MEDITATION 78

When I began my last meditation, a lone Parisian violin was playing in my mind. It was a poignant memory, if you remember, of a recent visit to Paris. As I light the candle beside me and begin this new meditation, another musical instrument is playing an equally poignant melody in my consciousness. It is a solo piano and the music is a nocturne by Chopin. A nocturne is a short night piece and meditative, so highly conducive to writing this reflection. I have the complete Chopin Nocturnes in my cd collection but I am not playing them at this present moment. The nocturne in my head is another memory from my recent visit to Paris.

The gentle tune takes me back to a morning visit to the Pere Lachaise cemetery in the heart of the city. I was standing in front of Chopin’s grave. Though he was Polish, he died in Paris in 1849, at the young age of 39 of tuberculosis, which he had suffered from for most of his adult life. As well as being a composer, he was also a great performer on the piano and of the stature of a rock star across Europe in his time. 

A monument stood above his grave: a seated lady with a broken lyre in her lap looking down in grief. I have just discovered that the figure is of Euterpe, the muse of music. Behind the monument was a wall of trees, vibrantly green in the morning sunshine.

A small group of visitors stood  in front of the grave. Some took a brief look at the monument then moved on. Other like me stood for a while to pay their respects.

People had left tributes to Chopin at the bottom of the monument: small plants, little posies of flowers, single roses and a few small Polish flags. One tribute caught my eye. It was a sheet of music of one of his compositions, though I could not make out the title clearly.  It looked a little rumpled laying on the stone step in front of the monument as there had been rain the day before. A single flower lay across it.  

As I stepped back from the grave, a piano began to play behind me. It was one of the nocturnes: delicate and sad. I turned round. A man standing in the group was playing the nocturne on his phone. Instead of listening to it himself, he had turned on the speaker so that we could all hear it. It was his tribute. We all stood still, looking towards the grave, as the tender notes floated on the spring breeze.

I wanted to cry. I am half – Polish after all. If you can’t cry in a cemetery, where can you cry. Poor Frederic so far from his homeland, I thought. Although his heart is buried in a church in Warsaw, in Poland, where his heart always was. And he lives on of course in his music. The nocturne finished, I gave a nod of thanks to the man with the phone and walked on. Short as it was, it was the most moving concert I have ever attended. 

I have never visited the cemetery before. It is like a small town itself within the city. There are long avenues of trees between the sections of graves. It made for a peaceful walk in the spring sunshine. Despite having a map, the graves were rather difficult to find, however, as the map only indicated the section they are situated in and the sections are quite large.  Also the graves are not in chronological order so recent ones are often laying side by side with ones over a hundred years old or earlier, as the cemetery opened in 1804. Well chronology has no meaning anymore for the dead in eternity.

There are many other famous people buried there and one of my reasons for visiting was to find the grave of Marcel Proust (1871-1922) the novelist. It is the centenary of his death this year and I have been reading his great seven volume novel: ‘In Search of Lost Time’, which I have mentioned in these meditations before. He was a great music lover and adored Chopin’s music, which is mentioned in his novel. I have also been reading several books about Proust himself. One included a map of the places where Proust lived in Paris. He spent most of his life there. With my patient friend Phil, I sought out these places the day before, most of which are near the Madeleine church. So, it was important to discover his final resting place, which is a simple grave of black marble with no monument.

This simplicity was unlike Oscar Wilde’s tomb, which I also visited, He had a simple grave at first having died a pauper in 1900 and was then buried outside Paris in Bagneux. However, he was transferred to Pere Lachaise in 1909 and then a grandiose sphinx – like monument (sculpted in 1911 by Sir Jacob Epstein) was placed there.

So many artists, musicians and writers are buried in the shady avenues of Pere Lachaise. We found some of them including: the composers Rossini and Cherubini, the novelists Balzac and Colette, the singer Edith Piaf and rock musician Jim Morrison from Doors, the actor Yves Montand, the composer Michel Le Grand and George Melies, one of the pioneers of the cinema. I would like to go back to find some others and revisit Frederic, Marcel, and Oscar of course. 

Once outside the cemetery we found a good bistro for lunch. Opposite us were the opulent offices of several grand funeral directors. No doubt they provide opulent funerals over the road in the cemetery at a grand price. I began to think that it would be good to be buried in Pere Lachaise, when my time comes, though I doubt that I could afford it. I had this thought not because I would be buried among the cultural elite of the last two hundred years, or because of all the grand monuments, but because of the peaceful avenues of trees.  Well who would visit my grave in Paris anyway? Although it would be as good an excuse as any for a Eurostar jaunt for my friends.  Perhaps if I was buried there, one of my ex students might leave a few pages of one of my scripts on top of my grave with a flower across it. Perhaps not only as a tribute but also as an apology for the lines they never learnt properly!  

The visit to Pere Lachaise was important to me to pay homage, to say thank you to some of those who have enriched my life. It is why I visit Shakespeare’s grave every time I go to Stratford- Upon-Avon.

You may have deduced from my meditations, that I something of a cultural tourist. Does that term exist or have I invented it? Well I am. It is easy for me to be reminded of my cultural tourism as I only have to look around the rooms in my house. Not only are there photos on display from my holidays but also pictures (I have two Rembrandts and a Da Vinci – but only copies of course!); framed posters (two Broadway productions I saw in New York for example) and on the shelves books I bought abroad, and cd’s, souvenirs posing as artefacts and of course my large collection of fridge magnets on display in the kitchen. Not  to mention the thousands of photos on my I phone and laptop from my travels! 

A photo encapsulates a memory, more than that, it evokes a memory if we look at it for long enough. Sadly these days we tend to snap away on our phones too quickly and look at the photos too quickly too, especially when we are scrolling through them to see which ones we want to delete. But do we really look at the ones that are left after our digital cull?

Along with the cultural souvenirs I have just listed, the photos can also be a trigger to our memory, if we stop and reflect, if we take a moment to remember.

Marcel Proust’s great novel ‘In Search of Lost Time’ is about memory. No-one describes how memories fade in and out of our consciousness as well as he does. He believed that as well as wanting to remember a memory, by looking at a photo for example or by trying to remember one, there is involuntary memory. This is when a memory comes to us clearly and concretely, unaided and unasked for, as a surprise, almost a revelation.

Like my lone Parisian violin and my piano nocturne.  

Ave atque Vale – until the next blog.

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Neilus Aurelius

MEDITATION 77

A wistful melody floats in my mind as I begin my latest meditation. It is the sound of a solo violin. As I fix my gaze on the candle beside me, the lilting tune seems to be curling around the flame itself, like a halo. The melody is a stately but sad, a sarabande from one of Bach’s cello suites and not originally written for the violin at all.    

I am not playing one of the albums from my copious CD collection to soothe me as I write. The music is evoked by a memory of a recent short visit to Paris – a memory of my final night there. It was late, not long before midnight, but the summer’s evening twilight had extended so that the sky was still a deep indigo. A lone violinist, a thin, elegant busker, was playing a rock tune fused into an 18th Century gigue. He was a dancing shadow, gently swaying to and fro and gliding in and out of the light.

Although he was tall, he was dwarfed by his backdrop: the two towers of the facade of Notre Dame Cathedral, looming behind him and lit by floodlights. For he was playing his violin on the Parvis, the large square in front of the Cathedral. The shape of the great Rose window between the towers was still resplendent in the floodlights, even though, as its beautiful stained glass was not shot through by daylight, its face was blank.

Inevitably Victor Hugo’s novel ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ came to my mind as I stood there. The elegant busker might have been one of Esmeralda’s band of gypsies playing his fiddle in and out of the fire light while she danced round the campfire beside  him.  In the floodlights, the saints in their niches above the main door peered down oblivious to the busker’s performance and the gargoyles, high in the towers, were also deaf to his jaunty tune like Quasimodo himself.

I was eager to see Notre Dame on my visit. I wanted to see how the restoration was progressing after the tragic fire in April 2019. I was hoping that I could go inside and see some of the renovations as someone had told me that a part of the building was open. But that was not possible.

I have quite a connection with the Cathedral as, aside from being a Roman Catholic, I have written my own dramatisation of Victor Hugo’s novel. It has always been one of my favourite stories as is the 1939 film version with Charles Laughton as Quasimodo. My friend Phil was with me on my little trip a few weeks ago and he and I had produced my dramatisation at the school in 2006. In fact my last visit to Paris was in the Autumn before  with Phil and his wife Anna, when we explored the cathedral to get inspiration for the script and the production. 

It was also my last production at the school and in Budapest in February 2020. It was the tragic fire a year earlier that had inspired me to revise the script and produce it again. I added a special prologue set in the present and centred on the fire. In the prologue was a chorus of people who had rushed to the scene when they heard the news that Notre Dame was in flames. 

Notre Dame is still a building site after three years and looks like it is barricaded in for a siege. How long it will remain so, I do not know. The modern steel scaffolding looks incongruous against the ancient walls of the cathedral as do the boards in front of the great main door with their ‘No Entry’ signs, the high cranes arched over the roof and the engineers’ temporary offices and builders’ huts in containers in their own little yard on the Parvis. The cathedral is so tall that the boards barely reach to half way up the great doors above the staircase of the main entrance. The whole edifice is surrounded by scaffolding as if it cannot stand up without it, although most of the building is secure despite the fire damage.     

The lone violinist finished his gigue and there was a pattering of applause from his little audience seated on the stone wall near him. Keening with his bow, he began the sad sarabande by Bach, etching an elegy into the still night air. The lingering drift of the music made me raise my eyes to the sky, which  had darkened to black pitch now. Little lights blazed out on the boards like stars and on the steel ribs of scaffolding illumining the ancient arches like votive lamps.  

As the sad tune floated in the night air, time stood still. It was a moment of time and yet not of time. Like Notre Dame itself: of time and yet not of time.

‘Elegy’ – did I write ‘elegy’? No: the violinist’s melody wasn’t an elegy. For Notre Dame is still with us, still standing strong as if eager to push away the scaffolding supporting it. No, not an elegy but a lament, a lament for the tragedy, three years ago. And for our world at war.

Despite the apparatus of reconstruction surrounding it, the Cathedral was still beautiful. 

It gives a lie to the adage ‘You’ve got to stand on your own two feet.’ We all need support, to be shored up, like Notre Dame, at times. For a moment let others take the weight, however strong our frame may be. Let others help us to rebuild, to renew ourselves.     

Ave atque Vale – until the next blog.

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Neilus Aurelius

MEDITATION 76

As I sit beside my candle to begin this meditation, I am looking in the corner opposite across my lounge. This is where my cd’s are housed on shelves that are virtually full now, almost from ceiling to floor. This is my prized classical music library and there are also several shelves of film music and musicals as well. I must also mention some more cd’s neatly stacked on or below my coffee table. Beside me to my left are more shelves of DVD’s and Blu-ray’s. Behind me are my bookshelves which are also full. I appear to be quite a collector. I hasten to add that there is still space to get to the front door in case of fire! I haven’t completely submerged myself in culture yet.

However I take comfort in the fact that they have been collected over a long period of time. I have been collecting my cd’s, for example, over the last three decades, and before that I collected LP’s since being a teenager. I replaced my favourite LP’s with the cd versions in the early 90’s. Some, as with my books and movies, were gifts or bought at reduced price in a sale. Some of my music was a given to me by my old friend Brian, who passed away ten years ago. Some I purchased on my many trips to Budapest, where cd’s were cheaper than here. When I was running the Drama tours, after a week of organising and directing, I would always visit my favourite classical music stores in a moment of spare time and treat myself to an album – or two. I would do the same when I was there on holiday of course. One of the stores even gave me a discount card.

I also take comfort from a remark by my Hungarian friend, Mariann, when she visited my house quite a while ago. She looked at my bookshelves and said, ‘Books make a home.’

You may be thinking that all these books and music and movies must have been a solace to me during the pandemic or at least helped to get me through it. The answer is yes and no. My retirement finally began as the pandemic started and part of my retirement plan was to absorb myself in my reading and music and movies, now that I would have time to do so. But, as with all of us, the lockdowns left me too unsettled at times to enjoy them. I did purchase more cd’s though, some of which I still haven’t played. Then I discovered that I now had three versions of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, as a result! I forgot to check I already had two – or did I? I think it was comfort-buying more than anything. A buffer again the storm. I am sure I will play them eventually.

Recently I have been led to reflect on why we collect things. Yes we may have a particular interest or hobby but what drives us on to collect more. Is it the innate need to possess within us or the primitive hunter/gatherer syndrome? Is it curiosity – I must hear that or see that? Is it the novelty of the new – a new artist on the block – I must hear or see him or her? Is it compulsion or obsession? The bottom line is: do we ever ask ourselves: Do I really need that?

Perhaps creating a collection is a relaxation from a stressful professional job, like my purchasing the odd cd or two in Budapest on my Drama tours. My Hungarian friend Adam is a high powered lawyer in Budapest and has a large collection of Star Wars figures and memorabilia going back to his childhood for instance. He also collects figures from TV series from his childhood. Perhaps he is harking back to his childhood when his life was less stressful, when he wasn’t so high profile. I must ask him. He also collects 1990s Honda sports cars – not models but the real thing! He currently has four, I believe, or

it it five? He scours the Internet for spare parts. I remember bringing a pair of head lamps in my luggage for him on a visit a few year ago! He has driven me around Hungary in one of them. Sitting in it, I imagined I was in some 1990’s American cop show. Although the cars are quite low to the ground and I am no longer agile enough (if ever!) to quickly get out and shout ‘Freeze!’

Another example of this is from many years ago when I was a student in Oxford. A high powered professor of Medicine at my college would occasionally invite small groups of his students for dinner and to see his elaborate train set which he kept set up in the loft. Digital collecting is so very easy isn’t it? Just a click then it is on its way. But not as satisfying or relaxing as spending time browsing in a shop. My dear friend Alan tells me he likes to listen to music while doing the family ironing. Currently he has collected 2,500 songs on Spotify and has 76 albums saved digitally too. He must have a lot of ironing to do! I should not jest as I have four complete Wagner Ring cycles and four complete versions of the nine Beethoven symphonies on disc! And all the rest. As I look at my music collection I realise that some discs reflect earlier enthusiasms which I no longer have. So perhaps I need to decide which I really want to keep and give away the rest as my dear late friend Brian did.

But where is the enjoyment – purely in possession? Sometimes I look around my shelves and think when will I have the time to absorb all this, to really enjoy it. I think back to my childhood and youth, when I would use my birthday or pocket money to buy a book and go home and immediately curl up in a chair and begin to read it. Or I would buy a record and take it home and play it over and over again and really absorb and enjoy the music. I had so few books or albums then I suppose. The ones I had were special. The connection between purchase and enjoyment was immediate then. I also used the local library to borrow books and music too, even when I moved to London and my little bedsit in Brixton. Borrowing rather than buying? Dear me! But I lived with more modest means then.

As I look around the lounge again I realise that, when you include my TV and the cable box, this little room is quite an entertainment centre. I am now a man of riches and treasures too: well, treasures to me. It appears I am wealthy man. It is good to look around our rooms with fresh eyes and take in our possessions. To realise just how wealthy we are compared with many others – and some of those others may live not very far from us. So we should be grateful for what we have and share our treasures with others if possible. And perhaps try to pay no attention to that little insidious voice encouraging us to purchase more and take that itching finger away from our phone or laptop where Amazon and other sites pedal their wares.

Some of these books and cd’s and movies are like old friends to me. Some are barely new acquaintances as I have hardly played them or read them, if at all. Some too, like true friends, have helped see me through difficult times.

But they are not really friends. Real friends cannot be bought, let alone possessed. Generally we only acquire real friends by accident, not by intention, where we find ourselves at different times on life’s journey. We shouldn’t pick them up and put them down again either like a cd or a book, let alone leave them to gather dust on the shelf. Friendships have to be kept in good repair. They are our true treasures, our true wealth.

Marcus advises us: ‘Whenever you want to cheer yourself up, think of the qualities of your fellows’, for which we could read ‘friends.’ So, instead of playing or streaming that movie or music or interminable Netflix series, or clicking on Amazon to buy something new, we could cheer ourselves up by reflecting on our friends and be thankful for them. And then give them a call.

Ave atque Vale – until the next blog.

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Neilus Aurelius

Meditation 75

As I sit here this evening beside my candle, through the window the light slowly begins to fade. However, in my mind’s eye I can see cherry blossom gently blowing in the breeze of a Spring day as if it is blooming outside my window. The blossom is a delicate pink and is not only hanging from the boughs of one tree but from a whole avenue of trees stretching ahead of me, interspersed with elegant street lamps.
The avenue I am picturing in my mind is situated on the promenade that skirts the Castle district (the Var) on the Buda side of Budapest. Looking down from it you can see the Danube and Pest on the other side. The blossom creates a canopy as you leisurely stroll under it in the Spring sunshine. Everyone will stop at some point in their walk to admire the blossom or take a photo or a ‘selfie’ with its profusion in the background. Little children wonder at the blossom too, picking up clumps of fallen pink petals from the ground to play with.
This is not a vibrant memory of several years ago but a recent one. For a few weeks ago I returned to Budapest for a holiday. It was my first visit there (and my first trip abroad) since February 2020, just before the pandemic took hold. Those of you who read my meditations may recall that my reason for being in Budapest then was my final Drama tour with my school after almost thirty years of performances there (and in other places in Hungary too). It was a very busy week then, as those tours always were, and quite emotional for me. I always knew I would be returning at some point to see my friends but I would not be touring with a group again.
So I was glad to be finally revisiting the city after two years to properly take stock of my many times there, to reflect as dear Marcus would have done. I would have done this earlier, probably in the autumn of 2020, if the pandemic hadn’t prevented me. In the throes of the pandemic and in lockdowns at home, I found it difficult to reflect at all. I was trying to make sense of what we were all going through then and I shared some of those thoughts here in this blog.
It was also good to have a friend with me to share my reflections and memories. My friend Simon had quite a few himself as he was a student on some of the earlier tours and was a guest with other ex-students on my final one. He had also visited the city quite a few times in the interim.
There were many memories as I revisited places and met with old friends (some of whom I have known for three decades). As I sat on the number 2 tram and trundled along the Danube embankment, I remembered numerous occasions when I was on the same tram with my students and my perennial cry of ‘Next Stop!’, which some of them would imitate. This led me to memories of our numerous productions and moments from rehearsals and performances and all those journeys round the city, trudging around (often in snow or rain) with costumes and props.
I was sitting with Simon one morning in the Muvesz coffee house on Andrassy Street near the Opera House with coffee and a large wedge of Sacher Torte in front of me. I recalled the numerous occasions I had been there and who had been with me. For my times in Budapest have always involved coffee, cake and culture. And good food and wine and conversation with friends. And goulash of course and hortobagy palacinta: my favourite

meat pancakes in a tomato and cheese sauce. My girth has definitely developed because of regular visits to Budapest!
Many recollections swirled in my mind like the blossom in the breeze on the Promenade. It was a visit redolent of echoes of the past. However, like all familiar places we travel to, it was as if I had never been away. It was as if the hiatus created by the pandemic hadn’t happened. The city looked much the same to me: some shops and cafes I used to frequent had sadly disappeared, but there seemed to be ongoing restoration work on old buildings and new buildings have appeared too. The city and the Castle district in particular looked resplendent in the sunshine.
At night, the streets in the castle district are beautifully lit by lamplight, which I really love. The streets have been used for filming frequently. The light from the lamps makes the white or yellow stucco walls of the old buildings warmly glow. The dark avenue of trees interspersed with the lights shining from below onto the boughs and leaves turn the promenade into a magical glade. It would be an ideal setting for Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.
Despite being a very busy tourist trap in the day, the streets in the Var are fairly quiet at night and have a romantic rather than a sinister atmosphere (unlike the streets of Venice). My dear friends Mariann and Kristóf lived there with their family for many years just off the promenade. They found me accommodation in the district on my first visits to the city on my own. This was when I taught Drama at Mariann’s school several times in my October half terms. The streets in the area were even quieter at night in those days, over a quarter of a century ago. Budapest wasn’t a major tourist destination then as it is now. I loved staying there, stepping out onto the cobbled streets with the historic buildings on either side. I felt as if I was walking in a film set myself or, on a more profound level, that I was in the heart of Central Europe.
It was the castle district which really attracted me to the city at first and my first memories of the city are bound up with it. It was good to rediscover it on this trip (and so beautifully restored) as we were staying in a hotel only a short walk away. Walking around those streets one evening and recalling when I stayed there all those years ago, made me realise that Budapest has been a major part of my life and remains very important to me.
It is good to have special places in our lives that speak to us, where we feel at home, which I do whenever I am there. Also when I am there, sitting in a cafe or strolling along the Danube embankment, I realise that I am at heart a European. That is why, in these meditations, I have been so angry about Brexit and so saddened about the current war in Ukraine.
I always feel at home in the Kolibri Children’s Theatre which I revisited too on my stay in the city. It was where we gave our last performances two years ago, when I was made an honorary member of the theatre.
In chatting with the director, Janos Novak, I discovered that the theatre is not only up running again but with a busy schedule and full audiences. It has had a refurbishment too. It is a children’s theatre with an international reputation and organises international annual festivals. We first appeared there in 1996 and my friend Simon was in that production as Robin Hood.
This year the Kolibri is celebrating its 30th anniversary. I remember we revived ‘Robin Hood’ for its 25th! The theatre is putting together a documentary as part of the

celebrations. While I was there I was asked to give an interview for the documentary, which was quite an honour. It was moving to be back on the stage again after two years for the filming. It has always been a special place for me. I find it remarkable to think my students and myself have been a small part of the theatre’s story. But the new appeared in over twenty productions there over the years.
Shortly after I returned home, I took part in another zoom meeting with ex-members of Teeside Youth Theatre. What an arc my life has taken: from a Youth Theatre in the North East of England to an honorary member of a theatre in Budapest! I suppose it is only when we retire, or when we stop, that we can see the arc our lives have taken. Most of the time we are too busy working and lucky if we can see one foot in front of the other! But it is important to occasionally step back and appreciate what we have achieved and that is not immodesty. It is appreciating who we are. The playwright Noel Coward wrote in one of his plays:
‘Here’s a toast to each of us and all of us together Here’s a toast to happiness ands reasonable pride’.
I agree with Noel that there is such a thing as ‘reasonable pride’ – in a good job done, in what we have achieved. And yes I am proud of my achievements at school and in Hungary. And so grateful for all the friendships and memories and good things on the way.
On our last day, Simon and I took our final stroll among the cherry trees on the promenade. The trees were beginning to shed their blossom in earnest. The wet pavements were covered in their pink petals. We were fortunate to have seen the trees in full bloom when we arrived.
Everything is transient, everything must come to an end. ‘Our revels now are ended’ as Prospero says in Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’.
This holiday has helped me to see the arc and also to finally let go.
And to appreciate my favourite city in a new way.
And to return when the cherry trees are in bloom again – or before!
Ave atque Vale – until the next blog.

If you are enjoying my blog, and have not already done so, please sign up below to receive notification of each new blog by e mail. Just add your e mail to ‘Follow’ as it pops up.
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Neilus Aurelius

Meditation 74

As I sit here beside my candle I am meditating on the Movies. I suppose I should be watching one instead! I have always had an interest in films and have loved going to the cinema since being a child. I am sure most of us are the same. Although, perhaps we go to the cinema less often now and watch films on TV or stream them. Entertainment has become rather complicated, hasn’t it? Or rather choosing how to watch a film has. Personally, I still think the best way to concentrate on a film and to hopefully become immersed in it, is to see it in a cinema.    

I also have a keen interest in cinema history, which also developed in my childhood. At that time, the BBC seemed to be showing the back catalogue of movies made by the Paramount and RKO studios. Many were from the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s. I relished them all and would eagerly wait for the cast list at the end of each film to see who was playing who. I would remember their names and watch out for them in other movies.  

In those days, closing credits were much shorter than the seemingly endless ones of today. The end credits were limited to a cast list. Only the stars and ‘featured players’ received a credit. Those in minor roles or ‘bit parts’ often did not appear in the list at all. Some studios (like 20th Century Fox) often placed the cast list at the opening of the film along with the technical credits. Not all the technicians who contributed to the film’s production were included either in the film’s opening credits.  Only the major ones did: the director, screenwriters, music composer, director of photography, set designer, costume, hairstyle and makeup for example. The others, though equally important, were invisible studio employees.

I used to collect film actors the way other boys of my age collected football players. (Dear me, that sounds rather indelicate!) Eventually I came to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of film actors from that era and not just the stars but also the character actors too. I am sure I began to learn my acting craft by watching those movies. I never wanted to be a star but would have loved to be a character actor in Hollywood’s golden era. I still would.

When I was a child, my ambition was to be in a Disney movie at their Hollywood studios. At that time Disney produced a string of ‘live-action’ films as well as their animation ones. I remember entering a competition run by the Disney magazine and first prize was a trip to the studios in Hollywood. I was sure I would win and that when I was on the studio tour I would be talent spotted, which would lead to my Disney film career. Such are the dreams of childhood! I did win something: a signed photo of Hayley Mills their top teenage star at the time. But it was no consolation to me!     

It must be wonderful to win an Oscar, BAFTA or other major award. I can’t help myself watching those ceremonies on TV and finding out the nominees in advance and hoping that my choices will win, especially if it is a film or performance I have very much appreciated. It must be so exciting and rewarding to have your craft acknowledged in this way or even just to be nominated, which is an acknowledgement in itself. Either way, I understand it makes you more ‘bankable’ for the future. Needless to say, I have my basic acceptance speech ready so that I can adapt it when the times comes. At this time in my life, it won’t be the award for Most Promising Newcomer but for Most Promising Senior!

Coming back to my celluloid youth, ITV showed quite a lot of British films then including those made by Alexander Korda at London Films in the 30’s and early 40’s. He established London Films at Denham in Buckinghamshire. His aim was to rival Hollywood in high standards, quality and opulence and he often succeeded. I very much enjoyed his films especially those starring Charles Laughton, one of my favourite actors. I find it strange that Korda was a Hungarian and that eventually Hungary would figure so prominently in my life. There is now a major film studio named after him (as it should be) outside Budapest where a lot of Netflix movies are made. Two of my ex-students, Archie Renaux and Tommy Rodger, have been filming a Netflix series there: Shadow and Bone.’  It is wonderful to think that their first appearance as actors in Hungary was in one of our school productions on tour there, and now they are back in Hungary filming a Netflix series. Life comes full circle: very quickly for them.      

When I was a teenager, on one of our annual holidays to London, I bought a book called ‘Immortals of the Screen.’ It was a large book with potted biographies of film stars, going back to the silent days. All of the stars had passed way (hence ‘immortal’ in the title) before 1966, when the book was printed. Each little biography was accompanied by a portrait and stills from some of the films they appeared in. I imagine it must have been published in the U.S.A. and reprinted in Europe.  It was one of those big books that Paul Hamlyn used to publish, usually printed in Czechoslovakia. Perhaps you remember them. Of course the book fired up my enthusiasm even further and I would watch out for the films mentioned if they came on TV or on a chance re-run at the cinema. Those were the days before VHS, DVD, Blue Ray and streaming!

Most of the silent stars would not be featured on TV of course. Thanks to Kevin Brownlow’s wonderful TV series, ‘Hollywood’ and his restoration of some of the classic silent films with superb scores by composer Carl Davis, which appeared on Channel 4, I was finally able to see some of those stars who featured in the book I bought years earlier. Eventually I became and still am a member of the British Film Institute on London’s South Bank where I can see these silent classics as they should be seen – on the big screen. I have also been fortunate to see some with a live orchestra next door at the Festival Hall. But perhaps my passion for silent movies should be the subject of another blog. 

Being a fan of the Oscars ceremony, inevitably I watched the morning news on TV a few weeks ago to find out the winners. There on the news I saw the regrettable incident of the actor Will Smith stepping up to the stage and slapping the Master of Ceremonies Chris Rock. This was provoked by a joke made by Mr Rock about Mr Smith’s wife who was sitting beside him. The joke was interpreted by the Smiths as a nasty comment on her hair loss as she is an alopecia sufferer. Initially Mr Smith laughed – did he hear properly? – but it seems that his wife’s discomfort with the remark led him to walk up to the stage and hit Mr. Rock. Mr Smith seemed very emotional at his Best Actor acceptance speech with tears in his eyes.  Perhaps this was part of the problem. His emotions must have been running high while he was waiting in the audience for the Best Actor category to be announced onstage. A few weeks earlier, he had won ‘Best Actor’ at the BAFTA awards in London so would he make it a double at the Oscars? 

I am sure that the emotions of all nominees run high while waiting for the big moment. Moreover they probably do not really have any interest in the stand-up repartee of the MC. They are nervous and not a little uptight, which may have contributed towards Mr Smith quietly blowing a fuse, walking onto the stage and slapping Mr Rock, then returning to his seat and shouting at Mr Rock before he sat down.

In other circumstances, he would have been removed by security guards no doubt. Had he not been sitting on an aisle and fairly close to the stage, perhaps the incident may never have happened. Although he may still have stood up and shouted at Mr Rock from wherever he was seated.

It was ‘unacceptable and harmful behaviour’ on Mr Smith’s part in the words of the Academy’s official review published today and the Academy have banned him from the Oscar gala and other Academy events for 10 years. Mr Smith had earlier already apologised for his behaviour and voluntarily resigned from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (who awarded him his Oscar) and hopefully will regain his personal dignity in time.

In a way Oscars Night has ceased to be a ceremony but over the years has become a circus (certainly a media circus) with its fashion parade on the red carpet, the big production numbers on stage, endless interviews and wild after show parties. The first Academy Awards ceremony took place in 1929 and was at a private dinner at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel: very different from the world wide television event it has become.            

Much attention has understandably been given to Will Smith as the aggressor. But surely we must also take into account his provoker, the compère for the evening, Chris Rock, when considering this regrettable incident. The comedian and actor Ricky Gervais has very recently referred to Mr Rock’s joke as ‘feeble’. It probably was compared to his own roasting of nominees when he has been Master of Ceremonies at awards evenings. Rather than physically attack Mr Gervais, presumably the objects of his comments suffered in silence.

He has also objected to Mr Rock’s joke at Jada Pinckett Smith’s expense being labelled as a joke against a disability. Whether alopecia can be defined as a disability I do not know, so he may have a point here. Nevertheless it is an ongoing medical condition which sufferers may feel understandably sensitive about as it involves their looks, especially if you are an actor and consort of a major movie star attending the Oscars, where your personal appearance is so high profile. She was diagnosed in 2018, it appears, and has only gone public about her condition on Instagram last December. It seems that Mr Rock was unaware of this. Perhaps it may have taken her some courage to attend the ceremony, we do not know.

It also appears that Mr Rock’s joke was unscripted, off the cuff, a sudden brainwave. He had said the wrong thing at the wrong time without thinking and hurt someone’s feelings as a result. We have all been guilty of that at times. I certainly have. But not in a high profile ceremony with a world-wide audience. It is easier to come out with a witty comment than to stop and think about who you are speaking to, especially when you are performing your act to a large audience on the stage of the Oscars. However, it is indicative of a wider trend in stand-up comedy of using humour to deliberately denigrate and demean others at their expense, to the extent that humour becomes vitriolic and tasteless. But then, Social media is riddled with unkind humour and comments and sometimes with tragic results, especially among young people. It is a sad sign of our times. 

Perhaps, along with banning Mr Smith, the Academy ought to also review the role of the MC at the ceremony.

The singer and actress, Lady Gaga’s behaviour at the ceremony contrasts with Mr Smith’s and not in his favour. Later on the evening she was announcing the award for Best Picture with another famous actress and singer, Liza Minnelli, who was making a rare appearance. Miss Minnelli, an Oscar winner herself (for ‘Cabaret in 1973)  appeared on stage in a wheelchair and had been in hospital only a few weeks earlier. She was understandably rather nervous and tongue-tied. Perhaps being back at the Oscars was rather overwhelming for her too and this was the last award of the evening to be announced so she had been waiting in the wings, so to speak, for a long while. Putting aside her own feelings at losing the Best Actress award (the previous one to be announced) Lady Gaga gently and graciously assisted Miss Minnelli with the announcement.  It was a loving gesture and showed respect for the star that Liza Minnelli is.

Sadly this beautiful moment, though widely publicised, has been overshadowed by the earlier dramatic incident.

Incidentally there is a film called ‘He who Gets Slapped’! It is a silent film released in 1924 and was M-G-M’s first ever production, starring Lon Chaney. The film is ironically set in a circus! Perhaps we are ready for a remake, only set at the Oscars.

Ave atque Vale – until the next blog.

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Neilus Aurelius

MEDITATION 73

This evening the candle beside me is not lit in imitation of Marcus Aurelius writing his own ‘Meditations’ far into the night. Nor is the candle there on my table in an attempt to create a relaxed ambiance conducive to writing. It is kindled for the people of Ukraine who at this moment are suffering a horrific invasion with heroic endurance.

I have struggled to write a meditation in the last week or so. It has been a while since my last one. The ideas in my head have been mown down by the relentless onslaught of  events in Ukraine and Russia, which I have found myself compulsively following on the BBC News, so courageously reported  by their correspondents. 

But then, the peace of Europe has suddenly become precarious after nearly eighty years, a peace I have been fortunate to enjoy all my life and a peace and a freedom I have flourished in. It is a peace and freedom I have taken for granted, until these recent days. So perhaps I can be excused if my thoughts have been too distracted to put into words.    

Once again refugees are shuffling across Europe carrying their suitcases. Once again they rush to climb aboard overcrowded trains, holding children aloft to make sure they find a space however small in a carriage to freedom. Freedom from fear: fear of shelling and bombing; fear of the onslaught of the enemy at the gates and freedom from the potential fear of living under a new repressive regime. 

 In the faces of the children I see my own father and his sister, aged 8 and 5 when German troops invaded Poland in 1939, who became refugees themselves through the Second World War.  After the end of the war in 1945, when over 11 million people were homeless in Europe and no longer living in their native country, the phrase ‘displaced person’ was used rather than the term ‘refugee’. In the last few days in Ukraine, with the conflict and ensuing evacuation both escalating, the numbers of ‘displaced persons’ heading for the West is fast approaching a million. They have become displaced so quickly that I wonder if their minds have become displaced too, though not their hearts, which remain in their homeland.

As refugees, Ukrainians have already found or are discovering a temporary refuge in neighbouring countries: Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Moldova, Romania and opportunities for further sanctuary are swiftly emerging in Europe. The welcome and generosity of these countries is staggering, heartwarming and humbling. In these dark days we are seeing the worst of human nature and the best. The U.K. government must play its own part and in the same openhanded spirit of goodwill, rather than letting open hands be bound together by red tape.

It is difficult to know how to respond to the deeply tragic events we are witnessing, except to make a donation to relief agencies.  So much has already been said in the last days and the international response has been at all levels generally supportive of President Zelensky and Ukraine and condemnatory of President Putin and Russia.

Perhaps a Ukrainian lady can comment. She was interviewed on the BBC News about twelve days ago, when Russian forces were amassing on the borders several days before the invasion began. The interview was filmed at the rudimentary checkpoint between Ukraine and separatist Donetsk. The woman, who was middle aged, had to go through the checkpoint to Ukraine for her regular cancer treatment. Originally the checkpoint wouldn’t be there of course. She was understandably fearful and could not understand what was happening. It seemed senseless to her. She opened her arms and said ‘I only want to love everyone: I want to give the world a big hug.’  I am sure many Russians do too. But sadly not their leader.  As Shakespeare says in his play ‘Measure for Measure’:

                                                ‘but man, proud man,

                        Dressed in a little brief authority,

                        Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,

                        His glassy essence, like an angry ape

                        Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven

                        As make the angels weep.’

In my numbness and emptiness I turn to another poet, W.H.Auden (1907-1973) and his poem ‘September 1 1939’ which he wrote in New York, when war was imminent in Europe. He is perhaps now best remembered for his poem ‘Stop the clocks’ which featured in the romantic film ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’. 

‘September 1 1939’ was reprinted in ‘The New Yorker’ and then some newspapers after the 9/11 bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York in 2002. It became a kind of anthem associated with that other horrific event. It is a long poem but the last lines suggest a response to the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine:

                                    ‘Defenceless under the night

                                    Our world in stupor lies;

                                    Yet, dotted everywhere,

                                    Ironic points of light

                                    Flash out wherever the Just

                                    Exchange their messages:

                                    May I, composed like them

                                    Of Eros and of dust,

                                    Beleaguered by the same

                                    Negation and despair

                                    Show an affirming flame.’    

May we all show an affirming flame. And may we remember with St Francis that ‘All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.’ Or an affirming flame.

Ave atque Vale! Hail and Farewell.

PS: The quotations in this latest meditation may have appeared in earlier ones. I make no apology – they express my response at present. 

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MEDITATION 72

Before I began this meditation I was looking at the wooden flooring in my lounge. So much more healthy than a carpet for an asthmatic like myself. I have been prompted to look at my floor because I was thinking about another kind of floor: a stone tiled floor. Marcus Aurelius, my namesake, would walk on stone tiled floors in his villas of course or marble or mosaic ones. In imitation of him, I have a stone tiled floor in my small bathroom and marble effect walls in the shower. In the corner is a terracotta amphora (a large urn) which someone gave me as a birthday gift several years ago. I also have some facsimile tiles on the walls from the baths at Ostia Antiqua in Rome, when I visited there. A little touch of Ancient Rome in New Malden!

The reason I have been musing about stone floors is that someone from my youth has recently contacted me via this blog. We have have not been in touch for many years. Paul Cook was a school friend of mine – we were in Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ together when we were 15 years old. When Louis Maidens, (our English teacher who directed the school plays) left the school after our ‘O’ levels ,we both joined a new drama group in our local area – Teesside Youth Theatre – at the start of our Sixth Form in 1970! A long.long, time ago. How the years flow by.

He has been putting together information about Ormesby Hall, the local National Trust property, just outside Middlesbrough. The Youth Theatre would often rehearse there on Sunday afternoons. We used to rehearse in the large stone floored kitchen, which was presumable where the servants dined in times gone by.  It wasn’t ‘below stairs’, however but at the side of the house. He has been asking me for memories of rehearsing at the Hall and the kitchen and its stone floors came to mind. Since being in touch with him by email the other day, the memory of those kitchen rehearsals has lingered. 

My first memories of rehearsing there were in the winter of 1970-71 when we were devising a modern version of Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’. The final script would be written by another member of the Youth Theatre, Robert Holman, who eventually went on to be a successful playwright and sadly died last December. The production was to be performed at various venues in the area.

I remember the kitchen was freezing cold, because of those floors. This was very appropriate for our production – we soon got into character! We had to light a fire in the big fireplace before we started rehearsing, I remember.  The high-ceilinged room soon warmed up from the fire, however, and we warmed up by moving around in rehearsal. We wanted to get up from our chairs as soon as possible to get warm so reading through scenes was brisk!

The kitchen soon became cosy and Christmassy and even though we were rehearsing a modern version of Dickens’ famous opus, the Victorian surroundings helped us get into the atmosphere of the story. At least I thought so. I was playing Bob Cratchit and I remember rehearsing the Christmas dinner scene on that stone floor and surrounding brick walls, feeling as if I had one foot in 1970 and the other in 1843! We were definitely in 1970 when we performed the scene for real:  the Christmas dinner we had to ecstatically enthuse over consisted of cold tinned vegetables (including potatoes) and the Christmas goose was substituted by slices of spam!

Being in the kitchen was so very different from rehearsing at my school, St Mary’s College, which was a fairly new building with polished floors or at Kirby College in Middlesbrough, where we had opened their brand new theatre with ‘The Fire Raisers’ the previous September. But that draughty kitchen, because it was such an unusual place to rehearse,  became ‘our space’, our den, our club house over the months we were there and I have fond memories of it.

The place inspired me too: my first production at my school, in 1984, was my own modern version of ‘A Christmas Carol’. My two years at the Youth Theatre helped to form me as any specialised Youth group should. Not only did I have the chance to act, but also to direct and write scripts too and  to be with other people who were generally as committed to performing as I was. There was no Drama at my school once Louis Maidens left and no A Level Drama either. So the Youth Theatre was my lifeline.            

In the following summer, we rehearsed Shakespeare’s ‘Measure For Measure’ there for performances at Middlesbrough Little Theatre in September. The kitchen remained cool even in the summer months! We did rehearse outside though on the lawn sometimes and I also remember rehearsing on the lawn for my final production, ‘Progress in Unity’ another one devised by ourselves and written by Robert Holman, about the history of the area. That production was performed at Middlesbrough Town Hall in September 1972 just before I went to university.

My special memory of being at Ormesby Hall with the Youth Theatre was performing a one act play in the drawing room. This was as part of an arts evening as far as I remember. We performed an Edwardian comedy ‘Playgoers’ by Arthur Wing Pinero. It was about an aristocratic lady unsuccessfully trying to rehearse her servants in a play. I played her equally harassed husband and I think I may have directed it too. The drawing room was the perfect setting for the play and we used some of the sofas and armchairs at one end of the room for our scene with the audience sitting round us in a semi-circle.  It was like begin on a film set in away or in an episode of ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’, which was on the TV at the time. And it was warm of course!

Ormesby Hall has been owned by the Pennyman family since 1599 and when Jim Pennyman died in 1961, it was bequeathed to the National Trust with his wife Ruth being allowed to remain living there. Jim and Ruth Pennyman were great supporters of the Arts and Ruth had been a poet and playwright herself. She had generously loaned us the huge kitchen for rehearsals. I think she provided the logs for the fire too. Sometimes she would wander in with a tray of homemade sausage rolls and cakes or they would be left out for us. She was very welcoming and interested in us but never intruded. Ruth was a very generous supporter of the Youth Theatre and therefore of the artistic development of its members.

In the 1940’s she was also an active and generous supporter of the early days of Theatre Workshop, led by Joan Littlewood, which eventually settled at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in London. In the 40’s they appeared at the early version of the Little Theatre but were billeted at Ormesby Hall. This led to an annual summer school there. Years later, at Stratford East, Joan Littlewood produced many innovative productions including ‘Oh What A Lovely War’ and a number of actors’ professional careers were nurtured there, including Barbara Windsor. I wonder if they rehearsed in the kitchen in the ’40’s just as we did in the ’70’s.

These days we are used to corporate and government patronage and subsidy of the Arts on a large scale and very important it is too, essential to the cultural life of the country and our own well-being. Such sponsorship was also occurring when I was a member of the Youth Theatre, of course, but then as now, there were individuals like Ruth Pennyman who generously and quietly supported local Arts groups and even professional ones in embryo like Theatre Workshop. And not only financially. -Ruth gave us premises to rehearse in and, at times, perform in. Not to mention her homemade sausage rolls and cakes! 

Where have the years gone, I ask myself, as I gaze at the candle beside me. I have begun to perceive that there are far more years behind me than are left to me – even if I become a centenarian! If so, will I still be blogging?  Or what digital format or platform will I be using over thirty years from now. Old and decrepit as I may become, perhaps I will be able to beam down into your homes (if you are still around too) and deliver my blog in person.

Marcus tells us in his Meditations (Book 6): ‘The whole of present time is a pin-prick of eternity. All things are tiny, quick-changed, evanescent’. He also describes Time as a ‘violent stream’ in Book 4. Tine does move quickly and our lives change quickly as a result. We do not see that when we are young. I am beginning to see it now.

Ave atque Vale! Hail and Farewell.

 If you are enjoying my blog, and have not already done so, please sign up below to receive notification of each new blog by e mail. Just add your e mail to ‘Follow’ as it pops up.

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Many thanks

Neilus Aurelius

MEDITATION 71

I am thinking of places I have visited as I sit here beside my candle and begin to write. I have especially been recalling places abroad. Hopefully I will be able to travel internationally again this year. I have been rather hesitant about travelling abroad because of the endlessly changing restrictions both here and where I might like to visit. I admire friends who have bravely negotiated the minefield of shifting entry requirements and accompanying stress to enjoy a vacation overseas.    

My last trip abroad was in February 2020: to Budapest for my final Drama tour. Dear me, that is almost two years ago now. I hope to return there in late April to see friends and visit the Kolibri Theatre again, where our final performance took place and where, as at my school, I was given a wonderful farewell.

On that final evening I was given a beautiful plaque with a hand carved Harlequin puppet attached to it (the theatre began as a children’s puppet theatre).  Under the puppet is a citation on a small metal plate, declaring me to be an honorary member of the theatre. Needless to say, I was very moved to receive the plaque and I am very proud of it.

Since receiving it, off and on through the lockdowns, as well as writing this blog I have been revising some of the play scripts I wrote for my school. I have presented one of these, ‘The Sea Serpent’ (based on a Canadian First Nations Legend) to the Kolibri. It is being translated into Hungarian and may be performed there as part of the theatre’s repertoire. So hopefully, in late April, I will be visiting the Theatre to discuss a possible production of the script with my dear friends there. It is a very exciting prospect.

But I have not been thinking of Budapest particularly as I sit here by my candle. Memories  of my two visits to New York have returned to my thoughts. I was there in 2015 and 2016. Needless to say, I have been remembering the shows I saw on Broadway and Central Park and the museums and art galleries and bustling streets. One place in particular has returned to my mind and impressed itself on me again.  I have been remembering a room I visited, a silent room.

This room is in the United Nations Headquarters, which I visited on my second trip in 2016. Please understand that I was not invited to speak to the delegates, let alone the Security Council! Though of course I had my speech prepared just in case! No I was just paying a visit as a lowly tourist.

The U.N. Headquarters is a place of talk: speeches, debate, discussion, negotiation, conflict even.  The Swedish diplomat and economist Dag Hammarskjold (1905-1961) was the second General Secretary of the U.N. He decided that in the midst of all the discussions and negotiations there needed to be a place of silence in the building; a place where delegates and others could go to be quiet and recollect and think, even just to clear their heads before yet another round of negotiations. So, though the building had only been open for a few years and was presumably considered to be completed, he arranged for a ‘silent room’ to be designed and constructed.

The room is situated on the ground floor not far from the main entrance and below the General Assembly.  Its shape is oblong and the ceiling is quite high and, as I remember,  the walls are of a neutral grey. It is softly lit to aid reflection. I remember clearly the moment I first entered the room. The silence and calm absorbed me immediately. I felt as if I was imposing on the room’s stillness as I sat down. Perhaps this was because I was the only person in the room at that point.

In the middle of the room there is a large granite oblong stone. It is on a grey plinth and spotlit from above. It  is quite imposing in its simplicity. My eyes were drawn towards it as I sat there. But then there was nothing else in the room or on the walls to distract me. 

The stone was chosen by Hammarskjold himself according to the information panel outside. He suggested that ‘the stone reminds us of the firm and the permanent in a world of movement and change’. He chose the stone because he was looking for a simple symbol that could speak to people of many different faiths or none.  He was searching for ‘simple things which speak to all of us in the same language. We have sought for such things and we have found them in the shaft of light striking the shimmering surface of solid rock. A symbol to many of how the light of spirit gives life to matter.’ The shaft of light refracted on the stone was indeed very striking, as I sat there. 

He believed that ‘We all have within us a centre of silence surrounded by stillness’.  Presumably he created the room to hopefully help delegates and others from different nations and cultures to find this centre of silence in the midst of all the endless words and talk in the building. A place not only of reflection and re-thinking but of steadying the mind and therefore of refreshment and true re-creation. I wonder how many people have availed themselves of this oasis of calm over the decades and how many do so now. Moreover, how often negotiations continued in a quieter key afterwards and how many decisions or resolutions were altered or completely changed as a result, hopefully for the good.

I could understand what Dag Hammarskjold was aiming for as I sat there enveloped in the stillness like a blanket.The silence was not intimidating but comforting.  In the silence, my mind and my eyes became relaxed and relieved of the exhausting stimuli of the morning’s tourism. The stone drew me in and I could almost feel its cold surface even though I was seated a long way from it near the door.  I emerged from the room, calm and refreshed and ready to take up my tourist wanderings again.  But not before slowly reading the information panels outside and noting down Hammarskjold’s words from them. Then I  meandered down to the basement where the gift shop (and obligatory fridge magnets) awaited me.

Over the last two years we have been made acutely aware that we live in ‘a world of movement and change’. The world is ever thus but the pandemic has impressed this upon us even more. This is because it has affected our daily lives, which have been constantly shifting with the pandemic’s movement and with changes in government rules as a result. Perhaps we have been searching for a stone to cling to in this maelstrom, something firm that does not change, something permanent.  Or perhaps at times in our inertia, exhaustion and dark moments we have been looking for that spark of life to keep us going each day: that ‘light of spirit that gives life to matter.’

Dag Hammarskjold appeared to see this permanence and this spark of life within ourselves: within our own centre of silence.  He believes, first of all, that we all have this centre within us as I do. To find this centre, we must begin by finding a little time and a place to practice the stillness that surrounds it. And I have learnt from sitting in that room in the UN Headquarters that silence is not intimidating, least of all threatening, but it is comforting and recreating if you give it time.

Let me close with some more words of Dag Hammarskjold, I recently discovered in another blog. He wrote them in his diary at the beginning of 1953 (the year of my birth). They are a short and succinct way of saying goodbye to the old year and heralding in the new.

‘Night is coming on.

For all that has been – thanks!

To all that shall be – Yes!’

Four months after writing this, he was elected as Secretary General to the U.N. That must have been a big ‘Yes’!

Ave atque Vale! Hail and Farewell.

If you are enjoying my blog, and have not already done so, please sign up below to receive notification of each new blog by e mail. Just add your e mail to ‘Follow’ as it pops up.

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Many thanks

Neilus Aurelius

MEDITATION 70

‘Tis the season for New Year’s resolutions,’ I think to myself as I sit here beside my candle and begin to write. A New Year’s resolution might be a change of habit, or it might be taking on something new or reviving a good habit that has fallen by the wayside. It is traditionally a time to pull ourselves up short, take stock and see how we can better ourselves in the year ahead. It therefore involves a little reflection: to be resolved about something means that you have thought it through first. It is not some vague plan but a definite course of action. To be resolved also means you have to be determined to carry it out, to see it through (even though that initial determination may eventually dissipate, human nature being what it is!).

Vague courses of action may be all we can manage at present. We have all been living unfocused lives because of the lockdowns and unpredictable (and usually unwanted) changes in our daily routines. Also plans for the future have been necessarily tentative. This lack of focus has been further exacerbated by our greater reliance on our IPhones, the internet and streaming. We are bombarded with choice. We are presented with too many alternatives. So we dissolve into the ‘I might do this or I might do that’ syndrome with the result that we probably end up doing nothing at all!

I am sure that it is possible to find examples of New Year resolutions on Google. Perhaps some people may get their resolutions from there: ‘This one one looks good and suits me. Yes I might do that one. Or should I have a go at the one underneath?” scroll, scroll etc. Perhaps in these desultory times it is good to have a few resolutions or even just one. It might help us to focus, to get a stronger grip on our lives, to plan our day and our leisure time better.

Our dear friend Marcus Aurelius would approve of New Year’s resolutions, I think. As I have said in these pages, his own Meditations were a private document and addressed primarily to himself so they are littered with discreet resolutions of his own. The above paragraphs in this meditation of my own are addressed to myself too, as well as yourself, dear reader, of course!

Marcus was definitely one for being focused as he says in Book 4: ‘No action should be undertaken without aim, or other than in conformity with a principle affirming the art of life.’ This focus derives from a personal urgency: ‘No you do not have thousands of years to live. While you live, while you can, do good.’

Yes we can all resolve to do good in 2022. Or on a more personal and practical level, to be kind to others. In his poem ‘Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey’, William Wordsworth mentions:

                        ‘the best portion of a good man’s life,

                        His little nameless unremembered acts

                        Of kindness and of love.’

(My apologies to modern sensitivities: as Wordsworth was composing the poem in 1798, he writes of ‘a good man’s life’ rather than ‘a good person’s.’)

These lines of Wordsworth are quoted in a recent biography of Dickens by A.N. Wilson, ‘The Mystery of Charles Dickens.’ A.N.Wilson makes an excellent attempt to analyse the psychological seeds of the author’s prodigious imagination. He devotes a chapter to Dickens and Charity, which inevitably centres on ‘A Christmas Carol’, Dickens’ most famous novel. He points out that though Dickens actively supported numerous charitable institutions and campaigns in his lifetime, he felt that personal acts of charity and kindness were more important, perhaps because he received so few in his own deprived childhood.

In the closing scenes in ‘A Christmas Carol’, it is the reformed Scrooge’s acts of kindness towards the Cratchit family on Christmas morning that we remember more than his donations to the Charitable Gentlemen he had snubbed on Christmas Eve or even his reconciliation with his nephew Fred for that matter. In the novel, over the course of the visits of the Ghosts, Scrooge learns what Marcus Aurelius advocates: While you live, while you can, do good.’

So let us resolve to be kind to others in the coming year. But also, in view of the difficult times we have experienced over the last two years, let us also be a little kind to ourselves. By that I do not mean self indulgence, but by looking after ourselves a little better and trying to understand ourselves a little better too. To be a little merciful to ourselves, if you like. From that greater understanding of ourselves, other, perhaps deeper, resolutions may emerge.  

As Marcus writes in Book 7: ‘Dig inside yourself. Inside there is a spring of goodness ready to gush at any moment, if you keep digging.’

Wishing you a Happy New Year, dear reader.

Ave atque Vale! Hail and Farewell.

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Many thanks

Neilus Aurelius

MEDITATION 69

As I sit here by my candle beginning this meditation, I am reminding myself of when and where Marcus Aurelius wrote his own ‘Meditations.’ At night of course, on his military campaigns in his tent. He may have written them with a candle by his side, as I am now, but more probably with oil lamps. I may have mentioned this before.

I do not think I could find the peace of mind to write in a tent, although I imagine Marcus’ tent would have been very spacious, more like a marquee. Perhaps I could write in a marquee, as long as I had my habitual comforts around me and providing the weather outside wasn’t too wild and stormy. The winds across the plains of Hungary (or Pannonia as he would have know it) would be most severe and biting, I imagine.

The weather would not have bothered Marcus of course. He would have accepted all kinds of weather with stoic endurance. As he writes: ‘How easy it is to drive away or obliterate from one’s mind every impression which is troublesome or alien, and then to be in perfect calm.’ (Book 5).

He may have found this easy, having presumably developed the ability to blot out distractions form his mind and totally ‘zone in’ (as we would say) on the task in hand. I do not find that easy and I am sure most other people wouldn’t either. Perfect calm is also difficult to achieve and comes to us only momentarily, like happiness, but when it does it is blissful because unexpected.

However, Marcus’ maxim is a good one to adopt and strive for, especially in these days of the pandemic. Although, we must remind ourselves that Marcus wasn’t visited by ‘troublesome or alien thoughts’ from an I phone!  Perhaps he was being ironic or sarcastic against himself -he occasionally mentions his quick-temper for instance!

It is possible that he may also have written his philosophical notes in various palaces on his campaigns. I would definitely have no objections to writing in a palace! Childhood memories of those Roman epic movies swarm into my mind again!  I would be sitting on a red velvet cushion on a pristine white marble chair scribing away on an equally white pristine table, with elegant drapes fluttering in the delicate (summer!) breeze behind me.  And a large silver goblet brimming with deep red wine near to hand of course!

Though I have a deep affection for Hungary (and hope to return there in April – if the fates allow) I could not see myself seated in a tent and trying to write while those severe biting winds swirl around outside! My theatrical campaigns were in the the warmth of Budapest theatres, after all, and not the windswept Buda Hills of antiquity! The winter winds here are now rather biting but at least I writing in the warmth of my little house.

In my front garden there is a small rose bush. It was a birthday present from my sister Maria and her husband several years ago. The rose is called a ‘Darcy Bussell’, named after the ballet star and, yes, the blooms do dance in the wind sometimes. They are unable to twirl and pirouette on their stems however! The flowers are rather small and red and they fade into to a deep purple before they expire. Because of the mild Autumn weather buds have still appeared until recently so it was not possible to prune the rose bush in October.

The other day I noticed that one of the buds had begun to flower. It was a darker red than usual but nevertheless its petals were emerging. I cut it from its stem and put it into a small vase indoors where it has since flowered further. The petals are not fully open as they would be in summer but they have opened a little further now and there a scent, if a little feint.       

Maybe like the rose, we are longing to open out fully but at the moment, because the virus is still with us and a new variant has appeared and perhaps another lockdown is imminent, we are unable to. But like the rose, despite the harshness of this winter, we are still here and flowering as best we can.

And despite everything, in the darkness of winter there is still the warmth and glorious light of Christmas coming too.

As I walked out of my front door this morning I noticed that another two roses are blooming in the bitter cold. May we bloom like them, in the warmth of Christmas joy.

Wishing you a Happy Christmas, dear reader.

Ave atque Vale! Hail and Farewell – until the next blog in the New Year!

 If you are enjoying my blog, and have not already done so, please sign up below to receive notification of each new blog by e mail. Just add your e mail to ‘Follow’ as it pops up.

And please do pass on the blog address to others who may be interested.

I would also value any feedback on nzolad53@gmail.com or my Facebook page or Twitter.

Many thanks

Neilus Aurelius