Spiritual and Unifying: the Dramatic and Emotional Appeal of Brahms’ Requiem for All Who Love Choral Singing

King Henry VIII School, Coventry (well known as representing Gordon Shakespeare’s school in the 2009 Christmas film Nativity!) was the scene on Saturday where a large number of local singers and musicians gathered together for a “Scratch” rehearsal and performance of Brahms’ RequiemCHOIR SINGING

As with all scratch performances of course the majority of participants had sung/ played this music before.

From my place in the choir (Spires Philharmonic Chorus augmented by many other singers) I saw several other singers had crisp clean hired copies – but not me! That’s because I’d brought my tattered, much-used score: inside the front page, every previous date on which I’d sung it before, using this score: June 1978 with the London Choral Society; August 1989 with the Brisbane Chorale, Australia; April 1997 and November 2009 with the Warwick & Kenilworth Choral Society.

Despite having last sung it nine years ago, it’s amazing how easily the music came back to me, along with the (sometimes exasperated!) directions given by previous conductors.

Our Chorus Director Jack Lovell is great fun and has a natural and humorous approach.  He’s always full of imaginative images to describe how he’d like us to sing. In one part he said, “Here, I want you to think smoky Viennese ballroom. You need to sound like the viola coming in.” Elsewhere we were to sing like a posh velvet cushian, the type you can push right in and then it comes out again very smoothly and slowly, not like one of those cheap foam cushians. Later he stopped us, saying that sounds like an Ikea cushian.

Brahms’ Requiem has special associations for me.  My father was a choral singer, and this requiem was one of his great favourites. I first heard it performed when I was 12; my father sang in a local choir the Orpington Chorale, and my attendance on that occasion was, I daresay, not voluntary! I remember sitting in the audience listening to it and not being very impressed!

Over the years my father shared his love of music with us, particularly choral music, and that included several of the most celebrated Requiems. A family friend with a great sense of humour, teased him about the choir: Why is everything you sing so miserable? You should be called The Undertaker Singers!  “Book us now for your funeral.”

The emotional and dramatic appeal of these major works is very strong, irrespective of any religious convictions on the part of either performers or audience. As a choir member observed in the comments on this very interesting blog , “this music is a celebration of our inner spirit whether you are religious or not.”

Brahms’ Requiem, as with all great works of art, encompasses a very wide emotional range. His music is set around words from the bible which express touching and powerful yearnings of the human spirit.

From the mysterious and sombre opening in Movement 1, onto the sumptuous, swishing, spine-chilling chords of “all flesh is as grass”, with Movement 2 Brahms sweeps through brighter and more hopeful moods, via passages of triumph, to the most glorious moments of serenity, floating and ecstatic.  All of human life is here; pleading, urgent and driving; desperation, the restoration of confidence. Movement 4, “How lovely art thy dwellings fair”, is blissful and luminous, ending on a rapturous idyll. It’s thought that Brahms wrote it during  time spent among the glaciers and blue lakes of Zurich which inspired him. The requiem returns to a mournful, reflective mood in Movement 6 , and its transitions take us through intense, vigorous and energetic passages, defiance, triumph and rejoicing; and finally in Movement 7 we regain bliss, comfort, peace and reassurance.

As another choral singer has said, “I see it all as metaphor, I sing it lustily and I celebrate and share the uplifting aspirations that inspired the music in the first place. If we can share the ideals, connect through the values expressed in the words, and join in singing them together, what could be more spiritual and unifying?”

An Interview on Linda’s Book Bag About My Newly Released Edition of Mystical Circles

On 9th September 2017 on the last day of my Mystical Circles blog tour, fellow blogger Linda Hill published an interview with me on her blog Linda’s Book BagBlog tour ad as at 26 August 2017 This is the final one in a series of  nine blog posts, in which I re-publish the stops on my blog tour.

So with my thanks to Linda, here’s the interview she first published on her blog on Saturday 9th September 2017:

An Interview with SC Skillman, Author of Mystical Circles

Mystical Circles cover

I know we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but Mystical Circles by SC Skillman really appeals to me and so I’m delighted to be featuring it on Linda’s Book Bag today as part of the launch celebrations. I have an interview with SC Skillman that sheds light on Mystical Circles in a very enlightening way!

Published by Luminarie, Mystical Circles is available for purchase here.

Mystical Circles

Mystical Circles cover

“Hi, you in crowded, stressed old London from me in the peaceful, perfect Cotswolds. Massive change of plan. I’m in love. Craig’s gorgeous, sexy, intelligent. Paradise here. Staying forever.”

Juliet, concerned that her younger sister has fallen in love with the charismatic Craig, leader of the Wheel of Love, sets off for the Cotswolds to investigate, fearful that Zoe has become entangled with a religious cult.

She arrives at Craig’s community hoping to rescue Zoe. But  intrigues, liaisons and relationships flare and flourish or fizzle out quickly within this close circle, and despite her reservations, Juliet is drawn into the Wheel of Love… with completely unforeseen consequences.

An Interview with SC Skillman

Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag. Firstly, could you tell me a little about yourself?

I was born and brought up in Orpington, near south London. As a child I was inspired by Enid Blyton. I started writing adventure stories at the age of seven; the love of writing that her stories first instilled into me has strengthened over the years. I studied English Literature at Lancaster University, and my first permanent job was as a production secretary with the BBC.

Later I lived for nearly five years in Australia before returning to live in the UK.

I now live in Warwickshire with my husband David, son Jamie and daughter Abigail. Nearby are three of England’s most famous destinations: the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-upon Avon and the two great castles at Kenilworth and Warwick.

Without giving away the plot, please could you tell us a bit about Mystical Circles?

Mystical Circles is set in the beautiful Cotswolds hills, not far from my present home. It’s a psychological suspense with a hint of paranormal. When freelance journalist Juliet learns that her sister Zoe has fallen for the charismatic leader of a mystical cult in the Cotswolds, she sets off to investigate, and to rescue Zoe. But she is unprepared for what her investigations will uncover. Intrigues, liaisons and relationships flare and flourish or fizzle out quickly within this close circle, and despite her reservations, Juliet is drawn into the Wheel of Love… with completely unforeseen consequences.

(This sounds really intriguing!)

Your writing considers the themes of spirituality and human psychology. Why do you choose to write about these themes?

I’ve always been fascinated by the interaction of different complex personalities, an inexhaustible source of inspiration for a writer. The general inspiration for Mystical Circles arises largely from the advice I give an aspiring writer: read a lot, listen to people’s conversations, be observant about the details of your world, and especially about human behaviour and interaction.

More specifically, for the story, themes and characters of this novel, I drew upon my own past experience of “hunting in ‘Guru Land’”. My journey has led me from the insights of the late Laurens Van Der Post and the inspirational writings of the late Dr Raynor Johnson via a mystical mountain in the Himalayas (Mount Neelkanth near Badrinath) to a dream yoga course in Brisbane Forest Park.

I lived in Bayswater in London for eight years and during my time there I attended courses and lectures at the Theosophical Society in Gloucester Place, and investigated spiritualism at the Spiritualist Association in Belgrave Square and at the White Eagle Lodge, Kensington. I also became a member of the Centre for Spiritual & Psychological Studies which met at the Royal Overseas League, St James’s Street and spent a weekend with the group at Hawkwood College near Stroud in Gloucestershire. I additionally studied the teachings of Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh at his Body Centre in Belsize Park and at his Hertfordshire branch Medina Rajneesh. In both places I experienced Dynamic Meditation and his own brand of group therapy.

My most quirky New Age experience was in Australia, walking backwards through the rainforest as part of a residential Dream Yoga weekend held at Cosmos Lodge, Mount Nebo, Brisbane Forest Park.  It was on this occasion that the course leader, a dream interpretation guru called Greg, spoke the memorable words: ‘If you master the art of lucid dreaming, death will be a breeze.’  Something from all these experiences has played into Mystical Circles.

Many reviewers refer to the wonderful quality of your characterisation. Which is more important to you as a writer, character or plot and why?

I believe that character and their motivations and relationships drives plot, and plot often arises as you get to know your characters really well and watch them responding to and reacting against each other. An essential task when one plans a novel is to create a ‘bible’ for each character. I love observing people and listening to conversations and also I love writing dialogue. It’s one of my favourite things about writing fiction. From the point of view of a reader, I believe the greatest joy in reading novels is to be inside the heads of fictional characters. When we feel we are living inside the mind and heart of someone else, when we feel we share their joys and sorrows, and understand how they think, this is the greatest transformation of which a novelist is capable.

(Oh yes. You’ve summed that up beautifully. That’s exactly the experience I want as a reader.)

You’ve lived in Australia which has a strong aboriginal tradition of Dreamtime and now live in an area of the UK steeped in history. How far do you think living location impacts on a writer?

It has a strong impact. I have known of several novelists for whom “the spirit of place” is of paramount importance. Everywhere I have lived I have sought out these things: water (in rivers and lakes), trees and forests, beautiful gardens, castles and historical sites, high viewpoints with panoramic vistas.  All these things have a powerful emotional effect upon me.  Nevertheless I am aware, that wherever you go in the world ‘you’ are still there. You can never escape from yourself.

I set out to develop this idea in Mystical Circles, as I brought together several troubled individuals, many with problematic family relationships, in an idyllic location. All the members of the Wheel of Love (the cult group) have escaped from their normal lives, to come apart and find something special, a spiritual haven. Yet the one thing they cannot escape is themselves: their own hearts and minds and, most importantly, the emotional position they take about their past. I believe our greatest challenge in life is to understand ourselves, and understand the human heart. Being in a beautiful geographical location can impact us strongly, but not in the way we might hope, if we are trying to escape ourselves. In aboriginal spirituality, human lives and every aspect of the land have been so intimately linked over many centuries, that it was only the incursion of an alien culture which introduced negative influences. I have been deeply moved by aboriginal spirituality, through some of the places I’ve visited in Australia, and hope to incorporate this in a future novel.

When you’re not writing, what do you choose to read?

I read a wide variety of books both fiction and non-fiction, of different genres, and I always review them on Amazon and Goodreads. I have just finished reading How To Think Like Churchill by Daniel Smith and am halfway through a novel called The Life of Elves by Muriel Barber, and have several physical books and kindle books on my TBR piles. I will read Young Adult, thrillers, fantasy, comedy, historical, suspense, psychological, crime, paranormal, romance…  I love the novels of Phil Rickman, Susan Howatch, Dan Brown, CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling and many others. In my teens I read through Thomas Hardy, Emile Zola, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens. And I also love Jane Austen and the Brontes.

If you could choose to be a character from Mystical Circles, who would you be and why?

I’d choose to be Theo. He is something fresh coming in from the outside into the hothouse environment of the group, and he is all about people on spiritual journeys and he believes in coming alongside them, without judging. He listens to people and helps them to see themselves differently and how they might move forward in their journeys of self-knowledge. But also he is someone whose background hides a mystery and that creates an extra sense of intrigue about him.

If Mystical Circles became a film, who would you like to play Zoe and why would you choose them?

This is easy because, as a keen film buff and TV drama fan, I have plenty of ideas for my dream cast! Currently, to play the part of Zoe, I feel I would like Sophie Turner (who plays Sansa in Game of Thrones). Firstly she looks right – she has long auburn hair and is physically my idea of Zoe.  She is a diverse actress, who used to be in Playbox Warwick near where I live – a wonderful youth theatre which my children attended – and can play a young naive, excitable character, which is how Zoe is when she precipitates the action of this novel.

If you had 15 words to persuade a reader that Mystical Circles should be their next read, what would you say?

Like troubled family relationships infused with spiritual and psychological tension? This book is for you.

Thanks so much for telling us a bit more about Mystical Circles and your interesting life!

About SC Skillman

SC Skillman Author photo WEB

SC Skillman studied English Literature at Lancaster University. She has previously worked within a BBC radio production office and later spent four years in Australia. She now lives in Warwickshire with her husband David, their son Jamie and daughter Abigail.

You can find SC Skillman on Facebook and follow her on Twitter. You can also visit her blog.

There’s more with these other bloggers too:

Blog tour ad as at 26 August 2017

 

 

Life Inside a Spiritual Hothouse: The Circle of Love in Mystical Circles

On 5th September on the fifth day of my Mystical Circles blog tour, author and blogger Sue Vincent published a guest post from me on her blog Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo.Blog tour ad as at 26 August 2017

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts in which I re-publish the articles in that blog tour.

So here’s the piece Sue first published on her blog on 5th September.

Inside a Spiritual Hothouse

My inspiration for Mystical Circles came from a wide variety of spiritual practices, philosophies and worldviews which I have myself explored over the past decades. I wanted to tell a tale of family relationships, and how they are affected when one member of a family becomes captivated by a new spiritual outlook.  Inevitably as in the case of most fiction authors, I have drawn extensively on my own life and experience.

Also I believe it is true to say that when novelists create characters, although we certainly use real people we have met, most often those characters are a composite of different individuals. But one thing remains true: often there is a little bit of the author in every character. And that is true for Mystical Circles.

In my novel, I introduce my reader to Craig, the leader of the spiritual group Circle of Love. And Craig would be impossible for me to create if there wasn’t a little bit of me in him, in his beliefs, his ideals, his longings, the spiritual outlook he wants to share with others.

Craig’s teachings are based on three main strands:

  • The Toltec Philosophy of the Yaqui Indian Sorcerers, as presented to a Western audience in the writings of Carlos Castaneda (whose book The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge fascinated me). In this outlook, there are several different paths one may take, and one of those paths is the Path of the Warrior. There is a special group of skills which belong to the Warrior alone and one of those is to learn to erase your personal history.  Craig takes up this concept, and aims to use it to teach his followers to move on from the past. For so many of us, the root of emotional and mental instability is that we persist in taking an emotional position about the past.
  • Shamanism – this plays a part in Tibetan Dream Yoga which I explored during my years living in Australia. Shamanism in our own culture derives from Celtic times and incorporates the idea of shapeshifting – which also makes an appearance in my novel.
  • The Human Potential Movement – the idea that we can be anything we want to be, if only we believe in ourselves, if only we master the arts of creative visualisation and positive thinking. I believe, from much experience, that this whole area, though extremely beguiling, must be handled with care… and we see some of its outworkings in my novel.

My own past experiences include exploration of such practices as past life visualisation using crystals (in Australia), attendance of lectures on Reincarnation and many workshops at the Theosophical Society in London; and floating in an isolation tank (again in Australia), along with many other investigations into spiritualism, Buddhism , Transcendental Meditation and Transpersonal Psychology among others.

In Craig, all this is presented in an extremely attractive and appealing Western package. The package incorporates a long-term stay in a gracious Cotswold manor house which many of us, myself included, might consider a highly desirable place to live, if only we had the money: an idyllic Country Homes type lifestyle.  Craig himself dresses like a former cricket star turned TV personality, not like a traditional eastern guru at all. The lifestyle his followers lead is a rather indulgent one with lavish dinner parties and champagne. This hugely seductive package for his followers rests upon, we presume, though it is not stated, the fact that they have made over all their financial resources to Craig.

In fact Craig, though full of idealism, is dependent for his material survival upon his own personal dysfunctional relationship with his wealthy businessman father. He relies on his father’s major weakness: a compulsion to try and buy his son’s love.

In presenting the story of Juliet’s investigations at the Wheel of Love, and how the impetuous Zoe reacts to her older sister’s interference, I take a non-didactic approach. I myself have shared the hopes and dreams (and for some of them, the emotional damage) of the characters in this novel. Dramatic tension is high. One reader wrote that it was “the dangerous group dynamics” which intrigued her most. If Mystical Circles sounds like your taste do try it!

 

 

 

Impressions of Highgrove – How To Create an Inspiring Wildflower Meadow in Your Back Garden

I have long loved wildflower meadows, and thought how lovely it would be to have one instead of a garden. But creating a wildflower meadow isn’t just a matter of buying a few packets of seeds and scattering them over a piece of unwanted lawn. Several years ago I did just that and waited, hoping for a glorious profusion of wildflowers several months later and the result was – nil.

In May 2016 we attended a Plantlife talk at Highgrove, the Prince of Wales’ beautiful garden near Tetbury, Gloucestershire, and came away with two packets of wildflower seeds.Highgrove wildflower seeds and Plantlife leaflet with instructions to plant a wildflower meadowThese seeds were a special Highgrove mix – enough for a small patch of wildflower meadow in the garden.

Inspired by the Prince of Wales’ Head Gardener Debs Goodenough we planned to plant just a small area with the seeds.

We now knew that to plant a wildflower meadow in your garden you need poor soil, perhaps an area of “old lawn”, and certainly not lawn or soil which has been fertilised and carefully tended in the past. So we chose a wild area.

Firming down the soil after sowing seeds to make a wildflower meadow.

 

Last August my son Jamie (a budding horticulturalist) sowed the seeds in a a patch measuring 4 square metres in our back garden.

We didn’t expect much in the first year; a wildflower meadow may take a few years to become fully established. In fact I must admit I expected that during the first year we’d have just a small  jungle of weeds, and would need to wait and trust that the beauty would emerge in a few years.

But this July we’re delighted to see the wild grasses tall and shining in the sun, and among them, a few of the first wildflowers to appear.Wildlfower meadow one year after being sown.

It gives us great pleasure to look out beyond the more “domesticated” beds of rose and lavender, past the newly-sown area of lawn, to our little area of Highgrove wildflower meadow.

It will be mown for the first time in September, and then after that four times a year.

Wildflower meadow one year after the seeds were sown.

Next year we hope to see a profusion of colours and perhaps a small version of the lovely wildflower meadow at Highgrove!

An inspiring wildflower meadow.

For more posts from me about wildflowers and Highgrove, click here and here

I’d love to know what you think about wildflower meadows! Have you ever tried to create your own meadow in your garden? And how successful have you been?

 

Goodness, Kindness and Love Amidst Tragedy: Let Your Light Shine in the World

From out of the mouths of children…

Last week I took part in “Experience Church”, a special event for children in St Mark’s Church, Leamington Spa. Hand painted jamjars in front of lighted candles on altar steps of St Mark's Church Leamington Spa

 

The event was organised by Ros Davies our lovely and energetic Children and Family Worker. 130 Brownies and Guides toured four “stations” in our church, in groups of five or six.

 

The four stations were:

1) The Church Welcomes.

 

Table display saying "The Church Welcomes" in St Mark's Church Leamington Spa

2) The Church Prays.

 

Wooden cross with prayer flags St Mark's Church Leamington Spa

3) The Church Teaches.

"The Church Teaches" display below pulpit St Mark's Church Leamington Spa

4) The Church Serves.

Hand-painted jamjars and lighted candles on black cloth in church

My daughter Abigail and I were in charge of the Stained Glass station – The Church Serves.

We asked the girls why churches have stained glass windows and what the purpose of them is, then we talked about some of the stories that are told in the windows, and the people in those stories, and the lives they led;  people who serve God in this life by “shining a light” in the way they behave to others. Then the girls painted jam-jars with glass paints and we set them on the altar steps in front of lighted candles so we could see the light shining through them.Hand-painted jamjars in front of lighted candles on altar steps of church

So first we asked the girls, “has anyone been kind and generous to you in the last few days – or today?”

One of the girls  said her friend had stood up for her; another said her mum gave her some sweets, and another mentioned that her older sister is kind to her. We also heard, “all the people in my school. I’ve just moved to a new school and they have all made me feel really welcome.” And the other two said, “Yes!” because they were in her group at school and were among those who had welcomed her. And with every act of kindness, a light shines out into the world.

Light is a strong symbol in the Christian faith as in others.Hand-painted jamjars in front of lighted candles on black cloth in church

People who are kind and generous to others may be described as shining a light in the world. Images of light are abundant in the Old and in the New Testament. One of the many names by which Jesus is known is The Light of the World. When a tragedy happens with mass fatalities, the instinct of all of us, religious or non-religious, is to light a candle for those souls who have perished.

I don’t believe we should equate darkness with evil, but unfortunately there is a strong symbolic correlation in the popular mind. Nevertheless, light is something we can all relate to. We see a light shining through people who act with goodness in this world.

In the recent appalling tragedy of Grenfell Tower, we saw people in the local community acting with goodness, kindness and generosity; a natural outpouring of empathy and a desire to serve.

Through these people, a light shone out into a situation of immense and ongoing pain and anguish.

What about you? Who has been kind and generous to you today, or in the past few days?

 

 

If you have enjoyed this post, here are a couple of my past posts on the subject of light:

The Power of Light to Uplift the Spirit

Darkness into Light: Celtic Spirituality

 

 

 

 

 

People of Inspiration Part 8: Dan and Phillipa Munday, Helping the People of Nepal

Today’s post is number 8 in my series People of Inspiration (see below for links to my other posts in the series). Phillipa and Dan Munday in Nepal 2017Today I am inspired by two people who represent loving service to others, regardless of any artificial boundary that divides the people of this world.

Dan and Phillipa Munday are two mission partners from Warwick, near where I live, who have been sent by the CMS (Church Mission Society) to work in Nepal. Phillipa teaches in the Khathmandu International Study Centre (KISC) – a school which takes children age 3-18 – and Dan is a palliative care  specialist who has been helping the Nepalese government and medical profession to start and develop a service in their country to support those suffering from terminal illnesses who are nearing the end of their lives.

Map of NepalDuring their stay in the UK now for a few weeks, Dan keeps up the hours of acccreditation he needs, serving in our local hospice, Myton Hospice in Warwick.

I have known Dan and Phillipa as members of our church for nineteen years. They’re currently in England visiting family and talking to different groups of people about Nepal and their lives and work there. They spoke to our own small group one evening a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve now heard Phillipa speaking again today.

The reason why they both inspire me is  because everything they do is rooted in love for others, regardless of their backgrounds, religion, gender, or any other artificial boundary that divides people.Yak_near_shrine_in_Nepal

Whilst in Nepal, Dan and Phillipa are serving others in every way they can. They have numerous opportunities to be “Salt and light” in the lives of others; Phillipa might find herself offering a listening ear and loving support to a young schoolgirl who has already been made to enter an arranged marriage; Dan might find himself visiting someone in a remote village who is suffering a painful terminal disease, with no specialist support or medical help at all.people in rural village in Nepal

Read more about Dan and Phillipa’s work here, and about the KISC, and also about Dan’s work in developing palliative care in Nepal.

If you’ve enjoyed this post you might like to check out my other posts in this series, People of Inspiration. You’ll find that I’m inspired by a diverse range of public figures, but now my people of inspiration may be branching out into other areas. Watch this blog for further articles in my People of Inspiration series, which is paralleled by another series, Places of Inspiration.

People of Inspiration

1: Paul McCartney

2: Rabbi Lionel Blue

3: Susan Boyle

4: Rob Parsons

5: Frankie Howerd

6: Gareth Malone

7: The Horrible Histories Cast

 

 

 

 

 

 

What the Camp Comedian Has To Say to the Creative Writer

I love camp, on-the-cusp comedians who subvert gender stereotypes.Julian Clary

A good example is Julian Clary who is above all a genius with words – playful, teasing, fluid, quixotic, suggestive, subversive – and he has an acute sense of irony. His camp public persona in itself subverts what I believe may lie much deeper in him, which is more subtle and complex, the true person beneath the entertaining mirage.

 

I’ve long loved camp comedians. They follow on from a line of great gay writers: Evelyn Waugh, Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, to name just a few that come to mind. There are many examples among gay comedians, but my great favourite first of all was Frankie Howerd.

Frankie HowerdThere were others I loved too, Kenneth Williams foremost among them. I instinctively warmed to these entertainers and felt drawn to them. Perhaps it was because they represent, metaphorically, border country, phantoms behind the magic lantern, different dimensions, stories within a story. The man dressed as a woman, the woman dressed as a boy. And in Shakespeare’s time of course, the young boy dressed as a woman.

Whether or not any of them  hid their  true sexuality whilst in the public eye – as was the case with Frankie Howerd – that essential gay character suffused their performances and their personal style; I don’t believe it can fail to do so, in any creative area.

Not long ago, I saw Julian Clary in the role of Slave of the Ring in the pantomime Aladdin at the Birmingham Hippodrome. He shone out above all the other performers.

And my favourite character in the TV series Are You Being Served was played by John Inman.John Inman

When I first saw him in this sitcom, I was entranced. Here was an adult man, behaving in the most silly way imaginable, and being loved for it.

I loved him, everything about what he was doing and being and saying, and what he was projecting.  He told me something different about the adult world, and personhood, and what he turned upside down was the rigid compartmentalised view of the world that can so easily crush us in childhood and early teens.

Angels and Supernatural Experiences: Book Review

Angel on My Shoulder: Inspiring True Stories from the Other SideAngel on My Shoulder: Inspiring True Stories from the Other Side

by Theresa Cheung

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of those books where you feel the title and cover image give a misleading idea of the contents. An Angel on My Shoulder was passed on to me and I admit from the cover I thought it was going to be rather sentimental. Instead I found it totally rivetting and full of authentic stories. Several things fascinated me about these:

1) I could identify with a number of them from my own experience, though I have tended to think of them as synchronicity;
2) Each one had a distinct element of the supernatural;
3) Far than being sentimental, they had a strength and simplicity which was compelling.

Many described sudden and shocking bereavement, which most of us dread. Yet the authors of the accounts had experienced a compelling supernatural intervention which totally changed their attitude to the tragedy, to death itself, and to the meaning of life, and lasted for decades afterwards – providing the sort of comfort and reassurance that some might only achieve, if at all, with years of counselling or psychotherapy.

The author’s stance in relating these stories is very measured and balanced. She fully accepts those who take a “reductionist” view of these events and prefer a rational explanation, and she invites us to make up our own minds.

I found the whole book very convincing, not least because of the cumulative effect of so many stories told by different people unknown to each other who had all had similar experiences. It had the same effect upon me as another book I’ve reviewed called Miracles.

In her summing up, the author refers to “organised religion no longer providing the structure and certainty that it used to” and I found myself thinking that although the church does indeed offer structure and certainty, more and more people feel unable to identify with it, because it doesn’t seem to meet their needs and appears irrelevant to their lives. But the stories in this book suggest, to one way of thinking, that God is finding other ways to connect with people totally outside the confines of “church”, finding ways to communicate his love to them – through angels.

Highly recommended.

View all my reviews

Staying Focused as a Writer: Learning From Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy, the author of the novel widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest, War and Peace,  not only crafted characters we love and  care about – Pierre, Natasha, Anna Karenina, and many others – but was also fond of sideways excursions into his theory of history during the course of a novel. war-and-peace-bookSo during War and Peace he gives us his theory of the rise of Napoleon on the world scene.

Some may read War and Peace and skip those passages but when I read the novel as a teenager not only did I love and identify with Pierre, and become emotionally engaged with his hopes and longings, his mistakes and wrong choices, but I eagerly devoured those passages of historical and philosophical theory.

In one of them Tolstoy, writing about Napoleon, states that the times produce the man. This observation, incidentally, is borne out by the situation  we find right now; the times have produced the man, Donald Trump, to lead the so-called ‘free world’ – as it is currently known, but may not be for much longer. Individuals may choose to be outraged that the American public has voted a man of Trump’s moral character to be their leader. But they are discounting the tide of history, and the spirit of the times. However my purpose here isn’t to discuss politics but to discuss Tolstoy’s impact on me as a writer and to show how this applies universally to writers.

Tolstoy takes as an example our inability to sense earth’s motion. He wrote that on learning of and accepting the laws that govern the movement of the planets in space,  we had to say, “True, we are not conscious of the movement of the earth but if we were to allow that it is stationary we should arrive at an absurdity, whereas if we admit the motion we arrive at laws.” Likewise in history we must say “True, we are not conscious of our dependence but if we were to allow that we are free we arrive at an absurdity, whereas by admitting our dependence on the external world, on time and on causality, we arrive at laws.”

Just as we have had to “surmount the sensation of an unreal immobility in space” and “recognise a motion we did not feel, …. so in history the obstacle in the way of recognizing the subjection of the individual to laws of space and time and causality lies in the difficulty of renouncing one’s personal impression of being independent of those laws.”

So with the tide of events in human affairs, and in our lives,  it is similarly necessary to “renounce a freedom that does not exist, and recognise a dependence of which we are not personally conscious.”

I first read those words as a teenager which was when I first read War and Peace, and they have stayed with me over the years, as words from a truly great writer do.

I think they apply specifically to the writing life and also to life in general. We may feel very isolated as writers, especially “indie” writers; and yet every so often we recognise that we are not alone, and instead are part of something much bigger. I believe individual freedom is a concept much abused and misunderstood; we are dependent on a tide of events in the world.  (I’ll come back to this subject in at least two later blog posts, when I’ll consider the concept of Small is Beautiful, and when I reflect upon the tide at Lindisfarne sweeping in to cover the causeway).

Meanwhile, may I encourage you to read War and Peace if you haven’t already, and not to skip the passages when Tolstoy reflects upon the tide of history.

The Gatiss/Moffatt Post-StoryTelling World of Sherlock

We’re familiar with the phrase postmodern and more recently with the notion of post-truth. benedict-cumberbatch-as-sherlockBut now I think, for writers, it is true that there is a post-storytelling phenomenon – which moves beyond and over-turns current rules. And it’s illustrated in the scripts that Steven Moffatt  and Mark Gatiss create for their TV drama series Sherlock.

It is now becoming more and more acceptable for audiences, on first viewing, to be confused by a story, but to stick with it for the sake of their love of the characters. This is certainly true of the most recently aired Sherlock episode: The Final Problem  which presented a great challenge to the brilliant acting skills of Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Mark Gatiss.  Clues as to what is or might be going on are planted in the current or the previous episodes, and because audiences can now view the episode many times, story-tellers are exploring new territory to take advantage of this.

Moving seamlessly between what’s in the mind and what’s actually happening in the physical world, Moffat and Gatiss break genre expectations (for which I here use the word rules – for so long as they can be deemed to exist) to involve their characters in events in the physical world whilst they remain free of the natural consequences, by some means which is not clear – other than through the clues I mention above. The popularity of the story of the modern Sherlock Holmes and John Watson itself seems to justify the transgression of the rules – or the pushing of these rules to their extremes – just like the characters themselves.

We saw Moffatt and Gatiss work brilliantly with a terrifying metaphor – a little girl the sole conscious person on board an aeroplane in mid-flight, needing to be talked into landing the craft. This was very archetypal and the stuff of nightmare, and a powerful metaphor for a small child under stress. But it’s not clear until the very end that this scenario is not happening in the physical world, but it is a metaphor, and in the mind.

However in one respect the story-telling remains strictly true to the original Conan Doyle stories – Sherlock’s ability to take things to an extreme pitch of personal danger to himself and to those closest to him, and then to emerge from it calm, self-possessed and in control. He does that in Conan Doyle’s original story The Adventure of the Dying Detective, where Watson is convinced Holmes is dying from a dreadful Asian disease, but when Holmes has secured the villain’s confession, and Inspector G. Lestrade has walked in, the “dying” Holmes suddenly transforms to his normal self and says, “All is in order, and this is your man.”

I remember well how I felt when I read that story – I was every bit as gripped by that as by watching the latest Sherlock episode on TV. So the Moffatt-Gatiss Sherlock is true to the original in this respect. Moffatt and Gatiss are replicating this factor using very impressionistic stylistic techniques made possible by today’s film/TV technology.

The very essence of Sherlock Holmes’ intellectual genius is his ability to make cool, measured calculations based on reason, whilst in a situation where the majority of people would be undermined by tumultous emotions. But right at the centre of The Final Problem, is Sherlock’s discovery not of his intellectual genius, but of his heart. The appearance of Lestrade at the end and John in the blanket is so reassuring and comforting – “order is restored, John’s in a blanket just as Sherlock was in the very first episode of all,  A Study in Pink…. and Sherlock has saved him through supreme reasoning powers allied to his loyalty – and he has told Molly he loves her (twice, and sounding genuine).” So Sherlock has a heart. If he had a choice to live without John’s friendship and loyalty, or to live without Mycroft’s power and intellect, he would choose the second; and when no words could be used to communicate with his profoundly damaged sister Eurus, he alone communicated with her – using his violin.

I read a very telling admission in an interview with the two writers: they say of their character Sherlock “everything he has worked towards, everything he has tried to get away from in himself and deny about himself, is what makes him strongest.”

All in all – on first viewing we are confused, but still electrified – and we love and care for the characters more than ever.