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Sunday, 27 February 2011

Shy Kings and Dance Cards

(This site is still waiting to be spring cleaned...please bear with me if it goes a little wonky for a while)

Last week, in the wake of the deserved success of “The King’s Speech”, Channel 4 presented a moving documentary entitled “The Real King’s Speech” which added more background to the film. It included original footage of George VI making various speeches, and alongside that way in which these were presented by the BBC (some of them doctored to make the speech more fluent), the original with all its pauses and hesitations. The close-ups of the King’s face, the movement of his lips and the muscles in his throat as he attempted what was for him ‘hell’ (his word for it) as he worked on overcoming his stammer and speech impediment were incredibly moving. Several things came to mind.

Firstly, the original assessment in the notes of his therapist mentioned the total lack of diaphragm movement and the virtual ‘idleness’ of the solar plexus. The solar plexus has long been seen as the centre of self-awareness/self-worth (isn’t it amazing how, when you are humiliated you feel it physically in your gut?) and it is small wonder that poor George VI had such self-worth issues when you consider the horrors of his childhood: being forced into leg-splints, having his hand tied behind him because he was left-handed (as a left-handed person myself, I cannot think of anything more bizarre than that kind of treatment and hurrah that his great-grandson, Prince William, is left-handed and no one thinks anything of it!) and having such a bully of a father who yelled at him constantly!

Secondly, it is interesting that King George’s courage was recognised during his lifetime and is even more highly regarded now. The immense strength of character it took for a desperately shy man with a speech impediment to accept the throne for which he was unprepared cannot be underestimated. It is said that when he realised his brother had abdicated, he sobbed for an hour at the realisation of what responsibility he must now shoulder. For a man to be so afraid and yet to take that responsibility, it requires enormous moral courage and George VI demonstrated that courage.

And yet....Nicholas II...The Tsar did not stammer but he, too, had felt overwhelmed by a powerful father and was suddenly saddled with an empire for which he, at only 26 years old, was suddenly responsible. Not only was he coming to terms with father’s death, but also realising the enormous task ahead of him, when he cried on his cousin’s shoulders, that did not feel ready for such responsibility. George VI is, quite rightly, regarded as heroic for his moral courage. Nicholas, however, facing an even greater task, is regarded as weak. I think they were both very brave men who, at great personal cost, did not shirk responsibility. I wish that Nicholas would also be generally described as courageous.

On a lighter note I have a bizarre question! At balls, when ladies often had dance
cards attached to their wrists on which they could ‘book’ who would partner them for which dance, how did the men remember on whose cards their names were written and how did they make sure they didn’t double-book themselves? Did they have secret notebooks stashed in their pockets or did they have to remember exactly what they had already arranged?

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Spring Cleaning!

This is an extremely dull post but this blog is about to undergo a bit of an overhaul in order to make sites, books and really beautiful blogs more easily accessible with ‘feeds’ etc.

It is a source of endless wonder to me how many beautiful ideas and how much knowledge, insight and understanding is now available on so many subjects. It seems almost as though as silent and non-violent revolution has taken place and, from all over the world, amazing people appear with ideas and passions which they are willing to share with others – a truly remarkable happening that we can share all this loveliness!

If in the next couple of days if the blog goes a bit wonky, please don’t stop dropping by – it’s just being renovated and hopefully will fall into place soon!

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich

Remembering Grand Duke Serge (- the much maligned and often misunderstood husband of Grand Duchess Elizabeth -) who was murdered on 17th February 1905.

Monday, 14 February 2011

'Star-Crossed Lovers' - The True Romantics

Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo & Juliet’ is often seen as the ultimate love story but I think it is really about something far less romantic and far more cynical than the tragedy of two young and star-crossed lovers. From the earliest scenes, Juliet makes references to death, and while that is often taken as a sexual euphemism, I think it can be taken literally as physical death. An overriding theme of the play is that this love cannot last. It must burn out quickly and passionately or Romeo and Juliet will become as unloving as their parents are. There is no romance between the older Montagues and Capulets – they merely tolerate each other. Shakespeare returns to the same theme in ‘Antony & Cleopatra’. These lovers are older but their romance emasculates Antony and makes him look feeble because, in Shakespeare’s mind, love seems to belong to the young.

Obviously, though loth to spoil so beautiful a story, with such beautiful language (and I love Shakespeare!!), Romeo and Juliet hardly love each other at all. I do believe in love at first sight, but it’s a strange thing that Romeo and Juliet meet
only a couple of times at a distance, marry quickly, spend one night together and then are separated (why didn’t Juliet run away with Romeo when he fled Verona?) so they hardly know each other at all. Both, though, are in love with the dream of love (after all, at the opening of the play, Romeo is mouching about in love with someone else) and since it is a dream that they love, not each other, they have to wake up...or die to keep their dream alive.

Alas, Shakespeare did not live to see 2 couples who really were star-crossed lovers, and who kept that romance and beauty alive through many tribulations, and ultimately died together. Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek, and Tsar Nicholas II and Alix of Hesse, were true romantic heroes in my opinion. Not only did they have to overcome many hurdles in order to be together (Sophie, a lady-in-waiting, being deemed unworthy of an Archduke; Alix for so long unable to agree to convert to Orthodoxy and having to overcome opposition from her grandmother and future mother-in-law) but once married they had many more difficulties to overcome. These people loved one another, not the dream of being in love, and, as can been seen particularly in the later letters of Alix and Nicholas (during their separation during the war), they remained passionate about each other.

It almost seems fitting that they should die together; I cannot imagine either Alix or Nicholas outliving the other; nor can I imagine Franz Ferdinand without Sophie’s calming influence. So on Valentine’s day, I wish that Shakespeare had lived to write their stories and to show that love does not belong to the young; rather it deepens with age and can last until death....and beyond.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Ludwig, Light and Lunacy

I wish I could remember the exact line from the 1972 film, ‘Lady Caroline Lamb’, that Lord Byron speaks when, being praised for some feat of bravery, he replies with something to the effect of external events being as nothing compared to the true terror of delving into the depths of the human mind.
That isn’t really surprising, coming from Lord Byron, who is – to me – a most unattractive character (much as I love some of his poetry) and I would imagine that it must have been so dark inside his head.

The labyrinths within one person’s mind are infinite. It is incredible to think how many thoughts flash through one’s head and how many images, smells and sounds bombard one’s senses within one single day – or even one single hour - of one single life. Memories, connections, patterns, habits, reactions – and nowadays, more than ever, it seems that our senses are bombarded and dull us to the silence or the confrontation with what we see and know ourselves to be when we look at ourselves as we really are. I think, perhaps, Lord Byron saw only darkness in his thoughts and that was what he found so terrifying.

It is amazing, really, that many who have dared to face their own demons and their own Light and have lived from that inner knowledge, have been labelled as mad simply because they refused to comply with the agreed standard of what is ‘normal’. Prior to the industrial revolution, ‘the village idiot’ was accepted as part of the community; in some cultures, people who would today be labelled mentally ill, were viewed as sacred; and in Christianity, many canonised saints would be sitting in psychiatrists’ chairs today. In the post-Industrial Revolution age, when everything became mechanical and people became cogs in the wheel, eccentricity was so unacceptable that it had to be hidden away. The expression ‘round the bend’ comes from the Victorian Lunatic Asylums, which were always built ‘out of sight’ and reached by winding roads to keep them invisible from the main roads, since madness was so taboo. Anything which is hidden creates fear – hence, I am sure, the plethora of Gothic horror stories (even Jane Eyre), which include ‘lunatics’.

Ludwig II of Bavaria is often described as ‘Mad King Ludwig’. His elaborate creations of beautiful castles, his costumes and his fantasy world are presented in an almost comic fashion but it seems his mind was filled with Light. His love of Wagner’s music (and his adoration of Wagner, himself); his whole being was devoted to beauty – at the expense of everything else.
Poor Ludwig! On a TV programme recently, I heard a Bavarian man describe him as ‘the Michael Jackson’ of his day – and that seems pretty accurate. What people do not understand, they seek to condemn.

It is interesting that almost 50 years after Ludwig, another obsessive Wagner fan came to power in Munich. This man, however, while sharing Ludwig’s almost mystical love of ancient Germanic legends, epitomised the dark side of madness yet his madness appeared so ‘normal’ to people that he succeeded in contaminating a whole generation with the insanity of hatred. The same music lived in and inspired 2 very different men – beautiful Ludwig and dark, dark Hitler. I wonder why Ludwig’s fantasy never caught on with his people, yet Hitler’s did! Who was really the mad man?
The one who dressed in theatrical costumes, spent a fortune creating artificial lakes and scenery, and built castles that he rarely inhabited? Or the one who dressed in military costumes, spent a fortune creating tanks and guns and led millions to their death?

The same question could be asked today. Where is the real madness? Is it in the people who are a little eccentric, who don’t look or behave as everyone else does, or is it in the dark minds of those who still fail to learn from history, and believe there is something to be gained in war or control or manipulation of others? I’d rather have Ludwig as my King than Alexander the Great, or any of the other so-called ‘greats’ of history!

Monday, 7 February 2011

The Burden of Being an Idol

At six years old, in the classroom of a rather scary teacher, I recall learning the Ten Commandments, most of the words of which made little sense to me, and one of which was (remembered verbatim): “Thou shalt not have strange gods before me. Thou shalt not have any graven image, nor any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth...” This most illuminating and incredibly scary teacher explained that meant we mustn’t worship idols. A very brave child asked what an idol was, and the teacher explained that the Israelites made things out of wood or gold or anything else they could find and said prayers to it as though it were God. For some reason, an image of The Wizard of Oz came to mind but it seemed prudent not to mention that to the teacher, who didn’t seem too keen on children’s opinions!

If only it were all so simple as making something out of wood or gold and worshipping it! Or, perhaps, if the teacher had understood it a little more clearly, it wouldn’t have been so confusing. The whole thing was turned into a rather snooty and condescending look at primitive peoples who could be taken in by a graven image, and the message rather lost its meaning. Nowadays, I see the idols rather differently – I think they are the people or the institutions to whom we hand over our originality, our intelligence, our individuality, our beliefs and our true selves.

Imagine, though, how it must feel to be the idol! Imagine what a horrendous responsibility it must be to take upon yourself – or rather to have laid upon you - the aspirations, expectations and volatile whims of your people. Much is written of past monarchs’ obsession with the divine right of kings but, the closer you look at it, the clearer it is that it wasn’t so much the monarchs’ obsession as their people’s obsession that led to so much suffering. People wanted their kings to shoulder all their burdens, to be the scapegoats for all their sufferings...to basically take responsibility for them. Some people have courted that kind of adulation but no one can bear such a weight and it inevitably crushed them in the end. I think of William ‘the Conqueror’ (what a grandiose title!) lying naked and alone at the end of his life; or Stalin, abandoned by his closest companions when he suffered a stroke; or Hitler skulking off to his bunker and Lenin, whose autopsy revealed what was left of his brain...

Those born into royal and imperial families, particularly in autocracies, however, were saddled with the burden of being idols from the moment they entered the world. The film ‘The Last Emperor’ – portraying Henry Pu-Yi, the last Emperor of China, is a stark example of such a thing taken to extremes. Throughout his early life, he was a prisoner, confined in a palace and deprived of freedom so that he could be worshipped, while the world moved on outside. Nicholas II of Russia and Louis XVI of France, for example, and many more, might not have lived in such forbidding circumstances but they all were forced to assume the weight of responsibility for the expectations of their people. There wasn’t a time when they could say, “I’d actually like to be a farmer, a clock-maker, a writer, train driver....” as most children do. The poorest peasant in Russia or France could dream of a different life and perhaps even see it come into being, but these monarchs had no such freedom. No one could say to them, “What would you like to do when you grow up?” It was all planned and mapped out from the moment they were born. They had to be their people’s idols, and, regardless of one’s religious beliefs, there is common sense in the message of not worshipping idols, since no one else can carry your burden for you and, creating an idol, inevitably leads to the anger of realising that your idol had feet of clay. Born into such a position, these autocrats did their best – they didn’t choose to be there, but felt obliged to carry the weight of responsibility and did the best they could. When things went wrong, their people railed against them, blamed them and tore them to pieces. Who were the people really killing? These innocent men or their own shattered image of reality?

As an unashamed monarchist, devoted to the Queen, whose wisdom and commitment to her country I greatly admire, and to many royalties of the past, the intricacies of whose lives, lived on a grand stage, illuminate so much of what happens in everyone’s life, the difference between appreciation and idolatry is startlingly obvious. It is wonderful to look into the palaces of kings, to feel appreciation of the beauty of architecture and art, centuries of culture and grandeur, the wisdom that has been handed down through ages of ‘being in power’ alongside the very human foibles of many of our monarchs. It is wonderful to appreciate and respect the way in which traditions handed down through centuries have come to epitomise who we are as a nation, how we see ourselves, how we would like to see ourselves. It is quite another thing to look at royalties as some kind of drain on resources or as responsible for all the ills in society, In appreciation, we are powerful; in envy or in blame (‘the king is responsible for all we suffer’ or ‘the monarchy is a drain on society’s resources’) we hand over our individual power and turn monarchs or presidents into idols against whom we ultimately rebel and eventually destroy...

Friday, 4 February 2011

"The Mind Is Its Own Place"

John Milton's wonderful line from ‘Paradise Lost’ : “The mind is its own place and of itself can make a heaven of Hell or a hell of Heaven” came to mind when I read a very interesting comment by ‘Anonymous’ on a previous post. Referring to Kaiser Wilhelm, s/he wrote:

“His parents were a happy marriage, so I don't know why he became such a complicated character. On the other hand, Emperor Karl grew up in a broken home, his father being an unfaithful husband and his mother a very strict and monotonous woman. That clearly shows that it's up to every person to decide what kind of human being she or he wants to become in life.”
I couldn’t agree more with the last sentence of this comment. Recently I was watching a TV drama in which someone, from the outside, had everything going for him but he was deeply unhappy due to his perception of, and emotional response to the events happening with other members of this family, which – inaccurately as it happened – left him feeling somehow unloved. Children see the world revolving around themselves. If parents are unhappy together, children often believe themselves to be the cause of their unhappiness. If, for some valid reason, which the child does not understand, parents leave the child with other people for a while, the child can feel abandoned. Children are so finely tuned that the slightest snub can seem like a disaster, and the tiniest observation can create immense awe and joy. Most of us dull that fine tuning as we grow up – and we are encouraged to do so by adults - in order to dull our extremes of painful or rapturous emotion. Whether we grow up in idyllic domestic circumstances (did anyone grow up in a thoroughly idyllic home where everything was always rosy?) or in very unhappy circumstances, it seems to me we have a choice. We can either become reactors/victims or creative and perceptive beings. How wonderful it would be to maintain a child’s fine-tuning alongside the wisdom that comes with understanding that, while we truly are the centres of our own universe (in that we have choice how to perceive every encounter and situation), everyone else around us is also the centre of his/her universe.

Kaiser Wilhelm, I think, had a reactor/victim mentality and was in such inner turmoil because he knew he needn’t be that way but couldn’t find a means of overcoming his own demons. The fact of his parents’ happy marriage probably added to his woes. His mother was little more than a child when he was born and she had very little say in his upbringing. Being so young and being a stranger in a foreign country and in a Court that was so different to the one in which she was raised, she felt powerless to influence Wilhelm when he was, almost from the moment of his birth, made the property of the Prussian Court, and had his head filled with grandiose notions from Bismarck and from his paternal grandparents. At the same time, because of the deformity of his arm, he was forced to endure countless hours of humiliation and painful treatments in a futile attempt to correct the deformity. A small child, seeing the love his parents had for each other, yet feeling excluded from that love, he always seems to view his deformity as the cause of his mother’s abandonment of him. To make matters worse, his mother was intellectually brilliant, and didn’t really ‘suffer fools gladly’ – after all, her own mother had been very quick to criticise her children so that was the normal pattern for Vicky. Wilhelm must have felt one minute stupid and weak, and the next minute, hearing Bismarck speak of his role as future Kaiser, amazingly powerful. It was a pattern he continued to act out all his life – swinging between victor and victim to such extremes.

At the outbreak of war, for example, his initial response to the Russian mobilisation was that of a victim. The Willy-Nicky telegrams and his own autobiography show him in an attitude of injured innocence – the poor victim of his family’s treachery. Within a week he was making grandiose and extreme announcements about how he would utterly decimate every British soldier who set foot on the Continent, and how every Russian prisoner should be killed without mercy. Who or what was he really railing against? His own sense of confusion and inadequacy.

The saddest part of his story is, I think, that he was intellectually gifted and he was capable of great love but his inner turmoil prevented him from ever finding balance or harmony within himself. The last video footage of his life shows him at Doorn, carving wood, playing with his dogs, behaving as he probably behaved in the happy hours he spent with his mother and family at Bornstedt (the country ‘farm’ his parents bought to create as normal a family life as possible for their children. There, he had played with local children and lived a ‘normal’ life and felt very close to his mother).

The contradictions in his character are fascinating, and are also a family trait. Few people could be as contradictory as Queen Victoria and several of her children and grandchildren...and perhaps the contradictions, magnified by the loftiness of their position, are what make these people so attractive even today. They mirror everyone’s contradictions in a way that is quite beautiful.

There is so much more to write of Wilhelm’s contradictions...