Monthly Archives: April 2014

Cheering on the success of others

P1060554 low resTwo weeks ago I went to the London Marathon.

When I say “went” – it runs past the end of our street and I’d forgotten about it like every year, until I was reminded by helicopters hovering over the house while I was having breakfast. So I finished my muesli in haste and went out with bed-hair and no make-up to see what was going on.

Outside was a glorious sunny Sunday, and streams of visitors in team t-shirts poured down from the train station onto Deptford High Street, all fresh and chirpy, ready to cheer on their friends and family with all sorts of banners and balloons. I felt seriously under-dressed.

Walking along the road with the merry crowd, excitement was building up in the air, the type of joyous anticipation you find in stadiums and concerts, or at carnivals or fireworks.

As I joined a group of onlookers to watch hundreds marathonians run past at what seemed to me the speed of light (and I’m not even talking about the pros, who were probably half-way to Central London by the time I left the house) I had a nice surprise.

Among the mixed crowd of sports enthusiasts, families, and locals like me who just stood staring, slightly incredulous, I spotted a group of older children leaning on the barriers waving arms, clapping and shouting encouragement: “C’mon guys! … you can do it!”…you’re doing great!!”. Many adults were also having a fantastic time, some watching in wonder with a big grin; others shouting and whistling almost as loud as the kids.

The beauty of it was that none of those people were cheering on anyone they knew – God knows if they even got to see the people they painted banners for, since over 30,000 people were running. Rather they were encouraging the entire sweaty colourful lycra flow and rejoicing for every single person in the race, from the pros that came first, to the fit amateurs that came later, down to the breathless and out-of-shape that came last.

A cynic would say that it’s a bit pathetic to run a marathon if you aren’t fit and seem in danger of collapsing less than 3 miles into it. But of course anyone who has run a marathon, or accomplished any sort of noteworthy achievement, will remember that they all started from zero, sometimes looking a bit pathetic themselves.

So what the non-cynics were cheering on wasn’t the performance as much as the effort, the collective endeavour – with respect and admiration for the great, and perhaps respect and compassion for the not-so-great (who in truth deserve our admiration too, for having the sheer balls of running in the first place; I wouldn’t!).

I felt overwhelmed by a warm fuzzy feeling, and comforted by the happy fact that given half a chance, we humans will wholeheartedly rejoice for the success of others… even though we often feel compelled to jealousy or sneering, or putting them down if it makes us look better.

So as I looked at the cheering kids thinking that they will be the colleagues, bosses, partners, parents and citizens of tomorrow, I hoped they’ll remember how good it feels to cheer on the success of others.

Not least because by putting our petty grievances to the side and encouraging the success of those around us, we are really cheering on ourselves – both as individuals and a species. By encouraging our fellow human beings to be all that they can be, we push the limits of what is possible for us to do (to infinity, and beyond!). We also give ourselves a chance to become a positive and supportive person.

And since positive supportive people are everyone’s favourite people, we’re all the more likely to get all the encouragement back.

See, how we’re all linked to each other- you, me, and everybody else?

I eventually left the crowd and went to buy a coffee with a spring in my step, all warmed up by the April sun and the knowledge that what goes around comes around.

And it’s all for the best.  

Happy Easter!

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It’s my favourite time of the year in London: chocolate bunnies have been creeping up in shops for weeks (following from Valentine’s Day chocolate hearts, and soon to be replaced by Pimm’s and disposable barbecues), and the sudden influx of tourists from the Continent gives us a taste summer to come.

Spring is in full swing, days are getting longer, skirts are getting shorter, and the Londoners who aren’t flying out for the long weekend are in a great mood as they look forward to four lazy days of parties and (weather permitting) picnics.

I’m not a religious person and I don’t have children, so I have no particular reason to rejoice at Easter for either the resurrection of the Lord or the prospects of egg hunts. And sadly I will miss my eldest nephew’s first epic hunt, seeing that he’s 3 and I’m not sure last year he really knew what was going on.

But just  because I won’t be with my family doesn’t mean I won’t be thinking of them – in fact I probably will be, as I walk around Greenwich Park admiring the trees in bloom and, much to my boyfriend’s annoyment, cooing at the new “baby leaves”. 

As I see children looking for hidden eggs I will probably be thinking of the children I know, and by extension of the children of Europe and beyond, who will collectively at the same point in time be engaged in so many egg hunts with their respective families.

Because I like to daydream, this might lead me to think of the children of generations past, who might have celebrated in a similar fashion, back in the day when eggs were real eggs, and would have been hard-boiled or hollowed and decorated by hand… a tradition which I had no doubt endures in some parts, but not here where eggs are most commonly Cadbury’s.

This will probably take me back to the egg hunts of my own childhood, and the one time I decorated eggs at school, with limited success. And also back to our old Sunday school, when a poor lady of saintly patience tried to explain Easter to a group of kids set on making her life miserable (“Miss, if we have to forgive, how come God sends people to Hell?”), and the story of Jesus being crucified on the day of Jewish Easter (“Pâque Juive”) which is the French word for Passover.

As I contemplate over two millennia of history starting in Jerusalem and fast-forward to the millions (billions? trillions?) of families celebrating so many Easter and Passover holidays following traditions that have endured centuries all the way to today’s Cadbury’s eggs, and the cherry trees in pink blossom that remind me that Easter is also a feast of renewal and spring, I might begin to feel a little dizzy. 

Well it’ll either be that or the Pimm’s…

Cheers, and wherever you are, have a great weekend!

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Turner & the Sea (How to become great)

Turner & the sea RNM poster

I recently went to the excellent Turner & the Sea exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich (down the road from our house), an exhibition of paintings by JMW Turner of – you guessed – the sea.

I am not much of a painting specialist, but this exhibition was hugely inspiring on many levels, which is why I wanted to share it with you:

First of all, the art was stunningly beautiful, and anyone could see why Turner is considered one of the greatest British painters. From his early works which were vividly descriptive scenes of sea wreckage (and must have been quite the sensation at the time – imagine nowadays someone painting scenes from a plane crash) to the poetic impressionist seascapes of his late career, it was a breathtaking display of imagination, beauty, and extraordinary skill and precision which never ceases to amaze me in old figurative paintings… another reminder that in spite of technological progress, we haven’t got much in terms of intellect or skills on the guys who lived centuries before us.

But the show was also interesting in other respects. It displayed Turner’s works along with paintings that might have inspired him: masters of previous centuries as well as contemporary competitors – younger painters that copied his style and became famous by emulating, and ultimately improving on it.

So it was a brilliant way of understanding how inspiration happens, and also what makes a good artist. As we learnt about Turner’s personal and professional circumstances, we were reminded that genius doesn’t happen in isolation, and that it is in fact shaped not only by the artists’ personal vision but also material contingencies such as fashions and market demand. We were also reminded that success, in art as in anything, requires not only talent but hard graft and a good dose of business acumen.

I discovered that Turner wasn’t born by the seaside as I might have assumed, and his ancestors weren’t fishermen. His father had been a barber and wig-maker in Covent Garden, and much of Turner’s trade had been learnt on the banks of the river Thames.

Because his family wasn’t well off, young Turner had needed to make money quickly, and so as his marine paintings proved popular at the time, he pretty much created for himself what marketers today would refer as a “niche” from which to make a good living.

And pretty good he was at marketing too, and PR – creating fame for himself by exhibiting in London’s biggest show at the Royal Academy, and later on in his own purpose-built showcase gallery.

Like all great successes though, he didn’t do it alone – he enjoyed great support from his father, who was his biggest fan from an early age, and went on to be his studio assistant for 30 years (an arguably bizarre father-son relationship, but support nevertheless).

In the end, the part of the exhibition that fascinated me most was an extensive display of Turner’s sketches and studies – notebooks upon notebooks and small format of drafts and ideas for larger paintings.

Here you took the measure of the artist’s capacity for work, but also his obsession with his craft. It shows us a man who was fascinated with the sea and must have spent hours by the coast or on sea journeys obsessively watching and tirelessly sketching, capturing his ideas again and again and again until they became perfect.

But there was also sheer genius, in the precious moments where art worked its magic and left you enchanted and speechless. As I stood contemplating small sketches of three or four brush strokes on plain paper, for a few seconds I actually saw a violent tempest, or a peaceful sunrise. Or did I? I rubbed my eyes and saw only a few brush strokes on letter paper again.

At that point, I truly appreciated how an artist’s life and and experience results in that amazing ability to create such pure emotion with such few brushstrokes, so that the viewer is not longer looking at a fixed scene on a canvas, but at an actual live scene from the past through someone else’s eyes.

So, much as I was impressed by the paintings, I was truly in awe of the man behind them. Because what we come to see as works of arts represent a lifetime of hard work and sweat, clever business planning,  and the sheer love of your craft that will keep your going even when things aren’t going your way.

As I wiped the ocean spray off my glasses and returned home, this is what remained with me: enormous inspiration resulting from having met a great artist, a visionary and a great mind – as refreshing as a day at the seaside. There are worst ways to spend an afternoon.

If you happen to be in London, the show is still on until 21st April at the National Maritime Museum.

You’re lucky!

P1040475 low resA month ago, I had the pleasure of being a witness at my friend’s civil wedding ceremony at her local town hall; after which, the bride and groom and their two children invited us (me, the other witness and a third friend) to lunch at their local pub.

The place was cosy as they come – wooden floors, comfy sofas and fireplaces, mouth-watering smells floating from the kitchen and the livery chatter of people having a good time. The sort of place where children are welcome to run around and hide under the tables as they please, and adults may conceivably spend an entire Sunday drifting lazily from coffee to lunch to afternoon pints, while reading the papers all along.

Like you do with good friends you don’t see very often, we made the most of the event and the celebration, although simple, felt truly special. We had a wonderful time relaxing, laughing and enjoying a gorgeous meal. It was in all respects a perfect day.

At the end of the afternoon, as we put our coats back on and prepared to leave – a little tired, nicely full and red-cheeked from the celebratory food and wine – I felt as though I was walking on clouds and the entire world was just made of pure love.

On the way to the exit, I noticed my friend’s baby looking attentively at a small, friendly-looking collie dog. I reached down to pat the dog’s head and heard a loud voice above my head: “You’re lucky, you know”. I looked up to see who had spoken and saw the dog’s master, an elderly, probably homeless gentleman, grinning a toothless smile.

I was surprised at the incongruity of the comment (and if I’m honest, at finding a homeless man in a nice pub), but he didn’t seem to notice. He repeated a second time: “You’re really lucky, you know. She doesn’t like everybody.”

I looked back down at the dog which by now was wagging its tail frantically at both the baby and me. I replied something about the dog being cute, but the man kept repeating the same thing several times over “You’re lucky, you know”, in a way that made me wonder if he perhaps wasn’t entirely there himself.  “You’re lucky you know!” he said one last time as I was turning away to leave, “You have a very lucky life.”

It wasn’t until we came out onto the street that it stroke me how right the man had been. The truth is, I am lucky – to be able to spend days like this with great friends and their healthy children, to eat delicious meals in fancy pubs, to live a comfortable life in a vibrant city, to be making friends with cute dogs… while it’s cold outside, and some people have no homes to go to. 

The whole scene had felt slightly surreal, like something out of a Hollywood film, where God would be speaking to me directly through a kindly homeless person, to remind me of the things that truly matter in life.

I returned home feeling half-shaken, half-amused. Later that day I recounted the story to my boyfriend, who joked that the only way to have known for sure if the man was indeed a divine messenger would have been to go back inside, and check whether he had vanished… 

Of course I never thought of that at the time, so I shall never know. But in a way it doesn’t matter, as magic or not, this was a powerful message. I am lucky, in fact much more so than I realise.

And I am not the only one, you may be lucky too. 

If you are ever reminded of it by a toothless man with a dog in strange circumstances, please get in touch…