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Tuesday 29 September 2009

What Makes A Classic?

What makes a 'classic'? Is it something that is timeless - a book, a work of art, a piece of music - that has eternal appeal because it speaks to the soul? Or is it something that appeals to nostalgia? Or is it something that is decided on the spur of the moment by one critic, or a group of critics according to their view of the world at that time?

For the past several decades, some songs have been viewed as classics and whether it be for the power of the lyrics and music or simple for the era they evoke remains unclear. Some of them are so powerful to me still (Ultravox's fabulous 'Vienna', for example, or Kate Bush's incredible 'Wuthering Heights') even though the lyrics of some of them seem quite senseless to me now and nothing more than a perfect expression of self-indulgent angst. Perhaps there is room for a little angst in all of us and classics allow us that escape.

Literature is the same. Some books (like 'Moby Dick' and most of the works of Jane Austen - which I found terribly tedious) are regarded as 'classics'. Who decided this? Was it some stuffy don who picked his way through the language in much the same way as a butcher picks his way through the carcass of an animal and then decides to describe what kind of animal it is? Was it a general consensus that at one time people decided this or that was good and so everyone (for fear of being out of step) agreed?

Poetry, too. Poetry, which once to me sounded so harmonious like the beautiful music of Beethoven or the brilliant passion of Tchaikovsky, then became labelled as 'obscure' and trivia, or worse, violent nonsense with cacophonous words and lines of expletives replaced what appears to me as beautiful and 'classic'. We live in such a throw away society that it seems we are deprived of creating what is truly classical and instead is replaced by shallow self-seeking in the name of art. Perhaps it was ever thus.

I suppose what it boils down to, is the wonderfully simple quotation from (I think!) Jean Anouilh: "Things are beautiful if you love them."

Perhaps 'classics' are things which raise us to our true nobility and leave us more aware of that dignity than we were before. No one needs to tell us that...we decide for ourselves.

Monday 21 September 2009

"All In the Mind"

A quite common occurrence (which I have several times witnessed) when people are close to the end of their earthly life is the seeing of someone close to them coming to take them 'home'. The last words of Princess Alice, Grand Duchess Hesse, were "Dear Papa...." on the anniversary of his death and I have no doubt whatsoever that he came to meet her as she passed from this life. An equally common occurrence is that of recently bereaved people who see or in some way experience the recently departed person (or animal) coming to say goodbye or sending a comforting sign that all is well.

Many times these phenomena are dismissed by logically-minded thinkers as simply a means by which a person who cannot cope with loss finds comfort - the work of the brain, or still more dismissively 'all in the mind'.

The question immediately arises as to what is meant by 'all in the mind'. And the inadequate answer received is, "the subconscious protecting you..."
But what is the subconscious? The murky area that logical minds cannot reach....

Yes, indeed, things are 'all in the mind' but then the mind has avenues that logical thinking knows nothing about. Caverns and splendours that cannot be reached by scientific thinking alone, lead us through pathways that science hasn't even begun to charter because they cannot be measured by statistics or recorded by instruments. The dismissive comment of something being 'all in the mind' seems to me to be the frightened response of a mind that has built walls around itself to keep itself safe - a sort of self-imposed prison.

Shakespeare expressed it so perfectly in "Hamlet": "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dream'd of in your philosophy."

And I've included a lovely picture of some trees at Temple Newsam because trees often seem wiser than humans....to my mind!!!

Thursday 17 September 2009


No matter what is happening in the world, it sometimes seems that there are moments of sheer beauty that return us to ourselves and stay with us forever. Today I had such a moment. Walking by the lake at Temple Newsam, I saw two swans gliding so beautifully over the water. Someone walked by with a child in a push-chair, and one swan came out of the lake as though to greet them. By the time I had crossed the little bridge, the people had passed and I thought the swan would have gone back into the lake but he stood there for a while and walked towards me and was so close and so tame that he actually seemed to pose for these photos. Alas! I am not a photographer but it was such an honour to be in his (or her??) company today, and to be in the presence of such amazing beauty.

Wednesday 9 September 2009

Relics and Underwear

What would Queen Victoria make of the fact that her bloomers have once again appeared on the news! It appears that her underwear, embroidered with the royal crest, is now a 'national treasure' and her waist and bust measurements are put out for all the world to see. It's an amusing story and one that I think might possibly amuse Queen Victoria. Perhaps it's a sign of a faithless or bankrupt nation that such intimate items are stored as national treasures, and, on the other hand, perhaps it's a sign of English quirkiness and it is something we can all relate to and it is both humorous and respectful...

Yesterday I watched the footage of the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the founding of Grand Duchess Elizabeth's Convent of Martha and Mary. Expecting a beautiful celebration of the loveliness she intended to create, I found it horrifying and revolting to see her bones being paraded around. I have absolutely no desire to offend the Orthodox religion, for which I have great respect, but would love someone to explain to me why such macabre displays are viewed as pious. Perhaps it is the English mentality (the mentality that laughs with and yet honours an old monarch's underwear) that considers such clothing intimate and worthy of a news report, but to actually take someone's bones and parade them about is horrendous to me. Please, some kind Orthodox person, explain it to me!

Having been raised as a Catholic, I am familiar with the skeletons reverenced in Italy - including the skeleton of St. Frances of Rome; have seen the bodies of Sts. Vincent de Paul and Catherine Laboure in Paris; the relics of saints even in my school chapel; the bits of fingers, the toes, the fragments of corpses, and even the bits of cloth that had touched those bones. At this time, the relics of Therese of Lisieux are being paraded around England. There was a time when I would have found this pious. Now I find it revolting. Much is written in Christian history of the macabre practices of pagans; horror stories are made of mad men digging up bones in the night....and yet these are the relics that are paraded about in the name of piety??

It might sound like I am scoffing at someone else's beliefs or being flippant. and, please believe me, I am not! I just think that Queen Victoria's undergarments are a little closer to the person who is being honoured, and are far less intrusive, than a macabre ritual of bones in boxes...

Friday 4 September 2009

True Courage

Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig - "Ernie" - of Hesse is, in my opinion, one of the overlooked heroes of history and, had he happened to be born on the winning side in the First World War, he would probably have been hailed as such. One interesting fact is that a man who is so frequently (thanks to the gossip of his first wife) described as effete proved to be so heroic during the German defeat and overthrow of the Kaiser and the monarchy.

Overshadowed in history, perhaps, by his sisters, the Tsarina Alexandra and Grand Duchess Elizabeth, Ernie was unsurprisingly a deeply sensitive soul. Not only must he have felt (as children take these things upon themselves) in some way responsible for the death of his little brother, Frittie, who died as a result of haemophilia after falling from a window while waving to Ernie, but then, for the death of his mother. While Ernie was recovering from diphtheria, his mother, distraught at his grief for the death of his little sister of the same illness, removed the mask she was wearing to keep her from contracting the infection, and kissed him to comfort him. As Disraeli told the British Parliament, it was literally a kiss of death. Poor Ernie, at only 10 years old, how he must have interpreted that!

When Ernie was in his early 20s his father died and he became Grand Duke of Hesse-and-By-Rhine. He was a very popular Grand Duke, and undoubtedly had inherited his mother's common touch, along with his father's love of the grand duchy. He was also, like so many members of his family, a gifted artist. Queen Victoria, feeling that he was incapable of managing the Grand Duchy alone, all but forced him to propose to his cousin, Victoria Melita ("Ducky") of Edinburgh and Saxe-Coburg. The main reason, as I see it (and, of course, who can tell what goes on in someone else's marriage?), for the failure of the marriage was that Ducky was already in love with another man, was too temperamental and flamboyant for the grand duchy, and Ernie may or may not have been more attracted at that age to men than his wife. The death of their daughter was yet another tragedy for Ernie. His marriage to his second wife, however, appears to have been very happy.

Where he really comes into his own, however, and shows his true spirit is during the war. When the rest of Europe was caught up in that manic euphoria of war, Ernie (taken from Charlotte Zeepvat's beautiful book, "Queen Victoria's Family") wrote, "It was a terrible time when men were fired by an excitement and enthusiasm one simply cannot imagine. Throughout the day and night, people sang patriotic songs at the tops of their voices...It was an indescribably feeling, to hear these young men's voices raised in song in the darkness, and to know they were all marching to death. Often it was unbearable."

He was not a brainless thug, obviously! And yet, when revolution came and the Kaiser fled to Holland, and the Kaiser's brother, Henry, commander of the Navy, had to tie red flags to his car to escape from Germany, brave Ernie sat in Darmstadt and waited for the revolutionaries to arrive. He didn't flinch or flee as the others did. He remained calm and greeted them as fellow Hessians. So touched were the revolutionary soldiers by his courage, that he was allowed to keep his estates....Who was the most courageous? The ones who strutted in a macho manner and spoke of the glories of war, or the one who sat there calmly at the end, having seen what the outcome would inevitably be?

A life utterly blighted by tragedy (the death of his little brother and sister, his mother, his daughter...the murder of two of his sisters and 4 of his nieces and his nephew....(and very soon after his own death in 1937, the Hessian tragedy reached a dramatic and tragic conclusion in a terrible plane crash....but that's another story). I deeply admire this man.