Intense Relationships in Closed Communities, and the Stresses and Tensions of Life

On 8th September 2017 on the eighth day  of my Mystical Circles blog tour,Blog tour ad as at 26 August 2017 fellow-blogger Kerry Parsons published an article by me on  her blog Chat About Books.

This is the eighth in a series of blog posts in which I re-publish the articles on that blog tour.

So with my thanks to Kerry, here’s the article she first published on her blog on 8th September:

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.

Mystical Circles Front Cover Final Version4

Publisher: Luminarie; edition 3 (5th September 2017)

Description…..

“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.

Buy your copy here

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.

S C Skillman Amazon Author Page

 

Psychology, Spirituality and Family Relationships – a Volatile Mix

On 4th September, on the fourth day of my Mystical Circles blog tour, blogger Susan Hampson hosted a guest post from me on her blog Books From Dusk till Dawn.Springboard

This is part of a series in which I reblog my articles from that blog tour.  So today’s post is the article Susan first published online, called:

Psychology, Spirituality and Family Relationships – a Volatile Mix

In books on the craft of writing fiction, one of the key areas to which a writer must pay attention is high emotional charge. And if the new writer is in doubt about whose point of view to take – in other words, whose story is this? –  the main question to ask is, Who has the highest emotional stakes in the outcome of the plot?
I’ve also read that when the author is building conflict into the plot, and setting up a protagonist and an antagonist / villain, a sure way to increase depth and high emotional stakes is to make the antagonist / villain a close family member.
When we write fiction we all draw upon our own life experiences. And for many of us, our greatest challenge in life, after the challenge of self-knowledge, is how we handle our closest relationships.
In my psychological suspense novel Mystical Circles I drew upon my observations and personal experiences of many people and relationships throughout my life. But family relationships do rank highly; father and son; two sisters; two twin brothers; mother and son.  I have of course transposed real relationships into fictional situations. When we use real people to create fictional characters the wisest strategy is to employ a composite of different individuals within one person. So we can never say, this character is based on X or Y whom I know personally. But the fact remains that some fictional characters do contain a greater proportion of certain individuals.
I have drawn upon those for whom I have a strong affection and also those whom I’ve found challenging. But beyond all this I think it’s true to say that there’s probably a little bit of me in all the characters.
One of the greatest joys of reading fiction is to enter into the heart and mind of someone else to share their joys and sorrows, and to understand how they think. How can this be so unless the writer incorporates part of their own psyche into those characters? I know this is certainly true for Mystical Circles.
I also believe this principle applies to the creation of a villain, who in order to be compelling, must be a complex mixture of influences, memories, desires, wounds, compulsions, longings and choices.
In life often the ultimate villain is hidden, shadowy, the manipulator behind the scenes.
And so it is in Mystical Circles. I’ll leave my readers to work out who that might be, but hope that this particular plot-spoiler will never appear in the reviews!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the Art and Inexact Science of a Good Ending to a Novel

On 3rd September on the third day of my Mystical Circles blog tour, blogger Rosie Amber hosted a guest post from me on her blog.On a journey (2)

This is part of a series in which I reblog the articles from that blog tour. So today’s post is the article Rosie Amber first published online, called:

On the Art and Inexact Science of a Good Ending to a Novel

Recently a fellow blogger piqued my interest with a piece about online book reviews. Amongst the observations she made, she referred to the attitude authors take to their reviews. She noted that many people have different interpretations of the star-ratings. Specifically she mentioned that she had experienced some asking her to take down three star reviews which they interpreted as negative.

As an author and reviewer myself, I review every book I read on Amazon and Goodreads. I will give a book 5 stars only if it hooked me, kept me enthralled, made me want to read on, answered the questions the author posed, AND delivered a strong, satisfying end. If all those things above are present, but the end does not satisfy, I will downgrade a star rating. I think you can in some way define an author’s theme, worldview, mindset (at the time of writing, anyway) from the way they choose to end a novel.

But having said this, I will admit to a challenge when I came to write the end of my novel Mystical Circles (out in a new edition with a new cover on 5 September). Ideally I would have liked to give two alternative endings, as John Fowles did in his novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

I don’t like an ending which ties up all the loose strands, and which is unequivocally happy or sad. My ideal ending is bittersweet. As in life, I believe that when all our dreams are fulfilled there will always be other aspects of the situation which have the potential to cause disruption in the future. One of my favourite endings is that to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudicebecause although the central story question is answered positively, it is also bristling with ironic little hints that life is not necessarily going to run smoothly for the main protagonist hereafter.

How I chose to end Mystical Circles was full of challenges because the raison d’etre of the story – a hothouse community called Wheel of Love who have gathered around a charismatic leader to learn how to achieve an ideal existence – derives all its emotional charge and dangerous dynamics from the psychological instability of the group members – and its leader.  The situation I outline in the novel – the attempt by a young woman journalist to rescue her younger sister from a mystical cult – could have a number of outcomes.

I think the key to a successful ending is that it must satisfy, whether it is happy, sad, tragic or bittersweet. I am conscious, too, that an unsatisfying end can undo much of the good work of an author.  As novelists the best we can do is to remain true to ourselves, to what we are trying to say within our stories. Though I admit we often don’t even know what we’re trying to say, until we’ve said it!

And back to reviews again; I love reviews of any star-rating where the reader has clearly read the book thoughtfully, and has genuine opinions to offer about plot, characterisation, theme. On Amazon the healthiest star-rating profile is a triangle with its broad side at the top. I am afraid I feel suspicious of books that have only five stars. Also I am often attracted to the one star reviews. I want to know, “What is the worst that can be said about this novel?” And, quixotically, some of the things said by the one star reviewers make me want to read the book. Human opinions are incredibly diverse, especially about books, and we must all respect that.

Forging Our Own Paths and Surviving the Internet Sirens

On 1st September at the beginning of my Mystical Circles blog tour, author and blogger Sacha Black hosted a guest post from me on her blog.  Print

In my next few posts I shall be re-blogging my posts and auhor interviews on that blog tour. So today’s post is the article Sacha first published, called “How To Survive the Internet Sirens.”

I’ve just returned from ScotsWrite, a Society of Authors Conference in Scotland. And one of the speakers at the conference was a lady who I might include under the category of internet sirens though I will admit she said some very interesting things and I will be taking up some of her ideas! So there’s always a few exceptions to a general rule…

How To Survive the Internet Sirens

In the writing and publishing world these days we are often told that it is no longer sufficient to be just an author. No, you have to be a promoter as well, and a self-publicist, and a PR specialist. You have to master the art of the press release, learn how to write appealing advertising copy, know how to pitch yourself to someone in a single sentence in a lift, and master numerous pieces of software in order to orchestrate them all skilfully with one end in mind – to sell your product, i.e. your new book.

This all begs the question of how you should manage your time so you can actually fit in writing the next book.

One way of going about it is to be a multi-tasker. Accomplish several different tasks a day by juggling them all and keeping them all in the air. Or if you are a list person, try to achieve a sense of control over your life by surrounding yourself with typed-up To Do Lists.  Or perhaps you might work with a noticeboard covered with Post It Notes.
Lest we forget, what started all this was a desire to create fiction, to bring people to life who never existed, to dream up worlds for them to inhabit, and sometimes to find that ‘they come alive. They are capable of the surprising act or word. They stand outside the plot, unconditioned by it’. And then there are other characters ‘who have to be pushed around…. have the obstinacy of nonexistence…..are inextricably bound to the plot… whose only importance is to… help to furnish the scene in which a living character moves and speaks,” as Graham Greene explained so eloquently in his novel The End of the Affair.One thing’s for sure; you will need to try to Mystical Circles Front Cover Final Version4hold onto your sanity, so you may need your drug of choice – whether that be herbal calming tablets, or numerous infusions of caffeine, or glasses of wine, or, probably the least advisable substance of all, cakes and biscuits, to keep you going. For you will also have to master how to put out Facebook ads, and how to drive people to your mailing list sign-up forms, and monitor the response you get, and adjust your ads accordingly.

In this quote, Graham Greene expresses the strange feeling authors can sometimes get about their characters, when the lines blur between the real world and the fictional world of their own creation. Sometimes we do indeed feel like characters forced here and there by an unseen hand, without any free will. I fear that in today’s climate we as authors can feel like that, when voices ‘out there’ are constantly telling us what to do to make ourselves visible, to get readers to pay attention to us, to direct the searchlight of attention upon us, notice our books, and buy them.

It feels as if we are drifting, boats upon the current, into that region of the ocean where we may hear siren voices luring us onto the rocks. Maybe the only answer is to do as Odysseus did in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, during his voyage home after the Trojan War, when he tied himself to the mast, and stopped up all the ears of the sailors on the ship, so they might sail safely past and out of the range of the siren voices.

Surely this isn’t the way it should be for creative people?

 

And yet, perhaps I have misunderstood; for when we study the biographies of past authors, we cannot help noticing that they had their own struggles, though maybe slightly different, conditioned by the culture of their time. Were we ever intended to exist in an ivory tower, as we write our books?

I think of a wonderful quote from JK Rowling, who said in a 2003 interview with Jeremy Paxman: I imagined being a famous writer would be like being Jane Austen. Being able to sit at home in the parsonage and your books would be very famous and occasionally you would correspond with the Prince of Wales’ secretary. You know I didn’t think they’d rake through my bins, I didn’t expect to be photographed on the beach through long lenses.’

Every individual creative person has their own struggles, though I grant that JK Rowling’s struggles at that point were probably different from ours right now, as we try to make some kind of impact upon the world with our stories.

Each novel that we write has to some extent emerged from our own lives, our own personal experiences, our own take upon the world, and so it feels as if we are giving from deep within ourselves. That is certainly the case with my novel Mystical Circles (out in a new edition on 5 September).  Much of the novel has arisen from my own personal experience.

But I feel we can take heart from these words of Sir Winston Churchill who although he eventually became such an iconic figure, suffered many setbacks and failures in his life. He was addressing an audience of school pupils who had gathered to hear words of wisdom from the great man. He said, “I only have 5 words to give you. They are Never, never, never give up.

The links for my recently re-released novel Mystical Circles may be found here:

AmazonCOM

AmazonUK

Book Blurb:

“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.

 

 

 

 

Mountains, Castles and Inspiration in Bavaria

We are just back from Bavaria where we were inspired by King Ludwig II’s castles,

view of Neuschwanstein Castle

20170812_133004

delighted by glorious mountain views, view from the summit of Wallbergapple strudel in Panorama Restaurant at the top of Wallbergenjoyed delicious apple strudels

and slipped into Austria where we had a lot of fun on the Sound of Music Tour in Salzburg.The Original Panorama Tours 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.The young Ludwig II

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…

 

Goodness, Kindness and Love Amidst Tragedy: Let Your Light Shine in the World

From out of the mouths of children…

Last week I took part in “Experience Church”, a special event for children in St Mark’s Church, Leamington Spa. Hand painted jamjars in front of lighted candles on altar steps of St Mark's Church Leamington Spa

 

The event was organised by Ros Davies our lovely and energetic Children and Family Worker. 130 Brownies and Guides toured four “stations” in our church, in groups of five or six.

 

The four stations were:

1) The Church Welcomes.

 

Table display saying "The Church Welcomes" in St Mark's Church Leamington Spa

2) The Church Prays.

 

Wooden cross with prayer flags St Mark's Church Leamington Spa

3) The Church Teaches.

"The Church Teaches" display below pulpit St Mark's Church Leamington Spa

4) The Church Serves.

Hand-painted jamjars and lighted candles on black cloth in church

My daughter Abigail and I were in charge of the Stained Glass station – The Church Serves.

We asked the girls why churches have stained glass windows and what the purpose of them is, then we talked about some of the stories that are told in the windows, and the people in those stories, and the lives they led;  people who serve God in this life by “shining a light” in the way they behave to others. Then the girls painted jam-jars with glass paints and we set them on the altar steps in front of lighted candles so we could see the light shining through them.Hand-painted jamjars in front of lighted candles on altar steps of church

So first we asked the girls, “has anyone been kind and generous to you in the last few days – or today?”

One of the girls  said her friend had stood up for her; another said her mum gave her some sweets, and another mentioned that her older sister is kind to her. We also heard, “all the people in my school. I’ve just moved to a new school and they have all made me feel really welcome.” And the other two said, “Yes!” because they were in her group at school and were among those who had welcomed her. And with every act of kindness, a light shines out into the world.

Light is a strong symbol in the Christian faith as in others.Hand-painted jamjars in front of lighted candles on black cloth in church

People who are kind and generous to others may be described as shining a light in the world. Images of light are abundant in the Old and in the New Testament. One of the many names by which Jesus is known is The Light of the World. When a tragedy happens with mass fatalities, the instinct of all of us, religious or non-religious, is to light a candle for those souls who have perished.

I don’t believe we should equate darkness with evil, but unfortunately there is a strong symbolic correlation in the popular mind. Nevertheless, light is something we can all relate to. We see a light shining through people who act with goodness in this world.

In the recent appalling tragedy of Grenfell Tower, we saw people in the local community acting with goodness, kindness and generosity; a natural outpouring of empathy and a desire to serve.

Through these people, a light shone out into a situation of immense and ongoing pain and anguish.

What about you? Who has been kind and generous to you today, or in the past few days?

 

 

If you have enjoyed this post, here are a couple of my past posts on the subject of light:

The Power of Light to Uplift the Spirit

Darkness into Light: Celtic Spirituality

 

 

 

 

 

People of Inspiration Part 8: Dan and Phillipa Munday, Helping the People of Nepal

Today’s post is number 8 in my series People of Inspiration (see below for links to my other posts in the series). Phillipa and Dan Munday in Nepal 2017Today I am inspired by two people who represent loving service to others, regardless of any artificial boundary that divides the people of this world.

Dan and Phillipa Munday are two mission partners from Warwick, near where I live, who have been sent by the CMS (Church Mission Society) to work in Nepal. Phillipa teaches in the Khathmandu International Study Centre (KISC) – a school which takes children age 3-18 – and Dan is a palliative care  specialist who has been helping the Nepalese government and medical profession to start and develop a service in their country to support those suffering from terminal illnesses who are nearing the end of their lives.

Map of NepalDuring their stay in the UK now for a few weeks, Dan keeps up the hours of acccreditation he needs, serving in our local hospice, Myton Hospice in Warwick.

I have known Dan and Phillipa as members of our church for nineteen years. They’re currently in England visiting family and talking to different groups of people about Nepal and their lives and work there. They spoke to our own small group one evening a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve now heard Phillipa speaking again today.

The reason why they both inspire me is  because everything they do is rooted in love for others, regardless of their backgrounds, religion, gender, or any other artificial boundary that divides people.Yak_near_shrine_in_Nepal

Whilst in Nepal, Dan and Phillipa are serving others in every way they can. They have numerous opportunities to be “Salt and light” in the lives of others; Phillipa might find herself offering a listening ear and loving support to a young schoolgirl who has already been made to enter an arranged marriage; Dan might find himself visiting someone in a remote village who is suffering a painful terminal disease, with no specialist support or medical help at all.people in rural village in Nepal

Read more about Dan and Phillipa’s work here, and about the KISC, and also about Dan’s work in developing palliative care in Nepal.

If you’ve enjoyed this post you might like to check out my other posts in this series, People of Inspiration. You’ll find that I’m inspired by a diverse range of public figures, but now my people of inspiration may be branching out into other areas. Watch this blog for further articles in my People of Inspiration series, which is paralleled by another series, Places of Inspiration.

People of Inspiration

1: Paul McCartney

2: Rabbi Lionel Blue

3: Susan Boyle

4: Rob Parsons

5: Frankie Howerd

6: Gareth Malone

7: The Horrible Histories Cast

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fun and Excitement with Fantasy Authors at the UK Games Expo 2017

The UK Games Expo had not been on my radar until Richard Denning one of the Games Expo directors and a historical and fantasy novelist, kindly offered me space on the Authors Stand in the Birmingham NEC during the weekend Friday 2 – Sunday 4 June 2017.10

So there I was for three days, sharing a stand in a huge venue with some very popular and successful authors, as I displayed and sold copies of my three books, Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path.

This was a fabulous opportunity. The gaming world is one that I haven’t paid too much attention to in the past, but the whole weekend was a revelation. The atmosphere was vibrant; colourful characters and a dazzling variety of games and gaming accessories abounded, all contributing to the fun and good humour which was evident among the exhibitors and visitors.

I met and learned from other authors on the stand:

Jonathan Green 4who writes sci fi, fantasy and adventure gamebooks;and Gareth Baker, children’s writer. 3

I also met Ian Livingstone, fantasy author and entrepreneur, and co-founder of the Fighting Fantasy series of gamebooks.6

He came to do a signing and long queues formed as his fans flocked to the stand to have their books signed and to chat to him.8

 

 

 

I had the chance to exchange ideas and learn better ways to promote myself as an author, and there was a great sense of camaraderie among all those exhibiting their books on the stand.

Meanwhile, many cosplay enthusiasts strolled past in wonderful costumes.20

Transformation was the name of the game as so many took on the personnas of multifarious game characters and archetypes.31.jpg

We also had a photo opportunity with a Dalek, who passed by the Authors stand and demanded, “What is A Passionate Spirit?” IMG_7839.JPG

The gaming world is one in which a vast number of “tropes”  flourish: adventure, quests, danger, violence, fantasy, history, steampunk, sci fi…

30

I gained some new insights into how my own WIP is indeed using some of the gaming tropes, for instance, the predicament of the main protagonist as she finds herself in a deadly situation from which she must escape – hidden chambers and secret passageways and dark rooms all find their place in my novel, and these elements are very popular in the gaming world.  17

Also the Gothic genre – which I now work within – has a close relationship with the gaming world. So there was an unexpected connection for me, together with the fact that I’m using paranormal and supernatural elements more and more in my fiction, and also would like to move more into fantasy in the future.

Perhaps I have inspired you to try the UK Games Expo yourself next year!33

The Full Monty and What it Says About Not Being Controlled by Your Circumstances

Recently I watched the 1997 British comedy drama film  “The Full Monty” again. The Full Monty film posterThe reason why I love it is that it’s about “little” people deciding not to be controlled by their circumstances. Six men who in their different ways are suffering during the decline of the Sheffield steel industry, decide to do something nobody believes they can deliver on.

If you haven’t seen this wonderful film then I highly recommend it; read about it here. Somehow that message of hope is encapsulated in one of the outstanding elements of the film: the faces of the audience members in the club at the end. They express joy, laughter, fun and delight. Their reaction is a natural response to “local lads” demonstrating that if we choose, we can all have the courage to:

  1. compete with those who seem to be hugely successful “out there”
  2. get up on stage and run the risk of making fools of ourselves
  3. demonstrate that we will not allow ourselves to be controlled by our circumstances.

This is a universal message, relevant in so many different ways in today’s society. This is why “The Full Monty” is an inspiration to its audiences and why, using humour, it delivers a powerful truth, relevant to all our lives.

That’s Life – in the Eyes of Noel Coward

I’ve loved the work of Noel Coward since I first saw one of his comedies, in my teens. Noel CowardAmong 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:

  1. A flouncing self-important male lead;
  2. A sullen fag-smoking housekeeper;
  3. A strange insecure subsidiary character who has a major effect upon the action;
  4. 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:

  1. appear for breakfast wearing Gary’s dressing gown and his black silk pyjamas;
  2. say they had forgotten their latch-key, which was why they had to stay the night; and
  3. 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…