Monday, 22 August 2016

My love of nature knows no bounds

For those familiar with my writing on The Huffington Post and elsewhere, you will know how much the natural world has rescued me from moments of sadness, exhilarated me without trying and is the best indicator of what life is really about. I've compiled a series of photos I have taken over years of walking in the British countryside. I hope you will enjoy them and better yet, get your boots on...

Photo copyright SvD.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Why I'm more Buddleia than the noble rose

My love affair with roses goes back many years, perhaps when I first received them from an enamoured suitor. The evocative deep red, the heady scent, the long stem with its painful thorns- the rose embodies all that is splendid, passionate and fateful in human existence. The rose possesses a nobility that no other flower comes close to duplicating; compared to the rose, all flowers are the poor relations, the never-do-wells, the unwelcome guests at the high society table. The rose must be the centre of attention wherever it goes.

I was so in love with roses that I grew them abundantly, the only criterion being that I had to inhale a whiff of the most exquisite perfume every time I passed one. But you see, I am reminded of Seneca who remarked thus: Consider it a great task to always be the same man. Indeed I am no longer the same woman I used to be.

My life has known more drama than bliss. Whereas I once adored roses, my affection for them has waned considerably. The qualities the rose represents have not necessarily served me well in my tumultuous life. When I was determined to do the right, the honourable thing, I suffered or was punished for it. And as for the rose being a symbol of love, one learns from experience that romantic love is a bartered exchange. I am sure that many a twenty-something reading this will think I am bitter but examine the words carefully, expressions of bitterness are accompanied by negatives. 'I will never love again' is not the same as 'I have abandoned the idea of finding love again'.

Hard knocks have taught me to be resilient, hard working, courageous, innovative and intelligent. Not one of these attributes is present at birth and I believe all are learned. In this respect I am more buddleia than rose. When I commuted into London from leafy Surrey, I would often find myself stuck at Clapham Junction, huddled under the one strip of roof that didn't leak. Like all commuters, I developed a knack of standing very still waiting for a train that more often than not was delayed. During these many lost hours of one's life, it is useful to have an imaginative mind in order to lessen the drone of complete helplessness. It was during these motionless moments that I first spied the buddleia on the roof of platform fourteen. I recall being mightily impressed that this flowering shrub could grow out of nothing, its roots entrenched in galvanised roofing. And yet it flourished. And flowered. I was immediately transfixed by this ability to endure, not just survive.

The other thing that impressed me about the buddleia is that it carries on regardless.  Wet weather. Grey weather. Freezing weather. Drought. The buddleia is adaptable enough to make do with whatever life throws at it. In the dead of winter I have seen the buddleia flower at Clapham Junction all while balancing on the roof. The story of the buddleia is one of remarkable resilience and cheeriness. The two qualities that I have relied on to get through life are energy and optimism regardless of what is going wrong around me and it seems I share them with a shrub.

Like a beautiful woman, the buddleia also possesses its own irresistible charms: an intoxicating come-hither perfume. On my many walks in the countryside with the hound, I relish passing a buddleia, especially in the midday sun when the scent of the flowers is exceptionally sweet and inviting. It is no wonder that the buddleia is one of the preferred sources of nectar for bees and gardeners are encouraged to plant them in their gardens. The third quality therefore of the buddleia is symbiosis. This unassuming shrub possesses an inherent usefulness within the natural world. Bees are not dependent on the buddleia but they seek it out for its plentiful nectar. Unlike the single flowered rose, the buddleia flower head is formed of many small flowers each with its own supply of nectar. I have often found a buddleia by following a very distinct humming sound and sure enough, the entire shrub would be heaving with feasting hymenoptera.

Finally, the buddleia requires no tender loving care whatsoever. In my rose-growing days, there was the annual performance of gathering horse manure, leaving it to soak for six weeks and pouring the resulting tonic onto the base of the rosebush but only at a precise moment at the end of season. Then there was the pruning (end of season and brutally for some, very carefully for others), the choice of soil (very aerated), the positioning in the garden (south facing), the warding off of parasites and leaf mould etc. In order to thrive and astound us with its beauty, the rose needs to be nurtured and cared for in extremis. The buddleia on the other hand, will flourish in spite of being neglected or pitted against the odds.

In my opinion, the buddleia possesses the most impressive and finest qualities. The rose enthralls with its contrived and artificial beauty. In this second half of my life, I share more in common with the buddleia, a  perfect symbol for endurance, adaptability and self-sufficiency.
Photo copyright SvD.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Why Brits are exceptional

If you want a master class in why Brits are exceptional, go to Bletchley Park where I spent the day on Saturday.

The location of Bletchley Park is equidistant to Cambridge and Oxford universities and there's a reason for that: the brightest minds were 'invited to serve their country' during the war. British eccentricity and brilliance have served this country well and the work conducted at Bletchley Park actually shortened the war by two years and saved thousands of lives. So secretive was the work at Bletchley Park that upon arrival new recruits were warned that if they ever spoke of what went on there, they would be killed. In fact a number of people disappeared during their time at Bletchley Park and were never heard of again. Testament to the resolve of the extraordinary Brits who served their country during the war, the Germans never found out about Bletchley Park.

For more on Bletchley Park, see here: Captain Ridley's Shooting Party

The Mansion House, Bletchley Park.

Photos copyright SvD.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Mick Jagger

Some things never change. Saw this recently in the 'guest room' at Warwick Castle:

Photo copyright SvD.

The curse of our ancestors

In 1983, as a student in France, I lived in an apartment building where two young Lebanese men rented the top floor penthouse flat. I can't recall their names anymore but we exchanged pleasantries almost daily as we would invariably meet entering or leaving the building. The elder of the two men, I think he was twenty-eight, was a very thin, bespectacled, highly strung character prone to unexpected bursts of anger. His flatmate usually appeared more friendly and relaxed and by virtue of being very good-looking would often have a new girlfriend on his arm.  I always felt a sense of unease around these two men and although they would frequently invite me for coffee, I always declined. One day, the younger of the two confided in me that they were refugees from Lebanon. Almost all of their families had been killed in the war (which would last from 1982-1985) and these two, first cousins, had escaped to France. The reason for the unpredictable rages was what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder- the result of relentless and merciless pounding of guns and explosions which had decimated their families. He explained that they both suffered with nightmares and anxiety. Here they were in France in limbo hoping to return one day to Lebanon to rebuild their lives but with no living family and Beirut in ruins, they wondered what they would be going back to. Exiled and alone they had lost all hope.

I was barely nineteen and incapable of processing what these two chain-smoking young men could have possibly endured. I came from a middle-class family where nothing terribly exciting ever happened. Nor did anything awful blight the suburbs apart from the occasional scandal of an extra-marital affair, whispered abortion or once when I was six, a good friend of my parents drowned when his pleasure boat capsized in a storm. I also recall a school friend being killed in a car accident and what would be the first time I attended a funeral. Other than the usual drama that living incurs, our parents and most of their peers lived to old age. I still have a friend from my primary school days- we have known each other since we were four years old- and the fabric of our existences has remained pretty much intact in spite of all the real and imagined dramas.

Consider the opposite where everything you know gets destroyed. In Arab tradition, to have no extended family means that you become an outcast. An individual without a palpable beating heart of aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins and shared community means that you have no history to vouch for you. I recall vividly that although both men dressed as westerners, they were more influenced by Arab culture. They may have looked like they were integrated but in fact, their minds belonged miles away.

This memory of my past is still relevant today- young men with so much promise abandon hope completely. The attack in Nice yesterday by a young disenfranchised man outwardly appearing to embrace Western values but deliberately deceiving everyone including himself. Unlike my former neighbours in 1983, the young man who committed the atrocity in Nice, was not escaping from a war but was trying to create one. His ancestors no doubt came to France to find a better life. Their dream turned sour when they failed to integrate and admire French culture which remains one of the great civilisations in the world. Instead they probably stayed stuck in the ghettoes they created in order to 'protect' their way of life.

No one should believe that these young men- and they are almost all young- are motivated by Allah's Islam. I would bet they are semi-literate losers, straddling the west and the 'homeland' but still believing that everything that is wrong in their lives is not their responsibility. Like the man who beats his wife rather than admit to his own insecurity. But here's the thing: no government owes anyone anything except to create an infrastructure in which people can live their lives. What we make of our lives is entirely of our own doing. To be less than human and to have no humanity is also a personal choice and not some curse we inherit from our ancestors. Hate engenders hate and it is what each generation passes to the next. Someone has to decide to break the cycle. Which is why it is critical that leaders in Muslim communities across Europe make themselves heard to the public and loudly condemn these atrocities. Most importantly these leaders should be working tirelessly to root out the misguided and dangerous members in their midst and I write this at the risk of being very un-PC, and hand them in to the authorities.

Mystical stones in Brittany- some say a druid cemetery.
Photo copyright SvD.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Pilloried, moi?

Photo copyright Some Nice American Gentleman
On the day the Chilcot Report was released some of us were being pilloried for fun. At Warwick Castle today. #TonyBlair #ChilcotReport