Book 2018/01 – Steal Like an Artist

Austin Kleon describes himself as “. . . a writer who draws. I make art with words and books with pictures”.

The book Steal Like an Artist is based on a talk Mr Kleon gave to some community college students in 2011 where he spoke to a list of ten things he wished he had known when he was starting out. People went nuts for his message and he expanded his work into a book, which was published in 2012.

20180130 Steal Like An ArtistI’ve had a couple of people recommend it to me recently so I decided to finally check it out. My local bookshops didn’t have any more copies when I went to get it, but the library did — and an electronic version at that, so I could download it on the weekend and read it immediately. Hooray internet!

It’s a great book for a skim through to get the ideas and let them float around in your head for a while and then to go back to in some more detail, in the spirit of stealing other people’s stuff as described in the book, to find the ideas that you want to take for yourself.

The book has ten “chapters”, or main themes, which are the ten things from the original talk.

  1. Steal like an artist.
  2. Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started.
  3. Write the book you want to read.
  4. Use your hands.
  5. Side projects and hobbies are important.
  6. The secret: do good work and share it with people.
  7. Geography is no longer our master.
  8. Be nice. (The world is a small town.)
  9. Be boring. (It’s the only way to get work done.)
  10. Creativity is subtraction.

The book then goes on to delve into each theme and explain it further.

The main idea that I got from the book is that everyone is a mixture of what (and who) they choose to let into their lives — “You are the sum of your influences” — and that nothing is original; the idea that all creative work “builds on what came before”. So your job is to collect good ideas, things you love, from people that inspire you, which can then influence the work you produce.

Mr Kleon suggests making yourself a “swipe file” where you can record the things you steal – quotes, observations, passages from books, overheard conversations, ideas, things that speak to you – and when you need inspiration to flip through it.

Then you go ahead and make stuff.

The book suggests that we learn how to do things by copying others who already know how to do it and encourages us to do exactly that. Mr Kleon makes the point, however, to not plagarise the work of others. Rather, he encourages copying in the sense of “reverse engineering”— taking it apart to see how it works”. This is why you need to understand your influences and what makes them tick. You aren’t stealing the style, you are stealing “the thinking behind the style”, understanding where they are coming from. And as you do this, he suggests, you move from the act of copying to “breaking through into your own thing”.

He quotes Francis Ford Coppola:

“We want you to take from us. We want you, at first, to steal from us, because you can’t steal. You will take what we give you and you will put it in your own voice and that’s how you will find your voice.”

The final eight sections of the book provide some practical ideas on how to develop your creative practice, which are nicely summed up by their titles. There is encouragement to just get stuck in and make something, to step away from the screen – because the computer is great for editing idea but not for having them — and to build yourself a world where you are surrounded by things you love. It’s also important to connect with people who love the same things you do and to share things with them, as well as to hang out with interesting people who do different things to you — whether in real life or online.

Once you start putting your work out there, you have no control over what people think of it, so you need to keep making what you love to make and be comfortable with people misunderstanding you, misinterpreting your work and ignoring it. The solution to this is to be so busy with making your work that you don’t care.

By being boring, Mr Kleon means that taking care of yourself by staying healthy, sleeping enough and taking long walks is important if you want to make your best work. He says that you need to stick with your day job but to schedule time in to do your creative work and to do this work every day, with no exceptions. He recommends working with a calendar and a tracker to keep a record of what you’ve achieved. He recommends the Seinfeld strategy (hint: it’s a wall calendar you cross off every day you do the thing you are supposed to do).

What now?

The book says the next things to do once you’ve read it are:

  • Take a walk
  • Start your swipe file
  • Go to the library
  • Buy a notebook and use it
  • Get a calendar
  • Start your logbook
  • Give a copy of this book away
  • Start a blog
  • Take a nap

So if anyone’s looking for me I’ll be digging through my pile of unused notebooks looking for the perfect swipe file. Actually, that sounds like procrastination. Perhaps I’ll go for a walk instead.

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Silence

Today I picked up a copy of the free magazine published by Penguin Books, underline, which had a feature on a book called Silence: In the Age of Noise by the Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge. I had never heard of Mr Kagge before today, but according to the magazine, he is the first person to walk to the South Pole alone and has also climbed Mt Everest and travelled to the North Pole.

20171126 SilenceI was most fascinated to read that he had explored the underground sewers of New York and he had walked from one end of Los Angeles to the other in four days – slowly, staying in hotels along the way – attracting the attention of the police as he went. In another article I read, he said that the police thought it was really suspicious for someone to be walking around because the only people they saw walking were “crackheads, prostitutes, and crazy people”.

That really blew me away. I cannot imagine a place where walking around was so unusual that the cops would think you were up to something. I love walking and exploring on foot. It’s what I do. It’s part of my identity. A journey like that would have been fascinating. To have taken four days to explore 35 kilometres.

The magazine had an extract from Mr Kagge’s book, which had me captivated from the first word. I need to read this book. I will be going to the bookshop on Monday to see if they have it. The whole extract spoke to me, but two passages really stood out.

“The secret to walking to the South Pole is to put one foot in front of the other, and to do this enough times. On a purely technical scale this is quite simple. Even a mouse can eat an elephant if it takes small enough bites. The challenge lies in the desire.”

As I was reading, I thought that this summed up exactly the struggle I have every day to try and ingrain the good habits I want to have in my life. Technically, it’s simple. Do the thing enough times, day after day, consistently and you build a habit that sticks. But until you’ve done it enough times to make it stick (and the 21-days theory is complete bullshit in my experience) you have to have the desire. And when the desire for another whisky outweighs the desire for a 10pm bedtime, you’re (I’m) in trouble, and the bad habit, rather than the good one, is reinforced.

“On the 27th day I wrote: ‘Antarctica is still distance and unknown for most people. As I walk along I hope it will remain so. Not because I begrudge many people experiencing it, but because Antartica has a mission as an unknown land.’ I believe that we need places that have not been fully explored and normalised. There is still a continent that is mysterious and practically untouched, ‘that can be a state within one’s fantasy’. This may be the greatest value of Antarctica for my three daughters and generations to come.”

This made me think of the desire within Tasmania to “unlock” more of this precious state to commercial ventures that would allow more people to experience our wild places but at the cost of the pristineness of those places. It’s a practical example of the observer principle. Observing something changes its nature. To open up these places to more people changes the fundamental thing that makes them worth seeing in the first place.

(You know I gave in to the desire for another whisky, right?)

I can’t wait to read the book. Silence is something that I crave, and learning to find it as Mr Kagge did “beneath the cacophony of traffic noise and thoughts, music and machinery, iPhones and snowploughs” (maybe not snowploughs) is something I would love to explore more.

Book 32/24: Goodwood

As I mentioned last week, I was lucky to receive a copy of Australian singer-songwriter Holly Throsby‘s first novel Goodwood from the good people at Dymocks Books. Of the 32 books I’ve read or started to read this year, I’ve read one novel. This one. I intended to read more novels, including some that have been sitting on my shelf for years, but I kept stumbling across non-fiction books that grabbed my attention and demanded to be read, allowing me to continue to collect underpants!

So finally, after more than ten months of reading, I’ve finished my first novel for the year. Hooray!

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Goodwood is set in a fictional (I presume) town in NSW, not the Hobart suburb of the same name (sorry Anchor Wetsuits fans). The Goodwood of the novel is somewhere relatively near to Belanglo State Forest (which may or may not be relevant as the book progresses) in 1992. There’s no mistaking this as an Australian country town, with local landmarks including the Bowlo, the Wicko (the Wickham Hotel) and Vinnies, and characters called Big Jim, Smithy and Davo. The reference to Glenn Ridge on Sale of the Century set the scene perfectly.

The story is mostly told through the eyes of Jean Brown, aged 17, who lives with her Mum Celia. It begins with the disappearance of two of Goodwood’s residents, 18-year-old Rosie White, who vanishes overnight, and the popular butcher Bart McDonald, who never returns from a fishing trip. The two apparently unconnected disappearances happen exactly a week apart, and they take away all sense of normality from the town as the people struggle to come to terms with what has happened.

As with any small town, everyone knows everyone’s business (especially Nance the grocer) and, of course, everyone has secrets, some of which are relevant to the disappearance of Rosie and Bart.

I read this book in three days, which is pretty speedy for me. I was hooked on the story right from the start and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Ms Throsby cohesively weaves together Jean’s narrative and the parts of the story she isn’t directly involved in, and builds believable characters. Their histories and the revelations of what they know are gradually revealed to build up a picture of a small, close-knit town overcome by tragedy, where no one is untouched by what has happened.

I haven’t read many mystery novels recently (OK I haven’t read many novels recently full stop), so I don’t know if there is a typical style or format typical of this type of this genre. As an inexperienced novel-reader, I found Ms Throsby’s writing to be clear and genuine. I could identify with the characters and the story came across as plausible. I really wanted to know what had happened to Rosie and Bart, as well as being interested in how Jean’s character developed during the story.

Of course I missed the key clue in the mystery (or at least the clue I think was key) and all the other pointers along the way, so the conclusion was totally a surprise for me. I’m really not good at mystery novels. Did I mention that? Maybe I should stuck to crosswords. Haha.

In short, if you like Australian writing and mysteries, I think you’ll enjoy this book. Maybe I should investigate this genre a little further.

Thank you Dymocks for a great prize, and congratulations Holly Throsby on a fabulous debut novel.

(ETA: I received this book as a prize from Dymocks and was under no obligation to write about it on my blog. I wanted to do this as part of my reading project for this year, as I did for several other books I’ve read – you can find my reading list here.)

Goodies!

A few weeks ago I entered a competition on Instagram run by Notemaker and Dymocks to win a copy of Goodwood, the debut novel of Australian singer-wongwriter Holly Throsby and a new Two-Go Notebook by Moleskine. All I had to do was tell them what new hobby or skill I’d like to learn this spring.

Well that was easy – I’d just started my 30 days of cryptic crosswords challenge, so that’s what I said.

I entered and forgot all about it – and was very excited when Notemaker contacted me to tell me I’d won! I then had to decide what colour notebook I wanted – there are four colours: raspberry/green, light blue/pink, blue/yellow and ash/raspberry. They all looked lovely and I couldn’t decide, so I asked Kramstable to choose for me. He chose the raspberry.

My prizes have arrived!

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I haven’t started reading Goodwood yet, but it looks like a novel I’ll really enjoy. Anything described as “a little bit Twin Peaks and a little bit Picnic at Hanging Rock” (Hannah Richell, Australian Women’s Weekly) is going to get me interested. I’m guessing the town of Goodwood, where the story is set, is not the Hobart suburb of Goodwood! It’s next on my reading list and I’ll be sure to do a write-up when I’ve read it.

The little notebook is lovely, and I’m not sure what I’ll use it for yet. I like the normal Moleskine books because they are slightly narrower than an A5 book (21 x 13 cm) and I find them very comfortable to use. The Two-Gos are smaller still, 11.5 x 18 cm, so basically the same width as my Midori Travelers Notebook, and about 4 cm shorter.

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Because it’s the same width as the Midori, it sits nicely on top of it (see ^^^) and has  given me the idea of using this book as a catch-all/journal to carry round with my Midori, which I’m using as a diary next year. (The technicalities of how I’m using my Midori are beyond this post and require a degree of initiation into the Cult of Midori to appreciate.)

The Two-Go has a lovely contrasting colour inside the front and back covers.

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And doesn’t the green go nicely with my pretty new Lamy pen? (Yes it does.)

The final interesting feature is that the pages are plain on one side and lined on the other, which means you could (if you were learning to draw, for example) do some drawing practice on one side and take notes on the other. If that was your thing.

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The book has 144 pages and two bookmarks, as well as the back pocket that most Moleskine notebooks have. The cover is hard canvas, so it has a lovely textured feel.

Time will tell whether this is the journal solution I’ve been looking for, but I really like the look of this notebook, so all I’ll have to do is get over the fear of the blank page and write in it!

Thank you Dymocks and Notemaker for your very generous prizes. I was thrilled to receive them.

Book 30/24: Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose (8)

I was intrigued enough by the title Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose (8) when I saw this book in the library to pick it up and scan through it, because I had no idea what the title meant.

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Obviously if you’re a crossword enthusiast, you would have picked up pretty easily that it’s a cryptic crossword clue, which is what this book is about.

Well, partly about. It’s the memoirs of South African-born writer Sandy Balfour, which tells the story of his leaving South Africa with his girlfriend to eventually living in London. The story of how he got deeper into the world of cryptic crosswords is intermingled with tales of his travels, the story of how he and his girlfriend made a home and family in London, and Mr Balfour’s continuous questioning of where he belongs.

It explores how to interpret clues and touches on the compliers of these crosswords from newspapers like the Times and the Guardian. This fascinated me. I had no idea that “setters” operated under pseudonyms and had their own styles and ways of interpreting the rules. Mr Balfour explains how, although crosswords were invented in America (by a British ex-pat, which a previous reader of the library’s copy of the book has gone to great pains to point out on page 103), they were refined by the British to the extent that they are seen as something quintessentially British.

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Throughout the book Mr Balfour uses clues to illustrate the points he’s making – some which he talks through in the text, and others which he leaves for the reader to solve. He also reproduces a puzzle from the Guardian (number 22445), which was about him, set by legendary Guardian setter (the late) Araucaria using words provided by Mr Balfour, for his 40th birthday. That’s a pretty cool gift!

(I love this. Araucaria’s pseudonym was taken from the monkey-puzzle tree (botanical name Araucaria), which is also known as the Chile Pine, anagram of Cinephile, which relates to his love of film, and is the pseudonym under which he set crosswords for the Financial Times.)

All this without even touching on the varied and interesting experiences Mr Balfour has had since he and his girlfriend left South Africa, which would have been great reading even without the crossword references.

I loved how this book was put together, and about half way though I knew that this would be my next 30-days challenge. I have about a week to go with 30 days of yoga, but I’ve just today completed my drawing lessons from You Can Draw in 30 Days – it’s only taken four months! So much as I love my 10-15 minutes drawing each morning, I’m going to replace it with learning to do cryptic crosswords.

I’ve tried this in the past, and I have a basic understanding of some of the clue types, so my challenge is to learn more. I’m not confident enough to attempt anything like the Guardian crosswords, but I have a couple of books designed for beginners, so I’m going to get them out and see how it goes.

By the way – can you work out what the clue in the title of the book is? (I couldn’t.)

Book 16/24: Yoga For Life

I didn’t know anything about Colleen Saidman Yee or her husband Rodney Yee, other than that they featured on a couple of yoga DVDs I’d bought. Turns out they are a pretty big deal in the big wide world of yoga, which I’m largely unfamiliar with – hence my not knowing about them!

Kramstable really got into Colleen and Rodney’s DVDs when I was using them, so I started following Colleen on Twitter. I was quite delighted a couple of years ago when she responded to one of my photos of Kramstable following her yoga sequences on the DVD and offered me some tips about keeping him interested in yoga.

Book 16 - Yoga for Life

Yoga For Life: A Journey to Inner Peace and Freedom is the story of Colleen’s life, starting with her early life in a large Italian/Irish family in New York, who moved to Bluffton Indiana, where a teenage game of chicken on the highway changed the course of her life. The book tells of her early marriage, return to New York and four-year heroin addiction, the lowest point of her life.

Colleen then writes of how, after the struggle to kick heroin, she established a modelling career. She ponders the question as to whether her longing to find expression through her body would have led her to modelling in the long run; whether she would have become a model if a modelling agent hadn’t stopped at a restaurant not long after she’d stumbled on it and found a job at – and what, even with the break she’d had, were the odds she’d succeed as a model.

“Some people believe we make our own luck,” she writes. But she takes the view that what seems like good luck can easily turn into bad luck, and that bad luck can result in something good:

“In yoga we learn that there’s no such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ because everything is always in flux and rarely what it seems. The key is not to get too attached to any one scenario or outcome. . . . Life is sometimes beautiful sometimes ugly, sometimes sad, sometimes joyful. It’s a wild unpredictable ride. The best we can do is take the ride with love and a sense of humour. Notice your breath in the present moment, whether you consider it to be a ‘good’ moment or ‘bad’ moment. Because that moment is all we have.”

Colleen spent some time in India volunteering at Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity, a time which profoundly influenced her and indirectly became her first experience of yoga teaching. During this time she began to realise that “every encounter is sacred” and that everything will pass away. She writes that Mother Theresa had said even though everything is impermanent and could disappear at any time, that is no reason not to do your work.

“What you spend years creating someone could destroy overnight. Create anyway.”

On the theme of impermanence Colleen also writes about how clinging to what is impermanent prevents us from living in the present moment, and she tells of how distressed she was when her daughter left home to go to college. “I wanted to run back and grab her and tell her not to grow up and leave me.” I feel like this every single day when I think about Kramstable growing up and eventually leaving me.

Colleen continues:

“I have been studying and practising yoga for the last 28 years learning how to avoid clinging to what is impermanent as gracefully as possible, and to focus on what doesn’t change – call it the higher self, love, the soul, God, the divine, true teacher, essence, original nature, or the state of yoga – whatever you want.”

It occurred to me that this concept of impermanence connects strongly to what Brené Brown wrote in her book I Thought It Was Just Me. She writes of how, in a culture of shame, we see people as “us” and the “others”. The “others” are the people who we don’t want living next door; whose kids our kids aren’t allowed to play with; the ones we insulate ourselves from. But, she continues, we are the “others”. We are all one [insert unfortunate event] away from being “those people”, the ones we pity, the ones bad things happen to.

I think what this implies, and what Colleen is saying, is that it’s important to fully live in the present moment, but to know it’s just that: the present moment, and that if we get completely attached to it we’ll be unable to deal with what happens when things change, as they undoubtably will.

Likewise, if we get hung up on times things aren’t going well, instead of accepting that what’s happening is what it is, we can end up clinging to old pain long after the events have passed.

Of course, when things are hard, it’s difficult not to focus on the pain. Accepting that what’s happening is what it is, says Colleen, is something that she can grasp intellectually, but when something devastating happens, she’s still in excruciating pain. However, she says, feeling this pain is important. “If you can’t feel the fullness of any emotion you’re not fully alive.”

(I think I got a bit distracted here. Colleen’s comments on the impermanence of things, whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, reminds me of a difficult time at work when I was really struggling. Someone who was struggling with the same issue I was stood up and said publicly that yes what was happening was painful, but “there will be an end point”. Realising that the painful events were a stage I had to get through but that it wouldn’t last forever really helped me to clam down and take things one day at a time.)

While on a camping trip with her brothers, Colleen was struck by lightning, an experience which she says “zapped” her into contemplating santosha – contentment. At this point in her life she had thought that she would only be content when her grades improved, or she got married, or she had money. She writes:

“You can wait your whole life and never happen upon contentment. The key is to accept what is and not allow yourself to be jerked between liked and dislikes, attachments and aversions. Accept what is, right now, whether it’s comfortable or painful.”

At the end of her time in India, Colleen was ready to search for something bigger than what she had been seeking – a boyfriend, a career, a family – but she wanted to be able to “serve in a way that would enable peace to prevail in [her] heart” while living in the modern Western world.

Her story continues through her increasing immersion in the world of yoga while maintaining a career as a model, her struggle with epilepsy, her second marriage to photographer Robin Saidman, and a miscarriage, followed by the birth of her daughter. She then talks about how she moved into yoga teaching and how she and Rodney eventually ended up together.

In respect of her epilepsy, which she developed later in her life, Colleen writes:

“The biggest transformation has been my acceptance. When I take my little white tablets every day, I’m grateful for Western medicine. . . . I don’t feel defeated any more. Instead I feel awakened to the fact that I’m not in control of everything. Maybe we’re born into bodies that challenge us to learn lessons we haven’t yet understood. All situations, no matter how painful, can be opportunities for growth.”

She takes this lesson into her birth story, where like so many of us, Colleen had expectations of what her daughter’s birth would be like and was disappointed when it didn’t turn out as she’d wanted it to.

I remember one day at pre-natal yoga my beautiful teacher Julia was speaking about expectations, and something she said has stuck with me to this day. She said, “You don’t get the birth you want; you get the birth you need.” To this day I am trying to figure out what my experience was trying to tell me; what I need or needed at the time.

Expectations can make us unhappy when they aren’t met. Colleen observes:

“We all have small daily desires. Something as insignificant as expecting ripe avocados at the market, then finding they’re all hard can make us irritable and impatient. When you count on a future-based result you’re not living fully in the moment. Expectation can keep you locked in a narrow tunnel with no broader vision. Joy is right here right now. The key is mindfulness, noticing when your expectations have taken you out of the present and made you unhappy.”

Colleen also relates a story of attending a workshop with yoga legend BKS Iyengar, who told her that her problem was that she didn’t take the time to let anything absorb. “You are moving too fast from one pose to the next. Perhaps you do this in your life as well. Slow down.” Colleen says that he was right and that since then she’s started to notice when she’s rushing mindlessly from one thing to another. It’s a good thing to notice when we feel overwhelmed and rushed.

I loved this book. Colleen weaves her story into 14 themes, ranging from roots, addiction, forgiveness, service, fear, love and peace. Each chapter relates her story and the things she’s learned back to the theme of the chapter, and includes a yoga sequence connected to the theme.

It’s beautifully put together, and even though my life is completely different from Colleen’s, I could relate to almost everything she had written. I think this is because she has captured the essence of the human experience in her writing: Beyond the superficial differences that make up the detail of our day to day lives, we’re all human beings and we’re all making our way the best we can in this unpredictable world.

The Dalai Lama has said that we are more similar than we are different, and I think this is why I was so easily able to connect with Colleen’s story.

I got a lot out of this book. It’s one I want to refer back to again and again.

Book 23/24: Changeling

You’re probably sick of hearing me say, “I didn’t know much about [author of the book of the moment] until I read the book”, so I’ll simply say Mike Oldfield’s story was nothing like I’d expected.

I remember when I was in Grade 7 one of the older kids at school talking about the experience of listening to Tubular Bells, and I’d built it up to be this amazing piece of music that would completely alter my mind. After that build up, I don’t remember when I first heard it, or even if I actually heard it before listening to Tubular Bells II, which was released in 1992. What I do remember is that around the time I was listening to Tubular Bells II, there was one of those end of the world rapture prophecies floating round. I hadn’t quite weaned myself off my grandmother’s religious views at this time, so I wasn’t too sure whether to believe this or not, but I clearly remember thinking if the world was going to end, that was the music I wanted to be listening to when it happened.

Also around this time I went to see the musical Hair (at the Theatre Royal), which I loved, and I had the cast recording on high rotation along with Tubular Bells II at that time. When I was reading the book I thought it was kind of cool that Mike Oldfield had been in the orchestra for the original production of Hair during its West End run in the early 1970s. Strange grooves.

And for with that rather long and rambling introduction, here’s my thoughts on the book.

It’s broken up into five groups of three chapters, and begins with an intense description of a rebirthing process Mr Oldfield went through in 1978 (the Exegis seminar), where he faces his demons and survives, an experience that he describes as resulting in “the huge blood-crazed demons that had been stalking [him] for the previous 20 years suddenly disappeared”.

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Most of the book is about his life from when he was born in 1953 to 1981; the final chapter covers the period from 1990 to 2006, and there are four short interludes written in 2006 and 2007 that cover his thoughts on Family, Spirituality, Fame and Rebirth. I liked the structure. It was hard not to feel the pain of the little boy who never fitted in, and whose family gradually fell apart as he grew up.

He writes of Christmas 1960:

My dad had made me a beautiful model of the Ark Royal aircraft carrier [he was into planes]. It was complete with little tiny planes, each on individually painted. I remember that Christmas like it’s locked in my brain because of that model. The fact that my father made it and hand-painted it himself really impressed itself on me. When I was later to write music, maybe that was part of why I wanted to pay great attention to detail, to make sure it was something really special. To be worthwhile, I knew it had to be really big, epic and important, not something to be thrown away. Perhaps those feelings go back to that wonderful Christmas present.

As a child, Mr Oldfield came to music as a release from his problems at school and at home. He writes of how he would listen to records and spend hours trying to work out how to play a certain piece: “It was like a switch went on in my head: I’d finally found something that I really liked and I really wanted to do. . . . I must have looked completely obsessive, but for me it was a way of escape.”

At the age of 12 he started playing regular gigs at the Reading Folk Club. His older sister Sally was playing in the clubs as well, with her friend Marianne Faithfull, and he says of the time that he he wasn’t really socialising, as most of the people he was around were older. He was using his guitar as a means of communication and escape from school, his mother’s mental illness and family problems. He writes:

I understood music like other people didn’t. I felt it and saw it very deeply, with crystal clarity. When I listened to a piece of music I could see all its components, its parts and how they fitted together. I didn’t just sit back and think, ‘oh that’s nice.’ If someone said something like that to me I would be furious with them, ‘What do you mean, can’t you see what’s going on? It’s brilliant!’ Music to me was something different, a vast kaleidoscope of magic and wonder. To this day my mind boggles at how superficially some people listen to music.

In music, he had found a way of coping with life. He writes that it was a sanctuary where he felt safe, it was something that he found interesting – and it was something that made him socially acceptable.

Mr Oldfield recalls his first music class at school after his family had moved from Reading to Harold Wood, where he had to conform to the rules. While he created beautiful harmonies, it wasn’t what the teacher had wanted, and he found the whole experience boring. However, he credits this teacher for introducing him to one of his favourite pieces of music, Sibellius’ fifth symphony, and he says that the beginnings of Tubular Bells started from him wondering how he could do something like that piece.

It was at this time that he was introduced to LSD and hash, and he explains that things wouldn’t have happened the same way without drugs:

That first experience might have flipped a few switches in my brain that led to the utter paranoia I experienced later, which left me feeling incapable of doing much at all for years and years. Through all of that came my life as it is, Tubular Bells and everything else. I wouldn’t put it all down to my drugs experiences but they made me who I am and made the music the way it was.

His experiences with drugs were relatively short-lived though. Following a horror trip in 1970 when he saw reality as it really was, which was the beginning of a decade of panic attacks, he says he’s never touched LSD again.

By this time he was waiting for his 15th birthday so he could leave school. In the meantime he recorded some demo tapes with his sister Sally, under the supervision of Mick Jagger. They ended up recording an album together under the name Sallyangie, but eventually Mr Oldfield felt as though he was in his sister’s shadow and he wanted to do his own thing.

The book continues to tell the story of Mr Oldfield’s first band, Kevin Ayers and the Whole World, which he joined at the age of 16. He notes that he felt like he was the young boy in a band of much older guys, and he didn’t think they took him seriously -they tolerated him, but he wanted to be as good as them. It was with Kevin Ayers that he first started drinking, which he says helped his guitar solo in the show become one of the wild points – like Angus Young of AC/DC (who actually doesn’t drink!).

After this band disbanded, Mr Oldfield continued working with Kevin Ayers and eventually ended up at Shipton Manor, owned by Richard Branson, having been given the chance to work on the album that would become Tubular Bells.

This was recorded over two periods in 1972 and 1973, and the book describes the huge amount of work he put into this album that became a monstrous hit – and how he signed a contract with Virgin that in the end committed him to 17 years and 13 albums with the label. On becoming famous, Mr Oldfield writes:

Eventually I realised that I couldn’t have any true friends any more, because I couldn’t trust why they were being friendly. . . . It’s horrible but I couldn’t see any way of avoiding the feelings of mistrust. To succeed in the music business you have to be very savvy and worldly wise. If anyone can rip you off they will, without a second’s thought. . .  The paradox is if you become strong and tough enough to deal with it, you could lose the sensitivity needed to create whatever it is, the music, the art.

Mr Oldfield goes on to describe the difficulty he had following up such a successful album (Hergest Ridge, the difficult second album), his increasing dependence on alcohol, and the release of his more successful third album Ommadawn in 1975. As the 1970s progressed the world of music was shifting to punk and Virgin, which was essentially a one-artist label, was feeling like a laughing stock, debating whether to drop the “progressive” label and focus on punk. Mr Oldfield writes that he wasn’t marketable at that time, and was constantly attacked in the music press. Consequently he lost his spark and music became a chore to him. It was around this time he attended the Exegis seminar, after which he felt like he was floating on a cloud. He decided he needed a new way of living and working – he writes that it was like starting a completely different life.

He writes of becoming a father, losing his fear of flying then learning to fly, and even going on tour, which he had refused to do in the past.

The final two chapters of the book cover 1981 to 2006. He writes of the settlement agreement with Virgin and another breakdown he had at the end of the Discovery tour in 1984, the break up of his relationship and the albums he made in a more commercial vein with actual songs on them (this was the Moonlight Shadow period). He writes that that last album he made that was full of songs was Earth Moving in 1989. His next album Amarok, was another instrumental album. Richard Branson had wanted him to call it Tubular Bells II but he refused. He said he wanted to do Tubular Bells II, but that wasn’t it. As a result, he says, Virgin didn’t promote it, and it didn’t sell well. He says this is a shame because it’s probably one of the best things he’s ever done.

It’s a single 60-minute piece, which was probably difficult to isolate a piece for radio or release from, and has been described as Mr Oldfield’s protest album against Virgin, and apparently includes Morse Code spelling out “FUCK OFF RB” about 48 minutes in.

Mr Oldfield finally did get to make Tubular Bells II, released in 1992 on his new label Warner. He describes working on it as a joy and that it, and therapy, helped him get through the break-up of his family, his second relationship break-up involving children.

The book ends with Mr Oldfield’s musings on “now”:

I’ve had to learn what I am and it’s not a musician, it’s something else. To me, a musician gets out his instrument and just plays or entertains. That’s not me at all: What I can do is transfer the essence of a feeling or emotion, express it in music. … I’m an interpreter, a sonic mood translator if you like. I can take the beautiful feelings you get in life, and the horrible ones as well, and I can turn them into aural sounds, give form to them in music . . .

From now on my music is not going to be cool, it’s not going to be hip or sexy. It’s going be hand-played and mathematical; it’s going to be as complicated as I feel it needs to be. I’m not going to care if anyone likes it or buys, it, which is exactly the way I felt when I was 19. . .  If I can somehow persuade people how to play again properly, to stop concentrating on how good they look on TV and really start to do interesting things with music, then I’ll try to do that.

I found Mr Oldfield’s story fascinating and knowing the stories has made me want to track down more of his work. I’m currently listening to Ommadawn, which I love and have on high rotation. I think I’ll figure out the Morse Code in Amarok next!

Post script: As I was putting this post together, I learned that Mr Oldfield’s father, Raymond Oldfield, passed away last week. In the book Mr Oldfield says that he has tremendous respect for his father, and that he’s learned how important it is to accept your parents the way they are. He learned in the Exegis seminar that “we look at our parents like gods” and that “if you don’t grow up and see them in their proper place, as proper human beings, you can carry on your whole life looking at them through the wrong perspective”. I think I know what he means there, and it’s a good lesson to learn.