Jephson Gardens, Leamington Spa, offer the early signs of spring, and hope that we will move out of lockdown before too long and can perhaps look forward to a return to new life.
During the Covid-19 Pandemic and throughout the three lockdowns in the UK, many have sought the consolation of escape – into books or films. Every so often I return to one of my top favourites – The Adventures of TinTin: the Secret of the Unicorn. To my mind this film exemplifies classic story structure; but above all it centres upon a likeable, engaging young hero. Each time I watch it I know again why I loved TinTin so much on TV during my teenage years.
The Adventures of TinTin: The Secret of the Unicorn (directed by Peter Jackson & Steven Spielberg) was released in 2011. So it’s been out a while. But I write blog posts when something inspires or excites or moves me, and haunts me at night. And that’s what this TinTin story did.
I asked myself again, exactly what is the appeal of TinTin? He’s a totally beguiling hero. He’s Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and Spiderman all rolled into one fresh-faced boy hero – and of course his intrepid dog Snowy (originally named Milou by his creator, Herge).
As a child I loved adventure stories. I started with Enid Blyton and later I moved onto King Solomon’s Mines by Rider Haggard, and Prester John by John Buchan and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. These stories have everything – at their best they not only excite and thrill, but also they move, and they teach you about this life, and they convey archetypal truths about human nature.
You can draw parallels with your own life, even if you don’t do exactly the same dangerous things. You can use the action hero’s experiences as a metaphor to help you clarify what has happened to you, and what attitude to take. This is the power of a great story.
Take the archetypal villain, who pursues his obsession to its bitter end.
There are people who live their lives like this. They’re all around us. They express it in their relationships. People who have never learned the art of letting go.
Their obsession leads to such things as ‘unfinished business’ when family members die; ‘skeletons’ that stay in cupboards for generations; vendettas that last decades, family members who don’t talk to each other for years.
The lesson the archetypal villain and his fate teaches is this: ‘People matter more than things’.
In this life, what matters most of all, above ‘due recompense’, above ‘getting satisfaction’, above ‘being right’, is human relationships – and of course this is the lesson the archetypal villain never learns, and which the hero instinctively honours, or the story wouldn’t satisfy us.
A hero learns, and changes. A villain never learns, and never changes.
TinTin is a hero who’s open to all that life has for him; he’s never held back by self-limiting beliefs; he’s ready to live on his wits, yet has an unerring instinct for a just cause, personified by a character who is flawed, but whose heart’s in the right place; then he throws in all his gifts on that character’s side.
Does this excite, inspire and move you, as it does me?
Happiness. An endless sandy beach, blissful sunshine, a turquoise sea spangled with silver, cocktails, a balmy breeze and… happiness? contentment? inner peace?
I was inspired to write this post by Andy Mort who runs Haven.
Andy occasionally sends out thought-provoking and discerning emails to his subscribers and I particularly agreed with him about the slippery soap that is our pursuit of happiness.
The pursuit of happiness puts me in mind of a brilliant book I read called “Finding Sanctuary” by Abbot Christopher Jamieson. In this book he talks about how we wear numerous masks during our lives, and in pursuit of happiness we constantly seek products which the advertising industry tells us are going to make us happy. We long for peace and a state of calm and inner contentment, and we seek it through more products, such as holidays. In fact we can never escape from the compulsion to seek the fulfilment of our ultimate longings within a product of some kind.
Being reflective about all this is such a good step on the journey to seeking some kind of release from this compulsive drive. It has been said by a doctor that everyone needs to go on retreat once a year (and of course Abbot Christopher was the one who featured in that TV programme The Monastery about the men who went on retreat). Though it could be argued that even a retreat is a product!!
I write this as I am busily selling a product myself …. a book called Paranormal Warwickshire – and I do my fair share of using marketing techniques tried and tested by the advertising industry – the Mr Bigs of this world. In fact when I think about it all, I could despair, except for the one saving grace that helps us keep it all in perspective – a sense of humour!
We’ve reached the time of year for the Christmas List.
I’m revisiting my subject of the Christmas List for several reasons. Amongst these are the sheer poignancy of the subject, and the fact that since then I have published a revised version of the piece in a Christmas Anthology – available here to buy on Amazon.
Who else finds writing Christmas cards the cause not just of gladness but pain and sorrow? I put off “doing” my Christmas list until I’m in the mood – and light a candle and have a glass of sherry or wine to help create that mood. Why? Because each year I have to engage with the major change in people’s lives; the gap of a year between communications throws those changes – for good and for bad – into sharp relief.
There are those who must now be addressed The … Family, because a new baby has been born. You remember the mother as a tiny blonde cherub herself. Then there are the divorces, where you refer back to the previous year’s Christmas newsletter and gaze at the photo of the mother with her two tall sons, and remember when you rejoiced at her marriage, at the news of the arrival of their first baby… and now “he” has disappeared from their lives, and is no longer referred to. Then there’s the lady whose previous husband beat her up – a fact she communicated to you in a Christmas newsletter 5 years ago – and who sent you the news 3 years ago that she was marrying someone else she only referred to by his first name – and hasn’t been in touch since. You’d like to try and restore the lines of communication, but you only have the surname of the ex-husband. You presume she’s now living with the new man – unless that relationship too has broken up – but you’re not quite sure, and you have to address her in such a way that takes account of different possible scenarios.
And there are the couples whose children have now grown up and left home and started their own families, so you can now revert to sending cards to the couple alone, without their children’s names… and that feels sad too, despite the fact that this has been in many ways a happy change.
Then there are the people who have died, and whose names have to be crossed off your Christmas list and out of your address book – a task that always feels callous to me, every time I do it. And the people you’re going to send a card to who may well have died, but nobody has told you, so you won’t know, unless your card is returned to you by some helpful relative in the New Year.
So much change for good or bad. Then it occurs to me that at least my own family unit is “the same as last year” and perhaps that fact alone is a cause for at least one small flare of gladness and relief in the hearts of those who receive our greetings.
But should it be? For those on our Christmas list often only communicate the stark facts that will affect the way we address our envelopes to them next year. Behind it all lies the complex reality of their lives. As a novelist I know what is in my characters’ hearts; but not in the hearts of everyone on my Christmas list – the new parents, the newly-bereaved, the freshly-betrayed, the lonely, the divorced, even those who superficially appear to have everything in order, even those who claim success and triumph all round for every member of the family… their lives are far more complex than can ever be conveyed in the artificial confines of the Christmas card or newsletter.
Perhaps the candle flame is there to remind me of that.
Recently I watched and listened to Hilary Mantel speaking at an online event from the Stratford-upon-Avon Literary festival, following the publication this year of her two newest books The Mirror and the Light and Mantel Pieces.
I loved what Hilary said about the process of writing. It seems that she does not subscribe to the belief that we must create a structure beforehand, and plan out our work in detail. In regard to her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, the idea she caught was the notion that the truth behind an apparently “evil” character in English history may be far more complex. And then her curiosity and her love of historical research took her on a long and compelling journey. She talks of catching ideas, and of writing scenes and chapters out of order, and I loved it.
In the past I have indeed tried to create a structure beforehand, and I found it not at all helpful. So personal experience has taught me that Hilary Mantel’s way of writing is more to my taste.
When you begin to write a novel, it can often be impossible to say from which source the inspiration has come – and how far back in the past that inspiration had its source.
Now my latest book Paranormal Warwickshire has been published, I am getting back to work on my next novel Standing Ovation.
Thsi is the second in a magical realist series starring Dylan Rafferty, young musically gifted rebel.
The first book, Director’s Cut, sees Dylan tackling a very troubled family in a large house in south London haunted by a family curse.
Dylan seeks to escape the overwhelming influence of his own family and the conventional path they want him to follow through education and his future career. He discovers his favourite actress is filming a TV drama in a nearby Jacobean mansion. He sets off, eager to crash the set and meet her. He succeeds; and she’s delighted by this unusual, intense, talented boy. But Dylan discovers a deeply dysfunctional family who believe themselves afflicted by an inter-generational curse. The house is haunted by ghosts of previous generations. Dylan comes to believe he alone can save these people through the power of his own musical genius As he plunges deeper into the spiritual and psychic deadlock in the house, he encounters a supernatural being, and finds that he must cross the boundary between this world and another dimension.
The story awaits further editing, and I’d also welcome any willing beta readers!
Meanwhile I’m completing the sequel.
In Standing Ovation, Dylan has moved forward from the position he was in at the end of Directors Cut, but he now seeks a quantum leap in his career.
He’s in Stratford-upon-Avon, staying with his friend Xavier, a stage manager at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Then he lands a post as personal assistant to his idol, Konstantin Kosoff, mentally and physically fragile concert pianist, currently controlled by his two highly dubious brothers. Dylan enters another highly dysfunctional and dangerous household and plunges into a position only vacant because the two previous post-holders died in mysterious circumstances.
There are several people who might inspire me for some aspect of my fictional great pianist. I already have in mind the central inspiration; but that may change as I continue the novel, because when writing we may find elements entering the story from the subconscious. I won’t be able to tell how strong a part any of these elements may play until the story decides for itself, and reaches completion.
Do you other writers out there find Hilary Mantel’s approach rings a bell for you? Or do you rely on creating structure beforehand, and planning out the novel in detail? I’d love to know your own creative practice!
Listening to an interview by Andrew Marr on BBC Radio 4 the other day, I was delighted to learn that Virginia Woolf‘s classic essay How Should One Read a Book? has been republished in a new edition (12 October 2020).
I studied this text in school as part of my GCE ‘O’ level English Literature syllabus. Ironically, although I found Virginia Woolf’s novels quite challenging to read (although I loved Orlando), that is not the case for this essay. That’s probably because it was originally a talk given at a girls school in Sevenoaks in 1926. I still remember the impact Virginia’s words had on me. The essay is very accessible, and Virginia writes with passion on her subject.
One of her observations appeals to me: “you haven’t read a book properly until you’ve talked about it”. Brilliant! How that makes the heart of an author sing. Nowadays of course authors often look for their readers to “talk about” their books, either in book clubs, or by personal recommendation, or by posting an Amazon or Goodreads review online.
Authors and publishers also, of course, value professional reviews in the major periodicals and newspapers; and these reviews are often quoted at length in the front matter of very popular books. Personally, I prefer not to know the details of what other people think until I’ve read the book – or at least until I’m halfway through. I want to make my own response to the book.
But these are the days when everyday readers – all those out there who love reading books – have power, with their opinions and feelings. Every response to a book is valid. I remember my creative writing teacher at Lancaster University saying:
“Once you’ve written your book, and it’s published, and out in the world, it doesn’t belong to you any more. It becomes a Thing on the Table, for anybody to make what they want of it.”
This view is echoed by Philip Pullman , the author of His Dark Materials trilogy, who, in a recent very enjoyable Society of Authors webinar, said that while you are writing a book, it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks. You write what you like and you don’t worry what anybody else thinks: they can mind their own business. When it’s published it’s a different matter. It’s not yours any more. The world can then make what it likes of your book.
Passion for reading, for the different worlds you may enter and explore when you are a voracious reader, shines out from Virginia’s essay.
Here is one quote from Virginia Woolf which many readers have seized upon, as it confirms the joy and the richness of being a great reader. I quote this near the end of my author talk on The Power of Story – for one of my goals is to enhance or re-awaken a love of reading.
“I have sometimes dreamt … that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards — their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble — the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.”Virginia Woolf, in The Second Common Reader
Psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction.
Paranormal Warwickshire was published 15th November 2020
Available everywhere good books are sold.
I’m delighted to announce that Paranormal Warwickshire has now been released by Amberley Publishing.
It was a very exciting moment when I received my box of books.
Here’s an early review from fellow author and blogger Ritu Bhathal, who received an advance review copy:
A fantastic book filled with tales of ghostly sightings across the county of Warwickshire.
SC Skillman has found some intriguing stories and researched their background and possible origins. The results are fascinating and eye-opening.
I especially loved the accompanying photographs, old and new, showing the different castles and buildings where these events are said to have taken place.
Warwickshire was where I grew up, and we regularly visited places like Warwick Castle, Kenilworth Castle, Stratford-Upon-Avon and Leamington Spa, so this book held an extra special interest for me.
Thank you to the author for providing me with an arc, for an honest review.
Thank you Ritu and I’m so glad you enjoyed the book!
Check out Ritu’s lovely blog here:
Another early reviewer, Marje Mallon, wrote this:
Thank you so much to the author for entrusting me with an advanced readers copy for an honest review.
I have always been fascinated by the paranormal and have had a far few ghostly and strange experiences myself, so this book by S. C. Skillman caught and kept my attention throughout.
It’s a well-researched, detailed and beautifully photographed book. Some of the images within are by S.C. Skillman herself.
If you like tales of haunted castles, churches, theatres, hotels, manor houses and many more locations beside, (a ghost can hang out anywhere they feel drawn to,) this is for you!
The collection begins in Warwick and moves on to various locations in Warwickshire: Kenilworth, Stratford-upon-Avon, Lapworth, Alcester, Rugby, Nuneaton (Birthplace of George Eliot,) and Leamington Spa.
Some of my favourite tales within included ghostly tales from theatres: in Stratford-upon-Avon, Royal Shakespeare Theatre. The ‘grey lady’ ‘is thought by by many to be the spirit of Elisabeth Scott, and is one of the theatre’s most well-known ghosts.’ ‘She appears so real she is often mistaken for a lost theatregoer.’ ‘It seems that many who have loved this theatre in their lifetimes cannot turn away from this magical and evocative place.’
And in Rugby Theatre: ‘One of the stories told here is of a woman seen floating down the stairs. It is thought she was an usherette in former times…’
It’s an interesting collection and one that will encourage you to explore the paranormal. After reading, you will want to visit these locations first hand to see if you experience the haunting visitations described within. Who knows, you might even want to become a paranormal investigator!
Thank you Marje for your review. And for all who’d like to visit Marje’s blog, it’s here.
And if you’d like the chance to hear me reading from the book and answering questions from those who came to my Facebook Live launch event, do check it out here: https://www.facebook.com/scskillman
You can buy the book on all major online retail sites, and order it from your local bookshop.
This is the ninth in a series of ten posts which will take us up to the date of publication of my new book Paranormal Warwickshire, out from Amberley Publishing on 15th November. This richly illustrated compilation of strange tales from Shakespeare’s county can be pre-ordered now from all online bookstores, and from Warwick Books and Kenilworth Books.
Nuneaton is strongly associated with one of the greatest of English novelists, George Eliot, who was born on the Arbury Hall estate here and brought up in Nuneaton; this background afforded her the opportunity to meet people in all walks of life, the ‘high-born’ and also the working people. From these she found much inspiration and demonstrated her insight through her many fictional characters. George Eliot is rightly celebrated in the town of her birth and upbringing. In harmony with her own literary focus, I found that some of the most extraordinary tales in my book come from working people in their everyday environment.
Here’s an extract from Paranormal Warwickshire.
As we have seen, George Eliot was a radical intellectual; her novella ‘The Lifted Veil’ (an example of the Victorian horror genre), published in July 1859, is unique amongst her works for its supernatural premise. It explores themes of extra-sensory perception, the essence of physical life, the possibility of life after death, and the power of fate.
I believe that if George Eliot had been alive and writing her novels 200 years later she would have been keen to bring her spirit of enquiry into the extraordinary series of events reported by ordinary working people in their workplaces at Queens Road, Nuneaton, in the late 20th/early 21st century.
Queens Road was in former times the main street of the town until it was split into two parts by the Nuneaton ring road. In Queens Road, strange events are reported by the staff of several retail businesses – and none more so than those who have worked at number 62. Angela, the former lessee, experienced supernatural disturbances there for several years along with many staff members and customers,
Angela first bought no. 60 Queens Road in order to start up a business with her partner Dawn, selling video games and movies.
Having made a success of this, they leased 62 and turned their business into a big two floor music store. Entertainment Exchange opened in 1994 and became the biggest music / gaming / film collectors store in the West Midlands. This culminated at the height of the business in their having twenty-five staff on the rota at any given time.
Both buildings are extremely historic and atmospheric; Angela’s account focuses on 62 where she spent most of her time during the twenty years she traded there. As from 2014, Angela no longer owned or operated from either of these two buildings.
Angela’s story begins on the day before her store opened at 62, when she spent four hours upstairs alone in the shop, with the door to the street locked, pricing vinyl and laying out displays. As she was putting LP’s in racks, she saw something in the corner of her eye in the direction of the old office: a small dumpy woman dressed in black with dark hair which she wore in a bun at the back of her head. Shocked, Angela turned her head straight to the store room door and the image vanished in front of her.from Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman
Angela’s story is developed further in my book, and this experience was the first in a series of astonishing events, experienced independently by herself and her partner, many of her customers and staff, and by those who had worked in the building during the decades before her ownership
Find out the full story in Paranormal Warwickshire.
This is the eighth in a series of ten posts which will take us up to the date of publication of my new book Paranormal Warwickshire, out from Amberley Publishing on 15th November. This richly illustrated compilation of strange tales from Shakespeare’s county can be pre-ordered now from all online bookstores, and from Warwick Books and Kenilworth Books.
Rugby has a picturesque town centre rich with history, as I found when I joined an entertaining historical and paranormal tour there. Not only did we learn a lot about Rugby, and about English history, but we also heard several colourful tales recounted by a highly skilled raconteur.
Here’s an extract from Paranormal Warwickshire:
On Henry Street you will find Rugby Theatre, with which several paranormal tales are associated. In 1946 the Rugby Amateur Theatre Society was formed with the intention of founding a permanent theatre in the town. In 1949 the Society obtained a former cinema on the current site, and set about converting it into a theatre.
One of the stories told by the theatre fraternity here is that of the ghostly figure of a woman who is seen floating down the stairs. It is thought she was an usherette in former times, who is still taking tickets and escorting people to their seats once they have come past the box office.
Another story concerns the Circle. This is believed to be haunted by the apparition of a man who fell over the balcony and died. He loved the theatre so much he is often seen in his former place and people have actually got out of his way when he went to the seats.from Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman
To find out more curious tales about this theatre, and several other locations in Rugby, why not preorder Paranormal Warwickshire, out from Amberley Publishing on 15th November 2020.