Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Category: My Reading

Nicholson Baker: Substitute

Nicholson Baker is not a well-known writer in Australia. I wrote a review of his novel Travelling Sprinkler in the early days of this blog:

‘Substitute’ is the term used in the US for emergency teacher — someone who fills in when a regular teacher needs to be absent. To my amazement, it isn’t necessary to have any teaching qualification to be a ‘substitute’ — in some states it’s not even necessary to have any kind of degree or diploma, just to have passed high school.

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Nicholson Baker

This book is a chronological account of the twenty-eight days that Baker ‘subbed’ in the school district of Maine. I was drawn to it because for a short period of my professional life I was a high school teacher. The subtitle of the book is ‘Going to school with a thousand kids’ — and that’s exactly what you do. At first I thought it was going to be pretty tedious: there are of course the daily classroom dramas, but there’s no plot, no climax. That’s what Baker intends — to give us a taste of the life of a teacher. We are immersed in the world of a sub. A sub doesn’t even have the interest of shaping the curriculum or watching students develop their skills — Baker is expected to stand in at all levels: high school chemistry, kindergarten, and lots of middle school classes in between. As Baker said in an interview: ‘I think teachers should be paid more. I would never want to pretend that what I did was equal to what they have to do.’

Baker 2

Ubiquitous in these classrooms are malfunctioning iPads, dull worksheets, requests to go to the bathroom, intrusions from the PA system and lists of educational objectives. The objectives reminded me of when I undertook teacher training a long time ago. On our teaching rounds we had to write up our lessons and each lesson had to have an aim and a set of objectives.

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The teachers are worn out. Most of their communications to the children are relayed by Baker in upper case letters because they are shouted, or shrieked. They seem to survive on worksheets and assignments — I was sometimes horrified by the expectations, and from Baker’s observations there was no way that most of the kids could understand what they were meant to be doing — it was just a matter of filling in meaningless blanks on a sheet.  In a history class there was a choice of four ‘isms’: fascism, militarism, isolationism and totalitarianism and they were to be paired with phrases such as ‘Foreign policy of the United States after World War I’, or ‘Focus of growth on industry and military, low standard of living, shortage of food and consumer goods’. A third grade class was given an assignment and one of the questions was: Explain how the writer’s style changes in the last two paragraphs [page 535]. There are lots of routines and automatic punishments such as losing time off recess.

There is an implicit criticism of school structure and curriculum, but also an understanding that teachers are greatly undervalued. Baker spends a lot of time chatting to the kids. He often asks, How’s your day going? He is greatly concerned when one student tells him of a drug he’s been prescribed in adult doses and the side effect is that he cannot sleep. Baker speaks to the school nurse about it. Whilst he undertakes the required supervision of work sheet completion, he tries to teach students the basics that they will need to survive — how to spell, and particularly, their times tables. As one reviewer comments: ‘For every meaningless worksheet or recess infraction, there’s a warm, witty exchange with a student, or a moment, however brief, of genuine engagement.’

In the same review, we learn how Baker managed to write up all this detail. In an interview he said: ‘After the day was over, I parked in a parking lot on the way home and spent a few hours making an anguished set of recollections about the highs and lows of the day.’

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It seemed to me that Baker is a natural teacher. If only he could have been let loose in those classrooms with no obligation to supervise quizzes and worksheet completions. He would have read to the kids. He would have drilled them in their tables. He would have talked to them about all kinds of things relevant to their lives.

Cate Haste: Passionate Spirit: The Life of Alma Mahler

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Alma Mahler

My introduction to Alma Mahler, at the age of about fifteen,  was through a World War II era publication by Alma, entitled Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters, translated by Basil Creighton. The book had been produced ‘in complete conformity with economy standards’. My aunt had acquired it in 1948 through a book club and when, many years later, she knew that I was interested in music, she passed it on to me. I’d vaguely heard of Mahler. Didn’t like his heavy music. The book, largely an appreciation of Gustav Mahler with some letters at the end, appeared to have been written by a devoted wife, with no suggestion of the life of dalliance that she was probably still leading at the time of publication.

Alma Bride of the Wind

Kokoschka’s painting, Bride of the Wind, dedicated to Alma Mahler

Next, many, many years later, I saw Bruce Beresford’s film Bride of the Wind — the title referring to a painting by Oskar Kokoschka (one of Alma’s many lovers) that he dedicated to Alma.

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I was almost obsessed by that movie. For me it conveyed the belle epoque of early 20th century Vienna — the exciting discoveries, the flourishing arts, and most importantly it told me a great deal more about Alma Mahler — dwelling on the devastation for her and Gustav on the death of their daughter and, significantly, driving home the fact that when they agreed to marry, Gustav insisted that Alma cease her own musical composition (which was a driving part of her life). This demand seems outrageous today and critics have considered that Alma’s composing can’t have meant a great deal to her. However, she said that she carried her own songs around inside her ‘as if in a coffin’. Particularly at that time there were no role models of female composers and maybe she assumed that her own efforts could amount to no more than some gentile accomplishment.The film ends, well after the death of Gustav, with a concert of Alma’s own works.

Alma her song

One of Alma Mahler’s compositions

By the time of her death in 1964, Alma Mahler had a reputation as a self-serving, narcissistic gold-digger, who flung herself at many powerful male figures in the arts. It is now interesting to examine her life from a distance and to evaluate it in its contemporary context. A recently published book by Cate Haste provides a detailed and largely sympathetic account of Alma Mahler’s life.

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Alma with her two daughters before Maria’s death in 1907

Alma had huge admiration for her father, the artist Emil Schindler, who died when she was young. She was used to the artistic wealth of early 20th century Vienna. My own belief is that Alma, perhaps unconsciously, saw Gustav as a replacement for her recently deceased father. Maybe because she couldn’t fulfil her life through composition, Alma came to define her life through love – and the list of her lovers is long. Was it from a lack of fulfilment? Artists, such as Klimt, Kokoschka, the architect Gropius (whom she married), ultimately the writer Werfel (who was a best seller in his day). Sometimes, it seems to me, her diaries (quoted in Haste’s book) read like those of a teenager: do I really love him? In the foreword, Haste says that Alma was ‘untrammelled by convention’ (page x) – her liaisons were often wild and it seems she was quite open about her philandering and adultery. In many ways it was a life of peaks and troughs: three of her four children died (Bereford’s film concentrates on her life while Mahler was alive), and there are many descriptions of times when Alma was driven to her bed for long periods of depression. She seems to have been obsessed by her own allure – later in life she was described as ‘an extravagantly festooned battleship’ (page 261) and – more unkind – ‘her figure a bag of potatoes’ (page 286) and ‘a bloated Valkyrie’ who ‘drank like a fish’ (page 353).

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the ‘extravagantly festooned battleship’

For most of her life Alma seems to have had plenty of money. After a horrifying escape from Europe, over the Pyrenees, during World War II, Alma and third husband Franz Werfel ended up in the US and were soon holding salons with their friends from Europe. Alma must have been well read – at one time she is described as packing up 10,000 books. However, although many of her friends were Jewish, she was unforgivably anti-Semitic.

She is known as Alma Mahler – Mahler was her first husband. She also married Walter Gropius, the architect and writer Franz Werfel. But in the end, it seems, she wanted to be remembered through her connection with Mahler.

Alma Jonathan Pryce

Jonathan Pryce playing Mahler in Bride of the Wind



My friend Sally has just reminded me of Tom Lehrer’s brilliantly irreverent song about Alma Mahler:

Thanks very much, Sally!



A Ladder to the Sky

John Boyne’s most well-known book is the YA, The Boy in Striped Pyjamas(2006). I haven’t read it or seen the film that was made. John Boyne, from Dublin, was a guest at Adelaide Writers’ Week.

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It is said that ambition is putting a ladder to the sky, and Boyne’s book, A Ladder to the Sky is about a sociopathic writer who is totally dominated by ambition. We first meet the divine looking young Maurice Swift as he taunts an ageing gay novelist, Erich Ackerman. This part of the book is from Ackerman’s point of view. Maurice teases out a story that Ackerman has never before told, about a terrible act he committed when he was a member of the Hitler Youth in Nazi Germany. Maurice heartlessly appropriates this story, launching his own career with a best seller and ending Ackerman’s career in ignominy.

Boyne 2

The second part of the book, an ‘Interlude’, is from Gore Vidal’s point of view – told in the third person. Writers are gathering at Vidal’s opulent pad on the Amalfi Coast and Maurice, flaunting his good looks, is in tow with a well-known American writer. Some reviewers have liked this part of the book best, but I preferred to be carried along by the breath-taking horror of the next few sections.

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Gore Vidal’s ‘pad’

I found the next section technically very interesting. Written from the point of view of Maurice’s wife, Edith, it is narrated in the second person, addressing Maurice. They are living in Norwich. His writing appears to be at a stand-still while she has just published a very successful first novel and is teaching creative writing at the University of East Anglia. We, the readers, start to sense a creeping menace – why is her computer warm when she arrives home earlier than expected? Maurice can put together a sentence quite well, but has no ideas for plot and, being an utter sociopath, presumably has no interest in character. He appropriates her ready-for-the pubisher second novel. She finds out. She must go. He pushes her down the stairs and she ends up on life support. The end of this section is extraordinary. Narrated by Edith in a coma – she can hear, but cannot communicate. And she knows so much: she is the only person who knows that Maurice is selling her novel as his own work. She also knows that her sister has planted child pornography on her estranged husband’s computer so that he will be barred from having access to their children. Edith also knows that she is pregnant, but loses the baby in her fall. Edith’s last perceptions, which are spaced out more in the print form of the novel, adding poignancy to her last few moments: ‘I can hear switches being turned and the wheezing of an artificial breather as it starts to slow down, and that’s when I realise. You’re turning me off, aren’t you, Maurice? You’re turning me off. You’re killing me. To protect yourself and, more importantly, to protect your novel. My novel. Your novel.

I see you.

You’re reaching down and taking my

that thing   at the end of my arm …

I can’t see you any more      there’s no light

no sound

no more words.’

Nothing more needs to be said.

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The rest of the book is narrated by Maurice. He continues to build his career in New York, where he owns a literary magazine – ideal for appropriating story lines from short stories he rejects for publication. He has a son, through surrogacy – for some strange reason he always wanted children. But – a similar story – Daniel finds out too much – particularly the appropriated novel from Edith, whom Daniel wrongly thinks is his mother. Thirteen-year-old Daniel dies of an asthma attack when Maurice withholds his ventolin puffer.

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Maurice returns to London and becomes a drunk. A student takes an interest in him and the forever ambitious Maurice agrees to meet him on a regular basis in various pubs, understanding that this association will lead to a biography, since the student’s father is an editor at Random House. Playing on Maurice’s growing frailty, the student manages to expose everything. Maurice ends up in prison for life. As a rather satirical coda,  Maurice teaches creative writing while he is incarcerated. One student writes particularly well – a novel ‘that would give Henry James a run for his money’. But this student dies in a prison brawl. Maurice, of course, appropriates the work. It is published and ends up one of the best-selling books of that year.

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I loved the irresistible plot, the variety of writing and particularly the rather smug sense of humour as Boyne gently satirises the literary world of festival circuits, publishers and literary prizes.


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






Adam Roberts

I discovered Adam Roberts this year and so far have read two of his books, The Snow and The Black Prince. This year Tony Thomas gave a comprehensive talk about Adam Roberts to a Science Fiction group, the Nova Mob, and I will draw on  Tony’s talk in this piece.

Adam Roberts 1

Adam Roberts is an extraordinarily prolific writer, as Tony describes:

Adam Charles Roberts was born on 30 June 1965, which makes him 54 now. He apparently spent his early life reading sf and then his twenties pursuing his academic career while still reading sf. In 2000 when his first novel Salt was published and he was 35 he was a lecturer at the University of London, specialty 19th century literature, thesis on the poet John Clare. Later he was a Reader and now he’s a Professor of 19th Century literature – his day job he calls it – at Royal Holloway, London University and lives in Berkshire with his wife Rachel and has two children. The Professorship he holds apparently is the same one formerly held by J. I. M. Stewart, better known as crime writer Michael Innes.

Adam Roberts Nova Mob

So, as well as being a Professor of 19th Century literature, Roberts manages to consistently produce a couple of very good novels each year.

The first Adam Roberts book I read was The Snow.  As Tony Thomas says,  it begins as a standard disaster novel in the mode perhaps of Wyndham or early Ballard: The Day of the Triffids, or The Wind from Nowhere. Here the snow comes from nowhere, and continues to fall each day, and continues to fall. London streets and houses are gradually covered, with inhabitants moving to upper stories, and travelling by rooftops. Eventually the snow is three miles thick over the whole earth, billions have died.

Adam Roberts The Snow

All forms of communication cease. We don’t know exactly why this has happened: maybe an experiment gone wrong or maybe it’s the extra-terrestrials? Somehow Tira and a few other (total 150,000) people survive by living underground in airlocks – such as an abandoned office building. Tira is rescued by Americans who have established a military society, in a place called Liberty, above where the US is located (‘NUSA’, the New USA). The survivors are all military minded — most Democrats don’t make it. Tony suggests that Roberts was imagining something like Donald Trump’s current cabinet. They somehow have sufficient drones and aircraft for this society but it is, apparently, never possible (or else they keep it secret) to explore the rest of the world – is Australia under 3 miles of snow? One of the things I liked about this book was the writing style. At first it is conventional narrative, but then there are bits written as legal documents – confessions. People’s names are blanked out, as they might be under a repressive regime. This device helps to make the whole extraordinary idea more plausible.

Tony points out that most reviewers didn’t like the novel, finding the snow bore too much allegorical weight – ‘veering dangerously into allegory of darkest entropy: personal, political, planetary’ – writes John Clute, but Roberts is more subtle than this, and as usual too there’s quite a lot of relieving humour, which many reviewers also didn’t like.

The second Adam Roberts book I read this year was The Black Prince. I’ll hand over to Tony Thomas for a full description:

The Black Prince is Adam Roberts’s first historical novel, and it’s great. It was commissioned by the Anthony Burgess estate based on an unpublished script by Burgess left after his death. Just a shortish script, which Roberts (a great admirer of Burgess) expanded and embellished to make a novel. He originally incorporated quite a bit of Burgess’s dialogue, but lost most of this in subsequent revisions as the dialogue didn’t seem suited to the novel he was creating, so we’ve ended up with a work much more Roberts than Burgess. It was published by the crowd funding publisher Unbound, with the help of 434 supporters …  Once the required amount of money had been accumulated, the book was able to be published, and contributors received a signed copy of the first edition hard copy, plus, depending on the amount of their contribution, various other gifts such as signed earlier books by the author. The contributor giving the most got copies of all the Burgess books Roberts had read before launching into the project, ie the whole of Burgess’s rather extensive oeuvre, sf, novels, non-fiction and all.

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But back to The Black Prince itself. And first a little historical background. Edward, the Black Prince (1330-1376) was the eldest son of King Edward III of England, and thus heir and Prince of Wales, but he died before his father and so his son Richard succeeded to the throne instead, as Richard II. Edward, the Black Prince (black for his armour) was an important commander in the hundred years war, mainly in France, but also in Spain, where he was involved in the important and still remembered battles of Cressy, Poitiers, Najera, and Limoges (in this latter case the town was besieged and sacked and everyone in the town, on Edward’s orders, was slaughtered. This very bloody encounter forms nearly the final chapter of the novel, probably the point at which reviewer Margaret Drabble had to stop reading, as she suggests in her favourable review in the TLS.) Four or five hundred years later, England was still doing the same thing to France. Many of these names will be familiar to students of history, not to mention readers of Shakespeare, whose second historical tetralogy begins with Richard II (the Black Prince’s son), and in which John of Gaunt, Edward’s brother and fellow campaigner in France, is an important character. Richard II is deposed by John of Gaunt’s son, his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, the man who became Henry IV and featured in two further Shakespeare plays.

So Roberts had to write about a world somewhat familiar to us in broad outline, but very unfamiliar in its day to day details. It is hard for us now to know what life was like for those living, fighting, and dying in it. Clearly research will fill some of these holes, and fantasy authors have similar issues to face in creating their worlds. But as  Roberts writes in a blog on this subject in June this year, there’s more to it than this:

Modernity has largely replaced the old warrior values of feudal society like bravery, loyalty and strength with bourgeois virtues like honesty, decency and hard work. There has been, in the West, a profound shift from a shame culture to a guilt culture. Post-Romantic aesthetic sensibility—and therefore, sensibility as such—is different to pre-Romantic aesthetic sensibility. We are not just less violent nowadays than people used to be in the past, we are many orders of magnitude less violent, because (I’d argue) life is immensely less constrained and frustrating than it used to be. People are still people of course; they deal with many of the same basic ontological necessities that people always have. We still yearn, rage, labour and rest; we still love our children and decline towards death. But in important ways we not only live in different surroundings but are different people now.

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Roberts goes on to say: A historical novel doesn’t have to reflect that, in any absolutist or prescriptive sense; and I cast no aspersions on people enjoying the escapist pleasures of the bodice-ripper. But I would say that a good historical novel at least needs to attempt it. Writing SF or Fantasy, as I usually do, is not that far away from writing a historical novel: world building an unfamiliar environment, recreating the mindworld of characters who believe in magic, construing the-past-as-such into some kind of present-day relevancy (for what else are Tolkien, Moorcock and George R R Martin doing if not that?) But more importantly, writing a historical novel needs to be more like writing SF or Fantasy in that it ought to estrange us from its material to one degree or another. A historical novel that doesn’t estrange has failed, I think.

Tony Thomas then asks: So what does Roberts do to achieve his estrangement? He adopts some experimental techniques copied from Dos Passos via Burgess… Interspersed with the more usual prose sections are, firstly, twenty short Newsreels, modelled on the old Pathé Newsreels, just headlines and a few words, widening the narrative so we get some potted history, some trivial events of the time, songs, some feeling for a wider world – but in a very deliberately fragmented way. The other interspersed sections, Camera Eye, mimic what a camera might see in the hands of an expert director, cutting from one view to another, revealing a character’s thoughts and memories in broken stream-of-consciousness half sentences. But the main part of the novel is carried in the sections given to individual characters, with two of them reappearing several times at different stages of their lives: Edward the Black prince himself and a commoner and sometime soldier in Edward’s army, Black George. The woman who becomes Edward’s wife (in her third marriage), Joan, called the Fair Maid of Kent, in her reappearing sections introduces the only element of fantasy into this novel, as she is a wise woman who can to some extent see the future. Little however is made of this, except for the effect that it has on her own actions, and the need for her to be careful not to be called a witch, a danger for even a high-born woman like Joan. The multiple sections allow Roberts to introduce a wide range of characters from different classes, and have them speaking in their own voices, which he writes was “fun” – but more than this, I think, it expands our vision to a whole world, and a very unfamiliar world.

I loved the way that Roberts showed us 14th century vistas, swooping over scenes of 14th century France like a film camera.  The writing made this time come to life, for me, even more than Hilary Mantel has done. The descriptions of bubonic plague and bloodthirsty battle are horrific – we feel what it was like to be in a suit of armour when suffering from dysentry. And we even hear the arrows whistle through the air in battle.

Thanks to Tony Thomas for the excerpts from his Nova Mob paper on Adam Roberts.


Behrouz Boochani: No Friend But The Mountains

It is terribly hard to write about this book. For years, along with many other Australians, I have been deeply ashamed of the government’s treatment of refugees. When I think of it, I am humiliated. But here I am, sitting at my comfortable desk, groaning along with the crowd who voted against Scott Morrison as Prime Minister — yet my life hasn’t changed radically. I won’t become homeless, stateless or incarcerated.


Behrouz Boochani, a professional journalist who fled oppression via Indonesia, wrote this book using a mobile phone and Whatsapp. It was mainly written after he was forcibly removed from Manus Island Immigration Detention Centre – Manus Prison – following a 23 day siege. He is still living on Manus Island and has no idea of his future.

Boochani was awarded the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature. And I remember feeling personally embarrassed when a self-righteous aspiring writer wrote a letter to The Age complaining that the rules, which she had followed assiduously, had been broken, because Boochani is not an Australian citizen. Why not? Read the book.


Indeed, the award may offer Boochani a degree of protection, as he says: ‘Being known, perhaps, and my work being recognised and supported by organisations and other thinkers and artists perhaps gives me an element of protection.’


The book is a beautiful piece of writing. It has been described as ‘anti-genre’. In one sense it is a piece of social reporting, yet it is also a poem that has grown from the Kurdish literary tradition. What courage — what persistence!

He graphically describes the horrific outcomes of the use in Manus Prison of a Kyriarchal system of social domination where the principle is to turn prisoners against each other. He also writes poetic descriptions — flowers, ‘gasping as though in love with the cool ocean breezes’.

We start off by experiencing, through his poetry, the truck ride to the boat in Indonesia: ‘we look up at a sky the colour of intense anxiety. Every so often someone slightly adjusts their position on the truck’s wooden floor to allow the blood to circulate through tired muscles’.

A terrifying boat trip. Inhumane and unexpected imprisonment on Christmas Island, and then a plane to Manus. Where there is ‘a confrontation of bodies, a confrontation of human flesh’, and where  ‘the untreated sewage spilling out around the facility produces a smell … so vile that one feels ashamed to be part of the human species.’


I don’t suppose any of the government personnel who make decisions about immigration policy have read this book. Quite apart from being a beautiful piece of literature it is an important document and we must not blench from reading it.

Boochani’s work will continue to be revered in Australian literary circles. Indeed, his poem ‘The Black Kite’ is in a book, The Sky Falls Down, to be launched next Saturday 13th July at Readings bookstore, Glenferrie Road Hawthorn, 2.00 pm.

Book cover Sky Falls Down (1)

Mozart and Birds

In March this year, at the Adelaide Festival, I attended Barrie Kosky’s extraordinary production of The Magic Flute.

Mozart Magic flute 1.jpg

Only the front of the stage is used, and much of the action involves animation on a huge screen, the actors at times greatly elevated (singers must be getting used to singing from alarming heights — I think of Kate Miller-Heidke in the Eurovision contest). The animation is by the company 1927, and indeed we are in the realms of the silent films of the Weimar Republic.

By no means an opera buff, I don’t like recitatives and on this occasion I didn’t have to listen to any because the words were shown as intertitles, in appropriate silent movie font. I particularly loved the depiction of the Queen of the Night as a huge spider.

Mozart Magic flute 2

The hero of this opera is Papageno, the Bird Catcher, who , after being the proverbial loser, ends up with his Papagena. The opera is about love, and as reviewer Cameron Woodhead has said, it depicts love as ‘something visceral, irrational and disordered, but also an intrinsic delight’.

I loved the animation. But I was aware that the music of the Berlin Komische Oper was superb. In particular the high soprano notes of the Queen were piercing and amazing. I did feel that the novelty of the animation distracted me a little from the beauty of the music. What would Mozart think of this?


In March, I hadn’t yet read Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s book, Mozart’s Starling. For three years Mozart had a pet starling, which he kept in his rooms in Vienna. Some say that he revisited the pet shop and bought the bird because it could whistle a phrase from his piano concerto no. 17 in G major. (Who composed it first, I wonder, Mozart or the starling?) Haupt tried to teach the phrase to her starling — in case it was a natural part of starling song — but was unsuccessful.

Mozart's starling 7

Lyanda Lynn Haupt is a keen bird lover. Although she doesn’t describe herself as an ornithologist, she knows a lot about birds, and she cares about them. She rescued her starling, Carmen, from a building that was to be demolished. In Seattle, where she lives, starlings are reviled. They are rats with wings. They decimate crops and invade sensitive habitats.

Mozart's starling 6

In Haupt’s book, we have the parallel stories of her bird Carmen, who becomes a much-loved pet, and Mozart’s starling, ‘Star’. One thing that puzzled me, reading this book, was the matter of translation. Did Mozart call his bird ‘Star’, or the German equivalent? Also, there are long quotes in English of letters that Mozart wrote, and poems, beautifully rhyming — all quoted in English.

Mozart's starling 5

Carmen was so much a part of Haupt’s family that she sat on Haupt’s head or shoulder while Haupt was writing, frequently ‘pooping’ in her hair or on her computer keys.  Starlings are great mimics, and Carmen could imitate sounds such as the creak of floorboards.  There is interesting discussion about bird langauge and understanding, with reference to the work of Noam Chomsky. Haupt suggests that Star was similarly a pet in Mozart’s household. Haupt visited Vienna and stood in Mozart’s apartment, imagining Star there.

Mozart's starlng 2

It is said that when Star died, Mozart arranged an extravagant funeral, whereas he hadn’t managed to find the means to travel to the funeral of his own father. Through Haupt’s book I came to see Mozart as a relaxed and fun-loving man. Previously I had thought that because his life was so short and he wrote so much he must have been driven and pedantic. No, he would have loved Kosky’s production of The Magic Flute.

Mozart's starling 1



Pat Barker is recognised for her perceptive writing about war. Indeed, some time ago I wrote a post about her World War I novel, Regeneration.


The Silence of the Girls goes much further back in history — to the time of the Trojan Wars. It has been labelled a feminist Iliad. Mainly through the eyes of Briseis, we experience the cost of war to women — women who survive as slaves when men destroy their cities and kill their brothers, fathers and children.

SILENCE OF GIRLS Briseis Given Back to Achilles, Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens: Briseis is given to Achilles 

Pat Barker has taken what we know of that time and looked at it through a different lens — how would the women have felt when, for example, they witness the teenage daughter of Priam and Hecuba being gagged and killed as a sacrifice? How did Briseis feel when she was handed over as an ‘award’ to Achilles after his army had sacked her city, Lyrnessus? Briseis says, ‘I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers’.

The characters in this book speak in 21st century English, and the women, particularly Briseis have an assurance that one might not expect of someone kept in subjugation. At first I balked at the language. For example, Nestor and Achilles are talking: ‘Nestor smiled and shook his head. “You won’t leave. Whatever else you are, you’re not a deserter.”

“I don’t see it as desertion. This isn’t my war.”

“You were keen enough to get into it.”

“I was seventeen.” Achilles leant forward. “Look, what he did today was totally outrageous, everybody knew it, and there wasn’t one voice raised against it.”

“Mine was. Then, and later.”

“So now I just think: Fuck it. He wants Troy, he can take Troy — without me. Except we both know he can’t.”‘

I realised, firstly, that we have no idea how people spoke then, so why try to make something up? And then, more importantly, it seemed that the use of 21st century English provides a sense of universality. This is a book about women and war — women’s relationships with men, not particularly about Ancient Greece. One of the most poignant parts of the book is where, debilitated by age and unarmed, Priam makes his way alone through the enemy camp to plead with Achilles for the mutilated body of his son Hector. Briseis makes sure that Hector’s body is covered with a linen sheet and, in spite of the inhumanely savage way the son’s body has been treated, in Priam’s presence, there is a kind of reverence and respect for the father’s wishes, even though he is the enemy. These things are timeless.

silence of girls Tiepolo Eurybates and Talthybius lead Briseis to Agamemnon

Tiepolo: Eurybates and Talthybius lead Briseis to Agamemnon







Chopin’s Piano


chopin's piano 2

At school I was taught that you shouldn’t describe something by saying what it is not. Nevertheless, I think that this opening paragraph from the Spectator review of Paul Kildea’s Chopin’s Piano sums up the book admirably:

It is not a biography, nor a work of musicology. As an extended historical essay it is patchy and selective. It is partly about pianos and pianism, but would disappoint serious students of that genre. It is not quite a detective story — though there are, towards the end, elements of a hunter on the track of his prey.

chopin's piano 4

Frederic Chopin

I started this book cautiously, because Chopin is not one of my favourite composers — probably because I am not a pianist and the vast body of his work was for piano. The ‘detective element’ is tracing the journey of a small Bauza pianino that Chopin took with him to Majorca in 1838 — a wintery sojourn spent in an abandoned monastery with George Sand and her children. On this little piano he completed the composition of his 24 Preludes. Apparently the only music he took with him to play was Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues.

chopin's piano 1

Barely one third of the way through the book, Chopin is dead. This is clearly not a biography. Kildea starts to examine the influence that Chopin’s preludes had on later 19th Century composers. To what extent did they influence Debussy’s Preludes?  There is a consideration of different interpretations of Chopin’s Preludes — descriptions of Chopin’s playing; slow, romantic, with much rubato (rubato concerns rhythm, the beats in a bar, it is later — on page 263 — described brilliantly as ‘like a golf ball hovering on the lip of a hole for that interminable moment before it tips in’). In the early 20th century Albert Cortot made recordings — much faster tempo, less romantic.

chopin's piano 6 cortot

I was fascinated to consider the impact on music of the Steinway grand piano — first built at the end of the 19th Century. With an entirely new way of stringing, so that the strings are like a harp lying horizontally, there can be consistency of tone and a strengthening of volume. The sound of such an instrument is able to fill a modern day concert hall, which was not the case with earlier instruments. In my mind, piano concerts moved from the intimacy and stuffy gentility of the salon to the more democratic accessibility of the concert hall.

chopin's piano 7

Wanda Landowska

In 1913, pianist and harpsichordist Wanda Landowska (1879 – 1959) purchased the Bauza pianino that had belonged to Chopin. And the book becomes a biography of Landowska. She is famous for having made the first recording of Bach’s complete Goldberg Variations. Although she had been baptised Roman Catholic, Landowska came from a Jewish family and thus had to flee Nazi Germany — at first to France, where her home was ultimately ransacked — many valuable sets of teaching notes and other possessions were never retrieved. Landowska herself was safe and escaped to the USA via Portugal.

chopin's piano 10

It is thought that after the war the Bauza was sent to the USA along with other instruments of Landowska’s, but Kildea has not as yet been able to trace it. He seems confident that one day it will turn up!

The book is subtitled ‘A Journey Through Romanticism’, and this is certainly one of its many strands. There is indeed an underlying suggestion that romantic music, by crossing national boundaries, has a unifying role. I am not convinced that its role is any more powerful than other art forms in general. I particularly enjoyed thinking about how styles of performance and interpretation are influenced by things like the design of a piano. If Chopin had had a Steinway with him in the little paddle boat that took him to Majorca rather than the diminutive Bauza, what of the 24 Preludes?

chopin's piano 9


Andrew Morton: 17 Carnations, a book about Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson

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.



Ribbentrop, Hitler’s special commissioner in London


Wallis Simpson and the former Edward VIII

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.


the Duke and Duchess of Windsor with Hitler

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.


a wedding photo



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.  



Queen Mary, Edward’s mother



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.


Wallis, Duchess of Windsor
Barry Lee Thompson

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