In Heinrich Böll’s cottage

January 10, 2023 at 1:41 am | Posted in Bookshops, Cook books, creativity, rural Ireland, writers' residencies | Leave a comment
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In Heinrich Böll’s cottage on my Achill Island writer’s residency I wrote nearly 20,000 words. I was grateful for the newly installed under-floor heating as I touch-typed, gazing through the window at the rain and hail. In breaks between various types of precipitation I could look out at sudden sunlight spilling silver over the distant grey sea and a vast rainbow arcing from cliff-side to ocean.

The black-faced sheep ambled past my window on their thin little black legs and robins, wrens and blackbirds hopped about. One Sunday it was sunny all day and my fifteen minute walk down the hill to the Atlantic Ocean ended in the irresistible urge to paddle in it. I couldn’t come all the way from Australia without at least dipping a toe in. The paddle was chilly at first but so glorious I wished I’d brought my swimming togs.

After the recent renovations at Heinrich Böll cottage it seemed that they had not yet put back the books written by former residents. It’s customary to send a sample of one’s writing to a writers residency committee, often the latest book, with one’s application or to send a subsequent publication resulting from the residency. But there were only some books in German or Irish, mostly poetry, possibly Heinrich Böll’s own copies from long ago and of course the books he’d written. Sadly I can read neither German nor Irish.

Sharon Stone’s The Beauty of Living Twice Continue Reading In Heinrich Böll’s cottage…

Wide windows and a wet, wet spring – Creativity flowering in Braidwood

November 16, 2022 at 8:16 pm | Posted in art, arts and health, Australian novels, creative cross-fertilisation, creative synergy, creativity, gardening, Inequality, media negativity, optimism, Simplifying, sustainable living | Leave a comment
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Why garden? Why write? …

‘Set wide the window. Let me drink the day.’ American writer Edith Wharton said that and I think of it often since moving to the country. These days, still in La Nina, our well overflowing and the creek rushing and rising as rain continues to fall, drinking the day can take on a literal sense!

The garden is jungly and a deep, glossy green, with everything flowering in this wet, wet spring. Some plants flourish but it’s hard to keep others alive if they don’t like their feet wet, yet must stand in waterlogged soil. Then again, as Edith Wharton’s compatriot May Sarton reminds us: ‘A garden is always a series of losses, set against a few triumphs, like life itself.’

Writing too is like this, with many rejections to set against one’s few triumphs. With the uncertainty, rejection and loss, why do we garden, why do we write? – For the joy of creative expression. While submitting my novel (A Late Flowering) I’ve been working on a new one – to dive into during my next writer’s residency in Nov-Dec. 2022. Just after the last OS writing residency we plunged into Covid lockdowns. During the subsequent enforced lack of social life, and therefore writing on a deeper level than ever before, I made a discovery: how to structure a novel. A Late Flowering is the result, and this new one will also benefit. Structure was the weakness in my fiction writing (and I sometimes wondered if it was related to the same neural short-circuit or shortcoming that also deprives me of a sense of direction).

Structuring non-fiction books is reasonably straightforward. Structuring a novel is so much more elusive. And it’s vital. Structure is to novel-writing what location is to real estate. It’s not simple. Except for genre novels, which I don’t write, there’s no template since each novel is different, but I’ll go to Ireland again with this new understanding, so can anticipate achieving exciting things.

Stimulating creativity

And travel is so stimulating. I don’t even feel guilty for the air miles – for a couple of decades I couldn’t afford to go overseas, at a time when many people I knew were going once a year. When I return I can also incorporate some new ideas into another series of Kick-Start Your Creativity workshops (late Jan. to Feb. 2023). See Continue Reading Wide windows and a wet, wet spring – Creativity flowering in Braidwood…

Looking forward to hypothermia: another Irish winter

October 8, 2022 at 6:02 am | Posted in Eleanor Dark Foundation, Perseverance in writing, rural Ireland, writers' habits | 2 Comments
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Eight winters

I am about to fly into my eighth winter in a row, in less than three years. I’m a summer person. I’m a water baby, someone who loves swimming in rivers and the sea, in council pools and country dams, someone who loves walking warmed by the sunshine and cycling under balmy blue skies. How has it come to this, staring apprehensively into a near-future of an eighth-in-a-row cold, rainy, grey winter?

While not a technically accurate fact, every cell of my body feels as if I have endured seven winters in a row. Not even counting the 2019 Australian summer, because wrecked as it was by the thick wall of smoke that engulfed eastern Australia and beyond, closing the swimming pools and preventing walking or cycling, it was of course extremely hot.

I went from that to an Irish winter for my writing residency in County Kerry’s Cill Rialaig in February and March 2020.

[My cottage, left, on a rare sunny day] It was a particularly freezing winter, everyone said, with winds from Siberia blowing in from the sea. I sat in my famine cottage, typing my now finished novel manuscript (A Late Flowering) listening to that wind whipping up the Atlantic Ocean outside and downhill a bit from my little wooden door. At night in my tiny loft bed I listened to the wind’s howl, an eerie grieving sound like the moans of the starving famine victims who formerly lived in my cottage. (Like the ghosts of my ancestors who came from that area – probably my novelist’s imagination in overdrive. But Continue Reading Looking forward to hypothermia: another Irish winter…

Remedies for a crushed soul: Chris Cleave’s novels and some uplifting non-fiction

June 21, 2022 at 8:25 am | Posted in Common Good | Leave a comment
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Everyone Brave Is Forgiven

‘Reading too much non-fiction crushes the soul.’ I heard someone say that. But so much brilliant non-fiction keeps being published that there’s barely time to read anything else!

One fiction book I’m glad I did make time for is Chris Cleave’s latest novel: Everyone Brave Is Forgiven (Simon & Schuster, 2016). Like his other novels, this one glows with wit and love; all three of his are gripping. (The other two are: Little Bee, 2010, and Gold, 2013.) I wrote about Little Bee in my June 2016 blog –

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is alive with stunningly original writing and much of the dialogue is laugh-aloud funny. The novel is set in the Second World War and we have a visceral sense of the London Blitz, enduring the deprivations and chaos, the insanities and losses with the characters we’ve come to care about.

First we meet Mary, an upper class young woman of whom nothing is expected but to look presentable and make a respectable marriage. When she volunteers for the war effort, imagining the clandestine glamour of being a spy, she’s assigned to teach children rejected for evacuation to the country because of being mentally disabled or for the colour of their skin.

The publisher has allowed the author to use terms that the people of that time and place used – terms shockingly racist to our ears, but authentic. The important thing is that even in this unenlightened milieu we see some people rising above their society’s bigotry to treat everyone with the same open-minded attitude, judging them on their mind and heart rather than on an arbitrary measure of skin colour or some other minor thing.

The most original, suspenseful way of saving someone’s life

Art restorer Alastair enlists for the war. His best friend Tom, in the course of his job as an education administrator, meets Mary. The foundations of a tragic love story are laid. I had to take it back to the library before taking notes but I won’t forget it and you won’t either. I could hardly put it down because of the gripping plot and the poetry in the telling of it. The author was inspired by notebooks left by his grandparents. Probably only his imagination is responsible for describing the most original (and certainly suspenseful) way I’ve heard for saving someone from drowning. There, you’ll just have to buy or borrow it now! Apart from sharing with readers a potentially life-saving manoeuvre, it’s a gripping immersion in a timelessly uplifting story about love, loyalty and courage and it will stay in your heart long after you absorb the last page.

The Trip to Echo Spring

Maybe Mary’s scandalising excessive-alcohol scenes in Everyone Brave stand out more in retrospect because after reading that I read Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring: On writers and drinking (Canongate, 2013). – Which brings me to the notion of drinking as self-medication for coping with harsh reality, an antidote to having our souls crushed by whatever ghastly things our society is putting us through at the time.

Continue Reading Remedies for a crushed soul: Chris Cleave’s novels and some uplifting non-fiction…

Lost Focus – Johann Hari’s feasible solutions to our burning problems

April 13, 2022 at 4:08 am | Posted in capitalism, Democracy, depression, digital technology, dreams, Leisure, Living creatively, media negativity, mental illness, stress management, writers' health | Leave a comment
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Tsunamis of information are drowning us

We’ve lost our ability to focus. Tsunamis of information are coming at us, drenching us every minute of every waking hour. We can’t keep up with it, mentally or emotionally. What we sacrifice when we try is depth. Not to mention sanity, peace of mind and our democracy.

In other words, the stakes could not be higher. Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus (Bloomsbury, 2021) is an important book, beautifully written, which outlines practical solutions for the problems that unregulated social media has unleashed.

While researching this book, Hari interviewed 250 relevant experts worldwide. One of them was Aza Raskin. You mightn’t have heard of him but chances are, he’s influencing your behaviour every day. His dad invented the Apple Macintosh for Steve Jobs. The internet used to be divided into pages. When you got to the bottom of one, you had to decide to click a button to get to the next page – an active choice that gave you time to think: do I really want to continue reading this? Aza designed a code that took away that choice: infinite scrolling.

All social media now uses a version of this. It automatically loads more when it gets to the bottom. It will scroll infinitely.

Soon after his code took effect, Aza Raskin began noticing how his friends seemed unable to pull themselves away from their devices. He did some sums, and calculated that his invention was making people spend 50% more time than they otherwise would on sites like Twitter. For many it’s vastly more. He saw people becoming angry, hostile and lacking in empathy as their social media use rose. Had he invented something that not only drains away people’s time, but ‘that tears us, rips us, and breaks us’? (p. 116) Continue Reading Lost Focus – Johann Hari’s feasible solutions to our burning problems…

Catrina Davies. Homesick: Why I live in a shed

February 27, 2022 at 8:32 am | Posted in capitalism, Catrina Davies, Common Good, Democracy, Inequality - Australia, sustainable living | 2 Comments
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Did you know that the average life expectancy of a homeless woman in Britain is forty three? The author of this profound and lyrical book considers herself lucky because she is not one of them, or not yet, because she’s free, not one of the 28 million refugees and asylum seekers ‘hoping for sanctuary in hostile countries like mine’ and she isn’t one of the ’65 million forced out of their home by war or famine or persecution.’ (p. 30)

…if food prices had risen as fast as house prices in the last two decades, a chicken would cost £51 (or in London £100).

Teetering on the brink of homelessness herself, Davies explains how she came to camp and later put down roots in the long-disused old shed where her dad used to work.

Continue Reading Catrina Davies. Homesick: Why I live in a shed…

Solving problems and uplifting the heart – Mary Quant and Sand Talk

January 31, 2022 at 7:19 am | Posted in Indigenous knowledge, slow blogging | 2 Comments
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Slow blogging and fast tango

Have I put new meaning into the concept of Slow Blogging? It’s been quite a gap. In it I finished another novel and settled into a new house in a new town – a small town bristling with fascinating, friendly people and plenty of things to do (between bouts of Covid lockdowns). I can even dance tango, to some extent. (Between lockdowns and no partner-swapping, given that it’s palm pressed to palm and us breathing in each other’s faces.)

Haven’t written a blog for so long because they take a day or two to write, days in which I could finish or rewrite a chapter of my new novel, A Late Flowering, or read a whole book. And so many wonderful books to read! Most blogs are brief and not the book reviews mine essentially are, which I used to write for The Canberra Times and a few journals. Over the years I’d written about 100. Remember what George Orwell said about it? ‘Book reviewing is like pouring your immortal soul down the drain, one pint at a time.’

But writing them taught me much about the writing of books and gave me a chance to air my preoccupations publicly and engage in a dialogue with readers, which I enjoyed. And I was paid plus got to keep the books, which isn’t necessarily the case with blogging. The truth is, much motivation for taking this up again is so I can tell potential publishers I have one – they take a dim view of writers with not enough online presence. And the publisher’s publicist won’t read this – she’ll just want to know that I’ve got one. So there you are, dear reader, I’ve let you in on a secret but I do still appreciate you. I know how many other claims there are on your time.

Tim Ferriss (another tango dancer)

Should I take a leaf out of the blog format of Tim Ferriss, that entertaining young lad I’ve done blogs on before? (Interesting how some whizz kids retain that early prodigy ‘flavour’ into middle age!) He fills in a sentence or two under these headings:

‘What I’m Reading

Continue Reading Solving problems and uplifting the heart – Mary Quant and Sand Talk…

A hopeful path forward in a fractured world – Sarah Wilson’s new book

January 17, 2021 at 9:18 am | Posted in capitalism, Democracy, health, Living creatively, optimism, politics, sarah wilson, Simplifying, sustainable living, value of the arts | Leave a comment
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An adventurous heart

Sarah Wilson’s This One Wild and Precious Life navigates through the problems facing us all right now: coronavirus, climate change, racial inequalities, political and economic polarisation, as well as loneliness, in an accessible, thought-provoking way.

The author spent three years pondering these issues and she takes us on her travels over that time, inward and outward, as she questions and explores and tries to find a way towards some coherent answers. It all started from her observation that at the moment we are fundamentally disconnected.

‘Without meaningful connection – to others, to life, to ourselves – we also experience what sociologists and psychologists are calling “moral loneliness”, which is when the supply cord to connection, caring and doing the right thing has been severed.’

Wilson interviewed psychologists and poets, scientists and philosophers on her journey. She travelled and hiked in her quest for answers, drawing on stoicism, Jungian theory, existentialism, feminism and various spiritual practices, which, she points out, emerged in response to turbulent times like our own.

If this sounds heavy-going or ploddingly sincere and worthy, this unique book does not come across anything like that. The honesty and freshness of her writing is a joy to read, as we are welcomed into the intimate world of a remarkable person. The portraits of her in the media come across as glamorous and beautiful but she turned her back on the wealth and glamour, and her beauty is a result of her health, health that was hard-won. Continue Reading A hopeful path forward in a fractured world – Sarah Wilson’s new book…

Turning our lives upside-down

November 7, 2020 at 10:11 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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A hand-built house

It’s a big decision and I was going to be sensible about it. We were in Braidwood because I thought that booking a cheap backstreet Air BnB there for a couple of nights would give us the chance to see if the small country town suited us. I planned to stay in different Air BnBs there over a few months, just to see about the possibility.

It’s a lot like a place I love in County Kerry: Cahersiveen, three miles from my writer’s residency of February to March this year. Both towns have hills and a river, a low population, an arts community, plus a fantastic French café.

On the first afternoon we were strolling through the town, wending our way through streets where certain houses were for sale. With such a low population, there are never many. We knew we wanted something very old, like the 1850s to 1880s, which is old by Australian standards when viewed with an Anglo-European slant on things.

My boyfriend had seen one on the web and liked the look of it. But it was only five years old. It was the first one we passed. Set back on the long block behind a garden it had a winding path of stepping-stones through the grass. You couldn’t see much, but the house was timber, with a wide verandah and a chimney.

Faded Tibetan prayer flags strung across the verandah moved slightly in the faint breeze. It had a hippy-ish feeling, which would suit my boyfriend but not me. (Just because I have hippy-ish values of love, peace and [semi] vegetarianism doesn’t mean I like hippy-ish architecture.) 

A promising 1860 house

And it certainly didn’t date from the century before last. We wandered past others that looked more interesting, winding up at a real estate agent where we made an appointment for the next day to see a promising 1860 house with dormer windows.

Then we went into the agent responsible for the first one we’d seen. She said, ‘What about a look right now?’ and drove us down the hill. And with one step in the door of that house we fell in love.

It had features I hardly dared dream about, like a heart-lifting cathedral ceiling. The kitchen was enormous and the wide deck wrapped around three sides. There was a ton of north-facing living space, which in the southern hemisphere is what you want. From the huge bedroom upstairs and all the others was a view of the creek winding through the long backyard down to an Australian Wind in the Willows scene with a little waterfall. Across the creek was the Taj Mahal of chicken coops and a greenhouse.

The next morning we were woken by kookaburra calls – no, I didn’t interpret this as a sign that Fate was laughing at us – and we walked to the estate agent and made an offer on the house.

The 1860 house we saw after breakfast was small and dark with no view from those cute dormer windows except of the houses across the road. Like every house or flat I’ve ever lived in in this country – and they are legion – it had almost no north-facing bits. (The years of my life spent typing film reviews, book reviews, novels etc in places where the sun spilt itself uselessly against the north-facing brick wall, while the toilet, bathroom and laundry were bathed in glorious warm light!)

Mrs Posh from Bowral

Back in Canberra, we put our own house on the market and visited a solicitor who deals with both ACT and New South Wales properties, (predictably, getting our wrists smacked by him for being rash). He was just doing his job. He’s right. It is foolhardy to buy a huge house before selling our own, when our only wealth is our own house – and what if it won’t sell for ages?) Of course we did chemical tests etc and had a second look, instantly seeing that it was even better than it appeared before.

And that time it was necessary to endure the threat of a tall, impeccably-dressed, posh woman from Bowral striding through Saturday’s Open House, phone glued to her ear and announcing to her husband that it was perfect for an Air BnB. – The implication being that to live in it themselves would be slumming it, dah-ling. She strolled proprietorially down to the sparkling creek, where I jammed my hands in my pockets to resist the urge to push her in.

Since then, and hoping that Mrs Posh from Bowral didn’t try gazumping us, it’s been a crazy whirl of cleaning and storage and gardening and Open House twice a week. All with the most fantastic help from the kids, but still my boyfriend says mock lugubriously:

‘We, of our own volition, turned our lives upside-down.’

And I walk out to the kitchen, amazed by the beauty and cleanliness. ‘It’s like having servants! Everything’s shiny and neat all the time,’ I say – ‘uh, except that we are the servants.’

I still try to write every day, and mostly manage one or two thousand words of novel (working title now A Late Flowering). But I don’t manage to write many blogs. As usual I’m reading every chance I get. An outstanding book is Choked by Beth Gardiner (Granta, 2020), every bit as readable and fascinating as all the reviews said it was. We’re being poisoned by the invisible fumes from fossil fuel burning and car exhaust.

The author’s American. She married an Englishman. They and their daughter now live in London, which is much worse than New York for air quality, mainly because of the massive number of diesel cars in the former.

Particulate matter, which is smaller than viruses and one-thirtieth the width of a hair, damages the brain. Women who breathe polluted air are more likely to have an autistic child. Babies’ death rates are higher in polluted areas, their rates of SIDS, breathing problems, leukemia and cancers higher.

The pea-souper fogs of 1950s London got into people’s lungs but that was coal dust. (The 1956 Clean Air Act stopped it.) Particulate matter, mostly from diesel, gets into our bloodstream and causes far more damage in all areas of the body. Did you know that Boris Johnson, when he was Mayor, sprayed dust suppressants near pollution monitors to artificially lower readings?


Gardiner doesn’t mention Australia but our country deserves a whole book on the delinquency of our government in this area. (And of course you won’t read a word about the following in any Murdoch press.) We have no choice about what vehicles to buy, thanks to lax regulations governing fuel efficiency, CO2 emissions and fuel quality. CO2 emissions are growing because of ever-increasing four-wheel drive vehicles, most of them diesel, which pour out nitrogen dioxide, a seriously detrimental toxin we’re all breathing. Diesel’s sooty particles are coated with a nastier brew of chemicals than petrol and they trap heat in the atmosphere and play a big part in global warming.

Most countries are regulating fuel quality, emissions standards and fuel efficiency and have been for many years but Australia is failing in all three. For fuel quality we rank 66th in the world. We’re way behind the rest of the world in developing electric vehicles – and we can’t run the best and most efficient car engines here because of our poor fuel quality; we have the same problem with hybrids. (Info. from Guardian Weekly, 15/11/19 and Crikey, 26/11/20.)

It’s not a bad idea to get an air filter, which many did during the bushfires here earlier this year. Unlike smoke, diesel fumes are not visible and we can’t smell them. But they are wreaking havoc on our health. It would be great if we had a Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London who took measures to clean London’s air, including a ‘T-charge’ for Toxicity. He said, ‘I refuse to stand by while Londoners are killed by pollution.’

That’s the sort of leadership Australians can only dream about.

How to make moving house easier

Another book I read, which was of course lighter and funnier, was Marie Kondo’s Joy at Work (Bluebird Books, 2020). Clutter increases cortisol levels, which causes or increases a lot of horrible things, like high blood pressure, insomnia and even diabetes. The author takes you by the hand and tells you how to clear it up step by step and feel much happier. I was already a fan of her previous two books – see my blog post here – but it’s good to reinforce her methods, specially when moving house.

You probably know, but it’s worth repeating: multitasking reduces productivity by 40%. Research shows that to get more done, sometimes we need to work less. Downtime is necessary to incubate ideas.

And the more time we spend on social media the less happy we are. Research proves that the more emails you handle the lower your productivity and the higher your stress levels. Siimon Reynolds – – in his uplifting new book Win Fast recommends only answering them in two time-slots a day. Siimon Reynolds’ latest book is published by Penguin (2019) and his previous one, Why People Fail in 2010, also by Penguin.

Marie Kondo recommends cleaning your work-space before starting work. Productivity will rise. She’s right. The visual clarity definitely helps mental clarity. Think of it not so much tidying and cleaning as interior design.

She also reminds us that there are lots more negative words in English than positive, so we must actively try to be positive. And my favourite bit in the whole book is her subheading under Chapter Three’s ‘Paper’ – ‘The Basic Rule is To Discard Everything.’ I took that to heart. It makes moving so much easier!

Why read? Why write? Why bother? On reclaiming our language and our lives and having a laugh

September 13, 2020 at 12:46 am | Posted in capitalism, Comedy writing, Democracy, humour as medicine, Living creatively, social capital, value of the arts | 2 Comments
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The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity

Because I’ve been writing a new novel (working title: Tumult) I’ve postponed writing a new blog post. Immersed in the world of the novel, it’s only when I feel super strongly about a book I’ve read that I’m desperate to tell people about it. Two small books stand out. Carlo M. Cipolla’s The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity and John Freeman’s Dictionary of the Undoing.

Even though The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity (Penguin, 2019) was first published in 1976, with its chapters such as ‘Stupidity and Power’, it has direct relevance to the Trump phenomenon. This international best-seller explains that ‘stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals’. Lest this sound like a depressing read, it is actually a very funny one, and Nassim Taleb in his Foreword to the latest edition writes that it’s not cynical or defeatist – no more than a book on microbiology is. Instead, it’s ‘a constructive effort to detect, know and thus possibly neutralize one of the most powerful, dark forces which hinder the growth of human welfare and happiness.’

‘Something is very wrong with the world.’

And when I began reading Dictionary of the Undoing (Corsair, 2019), I thought that John Freeman is our William Blake (see here) Dictionary of the Undoing is an arresting and profound book, simply and succinctly analysing how we arrived at our current mess. Continue Reading Why read? Why write? Why bother? On reclaiming our language and our lives and having a laugh…

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