Albus Potter and the influence of our parents

The new Harry Potter play will leave fans reflecting on their parents’ enduring affect on their own lives

How fortunate I was to attend the opening night of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the new two-part play by Jack Thorne.

The play staged at the Palace Theatre and based on a new story by JK Rowling is brilliant, and rightly received five star reviews, with critics calling it “game-changing” and “thrilling”.  Audiences are delighted to see Harry Potter as a grown man working at the Ministry of Magic, while his son Albus Severus Potter heads off to Hogwarts.

At school, Albus – named for Dumbledore and Snape – encounters Scorpius Malfoy, son of his father’s enemy Draco Malfoy, and the scene is set for an extraordinary, almost Dickensian look into the entirety of the Potter world.

But this blog is no place to discuss the plot – I would not want to ruin the night for other fans. However, I find it fascinating to reflect on theme of parental legacy as it affects us all – muggles or not.

Our parents endow us not just with genes and an education, but intangibles: family history, traditions, experiences and attitudes. Very often the names they choose too are redolent with personal heritage and hints of expectation.

One only needs to think of the American tradition of naming sons for their fathers – the Bush presidential dynasty, the Gettys, the Rockefellers. And a look at those American names also reminds us instantly that being your father’s son is not always easy. Sometimes we cannot live up to their expectation. Sometimes we do not want to. We resist it, fight it, choose a different path.

In Chinese culture, the influence of family is even more obvious as the surname or family name comes before the individual or given name. This is to signify that the family stands above the individual, and that we must see ourselves from the perspective of family and community rather than looking to one’s own individual journey and life purpose.

Personally, I do not believe that we are defined by our heritage. I understand, too, that it can be difficult to reach that point where one can empathise with one’s mother or father’s desire or ability to influence your life, let alone accept it.

As children, contesting the family and standing up for oneself is an important part of growing up. But the process is not complete until we are able to understand the ways of our parents, and accept their lessons with good grace. This is the wisdom of age.

Our common ancestry belies mistrust of immigration

Resistance to foreigners betrays an ignorance of the past

“When you start about family,” said Alex Haley, author of Roots, the novel which explored and exposed much of the history of African-American slavery, “about lineage and ancestry, you are talking about every person on earth.”

He is quite right. For every person who claims proudly that their line goes “back” so many hundreds of years, it’s worth reminding ourselves that all families, ancestors and forebears go “back” equally far. You can trace them to the humans discovered to have lived in Ethiopia 2.8 million years ago, to the Georgians from 1.8 million years ago, and to the first humans to move to Asia, Europe and Australia.

I was reminded of this recently by the conversations about immigration which seem to be dominating politics and the public mood around the world. In the haste to find a scapegoat for national problems, whether they concern housing, employment or trade, many people seem determined to blame those they label outsiders or foreigners. People who look or can be labelled as “strangers” find themselves in the firing line.

This is tied into fears over terrorism especially that which derives its inspiration from the so-called Islamic State.

It is not unusual or unhuman to worry about the unknown. And although most of us try hard to co-exist peacefully with each other as humans rather than as different tribes or races, there are some – especially now – whose fear finds expression in hate and prejudice.

No wonder then that we have seen a surge in anti-immigrant hate crime in recent times; the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) reported an average 57 per cent nationwide increase in hate crimes reported by in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum.

Yet, ironically, we are all much more closely related than we know. Recent advances in DNA testing and genetic profiling by companies such as and 23andMe have revealed that we do not have to look back millions of years to find a common ancestor.

A Cornell University study published in the journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) in 2009 found that the average amount of DNA in an African American’s genome that could be traced back to West Africa was about 77 per cent, but it ranged from as little as 1 per cent to as much as 99 per cent.

At 23andMe, researchers have looked at the genetic ancestry of about 78,000 customers likely to consider themselves as entirely of European ancestry and found that 3-4 per cent of those people have “hidden” African ancestry ranging from 0.5 to 0.75 per cent. These findings suggest that this group of customers have an African ancestor who lived about six generations, or about 200 years, ago.

Not only does our inability to accept that we are more alike than we know threaten our peace and happiness, but paradoxically it also makes us more vulnerable. Often terrorists are home-grown but believe themselves to be “other”. If we accepted our commonality instead of looking for differences, we might find ourselves safer and more secure in reality and in our imaginations. What a bonus for mankind that would be.


The Go-Between and how not to be haunted by history

A new musical version of a classic tale reminds us to be ruthless with the past, or the past will be ruthless with you

I am fascinated by the relationship between past and present: how easy it is to let the events of our youth affect our present state of mind – indeed, some people allow those events to affect them for their whole lives.

These themes are explored with poignancy and care, and through superb acting and music, in the new musical version of the classic tale by LP Hartley The Go-Between.

The production, which I am delighted to be involved in, stars legendary actor Michael Crawford in the lead role of Leo Colston, a man whose entire life is destroyed by a series of actions carried out in childhood.

In the story, a young Leo is persuaded to act as intermediary, passing messages between Marian, a beautiful young woman whose family are Leo’s hosts, and first her fiancée Lord Trimingham, and then her lover, a handsome local farmer called Ted.

Leo does not know initially he is doing anything wrong, but when the truth behind the messages comes out, his role as the go-between triggers a tragedy. We learn over time that the events changed his life, destroying his self-belief.

Yet when he finally meets Marian in old age, it emerges that she has been able to live, love and move on more easily. It is Leo who was the prisoner of time, not Marian.

Should we all worry about being trapped by the past? Of course. As Buddha says: “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” This is the central premise and power of contemplative meditation.

This is not to say that we cannot learn the lessons of the past; just that we must not become caught up in re-examining them again and again, like a numismatist poring over an old coin, unable to appreciate its value from looking too hard.

But also I would say that we should not try to live too far ahead either. Dreams can inspire but they are not blueprints for life.

The balance is to try our best to live within our “now”. By all means learn from our past, but do not become its prisoner.

Joyce DiDonato and the power of music

One of my greatest pleasures is to listen to the mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who has just been named the Maria Callas Debut Artist of the Year, a prize awarded by the Dallas Opera.

Miss DiDonato’s mellifluous coloratura voice has graced the world’s stages, entrancing audiences with her interpretation of works by composers including Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti.

Currently starring in Benoît Jacquot’s production of Werther by Jules Massenet at the Royal Opera House, Miss DiDonato is wowing London audiences in this tale of doomed and tragic love.

When I first met Miss DiDonato, I couldn’t help but notice she was vibrating with love and joy, and that many people were naturally drawn to her energy field and her warmth. They seem to soak up her aura and cannot get enough of it.

My affinity with her was heartfelt and instant. In each other, we recognised kindred spirits. And I admired her extraordinary musical talents, but also her generosity, her enthusiasm, her graciousness, and her passion to make the world a better place.

For Miss DiDonato is more than an opera star – she is a stellar human being, unafraid to use her position to support others, not least as a long-standing supporter of LGBT rights.

Miss DiDonato responded to the recent murder of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida by posting a link to her performance in February 2015 of Dido’s Lament from Henry Purcell’s 17th-century opera Dido and Aeneas. She performed that at the Stonewall Inn, a famous gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village. The performance was given to commemorate the emergence of the modern gay rights movement, which had been sparked into life following riots at the Stonewall in 1969.

And at the 2013 Proms, she moved many to tears when she dedicated her performance of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, from the Wizard of Oz, to the LGBT community “whose voices are being silenced”, particularly in Russia.

I also admire her work with the Carnegie Hall’s outreach programme which last year saw her visit the Sing Sing prison in New York state, collaborating on songwriting and compositional projects. She also performed for the prisoners, as she did in April this year on a return visit.

But perhaps it is the support Miss DiDonato has given to the Dallas Street Choir which moves me most. This choir is made up of the homeless – people who have lost their voices as well as their places in society. By encouraging them to sing, the Choir gives back to these dispossessed men and women their dignity and hope.

Her performances for the Choir not only raised vital funds, but also endorsed the value of song as a mark of respectability.

She may be divine on stage, but Miss DiDonato is no clichéd diva: “I know that every time I step on the stage it’s a real gift,” she says. “So I try not to take it for granted, and I try to make it an experience that the public can really participate in.”

Miss DiDonato’s compassion and humanity is an example to us all.

A perfect pas de deux is on the road to wisdom

As a dance aficionado, I know this art form is intensely demanding on a physical level and requires total dedication. I’m also aware of its mental needs: the intensity of concentration allied to the body’s strength and flexibility.

When it comes together we reach a sort of sublime transcendence. You can see it in a dancer such as Carlos Acosta who may perform a perfect hortensia, looking almost as though he is swimming in the air. Then, I see ballet as magic, more than physical exercise.

Ballet may yet be something more than that too: a step on the road to wisdom. An interesting study published in February in PLOS One suggests that regular ballet classes and lessons may improve brain power. The research carried out by the University of Chicago’s Department of Psychology had been aimed at assessing a possible link between meditation and the gaining of wisdom.

Dancing had been included merely for comparison purposes, and the research team had not been expecting to find it was associated with wisdom. The team’s members were left surprised. Patrick Williams, lead author and a postdoctoral researcher admitted: “The link between ballet and wisdom is mysterious to us and something that we’re already investigating further.”

This includes studies with adult practitioners of ballet, as well as among novices training at Chicago’s famous Joffrey Ballet. Williams wants to track novices and seasoned practitioners of both meditation and ballet for months and years to see whether the association holds up over time.

I am not surprised at the powerful effect of ballet on the mind. The seminal American modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham said: “Dance is the hidden language of the soul of the body.”

Meanwhile, the artist and choreographer Pina Bausch, founder of the Tanztheater Wuppertal, used dance to challenge and stimulate the mind of the viewer. David Bowie was so influenced he drew from her work for his 1987 Glass Spiders tour.

What is it about dance that speaks to us so deeply? For Bausch some of the power was in repetitive movements, which she believed had different meaning every time they were performed. And I can imagine that new emotions allied to perfect repeated muscle memories will create healthy neural pathways throughout the brain.

Could this be the source of wisdom, the constant stimulation of the brain while in perfect harmony with the body? It is at the very least stimulation for the soul.

King Ludwig’s castles reflect his inner struggles

Attending the English National Opera’s new production of Tristan and Isolde by Richard Wagner – its first since 1996 – was a great joy. I am delighted to be supporting this opera, which is directed by Daniel Kramer and features designs by Anish Kapoor, one of the most influential sculptors of his generation.

As I waited for the curtain to rise, I was reminded of the composer’s curious relationship with his patron Ludwig II, King of Bavaria, who lived from 1845–86.

King Ludwig was a reclusive character whose flamboyant taste in castles – astonishing neo-gothic palaces which decorate the tops of Bavarian mountains like fairy tale castles or indeed opera sets – belied his inner need for quiet, simplicity and even secrecy. Inside his most famous palace – the Neuschwanstein – his bedroom is simple and almost monastic, the small single bed a shrine to his single state. Yet the walls are painted with romantic murals telling the story of Tristan and Isolde.

The stimuli for building these edifices came from King Ludwig’s visits to France, and Versailles in particular. He envied the French their artistry and culture, and decided to encourage the development of the Arts in Bavaria on his return.

The schloss which resulted – including the breathtaking Neuschwanstein (which I have visited), the Linderhof, Herrenchiemsee and the Munich Residenz Palace Royal apartment – were initially popular. Construction brought employment to hundreds of labourers and artisans, and money flowed into the poorer regions of the country.

But gradually the sheer excess – combined with Ludwig’s increasingly eccentric behaviour – turned the court and country against him. Ludwig was declared insane, and subsequently died in strange circumstances. Was he murdered? It’s impossible to rule out.

At the heart of his story, I believe, lies a struggle between his strict Catholicism and his homosexuality, which at the time was forbidden both by Church and state. Ludwig must have lived in a state of constant internal conflict which resulted in a lifetime spent curating his own reality: a world that was very romantic and beautiful even though it was not accepted by others.

In this, he reminds me of more modern celebrities such as Michael Jackson who seemed to suffer equal depths of personal turmoil. Jackson, like King Ludwig, found his outlet in creativity and the arts. His output was prodigious and Jackson knew its value saying: “Music has been my outlet, my gift to all of the lovers in this world. Through it, my music, I know I will live forever.”

Did Ludwig hope to live forever through his castles? Perhaps. Yet his wider legacy is importantly tied to his patronage of Wagner, whose music might never have been composed without the king’s support.

Certainly that was partly driven by his suppressed attraction for the young composer: “Alas, he is so handsome and wise, soulful and lovely,” Ludwig said, “that I fear that his life must melt away in this vulgar world like a fleeting dream of the gods.”

In the end Wagner was not able or willing to stay by Ludwig’s side, yet the king continued to pay his bills from afar. It is a debt modern music lovers can never repay; its value is too great.

Feeling at home in old and new design

It’s important to revere the past, but it is equally valid to revel sometimes in the pleasures of modern life. So I was fascinated to learn recently of the organisation Living Architecture, which was set up at the instigation of philosopher and writer Alain de Botton.

In de Botton’s recent book The Architecture of Happiness, he discusses the theory that a concern for architecture and design is too often described as frivolous, even self-indulgent.

Living Architecture is a response to this: a collection of modernist properties that are available to rent so that those unfamiliar with new buildings (other than the airports or other public spaces they may pass through) can experience the allure of the new.

Properties available for rent include Grayson Perry’s recent build A House for Essex, which is both an artwork in itself and the setting for a number of his works exploring the special character and unique qualities of Essex.

The building has been designed to evoke a tradition of wayside and pilgrimage chapels. It belongs to a history of follies, while also being deeply of its own time.

In that way, it is surprisingly similar to the properties of the Landmark Trust, an organisation that makes available to let historic houses. They are inspiring in a more traditional way yet I do not think they are any less interesting for being old.

The Landmark Trust owns (and has restored) all kinds of quirky buildings such as the Gothic Temple at Stowe, Lord Dunmore’s exuberant pineapple pavilion near Stirling, and the 23 buildings and fragile eco-system of the isle of Lundy in the Bristol Channel.

Bringing its properties up to date, the Trust’s rescue from utter dereliction of Astley Castle in Warwickshire has seen the fusing of medieval and modern in a bold new scheme.

Rather than pitting old against new, I wonder if we should simply acknowledge the glory of all these special buildings. As Frank Gehry said: “Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness.”

This, after all, is the true test of design. Do we value its intrinsic qualities, its sense of internal space, its curves and straight lines as much after four years as four hundred years? Brilliant architecture can revisit the old in the new, predict the future while being rooted in the past. A house is always alive and interactive; we help to shape it while fulfilling our need to call it home.

The irresistible lure of nature

When I learned about plans for a Garden Bridge to span the River Thames like an arbour of greenery linking north to south London, I was fascinated. The bridge – originally an inspirational idea of actor Joanna Lumley – seemed like a fantastical scheme, perhaps even an impossible one.

Its award-winning designer Thomas Heatherwick, whose visionary work includes the London 2012 Olympic Cauldron and the UK’s amazing “Seed Cathedral” Pavilion for the 2010 Expo in Shanghai, has stated that he believes The Garden Bridge will be “an extraordinarily special place, either to race across, relax in or look back at the rest of the city’s sights”.

Certainly, the creation of these five garden glades with more than 100,000 new shrubs and flowers, and 270 new trees growing out of two specially designed planters, could be used by some as a new park to relax in. It will surely also act as an extraordinary super-sized window box for many who live on both sides of the river and have no outdoor space of their own.

The real appeal may lie in the plants that The Garden Bridge supports, the choice of award-winning horticulturalist Dan Pearson. Because whatever remarkable towers, cathedrals, castle and other physical structures we create, humans throughout the centuries have revered their gardens just as much.

Indeed, the drive to contain and perhaps even control nature is as strong today as it was at the time of the Shang Dynasty 3,000 years ago. We know that large enclosed parks were established then for kings to hunt game with their friends, in the valley of the river Huáng Hé. Spaces were designated for growing fruit and vegetables, platforms or terraces were built so that the king could survey his lands, and ponds were dug for boating and fishing.

Incredibly those traditions and human preferences seemed to have remained constant throughout the past millennia. Think of the micro-managed yet vast gardens of Versailles, which took 40 years to lay out, or the Grade 1-listed “rooms: of Sissinghurst Castle’s estate, designed by Vita Sackville-West.

It seems to me possible that we enjoy gardens because we experience, almost like some minor deity, the thrill of creation and control? In a landscaped garden, it is us that must decide what must grow where, sometimes paying less attention to nature’s own designs.

Or is our enjoyment perhaps the converse confirmation that we are so very human, that we must always give over control to a higher power when we work with nature – be it God, Buddha or a simple cry of Hope. We can plant a seed, water it and care for the young plant which may grow. But the very finest gardeners know well that one can only do one’s best, that nature may have other ideas for our grandest of designs. Gardening is sometimes simply the truest expression of the triumph of hope over experience.

Dangerous castles in the sky

When Glenn Close first appears on stage at the London Coliseum as troubled silent movie star Norma Desmond, the audience goes into raptures of delight. Close first played Desmond in Sunset Boulevard in LA, and then New York, a production I was lucky enough to see. Now she is back, making the dreams of fans come true.

But while fans’ wishes are fulfilled, they know as aficionados of Sunset – whether the original Billy Wilder movie, or this Andrew Lloyd Webber musical – that Desmond’s own dreams, thwarted and crushed, can lead to the most terrible tragedy.

The fictional Desmond has in her youth been a poster girl for the dreams of millions; but her nightmare develops when she loses the power to inspire those magical illusions. Trapped in her mansion, surrounded by self-portraits, living in an egocentric world, her fantasies are stoked by the adoration of Max, her beloved factotum (and first husband). Meanwhile, he pours his own dreams for her into the preservation of the Desmond myth, thus allowing it to keep growing, and grow out of control.

We should all be aware of Max’s errors: he is enabling Desmond to stay stuck in her fantasy and won’t help her to face reality. This isn’t hard to understand: very often, we give in to what our loved ones want, not what they need. It’s such a difficult balance to strike between our desire not to hurt the people we love and the importance sometimes of delivering true protection through some difficult home truths.

Joe Gillis, the young scriptwriter who narrates the story from beyond the grave, has his own fantasy problems. His dreams have been dashed so frequently that he has turned cynic. The stage is set for an inevitable clash as Joe cannot live through Desmond’s illusions any more than he can live out his own.

The mistake I feel is to accord such grand fantasies any importance in the first place. In Buddhist teaching, the state of sleep is sometimes used as a metaphor to describe the state of being ignorant (literally un-awakened). And the dreams we have while sleeping can symbolise fleeting desires for the unobtainable or pointlessly ephemeral, whether it be material success or the adulation of others.

We need to shake off these “dreams” by living fully in the now, not anticipating some glorious future or harking back to some marvellous past. Enjoy the illusions on stage, but be grateful for real life when the curtain falls.

A golden age of philanthropy

I hope and believe that we are embarking on a golden age of philanthropy among Chinese business people.

It has been said in the past that government regulations almost make it more difficult to give away money in China than to make it. Certainly it has taken the passing of a new charity law by the National People’s Congress earlier this year to make giving truly practical.

The new rules enhance tax incentives and make it easier to establish charitable trusts in the manner of the long-standing American tradition. They also demand that charities are more transparent too, to boost confidence in the emerging Asian Third Sector.

Last autumn meanwhile saw the China Global Philanthropy Institute established in Shenzhen. And a recent Harvard report showed that China’s top giver (in absolute terms) was billionaire He Xiangjian, who showed enormous magnanimity through donating more than US$60 million to social welfare causes.

So where do the philanthropists engage with the world’s needs? Some of the Chinese billionaires who attended the recent Global Philanthropy Leaders Program in London are interested in supporting education by providing scholarships or building schools. Others will find common cause with the arts, universities, disaster relief funds, the environment or by supporting government-backed charities.

While the modern connection between great wealth and philanthropy is a relatively new one for China, the tradition of altruism is strong in its people.

It makes me think of Ren, the moral principle of Confucius which he considered one of society’s highest ideals. To hold to Ren means fulfilling one’s obligations and responsibilities to society and to be kind-hearted to others. It begins with familial love, but is particularly important when practised by officials and those in positions of power.

In his collected sayings, known as the Analects, Confucius says: “Now the man of perfect virtue, wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, he seeks also to enlarge others.”

I believe that in modern philanthropy we are interpreting this quality of Ren for the 21st century. I am fascinated at how these old truths seem to span the centuries, and are reinvigorated as a result.

We may not live in the courtly age of Confucius, but we are much freer to become successful, regardless of our backgrounds, and then to decide how we want to share the fruits of that work. If it is easier to establish ourselves, it is also easier to “enlarge other”. This may look like the growth and flowering of a new approach to philanthropic capital, but the roots were inside us all along.