A Diversity of Spiritual Outlooks Through Time at the British Museum in London

The Great Court, British Museum, London
The Great Court, British Museum, London

On Saturday 23rd December 2017  I went to see the exhibition “Living with Gods:  peoples, places and worlds beyond” at the British Museum in London. The exhibition curator Jill Cook had set out to show the development of religious symbols through physical objects which people in widely diverse cultures and historical periods have used to denote their relationships with a spiritual reality beyond nature.

 

The exhibition ranged from a 40,000 year old sculpture of a lion man, through a Buddhist wheel of life held in the claws of the god of death, via a Japanese Shinto household shrine, to a Soviet communist poster of an astronaut with a rather inane grin on his face floating in space and declaring “There is no God.” On the Buddhist wheel of life the artist had depicted instances of human and animal suffering and wickedness of all types, which I must confess reminded me of Dan Brown’s description of Dante’s Inferno…

I was also interested to learn that the image of the many-armed creator/destroyer god Lord Shiva is on display outside CERN in Switzerland, as a symbol of the atom.

However, inevitably much was missing from the exhibition. For instance, I found no reference to the aboriginal image of the Rainbow Serpent said to be one of earliest of religious symbols, in this case symbolising Creation. Neither did I find the spirituality of the North American Indians, nor the mystical system of the ancient Chinese Book of Changes, the I Ching.

The whole tapestry and landscape of humankind’s attempts to build and sustain a relationship with spiritual reality beyond the observed world is so vast and complex, this exhibition inevitably could give just a small representative taste alongside a dispassionate commentary. In reality each religious outlook and philosophical system deserves its own special in-depth study in order to do anything like justice to it – and the curious investigator can find many books to help.

But one of the most moving parts of the exhibition for me was the display about the Japanese persecution of Christianity in the 17th century, during the time of the Portuguese Jesuit mission to Japan, a story told in the brilliant novel Silence by Shusako Endo, upon which was based the 2016 film starring Andrew Garfield.

I remember the impact the book made on me, when those being persecuted were ordered to trample the fumi-e – a bronze plaque showing Christ on the cross. I found myself gazing in awe at an authentic  fumi-e and thought again of the powerful end to the novel Silence.

One of the most interesting things about that novel was the way it showed how Christianity may be introduced into what may seem an alien culture and how those within that culture may take on the Christian faith and understand it within their own cultural terms. I remember a scene in the novel where Japanese Christians were being tortured by being tied to stakes on a beach while the tide rolled in and out around them. They gained the stength to endure by continually singing, We are going to the temple, going to the temple of God.

If there is any lesson at all to be learned from an exhibition of this type, perhaps it is that we have the challenge ahead of us to communicate what we believe to be the truth, whilst also respecting other human beings and where they are in terms of their own worldview.

 

 

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

 

 

Intense Relationships in Closed Communities, and the Stresses and Tensions of Life

On 8th September 2017 on the eighth day  of my Mystical Circles blog tour,Blog tour ad as at 26 August 2017 fellow-blogger Kerry Parsons published an article by me on  her blog Chat About Books.

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

So with my thanks to Kerry, here’s the article she first published on her blog on 8th September:

INTENSE RELATIONSHIPS IN CLOSED COMMUNITIES, AND THE STRESS AND TENSIONS OF LIFE

I was inspired to write Mystical Circles by, among other things, the challenge and the dual effect of family relationships; family relationships which seek to protect and encourage and advise, and which sometimes turn in a negative direction, when they may stultify and suffocate and control.

I had an idea in my mind of an older sister shocked and horrified by a decision her impetuous young sister had made – a decision which could impact on the rest of her life, and which might lead her down a path the older sister thought destructive.

So I began my tale of Juliet, a freelance journalist who has begun to establish herself well in life, horrified by unexpected news from younger sister Zoe, fresh out of university, no plans in mind for a career, who has been captivated by a new spiritual outlook – and a very seductive cult leader – or so it appears to Juliet.

Of course, when a novelist sets out to create a story, real people influence fictional characters. And then those characters take off, and develop a mind of their own, and soon they are controlling the plot and driving the novelist along certain paths. I have long been fascinated by human personality and the ways in which different individuals interact with each other, either leaching energy from or building up those who they come into contract with. Likewise, the whole area of group dynamics is a source of inspiration for me. I have been in many different groups of people throughout my life – whether that be within a family gathering, an office environment, a structured workshop or psychological therapy group, or a new age spiritual group like the one portrayed in Mystical Circles – or, indeed, a writing workshop or conference.

Another of my inspirations for Mystical Circles was an Arvon Foundation writing course I attended at Totleigh Barton farmhouse in Devon. I’ve been to many other other writing weekends and courses too, which have fed into the events of my own novels. Look no further than a group of writers, if you want to plumb the depths of emotional anguish, and numerous psychological tensions such as jealousy, euphoria, new hope, the depths of despair. I like the idea of exploring the intense relationships that develop in closed communities and certainly a week closeted together with other writers in a remote farmhouse gives plenty of fuel for such a scenario as the one I develop in Mystical Circles.

The Wheel of Love, the new age spiritual group which Zoe has joined, is a claustrophobic hothouse environment. Here in this close circle, as the blurb says, intrigues, liaisons and relationships flare and flourish or fizzle out quickly. This acts as a strong challenge to Juliet who is a freelance journalist and who starts out intending to remain objective…

Mystical Circles is out in a new edition with a new cover design on 5 September 2017.

Mystical Circles Front Cover Final Version4

Publisher: Luminarie; edition 3 (5th September 2017)

Description…..

“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.

Buy your copy here

About the author…..

SC Skillman lives in Warwickshire, and her two thriller suspense novels Mystical Circles and A Passionate Spirit are set in the beautiful Cotswolds hills, not far from her present home. She has also written Perilous Path: A Writer’s Journey, a book of encouraging advice, tips and reminders for authors. Sheila was born and brought up in Orpington, Kent, and has loved writing stories most of her life; inspired by the adventure stories of Enid Blyton, she started writing adventure stories at the age of seven.

Sheila studied English Literature at Lancaster University, and her first permanent job was as a production secretary with the BBC. Later she lived for nearly five years in Australia before returning to the UK. She has now settled in Warwick with her 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.

She completed two full-length adult novels before turning to psychological suspense with Mystical Circles. Her paranormal thriller, A Passionate Spirit, inspired by Susan Howatch and Barbara Erskine, was published by Matador on 28 November 2015.

S C Skillman Amazon Author Page

 

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!

 

 

 

New Cover Design Coming for Edition 3 of Mystical Circles To Be Published by Luminarie on 31 August 2017

Mystical Circles will be published by Luminarie in a new third edition on 31 August.

Instead of the present cover, it will have a new cover created by the designer behind the cover of A Passionate Spirit.author SC Skillman at booksigning at King Edward VI School Christmas Fair SUA 3 Dec 2016

The cover design will be darker and more mysterious than that for edition 2, in keeping with the tone of the story, and will harmonise with A Passionate Spirit.

Both novels  share themes of psychological tensions, spiritual threat, religious cults, paranormal, and shape-shifters; and both are set in the same Cotswolds manor house. Although each story can be read and enjoyed as a stand-alone, the second does follow on from the first, and draws through a couple of the characters who appeared before. So to demonstrate more clearly the connection between the two, a thematic relationship will be seen in the two cover designs.

More later when I’ll be able to give the cover reveal!

In addition my book of encouraging  tips, insights and reminders for writers, Perilous Path: A Writer’s Journey, will be published in a second edition with Luminarie, on the same date – 31 August 2017.

The new edition of each of the above books will be available as a paperback and as an ebook. Mystical Circles paperback will be priced at £8.99 to bring it into line with A Passionate Spirit, and Perilous Path will be available for £4.99.

Meanwhile I’ve reached 70,581 words in my third novel, Director’s Cut. This will continue the themes of my first two novels, with a strong emphasis on modern Gothic. I know the way the story is to end – but my main antagonist is more frightening, subtle and cunning than those in my first two novels, and the power struggle with the chief protagonist is nearing that ‘black moment’ when it seems all is lost. I still don’t know how she is to survive or to prosper, through the things she will learn from this encounter.Expectations (2)  Perhaps that’s the best way for it to be, when creating a first draft; to maintain a dynamic relationship with the characters and their inner worlds, there must be a strong element of uncertainty. If the author is to defeat the reader’s expectations, she must first defeat her own!

 

 

A Passionate Spirit and The Cult That Stole Children

A couple of years after I left university, whilst on a spiritual search, I went to a lecture at the Royal Overseas League in London, met, chatted to and  became captivated by an inspirational speaker: a Physics professor who wrote spiritual books. His name was Dr Raynor Johnson.

a-pool-of-reflections-by-dr-raynor-johnsonSubsequently I read and loved all his books, beginning with his latest: “A Pool of Reflection”. I later wrote him a letter, to which he responded with a very kind and encouraging reply from his home at Santiniketan, Ferny Creek, Melbourne Australia.

Santiniketan later became notorious as the first premises Raynor Johnson made available for the use of the then beautiful and charismatic  Anne Hamilton-Byrne, the cult leader, and where she gave her spiritual talks, and started to gather her followers.  At the time, of course, I had no knowledge of this.

I wrote about him and about the cult with which his name has now become ineradicably linked in this blog post: The Curious Case of the Kindly Professor and the Cunning Cult Leader. I also used the story of the cult in my novel  A Passionate Spirit (pub. Matador 2015).

This cult is particularly relevant to my interests in writing A Passionate Spirit, because of the way in which the cult leader uses beauty and charisma to win devoted followers, whom she then indoctrinates with her teachings; and the cult preys upon the young and the vulnerable.  In addition the cult won the support of many intellectuals and people occupying high professional positions. It is a case which is of vital fascination to a writer of psychological thrillers and suspense.

Later I was contacted by journalist Chris Johnston, who has published articles about the cult in  The Age, Melbourne and in the Sydney Morning Herald. He wanted to make reference to my experiences, and to quote from my blog post, in a book he was writing about the cult.

You can watch the story of this cult on BBC TV tonight Tuesday 29 November 2016 in a documentary called:  “Storyville: The Cult That Stole Children.” It is being broadcast at 9pm.

M paranormal thriller novel A Passionate Spirit inspired these remarks from a Net Galley reviewer, CE Gray:  “as Natasha and James started to take hold of both the centre, and the people within it, the story picked up pace and for me became a page turner. I needed to know, were there supernatural forces at work? Was Zoe imagining it? Were Natasha and James just fraudsters? Was this a story about a cult?

I was pulled in, hook, line and sinker, picking up my kindle at every opportunity to find out what happened next and the end was not disappointing.

I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone interested in cults, the supernatural and thrillers in general.

What I especially loved were the author’s notes at the end, talking about her inspirations for the novel, including the Australian cult, The Family, which sent me scurrying off to the google for an hour after I’d finished the book. A great read.

A Passionate Spirit is available to buy online and in bookshops.

A Poet’s View of Life – Shakespeare, the Jesuit Priest and the ex-Archbishop

What did Shakespeare believe?  20161107_092917-1He lived and created his work during a period of religious turmoil; and scholars are left to guess at his true spiritual worldview, despite his association with Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, and the fact that he was baptized and buried there.

And so it was appropriate that Holy Trinity Church, the location of Shakespeare’s grave, should be the venue for the first performance in England of the play Shakeshafte by Rowan Williams which I went to see a few days ago. During the course of the play, a teenage Shakespeare debates with the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion, and I found this portrayal by the Trinity Players thought-provoking, poignant and inspiring.

The only reason why we think Shakeshafte may be our William Shakespeare is because a young man of that name is referred to as an in-house entertainer in the will of Alexander Hoghton of Hoghton Tower, Lancashire, in 1581. And it is known  that Shakespeare’s schoolmaster, John Cottam, an ardent Catholic, recommended his pupil Will Shakeshafte and another boy, Fulk Gillom, to Alexander, for employment as tutors in his house and to provide entertainment. Alexander and his family were strong Catholics in Lancashire, a county renowned for being faithful to the “old religion” in a dangerous time of persecution against Catholics (and a county which was to see the infamous Pendle Witch trials in 1612, just 4 years before Shakespeare’s death).

So former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams works with the theory that this young Shakeshafte was indeed our William Shakespeare, during what scholars call one of the two “lost periods” of Shakespeare’s life. And that he met, talked and maybe even argued with Edmund Campion, the Jesuit priest who returned to England in 1580, spent time undercover at Hoghton Hall, was eventually betrayed, tried, and hanged, drawn and quartered in December 1581.

Scholars cannot tell what Shakespeare truly believed. Some think he was a closet Catholic and others that he was an atheist. The latter can cite quotes like:

Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, Which we ascribe to heaven.

And thus I clothe my naked villany
With odd old ends stol’n forth of holy writ,
And seem a saint when most I play the devil.

and

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.

So in this play, the young poet – who is portrayed by actor Louis Osborne as wild, passionate and unruly – and the devout priest, played by Tim Raistrick, come face to face, and swap their views of life. And the poet’s view of life is clearly one that Rowan Williams shares, despite having been Archbishop of Canterbury: he as a poet wants to experience life in all its richness and diversity. He ‘holds a mirror up to nature’, listening to  a variety of voices in his head and heart, unable to reduce them all to just one interpretation of the truth. And the play asks the question: Should we understand the truth as one grand central narrative to be imposed on life, or something that emerges in the dialogue between tradition and experience?(programme note by Anthony Woollard). 

I think that Rowan Williams himself holds that view of life in tension with ‘the grand narrative’ of evangelical Christian belief. And this to me is a beautiful expression of what Shakespeare himself would have believed; a world view with which I too can empathise.  And Shakespeare the poet would have held this view in amongst the dangerous religious turmoil of Elizabethan England, and it would be one that could only be hinted at in his poetry and plays, but never explicitly stated.

Which is probably the reason for the veiled remark to Horatio:

There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

 

 

What does Eadfrith, artist-scribe of the Lindisfarne Gospels, have to teach creative writers and artists today?

Nothing much, you may think – because Eadfrith was a seventh century monk in a monastery on an island, and we live in the fast, materialistic, time-pressured world of 2016.

20160822_205715
sunset on Lindisfarne

I’ve just spent three days on Lindisfarne (otherwise known as Holy Island), just off the Northumberland coast, where Eadfrith sat in the monastery scriptorium and scribed and decorated the Lindisfarne Gospels every day for two years between  696 and 698 AD, in order to commemorate the elevation of St Cuthbert’s relics. 

So why is it that the book he created is so revered and has such a hold on our imagination now? – apart  from its age and the wonderful fact of its survival?

20160822_140835
Display in the Lindisfarne Heritage Centre, Holy Island

I believe it’s because of the dedication, the patient concentration and the painstaking artistry that breathes out from the pages, and because of what inspired its creation: love and devotion.

Eadfrith created it “for the glory of God and St Cuthbert”.

St Cuthbert himself inspired so much reverence because he was a holy man, at one time bishop of Lindisfarne, who died as a hermit in 687 on Inner Farne (which I recently visited), and around whose body many miracles occurred.

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Sculpture in St Mary’s Church Holy Island, showing the monks who carried Cuthbert’s body to escape from Viking raiders

The astonishing story of his body, which failed to decay for many years, records how he was carried for several decades by faithful monks around Northumberland, to escape Viking attack, before finally it was laid to rest in the spot over which Durham Cathedral was built. You can visit St Cuthbert’s Tomb in Durham Cathedral, a place which has a strong spiritual resonance and atmosphere of holiness.

The glorious book which is the Lindisfarne Gospels is a testament to patience, concentration, love and devotion. preface to St Mark's Gospel, Lindisfarne Gospels

For us now, to gaze at, or to work with, the patterns Eadfrith painted is a pathway to peace and joy – hence the popularity of Celtic colouring-in books for adults, partly because the act of colouring-in forces you to pay close attention and eliminate all distractions. Celtic designs based on the Lindisfarne gospels pop up everywhere20160829_112732 – here’s an image of my lovely metal bookmark displaying Eadfrith’s designs – notice particularly his ornamental birds (Lindisfarne has long been a paradise for birds, so Eadfrith had plenty of them to model his designs on).

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Detail from the Lindisfarne Gospels, in St Mary’s Church Holy Island

In creating the ornamental designs, Eadfrith needed to pay minute attention to the geometrical foundations and symmetry of the overall design – very little was left to chance or the “inspiration of the moment.”

The book he created is now revered not just for the beauty and skill within its pages, I believe, but because that beauty is a physical representation on this earth of a spiritual reality – goodness, peace, patience, holiness and love.

Eadfrith had to source, prepare, or make from scratch everything he used – the parchments of vellum; the pen from a thick reed or quill feather; the ink, from animal, vegetable and mineral raw materials, ground to a fine powder and then mixed with egg white. I have personal experience of something of this latter part of the process at least, because I did an icon-painting course a few years ago and we mixed artists’ pigment with egg-white to paint our own icons on pieces of wood we had ourselves prepared – see the photo here of my own icon of the Archangel Gabriel.20160829_123557

After Eadfrith had created the Gospels, he left the scriptorium and as far as we know he never painted or wrote anything else – not that I’m suggesting this is a model for creative writers of today!

I find his story awe-inspiring and uplifting because it gives me an image of a patient, devoted person sitting alone in a quiet place concentrating absolutely on a work of art, to the exclusion of all else. It makes me think of many others who have created great works in similar circumstances – those who have been perhaps in prison, like St Paul, or Cervantes who wrote Don Quixote, two amongst several examples: or those who have deliberately chosen to go apart into an isolated place like Eadfrith in the scriptorium, free of distractions.

To be free of distractions and able to fully concentrate and devote yourself to the task in hand is such a luxury now, such an ideal for writers and artists to aspire to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing Stories That Grow Legs and Run Away From You

 

In my creative writing class at Lancaster University years ago, our tutor said to us:  Once written and completed, your work is A Thing on the Table.  The world can make what it likes of it.  It doesn’t belong to you any more.”creative writing

More recently, novelist Susan Hill, speaking at a local author event, mentioned her first great literary success, The Woman in Black. She said, I have never known a story grow legs and run away from me like that one did.

What a lovely image for the independent life a novel takes on, once completed and out in the world. The ultimate value of a novel lies in the responses of those who read it.  JK Rowling said that the whole “fairy tale” of what had happened to her was only because we had read her story and loved it.

My new novel, A Passionate Spirit, had many different sources of inspiration. But one of them was my conversation with a retired clergyman, John, who told me a story which I then used in my novel.

He described an incident which took place during his ministry as parish priest. A spiritual healer had risen to prominence in his parish.  She’d healed many in the local community and had attracted national media attention. Soon John’s church could no longer ignore this, as several in his congregation, including the churchwarden, claimed to have been healed by her, and believed in her miraculous powers. John recounted to me the tale of one dramatic afternoon, when he met and questioned this healer, along with his churchwarden, and another local clergyman. Later, I went back to the work-in-progress, and my character Natasha emerged, together with a key scene in the novel, based on John’s story.

A Passionate Spirit has some Christian characters (young priest Theo and his wife Zoe); and, to my mind, a strong Christian message. But there’s no guarantee my readers will choose to see that.

In my novel, eventually Zoe meets a huge spiritual challenge head-on, with her fledgling Christian faith; and I show her praying, using the Lord’s Prayer and the words of Psalm 23. She also cites the character of Jesus in her headlong confrontation with evil. Vital help for Zoe comes from her friend Alice, who isn’t Christian, and who was the first person to discern the menace represented by Natasha.

I don’t believe we can expect every Christian to have spiritual discernment. Having experienced a number of spiritual healers myself in the past I’ve become more alert to ‘false prophets’ and the ‘trees that do not bear good fruit’; and that has influenced my story.

A Passionate Spirit is now truly A Thing Upon the Table. I trust and respect that the readers will make what they like of it. And of course I only have the chance to find out if I get feedback from reviews…

Reflections on Australia: Binna Burra, Rainforest Resort in the Gold Coast Hinterland

As my daughter Abigail and her friend Gaby have just flown out to Australia to stay with my sister in Brisbane for the next few weeks, I’m thinking of Australia – and of the times I’ve visited that continent, and of the four and a half years I spent living and working there.Binna Burra 2007

 

I’ve written before about the Gold Coast Hinterland, Queensland in my Places of Inspiration.  series, along with several other locations around the world.  What all these places have in common is spirit of place.

I found this spirit in India, at Uluru in Australia, in London, in the White Garden at Sissinghurst in Kent, and in Sydney Opera House. Today let me show you another part of Australia – Binna Burra.

On the border of Queensland and New South Wales, behind the Gold Coast, you may find a beautiful mountain range. This is known as the Gold Coast hinterland. The road winds up via many mountain passes from Southport, just north of Surfers Paradise. You travel via the town of Canungra where you may choose between two roads, going to two mountain resorts: Binna Burra and O’Reilly’s. I have spent time at both these resorts but here I’m concentrating on Binna Burra.

Binna Burra is special to me. Why is this so?

Binna Burra holds many memories; and it is a very important stage on my spiritual journey. I’ve been up there on my own, and in company with others, and have always found it a very powerful place, full of spiritual resonance. I remember standing there listening to the birdsong echoing across the mountain range, their peaks and valleys hazy with eucalyptus vapour; of waking up early in the morning, stepping outside my cabin, and tasting the mountain air as if it was fine wine.

I remember going on the Coomera Circuit, the longest of the many rainforest walks visitor may take from the lodge, which passes the beautiful Coomera Falls. there was the time we went out on a night time walk to see the luminous fungi, and another time we went to see the glow-worms.

I remember when I went on my own to Binna Burra, and found a table of other single visitors, who were so welcoming and fun and friendly. Then there was the occasion when I visited Australia with my friend Alison and my daughter Abigail and we met up with friends who lived on the Gold Coast, Paul and Mark, and we all went up to Binna Burra and had lunch in the clifftop dining room with its panoramic views of the mountain scenery.

And then of course there’s the wildlife; the possums and rainbow lorikeets and the red-eyed tree-frogs. And of course the snakes that may be lying across your path; and are a good reason to take a torch with you when you walk by night.

Do you have a special place that means a lot to you, a place of inspiration, that you believe you will constantly revisit, or at least remember for the rest of your life? Please share in the comments below!