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Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

The Full Monty and What it Says About Not Being Controlled by Your Circumstances

Recently I watched the 1997 British comedy drama film  “The Full Monty” again. The Full Monty film posterThe reason why I love it is that it’s about “little” people deciding not to be controlled by their circumstances. Six men who in their different ways are suffering during the decline of the Sheffield steel industry, decide to do something nobody believes they can deliver on.

If you haven’t seen this wonderful film then I highly recommend it; read about it here. Somehow that message of hope is encapsulated in one of the outstanding elements of the film: the faces of the audience members in the club at the end. They express joy, laughter, fun and delight. Their reaction is a natural response to “local lads” demonstrating that if we choose, we can all have the courage to:

  1. compete with those who seem to be hugely successful “out there”
  2. get up on stage and run the risk of making fools of ourselves
  3. demonstrate that we will not allow ourselves to be controlled by our circumstances.

This is a universal message, relevant in so many different ways in today’s society. This is why “The Full Monty” is an inspiration to its audiences and why, using humour, it delivers a powerful truth, relevant to all our lives.

What the Camp Comedian Has To Say to the Creative Writer

I love camp, on-the-cusp comedians who subvert gender stereotypes.Julian Clary

A good example is Julian Clary who is above all a genius with words – playful, teasing, fluid, quixotic, suggestive, subversive – and he has an acute sense of irony. His camp public persona in itself subverts what I believe may lie much deeper in him, which is more subtle and complex, the true person beneath the entertaining mirage.

 

I’ve long loved camp comedians. They follow on from a line of great gay writers: Evelyn Waugh, Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, to name just a few that come to mind. There are many examples among gay comedians, but my great favourite first of all was Frankie Howerd.

Frankie HowerdThere were others I loved too, Kenneth Williams foremost among them. I instinctively warmed to these entertainers and felt drawn to them. Perhaps it was because they represent, metaphorically, border country, phantoms behind the magic lantern, different dimensions, stories within a story. The man dressed as a woman, the woman dressed as a boy. And in Shakespeare’s time of course, the young boy dressed as a woman.

Whether or not any of them  hid their  true sexuality whilst in the public eye – as was the case with Frankie Howerd – that essential gay character suffused their performances and their personal style; I don’t believe it can fail to do so, in any creative area.

Not long ago, I saw Julian Clary in the role of Slave of the Ring in the pantomime Aladdin at the Birmingham Hippodrome. He shone out above all the other performers.

And my favourite character in the TV series Are You Being Served was played by John Inman.John Inman

When I first saw him in this sitcom, I was entranced. Here was an adult man, behaving in the most silly way imaginable, and being loved for it.

I loved him, everything about what he was doing and being and saying, and what he was projecting.  He told me something different about the adult world, and personhood, and what he turned upside down was the rigid compartmentalised view of the world that can so easily crush us in childhood and early teens.

Echoes of “A Passionate Spirit” in Mystical Tales from British Folklore

Book Review:  “Faeries, Elves and Goblins: The Old Stories” by Rosalind Kerven, published by the National Trust

Faeries, Elves and Goblins by Rosalind Kerven

I bought this book recently in a National Trust gift shop, and found it captivating. Rosalind Kerven explores the raw material from which many of our great fantasy novelists have derived their archetypes. She includes “mystical tales of faery royalty, mischievous goblins, helpful house-elves, changelings and enchantments across the British isles”, with spotlight features on “faery folklore, faery morals, the various faery tribes, and spells and dealings between faeries and mortals”. As a paranormal thriller writer I loved this wonderful survey of centuries of folklore and faery mythology in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

The book reminded me too of why I was so fascinated by the idea of supernatural malevolence hidden beneath mystical beauty (a common theme in faery lore and in Arthurian legends) which was part of my inspiration for “A Passionate Spirit.”COVER DESIGN A PASSIONATE SPIRIT pub Matador

Rosalind Kerven covers all the major themes in traditional tales of the faery realm, including  what she describes as “typical Faery perversity”, spells that are both mischievous and malevolent, and the toxic nature of any deals struck by a faery with a mortal. Reading these tales reminds us that any mortal who ultimately comes out well from dealing with a faery, is extremely lucky!

Shakespeare had it exactly right with his fairies in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, showing them having fun with and mocking the folly of the human beings, then putting things to rights once they have tired of their sport, wryfully signing off with the words, “If we shadows have offended…” In widespread stories down through the centuries, faeries are shown behaving towards mortals rather like a supernatural gang of brigands running a protection racket. These tales made me reflect upon how much they say of the life experience of their creators; an explanation for the changing fortunes we all encounter in this world.

There is so much here that we can identify with on the level of our own unconscious: “The transformation of a familiar path into an endlessly looping labyrinth” – for which a well-known antidote is to “remove one’s coat, turn it inside out and put it on again”; the experience of being “pixy-led”; the idea of obtaining “faery sight” which reveals a parallel world. I can see from this book how deeply influenced JK Rowling was by British folklore, in the Harry Potter novels: Dobby is set free when his master gives him an item of clothing; Harry is deposited as a baby on the Dursleys’ doorstep, by magical agency; and the idea of veritaserum, to name just three examples among countless others.

Highly recommended for adults interested in a survey of archetypal themes in folklore and mythology, though not suitable as a storybook for young children; they are best introduced to fairy tales and folklore through the many other books aimed specifically at their age-groups.

The Power of Personal Stories, for Remembrance, for Empathy and to Ignite a Passionate Spirit for Change

The love of story telling which I learned as a young child, through reading adventure stories, grew into a passion to write stories myself.

Stories Are Powerful

Stories Are Powerful

Writing and reading stories is all about our ability to enter other hearts and minds and worlds, and to exercise and develop our powers of empathy. I hope that is what my story of A Passionate Spirit will do. How vital it is that we tell stories – not only fiction, but the stories of our own experience. We’ve seen that clearly over the last few days of remembrance.

On the day before Remembrance Sunday I sang with the Spires Philharmonic Choir in a concert called Sing Us Your Dreams at Earlsdon Methodist Church, Coventry. The Earlsdon Research Group had gathered together many personal stories from people who remember their grandfathers, their fathers and their uncles who fought in World War I and returned. We’ll repeat the concert with more World War I-related memories, on Saturday 14th November at Lancaster Priory.

During the concert we sang some very moving pieces: newly-written poetry by Avril Newey set to lovely and poignant music by one of our own choir members, Michael Torbe, including The Unknown Warrior and Reveille Rise Now, and These Thankful Fields, plus some famous wartime songs. In between our musical pieces, a narrator recounted to a packed church some of the stories that had been gathered from local people in Coventry, as part of the Sing Us Your Dreams project.  These were the stories of those who had returned – “the lucky ones”. Many were very powerful and moving. And those with stories to tell can still contribute at the Sing Us Your Dreams website.

We heard of returned soldiers haunted by images of having to shoot sick horses and throw them overboard off transport vessels; men so traumatised they never spoke of what they’d experienced – one whose granddaughter remembers being mystified and slightly frightened of him as he sat silent in the corner at Christmas parties.

We heard of a serviceman who was shot in the hand, refused to have his arm amputated, and came home with a black hand, which he showed to a woman who was about to give him a white feather on a bus.  We learned of a mother whose 15 year old son joined up in the raw excitement of recruitment posters proclaiming Your Country Needs You. He was killed and every Remembrance Day for the rest of her long life (she lived to 95) she laid a wreath on his grave and wept for the loss of her young son.  We heard of a boy who memorised the sight chart so he could convince recruiting sergeants he had good eye sight. We heard of a woman for whom, though her husband returned to her, it was never possible to recover their former life together, because, as she later reported, “in his heart he never really left the army.”

I thought of my own teenage son.  If we had been there, in 1915, I as a mother may have seen him, perhaps, as young as 14, so excited by the propaganda that he was prepared to falsify his birth certificate to join up and go to the front line.

We heard of those who were “lucky” – yet the devastation of war not only kills people, it destroys countless other lives for decades through the damaged minds and bodies and spirits of those who return.

All personal stories which transported me back to the reality of life, at that time, then opened it up with vivid freshness.

I feel I can understand those who were silenced by their terrible experiences. And yet thank God for those who have been able to tell their stories, so they might be passed down, for our compassion and empathy, which may strengthen in us another passionate spirit… a powerful resolve to do what it takes to change the future.

Antithesis to HRH’s Quirky Garden Rooms Full of Curiosities: Compton Verney Capability Brown Landscape

Isn’t it lovely how many different moods and themes can be captured by garden designers and landscape architects?

The parkland surrounding Compton Verney house, Warwickshire

The parkland surrounding Compton Verney house, Warwickshire

A week ago I was speaking to the guide who led our tour around Highgrove Gardens about how HRH The Prince of Wales viewed Capability Brown. And the answer was that he realises in some contexts the ideas of that great eighteenth century garden designer might be appropriate, but personally it’s not his “sort of thing”. For when Capability Brown was brought in to transform the surroundings of a stately home, he would be thinking of sweeping lawns flowing seamlessly into the extensive parklands via the ha-ha, dotted with majestic parkland trees, and would of course throw in a cunningly-situated lake, which would create a perfect vista from the house.  This is a profoundly different  approach to that of the sequence of interconnected rooms full of  quirky and unexpected things, which is itself a very popular style of garden design among the great gardeners (such as Vita Sackville West with Sissinghurst Castle Garden, of course).

View across the new wildflower meadow to the chapel at Compton Verney

View across the new wildflower meadow to the chapel at Compton Verney

However yesterday I was in one of my favourite Capability Brown landscapes at Compton Verney in Warwickshire

And again I thought how calming and uplifting it is to be in this spacious parkland, which wraps around the house perfectly, providing an ideal setting.

But there’s now a new feature in the landscape, of which HRH the Prince of Wales would wholeheartedly approve: a new wildflower meadow on the West Lawn, with mown paths running through it corresponding to a William Morris design, relating directly to the theme of the excellent Arts and Crafts exhibition currently showing inside the house.

As we visited it on the last day of August the wildflowers were long past their best; apart from a single patch which gave some idea of what the entire meadow will look like next May:

Wildflower meadow at Compton Verney

Wildflower meadow at Compton Verney

Great Time at the Sherlock Holmes Prom

Even lovers of Sherlock Holmes may have learned something new about the great man on Sunday 16 August at the Royal Albert Hall, London.

The Sherlock Holmes Prom, Royal Albert Hall, 16 Aug 2015

The Sherlock Holmes Prom, Royal Albert Hall, 16 Aug 2015

Matthew Sweet, BBC Radio 3 presenter, and Mark Gatiss, actor, and co-creator of the Sherlock TV drama series, together presented  a fantastic programme of music related to Sherlock Holmes.  Mark Gatiss read several passages from the original Conan Doyle stories alongside the music. I learned that the original Holmes was a lover of the opera and especially Wagner; and that Irene Adler, “the Woman” (the one person who outwitted Holmes) was an operatic contralto who had performed at La Scala Milan. In addition to this, although Conan Doyle himself was not much of a musical buff, nevertheless his creation Holmes had a very abstruse taste in and knowledge of music; he was an expert on the “polyphonic motets of Lassus.”

Additionally, Holmes’ gift for playing the violin was one aspect of the great detective which Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffatt chose to adhere to firmly when they re-created him as Sherlock for the twenty-first century. The deerstalker cap came much later; but the violin was a necessity from the very beginning.

Once again I wondered at and rejoiced in the fact that when we create fictional characters we may give them skills and abilities and awareness far beyond our own; and when they come to take on their own life in the minds of our readers, then who would ever guess the limitations of their creator?  An uplifting thought indeed for novelists!

My Reflections on ‘In Love With Greece’

The Temple of Apollo, Delphi, Greece

The Temple of Apollo, Delphi, Greece

On BBC Radio 4 on 26 July I heard Peter Aspden give his Point of View on Greece, especially in relation to the current financial crisis and the question that has been hanging over Greece’s continued EU membership.

As I listened I found myself tuning in to the heart of what he was saying. I realised he was articulating what I feel about Greece, which has been running along in the background of my thoughts as I’ve listened to the agonising saga of the recent months’ negotiations between Greece and Germany.

Peter Aspden spoke about “the fun-loving spirited” character of Greece, “contemptuous of material things”. He referred to the Greek people’s most prized quality of hospitality, and their most self-defeating weakness of tax evasion. And by contrast, he characterised the Nordic mind-set as “the way of rigour, high discipline and control.” These two world-views must necessarily conflict, and I can vouch for this from my own life, in many different areas.

I listened carefully as I realised that in describing the symbolic power of Greece in our hearts and minds, he was expressing something that I find profoundly relevant to my own sense of identity, my own personal story. And why despite all the words that have been expended over this terrible financial dilemma, I have in my heart of hearts remained mystified that such a situation could have arisen for a country which has given such riches to the world in terms of wisdom, romance, poetry, history and many, many other joyous, life-affirming things. I speak as one who has visited Greece and some of its islands and for whom Greek music, dancing, food, ambience, culture, philosophy, mythology and literature all hold an enormous romantic and idealistic power.

My first (unpublished) novel (the manuscript of which currently lies in the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet) centres around a Classics Professor who really believed in the ancient Greek gods, and I had great fun – and considerable empathy for him – as I worked this belief of his into the way he handled conflicts in his personal life.

I studied Ancient Greek tragedies and comedies at university, and once attended a performance of ‘Agamemnon’ at the outdoor theatre below the Acropolis Mount in Athens. Peter Aspden speaks about a performance of an ancient Greek comedy which he attended at the theatre in Epidauros. He notes the contempt of politicians and those in authority which is evident in the humour of Aristophanes, and is part of the Greek national consciousness. All this I could affirm from my personal experience of Greek people, of Greece itself, and from my studies of ancient Greek history and philosophy.

I could say much more of my feelings for Greece and all it represents in my own heart, but suffice it to say here that I believe Greece’s unpayable debts should be cancelled. This country has given far more to the world than any monetary value can match.

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