Inspiration for Creative Writers From Grayson Perry in Grayson’s Art Club

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.

Grayson Perry in one of his colourful alternative personnas
Artist Grayson Perry

Inspiration from Fantasy Novelist Philip Pullman, President of the Society of Authors

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.”

Enchantment in the Natural World in this Time of Lockdown

As the days of the lockdown pass, I’m becoming more aware of a new and powerful sense of renewal in the natural world.

Not only have I noticed this on my daily walks but I am hearing it from other people too.

“It’s like going back 50 years. Everyone is so much more ‘together’ and more friendly.”

“The sky is much bluer, the water in the River Avon is much clearer. The birdsong is outstanding.”

“Air quality has improved. There are no longer any chem-trails from planes flying over.”

I myself on my walks feel that nature is much brighter and more intense and more abundant than I have ever known before.

The light keeps shining on delicate buds and new baby leaf sprays about to burst open. The green is rich, the white is intense. It is all very spiritual.

I find myself being constantly ‘surprised.’ As I returned home from one walk, everything became more golden and more green until it was almost overwhelming.

Nature has flourished because human activity has been subdued.

This isn’t just the open countryside, it’s the pockets of green and the pathways and small areas of parkland nestled in between and alongside houses and canal and roads.

This is how it appears to me because we are all slowing down, the streets are quiet, we are not all engaging in frenzied activity and chasing achievement and Doing and Aquiring Things as we normally do.

“May this heal us from the sickness that brings death to the body; may this heal us from the sickness that brings death to the soul.”

Australia and New Zealand Mini Series Part 28: Queensland, Australia: from University Campus to Botanic Gardens and Iconic Lookout: Brisbane Highlights

This is the twenty-eighth and final post in my series of short reflections on different places in Australia and New Zealand, as experienced during my November 2019 visit.

Map of Australia and New Zealand

In my last post I wrote about our final visit in New Zealand: Auckland Botanic Gardens. Whilst there we enjoyed the outstanding Sculptures in the Gardens exhibition which continues to showcase and celebrate New Zealand sculptors and artists, through to March 2020..

After flying from Auckland to Brisbane, we were to catch up on some of Brisbane’s highlights in the closing days of our visit.

Promotional websites for Brisbane will point up a number of places to visitors as the “jewels in the city’s crown” but I think the University of Queensland campus certainly deserves to be one of them. I worked there in the School of External Studies, during the time I lived in Brisbane during the 1980s. Much has changed since then but I still enjoyed walking once more through the cloisters of the Great Court, and admiring the wonderful landscaping and of course the magnificent poincianna tree with profuse blossoms, and fragrant frangipani trees which you may see here. Among many other outstanding features, the campus also has a stunning art gallery.

Out last two visits in Brisbane were to the Look-Out and the Botanic Gardens at Mount Coot-tha.

The Lookout is one of Brisbane’s most popular tourist destinations, offering almost 360 degree views. I’ve been there many times in the past, and often a glorious blue sky and clear atmosphere makes this a joyful experience for visitors. However, on this occasion, at the summit the heat was fierce, and the smoke from bushfires was very much in evidence, filling the Brisbane skies.

For me this was a nostalgic, poignant visit, though it has always given me pleasure just to be there and do some tourist-watching! The views from this lookout must be the most popular place in Brisbane as a backdrop for photo opportunities, and at the height of the holiday season, myriads of holiday-makers from all around the world enjoy posing in happy and often artfully-arranged groups.

Our final visit was to Mount Coot-tha Botanic Gardens. These gardens, too, I have loved and often wandered around in the past; today, sadly, the temperatures and humidity were so high, we were unable to tour the gardens as there is much uphill walking, and again a lovely lookout at the highest point of the gardens.

Instead we did the Rainforest Trail: always a blessed relief and an excellent option in times of fierce heat and humidity!

I was also a pleasure afterwards to enter the air-conditioned atmosphere of the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium. The day of our visit the Planetarium was offering as its midday show, “Cosmic Collisions” narrated by Robert Redford. I’ve been to the planetarium show too in the past and greatly enjoyed it.

It was a pleasure to return once more to Brisbane and to the many familiar haunts that I remembered from the four and a half years I spent living there in the 1980s. Inevitably there have been tremendous changes, and yet these simply serve to highlight and set in sharp relief those elements which endure, and arouse a sense of recognition, bringing again a sense of deep connection.

These can arise at unexpected moments, sometimes the subtropical forest of a mountain lookout, or a kookaburra sitting on a branch in front of the panorama of the Samford Valley; at other times the glimpse of a gracious colonial Queenslander with its iron lace balustrades; or the feeling of walking through spacious galleries and gazing at the water features of the State Library of Queensland or the Gallery of Modern Art, or the lovely landscaping of the South Bank Parklands.

Perhaps I may best end by highlighting an excellent presentation of the history of the city, in the Museum of Brisbane to be found in the City Hall in King George Square.

There, aboriginal people speak on video. They represent the ancestral owners of all the land upon which Brisbane is built.

“We believe the land respects us if we respect the land.”

Another said, very gently, of the great city that has risen up on this land: “We wish it wasn’t here. But times change.”

I thought of the corroboree spaces, the campsites, the burial grounds and other places of aboriginal life along the Brisbane river in the past. These were all vividly depicted on a timeline map of the Brisbane river, to be found on display in the museum.

“We believe the land respects us if we respect the land”.

Their words, and the feeling behind them made me feel sad. And yet, I reflected, if the feelings of the aboriginal people had been respected, and their land not taken from them and occupied…. I would never be here myself.

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.

Australia and New Zealand Mini Series Part 27: North Island, New Zealand: Auckland Botanic Gardens

This is the twenty-seventh post in my series of short reflections on different places in Australia and New Zealand, as experienced during my November 2019 visit. Today concludes my account of a journey through New Zealand’s North Island.

map of New Zealand
map of New Zealand
Map of Australia and New Zealand

In my last post I wrote about our visit to the Coromandel Peninsula.

Map of the Coromandel Peninsula

I described our stay in Hahei, on the South Pacific coast, and our boat trip to Cathedral Cove: which appears as the first dramatic setting for the Pevensie children as they arrive unexpectedly in Narnia in the opening scene of the film Prince Caspian.

On the last day of our day we headed south again back to Auckland. Before returning to Auckland airport for our return flight to Brisbane, we visited the Auckland Botanic Gardens.

The entrance to the gardens featured lovely architecture, sculptures and water features.

Inside the entrance area we found an art gallery and cafe. Here in the Auckland Botanic Gardens, Sculpture in the Gardens will showcase and celebrate some great sculptors and artists through to March 2020. We found much to inspire, move and challenge us. I was particularly impressed by a white sculpture of a sad seated girl: poignant, graceful and evocative.

White sculpture of sad seated girl in the entrance area of Auckland Botanic Gardens

Another sculpture which fascinated me, by artist Oliver Stretton-Pow, represents a vision of a city. Called Just City, the artist created it in 2019 using wood, steel and found objects.

Just City, a sculpture in the entrance area of Auckland Botanic Gardens, created in 2019 by artist Oliver Stretton-Pow, using wood, steel and found objects.

Out in the gardens we found this intriguing installation by artist Jeff Thomson. Jeff is known as “Mr Corrugated Iron” and he called this installation Islands. Using corrugated iron, water, galvanised steel mesh, hay, wire, wetland and aquatic plants, he has re-created some of the 50-pus islands of the Haurakia Gulf. He hopes that by playing with positive and negative shapes, he will make us question the relationship between land and sea.

Later we wandered through an area of the garden which featured giant bees on honeycomb.

The ingenious use of arts and sculpture interwoven with colourful planting delighted us all.

Elsewhere in the gardens, we found an area devoted to demonstrating styles of garden design and planting suited to specific climates and location; I was interested to find a recommendation of “green manure” very similar to that seen in Ryton Organic Gardens in Warwickshire a year or so ago. ‘Green manure’ rules, in both the UK, and in New Zealand twenty six hours fight away!

We then set off for Auckland airport and so ended our tour of New Zealand’s North Island, a green and beautiful land full of majestic landscapes and sublime coastal scenery, along with outstanding tourist attractions and awesome geological wonders.

In my next post, the last in my ‘Australia and New Zealand’ series, I share more images of lovely botanic gardens: this time, on the slopes of Mount Coot-tha in Brisbane.

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.

Australia and New Zealand Mini Series Part 26: North Island, New Zealand: Coromandel Peninsula: Hahei, Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach

This is the twenty-sixth in my series of short reflections on different places in Australia and New Zealand, as experienced during my November 2019 visit. Today continues my account of a journey through New Zealand’s North Island.

map of New Zealand
map of New Zealand
Map of Australia and New Zealand

In my last post I wrote about our visit to the Tamaki Maori village at Rotorua, when we became a Maori tribe for the evening with an elected Chief, and gained an insight into the world of the Maori people: an immersive, experiential evening, full of fun and fresh insights: and deservedly one of New Zealand’s most popular attractions.

After our visit to Rotorua we headed north again, this time up into the Coromandel Peninsula.

Map of the Coromandel Peninsula

Our destination was Hahei, on the South Pacific coast, not far from Cathedral Cove: which appears as the first dramatic setting for the Pevensie children as they arrive unexpectedly in Narnia in the opening scene of the film Prince Caspian.

The route to Coromandel took us via the Katikati Bird Gardens at Aongatete, on the Bay of Plenty. We toured the gardens with feed for the birds; many fowls and their chicks scurried along the paths, among beautiful planting and a rich variety of flowers in brilliant colours.

We continued on our journey, which took us through richly forested mountains and between deep cuttings filled with diverse trees interspersed with giant tree ferns, the blue shape of further mountain ranges ahead of us. We stopped off at Whangamata to enjoy its picturesque harbour opening out into the South Pacific.

I sat by the Ocean Sports Club enjoying the idyllic surroundings, and listening to the sound of Elton John’s voice floating out over the South Pacific from the Ocean Sports Club.

We drove on again through dramatic mountain scenery.

Arriving at Hahei, we found our accommodation: one of the cottages forming part of a development named “The Church Accommodation“. Each cottage is set in lush subtropical gardens; the site originally surrounded a former Methodist Chapel which has now been converted into a bistro. It is a well-designed development for tourist accommodation and we weren’t the only visitors wandering around gazing at the flowers in the gardens, enchanted by the subtropical planting.

First thing the next day we embarked on a ten-person boat trip out into the Bay of Plenty to see Cathedral Cove. The trip was called The Hahei Explorer.We were told that the early boat trip was the best to take, when the bay would be at its calmest. I must admit that once we were out on the bay, I found myself wondering what it would be like later in the day, if this was what he called “calm waters”!

On arrival at the beach we all donned life jackets, removed shoes and socks, rolled up our trouser legs and enclosed cameras and possessions in waterproof sealed bags. Waves rolled in as we climbed onto the boat. The launch was quite rough and then we bounced over the bay, the water a glorious rich turquoise.

The boat trip was great fun and very invigorating, and our young skipper stood at the back and provided a commentary about the rock formations we passed: a sharp spike sticking straight up, triangular with one long serrated side; a hole in the rock, a cave through which we cruised.

To be out on the bay, bouncing over the waves, immersed in dramatic natural beauty, is a purifying experience. Daily concerns and worries lift away and for that short time you are part of the creation, absorbed in wonder.

We cruised past the glorious Cathedral Cove. A few people stood on the pristine pale gold beach; at the height of the tourist season tourists congregate here in their thousands. So we were very glad to have chosen the earlier boat trip, and to find the beach so empty. We saw kayakers out on the bay as we cruised past.

When we returned to Hahei Beach the waves were much more vigorous as they washed onto the sand. As I rose to disembark I was drenched by a large wave, having remained dry throughout the entire boat trip!

Later two of our party walked to Cathedral Cove from Hahei, and captured these scenes of awesome grandeur.

Finally we visited Hot Water Beach, not far from Hahei. There, thermal activity beneath the surface mean that hot water bubbles through the sand – but only in certain areas where several tourist were busy digging so they could sit in the “natural hot tub” when the water rolled in and filled the holes they’d dug. It was very entertaining to watch them; and some of our party did their own digging!

We revelled in the enchanting views of the beach and shoreline in the late afternoon light.

Finally, we celebrated our “Sundowner” with a New Zealand sparkling wine very close to genuine champagne, called Cloudy Bay – Pelorus. I was delighted to learn that this wine is named after a special dolphin called Pelorus who guided ships through the treacherous waters of Cook Strait from 1888 to 1912.

A fitting end to an amazing day.

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.

Book Review: the Girl with Seven Names: Escape From North Korea by Hyeonseo Lee

A powerful, emotionally engaging and sometimes shocking account by a very courageous woman.

The Girl with Seven Names – Escape From North Korea by Hyeonseo Lee

Through her own shrewdness, presence of mind and intelligence, Hyeonseo managed to transform her life and that of her family by escaping from North Korea at the age of 17, undergoing a long and hazardous journey through China, and ultimately gaining South Korean citizenship status for them all 12 years later – and then marrying an American (“one of the reviled Yankee jackals of North Korean propaganda”.) She also saved her mother and brother, guiding them on the same arduous journey she had herself taken through China and onto Laos to seek asylum at the South Korea embassy.

Some of the most shocking details in this account come from the author’s description of life inside North Korea under the control of Kim Il-sung (‘Great Leader’ who founded North Korea); and his son Kim Jong-il ‘Dear Leader’ – to whom was attributed a nativity story very similar to that of Jesus Christ (though the brainwashed population of North Korea weren’t to know that).

Hyeonseo shares with us what the North Korean people were told: that his birth was foretold by miraculous signs in the heavens, including the appearance of a bright new star in the sky. From early childhood she and her classmates were encouraged to draw pictures of the snow-covered wooden cabin of his birth with the sacred mountain behind it and the new star in the sky. They came to associate the Great Leader and the Dear Leader with gifts and excitement in the same way that children in the West think of Santa Claus.

She was in South Korea at the time Kim Jong-un took over and this time she was at a safe distance viewing on TV the crowds she herself had once been forced to stand among, weeping at the death of the god-like predecessor, knowing that guards circulated among them ready to mete out severe punishments to anyone who was faking it.

In fact the first time her beliefs about North Korea ‘the greatest nation on earth’ were challenged, was through the impassioned outburst of her uncle Jung-jil, her father’s cousin, whose family had fled North Korea during the Korean War and now lived in Shenyang 8 hours drive into China.

The details the author gives of life inside North Korea, worshipping the Great Leader and the Dear Leader, are stunning. Amongst the highlights are these facts: everyone had to display on the walls of their homes a trio of air-brushed portraits: The Great Leader, The Dear Leader, and the Dear Leader’s first wife, also accorded almost god-like status. Everyone had to keep this trio of portraits in pristine condition – or risk severe punishment by white-gloved government inspectors who would visit monthly to find any specks of dust.

The author describes many other extraordinary events which are a simple fact of life in North Korea, such as the summary executions; the year-long rehearsals by thousands of schoolchildren for the mass display of the Leaders’ portraits; the hierarchy of society determined by one’s family history of loyalty to the Leaders.

She also gives a harrowing description of the famine that gripped North Korea in the mid 1990s when more than a million people died, and she recalls walking past a train station and seeing a dead woman in her early twenties lying on the pavement clutching an emaciated child to her, and being ignored by all who walked past. And she describes the lies of the Great Leader, who claimed in his propaganda broadcasts that he shared the suffering of his people, and was confining himself only to riceballs, to show his solidarity with them – yet remained as portly and well-fed as ever.

The other outstanding fact is the very low regard held for truth or historical fact; the fact that government officials can be bribed with money to do anything – including changing official records.

But even the details of life inside North Korea are not necessarily the most shocking thing in this story. For me, that honour is held by the callous behaviour of those people in China and Laos, who hold it in their power either to show compassion for North Korean defectors, or to destroy their lives. For many of them, not one simple act of common human decency can be carried out without a demand for money. The cruel and inhuman attitude that prevails towards North Korean defectors is sickening, to a Western reader.

Hyeonseo had to bribe her way through China, in order to save herself. Her journey was a journey through the vast underworld of people smugglers, Chinese ‘brokers’, fake IDs, false documents and changed records: all at considerable financial cost to herself and to those family members who were kind enough to transfer money to her (which she later paid back in full). It is truly a chilling vision of humanity to see corruption so deeply woven into a society, infecting everyone, every human interaction.

So when Hyeonseo encounters the Australian, Dick Stolp, and he shows her the generosity and compassion born of altruism, which is so severely lacking elsewhere in her experience, it comes across as a miracle. Interestingly, she was praying to the spirits of her ancestors for help just before he approached her in a coffee bar.

Through this account, sometimes harrowing and upsetting, Hyeonseo’s character shines, together with her love for and devotion to her mother and brother. She demonstrates brilliant presence of mind when she distracts the guard on the bus who is, contrary to expectations, checking everyone’s IDs and studying their faces, and she saves her brother from capture (for he has at this time no ID).

Another very impressive scene is when she is interrogated by an official who is determined to find out if she is North Korean. He looks deep into her eyes and asks her all sorts of tricky questions, but she ends up convincing him she is Chinese. This is largely because of the foresight of her father years before who insisted on her learning Mandarin – which she now speaks without any trace of a North Korean accent.

As you read the book you cannot help feeling that she is a total inspiration, not purely as a successful North Korean defector, but as a woman in her own right, with immense strength of character and inner resources.

After so many traumatic details in this account, it is good to read at the end how things are changing now, due to the international exposure Hyeonseo achieved after her February 2013 TED talk. She writes that some of the most inspiring messages she received afterwards came from China – a country which she says she loves but where she suffered many hardships – many of the messages expressing their writers’ shame at the complicity of their government in hounding escaped North Koreans.

Even after all that happened, her mother and her brother were sorely tempted to return to North Korea – such is the love people can have for their homeland, despite all other circumstances.

It is particularly poignant to read at the end of her account, these words: “Among the 27,000 North Koreans in the south, two kinds of life have been left behind: the wretched life of persecution and hunger, and the manageable life that was not so bad…. for the second group life in the South is far more daunting. It often makes them yearn for the simpler, more ordered existence they left behind, where big decisions are taken for them by the state, and where life is not a fierce competition.”

These words are particularly astute because they reflect what some people from East Berlin felt after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The irony is that for some, life under a totalitarian regime can be simpler, with far fewer options, all big decisions made for them by the State. This is something they prefer to what we might call “freedom.” This is a paradox we would all do well to muse upon and always to hold in mind.

SC Skillman, psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction. My next book ‘Paranormal Warwickshire’ will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15h June 2020.

Book Review: ‘Less Than Ordinary’ by Nicki Copeland

Less than Ordinary‘, published by Instant Apostle, is a non-fiction inspirational self-help book, an account of one woman’s journey from low self-esteem and negative self-limiting beliefs to a place of wholeness where she is able to blossom, nurture her relationships, rejoice in her own inherent worth, and offer her gifts to the world.

A quote attributed to Nelson Mandela: As we let our own lights shine we unconsciously give others permission to do the same.

During the early part of the book, as I read Nicki’s story, I found myself wondering where all these ideas about herself had come from. What messages was she given when she was a young child? But later I thought that maybe the people who gave her those messages had no idea they were doing something so destructive; perhaps no such intention lay behind their words.

And then I realised I was identifying with some of her experiences, and I recognised the mindset. It may be that cultural presumptions about the role of women have something to do with it – even in our society, male/female equality still has a long way to go – but I also know there are men who feel as Nicki describes in these pages.

On a lighter note, I might mention that PG Wodehouse’s novels are full of young men browbeaten by domineering aunts and other authority figures, who are too shy and timid to express their true feelings, or be assertive. Light or not, the issues Nicki shares with us are not just a female thing.

What interested me in the book was Nicki’s description of how she came out of all this. She says that she ‘gradually began to consider…’ or ‘it occurred to’ her that… or she ‘slowly realised….’

For me the process was the same. Observation of people and experience of life eventually teaches you a stunning truth: that many of those who appear confident are not, underneath; that probably the majority of people shrink from meeting strangers; and that, in fact, when we humans seek to achieve our goals, we seem to be hard-wired to take what Robert McKee describes, in his book Story, ‘the most conservative action first.’

In Story, McKee points out that when constructing a plot, the author sets the main protagonist a challenge to overcome, a goal to achieve. Then the protagonist considers how to get what they want. And they always take the most conservative action first. In other words, they expend the least amount of energy to get what they want. This seems a rule of human nature and in the natural world too.

And if that works, good. But if it doesn’t – then you’ve got to spend a bit more energy, exercise more ingenuity, and do something a bit less conservative. And so on, until only the most extreme measures will do. It’s often only when people are pushed to the limit that they conquer great challenges.

So we can apply this rule of life to what Nicki says in her book Less Than Ordinary. All her early presumptions about herself were utterly false; and when the truth of human nature and behaviour finally broke in on her, she threw those false ideas away and she let her light shine.

I do believe there is great value for us when an author describes this process as well as Nicki does. If you feel this book sounds like one that would speak to you, I’d recommend reading it and pausing every once in a while to think about it, as you go through Nicki’s story.

Courage doesn’t consist of being naturally ‘confident’, and having high self-esteem written into your DNA and grasping challenges eagerly.

Courage is all about those who go on a long journey from out of a dark place, and discover the truth through life experience, then change in the light of it using the new knowledge to transform their lives.

SC Skillman

psychological, mystery, paranormal fiction & non-fiction

Film and Book Review: ‘Silence’ by Shusaku Endo: and The Film Starring Andrew Garfield

Silence by Shusaku Endo is one of the most compelling and powerful books I’ve ever read.Silence - a novel by Shusaku Endo I wrote about it in this way on my website as part of a blog post about an exhibition at the British Museum, Living With the Gods.

When I first read the book, several years ago, I think one of the most remarkable things about it is that the reader can see both sides and even have some understanding both of the Japanese and the Jesuit priest, despite the extreme cruelty of the torture to which the Christian converts are subjected.

I personally thought the priest Roderigues should apostatise and that it wouldn’t detract from the integrity of his faith at all, because how can we ever eradicate what is in the heart of another, especially in the face of words and actions forced out of them under torture?

But I admired the priest’s determination to stay true to his faith, as he understood it. I also felt I could make sense of the position of the Japanese, utterly determined to stop a foreign religion from adultering and diluting their own culture, from stealing hearts and minds in their own country devoted to their own religions. I saw both sides.

And in the film directed by Martin Scorsese which was released in 2010, I felt the same. Basically the Jesuit priest played by Andrew Garfield would be wisest, I considered, to recognise that the Japanese culture and mindset was utterly alien from his own cultural formulations of religion and utterly set on protecting their own cultural and religious identity.

I feel the same when I read about the Jesuit priests who came to England clandestinely in the sixteenth century to try and turn England back to Catholicism again:  God’s Secret Agents, an excellent book by Alice Hogge.  And also when I visit historical properties which were once strong Catholic houses whose occupants practised their faith against the direct orders of their government, and where persecution of priests is part of the house’s history.

No matter the rightness or the wrongness of their position, when viewed in hindsight, I still admire the priests’ passionate conviction in the face of fierce persecution and the prospect of being hanged drawn and quartered.

England ultimately became Protestant, and I don’t myself believe that the spiritual stakes as they saw them ever existed; or that the fate of anyone’s eternal soul ever stood in jeopardy according to whether they were Catholic or Protestant.

But they believed it. And that’s all that matters.

Were they wrong? This is the big question that hangs over all these heartrending, dramatic stories. And the same question hangs over all our lives, as we struggle for whatever cause or goal or dream we passionately believe in. We’re probably wrong, too. Or at least there’s a high probability we are.

But does that invalidate our passion, conviction, courage and persistence and fierce unrelenting resilience?

No. Because if it does invalidate it, then shall we all just give up now?

I know as a writer I will never give up, whatever the outcome may be.

SC Skillman

Psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path

Coming soon: Spirit of Warwickshire

 

Book Review: “The Making of Us” by Sheridan Voysey

Here’s a book which should appeal to those of you who feel as if you’ve reached  a point in your lives where all that you hoped for has not been achieved; maybe it seems you have to let go of your dreams; and perhaps you simply don’t know where to go from here.

The Making of Us by Sheridan Voysey

 The Making of Us by Sheridan Voysey is the story of a pilgrimage on foot from the island of Lindisfarne (Holy Island) to the Shrine of St Cuthbert at Durham Cathedral. It’s  also a Christian-inspired self-help book enabling readers to reflect upon their own life journeys. Following the rhythm of the two pilgrims, (the author Sheridan Voysey and his friend DJ), we can visualise the landscape they travel, and feel the spiritual highs and the physical and emotional lows of the journey.

I met Sheridan at an author’s conference a couple of years ago. He told us his story, and spoke about his books and his broadcasting work, and then, having shared his own writing journey, he offered inspiration and guidance to the writers in the audience.

During the day he also offered his expertise as an experienced broadcaster, and asked for volunteers among us, to come up so he could interview us about ourselves and our books. I was one of those who volunteered, and it was a very helpful and enlightening exercise in the art of introducing yourself to a radio audience within a limited time-frame, in the most succinct and engaging way!

Sheridan is originally from Brisbane in Australia, though he now lives in Oxford in the UK.  I find his observations about Brisbane and Sydney particularly poignant as I lived in Brisbane myself for four and a half years before returning to live in the UK.

I have another personal connection with the subject of Sheridan’s book: I visited Lindisfarne (Holy Island) myself three years ago. This island is a very special place, and I felt a strong spiritual presence there; a retreat on the island offers several ways to reflect upon your life and your place in the world and in the universe.  During his promotional videos for the release of this book, Sheridan has included videos of Holy Island and of him walking across to the island from the mainland during low tide.

Through the medium of this physical journey between Lindisfarne and the Shrine of St Cuthbert, Sheridan teaches us much deeper values which may apply to our own lives, especially those of us who may define ourselves by any of the following:

  • who we know
  • our possessions
  • our status
  • our dreams and ambitions
  • our job titles.

Do you, perhaps, suffer from imposter syndrome This is an affliction that often applies to writers – even those whom the world might consider “successful”. Or, do you find that when people ask what you “do”, you respond with what you used to do?

These two pilgrims’ journey through the woods and fields and paths and roads of Northumberland then starts to parallel our own life journeys. During Sheridan’s description of the walk, he reflects upon periods in his own past life story. Places he and DJ visit give rise to memories of people he has known whom he now sees in a new light.

In all this, Sheridan’s purpose seems to be to shift our value systems, our vision of what really matters about our lives here on this earth. He interweaves biographical information about the Celtic saints Aidan and Cuthbert into his pilgrimage, giving us the opportunity to relate aspects of their journeys to our own.

One of the most striking sentences in the book is:

Maybe when identity is lost we can discover who we really are.”

And the most challenging question:

Could you be content having your contribution to the world left unknown or forgotten, yet known by God and pleasing to him?

At the end of the book, Sheridan gives a series of questions to reflect on for each chapter, and several blank journalling pages if you wish to use the book as the basis for a much more in-depth project of self-knowledge. The book could be used as a group resource as well as an individual one; but if you were to study and work with the book as part of a group, that group would need to be one in which you felt safe and secure.

He also offers his own contemporary Creed which you may download from his website sheridanvoysey.com.

I give this book the highest possible rating, 5 stars, and I recommend it to all those of you who resonate with what I’ve written in this review.

I received a complimentary copy of this title in exchange for a fair and honest review.

 

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction and inspirational non-fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit, Perilous Path