The Sugar and Slavery Gallery at the Museum of London Docklands – Stories of Great Suffering Upon which our Privileged Lives Are Founded

The International Slave Trade was in force between the mid seventeenth and the late nineteenth centuries. Although it was abolished in 1838 it didn’t magically stop on that date.

Museum of London Docklands
Museum of London Docklands

And in that time millions of men, women and children from Africa were treated as if they were subhuman, disposable objects, moving parts of a machine, whose sole purpose was to make even more money for the wealthy European traders.transatlantic-slave-trade

Every great English country house I visit has a history to tell; and when I look into that history I look for the words “business interests in the West Indies“, and then I know that the grandeur of this house rests upon the exploitation of those enslaved Africans.

So complex is the tapestry of wealth and advancement and progress and exploitation of human lives in the International Slave Trade, that we cannot ever extricate ourselves from the fact that many of the institutions upon which we rely for the comfort and privilege of our lives here in this Western consumer society, are founded upon the misery and pain of millions.

In William Walton’s choral work Belshazzar’s Feast there is a powerful bass aria in which the singer enumerates all the wealth and magnificence of Babylon, over which King Belshazzar reigned. The once-mighty city of Babylon in Iraq has been described as “a microcosm of human history.” The bass sings:

Babylon was a great city,

Her merchandise was of  gold and silver,

of precious stones, of pearls, of fine linen,

of purple, silk and scarlet,

All manner vessels of ivory,

All manner vessels of most precious wood,

of brass, iron and marble,

Cinnamon, odours and ointments,

Of frankincense, wine and oil,

Fine flour, wheat and beasts,

Sheep, horses, chariots, slaves

And the souls of men.

Just so during any economy which relies upon the labour of enslaved people. And I must admit the words of that aria flashed into my mind while I was walking round the Sugar and Slavery Gallery at the Museum of London Docklands.

Enslaved Africans - transatlantic-slave-trade
Enslaved Africans – transatlantic-slave-trade

If you visit this gallery, you’ll  find yourself totally absorbed and caught up in an imaginative, interactive experience, in which you examine and reflect upon and enter into the heart of that slavery experience. You’ll consider all the facets of racism, both during those times, and up to the present day; and quite possibly, during the time you’re walking through the gallery, you’ll be drawn to  identify with those who suffered, and will feel personally responsible and involved in that massive crime against humanity.

If you’re in London, I urge you to include the Museum of London Docklands on your list of places to visit; it has many other galleries, too, telling you of London’s history, and you will find it a thoroughly engrossing experience.

 

 

 

 

 

Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent: ‘I Object’ Exhibition at the British Museum – Brilliant and Cheeky Tribute to the Spirit of Independent Thought

Free will means that even in the most totalitarian regime, individuals keep within their hearts and minds their secret thoughts and views: but with ingenuity they will find a way of expressing it.

"I Object": Ian Hislop's Search for Dissent - exhibition at the British Museum 2018/2019
“I Object”: Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent – exhibition at the British Museum 2018/2019

When Private Eye editor and TV personality Ian Hislop stepped out of his Private Eye offices – as shown on video at the entrance to this brilliant exhibition  – he went round the corner to see if he could find signs of dissent within the hallowed portals of the museum.

As he says at the beginning of the exhibition, he had set out to answer these questions: “Have people always shown signs of dissent? Are there artefacts in the British Museum relating to people forming views against the government?” Fortunately, the answer was YES.ian hislop in his office at private eye

As you wander through the exhibition examining the artefacts, one thing becomes clear: the fiercer and more authoritarian the government under which the artists or creators lived, the more subtle and more clever the signs of dissent. And of course sometimes it can be done unconsciously, or can be just what the paranoid authorities choose to see as dissent.

Throughout the ages, through ceramic vases, badges, banknotes, coins, rugs, engravings, paintings, individuals have expressed their dissent against the established order and the powers that be.

A winking owl was taken by Chairman Mao to be a statement that his health was failing – and won the artist arrest and imprisonment. An ancient Egyptian craftsman fed up with constantly producing artefacts for the Pharaoh which were going to go in the tombs carved his own face in place of the Pharaoh’s; another added his own name where only the name of someone high and mighty should be.

In Afghanistan, a traditional rug had helicopters woven into it instead of flowers, to protest against Soviet invasion.

Soviet invaders were show with devil’s horn on another rug; and those being invaded were shown in the same position as an avenging god.

Later we saw that people have also dissented against the British Museum itself. The famous artist Banksy had done a cave painting of a man pushing a shopping trolley. It was placed in the British Museum with a very authentic looking cheeky label – and stayed there for three days before it was noticed.

Cleverly defaced banknotes and engraved coins were intended to stay in circulation with their dissenting message for as long as possible.

The ring worn by a Royalist during the rule of Cromwell opened up to reveal a portrait of King Charles I who had been beheaded.

A copy of the Bible opened up to the Ten Commandments revealed that the printer had printed “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Ironical typo…… or expression of dissent?

The exhibition was wonderfully diverse and didn’t just represent one ideological stance on the part of its curator Ian Hislop. There was no biassed view, for instance, of leftist dissenter against totalitarian regime. All views were represented, even those of a Russian who objected to Gorbachev’s attempts at control of alcohol; and someone who opposed Barak Obama. And there was before us an object which consisted of elaborate Catholic items, heavy with Catholic symbolism, turned into a supposedly inoffensive salt cellar to use in Reformation England.

George IV apparently wasted a huge amount of public money trying to suppress insulting images of himself.

And an English cartoon of William Pitt’s and George’s III’s decapitated heads followed shortly after news from France of Louis IV’s beheading.

And how about the right wing Brexiteers wearing yellow jackets? In Hong Kong those dissenting from China’s plans for political change all carried yellow umbrellas as a sign of their protest.

In one part of the exhibition Ian Hislop had written, “I was disappointed to discover that Spitting Images was not new.”

And of course – in former times the Turks had got there first with their own puppets lampooning those in authority over them.

I felt that the exhibition was a bit like “Have I got news for you?”applied to ancient artefacts – and I loved it.

 

The British Library and the Anglo Saxon Kingdoms

Recently I found myself in the British Library in London, and among the large number of visitors who had flocked there to see the exhibition on The Anglo Saxon Kingdoms.

Anglo Saxon Kingdoms: art, word, war
Anglo Saxon Kingdoms: art, word, war

There displayed for us to see were certain treasures of the age before the Norman Conquest. Here were the magnificent original illuminated manuscripts, the highly ornate and jewelled medallions worn by high-ranking women, inscribed with runic symbols; and other time capsules left to us by the magnificent and privileged, those in Anglo Saxon times who were important and wealthy enough to leave precious time capsules for the British Library to display centuries later. Behind these original objects lay the spirits of the scholarly and the gifted: kings, monks and abbots; and the mighty, such as Offa, “a king who terrified everyone” and who built a great dyke between Wales and Mercia.

King Canute, we learned, was a great giver of books to churches.  I wonder what Edmund Ironside would have though of that, had he known it when he was desperately fighting to stop the Danes from ruling England? Or would he have thought it just a pathetic attempt to make reparation for all the upheaval and battles and loss of life he had caused? And we learned, too, that even the Christian kings were thought to have descended from the Norse god Woden. The exhibition contained an original prayer book, the very volume found by St Cuthbert’s head in his tomb at Durham Cathedral, which was indeed an awe-inspiring object to contemplate.

It was fascinating to learn of the intersection between English and European art and thought, and to discover that many went on pilgrimage to Rome. Canterbury and Jarrow were the two major spiritual centres; Canterbury represented the influence of Augustine and Rome, while Jarrow in Northumbria represented the Celtic Christianity which emanated from Ireland.

Here was evidence of intense hours of devotion by scribes and craftspeople and artists and gold and silversmiths; of devotion to study and scholarship and piety by these people who we tend to dismiss because they came before William the Conqueror. A rich and thought-provoking exhibition with much scope for contemplation and meditation upon our own history and what it means for us.

The Museum of London, Docklands: a Beguiling Talk About the Social History of the English Pub

The English pub is such a well-loved institution.

Sailortown gallery, Museum of London Docklands
Sailortown gallery, Museum of London Docklands

I know when I lived in Australia for four years, this wonderful institution was much prized for its almost legendary status amongst the Australians, even if they did think we British are a bit weird to go around drinking warm beer all the time.

And at the Museum of London, Docklands, I had the chance to listen to a talk on the social history of this, the most iconic “hostelry”.museum of london docklands

Crowded into The Three Mariners, a replica of a small historical pub within the Museum’s Sailortown recreation, we listened to a most engaging talk on the subject. I learned that the social history of drinking in Britain began when the Romans introduced the taverna to the natives of these isles, and thus began the habit of drinking wine.

Then, later on, after the Romans had given up on us and left, the Vikings invaded – and introduced beer. then we British became used to the alehouses. Ale was a natural choice for England, and later inns began to appear.

During Tudor times, Henry VIII introduced licensing laws.. He wanted the “public house” regulated and ordered.

Then on into the 1600s and 1700s – and gin was the thing. It was very cheap and easy to make; and we know of course from  vivid engravings and from our social history, the effect that the craze for gin had on our society.

And onto William Gladstone – when he was Prime Minister he decided it would be morally superior for us to revert to wine drinking. Prior to his time wine had only been available in kegs. Now he introduced the bottle of wine, and promoted the idea that there was some kind of social refinement or even moral virtue about drinking wine as opposed to beer.

And now of course we have inherited these social  presumptions about our drinking habits. Who, our guide asked, would dare request a strawberry daiquiri when he’s sitting amongst his mates in the pub and they’ve all ordered beer? Social meltdown, at the very least!

It all brought me back to the first time I tasted alcohol. My first love was Asti Spumante; and Blue Nun was the order of the day too, along with Mateus Rose. And when I was at university, I remember such combinations as Guinness and Grapefruit, Dry Martini and Lemonade, and American Dry and Whisky – along with the much-favoured Snowball (Advocaat and Lemonade). And I have long loved a gin and tonic…

But how amusing it is to think how easily we attribute a social value to anything we might do… and no wonder the drinking of alcohol has not escaped this natural tendency of human nature.

But it was great fun to listen to our enthusiastic and lively speaker setting all our ideas about alcohol firmly in the context of English social history.

 

 

The National Portrait Gallery, London: a Cloud of Masters and Witnesses

At the National Portrait Gallery recently, as I wandered through the Victorian and Twentieth Century and Contemporary Galleries, I realised that I was surrounded by all the most amazing people who have moved or inspired me or touched my heart, during my lifetime.

The National Portrait Gallery, London
The National Portrait Gallery, London

The people whose faces I gazed at included preRaphaelite artists John Waterhouse and Arthur Hughes;

The Lady of Shallot by John Waterhouse
The Lady of Shallot by John Waterhouse
April Love by Arthur Hughes
April Love by Arthur Hughes

novelists Thomas Hardy, Wilkie Collins, Sir Arthur Conan DoyleCharles Dickens, Oscar Wilde,  and Jerome K Jerome (all of whom have written novels which are on my most-loved list); inspirational writer and thinker John Ruskin. And amongst the women, I find the Bronte sisters,

Painting of the Brontë sisters
Painting of the Brontë sisters

Iris Murdoch, Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Malala and Queen Victoria: yes a mixed bunch, but each one of them has inspired me in her own individual way by her courage, or her defiance of convention, or her spirit or her genius.

It is truly a moving experience to gaze upon the faces of each of these people, and to reflect upon the impact each one of them has had on my life. Some of them look very unexceptional; others have been portrayed in a way which truly conveys their individuality. But what all have in common is this: they are like a cloud of witnesses, a gallery of masters who have found their way into my heart and mind over the generations and seasons of my life, through something they’ve written, or painted, or thought, or expressed.

To gaze upon their faces, even imperfectly rendered – for how can I tell the accuracy or the insight of the artist, having never encountered the sitter in person – is to be deeply touched.

London Stories, a Rich and Complex Tapestry

I’ve just spent a week in London, near the Tower, and my mind is full of London stories… stories of many different aspects of life in the city. First of all, I think of the tales we were told on the walk from Whitechapel tube station, the Hidden East End walk, led by one of London Walks’ brilliant raconteurs.

Stories that encompassed Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the Salvation Army, the Tower Hamlets Mission, the almshouses, the White Hart pub and Richard II, Henry de Montfort and his daughter, and his alias as the Blind Beggar, stories of the Elephant Man and Whitechapel Hospital, of the French Huguenots’ houses near Brick Lane, Spitalfields, and the building that has housed four major faiths…

French Huguenots' houses Spitalfields
French Huguenots’ houses Spitalfields

I have in my mind stories of the vulnerable and oppressed: enslaved Africans, whose story is told at the Museum of London, Docklands;  foundlings abandoned on the streets during the height of the gin craze, whose story is told at the Foundling Museum, Bloomsbury;

The grand room that the governors met in, Foundling Hospital, London
The grand room that the governors met in, Foundling Hospital, London

and stories of the disabled ex-sailors, some as young as 12, who were looked after according to a strict regime in the Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich.

Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich
Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich

I have in mind the magnificent and privileged, those in Anglo Saxon times who were important and wealthy enough to leave precious time capsules for the British Library to display centuries later in their Anglo Saxon Kingdoms exhibition:  the magnificent, the scholarly and the gifted: kings, monks and abbots.

anglo saxon kingdoms, art, word, war
anglo saxon kingdoms, art, word, war

So, throughout my week in London and all the places I visited, I have in mind the peasants, the gangsters, the deformed, the desperately poor, along with the brickmakers, the law-makers,  the ministers, the politicians,  and civil servants and officials of Westminster whose alter-egos were created in the Ministry of Magic by JK Rowling… for we learned, too, about the locations in Westminster where the film-makers brought her imagined scenes to life, in Harry Potter on Location in London town

In my next few blog posts I’ll have more to say about these and other individual strands of London life, but for now let it remain a brief survey of a rich and complex tapestry.

Christmas Market at Shakespeare’s School on Saturday 8th December 2018

I’m looking forward to being part of the Christmas Market at King Edward VI School in Stratford-upon-Avon on Saturday 8th December 2018 from 12.30-3.30pm.KES Christmas Market

This was the school where Shakespeare studied in the famous Schoolroom between the years 1571 and 1578. So he won’t be at there in person but he may well be in spirit; for he was fond of revelry, and so were some of his most famous characters, Falstaff among them.

12.jpg

Having exhibited and sold my books at this fair in previous years I can promise there will be music, fun, a festive atmosphere and a fantastic raffle ( which I must admit does carry the best prizes I’ve ever seen at events of this sort). So if you are in the Stratford-upon-Avon area this weekend do come along to the Christmas Market, enjoy the revels, soak up the atmosphere, browse the stalls, and come and have a chat at the Local Author stand, where I’ll be signing and selling my paranormal thriller suspense novels.SC Skillman booksigning table at King Edward VI School Christmas Fair 3 Dec 2016.jpg

 

A Creative Way To Grow, to Journey Through Our Lives and to Be Replanted in Eden

Dandelions. They are strong and beautiful. DandelionFlower

 

They grow even in thin, dry, tough places.

 

They have a deep root system.Dandelion seeding

dying dandelion

And when they die they give their seeds so other dandelions can grow.

Recently I was at a Creative Arts day at Christ Church, Orpington in Kent, which centred around the theme of Growth and was called Creative Encounters with a Creative God. The day was organised by Liesel Stanbridge, musician/composer and music leader at Christ Church. During the day she introduced us to her lovely song: “Replanted in Eden.”

At the centre of the day was this beautiful song “Grow” by Francis, accompanied by a video of stills of dandelions at every stage of their life journey, death, and dispersal of seeds.

During the day there were several creative workshops to choose from including pottery, jewellery, meditation, drumming, poetry, harvest arrangements, dancing with flags, and creative writing, to mention only a few  All of these carried the theme of Growth.

At the end of the day I feel sure that all of us brought something away with us which would have enabled us to see our life journeys afresh: something to think about, something to learn from and something to open up our true identities. I attended the Pottery class led by Caroline Bailey, in which we pressed leaves and scallop shells into clay, whilst listening to poetry, prayers and meditations; a moving and uplifting experience.  Also I attended a workshop on CS Lewis: Image and Imagination and was inspired by the wisdom and discernment of that great writer.

I led the Creative Writing workshop in the afternoon. Here is the description of my workshop:

Classic story structure: the very heart of story-tellingMany of us have a favourite story of all time. Story is a deep and powerful part of our lives from infancy. But did you know that behind every story that thrills our hearts, lies classic story structure? It is to be found in all great stories and myths, and it encompasses the mythic journey of the hero. Suspense author SC Skillman will share the secrets of classic story structure and then lead a creative writing session where you’ll be able to draw upon your own life, and find classic story structure emerging from your own experiences. Come and be inspired to turn your own life experiences into fiction – whether that be short stories or novels for children or adults.

In fact for the writing exercise I used Story Cubes, and each table of participants used the images on the 9 sides of the story cubes to create a story of their own based on the principles of classic story structure. Much hilarity resulted as the groups shared their story lines which were a wild and free mix of genres!

I find it awesome to see the innate creativity of people in the way they respond to story, (even among those who might initially claim a lack of ideas or imagination). And I was moved and delighted to hear and see what the story cubes awaken in people who trust and engage with the process.

All in all, this was a day in whch I believe that all of us present must surely have experienced for ourselves the miracle and wonder of growth.

 

 

 

 

Algorithms and Magical Thinking – at St Mary’s Church Warwick and the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

How do we deal with the unpredictabilty of the world we find ourselves in?spellbound-website-banner

Recently I’ve been challenged at two quite separate events to consider the ways in which we look at the world and handle the unpredictability and unaccountability of our lives.

One event was held in St Mary’s Church Warwick where I heard a lecture by Revd. Professor Bernard Silverman, formerly Scientific Adviser to the Home Office.

Professor Bernard Silverman, British Statistician
Professor Bernard Silverman, British Statistician

And the other event was an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, called Spellbound: Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft.

At first glance, it seems our choice between the two is clear. After all, we are rational twenty-first century beings. We’ve had the Reformation and the Enlightenment, we know all about logic and philosophy and psychology and the laws of cause and effect. We have modern medicine. We know about viruses and bacteria. We have innoculations. We live in a much more civilised, controlled, functional world, don’t we, than our predecessors?

Or do we? Take your choice:

Do we trust mathematical predictions through algorithms?

or do we rely on the magical thinking in which humankind has engaged for centuries?

or… do we hold both of these in our consciousness as we proceed through this world, along with other outlooks as well?

Do you ever wonder where those politicans get their statistics from that they throw at us during media interviews, to underline or prove or disprove certain policies?politicians and statistics As a statistician, Prof Silverman has advised the government on many vital issues, including the numbers of people involved in modern slavery, and those taking certain classes of illegal drugs and those involved in drug-dealing, and how to handle a massive influx of migrants into the country. He employs his expertise to predict and manage probabilities and to anticipate situations on a scientific basis, and thus to provide solutions to the best way of handling problems.

Once someone said to him incredulously, “You mean, you found that out by…. using algebra?”

To which he replied, “…as opposed to just guessing? Yes.”

He researches data and then fits a mathematical model to it, and then gives impartial expert advice to support government. He did say it’s up to science not to overplay the evidence; and it’s incumbent on scientists to explain what they’ve found in terms people can understand; findings should be informed by expertise and not solely by the scientists’ personal opinions.

He was asked about the ethical challenges to scientists and he said the only real danger is when the Chief Scientific Adviser gets captured by the agenda.

In order to guard against that, he or she must:

a) make sure advice is in the public domain

b) have several people to whom he or she is accountable

c) listen and observe – after all, that encapsulates the scientific method.

Having listened to Professor Silvermen I felt heartened and encouraged,  and left the church with a much more  positive view of our country and our system of government and indeed our politicians.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I felt that with the Chief Scientific Advisers behind them, we have good reason to trust our politicans, perhaps, much more than we do.

Then I went to the exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford: Spellbound: Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft.

Here we found displayed many objects which testify to the reliance our forbears placed upon the idea of changing the external world and their circumstances by manipulation of objects through magic.

I found the exhibition aroused many different emotions; it was at different points, creepy, sad, disturbing, distressing, moving, thought-provoking. And as I went round the exhibition, I thought Humans are not essentially rational creatures – they are kaleidoscopic creatures.

George Iles quote on superstition

When we look at English history we may consider the following paradoxes:

Henry VIII chopped off people’s heads and condemned them to be hanged drawn and quartered,  and was in many ways a monster… and yet he was the first monarch to ensure an English translation of the Bible should be in every church, so the people could read in their own language the Gospels he himself clearly had not read (because the message of love, mercy and compassion had evidently not got through to him).

Elizabeth I fought to stop the idolatry and superstition of Catholic practices, and to institute her new Church, enlightened, rational, flower of the Reformation… and she also employed John Dee, Court Magician ( some of whose magical objects were in this exhibition). And women were persecuted and executed as witches right up until 1680 – 22 years into her reign.

James I has given his name to first much-revered King James translation of the Bible, and no more women were executed for witchcraft during his reign, and he fought to maintain Protestantism….except that he was obsessed with witchcraft, he wrote a book on it, and Shakespeare wrote Macbeth to please James I, and took the witches’ (genuine) spells directly out of James I’s book.

Yes, here in the twenty-first century we are rational beings… but we still have within us black spots of what has been called wilful self-deception.

People for centuries have ostensibly followed Christianity yet believed in magical objects and rituals and spells. Clergymen have fought a losing battle against superstition, and caches of magical objects – used everyday items imbued with magical spells – have been found even in the twentieth century, secreted in hiding places in old houses. Some of these caches were on display in the museum; a pair of man’s breeches; a child’s shoe; several teeth; a number of small medicine bottles, and all sorts of items, almost like a curious time capsule, stashed away up the chimney or under the floorboards to somehow magically influence the lives of their owners.

As I moved through the exhibition I found myself thinking that in the past centuries, the powerlessness and brutality of life would have often led people to magical thinking, when Christian prayer seemed not to work.

17th century woodcut - poor women demonised by accusations of witchcraft
17th century woodcut – poor women demonised by accusations of witchcraft

But are we so civilised and enlightened that we can look down on all that with incredulous disdain?

Do we cross our fingers, or avoid walking under ladders, or feel uneasy with the number 13? Do we have a dream catcher in our bedroom, or a lucky duck from Whitby sitting on the shelf? Do we pass on Irish blessings over social media with a threat that if you don’t forward it to 7 others something bad will happen to you? do you believe in house blessings, or keep crosses or icons around the house? Do you buy guardian angels on chains to wear as a pendant, or take a St Christopher on a journey with you? If we write, do we always use a special pen, or follow a certain ritual before beginning?

These and many other little rituals show that we still use magical thinking.

Certainly we can understand where JK Rowling got her ideas from and why her books have such a powerful hold on us…

 

 

 

Joyful Atmosphere at the Leamington Spa Peace Festival June 2018

Each year in June the Peace Festival is held in the Royal Pump Room Gardens in Leamington Spa. Leamington Spa Peace Festival viewA colourful and eclectic mix of stallholders, different religious and activist and local community groups, musicians, street food vendors, and sellers of vibrant gypsy, bohemian and ethnic clothes, hats, bag and jewellery all converge on the gardens.

Kate's Story Tree at Leamington Spa Peace Festival

The result is a vibrant, joyful festival lasting two days, spreading goodwill and the message of peaceful co-existence, mutual understanding and acceptance of our fellow human beings in all our diversity.

Einstein quote at Leamington Spa Peace Festival

The local community choir Songlines conducted by our enthusiastic maestro Bruce Knight sang a cross-cultural set of songs which included fantastic gospel songs Egalile, I’m on My Way to Canaan Land, and Done Made My Vow to the Lord, along with community choir arrangements of I’m Still Standing by Elton John, Like a Hurricane by Neil Young, and the uplifting and moving song Hey Brother by Avicii.

The Leamington Spa Peace Festival is run, amazingly, by volunteers, and they do a brilliant job of organising this event. Long may the Peace Festival return to Leamington Spa each year.

Save the Pixies at Leamington Spa Peace Festival