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.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017


This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, but I, and many others, live with mental health issues much of the time.  I could talk to you about depression and the importance and value of being there for friends with a range of mental health problems, however, the matter I would like to share here is the struggle of coping with dementia in a loved one. Although not a mental illness per se, dementia is a "mental disorder" that is defined by a reduction in cognitive capability, with the cause originating in the brain.
    "Dementia is an 'umbrella' term used to describe a collection of symptoms associated with physical changes in the brain which result in the gradual loss of mental functions such as memory and the ability to use words or to carry out previously familiar tasks.
Dementia encompasses a number of conditions, the three most common being:
      ·      Alzheimer's disease, which accounts for approximately 60 per cent of cases
      ·      Vascular dementia (20 per cent)
      ·      Lewy body dementia (15 per cent).”         
definition provided by the Social Care Institute for Excellence, London

  • There are 850,000 people with dementia in the UK, with numbers set to rise to over 1 million by 2025. This will soar to 2 million by 2051.
  • 225,000 will develop dementia this year, that’s one every three minutes.
  • 1 in 6 people over the age of 80 have dementia.
  • 70 per cent of people in care homes have dementia or severe memory problems.
  • There are over 40,000 people under 65 with dementia in the UK.
  • More than 25,000 people from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups in the UK are affected
  • The forget-me-not is widely used as a symbol in healthcare to indicate a person suffering from dementia - in hospitals the flower is placed in patients' files and above beds so that nurses and staff can easily identify individuals and plan their care accordingly.

Almost a year ago my mother was rushed into hospital with sepsis and two pulmonary embolisms – one on each lung. A mix up between her doctor, the local pharmacy and herself resulted in her being taken off blood thinning drugs nearly 18 months ago, but not having the alternative medication prescribed to her provided by the chemist and as a result she developed blood clots that moved into her lungs. A brain, like any other living thing, when starved of oxygen, begins to die. The clots and sepsis, by preventing oxygen circulating, have exacerbated my mother’s early-onset dementia. She will suffer from cognitive impairment and poor mental health until she dies.

There are various signs that can, and in my mother’s case do, indicate dementia:

  • Trouble with memory (most commonly short-term memory issues – such as being unable to remember what was for lunch, while still being able to list all the actors in the amateur dramatics production in which she played the lead role over 50 years ago)
  • Having problems finding the right words – even common words used every day
  • Confusion – I am mistaken for my mother’s cousin (over 30 years my senior) and she has introduced me to my sisters explaining to me that she has 3 daughters
  • Being forgetful/misplacing things – such as keys, hair-combs or her purse
  • Loss of her sense of direction – she does not trust herself to find her way home or to direct me if I drive her to places
  • Fear of doing things or being left in a place that is not familiar
  • Becoming repetitive (my youngest son says this is a blessing, as she can relive the pleasure of hearing good news a number of times during a conversation, for example, each time it is repeated, during the course of a meal)
  • Losing the plot – quite literally. I took my mother to the theatre and she struggled to follow the storyline of the play and at times she struggles to participate in a conversation.
  • Unable to perform daily tasks – my mother can no longer cook for herself and, unless encouraged to do otherwise, would probably happily remain in bed
  • Mood changes – it’s odd, my mother used to have a fierce temper and was very demanding, but now she seems content in herself, despite the above list of problematic symptoms. She is not in pain, she sleeps well and is happy.
  • Change in a fondness for certain foods or tastes - my mother has developed a very sweet tooth and now no longer enjoys fizzy drinks
  • Losing time - often my mother is unaware of the day or year, although her passion for wildlife means she is usually aware of the season.

In many ways it is harder for those who knew her earlier in her life to cope with the change – my aunt, my mother’s younger sister, finds the current situation deeply distressing. Most of the time my mother is unaware of the alteration that has happened in just a year. For me, at times, the situation is heart breaking. I hate the fact that my sons will never know the fiercely intelligent, fascinating, attractive woman that she was (and to me still is).

The pint is not hers!

If you are interested in understanding dementia, or even if you are not, I urge you to watch Barbara’s Story – a film developed by nurses at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospitals in London. It is a powerful film about Barbara and her experiences during a hospital visit. It was designed to raise awareness of what it is like to suffer from dementia and to enhance the way we interact with a person who suffers from the condition. It is used for training of medical staff and others and has been shown to numerous people around the world. Be warned, you may find it very emotional to watch. There are six films in total compiled here into one viewing.

It is only by talking about mental health that we can end the stigma. Mental health is a struggle but it is not a disgrace (and it is a struggle not just for those suffering, but also for those people who love and care for the people who are afflicted). Intolerance, indifference and cruelty are disgraceful. I am here because I want to try to help, to understand and to offer what support I can. If you want to talk I will listen.

If you want further information or someone else to speak with try these:

·   Samaritans available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If you need a response immediately, it's best to call on the phone. This number is FREE to call. 116 123 (UK)

·       MIND, the mental health charity: Website ☎ 0300 123 3393

·       Rethink Mental Illness: Website ☎ 0300 5000 927