A few images from Dunham Massey, a National Trust property in Cheshire. These were taken on 19th February – just at that time of the year for us in England where the spring flowers are arriving, heralds of joy and new hope.
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.
This is the eighth in a series of blog posts in which I re-publish the articles on that blog tour.
INTENSE RELATIONSHIPS IN CLOSED COMMUNITIES, AND THE STRESS AND TENSIONS OF LIFE
I was inspired to write Mystical Circles by, among other things, the challenge and the dual effect of family relationships; family relationships which seek to protect and encourage and advise, and which sometimes turn in a negative direction, when they may stultify and suffocate and control.
I had an idea in my mind of an older sister shocked and horrified by a decision her impetuous young sister had made – a decision which could impact on the rest of her life, and which might lead her down a path the older sister thought destructive.
So I began my tale of Juliet, a freelance journalist who has begun to establish herself well in life, horrified by unexpected news from younger sister Zoe, fresh out of university, no plans in mind for a career, who has been captivated by a new spiritual outlook – and a very seductive cult leader – or so it appears to Juliet.
Of course, when a novelist sets out to create a story, real people influence fictional characters. And then those characters take off, and develop a mind of their own, and soon they are controlling the plot and driving the novelist along certain paths. I have long been fascinated by human personality and the ways in which different individuals interact with each other, either leaching energy from or building up those who they come into contract with. Likewise, the whole area of group dynamics is a source of inspiration for me. I have been in many different groups of people throughout my life – whether that be within a family gathering, an office environment, a structured workshop or psychological therapy group, or a new age spiritual group like the one portrayed in Mystical Circles – or, indeed, a writing workshop or conference.
Another of my inspirations for Mystical Circles was an Arvon Foundation writing course I attended at Totleigh Barton farmhouse in Devon. I’ve been to many other other writing weekends and courses too, which have fed into the events of my own novels. Look no further than a group of writers, if you want to plumb the depths of emotional anguish, and numerous psychological tensions such as jealousy, euphoria, new hope, the depths of despair. I like the idea of exploring the intense relationships that develop in closed communities and certainly a week closeted together with other writers in a remote farmhouse gives plenty of fuel for such a scenario as the one I develop in Mystical Circles.
The Wheel of Love, the new age spiritual group which Zoe has joined, is a claustrophobic hothouse environment. Here in this close circle, as the blurb says, intrigues, liaisons and relationships flare and flourish or fizzle out quickly. This acts as a strong challenge to Juliet who is a freelance journalist and who starts out intending to remain objective…
Mystical Circles is out in a new edition with a new cover design on 5 September 2017.
Publisher: Luminarie; edition 3 (5th September 2017)
“Hi, you in crowded, stressed old London from me in the peaceful, perfect Cotswolds. Massive change of plan. I’m in love. Craig’s gorgeous, sexy, intelligent. Paradise here. Staying forever.”
Juliet, concerned that her younger sister has fallen in love with the charismatic Craig, leader of the Wheel of Love, sets off for the Cotswolds to investigate, fearful that Zoe has become entangled with a religious cult.
She arrives at Craig’s community hoping to rescue Zoe. But intrigues, liaisons and relationships flare and flourish or fizzle out quickly within this close circle, and despite her reservations, Juliet is drawn into the Wheel of Love… with completely unforeseen consequences.
About the author…..
SC Skillman lives in Warwickshire, and her two thriller suspense novels Mystical Circles and A Passionate Spirit are set in the beautiful Cotswolds hills, not far from her present home. She has also written Perilous Path: A Writer’s Journey, a book of encouraging advice, tips and reminders for authors. Sheila was born and brought up in Orpington, Kent, and has loved writing stories most of her life; inspired by the adventure stories of Enid Blyton, she started writing adventure stories at the age of seven.
Sheila studied English Literature at Lancaster University, and her first permanent job was as a production secretary with the BBC. Later she lived for nearly five years in Australia before returning to the UK. She has now settled in Warwick with her husband David, son Jamie and daughter Abigail. Nearby are three of England’s most famous destinations: the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-upon Avon and the two great castles at Kenilworth and Warwick.
She completed two full-length adult novels before turning to psychological suspense with Mystical Circles. Her paranormal thriller, A Passionate Spirit, inspired by Susan Howatch and Barbara Erskine, was published by Matador on 28 November 2015.
We are just back from Bavaria where we were inspired by King Ludwig II’s castles,
delighted by glorious mountain views, enjoyed delicious apple strudels
and slipped into Austria where we had a lot of fun on the Sound of Music Tour in Salzburg.
But the most outstanding feature of our holiday was our discovery of a truly intriguing character: King Ludwig II. Ludwig was a dreamer and visionary whose image is now ever-present in Bavaria.
Whilst visiting his three castles – the castle on an island in a lake, Herrenchiemzee, the fairy-tale like apparition high on a mountain crag, Neuschwanstein, and the exquisite vision in a valley, Linderhof, I was fascinated by his romantic idealism, his passionate devotion to the idea of being “an absolute king” dwelling in Castle Perilous, his love of immensely rich and precious interior decoration, his total disregard of the practical implications of his various passions, and his intense relationship with the great composer Richard Wagner. His story was often tragic, and his end terribly sad – he was declared mad and killed – yet Bavaria thrives on his legacy today.
There were several aspects of Ludwig which inspired me for a major character in my WIP. So this visit to Bavaria came at just the right time as I’m about to embark on the second draft. With such a complex character, I cannot be entirely sure whether his passion, intensity and commitment to a world of the imagination will infuse my villain, hero or anti-hero. That is yet to be determined…
I have long loved wildflower meadows, and thought how lovely it would be to have one instead of a garden. But creating a wildflower meadow isn’t just a matter of buying a few packets of seeds and scattering them over a piece of unwanted lawn. Several years ago I did just that and waited, hoping for a glorious profusion of wildflowers several months later and the result was – nil.
In May 2016 we attended a Plantlife talk at Highgrove, the Prince of Wales’ beautiful garden near Tetbury, Gloucestershire, and came away with two packets of wildflower seeds.These seeds were a special Highgrove mix – enough for a small patch of wildflower meadow in the garden.
Inspired by the Prince of Wales’ Head Gardener Debs Goodenough we planned to plant just a small area with the seeds.
We now knew that to plant a wildflower meadow in your garden you need poor soil, perhaps an area of “old lawn”, and certainly not lawn or soil which has been fertilised and carefully tended in the past. So we chose a wild area.
Last August my son Jamie (a budding horticulturalist) sowed the seeds in a a patch measuring 4 square metres in our back garden.
We didn’t expect much in the first year; a wildflower meadow may take a few years to become fully established. In fact I must admit I expected that during the first year we’d have just a small jungle of weeds, and would need to wait and trust that the beauty would emerge in a few years.
But this July we’re delighted to see the wild grasses tall and shining in the sun, and among them, a few of the first wildflowers to appear.
It gives us great pleasure to look out beyond the more “domesticated” beds of rose and lavender, past the newly-sown area of lawn, to our little area of Highgrove wildflower meadow.
It will be mown for the first time in September, and then after that four times a year.
Next year we hope to see a profusion of colours and perhaps a small version of the lovely wildflower meadow at Highgrove!
I’d love to know what you think about wildflower meadows! Have you ever tried to create your own meadow in your garden? And how successful have you been?
During my visit to The Holy Island of Lindisfarne last year, I sat on the shore by the Lindisfarne Causeway and watched the tide come in and cover the road.
Here are my insights – and a few images – from that experience.
Sitting at the end of the causeway and watching the tide come in is one of the activities suggested for you here Give Yourself a Retreat on Holy Island by Ray Simpson. It has many benefits and can be quite amusing as you watch cars driving along the road well outside the safe crossing time, and wonder whether they’ll soon be floating away. This too can be a good prompt to reflect upon the quality of patience.
It’s also a challenge to your ability to sit quietly for an extended length of time and meditate; to some it can become boring. We sat with several other people, some of who left early, but we stayed till the water was surging across the road.
I found myself thinking of the High Tide of God; sometimes it comes flooding in over the road and then you may not pass. At other times, it is out, and your way along the road is free.
Of course, you can interpret the tide differently, reversing the meaning.It all depends upon the viewpoint you take; whether you see yourself sitting on the shore, or whether you see yourself as a boat, or as a bird skimming the waves. Instead of equating the tide with a signal that you must patiently wait, you can equate it with a time for fruitful action. That is how Shakespeare interpreted it when he wrote: There is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune.
So even non religious people can sit here at the end of the causeway and take from this their own reflections on life.
Whichever way you view it, the whole experience is full of symbolic meaning, which you can also explore in this book: Sacred Spaces by Margaret Silf.
My personal reflections for my own life, work equally well when applied to the current world scene.
I believe, with Tolstoy (see my previous blog post here) that “the times produce the man”; and currently, those who voted Trump in as President hold the moral responsibility for elevating him into a major role in their society. The tide in the affairs of men, that Shakespeare referred to, has thrown up this situation… and though many hold different views, perhaps we must just wait for the tide to recede, taking with it all the flotsam and jetsam.
Curiously, you can apply this principle to the writing of novels too. Sometimes you find you have a major character in a minor role, and vice versa. This can underlie problems with story-writing when you get stuck, and perhaps you can’t initially work out what you’re doing wrong.
And also you can equate creativity with the tide; the high tide of ideas. As the tide surges in, so can our ideas – but only if we get to work.
And lastly we, as writers, can see the tide as Shakespeare did: a tide of fortune. Are we boats, or birds, or perhaps merely foam on the crest of the waves? We may be a beautiful beached fish, just waiting for the tide to sweep us up again. However we see it, we can learn many things from sitting patiently at the end of the causeway, and waiting and gazing.
The English love to do fun – and some might even think silly – things on Boxing Day.
Perhaps this is a relief from all the stress of preparing for Christmas. It’s also the opportunity for people to gather together in the fresh air and enjoy themselves with traditional English entertainments.
The events were organised by Kenilworth Lions who not only give people a lot of fun and enjoyment, but also provide tremendous support to local charities through their fundraising.
The entertainments included Morris dancers, Punch and Judy Show, and the best dressed dog contest at Kenilworth Castle…
……..and the annual duck race along the brook through Abbey Fields – an event which attracts a huge crowd. We followed this with another very popular local activity – a walk through the fields behind Kenilworth Castle, through the area once covered by the Great Mere, filled with pleasure boats, out to the former site of Henry V’s “Pleasance in the Marsh” and back again to the Castle….
May I take this opportunity to wish you a happy New Year and for all of us the chance to play our part in making the world a more compassionate, caring and loving place for us all, one in which people may come together in a spirit of mutual tolerance, acceptance and good will, so in many more countries people may enjoy being together as shown on the pictures in this blog post.
O for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.
So wrote William Shakespeare in the Prologue to Henry V – and a few days ago we were in the garden at New Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, site of Shakespeare’s former family home – infusing marbles with the power of that same muse.
In case you’re thinking that sounds eccentric and zany, you’re right – and through the path of the eccentric many of the greatest minds have found both inspiration and ideas that have changed the world. Below is an approximation of what Shakespeare’s family home would have looked like. No house currently exists at New Place, but is instead represented by a series of gardens is where we embarked on a “Muse Catching” journey with the United Nations Board of Significant Inspiration (otherwise possibly understood as a group of artists / creators / thinkers / acrobats / inventors / actors whose goal is to awake the imagination, fill the mind and heart with fresh possibilities, and raise up the muse for members of the public who choose to visit).
Our purpose: to each take a marble and catch in it some of that muse Shakespeare wrote about, through the four elements of earth, fire, water and air.
The journey itself is full of fun, wonder, laughter inspiration and delight – and at the bottom of this wonderful, quirky, fanciful Art Happening, is a profound question and a fascinating subject for research: is there a correlation between place, time and lightbulb moments?
Shakespeare’s family home no longer exists because it was demolished by a character Shakespeare himself might have created. This “Art Happening” as I like to describe it, was based upon the idea that “the muse” is somehow present in the location where Shakespeare lived and wrote. Many of us are familiar with the idea of certain places having a high level of inspiration. Often it seems to be present in the air, or lie hidden in the fabric of a special building, or within a natural phenomenon or feature of the landscape. But does it perhaps emanate from the ground? This is the idea played with and embodied by the UNBOSI at New Place this Christmas. In the roundel at New Place, several information boards explored this, noting that many world-renowned geniuses had their lightbulb moment by doing very silly things – or by having very silly things happen to them.
So let us be inspired by the fanciful, creative, quirky and even silly… for along that path may lie greatness.
Last Saturday I was in Southwark, London SE1, researching locations for my new novel.
To me, the setting for a novel must have a strong emotional connection. My first two novels were set in the Cotswolds, near where I now live. My next novels will be set in London, near where I was born and brought up.
What a fascinating part of London Southwark is, rich in layers of history, the medieval squashed in with the 21st century, sparkling new towers, majestic cathedral, paupers graveyard and bustling market and Dickensian street names and eccentric pubs all crammed in together – and one of London’s most colourful and stimulating walks, along Bankside, from More London right through to the London Eye…..
But what I’m interested in isn’t just the tourist sites; it’s the atmosphere, the pubs, the unexpected small parks and gardens, the odd corners and street names. Here’s a selection from the many photos I took. And I’ll be back again, absorbing the feel of the place, and imagining my characters into it.
Last week I visited HRH the Prince of Wales’ garden at Highgrove for the third time.
Each time I’ve visited – the first time in pouring rain in August 2015, the second time near the end of the wildflower season in June 2016, and now in October 2016, we’ve been led by a different guide and each has chosen a different slant. On this occasion our guide (a gentleman in his eighties) told us that HRH the Prince of Wales takes his guides round the garden and tells them all the stories and points out the things he wants them to mention to the visitors. Inevitably, however, each individual will have his or her own angle onto the garden.
So this time I was able to notice not only those aspects of the garden this particular guide was focusing on, but those which carried stories told on my previous two visits. One of the tales told by today’s guide (tongue-in-cheek) portrayed the Prince as an unexpected visitor to Highgrove whose favourite occupation, having turned up without prior warning, is to hide behind the hedge and listen in on what visitors say about his garden. In fact most of the time the visitors are silent with either admiration, delight, puzzlement, bemusement or even, dare I suggest, indignation, when they realise that they are not in the Land of the Immaculate, and that weeds are not treated like public enemy number one in this garden, moss is allowed to multiply to its fullest extent on stone, and different principles apply, other than those we might expect, perhaps from National Trust gardens, or those associated with Capability Brown.
This time I felt able to say which are most definitely my favourite aspects of the gardens at Highgrove. For those who have visited, this list will be meaningful, but for those who haven’t, then I suggest either reading this book on the subject, or just letting your imagination play with the images the list suggests:
I love the stumpery, and the little gnome that is to be found inside one of the stumps there; the temple garden, with its two statues to ward off evil spirits, and the network of dry sticks and twigs in the temple pediments, that manage to look like intricate wood carvings; the goddess of the wood; the wall of gifts; the four daughters of Odessa; the pond with redundant stonework and limestone topped by gunnera, the topiary frog and snail.
To me, this is a garden that is playful, quirky, eccentric; a fantasy made real by someone who has the means, the time, patience and heart to achieve it. As I wander through the garden, I can’t help expecting trick fountains – such as those which King Ludwig of Bavaria incorporated into his own garden, in the gardens of his dreamlike palace.