Archive for June, 2008

Eisteddfod 2

June 29, 2008

This Sunday afternoon I went again (I went last year) to the finals of the John Allison City of Sydney Piano Scholarship.

The prize for this is $10,000, supplemented this year by awards of $1,000 for the three finalists who do not win. There are preliminary rounds and also a preliminary final. With a purse like this, the section (that’s what they call the individual competitions in the Eisteddfod) attracts a wide field of entrants. The finalists, and the works they chose to play (each may play for up to half an hour) were:

John Fisher– Rachmaninov Piano Sonata No 2 Op 35 (1913 version)
Longjie Cui – Liszt, Reminiscences of Don Juan
Adam Herd – Rachmaninov, Variations on a theme by Chopin, Op 22
Joanne Kang – Rachmaninov Piano Sonata No 2 Op 35 (1931 version)

The first three study or have studied at the Queensland Conservatorium with Natasha Vlassenko (and, in John Fisher’s case, her husband, Oleg Stepanov). Vlassenko and Stepanov are part of an international phenomenon which might loosely be called the post-Gorbachev post-USSR piano diaspora. Obviously, they are doing something right up there. Fisher and Herd are also both playing in the 2008 Sydney International Piano Competition, which starts in a little over a fortnight. So in a way, I was dipping my toe into the water in preparation for that deluge of pianism. Work permitting, I hope to take in quite a lot of it, if only because it gives a chance to hear in a concentrated way a substantial amount of the piano repertoire the surface of which the 4 or 5 piano recitals I attend in a normal year cannot even begin to scratch. [cf: “up with which I will not put”]

The section began at 2.30. I arrived at about 2.15 and was reminded why I don’t generally bother to go to ABCFM Sunday Afternoon Live concerts by the grey-haired army who had arrived already for that event. Don’t get me wrong – as a classical music concertgoer, I have nothing against the elderly, but the combination of an afternoon concert and free and general admission is deadly. These people are very determined and the competition for a decent spot is simply too fierce.

Perhaps the ABC had first dibs on the piano, because the instrument supplied for the Scholarship was certainly not the conservatorium’s best, and possibly not even its second-best piano. Things only got worse as the section proceeded as the instrument took a bit of a thrashing, particularly at the hands of Longjie Cui playing the Liszt.

John Fisher was the winner. He missed out narrowly last year to a very polished performance by Jason Gilham. This time he was easily the most technically proficient, although I would still like to see him relax and open up a bit more. This is a tricky thing because it is obviously part of his personality, and not simply a question of struggling with the technical difficulties of the music, which he has well under control.

Longjie Cui made rather a heavy handed fist of the Liszt. This starts with the Commendatore’s trombones (as prefigured in the overture) then amuses itself with a series of variations on La ci darem da mano (Chopin, amongst others, also wrote variations on this) before concluding (after a bit more Commendatore) with the Don’s “champagne” aria. There is always an interesting question in these transcriptions as to how much we should play Mozart as we hear him now and how much we need to be hearing it through Liszt’s ears. But even allowing for the nineteenth-century enthusiasm for the demonic aspects of Don Giovanni, I cannot believe that Liszt heard Mozart like this. I didn’t feel that Cui really understood the piece and I expect that is because he doesn’t really know the opera. Of course that’s an easy thing for an older person and opera goer like me to say, but the point is that even Liszt’s “warhorse” paraphrases or (in this case) reminiscences are more tasteful and at least spiritually faithful to the original than is sometimes supposed or realised.

Adam Herd was more enjoyable and his approach the most musical so far, but the variations were quite long and he tired towards the end. He does not have such a positive and varied touch as Fisher, although he projects a more genial musical personality.

Joanne Kang was the youngest competitor. She played a revision of the sonata which is a little shorter and simpler. Her approach was within a narrower compass than Fisher’s and although more sweetly lyrical, pedalled over the details which Fisher brought out in touch and texture (though some of this is also, apparently, a question of the different versions).

Oh dear, all those negative comments! It’s difficult to avoid entering into the spirit of a competition in the worst way, and I fear that’s what I have done. That is one of the things which is hard for performing artists: the competition is tough and you are only as good as your last performance. A prize just sharpens the Darwinian struggle which is going on all the time.

Whilst the adjudicators were conferring, soprano Tanyth Bryce sang three numbers. The sweetest of these was Depuis le jour from Charpentier’s Louise – an aria where the heroine expresses her joy after her first night of love. I was able to distinguish the closing lines (though I admit I have checked them on the net) as:

je tremble délicieusement
Au souvenir charmant
Du premier jour D’amour!

Wikipedia tells me that this is an opera which does not take quite the usual tragic turn. At the time, however, I was unaware of that and combined my pig-French comprehension with an understandable fear of the worst. I wondered if Louise would still feel the same about the souvenir du premier jour d’amour when she was changing the nappies on her own nine and a bit months later.

A week has passed

June 28, 2008

I have been busy at work. Hence no posts.

The high point of the week, or low point really, was when I was having a conference with a client in order to settle his affidavit. I asked him the difficult question which the barrister on the other side will ask him if the matter came to trial, and he beat his head with his fists, stood up, clutched his chest and looked like he was about to drop dead with a heart attack before collapsing into tears which took a good 15 minutes to subside. And that was just the conference! Imagine what things would be like if he were asked that question in court.

In fact, I can imagine what it would be like. The judge would give him some time to compose himself, and then the question would, one way or another, simply be asked again.

If so, this would be a bit better than MacKinnon v Bluescope Steel, where cross examination of the plaintiff was halted when he had something like a nervous breakdown from which he never really recovered in the course of the trial. It was some weeks before he was fit enough to take the stand again.

The conference had to end there for the day. I was glad that the solicitor was there as well. But it was surprisingly stressful, even if my main feeling, after the initial alarm, was acute embarrassment. Obviously, I also wondered about the client’s case, but there can be a lot of reasons why someone finds answering a question difficult. It is not for me to judge, but in order to advocate, advise and anticipate difficulties, you do need to consider things from the judge’s perspective.

I also wasted a lot of time drafting a reply to a letter from an opposing solicitor who has one trick which he plays over and over again. Basically, this is to seize and magnify any ambiguity, and to profess never to understand anything which he could possibly misconstrue. Unfortunately, in this case an error had been made in some previous correspondence, and he seized on this with gusto. Did you mean [a] or did you mean [b]? Needless to say, neither [a] nor [b] was what had been meant. Thi solicitor would never think of simply ringing up and asking if an error had been made. I am hoping that, in an upcoming interlocutory battle, there will be enough instances of this sort of thing in his correspondence for the judicial officer to notice a pattern.

I try to sleep on any reply, and cut out anything which seems even the slightest bit combative, but this is all very tiresome. The problem is that this sort of thing is even more tiresome for a judge, who is likely to blame both parties, but it is extremely difficult to avoid being drawn into it. “Unedifying” is the word that comes to mind.

So when Friday came and a colleague’s wife came in to take him off to hear the Sydney Philharmonia do Bach’s B Minor Mass, I was tempted, but simply too tired to do it justice.

Today D and I went for a bike ride in the afternoon and I went to E and R’s place for dinner. M and D, parents of boys whom I knew as schoolboys in my former teacherly life, were also there. There was a lot of gossip. M, in particular, is always keen to know about the relationships which people are in, and mentioned that Dv, a contemporary of one of her sons, had now come out and seemed much more happy in himself. Good for him.

Maß für Maß

June 20, 2008

On Wednesday night I went to hear/see Emmanuel Ax with the SSO and Robert Ticciati conducting.

The program was:

SCHUBERT, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: Overture
MOZART, Piano Concerto No.22 in E flat, K482
MEALE, Clouds now and then
SIBELIUS, Symphony No.7

Originally, as part of the SSO invite-a-friend special offer, I had arranged to go with E, my old high-school music teacher, and R, her husband. Unfortunately, when I spoke to E this afternoon, she said she was sick, so there was a ticket spare. D didn’t want to go.

On the weekend, my former piano teacher, P, mentioned that she might be going with her son, T, if her friend X, who works with the orchestra, could wangle her a free ticket. Apparently, bookings this month for the SSO have been a bit disappointing. Is this really then a sign of discretionary spending slowing down as mortgages and petrol prices bite? Or is there just a lot on this month, as another of our company suggested? As I drive right past P’s place to go into town, I mentioned that I could probably give them a lift in.

I messaged Lx, who lives just up the road from me and who was my English teacher in year 9 and also directed a few plays I was in. My acquaintance with Lx really owes as much to the fact that for many years we ran into each other on Monday night SSO concerts as to our initial teacher-pupil association. I also run into him if we catch the same train into the city, or at E’s place, to which we are sometimes invited together. Lx said he was already going. He gave me J’s number to ask J. J (odd one out) was not my teacher though he did teach other people I know at another school. I have known him as a friend of Lx’s over most of the same period in roughly the same way. J accepted the offer of the spare ticket.

In fact, I had spent the day at home attempting to shake off an incipient cold. I made these calls in between fitful and feverish slumber. At about 6.30 I arose from my couch, dressed and fortified myself with 1.5 sudafeds. (Arrest me!) I picked up P and T on the way in and we arrived at the Opera House in good time, where I met R, J (I had their tickets) and Lx.

R and I were sitting in row L of the stalls, which is rather closer than I usually sit. You can’t hear the woodwind very well, but (importantly for the Sibelius) I could still see a trombone bell. It did mean that some scrappy violin playing (that Charles Dutoit would never have tolerated) was exposed, but it gave a comfortable intimacy, especially in the Mozart, where the balance favoured the piano in the way which we have been spoilt by recordings rather than what prevails in the concert hall generally. Were it not that the woodwinds were by now entirely obscured by the piano lid, this would have been close to ideal.

The Schubert was attractive. It’s hard to say much more than that about it on a single hearing. It was written when he was 17, and though some of his songs written when he was the same age show his own style, this piece could fairly be called, in stylistic terms, embryonic.

For me, Emmanuel Ax was the drawcard for this concert, and so inevitably the Mozart was the highlight. This is listed amongst the ABC’s “top 100 concerti” but strangely is not one I am so familiar with. I expect it made the cut because of the last movement, but even this movement’s familiarity is deceptive, because its initial theme closely resembles one of the jolly horn-concerto last movements, though the horn concerto usually goes at a brisker pace than that at which Ax took this movement.

I am at a loss even to start cataloguing the felicities of Ax’s performance. I enjoyed the slow movement the most, but I definitely looking forward to all of it when I go again on Saturday night, which is my normal subscription night for this series. As an encore, Ax played Chopin’s Waltz in A minor (Op 34 No 2). A little googling reveals that this is a regular encore standby of his.

It is sometimes said of tone-deaf people that they know two tunes – one is God Save the King and the other one isn’t. The SSO seems to know two pieces by Richard Meale which date from his ’60s and ’70’s avant-garde phase: the loud one is Very High Kings and the quiet one is Clouds, now and then. You know where you are in Clouds now and then right from when it starts with a bit of flutter-tongued flute. It’s based, programatically speaking, on a Haiku, summarised by the SSO in their blurb to the concert as being “about the necessity of transient sorrow to appreciate life’s joys.” That’s almost as long as the Haiku which the program gave as “Clouds now and then Giving men relief From moon-viewing.” Rather rudely, at the end of it, I quipped to R, “Well, that’s a relief.” I was joking, but as ever I expect this was the sentiment of others in the audience.

The conductor, Robert Ticciati, is almost impossibly youthful. He is “still in his mid-20s” and has been mentored by Colin Davis and Simon Rattle who, according to his blurb, he first got to know when he was 15. You have to wonder if he and Simon Rattle go to the same hairdresser, as he has a similar shock of curls. If D had known what a cutie he is, perhaps he would have come to the concert.

All of that said, I don’t think Ticciati quite mastered the Sibelius. The Sibelius is a peculiar, almost abstract (not that all music isn’t abstract) piece which is unmistakeably Sibelius from the beginning (especially the woodwind writing not long in) and which shifts in a blurry way from idea to idea. There is a big trombone tune which sort of floats in and out of the picture, and the final big moment is one which then settles into an ending which, though mildly affirmative, also has that half-questioning air which is often punctuated by an ellipsis, thus … This was one of the bits which didn’t quite work; other sections also didn’t seem to catch with the requisite waltz-like lilt. I wondered if (and I know this sounds ridiculous) he’s just too young and skinny to conduct this piece. All the same, I’m looking forward to a second hearing on Saturday, when things may well have settled.

On a second hearing, the description understates the force of the ending. Even if I misheard or misremembered, that must in some way still be symptomatic of how it came across to me on Wed (the listener is always right even when wrong!). On Sat it still didn’t quite work. It simply came up too abruptly. On listening to Ashkenazy’s recording for comparison (and his performance with the SSO is the last live one I heard) I wonder if the issue was whether the tension was allowed to drop out of the strings line as it turns the corner just before its final cadential ascent.

After, we all met up. Poor R was consigned to the bus home to Glebe, and Lx, J, P, T and I walked together back to my car. I mentioned to L that P had in fact played second piano with my then piano teacher D, in a production of Britten’s Noyes Fludde which Lx had directed in 1974. It turned out that P remembered Lx from when he played the role of Angelo in a production of Measure for Measure directed by Neil Armfield at Sydney University in 1977 for which P’s good friend, Mi, did the music.

I always like to take the high road back from the Opera House, by the steps up to the poetically-named Tarpeian way. This offers some respite from the objectionably noisy Opera bar on the lower concourse and the jostle of people headed to the parking lot. But it does involve a bit of walking in the dark. At the top of the stairs, we came across a group of people sitting together on the path in a circle. We instinctively bunched up defensively. As we passed, it became clear that, as is so often the case, we had nothing to fear but fear itself (to coin a phrase). They didn’t actually have a guitar, but they were murmuring together quietly in German, and some of them even said “Hullo” to Lx, who said “Hullo” back.

After, one of us asked if Lx knew them. Lx said he didn’t. I suggested: “Warscheinlich sie waren auch in Maß für Maß.”

OK. I guess you really had to be there.

Emmanuel Ax – Schubert, Liszt, and some Chopin

June 20, 2008

Tonight (Thursday) with D to hear Emmanuel Ax in recital for the SSO at Angel Place.

There was a change from the originally advertised program, which in addition to the Schubert (this remained unchanged) promised (rather open-endedly) Chopin, “selected works.”

Instead we got, to take it all together:

SCHUBERT Four Impromptus, D935
LISZT Vallée d’Obermann
SCHUBERT Sonata in A, D664
LISZT Petrarch Sonnet No.123
LISZT Mephisto Waltz No.1

It was all very good playing, so any criticism is really nit-picking and much of it is really a question of taste.

I have been more moved by versions of the impromptus which have a more melancholy edge – this was all rather surrey-with-the-fringe-on-top sleigh-bells and music-boxy. Give me a touch more of the Leiermann any day.

The Vallée d’Obermann is not my favourite Liszt, so I can’t really put a finger on what I would have wanted Ax to do differently.

The Schubert sonata had the melancholy which I would have preferred to hear in the Impromptus, so perhaps it is fairer to say that Ax was saving that mood up for this piece. I have played the sonata, so there were lots of points to savour, such as Ax’s rhythmic freedom to accommodate ornamentation, or the way in the last movement where in a series of ff chords Ax drew back ever so slightly from the last of them to give a hint of a feminine ending and to prepare for what was to come. I’ve also played the Petrarch sonnet, but the Schubert was my favourite of the advertised program.

There is something about Ax’s style, which favours a certain, even comfortable, smoothness. It is always beautiful, but at the point of the shuddering chords which are interpolated near the end of the Mephisto Waltz I all of a sudden remembered Stephen Hough’s performance last year which was more dramatic and more exciting.

Ax played two encores: the Chopin Nocturne in f Op 15 No 1 and a waltz (Op 34 No 1 I think but they all blur together a bit for me). Ax has a bit of a reputation as a Chopin player and these were perhaps the best playing of the night. To tell the truth, I’d probably rather have heard his Chopin than his Liszt. Which seems a pretty curmudgeonly thing to say, I know.

Newtown, Newtown!

June 17, 2008

This is a matter of strictly local interest.

Last October the venerable (in gay-licensed-premises years, which are a bit like dog or cat years) Newtown Hotel closed abruptly. Negotiations for a new lease had broken down and the landlord shut the tenant out.

I’ve been round for long enough to guess that behind this was the perennial tussle between owner and tenant for the value of the tenant’s business, so far as that has come to adhere to the premises. For example, some years ago, the proprietor of Campos Coffee in Newtown found himself out of his premises (then roughly opposite St George’s Hall) and the landlord setting up his own coffee shop in them. Ironically, in forcing the tenant to move the landlord did Campos Coffee a favour. Now under new proprietors, it has flourished up in North Newtown. But that is a story for another day, if ever.

More recently, we’ve been hearing that negotiations are afoot and that the Newtown Hotel may re-open soon. It says something about the absolute slackness, in news terms, of the gay media, that one important element of this story only came to my attention by my perusal of the NSW Supreme Court unreported judgments. There, somewhat delayed (the decision was given ex tempore on 9 May) is the judgment of Brereton J in McHugh Holdings Pty Ltd v Newtown Colonial Hotel Pty Ltd [2008] NSWSC 542.

The decision was a pretty comprehensive victory for the tenant (McHugh). First, the landlord (under the lease, that is) was restrained from applying to the Licensing Court to have the licence transferred to it, because the lease basically provided that the licence was the tenant’s. Secondly, a clause which would have stopped the tenant from setting up its business somewhere nearby if it didn’t stay at the present premises was struck down as being wholly in restraint of trade.

So maybe the ground is now clear for a negotiated settlement and for the doors to re-open.

Or maybe not: latest news (I learnt of it on 20/6) is that the hotel owner is making its own application for a licence, that is, to supplant the existing licence. So, at the very least, if McHugh has established that it doesn’t need to go back into the Newtown, the Newtown is now in the process of attempting to establish that it doesn’t need to do a deal with McHugh to come back in. Apparently they’ve been canvassing nearby restauranteurs (who have all felt the pinch) for support in their “Impact Statement.”

Mr Popular

June 16, 2008

I haven’t so far reported on my attendance at the Sydney Film Festival, despite an earlier suggestion that I would do so.

On Saturday I went to see the Australian premiere of Children of the Silk Road. This has also been known as The Children of Huang Shi, even though there is some suggestion that the relevant place name is not “Huang Shi” (yellow stone) but “Shuang Shi” (Pair of stones).

This was billed as the first official Australian-Chinese joint production. I am afraid it is the word “official” which is the killer here. Gorgeous scenery and striking cinematography aside, the film was pretty lacklustre, and less interesting than its purported (but much fictionalized) real-life subject. This was George Hogg, an Englishman who travelled to China in about 1937 (actually 1938 ) and ended up the headmaster of a boys’ school in the far west of China, which he led in an evacuation away from the war in a pocket Long March of 700 miles and 2 months.

I am afraid it was reasonably clear from the beginning of the film that it was going to be a pedestrian effort, because of the way in which it just began, and then proceeded to relate one thing after another. Primarily I blame the script and the direction, but some of the script faults undoubtedly were linked to its “official” status, leading to the party line on Nanjing (they probably initially hoped to have the film finished for the anniversary of 1937) and the war generally, with Chow Yun Fat as a highly unlikely Pimpernellish communist undercover agent. Others of these are also attributable to its desire to please Chinese as well as overseas audiences. I expect the film will end pleasing neither, though a general cinema release in Australia is presently advertised at the more arthouse end of the range.

Review aggregator here.

Not that the film didn’t have some dramatic moments. There were some impressive feats of film-making, but also some ludicrous moments. CYF, for example, even though on the march for at least a month, still managed (without any visible luggage) to puff constantly on factory-rolled cigarettes. How many cartons would he have needed to keep that up? And the principal western characters managed to walk through crowded Chinese streets without attracting so much as a second glance. In the light of even my own experience of stares and “Hallos”s in much more cosmopolitan parts of present-day China, that is totally unbelievable. There is more of the same which I won’t bother going in to here. Less critical for me, but I think symptomatic, is that traffic is shown travelling on the right hand side of the road, though someone else has pointed out that until 1945 Chinese vehicles travelled on the left (though, googling tells me, not universally: it did depend on where you were in China).

There were speeches at the beginning. And this is the bit I really want to report. The director of the Film Festival announced that Peter Garrett was here as relevant minister, as well as the state minister of the Arts, Frank Sartor. At this point the audience booed and hissed. They did so good humouredly, overall, (the booing was quite mild), though I doubt if it seemed like that to Sartor. It was more like the kind of booing which is reserved for the pantomime villain or for melodrama baddies: because everybody knows they are the baddie.

I don’t know where Sartor was at this point. Was he waiting backstage with Garrett? If so, then he never came on.

I guess we need to watch the SFF’s next grant figures from the NSW Government and see if a price is paid.

How one thing leads to another

June 15, 2008

In Sydney, JN, a “young father,” not yet 16, was run over and killed some time after midnight when, after an argument with his girlfriend, he ran out of his house wrapped only in a blanket (apparently he got up from his bed), and lay down on a 6-lane road.  Witnesses report that, before JN was run over, he punched at a car which slowed as it passed him.  Described variously as a “labourer and promising rugby league player” and a “Year 11 student” at the local high school, he was also reported to have won $40 backing Queensland in the State of Origin match earlier that evening. His girlfriend, also 15, seems to have lived with him and his family; their child is 5 months old.

Ix, the alleged driver, has now turned himself in to police.  Ix was not charged with negligent or dangerous driving, but only with failing to stop and render assistance and driving while disqualified.  Bail was refused.  The Australian reports:

Police prosecutor Sergeant [ ] told the court [Ix] should not be released because he was on breach of bail when the accident happened.

“We’re not trying to sensationalise this matter, it’s a tragedy, but it could be summed up in one comment: he should never have been driving,” [he] told the court.

“If he was following court orders and not driving, the young man would still be alive.”

Given that the dead boy was lying on a busy road (even if not so busy by that time of night), this last statement might be taking things a bit far.

As the Herald reports, the court was also told that Ix:

is separated and has two young children, has a history of criminal and driving offences including dangerous driving, driving while disqualified, assault and robbery.

He was jailed for four years in 1999 for maliciously wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm after driving his car at a person.

His licence was most recently disqualified in March 2006 for three years for dangerous driving.

Given all of that, and if Ix has made the admissions he is reported to have made, then you might think there isn’t much scope for a not-guilty plea.  Which is probably just as well, given what has been reported now of his record.  (The Australian adds for good measure that Ix has 21 aliases.)

There is a bit of a history though about the earlier charge which led to the four-year sentence.  You can read the Court of Criminal Appeal’s decision here.  Ix had an altercation with an off-duty police sergeant who took it upon herself to admonish the driver of a car in which Ix was travelling who did an illegal manoeuvre. Ix spat on her car from the passenger seat. She then threw the book at them all and stood in front of the car to stop them driving away. (Is this sort of zeal such a good idea? See also this other story which involves the same officer, and this story which gives an idea of the risks that police heroism can create for others.)

Ix then changed into the driver’s seat and drove at her so that she ended up on the bonnet. After that she fell off and the car went over her leg. The jury had to decide, amongst other things (because there were alternate charges), whether Ix intended to inflict grievous bodily harm on the police sergeant or not. However, this is the sort of defence which is difficult to articulate if your main story is that you weren’t driving at all.

Judge Megan Latham told the jury:

“there has been no real dispute in this trial about the fact that whoever did drive this vehicle at Sergeant Bellemore intended to get her out of the way and in the process, because of the way in which they drove the vehicle at her, intended to cause her serious injury. There has been no real dispute about that. The issue really is about whether or not it was the accused who drove the vehicle. Nonetheless, you have to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt of the ingredients of those charges.”

It was held on appeal that this was OK because her Honour prefaced it with the formulaic words: “I say without wishing to pre-empt what your finding will be of course” and the identity of the driver really was the main issue which had been fought out at the trial.

Judge Latham sentenced Ix to 7 years, with a non-parole period of 4 years. The Court of Criminal Appeal held, “the sentence imposed might be viewed as severe but in all the circumstances it was warranted.”

Obviously, Ix has been in trouble for a few more things after that. If, as Ix reportedly claims, he parked 400 m down the road and started to walk back to see what he had hit, it wouldn’t be surprising if he didn’t keep going to “render assistance” when he saw the police there.

Nature red in tooth and claw…

June 14, 2008

[…with ravine – see Canto LVI]

For about 4 weeks we have had a frog in our back yard.

When I first heard it, I convinced myself that it must be a drip from a blocked/rusted gutter, now (after many requests over about a year) replaced by the landlord. Then one evening D came up to me, smiling, and asked, “Did you know there is a frog in the back yard?”

We were both delighted. Here in deepest inner-suburbia such touchs of ferae naturae are rare. D reckoned it was somewhere in the thicketed base of the laurel tree next to the fish pond. We never saw it. We listened enchanted to its call – more an intermittent burp than a croak.

Sadly and predictably, its song betrayed it. A neighbouring cat, a persistent hunter, was shooed away from the thicket but must inevitably have returned. For 2 nights now no frog has been heard. We’d like to think it has moved on, but we know better.

I admit, it’s pretty rich of me to regret this. I am happy when the cats catch rats, and our own species is predator and destroyer numero uno. Still, we felt a loss.


June 12, 2008

To anyone who grew up in NSW in at least my generation, that is an ominous word. Morriset is where the criminally insane went. And like all mental hospitals, one associates its name with tales of terrible brutality and suffering, even if such tales are only part of the story. I am sure also that, like people of an older era shuddering and crossing themselves at the mention of various unspeakable horrors, I shy away from insanity (or do we say “mental illness” now?) basically in fear. Not particularly fear for myself, but fear of the unknown and incomprehensible and a kind of existential squeamishness.

Today I went to Morriset for the funeral of my friend Dx’s father, Gx. The service was held at the hospital chapel, built at least in part by the patients. The chapel was built in the 1950s. It is inevitably a war memorial chapel, because this was about the only way then to secure tax deductible charitable status. On reflection that may not have been so inappropriate, since it is almost inevitable that some of the patients had war-related psychiatric conditions.

The hospital is on very sizeable grounds on Lake Macquarie (“the largest saltwater lake in Australia”). At its peak, it had about 1500 residents; now it has considerably fewer. There is still a secure “forensic” unit which I have guessed is the structure in the pseudo-square which I have scribbled on this scrap from google earth. The chapel is circled.

Some years ago a sizeable portion of the hospital’s land was transferred to the Koompahtoo Local Aboriginal Land Council. KLALC entered into a joint venture with a company called Sanpine to develop some of this land. A sorry saga has ensued. There were suggestions that the deal unduly favoured Sanpine and certain individuals involved in its implementation and that various corrupt commissions were paid. KLALC incurred considerable liabilities. There has been an ICAC investigation. This recommended that charges be considered against 6 people, although no charges have yet been brought. An administrator was appointed who decided to terminate the joint venture agreement with Sanpine. This went all the way to the High Court (termination by KLALC was upheld by Justice Campbell at first instance, overturned by a majority in the NSW Court of Appeal and again upheld by the High Court) and is now likely to become a leading case on “intermediate terms” and termination for breach of contract.

One of the surprising things to a non-lawyer would probably be that the judgments at all three levels proceed without mentioning at all the ICAC investigation, save for some passing reference to the fact (in correspondence between the parties which went into evidence) that documents were at some stage in ICAC’s possession.

The development has not yet gone ahead.

In the meantime, the hospital is attractively sylvan. The situation was presumably chosen with an eye to the recuperative properties of seclusion and the preventative effects of isolation. The entrance road has a pleasing though not imposing double avenue. Even though it was daytime, about 15 kangaroos were hanging around just behind the chapel. “Watch where you walk,” I heard one fellow-mourner say to her husband as they crossed the grass after the service. “We don’t want to have that in the car.”

I last saw Gx late last year when I ran into him at my place of work. He had just been to see a colleague of mine about the appeal (by the respondent) against a substantial award in his favour by the NSW Dust Diseases Tribunal. It was a bit embarrassing because when I first spotted him I didn’t recognize him because he had lost so much weight. At that stage Gx had had a lung removed in an effort to arrest the progress of cancer caught from youthful exposure to asbestos when working at Cockatoo Island Dockyard. We had lunch together. He affected optimism, though it appeared that sailing, which was a lifelong enthusiasm and one of the reasons he and his wife had moved from Sydney to Lake Macquarie, was no longer possible. He didn’t seem to have much of an appetite.

Around March, Gx learnt the cancer had spread to his stomach. After that his condition deteriorated rapidly. He was 62.

Once a king or queen in Narnia…

June 9, 2008

…always a king or queen in Narnia, for what that’s worth.

I think I first encountered The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as an ABC radio serial on Sunday mornings. We used to get up and listen to these serials, which permitted our parents to remain in bed for a little longer. I was probably about 8.

I can be more precise about the remaining Narnia books. In August 1969, my father went away for a week or so to attend the ANZAAS congress in Adelaide. It says something about the intersection of social values and domestic economy in our household that, in preparation for a week alone with her children and without her husband, my mother cooked up a large amount of mince for us to eat – nothing fancier now being required. My father left on the weekend, and by Monday morning my mother and my two sisters were all down with the flu.

The doctor made a house call. He wrote prescriptions. I said I was quite well, and volunteered to go to the chemist to have them filled, and also to go to school to pick up some things. The doctor smiled knowingly. As I walked the half mile to school, the flu-aches struck, and I had to sit down on a culvert from time to time to relieve them. Home, then, to an invalid house.

From somewhere, a box set of the entire Narnia series, in the Puffin edition and illustrated by Pauline Baynes (apparently still living), appeared. Our mother remained in bed. We read them all avidly. Even R, my younger sister, just turned seven, who had not previously read silently or of her own volition, was drawn in. It was a quiet and engrossed house. My mother kept to her bed whilst we slept, read and (another breakthrough, incidentally) heated up the mince in a double boiler and served it up to ourselves on toast.

So last night I dragged D along to the Greater Union, Burwood for a 9.30 session of the film of Prince Caspian. Having seen The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on DVD, I was ready to be moderately diverted, and to squirm at the Aslan moments and the religious stuff. I didn’t really pick up on this back in 1969 until I got to The Last Battle, though I believe I always saw through the lame satire of the progressive values of Eustace Scrubb’s parents and the school he attended with Jill.

In fact, it was better than I expected, perhaps because the religious stuff in Prince Caspian (doubting Thomas, grace vs good works and a touch of the devil) was less over the top. It may be that there have been some technical improvements in the special effects, and being at a cinema is always, of course, better. It was only at about 120 minutes of the advertised 145 (OMG/A!) that I started to anticipate the Austenian sense of an ending and looked at my watch or, to be precise, my phone.

The film didn’t have the same cachet of childhood enchantment for D, but at least he found it not so long as he feared.

Of course, it is easier for me now to pick up on the sources Lewis pillaged. But that is an additional pleasure. I am now quite looking forward to Voyage of the Dawn Treader which, at least in part, must count as his riff on Ariosto and Tasso, though I’m not sure how well the film will manage its more episodic structure.