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Posts tagged ‘wonder’

The Royal Albert Hall, London – A Place of Wonder and Inspiration

The Royal Albert Hall is one of my favourite London venues.

Royal Albert Hall, London (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

Royal Albert Hall, London (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

I was there on Saturday, with my daughter Abigail, watching a performance of Swan Lake in the round, by the English National Ballet. Sixty swans danced in the arena below us, transformed into a lake by skilful lighting effects; and the audience delighted in the performances of Dmitri Gruzdyev as Prince Siegfried and Fernanda Oliveira as Odette and Odile.

The earliest memory I have of the Royal Albert Hall is when, as a child, I sang in the Chorus of Younger Angels  in a performance of Mahler’s 8th Symphony.

I stood close to the organ; and I’ve never forgotten that tremendous experience as trumpets, drums and organ, under Leonard Bernstein’s  flambuoyant direction, brought Mahler’s ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ to its thunderous conclusion.

Programme for Swan Lake performance 23 June 2013

Programme for Swan Lake performance 23 June 2013

During my sixth form days in Orpington, Kent, I often took the train to London with my schoolfriends so we could sit on the pavement outside the Royal Albert Hall in a queue for promenaders tickets for the BBC Proms;  and then, once inside the door, sprint to the arena, to find the best place at the front, near the conductor’s rostrum.

One summer, I spent several hours walking up and down the queue with spare tickets to sell, having bought Gallery tickets for a half season.

Later, when I lived in Bayswater, London W2, the Royal Albert Hall was just a stroll across Kensington Gardens, to go to the rehearsals and concerts of another choir I sang in – the London Choral Society.

Whenever I now enter the Royal Albert Hall, I feel a deep sense of affection and euphoria.

This  great circular space is to me, and to many even without such memories, both grand  and intimate.

It’s also wonderfully flexible,with its central arena, for many great occasions.

The Hall was originally supposed to have been called The Central Hall of Arts and Sciences, but the name was changed by Queen Victoria to Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences when laying the foundation stone, as a dedication to her deceased husband and consort Prince Albert. It forms the practical part of a national memorial to the Prince Consort – the decorative part is the Albert Memorial directly to the north in Kensington Gardens, now separated from the Hall by the road Kensington Gore.

Thank you to Queen Victoria for deciding to commemorate Albert  in this, among many other ways!

Sheil in the Royal Albert Hall auditorium (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

Sheila in the Royal Albert Hall auditorium (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

A Pilgrimage By Steam to The Shrine of a Martyr in Canterbury Cathedral

“This world nis but a Thurghfare ful of wo

Canterbury cathedral and its pilgrims

Canterbury cathedral and its pilgrims

And we ben Pilgrimes passinge to and fro.”

So says Chaucer’s Knight, towards the end of his tale as recounted by Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales.

Gloomy those words may be, but they totally belie the racy, colourful and much-loved tales told by the Wife of Bath, the Miller, the Nun’s Priest and many others.

And they all made their pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. So did my husband David and I make the  pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral last Tuesday – by steam train!

The Cathedrals Express (photo credit: David Robinson)

The Cathedrals Express (photo credit: David Robinson)

Steam Dreams operate the Cathedrals Express. The locomotive pulling our train was The  Tornado, a lovingly built A1 Steam Locomotive. It took part in the BBC Top Gear Race with Jeremy Clarkson, and had its own very own programme made for the BBC, a documentary called ‘Absolutely chuffed’.

I was very impressed with the speeds it achieved, as as it journeyed from Newbury to Canterbury.

Only when you travel by steam do you experience the pleasure and delight of seeing many different people waiting alongside the railway embankment, or in back gardens, keen to wave at you as you pass by, or standing in fields with cameras. Steam engines evoke great affection, excitement and notalgia and of course can now not be thought of apart from the Thomas the Tank Engine stories.

And at the end of the journey – Canterbury Cathedral.

Few things in this life can compare to the awe and wonder that a great cathedral can inspire; and at its centre, a shrine to a martyr; in this case, Archbishop Thomas Becket, who was murdered there in 1170 by four of Henry II’s knights in response to the king’s exclamation: Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?

The Martyrdom, Canterbury Cathedral (photo credit: David Robinson)

The Martyrdom, Canterbury Cathedral (photo credit: David Robinson)


The sight of the single candle burning in the great space which once held Thomas Becket’s shrine, before it was destroyed on the orders of Henry VIII, was very moving.  So too was the chapel where great saints and martyrs of the twentieth century are commemorated, including such people as Dietrich Boenhoffer, Martin Luther King, and Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered while he celebrated Holy Communion.

Spiritual energy is concentrated at the sites of these places of pilgrimage – and I was very conscious of this as I lit a candle at the votive light stand, at the entrance to the chapel in the Cathedral which is now called The Martyrdom.

The number of people visiting British Cathedrals has risen by 30% in this millennium.

St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral are again among the top visitor attractions in the UK, according to the latest statistics from the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (AVLA). The 4,500,000 visitors to those three famous churches are only part of the numbers visiting more than 16,000 Church of England buildings across England.

I’ve visited all three of those attractions in the past couple of years. And from all of these, together with my latest visit, to Canterbury Cathedral, I clearly see the reason for  the trend noted in the paragraph above: a cathedral is a place where we may make contact with the numinous, our sense of the holy. It is a place which fills us with awe and lifts our hearts and minds to something much greater than ourselves.

And pilgrimage now is more important than ever, by whatever means we choose to travel.

Minor Characters Who Highlight the Theme in Great Fiction

The success of a great novel does not lie entirely in the hands of its hero. Many of my favourite novels come with a surprise gift – the character who is most interesting of all, who is not the main protagonist. This is the character you wonder about later, the character that seems to step outside the story and comment on it, or the one whose dilemma is never really solved by the outcome of the plot. Here are three examples:

1) Mr Bennett in Pride and Prejudice

Lizzie’s father Mr Bennett is the character around whom the story problem – the Entailment – is centred. He could have seen the crisis coming, and had the power to avert it – Lydia’s elopement with Wickham, which threatened to ruin all of them. Instead, he allows himself the luxury of standing outside the story and commenting flippantly on it, as if the fate of his family had never hung on the decisions he made. In the end, the family is saved, by good fortune operating through the characters of Lizzie and Darcy – and not by Mr Bennett fulfiling his duty. And yet he says, And so Darcy did everything… I shall offer to pay him tomorrow; he will rant and storm, about his love for you, and there will be an end to the matter. And near the end we have Mr Bennett’s delicious irony in this remark to Lizzie: I admire all my three sons-in-law highly. Wickham, perhaps is my favourite; but I think I shall like your husband quite as well as Jane’s.

2) Gollum in The Lord of the Rings

Gollum is for me the most haunting character in Tolkien’s great novel. Starting out as one of the River Folk, who evolved from the loveable hobbits, he became consumed by his lust for the Ring. And yet he is offered redemption, by Frodo. Frodo uses his original name, Smeagol, to try and recall him to a sense of who he once was. He demonstrates trust in Gollum. This indicates Gollum can be redeemed if he chooses. And there are moments when he comes close, moments when we long for him to be redeemed. Yet Gollum’s final choice, to grasp the Ring, brings about his own destruction, and that of the Ring itself.

3) Mr Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Mr Tumnus the Fawn is the character who first comes into my mind whenever I think of The Lion,the Witch and the Wardrobe. Childlike, pure, guileless, representing the natural world, the first inhabitant of Narnia whom Lucy meets, who offers her hospitality and friendship – yet he’s prevailed upon to spy for the White Witch, and first alerts her to the presence in Narnia of a Daughter of Eve. And he suffers for it. But ultimately he is redeemed.

Do you have any examples of minor, or secondary characters in your favourite novels? Perhaps they may be for you the most interesting character of all. Let me know. I’d love to hear from you!

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