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Archive for the ‘Australia’ Category

A Passionate Spirit and The Cult That Stole Children

A couple of years after I left university, whilst on a spiritual search, I went to a lecture at the Royal Overseas League in London, met, chatted to and  became captivated by an inspirational speaker: a Physics professor who wrote spiritual books. His name was Dr Raynor Johnson.

a-pool-of-reflections-by-dr-raynor-johnsonSubsequently I read and loved all his books, beginning with his latest: “A Pool of Reflection”. I later wrote him a letter, to which he responded with a very kind and encouraging reply from his home at Santiniketan, Ferny Creek, Melbourne Australia.

Santiniketan later became notorious as the first premises Raynor Johnson made available for the use of the then beautiful and charismatic  Anne Hamilton-Byrne, the cult leader, and where she gave her spiritual talks, and started to gather her followers.  At the time, of course, I had no knowledge of this.

I wrote about him and about the cult with which his name has now become ineradicably linked in this blog post: The Curious Case of the Kindly Professor and the Cunning Cult Leader. I also used the story of the cult in my novel  A Passionate Spirit (pub. Matador 2015).

This cult is particularly relevant to my interests in writing A Passionate Spirit, because of the way in which the cult leader uses beauty and charisma to win devoted followers, whom she then indoctrinates with her teachings; and the cult preys upon the young and the vulnerable.  In addition the cult won the support of many intellectuals and people occupying high professional positions. It is a case which is of vital fascination to a writer of psychological thrillers and suspense.

Later I was contacted by journalist Chris Johnston, who has published articles about the cult in  The Age, Melbourne and in the Sydney Morning Herald. He wanted to make reference to my experiences, and to quote from my blog post, in a book he was writing about the cult.

You can watch the story of this cult on BBC TV tonight Tuesday 29 November 2016 in a documentary called:  “Storyville: The Cult That Stole Children.” It is being broadcast at 9pm.

M paranormal thriller novel A Passionate Spirit inspired these remarks from a Net Galley reviewer, CE Gray:  “as Natasha and James started to take hold of both the centre, and the people within it, the story picked up pace and for me became a page turner. I needed to know, were there supernatural forces at work? Was Zoe imagining it? Were Natasha and James just fraudsters? Was this a story about a cult?

I was pulled in, hook, line and sinker, picking up my kindle at every opportunity to find out what happened next and the end was not disappointing.

I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone interested in cults, the supernatural and thrillers in general.

What I especially loved were the author’s notes at the end, talking about her inspirations for the novel, including the Australian cult, The Family, which sent me scurrying off to the google for an hour after I’d finished the book. A great read.

A Passionate Spirit is available to buy online and in bookshops.

Reflections on Australia: Binna Burra, Rainforest Resort in the Gold Coast Hinterland

As my daughter Abigail and her friend Gaby have just flown out to Australia to stay with my sister in Brisbane for the next few weeks, I’m thinking of Australia – and of the times I’ve visited that continent, and of the four and a half years I spent living and working there.Binna Burra 2007

 

I’ve written before about the Gold Coast Hinterland, Queensland in my Places of Inspiration.  series, along with several other locations around the world.  What all these places have in common is spirit of place.

I found this spirit in India, at Uluru in Australia, in London, in the White Garden at Sissinghurst in Kent, and in Sydney Opera House. Today let me show you another part of Australia – Binna Burra.

On the border of Queensland and New South Wales, behind the Gold Coast, you may find a beautiful mountain range. This is known as the Gold Coast hinterland. The road winds up via many mountain passes from Southport, just north of Surfers Paradise. You travel via the town of Canungra where you may choose between two roads, going to two mountain resorts: Binna Burra and O’Reilly’s. I have spent time at both these resorts but here I’m concentrating on Binna Burra.

Binna Burra is special to me. Why is this so?

Binna Burra holds many memories; and it is a very important stage on my spiritual journey. I’ve been up there on my own, and in company with others, and have always found it a very powerful place, full of spiritual resonance. I remember standing there listening to the birdsong echoing across the mountain range, their peaks and valleys hazy with eucalyptus vapour; of waking up early in the morning, stepping outside my cabin, and tasting the mountain air as if it was fine wine.

I remember going on the Coomera Circuit, the longest of the many rainforest walks visitor may take from the lodge, which passes the beautiful Coomera Falls. there was the time we went out on a night time walk to see the luminous fungi, and another time we went to see the glow-worms.

I remember when I went on my own to Binna Burra, and found a table of other single visitors, who were so welcoming and fun and friendly. Then there was the occasion when I visited Australia with my friend Alison and my daughter Abigail and we met up with friends who lived on the Gold Coast, Paul and Mark, and we all went up to Binna Burra and had lunch in the clifftop dining room with its panoramic views of the mountain scenery.

And then of course there’s the wildlife; the possums and rainbow lorikeets and the red-eyed tree-frogs. And of course the snakes that may be lying across your path; and are a good reason to take a torch with you when you walk by night.

Do you have a special place that means a lot to you, a place of inspiration, that you believe you will constantly revisit, or at least remember for the rest of your life? Please share in the comments below!

 

Versatile Blogger Award

I was very pleased  to learn that I’ve been nominated for this award by fellow-blogger and Goodreads friend Lance Greenfield whose blog I follow.

Lance is the author of “Eleven Miles” a book which I reviewed recently and which I can thoroughly recommend.

Writing a weekly blog post is an excellent writing discipline, and a wonderful creative outlet, as I write about anything which has inspired or intrigued me during the week. I began the blog shortly after my debut novel Mystical Circles was published, with the idea of appealing to those who might enjoy reading my fiction. I especially like writing on spiritual subjects, as well as history, the arts, films, books, people and places of inspiration. I hope that my blog readers will be keen to buy my next novel (provisional title: A Passionate Spirit) when it comes out (hopefully this year). Meanwhile I love writing my blog for its own sake, and have also found several other engaging and talented blog writers on the internet.

I hope you enjoy exploring my blog and that you will give me plenty of feedback.

I am very happy to accept this award. Thank you Lance!

My nominations for the Versatile Blogger Award

Now I’d like to nominate the following blogs that I’ve been following with interest for some time.

http://ramonacrisstea.com/ – a lovely blog by a young Romanian fashion designer who posts beautiful photos of herself in her own designs

https://megharperbooks.wordpress.com/ – the blog of my friend and fellow author Meg Harper

https://zenandtheartoftightropewalking.wordpress.com/ –  author Vivienne Tufnell’s imaginative, sensitive and intelligent blog

http://spookymrsgreen.com/ – posts from another fellow author, Catherine Green, who writes paranormal fiction and whose posts about her life as a young mother are touching and engaging.

https://delemares.wordpress.com/ Meditation, Mental Health and Mindful Crochet – a very thought-provoking and discerning blog from Sandra Delemare, retired mental health nurse.

http://www.sheepdressedlikewolves.com/ – written by Andy Mort who is consistently one of the wisest and most thoughtful voices on the internet

 

Finally, to fulfill the conditions of my award, and these are the conditions that all recipients must follow, so please do so if you have been nominated by me, I must state the rules of the award and list seven things about myself that you may not know.


The Seven things about myself that you may not know

1. I did a parachute jump over Bickmarsh Airfield near Stratford-upon-Avon in 1976, with the BBC Parachute Club.

2. I flew over the Outback of Australia in a hot air balloon in 1990.
3. I was in Rhodes on holiday with my sister and her friend when war broke out over Cyprus, between Greece and Turkey. We were unable to leave the island for a while, and discovered that all the male staff of the pension we were staying in had gone off to join the war, so we had to make our own meals.

4. I wrote a play about my time there, and all the characters I met, called Fortnight of the Cockroach which I sent to the BBC. It was turned down. Since then I’ve lost the original ms. I’m hoping it’s somewhere around the house and that I might uncover it again one day!

5. I lived and worked in Brisbane, Australia, for four and a half years.
6. During my childhood and early teenage years I sang with a girls choir in Orpington, Kent. We were ‘the chorus of younger angels’ in a performance of Mahler’s 8th Symphony at the Royal Albert Hall, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. I’ve also sung under the baton of Andre Previn and Simon Rattle.

7. My most outstanding holiday experience was in a town in the Himalayas called Badrinath, (close to India’s border with Tibet) where I saw Neel Kanth, ‘mountain of light’.


The Award Rules

  • Thank the person who gave you this award.
  •  Include a link to their blog.
  •  Next, select  several blogs/bloggers that you follow.
  •  Nominate those bloggers for the Versatile Blogger Award.
  •  Finally, tell 7 things about yourself.

Full details of the award can be found on the VBA website through this link.

A Night When Neil Gaiman – Quirky, Subversive, Whimsical – Held Us Entranced at the Barbican Hall, London

Last Friday evening I was at the Barbican, London, to hear author Neil Gaiman read some of his  short stories plus a novelette called The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, accompanied by the Australian string quartet Four Play.

Neil Gaiman in The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains at the Carnegi Hall June 2014

Neil Gaiman in The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains at the Carnegi Hall June 2014

This production was originally commissioned by Sydney Opera House for its Graphic Festival and we saw the first of two nights at the Barbican to be followed by one night at Usher Hall in Edinburgh.

Having read and loved Neil Gaiman’s novels Coraline and The Graveyard Book I was looking forward to seeing this with my two teenage children. From his books and his tweets, I expected Neil Gaiman to be more zappy and over-the-top in person; but he isn’t; he’s gentle and laidback and low-key in his manner, with a self-deprecating humour.

Surely this is the best persona for him to adopt as he tells his tales. Anyone who knows his work expects a playfully dark twist. And this was fully realized in his novelette The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains. In this he has chosen to create a Scottish tale, a grim and sombre story of revenge, written with a poetic quality appropriate for a tale from the Outer Hebrides set at the time of the Jacobite rebellion.

It was accompanied by big-screen projections of the illustrations by Eddie Campbell which were astonishingly vivid and real, by turns haunting, harsh and beautiful,  conveying the atmosphere of the terrain and the ever-darker direction of the story. We were held captivated throughout Neil Gaiman’s narration; the musicians accompanied the tale with such emotional intelligence and imagination, it was an outstanding display of creative genius.

The story of the dwarf who goes searching for the cave of gold, accompanied by the mysterious tall “border reaver”, has played on my mind ever since, as I considered the rhythm and poetry of it, the elements of darkness and horror, and the moral lesson that lay behind it.

An evening which will stay in my mind for a long time.

200 Years of Australian Art at the Royal Academy: Connections Between Painting and the Spiritual Realm

From indigenous art through to ‘discovery’ by European explorers, the arrival of the first British settlers, dismay, denial and idealization, to  acceptance, new understanding and redemption, this exhibition of Australian paintings at the Royal Academy in London took me on a journey through the spiritual heart of my own experience of this great continent.

AUSTRALIA EXHIBITION, Royal Academy of Arts

AUSTRALIA EXHIBITION, Royal Academy of Arts

As Russell Drysdale said, “In Australia there is a quality of strangeness that you do not find … anywhere else.”

Reviews of this exhibition have  been mixed, with a lot of  criticism levelled at it in the UK. But from the first painting of a  convict settlement, neat, peaceful, well spaced out and idealized, through to the contemporary paintings struggling to reconcile the wounded history of cruelty, misunderstanding and conflict between aboriginal people and European colonial settlers, this exhibition was for me an opportunity to revisit and relive my own experience of four and a half years living in this great continent.

In particular a swirling picture by a Queensland artist of the rainforest-clad mountains near Brisbane seemed to reflect exactly my own experience of this beautiful landscape.

The indigenous artworks were particularly moving, with their distinctive use of rarrk – the cross hatched patterns characteristic of aboriginal artists, as they depict rain running down dunes, undulating landscapes, waterholes and trees and spirit ancestors, believing that we tread the earth for a while then come out of it and become part of the ancestral realm again.

Two phrases seemed to touch the heart of this exhibition : “access to” and “isolation from”. Both of these were exemplified in a painting by John Brack, The Car (1955) which I couldn’t help responding to with amusement and yet behind it lay a profound resonance: a family in an ugly cheap car, out for a day trip, the father at the wheel, the mother smiling, the two children in the back staring straight at you, the viewer… and behind them the vastness of the Australian landscape.

And the picture “Australian Beach Pattern” by Charles Meere (1940) of the bronzed perfect bodies on the beach, men, women, children and babies, all strong, confident, was for me worryingly reminiscent of the kind of the pictures produced by artists in the Soviet Union as part of a propaganda campaign for the Soviet communist party. Yet later, the trauma of the Second World War affected the mood of optimism and this image was superseded by Albert Tucker with a painting of red,scorched hunks of flesh on another beach.

There was no painting of Sydney Opera House, my favourite of  all buildings; but there was one by Grace Cossington Smith of Sydney Harbour Bridge being built, (“The Bridge in Building”, 1929) viewed from below,  demonstrating pride, hope, creative enterprise, ingenuity, and above, beyond and around it a distinctly spiritual resonance.

The indigenous people of Australia  were the ones who fully understand and imbued the earth with sacred forces. They were the ones who gave this continent its air of mystery and spiritual power. And yet I can,too, be thankful to those eighteenth century settlers, because they prepared the way so that I,and many others, might have access to the most sublime of scenery. Even now when I drive up a steep winding road I think “Mount Glorious” . And when I saw Kenneth  McQueen’s picture I thought “Yes!” And my heart lifted. “Maiala Rainforest” – conveyed just as I experienced it and remember it now, in swirling patterns of movement.

Youth, Time and Soul – Old Photographs & Memories: Coloured Rags or Treasures?

Birthdays and old photographs.

Timeline Photos - birthday celebration - Sheila Skillman

Timeline Photos – birthday celebration – Sheila Skillman

How they arouse our emotions!

So many words have been written about time, and our attitude to it.

Memory is a crazy woman that hoards colored rags and throws away food said Austin O’Malley.

How much is concentrated in this deceptively simple remark: far more than a comment on human fallibility,  these words carry a spiritual connotation too.

But I believe an acknowledgement and acceptance of our past is vital to our ability to live in the present and look positively towards the future: and this gives us our sense of belonging.

This weekend I celebrated my birthday (St Patrick’s Day) with two parties, one for my family on Saturday and one for my friends on Sunday – I couldn’t get them all into the house at the same time!

Sheila's birthday cake

Sheila’s birthday cake

I put a timeline of photos up for guests to see and it was great inspiration for conversation and questions!

One guest said to me (apologies if he reads this blog but I thoroughly empathise with him) , “Oh I never look back at old photos;  they make me feel so depressed.”

The truth is I was dreading the task – going back through the photo albums. But I felt impelled to do it, as I believe people do appreciate these displays. I had to psyche myself up to do it, and nearly backed out.

But it was a surprisingly positive thing to do. I looked at photos of a past holiday and felt a wave of happiness. Instead of a sense of loss and nostalgia,  I took inside myself all the joy of that time.

Of course, I chose photos of positive occasions, so I admit it was a strongly biassed timeline! School prizegivings, weddings, new babies, anniversary celebrations, holidays. And I realised that I’ve travelled to Australia five times.

I didn’t include photos of Me Making the Worst Mistake of My Life, or a photo of Me Writing the Letter I Wish I’d Never Sent, Which I Regret To This Day, or Me With the Man I Wish I’d Never Met (or got involved with). Oh no. There were no pictures like that on the timeline.

And when it comes to remembrance of things past, I’m only too well aware there are those who have damaging, soul-destroying memories of horror, tragedy and grief – as I see when I read the accounts sent to us by the homelessness charity Centrepoint.

But when it comes to owning good memories, without regret or nostalgia, I feel that way about Australia, where I lived for four and a half years from 1986 to 1990. I eventually came back to England, feeling drawn to my own country again.

Although I miss the subtropical rainforests, mountain lookouts, and mangrove boardwalks, the bellbirds,  bougainvillea, and jacaranda trees of Queensland, I don’t feel a sense of loss. Instead I feel they are treasures I always carry with me.

These treasures are vital in creative writing: both the easily-recognized treasures in happy memories and the hidden treasures in our negative experiences too. For a fiction writer, no experience in this life is lost, good or bad.

How do you feel about old photographs? Do you look at them or avoid them? Are old prints lost in forgotten albums? Or have you stored them in electronic files, instantly accessible?

Or are you too busy living in the present?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Please share in the comments!

“Mystical Experiences and Glimpses of Eternity” Mini Series Part 7 – Arriving Where You Started and Knowing The Place For the First Time

Throughout this series, mountains have been an important image for me. And now we arrive at the end of my mini-series, we find ourselves on a mountain again. And this mountain is on the opposite side of the world to the mountain where I had my first childhood experience – in Australia.

mountain view Great Dividing Range

mountain view Great Dividing Range

I’ve told this story before on this blog. And so it is with important experiences – the story must be told again and again.

On the border of Queensland and New South Wales, behind the Gold Coast, you may find the Macpherson mountain range, part of the Great Dividing Range. The road leads from Southport via Nerang up through Mount Tamborine to the town of Canungra where you may continue your journey to one of two mountain resorts: Binna Burra or O’Reilly’s. I was negotiating the mountain passes on the way to O’Reilly’s. In the passenger seat was my 18 year old niece Caroline, who was visiting Australia for a month (where I lived at the time).

Caroline had mentioned that she and her friend Jo (her fellow traveller to Australia) had gone to Sydney to stay in a house of students who they knew nothing of. And discovered that they were all committed Christians – just like Caroline and Jo. Caroline found that wonderful. I said, “Well, like attracts like” – for I at the time believed that this apparent coincidence was the operation of the Universal system / the principle of  “reality follows thought.” But Caroline was having none of this. “No, it was God,” she said.

I didn’t want to argue with her. Especially as I was driving up a perilous mountain road at the time. My own beliefs were a mixture of NeoPaganism, Pantheism and Eastern Mysticism. I pursued gurus, tried Buddhism, practised eastern forms of meditation and various esoteric philosophies, teachings and techniques.

I prepared to go into “indulgent tolerance” mode whilst we climbed higher up the mountain range. It was because of that very black-and-white “certainty” that I had long mistrusted evangelical Christianity.

But Caroline then launched into a full exposition of the gospel and of the fact that Jesus Christ had come to bridge that divide between God and humankind; and when we reached our cabin in the resort, she drew for me a picture of a cross bridging that chasm. All the time I was in tolerance mode. I didn’t need evangelising. I considered myself knowledgable about the bible, & had been good at R.K. at school. So I just let Caroline do her thing, until she at last got distracted by a  snake lying in the path.

For the next year I continued in my usual way, following my own spiritual interests, occasionally thinking of this episode. OK I hadn’t liked being evangelised. But I was impressed by her conviction, by her belief that her religion wasn’t a private matter, it was to be shared; and by her courage. I thought, “I wouldn’t do that.” It’s a personality thing too, but I actually believed everyone has a right to their own beliefs & it was no business of mine to try and convert someone else to my beliefs. But Caroline believed she not only had a right but a responsibility to tell me what she believes. I was impressed by that. But I didn’t do anything about it until 1991 a few months after I’d returned to live in England, with my parents in their Kent village near Tonbridge – and it changed my life.

Have you ever changed your life as a result of a conversation with one person? Or was it a long process, involving several people, covering a number of years? Please share your own stories with me!

Here is a list of some of my glimpses of eternity, listed by one identifier or the place where the experience occurred:

  1. Mountain at end of road in Wales.
  2. Hedge parsley in Kent.
  3. Dream of the sea
  4. Mount Neel Kanth in India.
  5. Violin passage in Bach’s “St Matthew Passion”
  6. Twilight on the beach at Mynt, Pembrokeshire coastline, West Wales
  7. Taize service in church
  8. Chalice Well Gardens in Glastonbury
  9. The woodland between Conishead Priory & Morecambe Bay, Barrow-in-Furness
  10. St Cuthbert’s Tomb in Durham Cathedral
  11. On the mountain top at Binna Burra, Queensland.
  12. Journey through the Cambrian Mountains to Aberystwyth in Wales

Do you identify with this journey? Share your thoughts and feelings with me about this journey of the spirit. I’d love to have your comments!

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