People of Inspiration Part 3 – Susan Boyle, Who Made a Choice to Use the Gift God Had Given Her

As the third personality in my mini-series on People of Inspiration, step forward Susan Boyle.

Susan Boyle onstage at the end of I Dreamed a Dream musical

In the musical “I Dreamed a Dream” , which I saw at the Birmingham Hippodrome, I learned much about this gifted singer  and deepened my knowledge of her life-experiences and background. The show starred Elaine C. Smith in the role of Susan Boyle.

Probably the words which stood out for me in Susan’s story were these, spoken near the end of the show: “I realised it was my choice, to use what God had given me. I didn’t have to do it. But my mother made me do it.” Her mother’s words were the deciding factor for Susan: “God has given you a gift for you to use.”

In November 2010, backstage at the Rockefeller Center, New York City, as Susan cried and raged and shouted and faced the consequences of not going on stage to face a massive audience, she was told by her manager: “You don’t have to go on. You don’t have to do it. I’ll go out there and tell them you won’t be coming on. If it does this to you, it isn’t worth it.”

Susan then had to answer a question for herself: “If it does this to me, is it worth it?”

Before Susan’s famous big break in “Britain’s Got Talent”, there were always factors in her life which held her back. The doctor’s words to her mother shortly after her birth: “Don’t hold out too much hope for her.” The fact that she dealt with her nerves with flippancy and fooling around. The sarcasm and bullying and jealousy she met. The low self-esteem, the lack of self-confidence, the boyfriend who never was, the mother who asked her to “do something with your singing instead of staying here looking after me.”

To me the most outstanding thing about Susan as a person is that she felt the fear, and did it anyway – because of her mother’s words.

Right at the beginning of the musical these words were spoken: “We all have dreams. But as we grow older we let them  go. We lose them in the sheer business of just getting through life day by day. I think that’s sad. We should hold onto our dreams.”

The message in Susan’s story is that you need words to hang onto when you’re on the edge, and about to go into meltdown. Words like: “You will get there… I’ve always taken you seriously…. I have every confidence in you.”

And words like the ones that finally got Susan through: “God has given you a gift for you to use.”

I’d love to have your comments! Have you seen Elaine C. Smith in the musical, or listened to Susan Boyle on stage? Are you, like me, a fan of her sweet, rich and powerful voice?

People of Inspiration Part 2 – Rabbi Lionel Blue, Wise Man, Humorist and Much-Loved Jewish Raconteur

Rabbi Lionel Blue 6 Feb 1930-19 Dec 2016

I was sad to learn of the death of Rabbi Lionel Blue on 19 Dec 2016 and here is my tribute to him, as originally published on my blog:

As the second personality in my mini-series on People of Inspiration, step forward Rabbi Lionel Blue.

Rabbi Lionel Blue
Rabbi Lionel Blue

This much-loved man of wisdom and hilarity and spiritual insight first came to my attention when I worked at the BBC in Religious Schools Radio a few decades back. My Jewish friend in the office had brought in a magazine, and I was leafing through it and attracted by an article headed up: “Rabbi Lionel Blue and His Luscious Latkes.” I was captivated by this article, in which this delightful rabbi in his chef’s apron described his favourite recipe (the famous Jewish potato cake) and the massive numbers of latkes he produced in order to feed the hordes. His sparkling humour and impish personality came out in that article. He intrigued me.

Over the years he has popped up again and again in my life. I’ve read and loved his books, I’ve listened to his stories and his classic Jewish jokes on “Thought for the Day”, and I’ve seen him on more than one occasion in “An Evening with Rabbi Lionel Blue”. The more I’ve listened to him, the more I’ve found in him – of poignancy, truth, discernment, spirituality. He courts controversy with his witty  observations of life.

A few years ago I went to see him at a retreat house in London E14. Most of the evening was taken up with tales of his childhood in the East End, and his mother. We were kept in fits of laughter, throughout. But woven through his picaresque tales is such psychological and spiritual depth, leaving us with a  more open and a freer view of ourselves and our place in this world. He doesn’t often say overtly philosophical things, being largely a storyteller. But when asked about his view of the afterlife he made this observation: “eternity is all around us. Part of us inhabits it already.”

Another observation that remains with me is one he made in his autobiographical account: “I learned that my religion was my spiritual home, not my spiritual prison.”

I’d love to have your comments!

A Spiritual Journey Starting on a Perilous Mountain Road in Queensland

a view of the Macpherson mountain range
a view of the Macpherson mountain range

On the border of Queensland and New South Wales, behind the Gold Coast, you may find the Macpherson mountain range, part of the Great Dividing Range – one of the places I love. The road leads from Southport via Nerang up through Mount Tamborine to the town of Canungra where you may continue your journey to one of two mountain resorts: Binna Burra or O’Reilly’s. I was negotiating the mountain passes on the way to O’Reilly’s. In the passenger seat was my18 year old niece Caroline, who was visiting Australia for a month (where I lived at the time).

Caroline had mentioned that she and her friend Jo (her fellow traveller to Australia) had gone to Sydney to stay in a house of students who they knew nothing of. And discovered that they were all committed Christians – just like Caroline and Jo. Caroline found that wonderful. I said, “Well, like attracts like” – for me as a New Ager I believed that this apparent coincidence was the operation of the Universal system / the principle of  “reality follows thought.” But Caroline was having none of this. “No, it was God,” she said.

I didn’t want to argue with her. Especially as I was driving up a perilous mountain road at the time. My own beliefs were a mixture of NeoPaganism, Pantheism and Eastern Mysticism. I pursued gurus, tried Buddhism, practised eastern forms of meditation and various esoteric philosophies, teachings and techniques.

I prepared to go into “indulgent tolerance” mode whilst we climbed higher up the mountain range. It was because of that very black-and-white “certainty” that I had long mistrusted evangelical Christianity.

But Caroline then launched into a full exposition of the gospel and of the fact that Jesus Christ had come to bridge that divide between God and humankind; and when we reached our cabin in the resort, she drew for me a picture of a cross bridging that chasm. All the time I was in tolerance mode. I didn’t need evangelising. I considered myself knowledgable about the bible, & had been good at R.K. at school. So I just let Caroline do her thing, until she at last got distracted by a  snake lying in the path.

For the next year I continued in my usual way, following my own spiritual interests, occasionally thinking of this episode. OK I hadn’t liked being evangelised. But I was impressed by her conviction, by her belief that her religion wasn’t a private matter, it was to be shared; and by her courage. I thought, “I wouldn’t do that.” It’s a personality thing too, but I actually believed everyone has a right to their own beliefs & it was no business of mine to try and convert someone else to my beliefs. But Caroline believed she not only had a right but a responsibility to tell me what she believes. I was impressed by that. But I didn’t do anything about it until 1991 a few months after I’d returned to live in England, with my parents in their Kent village near Tonbridge – and it changed my life.

Have you ever changed your life as a result of a conversation with one person? Or was it a long process, involving several people, covering a number of years? Please share your own stories with me!

Places of Inspiration Part 7: Memories, Dreams, Reflections Among the Kookaburras on an Australian Mountain Lookout

Margaret Silf wrote a book called Sacred Spaces in which she explored the various stages of our life-journey in terms of geographical locations. Everything has a symbolic meaning – bridge, crossing place, lake, wood, ford, spring, river, well  – in the ancient Celtic view of the world. And I believe many of us find that the value of a special place lies not only in itself but in the extent to which our memories, dreams and reflections are threaded through it.

So it is for me with Jolly’s Lookout – number 7 in my mini-series Places of Inspiration. Halfway up a mountain near Brisbane in Queensland, Australia, it’s a place where I’ve meditated, socialised, and reached turning points in my life. Jolly’s Lookout is equally loved by picnickers and kookaburras.   It holds memories and has inhabited my dreams. For me, past and future coalesced here. The view has it all, in terms of “soul space” – a valley, a city, a bay, distant mountains. All these hold a symbolic power, a special symbolism for the life-journey.

 

Tourist Map of Australia
Tourist Map of Australia

You can see where Brisbane is here on this map of Australia.

Jolly’s Lookout  – so named after William Jolly, the first Lord Mayor of Greater Brisbane – is a place of happy times  – lunchtime picnics, night-time barbeques, gatherings of local groups who come to eat together then play games afterwards.  In 2007 I was able to take my 12-year-old daughter there and she has shared my love of this inspiring mountain viewpoint ever since.

My daughter Abigail at Jolly's Lookout
My daughter Abigail at Jolly’s Lookout

This lookout is in open eucalypt forest. If you continue up the road from here to Mount Glorious, you may hear bellbirds, and enjoy walks through subtropical rainforest.

a possum in a tree at night
a possum in a tree at night

At night it is the haunt of possums, their bright eyes shining in the torchlight as  visitors come to hang their storm lanterns from the overhanging branches and prepare their barbecues.

A close up of a goana
A close up of a goana

And often if you come at dusk you will find a visiting goana, also keen to share your picnic.

kookaburra
kookaburra

It is likewise home to numerous kookaburras, who love their opportunity to swoop and snatch from a hapless visitor’s fork perhaps a nice chicken breast or piece of steak, foolishly lifted into the air, and held there for a split second before the mouth of the picnicker can close around it.

The view from Jolly’s Lookout is breathtaking. It takes in the Samford Valley, the city of Brisbane, Moreton Bay, and beyond that, further north, up towards the Sunshine Coast, the bizarre and fascinating shapes of the Glasshouse Mountains, so named by Captain Cook purely from the impression they made on him as he sailed past in 1770. During the time I lived in Australia – four and a half years between 1986 and 1990 – I visited Jolly’s Lookout many times.

picnic table at Jolly's Lookout May 2012
picnic table at Jolly’s Lookout May 2012

Is there a special place where you have happy memories, perhaps of wandering alone, or a place where you were part of a social gathering or party that comes vividly to mind whenever you think of the place? Are your memories, dreams and reflections threaded through it? Please share your thoughts about your special place, in the comments below.

A Princess Who could Not Live in A Void

The other day I went to the Kenilworth Festival to hear Penny Junor, royal biographer, speak about her new biography of Prince William. Inevitably she was showered with questions about royal scandals of the last three decades, and a good proportion of it related to Princess Diana and all the issues that flowed from her story. Penny Junor handled every question with the patience of long experience. Having then purchased the book, I came away reflecting once again on that dramatic story, the stuff of a truly exciting plot.

So many millions of words have been written about Diana, and yet I still feel free to add my words here.

To my eyes, as a writer, Diana was the perfect main protagonist. Everything she did had high emotional stakes. During the last six weeks of her life she demonstrated prescience. She could not have done better if she had consciously known she had only six weeks to live. She courted publicity on every level, defying royal and government protocol; she threw in her lot with a charity fighting a losing battle on a major humanitarian issues; she risked her life in a high publicity way; she sat at the bed of a dying child who asked if she was an angel; she reacted to the end of a love affair by going on the rebound with a man who would have been mustard gas to both British monarchy and government if she’d married him.

She could have sat at home in Kensington Palace as a recluse, eating chocolate, getting fat and watching daytime TV and sinking into depression. And maybe the public would not have reacted to her death in the way they did.

So my thoughts about Diana led on to reflections on where the monarchy is in this Diamond Jubilee year. I believe Diana’s immense popularity was due to the fact that she reflected the human condition.

Her story was about:

*  mental health problems/vulnerability and naivety;

* the media-induced fever of the public about fairy princess-ography

* the edifice of the monarchy needing to reinvent itself to survive

* Diana’s personal inability to accept a void

* the fact that in the last 6 weeks of her life she chose to fulfil her greatest gift – compassion for the vulnerable and suffering

Prince Charles’s greatest problems were that he took the advice of those he respected and admired instead of searching and trusting his own heart; and he was terrified of promising something he’d regret all his life.

William and Harry’s salvation to a sane balanced grounded life was ironically through the very monarch to whom Diana – and the public at one stage – attributed several of her personal problems.

The Queen’s sense of duty received its greatest challenge, and she met that through her choice to acknowledge and adjust and reinvent herself – to her great credit. And ultimately it has brought her through to her Diamond Jublilee year as loved as Diana was, with a Prince of Wales who eventually managed to win the public’s support to marry the woman he really loved; and with a second & third in line to the throne who are themselves greatly loved and admired and who give every indication of being safe hands in which to leave the monarchy’s future hopes.

What are your views and reflections upon the dramatic few decades in the life of the monarchy since Diana’s entry onto the stage? But perhaps you’re an anti-monarchist? I’d love to receive your comments!

People of Inspiration Part 1 – Paul McCartney, Muse, Minstrel and Keeper of Dreams

Today, opening a new mini-series on People of Inspiration, I offer my first choice: Paul McCartney.

Sir Paul McCartney in Mexico show Fri 11 May 2012
Sir Paul McCartney in Mexico show Fri 11 May 2012

He was my childhood hero. I first fell for him when a schoolfriend put a souvenir programme into my hands and I saw a picture of him singing “Yesterday” at the Royal Variety Command Performance, a few years after that performance.

Keeper of Dreams. This is a phrase which sprung into my mind in 2010 while I sat in the audience at the Cardiff Millennium Stadium watching Paul in his Up and Coming Tour. 

I watched and listened to him with my husband and teenage daughter and son, and all of us were captivated by his music and charisma. 

Paul has reinvented himself a number of times – a gift possessed by all those who persist in a career in the public eye for forty or more years. But to me he is poet, minstrel, storyteller, observer and interpreter of life, all in one.

His fellow Beatles mocked him for the sentimentality of “Yesterday” – yet for millions this song came to define the point where the establishment’s narrow presumptions about the Beatles radically shifted.

The appeal of Paul McCartney isn’t solely in his skill as a showman, and his personal qualities, but in the effect his words and music have on those who hear them.  Profound, moving, haunting, cryptic, puzzling, bizarre, touching, quirky, intriguing, beguiling, poignant, playful –  every mood and emotion can be found among his songs.

Although he is an international rock star and pop icon he makes his audience feel as if they’re in the pub with him having a singalong. Synthesis of special and ordinary – no-one can doubt that who has visited his mid-terrace childhood home at Forthlin Road in Liverpool – yet international superstar, you’re sharing a seat with him on the bus at Penny Lane, you’re standing with him looking down at Eleanor Rigby’s grave, you’re beside him on the Mull of Kintyre gazing over to Ireland.

How do you feel about Sir Paul? Have you been to his concerts?  Have you admired him for years, or are you a new fan? I’d love to have your comments!

Places of Inspiration Part 6: The Saxon Mill, a Writer’s Delight by the Mill-Race on the River Avon Near Warwick

In each one of my places of inspiration I have found spirit of place : in India, at Ayers Rock/Uluru in Australia, in London, in the White Garden at Sissinghurst in Kent, and in Sydney Opera House.  But today, I return to a place very close to home – it’s the Saxon Mill on the River Avon, just outside Warwick – and five minutes walk from where I live.

The Saxon Mill, Warwick
The Saxon Mill, Warwick

The Saxon Mill is a romantic building, which feeds a writer’s imagination – especially for those who write historical fiction. And just down the river is the gaunt, atmospheric ruin of Guy’s Cliffe House. I cannot walk along the river bank here, and stand opposite and gaze at it without imagining all sorts of stories – tales of romance, tragedy, ill deeds, ghosts…

Nearby, on Blacklow Hill, in 1312 King Edward II’s favourite Piers Gaveston was dragged by the Earl of Warwick’s heavy-gang, to a spot now known as Gaveston’s Cross, where he was savagely murdered. He was Edward II’s lover, and exerting much too much power over the kingdom for the Earl of Warwick’s liking. Even a grim tale like this can add to the romance of a place – separated as those events are from us by 700 years.

But what completes the delight of the Saxon Mill for me is its location on the River Avon. Tables and benches are set out overlooking the mill-pond; the old water-wheel may be viewed here too. I love the smell of it; dank, moist timber, full of darkness and age and mystery…

Further along is the footbridge over the weir.  White water gushes down, foaming the river. The terrace overlooking the mill-race is filled daily with people eating and drinking and chatting and laughing; it’s a popular gathering place for locals and those who come from a greater distance.

Saxon Mill weir and footbridge
Saxon Mill weir and footbridge

We went there in the heavy snow of December 2010 to photograph the river and trees, looking like Wonderland.

The Weir at the Saxon Mill 26 Dec 2010
The Weir at the Saxon Mill 26 Dec 2010

Beyond the footbridge you may find a track which traverses the fields to Old Milverton Church – another path much enjoyed by walkers and dogs alike.

I associate the Saxon Mill with happy social gatherings, with a writer’s inspiration, with romantic wonderings… Very close to home, it has that unmistakeable spirit of place.

Do you have a favourite place, near to home, that inspires your imagination? I’d love to hear your stories and comments!

Places of Inspiration Part 5: Sydney Opera House – Masterpiece of Human Creative Genius

So far in this mini-series, we’ve visited India, Uluru/Ayers Rock in Australia, London, and Sissinghurst in Kent. And today I’m taking you back again to Australia; to Sydney Opera House.

exterior view of opera house
exterior view of opera house

From the air Sydney Opera House looks like a waterlily at the harbour’s edge. Its location on Bennelong Point integrates it perfectly with the water. Close up, it reminds me of four things: seashells, the sails of a ship, the wings of a bird, or a waterlily. This building is the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

I find the opera house stunning from every aspect, and even more so the closer you draw to it; and the interior of the building fulfills every expectation that may be raised by the  breathtaking glory of the exterior.

Sydney Opera House Concert Hall Northern Foyer
Sydney Opera House Concert Hall Northern Foyer
Inside Sydney Opera House
Inside Sydney Opera House

The story surrounding the creation of the opera house is as engrossing as the design of the building itself. The idea was first suggested by English composer and conductor Leonard Goossens in 1946. The Australian government showed vision by committing to a project that would take generations to fulfill and would win no particular administration any electoral advantage. Then they decided to run an international competition for the design.

The competition was won by a 38 year old Danish architect, Jorn Utzon, with a simple, almost diagrammatic sketch.

Sydney Opera House design sketch
Sydney Opera House design sketch

Work began on the opera house in 1959 and it took 14 years to build, opening to the public on 20 October 1973. Utzon’s vision of wing-like structures nearly defeated the civil engineers Ove Arup until the architect himself suggested the solution: to construct a sphere, then cut shells from it, each of which was a triangular shape.  Then there was a dispute over the design of the interior; in 1966 Utzon “left the job” and a new architect, Peter Hall, was put in charge of that. Utzon never returned to Australia again, though he later met Arup again on friendly terms.  The opera house has progressively increased in stature ever since. And Utzon, although he never returned to Australia to see his beautiful building in reality, knew before he died that it had won UNESCO World Heritage status as “a masterpiece of human creative genius”.

The story is not without its tragedies, blunders, scandals, detractors and failures of communication; yet ultimately imagination, dedication and creative genius triumphed.

This building represents for me a synthesis of human ingenuity, artistry and skill. The poet John Keats said: A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: /Its loveliness increases; it will never/ pass into nothingness.  I could never have believed these words might apply to a man-made structure – and I don’t expect  the Sydney Opera House to last for ever; but it is a building which uplifts by the sheer power of its beauty.

Another admirer, Louis Kahn, said: The sun did not know how beautiful its light was until it was reflected off this building.

 The last time I visited it I also went with my family to see a performance of  Verdi’s Aida there in the opera theatre: an unforgettable  and moving experience.

Sheila, Abigail, Jamie & David in front of Sydney Opera House
Sheila, Abigail, Jamie & David in front of Sydney Opera House

Have you ever visited Sydney Opera House? What are your experiences and feelings about this building? Or perhaps you prefer another of the world’s great buildings – there are many candidates. I’d love to know your own choices!

Places of Inspiration Part 4: The White Garden at Sissinghurst and the Flambuoyant Spirit of Vita Sackville-West

The White Garden at Sissinghurst, Kent
The White Garden at Sissinghurst, Kent

 Near Sevenoaks in Kent we find the house formerly owned and occupied by writer Vita Sackville West and her husband Harold Nicolson. Now handed over to the safekeeping and care of the National Trust (something Vita once swore she would never do!) this house and its much beloved White Garden is a place which has inspired many. And I am among them.

Vita as depicted on the cover of "Portrait of a Marriage" by Nigel Nicolson
Vita as depicted on the cover of “Portrait of a Marriage” by Nigel Nicolson

I learned much of what I know about Vita from two books: “Portrait of a Marriage” written by her son Nigel Nicolson, and “Orlando” by Virginia Woolf, in which the central character is based upon Vita, and which has been called “the longest love letter in literary history”.

Though Vita was herself a prolific writer, she is not considered among the great novelists or poets. Instead she is known for the profound influence she had on many who encountered her and became entranced by her bold and flambuoyant personality. The idea behind Orlando serves as a metaphor for Vita’s character: “an English nobleman who lives for hundreds of years before falling asleep and waking up as a woman”. 

Vita was a member of the early 20th century Bloomsbury Set, and courted controversy through her lesbian love affairs with Violet Trefusis and Virginia Woolf. When my parents were young, Vita would have been well-established as a scandalous figure in the media – though I never took the opportunity to ask them what their views had been of her behaviour.

In many ways Vita’s character shines out to me through all that I have read of her. Snippets I remember are that her mother was a Spanish dancer (immortalised, by the way, in a Tussauds wax figure at the Edwardian Weekend House Party at Warwick Castle – she occupies the lace-festooned lady’s boudoir).

Vita's mother Pepita
Vita’s mother Pepita

Vita’s father was Lord Sackville West. Of her siblings, Vita was the one who most deeply loved and appreciated Knole House, her childhood home; yet she was prevented from inheriting it by the law of inheritance which demanded that it should go to the first son. This was the reason of course why she eventually bought the house at Sissinghurst.

Vita for me is an exhuberant, emotional, colourful character whose abundant imagination eventually found expression in the White Garden at Sissinghurst.

Harold and Vita were a perfect garden creation team. Harold was concerned with the overall design whereas Vita’s wild imagination led her to insist on planting in huge clusters. She hated regimented rows. She believed in great mass of each kind of plant, thus creating the life-enhancing White Garden.

Vita’s original idea was for pure white but she was eventually persuaded to include greys and light blues and light greens as well. This garden stands for her eccentric and individual character; one of the greatest memorials to her romantic spirit.