We’ve reached the time of year for the Christmas List.
I’m revisiting my subject of the Christmas List for several reasons. Amongst these are the sheer poignancy of the subject, and the fact that since then I have published a revised version of the piece in a Christmas Anthology – available here to buy on Amazon.
Who else finds writing Christmas cards the cause not just of gladness but pain and sorrow? I put off “doing” my Christmas list until I’m in the mood – and light a candle and have a glass of sherry or wine to help create that mood. Why? Because each year I have to engage with the major change in people’s lives; the gap of a year between communications throws those changes – for good and for bad – into sharp relief.
There are those who must now be addressed The … Family, because a new baby has been born. You remember the mother as a tiny blonde cherub herself. Then there are the divorces, where you refer back to the previous year’s Christmas newsletter and gaze at the photo of the mother with her two tall sons, and remember when you rejoiced at her marriage, at the news of the arrival of their first baby… and now “he” has disappeared from their lives, and is no longer referred to. Then there’s the lady whose previous husband beat her up – a fact she communicated to you in a Christmas newsletter 5 years ago – and who sent you the news 3 years ago that she was marrying someone else she only referred to by his first name – and hasn’t been in touch since. You’d like to try and restore the lines of communication, but you only have the surname of the ex-husband. You presume she’s now living with the new man – unless that relationship too has broken up – but you’re not quite sure, and you have to address her in such a way that takes account of different possible scenarios.
And there are the couples whose children have now grown up and left home and started their own families, so you can now revert to sending cards to the couple alone, without their children’s names… and that feels sad too, despite the fact that this has been in many ways a happy change.
Then there are the people who have died, and whose names have to be crossed off your Christmas list and out of your address book – a task that always feels callous to me, every time I do it. And the people you’re going to send a card to who may well have died, but nobody has told you, so you won’t know, unless your card is returned to you by some helpful relative in the New Year.
So much change for good or bad. Then it occurs to me that at least my own family unit is “the same as last year” and perhaps that fact alone is a cause for at least one small flare of gladness and relief in the hearts of those who receive our greetings.
But should it be? For those on our Christmas list often only communicate the stark facts that will affect the way we address our envelopes to them next year. Behind it all lies the complex reality of their lives. As a novelist I know what is in my characters’ hearts; but not in the hearts of everyone on my Christmas list – the new parents, the newly-bereaved, the freshly-betrayed, the lonely, the divorced, even those who superficially appear to have everything in order, even those who claim success and triumph all round for every member of the family… their lives are far more complex than can ever be conveyed in the artificial confines of the Christmas card or newsletter.
Perhaps the candle flame is there to remind me of that.
This is the fifth in a series of ten posts which will take us up to the date of publication of my new book Paranormal Warwickshire, out from Amberley Publishing on 15th November. This richly illustrated compilation of strange tales from Shakespeare’s county can be pre-ordered now from all online bookstores, and from Warwick Books and Kenilworth Books.
I love Stoneleigh Abbey, near Kenilworth, and have visited it several times. The history tour and the Jane Austen tour are both excellent; the Humphrey Repton grounds and gardens enchanting; and the afternoon tea in the Orangery is to be highly recommended!
Originally the home of an order of Cistercian monks,who were granted the land by Henry II in 1154, the abbey saw the twists and turns of fortunes through the centuries, emerging from the dissolution of the monasteries in a sorry state and spending 25 years as a roofless ruin before Rowland Hill and his protegee Thomas Leigh purchased the building and set about building an Elizabethan manor house in the ruins.
The full story of the history of the house, through the generations of the Leigh family, how they gained and nearly lost their Baronetcy, how further extensions to the building were made, and how the Abbey emerged from a devastating fire a few generations ago, but has now been sensitively restored, may be heard in a lively and engaging history tour through the grand rooms. Stoneleigh Abbey claims a close connection with Jane Austen, who in 1806 formed part of a family party invited by her mother’s cousin Revd. Thomas Leigh of Adlestrop to view his new inheritance. Jane drew several inspirations for her novels from her visit to Stoneleigh Abbey.
Many curious tales cling to the abbey; and my favourites are associated with the library.
Here is an extract from Paranormal Warwickshire (published 15th November 2020).
Who haunts this room? We cannot be sure, but it may be Chandos Leigh, poet, first Baron Leigh of the second creation. Chandos loved this room and spent many hours writing and studying in here. He was the only son of James Henry Leigh (1765–1823), MP, of Adlestrop, Gloucestershire, and subsequently of Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire, by his marriage with Julia, eldest daughter of Thomas Fiennes, tenth lord Saye and Sele.
Chandos during his lifetime was a very well-known poet. His first publication was ‘The Island of Love,’ a poem, published in 1812; he published ‘Trifles Light as Air,’ in 1813; ‘Poesy, a Satire,’ in 1818; ‘Epistles to a Friend in Town, Golconda’s Fate, and other Poems,’ in 1826. His poems reflected the influence of Horace, Virgil, Pope, and Byron, and were much prized by the scholarly few.
But for the room’s paranormal stories, we must let the Abbey’s history guide take up the narrative. “I was doing a tour here,” he says, “and while I was speaking, the handle on that door over there started moving violently. It was really loud so I said, ‘Stop!’ And it stopped. So I said to the manager, ‘somebody’s trying to get through that door and you need to have a word with them as it really put me off my tour.’ He said, ‘that’s impossible.’ I said, ‘I know it’s impossible, the grandfather clock’s standing in front of it, so they can’t come in.’ He said, ‘no no no, the other side of that door’s a wall, the handle is only on your side.”from Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman
Preorder Paranormal Warwickshire here.
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.
Discover the full story in my book Paranormal Warwickshire.
Do check out my other posts in this series, which I began on 14th August 2020 with Shakespeare’s Ghosts and Spirits, and which brings us up to the publication date of my book Paranormal Warwickshire – 15th November 2020.
Gaveston’s Cross and the Saxon Mill, Warwick
St Mary’s Warwick
Abbey Fields, Kenilworth
Thomas Oken’s House and Lord Leycester Hospital, Warwick
The other posts in the series will cover the following locations:
Ettington Park Hotel, Stratford-upon-Avon
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon
Coughton Court, Alcester
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.
When I began my book, I was inspired by the spiritual resonance of so many locations in Shakespeare‘s county of Warwickshire. It seemed entirely appropriate to draw all the stories together through the central theme of Shakespeare’s ghosts and spirits.
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…
or setting out, like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to accomplish the task of teasing mortals…
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:
In my next post I will share some photos and discoveries at Warwick Castle.
Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman will be published by Amberley on 15th November 2020. Pre-order now either online or from your local bookstore.
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.
Honesty and truthfulness – these are the outstanding virtues of a great artist. And as a creative writer I am currently finding inspiration from artist Grayson Perry as he showcases “Covid-19 lockdown art” in his TV show “Grayson’s Art Club” on Channel 4.
Grayson makes use of our contemporary culture which he transforms into art – tapestries, lithographs, glazed vases. One of my favourite items in a Grayson Perry exhibition in London was his “career advancement vase” upon which he had painted lots of different cliché words and phrases job seeker use on CVs. These words are so evocative. They carry within them all sorts of pretensions, eagerness to impress, compulsion to present a false picture of oneself to the world.
In. another exhibition of Grayson’s works, I loved his “Walthamstow Tapestry“
In Grayson Perry and Wendy Jones’ book “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl”, co-author Wendy Jones writes: “During the interviews Grayson appeared almost physically malleable. It seemed that sometimes he would look like a First World War pilot, then a mediaeval minstrel, then a housewife suffering from ennui, then an elegant hurdler. He was always morphing – I hadn’t come across that before and I doubt I shall see it often again.”
This capacity to morph strikes a chord in me as I watch Grayson’s Art Club, listen to his raucous laugh, and observe the change in his hairstyle between scenes. I also find myself imagining him as a young girl, in one of his many other personnas, I love the idea of a “fluid and flexible ego”, something I believe Grayson Perry has; and I used this idea myself in my novel “Mystical Circles” where it is eventually understood as part of the shapeshifting gifts of a shaman. Wendy Jones’ description was fascinating to me as I have known of those who morph in this fashion and have witnessed it myself and worked it into my own fiction.
Grayson Perry suggests that we “sit lightly to our beliefs”, and “let go of a compulsion to seek meaning – we will enjoy life in this world much more.” His art bears this out; everything is referred back to his childhood teddy Alan Measles, his “guiding spirit”; everything is set against that barometer of his childlike perceptions, even to the extent of dressing as a little girl.
Grayson Perry has important things to say, strong challenges to make to me. I cannot ignore these challenges as a creative writer.
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.”
I hope you are all well, and staying home, except for your one-daily-piece-of-exercise here in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis.
I must admit I’m finding plenty to do as a writer. ‘Paranormal Warwickshire’ has a new publication date: 15 Nov 2020. I’ve just returned the corrected proofs to my publisher, Amberley. Meanwhile I’m working on another novel and researching a new non-fiction book (more details in a few months’ time).
As for my daily exercise… what better location than one of those featured in my upcoming book ‘Paranormal Warwickshire’: The Saxon Mill, on the Guy’s Cliffe estate, Warwick; just 10 minutes walk from my home.
‘Paranormal Warwickshire’ can be pre-ordered here.
This is the nineteenth in my series of short reflections on different places in Australia and New Zealand, as experienced during my November 2019 visit. Today is the third of my posts on New Zealand’s North Island.
In my last post I wrote about Paihia and the Bay of Islands.
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.
Even the local visitor information centre has been turned into a nostalgic homestead reminiscent of the hobbits’ innocent world.
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 dinner at a restaurant called The Redoubt which had, along with the town of Matamata, ‘fully embraced its Middle Earth credentials’! (a phrase borrowed from the Matamata section in the Lonely Planet Guide for New Zealand).
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.