Inside the mind of a writer www.scskillman.co.uk

Archive for April, 2012

Places of Inspiration Part 3: Ayers Rock/Uluru, Evidence of Spirit Ancestors

Here is an image of a famous landmark:

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How do you think of Ayers Rock (aboriginal name Uluru)? Do you think of it as that rock in the middle of Australia, which presents a climbing challenge to all tourists? Or do you think of it as a place sacred to the aborigines, a jewel at the heart of this great continent?

Two and a half years ago, I visited Uluru for the second time. As we stepped out onto the tarmac at Ayers Rock Airport at midday local time, the first thing that struck me was intense colour and light.  Glowing ochre earth, blue sky, pearl white ghost gums – and Uluru itself in the distance, dusky pink

Uluru, an iron-rich sandstone monolith arising from the heart of Australia, is sacred to the indigenous traditional owners, the Anangu.  It tells their stories, it shows the actions of the Spirit Ancestors in their violent conflicts during the Dreamtime, displaying evidence of their falls, their spear-thrusts, their lost shields.  Uluru itself has a strong, brooding presence, which you begin to feel as soon as you see it, and which grows as you approach and gaze. 

It speaks with its changing colours, amber, fiery red, deep brown, depending how the light falls upon it at different times of day, and its knife-edge shadows and fissures, flaking surfaces, indentations, pockmarks, wave-like effects, and most outstanding of all, the skull formation.

Skull Formation

Skull Formation

  On another level, it almost seems like a giant plasticine model which a giant has pressed his fingers into or dragged a comb down, or stippled and stabbed with a palette knife. 

For many visitors, this central icon of Australia is inextricably linked with the idea of climbing to the top.  “Go to Australia: climb Ayers Rock”. But, warn the signs at the Aboriginal Cultural Centre, “The Anangu ask that you respect our traditions and customs, and choose not to climb it.”

We caught the shuttle from the Yulara resort, planning to do the base walk.  On the 9.2 kilometre trail around the Rock, it was evident that the number of fenced-off sacred areas had been increased since my last visit, pushing the path further out.  And yet despite this, a walk around Uluru is full of marvels.  The trees and shrubs are all much greener than you might imagine – the wattles, the fig trees, the desert bottlebrush.  The aboriginal cave-paintings fill you with wonder, every experience defeats your expectations – none more so than the Mutitjulu Waterhole.  We came upon it unexpectedly, tranquil and mysterious, the Rock’s multi-dimensional character reflected in its quiet waters.

Uluru glowing at sunrise

Uluru glowing at sunrise

The feeling I brought away with me after walking round the Rock was almost that of walking round a great and beautiful cathedral, imprinted with the devotion of many centuries. I can well understand how the Anangu revere the Rock, which has taken on an awesome spiritual power from the thousands of years of sacred ceremonies and teaching and story-telling centred upon it. 

For me it is another of my places of inspiration: a vist here allowed me a deeper insight into the meaning of the aboriginal culture, enriching my own understanding. Have you ever visited Uluru? How did you find the experience? And if it has only ever been a picture in a brochure, or a news report, what has been your impression of the famous “Ayers Rock”?

Places of Inspiration Part 2: The Heavenly City: A View of London

London View

A poster of famous London landmarks (1989 Christopher Rogers)

What is your view of the city? Is it a place you work in, and suffer all the stress of commuting? Or perhaps it’s a place you live in? In my novel Zoe emails her sister with these words: Hi, you in crowded, stressed old London from me in the peaceful, perfect Cotswolds… But those words reflect only one biased view of the city; and this isn’t my own view of London, living, as I now do, 98 miles away from it.

I was  born and brought up in south London (Orpington in the borough of Bromley) and so London was a big part of my life as a child and a teenager. When I returned from university I moved to live in Bayswater, London W2, with my sister, & continued to live there for seven years. After that I moved away. But last year I decided to visit for an extended periods and visit many London attractions I hadn’t been to for a long time. And those two weeks fed my reflections upon why the image of a great city is so powerful for religious and spiritual writers.

Dr Johnson said, When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.  And certainly, London, with its rich history, cultural depth and vibrant life, is a source of inspiration to me.

In the Bible, we find the writer to the Hebrews saying this:For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11: 10)

The heavenly city is a city with everlasting foundations.  And a great city feeds us body, mind and spirit. From the BODY – the Tower of London – through the MIND – The Violent Universe show and the discoveries of Einstein at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, to the SPIRIT – the Whispering Gallery and Holman Hunt’s painting The Light of the World at St Paul’s Cathedral, I was inspired, informed, amused, shocked, amazed, touched, and filled with wonder.

Living as I do in Warwickshire, I’m fortunate to have all the treasures of this great city so accessible, via the rail network (not that it’s that difficult to get to London from any major railway station in the UK!)  And in many ways, the life of London is encapsulated by the story of the Thames. As Edmund Spenser said in his poem ‘Prothalamion’,   Sweet Thames! run softly, till I end my song.

 While looking round the exhibition in the Thames Barrier Information Centre at Woolwich, I felt moved by the human imagination, ingenuity and skill which has worked together to tame the power of the river for the protection of a city and its people. One of my own forbears was a Thames Waterman (as evidenced from a 19th century marriage certificate.)  See My Family Background page in my website. My early life was strongly associated with the Thames; the toolmerchant’s business A.D. Skillman & Sons which my grandfather started in 1901 opposite the Woolwich Ferry traded for over 100 years until my brother, who inherited it, finally had to close down in 2002. I remember being sent off to cross the Thames on the ferry to North Woolwich and back again on my own when I was about ten years old, and how much of an adventure it was for me.

 But what of that other river – the river of life flowing through the holy city, Jerusalem – a powerful symbol in the Bible?  We are told by the writer of Revelation that this river rises up from the throne of God and the Lamb and surges crystal-clear down the middle of the city street. On either side of the river grow the trees of life. This holy city is of pure gold transparent as glass, with a wall of diamond, and foundations faced with precious stones; and the 12 gates are 12 pearls. The city has no temple since God and the Lamb are themselves the temple; it does not need the sun or the moon for light as it is lit by the radiant glory of God.

 Why is this biblical image of heaven as a great city so powerful? I suggest it is because, here on earth, all the ingenuity, folly, genius, wickedness, nobility, inspiration, despair, joy and creativity of which we human beings are capable is encapsulated in a great city.  In heaven all will be made perfect. And here on earth, just as the city teems with life, so it will be in that holy city.  And that is why the image of holy city is so appropriate for heaven.

Places of Inspiration Part 1: Exotic Marigolds, Mystical Mountains and Memories of India

I recently watched The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and found it a movie full of insight, humour and hope.  I vividly recalled my own arrival at Delhi Airport several years ago for a visit to Northern India, and the noise, the brilliant jewel-like saris, the garlands of marigolds placed around our necks. The images flooded in on me:  colour, chaos, begging children, families camping and cooking in the middle of the central reservation in major roads in Delhi. I relived the shock of seeing leprous beggars, the pity I felt on meeting girls who appeared to be only about 10 years old, carrying tiny babies on their backs, holding out their hands for free offerings of food or money; the disease and poverty, and also the spirituality, the beauty and the profound joy of India.

In ‘the Land of the Gods’ the Garhwal Himalayas – I journeyed in a minibus up a perilous mountain road, our final destination being Badrinath, place of Hindu pilgrimage, just before the Tibetan border. The road was lined with signs saying things like “Yours Hurry is Another’s Worry”.  We reached the mountain village of Joshimath late in the afternoon. As I inhaled the fragrance of a syringa bush there, I realised a local resident stood beside me. He remarked: “the might of God is all around” in a very casual way, reflecting what I was thinking and feeling at the time. And I thought: This wouldn’t happen in England. And if it did it would have a very different cultural context!

Our journey ultimately led to Badrinath. We arrived as dusk fell and there before us was the peak of Neel Kanth, luminous in the full moon. It was a sight I would never forget.  Since then I’ve seen a number of images on Google of Neel Kanth, and yet none comes near capturing the impact this mystical mountain had on me that night as I arrived in Badrinath.

There too, on the mountain path above Badrinath, I met a Sadhu – India holy man who lived in a cave. See my recent post for a photo of this holy man, whose tranquil expression made a lasting impression on me.

So to sum up my reflections on India: there may be squalor, social injustice, and dysfunctional public services, but this is a country of extremes, and I felt a visit here should also have a profound spiritual impact, as it did for the characters in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, transforming the lives of each one of them, bringing all of them clarity and moments of radical decision.

This is a personal reflection on India, and I know there will be many visitors who feel differently about it. Have you visited India? And what are your thoughts on this country of extremes?

The Psyche of a Cat and Emily Bronte’s School Essay

Hattie in the garden - photo taken by Abigail Robinson

Hattie in the garden – photo taken by Abigail Robinson

Cats both domestic and wild have been worshipped, adored, feared, coveted, persecuted, psychoanalysed, parodied,  wondered over, painted, written about, sculpted, photographed… and there is no sign of this fascination ever abating.

Some of us find cats enchanting; others greatly prefer dogs. Personally, I love both; but admit that I’ve probably spent longer pondering the psyche of a cat, than that of a dog.

When considering the appeal of our own cat, Hattie, I believe that few come closer than Emily Bronte to explaining humankind’s long enthrallment by cats. 

Emily Bronte wrote a French essay called “The Cat” in 1842 – often one of the examples cited in demonstrating her unsentimental attitude towards nature. The cat, she wrote, although it differs in some physical points, is extremely like us in disposition. Then she considers the three charges of hypocrisy, cruelty and ingratitude levelled against the cat by its detractors : detestable vices in our race and equally odious in that of cats… a cat in its own interest sometimes hides its misanthropy under the guise of amiable gentleness… the ingratitude of cats is another name for penetration. They know how to value our favours at their true price, because they guess the motives that prompt us to grant them. 

Emily understood that we see something of ourselves in cats. We recognise their psyches. And of course we are free to interpret that as we like!

For instance, Hattie, among her many intriguing characteristics, never fails to miaow for her biscuits approximately one hour before they are due. And the miaows continue until we cannot possibly resist any longer.  The danger of course is that the biscuits come slightly earlier each day… Her persistence is admirable, and I have often compared it to the way I handle frustration in life. I have even thought that if Hattie had written a novel, and wished to find a literary agent to represent her, she would achieve success much quicker than many thousands of despairing authors of slushpile manuscripts. 

Our cat Hattie - photo by Abigail Robinson

Our cat Hattie – photo by Abigail Robinson

Emily Bronte wrote her cat essay under the tutelage of her French master in Brussels in 1842. Five years later she published Wuthering Heights. In this novel she created the kind of home, occupied as it is by a deeply dysfunctional family, where any cat would lead a high-risk existence –  escaping from the boot of sadistic Hindley when he’s in one of his rages, or the heartbroken revenge of a demented Heathcliffe a generation later. Emily’s perception of human nature is fierce, penetrating and unsentimental; and therein lies her reliability  in discerning the psyche of a cat.

What do you think? Is this a true picture of the cat? Or perhaps you disagree with Emily Bronte? I’d love to have your comments!

The Archetypal Appeal of the Vista

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These are two images of the Syon Vista – one of the three great vistas in Kew Gardens which together form a triangle between Pagoda, Palm House and riverside viewpoint. And as I stood there a few days ago, I was reminded of why we love a long, straight vista. The vista, or avenue, draws the spectator forwards along it, to the central vanishing point. It represents our dearest wish: that life may be like that. And perhaps it may be – in our dreams. Instead, in reality, our lives twist and turn and diverge and backtrack. The path has many confusing cul-de-sacs. We fall down potholes. The path leads through marshy ground, and we nearly sink beneath the surface. The path may be a perilous mountain track, or it may be piled with jagged boulders.

But a grand vista is none of these things. Instead, it progresses smoothly into a secure, warm, welcoming future.  We find it comforting, reassuring, uplifiting. Avenues represent human control over the landscape, imposing order on a chaotic world. And since imposing control on the landscape is a major, expensive task, the grand avenue is the province of the wealthy and the powerful. Capability Brown  demonstrated his ability to create dreams from landscape – at a cost. His clients found the grand vista a perfect way to reassure themselves of their status.

Windsor Great Park boasts a vista – the Long Walk, first set out by Charles II. And as it was developed in time, it became an ideal route for ceremonial rides. George IV reaped the benefit of the vista, however, not merely by public display although he was indeed very fond of that. No – in addition he had between 20 and 30 miles of neatly planted avenues to ride along, from which the public was wholly excluded.

I suggest that a vista means many things to us – and foremost among them, hope, dreams, clarity, destiny, goals, the future, focus, direction, drive, ambition, vision. All those things we either long for, or are told we must have, or we aspire to.

On the straight vista through life there are no snakes, no ladders, no forks, no bogs, no potholes, no detours. The goal, our destiny, is always in sight; and we are always progressing smoothly towards it. Nevertheless, alongside our love of grand avenues and vistas, we also respond to great stories full of twists and turns. And the reason, I suspect, is that  both play their part in our understanding of life. Dreams and reality intermingle; the ideal and the real guide each other.

SC Skillman

Our Picture of Heaven – Static and Changeless, or Wild and Dynamic?

a sketch of heaven

What is your idea of heaven? If asked to draw an image of it, what would you come up with?  I’ve found that people may often be unwilling to either say exactly what they think heaven is like, or to create their own image of it. And then they seem held back by ideas of “eternal rest” or heaven as static and changeless – something we cannot relate to in this world at all.

Back in December last year, during a Quiet Day at my local retreat house, Offa House in Offchurch, Leamington Spa, we were invited by our leader, Revd. Ruth Tuschling, to “draw a picture of heaven”.  I went into the garden room – my favourite room in this retreat house, which has a tranquil, spiritual atmosphere – to find art materials laid out.  I took up oil pastels and watercolour paper and began to draw sweeping lines, not quite sure what they might reveal.

To me, heaven is not heaven if it is not dynamic and creative and vibrant. I’ve heard it said that heaven is a place where God “holds our lost dreams safe for us”. My dreams involve communicating, entertaining, captivating… a rushing wind would more closely represent them. Notice these are all verbs. They are all about activity, about “doing”. Is there no “doing” in heaven?

In the past I’ve thought of heaven as if it was a celestial version of Switzerland – snow-capped peaks, waterfalls, and alpine meadows bright with flowers. I’ve imagined glorious fragrances – pine, lemon, lavender, and have seen waves of golden gorse and purple heather, and heard the tumbling water of a mountain stream, birdsong, the music of the spheres… Further back, when I was younger, I visualised heaven as a reunion with my dog who had just died, Kimmings (a miniature silver poodle). He would come running to meet me, barking gladly, his tail wagging. But now, what image would I depict? Certainly not angels with harps on clouds. And dare I even make a representation that somehow limited this most inexpressible of subjects?

A Thin Line Between Space and Matter by Tamar Frank (photo by Sophie Mutevelian)

A Thin Line Between Space and Matter by Tamar Frank (photo by Sophie Mutevelian)

So instead, I began a sketch that, to my delight, I later found echoed by an art installation at the “Lost in Lace” exhibition at the Birmingham Art Gallery: “a thin line between space and matter“. I created something that conveyed, however obscurely, how I felt about being in heaven, what kind of experience it might be, in terms of sensation and consciousness. And when my curving lines had caught me up and swept me into the space at the centre, I added  a few words – any quotation at all that I could remembe, about heaven –  because, as a writer, I believe there must be words in heaven too, as words have given me as much joy as images.

Good Friday, The Magic of Believing, and Success and Failure

Once I tried to live by the magic of believing, in which positive thoughts always attract good circumstances into our lives – until I realised success and failure in this world cannot be understood in such a simplistic way. How straightforward life would be if that was so.

The truth is none of us know for sure to what we must attribute success or failure in life.  Some flourish in this world who by any moral law should not do so – including those dictators who hold onto power and wealth for many years by the sheer force of terror. And sometimes people can think positive thoughts, and it leads them on a path of suffering.  I think of the young girl at my daughter’s school who learned she had been diagnosed with leukaemia, smiled and said, “I’m lucky to have lived until now,” and then lived out the rest of her brief life with a sunny, cheerful, positive attitude.

I’m also reminded of the group of nuns who went out to El Salvador to offer care to the oppressed people, and all met violent deaths. Their story is told by Sheila Cassidy in her book Good Friday People.  Here she gives other examples, too, of people who set their faces towards suffering, just as Jesus “set his face towards” Jerusalem (where he would be arrested, tortured, tried in a kangaroo court, sentenced to death, and crucified).  

I write this on Good Friday, when we reflect upon Jesus whose love took him on a path of suffering. It  led to the Cross – in worldly terms the ultimate failure.  And yet  the true significance of Good Friday is the triumph of love over evil. We do not flinch from the Cross but dare to wait at the foot of it – not to wallow in shame and guilt (as some suppose) but to receive the grace, love and peace poured out freely for us. And when I think of that grace, love and peace, there at Golgotha, the darkest of places, I can see the Christian resonance in these words from J.R.R. Tolkien: “May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.”

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