A Princess Who could Not Live in A Void

The other day I went to the Kenilworth Festival to hear Penny Junor, royal biographer, speak about her new biography of Prince William. Inevitably she was showered with questions about royal scandals of the last three decades, and a good proportion of it related to Princess Diana and all the issues that flowed from her story. Penny Junor handled every question with the patience of long experience. Having then purchased the book, I came away reflecting once again on that dramatic story, the stuff of a truly exciting plot.

So many millions of words have been written about Diana, and yet I still feel free to add my words here.

To my eyes, as a writer, Diana was the perfect main protagonist. Everything she did had high emotional stakes. During the last six weeks of her life she demonstrated prescience. She could not have done better if she had consciously known she had only six weeks to live. She courted publicity on every level, defying royal and government protocol; she threw in her lot with a charity fighting a losing battle on a major humanitarian issues; she risked her life in a high publicity way; she sat at the bed of a dying child who asked if she was an angel; she reacted to the end of a love affair by going on the rebound with a man who would have been mustard gas to both British monarchy and government if she’d married him.

She could have sat at home in Kensington Palace as a recluse, eating chocolate, getting fat and watching daytime TV and sinking into depression. And maybe the public would not have reacted to her death in the way they did.

So my thoughts about Diana led on to reflections on where the monarchy is in this Diamond Jubilee year. I believe Diana’s immense popularity was due to the fact that she reflected the human condition.

Her story was about:

*  mental health problems/vulnerability and naivety;

* the media-induced fever of the public about fairy princess-ography

* the edifice of the monarchy needing to reinvent itself to survive

* Diana’s personal inability to accept a void

* the fact that in the last 6 weeks of her life she chose to fulfil her greatest gift – compassion for the vulnerable and suffering

Prince Charles’s greatest problems were that he took the advice of those he respected and admired instead of searching and trusting his own heart; and he was terrified of promising something he’d regret all his life.

William and Harry’s salvation to a sane balanced grounded life was ironically through the very monarch to whom Diana – and the public at one stage – attributed several of her personal problems.

The Queen’s sense of duty received its greatest challenge, and she met that through her choice to acknowledge and adjust and reinvent herself – to her great credit. And ultimately it has brought her through to her Diamond Jublilee year as loved as Diana was, with a Prince of Wales who eventually managed to win the public’s support to marry the woman he really loved; and with a second & third in line to the throne who are themselves greatly loved and admired and who give every indication of being safe hands in which to leave the monarchy’s future hopes.

What are your views and reflections upon the dramatic few decades in the life of the monarchy since Diana’s entry onto the stage? But perhaps you’re an anti-monarchist? I’d love to receive your comments!

Highly-focused, intense, and brilliant: The First Hunger Games Film

Jennifer Lawrence stars as 'Katniss Everdeen' in THE HUNGER GAMES.
Jennifer Lawrence stars as 'Katniss Everdeen' in THE HUNGER GAMES.

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins provides a very exciting, stirring read, engaging young adults – and now of course adults too – with major issues in today’s world.

image of The Hunger Games book 1 cover

I saw The Hunger Games movie having read the trilogy a couple of years ago. I found the books compelling in their narrative of horrific events, in the end delivering several shocks with the deaths and betrayals of characters I liked, but also some ingenious turning points. I felt the final outcome could have been more redemptive / uplifting, especially in view of the epic forces of good and evil this story deals with.

The forces of evil in this hypothetical future America are spiralling decadence, selfishness, obsession with glamour, image and celebrity, and inhumanity – and looking at our own world, if these forces were to reach a certain pitch we can see they would indeed lead us to some such outcome as the Hunger Games. In Panem, the inhabitants of The Capitol revel in the ultimate reality TV, entertained by the violent deaths of randomly drawn teenage “Tributes” from the oppressed

Haymitch, Cinna and Seneca
Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley)

Districts. Those Capitol citizens behave just as the crowds did in the  ampitheatres of Ancient Rome. The fact that  the young people drawn by lot then sent out to fight to the death are first glamorised, feted and paraded in front of the cameras  alongside an oily TV host, makes it even more chilling. Another strong motif is the vacuous sentimentality of the massed audience, leading them to gush at a possible love affair between the main protagonist Katniss and her fellow-tribute Peeta whilst being equally ready to watch them meet a horrible death at the whim of the Gamemakers under the merciless direction of their Chief, Seneca Crane.

What stood out for me in the movie was Katniss herself. Played by Jennifer Lawrence she was  totally absorbing. Her compassion, her courage, her survival skills and her subtle resistance of the evil in which she was forced to take part shone out.  The intense concentration on Katniss’s every move in the Arena made me feel I was there with her. Our attention and our hopes were 100% on Katniss. The empathy and support she won from her allies Haymitch and Cinna also made a strong emotional impact.

The premise of the story, and narrative flow of the movie was highly unusual and intense. The cinema audience sat in silence throughout, a silence to match the silence behind the action for the first part of the film – save for a few moments in the last half of the film when emotional reactions were inevitable! Brilliant, unforgettable and a sharply-focused portrayal of some of the worst excesses of the western world taken to their logical conclusion.

Favour, privilege, and royal fairy dust

My son mentioned to me that he had learned from Newsround that Garry Barlow of Take That had asked Prince Harry to sing a line in one of their songs. And that Harry had (so far) refused. This led to thoughts about royal power and privilege; especially as I later watched the excellent TV programme “She-Wolves” presented by Helen Castor, the author of a book of the same name. Only a cursory study of the Plantaganets is needed to remind us that the history of the English monarchy is bloody and turbulent. It is inconceivable these days that a royal figure (in this country) would dare to be seen favouring someone for their personal benefit. And then I arrived at the most interesting element of this:  that we have developed a culture which incentivises royalty to behave in this way.  Royal fairy dust cannot be seen to create personal privilege. Our royal family is truly accountable to the people.

In former times wealth, power and success was in the gift of the monarch. If you fought for the right person, and he won, and got his hands on the throne, you could benefit richly from it – perhaps an estate or a substantial parcel of land, or a magnificent property… And thus we have the stately homes that scatter this country, to our enjoyment, many of which have fallen safely into the care of the National Trust: the fruits of royal privilege, returned to the people.

And so back to the question whether Prince Harry will agree to make a musical contribution to Gary Barlow’s Diamond Jubilee song… who knows? But I suspect the answer will remain a courteous and good-humoured “No.”

The Lost World of the Reclusive Bestseller Author

JK Rowling has said, I imagined being a famous writer would be like being Jane Austen, being able to sit at home in the parsonage and your books would be very famous… I didn’t think they’d rake through my bins. I didn’t expect to be photographed on the beach through long lenses.

JD Salinger and Harper Lee were famously reclusive. Never seen in public, they just quietly wrote novels that became iconic in the 20th century and ended up on every school syllabus. Dan Brown too was reclusive before his plagiarism trial brought him out of the woodwork; now his face is familiar.

Today, authors engage in a Kindle-sales feeding frenzy, blogging their sales figures and Amazon rankings, and spreading in equal measure envy, despair and a mania to replicate their success amongst all the flocks of self promoting self publishing ebook authors. I realise that indie authors are striking back against the publishing establishment, and many enjoy the work of promotion. I applaud them for it.  But my instincts tell me this isn’t what authors were meant to do.  Authors were meant to write, and to do what JK Rowling imagined – sit in the parsonage like Jane Austen. Then they handed their finished manuscript over to a publisher who did all the dirty work of marketing, promotion, sales techniques and strategies, and all the devices and desires of publicity.

I recognise this is a totally unrealistic picture, not in tune with today’s world at all. And I’m well aware that the relationship between authors and publishers has long had its difficulties. The rural poet John Clare (1793-1864) had troubled dealings with “booksellers” who were then the equivalent to today’s publishers. He wrote in his Journal: I would advise young authors not to be upon too close friendships with booksellers…their friendships are always built upon speculations of profit like a farmer showing his sample…if a book suits then they write a fine friendly letter to the author…if not they neglect to write till the author is impatient and then comes a note declining to publish mixed with a seasoning of petulance in exchange for his anxiety.   And I do know I really ought to let down my golden hair from this small room in a tower where I write these words.

Authors are often introverts, shy, retiring. Now they cannot be allowed the luxury of being an INFP on the Myers Briggs Personality Type scale. Accuse me of languishing in my ivory tower if you will. But allow me to post a promotional video (made by my daughter) beneath these words and thus negate the point I am making. And cherish the lost world of the reclusive author.

SC Skillman

Novelists and Screenwriters – Where To Find All You Need To Know About Story Structure

Several years ago, I nearly signed on for Robert McKee’s “Story Structure” workshop in London – tempted by the testimonial from John Cleese, who attributed his success in creating the Fawlty Towers scripts to what he learned from this workshop. But I saw it was essentially for screenwriters, and chose to pass on it.  I have since recognised that story structure  is universal, and applies not only to screenwriters, but also novelists. When I recently found this book in Waterstones Piccadilly, the inner voice said “Buy it!” And I obeyed.  Now I’ve absorbed all that McKee has to say about story, it will transform the way I work on the second draft of my new novel.

Story saturates our lives, through books, plays, the theatre, TV and radio drama, and movies; and we all respond to story instinctively. And yet if we were asked to explain why we respond as we do, and why something works or not, many of us would fall silent. But Robert McKee does explain. One thing that has long mystified me is: “How is it that we are satisfied by a story where the protagonist does not achieve his desire?”  McKee replies that “the flood of insight that pours from the gap delivers the hoped-for emotion, but in a way we could never have foreseen.”  He illustrates his points with many references to famous movies. “Story” is a huge challenge; dense and even overwhelming, its author acknowledges this at the end: “You have pursued “Story” to its final chapter and, with this step, taken your career in a direction many writers fear… I know that when confronted with a rush of insights even the most experienced writer can be knocked off stride.” I hope that, having studied thoughtfully, as I “follow the quest for stories told with meaning and beauty,” I too may “write boldly” and produce stories that “will dazzle the world.”

SC Skillman

Do Creative Writers Ever Feel they’re On the Inside? Or are they Always On the Outside of Everything Looking In?

This morning I was listening to Howard Jacobson, comic novelist and Booker Prize winner, on Desert Island Discs, and among the many things he said which touched and amused me, the most striking was this, “I have always felt myself to be on the outside of everything, looking in.” He gave this reply to the interviewer’s question, “Now you’ve won the Booker, do you feel you’ve arrived? Do you now feel you’re on the inside?”

What a wonderful response she received to this question! And this seemed to me a true writer’s response. I identified with it absolutely. This is what I have spent my life doing. When I was researching for my newly-published novel Mystical Circles, I was an observer. I was on the outside looking in. I investigated many New Age spiritual groups and lifestyles and philosophies, and I always saw myself as being on the outside looking in – just as Juliet does in my novel. How anxious Juliet is not to get involved, not to be drawn in, to keep her objectivity as a journalist. It almost seems a personal threat to her to get involved. Yet as more than one character says to her,  “You have to come alongside us to truly understand.”

My character the Rev. Theo sees this clearly. “I’m all about people on spiritual journeys,” he says. “I’ll go anywhere, come in on anything.” It is no contradiction to him, a young clergyman, to enter a New Age spiritual group and to come alongside the members of the community and to live as one of them.

So you, my readers, will probably have spotted the apparent contradiction here. Do I believe in being an outsider looking in? Or do I believe in getting involved, coming alongside? The truth lies in paradox. And this is the paradox Howard Jacobson embodies. Of course he is on the inside! Of course he has arrived! And yet – he has the soul of a writer. And so he feels always on the outside looking in.

Do you identify with Howard Jacobson at all when he describes himself feeling like this, despite being successful in the eyes of the world?

My BBC Radio interview with Liz Kershaw

This was my live interview with Liz Kershaw of BBC Radio Coventry & Warwickshire on Sunday 7 November 2010. Liz clearly understood the struggles of a writer and asked some very good perceptive questions. I greatly appreciated the opportunity she gave me to talk about my writing journey on live radio.

scskillmanlizkershaw-interview

HELLO WORLD! My First Personal Blog on The Writing Life

This is new territory for me – though I’ve written lots in my life I’ve never written it “nearly live” (apart from Facebook of course)!  Usually I correct what I write over and over again – even emails. Yes, I still long for those far-off days when Mr Darcy sat down and composed carefully-thought-out letters to his little sister Georgiana and impressed the watching Lizzy Bennett with his devotion. I love the radio programme in which celebrities read from and talk about their teenage diaries. I enjoyed listening to Meera Syal’s weight loss miseries at the age of 13.  Surely the very essence of the personal diary is that it is private and totally honest and never going to be read until after you die and it is unearthed from an attic (if you’re lucky). So this is “nearly live” writing, and a very exciting departure for me!