Lovely Lake District in Autumn 2013

We spent a few days in England’s lovely Lake District during the recent autumn half term.

Ashness Bridge, near Derwentwater (photo credit Abigail Robinson)
Ashness Bridge, near Derwentwater (photo credit Abigail Robinson)

The Lake District is special to me, not only because of its association with numerous famous writers, with Beatrix Potter, John Ruskin, William Wordsworth; but also because of memories from childhood holidays there, and the fact that I regularly visited it during the time I spent as an undergraduate at Lancaster University (approximately 40 minutes drive from Windermere).

As a member of the university hiking club, I became familiar with the Old Man of Coniston and Scafell Pike and I soon learned that hiking didn’t mean gentle  rambling, it meant something very akin to mountain-climbing except without the ropes and crampons, as we scrambled up and slid down steep slopes of scree!

cruise on Lake Windermere (photo credit Abigail Robinson)
cruise on Lake Windermere (photo credit Abigail Robinson)
Surprise View, Derwentwater (photo credit Abigail Robinson)
Surprise View, Derwentwater (photo credit Abigail Robinson)

Bowness-on-Windermere is distinctive for me, as I would go there with my parents when they came to visit me for the weekend. For me, it was a translation from the world of student accommodation to the Old England Hotel. I returned there on later occasions with friends, for afternoon tea on the terrace, overlooking Lake Windermere. The Old England Hotel has held a special place in my memory  ever since.

It is said that the Lake District has the highest rainfall in England. Those who go there must take mist, rain, muted colours, a moist  atmosphere, brooding clouds, along with everything else the Lake District has to offer; and be prepared to carry on regardless, wearing waterproofs. If you experience  the lakes and mountains in bright sunshine, count yourself blessed!

The Lake District is an inspirational place that speaks directly to the spirit.

Here are some more images from our recent visit:

Derwentwater from Keswick (photo credit Abigail Robinson)
Derwentwater from Keswick (photo credit Abigail Robinson)
Boats beside Derwentwater (photo credit Abigail Robinson)
Boats beside Derwentwater (photo credit Abigail Robinson)

What Do We Do About Art? There’s Always a Little Shop At The End

What do we do about art  when we wander around great art galleries and museums?

How I integrate art into my own life, on the wall of my writing space (photo credit Jamie Robinson)
How I integrate art into my own life, on the wall of my writing space (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

We see wonderful things on the walls and maybe we’re overwhelmed.

These great art works are distanced from us, somehow, by the awesome spaces and dimensions of the gallery.

We could never have these original art works on the walls of our own homes.

But they speak to us. There’s something in them we want to take away, something we want to claim for our own lives. Something that tells us about ourselves, our own hearts and souls.

So what do we do?

As David Tennant’s Doctor said to his  assistant Donna in the Doctor Who episode Silence in The Library, “Quick! The shop! There’s always a little shop at the end!”

On BBC Radio 4 Today programme at 8.20am on Wed 9 Oct 2013, two writers with new books out, Desmond Morris (author of The Artistic Ape and Alain de Botton (author of Art as Therapy) discussed art and how it affects our lives. And one of the things they said struck me: “If we did not have art in our lives, the world  would be very drab. We need it in our lives. But what do we do about art? We go to the gift shop, and we buy postcards. That way we can integrate the art into our daily lives.”

Desmond Morris made this point:

Art is not to be confined to museums but is part of something much bigger in life….. we do like to surround ourselves with objects that  make our lives less drab.

Alain de Botton said what he proposes is that  We treat the whole museum much more like the gift shop.

I now say that to my teenage son and daughter whenever we’re in an attraction. Ah-ha. The shop. There’s always a little shop at the end.

Why did  I find this striking? Because of what I do, at home, in my space where I write.

I cover the wall with brochures, leaflets, postcards from art exhibitions.  Bear in mind that the room needs redecorating, which is why I’ve stuck those images directly onto the wall!

No way can I afford to display original Rembrandt, David Hockney, Verneer on the walls of my home.

But I still integrate art into my life.

I have invited art into my writing space. Each of the images I’ve stuck onto the wall, is a window. A window into another world, another artist’s imagination, another dimension.

In this way, no matter how humble, I integrate something of the artist’s spirit into my own working space.

Without art life would be very drab indeed.

And You Will Be Like a Watered Garden…

Enjoying a shady 'small enclosed space' in a private Kenilworth garden open for the National Gardens Scheme 1 Sep 2013 (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)
Enjoying a shady ‘small enclosed space’ in a private Kenilworth garden open for the National Gardens Scheme 1 Sep 2013 (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

A well-watered garden is a powerful image of creativity, abundance, fruitfulness.

When asked to describe or picture heaven, I often see it as a garden.

The Prophet Isaiah, wrote these words:  And the LORD will continually guide you, And satisfy your desire in scorched places, And give strength to your bones; And you will be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.

Isaiah’s choice of a garden for his image here is perfect, as are many of the images he chose for his prophecies: an image which is profound and powerful.

A few months ago during a visit to Hidcote Manor Garden, one of the National Trust’s greatest gardens, we heard the Head Gardener say that because we’ve had a late spring this year, 2013, the plants, like people, benefit from “a good long kip” and so later on, when they flower, they will be more plentiful, more colourful and more abundant.

And so it has proved in three outstanding gardens I’ve recently visited: Upton House, near Banbury; the garden at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon; and a private garden in Chase Lane, Kenilworth, Warwickshire, part of the Open Gardens event  run by the National Gardens Scheme.

flowers in Upton House Garden 23 Aug 2013 (photo credit Abigail Robinson)
flowers in Upton House Garden 23 Aug 2013 (photo credit Abigail Robinson)

As I spend time wandering around these gardens I reflect upon what engages me most in gardens I love:

* a series of small enclosed spaces which are like outdoor rooms – little ‘dens’ where you may sit and contemplate or dream or write or do anything else creative, which are shady, secret, beautiful, tranquil, hidden;

Spending time in the garden - contemplating, dreaming, in a little 'den' (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)
Spending time in the garden – contemplating, dreaming, in a little ‘den’ (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

*  a number of vistas and points from which you may glimpse things either near or distant which may intrigue or surprise;

* in a grand garden with a stunning planting scheme, I’m most enchanted by combinations of depth & colour & shape which evoke different emotions in the beholder; low misty feathery plants in front, then the tall bold gold shapes behind, and finally the purple spiky angular plants at the back: a profusion of different contrasting and complementary shapes and textures.

This is what I saw in the gardens at Upton House when I visited on Friday 23 August 2013.

A predominance of pink and gold with occasional glimmers of white, lilac, purple, burgundy.

A gentle, warm fragrance filled the air; butterflies flocked to the lavender, bumble bees feasted in every direction I gazed.

Upton House Garden 23 Aug 2013  photo credit Abigail Robinson
Upton House Garden 23 Aug 2013 photo credit Abigail Robinson

The whole  was in dynamic motion, appearing to me as a vibration of life, shimmering above and around the blossoms.

We are all indebted to those whose gift is to design gardens, select plants, and work hard to create paradise on earth: surely the goal of all the great garden designers. In this life, there is a place for all of us; those who work, those who act, those who  are practical, and those who come to see, and to drink deeply, who dream, who draw inspiration, who see visions, and who believe.

Great gardens are places that feed the imagination, provide a source of inspiration, nurture creativity, enrich our dreams, lift our hearts to the divine.

For paradise is a garden.

Guys Cliffe House, Romantic Ruin in a Dreamlike State, Awaiting New Life

What could be more poignant than a formerly grand mansion, standing on a cliff, now partially demolished, abandoned and desolate?

Guy's Cliffe House 25 Aug 2013 (photo credit: Jamie Robinson)
Guy’s Cliffe House 25 Aug 2013 (photo credit: Jamie Robinson)

Gaping staircases you cannot climb; stone balconies you long to stand on to gaze at the view; empty windows you feel sure a shadowy figure should flit past.

Just such a gaunt mansion is Guy’s Cliffe House, our local romantic ruin, perched atop a cliff above the River Avon, catching the imagination of all who pass by on the other side of the river.

Guy's Cliffe House as seen from the footpath on the other side of the river Avon (photo credit Jamie Robinson)
Guy’s Cliffe House as seen from the footpath on the other side of the river Avon (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

Gothic stone tracery, an ornate balcony, evidence of a flambuoyant builder, remain to tantalize you.

For one of those who occupied  the house embellished it with Roman, classical, mediaeval and Gothic elements.

Guy’s Cliffe House  so caught my own imagination during the past few years that I occasionally wished that, if I was hugely wealthy, I could pay for it to be restored to its former glory.

In reality, I’d like it to be made safe for people to enter and explore, and for new timber staircases and walkways to be constructed, so we could climb to those balconies and gaze at the view.

And I’d like all the original formal gardens to be restored so people can wander around in them and enjoy the romantic setting.

I feel that Guy’s Cliffe is a poignant illustration of what happens when wealthy property owners do not successfully pass on their property to an equally rich and prudent and competent heir.

One developer/house-breaker deliberately demolished part of the Guy’s Cliffe House, then all the contents were auctioned off, and and accidental fire and neglect did the rest.

We all find it difficult to understand how such a grand property gets damaged, ransacked and neglected like that.

8 foot tall bamboo now crowds close to the cave in the cliff, where Guy of Warwick, in the tenth century, returned from the Holy Land and mysteriously chose to live for two years, rather than reuniting with his wife and child in the house above.

The cave where Guy of Warwick lived for 2 years (photo credit: Jamie Robinson)
The cave where Guy of Warwick lived for 2 years (photo credit: Jamie Robinson)
The chapel of Mary Magdalene with Guy's Cliffe House behind (photo credit: Jamie Robinson)
The chapel of Mary Magdalene with Guy’s Cliffe House behind (photo credit: Jamie Robinson)

And next to the house, the lovely chapel of Mary Magdalene contains Guy’s figure in stone, representing him to be 8 ft high.

The formal gardens have vanished, overgrown by tall trees and shrubs and bamboo.tall bamboo crowds close to Guy's Cliff,in place of the earlier formal gardens

tall bamboo crowds close to Guy’s Cliff,in place of the earlier formal gardens

It’s like another world – untouched, just left as it is.

So many windows. You feel somebody should appear in them.

We couldn’t fail to wonder and imagine as we took the guided tour around the house and grounds on 25 August 2013, guided by our host Adrian, with an excellent, fluent and richly informative talk.

If you’re in the area of Warwick then don’t forget to book a guided tour round Guy’s Cliffe after you’ve visited Warwick Castle!

Flowers for John Clare, Poet of Rural England: ‘The Peasant Poet’

This weekend my daughter and I visited family members in Northborough and attended the John Clare Festival in Helpston, Northamptonshire.

The children of John Clare School bring their flower cushions to lay on the poet's grave at Helpston Church (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)
The children of John Clare School bring their flower cushions to lay on the poet’s grave at Helpston Church (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

We thoroughly enjoyed sharing in the community celebrations of John Clare (1793-1864), their local poet.

JOHN CLARE was born in Helpston in 1793 and deeply loved the natural world. During his life he wrote both poetry and autobiographical prose celebrating rural life and scenery, yet he suffered a series of severe breakdowns in later life, and spent his last 20 years in an asylum in Northampton.

He is now  recognized to be as great as his contemporaries Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Shelley and Blake.

Yet in his time, despite an early ‘false dawn’ when he enjoyed a brief fame and his  first volume of poems outsold Wordsworth and Keats, Clare was marketed as ‘the peasant poet’ meaning ‘ill-educated and poor’, hinting that it was remarkable he could write poetry at all, let alone great poetry.

Now in his own community, The John Clare Society ensures he is celebrated, and I highly recommend John Clare Cottage in Helpston. A visit here to learn about the poet, his work and his life  is fascinating.

As you enter the Dovehouse in the beautiful cottage garden, you listen to recordings of some Clare poems, recited by adults and by children. Many must be deeply touched by these words of Clare’s:

I am – yet what I am, none cares or knows,

Local schoolchildren bring flowers to John Clare's grave in Helpston Churchyard (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)
Local schoolchildren bring flowers to John Clare’s grave in Helpston Churchyard (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

My friends forsake me like a memory lost;

I am the self-consumer of my woes

They rise and vanish in oblivion’s host…

How comforted and reassured John Clare may have been if he could have looked into the future and seen not only his greatness as a poet fully recognized, but also his memory honoured in such a beautiful way today in his own community.

We listened as a choir of children from John Clare School sang to us, and watched as prizes were awarded to the winners of a poetry competition for a poem about the natural world,  in the tradition of John Clare.

This event, together with others held during the John Clare Festival  in Helpston,  made an inspirational weekend; local bards and poets laureate competed in a poetry slapdown with poems that were not only very funny but also thought-provoking.

The children's flower cushions on John Clare's grave (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)
The children’s flower cushions on John Clare’s grave (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

And I reflected, that in this life, sometimes people who live by their imagination, in order to inspire others, suffer  as John Clare did, with lack of recognition, with social and class prejudice, with mental ill health; often the creative life can bring suffering. Yet creative people ultimately are  driven forward by a deep love of their subject; so it was in the case of John Clare.

I for one cannot read his exquisite poetry about flowers,woodlands, open fields, birds, animals and insect, and then  observe the very things he wrote about, without feeling this.

Special Time, Ordinary Time, and the Time the Weeping Angels Snatch

Who’d have thought there’s a connection between emigrating to a far country, and being snatched by one of Doctor Who’s greatest foes: the Weeping Angels?

But I believe there is.

"I'm the doctor" by MagicMoonCat on Deviant Art
“I’m the doctor” by MagicMoonCat on Deviant Art

The Weeping Angels played a vital role in the plot of the latest Doctor Who Episode, “The Angels Take Manhattan”, during which we, and the Doctor (played by Matt Smith),said goodbye to two beloved characters, Amy and Rory, played by Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan.

And I believe the reason why the Weeping Angels grip us is because they concentrate two of our greatest fears: Being Snatched Away, and Being Left Behind.

weeping angel
weeping angel

Even when a family member who emigrated to a far country comes back home to visit England, it’s never the same.

The reason why is this: the time she spends here is Special Time.

And the time which the Weeping Angels snatch is OrdinaryTime.
Ordinary Time, Now, which can never be regained.

I lived and worked in Australia for four and a half years before returning to live in the UK. And during the time I was there I had a strange feeling, that I was existing in some kind of afterlife, in “the spirit world” – and that life back in England was “life on earth”.

I mention this because I think it feeds in to what I’m saying about the Weeping Angels, and the haunting power of what they do, and why the idea of them has such a grip on the imaginations of millions who watch Doctor Who.

The Weeping Angels snatch you away from your ordinary time, now, and steal all the energy you would have used to live in that time – and they transport you back to some period in the past.

I can imagine the creator of the Weeping Angels, Steven Moffat, standing in a churchyard or cemetary perhaps, and thinking about people who are snatched away.

Then he would have looked at a statue of a weeping angel, and thought: What if it dropped its hands and looked at me, and our gaze met? And that was all that was needed for me to be snatched away?

In fact, the story he tells is that he stood before a shackled gate, through which he could see a weeping angel statue in a graveyard.

And he still can’t understand why his idea touched so many people so deeply.

In moments like that, in the unconscious, far-reaching ideas are born.

Do Fiction Writers Use Real Life Characters in Their Novels?

Surely if you put a real person in your novel they might recognise themselves?

Is it all right to use real people to create characters in your novel?

Kenneth Branagh as conceited fop Gilderoy Lockhart
Kenneth Branagh as conceited fop Gilderoy Lockhart

Suppose they recognise themselves?

In my experience this is extremely unlikely.

JK Rowling based the character of Gilderoy Lockhart on someone she knew. In “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”, Gilderoy is the new Defence Against the Dark Arts Teacher and he is a conceited egoist whom Hermione has a crush on. Kenneth Branagh had great fun with the role in the film of the book. JK Rowling is quoted as saying the original of Gilderoy is probably the last person on earth who’d be likely to recognise himself in the character who’s based on him.

The only character who is deliberately based on a real person is Gilderoy Lockhart. … the living model was worse. [Laughter]. He was a shocker! … I can say this quite freely because he will never in a million years dream that he is Gilderoy Lockhart.

Can Authors Always Get Away with Using Real People in Their Novels?

The answer to this is probably yes!

That’s because self-knowledge is a rare commodity, and most people are unable to recognise their own characteristics in a fictional character.

Authors are, in theory, supposed to protect themselves with the formula “All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental”.

But what is coincidence, in the creative imagination?

In the process of creative writing, the character will gain fictional attributes anyway. And other people you’ve known may well insinuate themselves in.

I’ve used several real people as models for characters in my novel “Mystical Circles“.

I hazard a guess not one of them would ever recognise themselves.

And not one of them is a pure, clear representation of a living person. Other bits and pieces have attached themselves to my fictional creation.

In any case, how can you  fully inhabit the character, mind, body and spirit of another real person? Impossible. Imaginative sympathy is the key.

I believe authors fictionalise characters by letting go of the need to “copy”, “represent real life” or “get the facts right”.

Instead we trust to our unconscious (as Carl Jung knows very well!) to process observation, imagination and knowledge.

What do you think? Do you believe you’d recognise yourself if someone put you into a novel? And if you’re an author, what’s your take on this? Let me know what you think about this!

Structure, Collapsed Middles and Fiction Writing

One of the greatest challenges I have found in writing a novel can come  through a surplus of ideas. Which ones do you choose, and which have to be set aside to be used in another novel? The result of trying to pack in too many ideas is often a collapsed middle. So the best way to deal with this dilemma is to look at overall structure first.

And then, when it comes to writing the novel, I suggest doing the first draft in a relatively short concentrated space of time: say, six weeks. If you take too long to complete that first draft you may become vulnerable to “writer’s block”.  Even if there are many interruptions, and it’s difficult to keep up the momentum of the writing, I believe that if you care about writing your novel, you will find the time. You will prioritise and remove distractions from your life.

In addition, writer’s block may also happen when you lose passion and excitement with your characters. Suddenly they no longer inspire you. Graham Greene illustrates this situation through the main protagonist in his novel “The End of the Affair”:  “When I begin to write, there is one character who obstinately will not come alive… He lies heavily on my mind whenever I start to work like an ill-digested meal on the stomach robbing me of the pleasure of creation in any scene where he is present… he never surprises me, he never takes charge. Every other character helps, he only hinders.”

Here are three possible ways of overcoming this situation:

1) Plan the novel beforehand. As I mentioned above, structure is vital. I can recommend designing your novel using Snowflake Pro, novel design software created by Randy Ingermanson, who has (with Peter Economy) also written an excellent book on Fiction Writing.  If you start by establishing structure, and move out to the details, then you are working from a stable position, and will avoid what Ingermanson calls “the flabby middle”.

2) Have a regular writing schedule – don’t allow long spaces of time to elapse between writing sessions. The habit of discipline should train both mind and body; the mental powers of imagination, observation, research, and concentration, allied to the body that sits at the table or desk, the hand that holds the pen and writes, or taps the keys of the laptop.

 3) Trust the unconscious if your character is failing to live up to his promise. This is the situation Graham Greene describes. But be encouraged by this: he goes on to say “So much of a novelist’s writing… takes place in the unconscious… the superficiality of one’s days.  One may be preoccupied with shoppping and income tax returns and chance conversations, but the stream of the unconscious continues to flow undisturbed… one sits down sterile and dispirited at the desk, and suddenly the words come as though from air: the situation that seemed blocked in a hopeless impasse moves forward: the work has been done while one slept or shopped or talked with friends.”

So then you can be bold and strike out and ask What if? and then go with whatever crazy idea first strikes you. Allow somebody new and unexpected to enter. Perhaps move your character to another setting, present the character with an unforeseen challenge.. Of course overproliferation of characters and locations is another danger. But this is your first draft. You can fix it later, can’t you? And it’s better than giving in to writer’s block. The important thing is to play your part, and show up for work – so you are there, on the spot, ready for when the words come as though from air.

Elizabeth, Dudley and Happy Times in Ruined Castles

A view of Kenilworth Castle
Kenilworth Castle

Castles always make me happy. I’m lucky to live within a short distance of two of the country’s greatest – Kenilworth and Warwick.

I’ve visited both many times but it’s Kenilworth that most captures my imagination. Is this because it lies in ruins whereas Warwick is still intact and has a Tussauds exhibition in it? When I consider Kenilworth, from the time Geoffrey de Clinton built the Keep with Henry I’s money in the 1120’s, right through to when Colonel Joseph Hawkesworth blasted it after the English Civil War and then moved into Leicester’s Gatehouse and set up home there, I think of the castle’s history blended with all the happy times I’ve spent in it.

As I wander round Kenilworth Castle I wish I had a virtual reality CGI device that I could hold up to the ruined chambers and see superimposed over them exactly how this room looked in the castle’s days of glory. Instead I have my imagination.

With it, I can see John of Gaunt’s great hall in its prime, the walls covered with vibrant tapestries, blazing logs set in the grand fireplace, and the table regularly laden with banquets. I can experience the kitchens as they were, full of heat and  toiling cooks and servants, when Leicester’s Building was used to accommodate Elizabeth I and Sir Robert Dudley’s party of guests in 1575 . I can visualise the great mere that surrounded the castle, and picture the tiltyard when it was in full operation. I can replace the floor of the great hall in the Keep, and restore it to how it was when Edward II was forced to abdicate in it. 

As for the Elizabethan garden, I imagine it seductive, scented, densely-planted with shrubs in full bloom, with its four obelisks and central marble fountain, and a gemstone-studded aviary filled with lovebirds – for that is how it would have been when Sir Robert Dudley ushered Elizabeth I into it, hoping to persuade her to marry him (she still refused, but I’m sure she enjoyed herself there).

Castles make me happy – to the extent that I only have to glimpse battlements above trees to feel that surge of joy. Why, I wonder? Castles are associated with prisoners thrown in dungeons to die; massive social inequality and injustice, arrogant lords feasting in their halls wth the social elite of the land while the masses labour and starve; wars, battles, sieges, boiling oil, death-holes, trebuchets loaded with rotting animal carcasses… and yet castles make me happy. I suggest this is because they are all bound up with story, and story is all about meaning, and we value meaning above all.

SC Skillman

Spaces, Holes and Boundaries in Creative Imagination

In the Birmingham City Art Gallery I found an artist whose work conjured up for me an imaginary conversation between two people meeting at a party: “So what do you do for a living?” “I tie threads round holes.”  As I imagined the likely response, I gazed at a series of photographs of various holes in fences – barbed wire, timber, whatever – on private or official property – which the artist had woven around, decorated, defined, and given meaning with thread.  The thought sprang into my mind, This could only be done secretly and without permission. Then I read in the artist’s note that was exactly what she did. I loved it.

The exhibition Lost in Lace showed me how holes, spaces and gaps concentrate meaning within themselves.  The artists, inspired by lace, had shown this in various ways. They had built networks and connections, by creating boundaries and structures – like an inverted crystal cathedral hanging from the ceiling, or After the Dream, a room filled with a disturbing and sinister network of black embroidery wool, enclosing four long white dresses. A glittering rose pattern punched on a wall seemed to have been created with sequins, or glass beads, or crystals. But they were only holes. Behind them a large window let in natural light; and the holes defined the pattern.

I entered a room A Thin Line Between Space and Matter which plunged the viewer into darkness and only threads of light could be seen, curving around, above and through space,  given meaning by the hole of darkness at the centre.  Recognising this put me in mind of another kind of space – the alleyway.

When I was a young child, an alleyway opposite my house was the way through to colour, adventure, romance, magic. This was because it led to the road along which the local Mayday Carnival processed. The amount of excited anticipation that I concentrated on that alleyway lent it a significance that would haunt my dreams of years. The reality of the alleyway may be weeds, delapidated concrete, a weathered gate, broken paving stones. But in my imagination that alleyway is a portal to another world.

So it is in creative writing. Gaps are essential to great story: the gap that opens up between the expectation of the reader, and what actually happens. And from that gap pours a flood of insight.

SC Skillman