I studied this text in school as part of my GCE ‘O’ level English Literature syllabus. Ironically, although I found Virginia Woolf’s novels quite challenging to read (although I loved Orlando), that is not the case for this essay. That’s probably because it was originally a talk given at a girls school in Sevenoaks in 1926. I still remember the impact Virginia’s words had on me. The essay is very accessible, and Virginia writes with passion on her subject.
One of her observations appeals to me: “you haven’t read a book properly until you’ve talked about it”. Brilliant! How that makes the heart of an author sing. Nowadays of course authors often look for their readers to “talk about” their books, either in book clubs, or by personal recommendation, or by posting an Amazon or Goodreads review online.
Authors and publishers also, of course, value professional reviews in the major periodicals and newspapers; and these reviews are often quoted at length in the front matter of very popular books. Personally, I prefer not to know the details of what other people think until I’ve read the book – or at least until I’m halfway through. I want to make my own response to the book.
But these are the days when everyday readers – all those out there who love reading books – have power, with their opinions and feelings. Every response to a book is valid. I remember my creative writing teacher at Lancaster University saying:
“Once you’ve written your book, and it’s published, and out in the world, it doesn’t belong to you any more. It becomes a Thing on the Table, for anybody to make what they want of it.”
This view is echoed by Philip Pullman , the author of His Dark Materials trilogy, who, in a recent very enjoyable Society of Authors webinar, said that while you are writing a book, it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks. You write what you like and you don’t worry what anybody else thinks: they can mind their own business. When it’s published it’s a different matter. It’s not yours any more. The world can then make what it likes of your book.
Passion for reading, for the different worlds you may enter and explore when you are a voracious reader, shines out from Virginia’s essay.
Here is one quote from Virginia Woolf which many readers have seized upon, as it confirms the joy and the richness of being a great reader. I quote this near the end of my author talk on The Power of Story – for one of my goals is to enhance or re-awaken a love of reading.
“I have sometimes dreamt … that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards — their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble — the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.”
Nuneaton is strongly associated with one of the greatest of English novelists, George Eliot, who was born on the Arbury Hall estate here and brought up in Nuneaton; this background afforded her the opportunity to meet people in all walks of life, the ‘high-born’ and also the working people. From these she found much inspiration and demonstrated her insight through her many fictional characters. George Eliot is rightly celebrated in the town of her birth and upbringing. In harmony with her own literary focus, I found that some of the most extraordinary tales in my book come from working people in their everyday environment.
As we have seen, George Eliot was a radical intellectual; her novella ‘The Lifted Veil’ (an example of the Victorian horror genre), published in July 1859, is unique amongst her works for its supernatural premise. It explores themes of extra-sensory perception, the essence of physical life, the possibility of life after death, and the power of fate.
I believe that if George Eliot had been alive and writing her novels 200 years later she would have been keen to bring her spirit of enquiry into the extraordinary series of events reported by ordinary working people in their workplaces at Queens Road, Nuneaton, in the late 20th/early 21st century.
Queens Road was in former times the main street of the town until it was split into two parts by the Nuneaton ring road. In Queens Road, strange events are reported by the staff of several retail businesses – and none more so than those who have worked at number 62. Angela, the former lessee, experienced supernatural disturbances there for several years along with many staff members and customers,
Angela first bought no. 60 Queens Road in order to start up a business with her partner Dawn, selling video games and movies.
Having made a success of this, they leased 62 and turned their business into a big two floor music store. Entertainment Exchange opened in 1994 and became the biggest music / gaming / film collectors store in the West Midlands. This culminated at the height of the business in their having twenty-five staff on the rota at any given time.
Both buildings are extremely historic and atmospheric; Angela’s account focuses on 62 where she spent most of her time during the twenty years she traded there. As from 2014, Angela no longer owned or operated from either of these two buildings.
Angela’s story begins on the day before her store opened at 62, when she spent four hours upstairs alone in the shop, with the door to the street locked, pricing vinyl and laying out displays. As she was putting LP’s in racks, she saw something in the corner of her eye in the direction of the old office: a small dumpy woman dressed in black with dark hair which she wore in a bun at the back of her head. Shocked, Angela turned her head straight to the store room door and the image vanished in front of her.
from Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman
Angela’s story is developed further in my book, and this experience was the first in a series of astonishing events, experienced independently by herself and her partner, many of her customers and staff, and by those who had worked in the building during the decades before her ownership
Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon is known as Shakespeare’s Church, because the Bard was baptised there, and because he is buried there. The story of his association with this church, and the presence of several clues that he may have drawn direct inspiration from the church and its graveyard for his literary works, makes this church a place of pilgrimage for those who love Shakespeare.
The church is located beside the River Avon beyond the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and it has strong spiritual resonance, for many reasons beside the fact that it is a place of worship, and has been a centre of holiness for centuries.
Speculating about Shakespeare’s own faith, and his position on matters of religion, has long been a fruitful area of debate and enquiry among Shakespeare scholars, and it is fascinating to hunt for evidence of his own beliefs within his works – and to draw our own conclusions from this.
Since he lived in times of great religious turbulence, it has been speculated that his own father had true Catholic sympathies (despite the fact that at the reformation, he was forced to whitewash over the medieval splendour on the walls of the Guild Chapel). It is known, too, that during Shakespeare’s period of schooling, the young boy destined for literary greatness would have come under the influence of a schoolmaster who was a strong Catholic.
As in matters of politics, so in matters of religion – and since they were inextricably bound up with one another, Shakespeare would have needed to tread a delicate tightrope as he wrote his plays. What he wrote cannot be seen in isolation from the pressures that would have been placed upon him by Elizabeth I and James I. And yet his originality of thought, his humanity and profound insight into human nature shone through all this.
One of the most often-told tales of this church concerns the inscription upon Shakespeare’s grave.
Discover more about the intriguing history, the curious anecdotes, and the many poignant associations with Shakespeare at Holy Trinity Church Stratford-upon-Avon in my book Paranormal Warwickshire.
My visits to Nuneaton have uncovered some truly astonishing stories. Nuneaton is strongly associated with the great novelist George Eliot, who lived there during the first part of her life, before she moved to London. She was inspired by the working people of Nuneaton and surrounding area. Her father was a land agent at Arbury Hall. She accompanied him on his business journeys to the hall and around the area, and she gained extraordinary insight into the hearts and minds of the working people as well as the aristocrats who lived in Arbury Hall.
George Eliot is considered among the greatest of all novelists. I love her books: Middlemarch is one of my all-time favourites.
Several curious tales are associated with one of the locations she would have visited: The Griffin Inn, just down the road from her former home.
The most compelling stories emerge from among the working people in whom George Eliot was so interested: in this case, those who worked for decades in very unassuming commercial premises in Queens Road.
In fact I regard the anecdotes that emerge from the business owners and employees at 62 Queens Road as one of the most convincing paranormal sagas I’ve ever come across: simply because there have been so many individual witnesses, experiencing similar things quite independently of each other, over a number of decades.
This is the first of a series giving you a few tasters from my book Paranormal Warwickshire which will be released by Amberley Publishing on 15th November 2020.
Warwickshire is a county steeped in the supernatural, as befits the county of Shakespeare and the many ghosts and spirits that he conjured up in his works. In Paranormal Warwickshire I investigate the rich supernatural heritage of this county at the heart of England in places both grand and everyday, including Guy’s Cliffe, the Saxon Mill, Kenilworth Castle, Warwick Castle, Stoneleigh Abbey, and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, as well as in the towns of Rugby, Nuneaton and Leamington Spa.
Shakespeare’s plays are full of these supernatural encounters and characters. In Julius Caesar, Brutus, tormented by guilt, is haunted by the ghost of murdered Caesar.
In Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, grief-stricken and betrayed, agonises over whether or not he is visited by the spirit of his father.
In Macbeth , the king of Scotland (whose name many actors are too superstitious to mention), cannot believe he is the only person who sees Banquo’s spirit at the feast…
Alongside those who witness the apparitions, we have some wonderful sceptical foils or sounding boards. Cassius in Julius Caesar is convinced Brutus’s vision was just the power of his imagination. In Hamlet, Horatio tells his troubled friend that it is but a fantasy. Antigonus in The Winter’s Tale says he has heard but not believed the spirits of the dead may walk again.
And as for spirits, either they are serving the will of the magician Prospero in The Tempest…
But in the end, are they but airy nothing, to which the poet’s pen gives a local habitation and a name?
Whether they are purely dramatic devices, or whether Shakespeare himself believed in ghosts and spirits, we cannot definitively say. Scholars and Shakespearean actors and lovers of the Bard differ in their views. But one thing we can say for sure; they fired Shakespeare’s imagination to the highest degree, and he lavished upon them great poetry, humour, playfulness and mischief, the heights of powerful drama, the depths of despair, guilt and existential angst, and his most discerning observations of mental distress.
Throughout my book Paranormal Warwickshire I have used quotes from Shakespeare. In every case I found a quote which I believe resonates with how I feel about the place.
Perhaps Shakespeare would have been surprised to know that four hundred and twenty years into the future, a belief in ghosts and spirits would prevail with such strength in our society. Or perhaps he wouldn’t. He reached to the heart of the human condition, and the emotions and dilemmas he presents are fresh and vivid and relevant to us today. So I confirmed when I toured many places in his county, Warwickshire, and found not only spiritual resonance from the rich stories associated with these places, but many people who have tales to recount, of experiences for which they can find no scientific explanation.
Check out some of my previous posts on the subject of Shakespeare:
Like the fussy angel played by Michael Sheen in the deliciously funny and clever ‘Good Omens’ by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett?
More, perhaps like this angel depicted by Vincent Van Gogh?
or maybe like the powerful and moving Knife Angel that appeared at Coventry Cathedral in 2019?
Or perhaps even, the guardian angel Clarence.
We met him in the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life.
In the TV sitcom Rev, the main character Adam Smallbone (played by Tom Hollander) reaches a point where he has been betrayed, lost his church, his self-respect, and his vocation, and feels he has failed all those who believed in and depended on him.
In a state of despair, he goes up a hill carrying the cross intended for the Easter Sunday service. At the top of the hill he meets a homeless man (played by Liam Neeson) who dances and sings with him, knows and understands what’s going on for him, and offers consolation and hope. He transforms how Adam feels about his situation. Then he disappears.
This kind of encounter takes on the shape of what I would call an angel encounter.
This I would define as: a situation where you are in personal crisis of some kind, and you are helped in a timely manner by a person who appears unexpectedly, transforms your situation, and then disappears quietly. Throughout the encounter, this stranger seems surrounded by an aura of graciousness, gentleness and kindness.
I’m starting a new series of occasional posts here on my blog, entitled:
I know many people hold on to belief in angels – whether they be guardians, guides, or protectors – even in this supposedly secular, materialistic society in which we live here in the UK.
In this book Peter Stanford gives a history of humankind’s belief in angels, beginning long before the historical origins of the Christian faith, and continuing right up to the present day, with the interest in angels ever popular through folk religion and other spiritual outlooks.
Peter Stanford uncovers much intriguing material, and also includes an examination of the appearance of angels in great art. Throughout he maintains an objective, academic approach which he combines with his own views.
Today, many of those who believe in angels see them as ‘independent agents’, outside traditional faith structures.
As Stanford says, People have… believed in angels for millennia… the only difference today is that this reliance on angels as dwellers in time and space is happening outside of organised religion… Angels once… largely belonged in religious narratives and institutions… but… have somehow detached themselves from the declining institutions and are now thriving on their own.
At the end of the book Stanford remarks: I have lost count while researching and writing the book of how many times I have been asked if I “believe” in angels.
Many other authors too have written on the subject of angels, from a wide variety of viewpoints. A popular author on the subject is Theresa Cheung and I blogged about her book Angel On My Shoulder on 28 February 2017
The book is full of authentic first-person accounts. Several things fascinated me about these:
1) I could identify with a number of them from my own experience, though I’ve tended to think of them as synchronicity; 2) Each one had a distinct element of the supernatural; 3) Far than being sentimental, they all demonstrate strength and simplicity.
Several describe sudden and shocking bereavement. In each case the narrator of the story has experienced a compelling supernatural intervention which has totally changed their attitude to the tragedy and to death itself, and has provided the sort of comfort and reassurance that others might achieve only through long-term counselling or psychotherapy.
The author’s stance in relating the stories is measured and balanced. She fully accepts those who take a “reductionist” view of these events and prefer a rational explanation, and she invites us to make up our own minds.
I found the whole book very convincing, not least because of the cumulative effect of so many testimonies from different people unknown to each other, who have all had similar experiences. It had the same effect upon me as another book I’ve reviewed calledMiracles by Eric Metaxas.
In her summing up, Teresa Cheung refers to organised religion no longer providing the structure and certainty that it used to (maybe because so many feel it doesn’t meet their needs, and appears irrelevant to their lives). The stories in this book suggest, to one way of thinking, that many may be connecting with “the divine” totally outside the confines of “church” – through angels.
This, interestingly, is the same conclusion that Peter Stanford comes to.
In this occasional series on my blog, I’ll consider modern-day angel encounters.
I’ve written about angels and supernatural experiences before on this blog. Check out these posts:
When you saw that title what did you imagine? A scene from Alice through the Looking Glass?
One of those high speed reverse sequences in a magical fantasy film, when everything rewinds? Or perhaps a time-slip scenario?
Or simply an image of mirror writing?
Would it be wonderful if we could indeed start at the end and then proceed to the beginning? Or would it rather be a nightmare? Of course, TS Eliot encapsulated this idea when he wrote: The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
In one of the chapters of my book Perilous Path I looked at the seemingly paradoxical idea of writing a book in reverse. In many ways this idea appeals to me. After all, when we consider the obstacles a writer confronts during the creation of a novel, it seems that all the problems are wrapped up in the tyranny of time. The journey of a novel is often about getting to know your characters and allowing them to reveal to us what we’re writing about.
Robert McKee in his excellent book Story says every story has a controlling idea; and the controlling idea is embedded in the final climax of the story. In fiction, controlling ideas are below the surface. So in one sense the process of writing a story does indeed involve travelling backwards, on an unconscious level. You will find more about this in my chapters in Perilous Path inspired by the theories of Carl Jung.
Our controlling idea, I believe, may not necessarily be fully worked out on a conscious level. It is hidden deep in the unconscious and the act of writing a work of fiction may simply be the working out of this, and the process of bringing it to the surface, and out into the light. Thus on an unconscious level we do indeed write backwards.
Some novelists start a first draft with their characters, and begin telling the story, and go where their characters take them. Finally the controlling idea is revealed. Then we might say they go into reverse, moving back again, and imposing structure in subsequent drafts. Others plan the novel out in detail using the 3-act structure, plotting out the story points before they begin writing. Perhaps, for them, the controlling idea is already out in the light and clearly defined.
Examples of controlling ideas include: ‘Goodness triumphs when we outwit evil’ (The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike). ‘Justice prevails when an everyman victim is more clever than the criminals.’ (The Firm by John Grisham).’To love with integrity requires personal worldview transformation’ (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen). Here are some very helpful blogs upon the subject of The Controlling Idea by Shawn Coyne and Steven Pressfield.
My writers guide Perilous Path may also be helpful; signed copies are available and may be ordered from this website.
During the Covid19 lockdown, the Society of Authors are presenting a number of webinars with notable authors, and the other day I attended “Afternoon Tea with Philip Pullman”.
I was keen to hear from the author of a fantasy trilogy that captivated me, “His Dark Materials“. 500 of us attended, all waiting with drinks and snacks to hear what the President of the Society of Authors might have to say to us from his Oxford study. When he came on, he showed us his working space; untidy, spilling over with miscellaneous items such as his jacket slung over an open box of labels, files and paper and books. I was greatly encouraged to see this; no compulsion to tidy up his workspace there!
He was asked what the Society of Authors means to him, and he said, “It simply means that I am part of a body of people who have experienced some of the disappointments and hopes and occasional successes that I have.“
On his wall is a giant map of the world and it seems this is a major inspiration for him. He says he doesn’t plan his novels. As he starts his thoughts might be as vague as, “I think she should go north” or “It would be rather nice if she went to Central Asia.”
He loves maps, and for one of his earlier novels, “The Ruby and the Smoke” (another novel I love) he sourced ordnance survey maps of London in 1872.
I myself have a giant map of Warwickshire which I plan to put up on the wall near my working area. It helped me for my book “Paranormal Warwickshire” (due to be published by Amberley 15 November 2020) and I hope it will be useful for my next book too (more of that later).
Philip Pullman came over as a genial, laidback, engaging schoolmaster-like character – after all, he was an English teacher in an Oxford school for several years – and his approach was helpful and encouraging.
I enjoyed his reply to the question: “Do you have a particular age group in mind as a target audience when you begin to write?”
His answer was:
“No. I don’t. When you write a book you should do what you want to do; ignore everybody’s advice. It’s none of their business. When your book’s out, it becomes democratic. Then, everybody’s totally entitled to think exactly what they want to about the book.”
He told us that, before starting “His Dark Materials”, the concept of the daimons (which may be defined as ‘the external physical manifestation of a person’s inner self, that takes the form of an animal’) was in his mind for a while but he had no idea what to do with it.
Then one day he was wandering in the garden and near a rock when he thought, “Children’s daemons change, adult’s daemons don’t.”
“That was the most exciting moment I’ve ever experienced as a storyteller.”
It was (just like the idea about the boy wizard that came to J K Rowling on that train journey), the key to unlock his unconscious – and, for him, all the characters and actions and events of Lyra’s alternative world followed.
There is a powerful lesson for authors here: we must listen to that first instinctive prompt, hold onto it, and follow through, even if other voices try to break in and interrupt it. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t feel it’s wise to seek other people’s opinions on a work-in-progress. Finally, his most practical answer came in reply to the perennial question posed to authors:
“Where do your ideas come from?”
“I don’t know where they come from but I know they come to my desk, and if I’m not there they go away.”
We set off from Paihia early in the morning and drove south through a landscape of velvety green hills uninterrupted by hedges or fences, dotted with a wide variety of trees, and occasionally by pretty white bargeboard houses in gardens. It felt as if we were surrounded by JRR Tolkien‘s hobbit country all the time: The Shire, that pastoral idyll which the hobbits called home. No wonder the makers of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films settled upon this landscape as the ideal location for Hobbiton.
Further along in our journey we entered a region of verdant forest packed with trees so diverse and so attractively interspersed with giant tree ferns that they seemed planted by design.
When we arrived in Matamata we immediately saw the welcoming sign and those of us who have loved the world of Middle Earth for so long at once felt a sense of high excitement.
And yet, as we were to discover again and again throughout our stay in Matamata and our visit to Hobbiton, you don’t even need to have read the books or have seen the films to be thrilled by what has been done here to recreate this romantic vision of pre-industrial rural England.
This of course was what inspired JRR Tolkien. The irony is that he was influenced by the countryside between Birmingham and Warwick, in the UK, and by Sarehole Mill – and his vision of Mordor came from the industrial wastes he found. So Tolkien’s inspiration is very close to where I live. But I went halfway across the world to find it recreated here in New Zealand!
Upon entering the visitor information centre we found a sculpture of Tolkien’s most insightful creation: the tragic and chilling figure of Gollum, who had, long before, been known as Smeagol, one of the river folk, until he came into possession of the One Ring, and had been enslaved and possessed by his lust for ‘the Precious’. The One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
I can imagine Matamata itself was an unassuming little ‘one-horse settlement’ before Peter Jackson found his ideal location for the Hobbiton film set nearby. It is astonishing to reflect upon the power of an iconic fantasy epic to catch the imagination of millions and transform the fortunes of one small town.
We had a delightful meal in The Redoubt and it built up our excitement at the prospect of visiting Hobbiton the next day. It was also an opportunity to sample a range of New Zealand red wines!
Early the next morning we arrived at The Shires Rest, a short distance outside Matamata, to join our tour of Hobbiton, led by a young man called James, who was, appropriately enough, English.
The tour bus took us through the rolling hills of the Alexander Farm, a vision of the undulating landscape of young children’s picture books, a perfect setting for the small, round, cheerful hobbits.
On the way James showed video clips of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings films, and also gave us plenty of fascinating facts about the making of the films, how this area came to be chosen as the site for the Hobbiton film-set, and why indeed there now exists here a perfect, robust and well-built rendition of hobbit country, for the delight of many thousands of visitors each year.
AS for Hobbiton itself, we all found it beyond our expectations, so perfectly realised, with exquisite attention to every detail: Bilbo’s sign on the gate announcing ‘No admittance except on party business’; the oak tree above Bag End, the line of washing, the wheelbarrows full of freshly harvested vegetables, the mill and bridge, the party field, Bilbo’s eleventy first birthday cake, the Green Dragon Inn and the tankards of beer.
Throughout Hobbiton we found exquisite English flower varieties, all in top condition. In fact, being here was indeed like being transported into JRR Tolkien’s original vision. It has been said that he wouldn’t have liked the idea of his books being turned into films, as he believed that the power of the imagination must determine how people see the world he created. Nevertheless I feel that he would have been awed by what has been achieved here. Hobbiton lacked only one thing: real life hobbits!
SC Skillman, psychological, suspense, paranormal fiction & non-fiction. My next book, Paranormal Warwickshire, will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th June 2020 and is available to pre-order now either online, or from the publisher’s website, or from your local bookshop.
A powerful, emotionally engaging and sometimes shocking account by a very courageous woman.
Through her own shrewdness, presence of mind and intelligence, Hyeonseo managed to transform her life and that of her family by escaping from North Korea at the age of 17, undergoing a long and hazardous journey through China, and ultimately gaining South Korean citizenship status for them all 12 years later – and then marrying an American (“one of the reviled Yankee jackals of North Korean propaganda”.) She also saved her mother and brother, guiding them on the same arduous journey she had herself taken through China and onto Laos to seek asylum at the South Korea embassy.
Some of the most shocking details in this account come from the author’s description of life inside North Korea under the control of Kim Il-sung (‘Great Leader’ who founded North Korea); and his son Kim Jong-il ‘Dear Leader’ – to whom was attributed a nativity story very similar to that of Jesus Christ (though the brainwashed population of North Korea weren’t to know that).
Hyeonseo shares with us what the North Korean people were told: that his birth was foretold by miraculous signs in the heavens, including the appearance of a bright new star in the sky. From early childhood she and her classmates were encouraged to draw pictures of the snow-covered wooden cabin of his birth with the sacred mountain behind it and the new star in the sky. They came to associate the Great Leader and the Dear Leader with gifts and excitement in the same way that children in the West think of Santa Claus.
She was in South Korea at the time Kim Jong-un took over and this time she was at a safe distance viewing on TV the crowds she herself had once been forced to stand among, weeping at the death of the god-like predecessor, knowing that guards circulated among them ready to mete out severe punishments to anyone who was faking it.
In fact the first time her beliefs about North Korea ‘the greatest nation on earth’ were challenged, was through the impassioned outburst of her uncle Jung-jil, her father’s cousin, whose family had fled North Korea during the Korean War and now lived in Shenyang 8 hours drive into China.
The details the author gives of life inside North Korea, worshipping the Great Leader and the Dear Leader, are stunning. Amongst the highlights are these facts: everyone had to display on the walls of their homes a trio of air-brushed portraits: The Great Leader, The Dear Leader, and the Dear Leader’s first wife, also accorded almost god-like status. Everyone had to keep this trio of portraits in pristine condition – or risk severe punishment by white-gloved government inspectors who would visit monthly to find any specks of dust.
The author describes many other extraordinary events which are a simple fact of life in North Korea, such as the summary executions; the year-long rehearsals by thousands of schoolchildren for the mass display of the Leaders’ portraits; the hierarchy of society determined by one’s family history of loyalty to the Leaders.
She also gives a harrowing description of the famine that gripped North Korea in the mid 1990s when more than a million people died, and she recalls walking past a train station and seeing a dead woman in her early twenties lying on the pavement clutching an emaciated child to her, and being ignored by all who walked past. And she describes the lies of the Great Leader, who claimed in his propaganda broadcasts that he shared the suffering of his people, and was confining himself only to riceballs, to show his solidarity with them – yet remained as portly and well-fed as ever.
The other outstanding fact is the very low regard held for truth or historical fact; the fact that government officials can be bribed with money to do anything – including changing official records.
But even the details of life inside North Korea are not necessarily the most shocking thing in this story. For me, that honour is held by the callous behaviour of those people in China and Laos, who hold it in their power either to show compassion for North Korean defectors, or to destroy their lives. For many of them, not one simple act of common human decency can be carried out without a demand for money. The cruel and inhuman attitude that prevails towards North Korean defectors is sickening, to a Western reader.
Hyeonseo had to bribe her way through China, in order to save herself. Her journey was a journey through the vast underworld of people smugglers, Chinese ‘brokers’, fake IDs, false documents and changed records: all at considerable financial cost to herself and to those family members who were kind enough to transfer money to her (which she later paid back in full). It is truly a chilling vision of humanity to see corruption so deeply woven into a society, infecting everyone, every human interaction.
So when Hyeonseo encounters the Australian, Dick Stolp, and he shows her the generosity and compassion born of altruism, which is so severely lacking elsewhere in her experience, it comes across as a miracle. Interestingly, she was praying to the spirits of her ancestors for help just before he approached her in a coffee bar.
Through this account, sometimes harrowing and upsetting, Hyeonseo’s character shines, together with her love for and devotion to her mother and brother. She demonstrates brilliant presence of mind when she distracts the guard on the bus who is, contrary to expectations, checking everyone’s IDs and studying their faces, and she saves her brother from capture (for he has at this time no ID).
Another very impressive scene is when she is interrogated by an official who is determined to find out if she is North Korean. He looks deep into her eyes and asks her all sorts of tricky questions, but she ends up convincing him she is Chinese. This is largely because of the foresight of her father years before who insisted on her learning Mandarin – which she now speaks without any trace of a North Korean accent.
As you read the book you cannot help feeling that she is a total inspiration, not purely as a successful North Korean defector, but as a woman in her own right, with immense strength of character and inner resources.
After so many traumatic details in this account, it is good to read at the end how things are changing now, due to the international exposure Hyeonseo achieved after her February 2013 TED talk. She writes that some of the most inspiring messages she received afterwards came from China – a country which she says she loves but where she suffered many hardships – many of the messages expressing their writers’ shame at the complicity of their government in hounding escaped North Koreans.
Even after all that happened, her mother and her brother were sorely tempted to return to North Korea – such is the love people can have for their homeland, despite all other circumstances.
It is particularly poignant to read at the end of her account, these words: “Among the 27,000 North Koreans in the south, two kinds of life have been left behind: the wretched life of persecution and hunger, and the manageable life that was not so bad…. for the second group life in the South is far more daunting. It often makes them yearn for the simpler, more ordered existence they left behind, where big decisions are taken for them by the state, and where life is not a fierce competition.”
These words are particularly astute because they reflect what some people from East Berlin felt after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The irony is that for some, life under a totalitarian regime can be simpler, with far fewer options, all big decisions made for them by the State. This is something they prefer to what we might call “freedom.” This is a paradox we would all do well to muse upon and always to hold in mind.
SC Skillman, psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction. My next book ‘Paranormal Warwickshire’ will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15h June 2020.