Interview: Paul Wilson - The storm before Mr Calm
Deborah Ross talks to Paul Wilson
"Well," says Paul, who has great, Hollywood-mauve hair and is dressed entirely in beautiful, black Armani, "firstly, avoid queues". That's not entirely realistic, is it? "OK, secondly, allow twice as long as you think it's going to take. That way, your impatience won't get the better of you." And that's it? "It's simple. But it works." Paul? "Yes?" Have you every thought about bringing out The Really Big Book of Calm? "No. Why?" Well, then you could use it to crack the old lady over the head and have done with her. "I see," says Paul. He has quite a tight, pinched mouth for someone who is meant to be so relaxed about things. It tightens even more. I think he might think I am not entering into the spirit of things.
I can see why The Little Book of Calm sells. It's pale yellow and blue with a picture of a fluffy cloud on the front. It's the sort of cloud you think you remember from childhood, from those long, perfect summer days that, of course, never actually happened, although it's soothing to think they did. The book is just 4in x 3in in size, costs pounds 1.99, and is so cute it's almost edible. It tends to be stacked by the tills in book shops. It's the sort of thing you buy without ever intending to, like a Kit-Kat at the garage when you only meant to get petrol. So far, 607,245 people in the UK have bought it. (Usually, 100,000 is considered a bestseller.) It's been in the bestseller list for 57 weeks, hitting the top spot six times. Sales show absolutely no sign of abating.
Inside, the book is full of thoughts to inspire, moment-sized nuggets designed to set you on the path to inner peace. Apparently, the route to true tranquillity lies in wearing comfortable shoes ("almost as relaxing as wearing no shoes at all"); investing in a well-stocked fruit bowl ("eat more fruit and you'll feel more relaxed - it's as sweet as that"); patting something ("share your life with a pet, and you'll have an appreciative assistant in your efforts to become calm"), plus lots more happy-clappy guff. "Smile, even when you don't feel like it." "Declare today a holiday!" (I wish). Personally, I find more nourishment in a Kit-Kat, but a great many people go in for this sort of thing.
Paul's in the middle of a book tour. He's got a proper-sized, new book out, called Calm At Work. As part of its promotion, he's been giving talks up and down the country. I go to one held in a church in Piccadilly. I had expected to see a lot of sads in beards. Admittedly, there are one or two women wearing things that look terrifyingly hand-crocheted, plus a couple of men whose anoraks are significantly shorter than their suit jackets. But, mostly, the 100 or so who turn up seem quite a smart lot. Some are even laden with Tiffany and Fortnum & Mason carrier bags. They listen attentively to Paul's advice on breathing techniques - breath deep, breath slow, listen to your breath. They are told to sell their wristwatches, that stress is only about how you look at things, that "within everyone is the power to be calm".
Paul has a very slow, soft, relaxing sort of voice. It's hard not to doze off. Afterwards, there is a long queue for signed copies of his books. "So interesting," says a crocheted top. "So helpful," adds the short anorak. "Now, help me," I say to Paul, when we get down to the interview proper in a hotel. And I really do want him to sort me out. If he can.
Yes, I'm a terrible worrier. Hopeless. Every time I leave the house I worry I've left the iron on, even though I don't have an iron. I do the stress test at the beginning of Calm at Work. A reasonable score is 0- 35. I get 145. I tell this to Paul. I tell him T'ai Chi is all very well, but it's a bugger when you're on the mobile. Perhaps I should write The Little Book of Stress, with a picture of a blue-lipped me after my stroke on the cover? What do you think? "I think you should learn to worry less." How? How? Tell me NOW!
Well, he says, most worries are future-oriented. They'll probably never come about. I'm wasting my time worrying about them. What I should do is write down every worry as it occurs to me during the day. Then, at the same time each day - say, 6.10pm, providing I haven't sold my watch yet - I should have 15 minutes of worry time. Chuck out the worries that are erroneous, have a good worry about the ones that aren't, then stop. I'm not sure how this gets the mortgage paid, or my self-assessment tax forms filled in, but it sounds good. Frankly, I think a lot of what Paul says is just "cheer up, love, it may never happen", very cleverly marketed.
Paul, it should be remembered, is first and foremost a marketing man. He is head of an advertising agency in Sydney. This calm business is his hobby. His job is to sell things to people. He says to me later I shouldn't take the stress test seriously. "It's just a bit of a game, really. A bit of interactivity to get the reader involved." A ploy? "Yes." Paul's not a con man. A bit vain, yes. "Any nice articles to show me?" he asks the PR girl from Penguin. He drinks water constantly because "it smoothes the skin". But he strikes me as a good bloke, mostly.
Paul Wilson, 48, was born in Ilfracombe. Not the Devon Ilfracombe, but Ilfracombe in Queensland, in the Australian bush. Ilfracombe, he says, is the driest permanently inhabited place on earth. A couple of days of rain a year is considered good going. When he was growing up, rain was the cause of great celebration. He still loves rain, and the scent of rain. He takes a negative ioniser with him wherever he goes to give a room a "just rained, clean feel to it". I say I always take a packet of Dunhill wherever I go. This always gives a room a lovely, about-to-drop- dead-from-lung-cancer sort of feel to it. He gives me another of his pained, tight-around-the mouth, little looks.
His father, Ron, was a truck driver. His mother, Kath, was a worrier. His father needed only to be a minute late and he'd been killed in a car crash. Paul wasn't such a worrier. Not back then, anyway. He liked to sit for hours under the acacia tree just outside the town. He liked the silence. He day-dreamed. He imagined. He was meditating, he says, although he didn't know it then.
When he was 11, he entered an Eisteddfod in Rockhampton, a town of 100,000. He entered not only the under-13s competition, but the under-15s and under- 17s too. He was a boy from the bush, and didn't understand you didn't have to sign up for everything. He wasn't an especially gifted trumpet player, he says, but he nevertheless won all the competitions. He did this by "imagining I was playing from a very calm place" before going on to perform. "Your imagination is more powerful than anything else," he says. In many ways, Paul's calm theories may just be dressed up, how- to-be-a-success-theories.
Paul eventually went into advertising. By 25, he was creative director of an up-and-coming ad agency. "I was responsible for the company's creative reputation. I was responsible for a staff of 40 people. I worried all the time. It began to affect my health. At 25, I was getting palpitations, chest pains. Then the art director I was working with had a stroke. He was 32. That's what really brought it home to me.'
He knew he had to learn to relax. He remembered what it was like sitting under that acacia tree, and tried to recapture that. He travelled to China, Tibet, Korea, Japan, to meet Buddhist monks and the like, and supplement his knowledge. He started giving talks to other creative ad people about becoming calm. Someone suggested he should write a book about it. He wrote The Calm Technique - the biggest selling book of its type - then Instant Calm, which has also been an international bestseller. The Little Book of Calm was an offshoot from Instant Calm. "As I was writing it, all these little thoughts came to me, which I thought would make a nice little book in themselves." Have the books made him very rich? "I am comfortable, yes, but I don't do it for the money."
His calm industry seems to just spawn and spawn. He runs a non-profit- making Calm Centre in Sydney, peopled by researchers and psychologists. There are no plans for Calm, The Movie as of yet, but there is a much- visited web site. Here, you can visit the meditation room, submit calm thoughts, read the calming thoughts submitted by others. "Try colouring in. It's so relaxing," suggests Liz from Cambridge University, which makes you wonder about the standard of undergraduates these days. You can even e-mail a calm moment to a loved one. (I e-mail a calm moment to my loved one: "Select your company well. Mix with calm people." He calls to say: "That's all very well, but meanwhile I'm stuck with you.") I ask Paul if we don't all need some anxiety. In some ways, it may even be the motor that keeps us going. Without it, what would stop us from lying on the sofa all day, watching This Morning, reading OK!, shifting only when the house is repossessed? I, for one, wouldn't do a stroke of work if it weren't for anxiety. He says I would. "Most people's approach is the adrenalin approach. Through fear, panic, deadlines, they force their minds into a creative state. This will work for a while, but not for ever. You burn out, or need increasingly strong stimulants to keep going." No, being calm does not mean being catatonic. "The calm I'm talking about is the inner quiet you find in, for example, great martial artists. They have huge power and energy, but it comes from a very calm state. You can also be very creative from a calm state. Even more creative, actually."
OK, let's take Van Gogh, for the sake of an example. Would he have been able to do what he did if he'd been a less wound-up kind of chap? "Van Gogh is the world's greatest failure. He did all this work, but died never knowing if any of it was any good or not. He died a failure. He never sold a painting in his lifetime." Excellent paintings, though. "There is this sentimental argument that as he left a body of work behind, it makes it all right somehow. But it doesn't. It was irrelevant to Van Gogh, who had a very unhappy life."
I wonder, do you ever worry, Paul? "Of course. I am on the board of a hospital back home, and one is always worrying about resources." No, I mean a proper worry, like if I don't do my self-assessment form this week the house will fall down and my child will be taken into care and my legs will drop off and what's in the fridge? Do I need to get milk on my way home? Luckily, he says, his wife - who has given up work to look after their two young children - "looks after all that". I wonder, is she a 10-to-nine mum, like me? I'm lovely until 10 to nine. It's all who wants an egg? Who wants yummy porridge? But then it's 10 to nine and I'm screaming: "Shoes! Find your bloody shoes! It's swimming? Why didn't you tell me earlier it's swimming!" He says his wife does this too. "We've tried starting everything half-an-hour earlier, but it just doesn't work." So he doesn't have the answers to everything, which is encouraging.
I leave him quite late in the evening, and go out on to the street to get a taxi. It's raining. There aren't any taxis. I'm late. The babysitter is going to murder me. I do my breathing exercises. In-out, in-out, very, very slowly. I listen to my own breath. I find my inner calm. And only then do I rage: "COME ON! COME ON! YOU STUPID TAXI!"
Calm At Work, published by Penguin, pounds 7.99.
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