Friday, August 14, 2015


One of my favourite books as a child was one entitled The Magic Shell

In many ways this book is like another in my collection which I loved as a child (and still do)---The Red Balloon---in that the book consists primarily of photographs. The two books are very similar in other respects as well. Both beautifully capture, in a highly lyrical way, all the whimsy, imagination and free spirit of the child. In both books, the text is minimal; it is the photos that tell the story. In the case of The Magic Shell the photos were taken by the book's author, Nadine Amadio (1929-2009) [pictured below right], with a Rolleiflex camera using Kodak Tri-X film.

Nadine Amadio, who was married to the famed Australian jazz musician Ray Price from 1953 to 1968, came from a very artistic and musical family. She was an Australian writer, poet, journalist, arts critic, mythographer, photographer and film producer, with her works and interests encompassing fiction, biography, poetry, fine arts, art appreciation, music, mythology (myth 'is a life-force that combats the futility and potentially suicidal emptiness of a purely materialistic society', she wrote) and native folklore, editing, photography and  painting as well as scriptwriting and executive producing for films and documentaries

In 1976 Ms Amadio received a New Writers Fellowship from the Literature Board of the Australia Council. (To be technical, Ms Amadio was hardly a ‘new writer’ by 1976, for she had already authored and published a few books including Amanda and the Dachshund in 1965 as well as The Magic Shell in 1958.) For many years Ms Amadio collaborated with the distinguished Australian painter and close friend of hers Charles Blackmanmy favourite work of theirs being The New Adventures of Alice in Rainforest Land. She published two books about Blackman and his work---Charles Blackman: The Lost Domains and Orpheus, the Song of Forever---and set up the Blackman Trust for his benefit. She was also close to many other prominent Australian artists and put together a book about the celebrated Australian Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira entitled Albert Namatjira: The Life and Work of an Australian Painter. There were several other literary and scholarly works of hers (for example, Pacifica: Myth, Magic and Traditional Wisdom from the South Sea Islands) but I will stop there. Suffice to say she was quite versatile.

The Magic Shell is a book of 60-odd photos and captions photographed, written and arranged by Ms Amadio. The photographs depict a Sydney of the late 1950s, both the central business district itself ('wide streets and narrow streets, along with hundreds of double-decker buses') and the northern beaches of Sydney, where I now live, in particular, Palm Beach ('White sand stretched for miles and miles and all the while the sea came rolling in, breaking on the shore in a mass of foam'). There are also photos of what we Australians call ‘the bush’, in this case country (rural) New South Wales. All the photos freeze in time and space an era, and a place, that for the most part have gone. Ditto The Red Balloon.

The Magic Shell is about a small boy’s ‘magical’ journey from the country, where he lives on a farm, to Sydney to visit his Aunt Marie at Potts Point, through Sydney's central business district ('even more wonderful than he had imagined'), to the wonder of the sea at Palm Beach ('all so vast, so blue and so wonderful'). On the book's inside front cover, the author has written these charmingly evocative words:

This is Sydney. …

It is a big city full of tall, new buildings towering upwards and quaint old buildings nestling in their long familiar places. Like all big cities, it is filled with people---the rich and the poor, the seeing and the unseeing. And there is always something special to be seen in this city: perhaps it is the harbor, edged by gardens and coves, docks and ships; perhaps the narrow, straggling streets, packed with surprises; or maybe the long golden arms of beaches stretching to the north and the south. Many strange and enchanted things have been known to happen in this city. And sometimes there comes a stranger who, especially if he is very young, sees it for the first time and is filled with wonder. …

Yes, life is full of ‘strange and enchanted things’, if only we would experience them as such. Even the seemingly drab, commonplace, ordinary and familiar can be, and in truth are, a source of great wonder and enchantment. Children are expert at seeing this. Sadly, adults are not. Somehow, in growing up---in many ways I hate those words---most of us lose our capacity to appreciate the wonder and mystery of life. We must become like a ‘stranger’ if we are to see things as if ‘for the first time’ and ‘filled with wonder’. As one great teacher expressed it some 2,000 or more years ago, we must 'change and become like little children' (Mt 18:3 [NIV]). 

While at the beach Mark, the boy in the story, explored the rocks by the water’s edge and the rock pools:

The rocks were full of mysterious little pools. Tiny fish were swimming around amongst the bright pebbles, starfish and large spiky shapes that reminded Mark of porcupines. Every pool had new and exciting things to discover and Mark ran eagerly from pool to pool, wondering what he’d find next. He hoped he might find his magic shell but he only found small ones with shellfish still living inside.

In due course Mark found that elusive ‘magic’ shell---a ‘great shining shell’. 'It was more beautiful than any shell he had ever dreamed of.' Mark put the shell to his ear and ‘the sea gave him her own song.’ The author writes, ‘Now he would have it to listen to always. It was indeed a magic shell.’

I loved this book as a child, and, now aged 60, I still love it. I will not part with the book. 

The book is no literary masterpiece--it doesn't purport to be---but it does has an unmistakable charm and quaintness. As I re-read the book this morning it occurred to me that Ms Amadio had captured, both in her photos and text, the essence of mindfulness, not to mention the essence of childhood as well. Yes, the author captured that wonderful ability, which we all need, to see things as they really are, to appreciate events and occurrences, and the small things of life, as they are unfolding. Such is the ‘magic’ of life. It is nothing supernatural. It is something very natural---so natural that we take it for granted and fail to see it. The wonder and mystery of life lies in its very ephemerality and transience. The fact that one day we will lose it all---whatever 'it' may be---makes life all that more special.

Life is indeed filled with wonder and awe. The child, so it seems, is intuitively mindful. In becoming adults we were taught---conditioned---to analyse, criticise, judge, compare and interpret. In so doing, we lose much of our innate ability to see and experience things as they actually happen. That is a very sad thing. The regular practice mindfulness enables us to regain that joyous, childlike ability to see things for the first time and filled with wonder.

May you find your ‘magic shell' today.

The photographs in this post (other than that of Nadine Amadio)
from The Magic Shell (Sydney: Ure Smith Pty Limited, 1958).
Copyright © The Estate of the Late Nadine Amadio.
The photograph of Ms Amadio is by Peter Morris.
All rights reserved.


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