An honest and inspiring memoir: Twelve Rules for a Better Life by the Rev. Bill Crews (with Roger Joyce)

 The Rev. Bill Crews has long been one of my favourite human beings. I  have always admired his work in Ashfield, in Western Sydney, and later his radio show on Sunday nights on 2GB.

He has long been one of the most honest and unpretentious voices in the public sphere, and I have noted how he is willing to go anywhere to spread his message of compassion, charity and hope. He lives his spirituality, and in doing so he inspires so many others to look within as well as without and hope for a better world. 

I expected his book to be run-of-the-mill celebrity memoir with a bit of spirituality and self-help thrown in. But I was blown away by what it was. Twelve Rules for Living a Better Life is a beautifully-written, brutally honest and constantly inspiring account of the Reverend's life and the lessons he has derived from it. 




He is not afraid to walk into situations that might be painful and confronting to most of us, and he is also not afraid to delve into those areas in this book. 

If you want to be inspired by a man who walks his talk, I can wholeheartedly recommend this book.

Oh, and listen to this podcast of me chatting with the Rev. Bill Crews about his book

A delicious entertainment for lovers of E. F. Benson: Mapp at Fifty by Hugh Ashton

 The love of E. F. Benson is so extreme and so all-consuming that many have attempted to "extend" the Lucia novels by taking the characters and their milieu and creating their own stories. 

Now, fans may or may not be receptive to this idea, nut nonetheless it seems like writers who love Benson - similar to writers who love Austen - love nothing better than having a go at continuing the literary journeys begun by  their beloved favourite author. 

When it comes to E. F. Benson, we have, over the years, seen authors like Tom Holt and Guy Fraser-Sampson write "new" Lucia books. The latest writer in this tradition is Hugh Ashton, famous for his Sherlock Holmes pastiche's. This little (and it is very little - no more than a medium-sized short story) book, Mapp at Fifty, explores Miss Mapp's birthday party and the disastrous things that attend it. We even get to meet her sister, who is quite a surprising character. 




It says much about Hugh's talent that, a couple of times, I thought I was reading Benson himself! 




This was great fun, and a nice distraction. You can read it in about an hour. It is, however, one for the hardcore E. F. Benson fans. I think that someone reading it without knowing the Lucia novels would be quite perplexed.

An unexpected literary surprise: Susan Howatch's Glittering Images

 I have discovered that it is always worthwhile exploring the literary artefacts of one's youth. 

I am not talking about the books that one enjoyed reading as a child. These are always worth picking up again. I have discovered so much about my self and the adult world I have created by re-visiting the books I enjoyed in my childhood (Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton's Book of Brownies, I Own the Racecourse, The Shark in Charlie's Window etc. etc....). What I have become interested in is the books I remember lining the shelves of my parents' house and the houses of my aunts and grandparents. Employing this method of enquiry I have, in recent years, discovered the joys of Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Tom Sharpe, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Dennis Wheatley and others. 

One of the names I remember so vividly seeing on the shelves of the 70s and 80s is Susan Howatch. I never really felt inclined to pick them up - they were not designed to appeal to the aesthetic tastes of young boys. When my friend Maggie Hamilton told me a couple of years ago that she had found a Susan Howatch novel at an Airbnb in Greece and had been utterly enthralled by it I smiled nostalgically and thought nothing more about it. Maggie, however, mentioned it a couple of times more when we met, telling me I would love the ecclesiastic settings. Now, I value Maggie's literary judgement, and I also love any book about the machinations of the Church of England (I was definitely a High Church vicar in a past life), so I put it on my vague "must read someday" list. 

Finally, she bought me a copy of Glittering Images for Christmas last year. I have only just gotten around to reading it (it does take me a while to work through my book piles) and I have been so utterly entranced by the book that I can't think of anything else. 




Susan Howatch, dear friends, is a literary genius and why didn't anyone ever tell me before?

This book has everything: sex, mysticism, C of E bishops with deep dark secrets - even Evelyn Underhill

Oh, how you will love this! And it is not just enthralling, utterly engaging, fiction. It is also a call to spiritual arms, of a sort. It even includes a fascinating list of subjects to include if one is keeping a spiritual journal! Also some tips for defeating insomnia - in this case, sneaking out to a bishop's library in one's pyjamas and reading Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe




It has also prompted me to include some things in my life that I have let slip a little: prayer, a more disciplined approach to spiritual life, retreat and the comforting use of external spiritual prompts

This really is the most heavenly read. I am so glad I have discovered her, and can't wait to continue my Susan Howatch journey. 

For the Oscar fans: A Purple Thread: The Supernatural Doom of Oscar Wilde by Nina Antonia

Since I was a teenager I have been a fan of all things Oscar Wilde.

So I was thrilled when my friend Therese Taylor alerted me to this exquisitely written, designed and illustrated booklet: A Purple Thread: The Supernatural Doom of Oscar Wilde.




The fascinating author Nina Antonia has written a long essay discussing the occult thread that runs through Oscar Wilde and his family. It was such a thrilling thing to receive in the mail, and I sat down and read it instantly. I have since come back to it several times and used it as a reference in a couple of talks and courses I  have given. 

A beautifully-produced literary object that will thrill anyone who loves books and who loves Oscar. 

Produced by the craft-publisher Fiddler's Green, who always create literary objects that delight the eye and the heart. 

It's also thrilling to get and read stuff like this because it reminds us as readers that books can now be of any shape and size. I for one would love to read more of this kind of stuff - engage, quirky and specialist essays lovingly written and produced for the sheer art of it.


December Prompt: Dear Diary/Dear Friend

Inspired by A Work in Progress, the wonderful blog that ALL readers should follow slavishly, I have decided to tackle a little pile of books around the theme of diaries and letters. In my case I am taking t quite literally. You can read A Work in Progress' selection here

I have ALWAYS adored reading diaries and letters, and even when I was 12 or 1 years old I remember checking out volumes like The Letters of Oscar Wilde from my small-town library, much to the bewilderment of my local librarian and parents. For some reason the challenge of piecing together a person's life from these random documents, often preserved purely by chance and without reference to any kind of an externally-imposed sense of order or importance, has always appealed to me. They are also the best way of discovering other fabulous people, especially through footnotes, that most treasured addition to many volumes of letters or diaries. A brief anecdote and the mention of a name previously only vaguely recognised can set you off on a whole new mania for discovering everything about them. 

So here are the little (and one big) treasures I have selected to enjoy this December (I am travelling, too, and there is nothing better to take on a holiday than someone else's diaries to inspire you to be more careful about keeping your own):



A Brief History of Diaries: From Pepys to Blogs by Alexandra Johnson -- I bought this one a couple of years ago when I taught a study day on 'The Great Diarists'. It was extremely useful then, but I still haven't read it cover-to-cover. Since it is so slim it won't take me very long at all, and will serve as a wonderful refresher.

The Bookshop at Curzon Street: Letters Between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill 1952 - 73 edited by John Saumarez Smith -- Nancy Mitford never seems very far away from any reading list I compile, and these funny, chatty and extremely gossipy letters between friends represent Mitfordiana at its best. 


Prayer's Apprentice: A Year with the Great Spiritual Mentors by Timothy Jones -- "Timothy Jones collected 52 rich and meaningful prayers and committed himself  to pray these prayers regularly." The book is a week-by-week record of his prayer experiences, and is the kind of book I generally love.


The Noel Coward Diaries edited by Graham Payn and Sheridan Morley -- Though by far the largest book on my pile, it is not daunting because I have been dipping in and out of it over the past two or three years as I have written things about Coward and his circle pretty constantly. Dear old Noel was rather inclined to over-exaggeration, and that is something I can totally relate to. 


Ustinov at Large by Peter Ustinov -- A collection of weekly diary pieces Ustinov published in the European. Ustinov was a ubiquitous figure in my childhood, and a real Renaissance man. He seems to be largely forgotten now, but he was a terrific writer and I still think the very best Inspector Poirot.   


Back Drops: Pages from a Private Diary by Kenneth Williams -- An extremely sanitised selection from Williams' voluminous diaries published while he was still alive. This was published after Williams had read a selection from his diaries on the BBC. There is, of course, a larger and more complete selection from his diaries published long after his death (and it is one of my favourite books), but this small collection is a lovely read and offers an insight into how he wanted to be seen.  

The Mindful Writer - A 2020 Resource Page

 I had the loveliest group today on what was a grand experiment - my first Mindful Writer workshop delivered via Zoom, generously hosted by Mosman Library.

It was lots of fun, though a very novel and occasionally weird experiment. I would so love to hear from you if you did the workshop, and don't hesitate to contact me with any questions. 

As promised, here is a page of resources to help  you explore further some of the things I mentioned:

An interesting, extensive and quite academic analysis of mindfulness in Buddhism 

The Way of Mindfulness: The Satipatthana [mindfulness of breathing] Sutta and Its Commentary

Tristine Rainer and her remarkable book The New Diary

Natalie Goldberg and her groundbreaking book Writing Down the Bones

Gary Lachman's terrific book Lost Knowledge of the Imagination is what got me so interested in Coleridge. I find both Gary and Coleridge tremendously inspiring 




The fabulousness of Anais Nin

Mae West ruled fashion in 1933, and every other year

British photographer Charlie Waite on being a born observer 

Dr. Bernie Siegel believes we should open ourselves to more stories

Indra's Net provides an exquisite parable for our interconnectedness. It comes from the teachings of the  

Avatamsaka Sutra, championed by the Hua Yen school of Buddhism

Ernest Holmes was a fascinating man and a leader of the New Thought movement. Though a very different tradition, he often discusses themes of contemplation and oneness. I used a quote from him in  the presentation 

Ann Kroeker on the power of memorising poems 

What is a Beginner's Mind?  






Why authors should still blog

I regularly teach creative writing classes and am regularly asked questions about how to succeed as an author, or how to promote a book once it's written and published.And though there are constant changes in platforms and technology I am still giving the same answer after all these years.

Number one in importance is: Blogging!

I do get pushback (a lot of pushback!). Blogging is dead, people say. We have moved on to other platforms: Instagram, TikTok.

And while I agree that it is very important to use whatever social platforms you can manage, the good old-fashioned blog is still of immense importance. It's like your own little patch of earth that will always be there, regardless of the changes that happen in social media. Anyone remember Google+ ?

I understand that many established authors are not interested in blogging, or don't have the time. But for any new writer (particularly one who is not yet published!) blogging is still absolutely essential. If you haven't yet published it is an opportunity to collect a substantial body of work that publishers, agents and magazine editors can refer to and so discover for themselves what a literary genius you are. If you have been lucky enough to be published, it provides a way for you to build on what you have written, provide extra content for your readers and keep yourself in the public mind.

No matter where you are in the writing process, you really should start blogging NOW - and keep at it regularly (once a week as a minimum). I am perplexed when I see some people advising not to start your blog until you are published. In my own experience, my profile as a blogger was one of the main reasons a publishing house decided to take me on.

There's nothing like a blog for turning you into a legend in your own lunch time, and it's amazing how impressive it can seem to those who are less technically savvy (and yes, that includes many editors, publishers and other industry people). And a blog gives you the perfect opportunity to cross-promote on Facebook and Twitter, making it seem as though you are incredibly prolific, busy and important. And that is exactly what any publishing house is looking for in an author.

Some people express a fear that the things they blog will be plagiarised. Yes, it's a risk, but you should be so lucky. Your major struggle will almost certainly not be being copied, but being noticed in the first place.

In her wonderful book The Frugal Book Promoter, author Carolyn Howard-Johnson also explains the importance of getting a good URL early on. Yes, it's most important to get started NOW, so sign up with Blogger or one of the others - it's easy to route the blog you've started to your own URL later. But really, one of the first things you should be doing is buying the domain names for your own name (if still possible) and your next book's title (once you know for sure). This is inexpensive and easy.

Some people say they don't know what to blog about - they are afraid of losing privacy or, worse, appearing egotistical. If those are genuine concerns, then may I respectfully suggest that you are in the wrong game. The age of the shy and retiring writer has long gone - J. D. Salinger would never make it in the 21st century, for better or worse. Yes, you will lose some privacy, but only as much as you choose to sacrifice. And yes, some people will accuse you of being egotistical. Such critics are normally distinguished by their complete lack of success in the world. Bless them and move on.

More and more publishers are expecting their authors to blog and to maintain a presence on social media. And the fact is that surprisingly few do it. If you get started now, and do it well, you place yourself in a privileged - and even cherished - minority.
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