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Mental Health Mates at Henley Literary Festival, October 2019

This was a space for the panel and the audience to connect to their own mental health experience and connect through a shared but very individual story. The panel was hosted by Bryony Gordon: journalist and author of several books including ‘You Got This’ which came out earlier this year. The other panellists were Melissa Helmsley and Poorna Bell.

Melissa Helmsley, is a chef and author of several books including ‘Eat Happy: 30-minute Feelgood Food’. As a guest on an episode of Bryony’s podcast she began to open up about difficulties in her past which led to them becoming friends and Melissa becoming an ambassador for Mental Health Mates.

Award winning journalist and author Poorna Bell has been an active mental health campaigner, especially after the suicide of her husband. She is the author of two non-fiction books, Chase the Rainbow and in Search of Silence. Having used power lifting to help her through the grief of losing her husband she has founded @seemystrong, a space to encourage others who do not see themselves in traditional fitness images to have a go.

It turns out this talk was in two parts: a panel discussion followed by a walk under the name of Mental Health Mates. The movement, started by Bryony, aims to encourage mental health walking groups across the country. There were representatives from the Reading group and I spontaneously decided to join them on the walk from the Henley Town Hall to the Riverside Museum.

I found the panel very open to sharing their mental health experiences, touching on various aspects of their past and present. This is not easy to do, and I really applaud their willingness to be vulnerable so publicly. Each member of the panel came across as individual and, to coin a modern word, relatable.

Because the panel were so honest it felt like a discussion between friends. I feel privileged to have been in the room and don’t think everything needs to be shared here, outside of that intimate setting.

Melissa was partly brought up on army bases in Germany whilst her mum sought to stay connected to her heritage as a Catholic woman of Filipino ancestry. This meant that she felt there was little space in the home to talk about the death of her father.

Poorna saw her apparently strong mother pushing through challenging situations with ease and thought that was how she should approach life. But this led to bad decisions.

Bryony has struggled with anxiety and obsessive compulsory disorder for many years. Years ago, she did not want to believe that her childhood affected who she became as an adult, but she’s eventually accepted the truth of this. We like to think that we were created the way we are now, but the circumstances and environment of our childhood must play some part in the adults we become.

All three spoke of becoming more self-aware, whether that is through therapy or taking time out to slow down and reflect. In different ways they all experienced families that did not encourage talking about feelings. This means they did not want to accept when they were upset and even more, did not want to upset anyone else by sharing how unhappy they were feeling.

Poorna could testify to how becoming stronger, through power lifting, has helped her to feel better and more capable. She also shared the importance of having someone who would help you stay accountable to looking after your mental health. In her case it is her sister. This person can check in as someone to talk to, but also to ask if you’ve eaten, slept, been outside etc. Other well-known beneficial activities include mindful breathing, meditation, journalling and fresh air.

Melissa shared the nourishing and comforting effect of hearty healthy homemade soups. This is brain food that can affect mood. She also talked of working with the imposter syndrome: when we talk down our achievements and believe we’re not good enough for something, even though objectively we are.

An engaged audience had several questions including parenting a child with OCD, the role of medication and the impact of austerity. The panel handled these well. On parenting the advice was to love without judgement, realise your child does not want to be like this either and try to help them find the right support. On medication the advice was to accept it if you need it and use it respectfully, as intended. Of course, financial struggles and political uncertainty have an effect on our mental health but in the context of human existence Bryony offered – “This too shall pass”.

The subsequent walk to the River and Rowing Museum provided an opportunity for audience members to get to know each other and share life stories. It was a warm and friendly gathering and a nice way to reflect on what was said by the panel with others willing to be real about life’s choices.

Shirley Anstis

Counsellor and writer @shirleyanstis on Twitter and Instagram

Conde Nast publishes many of the world’s most glamourous magazines and Nicholas Coleridge CBE has been Editor, Vice President, Managing Director and Chairman of various divisions since 1989. He is also the Chairman of The Victoria and Albert Museum, a position he has held since 2015. I attended his talk on his memoirs “The Glossy Years, Magazines, Museums and Selective Memoirs” at the Henley Literature Festival.

Nicholas was interviewed by Jo Elvin, editor of YOU magazine and, as Ex-Editor of Glamour magazine she was an employee and a colleague. Their warmth towards each other and shared knowledge of what it was like back then brought a certain cosiness to the room. Nicholas himself comes across as clever, energetic, charismatic, hardworking and focused.

When asked about writing his memoirs he shared how he pondered the idea for a few days. He did not want to come across as vain, needed to feel it was the right time for him to write it and if he were to write it then it had to cover career, home and friendships. In the end, legacy and the desire not to forget helped him to commit to writing his memoirs.

I was struck by his clarity and focus in how he approached the writing. He decided to write thirty chapter headings to organise his 40 years of memories. This would be no easy feat. His many diaries allowed him to check that he had the correct dates for when things happened.

It’s a tricky thing including other peoples’ stories in your story without their permission. Nicholas joked that in the 10 days since his memoir had been out, he’d not received a writ as yet. There is no doubt he is brave to write about former girlfriends, politicians, business tycoons and celebrities in an age of personal brand.

Nicholas came into contact with what was then Harpers & Queen, now Harper’s Bazaar, during his teens. He remembers liking everything about them: the sheen of the paper, the images, the covers and having a mix of witty and serious writing. He would later send in an article – how to survive teenage parties – to have it published and bought! This seemed to seal in his passion for the genre.

His career coincides with a massive expansion in magazine publications and sales. Some of this growth reflects a changing world with more countries, such as Russia, China and Japan, growing a luxury clientele. Over this time Conde Nast has gone from 35 titles to 135. Vogue sales has climbed steadily from 128 thousand copies sold to 210 thousand.

From what was shared in the talk I know there will be many hilarious and insightful stories in the book. He shared details of being a weekend house guest at the same time as Bob Geldof and his then girlfriend, plus Conservative politician William Hague and his wife. It’s a funny story that surprises many in quoting Geldof as wanting the Conservatives to win the impending election. There were other stories involving the larger than life fashionista Isabella Blow and her sometimes poor grasp of reality, and “S.I.” Newhouse with his desperate desire to transfer air miles from one of his pug dogs to another! There are more glamourous stories involving Kate Moss and Princess Diana amongst others.

The book also includes more serious episodes. Nicholas shared the time when he was being sued by Mohamed Al-Fayed and how close they came to having a day in court. In the end, once the lawyers saw the affidavits, they realised it would be better to settle.

More recently Nicholas has been the Chair of the Victoria and Albert Museum. He painted a parallel universe between the world of magazine publishing and the world of museums. In both there are departments competing against each other whether for prestige or cash. In both, whether sales or footfall, public consumption is targeted and measured. So now, as he did then, he gets his key figures at the end of each working week and this will shape his decisions going forward.

When audience members had a chance to ask questions they were curious about his views on the future of magazines and the hiring of Edward Enniful. For his part Nicholas believes that magazines with continue in his lifetime with luxury brands holding their position. As in other business sectors however the success would be in the niche.

With regards to the editor of Vogue, Edward Enniful, he saw this as a wise choice and celebrates its continuous growth. He confirmed that the September issue edited by the Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle sold “terribly well”.

It was the final question that seemed to bring the whole talk and Nicholas’ life into focus. He was asked what drives him? This is a popular question at many women in business events that I have attended but it was obvious that he’d never had to think of his career from that perspective. His answer was two-fold. If he wants to do something, he’ll put himself forward for it. If he gets to do it then he’s driven to do it well as he “doesn’t want to muck up or get it wrong.” And like Richard Branson, he is happy to hire and retain clever people who are “stimulating and make life easier”. Success simplified.

Shirley Anstis

@shirleyanstis on Twitter and Instagram

 

 

As a journalist with an interest in science David had worked for many of the quality broadsheets in the UK and US. He learnt a lot along the way and became curious about clever people who seem to make poor decisions. This led to him researching ‘The Intelligence Trap’ and the book offers his findings and suggestions. It is not just about pointing our finger at others but to recognise when and why we may make poor decisions.

He shared the story of Paul Frampton, Professor of Physics at the University of North Carolina, who fell for a fake glamour model and this led to him being imprisoned for drug smuggling in South America. Then there was Kary Mullins, winner of the Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1993. Despite his science credentials he went on to deny truths in other fields such as psychology, in medicine around HIV and in environmental science concerning the impact of CFC’s on the ozone layer. He was however passionate about astrology and believed vitamin C could cure everything, including cancer.

Intelligence quotient (IQ) is one of the ways we measure intelligence and although it’s flawed it does predict performance in the current education system. (There were comments on emotional intelligence later in the discussion). One of the approaches taken by David is to wonder if having a high IQ could backfire? Does the quicker processing for a clever brain lead it just as quickly to the wrong answer as to the correct one? He gives a good analogy of a car where being fast is only helpful if the terrain, steering and brakes are working well.

David went on to identify three ways in which intelligent people can make less than clever decisions. Firstly, ‘The Cognitive Miser’ who believes he is always right, does not second guess his own opinion and struggles with cognitive biases. Secondly, Motivated Reasoning is the tendency to apply our brain power only when it will suit our pre-existing beliefs (even if they are wrong). He gave a fantastic example here of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believing in fairies whilst not allowing for magic tricks, so much so that he lost his friendship with the illusionist Harry Houdini.

Thirdly, we have ‘The Curse of Expertise’. This is where we overestimate what we remember, feel we know it and become closed minded (earned dogmatism) and through automatic or intuitive reasoning we become entrenched in our views. I found this last point hard to write because although some are critical of experts the point, I think, is not to denigrate them but to encourage each of us to become more self-aware and explore our biases.

He goes on to list the serious consequences for our society if clever, and often powerful, people continue to fall into the intelligence trap. He links some of this to our fear and shame around being wrong. (This aspect reminds me of the work of the hugely popular and wholehearted social scientist researcher Brené Brown). Similarly, our schools and workplaces reward those who respond confidently and quickly – even though they may not be right. 

To avoid falling into the intelligence trap David has several suggestions. These include identifying our own biases, consulting our emotional compass and considering arguing the opposite viewpoint to see how that sits.

One of the things that came out in the question and answer time is that there appears to be a difference between men and women. The result is that mixed teams make fewer mistakes; providing more evidence for equality in the workplace. Some of the poor decisions are made when people are overconfident and believe their own hype. The audience recognised how difficult it would be for the lone dissenting voice in a team. The hope is that more sectors, particularly areas covering health and justice, become aware of how the intelligence trap plays out in their organisations and begin to take steps to mitigate it. Here’s hoping.

Shirley Anstis

@shirleyanstis on Twitter and Instagram

 

 

 

British cricketer Chris Lewis talks about his life and his autobiography at Henley Literary Festival, October 2018

Chris Lewis was a highly successful British cricketer for many years before his life changed dramatically. He had a remarkable career playing in 32 tests matches and 53 one-day internationals, he scored 100 in India and three times he took 5 wickets.

In conversation with Gary Newborn he talks about his cricketing career alongside his life choices. At a very low point he agreed to smuggle drugs into England and was caught with the cocaine on the way in. This sent him on a detour to prison and the start of his redemptive story.

In a highly engaging and honest talk at Henley Literature Festival Lewis reflects on his life leading up to that point. As a child in Guyana, South America he dreamt of one day playing cricket professionally. Back then everyone listened to commentary on the radio and he would follow the activities of Caribbean heroes Gordon Greenidge and Viv Richards. Decades later he had to pinch himself when he stood bowling to Gordon Greenidge.

Having moved to the U.K. to join his mother at the age of 10 Lewis continued with his love of cricket. His enthusiasm was so much that he played before school, at break times, during lunch times and after school. One of his teachers, noticing how keen and how talented he was, would unlock the gym for him and a couple friends to practice whenever possible. This teacher was instrumental in helping him to get his first team. He shared fond memories of two teachers, Mr. Williams and Mr. Evans, for giving him much needed encouragement and opportunity.

Whilst Lewis was happy playing professional cricket his teammates often saw him as a little aloof and it was interesting when he spoke about this. Back then the only social was around drinking and this was not his thing. Plus, he felt that after a 12-hour day practicing with his team he should be able to leave and follow his own leisure pursuits. He was more into dancing. In 2018 we could have a conversation about cultural differences, but this concept wasn’t spoken of back then. It meant that he became a bit of an outsider with his peers and when he was down on his luck there were few people to call on.

Retirement was followed by 20/20 cricket but then he got injured. His contract was such that if he didn’t play he wouldn’t get paid, so his resources began to dwindle. By the time he desperately agreed to commit the crime he says he could barely afford to get to practice. He had no money. This was such an overwhelming time for him that he found it difficult to think clearly.

But Lewis is not angry or depressed about any of it. He turned a dream to play international cricket into a reality and got to play alongside and opposite some of his heroes. He takes full responsibility for what he did and accepts the consequences. He was released on good behaviour after serving half of his 13-year sentence.

His autobiography – CRAZY MY ROAD TO REDEMPTION – tells the full story. He now enjoys everything about having his liberty back. As well as overseeing his book he is putting together a play of his life which will be going on tour in the coming months. It’s a remarkable journey and he is generous in sharing his story with us. As an audience member I felt I encountered the real Chris Lewis and no doubt that would come through in the book too.

Shirley Anstis

Baroness Doreen Lawrence of Clarendon in conversation with BAFTA award winning director Paul Greengrass at The Henley Literary Festival, October 2014

Baroness Doreen Lawrence is a name known by many due to the tragic experience her family went through twenty-one years ago when her son Stephen Lawrence was murdered. She received her OBE in 2003, had an important symbolic role in the 2012 London Olympic ceremony and became Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon in 2013.

In conversation with Paul Greengrass Baroness Lawrence spoke of her life from a childhood in Jamaica to sitting in the House of Lords. She shared memories of a loving childhood spent with her grandmother in Jamaica. The sudden loss of her grandmother saw the nine-year old Doreen join her siblings in 1960’s England.

The terrible murder of Stephen Lawrence changed her life forever and she has had to struggle to find justice publicly, whilst finding places to grieve privately. She shared how relieved and yet shocked she was that two of the accused were eventually convicted in 2012. She hopes others will eventually be convicted.

For me she embodies gentleness, self-awareness, clarity of thought and a quiet determination to seek justice for herself and others. Together with her legal team she has changed the law on double jeopardy, influenced the way police officers are trained and helped to bring to attention the way many ordinary Black people experience the criminal justice system.

The Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust was set up to support Black young people to become architects because Stephen wanted to follow this career path.  Her team are also working with partners to bring more diversity into journalism and law.

Baroness Lawrence’s autobiography is entitled ‘And Still I Rise’ from the Maya Angelou poem. The room stood still when Paul Greengrass invited her to read it.

The attentive audience asked her to share her reflections on racism, gender politics and policing over the period. She gave intelligent and honest answers without setting herself up as the expert on Black young people.

I left feeling moved and inspired.  She believes it is for us to “think about the community we live in, bridge the gap and make a difference”. She did not choose politics but can see its power to make changes for a more just and accountable society.

Shirley Anstis

@shirleyanstis

 

7.Fences, Lenny Henry and Ashley Zhangazha (c)Nobby Clark[6]

August Wilson’s play Fences is being performed to rave reviews in London’s West End.  It stars Lenny Henry, whose stage debut was a brilliant turn as Shakespeare’s Othello. Nowadays it is easy to separate Henry the comic from Henry the actor.  In a recent appearance on BBC radio 4 Lenny Henry responded to the question by stating that “comedy is my job, acting is my career”.

This leading role sees him playing Troy, a talented ex-baseball player turned garbage man.  He is a fifty-something husband and father trying to be the best he can be but weighed down by his past experiences.  The play is set in 1957 with Troy having lived most of his life in a segregated country. In 1949 Jackie Robinson became the first baseball player to cross the major-league colour line but by then Troy could have been seen as too old to play major league.

Troy is caught between the two very different generations of his father and his son.  He embodies the struggles, pain, losses and successes of his life. Henry’s stage presence means you can’t keep your eyes of him.  Troy is stubborn and very good at covering his emotional turbulence. There is an underlying weariness we get glimpses of as the play continues and we find out more of his past.  But he is also hardworking and decent and wants the comfortable life that society promises. He tries to break through discrimination at work in his desire to become the first black man to drive the garbage trucks.

1.Fences, Lenny Henry and Tanya Moodie (c)Nobby Clark[3]

Troy is the heart of the play.  His relationships with his American football obsessed son Cory, his garbage man buddy Jim and his devoted wife Rose, all serve to give an insight into the man. Cory is at the receiving end of much pent up hurt and anger. Another son, Lyons and Troy’s brother Gabriel, help to create this engaging community of people.

If I were to critique the play it would be about the limited and narrow role the female character had.  There was more action than introspection on her part until the very end when we find out a bit more about her internal workings.  Having said that, her big gesture isn’t sufficiently explained.  I could make some sense of her responses but my male companion was quite surprised at the twists at the end.

Director Paulette Randall has directed plays throughout the UK, as well as for the BBC and Channel 4. She was an Associate Director of the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony.

August Wilson (1945-2005) was the son of a German man and African American woman.  He has written ten plays, one for each decade of the 20th century. From his early twenties he began writing plays that show the African American experience in all its fullness and humanity. He picked up a Best Play Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1987 when James Earl Jones played Troy on Broadway.  Lenny Henry had big boots to fill and they seem to fit him well.

 

Love, Sax and all that Jazz, Chapter 2, De Mans Dem

Love, Sax and all that Jazz poster

Love, Sax and all that Jazz poster

Having interviewed the writer, director and local producer behind Love Sax and all that Jazz chapter 2 I was really looking forward to the performance.  I expected it to be very funny and have Christian values but it was much more than that.

Alan Charles created a great cast of characters who were similar enough to be believable as friends and yet different enough to have their own distinct traits and foibles.  The story is centred on Alfred and located in his bar.  He shares his difficulty in choosing between his first-love Louise and his current love and business partner, Kylie.  He shows his confusion as he tries his best to respond to both women and how they feel about him.  This love triangle keeps the audience guessing until the end.

There is much humour amongst the men and women who visit the bar and share their trials and tribulations in love.  Each scene is relevant, informative, and funny and helps you to get to know and care about the characters.  Lisa and Brian have been married for four years and Brian is complaining to all his friends that he is not happy with the amount of intimacy they have.  This gives an opportunity to explore some gender biases from both men and women.  When they finally take some action and meet the online marriage guidance couple – the effervescent Betty and Leroy – the audience is entertained and informed. Not everything is as it first appears.  We all know that relationships are built on communication and this is demonstrated when the couple speak and realise that they have no idea how the other one was feels and how they can work towards meeting the needs in their relationship.

As well as the married, unmarried, waiting to be married and divorced characters there is also Phil, the player of the piece. The only parts of the Bible Phil seems to know are Old Testament stories when people had many wives!  Despite his lifestyle choices the character is likeable and very entertaining. The female equivalent for Phil is the feisty Jennifer who is introduced as having an affair with a married man.

Having not seen other work by Alan Charles I really want to congratulate him for a great script.  Each scene felt natural and relevant to developing the story and characters yet the scenes stand-alone too.  You are kept emotionally engaged and there were a few times when the audience went “aaw” and “noo” in unison as we were carried along.  With a love poem for the ladies there is something for every one.  There is a pivotal bit of performance poetry, which came at exactly the right time and worked really well.  There is a very funny bit near the start when the men have a good laugh at how often women have “headaches”.  Other metaphors, such as the grass being greener elsewhere, are used to good effect.

If you get a chance to see this comedy play then go for it.  It will entertain you whilst keeping your head and heart engaged. The show was put on in a local church and it was lovely to see the pastor and many from the congregation belly laughing throughout.  It has something to say to everyone and we’re all in relationships with others, whatever our status.

The next performance of Love, Sax and all that Jazz chapter 2 is on Sunday 28th April at Broadway Theatre, London.

I believe there are plans to bring Love, Sax and all that Jazz, chapter 1 to Reading and I shall be booking that when it comes around.  Whilst chapter 2 is from Da Mans Dem, chapter 1 is from the ladies’ viewpoint.

 

If you are anything like me you may not have followed Damien Hirst’s career but you might feel you know all about him.  I decided to see his exhibition at Tate Modern and really experience his work of more than 20 years.

Beautiful,amore,gasp,eyes going into the top of the head and fluttering

Yes there are dead fish in display cabinets and the notorious dead shark.  Being able to see a dead shark so close is quite an incredible feeling and it did bring me into contact with my own fears.  At the same time it feels strangely empowering because the shark is powerless to cause harm despite looking so deadly.

Seeing the inside of a dead sheep is not something I have ever done but it did connect me to my own bodily awareness.  Our bodies communicate with us all the time but we are not always listening, seeing a baby sheep cut in half made me stop.

There is a lot on the medicalisation of life in the exhibition and I’d be intrigued to find out how that connects to his autobiography.  The surgical equipment sent a chill through me as it was meant to.  What seems like a vat of cigarette butts presented me with two immediate responses.  As a non-smoker it seemed that there were enough cigarettes there to make someone very ill and that was sad.  But then I wondered what my addiction would be.  I may start collecting my foil wrappers from my fair trade dark chocolate!

There are several cabinets of pills but they are presented as incredibly desirable luxuries, at one point the use of lighting made them look like diamonds.  He refers to the lullaby effect of sleeping pills on adults.  It’s that moment when art holds up a mirror to society.  I know through my counselling work, contacts and official figures that many people are struggling with insomnia.

But it’s not all about pills and death.  Flies are very much alive as they gorge on a cow’s head in enclosed glass.   Life is also present as butterflies are being born during the exhibition and plants are growing. This is in a strange and intriguing room –almost like a greenhouse – after the straight, clear and clinical looking glass cases.

The Anatomy of an Angel

But my favourite room is the final one when it feels like we’ve been through earth and hell and now we’re in heaven.  Beautiful butterflies and religious motifs are everywhere.  I am not sure of the theology of seeing the human organs of an angel but it is very gripping to see. There’s also a dove suspended in mid flight.

I appreciate the creativity that takes me on a journey inside myself and out again.  It’s about how I connect to it.  My favourite image is the one above, done in 1997.  The name says it all “Beautiful, amore, gasp, eyes going into the top of the head and fluttering.”

 

I would love to hear from you if you’ve been moved by anything creative recently? Did it connect you to life, death or anything else?

 

 

 

 

I recently enjoyed Kevin Spacey in Richard III at the Old Vic. I had seen several Shakespearean productions although not specifically this play.  It was a brilliant production directed by Sam Mendes and Kevin Spacey was great in the role.  The team wanted the audience to fall in love with the dialogue so the performance covered an absorbing 3 hours!  They gave us enough time to get hold of the setting and the characters. Kevin Spacey as Richard III was captivating and charismatic.  He was also bitter, angry, manipulative, egocentric and altogether not a nice person.

 

A couple weeks later I went to see Butley with Dominic West.  This is the story of a university professor and his relationship with his mentee over a period of time.  I am a big fan of Dominic West and his acting was superb.  During the play we find out about the lengths and depths of their relationship, the other people in their lives and gain some insight into the changing power balance between them.  Although it is possible to feel sad for Butley and the situation he finds himself in, one is not really drawn to him.  He is bitter, angry, repressed, emotionally blind, lost and emotionally cold.  It was quite a sad ending in that the character seemed resigned and hopeless.

 

I was very disappointed with the ending in Butley. I don’t think I need an upbeat happy ending. Also, characters don’t all have to be nice because that is not realistic, but is it too much to hope for depth and transformation?  I wonder if this will become a new criterion for the plays I choose to see.   It may be that I expect more from the theatre than from the film industry.

 

Have you seen any plays recently and how did you relate to the characters?