Places of Inspiration Part 2: The Heavenly City: A View of London

London View
A poster of famous London landmarks (1989 Christopher Rogers)

What is your view of the city? Is it a place you work in, and suffer all the stress of commuting? Or perhaps it’s a place you live in? In my novel Zoe emails her sister with these words: Hi, you in crowded, stressed old London from me in the peaceful, perfect Cotswolds… But those words reflect only one biased view of the city; and this isn’t my own view of London, living, as I now do, 98 miles away from it.

I was  born and brought up in south London (Orpington in the borough of Bromley) and so London was a big part of my life as a child and a teenager. When I returned from university I moved to live in Bayswater, London W2, with my sister, & continued to live there for seven years. After that I moved away. But last year I decided to visit for an extended periods and visit many London attractions I hadn’t been to for a long time. And those two weeks fed my reflections upon why the image of a great city is so powerful for religious and spiritual writers.

Dr Johnson said, When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.  And certainly, London, with its rich history, cultural depth and vibrant life, is a source of inspiration to me.

In the Bible, we find the writer to the Hebrews saying this:For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11: 10)

The heavenly city is a city with everlasting foundations.  And a great city feeds us body, mind and spirit. From the BODY – the Tower of London – through the MIND – The Violent Universe show and the discoveries of Einstein at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, to the SPIRIT – the Whispering Gallery and Holman Hunt’s painting The Light of the World at St Paul’s Cathedral, I was inspired, informed, amused, shocked, amazed, touched, and filled with wonder.

Living as I do in Warwickshire, I’m fortunate to have all the treasures of this great city so accessible, via the rail network (not that it’s that difficult to get to London from any major railway station in the UK!)  And in many ways, the life of London is encapsulated by the story of the Thames. As Edmund Spenser said in his poem ‘Prothalamion’,   Sweet Thames! run softly, till I end my song.

 While looking round the exhibition in the Thames Barrier Information Centre at Woolwich, I felt moved by the human imagination, ingenuity and skill which has worked together to tame the power of the river for the protection of a city and its people. One of my own forbears was a Thames Waterman (as evidenced from a 19th century marriage certificate.)  See My Family Background page in my website. My early life was strongly associated with the Thames; the toolmerchant’s business A.D. Skillman & Sons which my grandfather started in 1901 opposite the Woolwich Ferry traded for over 100 years until my brother, who inherited it, finally had to close down in 2002. I remember being sent off to cross the Thames on the ferry to North Woolwich and back again on my own when I was about ten years old, and how much of an adventure it was for me.

 But what of that other river – the river of life flowing through the holy city, Jerusalem – a powerful symbol in the Bible?  We are told by the writer of Revelation that this river rises up from the throne of God and the Lamb and surges crystal-clear down the middle of the city street. On either side of the river grow the trees of life. This holy city is of pure gold transparent as glass, with a wall of diamond, and foundations faced with precious stones; and the 12 gates are 12 pearls. The city has no temple since God and the Lamb are themselves the temple; it does not need the sun or the moon for light as it is lit by the radiant glory of God.

 Why is this biblical image of heaven as a great city so powerful? I suggest it is because, here on earth, all the ingenuity, folly, genius, wickedness, nobility, inspiration, despair, joy and creativity of which we human beings are capable is encapsulated in a great city.  In heaven all will be made perfect. And here on earth, just as the city teems with life, so it will be in that holy city.  And that is why the image of holy city is so appropriate for heaven.

Learning From David Hockney

On a recent visit to David Hockney’s exhibition “A Bigger Picture” at the Royal Academy, not only was I uplifted and enthralled by his art, but also I took away with me several insights for creative writers. Here are five highlights that apply to novelists as well as artists:

1) Working From Memory Frees the Imagination

Hockney does a charcoal sketch in situ, then paints in studio; or he observes landscape, then paints it from memory; or he paints wholly from his imagination. Working from memory sets the imagination free. I can see close parallels here to the work of a novelist; over-reliance on research may produce an interesting novel, but not one which touches the spirit of the age or haunts the imagination for years.

2) Notice the Changes in One Subject Over Time

Hockney went back again and again to exactly the same fixed position in Woldgate Wood, East Yorkshire. He painted the wood in May, July, October and November – each time capturing a different spirit. The same place – transformed over time. This is an essential task of the creative writer; to show the changes in one protagonist made by varying pressures of time and plot and circumstance.

3) Be Alert to Seize the Opportunity That Will Quickly Vanish

Hawthorn blossom appears overnight and can disappear in one downpour of rain. Hockney was alert to the  moment the blossom would appear. He called it Action Week. He would instantly be out to paint with urgency. So must we as story-writers capture the opportunity that the creative imagination presents – whether that be a thought that comes during the night or on a long train journey, or in any other solitary moment. It must be captured with urgency or it will vanish.

4)  Focus Intense Concentration on One Well-Defined Area

Hockney filmed the landscape through 9 cameras mounted on a grid on the front of his jeep as it moved slowly along. Each frame makes the viewer see the whole differently, by focusing intensely on the details within that frame – helping us to see as an artist sees. This is what a great novelist does in exploring the psyche of one character who touches the spirit of the age.

5)  Harness the Power of Rediscovery

Hockney came back to the environment of his childhood, having spent many years away from it, living in California.  Separation from a loved landscape only serves to feed the mind as it imagines and reflects. During the four year period spent living in Australia (notwithstanding the inspiration I found in the Australian landscape, the Red Centre, mountains, coast, islands and rainforest), I often dreamed of the English landscape, particularly my childhood county of Kent, or of the familiar streets and locales of my childhood. This is so in creative writing too. If you spend much time apart from something you can now only apprehend through memories, dreams, reflections, your expression of this in any art form will have much greater depth and intensity.

SC Skillman