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Archive for September, 2014

A New Glimpse of a Dream Arising from the Ruins – Kenilworth Castle September 2014

Kenilworth Castle is my favourite English Heritage property and one I’ve visited many times as it’s so close to my home in Warwick.

View of Leicester's Building at Kenilworth Castle, with new staircase and viewing platforms completed Aug 2014 - photo credit SC Skillman

View of Leicester’s Building at Kenilworth Castle, with new staircase and viewing platforms completed Aug 2014 – photo credit SC Skillman

Now English Heritage have completed new staircases and viewing platforms allowing visitors to ascend to the different floors of Leicester’s Tower for the first time in 350 years. I’ve visited the Building and climbed those staircases twice recently.

A poignant story surrounds this tower. Built by Sir Robert Dudley especially to house Queen Elizabeth I and her courtiers, it represents a huge and extravagant investment, not only of his personal wealth (which was vast) but of his hopes and dreams. They were doomed not to be fulfilled. Queen Elizabeth stayed here 19 days in 1575, the longest of her 4 visits to Kenilworth to be entertained by Sir Robert, her favourite courtier. He hoped this time to win her hand in marriage. But it was not to be.

Many historians have speculated on Elizabeth’s reasons, for there is strong evidence she loved him. Her reasons would have been political, psychological, emotional – historian and novelist Alison Weir will soon be visiting Warwick Words, our local literary festival, to speak on The Marriage Game; and I will certainly be in the audience, for I share Alison Weir’s fascination with this subject.

The truth is, Sir Robert abandoned all hope of marrying the Queen after she left in 1575. The building was little used thereafter. 80 years later its owner stripped it and left it in ruins.

New staircase at Leicester's Building Kenilworth Castle completed Aug 2014 - photo credit SC Skillman

New staircase at Leicester’s Building Kenilworth Castle completed Aug 2014 – photo credit SC Skillman

ON all my previous visits over the past couple of decades, you could only look up inside the empty shell. But now you can ascend to each level, and read the story about each floor, and gaze through the windows at the views its former users would have admired, and imagine how it must have been during those 19 days in which Sir Robert’s greatest hopes and longings were invested.

All you need is a physical object, and a great story. And here now, on these viewing platforms, as I gaze at the walls where rich tapestries would have hung, I feel as if I am recapturing something of what Elizabeth and her courtiers experienced when they used these rooms.

The former empty shell has gained a new life. You can see the whole story again in a new light, feeling almost as if you are entering Sir Robert and Elizabeth’s psychic space.

Like Lyveden New Bield, which I blogged about recently, this was a grand scheme; the grandeur only had a short life, and the purpose for which it was created was not fulfilled.

views can be seen now through the windows for the 1st time in 350 years - Leicester's Building Kenilworth Castle - photo credit SC Skillman

views can be seen now through the windows for the 1st time in 350 years – Leicester’s Building Kenilworth Castle – photo credit SC Skillman

Our lives are full of stories like this – and this story lies locked in these stones.

Formerly Queen Elizabeth's bedchamber at Leicester's Building Kenilworth Castle - photo credit SC Skillman

Formerly Queen Elizabeth’s bedchamber at Leicester’s Building Kenilworth Castle – photo credit SC Skillman

Find Mystical Circles on Goodkindles!

Mystical Circles is now featured on Goodkindles.

Mystical Circles by SC Skillman

Mystical Circles by SC Skillman

Take a look at it here, and it you haven’t already, hurry on over to the Kindle store and download your copy now!

 

Deep in the heart of the English countryside, in an idyllic farmhouse, Craig, an idealistic young man with a wealthy father, has gathered together a community of complex characters to inhabit his eerie and atmospheric retreat. They’re all dedicated to Craig and his teachings – which involve rejecting the past and living only in the present. But Craig’s retreat for spiritual and mental healing and enlightenment has a darker, hidden side.

Into this ménage comes Juliet, a London journalist, anxious for her younger sister Zoe who’s fallen in love with Craig. Is Juliet over-protective? Or is she right to pursue Zoe from London to the Cotswolds, worried about her taking up with Craig and his band of eccentric guests?

And is Craig’s retreat a dangerous cult or a place of healing?

Juliet struggles to accept Craig’s teachings without quite understanding them or the overt willingness to join in. And along the way she meets a host of quirky and oddball residents who offer her the chance to become one of them and gain ultimate fulfilment and enlightenment… or perhaps something very much worse.

As Juliet investigates, she’s drawn into their sinister world … and the results are sometimes spectacular, sometimes dangerous.

 

 

 

Review of “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green

I’ve just finished reading The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.

The Fault in Our Stars book cover

The Fault in Our Stars book cover

This story of two young cancer “survivors” is a story that eats into your marrow. And if you haven’t seen the film or read the book, and would like to, don’t read on, for my review contains plot spoilers!

Even though I had already seen the film, and knew what was going to happen, I found the book itself utterly compelling. Two young people facing death every day with no religious belief in a conventional sense, told through the honest, sharp, hard-hitting viewpoint of Hazel Grace, a 16-year-old girl living on borrowed time, is very strong.

To me the most interesting character, however, is Peter Van Houten, the ghastly novelist who’s written a fantastic book and won the admiration of millions, yet is destroying himself with alcohol, throwing away all the value of what he’s achieved.

And the message within that particular subplot: don’t expect an author to be like/worthy of the book he/she writes.

The Fault In Our Stars also makes me realise how profoundly annoying sentimental pious language can be to non-religious people, especially in the crises of life; and that leads me to reflect on the power of language itself, and how words can build bridges or destroy, or create wars – as we constantly see in the history and in the current state of our world.

How powerful it was for Hazel to receive Augustus’s letter at the end – and how critical it was that they were Augustus’s own words, and not Peter Van Houten’s. That at least was one decision Van Houten made that was right – even out of his alcoholic haze.

And the story also poses the question: how true is Hazel Grace’s outlook on the world, from the point of view of a young person living with imminent death every day? Her cynicism is a refuge for her, a way of dealing with the pain and the horror of her situation, when even saying things that are horrible, is comforting.

Another thought arising from the story: in our Western society, we all talk so much rubbish around death, it’s frightening. There seems to be a conspiracy of not saying what you really think and feel – especially at religious funerals for non-religious people.

One of the saddest moments for me in the book and in the film was at Augustus’s funeral when Hazel decides to say all the anodyne things she knows her audience will like to hear, instead of saying what she truly feels and thinks about Augustus and his death.

I really do think religious language used carelessly and thoughtlessly at the most critical times of our lives can be a tyranny – when we use it as a mask and a means of self-deception, instead of a way of communicating the truth.

At the end of the story, what is left is love: the love Hazel and Augustus felt for each other despite knowing they had no future. That must be the single most important message of the book – the one impossible fact of love in the face of death.

The Writer’s Journey

After being turned down by numerous publishers, he had decided to write for posterityGeorge Ade

It is a truth certainly acknowledged by the author of the above quote that many creative writers struggle for years, enduring perhaps decades in the wilderness of submissions and rejections, before their persistence finally pays off.

Most would-be authors, says Alison Baverstock in The Artists and Writers Yearbook, “are pessimistic optimists.”  And The Old Testament is full of stories of people who waited or fought seemingly in vain or wandered in wilderness for many years before God’s plan for them unfolded, and their gifts were used and they prospered.

Joseph, Moses, and Elijah come to mind.  Moses was 80 years old when he led the Children of Israel out of Egypt, and witnessed the parting of the Red Sea.  Elijah gave way to depression before God re-commissioned him.  Joseph languished forgotten in jail before his gift for interpreting dreams lifted him up again.

Fast forward a few thousand years to my chance meeting with a publisher (later to become one of London’s top literary agents) who took an interest in my writing.  He encouraged me to write my first novel.

A couple of years ago I attended an evening on Discernment, and an image was presented to us: “You can spend years knocking on doors.  Some doors lead to broom cupboards and some to elevator shafts.”

When I met this publisher, in the early stages of my writing career, I opened a door and it led into a lift.  I stepped in, and went up.  But it was a faith-operated lift.  It required me to have enough faith to press the button for the top floor.  I only had enough faith to press the button for Floor 3.  The doors opened, the demon of self-doubt stepped in, and pressed the button for the basement.  And down I went again, to the very bottom of the shaft.

So, as my writing life continued beyond the outer gates, rejections frequently came my way, and I read letters saying things like We read this with much amusement but in the end were not sufficiently drawn to the central idea and We found your style fluent and assured but it is not quite for us  and Although this is witty and well written… our fiction programme is so full that we are buying very few new titles unfortunately…. I wish you success in finding a less over-burdened publisher.

But I later discovered that, contrary to the feelings of rejected authors, when you actually meet editors in publishing houses, they’re very pleasant people.  The Mills and Boon editor I met in the Ladies at the Savoy in London, at the RNA Romantic Novel of the Year Award luncheon, was very nice.  And so was the Rights Director for the top agent I referred to earlier in this article, whom I met later in the dining room. She reminded me of a member of my babysitting circle. (This lady still rejected my novel when I sent it to her though, and subsequently left the agency and published a novel herself).

And so I continued to read letters saying, Due to the very strong market in this kind of literature your novel would not be viable for us to publishThis is too commercial for usI’m afraid this doesn’t quite fit with our current list.

Then I read Margaret Silf’s book Sacred Spaces, and found these words in her chapter on Crossing Places:

At this ‘burial plot’ of my experience, I am standing between two worlds – between the old, the known and understood, and the new beginning which still lies beyond the scope of my wildest imagining. I am standing in sacred space because it is on the very edge of the known that the infinite possibilities of the unknown begin to unfold.

She went on to say:

God stretched the rainbow across the heavens, so that we might never forget the promise that holds all creation in being.  This is the promise that life and joy are the permanent reality, like the blue of the sky, and that all the roadblocks we encounter are like the clouds – black and threatening perhaps, but never the final word.  Because the final word is always “Yes!”

 

Thank you for reading this! And if you want me to let you know when I’ve got a new book coming out, click here

Review of “The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared”: a Lesson in Opportunism?

I’ve just finished reading The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson. What an amazing book this is – one which makes you reflect on the nature of life, the irony of events and choices, the workings of chance, and the value of opportunism. As I read it I felt sure it would make a fantastic movie.

100 Year Old Man book cover

100 Year Old Man book cover

Opinions of novels are always diverse but for me this story works as a long rumination on the workings of fate and chance in human affairs, centred around the life story of one man who is a master opportunist – a story which encompasses all the major political events of the 20th century, interspersed with the picaresque tale of his adventures after escaping from his 100th birthday party at the Old People’s Home in 2005.

The simplicity of the telling, bare of any kind of moral subtext, draws you on.

Throughout his life the main protagonist Allan has lived on his wits – amongst many ironies, he finds himself being bankrolled by one of the 20th century’s greatest tyrants, Mao Tse Tung, and accepts it without conscience. His actions are guided not by moral or religious principle but by expediency and opportunism.

Yet in the tradition of all great picaresque heroes (Tom Jones, and the main protagonist of “Slumdog Millionaire” come to mind) we like him and we are gunning for him.

At the age of 100, Allan breaks out from his imposed daily routine and encounters unexpected things. He responds to them and moves forward, dealing with new events as they arise – not fleeing back to his safe routine. He lives on his wits and he doesn’t let moral principles hamper him – like ‘being good’ or ‘doing the proper thing’ or worrying about what others might think of him, or who would approve, or if he might get in trouble, or what might be the consequences.

Surely there is a lesson for us here, without feeling we have to use the amoral Allan as a role-model: “Just break out – move forward into the unknown – meet new and unexpected events – deal with them – make decisions – and keep going.”

In other words, I say to myself: perhaps in this life it is no bad thing to become more of an opportunist!

Faded Splendour, Unfinished Grand Schemes, Unfulfilled Dreams

I visited a National Trust property a few days ago – Lyveden New Bield near Oundle in the heart of the Northamptonshire countryside.

Lyveden New Bield (creative commons)

Lyveden New Bield (creative commons)

This is an unusual property in that it was build by an Elizabethan gentleman who left it unfinished. And it hasn’t fallen down, or been looted, or demolished, or built over, in the intervening centuries – but has just remained as it is.

There is something haunting and eerie about properties like this. The only similar one I can think of is Chastleton House near Moreton-in-Marsh, which has been left exactly as it was 400 years ago…..  It hasn’t been specially prepared or restored by the National Trust to look as it would when at the height of its glory. It has just been left, like Sleeping Beauty’s Palace. There is a faintly sinister air as you explore its rooms and passages. You get the feeling that those who lived there have just vanished and it has remained suspended in time. A curious melancholy hangs in the air.

In the case of Lieveden New Bield, the designer and developer of this grand garden lodge, Sir Thomas Tresham, a wealthy and ardent Catholic, died before it could be completed. And his son Francis, instead of completing it and fulfilling his father’s dream, made a fatal error: he became implicated in the Gunpowder Plot, got arrested, confessed, and lost the entire family fortune.

Touring this unfinished, roofless property with all its elaborate Catholic symbolism, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Sir Thomas and all his hopes and dreams. As I walked around, and listened to the audio-tour, I wasn’t thinking of the massive differences between ourselves in our modern world, and those in the early seventeenth century, with all the passions and concerns of the beleagured Catholics. I was thinking of the things I shared – which many of us share – with Sir Thomas. A grand scheme, a big dream, starting to come into reality…

In Sir Thomas’s case it was cruelly cut short. Yet he died with all his ardent Catholic faith and hopes intact. And all the elements of his original design for his garden and lodge are now being rediscovered, and might even be realised in the future: who knows.

To me, this is the value of visiting historical properties – enabling us to enter imaginatively into the deeply personal stories of those who lived centuries ago, and feeling not the things that separate us but the things we may have in common.

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