Film

It's a Wonderful Life

What's your favourite film?

Maybe your have lots of movies you enjoy but if you were to choose just one... just one... what would it be?

Mine is a brilliant film called 'It's a Wonderful Life' and although it's often associated with Christmastime, and that's when it's usually broadcast on TV, I can enjoy it any time of the year, anytime of the day!

Why am I talking about this today? Well the film is one of the famous movies produced and directed by Frank Capra who was born on this day - May 18th - in 1897. 

Although born in Italy, like so many people who emigrated with their families to the USA when they were children, he lived the 'American Dream'. His was a real rags to riches story

During the 1930's, Frank Capra became one of America's most influential film directors. He won three Academy Awards for Best Director - he was nominated six times. And he won three other Oscars in other categories.  

If you know you're movie history you might recognise some of his iconic films - It Happened One Night (1934), You Can't Take It with You (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). After serving in the Second World War his career went into decline and his later films didn't perform so well.

And that includes It's a Wonderful Life which was released in 1946. However, over the years this film and others made by Frank Capra have come to define not just American movie history but the American dream itself.  And now It's a Wonderful Life is considered one of the greatest films of all time. In 1990, the film was designated as "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" and added to the USA's National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

In fact, Frank Capra himself said it was his favourite movie of all he had directed. James Stewart also claimed it as his favourite! I feel vindicated that I love it so much!

If you've never watched the movie, then you might want to give it a go. But if you don't want to know more, you best stop reading now because there are spoilers ahead!

Its a wonderful life May 18It's a Wonderful Life is a fantasy and it features an angel, so you have to suspend reality, but the moral of the film hits my heart every time.

The film is based on the short story and booklet entitled 'The Greatest Gift' which a chap called Philip Van Doren Stern self-published in 1943. There are also echoes of the 1843 Charles Dickens novella 'A Christmas Carol' which of course is also a bit of a fantasy, featuring as it does ghosts. Spirits who teach Ebenezer Scrooge some important life lessons.

And that's also the central theme of Capra's movie. The star of the film, James Stewart. plays George Bailey, a man who has spent his life in service to his family and his community, giving up his own personal dreams in the process. He reaches a crisis point and on Christmas Eve contemplates taking his own life because he comes to the conclusion that life for everyone around him would be much better if he had never been born.

Step in George's Guardian Angel - a character called Clarence Odbody - who attempts to show him that his life has NOT been worthless, and that he has touched the lives of so many others. He does this by showing George what life for his family and his community of Bedford Falls would have been life IF George had not been born. Clever.

If you fancy it, click on the link below to watch the uplifting end of the movie, when George's vision of life without him comes to an end and he is surrounded by the love he never appreciated or even thought he deserved.

And at the end of it all, he receives a gift from Clarence which is inscribed with this note ...

'Remember ... no man is a failure who has friends!'

It's a great lesson.

Truth be told, there have been times in my life when I've wondered why I'm here and whether my life has had any purpose. There have been moments when I think my life has been pretty worthless and I've questioned whether I've made a difference to the world. There have been episodes when I've queried my life choices and whether I could have done more.

But when I watch It's a Wonderful Life, I'm reminded that every action, every friendship, every episode in my life may have impacted others, and I hope it's for the positive rather than for the negative.

So today, although it's not Christmas ... here's the ending of that movie.

Enjoy! And be inspired not just by the film, but by the knowledge that every life has purpose. We can all make a difference even in small ways. 

And if we have love of family and friends... we are rich!

 


Count Your Blessings

Are you a sucker for old movies?

I am!

And I especially love the old Hollywood musicals! There was a time when you couldn't avoid them on the weekends on British TV. There were and still are my guilty pleasure.

The films were usually 'feel good' tales of love over adversity - boy meets girl, falls in love, something happens to come between them, then it all gets worked out and the love is back on - and usually packed full of great songs.

It was through the old movies on TV that I first heard the name Irving Berlin, the American composer, lyricist and songwriter who was born on this day in 1888. He's actually considered one of the greatest songwriters in American history and it's reckoned he penned around 1,500 songs, including many that have passed into musical folklore.

If you fancy being impressed, just check out the list of some of his songs here and you'll see they include classics like White Christmas , There's No Business Like Show Business, and even the song that has become an American anthem - God Bless America.

Born in Imperial Russia, Berlin arrived in the United States of America at the age of five. He was by all accounts a bit of a youthful musical prodigy. He was paid for his first song, Marie from Sunny Italy, in 1907 - he received 33 cents for the publishing rights. By 1911 he has his first major international hit, Alexander's Ragtime Band'.

Berlin's career spanned 60 years during which he wrote not just the songs, but the scores for 20 original Broadway shows and 15 original Hollywood films - hence my cosy weekend TV viewing. Berlin songs were nominated eight times for Academy Awards. 

Songs written by Irving Berlin have reached the top of the charts 25 times and proved popular not just to the musicians of his own time and those for whom he wrote some of the songs but loads and loads of other musicians and singers down the years who have recognised the beauty of his lyrics and tunes.

So, yes, numerous singers from Berlin's own era re-recorded his songs,  including Doris Day, Perry ComoAl JolsonFred Astaire, Judy Garland, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Frank SinatraDean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat King Cole.

But Berlin's songs have stood the test of time and have also proved popular in more recent times, being recorded by greats like Elvis Presley. Diana RossBarbra Streisand, Cher, Willie NelsonBob DylanLeonard Cohen, and contemporary 21st century stars like Michael BubleLady Gaga, and Christina Aguilera.

Count your blessings irving sheetBut to celebrate Irving Berlin's birthday today I'm going to turn to a little song of his that has always touched my heart.

It was included in the 1954 movie 'White Christmas', perhaps the most iconic Christmas movie of all time in my opinion. 

It's sung by two of the main characters in the film played by Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney, both of whom also recorded and had hits with other Berlin songs.

Blink and you may this one ... it appears to be just a simple tune with simple lyrics, but it's lovely...

It reminds us to remember how much we are blessed rather than fretting about any short-term problems that we might be facing.

It's a great message for us all - Count Your Blessings ...

As I was researching this thought today I discovered (from Wikipedia!) that this song actually arose from Irving Berlin's personal experience. He apparently was suffering from insomnia brought on by stress and his doctor suggested he try "counting his blessings" as a way to deal with it. I can certainly sympathise with the great songwriter on this one ... insomnia is something that I'm plagued with!

And although it appears to be just a little song, Count Your Blessings was nominated for an Oscar in the "Best Song" category at the Academy Awards, only to be pipped at the post by Three Coins in the Fountain from the movie of the same name ... another iconic film!

But maybe I'll come to that another day. Who knows?

 

 

 


A Literary Sensation

Have you ever had a day when you think 'I'd just like to get away from it all'.

That concept intrigues me, the idea of just going somewhere where I would be unknown, not surrounded by the stresses of life, perhaps completely on my own, starting a 'new life'.

Some people DO turn their back on their lives, there's evidence of that, just 'disappearing' from the radar, and sometimes that's down to fear, mental health challenges, or just extreme stress and sadness. I have actually met people who have done that and it is not a choice made lightly but often the result of great trauma. But my main concern if I were to do something so drastic would probably not be for myself but for those I leave behind, my family and loved ones, friends. Causing them pain, not knowing where I was or whether I was dead or alive, would be simply horrid and rather cruel.

This idea of being 'separated' from the world is one which lots of writers have been intrigued by down the centuries, and I'm included in that number.

And it all began really on this day - April 25th - in 1719, with the publication of a book which is reckoned to be the first 'English Novel', and it caused a sensation.

In fact, although it was fictional, readers were convinced it was a true account of a man who was shipwrecked on a desert island. 

Any idea what book I'm talking about?

Robinson Crusoe first editionWell, let me put you out of your misery - it was, of course, 'Robinson Crusoe' by Daniel Defoe.

Defoe was an interesting chap - not just a writer and journalist, but also a trader, pamphleteer and ... a spy! He was often in trouble with the authorities and even served time in prison because he wrote politic tracts, offering some new ideas about how the world should be. And some leaders and intellectuals did actually take notice of some of what he had to offer.

I think I first read an illustrated children's version of 'Robinson Crusoe' when I was quite young, but the full version is really interesting too, if a bit of a read! The central character is 'Robinson Kreutznaer' who spends 28years as a castaway on a remote desert island actually near the coasts of Venezuela and Trinidad. In the story he meets all sorts of adversities but one of the things that captured MY imagination was the way that, having landed on the island, he has to build a whole life for himself, including somewhere to live, learning how to fish and hunt and attempting to survive.

By the way, I'm also a bit of a fan of an old Disney film called 'Swiss Family Robinson' who are also castaway on a remote island after a shipwreck, and have to use their ingenuity to keep body and soul together. This is based on a book of the same name, a novel by the Swiss writer Johann David Wyss, first published in 1812. And I'm also a bit obsessed by a more modern movie featuring Tom Hanks - yes I'm talking about  'Castaway' which has all the same elements and is a little bit more realistic about the actual challenges of being stranded alone on a remote island. 

As I said before, when 'Robinson Crusoe' was first published, many readers believed he was a real person and the book was a true account of his life. But actually the story is thought to be based on the life of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish castaway who lived for four years on a Pacific island called "Más a Tierra" which is now part of Chile. The place was actually renamed Robinson Crusoe Island in 1966.

What's important to note though is that the book is not JUST about Robinson's time on the island. The narrative begins with his life before the shipwreck that leaves him stranded, and after his rescue, we learn about how his life unfolds after nearly three decades on that remote island.

This reminds me that sometimes we fixate on certain aspects of a person's life, without taking into account that perhaps that just reflects a very small proportion of what they have lived, what they have offered the world. We may condemn a person for an action long after they have been well rehabilitated, or after they have turned their back on their previous lives and made more positive choices than negative. We may applaud people for just one or two things they've done in their lives that have been brilliant and that has brought them publicity, and that's not a bad thing, but somehow we forget others who may spend their entire lives quietly 'doing good' for the rest of humanity. In our celebrity culture, there's a lot of that going on, isn't there? Our media puts people on a pedestal for things they have done, often for great wads of money or cynically for publicity purposes, and yet that might not be who they really are. 

Or maybe it is? Who knows?

It's certainly something to think about, isn't it?

Meanwhile, if you've never read 'Robinson Crusoe', may I recommend it? Because, if nothing else, it might inspire us if we DO decide to take ourselves off into the 'Nowhere' and have to fend for ourselves.

Happy Reading! 

 

(*image - 'Robinson Crusoe' first edition title page)

 


Happy Talk

I was listening to the radio the other day and heard a song which brought back so many memories.

First, this version of 'Happy Talk' was released in 1982, the year I left university and started work.  It was a time of great excitement and promise - my whole life lay ahead of me.

Second, it was sung by a chap called 'Captain Sensible' - it was an ironic pseudonym because he was far from 'sensible'. He was not just quirky but rebellious. He had set up the punk band 'The Damned' which had been one of the soundtracks to my late teens.  

South PacificAnd finally, this quirky song wasn't an original. It was actually a tune and a song from a brilliant musical, a stage show called 'South Pacific' which premiered on Broadway in New York 1949. In 1958 it was made into a movie of the same name and by the 1970s I was listening to the soundtrack and learning all the songs.

Interesting point here - we didn't have a 'South Pacific' LP or vinyl record. We actually had the movie sound track on a reel-to-reel audio tape recording which we played on a tape machine. So I listened to 'South Pacific' accompanied by the whirring sound of the tape running through the machine. Classic.

And I hadn't even seen the film! It was years later, maybe a few years after Captain Sensible sang that song that I would have hired a VHS from 'Blockbuster' ... the video hire shop. It's the way we got to see loads of movies at home at the time. 

 'Happy Talk' was always one of my favourites songs from the show - it's sung by the character Bloody Mary and that was the nearest I got to using a swearword when I was a child! I knew it off by heart, so when Captain Sensible appeared on BBC Top of the Pops - I could sing along.

And the words I loved the most?

You gotta have a dream, if you don't have a dream, How you gonna have a dream come true?
If you don't talk happy and you never have a dream, Then you'll never have a dream come true.

It's nearly 40 years since Captain Sensible released 'Happy Talk' and around 50 since I first learned those words. It still rings true for me. 

Be Happy. Talk Happy. Have a Dream! Or maybe ... more than one!

As I said before, in 1982 I was standing of the threshold of life and was at the start of my career as a journalist with all the excitement of what could be. Some of my dreams - personal and professional - have come to pass, others not. 

These days I'm nearer the end of my full-time working life but I'm still excited about what might be. Later this week I will start a new adventure, as I leave working for the BBC and go back to being a freelance writer/broadcaster/PR + communications 'guru'. More of that later !

And although it's a bit scary ... I'm excited.

And I have this song going round in my head. 

Which for me is a GOOD thing! It makes me smile!

 

 


The Bare Necessities

One of my jobs at BBC Radio Jersey is to co-ordinate and produce what we call the 'Morning Thought'.

It's broadcast at around 0640 every morning ... so it is a bit early for a lot of people ... but it is surprisingly popular, as anyone who has contributed to it may tell you. Many a vicar, church minister or leader or individual who's done a recording have told me that after their 'morning thoughts' have been transmitted they will get people saying 'heard you on the radio!'

Each 'thought' is only about two minutes in duration and it's just an uplifting thought to help ease people into the day. It's sometimes spiritual but not always. We feature people of different faiths, and topics like fair trade and peace, and charities who are maybe marking a significant anniversary or a special week. 

The contributors usually record in advance (rather than getting up at the crack of dawn) and since the start of the coronavirus lockdown, when the Radio Jersey studios have been closed, they've been unable to come in to record. But they've been wonderful because they've all learned to record at home on their phones and tech devices, and email the audio to me, after which I'm able to edit and make it ready for the Breakfast Show.

Why am I telling you this?

Well it's because on Monday this week, our morning thought was about the importance of friendship. And our contributor, a great guy called Graeme who leads a church in Jersey, started with one of my favourites songs from my childhood.

Back in the early 1970s I was at boarding school in Kenya. It was one of those schools that had 'houses', Everyone was in a 'house' and there was a system of rewards and punishment for good stuff, or bad things, we did. Points added to the house tally if you did something amazing, points deducted if you stepped out of line. So what you did wasn't just for YOUR own glory, but for the general benefit of the whole house. And if you stuffed up then it wasn't only YOU who suffered but all the other kids in your house. It helped to bond us together, and made us realise the need for corporate responsibility. Oh and of course, it helped to encourage us all to behave ourselves and it kept us all in line. 

If you know the Harry Potter books, you'll know all about this. 'Ten points to Gryffindor for...' or 'Twenty points taken away for...' 

At the end of the year at one particular school I attended, the house with the winning number of points got a treat ... a chance to see a movie!

I'm sure you get where I'm going with this now. One year my house won the house cup and we all sat down one afternoon to watch 'The Jungle Book' ... the animated movie which had been released just a few years earlier, in 1967. And yes, I really AM that old!

I loved it! I've seen it numerous times since that hot afternoon in the school hall, with black out curtains keeping the sunshine out, and I never tire of it. The tale of Mowgli, the little boy brought up in the wild with his band of animal friends. Based on the fabulous collection of stories by Rudyard Kipling, one of my favourite authors and poets!

As I said, for his Monday 'morning thought' for BBC Radio Jersey, our Graeme was thinking about friendship and he took as an example those friendships in 'The Jungle Book'.

And at the start of the piece he actually broke into song and gave us a little rendition of one of the most popular songs from the film - 'The Bare Necessities'.

It's a great tune with fantastic words. and it's sung by the big bear Baloo and Mowgli 

Look for the bare necessities
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife
I mean the bare necessities
That's why a bear can rest at ease
With just the bare necessities of life

It's hard to 'forget about your worries and your strife' I know, but actually there's something in this song about just trying to keep life simple.

But the real reason I'm talking about this is because ever since I heard Graeme singing that song on the recording emailed to me, it's been going around in my head, like an earworm. Now, don't get me wrong, it's not a bad song to have constantly in my brain, but I figure if I share it with you here then I might get it out of my system.

Or maybe not.

 

PS - if it's now in YOUR head, sorry. But hope you enjoyed it!


A Song for Friday

It's a Friday.

It's almost the end of February - my second month writing this blog.

I have to say sometimes - just sometimes - I've struggled to be inspired as to what to bring you.

Shall it be another diatribe based on something that happened 'On This Day in History'? Just something that popped into my head, a picture I've seen, a quote I adore?

Or in this case, a piece of music?

Little known fact ... unless you're me or a few people I know who've heard me go on about this endlessly ... one of my favourite stage shows is 'Les Misérables'.

When it first came to London's West End I heard the soundtrack, saw some reviews and was absolutely determined to see it live. I didn't live in London so every time I was visiting the UK capital, for whatever reason, I would try to get tickets. To no avail! 

One time I even queued for hours in the hope of getting some 'return' seats. Nothing!

In 1993 when I moved from Jersey to the UK, I was in a better position, and eventually, sometime down the line, I got my opportunity. Ticket in hand I found myself in the theatre.

Absolute Bliss!

It did not disappoint. Loved the songs, loved the staging, the characters. Everything.

And since then I've seen the show about seven times, including once at the Jersey Opera House, a most excellent amateur production a few years back by the Jersey Amateur Dramatic Club. They were amazing, and the best thing was a few of my friends were in the cast. Perfect.

Now, don't worry, I'm not going to go on endlessly about the show, or the film, or the (very long - five 'volumes') book that it's based on. I've read it by the way, and it's a classic!

But just to say, Victor Hugo, the French poet, novelist, and dramatist had started writing the tome in the 1840s but the book Les Misérables  wasn't published until 1862. It's based on events which had taken place around thirty years previously.

Hugo had apparently walked the streets of Paris during the June 1832 rebellion which is the culmination of the novel. He saw those barricades. But the novel - considered one of the greatest of the 19th century - is not just about the conflict and unrest in France over the decades preceding 1832. It's a narrative on poverty, and injustice, and social and class division. Its themes are philosophical as well as historical. 

Hugo was not just a writer but also a politician and he had very strong views on issues like social injustice, he was opposed to the death penalty and in favour of freedom of the press, among other things. And this, ultimately, got him into trouble.

When Louis Napoleon, Napoleon III, seized power in France in 1851, he established an anti-parliamentary constitution and when Hugo openly declared him a traitor the writer had to flee the country. He moved first to Brussels and then to Jersey.

Unfortunately he was expelled from this /my lovely island for supporting a local newspaper that had criticised the Queen of England, Queen Victoria. So Hugo moved just across the water to another Channel Island, to Guernsey, where he and his family settled at Hauteville House in St Peter Port. The writer lived in exile from October 1855 until 1870 - and by the way, you can visit the house even today to see how he lived.

It was while he was in Guernsey that Hugo created some of his best work, including completing Les Misérables. It delights me that this classic was written quite close to my home!

Anyway, back to the stage production. And all I'm going to do is share one of the fabulous songs from the show. Hard to choose, so many great tunes but this is one I've selected for you today, sung by the amazing Josh Groban.

Oh, and if you're wondering - I'm posting this today because Victor Hugo was born on this day - 26 February - in 1802.

 

 

 


Keep Looking Up

Wisdom comes in all shapes and sizes, but not always from holy scriptures or experts who have studied to PHD level or who have all the experience in the world.

So how about this for a thought for today?

 

Snoopy keep looking upProfound eh?

And that's from a dog!

The dog is Snoopy, and if you're not already aware of it, he's the companion of a certain Charlie Brown,  a little boy who is 'loveable loser'  - he's meek, not that self-confident and is of a nervous disposition. He's pessimistic quite a lot, but also sometimes optimistic. He worries about the day and all the things around him, and other times hopes for the best and tries desperately to make good things happen.

Charlie Brown is puzzled by Snoopy and some of the slightly weird things he gets up to, but he looks after him, and does his best to provide his dog with a happy life. And in response, Snoopy is always there for Charlie when he gets let down or needs support.

I've always felt a bit of an affinity with Charlie Brown, even though he isn't a real person, but a cartoon.

He's the central character of the Peanuts comic strip created by Charles M Schulz, who died on this day - February 12th - in the year 2000.

'Peanuts' had first appeared in print in USA newspapers on October 2, 1950. It shows the world of a group of young children. Adults are barely heard, but woven into the comic strips are some very adult themes like philosophy, psychology and sociology. There's some deep stuff in Peanuts and it's characters, even things that could be interpreted as 'spiritual' if not 'religious'.

Take this Snoopy quote for example - 'Keep Looking Up... that's the Secret of Life'.

Now, as a person of faith, what I get from those words is that I need to keep looking up to the Creator, for inspiration and motivation.

In the Old Testament in the Bible, in Psalm 121, we are encouraged to look up to God for all our needs. I particularly love the translation of this psalm from The Message translation:

I look up to the mountains;
    does my strength come from mountains?
No, my strength comes from God, who made heaven, and earth, and mountains

He won’t let you stumble, your Guardian God won’t fall asleep.
Not on your life! Israel’s Guardian will never doze or sleep

God’s your Guardian, right at your side to protect you—
Shielding you from sunstroke, sheltering you from moonstroke

God guards you from every evil, he guards your very life.
He guards you when you leave and when you return, he guards you now, he guards you always

Don't you love that? We're not on our own. We just need to look up, not to physical mountains, but even higher, to put our trust in God.

But the Snoopy quote an also be interpreted in a different way. If we are constantly looking DOWN, physically, we will never see the potential of what isn't yet here, what might be open to us. We will always be just concentrating on where we are, now, and not looking forward.

See what I mean? There are so many different ways of looking at life through the eyes of Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the rest of the gang. Maybe you may interpret this Snoopy Saying in a way that rings true with you and your life?

The final Peanuts comic strip was published on the day after Charles M Schulz died. On February 13th 2000 the 17,897th-and-last instalment appeared in newspapers around the world.

But that wasn't the end of Charlie Brown and his world. The comic strips live on, there are TV cartoons and movies, and images of him and his quotes and those of Snoopy and the other Peanuts kids all over the internet. They are icons of our time!

Hope charlie brown

We all need friends and we all need hope if we are to live life well. 

Charlie Brown had Snoopy ... who do you have?

And are you, like Charlie, always seeking the hopeful path? 

Are you looking UP or always looking down?

Maybe worth thinking about?


 


Groundhog Day

Do you have a favourite film? 

Or maybe you have a few movies that would be in your Top Ten? If you were making a list.

Are you an action movie fan, or a sci fi fanatic, or perhaps like me you prefer RomComs, a little light  romance and comedy? 

I have to admit, there are some movies that I can watch over and over and over and over and over... and not get bored. And one of those is linked to today.

February 2nd in North America - the USA and Canada - is Groundhog Day and I love the Bill Murray movie of the same name. More of that in a moment.

GroundhogBut first ... what IS a 'groundhog'

Well, it's a kind of rodent, and apparently belongs to the marmot or ground squirrel family. It's found in the USA, Canada and into Alaska. Among other characteristics, they have big teeth and they live in burrows. When fully grown a groundhog can be as long as 27inches (about 69cm) and can weigh as much as 14pounds (over 6kg). I've been doing my research and all I can say is, that groundhog is not a small squirrel!

One of the important things to know about the groundhog is that are hibernators. They often dig a separate 'winter burrow', which they build below the frost line, which means even when it's frozen up top, the animals can safely sleep away the winter months without fear of freezing to death. Usually, groundhogs hibernate from October to March or April, or thereabouts. 

And that's relevant to the tradition of Groundhog Day (the actual day) which apparently is an old superstition from the Pennsylvania Dutch community in America, which says that if a groundhog emerges early from it's burrow - on February 2 - then it can tell us if Spring is on its way.

So the legend goes, if the groundhog sees its shadow due to clear weather, it will quickly nip back into its burrow, and winter will go on for six more weeks. If, however, the animal does NOT see its shadow because it's too cloudy, Spring will arrive early!

All this predicting the weather is part of ancient 'weather lore' which is found in lots of cultures, including German speaking areas (and the Pennsylvania Dutch people come from Germanic-speaking areas of Europe) where the animal predicting the weather is usually a badger, but sometimes a bear or a fox.

And these weather lore predictions are also linked to the Christian festival of Candlemas, which we also celebrate today. Tradition has it that if the weather is clear on Candlemas, we're in for a long winter!

Now of course there's no scientific evidence for such weather predictions, but it's fun isn't it? 

In North America, February 2nd has taken on a special significance. Groundhog Day ceremonies happen on this day across the USA and Canada, but it's in a place called Punxsutawney in western Pennsylvania, that the most popular ceremony occurs, where the focus is a groundhog called 'Punxsutawney Phil'.

And that's the link to the 1993 movie that I mentioned at the start.

'Groundhog Day' starring Bill Murray and Andy MacDowell is largely located in Punxsutawney around the iconic ceremony and the film has not only helped to immortalise the seasonal celebration, but the concept of it has also added a new phrase to our dictionary.

If you haven't ever seen the movie then sorry for the spoiler. Bill Murray plays a cynical (and rather obnoxious) TV weatherman called Phil who is sent to cover the Groundhog Day ceremony, and then finds himself in a time loop through which he is forced to re-live February 2nd ... Groundhog Day ... over and over and over, until he becomes a better person. He learns to live each moment at a time, rather than always chasing ambition and celebrity.

As a result of the movie which was conceived, co-written and directed by Harold Ramis,  we now use the phrase 'Groundhog Day' for any situation which is monotonous, repetitive and even unpleasant and boring.

Since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, lots of us feel like we've been living Groundhog Day - don't we?

Working from home, staying in and not being able to go out and mingle with others, not being able to see family members - much of our time during 2020 and into 2021 has felt so repetitive and monotonous. I think 'Groundhog Day' is a great way of describing my pandemic experience.

But just as Weatherman Phil in the movie came out of his Groundhog Day a better person, so I believe we can emerge from the COVID19 experience improved and finer examples of humanity.

Early on in the pandemic, especially, we saw so many acts of kindness and caring. The Thursday 8pm 'Clap for Carers' which some are still doing as they Clap for their Heroes. People checking on their neighbours, delivering food and medicines, thinking of others. 

And although Covid fatigue might have stolen a little of that from us as the months have progressed, I believe this time has shown us what a kinder and more compassionate world can look like. 

I'd like to believe that a memory of that kindness might be part of the legacy of our Pandemic Groundhog Day, along with the realisation that life is short and that, no matter how much status and money and position and ambition we chase, perhaps we just need to take more time to breathe, to enjoy our environment and the beauty of the world around us, to appreciate our loved ones more, and maybe even take pleasure in the simple things - like a walk on a Spring morning - no matter when that might be.

 

 


Telling Tales

When I was a child living in Kenya, I attended boarding school. My family lived on a remote farm, so for years until a school was built nearby, I was away from home during term time, living at school, sleeping in a dormitory with a dozen other girls.

There wasn't much in the way of entertainment, and quite early on I discovered I had a bit of a talent for story telling. Not reading from a book, but just making up stories as I went along. Most evenings after Lights Out and the matron had completed her rounds, the question would come from another girl in the dorm and I would start imagining and talking. Lying there in the dark making up tales. I'm sure most of the girls fell asleep to my stories, and sometimes I remember being so sleepy myself that my stories would mix with my dreams.

There's something magical about just making stuff up ... and going with the flow. Some of the children in my life (now grown up) also remember Aunty Cathy's stories. In fact, they remember them better than I do.

I have been a lot of things in my life, but if I'm honest I consider myself, first and foremost, a storyteller. Even as a broadcaster, a journalist and reporter, I think my best work has also been the telling of other people's stories.

And I'm intrigued by other storytellers.

It was on this day - February 1st in 1851 - that one supreme storyteller died.

Her name was Mary Shelley, and many of you will be aware that she is best known for her really spooky story -  Frankenstein.

It's a tale we think we all know. If not from reading the book, then maybe by television and film adaptations of the story of the monster, Frankenstein, made from bits of other humans.

Ah ---- NO!

Stop there.

Actually, the monster doesn't have a name. He is just 'the Creature'. It is his creator, a young scientist, who is called Victor Frankenstein. In an unorthodox scientific experiment, he manages to make a living breathing creature. The story is considered to be an early example of science fiction.

Mary Shelley had grown up in a literary and political family and was rather unorthodox herself. Her mother was the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, who died barely a month after giving birth to her daughter. Mary Godwin, as she was known, was just around 17 when she fell in love with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. He was already married but they took up together and travelled through Europe. Mary eventually fell pregnant and over the next few years the couple were ostracised by society and fell into debt. After the death of their daughter, who was born premature, Mary suffered her first bout of depression. Eventually she gave birth to a son and was pregnant with another child when she finally married Shelley in late December 1816, not more than a couple of weeks after Percy's wife Harriet had committed suicide.

As I said - unorthodox!

But back to earlier in 1816. In May of that year Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley and their infant son travelled to Geneva in Switzerland, with Mary's stepsister, Claire Clairmont. There they planned to spend the summer with the poet Lord Byron, who had recently had an affair with Claire, who was  pregnant. It was a wet summer and the group spent their time writing, boating on the lake and talking and storytelling late into the night. 

One evening, as they sat around a log fire at Byron's summer villa, they told German ghost stories and Lord Byron suggested that they all try to write a ghost story.

Mary later wrote that she had no ideas, and was getting a bit anxious because this became a bit of an obsession with the rest of the group, who were constantly asking her if she'd come up with a story.

It was in mid-June that the germ of an idea began to grow. The group had been talking about life, and the principle of human existence. The idea that, somehow, a corpse could be brought back to life, began to take shape in Mary's mind that evening. Her ghost story, of the monster created by Victor Frankenstein, grew overnight in her imagination.

She put pen to paper, assuming it would be a short story. But it became more and with Percy's encouragement,  Mary produced her first novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.

Mary was just 18 when she wrote the story, and it was published anonymously in London on 1 January 1818. Initially some believed Percy to be the author, because he wrote the foreword. But Mary's name appeared for the first time on the second edition which was published in Paris in 1821.

Over the years there has been much debate over the origins of Frankenstein, and the part Percy Shelley may have played in its development, if not its creation. But Mary went on to prove her talent. She penned other novels and biographies, worked as an editor and writer, while living an exceptional unconventional life.

Hers was a life of genius and strong belief. She had inherited her mother's feminist views and she defied many of the social conventions of her day to the point of scandal. And her life was marred by  tragedy - the loss of two more children including that baby boy who was with his parents in Geneva in 1816 and the death by drowning of her husband in 1822. Later in life she was the victim of blackmailers, she survived bouts of severe depression and ill-health and often suffered precarious finances.

Her own story is one worthy or re-telling, and today we still remember her, and particularly her most famous story.

Now that's a legacy. And THAT's a Storyteller par excellence!


Pride and Prejudice

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” 

That's the iconic opening line of a very famous novel.

Any idea?

Of course, it's 'Pride and Prejudice' penned by the incredible Jane Austen and it's one of my favourite novels.

It was published on January 29th 1813.

Why do I love it? Well, if I had time I'd write you a dissertation, but I haven't so I'll make just a few points.

I'm aware that many people HAVE written dissertations and tomes about this subject and I won't try to come close to all that knowledge but just give you my impressions, as a reader.

If this makes no sense to you at all then you might have to read the book!

'Pride and Prejudice' is a great read for a history lover, and a would be 'time traveller' like myself. The book is described as a 'novel of manners' - Austen is recreating the social world of her time, and she was obviously someone who really took in everything that was going on around her. People and their quirks, the manners and conventions of her time, the values of her community and class. And she is able to convey this in such detail, I just feel I'm there. At the parties, in the drawing rooms, listening in to the conversations with the author.

As a writer and a journalist, I know how important it is keep my ears and eyes open and to observe the world around me. Yes, I am one of those who keeps a notebook, noticing quirky things about the people I meet and see, and one day you all might end up in a novel of my own, in some disguised form. I am a would-be Jane Austen in this respect.

Second, Elizabeth Bennet, Austen's main character. What a woman! I think she's feisty and funny, quite brave and given half a chance, independent.

It's easy for those of us today, in the 21st century, to try to project our own sensibilities and cultural norms on people who lived in the past, but if we do that we maybe miss what novels like 'Pride and Prejudice' may have to say to us and what we might learn about the past through them.

Today, the idea that a woman can't be a real woman unless she has a husband is frankly ridiculous, so it's really interesting to immerse myself in that strange time. However, I am aware that although they might not say it out loud, there  may still be those in OUR culture who, if they were pushed on this point, might secretly not think much of single women and might actually believe that they'd be better off with a man. So maybe our time has more in common with Austen's day?

In the person of Elizabeth we see someone who is trying to defy the conventions of her time, someone who is not entirely happy with what society expects of her when it comes to behaviour. But Elizabeth does have to behave largely in a conventional manner and not upset TOO many people otherwise life would be unbearable for her. Of course, we are aware of some of that inner defiance as the reader, but what I really love is the words that Austen put's in Elizabeth's mouth, which helps her to express some of the frustrations.

Just imagine ... a man who you can't abide and hasn't really shown the slightest interest in you, ups and tells you that, against his better judgement because he knows you're socially beneath him, he is in love with you and wants to marry you.

I know what I'd do. I'll tell him to ... well you know.

But if Elizabeth was overtly rude that would be unacceptable to early 19th century sensibilities, so Austen has her being clever with her words.

"From the very beginning—from the first moment, I may almost say—of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish distain of the feelings of others, were such as to form the groundwork of the disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world on whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”

How excellent is that?

And the third reason I love 'Pride and Prejudice'? 

Well it has to be Mr Darcy.

Now I have to admit, this might have something to do with the TV drama first shown back in 1995 which had Colin Firth in the role of Mr Darcy ... at the time loads of my friends, and myself, were secretly in love with the character. 

But I read the book many years before I saw a TV drama or movie based on Jane Austen's 1813 novel and Mr Darcy was already a favourite literary character of mine.

Yes he was a snob, and rather rude, but of course we pretty much see him through Elizabeth's eyes and narration, so the characterisation is maybe a bit one-sided. But as the novel progresses, we see aspects of kindness and loyalty and yes, romance. For a reader like me in a world where the idea of 'courtly love' is no more, I freely admit Mr Darcy has his attractions. If only as a dream.

When Jane Austen published her novel this day in 1813 I wonder if she imagined that, 200 years down the line, we would be picking her work apart and still enjoying her characters and story.

And one final thought.

The book was originally to have been called 'First Impressions'. Much of the tension of the novel is based on those first impressions that Elizabeth had of Mr Darcy and vice versa, and the story is, among other things, about how the main characters have to overcome their snobbery and pride (Mr Darcy) and their inverted snobbery or prejudice (Elizabeth).

It was only when I learnt more about Jane Austen's life and work that I heard about that alternate title to one of my favourite novels. And it's a lesson to me. Not to jump to conclusions about people, based on the first impression.

How people speak, what they look like, what they are wearing, where they live, what job they have. This should all be less important than their values, their sense of humour and other traits which show us their personality and character.

But of course, we DO often make judgements based on the superficial first impression. And sometimes we, like Elizabeth and Mr Darcy, have to admit that we were wrong, and need to unravel the misconceptions and begin to form relationships with those who we may have thought we would never be able to connect with.

For me, that is a lesson in life, not just in literature.