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Sunday 28 February 2010

A 'cause' is a cop-out or catastrophe,

A decade or two ago, working in an educational establishment, I listened to some young people speaking of going on a march in protest about one thing or another. When asked what it was about they replied, "To speak up for the poor!" A little later, in the same conversation, they spoke of passing by a tramp in the street and how disgusting it was to be approached by some drunk in a bus shelter....Ho hum. A cause is great - it makes you feel good. A person is different.At the recent BAFTA awards, Vanessa Redgrave, whom I admire as an actress and who was at one time a raging Marxist, almost fell to the floor before Prince William. Who can blame her for seeing the light after all these years? A quotation from her in the papers this week sums up the difference between causes and what really matters in the day-to-day:

'My paradox is that though I care a great deal for the masses - the orphans in Vietnam, the starving in India - I seem to care little for the individuals around me.'

Vanessa Redgrave

Causes are often distractions from the nitty-gritty of life around us. We can all feel great when we're championing an underdog but it's very different when we are faced with an individual.

That having been said, there seem to me to be people who love the role of the victim or the sick person and they are more tyrannical than the greatest despots in history. From a position of helplessness, it is possible to have everyone running to your aid, and the welfare society in Britain has pampered to this for far too long. A person appeared on the local news recounting a long list of her illnesses, caused (she said) by living close to a mine. In a previous chapter of this life as a nurse, I met dozens of people who loved being ill and recounting their sad stories of one illness after another. Some people thrive on illness, others on causes...and so the game goes on.

Let's wake up to appreciating that each of us has the power to change our own lives without acting a role. Charities are brilliant if they meet an immediate need and offer a helping hand (since all of us go down sometimes), but if they become causes, they are nothing more than players perpetuating the same game, and the the givers and receivers are simply playing roles, neither is serving any purpose other than continuing the farce.

Friday 26 February 2010

More From the Queen's Drawers

A couple of years ago, Queen Victoria's large bloomers - complete with the royal crest - were put up for auction, and now - according to last night's Yorkshire Evening Post - a pair of her silk stockings are about to be auctioned in Edinburgh.
I can't help wondering what the Queen would make of her undergarments being displayed to all and sundry, and wondering how these items end up in the hands of private sellers. Did someone rifle her drawers (literally!) after her death, or were they given away when they no longer fit her? Maybe they were lost in the laundry?

Wednesday 17 February 2010

Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich

In memory of Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich, murdered 105 years ago today, this is an extract from Most Beautiful Princess. Ella and Serge are sitting on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, after the consecration of the Russian Orthodox church in Jerusalem.

“It sometimes feels to me,” he said, “as though there is a gap, like a great well, inside us. A sort of wound, an inner loneliness and, no matter how close or intimate our relationships, the wound is so deep that nothing on earth can alleviate it. Do you ever feel that?”
“Yes,” she murmured, “I do.”
“Perhaps everyone does. Some people run around trying to assuage the pain of it; the pain of being alive. Some try to numb it with vodka or opium or laudanum and all kinds of excesses. Others fill every spare moment with activity or seeking out company, small talk, chatter, noise, any noise, being so afraid of silence and solitude because when we’re alone and silent we feel it most deeply. But no matter how we try to avoid it, we know it’s there and there is nothing we can do to be rid of it.”
“Perhaps it’s a reminder that we’re not simply creatures of the earth. We’re pilgrims passing through, longing for heaven.”
“Longing for death?” he frowned.
“No, not death but the Infinite. Perhaps it is a kind of death, though I cannot think that God would create all this beauty, nature, oceans, skies, dawns, sunsets, flowers and creatures to be so ephemeral. I can only believe that what we see here is the reflection of an even greater beauty beyond this life.”
“For here,” he said, “we see ‘but darkly as through a glass’. Isn’t it strange how desperately and deeply we feel this longing that can only be satisfied when our souls are free of these bodies, and yet, faced with prospect of death, we cling to life how ever mundane, dull, empty and meaningless it seems. Even those who live in the most abject poverty, whose lives are nothing but drudgery and misery, would, if faced with the prospect of death, cling with all their might to this existence how ever painful or sad.”
“Perhaps they’re afraid of what is beyond.”
“Or perhaps they fear there is nothing beyond except total annihilation.”
She moved closer to him and rested her head on his shoulder.
“Are you afraid of death, Serge?”
“Not now. Not in this moment when everything is peaceful. Heaven seems so close that I would happily step out of my body and into that life. But,” he sighed, “when we’re back in the city, amid all the clamour and routine and petty irritations, death will no longer seem like a radiant angel welcoming us home, but rather a dark spectre hovering menacingly over our shoulders. That is what I fear, being caught unprepared as my father was. One minute there, walking, talking, breathing...the next minute, blown to pieces.” He was thoughtful for a moment. “If it were not for my faith, I don’t think I would have been able to live with that. For those who don’t believe, such times must be unbearable.”

Saturday 13 February 2010

The Loveliest Stories of Love

As St. Valentine's day is nearly upon us, here are just a few of the great romances of the royalties of the recent past.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had, undoubtedly, one of the most romantic marriages! She adored him from the moment he arrived in England and, in spite of her youthful petulance, came to appreciate his many, many talents. It was a stormy and passionate relationship - at first, at least! - but in time, the Queen mellowed and learned to appreciate the lovely nobility and brilliance of this most remarkable prince. They sent each other erotic paintings and statues; they shared a deep love of their family and, with Albert, Queen Victoria was anything but the dull prude who appears through the dour statues in most of our cities. Prince Albert's tragic death at only forty-two led to her years in seclusion and the notions of her being a prude but they remain together forever in the British psyche in such things as the "V & A Museum", their memorials and the countless places named after them.

Vicky, Queen Victoria's eldest daughter, married at such an early age, a man whom she adored and who was equally enamored of her. Vicky and Fritz were totally devoted to one another and their tragedy was, yet again, that Fritz died far too soon! Had he lived, the whole course of European history might have been very different.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie - a doomed love! A mere lady-in-waiting, Sophie was deemed unworthy of a Habsburg Archduke and heir to the throne but Franz Ferdinand was willing to sacrifice everything for her. A man who was seen as hot-tempered and unlikeable, he was devoted to his family and adored his wife. He wrote that the most sensible thing he ever did was to marry the woman he loved. It is a tragedy that they were both murdered on one of their first public appearances together (on their 14th wedding anniversary) but on the other hand, it seems fitting they they left this life side-by-side.

And, of course, another devoted couple who were murdered together - Alix and Nicholas. It is unthinkable that they could have left this world separately. Theirs was a marriage of two souls in harmony and, despite the many tragedies of their life in Russia, nothing ever shook, and nothing will ever shake, their devotion to one another.

Happy St. Valentine's Day!

Friday 12 February 2010

"What Is Truth?"

There's a profound irony in Pontius Pilate's question, "What is Truth?" isn't there? Whether it was said as an attempt to dismiss the profundity of the Man he was about to hand over for crucifixion, or asked as a genuine question, I don't suppose he really wanted to hear an answer.

It's a question that continues to haunt us through the ages. Looking through the annals of history, so little of what is perceived as 'truth' tells the whole story. Events can be reported factually but there is a great deal of difference between facts and truth. Events can be reported untruthfully, but there might be a grain of truth even in the lie. History is usually written by the victors but the victors' triumph is often temporary and a century or two later, someone arrives with a different version of the story.

After researching a little of the life of Franz Ferdinand (whose murder sparked the outbreak of the First World War) I find myself surround by so many different viewpoints about the subsequent events. The initial reaction is that so many people used his death to their own ends. There was the vile Montenuovo, who so cruelly sabotaged the funeral of Franz Ferdinand and his beloved wife by denying the public the opportunity to pay their last respects by arranging for the train, bearing their bodies home, to arrive late in the night and ensuring they had only the shortest time to lie in State (with Sophie's coffins considerably lower than Franz Ferdinand's). There was Von Hotzendorf baying for war, and Berchtold and the rest of the 'war party' using the tragedy to their own ends...and into the slaughter. These same people hated Franz Ferdinand and saw his death as a relief, while using it as an excuse to further their own ends in a show of self-righteousness. It's the 'truth' of little boys. The 'truth' of gangs and gangland killings and it is nonsense. It's the idea that 'truth' means upholding whatever we happen to believe and so it goes on throughout ages.

What if we all found our own truth? What if we turned to our own demons and outed them rather than projecting them; and then turned to our own beauty and lived it - lived our own lives and our dreams, lived our reality, without a need to make someone else wrong, or to avenge perceived attacks? Then, we would know the Truth and the Truth would make us free. Alas, in this world, we complicate so many things and make people innocent or guilty; decide that the world is wrong because it doesn't match our version of Truth; or else we hand over all of our power to ministers who, we think, know better than we do but who are really equally small beings seeking their Truth but, often, finding it easier to impose notions onto others than to look inside themselves and see what is driving them.

"What is Truth?" said Pilate.

"I am." sounds like the most accurate reply.

Tuesday 9 February 2010

To Get Us Through the Winter

No matter how often I hear this, I have to say that this song is the most beautiful expression of life! Soon, in spite of the endless winter it will be spring!

Bread & Fishes

Saturday 6 February 2010

Franz Ferdinand

Following the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose death was the catalyst to the outbreak of the First World War, a member of the 'Black Hand' (the group responsible for his killing) wrote an open letter which, while claiming that the act was patriotic rather than criminal, stated that he was unaware that the Archduke was a father and he was greatly touched by Franz Ferdinand's last words to his wife, "Sophie, you must live for our children." (Sophie, by the way, had just died at the hand of the same gunman).

That line from the Black Hand member is so telling. There is no doubt that the Serbs felt oppressed by the way that the Slav people of Bosnia Herzegovina had been amalgamated into the already crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire and they had every reason to feel aggrieved but, at the same time, Franz Ferdinand had gone to Sarajevo with high hopes of eventually granting a kind of federal autonomy to the region. The members of the Black Hand did not see him as a human being, but rather as a symbol of an empire. They 'did not know that he was a father' - that says it all. They did not see him as a human being at all.

And so it is with all wars. Forgetting they are killing human beings who have lives, families, people who love them and whom they love, soldiers and terrorists are taught and trained to become dispassionate and see only 'causes'. It is a de-humanising thing and it has never achieved anything...and on and on it goes and every war is always seen as 'just' by both sides.

Franz Ferdinand is often viewed as a bad-tempered man whom few people liked. I think his utter devotion to his wife and children, his many interests, and his desire to create harmony among the many different cultures in Austria-Hungary far outweigh his short-temper. He was fascinating but, like Tsar Alexander II of Russia, a man who might have brought about peace in his empire and created contentment among his people had to be murdered by radicals who were so obsessed with their 'cause' that a mediator was more frightening than a tyrant.

There is an incredible irony that a man who - for marrying 'beneath him', a woman he deeply loved - was always an outcast in his own country, but that country then went to war - at the cost of millions of lives - over his murder.

Thursday 4 February 2010