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

Archive for March, 2013

A Pilgrimage By Steam to The Shrine of a Martyr in Canterbury Cathedral

“This world nis but a Thurghfare ful of wo

Canterbury cathedral and its pilgrims

Canterbury cathedral and its pilgrims

And we ben Pilgrimes passinge to and fro.”

So says Chaucer’s Knight, towards the end of his tale as recounted by Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales.

Gloomy those words may be, but they totally belie the racy, colourful and much-loved tales told by the Wife of Bath, the Miller, the Nun’s Priest and many others.

And they all made their pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. So did my husband David and I make the  pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral last Tuesday – by steam train!

The Cathedrals Express (photo credit: David Robinson)

The Cathedrals Express (photo credit: David Robinson)

Steam Dreams operate the Cathedrals Express. The locomotive pulling our train was The  Tornado, a lovingly built A1 Steam Locomotive. It took part in the BBC Top Gear Race with Jeremy Clarkson, and had its own very own programme made for the BBC, a documentary called ‘Absolutely chuffed’.

I was very impressed with the speeds it achieved, as as it journeyed from Newbury to Canterbury.

Only when you travel by steam do you experience the pleasure and delight of seeing many different people waiting alongside the railway embankment, or in back gardens, keen to wave at you as you pass by, or standing in fields with cameras. Steam engines evoke great affection, excitement and notalgia and of course can now not be thought of apart from the Thomas the Tank Engine stories.

And at the end of the journey – Canterbury Cathedral.

Few things in this life can compare to the awe and wonder that a great cathedral can inspire; and at its centre, a shrine to a martyr; in this case, Archbishop Thomas Becket, who was murdered there in 1170 by four of Henry II’s knights in response to the king’s exclamation: Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?

The Martyrdom, Canterbury Cathedral (photo credit: David Robinson)

The Martyrdom, Canterbury Cathedral (photo credit: David Robinson)


The sight of the single candle burning in the great space which once held Thomas Becket’s shrine, before it was destroyed on the orders of Henry VIII, was very moving.  So too was the chapel where great saints and martyrs of the twentieth century are commemorated, including such people as Dietrich Boenhoffer, Martin Luther King, and Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered while he celebrated Holy Communion.

Spiritual energy is concentrated at the sites of these places of pilgrimage – and I was very conscious of this as I lit a candle at the votive light stand, at the entrance to the chapel in the Cathedral which is now called The Martyrdom.

The number of people visiting British Cathedrals has risen by 30% in this millennium.

St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral are again among the top visitor attractions in the UK, according to the latest statistics from the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (AVLA). The 4,500,000 visitors to those three famous churches are only part of the numbers visiting more than 16,000 Church of England buildings across England.

I’ve visited all three of those attractions in the past couple of years. And from all of these, together with my latest visit, to Canterbury Cathedral, I clearly see the reason for  the trend noted in the paragraph above: a cathedral is a place where we may make contact with the numinous, our sense of the holy. It is a place which fills us with awe and lifts our hearts and minds to something much greater than ourselves.

And pilgrimage now is more important than ever, by whatever means we choose to travel.

The Joy of Singing, from the Challenge of J.S. Bach, to A Community Choirs Festival in Stratford-upon-Avon

Singing is  a gift of God, and a channel for empowerment.

Community Choirs Festival

Community Choirs Festival

This weekend has been an amazing time of singing.

And I’ve learned a few things about this life too.

On Saturday night, the choir I sing with, the Warwick & Kenilworth Choral Society, gave a performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass that truly honoured the composer’s purpose.  This was against all expectations – our own, and those of the conductor.

And yet, despite weeks of agony and doubt and struggle in rehearsal (plus the temptation, I suspect, for several singers, to give up) we succeeded.

“There will be some stunning moments,” said the conductor at the final afternoon rehearsal, “and some very hairy moments. Just find the next cue when you can come in.”

Not for a single rehearsal had the first sopranos ever sung it without getting lost.

And yet, on the evening itself – we sang it all the way through, even the most difficult bits, and didn’t get lost.

At the end,the conductor (probably rather bemused), said, with a beaming smile: “Well done. That was superb!”

This experience has taught me, that whatever we dare to believe, sometimes God’s grace snatches success out of the most unpromising places.

From a major choral work to a community choirs festival in Stratford-upon-Avon on Sunday.

Here, a gathering of different community choirs from around England, all came together to learn some new songs, under the guidance of four Natural Voice Practitioners – dynamic, fun, energetic and inspirational.

Untrammelled by inhibition, these gifted singing teachers gave of themselves for the joy of others.

The whole day was a totally uplifting, empowering experience.

Through a mixture of harmony songs – slave songs from the American south, songs from the Eastern orthodox church, or songs arising from Australian aboriginal or North American Indian spirituality, to “Price Tag” by Jessie J – the different choirs delighted with their singing.

I was enthralled to watch the varied styles of the conductors. Some conducted in a tradiitonal manner, others danced and bopped around in from of their choir.

And at the end the four teachers treated us to a hilarious and top-rate performance of the Beachboys’ song God Only Knows What I’d Do Without You.

A wonderful life-enhancing weekend of singing!

Youth, Time and Soul – Old Photographs & Memories: Coloured Rags or Treasures?

Birthdays and old photographs.

Timeline Photos - birthday celebration - Sheila Skillman

Timeline Photos – birthday celebration – Sheila Skillman

How they arouse our emotions!

So many words have been written about time, and our attitude to it.

Memory is a crazy woman that hoards colored rags and throws away food said Austin O’Malley.

How much is concentrated in this deceptively simple remark: far more than a comment on human fallibility,  these words carry a spiritual connotation too.

But I believe an acknowledgement and acceptance of our past is vital to our ability to live in the present and look positively towards the future: and this gives us our sense of belonging.

This weekend I celebrated my birthday (St Patrick’s Day) with two parties, one for my family on Saturday and one for my friends on Sunday – I couldn’t get them all into the house at the same time!

Sheila's birthday cake

Sheila’s birthday cake

I put a timeline of photos up for guests to see and it was great inspiration for conversation and questions!

One guest said to me (apologies if he reads this blog but I thoroughly empathise with him) , “Oh I never look back at old photos;  they make me feel so depressed.”

The truth is I was dreading the task – going back through the photo albums. But I felt impelled to do it, as I believe people do appreciate these displays. I had to psyche myself up to do it, and nearly backed out.

But it was a surprisingly positive thing to do. I looked at photos of a past holiday and felt a wave of happiness. Instead of a sense of loss and nostalgia,  I took inside myself all the joy of that time.

Of course, I chose photos of positive occasions, so I admit it was a strongly biassed timeline! School prizegivings, weddings, new babies, anniversary celebrations, holidays. And I realised that I’ve travelled to Australia five times.

I didn’t include photos of Me Making the Worst Mistake of My Life, or a photo of Me Writing the Letter I Wish I’d Never Sent, Which I Regret To This Day, or Me With the Man I Wish I’d Never Met (or got involved with). Oh no. There were no pictures like that on the timeline.

And when it comes to remembrance of things past, I’m only too well aware there are those who have damaging, soul-destroying memories of horror, tragedy and grief – as I see when I read the accounts sent to us by the homelessness charity Centrepoint.

But when it comes to owning good memories, without regret or nostalgia, I feel that way about Australia, where I lived for four and a half years from 1986 to 1990. I eventually came back to England, feeling drawn to my own country again.

Although I miss the subtropical rainforests, mountain lookouts, and mangrove boardwalks, the bellbirds,  bougainvillea, and jacaranda trees of Queensland, I don’t feel a sense of loss. Instead I feel they are treasures I always carry with me.

These treasures are vital in creative writing: both the easily-recognized treasures in happy memories and the hidden treasures in our negative experiences too. For a fiction writer, no experience in this life is lost, good or bad.

How do you feel about old photographs? Do you look at them or avoid them? Are old prints lost in forgotten albums? Or have you stored them in electronic files, instantly accessible?

Or are you too busy living in the present?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Please share in the comments!

Shakespeare’s Wronged Women: A Reflection In The Light Of International Women’s Day

The other day I went to a see a production given by  Playbox Theatre, held at their local headquarters,  Dream Factory, Warwick.

Alice Woodhouse in Shakespeare's Wronged Women (copyright Kenilworth Weekly News)

Alice Woodhouse in Shakespeare’s Wronged Women (copyright Kenilworth Weekly News)

There we saw members of the Shakespeare Young Company present to us “Shakespeare’s Wronged Women”.

In the words of Stewart McGill & Mary King, the Artistic Directors of this company,  “Having explored with SYC the torments of The Winter’s Tale, in parallel we were discovering the wronged natured of many of Shakespeare’s heroines. It seemed a catalogue was emerging whereby the women in the plays were victims of male power, greed, status and political actions, not to mention infidelity and sexual domination. From Juliet and Hermia across the canon to Queen Katherine in Henry VIII these women demanded to be heard.”

After listening and watching the young people acting the roles of these wronged women, (among whom I may single out Alice Woodhouse as Hermione in A Winter’s Tale, and Mairi Ella Challen as Rosalind in As You Like It for their superb acting) I reflected: What do they all have in common? All these wronged women, as Shakespeare portrays them?

It’s this – they all inherently know their own self-worth.

They all know they deserve better.

Shakespeare gives them a voice. They express themselves powerfully, eloquently, passionately.

They won’t necessarily succeed, in worldly terms, because they are up against the brutish force of power politics and superior physical strength and sexual violence.

But their voices ring out.

The young actors, (I later speculated) perhaps thought this:

This will never happen to me.

I will never get myself into this situation.

I would never let anyone treat me like this.

I would never make this mistake.

But in years to come, maybe they will remember those impassioned words – from Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, from Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, from Juliet, or from Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

International Women’s Day was necessary because there are many women in this world who also have the same value and worth, but are not able to express themselves powerfully, eloquently, passionately.

And may they, and all the oppressed women for whom International Women’s Day was first created, know their own worth and live it out and fully possess it.

International Women’s Day 2013 in Leamington Spa – Women and Girls, Come and Support the Cause!

I shall be selling signed copies of “Mystical Circles” at the International Women’s Day event at The Sydni Centre, Leamington Spa, this afternoon (Friday 8 March 2013).

You can find The Sydni Centre here.

Mystical Circles by SC Skillman

Mystical Circles by SC Skillman

This is a Women and girls only event, held at the SYDNI centre – ALL WELCOME 0-90 – bring your daughters mothers sisters – range of activities and events – live music, singing, dance, self defence, arts workshops, CommunityPhilosophy, discussions, films, food – please come and celebrate the day with us! Free!

Supported by local women, various agencies voluntary & statutory.

The event is from 4-8pm. Do drop in if you’re in the area at that time!

Jennifer Lawrence, Young Success, and The Gift of The Present Moment

Picture this. A 22-year old actress who has  won an Oscar, is asked at her press conference: “You’re awfully young to have so much success so far. Do you feel it’s a good thing? You’re not worried about peaking too soon?”

Jennifer Lawrence,  winner of best actress award at 2013 Oscars (photo credit CalgaryHerald)

Jennifer Lawrence, winner of best actress award at 2013 Oscars (photo credit CalgaryHerald)

What can she do, but smile, give a baffled grimace and say, “Well, now I am.”

Fortunately, this did bring much laughter, as did her answers to other questions. When I watched this, I thought Jennifer may well have wished she was being questioned by Caesar Flickerman instead.

But this enquiry to the actress who played Katniss in The Hunger Games and has now won as Oscar for her performance in Silver Linings Playbook led me on to these reflections:

How can a young person ever feel they’ve ‘peaked too soon’?

What is she to say? “Oh yes. I’m terrified I’m going to suffer burnout at 30.”

For Jennifer Lawrence, as with any talented, creative young person in a similar position, the recognition she has already received is simply something that has happened to her, which is good, and which she receives with pleasure.

“Peaking too early” and “burnout” are concepts only people with decades of experience in this life can ever grasp.

Many writers and philosophers  have spoken on the subject of time.

Here’s one for both Jennifer Lawrence, and the hapless journalist who questioned her:

Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift of God; which is why we call it the present (Bil Keane).

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