MEDITATION 54

As I begin to write beside my customary candle, I am feeling cabined, cribbed and confined, as Macbeth would say. I have been asked to self-isolate according to the NHS Covid app on my phone. I have six out of seven days still to run as I received the message yesterday. 

Of course I have decided to obey the instruction, annoying though it is. When I delved into my personal data on the app, I discovered that whoever I came into contact with had declared a positive test yesterday, so, it must be said, the app is very efficient. But it is also, to the best of my knowledge, wrong. I was supposedly in contact with this person on Saturday. However, I never left my house on Saturday, so it was impossible for me to be in contact with anyone, except myself and I certainly haven’t had a positive test.

My annoyance, of course, stems from an injustice, petty though that injustice is. I am reminded of my career as a teacher. Children and young adults have an acute sense of injustice and, in my experience, more than most other things, it arouses an acute anger in them. So too with adults. The sense of being accused of something we didn’t do digs deep.   It did with me yesterday. I smarted at it. ‘My gorge rises at it’, as Shakespeare would say; well it did rise. It is like being in a lunchtime detention and angrily watching your schoolmates playing outside the classroom window.

The injustice is, as I have already mentioned, petty and slight. It is nothing compared with those who are imprisoned for something they haven’t done.  Or those who are incarcerated by oppressive regimes because of their political views, ethnicity, sexuality or religious faith. Neither have I been asked to shield for many months as so many have, with little opportunity to see loved ones. As I write this paragraph, I ask myself why I am complaining at all through this blog. 

As I think back to yesterday, it was the loss of personal freedom that annoyed me most. But then, it is only for a few days, I have a freezer that is replete with food and none of us are going far at the moment anyway. Marcus would tell me to persevere, to endure this present annoyance. 

But I have been asking myself why was this sudden loss of freedom so irksome to me? I think there were echoes of those first weeks of lockdown almost a year ago: the sudden changes imposed externally by the government, the return of a twinge of fear.

None of us likes to forego our liberty, It is something we have all battled with over the last gruelling months and we have perhaps, over time, been reduced to a tired resignation about it. But our liberty has to be gently pushed to one side in the medical emergency we are still in for the good of others. Just as having the vaccine (which I had two weeks ago) is not just to protect ourselves but also to protect others. So I am asked to self-isolate, even if erroneously, for the good of others, just in case. In the same way, we wear masks and drown our hands in cleansing fluid, just in case and as much for the good of others as for ourselves.

 I am reminded of one of those occasions when my aunt Barbara would show me some of her numerous volumes of photographs, while staying with her on holiday on Vancouver Island. She was showing me pictures of my childhood and there I was as a toddler in a walking harness with her young and glamorous self holding the reins behind me. ‘You were so cute’ she said to me, I remember. I must admit to a cringe of embarrassment. I did not like to be reminded I was a toddler once and barely out of babyhood. There I was with my fat little legs – they are more shapely now of course!  

In the photograph I was squirming in those walking reins and itching to move off, to walk away, to be free.  It is a natural impulse -to be free. But the reins were there to keep me from falling over, from harming myself. We, too, at this moment are itching to be free of the reins of lockdown, to move on. And perhaps, yesterday, I was squirming in those reins again, because I had suddenly been reminded of them. 

The weather has not been too cold to sit in my garden. Sitting there, I read these words. ‘Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.’  The words are not by Marcus Aurelius but Anne Frank, who was in hiding with her Jewish family behind a bookcase in concealed rooms above offices in Amsterdam from 1942-44 during the Nazi occupation. Self-isolation is nothing compared to what she endured with her family or afterwards, when she was discovered.

The great French novelist Marcel Proust (1877-1922) says ‘Turn your griefs, your suffering into ideas.’ A suitable creed for a writer, and so I have written this particular blog.  

But I am not grieving or suffering. I am only annoyed.  And, like all of us, I am weary with almost a year of various versions of lockdown. It is weariness, grumpiness, a fit of peak. My apologies. But if you read a blog, you must put up with the shifting emotions of the writer! 

Perhaps Marcus can help us to endure what will hopefully be the last phase of lockdown, however long or short that phase may be: ‘When you arise in the morning,think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive and breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.’

Ave atque Vale – Hail and Farewell – 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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A selection of previous meditations is also available in audio form as ‘Meditations of Neilus Aurelius’ ASMR on YouTube. 

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

Many thanks

MEDITATION 53

As I sit here beside my candle writing this meditation this evening, I am thinking over the day’s events. I, a pseudo-philosophical emperor, have been rebuked by a philosophical ex-President. This afternoon, I have been reading Barack Obama’s memoir ‘A Promised Land’. In his preface to the book, he explains how he came to write it after he left office in January 2017. He explains that he wrote his book in longhand because he feels that using a computer ‘gives even my roughest drafts too smooth a gloss and lends half-baked thoughts the mask of tidiness.’ There is a hint of humility in this which is endearing.

Perhaps I should take him as my model and write my meditations in longhand first, instead of using my own mini-computer, my I pad. Then, hopefully, I will be sure that my blog will not contain ‘half-baked thoughts’ under the ‘mask of tidiness.’ I hope it doesn’t. But that is for you to decide, dear reader.

If I decide to write out my reflections in longhand, perhaps I should use the same stationery as Mr Obama does: lawyer’s yellow lined paper. He may use these ‘legal pads’ to remind him of his earlier career as a lawyer and to put him at his ease before writing. My little I pad, which has travelled everywhere with me, certainly puts me at my ease when I open it to begin to write.  

There are advantages to writing with a computer, which we are all well aware of. We are able to correct the text we are writing as we go along; to cut and paste words, phrases, sentences and even entire paragraphs or sections, moving them around the text at will. My handwriting is not of the best so I prefer writing letters, even personal ones, on my laptop or I pad. As Mr Obama says, whatever we write is given a ‘smooth gloss’ and a ‘mask of tidiness’ because we are seeing it in print on the screen, as I am seeing this meditation now.

Psychologically, seeing your words in print on the screen is a way of boosting your personal confidence. I have found this to be true. Most writers have issues with personal confidence. Seeing my words on my I pad screen in a lovely elegant font has often provided a boost to my confidence, more than my untidy scrawl on paper has! But then, Shakespeare’s handwriting was also an untidy scrawl so I am in good company, though I will never come anywhere near to his genius!

There are also advantages to writing in longhand, which can be a slower, quieter and more relaxed occupation than typing away on a keyboard. It can also give rise to reflection, as dear Marcus Aurelius obviously discovered when he was was writing his own meditations, which are the inspiration for this blog. Writing by hand can allow for time to stop and think. I am sure you can stop and think using a keyboard too, but there is always that tendency to want to quickly clatter away on a keyboard. I have to force myself to take my time.  These days we see so much text on various devices that our eyes can become strained and our brains addled with text; and not only the text itself, but also the light on the screen behind it. Writing in longhand, therefore, could be a recuperative alternative.

There is a danger to seeing our words or the words of others in print on a screen, which Mr Obama has pinpointed. ‘Half-baked thoughts’ are given a ‘gloss’, an importance, an authenticity even, which they may not deserve. ‘Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers’ says the old warning. In our own time, the warning might be ‘Don’t believe everything you read on a screen.’  Dear me: that warning could include this blog! However, I have always tried to be honest, sincere and truthful with you, dear reader.

The plethora of websites and social media create a miasma of fact, truth, half-truth, opinion, prediction, rumour and surmise on our screens, fogging our minds. The result is that it is often difficult to see clearly, to distinguish fact from opinion, truth from half-truth and a valid prediction from rumour or surmise. This is particularly true of social media.

I studied ‘O’ level Latin at school. The set text for the examination was excerpts from Book Six of  Virgil’s epic poem ‘The Aeneid’, where the hero Aeneas, after escaping from Troy, on his wande

rings visits his ancestors in the underworld. A phrase from the epic poem has always stuck with me in translation: ‘Truth veiled in obscurity.’ Virgil might be describing our media rather than the mist-laden, dark depths of the underworld. To traverse the underworld and avoid falling into the dank river Acheron, our hero Aeneas has to tread slowly and carefully. To find our way through the miasma of the media to arrive at the facts and the truth, it is often necessary for us to read slowly and carefully too.        

But, of course, often we don’t. We skim read quickly, especially if we are glancing at the news on a smartphone. This is the advantage of a smartphone, we have everything ‘on the go’, with the result that our minds are often ‘on the go’ too, reading too quickly and not digesting what we have read.

Reactions to the news on social media are also frequently made ‘on the go’, without thought, reflection, or reserve. Although it must be admitted that an initial response may be highly relevant. However, so many comments on Twitter and Facebook are knee-jerk reactions to events. They are often ‘too rash, too unadvised, too sudden’ as Juliet says of Romeo’s protestations of love in Shakespeare’s play, as was often the case with Mr Obama’s successor, and his endless tweets. 

I have also recently been reading a collection of the letters of Leonard Bernstein (1918-90), the American music conductor, pianist and composer. His works include several symphonies, ballet scores, film scores and of course the music theatre pieces ‘West Side Story’ and ‘On The Town’.

Bernstein was quite close to the Kennedy family and conducted a special performance of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, ‘The Resurrection’ with his orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, two days after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22 1963. (Incidentally, almost four years later, Kennedy’s younger brother, Robert, was also assassinated, and Bernstein arranged and conducted the music for his funeral Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York).

Bernstein also appeared at the ‘Night of the Stars’ a memorial for President Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in New York on the day after the concert he had conducted. There, he gave an address to the audience, which is included in this collection of his letters. In his address he mentioned John F. Kennedy’s final speech, which he was to have made in Dallas on the fateful day when he was murdered. In it President Kennedy would have put forward the precept that  ‘America’s leadership must be guided by learning and reason.’  By ‘learning’ I presume that he meant not only appropriate reading and research, but also listening to others to learn from them. 

I sincerely hope this precept will be adopted by the new incumbent of the White House. I was very impressed with Joe Biden’s inaugural address which to me encapsulated not only the ideals but also the soul of America. I hope his term will be guided by learning, reason  – and a search for and respect for truth.’

Ave atque Vale – Hail and Farewell – 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

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

A selection of previous meditations is also available in audio form as ‘Meditations of Neilus AureliusASMR on YouTube

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

Many thanks

Neilus Aurelius

Meditation 52

Happy New Year, dear reader!

As I sit here writing my first meditation of this year, I am gazing at two candles. One has a steady flame and the other a weak and flickering one. They arouse in me the conflicting emotions we are going through in this third lockdown. The weak and wavering flame brings to my mind the horrific trail of tragedy and suffering caused by the lethal and contagious second virus and all the fears and uncertainties that accompany it. The steady flame reminds me that vaccines have now arrived to combat it accompanied by a solid hope for the future. In these bleak times, mirrored by the gloomy weather, we must remember St Francis’ words: ‘All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the flame of a single candle’ – the candle of hope.

Since the year began, I have been getting through lockdown by reading books given me by friends at Christmas. A rare instance has occurred in my reading: chapters in a book I am reading have been mirrored by current events. The book is ‘Shakespeare in a Divided America’ by James Shapiro. Shapiro is an English professor at Columbia university and has written several popular books about Shakespeare and his plays as well as fronting his own BBC series. In his book he explores the enduring influence of Shakespeare on his country, and not only on its actors, directors and writers but also on its politicians and different classes of society. It is a fascinating read and shows how productions and approaches to the plays have also been influenced by the events of the day from the early 1800’s to the present.

In his opening chapter, he describes a particular production of ‘Julius Caesar’ at length. The production took place in the summer of 2017 during Donald’ Trump’s first year of office. It was staged in the 1,800 seat open air ‘Delacorte Theater’ in New York’s Central Park. The play was presented in modern costumes and with a modern setting, actually not so much modern as contemporary and totally up to date. Caesar was presented as a thinly veiled Donald Trump and was apparently a meticulously detailed portrayal by Greg Henry, who like Trump is tall and who sported a mane of blond hair. Some of Caesar’s plebeian supporters (like Trump’s) wore red baseball caps. The caps had ‘Make Rome Great Again’ written on them.

In the play Caesar is assassinated in the Senate with only the members of the senate present. The people of Rome are going about their business elsewhere. In this production, apparently the director seated some of them in the audience so when Caesar was murdered, they stood up and shouted out in shock, anger and outrage and mimicking Trump supporters. As you probably know, after the murder, Mark Antony gives an oration over the body of Caesar in the Forum, inciting the people to violence against the conspirators and murderers. The mob runs amok in the streets and in a short but brutal scene they beat an innocent man to death. He is Cinna the poet, whom they mistake for Cinna the conspirator. When he pleads his identity to them, they don’t care anyway and bludgeon him in their bloodlust.

I little imagined that a few days after reading this chapter, similar scenes would be played out in the U.S.A’s own Capitol in Washington. Yet again a mob armed with makeshift (and real) weapons was running amok and storming the Capitol. They were not incited by another Mark Antony but by another Caesar himself, who had not been assassinated himself but his hopes of re-election had (and his ego too, if that is possible). They were making their voices heard in the most destructive and violent way.

The director of the production I have briefly described above was Oskar Eustis. He gave a speech at the curtain call of the first performance. In it he remarked that ‘like Drama, Democracy depends on the conflict of different points of view. Nobody owns the truth. We all own the culture.’

His words greatly affected me. The conflict of different points of view, indeed freedom of speech, is not about who shouts loudest or who clogs the media most effectively with lies and unsubstantiated false information. Our media, as ‘Macbeth’ says ‘is smothered in surmise.’ Fake news, real fake news (not Trump’s version) is another contagion as lethal as the current virus.

Consensus and compromise are now seen to be the weak option and unworthy of a nation’s so called ‘sovereignty’, as has been sadly evident in this country in the last four years of Brexit. Similarly anything other than an entrenched position is seen as weakness. And yet our government has been forced to change their minds and their policies by the onslaught of the virus. Entrenchment and an pandemic do not mix.

In November, I attended an online seminar about the U.S. election results, given by my Oxford college and led by a panel of American alumni who had pursued political careers eventually after graduating. The consensus of the panel was that American politics has become strongly polarised as a result of the Trump years of administration. There was now no room for a middle ground. They felt that hopefully this may change and Politics in the US may become less relentlessly combative if Biden ushers in a quieter and less aggressive (and impulsive) administration.

Trump’s four year tenure of the White House could be summed up by a quote from another Shakespeare 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 fantastical tricks before high heaven

As make the angels weep.’

These lines not only apply to Donald Trump, of course. They could apply to other political leaders past and present. They could also apply to any of us who are in a position of authority over others.

How do these ‘fantastical tricks’ by those in authority originate? Perhaps the answer lies back in ‘Julius Caesar.’ In the play, Brutus says of Caesar:

‘The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins

Remorse from power.’

In Brutus’ comment, ‘remorse’ means mercy: if mercy is separated from power then greatness is abused or diminished. In other words, when the gaining and exercise of power is more important than the needs of the people. People should come first. Power should be used to care for and protect the people not to subjugate or exploit them. Or use them to bolster up a monstrous ego trip.

In these last ten months, we have been potently reminded of how fragile human life is. In the last two months since the U.S. Election, we have also been reminded how fragile democracy can be.

Ave atque Vale – Hail and Farewell – 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!

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

A selection of previous meditations is also available in audio form as ‘Meditations of Neilus Aurelius’ ASMR on YouTube. I would also value any feedback on nzolad53@gmail.com or my Facebook page or Twitter.

Many thanks

Neilus Aurelius

MEDITATION 51 (CHRISTMAS SPECIAL)

I am sitting here beside my flickering candle contemplating a very different Christmas from last year. We are in another lockdown in all but name, which has been announced as suddenly as the first one in March. Therefore Christmas is likely to be a quiet and subdued holiday and a muted festival. Like many other normal events in the last months it will seem rather strange, no doubt, and unusual. 

Traditionally it is a time for families and friends to get together, as we well know.  Many people make great efforts to travel to be with their loved ones. But with new travel restrictions and restrictions on how many people can meet in one place, this is not really possible this year. Some will be spending Christmas alone for the first time. Christmas is the time of good cheer but this year that cheer will inevitably be tinged with sadness, especially for those who have lost loved ones to the pandemic.

Yesterday afternoon, I was wrapping gifts for my family, gifts that they will not be received tomorrow as I am now not able to travel to Leeds for our own family Christmas celebration. But rather than leaving the wrapping-up operation until whenever I will be able to travel to see them, I thought I would cheer myself up by doing it now while watching a Christmas old movie. It did cheer me up or rather I  felt a twinge of real Christmas cheer in my veins. 

The movie was a very old one -you know how I love my old movies – the 1933 version of ‘Little Women’ based on the 1868 novel by Louisa M. Alcott. The opening scenes are set at Christmas in New England and several winter scenes follow with deep snow covering pine and spruce trees, paths and gates and snowmen carefully crafted. It is a cosy opening, like a Christmas card and ideal Yuletide viewing.  

But the dramatic situation is not so cosy or comfortable underneath. For we are in the midst of the American Civil War and the March family (who are the central characters), though dwelling in a large rambling house,are living in genteel but straightened circumstances. The mother (Marmee) and four daughters (Jo, Beth, Amy and Meg) are also coping with the absence of Mr March, who is away fighting in the war. 

There have been three later film versions (including one this year) and all in colour of course. But this venerable black and white version, perhaps because it isn’t in lush colour, somehow captures the shabby atmosphere of the house and the family’s near genteel poverty the best. Led by Katherine Hepburn as the tomboy and would-be writer Jo (who gives one of her best and most natural performances in a long career), the actresses playing the family are a real ensemble and really convey their love for each other and their enjoyment of each other’s company.

From the opening moments, there is a sense of money being short. They are almost improvising Christmas, giving each other little gifts which mean so much because each one has meant a sacrifice of some kind or other for each of them. They are making an effort as best they can and are able to be charitable too, sharing their Christmas breakfast with a poor family down the road and spending Christmas morning with them.  

I remember this scene from when I was a child in junior school. Our teacher read it to us just before theChristmas break during story time at the end of the day. I remember the snug warm classroom, as daylight was dimming through the windows. I giggled at the wrong moment and she said to me, ‘Neil you are like a champagne cork popping.’ I had no idea what she meant as I didn’t know what champagne was, of course.Needless to say, I have rectified my ignorance on numerous occasions since! Starting with hunting in bags of wine gums, when still a child, for the champagne ones! 

The Marches remind me of the Cratchit family in Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ and Alcott, like Dickens, advocates charity to others, especially at Christmas time. No doubt she was influenced by his novel, which was published 25 years earlier.

The Cratchits are a larger family than the Marches and are much poorer. But, like the Marches, there is a real sense of them appreciating each other and everything about Christmas Day and the Christmas meal. It would be their most substantial meal of the year and Dickens is at pains to point out that they ate every scrap of the goose. A goose would be a low income family’s Christmas bird in the 1840’s. Turkeys were for more prosperous families and beef only for the wealthy. It is interesting that, after his change of heart, Scrooge buys the largest turkey for the Cratchits to replace their goose on the Christmas table. 

This year, because of the unusual situation we are living through, we are also improvising Christmas to some extent, like the Marches. But the basics of the celebration are still there even if we may not be able to see everyone as usual in person and will be using zoom or Skype or whatever platform to share their company instead. In that sense it will be a digital Christmas this year! 

There hasn’t been the opportunity for socialising, parties, and eating out. Or seeing a Christmas show or going to the movies.  It is a quiet and subdued Christmas this year, as I said at the beginning of this meditation. It is also an opportunity for us, like the Marches and the Cratchits to appreciate each other, to enjoy each others’ company, whether real or digital, and every moment of the Christmas celebration and everything about it.  For example, I have never appreciated receiving Christmas cards so much as this year.  

We must remember too that the event at the centre of our celebration, the birth of Christ, was itself a quiet and subdued affair. ‘How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given’ says the Carol ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem.’ 

With the new strain of the virus and numbers of those afflicted increasing, we are once again reminded of how fragile and vulnerable human life is, as fragile and vulnerable as the babe of Bethlehem. Yet that babe is our hope and our light. And the candles we light this Christmas are a symbol of light and of hope for a better New Year.

As Tiny Tim says: ‘Merry Christmas and God Bless Us Everyone!’  

Ave atque Vale – Hail and Farewell – 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!

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

A selection of previous meditations is also available in audio form as ‘Meditations of Neilus Aurelius’ ASMR on YouTube. 

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

Many thanks

Neilus Aurelius

MEDITATION 50

As I sit here, gazing at the candle next to me, it is hard to believe that I have reached my 50th Meditation. I began them just over two years ago, so I guess I have posted one every three weeks or so. It has been a pleasure to share my ambling thoughts with you, dear readers: my final moments as a drama teacher; my travels; my visits to theatres and galleries; my thoughts on the tumultuous times we have been through and above all, my reflections on life, acting and being human. 

I wish to thank you for subscribing to them, especially those who have followed these meditations from the very first one. I also wish to thank my dear friend, Henry Riley, who despite his gruelling schedule at LBC Radio, has posted these reflections for me. Incase you think that these words sound as if I am saying ‘Vale’ (as Marcus would put it) or ‘Farewell’ because I have reached number 50, I am intending to continue with them, though there will be a break for a little while.

When I started these meditations, blogging was entirely new to me. I had begun to write a novel (a collection of short stories really) and had attended a writers’ summer school at Swanwick in Derbyshire. One of the myriad of things I learnt there was that it was important for a prospective author to have their own blog, if only to promote their own work.

A few years prior to that course, I had read Marcus Aurelius’ ‘Meditations’ and had been very impressed with them. I wondered if I could eventually write something similar, as a way of thinning out the thicket of thoughts in my head if nothing else. So eventually the idea for the blog came to me. And with the help of a few ex-students for photos, layout and posting, here we are!

It is a strange co-incidence that my name  – Neil – in Polish (where my father came from) is Neilus. My father’s sister, Barbara, who resides on Vancouver Island, calls me Neilus. So I came upon the name of ‘Neilus Aurelius’. There: I have spoilt the illusion now! Perhaps some of you have been thinking that I write these meditations, seated in a tent and wearing a toga like Marcus did. He may have used a tablet to write on just as I am now. 

However, I must stress that I am no guru. Like Marcus, I am writing these meditations as much for myself as anyone else. Because of that, I hope that they have become wider in scope than the self- promotional blog of an author. Several friends have suggested I create a podcast, a visual version. However to stay true to the spirit of Marcus, I feel that my blog has to be a series of written reflections. After all, Marcus was never on camera, nor would he have wanted to be, I think, in his private moments. Having read his ‘Meditations’, I have a sense that he was quite a private and introvert person.

In recent months, we have all been getting used to being on camera. Platforms like Face Time, WhatsApp and Messenger with their video call facility have become a wonderful way of keeping in touch in lockdown. The ability to both hear and see family, relatives or friends who live far away as if they are in your own room with you is a great comfort, especially to those of us who live alone. I had never really used any kind of video call (except Skype very occasionally) before lockdown.

Then there is also the phenomena that is Zoom, a platform which seems to have made itself very quickly indispensable in a matter of months. It has transformed teaching at every level and along with YouTube and I player and other streaming services has kept our spirits buoyed up in the recent dark months. Indeed, but for the Internet and online facilities our lives would have been very bleak indeed. They have fed our impoverished spirits at this time.

Imagine if we only had letters and the telephone to keep in touch with everyone in lockdown. We would have coped I am sure but life would have been bleaker and more fearful, I think.

Imagine being without streaming for entertainment (another recent technological development) and only having four or five TV channels to watch – or even 2 or 3 (as was the case in my childhood)! I am sure we would have been less restless. I have come to think that my unease and restlessness in the earlier stages of lockdown was magnified by having so many different viewing options in the evening. Sometimes I would flick from one channel to the other then on to I player, Netflix or Amazon Prime and in the end I would get fed up and watch nothing. I would end the day feeling more unfocused than when I began it!  My way through this was to watch a TV series on BBC, for instance, on the day and time it was broadcast (like in the old days). This gave structure to the evening and something to look forward to as well. 

I was also grateful to the National Theatre, who put a new production on YouTube every Thursday evening for something like 16 weeks. These were productions that had been filmed previously and shown in cinemas. They dated from over the last ten years, which is when cinema relays began. Fortunately for me, I had missed most of them when they were originally performed and watching a play filled the evening without having to think about what to watch.

Through Zoom, I have attended several talks by the Dickens Fellowship and heard actors Ian McKellen and Roger Allam in discussion for the Royal Shakespeare Company; I’ve watched a webinar on the US Election from my old college; and I’ve taken part in a regular meditation class and even in a one-day retreat. This is not to mention the numerous times I have chatted to friends on Zoom. I have a regular glass of wine and chat with two of my friends. One session went on for two hours: we just left the camera rolling, so to speak, when we needed to replenish our glasses and go to the loo!

Of course, meeting family or friends on Zoom will never replace being able to be with them properly, nor will it replace the physical presence of a teacher or lecturer in a classroom and neither will streaming theatre replace being able to watch a show live in a theatre. But all these things have been necessary for the present and a great comfort.

I must admit that initially I found being on camera on Zoom made me feel tense and I still do feel tense in meetings to some extent. It is partly being able to see myself on camera I think. After all, the camera doesn’t lie and sometimes I have looked at myself and realised that yes I am growing old! I have heard it said on numerous occasions that the camera makes people look fatter in the face than they are in real life. Having seen my face on Zoom, of course I fully agree! I am quite used to communicating in a classroom and performing on stage and being filmed, for that matter. But I think it is seeing myself on screen while talking that I find uncomfortable. Only yesterday, someone showed me (in a Zoom meeting) how to hide my face while talking so that everyone can see me but I can’t see myself. So maybe I’ll feel more relaxed from now on!

Even when sitting on the sofa in my lounge and talking to friends, I have felt quite tense. My posture isn’t relaxed and it is definitely unrelaxed when I sit on a chair in my kitchen. I wax reminded of this when I was watching an episode of the new series of ‘The Crown’ on Netflix. There was Olivia Colman as the Queen sitting on the edge of a chair with upright posture in one scene. It was exactly what I was doing a few days earlier in a Zoom meeting in my kitchen. When she was a child princess, the Queen was trained in that posture. I seem to have acquired it naturally through Zoom meetings. Perhaps many other people, up and down the country are sitting like the Queen infront of their laptops in their kitchens too!

Contributors on news programmes at the moment are often interviewed via Zoom. There are even discussions on programmes like ‘Question Time’ or ‘Newsnight’ where some guests are in the studio and others on Zoom. Of course the audio and video quality on Zoom varies considerably and cannot match the audio and video quality of the TV studio. More disconcerting, I often find myself looking at the room the speaker is zooming from rather than paying too much attention to what they are saying. Sometimes they film themselves in their lounge or study and I am wondering what books are on their shelves or admiring a picture or poster on the wall. In the heat of the events of the U.S. election recently, a lady Politics lecturer was interviewed on ‘Newsnight.’ She was obviously filming from her desk in her bedroom which was plain but neat except for the bed behind her, which was unmade! Either she was too busy all day to make the bed or she had got out of bed to give the interview. I hasten to add that she wasn’t dressed in her nightclothes! But the sight of that unmade bed behind her made me pay less attention to what she was saying and in a subtle way, have less respect for her.

I understand that you are now able to choose your own background if you want to. You can use a favourite location from one of your photos, if you wish. Dear me, we are becoming amateur film directors: ‘Is the background ok?’; ‘Is the lighting ok for my face?; ‘Can you hear me alright?’ We’ll be getting into make-up next! Or saying to the other person on the zoom call, ‘Hang on a minute, I’m just going into the lounge on the sofa. I photograph better there!’ followed by, ‘Wait a moment! I just need to put on the right light for my face.’ As Norma Desmond says in Billy Wilder’s film masterpiece about a faded film star, ‘I’m ready for my close-up, Mr DeMille!’ 

To be serious again, it has been wonderful that, through advances in technology, we have been able to stay in touch with eachother in different ways and to support eachother. We have become a digital community.

Before writing this 50th mediation, I looked back to my very first one. In that reflection, I concentrated on the candle beside me for a moment. Some words of St Francis came to me: ‘All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.’ I did not know then, in September 2018, that we would be living through a pandemic in 2020 and that the world would suddenly become a different, dark place.

As these meditations progressed and Brexit loomed, I imagined that, post-Brexit, the U.K., might become a different, dark place and Europe itself too, being splintered but not shattered. I expressed my concerns in these meditations from time to time. But fears about the effects of Brexit pale into insignificance compared with what we have been facing in these last months. 

Sometimes it has been difficult to find hope in the bleak months we have been through. But now in the News today, it appears that a vaccine is on its way. Perhaps by next Spring we may begin to emerge out of the dark tunnel we have all been in and meet our family and friends in the flesh instead of digitally.

In the meantime, in this very different, dark winter, if our hope falters, perhaps we should find a moment to gaze at the flame of a candle, unextinguished by the darkness around it.    

Ave atque Vale – Hail and Farewell – 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!

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

A selection of previous meditations is also available in audio form as ‘Meditations of Neilus Aurelius’ ASMR on YouTube.

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

Many thanks

Neilus Aurelius

Meditation 49

As I sit here gazing at my candle I am aware that, as I write, the night is chill outside. Winter approaches and this is the first night of another full lockdown. All the more reason to gaze at the magnets on my fridge door and to hearken back to memories of warmer and sunnier climes and carefree times.

There are two new magnets in my collection for, though I was not able to go to Puglia with my friend Simon, we did have three days in Chichester and the surrounding Sussex countryside a week or so ago. Chichester is a cathedral town and the Cathedral itself and the gardens are quite stunning. Unfortunately the cathedral gift shop was closed when we were there. As I wandered around the town, it was difficult to find a shop that sold fridge magnets. It was equally difficult to find a shop that sold picture postcards. I guess they go together, being souvenir merchandise. Eventually, having gone a complete circle round the town one morning and ending up almost back to where we were staying, we discovered a cosy little gift shop, crammed with all sorts of gifts including magnets and quite a large selection of postcards.

Picture postcards are fast going out of fashion. Who these days would send a postcard when on holiday or on a visit, if they can instantly send a photo with a brief message from their phone instead? A photo taken on a mobile phone is more personal too. It is your own view, selected and taken by yourself and not by a photographer, probably years before (as if you look closely at some picture postcards, the photo is definitely not up to date). You can be in the picture too if you wish. You don’t even need someone else to take the picture for you as you can take a ‘selfie’. Plus it is less arduous and time consuming than sitting down and writing then addressing a card, even if you write the briefest of messages. Then, of course, there is the added chore of posting it! You are also able to send a message and text on your mobile phone to lots of people at once, of course, rather than writing lots of postcards!

And yet everyone likes to receive a card. I still enjoy sending them and receiving them. Some of my friends aren’t on social media and some don’t have an up to date phone so they appreciate getting a card, especially if they live alone. I used to have a notice board in my kitchen (before I began my fridge magnet collection!) and would pin postcards sent by friends on it. In those days, over the summer, it would soon fill up with a variety of views and reminded me of my circle of friends and family who sent them.

Perhaps the age of the picture postcard is fast ebbing away. It is an age that has lasted since the 1840’s (with the institution of the first ever postal service here in the UK – the ‘penny post’). Originally the postcards had reproductions of artists’ drawings of picturesque scenes and later on photographs of views were cheaply reproduced too (and cartoons of saucy seaside humour!). Hotels issued free postcards of their premises in their reception areas (and still do) as an advertising ploy.

They have become a document of social history of the last 150 years or more and an indication of how people spent their holidays over the decades, including the well to do and famous. So, they have been often quoted and featured as illustrations in biographies of famous personalities too. Sometimes both sides of the card are reprinted and the reader can have a tantalising view of the famous person’s handwriting (often far clearer than my own!).

Sending a card was a social tradition: sending one to relatives, friends and acquaintances to show them where you were staying on holiday with a brief description even if only ‘Having a a good time. Wish you were here.’

There were (and maybe there still are) plain postcards with no picture at all. There was room for the address on the front and a blank space for a short message on the reverse. I left a stamped and addressed postcard at my Oxford college for my degree results, I remember. But that was many years ago!

The postcard and it’s short message (with or without a picture) has been replaced by email or more accurately, by texting. On social media now, you can include not only a photo with your brief message, but even a short video. The advantage of texting in all its forms is that it is immediate and doesn’t depend on postal delivery. Though it’s always fun to receive a text from a friend on holiday, I still think there is something special about receiving a card, especially as so little private correspondence is sent by mail now. Also writing a postcard can involve a little reflection on the part of the sender whereas texting and twittering often involves no reflection or even thought at all! Witness the twitterings of the outgoing President of the U.S.A.!

On our little holiday we spent an afternoon in the village of Bosham which is on the estuary that goes into the English Channel. It is about 3 miles out of Chichester and is a peninsula which goes into what is called Chichester Harbour, a natural harbour of small villages and marinas. Bosham has a little arts centre with, yes, another cosy little shop where I purchased some more postcards and another magnet!

On arriving, Bosham has the look of a village inland with its thatched cottages, small lanes, picturesque pub and parish church and graveyard. There is a small river and a lock too.There is no seaside atmosphere and nothing particularly nautical about it either, until you arrive at a small marina, Bosham Quay, which is adjacent to the church and churchyard. Quite a few streets eventually lead to the water as the villages is skirted by the estuary. We very quickly found this out.

After leaving the car in the car park we walked down towards the water and decided to walk along the shore around the natural harbour to explore the other side. Then we noticed a cafe at the end of the road up some steps. So we decide to have a snack lunch there first, where they served the most filling homemade pasties ever.

It was when we left the cafe that we realised why it was up some steps as where we had been previously standing and admiring the view, was now completely under water. The tide was is and beginning to make its slow inexorable way up the street. If we had gone for our walk first, we would probably have found ourselves stranded on the other side. However the water didn’t impede our walk to the church and quay, admiring the quaint little cottages on the way and noticing that their little pretty front doors had not so pretty modern flood barriers.

Bosham was originally a Roman settlement, as was Chichester itself of course. It is now thought that the remains of Harold Godwinson, the last Saxon King of England, were buried in the parish church, after he was defeated by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Another king associated with Bosham is the Danish King Canute, who was King of Denmark, Norway and England with his own North Sea empire before his demise in 1035. Legend has it that it was here, at Bosham, that he commanded the waves to go back on his orders. We were unable to do so, of course! Canute was reputed to have magical powers, but is unclear from the legend, whether his attempt to force the waves back was an act of arrogant self delusion or whether he did it to rebuke his flattering courtiers. In other words, was his failure a reality check for his courtiers or himself?

I am once again reminded of the present incumbent of the Presidency of the United States who thinks he can push back the waves of votes he didn’t receive. But again, we are unsure whether this is his own act of self delusion or of his flattering staff. Though I have my suspicions.

We all need a reality check at times and this pandemic has been a global one, reminding us of our vulnerability and of the fragility of life. A reality check is only effective if we accept it, hard as it may be, and act upon it (as most of us have). There is now a glimmer of hope with news of a vaccine, which is wonderful news. The best Christmas present we could ask for at the moment. Here’s hoping it is effective.

Ave atque Vale – Hail and Farewell – 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! And please do pass on the blog address to others who may be interested.

A selection of previous meditations is also available in audio form as ‘Meditations of Neilus Aurelius’ ASMR on YouTube.

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

Many thanks,

Neilus Aurelius

Meditation 48

As I sit here writing my meditation on the kitchen table with the candle beside me, I am feeling disappointed. These last months have been a season of disappointments for all of us, haven’t they?  So many plans have been cancelled or postponed because of the changing restrictions caused by the shifting motion of the pandemic. Who can contain it? It is like trying to catch all the silver fish in a slippery shoal with your bare hands.

Sadly, a magnet or two from Puglia in Southern Italy will not be added to my collection on the fridge doors for the moment. My retirement holiday has once again been postponed  because of changes in Italy’s entry requirements. Now a quarantine is imposed on travellers returning to the UK from Italy as well and only yesterday further internal restrictions were announced in Italy itself. At present all human endeavour seems to be enmeshed in restrictions and requirements. But they are for our own good, I suppose, however weary and annoyed we may feel about them.

So here I am cheering myself up by looking at my magnets again and reminding myself of places I have visited. I am a much travelled man so I cannot complain. As I have said before, one of the ways through these difficult times is to be grateful for what we have and thankful for what we have had, rather than dwelling on what we do not have. 

One magnet that has caught my attention is a photo of the iconic Hollywood sign. The sign is framed by palm trees high up on the brow of the Hollywood hills. I purchased it on my 60th birthday California road trip (which also included Nevada and Las Vegas).

Originally, the huge letters read ‘Hollywoodland’ and were erected in 1923 as a temporary advertising campaign by a real estate investor, keen to develop the land underneath. But as the Golden Age of Hollywood rolled out, the sign remained, without ‘land’ at the end. The real estate advertising ploy worked, as the hills soon became fully developed with estates and mansions almost touching the feet of the imposing letters themselves.

I visited there on a glorious day of L.A. sunshine in April 2014. My friends and I didn’t go to the top so that we could stand in the shadow of one of the letters and look down over the city. I am not very good with heights and in any case I don’t think you can go up there now or at least not very close to the huge letters. It was one of the highlights of our California road trip for me because Hollywood and its history have been a strand in my life since my childhood.

The sign is now a historic landmark as it should be. It is also tinged with tragedy. In 1932, Peg Entwistle, a 24 year old actress, climbed a workman’s ladder and threw herself off the letter H. I am surprised that her tragic story has never been turned into a movie itself during the decades since her sad suicide.

I was reminded of her by a recent Netflix drama series called ‘Hollywood’. It had at the centre of its storyline an attempt to make a movie about Peg and her sad demise. So at least she has been remembered obliquely in the glossy series which is set in the Hollywood of the 1950’s.

The sad incident is also referenced in the opening credits of the series. The young hopefuls who are the main characters climb up those enormous letters in the dead of night and use a workman’s ladder as poor Peg did. That is the tragedy of Hollywood. People are always climbing up or falling down in that town. Those who manage to climb up and keep their balance are fortunate indeed.

That 2014 trip was my third visit to Hollywood.  My first trip was in 1990. I was so excited. I remember my friend John, who was my host, drove me from the airport straight to the Pacific Ocean and there behind us on a cliff overlooking the sea was the old home of Charles Laughton, one of my favourite actors. Then he drove me back up through Beverly Hills and pointed out some of the grand mansions of other stars, past and present. And  I was staying only a few blocks from Sunset Boulevard too, in his apartment.

My stay in L.A. that time was for five days in the middle of a visit to my Canadian relatives who then lived in Toronto. It was quite a whirlwind trip and dotted with ‘this was filmed here’ and ‘he or she lived there’. I remember the Paramount arch, a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, a visit to the Getty museum and a show at the Pasadena Playhouse, where so many young actors and actresses honed their skills down the years.

But the highlight was a guided tour of Warner Brothers’ studios. As I walked through the studio gates, I felt I had truly arrived. Walking past the sound stages where so many of my favourite old movies were filmed was exciting and emotional. I also walked through two of the big sets : New York street (built for Warners’ 1930’s gangster cycle) and Town Square (built for ‘King’s Row’ in 1942) which have been dressed and re-dressed for so many movies over the decades (and they are still in use). It was strange walking through these huge sets in the sunshine and seeing them in colour as in my memories of them were in black and white! 

We went through every department including the huge props warehouses. Warners never seem to throw anything away and they hire props to other studios too. There in in the middle of all this bric-à-brac was the throne from the 1938 ‘Robin Hood’ and the exotic lamps from Rick’s Cafe in ‘Casablanca’ – two of my favourite films.

My second trip, in 2006, was even more exciting. I went to a Hollywood party! I was mingling with dazzling stars, directors, screenwriters, musicians and even a movie mogul or two. And what a setting! I remember it well. Spacious beautifully manicured lawns glistened a technicolor green in the sunshine. The centrepiece was a lake with fizzing fountains and pristine white swans delicately avoiding the floating water lily patches. In the centre of the lake itself, on a small island, stood a shimmering small white marble building. It looked like an elegant summer house.

Actually it was a mausoleum. And the illustrious party guests were all dead. For I was visiting the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Well what else would an avid film buff do with only a few hours to spare before dashing to the airport for his return flight to the UK?

So there I was, with a large map in my hand, courtesy of the flower shop at the entrance, picking my way through the lush green swathes to find the resting places of my favourite movie people. In my quest, I was oblivious to other visitors dotted here and there in the distance as I was determined to find as many stars and movie luminaries as possible in the short time I had left.  

Many graves had small squat headstones or brass plaques planted in the turf. It was an exacting task to locate the names which stood out to me in the long alphabetical list on the reverse of the map. I was often distracted in my search as I noticed other stars I knew. No autographs of course!

 I gave up on the grand mausoleums where the deceased were stacked up from floor to ceiling in marble walls that looked like celestial filing cabinets. I only visited one where I struggled to find Rudolph Valentino, the heartthrob of the silent films of the 1920’s. I had recently read a biography of him that a friend had given me. I remember standing in one of the marble corridors phased by all the names in the walls. I said quietly ‘Sorry Rudy – I  couldn’t find you and I have a plane to catch!’ Then I turned a corner to get to the exit and strangely there he was in the wall opposite!

I couldn’t miss Cecil B. De Mille, Hollywood pioneer and director of film epics, whose appropriately epic mausoleum was the size of a small house; nor mogul Harry Cohn, founder of Columbia Pictures, and his equally bloated edifice. I realised the Hollywood pecking order clearly persists even in death.  

As I peered among the plaques in the ground, one in particular made me stop. It read ‘Hannah Chaplin: 1865-1928: Mother’. I was surprised until I remembered that her

 world famous son, Charlie Chaplin, brought her all the way from Lambeth in South London, to be with him and hopefully give her some comfort in her mental illness. And there she was at my feet, a long way from home, like many others resting here. But at peace now.

Several years later, I picked up a new biography of Charlie Chaplin when I was staying with my aunt on Vancouver Island. It was by an American psychiatrist, Stephen Weissman, and naturally Hannah featured in it a great deal and, in the book, there was a photo of her taken in L.A. a few years before she died. The book fascinated me and it led me to write a play for my school theatre group about Charlie’s childhood, youth and meteoric rise to being one of the first worldwide celebrities ever by the age of 25. It was called ‘Chaplin: the Early Years’ and was eventually performed in 2013. Despite reading the book and making copious notes, it was only when I started working on the script, that I remembered that I had seen Hannah’s grave. I hadn’t taken a photo of it. It didn’t seem right. But I remembered it clearly in my mind and still do. 

Overheated from my search through the lawns, I sat on a shady bench, reached for my water bottle and admired the palm trees silhouetted in the sun. It felt right that I was there, not just as a film buff but to pay my respects and to say thank you. A month or so earlier at my school, I had produced ‘Mickey and and the Movies’ about the birth of the cinema. It was the precursor to my Chaplin play, I guess. At the heart of ‘Mickey’ was a GCSE Drama project I had devised as a result of my first trip to Hollywood in 1990. So yes: it was good to say thank you. These people had not only entertained me and intrigued me over the years but they had inspired me. Perhaps, in my visits, some of their creative energy had  engulfed me too.

Not a few of the silent stars and filmmakers mentioned in my play were resting there now. But then all the stars resting all around me as I sat on my bench were silent now.  Yet they are still alive on film. A kind of resurrection.

The stillness of the surroundings enveloped me. I felt cold. A sadness weighed down upon me like a pall. A chill miasma of unhappiness. Not just Hannah’s. But others’ too. In this place. In this town. Past and Present. ‘The boulevard of broken dreams’ – Hollywood Boulevard a few blocks away – is a tired cliché, yet for me at this moment, it was a tangible presence.  I shivered. And it was gone.

Now I understood why I was really there. Not out of curiosity or thankful respect, as I thought. But to feel their pain. To be the celluloid imprinted not with their image but with their suffering.

I stood up, bowed my head and went home.

Ave atque Vale – Hail and Farewell – 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! And please do pass on the blog address to others who may be interested. A selection of previous meditations is also available in audio form as ‘Meditations of Neiulus Aurelius’ ASMR on YouTube. I would also value any feedback on nzolad53@gmail.com or my Facebook page or Twitter.

Many thanks

Neilus Aurelius

Mediation 47

As I begin this meditation, the magnets on my fridge have attracted my attention again rather than the candle flickering beside me. There is a new addition to my collection and a new acquisition for my miniature art gallery on the fridge doors: a Rembrandt.

It is a sketch, a self portrait, executed when the artist was only 24 years old. He looks startled and surprised as if someone has suddenly taken a photograph of him without his permission. Apparently, Rembrandt made the sketch while looking at his reflection in a mirror. 

The actual picture, an etching, is not much bigger than the magnet itself. It is a small square printed in the middle of a foolscap sized parchment, which makes it look even smaller and almost enveloped by the sea of paper which surrounds it. It is one of a series of self portraits he made of himself in his twenties, most were sketches but there are several oil paintings too.

As might be expected, I have been to a gallery and of course a gift shop too! This time I visited the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, for the ‘Young Rembrandt’ exhibition, which covers the first ten years of his career from roughly 1625-1635. Rembrandt made portraits of himself throughout his life and in many ways the ones in old age are the most moving, perhaps because he also drew many pictures of old people throughout his career. Evidently, from looking at the exhibition, this fascination with old age began right at the start of his career. He captures the elderly sitters’ resignation beautifully in their eyes, sensing old age as a time of reflection and contemplation. Their passive eyes contrast with their faces, worn and redolent of a life lived. This contrast is acutely drawn in his own self portraits in old age much later.

The younger self portraits in the exhibition are more animated as you would expect from an artist in his twenties. He wears a variety of hats and facial expressions and sometimes he has a beard, sometimes a moustache or is sometimes clean shaven. He is evidently toying with his self image as young people will. On a deeper level, he is trying to find himself by drawing himself as he discovers and explores his talents and tries to establish a career.

He is going through what I have termed ‘the terrible twenties’. So many of my ex-students have shared this with me: not knowing who they are or what they want to do or having the confidence to embrace what they want to do anyway. I was the same at their age so I have a little understanding of their situation. At least Rembrandt knew what he wanted to do and from his work he appears to be bold and confident in his skills – or was he? We will never know I suppose.

Perhaps this series of self portraits over the years are saying ‘Where am I now?’ or even ‘Who am I now?’ These are questions not confined to our twenties. We can find ourselves asking these questions or they can find us at other times of our lives. They have been hounding me since I retired six months ago. Writing this blog has helped me to work out or at least explore some answers, like Rembrandt exploring himself through his pictures. Perhaps there is no need to find any answers but just to accept, to be resigned with patience as Rembrandt’s elderly models appear to be. In other words, to move from my terrible twenties to a reflective retirement. Then I might achieve a little of the dignity, serenity even, expressed in their eyes.

I have always been fascinated by the faces in Rembrandt’s works and the expression in their eyes. It must be the actor in me. He has the ability to convey a whole life in the faces of his models, through their stillness. Any film or TV actor should study his works. He conveys so much with the models’ faces, giving them an inner life. Their eyes lead us into their interior lives.  It cannot be any accident that the popular historian, Simon Schama, has written a biography of the artist entitled ‘Rembrandt’s Eyes.’

What is also remarkable in the exhibition is that, as a young man , Rembrandt was fascinated by the beggars and homeless that he saw in the streets of his hometown Leyden and in Amsterdam, where he lived later. There are a selection of his drawings of street dwellers in the exhibition and he incorporates some of them into his large scale pictures of Biblical scenes, which were also a strand in his output.

In his drawings of street dwellers, he finds a dignified humility in their bowed heads and bodies. He also finds great patience: the patience of the beggar waiting for a coin (or hopefully a job) to come their way.  Like them, we are waiting too: for an end to lockdown, an end to the era of the pandemic. Perhaps, as we wait, we can learn from their dignified patience or from that of the beggars and homeless we see in our own streets and perhaps even rethink our interaction with them.

The first lesson I ever taught was about Rembrandt. I was in the sixth form and we had a few single lessons every week called Elective General Studies, which were an appendage to our A Level General Studies course. Several teachers were able to give short courses on some of their special interests. These linked up somehow with the main A level. One gave a course on Renaissance Art which I attended. Of course in that bygone age there were no laptops or projectors or Internet to illustrate the lessons. Although I seem to remember he did use a slide projector so we could see some pictures or statues projected onto the wall of the medical room where the lesson took place! Strangely, as far as I can remember, there was never a sick pupil out of lessons in that medical room whenever we had our weekly lesson. Of course the teacher also used large art books for us to look at as examples.

Through those lessons I began to develop an interest in Fine Art ,which has stayed  with me ever since. I watched documentaries on the TV and especially the BBC series ‘Civilisation’ which was on at that time. I also plundered my local library and wandered onto one lesson with a book on Rembrandt under my arm to and showed it to Fr Ledwick the teacher. He asked me if I’d like to give a talk on the artist so, ever eager to perform, I agreed and a few weeks later, I took the lesson. I prepared a selection of pictures to talk about and to explain why I liked them and what I found in them (as I have done in this blog).

At that time the country was going through a period of industrial action, known as the ‘three day week.’ This meant that there were regular electricity blackouts (among other disruptions). These would last for three hours at a time. As we had electric heating in our house, this was a problem. I remember that some evenings, I would do my homework by candlelight in the kitchen so that I could stay warm by the gas oven, which was lit to heat the room. My mum, who had two very small daughters, would sit near the oven to keep them warm. It is difficult to comprehend this these days and it was one reason why I would sometimes get annoyed with my own sixth form students when they didn’t do their homework!

I do remember looking at those pictures in the Rembrandt book by candlelight sometimes, and thinking that he must have looked at the real pictures himself by candlelight too. I felt quite privileged then. In the candlelight, the faces were luminous and the eyes were so clear. There was one, a head of Christ, which greatly nurtured my faith. Similarly I was reading ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Bronte at the time for A Level English. How marvellous to read a 19th century novel by candlelight as it would have been originally!  Emily’s Gothic romance seemed so much more atmospheric, if it ever could be!

And now, here I am once again, sitting by candlelight and writing to you about Rembrandt!  Sharing my knowledge – as ever!

I also remember that just as I was about to start my little lesson on Rembrandt in that medical room in my school all those years ago, one of the PE staff wandered in. I can’t remember his name but he was rather obnoxious and I had been quite scared of him when I was younger! He decided to sit down and stay for my little lesson. It was my first lesson observation I suppose – though I knew nothing of them then. It certainly made me rather nervous. When the lesson finished, he came up to me and told me that he’d enjoyed the talk very much. ‘You ought to become a teacher’, he said. And eventually I did.

Ave atque Vale – Hail and Farewell – 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!

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

A selection of previous meditations is also available in audio form as ‘Meditations of Neiulus Aurelius’ ASMR on YouTube.

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

Many thanks

Neilus Aurelius

Meditation 46

As I write this meditation, I am not gazing at the candle in front of me. I am writing on my kitchen table and looking at the array of magnets on the fridge in the corner. The surfaces of the fridge door, the freezer door under it and the side of the fridge opposite me are almost completely filled with magnets.

I have been collecting them on my travels for over fifteen years I think. Some are from museums or art galleries or historical buildings as I can’t resist gift shops in those places. I have a penchant for cultural souvenirs, you see.

Many of them are small oblong pieces of tin with a photo or art reproduction printed on them and some are encased in plastic squares or oblongs. There are those of places I have visited around the world. As might be expected not a few are from Hungary and my numerous visits there and from Vancouver Island where I usually visit every year too.

 Others are from the exhibitions I mentioned. Indeed my fridge boasts its own miniature art gallery: there are a Van Gogh,  a Vermeer, 2 Caravaggio’s, 3 Michelangelo’s (including the statue of David), a Toulouse Lautrec, part of the stained glass at the Church of Sainte Chapelle in Paris, a portrait of Anne Boleyn, 2 pictures by Emily Carr (from Vancouver Island -one of my favourite artists), an Atkinson Grimshaw (the 19th Century Yorkshire artist) and a view of Lake Keitele in Finland by Aksell Gellen-Kallela (one of my favourite pictures in London’s National Gallery) among others. You might argue that in the early days of lockdown, when movement was severely restricted, there was no need for me to visit a gallery anyway. All I had to do was look at my fridge!

There is also a photo of the head of a Greek Philosopher, (from Budapest’s National Gallery), a magnet which Marcus Aurelius would no doubt appreciate. Needless to say, he also graces the side of my fridge: in a photo of the impressive statue of him in Rome’s Capitoline Museum, arm uplifted and hailing his empire on his horse. I do not know how he would react to being reduced to an image of 2 inches by 3 inches on a fridge wall. It is so unlike the large statues of him around the empire or the huge column with its spiralling frescoes of his triumphs in the Piazza Colonna in Rome. Perhaps he would accept the reduction of his grandeur to a small picture with stoic humility.

Some of the magnets are ceramic or metal figures. There’s a mini Shakespeare memorial from Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church where he is buried; a gargoyle from Notre Dame in Paris, a bejewelled masked gentleman from the Venice carnival and a miniature plaque of the Renaissance King Mattyas of Hungary. Reflecting my love of movies, there’s an Oscar statuette, a mini movie clapperboard and an tiny enamel ruby slipper from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ as well as long oblong posters of ‘Metropolis’ and ‘King Kong.’ There are several theatre posters too including one from Broadway.

One of my favourites is from Vancouver: a small wooden scene in dark and light brown and ivory wood showing a bear and a cub in the snow. The largest magnet is a mini upright piano with a lid which opens to reveal a tiny keyboard. I got this in Budapest when the Liszt 200th anniversary celebrations were on.     

My literary interests are reflected in magnets of several quotes from Shakespeare and from Oscar Wilde and Dickens (as well as an illustration from ‘A Christmas Carol’) and my love of John Steinbeck’s ‘Cannery Row’ by a 1930’s advert for canned anchovies from Monterey in California. There’s also a mini library of books from the Bodleian Library at Oxford.

However, I have frequently found that a museum or gallery gift shop doesn’t stock a card or magnet of the picture I would most like a copy of. Some of the ones on my fridge are therefore second best!

I have almost forgotten to mention that several friends have brought me magnets from their own travels. Isn’t it lovely to be remembered by friends when they are on holiday?

As you may have already gathered, this plethora of magnets not only  reflects my travels but also my interests. Like photographs, there are memories encased in them. I can remember where and when I bought most of them. With some of them, I have distinct memories of the complete day or afternoon when I purchased them: who I was with; where else I visited that day and other pictures or artefacts I looked at in the same place.

There are two magnets with 19th century American portraits on them, from a small exhibition in the tiny art gallery in the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. I had dived in there as I wanted to escape the relentless crowds and overpowering noise of the main strip. It was blissfully quiet in the gallery I remember. There was an impressive exhibition of landscape photography there too (but no magnets!).  I have rarely spent such a long time in such a small gallery – I was there for over an hour, partly just to get some peace and quiet. I told the assistant as I was leaving that it was the best $15 I had spent. She beamed at my compliment till I told her it was the only place where I could find peace and quiet in Las Vegas!  Then she laughed and agreed with me and I sweetened my potentially acid comment with some genuine appreciation of the exhibits, especially the photographs. Although, I desisted from purchasing the glossy book of the photos at $150 a copy! I bought the magnets of the 19th Century portraits instead. I remember treating myself to a blueberry ice cream and coffee in the gelateria next door afterwards before braving the crowds again.

I am afraid Las Vegas and I didn’t get on. It is endlessly brash and loud; yes the word is ‘endless.’ It is like a loud uncontrollable class except in school the class will disappear when the bell goes. In Las Vegas, the class goes on 24/7!  However, if asked, I would be delighted to headline there with my cabaret!

I found the fridge magnets were a comfort early in lockdown when I couldn’t go far, let alone travel to another country and when all the galleries and museums in London were closed. They reminded me that I have been very fortunate to travel abroad and so regularly and through my travels to make international friendships. I have also been fortunate to have seen so many wonderful works of art and historical buildings first hand and to share them with my friends who accompanied me and sometimes with yourself, dear reader, in this blog.

My life so far has been so rich, most of all in friendships. If I never travel again abroad or never enter another gallery, I haven’t done so badly out of life! I learnt in those early months of lockdown that it is important to be thankful for what we have and for what we have had. It is a way of being positive in these difficult times, which sadly continue.

It appears that the lockdown is tightening again, especially if people aren’t sensible and do not adhere to the new restrictions. Once again our horizons are potentially becoming narrower and in some areas of the U.K., this is already the case. We are being asked to accept and endure the situation again. Marcus, as a Stoic philosopher, would encourage us to do this.  But ‘endure’ is a harsh word  it is a difficult thing to do, as we have all learnt in the last six months or so. At least we have had some practice if another major lockdown comes.

Despite the ominous signs, nevertheless, I am hoping that next month I will be able to finally take my luxury trip to Puglia, in Southern Italy, which is my retirement present to myself. So by the end of October, hopefully another magnet (or two) will grace my fridge doors.

In these last months, I have learnt that ‘hope’ is a difficult thing too, even though the word is only one syllable and sounds lighter than ‘endure.’ It is difficult because it involves the future, which we have no control over. The more our plans for the future are scuppered, the less we feel like hoping. But hope we must, for it is a positive virtue and the best way to endure is to be positive.

Ave atque Vale – Hail and Farewell – 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!

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

A selection of previous meditations is also available in audio form as ‘Meditations of Neiulus Aurelius’ ASMR on YouTube.

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

Many thanks

Neilus Aurelius

Meditation 45

I do not want to be seated here writing this meditation with my lighted candle beside me on the table as usual. I would rather be writing it in the Drama studio at my school. I revisited it yesterday and would rather have written my thoughts there, when I was in situ, than trying to remember my reflections now a day later. It will be a case of ’emotions recollected in tranquillity’ as the poet Wordsworth writes about his own verses. Most of these mediations thus far have been ’emotions recollected in tranquility’, the tranquillity of my own home. Wordsworth’s phrase would be a good definition of a meditation. A meditation requires a little distance from the situation; a calm detachment.

My emotions were tranquil yesterday when I called into school and wandered into the Drama studio where I used to work until February this year. There was non-one else there as the school doesn’t open for lessons until next week. The space was empty and silent.

But it wasn’t cold and dark as the sun was shining through the windows at the top of the walls and, for those of you who have never been there, it is not a ‘black box’ as other studios often are. The walls are a sky blue and the blackout curtains are a deeper royal blue. I chose the colours myself when we were designing it in 2007. Heavy curtains of whatever colour would provide a blackout for performances and practical exams anyway and I wanted a bright and cheerful colour for the walls as the space (the old school gym converted) would be operating as both a large classroom and a studio theatre. I remember that at the top of my list at that time was the phrase ‘a flexible and intimate space’.

In a previous blog, I described being on an empty stage before a performance. The house lights are up and you are standing or sitting there looking at the empty auditorium. It was the Kolibri stage in Budapest I think. I used to love that moment alone on the stage while the cast and crew were getting their lunch before the matinee. It wasn’t just the chance to get my thoughts together before the show. There’s an atmosphere of anticipation in an empty theatre before a performance, an air of expectancy, and even though it is empty there is also a special warmth. It’s not because of the house lights out there in the auditorium or the stage lights beaming down. It is a feeling of being at home. No more than that: for me one of those rare moments when you realise that this is where you should be, just for this moment. I shall miss that warmth, that realisation, now I am retired.

The empty drama studio yesterday was entirely different. The space wasn’t set up for a performance as there wasn’t one. It was set up as a classroom with the retractable theatre seating back against the wall. I borrowed my colleague Leigh’s directors chair (mine got broken somehow ages ago) and sat in the middle of the performing area at the other end between the scenic flats that make a stage. I looked around the studio from there, facing where an audience would be.
Needless to say, memories flooded in of rehearsals, productions, gala evenings, exam performances, lessons, which I won’t bore you with. I can’t remember them now anyway. They flew in and out of my consciousness swiftly.

I have experienced that moment of warm anticipation before a performance in the studio too. It would generally be on the second or third night after the first night was over. There would always be some crisis or other to sort out before opening night!

But as I sat there yesterday, I realised that since the studio opened in 2007, I had never sat down and taken a good look at it. I’ve been too busy teaching, acting, directing and creating to notice the space I was working in properly. That is as it should be. Nevertheless I obviously have a great affection for the space. It has been a joy to work there in the final years of my school career. Not quite an Indian Summer as I do not think an Indian Summer can last for 13 years! I greatly miss working on a scene in the studio.

So here I was, now retired, finally looking around my old workplace, my creative space, my studio. ‘My empire’ as I would jokingly call it. Marcus’ empire was considerably larger than mine! Mine is more intimate and as a result more meaningful. I do not think he would have felt as I did yesterday as he stood outside his tent looking out over the plains of Pannonia.

How did I feel? Well I wasn’t upset or sad. Nor did I feel a sense of ennui. I found myself smiling. I realised that so much of me was in those walls. As I have just mentioned, I came up with a concept for the space. I could see myself everywhere, as I looked at the lighting box, the lighting and sound equipment, the seating, the scenery flats, curtains and walls. I had a creative input in all of these, working along with the previous headteacher, Tom Cahill and an ex-student Colin Mander.

What I felt was another kind of warmth: the warmth of pride.
I am reminded of a short play by Noel Coward called ‘Family Album’ about a Victorian family gathered for a celebration. In the play a family member makes a toast:
‘Here’s a toast to each of us and all of us together.
Here’s a toast to happiness and reasonable pride.’

That is what I felt: reasonable pride. And a glowing sense of achievement.
So why, do I ask myself, now that I have retired, am I so anxious to keep on achieving having achieved so much already? Perhaps I should take to heart the next line of the toast:
‘May our touch on life be lighter than a sea bird’s feather.’

Perhaps Noel Coward was thinking of himself when he wrote that line. He had a long and successful career as a playwright, composer, actor and entertainer. He must have constantly felt the drive to achieve.

So I slowly walked out of that Drama studio smiling and with a glow of pride which is an achievement in itself I guess.

As the Proms isn’t functioning as normal this year (like everything else), the BBC are putting archive performances on the radio each evening. So I have been listening to a wonderful performance of Mahler’s 5th symphony from 1987 with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by the legendary Leonard Bernstein. In the middle of this amazing life-enhancing performance I have realised that life is not about achieving but about creating. I want to continue creating.
But I have left out the last line of the toast by Noel Coward. I think it is rather appropriate as we continue with trying to cope with coronavirus into the Autumn.

‘And may all sorrows in our path politely step aside.’

Ave atque Vale – Hail and Farewell – 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! And please do pass on the blog address to others who may be interested. A selection of previous meditations is also available in audio form as ‘Meditations of Neiulus Aurelius’ ASMR on YouTube. I would also value any feedback on nzolad53@gmail.com or my Facebook page or Twitter.

Many thanks
Neilus Aurelius