At the National Portrait Gallery recently, as I wandered through the Victorian and Twentieth Century and Contemporary Galleries, I realised that I was surrounded by all the most amazing people who have moved or inspired me or touched my heart, during my lifetime.
It is truly a moving experience to gaze upon the faces of each of these people, and to reflect upon the impact each one of them has had on my life. Some of them look very unexceptional; others have been portrayed in a way which truly conveys their individuality. But what all have in common is this: they are like a cloud of witnesses, a gallery of masters who have found their way into my heart and mind over the generations and seasons of my life, through something they’ve written, or painted, or thought, or expressed.
To gaze upon their faces, even imperfectly rendered – for how can I tell the accuracy or the insight of the artist, having never encountered the sitter in person – is to be deeply touched.
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!
Having received this book as a Christmas gift, substantial 375-page tome that it is, I devoured it in a few days.
I found the book utterly compelling. Hunter Davies starts by describing his search among collectors, companies and auction houses for what must surely rank among the most valuable “scruffy scraps of paper” in the world: those the Beatles first wrote their original lyrics down on. A good proportion of these got thrown away by the Beatles then disposed of by the cleaners at Abbey Road Studios but several of those which didn’t ended up in the possession of certain key individuals who wish to keep the huge value of their possessions secret.
Hunter Davies himself offered his own personal collection of handwritten lyrics to the British Library on permanent loan and they now reside in the Manuscript Room alongside the Magna Carta, Shakespeare and Wordsworth.
Alongside photos of the handwritten lyrics, some on the backs of letters and birthday cards and envelopes, Davies gives an account of how the words were chosen, and what they mean, with some intriguing memories from his own personal contacts with the Beatles and with Brian Epstein. In so doing, he tells the story of the Beatles’ lives as musicians and songwriters entirely in and through the lyrics, the way they were composed, and the way in which their writers developed personally between 1957 and 1969.
During his observations on the songs he draws out not only the intended sense of them (if there was any – and sometimes John Lennon would deliberately write nonsense to defy the intellectual analysts) but also the unconscious meanings in the words, what they reveal of their composers’ inner lives. On one occasion, referring to some of George Harrison’s lyrics, Davies observes: “Perhaps George fooled himself, harbouring a subconscious fear that he was not admitting at the time or even aware of.”
Davies also examines the way the words emerged from the Beatles’ own life experience. I found his insights into Paul McCartney and John Lennon all the more moving because a lot of those biographical details held high emotional charge for me at the time. I became a Beatles fan at an early, and very impressionable, age – too young to be allowed to go to any of their concerts. Nevertheless I was devoted to them; every detail of their lives reported in the media, I followed avidly.
But there were several things I misunderstood.For instance, by the time “Beatles For Sale” came out, the acquisition of a new Beatles LP was so precious to me, so desirable, that I would never have guessed this title emerged from the Beatles’ own feelings of almost unbearable pressure at the commercial expectations being laid upon them.
One of the most engrossing aspects of the book is Davies’ reflection on the nature of success, and upon the creative process, often erratic and uneven. For instance, he recounts journalist Kenneth Allsop encouraging John to show his feelings more in his pop lyrics, closing the gap between his literary outpourings and his pop lyrics. And writing song lyrics is comparable in one sense to writing a novel, something Davies is quite explicit about, showing the way writers may unwittingly betray attitudes never consciously intended. “Novelists in particular,” writes Davies, “often create situations on paper, out of their imagination, which then come true.”
Davies gives a sensitive and penetrating analysis of John and his angst in particular, for, as he notes, “the discovery that success is all rather hollow, that you are still alone with yourself, can of course lead to self-destruction through excess be it drink or drugs.”
On page 234 Davies notes: “This was their philosophy: you could do these things, if you really wanted. There was no need to follow the rules or be bossed around.” How I identify with that ideal. Yet the truth is that this can only really apply to creatives when they have established themselves and become successful. As Hunter Davies says, “it helped that by this time they were multi-millionaires who had already made their mark in the music business.” And they’d made their mark through following Brian Epstein’s rules and letting him boss them around.
To conclude, I found studying this book to be a very intense experience. As we see the lyrics developing from boy-girl love songs fixated with promises to “be true” into richer, profounder and often more disturbing lyrics, as we study how the Beatles’ lives became more complex and their experience of the world deepened, it’s almost like seeing a reflection of our own lives, moving on from naivety, simplicity and idealism, through all the mistakes, folly, betrayal, loss and disillusion, along with the flashes of wonder, fun, hope, and joy.
I was pleased to see Austria’s win in the Eurovision Song contest 2014. Not only was there the pleasure in seeing a country win that had not seen success at Eurovision for 49 years, but also I thought it a genuinely good song, performed beautifully by Conchita Wurst who has a wonderful voice.
The standard this year was very high and I enjoyed several of the songs and performers. I don’t judge by politics, but by the performance alone, and the performances submitted by Russia and Ukraine were amongst those I personally believed to be the best. The current political situation between those two countries, to me, was irrelevant to the criteria for choice.
Many people love the Eurovision Song Contest, for different reasons; but I hope we have seen signs this year that we may be moving in the direction of valuing talented performers and high quality songs for their own sake alone.
What do we do about art when we wander around great art galleries and museums?
We see wonderful things on the walls and maybe we’re overwhelmed.
These great art works are distanced from us, somehow, by the awesome spaces and dimensions of the gallery.
We could never have these original art works on the walls of our own homes.
But they speak to us. There’s something in them we want to take away, something we want to claim for our own lives. Something that tells us about ourselves, our own hearts and souls.
So what do we do?
As David Tennant’s Doctor said to his assistant Donna in the Doctor Who episode Silence in The Library, “Quick! The shop! There’s always a little shop at the end!”
On BBC Radio 4 Today programme at 8.20am on Wed 9 Oct 2013, two writers with new books out, Desmond Morris (author of The Artistic Ape and Alain de Botton (author of Art as Therapy) discussed art and how it affects our lives. And one of the things they said struck me: “If we did not have art in our lives, the world would be very drab. We need it in our lives. But what do we do about art? We go to the gift shop, and we buy postcards. That way we can integrate the art into our daily lives.”
Desmond Morris made this point:
Art is not to be confined to museums but is part of something much bigger in life….. we do like to surround ourselves with objects that make our lives less drab.
Alain de Botton said what he proposes is that We treat the whole museum much more like the gift shop.
I now say that to my teenage son and daughter whenever we’re in an attraction. Ah-ha. The shop. There’s always a little shop at the end.
Why did I find this striking? Because of what I do, at home, in my space where I write.
I cover the wall with brochures, leaflets, postcards from art exhibitions. Bear in mind that the room needs redecorating, which is why I’ve stuck those images directly onto the wall!
No way can I afford to display original Rembrandt, David Hockney, Verneer on the walls of my home.
But I still integrate art into my life.
I have invited art into my writing space. Each of the images I’ve stuck onto the wall, is a window. A window into another world, another artist’s imagination, another dimension.
In this way, no matter how humble, I integrate something of the artist’s spirit into my own working space.
My dream, wrote the designer William Morris, is a dreamof what has never been… and therefore, since, the world is alive, and moving yet, my hope is the greater that it one day will be… dreams have before now come about of things so good… we scarcely think of them more than the daylight, though once people had to live without them, without even the hope of them.
Among all things most romantic to me is a high place.
I go to high places for calmness and peace.
There are a number of high places I love to visit, from where I live in Warwickshire.
And just such a place, 35 minutes drive from my home, is Broadway Tower in the heart of the Cotswolds, which I have visited many times, most recently the day before writing this post.
From the top of the tower one may see, on a fine day, thirteen counties.
No wonder idealists and romantics went there in the nineteenth century after their friend took a lease on the Tower, following the death of the Tower’s creator and original owner, the Earl of Coventry. For the Tower, a picturesque folly on the summit of Broadway Hill, emerged from the romantic movement. So, too, flambuoyant, theatrical and sensual, did Painswick Rococo Garden emerge from this tradition, as I wrote in a recent review on Trip Adviser.
William Morris was just one of the many idealists and romantics who came here. His rich, complex and exquisite designs now adorn soft furnishings, and a selection of them may be seen on the second floor of the Tower.
He is a beacon of romantic idealism, combining a love of medieval craftsmanship and Gothic design elements.
And his association with Broadway Tower – together with that of his contemporaries of like mind – is appropriate.
It’s certainly true that I, too, feel an affinity with the Romantics, the Pre-Raphaelites, the members of the Arts & Craft movement, and their dreams and visions.
For where would we be in this life if none among us aspired to, or dreamed of impossible ideals?
Read the full text of The Dream of William Morris here.
There, displayed for us in The Alternative Guide to the Universe, were the outpourings of unlicensed architects, off-beam physicists, self-taught artists, arcane code creators, numerologists and mystical theorizers; untrained farmer-inventors of automata and robots, constructors of imaginary buildings and cities from discarded packaging, and proponents of new theories to replace gravity and relativity.
We gazed at elaborate designs for a robot to roam the universe, and crack the mystery of life after death, with a complex scheme for a new language with which this robot would communicate these truths to the future inhabitants of planet earth.
We viewed images of exquisite dolls of children and young people which had been created by one man over 20 years, dressed in clothes he designed and made himself, then posed in numerous positions and photographed; and finally, packed away carefully, not to be seen again by anyone until after his death.
What makes art? I asked myself.
And answers immediately flooded in:
A long obedience in the same direction.
The creators of the works we saw were a direct inspiration and encouragement to me as a writer.
Some are long-term residents in psychiatric institutions, others are on the fringes of society, just inside the cusp of (apparent) normality.
And they are all remarkable, exceptional people.
And they all have this in common:
They are focussed, committed, and they direct all their energy into one project consistently, over a number of years which can range from one to three decades.
If you have this kind of commitment you too could in theory create exquisite things.
Your ideas might not ‘work’, but if you are creative in this life, and you leave a body of work behind you that is intriguing and beguiling and fills people with wonder and amazement and awe, you have added something of lasting value to this world. You may even have fulfilled your God-given purpose.
The other day I was reading through the typescript of the novel I wrote about my university life, finished a few years after I graduated:
it was called “A Degree Without Honour“.
I had some astonishing shafts of self-knowledge from it… things I was entirely unconscious of whilst writing it. I was trying to see what I could learn from it, though I admit I meant initially to pick out a passage which might help in my current novel.
But then the ms had to be put away in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet again – I could bear only so much of delving into the past like that!
Anyone reading an old journal, or looking through old photos, might feel the same.
The sometimes unwelcome light of self-knowledge, in extreme cases, may make us feel like the tormented figure in the famous painting “The Scream” by Edvard Munch.
“The Scream” is uncomfortable viewing. Through his art, Munch’s fascination with self-image, and obsessive self-expression are themes that still resonate today.
It occurred to me, that humans desire more than anything else, “to be known”. The current passion “to become a celebrity” and for social networking are just two of the many contemporary phenomena that express this.
But we can bear only so much knowledge – either of ourselves, or of others.
As I read in a recent article on “The Scream” from the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity, we seek “an identity that gives us a unique sense of belonging and a connection to others. Knowing this, in modern life, truly sets us free.”
“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 Laceat 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.