Monday, October 28, 2013

The little grey cells in action . . .

Tell me, were I to offer you a name, the name of 'Hercule Poirot', what would come into your mind?
Would it be a small, dapper figure with a waxed moustache . . . Agatha Christie's Belgium detective as portrayed, for so many years, by David Suchet?
We are all familiar with the mannered walk, the impeccable attire, the courteous doff of the hat.  But what is it, in particular, that embodies this interpretation of Poirot?

In an absorbing interview, given at the launch of a new series, David Suchet contended that personality is embodied not in appearance, but in the sound we make . . . hence 'personality', which stems from its Latin root, 'per sona'.  We are 'our sound', and it is this unique, instantly recognisable sound which carries within it our inner essence.  By this understanding, it is not the physical image, but the clipped tones, distinctive accent and modulated delivery that constitute the essence of an unforgetable Hercule Poirot.

David Suchet's comments caused me to ponder and realise how much we react to sound rather than words.  Wouldn't you agree that whilst our minds react to the information in the words we hear, our emotions respond to the truth contained in the sound.  If the speaker's tone runs counter to the words being spoken, you'll ignore the import of the words and place your trust in the tone.

Nor is it just the sound of the voice.  I'm sure you've noticed how film-makers use their knowledge of sound to skilfully manipulate our feelings.

A person walks into shot and immediately you know you are encountering one of the 'bad guys'.  How do you know this?  It's the music that tells you. To make certain that you are not led astray by any fanciful notions of your own, the music anticipates every turn of the plot with appropriate under-scoring, and never fails to pull out the sweeping strings for an orchestrated happy ending.  Words are superfluous . . . the background music is a wholly reliable narrator.

In his recent, absorbing radio series entitled 'The Science of Music', Robert Winston explored this subject from a scientific viewpoint . . . successfully proving that the sound of music plays a much larger part in our lives that I'd ever imagined.

Music, it would seem, is the universal language.  Voiced by every aspect of creation, it is found everywhere.  I hadn't realised, had you, that there is no region of the world where music is not an inseparable aspect of human existence?

Not only, as we've seen, does it activate our emotions, but it also forms the essence of communication.  We convince ourselves that words are all-important, that language dominates.  Don't you believe it . . . our larynx, it appears, was designed to produce far more subtle sounds than those needed for speech.

Could it be recognition of the communication and unity achieved by sound that has given rise to the recent popularity of choral singing?

According to a scientific study, members of a choir not only breathe together, but their hearts beat in unison . . . physical  bodies, it seems, can be woven by music into choral coherence.

Whether it be the tone of the voice or the music of the spheres, sound both unites and informs.  It is common to all of us . . . and, as we now know,  it is one of many mysteries effectively solved by the little grey cells of Hercule Poirot!

Monday, October 21, 2013

A message on the wall . . .

I wonder, do we affect the world around us more profoundly than we realise?

This thought came to mind the other day after I'd been chatting to a friend.  She had, so she told me, just spent a peaceful ten minutes seated in our local church.  It had been quiet and restful . . . it had helped her to make sense of her rather hectic life.  Churches, we both agreed, provide the ideal beneficial space for reflection.

I was pondering on our conversation afterwards.  Why, I wondered, should churches offer this sustenance?
It can't just be the quiet of a large, empty building . . . a large, empty warehouse is unlikely to provide the same benefit.  It can't be the chance of meeting someone for a chat . . . on the contrary, another person moving around in the church can be a distraction.

No, this sense of strength, support and companionship resonates from within the empty building itself.  It descends on you as you settle comfortably in a pew, it envelops you as you lean back and start to relax . . . it was there before you arrived and it will remain there long after you've risen to your feet and gone on your way.

True, there's the pervasive essence of the divine . . . there might even be visiting angels . . . but there's more to it than that.
Could it be that we are tapping into the intensity of worship and music that has, over the years, seeped into the fabric of the building?  There are similarities to visiting a library and taking a book down from a shelf, only in this instance the support is available just by sitting quietly in a pew and absorbing what's there. You are not alone with your thoughts, you are at one with a myriad thoughts and melodies that have accumulated over the centuries.

I'm sure this experience is familiar to you.  And would you agree that whilst it's our finer qualities that have seeped into the walls of churches, our negative emotions are equally capable of making their impact elsewhere?

Many years ago, I was working with a camera crew inside the Old Bailey.  We were shooting a feature film, and I needed an office on location.  The only quiet space available for me was the cramped, claustrophobic cell below the courtroom.  The cell from which the prisoner ascends directly into the dock.

Never, before or since, have I felt more ill as ease . . .  or been in conditions more redolent of misery and anger.  What was more, it seemed to have become a longstanding tradition for each prisoner to record the nature of their charge on the walls of the cell.  In scrawled lettering, some faded, some recent, words such as 'murder', 'rape', 'assault' and 'arson' cried out for attention.
You could feel the anger, the violence and the despair in the handwriting . . . the fear was palpable.

It may be different now  . .  who knows, they may have scrubbed the writing from the walls.  Nonetheless, one thing is certain, no amount of soap and water could eradicate the misery that permeated that stonework.
I know . . . I worked there.

Which brings us back to our original question, could it be that our emotions, albeit unvoiced, permeate the physical world around us?
If so, a further question presents itself . . . a personal question.

Emotion, or 'energy-in-motion' as the word implies, is part of our being.  It's the part that we are constantly giving away . . . our responsibility.

Just think of it . . .  at any given moment, you and I and everyone else are packaging up our emotions and leaving them embedded in our environment as offerings to the future.

So, what's the message that I'm posting on the walls of my flat as I sit here writing this morning?

It's nothing complicated . . .   it's just gratitude.
Gratitude for the pleasure of being able to share these thoughts with you . . . and let's talk about those angels some time in the future!

Monday, October 14, 2013

A blip for a Therapy Cat

It had to happen, Chloe's career as a Therapy Cat had to experience a blip . . . and, sad to say, it happened this week.
As you've heard all about the 'ups', I suppose I shouldn't keep quiet about the 'downs'.

Chloe has established a regular routine at the nursing home.  Not only does she know exactly where to go, which rooms to enter and which to hurry past, but, in each of the rooms she visits she has a chosen place to position herself.  In one room it's a purple chair . . . in another a green stool . . . each position chosen so that the patient she's visiting can fully appreciate just what a good little girl she is.

If  only Chloe were half as good at home as she is at the nursing home . . . but that's another story.

Last week we arrived to discover that there was a new patient on our list . . . Monica had moved in and had expressed a desire to meet the visiting cat.

The introductory meeting went off without a hitch.  Monica fell for Chloe who, in turn, was intrigued by Monica's highly decorative wooden duck.
Once Chloe had established her chosen position in this new room, there appeared to be no reason why everything shouldn't go smoothly.

As we entered Monica's room the following week I noticed that Chloe's new friend was looking rather excited.  She was clutching her handbag and eyeing us eagerly.
"I've a present for Chloe!" she announced.
After some brief fumbling in her bag, her frail hand drew out a small packet of cat-food . . . a gift that she must have asked one of the nursing staff to obtain for her.

Monica was eager and excited.  I was deeply touched.
But there was one imponderable in this otherwise happy scenario . . . how would Chloe react?

I knew Chloe . . . and it was here that my heart sank.  Whilst trying hard to look appreciative, I was worried.  Chloe is a fussy little so-and-so when it comes to her food.  Monica had been to a lot of trouble to get this gift.  What if Chloe failed to give it the enthusiastic reception it deserved?
No . . . it was a gamble I wasn't willing to take.

"How kind of you," I enthused, hurriedly reaching for the packet, "I'm afraid Chloe's not allowed to eat when she goes out.  We'll take it home with us . . . it will be a real treat for her lunch."

But my words fell on deaf ears.  Monica was already opening the drawer of her bedside table and reaching for a pair of scissors.  Egged on by a highly expectant Chloe, she snipped the top off the packet and tipped some of the contents onto the table.

Chloe sniffed eagerly, then, all too visibly, her face fell . . . it wasn't her favourite, fresh chicken breast . . .  it wasn't even her favourite dried cat food . . . registering total disinterest, she jumped to the floor.
Poor Monica was clearly shaken.

"There, you see . . . " I burst out, "just as I told you.  She knows she isn't allowed to eat when she goes out.  It's a shame, but she's a very obedient cat."
The 'very obedient cat' looked at me, slightly surprised at this unexpected commendation.
"I'll take it home," I insisted, shovelling the granules of rejected food back into the sachet, "she'll love having it for lunch."
I wasn't at all sure that Monica believed me.

There was only one thing to be done to try to save the situation.
Once safely home, I took out Chloe's feeding bowl.  Into it I put some of her favourite dried cat food, beside the bowl I placed the packet so kindly given to her by Monica . . . I then took out my camera.

Will Monica be fooled when I give her this photo next week?  I do hope so . . . it was such a kind and generous thought.
Let's hope that she doesn't examine the picture too closely and notice that the granules of Chloe's favourite cat food are slightly smaller than those squeezed out of the packet . . . a packet that was subsequently much enjoyed by the cat next door!

A blip in Chloe's unclouded record?  I'm afraid so.  But, knowing Chloe, I'm confident she'll now revert to being a wholly reliable and angelic Therapy Cat!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Round about time . . .

Here's a question for you  . . . what dominates our lives and forms the very structure of our history?

Yes, I know, it's not a difficult question . . . the answer, as you've guessed, is 'time'.

But when it comes to the deeper question of what is time, may I share the findings of a fascinating article in 'Animal Behaviour'.  They don't provide an answer, but they certainly make the question even more intriguingly complex.

Did you know, I didn't, that time is governed by the size of the creature concerned?
For smaller animals, so this article tells us, time passes in slow motion.  For insects that means very slow motion.  According to one of the contributors,  Kevin Healy of Trinity College, Dublin, 'the ability to perceive time on very small scales may be the difference between life and death for fast-moving organisms such as predators and their prey'.

If you think about this for a moment, it makes perfect sense.  It means that a mouse in the jungle, living, as it does, in a much slower time cycle than that, say, of an elephant, has an abundance of time in which to stretch itself, consider its options, and then saunter out of the way before a herd of elephants comes trampling through the undergrowth.

It also explains the difficulty we have in swatting flies . . . given its reduced time scale, a fly has ample time in which to note the approaching threat and make a speedy departure.
'Flies,' writes Graeme Ruxton of St. Andrews, Scotland, 'might not be deep thinkers, but they can make good decisions very quickly'.

Sitting in the garden yesterday, this article came to mind.
It was a lovely afternoon, the sun was shining and Chloe and I were enjoying ourselves . . . it was far too good to return indoors.
Instead, scuffing our way through the fallen leaves and conkers, we settled on a seat under a large chestnut tree.  I relaxed and Chloe paid casual attention to a large fly resting on a nearby leaf.

It struck me, sitting there, basking in the autumn sunshine, that not only do time scales differ according to the size of the organism, but the time scale for each of our lives is equally variable.

Fifteen minutes of my life had slipped away pleasantly, sitting there under the tree . . . for Chloe, intent on the fly, it had been the equivalent of a few hours . . . for the fly, it had amounted to at least a month . . . whereas for the chestnut tree that shaded us, a tree that had witnessed centuries of change below its outspread branches, my fifteen minutes could be translated into no more than a few seconds of the time it would spend rooted to this earth.

As for the conkers on the ground, they held time in potential.  A potential which, if they ended up crunched beneath our feet, would never be realised.

We were all there together, all appreciating the garden in our different ways . . . but each of us inhabiting a totally different time scale.

So . . . what is time?
The only certainty is that it would take vastly different time scales for the tree, the fly, the conkers, Chloe or me to consider that question.

Mind you, that article has been of definite help to Chloe.

Each morning, as I prepare her breakfast, she waits, hungry and hopeful, beside me.  What I hadn't appreciated is, that by a cat's time scale, this preparation takes not a matter of speedy seconds, but of interminable, anxious, hours.

I'm sorry, Chloe, I'll try to be quicker tomorrow . . . I promise . . .

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Out Of Step

I lean upon my spade and think it wrong
That worms should suffer in the thrush's beak.
I lean against the garden wall and seek
Some explanation why the thrush's song
Should be curtailed by cats;  and why the strong
And powerful prey upon the helpless weak.
If God declared his kingdom for the meek
All creatures are entitled to belong.
I lean upon my elbows in the sun
And watch the ceaseless action of a bee,
And all at once perceive that everyone
Performs his part in life's activity.
Worms do not question how the world is run - 
The only creature out of step is me.