Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel


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’.

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Otago University

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.

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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.

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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.

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Huka Falls, near Lake Taupo

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Orakei Korako

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Orakei Korako

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.

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New Zealand Odyssey

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.

7. Wellington historic site

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.

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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.

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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 …

17. Queenstown Remarkables from Lake Wakatipu

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.

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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.

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On the walk to Dock Bay, Lake Te Anau


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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.

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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.

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Kea, near Homer Tunnel, Milford Sound



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). 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.

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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.


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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.

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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.


Lisa ready to face the world of university







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.


Frank Bridge





A man, hunched up, balding, presumes his way through the beveled glass doors of the Windsor Hotel Grand Dining Room and, flourishing his walking cane, strides towards my table – jaw set. It must be Charles.

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‘Jessica, my dear. How are you? It’s lovely to see you … after all this time. Your invitation was such a nice surprise. I brought you these. Don’t eat them all at once!’

The little box feels like chocolates. ‘At our age, it wouldn’t really matter if I did! Thank you Charles.’

‘When did I last see you, my dear? That chapel dedication?’

‘At least ten years …’

‘This is all very grand, Jessica. February … might it be your birthday?’

The freckle just below his bottom lip is still there.

‘And two other places set. The old St Margaret’s crowd?’

‘No. I don’t think you’ll know them.’

‘Oh! Well, let’s have a drink.  Shall I consult the wine list?’

He looks frail as he squints at the menu. It must be sixty years since we snuck up to his college room on Wednesday afternoons and made delicious fumbling love on his narrow student bed as tennis balls thwacked on the courts below.  But now I’m eighty.  Maybe I’ll never again make love?

The rest of the dining room gets on with its dinner – a low hum of conversation and the gentle clink of Sheffield plate cutlery.


Now this must be Guy, on a walking frame. Poor old dear. And he’s still wearing that tweed jacket. To think, he was once my husband! To think that I once trembled at the creak of the floorboard outside my college door when he came to court me with Vivaldi and sandalwood incense. Later, things were so bitter, when he ‘coped’ with turning fifty by having an affair with his twenty-something personal assistant leaving me silently fuming at home. Yet now we can be quite civil – even friendly – having Christmas together on the Murray with our grandchildren.

I introduce him to Charles.

Milton’s late. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t invite Cecilia. We’d better start ordering, even though he hasn’t arrived yet. I signal to the waiter.

I’m glad that Charles has taken over the wine list. He cups his ear a couple of times, then agrees to the waiter’s suggestion of a shiraz that will go well with my organic chicken and should do nicely with the chateaubriand that he and Guy have chosen.

It was rude of me not to invite Cecilia, I suppose. But, with her impossible dementia, I don’t think she could cope. Milton said in his last Christmas card that they’re living on frozen meals and have Council help. I’m sure it’s very hard for him. But I never did like her. She lured him away from me when we were teaching at Brighton High. She waltzed into the staffroom and within months they were engaged – a huge square cut diamond ring. I couldn’t help feeling that it should have been mine.


Here he comes now, guided by the waiter. Ugg boots! Bad feet – or did he just forget to change his shoes? His shirt is un-ironed, and that thin tie is a left-over from the seventies.

‘Sorry I’m late, Jessica. It’s hard to get away …’


The waiters are hovering discreetly in the background, moving cutlery and retrieving frequently-dropped serviettes. Everyone seems to be getting on all right, placing their orders, trying to figure out why I’ve invited them. It’s not long before they get onto football, and then, so as to include me, that pervasive topic of the elderly; how they’d hate to be young today with a future of climate change and depleted resources.

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Charles raises his glass.

‘I’d like to propose a toast to Jessica. It’s her birthday, and she looks as beautiful as she did way back at university.’

They totter to their feet. Such an effort. These, the three men in my life with whom I’ve made love.

Tears are burning behind my eyes. I must remain composed. ‘Thank you Charles. Thank you for coming. I wanted to see you all together – silly, I suppose, but my mother once told me that life is down-hill after eighty, so I’m making the most of these few remaining hours before I lurch over the precipice.’

They titter into their wine, then, taking the lead from Charles, raise their glasses, ‘To Jessica.’  It’s as though it were my twenty-first birthday. False jollity? A little, but the well-known ritual at this very moment is consoling. Don’t look ahead.


Now we’ve finished our crème brȗlée and Guy and Milton are shuffling out, chatting together – getting on quite well, they can share a cab home. Charles and I stay in our places, sipping espressos from little demi tasses – who cares about losing a few hours’ sleep when you’re eighty? I think I can hear strains of Hoagy Carmichael coming from the piano bar – Stardust.

Charles leans towards me. A waft of musk aftershave.

‘I’ve so enjoyed seeing you, my dear. I hear that the production of Blithe Spirit at the Playhouse is very good.  Would you care to come?’

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Michael Ondaatje: Warlight


‘Warlight’ was the dim light that helped emergency traffic navigate London’s streets during the blackouts of World War II. Most of this book seems to be dimly lit. It is on the longlist for the 2018 Man Booker Prize (the shortlist will be announced on 20th September).


With the book’s opening sentence, the reader is thrust into post World War II sinister murkiness: ‘In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.’ The two children, 14 year-old Nathaniel (the main narrator of the story) and his 16 year-old sister Rachel, understand that their parents are travelling to Singapore for a year for the father’s work. He boards a plane … and they never see him again. The mother will follow shortly – she makes a show of packing her steamer trunk.


The children are left in the care of a rather scruffy man and his associates. They nick-name their main minder ‘the Moth’ – I assumed that he must hover around, but Nathaniel says he was ‘moth-like in his shy movements’. An ex-boxer, ‘the Darter’ becomes a significant second father figure for Nathaniel, indulging in clandestine activities such as late night smugglings of racing grey-hounds down shadowy waterways in a mussel boat. Rachel is taken along on many of these activities, but she is bereft and never forgives her mother for abandoning her.

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a disused Anderson Shelter, sometimes used by ‘the Darter’ to hide greyhounds

Then the children discover their mother’s steamer trunk. She didn’t take it. She didn’t go. But where is she? Some things are gradually revealed. The mother’s code name, associated with espionage, is Viola. We follow Nathaniel through his teenage life – abandoning school, falling in love, working in a restaurant, and then working for ‘the Darter’.  But pulsing away beneath all of this, like the murky canals and back lanes he traverses, are questions about his mother.


There is an attempted kidnapping. A turning-point. Nathaniel is sent abroad to school. Then suddenly Nathaniel is in his late 20s and working in intelligence – mainly so that he can find out more about his mother. And suddenly there is light when we find ourselves at the mother’s country house called White Paint – there are bees, there is thatching, it is all seemingly wholesome and English. But no. The mother, the spy, is shot in her summerhouse. There is a funeral. Nathaniel sees a lone man there, with the evocative name of Marsh Felon. He loved her. More about the mother’s background is unearthed. When Nathaniel ultimately catches up with ‘the Darter’ (they were separated at the time of the attempted kidnapping) he discovers something that brings a heart-wrenching twist to the end of the story.

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Michael Ondaatje

This book was a page-turner for me – and yet I left it slightly dissatisfied. I was an observer. I couldn’t get inside or even feel some small degree of empathy for any of the characters – not even the poor abandoned Rachel. Nathaniel (as narrator) takes us into his past, but he is armed with his adult knowledge and experience – we do not feel anything quite as the 14 year-old did. As one reviewer comments: ‘You return to that earlier time armed with the present, and no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit. You take your adult self with you. It is not to be a reliving, but a re-witnessing.’

Maybe we can be no more than witnesses to that distant, dimly-lit time. In many ways, reading the book was rather like watching a movie of the 1940s – it was definitely in black and white.

There is a lot to commend in this book and it will be interesting to see what happens on 20th September.

warlight 4



In Camus’s The Outsider, a nameless Arab is killed on a beach in Algeria. He is killed by Meursault, a man who seems to be totally lacking emotion. The first words of the novel, narrated by Meursault are: ‘Mother (or Maman – translated from French) died today.’ Stark and devoid of grief. Much later in the book, Meursault happens to be walking on a hot beach, holding a gun.


He sees the Arab man and kills him. My sense was that it was just because the man happened to be there and Meursault happened to be holding a gun – some say it was because the sun was in his eyes. There is no apparent motive. Callous indifference to Arab life? It was 1942, a time of resistance to the French rule that would continue until 1962.


Algerian money, 1942

It seemed to me that the killing was utterly cold-blooded, and in this way, Meursault is absolutely true to himself. He is put on trial and the significant evidence is that he is different – much is made of the fact that he showed no grief at his mother’s funeral. Camus said: ‘In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death. I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.’ The Outsider was first published in 1942.


Albert Camus

Some 70 years later, Kamel Daoud wrote The Meursault Investigation. It is from the viewpoint of Harun, the younger brother of the Arab who was killed on the beach in Camus’s novel. The Arab, who is nameless in Camus’s book is given a name: Musa. And the opening sentence is: ‘Mama is still alive today’: a kind of helix, echoing Camus’s opening. Indeed, much of the book describes the mother’s desire to seek revenge even 20 years after her oldest son has been killed.


Kamel Daoud

Harun was only seven when his brother was killed. The body was washed away, so there could be no funeral. Over 20 years (the book is set in 1962), the killing has dominated Harun’s life. He is now a drunk – his story is narrated from a bar, he is lost and a stranger in his own country – indeed, the implication is that Algeria has lost itself: Harun wants to ‘bellow’ his ‘impieties’. For him, God is a question not an answer. The choices of nationalism or religion are meaningless.

Harun ultimately enacts his revenge by killing a French settler just after the cease-fire in the War of Independence. Had he killed the man before the cease-fire, he would have been a hero. He certainly doesn’t seek notoriety. After murdering the Frenchman, Harun is taken by soldiers and questioned, but he isn’t questioned about the murder. Instead, he is interrogated as to why he never joined the fighting for the resistance. Harun feels cheated when he is set free with no punishment for the murder.


According to Wikipedia: On December 16, 2014, a death threat against Daoud was issued from a Facebook page that is now locked. Daoud was labelled an apostate, ‘an enemy of religion’. There was a call for Daoud’s execution, on the grounds that he is leading a ‘war against God and the prophet’. Daoud filed a complaint for incitement with the ministry of religious affairs. Various individuals and groups also signed petitions and published open letters in support of Daoud. Defending himself against the charge of blasphemy in a TV interview, Daoud said: ‘It was a fictional character in the novel who said these things, not me. If we judge people on the basis of characters in their books, we will be facing dark times in Algeria.’




It’s time to post some more favourite metaphors and phrases I’ve found in my reading:

Description of W.H. Auden: He suddenly looked terribly old and frail but as nobly formal as a Gothic cathedral Oliver Sacks: On the Move, p.199
The leaching of her own identity by dementia Oliver Sacks: On the Move, p.301
Precisely buttoned blouse Maggie O’Farrell: I am, I am, I am, p. 4
Her scarves skewered to sweaters with a silver pin Maggie O’Farrell: I am, I am, I am, p.13
The drawl and snap of the upper classes Alan Hollinghurst: The Sparsholt Affair, p. 88
A smile across the glooming mahogany of the table Alan Hollinghurst: The Sparsholt Affair, p.438
The sergeant, a tall sinewy machine, had been trained to such a pitch of frightfulness that at a moment’s warning he could divest himself of all semblance of humanity Siegfried Sassoon: Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, p.289
The clogging monotony of life in the line Siegfried Sassoon: Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, p.309
Leake and I meandered along the empty street, accompanied by our tipsy shadows Siegfried Sassoon: Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, p.415
The limitless prairies of my ignorance Siegfried Sassoon: Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, p.489
The creeping glacier of worry Richard Flanagan: First Person, p. 67
The solicitor’s dank dun-coloured room, grimed with greed Richard Flanagan: First Person, p. 169
Fondness seems a rather pastel version of love Virginia Lloyd: Girls at the Piano, p. 26
The rhythmic collapse of the waves Amy Witting: A Change in the Lighting, p.80
The harsh, virtuous smell of cleaning powder Amy Witting: A Change in the Lighting, p.137
Her mother’s quick foreboding tread Amy Witting: I for Isobel, p.12
Boredom roosting on their shoulders Amy Witting: I for Isobel, p.93


This latest novel by Julian Barnes was a slight disappointment compared to the grippingly compelling The Sense of an Ending (winner of the 2011 Man Booker) which, at the time, I described as an account of ‘lurching regret’. Like The Sense of an Ending, The Only Story is concerned with things that can’t be undone and consequences of decisions made in one’s youth. In this case it is the consequence of the person Paul fell in love with at nineteen – that first love that one will never forget. The book examines love. Can one analyse love? Probably not. Paul, the protagonist whom we first meet as a surprisingly confident 19-year-old, keeps a collection of other people’s definitions of love. But his first love (not his first sexual experience) is so overwhelming that it takes over every aspect of his life (as it can). One weakness, I thought, perhaps the only one, was that 19-year-old Paul in 1960s middle class England has an extraordinary amount of assurance for a callow youth. He falls in love with a 48-year-old married woman, and this is what takes over the rest of his life.


Paul walks jauntily into Susan (his lover’s) home, through the front entrance. One time, for fun, he scales the front wall up to her bedroom window. He and, sometimes, his friends, eat and even stay overnight at Susan’s home, which she shares with her husband. There seems to be an element of immature pride in Paul’s conquest of a middle-aged woman: look what I’ve done! But his love for Susan is genuine and he knows that she will always be a part of his life. They do ultimately run away together (from ‘the Village’ to London) but it is not a case of unassailable bliss.

Susan becomes an alcoholic and Barnes has depicted superbly the frustrating stonewall of alcoholism where the addicted person cannot be torn away from the constant need to imbibe more and more, and the hellish spectre of how they are changed. One time, before they had run away together, Paul and Susan are sitting on a floral covered settee, Susan wearing a floral dress that blends with the fabric of the settee covering as though she has partly faded into it. She jokes about it at the time, but that’s what seems to happen: she becomes consumed. There are questions of love and duty. Paul remains living with Susan for as long as he can, but ultimately escapes physically, if not mentally from the woman he loves . . .  has loved? ‘He couldn’t save her, and so he had to save himself.’


People might say that Paul’s life is ruined by his years of devotion to Susan. He has a number of relationships but never marries or has children and his work is never central to his life.  He does not seem to resent this, or regret the considerable amount of his life devoted to Susan.   There was anger,  not directed at Susan, but at ‘whatever it was that had obliterated her’. In many ways he seems contented with his ordinary middle class single man’s life, to that extent he did ‘save himself’. As I neared the end of the book, I predicted that it would end with Susan’s death, and it almost does. The last pages describe Susan very close to death, when Paul visits her in an institution for the insane. He sits by her side, but she is too far gone to acknowledge that he is there. Paul considers the actions that one might expect in this situation: say good bye, kiss her … But no. It is back to the ordinary world: ‘On my way out I stopped at reception and asked where the nearest petrol station might be. The man was very helpful.’ We are saved from any predictable cliche.

Yet, Susan is a presence throughout what we see of Paul’s life. After Susan has succumbed to alcohol and then a form of dementia and when Paul is leading a kind of average, uneventful life, thoughts of Susan are interspersed – it’s not just that things sometimes remind Paul of Susan, she seems to be a presence, hovering over his entire life. And in this way, Love is the only story.


Brilliant writing.  Barnes deftly changes from first, to second to third person, gradually distancing the reader from the immediate youthful experience of love (first person) to the reflective stance of the older Paul (third person).

Whereas A Sense of an Ending ends with a kind of searing regret,  one feels that Paul never regrets his love for Susan.


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