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!

People of Inspiration Part 1 – Paul McCartney, Muse, Minstrel and Keeper of Dreams

Today, opening a new mini-series on People of Inspiration, I offer my first choice: Paul McCartney.

Sir Paul McCartney in Mexico show Fri 11 May 2012
Sir Paul McCartney in Mexico show Fri 11 May 2012

He was my childhood hero. I first fell for him when a schoolfriend put a souvenir programme into my hands and I saw a picture of him singing “Yesterday” at the Royal Variety Command Performance, a few years after that performance.

Keeper of Dreams. This is a phrase which sprung into my mind in 2010 while I sat in the audience at the Cardiff Millennium Stadium watching Paul in his Up and Coming Tour. 

I watched and listened to him with my husband and teenage daughter and son, and all of us were captivated by his music and charisma. 

Paul has reinvented himself a number of times – a gift possessed by all those who persist in a career in the public eye for forty or more years. But to me he is poet, minstrel, storyteller, observer and interpreter of life, all in one.

His fellow Beatles mocked him for the sentimentality of “Yesterday” – yet for millions this song came to define the point where the establishment’s narrow presumptions about the Beatles radically shifted.

The appeal of Paul McCartney isn’t solely in his skill as a showman, and his personal qualities, but in the effect his words and music have on those who hear them.  Profound, moving, haunting, cryptic, puzzling, bizarre, touching, quirky, intriguing, beguiling, poignant, playful –  every mood and emotion can be found among his songs.

Although he is an international rock star and pop icon he makes his audience feel as if they’re in the pub with him having a singalong. Synthesis of special and ordinary – no-one can doubt that who has visited his mid-terrace childhood home at Forthlin Road in Liverpool – yet international superstar, you’re sharing a seat with him on the bus at Penny Lane, you’re standing with him looking down at Eleanor Rigby’s grave, you’re beside him on the Mull of Kintyre gazing over to Ireland.

How do you feel about Sir Paul? Have you been to his concerts?  Have you admired him for years, or are you a new fan? I’d love to have your comments!

Good Friday, The Magic of Believing, and Success and Failure

Once I tried to live by the magic of believing, in which positive thoughts always attract good circumstances into our lives – until I realised success and failure in this world cannot be understood in such a simplistic way. How straightforward life would be if that was so.

The truth is none of us know for sure to what we must attribute success or failure in life.  Some flourish in this world who by any moral law should not do so – including those dictators who hold onto power and wealth for many years by the sheer force of terror. And sometimes people can think positive thoughts, and it leads them on a path of suffering.  I think of the young girl at my daughter’s school who learned she had been diagnosed with leukaemia, smiled and said, “I’m lucky to have lived until now,” and then lived out the rest of her brief life with a sunny, cheerful, positive attitude.

I’m also reminded of the group of nuns who went out to El Salvador to offer care to the oppressed people, and all met violent deaths. Their story is told by Sheila Cassidy in her book Good Friday People.  Here she gives other examples, too, of people who set their faces towards suffering, just as Jesus “set his face towards” Jerusalem (where he would be arrested, tortured, tried in a kangaroo court, sentenced to death, and crucified).  

I write this on Good Friday, when we reflect upon Jesus whose love took him on a path of suffering. It  led to the Cross – in worldly terms the ultimate failure.  And yet  the true significance of Good Friday is the triumph of love over evil. We do not flinch from the Cross but dare to wait at the foot of it – not to wallow in shame and guilt (as some suppose) but to receive the grace, love and peace poured out freely for us. And when I think of that grace, love and peace, there at Golgotha, the darkest of places, I can see the Christian resonance in these words from J.R.R. Tolkien: “May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.”

An Artist’s Feeling for Light and Relationship with the Creative Writer

“Show don’t tell” is one of the most common pieces of advice given to a writer; and this is the case with artists too. Yet sometimes we like to hear an artist explain their method of working. And so the other day I listened to Phyllis Davies, Painter and Textile Artist, as she discussed her art at a presentation to the Association of Midland Artists in Leamington Spa. As she displayed her vibrant wall-hangings, hand-embroidered on digitally printed fabric, she spoke of her feeling for light.  Warmth and coolness, sunlight and shadow, these command her attention first of all, and lead her on to consider texture, line, mass, colour and design. The artists I love the most are those for whom the variation of light is where it all begins. A good example of this, from another period, is Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks, which has long been one of my favourite artworks. The quality of the light and shadow in this great painting fills me with awe.

Phyllis Davies finds her inspiration in Venice, and her glorious wall-hangings are full of the opulence and brilliance and splendour of that city.  She said: “it is always more interesting to look at things through something else.”  So as an artist she prefers to view a basilica, a bridge, a church, through a fence. And this reminded me of the exhibition I reviewed a few weeks ago, Lost in Lace at the Birmingham City Art Gallery & Museum. Everything there was defined by spaces and holes and boundaries, even to the point of one artist tying threads round holes in fences.

Another abstract feature stood out in my mind from Phyllis’s presentation: movement and stillness. She represents this through variation of light and colour, and in the viewpoint she takes of Venetian scenes.  To me, listening to an artist describe how she works is something that feeds directly into how I feel about creative writing. Movement and stillness translates into pace and tone and mood. Warmth and coolness, sunlight and shadow, all play their parts in a novel, as we consider the effect of positive and negative, high emotional stakes and the subtle passing of information – the art of “showing” and not “telling”. Whether the novel is literary or popular, I still feel that these elements are present, there in the writer’s art. 

SC Skillman

Wisdom from Hermitage, Cave and Monastery

a sadhu (Hindu holy man) in the Himalayas
a sadhu (Hindu holy man) in the Himalayas

Sometimes you hear people say “What’s the use of being a solitary contemplative?” How can any of humanity’s problems be resolved by those who withdraw from the world, to live the life of a hermit or a monk? The vital role of the sadhu or holy man is long established in Indian tradition; and renewed interest in monasticism in our society in recent years has focused our attention on The Monastery TV programmes exploring the work of Abbot Christopher Jamison at Worth Abbey in Sussex. His book Finding Sanctuary is one of the finest spiritual books I’ve ever read.

Abbot Christopher Jamison
Abbot Christopher Jamison

 Gifts from the hermitage or monastery or cave may not necessarily come through words. Years ago, I met a sadhu, a Hindu holy man, in the Himalayas. He lived in a cave above Badrinath (the last Indian town of importance before the Tibetan border, and place of Hindu pilgrimage).  He was happy to pose for a photo. Thereby he gave me something of great value:  the serene, tranquil look in his eyes was one of the most powerful memories I brought back from India; an image which would endure for years.

Imagine receiving wisdom and prophetic insight from a solitary contemplative, whether this be sadhu or monk or sage.  Thomas Merton, Trappist Monk (1915-1968) was one of the twentieth century’s greatest spiritual writers, and a prolific correspondent for thousands who wrote to him. Now, reading his  Precious Thoughts I feel as if I’m viewing daily posts from his blog. As I read each one I can see clearly the question his correspondent asked him, the problem that person was troubled by.

Precious Thoughts by Thomas Merton
Precious Thoughts by Thomas Merton

For example someone had evidently written to him concerned about the suffering that animals experience, and whether God cares, or has anything to do with it (a subject of interest to all animal rights activists). Merton replies: Who is to say that He does not in some way Himself suffer in the animals what they suffer? God cannot simply look on ‘objectively’ while His creatures suffer. To imagine Him doing so is to imagine something quite other than God.

Then there was his reply to a writer who had shared her impatient anxiety (something I know well) about the way things were working out in her life; and Merton wrote: Do not attach too much importance to any individual happening or reaction … you cannot scheme, you cannot figure, you cannot worm your way out of it. Only God can unlock the whole business from the inside, and when He does, then everything will be simple and plain.

Treasure the wise contemplatives of this world. They are indeed precious to humanity.

Water, Rock, Moon and Ancient Stone

Morton Bagot Church, Warwickshire
Morton Bagot Church, Warwickshire

Imagine the Warwickshire countryside in silence and darkness. A rabbit running from the headlights. Imagine a radiant moon and bright stars. The fresh rich smell of silage in the night. A tiny ancient church on a hill, lit only by candles within. Imagine rocks, water, Celtic prayers and songs – and you’ll know what I was doing last night.

Within the church with its rough stone walls are tall candlesticks and centuries-old choir stalls and pews. And a small group of people  with torches.

We were there with our leader, Annie Heppenstall , to commemorate the life of St Non, Celtic saint – the mother of St David, patron saint of Wales. St David’s Day is 1st March, and St Non’s Day is 3rd March. To celebrate the highlights of the Celtic calendar in a special place like the church at Morton Bagot recalls the Celtic idea of “a thin place” – a place where the veil between heaven and earth is thin. I’ve written of this before in my blog post about Sacred Spaces. Many of us can name special places throughout the British Isles which we have felt to be “a thin place.” And this tiny church on the hill is one of them.

St Non of Wales presents, in common with many saints, an example of a life which encountered trauma yet overcame. She was an educated woman who chose to devote herself to life as a nun; raped by a prince of the region, she gave birth alone  on a clifftop in a raging storm. When the child she bore grew old enough she entrusted him to the church for his upbringing as many did in those days and resumed her life as a nun. Her son grew to become a holy man himself, and we know him as St David.

For us today, the example of St Non is one of a woman who suffered, lived through trauma and crisis, and triumphed over a bad situation,  coming out the other side, working faithfully with her changed circumstances and then courageously taking up her path again. On the site in Pembrokeshire where Non gave birth, to this day, a pure spring of water flows out from the bedrock where many have come to pray for healing.

SC Skillman

Learning From David Hockney

On a recent visit to David Hockney’s exhibition “A Bigger Picture” at the Royal Academy, not only was I uplifted and enthralled by his art, but also I took away with me several insights for creative writers. Here are five highlights that apply to novelists as well as artists:

1) Working From Memory Frees the Imagination

Hockney does a charcoal sketch in situ, then paints in studio; or he observes landscape, then paints it from memory; or he paints wholly from his imagination. Working from memory sets the imagination free. I can see close parallels here to the work of a novelist; over-reliance on research may produce an interesting novel, but not one which touches the spirit of the age or haunts the imagination for years.

2) Notice the Changes in One Subject Over Time

Hockney went back again and again to exactly the same fixed position in Woldgate Wood, East Yorkshire. He painted the wood in May, July, October and November – each time capturing a different spirit. The same place – transformed over time. This is an essential task of the creative writer; to show the changes in one protagonist made by varying pressures of time and plot and circumstance.

3) Be Alert to Seize the Opportunity That Will Quickly Vanish

Hawthorn blossom appears overnight and can disappear in one downpour of rain. Hockney was alert to the  moment the blossom would appear. He called it Action Week. He would instantly be out to paint with urgency. So must we as story-writers capture the opportunity that the creative imagination presents – whether that be a thought that comes during the night or on a long train journey, or in any other solitary moment. It must be captured with urgency or it will vanish.

4)  Focus Intense Concentration on One Well-Defined Area

Hockney filmed the landscape through 9 cameras mounted on a grid on the front of his jeep as it moved slowly along. Each frame makes the viewer see the whole differently, by focusing intensely on the details within that frame – helping us to see as an artist sees. This is what a great novelist does in exploring the psyche of one character who touches the spirit of the age.

5)  Harness the Power of Rediscovery

Hockney came back to the environment of his childhood, having spent many years away from it, living in California.  Separation from a loved landscape only serves to feed the mind as it imagines and reflects. During the four year period spent living in Australia (notwithstanding the inspiration I found in the Australian landscape, the Red Centre, mountains, coast, islands and rainforest), I often dreamed of the English landscape, particularly my childhood county of Kent, or of the familiar streets and locales of my childhood. This is so in creative writing too. If you spend much time apart from something you can now only apprehend through memories, dreams, reflections, your expression of this in any art form will have much greater depth and intensity.

SC Skillman

How Can Carl Jung’s Theory of Archetypes Help You in Your Creative Writing?

Among his many theories, Carl Jung includes “archetypes”. An archetype may be defined as “a universally understood symbol or term or pattern of behaviour”.  If you read Robert McKee’s Story, you will find that the key to writing a great novel lies in “building archetypal elements into the story.” So what exactly are these “archetypal elements”? And how exactly can they help creative writers?

How Can Carl Jung’s Theory of Synchronicity Help You in Your Creative Writing?

Among his many theories, Carl Jung includes “synchronicity”. This may be defined as “the meaningful patterning of two or more psycho-physical events not otherwise causally connected”. I’ve known of this theory for several years, and have seen it operating not only in my life but in the lives of others. Now I realise how it can help creative writers too.Let me give you a few examples of synchronicity in my own experience. 

Inspiration for Creative Writers From Artists

Honesty and truthfulness – these are the outstanding virtues of a great artist. And as a creative writer I have in recent times found inspiration from two contemporary artists, Grayson Perry and Tracy Emin.

Both artists hold personal challenges for me…