London Stories, a Rich and Complex Tapestry

I’ve just spent a week in London, near the Tower, and my mind is full of London stories… stories of many different aspects of life in the city. First of all, I think of the tales we were told on the walk from Whitechapel tube station, the Hidden East End walk, led by one of London Walks’ brilliant raconteurs.

Stories that encompassed Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the Salvation Army, the Tower Hamlets Mission, the almshouses, the White Hart pub and Richard II, Henry de Montfort and his daughter, and his alias as the Blind Beggar, stories of the Elephant Man and Whitechapel Hospital, of the French Huguenots’ houses near Brick Lane, Spitalfields, and the building that has housed four major faiths…

French Huguenots' houses Spitalfields
French Huguenots’ houses Spitalfields

I have in my mind stories of the vulnerable and oppressed: enslaved Africans, whose story is told at the Museum of London, Docklands;  foundlings abandoned on the streets during the height of the gin craze, whose story is told at the Foundling Museum, Bloomsbury;

The grand room that the governors met in, Foundling Hospital, London
The grand room that the governors met in, Foundling Hospital, London

and stories of the disabled ex-sailors, some as young as 12, who were looked after according to a strict regime in the Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich.

Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich
Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich

I have in mind the magnificent and privileged, those in Anglo Saxon times who were important and wealthy enough to leave precious time capsules for the British Library to display centuries later in their Anglo Saxon Kingdoms exhibition:  the magnificent, the scholarly and the gifted: kings, monks and abbots.

anglo saxon kingdoms, art, word, war
anglo saxon kingdoms, art, word, war

So, throughout my week in London and all the places I visited, I have in mind the peasants, the gangsters, the deformed, the desperately poor, along with the brickmakers, the law-makers,  the ministers, the politicians,  and civil servants and officials of Westminster whose alter-egos were created in the Ministry of Magic by JK Rowling… for we learned, too, about the locations in Westminster where the film-makers brought her imagined scenes to life, in Harry Potter on Location in London town

In my next few blog posts I’ll have more to say about these and other individual strands of London life, but for now let it remain a brief survey of a rich and complex tapestry.

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.

Reflection Upon The Nativity film 2010

Tatiana Masleny as Mary and Andrew Buchan as Joseph in The Nativity film 2010
Tatiana Masleny as Mary and Andrew Buchan as Joseph in The Nativity film 2010

I recently watched again “The Nativity”, the TV mini series first broadcast by the BBC at Christmas 2010 but this time I watched the entire film on DVD.

I remember the series had a strong impression on me when I first viewed it and we could hardly wait for each new episode. Seeing it as a continuous story was a different experience from viewing it in episodes;  I found it much more challenging and harrowing, especially the scenes in which Mary is judged and reviled both by her fellow villagers in Nazareth, and by householders and innkeepers in Bethlehem.

Tatiana Masleny and Andrew Buchan both gave brilliant performances as Mary and Joseph  and I must confess John Lynch came over as a very handsome and rugged Gabriel.

Here’s a Youtube link to a beautiful and moving song by Kate Bush with clips from The Nativity film.

Seeing this very realistic re-imagining of the Nativity story again, I realised afresh how divisive the story is, for all those who engage with it, whatever they believe.  To see Mary portrayed like this when she has been so revered by Catholics over the millennia with titles like Queen of Heaven and Mother of God, is certainly very challenging. And it makes me wonder again about the assertions of Christian theology, most notably the question of how God could have chosen to bring his Son into the world by causing Mary so much suffering … huge issues arise from this, and provide much material for argument and discussion. Once again this brings up the question that many have struggled with, of why Jesus could not be the son of God and also born naturally by Joseph.

I thought this portrayal of the story has the power either to strengthen and enhance the faith of the viewer or make them lose it. It all depends on the stance the viewer takes before they come to the story.

Certainly I remember the leader of our group at an Alpha course a few years ago beginning the discussion by saying he did not believe in the virgin birth.

But in this film version, we see Joseph as key. His ability to wholeheartedly believe what Mary was telling him, saved her from the judgementalism and hatred and rejection of all those around her – which, without the protection of Joseph, may even have resulted in her death before Jesus was even born.

This gives us much to reflect upon.

 

 

 

A Diversity of Spiritual Outlooks Through Time at the British Museum in London

The Great Court, British Museum, London
The Great Court, British Museum, London

On Saturday 23rd December 2017  I went to see the exhibition “Living with Gods:  peoples, places and worlds beyond” at the British Museum in London. The exhibition curator Jill Cook had set out to show the development of religious symbols through physical objects which people in widely diverse cultures and historical periods have used to denote their relationships with a spiritual reality beyond nature.

 

The exhibition ranged from a 40,000 year old sculpture of a lion man, through a Buddhist wheel of life held in the claws of the god of death, via a Japanese Shinto household shrine, to a Soviet communist poster of an astronaut with a rather inane grin on his face floating in space and declaring “There is no God.” On the Buddhist wheel of life the artist had depicted instances of human and animal suffering and wickedness of all types, which I must confess reminded me of Dan Brown’s description of Dante’s Inferno…

I was also interested to learn that the image of the many-armed creator/destroyer god Lord Shiva is on display outside CERN in Switzerland, as a symbol of the atom.

However, inevitably much was missing from the exhibition. For instance, I found no reference to the aboriginal image of the Rainbow Serpent said to be one of earliest of religious symbols, in this case symbolising Creation. Neither did I find the spirituality of the North American Indians, nor the mystical system of the ancient Chinese Book of Changes, the I Ching.

The whole tapestry and landscape of humankind’s attempts to build and sustain a relationship with spiritual reality beyond the observed world is so vast and complex, this exhibition inevitably could give just a small representative taste alongside a dispassionate commentary. In reality each religious outlook and philosophical system deserves its own special in-depth study in order to do anything like justice to it – and the curious investigator can find many books to help.

But one of the most moving parts of the exhibition for me was the display about the Japanese persecution of Christianity in the 17th century, during the time of the Portuguese Jesuit mission to Japan, a story told in the brilliant novel Silence by Shusako Endo, upon which was based the 2016 film starring Andrew Garfield.

I remember the impact the book made on me, when those being persecuted were ordered to trample the fumi-e – a bronze plaque showing Christ on the cross. I found myself gazing in awe at an authentic  fumi-e and thought again of the powerful end to the novel Silence.

One of the most interesting things about that novel was the way it showed how Christianity may be introduced into what may seem an alien culture and how those within that culture may take on the Christian faith and understand it within their own cultural terms. I remember a scene in the novel where Japanese Christians were being tortured by being tied to stakes on a beach while the tide rolled in and out around them. They gained the stength to endure by continually singing, We are going to the temple, going to the temple of God.

If there is any lesson at all to be learned from an exhibition of this type, perhaps it is that we have the challenge ahead of us to communicate what we believe to be the truth, whilst also respecting other human beings and where they are in terms of their own worldview.

 

 

My Dream Cast for “Mystical Circles”

Novelists, have you “dreamcast the film adaptation of your book? Many do! Film Adaptations of books If you do it early enough in the process of writing your novel, it can be very helpful. Though I understand that the reality of having your book turned into a film can sometimes not be a very pleasant experience. I was amused by this quote from the blog My Book, the Movie:

They would ask me what actors I saw in the roles. I would tell them, and they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ And that would be the end of it.   (Elmore Leonard, in 2000, on the extent of his input for Hollywood’s adaptation of his novels).

Here’s my dream cast for Mystical Circles:

Juliet, my main protagonist, who  hurries to the Cotswolds to rescue her sister from a charismatic cult leader:   Jennifer Lawrence

Zoe, Juliet’s younger sister:      Saoirse Ronan

Theo, a troubled priest:    Bradley James

Rory, a strange young man with a mysterious “thorn in the flesh”:    Johnny Depp

Edgar, obsessed with getting new recruits to fill out questionnaires:     Matt Smith

Al, an American visitor:     John Goodman

Llewellyn, a Welsh poet:     Rhys Ifans

Don, the cult leader’s disenchanted father:     Bill Nighy

Oleg, a Russian visitor:     David Tennant

Sam, a nervous youth, here on his GP’s recommendation to recover from an unhealthy mutually interdependent relationship with his twin brother:     Matt Baynton

Laura, flighty girl-woman of indeterminate age:     Sarah Hadland

Craig, the cult leader:     Tom Hiddleston

James, urbane and elegant, Craig’s former mentor from Edinburgh University who inspired him to set up the cult in the first place:     Benedict Cumberbatch

Patrick, an Irish handyman and gardener:     James Nesbitt

Beth, an insecure and tense young woman:      Zooey Deschanel

And having chosen the cast, here is my dream production company:  Working Title Films.

And the producers:  Duncan Kenworthy, Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan.

And finally, the Director: Debbie Isitt.

Look out for the third edition of Mystical Circles  with a new cover design. It will be published by Luminarie on 30 August 2017.

The Full Monty and What it Says About Not Being Controlled by Your Circumstances

Recently I watched the 1997 British comedy drama film  “The Full Monty” again. The Full Monty film posterThe reason why I love it is that it’s about “little” people deciding not to be controlled by their circumstances. Six men who in their different ways are suffering during the decline of the Sheffield steel industry, decide to do something nobody believes they can deliver on.

If you haven’t seen this wonderful film then I highly recommend it; read about it here. Somehow that message of hope is encapsulated in one of the outstanding elements of the film: the faces of the audience members in the club at the end. They express joy, laughter, fun and delight. Their reaction is a natural response to “local lads” demonstrating that if we choose, we can all have the courage to:

  1. compete with those who seem to be hugely successful “out there”
  2. get up on stage and run the risk of making fools of ourselves
  3. demonstrate that we will not allow ourselves to be controlled by our circumstances.

This is a universal message, relevant in so many different ways in today’s society. This is why “The Full Monty” is an inspiration to its audiences and why, using humour, it delivers a powerful truth, relevant to all our lives.

Creative Artists: In the Minority, and On the Outside Looking In

Today on Radio 4, whilst stuck in slow-moving traffic due to an accident on the M40,  I listened to the Midweek programme, in which Libby Purves interviewed four guests – Diana Moran, fitness expert; Jack Thorne, playwright; Dashni Morad, singer and presenter; and finally Omid Djalili, comedian and actor. For the purposes of today’s blog post, I was particularly interested in what Omid Djalili had to say.Omid Djalili

Talking about his own development into a highly successful comedian and actor,  he made the point that throughout his life he has always felt, on every level, part of a minority within another minority… and so on. That has informed his comedy.

I loved him in the film The Infidel when he explored questions of identity as well as the boundaries and prejudices between two major world faiths, Islam and Judaism. He was brilliant in his role of a man who had been brought up an East End Muslim then discovered he was adopted, and really a Jew.

The point he was making in the Radio 4 programme related to the topic of one of the chapters in my new book Perilous Path: A Writer’s Journey, in which I explore the feelings of someone else highly successful in the arts; this time, a bestselling author. And I feel there is a close connection between being in the minority in a minority, and feeling as if you’re always on the outside looking in.

The author in question is Howard Jacobson and he made his remarks in another radio interview, just after he’d won the Man Booker Prize.Howard Jacobson

Here’s that chapter, a taster from my new book:

ALWAYS ON THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN: WHAT DOES A BESTSELLING NOVELIST HAVE TO TEACH ASPIRING WRITERS?

I was listening to a bestselling novelist (Howard Jacobson) speaking on the radio about his success in winning a major book award. Among the many things he said which touched and amused me, I was most impressed by the answer he gave to this question:

 “Now you’ve won this prestigious award, do you feel you’ve arrived? Do you now feel you’re on the inside?”

And he replied,  “No. I have always felt myself to be on the outside of everything, looking in.”

What a wonderful response the interviewer received to this question! And it seemed to me an authentic writer’s response. As observers of human life, this is what creative writers spend their lives doing. Often whilst researching for novels, we are on the outside looking in. We do not necessarily wish to ‘get involved’ or ‘drawn in’, although there are times when we must ‘come alongside’ those we observe, in order to truly understand.

This is especially true of those on spiritual journeys. To be a traveller on this path, you need an open mind and an open heart, and must be prepared to go anywhere and come in on anything. This does mean exploring other spiritual outlooks, other worldviews. This should be no contradiction to a spiritual traveller, whatever religion they belong to. As Rabbi Lionel Blue discovered, ‘my religion is my spiritual home not my spiritual prison’.

The great mystics have transcended religious boundaries in order to experience the presence of God beyond them all. So, how can we always be outsiders looking in? Or is it sometimes necessary to get involved, and come alongside? I believe both can co-exist simultaneously. There is, in fact, never a time when a writer is so fully involved, he or she cannot at some future time stand back and write it. Every experience, no matter how negative or difficult, can prove raw material for a writer because in the act of writing a story you are often drawing upon unconscious material. Novelist Margaret Drabble remarked that fiction writers are good at ‘turning personal humiliations and losses into stories … they recycle and sell their shames, they turn grit into pearls’.

I am particularly fascinated by group dynamics. And in order to learn about those you have to participate. But you can also observe. The truth lies in paradox. Thus the most successful creative people can literally be, in the eyes of the world, on the inside. Of course they have arrived! And yet they can still feel they are always on the outside looking in.

 

 

 

 

Inspiration from Foreign Language Films in our Film Club

During the course of this blog  I’ve written about sources of inspiration from many directions – from people, cities, landscape, history, buildings, travel, books, art, TV drama and films.

Certainly films I love have enriched my creative life. Writers benefit from cross-fertilisation all the time!  A few years ago my writer friend Meg Harper set up a film group, and we’ve been meeting ever since. At each meeting six of us watch a film together which one of us chose the last time, and then we discuss it.  This way, I’ve seen several films which would otherwise never have come to my notice.  Some of them have been brilliant and moving; films from Germany, France, Poland and India. Today I bring you an article by my media student daughter Abigail on the Film Debate website about her five recommended foreign language films.

Abigail has chosen:

Pather Panchali, part of the Apu Trilogy (India); He Loves Me He Loves Me Not (France); Untouchable (France), Ida (Poland) and Run Lola Run (Germany).

 

Do have a look at Abigail’s article and read about all these films. And I’d love to have your thoughts either in the comments here on this blog, or perhaps you may choose to comment directly on the Film Debate website.

 

Thoughts on Three Dimensional Characters in Films and Novels – Inspired by Hugh Grant

On the Graham Norton Show which was broadcast on BBC One on Friday 16th April 2016, Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant in Florence Foster Jenkinsactor Hugh Grant said he took on the role of St Clair Bayfield in the newly-released film Florence Foster Jenkins against his previous intentions, because a) the script was so good and b) because he was attracted by the three dimensional character he was being invited to play – which implies he thinks all his previous characters were one dimensional.

Hugh said that the character he plays, St Clair Bayfield, is “a failed actor” who has chosen to protect Florence (played by the wonderful Meryl Streep) from true self-knowledge because he loves her. In the film, this character goes to extraordinary lengths to collude with Florence’s self-deception, by covering up her lack of ability as a singer and paying off bad reviewers and hiding her from the truth.  In other words he does what seems to be cowardly, morally weak, wrong and even cruel, for complex reasons that are not straightforwardly immoral, and because he is emotionally invested in supporting her and upholding her in the dream she believes in.

I haven’t seen the film yet and so cannot offer a review, but I was fascinated by the point Hugh Grant was making. Many love the characters Hugh has played so far during his film career, but his comments brought me back again to the vital importance of three dimensional characters, not only in persuading major actors to take on film roles, but also in winning success for a novel.

Three dimensional characters in fiction are those whose actions, words, relationships, behaviour and inner life all work together to win our empathy.  Just as the hallmark of a great leader is the ability to win people’s confidence, the sign of a great character in fiction is that we care for them deeply, whether their actions are “good” or “bad” or far less easily defined. Whilst reading a recent novel I was starting to intensely dislike a certain character, when his actions and behaviour were depicted from the viewpoint of someone else. But then the author took me into his viewpoint – and my attitude to him was transformed.

I believe we only need to see and understand someone’s inner life, to feel that empathy for them.

Do share in the comments. Which are your favourite three dimensional characters in fiction, and why?

The Creative Power of an Intense Group of People in the Hothouse Environment of a Writers Retreat

Mystical Circles by SC Skillman
Mystical Circles by SC Skillman

I’ve now finished my series of Cave posts as new inspiration has intervened!

One of my fellow bloggers Lance Greenfield has just opened up thoughts of writers retreats by reblogging this post on the subject by Max Dunbar. Lance then went on to ask his own followers for their responses to Max’s thoughts, and whether it would be worthwhile for him to go on one of the many writers’ courses or retreats that are available here in the UK.

Part of my inspiration for my novel Mystical Circles was an Arvon Foundation poetry course which I attended at Totleigh Barton farmhouse in Devon. My fellow poets that week reflected the wide variety of characters to be found at a writers’ retreat in the UK – and in the story of Mystical Circles.  Among these you may find – alongside whatever idiosyncracies you yourself may bring – several complex personalities; and your interactions with others, and your observations, form an inexhaustible source for a writer. And I believe it’s vital to write about people, no matter how deeply flawed, with love and empathy, never in a detached or critical spirit.

Below I list some of my favourite plays, books and films which have achieved this:

Unnatural Causes by PD James (detective novel set in a literary community)

Peter’s Friends (film directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring  Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie)

Abigail’s Party by Mike Leigh (brilliantly developed and improvised by playwright and actors and first broadcast by the BBC in 1977)

Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw (a group of people are invited to one of Hesione Hushabye’s infamous dinner parties, to be held at the house of her father, the eccentric Captain Shotover)

If you’re fascinated by group dynamics and it’s relevant to what you’re writing, then a writers retreat – a small group of intense people in a hothouse atmosphere – may be ideal for you!