Totally Devoted to Jane Austen

One of my favourite Christmas gifts was one I bought for myself for 10p in the late stock-clearance at my son’s school Christmas Fair – an audio book of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

Pride and Prejudice book cover (The Folio Society Definitive Collector's Edition)
Pride and Prejudice book cover (The Folio Society Definitive Collector’s Edition)

I’ve been listening to it in the car over and over again. And despite Death Comes to Pemberley  on TV after Christmas, I still cannot get enough of Elizabeth, Darcy, Mrs Bennett, Lydia, Wickham and all the rest of them.

In addition, as another Christmas gift I received the DVD set of the classic BBC TV series starring Colin Firth as Darcy and Elizabeth Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett.

You’d think that knowing all the story-points and the outcome would dim your enthusiasm for engaging with one novel again and again.

Yet in Pride and Prejudice my appetite is never sated.

On every hearing, there are new glittering gems of psychological insight, discernment and irony to be found.

Was there ever such a bitchy young woman as Miss Bingley? Or such a cringing sycophant as Mr Collins? Can we ever quite fathom the sardonic detachment of Mr Bennett? And was Lady Catherine really pleased with Mr Collins’s obsequiousness? And can we ever truly understand Charlotte’s decision to marry Mr Collins, or determine exactly what Mr Wickham imagined would happen to Lydia and her family once he’d  finished with her in London and gone off abroad to seek better chances there – as was his avowed plan when Darcy finally hunted him down? And has any author ever written a  better account of a changing heart than Jane Austen’s, in her depiction of Elizabeth reading Mr Darcy’s letter and coming to a new opinion of the respective characters of Mr Wickham and Mr Darcy?

We keen novel readers have many ideas of the best novel ever written. Some may say Cervantes’ Don Quixote, or James Joyce’s Ulysses, or Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or  Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. But I say Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice is the most perfect novel ever written because I can never get my fill of her wisdom and  insight into human relationships and behaviour and motivation. And there seems no end to the power of this story and these characters and this author’s observations, to set off answering bells in my own life-experience.

Why I Believe Mankind Can Never ‘Own’ the Moon

Nobody Owns the Moon.

a romantic image of the moon - a perpetual source of inspiration for artists and poets
a romantic image of the moon – a perpetual source of inspiration for artists and poets

On Friday morning January 10th 2014 I heard Mishal Husain interview Ian Crawford and Nicola Triscott on this topic on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

Nicola Triscott has mounted an exhibition on London’s South Bank called Republic of the Moon. She has transformed The Bargehouse at Oxo Tower Wharf into  ‘an artist’s lunar embassy on earth’.

During the interview we heard a quote from Article 1 of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty: “the moon is the province of all mankind”. Apparently Article 2 prohibits nation states from appropriating the moon.

But now there is some concern that that treaty should be updated, and private corporations should also be added to the provision.

In 1967 it was never thought that any private corporation would be in the position of being able to exploit the resources on the moon.

When in the history of the human race have such words on treaties and constitutions and charters of human rights ever been respected in reality?

Colonial invaders have always operated on the principle of Finders Keepers. First here exploits it all.

Such was the case with Captain Cook, Don Cortez and many such.

An exhibit on The History of Human Conflict at the Firepower Museum, Royal Arsenal Thames Riverside, Woolwich, (a brilliant museum which I recommend to all), tells us that human conflict began when men turned from hunter gatherers to farmers. Mankind began to fight over the limited resources of land suitable for cultivation. The source of all human conflict is: limited resources.

God grant there are no resources on the moon that can ever be of any economic value to mankind.

For man is greedy. I generally do not have an optimistic view of human nature. And neither does JRR Tolkien. His own view was expressed through the words of the Lady Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings: the race of men…. above all else desire power… the hearts of men are easily corrupted and the Ring of Power has a will of its own.

For exploitable resources, read the Ring of Power. If there are valuable resources on the moon, I believe that mankind WILL fight over them, and private corporations and nation states WILL exploit them to gain and increase their power.

Let the moon continue to be the sole province of poets and mystics; of those who gave us glimpses of eternity, of creative writers, and those who dream, and those who deal in mystery and imagination. And let the only lunar resources we draw upon be those of inspiration.

Book Review: Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton

Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton
Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton

Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion

came into my hands the other day, recommended by a friend. The book was published by Penguin in 2012.

I’ve now finished the book and given it a rating on Goodreads & Amazon of 3 out of 5 stars


Initially, this book held great possibilities for me. It seemed an intriguing thesis.

De Botton, an atheist, acknowledges that although he has no supernatural beliefs, there are many good things in religious practice – and he cites the examples of Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism – which would be of benefit to secular society. So he proposes that the secular world should take all that’s good in religious practice, and apply it in secular institutions – minus the supernatural beliefs.

“Those of us who hold no religious or supernatural beliefs still require regular rituals and encounters with concepts such as friendship, community, gratitude and transcendence.” All tasks should be done through relationship. (This is a quote from a Christian source, Annie Naish, who is a missioner with the Lee Abbey community.) And De Botton has taken this on board well, as he sets forth his ideas.

I like books of philosophy which ruminate about our society and our presumptions and our contemporary culture. The author’s premise seemed to enable him to come from a fresh perspective, free of ‘attitude’, of the kind we associate with the over-exposed Richard Dawkins.

But ultimately I felt that de Botton’s ideas (which he illustrates in various photoshopped pictures throughout his book) would work best on the walls of the Hayward Gallery as part of their exhibition: “An Alternative Guide to the Universe.”

I will however admit that his book works well as a stimulant for discussion. And I agree that many people who have no ‘supernatural beliefs’ would appreciate and benefit from numerous good things about religious practice and customs. And it should not be necessary to hold those beliefs, in order to benefit from all those good things.

I was amused by the author’s argument about using culture in place of scripture; I myself know very well how, for instance, the operas of Wagner can be “secular society’s new sacrament”, and how the profound messages to be found in George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” can (to quote de Botton) “take up the responsibilities previously handled by the Psalms.”

On page 113 he says “Christianity concerns itself…with the inner confused side of us.” I accept that this in many cases is true.

Then on pg 122 he says that his university of the future would provide classes in:

1) reconsidering work,

2) improving relationships wth children

3) reconnecting with nature


4) facing illness.

His imaginary university would establish a Department for Relationships, an Institute of Dying, and a Centre for Self-Knowledge.

Although I was amused by these suggestions, I could see that in reality they would not work at all.

De Botton makes several observations about the human condition, of which this is an example: on pg 192 he remarks how many go through life “dynamiting their chances of success through idiocy and impatience”. I can relate to much of what he says about the default setting of human life, but I don’t agree with his overarching philosophical premise.

One of his points is that religions have fully recognised how sad life is – unlike the false hope engendered by the secular world – and have evolved systems to deal with it. This is a good point and yet, for me, his thesis demands further questions: “But what then…?” and “Why should…?”

This is a book which carried me through for a long way… and then I got to the final third of the book and realised there’s a giant hole at the centre of the author’s argument, and it all ends on a down-note.

Beyond his thesis is my unanswered protest, “But I still don’t understand how…” and I believe many would share that position, having thought through how his ideas would work in practice.

As I finished reading this book, I found myself thinking about one of his statements, about how sad this life is – which is fully recognised by the religions he cites, unlike the false hope engendered by the secular world. Then I found this quote from one of the twentieth century’s greatest spiritual writers, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton.  It was in the entry for 5 August, in the book Precious Thoughts of Thomas Merton: Daily readings  From the Correspondence of Thomas Merton:

What is the trolley I am probably getting off?  The trolley is called a special kind of hope. The streetcar of expectation… of things becoming  much more intelligible, of things being  set in a new kind of order, and so on. Point one, things are not going to get better. Point two, things are going to get worse. I will not dwell on point two. Point three, I don’t need to be on the trolley car anyway…. You can call the trolley anything you like, I have got off it.

Ultimately I believe that Thomas Merton is a writer whose words and spiritual authority I would trust more than those of Alain de Botton.

Youth, Time and Soul – Old Photographs & Memories: Coloured Rags or Treasures?

Birthdays and old photographs.

Timeline Photos - birthday celebration - Sheila Skillman
Timeline Photos – birthday celebration – Sheila Skillman

How they arouse our emotions!

So many words have been written about time, and our attitude to it.

Memory is a crazy woman that hoards colored rags and throws away food said Austin O’Malley.

How much is concentrated in this deceptively simple remark: far more than a comment on human fallibility,  these words carry a spiritual connotation too.

But I believe an acknowledgement and acceptance of our past is vital to our ability to live in the present and look positively towards the future: and this gives us our sense of belonging.

This weekend I celebrated my birthday (St Patrick’s Day) with two parties, one for my family on Saturday and one for my friends on Sunday – I couldn’t get them all into the house at the same time!

Sheila's birthday cake
Sheila’s birthday cake

I put a timeline of photos up for guests to see and it was great inspiration for conversation and questions!

One guest said to me (apologies if he reads this blog but I thoroughly empathise with him) , “Oh I never look back at old photos;  they make me feel so depressed.”

The truth is I was dreading the task – going back through the photo albums. But I felt impelled to do it, as I believe people do appreciate these displays. I had to psyche myself up to do it, and nearly backed out.

But it was a surprisingly positive thing to do. I looked at photos of a past holiday and felt a wave of happiness. Instead of a sense of loss and nostalgia,  I took inside myself all the joy of that time.

Of course, I chose photos of positive occasions, so I admit it was a strongly biassed timeline! School prizegivings, weddings, new babies, anniversary celebrations, holidays. And I realised that I’ve travelled to Australia five times.

I didn’t include photos of Me Making the Worst Mistake of My Life, or a photo of Me Writing the Letter I Wish I’d Never Sent, Which I Regret To This Day, or Me With the Man I Wish I’d Never Met (or got involved with). Oh no. There were no pictures like that on the timeline.

And when it comes to remembrance of things past, I’m only too well aware there are those who have damaging, soul-destroying memories of horror, tragedy and grief – as I see when I read the accounts sent to us by the homelessness charity Centrepoint.

But when it comes to owning good memories, without regret or nostalgia, I feel that way about Australia, where I lived for four and a half years from 1986 to 1990. I eventually came back to England, feeling drawn to my own country again.

Although I miss the subtropical rainforests, mountain lookouts, and mangrove boardwalks, the bellbirds,  bougainvillea, and jacaranda trees of Queensland, I don’t feel a sense of loss. Instead I feel they are treasures I always carry with me.

These treasures are vital in creative writing: both the easily-recognized treasures in happy memories and the hidden treasures in our negative experiences too. For a fiction writer, no experience in this life is lost, good or bad.

How do you feel about old photographs? Do you look at them or avoid them? Are old prints lost in forgotten albums? Or have you stored them in electronic files, instantly accessible?

Or are you too busy living in the present?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Please share in the comments!