February: Firsts, facts and fine things

I know. It’s almost a week into March but I promised in January to review each month’s gadding about and February has been every bit as jam-packed as January. So hold on tight and here we go…

There have been a few firsts this month. I’ve already posted about my first filling and my first visit to the British Library. I also attended my first Monash University Alumni event. It’s only taken 24 years and a move across the world to do this and I did turn up wondering what this Global Leaders Network was all about. I had a great evening hearing about the university’s plans for alumni engagement around the world and sharing expat stories with like-minded Australians. How nice it was to enjoy some straight-talking Aussie banter, the room humming with that laconic Aussie twang.

Speaking of university, I have a psychology degree from Monash so I’m really interested in the mindfulness conversation that’s happening at the moment. I saw Ruby Wax interviewed on Sunday Brunch and so went to see her show, Sane New World. Not only is she a comedian but is qualified in psychotherapy and has recently completed a Masters in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy at Oxford. Her show was a frank and funny look at our pace of life, mental illness and how our bodies – and in particular our hormones – are trying to cope. I really admire her philosophy in getting ‘off your a**e and doing the work’ – she’s set up free mental health walk-in sessions throughout the run of her shows with the aim of creating a network of walk-in centres across the UK.

February has also been a month for some of the finer things in life.

I attended a talk at the V&A Museum where Francesca Cartier Brickell, granddaughter of Jean-Jacques Cartier, took us on an enthralling journey through the Cartier family history introducing us to the three brothers – Louis, Pierre and Jacq – who started it all and their commitment to innovating whilst maintaining the essence of Cartier design. She also shared many personal anecdotes, one of these about finding the Cartier history in an old suitcase full of letters in her grandfather’s wine cellar. The many family moments she shared made this talk more intimate – less like a lecture and more like a lovely conversation albeit with more than a hundred of us in the room.

It also inspired me to visit The William and Judith Bollinger Gallery at the museum. We were herded briskly through this collection of stunning jewellery on the way to the auditorium and a couple of weeks later, I turned up early for a V&A book club evening to have a wander through. However, it transpired that the gallery was only open during the day so I killed the time I had by visiting the delightful stained glass gallery nearby and also enjoyed a meander through the just re-opened Europe galleries once book club was finished.

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The V&A Museum on a drizzly winter evening; killing time in stained glass

I also attended a book launch at the Institute of Directors. Peter Frankopan is director of the Centre for Byzantine Research at Oxford and over coffee and croissants he talked about his new book, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. His contention is that we are taught about history through the lens of a very small number of countries and believes that we have a lot to learn through the stories of other cultures and regions, particularly Russia and Iran, the latter having been the wellspring for language and religion more than a thousand years ago. I left unsure as to what these regions could offer but it did make me realise how uneducated I am about these areas of the world. I’m now waiting for the paperback version of the book to come out (ever tried to read a hardback on the tube?) so that I can broaden my historic horizons.

And speaking of fine things, I also saw Ralph Fiennes in Henrik Ibsen‘s The Master Builder at The Old Vic. Being able to see actors that I’ve loved on screen performing on stage is one of the absolute joys of living in London and despite being in the vertiginous cheap seats, the power of the performance still remained. It’s the second Ibsen play I’ve seen – the first being A Doll’s House which I studied at high school – and there is something fascinating about the way he explores the roles of women and how they use their personal power in a male-dominated society.

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The view from the cheap seats at the fabulously refurbished Old Vic theatre in London

Personal power also underpinned the speaker themes at the opening session of the TED2016 conference which was live-streamed into cinemas on February 16th. Whether it was 10-year-old Ishita Katyal’s opening talk, the performance from musical phenomenon AR Rahman or Riccardo Sabatini‘s vision for personalised medicine (my favourite talk of the night), it was an inspiring and thought-provoking evening and all for the price of a cinema ticket.

February also had me moved by music. My annual pilgrimage to the Flamenco Festival at Sadler’s Wells was a testosterone-fuelled performance by brothers Farraquito and Farruco which had me on my feet at its conclusion. Over at Kings Place, the Brodsky Quartet’s performance of George Gershwin’s little-known Lullaby for Strings was exquisite.

And with all of that going on, I found some time to imbibe in a well-deserved drink

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A couple of new watering holes near Holborn Station to add to my ‘let’s meet up’ list. L: The Princess Louise  R: The Ship Tavern

So that was February, filled to the brim with firsts, facts and fine things.

Phew!

Now for March…

On transformation

It’s been busy on the extra-curricular front lately and I’ve experienced such an extraordinary trio of events that it’s actually taken me a while to shape all of the amazing stuff I’ve seen and heard into something more than a rambling discourse.

Let me start at the beginning.

I love Flamenco. I’ve loved it ever since the moment I first set eyes on it in Seville in 2002. I love it deeply and passionately, like the spirit of the dance itself. And a little over two weeks ago I was in the audience for Flamenco Gala, the event that marked the opening of the London Flamenco Festival.

It was an hour and 45 minutes of pure transformation. Each piece was filled with its own essential character: intense sensuality, sartorial elegance, youthful impertinence. (And that was just the three ‘leading’ men.) There were no stage sets and no props, each performance needing only the cast of dancers, musicians and singers to capture its essence and cast it out into the audience. I reached out to grab it and never wanted them to stop.

These people transformed Sadlers Wells with their passion and fierce charm, drawing us in and holding us in their thrall until the very last compás. As the last note faded, the theatre filled with woops and bravos and cheering and my arms ached from clapping for so hard and so long. It was utterly thrilling (and may have had something to do with my insomnia that night).

The following week I went hear Thomas Heatherwick speak on surprise, ingenuity and transformation. This is the man who has hit the headlines here in London with his new London bus design and who alongside Joanna Lumley, has been inspired to transform Londoners’ relationship with the Thames through the Garden Bridge proposal. He is also the man who, during London’s 2012 Olympic Games, transformed the Opening Ceremony: an extraordinary moment in Olympic history that showed how the true spirit of the Games – a coming together of 204 nations in a single endeavour – could be epitomised in the lighting of the flame.

He has been doing many other things and for just over 2 hours, talked passionately about transforming our urban environments through a unique blend of redefining the brief and solving ‘the problem’. I didn’t love every project he showed us but I had a strong opinion on each and for me, that’s what sets this catalogue of innovative design ahead of the rest.

And then last Sunday I went to see an interview with novelist and academic Howard Jacobson. I’ve never read any of his books but I had read articles he’d been quoted in and was curious to hear what he had to say. His new book J, imagines a dystopian future where many ‘Js’ are banned – no jokes, no jazz and no Jews.

The discussion became less about the story itself (excellent, no spoilers!) and more about ideologies and the human need for argument to keep such ideologies alive. Being Jewish himself (the interview was part of Jewish Book Week), he particularly talked about the notion of Christian/Jewish argument being at the source of each of these ideologies and that without one, perhaps the other would not exist. He posed the question that if the opposing view just disappeared and there was no need to defend a position, would an ideology simply run out of steam? I thought about that all the way home.

The theme that has so enchanted me about these three events has been their ability to transform, whether in bringing a passionate past to life, a striking twist to an urban landscape or a thought-provoking version of a possible future. I love that these experiences stimulate my imagination and for days afterwards, I felt inspired creative and somehow emboldened in my day to day endeavours.

And it seems to me that these people and others like them – who keep exploring the what ifs about our world – are the ones who, with every step, design or idea will inspire us to break out of our comfortable cocoons and strive for new horizons.

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