A Resurgence in Withdrawal – Covid-19 Lockdown Art

So many of us have reacted in different ways in the UK lockdown, some being energized and leaping into action in house and garden, others relapsing into lethargy, feeling flat and down and disorientated and bewildered by what’s going on in the world. Others may have taken up a new activity or found themselves behaving differently.

I’ve taken up art. An artist friend Jane lent me her artist’s supplies before the lockdown and then of course I had no chance to call on her to give them back. She urged me to use them, though I hadn’t painted for years.

The sumptuous thick squidgy texture and the brilliant colours of the acrylic paint called me, and the full set of artist’s brushes invited me to engage with them.

So I ordered a Strathmore art pad online and began painting.

At first I laid on blocks of colour in an abstract design…

bright coloured abstract design in acrylic paints SC Skillman lockdown art
bright coloured abstract design in acrylic paints SC Skillman lockdown art

Then I seized a chance to lavish cobalt blue onto the paper…

blue and purple iris in acrylic paint SC Skillman lockdown art
blue and purple iris in acrylic paint SC Skillman lockdown art

Then I thought I’d try a tree of life…

tree of life in acrylic paints SC Skillman lockdown art
tree of life in acrylic paints SC Skillman lockdown art

The next one was in freestyle, and ended up looking like a fabric design:

red and yellow design acrylic paints SC Skillman lockdown art
red and yellow design acrylic paints SC Skillman lockdown art

A beautiful blue borage flower caught my eye in a friend’s photo on Facebook. Some see it as a weed. I loved the colour and the symmetry.

borage flower in acrylic paints SC Skillman lockdown art
borage flower in acrylic paints SC Skillman lockdown art

The next day a photo of a quarry garden inspired me. My husband looked at my painting and identified the ‘path’ as a river, and that’s when I realised the photo is just a guide, and at a certain point lack of technical skill tips you over the edge into fantasy.

river and garden in acrylic paints SC Skillman lockdown art
river and garden in acrylic paints SC Skillman lockdown art

I love the combination of trees and parkland and rich verdant landscapes with man-made features such as a bridge and a carefully designed lake and a temple. Capability Brown, step forward.

parkland, lake, bridge and temple in acrylic paints SC Skillman lockdown art
parkland, lake, bridge and temple in acrylic paints SC Skillman lockdown art

My sister sent me her photo of rich rainforest on the Queensland/New South Wales border. I loved the perspective. Standing on the edge of a cliff, the viewer gazes down to the waterfall far below.

rainforest and waterfall in acrylic paints SC Skillman lockdown art
rainforest and waterfall in acrylic paints SC Skillman lockdown art

Following a week in Cornwall visiting some vibrant tropical gardens, I felt like capturing one of the many vistas at Trebah:

garden and bridge in acrylic paints SC Skillman lockdown art
garden and bridge in acrylic paints SC Skillman lockdown art

Each time I paint a picture there’s always a point when I think, ‘This is going to be a mess. This feels so random’.

Later I take a photograph of the picture, and when I look at the photo I think, ‘oh it’s not so bad after all’.

Viewing a photo of art enables me to see it more objectively. It also changes the colour slightly and makes it appear more muted and subtle, and even gives the image a different feeling.

Something happens in that moment, something liminal, which makes me feel happy.

I later shared the photos of the paintings on social media, and people responded to them. Each time I felt a sense of surprise. They feel naive to me, and yet it is thrilling to evoke a response from a simple image.

I’m a writer but I never forget how people will often respond to an image first.

Have you taken up anything new or creative in lockdown?

Perhaps feeling flat and dispirited and down has led to something unexpected, which has given you a sense of fresh possibilities?

Angel Encounters Mini Series: Part 3. A Divine Encounter: the Right People in the Right Place at the Right Time

Angel encounters: another person, who just happens to be nice? God? Or an angel?

Philip meeting the Ethiopian Eunuch, as told in the Book of Acts in the New Testament

In the Bible the identity of angels is often confused with/ blurred with God.

“Was it God or an angel?” is often a question you have in your mind after a biblical encounter. Examples are the story where Jacob wrestled with a stranger; the story of 3 visitors to whom Abraham offered hospitality; and the angels who came and tended to Jesus in the wilderness after he’d resisted the 3 temptations.

Then there’s the story of Philip meeting the Ethiopian Eunuch.

This is an example of an encounter we might relate to.

For both people in the encounter, the moment was right. They were the right people in the right place at the right time.

When the student was ready, the teacher appeared

When the lesson was over, the teacher mysteriously disappeared.

At the end of the encounter, “the Spirit of the Lord took Philip away. And the Eunuch did not see him again but went on his way rejoicing.”

Here the bible makes no attempt to say that the stranger the Eunuch met was anything other than a human being. Not God, not an angel, but a person. But for the Eunuch you might say Philip occupied the same role as an angel, in many similar encounters people might experience, religious or non-religious, in the past, or right up to the present day.

I think all the modern day angel encounters I describe in this series are and will be ones where the people experiencing the encounter went on their way rejoicing. The same happened in the story of the road to Emmaus. In that story the stranger turned out to be the resurrected Jesus.

Many of these encounters are powerful in direct proportion to their brevity.

What makes them special, even divine, is the element of grace.

Human beings tend to need a motivation to do things, and they tend to expect something for it: some kind of reward. Gratitude, a response, some kind of material or emotional or psychological payback for the action.

God-incidences and divine or supernatural or angelic encounters are characterised by grace. They just happen. The stranger offering the help requires nothing. If the recipient of their help offers thanks, that is somehow a separate issue. They appear and disappear.

God can use a choice word, a routine appointment, or a brief conversation to change a life

(Lectio 365 Wed 1st  July 2020).

In this series I describe a number of occasions where somebody today, in our contemporary world,  believed they experienced a supernatural event, an angelic encounter, or a God-incident…. And in every case they went on their way rejoicing.

I’ve written about angels and supernatural experiences before on this blog. Check out these posts:

Angels and Supernatural Experiences

The Brightest Heaven of Invention

and the first two posts in this Angel Encounters series:

Part 1

Part 2

Also you may like to visit some of the following bloggers to learn more of what different people believe about modern angel encounters:

http://www.thepsychicwell.com/spirituality/connecting-with-angels-spirit-guides/modern-day-angels-and-miracles/

http://www.crystalwind.ca/angelic-paths/the-angelic-realm/calling-all-angels/angels-and-spiritual-life-things-you-need-to-know

https://www.beliefnet.com/inspiration/7-modern-miracles-that-science-cant-explain.aspx

Next time I’ll continue this series with some stories I have been told of modern angel encounters.

What do you think?

Do you believe in angels?

Have you an experience to share? Please share in the comments below.

Angel Encounters Mini Series: Part 2. “I met Two Angels in a Mercedes Benz on a Dark Road Near Oxford.”

In the days before we all had mobile phones and satnavs, I drove north along the M40, heading home to Warwick, having visited my elderly father near Sevenoaks in Kent.

petrol gauge in car showing tank is empty
Petrol gauge in car showing tank is empty

Dusk had fallen. I looked at my petrol gauge; the marker hovered on red.

I had no hope of reaching the next services before running out of petrol.  I visualised an overnight vigil on the hard shoulder.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

In a panic I turned off the M40 just before Oxford.  I reached a hotel, pulled into the car park and went into reception to ask for directions to the nearest filling station.  Memorising the instructions, I headed away again, praying I’d arrive before it was too late.

On a dark road I realised I was lost; and then the petrol ran out.  I now know what it feels like for your car to quietly die on you, and whisper to a halt.

I sat there in the silence for minutes I feared would turn into hours, my mind numb, but dimly realising the futility of getting out and walking off in the dark to find a non-existent filling station. I had turned off my lights. I was afraid to attract attention.

Headlights swam into my vision; a car approached and stopped. I feared the worst.

A young couple emerged from the car. No threat, no judgement, just sympathy. They listened to my story, gave me a lift to the nearest filling station to buy petrol, returned me to my car, so I could replenish the tank, then waited to see me safely off on my journey. I must have thanked them several times over.

Throughout the whole incident they were gentle, gracious, wholly accepting and totally non-judgemental. No “shame you didn’t check your gauge before getting onto the motorway” or “bet you won’t let yourself run out of petrol again after this.”

As I drove away, I noticed their car was a Mercedes Benz.

Ever since then, whenever I remember that young couple who helped me, I think of them as angels.

What do you think? Angels? Or “just” nice people? (And should there be a “just” in there?)

And by the way, I have also never run out of petrol again.

I’ve written about angels and supernatural experiences before on this blog. Check out these posts:

Part 1 of this Angel Encounters series

Angels and Supernatural Experiences

and

The Brightest Heaven of Invention

Also you may like to visit some of the following bloggers to learn more of what different people believe about modern angel encounters: http://www.thepsychicwell.com/spirituality/connecting-with-angels-spirit-guides/modern-day-angels-and-miracles/

http://www.crystalwind.ca/angelic-paths/the-angelic-realm/calling-all-angels/angels-and-spiritual-life-things-you-need-to-know

https://www.beliefnet.com/inspiration/7-modern-miracles-that-science-cant-explain.aspx

Next time I’ll consider some angel encounters which do come from within an established faith tradition – and ask what light they may shed on some modern angel encounters.

What do you think?

Do you believe in angels?

Have you an experience to share? Please share in the comments below.

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.