The British Library and the Anglo Saxon Kingdoms

Recently I found myself in the British Library in London, and among the large number of visitors who had flocked there to see the exhibition on The Anglo Saxon Kingdoms.

Anglo Saxon Kingdoms: art, word, war
Anglo Saxon Kingdoms: art, word, war

There displayed for us to see were certain treasures of the age before the Norman Conquest. Here were the magnificent original illuminated manuscripts, the highly ornate and jewelled medallions worn by high-ranking women, inscribed with runic symbols; and other time capsules left to us by the magnificent and privileged, those in Anglo Saxon times who were important and wealthy enough to leave precious time capsules for the British Library to display centuries later. Behind these original objects lay the spirits of the scholarly and the gifted: kings, monks and abbots; and the mighty, such as Offa, “a king who terrified everyone” and who built a great dyke between Wales and Mercia.

King Canute, we learned, was a great giver of books to churches.  I wonder what Edmund Ironside would have though of that, had he known it when he was desperately fighting to stop the Danes from ruling England? Or would he have thought it just a pathetic attempt to make reparation for all the upheaval and battles and loss of life he had caused? And we learned, too, that even the Christian kings were thought to have descended from the Norse god Woden. The exhibition contained an original prayer book, the very volume found by St Cuthbert’s head in his tomb at Durham Cathedral, which was indeed an awe-inspiring object to contemplate.

It was fascinating to learn of the intersection between English and European art and thought, and to discover that many went on pilgrimage to Rome. Canterbury and Jarrow were the two major spiritual centres; Canterbury represented the influence of Augustine and Rome, while Jarrow in Northumbria represented the Celtic Christianity which emanated from Ireland.

Here was evidence of intense hours of devotion by scribes and craftspeople and artists and gold and silversmiths; of devotion to study and scholarship and piety by these people who we tend to dismiss because they came before William the Conqueror. A rich and thought-provoking exhibition with much scope for contemplation and meditation upon our own history and what it means for us.

The Museum of London, Docklands: a Beguiling Talk About the Social History of the English Pub

The English pub is such a well-loved institution.

Sailortown gallery, Museum of London Docklands
Sailortown gallery, Museum of London Docklands

I know when I lived in Australia for four years, this wonderful institution was much prized for its almost legendary status amongst the Australians, even if they did think we British are a bit weird to go around drinking warm beer all the time.

And at the Museum of London, Docklands, I had the chance to listen to a talk on the social history of this, the most iconic “hostelry”.museum of london docklands

Crowded into The Three Mariners, a replica of a small historical pub within the Museum’s Sailortown recreation, we listened to a most engaging talk on the subject. I learned that the social history of drinking in Britain began when the Romans introduced the taverna to the natives of these isles, and thus began the habit of drinking wine.

Then, later on, after the Romans had given up on us and left, the Vikings invaded – and introduced beer. then we British became used to the alehouses. Ale was a natural choice for England, and later inns began to appear.

During Tudor times, Henry VIII introduced licensing laws.. He wanted the “public house” regulated and ordered.

Then on into the 1600s and 1700s – and gin was the thing. It was very cheap and easy to make; and we know of course from  vivid engravings and from our social history, the effect that the craze for gin had on our society.

And onto William Gladstone – when he was Prime Minister he decided it would be morally superior for us to revert to wine drinking. Prior to his time wine had only been available in kegs. Now he introduced the bottle of wine, and promoted the idea that there was some kind of social refinement or even moral virtue about drinking wine as opposed to beer.

And now of course we have inherited these social  presumptions about our drinking habits. Who, our guide asked, would dare request a strawberry daiquiri when he’s sitting amongst his mates in the pub and they’ve all ordered beer? Social meltdown, at the very least!

It all brought me back to the first time I tasted alcohol. My first love was Asti Spumante; and Blue Nun was the order of the day too, along with Mateus Rose. And when I was at university, I remember such combinations as Guinness and Grapefruit, Dry Martini and Lemonade, and American Dry and Whisky – along with the much-favoured Snowball (Advocaat and Lemonade). And I have long loved a gin and tonic…

But how amusing it is to think how easily we attribute a social value to anything we might do… and no wonder the drinking of alcohol has not escaped this natural tendency of human nature.

But it was great fun to listen to our enthusiastic and lively speaker setting all our ideas about alcohol firmly in the context of English social history.

 

 

The National Portrait Gallery, London: a Cloud of Masters and Witnesses

At the National Portrait Gallery recently, as I wandered through the Victorian and Twentieth Century and Contemporary Galleries, I realised that I was surrounded by all the most amazing people who have moved or inspired me or touched my heart, during my lifetime.

The National Portrait Gallery, London
The National Portrait Gallery, London

The people whose faces I gazed at included preRaphaelite artists John Waterhouse and Arthur Hughes;

The Lady of Shallot by John Waterhouse
The Lady of Shallot by John Waterhouse
April Love by Arthur Hughes
April Love by Arthur Hughes

novelists Thomas Hardy, Wilkie Collins, Sir Arthur Conan DoyleCharles Dickens, Oscar Wilde,  and Jerome K Jerome (all of whom have written novels which are on my most-loved list); inspirational writer and thinker John Ruskin. And amongst the women, I find the Bronte sisters,

Painting of the Brontë sisters
Painting of the Brontë sisters

Iris Murdoch, Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Malala and Queen Victoria: yes a mixed bunch, but each one of them has inspired me in her own individual way by her courage, or her defiance of convention, or her spirit or her genius.

It is truly a moving experience to gaze upon the faces of each of these people, and to reflect upon the impact each one of them has had on my life. Some of them look very unexceptional; others have been portrayed in a way which truly conveys their individuality. But what all have in common is this: they are like a cloud of witnesses, a gallery of masters who have found their way into my heart and mind over the generations and seasons of my life, through something they’ve written, or painted, or thought, or expressed.

To gaze upon their faces, even imperfectly rendered – for how can I tell the accuracy or the insight of the artist, having never encountered the sitter in person – is to be deeply touched.

London Stories, a Rich and Complex Tapestry

I’ve just spent a week in London, near the Tower, and my mind is full of London stories… stories of many different aspects of life in the city. First of all, I think of the tales we were told on the walk from Whitechapel tube station, the Hidden East End walk, led by one of London Walks’ brilliant raconteurs.

Stories that encompassed Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the Salvation Army, the Tower Hamlets Mission, the almshouses, the White Hart pub and Richard II, Henry de Montfort and his daughter, and his alias as the Blind Beggar, stories of the Elephant Man and Whitechapel Hospital, of the French Huguenots’ houses near Brick Lane, Spitalfields, and the building that has housed four major faiths…

French Huguenots' houses Spitalfields
French Huguenots’ houses Spitalfields

I have in my mind stories of the vulnerable and oppressed: enslaved Africans, whose story is told at the Museum of London, Docklands;  foundlings abandoned on the streets during the height of the gin craze, whose story is told at the Foundling Museum, Bloomsbury;

The grand room that the governors met in, Foundling Hospital, London
The grand room that the governors met in, Foundling Hospital, London

and stories of the disabled ex-sailors, some as young as 12, who were looked after according to a strict regime in the Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich.

Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich
Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich

I have in mind the magnificent and privileged, those in Anglo Saxon times who were important and wealthy enough to leave precious time capsules for the British Library to display centuries later in their Anglo Saxon Kingdoms exhibition:  the magnificent, the scholarly and the gifted: kings, monks and abbots.

anglo saxon kingdoms, art, word, war
anglo saxon kingdoms, art, word, war

So, throughout my week in London and all the places I visited, I have in mind the peasants, the gangsters, the deformed, the desperately poor, along with the brickmakers, the law-makers,  the ministers, the politicians,  and civil servants and officials of Westminster whose alter-egos were created in the Ministry of Magic by JK Rowling… for we learned, too, about the locations in Westminster where the film-makers brought her imagined scenes to life, in Harry Potter on Location in London town

In my next few blog posts I’ll have more to say about these and other individual strands of London life, but for now let it remain a brief survey of a rich and complex tapestry.

Book Review: Out of the Forest by Gregory P. Smith

Over Christmas a biography came to me which is one of the most compelling and moving accounts I have ever read. Out of the Forest by Gregory P Smith with Craig HendersonOut of the Forest (published by Penguin Australia) is the memoir of a man who spent ten years living as an alcoholic drug-crazed recluse high in the New South Wales forest, (with occasional forays down the mountain to the local hippy community to sell his crop of marijuana, and spend his income on  alcohol).

This man now holds a PhD and is an academic at the Southern Cross University at their Lismore campus in New South Wales, where he teaches Social Sciences. His name is Dr Gregory Peel Smith, and his story takes him from a severely abusive childhood and period of torment in a Catholic orphanage, through years of mental suffering, self-destructive behaviour, alcoholism and drug addiction and self-imposed isolation, to his present life.

Partly because I know the area Gregory is writing about (having lived in Brisbane for four and a half years myself, and having visited the areas of the New South Wales coastline, and spent time in the very mountains of which he speaks) I read this account with intense interest. But as Gregory describes his journey through the depths of human anguish, into self-imposed exile from human society, and all the gruesome details of what it takes to survive in isolation in the wild, I was totally captivated. This book has a strong spiritual character, despite Gregory’s disavowal of the Christian religion (not surprising when you read of the physical and spiritual and psychological abuse he received from the Catholic nuns in the orphanage.)

And the way in which Gregory rehabilitates himself, upon emerging from ten years in the forest, is deeply moving and inspiring. Although later on he is greatly helped by certain individuals whom he identifies as angels, in the early stages he transforms his life solely through his own inner resources. He describes in detail his method for “mounting a mental counter-insurgency” against his inner demons which I believe would be immensely helpful for anyone who has gone through any experience approximating to his kind of mental suffering and turmoil. Though his case was extreme I believe it will be of great value to many, and not only those who have been through comparable extreme experiences.

Naturally I highly recommend this book, and not only to a general readership but to those interested or engaged in psychotherapy and personal spiritual transformation.

The Virgin Birth and the Power of the Supernatural Truths in the Christian Faith

The Christian faith rests on the awesome truth of several supernatural events – the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation, the Transfiguration, the Resurrection and the Ascension – and last year, I watched again “The Nativity”, the TV mini series first broadcast by the BBC at Christmas 2010.The Nativity BBC TV mini series first broadcast 2010

I remember the series had a strong impression on me when I first viewed it and we could hardly wait for each new episode. Seeing it as a continuous story was a different experience from viewing it in episodes;  I found it much more challenging and harrowing, especially the scenes in which Mary is judged and reviled both by her fellow villagers in Nazareth, and by householders and innkeepers in Bethlehem.

Tatiana Masleny and Andrew Buchan both gave brilliant performances as Mary and Joseph  and I must confess John Lynch came over as a very handsome and rugged Gabriel.

Here’s a Youtube link to a beautiful and moving song by Kate Bush with clips from The Nativity film.

Seeing this very realistic re-imagining of the Nativity story again, I realised afresh how divisive the story is, for all those who engage with it, whatever they believe.  To see Mary portrayed like this when she has been so revered by Catholics over the millennia with titles like Queen of Heaven and Mother of God, is certainly very challenging. And it leads me to reflect again on the assertions of Christian theology, most notably the question of how God could have chosen to bring his Son into the world by causing Mary so much suffering … huge issues arise from this, and provide much material for argument and discussion. Once again this brings up the question that many have struggled with, of why Jesus could not be the son of God and also born naturally by Joseph.

I thought this portrayal of the story has the power to strengthen and enhance the faith of the viewer by the honesty and realism of its portrayal. But how you respond does of course  depend on the stance you choose to take before coming to the story.

Certainly I remember the leader of our group at an Alpha course a few years ago beginning the discussion by expressing an inability to believe in the virgin birth.

But in this film version, we see Joseph as key. His ability to wholeheartedly believe what Mary was telling him, saved her from the judgementalism and hatred and rejection of all those around her – which, without the protection of Joseph, may even have resulted in her death before Jesus was even born.

This gives us much to reflect upon.

Christmas Market at Shakespeare’s School on Saturday 8th December 2018

I’m looking forward to being part of the Christmas Market at King Edward VI School in Stratford-upon-Avon on Saturday 8th December 2018 from 12.30-3.30pm.KES Christmas Market

This was the school where Shakespeare studied in the famous Schoolroom between the years 1571 and 1578. So he won’t be at there in person but he may well be in spirit; for he was fond of revelry, and so were some of his most famous characters, Falstaff among them.

12.jpg

Having exhibited and sold my books at this fair in previous years I can promise there will be music, fun, a festive atmosphere and a fantastic raffle ( which I must admit does carry the best prizes I’ve ever seen at events of this sort). So if you are in the Stratford-upon-Avon area this weekend do come along to the Christmas Market, enjoy the revels, soak up the atmosphere, browse the stalls, and come and have a chat at the Local Author stand, where I’ll be signing and selling my paranormal thriller suspense novels.SC Skillman booksigning table at King Edward VI School Christmas Fair 3 Dec 2016.jpg

 

Stoneleigh Abbey – a Glorious Restoration and a Fascinating Historical Tour

We recently made another visit to Stoneleigh Abbey, very near where we live in Warwick: a stately home that has been beautifully restored since it was devastated by fire in 1960.

Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire
Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire

Originally home to an order of Cistercian monks granted land by Henry II in 1145, this later evolved into a gracious seventeenth century residence, formerly owned by the Leigh family, and it is the subject of one of the chapters in my forthcoming illustrated non-fiction book Spirit of Warwickshire.

I can also thoroughly recommend the historical house tour, and also the Jane Austen tour. The guide is both highly entertaining and full of fascinating historical information.

The house is famous for Jane Austen’s visit with her mother Cassandra in 1806, when they were both invited by Cassandra’s cousin the Revd Thomas Leigh to come and view his surprise inheritance. Cassandra – who does sound as if she was rather snooty, and a perfect model for some of Jane’s class-conscious characters –  was delighted and enormously impressed by everything she and her sharp-eyed daughter saw aand experienced during the ten days of their visit, and Jane herself, whilst admiring the physical attributes of the house, imbibed many subtle details which would later emerge in her novels, especially Mansfield Park.

"The morning room" at Stoneleigh Abbey
“The morning room” at Stoneleigh Abbey

Their visit came a few years before Thomas Leigh commissioned Humphrey Repton to landscape the grounds, or she would have  certainly have memorised her impressions and taken due note of details there too.

Humphrey Repton grounds, Stoneleigh Abbey
Humphrey Repton grounds, Stoneleigh Abbey

Now the rooms and chapel open to the public may often be the scene of a Jane Austen tour; guided by an experienced actor and devoted Jane Austen enthusiast, you may once again imagine that 1806 visit, enhanced as it will be by your close reading and knowledge of all Jane Austen’s novels.

View of the 14th century gatehouse at Stoneleigh Abbey
View of the 14th century gatehouse at Stoneleigh Abbey

Inspiration and Encouragement for Those Currently Trying To Beat the Target of 50,000 words in a Month with Nanowrimo 2018

The first time I ever heard of Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) I was incredulous; I thought it a crazy idea.

National Novel Writing Month 2018
National Novel Writing Month 2018

How on earth do you write  a novel in a month? Then, as I investigated further, I realised that it’s actually a handy motivational tool to get that first draft of your novel written.

Currently I’m working with Nanowrimo to complete the first draft of my new novel “Standing Ovation” (the second in my YA Dylan Raftery series).

And here’s one of my own past blog posts, updated to re-enthuse any other novelists out there currently struggling to meet this target:

The Writing Process for Creating a Novel In Less Than a Month

National Novel Writing Month is currently in progress, and I’m again taking this challenge – completing the first draft of my new novel.  Here is an article I wrote when I was 3 weeks into the 2011 challenge, in order to write the first draft of my second novel “A Passionate Spirit”. Everything I said then still applies now; and my extra challenge is to take my own advice! I hope some of you who have set out on this challenge again for 2018 will find it a source of inspiration.

The task is: write a novel of at least 50,000 words in a month; and by the word “novel” we must mean, of course, “the first draft of a novel.”

Here are three tips to have that completed first draft of a novel in a month:

1) Do your preparation work before the month begins. Ideas will have been hatching in your mind for the last couple of years, perhaps; and now you have a ground plan. You have created a one-sentence storyline, and expanded it to a blurb and a synopsis and perhaps you have drawn up a list of scenes for your novel. Not everybody needs to have done this before they begin writing the novel. Some like to plunge into the writing with two or three characters and a conflict in mind, and let the story emerge. But I had already been thinking about my characters for a year or so before beginning my novel. And I know from experience what it’s like to allow your characters to take over. Characters will do that anyway, even if you have a plan. But I now believe having a plan is a very good way to start, even if the plan is radically changed by the time you’ve finished your first draft.

2) Begin writing, and don’t go back to edit. Control your desire to look over previous chapters and assess or improve them. This needs great discipline. Just keep writing even if you suspect what you are writing is rubbish, because you are going to go back over your manuscript anyway after the month is up and use it as the basis for your second draft.

3) Don’t fall into the trap of slacking or subsiding or falling away because your novel feels as if it’s sinking in the middle. Introduce something crazy or bizarre that occurs to you; just follow that instinct, introduce it into your plot, set your characters the task of dealing with it and keep on writing.

Those who find their minds go blank at the prospect of producing a full-length work of the imagination should remember this one thing: creating a first draft of fiction requires only motivation and courage. It requires you to forget everything negative you ever believed of yourself, and to believe in whatever ideas come to you, believe in them enough to incorporate them in your first draft. When you read your manuscript through in a month’s time, you may be amazed at what you came up with apparently “out of nowhere.”

 

n.b. this article, first published online in 2011, forms part of my writer’s guide, Perilous Path: a writer’s journey

Jericho Writers: Review of an Inspired and Comprehensive Online Resource for Writers

Jericho Writers is a resource that has emerged from The Writers Workshop, an online resource masterminded and instigated by Harry Bingham a highly successful crime author, who, along with his own writing career, is dedicated to providing exhaustive resources for writers.

Jericho Writers, an online resource to help writers at every stage of the journey towards getting published
Jericho Writers, an online resource to help writers at every stage of the journey towards getting published

Jericho Writers takes its name from Harry Bingham’s location, which is Jericho, an area of Oxford. I must admit that my first thought when I saw the new name of his online resource was the lyrics of the Negro Spiritual: “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho, Joshua fought the battle of Jericho And the walls came a-tumbling down.”

The irony of course, is that for many writers, it’s a very good image of the writing journey: we are indeed fighting a battle, and as for the walls which must come tumbling down, well, I think we may all have our different ideas of what they symbolise for writers.

I first came upon Harry’s online resource The Writers Workshop several years ago, and have used some of its resources, seeking feedback on my manuscripts from two of their editors. In addition, I’ve sought and received advice by email; I’ve studied and used the agents submission kit; and have also watched some of Harry’s videos. In particular I found one on “The inner world of your characters” excellent and very helpful as I self-edited “A Passionate Spirit”. Over the course of time I have come to respect Harry Bingham’s voice as one of the few unfailingly sensible, honest and realistic voices online that offer encouragement and genuine practical help to authors.

Those who’ve heard my author talks will know that during my talk I cover the subject of “The ups and downs of the writing life” and in feedback I’ve discovered that the details I give are often new to my audiences. Many of them had previously had no idea whatsoever of the difficulty of writing a strong, saleable novel, and of getting it published.

Snoopy the struggling author
Snoopy the struggling author

 

One of the points I make is about the support and advice available to authors. I specifically refer to  “advice given online to authors.” I have learned that in the writer’s journey there are many voices online, who all want to give advice to you as an author. And one of the most common themes is this. “How I became enormously successful, and sold x thousands of books, and how you can do the same if you follow my advice.”

There’s one fatal flaw to all this barrage of advice: human beings are unique, and every person’s individual journey is different. And what works for one person will not necessarily work for another.

I have come to think of these people as “Siren Voices.”  In Homer’s The Odyssey, the hero Odysseus was sailing home across the Mediterranean from the Trojan War.

Odysseus and the Sirens
Odysseus and the Sirens

He came to a region of the ocean where the sirens could be heard. The sirens’ hauntingly beautiful voices would lure sailors to their doom on the rocks. So what did Odysseus do? He stopped up all the ears of his sailors, and he lashed himself to the mast. Thus he sailed past the sirens, beyond the range of their voices, saving his own life and the lives of all of his sailors.

And this is what I have learned to do, with the siren voices of the internet.

However, I can recommend Harry Bingham to you as one voice on the internet which is genuine, down-to-earth, full of integrity, and belongs to someone who has a passionate commitment to helping fellow-authors navigate the treacherous seas of the writing journey, and achieve their goals.

For those of us who are innately suspicious of yet more emails full of advice and handy hints and tips and resources that they claim are going to help us and transform our lives, let me add this: Harry is also very funny. And as far as I’m concerned, that is the one saving grace that probably first made me give him my time and my attention, and has continued to do so. I can be shaking with laughter as I read his observations on the publishing world (in particular, most recently, his remarks about vanity presses and one in particular which he called Austin Macawful). Because his observations are funny, they’re also true; and that works in reverse too, especially in the world of writing and publishing. And the things he talks about, I recognise. It’s happened to me.

So here’s a review of Harry’s new incarnation of The Writers Workshop: Jericho Writers.

This is a most amazingly comprehensive resource; as I looked through it I realised that it truly does cover everything an author might need at any stage of his or her journey, including the equivalent of a Creative Writing MA.

Jericho Writers itself is a club which you pay an annual fee to join; and then you have the run of of four main services: Editing; Courses; Events; and a Library of Articles. The full range of what’s on offer can be overwhelming; and you may find yourself thinking, where shall I start? What would be most helpful for me, at my stage? In that case you are welcome to send them an email and explain your situation and they will advise you on what might be the best place to start. For myself, on joining Jericho Writers and looking through their resources, I found myself thinking there was so much I wanted to do, how would I handle the time-management aspect of it?

Well, it’s all a matter of your priorities and the perceived value to you of what’s on offer. And that’s something you have to ask yourself and carefully consider as you read through the website.

Under the category of EDITING, you’ll find several levels of manuscript assessment: the entire manuscript; or an agent submission pack review of your synopsis, query letter and first 5,000 words; or an assessment of your first 8,000 words; or an assessment of children’s picture books, and screenplays and scripts. They also offer copy-editing, essential for self-publishers.Each service attracts an appropriate fee and you can look through them all to decide what would be best for you.

Under COURSES  I was most impressed to discover Daren King’s Complete Novel course – this is one-to-one, online, and with no fixed duration, and works as a personal mentorship with Daren King, bestselling adults’ and children’s author. You will get prose tutorials, constant feedback and advice, will work through Drafts 1-3 with Daren, and when the book is strong enough you will also get help to reach an agent with it. Of course, this is at a significant cost. Yet some have said it’s “like an MA in Creative Writing, only better”.  I can well understand that for writers in a certain position, who are genuinely considering a Creative Writing MA, this might be a better, more appropriate and more effective choice.

Under COURSES, the website also includes video courses of different types, to meet varied requirements; whether that be “Snapshot” advice, filmed masterclasses, or training in Self-publishing.

There is also an AGENTMATCH database to make the task of finding an agent easier, and in addition a forum called The Jericho Townhouse.

Under EVENTS, Jericho Writers runs two different one-day events at Regents College, London: one on Getting Published and one on How To Write. They also run an annual Festival of Writing which brings together authors, publishers and agents over a weekend. This includes one-to-one meetings between authors and agents, and it is claimed that often a writer will come away having attracted the interest of an agent, and subsequently landing a publishing deal and a successful literary career.

Finally, the LIBRARY on the site contains articles with good practical advice, on such subjects as How to Write a Book; How To Get Ideas; How Many Words in a Novel; How To Plot, etc.

So do  find Jericho Writers here, have a look through the website, and see if it might be what you as a writer need at this stage of your writing journey.