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Archive for the ‘people of inspiration’ Category

Joan of Arc: Mystical Experiences and Empowerment

The other day I saw an encore screening of George Bernard Shaw’s play “St Joan” from National Theatre Live.St Joan National Theatre Live I studied this play at university. Then, as in my recent viewing, I was entranced by the character of Joan herself, and by the words Shaw puts into her mouth.

Joan has  special resonance for me because when I was young, as a member of a children’s choir, I sang in a performance of Honneger’s “Joan of Arc at the Stake” – an oratorio with words by Paul Claudel, a Catholic poet. The performance was at the Royal Albert Hall; Mia Farrow played Joan, and Andre Previn conducted the London Symphony Orchestra. We sang the part of the children of Lorraine.

The character of Joan had a strong impact upon me. I remember several words from “Joan of Arc at the Stake” and they are largely from Joan herself, in which she described her visions and her mystical inspiration, in terms that totally encompassed their reality.

To me the central thing about Joan of Arc was “empowerment”.

Joan was an illiterate peasant girl who claimed she heard a trio of saints speaking to her; and on the basis of this she believed God wanted her to lead the French army to fight and defeat the English, and place Charles II on the throne of France. In 1431, when she was nineteen years old, the English led by the Earl of Warwick tried her on numerous charges, one of which was blasphemy, and sentenced her to be burnt at the stake. The part of the saints were sung by soloists in the music drama; and I felt that Paul Claudel  handled the whole work from the viewpoint that Joan’s experiences were real.  The work has been accused by critics of being several things, including weird, bizarre, sentimental and heavily Roman Catholic, but I loved it, just as I love Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius”, another musical work which has in the past had the same accusations levelled against it.

When I reflect upon Joan and the fascination she holds for me, I see her as someone who was marginalised, who had religious experiences which empowered her, and who refused to be controlled by her circumstances:

  1. Whether or not a postmodern assessment concludes that her ‘voices’ may be accounted for by mental illness – perhaps schizophrenia, or psychosis –  she definitely had profound religious experiences.
  2. She acted upon these experiences.
  3. She derived from them courage, strength and vision to prevail again huge male-dominated interests in Church, State and Army. Both Shaw and Claudel show her as clear sighted, strong and single minded against her powerful interrogators.

I think of similar cases of young girls and women who have had profound religious experiences which then impact the future course of their lives and the lives of many others:  Bernadette of Lourdes, St Therese of Lisieux and Julian of Norwich.

Part of the fascination of these individuals to me is that between them they usually demonstrate one of a number of recurring features, which tend to marginalise: these elements include being young, female, poor / of peasant background or illiterate; and suffering from serious illness, whether bodily or mental. Another element that often appears is the gift of healing. There are many other examples, of whom a good proportion have had visions or extraordinary powers of insight, on the basis of which they have gained enormous influence, and have captured the imagination of future generations.

What do you think? Can you offer other examples of young female visionaries who have had a big impact on the world and may have captured your imagination?

 

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.

 

 

 

 

What the Camp Comedian Has To Say to the Creative Writer

I love camp, on-the-cusp comedians who subvert gender stereotypes.Julian Clary

A good example is Julian Clary who is above all a genius with words – playful, teasing, fluid, quixotic, suggestive, subversive – and he has an acute sense of irony. His camp public persona in itself subverts what I believe may lie much deeper in him, which is more subtle and complex, the true person beneath the entertaining mirage.

 

I’ve long loved camp comedians. They follow on from a line of great gay writers: Evelyn Waugh, Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, to name just a few that come to mind. There are many examples among gay comedians, but my great favourite first of all was Frankie Howerd.

Frankie HowerdThere were others I loved too, Kenneth Williams foremost among them. I instinctively warmed to these entertainers and felt drawn to them. Perhaps it was because they represent, metaphorically, border country, phantoms behind the magic lantern, different dimensions, stories within a story. The man dressed as a woman, the woman dressed as a boy. And in Shakespeare’s time of course, the young boy dressed as a woman.

Whether or not any of them  hid their  true sexuality whilst in the public eye – as was the case with Frankie Howerd – that essential gay character suffused their performances and their personal style; I don’t believe it can fail to do so, in any creative area.

Not long ago, I saw Julian Clary in the role of Slave of the Ring in the pantomime Aladdin at the Birmingham Hippodrome. He shone out above all the other performers.

And my favourite character in the TV series Are You Being Served was played by John Inman.John Inman

When I first saw him in this sitcom, I was entranced. Here was an adult man, behaving in the most silly way imaginable, and being loved for it.

I loved him, everything about what he was doing and being and saying, and what he was projecting.  He told me something different about the adult world, and personhood, and what he turned upside down was the rigid compartmentalised view of the world that can so easily crush us in childhood and early teens.

What a Great Actress Has to Say to Creative Writers: Miriam Margolyes

Miriam Margolyes is an actress I have watched and been captivated by for decades. miriam-margolyesShe is of course the essential Dickensian character and she was perfect as a JK Rowling character too, and has been so in many other roles, both on TV and radio. I have often marvelled at her wonderful fluid and flexible voice on radio, and how incredibly versatile she is.

In her most recent appearance on our TV screens, investigating places round the world to retire to, the sheer roguish power of her personality is compelling. She slightly – and for some, greatly – outrages and offends us, yet I love her. She gives us permission to be who we are, whatever that may be, and she is a perfect example of being just exactly who she is, in total honesty and openness and freedom.

Despite the fact that she subverts the supposed ideal of feminine attractiveness in this very deluded society we live in, I think she is beautiful. She has eyes which shine with character and understanding and life. She is an intelligent and inspirational actress.

What does she have to say to us as creative writers? I read in an interview with Ernest Hemingway that as writers we have, above all, to be true to ourselves; and our most essential piece of equipment should be a “shock-proof shit-detector” (Hemingway’s words). A writing mentor once said to me, “If you’re going to be a writer you have to come clean with yourself.” For some that can be a lifetime’s journey. I do believe that as writers if we are deceiving ourselves in any way at all, it will work its way into our writing. And another quote is also compelling: “be sure that your audience will find you out.” Any writer can attest to that from reading their Amazon reviews.

But before you ever get to Amazon reviews you must deal with comments and feedback on your ms from beta readers and professional editors. Every  criticism on your writing must be taken as reflecting on the work itself, and not on you as a person – something else that is very difficult for notoriously thin-skinned, sensitive writers.

What do you think?  Do you relate to this at all? I’d welcome comments from fellow writers.

 

 

 

 

Staying Focused as a Writer: Learning From Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy, the author of the novel widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest, War and Peace,  not only crafted characters we love and  care about – Pierre, Natasha, Anna Karenina, and many others – but was also fond of sideways excursions into his theory of history during the course of a novel. war-and-peace-bookSo during War and Peace he gives us his theory of the rise of Napoleon on the world scene.

Some may read War and Peace and skip those passages but when I read the novel as a teenager not only did I love and identify with Pierre, and become emotionally engaged with his hopes and longings, his mistakes and wrong choices, but I eagerly devoured those passages of historical and philosophical theory.

In one of them Tolstoy, writing about Napoleon, states that the times produce the man. This observation, incidentally, is borne out by the situation  we find right now; the times have produced the man, Donald Trump, to lead the so-called ‘free world’ – as it is currently known, but may not be for much longer. Individuals may choose to be outraged that the American public has voted a man of Trump’s moral character to be their leader. But they are discounting the tide of history, and the spirit of the times. However my purpose here isn’t to discuss politics but to discuss Tolstoy’s impact on me as a writer and to show how this applies universally to writers.

Tolstoy takes as an example our inability to sense earth’s motion. He wrote that on learning of and accepting the laws that govern the movement of the planets in space,  we had to say, “True, we are not conscious of the movement of the earth but if we were to allow that it is stationary we should arrive at an absurdity, whereas if we admit the motion we arrive at laws.” Likewise in history we must say “True, we are not conscious of our dependence but if we were to allow that we are free we arrive at an absurdity, whereas by admitting our dependence on the external world, on time and on causality, we arrive at laws.”

Just as we have had to “surmount the sensation of an unreal immobility in space” and “recognise a motion we did not feel, …. so in history the obstacle in the way of recognizing the subjection of the individual to laws of space and time and causality lies in the difficulty of renouncing one’s personal impression of being independent of those laws.”

So with the tide of events in human affairs, and in our lives,  it is similarly necessary to “renounce a freedom that does not exist, and recognise a dependence of which we are not personally conscious.”

I first read those words as a teenager which was when I first read War and Peace, and they have stayed with me over the years, as words from a truly great writer do.

I think they apply specifically to the writing life and also to life in general. We may feel very isolated as writers, especially “indie” writers; and yet every so often we recognise that we are not alone, and instead are part of something much bigger. I believe individual freedom is a concept much abused and misunderstood; we are dependent on a tide of events in the world.  (I’ll come back to this subject in at least two later blog posts, when I’ll consider the concept of Small is Beautiful, and when I reflect upon the tide at Lindisfarne sweeping in to cover the causeway).

Meanwhile, may I encourage you to read War and Peace if you haven’t already, and not to skip the passages when Tolstoy reflects upon the tide of history.

A Passionate Spirit and The Cult That Stole Children

A couple of years after I left university, whilst on a spiritual search, I went to a lecture at the Royal Overseas League in London, met, chatted to and  became captivated by an inspirational speaker: a Physics professor who wrote spiritual books. His name was Dr Raynor Johnson.

a-pool-of-reflections-by-dr-raynor-johnsonSubsequently I read and loved all his books, beginning with his latest: “A Pool of Reflection”. I later wrote him a letter, to which he responded with a very kind and encouraging reply from his home at Santiniketan, Ferny Creek, Melbourne Australia.

Santiniketan later became notorious as the first premises Raynor Johnson made available for the use of the then beautiful and charismatic  Anne Hamilton-Byrne, the cult leader, and where she gave her spiritual talks, and started to gather her followers.  At the time, of course, I had no knowledge of this.

I wrote about him and about the cult with which his name has now become ineradicably linked in this blog post: The Curious Case of the Kindly Professor and the Cunning Cult Leader. I also used the story of the cult in my novel  A Passionate Spirit (pub. Matador 2015).

This cult is particularly relevant to my interests in writing A Passionate Spirit, because of the way in which the cult leader uses beauty and charisma to win devoted followers, whom she then indoctrinates with her teachings; and the cult preys upon the young and the vulnerable.  In addition the cult won the support of many intellectuals and people occupying high professional positions. It is a case which is of vital fascination to a writer of psychological thrillers and suspense.

Later I was contacted by journalist Chris Johnston, who has published articles about the cult in  The Age, Melbourne and in the Sydney Morning Herald. He wanted to make reference to my experiences, and to quote from my blog post, in a book he was writing about the cult.

You can watch the story of this cult on BBC TV tonight Tuesday 29 November 2016 in a documentary called:  “Storyville: The Cult That Stole Children.” It is being broadcast at 9pm.

M paranormal thriller novel A Passionate Spirit inspired these remarks from a Net Galley reviewer, CE Gray:  “as Natasha and James started to take hold of both the centre, and the people within it, the story picked up pace and for me became a page turner. I needed to know, were there supernatural forces at work? Was Zoe imagining it? Were Natasha and James just fraudsters? Was this a story about a cult?

I was pulled in, hook, line and sinker, picking up my kindle at every opportunity to find out what happened next and the end was not disappointing.

I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone interested in cults, the supernatural and thrillers in general.

What I especially loved were the author’s notes at the end, talking about her inspirations for the novel, including the Australian cult, The Family, which sent me scurrying off to the google for an hour after I’d finished the book. A great read.

A Passionate Spirit is available to buy online and in bookshops.

A Poet’s View of Life – Shakespeare, the Jesuit Priest and the ex-Archbishop

What did Shakespeare believe?  20161107_092917-1He lived and created his work during a period of religious turmoil; and scholars are left to guess at his true spiritual worldview, despite his association with Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, and the fact that he was baptized and buried there.

And so it was appropriate that Holy Trinity Church, the location of Shakespeare’s grave, should be the venue for the first performance in England of the play Shakeshafte by Rowan Williams which I went to see a few days ago. During the course of the play, a teenage Shakespeare debates with the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion, and I found this portrayal by the Trinity Players thought-provoking, poignant and inspiring.

The only reason why we think Shakeshafte may be our William Shakespeare is because a young man of that name is referred to as an in-house entertainer in the will of Alexander Hoghton of Hoghton Tower, Lancashire, in 1581. And it is known  that Shakespeare’s schoolmaster, John Cottam, an ardent Catholic, recommended his pupil Will Shakeshafte and another boy, Fulk Gillom, to Alexander, for employment as tutors in his house and to provide entertainment. Alexander and his family were strong Catholics in Lancashire, a county renowned for being faithful to the “old religion” in a dangerous time of persecution against Catholics (and a county which was to see the infamous Pendle Witch trials in 1612, just 4 years before Shakespeare’s death).

So former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams works with the theory that this young Shakeshafte was indeed our William Shakespeare, during what scholars call one of the two “lost periods” of Shakespeare’s life. And that he met, talked and maybe even argued with Edmund Campion, the Jesuit priest who returned to England in 1580, spent time undercover at Hoghton Hall, was eventually betrayed, tried, and hanged, drawn and quartered in December 1581.

Scholars cannot tell what Shakespeare truly believed. Some think he was a closet Catholic and others that he was an atheist. The latter can cite quotes like:

Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, Which we ascribe to heaven.

And thus I clothe my naked villany
With odd old ends stol’n forth of holy writ,
And seem a saint when most I play the devil.

and

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.

So in this play, the young poet – who is portrayed by actor Louis Osborne as wild, passionate and unruly – and the devout priest, played by Tim Raistrick, come face to face, and swap their views of life. And the poet’s view of life is clearly one that Rowan Williams shares, despite having been Archbishop of Canterbury: he as a poet wants to experience life in all its richness and diversity. He ‘holds a mirror up to nature’, listening to  a variety of voices in his head and heart, unable to reduce them all to just one interpretation of the truth. And the play asks the question: Should we understand the truth as one grand central narrative to be imposed on life, or something that emerges in the dialogue between tradition and experience?(programme note by Anthony Woollard). 

I think that Rowan Williams himself holds that view of life in tension with ‘the grand narrative’ of evangelical Christian belief. And this to me is a beautiful expression of what Shakespeare himself would have believed; a world view with which I too can empathise.  And Shakespeare the poet would have held this view in amongst the dangerous religious turmoil of Elizabethan England, and it would be one that could only be hinted at in his poetry and plays, but never explicitly stated.

Which is probably the reason for the veiled remark to Horatio:

There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

 

 

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