Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Fortune Favours the Bold ... and the Fortunate!

Of all the songs that I remember Joan Baez singing, there is one that I always recall first ... "There But for Fortune". Written by Phil Ochs, but made famous in 1964 by herself. Have a listen to the simple but effective lyrics ... 

Several events this year have reminded me, poignantly, how much we are at the mercy of fate. Whatever we do to try and gain and retain control of our lives, there are times when we cannot possibly achieve that. We may all suffer bad luck from time to time, but, fortunately, for many of us, we will escape severe, life changing misfortune.

Since the beginning of this year, my wife has lost a close, career long friend at far too young an age; my son and daughter-in-law lost their baby, Samuel, at four weeks of age; my daughter lost a baby at thirteen weeks gestation; my niece's husband, whilst doing something as inconsequential as cleaning out their refuse bin, slipped a disk in the lumbar region of his spine.

But this was no ordinary slipped disk! Mark suffered the severest slippage the senior surgeon reported that he had ever seen! His medical condition is referred to as 'Cauda Equina Syndrome'. He spent over four months in hospital, for more than half of which he was at that world renowned centre of excellence in spinal injuries, Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, England. He is now home, but in a wheel chair and, for short distances on crutches. He is a sporting, physically fit young man in his early forties. He is also very bright, but occasionally under confident and inclined not to push himself forward, which is partly why I am writing this now. I think he is also inclined to underestimate his abilities and his value. He and my niece have two children, a boy of three and a girl of nine years old. Mark has lost substantial motor and sensory response in his left leg, whilst his right leg is barely half way useful. He cannot even stand without support.

We called in on Mark on Friday, and he has clearly adopted a remarkably positive attitude. He is very busy trying to organise and sort out the rest of his life, along with Sarah, his extremely hard working, very supportive and utterly dedicated wife. Their attempt at getting some expected assistance from Social and Occupational Services, with the sort of equipment that he will need to resume his life at home, met with little or no help at all. Had they not been advised to push a little harder and complain, we might have assumed that this would be one more depressing impact of the 'austerity' that is so badly affecting the needy across the country. 

The response to the complaint met with a better response and some basic equipment has been provided, like a ramp to get in through the front door and crutches. This is beside the fact that he is a 'patient for life' at Stoke Mandeville and can therefore call or visit them anytime, albeit by appointment, to seek help from their expert outpatient team. But they are a three hour round trip away from Stoke Mandeville. 

Underneath the positive facade, there is the occasional glimmer of a young man haunted by flashes of disbelief and he himself admits he does regularly suffer those moments. 

I am posting this because I feel very fortunate ... and because Mark and his young family have not been. It is becoming very clear that Mark will still need to raise funds for equipment to give himself a chance of recovering and making adjustments to life with a revised set of abilities. One of the (many) objectives is a FES (Functional Electrical Stimulation) machine. The FES is rather like a TENS machine, only bigger. This is designed to tackle significant muscle wastage, which is particularly prominent in his left leg, and is having all sorts of side effects. One side effect is that the muscles and core support in his back are suffering an imbalance, which, apart from causing pain, will affect his mobility and his morale, and does threaten additional problems that he can really do without. The FES machine is relatively new in the UK and, you've guessed, expensive. 

Amongst the activities that are most likely to motivate him, Mark is intent on maintaining his involvement in sport. He used to enjoy football (and did some coaching at a local school), squash, badminton and, perhaps his first love, golf. He may not be able to involve himself in these again, in the same way, but he has talked to the wheelchair basket ball fraternity and, as luck would have it whilst he was at Stoke Mandeville, he was able to watch the Para-Badminton World Championships at the Guttman Sports Stadium (adjacent to Stoke Mandeville Hospital) and to meet and talk with some of the competitors. Professor Ludwig Guttman was asked by the government in 1943, to establish the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital and is credited with being the founding father of the Para-Olympic movement in the 1950's, which started out as the Stoke Mandeville Games.

An additional challenge for Mark is that viable clubs around the country are few and far between. A common story seems to be one of how hard disadvantaged people have had to fight (and pay) for their desire to be involved in their chosen sport, let alone for equipment they need to live any kind of of normal life. 

To this end, Mark's squash club, the Hinckley Squash & Racketball Club, have set up a JustGiving fundraiser for him, having expressed in their mission (on the JustGiving page), that they want to help to buy Mark the right sort of equipment to enable him to participate in sport. In the words of the the Club, the value to Mark in both physical and psychological terms, is massive! The Club have organised a 24-hour 'Squashathon' starting at 7pm (GMT) on Friday, 16th October and finishing at 7pm on Saturday.

It might help to read the explanations under the following headings, lower down on the right hand side of the JustGiving page: "What's the problem we're trying to solve?"; "Why do we care about this?"; "How will the money be spent?" and "When will the supporters see the difference?". I think this effort by the Club reveals chiefly how popular and how much liked Mark is as a person, not to mention his skills as a sportsman. 

The JustGiving appeal page is here: 

For those, who love sport and were fortunate enough to be active in it, but who have been so quickly disadvantaged in the middle of their lives, Sport is truly a lifeline. It is easy to see why and how the Paralympics have become so important and so popular.

I applaud the spirit and courage of both Mark and Sarah and our thoughts (and actions when you need them) are with you always.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

A Weekend in the Heart of the British Barbershop World

As I sat looking out over the bay in Llandudno, late on Sunday afternoon in the last weekend of May, I was struck by
Venue Cymru, overlooking the bay at Llandudno
with the grand Venue Cymru on the right.
the darkening grey skies, threatening rain as they had done for most of that day. What was most striking of all, though, was my mood. Influenced as we Brits are by the state of the weather, it occurred to me that I was, at this particular moment, quite the contrarian. No kind of weather could have dampened my spirits that weekend.

The location was the Venue Cymru, the venue, this year, for the British Association of Barbershop Singers National Convention in 2015, a meeting of all the greatest musical minds, voices and hearts that this nation's barbershop community can muster ... and a good deal of talent from a few other musical communities for good measure. To be singing in this kind of company may be fine enough, but to be singing with the Chorus, Hallmark of Harmony, who were and, it could be argued, still are the best in the UK, is something else altogether! 

We arrived on the first day of a four day fest, to perform as current gold medal champions in the Friday night show in the theatre that seats 1,500 or more and it was to a capacity
The Theatre at the Venue Cymru
audience. Our opener was a new arrangement, by our resident genius, Sam Hubbard, of an intro appropriately called "Overture", a song with a touch of show business parody, set the pace. Next, two songs, new to Hallmark, were that Marvin Gaye classic, "I Heard it Through The Grapevine" - voted recently the best ever Motown song - and the towering not to mention drama filled, David Wright arrangement of "The Impossible Dream". We finished with the competition set, which we will take to the International Convention in Pittsburgh at the end of June: the Rogers and Hart, Adam Reimnitz arrangement of the 
beautiful ballad, "My Romance" and our up-tune, that Hammerstein, Harbach and Kern song, to an arrangement written specially for Hallmark by the remarkable Liz Garnett, "I Won't Dance". 

The Arena at the Venue Cymru
As if that wasn't enough, we were treated the following day, to some magnificent singing in the Chorus competition, aimed at finding out who, out of thirty-six entrants (fewer than the forty-eight that competed last year), would  be the pretenders to Hallmark of Harmony's crown. Because current champions are not allowed to compete the year following their triumph, we did, however, perform a shorter set starting with Grapevine, at the end of the chorus competition in the Arena that evening. They call it the 'mic cooling' session. We had also asked the bank of twelve - yes, TWELVE - judges to score us privately, to check where we are, so to speak. For reasons of propriety and etiquette, I cannot tell you what that score was, nor where it would have placed us, had we been competing this year, but suffice to say we were very, VERY pleased with the result ... the winners of the Gold, Silver and Bronze medals were Bristol's very impressive Great Western Chorus, Bolton's Cottontown Chorus, who have been great supporters of our efforts this year, and Nottingham's Grand Central Chorus, whose up-tune was an ambitious and, in my view, a magnificent take on The Wizard of Oz. They were all very worthy medalists.

Some of the boys of Hallmark after their
Mic Cooler, waiting for the results ...
As a footnote to the chorus competition, and the winners in particular, we had noted the flattery in Great Western's up-tune, which was a parody of barbershop singing. In the concluding passages of this performance, there was a very deliberate and obvious imitation of some of the moves in Hallmark's own performances, which were considered to be innovative and ground breaking in the barbershop world. So in the hour's warm up before our own performance as mic coolers, we slotted in a small and subtle change to one of our own moves in "I Won't Dance" as a return compliment. It was noted, with a few whoops of appreciation! 

On Sunday morning, bright eyed and bushy tailed, we were scheduled to have a coaching session with the music team of the best chorus in the world, current international Gold medalists from Texas, Vocal Majority (apparently there's a long waiting list of budding singers wanting to join them, not surprisingly it turns out). However, far from being a quiet coaching session, it turned out to be a Masterclass held under glass in the Hall at the Venue Cymru, to a capacity audience, standing room only. And what a session it was! So much of value came out of this, not least a little moment towards the end of the hour-long masterclass. Following a suggestion from VM's Musical Director about how we might sing a part of the tag (the closing dramatic section, aka the coda) in "I Won't Dance", the way in which we responded to this suggestion brought a spontaneous whooping and applause from the (albeit very knowledgeable barbershop) audience before we'd even finished the song! Lump in throat moment.

If it were possible to cap this, going to see the Vocal Majority perform their own show in the Theatre, on Sunday afternoon did this. At one minute, hugely entertaining, the next stirring, watery eyed moments. Shear class. This is what we are aiming for!

And later that afternoon, the final of the quartet competition. Four of the six finalists had Hallmark members singing with them. And the Gold medalists, who seemed to be genuinely far more surprised at the result than most of the audience, our very own Tagline, comprised entirely of Hallmark members, present or recently past ... and maybe just about to rejoin us. Very well done to them and to our own bass section coach, Rob Foot, who is the anchor of that winning quartet.

In conclusion: I ask myself how much have I learned about singing in the past few months since joining Hallmark of Harmony? The answer is: "loads!".  And how much more have I got to learn? ... Loads!!  

Only one musical instrument made an appearance throughout the weekend, perhaps the cheapest and most amazing instrument that ever existed, the human voice. A perfect contribution and conclusion to the musical experiences that contributed to my mood last weekend ... and not a metaphorical cloud in sight.

We'll be back for this next year!

Friday, 30 January 2015

British Bulldogs, Great Speeches and Poetry ...

Photo: John Anstie
It is not a new notion to say that great speeches are like great poetry [Look up Simon Armitage's documentary on the subject "Speeches that Shook the World" shown on BBC TV on 6th November in 2013 *]. We know all too well how there are certain circumstances, certain events that cause negative emotions to be stirred in us, like the fear that we would ordinarily prefer to keep hidden; fear that has the capability to paralyse us, and deny us our inner strengths. But great speeches. like great poetry, can also stir in us those very positive emotions that bond us in our familial, local and national and even international communities and, in so doing, bind and galvanise us, as well as motivating cooperative action, repair and renewal. The like of this kind of behaviour may seem difficult to believe, these days, when our motives seem only to be characterised by an aspirational, but selfish pursuit of wealth and personal celebrity, often at the expence of those less fortunate; often at the expence of greater causes.

But one man encapsulated the essence of leadership for Great Britain, at a time when it was needed most. He was a man, who, despite his unpopularity amongst certain sections of society in peace time, galvanised a nation into girding its loins and taking action; who, above all else, was capable of stirring the most powerful of positive emotions in us, of breathing the oxygen of hope into a nation that was almost on its knees in the early years of World War II. He was a man, who was an articulate weaver of words, a speech-maker and, it could be argued, a poet. Above all else he was a true leader. That man was, of course, none other than the late Sir Winston Churchill. Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of his State funeral - an honour, apparently never before afforded to a 'Commoner'. 

His speech at the conclusion of the Battle of Britain was poetic:

"Never in the field of human conflict
was so much owed
by so many
to so few" 

I have deliberately broken his prose into poem-like lines, to emphasise the pauses he made between them, to great dramatic effect; an effect that embeds a message deep into our psyche, it sears the soul such that you could feel it in your guts.

The way in which he delivered his rallying speech to Parliament on 4th June 1940 ...

"We shall go on to the end. 
We shall fight in France, 
we shall fight on the seas and oceans, 
we shall fight with growing confidence 
and growing strength in the air, 
we shall defend our island, 
whatever the cost may be.
We shall fight on the beaches, 
we shall fight on the landing grounds, 
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, 
we shall fight in the hills;  ... 

... without doubt, embraces many facets of the poetic. It had such rhythm, even half rhymes and cadences, to say nothing of the way he used the repeated punchy phrase "we shall fight" and how the subtle stress on certain words, lingering on the vowels of certain key words and leaving short silences between lines built drama as the speech progressed to its conclusion.

... we shall never surrender."

Whatever your detractors may have said against you, Sir Winston, for the huge role you played, between 1940 and 1945, in helping a nation believe in itself again and that it could, nay, would prevail, I salute you.

* Armitage revealed the key elements of a good speech (and also a good poem), which were defined by one of the many people he interviewed during his documentary, Vincent Franklin, who played the blue sky thinking guru, Stuart Pearson, in the BBC's comic satire, "The Thick of It". Franklin is a speech writer in his other life. The three elements he revealed were based on the 'rhetoric strategies' of the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, which are also referred to as the 'modes of persuasion' that defined a great speech as one which had Logos (an appeal to logic and factual argument), Ethos (an appeal to the authority or trustworthiness of the speaker) and Pathos (having secured your audience's attention, this is the quality of the language, which drives the message home more powerfully than any other technique). The final speech presented by Armitage in the documentary is Martin Luther King Jnr's famous "I Have A Dream" speech, delivered to quarter of a million people from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963; a classic mood changing, history making speech if ever there was one.