March 2009


The reeds beds glow, fringe shallow pools

of deepest blue, a mist softens the hills,

the greening fields and tracery of trees,

enfolding expectations of another spring.


Our church, a shack with slits,

the woolly murmur of concentration,

the sudden revelation, as lenses turn,     

whirr and click with true devotion.


Sleepless gulls, hooded in darkest brown,

act out their long disputes,

their eyes red-rimmed, their screams 

a livid gash across the face of the day 



Half hidden by feather lines of gold,

four bustling snipe dibble in the reeds,  

probing for crustacean truth,  

the certainty of annelids in softer mud.    


Upturned mallards flaunt their shames. 

Their black curls taunt the yellow glare

of a tufted duck, smart as a policeman,

stern as a judge.    


A stalking heron freezes in mid stride,

Neck coiled like a snake,

Eye ablaze with fierce intent,

Blade poised ready for the strike.


A pair of dancing swans glide,

side by loving side from the reeds,

their primrose necks dip, stretch,

bend, entwine in one accord.         


Coots run across the lake like skimming pebbles      

teal dabble, brighter green among the sprouting iris, 

the jealous cob advances in full sail, the red-eyed Pochard dives,    

the water surges, bubbles like a spring.      


Further out, on salted marsh, where avocets

scoop their sky blue share, a flock of

godwit, summer russet and winter grey,

long bills sheathed underwing, sleep


while the sun dips low to Morecambe Bay,

lights up the valley gold, the greener hills,

the white house by the tall stack,  

grey Warton’s crags, a happier day.        


Stephanie was a virtuoso violinist until she was struck down with multiple sclerosis.  Now her fingering is clumsy,  her bowing uneven,  her music sounds scratchy and discordant.  She can’t do it anymore.  She is destroyed. Music was her whole life.  It was her joy and purpose. Each note joined her in mystic union with the fellow acolyte who notated it centuries before.  It was her religion and her ecstacy. When she and her husband met, they made music as a preliminary to making love.     


Duet for One, probably Tom Kempinski’s best play, slowly strips away Stephanie’s resistances and defences to reveal to full shocking horror of the devastation she tries so hard to conceal.  Juliet Stevenson plays Stephanie with the neurotic intensity only she can command.  Henry Goodman gives a wonderfully nuanced  performance as the beleaguered psychotherapist, complete with middle European accent. 


We slowly learn that Stephanie was encouraged to develop her musical talents by her mother, who was herself a concert pianist until she gave it up to help her father in his chocolate business.  But, tragically, her mother died when Stephanie was just nine.  Her father was distraught and took to his bed.  The business failed.  He told Stephanie he was not going to pay for her to have music lessons any more. She had to get a proper education, a proper job.


Stephanie fought her father, refused to do any school work unless she could study her violin. The conflict was long and hard, but eventually her father capitulated.  Stephanie had won.  She had to. With mother gone, music had become the only meaningful thing in her life.  When other girls might party, shop, visit coffee bars or night clubs, Stephanie practiced – at least three hours every day! 


At 18 she won a scholarship to music college and the dedication intensified to eight hours a day.  Most music colleges produce one virtuoso every ten years.  Stephanie was that one. 


But now she could no longer make music, her life had lost its meaning.    


The acme of musical performance, being a concert soloist, demands enormous dedication, a concentrated focus on the self and it’s achievement. It is perhaps the most extreme form of narcissism.  Performers are obsessed with their capabilities for most of the day every day.  They strive for perfection.  They have to keep testing and retesting themselves, all too aware that a  precipitous entry, a slightly flat note, a false emotional balance, could mean disaster.  A performer’s life is one of continual insecurity.  They are a bit like the specialist rock climber. They live on the edge.  They don’t just make music, they have to own the souls of their audience.  They need the next performance to reassure them, to gain a momentary respite before the pangs of self doubt creep in again. They only see the failures. This fuels the engine of addiction. Even the peerless Vladimir Horowitz left the concert platform after 12 years, feeling unable to live up to his own reputation.  And Jacqueline Dupre, whose story resonates with Stephanie’s, was constantly concerned that she lacked technique. 


Perrformers have to live with their destructive demons.  They can never be good enough and for that they must be punished.  Some, perhaps most, come to hate the monster they have created and wish to destroy it.  Perhaps with Stephanie, as with Jacqueline Dupre, the seeds of destruction infected her immune system, causing it to destroy the lining of her nerves.  Illnesses often have a meaning and a purpose.  Multiple sclerosis may seem tragic for a musician, but it may free them from the tyranny of performance and all the parental ambition that went with it.  There is an irony behind why an illness affects that very function that is so essential.  It exposes ambivalence.  Sooner or later, performers, sportsmen, actors, celebrities of any tone, want to be what they are and not what they do.  


And now Stephanie doesn’t have music, she has, for the first time in her life, to learn to live with other people, to collaborate, to belong, to trust, to be ordinary.  It is the most difficult thing she will ever do. 


Duet for One played at The Theatre Royal, Bath on 17th March. ,

When I was growing up, the worst thing you could be was ‘spoilt’.  My parents would point at other children and say, wrinkling their upper lips with disgust.  ‘And he’s another spoilt brat.’  Being spoilt was a dreadful sin and not one of your own causing but one visited upon you.  You got spoilt by your parents and you couldn’t do a thing about it.  If you were spoilt, you could hardly get unspoilt.    


So what does being spoilt actually mean?  According to Webster’s dictionary, the term spoil originally meant to pillage or plunder, as in despoiling another man’s goods,  but later it also acquired the meaning ‘to corrupt or render worthless’.  So spoiling a child is to damage or corrupt their character, nature or attitude by overindulgence or excessive praise. 


The notion of spoiling a child comes from the ancient saying, ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’.  In Piers Plowman (1377), William Langland warned, ‘Who-so spareth the sprynge (switch), spilleth his children.’  The same thought occurs in Proverbs and is first listed in John Coverdale’s 1535 translation: ‘He that spareth the rodde, hateth his sonne’, and in an even earlier text, Aelfric’s Homilies, circa 1000: “Se ye sparas his gyred (belt), he hatas his cild.”  The notion of rod, here doesn’t just mean physical chastisement, it means laws, rules, boundaries.  And hatas in old Norse has connotations of lack of care, causing trouble, insult or suffering.


So if parents love their children too much, try to please them with treats and presents, regard them as if they were special, over-excite them and worst of all, give in to their tantrums, then they are spoiling them from becoming useful members of society.  And in rearing a monster who will continue to make excessive demands on them, they are using the rod, they have spared, on their own backs. 



It’s all about boundaries.  Childhood is a long process of socialisation, acquired through an appropriate combination of encouragement, stimulation and prohibition.  Children have to learn the painful lesson that they can’t always get what they want immediately.  Anything of any value has to be worked for and there are always others to consider.  Growing up with siblings and friends helps children understand essential social concepts of empathy, sharing and collaboration.


‘No’ is the most important word a child can hear.  It sets the limits.  This is acceptable, that isn’t.  It’s only later with maturity that they come to understand the ambivalence of context and acquire the skills to re-negotiate boundaries.  But in the beginning they have to know what’s right and what’s wrong.  Society cannot function unless people have respect for ethics and laws.   


As a child, I avoided children who would sulk or get cross if they didn’t get their own way, the ones who grabbed the best, those who told tales, never owned up and consistently blamed somebody else. Such kids were a bit of a pain. Our little gang learned early on not to trust them. They created tension and spoiled our curiosity.  It is sad that many of them were only children and several from single parent families.  They were special kids, little princes or princesses, but they were starved of friendship and our wariness, I’m sure, just helped to consolidate their isolation.  I never questioned then whether I might have been a bit spoilt too.  Children learn projection very early on.     


It may be tolerable to be spoilt as long as you have doting parents.  There are compensations for friendship, material possessions, travel, opportunities to learn and develop skills and talent. The trouble can really set in when such children grow up.  Poorly equipped to manage in society, they remain self-centred, impulsive, competitive, demanding, uncompromising, but behind that, fragile, lonely and lacking meaning in life. They constantly seek out thrills and excitement and they find it impossible to delay gratification.  They want it all and they want it now, and if they don’t get it, there is always the risk they will fly into a destructive rage. 


Spoilt, narcissistic people find it difficult to have trusting relationships with other people.  Their relationship with their parents was based on manipulation and exploitation and that pattern is continued into adulthood.  People have to be there to satisfy their demands.  Empathy is difficult; they are too preoccupied with their own needs to understand anybody else.  They cannot love or be loved.  They may be lucky enough to be admired or even adored.  They may even indulge their romantic fantasies, but they are rarely loved.  Their relationships tend to be based on mutual exploitation for narcissistic gain.  


Anxious to please their indulgent parents in order to gain rewards and with opportunities lacking for others, some spoilt children are fortunate enough to grow up with all the outward talent and confidence to be successful.  Many footballers, musicians, actors, celebrities are the product of overindulgent and admiring parents.  The acclaim they achieve from their talents feeds their narcissistic entitlement.  Nevertheless, despite being surrounded by all the material and social benefits of success, life can still seem empty of meaning.  They have to keep performing in order to gain the ephemeral accolades to maintain  emotional buoyancy.  Remove those and they may sink into an alcoholic and drug-fueled oblivion .     


It all sounds pretty awful, doesn’t it?  Stereotypes always do, but personalities are multifaceted and their outward expressions evanescent. ‘Spoilt’ carries features of  narcissism, hysteria and borderline personality, but such labels are there to illuminate, never to define.  ‘Spoilt’ is a continuum.  There are indeed some people who were spoilt rotten as kids and live with the struggle of existential loneliness for the rest of their lives. But there are many more, whose parents loved them a bit too much and were not quite as consistent with the boundaries as they might have been, but nevertheless did a good enough job.  As adults, these may struggle to give in to their impulses and, when stressed, can regress to childhood and behave petulantly with little consideration for others, but for the most part they survive well enough in society.  And there are others, who grew up in poverty and deprivation, but who achieve positions of great power and celebrity that are ultimately corrupting.  We only have to think of Robert Mugabe or Josef Stalin, although both were the sole surviving members of single parent families and were brought up under the strong influence of the church.  Perhaps it was their early deprivation that induced a steely determination to have it all. 



We were all little tyrants before we encountered the terrible twos and the hard lessons of prohibition and we all of us carry a yearning to return to that fantasy of perfect freedom and acceptance. Why else would people fall in love? .      


Although ‘spoilt’ can now seem somewhat outmoded, it is probably more common than it has ever been.  The number of single parent families has risen consistently since the nineteen sixties.  Children are over indulged more than ever before.  Parents exhausted by the divided loyalties of a job, a home and their own social life, tend to give in to their children’s demands as the line of least resistance.  Child truancy, antisocial behaviour among teenagers, knife crime, divorce have all gone up.  The current epidemic of obesity and the rise in drug addiction, binge drinking and antisocial behaviour are all indicators of a society without brakes on its behaviour.   Anybody, even those with a minimum of talent can become an instant celebrity.  You’re worth it!  Just do it!  The worrying thing is that it’s not just ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’.  If, as seems likely, a majority of our children are overindulged and poorly corrected, it’s our society that will be spoiled.   



 ‘My thoughts change like the weather.  When the sun is shining, I feel excited, optimistic.  I can see a way through.  We will work things out and it will be fine.  Then a cloud passes across the face of the sun, a shadow of doubt and I begin to see difficulties and I am a lot more cautious.  Then when the sky turns dark and it starts to rain, I feel desolate. It’s hopeless. Nothing will ever work and I might as well kill myself.’ 


Alan is suffering another crisis in his relationship with Julie and doesn’t know what to think. He has been turned inside out.


We are all familiar with how mood and thought are linked. Our brain thinks in  memory and meaning. Our thoughts represent the meaning of the things that have happened to us and these are all coloured by emotion. Rekindle the memory and the mood comes flooding in. We know how a tragic film, a poignant story, any association that triggers the memory of a tragic event in our lives can make us sad.  We understand how suspicious thoughts of betrayal can make us angry, and how negative ruminations can make us feel desolate and ill. We appreciate the benefit of positive thinking.  Freud was one of the first to explain how many otherwise unexplained illnesses were in effect bodily effects of fear, anger, sadness, guilt and shame, diseases of reminiscence or diseases at the level of the idea.  Decode the idea and work it through and there is every chance that the illness will resolve.       


So thoughts and memories undoubtedly affect our mood, but does the converse apply? Does the way that we feel affect the way we think?  Research suggests that it does. Students learn much better when the subject matter connects emotionally with them. But not only that, there is evidence that different moods affect thinking but in different ways.


If, for example, we feel content, then we are optimistic and creative, decisions come easily, we can trust our intuition, thoughts turn readily to action and risk, confident in the conviction that all will work out well. We feel sociable, outward going. Everybody is our friend. We perceive our world through rose tinted spectacles    


If, on the other hand we feel sad, then we put on darker glasses, shading our eyes from the sun. We are worthless and life is pointless. Decisions are hindered by self doubt; plans interrupted by pessimism, risk avoided.  We are self conscious, self centred, preoccupied by a morbid and destructive narcissism.  We are critical, judgemental, over-analytical.  We focus inwards on a narrowing existence, avoiding company, but at the same time sending out signals that we feel powerless like a child and need looking after.


Anxiety makes us insecure.  We see threat everywhere.  We cannot trust anybody, least of all ourselves, and regard the things that happen with caution and suspicion.  We worry constantly about every banal detail of our daily life and try desperately to keep our thoughts in control, because without enormous effort, it seems, our life will slide into unthinkable chaos.  Worry domesticates a much more fundamental, existential insecurity. 


Doris wanders round and round her flat all day trying to find ‘things’, but she can’t remember what she’s lost.  The truth is that she has lost ‘it’.  She has Alzheimer’s Disease and the cruel insight is quite devastating.     


Anger polarises our thought.  It causes us to perceive our world in absolute terms;  all or nothing, good or bad.  If somebody is not our friend, they must be our enemy.  Threat lurks under every psychotic bush.  We have to be armed and on guard for immediate retaliation.    Innocuous events are interpreted with paranoid significance. We are in mortal danger and have to protect ourselves.  And often the best form of defence is a pre-emptive strike.     



Thought and mood amplify each the other, spiralling up until they seize control of the personality and either spill over into action or collapse through exhaustion.  Once the cycle is established, it can be difficult to distinguish the two and isolate the effect of mood on thinking.  But there are some natural experiments.  Exercise, for example, calms mood and makes thinking more creative. Sleep also has the effect of clarifying thought. Eating a meal relaxes us and makes us more sociable. Alcohol reduces the cognitive inhibition on our thought and behaviour. Recreational drugs can strip away the last vestige of cognitive reality, causing some people to behave as if they are immortal like Icarus, jumping off roofs and trying to fly.  An injection of adrenaline can cause panic. Adjusting the mix of chemicals in the brain with antidepressants can make people think much more clearly.   


So is the effect of mood on thought just a chemical interaction?  It is tempting to think that during our different moods, our brains are awash with different chemicals, serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline, GABA and many, many more and this chemical mix can have a profound effect on the way we think – but it’s probably not as simple as that.  It never is.  


Mood crucially influences the executive function of the brain.  Creativity requires self belief, risk taking and a suspension of the critical faculties of the brain.  Technical or analytical work needs quite the opposite; the critical faculties need to be recruited. 


But it is in decision making where mood has its most obvious and far reaching influence.  It is never possible to make objective decisions. Emotion is always in play, influencing what we pay attention to and what memories we rely on. You should never decide anything when you are angry; this can lead to dramatic, polarised solutions which can cause a lot of trouble.  People who are angry tend to pass the anger on.  It’s how wars start. 


Equally, it is important not to make a decision when you are too happy or euphoric because this encourages a dangerous admixture of risk taking and over-confidence.  We might even say that you should never ask someone to marry you or accept when you have just tumbled from the duvet of desire or if you are fearful they might leave you. 


Important decisions are probably best made under conditions of quiet confidence; calm with perhaps just a hint of analytical melancholy, but it is nevertheless not always useful to suppress the emotions because we lose that intuition and focus that can assist us in coming to the right decision.  You decide!   


But it is a mistake to think that we are all at the mercy of our emotions.  We are not.  Some have been fortunate enough to have the kind of life experience that has given them the inner confidence to tame and utilize their moods as an intuitive lodestone, guiding them into action that is wise to context and society, or creative in the face of danger.


Fire officer Haines had been called out with his team to tackle a fire raging through a canyon outside Sedona.  The winds were tricky and the fire had taken hold.  No sooner had they reached the bottom of the canyon than the wind changed direction and a wall of flame, 60 foot high advanced on them driven by 30mph winds.  They tried to outrun it but the fire was gaining.  Haines then did something extraordinary.  He stopped running, faced the flames, took out his lighter and set fire to the grass around him.  He then stood in the centre of the burnt patch of grass and awaited the advance of the fire.  It passed on either side and he emerged unscathed.  


This was the first time that anybody had thought of creating a fire break to halt or divert a conflagration.  It is now standard practice.  Haines survived because he knew how to harness his incipient panic and use the added adrenaline to guide his thinking into making creative associations.  Such is the quality of leadership.  Harness your own emotions with a quiet resolute confidence and others will draw confidence in your decisions.  Barack Obama seems such a man.        



But what of Alan?  Tossed this way and that in the turbulent sea of thrill, romance and despair, called darling, he flounders at the mercy of moods that change with alarming rapidity.  He is shipping water and will soon drown unless he retrieves the emotional rudder he tossed away with such reckless abandon.  His only hope of salvation is to steer a course away from his stormy relationship with Julie into calmer waters where he can find the peace to repair his battered vessel and regain emotional control.     


As I wrote in a previous blog (Inheritance, how we are carriers for our genes as well as our culture,  2nd January 2009) , human culture evolves by different mechanisms compared with biological evolution.  Cultural evolution conforms to the principles of development by use and disuse, laid down by the French soldier and biologist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who was commissioned  for valour on the battlefield when just 17 years of age.  So promotion ensured his own personal development in much the same way as, according to Lamarckism, the giraffes neck would grow longer to reach the leaves it feeds on.  And once a certain characteristic is established as useful within the culture, it tends to stay until modified or replaced or until a change in fashion or technology creates a new way of looking at things. 


The rate at which cultural evolution occurs differs according to the topic or aspect. In science, there are long periods of stability where nothing much changes. Most scientists like to study what is in fashion; what other scientists are doing.  They compete with each other top add a small brick to the edifice.  And when they can think of nothing else to do, they test what is already known by ever more rigorous means.  Then suddenly an Albert Einstein comes along or an Alexander Fleming makes a breakthrough that opens up a new channel of enquiry, a rich vein that may lead to a whole new way of seeing things.      


Science favours the prepared mind.  Something usually occurs to anticipate discovery; a serendipitous observation, a discovery in another field, a new way of thinking or an advance in technology, such as nuclear magnetic resonance imaging. Then, rather like the change in climate that propelled tool-using  humanoid bipeds out of the forest onto the savannah, the scene is set for rapid evolution of ideas.   


Art is more idiosyncratic. Artists are influenced by each other but most try not to copy each other.  They are fiercely individual and are constantly looking for original ways of seeing and expressing things.  It’s probably no coincidence that political radicals of the nineteen seventies and eighties had often been to art colleges.  An advance in technology, a new medium, may provoke a flurry of invention as each artist uses it to develop their own creative opportunities, but as soon as they are successful, an artist’s style tends to become fixed to fit with cultural expectations they have created.  They become trapped by the success of their retrospectives.     


Literature changes more slowly, less radically.  For many years, good prose and poetry had to conform to rules of syntax and grammar as well as a certain accepted rhythm and music. Change could only take place within that container. Now, with the advent of electronic communication, the medium is changing.   New forms are being introduced with bewildering frequency and with these, new opportunities of expression.        


Music and the theatre, the performing arts, are also somewhat split.  There is an increasing amount of experimental, avant garde theatre, some radical new styles of composition, innovations in dance. But most theatre and music performance is traditional, a re-working of the classics. The content is fixed. All that can change is the style and interpretation.  That depends on the director, the actors and the musicians.     


Musical performance affects the way the sounds are expressed, the emphasis, amplitude, rate, timbre and tone.  Performers can take a certain amount of liberty with the composition; a different combination of instruments can be used for example, whole sections may be omitted. But performance is more than innovation and artistry. It is competitive in a similar manner as ice dancing, synchronised swimming or gymnastics. The bar gets raised all the time, sounds get crisper and clearer, the fingering more complex and technology creates new opportunities.  The performance has to keep pace with and in most cases exceed the demands of increasingly discerning and critical audiences.  Musicians often regard the concert as blood sport. The audience is looking for mistakes and the penalty for failure is death.


Nevertheless, performance style can only change within the limits of what is acceptable.  Evolution in this context occurs by listening to others, adopting certain nuances, rejecting others, practicing, performing, obtaining feedback and readjustment, a gradual remodelling that accommodates current cultural demands. For example, high fidelity recordings have created a desire for crisp, clean sounds that can be amplified and adjusted, whereas in the past a soloist or singer would need to hold their own against the orchestra with prodigious amplitude and the elaborate use of vibrato and arpeggio.  Musicians adopt what musicologist, Daniel Leech-Wilson called ‘optimal foraging principles’, which explains, he asserted, why prima donnas have declined in favour of opera singers who can work well with others in a team.  Nevertheless, musicians, like artists, have to develop their own style as they learn, change and make it their own.  In that respect, performance is rather like practicing psychotherapy or what used to be called ‘the art of medicine’.  Any innovation of the culture of performance has to fit current norms but add something fresh, like Catrin Finch’s recent rearrangement of The Goldberg Variations for the harp (see my recent blog, entitled, ‘What is Music For?’ 26th February, 2009). .


Cultural evolution has parallels in biological evolution. In stable, traditional societies, biological as well as cultural evolution occurs very slowly, if at all, by small adaptations.  Genes that favour overconsumption may well be weeded out, but other ‘genetic’ diseases may increase with effective treatment.  As societies become more cosmopolitan, the blending of racial characteristic creates more adaptability to change, both in a biological and cultural sense.  


It is only when humanity is decimated by a change in the environment, a deterioration in the climate so catastrophic, an infection so devastating, that survivors will create a new race with particular characteristics of resistance. This might be compared with exposure of populations to a completely new way of perceiving the world, a cultural revolution.  Only those, who are able to adapt their thinking and behaviour, will be able to keep up.   So as the current financial crisis continues to bite, only those who have a clear understanding of what is happening, will be able to use it to their advantage.    


And not all biological evolution is Darwinian.  A new symbiotic relationship that confers a distinct advantage on both species; a beneficial bacterium in the human colon, the association of soil fungi with tree roots, a virus that gets incorporated into the human genetic apparatus; these all behave in a Lamarkian manner and are taken up at the rate of cultural evolution.  Nothing is absolute. This begs the question, ‘for cultural change to survive from generation to generation, how much of it is transmitted according to natural selection.’  At one time in our history, a gene encoding for musicality or a surrogate for it, might have conferred a selective advantage in terms of promoting societies.  But that’s for another day.