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Archive for March, 2015

Words From A Cave – Part 1

merlin-cave

Merlin’s Cave, Tintagel

I had a hip operation last Tuesday, and am now recovering at home. It’s difficult living with reduced functionality, relying on crutches and a cocktail of drugs. The best metaphor I can think of to describe my emotional well-being is that of living in a cave. I’ve always been in good health and this is something new for me. I’m learning how to re-think all the most ordinary things that we take for granted during our daily lives. And I’m learning to ask other people for help instead of maintaining my hold on independence, thus bringing out new caring skills in those closest to me. I hope the next few weeks will be a time of creative thinking. I will post the fruits of this over the next few weeks. Thank you for your loyalty!

Exciting Times for the People of Leicester, for Those Who Love English History, and for the Power of Story

In the last few years we’ve seen an astonishing and exciting thing here in our country: a relatively small, minority interest group dismissed by some as a gathering of eccentrics, has been triumphantly vindicated in the most extraordinary way. And the Ricardians‘ journey has drawn with them a city, a nation, the sweep of English history, and something powerful that has touched our spiritual roots.

The group is of course the Richard III Society – whose existence I first heard of 15 years ago whilst viewing an exhibition during my walk along the York City Walls – and the triumphant vindication is the discovery of the remains of Richard III, their authentication through a thrilling blend of science and history, and the captivation of millions by Richard’s story, and by the solemn and beautiful ceremonial with which his remains were received into Leicester Cathedral.

I’ve written about Richard III on this blog before, after visiting Bosworth Battlefield myself, and also after reading and reviewing John Ashdown-Hill’s excellent book The Last Days of Richard III and the Fate of His DNA. Now I expect that this book, along with the tourist industry in Leicester and the economic fortunes of that city, will be given an enormous boost by the last few days’ events.

IN my former blog post about Richard III, I wrote this:|

“I cannot read of a historical figure like Richard III without seeing the parallels between his story and fate, and our own experience in this life.

For the basic principles of life do not change.

Nothing and no-one can guarantee any particular outcome for us. Not vice, not virtue. Not piety, not betrayal.

But of one thing I now feel assured by Ashdown-Hill’s book: where there is integrity and focused persistent research, and rigorous dedication, as in the painstaking work of the best historians and genealogists, truth, ultimately, will out.”

How many people must have watched Channel 4’s coverage of the events surrounding and including the reception of the body of Richard III into Leicester Cathedral, with a mix of emotions? Among us there would have been those who were amused, astonished, partly disbelieving, fascinated, excited, uplifted, moved. It was poignant, dramatic, dignified, graceful and solemn.

Certainly we are seeing “a fusion of everybody’s beliefs bound up in a very English moment which allows us to transcend the present moment and is big enough to accommodate all of us.”

Richard III represents and illustrates once again the “what ifs” with which British history is so liberally scattered.

As I watched the coverage of Richard’s remains travelling through the streets of Leicester, packed with onlookers, I saw many people throwing white roses onto the carriage. And I thought that with every white rose thrown, each person was somehow connecting with, claiming their place, inhabiting a story which expresses all the unaccountable mutations of life.

Ghostly Encounters, Earthbound Spirits and a Promise of Love

Recently my sister in Australia sent me a set of DVDs – ironically made in England,  containing a documentary series on Great British Ghosts narrated by Michaela Strachan for the BBC. The set also included a third documentary, narrated by Paul McGann in a balanced, neutral tone, called Ghosts of the London Underground, and this was by far the most compelling of the three.

Traditionally in England, sightings of ghosts such as grey ladies in sixteenth century properties can be attributed by sceptics to over sensitive or highly-imaginative people tuned in to the atmosphere whilst staying overnight in Tudor coaching inns.

But the ghosts of the London Underground have a different character. Each story in this documentary is told by a worker whom you would describe as ‘a totally down to earth, practical no-nonsense bloke’ whom many might  consider diametrically opposite to the popular image of the type of person who claims to have ghostly encounters. Some of those who told their stories said “I don’t believe in ghosts… but I’ve had an experience I will remember for the rest of my life as something which happened to me which has no explanation.”

Beneath the ticket halls, walkways, escalators and tunnels through which so many people stream, carrying out their daily lives, there is another story: the lingering residue of the souls of people who died terrible and tragic deaths,   and somehow imprinted a psychic recording into those tunnels; and not just the ones which have been abandoned.

One day I believe we will fully understand why and how these things happen, but right now, to my knowledge, we have no satisfactory over-arching philosophy to account for these experiences. I shrink from believing that the soul of a human being can possibly be condemned to wander for years close to the place where they had the worst experience of their life on earth. And I cannot fathom why the essence of a person should continue to walk in the place where their life ended, apparently unaware of the fact that they’re dead. Yet living people have had and continue to have experiences which would indicate this as an immediate explanation.

My new upcoming novel A Passionate Spirit contains several ghost stories and an element of the unexplained, and I admit to being fascinated by these phenomena. I used to love Tales of Mystery and Imagination on TV in the past, and not long ago read and reviewed Classic Tales of the Macabre by masters of the ghost story genre: a dazzling display of atmospheric writing from masters of the craft, that demonstrate the art of suspense, with the build-up of horror. The stories in this book are must-reads for anyone seeking to write in the genre nowadays; they range from supernatural to psychological subjects, and all of them are beautifully-written..

However there is another aspect of these experiences. If they are psychic recordings of energy, the fact that they draw the living to engage emotionally with certain tragic life events that happened to individuals in the past, is on one level a good thing.

Of all the millions of beings who’ve been through this world, ghosts are few and far between. And many pass through leaving no mark at all. Nevertheless, there are a few who do indeed leave a mark. And people who’d otherwise be ignorant of their existence are drawn not only to them and to their story but in such a way that they engage emotionally with it.

What we do with this idea depends on a number of factors, not least our worldview.

From a Christian point of view, the fact that every diocese of the Church of England has a “deliverance ministry” (no longer using the term “exorcism”) this presupposes that Christians do actually accept the idea of “earthbound spirits” who need to be released.

Christian theology asserts that each individual soul who has ever lived is loved by God.

In Revelation 21: 3-4 we read these words “One day I will wipe away every tear from your eyes and I’ll take away all the pain you have suffered on this earth.”

This is a promise to hold onto, for those of us who are drawn to investigating these ghostly encounters.

The Psychology of Mother and Son in the Psycho Prequel “Bates Motel”

My daughter Abigail, Creative Media Production student, has recently completed a project on Alfred Hitchcock’s editing technique in Psycho.

Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece Psycho

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece Psycho

So I’ve watched Psycho again several times recently. And my fascination with the subject led me to pick up the books Abigail had gathered for her project, and read them myself. Editing techniques in film can of course be applied to fiction writing too; what you choose to show, and the way you cut it together, can play a vital role in creating an emotional response in the audience. Hitchcock was the master of this, and profoundly influenced the history of film with his genius.

Over the last week we’ve been watching the DVDs of the US TV series Bates Motel, which is a prequel to the events of Psycho, set in the contemporary world, and showing how Norman developed to become the figure Anthony Perkins so famously portrayed in Hitchcock’s 1960 film.

We’ve now watched 6 episodes of Bates Motel in which the young Norman is played brilliantly by Freddie Highmore, (who looks like a young Anthony Perkins); his mother Norma is played by Vera Farmiga; and an additional character Norman’s older brother Dylan, is played by Max Thierot.

This is the most discerning portrayal of dysfunctional family dynamics. As a writer of psychological suspense fiction myself I cannot help but be mesmerised by the skill with which Norman’s early life is portrayed, and by the clarity and focus with which it accounts for Norman’s behaviour in Psycho. The series is highly focussed in what it says about unhealthy mutually-interdependent relationships, in this case, between a mother and son.

IN particular Vera Farmiga as Norma is outstanding, as she portrays the toxic mix of Norma’s psychological make-up. We watch mesmerised as the pace of events, and the choices she makes, precipitate her into rapid changes between being over-affectionate, unreasonable, controlling, proud and hard, aggressive and emotionally manipulative. Finely blended into this mix, we find flashes of callous indifference, mental cruelty and martyr complex, as she puts guilt on Norman.

Dylan, the older brother is an inspired addition to the gallery of characters, one whom we didn’t see in Psycho. In Bates Motel he represents normality. As he says about Norma: “She’s always got a drama, and she always will. She’s like an addict. And when you have an addict in your life the best thing you can do for them is walk away from them…” “You’ve just got to get away from mum,” he says to younger brother Norman. “She’s just going to bring you down with her.” How prophetic of the events in Psycho.

And as you follow the twists and turns of the plot, you see how Norma has a talent for creating alternative scenarios when things go wrong, which serves only to complicate things further and make them far worse.

Dylan tries to persuade her to “stop making up stories”. As you watch the drama, you just long for Norman to accept Dylan’s offer to leave his mother and go to live with Dylan instead. You start to persuade yourself that this could be the vital moment of choice, when, if Norman had taken this step, he might have been saved from the tragedy and horror of the future as presented in Psycho.

And yet you still can’t help thinking: would that help? How would Dylan deal with Norman’s mental health problem? Would Norman end up killing Dylan instead?

If you’re at all interested in the psychological suspense/thriller genre, do get hold of the DVDs of “Bates Motel” and see for yourself!

Two Excellent BBC Drama Offerings: Wolf Hall and A Casual Vacancy

Michael Gambon & Julia McKenzie in the BBC's The Casual Vacancy

Michael Gambon & Julia McKenzie in the BBC’s The Casual Vacancy

We’ve recently seen two very good dramatizations on BBC TV: Wolf Hall, and The Casual Vacancy.

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in the BBC's Wolf Hall

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in the BBC’s Wolf Hall

The casting was brilliant, particularly Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, and Michael Gambon as Howard in The Casual Vacancy.

You may think think the two novels on which these dramatisations were based, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and A Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling, could hardly be more different; one story set in the sixteenth century Tudor Court, and the other in our contemporary society. And yet I found striking points of similarity.

In the world in which the two novels are set, we see how central tribalism is to human nature. The historians I have read on the subject of the Tudor Court have emphasised how everything revolved around factions. In Thomas Cromwell’s world he had to navigate the changing fortune of the factions: when the Boleyn faction was in the ascendancy, he advanced the cause of Anne Boleyn; but when the Seymour faction  began to gain the upper hand, it was politic for Thomas to bring about Anne’s downfall to make way for Jane Seymour. After all, in that “dog eats dog” world his own life was always at stake.

In The Casual Vacancy we see how the wealthy and privileged, in our most favoured and idyllic villages, gather together and dominate the local council and influence decisions about the local community in their own favour, so that the poor and marginalised are separated from them even further. JK Rowling is showing us something of how this same principle of tribalism, is replicated in English society today:how members of one group gather together to increase their power over the other: those who consider themselves socially ‘superior’ cluster together and fend off those who are perceived as failures, the socially dysfunctional.

Humans are tribal and we see this in every sphere of our lives.

In today’s western societies we might not turn to genocide and massacres of the kind we have seen in other countries of the world in the past few decades, because our ‘veneer of civilisation’ is still strong enough to prevail; but we are certainly capable of expressing the same dark undercurrents in our hearts and minds, by using other, more subtle methods, to achieve similar ends. The same tribalism is there, deeply rooted in our psyches.

Click here and here to find my own reviews of both books.

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