The Fault in Our Stars and Poignant Reminders of Short Lives on Milverton Hill

Recently I went to see the film The Fault in Our Stars with my two teenage children. Based upon the book of the same name by John Green it was about two teenagers both diagnosed with terminal cancer, who form a relationship at a cancer support group, try to avoid falling in love because of their life-limiting illnesses, and then do fall in love, before one of them dies.

Old Milverton Churchyard 27 June 2014 (photo taken by SC Skillman)
Old Milverton Churchyard 27 June 2014 (photo taken by SC Skillman)
Abigail with Jeni the dog near Old Milverton Churchyard 27 June 2014 (photo taken by SC Skillman)
Abigail with Jeni the dog near Old Milverton Churchyard 27 June 2014 (photo taken by SC Skillman)



Along the way, many wise observations are made about life and death and mortality, and the way we handle death in this society, and our failure to speak the truth or be “real” in the presence of life-limiting illness.

This was such a poignant film, especially the scene in Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, where both are brought face to face with another teenager whose life was also cut short – for a very different reason.

Ruby Johnson's memorial plaque at Old Milverton Churchyard 27 June 2014 (photo taken by SC Skillman)
Ruby Johnson’s memorial plaque at Old Milverton Churchyard 27 June 2014 (photo taken by SC Skillman)

With this film in my mind, we recently made a walk up Milverton Hill to Old Milverton Church, near my home in Warwick, where there is a memorial plaque to Ruby Johnson (one of my daughter’s former fellow-pupils at school) who died of leukaemia in 2009 age 13.

Walking up this hill to Old Milverton Church is always poignant for me, because I now associate the summit of that hill, and that quiet churchyard, with Ruby’s lovely and touching memorial.



Sir Antony Sher in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part II at Stratford-upon-Avon: the Powerful Impact of One Picaresque Character, Performed by a Great Actor

Antony Sher as Falstaff in Henry IV Part II at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford-upon-Avon 2014
Antony Sher as Falstaff in Henry IV Part II at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford-upon-Avon 2014

Sir Antony Sher shone out as Sir John Falstaff in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Henry IV Part II which I saw the other day in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

I was at the camera rehearsal for Henry IV Part II, the day before the production was to be broadcast live to cinemas.

As I watched Antony Sher commanding the stage as Shakespeare’s irregular humorist Sir John Falstaff, I remembered another time when I saw the same actor perform – it was at least 28 years ago in Brisbane, Australia, and he played Richard III, scuttling about the stage like a giant spider. I’ve never forgotten that performance. This time he made me reflect once again upon the charisma and power of a great actor, no matter the role he plays. You would think that the king himself would command the stage; but no, it was the low-life ne’er-do -well, the gluttonous lustful drunkard Falstaff, who did that.

For me, the most memorable moment of the play came when Sir John Falstaff bounds up to the newly-crowned Henry V, knowing that the former Prince Hal had once been his regular companion in the brothels and taverns of Eastcheap, London. He throws his arms wide to reclaim his former intimacy , in the hope and expectation of new honours and favours to be bestowed upon him now his former companion is successful, powerful, all-important… and the new king says to him:

“I know thee not, old man!”

The silence that then falls, as Falstaff sees that he has fallen from grace (if such it could be called), is poignant and profound.The new king proclaims that he has turned away from his former self, as one does from a dream one despises. And somehow, all that we might feel upon confronting our mispent past, and renouncing it, is encompassed in that moment.

Last month I read an interview with Sir Antony Sher in Warwickshire What’s On magazine. He talked about his career and how when young he was turned down for drama school. He was asked about how an actor moves forward in his talent to become great, and during his reply, he made this point:

Richard Burton had the most exciting talent which somehow he wasted… a special gift as an actor but he stopped caring about it… just sat back in his talent rather than pushing himself and exploring it. You’ve got to keep alive this very special job you’re doing… Meryl Streep has kept a certain integrity to her craft.

Surely this act of pushing and exploring is universally true of the creative life. I was reminded of those words as I came away from  the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, with the stage-presence of Sir Antony Sher singing in the air around me.







Comic Opera of Gilbert and Sullivan – the Great English Comic Theme of People Pretending To Be Better Than They Really Are

On Saturday evening I enjoyed watching and listening to a concert by the Warwick & Kenilworth Choral Society given in Kenilworth School, during which the choir performed Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic opera Trial by Jury.

A scene from Trial By Jury as illustrated in the magazine Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News of 1 May 1875
A scene from Trial By Jury as illustrated in the magazine Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News of 1 May 1875

I have personal memories of Trial By Jury; during my childhood and teenage years I sang in a girls’ choir in Orpington, Kent. The Orpington Junior Singers, conducted by Sheila Mossman, were called upon to sing in The Chorus of Bridesmaids in Trial By Jury when it was performed by Sheila Mossman’s adult choir The Orpington Chorale (a choir which my father sang in, too, for several years).

It was such a joy on Saturday evening to sit in the audience on Saturday evening and watch the performance of this, the first collaboration between Gilbert & Sullivan (often regarded as the Victorian equivalent of Rice and Lloyd Webber).

As we watched the pompous insistence of the Judge on telling everyone how he came to be a judge, and how he himself cheated the rich attourney by jilting his elderly ugly daughter, (whose parents assured him she could very well pass for 43 in the dusk with the light behind her), and as we enjoyed the Defendant in his loud jacket offering to marry the jilted bride one day and his new girlfriend the next, I was reminded once again of the central comic theme which appears in every generation in English society: The theme of people trying to appear better than they are. Only in Gilbert & Sullivan part of the humour is that they openly reveal their true murky selves.

The Jury admits they were once irresponsible cads, just like the Defendant; but now of course they’ve given that all up and they “shine with a virtue resplendent”.

We delight in seeing these themes played out before us. It is such a recognizable “trope” and we love it. Jane Austen thrived on it and found in it a fertile source of irony.

Class consciousness is a constantly-renewable resource for English writers, and long has it been so.

Do you recognise this as a strong theme in any of your favourite writers? Please share in the comments!



In Commemoration of Anne Frank on the 85th Anniversary of Her Birth: the Power of the Pen, Mightier Than the Sword

Today (12 June 2014) is the 85th anniversary of Anne Frank’s birth.

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl - Otto Frank and Mirjam Pressler
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl – Otto Frank and Mirjam Pressler

Coincidentally – or maybe, by synchronicity, for I was unaware of the significance of this date at the time –  I only just finished reading The Diary of Anne Frank all over again, two days before writing this post.

I first read Anne Frank’s diary when I was a young teenager and such was the effect it had on me, I still have a strong visual memory of a walk I took in our local park, immediately after finishing the book. When I read the book recently, I relived that walk through the alleyway into Goddington Park, Orpington. I remembered being there, and as I walked, and looked at everything around me, I thought continually about Anne Frank and the relationship she was developing with Peter, one of the other fugitives in The Secret Annexe.

Anne Frank’s diary is particularly meaningful to me because I too kept a daily journal at approximately the same age as Anne. I too began my journal in a book I had received as a gift; but I started my journal when I was 15 years old (the age Anne was when she died in Bergen-Belsen) and I continued writing it for 10 years.

As I read Anne’s diary I identify with her so much. She writes just what she feels about things, she spares no details, she is honest about her own personal experience as an adolescent girl. People have commented on Anne’s sharp and critical remarks about others in the Annexe including her own mother. But I understand Anne perfectly.

 What is a secret journal for, if it isn’t to write down exactly what you think and feel about everything and everyone?

The most poignant parts of Anne’s diary for me come when she speculates about her future. Sometimes she is full of hope, and she writes about what she will do after the war, and is excited at the hope of the war ending in 1944; by October, she thinks, she will be so happy to be back at school! (In fact, by then she was in Auschwitz). A very moving part of the diary is when Anne records that Miep, one of their helpers, gave them a cake for Christmas 1943 and had written on it “Peace 1944”. Then you compare that with what the year 1944 actually held for them all.

Then Anne is filled with a sense that they are all doomed, and will themselves fall victim to the terrible  persecution of the Jews by the Nazis. She describes feeling that she and all the others in the annexe are a tiny piece of bright blue sky, surrounded by a ring, and all about that ring are black, threatening clouds, moving closer and closer to overwhelm them. She writes that she feels the ring is shrinking all the time.

The most heartrending part of reading Anne Frank’s diary is when you read the brief account at the very end about what happened to each of the fugitives in the Secret Annexe, after they were arrested on 4 August 1944.

Anne is in one sense so ordinary, it is so easy to identify with her, she comes over as intensely alive and vivid and real, you feel you know her intimately. Then you meditate upon what she and her fellow fugitives suffered as they were discovered and arrested; and you imagine what Anne would have continued to write, about every detail of her subsequent experiences.

Anne’s story tells us about the power of the pen – mightier than the sword. With one personal diary, she has come to symbolize the suffering of the Jews for millions, over all the intervening decades up to the present day, and her witness gathers strength for each passing generation.

Share what Anne Frank means to you on #anne frank2014 on Twitter, or on Facebook.

Supernatural Power versus Rationalism: Sorcerers and Sceptics at Warwick Words Summer Festival 2014

Last night  I went to a fascinating discussion between two authors at the final event of the Warwick Words summer festival. The talk was held in the beautiful 15th century Great Hall of the Lord Leycester Hospital, Warwick.

Andrew Taylor and Ian Mathie (photo credit
Andrew Taylor and Ian Mathie (photo credit

Ian Mathie, author of Sorcerers and Orange Peel, spoke about his travels in remote African communities over many years and his experiences of spiritual power among the witchdoctors, some of which he believed could not be explained in rational terms. He was being challenged by the sceptical James Andrew Taylor, biographer, former TV journalist and author of Walking Wounded, an acclaimed biography of poet Vernon Scannell.

Each author gave his point of view upon the existence of the paranormal and the supernatural, then the debate was thrown open to the audience. I was interested to note that several among those who spoke from the audience had extensive experience of Africa, and that the general feeling among them seemed to be open-minded/sympathetic towards Ian Mathie’s point of view. I had expected many more sceptics. One questioner asked “What is reality?”

Andrew Taylor said reality was what he could experience with his senses. Then the questioner pointed out that our view of reality changes all the time; our reality in 2014 would have been considered unbelievable one hundred years ago; microscopic reality is unknown to the majority of us; and we are unable to say what new “realities” may become commonplace to those who live a hundred years in the future, that we now consider impossible.

Andrew Taylor made three intriguing points. He said:

1)  he would only consider something to be “reality” if it was repeatable in laboratory conditions.

2) he considered “magic” to be lazy; the way things are achieved in the “real” world is far more complex  and interesting.

3)  everything Ian Mathie had witnessed in traditional communities in Africa, which appeared to be achieved by supernatural power, he would say is all down to “the power of suggestion”.

I later asked Ian Mathie whether he saw anything equivalent to “the local witchdoctor” or “wise man/woman” anywhere in our contemporary English society.

He said no – and this is because most of us in our western culture have such a reductionist, rationalist outlook upon the world, that we are not open to such supernatural power.

I too have been drawn to Africa in a number of ways over the years, mostly through books, without ever having visited the continent; and I learned that Ian Mathie had met Laurens Van Der Post, as I too have done. See my blog post on Van Der Post here.

In my forthcoming psycho-spiritual suspense novel A Passionate Spirit:

1)   one of my principal characters wields such supernatural power – in the heart of a contemporary English community.

2)  the test of the reality of her power is met; she repeats her apparently supernatural acts over and over again.

3)  her power is not taken seriously by those who we might consider most likely to be alert to it – in our society.

If you are interested in these things –  the existence of supernatural/spiritual power, versus the rationalist outlook of our Western society – or have experiences or views about it, I invite your comments.



Inspiration From the Parapet at the Top of the Tower of St Mary’s Church Warwick

As I sit here typing these words I gaze over the trees to the top of the tower of St Mary’s Church Warwick.

St Mary's Warwick (photo credit
St Mary’s Warwick (photo credit

The decorated parapet at the top of this tower is the highest place you can be in Warwick (which is this year celebrating its 1100th anniversary). I’ve climbed to that platform and gazed down over the Beauchamp Tower of Warwick Castle.

We live on a hill to the north of Warwick town centre and following our neighbours’ removal of some trees, we now have a new view across to that tower. I can see it now from where I sit as I type these words. I find it uplifting and inspiring.

The tower of St Mary’s can be discerned from miles away. It’s the first landmark which announces that you’re approaching Warwick, when you travel from Stratford-upon-Avon.

As someone who loves history, I like to imagine how it would have been for those approaching many hundreds of years ago, as they first caught a glimpse of that tower and said, “There’s Warwick!”

Warwick has a number of claims to fame in English history; we may think of Richard Neville, known as Warwick the Kingmaker (as Sellars and Yeatman remark in their comic classic 1066 And All That, any baron who wished to be considered king was allowed to apply at Warwick the Kingmaker’s, where he was made to fill up a form“); we may think of that treacherous crime that was committed, when Piers Gaveston the King’s favourite was lured to Warwick Castle by the Earl of Warwick and ended up being dragged to Blacklow Hill and horribly slaughtered.  An Earl of Warwick was responsible, too, for the trial and sentencing to death by burning at the stake for Joan of Arc. This area is rich in history.

Most tourists coming to the Midlands head first to Stratford-upon-Avon and then to Warwick. And after Warwick Castle, St Mary’s Church is for the majority of visitors their next stop. It has the beautiful Beauchamp Chapel, where, among others, is the tomb of Sir Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester, favourite of Queen Elizabeth I; and also, in the adjoining Chapter House, the tomb of the ill-fated Sir Fulke Greville, who was murdered by his manservant in Warwick Castle.

Perhaps the view of that tower connects me to a sense of story, and that’s why it inspires me so much.

What do you think? Do you too feel inspired by mediaeval churches, castles, and other historical places? Why do you think we love them together with all their associated stories of past misdeeds and treachery?