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

Archive for May, 2015

New Novel ‘A Passionate Spirit’ by SC Skillman

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve just signed a contract with Matador to publish my new novel A Passionate Spirit.

I hope to have the cover art to show you here on my blog before too long!

The Classic Children’s Author: A Sad Person Who Creates an Amazing Character Loved by Millions?

The other day I watched Saving Mr Banks with my film club.

Saving Mr Banks Poster

Saving Mr Banks Poster

Later we had much to discuss about author P.L. Travers and her difficult relationship with Walt Disney throughout his quest to get her to sell him the film rights to her Mary Poppins books.

During our discussion we considered the curious fact that many great children’s authors do have a tragedy in their background, often the death of a parent or a sibling which created trauma. In fact one of our number, who is herself a prolific traditionally published children’s author, reported that she attended a children’s writing conference, and one of her readers said to her: “I’d love to be a successful children’s author, but I don’t think I can, because I haven’t experienced the death of a parent when I was young.”

As I thought about P.L. Travers and her enduring pain about the death of her father, which fed into her character George Banks, and led her to create the magical figure of Mary Poppins who would somehow redeem him, I thought of other great children’s authors who also wrote immortal fiction out of their pain and tragedy; or out of their own inner demons.

We can immediately think of JM Barrie and Peter Pan; of AA Milne and Christopher Robin; and of course Lewis Carroll and Alice.

Lewis Carroll quote

Lewis Carroll quote

Several weeks ago I listened to a BBC Radio 4 programme about Lewis Carroll, and the evidence of his unhealthy interest in little girls, and how he strove to control and manage this (with greater or lesser success at different times). It was also interesting that his own family destroyed certain personal documents to save his future reputation, including vital diaries  and letters written around the time he was intensely involved with Alice and her sisters.

As I was listening to this, I found myself reflecting on what Lewis Carroll had created out of his own personal demons.    Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass will be remembered and loved for as long as there are children around to read stories, and will always testify to Charles Dodgson’s supple genius, making the little girl who inspired him immortal.

A second element of the story is the real Alice herself, and how in her subsequent life she handled this unlooked-for literary  ‘immortality’. Again there is a strong element of sadness there. The older Alice, perhaps, was haunted by a feeling that she had not lived her life in a way truly worthy of the sassy little girl she had once been, who had inspired a creative genius to create a classic of children’s literature.

Life changes, people change, but one thing does not change: the power of the creative imagination.

Book Review: Born Survivors by Wendy Holden

This is the story of how three young women – Anka, Rachel and Priska – hid their pregnancies from Dr Josef Mengele on the ramp at Auschwitz, and went on to suffer in the concentration camps and give birth to their babies just before Liberation in April 1945. All three of those babies then met for the first time at the age of 65 and became very close because of the astonishing similarity of circumstances in which they had been born.

Born Survivors by Wendy Holden

Born Survivors by Wendy Holden

I’ve read several books about and by Holocaust survivors, and yet each time I read the detailed account of an individual’s experiences I feel the horror afresh. This account, brilliantly told by Wendy Holden, spares none of the terrible details; the one thing that keeps you going, as the reader, through the grotesque inhumanity of the Nazis, is the knowledge that “this story is only being told because the three women and their babies survived.”

As survivor Esther Bauer put it: “The first twenty years we couldn’t talk about it. For the next twenty years no-one wanted to hear about it. Only in the next twenty years did people start asking questions.”

When reading these books I have two immediate responses. One is to try to imagine how I would have coped with those kind of circumstances, and how I would have behaved. The second response is always to ask what this tells us about the nature of human beings,  of good and evil, hope and despair.

This time, I had the following thought:

The essential requirement for “hope” seems to be “macro” thinking. For many of us, when life’s “normal” we live our little lives with our small goals. But when Force Majeure intervenes, throwing us into a survival situation – be that earthquake, tsunami, terrorist atrocity, or Nazi Holocaust – our goals shift from “micro” thinking to “macro” thinking, at the point where lives and hopes and dreams are torn apart – a shift takes place. A new goal replaces the old: to survive; or to know that your story might be known in the future. And these three women would have hoped that their as yet unborn babies would be the living embodiment of that.

Book Review (English Social History): “Through the Keyhole” by Susan C Law

It seems part of the psychological make-up of the English people to bestow power upon the wealthy and privileged; whilst at the same time depriving them of the right to privacy.

And as we’ve all recently seen in the General Election, you have to be tough to play for high stakes; winner takes all, and  unsuccessful opponents lose everything.

Through the Keyhole by Susan C Law

Through the Keyhole by Susan C Law

Today’s obsession with the private lives of celebrities and those “in high places” finds its parallel in Georgian and Regency England, where the public was hungry for moral lapses among the aristocracy. This fascinating and scrupulously researched book shines a spotlight onto a universal aspect of human behaviour – but the scholarly focus is upon how eighteenth century society reacted to it, thus enriching our knowledge of the social history of the time.

Aristocratic rakes are the stuff of novels set in Regency England. One of the most striking things about the book is how intensely the opinion-makers of the time wanted to hold on to the idea of “rank co-existing with honour”, despite all evidence to the contrary. Another outstanding aspect of Susan Law’s account is the hypocrisy of the society as the popular press indulged itself in moralising and judgementalism, along with minimal respect for confidentiality, slander and libel, thus feeding a voracious appetite by the public. But I was also surprised by the disregard that the adulterous aristocrats themselves paid to covering up their tracks, and their failure to have due regard to the ominipresence of their servants. Tumbled bedclothes, two dents in the bed, and hair powder on the pillowcases seem obvious tracks to cover up!

Susan Law examines the craze of the 1790’s for printed court reports of adultery trials, which continued through to the late 1830’s with the popularity of the “Crim Con Gazette”. She examines the changes that took place up until the 1832 Great Reform Act which altered the way the nation saw itself in terms of social hierarchies – opening up “previously unthinkable possibilities for the middle class”. Certainly in the early part of the period it is very noticeable that often “cuckolded” husbands (themselves equally guilty of adultery) might be awarded huge damages and then go on to an honourable career in high office, while adulterous women were far more likely to be “sent away” in shame and have their lives ruined.

Chief among the adulterers later on of course was the Prince Regent, and I was amused to read the opinion of Theresa, sister of the Earl of Morley, who wrote in a letter “’tis dreadful to think of the open profligacy of that Monster…. we must all go to the dogs should he ever unfortunately come to the throne.”

To the non-academic reader, the most interesting parts of this book are when the author gives accounts of specific cases, such as that of Lord Ellenborough and his young wife Jane. There are among these stories accounts that will draw a variety of different responses from the reader; for as the blurb points out, the different stories are passionate, scandalous, poignant and tragic.

A fascinating insight into eighteenth century social history, with plenty of material which will give us cause to reflect upon the preoccupations of today’s Britain as well.

A Journey through Golden Fields to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Classic Cars at the Motor Festival

Today I found myself in the driver’s seat once more (6 weeks after my hip operation) and joining the queue of cars heading into Stratford-upon-Avon.

View of  fields on the journey from Wariwck to Stratford upon Avon

View of fields on the journey from Wariwck to Stratford upon Avon

The long traffic queues were because Stratford was hosting its annual Motor Festival today. So this gave Abigail plenty of opportunity to take photos of the lovely fields of rapeseed flowers on either side of us.

I cannot think of golden fields, sunshine and Shakespeare without being reminded that the short-lived nature of English sunshine, and the passing of time, are some of Shakespeare’s most beloved themes, constantly recurring in the Sonnets.

As I gazed at the fields I was reminded of the words Full many a glorious morning have I seen/flatter the mountain-tops with sovereign eye/kissing with golden face the meadows green/gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy; and could imagine that Shakespeare felt just as I did, viewing the glorious landscape around Stratford-upon-Avon.

Stratford upon Avon Motor Festival 4 May 2015

Stratford upon Avon Motor Festival 4 May 2015

Once in Stratford, we enjoyed the atmosphere of the motor festival.

All the way down Bridge Street and Henley Street and in front of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the Shakespeare Centre and the Shakespeare Birthplace were the kind of cars that I only know about because Jeremy, James and Richard have at one time or another taken them round the Top Gear track.

Gleaming paintwork, exquisite design and immaculate engines were on display, and the owners of these wonderful machines sat beside them at picnic tables, drinking red wine, and keeping a close eye on their showpiece.

I always love visiting Stratford-upon-Avon, for many reasons, and feel so lucky to live nearby.

Sheila and Jamie in Stratford upon Avon

Sheila and Jamie in Stratford upon Avon

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