The Joys of a Great Building, and its Healing Power to Relieve the Stresses of Our Lives: Beautiful Pershore Abbey

As the mother of a son with autism, I have throughout his life acted as an advocate, carer, companion, supporter. One of his difficulties is taking unfamiliar journeys alone. welcome-to-pershore-abbey-signNow aged 18, he has just started a new course in Horticulture at Pershore College in Worcestershire.

Yesterday we met what was, for both of us, a challenge: we navigated the minefield of getting from Warwick to Pershore College by 9.30 am (a three hour journey by public transport). It was a challenge for me because, as a car-owner, I’m used to driving everywhere and am unfamiliar with public transport, especially in rural areas.  Having recently been involved in a car accident, I’m currently without a car.  So we both set out, expecting to find the buses arriving and departing according to the timetables, and I ended up with feelings of frustration, anger and even betrayal from the difficulties and unexpected events we encountered (all of them caused by human error). I thought to myself, ‘I must write about this…. if I was a satirical novelist, I’d write a brilliantly comic piece about it.’ Even as I raged impotently against the bus companies of Warwickshire and Worcestershire, the infuriating details of this journey  struck me as perfect material for a comic novelist’s take on life.

Having delivered my son an hour late at the college (slightly relieved by the discovery that several of the other students had also had trouble with public transport this morning, and were late, or still hadn’t arrived – so my son wasn’t alone, and hadn’t missed anything important) – I walked into Pershore to explore the town before returning to the college later in the day.

I was thinking to myself, “this is a lovely place” but my nerves were still so jangled  by our recent journey, and the thought that he’d have to go through this 3 days a week for the next academic year. I found myself reflecting on how so many people in our society seem to operate by keeping one area of information separate from others, and they don’t coalesce, responding flexibly  in relation to other facts. It reminded me of a recent comment on Facebook I had read by a fellow-writer, observing that she regarded the world as largely insane, as a matter of course.

Then I found Pershore Abbey.pershore-abbey-exterior-view-close-up-image-2

 

First of all I walked all around the exterior of the Abbey.

exterior-view-of-pershore-abbey-close-up-showing-wall-buttresses

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pershore abbey exterior view image 1.jpgThen I walked in through the west door, and this was the sight that met my eyes.

pershore-abbey-view-as-you-come-through-the-west-door

Immediately,  I thought: Sanity. It was as if I had been trapped in a stifling, enclosed cell and now entered a place where there was fresh air, living water, and a vision of life that transcended all I had been experiencing for the last few hours. I felt released, opened up, by the beauty of this space.

And this is the purpose of great religious buildings, and the goal of all truly noble architecture – to draw you in and welcome you as you enter, to make you feel that you are accepted, whoever you are, and whatever state you’re in, and to live your eyes upwards, so that you may transcend the troubles of this world, and indeed, see this life in divine perspective.welcome-to-pershore-abbey-sign

 

Rummaging For Reality at the Hayes Conference Centre, Swanwick

Here I am, a psychological suspense writer,  at a conference for psychotherapists, healers, counsellors and creative people – and together with them  I am rummaging for reality.

This is  very brief post in a spare hour before I go off to a workshop this afternoon. But already I feel I am working my way towards a new clarity and insight both into this life and into my new novel.  One came this morning. It was very simple: only these words: “We are exploring different parts of the same reality at different stages of our lives.”

A few days before coming on this conference I was doing some of my own rummaging, through a file of newspaper clips which I’ve kept for about 3 decades now – just to see what jumped out at me in my current situation, a new work-in-progress before me.

 

And it was an article from the Sunday Times 10/5/92 written by the novelist Wendy Perriam called ‘Heaven Can Wait’. It was subtitled Do bad Catholics make good writers? And considered the fact that many great writers – e.g. Greene, Joyce, Spark, Waugh, O’Brien and Lodge – either lapsed, or struggling with their faith, poured out words as once they poured out prayers.

In this article Wendy Perriam says many things which touch me profoundly, despite the fact that I am not a Catholic, present or lapsed. I’ll quote just one point here, which I resonate with, and which shone out at me from my ‘rummaging’:

 

‘A sense of religion does give a depth and resonance to fiction, and if our characters have immortal souls, they’re surely more important, more valuable to their creator, than if they’re regarded as mere accumulations of vibrating molecules.’

Hopefully I may have some more insights from my rummaging to share with you in next week’s post!

 

Thoughts on Three Dimensional Characters in Films and Novels – Inspired by Hugh Grant

On the Graham Norton Show which was broadcast on BBC One on Friday 16th April 2016, Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant in Florence Foster Jenkinsactor Hugh Grant said he took on the role of St Clair Bayfield in the newly-released film Florence Foster Jenkins against his previous intentions, because a) the script was so good and b) because he was attracted by the three dimensional character he was being invited to play – which implies he thinks all his previous characters were one dimensional.

Hugh said that the character he plays, St Clair Bayfield, is “a failed actor” who has chosen to protect Florence (played by the wonderful Meryl Streep) from true self-knowledge because he loves her. In the film, this character goes to extraordinary lengths to collude with Florence’s self-deception, by covering up her lack of ability as a singer and paying off bad reviewers and hiding her from the truth.  In other words he does what seems to be cowardly, morally weak, wrong and even cruel, for complex reasons that are not straightforwardly immoral, and because he is emotionally invested in supporting her and upholding her in the dream she believes in.

I haven’t seen the film yet and so cannot offer a review, but I was fascinated by the point Hugh Grant was making. Many love the characters Hugh has played so far during his film career, but his comments brought me back again to the vital importance of three dimensional characters, not only in persuading major actors to take on film roles, but also in winning success for a novel.

Three dimensional characters in fiction are those whose actions, words, relationships, behaviour and inner life all work together to win our empathy.  Just as the hallmark of a great leader is the ability to win people’s confidence, the sign of a great character in fiction is that we care for them deeply, whether their actions are “good” or “bad” or far less easily defined. Whilst reading a recent novel I was starting to intensely dislike a certain character, when his actions and behaviour were depicted from the viewpoint of someone else. But then the author took me into his viewpoint – and my attitude to him was transformed.

I believe we only need to see and understand someone’s inner life, to feel that empathy for them.

Do share in the comments. Which are your favourite three dimensional characters in fiction, and why?

A Passionate Spirit in Lancaster Alumni Magazine

A Passionate Spirit is featured in the latest edition of “STEPS” the Lancaster University alumni magazine online.

The picture below was taken on Box Hill, in Surrey, on a recent visit.

I have happy memories of Box Hill from my childhood, as I was born and brought up in Kent. This is a landscape which has aroused love and feelings of spiritual wellbeing in many.

This time I couldn’t help but recall once again one of the most famous scenes in fiction; the picnic which takes place in Jane Austen’s novel Emma, when Emma allows her irritation with Miss Bates to overcome her forbearance… provoking a reaction from Mr Knightley which makes Emma realise for the first time how much she cares for his opinion of her.

And, curiously, Emma was the subject of my very first English Literature seminar at Lancaster, when I was pounced upon and challenged to mount an argument in defence of Jane Austen’s literary reputation. I had much less insight into human psychology then than I do now, having spent many more years observing people and relationships and the many ironies of this life; and (to my eyes at least) I failed miserably on that occasion!

A fitting literary scene, then, for an author photo to go alongside my Lancaster University alumni article.

Author Sheila Skillman at Box Hill, Surrey, January 2016

 

Find the article here

Holywell Retreat, A Place of Spiritual Inspiration on the Sussex Coast

I’ve written before in this blog about those sacred spaces which are known in Ancient Celtic terms as thin places.

View of Beachy Head from Holywell Retreat - photo credit Abigail Robinson
View of Beachy Head from Holywell Retreat – photo credit Abigail Robinson

These are places where you are led to believe that the veil between the visible and the invisible worlds is thin. They don’t have to be obviously religious places. In fact once I read of someone who had a religious experience whilst crossing London Bridge in the rush hour. For that person, London Bridge became a thin place.

A thin place may be any place where you have new or happy or inspirational thoughts. And one of my most popular topics on this blog is places I love.

But quite often, probably because our ability to tune into spiritual inspiration is hindered by stress, anxiety, tension and so on, our thin places are literally places of tranquillity where we can move apart from the preoccupations of our daily life.

the beach at Holywell Retreat - photo credit Abigail Robinson
the beach at Holywell Retreat – photo credit Abigail Robinson

Such a place for me, recently, was Holywell Retreat between Eastbourne and Beachy Head. I was there with a friend and my two teenage children just a few days ago.

The weather was mild and warm, the atmosphere still and hushed. A few people were around, but it wasn’t crowded. This was the end of the Easter holiday, and not yet the high season for tourism in Eastbourne. The sea washed over the stony beach. The white cliffs of Beachy Head were directly ahead of us.

A few people sat on benches watching the sea. It occurred to me that, had I not been planning to drive back to Warwick in a couple of hours, I could happily have stayed there all day in this dreamlike state, feeling the warmth on my skin, listening to the murmur of the sea against the pebbles on the beach, gazing at the white cliffs stretching out to the horizon.

Everything that might cause me anxiety melted away. And above all, I was present in the moment. So were my two children, as they wandered around the beach, and so too was my friend. I dare to believe that each one of us was living fully in the present, as you do in the space between sleeping and waking, when your dreams still linger with you.

Do you have a thin place? Or perhaps it is so special to you that you don’t want to reveal its location! Please share in the comments.

 

 

Loyalty, Hope and Keeping Faith, in the Greatest Film I’ve Ever Seen: The Shawshank Redemption

We love listing “The 50 Top … Films, Books, Magic Tricks, Comedians”, etc. etc.

Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne and Morgan Freeman as  Ellis (Red) Redding in The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne and Morgan Freeman as Ellis (Red) Redding in The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

And a list of the top films will always change from year to year. But to my mind, The Shawshank Redemption makes the top of the list. And I saw it again very recently on TV.

I watched it for the first time several months ago when I borrowed it from LoveFilm. Having visited Aberystwyth University Film Studies Department with my daughter during an Open Day in 2012, I heard the Film Studies lecturer list those films which are considered  “the best ever made” or absolute must-see films for those who are serious about film.

So I dutifully added those films to my LoveFilm list.

And that’s how I came upon The Shawshank Redemption.

And this is why I consider it justly deserving of the title ‘best movie ever made.’

Bob Gunton as Warden Samuel Norton in The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Bob Gunton as Warden Samuel Norton in The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Its themes are of profound relevance to our lives:

The importance of:

keeping faith; having patience; strategic long term planning; a long term plan of action; perseverance; loyalty; hope; persistence; calm forbearance under ill treatment and suffering.

I believe we can find in The Shawshank Redemption a metaphor for all that’s truly important in this life.

I suggest, too, that it’s no accident that I, as a writer, should relate closely to these themes in my own life. For the film is based upon Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption; and Stephen King, besides all his other books, is the author of the best book for writers I have ever read: On Writing. I’ve heard many other writers give this the highest praise too. I imagine that something of his own understanding of life as a writer may have been uppermost in Stephen King’s mind when he created the story upon which The Shawshank Redemption is based.

Sometimes, struggling through many years without recognition or success, can be like serving 10,20,30 years in Shawshank State Prison. Although the act of creating fiction is in a sense its own reward, and always will be, the fact remains that rewriting drafts and revising a novel line by line over the course of years without any immediate material reward in view, is like chipping away, digging that hole in the wall, the hole which opens the tunnel to freedom, hidden behind a deceptive cover, over years, of slow, patient work.

Keeping faith is the phrase that returns to me again and again, along with patience, perseverance, forbearance, strategic long term planning, and a long term course of action.

And I’m sure you, in whatever circumstances life has thrown at you, can also find parallels here to some aspect of your own experience.

The epiphany at the end of the film has a luminous, spiritual quality to it. To me it is more truly ‘religious’ than anything the Warden Samuel Nortons of this world might delude themselves with.

Watch the film if you haven’t seen it. But if you have – share your feelings about the message of this film.

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.

The Dream of William Morris at Broadway Tower in the Cotswolds

My dream, wrote the designer William Morris, is a dream of what has never been… and therefore, since, the world is alive, and moving yet, my hope is the greater that it one day will be… dreams have before now come about of things so good… we scarcely think of them more than the daylight, though once people had to live without them, without even the hope of them.

view from the top of Broadway Tower 1 Oct 2013 (photo credit Jamie Robinson)
view from the top of Broadway Tower 1 Oct 2013 (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

William Morris, along with the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, and the members of the Arts and Crafts Movement, was one who inherited and took forward all that was good in the Romantic Movement.

Among all things most romantic to me is a high place.

I go to high places for calmness and peace.

There are a number of high places I love to visit, from where I live in Warwickshire.

Broadway Tower, Cotswolds 1 Oct 2013 (photo credit Jamie Robinson)
Broadway Tower, Cotswolds 1 Oct 2013 (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

And just such a place, 35 minutes drive from my home,  is Broadway Tower in the heart of the Cotswolds, which I have visited many times, most  recently the day before writing this post.

From the top of the tower one may see, on a fine day, thirteen counties.

No wonder idealists and romantics  went there in the nineteenth century after their friend took a lease on the Tower, following the death of the Tower’s creator and original owner, the Earl of Coventry. For the Tower, a picturesque folly on the summit of Broadway Hill, emerged from the romantic movement. So, too, flambuoyant, theatrical and sensual, did Painswick Rococo Garden emerge from this tradition, as I wrote in a recent review on Trip Adviser.

William Morris was just one of the many idealists and romantics who came here. His rich, complex and exquisite designs now adorn soft furnishings, and a selection of them may be seen on the second floor of the Tower.

William Morris design image 1 (photo credit Jamie Robinson)
William Morris design image 1 (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

He is a beacon of romantic idealism, combining a love of medieval craftsmanship and Gothic design elements.

And his association with Broadway Tower – together with that of his contemporaries of like mind – is appropriate.

William Morris design image 2 (photo credit Jamie Robinson)
William Morris design image 2 (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

It’s certainly true that I, too,  feel an affinity with the Romantics, the Pre-Raphaelites, the members of the Arts & Craft movement, and their dreams and visions.

For where would we be in this life if none among us aspired to, or dreamed of impossible ideals?

Impossible?

Read the full text of The Dream of William Morris here.

The Dream of William Morris (photo credit Jamie Robinson)
The Dream of William Morris (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

In Memory of Hattie, a Beloved Pet Cat – and the Gracefulness of Letting Go

This is Hattie, born 1996, who died on 21 September 2013, at home, in her basket, peacefully, in a deep sleep.

Happy memories of Hattie, beloved family pet 1996-2013 (photo credits: Abigail Robinson)
Happy memories of Hattie, beloved family pet 1996-2013 (photo credits: Abigail Robinson)

When a much-loved family pet dies we need to decide what to do next.

But we kept Hattie lying in her basket for a day and a night, nestled in her blanket, where she died.

And it was not macabre, but beautiful, and consoling.

There is something sacred about being in the presence of a peaceful death, after a life well-lived.

Lying there in the stillness and quietness of letting go, her fur still felt soft and her body pliable, and I imagined several times that she was still breathing.

She has filled 17 years of our lives with fun, laughter and affection. She has beguiled us, outwitted us, annoyed us, delighted us and demonstrated something powerful: absolute persistence wins.

I blogged about Hattie a while ago. There, I wrote about the perpetual fascination of cats.

And now Hattie has again demonstrated something powerful about this life.

The gracefulness and the quietness and the beauty of letting go.

Then, all that’s left is love.

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.