Films for ‘Renewal’

The theme of ‘renewal’ gave me a little bit more difficulty when thinking of what films I would recommend. But then it suddenly dawned on me. Renewal could be an excellent prism through which to view films where the lead character(s) go through a process of change that leads to their redemption, even though the journey may be difficult at times. I think that this time of year is a good time to evaluate what we’ve been through over the past year and to plan our journeys for the future. What better way to do this than in a cathartic manner through film?

Gravity (2013)

The first film I would like to recommend is one that I came late to, having only recently watched the DVD. That film is Gravity (2013) and I found it to to be an intense viewing experience. The film deals with the difficulties that a small group of astronauts experience when trying to fix the Hubble telescope in space. The film’s focus is of the protagonist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), and her powerful development and evolution. The story is  quite metaphysical and though it would be classed as a science fiction film I was struck with how deep the religious and re-birth aspects are that run throughout. I won’t give any spoilers away but will say that if you’re looking for a film to represent renewal of a main character in terms of evolution of personality and bravery you can’t go wrong with watching Gravity!

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

The second film that I would like to recommend is The Pursuit of Happyness (2006). I know that opinion has been divided over this film (mainly due to it’s central message and that it deviates slightly from actual events). I would also not always agree with it central message that being incredibly rich solves all of life’s problems. However, the emotional intensity of the acting in this film is what sways it for me to recommend it for the theme of ‘renewal’. The Pursuit of Happyness tells the real life tale of Chris Gardner’s struggle with homelessness and being the sole carer of his son after the breakdown of his job and relationship in San Francisco. His one hope is to win the coveted position at a stock brokerage firm during a competitive internship against nineteen other candidates. The sheer tenacity of the central character and the strength and difficulties that he goes through with his son to achieve his ambition are astonishing. The central performances from Will Smith and his real life son Jaden are excellent and I think this is one of the best film roles I have seen Will Smith act in. Will was nominated for an Oscar, losing out to Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland. The acting in the scene where he has barricaded himself and his son into a tube station toilet overnight to sleep is astonishing, as is Will Smith’s acting in the final dramatic scene. This is an emotional journey to go through and you do really root for that ‘happy’ ending, for everything to turn out ok in the end.

Ray (2004)

Ray is the final film that I would like to recommend on the subject of renewal for January. Jamie Foxx  was awarded a well deserved Oscar and BAFTA for best actor in this role playing Ray Charles. This film being a biopic does differ from actual events like above. However, the  journey that the central character undertakes is astonishing. We follow the story of Ray Charles from extreme poverty as a child in Georgia through family tragedy, discrimination in the form of racism, overcoming blindness and drug addiction. All of these struggles occurring whilst Ray was creating some amazing music that has been very influential on subsequent recording artists. It really is a great film and Jamie Foxx is incredible in how much he resembled Ray Charles in his physical movement and voice. I first watched Ray when I had gone through stressful experiences of my own and I felt it cathartic to watch this character’s journey. The film does offer a kind of redemptive hope and channels the power of psychotherapy to help when life throws up stumbling blocks in your journey’s path.

These are the three films that I’ve come up with for the themes of ‘renewal’ in January, can you think of any others that you would like to nominate?

Books for ‘Renewal’

It’s that time of year again when we all start to evaluate and make New Year’s Resolutions or not as the case may be! What better time then, to start with some reading resolutions and make this the year that you begin to read something you may have never read before or why not choose to re-read an old favourite?

On the subject of ‘renewal’ I see as being a positive word as to me, this speaks of re-evaluation of one’s self and a chance to learn something new and what better time to do this then at the start of a new year?

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The first book I would recommend is Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. I first read this during my first year of university, I had heard that there was a bit of a buzz around this book as I was working at a bookshop at the time and had put off reading it until I had read pretty much all I wanted to read at the time and decided to give this a go and I wasn’t disappointed. This book really spoke to me as I was going through a pretty rough time and it gave me hope that things would turn out alright in the end. It also resonated with me the belief that life is a journey with many twists and turns along the way and that we all have courage inside of us and we must learn to trust in this. Santiago is the Andalusian shepherd boy who sets off on a quest around the world to find a hidden treasure with unexpected results. I don’t want to give any more away but you really should read it, it’s a very interesting book.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Another book that I would like to recommend that allies with the subject of ‘renewal’ is The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. I read this book two years ago when going through a difficult period of re-diagnosis for a long-standing health condition. Harold Fry, a retired sales rep from a Devon brewery is contacted by an old friend and former colleague who he felt he betrayed years ago. She now has cancer and what begins as a simple posting of a reply to her letter turns into a pilgrimage on foot from Kingsbridge South Devon to Berwick upon Tweed in Northumberland. Along his journey, Harold meets a diverse variety of people, some of whom decide to follow him for parts of his journey when his story is picked up by local news along the way. Harold comes across as a likeable man who is open to letting others join him on his journey, though at times he does realise he needs solitude for reflection. He also becomes very accepting when his journey changes along the way, and learns to let go of both his temporary companions and any negative emotions that arise during his journey.

Despite the subject matter the book is very life affirming. The physical journey is just really a metaphor for what Harold learns from meeting other people and by having time and solitude to reflect on his difficult past and learning how to accept and come to terms with this resulting in Harold becoming a stronger person emotionally. All of these moments cause Harold to significantly change his perspective on life. In this way for the physical journey being a metaphor for an emotional journey. It made me think of how much long-term illness is a metaphorical journey in itself in that you learn about yourself and learn to adapt your life which results in change.

Wild – From Lost to Found on the Pacific-Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed.

The final book I would like to recommend on the subject of renewal is Wild – From Lost to Found on the Pacific-Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. The film with Reese Witherspoon is out now and I hope to see it but if you’ve not read the book it is definitely worth a read. It tells the true story of how Cheryl Strayed hiked over a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail alone after the death of her mother, divorce and a heroin addiction. This book taught me to trust in my intuition and be brave. I was astonished how resourceful Cheryl was and the number of times that fate intervened in her hike and the number of close encounters that she had ranging from: lack or excess of kit, need for food and water and personal safety threats from wildlife and strange men.

Wild, like the other two books uses the metaphor of a physical journey to explore emotional issues and reflect on life so far and where you would like it to go in the future. This is why I feel that these three books are journeys themselves that I believe are excellent starting points of renewal for January. Happy Reading!



‘Renewal’ in History

With the start of a new year, many millions of people around the world will embark on a regime of self-improvement. A few will stick to their resolutions beyond January. Change is often difficult and challenging, although the rewards can be far-reaching.

The idea of renewal is by no means a new thing. The concept of a “phoenix rising from the ashes” can be traced at least back to the ancient Greeks, and to other civilizations around the globe. It would seem that people around the world have a desire to create a new, better path either as a society or on a more personal level. History gives us so many examples of changes in society, and of individuals.

Britain after World War Two (Post-War Consensus)

Britain after the experience of the Second World War was far from “Great”. The population had experienced a great deal of trauma. Many cities were reduced to rubble from bombing during the Blitz. Families had been separated, and many people had died. This war is often viewed through the rose-tinted glasses of the nostalgia industry, with “GI Joes” or a “Land Girls” dancing to Big Band Swing. However, the reality was that many people had to demand basic facilities, such as the use of the London underground to shelter from bombing. It was far from fun and frivolity. However, the spirit of camaraderie which endured, and the ideas of working together as a society for a better world meant it was an experience that would fundamentally shake people into wanting a better way forward.

WWII,_England,_-West_End_London_Air_Raid_Shelter-_-_NARA_-_195768People sheltering from the blitz in an Underground Station

The experience of war, and knowing that it was possible for the government to make things fairer by organising the limited resources in times of war, gave people a taste of how things could work better for all. The people had fought a tough war, and did not want to return to a country that would have fundamental problems unaddressed. Great inequalities were present. Healthcare was only accessible to those who could afford it, and there was a lack of jobs and housing. Having gone through challenging times, the people had come to a realisation of how to make things better. From the rubble, the hope of the future of the nation began; a future that was a renewal of sort. Policies that were brought in included full-employment, a comprehensive welfare state, and the creation of the National Health Service. These were widely popular, and helped renew the society and justify most people’s dreams for a fairer one. With the improvements in living standards over the decades since 1945, many of which were a result of the changes in policy, some of these ideas have gone out of favour or become watered down. However, the legacy from this time of renewal persists and some ideals are largely held dear by the British people, such as that of universal health care regardless of ability to pay. The regeneration brought after World War Two was quite remarkable, and demonstrates the power of progressive change.

The story of Amazing Grace

The song Amazing Grace is perhaps one of the most famous hymns, and it being a song about redemption, a personal renewal of sorts. The first well known verse, exemplifies this:

“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.”

Sometimes in history, the story of an individual becomes so widely popular that it encompasses an aspect of the time, or, at least exemplifies an admiration of how all of us should aspire to be. The song ‘Amazing Grace’ has a curious history. It was written in 1779 during the height of the slave trade.

The lyricist, John Newton, was a former slave-ship captain, who became transformed. In the song, Newton describes his radical turn away from his past ways and a growing sense within that he held and saw a new way of being. His experiences of seeing the abuse given to slaves on his ship awoke an awareness and paved the way for an epiphany of the soul. Formerly, he was uncaring and callous, only valuing the monetary value of the slaves. This realisation would come to him during his life after his time at sea , when he was an Anglican Clergyman and saw this enlightened view as a gift from God.

After this time Newton became an avid campaigner to abolish the slave trade and was of great help to the well-known abolitionist William Wilberforce. The pamphlet Newton wrote – Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, was especially influential with Wilberforce.

John_newton_plaque John Newton Memorial Plaque

Final Thoughts…

These are just two examples of how renewal can be found in different times, places and situations. Renewal is a universal phenomenon, and there are so many examples out there. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on or experiences of renewal.

  Image source

Air Raid Shelter Photo from:
By Unknown or not provided (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

John Newton Picture from:
By Susan Yates (Open Plaques donation) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The Golden Barrel Cactus Renewed

Golden Barrel Cactus

Throughout history, we as people have explored the globe and carved out landscapes to make homes for ourselves. This holds true from ancient times all the way to the present day. The consequences have been significant for the natural world. Consequences including deforestation, climate change and even extinction of species.

However, the natural world has long been known for its regenerative capabilities. Renewal, as is so often seen in the natural world such as when winter turns to spring, when eucalyptus trees regrow after a fire and even in this peculiar case of the Golden Barrel cactus (Echinocactus Grusonii).

This beautiful, striking and fearsome plant, almost alien in appearance and completely bizarre has quite a contrasting tale to tell. In the wild the Golden Barrel cactus is rare and has become an endangered species.

The natural home of the cactus was once a dry, dusty valley but has now become a lake. This is due to the building of the Zimapán Dam in the Mexican state of Querétaro. In one fell swoop the home of an entire species was devastated by mankind’s desire to progress.

But this is far from the end of the story, the Golden Barrel cactus is probably best known in its juvenile form. Often seen in hardware shops and garden centres in the house plant aisle. It is so ubiquitous in cultivation that many forms have been created, including some without spines, multi-headed plants and crested varieties.

Cactus field
Golden Barrel cactus farm in southern China

It is so common in cultivation due to farms in southern China. These farms grow thousands upon thousands of these in fields on a huge commercial scale. They are often seen all over the world in hardware stores, garden centres and even supermarkets. In all possibility there might be more plants of this species being grown now than there ever were in the wild.

Landscapers, gardeners and cacti and succulent collectors are indeed very lucky to be able to still have this plant available to them. However, it is perhaps the plant collectors, explorers and botanists we should also thank for keeping this plant very much alive despite its original home being lost.

Perhaps one day it can be re-introduced back into the wild, near its original home and will once again grace the desert landscape with its prominent, rugged form. Till that day it will be grown and bought in the hundreds of thousands by people all over the world as a house plant and an outside plant for those in favourable climes.

This shows a form of renewal which is perhaps a little unorthodox, indeed some might say it is almost ironic how man’s intervention saved a species but also made it nearly extinct.

As we all head forward into this new year I am sure we can appreciate that seemingly trivial choices and decisions that we make can have a much bigger impact than expected. Had it not been for a keen interest in collecting and cultivating this plant, it may well have gone the way of the Dodo.