Since I last sat here and gazed at the candle on the table beside me, the U.K. has now gone into lockdown to try to counter the worldwide pandemic that has now taken hold on our shores. Nevertheless the candle is still burning with a steady and bright flame.

Before the final lockdown I had to go into Kingston-on-Thames, the largest town nearest to where I live, to collect a prescription. It was a beautiful sunny morning though the streets were rather dismal as so many shops were closed up. After I left the pharmacy, I took a stroll along the river. The leaves of the trees glistened and the green river gleamed in the chill sunshine. It was a comfort to watch the swans, ducks and terns smoothly making their way through the water as they always do. It was as if nothing has happened.

The warmth of the sun in the chill air was matched by the atmosphere on the waterfront. As I walked along, strangers smiled or raised a hand in greeting. Because of social distancing, everyone seemed to be more aware of each other than usual. There was a polite choreography about everyone’s attempt to step aside for joggers, mothers with pushchairs, and for each other. As I sat for a while on a bench, I observed this delicate ballet of manners accompanied by gracious smiles. It warmed my heart to observe people looking out for each other in this small way.
I had sat down to drink a carton of coffee and eat a large cookie I had purchased earlier. By this point, whichever food and drink outlets were open, were only dispensing takeaways and Waterstone’s cafe was no exception. So I took my coffee and cookie down to the river. As I sat there sipping my coffee and munching my cookie, the inevitable little flock of pigeons assembled near my feet to catch the crumbs.

I was reminded of a time I spent in Venice several years ago. I had a little winter break in the early New Year on my own. I sat outside a little cafe in the winter sunshine with a coffee and slice of pizza. The cafe was in the shadow of the imposing Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute. In fact it was in a little piazza behind it. I was amazed to see some little sparrows hovering around my table looking for crumbs. In my head, sparrows lived in London, not Venice. In any case, those humble little sparrows looked quite incongruous in the shade of the grandiose basilica, though they were not in the least overawed by it as they swarmed around my feet to eat the little pieces of pizza crust I gave them.

Then I thought of Venice itself, which has been severely hit by the virus along with most of Italy. The lagoon and the canals have clear blue water again and wild fowl have returned now that the excessive shipping has departed. Perhaps some good is coming out of these devastating days. Despite the recent tragedy, La Serenissima (as the city of Venice is dubbed) is calling to me again. Hopefully one day I will return. When I do, I shall make sure I feed the tiny humble sparrows again.

So in honour of those little Venetian sparrows of years ago I crumbled some of my cookie onto the pavement for the little cluster of Kingston pigeons near my feet. I watched them swarm around for the tiny pieces of biscuit, fluttering over each other and jostling each other out of the way. It was quite amusing as in their desperate flurry to peck at the tiny crumbs, they were completely oblivious to a sizeable piece of biscuit behind them all. It was some time before one of the flock realised it was there and then the fluttering took another direction of course.

Their desperate flurrying brought to mind the panic-buying that had taken place all that week. I was as guilty as the rest. Seeing sections of empty shelving in the supermarkets makes you grab whatever you can, like the pigeons grabbing whatever crumb they can. Like the pigeons, you don’t see what else is there, what might be behind you. You may even forget what you came in for and you may come out of the shop with things you don’t really need. Thankfully the panic has died down now and, since the lockdown, food shopping is conducted in a more orderly and calm fashion.

Looking at those pigeons, scurrying around after those crumbs reminded me of our rampant consumerism. We are forever buying: shopping has become a pastime, a hobby, an afternoon out or we can click,click, click online at home. When sales arrive and special offers and Black Friday, the adrenalin surges and out we go shopping again or we rush to our laptop or i phone to see what we can get. According to very recent news, we cannot cope with being in cold turkey now that the shops are closed so internet purchases are soaring instead. So we are still flurrying around indoors like a bird trying to get out when the window or door is shut.

Perhaps in the weeks ahead, as this lockdown takes a greater hold, we will slowly let the sudden quiet calm atmosphere take a hold on our hyperactive selves. It is taking a hold in the streets and parks now where every day seems like the chill calm of Christmas Day. After all, this is the time to appreciate what we have rather than hanker for what we do not have. Perhaps that is one way through this crisis. It is also time to appreciate and cherish who we have: our partners, family and friends. The larger crumb that is there all the time in the midst of our scurrying. The pearl of great price.

Ave atque vale – Hail and Farewell! Till the next blog.

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

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Many thanks
Neilus Aurelius

As I sit here watching the flickering flame of the candle beside me, the whole world seems to be a flickering flame in the face of the virus that has engulfed us. Not even emperors or the powerful of our own time are able to totally control it. It is a humbling corrective to their own towering self-confidence, should they possess it. Indeed it is a humbling corrective to us all, in our own little busy worlds, which have now perforce been interrupted in the most dramatic and sudden way.

In the wake of the week’s events in our own country, indeed across the world, it seems pointless, even crass and insulting to the suffering of others to write a meditation about anything else. I must admit to feeling numb and powerless myself, as indeed we all are, like someone standing stock still in the street when an accident happens, a neutral observer but unable to do little if anything to prevent it. Nevertheless, despite our fears and inherent panic at the spread of the virus and the sudden restrictions that have been imposed upon us, life must continue as far as possible. We must take up again our preoccupations and activities with calm determination and above all hope, hope for the future. The flame, though flickering, is not yet spent.

So with this in mind, I would like to share with you an exhibition I attended early last week before the closures at the National Portrait Gallery near Trafalgar Square. It was a display of David Hockey’s portraits. They included works from his teenage years in the 1950’s to the present day. The passage of time was very evident in the drawings, prints and paintings. This was because the portraits were of four particular sitters who are close to him: his muse Celia Birtwell, his mother Laura, his lover Gregory Evans, his print maker Maurice Payne as well as a series of portraits of himself.

They were executed in various locations around the world which gave the exhibition an exotic feel though being portraits there was equally an intimacy about them. Hockney is a fine draughtsman. His drawing skills are remarkable particularly in depicting the clothing of the sitters: the detailed prints of Celia’s numerous dresses for example. He is also an acute realist: these were not flattering portraits but carefully outlined the changes time had wrought on the sitter (including himself of course!). Yet though he accurately showed how the effects of age had changed the subject, the expression on their faces changed little and so their personality, their inner spirit seemed constant.

It was the self portraits that fascinated me. I have always been deeply moved by the realism in Rembrandt’s self-portraits (especially his ones painted in old age) and the realism in Hockey’s moved me too. It is Rembrandt’s eyes that draw you to him and they show you the ages of man: from quirky insecure youth to benign accepting old age. But in

Hockney’s portraits the eyes are always the same: they look startled, almost scared like a deer suddenly disturbed in a forest. I suppose this may be a trope that he uses for all of them and this startled stare even looks out at us from his first drawings as a teenager in his room in Bradford. This constant expression helps us to appreciate the different backgrounds and locations, the different clothes he wears over the years, the different media he uses at times and of course the changes in his face wrought by age.

But it is an odd expression. It is as if he has been caught in the act of painting, as if his art is reprehensible. The title for each one might be ‘The Guilty Artist’! That was certainly the cumulative effect they had on me. For a moment I wondered if it was something to do with his sexuality, with being afraid to be who he is, especially when gay men of his generation had to be closeted and furtive, when every expression of their sexuality had to be behind closed doors and there was always that fear of the door being suddenly opened and being found out, exposed. But this does not sit with the fact that he has been openly gay and even flamboyantly so for most of his adult life in contrast with his contemporary and fellow Yorkshireman, the writer Alan Bennett who only ‘came out’ in his later years.

Maybe that startled look does stem from a primal fear of being found out that was deep rooted from his teenage years.

Or perhaps it is something to do with the embarrassment about being in any way artistic and creative when you are brought up with an ordinary working class background. But then I may be reading something of myself into Hockney’s paintings. My own feelings of embarrassment were unnecessary really as the adults around me and my peers accepted that I wrote little plays and enjoyed acting. My primary school teacher encouraged me. She thought I would end up as a producer or director for BBC Drama.

And yet it is an extremely courageous act to commit a portrait of oneself to paper or canvas especially when it is realistic rather than narcissistic! There are times when I have shied way from writing this blog because I have been a little wary of committing myself to paper as it were. It is a private act that becomes public. Perhaps it is my childhood and teenage embarrassment taking hold again.

In one way I found the exhibition depressing. Walking around and gradually observing these five sitters (including the artist) getting older and older made me feel as if I was growing old with them! In truth they made me realise my own age. I am not young anymore myself. Looking back on my walk around these portraits with their constant expressions, I see that Hockney has hit upon a truth about human nature: our bodies grow older but we look out to the world with the same eyes we did as a child or young person. This can make us forget our real age sometimes: we think we are younger than we are in reality. As I have been working with young people for over half my life, yes, as others

have repeatedly pointed out, working with young people keeps you young, but it can also lead to self delusion at times!

Inevitably the restrictions imposed this week for our own good have also reminded me of my age and vulnerability. I am but four years off 70! Living alone has compounded this. I have always said that living alone is an art form, something in the coming days of isolation we may have to learn. But so many friends, neighbours and colleagues and of course family have been in touch for which I am so very grateful.

So I am once again reminded of the stained glass window in St Pierre de Montmatre in Paris. That abstract stained glass reminded me many years ago about all my family and friends, each one a bright and colourful pane of glass welded to the other by the molten lead of affection and love. We may be well aware at present that we are an individual and isolated pane of glass. We may even feel that our bright and cheerful colour has faded but the sun will still shine through it. And we need to remember that we may be a single pane but we are surrounded by the molten lead of affection and love.

Ave atque vale – Hail and Farewell! Till the next blog.

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Many thanks

Neilus Aurelius

It is quite a while since I sat here beside my candle to write a meditation. I have not had much time to be reflective as, like Marcus, I have been on a campaign and like him I have been in Pannonia for a while. Except I have not been leading a military campaign but a theatrical one and to modern day Pannonia, that is Hungary. The time has come around again for our annual school Drama tour to Budapest. Like Marcus, once again I watched the sun come up over the Buda hills, though not from a military tent (as he would have done) but from my hotel room a week or so ago.

The sun has come up, or rather, gone down on my final tour. It is hard to believe that it is thirty years since the first one in February 1990. As I sat in my hotel room the other morning and gazed through the window at the sun over the Buda hills, a dazzling disc in the clear early morning winter sky, many memories inevitably flooded in. Now that I am home again I am sure many more will stream into my consciousness and perhaps into this blog too.

But on that particular morning there was little time for nostalgic reverie. It was the morning of my final performances at the Kolibri Theatre and I had to be breakfasted and out of the hotel early with the technical crew so we had time to set up the production before the cast arrived. My final production there was ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ and we were giving two performances: one at 2 in the afternoon and the other at 6 in the evening. I was too busy to be sad or nostalgic that day. But I did take lots of photos of backstage, the auditorium and the beautiful foyer. As the theatre is a children’s theatre, it is painted like a jungle with tigers, monkeys and exotic birds peeping out of the foliage. I had hoped to have a little time alone on the stage while everyone went to lunch but it didn’t happen.

Strangely it did last year, when we were performing ‘A Christmas Carol’. Somehow we had set up quickly and efficiently and when everyone else went to lunch, I did find myself sitting alone on stage in the stage lights looking out to the empty auditorium. There is an alert stillness about an empty theatre, especially when the stage is set and the performance will soon begin. There is an atmosphere of anticipation, an air of expectancy. As I sat there I felt the warmth of that lovely theatre seep into my bones. Memories flooded in more potently than in my hotel room just now. That is because the stage is where it’s at, not a hotel room. And so, as I sat there, it was then that I felt sad. And yes I did shed a tear because I knew that either then or a year later would be the end.

Prior to the tour, the 30th anniversary was celebrated at the school with a Gala Performance,which the Consul General of the Hungarian Embassy here in London and the Mayor of Kingston attending along with ex-Drama students who had been on the tours over the years and colleagues and ex-colleagues and friends too. Several friends, ex-students and colleagues attended the other two performances as well. So many people to see and so little time to talk to them all. The memories streamed in with them. A heartfelt thank you to all who came along!

I mentioned in one of my earlier blogs – it was in connection with ‘A Christmas Carol’ last year – that, as in Ancient Greek Drama, the director and actors’ aim is to create an invisible circle between the performers and the audience. Experiencing Wagner’s Ring Cycle of four operas at the Royal Opera House in autumn 2018 had reminded me of this. It is easier, of course, to create this circle in a small studio theatre than in a large auditorium like the opera house at Covent Garden. Nevertheless, it is a magical thing when it happens, like the magic ring at the centre of Wagner’s operas. I am pleased to say that it did happen, both in the school’s studio and the Kolibri Theatre.

During those performances at school and at the Kolibri, another circle appeared as if by magic as I watched the performances from the wings. For these were my final performances. My career as a teacher and director had come full circle. And all those students, the past ones in the audience and the present ones on stage, were part of that circle, that golden round, which extended to a country a thousand miles away. My heart was almost bursting with as much pride and excitement as when I watched our first ever performance in the school by Lake Balaton from the wings 30 years ago.

At the beginning of the second performance at the Kolibri Theatre, Janos Novak, the theatre’s director, made a presentation to me. It was a plaque: oblong in shape and of polished wood. It had a wooden marionette attached to it. There is a brass citation underneath in recognition of our 24 year creative friendship and officially making me an honorary member of the Kolibri Theatre Company. I do feel greatly honoured and very moved.

The marionette is very appropriate as because Kolibri is a children’s theatre, puppets are often used in performances, even for older children and young people. The puppet on the plaque is a Harlequin and is beautifully carved and painted in a delicate cream. The large diamonds of Harlequin’s costume are a contrasting peach in colour. He wears an orange hat and brown shoes. Harlequin is one of the oldest characters in European Theatre, first appearing as one of the stock characters in the Italian Commedia dell’arte plays, which began before Shakespeare’s time. So I am doubly honoured. Although I am too short and slightly too rotund to play the slim Harlequin!

The marionette is attached to the plaque by a piece of wire at the back of the head. Therefore the arms and legs are able to move. They clattered about in a plastic bag when I carried the plaque back to the hotel after leaving the theatre. Dear old Harlequin reminds me of how my life has been in semi-retirement. Like the puppet on the plaque, my hands and feet have been free to move but I have still been attached to the school through productions and the drama tour.

Now I am totally unattached. I am like Pinocchio: ‘I got no strings!’ But like Pinocchio when he first tries to walk without them I am a little wobbly on my legs. Losing his strings was a big deal for Pinocchio and it is for me. The fear of freedom threatens to blow me over. However, once I find my feet I am sure I shall be fine.

Like Pinocchio the marionette has a slender nose. His features are carefully painted onto his wooden face. Sometimes when I look at him, his mouth appears to be smiling, At other times he looks sad, as if he saying farewell. Perhaps he represents the theatre’s farewell. His eyes smile sometimes too, and at other times look wistful and sad. He appears to be a marionette with mixed emotions.

As have I.

Ave atque vale – Hail and Farewell! Till the next blog.

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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

As I sit here by my solitary candle I am looking at the corner opposite me in my lounge. It is now empty. Today I took down the Christmas decorations and so the tree in the opposite corner is no longer there. My candle seems very solitary indeed now that the lights on the tree are packed away upstairs. Now that the garlands and cards are gone from my bookshelves too, the room seems empty indeed and cold as if a chill winter breeze has crept in though the window or under the door.

I am reminded once again of Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’, when the Spirit of Christmas Future returns Scrooge to the Cratchits’ parlour and the corner where Tiny Tim used to sit is sadly empty. Of course, Scrooge changes heart when he wakes up in the present on Christmas morning. He helps Tiny Tim as much as he can and presumably Tim recovers from his illness and lives so the corner will not be empty at all. And of course I will be putting up the decorations and tree once again in December and, like Tiny Tim’s corner, my lounge corner will not be empty once more either. And it will once again glow with the lights on the tree.

At the end of ‘A Christmas Carol’ we are told that ‘it was always said of Mr Scrooge that he knew how to keep Christmas well’. We are also reminded: ‘May that be truly said of all of us.’ What does this mean? Scrooge’s sudden change of heart, indeed the opening of his heart in generosity to others, including those less fortunate than himself, did not end with that first Christmas season when he became truly alive. The spirit of Christmas remained alive in him throughout the year. Moreover, his heart had been opened for the rest of his days.

You may remember the phrase ‘A dog isn’t just for Christmas’, warning people not to buy a puppy for Christmas without being aware of the responsibilities of looking after it afterwards. Well perhaps Dickens is saying ‘Christmas isn’t just for Christmas’. We should keep the generous spirit of Christmas alight in our hearts even though the Christmas lights have been extinguished in our home. Just as, if we buy or receive a dog or puppy at Christmas, we have the responsibility to look after it, so we also have the responsibility to be generous and kind to others, especially those less fortunate than ourselves, all the year round. If we are looking for a New Year’s resolution perhaps this should be it. Or perhaps we should be thinking more in terms of a New Year’s attitude.

A few days ago, I mentioned to a friend that my lounge looked gloomy now that the decorations had been taken down and packed away. He suggested that we should put up different decorations for each month of the year, in line with the seasons I suppose. I do know that in Hungary (and I imagine other parts of Eastern Europe) people put up an Easter tree in their homes. This is very often a large bunch of bare branches decorated with ribbons and imitation eggs made from wood or papier-mache. The eggs are painted with traditional designs and are very colourful. I have a few on my Christmas tree! When I bought them in Budapest several years ago, I thought they were Christmas decorations!

My Christmas lights may be put away now but my solitary candle is still burning brightly. Perhaps in the year ahead, we should burn a candle to remind ourselves of the spirit of Christmas in season and out of season and to remind ourselves to live by that spirit. And

to encourage us, in the dark and uncertain opening days of this New Year and new decade.

Happy New Year.

Ave atque vale – Hail and Farewell! Till the next blog.

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Many thanks

Neilus Aurelius

As I sit here by my solitary candle, I am not gazing at its steady flame but at the lights on my Christmas tree, which is standing in the corner of the lounge opposite me.

Christmas is my season. I suppose now that I have white hair and a beard of sorts and have begun to look ‘Santa-esque’, it should be my favourite season. I have certainly always preferred it to the forced festivities of New Year.

Even though I live alone and spend most of Christmas week with my family up North, I still decorate my lounge and make a lot of fuss over the tree. On my travels in recent years I have collected trinkets and baubles to adorn its branches. Every year I try to put the decorations up around the first Sunday of Advent (generally the first Sunday in December) and leave them up until the official end of Christmastide (the feast of Epiphany on January 6). They are a cheering sight in these bleak and dark days of winter, especially when I arrive home from my family after my Christmas visit, to my solitary residence again.

Last week I took a friend to the Charles Dickens Museum in London. It is a tall townhouse in Doughty Street, in Bloomsbury, not far from Russell Square. The house was the first marital home of Charles and Catherine Dickens. They lived there from 1837 – 1840 and during that short space of time, raised the first three of their ten children there (Charley, Mary and Kate). There Dickens finished ‘The Pickwick Papers’, wrote ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘Nicholas Nickleby’. And it was there, in his late-twenties, that he very quickly rose like a comet to international fame.

Though now a museum, there is a homely atmosphere as you walk through its rooms. There are also mini exhibitions on display and, as might be expected, at present, there is one on ‘A Christmas Carol’ which Dickens wrote only a few years after he moved (in 1843). This is the best time of year to visit the museum as every room is festooned with Christmas decorations in early Victorian style, including, in the corner of the parlour, a Christmas tree. I am honoured to think that my own tree is likewise in the corner of my own parlour! The tree’s branches have colourful ribbons on them and small thin candles (tapers) . There were no flashing electric lights in those days or electric light at all and in the gloom of the parlour, lit only by candles or oil lamps and the fire in the grate, the tree’s candle lights must have been as warm and spectacular as our own electric ones are now.

Charles Dickens virtually invented Christmas, through ‘A Christmas Carol’ and his other annual Christmas stories.

However he was only bringing together traditions that had existed for years before, even if some may have declined by then. Just as Shakespeare created our image of Ancient Rome in his play ‘Julius Caesar’, so Dickens, in his novel, creates the heartwarming image of Christmas that is now indelibly etched in our national (indeed international) consciousness.

However, we must remember that he wrote ‘A Christmas Carol’ spurred on by his own acute social conscience. Ever the champion of the poor, as he was only a few steps from abject poverty himself in his childhood, it was the plight of children born into poverty that abhorred him most. At the centre of the book is the scene where the Spirit of Christmas Present, as he is about to leave Scrooge, opens his cloak to reveal the children of Ignorance and Want, who beset Scrooge with outstretched hands.

The book was written in Dickens’ despair at the conditions of children living on the London streets and on the streets of other major cities, heightened by the current economic depression known as the ‘Hungry Forties’, where the failure of two successive harvests left many walking the streets in starvation. He was also sickened by the use of child labour in the mines and rather than petition Parliament, he decided to write a short work of fiction instead, exposing the ignorance of the wealthy and powerful classes to the ‘want’ of the poor.

What would Dickens have to say about our own Christmas in 2019 with its own child poverty, a growing homeless population, food banks, ineffective universal credit scheme, and children slipping into drug abuse and knife crime? And successive governments that are not ignorant but refuse to see and act. What indeed?

And what would he make of the last three years of political machinations and parliamentary drama around Brexit? He would have seen huge opportunities for comedy I am sure. And what of our new Prime Minister? Dickens loved creating eye-catching names for his characters and took his time over inventing them. I fancy he might have dubbed him ‘Mr Boris Brexit Bombast’. And yet, having seen our new leader so often in the news recently, despite his attempts to be Churchillian, he does not appear to be a 19th Century Dickensian figure either, as his voice and manner are more those of a licentious 18th Century Tory. Indeed a periwig would sort out his uncontrollable hair.

Dickens wrote a story about a Christmas Tree, which he calls the ‘new German toy’ as the practice of a tree at Christmas had been introduced into our country by the German Prince Albert, the young Queen Victoria’s consort, a few years before. His tree has ‘glittering tapers’ (like the one in the museum), miniature doll’s furniture and musical instruments, imitation fruits and sweets and a host of other trinkets, including rosy-cheeked dolls hiding behind the green leaves.
What of my own tree? Yes there is a string of lights like glowing icicles and a host of different baubles and trinkets, some purchased here and many from my travels. I must admit to an aversion to Christmas trees in stores, bars or hotels that have identical baubles: all gold or blue or red or whatever and often with fake gift boxes at their base. They look so unimaginative and half-hearted. But better a tree than no tree at all I suppose.

In the Dickens story, as he looks at the tree he is gradually reminded of ghosts from the past. What am I reminded of? Well places that I have visited and the dear friends who were with me. I have decorations from Paris, Rome, Florence, Assisi, Venice several from Budapest of course, San Francisco and other places in California like Monterey, San Simeon and L.A. and Vancouver. There are even several from the Vatican – but I didn’t steal them! And there are those that were given to me by family and friends. And, like Dickens, one or two trinkets remind me of one or two friends who are no more.
The Christmas Tree is a light bearing tree. To those of us who are of the Christian Faith, it symbolised the coming of Christ into the world, the light that lightens all people. For Dickens it is a ‘commemoration of the law of love and kindness, mercy and compassion’ reminding us to think of others and help them at this time.

The evergreen fir tree has links with the winter solstice and so to the tree of life which is common to so many faiths and cultures. So the Christmas tree is also the Tree of Life. It is a perennial symbol of light in the darkness. And of hope too.
As I look at my own tree I see all those things. Yes my tree is a tree of life. My life.

As Tiny Tim says in ‘A Christmas Carol’:
‘Merry Christmas and God bless us everyone.’


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 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

As I sit here with a candle before me as usual, I am not gazing at its flame but at the darkness in the room that surrounds it. One of the advantages of using an I Pad to write is that it has an illuminated screen so I am able to compose this meditation without the benefit of an electric light above or beside me. Indeed, I hardly need a candle at all to see the keyboard.

Marcus, of course, all those centuries ago, would have had to resort to candles or oil lamps to write his own meditations. His own tablet would not have been lit from within as mine is! I am sure that, like me, he must have gazed into the darkness between writing down his sentences. Perhaps the darkness helped him to get his own thoughts together too. Alternately gazing at the candle flame and at the gloom, at the light and at the darkness, he was able to shape his thoughts into sentences.

One thing is certain: he would have been far more aware of the dark than we are. We never need to be completely in the dark with electric lights everywhere and TV and computer screens beaming at us, not to mention the little screens forever in our hand. With all these sources of light, we hardly notice the passage of the night hours at all unless we are unable to sleep for some reason. But Marcus would have been more aware of the night hours, the hours of darkness.

Perhaps he wrote because he slept little. I read in Mary Beard’s recent book about Rome, that the city’s inhabitants slept little at all, because of fear of fire and violence outside their dark and flimsy wooden dwellings. Perhaps Marcus’ legionaries enjoyed being free of that fretful city fear as they camped out in the stillness of the fields and plains, in those moments when they were far from the lurking enemy.

It is humbling to sit in the dark. It reminds us of our place in the universe, in the cosmic order of things; that there is a vast immensity beyond our own paltry private world of nagging individual concerns. Looking up into the night sky, especially in the summer when we can sit in the warmth of the evening to gaze up at the stars, can help us to appreciate this. But sitting in a room in the dark can bring this home to us too.

Technology in its myriad forms has, I think, made us proud and arrogant as if we are in total control and lords of creation and of course we are not in total control. News of a natural disaster is enough to remind of this. And our slapdash intermittent control of creation has resulted in disastrous results for our fragile and vulnerable Eco systems, which we are now only too aware of.

We are most aware of the dark in the wintertime because it creeps in suddenly during the late afternoon and is still there when we wake up in the morning. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why Christmas is so wonderful: it is a season of light, of cheer, of conviviality; of bright lights and comforting company against the ever-encroaching dark. For we do all have that primal fear of the dark inside us. You only have to walk down a country lane with no street lights at night or across an open field in the dark to experience a twinge of that primal fear; to share that gut feeling those Roman city dwellers must have had at times. Especially if you are unable to get a signal on your phone!

A few days ago there was another attack by a lone terrorist in the London Bridge area. Darkness has suddenly crept into our lives again accompanied by that primal fear. Except it was the darkness within that terrorist’s soul that took over him and then his victims and so us. Darkness is always with us.

The future of our country is in the balance with an election looming and the ever-present uncertainty caused by Brexit. We are walking towards the future in the dark. But then we always are walking towards the future in the dark. We really do not know what is around the corner. Perhaps part of our anxiety or annoyance about this is because technology, as I mentioned earlier, surreptitiously makes us believe we have all knowledge at our fingertips, that we are omniscient, all knowing. Therefore we should know everything about the future and certainly the media and politicians want us to believe their version of it. But we need to remember that we are in the dark and to accept the dark and cherish what light we have.

I am now sitting in a room away from home. I am staying overnight in my old Oxford college, Pembroke. My room overlooks the chapel quad. It is one of my favourite views so I am so pleased that I have been allocated this room. It is night and very dark in the quad as I look out of the window but there are lamps shining in brackets from the walls.The walls were a biscuit brown in the winter sunshine when I arrived, but now they are a pale grey, not eerie but welcoming. From the darkness in my room, those lamps look so comforting, especially the one immediately opposite me, lighting the stairway to the Hall. It is no longer a lamp but a beacon in the gloom.

That is what we are called to be: beacons in the gloom, comforting each other and hopefully guiding each other. That is what the two young victims of the London Bridge attack, Jack and Saskia, were. They were beacons in the gloom; working on a prison rehabilitation programme to create a little light in the darkness of the lives of others. They were what the poet W.H.Auden would call ‘affirming flames’.

Darkness and light are incompatible. I am reminded of a quote in my first meditation over a year ago. It is by St Francis of Assisi: ‘All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light from one candle.’

Let us believe this in our dark times and like, Jack and Saskia, be affirming flames.

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Neilus Aurelius

As I sit here once again gazing at the candle by my tablet, I am reminded of all the candles that have been lit last week to commemorate those who fell in the two World Wars and conflicts since.

For many: as World War One and World War Two are so long ago now, they were remembering deceased ancestors, who they probably never met. For some: they were remembering close family members who died in recent conflicts and for those in the armed forces, comrades in arms who fell beside them in battle. We are all remembering those who were victims of the horrors of war and the sacrifices they made, willing or otherwise.

To truly remember of course you would have to have experienced the carnage personally yourself or to have personally known someone who died in one of those conflicts. For the rest of us we cannot imagine the horrors. But we still take time to pause and remember and hopefully say a prayer for peace.

These remembrance ceremonies tend to be military occasions with flags and uniforms (armed forces or auxiliary services). Though I am sure they are remembered at this time, there is little emphasis on all the civilians who suffered: the victims of bombing and concentration camps, ethnic cleansing of one kind or another, the refugees and migrants, the victims of military occupation and the re-drawing of maps.

In recent times, the ceremonies have places less emphasis on military glory so much as remembering the cost, incalculable though thecost is: not least the severely wounded and mentally scarred trying to rebuild their lives and their families and loved ones trying to support them. A recent survey showed that a majority of the homeless in our cities are ex-members of the armed forces with mental health problems.

I am reminded of my own family. My father and his younger sister were aged 7 and 4 when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Eventually when Russian forces occupied where they lived (in what is now Lithuania) they were transported with their mother and grandmother to Siberia. When Russia joined the allies they were released and gradually moved through Russia to Tehran in Persia (now Iran) and were re-united with their father who, having been freed from a labour camp was now once again a diplomat and in charge of placing Polish refugees in camps. He arranged for my father and the family to go to India (where the most comfortable camps were and where my father kept a pet mongoose and went tiger hunting and where his sister, my aunt Barbara, danced in Polish costume infront of an audience that included Ghandi). Eventually they came to the UK and settled in Nottingham and my father came to Teeside and married my mother and here I am. His sister Barbara married and eventually emigrated to Canada. It all worked out for them in the end – or did it?

I think that deep down inside they never stopped being refugees. The effects of their war experience echoed through their lives. They found it difficult to settle which came out in a variety of ways which I will not go into here save to say that they both suffered from forms of depression and that, at times in my life, I have too. My father is no longer alive but I visit his sister on Vancouver Island nearly every year. She is a colourful, generous and highly extravagant lady for whom money has had little meaning. But then, as she reminds me occasionally: when you have been a little girl dumped in a Siberian village begging for potatoes, money has no meaning. ‘Learn Neil’ she says, ‘learn.’

It is not enough to remember: we have to learn from the past too.

Jut before we joined the European Community in 1974 (when I was student) I vividly remember the Daily Mirror reprinting a cartoon from VE Day in 1945. It was by Lowe, the famous cartoonist of the war years who was renowned for his caricatures of Churchill. The cartoon showed a horrific battlefield and a lone wounded soldier trying to reach up to a blackened sky. The caption underneath read ‘Never Forget’. It was therefore, the Daily Mirror’s powerful visual statement in support of the U.K. joining the European Community. Many readers of the Daily Mirror at that time would have gone through the war and may have seen that cartoon when it first appeared. The cartoon was reminding us to learn from the previous conflict. The newspaper was underlining that joining the Common Market (as the EU was then also called) was not just an economic strategy but also a means of ensuring peace, a peace we have enjoyed in Europe for over 70 years.

Between 2014 and 2018, there were numerous programmes on television about the First World War. I am unsure whether this was before the Brexit referendum in May 2016 but there was an item on the local London news where Nigel Farage was taken to the World War One battlefields and the cemeteries there. He was visibly moved and in tears. But why could he not learn from what he saw, from the history all around him? Why could he not connect?
It is not enough to remember: we have to learn from the past too.


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