Book Review: ‘Half a World Away’ by Mike Gayle

Book cover: Half a World Away by Mike Gayle

This is a profoundly moving novel set in our contemporary society, which works on so many levels, intimate, insightful and also demonstrating panoramic vision.

In ‘Half a World Away’ Mike Gayle takes as his subject those children who are born into deeply dysfunctional situations in the UK, and thus come to the attention of the social services. Setting his story in London, he tells us of Kerry, a cleaner, and of her half-brother Noah, a barrister, who were separated when Kerry was 10 and Noah (formerly known as Jason) was two.

The story is on one level a very moving portrayal of the different destinies lived out by those who are adopted by a loving family, and those who go into care. On another level the story explores family relationships with discernment, sensitivity, compassion and a sharply observant eye. Then the novel works as an insightful account of how fate and chance and small decisions and choices interact in our lives leading to huge consequences.

As I read the book I was reminded in part of ‘The Love Story of Miss Queenie Hennessy’ by Rachel Joyce. This is a book of which you may say, “I had to put it down” because it was so highly emotionally engaging. At such times the reader may feel the need to take a rest from it, for that reasons. Some of it is painfully acute in its depiction of the most heartrending circumstances. And in addition to that, Mike Gayle’s observation of human behaviour, from the most callous and selfish – and no less tragic for that – through to the most kind, compassionate and caring, is of the highest order.

A brilliant book, which I may recommend to all – and to those personally involved in issues of adoption and social care, though some may find it almost too painful to read, it is so finely and accurately observed.

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal and mystery

fiction and non-fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path

My next book Paranormal Warwickshire will be published by Amberley Publishing in June 2020.

Come and Have Fun in the Birmingham NEC 31st May to 2nd June 2019 and Find the Authors on the Author Stand at the UK Games Expo 2019

Nine Worlds - UK Games Expo
Nine Worlds – UK Games Expo
Undertow - UK Games Expo
Undertow – UK Games Expo

Once again the Birmingham NEC will be taken over by the UK Games Expo this year at the end of May.

Dalek - UK Games Expo
Dalek – UK Games Expo
Child of Loki - UK Games Expo
Child of Loki – UK Games Expo

And between Friday 31st May and Sunday 2nd June 2019 there will be a fabulous atmosphere and loads of fun for all those who love games, fantasy, roleplay, cosplay and… books about adventure, fantasy, history, scifi, paranormal, or suspense.

SC Skillman - UK Games Expo
SC Skillman – UK Games Expo

Once again I’ll be there on the Author Stand signing books – along with a colourful medley of fellow-authors.

Chip Theory Games - UK Games Expo
Chip Theory Games – UK Games Expo

We’ll be on Stand  572 in Hall 2.

Mystical Circles and A Passionate Spirit - UK Games Expo
Mystical Circles and A Passionate Spirit – UK Games Expo

Come and say hello, and chat to us and browse the books!

 

SC Skillman

Psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path

Coming soon: Paranormal Warwickshire

Film Review: ‘Tolkien’ 2019 Film Starring Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins: A True Picture of Tolkien’s Inspirations?

Tolkien film 2019
Tolkien film 2019

I’ve recently been to see the film Tolkien about the early life of the great author who created The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. As one who has loved the creations of Tolkien, both his writings and his art, since I was at university, I looked forward greatly to seeing this film.

I was aware that Tolkien’s family have distanced themselves from the film so I was intrigued to find out for myself what could be the cause of their objections.

Nicholas Hoult’s performance as young Tolkien is admirable, and I often found the story very moving. The film sets out to show what might be considered Tolkien’s formative years – his childhood move to Birmingham, the loss of his parents, the transfer of his care to a priest, his lives at school and university, the relationships he formed, his early relationship with Edith who became his wife, his experience in the trenches in the First World War and his early married life, moving towards the time when he began writing The Hobbit.

Some of the criticisms levelled at the film have included the fact that no mention is made of his Catholic Christian worldview which played a vital part in his conception of Middle Earth and can even more clearly be seen in The Silmarillion. But this didn’t strike me as a major fault in the limited context of this film, since I had not expected it to cover more than a few elements which may have played their part in the creation of Middle Earth.

The film opens with a grim scene in the trenches and we return to this again and again in flashback. Then we move on to idyllic sunlit forest – woodland at Sarehole Mill, known to have inspired Tolkien. Throughout the film we are offered scenarios in which the film-makers speculate about the experiences from which may have sprung many elements in Tolkien’s fantasy world: the eye of Sauron, the two Towers, the Nazgul, the Dark Lord,  the Ents,  the Elvish princess Arwen, the close Fellowship of the Ring, the devotion and loyalty of Samwise Gangee to Frodo; and behind the action we often hear the voices of Lothlorien.

I enjoyed all this, accepting that the film-makers could not necessarily be expected to stick to known facts. From the point of view of a writer myself, I know that often when we write, ideas arise from the unconscious, and we cannot even say necessarily where any of them came from: unless it strike us unexpectedly. Thus it would surely have been for Tolkien as he created Middle Earth.

I was fascinated, though, to learn of Edith’s love for Wagner’s Ring Cycle – a love I share – and how this would have influenced Tolkien.  And also to learn of the influence of his professor in Philology, played by Derek Jacobi, who says: “There’s a comfort in distance, in ancient things.”  Tolkien’s passion for creating languages, complete with structure and vocabulary, comes over strongly.

And the film ends again back in the woodland at Sarehole Mill with Tolkien encouraging his children to speak to the trees, and speaking to them of their power:  “little people just like you… little in stature, not in spirit.”

Here are some other posts I’ve written about Tolkien.

SC Skillman

Psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit, Perilous Path.

l

 

 

Film Reviews: ‘Tolkien’ 2019 Starring Nicholas Hoult

Tolkien film 2019
Tolkien film 2019

I’ve recently been to see the film Tolkien about the early life of the great author who created The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. As one who has loved the creations of Tolkien, both his writings and his art, since I was at university, I looked forward greatly to seeing this film.

I was aware that Tolkien’s family have distanced themselves from the film so I was intrigued to find out for myself what could be the cause of their objections.

Nicholas Hoult’s performance as young Tolkien is admirable, and I often found the story very moving. The film sets out to show what might be considered Tolkien’s formative years – his childhood move to Birmingham, the loss of his parents, the transfer of his care to a priest, his lives at school and university, the relationships he formed, his early relationship with Edith who became his wife, his experience in the trenches in the First World War and his early married life, moving towards the time when he began writing The Hobbit.

Some of the criticisms levelled at the film have included the fact that no mention is made of his Catholic Christian worldview which played a vital part in his conception of Middle Earth and can even more clearly be seen in The Silmarillion. But this didn’t strike me as a major fault in the limited context of this film, since I had not expected it to cover more than a few elements which may have played their part in the creation of Middle Earth.

The film opens with a grim scene in the trenches and we return to this again and again in flashback. Then we move on to idyllic sunlit forest – woodland at Sarehole Mill, known to have inspired Tolkien. Throughout the film we are offered scenarios in which the film-makers speculate about the experiences from which may have sprung many elements in Tolkien’s fantasy world: the eye of Sauron, the two Towers, the Nazgul, the Dark Lord,  the Ents,  the Elvish princess Arwen, the close Fellowship of the Ring, the devotion and loyalty of Samwise Gangee to Frodo; and behind the action we often hear the voices of Lothlorien.

I enjoyed all this, accepting that the film-makers could not necessarily be expected to stick to known facts. From the point of view of a writer myself, I know that often when we write, ideas arise from the unconscious, and we cannot even say necessarily where any of them came from: unless it strike us unexpectedly. Thus it would surely have been for Tolkien as he created Middle Earth.

I was fascinated, though, to learn of Edith’s love for Wagner’s Ring Cycle – a love I share – and how this would have influenced Tolkien.  And also to learn of the influence of his professor in Philology, played by Derek Jacobi, who says: “There’s a comfort in distance, in ancient things.”  Tolkien’s passion for creating languages, complete with structure and vocabulary, comes over strongly.

And the film ends again back in the woodland at Sarehole Mill with Tolkien encouraging his children to speak to the trees, and speaking to them of their power:  “little people just like you… little in stature, not in spirit.”

Here are some other posts I’ve written about Tolkien.

SC Skillman

Psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit, Perilous Path.

l

 

 

Book Review: “London: A Spiritual History” by Edoardo Albert

I loved this book – attracted to it originally in the shop of the Royal Naval College Visitor Centre, Greenwich, by its delightful, playful cover design.London A Spiritual History by Edoardo Albert

London: A Spiritual History by Edoardo Albert begins by telling the history of London from well before the Roman invasion, and then bringing us through to the present day, interspersed with plenty of personal observations from the author who spent several years as a TV repairman travelling the London streets and working in many different people’s homes.

Albert’s survey of London history is fascinating, and further enlivened by his own personal take on famous characters like Thomas Cromwell, (Henry VIII’s right-hand man), and William Blake, the visionary.

Then the author moves into his own personal spiritual search over many years, which interweaves with London and its multi-faceted character, from Catholicism through atheism and then onto the various magical and mystical groups with which London abounds.

I identified with so much of this, having lived in central London during my twenties, and having tried out many of these groups myself throughout the capital, such as the Theosophical Society and the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain – not to mention a passing flirtation with the Rosicrucians. though I can’t claim to have applied for membership of the Order of the Golden Dawn!

Albert’s final “epiphany” comes with such disarming simplicity it is genuinely moving. A highly recommended book.

 

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal mystery fiction

Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit, Perilous Path

The Throckmortons of Coughton Court, Warwickshire: A Family Forever Linked to those Who Conspired to Murder their King

Approaching Coughton Court, the ancestral seat of the Throckmortons, near Alcester in Warwickshire, we may admire the mellow sandstone sixteenth century house with its dramatic battlemented gatehouse tower and lovely timbered north and south wings.

the entrance to the gatehouse, Coughton Court
the entrance to the gatehouse, Coughton Court

In front is the most exquisitely laid-out garden packed with abundant lavenders.

view from window in south wing, onto the garden in the forecourt Coughton Court
view from window in south wing, onto the garden in the forecourt Coughton Court

Everything about this house and its surrounding grounds and gardens speaks graciousness, fine proportions, serenity: all that tends to make us feel relaxed, good-humoured and full of positive anticipation. But that has by no means always been the case. In the past this house has known betrayal, terror and conspiracy.

This house has been held by the Throckmorton family for over 600 years and during that time the vast majority of them have been fervent Catholics, remaining loyal throughout times of great persecution. Several generations of the Throckmortons have been closely involved with some of the major events of English history. 

The first Throckmortons to own land in Coughton were John and Eleanor in 1412 and John became the founder of this historically-important family.  A later Throckmorton, Robert, was knighted in 1494 along with Prince Henry, the future Henry VIII, thus beginning the family’s long association with the Tudor monarchy, sometimes profitable, always dangerous, and ultimately fateful.

His son George was to discover the folly of opposing Henry VIII in his attempt to divorce Katherine of Aragon; the mortification of being a dissenting guest at Anne Boleyn’s coronation; the inadvisability of thwarting Thomas Cromwell in a land dispute; and, no doubt, a rather uncharitable sense of vindication at finding himself prosecution witness at Thomas’s trial and in a position to seal his fate.

Robert’s son Nicholas stands out among the Throckmortons as having been a Protestant; and I cannot help wondering how that affected his family relationships, coming as he did from an otherwise unbroken line of devout Catholics.  Nicholas too discovered the slipperiness of close involvement with the Tudor monarchy.

 He had a very narrow escape when his support of Lady Jane Grey ended in defeat; found himself in prison after opposing Queen Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain; and suffered the thanklessness of Elizabeth after he had acted as confidant to the young princess, brought the news of Mary’s death to her, and finally acted as her emissary to Mary Queen of Scots. All of this failed to win for him the high office at court which he had hoped for. 

After Nicholas’s death, the family resumed its activities on behalf of the Catholic side with renewed zeal. In 1584 his nephew Francis was executed for trying to depose Elizabeth and place Mary Queen of Scots on the throne.

In 1858 a 16th century priest-hole was rediscovered in the Tower Room: a double hide, one chamber on top of the other, so the priest hiding in the chamber below would have been highly unlikely to be discovered, even if the upper chamber came to light.

The Drawing Room, Coughton Court
The Drawing Room, Coughton Court

The Tower room is where the family kept a small altar with everything needful to celebrate Mass according to their Catholic faith; the windows both sides of the room gave extensive views out onto the surrounding countryside so they would be alerted to anyone approaching the house from a considerable distance away. Certainly they would have had plenty of warning if Elizabeth I’s priest-hunters were approaching, and enough time to hide the priest together with all the objects of Catholic worship in that ingenious hiding place.

The view from the battlements of the gatehouse tower, Coughton Court
The view from the battlements of the gatehouse tower, Coughton Court

When you begin your tour of the house, you are soon shown through a well-laid-out exhibition about the Gunpowder Plot; and after visiting that, as you enter the drawing room on the first floor of the Gatehouse, you cannot but be very aware that this was the room where the first news of the plot’s failure was broken to those who waited here. In the early hours of 6th November 1605, Lady Digby, the wife of Sir Everard Digby, one of the Plotters, sat in this drawing room, anxiously awaiting news.

At 6am Thomas Bates, servant to Robert Catesby (charismatic mastermind of the plot) galloped across the bridge over the moat and climbed the stairs to the drawing room. No doubt drenched with sweat, wild haired and eyes full of terror, Thomas broke the news which would have filled her with horror and fear: the plot had been discovered, Guy Fawkes arrested, her husband Sir Everard captured, and his fellow conspirators were all on the run in fear of their lives. She would have had no doubt whatsoever about what lay in store for her husband and his friends. The fate that awaited all those found guilty of treason was a vile and brutal punishment: hanging, drawing and quartering. It was, however, a fate that many chose to risk. They were desperate times. The stakes were high, and hot-headed, religious zealots were willing to run that risk for their passionate beliefs.

Following this, the party at Coughton Court quickly dispersed to various locations, among them two priests, Nicholas Owen the master priest-hole builder, and the Vaux sisters who had rented Baddesley Clinton for the express purpose of providing a safe meeting place for priests, together with concealed chambers they could hide in during raids. Meanwhile, the plotters fled to the house of another Catholic friend, hoping for support, which they did not receive: instead they headed off to Holbeach Hall, where final disaster awaited them.

Of those who fled to Holbeach Hall, we learn in the special exhibition at Coughton Court, four suffered the least painful, and the quickest, death. They (incredibly) betrayed their presence by trying to dry their gunpowder in front of the fire. Not surprisingly (but presumably, it surprised them) their gunpowder exploded. The noise alerted the Sheriff of Worcestershire who came with his troops and surrounded the house. In the ensuing gunfight the next morning, four conspirators were shot dead, including Robert Catesby the charismatic mastermind of the plot. Of the others, six were tried on 27th January 1606 and executed at the end of that month.  One other, Francis Tresham, was arrested on 12th November and fortuitously died of a natural illness in the Tower on 23rd December.

The room in which Lady Digby received Thomas Bates’ news is a beautiful one to our eyes, and we might expect to find a lingering atmosphere of fear and dread. But indeed no such feeling hangs around this room, and our emotional response to the story may be most clearly elicited in the room which holds the exhibition. The information about the Plot is imaginatively displayed, thus giving visitors their best chance to remember the names of the people involved and the details of their desperate flight and foolhardy actions during those final fateful hours after Guy Fawkes was discovered in the cellars beneath the Houses of Parliament.

Whatever we may think now of the issues at stake during years of turmoil in which England swung back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism, nevertheless, when viewed on the human scale, we see individuals chancing their lives and family destinies, on the hoped-for success of desperate strategies, utterly at the mercy of the State’s ruthless response to their own religious zeal, often leading to heart-rending and grisly outcomes.

Here at Coughton Court, home of the Throckmortons who were so closely connected to those dramatic events, we may see this played out through generations of unswerving Catholic devotion both before the events of 1605 and for centuries after, right down to the present day. After Sir Robert Throckmorton became Lord of Coughton in 1680, he built an illegal Catholic chapel, only to see it burned down by a Protestant mob, during the anti-catholic riots which were followed by the exile of James II. The mob also burned the east side of the house, and the ruins stayed there for another century.

When I enter a house such as Coughton Court, the rich surroundings, the elegant and lofty rooms, the grand family portraits and the harmonious decor play their part; but most powerful of all is the story of the house, brought alive by the artefacts that are displayed here. We may find the chemise that Mary Queen of Scots wore on the day of her execution; the dole-gate that one of the family, Elisabeth Throckmorton, Abbess of Denny, brought with her as a poignant memento as she fled the dissolution of the monasteries; the chair made out of wood  originally used for the bed Richard III slept on before he fought the Battle of Bosworth.

And, too, we may view the family photographs of the present-day members of the Throckmorton family – two of them, Clare McLaren-Throckmorton and her daughter Christina, responsible for the design and creation of the enchanting walled garden. These photos also have a poignancy to them, when you remember the contemporary family’s forbears. We may consider this a luxury few may claim, to know your family history back 600 years; but I believe there may be a certain burden in carrying this, a certain weight on your shoulders, a weight of knowledge of the details of your ancestors’ vices and virtues, their hopes and failures, their deeds, their triumphs and disasters.

 

How to get there:

Alcester

Warwickshire

B49 5JA

 

Find out more

 

Felix Dennis, Eccentric Millionaire Poet – a Man with a Vision for the Future, and Founder of a Great Forest in the Heart of England

In an age of information where we are bombarded with news and facts and false facts and opinions, both genuine and prejudiced,  I find we tend to select our own blind spots, to filter out the onslaught. Felix DennisWhich is why, sometimes, although something and somebody can be publicised hugely in innumerable ways, it’s still possible for some of us to say, “I didn’t know that,” or “Never heard of him.”

It was like that for me with Felix Dennis, whose Garden of Heroes and Villains and Poetry Shard Garden I recently visited in Dorsington, near Stratford-upon-Avon.

20180811_123954
Bronze sculpture in the Garden of Heroes and Villains: Ulysses (also known as Odysseus) tied himself to the mast so he would not be lured by the calls of the sirens

Perhaps it’s unsurprising my subsconscious had blocked Dennis out previously; I would not have been at all interested in his underground publishing activities or magazines called OZ in the late sixties and early seventies, or in the obscenity trial that he was involved in with two colleagues in 1971.

Over the years I’ve been aware of other big creative personalities who have indeed made an impact on me – author Adrian Plass, poet Adrian Henri, artist Graham Clarke and actor Brian Blessed among them – and now, rather late (four years after his death) I’ve discovered Felix Dennis. I bought a book about his 2010 nationwide poetry tour, Did I Mention the Free Wine? by Jason Kersten; and looking at pictures of him, I can see his physical appearance in later years reminds me of all of those four. And not least he reminds me of Sir John Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 & 2. A man with a gift and an instinct and an appetite for making money, he amassed millions and when he died in 2014 he ultimately bequeathed them to the creation of a forest.

What an amazing and wonderful legacy, a legacy for the future of humankind. And I also discovered his poetry, beginning with those poems that were engraved on shards of glass in his poetry garden.

20180811_115509
Bronze sculpture of Bruce Lee in the Garden of Heroes and Villains

One of them,written not long before his death, particularly struck me:

I’ve plucked all the cherries Chance would allow, Take them, and welcome – I’m done with them now.

His bluntness and honesty, expressed in poetry, immediately appealed to me, as it has to so many who enjoy the gallows humour in his rhyming couplets. But the poems contain much more than gallows humour: sharp observations on life expressed in unpretentious, witty poetry that lends itself beautifully to live performance. Being a fan of live performance poetry, I can only wish that I’d found out about Felix years ago, and actually attended his poetry performance in the Bridgehouse Theatre, Warwick in 2010.

Tribute to Felix Dennis on the Founder's Rock, Arboretum, Dorsington
Founder’s Rock in new woodland, Heart of England Forest

I am enjoying the book Did I Mention the Free Wine? – it is the most fascinating account of how to organise a book promotion tour on a grand scale, among many other things – and watch out for my review of it on Amazon and Goodreads! Meanwhile I shall be deepening my new-found interest in his forest, his garden and his poetry. Somehow, discovering him after his death has a poetic irony which he himself would probably have enjoyed greatly…

 

 

 

 

Reflections on Life and the Writer’s Journey from a Mamma Mia Perspective

Yes I do indeed find some lessons from Mamma Mia on the dynamics of life – and the writing journey.

Mamma Mia Here We Go Again

Having recently seen the film Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, twice, and loved it even more the second time I saw it,  I felt compelled to draw out some dynamic equivalents for all of us.

Mamma Mia, the first movie, has been accused of being sentimental, idealistic,  sugary, unrealistic; and yet the second movie with its fast moving sequences of prequel and sequel I believe is very like life as we all can experience it… minus the extremely skilful singing and dancing sequences of course!

Of course all that I write from now on will only be fully understood by those who have seen and loved both movies. And if you haven’t seen the second film yet and don’t like spoilers… then don’t read on!

Certainly I identified with young Donna to an extent; I myself travelled to Greece on an extremely eventful holiday with my friend during my first university vacation; and it was full of romantic interludes and risk-taking and narrow escapes. My first move after graduating from university was to go to the Greek island of Rhodes. And during that holiday I, like Donna, with Sam, enjoyed an island tour on the back of a motorbike, with a young Greek Adonis whom I had only met for the first time the hour before…

Here are the highlights in the second movie from which I drew my reflections:

1.  When young Donna and young Sam took a boat across to the small island, Donna spoke about knowing what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. She said she wanted to stay on the island forever. Sam said it wasn’t that simple… and as we watched, we were fully aware of how their lives would pan out for the next twenty five years, as a consequence of their actions and decisions and words during the small amount of time they spent together.

2.  The relationship between Sophie and Sam twenty five years later, both grieving for Donna, but supporting and loving each other: so sad and yet so beautiful, and everything that Donna could have hoped for, notwithstanding that she could never have known her life would be cut short so early.

3.  The use of parallelism as the scenes switched back and forward over twenty five years; the rooms in the farmhouse; the two pregnancies; the two babies.

4. Amanda Seyfried, who played Sophie: older, sadder and wiser than the sparkly, impulsive, madcap young girl we see in the first film – and yet still so beautiful inside and out.

5.  The role that Donna’s friends Tanya and Rosie play throughout both films; first, supporting and encouraging Donna, and then transferring that same support to Sophie.

6. Seeing the older men and their young selves dancing together at the end.

7. Cher in the role of formerly recalcitrant grandmother – now returned, reformed – to meet again the man she last saw in 1959.

Perhaps stretching credulity for some of us … and yet still may there be a message for us there?

Life can be very strange indeed. It was Adrian Plass who said, You don’t know what is going on behind the scenes.

Life may have brought us many disappointments; it may be difficult to keep faith, and easy to give up hope in achieving all that we have dreamed of: and I don’t deny that. I am very well aware of it myself, in my life, in the wrong choices I’ve made, and especially in my writing journey;  and yet we can never discount life’s quirkiness, its unexpectedness, the twists and loops and connections that may utterly surprise us.

It does seem to be an essential part of the dynamics of life that what we hope for and dream of may be taken out of our hands, and yet at some future stage we may receive an unexpected gift, that would never have been possible without our hasty actions or impulsive decisions in the past; sometimes we may do something outrageous or foolish; all this may play its part in some unfathomable outcome years ahead.

And the men dancing with their younger selves? You may see that as just a fun scene with the actors stepping outside their roles in the story timeline, and enjoying themselves. So it was. But also what a lovely metaphor for us:  dancing with our younger selves, even if we feel they made mistake and wrong choices, even if we regret things those younger selves said and did… perhaps the message is to dance with our younger selves, a joyous acceptance of all that we are and have been… and accept the passing of time, together with all the unexpected gifts that brings, trust in the process of life, and keep faith.

Inspiration from JRR Tolkien in Oxford

My recent visit to Oxford to see the exhibition of Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth was a revelation to me and full of inspiration.Tolkien-maker of middle-earth

You may find the exhibition in the  ST Lee Gallery, Weston Library, next to Blackwell’s Bookshop on Broad Street. It’s packed with fascinating objects and letters, and drawings: Tolkien’s own exquisite illustrations for The Hobbit and  The Lord of the Rings, plenty of original letters giving intriguing biographical information about him, authentic items and furnishings from his own home, a magnificent  projection of a 3D model of the map of Middle-earth and many other  delights for all those who love Tolkien and the fantasy world which flowered from his creative genius.

I love The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion: I first came to The Lord of the Rings when I was at university in Lancaster; and for many of us then it was a cult book; the world of Middle-earth so absorbed us that Tolkien’s characters, and situations from Frodo and Sam’s epic journey, would appear in our conversations without any need for explanation or context. Over the years I have been moved and enchanted by the  powerful illustrations of places in Middle-earth such as Rivendell, but until I came to this exhibition in Oxford I confess I had no idea that Tolkien was himself such a gifted artist and had actually himself drawn and hand-coloured much of the artwork with which I have been captivated.

These are just a few of the many gems I discovered from the exhibition:

Tolkien spent twelve years writing The Lord of the Rings, in order to provide his publisher George Allen & Unwin with “something more about hobbits” as a sequel to The Hobbit – his publishers were hoping for a lucrative series like Swallows and Amazons

He squeezed that writing into his evenings, after full days spent on academic work in his role as English professor at the University, family life, and socialising, etc.

The words In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…. came to him while he was doing some marking of student papers, and he scrawled those words in an empty space on a paper he was marking. He did nothing with that idea for several years, it just lay in his mind, waiting its time (just like the ring itself lay waiting…)

His first concept of Treebeard was as an evil character but eventually he transformed the Ent into a good character

The village near Birmingham where he lived as a young child inspired him for Hobbiton.

He kept having wonderful ideas for additions to The Lord of the Rings, such as an exquisitely-rendered facsimile of a seriously war-damaged and bloodstained ancient manuscript, and a fascinating epilogue, a letter from Aragorn to Sam Gangee years after the events of The Lord of the Rings, but his publishers would decide against incorporating them for various reasons including because they thought it cost too much…

After the Tolkien exhibition we spent a considerable amount of time in Blackwell’s, losing ourselves among the special Harry Potter displays and Tolkien and CS Lewis sections not to mention among the pages of the Paddington Bear London pop-up book…

Then we enjoyed a fascinating tour of the Oxford Colleges, as you’ll see from some of the photos here.

Oxford is the city of dreaming spires and has a rich and complex history,  a tapestry of darkness and light, which perhaps suggests just a few reasons why it is also, for creative people, a city of lightbulb moments…

Insights From the Silence

Have you ever seen the episode of the TV comedy drama series Rev when our main character, Rev. Adam Smallbone, goes on retreat? Adam, played by Tom Hollander, is in the austere setting of a convent, and returns to his room when suddenly Roland, the media vicar, played by Hugh Bonneville, appears at the window, crying “Retreat!”

Hugh Bonneville and Tom Hollander in Rev
Hugh Bonneville and Tom Hollander in Rev

In he comes and it transpires he’s brought  plenty of alcoholic supplies with him to offset the effect of the austerity to which they have both committed themselves for the next several days. Then Adam opens the drawers in his bedside cabinet and reveals his stash of chocolate bars and bottles of whisky.

“Dear boy,” says Roland with a look of extreme seriousness on his face, “I think we’re going to get through this.”

I’ve just been on silent retreat for a week at Lee Abbey in Devon.

View from Octagon at Lee Abbey, Devon
View from Octagon at Lee Abbey, Devon

It isn’t a convent, nor is it austere, and there’s absolutely no need for chocolate bars and bottles of wine in the bedroom, as we were well-fed… in fact, I find retreat centres tend to over-feed you rather than the opposite, and within the Christian community that runs the retreat centre, there is a team of house elves who wait on you hand and foot until you almost feel guilty… and thus begin the insights you may draw from silence.

And ever present outside this retreat centre is the sublime scenery of Lee Bay. Throughout the week, it called me, a background to all that was said, a huge presence out there. There were all the things Michael was saying as he weaved his spell and beguiled us, and all the insights and metaphors his stories gave us about the dynamics of life, and beyond it all was the vast embracing presence of the scenery, the rocky headlands, the tree-covered cliffs, the sea.

Our silence lasted 48 hours, and I loved it.

Insight is the child of silence wrote the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

Lee Bay, Devon
Lee Bay, Devon

For me, a silent retreat gets better and better. You’re completely released from small talk; from having to answer other people’s questions; from people at the table passing comment on your vegetarian meal and asking what it is; from people commenting on why you’re eating a banana or a pear or a yogurt instead of the rich lemon syllabub and caramel sauce and chocolate flakes they are all eating.

You are free: to smile at people and not say anything; from any anxiety that you ought to say something; from feeling out of it because other people are chatting in little huddles and you’re the only one not talking; from feeling compelled to make conversation just to fill the silence or to be polite or in case people think you’re unfriendly.

Everyone is released from the curse of unguarded tongues and small talk and nonsense. Blessed silence releases us from all that. Silence is such a gift. How I love it.

The only person allowed to speak during that silence was our retreat leader, Michael Mitton. And he gave us treasures, in what he later described as “a Jackanory week”, retelling stories from the bible in the most beguiling way. The stories were taken from his book Seasoned by Seasons.

His retellings of those stories engage every sense: funny, illuminating, revelatory and totally absorbing. Moving and absolutely relatable, these stories are intimate, warm, human.

It’s as if you are an invisible observer on the scene of a story. Or maybe you are inside the thoughts of a character. You can smell, feel, hear, touch and taste what it is like to be there. There is humour, poignancy and passion in these stories and often they are deeply moving. Sometimes you may find yourself thinking, “What! Is this in the bible?” or “I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this character. But this story is so powerful, and relevant to me, and my life.”

I feel, too, that I now have a much richer sense of Jesus himself, his humour, his warmth, his compassion, his wisdom, his humanity, his understanding, his disregard for convention and rules, his sharpness, his wit, his mental flexibility, his clear vision, his sheer versatility.

During the silence, there were for me no telephone calls, no internet, no Facebook, no texts, no messages, no emails. Only the power of Michael’s storytelling, the insights that  poured from those stories, and from the silence, and above and beyond it all, the grandeur and majesty of God’s creation, silent, unfolding before me in lines of faint blue and pink across the horizon above the luminous sea.

Sunset over Lee Bay, Devon
Sunset over Lee Bay, Devon