Behind Closed Doors: The Tragic Untold Story of the Duchess of Windsor

I became aware of Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, at a young age.
I was eight years-old when the landmark Thames Television series Edward and Mrs. Simpson screened, and younger people would probably have no idea how much scandal and discussion it caused. Especially so in rural North Queensland, a royalist enclave where the whole issue was still hotly debated and keenly felt. My grandmother was unusually sympathetic toward Mrs. Simpson, and so I inherited this same fondness.
In Hugo VickersBehind Closed Doors he mentions the screening of that series, and whether or not the Duchess of Windsor actually watched it. He also tells a great deal of other information about the Duchess’ private life, providing the reader with an exhaustive account of the sad final years of Mrs.Simpson, the American woman who brought down the King of England.

Now, reading books about Wallis Simpson is something of a hobby of mine. I think the best by far is Diana Mosley’s The Duchess ofWindsor. Mosley, a Mitford sister, was, of course, a close personal friend of the Duchess, and painted a deeply sympathetic picture of her life. Indeed, Mosley was a very fine writer whose talent was overlooked, in part because of her much more acclaimed sisters Nancy and Jessica and in part because of the scandal and unfortunate political associations that dogged her own life.
The second definitive book on the Duchess’ life is her own memoir, The Heart Has its Reasons – surely one of the most beautiful and evocative titles ever. Vickers mentions both books in his own, but he is somewhat dismissive of them, claiming that they are whitewashes that seek to cast the Duchess in a much more compassionate light than she had ever been before.
That’s not to say that this book, Behind Closed Doors, is a hatchet job on Wallis Simpson. Far from it. Vickers, a vintage royal-watcher who was himself a part of the Windsor’s story, tries to cast an objective eye across the great events of the Duchess of Windsor’s life. But he is so infuriated, and distraught, by the horror of the poor woman’s twilight years that he can’t help but render her a slightly pathetic creature, an ambitious, uncultured woman who was visited with all of the worst horrors of old age. In this book Vickers paints the terrible helplessness of the elderly and frail Duchess, surrounded by venal French executors, lawyers and hangers-on who steal from her and keep her locked in her room, more or less a vegetable.
The villain of the piece is Maitre Blum, the Duchess’ French lawyer. A monster of self-importance, she spent decades both defending the Duchess’ name and slowly embezzling the Windsor’s estate, taking control of family papers and dispensing jewels, furniture and antiques to friends and institutions, all the while spinning wild conspiracy theories about how the British royal family were seeking to destroy the Duchess, steal her belongings and defile her good name. Vickers creates a brilliant character with the publicity-hungry Blum, who eventually, in some kind of karmic retribution, finds herself elderly and frail and a prisoner in her own apartment. She becomes blind, and finds her way around by following a rope which has been strung up through the rooms of her home.
Blum sought to aggrandize herself, and, bizarrely, to re-establish the Duchess’ reputation, by giving away the Windsor’s family heirlooms to various French charities and institutions. Eventually the Duchess of Windsor was completely unconscious to it all, barely alive for a miserable decade in the care of fiercely protective nurses.
This is not a feel-good book. The ultimate feeling I got from reading it was that the Duchess lead a wasted life, and that she was pretty much completely unhappy from the day of her marriage to Edward till the day of her death, fifty years later. There is a great deal of delightful, gossipy detail in the book, and Vickers is never better than when describing fashion and interiors, two areas in which the Duchess herself excelled.
This is a must-read for any fans of the British Royal Family.

Fiona Wright's Knuckled

I've never reviewed a book of poetry before.
Indeed, I could count the volumes of poetry I've actually read from cover to cover on one hand. It is a form that has always scared me, though I envy the passion and commitment of poets, who are still the most enthusiastic writing practitioners.
So I approached this collection from Australian poet Fiona Wright with some small amount of anxiety. Would I feel bored? Would I be able to work out what the hell was going on?

But two poems in I had relaxed. Knuckled is an engaging and thoroughly original collection of poetry that is very much about place, and Wright manages to transport the reader into those places she describes. Be it Bankstown, Ulladulla or Ho Chi Minh City, these poems deftly and economically evoke the special idiosyncracies of a place once visited that define memory and the physical and emotional reaction  to the twin shocks of difference and unexpected recognition. Wright's poetic world is not obscure but visceral, instantly recognisable. The poems made me smile and sometimes hold my breath because I was instantly involved in the tiny, complete worlds she manages to create in each short poem.
Sure, there is experiment, as in the short cycle called 'Page Three Girls' in which she takes a headline or snatch of words from page three of a newspaper and creates a poem. But these too are brilliantly structured and engaging. Though we have only a hint of the full story, it is as though we are all-knowing, personally engaged in this fragment of gossip, of drama. We are keen to nod and admit to a knowledge we don't possess because Wright the poet has engaged us in a mutual confessional act, and we don't want to admit we are thoroughly out of our depth.
What made this book sing for me was its complete lack of pretension. I felt included by Wright's poems, and I recognised the locations, no matter how distant or foreign. The poet's reactions are ones I recognised, though I may not have experienced them. And the natural world is beautifully, originally, evoked. No easy thing to do, I should imagine. Anyone could recognise the garden she describes:

The ancient frangipani over-winters, 
bald and bony, 
          its thick polyps mottled and arthritic.
Its arms beg yogic for the sky, stream wider
than the shouldering terrace.

The series of poems about Colombo had me begging for more. I am waiting for the book-length travel memoir in verse, something which Wright would be more than capable of pulling off. In these poems she drifts through Sri Lanka in a state so many of us recognise, neither tourist nor resident, and engaged in a history which in her case is distinctly personal and which the poems tantalisingly hint at and, ultimately, explain. And neither is there sanctimony or didacticism in her description of a troubled place. There is merely the experience of connection, in all its simplicity and potential for transcendence. This quality of lightness is captured when she writes:

A thin-fingered soldier 
        invites me to hold his rifle,
and calls me beautiful.

I read this collection in two sittings, drawn into Wright's poetic world, forgetting, even,  that these were poems. Is it rude to say that? Nonetheless, I was absorbed in this writing in a way that I never imagined poetry would allow me. I invite you to challenge yourself and allow yourself to be surprised by this beautiful (at every level - the cover illustration by Vicki Lee Johnston is exquisite) and very surprising book. It might just be time to get interested in poetry.

Me and Doreen Virtue

It's not every day you turn up unexpectedly in an international bestseller.
A few years ago (I want to say 2009?), doubtless bored and just aimlessly surfing the net, I came across a little piece saying that bestselling New Age author and Angel Card inventor Doreen Virtue was putting together a book about the Virgin Mary and was looking for people who might have interesting stories about encounters with the Virgin. Now, unlikely as it may seem, I happened to have a few such stories and, in an unusual fit of diligence and application, I wrote them all down and sent them off to the provided email address and never gave it another thought. Indeed, I forgot all about it.
Fast forward to September 2012 and I had a little card telling me there was something to pick up at the post office. Not at all  unusual - I review books, music and films and I have to pick up packages three or four days a week. I am on first-name terms with all of the people at the post office. I was surprised, however,  when my favourite attendant came back with a package from America. Who was sending me something from America? And there, stamped on the back of the package, was "Doreen Virtue Enterprises." Why on earth was Doreen Virtue sending me stuff directly from the States when her publisher, Hay House, had an Australian office?
The moment I opened it and the book, Mary, Queen of Angels, slid out, it all came flooding back to me. My stories must be in the book!

I sat on the bench at the taxi stand outside Cabramatta post office and searched through the book for my name and my stories. I started at the back, because I figured that's where I would end up. Eventually I discovered, however, that my stories had made it into Chapter 1, from pages 11-13. And I must say, they are rather good, too.
So, do go out and grab a copy of Doreen Virtue's Mary, Queen of Angels and read all about my mystical adventures!

The Way of Silent Presence

My interest in the contemplative traditions of all the world's religions is long standing.
Silence as a spiritual practice is something that I have always been drawn to. It has inspired my investigations of Buddhism, my various spiritual retreats all over the world and my brief flirtation with Quakerism.

And so I have signed up for a course at the Aquinas Academy in Sydney called The Way of Silent Presence. We will be examining the 14th century spiritual classic The Cloud of Unknowing.

It is a book I have been meaning to read for decades now, and this is the perfect excuse to actually sit down and study it.
In some ways The Cloud... is the quintessential mystical text, affirming the necessity of love in one's relationship with the eternal, for, as Clifton Walters explains in his introduction to the Penguin version:

"Once love has sprung the soul can "press" lovingly upon God. Love holds the key to contemplation. Through love God is known, not through the intellect."

It is also said that the book lies at the heart of the modern trend of spiritual formation.

This will be a short course (only three weeks), but it looks very interesting. The course description explains:

"In this course we will use The Cloud of Unknowing as a window on a form of prayer being rediscovered in our own times. In conjunction with this exploration we will also consider the much older tradition of the via negativa (“the way of negation”) or the apophatic way that is essential to our tradition but largely overlooked in the last millennium in favour of the via positiva (“the way of affirmation”) or kataphatic way."

Buddhism & Self-Help - A Brief History

On Sunday 21st October I will be giving an illustrated talk at the Sydney Unitarian Church on the connections between Buddhism and self-help and the history of Buddhist representations in English literature.

It will be fascinating and lots of fun, covering ground from Lobsang Rampa to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.


Buddhism & Self-Help - A Brief History
An illustrated talk from Walter Mason.
10.30 AM Sunday October 21, 2012

15 Francis Street  East Sydney (a short walk from Museum Station)

All welcome - Entry is free

Oscar Wilde in As We Were by E.F. Benson

In lauding the great society hostesses of the 1890s (including the Duchess of Devonshire of the time, who sounds just fabulous) E.F. Benson recalls a late-night supper hosted by the Marchioness of Ripon (oh, to know these people!). He mentions casually that Oscar Wilde was present at the party, and recounts this wonderful Wildeanism:

"Oscar Wilde came drifting largely along, and caught sight of some new arrival. 'Oh, I'm so glad you've come,' he said. 'There are a hundred things I want not to say to  you.'"

E.F. Benson, As We Were, p.181

One of the things that has just dawned on me, rather late in the piece, is that the successful memoirist and diarist needs to record interactions with famous people and reactions to timely events. These are the things that later generations will be looking for. Of course, we are mostly obsessed with the minutiae of our own lives and the portentousness of our own words and anxieties, and we can often forget to allow the imposition of the outside world. A perusal of my own old diaries proves the truth of this. Unfortunately, this lack of recording of the great events of the age can begin to take on a slightly Pooterish quality.

Must remember to keep more of an ear to the news and write down my reactions.

Writing the Personal: As We Were by E. F. Benson

One of my very favourite examples of personal writing is E. F. Benson's exquisite memoir As We Were.

Many of you may not be familiar with E. F. Benson, though I am obsessed with him and he is, I think, an enormous influence on my own style. I first discovered him while reading about Nancy Mitford who, along with luminaries such as Evelyn Waugh and Noel Coward, made a cult of Benson's books after he had died. By that time they had become unfashionable and gone out of print. The young writers took out ads in The Times saying "We will pay anything for Lucia books." Lucia was the heroine of Benson's most popular series of comic novels.

Benson is an intriguing figure. He was the son of Queen Victoria's Archbishop of Canterbury, but apart from that poor man the entire family was queer, including the Benson matriarch, who took up with her best friend as soon as the Archbishop died.

Mary Benson, E.F. Benson's lesbian mother

The entire family was literary, as well. Apart from E. F. (Edward), older brother Arthur was one of the Edwardian era's most popular diarists and younger brother R. H. was a notorious Catholic convert (later a Monsignor) whose religious writings were hugely popular with English Catholics and who, in his youth, had been a great pal of the wicked literary enigma Frederick Rolfe.

Edwardian diarist A.C. Benson, E.F. Benson's older brother

E. F. Benson was a prolific writer, and perhaps the Edwardian era's best comic novelist. He achieved fame early with a send-up of the modern woman called Dodo, but that book is almost unreadable now. Indeed, I find most of his fiction appallingly dated, apart from his masterpieces, the series of novels featuring the repulsive heroines Mapp and Lucia. These two women are amongst the greatest comic creations in English literature.

70s edition of one of the Lucia books

Less well known is E. F. Benson's autobiographical work. This, too, is very fine, and As We Were is perhaps the best example. Published in 1930, it details the vanished Victorian world of aristocrats and eccentric upper-class dilettantes, most of whom Benson knew personally and many of whom were family members.

Writing the Personal: Some Examples

A couple of months ago now I was speaking on a panel devoted to Writing the Personal at the 1 day Sydney Emerging Writers' Festival, and in the name of research I was looking at some memoirs, new and old, to see how others write about the personal and what they choose to discuss.
I thought I'd share with you some really lovely books (some of them old favourites) that evoke personal worlds in a fascinating way:

Interludes With the Gods by Sondra Ray - Ray was a hugely influential New Age fgure in the 80s, and was partly responsible for the popularity of an alternative therapy called Rebirthing. She was also a talented writer, with a knack for evoking the personal, as though letting the reader in on an intimate secret. In Interludes With the Gods she recounts her various spiritual encounters with various gurus, healers and teachers, and it is an absolutely fascinating and compelling book. From 60s uber guru Ram Dass to Jesus, Ray tells her readers how her life has been changed by her time spent with these "gods." She speaks, for example, about her meeting with body worker Ida Rolf, and how Rolf told her to keep on going with her own healing work. Ever-so-engaging.

Meeting Fairies by R. Ogilvie Crombie - Ogilvie Crombie was better known as Roc, and was a really significant figure in the Findhorn Community in Scotland. This is an interesting book because it was compiled by Australian publisher Maggie Hamilton from the diaries, essays and papers Roc left behind. In them he reveals a surprising and magical world of fairies and nature spirits that he communicates with in various Scottish locations. He explains that every garden should have "a wild section which acts as a focal point for teh nature spirits to work from." This books intimacy comes from its revelation of many things that most people would reject as just plain crazy: points of "power" and conversations with the Great God Pan. But it is a magical and enchanting world described so matter-of-factly that you begin to wonder, "What if he was right..."

The Last Cigarette by Simon Gray - Gray's memoirs have something of a cult following, and they are funny and very honest accounts of dealing with addiction, ageing and increasing decrepitude. Gray writes beautifully of his attempts to stop smoking.

This is How by Augusten Burroughs - Burroughs has, of course, made a career out of personal confession, but this deconstruction of self-help is probably my favourite of his books. Oddly enough, his attempts to draw more general lessons from his own life encounters renders the book even more intimate, more rawly confessional. His overheard conversations and bittersweet memories serve only to render the character of himself more real, and more vulnerable.

The Creative Life by Julia Cameron - Though ostensibly a book about how to live more creatvely, it really is an excellent account of the cruel trials of the creative process, and the heartaches and anxieties that occur while creating a large-scale work. Cameron, the self-help mega-guru famous for The Artist's Way, tells the reader about dinners with friends and disagreements with collaborators, creating a gentle but ultimately illuminating personal world in which writing and creating is paramount. This is quite inspirational.

Writing the Personal

The Emerging Writers' Festival has become one of Australia's stand-out literary festivals in a very short time, and the whole internet is abuzz whenever it takes place in Melbourne.
This year, in November, the Festival comes to Sydney once again for a kind of concentrated mini-version, and it promises to be a spectacular day.
If you are a writer interested in exploring the exciting new possibilities in the world of publishing and writing then please mark this date in your calendar. It will be a fact-filled and fun day, not least during my session, called "Writing the Personal."
Here are the details:

Writing The Personal

Blogs... Memoir... Biography... how does one write about oneself while making it interesting to others? What kinds of skills or techniques are required? These writers - Fiona Wright, Eddie Sharp and Walter Mason - will give you the benefit of their wisdom.

3.10-4pm, Saturday 3 November 2012
Patrick White Room, NSW Writers’ Centre, Rozelle

Walter Mason gets down some urgent notes on a tuk tuk in Kampong Speu, Cambodia

My Favourite Confessions

Listening recently to a BBC podcast discussing the 300th anniversary of Jean Jacques Rousseau, I was drawn in by their discussion of the confession, the literary mode for which Rousseau is most infamous. 

I am drawn to confessions, as all good gossips are. I want to believe that I am being let in on a secret, that I am being exposed to something that has heretofore been kept hidden. 

Of course, many of the books I list here are diaries, and perhaps purists will insist that a diary is not necessarily a confession. But I disagree – I don’t think there is a diarist on the face of the earth who doesn’t secretly hope her diaries will be discovered and published. So I choose to read diaries as long and constant confessions.

My favourite confessions:

Oscar Wilde’s DeProfundis – this is the long (over 10,000 words) and bitter letter that Wilde wrote to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, accusing him of desertion, selfishness and callous lack of concern for others. 

Joe Orton’s Diaries – I remember being at college and very young and picking up a copy of this that a friend was reading. I opened up at a page randomly and was instantly drawn in. In fact, I sat there reading page after page, completely ignoring all of the people around me in the busy student union bar. I was utterly absorbed, and knew I had to have my own copy. 

Frederick Rolfe’s Venice Diaries – These are very naughty indeed, and these days exceedingly expensive to buy. I used to know someone who had a copy, and, when I was in the midst of my Corvo-mania (a real condition), I was able to borrow them from her.

Edmund White’s My Lives – Confession at its very best, the avuncular White confesses, amonst many other things, to spending a fortune on a sex worker.

Paul Theroux’s My Other Life – Confession cloaked as fiction, I think this is one of Theroux’s best books. 

Aldo Busi’s Sodomies in Eleven Point – Another one that skirts the edge of genre – is it autobiography or is it a novel? Busi couldn’t be pinned down, though someone in the book manages to get pinned down in the back of a bread van in Morocco. A fabulous read that deserves to be better known.

Bruce Benderson’s The Romanian – Benderson was one of the angry young generation of queer novelists in the 80s, and I read his scandalous novel User when I was quite young and  impressionable. This romantic memoir is about his extended and quite tormented relationship with a straight Romanian hustler, and it is simply brilliant. Honest, unpretentious and entirely without vanity, not many writers have Benderson’s courage.

Catherine Millet’s The Sexual Life of Catherine M – I remember seeing Catherine M speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and watching the more staid and conventional Australian writers bristle at her assertion that sex could be divorced from emotion, love and relationship. This book is her experiment in autobiography which, she contests, normally leaves out the sex. She attempts the opposite – to tell a life only through its sexual activity. Fascinating and challenging stuff. 

Kenneth WilliamsDiaries – People don’t realise that Williams was a literate, cultured and very funny man, and his tormented and completely absorbing diaries establish this. Along with the banal detail of everyday life Williams recounts the frustrations and fears of being a prominent Queer in a world that was still very difficult for such people. Funny, constantly diverting and ultimately tragic.
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