Monthly Archives: July 2013

An Early Encounter with the Irrepressible Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington

Having read an interview with Arianna Huffington by Lucy Broadbent in the Sunday Telegraph Stella magazine of last weekend, I was more than intrigued to find out whether the bestselling writer, political campaigner and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post has changed views over the years.

Ranked by Forbes as one of the world’s most powerful women, she revolutionised news in 2005 with the first online newspaper – The Huffington Post – later selling it for $315 million while remaining editor-in-chief.

For my first book, Women, published in 1987, I interviewed her in Washington DC on issues facing women during that epoch. I found her professionally warm, convivial and a woman destined to great achievements.

Here is what she said to me on various topics – while I leave it to my readers to decide whether success and circumstances in her private life have in fact changed her zeal vis-à-vis men in general and women in particular. 

The Early Influences

My mother is the ultimate earth mother. She was not just a mother to myself and my sister, but to everybody who touched her life. She is alive and is still very much an influence. She always made me feel, not so much by what she said, but often just by her attitudes, that there was nothing that was so impossible, that whatever I set my eye on I could do, so she never limited my vision. Even though I was brought up in Greece and most of my friends were getting married at eighteen, and it was still rare for a woman to have a career – all that has changed dramatically in the last twenty years, but I was born in 1950 – as far as she was concerned it was always taken for granted that my sister and I would go to university and that we would have our careers. As to which university, for some reason I decided to go to Cambridge in England, and everybody was saying, oh she’ll never get in, it’s hard for an English girl, but my mother was absolutely certain that I would. It was that kind of unconditional confidence that she had in me, as well as the unconditional loving which went hand in hand. Very often mothers who feel their children can do anything withdraw their love if they don’t, but she wasn’t like that at all. When I failed my driving test, or when I failed whatever it was at different moments of my life, her love was always there and unconditional, and hand in hand with that was that amazing sense of the sky was the limit and there was nothing I could not achieve if I really wanted it. My mother and father separated when I was ten, so it was very much a matriarchal household – just my mother, my sister and I, although my father was very close to us and still is.

Advantages and Disadvantages

I wouldn’t say that women generally lack the confidence of men. I think that in certain areas, because there aren’t so many role models, there aren’t as many women who have succeeded. It takes a more pioneering woman to set forth and do it, like a woman politician, or a woman scientist, but I don’t think that generically women have less confidence than men. In fact, you think of it, childbirth requires a lot of courage and confidence, and a lot of the primal, primitive roles that women, by virtue of who they are and by virtue of their sex, are thrown into, require a lot of courage, strength and confidence. I think it’s just a question of where they chose to channel it. It is often true that daughters are brought up in that restrictive environment, then it takes somebody more exceptional to overcome this obstacle. But you see it happening all the time.

Thank God, I don’t fear ageing, I always mention my age to everybody. It’s always been on the covers of my books, because when my first book was published I was twenty-one, so my publisher thought they should put it on the cover. I think the reason I don’t fear ageing is because I love seeing transformations in me as I grow older. There is no part of my life that I would like to go back to, which doesn’t mean I didn’t love them, but I see how much wiser I am now, and I know that, in ten years, I will think I was very foolish the way I am now. So I love the process of wisdom and ripening that comes with age. I suppose it must be a lot harder for women who are making their living through their looks, but that has never been the case with me fortunately. Those will probably have a harder time ageing, although those of them who have developed their own identity will surely be able to cope. I have met women who are older who are so attractive to men it is devastating, who are so sensual and all-enveloping and also who have that wonderful relaxation that comes with ageing. They don’t have to prove anything, and there is nothing more attractive, even sexually attractive, than a human being that doesn’t have to prove a thing. They have that sense of themselves – what the French call being well in your skin. That feeling is so attractive, and you can’t fake it, it’s as though you smell it in another human being, like an animal you can smell it. With age comes serenity, and also that feeling you can say and do anything and you don’t have to behave according to certain prescribed rules. I wrote an article for Town and Country called ‘The Eternal Feminine’, about what I find attractive in women, and I mention some of the older women I have met, like Rebecca West, who have that quality. It is not a function of looks, it is a function of personality, and that, if anything, gets bigger with age.

Feminism

I never feel inhibited. In fact, that was the reason I wrote my first book, The Female Woman. When I was at Cambridge, the women’s liberation movement was at its height and I organised my farewell debate at the Cambridge Union on that subject. My theme was that women could have all the equal opportunities and equal pay they wanted and deserved, but didn’t have to deny or negate the fact that they were women; that that was really an incredible gift and it could go hand in hand with whatever other career opportunities, pay, equality we wanted. That was so natural for me, because that was how I was brought up. Even though I was surrounded by women’s inequality in our own household, I was brought up with a feeling that women could do absolutely anything and there was nothing men could do that women couldn’t.

There are disadvantages, but I am very concerned about the tendency to present women as victims. I always feel that this is not a very fruitful way to look at a problem. If we look at ourselves as being able to overcome any disadvantages – socially, by changing legislation, by changing conventions and rules, but also by overcoming them as individuals – we are if anything much more likely to see more women in positions of responsibility; rather than by taking the alternative approach, which is that women are still victimised by society, still victimised by the conventions into which they are brought up. This I find an ultimately very destructive way to look at the world. A lot of women sometimes talk in terms of being victimised by their men, their husbands or fathers, and I always feel, as I felt when I was writing the biography of Maria Callas, because she had that tendency too, that victims never change anything. If you look at yourself as a victim, the chances are you will remain in that position, because, by virtue of the way you look at yourself, you have taken away your power to act and change your condition. There are many facts that can be brought forward to show that women are still discriminated against. All I’m saying is that’s not the way to approach the problem. What we want to see is women achieving results in every area of life, with equal advantage on an equal basis. That’s what everybody agrees on, so to go on harping on women being discriminated against, women being victimised, and downtrodden, isn’t the way to go about it. It would do much more productive to go about it with the realisation that women can do anything and it is up to us the change what conditions don’t work, rather than to feel we are oppressed and thrown into extremely difficult situations.

Sexuality 

Men’s sexuality has an urgency to it which women’s sexuality doesn’t have as much. The essential woman has her sensuality – and I prefer that word to sexuality – as a constant presence in her life, and I think the men who are really sensual are sensual throughout their lives, not just when they are in bed and having sex. That, for me, is what our culture is gradually beginning to realise after the whole permissiveness and sexual revolution, when sex was reduced to statistics and multiple orgasms and the sex act itself. We are now realising that the great sexual experiences are those that are deeply sensual. For me the real question is whether sensuality informs our whole life or just the X number of hours you are in bed with somebody.

A woman receives a man, and therefore she is left with part of him. The man can go on and it’s over, he’s released himself and he’s off to another thing, and the woman can’t really do that. She’s the one who pays the price. That’s why, in my experience, a woman needs to feel the man is still there in some way. Sex within a relationship is so different from casual sex because, in a relationship, a woman can surrender, and I don’t believe sex means anything without surrendering. If you don’t trust enough to surrender. It’s so mechanical.

Motherhood 

I’ve never had an abortion, and obviously I wouldn’t have an abortion now, but looking back on my life I would always have been extremely reluctant. It is not an ideological thing. I would never say that women should not have abortions. I don’t believe in that. It is an individual choice. But I do think women should know the price they are paying. It is absurd that there are so many abortions with contraception being as available as it is, and women knowing as much as they do about the risks of getting pregnant. I think we have so many abortions partly because we have not really stressed the psychological price a woman pays when she has an abortion.

Relationships

I have a lot of very close men friends who are not lovers, who have never been lovers, and every man who has been involved in my life, every man with whom I have had an important relationship, is still a great friend, and I also have a lot of great women friends. So, in my case, I would say that the only thing all my close friends have in common is not their sex but their ability to be intimate and communicate in a deeper way and let the barriers and the masks down. Otherwise it’s just a waste of time for me. I’ve had long relationships with me which were very profound and very important, but something happens when you commit yourself to that one person for life, when you take those vows. It is mystical, it is not anything rational. For me, marriage is beyond anything else I’ve experienced.

I always knew that I would get married. I always had this longing to find my mate, a kind of underlying longing in my life, and to have that longing fulfilled has brought me an incredible peace and serenity. It’s a very deep feeling of having arrived somewhere that I didn’t know I was really going. I think it is a deep longing in everybody, and I had a very deep longing in me, to find my mate, that human being with whom I wanted to share everything, and sharing everything with somebody is something extraordinary. I feel that a marriage, when it works, is something truly cosmic, not just two people coming together. It’s something which goes beyond anything which I have experienced. There is such a foundation of strength from which to approach the world, and such a self-contained nurturing. It’s not a question of being together all the time, because Michael works very hard and comes back very late, and I work particularly hard all day when I have a deadline looming. It’s just knowing the other person is there. I just love being at a party with him, and even when we are at opposite ends of the room, there is this kind of cord that connects us, and the intuitive ways of knowing each other and knowing what the other person is thinking, of keeping discovering each other. I really think it’s the greatest adventure anybody can embark on, and I feel like a child about it. There is something very sacred.

I feel that a lot of marital breakdown has to do with our expectation and the way, culturally, we’ve been brought up. We have a wonderful friend in Houston who is the Dean of Christchurch Cathedral there, who has written a book called Becoming Married, and he talks about the fact that marriage is not a process that ends when you get married in church, when you make those vows, but a process of becoming married. It goes on and on, it isn’t a process of living happily ever after, which is where the mythology of marriage is so confusing and misleading. I really think we need a new mythology, a new archetype around which to build our expectations of marriage and that, for me, would be what our friend calls becoming married. The day we take our vows is the day we commit ourselves to this adventure, and every day brings us closer to becoming married, but it’s not achieved the day we get married. That way, all the downturns the conflicts, the sandpapering that goes on in a relationship are included in our expectations. People are all looking for something, and we think we are going to find it through another human being, and for me the ultimate thing we’re looking for is our relationship with God. I feel that when that third partner is there in the relationship, that’s what gives you the strength that is able to withstand whatever problems and difficulties will inevitably result in any relationship. If I look back at my life, I have grown more through the painful experiences than the joyful ones. It’s awful to say, and I wish it was different, but that’s how it is. I know that Michael have found that, through adversity, the things we found most difficulty understanding about each other were the moments of growth in our intimacy. What I’m saying is that, if we are looking to find that ultimate communication, ultimate union through another human being without the existence of God, the divine spirit, whatever you call it, we’re going to keep looking. We’ll get divorced in the hope that the next person is going to bring it to us. I feel that every human being ultimately has what I will call in a book I want to write one day the fourth basic instinct: the instinct towards wholeness, completeness, communion with the Divine. I feel that it is a very deep instinct in each human being, whether we know it or not, that drives us to art, religion altruism. So to fulfil that instinct, and that is the misconception. The mate can be a partner in that adventure.

There are certain men, and I’m lucky my husband is one, who can take you for a cappuccino in the local coffee shop and make it an adventure, who can make the commonplace and the everyday seem quite magical. That is a real gift, because there are men who can take you on safari and make it as boring as going to the grocer’s.

Differences 

I’m kind of reluctant to talk about women in general, because I’ve met so many different women who have demonstrated every conceivable characteristic. Even talking about myself, I see certain ways in which I am different from most men. I was thirty-five when I married, but now I’m married I feel my relationship with my husband is the most important thing in my life. It’s become the pivot around which my life revolves, and I wouldn’t have thought would be the case at all when I was single and very much a career woman and very much in my work. It doesn’t mean that my work isn’t terribly important to me now, but ultimately my marriage and my relationship with my husband comes first. Now, that’s not anything to do with ideology or how it should be, or anything that comes from a mental decision, it is simply the way my heart tells me I want my life to be, it’s just a heart decision. I feel I’m now acting more from my heart and less from my mind. Now, there are people who will say that this is a woman’s characteristic. I don’t know. I see a lot of men who act from their heart, and a lot of women who act from their mind. I used to act almost entirely from my mind – I was as cerebral a creature as you would hope to find. So what’s happening is that a lot of women and a lot of men in their own lifetimes evolve the masculine and feminine part in themselves, and that fascinates me. That’s why I hesitate to talk about women doing this and men doing that. I feel we are moving towards an era where men will develop more and more the feminine in them, the intuitive, the supportive and nurturing part, and women will develop more the assertive part of them, keeping it at the same time hand in hand with the nurturing of the family, whereas ten or twenty years ago they felt they had to reject the nurturing and the family in order to achieve the more assertive part of their personality.

Simply by virtue of the way men and women are built, there is a difference that is fundamental. If you take the sexual act, women are somehow made to be more receptive. That doesn’t mean that they cannot also be assertive and everything, but there is a fundamental assertiveness in the male make-up. All this can become pathological, and you get the assertiveness becoming aggressiveness and the receptivity becoming a kind of masochistic surrendering, but there is no question that there are fundamental differences. Now, these differences do not in my opinion affect anything a woman can or cannot do, but they do affect our basic psychological make-up and we cannot ignore that. In the same way, when you look at statistics and say there are only so many women in this area and only so many in that area, you forget how many women still choose primarily to be mothers and wives, and that many women who enter the workforce do it not because of any grand reasons of achieving equality with men, but because they need the money.

Being vulnerable, surrendering to life, is so important, and I feel that, as a woman, it is easier to do that. It takes a more exceptional man who can allow himself to be vulnerable and allow himself to surrender to the process of life and still be able to make a difference, and make things happen, and contribute and be assertive. That combination comes easier to a woman than to a man, and therefore we are very blessed. We don’t have to be exceptional to achieve the magical combination.

A Gross Misjustice

Can a woman be sacked for being irresistible?

Well it seems that a court in the US has caused a national outcry by ruling in favour of a dentist who sacked his assistant for this very reason.

The Iowa Supreme Court’s decision that it was lawful for James Knight to fire Melissa Nelson, because he was worried that he would try to start an  affair with her, has led some legal experts to warn that it could open the door to broader discrimination at work.

Melissa Nelson

Dr Knight admitted that Ms Nelson, thirty-three, had worked for him for ten years, was a perfect employee, and the ‘best dental assistant’ he had ever had.

The pair have not had any sexual relations and Ms Nelson, a married mother of two, said she considered Dr Knight, fifty-three, as a father figure. He only began commenting on her appearance towards the end of her employment when, on one occasion, she allegedly spoke about the infrequency of her sex life. He replied: ‘That’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.’

The dentist dismissed her suddenly after his wife found out that the pair had been texting each other, mainly on mundane matters, and demanding Ms Nelson’s sacking.

After rejecting her claim in December for unfair dismissal, the all-male court took the unusual step of retracting its decision – only to reinstate its ruling earlier this month, arguing that Dr Knight was ‘driven entirely by individual feelings and emotions regarding a specific person’.

She was not fired because of her sex, it said, but because Dr Knight and his wife felt she posed a threat to their marriage.

The second ruling has drawn even more paining reverberations than the first. The Des Moines Register said ‘if in revisiting its prior judgment Iowa’s highest court was trying to look less sexist and more emphatic…it failed miserably’.

Emily McCarty, who represented Ms Nelson, said the case could set a precedent creating a legal loophole whereby employers could get away with racial or other discrimination by insisting that their actions were determined merely by their feelings. She said, ‘As women we’re forced to constantly navigate the fine line between being attractive and charming enough so that we’re well liked and not accused of being cold, and yet not seeming so warm and inviting that our professionalism is undermined or we receive unwanted sexual attention.’

To all this Dr Knight’s office said that he had no further comment.

What a ridiculous and disgraceful case this turned out to be. The court’s judgment is certainly an abuse of Ms Nelson’s human rights. Dr Knight has sacrificed his assistant for fear that his own libido might lead him astray, and the court had the impudence to agree with him.

God save America, the land of the free – or is it simply a delusion? They say good Americans go to Paris when they die. The lot that condemned Ms Nelson will go to hell instead.

My Weekend Review: The Chilcot Inquiry

Is Tony Blair on the verge of getting his comeuppance? Or is it a wild dream that will not come to pass?

Copyright Daily Mail

There are speculations afoot that the official inquiry into the Iraq war has indicated that it intends, bar government interception, to criticise Tony Blair for secretly plotting with George W. Bush for Britain to join the invasion.

Politicians, civil servants and military officers facing censure will be approached within the next two weeks. Sir John Chilcot, the inquiry chairman, said that it had identified those who would be criticised for ‘some aspect of the part they played’ in the invasion in 2003 and the seven-year occupation.

The former senior civil servant is, we are told, insisting on publishing details of Mr Blair’s handwritten notes to President Bush in 2002 and records of his discussions with the American leader and his successor at the White House. He is also seeking to disclose previous unknown discussions between Gordon Brown and the US presidents.

The request to publish details of the negotiations, in breach of diplomatic protocol, has led to speculation that they contain crucial evidence that will lead to criticism of Mr Blair’s motivation for joining the US-led invasion.

The inquiry was told that Mr Blair had agreed to support the war before the Cabinet or MPs had been consulted.

The alleged deal was months ahead of the publication of a dossier of intelligence used to justify the participation of British forces that claimed – wrongly, as it turned out – that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Mr Blair has repeatedly and defiantly denied misleading Parliament and the public over the case for war.

Sir John wrote to David Cameron on Tuesday last week setting out progress in the inquiry, which has been running for four years at a cost to the Treasury in excess of £7.5 million.

Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, has been asked to authorise the publication of discussions in Cabinet and committees as well as Mr Blair and Mr Brown’s discussions with the American presidents.

If the government agrees to the public disclosure of currently secret documents letters setting out the provisional criticism of individuals are due to be sent at the end of October.

What does all this mean in practice?  Nothing we haven’t heard before and that no action will be taken against Mr Blair and any of his cohorts at the time. It will prove a meaningless exercise apart from pointing the finger at Blair, whose Houdini-like character will not suffer an iota of guilt nor will it diminish his influence across the globe. In fact, his notoriety will boost his wealth and win him more friends in certain quarters where authoritarian regimes flourish.

Good old Blair, you will, I’m sure, have the last laugh as always. Those in government today are amateurs in comparison. They are no match for your wily machinations.

Keep going, and the Devil will immortalise you.

The Heat Experiment I Could Do Without

The temperature in certain parts of the UK might have reached 31˚C which to us is sizzling hot and most uncomfortable.

Not so to the tourists of Death Valley in California renowned for its blast-furnace climate. Now, the world’s hottest place has become just a little more inhospitable – thanks to a mass of oozing, smelly, partly-fried eggs, Rhys Blakely writes.

This week a century ago, the valley experienced the highest temperature ever recorded on earth when Furnace Creek hit 56.7˚C (global warming prophets of doom, take heed).

When a heat wave swept the region this month, tourists swarmed in. Some tried to repeat a classic proof of the searing weather by frying an egg on the ground.

The results, say officials for Death Valley National Park, have been a ‘hot mess’. Broken shells, cartons and gooey yolks now litter this corner of the Mohave Desert, lending it a distinctly unpleasant aroma.

The highest temperature recorded so far this year is 53.9˚C. That, according to Cheryl Chipman, a spokeswoman for Death Valley National Park, is ‘pretty darn hot, and when you have to clean up a gooey stinking mess, you lose a little bit of faith in humanity’.

In a Facebook post, park workers plead with visitors to use a frying pan, not the pavement. ‘If you do have to fry an egg, please use a frying pan. This is your national park, please put trash in the garbage or recycle bins provided and don’t crack eggs on the sidewalk.’

The craze for solar-powered breakfast was stoked by a YouTube video in which a park official showed how an egg could be cooked at 53.1 ˚C. He explains that the key is to use a frying pan with a lid, which traps heat. It must be left in sun for a couple of hours. Even then the egg congeals rather than sizzles.

The experiment is not one I would willingly undergo for fear that instead of the egg congealing I risk getting congealed myself. My spirit of adventure does not, I’m afraid, take me that far.

A Woman a Week

Laura Shields

Laura Shields shows the reason why she was chosen to star in Justin Timberlake’s raunchy ‘Tunnel Vision’ music video as she sexily poses in a hat.

Born 19th September 1984 in Oldham, Greater Manchester, and brought up in neighbouring Rochdale to a Sri Lankan mother and an English father, she was signed to a leading modelling agency before her fifteenth birthday. She went on to become Miss UK International and represented the UK in Miss International 2004, placing in the top ten, and was the third runner-up in Miss Europe 2005.

Variation on a Theme 1

She was a model on the NBC show Deal or No Deal, holding case number twenty-two for Season Two. Listed in Stuff magazine’s ‘101 Sexiest Women Online’ in 2005, she has appeared in numerous glossy magazines.

She stopped modelling to concentrate on her schooling, earning a Master’s in chemical engineering from Leeds University and is now a member of the high IQ society, MENSA.

Variation on a Theme 2

As well as being endowed with a sharp and brilliant brain her features reflect a tropically honed sensuality that defines softness intermingled with a whiff of erotic vibration. Her beauty is measured through her change of mood and a resonant eye-catching self-confidence.

For me she has a magical vibe that is all absorbing and could lead to a sexual affinity where body and brain join forces to transport one’s fantasies into a fulfilling reality, undulating in the breeze of what is termed ‘forbidden territory.’

Variation on a Theme 3

For sheer imagination I choose her as my woman of the week, because her body has the hallmark: ‘Made in Britain is Best’.

Able-bodied young men might hanker to push my fancifulness to more tangible heights. I dare not. My age will put paid to my withering ambition. For me, dreaming is a safer option.

Dubai’s Innovation Knows No End

Who says we are not interested in gold?

Obesity is becoming a worldwide problem, not only in adults but also in children.

The fast food industry is partly to blame and the lack of natural exercise, not necessarily gym related, is a contributory factor. But mostly the blame lies in the way our lifestyle has developed over the years.

We hardly walk if we can avoid it and spend a great deal of our time office-bound with very little physical activity. To top it all, we binge drink without realising it and eat excessively when we should try to contain our intake of calories and stop a bulging belly from deforming an overweight body structure.

Perhaps we need an incentive similar to the one just initiated by the Dubai government whose most corpulent citizens have discovered that they are worth their weight in gold in a slimming proposal announced last week.

In a desperate attempt to beat the city’s obesity epidemic, the Dubai authorities, noted for their ingenuity, are offering residents a gram of gold worth about £25 for each kilogram of weight lost in a thirty-day challenge.

Registration for the ‘Your Weight in Gold’ challenge, open to emiratis and expatriates alike, began last Friday night at weighing centres around the city.

Those taking the challenge must lose at least two kilograms in the next month to qualify for the payout. Dubai, as everyone knows, has never been afraid to think big. Its skyscrapers, cavernous shopping centres and man-made islands are great monuments to its vast, unending ambitions.

Enjoying this great success and sharing some of its benefits has left many of its residents looking pretty vast as well. The United Arab Emirates, ranked fifth in a list of the world’s most obese nations last year, shows no signs of making improvements unless something drastic is to take place.

A city in which everyone drives everywhere and is too hot to go outside for several months of the year, Dubai is not the ideal place for physical activity. The city’s innumerable gyms appear not to be doing the trick.

Slim down and get paid in gold

It is reckoned that among emiratis, sixty-seven per cent of men and seventy-two per cent of women are classed as overweight, and the problem is also rife among the large expatriate population.

Poor diet and lack of exercise mean that UAE residents contract diabetes fifteen years earlier than the global average.

Those seeking to take advantage of Dubai’s gold standard in weight loss will find their task more challenging than they would expect. With the onset of Ramadan which began last week intended as a period of abstinence and reflection, for many it is the least healthy time of the year.

Many in the Gulf states become almost nocturnal, constantly overeating after dark and then sleeping through the daylight hours of fasting.

Apparently a good number of people were ferried to hospital in Qatar after overeating during evening meals in what has become a Ramadan rite in its own way.

The lesson to be learnt is not hard to comprehend. Obesity is primarily an epidemic of the age brought about by abusing our bodies, and giving vent to an over-indulgence which is as ugly as it is degradingly harmful.

Although obesity and gluttony are bedmates, it is worth noting that gluttony kills more than the sword.

The Proms Ring Cycle with Daniel Barenboim

If you are an opera buff, you cannot afford to ignore the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner, especially when it is celebrated by none other than Daniel Barenboim, who brings to life The Ring of Nibelung – which took the composer some twenty-six years to complete.

I expect everyone will be talking about the event for the combination of Wagner and Barenboim is pure magic.

The BBC Proms is wheeling out the big guns for its celebratory Ring, which begins this week with Das Rheingold and climaxes with Gotterdammerung on 28th July.

Although the operas will not be staged, there are plenty of compelling reasons not to miss the Ring, the most important of which is Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Staatskapelle. Barenboim has an impeccable Wagnerian record; he has conducted several Ring Cycles at the Bayreuth Festival, the spiritual home of Wagner, and his Wagner performances at the Berlin Staatsoper have been renowned for twenty years.

The most exciting name in the cast is the Swedish soprano, Nina Stemme, who many claim is the reigning Brünnhilde of our times. Our own Bryn Terfel, meanwhile, pops up as Wotan in Die Walküre, but in Das Rheingold his younger self will be sung by Iain Patterson, the Scottish baritone.

Richard Wagner was a giant in musical terms. He was born in Leipzig on 22nd May 1813, and died in Venice on 18th February 1883. His whole life was a struggle, for his musical ideas were unlike any that had gone before. But he lived to witness a splendid triumph; and today, his operas have an extensive following worldwide, and are produced more often than those of any other composer.

The following is the order in which the operas were first given:

Rienzi (1842); The Flying Dutchman (1843); Tannhäuser (1845); Lohengrin (1850); Tristan and Isolde (1865); The Master Singers (1868); The Ring of the Nibelung (1876); and Parsifal (1882).

When Wagner was just beginning his career, he was in great doubt as to the choice of subjects for his operas. His first famous work (Rienzi) was based on Italian history. The English novelist Bulwer-Lytton wrote a noted book using the same title and groundwork.

The legend of ‘The Flying Dutchman’, which Wagner next chose, is one of the best known sea myths. In every country sailors tell of a mysterious ship that is seen in times of danger or distress. The captain of this vessel bears a number of names, but it is believed that the varying tales are only versions of one original legend. The German poet Heine wrote one version, and from this Wagner obtained the first idea for his opera.

With Tannhäuser Wagner entered upon the purely German themes which he was thenceforth to find so rich a mine. The story, like many others, was extremely old – yet it had been treated only rarely. Ludwig Tieck had written some verses on it, and from these Wagner got his idea. Owen Meredith, the English poet, had also given us a charming version entitled ‘The Battles of the Bards’. While Tannhäuser himself has been seldom written about, Walther von der Vogelweide – the Minnesinger, and friend of Tannhäuser in the opera – is the subject of many poems, one of the last being by Longfellow.

Sir Walter is set down in German history as an actual person, and many things are told about his marvellous gift of song.

Wolfran von Eschenbach – another historical character found in the operas – once wrote a famous old poem entitled ‘Parzival’.

Here Wagner discovered his beautiful story from the poem of Lohengrin, following the lines of an old and almost forgotten legend. The opera of Parsifal, though left incomplete until more than thirty years later, was also conceived at this time and remained cherished. The legends of the Holy Grail are familiar in every Christian country.

There is much in the characters of both Parsifal and Lohengrin to remind us of Tennyson’s Sir Galahad, in ‘Idylls of the King’ – which treats the Holy Grail.

In Tristan and Isolde we have another legend which was well known during the Middle Ages; in Wales, Ireland, Brittany and Germany – where it was a frequent theme with minnesingers, or wandering minstrels like Walther von der Vogelweide.

One of the earliest German authors to write down a version of it was a certain Godfried of Strasbourg, and Wagner had at his command this and numerous other versions.

English poets, too, have been attracted by the tale, with Sir Walter Scott in ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ telling the simplest version. Matthew Arnold, Tennyson, and Swinburne have also all produced poems of great length on the subject.

During the Middle Ages and particularly in the thirteenth century Nuremberg was a seat of a well-known musical guild or training school for poets and singers. Wagner followed history in his Master Singers for scene, characters and traditions.

The Master Singers left proof that they in fact lived. There are poems in existence, signed by Sixtus Beckmesser, Veit Pogner, among others. Hans Sachs left volumes behind and his memory is so revered that he is viewed almost as the patron saint of his city.

Longfellow says in his poem on Nuremberg: ‘Here Hans Sachs, the cobbler poet, laureate of the gentle craft, wisest of the twelve wise masters in huge folios, sang and laughed.’

Wagner also obtained his idea for the contest of song from one of Hoffman’s novels entitled Sängerkrieg. He made use of the same idea in Tannhäuser.

Although The Ring of the Nibelung, Wagner’s grand life work, was not presented until 1876, he had been at work on its four parts for more than twenty-five years previously. He published the first two parts without their musical score in 1853. The other operas, which appeared in the meantime, were but breathing places, so to speak, in the greater labour he had set himself.

Wagner was especially fortunate in his choice of subject. The Nibelungen myth was a great national epic – one of the oldest of the Teutonic race, dating back to the pre-historic era when Wotan, Fricka, Freia, Thor, Loki, and the other gods and goddesses were worshipped in the German forests.

In the course of centuries several versions of the legend appeared, some being found even in Iceland under the name of Eddas. In Germany a long epic poem came to be written by some unknown hand. It was called ‘Das Nibelungenlied’, and it is the most famous of all early German poems.

Of course, Wagner had access to all this material. But he made so many changes from it in writing his own poem as to create a new story – one which, independent of the wonderful music which he wrote to accompany it, gives him place among the foremost writers of his nation. Volumes have been written pointing out the differences between his Nibelung story and the earlier legends.

It simply emphasises the fact that Wagner was always his own man. He used legend as a basis for his own creative genius, and made future generations realise that we will never grow too old to believe in giants, dragons and dwarves, and the brave heroes who ride over the world doing heroic deeds. We should be thankful that Wagner lived and made us share his monumental dreams of the past.

To listen to Wagner is a joy that has no equal. I shall no doubt be mesmerised watching my television screen, when the BBC in all its glory transmits the opera from the Royal Albert Hall for the thrill of the nation.