Friday, 22 June 2018

Crossing The Great Divide

Photo: John Anstie
In reading that word – sustainability – cradling the head of our current Guide Dog puppy in my hands, her deeply pleading eyes looking up at me, I am reminded that this word not only describes what I feel so many, many more people around the world – more commonly come to understand of its meaning.
I have hitherto thought of sustainability as the fundamental, physical process that needs to be implemented in order for the Earth to continue providing for all the life that inhabits it. Physical processes like recycling, up-cycling, ‘make-do-and-mend’, conservation of energy, switching off and simply to stop being so extravagant with the energy we use! We urgently need demonstrate the will to push harder for renewable energy in power generation. It also demands something else of us. It requires us to adopt a certain philosophy, to change our human habits; a need to behave differently. It expects a certain attitude and assumes that an essential ingredient to the achievement of a sustainable World is that the human beings, who inhabit the Earth, become determined to adopt a way of life that is … well, sustainable!
It is an unfortunate character of the human condition that it is not until we lose someone that we become much more conscious of their value to our own life. It seems, whilst they are still around, that we prefer to focus more on their faults and shortcomings than on their virtues and strengths. We are even more prepared to abuse or betray their trust, than to respect them. So too, our Mother Earth.
As I regularly drive the roads around us, particularly the lanes of the beautiful countryside that surrounds us here in Yorkshire, I am reminded also of one of those human faults, anxiety, and of all the consequences of that condition: stress, impatience, fear, anger, aggression, depression. All too often, when I glance in my rear view mirror, I see another car race up behind me and sit so close to my rear bumper that I can’t see their number plate; at speeds and in situations in which it would be lunacy to contemplate overtaking. It is as if they are tempting me to yield, give in, pull over into a ditch and let them pass … and claim me as another vanquished enemy! It isn’t necessarily that, I know, but it feels like that and, even in my advancing years, with the wisdom and insight of the road that I have gained in fifty years of driving and my lowered testosterone levels, I sometimes feel like retaliating … and we all know how that could turn out.
The Dalai Lama it was, who attributed anxiety or agitation as the root of all conflict in the World. There is no doubt that he is right. Yes, I hear the academics, anthropologists, psychologists and any number of other -ologists, state the obvious, that Darwinian principles of evolution and survival in the animal kingdoms, of which human is one, dictate this behaviour. Our base instincts are therefore not to respect any forms of life outside our own sphere, outside our immediate survival zone; to consider them a threat to our survival? Really?
But, we are beyond this, surely, aren’t we? Can’t we exert more control over our behaviours, or are we simply hopeless victims of our own psyche; our individual intractable personality. For many in the Western World, the need to survive, to subsist on what our local environment can provide us, has long since turned into higher and higher expectations. Each generation starts with more, but wants still more than the previous generation. Our survival instincts have turned into greed; at the expence of those on the margins of the overexploited third world. Are these expectations a consequence of some out of control unconscious driving forces within us, or could we re-educate ourselves. I believe the answer for some is ‘no’. For others it would be ‘yes’.
I contend that the World could continue to support all life, even with its currently burgeoning population (of humans). If we were able to overcome our greed and unreasonable expectations, there is one overriding benefit that could accrue, apart from vanquishing our own greed … we could begin to feel what it is like to live with less poverty in the world, and less debt. Less personal debt, less corporate debt, less national debt. Currently the only way Western governments can see to pay off the latter, is growth, economic growth, which has become the unquestioned Demi-God of economic and political policy objectives; growth is, I believe, a largely misunderstood, overused and abused tool of political campaigning. This is, unfortunately, a vicious circle. I’ve heard growth described as a means of servicing our national debt. Long term, this does not make economic sense and surely cannot be sustainable!
So, what are we to do? Save more? Conserve our resources, however modest they may be? Adjust our expectations and those of our children? Their generation and the ones that follow, will otherwise only continue this roller coaster of a suicidal ride into debt and debt slavery; a World in which the super wealthy few have more and more control over the increasingly debt-ridden many. Freedom from debt, however you achieve it, whatever the cost to your expectations, your dreams, has to provide the way to a more sustainable World; and…
It. Is. Liberating.
Otherwise, our greatest and only means of survival, our patient and beautiful Mother Earth, will expel us, rich and poor, forever, and no-one will inherit anything! Space exploration to find a new life sustaining planet somewhere out there in the vastness, is pure fantasy ... and vanity!
What can we do to reduce your anxiety? A starting point for me is to have a hug with your best friend, be they human … or puppy dog ...

Photo: Barbara Anstie. Creative edit: Dave Anstie

This essay was first published in the BeZine, on 15th June 2018, along with a poem, which has also been published in My Poetry Library 

Sunday, 28 January 2018

International Holocaust Rememberence Day

There is no shortage of stories that tug heavily at the heart strings, at the conscience of those who can stop for a moment to think and that nag at the literary minds of those who continue to write and remind us of the human inhumanity toward fellow humans ...

via I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a poem written by the child, Pavel Freidman (short bio included), before he was murdered at Theresienstadt Concentration Camp

Thanks to Jamie Dedes for posting this on her The Poet By Day site.


Sunday, 26 March 2017

Hearts, Minds and Souls

I had been pondering the theme of the March issue of The BeZine for some time without a resolution in my mind as to how I can possibly limit a written piece to less than a thousand words to cover it. I’ve come to the conclusion that I cannot come close truly to doing it justice, if for no other reason than that it just about spans the entirety of human existence on this Earth as well as its place in the universe.

So what of the impact of science on culture, politics and religion? From the earliest beginnings of its roots in thinking by philosophers, whose intellectual machinations observed and interpreted the nature of things, it could now be argued that, from those beginnings come the roots of its downfall; our self destruction.

Our culture is driven by a desire for control of our lives, which in turn is determined and limited by our own genetic make up, our chemistry if you like, and the environment in which we evolved as individuals and as communities.

Religion is perhaps the result of a desire, for most of us in recognition of our mortality, to make sense of the chaos that results as every individual interprets their circumstances differently and therefore to give collective structure to it all. Politics originally seeks to formalise and legislate, to provide equity and security across the divisions between individuals, communities and religious belief systems and ultimately democracy, but politics has always conspired to fail us, because of self interest; because of our deeply ingrained, genetic survival instinct.

The science that attempts to explain and underpin it all ultimately fails us. Whilst it has achieved the most remarkable things, taken us to the moon, cured diseases, built bridges and enabled us to communicate with the world, it has, like most other aspects of our lives, been overcome by that cornerstone of culture, that of commerce and commercial interest. Politics and religion have, for better or worse, tried to limit its influence, but self interest, desire for survival and greed for consumption of ‘things’, is winning the day.  It has captured hearts, minds and souls and enveloped our day to day approach to living and life itself and is causing us to lose touch with our place in the universe. Unless we can conceive of ways to halt this fairground ride as it hurtles out of control, it strikes me that the relevance and usefulness of science in our culture will be lost, because we will be lost.

Poet and friend, Kona Macphee wrote a short piece around six years ago in her enlightened blog, ‘That Elusive Clarity‘, which described a conversation with her daughter entitled “A Brief Blonde Sun” …

My daughter and I recently went to see “Tangled”, Disney’s take on the Rapunzel fairytale, in which Rapunzel’s evil, ancient captor perpetually restores her own youth via the power of Rapunzel’s magic hair.
“Would she stay young forever?” my daughter asked.
“I don’t know. I guess so. It’s magic hair.”
“But it couldn’t work forever!”
“Why not?”
“What about when the sun explodes?”

With all that we try to achieve, shouldn’t we remind ourselves not only of what the future holds for our children but also that, regardless of how much we feel in control of our lives now … we’re not! Regardless of our continuing dreams that science will explain it all in the end … it won’t!

Such dreams are simply a kind of vanity, subsidised by hugely expensive quests to conquer space, fly to Mars, send satellites beyond our solar system, which is, let's face it, only one of billions inside our galaxy, the ‘Milky Way’, which, in turn, is only one of billions in the universe; to escape reality; to deny our mortality. Come on! Wake up! Smell the coffee!

Humanity may be the only current voice by which the known universe can understand itself, but ultimately I find it impossible to believe, right now, that we should be spending our money, expending the intellectual energies of our greatest minds in solving anything other than the many issues we have here, on our own gentle, amazing, beautiful but yielding and long suffering Mother Earth.

© 2017 John Anstie
All rights reserved

Image,  "Moon", from Pixaboy ( with licence to use by Creative Commons CC0.

[This article was originally published in the BeZine, earlier this month, the theme of which was Science in culture, politics and religion]

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Love is in The Air

(Hallmark of Harmony's show at Sheffield Cathedral on Saturday, 11th February 2017)

On Saturday night, the chorus of Hallmark of Harmony put on a show at Sheffield's Cathedral Church of St Peter and St Paul; a great venue with a magnificent acoustic.

Chorus with a view (Photo: John Anstie)
For a moment, I stood on top of the world, a feeling prompted by having to stand on the uppermost platform of the tallest and steepest risers I've ever had the pleasure to stand on. Shoulder to shoulder with my fellow singers at Hallmark, we looked 'down' ... a very long way down ... on the audience. At first, it felt like that moment before you take flight; before you jump out of an aeroplane, combined with a sense of euphoria induced by a mild dose of adrenalin. But then reality kicked in and so it began.

The audience, queueing from just before 7pm, by the time the show opened at 7:30pm, filled every last seat in the Cathedral; plus extras I suspect! It was bursting at the seams, a huge lift before we'd even started. 

What followed was very special. The Sheffield Senior Schools Orchestra was spread in front of us. Their performance was immense. The acoustic was brilliant and the echo of the final chords, before each applause, ringing from our unaccompanied singing was one of the most memorable things I'll carry with me for some time. At the end of the show, the response of the audience was almost unexpected, if that doesn't sound contradictory. It was as much an acknowledgement of how well the orchestra performed, made up, as it is, of the finest young musicians from this city of music, as it was of the chorus of Hallmark of Harmony. Here's what John Faben of Hallmark's own PR team wrote ...

" Come on, deliver to me!

And deliver they did - in spades. From West Side Story to Braveheart, the astonishingly proficient talents of the Sheffield Senior Schools Orchestra, under the charismatic direction of Ian Naylor provided a remarkable counterpoint to Hallmark's singing, in the stunning surroundings of Sheffield Cathedral. In a first for the chorus, we even sang two songs accompanied by a symphony orchestra!

Love is in the Air was a Valentine's show with a difference; without an MC, but with a clever and moving narrative by Mike Lowry, which wove the musical pieces together and was delivered brilliantly by Caroline Hallam and Ed Sayers-Flood. 

After the show some veterans of Hallmark (of whom there are quite a few!) were heard to say that this was the best show they had ever been part of. Praise indeed from guys who have sung all over the UK and in the USA. 

So a big thank you to everyone who took part. Thank you to Ian and to Tim Briggs for their superb direction and to Rachel Ward, of the Music Hub, who played a large part in helping to make it all happen, but special thanks to the accomplished musicians in the orchestra. We were proud to share a stage with you. 

Let's do it again, soon! "

Everything they played was impressive. Notably, their tour de force, in the second half, of Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, itself complex enough for even the most experienced orchestra was quite frankly epic. This also, incidentally, involved the chorus making certain 'moves' and 'gestures' at various points throughout the twenty minute piece, whilst trying not to distract the attention of the audience ... more of a challenge than you might think! Another of my favourite pieces was one that opened the second half; that big as the sky, screen busting theme by the evergreen John Barry, of the film "Out of Africa"; so very stirring.

It is true, Hallmark of Harmony and barbershop singers in general, spend some of their time singing romantic ballads. And so it was on Saturday night, on the eve, so to speak, of Valentines Day. We sang some of the more romantic songs from our current repertoire; songs like, "Happy Together", "You Are My Sunshine", "Till There Was You", "Mona Lisa", "Too Marvellous for Words". Two of the songs we performed were accompanied by the orchestra. The first was from Sheffield's own: Human League's big 1981 Christmas No.1 hit "Don't You Want Me, Baby". But perhaps the most special songs were saved till last. We sang, a cappella, Leonard Cohen's evergreen "Hallelujah", which rang gloriously through every hallowed corner of the cathedral. Then the song that closed the show, "I Only Have Eyes for You". Accompanied beautifully by the strings of the orchestra, this song was our finale and presented to the audience for the first time in the show, the boy and girl, who were the voices of the love story narrative that threaded itself seamlessly through the evening ... and n'er one eye was left too dry.

Suffice to say, if I could, I would have bottled the final ovation and taken it home with me, even though I know a good deal of it was for those young talents in the orchestra. I could then open it, whenever things aren't going as well as they are right now, and hold it to my ear, as if to remind me that whatever skill or gift for good we are blessed with ... and, regardless of whether we think we have something to offer ... we should always try to share it, at least offer it. However insignificant you may think your contribution may be for a world so full of human strife, each of us can at least try to do our best for the benefit of our fellow beings and to encourage our children to do the same, much as the Sheffield Music Hub are doing with this orchestra and many other musical endeavours with the children of Sheffield schools. The rewards are beyond price.

Whilst Hallmark's Show Team do a remarkable job of putting our performances on the stage, it would be remiss of me not to mention some individuals. The man, who conceived the idea and produced and directed the narrative through the show is is the young and talented Mr Paul Kaiserman. Not to forget our even younger bass singer, roadie, script consultant and programme writer, Mr Paul "Fingers" Dalpra.

It's also thanks to the singers of Hallmark and to their top notch music team that I have this opportunity to do something I always wanted to do. In consequence of this evening, I am left with the feeling that anything is possible, including for me, the magic and therapeutic effect that using the human voice to sing in harmony has not only on performers but also on audiences everywhere. 

Long may it last. 


Thursday, 1 December 2016