Once again – finding the unexpected….

Sometimes in life you come across a place that exerts a pull on your emotions that  can be wondrous and unexpected.

naarden.jpgFor me it was the discovery of Naarden Vesting – a small visually delightful town in the Het Gooi region of Holland  that has an atmosphere of tranquillity totally in contrast to its profoundly dramatic history.

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Canals around Naarden viewed from a boat trip.  Wild waterlilies, flag irises  – blissfully peaceful -the only sound is birdsong.

Naarden, dates back to 887 but over the centuries storms caused flooding which resulted in  the village being re-built in a new location on higher ground where it remains until today. It was designated as a city around 1300.

Naarden Vesting is a jewel, situated in beautiful wooded countryside and in the centre of one of the few remaining star shaped forts, surrounded by water.  The town has narrow cobblestone streets, pavements of red brick and historic buildings that are architectural gems.  Overlooking all of this is the magnificent St. Vitus Church.  Climb the tower for a panoramic view as far as  Amsterdam and Utrecht.  ( A treat still in store for me).

Whilst researching this story I soon realised how little I knew about the history of the Netherlands, having assumed that it had always been there.  How wrong could I be!

In ancient times it was a difficult place to live, being covered with wetlands, rivers, lakes and woods, however on the plus side this made it almost impossible for enemies to invade.   The Romans succeeded in the 1st century, but only in the south.  As the Roman Empire declined,  the Franks arrived bringing Christianity and by the 9th century Naarden was part of Charlemagne’s empire.  After his death the country was divided into smaller states ruled by nobles and by then had already developed strong trade links with Asia and Africa.  

Later the Dukes of Burgundy took over, followed by the Habsburgs.  In 1555 the Habsburg emperor Charles V granted the Netherlands to his son Philip 11, King of Spain.(He who married Mary, daughter of King Henry V111 and later sent the doomed Spanish Armada to England)  He was a devout Catholic, saying “I would rather lose all my lands and a hundred lives than be king over heretics”.  He had “a smile that cuts like a sword’ and it was he who started the 80 Years War which proved catastrophic for the Netherlands.

The Dutch, now mainly Protestants (aka heretics) rebelled and protested against his cruel regime and harsh taxes, so his army began a relentless campaign to punish them.  They looted the city of Mechelen, until “no nail was left in any wall”, killing several hundred citizens.  Zutphen suffered a similar fate.  Hearing this, a delegation from Naarden attempted to negotiate with the Spanish, offering supplies and promising to swear an oath to the King. The army arrived, the residents assembled in the Town Hall to welcome them.  Instead 400 were locked inside and murdered, while another were 400 killed in the street. The soldiers then proceeded to kill all remaining inhabitants of Naarden, burning many to death in their homes.   Only 60 of the 3,000 residents escaped. 

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Etching of the Massacre at Naarden

This massacre, including the murder of his son, was witnessed and recorded by  Lambertus Hortensius a priest and sympathiser of the Reformers. Two years later he was buried in the Great Church in Naarden where his tombstone reads: ‘A man of great scholarship, an excellent man of letters, an ingenious historian and an astute leader of Naarden youth.

Contrary to the intent of the Spanish, the destruction of Naarden became a rallying symbol for the Dutch rebels who eventually proclaimed their independence in 1581 with the Union of Utrecht.

One of the few buildings in Naarden to survive was St Vitus’ Church,  built by Catholics (1380 – 1445) before the Reformation. When I entered I was dazzled by the magnificent interior and was fortunate to meet Frans, a dedicated guide, with a passion for his local history that was infectious. 

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The walls were brilliant white and the barrel vault ceiling, 65 metres (214 ft) high, was covered with 39 glorious paintings of scenes from the Old and the New Testaments. Whitewashing was a key strategy in the Protestants’ alteration of churches, when all former ornamentation was obliterated.  However for some reason these paintings were untouched.  It seems that they were so high no one could reach them, hence this magnificent art remains for us to enjoy.   I had to lay down flat on my back to take photos but Frans brought me a magnified mirror with which I could get a close up view more easily.P1080734.jpgHe then produced an hour glass (sand timer) explaining how this was essential in earlier times when preachers were only allowed to speak for twenty minutes.  If this was exceeded, they had to pay a fine to the State.   A wonderful idea!  I can think of many public speakers today who could usefully adopt this rule. Charles was so enthused by this notion that, back in London, he bought one and presented it to our Rabbi. I wonder if he will adopt the tradition?P1080744.jpgThe church can hold 1,000 people but nowadays only 100 attend Sunday services. They have regular organ recitals, the church reputedly having the best acoustics in Holland. I tested this myself with a rendition of a Spanish Zarzuela and confirm that it is true!  my voice easily reached the heavens. (fortunately no one else was there at the time.)

I next visited the Spanish House –  the Town Hall at the time of the massacre. I was warmly welcomed by Han, who related its history.  The building was partially restored in the 16th century, serving as a weighing house prior to the establishment of standard weights. The house is now a fine museum covering every aspect of Weights and Measures.

IMG_0723.jpg This depiction of the massacre is above the doorway of the Spanish House.
I was invited for drinks in the garden with Han’s neighbours, one of whom was celebrating his birthday.  Another example of the warm welcome I received everywhere on my trip.

But no story about this place can be complete without writing about the Vesting Fortress Museum. I was lucky enough to be guided by Goos,  (his real name, not a typo) who was charming, patient and very knowledgeable.  He was also a gunner which was an added bonus.

Bastion forts evolved when  gunpowder and cannons dominated the battlefield. They were first seen in 15th century Italy where star forts were designed by Michelangelo to defend Florence.  Naarden  was established to protect Amsterdam from the East and is listed as Europe’s only standing fortification with double walls and moats. Cannons were placed prominently on two levels of the hillocks – the higher for long range and the lower for short range fire.  Underground is a gunpowder room, and brick and mortar bomb proof buildings covered with earth (casemates).  Soldiers worked and slept here, patrolling a 61 metre ‘listening’ corridor from where they could hear enemy movements.  They wore soft footwear (no hobnailed boots) to ensure that no sparks ignited the gunpowder.

I watched some fascinating films, including one about the unique history of Dutch waterlines.   It was  remarkable learning how this small country, constantly threatened by the sea, has harnessed it in ingenious and positive ways.  ‘Netherlands’  means ‘low countries’ and 50% of its land is barely 1 metre above sea level. Since the 16th century 17%  more land has been reclaimed from both sea and lakes.  Great for cycling, but more impressive is how it was used for defence.

As far back as 1629  during times of conflict, areas were flooded with water maintained at a level deep enough to make advance on foot precarious, especially after the addition of underwater obstacles such as pits, or barbed wire and  land mines in later years. The water was too shallow for enemy boats but locals could still use their flat bottomed boats to move around easily.  Their ingenuity was boundless.IMG_0702.jpgphoto courtesy Goos Van Gorkum.

For me the visit was an eye opener.   I learned so much, most of which, owing to lack of space, I cannot include here.  This small country that was at the pinnacle of world trading in the 17th century, now ranks fifth place worldwide with regard to prosperity; is the sixth largest economy in the EU and is the second largest exporter of agri-food products after the USA.  Add to this their  brilliant football team. They have played in more Cup Finals than any other country and are affectionately referred to as  “the best team never to have won the World Cup”. 

I came away with  a deep admiration and love for the Dutch and lasting memories of the 19 new friends I met on my brief stay – hopefully all by now reading my stories – I only hope they approve of my observations about their very special nation.

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For Men Only…..

 

Recently I was contacted by Giles,  an old friend, to ask if we could meet for coffee near Green Park, London.

We first met in 1971 as volunteers for The Samaritans in Sunderland. He was training to be an Anglican priest, was ordained in Durham Cathedral and since then we have kept in touch. 

We  met and chatted for an hour until Giles, looking at his watch, said he had to go shopping and would I accompany him?  Now I  really do detest shopping, but for some  unknown reason agreed, and guess what?  An unexpected world was revealed to me,    resulting in this story.

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Our first stop was Trumper’s, Curzon Street,  established 1875 to provide barber services for the elite and awarded a Royal Warrant  “By Appointment to HRH The Prince of Wales.”   It was as if entering an exclusive men’s club. I learned that “Facial hair requires the finest tools to maintain a well groomed appearance which, when used in combination with a lavender moustache wax, can sculpt facial hair into any required style”. Imagine, an entire shop devoted to mens shaving accessories! Brushes of badger or boar hair lined the shelves as did horn and rosewood special brushes for hair, moustache or beard.

Trumpers brushes xx.JPG        Display of Trumpers shaving brushes.

 Their gift selection included  carbon fibre cigar cutters, sterling silver collar stiffeners and pocket handkerchiefs. It was here that I learned  the difference between a pocket handkerchief and a pocket square: the first is for ‘blow’ and the latter for ‘show’. Nothing disposable here. They specialise in perfumery (elegantly named Wellington, Astor and Marlborough) and offer personal services – moustache trim, curl and wax,  shave with hot towels, ‘Friction’ and much more all of which take place in discreetly curtained booths.

A Trumper’s leaflet advises on ‘the correct use of an open-razor’ and their Shaving School provides one-to-one tuition on wet shaving.  I found it utterly fascinating – a tribute to the eminence of a tradition that, thankfully, is still upheld and admired world wide.

 That same day I saw a web enquiry from an undoubted personage in Vancouver. His 16 year old  son was beginning to grow facial hair. The father was adamant that his son should have a true ‘gentleman’s experience’ by having  his first shave in London.  Trumper’s was chosen. Apparently this is a regular occurrence for Trumpers at both their shops, the second one being in Duke of York Street, St James.  I accept that this is a rite of passage that I, as a female, could never experience. 

From here we strolled in leisurely fashion to Trickers in Jermyn Street to buy shoes.    Giles as a 13 years old was  greeted as ‘Master Giles’ on first entering their establishment by appointment in 1949. Now 81, he has never once bought shoes elsewhere.  There cannot be many firms that can claim customer loyalty for almost 70 years.   But this is Jermyn Street,  a unique place that began in 1664 when Charles II permitted Henry Jermyn, the Earl of St Albans,  to develop the area near to St James’s Palace.  From its earliest days it was a street of distinction. 

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All shoes in Trickers are stored in special sections of the cupboards below.  This system has been in use for generations.

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James Tricker founded his company in 1829.    In 1840 young Walter James Barltrop (aged 7), made a leather boot which was a very early example that eventually was developed into  their  renowned  waterproof country wear for the landed gentry.  Barltrop married Tricker’s daughter and the company is today managed by his descendants who maintain high standards both in the quality of their merchandise and their exemplary customer services.  The courtesy and care extended to Giles demonstrated how buying a pair of shoes can be transformed into an event to be savoured.     

Today they have many Far Eastern clients who regard visiting Trickers for shoes as a ‘must’. However as part of the experience, they insist on having  photographs  taken with the salesman holding a Trickers bag containing their purchases.

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On returning home I mentioned my shopping expedition to Charles who asked “Was it Trickers you visited?“   This surprised me, as to my knowledge, Charles has always been a strictly M&S shoe man, but appearances are  deceptive. It seems that 40 years ago, Charles and his good friend Bob (later Lord) Gavron were playing squash at the RAC Club in Pall Mall.   After the game Charles returned to the changing room to find that his shoes had been stolen.   Unperturbed, Bob said “No problem, come with me.”  and took Charles, shoeless but wearing socks, for the ten minute walk to Trickers.

Charles entered.  The two salesmen obviously noted that he was unshod but, showed not a glimmer of either surprise or curiosity,  instead politely asking  “How may we help you sir?”.  The French have a word for it – sangfroid.

   Nowadays sales personnel can be brusque, dismissive or simply too busy on their mobile phones to pay attention to customers.  Trumpers and Trickers have  mastered the art of ‘doing things the right way’  an experience   replicated at many of the shops in Jermyn Street.  Turnbull & Asser (est.1885) produce, amongst other items, the finest hand made shirts. You choose from 2,000 fabrics,  13 collar and 11 cuff styles.  Another rite of passage no doubt. Their  customers  have included  Charlie Chaplin, Pablo Picasso, Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan and Daniel Craig.

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 Display cabinets at Floris. 

Many  other establishments in Jermyn Street have illustrious histories.  Aquascutum fashions (1861), Alfred Dunhill  began selling motoring accessories in 1893, and  Floris perfumers (1730) whose  magnificent display cabinets, still used today, were purchased at the Great Exhibition of 1851.  Their archives contain a letter from Florence Nightingale thanking them for a “fragrant nosegay” that helped her avoid the terrible odours in the hospitals where she worked.  Daks fashion house dates from 1894  and holds three royal warrants  and amongst all of this is  Paxton & Whitfield,  the oldest cheese shop in the UK (founded 1797) but not, I hasten to add, solely for men.

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Walking down Jermyn Street is a journey through history. A statue of Beau Brummell, Regency dandy and arbiter of men’s fashion, stands immediately facing the magnificent Piccadilly Arcade – also filled with attire for men. He never lived in this street but is noted as saying “to be elegant one should not be noticed.” An adage that wins my seal of approval.  He had an extraordinary life  but, sadly died in a French asylum in poverty.

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However  Sir Isaac Newton lived here for 65 years and Napoleon III sought refuge  here after the Third Republic was proclaimed in Paris in 1871.  Another famous resident, who both lived and died here, was Al Bowlly, an iconic jazz singer of the 1930’s.  He was killed instantly by a Luftwaffe bomb that exploded outside his apartment.  He was 42 years old.

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I looked him up on Youtube and was immediately captivated by this immensely talented performer.  Surprisingly, I knew all the words of his songs  such as  ‘Blue Moon,’ ‘The Very Thought of You’, ‘Melancholy Baby’, ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’, Two Sleepy People’ and  more –  possibly because they were classic hits for years,   but also as they were used in much later films  by Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick and quite recently  ‘The Kings Speech’ and  Woody Allen’s ‘Magic in the Moonlight’, (2014).

 

I urge you to spend ten minutes listening to him.   He was elegant and urbane with a divine voice.  Jermyn Street seems to me to be the ideal place for him to have spent time.

This story about sartorial elegance reminds me of the tale of the Jewish boy who escaped Nazi Europe and came to England. His father remained behind living in a small village but his son vowed that one day he would bring his father over to join him.   Eventually that day arrived.

At the airport he embraced a little stooped figure, bearded and wearing traditional shtetl clothes.

“Papa, I am so happy to see you. I want to give you something now to make up for our years apart”.   He took him first to a barber where his hair and beard were trimmed. Next, they visited top class outfitters where he was measured for the finest cotton shirts and following this a bespoke suit from Savile Row.    Hand made leather shoes, a bowler hat and a rolled umbrella completed the ensemble.

Finally the son took his father gently by the hand and  went over to a mirror so that  he could see himself in his new finery.  The son thought his father looked magnificent.

“Well Papa, what do you think?”  he asked.  Suddenly he saw tears streaming down his father’s face.   “Papa”, he said anxiously,   please, tell me what is wrong?”

The old man turned to him and sighed “I am crying because we had to give up the Empire”. 

 

 

It all began with Adam and Eve….

am often asked how I find inspiration for my stories. They emerge from a variety of sources – sometimes unexpected incidents that lead me to explore new paths and produce a host of ideas.  

One such event occurred recently on discovering the Mikanmor boutique in Jerusalem where  a group of designers covering fashion, textile design, object design and jewellery combine their talents to produce a distinctive selection of stunning products made from leather.

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                                                   Mikanmor in Jerusalem

I was so impressed by their creativity and dedication that I decided to write about them but how best to tell their tale?   I chose to start with the origins of leather.  Where did it begin?  How did it develop and what significance  did it have in Jewish culture?

Tanning leather is one of the oldest known human activities.  Cave paintings from early paleolithic times in Spain illustrate the existence of leather clothing.  Archaeological finds from 40,000 and 10,000 years ago revealed tools, similar to those used much later for cleaning hides. There is also ample evidence from Egyptian wall paintings of the uses of leather and Homer’s writings refer to its role in Ancient Greece.  

Animal skins were plentiful but became stiff when cold and rotted in heat, being unusable without cleaning and curing.  Ancient methods were noxious.   Once the hair was removed tanners pounded excrement from dogs or pigeons into the skin and soaked it in a solution of animal brains.  This undoubtedly accounted for its bad smell, particularly when combined with decaying flesh. The tanner then trod the skins with his bare feet for three hours.   Children were employed to collect human urine from ‘piss pots’ in the towns to be used in the process. 

Surprisingly animal brains are  still used today by outdoorsmen (hunting and shooting  types) for tanning hides. Websites abound extolling the superlative effect on leather using this method. Later processes used vegetable tannin from tree bark and also chromium  which gives the leather a distinctive blue colour. 

 What I describe merely scratches the surface of a very complex process that once took up to a year, but now is just a few of days. Traditional tanning continues at Fez in Morocco.  What you perhaps do not know is that Fez is listed as one of the ‘ten smelliest but most interesting places  for tourists to visit.’    Curious what people choose to do on vacations!

tanneries in Fez, Morocco

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I had my own experience of noisome leather  many years ago when, as a middle-class Jewish housewife and mother of three boys,  I  enrolled to study sociology at Durham University.  Wanting to fit into the somewhat hippy environment I bought, as was popular then, an Afghan coat.  I loved it but never understood why it smelled so bad, a factor which resulted in the coat and I eventually parting company.  Unbelievably, it is only whilst researching this story now that I discovered my coat was malodorous because it had been cured with sheep urine… had I known then, my enthusiasm to buy would have faded rapidly.

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The Jewish connection  with hides dates back to the Book of Genesis  where it is recorded that God gave Adam and Eve ‘coats of skin” when they realised they were naked.

According to the Mishnah, Jewish tanneries had to be situated on the eastern side of a town at least 50 cubits (25 metres) away from private homes because it was such a smelly process.   Locals could prevent their neighbours from becoming tanners who in addition  were forbidden to enter the Temple. Their status was rock bottom owing to the terrible smell that permeated their flesh – as  The Talmud says “The world cannot exist without a perfume-maker or a tanner – happy is he whose craft is a perfume-maker, woe to him who is a tanner.” 

The Mishnah also states that a man who works as a tanner can be compelled to give his wife a divorce if she demands it.  Perhaps  this ruling against  bad odours could  be extended today to include those who take public transport but seemingly choose to shower only once a month, whether they need it or not.

In nomadic times leather was used for making vessels that could easily transport water and olive oil.  It was also used for a wide range of tools and utensils and provided warriors  with weapons, shields and helmets.

iu.jpegLeather shoes are mentioned in the Bible  – from the Song of Songs –  ‘How beautiful are thy feet in sandals’- highly relevant in  today’s Israel where sandals are the norm for men and women for at least eight months of the year.  The importance of owning footwear is also spelled out in the Talmud:  ‘A man should sell the roof beams of his house to buy shoes for his feet’. 

In Jewish ritual, leather has a significant role.   The scrolls of the Torah are made of parchment from the skin of a sheep, as is the biblical text inside a Mezuzah – a small box fixed to doorposts.  Men wear Tefillin  for their daily prayers.   All these items can only use skins of kosher animals in their preparation which must be supervised by a rabbi.mezuza.jpgMezuza              

  Another  traditional ceremony is  ‘Chalitza’, when a childless widow  can be released from the biblical injunction to marry her deceased husband’s brother.   He puts on a special leather sandal, she undoes the laces, removes it from his foot, throws it to the ground and spits on the ground. Job done.

In the Middle Ages, tanning was work for Jews because of its low status.     From such modest beginnings trading in hides became an important area of Jewish commerce throughout Europe and beyond.    Records attest to the numbers involved.  In the late 17c 45 Jewish tanners and 730 shoemakers  worked in Algiers.  In Moravia in the early 18c two tanneries were Jewish owned and 79 leased by them.   Bohemia had 86 Jewish tanners and furriers, 146 hide and leather merchants. In late 19c Germany there were hundreds of Jews  producing purses, wallets and cases and their family names identified their profession – Lederer, Gerber, Ledermann and Peltz.  Similarly in other countries –  the lists are endless.

In Israel the industry was boosted by immigration from Europe in the 1930’s when 850 were employed in 61 firms.  One major source of income during the Mandate was the production of around one million pairs of boots for the British army.

And now back to Mikanmor – they follow an ancient tradition but give it a very modern appeal.  They told me that visitors to their studios love the ‘intoxicating aroma’ of the leather.  I find it curious that a product with such a malodorous past can become so highly desirable and particularly attractive to the senses.

In 1781  King George lll’s glove maker, James Creed, was commissioned to perfume  the gloves of the English Royal Court – necessary to hide the odour of the poor hygiene at that time. From this developed the perfume Royal English Leather.  Creed is still one of the most prestigious perfumers in London.

Today the smell of ‘leather’ is the preferred fragrance for men along with tobacco. ‘Polo’ by Ralph Lauren claims to be  ‘A masculine expression of wood, leather and tobacco and  English Leather ‘Timberline’ ‘has a truly mesmerising aroma with a combination of woody and leather notes’ – ‘it can drop a woman at 50 yards’ –  whatever that means.!

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I myself have never knowingly experienced this, but am thankful  that ‘real men’ (whoever they may be) have not yet gone as far as creating perfumes redolent of beer and sweat.

As for Mikanmor, I am grateful to them for introducing me to their wonderful products and especially for opening the door to a fascinating history that I enjoyed exploring, to my surprise,  despite being a vegetarian.P1080635.JPGmore mikanmor

If Only……

The other day a friend asked whether I had ever experienced an ‘IF ONLY’ moment in my life, for example had I ever had occasion to pause and reflect about something I had longed to do but failed to achieve it.

My immediate reaction was ‘No’, as for me yesterday is gone and I am very much rooted in today, looking neither backwards nor forwards.

She said she didn’t believe me and there must be something I had overlooked, so, as one does, when unable to sleep in the early hours of the morning, I thought again, and sure enough something did come up.

I had always dreamed of being a dancer. As a small child I recall sitting in the cinema on a Saturday afternoon with my Russian grandmother watching endless Hollywood movies. They were spellbinding. We left the theatre in a dream state “trailing clouds of glory” to quote Wordsworth. It was just after the war when, during times of austerity, Hollywood led us into fantasy worlds far removed from our everyday lives.

I remember the glamour and the songs in those seminal musicals, from the 40’s – Carmen Jones, Oklahoma, On The Town, Carousel, Annie Get Your Gun, Brigadoon, Finian’s Rainbow, Kiss Me Kate, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and South Pacific.

Then in the 50’s The King and I, Call Me Madam, Guys and Dolls, CanCan, Damn Yankees, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Flower Drum Song, and the Sound of Music. The list is endless.

This was a prolific and rich period with composers such as George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, (later Rodgers and Hammerstein), Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen and Leonard Bernstein filling our lives with the unforgettable lyrics of their classics.   Today reading a list of melodies from the ‘Great American Songbook’ (which was never published as such but just refers to the creative output of that period), I realise that I know every word of almost every song whereas ask me anything post Beatles and I am stumped.

My friends and I dreamed of experiencing that glittering world on screen. We imagined how it felt to be Ginger Rogers partnered by Fred Astaire, gliding across the floor in a bias cut frock, or being Leslie Caron or the divine Audrey Hepburn partnered with Gene Kelly.

Neither I nor any of my friends were sent to ballet lessons but I do remember a brief sojourn as a tap dancer and until today I can recall all the steps and the music – the ‘Anniversary Waltz”.

At grammar school we had ballroom dancing during lunch breaks. All I recollect of this embarrassing ritual was how we uniformed schoolgirls danced with our female teachers.ScanI was asked to dance by our English mistress ( see above)  and had to take the lead, which must have looked very odd as she was very well endowed and I was one of the smallest in the class. I clearly remember placing my hand gingerly in the centre of her back, but instead of encountering voluptuous female flesh my hand rested against what must have been the armour plating of the day, an all encompassing corset. Even writing this now I recall the overwhelming feeling of distaste and my relief when our foxtrot reached its end. Amazingly this did not diminish my love for ballroom dancing, it merely reinforced my determination to make sure I had an appropriate partner next time round.

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Dancing did however take another more enjoyable form at the ice skating rink in Cheetham Hill, Manchester where I had occasional dance lessons with the professional teachers. I continued this until my early twenties when, whilst living in Middlesbrough, I would skate three times a week. I remember wondering, as I circled the rink endlessly in an anticlockwise direction, whether this was all my future held for me, but it was glorious being whirled across the ice dancing the waltz or tango, supported in the arms of the instructor who made it feel so easy and totally sublime.

Music was a natural part of our childhood. Dad and his two brothers were professional musicians – he played saxophone, clarinet and piano accordion with Billy Cotton and his band.

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Mother told me that they met and fell in love when she appeared on stage at one of his concerts and sang “Mean To Me” – a bluesy classic written in 1929, recorded by Billie Holliday in 1937, a year before my parents wedding. It was later recorded by greats such as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Sara Vaughan and Dean Martin.

Father always looked dapper and elegant as was the fashion in those days. No sloppy casual clothes for him, but wide leg slacks, tight fitted jackets and two-tone brogues.

vic nice shoes.jpgMother too was the epitome of style, slender and long waisted. I remember clearly her 39th birthday. She was dressing to go out. In those days my parents attended many ‘functions’. To watch her make up and dress was pure theatre from her powder puff and dressing table ornaments to her silk stockings.

That night she wore a dark royal blue silk bias cut full length evening dress. The shoulders were padded as was the fashion, and there was a triangular cut out shape at her neckline. In her tumbling auburn hair she wore a blue bird, the same colour as the dress and her matching shoes. “How do I look?” she asked. “I am getting old, I am 39”. I gazed at her admiringly and confirmed that I had never seen anyone quite so glamorous. She was the closest I had ever come to my fantasy world of the movies.

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Throughout her life mother was immaculate, always formally attired and well groomed. For her it would have been social suicide to appear before anyone without makeup or in her dressing gown. Quite unthinkable. Appearances were everything and had to be maintained. Her best friend ‘Auntie Faye’, was a milliner and she too looked like a fashion plate right into her nineties.

Thirty years ago they came to visit us in Jerusalem. I tried really hard to give them a memorable week. Afterwards I asked what Faye had to say about it, to which Mother replied “She wondered if you are letting yourself go”. It was then I realised I could never live up to Mother’s exacting standards and didn’t stand a chance in the fashion stakes.

Mother loved dancing. I took her to the Royal Albert Hall to see ‘Songs from the Shows’ where we sang along, both feeling nostalgic and emotional. How she would have adored the ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ series to which I have become addicted.

I did have a brief excursion into the world of tango, when Charles and I booked dance classes, prior to a trip to Argentina. It was not hugely successful, because whilst Charles is wonderful in every other respect, on the dance floor he was somewhat out of his comfort zone. But once in Buenos Aires we attended a tango session in a seedy downtown hall – it was magical!

So there it is. My ‘If Only’ is revealed to the world and yes, I would love to have met a man who can dance – not so well as to make me feel inadequate, but just well enough to steer me around a dance floor in time to the music.

So what can I do about it? I did have my first public solo singing performance after retirement age in Jerusalem, so is it entirely naïve to think that the world of dance has escaped me for ever? We shall have to wait and see. Miracles do occasionally happen.

Re Cycling and Re inventing the Wheel.

Presentation first page.jpg27 years ago when my father died he left me with an amazing legacy – the gift of curiosity. He was a talented musician and artist who could turn his hand to anything. Perhaps it is his influence that provides me with the inspiration to write – especially when it concerns new and original ideas. This tale fits the bill perfectly.

My research led me to many sources that focused on the shared characteristics of inventors from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs. The first thing they must have is the passion to turn their dream into a reality. They also need curiosity, an investigative analytical mind, an ability to see the ‘big picture’ plus fearlessness to deal with the inevitable setbacks on their journey to success.

One such person is without doubt Izhar Gafni about whom I first heard in 2013, an Israeli mechanical engineer and cycling enthusiast who was inspired to create the world’s first all cardboard bicycle.

One day on a visit to his local bike store, he engaged the owner in a conversation about his ‘crazy’ idea to build a cardboard bike. He had heard about someone who had built a cardboard canoe and figured that, if this worked, why not a bike? The shop owner had only one comment “It’s impossible”.

However to say ‘impossible’ to an inventor merely provides him immediately with the challenge to succeed. A prime example was in 1895 when the Wright Brothers were told by many leading scientists and engineers of the day, that heavier than air flying machines were an impossibility.  Eight years later they became a reality. (see below)

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But back to the cardboard bike. There had been a earlier example, built by a student of product design at Sheffield University in 2008. But his prototype barely survived six months of regular use and was unsuitable for anyone weighing more than 76 kilos. In addition, its tyres, drivetrain and brakes were taken from a regular bike and as they were handmade, were quite expensive.

Gafni was convinced that he could use only waste materials to realise his dream and so began the complex process of facing his many real challenges. At this stage no technology existed to determine the mathematical properties of cardboard. Gafni needed to calculate this in order to produce a machine which could withstand a pressure of 500lbs. He also had to redefine the wheel structure, the frame design, the transmission parts and the saddle.

His method was based on the Japanese art of Origami, or paper folding. He realised that folding and refolding the cardboard would strengthen it to the stage when it would be suitable for shaping. He began to cut the sections of the frame from this reinforced material and next the parts were stiffened with a special varnish  resin mixture to increase durability and strength. Finally waterproof coating and lacquered paint were added and the bike reached the assembly stage.

RM.PNG The frame, wheels, handlebar and saddle on this single speed bike are all made of cardboard. The brakes, tyres and drivetrain are made of other recycled materials such as  plastic and used car tyres and the finished bike is both fire and water resistant.  (Below the bike in evolution)Bike Evolution-P7-Alfa.jpg

Gafni however was motivated not just by the technical challenges but also by the need to make his bike eco-friendly and affordable. The annual packaging waste generated in the EU alone is 34 million tons. Using waste materials meant that his cardboard bike would cost less than $20 to produce on an automatic production line – an essential part of the company’s technology. The advantages of such a bicycle are self-evident, particularly in low income countries where factories could be set up, which, in turn would generate employment.

Gafni also wanted to produce a bicycle which would be less attractive to thieves because of its low cost.  Bicycle theft is an immense problem.  I found many websites showingstolenbikechicago-600.jpgphotos of stolen bikes provided by victims in the vain hope they might recover their beloved, and very expensive, machines. One site alone has 500 pages with 12 stolen bikes displayed on each page. Sadly, hardly any are ever retrieved, since whatever security devices are employed, thieves somehow manage to steal the bikes, often leaving the owner with just one forlorn wheel tied to a railing.

I  became fascinated with Izhar’s  project but could not find updates on the web and so decided to try to contact Cardboard Technologies in Caesarea, the start up established by Gafni, to learn of the project’s progress.  I  received an immediate reply from their CEO Nimrod Elmish. He told me that their initial press coverage in 2013 had been so overwhelming that they decided to go into ‘stealth mode’ to give them time to sort out the patent issues concerning their products.

This took almost four to five years, but the good news is that now they are ready to go ahead and their first product, a balance bike for children, will start mass production in Israel in June 2018.   The first two years’ production — approximately half a million bikes a year — are already designated for major retailers in North America. (see below)balance-bike-2-1.jpgNext on the production line will be a cardboard wheelchair. Gafni and Elmish decided to produce this before the bike in the belief that giving help to those who cannot walk was a major priority for Cardboard Technology. Hopefully both the chairs and the bikes will reach the market in 24 months or so. They will then be able to market these for $49-59 each. ( below, wheelchair and Alfa P9 bike)WC P5.jpg

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Gafni, of course, is never someone who can  sit back and relax and he is already busy working on the prototype for his first cardboard electric car.

As for the future the Company also plans to produce cardboard housing in order to be able to respond rapidly to natural disasters wherever they occur in the world. Gafni and his colleagues are truly on the brink of providing a range of products that will both benefit the environment and contribute significantly to helping the disadvantaged.

Writing this story led me to reflect on my own, rather limited, cycling experience. I was never allowed a bike as a child, my parents considering it to be too dangerous. However I recall that some time after I met Charles, my second husband, we visited a spa for a few days.  Rested and relaxed, on the last day he suggested we go out biking. All was fine until a couple of hours later we had almost returned to the spa, when Charles lost control, crashed into my bike and sent me flying into a spiky hedgerow from which I emerged bruised, lacerated and bleeding.

We returned home to be greeted by my son Richard, who, on seeing my pitiable condition confronted Charles and warned him saying “Listen, if you do this to my mother again you will have me to answer to!”

In spite of this traumatic episode, I remain optimistic that I might manage to ride a bike at least one more time. I am invited to visiting Cardboard Technologies  where I hope not just  to ride on a bike but mostly to meet their dedicated team, including  Izhar Gafni, a man with cycling in his soul, who through his labour of love, dedication and determination has come up with so many wonderfully original ideas to help this world of ours.  I will keep you posted!

Probably the most satisfaction I got from writing this story was deciding on the title : RE CYCLING and RE INVENTING THE WHEEL!

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The Dream Team

 

All company photographs courtesy of Cardboard Technology

a Frothy Tale and Chic(k) Couture

For this story I decided to tackle the subject of Israel’s seemingly endless ability to invent – particularly in the fields of medical science and high tech. However, being a self-confessed technophobe my concern is that I probably would not understand what I am writing about. I decided, therefore, to select two imaginative innovations which, whilst maybe not world shattering in their impact, are nevertheless worthy of a mention.

My first choice must be the machine that originated in Prof. Shlomo Magdassi’s lab at the Hebrew University. What does it do? For those of you coffee devotees who like like your latte or cappuccino topped with foam, you can now choose to order it with a message printed in the foam such as “Good Morning Darling”, “Happy Birthday”, or even with a photograph of a loved one – all produced in less than 10 seconds.

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The Israeli machine, called the Ripple Maker, was launched at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in 2016 where it won a major prize. It works by combining 3D printing technology with an ink-jet system that prints out natural coffee extract.

The people most likely to feel the impact of this are the baristas. Those coffee house employees who serve espresso and have over the past decade mastered the art of producing  ‘designer beverages’, illustrated with hearts or leaves, by pouring steamed milk into the coffee and etching designs with the use of a small pencil-like tool.

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However with the Ripple Maker, the barista can elevate ‘Latte Art’, as it is now called,  to new heights and – to quote the manufacturers – “You don’t just get a beverage – you get a piece of artwork.” It seems almost a shame that you have to drink it.

Today there is a craze on social media for taking pictures of food and sharing them with friends. This has gone ‘viral’ with a high proportion of such photos featuring ‘photogenic coffee’. It is the second most popular subject for snapping after the selfie.

Statistics show that since 2015 photogenic coffee posts on Instagram have risen by 4500%. Of those who post, 65% are female of of these 68% are 35 years and older. China is the country that posts the highest percentage of food pictures on social media each week – 34% of the entire population. Frankly I am not quite sure what these statistics tell us and am personally  at a total loss as to why on earth anyone should want to share a photo of their coffee with a friend. My granddaughter attempted to explain this phenomenon to me, but as as I haven’t drunk coffee since 1956, am obviously of the wrong generation and am not hooked into social media, her message fell on deaf ears.

I do however clearly remember my first introduction to this food phenomenon. Eight years ago I received a Facebook message and photograph from a close friend, who incidentally, was an influential corporate vice president, telling me how, at 11am that morning she had eaten a chocolate muffin. After my initial feeling of puzzled disbelief I was tempted to reply “Thank you so much for informing me of your magnificent achievement – it has made my day” but decided against it.

However I fully believe that anything that makes you smile or lightens your day gets top marks in my book. The Ripple Maker is not only fun but has created a massive market for advertisers to display their messages in an entirely new area – one’s daily cuppa.

But this passion for foam has gone to ever more exotic lengths – this time in Taiwan. Here latte art has become three dimensional – where skilled baristas have mastered the art of sculpting an image of your beloved pet in the foam on your coffee and painting the details to get a truly life-like representation.

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I can almost understand the pleasure one might get from having such a representation of a beloved pet on top of one’s coffee, but what I can’t quite comprehend is how one must feel when demolishing and devouring it – does that not strike you as slightly cannibalistic – or am I oversensitive?

 

Another Israeli scientific development, this time involving animals of the feathered variety, comes from Avigdor Cahana an Israeli geneticist at the Rehovot Agronomy Institute. In 2002 his team began research to create a featherless hen by cross breeding a regular broiler with a species that has a neck without feathers.

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The objectives in producing a ‘naked’ bird were several. Primarily it was to create a bird that does not require constant cooling to be kept alive. In hot countries expensive cooling systems are necessary to breed factory farmed chickens. In heat waves these systems can break down with the result that many birds die which is both cruel and wasteful of resources. However a lack of feathers enhances the bird’s natural cooling system – similar to someone not wearing a coat as compared to someone wearing one. Thus with naked birds there is a saving of electricity and nor do they require plucking, a lengthy and costly process, before reaching the market.featherless-chicken-jalwah-facebook_orig.jpg

In 2012 after many trials and modifications, Professor Cahaner, confirmed his initial hopes, restating that his was not a genetically modified chicken, but rather one from a natural breed whose characteristics have been known for 50 years. These traits were transferred to quick growing broilers, and his scientists have demonstrated how this new breed grows larger as it wastes no energy on creating feathers. The chicken tastes exactly the same as before but is healthier, being low fat.

Not unexpectedly, the Compassion In World Farming Lobby claim that these changes make chickens’ lives unbearable. Males are unable to mate as they cannot flap their wings and lose their balance during the mating process. In addition featherless chickens are more prone to attracting parasites and skin infections through injuries and and will be more sensitive to temperatures, even getting sun burn.

Whichever side of this fence you stand, these birds are certainly somewhat shocking to look at.   I, as a vegetarian, gave up the benefits of Jewish Penicillin (chicken soup) many years ago and I must say I did not really enjoy writing about this topic, until discovering some surprising facts about the extent to which others carry their concerns for fowl.

8619620-3x2-large.jpgIn Queensland there exists a group of women who knit and sew coats for ex-battery hens that have lost feathers due to ill health and old age and are unused to outdoor life and cold weather. They create these outfits ‘with absolute love’ and their designers are encouraged to be creative and use bright colours because “ it’s important that the chickens are happy, as well as warm.”

Another coterie of devoted knitters in Sussex, UK, are also making fashion items for their rescued battery hens. They name their outfit the Chikini. And in Cornwall a mother and daughter team have spent the past year knitting to provide their 60 hens with winter warmers in a variety of patterns and shades.

knits-tiny-chicken-jumpers-battery-hens-nicola-congdon-cornwall-61.jpgThey say that their chickens really  like the sweaters and don’t try to remove them. Apparently requests have been received from all over the world from those wanting to buy these designer clothes for their own chicks  – and all credit to Mother and daughter, they have stipulated that the profits will go to an AIDS orphanage in South Africa.

In spite of this, one question remains in my mind – are all these conscientious knitters vegetarians, or do they, at the end of a day spent busily with needles clicking, nip out to the local take-away to get their chicken nuggets or creamy chicken korma?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Send In The Clowns – Working Their Magic

Clowns have been around for millennia. 5000 years ago pygmies, dressed in animal skins and masks, danced to amuse the Pharaohs. The Chinese Emperor, he who built the Great Wall, had his own personal clown attached to the Imperial Court. The Greeks put them in short tunics padded with huge grotesque phalluses strapped to their loins. The Romans had mime artists grimacing and pulling faces and others named ‘Stupidus’ (no prizes for guessing his speciality), Scurra ( scurrilous) and Moriones (moron). ancient_greek_clowns.jpg

Greek Jesters

In the Middle Ages it was customary for grand houses and courts to maintain fools. They were well treated, being considered endowed with special powers from the gods. They served royalty as court jesters with the right of free speech at a time when this was not permitted for the mass of the population.

220px-Rahere_Jester_to_Henry_1st.jpgJester to King Henry 1 – Rahere

The jester to King Edward IV in 1400’s was, unusually, an Oxford don. His maxim was “a merry heart doth good, like a medicine” – an adage echoed in many cultures. Earlier, In 1123 Rahere a courtier and jester to Henry I, became ill on a pilgrimage to Rome. He vowed that should he recover he would build a hospital for the poor to honour St Bartholomew. He survived. The hospital – Barts – has been one of London’s leading hospitals ever since.

Today’s clowns however, do not derive from this courtly heritage but rather from street performers. Professional improvised comedy known as Commedia Del Arte began in Italy at the time of the Renaissance. Harlequin, the central character, would chastise adversaries with his magical bat – his ‘slapstick’. It was also at this time that the word ‘clown’ entered our vocabulary, the first instance being in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

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Harlequin with his slapstick.

As circuses became popular centres of entertainment, clowns performed both there and in theatres – several becoming world famous such as the English actor, dancer and comedian Joseph Grimaldi (b.1778) and Charlie Cairoli (b.1910) – an English-Italian musician and impressionist. There were many others and the silent movie era heralded a host of talented clowns including Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy.

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I guess that clowning was never really considered a suitable job for a ‘nice Jewish boy’, but we do have a couple of co-religionists in this field of whom we can be justly proud. Marcel Marceau, a Frenchman (b.1923) whose father died in Auschwitz, went into hiding during WW2 working for the French Resistance. He first began using mime to keep Jewish children quiet whilst helping them to escape to Switzerland. In 1988, he was awarded the Legion d’Honneur, and the Order of Merit in France. He was an elected member of the Academy of Fine Arts, Berlin, and declared a ‘National Treasure’ in Japan.

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Marcel Marceau

Happily my research also led me to Avner the Eccentric, (Avner Eisenberg b.1948) hailed as one of the greatest clowns of all times in the US. I watched as many of his YouTube videos as I could find and he really is a great performer – hugely talented and very funny.

images.jpegAvner the Eccentric

His extensive and varied career has included hypnotherapy, developing silent theatre skills as a therapeutic tool and much more. He also sits on the Board of Directors of a synagogue in Portland, Maine. Having read quite a bit about synagogue politics recently, it seems to me highly appropriate to have a clown perform such a function.

The medical profession has long recognised the value of art and music therapy to alleviate the anxiety of patients in hospitals, but in recent years this has taken a new form – medical clowning. It began in the 1970’s, inspired by Patch Adams, an American physician, social activist, clown, and author. ( featured in the film starring Robin Williams.)

In Israel too an entirely new breed of clowns have professionalized ‘clown therapy’, now developed into a research-backed healthcare discipline. In 2002 the Dream Doctors Project started at Hadassah Hospital, Ein Kerem. Courses were eventually set up to train clowns to become skilled paramedics integrated with the clinical teams.IMG_6463.JPG

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Trainees must have a background in dramatic arts including acting, street theatre and physical clowning. I spoke at length to David Barashi (DuSH) whom I first met on his visit to London where he gave master-classes to English clowns. He explained that clowning is a more complex process than acting as it requires the subtlety of non-verbal communication, body language and empathy as to how ‘the other’ may feel and react.

The clown develops this added dimension in order to decide whether to approach patients with gusto, or quietly and gently to gain their trust. Non-verbal communication is often more explicit than words, particularly useful in Israel where much of the population is a mix of peoples speaking many different languages.

Dream Doctors undergo five months of intensive training including theory and practical studies – expressive art therapy, psychology, nursing and medicine as well as physical clowning and acting. During an average year over 100 Dream Doctors, working in 29 hospitals, have contact with approximately 200,000 patients and work closely with physicians to assist with more than 40 medical procedures.

I visited Hadassah and following DuSH around the wards. It was a truly moving experience to observe how sensitively he judged the state of mind of each patient to decide how best to be accepted by them. Everyone he encountered became at ease and was left smiling. After seeing him in action it was no surprise to learn the extent to which this work has had such an impact.DuSh Hadassah.jpeg   DuSH

Research results demonstrate how the presence of a medical clown reduces anxiety in patients and their families. It can reduce pain, lessen the need for sedation in certain procedures and also alleviate depression. Surprisingly in vitro fertilisation patients experiencing clown therapy immediately after implantation, are 40% more likely to become pregnant. Add to this the feel-good-factor experienced by the hospital staff themselves, who report on the changed atmosphere in their wards.

Little known is the fact that these dedicated Israeli clowns also work abroad in disaster zones including Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Angola, Ethiopia, China, Germany, Greece and the USA. In Haiti and Nepal they have worked longer term as an integral part of the IDF field hospitals.

IMG_6202-min.JPGFor the clowns theirs is a hugely emotionally challenging vocation, one that at times can be joyous but at other times sad beyond belief when dealing with terminally ill children.

There can be no better gift in the world than love, giving it to someone and seeing them smile. This is even mentioned in the Talmud. Two men in the marketplace were approached by a Rabbi who asked their occupation. “We are jesters who go about cheering up people who are sad,” at which the Prophet Elijah appeared and declared “They are truly worthy of the world to come”.

I leave you with the following quote from Daisy D. Dots – an American clown.

A clown brings happiness where there is sadness, an ear to those who need to be heard, a tear when someone needs to be sad. Their clothes tell you that they are not ordinary, but people whose big shoes and red noses are small in comparison to the size of their hearts.   They make you feel you are the most special person in the room, giving of their heart to make you feel better…and somehow before you know it, it does.

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