My proposed new non-fiction book, Spirit of Warwickshire, is currently in the early stages of its journey into the world.
Richly illustated with full colour photos by photographer Abigail Robinson, the book contains twenty short pieces about places in Warwickshire that I love, visit often, and believe to have spiritual presence.
I define a place of spiritual presence in these terms: “it affords us an opportunity to reflect upon the lives of those long dead, the interweaving of fate and destiny, and explore dynamic equivalents within our own lives.” As this suggests, many of the places I describe have strong historical character.
Because I love Shakespeare, and Warwickshire is Shakespeare’s county, I have headed each chapter with an appropriate quotation from the Bard that I feel corresponds either in spirit or in specifics to what I have independently written about each place.
Here’s a taste of what you may find in the book, visually: a sneak peek at some of the beautiful and high quality illustrations to be included.
Now I’ve begun work on my new book Spirit of Warwickshire, here’s a taster of what you’ll find in it.
The book, which I plan to release later this year with Luminarie, will contain a selection of articles about places in Warwickshire which I’ve visited and which have spiritual resonance. These will be places which carry meaning, places which have power, and places which set off chains of reflections, memories, dreams.
Each of my articles will be accompanied by a full colour original photo of the location by my photographer daughter Abigail Robinson.
This will not be a traditional tourist guide, but an individual take on various places that visitors to Warwickshire may well want to include on their itinerary. This is a guide for travellers of spirit, not just tourists. Here’s a glimpse of just some of the places that will be on my list of contents:
Holy Trinity Church, Morton Bagot: Water, Rock, Moon & Ancient Stone
Guys Cliffe House: Romantic Ruin
St Peter’s Church, Wootton Wawen: Saxon Sanctuary
Upton House: A Watered Garden
The Saxon Mill, Warwick: a Writer’s Delight
The Saxon Mill, Warwick: A Snowy Walk
Kenilworth Castle: Boxing Day
Kenilworth Castle: Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Garden
Kenilworth Castle : Christmas Wreath Making
Kenilworth Castle: A Dream Arising from Ruins
Kenilworth Castle: Elizabeth and Dudley
St Mary’s Church, Warwick: Inspiration from the Tower
Spring at Baddesley Clinton
Shakespeare’s , New Place, Stratford-upon-Avon: Garden of Curious Amusements
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon: Sir Antony Sher and Shakespeare
Folk Festival, Warwick
St James’s Church, Old Milverton: Country Graveyard
House of Bread, Shipston-upon-Stour: Sheep and Lamb
A place of inspiration is any place which arouses strong emotions, or perhaps memories, dreams, or reflections. The Castle Inn at Edgehill Oxfordshire is one such place.
A tavern was first built in this high location in 1742 – one hundred years after the date of the Battle of Edgehill which took place in the valley below. There, on 23rd October 1642 the forces of the Parliamentarians and the Royalists faced each other in the open field between Kineton and Radway. The English Civil War was just beginning. The King’s forces had been on their way to London via Birmingham and Kenilworth. The Parliamentarian forces had been heading for Worcester. And they accidentally came together in this bloody battle. The Civil War should have ended there. But it didn’t. The battle ended indecisively, but if the royalist forces had marched straight to London they would have gained the advantage, and the war would have been over.
Instead, they made one of those fateful wrong decisions upon which English history so often turns. The Parliamentarian forces got to London first, and a cruel war ensured. King Charles I had lost his best chance to win. His own personal story ended when he paid the highest price for his errors and bad choices, by being beheaded.
One of England’s most evocative and compelling ghost stories lingers around this place too. Since the time of the battle, haunting sounds and apparitions have been reported by many, at night, and particularly around the anniversary of the battle.
Above all this, the Castle Inn sits with its folly in the form of a castellated tower (in which you may book an overnight stay), a picturesque and intriguing attraction at Edgehill, offering refreshment, delicious meals and excellent service in its delightful beer garden, refurbished dining room and historic bar.
It’s one of my favourite pubs to visit, here in the heart of England. Though its attendant history is very sad – see the exhibition now on display at St Peter’s Church Radway – being a story full of tragedy and cruelty and fate, of the kind we love to reflect upon from our safe distance of centuries: until we start to compare it with several current situations of conflict in the world today.
Such, to me, qualifies it to be a place of spiritual resonance, because it affords us an opportunity to reflect upon our own lives, and upon the human story and its twists and turns of fate, from our perspective of centuries after the original historical events. When a place evokes strong feelings of pity, poignancy, compassion, to my mind, that makes it a special place.
And by the way the interior is delightful, the views are magnificent, the service excellent and the menu thoroughly enjoyable!
Personally I love a circular garden design. My ideal is winding paths, leading off behind shrub and trees so that the eye is led forward and the imagination stirred; what lies round that next bend?
Of course we’re all influenced by great gardens that we’ve visited. The genius of the garden designer is to find a pleasing design and planting scheme that will suit the individal size, shape, soil, orientation and circumstances of a particular plot.
No wonder Paradise is imagined as a garden in different world mythologies and religions. My dream garden is one with sweeping velvet lawns, and wide paths disappearing behind massive banks of rhododendrums and azaleas in full bloom (perpetually!)
Perhaps I’ve been influenced by the gardens of great stately homes, tended by teams of highly-trained, devoted and hardworking gardeners. And why not? The ultimate joy of a great garden is, in Paradise and Eden mythology, a place of perfection and supreme reward for those who have the luxury of wandering and resting in it and being nourished by it: and for us, here on earth, a place to dream in.
Other posts by SC Skillman about paradise gardens:
Did you know my very first published work under the name of SC Skillman was a cry from the heart, in the form of a poem which appeared in print courtesy of The Beatles?
Here it is, a cry from the heart of a frustrated fan, as it first appeared in Beatles Monthly edition no. 64, testifying to my obsession with Paul McCartney and my shameless dedication to turning up at Paul’s House in St John’s Wood, London, in the hope of catching a glimpse of him. The poem is addressed to Johnny Dean, who was the editor of the Beatles Book.
Here is the transcript of the poem:
This poem sums up what I feel at the moment!
HOW NOT TO MEET PAUL (BY, HOWEVER, AN OPTIMIST)
If I go to Paul’s house
He’ll either come back from Greece two hours after I’ve gone,
Or he’ll have just gone off to India.
Whenever Paul goes
To Regents Park or Hyde Park
He makes sure I’m not there.
Whenever Paul takes
Martha for a walk,
Before he does so, he
Makes sure Sheila Skillman isn’t outside.
And doesn’t get a chance of seeing him.
When Paul records at the EMI studios
He makes sure I’m not hanging around;
When I phone up the EMI studios,
It’s one of the secretary’s uncooperative days,
Or she doesn’t know, or
She’s got no idea, luv.
When Paul’s at the Apple offices,
he makes sure I’m not going to be in the vicinity,
And then decides it’s safe to turn up.
When the Beatles, ages ago went to Sevenoaks,
They made sure that
When they were driving up Court Road through Orpington,
S. Skillman wasn’t taking her dog for a walk
At the same time
(Because she lives just off there.)
In short, S. Skillman Has Ways Of Not Meeting Paul.
But don’t worry, she’ll do it one day.
Hope you like it
There were, of course, usually many fans congregating outside Paul’s house, and I will admit I have had some fascinating conversations with people there. It’s also known that in the early days of his ownership of the house, Paul might often pop outside the front gate and get the fans to take his dog Martha for a walk, or do other tasks for him.
Nothing like that happened, alas, when I was there. But the poem I wrote about it, within the Beatles Monthly magazine no. 64, remains a part of Beatles folklore, and it forms part of my extensive collection of Beatles memorabilia, along with several other editions of the Beatles Monthly magazine.
I will always remember how I felt when I saw my poem had been printed. I first heard about it from Leslie, a friend of my parents, whose daughter Sarah was also a Beatles fan. Leslie said to me slyly one day, “I see you’ve flown into print, my dear.” I was surprised and didn’t know what he was talking about. He mentioned Sarah, and Beatles Monthly. Shortly afterwards I shot down the road to the newsagent, procured my copy, and began walking up the road. flipping through the magazine. I opened it to the letters page and saw my poem. The feeling I had then may be compared to that of a first time novelist who gains their first contract of publication with a commercial publishing house. An over-the-top reaction perhaps… but that’s how I felt. I walked up the road to my home in a golden haze.
After this poem was published I received an extensive response from other Beatles fans/ readers of Beatles Monthly, based in the UK and the USA, of which these letters form a small part:
These responses were the equivalent to comments on a tweet or a blog post now.
I also began long pen pal correspondences with two of the writers from the USA and one of them sent me a ticket from the Beatles’ famous concert at Shea Stadium on 15 August 1965, as well as original prints of photos she’d taken of the Beatles; she later visited London and I had the pleasure of meeting up with her. Being American she was much more upfront than me and had met the Beatles and pushed herself forward on occasions when I would have hung back shyly in the background! Chrissy O’Brien, if you read this blog, it would be lovely to hear from you again!
The comments I received in some of these letters are given below:
I saw the letter you wrote… and I said to myself, Hey! There goes a girl with the kind of luck I have! Sort of a kindred spirit you might say (Delana from Detroit, Michigan)
In case you’re wondering how I got your name it was from Beatles Book 64 (how else?). Well at least Paul knows you exist, a privilege shared by few. (Graham, from Swanley, Kent)
I read your letter in Beatles Monthly and I entirely agree with you. When I go to see Paul he is never in. (Sue from Cricklewood, London NW2)
You seem to be enquiring how to meet Paul.. maybe I can help, if you care to write, as I have a telegram from Paul when I met him at London Airport in July 1965. (Brian from Orpington, Kent)
I know this is idiotic but… I just read your poem in Beatles Monthly. It was about Paul Boy. If only I could write one to George like that!!! Enclosed is a photostat copy of a letter I received from Paul thanking me for my letter…. As you can see it isn’t much but it is Paul. And of course I wish it was George’s instead. Foul of me, I know. (Sherry from Eugene, Oregon, USA)
I saw your name in Beatles Monthly so I thought I’d write to you… (Anna from California).
I became a member of the Official Beatles Fan Club a couple of years after it started, and included in my memorabilia collection you may find most of the Beatles’ original Christmas records for Fan Club members, all four Beatles’ autographs, an interesting collection of news cuttings covering the major events of the Beatles’ career from the time my interest began, up until George Harrison’s death; and several newsletters and personal letters from Freda Kelly, former secretary to Brian Epstein, and the first Beatles Fan Club Secretary, who did so much to help Beatles fans during her time as the fan club secretary
Open this link to read all about the 2013 film about Freda Kelly Good Ol’ Freda.
Click here to read another of my posts on Paul McCartney, the first in my blog series People of Inspiration.
I’d love to hear your Beatles thoughts and memories. Please do share in the comments!
King Henry VIII School, Coventry (well known as representing Gordon Shakespeare’s school in the 2009 Christmas film Nativity!) was the scene on Saturday where a large number of local singers and musicians gathered together for a “Scratch” rehearsal and performance of Brahms’ Requiem.
As with all scratch performances of course the majority of participants had sung/ played this music before.
From my place in the choir (Spires Philharmonic Chorus augmented by many other singers) I saw several other singers had crisp clean hired copies – but not me! That’s because I’d brought my tattered, much-used score: inside the front page, every previous date on which I’d sung it before, using this score: June 1978 with the London Choral Society; August 1989 with the Brisbane Chorale, Australia; April 1997 and November 2009 with the Warwick & Kenilworth Choral Society.
Despite having last sung it nine years ago, it’s amazing how easily the music came back to me, along with the (sometimes exasperated!) directions given by previous conductors.
Our Chorus Director Jack Lovell is great fun and has a natural and humorous approach. He’s always full of imaginative images to describe how he’d like us to sing. In one part he said, “Here, I want you to think smoky Viennese ballroom. You need to sound like the viola coming in.” Elsewhere we were to sing like a posh velvet cushian, the type you can push right in and then it comes out again very smoothly and slowly, not like one of those cheap foam cushians. Later he stopped us, saying that sounds like an Ikea cushian.
Brahms’ Requiem has special associations for me. My father was a choral singer, and this requiem was one of his great favourites. I first heard it performed when I was 12; my father sang in a local choir the Orpington Chorale, and my attendance on that occasion was, I daresay, not voluntary! I remember sitting in the audience listening to it and not being very impressed!
Over the years my father shared his love of music with us, particularly choral music, and that included several of the most celebrated Requiems. A family friend with a great sense of humour, teased him about the choir: Why is everything you sing so miserable? You should be called The Undertaker Singers! “Book us now for your funeral.”
Brahms’ Requiem, as with all great works of art, encompasses a very wide emotional range. His music is set around words from the bible which express touching and powerful yearnings of the human spirit.
From the mysterious and sombre opening in Movement 1, onto the sumptuous, swishing, spine-chilling chords of “all flesh is as grass”, with Movement 2 Brahms sweeps through brighter and more hopeful moods, via passages of triumph, to the most glorious moments of serenity, floating and ecstatic. All of human life is here; pleading, urgent and driving; desperation, the restoration of confidence. Movement 4, “How lovely art thy dwellings fair”, is blissful and luminous, ending on a rapturous idyll. It’s thought that Brahms wrote it during time spent among the glaciers and blue lakes of Zurich which inspired him. The requiem returns to a mournful, reflective mood in Movement 6 , and its transitions take us through intense, vigorous and energetic passages, defiance, triumph and rejoicing; and finally in Movement 7 we regain bliss, comfort, peace and reassurance.
As another choral singer has said, “I see it all as metaphor, I sing it lustily and I celebrate and share the uplifting aspirations that inspired the music in the first place. If we can share the ideals, connect through the values expressed in the words, and join in singing them together, what could be more spiritual and unifying?”
I recently went to see the musical Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre, London where a magnificent cast through phenomenal singing and dancing told the story of a man who lived and died passionately and made big mistakes which swept him through to a memorable death.
Through powerful singing and dynamic, electrifying, whiplash sharp dancing, we were captivated by the ideas that first gripped the creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, when he began to read the book Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow and felt he identified with the origins of Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the United States.
A spectacular and compelling musical, certain words in the songs stand out for me: Hamilton sings that he wants to “build something that will outlive me. If you don’t stand for something what will you fall for?”
And at the end, we hear Aaron Barr – a man for whom we feel sympathy in this telling of the story, the man who killed Hamilton in a duel, sing these words to us: “I survived but I paid for it, now I am the villain in your story.”
I loved the way the dynamics of storytelling held us all in its grip throughout the performance, and especially the way the duels were choreographed. One of the most stunning (literally!) parts of the musical came when the dancers froze the moment in which the bullet was fired which killed Hamilton. Brilliant choreography and dancing suspended our disbelief as we watched the bullet arrested in mid-flight.
When I originally heard of Hamilton the musical, a year ago when my daughter first bought the tickets, I thought, What a peculiar subject for a musical. I thought exactly the same when I first heard about The Book of Mormon – another brilliant London musical which made a big impact on me.
Now I confess I think you can make any subject at all into a musical so long as you have a creator who can inspire total confidence with his passion to believe in and run with a central idea, and as long as you end up with fantastic songs, words, character and story.
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.
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.
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.
Imagine you could step into the Monastery right now – perhaps like the one which we saw in the 2005 TV series, or even the one in this image – and move apart from all the frantic busyness and stress and tension of your life, and receive some deep wisdom from the heart of the mystics.
Yesterday I received something very similar at a Quiet Day in St Mark’s Church Leamington Spa where I heard three talks from Bishop John Stroyan, Bishop of Warwick – a man imbued in the literature of some of the world’s greatest mystics. Bishop John is someone who speaks in a lowkey way and yet treasures of spiritual wisdom emerge almost as asides. There is no stridency, nothing is declaimed; but those listening cannot but be aware that he speaks of the true underlying structure which drives our behaviour, our motivation and our attitudes and the way we react to events and circumstances in our lives.
During his talk he referred to the Martin Luther Memorial Church in Berlin – which he described as “the most shocking church” he had been into. Figures of Nazi soldiers and members of the Hitler Youth are interspersed with figures from the Nativity, and an Aryan family of the type Hitler wanted in his Master Race also adorn the church. In addition, a strong, muscular, Aryan Christ is seen on the cross. It’s one of the hundred churches Hitler built, the only one that has survived, intentionally as a chilling reminder of how evil systems can recruit the Christian faith to their cause. Apparently, the Bishop said, both the Nazis and the apartheid regime used Christian clothing for their causes – making God in their images, recruiting Him to serve their agendas.
This is a very strong warning to us, as the Bishop said: “Beware of what we think we know.”
Some of the wisdom the Bishop shared with us included the observation that “you’ve faced the darkness and come through it, and God will use that as a gift to help others who struggle.”
How often do we see that those who have suffered the most are in the best position to support and comfort those who now suffer in the same way?
He said that pearls are tears shed around grit that irritates the oyster. Some people, as we know, become hard and embittered and resentful around that grit in their lives.
But the Bishop spoke about the weaving of God’s good purposes through events in our lives that we would never choose to happen. “Crises can be the bearers of grace.”
Julian of Norwich said, “In falling and rising again we are always held close in one love.”
An image the Bishop likes to use in his talks is one taken from his life as a dog-lover. He may be taking his two dogs for a walk and when they get the smell of an exciting rabbit, they rush off away from him after the rabbit. He calls loudly for them to come back. They know his voice. And yet they practice what we all do: “selective deafness”.
Another image comes from the bird world. The mother eagle puts sharp pointed uncomfortable things in the nest to make the eaglets fly.. Otherwise they would stay cosy in the nest. This is the only thing that makes them leave the nest, take wing and soar on the thermals.