Cornwall mini series Part 3: The Eden Project

This is the third in a series of short reflections on places in Cornwall.

There will be few words, and mainly images.

The Eden Project is now famous for its extraordinary vision, which emerged from the original idea of one man, Tim Smit. And now it is a glorious display of the wonders of this earth: both natural, and man-made.

A visit here will inspire you with new faith in the human race. It also warns us of what a precious, fragile treasure we have in our hands, as stewards of the planet earth.

Above all, just come here to wonder, to imagine, to feel joy and inspiration.

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction.

My next book ‘Paranormal Warwickshire’ will be published on 15th June 2020 by Amberley Publishing.

Book Review: the Girl with Seven Names: Escape From North Korea by Hyeonseo Lee

A powerful, emotionally engaging and sometimes shocking account by a very courageous woman.

The Girl with Seven Names – Escape From North Korea by Hyeonseo Lee

Through her own shrewdness, presence of mind and intelligence, Hyeonseo managed to transform her life and that of her family by escaping from North Korea at the age of 17, undergoing a long and hazardous journey through China, and ultimately gaining South Korean citizenship status for them all 12 years later – and then marrying an American (“one of the reviled Yankee jackals of North Korean propaganda”.) She also saved her mother and brother, guiding them on the same arduous journey she had herself taken through China and onto Laos to seek asylum at the South Korea embassy.

Some of the most shocking details in this account come from the author’s description of life inside North Korea under the control of Kim Il-sung (‘Great Leader’ who founded North Korea); and his son Kim Jong-il ‘Dear Leader’ – to whom was attributed a nativity story very similar to that of Jesus Christ (though the brainwashed population of North Korea weren’t to know that).

Hyeonseo shares with us what the North Korean people were told: that his birth was foretold by miraculous signs in the heavens, including the appearance of a bright new star in the sky. From early childhood she and her classmates were encouraged to draw pictures of the snow-covered wooden cabin of his birth with the sacred mountain behind it and the new star in the sky. They came to associate the Great Leader and the Dear Leader with gifts and excitement in the same way that children in the West think of Santa Claus.

She was in South Korea at the time Kim Jong-un took over and this time she was at a safe distance viewing on TV the crowds she herself had once been forced to stand among, weeping at the death of the god-like predecessor, knowing that guards circulated among them ready to mete out severe punishments to anyone who was faking it.

In fact the first time her beliefs about North Korea ‘the greatest nation on earth’ were challenged, was through the impassioned outburst of her uncle Jung-jil, her father’s cousin, whose family had fled North Korea during the Korean War and now lived in Shenyang 8 hours drive into China.

The details the author gives of life inside North Korea, worshipping the Great Leader and the Dear Leader, are stunning. Amongst the highlights are these facts: everyone had to display on the walls of their homes a trio of air-brushed portraits: The Great Leader, The Dear Leader, and the Dear Leader’s first wife, also accorded almost god-like status. Everyone had to keep this trio of portraits in pristine condition – or risk severe punishment by white-gloved government inspectors who would visit monthly to find any specks of dust.

The author describes many other extraordinary events which are a simple fact of life in North Korea, such as the summary executions; the year-long rehearsals by thousands of schoolchildren for the mass display of the Leaders’ portraits; the hierarchy of society determined by one’s family history of loyalty to the Leaders.

She also gives a harrowing description of the famine that gripped North Korea in the mid 1990s when more than a million people died, and she recalls walking past a train station and seeing a dead woman in her early twenties lying on the pavement clutching an emaciated child to her, and being ignored by all who walked past. And she describes the lies of the Great Leader, who claimed in his propaganda broadcasts that he shared the suffering of his people, and was confining himself only to riceballs, to show his solidarity with them – yet remained as portly and well-fed as ever.

The other outstanding fact is the very low regard held for truth or historical fact; the fact that government officials can be bribed with money to do anything – including changing official records.

But even the details of life inside North Korea are not necessarily the most shocking thing in this story. For me, that honour is held by the callous behaviour of those people in China and Laos, who hold it in their power either to show compassion for North Korean defectors, or to destroy their lives. For many of them, not one simple act of common human decency can be carried out without a demand for money. The cruel and inhuman attitude that prevails towards North Korean defectors is sickening, to a Western reader.

Hyeonseo had to bribe her way through China, in order to save herself. Her journey was a journey through the vast underworld of people smugglers, Chinese ‘brokers’, fake IDs, false documents and changed records: all at considerable financial cost to herself and to those family members who were kind enough to transfer money to her (which she later paid back in full). It is truly a chilling vision of humanity to see corruption so deeply woven into a society, infecting everyone, every human interaction.

So when Hyeonseo encounters the Australian, Dick Stolp, and he shows her the generosity and compassion born of altruism, which is so severely lacking elsewhere in her experience, it comes across as a miracle. Interestingly, she was praying to the spirits of her ancestors for help just before he approached her in a coffee bar.

Through this account, sometimes harrowing and upsetting, Hyeonseo’s character shines, together with her love for and devotion to her mother and brother. She demonstrates brilliant presence of mind when she distracts the guard on the bus who is, contrary to expectations, checking everyone’s IDs and studying their faces, and she saves her brother from capture (for he has at this time no ID).

Another very impressive scene is when she is interrogated by an official who is determined to find out if she is North Korean. He looks deep into her eyes and asks her all sorts of tricky questions, but she ends up convincing him she is Chinese. This is largely because of the foresight of her father years before who insisted on her learning Mandarin – which she now speaks without any trace of a North Korean accent.

As you read the book you cannot help feeling that she is a total inspiration, not purely as a successful North Korean defector, but as a woman in her own right, with immense strength of character and inner resources.

After so many traumatic details in this account, it is good to read at the end how things are changing now, due to the international exposure Hyeonseo achieved after her February 2013 TED talk. She writes that some of the most inspiring messages she received afterwards came from China – a country which she says she loves but where she suffered many hardships – many of the messages expressing their writers’ shame at the complicity of their government in hounding escaped North Koreans.

Even after all that happened, her mother and her brother were sorely tempted to return to North Korea – such is the love people can have for their homeland, despite all other circumstances.

It is particularly poignant to read at the end of her account, these words: “Among the 27,000 North Koreans in the south, two kinds of life have been left behind: the wretched life of persecution and hunger, and the manageable life that was not so bad…. for the second group life in the South is far more daunting. It often makes them yearn for the simpler, more ordered existence they left behind, where big decisions are taken for them by the state, and where life is not a fierce competition.”

These words are particularly astute because they reflect what some people from East Berlin felt after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The irony is that for some, life under a totalitarian regime can be simpler, with far fewer options, all big decisions made for them by the State. This is something they prefer to what we might call “freedom.” This is a paradox we would all do well to muse upon and always to hold in mind.

SC Skillman, psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction. My next book ‘Paranormal Warwickshire’ will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15h June 2020.

Book Review: ‘Less Than Ordinary’ by Nicki Copeland

Less than Ordinary‘, published by Instant Apostle, is a non-fiction inspirational self-help book, an account of one woman’s journey from low self-esteem and negative self-limiting beliefs to a place of wholeness where she is able to blossom, nurture her relationships, rejoice in her own inherent worth, and offer her gifts to the world.

A quote attributed to Nelson Mandela: As we let our own lights shine we unconsciously give others permission to do the same.

During the early part of the book, as I read Nicki’s story, I found myself wondering where all these ideas about herself had come from. What messages was she given when she was a young child? But later I thought that maybe the people who gave her those messages had no idea they were doing something so destructive; perhaps no such intention lay behind their words.

And then I realised I was identifying with some of her experiences, and I recognised the mindset. It may be that cultural presumptions about the role of women have something to do with it – even in our society, male/female equality still has a long way to go – but I also know there are men who feel as Nicki describes in these pages.

On a lighter note, I might mention that PG Wodehouse’s novels are full of young men browbeaten by domineering aunts and other authority figures, who are too shy and timid to express their true feelings, or be assertive. Light or not, the issues Nicki shares with us are not just a female thing.

What interested me in the book was Nicki’s description of how she came out of all this. She says that she ‘gradually began to consider…’ or ‘it occurred to’ her that… or she ‘slowly realised….’

For me the process was the same. Observation of people and experience of life eventually teaches you a stunning truth: that many of those who appear confident are not, underneath; that probably the majority of people shrink from meeting strangers; and that, in fact, when we humans seek to achieve our goals, we seem to be hard-wired to take what Robert McKee describes, in his book Story, ‘the most conservative action first.’

In Story, McKee points out that when constructing a plot, the author sets the main protagonist a challenge to overcome, a goal to achieve. Then the protagonist considers how to get what they want. And they always take the most conservative action first. In other words, they expend the least amount of energy to get what they want. This seems a rule of human nature and in the natural world too.

And if that works, good. But if it doesn’t – then you’ve got to spend a bit more energy, exercise more ingenuity, and do something a bit less conservative. And so on, until only the most extreme measures will do. It’s often only when people are pushed to the limit that they conquer great challenges.

So we can apply this rule of life to what Nicki says in her book Less Than Ordinary. All her early presumptions about herself were utterly false; and when the truth of human nature and behaviour finally broke in on her, she threw those false ideas away and she let her light shine.

I do believe there is great value for us when an author describes this process as well as Nicki does. If you feel this book sounds like one that would speak to you, I’d recommend reading it and pausing every once in a while to think about it, as you go through Nicki’s story.

Courage doesn’t consist of being naturally ‘confident’, and having high self-esteem written into your DNA and grasping challenges eagerly.

Courage is all about those who go on a long journey from out of a dark place, and discover the truth through life experience, then change in the light of it using the new knowledge to transform their lives.

SC Skillman

psychological, mystery, paranormal fiction & non-fiction

Book Review: ‘An Eagle in the Snow’ by Michael Morpurgo

‘An Eagle in the Snow’ by Michael Morpurgo

Set in the second World War, this story is appealing in its simplicity yet powerful in its implications. A young boy and his mother are on a train bound for the countryside, away from their London home which has been destroyed in a bombing raid.

During their journey they meet an unassuming stranger to whom they might never have spoken – if it wasn’t for the fact that their train is threatened by German fighters, and they stop in a dark tunnel, and he begins to tell them a story to comfort them all in the darkness, by the light of the few matches he possesses.

On one level this is a story of “What ifs” and “If onlys”. It has emerged from a real story, of a British war hero who may have saved Hitler’s life during the First World War – thus leaving him alive and free to make the choices he did, and to wreak havoc upon the world during the 1930s and 1940s.

And yet the real story itself may not be accurate. Hitler apparently identified the British hero who spared his life, from a painting which he kept in his study. And yet, even that knowledge of the mercy shown to him did not hold Hitler back from his own massive betrayals and merciless actions in the future.

The story Michael Morpurgo tells will help young readers to engage imaginatively with some of the events and larger issues of the two World Wars – and despite the tragedy and huge moral dilemmas the story poses, goodness and humanity does shine through.

Book Review: ‘Reparation’ by Gaby Koppel

I first heard of this book via my local independent bookshop Warwick Books, and planned to go to an evening with Gaby Koppel, to hear her talking about ‘Reparation‘.

The subject of the book – a young Jewish woman’s research into her mother’s past as a survivor of Nazi persecution during World War II – immediately appealed to me, but in the end I wasn’t able to get to that evening. Instead I ordered the book later, and now having read it, how I wish I had been there to see Gaby Koppel and hear her talk about her inspiration for the novel. When you’ve finished reading a novel, that’s when you are hungry to find out details about the author’s personal biography.

This is one of those books which will surely increase your knowledge in a number of areas, not least insights into how Hungary is currently addressing its baleful wartime past, and a vivid description of the fiercely insular life of the Hasidic Jewish community in Stamford Hill, in London; and indeed into how a modern Jewish person with no religious belief feels.

Alongside that, it is a heartfelt and passionate exploration of a mother daughter relationship. And the book helps you to understand wherein Jewish identity lies. It is undoubtedly based on the author’s real life experience of her Hungarian mother and her German father. And the main protagonist, Elizabeth, works in TV production just as Gaby does in real life.

As I began the story, for some time I found the first person narrator’s attitude to her mother Aranca very judgmental and sardonic, expressed in waspish style. Then gradually I began to see how Elizabeth had developed this attitude, and to understand the pressure on her of her mother’s volatile and temperamental behaviour and alcoholic episodes.

As my reading of the novel progressed I liked Elizabeth more and more, with her sharp and sassy wit, and her habit of always saying exactly what she thinks. She is a character who never wears a mask, and I often felt myself identifying with her thoughts and feelings.

As for Aranca herself, known always as Mutti to Elizabeth, she comes over as very challenging and exasperating, but the more we understand what she has suffered in the past, the more we empathise with her. And I was captivated not only by her quest to seek reparation from the Hungarian government for her past losses, but also by Elizabeth’s accounts of her relationships with Dave and with Jon, and by her exploration of how being Jewish profoundly affects every area of life.

I was fascinated by what we learn in the story about the Jews, about their feelings, beliefs and attitudes, and in particular about the Hasidic Jewish community. Reading this book opens up the lives of others to us, and I believe stories like this teach us to respect and accept our differences, and the various ways in which people seek to express their identity.

Highly recommended.

SC Skillman

Psychological, paranormal, mystery

fiction and non-fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path

My next book Paranormal Warwickshire will be published by Amberley Publishing in June 2020

Book Review: ‘The Magical History of Britain’ by Martin Wall

The period of British history which we call the Dark Ages was not dark at all – according to the author of this book, Martin Wall.The Magical History of Britain by Martin Wall

But we do know the period this term covers, between about 500 and 1000 BC, was marked by frequent warfare. Many of us choose to imagine it best probably through the medium of fantasy, in books, films and TV drama, such as The Lord of the Rings, or Game of Thrones.

The darkness only refers to our  lack of knowledge of the period. And this author was inspired by the discovery of the Staffordshire Horde, to pour what must have been exhaustive research into the writing of this book.

Reading ‘The Magical History of Britain‘ is a rewarding experience, if you would love to fill in the details of a profoundly obscure period of Britain’s history including the so-called Dark Ages, and the recurrent struggles over many generations between Christians and Pagans. The author states that he was inspired to write this book by the discovery of the Staffordshire Horde. And although I was enthralled, I did from time to time find myself wishing the author had resisted the urge to pack so much information in, often giving a blow-by-blow account of events in long, weighty paragraphs, and filling in the entire life history of every character he featured.

Nevertheless it was still a fascinating book and of one thing we can be sure – through all the centuries on this Island, the Celts, the Romans, the Britons, the Danes, the Pagans, the Christians, the Anglo Saxons and the Normans have all been every bit as bad as each other, when it comes to wholesale slaughter and sadistic punishments.

The author draws through his narrative a thread of myth and magic, and his treatment of the Arthurian mythology is particularly interesting – a mythology that I believe puts down very deep roots in our national psyche. Somehow we can all relate to that longing for the once and future king. I know I have long loved the stories of Arthur and Guinevere, and the knights of the round table, along with the enchantress Nimue and the wizard Merlin.

Towards the end of this challenging read, including a detailed account of the life and work of Aleister Crowley, it was a positive relief to come through to the conclusion of Martin Walls’s narrative and to read his account of the Inklings meeting in Oxford – bringing us back to two of my most beloved authors, JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, along with a fellow-member of the Inklings and a great friend of theirs, Owen Barfield.

The book concludes with some astute and discerning remarks about the present state of Britain in regard to its history, its national psyche and its spiritual and magical mythologies.

 

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path

Film and Book Review: ‘Silence’ by Shusaku Endo: and The Film Starring Andrew Garfield

Silence by Shusaku Endo is one of the most compelling and powerful books I’ve ever read.Silence - a novel by Shusaku Endo I wrote about it in this way on my website as part of a blog post about an exhibition at the British Museum, Living With the Gods.

When I first read the book, several years ago, I think one of the most remarkable things about it is that the reader can see both sides and even have some understanding both of the Japanese and the Jesuit priest, despite the extreme cruelty of the torture to which the Christian converts are subjected.

I personally thought the priest Roderigues should apostatise and that it wouldn’t detract from the integrity of his faith at all, because how can we ever eradicate what is in the heart of another, especially in the face of words and actions forced out of them under torture?

But I admired the priest’s determination to stay true to his faith, as he understood it. I also felt I could make sense of the position of the Japanese, utterly determined to stop a foreign religion from adultering and diluting their own culture, from stealing hearts and minds in their own country devoted to their own religions. I saw both sides.

And in the film directed by Martin Scorsese which was released in 2010, I felt the same. Basically the Jesuit priest played by Andrew Garfield would be wisest, I considered, to recognise that the Japanese culture and mindset was utterly alien from his own cultural formulations of religion and utterly set on protecting their own cultural and religious identity.

I feel the same when I read about the Jesuit priests who came to England clandestinely in the sixteenth century to try and turn England back to Catholicism again:  God’s Secret Agents, an excellent book by Alice Hogge.  And also when I visit historical properties which were once strong Catholic houses whose occupants practised their faith against the direct orders of their government, and where persecution of priests is part of the house’s history.

No matter the rightness or the wrongness of their position, when viewed in hindsight, I still admire the priests’ passionate conviction in the face of fierce persecution and the prospect of being hanged drawn and quartered.

England ultimately became Protestant, and I don’t myself believe that the spiritual stakes as they saw them ever existed; or that the fate of anyone’s eternal soul ever stood in jeopardy according to whether they were Catholic or Protestant.

But they believed it. And that’s all that matters.

Were they wrong? This is the big question that hangs over all these heartrending, dramatic stories. And the same question hangs over all our lives, as we struggle for whatever cause or goal or dream we passionately believe in. We’re probably wrong, too. Or at least there’s a high probability we are.

But does that invalidate our passion, conviction, courage and persistence and fierce unrelenting resilience?

No. Because if it does invalidate it, then shall we all just give up now?

I know as a writer I will never give up, whatever the outcome may be.

SC Skillman

Psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path

Coming soon: Spirit of Warwickshire

 

Great Gardens of England: Hidcote Manor Gardens, near Chipping Campden

A great garden is an image of paradise, in more than one religious outlook. Perhaps this is because  within such a garden, all the very best of the natural world is taken by human ingenuity, and then gifted and skilled gardeners weave their own design and creativity into it. Our dreams become realised through a beautiful garden.

 

Hidcote Manor Gardens in the Cotswolds is one of the National Trust’s greatest gardens.

I remember once taking a tour with the Head Gardener here and he pointed out that the garden is defined by borders and obeys a structure closer to the house, and yet the further you wander from the house, the more you feel the garden becoming fluid and serpentine in its design, less structured, as if it is flowing into the land beyond.

And I remember him saying that they have protection rights over the view here, for the vistas are some of the garden’s most prized elements.

When I visited a few days ago (February 2019) the garden was of course still at the end of winter, beginning to move towards the opening-up time of spring.

Even so, its beauty is still apparent.

Enjoy the photos here and reflect upon how much we owe to those visionaries and dreamers who are able to bring what they imagine into reality, for the enrichment of the spirits of others.

SC Skillman

psychological,  paranormal,  mystery  fiction and inspirational non-fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit, Perilous Path

 

The Foundling Museum, London: Poignant History of Those Working to Overcome Eighteenth Century Social Injustice

Few things in this world can be more heartbreaking than a lost, abandoned or mortally-endangered child, in a world where there is precious little compassion or social justice.

Gin Lane by William Hogarth
Gin Lane by William Hogarth

Some of our most well-known archetypal stories play into this  fear: Babes in the Wood is one, and Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel or The Little Match Girl come to mind, along with many others.

And this fear is summed up in the word ‘foundling‘ which means ‘an infant that has been abandoned by its parents and is discovered and cared for by others.’

In London at the height of the gin craze, as this famous Hogarth print shows, many babies, infants and young children were hugely vulnerable.

And it took a influential philanthropist, Thomas Coram, to set in motion the events that led to a solution – of sorts.

For even the solution, though it led to the physical care and nurture of such children, was limited by the psychological insight of the well-meaning people who operated the system. The noble intention of the philanthropists was to rescue these abandoned children and tend to their physical and moral well being in a safe environment and to eventually enable them to become “useful members of society“. Nowadays we might, instead, aim to help them “fulfill their true potential.” But such a concept was alien to the minds of many people in those times.

It took the wealthy and powerful  to exert enough pressure to make the even wealthier and more powerful – i.e. the King – to agree that action should be taken. Thomas Coram asked twenty-one ladies of Quality and Distinction (see the exhibition at the Foundling Museum) to sign a petition to get something done.

The Foundling Hospital was established in 1739 and the first babies were admitted in 1741; it was originally sited where the museum now stands, and later moved out to a country location. And in 1954 the last residential pupil was placed in foster care. But on that original London site now stands the Foundling Museum, incorporating some of the features of the original Hospital.  A fascinating exhibition may be found there, detailing the story of the Foundling Hospital. And on the top floor is the Handel Museum, a tribute to the contribution of the great composer George Frederic Handel who was a great patron of the work of the hospital and who ultimately donated one of the original scores of The Messiah to the museum.

When I visited the Museum recently I found a very moving display of the tokens destitute mothers left with their babies when they gave them to the Foundling Hospital, in the hope of claiming their children again some time in the future: scraps of fabric, buttons, coins, keys, a hairpin…….

Only a small percentage of all the children who passed through the Hospital were ever claimed, and because they were given new names when they entered the Hospital, and their only chance of discovering their true identity was by being claimed by their mothers, many were robbed of what some might consider a birthright – the right to know who you are.

Nowadays I hope we may be moving towards a situation in the not too distant future where not a single child in that situation need be institutionalized – although it’s still far from being achieved.  Instead they may be found new homes with loving families. And that of course is the vision which inspires the work undertaken by Lumos, the charity set up by JK Rowling.

This Museum is a treasury of the memories of ordinary people – not the rich and powerful and renowned, but the many souls who pass by the attention of the Historians, each one of whom, even when lost to time, represents a story of immense value.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Royal Naval College Hospital, Greenwich – Place of Refuge for Sick and Disabled Ex-Sailors between the Seventeenth and Nineteenth Centuries

As you disembark from the Thames clipper at Greenwich you will enter a grand building in which is housed the excellent Visitor Centre for the Royal Naval College – built above the foundations of King Henry VIII’s favourite palace, Greenwich Palace.

The Royal Naval College, Greenwich
The Royal Naval College, Greenwich

Magnificent and imposing as the college buildings are, they were used as a hospital to house ex-sailors from the 17th to the 19th centuries. The sailors were all invalided out from the navy, some sick, others disabled, and their ages ranged from twelve years old upwards.

When you go on the tour of the Royal Naval College buildings and listen to stories of those sailors’ lives, you realise that the system under which they lived was highly regimented and that by our own standards they lived very restricted and controlled lives, under the iron heel of authoritarians.

The Royal Naval College, Greenwich - looking towards the Queen's House, and the Royal Observatory on the hill
The Royal Naval College, Greenwich – looking towards the Queen’s House, and the Royal Observatory on the hill

Their daily routine was full of seemingly (to our ears) harsh compulsory elements, and they were given what we might consider now to be rather mean ale rations and slept in narrow confined spaces, which of course may well have been far better than the accommodation they had formerly had on board ship.

Regardless of their various disabilities or physical constraints, they were all required on a regular basis to climb the steps which led up to the grand Chapel, to attend services thee.Once again the tentacles of rigid authoritarian control reaching into and distorting the Christian faith… And yet, we always have to consider the times and the culture in which people lived and made these decisions.

The tour is to be highly recommended, and I do urge you to include Greenwich on your list of places to be visited, when you spend a holiday in London. You will need a full day to do justice to all that Greenwich has to offer. The Queen’s House too is now open and full of fascinating historical exhibitions. And from the upper floor you may obtain the most beautiful view towards the brave new world of the revitalised London docklands….

View north across the River Thames from the Queen's House, Greenwich
View north across the river Thames from the Queen’s House, Greenwich