Monday Blogcrawl

I tend to consume too much caffeine, which can leave me a little edgy by the end of the day. Perhaps coincidentally, I also suffer terribly from headaches, which also tend to strike at around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, leaving me quite a ghastly sight by 5. Pity my poor partner. Anyway, I'm headed off to Cambodia this week, and so will have to cut back on my caffeine somewhat - though Phnom Penh has some really lovely cafes that I am certain to veer into occasionally. Here is my pick from the web over the past week:

Stephanie Dowrick - Seeking the Sacred

On Thursday night I shuffled down to the gorgeous crypt of St. Patrick's church to hear Stephanie Dowrick in conversation with the NSW Premier Kristina Keneally and Fr. Michael Whelan.

They were discussing some of the themes that emerge in Stephanie's new book Seeking the Sacred.

Of course, it was a fascinating night, and I came away filled with more ideas and questions than what I'd arrived with - always a good sign that I've spent my time valuably.
Stephanie is in the midst of her publicity for the new book, and is on quite a punishing schedule.

She still managed to be not only fresh and playful, but sharp as well, challenging us all (including the people sharing the stage with her) with insights and questions about what it means to self-identify as a "spiritual" person in the 21st century.
I was fascinated by Stephanie's description of her growth as an author - how she shifted from being a novelist primarily dealing with psychological elements to a writer of non-fiction dealing unashamedly with the spiritual. She says she recognised that the moment had come for this kind of shift, just as she recognises that now the cultural forces are more focused on the new atheism and the rejection of notions of eternity, transcendence and metaphysics.
One of the things about Stephanie's philosophy, one of the themes that has emerged over the years in her books, is the importance of the process of seeking - as opposed to the older imperative to find the truth and stick with it. Especially since she has become an Interfaith minister, Stephanie has given a voice to many of us in the contemporary world for who the spiritual path is marked more by questioning than by the discovery of infallible answers sent down from above. She sacralises this search, and refuses to stigmatise those who are engaged in it - even if it's for their entire lives. Her description of spirituality is, I would suggest, distinctly of our time, and her books are fascinating accounts of how we feel right at this moment, replete with anxieties, misgivings and wonderings.
On page 100 of Seeking the Sacred Stephanie writes:

" we think about life and how we regard all other life forms on our planet is driven by what we believe and the stories or narratives we tell ourselves...this inevitably determines the quality of our existence."

The whole panel took up this idea of story, and how its presence or absence is affecting our experience of life. It is a vexed issue. Sitting on Catholic Church property in the presence of Catholic clergy, many of us there were conscious of the good and bad effects of story and the communal narratives that once shaped us but that, increasingly, we shun. Stephanie suggests that the cure for this great lapse in narrative flow might be taken up again by re-imagining our lives as sacred. Not just special moments or actions, but during the course of life in its humble and everyday entirety. This is part of Dowrick's great charm, as a writer and as a thinker - she is unashamed to make a stand for wonder. This night she urged us to remember the wonder and beauty of the universe, and the incredible gift of living. Each moment lived must by necessity be sacred. If not, then all meaning is lost.
Stephanie's view of human nature and potential is unashamedly optimistic, though in no way shallow or wilfully ignorant of life's shadow side. But, like so many thinkers before her, she recognises that until we respect ourselves and begin to reflect this respect in our behaviour towards others, we are diminished as individuals and as a society. In Stephanie's words on the night:

"When we begin in an authentic way to recognise the sacred in ourselves it will inevitably change our conduct."

A beautiful evening spent in the company of a beautiful woman, I am now absorbed in the book. I can't recommend it highly enough.

The Adyar Project - The Vortex - 1st Lesson - Expansion

I have to be honest, I've been very slack about my Adyar reading project. The Vortex is a difficult book to pick up, and a very easy book to put down. I'm not being snobby here, or making snide comments about such literature. The fact is that it is convoluted, repetitive and dull, and desperately in need of a really savage edit - something interesting and valuable could certainly be salvaged out of it. So other things have managed to catch my attention. But I have applied myself a little this week, and have been reading The Vortex and attempting to apply some of it.
In his introduction to the book, Jerry Hicks says that Abraham (the channelled entity that is the putative author of the book) declares "the result of life is expansion" (xi). So that is my motto for the next week: I am constantly expanding, and such expansion is part of my natural state.
I worry about this resolution because I am also dieting, and want to make sure that any expansion is stictly at the metaphysical level. Just putting that out there - no expansion of stomach, please! I'm choosing instead in interpret "expansion" as meaning that I will be expanding spiritually, intellectually and socially. I am allowing myself to be expansive.
So I guess it will be a bit of a "yes" week - my favourite kind, really.
I'll let you know how I go.

Alan Bennett's "Hymn"

Alan Bennett is a peculiar phenomenon, isn't he? A pudgy, elderly, softly-spoken homosexual, he seems to have become one of the grande dames of the British literary and theatrical establishments. Up there with Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. If anyone deserves a Dame-dom, it's our Alan - someone should whisper in the Queen's ear and the world would be forever transformed.
The thing about Bennett is that he is so damned clever. And clever in that understated, self-deprecatory way that always wins out in the end. I mean, just look at the people with whom he rose to fame. Peacock-ish, playboy figures like Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller - all gone or forgotten. And Bennett, always the quietest one, plods determinedly along, resting snug in the arms of an adoring public across the Anglosphere. A hare and tortoise moral lesson there.
Bennett's great genius is in his instinctive love of nostalgia. He manipulates the emotional forces of everyone's nostalgia while specifically drawing on his own memories of childhood, family and class. Stephen Fry did a brilliant pastiche of Bennett's oeuvre, identifying with cutting accuracy the key elements of his work that are always there: the pronounced regionalism, the elevation of the mundane, the careful naming and categorisation of minutiae, the specific identification of elements and objects. It is Bennett's skill that keeps these elements fresh, even while in constant use.
I love all things Bennett. He seems to think like me (and that, I would venture, is his great attraction for many - he is so damned normal, and remarks on all the things that normally go unremarked), and his halting, affectionate journeys down memory lane are exactly the kinds of mental excursions I take myself on in quiet moments. And his great gentleness and affection for the flawed speak to me of an almost spiritual quality. There is always something of the Zen master in Mr. Bennett.
Hymn is an exquisite spoken piece by Bennett accompanied by the Medici String Quartet. Only running for 50 minutes, it is a little journey through Bennett's life with music. He reflects on the hymns that influenced him, along with the popular music of his day (including my favourite song of all time, 'Mairzy Doats'). He also assays his eduction in classical music without once slipping into pretension - a difficult task indeed, and something perhaps only Bennett would be capable of.
But, like all Bennett-iana, it is ultimately about family and about the quiet, cloistered state of his Leeds upbringing. He evokes wonderful images of his butcher father attempting to teach him violin, and sings a paean to publicly-funded orchestras.
It is a simple but brilliant idea, perfectly executed. The writer and performer in me wants to steal it and do my own version, and perhaps someday I will. Anyone who is a music lover will respond to this recording, marking as it does so affectionately the relationship between music, memory and emotion. And for Bennett fans it is essential, allowing us to glory in the burbling, avuncular voice of our hero for a full 50 minutes.

The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan (Audiobook version, read by Simon Callow)

The diary is a literary form that fascinates me. I suppose my interest is prurient, the idea that I might have saccess to the most intimate thoughts of someone. I have read, for example, the diaries of Joe Orton over and over, and I still think they are one of the great classics of Queer literature, I am also a lover of the Andre Gide diaries, the Cecil Beaton diaries and, of course, the Andy Warhol Diaries - almost the quintessential book of my youth. I was interested to see how the diary, such a truncated and patchy form, might translate into an audiobook.
I have had The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan audiobook for years now but never seemed to get around to listening - mainly because it was on cassette, and frankly the occasion to listen to a cassette rarely occurs. But I finally dusted it down and popped it in to the unloved but still present tape deck, and was completely bowled over by its magic.
I had been aware of Kenneth Tynan, recalling dimly how the publication of his Diaries and of various memoirs by various wives had caused a great deal of scandal. I knew nothing concrete, however, so this production was a delight and a surprise from beginning to end.
It is a collection of Tynan's diary entries read with immense skill by one of my favourite people in the world, Simon Callow. Callow, himself a big fan of Tynan's work, does the whole thing a great justice. His reading is well-paced, arch and very funny and he is able to imitate people like John Gielgud and Noel Coward (just a couple of the many celebrities who are mentioned in the Diaries) perfectly.
Tynan was a theatre critic and dilettante who embodied the swinging 60s in London. He wrote and produced the scandalous sexy West End review 'Oh Calcutta!' and was famous for being the first person ever to say "fuck" on television. He was a wit and intellectual of the old school, and like so many truly fabulous people, the principle focus of his genius was his life. He was lazy, disorganised and chronically impolitic, so found it very hard to get any sort of work or keep any sort of job. The Diaries are witty and beautifully concise. They also reveal the sordid sexual life of the author. I say sordid, but it really does seem a bit tame in this day and age. You see, Mr. Tynan was a devotee of that great Bristish sexual vice, spanking. As he himself recognised, it was a taste shared by a surprising number of people in the British establishment. And though doubtless it would have destroyed his reputation had people known at the time, now it all seems quaintly demure, perhaps even wholesome. His fulsome descriptions of buttocks, penises (his own) and women's private parts had me rushing, occasionally, for the remote control, terrified that the neighbours might hear. I think Tynan would have approved.
He had a curious attitude toward homosexuality, too, one again reflective of the Briitish upper-classes in general. He counted among his friends numerous prominent gay men, but in private he speculated about their lives in a peculiarly prudish way. The strange thing is that he seemed to envy these men - people like Christopher Isherwood - recognising them as possessed of a kind of agelessness, the source of which he attributes to their homosexuality.
Tynan was also a proud smoker, even though in the final years of his life this smoking began to kill him. In desperate ill-health and mostly penniless, Tynan defiantly kept at his cigarettes till the day he died, suffocating slowly and painfully with a ghastly lung condition.
I loved this production from beginning to end - indeed, I never wanted it to end. It was my companion while I ironed and cleaned for a number of days, and the hours just flew by.

Monday Blogcrawl

Had the most wonderful day yesterday speaking at the Writers' Tent at the Newtown Festival, "In Conversation" with my publisher (and a brilliant writer in her own right) Maggie Hamilton. Though we battled the bands playing directly behind us, I think we managed to put in a solid performance, and as always, I met some really lovely people. Heavens it was hot, though! I think I've mentioned before that I'm not very good at staying in touch with friends. Is this a peculiarly male disease, or is it a problem for everyone in a disconnected age? It doesn't help that I'm extremely phone-phobic - I just hate talking on the phone - it sends me into shivers of dread and worry. Weird, huh? So here's what I did this week instead of catching up with calls:

Writers' Tent, Newtown Festival 2010

Newtown Festival, Writers' Tent, Walter Mason

Inner West Courier: Newtown Festival

Chance to hear writers speak volumes at Newtown Festival
Inner West Courier, 11th November 2010

STORIES from across the globe are being shared at the Newtown Festival’s Writers’ Tent this Sunday.

Presented by Newtown book store Better Read Than Dead, speakers will be discussing fiction, crime, social responsibilities, the world and politics.

Organiser Derek Dryden said they’re back for the seventh year as it’s the shop’s literary gift to the readers of Newtown.

“There’s authors to make you think, authors who will amuse you and plenty of authors who will simply entertain, but most of all it’s fun,” he said.

“It’s not the Miles Franklin or the Premier’s Literary Awards, it’s a group of authors having a fun day out at a great festival.”

Cabramatta travel writer Walter Mason will be in conversation with his publisher Maggie Hamilton at the tent about his latest book Destination Saigon.

“It’s very prestigious and it’s a tremendous privilege (to be part of the festival) as an author as Newtown is my readership,” he said.

Mason spent four months travelling from the south to the north of Vietnam to see the countryside, discover religions, and experience the culture and humanity of the people.

“I fell in love with it the first time I went there in ‘94 and have been back 11 times in 16 years,” he said.

Mason said the book is about friendships more than travelling and the experience of the people.

He said one of his favourite experiences was visiting a friend, who is a monk, who took him to stay at a temple on an ocean cliff. “Every night, with his fisherman friends, they would say a prayer for me and the people of Australia,” he said.

“I thought that was such an amazing gesture because they didn’t know me, they didn’t have too, but I felt so included.”

Mason will not only speaking about Destination Saigon, but will also be speaking about the writing process for all budding authors in the audience.

Mason said he’s looking forward to seeing the two speakers he has been placed between, Geesche Jacobsen speaking about crime and political commentator Annabel Crabb.

Mason will fly to Cambodia in a couple of weeks to start a new adventure and write his second travel book.

The Monks and Nuns of Vietnam

The monks and nuns of Vietnam represent the major source of social welfare that is available in a country that is still very poor.
If you are sick, old or orphaned, there is nowhere to go but the nearest temple, church or monastery. Many temples are de-facto orphanages, and many have become large welfare institutions, more through necessity than through choice.

I have witnessed again and again the great energy and great example of compassionate service and loving-kindness that these people set.
These humble, nameless religious professionals of all sects and stamps go about their work with a gentleness and great energy which I find hard to truly comprehend.
And after a day of service, sacrifice, study and contemplation, the evenings are filled with bells and chants and smells of incense as they go about their religious duties, praying for the needs of the whole world - and that includes you and me.

New Books for November

Oh dear, so much for my book fast. I didn't do very well at all, I'm afraid. A full pile of books, plus I admit a few that I've started reading already that didn't make the pile.
I'll be gone for most of December, so that's some consolation - very few new books being bought in Cambodia.
Anyway, here is the stash from the past 30 days or so. From the top:

  • The Bookshop at Curzon Street - because I am a Mitfordophile and I am at heart still a bookseller, so this is doubly interesting.
  • These days I am trying to make my living at writing, and I am constantly interested in the creative process, so I pounced on the new Julia Cameron book, The Creative Life.
  • I love books of letters, and this one is also feeding my Mitford addiction. Oh, and Patrick Leigh Fermor is also one of my obscure cults, so the letters between he and the Duchess of Devonshire should prove a wonderful distraction - In Tearing Haste.
  • Kenneth Tynan's Profiles - because last month I listened to the ever-inspiring Simon Callow reading Tynan's Diaries, and I can't believe it's taken me this long to "discover" him.
  • I love everything about David Sedaris, and even though the description of Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk worried me (don't we all hate it when a favourite author tries something new?), I still had to get it.
  • Having watched the BBC production of Barchester Chronicles, I simply had to try out a couple of Trollope novels.
  • I read a review of The Guest List, and it sounded like a queer must-have.
  • I am a little obsessive about my dreams, so I grabbed this fascinating book about Writers Dreaming when I saw it.
  • In the last chapter of my thesis I found myself writing about Dad and Dave, and I decided to get some of the books - I loved the Steele Rudd stories as a child, and look forward to re-visiting them.
  • Hong Kong is in my top 5 favourite places in the world, and I have never read Jan Morris' take on it.
  • Should I try to incorporate Descartes into my thesis? This book will tell me.
  • I know that personal branding is kind of old hat, but between you and me I still think it's the way to go. And I can never resist a really obscure Complete Idiots book.
  • Luxurious coffee-table books - especially about interiors - are a secret pleasure of mine, and there are so few with an Indochinese flavour. How could I resist Indochine Style?

Monday Blogcrawl

I seem incapable of keeping my room in any semblance of order. I initiate schedules, I compile lists, I stumble upon brilliant new systems of organisation...and then a week later everything is in a shambles once more. I am not, by nature, a neat persom. And mine is not a neat mind. Perhaps because of this, I crave structure and order, I fantasise about a life well-planned. Here is how all my planning came to nothing over the past week:

Heaven in The Science of Mind

(This Ernest Holmes t-shirt available at Zazzle)

I am keeping another blog called Self Help where I record the various things I discover as I research and write my PhD on the history of self-help books in Australia. Do check it out occasionally.
One of the projects on there has been the slow and careful reading of that enormous book Science of Mind in its entirety. Necessary, really, because of its enormous influence on New Thought and self-help in general. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that it was one of the most influential books of the 20th Century, despite being almost completely unknown by the literati!
Written by Ernest Holmes, and used as the textbook of for the religion that was once called Religious Science, but is currently undergoing a name change, Science of Mind is an enormous book in every sense, and to be frank, it's not easygoing. Though filled with brilliant - indeed radical - ideas about the new vision of self that was being presented to society by the reformers of New Thought, like most "spiritual classics" it is endlessly repetitive, inclined to drift off topic, and could have done with some heavy editing.
Of course, Science of Mind was probably never intended to be read in big chunks from cover to cover. It is a religious text, and its context is really the short chunk quoted in devotional literature, meditated on, or read out in church.
Holmes is the inspiration behind many of the big names of modern self-help (Louise Hay, Marianne Williamson) and he was a fascinating man. He established a religious empire that included the monthly devotional magazine - also called Science of Mind - that is still in print now.
Originally published in 1926, the book still stands as a radical re-working of traditional thought. In such a massive work (672 closely printed pages) it is hard to identify a single theme, but I can say that one of the recurring the messages is that there is a single Truth, and a set of Universal Laws, that embody Good. Whether we follow these laws is up to us, but to do so is natural, if not necessarily easy. We must trust that this Invisible Force is interested only in our good, and as much as we fall into its patterns, our lives will follow this path of complete Good.
Did I do well in explaining?
Anyway, here is a little exploration of the use of the word (and idea of) "heaven" in the book, as I have just posted over at my PhD blog.

The New Thought idea of heaven represents quite a departure from the standard Swedenborgian visions which initially inspired the movement. By the time Holmes was writing The Science of Mind, the vision of heaven being enunciated was a distinctly Buddhistic one, described more as a state of mind and being than as an actual place.
Holmes writes that "Only that can return to heaven which was born in heaven, and since heaven is not a place, but a state of consciousness, the return must be a recognition that heaven is already within" (SOM p. 472). This is a further illustration of Holmes' central idea (via Mary Baker Eddy and a host of New Thought writers) that the process of self-improvement is not one of seeking outward advances, but of returning to an already existing state of perfection. Holmes criticises orthodox religion because it most often externalises the spiritual quest. In Holmes' philosophy all of the things that people have considered to be outside them - God, Heaven, even Christ - are in fact already in place in our spirit. We have forgotten that we are simply expressions of these qualities, and so we foolishly pursue an outward quest to discover something we are in fact carrying with us constantly. More than being a place on earth, heaven is our own mind, if we will allow it to re-unite with Original Mind.
Holmes says that we are unaware of these truths because centuries of conditioning have rendered us incapable of comprehending the true spiritual message of Christianity. It is only in this modern age, when our world is advancing and our minds improving, that teachers like Holmes and others are able to finally explain the truth. Those who refuse to believe are simply emulating the thick-headed listeners spoken about in John3:12 "If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?" We struggle with the ideas of illusion, when we could be falling into accord with the realities of heaven.
For Holmes the world that is real - the world we know now - is in fact the illusion. It is maya, and it is merely a distraction. But if the ways of the world hurt us, if we know sorrow and difficulty, this may be a good thing. Such sufferings may be what inspire us to begin on the spiritual path. Many of us are doomed to learn to the fullest extent the impossibility of a worldly outlook, but hopefully once we see the futility of materialism, "the lesson will be learned and we shall enter the paradise of contentment" (SOM p. 491).
Like all other Biblical concepts and imagery, heaven is for the most part a symbol for Holmes. It is the code word for all that is good, and all that which is most spiritual. "The time will come when we will let our "conversation be in heaven," and refuse to talk about, read or think about, those things that ought not to be" (SOM p. 55), says Holmes, describing one of New Thought's more controversial edicts: avoiding and denying those things which aren't in accord with perfection. The heavenly state is one in which positive thought, feeling and action are constantly at work. The metaphysician (for so Holmes describes the student of New Thought) must choose always the heavenly path, and to dwell always in heavenly qualities, though the truth around her may be quite different. It is Holmes' point that this "truth" of suffering, of lack and discontent, is in fact truly false. That which is not good is error - only the good is heavenly.
In fact, the effort to improve, to become a truly good person, is itself a daily struggle, a daily spiritual journey from the earthly to the heavenly. In his 1957 book How to Change Your Life, Holmes wrote that "...being lifted up from the earth means uniting with heaven. This daily lifting up of your thought is necessary if you wish to unite yourself and everything you are doing with the Divine..." (p. 252). Holmes seems to be suggesting that in manipulating our thoughts and the direction and intention of our daily tasks, we re-orient ourselves heavenward, and can be immersed once again in the divine perfection from which we emerged.

The Barchester Chronicles

I remember first watching the BBC production of The Barchester Chronicles when I was a child, and being utterly absorbed. Now it seems extraordinary that I should have been so interested in Trollope's world of Anglican Divines and their bizarre dramas. But for years I carried the memory of this series in my head, and I finally bought the DVD and watched it again.
And once again I was completely gone - drawn in to the breathtaking inconsequentiality of Trollope's impossibly genteel world, with its clergymen, academics, nouveau riche and winsome widows. And the production is beautiful - gorgeous scenery, wonderfully campy performances by all concerned, and lots of bonnets and crinolines. I was desperate to see each new episode, and had to ration myself to one a night in order to extend the sweetness of The Barchester Chronicles.
So what is it about? A group of Anglican priests in a mythical cathedral town in nineteenth century England, is what. Their little world is so intensely insular that even the smallest dramas take on immense importance. And what a fascinating little world it is. The hierarchy of the church and the associated titles is heaven to someone like me with slight obsessive-compulsive inclinations. It also offers a fascinating insight into gender and social roles in Victorian England, to the intricacies of the etiquette of the time, and to the rapid changes taking place in class and culture.
Alan Rickman plays the ultimate clerical bad-guy, the Bishop's evil assistant Mr. Slope. There are shades of Dickens to his character (possible? Not so sure on my literary history here - am thinking that Trollope was writing slightly after Dickens. Happy to have someone set me right on this), and Mr. Slope reminds me awfully of that other great literary slimebag Uriah Heep. Or perhaps that's just a BBC costume-drama syndrome, with players of literary anti-heros encouraged to ham it up outrageously in their roles. Certainly Alan Rickman camps it up with gusto, and his is the character that delighted me most as a child. I'm also a huge fan of Geraldine McEwan as the Bishop's interfering wife - especially since I have so recently watched her play E. F. Benson's legendary priestess of high-camp, Lucia. She is a marvellous actress, who manages to steal almost every scene she is in.
It is genteel, it is slow-paced and it is thoroughly gorgeous, and I fear that it has caused me to consider embarking on one of those painfully precious literary projects - reading the novels of Anthony Trollope. I will almost certainly become a Trollope bore.
The Barchester Chronicles is perfect viewing for your summer holiday, and the perfect antidote to all of those ghastly hi-tech action films that one is usually bombarded with at this time of year. Escape to a gentler - though not necessarily kinder - world.

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
"If I asked you to point out some of the people you see as good examples of success and motivation, the chances are that you would choose prominent people, the ones who turn up in the news and on TV, the wealthy businessperson, the gold medal athlete, the media personality, teh quoted politician, the super salesperson. Well, the first piece of truth I can share with you is that I have seen enough prominent people close up to be sure that many of them are unhappy, driven people who often see themselves as failures."
~ p.1, "The Truth About Success and Motivation" by Dr Bob Montgomery

Monday Blogcrawl

Onto a new chapter of my thesis, and as always, this is the most difficult bit. I struggle with a sense of releif afer having just completed a chapter, and I find it hard to buckle down and get reading and writing for teh next one - I have no time to spare! Ths is how I've distracted myself this past week:

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