Sunday, 3 April 2016




A poem about some of the beautiful roses in the garden at Sissinghurst and a tribute to Vita Sackville-West.

Pauls' Lemon Pillar clambers upwards,
soft straw clustered sweet illusions,
yellowed bursting outskirts whisper wistful regrets.
Blush Damask, of silky youth
and inexplicable associations,
flushed ,engorged, suffused, stumbles into intimacy.
Golden Wings of yellow cups
cradling stamens of burnished henna,
celestial urchins, inveigle sweet liaison.
Brazen crimson Dusky Maiden,
self-possessed dramatic passion,
incants euphoric restitution.
Vita, you linger here
among the heady scents and joyous blooms,
reflections of your being.

Friday, 13 February 2015

The Funeral of King Sobhuza

It was a cloudy cool morning on the day of King Sobhuza's funeral, the 3rd of September 1982. As the grey light of dawn appeared, we woke to the eerie sound of chanting as the warriors marched up the hill from the Royal Kraal, towards the valley previously used as a football stadium, where the funeral was to take place. Out of the mist they came, dressed in traditional striped loin cloths with skins around their waists, armbands and necklaces contrasting with their bare chests. As they marched they beat their wooden spears on the ground to accompany their rhythmic chanting.

King Sobhuza had been greatly revered. He was the longest known reigning monarch in Africa having come to the throne 61 years previously. He died in his royal palace at the age of 82 surrounded by his retinue. Despite converting to Christianity, the King persisted in observing traditional customs, one of which was to take a new wife every year. This event took place at a colourful ceremony called the Reed Dance where all the local young women danced in traditional costume, bare bosomed for the King's pleasure. As a result, he had more than 60 wives and hundreds of children.

The whole country went into mourning. All the women made a knotted cord belt which was worn as a symbol of their grief. The women living at the Royal Kraal were forbidden to see any male during the strict observation of mourning. Arrangements were made, for instance, that if any medical care was required, only female nurses or doctors would be permitted to attend.

While  I lived in Swaziland, I had joined a choir of European singers, mostly people like myself who were on short term contracts working for various organisations, though there were also some permanent residents. We were very amateur, but enthusiastic, and had performed Mozart's requiem in the Cathedral in Mbabane ( the capital city) not long before. We were amazed to be invited to sing at the funeral. Apparently King Sobhuza very much loved Handel's Hallelujah chorus and wanted it to be sung. There would also be other local choirs singing hymns and traditional songs. We practised in the short time available and awaited the day in trepidation.

We wore our normal choir costume on the day; the men in black suits and white shirts, the women in black skirts and white blouses. We arrived at the venue and were ushered to some tiered seating close to the central area where the King's casket would be displayed. To our right, another tiered seating area housed many African dignitaries including Piet Botha of South Africa, who must have been somewhat disconcerted to find himself seated near Oliver Tambo, the exiled president of the banned African National Congress. Prince Michael of Kent represented Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and I believe that there were delegates from 24 countries present.

The body of the King was carried to a central dais and the wooden casket was covered by flags. His body was said to be embalmed and was in the sitting position. Some caught a glimpse of him as the casket had a glass side and the flags lifted briefly in the breeze. He would later be taken to a secret location high in the  mountains where his body would be left in a cave, known only to the guards and shepherds. As far as I know, these sacred caves continue to be guarded 24hours a day.

The funeral began with the Swazi National anthem. More than 20,000 people were gathered and the warriors kept up a low wailing sound punctuated by whistles. The Queen Regent, known as Indlovukazi ( Great She Elephant) arrived along with a multitude of the king's wives and children. She was barefoot, as were all the women, wearing animal skins and a headband with a scarlet feather, symbol of the Royal clan. We stood out in a group during the grieving family's arrival and sang the Hallelujah chorus, accompanied by a rather tinny keyboard. It was difficult to make the sound carry as there was a breeze and we had no amplification.

The Queen Regent was one of his senior wives and had a boy aged about 11. There was no clear order of succession as we would expect from European monarchies, but there was a rule that the new king should be an only child. and so her only son would take the throne once his education was complete.

During the ceremony, a band formed from the ranks of the police and army played and a respected Swazi choir sang hymns. The only two planes of the Swazi Air Force flew over.

A mausoleum has been built at the site of the dais where King Sobhuza was displayed during the funeral and a small museum and cultural centre open to foreign visitors provides a tribute to this man's long reign. He had ruled with the knowledge that he was respected, and lived a simple life. At that time in the 1980's, though there was poverty, the country remained politically stable under his beneficent rule.
To attend his funeral was a very great honour and I hope one day, to revisit Swaziland and see the exhibition depicting King Sobhuza's life.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Christmas Island - where Australia detains immigrant children

Christmas Island is marketed as an exotic holiday location, where you can watch the extraordinary red crab migration, enjoy scuba diving, nature walks, fishing and beautiful beaches. What the average tourist is not aware of is the large immigration detention centre on the island. In fact, there are five compounds on the island, one of which is primarily  used for unaccompanied minors, others house families and the more secure for adult males.

There has been recent outcry in Australia regarding the conditions that children, in particular, are held under. At the end of July 2014,the Australia Human Rights Commission reported  that nearly all the 174 children held on Christmas Island were sick, depressed, self-harming, having nightmares, bedwetting and wandering aimlessly behind barbed wire. Evidence submitted by Dr Peter Young(former medical director for mental health at IHMS) to the government enquiry ,brought shocked reactions as he described the detention environment as "inherently toxic" and "akin to torture". Medical care was inadequate with no fulltime child psychiatrist in attendance. There were few toys and no books and poor educational provision.

Immigrant mothers of infants born on Australian soil have been moved to Christmas Island, often in the middle of the night, while lengthy legal processes determine the right or otherwise of the newborn to naturalisation. A number of these young women have threatened suicide because of the intolerable conditions in which they and their babies are held. In July of this year, it is reported that 14 young women were on 24hr suicide watch and assessment of a number of them determined that they were seriously depressed. One was removed to Perth for urgent treatment , and returned to the detention centre  against the advice of mental health professionals.

It is even more shocking to hear that the greatest percentage of self-harm and suicidal behaviour was exhibited by the children in detention. There were 128 reported self-harm incidents amongst children between January 2013 and March 2014.These were children housed on Christmas Island, the mainland and Nauru Island. This was evidence provided by Professor Gillian Trigg during the day of public hearings in Melbourne on July1st this year.

Churches in Australia have come together in an unprecedented protest against the Immigration Departments policies and record in handling immigrant children. On May 19th, the largest ever Christian civil disobedience action in Australia took place, resulting in 21 arrests, including a Catholic priest and several pastors. More arrests have followed as the 'Love makes a Way' movement grows in strength.

The potential long term damage to these families and children is immense .You can show your support by following the 'Love makes a Way' movement on Facebook.

 Spare a thought for these unfortunate individuals before you book your holiday in the sun to Christmas Island. Or better still, find somewhere else for your vacation.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Where have the kidnapped Nigerian girls gone?

Imagine sitting in a crowded class room, surrounded by other girls all aged between 16 and 18, taking your final Physics examination, when a large group of men burst in and force you all  to climb into trucks while they set the school on fire. That is what happened to over 200 girls on the 14th April this year in Nigeria.  The actual number of girls taken has not been definitely confirmed, because all the school records were destroyed. The school had opened up specially to provide a venue for the examinations and the girls slept in dormitories on site because it was too far to return home.

The men who took them belonged to a group called Boko Haram ( meaning Western education is forbidden).  One of the Boko Haram leaders, in a video link, said "I will sell them in the market, by Allah, I will sell them and marry them off. Women are slaves".In March, another rural boarding school had been attacked and at least 29 men were murdered while the girls were let free and told to go home and get married.

This group of insurgents are well organised, thought to number several thousand, with many armoured vehicles, and live deep in the forest. The Nigerian intelligence agency, despite attempting to infiltrate their ranks, have singularly failed to do so and the government will not send forces in to locate the girls for fear of causing their death.

Olusegun Obesanjo, a former president of Nigeria, has spoken out against President Goodluck Jonathan, accusing him of waiting too long to report this serious situation, and saying that we may not know the whereabouts of these girls for many years. Rumours abound that there has been a mass wedding among the Boko Haram supporters suggesting that the girls have been shared among the militants.

58 girls escaped, many by jumping off moving lorries. Several ran into the bush when they were sent to fetch water and hid until nightfall, making their way back to a local village. At least 2 have been thought to have died of snake bites.

On June 21st, Gordon Brown ( United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education and former Prime Minister of the UK) published an article in the Daily Mail which was illustrated with photographs of 185 of the missing girls. The leader of the community council in Chibok, the district from which the girls had vanished, had been painstakingly collecting information about each girl. But there has not been any real progress in finding them. Gordon Brown goes on to use the article as a platform to expand on the vast issue worldwide of young girls being forced into marriage and denied education. The 200 or so Nigerian girls we know about are but a tiny drop in the ocean against this backdrop. In Nigeria alone, ongoing raids on small local markets continue unreported to the media, with women and girls regularly being taken.

The Nigerian population are frightened to speak up, the Nigerian government is unwilling to act for fear of starting an outright civil war, and foreign agencies have limited ability to influence the situation. Despite help from the US, Canada, Britain, France and China, no progress has been made. I wonder when we will hear more about these girls. Like Olusegan  Obesanjo, I think we may have to wait a long time.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Lunch with Robert Emmet

On a recent  trip to Dublin, I bought a sandwich and headed into St Stephen's Green to enjoy a quiet lunch break in the green oasis away from the traffic of central Dublin. Strolling leisurely through the cool, shady paths, looking for an empty bench, observing the business men in smart suits, tourists with expensive cameras, students in scruffy jeans and noisy Spanish visitors, I tried to recall how it felt to be a student in this vibrant city many years ago.

Finding a bench, I sat down in front of the statue of Robert Emmet. For such a well-known Irish patriot, he looked rather inconspicuously short, with a slight frame and  pointed nose. Not a handsome man I thought.  I realised that I knew very little about him, though I suspect something must have been said during history classes. Perhaps I had not listened.

There was little information displayed by his statue, other than that it was made of bronze, a replica of one in Washington DC, by the sculptor Jerome O'Connor. He led an uprising against the British for which he was executed and the statue was erected in 1968 opposite his birthplace ( though the actual house was long since demolished).

On returning home, I was stimulated to find out more about Robert. He was born in 1778 and executed in 1803. The youngest of 18 children, his father was a prominent  Protestant physician and the family were relatively wealthy. Robert attended Trinity College and by all accounts was an extremely clever student, though his studies were cut short when he became politically active.

The Reverend Thomas Elrington ,Senior Dean of Trinity College at the time Robert was a student, described him as having' a dirty-brownish complexion; at a distance looks as if somewhat marked with small-pox; about five feet six inches high, rather thin than fat, but not of an emaciated figure; on the contrary, somewhat broad-made; walks briskly, but does not swing his arms.'

He was a talented speaker, driven by his idealism, organised an uprising against the British which was rapidly put down. He went into hiding , but was eventually caught, tried and sentenced to death. He is remembered particularly for his dramatic speech on the occasion of his sentencing. Witnesses were in tears as he offered the sacrifice of his life to his country.

He said: 'Let no man write my epitaph; for as no man who knows my motives dare now vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them. Let them and me repose in obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain uninscribed, until other times, and other men, can do justice to my character; when my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done.'

Thank you, Robert , for keeping me company over lunch.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Gerontogens - a new look at factors that accelerate ageing

Ageing is a complex process, but it is abundantly clear on simple observation that some of us age quicker than others. Gerontogens are factors that accelerate cellular ageing and account for 70% of the process with genetic factors being responsible for only 30%.

So what is causing accelerated ageing in our society today? Those factors that we know without a doubt are exposure to cigarette smoke and air pollutants, ultraviolet light and over eating leading to obesity. Chemotherapy also strongly affects molecular ageing but it is unlikely you or I would refuse chemotherapy for our advancing cancer because the treatment might cause premature ageing. Stress is known to contribute, but stressors are different for all of us and so difficult to categorise. We have all heard stories of people whose hair has turned white overnight due to severe emotional trauma.

Arsenic in groundwater, if over 10 micrograms per litre, is a harmful gerontogen. Most of us are not exposed to arsenic in this way unless we live in certain areas of the world ( parts of Argentina, Bangladesh, Chile, USA. for example have high natural levels in groundwater). The worst affected areas have had arsenic released into the atmosphere due to mining and industrial processes. Depending on the type of underlying rock, it is possible that fracking may release arsenic into the groundwater, and are we happy to rely on the water supply companies to satisfactorily deal with this?

Benzene found in exhaust and industrial emissions is extremely dangerous even in tiny concentration. The good news is that improved technology, and in particular, diesel engine technology, has greatly reduced benzene emissions even though the volume of traffic on our roads has increased substantially.

Gerontogens have been talked about recently following research by Norman Sharpless from the University of North Carolina. He has been working on the molecular biology of ageing and has founded a company to commercialise the molecular testing of ageing through the analysis of blood tests. He states, however, that this service is not likely to be available to consumers and patients directly because 'The potential for miscommunication and other harm seems real'. So who will be able to use this service? I speculate that it might be Big Pharma in their quest for the multi-million dollar making anti-ageing pill, or perhaps the Cosmetic Industry. Unlikely that the occupational health departments of mining and heavy industry would be interested, since they are fully aware of the damage caused to their workers.

So how can we try to grow older gracefully without accumulating too many wrinkles? No doubt there will be many claims for wonder products and diets, and eventually I am certain a pill will appear on the market claiming to reverse the signs of ageing. In the meantime, the only practical advice is to avoid cigarette smoke, cover up in the sun, breathe clean air and eat less.

That's easy then.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Older Gamers

I confess that I play World of Warcraft. I am definitely the oldest player in my guild and probably the oldest player on the server. One of my children understands. The other two are slightly embarrassed.

If I were to spend every evening watching television or trying to read without dozing off, how would that be preferable ? But that is generally how society expects the older person to behave.

Instead, I travel to dungeons with a team of 24 other assorted players from all over Europe and work together with them to defeat dragons and other monsters.

About 7 years ago, a reporter from BBC radio 4 approached me and my husband to ask us to do a short light hearted interview about being involved in a MMO game.  We were considered rather freaky even at that time due to our age! There had been adverse press about the addictive nature of these games, and the serious effect that was having on youthful players who were failing their school and college commitments as a result. The point I made during that interview was that there were many more dangerous addictions, and there were positive skills that could be learnt such as team loyalty and cooperative responsibility, trading and product valuation along with small group politics. I am not sure that many MMO players listen to Radio 4, and many listeners probably knew nothing at all about gaming, so I doubt that the interview was attitude changing!

I do know some older players on my server ( but none as old as me!). They tend to be very committed and play end game content with reliability and skill. They are also very tolerant people, prepared to give advice to younger more inexperienced players. Some manage to juggle work and family responsibilities, others have health problems which prevent them working.  A loose-knit supportive network exists certainly in the well established guilds, and many have become real life friends. I get the impression that younger players tend to flit from one game to the next and rely much less on the sociable context.
My aunt, now in her mid 80's, enjoys Super Mario and plays Candy Crush Saga on her tablet. She also makes birthday cards using  specific software on her computer. It is likely that there are many thousands like her, with the ability to embrace the new technologies.  I hope that I will still be able to enjoy many aspects of gaming when I reach her age!

Game developers, I would just like to say to you - older players exist, not in vast numbers at the moment, but there will be more of us. With our life experience,  people management and leadership skills, maybe we could be useful to you? Don't forget about us, for one thing, we tend to have more available cash than the teenagers!