venue but because the attitude contrasts so strikingly with evidence around town of support for the Olympic sailing events.  Is it a case of favouring sport over the arts?  Is it a case of irrelevance by neglect?  Is this item of discussion really on the table because of capital costs and government cut-backs… or are the difficulties exacerbated due to a misguided (or non-existent) business plan? 

When it comes to local councils there is certainly pressure from all sorts of lobby groups, but often the problem is a lack of real understanding about the business nature of the arts or a failure to take a long-term view.  By way of example: even on Weymouth’s pretty waterfront, the yellow ‘igloo’ built to display sand sculptures in July and August 2012 has been left abandoned since the athletes and international visitors left town.  The marketing sign left inside the space is so pathetically out of date I couldn’t help but wonder whose job it was to have followed up?    

At any rate, the pressing questions include:

Do the citizens of Weymouth want another car park?  Or, like the citizens of Blackpool, would they prefer to add value rather than smog and congestion to their lives? 

Do the people of Weymouth believe encouragement and experience of the arts is important for a healthy community to flourish? 

Do they want a theatre for home-grown and visiting productions, as well as a space to focus and foster cultural expression and education?  

If the answer to these questions is yes then, as Liz Hill, the Managing Editor of Arts Professional, suggests, they must be sufficiently clear-sighted, committed and organised to craft a campaign which is effective and sustainable on multiple levels.  They must raise their voices above the indifferent fray.   

For one thing is sure, if they do nothing, when it comes next time to hear “he’s behind you”… it won’t be a ghost, it’ll be a bulldozer. 




For more information see or the Facebook group Save Weymouth Pavilion  


Sunday 6 January 2013

Good Deeds. Good Cheer.

Like most on the planet I have a number of New Year resolutions.  One of them is to devote a little bit of time every day to reading something inspirational.  My goal is to reawaken, refocus my spiritual and philosophical life.  I found this incredibly natural and easy in Tuscany, living as I was amongst splendidly beautiful scenery, but in cement laden London it can be challenging. 

I’ve decided, too, that on days when I can’t put my hands easily on something suitably reflective, I will create ten minutes of quiet, ten minutes of stillness to empty out the yucky stuff and fill up with good stuff.  In not so many words a loved teacher, Sr Beverly Zimmerman, gave me this advice a squillion years ago, but I didn’t understand its importance.  Yet the older I get, and having experienced in Italy the increase it brings to my inner peace, the wiser and more generous her counsel seems; particularly for someone with high energy. 

Of course it’s not rocket science, Buddhists give a tremendous example of peace through meditation.  Anyone with a prayer-life will tell you the prerequisite for feeling the presence of God (or sensing the universe’s greater powers if that’s more your persuasion) is to be still.  Yet for a ‘doer’ and ‘talker’ such as myself, days or weeks can pass before I realise I’ve been constantly on the move.  The rhythmic repetition of jogging, singing or playing piano helps – it also provides good endorphins - but spiritually it isn’t enough because it isn’t conscious stillness. 

With this in mind the first days of January brought me to reflections such as these: 

“Your mind is a garden. Your thoughts are the seeds.  You can grow flowers or you can grow weeds.”  

Pop-psychology or spiritual wisdom the message is the same:

“We need to be transformed by the renewal of our minds because this impacts the way we think and speak”. 

This writer went on to say “may our thinking and speech become an instrument in the Lord’s hands…”.  I rather like the suggestion of a divine conductor - the idea we can be steered in subtle ways to that which is better for us and those around us – if that is, we hand over the baton.  Yet those with a more independent spirituality tend to think the correlation is direct - positive thoughts inevitably attracting positive actions and good karma.  Both work for me. 

I am determined, anyway, to make 2013 a good year.  So for times when events threaten to throw me off course, I particularly like this passage:

“Refuse to be downcast.  Refuse to be checked in your upward climb.” 

I like it so much I might print it out and stick it on the fridge! 

Unlike phrases such as “live and let live” or “don’t rain on my parade”… ok in themselves but limited… the concept “refuse to be downcast” empowers!  It challenges us to bring ourselves to a state of mind where provocations can’t tempt us to fall into negativity or despondency.  I’m susceptible to a ‘call to action’ so that probably explains why I like it, but whatever means by which we can feel empowered and peaceful is, I think, valid. 

My readings include work from poets and philosophers, but this week they are so consistently bringing me back to God I can only embrace it.  Another quote I’ve pondered upon is “Cast thy burden upon Me and I will sustain thee”.  Easier said than done, I admit, but genuinely comforting when we can believe it.  And this was followed by a challenge to the reader with: “How many burdens can you lighten this year?  How many hearts can you cheer?”

That pulled me up. For the deal is He’ll give comfort but you must spread it around.

Then I saw in the Guardian an article about a woman who tried every day for a year to do a good deed.  Immediately it struck a chord.  I felt I was meant to read it; not least because I’ve thought a lot about the difference in the atmosphere in London during the Olympics and since.  If you haven’t already, you might like to read my August blogs The Games Maker Legacy or Volunteer Spirit.  But my friend Lynne McGranger (who happens to be best known as Irene in Home and Away) described the ebullient atmosphere of Sydney during the Olympics as “like suddenly living in Camelot”.  London was the same, delightfully friendly and welcoming.

So every time I heard the media talk about “lasting legacies from London 2012” I wanted to write to Mayor Boris to say: how about introducing a Be Kind Day… a day in the calendar where everyone goes out of their way to be friendly and nice… where we find conscious ways to do something extra or helpful for someone else.  Perhaps it should be a spontaneous act of kindness to a stranger?  Or a planned, intentional thing that benefits someone we know?  Perhaps it needs to be a week of kindness, to give us all an opportunity to get over the line?  But you get the point. 

I know it’s only the 6th January, so no prizes, but with inspiration from Judith O'Reilly and these new year reflections, I’ve been experimenting.  Each day as I walk down the street I look around to see if anyone needs help.  Two days ago I found an upper-middle-aged lady in the supermarket leaning strangely onto the dairy counter and madly coughing.  For a moment I was utterly grossed out by the fact that she wasn’t covering her mouth with her hand… yyyyeeewwww… thank God cheese is wrapped or there’d be an epidemic…  but after fighting the instinct to walk away, I turned back to ask if she was ok.  It turned out she has chronic back-pain which all kinds of treatment have not improved, and a spasm had taken hold of her so she looked for the closest thing to lean on.  Immediately I thought of a friend in north-east London who once crawled, literally, up the street to hospital in severe pain after collapsing during exercise, with no-one offering to help or ask about her welfare.  I had been appalled when she described the episode, incredulous actually, but with self-disdain I realised this woman’s seemingly ‘strange’ behaviour had quite nearly made me act in the same dismissive way.  Ok, that woman didn’t need an ambulance as my friend had done, but the phrase ‘walking in someone else’s shoes’ really is something we should think about more often.

Later when I was waiting in line at the check-out, the same lady appeared behind me.  We chatted for a while and she told me various things about her condition.  It was clear she sought to lighten her load, as women in particular do, simply by sharing it; by feeling a little acknowledged and validated.  And I was reminded how isolating illness can be for people, physical or mental. 

Also isolating, and intensely sharp, is grief and heart-break.  Loss can cripple a person, the intense stress of it rendering them incapable of fresh responses or objectivity.  Every one of us deserves empathy and support when we are in the grip of it but, more often than we’ll ever know, millions stagger on without sufficient support, barely making it through, carrying heavy scars, and, sometimes, permanently losing functionality, hope and whole-heartedness.  It isn’t incompatible to acknowledge the pain in the world while still seeing ‘the glass half full’.  The Sisters of Charity I visited on Christmas Day know this from the tips of their toes to the tops of their heads, God Bless ‘em.  Nurturing and caring for the addicted and homeless, they are living examples that Hope is the beginning and end of life… that Hope is intrinsic to Love. 

So as 2013 kicks off, I want to thank all the people who have been kind to me when they might not have needed to be.  I want to thank all the people who scooped me up in a good deed or a loving act.  I want to thank many for their generosity and friendship.  I want to forgive (or at least begin to forgive) the people who have hurt me deliberately or negligently.  And, one day at a time, I want to strive to be that little bit better, kinder, happier, and more peaceful this year than I was last year.

After all, with or without a Be Kind Day, isn’t that what all of us want?




2)       A Year of Doing Good by Judith O’Reilly is published by Viking Penguin