Modern-Day Angel Encounters – With or Without Wings. (Angel Encounters Mini Series: Part 1)

What does a modern day angel look like?

Michael Sheen as the angel Aziraphale in 'Good Omens' by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman
Michael Sheen as the angel Aziraphale in ‘Good Omens’ by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

Like the fussy angel played by Michael Sheen in the deliciously funny and clever ‘Good Omens’ by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett?

More, perhaps like this angel depicted by Vincent Van Gogh? 

Half-Figure of an Angel, After Rembrandt – by Vincent Van Gogh

or maybe like the powerful and moving Knife Angel that appeared at Coventry Cathedral in 2019?

The Knife Angel at Coventry Cathedral

 

Or perhaps even, the guardian angel Clarence.

guardian-angel-clarence-from-its-a-wonderful-lifeI

We met him in the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life.

In the TV sitcom Rev, the main character Adam Smallbone (played by Tom Hollander) reaches a point where he has been betrayed, lost his church, his self-respect, and his vocation, and feels he has failed all those who believed in and depended on him.

In a state of despair, he goes up a hill carrying the cross intended for the Easter Sunday service. At the top of the hill he meets a homeless man (played by Liam Neeson) who dances and sings with him, knows and understands what’s going on for him, and offers consolation and hope. He transforms how Adam feels about his situation. Then he disappears.

This kind of encounter takes on the shape of what I would call an angel encounter.

This I would define as:  a situation where you are in personal crisis of some kind, and you are helped in a timely manner by a person who appears unexpectedly, transforms your situation, and then disappears quietly. Throughout the encounter, this stranger seems surrounded by an aura of graciousness, gentleness and kindness.

I’m starting a new series of occasional posts here on my blog, entitled:

Angel Encounters.

I know many people hold on to belief in angels  – whether they be guardians, guides, or  protectors – even in this supposedly secular, materialistic society in which we live here in the UK.

In 2019 I attended an author talk as part of the Warwick Words History Festival, held in the church of St Mary Magdalene in Warwick. Author Peter Stanford spoke about his latest book Angels: A Visible and Invisible History 

In this book Peter Stanford gives a history of humankind’s belief in angels, beginning long before the historical origins of the Christian faith, and continuing right up to the present day, with the interest in angels ever popular through folk religion and other spiritual outlooks.

Peter Stanford uncovers much intriguing material, and also includes an examination of the appearance of angels in great art. Throughout he maintains an objective, academic approach which he combines with his own views.

Today, many of those who believe in angels see them as ‘independent agents’, outside traditional faith structures.

As Stanford says, People have… believed in angels for millennia… the only difference today is that this reliance on angels as dwellers in time and space is happening outside of organised religion… Angels once… largely belonged in religious narratives and institutions… but… have somehow detached themselves from the declining institutions and are now thriving on their own.

At the end of the book Stanford remarks: I have lost count while researching and writing the book of how many times I have been asked if I “believe” in angels. 

Many other authors too have written on the subject of angels, from a wide variety of viewpoints. A popular author on the subject is Theresa Cheung and I blogged about her book Angel On My Shoulder  on 28 February 2017 

The book is full of authentic first-person accounts. Several things fascinated me about these:

1) I could identify with a number of them from my own experience, though I’ve tended to think of them as synchronicity;
2) Each one had a distinct element of the supernatural;
3) Far than being sentimental, they all demonstrate strength and simplicity.

Several describe sudden and shocking bereavement. In each case the narrator of the story has experienced a compelling supernatural intervention which has totally changed their attitude to the tragedy and to death itself, and has provided the sort of comfort and reassurance that others might achieve only through long-term counselling or psychotherapy.

The author’s stance in relating the stories is measured and balanced. She fully accepts those who take a “reductionist” view of these events and prefer a rational explanation, and she invites us to make up our own minds.

I found the whole book very convincing, not least because of the cumulative effect of so many testimonies from different people unknown to each other, who have all had similar experiences. It had the same effect upon me as another book I’ve reviewed called Miracles by Eric Metaxas.

In her summing up, Teresa Cheung refers to organised religion no longer providing the structure and certainty that it used to (maybe because so many feel it doesn’t meet their needs, and appears irrelevant to their lives). The stories in this book suggest, to one way of thinking, that many may be connecting with “the divine” totally outside the confines of “church” – through angels.

This, interestingly, is the same conclusion that Peter Stanford comes to.

In this occasional series on my blog, I’ll consider modern-day angel encounters.

Next week I’ll start this off with my own story describing an experience which took place several years ago.

What do you think? Do you believe you have a guardian angel?  Have you a story of an “angel encounter”? Do share in the comments below.

Guardian Angel Clarence (played by Henry Travers) with George Bailey (played by James Stewart), in the 1946 movie It’s a Wonderful Life

 

A Walk in the Park Leads to Reflections on the Covid-19 Crisis, Shakespeare and The Plague…

I went for a walk with my son Jamie to St Nicholas Park in Warwick on a beautiful warm sunny day.

view of castle from St Nicholas Park Warwick
view of castle from St Nicholas Park Warwick

We found very few people, all observing the 2 metre rule.

The atmosphere was like a dreamy quiet Sunday afternoon in a sleepy village in the 1950s.

I thought, If this was a dystopian scenario, what would be the reason why this highly favoured park is so devoid of people?

Alien invasion by hostile life forms? A deadly contagion in the air?

As soon as the words “deadly contagion in the air” came into my mind, I remembered Shakespeare’s words through the voice of Hamlet (in Act 3 Scene 2):

“‘Tis now the very witching time of night,

When churchyards yawn, and hell itself breathes out

Contagion to this world.”

During the time of the Black Death, many held that it was caused by a miasma, a noxious form of bad air.

But that words contagion reminded me that Shakespeare may well have been speaking of the graves of plague victims. If their dead bodies had been exposed, contagion would indeed have breathed out into the air.

Throughout this crisis I admit I have again and again thought of the Plague and the Black Death.

map of the worldwide spread of the Black Death
map of the worldwide spread of the Black Death

How difficult it is for us to imagine what it would have been like for them, with no understanding of what caused the contagion, no real idea of how to stop it or protect themselves, no centralised source of reliable information, no medical science to help them. Just people dying everywhere, parents losing children, babies left orphaned and alone, families being sealed up alive inside houses because their loved ones had the plague.

And yet I’ve also thought, we’re really no better than those medieval plague sufferers. We too swiftly snatch at rumours. All sorts of wild ideas have arisen of how you can protect yourself from the virus, along with ideas of where the virus has come from and whether we can blame anybody for it. With all the resources of the modern world, we still easily revert to our ancestors’ way of thinking.

On the news it was reported that a man had been observed walking through a public park wearing the garb of a medieval Plague Doctor, and some had complained that he would frighten their children.

medieval plague doctor
Medieval Plague doctor

I thought to myself, ‘Good for him. He’s teaching people a history lesson, whilst at the same time probably wearing the ideal PPE.’ The police said they were going to “have a word” with this gentleman.

No, what we are suffering cannot be compared to the horrors of the Bubonic Plague. Nevertheless I still believe it’s good for us to occasionally imagine ourselves back there, and even in the midst of our distressing times, remember with compassion those in the past, whose situation was far worse.

Cover Reveal: ‘Paranormal Warwickshire’ by SC Skillman

I’m delighted to be able to bring you the cover reveal for my new book, Paranormal Warwickshire, which is due to be released by Amberley Publishing on 15th November 2020.

PARANORMAL WARWICKSHIRE by SC Skillman
Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman

I’ve been looking forward to this for several months, as I wondered which of the photos (taken either by myself, by my son Jamie or my daughter Abigail) would be chosen for the front cover! Would it be the very atmospheric night shot of St Mary’s Warwick against an inky blue sky, the path into the graveyard to the left, and light spilling out from the windows? Would it be that iconic view of Warwick Castle that everyone sees as they cross the bridge into Warwick? Would it be one of our moody images of mysterious Guy’s Cliffe?

Well, now I know, and I’m thrilled with the cover. I hope you too find that it intrigues you, and stirs your imagination.

Warwickshire is a county steeped in the supernatural, as befits the county of Shakespeare and the many ghosts and spirits that he conjured up in his works.

The towns and villages of Warwickshire, its castles, houses, churches, theatres, inns and many other places both grand and everyday have rich and complex stories to tell of paranormal presences.

In this book I investigate the rich supernatural heritage of this county at the heart of England in places such as Guy’s Cliffe House, the Saxon Mill, Kenilworth Castle, Warwick Castle, St Mary’s Church in Warwick, Nash’s House in Stratford-upon- Avon, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and Stoneleigh Abbey, as well as in the towns of Rugby, Nuneaton and Leamington Spa.

I explore the spiritual resonance of each location, recounting the tales of paranormal activity associated with it and examining the reasons for this within the history of the place.

Paranormal Warwickshire takes the reader into the world of ghosts and spirits in the county, following their footsteps into the unknown. These tales of haunted places, supernatural happenings and shadowy presences will delight the ghost hunters, and fascinate and intrigue everybody who knows Warwickshire.

I hope that whets your appetite for the book; and don’t forget to get your pre-order in! You can choose Amazon UK or Amazon US or Waterstones or Amberley’s own website. But as an alternative, as a tribute to Warwickshire, may I encourage you to order from our lovely indie bookshops, Warwick Books or Kenilworth Books.

The Art of Writing Backwards: a Novelist’s Sleight of Hand?

When you saw that title what did you imagine?  A scene from Alice through the Looking Glass?

mirror writing credit Mind Map Inspiration
mirror writing credit Mind Map Inspiration

One of those high speed reverse sequences in a magical fantasy film, when everything rewinds? Or perhaps a time-slip scenario?

Or simply an image of mirror writing?

Would it be wonderful if we could indeed start at the end and then proceed to the beginning? Or would it rather be a nightmare? Of course, TS Eliot encapsulated this idea when he wrote: The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

In one of the chapters of my book Perilous Path I looked at the seemingly paradoxical idea of writing a book in reverse. In many ways this idea appeals to me. After all, when we consider the obstacles a writer confronts during the creation of a novel, it seems that all the problems are wrapped up in the tyranny of time. The journey of a novel is often about getting to know your characters and allowing them to reveal to us what we’re writing about. 

Robert McKee in his excellent book Story says every story has a controlling idea; and the controlling idea is embedded in the final climax of the story. In fiction, controlling ideas are below the surface. So in one sense the process of writing a story does indeed involve travelling backwards, on an unconscious level. You will find more about this in my chapters in Perilous Path inspired by the theories of Carl Jung.

Our controlling idea, I believe, may not necessarily be fully worked out on a conscious level. It is hidden deep in the unconscious and the act of writing a work of fiction may simply be the working out of this, and the process of bringing it to the surface, and out into the light. Thus on an unconscious level we do indeed write backwards.

Some novelists start a first draft with their characters, and begin telling the story, and go where their characters take them. Finally the controlling idea is revealed. Then we might say they go into reverse, moving back again, and imposing structure in subsequent drafts. Others plan the novel out in detail using the 3-act structure, plotting out the story points before they begin writing. Perhaps, for them, the controlling idea is already out in the light and clearly defined.

Examples of controlling ideas include: ‘Goodness triumphs when we outwit evil’ (The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike). ‘Justice prevails when an everyman victim is more clever than the criminals.’ (The Firm by John Grisham).’To love with integrity requires personal worldview transformation’ (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen). Here are some very helpful blogs upon the subject of The Controlling Idea by Shawn Coyne and Steven Pressfield.

My writers guide Perilous Path may also be helpful; signed copies are available and may be ordered from this website.

The Extraordinary Animal That Is Grief

This week I am reblogging a post by an author whose books I love, and who writes a blog called Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking. Today, Vivienne Tuffnell writes with sensitivity and discernment about grief. I was particularly moved by what she writes, and responded to her post with my own comment. I hope that her words may strike a chord with those who may have suffered bereavement during this coronavirus crisis, and indeed, at any time.

Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking

The Extraordinary Animal That Is Grief

I thought I knew about grief. I’ve written enough about it, after all’s said and done. I thought I understood it.

But I realise that like a child who paddles on the shores of a vast ocean, sometimes venturing in deeper to swim, I only knew what had so far presented itself to me. Oh I’ve maybe snorkelled a bit; sailed out into the open on a calm day; watched the storms from the shore; read books on the subject.

This spring has been a spring like no other. In the first week of the UK lock-down, my mother passed away, less than seven months after my father. Amid that shock came the immense changes to daily life and the sudden ramping up of the baseline anxiety I experience most of the time. Friends lost beloved relatives and friends to the virus; the whole…

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Please Welcome Ritu Bhathal and her Debut Novel “Marriage Unarranged!”

Today I’m sharing with you another blogger’s post about a novel I recently read, “Marriage Unarranged” by Ritu Bathal. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel which its author describes as “chick-pea-lit”. It gives fascinating insights into the family dynamics of Asian families in Birmingham and also opens up for us modern India. I have never forgotten my own trip to India a few decades ago ; it shocks and entrances in equal measure. Ritu conjures up the atmosphere of India, the sights, sounds and smells, the highs and the lows, in a vivid, lively and entertaining narrative. A highly recommended read.

Hello everyone, I hope all is well with you. Today, I’ve got a special treat for you. I’ve got Ritu Bhathal as a guest and she’s telling us a little bit about her writing journey and how the Corona virus affected her. So, without further ado. Take it away, Ritu!

Ritu Bhathal

It was an amazing feeling, finally typing THE END after the last words on my manuscript that I had literally poured eighteen years of my life into.

Obviously, that wasn’t the end, by any means.

There was the fun of editing, with rewrites and tweaks, feedback from beta readers, then cover design, and all the marketing.

And then, just like that, the Publication Day was upon me.

I finally let my book baby free, and sat tight, waiting for the sales, then reviews.

Will they love it?

Will they hate it?

Oh my God, I am the worst writer! Why…

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#SocialDistancing #Walks in Enchanted Woodlands

I admit I rather like taking nature walks where everyone we meet is social distancing… with a polite smile, other walkers withdraw into the shrubbery or the bracken and we pass each other by at a safe distance, or with jokes about whether we are on the right route and whether we’re going round in circles and have seen each other before.

So it was in Thickthorn Wood, Kenilworth. Only the sound of cars rushing past on the A46 between Warwick and Coventry in a newly-loosened lockdown slightly detracted from the exquisite melody of the birdsong.

Glorious rhododendrums and bluebells gave this woodland the feeling of an enchanted forest. I could almost imagine Merlin and Arthur making their way along the track on white horses, searching for Nimue to try and persuade her to cancel one of her magical conspiracies against the inhabitants of Camelot….

Inspiration for Creative Writers From Grayson Perry in Grayson’s Art Club

Honesty and truthfulness – these are the outstanding virtues of a great artist. And as a creative writer I am currently finding inspiration from  artist Grayson Perry as he showcases “Covid-19 lockdown art” in his TV show “Grayson’s Art Club” on Channel 4.

Grayson makes use of our contemporary culture which he transforms into art –  tapestries, lithographs, glazed vases. One of my favourite items in a Grayson Perry exhibition in London was his “career advancement vase” upon which he had painted lots of different cliché words and phrases job seeker use on CVs.  These words are so evocative. They carry within them all sorts of pretensions, eagerness to impress, compulsion to present a false picture of oneself to the world.

In. another exhibition of Grayson’s works, I loved his “Walthamstow Tapestry

In Grayson Perry and Wendy Jones’ book “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl”, co-author Wendy Jones writes: “During the interviews Grayson appeared almost physically malleable. It seemed that sometimes he would look like a First World War pilot, then a mediaeval minstrel, then a housewife suffering from ennui, then an elegant hurdler. He was always morphing – I hadn’t come across that before and I doubt I shall see it often again.”

This capacity to morph strikes a chord in me as I watch Grayson’s Art Club, listen to his raucous laugh, and observe the change in his hairstyle between scenes. I also find myself imagining him as a young girl, in one of his many other personnas, I love the idea of a “fluid and flexible ego”, something I believe Grayson Perry has; and I used this idea myself in my novel “Mystical Circles” where it is eventually understood as part of the shapeshifting gifts of a shaman. Wendy Jones’ description was fascinating to me as I have known of those who morph in this fashion and have witnessed it myself and worked it into my own fiction.

Grayson Perry suggests that we “sit lightly to our beliefs”, and “let go of a compulsion to seek meaning – we will enjoy life in this world much more.” His art bears this out; everything is referred back to his childhood teddy Alan Measles, his “guiding spirit”; everything is set against that barometer of his childlike perceptions, even to the extent of  dressing as a little girl.

Grayson Perry  has important things to say, strong challenges to make to me. I cannot ignore these challenges as a creative writer.

Grayson Perry in one of his colourful alternative personnas
Artist Grayson Perry

Inspiration from Fantasy Novelist Philip Pullman, President of the Society of Authors

During the Covid19 lockdown, the Society of Authors are presenting a number of webinars with notable authors, and the other day I attended “Afternoon Tea with Philip Pullman”.

I was keen to hear from the author of a fantasy trilogy that captivated me, “His Dark Materials“. 500 of us attended, all waiting with drinks and snacks to hear what the President of the Society of Authors might have to say to us from his Oxford study. When he came on, he showed us his working space; untidy, spilling over with miscellaneous items such as his jacket slung over an open box of labels, files and paper and books. I was greatly encouraged to see this; no compulsion to tidy up his workspace there!

He was asked what the Society of Authors means to him, and he said, “It simply means that I am part of a body of people who have experienced some of the disappointments and hopes and occasional successes that I have.

On his wall is a giant map of the world and it seems this is a major inspiration for him. He says he doesn’t plan his novels. As he starts his thoughts might be as vague as, “I think she should go north” or “It would be rather nice if she went to Central Asia.”

He loves maps, and for one of his earlier novels, “The Ruby and the Smoke” (another novel I love) he sourced ordnance survey maps of London in 1872.

I myself have a giant map of Warwickshire which I plan to put up on the wall near my working area. It helped me for my book “Paranormal Warwickshire” (due to be published by Amberley 15 November 2020) and I hope it will be useful for my next book too (more of that later).

Philip Pullman came over as a genial, laidback, engaging schoolmaster-like character – after all, he was an English teacher in an Oxford school for several years – and his approach was helpful and encouraging.

I enjoyed his reply to the question: “Do you have a particular age group in mind as a target audience when you begin to write?”

His answer was:

“No. I don’t. When you write a book you should do what you want to do; ignore everybody’s advice. It’s none of their business. When your book’s out, it becomes democratic. Then, everybody’s totally entitled to think exactly what they want to about the book.”

He told us that, before starting “His Dark Materials”, the concept of the daimons (which may be defined as ‘the external physical manifestation of a person’s inner self, that takes the form of an animal’) was in his mind for a while but he had no idea what to do with it.

Then one day he was wandering in the garden and near a rock when he thought, “Children’s daemons change, adult’s daemons don’t.”

“That was the most exciting moment I’ve ever experienced as a storyteller.”

It was (just like the idea about the boy wizard that came to J K Rowling on that train journey), the key to unlock his unconscious – and, for him, all the characters and actions and events of Lyra’s alternative world followed.

There is a powerful lesson for authors here: we must listen to that first instinctive prompt, hold onto it, and follow through, even if other voices try to break in and interrupt it. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t feel it’s wise to seek other people’s opinions on a work-in-progress. Finally, his most practical answer came in reply to the perennial question posed to authors:

“Where do your ideas come from?”

“I don’t know where they come from but I know they come to my desk, and if I’m not there they go away.”

Green and Blue Walks in a Time of Waiting

Just a few images from nature to lift our spirits at this time of anxiety and fear for many during the UK Lockdown. The streets and lanes are quiet and dreamlike with just a few people taking their one piece of exercise a day during this Covid 19 crisis. These photos were taken in the Spinney, not far from our home. The bluebells are appearing earlier than usual. May this be a sign of hope not too far ahead.