The Brightest Heaven of Invention

Originally posted on the ACW “More than Writers” blog.
We all know who ascends the brightest heaven of invention.

SHAKESPEARE'S NEW PLACE photo credit Abigail Robinson
SHAKESPEARE’S NEW PLACE photo credit Abigail Robinson
Yes, it’s a muse of fire, which Shakespeare wished for in his Prologue to Henry V, as if the power of creativity were indeed a separate being, in this case from Greek mythology.
And I believe that it may sometimes be helpful to visualise our source of inspiration as a separate being – maybe an angel, if not a muse.
As writers, we love and work with metaphor and figurative language all the time, and one of the most loved devices is of course personification, which can often be highly effective in, for instance, comic writing.
A couple of years ago I went to a special event in the garden at New Place, site of Shakespeare’s former family home in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire: an event which stands out as my most imaginative and inspiring experience in that town, even with its rich supply of Shakespeare properties.
It was known as The Garden of Curious Amusements, and presented by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. The central idea of catching the muse was sparked off by the fact that Shakespeare researchers believe the Bard wrote his play The Tempest in his home during 1610/1611.
Can specific geographical locations of this earth hold an inspirational power? Does the muse reside there? Can we be infused with that muse by standing in that very place where a genius caught his or her most world-changing idea?
This notion was the launching pad for a group of  creative people who called themselves the United Nations Board of Significant Inspiration (UNBOSI for short), and through the medium of art, acrobatics, invention and acting, entertained the visitors who flocked to this attraction. Our purpose: each to take a marble and catch in it some of that muse which inspired Shakespeare, through the four elements of earth, air, fire and water.
The journey itself was full of fun, laughter and delight – and at the centre of this fanciful Art Happening may be found a profound question: is there a correlation between place, time and light-bulb moments? That may sound eccentric and zany; but through the path of the eccentric many of the greatest minds have found inspiration and ideas that have changed the world.
We can only imaginatively reconstruct what Shakespeare’s family home would have looked like. No house currently exists at New Place, but is instead represented by a series of gardens where we embarked on a hilarious but also ingeniously thought-provoking journey of “Muse Catching”.
Shakespeare’s family home no longer exists because it was demolished in 1759 in a fit of spite by a character Shakespeare himself might have created: the Reverend Francis Gastrell, the impetuous priest who owned the property and got so fed up with the Shakespeare tourists, he decided to burn the house down. At that time property owners could do what they liked with their properties and the idea that the authorities could step in and save a historically-important heritage building against the will of the owner was unthinkable.
But even a senseless, devastating act like this can sometimes bring unlooked-for benefits in the future. I feel that what I brought away from this entertainment in the garden was in its way more profound than the experience of looking round a carefully presented fifteenth century property and being told that he was born here and trying to feel some sense of awe and connection with the great poet.
So where is inspiration to be found? Is it present in the air, or does it lie hidden in the fabric of a special place? Or does it perhaps emanate from the ground? These and other ideas were played with at New Place on the day of my visit.
Upon entering the garden through the site of the original gatehouse, visitors cross an area which would formerly have been the service range, and where you may listen to an illustrated talk about the history of New Place. Then you will approach a circular area which delineates the space formerly occupied by “the heart of the house”, where there would have been a large medieval open hall with a fireplace in the centre of the room and a vent to let the smoke out.
Close to the centre you will find a bronze replica of a chair and desk which represents researchers’ best estimate of where Shakespeare himself may have sat writing his later plays during those final years up until 1613.
Near to the desk, a bronze tree appears, its branches bent to one side by the force of Shakespeare’s creativity; and beside it a bronze globe is worn smooth by that same force. The rough side of the globe symbolises a visualisation of white noise in outer space – which, the guide suggested to visitors, represents the idea that Shakespeare’s genius may help us make sense of the universe.
In “the heart of the house” during the special UNBOSI event, several information boards explored the idea that many world-renowned geniuses had their light-bulb moment by doing very silly things – or by having very silly things happen to them.
So let us be inspired by the creative, quirky and silly – for along that path there may flare up that muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.

Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and Guildhall, King Edward VI School,  Stratford-upon-Avon: Strong Discipline, Repetition and Learning by Rote That Nurtured a Great Poet

A thousand times the worse, to want thy light.

Love goes toward love, as schoolboys from their books,

But love from love, toward school with heavy looks.

Romeo and Juliet

  

Whether or not this is a true reflection of how Shakespeare felt about his own schooldays, it’s difficult not to feel a sense of awe upon entering the fifteenth century schoolroom where Shakespeare would have studied from 1571 to 1578, between the ages of seven and fourteen.

Actor playing the part of a 16th century schoolmaster in Shakespeare's Schoolroom
Actor playing the part of a 16th century schoolmaster in Shakespeare’s Schoolroom

Even more impressive is the opportunity to experience a costumed actor playing the part of a schoolmaster of Shakespeare’s time, teaching as young William would have been taught; the recital of Latin vocabulary and declensions, drummed into the boys’ heads through wearisome repetition. Perhaps, even, this discipline, tedious as it may have been, prepared and fitted the young boy for the acting profession, since learning lines by heart is part of an actor’s skills.

Within the schoolroom Shakespeare would have also watched visiting troupes of actors perform plays. Also he would probably have acted in school plays himself. To be in the place where he may have conceived his first love for poetry, drama, and the acting world, is indeed moving. Quite apart from the mellow historical beauty of the sixteenth century interiors, I cannot but feel this is a special experience to come here. Pupils do sometimes use these classrooms today in King Edward VI School, and Shakespeare’s Schoolrooms and Guildhall have only been open to visitors for a relatively short time (two years at the time of my visit) to further illuminate the life of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare's Schoolroom
Shakespeare’s Schoolroom

The meeting chamber of the Guild is a gracious and imposing room. In this particular chamber, Shakespeare’s father John would have presided over meetings of the Guild in 1568, when he served as Bailiff (equivalent to Lord Mayor); and he would also have participated as a member of the jury in court hearings here. It is amusing to think how in his younger days he had fallen foul of the local authorities for being one of those responsible for creating a muckheap in the streets. But since then he had clearly regained a good reputation.

Nevertheless we may also wonder at the fact that 14 year old William had to leave school because his father could no longer afford it and was now in debt. What had happened in the intervening years since his high office for the local authority, and his ignominious removal of William from school?

We may find it very tempting to speculate. Quite often we have insufficient biographical detail about Shakespeare’s life. Was William cross? Or was he relieved at his new-found freedom? The fact that he left school at 14 and didn’t go to university is  used as one of the possible pieces of evidence for the theory that the man known as William Shakespeare could not possibly have written those plays and poems attributed to him. How could he? the skeptics enquire. He never went to university.

And yet… is it possible that William was a child prodigy? That he found all that learning by rote very boring? (Though in fact it was to serve him extremely well in the acting profession). Was it possible that William was like certain child prodigies in contemporary times who attain a double first university degree by 15? Was he the type who is perfectly capable of taking his A levels without doing the two year course?

Another aspect to consider is that Shakespeare may have absorbed what he learned at school to a much greater depth and intensity than his contemporaries. It is certain he studied the stories of Ovid and other Roman writers, for these stories appear in his plays. Perhaps William made up for his interrupted schooling by voracious reading. What was he doing between the age of 14 and 18, at which age we know he married Ann Hathaway?

These and many other questions spring into the mind of the visitor at Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and Guildhall, a rich new addition to the Shakespeare properties on offer to visitors to Stratford-upon-Avon.

 

How to get there:

King Edward VI School

Church Street

Stratford-upon-Avon

CV37 6HB

 

Find out more:

Shakespearesschoolroom.org

 

Felix Dennis, Eccentric Millionaire Poet – a Man with a Vision for the Future, and Founder of a Great Forest in the Heart of England

In an age of information where we are bombarded with news and facts and false facts and opinions, both genuine and prejudiced,  I find we tend to select our own blind spots, to filter out the onslaught. Felix DennisWhich is why, sometimes, although something and somebody can be publicised hugely in innumerable ways, it’s still possible for some of us to say, “I didn’t know that,” or “Never heard of him.”

It was like that for me with Felix Dennis, whose Garden of Heroes and Villains and Poetry Shard Garden I recently visited in Dorsington, near Stratford-upon-Avon.

20180811_123954
Bronze sculpture in the Garden of Heroes and Villains: Ulysses (also known as Odysseus) tied himself to the mast so he would not be lured by the calls of the sirens

Perhaps it’s unsurprising my subsconscious had blocked Dennis out previously; I would not have been at all interested in his underground publishing activities or magazines called OZ in the late sixties and early seventies, or in the obscenity trial that he was involved in with two colleagues in 1971.

Over the years I’ve been aware of other big creative personalities who have indeed made an impact on me – author Adrian Plass, poet Adrian Henri, artist Graham Clarke and actor Brian Blessed among them – and now, rather late (four years after his death) I’ve discovered Felix Dennis. I bought a book about his 2010 nationwide poetry tour, Did I Mention the Free Wine? by Jason Kersten; and looking at pictures of him, I can see his physical appearance in later years reminds me of all of those four. And not least he reminds me of Sir John Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 & 2. A man with a gift and an instinct and an appetite for making money, he amassed millions and when he died in 2014 he ultimately bequeathed them to the creation of a forest.

What an amazing and wonderful legacy, a legacy for the future of humankind. And I also discovered his poetry, beginning with those poems that were engraved on shards of glass in his poetry garden.

20180811_115509
Bronze sculpture of Bruce Lee in the Garden of Heroes and Villains

One of them,written not long before his death, particularly struck me:

I’ve plucked all the cherries Chance would allow, Take them, and welcome – I’m done with them now.

His bluntness and honesty, expressed in poetry, immediately appealed to me, as it has to so many who enjoy the gallows humour in his rhyming couplets. But the poems contain much more than gallows humour: sharp observations on life expressed in unpretentious, witty poetry that lends itself beautifully to live performance. Being a fan of live performance poetry, I can only wish that I’d found out about Felix years ago, and actually attended his poetry performance in the Bridgehouse Theatre, Warwick in 2010.

Tribute to Felix Dennis on the Founder's Rock, Arboretum, Dorsington
Founder’s Rock in new woodland, Heart of England Forest

I am enjoying the book Did I Mention the Free Wine? – it is the most fascinating account of how to organise a book promotion tour on a grand scale, among many other things – and watch out for my review of it on Amazon and Goodreads! Meanwhile I shall be deepening my new-found interest in his forest, his garden and his poetry. Somehow, discovering him after his death has a poetic irony which he himself would probably have enjoyed greatly…

 

 

 

 

Garden of Significant Inspiration and Curious A-MUSE-ments at Shakespeare’s New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon

O for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.

So wrote William Shakespeare in the Prologue to Henry V –  and a few days ago we were in the garden at New Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, site of Shakespeare’s former family home – infusing marbles with the power of that same muse.new-place-stratford-upon-avon

In case you’re thinking that sounds eccentric and zany, you’re right – and through the path of the eccentric many of the greatest minds have found both inspiration  and ideas that have changed the world.  Below is an approximation of what Shakespeare’s family home would have looked like. No picture-of-an-approximation-of-shakespeares-new-place-his-own-family-homehouse currently exists at New Place, but is instead represented by a series of gardens is where we embarked on a “Muse Catching” journey with the United Nations Board of Significant Inspiration (otherwise possibly understood as a group of artists / creators / thinkers / acrobats / inventors / actors whose goal is to awake the imagination, fill the mind and heart with fresh possibilities, and raise up the muse for members of the public who choose to visit).

Our purpose: to each take a marble and catch in it some of that muse Shakespeare wrote about, through the four elements of earth, fire, water and air.

The journey itself is full of fun, wonder, laughter inspiration and delight – and at the bottom of this wonderful, quirky, fanciful Art Happening, is a profound question and a fascinating subject for research: is there a correlation between place, time and lightbulb moments?

Shakespeare’s family home no longer exists because it was demolished by a character Shakespeare himself might have created. This “Art Happening” as I like to describe it, was based upon the idea that “the muse” is somehow present in the location where Shakespeare lived and wrote.  Many of us are familiar with the idea of certain places having a high level of inspiration. Often it seems to be present in the air, or lie hidden in the fabric of a special building, or within a natural phenomenon or feature of the landscape. But does it perhaps emanate from the ground? This is the idea played with and embodied by the UNBOSI at New Place this Christmas.  In the roundel at New Place, several information boards explored this, noting that many world-renowned geniuses had their lightbulb moment by doing very silly things – or by having very silly things happen to them.

So let us be inspired by the fanciful, creative, quirky and even silly… for along that path may lie greatness.

 

 

 

Signed Copies of Mystical Circles and A Passionate Spirit for Sale at the Stratford-upon-Avon Craft Fair on 1st May 2016

On Sunday 1st May 2016 I’ll be selling signed copies of Mystical Circles and A Passionate Spirit at the Stratford-upon-Avon Craft and Gift Fair.Mystical Circles and A Passionate Spirit by SC Skillman.jpg

The Fair starts at 10am and finishes at 4pm. I’d love to see you there if you’re free on that day, and in Warwickshire!

In addition to my book stall, there will be plenty of crafts and gifts for you to browse through and buy. It’s being held in Stratford Town Hall, 1 Sheep Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire CV37 6EF.

If you’re not a regular visitor to Stratford-upon-Avon why not take the opportunity to come along to the craft fair in the morning, then visit some of the lovely Shakespeare properties later on?

I hope to see you there on May Day!

 

 

 

A Journey through Golden Fields to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Classic Cars at the Motor Festival

Today I found myself in the driver’s seat once more (6 weeks after my hip operation) and joining the queue of cars heading into Stratford-upon-Avon.

View of  fields on the journey from Wariwck to Stratford upon Avon
View of fields on the journey from Wariwck to Stratford upon Avon

The long traffic queues were because Stratford was hosting its annual Motor Festival today. So this gave Abigail plenty of opportunity to take photos of the lovely fields of rapeseed flowers on either side of us.

I cannot think of golden fields, sunshine and Shakespeare without being reminded that the short-lived nature of English sunshine, and the passing of time, are some of Shakespeare’s most beloved themes, constantly recurring in the Sonnets.

As I gazed at the fields I was reminded of the words Full many a glorious morning have I seen/flatter the mountain-tops with sovereign eye/kissing with golden face the meadows green/gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy; and could imagine that Shakespeare felt just as I did, viewing the glorious landscape around Stratford-upon-Avon.

Stratford upon Avon Motor Festival 4 May 2015
Stratford upon Avon Motor Festival 4 May 2015

Once in Stratford, we enjoyed the atmosphere of the motor festival.

All the way down Bridge Street and Henley Street and in front of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the Shakespeare Centre and the Shakespeare Birthplace were the kind of cars that I only know about because Jeremy, James and Richard have at one time or another taken them round the Top Gear track.

Gleaming paintwork, exquisite design and immaculate engines were on display, and the owners of these wonderful machines sat beside them at picnic tables, drinking red wine, and keeping a close eye on their showpiece.

I always love visiting Stratford-upon-Avon, for many reasons, and feel so lucky to live nearby.

Sheila and Jamie in Stratford upon Avon
Sheila and Jamie in Stratford upon Avon

Sir Antony Sher in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part II at Stratford-upon-Avon: the Powerful Impact of One Picaresque Character, Performed by a Great Actor

Antony Sher as Falstaff in Henry IV Part II at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford-upon-Avon 2014
Antony Sher as Falstaff in Henry IV Part II at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford-upon-Avon 2014

Sir Antony Sher shone out as Sir John Falstaff in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Henry IV Part II which I saw the other day in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

I was at the camera rehearsal for Henry IV Part II, the day before the production was to be broadcast live to cinemas.

As I watched Antony Sher commanding the stage as Shakespeare’s irregular humorist Sir John Falstaff, I remembered another time when I saw the same actor perform – it was at least 28 years ago in Brisbane, Australia, and he played Richard III, scuttling about the stage like a giant spider. I’ve never forgotten that performance. This time he made me reflect once again upon the charisma and power of a great actor, no matter the role he plays. You would think that the king himself would command the stage; but no, it was the low-life ne’er-do -well, the gluttonous lustful drunkard Falstaff, who did that.

For me, the most memorable moment of the play came when Sir John Falstaff bounds up to the newly-crowned Henry V, knowing that the former Prince Hal had once been his regular companion in the brothels and taverns of Eastcheap, London. He throws his arms wide to reclaim his former intimacy , in the hope and expectation of new honours and favours to be bestowed upon him now his former companion is successful, powerful, all-important… and the new king says to him:

“I know thee not, old man!”

The silence that then falls, as Falstaff sees that he has fallen from grace (if such it could be called), is poignant and profound.The new king proclaims that he has turned away from his former self, as one does from a dream one despises. And somehow, all that we might feel upon confronting our mispent past, and renouncing it, is encompassed in that moment.

Last month I read an interview with Sir Antony Sher in Warwickshire What’s On magazine. He talked about his career and how when young he was turned down for drama school. He was asked about how an actor moves forward in his talent to become great, and during his reply, he made this point:

Richard Burton had the most exciting talent which somehow he wasted… a special gift as an actor but he stopped caring about it… just sat back in his talent rather than pushing himself and exploring it. You’ve got to keep alive this very special job you’re doing… Meryl Streep has kept a certain integrity to her craft.

Surely this act of pushing and exploring is universally true of the creative life. I was reminded of those words as I came away from  the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, with the stage-presence of Sir Antony Sher singing in the air around me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Joy of Singing, from the Challenge of J.S. Bach, to A Community Choirs Festival in Stratford-upon-Avon

Singing is  a gift of God, and a channel for empowerment.

Community Choirs Festival
Community Choirs Festival

This weekend has been an amazing time of singing.

And I’ve learned a few things about this life too.

On Saturday night, the choir I sing with, the Warwick & Kenilworth Choral Society, gave a performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass that truly honoured the composer’s purpose.  This was against all expectations – our own, and those of the conductor.

And yet, despite weeks of agony and doubt and struggle in rehearsal (plus the temptation, I suspect, for several singers, to give up) we succeeded.

“There will be some stunning moments,” said the conductor at the final afternoon rehearsal, “and some very hairy moments. Just find the next cue when you can come in.”

Not for a single rehearsal had the first sopranos ever sung it without getting lost.

And yet, on the evening itself – we sang it all the way through, even the most difficult bits, and didn’t get lost.

At the end,the conductor (probably rather bemused), said, with a beaming smile: “Well done. That was superb!”

This experience has taught me, that whatever we dare to believe, sometimes God’s grace snatches success out of the most unpromising places.

From a major choral work to a community choirs festival in Stratford-upon-Avon on Sunday.

Here, a gathering of different community choirs from around England, all came together to learn some new songs, under the guidance of four Natural Voice Practitioners – dynamic, fun, energetic and inspirational.

Untrammelled by inhibition, these gifted singing teachers gave of themselves for the joy of others.

The whole day was a totally uplifting, empowering experience.

Through a mixture of harmony songs – slave songs from the American south, songs from the Eastern orthodox church, or songs arising from Australian aboriginal or North American Indian spirituality, to “Price Tag” by Jessie J – the different choirs delighted with their singing.

I was enthralled to watch the varied styles of the conductors. Some conducted in a tradiitonal manner, others danced and bopped around in from of their choir.

And at the end the four teachers treated us to a hilarious and top-rate performance of the Beachboys’ song God Only Knows What I’d Do Without You.

A wonderful life-enhancing weekend of singing!