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Archive for January, 2015

Film Review: “Philomena” starring Steve Coogan and Judi Dench

I belong to a Film Club which meets every 2 months and a few days ago our film of choice was Philomena.

I’ve now watched it four times in as many days, and during that time I’ve been haunted by the characters, by the story, and by what it tell us about life and about what it means to be human.

I haven’t read the novel by Martin Sixsmith, but it does seem to me from the Amazon reviews of the novel, that Steve Coogan’s choice to make a film of the story, focussing on the relationship between Philomena and Martin Sixsmith in their search for Philomena’s long-lost son, was an inspired choice, and created something far more powerful, moving and effective than the novel which focused on the life of Philomena’s son Michael Hess (born Anthony Lee).

Our film club group had a lively discussion about the film after viewing it, and we examined different angles, with views expressed that see the events from both sides. I think what I like most of all about the film is that it avoids a black and white view of Philomena’s story, which could so easily be “cruelly wronged woman against evil Catholic nuns” (beautifully parodied by Steve Coogan early in the film when he says, “Evil is good. I mean – story-wise.”) The message of the film is far more subtle and complex than that, and brilliantly conveyed in the dynamics of the relationship between Philomena (portrayed by Judi Dench) and Martin Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan).

And of course the film contains some incisive dialogue about the Catholic Church. As I consider the message I’m left with this thought; how dangerous the challenges and demands of an authoritarian religious faith can be; leading some along the path of harshness, cruelty and judgementalism, and others into the highest reaches of self-sacrifice, holiness and goodness. It’s almost as if, behind it all, lurks the complexity and unaccountability of human psychology, which we can never ignore.

This Guardian article is the best review of the film that I’ve come across which acknowledges this subtlety and the far deeper observations that are being made about the Catholic Church.

Inspirational Tale of African Girl Who Triumphs Through Adversity

I’ve just read and reviewed a powerful and affecting story on Kindle, Eleven Miles by Lance Greenfield.

Eleven Miles by Lance Greenfield

Eleven Miles by Lance Greenfield

I understand the novel was inspired by a village girl, Boikanyo Phenyo, from the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana. The life prospects for girls born into such circumstances are limited: school till the end of primary education, get married, have five or six children, die too early. That is unless you can gain high education. This lady walked eleven miles to secondary school, and eleven miles home, every day for five years just so that she could go on to university.

“Eleven Miles” shows how adversity can, in the right circumstances, sharpen up the resolve to succeed. Through this account of the teenage years of Boi, a gifted young girl from Botswana, Greenfield provides us with a strong contrast to the “entitled” mind-set that comfortable Western culture can sometimes engender.

“Eleven Miles” shows us how one girl builds on her gifts and meets the challenges of adversity to achieve her dreams of academic and sporting excellence, The adversities she must face include having to find enough money for school fees from the earnings of numerous family members; the lack of transport for the 11 mile journey to school, meaning her only option is to go on foot; added to the necessity of having to collect water and firewood on top of this every day when she gets home from school; and all this in the context of not having enough to eat (a hunk of bread for breakfast, and the same again for lunch). In addition to these, Boi must face cruelty, injustice and tragedy, before she wins through to her prize.

Despite the inspirational quality of the story, I never really felt I understood where or how Boi had gained her phenomenal determination and focus. She clearly has a gift which can never be explained but I wished I could have had a much deeper insight into the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of her character; this would helped me feel her eventual triumph more intensely.

Despite this, the strength of the story itself shines through, and I find myself haunted by it, and the message of the book stays with me.

Do download the novel now; it’s a simple, very readable tale which I recommend to you! Half of the profits from the sale of this novel go to Boikanyo Phenyo’s  project to buy a school bus for the villages of her home area.

The Sublime Landscape of JRR Tolkien and His Creative Vision – in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

I saw the last Hobbit film two days ago: The Battle of the Five Armies.

The Hobbit 1st published 1937 and its author JRR Tolkien

The Hobbit 1st published 1937 and its author JRR Tolkien

And as I watched it I had a strong feeling of Peter Jackson making the most of his final cinematic visit to Middle-earth. Everything was exploited to its fullest extent, the brutality of battle, the sublimity and peril of the landscape, the tragedy of a hero lost in his lust for gold, the goodness and simplicity and down-to-earth appeal of Bilbo, the ugliness and brutishness of the orcs, the grandeur and regality of the elves, the mystical presence of Galadriel.

As a lover of JRR Tolkien and the fantasy world he created, I  first read The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and the Silmarillion while I was at university. When I read the Hobbit I remember loving it even more, if that were possible, than The Lord of the Rings. I felt it contained all that the longer book contained, but within a smaller, more compact package. I don’t think it’s possible to think this about Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films! Even so, I felt in this final trip to Middle-earth Peter Jackson excelled himself in terms of long scenes of extended hazard, in archetypal themes of love and compassion versus cruelty, brutality, and the lust for gold. How glad I was when the Lady Galadriel appeared in the dark, craggy, landscape in her shining white robes. And when Bilbo finally said he was off home, I thought, Cue for the eagles to fly in and give him a ride back to The Shire. But no. He had to walk. I loved the way the landscape grew greener and more warm and welcoming as he approached closer to Hobbiton.

Considering the very unassuming and childlike way in which the original novel The Hobbit begins, who could ever have guessed it would lead on to such heights of creative imagination. And in the world he created, JRR Tolkien gave us many poignant and ominous reflections upon our own world, on the nature of life, and the human condition, as well as the spiritual purpose and destiny of the human race.

Lance’s Coach Tour

Here is a delightful blog post by Lance Greenfield, one of the first reviewers of Mystical Circles on Goodreads. Thank you, Lance, for your tour of Stonehenge, one of my favourite places!

Lance Greenfield

Welcome aboard the inaugural coach tour for followers of Lance Greenfield’s blog.

This is the first of many exciting day trips that I shall be running for invited blogging friends. We can enjoy the company of fellow bloggers as we tour through time and space. We will meet many interesting characters from past and future, and some of the places we may visit will be beyond our wildest dreams.

I am open to suggestions for where and when we might venture on future coach tours, but today we are going to visit a world famous historic site which is only twelve miles from my current humble dwelling in the south of England.

Today’s trip takes us to Stonehenge!

Stonehenge Sunrise at Stonehenge

First on board are my old friends Eloise and Lucie. They quickly settle down at the front of the coach and observe their fellow passengers as the climb…

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Book Review: The Beatles Lyrics by Hunter Davies

Having received this book as a Christmas gift, substantial 375-page tome that it is, I devoured it in a few days.

The Beatles Lyrics The Unseen Story Behind Their Music by Hunter Davies

The Beatles Lyrics The Unseen Story Behind Their Music by Hunter Davies

I found the book utterly compelling. Hunter Davies starts by describing his search among collectors, companies and auction houses for what must surely rank among the most valuable “scruffy scraps of paper” in the world: those the Beatles first wrote their original lyrics down on. A good proportion of these got thrown away by the Beatles then disposed of by the cleaners at Abbey Road Studios but several of those which didn’t ended up in the possession of certain key individuals who wish to keep the huge value of their possessions secret.

Hunter Davies himself offered his own personal collection of handwritten lyrics to the British Library on permanent loan and they now reside in the Manuscript Room alongside the Magna Carta, Shakespeare and Wordsworth.

Alongside photos of the handwritten lyrics, some on the backs of letters and birthday cards and envelopes, Davies gives an account of how the words were chosen, and what they mean, with some intriguing memories from his own personal contacts with the Beatles and with Brian Epstein. In so doing, he tells the story of the Beatles’ lives as musicians and songwriters entirely in and through the lyrics, the way they were composed, and the way in which their writers developed personally between 1957 and 1969.

During his observations on the songs he draws out not only the intended sense of them (if there was any – and sometimes John Lennon would deliberately write nonsense to defy the intellectual analysts) but also the unconscious meanings in the words, what they reveal of their composers’ inner lives. On one occasion, referring to some of George Harrison’s lyrics, Davies observes: “Perhaps George fooled himself, harbouring a subconscious fear that he was not admitting at the time or even aware of.”

Davies also examines the way the words emerged from the Beatles’ own life experience. I found his insights into Paul McCartney and John Lennon all the more moving because a lot of those biographical details held high emotional charge for me at the time. I became a Beatles fan at an early, and very impressionable, age – too young to be allowed to go to any of their concerts. Nevertheless I was devoted to them; every detail of their lives reported in the media, I followed avidly.

But there were several things I misunderstood.For instance, by the time “Beatles For Sale” came out, the acquisition of a new Beatles LP was so precious to me, so desirable, that I would never have guessed this title emerged from the Beatles’ own feelings of almost unbearable pressure at the commercial expectations being laid upon them.

One of the most engrossing aspects of the book is Davies’ reflection on the nature of success, and upon the creative process, often erratic and uneven. For instance, he recounts journalist Kenneth Allsop encouraging John to show his feelings more in his pop lyrics, closing the gap between his literary outpourings and his pop lyrics. And writing song lyrics is comparable in one sense to writing a novel, something Davies is quite explicit about, showing the way writers may unwittingly betray attitudes never consciously intended. “Novelists in particular,” writes Davies, “often create situations on paper, out of their imagination, which then come true.”

Davies gives a sensitive and penetrating analysis of John and his angst in particular, for, as he notes, “the discovery that success is all rather hollow, that you are still alone with yourself, can of course lead to self-destruction through excess be it drink or drugs.”

On page 234 Davies notes: “This was their philosophy: you could do these things, if you really wanted. There was no need to follow the rules or be bossed around.” How I identify with that ideal. Yet the truth is that this can only really apply to creatives when they have established themselves and become successful. As Hunter Davies says, “it helped that by this time they were multi-millionaires who had already made their mark in the music business.” And they’d made their mark through following Brian Epstein’s rules and letting him boss them around.

To conclude, I found studying this book to be a very intense experience. As we see the lyrics developing from boy-girl love songs fixated with promises to “be true” into richer, profounder and often more disturbing lyrics, as we study how the Beatles’ lives became more complex and their experience of the world deepened, it’s almost like seeing a reflection of our own lives, moving on from naivety, simplicity and idealism, through all the mistakes, folly, betrayal, loss and disillusion, along with the flashes of wonder, fun, hope, and joy.

 

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