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Let's be careful out there!

Now I’m not the kind of person who makes New Year resolutions anymore partly because as they say, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, and most of our resolutions tend to fall on “stony ground” (Matthew 13:5). However, there are some things I feel people can do to improve or maintain a mentally and physically healthy lifestyle and general good wellbeing. I say this partly due what I learnt and taught in my old day job when I ran a series of Stress Management programmes in the Public Sector- it worked then, and it can work for you, but it has been newly informed by recent events.

I use social media and it can have incredibly healthy and powerful transformative power. Here at St Mary’s my church in Princes Risborough, the use of Facebook & You Tube has been fundamental to them spreading the ‘Good News’ to audiences well beyond our Parish- in that sense social media has been a true blessing. But there is a darker side to the use of social media.

There are significant numbers of people whose lives are increasingly being managed and influenced by what is said especially on Twitter, it has become their immediate environment especially in these lockdown times where we may get bored or restless and instinctively want to know what someone is saying about something or someone. Contentious political areas such as BREXIT and the American Presidency have at times brought it to fever pitch and that has ultimately led to communities being fractured and in urgent need of healing. COVID 19 and the lockdown has made things worse as well.

This was all brought into focus for me in the last week when a UK political newspaper columnist by the name of Rafael Behr spoke about what happened when social media took control over his life.  His involvement in living through social media led him to being as he said  “in a state of fizzing unease”, that he slept too little, ate and drunk too much, was distracted at home and became impatient and shouty with his children (all classic symptoms of stress by the way). In photos he said he looked puffy and grey and as he said “I knew that social media was the main pipeline bringing anger and anxiety into every corner of my waking life”. And then on New Year’s Eve at the age of just 45 he had a heart attack, the kind Cardiologists call ‘the widow maker’.

Rafael Behr did survive but it taught him a life changing set of lessons. What he learnt, because his very life depends on it , apart from eating healthier and taking exercise was:

  • No matter how bleak world events seem, “breath and not take it all to heart”.
  • He stopped following politics “and didn’t miss it”.
  • He learnt not “to binge on instant reaction” when a news story breaks
  • He locked himself out of Twitter and gave his new password of an unmemorable sequence of random characters to his wife in a sealed envelope for her to keep to protect him
  • He now takes exercise somewhere where he can see the horizon, to relax his shoulders, not to clench his fists, to breath evenly- and to look out and up

Social Media, and how Rafael Behr allowed it to take hold of his life , was almost the literal death of him, and although it is an extreme example, I am convinced that social media, unless you manage your time on it carefully, can be very toxic and be bad for your health. Be assured that you will always find something out there that you will be offended or hurt by, and it can have the effect of upsetting your day and taking your focus away from where God wants it to be. Which is why these Thoughts are hopefully helpful to comfort and inspire people.

So what are we to do? I would suggest following a few healthy guidelines will help us all remain saner, mentally and physically healthier, increase our general well -being and give us some inner calm:

  • Avoid using social media first thing in the morning and last thing at night as that will prevent you from starting the day in the wrong frame of mind or disrupting your beauty sleep. Instead use that time for some inner reflection - to meditate or pray;
  • ‘follow’ those people who bring you joy- and ‘unfollow’ negative conversations and people
  • When replying to something ask yourself; a) “is it true?”, b) “is it necessary?” and c) “Is it kind?”-be intentional in your contributions
  • Monitor your usage – most Apple or Android mobiles will tell you how often you are on social media. Seek support if you are struggling to stay away from social media
  • Remember to live IRL (In Real Life)- engage with your real life by talking or spending time with friends, families and those in the community (socially distanced of course!)
  • If despite the above you are getting stressed through your use of social media, you are allowed to come off it – you can delete the Twitter & Facebook and other apps. There is a life beyond and that is much more important than the things that are said online.

Finally, remember the closing words that  Sgt Esterhaus on the cop show ‘Hill Street Blues’ told his patrol before they went out –“Let’s be careful out there” (see the video below)

Let's Be Careful Out There (Hill Street Blues) - Bing video

'The Nun's Story' (1959)

 Sometimes you discover a real gem of a movie through nothing other than channel surfing and that was the case when very recently BBC 2 showed the Audrey Hepburn film ‘The Nun Story’ directed by veteran director Fred Zimmerman (‘High Noon’, ‘From Here to Eternity’ & ‘The Day of the Jackal’).

The back story to the film is almost as interesting as the movie itself but more of that later. ‘The Nun’s Story’ is set in 1920’s Belgium where young Gaby Van Der Mal (Audrey Hepburn) decides to join a convent of nursing Sisters in order that she can help people in what was then the Belgian Congo. Gaby joins and becomes ‘Sister Luke’ after taking her vows in what is a very tough Christian order – if for example she remembers or brings to mind her previous life including her family or friends, then she has to write that ‘error’ down. The Sisters are expected to forget their previous existence and relationships and be bonded to God alone.

Gabby although committed to be a good Sister and Christian, really struggles with the strict demands made of her, which crystallise when she goes to the Congo and works with surgeon Dr Fortunati (Peter Finch) who challenges whether, how great a nurse and person that she is, if she is cut out to be a nun. Gaby starts to doubt the strictness of the regime she is forced to adhere to. Working too hard she contracts a form of TB and is nursed to wellness again by Fortunati, before being recalled to the Belgian convent with World War II approaching.

Gaby is heartbroken by this but accepts a new role as nursing Sister for those injured during the occupation. She then finds out that the Nazis killed her father (who was also a surgeon) and that she cannot forgive the Germans for what they did to him, to her or to her country, especially as the nuns are told to do nothing to alarm the Nazi occupying forces. In the end she has to decide between what her heart tells her is the only right thing to do and what God may demand of her.

A two and a half hour film about nuns may not be high on your list of must see movies but ‘The Nun’s Story’ really captured me. As the innocent but spirited (and spiritual) Gaby, Audrey Hepburn puts in an outstanding performance and remember this was before she went to make ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ & ‘My Fair Lady’ and she was nominated for an Oscar, won the BAFTA award for Best Actress, and was the biggest box office hit of the year behind ‘Ben Hur’.

You feel that Hepburn is less acting in this role but simply ‘being’ and you can understand that when you appreciate that she knew the dilemma that Gaby faced because she herself had to undergo the Nazi occupation, this time of Holland when she lived there as a young girl. Hepburn had to decide which way she faced in that conflict despite being only 10 at the time. She decided to help the Dutch resistance after her uncle was executed by them.

It’s also important to say that ‘The Nun’s Story’ is a true life story. It is based on the book by Kathryn Hulme who worked with Marie Louise Habets who like Gaby went into a convent, worked in the Congo and was forced to decide where her conscience and loyalties lay. Habets, after her own father’s execution, felt she could not honour her central vow of forgiveness to her Sisterhood, left her convent to help offer aid to British forces during the Battle of the Bulge, before later treating Belgians in the concentration camps and refugees later on. She and Kathryn Hulme became great friends and moved to America and beyond together to help look after native Indians and Hawaiians.

There is a great coda to this story in that later on when Audrey Hepburn got seriously injured whilst making ‘The Unforgiven’ (there’s a very apt title!) it was Marie Louise Habets who came to treat and care for her -what a gal!

'The Crown' Series 4, Episode 2- 'The Balmoral Test'

The second episode of The Crown starts with Prince Charles’ gentle ‘wooing’ of the then Lady Diana at a performance of one of Verdi’s works- with chaperone between them and apart from showing his superior cultural knowledge over her, things looked promising for a while.

The real highlight of ‘The Balmoral Test’ is how strongly Gillian Anderson is growing into the shoes (and the helmet hairstyle of ‘The Thatch’) of Margaret Thatcher. The Crown is doing for Mrs T what rarely happened during her premiership which is to create great sympathy for her. She and Dennis are dispatched to Aberdeenshire to take part in what is known as the informal ‘Balmoral Test’ to see how any PM gets on with the Windsors.

Mistake No 1 for the Thatchers was going down for drinks before dinner at 6pm in full dress (tut tut), No 2 was in not bringing outdoor shoes or clothes when invited to stalk an injured deer. Parlour games finished off the  rather brutal test and in the end led to them leaving early doors. Now the test is not mere fiction as biographers of Margaret Thatcher have talked about her problems adapting to how the Windsors lived at Balmoral during the holidays and it is said that Cherie Blair also failed the test when she and Tony Blair stayed there.

What it did allow Gillian Anderson to say as the PM was that the Royals were a part of the general malaise in the UK at that time as she saw it with a class problem that she needed to address “from top to bottom”. She showed that she was not interested in partying or relaxing whilst on holiday but to work, and to work hard. She talks about “God needing no faint hearts for ambassadors” and the strong medicine she felt the country needed at that time. There is some very heavy handed barbed confrontations betweens The Queen (Oliva Coleman) and Margaret Thatcher, that you simply cannot imagine having taken place in reality, but it does allow creater Peter Morgan to play up the different backgrounds and attitudes of the two women, and allow the viewer to be understand what makes them individually tick.

One person however who passed  the ‘Balmoral Test’ with flying colours is Diana- she was happy to get up at 5.30am and follow Prince Phillip to take out the injured deer even guessing in what direction the wind was coming for, to allow for a better shot. This however just allows Phillip and especially Princess Anne (the wonderful Erin Doherty) to encourage/instruct Charles to marry Diana. However, it is clear that in his regular calls to Camilla Parker-Bowles, that he questions if Diana is ‘the one’ for him. Camilla clearly encourages him to find someone like Diana to settle down with, but he lacks the backbone or personal willpower to marry who he thinks he would be happiest with, rather than what his family wants -even if she is already married to someone else!

As the episode ends we see the start of the press’ hounding of Diana, whilst Mrs T gets rid of the ‘wets’ in her Cabinet…..

'The Crown' Series 4, Episode 1 -'Gold Stick'

So, at last we reach Series 4 of The Crown on Netflix. We have 10 episodes that start from The Queen’s Silver Jubilee of 1977 and ends with Margaret Thatcher standing down in 1990- so a span of some 13 years with a lot of focus on the matrimonial woes of Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, as well as those of Queen Elizabeth’s other children .

Episode 1 (Gold Stick’) covers 1977 to 1979 and is a very strong start to the new series.

1977 marks the Silver Jubilee of the Queen’s reign and heralds the start of political change in the UK. A weakness of the episode is that it does not cover the huge period of decline in the late 1970’s culminating in the Winter of Discontent where binmen, gravediggers, train drivers and nurses went on strike and which led to Margaret Thatcher’s rise as Prime Minister (you can’t understand why people voted Margaret Thatcher into power if you don’t know what she was the answer to!).

However, the episodes chronicles three main public events at that time – a) the rise of Mrs Thatcher as PM and how having two women in power changed things, b) the assassination of Lord Mountbatten by the IRA and c) the problems of Charles finding a wife and the start of his romance with Diana.

For those who lived thorough the campaign of IRA thuggery, they may feel that ‘The Crown’ overplays their role by playing their threats and claims through Mountbatten’s funeral before he is even cold in the grave. Charles Dance though was born to play Mountbatten as he has his look and demeanour. The episode is effective in highlighting that he was pretty much a surrogate father to Charles (as he was to Prince Phillip) and although he is blamed for encouraging Charles to ‘sow his oats’ and have a relationship with Camilla, he did see that as the heir to the throne, Charles was weak and fuzzy headed about most things.

However, the real star of the show is Gillian Anderson (partner of ‘The Crown’s creator Peter Morgan) who really embodies Margaret Thatcher with the right speech pattern (with hairdo to match). She is especially good at showing her softer domestic side rather than just the ‘Iron Lady’.

Episode 1 is full of some nice one liners too- at the thought of Mrs T as PM, Prince Phillip says “the last thing we need are two women running the shop”. However, as The Queen, Olivia Coleman probably spoke for many when she replied:  “Perhaps  that’s precisely what this country needs”.

On the romance front there are problems of course. Princess Anne’s marriage to Mark Phillips is on the rocks and it is Phillip who comes to her rescue to talk her up. The scene between Tobias Menzies (Phillip) and the ever outstanding Erin Doherty (Anne) is very touching.

The budding romance between Charles and Diana is also touching to begin with as he first sees her when he was dating his sister and she comes across him dressed as a ‘bad tree’. As Diana, Emma Corrin is a dead ringer for her, and she has her look and mannerisms just right. It is a sign of ‘The Crown’s strength that even though we know the history of the Charles & Diana story, we still cringe at and are moved by how Charles (and the rest of the Royal Family) acts at this time (i.e. romancing his future wife whilst at the same time arranging for jewellery to be made with his and Camilla’s name!).

For the first episode the scene is wonderfully set – Diana being betrayed early doors and Charles acting like a lovesick puppy for a married woman, Anne’s marriage is on the rocks, Princess Margaret is (as always) all over the place, whilst Mrs T and The Queen start their relationship off very coldly. More to come in later episodes!