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

Archive for January, 2013

M & S; Big Versus Small and the Innate British Sense of Belonging

What is national identity? How do we define it?

A familiar sight on many British high streets

A familiar sight on many British high streets

In our British culture there are a number of different touchstones of our national identity – and here’s one of them.

M & S.

This is not so removed from the subject of my fiction – as I believe that Marks & Spencer has something to say to us about being British, and about the British Class System.

Britain does still have a recognisable class system – more so than many other countries, I would suggest –  although it can be argued this is now breaking down.

M&S have over the years skilfully exploited this aspect of our society, across the socio-economic range. It has maintained its reputation for excellent items at bargain prices right through to the highest quality goods.  Many of the stores’ products of course have universal appeal, for example, food and wine. Additionally, however, with the fashion selections, beauty products, and nightwear, I feel that M & S represent a strong appeal across a socio-economic range , from “low cost good value” right through to “very stylish, above average cost, high quality.” All this is to do with Reputation and plays into the English class system in a very interesting way.

When I was a young child, going into M&S with my mother was the worst experience I could think of, the ultimate in boredom. Now, as I think back, I wonder whether it was the pristine, controlled, organised, spaciousness of it. Perhaps if it had been more chaotic or sumptuous or bohemian I might have coped better!

And yet when I consider M&S now, it’s a very different experience for me!

I think of M&S as quintessentially British, and I was particularly conscious of this when I lived in Australia. On my first return home to England from Australia, a visit to M&S in Marble Arch, London W1, gave me a feeling of reclaiming my English identity. I bought a beautiful black lace skirt which still has pride of place in my wardrobe.

Offering us “shopping experiences” is big business in today’s consumer society; it’s not just the products you buy, but the whole experience. Many do love going to large stores or giant malls; others might prefer the small shop  – and there are very special cases where the small shop with its personal service is something we long for – but somehow, M&S have skilfully responded to this by downplaying their large-scale commercial nature in order to provide a comfortable and familiar feeling, evoking a strong sense of English “belonging”.

Of course, none of these things would I have appreciated as a child. And I must admit that even now, when I’m scanning the reasonably-priced-but-still-good-quality T shirts, when I see the children hanging around waiting for their mothers to make a choice, I feel empathy with them!

The Holocaust: Why the Stories of the Survivors and Their Descendents Must Be Told Again and Again – And Why Every New Generation Must Listen

Today – Sunday 27th January 2013 – is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Many will be writing and talking about it.

So why do I feel I must add my voice to theirs?

book cover image of "Auschwitz" by Laurence Rees

book cover image of “Auschwitz” by Laurence Rees

Because, over the years I’ve read many books on the Holocaust and by survivors and by survivors’ children. I’ve listened to their stories, and I’ve engaged emotionally with those stories.

The first book on the subject which I ever read was a novel,  “The Last of the Just” by Andre Schwartz-Bart. I remember, before I read that book (at the age of about 14), all I knew of the Holocaust was a vague knowledge gleaned from school history lessons. I must have mentally “sanitised” the information I received, because  I’d somehow got hold of the idea that only adults were killed, and that all babies and children were saved.

When I read “The Last of the Just”, I began to understand.

My journey of understanding has taken me through movies, TV programmes, books…

As the generations pass, there’s an ever-present temptation to put the Holocaust into the bin of “horrible things people have done to each other in the past” and to somehow shift off the responsibility to use it for self-examination.

This is why I believe that would be so dangerous: because the Holocaust gives us insights into our own nature as human beings: an inescapable truth that we all live with, in every generation.

The most compelling book I’ve ever read on this subject is “Auschwitz:  The Nazis and The ‘Final Solution'” by Laurence Rees (judged to be History Book of the Year in the British Book Awards 2006). The book was developed from a television series Rees wrote and produced.

Laurence Rees concludes with these words:

We must judge behaviour by the context of the times. And judged by the context of mid-twentieth-century, sophisticated European culture, Auschwitz and the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’ represent the lowest act in all history….. Once allowed into the world, knowledge of what the Nazis did must not be unlearnt. It lies there – ugly, inert, waiting to be rediscovered by each new generation.

For the TV series and the book, Rees gathered testimonies from bystanders, perpetrators and victims, including revealing interviews with SS men and sundry European Fascists. It’s in this broad range of testimonies that Rees offers us a profound insight into human nature.

On page 261, Rees considers why so many went along with the horrors of the regime, and speculates that human nature is “elemental” – the realisation came in the camps that human beings resemble elements that are changeable according to temperature. Just as water exists as water only within a certain temperature range and is steam or ice in others, so human beings can become different people according to extremes of circumstance.

Rees makes the point that this is more than just the seemingly banal comment that human beings alter their behaviour according to circumstance… it is less a change in behaviour… and more a change in essential character.

His presentation of this led me to examine my own thoughts on the subject, in relation to my experience of life.

Over the years, the Holocaust has stood for me as the benchmark of pure evil, and Anti-Life.

But the other aspect of the Holocaust which particularly interests me, as a Christian, is the recurrent miracle of faith in God.

It has long been a source of great wonderment and awe for me, that there are those (not all, of course, by any means) who were caught up in, came through, and were subsequently affected by the Holocaust, who have not only held onto but have renewed and strengthened their faith in that loving and sovereign God.

When we consider the people  drowned in that vast tidal wave of suffering, we may feel overwhelmed and ask What can we do? How should we respond?

The answer they themselves gave, when they were able to, was, “When the War is over, tell our story to others.”

What they most wanted was that their stories should be told.

What we then choose to do with the knowledge these stories give us, is another matter: it may profoundly affect our future lives, on every level: or of course, it may not – according to what we choose to do with that knowledge.

But from my own standpoint as a novelist, I believe this is the first essential: let us keep listening to, and hearing, and engaging with, their stories, as they wished. To me, that is our duty to those who suffered, and the least we can do as fellow human beings.

The Core of a Successful Novel: The Ring of Truth

Jane Austen's Persuasion, which gave Tom Di Giovanni the idea for his novel

Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which gave Tom Di Giovanni the idea for his novel

Q – What is the core of a successful novel?

A – You can in some way identify with it; you recognise it as relating to your own life experience.

And this doesn’t mean you need to have experienced exactly the same events that the novel describes: simply that you recognise the truth in the story from your own life.

And that goes for all genres, even fantasy or escapist fiction. Somewhere in the structure of that story you recognise Truth.

Such is Tom Di Giovanni’s debut novel “Home”.

I first met Tom at our Church (St Mark’s in Leamington Spa) where he plays guitar and occasionally leads the music group. His love of music and in particular the guitar is demonstrated in this novel.

Tom wrote “Home” during National Novel  Writing Month 2007, then worked on it in between the demands of a full time job.

Edited by Tom’s father (editor, translator and author Norman Thomas Di Giovanni), the novel has now been issued in a limited edition of 35 for  the author’s family and friends. I was privileged to receive a copy, and I’ve now read it.

In simple, graceful, lucid prose, Tom tells a touching story with which many would identify, a story that shows how life offers second chances, with an essentially optimistic message, that affirms we can make the right choice when life gives us a second chance.

Tom took the novel “Persuasion” and based his story on Jane Austen’s – taking it from the male point of view.

The Dell , a small, hidden valley in Leamington Spa where author Tom Di Giovanni saw a girl sitting alone playing the guitar, which gave him inspiration for his novel

The Dell , a small, hidden valley in Leamington Spa where author Tom Di Giovanni saw a girl sitting alone playing the guitar, which gave him inspiration for his novel

28-year-old Martin, an architect, returns to his home town (in England’s West Country) and meets again the girl who broke off their relationship 10 years before. Daisy was persuaded by friends to reject him for being younger than her. But Martin then meets 17-year-old Claire, a talented young singer-songwriter, who has a job in the local guitar shop. Tom’s description of their unfolding relationship is drawn with subtlety and a sure and delicate touch.

Though Tom set the novel in a West Country town he used elements of our own local town Leamington Spa. In particular one scene is set in “The Dell”, a local park, where he saw a girl sitting alone playing the guitar, which inspired him for his novel.

When I read the novel I felt I was reading something that was:

1.  Well crafted;

2)  Had a water-tight structure;

3)  Had integrity in and of itself;

4)  Pointed me to a universal truth I could verify from my own experience.

They say a book must have “wow!” factor to succeed. The “wow” factor of this novel lay in its power to move, its scrupulous attention to detail, and its truthfulness.

The message of the novel is:

That which you believed lost, you can later return to and find again: but only if you meet the challenges the new situation sets; and only if you apply the new insights and discernment you have gained in the intervening years. You will be tested again, and past issues may arise once more in a new disguise.

Tom hopes to find a publisher soon to take on the novel.  So watch out for him!

SC Skillman

People of Inspiration Part 5 – Frankie Howerd, My All-Time Favourite Comedian

A recent TV programme on Channel 4 inspired me: “Frankie Howerd: The Lost Tapes.”

Frankie Howerd, my all-time favourite comedian (source: Channel4.com)

Frankie Howerd my all-time favourite comedian (source: Channel4.com)

Frankie Howerd is my all-time favourite comedian.

In my recent “Next Big Thing” blog I noted that, as an author, I owe part of my inspiration to characters I’ve loved on TV and movies.

Frankie Howerd is up there with the greatest.

I think of him now with love and admiration. He shines out in the world of popular entertainment.

To me, his comic personna represented the archetypal underdog, which the British love. His success during his time as one of our most-loved entertainers was probably due in large part to the English Class System.

Frankie Howerd, I felt, was “the common man” speaking to you one-to-one about what you and he truly feel about  all those who have far grreater pretensions to sophistication, intellect,wealth or status.

The Channel 4 programme noted that his most outstanding quality was connection with the audience. People loved him through his shambolic delivery,  through “the hotch potch that he was”.

During my childhood & young teenage years he was for me a source of great delight.  Before I saw the recent Channel 4 programme, I hadn’t previously realised he was closely involved with the Beatles during their early days and even filmed a scene with them for the film Help, which ended up on the cutting room floor.

I longed to see that scene again but it seems it was destroyed.

I remember him coming on in the Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium and his first words were “Thank you for waiting for me.”

And that was exactly what we had been doing. Waiting for Frankie Howerd to come on.

There was no feeling of egotism about it. It had the quality of Frankie meeting up with you at a time which you and he had arranged. As if you were friends, just keeping an appointment to meet up.

Frankie’s most famous sayings: “Titter ye not” and “No. It’s wrong to mock the afflicted” and “Please yourselves” stand out in my memory: the hilarity was all in the delivery and the context and the personna Frankie offered. “I only do this for the money” and “What d’you expect, with they money they give us?”

Frankie was the comedian of whom we would say, “We must see it! Frankie Howerd is in it!”

Unforgettable, too, was his use of his own full name, “Francis”, to denote some kind of appeal to a more serious, higher status self, one with more gravitas.

He was the actor Aristophanes, the ancient Greek comedy writer, would have loved for his plays.

My family adored Frankie’s ice cream commercial on TV when he’d claim he was only doing it for the money, try the ice cream and then says, “Oooohh! It’s not bad after all!”

The Channel 4 programme revealed the anxieties behind his performance, and how much he depended on his devoted partner, Dennis. I believe, too, that Frankie’s style of lewd, effete, lecherous humour as exemplified in the TV sitcom series “Up Pompeii” in which he shone out as the slave who never got to the end of his Prologue, is something only gay men truly excel at.

Frankie Howerd died on 19 April 1992 and just before he died, in his last public appearance, he spoke to an audience of students in the Oxford Union saying, “I’m not what you would call an intellectual… brainy… a clever clogs,” delighting the Oxford students.

And as I write about him now, I remember that immortal line he spoke to the Roman Centurion near the end of  the “Up Pompeii” movie: “Oh, and by the way, you owe me a cucumber.”

Do you have a favourite comic entertainer of all time? I’d love to hear your own choice!

What Happened to Hopes and Dreams on TV Programming This Christmas? – Maria is Unmasked, Arthur Dies, and Tragedy Returns to Downton

“A night made for believers of all ages.”

Annabelle's Wish vhs cover

Annabelle’s Wish vhs cover

So says the heartwarming 1997 Christmas video “Annabelle’s Wish” (which I watched again with my 2 teenagers yesterday).

But the Christmas  programming this year on BBC and ITV seemed to be all about dashing dreams.

King Arthur died; Maria was unmasked; the creator of The Snowman was revealed to be an old curmudgeon; and tragedy hit Downton Abbey again.

First of all, we learned that the real Maria Von Trapp seems to have carried off one of the most successful pieces of spin of the twentieth century.

The lovely Maria who danced and sang in the mountains, and transformed the lives of the Von Trapp children, turns out to be based upon a real Maria who was, it seems, a rather nasty piece of work – according to the investigation by Sue Perkins of the real story behind The Sound of Music. The testimony of Maria’s daughter Rosemarie was quite chilling. In fact the truth appears to be exactly the opposite to its portrayal in the Rodgers & Hammerstein film.

Then there was the end to the much-loved Merlin series.

We had tears on Christmas Day when we caught up with “Merlin” and watched the heartrending scene at the death of Arthur – and then saw a contemporary Emrys making his lonely way along the road, a wandering traveller many centuries later.

But, of course, as regards Arthur’s destiny, we know from Tennyson’s “Morte d’Arthur”, it had to be.

Excalibur had to be returned to the lake so that there might arise a hand, clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful, to receive the wonderful sword.

And then of there was a scene of cruel irony at the end of Downton Abbey – an irony perhaps many of us can relate to.

And finally, we were reminded that the creator of the gentle, poignant and enchanting film The Snowman, Raymond Briggs, was more like Fungus the Bogeyman.

There seemed an unusually high dose of sadness and grief and irony on TV this Christmas.

So where is the positive, hopeful light in this? For that, let us return to Charles Dickens.

His Christmas Carol encompasses all the sadness, cruelty and injustice of life, together with the mistakes we make, and an uplifting message of transformation at the end.

Ultimately, Scrooge “did all that he promised and much more.”

Thank God for that, and for the hope we can draw from the choice one man made after being visited by three spirits on Christmas Eve.

2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 5,300 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 9 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

Tag Cloud

Reading Matters

Book reviews of mainly modern & contemporary fiction

Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

Echoes of Life, Love and Laughter

The Phil Factor

Where Sarcasm Gets Drunk and Let's Its Hair Down

But I Smile Anyway...

Musings and memories, words and wisdom... of a working family woman

Blues For Breakfast

Just another ginger, gay bloke with bipolar and bad skin

Deb's World

The world according to Debbie

Of Tales & Dreams

Bookish things and literary quests.

Sue' s considered trifles

Where she discusses sayings including "the cat’s pajamas"

The Mustard Seed

Ruth Clemence is a writer and blogger living in South West England.

Suzie Speaks

The Adventures Of a Thirty-Something Life

Orpington Priory Community Hub

Arts, Culture and Heritage in the heart of historic Orpington

KungFuPreacherMan

Faith, life and kick-ass moves

The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

The Tree House Bookshop

A second-hand bookshop and arts venue in Kenilworth, Warwickshire. Patron: Warren Ellis (Dirty Three, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds)

My Journey with Hijab

A Day Dreamer's Diary

Dream by Day

My friends wouldn't join a book club, so here I am, making my own.

Thoughts by Mello-Elo

Books, Poems, Stories...and a cup of coffee, or two!

MsCellany

Scenes from a life