Reviews of the Virtual Talks
For 'older' reviews please go to Past Zoom Talks Reviews
Wednesday 2nd June 2021
Dr Roderic Ashton: What happens to history when our leaders are mad or ill!
Reviewer: Janette Sykes
Retired GP Dr. Roderic Ashton treated a small, but select band of Buxton u3a members to a high-speed and highly entertaining romp through the often idiosyncratic, always interesting ways in which our leaders’ health has affected – and continues to affect - our lives.
Dr. Ashton helped us celebrate National u3a Day by bringing together two of his principal interests – politics and medicine – to analyse why the fragile mental and physical health often experienced by people in power unsettles us so much.
From Henry VIII through to Donald Trump, he explained why we prefer our leaders to look youthful and vigorous, even if in reality they are not. Health problems, suggested Dr. Ashton, can have a range of effects on decision making. They can have no effect whatsoever, they can spur leaders on to do better things or they can cause leaders to do things badly – and they are usually hidden (or played down substantially) from the public.
Theresa May, he posited, was seemingly unaffected by her Type 1 diabetes when in office, while Anthony Eden’s botched gall bladder operation led to the political disaster known as the Suez Crisis in the 1950s. Edward Heath’s underactive thyroid once caused him to commit a faux pas by falling asleep in front of the Queen, while Tony Blair’s heart problems were significantly minimised while he was Prime Minister.
Sir Winston Churchill warned ‘One cannot do more than health allows’, but admitted that his frequent depressions made him more realistic about Hitler, while his manic phases gave him energy and ideas, and his high tolerance for alcohol helped him deal effectively with Stalin, who would plyv him with strong drink when they met.
Like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Florence Nightingale, Churchill veered between being very depressed or very high, classic symptoms of bipolar disorder. During periods of mania, all four historical characters exhibited extreme productivity, creativity and insight that went beyond what would normally be possible.
Nightingale, for example, established a field hospital in Turkey with proper sanitation, ventilation, clean water and food and a nurses’ station that cut death rates from typhus by three-quarters during the 19th century Crimean War. She worked extremely hard, taking 38 nurses with her and walking four miles a day in her personal quest to dramatically reduce cases of ‘Crimea Fever’.
On her return to the UK, Nightingale took to her bed for 37 years, suffering from what Dr. Ashton claimed was most likely to be Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She never spoke about her wartime experiences and isolated herself from most social interactions – but went on to write numerous books and pamphlets, wrote a nursing textbook in simple English, created the discrete concept of nursing knowledge (to distinguish it from medical knowledge) and introduced professional nursing throughout the British Empire and the USA.
Further back in time, Dr. Porter alluded to the various medical conditions that plagued Henry VIII. For the first half of his reign, he appeared youthful, sprightly and vigorous, but during the second he became a highly unpleasant tyrant. Dr. Porter said that, since 2016, the theory underpinning this change suggested that it stemmed from cumulative head injuries, sustained during jousting matches in 1524 and 1536.
If damaged. the front part of the brain, which determines personality, can cause that personality to change, and it seems that was the case with Henry, who, post 1536, ordered the execution of Anne Boleyn and many others. Henry is likely to have experienced the migraine headaches and subdural haematomas now commonly suffered by footballers and rugby players. Not to mention his many other ailments – including hypochondria, varicose ulcers, osteomyelitis, smallpox, malaria and Type 2 diabetes!
Another political figure said to have been at the mercy of his health (with far-reaching consequences for the course of European history) was Napoleon Bonaparte, who suffered a severe attack of haemorrhoids at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Doctors normally treated him using leeches to ease the discomfort, but on that occasion gave him an accidental overdose of laudanum (morphine).
Its severe after-effects delayed the launch of his assault for around five-and-a-half hours, allowing 40,000 Prussian troops to come to the aid of Anglo-Dutch troops against the French forces. This led to Napoleon’s defeat and the so-called ‘Pax Britannica’ from 1815 to 1914, establishing the British Empire as a ‘global policeman’ until the First World War.
More recently, revealed Dr. Ashton, the key decider in the USA Presidential election of 1960 was a television debate in which Richard Nixon looked ‘sweaty and shifty’, while John F. Kennedy looked youthful and vital, despite his long litany of medical problems. In reality, Nixon had banged into a desk on his way into the studio, so was in considerable pain, and had also refused to wear make-up, so appeared sweaty.
On the other hand, Kennedy - whose many ailments included colitis (treated with steroids), Addisons Disease, a back injury/sciatica and osteoporosis – looked tanned and boyish, which helped him win the day. The steroids gave him a round, boyish appearance, while the treatment for Addisons Disease gave him a year-round, healthy-seeming tan.
Even when he was assassinated in 1963, the back brace Kennedy wore to combat a back injury sustained in the Second World War, his sciatica and osteoporosis, kept him upright in the car next to First Lady Jackie even as the first shot pierced his neck and the second delivered the fatal blow to his head.
Finally, a guessing game featuring prominent figures who were functioning alcoholics over the centuries provided an insightful and amusing finish to the evening. Infamous characters ranged from Cleopatra and former First Lady of the USA Betty Ford to Pitt the Younger and Peter the Great.
First prize for being the source of the most amusing anecdote was surely George Brown, who served as Foreign Secretary in Harold Wilson’s Labour Government in the 1960s. Brown, during a reception hosted by Brazil for Peruvian guests, and clearly under the influence of drink, is reputed to have approached a red-robed figure to ask if ‘she’ would care to dance. The unwilling object of his attention explained that there were three reasons why that was impossible: one, Brown was patently incapacitated; two, one never danced during the playing of the Peruvian national anthem; and three, he was actually the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima!
Perhaps that’s why we prefer our leaders to appear more youthful, vigorous and fully in control, playing down the plethora of mental and physical conditions that may affect their judgement. It’s far too uncomfortable to acknowledge that they are just as fragile and fallible as the rest of us!
Monday 10th May 2021
Ann Marie Michel: Portraits to Selfies – how and why we put ourselves in the frame
Reviewer: Janette Sykes
For those of us of a certain age, the contemporary obsession with ‘selfies’ is at best bemusing and at worst wearisome, if not vaguely worrying. Why on earth, we wonder, do younger generations share this strange compunction to post self-taken snapshots of themselves – often with celebrities or in well-known locations – on social media channels that can be accessed by billions of people across the globe?
According to Ann Marie Michel, an American journalist now based in North West England, the selfie - defined by Oxford Dictionaries as ‘a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website’ – is the modern, more democratic version of the portrait.
Our human obsession with our own image, argued Michel, dates right back to prehistoric times and the famous cave paintings discovered at Lascaux, France in 1940. In her view, portraits – whether on a cave wall, on canvas, on camera or in cyberspace – have one of five purposes, the first of which, vanity, is pretty straightforward. Most people love to see images of themselves, whether for self-recognition, self-validation or any number of ego-massaging reasons.
A second motivation, it seems, is flattery. Portraits need to look like their subject, but need not necessarily be too realistic. Michel cited the historical example of Henry VIII and the famous portrait by Hans Holbein. Henry, she suggested, knew full well that Holbein’s depiction of him was not 100 per cent truthful, but it suited his wider purpose at the time. He was flattered that Holbein had given him wider shoulders and longer legs to create the indubitable impression of a powerful, youthful and swaggering monarch when he was already married to wife number three (Jane Seymour) and his hold on power was perhaps not as secure as it had been.
Moreover, added Michel, Henry successfully used the portrait to maintain his influence among the aristocracy. To have a copy of the portrait in your possession, showing the monarch swathed in velvet and silk brocade, with rubies in his collar and doublet, diamonds on his cap and a gold chain and dagger, gave the impression that the owner was one of the King’s men and part of his inner circle.
Michel contrasted this with a modern selfie version, entitled Selfie King, in which a red-haired man recreates the portrait in his own image. He imitates Henry’s swaggering stance, but adds an intentionally ironic facial expression and unashamedly bares his beer belly, revealing his sense of humour and also reflecting his own personality.
Other classical examples cited by Michel were the Mona Lisa (in which the subject is based on the Virgin Mary, giving an ethereal, other worldly quality, and, some people believe, is a portrait of Da Vinci himself), self-portraits of Picasso in 1907 and 1972 (sharing the quality of intensity in his eyes and strength and power in staring down death) and Rembrandt in 1659 (encapsulating the artist’s wisdom, nobility and dignity in old age).
Some modern selfies, posited Michel, reveal a similar artistic judgement, reflected in the choice of colour palette, attire and environment. Thus Carolin Oredsson (2016) shows the subject bent on making an impact (bright pink lipstick contrasting with background greys and browns), claiming a wild personality (fake fur jacket and spiky hair), comfortable in her chosen environment (modern, urban landscape) and marching to her own drum (listening to words or music that we cannot hear on headphones). Furthermore, the anonymous subject of Paris Selfie, is shown to be literally bowled over by the French capital, lying on her back with the unmistakable Eiffel Tower at her feet. But she is far from submissive, standing out in eye-popping red clothes – perhaps indicating that she is about to take the international home of fashion by storm, maybe as a model, stylist or photographer.
A third element is documentary. From medieval religious paintings such as Saints Michael, Bartholomew, Julian and Donor and the Scrovegni Chapel by Giotto to photographs depicting Elvis with his fans and a pretty young woman posing for a shot with Prince Harry in military uniform, this proves ‘I was there! I associate with influential and important people; thus I am important myself’. So, the donors in the saintly paintings are portraying themselves as generous and keeping exalted company. Elvis with fans had the same cachet with his teenage worshippers, but it was also beneficial for him as his career took off in 1957, since it was documentary evidence that he actually had fans.
Documentary selfies can also provoke envy, suggested Michel, citing both Selfie in Washington (a family in front of the Capitol Building in the USA capital) and Selfie in Milan (a young woman with her arm flung towards the skies in front of the city’s cathedral). Both, she said, embody the idea that the subjects are VIPs living the good life – and in the case of the Milan shot, possibly suggesting ‘All of this is mine!” – perhaps provoking a twinge of covetousness in workers chained to their desks in mundane jobs.
Fourth on the list (and perhaps the most fascinating) is propaganda, where, added Michel, the links between classical art and selfies can be unconscious as well as conscious. From Augustus Caesar to Napoleon, and more recently during the Second World War to Kim Kardashian, she ventured that it has been, and is still being, successfully used to manipulate and project self-tailored images.
Caesar (27BC – AD14), ruler of the Roman Empire (which at the time covered half the globe) used classical statuary inspired by ancient Greece to emphasize that he was a tough, youthful warrior, yet at the same time intellectual, decent and benevolent. Napoleon, in an 1801 portrait by Jacques-Louis David, wanted to be portrayed as ‘calm upon a fiery horse’ – showing control not over his spirited steed, but also over his destiny, policies, battles and men. He is ascending a mountain, showing he is going to the top in life, and his surname is carved in stone, indicating that he will not be forgotten and his name will be inscribed in history.
Similarly, said Michel, propaganda and a very simple world view were effective anti-Nazi campaigns in comic books such as The Original Daredevil Battles Hitler, where Hitler is unsurprisingly billed as the villain, while the daredevil was the hero. More subtly, she suggests, Internet celebrity Kim Kardashian has used the selfie to disarm her on-line ‘haters’, by joining in the online campaign No Make Up Mondays (although she appears to be wearing makeup in both shots she posted on Facebook).
The final strand, in Michel’s view, is ‘identity experiment’, where people inhabit other people’s lives and experiment with other ‘selves’. Here she cited New York artist Cindy Sherman, who has adopted various guises on camera, including a stylised medieval queen and Bacchus, the Roman god of agriculture and wine – suggesting she can take on different genders as well as alternative appearances.
Another example was Andy Warhol, whose self-portrait in 1986, said Michel, showed the subject camouflaged, apart from his intelligent, self-aware and piercing eyes. She revealed that, in reality, Warhol was a very shy man, who felt he had bad hair and bad skin, so he surrounded himself with ‘beautiful people’ such as Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe in the hope that their attractiveness and celebrity would reflect well and rub off on him.
A stimulating Q&A session provoked debate about the detrimental effects of selfies on young peoples’ body image, whether we are reading far too much into their influence and whether they should be banned from art galleries because of their intrusive impact, among other issues. Michel concluded that the main attribute of the selfie was its role as a new, democratic art form that was accessible to more people because creating it costs less than having a portrait painted.
Maybe there’s only one way to test the theory scientifically, if you have the time and money – a visit to the Museum of Selfies in Los Angeles, whose website promises interactive installations where you could have ‘unlimited fun, express yourself and snap mind-blowing photos!’ https://museumofselfies.com/
Monday 26th April 2021
Dr Simon Avery: The Brontës and Politics – Revolution and Reform
Reviewer: Janette Sykes
Fifty years after first reading Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights, I still wonder how such an exquisitely crafted and searingly passionate work could have been written by a young woman raised in a West Yorkshire parsonage during the early 19th century.
After attending Dr. Simon Avery’s stimulating online lecture entitled ‘The Brontës and Politics - Revolution and Reform’, I feel I’ve moved slightly closer to a plausible and pertinent explanation, though the answer (mainly due to my lack of knowledge of any potential maternal influence on the writer) is still incomplete.
Patriarch Patrick Brontë is often given a bad press - depicted as a cold fish, distant and detached from his children Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne after the death of his beloved wife (and their mother) Maria. Yet according to Avery, Reader in 19th Century Literature and Culture at the University of Westminster, Brontë’s character and influence on his family was much more complicated and nuanced.
Avery, who has also written texts on Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Mary Coleridge among others, suggested that Patrick was ‘an enlightened Tory’, with a complex blend of political beliefs ranging from patriotism and support for the Anglo-Irish Union to the repeal of the Poor Law and the abolition of slavery. A believer in moderate and temperate reform in favour of those who were disenfranchised and disempowered by society, in Avery’s view Patrick encouraged his children to engage with politics and political and social events.
The family read a wide range of newspapers, representing both Tory and Whig policies, and Charlotte, in particular, is said to have been interested in politics from the age of five. The fact that Patrick’s own literary works – three volumes of poetry and a novel, The Maid of Killarney – reflected contemporary social and political debates about such issues as the value of education, helping the poor, the role of religion and capital punishment no doubt fuelled his children’s fascination.
One of the key milestones in their development can be traced back to 1826, when Patrick gave Branwell a box of wooden toy soldiers. Each child adopted their own favourite and named them after military leaders such as Wellington and Bonaparte or intrepid Arctic and Antarctic explorers like Parry and Russ.
Inspired by the soldiers, they created their own imaginary kingdoms, in which they had free rein to explore wide-ranging concepts such as government, leadership, civil unrest and war. Glass Town, Angria and Gondal featured the social and political intrigues of their fictious worlds, in tiny volumes packed with minute writing. Gondal, created by Emily and Anne, focused on powerful female leaders, and Emily is thought to have continued writing about it into her late 20s.
As well as being aware of the international political context, the children were also acutely conscious of social turbulence and change closer to home. West Yorkshire towns such as Haworth and Keighley experienced working-class resistance and uprising as the Industrial Revolution took hold in textile mills and sparked calls for legal, social and political reform.
Little wonder, then, that family friend Mary Taylor was moved to describe the Brontës as ‘furious politicians’ by the mid-1850s. Charlotte, Emily and Anne’s first foray into publishing was in a volume of poems attributed to Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Avery explained that the pen names were deliberately chosen to be gender indeterminate, so that the three could avoid being judged as ‘women writers’, who at that time tended to concentrate on home, family and the less contentious aspects of life.
Charlotte analysed gender and power, Anne questioned religion, while Emily explored diametrically opposed images of imprisonment, claustrophobia, physical entrapment, liberty, escape and freedom – leading Avery to describe her as ‘one of the most accomplished poets of the 19th century’.
One of his most interesting assertions was that it was no coincidence that the sisters’ poems were written during the so-called ‘Hungry Forties’, when the real impact of industrialisation, such as slum housing, meagre food and poor health, were being felt. Not only was a large percentage of the native population lacking proper nutrition, the infamous Irish potato famine was forcing many to emigrate, mainly to America.
Avery posited that Wuthering Heights hero Heathcliff could well have been based on an Irish immigrant, as many of the Irish emigrated to America via Liverpool. Emily, he elaborated, perceived her imagination as her ‘true friend and solacer’ and nature as a space to which she and others could withdraw. Citing two lines of her poetry written in 1837….
"Only some spires of bright green grass
Transparently in the sunshine quivering"
….Avery pinpointed these as encapsulating ‘a moment of observation and insight’ with a sense of energy, celebrating blades of grass that, he suggested, evoked church spires and the radial stirrings of an alternative religion – a contentious stance for the daughter of a vicar. He pointed out that religion is satirized in Wuthering Heights, and in a poem entitled ‘Song’, a dead woman is at one with the natural world, there is no suggestion of an afterlife and images are terse and powerful, with philosophical depth.
Similarly, said Avery, the women’s subsequent novels challenged so much that the Victorian period held dear: the family portrayed as an institution that could be violent and destructive, marriage suffocating women’s dreams and desires, children torturing animals, the ‘logic’ of the class structure questioned and the established Church challenged and shown to be hypocritical.
All three sisters, he added, asserted the rights of women to have equal access in areas such as education, law and financial and practical independence, which he described as ‘an incendiary and astonishing mix’ of ideas in the 1840s. Both heroines in Charlotte Brontë’s novels Shirley and Villette are vying for equality and recognition. Even Anne, often perceived to be meek and mild, tackles the subject of marital rape in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, at a time when wives and children were the legal property of a husband. Heroine Helen Huntingdon leaves her bullying husband to establish herself as an artist and independent woman.
Unlike the 2016 BBC TV programme To Walk Invisible, written and directed by Sally Wainwright, which shows the private lives of the sisters as they tread the precarious line between anonymity and recognition for their skills as great writers, as well as grappling with Branwell’s addiction to drugs and alcohol, Avery set their achievements in a wider social and political context.
We learned much about Patrick Brontë’s impact on his talented children’s lives, but nothing about mother Maria’s potential influence – ironic, given that her daughters were unanimously feminist in their outlook. Fortunately, Avery mentioned a complementary text, When Maria met Patrick, The Mother of the Brontës, by Sharon Wright, which, according to the Historical Novel Society, ‘portrays a woman of intelligence, social savvy, wit and strength as well as a love of books’. Definitely one for the reading list – if not a future u3a lecture!
For 'older' reviews pls click Past Zoom Talks Reviews