Fitness, Meditation, Uncategorized, Yoga

Raj’s Hatha Yoga: A Beginner’s Feelings

I’ve recently become involved in a new marketing project, working alongside Namaste Yoga Ashram, a fabulous new Yoga business based in Sheffield. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been attending Raj’s classes and writing about my experiences. As someone who’s always been curious about Yoga, but felt too intimated to try, I have to say that attending these classes has been a real eye-opener for me and has totally regenerated my interest in mindfulness and meditation. Over the next few weeks and months, I’ll be writing more articles about my experiences and yoga/meditation in general and using social media to promote Raj’s classes, with the hope of introducing even more people to the life-changing magic of yoga.

 

When I think about yoga, so many different images flood my mind – a perfect line of perfectly harmonious and mindful people in child’s pose; the aromatic smell of incense; the calming, otherworldly voice of an instructor guiding you through each movement. But most of all, I’ve always thought of it as lots of difficult positions, that I wouldn’t be able to do, a search for inner-peace that I could never achieve. Yoga has always been something I’ve toyed with trying, one day, been told I should try, but somehow never got around to it. The only experience I’ve had of yoga so far was a so-called beginners’ class at university. The experience felt pretty intimidating – so many experts, so many poses I couldn’t do, so much pain – it was all a bit humiliating. Although I said I’d go back, I never found the time.

So when I decided to visit Raj’s yoga studio Namaste Yoga Ashram and sign-up to some classes, I wasn’t sure what to expect. He’s currently offering unlimited classes for just £35, so you can get access to as many classes as you can fit into your week!

I felt a little nervous before starting, not to mention intimidated, having almost no prior yoga experience to speak of. I also suffer from dyspraxia – a developmental co-ordination condition that affects flexibility, balance, and strength: all the things required to be good at yoga. I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to do any of the movements, never mind follow Raj’s instructions.

Walking into Raj’s studio, there’s an immediate atmosphere of calm and tranquillity. I explained to Raj that I might not be able to do everything, as I didn’t want to injure myself, and felt instantly reassured by his words. The yoga studio itself is bright and airy, with a stunning view of Sheffield city centre. Towards the end of the class, we watched the sun beginning to set, which added so much to the class – being able to experience nature as you work on quieting your mind gives you an immense feeling of fulfilment and joy. The studio is also carpeted with artificial grass, which adds to the naturalistic atmosphere.

The yoga class that I opted to attend on Saturday afternoon was Hatha yoga – the word ‘Hatha’ means ‘Force’. It’s a style of yoga that is most commonly taught in the West, and combines yoga poses with breathing exercises and relaxation. We started with a warm-up which consisted of gentle stretches and breathing exercises, which really helped bring my attention to my body and started the process of clearing my mind. The fact that the warm-up was so gentle was also reassuring, as it made me feel that I was in total control and could decide how much I wanted to push my body. Raj kept emphasising that we should only push ourselves as far as is comfortable and acceptable for us – and that enormous health benefits will abound with even small changes.

As we got towards the middle of the class, I did start to find some of the moves more challenging. The down-facing dog is a notoriously difficult pose to get right, or even achieve, but as Raj mentioned, those who are beginners or less flexible can use modified moves, such as doing the down-facing dog on your knees. Moves such as the plank are more familiar to us all and have been part of my exercise routine in the past, so didn’t feel as difficult. Since I have stiff knees, poses that involved crawling upwards on your feet or sitting in a squat position I tended to modify or avoid. But, wherever I could, I did push my body slightly beyond its comfort zone–I wanted to leave the class feeling that I’d made some progress. Given my condition, and my poor, cracking joints, I was actually surprised by how much I could do and how much I wanted to do. Even during the more challenging moves, having Raj’s voice gently guiding you through everything gives you so much more confidence and reassurance. I liked that the class felt challenging enough so that you focus your mind wholeheartedly on each move. It’s just you and the instructor’s voice. This begins the process of mindfulness, a state that I’ve much-coveted, but rarely experienced. Raj’s class was one of the few times I’ve felt genuinely in the moment – and the nice thing is, it doesn’t even feel forced. It feels almost like an emptying and freeing of the mind. If someone were to ask you a question, you’d still have all your mental faculties available, yet you feel completely focused on the present moment. It feels very soothing and creates an incredible sense of fulfilment and calm.

What I also loved about Raj’s class is that it’s a completely non-judgemental experience. It’s always struck me that fitness – whether it be mental, physical or both – is a deeply personal experience. That’s why gyms don’t always have the best atmosphere, where some are supportive, others are practically combative. The testosterone-fuelled, sweaty atmosphere of a gym can take you away from your own journey, turning it into a popularity contest, as people fight for machines, glance scornfully at the person next to them to see if he or she is skinnier, fatter, stronger, burlier, better, or worse. And the answer to this is what validates their success. Things couldn’t have been more different at Raj’s class – everyone was very focused on their own journey, no matter what stage they were currently at. It was an atmosphere that fostered personal growth and support.

As the sun began to set over the Sheffield skyline, it was time for our final move. The easiest of all: relaxation and meditation. We laid on our mats with blankets over us, focusing on our breathing, becoming aware of our bodies, feeling them melt into the ground as we became more relaxed. Classical music soared in the background. The whole experience felt so grounding, yet also so liberating. It showed me, for that hour at least, that our minds and bodies are so inter-connected, that making changes to one has a profound impact on the other. Prior to the class, I’d felt stressed, upset and out of control. In the class, that all floated away and became background noise.

After the class, I felt a renewed sense of energy – I felt light and invigorated. Going to Raj’s Hatha class showed me that yoga can work for anyone – regardless of fitness level, age, or belief system. It also showed me that yoga doesn’t have to be intimidating or just for a certain demographic. In many ways, it’s even more beneficial for people with health problems. People who struggle with coordination, like me, and even Multiple Sclerosis and Cancer sufferers, as well as those recovering from injuries, can all enjoy immense benefits and healing.

So, if you, like me, have been toying with the idea of trying yoga for years, take the leap. You might just end up discovering the hobby of a lifetime.

 

Arts and Culture, Musical Theatre

‘Bobbie Baby’ Sondheim’s gender-bending ‘Company’ is a smash- hit for the new generation

Stephen Sondheim's Company, West End Gielgud Theatre

I first watched Sondheim’s Company when I was sixteen years old and was immediately captivated. The production starred and was directed by Broadway star Daniel Evans, fresh from the success of Sunday In the Park With George, another Sondheim hit. The production was at Sheffield’s Lyceum: not the most obvious location for a Sondheim musical – which typically find their homes on the glittering stages of Broadway or The West End. For Evans, however, the Steel City clearly won him over. He went on to become the Lyceums’ Artistic Director for the next seven years, going on to star in and direct musicals as diverse as My Fair Lady, This My Family and an award-winning adaptation of the Sheffield classic The Full Monty. Evans adaptation of Company began, for me, what will surely be a lifetime obsession with Sondheim and his incomparable imagination.

There are certain cultural moments in our lives that have a lasting impact—for teens of the 1970s, it might have been the release of Jaws or Grease; for those growing-up in the 1990s it might have been the break-up of Take That and that tearful press conference; for us millennials, it was probably the sensation of the Harry Potter series. These were all big moments, but there are also small cultural moments in our lives, that almost slip by imperceptible, yet they change how we see the world and our place in it. For me, this was Evan’s adaptation of Company – I loved the sense of intrigue, the psychological complexity, the unsolvability of the play. The contradictions of Sorry- Grateful and the raw emotion of Being Alive. Its dialogue, wit, and its contrary nature, all made it become my favourite musical. Despite seeing a slew of West End musicals whilst living in London – everything ranging from Wicked, to The Phantom of the Opera, to The Book of Mormon yet Company still holds the top spot.

So, when I heard that Company was to return to the West End, I was eager to see if it could transport me back to what I saw ten years ago. One complaint that critics have levied at traditional productions is that, in modern times, the 35-year-old Bobby’s perpetual singledom wouldn’t be such a hot topic amongst his friends. That is, if Bobby is a man. In the new Gielgud theatre production, Bobbie is actually a single 35-year-old woman, whose friends and casual boyfriends keep pestering her to commit and get married. The only problem is that Bobbie’s quite happy with the way things are—she doesn’t see why she needs another half to make her whole. The dialogue and lyrics of Marianne Elliot’s production of Company are almost identical to the original: the only thing that’s changed is the pronouns. The centrepiece of the story, as in all productions that have proceeded it, is the ‘surprise’ Birthday party being thrown to celebrate Bobbie’s 35th Birthday. Bobbie, not a fan of Birthday parties, especially surprise ones, would just rather not have the fuss.

As director Marianne Elliot pointed out, when talking to the BBC last year, the idea of a commitment-shy 35-year-old is not a big enough, or unusual enough, topic in modern times. But if we make that character a woman, all sorts of questions arise – why would a 35-year-old woman not want to be in a serious relationship or marry? Doesn’t she want to settle down and have a family of her own? How can friends alone be enough ‘Company’ to last a lifetime? A lot is suddenly at stake here. Funnily enough, the exact same questions were asked of the male Bobby nearly forty years ago, showing us that whilst women might be forty years behind men in achieving this form of equality, social expectations can and do change with time.

Stephen Sondheim's Company Rosalie Craig

Elliot’s previous stage credits include National theatre hits, from the hard-hitting and sweet The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time to the epic War Horse, directed alongside Tom Morris. It’s clear that she had the theatrical chops – not to mention the passion and dedication – to resurrect Company from its grave. Elliot has made a few other modernisations alongside the gender swap:  two of Bobbie’s friends, originally the couple Amy and Paul, are now Jamie and Paul. In 2019, the inclusion of a gay couple amongst Bobbie’s friends in modern-day Manhattan seems only expected. As well as making the production more socially and politically relevant by including the topic of gay marriage, it also allowed actor Jonathan Bailey, who plays Jamie, to flex his comedic muscles. When Jamie gets cold-feet about his upcoming nuptials to Paul, an increasingly anxious Jamie shouts out: ‘People will think I’m pregnant.’ Cue howls of laughter from the audience.

Gender stereotypes and some of the more misogynistic undertones of the original production were also updated. In earlier productions, Jenny is the timid, uptight one – failing to convince her husband, and the audience, that she’s truly enjoying the spliff they’re smoking. In Elliot’s production, David, her husband, is the uptight one, pretending to be part of the cool crowd, and just embarrassing himself in the process. Jenny tells the audience sardonically: ‘I married a square.’ Likewise, the Andrews Sisters’ style You Could Drive a Person Crazy, which bemoans Robert’s reluctance to commit to any of the women he’s seeing, undergoes a radical transformation. Instead of being a song that merely expresses the love interests’ frustrations with a commitment-phobe, with the gender-switch, it becomes an expression of the men’s incomprehension at a woman’s reluctance to conform to societal expectations (served alongside a cocktail of female-specific jibes: ‘Dirty flirt’ cries one; ‘You feminist’ accuses another; ‘Is it that time of month?’ Nice).

Another change is Elliot’s use of sets and stagecraft – the show’s distinctly Manhattan look has been muted; in its place is a vivid vortex of sliding doors (or backdrops!) that perfectly capture Bobbie’s chaotic, torn and frequently changing mind, as she looks in, and observes, the highs and lows of married life and the baffling complexity of even the best of relationships.

The Saturday afternoon matinee that I saw didn’t star Rosalie Craig, which I was initially disappointed by, but her understudy Anika Noni Rose dazzled in the role, imbuing Bobbie with strength and warmth that made the audience fall immediately in love with her. Two-time Grammy and Tony-winner Patti Lupone also made a return to the stage as the outrageous, yet vulnerable Joanne. Lupone’s character is a pseudo-drunken Aunt, confidante, therapist and all ’round buddy to Bobbie, who, through their conversations, discovers, and begins to overcome, insecurities of her own. At the heart of the production is a haunting question – do we ever feel truly happy? And even if we can – is it worth, or even right, to place all that responsibility on another person? Songs such as Sorry-Grateful and Marry Me a Little are full of comedic touches that make the audience fall about with laughter, but they’re also imbued with a deep, almost agonising pathos. They capture, aloud, the internal conflict that characterises most adult relationships: should I stay, or should I go? These married couples have chosen to stay – and Sondheim makes it very clear that, for his characters at least, love is a choice, not a fantasy. The lyrics’ sentiment is infused with Sondheim’s characteristic contradiction: ‘You’re scared she’s starting/To drift away… and scared she’ll stay’; ‘Everything’s different, nothing’s changed. ‘ Maybe the message that we can take away is that no one really knows what the best way is to experience life, or whether hindsight would make us choose differently, but we sometimes have to see everything: the good, the bad and the ugly, to truly experience life.

Speaking of, the moment in Company that has always intrigued and confused me in equal measure is probably the show’s most famous song: Being Alive. Being Alive is Company’s closing number, a show-stopper of such pure magic and magnitude, that hearing it quite literally makes you happy to be alive. It appears to be Bobbie’s last-minute resolve to commit, to give love a chance, whether the result is worth it or not. But how does all this fit in with a show that proposes to resist societal expectations and champion Bobbie’s choice to go it alone?

Someone to sit in my chair,

And ruin my sleep,

And make me aware,

Of being alive.

These hardly sound like the words of a happy singleton. But as with all things Company, the song is not conclusive, nor does it necessarily resist such a conclusion. Like the rest of the show, Being Alive is deeply ambivalent about the good sides of marriage, as well as the bad. It asks us to ask ourselves the scariest question of all: can we ever really know without experiencing both sides, and more terrifying still, even if we do, will we still not have all the answers? It’s a tough question and one that Sondheim refuses to answer for us.

Perhaps the message that Elliot wants us to take away from this new production is the value of personal freedom. Embracing our quirks and differences, and most importantly choosing our own path. We see that one of the seemingly happy couples – Peter and Susan – have decided to get a divorce, a decision which, surprisingly, saves their relationship, making it stronger than ever. Counterintuitive? Yes. Implausible? Maybe. Impossible? In Sondheim’s world, and the world of complex human beings in which we all reside, absolutely not.

Company is a musical that celebrates the euphoric highs and crushing lows of being human, a recognition of the unspeakable exhilaration of taking risks and letting ourselves experience being alive.

Arts and Culture, History, Literature

The real St. Valentine

Beheadings, Roman brutality and a Parliament of Fowls — doesn’t sound very romantic, does it? The truth is that Februarys’ celebrated holiday — St. Valentine’s Day — has a complex and varied history.

The truth is, little is known about the origins of Valentine’s. Like many of the highlights of history, the titular Saint Valentine is shrouded in mystery. There are at least three contenders for the title — all Christian martyrs named Valentine or Valentinus. Saint Valentine of Rome perhaps has the most attractive story, being both romantic and tragic in equal measure. During the Roman Empire, Claudius ii ordered that young men be forced to become soldiers. He believed that romance and marriage weakened a man — binding him emotionally to his wife and family — and that the best way to equip the army with fitter, more resilient soldiers was to outlaw marriage. Like many things that are outlawed — be it the prohibition of the early 20th century, or novels such as Nabokov’s Lolita — they tend to take on a shiny new allure that makes the ban almost impossible to enact in reality. Thanks to Valentine, young men discovered that they could have the best of both worlds: to become excellent soldiers and marry their sweethearts in secret. For Valentine, performing these secret marriages was not just a means of helping young men, but was an act of restorative justice — he was giving back what should never have been taken away in the first place. Sadly for Valentine (and the young people he performed the ceremonies for) Claudius soon discovered his actions, and ordered that he be beheaded. It’s also thought that Valentine may have been involved in emancipating Christians from the brutal prisons of the Roman Empire — yet another reason for his execution.

If you’ve ever wondered why people send Valentine’s greetings to each other, Valentine’s story might be responsible for that too. Whilst Valentine was imprisoned in the run-up to his execution, rumour has it he feel in love with and began a romantic relationship with his jailor’s daughter. In one of his many notes to her, he signed himself off as ‘Your Valentine’: and therein a centuries-long tradition began. Whether this particular Saint Valentine is truly the inaugurator of Valentine’s Day may never be known, but perhaps this doesn’t matter. What is important is that he embodies a heroic and self-sacrificing figure — someone who fights for what they believe in. Surely far more romantic than any Hallmark Valentine’s card or candle-lit dinner?

Geoffrey Chaucer (C:1343-1400) — best-known for The Canterbury Tales — is probably not the first name that springs to mind when we think of Valentine’s Day. Yet the earliest reference that I’ve heard to Valentine’s Day in literature was found when studying Chaucer’s dream-vision poem, The Parliament of Fowls. Some believe that it is indeed the first Valentine’s poem ever written and the first reference to the day in English literature:

For this was on Seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make.

Chaucer establishes Valentine’s day as the courting season for his Parliament of Fowls and the poem is full of the kind of picturesque imagery we associate with the modern Valentine’s Day: ‘A garden saw I full of blossoming boughs…Where sweetness evermore bountiful is’ to name but a few. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that February 14 was the beginning of birds’ mating season — which may have given Chaucer the imaginative spark he required to write The Parliament Of Fowls.

Yet the idea that Chaucer popularised Valentine’s Day is still up for debate — it’s thought that the celebration of spring in the poem means that it is likely set later than mid-February. This corresponds with the theory that Chaucer wrote the poem for King Richard ii (1367–1400) during negotiations over his marriage to Anne of Bohemia in 1380. This perhaps makes the denouement of the poem — where the birds opt to defer the choosing of their mate — as much of a political statement as a domestic one. One theory proposes that Chaucer is actually referring to May 3 — and this speculation is bolstered by the fact that this was the date that Richard’s engagement to Anne of Bohemia was announced.

We’ll probably never know whether Chaucer’s poem was intended to be set in winter or spring. Perhaps like the festive season, part of the reason we have Valentine’s Day in the middle of February is to give us something to celebrate in the midst of the otherwise bleak mid-winter. The conclusion to Chaucer’s poem may endorse this interpretation:

Now welcom somer, with thy sonne softe,
That hast this wintres weders over-shake,
And driven away the longe nightes blake.

Much like the first glimmers of spring, perhaps Valentine’s Day is a reminder that we too can find solace in the darkness.

Fitness, Literature

Running Away those January Blues

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Photo by JESHOOTS.com from Pexels

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with running and exercise. On the one hand, nothing quite beats the feeling of knowing you’ve just completed 10 k. Running is also good-quality thinking time. I’ve made some pretty important — if not life-changing — decisions whilst running. It’s also a great time to be creative, to work out how you’re going to get that great idea off the ground, have that important conversation or simply get over a hurdle that has been hindering you personally or professionally. Sometimes running is none of those things though. Sometimes it’s just you and a great playlist, enjoying each other’s company. The best runs are when you feel that burst of energy and excitement, it ebbs and flows as time goes on and the run gets harder, but it’s always there, pushing you forward. And afterwards, you feel great. Runner’s high is real, but it’s easy to forget this on the occasions when you feel overwhelmed with fatigue and you just want to get the whole thing over with. Haruki Murakami even wrote a book about the combined agonies and almost sublime joy that accompany life as a runner. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running ‘chronicles Murakami’s training and completion of 62 miles or an ultra-marathon. It’s a sweeping and highly visceral love song to running — one that reminds us of the innate connection between physical competence and the power of the mind.

What I do know is that running is an important part of my life — and the health benefits, mental and physical, make the aching feet all worth it. Having had something of an exercise hiatus since the summer — and feeling about as unmotivated as it is possible to feel after the delectable indulgences of the festive season — I decided that I needed something that forced me to take action. A few years ago, in a desperate bid to get more active and lose some pounds, I came across an activity app (or game as its devotees prefer to call it.) StepBet is part of a slew of new accountability apps that make you put your money where your mouth is in order to ‘win’ the game. Other useful accountability apps that I’ve recently come across include Beeminder. With Beeminder you pledge a certain amount of money in exchange for the promise that you’ll complete or work on a certain task. The app gives you gentle nudge along the way and lets you know if you’re close to veering off track. It’s helped people lose weight, get their dream job, and even build businesses from scratch.

So back to StepBet, how does the app work? Step bet’s algorithm works out the number of steps you should take for the challenge by using your chosen device (in my case, a Fitbit Charge) and measuring your current activity level, then increasing this level to ensure the challenge is suitably challenging. I’m quite active anyway, running a few times a week and walking wherever possible, so my goal was set at 14,621 on ‘Active’ days and 17, 678 on ‘Active Days.’ Quite the challenge indeed.

So, what’s the driving motivation for signing up to StepBet? The obvious conclusion is that people just want to get fitter, lose a few pounds and start building better habits as we begin a new year. But desire alone is not enough — and this is where the genius of StepBet comes in. What people generally like is money. What people generally dislike is losing money. StepBet takes advantage of this human proclivity by making you bet on yourself and taking your money off you if you fail. If you win, on the other hand, you get back your original bet and a cut of the whole pot (including some of the losers’ money!)

Your winnings will not be particularly substantial — perhaps £10. But for those of us who are more motivated by the stick than the carrot, I think it’s the thought of losing money that is the ultimate motivator. In the game I have just completed, DrizzleMeSkinny’s Stepping In the New Year the bet is $40 or approximately £30. Not enough money to bankrupt you if something went wrong and you did lose it, but just enough money to hurt a little if you did lose it. £30 is enough money for two cinema tickets and a few drinks, a new outfit or maybe even a cheap meal out for two. It’s just enough money to stop you thinking ‘Sod it, I can’t be bothered anymore, I’ll just lose the money.’

Starting the five-week challenge in January, I probably picked the worst month of the year to start a challenge that involves lots of outdoor activity. January is for hibernation, long luxurious baths, cosy weekend lie-ins and hot chocolate, a time for lounging around and just coddling ourselves a bit. Not anymore. This challenge has seen me run and walk in rain, hail, ice, and snow. It became even more difficult when I started a new full-time job at the end of January and had to find increasingly creative ways to get my steps in. I found that eating lunch at my desk and spending my lunch break marching around the streets, going to the upstairs loo in the office, walking into the city centre after work and then walking around the streets (or sometimes the shops if it’s too cold) just about does the trick. If I didn’t get enough steps in during the day, an after-work run was the way to do it. I’ve no doubt looked ever so slightly insane to the staff in shops ranging from John Lewis to Topshop as I’ve marched up and down the isles — the bigger the shop the better. The challenge does provide a good opportunity for window shopping.

So, today, as these five long weeks have come to an end, and I’m declared a StepBet champion, what am I taking away from the experience? Well, like anything worth doing, there have been positive and negative aspects of the challenge. On the negative side, doing the challenge can be exhausting, it zaps a lot of your leisure time in the working week — time that I could spend reading that book that’s been on the shelf for months, working on my writing or, let’s be honest, binge-watching episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. It also does make walking a bit of a chore — when you’re walking to achieve something, it seems like time slows down and every step becomes an effort, a formula that you must follow in order to succeed. It makes you miss the kind of walking you do in the majestic countryside or on a warm summer’s evening. The kind of walking where I look down at my Fitbit and have magically achieved over 20,000 steps with what feels like no effort at all. That’s the kind of walking I love and the kind of walking I look forward to getting back to. The challenge also hasn’t helped me lose any weight — the main reason I signed up for StepBet. After the delicious indulgences of Christmas, I expected that by getting my diet in check and upping my activity level — I typically needed to run for over an hour a day or walk for two in order to achieve my steps — would pay dividends. Not so.

Yet, in spite of the frosty walks, the painful feet and the static scale number, the benefits of doing the challenge have been overwhelming. My fitness levels have increased drastically. My resting heart rate has completely normalised — given that I have had tachycardia most of my life, this is an incredible bonus — and I’ve saved about £15 in bus tickets.

It’s also made me reflect on the positive habits and behaviour that the challenge encourages and which I hope to continue with. Walking through the peaceful gardens near where I work is an energising experience. Time away from my desk where I can think, relax, and contemplate. It allows me to return to work in the afternoon feeling calm, balanced, and ready to be productive. Sitting at your desk and watching re-runs of The Office is just not the same. It also encouraged me to run 13.3 k — that’s a half marathon! I haven’t signed on any dotted lines yet, but it has made me consider taking my hobby up a notch and perhaps signing up for a 10k.

StepBet Challenge half-marathon
Hitting that elusive 13.3 k

The challenge has been difficult, and if I’d been working full-time since the beginning of the challenge I think it’d have been a lot more likely that my money would have ended up in the losers’ pot. I don’t think I’ll be ready to sign up for another game until the spring or summer — because the challenge does interfere with and, to some extent, rule your life while you’re doing it. I’m not ready to give up all my autonomy to a fitness app quite yet — I worship at the altar of the StepBet gods who sign up to challenges back-to-back. What StepBet has done for me has pulled me out of the apathy I was feeling — that stay-in-bed-all-day and drink buckets of tea in your dressing gown kind of apathy. That has its time and place and is a wonderful treat when done sparingly, but it shouldn’t become a habit. StepBet got me back into gear, feeling motivated, energised, and enthusiastic again — and for that, it’s worth the £30 entry fee alone.

I look forward to the challenges and triumphs that my next StepBet game brings, but in the meantime, I’m off for a weekend jog.

NOTE: this article was written the day I completed my StepBet challenge 09/02/2018, but because of life, it wasn’t published until today.

Arts and Culture, Irish Authors, Literature

The Best of 2018: Roddy Doyle’s ‘Smile’ 

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Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

Rewind back to the spring of 2018 and celebrated Irish author, Roddy Doyle, is being interviewed by Stephanie Merritt as the celebrated Hay Festival enters its 30th year. The topic is Doyle’s latest offering: a harrowing story of childhood trauma, secrets, and self-revelation. The date of Doyle’s interview is significant: the 25th of May 2018, the day of the historic Irish abortion referendum: the people of Ireland voted by a margin of 66.4% to repeal the eighth. For Doyle, the victory was not just political, but deeply personal – as a young teacher, he often landed himself in trouble when leafleting to repeal the eighth. Ireland, for Doyle, is not just his homeland, but the physical and political tapestry onto which many of his best-selling novels are woven.

In Smile one of Ireland’s most troubling associations is cast into the spotlight: the sexual abuse scandals that have, and continue, to plague the Catholic church. Yet Doyle does not attack the Catholic church as a whole, despite his criticism of institutionalised religion. In an interview with Vanity Fair in 2017, he said:

There is great comfort in the notion of the few bad apples. There are a few bad Christians, there are a few bad priests who, if you like, made the whole institution seem rotten, and it’s not, it’s fine.

Though Doyle’s novel does possess what he calls an ‘autobiographical spark.’ As a child, he was a student at the authoritarian Christian Brothers’ school. A school where discipline and sickening violence were at the top of the menu.  The novel’s title, Smile, was conceived from an encounter Doyle had as a teenager with one of the Brothers: ‘Roddy Doyle, I can never resist your smile’, he said. Inevitably, ceaseless taunting and torment shadowed Doyle through much of his secondary school life. It was only much later in life that Doyle found out that he had got off lightly – over a discussion with old school friends, he discovered that a significant number of his friends had been sexually abused or assaulted whilst attending the Christian Brothers’ School. And so, the premise of Smile was born.

That’s not to say that the sexual abuse scandal took Doyle by surprise. In his conversation with Merritt he recalled how certain boys would be asked to ‘stay behind’ with the Christian brothers after school. Eventually, the other boys insisted on staying behind collectively to prevent the abuse from happening – safety in numbers proving key to preventing the abuse or at least making it more difficult for the Brothers to continue undetected.

Yet Smile is not just a novel about abuse, in the same way, that Two Pints isn’t a novel that’s just about two Irish blokes in a pub. It could be described as a meditation on memory and its unreliable, labyrinth-like nature. Smile portrays memory as not just a photograph, capturing a moment in time, but as an image with fuzzy, indistinct edges, where figures loom in the background, contorted and unfamiliar. When we first meet the newly single Victor Forde, he seems quite satisfied with what middle-age has handed him. He lives in a tiny apartment in Dublin and frequents his local, Donelly’s pub, where he sinks a pint or two whilst absorbed in his book. It seems like an attempt to bridge the gap between the solitary and the social, by doing an activity that involves a little of both.

Victor feeds us snippets. As a youngster, he was a wannabe music journalist, who enjoyed moderate success. He recalls how he met his wife (now ex)- Rachel, who had an ambition of her own: to become a top celebrity chef and television personality. The middle of the novel provides a departure from much of the chaos and confusion, as the storyline gives way to romance. We watch as Victor and Rachel bond over pints of Guinness, have sex and fall in love. For now, Victor has got the girl, but the reader already has the foreknowledge to know that this is not to last. Yet the Victor and Rachel of the past muddle through their poverty and pain for what they want – Victor, a career as a novelist, Rachel, her burgeoning catering business ‘Heels on Wheels.’ As a reader we can’t see what could possibly have gone so wrong – they struggle from day-to-day, but always hand-in-hand.

Fast-forward back to the present, and Victor’s solitary existence doesn’t last long. A man in shorts and a pink shirt, who calls himself Ed Fitzpatrick, interrupts Victor’s reveries one night in the pub. Fitzpatrick claims that he went to the same Christian Brothers’ school as Victor and vividly remembers the taunting Victor encountered: ‘“What was the name of the brother that used to fancy you? … Would he fancy us now, Victor?’” Fitzpatrick seems uncouth and provocative, but ultimately harmless. But not for Victor. For Victor, the sight of Fitzpatrick triggers an irrational hatred: ‘“I wanted to hit him. I wanted to kill him.”’ For Victor, Fitzpatrick embodies the uncanny: that face in the crowd that you can’t quite place, the nightmare that threatens to engulf the quotidian nature of life. Victor has no recollection of the man who claims they were at school together; whose sister apparently had a ‘thing’ for Victor. But isn’t that just the nature of memory? It’s slippery, half-formed and prone to rusting with age. Yet Victor also finds himself drawn to Fitzpatrick in a way that he can’t explain: he is repelled and intrigued in equal measure.

The shocking conclusion of Smile forces the reader to completely re-evaluate everything that has come before. We’ve had clues along the way – Victor reveals towards the end of the novel that Rachel was not his wife, after all, but that he found it easier to refer to her as that. In one intense scene, in the middle of their blissful relationship, he awakens in the middle of the night and tells her everything: ‘I exploded. I’ve nothing to describe it. No picture or sound. I burst apart.’

This ‘bursting apart’ is Victor’s revelation of the sexual abuse he experienced during his time at the Christian Brothers’ school. Victor’s mask is starting to slip – and this is just the beginning. The climax of Smile is sure to divide readers – but since when is that a bad thing? Literature that denies us a tidy ending – think JB Priestly’s An Inspector Calls or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange – has often been praised for its verisimilitude and experimental nature. Doyle provides the reader with a twist that is surreal, outrageous, perhaps even dissatisfying, yet it also, oddly, feels like the only conclusion Doyle could possibly have written. With Smile, love it or hate it, Roddy Doyle is entering new territory and pushing the boundaries of his own genre. If memory is a tapestry, in Smile, Doyle proves himself a supreme craftsman.

Tourism and attractions

Shoes on the Danube Bank

the flag of israel

The city of Budapest is steeped in a rich, yet volatile history. From its beginnings as part of the Roman Empire in the First Century BC to its contemporary reputation as a city of resplendence and astonishing beauty, this tale of two cities has always had a unique story to tell. Behind the neo-gothic architecture and gilded parliamentary buildings remains the stain that fascism and communism left on the city, its people, and much of Central and Eastern Europe.

The memorial entitled ‘Shoes on the Danube Bank’ is located on the Pest side of the Danube Promenade and pays tribute to 3,500 individuals, the majority Jews, who were killed by Arrow Cross Militiamen on the Danube between 1944 and 1945. The memorial was created in 2005 by the Hungarian sculptor Gyula Pauer and award-winning film director Can Togay. The installation captures the whole spectrum of human life: the shoes of everyone from businessmen, to wartime women and tiny toddlers is represented by the iron shoes, with everything from comfortable pumps to workmen’s boots offering us a glimpse into the identities of the individuals whose lives were destroyed by the inhumanity of Nazism. The shoes themselves tell a horror story – that of the deaths of Hungarian Jews, who, in the winter of 1944 to 1945, were captured by members of the Arrow Cross Militiamen from Jewish ghettos, forced to strip naked and remove their shoes, before being ordered to turn to face the river and being shot. The idea being that the captives would fall straight forwards, their bodies being swept away by the river, the apparent removal of what the late Jewish author Phillip Roth would call a distinctly ‘Human Stain’. The shoes, being a valuable commodity in World War II, were removed since they were thought useful and profitable. As T. Zane Reeves recounts in Shoes along the Danube: Based on a True Story, shoes that were thought too damaged or worn would have their laces removed and be used to tie victims together before they were shot. It wasn’t unusual for members of the Arrow Cross to tie together individuals or families with children, before shooting just one victim so that everyone tied together would fall into the water simultaneously, causing the remaining victims to drown.

 

Pauer and Togay’s memorial consists of iron- sculptured shoes modelled after real 1940s footwear. This particularly moving tribute displays the shoes of Jewish toddlers and children.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Pauer and Togay’s monument is its arresting simplicity. Set against the sweeping, panoramic views of the Danube river and Buda Castle, the ‘Shoes on the Danube’ offer us an opportunity for solitude, quiet and deep reflection away from the throbbing heart of the city. Like the relics of Budapest’s Roman past that are found in attractions such as the neo-Roman Fisherman’s Bastion and Buda Castle, the shoes offer us the chance to connect with Budapest’s past in a way that is individual to us – using our own imaginations to empathise with the terror and pain experienced by people whose lives were so distinct from ours, in culture, lifestyle and history, yet connected by a common thread: something as simple, necessary and universal as shoes. In a sense, the shoes themselves are a symbol of defiance against the idea that such an atrocity can be forgotten by the washing away of hundreds of bodies. The plaques that are in three different locations along the Danube river read: ‘To the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944–45. Erected 16 April 2005’. Written in English, Hungarian and Hebrew, the plaques are a testament to the universal nature of remembrance and grief.

 

The atrocities that occurred on the Danube and elsewhere in Jewish ‘Ghettos’ throughout Budapest finally began to come to an end in February 1945. Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish secretary, played an instrumental role in liberating Hungarian Jews. Wallenberg began his work in 1944, with his efforts ultimately preventing the deportation, and deaths, of thousands of Hungarian Jews. Other victories ran almost parallel with Wallenberg’s efforts. In January of 1945, members of the Arrow Cross broke into a building on Vadasz Street, forcing all the inhabitants out and leading them to what appeared to be certain death. Yet this is where events took an unexpected turn. On that winter’s evening in 1945, the police, armed with bayonets, broke into the Arrow Cross house and all the victims were rescued. This was not the final chapter in the liberation of Hungarian Jews, yet it marked the beginning of a radical change: something resembling hope. Survivors included Lars Ernster, professor of chemistry, pioneer, and prolific author, who later joined the board of the Nobel Foundation – proving that virtue sometimes has its own way of rewarding the good.

The ‘Jewish quarter’ of Budapest now forms part of Budapest’s famed ‘party district’ – a refreshing and invigorating antidote to its associations with Jewish ghettos in the 1940s. Of course, Budapest is not somewhere to forget or ignore its history – and alongside the quirky architecture, street murals and shabby-chic Ruin Bars, you’ll also find the ‘Great Synagogue’ on Dohány Street: the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world. It seems to me that Budapest’s Jewish Quarter acknowledges and mourns the horrors of the past, whilst celebrating its cultural heritage and the capacity for transformation and progress.

Sources: 

Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center 

T. Zane Reeves, Ph.D., Shoes Along the Danube: Based on a True Story (Durham: Strategic Book Group, 2011), p. 190.

Curtis, Michael (14 May 2018). “Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East”. Transaction Publishers. Retrieved 14 May 2018 – via Google Books.

Arts and Culture, Philosophy, Science

Jeremy Bentham: the man behind the auto-icon

Jeremy Bentham UCL exhibition

For those of you who don’t know, Jeremy Bentham is something of a name around the Campus of University College London, in Bloomsbury. The moral philosopher turned-spiritual founding father of the university is perhaps less well known for his moral philosophy and writings on legislative reform than his eccentricity and peculiar perspective on mortality. His auto-icon – otherwise known as his straw-stuffed skeleton – has recently been on display at the Met Breuer Museum in New York. Bentham was featured in an exhibition called ‘Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body, 1300-now.’ But lest UCL students fear that they have lost him forever as he finally achieves his dream of travelling to America, be reassured that Bentham will return in time for UCL graduation selfies in September.

Who was Jeremy Bentham?

Jeremy Bentham was an English Philosopher and social reformer, considered as the founder of Utilitarianism – the principle of ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number.’ Born in Spitalfields, London on 15 February 1748, the young Bentham was a child prodigy. By three he was studying Latin, and at twelve he attended Queen’s College, University of Oxford. If you’ve just graduated from university and are feeling like an underachiever, Jeremy Bentham is probably not the man to compare yourself to! Yet despite his prolific intelligence, Bentham was something of an oddball – he fondly referred to his home as ‘the hermitage’ and himself as the ‘hermit,’ he had two walking sticks that he named Dapple and Dobbin and spent many years of his life sharing a bed with his pet pig. As you have probably guessed from this information, Bentham was a fan of his solitude, although he occasionally allowed friends to dine with him, provided that he could create a list of conversation topics beforehand.

Jeremy Bentham’s moral philosophy

‘Create all the happiness you are able to create: remove all the misery you are able to remove.’

Prior to the appearance of his auto-icon at UCL, complete with the matching pub, The Jeremy Bentham (now regrettably turned into a branch of the Simmons chain, though they’ve retained his head), Bentham was best-known as a moral philosopher, social reformer, and jurist. His utilitarian principle has spawned a series of fascinating thought experiments, such as this one by Harvard Lecturer Michael Sandel, that bring into question the ethical implications of the principle. Bentham was also the inceptor of the famous Panopticon – the model of a prison where inmates could be seen at all times by a single watchman. Bentham’s panopticon went on to inspire the design of prisons the world over: Presidio Modelo prison in Cuba, is one such example. Commenting on the prison’s design, Bentham said:

The building circular, a cage glazed…By blinds and other contrivances, the inspectors concealed […] from the observation of the prisoners: hence the sentiment of a sort of omnipotence.

No wonder Bentham’s panopticon inspired Orwell’s dystopian surveillance classic 1984!

Bentham’s special relationship with University College London was born out of their shared principles. Founded in 1826 and the third oldest English university after Oxford and Cambridge, UCL was the first university to accept those traditionally excluded from education – women, non-conformists, Catholics, and Jews. Bentham’s large estate was used to fund the building of University College London: and thereon began London’s global university.

Jeremy Bentham and death

Despite being a well-respected Philosopher and Philanthropist, where Bentham truly gained infamy was regarding his interest in death and bodily preservation. In 1831 he wrote to the London City Council asking if he could replace the shrubs in his garden with mummified corpses as they would be ‘more aesthetic than flowers.’ Bentham took his fascination with the dead beyond that of the horticultural when he penned a pamphlet titled Auto-Icon; Or Farther Uses of the Dead to the living, inspired by the preserved heads of the New Zealand Maori. Although Auto-Icons of the dead have not exactly become the norm, Jeremy intended his pamphlet to universalise Corpse-preservation – to make death useful, and, to some extent, to normalise it – perhaps not such a bad idea given that society (in the 19th century and now) tends to treat dying and death as a dirty word, often still reduced to whispered conversations and condolence cards.

In order to put his words into action, Bentham left his body to close friend Doctor Thomas Southwood Smith – the preservation involved removing the flesh from his bones, before placing his internal organs in jars resembling ‘wine decanters.’ Bentham’s skeleton was then pinned together with wire and padded with hay, before donning his favourite suite. The only part of the process that did not go to plan was the preservation of Bentham’s head – a mishap on Southwood Smith’s part resulted in Bentham resembling more of a sunburnt Gollum than the magnificence that Bentham himself had envisaged.

Still, all was not lost. In place of Bentham’s real head was a wax (and much more aesthetically pleasing) replacement head, whilst his real head was relegated to a vault at UCL. A whole host of rumours surround the severed head – a rumour that UCL’s rivals King’s College London stole his head and played football with it as revenge for UCL students stealing their mascot persists around campus today. The head itself recently enjoyed renewed attention when it was brought out of its vault and displayed in UCL’s Octagon Gallery, as part of their ground-breaking exhibition on What does it mean to be human? – which explored a topic that would have fascinated Bentham himself: what relationship do the dead have with the living?

Proving that his Auto-Icon has left a legacy beyond that which even Bentham himself may have anticipated, Bentham’s body is still carefully wheeled out to attend University Council Meetings (though sadly he is not thought to be in the right condition to influence UCL’s political future, so he is recorded as ‘present, but not voting.’) It, therefore, seems fitting to leave the final words of this article with Bentham himself, whose voice and presence still appears as canny and knowing as it did over two-hundred years ago:

Twenty Years, after I am dead, I shall be a despot, sitting in my chair with dapple in my hand, & wearing one of the coats I wear now.

Sources:

QI: Quite Interesting
Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy