Greenwich and its neighbouring Woolwich in south London are part of my family background, and so this area has been familiar to me from childhood.
This made my return to view the Cutty Sark even more inspiring.
I found the whole visit very uplifting – appropriately so, as the Cutty Sark herself has been uplifted in the most amazing way!
The exhibition area beneath the ship is excellent, with its collection of ships’ figureheads.
And we were later delighted to find ourselves sitting at cafe tables with the ship apparently hovering just above us.
Everything about this attraction is first class, and it is a credit to London and to our British heritage.
The high standard is maintained in the shop, too, which is full of stylish souvenirs for sale. How could I, as a writer, resist buying myself an attractive cream and gold spiralbound notebook with the motto on the front: Where there’s a will, is a way.
This motto, carved into the ship’s elaborate decoration, is a play on the surname of Jock Willis who commissioned the Cutty Sark (launched in 1869).
For the twenty-first century transformation of the Cutty Sark can certainly be seen as a perfect illustration of this motto in action.
What could be more poignant than a formerly grand mansion, standing on a cliff, now partially demolished, abandoned and desolate?
Gaping staircases you cannot climb; stone balconies you long to stand on to gaze at the view; empty windows you feel sure a shadowy figure should flit past.
Just such a gaunt mansion is Guy’s Cliffe House, our local romantic ruin, perched atop a cliff above the River Avon, catching the imagination of all who pass by on the other side of the river.
Gothic stone tracery, an ornate balcony, evidence of a flambuoyant builder, remain to tantalize you.
For one of those who occupied the house embellished it with Roman, classical, mediaeval and Gothic elements.
Guy’s Cliffe House so caught my own imagination during the past few years that I occasionally wished that, if I was hugely wealthy, I could pay for it to be restored to its former glory.
In reality, I’d like it to be made safe for people to enter and explore, and for new timber staircases and walkways to be constructed, so we could climb to those balconies and gaze at the view.
And I’d like all the original formal gardens to be restored so people can wander around in them and enjoy the romantic setting.
I feel that Guy’s Cliffe is a poignant illustration of what happens when wealthy property owners do not successfully pass on their property to an equally rich and prudent and competent heir.
One developer/house-breaker deliberately demolished part of the Guy’s Cliffe House, then all the contents were auctioned off, and and accidental fire and neglect did the rest.
We all find it difficult to understand how such a grand property gets damaged, ransacked and neglected like that.
8 foot tall bamboo now crowds close to the cave in the cliff, where Guy of Warwick, in the tenth century, returned from the Holy Land and mysteriously chose to live for two years, rather than reuniting with his wife and child in the house above.
Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion
came into my hands the other day, recommended by a friend. The book was published by Penguin in 2012.
I’ve now finished the book and given it a rating on Goodreads & Amazon of 3 out of 5 stars
Initially, this book held great possibilities for me. It seemed an intriguing thesis.
De Botton, an atheist, acknowledges that although he has no supernatural beliefs, there are many good things in religious practice – and he cites the examples of Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism – which would be of benefit to secular society. So he proposes that the secular world should take all that’s good in religious practice, and apply it in secular institutions – minus the supernatural beliefs.
“Those of us who hold no religious or supernatural beliefs still require regular rituals and encounters with concepts such as friendship, community, gratitude and transcendence.” All tasks should be done through relationship. (This is a quote from a Christian source, Annie Naish, who is a missioner with the Lee Abbey community.) And De Botton has taken this on board well, as he sets forth his ideas.
I like books of philosophy which ruminate about our society and our presumptions and our contemporary culture. The author’s premise seemed to enable him to come from a fresh perspective, free of ‘attitude’, of the kind we associate with the over-exposed Richard Dawkins.
But ultimately I felt that de Botton’s ideas (which he illustrates in various photoshopped pictures throughout his book) would work best on the walls of the Hayward Gallery as part of their exhibition: “An Alternative Guide to the Universe.”
I will however admit that his book works well as a stimulant for discussion. And I agree that many people who have no ‘supernatural beliefs’ would appreciate and benefit from numerous good things about religious practice and customs. And it should not be necessary to hold those beliefs, in order to benefit from all those good things.
I was amused by the author’s argument about using culture in place of scripture; I myself know very well how, for instance, the operas of Wagner can be “secular society’s new sacrament”, and how the profound messages to be found in George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” can (to quote de Botton) “take up the responsibilities previously handled by the Psalms.”
On page 113 he says “Christianity concerns itself…with the inner confused side of us.” I accept that this in many cases is true.
Then on pg 122 he says that his university of the future would provide classes in:
1) reconsidering work,
2) improving relationships wth children
3) reconnecting with nature
4) facing illness.
His imaginary university would establish a Department for Relationships, an Institute of Dying, and a Centre for Self-Knowledge.
Although I was amused by these suggestions, I could see that in reality they would not work at all.
De Botton makes several observations about the human condition, of which this is an example: on pg 192 he remarks how many go through life “dynamiting their chances of success through idiocy and impatience”. I can relate to much of what he says about the default setting of human life, but I don’t agree with his overarching philosophical premise.
One of his points is that religions have fully recognised how sad life is – unlike the false hope engendered by the secular world – and have evolved systems to deal with it. This is a good point and yet, for me, his thesis demands further questions: “But what then…?” and “Why should…?”
This is a book which carried me through for a long way… and then I got to the final third of the book and realised there’s a giant hole at the centre of the author’s argument, and it all ends on a down-note.
Beyond his thesis is my unanswered protest, “But I still don’t understand how…” and I believe many would share that position, having thought through how his ideas would work in practice.
As I finished reading this book, I found myself thinking about one of his statements, about how sad this life is – which is fully recognised by the religions he cites, unlike the false hope engendered by the secular world. Then I found this quote from one of the twentieth century’s greatest spiritual writers, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. It was in the entry for 5 August, in the book Precious Thoughts of Thomas Merton: Daily readings From the Correspondence of Thomas Merton:
What is the trolley I am probably getting off? The trolley is called a special kind of hope. The streetcar of expectation… of things becoming much more intelligible, of things being set in a new kind of order, and so on. Point one, things are not going to get better. Point two, things are going to get worse. I will not dwell on point two. Point three, I don’t need to be on the trolley car anyway…. You can call the trolley anything you like, I have got off it.
Ultimately I believe that Thomas Merton is a writer whose words and spiritual authority I would trust more than those of Alain de Botton.
This weekend my daughter and I visited family members in Northborough and attended the John Clare Festival in Helpston, Northamptonshire.
We thoroughly enjoyed sharing in the community celebrations of John Clare (1793-1864), their local poet.
JOHN CLARE was born in Helpston in 1793 and deeply loved the natural world. During his life he wrote both poetry and autobiographical prose celebrating rural life and scenery, yet he suffered a series of severe breakdowns in later life, and spent his last 20 years in an asylum in Northampton.
He is now recognized to be as great as his contemporaries Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Shelley and Blake.
Yet in his time, despite an early ‘false dawn’ when he enjoyed a brief fame and his first volume of poems outsold Wordsworth and Keats, Clare was marketed as ‘the peasant poet’ meaning ‘ill-educated and poor’, hinting that it was remarkable he could write poetry at all, let alone great poetry.
Now in his own community, The John Clare Society ensures he is celebrated, and I highly recommend John Clare Cottage in Helpston. A visit here to learn about the poet, his work and his life is fascinating.
As you enter the Dovehouse in the beautiful cottage garden, you listen to recordings of some Clare poems, recited by adults and by children. Many must be deeply touched by these words of Clare’s:
I am – yet what I am, none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes
They rise and vanish in oblivion’s host…
How comforted and reassured John Clare may have been if he could have looked into the future and seen not only his greatness as a poet fully recognized, but also his memory honoured in such a beautiful way today in his own community.
We listened as a choir of children from John Clare School sang to us, and watched as prizes were awarded to the winners of a poetry competition for a poem about the natural world, in the tradition of John Clare.
This event, together with others held during the John Clare Festival in Helpston, made an inspirational weekend; local bards and poets laureate competed in a poetry slapdown with poems that were not only very funny but also thought-provoking.
And I reflected, that in this life, sometimes people who live by their imagination, in order to inspire others, suffer as John Clare did, with lack of recognition, with social and class prejudice, with mental ill health; often the creative life can bring suffering. Yet creative people ultimately are driven forward by a deep love of their subject; so it was in the case of John Clare.
I for one cannot read his exquisite poetry about flowers,woodlands, open fields, birds, animals and insect, and then observe the very things he wrote about, without feeling this.
I’ve been out and about in Warwick and the Cotswold hills with my film-maker daughter Abigail, having great fun as Abigail puts together a book trailer for my romantic suspense novel Mystical Circles.
As I’ve watched our actors follow Abigail’s directions and play my characters, my story has come alive in a new way. I’ve been reminded of the reason why I wrote the novel in the first place; the events in my own life that provided inspiration.
We’ve been filming in a setting that could be Craig’s sixteenth century farmhouse in that Cotswolds valley – HQ of the New Age spiritual group Wheel of Love. So much so, that when you see it, you’ll believe you are there.
As I watch our actress, I feel what it’s like to be 22-year-old Zoe, who’s not long out of university, and believes she’s found paradise. What more could she want in this life than a vocation, a loving partner, a spiritual philosophy, and on top of that, a beautiful place to live in?
Zoe determines to stay there for ever; and sends an excited email to her sensible older sister Juliet. No sooner has freelance journalist Juliet received the email than she drops everything, jumps into her car in London, and drives up to Gloucestershire to investigate, thus setting the whole story in motion.
This is the perfect time of year to be shooting the book trailer. The story takes place in the month of June.
We’ve just filmed Craig and Zoe together, and we still need to film Juliet and Zoe arguing with each other.
The actors are having fun with this, and so are we!
And I’m delighted with the positive response from so many people involved in our project, some have made locations available to us, others have volunteered their acting skills, and one has even provided a high resolution video camera. It is their good will which is making this book trailer possible.
Here are a couple of shots to whet your appetite for the book trailer.
I hope it will appears on my You Tube channel in the next couple of weeks.
I was there on Saturday, with my daughter Abigail, watching a performance of Swan Lake in the round, by the English National Ballet. Sixty swans danced in the arena below us, transformed into a lake by skilful lighting effects; and the audience delighted in the performances of Dmitri Gruzdyev as Prince Siegfried and Fernanda Oliveira as Odette and Odile.
The earliest memory I have of the Royal Albert Hall is when, as a child, I sang in the Chorus of Younger Angels in a performance of Mahler’s 8th Symphony.
I stood close to the organ; and I’ve never forgotten that tremendous experience as trumpets, drums and organ, under Leonard Bernstein’s flambuoyant direction, brought Mahler’s ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ to its thunderous conclusion.
During my sixth form days in Orpington, Kent, I often took the train to London with my schoolfriends so we could sit on the pavement outside the Royal Albert Hall in a queue for promenaders tickets for the BBC Proms; and then, once inside the door, sprint to the arena, to find the best place at the front, near the conductor’s rostrum.
One summer, I spent several hours walking up and down the queue with spare tickets to sell, having bought Gallery tickets for a half season.
Later, when I lived in Bayswater, London W2, the Royal Albert Hall was just a stroll across Kensington Gardens, to go to the rehearsals and concerts of another choir I sang in – the London Choral Society.
Whenever I now enter the Royal Albert Hall, I feel a deep sense of affection and euphoria.
This great circular space is to me, and to many even without such memories, both grand and intimate.
It’s also wonderfully flexible,with its central arena, for many great occasions.
The Hall was originally supposed to have been called The Central Hall of Arts and Sciences, but the name was changed by Queen Victoria to Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences when laying the foundation stone, as a dedication to her deceased husband and consortPrince Albert. It forms the practical part of a national memorial to the Prince Consort – the decorative part is the Albert Memorial directly to the north in Kensington Gardens, now separated from the Hall by the road Kensington Gore.
Thank you to Queen Victoria for deciding to commemorate Albert in this, among many other ways!
I recently visited Beachy Head, East Sussex, with a friend and my two teenage children.
As we walked along the cliftop, we all agreed: Where in the world could we go that’s more beautiful than this?
Beachy Head, together with the Seven Sisters Country Park and Birling Gap are all protected by The National Trust and they are a short drive out of Eastbourne on the south coast.
I was born and brought up in Kent, and it was only thirty five minutes drive from where we lived to the south coast. Camber Sands was a particular favourite, and we regularly visited and ran over the open dunes, usually going on afterwards to the lovely old fishing town Rye, with its evocative fifteenth century Mermaid Inn.
On every trip, I felt the excitement of that first view of the sea.
And now, I say to my own children, just as my father said to us: “who’ll be the first to catch a glimpse of the sea?”
Everything depends upon our own inner state, as we contemplate such landscapes, which can then become sacred spaces.
For me, standing on a cliff gazing out to sea is a thing of beauty, a joy for ever.
Ruby’s mother Sarah was tending the flowers, and Ruby’s father Richard was mowing the grass.
Ruby was in my daughter Abigail’s year at school, and Abigail knew Ruby and her story, as many others in our area do, whose hearts were touched by Ruby’s three year struggle with cancer, and her death in 2009.
Sarah, cheerful and pleasant, said to Abigail, “You’re the age Ruby would have been. Tomorrow is her 18th birthday.”
Ruby’s dog Gracie was with them too. Propped against the flower containers by the plaque is a photo which shows this family pet with Ruby 5 years ago.
As we walked out through the gate onto Milverton Hill, beyond the church, I couldn’t help comparing the shortness of Ruby’s life to the transience of golden fields in the English countryside.
In this lovely field, popular with walkers, the cobweb tracery of Shepherd’s-Purse flowers, too, appear between the golden rapeseed flowers. Each petal is silk to the touch, and you feel the cool breeze as you face towards the church. Turning back again to face down towards the Guy’s Cliffe House ruin and the Saxon Mill, the trees seem sculpted against a radiant horizon of intense clarity, each golden flower backlit.
Golden fields don’t last long. But they do reappear each summer. And so will this little memorial to Ruby touch many hearts through future generations.
Scholastic will commemorate 20 years since Terry Deary published the first Horrible Histories books, Awesome Egyptians and Terrible Tudors.
Horrible Histories has continued through the British children’s television series, first screened on CBBC in 2009, and now in its 5th series.
In our house we have followed each series with ever-increasing hilarity and delight.
I love Rattus Rattus, “your host, the talking rat”; and I love every single member of the cast.
I think the pleasure lies in seeing a vast gallery of different historical characters from all social levels and periods and cultures, represented by the same small cast of recognizable, engaging actors.
Often when a team of people is involved in a creative project like this, fans will select a favourite.
And yet I cannot pick out any single one of this team as my favourite. Each of them is equally funny as a brutish thug, a tyrannical leader, a downtrodden peasant or an effete moony type circle dancing round a tree.
There’s Jim Howick, who has on different occasions taken the parts of Napoleon, Blackbeard, Richard III, George IV, Pope Alexander VI, and Prince Albert.
There’s Matt Baynton who is perfect as Mozart, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Charles II, Shakespeare and Dick Turpin.
There’s Simon Farnaby, hilarious as The GrimReaper in “Stupid Deaths”, and entertaining as Caligula, St Augustine the first Archbishop of Canterbury, George III and numerous crazy or slightly dopey characters.
There’s Laurence Rickard who does a perfect high-speed round-up of the religious scene in Tudor times, via HH TV News.
There’s Ben Willbond whose Henry VIII is beguiling, and who also numbers among his roles such characters as George I, Alexander the Great, Adolf Hitler, Sir Francis Drake and Pythagorus.
And there’s Martha Howe-Douglas who’s utterly convincing as Elizabeth I, Cleopatra, Queen Victoria, Joan of Arc, or any one of a number of women in history, whether they be aristocrats or underdogs.
So few actors and so many historical characters… they do the highest and the lowest in the land with equal skill. Posh and rough; they inhabit every character perfectly. And the songs are pure inspiration, written and composed by Richie Webb, a genius in the background.
Of course there are many others too who ensure this TV programme is such a success – and that so many of us love Horrible Histories.
Other posts you might like to check out in my “People of Inspiration” series:
It is said that only when a lesson is learned, does an issue stop recurring in your life.
And so when I read of one of history’s most outstanding controlling women, I am filled with ambivalent feelings.
Three of the strongest, most fascinating women in history – some would call them controlling, others charismatic – all lived in the most turbulent of times, and intersected each others’ lives with the highest emotional stakes.
They were Mary Queen of Scots; Elizabeth I; and Bess of Hardwick.
When I recently visited Hardwick Hall and Chatsworth in Derbyshire, I knew little of Bess of Hardwick. Now, having just finished reading Bess of Hardwick: First Lady of Chatsworth by Mary S. Lovell, I am fascinated by her. And I cannot read of a powerful historical figure like this without drawing parallels and making connections with this life, and my own; and the world I know and move in.
If I was to sum Bess up for those who’ve never heard of her, I’d say she was a one woman estate and property corporation, plus social and dynastic engineer. She founded several of our great aristocratic families and greatest landowners. She was strong at a time when women were oppressed, manipulated and exploited.
She was a “Tudor entrepreneur”, absorbing knowledge from each of her four husbands, and applying it practically to far greater effect than they ever did.
I felt very sorry for her fourth husband the Earl of Shrewsbury. For he was caught up between these 3 strong women: Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I & Bess of Hardwick. He ran up huge bills keeping Mary Queen of Scots captive; despite years of begging letters from him, Elizabeth I refused to pay him a penny for it; and the Earl likewise spent years refusing to pay Bess any of the allowances he’d agreed to give her before they married. And when his son broke into his bedchamber, following his death, he discovered there was indeed very little cash left in the Earl’s iron-bound coffers. In terms of liquid assets, the Earl had genuinely been run dry. No wonder the poor man ended up bitter, whining and querulous.
Early in her life, Bess was a feisty young woman who fought her corner shrewdly and relentlessly every step of the way, and made few mistakes.
Amongst her personal attributes, readers of this book will note perspicacity; vision; discernment; strategic planning; far-sightedness; a dignified and gracious bearing.
And all around her there swam those who were ruled by one or several of the following: greed, impatience, fecklessness, hot-headedness, lack of vision; lack of anger-management; lust; short-sightedness; tunnel vision.
I believe Bess succeeded because she was a wise and acute observer of human psychology, and applied it to the best practical effect throughout her life. What she did, she did with skill and balance. Where she took risks, she did so with psychology in mind. She was a master at networking, and choosing the right people to ask favours of, at the right time, in the right way.
We can all learn from her.
Bess of Hardwick: First Lady of Chatsworth reads like a morality tale about money, success and power.
Those who get it and keep it; those who get it and lose it; those who have a talent for letting it slip through their fingers; and the multifarious ways people with varying degrees of honour or dishonour behave around it.
Bess did make some mistakes – and one of these was her decision to hold captive her grand-daughter Arbella, who was in line to the throne, on an equal level with James I.
Bess was almost responsible for Arbella’s existence, having carefully engineered the coupling of Arbella’s parents for the very purpose of producing another heir to the throne.
But she imprisoned Arbella at Hardwick Hall, in almost the same manner as her 4th husband the Earl of Shrewsbury had tohold Mary Queen of Scots captive.
And not surprisingly, Arbella didn’t like it.
Things didn’t work out the way Bess hoped with Arbella – (which was that Arbella should become Queen of England after Elizabeth). If they had, it would have been Bess’s most triumphant achievement.
Instead Arbella’s fate was to make a forbidden marriage, to die a lonely, squalid death in the Tower, and to be written out of history.
Bess had plenty of bad luck and tragedy in her life but she always fought her corner and her personal strength brought her through.
This story reminds us, too, through the experiences of others in Bess’s social ambit, that in life there are those who do extremely well for many years, then make a massive error of judgement which ruins everything.
And there are others who spend years causing trouble and living fecklessly – who suddenly come upon a stroke of luck and find themselves in high favour.
But this can all be forfeited, once again, by poor judgement – or the intervention of fate.
All these elements of our own lives stand out in high relief against the political and social landscape of Tudor England – brutal punishment, hereditary succession, fortunes made and lost, sexual liaisons which threaten the throne, secret and fateful marriages and desperate bids for power.