Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

The Mitford Sisters

Most people of my generation will have heard of the Mitford sisters who were a part, albeit a subversive part, of British aristocracy during our childhood and young to middle adulthood. But, which was the writer? Which was the communist? Which was the friend of Hitler? Nancy Mitford had written quite prolifically and was particularly known for her semi-autobiographical Love in a Cold Climate. I knew that one of them had associated with Hitler, and another with Sir Oswald Mosley — but I was often confused about who had done what. So, when I saw Laura Thompson’s The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters on a bargain table at Readings Bookshop, I snapped it up.



On the one hand, the book is quite easy to read, but on another, it hops between one sister and another, so I had to keep resorting to checking the family tree provided at the front of the book. As a Washington Post reviewer says, Thompson ‘leap-frogs’ from one sister to another.



David, Second Baron Redesdale and his wife Sydney — described as ‘minor British aristocrats’ had seven children: one son, Thomas, born in 1909, and the famous six girls. Nancy was born in 1904. She became wealthy from her writing (most of the girls seemed to find ways of squandering their inheritance) and lived in Paris, for much of the time at Versailles, near the Palais.

Pamela, born in 1907, is known as ‘the quiet one’. She was a fascist sympathiser. The next girl, born in 1910, was Diana, famous for having (ultimately) married Oswald Mosley of fascist fame. They were married (a second marriage for both) in Joseph Goebbel’s drawing room in 1936, and Hitler was one of the guests. They spent much of the war years in Holloway prison, and after that under house arrest.


the young Diana


Diana with husband Sir Oswald Mosley, in later years

Unity, ironically christened Unity Valkyrie (given Hitler’s love of Wagner), is famous for having been a close friend of Hitler. Thompson’s description suggests that Hitler may have even shown a skerrick of kindness when she was ill. The day World War II was declared, Unity, who was in Germany, shot herself in the head — rather than killing herself, she ended up with brain injury that reduced her to infantile behaviour. She died of meningitis nine years later. She was shipped back to England and her devoted mother cared for her for the rest of Unity’s life.


Hobnobbing with Hitler before WWII


Unity, shipped back to England from Germany after shooting herself in the head

The second youngest girl was Jessica (‘Decca’), born in 1917.  A fervent ‘left-winger’, she gave her share of inheritance to the Communist party and lived in America, marrying an active communist, Robert Treuhaft.

The youngest, Deborah, was born in 1920 and entered the upper echelons of British aristocracy through marriage, becoming the Duchess of Devonshire. She also rubbed shoulders with American ‘royalty’ as a close friend of John F.Kennedy and his sister.


Deborah’s marriage: she became Duchess of Devonshire


In later years, the Duchess of Devonshire with royalty

Laura Thompson presents these lives — showing the many family feuds: the ‘push and pull’. I kept thinking that however radical their behaviour seemed to be it was always cushioned by that substantial British aristocratic background (Nancy coined the terms U and non-U: whether some word or behaviour was upper class or not). As one reviewer says, ‘there is no letting them off the Hitler hook’. At least I now have a somewhat clearer idea of who did what.


Mitford graves







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On 12th March, just a few weeks after devastating bushfires had destroyed much of the south-east coast of Australia, the chamber music group Syzygy Ensemble performed a concert entitled: Terra Subitis 1: Dare to Hope. By this stage, we knew of the existence of the highly infectious COVID-19, but we were still ignorant of the profound impact it would have on our lives. This is likely to be the last concert I  attend for many months.

Syzygy 2

Syzygy, an ensemble of flute, clarinet, ‘cello, piano and violin, specialises in playing new music and on this occasion the ‘oldest’ piece had been composed in 1995. The usual group of Laila Engle, Robin Henry, Campbell Banks and Leigh Harrold was joined by violinist Zoë Black.

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Zoë Black

The concert opened with the Australian premiere of Greg Caffrey’s for peace comes dropping slow;  calming and fluid, the title from Yeats’ poem, Isle of Innisfree: ‘And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow’ — tranquility recalled when the poet was in a bustling city.

Then a contrast. John Psatlas is a New Zealand composer with a Greek cultural heritage. His three Island Songs were full of the energy of Greek dancing, the Eb clarinet providing a shrill intensity.

Sublimity followed. Caerwen Martin’s ‘Spacious and Expressive’ The Beauty of Now was originally written for violin and piano, but in 2019 she revised it for flute and piano and Laila’s mellow playing — even in the high ranges of the piccolo — took us to an ethereal place.

Syzygy 3

Laila Engle

The final item was composed at the very end of the 20th century by Canadian composer Chan Ka Nin: Our Finest Hour. The piece celebrates the joy of creation, scientific discoveries, and then in the last movement there is a tape of Churchill from his speech made in 1940, where he was determined that England should persist in the war with Germany: Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”  ‘This was their finest hour’ was deftly inserted into the music by Laila — the piece is scored for violin, ‘cello, piano and clarinet — no flute.

Whilst reflecting on the current turmoil of our world, we were left with the reminder of humankind’s achievements —  a strand of hope that we can clutch over the ensuing months as the world locks down.

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Adelaide Writers’ Week: another engrossing day

Elwood Writers

Adel 2 trees 2

My day started sitting beneath Lombardy poplars, myrtles and holly oaks in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden, to hear a session entitled ‘Trees for Life’. The trees in the garden are symbolic, as I learned from Wikipedia:

The design of the garden is a simple rectangle with a low decorative brick wall. At the centre of the garden is Cohn’s sculpture of a female figure, raised on a plinth. This is surrounded by green lawns, and four garden beds with ornamental trees and shrubs at the edges. Cornish’s choice of plants was influenced by their symbolic meanings, selecting five Populus nigra “Italica” (Lombardy poplars) to represent the five women of the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Trust; Quercus ilex (holly oak) and Myrtus communis (myrtle) for protection and love; Lonicera (honeysuckle) for love, generosity and devotion; and Syringa vulgaris (lilac) to symbolise memory, protection, youth and tenderness.

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The session on Trees for…

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Dimanche: a brilliant depiction of climate chaos

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Dimanche has been described as a ‘family show’, but it is far more than that. I went away from the wordless performance of mime, puppetry, film and sound asking myself — why is this so much more powerful than seeing a movie? Maybe it is the lack of words. We are weary of clichés about climate change.

Dimanche was presented at the Adelaide Festival by two Belgian companies: Compagnie Chaliwaté and Cie Focus. One of the members said: ‘We want to speak about the denial in which we find ourselves, the mismatch between the extreme urgent need to act and our difficulty to assimilate this urgency’. They do this superbly well, juxtaposing scientists documenting the last living species on earth and a family trying to carry on with their usual life on a Sunday (Dimanche) against the odds of  extreme heat (the table legs melt), cyclonic winds and flooding tsunami.

Dimanche 1

Some brilliant puppetry: an almost life-size polar bear is separated from its cub when melting ice cracks.  An exotic bird seeking food for its chick is killed in the devastating winds (its remains are blown into the family’s home and they intend to feast on it). Apart from these poignant depictions of loss, a memorable piece of acting is when the three scientists are driving in polar regions in their van — simply done with a steering wheel, hand-operated windscreen-wipers (the actors take it in turns) all bouncing up and down in unison to suggest the rough terrain over which they’re driving.

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There are underwater scenes too, with fish puppets. Articles we recognise from the family’s house are at the bottom of the ocean — a woman in a kayak (rowing in time with the sound of the water) ‘fishes’ up some items. But she too will be taken by the tsunami.

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elderly mother puppet, whose feet are cooled in ice


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I think it was the lack of words that made this so powerful.


Adelaide Writers’ Week 2020

Elwood Writers

Elwood Writers, has attended Adelaide Writers’ Week for many years — I’ve lost count how many — maybe for the last six or seven years. This year is the 60th anniversary of the Adelaide Festival, and Adelaide Writers’ Week, which has been a significant part of the Festival since its inception in 1960.

There are many attractive things about this week of listening to authors talk about their work — one of the main being that the main events are free. We sit on the banks of the Torrens River, in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden, in the summer sunshine, appropriately shaded by blue canvas, with a choice of parallel events on East Stage and West Stage.

Adel writers 2

John Boyne had come from Ireland. He has written eleven books for adults (there was discussion about the unnecessary labelling of books as ‘for young people’, ‘for adults’). His most famous book is

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An extraordinary Mozart Requiem

A requiem is a mass for the dead, for repose of the soul. Mozart’s Requiem in D minor was written at the very end of his life, in fact, he did not live to finish it.  One version was completed by his pupil, Franz Xavier Süssmayr.  This extended version was used, along with additions to what is described in the program as a ‘musical montage’ performed at the 2020 Adelaide Festival by the Adelaide Festival Chorus, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, dancers from Australian Dance Theatre and soloists Siobhan Stagg, Sara Mingardo, Martin Mitterrutzner, David Greco and boy treble, Luca Shin — there was also a baby, just a few months old — I hope he/ she received actors’ equity rates! The production was directed by Romeo Castellucci and conducted by Rory Macdonald.

What can a Requiem mean for us in 2020? What kind of repose might we seek, as we face a world that is being destroyed by our own negligence, with governments more interested in narrow self interest than confronting the reality of climate change, with the likelihood that a virus will wreak havoc in populations across the globe?

Mozart requiem 1

This production of Mozart’s Requiem was certainly oriented towards a 21st century world. I was sitting too far back to see some of the detail that occurred on stage. Indeed, I’m not sure that anyone in the audience would have been able to see, for example, that the person who is going to bed while introductory Gregorian plainchant is sung, is watching TV news headlines about the recent devastating bushfires. Expecting something to do with the crucifixion, I thought that the figure was some kind of modern-day Christ and that the bed from which he/ she ultimately disappeared represented a version of a crucifix. No — I was reading too much into an elderly woman getting into bed and dying.

Some of the dance sequences reminded me of pagan sacrifice (the Rite of Spring flashed through my mind) — the movements did fit to Mozart’s music, and to their great credit, the chorus sang superbly while performing folk dance-type movements and sometimes lying prostrate.

Mozart requiem 3

The idea of a 21st century requiem was captured best for me by  the projection onto the back wall, throughout much of the production, of an ‘Atlas of Great Extinctions’.  We were reminded of so many things that no longer exist: the names of flora, animal species, human species, languages, buildings, artworks, religions and finally suggestions of human abilities and traits that may become extinct: thought, tears, wonder, love… Thus we were encouraged to reflect not only on our individual lives but humanity’s destiny and the future of our planet.

Near the end of the production there is suggestion of destruction — my interpretation was destruction of our world — everything that was pristine and white is blackened. Many of the performers disrobe on a darkened stage. There are piles of dirt. A burnt out car. When the performers are off stage, the floor is tilted, so that the dirt and debris slides forwards.

Mozart requiem 2

At the very end is another Gregorian chant, In Paradise, traditionally sung at the end of a Catholic funeral. And this is where there is hope, symbolised in the tiny baby left alone for a few minutes on stage. (Space Odyssey 2001 flashed through my mind.)

Mozart requiem 5

Elements of this enormous production were memorable and moving but, for me, I would have been happy to have listened to the beauty of the music (which was superbly performed throughout). Sometimes, I think the activities on stage detracted from music which by itself has a universal message. Even for those of us who do not subscribe to traditional religious belief, Mozart’s music alone can offer at least some hours of repose.

Helen Garner: Yellow Notebook


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When I first read that Helen Garner had published her diaries kept from 1978 to 1987, I selfishly thought, oh — if only I’d kept a journal — what a way to publish your autobiography! I do wish that I had kept diaries, as Helen Garner has done, but I doubt they would be as readable as Garner’s. And this is not an autobiography.

Helen Garner 2

After burning her early journals, Helen Garner decided to start writing in a journal again – around 1978 – and did so in a yellow notebook –  hence the title. When I picked up the published book, I expected to find that the journal had been edited – maybe there would be themes – after all, Garner has been known to say that her first novel, Monkey Grip was just an edited version of her diaries of that time.

Helen Garner 4

Clearly, the extracts have been selected, but they are presented as a serendipitous collection of musings, quotes, descriptions… Her endeavours to keep friends, lovers, husbands anonymous sometimes make the reading heavy going. As a writer, I found it fascinating to have glimpses of Garner’s daily routine, of how she quite often had to drive herself to write. I was surprised that this writer who, even back in 1978, was ‘successful’, has a  lurking lack of confidence. She is cut to the quick when there are harsh reviews of her work and elevated to blissful delight when the reviews are good.

Helen Garner 1

Garner has been a hero of mine ever since I read Monkey Grip back in 1978.  In both her fiction and non fiction (and I have heard her discuss that there is not a lot of sense in these distinctions) Garner confronts the reader with the reality of our existence — be it in a rooming house imprisoned by drug addiction or in a courthouse confronted by human frailty. So too in these diaries there were moments when I was entranced by her attention to detail or her encapsulation of a feeling by use of metaphor. We do have to wade through some of Garner’s everyday notes. This is not intended to be a polished novel or essay, but, as Peter Craven has written in The Saturday Paper, ‘worlds of incident and feeling are clipped into a shape of entrancing implication’.

A few of these descriptions are:

‘doors open in my head like those in a cuckoo clock’ [page 7], on preparing food ‘the brutality of its preparation’ [page 19], ‘her permed brown hair quivering’ [page 30], ‘the music ran, bounced and thickened’ [page 42], ‘500-watt blue eyes’ [page 82], ‘she paraded in, chin high, teeth blazing’ [page 118], ‘a grille clanged down between him and the world’ [page 233], ‘the jaws of my purse straining wide’ [page 245], ‘the monolith of his marriage’ [page 253]

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1917 title

In the credits at the end of the movie 1917, Alfred H. Mendes is mentioned and thanked for his stories. A Wikipedia search tells me that he was Sam Mendes, the director’s, grandfather. He was a writer — he joined up to serve in World War I when he was seventeen.  This film is presumably based on stories of incredible acts of bravery and compassion during a brutal war that surely we will never forget. On 6th April 1917, Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake must take a crucial message to British troops on the other side of enemy territory. This British regiment wrongly thinks that the Germans (the Boche) have withdrawn. No – it is a strategic withdrawal and the Boche are lying in wait. If the message doesn’t get there by sunrise, vast numbers of British troops, including Blake’s brother, will be slaughtered.

1917 Blake and Schofield

Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield

By making the filming appear to be one continuous take, we travel with the two young Lance Corporals on their frightening journey – the whole film is from the point of view of one or other of them.

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In abandoned German trenches

Fantastic depiction of the trenches. All we needed was the smell. Amazing scenery – particularly fiery shots in a bombed-out church.

1917 ruins

Others who have seen this film describe it as ‘nail-biting’ and that they were on the edge of their seats most of the time. Well – maybe I’ve seen too many WWI movies. So many depictions of sublime pastoral landscapes that are suddenly sullied – turned into grisly quagmires, so many brutally wounded fresh-faced, terrified soldiers with bloodied stumps for limbs.

1917 landscape

One thing that stood out in this film was the humanity of these young fighters. Blake is killed as a result of trying to assist a German pilot whose legs are still burning after his plane crashes. Schofield has managed to fill his caddy with milk found at an abandoned farm-house. He is exhausted and hungry, but gives the whole caddy to a young woman who is caring for a baby she has rescued. There are many close-ups of the soldiers’ innocent faces. Before a section of a regiment faces up to battle, a young man sings to them with superb clarity and purity The Wayfaring Stranger.

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I can imagine that all of the incidents that make up the horrific odyssey of the young men’s journey to avert catastrophe may have been pieced together from the observations and experiences of Alfred H. Mendes. From the beginning I was pretty sure that at least one of the young Lance Corporals would survive – otherwise, why tell the story?

For me, there were too many coincidences: part of a British regiment turns up in trucks and is able to give Schofield a lift some of the way after he leaves an abandoned farm house, devastated by the death of his companion, who was killed by the German he’d tried to help. When Schofield comes across a young woman caring for a desperately starving baby, it just so happens that Schofield has milk in his canteen. Schofield has used a swiftly flowing river for his escape from an occupied bombed-out village. He climbs out, a whole lot of dead bodies provide gruesome foot-holds; he has left the river at the very spot where the regiment he needs to contact is based. And the music – beautiful – at one time reminding me of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending – tends to anticipate the action. As Schofield dodges his way through ruins in an early dawn, we correctly anticipate that a German soldier will be around the corner…

1917 soldiers that are saved

The soldiers who were saved by Schofield and Blake’s courageous mission

World War I is hugely significant to our modern world. So many were killed. So many social changes resulted from those four atrocious years. Some political and economic changes that were fought for were short-lasting but in other ways the world we live in was shaped irrevocably. We should keep telling the stories from it and keep making and watching movies such as 1917.

Nico Muhly and Pekka Kuusisto

I first heard the remarkable Finnish violinist, Pekka Kuusisto, in 2001 at a Huntington Music Festival – he was then in his early twenties and I remember being amazed by his versatility: dynamism coupled with tenderness. Also at that festival was a young Benjamin Martin – now a leading Australian pianist. As a part of his diverse career as soloist and composer, Pekka is Artistic Director of the ACO Collective – described as the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s ‘regional touring and education ensemble’ of ‘emerging’ professional string players.

Pekka and ACO collective

Pekka Kuusisto leading the ACO Collective

Pekka is a good friend of composer Nico Muhly (who worked as an editor of Philip Glass), and the two came together last December to present a memorable concert.

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Pekka Kuusisto

After a five minute ‘Drone Meditation’, which maybe served as a kind of warm-up, we heard a duet for two violins by Steve Reich, played by Pekka and Harry Ward, which demonstrated the idea of canons ‘drifting out of sync’ while the ACO strings shimmered away in the background. There was then an arrangement for strings of Missy Mazzoli’s You Know Me From Here. Originally a string quartet, the piece depicts a couple’s long-term relationship. After interval we heard Swedish composer Andrea Tarrodi’s Birds of Paradise. The piece depicts the many colours of Birds of Paradise and large sections of the music were bird calls.

Pekka 4There was a world première of Welsh composer Alex Mills’s One is Fun, which was described in the program notes as ‘a constant state of intrigued stress’ – a push and pull effect created by the two violin soloists (Pekka, and Liisa Pallandi). The final programmed piece was another world première of Nico Muhly’s, Shrink: Concerto for Violin and Strings, which had been commissioned by the ACO and Melbourne Recital Centre. As the composer tells us, each of the three movements ‘obsesses’ over certain intervals – ninths in the first movement, sixths in the second and in the final movement ‘a tiny set of anxious intervals between unisons and fourths’. He describes the unisons as ‘coming in and out of focus’.

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Nico Muhly in his studio

This was indeed a mind-blowing concert. But it didn’t end with the final programmed item. The concert program invited audience members to ‘please get a drink and join us back… for Breaking Ground, a special duo set that will include improvisation and Finnish folk songs’. What generosity! After their demanding concert program, Nico Muhly played piano and, as well as improvising on his violin, Pekka, at times, sang and whistled. One could sense the pure joy of music-making shared by these two extremely talented musicians.

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Pekka Kuusisto and Nico Muhly







Little Women: ‘Moral pap for the young’?

Why have so many movies been made of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women? The latest, directed by Greta Gerwig, was released in Melbourne cinemas on 1st January. I haven’t seen all of the other four movies: the first was made in 1918 and has, unfortunately, been ‘lost’. There was one, directed by George Cukor, released in 1933 and I think as a child I was taken to the 1949 movie, billed as ‘The world’s greatest love story’ — which would surely make Louisa May Alcott writhe in her grave. Another version was made in 1994.

Little Women 1949 the world's greatest love story

Little Women is closely autobiographical and it is fascinating to ponder how Louisa May Alcott’s feminism in the 1860s still resonates with issues faced by women today. But why not tell Louisa May Alcott’s story — minus all that wholesome do-gooding that presumably helped to sell the book in the mid nineteenth century?  Louisa May Alcott seems to have seen the book as geared for the contemporary public appetite and is said to have described the book as ‘moral pap for the young’.

Jo is recognised as Louisa May Alcott’s alter ego. In the 2019 movie much is made of Jo being told by her publisher that, for the book to be published, the heroine must either marry or die at the end of the story. Hence, the rather implausible marriage of Jo at the very end, although Louisa May Alcott never married. According to a wikipedia entry she once said: ‘I am more than half persuaded that I am a man’s soul put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body… because I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man’.

Louisa May Alcott

Some great actresses have played Jo. As a child when I saw June Allyson as Jo I thought of her as rather ‘boyish’ and was surprised that she was so upset about cutting her hair, which she did to raise money to help with finances when her father was wounded in the Civil War. (Elizabeth Taylor was Amy.) The various ‘Jos’ reflect the contemporary conception of an 1860s feminist.

In 1918 it was Dorothy Bernard:

Jo Little women 1918 Dorothy Bernard

In 1933 Katharine Hepburn was a fine choice for Jo, although she looks more ‘feminine’ than in some of her later roles:

Katharine Hepburn as Jo in 1933 Little Women

Then, as mentioned, in 1949 Jo was played by June Allyson who, perhaps ironically, was pregnant at the time:

June Allyson as Jo in Little Women (2)

In the 1994 movie Jo was played by Winoma Ryder:

Denise Di Novi as Jo Little Women 1994


In the latest movie, Jo is played by Saoirse Ronan:

Saoirse Ronan as Jo Little Women 2019


There does seem to be a progression from 1918 to 2019 towards a Jo who is freer from feminine constraints. But do we now know more about 1860s feminism than we did in 1994? Excellent acting. Maybe greater emphasis on Jo’s mission to be a writer: the 2019 movie starts in the middle of the story with Jo visiting a prospective publisher. (Another big name actor is Meryl Streep, in the role of Aunt March.) I did find the skipping around with chronology a little challenging — the scenes are so short,one hardly has time to orient oneself before we’ve gone back (or forward) in time.

Little Women 2019 1

I’d like to know more about the life of Louisa May Alcott. She died in 1888 — a time when what I had thought of as a first wave of feminism was emerging: women threw themselves in front of horses, burnt letters in pillar boxes and went on hunger strikes to assert the need for their independence to be recognised. But Louisa May Alcott was asserting her own independence at least 20 years earlier.


Her family moved about a great deal when she was young: 22 moves in 30 years. Her father sounds like an idealist — hoping to establish a utopian community, setting up an experimental school — nothing that brought in money. So Louisa and her sisters worked to support the family — at times Louisa was a teacher, a seamstress, a governess, a domestic worker and, ultimately, a writer. She wrote a lot of pieces for magazines, such as the Atlantic Monthly. She was determined not to be poor (Jo expresses similar views). Louisa was the first woman to register to vote (in a school board election) in Concord Massachusetts. Through Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography, Louisa found parallels between her life and Charlotte Bronte’s.

When the American Civil War broke out Louisa served as a nurse and contracted Typhoid, from which she recovered, although it may have contributed to her early death at the age of 55. During her illness she wrote about the mismanagement of hospitals using humour through a character, Tribulation Periwinkle. Her father wrote a poem that warmly expressed his pride in her.

Apart from Little Women and associated books, Little Men and Jo’s Boys, Louisa May Alcott wrote twelve novels under her own name, three more as A.M. Barnard, one anonymous and many other short story collections and ‘novelettes’. What a fascinating life!

Little Women 2019 2
















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