Cecil Beaton's expectations...

Last year I put together a talk on Cecil Beaton for Ashfield Library. He'd been a minor obsession of mine since I was a teenager (I had always loved the movie version of My Fair Lady) and I had read some of his books and diaries over the years. Once I had to write the talk it gave me a chance to research him in depth and to read everything by him that I could get my hands on.

One of the books I managed to get online was It Gives Me Great Pleasure. I ordered it simply because it was by him, and I had no idea what it might be about. I was disappointed when it arrived to discover that it was an account of a year (1955) in which he travelled across America to give lectures for the American Ladies Clubs. It looked like it would be terrible, and gave every impression of being something he banged out because he didn't have any better ideas that year but still needed cash.



I couldn't have been more wrong. When I finally did pick it up and start reading I discovered that it was beautifully written, funny, charming and extremely interesting - Beaton at his best. In fact, I recommend it now to anyone wanting to find out more about Cecil Beaton.


The young Cecil beaton

The book also alerted me to a beautiful line from the Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney (Beaton really was terribly well read): look in thy heart and write. This line, Beaton tells us, was what inspired him to write the book. Ever since I have kind of taken it as my own creative motto.

Beaton was, of course, an aesthete par excellence, and famous for his louche lifestyle and his friends among the rich and incredibly famous. He had not, however, come from upper-class stock. His father was an extremely successful timber merchant, and after Cecil left Cambridge he had made an effort to be a part of the family firm. He was utterly miserable as a timber merchant, however, and the timber industry's loss would soon become the world's gain after he ran away to America and began to pursue photography and gossip mongering in earnest.

In It Gives Me Great Pleasure, Beaton writes how he had no confidence in his ability as a speaker and so he engages the services of an eccentric voice coach. Right from the beginning of this book Beaton proves just what a beautiful writer and brilliant storyteller he was, and the funny anecdotes begin from the very first page.

Arriving in Manhattan to launch his tour, he stays in a suite of rooms that he had been engaged to decorate the previous summer. Like many creative types, Beaton was forced to do all kinds of work to boost his income, and he was also a great deal more talented and creative than most. He decorated houses and apartments, took photographs of celebrities and royalty, wrote articles and gossip pieces for the newspapers and magazines and designed sets and costumes for the theatre. He kept himself very busy. I am not sure which particular hotel he is referring to here, as he decorated a number of them. I suppose if I cross-referenced this against his diaries I could discover this, but I am lazy and would rather throw this out to my readers - does anyone know?

Beaton had always been in love with New York, and he travelled there as soon as he was old enough and had enough money. He was to visit it annually almost every year of his life. He was not, however, completely uncritical in his evaluation of that city. "The New Yorker," he writes in the book, "has made a habit of complaint." Oh, if he could only watch an episode of The Real Housewives of New York! This statement reminds us that Beaton was, at heart, an Edwardian gentleman, and he still embraced that Edwardian taboo against excessive complaining. While in New York he further indulges his love for the past by attending a performance of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan.

Just before embarking on his tour of America he had made (doubtless at Savile Row, where he had a favoured tailor who made his clothing all his life) "a wonderful new suit of pearly grey, cut by my London tailor in an Edwardian, nay, Victorian style." This suit was to make a great impression on his audiences, making him look even more picturesquely English and old-world than they had dared to hope.

Though he was only just 50 when the book was written, Beaton plays up to an affected fogeyism, again exaggerating his archaic look, speech and manners. "I hate machines of every description," he sniffs at one stage, "have no luck with them." But of course, his entire career was built on his manipulation of machines, specifically cameras and the primitive development and editing equipment he so famously played with in order to make his subjects even more glamorous than they already were.

In the book he refers to this other life as celebrity photographer. He tells a story of having just photographed Prince Charles (just a little boy at this point), and also his adventures while photographing George Bernard Shaw. The book glories in side anecdotes of celebrities he has met and known, including tantalising and snobbishly thrilling allusions to luminaries like Andre Gide (who he possibly slept with) and Jean Cocteau (a great friend).

The Podcasts I Love

I've been hooked on podcasts for years now, and listen to them ironing, gardening, walking and waiting around for trains. I get through quite a lot that way.

Because I talk about them and mention them a lot on social media people often ask me for recommendations. The fabulous novelist Claire Corbett asked me recently if I could do a post on great podcasts, so I thought I'd give it a go. I have split them up by genre to make it easy for you to skip over those you feel you may not like.

Special Series Podcasts

I am conscious that I am not very original with these recommendations. The fact is that the short-series podcasts that everyone has talked about have been quite good, and I have loved them just like everyone else. But in case you haven't kept up, here are the best ones:



Serial (Season 1): The first podcast i ever really waited each week to hear, and the one that has changed the whole landscape of podcasting and, I think, ways of telling narrative short fiction. Its influence has been profound, and if you are any kind of writer or storyteller I think you need to have listened to this. And, again like many other people, I lost interest in series 2 by about the third episode, so don't worry about it.



Missing Richard Simmons: I consumed the whole thing on a long train ride down the South Coast, and I think it is truly superb. I adore Richard Simmons, but you don't have to to enjoy this short series. Superb storytelling, lots of fascinating people. It had its critics, but a lot of that criticism was, in my opinion, unfounded. Entertaining and really absorbing.



S Town: I think that John B. McLemore, the focus of this intriguing story, will go down as one of the great characters in American history. This series is an example of really great artistry and superior storytelling. I never wanted it to end. And if you've grown up in a small rural town, as I have, you will identify like crazy.


Pop Culture




99% Invisible: Ostensibly a podcast about architecture and design, 99%  Invisible is really a great example of telling fascinating stories about history and culture. This podcast is terminally hip, but the episodes are genuinely interesting and shed new light on how we think about our constructed landscapes. I learn something new every time I listen.



The Art of Manliness: OK, I know this title is going to put off most female listeners, but it is simply focused on men, so kudos for making the label 100% transparent. Lifestyle advice, health, history and culture - great interviews with fascinating people, all tangentially linked to men and ideas of manhood. Quite a treasure.



Backlisted Podcast: Perhaps one of my absolute favourites, Backlisted is basically 4 or 5 fascinating people sitting in a kitchen talking about books from the past which deserve to be read by more people. I have discovered some fascinating writers by listening to this, and I have been re-enthused about cult writers from my reading past. Favourite episodes have been on Stevie Smith, Denton Welch and Sylvia Townsend Warner

Spirituality



Angel Heart Radio: The audio quality is not the best, but this Australian-run podcast is wonderfully inspiring. It's really out-there, so not one for my more sceptical friends, but if you are interested in New Age spirituality it is a tremendous source of information. Regularly features my dear friend Rosemary Butterworth. Angels, Ascended Masters, meditations and feng shui. Something for everyone.



Holy Smoke: A religion podcast produced by the Spectator, as you would expect it concentrates on things related to traditional religion, but I find it very stimulating and fascinating. A very honest look at religion and faith, and it's not always positive.



Creative Spirit: This one comes from Unity Online Radio, and really any of their podcasts are fantastic. The base is solidly New Thought, and Rev. Maggie Shannon explores the intersections between spirituality and creativity, and I find it all incredibly inspiring.

Writing



Ann Kroeker, Writing Coach: These short little messages are, unusually, issued from a single voice - most podcasts are interview or panel format. I love the conciseness of it all, and a good mix of topics, from dealing with rejection to mastering grammar and composition



Beautiful Writers Podcast: This one could probably have gone in the spirituality section, too. But the interviews are focused on creativity, so it is squarely focused on writers. They occasionally interview really big names, like Anne Lamott.

Learning



History Extra: Best history podcast by far. Based on the BBC History magazine. Usually interview format, usually with an historian with a new book out, it features incredibly varied content: Historical novelists writing about the Tudors to Herodotus to America in World War One. Usually a couple of different topics each podcast, so almost always something interesting each episode.



In Our Time: Another BBC podcast, with the gorgeous old legend Melvyn Bragg talking to a handful of experts on a particular topic, varying from nineteenth century American poets to the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Once in a blue moon I'll have to skip one because I simply can't understand what everyone is talking about. But usually it represents a superb opportunity to broaden my intellectual horizons.

Oh, and did you know that my first book, Destination Saigon, is still in print and still selling well? If you love Vietnam, or are planning to go there, or know someone who is, then you should get a copy. It's a great fun read, and you also learn a little along the way. 

The Art of Love Tarot - a new deck that combines intuitive understanding with reflective wisdom





People often ask me what kind of deck they should use when they start to learn tarot. Now, I used to be quite a fundamentalist about this. "There's no point in learning on anything other than the Rider Waite," I would tell people. That is the deck on which all of the others are based, so you might as well go straight to the source.

But age and wisdom have mellowed me somewhat, and I also remember that the deck that first got me really interested in the tarot and learning about it was Lucy Cavendish's wonderful but very non-traditional Oracle Tarot. So I also realised I was being a hypocrite!

So now I tell people just to go with what calls to you. You might like the Cat Tarot, a Buddhist Tarot or something wonderfully unexpected like the Victoria Regina deck (a personal favourite of mine). You will, eventually, learn the Rider Waite, but the starting point is totally up to you, and you should go with the images and symbols that make your heart sing. heart before head, every time. Tarot is like romance.

This all came to me last week when I opened for the first time Denise Jarvie and Toni Carmine Salerno's new The Art of Love Tarot. I immediately sank into its luscious beauty, its exquisite symbolism and its pure energy of transcendent wisdom. "This is the kind of deck," I thought to myself, "that I would love to give to anyone starting out." It's just so beautiful and such a pleasure to use and explore.

Denise Jarvie is a Sydney spiritual teacher whose work is known to me through her previous deck, The Flower of Life: Wisdom of Astar oracle deck. This deck, inspired by channelled teachings received by Denise, is richly poetic, and I have had some wonderful experiences with it right from the very first time I accidentally selected one of its cards from a bowl full of mixed cards left out at a trade fair. Denise's work is rich and poetic, and always informed by the kind of Universal wisdom which helps readers and those looking for inspiration find a pivoting point and a new place of focus.

Toni Carmine Salerno, who created the art for The Art of Love Tarot, needs no introduction. His artwork is well known to anyone who has spent much time on the spiritual scene in Australia, and he is the creative genius behind Blue Angel the publishing house responsible for this deck. So it carries the imprimatur, and the distinct artistic beauty, of the maestro himself. We are in good hands here. In fact, this is the first ever tarot deck he has illustrated, so it makes this deck something utterly unique.

It is a somewhat non-traditional deck, with the suits re-named, but it follows a form easily recognizable to anyone who knows the tarot. And beginners can just have fun exploring its loveliness and potential. It is NOT about romance. Instead, this is a tarot which lays out the pathways of Universal Love, and as such it is a genuine gift to the world.

At random I select some exquisite cards which instantly sing to me with meaning and moment:





The Seven of Angels

The suit of Swords has been re-imagined as the Suit of Angels in this deck (I love it!) and this card is about freedom to fly and our capacity to see beauty everywhere. 





#12 of the Major Arcana: The Turnaround

This is this deck's re-imagining of The Hanged Man, and this vibrant card excites me no end with its meaning of new possibilities and little bit of life shaking.






The Five of Trees

The Pentacles become Trees in this deck, and tree imagery has been flying at me for a few weeks now - this suit keeps coming up for me whenever I use this deck (which has been every day since I received it). Staring up into that lovely branch and leaves I am alerted to my own tendency to concentrate on the denseness of problems and forgetting the true perspective of life and possibility.

See how exhilarating the deck is?

Grab a copy as soon as you possibly keen (it's not out yet, but it's available for pre-order everywhere) and devote yourself to a new tarot deck of true import. It will quickly become a new favourite. 




The Bright Young Things

The Bright Young Things (sometimes also called the Bright Young People) were a generation of upper-class youths in England during the period between the two World Wars. They were fast, daring, funny and absolutely outrageous. They posed and dressed up and had wild parties and seemed to live for nothing but pleasure, calling down upon their heads all kinds of condemnation from their elders. They would go on to become some of the most celebrated figures in 20th century letters, and more than a few of them became exemplary patriots serving their country in World War 2. A few of them would go on to become the very kinds of moralistic grandees that they had sought to rebel against when they were young.

The most notable among them were:




Cecil BeatonBeaton never properly belonged in the group because of his thoroughly middle-class background. However his steadfast snobbery, his hard work, unceasing social climbing and gift for photography soon made him invaluable and he became forever-associated with the scene. In many ways he bought himself into it through working as a photographer and making the glamorous people appear even more glamorous.

Stephen Tennant – Sometimes referred to as “the brightest of the Bright Young Things,” the beautiful, effeminate Tennant was the child of one of the great Edwardian socialites, and great things were expected of him. He never fulfilled his promise, and indeed he became quite famous for being one of the greatest failures of his generation. He famously claimed that he went to bed in 1940 and never got up again.



Nancy Mitford – Clever, beautiful, and vastly unsatisfied with her aristocratic background of genteel poverty and intellectual stupor, Mitford was one of the first to chronicle the wild parties and crazy gags of this group. These early novels of hers were not successes, however, and she had to wait till the 1950s to find fame. Throughout this period she was engaged in unsuitable romances.



Evelyn Waugh – Another imposter, Waugh was a middle-class boy who used to walk miles to post his letters so that they might bear a more fashionable postmark on the envelope. Clever and funny, he rose to prominence at Oxford with his strange poses and his homosexual relationships with people well above his station. Waugh would be the first to find success with chronicling this set, in his acclaimed first novel Vile Bodies. It made him an instant celebrity.



Harold Acton – Is perhaps the most unknown (now) of this set, though at the time he was one of the richest and most outrageous. He knew everyone and had a great gift for friendship. He was old-mannish, however, prematurely bald and conscious of the fact that he was not physically attractive. Now almost totally forgotten, Acton was immensely talented and a beautiful writer. He wrote the first biography of Nancy Mitford.



Diana MitfordNancy’s sister was the great beauty of the group, and she married very well, to the heir of the Guinness brewing fortune. That marriage didn’t work out, and later on she ran off with Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. And then things didn’t go so well for her.





Beverley Nichols – Another of the forgotten ones, Nichols was, in his time, a very famous writer whose by-line was ubiquitous in the quality newspapers and fashion magazines. Nichols was another assiduous collector of famous friends, and would flatter them by featuring them in newspaper profiles. Daringly and outspokenly gay, Nichols was a great friend of interior decorator Syrie Maugham, wife of Somerset Maugham. He would one day write a scandalous book in defence of Syrie called A Case of Human Bondage.



Walter is giving a talk on Cecil Beaton at the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts in the CBD on Wednesday February 1, 2017, starting at 12.30 pm. This is a free event, and all are welcome. 

Cecil Beaton's Diaries

Cecil Beaton was many things, but not least among his accomplishments was that of diarist. His published diaries, decorated in their original editions with vivid jackets designed by him, were great sellers in their day, though they were heavily edited to make him appear less bitchy and also to leave out much of the gay stuff.



I am not going to criticise him for that – it was a tough time to be a gay man, and when he was growing up the gay world in England still existed in the shadow of the Oscar Wilde scandal.

But despite heavy editing, Beaton’s diaries were wonderful reading, still filled with gossip and observation. He was scrupulous in keeping diaries, and he attended to them even more when he felt he was doing something special. He was a born diarist and, I think, one of the greatest of the twentieth century.

Those colourful first editions are worth a fortune now, though I can remember working in a second-hand bookshop in the nineties when no-one wanted them and we sold them for $4 a piece. Oh how I wish I had bought them then – I could easily have made up a whole set (6 volumes in all), which now sells online for around $4,000 (with their dust jackets).

As I said, during special projects he kept more detailed notes, conscious of using them for publication, and in this way he created a book from the film production of My Fair Lady.




This wasn’t a happy time for him (you get the idea reading the book, but he couldn’t be as open about it as he might have wished), but the book stands as a fascinating look at the production of a film written by an insider who is not the normal actor or director who might normally pen such a memoir. Instead Beaton was in charge of the clothes and the settings, as he had been for the Broadway and West End productions of the musical. Cecil Beaton’s Fair Lady is one of the most unique film books ever written, and deserves to be more widely known.

In recent years Beaton’s biographer Hugo Vickers has set about editing and publishing unexpurgated editions of the diaries, and these make for marvellous reading. They are even cattier, and come replete with sex and gay gossip – all the stuff that had to be left out while Beaton was alive. The Unexpurgated Beaton, a monster of a book, is a perfect place to start, and will thrill anyone with an interest in mid-20th century fashion, film and popular culture.





Film stars galore (Danny Kaye cooking Chinese food! Mae West squeezed in her tiny apartment which is “such a riot of bad taste”! Watching Noel Coward on TV and thinking he looks “like an old Chinese Buddha”!), and also touching details of Beaton’s twilight years and his affairs and attempts at romantic happiness.









January Memoir Bookishness




Looks like this January I am going to have an interesting time looking at memoir - as an art and as a craft.

First on my list is Patti Miller's The Memoir Book. This is a craft-book on actually writing memoir, and I look forward to it. I am almost finished her book Ransacking Paris, about the time she spent living in that city, and it's just superb. I have never read her before, and am so glad I have discovered a new favourite writer.



Then I am going to read Huston Smith's Tales of Wonder. I have had this book on my "must read" pile for ages, but Smith has just passed away and I feel it's time to read this account of his life as a student of the world's religions. He was a brilliant man and did a lot of important work.



Next up is more craft and more Patti Miller with her book Writing Your Life. The reason I have so many Patti Miller books on my list is that late last year I want to hear her speak at Ashfield Library, and I was so impressed I bought all of her titles the bookseller had there. This one is about piecing together your life story, something that Miller has been teaching and writing about for many years.




When I'm finished I plan on re-reading The Unexpurgated Beaton, an uncensored selection of his diaries. Beaton always makes for superb reading, and I have to do this one now because I am doing my talk on Beaton again in February, and this will be the perfect way to remind me of some of the juicier anecdotes and details.



For much the same reason I will then go on to his My Fair Lady diaries, which are fascinating, and the copy I have is an absolute delight to hold.

My 2017 Projects

I am pretty bad at doing anything if I don't have some sort of deadline, promise and schedule.
Self-discipline is an utterly unknown quality for me.
And so I tell myself that I use my blog as a kind of "accountability buddy" - if I share my plans with lots of people and some strangers I might just stick to them. It rarely works. But still I soldier on. I would love it if you could shoot me a line throughout the year asking me how I am going. I need it.

Keep in mind these are NOT my goals. I am hesitant to share them publicly because they are a bit embarrassing and I am terrified of censure when i don't achieve them. Instead, these are those extra things which make a life interesting and which are nice to do throughout the year to ensure I am a well-rounded person.

I also hope to blog all of these projects in an effort to stay on course.

So, my projects for 2017:



1. Spend a month exploring new parts of Sydney: I am dedicating the month of March to some intra-city exploration. Inspired mostly by the wonderful work of Vanessa Berry (who is releasing a new book in 2017!), I want to spend a whole month visiting those places I have always meant to go.

2. Paint every day for 3 weeks: I have some blockages around painting. I have never been a talented artist, but I also had a bad art teacher in Year 8 who looked at my frankly adventurous work and said, "You have no talent. Do something else." I WANT to be able to paint, like Winston Churchill, Queen Victoria and all of the characters in E. F. Benson novels. My April project.



3.  Reading all the books of Norman Douglas: This year marks the centenary of South Wind, Douglas' scandalous novel. He has always intrigued me, so in May I plan to make a study of him. Reading all of his books, in order.



4. Reading books by five Australian authors I have never read before: I credit this idea to the wonderful Allison Tait and her post 5 Brilliant Things You Can Do for your Writing in 2017. It was one of her 5 Things. July project.



5. Chant the Om Mani Padme Hum every morning: Ever since I visited Bhutan in 2015 I have been fascinated by the use of the sacred Buddhist mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. I have used the mantra on and off every year for 27+ years, but for 2017 I will be chanting it every morning and seeing what effect this has on my life.


And another year-long project:



2017: Year of the Heart Sutra

Well, I have appointed it such.
I will spend the year studying various different translations of this, the shortest but most enigmatic holy text in the Buddhist canon.
I will also be chanting it myself at home, and visiting temples to hear it chanted.


Broaden your mind in 2017: go to an author talk

I am always banging on about how people should go to lectures, talks and events. Such things represent incredible value for money (indeed, they are often free) and they help build up a dynamic society that cherishes its own culture and creates a space for the development of all kinds of new voices.

I was excited to hear that a very old friend, a dear teacher from my youth and, once, my own very patient and generous landlord Neil McDonald is about to launch a new book and is talking about it at the State Library of NSW. And yes, it's free!




So log on now and BOOK YOUR SPOT.

Neil is one of Australia's living treasures, an expert on film, the development of photography in Australia, and especially where those two disciplines meet military history. This new book is about Chester Wilmot, and Neil knows more about him than anyone else alive. I remember Neil talking about Wilmot and researching him back in 1989! So this book is the result of a lifetime's work. You can imagine how fascinating his talk will be.

Australian historian Neil McDonald (photo by David Brill)


Details:



Price

  •  FREE

Location

Metcalfe Auditorium, Ground Floor
Sydney
NSW
2000

Valiant for Truth: The Life of Chester Wilmot, War Correspondent

Reginald William Winchester (Chester) Wilmot (1911–1954) was a renowned Australian war correspondent, broadcaster, journalist and writer. From the first triumphant North African battles of Bardia, Tobruk and Derna, to the heartbreaking disaster of the Greek Campaign, the epic struggle along the famed Kokoda Track, the momentous amphibious invasion at Normandy, and the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany, his voice stood above all others during BBC and ABC broadcasts throughout the Second World War.
Join bestselling author Neil McDonald as he talks about Valiant for Truth: The Life of Chester Wilmot, War Correspondent the first full biography of this enigmatic man.

This is a free event, but it is essential that you book.
State Library free events are usually very popular, so I suggest you put this date in your diary and book your spot NOW.
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