The principles of mindfulness meditation have made concepts of non-judgmental acceptance of suffering widely practiced strategies for recovery. But when Claire Weekes, an Australian physician, first began writing global bestsellers in the 1960s, advising those stricken by phobias and anxiety to “face, accept, float, let time pass”, mental health professionals remained deeply sceptical. Her method proved to be remarkably successful, even with intractable cases and, as Judith Hoare points out, it “anticipated advances made decades later”. Weekes, however, was not drawing on Eastern philosophy but on her own experience of panic attacks as a young woman and how she cured them. While it could have been more streamlined, this biography tells a fascinating tale about a trailblazer who helped millions face their fears.
They are the riverbank equivalent of beachcombers, people who fossick in the mud exposed at low tide for fragments of history and forgotten lives. In her 15 years of mudlarking on the Thames, Lara Maiklem has found all manner of objects from Roman bottle-stoppers to love letters. There are, says Maiklem, two categories of mudlark. Gatherers, such as herself, who scan the surface of the river bank for objects, and hunters – mostly men – who are driven by the rarity or monetary value of potential finds, who use metal detectors and who dominate the Society of Mudlarks, a select group which closely guards its secrets. But Maiklem has no need of such membership. For her, what matters is being in tune with the rhythms of the tides, the meditative pleasure of rambling with purpose and the stories the river throws up. A treasure-trove of a book.
Idling in Green Places: A Life of Alec Chisholm
Australian Scholarly Publishing, $49.95
As a boy in the late 19th century, Alec Chisholm wielded a slingshot with deadly accuracy to protect the family orchard from hungry birds. It was, as Russell McGregor notes in this biography, “an incongruous introduction to ornithology” for someone who would become a celebrated naturalist, particularly known for his love of birds. An autodidact who took a childlike delight in the natural world, Chisholm used his literary skill to communicate this enchantment and galvanise the popular imagination in support of conservation. He grew increasingly embittered, however, as his reputation waned and public applause fell away. McGregor’s clear-eyed portrait is of a man torn between opposing impulses: his love of nature and his craving for worldly success.
Ian Fairweather. A Life in Letters
Edited by Claire Roberts & John Thompson
Text Publishing, $59.99
Like most collections of letters, this meticulously compiled volume is one for the aficionados. The outward story of this Scottish-born artist’s life is one of drama and adventure – he travelled much of Asia and sailed to Indonesia from Darwin on a raft, made multiple escape attempts from a German POW camp during the second world war, and became a recluse who spent his final decades living in a hut on Bribie Island. Fairweather’s letters, however, capture the intense interior life of a man devoted to his art. Mostly written in a kind of stream-of-consciousness, they range from Eastern mysticism and “the eternal mystery” of painting, to the wildlife outside his door. As the editors note, letters suited his need to stay in contact with friends and family while freeing him to live a solitary life on his own terms.