Rain Soaked Odyssey of Delight Round Highgrove Garden


Drenching rains accompanied our tour round HRH the Prince of Wales’ intriguing garden at Highgrove but with so much to wonder at, we all kept going and completed the tour.

Highgrove Garden made me think of the plot of a children’s book, quirky, fun, playful. At every turn there is a new surprise, like something dreamed up by Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear. It was an odyssey through a quirky and unpredictable environment.

Vistas and views and angles, abundant ferns and eccentric topiary, temples, thatched tree house and giant slate pots abounded.

The downpour intensified as we went round, yet everyone was so entranced by the garden, it remained a minor issue – even when we waded through deep puddles on the unmade paths.

Moving through the garden is like progressing from one chapter to another in a beguiling story. If fairies inhabited this garden they would be the wild, anarchic spirits Shakespeare portrays in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I particularly loved the juxtaposition of wilderness and artistry.  HRH The Prince of Wales has invited artists and sculptors to run wild with their imagination; everywhere you may see the evidence of free expression and creativity.

In summary, this is a unique and profoundly inspiring garden.

Exciting Times for the People of Leicester, for Those Who Love English History, and for the Power of Story

In the last few years we’ve seen an astonishing and exciting thing here in our country: a relatively small, minority interest group dismissed by some as a gathering of eccentrics, has been triumphantly vindicated in the most extraordinary way. And the Ricardians‘ journey has drawn with them a city, a nation, the sweep of English history, and something powerful that has touched our spiritual roots.

The group is of course the Richard III Society – whose existence I first heard of 15 years ago whilst viewing an exhibition during my walk along the York City Walls – and the triumphant vindication is the discovery of the remains of Richard III, their authentication through a thrilling blend of science and history, and the captivation of millions by Richard’s story, and by the solemn and beautiful ceremonial with which his remains were received into Leicester Cathedral.

I’ve written about Richard III on this blog before, after visiting Bosworth Battlefield myself, and also after reading and reviewing John Ashdown-Hill’s excellent book The Last Days of Richard III and the Fate of His DNA. Now I expect that this book, along with the tourist industry in Leicester and the economic fortunes of that city, will be given an enormous boost by the last few days’ events.

IN my former blog post about Richard III, I wrote this:|

“I cannot read of a historical figure like Richard III without seeing the parallels between his story and fate, and our own experience in this life.

For the basic principles of life do not change.

Nothing and no-one can guarantee any particular outcome for us. Not vice, not virtue. Not piety, not betrayal.

But of one thing I now feel assured by Ashdown-Hill’s book: where there is integrity and focused persistent research, and rigorous dedication, as in the painstaking work of the best historians and genealogists, truth, ultimately, will out.”

How many people must have watched Channel 4’s coverage of the events surrounding and including the reception of the body of Richard III into Leicester Cathedral, with a mix of emotions? Among us there would have been those who were amused, astonished, partly disbelieving, fascinated, excited, uplifted, moved. It was poignant, dramatic, dignified, graceful and solemn.

Certainly we are seeing “a fusion of everybody’s beliefs bound up in a very English moment which allows us to transcend the present moment and is big enough to accommodate all of us.”

Richard III represents and illustrates once again the “what ifs” with which British history is so liberally scattered.

As I watched the coverage of Richard’s remains travelling through the streets of Leicester, packed with onlookers, I saw many people throwing white roses onto the carriage. And I thought that with every white rose thrown, each person was somehow connecting with, claiming their place, inhabiting a story which expresses all the unaccountable mutations of life.

Red Poppies and the Power of Story at The Tower of London

A family trip to the Tower of London at the weekend reminded me once again of how much I love visiting English castles.

at the Tower of London (photo credit SC Skillman)
at the Tower of London (photo credit SC Skillman)

I was trying to account for this in one of my previous posts, but a fellow-writer put it beautifully; when you go round these places you are reassured about the meaningfulness of our lives through the power of story.

No matter how grisly and macabre the behaviour of our predecessors was, we thrill to these historical sites. Everyone of all ages can enjoy them, both adults and children – whether or not the latter are currently studying medieval castles at school! And the Tower of London is immensely photogenic. You cannot move a step without itching to capture another angle, another story-filled view.

The red poppy installation at the Tower – in which the moat has been filled with 888,246 ceramic poppies in commemoration of the 1st World War – is an awe-inspiring, beautiful and moving sight.

art installation at the Tower of London commemorating 1st World War (photo credit SC Skillman)
art installation at the Tower of London commemorating 1st World War (photo credit SC Skillman)

As I am constantly learning more about the Tudors, I feel that the Tower has a tremendous emotional poignancy. I cannot look at the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula without thinking of the account I have read of Anne Boleyn’s ladies-in-waiting carrying her body to the chapel for burial, and having to wait several hours for space to be prepared for her beneath the altar pavement – because nobody had actually expected her to be executed; many believed a last-minute reprieve would arrive from Henry VIII.

But it didn’t. And Anne Boleyn’s legacy is a very special place in English history – as the chief person that springs to our minds in the same breath as The Tower of London.

The chapel at the Tower where Anne Boleyn was buried under the altar pavement (photo credit SC Skillman)
The chapel at the Tower where Anne Boleyn was buried under the altar pavement (photo credit SC Skillman)

A New Glimpse of a Dream Arising from the Ruins – Kenilworth Castle September 2014

Kenilworth Castle is my favourite English Heritage property and one I’ve visited many times as it’s so close to my home in Warwick.

View of Leicester's Building at Kenilworth Castle, with new staircase and viewing platforms completed Aug 2014 - photo credit SC Skillman
View of Leicester’s Building at Kenilworth Castle, with new staircase and viewing platforms completed Aug 2014 – photo credit SC Skillman

Now English Heritage have completed new staircases and viewing platforms allowing visitors to ascend to the different floors of Leicester’s Tower for the first time in 350 years. I’ve visited the Building and climbed those staircases twice recently.

A poignant story surrounds this tower. Built by Sir Robert Dudley especially to house Queen Elizabeth I and her courtiers, it represents a huge and extravagant investment, not only of his personal wealth (which was vast) but of his hopes and dreams. They were doomed not to be fulfilled. Queen Elizabeth stayed here 19 days in 1575, the longest of her 4 visits to Kenilworth to be entertained by Sir Robert, her favourite courtier. He hoped this time to win her hand in marriage. But it was not to be.

Many historians have speculated on Elizabeth’s reasons, for there is strong evidence she loved him. Her reasons would have been political, psychological, emotional – historian and novelist Alison Weir will soon be visiting Warwick Words, our local literary festival, to speak on The Marriage Game; and I will certainly be in the audience, for I share Alison Weir’s fascination with this subject.

The truth is, Sir Robert abandoned all hope of marrying the Queen after she left in 1575. The building was little used thereafter. 80 years later its owner stripped it and left it in ruins.

New staircase at Leicester's Building Kenilworth Castle completed Aug 2014 - photo credit SC Skillman
New staircase at Leicester’s Building Kenilworth Castle completed Aug 2014 – photo credit SC Skillman

ON all my previous visits over the past couple of decades, you could only look up inside the empty shell. But now you can ascend to each level, and read the story about each floor, and gaze through the windows at the views its former users would have admired, and imagine how it must have been during those 19 days in which Sir Robert’s greatest hopes and longings were invested.

All you need is a physical object, and a great story. And here now, on these viewing platforms, as I gaze at the walls where rich tapestries would have hung, I feel as if I am recapturing something of what Elizabeth and her courtiers experienced when they used these rooms.

The former empty shell has gained a new life. You can see the whole story again in a new light, feeling almost as if you are entering Sir Robert and Elizabeth’s psychic space.

Like Lyveden New Bield, which I blogged about recently, this was a grand scheme; the grandeur only had a short life, and the purpose for which it was created was not fulfilled.

views can be seen now through the windows for the 1st time in 350 years - Leicester's Building Kenilworth Castle - photo credit SC Skillman
views can be seen now through the windows for the 1st time in 350 years – Leicester’s Building Kenilworth Castle – photo credit SC Skillman

Our lives are full of stories like this – and this story lies locked in these stones.

Formerly Queen Elizabeth's bedchamber at Leicester's Building Kenilworth Castle - photo credit SC Skillman
Formerly Queen Elizabeth’s bedchamber at Leicester’s Building Kenilworth Castle – photo credit SC Skillman

Review of “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green

I’ve just finished reading The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.

The Fault in Our Stars book cover
The Fault in Our Stars book cover

This story of two young cancer “survivors” is a story that eats into your marrow. And if you haven’t seen the film or read the book, and would like to, don’t read on, for my review contains plot spoilers!

Even though I had already seen the film, and knew what was going to happen, I found the book itself utterly compelling. Two young people facing death every day with no religious belief in a conventional sense, told through the honest, sharp, hard-hitting viewpoint of Hazel Grace, a 16-year-old girl living on borrowed time, is very strong.

To me the most interesting character, however, is Peter Van Houten, the ghastly novelist who’s written a fantastic book and won the admiration of millions, yet is destroying himself with alcohol, throwing away all the value of what he’s achieved.

And the message within that particular subplot: don’t expect an author to be like/worthy of the book he/she writes.

The Fault In Our Stars also makes me realise how profoundly annoying sentimental pious language can be to non-religious people, especially in the crises of life; and that leads me to reflect on the power of language itself, and how words can build bridges or destroy, or create wars – as we constantly see in the history and in the current state of our world.

How powerful it was for Hazel to receive Augustus’s letter at the end – and how critical it was that they were Augustus’s own words, and not Peter Van Houten’s. That at least was one decision Van Houten made that was right – even out of his alcoholic haze.

And the story also poses the question: how true is Hazel Grace’s outlook on the world, from the point of view of a young person living with imminent death every day? Her cynicism is a refuge for her, a way of dealing with the pain and the horror of her situation, when even saying things that are horrible, is comforting.

Another thought arising from the story: in our Western society, we all talk so much rubbish around death, it’s frightening. There seems to be a conspiracy of not saying what you really think and feel – especially at religious funerals for non-religious people.

One of the saddest moments for me in the book and in the film was at Augustus’s funeral when Hazel decides to say all the anodyne things she knows her audience will like to hear, instead of saying what she truly feels and thinks about Augustus and his death.

I really do think religious language used carelessly and thoughtlessly at the most critical times of our lives can be a tyranny – when we use it as a mask and a means of self-deception, instead of a way of communicating the truth.

At the end of the story, what is left is love: the love Hazel and Augustus felt for each other despite knowing they had no future. That must be the single most important message of the book – the one impossible fact of love in the face of death.

The Great Gatsby – a Capacity for Hopefulness, Sparkling Decadence, and Tragedy That Touches Us All

The Great  Gatsby, written in 1925,  is one of the greatest American novels.

The Great Gatsby book
The Great Gatsby book

Yet its author, F.Scott Fitzgerald, died in 1940 believing himself a failure.

The Great Gatsby has been among my top favourites ever since I first read it, for my Contemporary American Literature course at university.

Two days ago I saw the latest  movie of The Great Gatsby, and was reminded once again of how powerful this story is.

Back in my undergraduate days, such was the effect of this novel on me, that one evening in the bar, when asked what I’d like to drink,  I requested mint julep.

My friend looked at me, and said reflectively, “they never even got round to drinking it, did they?”

And we both knew we were talking about that tragic scene in the Plaza Hotel, New York, in the later pages of Scott Fitzgerald’s novel.

I loved the new movie of the novel. Leonardo di Caprio and Toby Maguire were both excellent in the roles of Jay Gatsby and Nick Carroway.

And I asked myself yet again, Why does this novel touch me – and many others – so deeply?

For the answer to that, I must point you to one of the bloggers  I follow. Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking writes: “A good book should return you to your reality better able and prepared to cope with new challenges“.

When the movie ended an audible sigh arose in the cinema – the kind of sigh people give which means, I recognise this as truth, in my own life.

These were the words that gave rise to the sigh:

They were careless people…they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back to their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together.

One of the most outstanding things about the book for me is the sheer poetic beauty in Scott Fitzgerald’s writing.  Phrases from this book have stayed with me over the years, without any need to return to the book to check the quote:

Daisy and Gatsby looked at me  remotely, possessed by intense life

and

Gatsby bought a mansion where he dispensed starlight to casual moths

and finally, the famous end to the novel:

so we  beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Such is the symbolic power of the story, taking us from the immense wealth of a Long Island millionaire  lifestyle into the industrial dumping ground of the Valley of Ashes,watched over by the huge eyes of a long-forgotten oculist, Dr TJ Eckleberg, that I believe The Great Gatsby is the kind of book we should be  reading for our times, not pure  escapism.

As my fellow blogger, Vivienne Tufnell, notes, there is a tendency for people to respond to life’s toughness by “turning more to entertainment that is pure escapism.”

I believe the exact opposite can be said of The Great Gatsby, and that is why this powerful story endures.

Read The Great Gatsby for a tragic contrast between careless hedonism and accumulation of vast wealth, versus harsh reality. But don’t read it for escapist romance.

The Enduring Appeal of Action Hero TinTin and Why We Love Fresh-Faced Heroes and Their Adventure Stories

Last night I watched our DVD of “The Adventures of TinTin: the Secret of the Unicorn” again with my 15-year old son. And I knew afresh why I loved TinTin so much on TV during my teenage years.

The Adventures of TinTin movie poster
The Adventures of TinTin movie poster

The Adventures of TinTin: The Secret of the Unicorn (directed by Peter Jackson & Steven Spielberg) was released in 2011. So it’s been out a while.  But I write blog posts when something inspires or excites or moves me, and haunts me at night. And that’s what this TinTin story did.

I asked myself again, exactly what is the appeal of TinTin? He’s a totally beguiling hero. He’s Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and Spiderman all rolled into one fresh-faced boy hero – and of course his intrepid dog Snowy (originally named Milou by his creator, Herge).

As a child I loved adventure stories. I started with Enid Blyton and later I moved onto King Solomon’s Mines by Rider Haggard, and Prester John  by John Buchan and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. These stories have everything – at their best they not only excite and thrill, but also they move, and they teach you about this life, and they convey archetypal truths about human nature.

You can draw parallels with your own life, even if you don’t do exactly the same dangerous things. You can use the action hero’s experiences as a metaphor to help you clarify what has happened to you, and what attitude to take. This is the power of a great story.

Take the archetypal villain, who pursues his obsession to its bitter end.

There are people who live their lives like this. They’re all around us. They express it in their relationships. People who have never learned the art of letting go.

Their obsession leads to such things as ‘unfinished business’ when family members die; ‘skeletons’ that stay in cupboards for generations; vendettas that last decades, family members who don’t talk to each other for years.

The lesson the archetypal villain and his fate teaches is this: ‘People matter more than things’.

In this life, what matters most of all, above ‘due recompense’, above ‘getting satisfaction’, above ‘being right’, is human relationships – and of course this is the lesson the archetypal villain never learns, and which the hero instinctively honours, or the story wouldn’t satisfy us.

TinTin is a hero who’s open to all that life has for him; he’s never held back by self-limiting beliefs; he’s ready to live on his wits, yet has an unerring instinct for a just cause, personified by a character who is flawed, but whose heart’s in the right place; then he throws in all his gifts on that character’s side.

Does this excite, inspire and move you, as it did me?

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The Core of a Successful Novel: The Ring of Truth

Jane Austen's Persuasion, which gave Tom Di Giovanni the idea for his novel
Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which gave Tom Di Giovanni the idea for his novel

Q – What is the core of a successful novel?

A – You can in some way identify with it; you recognise it as relating to your own life experience.

And this doesn’t mean you need to have experienced exactly the same events that the novel describes: simply that you recognise the truth in the story from your own life.

And that goes for all genres, even fantasy or escapist fiction. Somewhere in the structure of that story you recognise Truth.

Such is Tom Di Giovanni’s debut novel “Home”.

I first met Tom at our Church (St Mark’s in Leamington Spa) where he plays guitar and occasionally leads the music group. His love of music and in particular the guitar is demonstrated in this novel.

Tom wrote “Home” during National Novel  Writing Month 2007, then worked on it in between the demands of a full time job.

Edited by Tom’s father (editor, translator and author Norman Thomas Di Giovanni), the novel has now been issued in a limited edition of 35 for  the author’s family and friends. I was privileged to receive a copy, and I’ve now read it.

In simple, graceful, lucid prose, Tom tells a touching story with which many would identify, a story that shows how life offers second chances, with an essentially optimistic message, that affirms we can make the right choice when life gives us a second chance.

Tom took the novel “Persuasion” and based his story on Jane Austen’s – taking it from the male point of view.

The Dell , a small, hidden valley in Leamington Spa where author Tom Di Giovanni saw a girl sitting alone playing the guitar, which gave him inspiration for his novel
The Dell , a small, hidden valley in Leamington Spa where author Tom Di Giovanni saw a girl sitting alone playing the guitar, which gave him inspiration for his novel

28-year-old Martin, an architect, returns to his home town (in England’s West Country) and meets again the girl who broke off their relationship 10 years before. Daisy was persuaded by friends to reject him for being younger than her. But Martin then meets 17-year-old Claire, a talented young singer-songwriter, who has a job in the local guitar shop. Tom’s description of their unfolding relationship is drawn with subtlety and a sure and delicate touch.

Though Tom set the novel in a West Country town he used elements of our own local town Leamington Spa. In particular one scene is set in “The Dell”, a local park, where he saw a girl sitting alone playing the guitar, which inspired him for his novel.

When I read the novel I felt I was reading something that was:

1.  Well crafted;

2)  Had a water-tight structure;

3)  Had integrity in and of itself;

4)  Pointed me to a universal truth I could verify from my own experience.

They say a book must have “wow!” factor to succeed. The “wow” factor of this novel lay in its power to move, its scrupulous attention to detail, and its truthfulness.

The message of the novel is:

That which you believed lost, you can later return to and find again: but only if you meet the challenges the new situation sets; and only if you apply the new insights and discernment you have gained in the intervening years. You will be tested again, and past issues may arise once more in a new disguise.

Tom hopes to find a publisher soon to take on the novel.  So watch out for him!

SC Skillman

Mind Programming: What is the Central Desire of Your Life? And Who Put It There?

IN a recent episode of the BBC Drama Series “Merlin” we saw Guinevere being “brainwashed” by Morgana.

Now Arthur’s beautiful queen (who was previously all goodness) is in Morgana’s power,and doing her will.

Guinevere in the Dark Tower (media.tumblr.com)
Guinevere in the Dark Tower (media.tumblr.com)

Although of course she did use the full force of her magical powers as well, Morgana used long-established brainwashing techniques on Guinevere. She subjected her to a terrifying ordeal of sensory deprivation; she sewed in her mind doubt and distrust about all the people she loved and trusted; and then she introduced into Guinevere’s mind the notion that she, Morgana, was the one person who cared for Guinevere, and whom she could trust.

Morgana has planted her own “central idea” in Gwen’s mind.

In reality it is possible to do such things, though it usually takes much longer: many weeks, months or sometimes years.

The person who plants the central idea in our minds may be of no moral character themselves.

All they need do is be convincing or charismatic, and come along at a time when we’re open to them.

None of us can avoid being vulnerable, unless we get locked up in a high tower for our own protection.

How can we be sure a central idea is a true idea, and comes from one who never changes, one who can be utterly trusted with your life?

Certainly Christians would have an answer to that.

And it is a question I’ll leave open for you to comment on.

But of one thing I’m sure; this is a subject which interests me greatly; it appears in my novel “Mystical Circles“, in which I describe vulnerable people being drawn in by a charismatic leader; and it is an idea which resurfaces again in my new novel “A Passionate Spirit”.

We do act according to our central desire. And our unconscious desire always takes precedence over our conscious desire (as is the case for all main protagonists, according to Robert McKee in his book  Story).

I used to think that the central idea of my life was to write popular novels. And the person who put it there was Enid Blyton. Not a person of great moral character. Biographies of Enid Blyton tell us that she was callous and cruel towards her family. But I don’t believe she herself inspired me. The instigating factor lay much deeper than that, embedded in the stories she wrote: children flying under the radar of the adult world, vulnerable people going off to grab life in both hands, which meant excitement, adventure, and often calling to account those very adults or authority figures.

That dream embedded itself in my unconscious. Perhaps that was what I wanted to achieve. Therein lay my central desire, much deeper than a mere desire to succeed in the eyes of the world.

Please consider leaving a comment. I’d love to hear your ideas and thoughts on this.

What is the central desire of your life? And who – or what – put it there?