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Singing for my Psyche 🎶

IMG_2863Last week I stood up with 26 other women in a rather lovely local church, drew breath, and began to sing.

This was the inaugural performance of our women’s choir, “Stamford Sings!” and we were letting our family and friends see and hear some of what we get up to at our weekly sessions on Wednesday evenings. Just formed in the Spring of this year, we have learned new songs and increased our vocal confidence whilst meeting new people, forming friendships and challenging sometimes long-held fears and apprehensions.

The physical and psychological benefits of collective music-making are well-documented and include reducing stress, blood-pressure and anxiety; improving cognitive function and social integration (and addressing problems associated with loneliness and isolation). Stumbling upon a recent article, I also discovered that singing activates the vagus nerve, (the longest nerve in the autonomous system) which has the effect of applying the brakes to our stress response. Group singing, it seems, intensifies that effect on the individual.

Of course, performing can itself be stressful and, depending on our character and personality, takes us out of our comfort zone to a greater or lesser degree. Whilst it’s scary, it’s only by edging out of our comfort zone that it expands, and enables us to discover, both individually and collectively, resources we didn’t know we had. This experience of risk – of shared vulnerability – can create an environment where we are less defensive, more open and empathic, and where strong bonds can forge.

The heritage of group singing is found in mining and seafaring communities, and of course in slavery, where stress, uncertainty, oppression, and all too often tragedy, were woven deep into the collective conscious. Where words and music could give a shared expression to sorrow, resilience, gratitude, joy, and hope.

Our choir’s renditions of songs ranging from Gospel to Disney, via Manilow, aren’t tonally perfect or lyrically spotless, but they are a wonderful vehicle for a group of women to come together once a week and forget about the workplace targets to be met, the school lunches to be packed, the family squabbles to be resolved and the relationships to be tended. For that short interlude in our busy lives, we can put aside our sundry preoccupations and lose ourselves in potent words, and a banging good tune!

Home Again. The Holiday Snaps.

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Back at home, suitcases have been unpacked, clothes have been washed and the all-important photographs have been viewed, labelled and culled. If, like me, you can remember when the height of photographic profligacy was slipping a 36-exposure colour film into your Kodak Instamatic, you will marvel at the sheer quantity of digital images that bounce onto the screen.

I remember, at 17, and on my first ‘real’ trip abroad – by land to Turkey – obsessively checking the little window on my camera, which showed how many shots I’d taken. I would then calculate the number of days left, so that I could ration the remainder accordingly.

This was long before “selfies”. Back then, if you wanted to capture yourself on film without resorting to tripods and timers, you would have to hand your precious camera to a total stranger and hope they didn’t blow the shot with a clumsy finger over the lens. Or worse! Accidentally press the shutter-button twice and waste one of the valuable frames earmarked for Venice the day-after-tomorrow.

Then there was the nail-biting process of extracting the film cartridge from the camera. First (and most importantly) the “rewind” button had to be located and activated. Then the whirring/clicking sound would start as the little motor moved your treasured memories to their safe place on the other side of the spool. Holding the camera to your ear, you would anxiously wait for the whirring/clicking to stop, which would indicate a successful rewind. But, if the whirring/clicking continued, mocking you with its persistence, then you would have to face the possibility of abject loss and failure, because “something would have gone wrong inside”. Sometimes, in my haste, I overlooked the “rewind” part of the process altogether and ruined a film by opening the back of the camera with the film exposed. Disaster.

If, by great good fortune, I managed to avoid all of the aforementioned pitfalls, my film would need to survive the “photos by post” service. In the 1980s these Freepost envelopes would come through the letterbox unbidden and by the fistful. Films and envelopes would have to be carefully labelled with corresponding stickers, requiring a diligence usually reserved for hospital identity tags, before being sealed in the brightly coloured packs and sent away … and then the waiting began.

The week or so that elapsed before the longed-for return of the photos could seem like an eternity. But, hey, it’s Peak Holiday Season, right? You were warned by that small-print disclaimer on the back of the envelope.

In reality, this relatively brief interlude before the glossy prints, along with negatives (for reprints) landed on the doormat, was an exercise in managed disappointment: That shot which, in my memory, encapsulated the essence of the Mediterranean with azure sea and powder blue sky, artistically shot through a bougainvillea tracery, has somehow been rendered in a much less vibrant hue. The close-up, which showed the intricacies of a tropical bloom, comes back blurry and unrecognisable. And the hilariously-posed, ecstatic group-shots reveal the sweaty faces of those afflicted by a strange sleeping sickness – with mouths gaping, and red-rimmed eyes, either staring or half-closed.

For a few days I would keep all 36 prints in their glossy wallet, in the vain hope that I would, with fresh eyes, see their “inner” beauty. Or, vainer still, that the holiday-snap-fairy would return the bright and beautiful images I was convinced I’d captured and which had somehow been lost. Eventually, I would ruthlessly dispose of the outtakes, keeping the half-dozen or so which didn’t hit the cutting room floor.

Now, with hundreds of digital images, better cameras and editing options, the chances of getting some good photos are so much better. And yet I still think that the colours I hold in my mind’s eye, the scents I’ve captured in the limbic cortex of my brain, and the feel of the warm breeze, still on my cool skin… these are the things of which memories are made.

 

 

 

A Tale of Three Sisters: Queenstown, Wellington and Christchurch.

 

(This is a blog-post from before we left New Zealand. Internet access had been a little intermittent there. Now we’re in California, it’s all-singing, all-dancing again. So here we go! And if I find I’ve gone metaphor-mad).

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Queenstown.

Of the three sisters Queenstown is the youngest. Conventionally pretty, if a little bland, she is used to getting everyone’s attention and thrives on the novelty of new acquaintance, needing continuous adoration from all-comers. Like the most popular girl in High School, she sets the trends for other, impressionable girls to follow. If you’ve not made it into her coterie of whispering confidants, you may feel desperate about your exclusion and decide to work very hard to make the grade. Alternatively, you may regard her with a certain bewilderment, silently wondering at her infamous popularity and at the devotion she seems to inspire. But of course, you will say none of this; even thinking it seems like a dark act of treachery!IMG_2835

Wellington.

Wellington, the eldest sister, is a very different character. Sassy, confident and edgy, she’s the kind of girl whose personal hygiene is a little suspect, but, hey, she absolutely knows how to have a good time. She’s a heady mix of excitement, bad habits, trashy clothes and contradiction. If you spend time with Wellington, she will probably lead you astray, encouraging you to break out and try new things, before disappearing into the night, leaving an intriguing scent of mystery in her wake.IMG_2830

Christchurch.

Christchurch is the middle child and, suffering the familiar fate of “middle children”, has always struggled to feel secure in her position. Life has been hard for Christchurch and more than once, she has been broken by her experiences. But, if you think she’s a victim, you’re missing her amazing resilience. Time and again, she marshalls her resources, recovers and reinvents herself, emerging more robust and strong, determined to withstand the challenges of the future. Little wonder, then, if at times she seems confused about who she is  IMG_2829

 

 

 

 

Reflections and Moving On.

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Today we crossed from New Zealand’s Southern Island, to the North. Exiting the Airport at Wellington a different pace, population and purpose was evident. But first, some reflections on our experience of the South Island.

Our travels took us from Christchurch on the East Coast, to Greymouth on the West Coast and then southwards to Queenstown. There are whole swathes of the South Island we didn’t even sniff.

What are my abiding impressions? Scenic splendour at every turn. I became punch-drunk on mountain vistas and river plains; sucker-punched by forests, lakes and glaciers. And remoteness. I’m used to the model train-set that is Great Britain, where you are rarely more than an hour from an urban conurbation and less from a motorway. Where the population of the small town where I live is two-thirds that of the entire West Coast. Here, there are vast tracts of uninhabited land, interspersed with “townships” – four or five roadside properties. Where the nearest supermarket is a two-hour drive undertaken once a month. Weather-permitting.

My other abiding memory will be of the people we met:

Jill, in Christchurch, who gave us a unique insight into the impact of the earthquakes in 2010/11, and how the community has been forever changed, and is responding.

Jan, whose amazing beachfront property we stayed at in Rapahoe, and who shared her extensive knowledge of the West Coast, sending us on our way with notes and directions to “must see” places.

Neroli, at Haast, a fourth-generation West-Coaster, who regaled us with tales of her ancestors. Hardy folk from Ireland who arrived amongst the first pioneers, landing cattle from their ships, and eventually developing a particularly heavy-framed herd, which could withstand the gruelling 250 kilometre drive from field to market, without losing condition and value. The descendants of those heavy beasts can be seen in nearby pastures today.

The ranger from the Conservation Department who took time out from grass-cutting, to give us a local history lesson at the far outpost of Jackson’s Bay.

Marc, who suggested we head out of the quaint but very tourist-centric Queenstown, and drive to Glenorchy along the banks of Lake Wakatipu.

All these people generously gave of their time and local knowledge and we greatly benefited from both. They gave our brief visit a unique context through their personal experiences, reflections, and opinions. Thank you.

 

 

Green. Grey. Blue.

Green.

I have just Googled “synonyms for colour green”. If you are wondering why, let me explain that I am currently in New Zealand and, if you know this amazing island (either personally or by reputation), you will understand. Before I came here, I was told that New Zealand is similar to England. In some respects it is; the rolling hills of the East Coast are like our green and pleasant land – on speed.

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We began in Christchurch and took the Transalpine Railway across the South Island to the West Coast. The first part of the journey took us across the vast Canterbury plain, with its lush pastureland which is a green somewhere between emerald and eau de nil. As we travelled further inland, signs of human habitation become scarcer. Pasture gives way to alpine landscape as the train heads westwards and leaves the bright chlorophyll-haze of the grasslands. Still here, green dominates nature’s palette. All but the highest, snow-capped mountains are covered in shiny, fat-leaved verdant plants and trees of a slightly darker hue. On the West Coast the landscape changes again and we are in ambient rainforest, where rainwater drips from leaf to leaf. Big tree ferns reach to the sky, turning every view into a scene from Jurassic Park.

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Grey.

The Transalpine Railway travels from Christchurch on the East Coast and ends at Greymouth on the West Coast of the South Island. Greymouth is aptly named. It lies at the mouth of the river, and on a dull, rainy day is…grey. Once a thriving fishing port and mining town, both industries fell victim to tragedy. Rough seas and an inhospitable harbour claimed too many fishing boats and the remainder headed for less deadly ports further along the coast, and in 2010 a disastrous explosion led to loss of life and the end of mining in the town.

Over the past seven years the life has leached out of the town, with businesses closing and people moving away. It is a sad, grey shadow of its former self.

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Blue.

Then we did one of those “bucket list” activities and took a heli-ride over the Franz Joseph glacier. I could barely contain my delight when we got allocated the front seats! And it was a fantastic experience. As we swept round and caught our first glimpse of the glacier, I was surprised that it’s not the sheet of ice that I was somehow expecting. It’s a massive (but very slow) cascade of crumbly white lumps with a distinct blue tint and it moves at a rate of four metres a day. The helicopter lands at the top of the glacier, for a unique photo-op. Advance information had told us that selfie sticks weren’t allowed and when I saw the very confined space in the helicopter, and the steep slopes at the top of the glacier, I understood why!

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The water from the ice and snow makes its way down via waterfalls to rivers and thence to the sea. That blue tint that we saw in the glacier emerges in the magical azure of the Blue Pools.

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Lady Madonna, children at your feet, Wonder how you manage to make ends meet. (Lennon-McCartney 1968) .

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Memories are funny things. Not really like photographs, or files on our hard-drive, memories are much more malleable. Each time we retrieve them and metaphorically turn them over in our hands, they are somehow changed, altered, edited. We regard our memories through the veil of our own experience.

This is my memory, now, from when I was (about) 12 years old, in 1973.

During my childhood and teenage years, my brother, sister, and parents often stayed with my grandparents, in their large, sprawling house in the Sussex countryside. I remember the house as comfortable (in a not-at-all-smart way), with large gardens where we could build dens, help mow lawns and dig vegetables, and big, creaky bedrooms with chimneys that whistled eerily when the wind blew. Our visits there were governed by an unchanging routine that began with early morning egg-collecting and the letting-out of chickens and geese, and ended with the recouping of the same to keep them safe from prowling foxes and other night hazards. In between, mealtimes were regular and frequent, to service the needs of the “paying guests”- a fluctuating population of working people and visitors to the area whose lodgings, along with sales of surplus garden produce, provided my grandmother with her income.

On this particular occasion, we were not to be the only family visiting. My uncle, who my grandparents had adopted as a baby, would also be staying. I was intrigued. I had heard about my uncle, but never met him. He had a reputation for being unconventional; (although my grandparents might have used a less neutral term). He was some 13 years’ younger than my father, so that made him a relatively youthful 29. He was relatively well-travelled (for 1973), and now, he was going to live in New Zealand with his wife and baby daughter. In my typical 12-year old way, I soaked up the atmosphere and nuance.  I learned that he had adopted what would later become known as an “alternative lifestyle” and I sensed a certain apprehension and disapproval amongst the adults in my family. One thing was obvious to me: the fatted calf had nothing to fear!

Adults tend to think that children don’t notice things and so children tend to become skilled in covert observation. I was adept at sitting quietly in a corner buried in a book, seemingly oblivious to everything. In fact, the longer the atmosphere of discomfort prevailed, the more excited I became and the more my anticipation grew.

At last a battered van (of the Camper variety) pulled into the drive and up to the house and my uncle, his wife and baby daughter emerged into our grey, drizzly afternoon like extraordinary exotic butterflies landing on a cabbage. These were real, live hippies! Such as I had only seen under perjorative headlines in the Daily Express.

I have a memory of my uncle, a slight man with long hair, wearing a band around his head and a purple t-shirt that laced-up at the front. His wife struck me as beautiful and willowy, with long chestnut hair and a long tie-dyed dress that brushed her sandaled feet. She carried what seemed to me to be a very small baby wrapped in a cotton shawl. If it’s possible to feel hopelessly frumpy at twelve year’s old, I did on that afternoon.

My grandmother’s proffered hospitality was politely declined, on the basis that “everything we need is in the van” and “the van” (which in my memory is a mustardy yellow colour) took on Tardis-like qualities in my imagination. And so, that night, when we went upstairs to bed, the little family disappeared back into the van.

I seem to think they left the next day. But not before I had seen the beautiful woman in her long kaftan, sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen, feeding her tiny baby. I suppose it was the first time I had been exposed to breastfeeding that wasn’t entirely private and functional.  I remember being captivated by how graceful and relaxed she seemed, and feeling embarrassed when she saw me watching her, and smiled at me.

Tomorrow we leave Sydney and fly to New Zealand (via Brisbane). Sadly, the beautiful Lady Madonna with the quiet smile, died some years ago. But my uncle, three of his children, and many grandchildren live in and around Christchurch. A twelve-year-old, well-behaved girl, with tidy clothes and sensible shoes is very excited to meet them.

Now, briefly, a Plug!

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We spent a wonderful four days in Cape Town and nearby Franschhoek and benefitted greatly from some local knowledge, courtesy of Mr. F’s friend and ex-colleague, Colin Dilland, who runs East Cape Tours (eastcapetours.com). Hailing from Wolverhampton in the Midlands, Colin has lived and worked in South Africa since 1995 and has built up a thriving business, organizing travel, tours and holidays in the Eastern Cape. He recommended and booked our accommodation and met us for a catch up over dinner. Thanks, Colin!