The Great Leveller

Prince or Pauper. Young or Old. Death doesn’t distinguish.

Rarely do we acknowledge that with every moment and every breath, we are moving towards our own ends. If life is a miracle, then death is its unsung companion. It lurks at every bend and fold. It stalks us with every near miss and illness. It laughs grimly as we celebrate birthdays and anniversaries and milestones. After all, we have to walk into its arms eventually, and feel its lips upon us.

Does that negate the meaning of all life? On the contrary, as anyone who has had a brush with death would attest, it reinvigorates you into living better, and puts into sharp focus that which is really important.

I lost a friend and colleague last week. As memories and tributes have poured in, one fact has stood out in glaring contrast to the others. People have spoken time and again about his kindness. His generosity of spirit was the trait that distinguished him from all others. Not to say that he didn’t have his share of faults and weaknesses, as we all do. However, the overriding narrative has been about his selflessness, his need and ability to help.

The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones, said William Shakespeare. For once, I am in disagreement with the Bard. The good does live on. This is not canonising the dead. This is accepting that each of us has a choice in the legacy we leave behind. Our legacy could be little or large. It could affect multitudes, or only a handful of near and dear ones. Yet, it would be the one thing that we would be remembered by. Choose wisely.

Having seen how quickly life can end, it makes me examine my own self, and ponder whether disagreements and resentments, and standing on points of principle are really as important as I thought they were? I could never be a doormat, and let people wipe their feet all over me. Yet, I need to inculcate forgiveness and empathy, and an awareness that each of us views life and relationships differently. I need to be honest with myself about my own legacy. I don’t want it to be one of anger and hatred.

In his illness my friend reached out to those he had wronged, and those who had wronged him. He set the record straight, and if nothing else, he died with his conscience clear. Perhaps this is a life lesson for all of us.

We do not need to be looking at death in the face to realise the importance of telling our loved ones how much they mean to us, forgiving those we have perceived as our enemies, building bridges that we have allowed to fray, and choosing to live each moment to its fullest capacity.

Live well, Laugh often, Love much.

A trite phrase that contains a pertinent universal truth. Do not wake up to it when it’s too late.

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Annus Horribilis

What a year it’s been!

With the passing of George Michael on Christmas Day, it seems as though we have lost more luminaries in a year than we have in the last decade. From David Bowie to Prince to Alan Rickman to Zsa Zsa Gabor, nearly every month has brought news of another celebrity demise. In and of itself, this would make headlines. But coupled with all that has gone on politically, 2016 has kicked us in the teeth repeatedly.

Pondering the US election results, a colleague had remarked that the pendulum had swung this far right only as a reaction to it having swung too far left. Equal and opposite seems to have been the rule of the thumb this year. Brexit and Trump. Farage and Le Pen. Racism and Misogyny.

Adding an extra glitter to the proceedings have been all the horrific terrorist attacks the world over. From the Istanbul bombing(January) to the Brussels airport attack (March) to the car bombings in Baghdad (May) to the Orlando nightclub shooting (June) to the Bastille Day attack in France (July) to the suicide bomber in Quetta, Pakistan (August) to the Ohio State University Attack (November) to the Berlin Attack (December), to name but a few.

And all the while, the world has watched the plight of the Syrian civilians in Aleppo caught in a civil war nightmare, from a distance, helpless and shocked that a despotic ruler can attack his own people time and again, with nary a murmur from the powers that be. Alliances and political juxtapositions being paramount.

Turmoil, upheaval and change have been 2016’s calling cards.

Governments are mutating, political ideologies are being replaced, humongous talents are bowing out, and climate change is being labelled as fraudulent. Is this the beginning of the end?

Every Century has brought its own kind of change. The world has seen natural disasters, extinction of species, plagues and contagion, war and strife, and it has carried on spinning on its axis. Despite all of mankind’s destructive capabilities, and megalomaniac desires, the world has survived. How much longer though?

With the nuclear codes in the (very) small hands of a man with an easily bruised and (very) large ego, might this be the last decade or so that the world does carry on spinning on its axis? Let’s hope not. Let 2016 be a footnote of sorts in our History books. If it is the year that took away so many and so much, let it also be the year that led us to self awareness, to a perseverance and persistence of belief in the ultimate wisdom and kindness of the human species.

If 2016 has been an annus horribilis, let’s look forward to an annus mirabilis in 2017.

Goodbye, you awful year. We shall not be sorry to see the back of you.

A dish best served cold

So it’s the end of Brangelina. And thank goodness we can finally put that awful, media produced moniker behind us. Sad as the break up is, it isn’t particularly surprising, given that most celebrity unions don’t seem to last a creditable length of time. There are of course, repercussions. The children, the assets and the carefully cultivated images that will be dismantled publicly. Just as their union was a three ring circus, the dissolution will no doubt be an equal media frenzy.

Why then has Jennifer Aniston, who’s clearly had nothing whatsoever to do with the split, been getting so much coverage?

Karma.

Karma, that elasticised bitch that rebounds in your face when you least expect it. For over a decade, while Angelina set out to become the next Mother Teresa, wiping her slate clean of all wild child behaviour, poor Jen was relegated to the position of the rejectee; forever seeking love and never finding it. Poor Jen, who despite all her career success, her good looks and undoubted talent was a loveless, childless spinster.

Angelina on the other hand, didn’t just have Brad on her arm, she had the entire United Nations under her roof. Her multi racial adopted children were a testament to her beautiful and brave soul. Her double mastectomy another courageous move that we stood in awe of. This was the poster child of modern womanhood. Team Jolie were winning, and how!

Then it all fell apart.

Out came a thousand memes, each one with Jen’s knowing grin underlining what Team Aniston were gleefully shouting from rooftops:

What goes around, comes around.

He who laughs last, laughs longest.

As you sow, so you reap.

Except, Jen had said none of the above. No doubt, she must have felt in some way vindicated. However, she has moved on. A new marriage, a successful career, and a fulfilling life. Brad and Angelina’s split might have produced a wry smile, but poor Jen was probably way too busy to indulge in a victory dance.

And so, contrary to the belief that Revenge is a dish best served cold, the best revenge really is to live one’s life, and live it well. Karma will take care of the rest.

Get your Streak on

I stumble in my heels, mentally cursing my choice of footwear. These shoes are not made for walking aimlessly around Regent’s Park, trying to locate a gaggle of naked women. My phone rings, and it’s Becca, concerned and distracted at the same time. “Where are you? Wait- I’m just getting painted. Yes, yes, walk towards the fountain with the urns at the bottom.”

As Regent’s Park contains various fountains, it takes me a while to locate this particular one. Forty minutes later, I see an orange arm wave out to me from behind a bush. Then a leg emerges, and then, all of Becca emerges, grinning broadly at me. “You made it!” We air kiss, and she waves off the bemused bystanders with a shrug. She is in a bikini, painted orange from top to toe, completely unfazed.

She leads me to the rest of the group. Conny beams up at me through the eyelashes being painted on her. Jonny is sponging orange paint on Ali’s bum, Sheina is getting a full frontal paint job while Reggi is having her legs striped. Teresa sways over to me, a slinky tigress in a black dress. I can almost hear her purr. “Welcome darling! So glad you could join us.” I chortle amiably. There’s no way I could have missed this.

Many months ago, I nearly did. When this audacious scheme first originated in Becca’s mind (as they invariably do), I was amongst the invitees. Fancy running naked through the zoo with us? A shudder went through me, and I very politely declined. Naked. With body paint. In front of strangers. In a zoo. Nightmare scenario.

Yet, as the months went by, and the charitable contributions poured in, and the Facebook posts got wilder and more exciting, a part of me felt like this was something special. Something different, and interesting, and brave. I wanted a part of it. Even if it was just as a bystander. So here I was, imbibing the Prosecco, and photographing women in various states of undress.

It’s not everyday that you see naked women being painted in a park. Understandably there are many many curious looks. Most people look, and then look away. A few looks linger, a few voyeurs linger even longer. Some take up permanent residence in the tall grass in the distance. A small child stands dumbstruck half a mile away. The music is blaring and then Tiger Feet comes on.

Ali starts dancing. Sheina joins in. Then the rest. They dance in tandem. Some in kaftans, some completely starkers. I snap away, infected by the joyous energy of the group.

We munch on cocktail sausages and crisps. Drink lukewarm bubbles. Swap stories and laugh the afternoon away. Each lady is beautiful and unique and amazing in her own way. They are all different shapes and sizes. The one thing they have in common is a body confidence that is wondrous to behold. Emboldened by each other, dedicated to raising funds for this worthy cause, they do not allow any body anxiety to get in the way of having a marvellous day.

Ali semi squats in front of Helen sans her scanties. Now her bottom bits are being embellished. Slap slap the brush slaps on black paint. Ali winks at me. Such sangfroid. I’m nearly jealous, but rapidly realise that I definitely do not want my parts on display. Such courage I do not have. I resume my role of observer/reporter with relief. Time’s ticking and I indicate to the girls that perhaps we’d better make tracks towards the zoo. A rapid clear up ensues.

Tails and paws emerge. Our tigresses are well and truly ready to streak. But first they must gently trot towards the zoo. Displaying phenomenal feline grace, they hoist their backpacks and pull along their cases. The Prosecco has added a sparkle to the proceedings, and as I bring up the rear, I see them being accosted by the paparazzi. “Ladies, ladies…this way. Pose. Smile. Roar. Claws out.” For added effect, Sheina drops her wrap and gives them an eyeful. This is what sexy looks like! They are still picking their jaws off the floor, while we collect our wristbands and enter the premises.

There are around 200 runners, and roughly about that many spectators. The run is only 350 meters, but it is a streak, and from what little we’ve glimpsed of some of the other runners, some haven’t even bothered with the paint.

There are banners lining the path with cheeky slogans like ‘Llamas rarely wear Pyjamas’ and ‘Ants don’t wear Pants, and neither do You’. Nudity is de rigeur, and much like at a nudist beach, its the ones in clothes that stick out like sore thumbs.

While waiting for the race to begin, the four of us supporters/helpers, sit and chat with one another. We talk about conservation, of the delicate eco-system balances that are being disrupted world over, by raging development, callous culling and complete extermination of certain species. Each animal has its rightful place in the food chain, and contributes to it in so many known and unknown ways. Removing it from the chain affects every link, and ultimately causes an imbalance that affects all of us.

Critically Endangered and present nowhere else in the world, the Sumatran tiger is one of those species most vulnerable to the social and economic changes currently occurring in Indonesia. After Critically Endangered, the next level on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is Extinct in the Wild. The next and final category is Extinct. The ZSL’s work in Indonesia is focusing on developing sustainable livelihoods for the local communities, protecting peat forests from destruction and countering poaching activities and resolving conflicts betweens tigers and humans.

“Would you do something like this?”, asks Helen. “Perhaps next year”, answers Michelle,”Yes, I think I would now”. I am reticent. We discuss body issues. How few there are on the Continent, and how riddled we are by them here in the UK. I am no prude but acutely conscious of my shortcomings. Could I do something like this? I’m still pondering it when the announcement that the race is beginning comes on.

We wait in excited anticipation. The curtain goes up and with a roar of approval from the spectators, the naked runners streak past us. Some have cute paw prints all over them, some have nothing but a tiger mask on their faces, others are painted as tigers too. But our girls lead the charge. Seven beautiful, glorious, brave women storm ahead, paws pounding, tails swinging behind them, radiant, laughing, glowing. Ali’s magnificent breasts defying gravity. Jonny’s perky bottom, swaying in rhythm to the music. They wave as they go around. Then come around again and again.

We yell, we scream, we take pictures and laugh. A runner catches our eye and comes over to pose with us. He puts his arm around me, wearing not a stitch but a smile. “Looks like you’ve pulled!”, Michelle whispers conspiratorially, giggling. I laugh and whoop as one runner does his eighth turn, and another runs by with a frame around his naked torso. I’m surrounded by boobs,butts and schlongs, and it suddenly occurs to me that to the animals, we must be the ridiculous species, covering ourselves up with bits of cloth.

At long last it’s over. The runners and spectators are shepherded towards the enclosure of the twin tiger cubs, born in June this year. They can see first hand how their contribution is helping protect this species last numbered at around 300. I bid my lovely tigresses goodbye, and head home.

My Whatsapp is saturated with messages the next morning. The girls are all over the papers, and online news. They are fizzing over with excitement and pride at a job well done.

What’s more touching, however, is the unspoken bond that they have forged through this experience. A madcap exploit that will have them chuckling well into their twilight years.

Postscript: The girls have raised over £3000 with the number still rising.For anyone wishing to contribute, please visit:

http://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/FlyingTigers

The politics of hatred

I am not naive. I understand that not everyone can get along with everyone else, all the time. That’s a Utopian ideal. Yet tolerance, respect, and understanding is not too much to hope or ask for. Having been on the receiving end of racism (subtle or blatant), I can tell you it is one of the most humiliating, demeaning, soul crushing things that one human being can do to another. It makes you question your own worth and your place in society.

Post Brexit, there has been a rise in reported racist attacks. From terrorising mothers and children on the streets, to hate mail, to arson and death threats, Britain’s exit from Europe has been viewed by certain quarters of society as carte blanche to launch a hate-fuelled, bigoted vendetta against anyone who is perceived as “foreign”. That someone could be just as British as the person attacking them, but if they have an unpronounceable name or a different skin colour that is enough. Farage and UKIP have unleashed a monster that will be very difficult to rein, as years of hostility and simmering resentment has now found a voice and a direction. And it’s not pretty.

On the other side of the pond, Black lives matter are crusading against years of police brutality and discrimination.Leading from the assumption that all black men are thugs and criminals, the police shoot first and ask questions later. In most instances, they are never called into account for their actions. Racism is rife and protected.

Hatred and fear, more often than not, stem from ignorance. Different is construed as threatening. From perceiving a threat to a ‘way of life’ to then discriminating against those who ‘appear’ to be threatening this way of life is a short walk towards Xenophobia. A contagion that can affect the most educated to the most ill educated.

For all those who are truly appalled at the goings on, speak up. Speak for your fellow human, whether he wears a skull cap or she dons a hijab. Whether his skin colour is black or her eyes are slanted. Whether he struggles with your language, or she eats with her hands. Speak for them.

Amongst the many qualities that make us human, are the qualities of compassion and empathy. Let us put aside this fear and hatred, this self aggrandisement and reach out to those that seem different. How wonderful it will be to find that they are no different from you and I.

Br…..exits……

Let me clarify at the very outset: I am not a political commentator. This is not about facts, figures and economic summations. This is purely a layperson’s perspective on what has gone on since this referendum’s results were announced on Friday. What I have observed in the media, on social media, and also on the work and home front.

After having read and researched extensively, listened to debates, and spoken to people on either side of the fence, my vote was to remain. There were several reasons for this and I won’t enumerate them here, aside of saying that I felt that for economic and political stability, the UK was better off being a part of the European Union.

There were plenty that disagreed. Plenty that were fed up with the bureaucratic functioning of the Eurocrats. Plenty that wanted to regain their independence and sovereignty, and not be answerable to Europe for the voltage of their toasters and hairdryers. Amongst them were those as well who were fearful of being unable to carry the burden of mass immigration and the toll that it was taking on their public services.

On Friday morning, when the results of the referendum came in, it was the latter lot that had won.

Now, I wasn’t pleased about this. In actual fact, I was very despondent. Fearful for the future of our children, fearful that cutting ourselves off in this manner would send the markets into free fall (it did) and generate a wave of #gohomenow hashtags for foreigners (it did that too). But it was fait accompli. No amount of hand wringing or mud slinging could reverse the results that we had woken up to. Britain wanted out.

What I had not anticipated was the backlash that the Brexiteers had to face. Admittedly, it was not a decision I was happy with, but in a democracy, every person gets a choice. That’s what democracy is about. To label everyone that chose out as racist, xenophobic, small minded and inward looking is as unfair as labelling everyone that wanted to remain as a leftist bleeding heart. People had their reasons for making their choice, and if that choice was one that we disagreed with, then the debate should have centred on the ramifications of that choice, not on character assassination.

A nation was divided over this vote. It maybe further divided if Scotland asserts its independence via another referendum. This is not the time to name call and turn these cracks into chasms we are unable to build bridges over. The landscape has altered and we have to adapt in a way that takes us forward amicably and with the good of the nation and all its people regardless of colour and ethnicity, at the heart of our efforts.

If we truly want to put back great into Great Britain, then let us do so by showing solidarity and support for each other in the undoubtedly tumultuous times to come.

He said. She said.

Let’s face it – breakups are ugly. The emotions involved are ugly: Anger, resentment, frustration, acrimony. The fallout nearly always is ugly.

Now play this out on a world platform, and how much more magnified does everything get? Case in point- Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. When a 52 year old ageing superstar decides to wed an up and coming starlet, the longevity of the union is the least debated point. After all, with a two decade age difference between them, this is hardly a meeting of minds. Yet, there is always a tacit understanding that while she will bring excitement and a renewal of libido to the table, he will bring his vast fortune and Hollywood connections to it too. Prenup agreements notwithstanding, when things go bust, all these emotions are discreetly tucked away at the behest of their PR agents, and ‘conscious uncoupling’ with a byline of still being ‘good friends’ are the oft repeated mantras.

What has made Amber Heard wander so far from the script? Is she really the gold digging, foul mouthed, riding-on-the-coat tails diva she is being portrayed as? Or, is there something more sinister at play here? From the demands for spousal support (since withdrawn) to the temporary restraining order against Johnny Depp (since extended), her accusations of domestic violence have been viewed with cynicism. No amount of photographic evidence of her battered face or her friends vouching for the veracity of her claims seem to have swayed public opinion in her favour. On the flip side, Depps’ ex partner, his daughter and his friends have time and again reiterated what a good guy he is, consciously reinforcing the message that he is incapable of the sort of behavioural abuse charges that are being levelled at him.

Where in all these murky waters does the truth lie? That, with any luck, will emerge in the court battle which will no doubt find an airing in every rag mag there is.

More pertinently, let’s examine our own reaction to this case. Amber Heard is young, beautiful and famous. She had one of the most famous movie actors in the world, wrapped around her little finger. Jealous yet? Moreover, she managed to snatch him from right under the nose of the stunning French actress, Vanessa Paradis, his partner of several years. How dare then, she turn around and accuse him of domestic violence? Didn’t she make her own bed? Shouldn’t she (quietly) lie in it now? What is this, if not a blatant attempt to extort as much money as she can, to bankroll her own lavish, party lifestyle? What a lying, two faced, bisexual cow!

Hmmmm.

Now, let’s transpose this to a more everyday setting. That lovely young couple that lives down the road. That handsome husband who always says hello, and helps take your groceries out of the car. One day you hear that his wife has called the police in. He hit her. He’s been verbally and physically abusing her for years. Do you believe it? Or, is your first instinct, your knee jerk reaction, one of disbelief and incredulity?

Domestic violence is an everyday reality. It happens to women all over the world. From the richest to the poorest. From the most famous to the most inconspicuous. Why then, do we as a society, prefer to discredit the claims of the victims, driving them further into the shadows? It takes an enormous amount of courage to come forward, and to declare that you have been abused. That your self esteem has been eroded, your sense of what is right and what is wrong, completely skewed and that you have stayed in the relationship for years, for the sake of your children or society or whatever other pressures you felt were stronger than your own well being. It takes courage, and we must acknowledge and support that.

Whatever Amber Heard may or may not be, we must take her claims seriously, unless proven otherwise. She has a long road ahead of her, and aside of the notoriety this case has brought her, she is likely to gain little. Money aside, she will possibly become persona non grata in Hollywood. Johnny, on the other hand, will continue to get multimillion dollar vehicles to showcase his star power. So, regardless of the outcome of the case, Amber Heard stands to lose more than she stands to gain.

Sadly it seems, in the court of public opinion, she has lost already.