Today I reblog a lovely post by fellow author Maressa Mortimer who recently launched her 2nd novel ‘Walled City’. With the help of her children and husband, Maressa enjoyed her special book launch cake on a very entertaining Facebook Live. I so admired her for doing that! I’m saving my ‘Paranormal Warwickshire’ cake till my 1st opportunity for a physical event in 2021! My copy of ‘Walled City’ is winging its way to me now, and I look forward to reading it.
So says William Shakespeare, through the lips of Antigonus in Act 3 Scene 3 of The Winter’s Tale.
Did Shakespeare believe in ghosts and spirits? Opinions are divided; Herbert, Shakespearean actor, who led us around Stratford-upon-Avon one evening on the town ghost tour, maintained that Shakespeare did; whereas a distinguished Cambridge professor, examining the Bard’s use of paranormal manifestations throughout his plays, concluded that he believed these are all ‘emanations from the mind.’
We cannot say for sure what Shakespeare believed; but his works are full of ghosts and spirits. It is known that he himself played the part of his most famous and loquacious ghost, the spirit of Hamlet’s father, many times, and it was the top of his performance as an actor, according to his first biographer. This is the ghost of whom Hamlet says:
The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil, and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape.
And yet throughout the play Hamlet continues to explore and agonise over the true nature of the spirit he has seen, with the input of his sceptical friend Horatio; and he reaches different conclusions according to the state of his mind.
Whether because they made excellent dramatic devices, or because their presence in Shakespeare’s plays denotes something much deeper, more complex and hidden within the recesses of his own heart, it is true his county, Warwickshire, is saturated even today in strange events for which there is no scientific explanation.
I’ve lived in Warwickshire for twenty-five years, at the time of writing. I’ve grown to love and feel a deep connection with some of this county’s most iconic locations: castles, houses, and churches; and also some of its less familiar ones.
All of these places have rich and complex stories to tell which span the full range of the emotional, moral and spiritual spectrum, as befits the county of Shakespeare.
But the stories here acknowledge that energy lingers in many places other than manor houses, abbeys and castles. They also tell of ordinary people going about their business in a very familiar, even mundane environment. It’s about shop owners and sales staff, families in terraced houses and busy commuters on a railway platform. Some of the stories you will find here are those that people kept to themselves, for a long time, for fear of being ridiculed.
Our task here is simply to listen to the stories that people tell, and, like Hamlet, to explore the nature of these strange experiences both with our hearts and our minds, and reach our own conclusions.
Rugby has a picturesque town centre rich with history, as I found when I joined an entertaining historical and paranormal tour there. Not only did we learn a lot about Rugby, and about English history, but we also heard several colourful tales recounted by a highly skilled raconteur.
On Henry Street you will find Rugby Theatre, with which several paranormal tales are associated. In 1946 the Rugby Amateur Theatre Society was formed with the intention of founding a permanent theatre in the town. In 1949 the Society obtained a former cinema on the current site, and set about converting it into a theatre.
One of the stories told by the theatre fraternity here is that of the ghostly figure of a woman who is seen floating down the stairs. It is thought she was an usherette in former times, who is still taking tickets and escorting people to their seats once they have come past the box office.
Another story concerns the Circle. This is believed to be haunted by the apparition of a man who fell over the balcony and died. He loved the theatre so much he is often seen in his former place and people have actually got out of his way when he went to the seats.
from Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman
To find out more curious tales about this theatre, and several other locations in Rugby, why not preorder Paranormal Warwickshire, out from Amberley Publishing on 15th November 2020.
A giant gunnera tunnel, lush subtropical vegetation, vibrant flowers of many colours, and a journey through an imaginative and intriguing landscape: as you will find when you visit this lovely part of Cornwall, Trebah Garden becomes a series of portals to different worlds.
The path draws you into the heart of different areas which yield up a variety of feelings, memories, reflections. In the centre of the garden we come upon an auditorium used for theatrical performances.
Though no performances were taking part at the time of our visit due to the recent Covid19 lockdown, we could imagine ourselves into the acting arena, into the responses of the audience, as we contemplated this empty space full of creative possibilities, taking a rest before breaking out into a reawakening.
Your journey tempts you on through glorious shrubs, trees and exquisite blossoms past a quiet pool and an inviting white bridge…
… and ultimately leads you down to Trebah’s own private beach at Polgwidden Cove.
In addition to this, you’ll find an excellent restaurant at Trebah: the post-Covd19-lockdown arrangements were immaculate, and the vegetarian tart we chose for lunch a perfect taste sensation.
Love goes toward love, as schoolboys from their books,
But love from love, toward school with heavy looks.
Romeo and Juliet
Whether or not this is a true reflection of how Shakespeare felt about his own schooldays, it’s difficult not to feel a sense of awe upon entering the fifteenth century schoolroom where Shakespeare would have studied from 1571 to 1578, between the ages of seven and fourteen.
Even more impressive is the opportunity to experience a costumed actor playing the part of a schoolmaster of Shakespeare’s time, teaching as young William would have been taught; the recital of Latin vocabulary and declensions, drummed into the boys’ heads through wearisome repetition. Perhaps, even, this discipline, tedious as it may have been, prepared and fitted the young boy for the acting profession, since learning lines by heart is part of an actor’s skills.
Within the schoolroom Shakespeare would have also watched visiting troupes of actors perform plays. Also he would probably have acted in school plays himself. To be in the place where he may have conceived his first love for poetry, drama, and the acting world, is indeed moving. Quite apart from the mellow historical beauty of the sixteenth century interiors, I cannot but feel this is a special experience to come here. Pupils do sometimes use these classrooms today in King Edward VI School, and Shakespeare’s Schoolrooms and Guildhall have only been open to visitors for a relatively short time (two years at the time of my visit) to further illuminate the life of Shakespeare.
The meeting chamber of the Guild is a gracious and imposing room. In this particular chamber, Shakespeare’s father John would have presided over meetings of the Guild in 1568, when he served as Bailiff (equivalent to Lord Mayor); and he would also have participated as a member of the jury in court hearings here. It is amusing to think how in his younger days he had fallen foul of the local authorities for being one of those responsible for creating a muckheap in the streets. But since then he had clearly regained a good reputation.
Nevertheless we may also wonder at the fact that 14 year old William had to leave school because his father could no longer afford it and was now in debt. What had happened in the intervening years since his high office for the local authority, and his ignominious removal of William from school?
We may find it very tempting to speculate. Quite often we have insufficient biographical detail about Shakespeare’s life. Was William cross? Or was he relieved at his new-found freedom? The fact that he left school at 14 and didn’t go to university is used as one of the possible pieces of evidence for the theory that the man known as William Shakespeare could not possibly have written those plays and poems attributed to him. How could he? the skeptics enquire. He never went to university.
And yet… is it possible that William was a child prodigy? That he found all that learning by rote very boring? (Though in fact it was to serve him extremely well in the acting profession). Was it possible that William was like certain child prodigies in contemporary times who attain a double first university degree by 15? Was he the type who is perfectly capable of taking his A levels without doing the two year course?
Another aspect to consider is that Shakespeare may have absorbed what he learned at school to a much greater depth and intensity than his contemporaries. It is certain he studied the stories of Ovid and other Roman writers, for these stories appear in his plays. Perhaps William made up for his interrupted schooling by voracious reading. What was he doing between the age of 14 and 18, at which age we know he married Ann Hathaway?
These and many other questions spring into the mind of the visitor at Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and Guildhall, a rich new addition to the Shakespeare properties on offer to visitors to Stratford-upon-Avon.
I recently went to see the musical Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre, London where a magnificent cast through phenomenal singing and dancing told the story of a man who lived and died passionately and made big mistakes which swept him through to a memorable death.
Through powerful singing and dynamic, electrifying, whiplash sharp dancing, we were captivated by the ideas that first gripped the creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, when he began to read the book Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow and felt he identified with the origins of Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the United States.
A spectacular and compelling musical, certain words in the songs stand out for me: Hamilton sings that he wants to “build something that will outlive me. If you don’t stand for something what will you fall for?”
And at the end, we hear Aaron Barr – a man for whom we feel sympathy in this telling of the story, the man who killed Hamilton in a duel, sing these words to us: “I survived but I paid for it, now I am the villain in your story.”
I loved the way the dynamics of storytelling held us all in its grip throughout the performance, and especially the way the duels were choreographed. One of the most stunning (literally!) parts of the musical came when the dancers froze the moment in which the bullet was fired which killed Hamilton. Brilliant choreography and dancing suspended our disbelief as we watched the bullet arrested in mid-flight.
When I originally heard of Hamilton the musical, a year ago when my daughter first bought the tickets, I thought, What a peculiar subject for a musical. I thought exactly the same when I first heard about The Book of Mormon – another brilliant London musical which made a big impact on me.
Now I confess I think you can make any subject at all into a musical so long as you have a creator who can inspire total confidence with his passion to believe in and run with a central idea, and as long as you end up with fantastic songs, words, character and story.
I’ve loved the work of Noel Coward since I first saw one of his comedies, in my teens. Among many different archetypal character-types which I hold in my mind, is that of an indolent Noel Coward male lead, lounging against a mantelpiece wearing a silk brocade smoking jacket, elegant, mannered, and dispensing witticisms with the greatest of ease: the sort of individual who would instantly impress in a social setting; but what’s really going on behind that stylish, confident exterior? I had this image in mind when I created the character James in my novel Mystical Circles (and James reappears in A Passionate Spirit).
In Coward’s play Present Laughter, the male lead, Gary, a successful comic actor, lives out of the image of himself he projects on stage.
He is the focus of everyone else’s obsession.
Gary is a poser – he throws tantrums, acts in a theatrical manner, and hates it when others accuse him of “over-acting” – which he, of course, does all the time. Only his secretary and his supposedly-estranged wife see him in a plain unvarnished way.
Meanwhile, a strange, intense young aspiring playwright, Mr Maule, is obsessed with him and latches onto him and challenges him.
Gary want to get rid of them all, yet cannot see he himself is a magnet for them.
In this play, we see yet again the beloved Noel Coward tropes:
A flouncing self-important male lead;
A sullen fag-smoking housekeeper;
A strange insecure subsidiary character who has a major effect upon the action;
A femme fatale triple-crossing vamp married to the MC’s best friend, having an affair with the MC’s other friend, and with the MC himself.
In this play, the women who spend the night with Gary, and have to explain themselves to visitors in the morning, always:
appear for breakfast wearing Gary’s dressing gown and his black silk pyjamas;
say they had forgotten their latch-key, which was why they had to stay the night; and
claim they slept in the spare room.
Just so do so many of us feel compelled to behave in predictable patterns, so that we might as well be following a script that’s been written for us.
It’s comedy, farce, satire … but isn’t it often just like life? Comedy is a wonderful vehicle for communicating truths. Don’t we find sometimes – especially in this society, and on the current political scene – that people behave as if they were characters in a farce, acting out a parody of themselves?
This is the human comedy. And comedians only need to tweak real life a very little: just a slight exaggeration – for us to see how absurd this all is.
I think this is why, in moments of insight, we instinctively respond to good observational comedy, especially when it is delivered with warmth – for there are occasions when we recognise ourselves reflected back in the wit of the comedian. And when that is so, we might see opportunities to try and interrupt this pre-determined script, and start acting as if we genuinely do have free will, instead of behaving like characters pushed hither and thither by the plot…
The other day I saw an encore screening of George Bernard Shaw’s play “St Joan” from 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:
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.
She acted upon these experiences.
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.
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?
I love camp, on-the-cusp comedians who subvert gender stereotypes.
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.
There 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.
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.
On the third Sunday of Advent, I became, along with two others – Jamie and Sidney – a new puppeteer.
That morning, after the Nativity Service led by St Mark’s Church Beaver colony, the children poured into the hall for their Christmas Party – and the centrepiece of the party was a puppet show.
To the sounds of Mary’s Boy Child by Boney M., a group of us, hastily recruited, became puppeteers. I operated a child angel plus the baby Jesus, Sidney took charge of the adult angel, Jamie manipulated, at different times, Mary, Joseph and a sheep. Abigail and John held up the backdrop of the stable at the end. And Sidney and I held up No Vacancies signs at the appropriate time while Jamie and Sidney held up The Bible sign.
Long time ago in Bethlehem, so the Holy Bible said, Mary’s boy child Jesus Christ, was born on Christmas Day.
Our trainer and director was master puppeteer Fiona Stutton from Thrive Youth Ministries who with great patience and good humour took two evenings to train us to become puppeteers. Fiona operated a singing puppet at the beginning, and followed this with a short session for the children about the true meaning of Christmas, using magic tricks with silk handkerchieves and a bag that mysteriously changed colour. Then it was time for our puppets to perform Mary’s Boy Child.
We all had great fun and learned new skills, Fiona was pleased to have trained some new puppeteers, Ros who organised the party was delighted……..
and, most importantly of all – the children loved it!