I’ve long loved the drawings of John Vernon Lord, whose children’s book The Giant Jam Sandwich was a great favourite. Decades on, his instagram page brings endless amusement and joy. On Vernon Lord posting a picture of his cluttered desk, a tutor from Cambridge School of Art replies: “Chaos breeds life, where order breeds habit….discuss.”
You’ll find the word “mad” in each of Shakespeare’s plays both in the sense of insane, and anger. Shakespeare has mad devils, days, dogs and fellows; mad jealousy, idolatry and thoughts; mad souls, sisters, wags and wenches; mad kings, knaves, lords and lads. Pitifully, Lear cries: “O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven… I would not be mad!”
In New Mexico, in 1932, Carl Jung asked the Native American chief Mountain Lake what he thought of conquering Europeans. ‘The whites always want something. They are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want. We do not understand them. We think that they are all mad.’
“Indian faith sought the harmony of man with his surroundings; the other sought the dominance of surroundings…For [the Indian] the world was full of beauty, for [the White man] it was a place of sin and ugliness to be endured until he went to another world.” So wrote Chief Luther Standing Bear.
In Lear the king’s fool says “The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long, / That it’s had it head bit off by it young.” (sic) It’s taken from Aesop’s fable of the lazy cuckoo who let a hedge-sparrow hatch and rear her young, only to complain to an Owl when the young flew off without acknowledging the cuckoo.
Fascinated by the image, I Google it. And am shocked. A tiny hedge sparrow is dutifully feeding a massive ‘baby’ cuckoo five times its size, having being duped into thinking it’s the larger bird’s mother. A good metaphor for society at large. The rich exploiting the poor.
Pandemic legacies include higher unemployment and greater gender disparity. Decades of hard-won gains and initiatives are being eradicated. While rich nations save their own and grow their economies at ever greater speed (destroying the planet in the process), it’s estimated poor countries will be able to vaccinate one in 10 people during 2021.
A landlord in the Bronx showing prospective immigrant Jewish renters an apartment boasts that it’s a really good neighbourhood. “What’s more, there are no Jews.” Rightly proud of their Jewish ancestry, Mr and Mrs Menuhin resolve to call their only son Yehudi – “The Jew”.
Maestro violinist and teacher, Yehudi Menuhin was also a philosopher, humanitarian and great defender of human rights. On one flight in the 1970s, scribbling away on a sick bag, he announced before landing he had found a solution to the Irish Troubles. How bitterly ironic one of his sons is a vocal holocaust denier, pro-Hitler, extreme anti-semite.
Sadly I’m not in Edinburgh today joining all the women in the block of flats where my mother lived to celebrate Betty’s birthday. Betty is 91, a wonderful example of how to live life to the full, giving and surrounded by love, generosity, good food and drink. A highlight of my recent trip was watching Betty bowling!
The garden did not look happy on my return. Parched and overgrown, it might win prizes for weeds, but not apples, aubergines or courgettes. Last year I harvested kilos of almonds; this year there’s not a single nut. Figs aren’t ripening, cherry and plum trees are barren, dying.
The visionary genius John Logie Baird’s career knew the occasional high and several crashing lows. He invented a thermal sock, rust-resistant glass razor (which shattered) and pneumatic shoes (they burst. But did later inspired Doc Marten’s Air Wear soles). At college, when he tried to turn graphite into diamond using electricity, he shorted Glasgow’s electricity supply.
Hoping fresh sea air would improve his health, John Logie Baird moved to Hastings. He rented a workshop where, out of an old hatbox, pair of scissors, darning needles, bicycle light lenses, a used tea chest, sealing wax and glue, he built what became the world’s first working television set.
My inbox is filling up with emails from the university where I’m about to embark on a PhD announcing guest lecturers, theatre trips, drinks parties. There are also emails confirming appointments with an incredibly exciting roll call of theatre-makers and academics happy to talk to me about King Lear.
Picture a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. And 100 child refugees performing King Lear on a rocky patch of earth. A king announces his intention to divide his kingdom. His elder daughters, wearing paper crowns and plastic jewellery, shower him with false praise. The youngest child, speaking the truth, loses her inheritance.
Nawwar Bulbul, an actor-director from Homs, set out to show how theatre can “bring back laughter, joy, and humanity: I took only the roots of the story – a dying king, three daughters …When Lear’s older daughters flatter him in elegant, formal Arabic, chorus members yelled Liar! Hypocrite! Lear’s youngest, refusing to follow suit, elicited shouts of Truthful! Just!”
Zaatari refugee camp is “home” to c. 60,000 children. Those who took part in Lear are young – not yet 15. “The play brought joy to all of us. We needed that,” a 13-year-old says. Having fled unimaginable horrors, death, humiliation and destruction in Syria, the children say the play taught them to control their anger, taught them about the violent and destructive consequences of seeking revenge.
Packing cases. “No chance of a recovery” the email said, so I brought a suitcase of black clothes. Once again though, my mother made a miraculous recovery. Back in her care home, confined to her room, smiling, my mother waves and blows kisses to me through the window.
I doubt I’ll see my mother alive again. Frail, she tries to get up and hug me, forgets she can’t. It’s only a matter of time before another fall. I stand in the garden, waving, tears unchecked. I prefer this older, gentler mother, the mother softened by dementia, the parent able to speak the words long held in check.
In the flats where my mother lived, people recall the stick brought raining down in confusion and anger, remember the verbal abuse. The police often came to her door. The same dementia that enables her to tell me how much she loves and admires me, could equally manifest itself as diabolic rage.