People of Inspiration Part 4 – Rob Parsons, Gifted Communicator Who Inspires, Moves and Warns

“You don’t have to have everything together to make a difference to people’s lives. You just have to share your brokenness.”

So says Rob Parsons, author, public speaker, and founder of the charity Care For the Family.

Rob Parsons OBE (credit quotestemple.com)
Rob Parsons OBE (credit quotestemple.com)

Most people don’t want answers,” says Rob. “They can find their own answers. They just want to know they’re not alone.

Care For the Family is a national charity which aims to promote strong family life and to help those who face family difficulties. And of all the charities I support, this is the one charity where, when you receive letters whose ultimate purpose is to ask you for more money, the letters are always worth reading for their own sake – even if you are most definitely not in a mood to be asked for more money. Rob’s letters are always funny, touching, moving. His letters are a gift in themselves.

The son of a Royal Mail postman and an office cleaner, Rob says that when he received his OBE from the Queen he thought of saying, “My dad used to deliver letters for you.”

Rob is a perfect example of someone who has built his success on vulnerability. Over the years he has shared many of the joys and sorrows of his own family life; the mortification, the pain, the insecurity, the sense of failure. I feel I know his wife Diane, and his son Lloyd and daughter Katie almost as well as Rob himself. The stories he shares often amaze me; they always touch a nerve of truth. I trust that he shares nothing without permission! And all I can say of Lloyd is that if I were to meet him in person, I would think, Your reputation precedes you, Lloyd.

I have been listening to Rob, and reading his books, for several years now. When I first heard him speak my children were young. When he spoke about teenagers, I thought, “Oh, I don’t have to worry about this teenage stuff – that’s years away.”

Now, however, I listen to Rob talking about teenagers, as I did last Tuesday evening in Birmingham, and think, “Yes. This is true. I have said those things. I do those things. That is what happens. That is what they do. That is how I feel about it.”

Rob says he built Care for the Family on vulnerability. “That is part of my story.”

On several occasions over the last few months I have commented on blogs or responded to online posts or newspaper articles by referring back to Rob Parsons, and what I have heard him say, and what I have read in his books.

This is because the same issue comes up again and again. Either people feel they never knew their father well when they were growing up; or fathers wish they had spent more time with their children when they were young.

On each occasion I have referred to Rob Parsons, and what he says about fathers. The important thing is to spend ordinary time with your children, he says. That is the time that really counts. Not the time you spend with them on expensive holidays you took them on because you worked “all the hours God sends” all year and often into the evenings and Saturdays, earning money to pay for the expensive holiday.

That expensive holiday will evaporate. Just being there, in ordinary time. So that you are around to listen, and to understand, and to chat, and to know things about your children. That is the most important message to all fathers.

Rob trained as a lawyer, but he then became a public speaker and writer. He could well be a stand-up comic – but to that gift he adds poignancy, sadness, and ultimately a powerful spiritual message.

Rob is a man who inspires, moves, and warns.

I commend him to you. If you haven’t read any of his books, please do.

A World of Wonders at Leavesden Studios

On a recent visit to the Harry Potter tour at the Warner Brothers Studios in Leavesden, I was moved.

The door to the Chamber of Secrets
The door to the Chamber of Secrets

Not simply by the moment when I and my two children first stepped into the Hogwarts Great Hall, or by the moment when I first came upon the model of Hogwarts Castle, or when I first saw that beautiful Hogwarts Bridge out in the middle of the “Back Lot”, or by when I tasted my first Butterbeer, but by the whole experience, and the reflections that arose from it.

Hogwarts Bridge
Hogwarts Bridge

All these wonderful objects and scenes and lovingly created details and the magnificent model castle… all because of one woman’s imagination.

To see the products of J.K. Rowlings’ imagination brought into richly-detailed reality was awesome.

I thought, All this is here because of people loving her stories in their millions.

“People in their millions”, of course equals “money”, in the film industry.

Dolores Umbridge's study
Dolores Umbridge’s study

But I was reminded of what J.K. Rowling said when asked in Trafalgar Square after the premier of the final “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” film, “What do you want to say?”

And she said, “Thank you – for making this happen.”

And as I left the Warner Brothers studios I thought too of her words, displayed in the exhibition: “Stories can only live if someone listens.”


* Photos taken by Abigail Robinson

A Man We Owe Our Freedom To

On a recent visit to the Churchill War Rooms in London, I experienced in my imagination what it would have been like to work as part of Winston Churchill’s team underground during the Second World War.

As I walked through the offices and passed the displays and spent time in the Churchill Museum, I was particularly struck by the meaning of the words Cometh the hour, cometh the man.

These facts stood out for me afresh:

1) If Winston Churchill had died a few years earlier he’d have been a brilliant failure.
2) He entered office as Prime Minister at the age of 65.
3) His inspirational speeches made a profound impact on the outcome of the Second World War by raising the morale of the nation.
4) He was a difficult man personally, yet he inspired admiration and loyalty and devotion in all who worked for him.
5) We owe our freedom to him.
6) Times were uncomfortable and hard and restricted, yet people accepted it.
7) His speeches move us even now, and we can apply them to our lives even 67 years after WW II ended.

Another thing that shone out was the personal account of Churchill’s secretary – she described what it was like to type out his letters as he dictated them to her.

As someone who has had experience of numerous bosses in this kind of office situation, I thought to myself, He sounds like a nightmare boss. I’d have hated working for him!

And yet those who worked for him had only admiration, devotion and loyalty. One of the comments his secretary made was especially meaningful: “Sometimes what he was saying was so interesting, I would forget to type.”

I would recommend a visit to the Churchill War Rooms to anyone visiting London. It is a profoundly moving experience, which should make you look at your own daily life, and even your place in history, and in this world, with new eyes.

Skillman & Sons: The Tool Shop Opposite the Woolwich Ferry – and Traditional Britain Reborn

The London postal service once had to deliver a letter from India addressed as follows:

“The tool shop
opposite the Woolwich Ferry
London”

The original Skillman's of Woolwich in 2002. Chris Skillman,former MD, is on the left of the group
The original Skillman’s of Woolwich in 2002. Chris Skillman,former MD, is on the left of the group

It arrived safely at its destination: A.D. Skillman & Sons, 108 Woolwich High Street, London SE18.
Skillman and Sons of Woolwich (founded by my grandfather Alfred Daniel in 1900) was a byword throughout south east England for generations. A sign used to hang up outside the shop:

“If you want it, we’ve got it. If we haven’t got it, you don’t need it.”

Every member of our family worked there over the years; I used to do holiday jobs selling packets of loose nails from the pigeonholes at the front, or stocktaking at the back, or peeling potatoes for my aunt in the flat upstairs or collecting stamps for her from the Co-Op in Hare Street, Woolwich.

Now of course Woolwich is seeing regeneration, not least through the beautiful Royal Arsenal Thames Riverside, together with the Greenwich Heritage Centre and Firepower, the Royal Artillery Museum very close by, and the wonderful Thames Barrier and Visitor Centre. All this regeneration is fuelled by the extension of the DLR from Docklands to Woolwich.

My grandfather Alfred Daniel started the business in 1900 further up Woolwich High Street and later moved it to number 108. My father Ken took over after the war. He was later succeeded by my brother Chris until the business closed in 2002.

But now Skillman and Sons has re-emerged. Not in Woolwich, but in Kensington.

That traditional tool-merchants business now has a new life, through the enterprise and imagination of another hardware store owner, Manish Vara, who is hoping to revitalise the Good Old Days of English service and quality – popularised of course through the current wave of nostalgia and euphoria generated by the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London 2012 Olympics. A different manifestation of Skillman’s, more hardware than tool-merchant, has emerged. My brother Chris Skillman, MD of Skillman’s of Woolwich, wishes Manish well.

The new manifestation of Skillman & Sons which has emerged in Kensington
The new manifestation of Skillman & Sons which has emerged in Kensington

Perhaps some time the story of the shop opposite the Woolwich Ferry, and its 102 years of history, may weave its way into my fiction. The River Thames has strong resonance for me – not least when I took the ferry across from Woolwich at the age of twelve or thereabouts, supposedly on a round trip. But I got confused, and disembarked in North Woolwich, across the river, and wandered around lost for about an hour though to me it seemed an eternity!

If you have an interest in the history of south London, and you’d like to know more, I have published a full article about Skillman & Sons in Family History Magazine, which is re-published on my official website under the heading “My family background.” Do click here to read the article.

Are there any traditional shops or longstanding family businesses in your town or area which are part of the landscape of your life? Has the Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the tide of patriotism attendant on London 2012 opened up traditional Britain to you again? Please consider leaving a comment!

“Mystical Experiences and Glimpses of Eternity” Mini Series Part 7 – Arriving Where You Started and Knowing The Place For the First Time

Throughout this series, mountains have been an important image for me. And now we arrive at the end of my mini-series, we find ourselves on a mountain again. And this mountain is on the opposite side of the world to the mountain where I had my first childhood experience – in Australia.

mountain view Great Dividing Range
mountain view Great Dividing Range

I’ve told this story before on this blog. And so it is with important experiences – the story must be told again and again.

On the border of Queensland and New South Wales, behind the Gold Coast, you may find the Macpherson mountain range, part of the Great Dividing Range. The road leads from Southport via Nerang up through Mount Tamborine to the town of Canungra where you may continue your journey to one of two mountain resorts: Binna Burra or O’Reilly’s. I was negotiating the mountain passes on the way to O’Reilly’s. In the passenger seat was my 18 year old niece Caroline, who was visiting Australia for a month (where I lived at the time).

Caroline had mentioned that she and her friend Jo (her fellow traveller to Australia) had gone to Sydney to stay in a house of students who they knew nothing of. And discovered that they were all committed Christians – just like Caroline and Jo. Caroline found that wonderful. I said, “Well, like attracts like” – for I at the time believed that this apparent coincidence was the operation of the Universal system / the principle of  “reality follows thought.” But Caroline was having none of this. “No, it was God,” she said.

I didn’t want to argue with her. Especially as I was driving up a perilous mountain road at the time. My own beliefs were a mixture of NeoPaganism, Pantheism and Eastern Mysticism. I pursued gurus, tried Buddhism, practised eastern forms of meditation and various esoteric philosophies, teachings and techniques.

I prepared to go into “indulgent tolerance” mode whilst we climbed higher up the mountain range. It was because of that very black-and-white “certainty” that I had long mistrusted evangelical Christianity.

But Caroline then launched into a full exposition of the gospel and of the fact that Jesus Christ had come to bridge that divide between God and humankind; and when we reached our cabin in the resort, she drew for me a picture of a cross bridging that chasm. All the time I was in tolerance mode. I didn’t need evangelising. I considered myself knowledgable about the bible, & had been good at R.K. at school. So I just let Caroline do her thing, until she at last got distracted by a  snake lying in the path.

For the next year I continued in my usual way, following my own spiritual interests, occasionally thinking of this episode. OK I hadn’t liked being evangelised. But I was impressed by her conviction, by her belief that her religion wasn’t a private matter, it was to be shared; and by her courage. I thought, “I wouldn’t do that.” It’s a personality thing too, but I actually believed everyone has a right to their own beliefs & it was no business of mine to try and convert someone else to my beliefs. But Caroline believed she not only had a right but a responsibility to tell me what she believes. I was impressed by that. But I didn’t do anything about it until 1991 a few months after I’d returned to live in England, with my parents in their Kent village near Tonbridge – and it changed my life.

Have you ever changed your life as a result of a conversation with one person? Or was it a long process, involving several people, covering a number of years? Please share your own stories with me!

Here is a list of some of my glimpses of eternity, listed by one identifier or the place where the experience occurred:

  1. Mountain at end of road in Wales.
  2. Hedge parsley in Kent.
  3. Dream of the sea
  4. Mount Neel Kanth in India.
  5. Violin passage in Bach’s “St Matthew Passion”
  6. Twilight on the beach at Mynt, Pembrokeshire coastline, West Wales
  7. Taize service in church
  8. Chalice Well Gardens in Glastonbury
  9. The woodland between Conishead Priory & Morecambe Bay, Barrow-in-Furness
  10. St Cuthbert’s Tomb in Durham Cathedral
  11. On the mountain top at Binna Burra, Queensland.
  12. Journey through the Cambrian Mountains to Aberystwyth in Wales

Do you identify with this journey? Share your thoughts and feelings with me about this journey of the spirit. I’d love to have your comments!