The Island of Singing Fish - a fascinating memoir of colonial Ceylon





Sri Lanka is one of those countries that has fascinated me since my youth, but which I have never managed to visit. When you mention 'Ceylon' - the country's former name - I think of the opera The Pearl Fishers, the Buddha's Tooth Relic and the travels of Colonel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky, who formally became Buddhists there in their first visit in 1880.

So it was with some interest that I picked up a new memoir by Tina Faulk called The Island of Singing Fish: A colonial childhood in Ceylon. Faulk comes from a fascinating minority community within Sri lanka called the Burghers, and this book makes a really valuable contribution to recording their history. The Burghers are the descendants of European settlers who came to Ceylon centuries ago, and represented a distinct class within Ceylonese society. At the birth of independence (Ceylon had been an English colony), the newly-nationalistic Sinhalese majority in the new nation of Sri Lanka passed laws that actively discriminated against those of non-Sinhalese descent, and many of the Burghers, who had become an English-speaking middle-class in colonial times, left. That is how Faulk came to be in Australia where she became a young journalist in Brisbane.

Over 30 years the author returns to Sri Lanka many times, and this fascinating little book is in parts a family memoir, a history and a travel book detailing the Sri lanka of today which Faulk explores almost as a stranger. From the ramparts of Galle Fort she watches young married couples pose for photographs and drinks fruit smoothies as she reflects on the Dutch and Portuguese influence on Ceylon that is so formative a part of her own culture and history.

I can't stress enough how unique a point of view the book offers. Faulk is a perfectly charming writer, and she is not prone to didacticism, so the stories and observations drift pleasingly by, creating a fuller portrait of this fascinating country whose very name became legendary in the English language (Serendip, the antique name for Sri lanka, is the root of our word 'Serendipity'). Whether its in carefully scrutinising the exquisite family photographs of a lost Ceylon or hanging out at the wonderful-sounding Colombo YWCA, the reader confronts a history and a present that is very little discussed in the English-speaking world. Faulk's status as an inside-outsider brings an immense amount of understanding to the stories and memories in the book, and I came away from it feeling much wiser about a country that has, until now, been something of a mystery, divided in almost equal parts between a notion of a romantic Buddhist paradise and a war-torn hell-hole.

A 5th Century Buddhist statue in Sri Lanka - source Wikipedia


The Island of Singing Fish reveals instead a country more subtly divided, and more remarkably complex, than travel brochures or TV news can ever make clear. It is constantly fascinating, and a great model for other writers wishing to explore the possibilities of  family memoir. Do see if you can get hold of a copy.

Buy a copy of The Island of Singing Fish

Walter Mason talking about Destination Cambodia at Thirroul Library, Wednesday November 12 at 5pm

History comes to life at Thirroul library

As part of Thirroul District Library's series of weekly talks I will be at Thirroul Library this week talking about my travels in Cambodia.

The free, one hour talk at 5pm on Wednesday the 12th of November is an opportunity to learn more about the history, culture and traditions of this most fascinating country.






The talk is based on my book Destination Cambodia -  two-and-a-half years in the making, it is an affectionate, whimsical and deeply personal account of my journeys through Cambodia, a country that has enchanted me for more than seventeen years.

Do come along, or if you know anyone who lives in the area, let them know.

A. C. Benson on creating a life

Occasionally I wil pull something down from my shelves and open it at random to see if I can find some inspiration. How well I was rewarded today when I took down a book of sketches and observations from the Edwardian essayist A. C. Benson. It spoke to me in exactly the tone I needed:


A.C.Benson



"How few of us there are who make our lives into anything! We accept our limitations, we drift with them, while we indignantly assert the freedom of the will. The best sermon in the world is to hear of one who has struggled with life, bent or trained it to his will, plucked or rejected its fruit, but all upon some principle. It matters little what we do; it matters enormously how we do it. Considering how much has been said, and sung, and written, and recorded, and prated, and imagined, it is strange to think how little is ever told us directly about life; we see it in glimpses and flashes, through half-open doors, or as one sees it from a train gliding into town, and looks into back windows and yards sheltered from the street."

From At Large by A. C. Benson

What an exquisite observation, and one I felt keenly. How easily do I accept my limitations and build my life around them, instead of challenging myself and growing at a more rapid rate.
this passage also caused me to look up a word, something I do all-too-rarely. "Prated" is one that is not often used in the 21st century, and it means "spoken foolishly or at tedious length." Connected to "prattle," I suppose.

For those of you who don't know, A. C. Benson was the brother of comic novelist E. F. Benson, and part of that most luminous Benson clan. he was an enormous bestseller in his day, producing yearly a book of collected essays and observations gleaned from his life as a don. He was a lifelong depressive and a closeted homosexual. These days he is probably best remembered for providing the lyrics for the great British imperial anthem 'Land of Hope and Glory'.

Recently there has been a most excellent book written about him and his work collecting Queen Victoria's letters called Censoring Queen Victoria, and I recommend it highly.

There has also been a recent biography of his mother Mary called As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil. Also a great read.

Mary Benson - A.C.Benson's famous mother


A. C. Benson's books are all out of print, but they make for fascinating reading.

Vietnam Journey with Walter Mason in 2015






WEA Sydney 

A video posted by Walter Mason (@waltermason) on

In conjunction with Heritage Destinations

Vietnam: Four Cities Journey

with Walter Mason

Mon 23 February - Fri 3 March 2015





Four influential Vietnamese cities provide the central focus of this tour. But visitors to Viet Nam are impressed by the beauty of the country’s natural setting, so our schedule is punctuated with interesting regional stays. The result is a journey providing a good overview of the real Vietnam with its unique and rich civilisation, highly cultured people, delicious food and hauntingly beautiful mountains, plains and coastlines.



Our tour begins in Hanoi, the national capital with romantic and well‐preserved artefacts of the French, and regarded by many as one of Asia's most attractive cities. Nearby we visit Ha Long Bay, famous for its UNESCO World Heritage status, with its emerald green water and over 3000 islands of towering limestone.
We fly to Hue, once Vietnam's Imperial City and later the country's capital under the Nguyen dynasty (1802‐1945).
Over the Hai Van Pass to Hoi An is next, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, and a visit to this old world gem is a highlight of any Vietnam tour.
Dalat follows, known as ‘Le Petit Paris’ by the early builders and residents of this Central Highlands resort town.
Onward by coach to the exuberant, brash, optimistic Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).
Mekong Delta experiences follow in its largest centre of Can Tho before our tour conclusion in Chau Doc, a bustling trade and transport hub on the Cambodia border ‐ yet also a lazy, riverside town, a throwback to another time.






Vietnam today is a country with a diverse range of landscapes, cultures and ethnic groups, contained within its uniquely long and thin geography. Our WEA Sydney tour explores this vibrant, complex and welcoming country within the context of its rich imperial, colonial and recent history.


Please consider joining us on WEA Vietnam: Four Cities Journey

P R O G R A M  L E A D E R

Writer, blogger and creative writing teacher Walter Mason has designed and brings personal and professional insights to a journey based on his WEA Sydney Viet Nam: Four Cities lecture series.
Fluent in Vietnamese, Walter studied at the Ho Chi Minh Social Sciences University and has spent part of every year in Viet Nam for over two decades. A former bookseller, Walter is a popular figure on the Sydney speaking circuit. His knowledge of Vietnam and wicked sense of humour feature in his book Destination Saigon, born of his love for the country and the people of Vietnam, from the bustling cities to out‐of‐the‐way villages.
Walter looks forward to travelling with you and sharing his passion and enthusiasm for Vietnam.

See more details of Walter Mason's 2015 tour to Vietnam, and get the full itinerary.

Australian author Justin Sheedy on success, restlessness and being a productive writer


Justin Sheedy



 Father's Day is coming up in Australia, and everyone knows that one of the best gifts for dad is a great book. It so happens that my old pal Justin Sheedy has written two books that would be the perfect gift for any father: his Australian World War 2 novels Ghosts of the Empire and Nor the Years Condemn. I thought I would take this opportunity to chat with Justin about indie success, youth and creative discipline:


I think you are one of the first Australian writers to really succeed at indie publishing. What made you decide to go that route, and who are your inspirations?
Walter, I am delighted and reassured that a widely cherished and respected Australian author like yourself should see my own writing and publishing efforts as ‘a success’ and I warmly thank you. My decision to charge down the path of indie publishing was born of simple necessity: Though major Australian publishing companies have shown interest in all of my 3 books since my first in 2009, their hesitancy proved a dead-end. To my relief, they have been proven wrong by reader response to my books ever since, both here in Australia and internationally. My inspiration is my readers, one of my favourite moments being a late middle-aged lady tapping me on the shoulder at one of my in-store book-signings, saying (of my Australian World War Two historical fiction Nor the Years Condemn), ‘I was at your last event, you signed your book for me and I just wanted to tell you I’ve since read it and loved it from start to finish.’ Moments like that are my rich reward.

We knew each other when we were both young and restless. I had no idea then that I would be a writer. When did you decide you were really going to make a life as a serious writer?

I’m STILL young and restless, Walter, and I know you are too. Though perhaps the crystalizing moment for me as a future author came for me in high school when an inspirational English teacher asked me to read out one of my stories in front of the class. It was the story of an Australian downhill skier from GO to finish-line in a Swiss World Cup ski race event where he is considered the likely wooden-spooner. He proves the world’s best wrong to the rapture of the seasoned crowd urging him on. When I’d finished my story, my English teacher faced the class and asked, ‘Now, boys. How did that make you feel?’ One boy put up his hand and breathed, ‘I felt like I was flying.’ I feature this moment in my upcoming book, Memoirs of a Go-Go Dancer, which, as my 1980s teenage portrait, also features YOU, dear Walter.

You’ve been quite prolific over a short time. What is the secret of your productivity?

People often ask me how I maintain the ‘discipline’ to be an author and be as productive as I seem to be. I say to them I can’t NOT write. Your passion can’t NOT come out. And it also happens to be what engages readers and what sells books: a male bookstore customer at one of my recent book-signings said, ‘Mate, I’ll buy your book; I can see your passion.’

Can you tell us about some of the books that have inspired you?

A long list that would be but in the context of my first book, Goodbye Crackernight, my childhood ‘shared memoir’ of growing up in 1970s Australia, I’d have to nominate Clive James’s Unreliable Memoirs along with Bill Bryson’s Thunderbolt Kid. In the context of my latest two, Nor the Years Condemn and Ghosts of the Empire, I’d have to say Ken Follett for his gripping World War Two historical fictions and, massively, Kate Grenville’s emotive Australian historical fictions, especially The Secret River. Also, Roald Dahl’s Going Solo for the way he captures the ‘adult world’ as if with the involuntary perfection of the ‘child’s eye’.

What piece of advice would you give to someone who really wants to get serious about their writing?
Come up with a great idea, then re-write it 20 times until it ends up the piece of work it deserves to be. When it IS, then your troubles really start: Publishing is a tough, unfair and often chaotic business. Learn never to take 'No' for an answer but do it in the nicest way possible. Industry people say no only because it’s easier than saying yes. Persistence is the key. Your persistence will be fuelled by your passion. And your passion to write is your passion to share.

My Shelf - A Reading project

I have been quite fascinated by Phyllis Rose's book The Shelf, in which she selected a shelf of books at a library and read every single one of them. For some time I have been meaning to emulate the experiment, becasue it sounds like fun and such a fascinating way to read books you  might otherwise never know about.

So I have bitten the bullet and selected my very own shelf at the Whitlam Library in Cabramatta - my local. Naturally I chose the self-help shelf, because that is my area of greatest interest and the field of my academic research.

Here is my shelf:



I don't know how long it is going to take me, but I shall do my best to apply myself and to provide you with details of the books I check out.

So today I started with the first book on the shelf: Fix Your Life with NLP by Alicia Eaton. Now, I have never really studied NLP before. I did do a one-day course in NLP for weight loss years ago, but it had no effect. Interesting that I get this one now because my personal trainer has just done a full NLP course and says he will be applying its techniques on me. Maybe once I read this book I can outwit him? Let's just see if my life is fixed at the end....


Rosie Shalhoub on great ideas, focus and keeping your dreams in sight


Rosie Shalhoub



Rosie Shalhoub is a legendary Sydney retailer, a psychic and a visionary whose incredible energy and insight have made her shop Embrace at Miranda a destination for all spiritually-minded Sydneysiders. Most recently Rosie has become the motivating force behind the Festival of Dreams, a Spiritual Expo which is on this month in Sydney at the Hordern Pavilion - August 23 and 24.


One of the little guys at Embrace, Miranda - Rosie's shop



I had a chat with Rosie about spirituality and not giving in to defeat:




How do you think we can keep our dreams in mind, and not g ive ourselves up to defeat, negativity or procrastination?

There have been many times I have given in to defeat and procrastination. It always seems the easier thing to do. Sometimes it may last for a day sometimes only for a few minutes. I think you need those times to recover, recoup and get your head back into focus. It really is a normal part of the process of living. But not staying in that element is the hardest part. As a single mother of 8 year old twins, for the first 6 years of their little lives they have been my driving force. Having major deadlines is always a killer for me because I do tend to leave things to the last minute - I work best under the pressure. Besides, my partner Ross, who I swear has ADHD, doesn’t let me stop for a moment!

Where do you get your energy and ideas from?

I have always received my great ideas in my sleep through my dreams. Sometimes I have a lady that will come to visit me and show me an idea or tell me how to do something. I have no idea who this lady is but she always has the energy of the Mother Mary, but dressed in modern clothing. Even as a child in school I always had an active imagination which won me many writing awards throughout my school years.

Energy is a hard thing for me. I have Crohn’s Disease, which can slow me down quite a bit although I have been in remission for many years. I am also anaemic due to being a vegetarian. I tend to like my sleep a lot and when I’m tired I just cannot function. I find my peak hours of the day and I work to my maximum then. I am blessed to have great staff at Embrace which enables me to also take a lot of time off from working at the shop in order to get my work done.

When I work I always like to have a candle lit, do a good meditation beforehand and have a great cup of coffee! Silence is my virtue. I cannot work with the television or radio on. I function best in complete silence. I love that sound.

Is there a quote that has really inspired you in your life?

I know this might sound like a bit of a cliché but I have always loved the quote from Martin Luther King: “I have a dream”!  It has always inspired me, just as it offers hope to so many others.

You are a deeply spiritual person, but I am sure you must have people in your life who are not that way, who take a completely material view of life. What do you say to them? Try to convince them, or let them follow their own path?

My partner! He is the love of my life but is not spiritual.
I let them live their path and I maintain the spiritual practice that is important to me… prayer, silence and love time.
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