ABC Radio Hobart: Afternoons with Michael Veitch

TODAY, if you're in Hobart, you can hear me talking about my book, Destination Saigon on Afternoons with Michael Veitch on 936 ABC Radio.

All comments and feedback appreciated, please feel free to comment on this blog or email me.

And I'm sure you can find my book at all good bookstores in Hobart.

Bodhisattva of Compassion

I have a special interest in Kwan Yin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy.

Goddess of Mercy at a temple in Cholon, Ho Chi Minh City

Ever since I first travelled to Vietnam I have been fascinated by her form and her legends.

Though she is the pre-eminent figure of popular devotion in East Asian Buddhism, very little has been written about her in the West, and I think I have probably read every single word ever printed in English about the Goddess of Mercy.

Kwan in tiles at a temple in Kuala Lumpur

By far my favourite book on the subject is John Blofeld's exqisitely old-fashioned Bodhisattva of Compassion. It is the kind of book that probably wouldn't be published now, so peculiar is its construction and content. It is equal parrts spiritual memoir, travelogue, manual of religious practice and collection of folklore. Blofeld was perhaps the greatest of the sinophile writers, and was particularly interested in the religions of China. Toward the end of his life he began to affect the appearance and lifestyle of an old-style religious hermit, and a friend of mine who met him just before his death said that this old Englishman looked exactly like a Chinese person. He had for so long been immersed in the culture he loved and wrote about that he had morphed his own face and body into its physical forms.

Bodhisattva of Compassion is a charming book, a belletristic collection of anecdote and personal reflection that would be of great interest to anyone who wanted to know more about Buddhism, especially in its Chinese forms. And for anyone interested in learning more about the idea of "The Goddess," Bodhisattva of Compassion represents one of the earliest, and most poetic, explorations of that subject.

Bodhisattva of Compassion at a Buddhist temple in Canberra

Blofeld's voice is wonderfully Edwardian, and many of his stories read like they came from the pages of Wodehouse or one of the Bensons. And indeed, this propensity toward sinophilia was a great trend in the Edwardian age, and later. One of my favourite authors, Harold Acton, was another great sinophile in the tradition of the gentleman scholar.

In spite of this ease of reading, and the author's seemingly light touch, the book contains a great deal of really fascinating information that is of great value to the Buddhist scholar. He thoroughly explores the different traditions and forms of Avalokitesvara. We mustn't forget that Blofeld was extremely fluent in Chinese, and had spent a lifetime collecting stories and miracle tales grounded in the Chinese Buddhist tradition.
They have recently produced a new edition of Bodhisattva of Compassion, and I am delighted that such a book still strikes a chord with modern audiences. After just a few pages you too will be drawn into Blofeld's gentle stories of Kwan Yin, the beloved Goddess of Mercy.

My Generation

I'm just back from the Performance Space where I saw the William Yang show My Generation. And what a marvellous performance.
Yang is one of my main inspirations, and it is no secret that I base the format of my presentations on his celebrated slide shows. But what Yang possesses that sets him apart from all imitators is an incredibly measured stillness in his performance, a calm that is quite unique, and utterly engrossing.
William Yang's slide shows are always a wonderful mix of snobbery, name-dropping, social history and a distilled kind of envy that could only ever have been dreamed up by the artist himself. Yang is the consummate outsider, which makes him the perfect photographer, and the constant observer. He even alludes to it in this new show, talking about how the act of photographing recreational drug use excused him from actuallytaking part in it. The cloak of the voyeur seems to have protected him in many ways.
There's something weirdly involving about watching this small, introverted man talk about his life on stage. This show has the added interest of live music, and am I giving too much away when I mention that at one stage Yang himself demonstrates his hitherto undeclared skill at the maraccas?
I writhed with a displaced nostalgia at seeing people I never knew at events I wasn't invited to, and surely this is a part of the successful formula of Yang's one-man shows. This kind of painful pornography of celebrity is particularly acute during this show, with its emphasis on great writers, artists and actors Yang has known.
But I came away inspired, even hopeful. And that is the essence of William Yang's charm. His melancholy, his reserve, is merely a pose, hiding behind it a genuine delight in the brilliance of creativity, diversity and the power of community.
Bravo William Yang! You remain one of my heroes.

Lighting a Candle - Christ Church St. Laurence

Over the years I've had several dear friends who have called Christ Church St. Laurence their spiritual home. Hidden down at the dull end of Chinatown, CCSL is an ultra-High Anglican church renowned for its exquisite music, it's love of ritual and its suffocating clouds of incense of a Sunday morning. There's almost nowhere better to visit for the High Holy Days - Ash Wednesday, for example, is an incredible spectacle, with full choral masses, processions and lots of men in dresses.
Christ Church St. Laurence is one of the rare churches in Sydney that makes the effort to stay open all day, every day (I don't know why every church in the CBD doesn't do this), and it is a beautifully quiet spot to come and light a candle and say a prayer. Empty, shadowy and cool, Christ Church is filled with quite good art, and as well as its little candle side-shrine, also boasts a rather small shrine to Our Lady of Walsingham - one of my special favourite objects of devotion. The scent of frankincense lingers always.
They also offer meditation on Monday nights, and I think it is one of the most exquisite spots in Sydney to sit in meditation for an hour.

Dharma Guardian

I have blogged about Dharma Guardians before, but I wanted to show you this lovely one that protects the little house temple down the road, Chua Minh Giac. A really wonderful example of modern Vietnamese Buddhist statuary.

Lighting a Candle

You know that at heart I am a devotionalist, a true Bhakti who is willing to do almost anything in the name of prayer.
One of my favourite things to do is to light a candle. This is an old practice that exists in the Christian and Buddhist world. We light a candle in the memory of a loved one and we sit for a while and meditate on its flame.
No matter what I'm doing or how busy I am, whenever I am in the city I stop in at one of my special candle-lighting spots and offer up a candle - normally in memory of my loving grandmother, but also for friends and relatives who may be sick or going through a difficult period.
There are surprisingly few places that allow this beautiful and simple practice - I suppose insurance might be an issue!
But over the next few weeks I will introduce you to a few of my favourite places to offer a candle in prayer.
This week it's St. James Anglican Church in King St. St. James has a kooky side chapel where they host lunchtime prayer, and it's also where they keep the wild spiral candle tree. It's in an excellent, convenient location, and the whole church is almost always empty, so it's perfect for solitary prayer and reflection.


Media and Publicity

Mornings with Margaret Throsby, ABC Classic FM (25th Feb, 10am): Walter is in conversation with the host, playing his favourite music and telling his own stories.

Afternoons, 936 ABC Radio, Hobart (1st Mar, 3.30pm)

Life Matters with Richard Aedy, ABC Radio National (2nd Mar, 9.30am)

Breakfast Club, ABC Radio Australia (2nd Mar)

Fairfield Champion, (3rd Mar)

Fairfield Advance, (3rd Mar)

Herald Sun, review (6th Mar)

Courier Mail, review (6th Mar)

ABC Radio Far North Queensland, (6th Mar)

Escape, Sunday Telegraph (7th Mar)

Derek Dryden reviews books with John Kerr, Radio 2UE (7th Mar)

Afternoons, Curtin FM, WA (9th Mar)

Alchemy, SBS Radio (10th Mar)

Manly Daily (12th Mar)

Feature, Dan Viet Newspaper (12th Mar)

Extract from Destination Saigon, The Australian (13 Mar)

Traveller Review, Sydney Morning Herald & The Age (13 Mar)

SBS Radio Vietnamese (22nd Mar, 7.40pm)

Evenings, Radio NZ (24th Mar)

Up and Away, Q Radio, Qantas Airways (March): Walter talks to Julie McCrossin about Destination Saigon

Way2Go Magazine (March/April Issue): a short extract from Destination Saigon with some exclusive pics taken by Walter!

Nova Magazine (Mar): review

Mindfood (April): review

NW Magazine (3rd May): review 

Fairfield Advance (2nd June): article

Fairfield Champion (2nd June): article

Destination Saigon: Adventures in Vietnam

Get a taste of the real Vietnam and its people on a sometimes funny, always fascinating journey from the bustling cities to out of the way villages, into Buddhist monasteries and along the Mekong - a real delight for armchair travellers and those contemplating their own adventure.
From the crazy heat and colour of Saigon to the quieter splendour of Hanoi, Walter Mason gives us a rare, joyous and at times hilarious insight into twenty-first century Vietnam. Seduced by the beauty and charm of its people, and the sensuousness of its culture, we can almost taste the little coconut cakes cooked over a fire in a smoky Can Tho kitchen, or smell the endless supplies of fresh baguettes and croissants just out of city ovens.
As colourful city cafes and bars make way for visits to out-of-the-way shrines and temples, we take an impromptu visit to forbidden fortune tellers, and glimpse a little of the Cao Dai religion, made famous in Graham Greene's The Quiet American. Escaping on impulse to a far-flung province, a brief imprisonment culminates in an invitation to local wedding celebrations.
Travelling off the beaten track to far-flung villages and lesser-known towns, we cruise along the Mekong, board hopelessly overcrowded local buses or perch perilously on the back of motorbikes. Behind-the-scenes visits to Buddhist monasteries reveal a quieter and more transcendent world beyond the busy day trips of tourists. And in the process we begin to see the country through the eyes of its people.
ISBN: 9781741759495
Australian Pub. Date: March 2010

Publisher: ALLEN & UNWIN

Subject: Travel Writing

Destination Saigon
Facebook group

About Walter Mason

(photo by David Lenton)

Walter is a writer, speaker, teacher and tour leader with a special interest in spirituality.

Born in 1970 he spent his childhood in rural North Queensland, including some years doing correspondence school on a remote tin mine. On returning to “town” he devoted his life to singing, acting and the arts, and was constantly performing from the ages of 12 – 17.

In 1988 he moved to Bathurst to study Theatre at Charles Sturt University. In 1991 he went to UNSW to study Chinese. He didn’t manage to graduate from either of these courses.

For many years Walter was a bookseller, working at Berkelouw’s on Oxford St., and later at Adyar, the famous metaphysical bookshop in the Sydney CBD. He later moved into a key role in a buying group for independent booksellers, and spent several years working with many of the most famous and long-established bookshops in Australia. Later he worked in various low-level roles in publishing, mostly in the area of sales and marketing.

Walter Mason first visited Vietnam in 1994, and has been back many times since (so many he has lost count – though over 20 by now). Most notably he spent 3 months there in 1996 travelling the country with an eccentric Vietnamese-Australian Buddhist monk, living in remote monasteries and hermitages; in 1999 he spent 6 months at the Ho Chi Minh Social Sciences University studying the Vietnamese language; and he spent three months travelling and writing Destination Saigon over 2008/2009 (published by Allen & Unwin in 2010).

Walter's second book, Destination Cambodia, was published in September 2013 by Allen & Unwin.

A lifelong interest in Eastern spirituality saw him involved with a quasi-Buddhist cult in his early 20s, which evolved into him switching to more orthodox forms of Buddhism, being particularly inspired by the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. One of Master Nhat Hanh’s central teachings is that all religion is inspired from a place of goodness, and one of his most famous books is Living Buddha, Living Christ. For many years Walter has been hesitant to call himself a Buddhist, a Christian, or anything, really.

In 2005 (at the age of 35) Walter Mason returned to University and did an undergraduate degree in English. On graduation he took the prize for the most outstanding degree in the humanities and went on to do his Honours degree (1st Class), for which he received the University Medal. His Honours thesis was on the motif of the lonely queer in the writings of Sumner Locke Elliott. For some years he was part of the University of Western Sydney’s prestigious Writing & Society Research Unit, where he pursued a PhD thesis on the history of self-help books in Australia. Though he finished writing his thesis, it remains unsubmitted.

Walter's partner of 30+ years, Thang Ngo, is a prominent Vietnamese-Australian community leader, having served for many years as an independent on the Fairfield City Council, representing the Cabramatta district. Thang is a celebrated food writer and advertising executive.

He lives in Cabramatta, and attends a Vietnamese Buddhist temple weekly, as well as going to church!

Walter is president of the NSW Dickens Society (2021). He is a popular literary lecturer throughout Australia, as well as a teacher of film and literary history. He teaches courses and workshops in creative writing and mindfulness.

Contact details & links

Destination Saigon the book
Destination Saigon Twitter

Jenny Morris - Break in the Weather

I love Jenny Morris - have ever since she released You I Know back in 1987. She is elegant and sexy, and has a wonderful voice with a slightly husky edge. But Break in the Weather is my favourite Jenny song - she looks great, and the vid is creepy and campy all the same time.

Barbara Dickson - Answer Me

I love Barbara Dickson! Long before I Know Him So Well, I was a boy-fan, grooving away to her smash hit January February on hot North Queensland afternoons.
Here she is with one of her early hits, looking absolutely adorable.

New Books

Surprise, surprise, I bought some new books this week.
January is the first in an exciting year-long series of thrillers for kids called Conspiracy 365, written by my old pal Gabrielle Lord - I'm a little bit behind, so I'll have to get this one read quickly and then start in on February. You see, every month this year a new one will be released, and a thrilling story will unfold. I think it's a terrific concept, and I hope it does well for her - she's one of the greatest ladies in Australian books, and I think she's an absolute legend (can you tell that I'm a fan, much?).
Rare Bird of Truth has, of course, been recently blogged by me. Written by my friend Neal Drinnan, it's a sexy and decadent novel that I can't wait to sink my teeth into.
I've already started in on Bright-Sided, because it's part of my PhD research. This book has had a lot of publicity, and it is a fascinating exploration (and critique) of the culture of positive thinking in America. Of course, I have a lot of problems with it, but I still find it completely absorbing. I know whose side I'd rather be on, though :-)
Kink looks like fun - a local book released by my own erstwhile publisher, it is an expose of suburban swinging! What a hoot!
And then for something completely different, a gorgeous hardcover remainder I ordered in from the US. Enduring Lives provides pen portraits of some of my favourite women - though I'm especially interested in the chapter on Sister Helen Prejean.
Anyway, no time to blog right now - I have some reading to catch up on.

Rare Bird of Truth

Tonight I went to the launch of the fabulous Neal Drinnan's new novel Rare Bird of Truth at the wonderfully atmospheric Macleay Bookshop in Potts Point.
Neal is one of Australia's leading novelists, and I adore his quirky, campy tales of modern life and dissolution. I have been a fan of his ever since his first book, and he has accompanied me (in literary form) on several holidays.
This new book looks like it will be every bit as much fun as its predecessors, and Neal read some wonderful snippets to whet our appetites. Needless to say the readings were littered with lustful heroines, secret lesbian love affairs and clumsy transvestite stalkers.
Celebrities spotted included the gorgeous Mark Trevorrow (AKA Bob Downe), sexy novelist Linda Jaivin and Australia's hunkiest publishing industry executive Dan Ruffino. And yours truly.
Anyway, I can't wait to get started in on Rare Bird of Truth, which has been described as Alan Hollinghurst meets Martina Cole. Should be a hoot!

Piccolo Bar, Kings Cross

I was in the Cross tonight, and I haven't been there for so long.
I used to live in Victoria St., and Kings Cross was my backyard. I had an hour or so to kill, so I decided to go and see if my favourite cafe was still open - and indeed it was.
The Piccolo Bar is one of Sydney's icons, really the last remaining cafe of its kind. When I first came to this city in the late 80s cafes like this were everywhere, but they have all closed up now.
Vittorio, the irascible and constantly scandalous proprietor, is still there, and still holding court.
I hope it never closes.

Boy George Back!

It's no secret that I am a Boy George fan.
He really is one of my greatest heroes, along with Oscar Wilde, and one of the people I'd most like to meet before I die. He has meant so much to me over the years, and it's impossible to imagine how much strength and hope he gave me as a young gay boy growing up in tough circumstances in rural North Queensland in the 1980s. His beauty, style and amazing spirit were constantly inspiring, and remain so.
I think that George is consistently undervalued for the effect he had on our culture. I don't think that any of the great changes surrounding the acceptance of gay people in Western society could have happened without George's in-your-face presence throughout the 80s. He is an absolute icon.
One of the most fascinating things about George is the intensity and seriousness of his spiritual interests. George has been incorporating elements of Hinduism into his life and art since the late 80s, and has been for many years a kind of satellite supporter of the Hare Krishna movement. What stops his more complete involvement and advocacy of that group is their infamous and until now intransigent homophobia. Though I believe that is beginning to change. George has been a strict vegan for 20 years now, and some years ago published his own vegan cookbook which I use constantly.
So it's no surprise that in the video clip for his wonderful new song Amazing Grace, George has incorporated much Hindu imagery, and the whole thing is simply wonderful. The song itself, as its title might suggest, also speaks to George's spiritual side, and I find it incredibly uplifiting.
Welcome back, George - you continue to be creative, outrageous and inspiring. Amazing Grace indeed.

Baby Sakyamuni, inside Kwan Yin Grotto, Phuoc Hue Temple on Twitpic
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