Writer Helen O'Neill on Daffodils, Notebooks and Inspiration




A couple of years ago I met the charming writer Helen O'Neill soon after she'd published her exquisite illustrated biography of Harry Seidler. I interviewed her and went on to read all of her beautifully produced and illustrated books. Helen has carved out a niche all of her own in Australian books, one characterised by beautiful images, fascinating prose and handsome finished product. I was fascinated to discover that her latest book is on the daffodil, and fell in love with the idea right from the beginning. I had a chat with Helen about this book and several other things:

What made you decide to write a book entirely devoted to a single flower? 

I’ve always loved flowers but daffodils are special. I grew up in southern England where they blaze across the landscape every spring so they have been part of my life for as long as I can remember.  Daffodils took on a different meaning after I became ill some years ago and found myself plunged into a deep personal winter. To keep my spirits up friends and family kept sending me daffodils in different forms – in cards, photographs and sweet little pins. As I recovered I began to realise that not only is the daffodil one of the world’s most powerful flowers – this bloom has raised millions for medical research – but that it has a truly remarkable story to tell. 


Narcissus Poeticus, one of Helen O'Neill's favourite daffodils. Photo taken at her mother's garden in England



Did you ever want to be a florist? If you weren’t a writer, what job would you pursue?

That question made me laugh out loud because I flashbacked to an instant when I did think that becoming a florist might be very cool. The moment passed, perhaps because I then quickly remembered that I get hayfever and some flowers make me sneeze uncontrollably. Daffodils never have.

Do you keep a diary, or a writer’s notebook?


My life as a journalist and author is punctuated by spiral-bound notebooks. I generally have at least two on the go simultaneously as I seem often to be working on multiple projects. My notebooks are precious indeed; they contain records of interviews conducted, facts collected and impressions gathered. I would be lost without them.

How do you keep yourself inspired, creative and writing?

Inspiration is not a problem for me, if anything the issue is time. There are so many people and topics I want to write about, and I’m continually discovering more. 

Who have you met in your life that has inspired you as a writer?

Where to begin? Journalists are in the wonderful position of meeting new people and tackling fresh topics constantly but in my experience great ideas can also emerge from the most personal moments of everyday life – which is what happened with my Daffodil book. As British designer Paul Smith put it: you can find inspiration in everything – and if you can’t, look again.

Are you a methodical writer? Do you have a daily writing schedule?


Writing is a job as well as a joy for me. I am pretty organised and keep my work-life highly structured. That said, when I’m in the grip of a subject as fascinating and surprising as Daffodil – Biography of a Flower I lose track of time completely and my working hours can get right out of hand.






Helen O'Neill's latest book Daffodil – Biography of a Flower is out now and available online and at all good bookshops.

Helen O'Neill will be in conversation with Suzanne Leal at Waverley Library on the 21st April, 2016

Helen will be speaking about her daffodil book at Ashfield Library on Monday 2nd of May, 2016

Buddhist Concepts: The Four Noble Truths


The Four Noble Truths are the central ideas behind Buddhism, the "four pillars" on which the entire structure of the Buddhist religion are built. These were the four realisations that the Buddha Sakyamuni arrived at while sitting under the Bodhi tree, and they are a kind of distillation of his enlightenment experience. They are:

  1. There is suffering (dukkha).
  2. There is a cause of suffering (craving).
  3. There is the cessation of suffering (nirvana).
  4. There is the eightfold path leading to the cessation of suffering.
Pretty dry stuff, I'm sure you'll agree. It is hardly the kind of revelation that would set the world alight, and yet it is exactly this measured and un-dramatic insight that converted the first group of monks to the Buddha's philosophy, and spawned a worldwide religion that is still going strong 2600 years later.

The first truth - that life is suffering - is normally the one pointed to with scorn by the critics of Buddhism. "Not very positive," they say, "hardly the kind of thing to fill someone with hope." It is this brutally realistic assertion that has caused some to accuse Buddhism of being nihilistic, a religion absent of grace and devoid of promise for the future. But it must be said that such a frank assessment of reality does contain some charm - it avoids the magical-thinking of most religion, and instead slaps people in the face with a real party-downer right from the very beginning. It can only ever be uphill from that observation.

Stephen Batchelor prefers to call them the "four ennobling truths," because he sees in them a kind of inspirational call to action: we mustn't sit about and let things be horrid, but instead we are bound to pursue a path out of the suffering which is so obvious all about us.

And of course, in the end it's all about the third truth - there IS an end to all of this, and it's called nirvana. But unlike most religious traditions, this opposite of suffering is not heaven, but an unconditioned state of existence in which nothing can exist. It is an extinction of the self.

No-one ever said Buddhism was easy.



The wording of the Truths cited here comes from Wikipedia

If you are interested in exploring Buddhism further, check out my 4-week Buddhism a Cultural History course at the Sydney WEA. It starts May 2, 2016, and there are spaces available. 

9 Favourite Towns in Vietnam

If you've read my book Destination Saigon you would know that I have travelled all over Vietnam in the past 16 years - including to some pretty obscure places. People often ask me what are my favourite places to go, and I am hesitant to tell them because I know that if you are on a quick holiday a lot of the best places are probably not worth the time it takes to get there, and when you do get there they are often quite laid-back, noteworthy more for the vibe than for things to do. But for what it's worth, here are my 9 favourite towns in Vietnam (for obvious reasons I have left off Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, as everyone who visits Vietnam will eventually end up in both of these):



  1. Tay Ninh - A day-trip from Ho Chi Minh City, Tay Ninh is the home of Cao Dai, Vietnam's fascinating indigenous religion. I've spent quite a lot of time in Tay Ninh, and it really is a fascinating place. As well as being the Holy City of Cao Dai, it is right near Nui Ba Den, a mystical holy mountain that locals believe is home to a Goddess.

2. Quy Nhon - Purely by chance I made many friends in Quy Nhon when I was a young man, and now I visit it every time I go to Vietnam. It is a beautiful coastal city in South-Central Vietnam, quiet, clean and cool, and in many ways it is the powerhouse of Vietnamese Buddhism. It is home to many ancient Buddhist temples, and also was the site of the even more ancient Kingdom of Champa, the rulers of which were Hindu. Hence the presence of many antique Hindu temples in the surrounding hills.
(Photo @treasuresofvietnam.blogspot.com)
3. Vinh Long - The great Southern Vietnamese religious leader Minh Dang Quang established his Buddhist sect in Vinh Long, and it is still home to many great Buddhist temples important to his sect, including the original temple he established. It is also just a beautiful little Mekong Delta town which possesses its own Temple of Literature.

4. Dong Ha - The capital of Quang Tri province, the poorest in all Vietnam, I was expecting Dong Ha to be a horrible place but it turns out to be an enchanting little city in Central Vietnam about two or three hours from Hue. It is peppered with groovy little cafes and the people are extraordinarily beautiful, though they speak an incomprehensible dialect which even most Vietnamese find impossible to understand. Take a boat from the centre of town down the river (can someone tell me what it's called?) and visit one of the many picturesque villages that dot the river's banks. It is also close to the old DMZ and the holy Catholic Shrine of La Vang, dedicated to the Virgin Mary.


5. Mui Ne - The real success story of Vietnamese tourism, Mui Ne is the beachside destination of choice for the wealthy elites of Ho Chi Minh City. Until just a few years ago a sleepy fishing village, Mui Ne now has a decidedly international feel, and the beachside hotels, resorts and guesthouses are a cut above the usual Vietnamese offerings. In Destination Saigon I write about my riotous nights there in the company of a gang of fishermen, and Mui Ne really is becoming a kind of "fun central" for Vietnam, with great bars and restaurants. Of course, some don't like it precisely because of its "international" vibe, but I figure what the hell, mix things up a little. Close to Phan Thiet and the Big Buddha Mountain.


(Photo @Find the Light on Flickr)
6. Ben Tre - This is the hometown of my beloved partner, and in many ways it is the quintessence of the Mekong Delta. Famous for bananas and coconuts, it is remarkable how many of the people you meet in Saigon actually hail from Ben Tre. It was the home of the famous Coconut Monk, who attempted to unify Buddhism with Christianity. It was hard hit during the Vietnam War, being the place that the American army famously declared they had to destroy in order to save.



7. Can Tho - Being the third-largest city in Vietnam, Can Tho is one of those places that comes as a surprise to tourists. Way down in the Delta (and the boat trip from Saigon to Can Tho is one of the things I recommend EVERYONE should do), it is steamy and beautifully situated along the river. Wealthy and open-hearted, it has the reputation of being something of a sin city - it has a thriving gay community, and the women of Can Tho are notorious for their forwardness. Can Tho is known as the city that saved the ao dai, the beautiful, elegant and surprisingly provocative national costume of Vietnam. It has a big university and a big bridge, for those who are into such things. There is also a large community of Khmer people, and there is an old Khmer temple in the heart of town.


8. Nha Trang - Until Mui Ne eclipsed it, Nha Trang was the great hope of Vietnamese tourism. It probably suffered by being championed in a more rigidly controlled age, when the central government was trying to keep a tight rein on tourism and the army was responsible for constructing hotels and restaurants. This gives Nha Trang still a very 1980s Communist feel, especially along the beach front. That said, it is a wonderful city, with great food, great nightlife and a very nice beach. I've always enjoyed myself whenever I've visited Nha Trang - it is considerably cleaner and better kept than most Vietnamese cities.



9. Tra Vinh - When I was studying Vietnamese at the Ho Chi Minh Social Sciences University back in the late 90s I really became interested in the Khmer culture and people that make up a big minority in southern Vietnam. I would visit the Khmer Buddhist temples in Ho Chi Minh City almost daily, and I met and made friends with many of the monks there. A number of them hailed from Tra Vinh, a place I'd never even heard of before. Eventually they took me there and I discovered one of the most fascinating parts of Vietnam. In Tra Vinh the Khmer people are almost in the majority, and you hear Khmer spoken on the streets and broadcast on the radio and TV. Theravadin Buddhist temples are the norm, and the rich and ancient Khmer culture is said to be lived there more authentically than in Cambodia itself, for obvious historical reasons.

So there you have it - my nine favourite towns in Vietnam!
If you have any more you'd like listed, please comment and tell us about it!

You should also follow me on Twitter @walterm

We'll be visiting some of these towns during my Vietnam Tour which I am leading in October/November 2016. You should come along. 

Angel Reading Cards by Debbie Malone - A Review





Debbie Malone is one of the most unpretentious and inspiring people currently working on the Sydney spiritual scene, and I have been blessed enough to work with her on a couple of occasions over the years. Her gentle energy, quiet confidence and always-loving messages come through her work with the angels, and over the years Debbie has written about her angelic messengers and created ways in which everyday people might also be able to work with them. In her latest deck of reading cards Debbie has manifested an exquisite display of Angelic energy, and anyone who uses the Angel Reading Cards will, from the very first time they open them, recognise the powerful mystical energy that informs them.





Debbie creates a distinctly 21st century gathering of Angels - there is an Angel of Parking, for example, and an Angel of Relationships for those seeking some bigger answers to life's usual array of vexing questions. Each card has been exquisitely painted by Romanian artist Amalia I. Chitulescu, and each perfectly combines a kind of modern photo-realism with a wonderfully sparkling quality of angel-light that lifts the spirits no matter how many times you see the same card.



The deck comes with a comprehensive book, which supplies a full page of in-depth description for each card along with other information for using the cards. Debbie suggests that, on first opening the cards, the new owner should imprint them with their own good and loving energy, and to that end she provides a handy dedication exercise for their first use.

The book also provides a number of suggestions for using the cards, including 3 card angel guidance layout and a 7-day layout for a whole week’s guidance. When using oracle cards like these Debbie reminds us that we should pay careful attention to the ways they “behave” in our hands and on the table. Cards that fall out or stick should not be ignored – this is usually the message we most need to read.

The entire deck is working with positive energy, of course, but this does not mean that Debbie’s angelic work is not without its challenges. She nominates the Angel of Patience as the most challenging card in the deck, because nobody wants to hear that they need to sit and wait. I know exactly what she means.




There are 36 different angels to work with in in this deck, and Debbie tells us that they make the perfect companion to the rest of our spiritual work. At a recent talk she described a cleansing ritual that involves opening all the windows of the house and smudging each room with sage, all the while inviting the angels into the space. This leaves every room perfectly suited to higher states of existence, and better enables us in whatever spiritual discipline we pursue, be it meditation, prayer, mantra work or sacred reading.

With an eye towards finance in the coming year, I have found myself especially taken with the Angel of Abundance (card No. 17), and naturally she keeps appearing again and again as I shuffle the cards. The waterfall in the background of this beautiful image represents the constant flow of abundance, the pulsating energy of giving to the universe in order to receive.

There is also a smattering of male angels in the deck, all of them distinctly hunky. They remind us that the angelic energies are male as well as female, and that strength and power are equally as angelic as love and nurturing. The cards remind us to imbue our own actions and words with the quality of angelic thought and behaviour. Debbie Malone’s Angel Reading Cards make a beautiful addition to anyone’s daily spiritual routine. Morning or evening, take a card or two at random and see if you can divine the heavenly message contained. Simply ask the Universe: “What do you want from me?” and your angel will appear and direct you.

This is a deck that provides answers, inspiration and plenty of beauty. Get it and play with it and entertain the possibility, just for a moment, that angels are moving amongst us. Have fun with them, and see just how your life might improve with the help of the angels.

A new Pet Shop Boys album in April




Was thrilled to discover over at Boyculture that there is going to be a new Pet Shop Boys album in April.

The Pet Shop Boys are one of the great 80s acts and they have consistently put out good music over the decades. I buy every one of their releases, and I don't really think there's ever been a dud.








They first came to my notice in 1985 when Opportunities was first released. The distinct and unusual whiny vocals of Neil Tennant made it instantly noticeable, and I loved the dorky high-techness of their sound - it reminded me of Soft Cell, a band I'd been devoted to since I was 12. Later on at high school the song Suburbia became something of an anthem for me, and I still love its sophistication.

When I left home and went away to university, all of my suspicions about the Pet Shop Boys were confirmed. They were on the very edge of being open about their homosexuality, which was still a rare and brave thing in the late 80s, and so the clique of gay guys I hung out with held them in extremely high esteem, just a notch or two below Erasure and Kylie Minogue.

When I went back to my country town for the school holidays the newly-opened cinema was paying the Pet Shop Boys movie, a camp extravaganza which attracted appalling reviews but which I loved. I went to see it several times, and my little sister, just a child, adored it instantly. It is still an amazing piece of surrealism which I recommend you hunt down.

Then there was the much-anticipated release of the Domino Dancing video clip, an outrageous piece of overt homo-eroticism which was a really important moment in Queer culture. We were all raving about it. At this stage (1989) the Pet Shop Boys were more or less openly gay. Their music was a feature of our infamous house parties, and well I remember dancing the night away to Heart. A close friend sent a love letter to Chris Lowe.



Chris Lowe


The albums that followed were spectacular - odd, literary and frequently challenging. They did a Dusty Springfield album and a Liza Minnelli album - both still on high rotation at my house 25 or so years later. The dance party era was always peppered for me with Pet Shop Boys highlights - everybody in a frenzy at Go West at the Mardi Gras party, the dance floor at the Exchange writhing with people dancing to their cover of Can't Take My Eyes off You.



Dusty Springfield, Pet Shop Boys era



The Pet Shop Boys-produced album


I even managed to see them live a couple of years ago, at a sparsely attended New Year's Eve party on Sydney Harbour with Culture Club and Jamiroquai.

So now I look forward to April 1, when they release their new album called Super. And we can just be sure it is going to be super.


Fabulously Creative - a free workshop at Ashfield Library - February 5, 2016




Ashfield Library is offering a wonderful opportunity to do a really invigorating and fun writing workshop with me - absolutely free!

My 3-hour 'Fabulously Creative' workshop has been held all around Sydney, but people have always had to pay - until now.

Do take advantage of this tremendous opportunity to renew your creative juices and really get some focus back on your creative work in 2016.

It's time to dust off the writing shoes and show the world just how wonderful you are! In this one-day workshop come on a creative journey with me as you explore your options, get daring and spend some time discovering that spark of sheer fabulousness that lies within us all. In a joy-filled workshop of imaginative discovery you will learn to say yes to your creative impulses and crash through the barriers – real and imagined – that have held you back till now. Walter will have you believing again in the wonderful world of possibility that makes you so special and your stories so unique. Whether it’s beating writers block, creating a truly tremendous new year or writing things down and making them happen, this workshop is just the thing to give you the tools to energise and inspire a creative new you.

This workshop will encourage you to:

-    Get out of your creative shell and let people know the value of your work and ideas
-    Build your strength and determination to truly lead the writer’s life
-    Develop  your skills, knowledge and attitude and get excited again about your craft
-    Open your mind and get writing seriously – every day, every week and always
-    Start some awesome projects with passion and conviction
-    Believe in your own talents and gifts

Details:

Writing Workshops for Adults: 

Fabulously creative with Walter Mason

Ashfield Library


Do book now, as Ashfield's free writing workshops are always very popular.

My Playlist for 2015

Here they are - the songs I listened to most in 2015. In order:





1. King of Everything by Boy George (89 plays) - The first single from George's 2013 album This is What I Do. Such a beautiful, bittersweet song that speaks to my anxieties about ageing.





2. Adult Education by Hall & Oates (85 plays) - Probably not their greatest moment, but there's something about the strange 80s-ness of this song that I've really come to love. It's the backing singers' "Oh-yea, oh-yea"'s that stay with me.





3. You've Got It by Simply Red (84 plays) - Slick and smooth, this Lamont Dozier co-written song is 1989 pop-sophistication at its best.





4. I Feel for You by Chaka Khan (76 plays) - For when I'm bored and want to do a bit of boogying, nothing can beat Chaka.




5. Let's Get Started by Gota (68 plays) -  Bossa Nova funk from the 90s Japanese master.




6. Rise Like a Phoenix by Conchita Wurst (65 plays) - It was love at first sight with Conchita, and this is a damn good slice of high camp musical melodrama. Conchita needs to be the next Bond girl!




7. Everything She Wants by Wham (64 plays) - Funnily enough, I was never that much of a Wham fan when I was a kid. But this bitter, funky tale of exploitation just seems so fantastic now. I still maintain that the one who wasn't George was way hotter. And yes, he still sounds incredibly camp in this.
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