It's that time of year when everyone becomes obsessed with 'reflecting over the past year'. TV is overloaded with 'The Best of' programmes, and papers and websites dedicate pages to celebrity, news and film highlights. So, at the risk of being predictable, I thought I would end the year with my own little 'Secret Life' overview. As I pulled together some photos of my adventures, which only started halfway through 2015, I can see how people get so involved in this practice of nostalgia. I couldn't help but smile at what I had done, from new artistic skills like graffiti painting and dress making to pursuits which have become part of my life such as paddle boarding or singing. Not forgetting the public treasures which London holds, but which I had never yet visited, such as the British Museum, Wigmore Hall, and the amazing Neasden Temple. I thought this was a blog post best illustrated in pictures rather than words, so below is my little Secret Life collage.
Also fitting with year end tradition, I am already plotting more adventures for 2016, including the launch of a new facet to the Secret Life, so keep reading next year for more information on that....
Happy new year friends and fellow adventurers!
This week's adventure is one which I have been hoping would come up. It's another of those which is almost shameful to admit that I haven't yet experienced, especially given that I live in North West London.
A visit to the Neasden Temple, or the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir to give it it's full name. This is the largest Hindu temple outside of India, and belies it's humble location of Neasden. I remembered a connection I had made whilst working at Unicef where a colleague of mine, Shilpa Patel had revealed her connection to the Temple and so lI ooked her up as my perfect guide. Shilpa and her family live in Dollis Hill, a mere 10 minute walk away from me where their home has a strong significance with the background to this temple and the Hindu community. I thought a visit to her home first seemed fitting. Here she told me how in 1970, Yogiji Maharaj had stayed at their home for 6 weeks, where every morning the puja (ritual prayers) were held. This was where the seeds were sown of the idea to build a manir in North London to serve the expanding Hindu community. Sadly Yogiji Maharaj passed away the following year, but was succeeded by His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj. It was to take 20 years of continued efforts of the community before the final plot in Neasden was bought. In 1991 the foundation stone was laid and in 1992 work began. To truly appreciate the story in the same way that I did, firstly you should look at this magnificent building in all of it's glory below and then marvel at how it was accomplished....
As someone who works in the business of fundraising, how this building came into being blew me away.
Five thousand tonnes of Italian Carrara, Indian Ambani marble and Bulgarian limestone, was carved and shipped to London where it was carefully put in place by the work of 3,000 volunteers. This magnificent building was, and continues to be, funded entirely by worshippers and well-wishers - something which any charity would be in awe of. Also, incredibly, this was created within 2 years .....meanwhile the builders on the flat next door to me have taken 18 months and still aren't finished!
As we went inside, observing the tradition of removing footwear, I was soon aware of the cold marble beneath my feet. Although we followed several school groups into the maha-mandap (‘Great Hall’, or nave) upstairs, there was a wonderful respectful silence as we sat on the floor ready for the arti, This is a form of prayer offered in greeting and thanksgiving to God, The Rajbhog Arti which we attended, happens after the Deities have been offered their midday meal. Often called the ‘ceremony of light’, the arti involves waving lighted wicks before the sacred images to infuse the flames with the Deities’ love, energy and blessings. It is performed by sadhus (Hindu monks) and pujaris (attendants to the Deities) sung to the accompaniment of musical instruments.
I have never considered myself a religious person (I usually tick the 'agnostic' or even 'atheist' box on forms) but this whole ritual and setting blew me away. It was so uplifting. After the arti, Shilpa and I walked around the Deities where we could read about the significance of them all. Afterwards she explained to me that they are all changed into new robes and clothes each morning. Again, all of these are made by volunteers, and to even further demonstrate this commitment, none of these handmade clothes are worn again by the Deities. More costume changes than Beyonce!
Downstairs we went into the exhibition 'Understanding Hinduism'. This was a really well laid out exhibition which really led even the uninitiated through the origin, beliefs and values of this fascinating religion. This also featured a film of the making of the mandir which is truly amazing. And yet there was even more to see..... Shilpa showed me the exquisite carving of the Haveli which led us to the main assembly hall. This hall spans 50 metres by 45 metres with no supporting columns, and can accommodate up to 2,500 people when fully opened. Again, from an events perspective alone, where else can you find that kind of space in London? I was still marvelling at the fact that this magnificent building is run by volunteers, the utility bills alone must be huge! As it neared 1pm I was aware of some wonderful smells emanating from the kitchen where even more volunteers were hard at work. Shilpa directed us, however, to the another final gem in this magnificent crown. Back to the car park where we visited the Shayona restaurant and shop. A trip around this shop reminded me to never buy Indian ingredients anywhere else. Very much like your first visit to a Chinese supermarket in China town, the shelves were heaving with delights. I was truly like a kid in a sweetshop and bought myself probably the best Bombay mix ever, along with some less run of the mill delicacies. This is where my 'foodie friend' Dawn will be reading this and saying 'I want to go there, not to Voga!' You will, Dawn, and in fact, we will also go back to the Shayona restautant where I enjoyed a great buffet. Not your run of the mill menu, but featuring some great street food, and deserving of it's Time Out recommendation proudly displayed at the entrance. I am so pleased to have finished my year with a Secret Life adventure which is so poignant and the thought provoking.
Well I knew this challenge was in the box, but along with parkour, it is one I was dreading drawing out. What can be as scary as trying to run along walls, with the fear of breaking your legs I hear you ask? A singing lesson! Does that surprise you? Surely Denise, you are musical, you play guitar? Yes, but that doesn't involve singing, in fact it is something I actively shy away from. It wasn't always like this, I used to be in AmDram as a teenager...though to be fair that was mainly because my friend Shirely was, and I loved a good musical party! Most of my time there involved trying to blend into the background singing chorus numbers such as Oklahoma in the safety of a crowd. There was that one time that a few of us reluctantly got pulled into the small group of 'The Melvin P Thorpe Singers' when we did the musical of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, but even that descended into melodic chaos and hilarity when we were left to our own devices. My theatre interest then very much focussed on set design and other such behind the scenes activities. But here I was, 30 years (gulp) on from those nervous days and I was feeling even more anxious. My friend Google offered many courses, although a lot of them seemed to be geared towards people looking to improve their technique (err, no), or group classes (I was still sure that I'd get singled out to sing something). But then I found Matt Thompson, who offered every range from beginner, right through to professional. There's a lot to be said for a friendly website, with an equally welcoming face on it. I needed to strike whilst the iron was hot, lest I backed out. Although Matt was fully booked at the weekends, I had some time free on a Wednesday afternoon, and so I was booked in for the very next day. This is going to be a blog that is fairly light on visuals as you can imagine, so here is a shot from that very show mentioned above for amusement value. I am sure my friend Shirley won't mind me posting this, as thankfully the hats hide both of our very dodgy 80s perms!
When I arrived at Matt's flat in a lovely leafy part of Camden, I was greeted warmly with a "Hello Denise, I understand you might be a bit nervous". To which I replied " Well I was, but you have a lovely voice like Gary Barlow, so I feel more relaxed already!" It was true, there is a lot to be said for a regional accent to calm people. I personally always see through this ploy by service providers who transfer you onto a Scot or a Geordie if you start to sound a bit annoyed on a phone call. In fact over the years I have been asked to make difficult work calls for my colleagues for that reason ("Go on, they won't get annoyed at you with your lovely accent"). Anyway, I digress. Matt asked what my background was and what led me to the lesson. I explained that I would like to be able to sing sometimes when I played the guitar, and also that I thought it would improve my public speaking. And of course, I was truthful about my Secret Life mission. It seems that I spend a lot of my time thinking up back stories as to why I want to do things, so that it sounds like I am committed to doing something on an ongoing basis. But then, I knew, that this, like other pursuits would probably not just be a one off. Matt explained how the first lesson would work, how we would go through some scale exercises, and how he would sing along with me until I felt comfortable.I asked the question that apparently everyone asks..."What if I'm tone deaf?" Apparently this is extremely rare though, only about 1 in 1000 people, he had never met anyone who was. (God, what if I was that person??) Within 5 minutes, we were away, "ma, ma, ma, ma, ma, ma, ma,ma, ma". There, that wasn't so bad. And up the scale we went. In fact apparently I did quite well. He could already tell quit a lot about my voice - did I ever really belt out songs? No, I replied, well, except maybe for with a group of friends after some wine! We continued with "me, me me" and "mo, mo, mo" and then he asked me to shout "hey!" short and sharp to gauge the volume of my voice. Even though he prepared me before he demonstrated, I still jumped. He sorted that my breathing might be hampering my consistency of voice and so we did some diaphragm based exercises. This was explained really well, as I could draw comparisons with swimming and other exercise based breathing. Next we were going to go up to my 'breaking point' which he explained in a female was usually a high B. Yep, that sounded a bit uncomfortable, and reminded me of how I usually quieten down when I get near this range for fear of scaring people. Apparently though, this was not a bad thing, as I have a good 'chest' voice and a falsetto, but not much of a 'head' voice, which meant I could work to improve the middle section and strenghten my voice. He pointed out that there is a high A which he called 'The Laughing A' as it was usually where female beginners started laughing as it sounded like they were screeching. And yes, that's exactly what happened when I hit that note. As we stayed in the upper range of the scales Matt showed me some distraction techniques using my arm which increased the strength of that high note. Finally, and I can't believe we even got this far on the first lesson, we started to look at learning a song. I must admit I had been thinking of songs that morning in case I was put on the spot and asked the kind of things that I liked to sing, but there was never any fear of that kind of pressure. Matt gave me a sheet of lyrics which had been written by Skin of Skunk Anansie, a good friend and mentor of his. I love Skunk Anansie and was now even more impressed. The song was called 'Don't Let Me Down' from her solo career. I had never heard it before, and so Matt sang through the first verse a couple of times and asked me to join in when I felt comfortable. Two rounds in and I was off. Another verse and a chorus later and we had learnt half a song. Now you know that at this stage I am NOT going to upload the sound file of me singing, so below is the You Tube link to the wonderful Skin singing the song. (Hmm, of course now I can never let anyone hear me singing it,as to compare to this would be criminal). The hour was very quickly over and yes, you guessed it, I have booked another lesson for next week! Denise has developed yet another hobby. I am just thankful that I am having a break from my shellfish cooking and graffiti painting career, to give me some time. This was such a great experience, leaving me on the same sort of high that paddle boarding did. It pushed me well out of my comfort zone and is very much in the spirit of what the Secret Life is all about!
Denise Yeats is an events director, communications consultant, endurance athlete and avid adventurer.