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 – siimonreynolds.com – 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…

What’s essential? Pandemic reading

July 20, 2020 at 12:27 pm | Posted in Blasket islands, Cli-fi novels, psychopaths | Leave a comment
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Three outstanding books

In the early days of the pandemic a contents box on the front page of a newspaper stated:


In France, wine

In the US, guns.’

For me, it’s books. (Hmmmm, maybe the wine comes a close second.)

Some people want to read books like Camus’ The Plague during this pandemic. If you’re the erudite Simon Schama you’ll of course be reading Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War with its evocative descriptions of plague and the detrimental effect on friendship.

Not me. I don’t want to re-visit those two fine works when it’s nearly impossible to keep up with the number of wonderful new books being published, specially when keeping up with them is done after small writing and editing jobs plus the big one of writing my next novel.

Three recent books, all very different from each other, stand out for me: Bradley J. Edwards’ Relentless Pursuit (co-written with Brittany Henderson), Colly Campbell’s The Capricorn Sky, and Cole Moreton’s The Lightkeeper. Continue Reading What’s essential? Pandemic reading…

Gently altering the world – the arts

March 30, 2020 at 11:24 pm | Posted in art, arts and health, Common Good, creativity, humour, humour as medicine, rural Ireland, Stand-up comedy - Australian, stress management, value of the arts, writers' health | 5 Comments
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Returning from a writing residency in Cill Rialaig, in Ireland’s County Kerry – https://cillrialaigartscentre.com/residencies/ – it was weird to be back yet not be able to hop on my bike and see friends, go to tango lessons, films, cafés and libraries or walk around the lake.

I watched that ingenious ABC program You Can’t Ask That and this time it was on nudists. I thought they would just answer the questions in their clothes.

But no – there they were, all shapes and sizes, in the nude. It reminded me of an unusual art exhibition I heard about in Cork.

Near Kilkenny I stayed a week at the fabulous Shankill Castle – https://shankillcastle.com – home of painter Elizabeth Cope and her husband Geoffrey. I have one of her beautiful paintings, pictured above. You can see her work here – she does landscapes, still lifes and portraits. She had an exhibition in Cork of only her nudes. A group of nudists asked if they could view the exhibition in the nude. The gallery said yes. I suppose it wasn’t winter. Continue Reading Gently altering the world – the arts…

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

February 23, 2020 at 4:04 pm | Posted in mental illness, miscarriage of justice, optimism, Simplifying, wild camping | 2 Comments
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Nothing left to lose

I’m travelling through Ireland, en route to a writing residency in County Kerry and the bookshops here are brilliant. A favourite one is Charlie Byrnes Bookshop in Galway. My favourite book from there is The Salt Path by Raynor Winn (Penguin, 2018).

Sitting before roaring log fires in Shankill Castle’s drawing room (my landlord Geoffrey calls it the withdrawing room), I couldn’t put this book down. But I didn’t want it to end.

The Salt Path was a Sunday Times Bestseller and it’s easy to see why. The author and her husband, called Moth, decide to walk from Somerset to Dorset, via Devon and Cornwall, a distance of 630 miles. They carry rucksacks and a small, lightweight tent, with no money to back them up except a minimal weekly pension and even that uncertain and diminishing for no reason they can fathom or do anything about.

It was an impulsive decision, made when the bailiffs were literally banging on the windows of their farmhouse. They’d lost their home of twenty years, their livelihood from it, and their animals. After three years of endless battle with the courts (using up all their savings), a clear miscarriage of justice had landed them in this position.

Continue Reading The Salt Path by Raynor Winn…

Drinking the days: biographies and oysters

January 28, 2020 at 10:36 am | Posted in Australian memoir, Christina Stead, Democracy, Dennis Glover, Kay Schubach, Living creatively, mental illness, optimism, value of the arts | Leave a comment
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‘Set wide the window. Let me drink the day.’ American writer Edith Wharton (1862-1937) wrote that. I love it and would often think of it after opening the curtains first thing.

But her words took on a tragic tone in the mornings after the bushfires began. We could no longer open windows. Canberra’s air quality suddenly became literally the worst city in the world.

Actually it wasn’t as sudden as it seemed. Canberra’s air quality has been gradually worsening in the past few years, along with the rest of the country’s, thanks to our Government doing less than nothing about vehicle and other emissions responsible for raising CO2 levels.[1]

But I was aiming at an uplifting, positive post, damn it! I normally slant towards the upbeat, the whacky, the whimsical, but before veering in that direction, a serious point needs to be acknowledged. Continue Reading Drinking the days: biographies and oysters…

Hectic Reading. Starting all over again (3)

January 16, 2020 at 12:14 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

via Hectic Reading. Starting all over again (3)

Reinventing our lives: surviving with the help of literature

December 28, 2019 at 6:11 am | Posted in Andrea Goldsmith, Australia behind, Bookshops, capitalism, Charlotte Wood, creativity, depression, Inequality - Australia, mental illness, optimism, value of the arts, writers' health | Leave a comment
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When I was in Dublin in September I bought some wonderful books. A favourite is the intriguing, personal and beautifully written Hidden City: Adventures and explorations in Dublin by Karl Whitney (Penguin, 2014). (I’ve lent it and others to friends and can’t take a photo of its cover or some other favourites at the moment!)

Stitched Up: The anti-capitalist book of fashion (Pluto Press, London, 2014) is a compelling account of how the fashion industry exploits and damages both the environment and individuals. Tansy E. Hoskins’ exposé was an eye-watering shock to me on both counts.

I had no idea about the toxic chemicals involved in high-fashion clothes production, or how, for instance, models are sometimes treated as they are in the pornography industry – dispensable and beneath contempt.

Continue Reading Reinventing our lives: surviving with the help of literature…

John Clanchy’s brilliant new novel ‘In Whom We Trust’

December 12, 2019 at 7:22 am | Posted in Australian novels, Finlay Lloyd, Historical novels, John Clanchy | 1 Comment
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The best historical novels vividly evoke the past while illuminating the present. Award-winning writer John Clanchy’s new novel In Whom We Trust exemplifies this. Set in a country town in Victoria just before and during World War I, the plot is narrated through the viewpoints of Father James Pearse and two orphans who came to Australia from England, Thomas Stuart, formerly a London chimneysweep, and Molly Preston, at thirteen or fourteen, a few years older than Thomas.

Father Pearse’s housekeeper Mrs Reilly (who even irons his newspaper for him) tells him one evening that a mysterious visitor came while he was out walking. He is intrigued, and so are we, as Mrs Reilly in her infuriatingly vague way continues ‘ladling out this miserable stew of half-facts’ about the visitor.

Later that night Pearce discovers that it is Thomas Stuart, who lived at St Barnabas’ orphanage where Father Pierce was chaplain for a couple of years. Father Pearce recalls Brother Stanislaus ‘and his austere band of Brothers’ there. Thomas, who is now (just) old enough to enlist for the First World War, has something to tell Pearse. Continue Reading John Clanchy’s brilliant new novel ‘In Whom We Trust’…

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