Maybe this is a grandiose claim, and I am referring to only one book by Aldiss. But, as I read Comfort Zone, his novel published in 2013, when he would have been 88, I found that I was picking out more favourite phrases and metaphors than usual. So I decided to write something in the ‘Writing’ category of my blog, rather than a book review. As I read, I kept saying to myself, this man who at the time had been writing books for more than 60 years, really knows how to write.
I took a little while to get into this book, in which we are confined by the daily routines of an 80 year-old man living in a village on the outskirts of Oxford. But the writing is beautiful, with an underlying wit and honesty about what it’s like to be shuffling around in your eighties. At one point Aldiss finds the need to jump into the text and tell us that the main character, Justin, isn’t him. In parallel with coping with life: the end of a love affair, an adult disabled son, the need for a medley of medications, Justin works on a thesis about the evils done by religions in the world today and the suggestion that everything is governed by chance.
Some metaphors and phrases that I particularly liked are:
windows with their pouting sills (page 8)
complaint crept in like a hungry slug among lettuces (page 32)
a woman of bustling corpulence (page 78)
the summit of Justin’s happiness (page 97)
[a face] alight with anger (page 110)
his rickety old voice (page 122)
his … voice clogged with a junket of hope and dread (page 254)
The seventeen carnations were given to Wallis Simpson by Ribbentrop, Hitler’s special commissioner in London, with whom she may have been having an affair before she married Edward VIII who abdicated from the English throne before his coronation.
I had understood that the abdication was purely because Edward, as king, was not permitted to marry a twice-divorced woman – however, it seems, from Morton’s account, that the British government may have been pleased for an excuse to claim that Edward should not remain king as he had dangerous connections with the Nazi Party. Just before the War, Edward and Wallis visited Hitler who considered that ‘when’ the Nazis won the war and conquered Europe and England, Edward, with his Nazi sympathies, would be an ideal puppet king of England. It was also planned that, through Operation Willi, Edward would be kidnapped by the Nazis and enticed into negotiating peace with them – a ‘peace’ that inevitably would favour Nazi domination of Europe.
I was pleased to be made more aware of these facts, but by the time I was half way through the book I started to struggle – there were so many details, so many names and at times the book was more about Nazi spies in and around World War II than the story of Edward and Wallis. Edward and Wallis, Duke and Duchess of Windsor were not permitted to settle in England after the abdication.
Edward was not invited to his niece’s wedding in 1947 or to her coronation in 1953 – they returned only in death, when they were buried side by side at Frogmore in the grounds of Windsor Castle.
Edward comes over as very weak. Indeed maybe all of the children of George V and Mary suffered from the remote and severe upbringing provided – George VI’s stutter is well known.
I had thought that Wallis was poorly thought of purely because the royal family hated her so and referred to her as ‘that woman’. But maybe the label was deserved. After marriage to Edward it seems that she continued to have affairs and when he was dying of throat cancer and desperately wanting her by his side, there was only a nurse to look after him and Wallis was away with her lover. (This I learned from other sources, Morton doesn’t mention it.) A colourful story, but Morton’s book became rather tedious and I was glad when I’d finished it.
11th November, 2018 was the centenary of the signing of the Armistice – the armistice that ended fighting in World War I between Germany and the Allies. The Armistice came into effect at 11.11am, French time on the 11th day of the 11th month. It marked a victory for the allies and defeat, although not a formal surrender, by Germany. The war was so brutal and so shattering for most of the Western world that 100 years on, it continues to be represented in all kinds of art forms.
My own writing group, Elwood Writers [https://elwoodwriters.com/ ] had provided aprogram of short stories and poetry, which we read on the Vision Australia radio program, Cover to Cover [https://radio.visionaustralia.org/podcasts/podcast/covertocover]. It was broadcast on Sunday 11thNovember. That day I also attended two concerts.
In the afternoon, at the Meat Market Centre, Melbourne, we heard the Australian contribution to ‘100 for 100’: a celebration of the centenary of the rebirth of a free Poland, which occurred as a result of the signing of the Armistice.
Daniel Clichy, Director and Editor-in-Chief of a publishing house that has aimed to preserve and promote Polish music over the past 100 years, explained in program notes that for this enterprise 100 works written since 1918 by Polish composers would be presented throughout the world. Concerts took place at roughly the same time in 11 venues outside of Poland: Chicago, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, London, Lviv (Ukraine), Milan, New York, Paris,Tokyo, Vienna and Melbourne, and at 11 venues within Poland. So there we were, sitting in the Meat Market Centre, participating in this celebration of Polish freedom and culture. Programs were different in the various venues, but all concerts were of Polish music composed since 1918.
We heard Contragambilles, composed in 2014 for string quartet, by Andrzej Kwieciński (1984). Program notes suggested that, for Kwieciński, instruments and performers are melded as one whole. The piece is influenced by dances of Rameau where the composer focused on the gestures of musicians as well as sounds. For Kwieciński, the program notes tell us, ‘the noise of the bow rubbing against the strings – the very techniques of sound production become music …’. At the very end of the piece, the violist threw away a tambourine he had been playing, the sound and gesture being anintegral part of the music. Jagoda Szmytka’s (1982) piece, Inane Prattle was written in 2013. The piece is for solo trumpet, accompanied by flute, piccolo, transverse flute, oboe, clarinets and strings, with a tape of distorted sounds of an Arab doctor describing a skin disease –the inane prattle that surrounds us in everyday life.
We also heard Kazimierz Serocki’s (1922 – 1981) Phantasmagoria for piano and percussion, composed in 1970 – 1971, Dominik Karski’s (1972) Motion + Form, composed 2003 – Karski lives in Australia, as does Dobromiła Jaskot (1981), whose piece for two flutes, Hgrrrsht, explores the borderline between flute sounds and human voice and breath. The piece included chattering teeth and tongue clicks.
There was also a homage to Poland’s most famous (although pre 1918) composer, Chopin – Sighs, by Marcin Stańczyk (1977). The ‘sigh’ refers to the technique (not notated by Chopin but used when performing his piano music) of slowing down the tempo according to ‘the naturalness of musical phrase and gesture’ (from the concert program) – a technique known as rubato.
Whilst the horrific slaughter of World War I will not beforgotten, it was invigorating to be a part of a celebration of a positive outcome of that war and to sense that in 22 other cities, audiences were, almost at that very moment, listening to and honouring Polish music with us.
We then moved to another concert held at the Church of All Nations in Carlton, where the Arcko Symphonic Ensemble presented a concert in remembrance of 11th November 1918. I suppose 100 years ago,festivities would have focused on victory, but this concert was one of remembering.
The first item, Meditationson Der Krieg (war) was composed this year by Rohan Phillips in response to seven of fifty works created by German artist Otto Dix that captured scenes with which he was confronted as a soldier in World War I. The music was reflective and, according to program notes, almost liminal – outside of time. The next piece, for solo piano, provided a strong contrast with action and jarring rhythms. The Drumfire was Incessant, was composed in 2012 by Andrew Harrison, after reading an account of the Battle of Pozières, in which his great-great uncle was wounded. Helen Gifford composed Menin Gate, also for solo piano, in 2005. The Gate, in Belgium, is a tribute to the 350,000 allied soldiers who died in battles fought at Ypres. The program notes include Siegfried Sassoon’s reference to ‘The unheroic dead who fed the guns’.
The two pieces for solo piano were followed by another by Andrew Harrison for soprano, tenor and chamber orchestra, If Not In This World, composed this year. This was like a miniature opera based on letters written by relatives of the composer: Leslie, a young farm labourer, describes his experience in the trenches while trying to placate his mother’s anxiety ending, ‘Till we meet again, if not in this world, in the next’. Leslie was killed. His voice is contrasted with the authority of correspondence from the Australian War Office, and his mother’s pleading for them to find a good luck ring she had given her son. Not surprisingly, the ring is never found and she is left, a broken-hearted lonely mother. As the composer states in the program notes, ‘The end of the war did not bring closure, but opened up a gaping wound that tore at the internal fabric of society…’ The text is framed by three short instrumental ‘laments’.
The final item in the concert was a poetry reading of excerpts from Frederick Phillips’s An English Vision of Empire (1919). The poet was the grandfather of Arcko’s founder and conductor, Timothy Phillips. Frederick Phillips, like so many WWI soldiers, returned with shell-shock or what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and after many years of suffering ultimately killed himself. As the program notes say, ‘His story and the poem stand as a testament to the long reaching shadow that war casts over people’s lives.’
People left the concert quietly, probably many, like me, poignantly aware of that long reaching shadow.
For much of my life World War I has hung in the dim past; a brown and white strip of celluloid showing huge, cumbersome guns, and soldiers marching through mud, sometimes at a pace speeded up by old movie film. People in my immediate family didn’t talk about it much, although my grandfather was there, a captain, awarded an MC, with an experience rather similar to George Sherston, aka Siegfried Sassoon (https://wordpress.com/post/jenniferbryce.net/1099). The war was too long ago to be spoken of in detail, although my mother (still alive today) was born at the end of it. There are photos of Grandad sitting in his neat, military uniform. And I realise now that some of his habits and expressions come from that time: ‘on the word one, quick march’, he would say as we set off on a walk together.
I came to see that war a little differently when, more than 30 years after his death, I came across letters Grandad had written from the trenches. He was ‘verminous’. He asked a friend to send some warm socks (as though he were on holiday). As an officer, I regret to say, he sometimes seemed to approach the war as a kind of rugby match – one side had to win. That’s what he said to friends and family, but maybe talking like that was the only way he could cope.
No war historian, I started to think about World War I as the beginning of modern warfare. There were still battlefields, as there were at Waterloo or Trafalgar, or even the Wars of the Roses, but the enemy (and presumably the allies) did unsportsmanly things, like throwing bombs at the other side’s latrines. There were planes; fragile bird-like things, but they could bomb cities and kill civilians.
Fighting was no longer confined to a battlefield. Horrific numbers of soldiers were killed. My English teacher’s fiancé was killed in World War I – and this was typical. There were so many unmarried women of that generation because, due to the casualties, there was a disproportionate number of women left in the world. In spite of the ministrations of devoted nurses – many miles away from home for the first time in their lives – young men died terrible, often lonely deaths, without pain killers and without drugs to stop infection.
Young men from Australia and New Zealand went off to see the world ‘for free’, and they’d be home by Christmas. To volunteer was noble, doing your bit for your country. But these callow youths were soon squelching around in putrid trenches and standing next to friends whose guts were ripped out by grenades. They weren’t home for Christmas.
‘Lest we forget’ … But will we? Technological developments of the time created not only horrific weapons of destruction, but the camera. Soldiers had their own box brownies and could snap scenes to remind us of the pitiless horror they experienced. Because of these amateur snapshots we know far more of the detail of what fighting that war was like than we do about, say, the Battle of Waterloo or even the American Civil War. The ‘war to end all wars’ certainly didn’t achieve that objective. Was anything learned as a consequence of that war? The world today is certainly not a more peaceful place.
One way of helping us to experience what that war was like, so long ago, is the excellent ‘The Great War Exhibition’ that I visited while I was in Wellington, New Zealand. There are displays of all kinds of weapons, recreations of a recruiting office, a double-decker London bus like the 900 that were used as ambulances and to transport troops, and a shorthorn reconnaissance aircraft with its original engine hangs above us.
There were two things in this exhibition that were outstanding. The first was a ‘Trench Experience’, where a group of no more than 6 at a time was taken on a guided tour of a trench, reconstructed to resemble Quinn’s Post trench at Gallipoli. Although it wasn’t damp, most other features were present: the noise, the narrow walls, uneven surface, and an attempt to recreate the smells (although I thought perhaps they had been toned down a bit). We were led through these winding passages and at each turn we would come across a soldier or group of soldiers acting as they would have – eating (cans of fly-infested bully beef), cleaning their weapons, preparing for attack … and then, near the end, there was an attack.
These very realistic three-dimensional scenes were created by up-to-date digital film and a technique called Pepper’s Ghost, which uses foil to give an illusion of ghostliness. The soldiers spoke directly to us, and when the final attack came, they had ‘arranged for our evacuation’. Some members of the group I was with found the experience quite claustrophobic – and we were only in there for about 15 minutes!
The other feature of the exhibition that I found quite exceptional were the photographs – so many, all taken by soldiers at the time, mainly with their box brownie cameras, bought on the way, in Egypt. Sir Peter Jackson (famous for his direction of Lord of the Rings) had the photos painstakingly digitally colourised by his team at Weta Digital. As he says, the troops saw the war in colour.
Sir Peter Jackson at the exhibition
There were also displays of descriptions written by soldiers at the time – mainly taken from letters. I noticed a tendency for those in higher ranks to focus on the successful outcomes, it was those in the lower ranks who wrote of the vermin, the pain and the hunger. World War I is no longer a drab, crackling old movie for me.
11th November 2018 will be the centenary of the end of the terrible war that didn’t end all wars. There will be all kinds of commemorations. My writing group, Elwood Writers, (Elwoodwriters.com) has been asked to present a program for the Vision Australia Radio program Cover to Cover. We will be reading pieces we have written; fiction, poetry and memoir. The program goes to air on Friday at 8 pm (AEST) and on Sunday at 1.30 pm (AEST). Locally the station is found at 1179AM, also on VAR digital (https://radio.visionaustralia.org/podcasts/podcast/covertocover).
Now we are home. We tore ourselves away from Fiordland to visit Dunedin – a Scottish town transplanted to the Southern latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere. Indeed, my great grandfather left Dundee in 1890 to take up the position of professor of English at the new Otago University. The following year his family joined him. Thirty years later, Great Grandfather died in the pulpit of Knox Church, Dunedin, while reading the lesson for the university’s jubilee service. In the meantime, his four boys and one girl had grown up, and my grandfather, Colin, became principal of a boys’ school there: John McGlashen College. My mother spent the first 15 years of her life there as ‘the headmaster’s daughter’.
Naturally I was keen to try to relive what Dunedin would have been like 100 or so years ago. I went to the Settlers’ Museum to try to find out the addresses of places where my relatives had lived. I tramped up and down hills and took photographs of houses that may have been the ones – but street numbers have changed. Quite often the address I had been given just didn’t exist anymore. What was unchanged was ‘the Town Belt’ – an area of open space and natural bush set aside under the advice of Edward Gibbon Wakefield (also known for the ‘Wakefield Scheme’ in South Australia) ‘to alleviate slums, disease and crime’. I took a path through the Town Belt and immediately recalled playing there as a child, when my grandparents (Colin and his wife) took me to New Zealand to meet relatives and we stayed with ‘Auntie George’, a kindly yet terrifying woman with thick glasses, who wasn’t used to children, having had none of her own. She called me ‘the Child’ and I was expected to go outside and play, because that’s what children do. So I wandered through the Town Belt – and more than half a century later it seems just the same.
The Dunedin Town Belt
Dunedin is solid and established with old stone buildings that go back to the time of a gold rush, when it was to be ‘the new Edinburgh’. Yet it has a population of only 130,000. You can park your car free at night right in the centre of the city – the Octagon. It seems to have a thriving cultural life and café society. It felt like a university city, but maybe that’s because we were staying near the university.
Knox Church, Dunedin, where my Great Grandfather died reading the lesson
We flew from Dunedin to Wellington then drove, through the Tongariro National Park, to Taupo. Here again is a beautiful, yet completely different landscape.
Near Tongariro National Park
One becomes aware of the volcanic sources of the country – the huge Lake Taupo fills the caldera of a volcano and the country around it abounds in geothermal activity; boiling mud, which we saw at ‘The Craters of the Moon’ and on a well-designed walk at Orakei Korako, where you could safely view geysers spurting serendipitously from brightly coloured rocks and admire the majesty of the bush.
Huka Falls, near Lake Taupo
Sure, there is no Paris, New York or London, but I sometimes asked myself, are New Zealanders smug? Right down south, sheltered from global politics and cultures of extremism, it’s a pretty attractive haven.
Strolls along the docks, the Katherine Mansfield portraits, the fresh, lush gardens of Wellington’s ‘Town Belt’ have blurred as life is taken over by a recalcitrant clothes washer. Our essential clothes are locked in a malfunctioning machine in our holiday apartment – the office is unattended until 8.30 am, and we have to leave at 7.30 am to catch a plane to the South Island.
Wellington humour: seen on Lambton Quay
We would get our washing done – the machine has a drying cycle – then, packed and ready for our trip down south, and we would go off to a play at the Circa Theatre – a pleasant way to end our few days in the nation’s capital. So we thought.
Now we can’t think beyond retrieving our clothes. I look up the appliance brand on the Internet: frequently asked questions. There are questions for stove-tops, refrigerators and dishwashers. No-one in the whole world has questions about clothes washing machines, and certainly not, how do you get the clothes out? If only, if only … We went out in the morning, leaving the machine busily washing our clothes, with a drying program selected. When we returned the clothes were washed but still a little damp. We could have removed them and draped them over a clothes horse provided – they would most likely have dried in the warm afternoon air. But no. May as well use the machine to get them completely dry. Just how do you run the drying cycle alone? Before we knew it, the machine was washing our clothes again. We tried to stop it. And that’s how we got it into this petulant locked door routine. How many times have we turned it on and off at the power outlet? It stubbornly resumes its non-door-opening program and once again water is draining and gurgling. Incomprehensible technology is the most frustrating thing in the world. One day I will die of high blood pressure after fuming at some technical device.
We refuse to be defeated by a machine, although it has seriously spoiled our afternoon and looks like taking over the evening. There is a 27-page instruction booklet – well, not a booklet, photocopied pages. We discovered that only every second page had been photocopied. The apartment’s manager kindly arranged for a complete booklet to be delivered to us. That was at 4.30 pm, before the office closed for the evening. Now, at 5 pm, an answering machine invites us to leave a message. I run down to the office in the hope of catching someone working back, but the place is in darkness.
My partner is reading the tome of instructions for the umpteenth time. I take a less logical approach and pummel the door. Then I try pushing it in as hard as I can and suddenly releasing the pressure. No luck. Maybe we should sneak down and buy new socks and undies before all the stores close? I play with the dial. The arrow has been pointing to ‘off’ – a position from which one would expect the door to open. Pushed to the limits of my creative resources I wonder whether in Germany (where the machine was made) perhaps it is the base of the arrow that is the indicator, not the head of the arrow? Something to do with being in the Southern Hemisphere? I swivel the pointer around so that its base rests against ‘off’. Hey presto … open!
The clothes aren’t dry, having had two if not three unnecessary washes, but they are out of the machine! We drape them around the room with glee and race off to eat fish at ‘The Green Parrot’ and attend an excellent performance of Lori Leigh’s Uneasy Dreams and Other Things, based on Kafka’s idea of metamorphosis. Maybe having one’s clothes locked in a washing machine is a bit Kafkaesque …
The Remarkables and Lake Wakatipu
A few days later and New Zealand is no longer associated with clothes washing. Around Queenstown we take in the snow-capped Remarkables, Lake Wakatipu, and the lushest greenest fields.
Walter Peak Farm near Queenstown
We take a steam boat to Walter Peak Farm and stroll around in the sun – lambs, alpacas and delicious date scones. We drive to Te Anau and see the rare Takahê bird with its magnificent brassy and blue feathers. We walk around the lake to Dock Bay, and distant sounds of motor boats accentuate the peace.
On the walk to Dock Bay, Lake Te Anau
Dock Bay, Lake Te Anau
On a warm and sunny day we take a boat tour up Milford Sound – the waterfalls are cascading, the bush is humming and adolescent fur seals are basking on rocks.
Chasm at Milford Sound
Why would you want to go anywhere else in the world? If you are going on holiday for scenery, you couldn’t do better than to come to New Zealand’s Fiordland.
On a whim, I decided to join the Australian Double Reed Society (ADRS), which, according to its website, promotes and enhances knowledge of double reed instruments (oboe and bassoon family). https://adrs.org.au/The annual conference was to take place at Scotch College, which is a kind of alma mater for me because that’s where had I my very first music lesson (piano) at the age of four.
The conference was held in the James Forbes Music Academy at Scotch. It is a most impressive resource and it is pleasing to see an independent school open its facilities to an ‘outside’ organisation such as ADRS. This academy was built quite recently. When I was four Scotch had a ‘music school’. I remember shady trees, possibly elms, a row of about six music rooms with soundproof double doors, a classroom, a performance hall and towering above all of this the school library. Returning to the school was quite a welcoming experience for me – I used to know it well because my grandfather was the principal and my grandparents lived in a large flat in one of the school boarding houses. I loved visiting them.
As I approached the foyer of the James Forbes Music Academy I could hear oboes and bassoons being tried out and the squeaking of reeds being tested. Recently on a breakfast program, listeners were asked to come up with a collective noun for a gathering of oboes. Unfortunately the chosen word was a ‘migraine’ of oboes. I guess that’s the way some music teachers feel – but I think that a ‘moan’ of oboes is better! There was a large display of ‘wares’: oboes and bassoons of all kinds, reeds, reed making equipment … I enquired about various kinds of reeds and looked at new oboes, though at $14,000 I wasn’t tempted to buy one. My impression is that professional oboists change their oboes frequently, whereas I have had my two oboes since student days.
Participants ranged from school students – some as young as ten – to the principal oboe of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. A few presenters had come from overseas and a lot of people were from interstate. I was expecting to feel like a fish out of water because I haven’t played in an orchestra or been involved in teaching for many years, but there were a few familiar faces and I was soon involved in ‘oboe talk’, which is usually about reeds.
The James Forbes Academy is big enough to have many sessions running concurrently: recitals, bands, workshops, master classes … The first recital I attended was by Briana Leaman – Pipe Dreams. She walked into the room playing Debussy’s Syrinx, written for unaccompanied flute. It worked well on the oboe. This was followed by Benjamin Britten’s Pan, also unaccompanied. The centrepiece of her recital was the Australian première of Eric Ewazen’s concerto, Hold Fast Your Dreams. On this occasion it was played with piano. The piece was inspired by an oboist’s mother who, through the tribulations of life held fast to her dreams. Briana is from South Carolina but she now resides in Melbourne with her saxophonist husband.
I then heard Heather Killmeyer, from East Tennessee, play Coal Trails on Rails, a piece for oboe and electronics, written for her by Brian DuFord. Heather comes from a railway town in the Appalachian region of North America. She had recorded the sounds of different kinds of trains shunting, blowing their whistles – all kinds of sounds – and sent them to the composer. There are train sounds throughout the piece, with the oboe playing quite often rollicking tunes that blend with them. The electronics sound track includes accompaniment by instruments that lend a blue grass element to the music – particularly banjo – blue grass music is strong in the Appalachian mountains. Heather is an associate professor at East Tennessee University and after the performance she chatted about commissioning work such as this. I had imagined that the oboe in this work might imitate train sounds, using multi-phonics and other tricky devices, but the oboe part is quite accessible to play – much of it jazzy blue grass melodies.
There was a workshop on the basics of oboe playing where young beginners (and one brave older woman) got out their oboes and learned techniques for breathing and tone control. Then there was ‘Mass Double Reed Ensemble Playing’, where everyone who wished, assembled with their instruments and played a short piece written for a collection of oboes and bassoons. I had brought my oboe, so I joined in.
In the afternoon, Jeff Crellin, Principal Oboist of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra gave a master class where promising young oboists performed their chosen pieces and were given advice by Jeff: think of yourself as singing the piece, remember to breathe out before you take a breath – make a panting sound, like a dog. All participants improved noticeably when they followed his advice.
Then to the final concert for me, Ben Opie, Jasper Ly, Edward Wang and Brienne Gawler playing several contemporary pieces for combinations of oboes and cors anglais (or should one say cor anglaises?). A cor anglais is an alto oboe – rather like the viola of the oboe family. Most oboists can also play cor anglais. The first piece I had heard before, Jonathan Harvey’s Ricercare una melodia (To seek a melody) written in 1984 for oboe and feedback tape – the feedback is now accomplished by computer. Jasper played oboe, hooked up to a laptop manipulated by Ben. To me, a novice, it seemed that the computer manipulated the sounds as they were played by the oboe and blended them into an accompaniment. We then heard Paul Stanhope’s Aftertraces, written in 2011 – it was a trio for oboes, two of them sometimes doubling (changing to) cor anglais. The final piece was Scottish composer James Macmillan’s Intercession, written in 1991. The piece depicts a peal of bells and like bells, as the composer says, the notes are ‘thrown from one player to another’, it then moves to a somewhat more jaunty dance movement, which I thought particularly suited the three oboes.
There was another concert, but by this time I felt I had absorbed sufficient. It had been good to immerse myself again in a moan of oboes.
A Melbourne-dweller, I visited Sydney – a family holiday – in 1960. My mother had worked there during the war and she enjoyed showing us around. We went to Coogee Beach on a tram and ate lunch at a Repin’s Coffee Lounge. So, I remember the Sydney of 1959, depicted fondly by Bruce Beresford in his recently released film, Ladies in Black.
Lisa is 16 years-old, much the same age as I was on that 1960s holiday, and, having just finished school, she has a Christmas job at Goode’s department store, which is very similar to David Jones. In those days we didn’t have a David Jones store in Melbourne – everyone went to Myer’s or if you needed something really special, you went to Georges – mentioned disparagingly by some of the Goode’s ‘Ladies’; Melbourne/ Sydney rivalry was very strong in those days.
I mainly remember Georges for a make-up consultation I undertook with my friend Caroline in the school holidays when we were 16. Her complexion was analysed as peaches and cream, whereas mine was banana (the consultant clearly had no imagination!). Desolated, in rebellion I bought a face-powder called ‘dark Rachel’, which I plastered over my pale olive face.
shopping in David Jones in the 1960s
Ladies in Black can be seen as a coming-of-age story. Sixteen-year-old Lisa (brilliantly played by Angourie Rice) is very bright, but her father is strongly against a young woman going to university where one comes in contact with such despicable sorts as communists and libertarians. Lisa’s parents call her Lesley, which she doesn’t like because it is also a boy’s name. During the story, as she works in the dress department of Goode’s, she asserts her right to use ‘Lisa’, stops wearing her spectacles and becomes quite sociable in adult company. Much of this transformation is aided by Slovenian ‘reffo’, Magda, a potentially terrifying manager of Model Gowns. Magda sees that with her intelligence, a little make-up, the right clothes, Lisa can make something of herself. Through Magda, Lisa and her fellow worker Fay meet other European migrants, who are viewed as rather intriguing. ‘Do you speak English?’ Fay asks the young man who, in the end, will be her husband.
Magda helps Lisa to make something of herself
I remember learning in a similar way from an Italian ‘reffo’, Mrs Tosti, who ruled the typing pool at my father’s business where I worked in the school holidays. Mrs Tosti taught me how to eat spaghetti – real spaghetti, not the stuff you had on toast out of a can.
Most of us enjoy a nostalgia trip, but Ladies in Black is far more than that. It reminds us of the kind of Aussie mateship that prevailed in male company around the 6 o’clock swill (I think maybe by the 1960s New South Wales was a little more civilised, with 10 o’clock closing, and Victorians would cross the border to get an alcoholic drink after 6 pm.) Although all of us except the First Australians are migrants of some kind, the European refugees who settled here after the war were ‘reffos’; foreigners who ate strange food like salami and olives, and who were, it seemed, a little more relaxed in mixed company.
I had read Madeleine St John’s book, Women in Black, some years ago. When I came out of the movie, I felt a little flat. I had thought that there was more drama about Lisa going to university (she gets excellent Leaving results) and between Patty and her husband Frank who seems so daunted after ultimately having such a passionate time in bed with his wife (they have been married some years) that he leaves home in a kind of shock and returns weeks later. I had remembered their relationship as being more fraught – but I was wrong.
Madeleine St John
The film follows the book faithfully. I re-read it after seeing the movie. Most of the dialogue is straight out of the novel. The only exception is that, when Patty visits a doctor because, after all this time, she hasn’t conceived, in the movie the doctor talks of ‘relations’, whereas in the book it is ‘intercourse’ – a term used widely even amongst early 1960s school-girls. I’m not sure why the prudish euphemism was used, but maybe it was felt that the cataclysmic changes in attitudes to sex that have taken place since 1959 needed to be emphasised.
Madeleine St John working with Clive James (at typewriter) on the Sydney University student newspaper in the early 1960s
Madeleine St John was a part of Bruce Beresford’s group at Sydney University. She died some years ago of emphysema and related illness. Beresford says in his introduction to the recent Text edition of the book (2018): ‘I certainly underestimated Madeleine St John in our student days … It was only when I read Women in Black … that I became aware of Madeleine’s powers of observation, her understanding of character, the insights behind her wit, her rather unexpected warmth …’ The film that Beresford has made is utterly faithful to the book and a warm and fitting tribute to a writer who died far too young.
I first heard of Benjamin Britten when I was about 6 years old and my mother bought collections of his folk song arrangements for voice and piano, which she played and sang – I loved Down by the Salley Gardens. Even at that age I could tell that there was something special about the way the piano accompanied well known songs, such as The Ash Grove – complementing but not exactly following the melody. To my delight, Britten wrote six pieces for unaccompanied oboe (Metamorphoses after Ovid), and I learnt them about 10 years later and came across many of his other compositions, including the Phantasy Quartet for Oboe and Strings, which I discovered just recently, he must have written when only 19 years old.
Britten (born in 1913) was a child prodigy with an ambitious mother – determined he would be the fourth of the great ‘Bs’ – who were, in her view, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. He must have been a very good pianist and also played the viola. He composed a great deal, even when at primary school, and started to study composition with Frank Bridge when barely 14 years old.
On 7th September, at a morning concert at ANAM, we were treated to some of Britten’s early works. This academy provides an ideal facility for exploring work of this kind in depth. Vitality and a high standard of performance can be relied upon and students seem to thrive on these in-depth excursions into particular areas of music. This year there has been a focus on Debussy because it is a centenary since his death. But for a couple of weeks there has been a focus on Britten, who died of heart problems in 1976 at the relatively young age of 63.
Benjamin Britten, school boy
We heard the Phantasy Oboe Quartet which, the program notes suggest, Britten composed for oboe because, at this early stage in his career, he didn’t want to place himself in competition with the monumental body of string quartets by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. A further reason is most likely that Britten was studying at the Royal College of Music where he would have met oboist Leon Goossens, who, with his beautiful mastery of the difficult instrument, had demonstrated its potential. He was, arguably, the greatest oboist of the early 20th century and had many works, like this one, written and dedicated to him.
Leon Goossens 1897 – 1988
I had never heard Britten’s 3 Divertimenti for String Quartet, composed from 1933 to 1936. We were told that these were arranged from ‘character pieces’ based on memories of Britten’s school days. With movements headed fairly conventionally ‘March’, ‘Waltz’ and ‘Burlesque’, the ‘comic grotesquerie’ was a surprise and it was easy to imagine the young British school boys who had inspired this music.
The earliest piece on the program was Movement for Wind Sextet (1930) – Britten was only 16. There was no sense that this was an immature piece, although it is apparent that he was trying out ideas from the Second Viennese School – that wellspring of inspiration from Schoenberg, Webern and Berg. We were told that Britten intended to write further movements, but they never eventuated.
Britten said that the sound of rushing water was his first memory
The final item on the morning concert’s program was Britten’s first string quartet, composed in 1941, by which time he had moved temporarily to America – escaping war-torn England – he was a pacifist. The work conveys an unsettled mood – tempo changes, harmonic tensions that might be interpreted as a yearning for England. The last movement is optimistic and indeed, fairly soon after completing this work he returned to the country he obviously loved.
The next evening there was a second concert devoted to the work of Benjamin Britten. Britten wrote only three string quartets and at this concert we were given the opportunity to compare an early one (No.2 in C Major written in 1945) with his final one (No. 3 in G Major written in 1975), which turned out to be, as the program said, his ‘final musical statement’. The third quartet was written in Venice – where, just a few years earlier, he had set his final opera, Death in Venice. In the quartet there are links to the opera; harmonic, tonal and a motif that we are told was the sound of a Venetian bell. The program points out that the final movement is mainly in E major, the key associated with Aschenbach in the opera, but the final chord, marked ‘dying away’ contains a harmonic surprise, which, the notes say, leaves the music ‘exquisitely unresolved’.
Benjamin Britten and Frank Bridge: Britten was a keen tennis player
After interval the stage filled with musicians – all string players – for Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, composed when Britten was only 23. As mentioned, Bridge was Britten’s composition teacher and he must have been both mentor and father figure – greatly admired. Britten used to stay with Bridge and his wife Ethel at their country home.
Britten with Ethel and Frank Bridge
Britten’s admiration for Bridge is clear: ‘Not only did he keep my nose to the grindstone, but he criticised my work relentlessly … He taught me to think and feel through the instruments I was writing for.’ [Powell, N. Benjamin Britten A Life For Music, Henry Holt & Company, 2013.] These variations were written for the 1937 Salzburg Festival. I had expected something like a theme and variations. No, it is far more than that. There is a theme, taken from Bridge’s Idyll No. 2 for string quartet – but the ten variations take up aspects of Bridge’s character, his wit, his energy. They are labelled fairly conventionally; Adagio, March … ending with a Fugue and Finale which seem masterfully to capture and bind those special elements of Bridge’s character, ending with an ethereal affect from the upper strings.