Helena Holmes – Voodoo Artist

Random meetings in coffee shops can have all sorts of strange after-effects. Most days before I go into work I have time for a cup of tea in a little café near my office – it just sets up my morning quite well and allows me to engage my work-brain. And, quite often, I end up sharing a table with someone which, more often than not, sparks a conversation. This was how I met Helena Holmes, who is one of the most remarkable women I have ever met – and I’ve met some real characters over the years.

Helena is an artist and costume designer originally from Haiti (and who has retained an enchanting accent) whose artwork is inspired by her home country and its religion, Voodoo (or Voudou, depending on your spelling). This led to a discussion about non-Christian religions (as I am at best a pagan, at worst CBA) and how similar they can be. It was a wonderful discussion, interesting and informative and conducted with much love and generosity on both sides. She also makes costumes for film and theatre, writes her own scripts and throws in a bit of life coaching in the middle.

I learned a lot about voodoo from her; about how it was considered to be a reaction to oppression – Haiti is not the wealthiest of places, let’s be blunt here – and how it was about self-belief, pride and strength in the face of that oppression. She was very keen to stress that it wasn’t about violence or witchcraft, but – like many animist religions – about communicating with greater powers for inspiration, strength and courage. I found it a fascinating and interesting conversation and it was a dreadful shame I had to go to work, because I could quite happily have spent most of the morning chatting to her.

Helena referred me to her website – http://www.helenaholmesartzone.com/ – for further information. Do feel free to take a look (although I must state that her art – like anything in life – may not be to everyone’s taste).

Come Dine With Me, Andronicus Style

This is the feast that I have bid her to/And this the banquet she shall surfeit on. (Titus Andronicus, Act 5, Scene 2)

I want to try and avoid too many references to Game of Thrones in this post, and it’s just as well I’m looking at the climax of the play because it allows me to explore another controversial series which is unbelievably popular with its fanbase – Hannibal. I think you’ll see why when we get to the end.

I’ve said previously that this play has two scenes for which it is justifiably notorious – Lavinia’s rape and mutilation at the hands of Tamora’s sons in Act 2, and the final dinner party in Act 5. Like Hannibal (arguably a modern-day counterpart) Titus considers himself quite a chef and insists on preparing the banquet himself. It’s easy to see why when all is revealed in the course of dinner. He has invited everyone (all the main characters are present, except Aaron, who is kept offstage as Lucius’ prisoner) and serves the Imperial party himself, before dropping the first of his bloody bombshells.

In the middle of the main course, Titus murders his daughter – who has spent the majority of the play in dumbshow – in front of all the guests. If that wasn’t enough, he then points out to the Empress that the pie she has just eaten contained the corpses of her two sons, whom he had murdered while she was off getting changed. In the chaos that ensues, everyone except Marcus, Lucius and young Lucius are dead. Even the stage directions suggest the level of mayhem:

He kills Saturninus. Uproar. (Stage Direction, Act 5, Scene 3)

It does beg the question of whether everyone has to die; but I think they do and it’s an entirely necessary scene. There wasn’t really anywhere else for the story or characters to go; this final, brutal dinner party offers the audience a sense of catharsis from the relentless cruelty inflicted throughout the rest of the play. In amongst all the bloodletting and cannibalism, a sense of justice has emerged. Unlike Hannibal, this isn’t killing for pleasure or for the sake of it, but to redress the universal balance – the cruel are punished and the just are allowed to live. Titus has done wrong, partly in killing Tamora’s son but also in killing one of his own sons – and he also dies. Lavinia’s death is itself couched in controversial terms which would have rung true for a 16th century audience but perhaps do less so today. Tragic as the play is, there is a glimmer of hope at the end that civilisation has prevailed.

I do find Titus Andronicus to be a wholly underrated play. Many people can’t see beyond the blood, gore and brutality to the actual story underneath – which is sad, and tragic, but not without hope and it’s certainly not boring. It’s also quite a short play, which helps if you have a slightly limited attention span. I hope that in this age of Game of Thrones and Hannibal it gains a new, appreciative, audience – or at least one that has a stronger stomach.

This Week’s Eco News

Here’s what caught my eye this week…

Monday – Maize, Rice, Wheat: Alarm at Rising Climate Risk to Vital Crops
I’m not sure if this is an aspect of climate change that many people think about – it’s certainly not something that one sees a lot of in fiction (although a couple of authors hint at it, the only one I can think of who made it the focus of an entire novel is John Christopher in The Death of Grass. He demonstrated that a number of grain crops are members of the grass family, so a plant virus affecting grasses would ultimately devastate rice, wheat and barley, leaving people in some regions of the world starving.

We’ve already seen how changes in the climate can affect the supply of fruits and vegetables, but grain crops are less discussed and this is a shame as they form the backbone of many cultures’ diets. I’d be pretty concerned about this becoming a trend and it’s definitely something worth watching. Meanwhile, try and keep the carbon emissions down.

Tuesday – M & S Slashes Plastic Use in Food Packaging to Cut Waste
This wasn’t quite the headline I thought it was. It relates to the plastic waste created by packaging, rather than food waste from unsold goods. Either way, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Greenpeace has a long-running campaign to reduce plastic consumption and waste and it’s very eye opening to see just how much plastic you use, even if you’re trying to be careful (like me). There’s a long way to go, but this is a very good move indeed. Well done M & S. Now treat your long-service employees with a bit of respect and I might start shopping there again.

Wednesday – Third Hottest June Puts 2017 On Tract to Make Hat Trick of Hottest Years
This should worry people. It should be headline news. Global warming continues apace while President Trump refuses to believe it. Glaciers across the world are melting, coral reefs are dying and weather patterns are changing purely because the climate is getting hotter. In another four or five years, if this rate persists, it may be too late to change anything – now there’s a terrifying thought if you wanted one.

Thursday – Hot dogs: rising heat makes it too hot for Africa’s wild dogs to hunt This is a bit disturbing. African wild dogs are used to dealing with a hot climate, patrolling the savannah as they do, but if they are too hot to hunt, they will simply starve. Quite aside from being bad news for the species, it’s indicative of how climate change has effects that aren’t immediately apparent.

Friday – All Hell Breaks Loose as the Tundra Thaws Strangely, I actually saw a similar story on Facebook about a year ago, and it’s really quite worrying. As the permafrost in Siberia melts – due to that global warming that the Chinese keep inventing, if you believe certain corners – spores of anthrax, plague and other previously extinct diseases are being released but, more worryingly, so is lots and lots of methane, a greenhouse gas that will only make the situation worse. Rumours of a zombie apocalypse are, so far, unsubstantiated.

Have a good weekend!

A Charitable Murderer

‘Tis present death I beg, and one thing more/That womanhood denies my tongue to tell/O keep me from that worse than killing lust/Amd tumble me into some loathsome pit/Where never man’s eye may behold my body/Do this and be a charitable murderer. (Titus Andronicus, Act 2, Scene 3).

Lady Macbeth is rightly considered to be one of Shakespeare’s finest female characters, but I think Tamora, Queen of the Goths from Titus Andronicus is often forgotten. Both women are in positions of power and given to murder and manipulation to sustain their status – and lose it, alongside their grip on reality. Unfortunately, because Titus Andronicus is such a highly controversial play, Tamora is often overlooked, and I think that’s a bit unfair. For a female actor, it’s a terrific part to get one’s teeth into – and much more fun to play than Lavinia.

Tamora is always set up as the arch villainess, as she uses her sons – and at her lover’s instigation, her husband – to wage something of a vendetta against the Andronici, as the family of Titus are clllectively known. The reasoning behind this is set out in Act 1, when Lucius demands of Titus (and gets) Tamora’s eldest son as a blood sacrifice at the interment of two of his brothers after wars against the Goths. Her subsequent elevation to Empress of Rome – mainly by making sure she catches the eye of the histrionic emperor, Saturninus – puts her in a position where her vengeful fantasies can become reality.

She starts by framing two of Titus’s three surviving sons for the murder of the emperor’s brother, Bassianus, and having the last one – Lucius – banished from Rome for life. She then permits, if not actively encourages, her sons to rape and mutilate Titus’ daughter Lavinia in ne of the play’s most infamous scenes. At no point does Tamora make secret her aims, going so far as to tell her new husband in an early aside:

I’ll find a day to massacre them all/And raze their facton and their family,/The cruel father and his traitorous sons/To whom I sued for my dear son’s life. (Titus Andronicus, Act 1, Scene 1).

Unfortunately for Tamora, power quickly goes to her head and – anticipating Lady Macbeth’s own descent into madness – she starts to fudge reality with her own murderous fantasies. In part, the birth of her son (fathered by her Moorish lover, Aaron) reinforces the tenuous nature of her position but in attempting to rid herself of the Andronici completely she loses everything. I’ll discuss this point in a later post, so I won’t spoil it here. Suffice to say that I can’t see any emperor of Rome tolerating being quite so openly cuckolded.

Titus Andronicus is quite an early play and the nuances of character are not so well developed as they are in his later masterpieces such as Macbeth, Othello, King Lear and Hamlet. Even so, Tamora is a meaty role that allows an actress to play a wholly unrepentant villainess confident in her sexuality and quite at home with her cruelty. If she reminds me of anyone, it’s Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones – and there are a few people who would say that wasn’t a bad thing at all.

Gothic Shakespeare – Titus Andronicus

Don’t ever tell me that the great Bard himself didn’t know Gothic when he saw it. This play – one of my favourites and still more than capable of shocking a modern audience, which isn’t bad given that it’s about 400 years old – is about as Gothic as they come. It’s got real Goths in it, for a start. I think the only one that really comes close is Macbeth, and that’s mainly because it’s got witches in it.

What does surprise me is how an audience who happily watch programmes like Game of Thrones – which is actually a really good example – turn up at the theatre and then can’t cope with the storyline. Yes, it’s brutal and violent and (in a couple of places) really gory, but then so is Game of Thrones. There are two episodes in the play (which I will discuss in detail in future posts) which stand out but on the whole, I expect George R R Martin would not be unfamiliar with this early work of the Bard.

And it is an early work, written around 1592, when Elizabeth I was still the monarch and I suppose Shakespeare was still learning his trade. It’s not a classic tragedy, unlike Macbeth or Hamlet but – as its full title explains – it is a lamentable tragedy. Pretty much everybody dies at the end and the survivors have basically lost everything. It’s pretty bleak but then again, when it was written, I expect quite a few people had other things to worry about, plague being the one that first springs to mind.

I honestly believe that if you like Game of Thrones, give this play a try next time it’s on – or watch the film, starring Anthony Hopkins in the title role. I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy – and even more to talk about afterwards.

This Week’s Eco News

I started this on the wrong day (typically) so it’ll be a short week to start, but hopefully I’ll keep this going as a long term thing. Essentially, each day I will pick one story from the Guardian Online (my paper of choice) with an ecological theme and add a commentary which may (or may not) include wit, sarcasm and a little black humour but more than likely go back to a book I’ve read or a film I’ve seen. If you want to read the stories themselves, please visit the newspaper’s website and go to the “Environment” tab.

Tuesday – Biological Annihilation as Earth Faces Sixth Mass Extinction
And all I can think of is ELE from Deep Impact. I can’t see any journalists risking their careers here though; in fact, I think only the Guardian reported this story, which is a bit outrageous. Maybe it’s because Morgan Freeman wasn’t involved, because I can’t see why Wimbledon is more important.

Anyway, this is seriously upsetting. It’s not just the “popular” animals, such as tigers, polar bears, elephants, but smaller creatures such as birds, insects and even plants. Ecosystems are a carefully structured mechanism where everything plays a part – take one away, and chances are the whole thing falls apart. For example, lose the honey bee, a sizeable number of plants don’t get pollinated, and humans lose a number of fruit and vegetables that we may have got used to eating.

I read a book recently called Silent Spring Revisited which looked at the decrease in population of many British birds and some of the causes behind it. It’s very sobering reading (once you get over the nostalgia trip) but demonstrates why this is a serious problem.

Wednesday – Iceberg Twice the Size of Luxembourg Breaks Off Antarctic Ice Sheet
Now all I can say to this is “oh shit” – with absolutely no apologies for my language. This is really important for a number of reasons, mostly relating to weather but also about the future life on the planet.

Firstly, the ice shelf will contain substantial amounts of fresh water, which will not only cause sea levels to rise, putting low lying countries at risk, but will also trigger marine desalinisation. When the salt/fresh water balance reaches a certain point, this halts the Gulf Stream and will cause extreme weather reactions – anyone who’s seen The Day After Tomorrow as many times as I have could probably recite this off by heart. We’re talking Ice Age, people only without the mammoths.

Not only that, but the majority of organisms that populate the oceans have evolved to survive in sea water – not fresh water. This could affect everything from plankton and algae levels, to fish populations and even sharks and marine mammals. It’s not quite on the level of “oops, I dropped an ice cube”, especially when that ice cube happens to be four times the size of London.

Thursday – So Long Dippy: Museum’s Blue Whale Seeks to Inspire Love of Living World
Anyone who’s been to the Natural History Museum in London will know Dippy the Diplodocus, the gigantic skeleton which stood in the entrance hall. For many he was our first experience of seeing just how big dinosaurs were; for some reason, that never seemed to be communicated well in books. However, Dippy is now going off on tour, and in his place is the skeleton of a blue whale, Earth’s largest living mammal. (And yes, it’s huge).

The selection of the blue whale seems to be a bit controversial. Some, like the Museum’s curator, believe that it is an effective way to encourage interest in (and future study of) the marine world generally, and marine biology in particular, and I’m sure they have a point. However, there is also the school of thought that says well, without the whaling industry killing cetaceans year in year out, this skeleton wouldn’t even be in the museum in the first place, so perhaps we ought to question the ethics.

I’m not going to be drawn into this. I still think the Natural History Museum is a great place and worry that one day it will be the only way future generations will ever see what a blue whale is like. After the angry stories of the past couple of days, I thought this would be quite a nice one.

Friday – Southern Europe Swelters as Heatwave Sparks Wildfires and Closes Tourist Sites
Descended as I am from a long line of Frost Dwarves (a bit like Frost Giants, but shorter), I would understand why my friends would interpret this as my usual grumble about being too hot. This headline, however, makes a very serious point. It reached 47°C yesterday, which is 116.6°F in old money, and is the highest temperature ever recorded in Europe. This is the kind of temperature one usually sees in the middle of the desert at noon. Combined with record rainfall and mudslides in China and north west India, this suggests to me that the climate is shifting.

It ought to be headline news; it’s a very worrying thing to see. If this doesn’t convince people of the realities of climate change, I’m not sure what will. I’m not sure that we’re not too late already.

Next week I’ll have a fuller round up because it will include things I picked up over the weekend – and I promise to start on a Monday!

So What Is Goth, Then?

Well, my other posts on the subject illustrate just how broad a church Goth can be if it’s allowed to be. I’ve long believed that Goth is much more than a fashion – in fact, the dress code should be (and in my case, often is) entirely optional. It’s a sensibility and if cultivated, can be found pretty much anywhere.

I suppose a little personal history needs to be provided to explain this. I’ve been Goth since about 1982, when I was still at school and going through what my fellow pupils termed “a bit of a weird phase”; fortunately, the school uniform was navy blue or black so I had ample opportunity to tinker. Black tights and not-entirely-regulation shoes were by far the easiest bit. I listened to Bauhaus, The Cure, The (Southern Death/Death) Cult (still my personal faves), The Mission, Sisters of Mercy while reading Dracula and books about Transylvania. Nothing in the (however many) years since then has changed. I still listen to the same bands (and a few newer ones), read the same books (and a few newer ones) and have to be physically restrained from putting my name down for a Transylvanian mansion that I still can’t afford. This phase is not one I’ve grown out of – even if I no longer look the part.

Although the majority of my wardrobe is black, there are other colours – blue, purple, green and red all make an appearance, mainly on the top half. Pink doesn’t appear much, I don’t like it and it doesn’t suit me. More to the point, my bank balance no longer supports the amount of shopping I would need to do to follow the fashion – most of my clothes are from supermarkets these days. Yet nobody who knows me doubts for a second that I’m Goth. Even my daughter understands that mummy is a little bit strange.

To me, this means that Goth is not just a fashion – although that is a useful way of identifying those of a similar mind set – but really is a sensibility; and if that is the case, can it be cultivated? I think it can if one is prepared to open their mind to all eventualities – shadows are everywhere if you know what to look for. If the Dark Side calls you, by all means explore but don’t let it take over.

Just for the record, it’s also important to point out what Goth is NOT. It’s not Satanism. It’s not Witchcraft. It’s not Black Magic (although I do have a box of them at home which I’m still eating). I don’t want to kill people (unless it’s 34 degrees in the shade and I’m trying to fight my way through Victoria Station to catch my train). Admittedly, I do have my own mental health issues to deal with but that is something personal to me and can’t be applied to Goths everywhere – some of them are the sanest people I know. If you want to suggest it’s just a fashion, that’s fine. I would suggest that a fashion is only skimming the surface and Goth has hidden depths that could keep you entertained for the rest of your life.