Australian spiritual teacher Alana Fairchild on inspiration, the Earth Warriors Oracle and trusting our instincts

Alana Fairchild

 The wonderful Alana Fairchild is someone whose work I have admired and used for many years. I have also been lucky enough to work with Alana on a couple of occasions under quite stressful circumstances, and I discovered that she absolutely embodied her work  - she proved to be a true wise woman who walked her talk. I have cherished her terrifically ever since, and look forward to her new work with great anticipation.

Alana was gracious enough to take time from her busy schedule to have a chat with me, and I asked her some burning questions about spirituality, creative challenges and her new deck, The Earth Warriors Oracle. And as usual, I was delighted with her answers. I hope they inspire you, too: 

1.    Alana, could you tell us about the inspiration behind your new deck, the Earth Warriors Oracle? What was the catalyst for their creation?

Some years ago, I was invited to sing at a drumming circle. I wasn’t a drummer, but I love to dance and have good rhythm, and apparently they were open to all sorts of musical offerings. So I took my crystal singing bowls and my voice and went to this drumming circle for the first time. The moment I stepped into the warehouse where it was held, it was a breath of fresh air for my soul.  I felt a sense of kinship with the wild and free spirits that were part of that community.

Being a rebel and marching to my own beat, as the expression goes, I could totally relate to them. There was a sense that their entire tribe - and I would call it a tribe for this reason - was actually one spiritual body, with many individual members. Their values of leaving no trace when in nature, of loving the earth and protecting the environment, of supporting each other in their journeys for personal development without any judgement whatsoever was astonishing to me.

I was used to communities (even spiritual communities) that were rife with political backstabbing and power games, and yet here I had stumbled into a  tribal family of some hundred or so members spread all over Sydney with so much genuine encouragement of each other, so much absence of ego … I felt like a cross between a long-lost sister of the tribe and a spiritual anthropologist discovering a rare tribe and I was fascinated!

There were problems to be dealt with of course, pain and struggle are parts of life, even lives well lived with awareness. Still it was one of the healthiest human ecosystems that I had ever encountered, and I have been in and out of many ‘tribes’ or groups over the years, many claiming to be spiritually evolved. What I loved about this group is that it didn’t claim anything other than it was a type of family and it was based in love and respect, all of which seemed very true to my experiences in that community. 

As I travelled, I found similar tribes in other parts of the world too. It was a consciousness rather than a type, and it was a global movement rather than something that was unique to this one beautiful community that I had been led to in Australia. Some groups looked like they should belong to that tribal consciousness, yet lacked the real heart. Other groups seemed to have little in common on the surface, but held the same genuine heart frequency underneath it. There were people of all ages and walks of life that were drawn to these types of communities, and the ways of being that they naturally create, and recognised the value of what they bring to the earth.

When I found Isabel Bryna’s art online, I recognised a visual representation of what this soul tribe group felt like. I asked her if she would be interested and she agreed. Earth Warriors was born out of that experience.

Alana Fairchild

2.    You do so much with Goddess energy, and have always been a big fan of the stuff you do with Kuan Yin and Mother Mary. What do you think we should be doing in 2018 to work more closely with Goddess energy?

I think one of the most beautiful and simple practices we can do is talk to her. Some people call this prayer. I don’t think of prayer as religious necessarily, more of a spiritual practice. I like the idea that prayer is speaking to the divine and meditation is listening to the divine, but really, if you are deep in connection with the divine, pouring out your heart, you are so present and authentic, it can become a healing meditation session! Human beings tend to need a form to connect with – so I’d suggest a fun internet search of ‘goddesses’ or ‘divine mother’ and then choose which goddess you relate to most at the time, from whichever spiritual or cultural tradition you wish. Then you can imagine or intend that you are speaking to her, rather than to ‘empty space’, when you have your prayerful conversations.

We live in an amazing time where we have the freedom to obtain information about many kinds of sacred beings with only a laptop, internet connection and curious mind. Starting with a connection to a deity that you resonate with and then opening up a dialogue – talking to her like you would any true friend – is a way to begin this process of connection. I personally find the divine mother so practical and non-judging, you can talk to her about absolutely anything.

Talking to a sublime being about mundane issues can seem a little strange or even disrespectful sometimes. They are so beautiful and shining with ethereal light, you can imagine that you should only speak a sacred mantra to them and not talk about your love life, or how to deal with the person at work who is making your life a living hell. But actually if you do talk about whatever is happening in your life with openness, I find that the answers usually start to come to me pretty quickly. The goddess energy is responsive, when we are open to it.

Spread from Alana Fairchild's Mother Mary Oracle

3.    What things do you do to keep yourself spiritually and physically healthy, and what should we all do?

I am a big believer in people trusting their instincts and exploring to find what works for them. It’s taken me many years to figure out the balance of how much exercise, meditation, alone time, social time, study time, rest, sleep, intimacy, vitamin supplementation and the type of nutrition that suits my mind, body and soul. And of course, it’s always changing! When we travel, if we are going through a tough time of things, if we have lots of energy, our needs shift.

So I suppose really what I am saying is that I would recommend that we listen to ourselves. We might get information from others – and finding open-minded, holistc and well-trained professionals to support us in finding the information we need for health is so worth the effort - but there’s no point just doing something because it works for someone else. One man’s meat is another man’s poison, as the expression goes. We need to take our time, consider that we are worth the effort required to live well and take care of ourselves, and try different things until we find what suits us.

I also think a great starting point for pretty much everyone on the planet – especially in the developed world where there is abundant access to technology – is to learn how to switch off and rest. I mean proper rest, where you don’t have a screen in front of you for some time before you go to sleep and certainly you don’t jump on Tinder or email when you are in bed!

Learning how to love what technology can do for you, whilst managing the potentially addictive nature of it, so that you get some time to feast your eyes on nature, and experience an absence of artificial light for a while each day does a lot for allowing the body to go into the parasympathetic nervous system mode that it needs to rest and repair. It makes a huge difference to our quality of life!

This is also the state of nervous system that makes us most open to sudden insights of spiritual guidance, that just seem to pop into our awareness out of nowhere. I imagine sometimes that the Universe has heard our requests for help and is waiting patiently for a moment when we just rest and switch off so it can finally swoop on in, past the to-do lists and constant anxious chatter and slip the answer to our heart-felt prayers straight into our conscious minds. Suddenly we realise the answer to our problem. We probably also think we are so brilliant for figuring it out!

It’s about making rest a priority. Most people don’t do this – and I could have a very long conversation with you about why I think that is the case! The short answer is that most people have no idea just how much their body is in need of some proper ‘divine downtime’ and just how much it would do for them in every part of their lives if they decided to honour that.

4.    I have a real problem with finishing things. And you are so prolific and create so much beautiful work that enriches the world. Any tips for seeing a project through to the end and sending it out into the world?

That made me laugh. You are so productive though! I think of you writing and sharing and being out and about amongst people. You give a lot of yourself. It’s really beautiful.

You are not alone in the more ideas than you can handle boat though. Most highly sensitive and creative people have an abundance of ideas! At one point I had to acknowledge that no matter how hard I worked, I was never, ever going to be able to translate all of my ideas into form. It just wasn’t possible.

What I focus on is how good it feels to complete each project. I imagine the people who will read it, and that it will help uplift, assist and inspire them. I find that very motivating. Even though I love what I do, it’s still hard work to write a book or create a CD. It’s so much more fun to come up with the idea, I find, and easier too! If I could run a think tank just coming up with ideas for other people, I’d probably quite like that, but I don’t think it’s what I’m here to do. Completing projects always takes much more out of me and so much more time than what I expect, even though I’ve created many books and CDs at this stage of my life. I always forget! Like childbirth perhaps?

I am also a stubborn and determined sort of person. So when I decide I am going to do something, even if it takes me a while, I just keep at it until it’s done. Sometimes that has meant that I’ve climbed the wrong mountain, even though half way through I realised it was the wrong mountain. But it also means that I do – eventually – complete my writing or other tasks that I set out to do.

For me, that’s important. So it’s a high priority and I get it done. It might not be so important for someone else though, even if they have the talent to do it. We all have different priorities and that’s as it should be.  No matter how much time we have or don’t have, I feel that we make time for our priorities. It’s just that sometimes maybe we aren’t as clear about what those priorities are – and then there can be frustration until we either make peace with the choices we’ve made or make new choices. 

5.    If I came to you and asked you for 3 or 4 books I should read that would transform me, what would you recommend?

That is an amazing question and I cannot answer it with suggested book titles. I would say they will be the books that you are drawn to instinctively at certain times in your life. It could be a book of poetry, or art, or a novel or autobiography, or a new age healing book like the types that I create. It could be anything really. What matters is that it resonates for you, moves you, feels like it was somehow written for you in that moment. Then there are those books that you can go back to and read a decade later, as if it is an entirely new book, with a new layer of meaning and depth, simply because life has worked on you enough that you have more receiving apparatus! 

6.    What about working with oracle cards. How is that powerful, and how can we best use them? 

Oracle cards have an ability to transform a person’s state of being. I had no idea just how powerful they were until I began writing them and receiving the most extraordinary feedback about how they were impacting people’s lives. The experience for me when I write them is astonishing. The energy of the deck is a living thing, it has its own personality and purpose, its own style of language and its really quite palpable. It’s a bit like living with a new friend for the duration that I am writing each deck.

It’s similar when I write a book, but I think with oracle cards, they are so distilled, so focused on a particular theme, that they are very powerful. I feel that people are instinctively drawn to the energy of the deck that they need.  I refer to them as vitamins for the soul.

I also think at this particular time in history, when we are living so much in our heads, anything that uses the eyes – such as amazing art – to connect with the heart, can be corrective, powerful and healing. 

Also we talked earlier about the divine feminine. When we want to become more intuitive, creative, responsive to Spiritual energy and guidance, aware of our own feelings and so on, we need the feminine energy to do this. Working with imagery, colour and feeling, which is what happens with oracle decks, supports that process. It can help us tune into ourselves in a much deeper level. They really are bridges to the soul, and from the soul, to the wisdom of spiritual guidance - at least that is my intention when I write.

In terms of how to work with them, I include suggestions in each of my decks, along with card layouts, but I also say ‘choose what feels right for you’. Some of my clients sleep with them under their pillow, others create altars, some draw a card each day and read the message, some use them to do readings for clients, others give them as gifts! I’ve not heard of anyone using one as a door-stop as yet – hopefully not! Or perhaps that really would be grounding their spiritual journey! Jokes aside, it’s really about playing and choosing what works for you.

I’ve just realised that I’ve likely said that in practically every question you’ve asked me! But I think that part of where we struggle in social conditioning is that we are often encouraged to be more outwardly focused than needs be. Sometimes we just need to trust ourselves, get some guidance and then figure out our own approach. I’m so in-touch with my inner maverick and have been for a long time, and I am quite passionate about helping people discover that quality in themselves too. It makes for a very interesting and unique life!

You can see some samples from Alana's Earth Warriors Oracle and all her other work here at Blue Angel Publishing

A Heartfelt Journaling reading list

Here are some books that will supply inspiration and ideas for any journal writer:

Books about journaling:

Writing and Being by G. Lynn Nelson

Journaling for Joy by Joyce Chapman

At a Journal Workshop by Ira Progoff

Writing Down Your Soul by Janet Conner

Writing Your Authentic Self by Lois Guarino

The Well-Being Journal by Lucia Capacchione

Life's Companion by Christina Baldwin

More general inspiration and ideas:

Intimacy and Solitude by Stephanie Dowrick

Sex, Drugs and Meditation by Mary-Lou Stephens

(and while we're at it, Sex Death Enlightenment by Mark Matousek)

Make Miracles in Forty Days by Melody Beattie

Begin it Now by Susan Hayward

Books about creativity:

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Blessings by Julia Cameron

Free Your Creative Spirit by Vivianne and Christopher Crowley

Classics that will keep a journal writer entertained and filled with ideas:

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Selected Poems of Kabir

Dreams by C. G. Jung

Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Selected Poems by T. S. Eliot

Great journals to read:

The Diaries of Anais Nin

The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon

The Diaries of Samuel Pepys

The Kenneth Williams Diaries

Any of May Sarton's Diaries

Incest by Anais Nin

A Heartfelt Journaling worksheet

We had a wonderful time yesterday at Ashfield Library writing in our journals and exploring different techniques and ideas to help keep us inspired to write in our journals. It was such a beautiful group of students, and a lovely energy was soon worked up in that room.

Some of you wanted me to put up some reminders of the exercises we did so that you can do them again later.

You don't have to have done the workshop to use these either - just print this page out, tuck it into your journal and see where the prompts and suggestions take you.

1. The questions we need to ask ourselves: When we sit down to write something, sometimes we just don’t know where to start. That is whey, when I start to record something in my journal, I ask myself these three simple questions, and write from there: Who am I? Why am I here? What matters?

You can ask the additional question: What is my purpose in doing this?

We are not often encouraged to ask such deep questions, which is why the exercise is so valuable.

(This idea is inspired by G. Lynn Nelson's very good book, Writing and Being)

2. Taking action: Write a list of the things in your life that are unsatisfactory. After you have a good list, cast an eye over it and see what item in particular catches your eye. now start a new page in your journal with this item as a heading, and start listing ways you cold solve this problem, or work towards a solution.

3. Let's look at progress: Cast your mind back over the past 12 months and see what areas you have made progress in in your life – it can be in really tiny areas.

But what do you feel better about now than you did 12 months ago?

4. Choose some solitude: Using Stephanie Dowrick's Intimacy and Solitude as inspiration, go away somewhere with your journal for half a day or more. Choose to be alone, and to spend your time writing in your journal. I would suggest the Botanic garden (the fern house is great) or the Manly or Parramatta ferries. Pack a sandwich and a bottle of water and conduct the world's cheapest personal retreat.

5. What is your creative ambition? List the creative projects you would like to complete in the next year or so, things you have always dreamt of doing, or been curious about. What are the obstacles in the path towards working on them? What are the vital steps to achieving this ambition? (I suggest you read Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit for inspiration here, and also The Wind in the Willows).

6. Keep a daily record: The daily log is the most basic form of journal writing an it is always the thing we can come back  to. I suggest you keep it in bullet-point form.  I have a superstitious thing about making it 12 points only. No reason for it, apart from the fact that 12 is often considered a very significant number. But knowing it’s only 12 can rein it in a bit, actually giving you more freedom and less fear. Structure sometimes does that.

Though simple, this is a remarkable exercise, and it is amazing just how much you can record, and how much you can increase your memory by doing it.

You can jot down anything you like  - it doesn’t have to be in  any particular order or in any beautiful prose. For example:

“Yellow hat”

“Cat asleep behind door, afraid of mower.”

“Three young men, tattooed and in high spirits, digging deep holes on the beach while their girlfriends watched and laughed. Why were they digging?”

Read Joyce Chapman's beautiful book Journaling for Joy.

7. Make a list of your principles: What are you committed to in your life at the moment.

Just two or three of your principles, but make this a work in progress.

What ideas shape your life? What are you certain of?

8. Establish a kindness account:  It isn’t to keep tabs on what people owe you – that can’t be a part of it at all.

Remember how often I have told you that the most important thing about establishing a dynamic creative life is being a giver and creating a supportive creative environment for other people.
So, start up this account in your journal and keep it updated.

Write down the last five kindnesses you have received. Next to each one record how they made you feel.

Now write down the last 5 kindnesses you have done for other people. Next to each, write down how they reacted.

You want to be building this list, and noting down the responses you get.

There is really strong research that shows that being kind to others, with no expectation of reward, has enormous positive effects on us. Of course, Buddhism has always said this, and I have seen its effects in my own creative life.

My favourite books of 2017

No need to explain. Perhaps just my usual proviso: Not all of these books were actually published in 2017, because I mostly just read old books, and I don't get around to new ones till they are no longer fashionable.

1. The Aimer Gate by Alan Garner (1978) - I didn't even know about Alan Garner till this year, when I started to see him mentioned on interesting websites connected to the 50th anniversary of his most famous book, The Owl Service. I was at Hay on Wye in September and I thought I would try to find some of his books. The first shop I went into had a little stash and I bought them all, and this is the first book off the pile I read. It blew my mind. I had no idea what to expect, but it certainly wasn't this sparse, elegant, poetic little book that I read in one hour. I am still not completely sure what is going on here, though I read that it is actually part of an experimental quartet that explores changes in time and questions of ancestry in a small Cheshire village over a thousand years. This one is set during the First World War. It was incredible, and, as a writer, I found it transformative. Do people still write books like this, I wonder? I hope they do. I want everyone to read this.

2. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (2008) - It's almost a cheat listing an Alan Bennett book as he is such a pleasure to read that it seems almost like not bothering. But this is such a lovely and charming little book (another 2-hour read) that I can't believe it has taken me this long to read it. A must for any kind of book lover, and a great one for Royalists (though I thought Bennett wasn't one?). The Queen discovers a mobile library behind Buckingham Palace and then develops a real taste for reading, guided by her gay manservant. Great to read just before you watch the second series of The Crown, which is exactly what I did.

3. The Lightworker Oracle by Alana Fairchild (2017) - OK, I know it's not really a book, though it contains a beautifully written guidebook and it is printed material that requires reading, so I am willing to count it. I am a great user of Oracle Cards - I do a spread every morning, and I always consult them when I have questions or challenges. Alana Fairchild is someone whose work I greatly admire - a real Australian Wise Woman, and one of the great spiritual teachers of the 21st century, I think. This exquisite oracle deck is intended for those people who might characterise themselves as "those who love the light," people who are interested in spirituality, wonder and mystery. That's me. And I had an instant response to these cards, so much so that I couldn't put them down and carried them around with me everywhere, even overseas. Superbly illustrated and filled with wonderful ideas, inspirations and guidance, if this is your kind of thing make it a gift for yourself. Or give them o a spiritually-minded friend, who will thank you forever.

4. Rural Liberties by Neal Drinnan (2017) - Australian novelist Neal Drinnan has been writing for years (I read my first novel of his almost 20 years ago while I was studying in Vietnam) and his skills as a writer are, by now, extremely well-developed. This is a high camp, rather sexy, and very funny romp through small-town Australia examining the corrosive effects of reality television and the empty desire for fame that seems to characterise the early 21st century. Drinnan's rural Australian strugglers are masterfully drawn, and every word of his book seems true. Great fun, and deserves to be better known.

5. Bringing in the Sheaves by The Reverend Richard Coles (2016) - had you asked me in 1984 if my current pop star crush would end up being an Anglican clergyman 30 years later I would have scoffed - indeed, even threatened violence. But it has thus come to pass, and it turns out that 30 years can render all of us quite different people. And I'm not just talking body weight. The Rev. Richard Coles was the more musical half of The Communards, the band that made life just that little bit more bearable for sad little gay boys in country towns it the mid-80s. I always liked his dorky, bespectacled aesthetic. Now he is all grown up and is a village parson and writes lovely, reflective works of memoir that are quite Edwardian in scope and the sort of thing I image A. C. Benson would have written had times been different. A lovely insight into what it is  to be a clergyman in the 21st century with a wild and even scandalous sort of past behind you. A terrific read, and lots of fun.

6. The Way of the Traveler by Joseph Dispenza (2002) - I have actually dipped into  this book many times, and used its tips and advice on many trips. But this is the first time I have actually sat down and read the thing from cover to cover, and I found it immensely helpful and even life-changing. Basically it is a book on how to travel better and to make each trip a more profound, beautiful and inspiring experience. Immensely helpful to anyone who likes to travel, it is essential reading before you embark on any really big trip. Filled with practical advice and new ways of looking at the world, it is a unique and unexpected book that will really take you to interesting places.

7. The Ancestral Continuum by Natalia O'Sullivan and Nicola Graydon (2013) - This fascinating book was recommended to me by my friend and mentor Maggie Hamilton, who is strongly interested in this kind of ancestral work. I read it almost as soon as she recommended it, and I came away moved and, in many ways, confirmed in my own ideas of the importance of honouring our ancestors no matter who or where we are. Since reading this I have changed the way I work and the way I look at my life. I am much more interested now in honouring our cultural ancestors, and in seeing how my own family ancestors have had a hand in molding the life I live now. Practical, extremely thought-provoking and something that I think will grow to be of increasing importance in our world.

8. Flowerpaedia by Cheralyn Darcey (2017) - I have always been kind of obsessed by flowers. My beloved late grandmother  planted a bed of green zinnias for me when I was about 6 and this forever cemented my interest. When I was a younger man, I even considered becoming a florist, and at one stage of my life I was very interested in psychic flower readings when I regularly attended the Spiritualist church in Enmore. Cheralyn Darcey, a wonderfully flower-like character herself, has become the expert on flowers and their meanings in Australia, and I have always adored her work, This little encyclopaedia of flower meanings is an invaluable aide to any gardener or flower lover.

9. Walsingham Way by Colin Stephenson (1970)  - This year I took my parents to visit Walsingham, the English Marian shrine in Norfolk. It has been a dream of mine to visit there for perhaps 25 yeas, and I was completely captivated by the place. I would even consider living there. It was so holy, so beautiful and so completely other-worldly. My father said it felt like an episode of Doctor Who, and there is some truth in that. At the gift shop in the centre of town I bought a copy of this book , never expecting it to be such a rollicking good read. It is a complete history of the shrine at Walsingham, especially concentrating on its restoration in the modern era. Gossipy, inspiring, and endlessly fascinating, this is essential reading for anyone interested in Bristish history, Marian devotion and High Anglicanism. I never wanted it to end!

The Courage to Continue Writing - A Checklist

Walter Mason on writing retreat in Tibet

Last night I was at Sutherland Library talking to a lovely group of people about what it means to keep writing even when we want to give up. I was speaking from experience, and I drew on my own recent "dry" period in order to provide them with some examples and methods that might help them keep going, even through the hard times.

Here are the main points I covered, and a handy list of what you can and should do when you feel like you want to give up on writing:

1. Create or join a writing group. Big or small doesn't matter. My own writing group is 3 people and it works perfectly. I was always sceptical about the efficacy of writing groups, but I have found that having one works. Try to make sure that everyone in it is serious about what they are doing and use competitiveness to your advantage. Encourage them to make you feel guilt about not producing.

2. Connect with nature. Walk out into your garden every day with your bare feet. As writers we can become disembodied – our experiences can become too intellectual, too reliant on the imagination, or on the past. Being in nature means you re-connect with the idea of cycles, and you become less hard on yourself – you see that a creative life will have seasons.

3. Keep a journal. Writing – all creativity – is an ever-changing process, and there is something valuable to be gained by engaging with the process itself. I am a huge exponent of keeping journals, and have one with me at all times. If you are not writing, ask yourself why, and write down all the reasons in a journal. Write down the feelings you have when you are not writing, and the feelings you have when you are.

4. Set yourself a stupid goal. When I started meeting with my writing group I told them I would have my novel finished in 90 days. Of course, that didn’t happen – not even close. But guess what? I wrote way more in that 90 days than I ever would have had I just kept telling people I was thinking about writing a novel. And so often I was thinking: “What I am writing is crap. I have no idea how to write a novel. I am just going to stop here and start a tree lopping business.” But I kept going and now I have something substantial that I can think of as, kind of, a novel.

5. Know why it is you want to write.  Why are you doing this? Why do you want to write and send that writing out into the world? There are no invalid answers here. But you do need to keep it in sight. This is what will drag you back to your focus and what will help you keep  going. My own personal guide in all this is is Elinor Glyn, a woman who found sensational success in the 1920s and 30s writing romance novels and later screenplays for Hollywood. I want my life to be like hers, being photographed draped in extravagant Persian cats.

6. Narrow it down. It really, really helps if you can narrow down your focus. I know you’re brilliant and filled with a million ideas and possibilities, and so does your mum. But the rest of the world doesn’t really care. they're only interested in what you actually produce. Finding one thing to concentrate on and finish might seem dull, but it can have an enormous impact on your confidence and your momentum. I started going places when I could say, once and for all,  that I was finishing something.

7. Open yourself up to your creativity and say "yes" more often. Like my friend, the immensely creative and productive Alana Fairchild, who produces beautiful things all the year round and has a great audience for them. So many self-help books and writing guides tell you to be jealous of your time and learn to say "No." I say the exact opposite. You never know what is coming your way. Give your creative impulse freedom and be brave about your own talent.

8. Establish some rituals around writing. Create your own writing soundtrack. Could a particular project have its own smell from incense, perfume or essential oils? Its own tea? Begin some Pavlovian responses by creating actions and things which remind you to write, even if you don't really want to.

9. Go on a writing retreat. I can’t stress the importance of tearing yourself away from your usual routines and facing up to your own writing realities enough. I went away on two writing retreats in the Himalayas with Jan Cornall and Writer's Journey and it really helped me re-think myself and what I wanted to do with my writing life. Now, I understand that a month in Bhutan might not be realistically achievable for you right now. But please consider what is, and how you can get away to be by yourself, or with other writers.

10. Write in those micro-moments. One of the lessons I learned on retreat is to take advantage of those micro-moments – another reason, incidentally, to always have a journal and pen with me. Many believe that we must do our writing in big chunks, devoting whole days or even weeks at a time to a project. Until then, we tell ourselves, it’s not worth starting. BUT IT IS!!! While away I found it hard to write for  more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time. And even then, I could not follow on from what I had been writing previously. I was just capturing fragments – and to be honest they were dazzling fragments. I had a fair idea of where they belonged, and it wouldn’t be hard to find a place for them.

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


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.


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.


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. 
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