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

Archive for the ‘Australia’ Category

What do the Secrets of the Australian Swagman Have to Say to Creative Writers?

“Ashes are much hotter than flames”.Picture of an Australian swagman by George Washington Lambert - Sheoak Sam, 1898This is an observation I heard online a few months ago, and you’d think, OK, what does that have to do with creative writers?  Well, let me take you to the Australian Outback to explain.

The ‘swagman’ of Waltzing Matilda fame traditionally goes walkabout through the Outback of Australia with only 3 basic foodstuffs in his tucker bag: onions, flour and golden syrup.  That’s so he can bake the essential carbs portion of his diet, damper, in the ashes of his fire, (to eat later with syrup) and also the onion, an indispensable companion to the ‘jumbuck’ that he’s poached from whichever sheep-station he happens to be passing through.

Here is the process of making damper, demonstrated by a honorary ‘bushman’ / exponent of bush-craft (alias a friend of my sister’s then living in a caravan in Stanthorpe, Queensland), a process which my daughter Abigail photographed while we were in Australia in 2007:

So what does this have to say to creative writers?

Simply this: writing a novel can be like making damper from scratch in the Australian bush. You gather together your basic requirements; wood for a fire, pot to make your damper in, flour and water, and off you go.  Your fire must be just right; no more flames, but nice hot ashes, ready for the cooking. The pan is placed on the ashes and heated up ready to take the mixture, and for the lid to go on. Then the pan is covered with hot ashes and left to cook. the hot ashes are later swept away with a sprig of greenery. Every stage of the process requires careful attendance and skill. And finally you have your delicious result, ready to be devoured. But first you make it more palatable by putting golden syrup on it.IMGP0807 eat and enjoy!

Just so do you gather your raw material for a novel in your mind, your life experiences and observations, your characters, their life-histories, your plot, your skill with words, and then you go about mixing them all together, through several drafts, each stage  carefully attended to, so that your end result is just golden brown, and not burnt nor soggy. And then even when it’s perfect, it may be it needs that extra touch, with the syrup on top ie. the final polish.

 

 

 

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, this exhibition of Australian paintings at the Royal Academy, London, in November 2013 took me on a journey through the spiritual heart of Australia.

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 the exhibition  were mixed, with a lot of  criticism levelled at it in the UK. But from the first painting of a  convict settlement, neat, 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, the exhibition created, for me, a strong sense of connection to my own experience of four and a half years living in this great continent.

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 artworks were particularly moving, with their distinctive 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.

But in addition to the aboriginal artworks, there were others which touched me deeply. In particular a swirling picture by Kenneth McQueen, a Queensland artist, of the rainforest-clad mountains reflected my own experience of this majestic landscape. I felt connected, then, to one of my former favourite haunts, Mount Glorious, which is part of the Great Dividing Range, forming the backdrop to the city of Brisbane.  As soon as I saw his painting I thought “Yes! Maiala Rainforest” – conveyed just as I remembered it, in swirling patterns of movement.

The indigenous people of Australia  are the ones who fully understand and imbue the earth with sacred forces. They are the ones who gave this continent its air of mystery and spiritual power. But I can be thankful, too, to those eighteenth century European settlers, because they prepared the way so that I,and many others, might have access to this sublime scenery.

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!

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