Insights • Inspirations • Destinations • Design

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Thin Places: The Gardens, Spaces, Books, and Beliefs that Take Us Places

Last week, I learned a beautiful new phrase. While chatting to a publisher friend called Joe about the horrors of politics, we somehow segued (thankfully) to something else entirely: the calming nature of the Italy countryside. "Italy is a place," said Joe, "where you can escape the nastiness of life, and experience sights so magnificent they remove you from the everyday." These Italian scenes are often transcendent, explained Joe. Otherworldly, even.  They transport you.

Then he told me about a phrase that's used to describe these curiously moving spaces and landscapes; these places that take you away from mundanities and disenchantments of everyday.


Thin Places, explained Joe, was an old Celtic term used to describe those spots where the walls between reality and beyond, or between Heaven and Earth if you like, are almost transparent. Places where you're immediately inspired, and beguiled, and often moved to emotion.

A thin space could be as ordinary as someone's garden (see above; story to come), or as sacred as Rumi's tomb in Turkey. (Rumi and his Persian poetry have become popular since singer Chris Martin credited them for saving him from depression.)

Thin Places usually happen when you least expect them -- often when you're travelling. They suddenly appear before you, beautiful and fleeting. They remove you from whatever you might be enduring in life, and remind you that there are better things, both on this side and the other.

A well-travelled friend calls this experience jouissance; a transcendent state that fuses the emotional, physical, and mystical. She says it often happens when she's in a garden -- be it Sissinghurst or the shores of Lake Como.

I experienced a Thin Place last week.

It was 5.30AM and I was driving to a photo shoot at a garden called Picardy, located in the green hills of Gippsland, where I grew up. I thought I knew this area but on this morning the landscape looked different. A strange layer of mist had settled over the hills, giving the place an ethereal feel.  As I drove through the quiet backroads, the hot sun started to burn away the light fog, leaving patches of 'clouds' in its wake.

Arriving at Picardy Garden a few minutes before sunrise, I noticed the mist hadn't yet lifted on this hill, and there was a curious glow to the garden. The light was golden, almost otherworldly.

The owners, Marian and Bryce (now new friends) came out to greet me, but I was too enthralled to come inside for a cup of tea. It was as if Heaven had come down the Earth for a few moments. The light, the landscape, the flowers, the birdsong and butterflies and crabapples. It was pure felicity.

These snatches of pleasure in life are what sustain many of us, alongside family, friends, work, and other quiet delights. In a month when the nastiness that has seeped into society has affected us all, when people are forgetting their good, kind sides and blindly subscribing to the foulness, and then being malicious and mean and downright undignified with their newfound ill will, Thin Spaces take us out of all the dirtiness and drama.

Thin Spaces transport us to a better plane -- "going high", as Michelle Obama famously quoted. They enable us to see the joyfulness of life, rather than the hatred. The radiance and grace of places, and people, rather than the dark side.

Like many friends, including Joe, I have stopped subscribing to nastiness. We all have enough to contend with in life. And you can't work professionally, especially in an international arena, if you practice such manners. (Some of those I've liaised with this year, such as Carolyne Roehm and Paolo Moschino and Robert Couturier, have reminded me just how far good manners and kindness will go in life.)

As Joe said, we need to seek the delights of life -- in places and in people. Even if we don't like a place (I had mixed feelings about Gippsland for decades), or we're not sure about a person, reserving judgement and holding back on criticism may reward us with a sublime surprise. Gippsland's quiet beauty certainly surprised me last week.

(Loved the dovecote potting shed.)

The most amazing thing about this day, and this garden, was seeing this: a rare kind of Robinia that looks identical to pink wisteria. Many gardeners feel this Robinia is the most beautiful tree in the world, and indeed it's accorded that award in many horticultural lists. I've been searching for it for years, without success. 

As Marian and I turned a corner at the bottom of the crabapple walk, we paused in our chatter and I happen to look up, to the sky above. There it was. Dangling quietly above us.

Marian is currently working on a book about her beautiful French / Italian-inspired garden, so there will be more images down the track. 

In the meantime, here are some more books and beautiful landscapes to lift the spirit at this tail end of a very long year.

NB: Articles about Thin Spaces can be found here -- NEW YORK TIMES or here THE GUARDIAN


Amazon has just delivered a box of gorgeous books to our doorstep in time for Christmas. Some are for us; some are for friends. These were a few stand-outs in the pile. 

Mad Enchantment . The story of Claude Monet and the painting of the Water Lilies series. An uplifting account of how painting and gardening save this great artist's spirit at the end of his life, as the war encroached on his bucolic corner of France.

On The Fringe: A Life in Decorating. A fascinating insight into Colefax and Fowler by the decorating company's glamorous doyenne, Imogen Taylor.

The Country House in Literature. A little academic, but good to dip in and out of.

Landscape of Dreams. The first monograph from Julian and Isabel Bannerman, the Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin of garden designers.

Signature Spaces: Well-Travelled Spaces by Paolo Moschino and Philip Vergeylen. (last pix, above). I had the great pleasure and honor of having lunch with these two lovely gentlemen in their country house in Sussex this year, so this book is a little special. If you've followed Paolo since his days with Nicky Haslam, you'll know he's an extraordinarily talented interior designer, but it's his partner in business and life, Philio Vergeylen, who's the real surprise -- funny, kind, stylish and  talented at everything from gardening to storytelling. A great book for design fans.


If you or someone you know loves fashion, these are two sure winners for Christmas gifts. 

Alexander McQueen's Unseen is a behind-the-scenes look at the designer's remarkable fashion collections and catwalk shows. 

And Alexandra Schulman's Inside Vogue is a diary-style account of working behind the editor's desk of UK Vogue, including the enormous cover-up she had to do to keep the cover of the Duchess of Cambridge a guarded secret.


A recent slideshow of some of Vogue's most memorable libraries over the years.



Finally, friends and long-time readers know that I've been working quietly on this biography for many years. I've not mentioned it much because there was a change of publishers (in an unconventional move, I decided to return to my beloved publisher at Murdoch, Kay Scarlett, who's now with Bonnier International). Since the change, in May, there have been months of refinements, particularly in the content but also in the design, which is now beautiful!

The story of Joan Lindsay's life and how she came to write her famous bestseller Picnic at Hanging Rock at sixty-nine years of age is a complex story, and we took a great deal of time working out what to include and what to (respectfully) leave out. We also consulted people like director Peter Weir and others who knew Joan Lindsay personally, and they kindly gave their input. 

Now, after five long years of research, and almost a year of production, the biography has gone to print TODAY. (I can't even believe I'm writing that.) Advance copies are due to arrive January, and the pub date is 1st April, so I will post details on this blog and Instagram as well as to all those in my email database. We are also working in marketing, including a doco-ette and a book tour; details of which are to come.  

The biography will soon show up on Amazon and other book sites, so keep an eye out.

Beyond the Rock  is a curious book, which falls somewhere between biography and true crime (hence the title), but Joan Lindsay's life was also curious; curious and mysterious and often remarkable.  So I hope you all love reading about it as much as I loved researching and writing it. 

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a novel version of a Thin Space, and as far as I can tell, Joan certainly intended that. It's beautiful, mysterious, memorable, and utterly otherworldly. Fifty years after it was first published, it still transports us. 

If only politics did that.

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