Again it was at a dinner party when the prompting remark was made. Was there any validity in seances and the like? I never got to finish my personal account, being cut off many times by excited speakers obtruding their own views. It was not uncommon to be subsequently greeted by the interrupters, "You know, you never finished your story that time."
Well, I'm finishing it now.
OUIJA NIGHTS - a memoir by Paul Coan Williams.
When I look through my life, I realize that I have had only a handful of friends. After family, it doesn't take me long to run through the list of meaningful relationships. And right up there is Maxwell of Norwich.
I never saw him. I never met him. I never heard him.
However, I spoke to him often, and he "wrote" to me over a twenty-five month period (I was in my mid 20s then). He was honest, helpful and gave good advice. Then he disappeared from my life, though his words are with me still. Let's see what I can remember.
THE WRONG PEOPLE
Two couples, some animosity between the girls. A very 60s Victorian Terrace in Sydney's Bondi Junction. Vietnam waxing, Beatles waning. Black floors, rush matting, wine bottles various and Modiglianis jousting with Hockneys across mural battlefields. The lights are low-candles in fact.
We pass a glass tumbler round, breathing ritualistically into it in turn. I presume we all feel the same as I do – somewhat excited, two wines relaxed, a little self-conscious and on guard against manipulation, intentional or sub-conscious, by others. The glass tumbler stands inverted on a lightly powdered glass table. An alphabet of Scrabble letters surrounds the glass. We each place a finger on the glass, willing it to move, meanwhile invoking any interested spirit. My arm becomes tired and unsteady, my finger twitches and the glass moves a millimetre. Three faces brighten, then fade in disappointment at my murmured "oops".
Thirty strained minutes pass. Did we or did we not hear a guitar string twang of its own accord? Assured by friends that this really does work, I am afraid of failure – no sensitivity, no spiritual dimension! A sharp little face appears at the edge of the table, eyes wide, ears pricked – it is the cat. Suddenly, the glass moves, very fast, straight at the cat. It goes over the edge, landing intact on the matting floor covering. This is embarrassing, for we all sense malevolence. The cat goes out, the glass goes back. Soon, the glass stirs. There are tentative little shuffling movements, then circles and more purposeful sweeps.
"Who are you?"
The glass slides up to the letter J, bumps the tile, sweeps back to the centre, then advances again, bumping K. This is repeated. It spells out J-K-J-K
"Where are you from?"
We are very excited, and are trying to help. However, we make little sense of this.
"Tell us again". T-B-E-T "Is that Tibet?".
The glass moves to the "Yes" tile. This is unsatisfactory. Already we are prompting answers and anticipating responses. However, no one of us is dominating, and there is energy in the glass which seems to be moving freely. I wonder if one of the others is guiding it and decide to test. "The next letter shall be 'I'” I think, and decide that my energies will tend in that direction. Immediately, two fingers leave the glass, which stops dead.
"Who's doing that?" asks Doug.
"Me," I reply.
They understand, and when anyone "tests", the others know immediately. We address our contact again.
"What do you want to tell us?".
"Are you JK?"
Are you KJ?"
"Are you from Tibet"
"Do you speak English?" Swirling movement from the glass, but no answer. We plunge on in this "push-pull" manner for quite some time. We get only "keywords" and have to build a story round them. The words are B-R-O-T-H-E-R/ W-I-F-E/W-I-D-O-W/H-U-S-B-A-N-D/H-A-T-E/J-K/K-J/K-I-L-L/
Armed with only our contact's "yes/no" response, we probe for the story. We are not sure that this contact speaks English. The keywords are interspersed with "hate" and "kill". There is a bad feeling about this – also an incredibly tedious feeling. We persevere for some time further, at the end of which we have no gold nuggets, just a few flecks of pyrites. We surmise that JK and KJ are closely related in a Tibetan "widow belongs to brother-in-law" situation. We decide to give it up for the evening and step out to the front porch.
We are today's bright young people, living in our trendy terrace. See the pot-plant in the window. See us at midnight, supping seated on our mosaic tiled porch. Look at the building next door. It is the Eastern Suburbs Leagues Club, spilling out its nightly load of entertainees. One or two look sober. Another one (who isn't) vomits. Bidding each other noisy farewells, they fan out in search of their cars, innocent of seat belts, and most make it home safely.
This unseemly ritual apart, Bondi Junction is actually a pleasant spot situated between Bondi Beach and Paddington Barracks. Even though we are not at all comfortable with each other's company, the sessions continue, although the material seems to be of the childish variety that seems to be so prevalent. We move to the comfort of a large wooden table, and dispense with candles and warm-up rituals. Contact is quick and positive. The glass moves with progressive ease, and we are soon "conversing" with a slightly odd, curious personality. The glass is moving fast enough for one of us to leave off and act as secretary, generally separating the flow of letters into words as we go.
Relations between the girls however, are deteriorating fast, and Jean has been having unpleasant dreams, of teeth turning green, rotting and falling out. She has her doubts. Time to find my own place. I take a place in inner suburban Surry Hills. Ensconced in my new home, I am closer again to another time. I must be very close to the spot where the author Ruth Park lived (The Harp In The South, A Fence Around the Cuckoo, Playing Beattie Bow and many more wonderful books).
THOU SHALT NOT…
My own religious background and upbringing did not dispose me kindly to Spiritualistic activity of any kind. In our 50s classes of 80, 90 and even 100 children, not much was left to chance. Religious devotion was highly encouraged, and remnants of a medieval belief system persisted. During Lent, and on certain Feast days, visits to the Church, and other devotions could win much remission from the pain of Purgatory, a cleansing unit prior to finally entering Paradise. This system appealed to young minds, and we would compete to chalk up the highest credit. What appalled us was the time scale involved, for the period of remission won appeared so great, that it implied a vast amount of time in Purgatory itself. Our teachers were very clear. "Only God knows the future. Any one who tells you different is lying, and one must beware the influence of the Devil". This subject was both thorny and horned and a whiff of sulphur seemed to accompany the subject for many years.
The subject of spiritualism and associated activities such as ouija boards did not come up very often in our religious instruction, but whenever it was mentioned, it was in disparaging terms. "Only God knows the future" and anyone who claimed otherwise was in error. Astrology was treated as a harmless pastime unless one took it too seriously…it was also seen as possibly the tip of a horned iceberg. Anything which appeared to be of a miraculous or supernatural nature in this context was suspicious, and very likely the work of the devil.
THE WRONG PLACE
Can you guess what I was at the time? I'll tell you. I was in the Army, as a bandsman stationed at Paddington Barracks. This was one of the more comfortable posts during the Vietnam War. The walled environs of the barracks, built by convicts in 1841-1846, contained a squash court and a billiard room, both of which were deserted, but which I began to use a great deal as a kind of personal club.
After a day's work, I would take off for one to two hours surfing at Bondi Beach, where I shared a flat with Bernie. After a civilised dinner, I would return to the barracks to practice in our resonant bandroom. Working on weekends, we often had compensatory days off mid-week-golden days on the sand as the rest of the city worked 9-5. The descent to Bondi effectively turned one's back on the huge metropolis, and I entered a dreamland. Even as a partner-less, childless 22-year-old, I was deeply moved by the beautiful picture at the Southern end of the beach. A rock circle formed a natural shallow pool, where a group of young mothers would meet, bringing their tiny children. The best things in life were free, I thought. This simple but timeless picture is with me still.
Used to swimming in the cold southern waters of Victoria, I was comfortable swimming through the Sydney Winter, sans wet-suit. I became a confident body surfer, always alert for the perfect wave and the next challenge. One week, it arrived. After fierce storms in the pacific, a powerful surf tore into the eastern coast, stripping the sand from many beaches. As I surveyed the huge breakers crashing into the beach, I planned my tactic. In previous large seas, I spent a good deal of time making my way under the breakers until I reached green water where I would ride the swells and catch my breath till I was ready to surf. I plunged into an ebbing river of froth foam and sand and shot under the first incoming white wall. I worked hard, plunging deep under successive waves, to find myself quite quickly in clear water, riding high, then dropping like an elevator with each mighty swell. I was shocked to realize that I was "out the back" so soon. I was even more shocked when I looked up and realized that I had passed beyond the headlands of the crescent-shaped bay. I was in open ocean!
My heart lurched, and my first instinct was to sprint for the shore, but I was aware that I would be swimming against the current which had brought me out so fast. I had my fins on, and got them working in a long, sustained kick, aiming for mid-beach. As I swam, I noticed a throng of people on the headland between Bondi and Tamarama, the adjacent cove. Above them a helicopter swooped.
Feeling grimmer by the minute, I stroked steadily shore-ward, anxiously assessing whether I was getting inside the headlands. Still the helicopter rose and fell, rose and fell. The people were still there. Were some of them pointing at me? Now I was inside the heads, but very tired. The swell lifted me up to roof-top height and passed on, leaving me aghast. Where was the glassy slope I would skim, dolphin-like, to the beach? Nowhere! Only a mountain of water collapsing in a cataclysm of foam - my only route to the beach, and I would have to take it, for the light was just beginning to fade.
Before giving myself any more thinking time, I committed my life to the next wave. Up, up and up again I rose thrusting strongly with my fins. On top of the mountain, my world stood still. An unbelievable drop yawned beneath me. Great angry white ridges barred the ocean between me and the beach. And I knew I shouldn't have been there.
Reality was upon me again- it was freefall followed by a raging express train of water driving me deep down, tumbling me like a rag in a washing machine. I didn't know which way was up, where my breath had gone or how long I could hold out. The storm subsided and I bobbed to the surface, had time to take two or three gasping breaths when another monster struck. Deep as I dived, it picked me up like a matchstick. Again I surfaced, desperate for air. Wave number three was upon me, and conscious of diminishing strength I plunged for the bottom. The beast rolled me like a Catherine Wheel, and I came up utterly spent, conscious of an odd feeling on one foot, as my fin had been plucked from it, and was nowhere to be seen. I knew it was a non-floating fin and I could not expect to recover it.
Again my mind took a snapshot. The headland was crowded with people and the helicopter simply hovered. A dog barked on the beach and I could hear the hum of the evening traffic. Sea birds flew over me on their way back to their cliff wall nests. Everyone seemed to know their place but me. They would go to their loved ones, their dinner and their cozy beds while I, who had underestimated the power of the elements, would be flushed away like any piece of flotsam, by the unknowing, uncaring sea.
I cried bitterly, but briefly, as my strength was returning with each breath I took. I had been swept down to the Southern end of the beach and was lined up with the Mothers' Rock Pool where the waves were pounding. Above this stood the whitewashed swimming pool with the link chain border, normally high above water level, but now being pounded from above, sluicing torrents back into the sea. If I could be thrown into that pool I reasoned, I would have to be prepared for a couple of broken ribs, and probably limbs as well. A small price to pay for life!
I would do it! Lining up for the swimming pool, I caught the next beach express. I had miscalculated, and my watery chariot veered right, propelling me headlong towards the rocks. Expecting to have my brains dashed out on the rocks, I was shot through a gap between boulders in a giant jet of water. Into the sanctuary of the Mothers' Pool where I floated round and round in swift shallow water till I grounded. I rolled over, and removed my surviving fin.
Then I stood up, and fell over. So I stood up again, but I fell over again. After a couple of minutes I propped to a standing position. I became aware that two boys were watching me, with very large eyes. "Was that you out there mister?"
"Ah, yes, I suppose so," trying to sound casual.
"Are you alright mister?"
I ached from head to toe and had survived an ordeal, but didn't think that it should show. "Yes, of course," trying to sound nonchalant. I didn't realize that only a waist string and a scrap of the front of my swimming costume remained; nor that I was covered all over in a criss-cross pattern of cuts and abrasions relieved here and there by stripes various, and that most of these injuries were bleeding gently.
As I made my way back to my car, I found my other fin, high on the beach. I did no practice that evening, so heard the news for once. A helicopter had tried to rescue a surfboard rider at Tamarama, but had been unsuccessful. The surfer was never seen again.
SHE SPEAKS OUR LANGUAGE
We decide to try again. JK seemed to be an unpleasant character, but something had happened and we are hopeful. Again, we find time, put the cat out, and go the the ritual. Again we concentrate, and a little sooner this time, get results. No J-K, but M-O-L-L "Are you Moll Flanders?"(how we think in cliches)
The communication seems fluent but it still takes time. Moll is from Liverpool and is twelve or thirteen. She fell from a rooftop where she had gone to retrieve a ball. We ask about her appearance and family and then someone asks for a message. As the glass touches a letter, we take it in turns to commit the sequence to paper. Sometimes we have to stop to work out sense and meaning. For example, T-H-I-S-W-E-E-L is almost certainly THIS WEEK, depending on context. It is easy for the glass to bump a letter adjacent to that presumably intended. And without word gaps one has to decide whether R-A-B-B-I-T-E-A-R-S is "rabbit ears" or "rabbi tears"
"Do you have a message for us Moll?"
"Kill all fleas? Why Moll? Were you a dog perhaps? Did you have fleas?"
A-D-A-M-A-D-E-M This has us puzzled for ages, until we make ADAM ADEM interpreted as "Adam 'ad 'em" or "Adam had them". Quite a sophisticated word joke, somewhat Olde Worlde, and possibly a chestnut for an older generation, but a novel thought for us. I wonder if any of the others has heard this expression before, but soon discover that the consensus is that I am the most likely source, sub-conscious or otherwise. I take it as a compliment, but am mystified. Moll seems childish and irritating, and for some reason we seem to expect better from beyond the grave. Nevertheless, we have had a conversation.
THE WRONG FRIENDS
What was a nice boy like me doing in the Army? you ask. Thanks for asking. I'll tell you. Having completed year twelve before my seventeenth birthday, I joined the work-force in jobs ill-suited to my temperament. The Bureau of Meteorology seemed a good starting place, so I joined the Commonwealth Public Service. Attending my medical examination, I was mindful of an earlier experience where I had had to wait a considerable time before being able to produce a urine sample.
So I drank copious amounts of water beforehand. The waiting room was crowded and progress was slow. By the time I was called, my need was urgent. I was ushered into a cubicle innocent of plumbing, and was handed a jug which I was to return to the doctor's room on the far side of the waiting room. The relief was immense but turned to consternation as the level rose and rose, finally stopping perilously close to the rim. The short journey across the waiting room was one of life's longest walks, gliding with pointed toes to avoid the humiliation of spillage.
Within a year, I had to undergo another "medical", for another employer. Unable to face the further maths required for a career as a meteorologist, and obsessed by my musical interests, I felt a spell as a draughtsman for the Titles Office might provide me with needed discipline. For this medical, I felt prepared, and took a small draught of water and a ten- minute walk to the appointment. A modest sized vessel with an elasticised plastic cover was provided, and I produced the sample in a normal ablutions block. The doctor however, took an inordinate time with the sample. Eventually he reappeared. "Er, Mr. Williams-did you pass this sample yourself?" "All my own work" "Yes, I mean, you didn't get it from the tap?" "It's warm isn't it?" "Yes, but tap water can be, too" "Haven't you analysed it?" "Yes, and it appears to be tap water". I explained my procedure, and he deduced that swift passage through my body had done little more than take the chill off the iced water from the office cooler. "We do have do be careful" he said. "Had a chap last week, filled it up with warm tap water and spat in it. Had us puzzled for ages.
What I really wanted to do was to play music. This is not unusual, but at the age of seventeen, with not a music lesson to my name nor any previous evidence of musicality, this seemed unlikely and unwise. I put down a payment on a saxophone with my first pay, in the belief that it was a clarinet. I knew that success would not arrive overnight, and allowed myself a year in which to become the world's pre-eminent saxophonist. My first abortive attempts to play were so disappointing that I immediately revised the schedule to two years.
I decided to join the Navy for training as a bandsman, but was rejected on the grounds that the psychologist's report recommended service as a pilot or midshipman training in the U.K. but not as a bandsman, for these were tradesmen in whose company I would be most unhappy. I assured them that I had survived the company of many people whom I didn't like, that I would be happy if only they could teach me the rudiments of music, that I would be distracted by a steep learning curve……but all to no avail. I refused the offer of other training. Several years later I won the only lottery I have ever won in my life-the Conscription lottery. I reported as demanded and advised the medical officer that I had previously been rejected for Military service on psychological grounds. He assured me that it was no longer a problem.
I was now faced with a dilemma. I had earlier joined the CMF (an Army Reserve) in the Commando Unit, then in the Band. Commando I wanted for cheap parachute jumping but having endured the rigorous training, discovered that I would have to wait six months to take up a specialty, which could just as easily be rock climbing or diving, neither of which appealed. I wanted to float, not to climb or dive. Training was brutal, but discipline was primitive compared to the discipline of my religious boarding school. And my companions were not very "nice".
In fact, there seemed to be a strong criminal element, most of whom were interested in the mechanics of the next weapon to be mastered. Few of them seemed to have heard of families, and my only companion was an open-hearted Italian boy called Guido. As the instructor droned on, in his khaki outfit under the khaki gum tree in front of a khaki jeep, my mind ran with the sound of jazz, classics, anything.
Heart-shaped faces, caramel skin, silky hair floated in and out of my vision as the voice droned on…as the hard eyes narrowed in my direction…as the delivery sped up in order to arrive at-"recapitulation and question time". Time to concentrate! Memorize the sequence! memorize the sequence! memorize the sequence! Recapitulation over, the sinewy arm thrusts in my direction. Up I leap, walk to the front, with my sequence routine running over and over. Always logical, always predictable, it is the Army way.
The weapon practically falls apart, the ever-present acrid smell of preserving grease mingling with the preservative in our packs and the thin aroma of the midday meal wafting through the eucalyptus. Yesterday I mistook the stew for moderately hearty soup. Click, clack, reef, rack and the damn thing is ready and waiting for some peanut to seize and caress. Present according to formula, and you're done.
But you'll pay for it somewhere, as the day is long. Quite a few didn't endure. Some went home and some were hospitalised. Only the first few into the showers got a warmish shower, so there was a stampede in the dark. When a couple fell, they were trampled. An assessing officer told me afterwards "You've actually done very well. But would you like to know what your commanding officers thought of you?"
What can you say to that? He went on, "They feel that you have great survival potential. But they feel that your friends might not be so lucky".
Again, this was small beer compared to my Boarding Schoolmaster's character assassinations. I was not fazed, and replied "I have no friends here (sorry Guido)." I suppose today, they would look at me sorrowfully, and say, "You are just not a team player". But in fact, I'm just a bit particular about my team.
A BLAST FROM THE PAST
Even though we are not at all comfortable with each other's company, the sessions continue, although the material seems to be of the childish variety that seems to be so prevalent. We move to the relative comfort of a large wooden table, and dispense with candles and warm-up rituals. Contact is quick and very positive. The glass moves with progressive ease, and we are soon "conversing" with a slightly odd, curious personality. The glass is moving fast enough for one of us to leave off and act as secretary, generally separating the flow of letters into words as we go.
" I AM MUCH AMUSED BY THE PICTURE OF A SMALL BIRD ON PAUL'S SHIRT" -I am wearing a Tee Shirt with a Penguin Logo.
"THIS PICTURE MUST BE THE WORK OF THE DEVIL"-We have, opened on the table, a calendar with a photographed Autumn scene.
"MAXWELL OF NORWICH" in answer to the obvious question, "Who are you?" Eventually, after a couple of sessions, we deduce. And are told, that Maxwell of Norwich lived and died in the fourteenth century. His tentative first "utterances" seems to indicate a state of confusion. Asked where he had been before we called him up, he answers, "In a shoe box in Paul L's cupboard". Paul L does indeed have shoe boxes in his cupboard.
I ask Maxwell whether he had been a spider or a mouse. He replies that he does not know, nor why he had answered in that way. He returns to each session with fresh experience, and becomes much clearer in his assessment of his situation. He tells us that he died at the age of 22 when his horse slipped on a wet hillside as he was mounting it. He was a teacher of Mathematics and English, and made two trips to Turkey, for both Trade and Diplomatic reasons. They bought carpets and also taught English at the Turkish Court. He now reveals that when we first "called him up" he was frightened.
"I EXPECTED TO BE LOOKING INTO THE FACES OF THE EVIL ONES OF MY DAY"
"Who are they?"
"WITCHES AND HERETICS"
"What about the "work of the devil" as you called that photograph.
"NOT KNOWING WHAT IT WAS, AND NEVER HAVING SEEN A PICTURE OF THIS QUALITY, I ASSUMED IT MUST BE THE WORK OF THE DEVIL, AS NO HUMAN HAND COULD HAVE DONE IT"
Max has no idea where he has been in the centuries after his death. However, he refuses to use the word "die" and insists on correcting us in this usage. He consistently says "When I left my body". He appears to be behaving pretty much like any 22 year-old, and tells us that he has another contact, a young boy who is driving at Bathurst. In fact, he seems car-mad, to the point where we feel a little jealous of the hoon who is sharing our contact. A couple of phrases which Max uses strike us with force, partly because of their quaint language, and also their individual pint of view. "…
THIS INSANE AGE OF METAL PROGRESS"
"I AM HORRIFIED BY THE CLOCKWORK PRECISION WITH WHICH YOU LIVE YOUR LIVES"
Max is becoming quickly acclimatised, and concepts such as air travel and photography are becoming rapidly assimilated. There are occasional witticisms and word jokes, some of which don't seem very original. We are amazed that he corrects us so often, and that our anticipations of his story are so often incorrect. "I AM CO.."
"WHO'S TELLING THIS ST.."
"Who's telling this story, me or you?"
"YES. I AM CONSOLED BY....etc"
Relations between the girls however, are deteriorating fast, and Jean has been having unpleasant dreams, of teeth turning green, rotting and falling out. She has her doubts. Time to find my own place. I take a place in inner suburban Surry Hills. Ensconced in my new home, I am closer again to another time. I must be very close to the spot where the author Ruth Park lived (The Harp In The South, A Fence Around the Cuckoo, Playing Beattie Bow and many more wonderful books).
THOU SHALT NOT…
My own religious background and upbringing did not dispose me kindly to Spiritualistic activity of any kind. In our 50s classes of 80, 90 and even 100 children, not much was left to chance. Religious devotion was highly encouraged, and remnants of a medieval belief system persisted. During Lent, and on certain Feast days, visits to the Church, and other devotions could win much remission from the pain of Purgatory, a cleansing unit prior to finally entering Paradise. This system appealed to young minds, and we would compete to chalk up the highest credit. What appalled us was the time scale involved, for the period of remission won appeared so great, that it implied a vast amount of time in Purgatory itself.
Our teachers were very clear. "Only God knows the future. Any one who tells you different is lying, and one must beware the influence of the Devil".
This subject was both thorny and horned and a whiff of sulphur seemed to accompany the subject for many years. The subject of spiritualism and associated activities such as ouija boards did not come up very often in our religious instruction, but whenever it was mentioned, it was in disparaging terms. "Only God knows the future" and anyone who claimed otherwise was in error.
Astrology was treated as a harmless pastime unless one took it too seriously…it was also seen as possibly the tip of a horned iceberg. Anything which appeared to be of a miraculous or supernatural nature in this context was suspicious, and very likely the work of the devil.
A STRANGE FRIEND
We don't see our former friends, and we run the sessions with just the two of us, and an occasional friend acting as note-taker and secretary. We have been doing this for a long time now, and Max has become a friend. He doesn't give us much advice.
"THIS BUSINESS OF ADVICE AMUSES ME. I DON'T KNOW THE FUTURE. I SIMPLY TRY TO ADVISE YOU, AS MY FRIENDS, IN THE BEST WAY POSSIBLE. I BELIEVE THAT WITHOUT MY BODY, MY MENTAL PROCESSES AND JUDGEMENT ARE CONSIDERABLY SHARPER."
Max is still insistent on this point, as he is on the subject of "leaving his body" rather than dying. He is finding modern life exciting in many ways, and has found a new friend in Sydney. We are a little jealous to be told that he talks to someone who doesn't need to use the glass to communicate. This person lights a circle of candles while preparing his evening meal, usually nuts and vegetables. Gradually he begins to hear voices, and simply talks to Max or other contacts. Max tells us that he is a tailor, who is small and quaint, dresses in bright checked clothes, works in DJs in the city and has become reclusive and lonely because of his sexual orientation.
We want to know the secrets of the Universe, and Max seems to want to help us, but is not a great deal wiser than we. He will call at he sees it however, and we are grateful for honesty, and an opinion. Firstly, he now thinks that the great amount of time which elapsed since he "left his body" may be due to the fact that his death was untimely and not part of a "natural plan". On the other hand, he tells us that two of his friends lived to a relatively old age.
One is Diana Blakesley, whom he intended to marry. He has enjoyed meeting up again with her, and he tells us that she has had several reincarnations. The other is his friend, Griffith Hall, who accompanied him on one of the trade trips to Turkey. The name strikes me as odd, as his names are the surnames of two West Indian cricketers of the 60s.
Griffith, Max tells us, was over six feet tall, an imposing height in those days, and was called "Pot" as an ironic nickname. Furthermore, after Max "left his body" it was Griffith who married Diana. On one occasion, he allows Diana to converse with us. Immediately, the glass is slower and more controlled. The conversation is proper and not very stimulating or lively, and we realise how individual Max has become to us. Max often seems to indicate a "glass-centric" viewpoint. On one occasion, after I had removed a pile of books to give us more room, he said "O YOU HAVE TAKEN AWAY MY OVERHANGING CLIFF".
On another, he started off the session in aimless sweeps, and we feared that we might have lost him.
"What's going on Max?."
Then we realised that the radio in the background was playing a Strauss Waltz suite. Sometimes, when we go out for a coffee or such, we rest our fingers on a glass ashtray, and are sure it will move. We are rarely disappointed.
MY ATTORNEY BERNIE
I was nearing the end of my time in the Army, and my friends were aware of my unusual hobby. When they realised that my belief was genuine, a couple of them asked to be present, without participating. After some time, they were happy to act as secretary, speeding up matters somewhat. Bernie H I had known for some time. In fact, I met him at the Army's Music School where he was a star Apprentice, playing trumpet and French Horn.
Bernie was confident to the point of bumptiousness and rarely doubted his abilities. This quality was not always appreciated, and when he travelled to Sydney to take up his posting, he was advised not to get off the train until it had crossed Sydney Harbour Bridge. At Central Station the crowds disembarked, and Bernie twiddled his thumbs till the cleaner entered the carriage and said "Y'need t'get orf here mate".
"Oh no! I don’t get off till we're over the Bridge"
"Orright! But y'll be waitin a long time" Here the penny dropped, and a mildly subdued Bernie made his way to the barracks.
One day Bernie had a call from the Conservatorium of Music. Could he help out on French Horn? The Horn player of the Woodwind Quintet was sick. We waited on Bernie's return. Was our standard high enough? Would he cut the mustard?
Bernie returned. He plonked himself down and thoughtfully rolled a cigarette, and after a dramatic silence said "Well, you guys have got your work cut out ".
Bernie bought a new French Horn, but was soon highly unpopular because, for some reason it gave off a stench like bad cheese. Mortified, Bernie explained that he didn't like the bright edgy sound of the instrument, and had poured a quart of milk through the tubing, where unknowable life forms were obviously prospering. During the next month, Bernie went through a tree-full of lemons, sluicing the juice through the horn and gradually stripping the lactic patina back. Bernie saw the joke fortunately, and told me of about his friend in Canberra.
He was another apprentice musician, who played trumpet and cornet. Parade ground duty in Canberra was not a comfortable proposition, trying to keep fingers warm and operable in very cold conditions. There are also some instruments which are difficult to play with gloves on, no matter how well modified. This apprentice decided to warm his cornet up in the oven, and left it there for a few minutes as he dressed. This was a pointless exercise of course, as the instrument, being metal, would cool down in a very short time. Nevertheless, by the time he picked it up, it was more pleasant to the touch than usual. Out on to the parade ground he marched with the band, put the instrument to his lips, and pressed the middle valve down. However, when he "pressed the middle valve down" the music did not "go round and round". The instrument dramatically fell to pieces, clattering to the asphalt in a small shower of silver and gold pistons, rods and springs. The solder joining the parts had melted before resetting lightly.
It brought to mind my own experiences riding my bicycle to Church to serve Mass as an altar-boy many years earlier. I filled up the handlebars with hot water, plugging the ends with cork. Gloves were a better idea, and they don't rust the handlebars out.
Bernie was with me on that Canberra parade ground when I refused to play because of the cold. Unable to control my blue fingers I couldn't control what was coming out of the instrument. Some way of compromising had to be found, but no-one was prepared to discus it. So during the rehearsals I didn't even pretend to play. The commanding officer was predictably incensed, and turned me over for discipline to our own commanding officer, who wished only to extract from me a promise that I would play properly on the morrow, when the Cadet's passout parade would be televised. I said I would do my best, but it would depend. On what? he asked. The weather, I replied. My physical responses were beyond my control, and I only wished to do my job properly. Stalemate! Would I give a guarantee No, I wouldn't. I returned to Sydney in disgrace, and was set to clean rifles within the guard house precinct at Paddington.
"All right lad" snarled the sergeant, "You've been fuckin us around. Now we're gunna fuck you around"
"Yes, Sergeant". There was a pile of rifles to be cleaned. I set to, and thought I would gain my freedom in reasonable time. In due course, the sergeant returned, and began his inspection of my work. He was unusually quiet, but after inspecting a few weapons regained his composure and embarked on a long list of faults, most of them invisible to a microbe. After that, I worked at a moderate pace, and appeared quite chastened, so that justice was seen to have been done.
Bernie was most amused. Initially sceptical, he attended many Max sessions acting as secretary and remaining non-committal. Max would describe the aura round each and every person, becoming fairly predictable after some time. A cream aura seemed to signify balance and contentment and in some cases where it was brighter, spirituality. Jagged red and white lines were anger and a certain green was money-hunger. In some ways this was like a mild parlour-game, but quite often his description would be right on the money where someone was feeling a strong emotion concealed from the rest of us. I know there are many people with this gift, and I would like to be one of them. But I'm not.
DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME
We are surprised one evening when Max tells us "THIS IS A DANGEROUS THING TO DO"
"Why? What can happen?"
"YOU WERE LUCKY TO GET ME"
"Why? What could happen"
Max explains his cosmology. He tells us that when we leave our bodies, we pass on to another stage of existence. But some "Earth-bound" persons cannot tear themselves away from their earthly life. He sees the Earth as surrounded by an envelope of these souls. Their existence is what we call "hell". They are obsessed by the desire to re-enter a human body.
"But how can they do that"
"THEY CAN INFLUENCE YOUR DREAMS, AND CAN GAIN CONTROL OVER SUSCEPTIBLE PEOPLE. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO ACCEPT AN UNWANTED CONTACT".
Max believes that we do reincarnate, but has no clear idea of a path. He tells us that his friend Phillip, whom he knew in his former life as a priest, is with him, waiting to be re-incarnated as a bear. This is not exciting to us, and is somewhat distasteful, possibly doubtful, but we have to accept the information which is offered. As with Diana Blakesley, to whom he was betrothed, we talk to Phillip for some time, and again there is a marked personality difference with the Phillip character being pleasant but ponderous. We wonder about the interchangeability of human and animal souls.
Again, we get Max's viewpoint. He feels that Ginge, the cat, for instance, is as close to human love as an animal can get. He feels that domestication is the path for individuation of an animals soul, whereby it passes from sharing the group soul (for instance, a wolf would not have an individual soul, but would share a "pack soul") to having a separate soul. For my part, Max claims that I was a Finnish blacksmith in a former life, looking much as I do now, but, not surprisingly, being heavier-set.
A GENEROUS OFFER
Not long into regular Army service, we underwent the usual tests. From the results, a group was selected for possible officer training. Naturally, this offer was considered an honor. However, officer training seemed to have no part in my career, as I needed to rapidly acquire practical music-making skills of a high order. I listened attentively with the others until, as an afterthought, the instructing officer asked whether there might be anyone who was actually not interested in this. I raised my hand, but was not asked for further comment. Taken from the room, I was handed over to the drill Sergeant, who, of the whole bunch, specialised in the most ugly and personal language. "You're gunna scrub shithouses", he snarled.
Well, I knew they certainly needed scrubbing, and I thought it was generally a good idea. I just preferred that it was someone else's job. I remembered that, at boarding school, we all took turns at all the tasks, we did them as well as we could, and we offered it up as a prayer. Inferior work was an insult therefore to God. Mentally, I geared myself to putting in some solid, if unpleasant, work.
He looked at me keenly, and his face softened. "Look son! Y' c'd be a major at twenty seven, y' c'd retire on a pension by fifty, and y' need never see action".
At last, the light dawned on me. I was rejecting what this man could never have hoped to achieve. " Ah, Sergeant. Thank you. I didn't quite realise….but I only want to play music, and the Band is the only way for me to go. Being an officer won't get me there."
"OK son. Y'really know what y'r givin' up?"
"OK. Is there anywhere you want to go for the next coupla hours".
"Well sergeant, I thought I might pop into the Chapel and read a book."
Wandering the grounds of Werribee Park Mansion, I spy a distinctive character. Slightly stooped and boffin-like, he seems kind but detached from his wife and two attractive daughters, who are obviously very fond of him. It can only be my old school companion, Vladimir, whom I last saw in year 10 thirty-four years ago. It is, and we renew acquaintance. He is still deeply involved in the Ukrainian Community and this gives me a fine idea.
Since I am scheduled to entertain Chernobyl children at the beach resort of Lorne in the near future, I decide that it would be a nice gesture to learn some introductions in Ukrainian. V is happy to help. I outline my introductions and he translates into Ukrainian, which I then render in phonetics, repeating until I eventually arrive at an acceptable pronunciation. The daughters are highly amused. "Oh, Papa, you speak such funny old Ukrainian".
I presume that, like many who come here, V's speech sounds relatively formal and even poetic. In the event, plane trouble means that the children miss the concert. However, I explain to the audience and try out my new skills anyway. A man approaches me after the concert and says "You know, it was really strange! When you started to speak that other language, you suddenly looked very foreign.”
We are in Sydney for a family holiday, and down at Darling Harbor is an ice-show. For a fee, one may disport amongst refrigerated ice and snow shaped into castles and slides. It is all very novel for us. We take a rented parka each, I put mine on, then notice the others staring at me. They all have the same thought. "Do you know how Russian you look?"
I am in Germany, enjoying the experience enormously. Travelling light, I am wearing a kangaroo skin hat and a grey greatcoat. Wherever I go I hear people saying "Eine Russischer" (a Russian).
Many French and German teenagers have a softer look than I have been used to. In fact, some of the boys seem to stay fresh-faced and beardless for a long time. Their faces look familiar. I then realise that they are the faces of angels in the paintings which we have been looking at all our lives, in Galleries and in stained-glass windows.
I had started to play in a four piece combo at a Soccer Club and a Country Club, as well as some pub gigs. The band was not really good, being made of four incredibly disparate personalities. However, it was popular, as we patched together covers of crowd favourites. At one venue, where we were actually unpopular for ousting the previous band who had a local following, we were shocked in the car park to see the singer toting a gun for his own protection.
Part of our duties was accompanying the Talent Quest and also playing for the visiting artist, often a very polished entertainer prolonging an illustrious but fading career. Comedians were a mixed lot. I was interested to see that the best would have you smiling before they even opened their mouth. They were relaxed, and enjoyed their job. Others, who had their demons no doubt, could never stop, and would be seen late into the night, entertaining a small bunch of late drinkers informally round the bar as the cleaners tried to do their job.
At the Soccer Club, the singer/guitarist crashed out after trying to exhort a morose and sullen crowd into a festive mood. With incredible insensitivity, he persisted in demanding responses from a small crowd crying into their beer…. their team was in imminent danger of relegation to a lower division, and the afternoon's loss was the last nail in that particular coffin. I was not the leader, but it was I who found a great replacement who pepped the band up enormously. Next, the drummer, a throwback to the mid 50s, effectively displayed his contempt for music other than pub rock in his accompaniment to a prominent visiting artist's jazz waltz solo. He too, was replaced by a very fine drummer who doubled on saxophone.
The keyboard player, Barry G, who looked and behaved very much like Clark Kent (apart from the costume changes) left shortly after to devote himself to a franchise selling organs and keyboards. Although a fine player, he wanted to perform in other fields, and for him too, we found a worthy replacement, and we now had a swinging outfit, of which one could be very proud. It swung, it was colourful, no-one liked it and we lost that job.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO HEAR A STORY?
We are so comfortable with Max that we have got into the habit of asking him for jokes. We are used to his witticisms, and now we have asked him to extend his repertoire, which he obligingly does. We become critical of his jokes, for they seem occasionally trite and commonplace. We are surprised when he seems offended 'WELL, YOU ASKED ME TO TELL YOU A JOKE AND I HAVE MERELY TRIED TO OBLIGE".
Then, after a short silence-"WOULD YOU LIKE TO HEAR THE SORT OF STORY WE TOLD IN MY TIME?"
"Yes, we would."
And here we listen to a long and strange story, told in a very deliberate and artistic style. Any time I try to anticipate a word, I am told "WHO'S TELLING THIS STORY, ME OR YOU?"
Even this obvious expression he spells out in full, allowing absolutely no interruption.
ONCE UPON A TIME, LONG BEFORE THE TIME IN WHICH WE LIVE, THERE WERE TWO CIVILISATION UPON THE EARTH. ONE WAS BASED ON THE LAND, AND THE OTHER IN THE SEA. THE PEOPLE OF THE SEA DID NOT MIX WITH THE PEOPLE OF THE LAND, FOR THIS WAS THE WAY THEY WANTED IT. THE GROUPS WERE NOT TO INTERMINGLE OR INTERMARRY, AND THE PENALTY FOR SO DOING WAS DEATH, THE GUILTY PARTY TO BE EXECUTED BY THE CIVILISATION OF WHICH HE WAS NOT A MEMBER.
MY STORY CONCERNS A YOUNG MARINER, WHO SAILED ON HIS SHIP PAST A TINY ISLAND IN THE OCEAN. HEARING THE MOST BEAUTIFUL SINGING, HE SLIPPED OVERBOARD AND SWAM TO SHORE. THERE HE MET THE OWNER OF THE BEAUTIFUL VOICE, AND SHE WAS EVEN MORE LOVELY TO BEHOLD. HE WAS BEOND HELP, FOR HE WAS IMMEDIATELY ENAMOURED OF HER, AND SHE OF HIM. EVERY DAY, WHEN HIS SHIP PASSED THE ISLAND, HE WOULD SWIM ASHORE TO MEET HER, AND THEY WOULD EMBRACE ON THE SAND AND MAKE BEAUTIFUL MUSIC TOGETHER.
HOWEVER, AFTER THIS HAD BEEN GOING ON FOR SOME TIME, HE NOTICED THAT HIS APPEARANCE WAS UNDERGOING CERTAIN CHANGES. THE COLOUR OF HIS SKIN HAD CHANGED SUBTLY, TAKING ON A FAINTLY COPPERY GREEN TINGE. THE TEXTURE OF HIS SKIN TOO, WAS EVER SO SLIGHTLY SCALY, AND THE HAIR BELOW HIS NAVEL GREW LONG AND LANK LIKE SEAWEED. THIS HE CUT OFF WITH SCISSORS WHEN NO-ONE WAS AROUND, AND HE HID THE CLIPPINGS UNDER HIS SACKING BED.
NOW THE BED WAS A MATTRESS ENCLOSED IN A RECTANGLE OF WOOD NAILED TO THE DECK, AND WHEN TWO OF HIS FRIENDS WERE HORSING AROUND, WRESTLING, THEY DISLODGED HIS MATTRESS, EXPOSING THE CLIPPINGS FOR ALL TO SEE. ALTHOUGH NO-ONE REPORTED HIM, IT WAS IMMEDIATELY CLEAR TO ALL WHAT HIS AFTERNOON ABSENCES MEANT, AND THE WORD SOON GOT OUT, REACHING THE EAR OF THE KING OF THE SEA.
HE SENT MESSENGERS UP FROM THE DEPTHS, AND THEY SEIZED HIM BY HIS HAIRY GROWTH, DRAGGING HIM DOWN INTO THE WATERS TO DROWN. AND THE KING OF THE SEA, FOR HIS PART, NOTICED THAT HIS OWN DAUGHTER'S SCALES HAD BECOME RATHER WORN AND SHINY IN CERTAIN PARTS, AND HE KNEW THAT SHE WAS THE OTHER GUILTY PARTY.
TRUE TO HIS TREATY, THE KING HANDED HER OVER TO THE PEOPLE OF THE LAND FOR EXECUTION. SHE WAS GUILLOTINED, AND CHOPPED IN LITTLE PIECES AND FED TO THE DOCKYARD CATS…………….(long pause) AND TO THIS VERY DAY, DO YOU KNOW, THE FISH NEVER GO NEAR THE SHORE AT LOW TIDE………………… BECAUSE THEY KNOW WHAT THAT GREEN STUFF ON THE ROCKS IS."
I SEE A TALL MAN
Not far away from the Soccer club lives Mrs. Mason, a middle-aged red-haired Scottish lady who is a seer or fortune teller. She is heavily booked, and we are squeezed in for a reading. Her house is a time-warp as it is full of rich and musty artefacts and objects, apart from a very fashionable and expensive car in the drive. Crystal ball, cards and handwriting are all brought into play. The reading is brave and fluent…I will have two children – with musical or creative gifts superior to mine – I will marry a blond woman (Regina is not blond) who will bring out my full potential – I will live in a house of wood and windows with light everywhere.
She sees a picture, of people dancing in a large, high-ceilinged space and the air is filled with lovely harmony. She laughs, as the people look so funny, like monkeys on a string she says. How strange, I think. She could be describing the soccer club, where one of the songs we play is Puppet On A String, in which the dancers imitate puppet movements.
At the end of the reading she says "There is an older couple who have been here all this time. The man is tall, and says to tell everyone that he loved them but could never bring himself to say so. The woman is stout and says that they are happy that you are doing what you want to do".
I feel sure it is my mother's parents, who lived with us some time before they died. I return to Mrs. Mason a year or so later. She doesn't seem to recognise me, and when I tell her I'd been there before, she says "I must have spun you a good yarn". Again, I suspend disbelief and take in her words. I feel she has a gift, but am not sure of her predictive ability. Nevertheless, her character assessment is impressive.
LOOK INTO MY EYES `
Barry G, the keyboardist, stayed in touch. He was older, and quite conservative, but had an interest in hypnotism. In fact, as well as playing keyboard for a Blacktown Club, he ran a hypnotic act as a floorshow. Barry felt that I would be a good candidate for "past-life" hypnotherapy, and we went to his place for a session. His hypnotic suggestions didn't seem to resonate with me, although I was positive and willing. Regina, however, proved an excellent subject and was quickly "regressed" to earlier stages of her life, where her voice and demeanour changed incredibly. Taken back to a pre-birth stage, she emitted little bleating sounds.
After some time, however, she announces that she can see Max. He is in a field, which looks to be in Australia, and is accompanied by a friend and a small bear. His clothes look to be roughly sewn, but are, in their crude fashion, tailored. His shoes are soft, pointed leather.
He sends greetings to the dog which is with us. We ask if the dog is aware of Max. Regina passes on Max's words, to the effect that animals are always aware of spirit bodies passing but are blasé about them through habituation. We ask Max if he will enter our room and place himself in a particular corner. The dog, which has been banished to the kitchen for previously being a nuisance, is now admitted, and rushes, barking, to the appointed corner.
After some time, I take over the session, to try my hypnotic powers. I conjure up a story about finding a small elephant in the house which we are minding, and the joke seems to be mildly amusing for most. However, without sustaining the instructions and reinforcing the trance, I allow Regina to pass into a natural sleep, from which she wakes rather disturbed. Barry tries to repair the damage, but Regina carries these strong implanted suggestions with her for quite some time. I feel lousy.
Work in the Eastern Command Army Band was generally of a ceremonial nature, mixed with a certain amount of concert-giving. Every Thursday we presented a show at the Paddington Barracks, then proceeded to Martin Place, in the City Centre. It was always a joy to hear the bass drum player strike every resonant object he could reach. Parking signs, street directions and trucks were all turned to musical advantage and provided much innocent entertainment for the rest of the Band. The Bass Trombone player also enjoyed entertaining by extending his slide, and running it through the groove of the ancient tram track which survived the demise of the old Sydney trams…until one day, the slide wedged tightly in the track, the band moving smoothly around and past him. Red-jacketed and red-faced, he made his way through the lunch crowds to resume his appointed station.
The Band was a motley crew indeed. On the very first ceremonial occasion in which I played, the assignment was to perform for a parade at the women's parade ground at George's Heights. This was a spectacular cliff-top location on the Eastern shore of Sydney Harbour. It was a wild Winter day, and far below us the ferries tossed and heaved on huge swells. In sharp contrast to the elements, all was order and formality on the cliff-top square. Lady soldiers swung past in time, encouraged in stentorian tones by their formidable Sergeants.
In due course, one of the senior Officers, more petite and ladylike, marched to the head of the Band, where protocol requires her to accept a salute from the Bandmaster, who is then to ask her if she would care to inspect the Band. At this point, to my amazement, a volley of farting erupted from various points within the Band. In my embarrassment, I was grateful that the howling wind would prove both an auditory and olfactory blessing, and possibly their efforts were wasted that morning. In any event, the Lady Officer returned the salute crisply, and with a smile said "Not this morning thank you Bandmaster".
A welcome respite from our usual duty was a trip to Port Macquarie for a sesquicentenary celebration. Then as now, the coastline was balmy and beautiful, with many miles of white sand fringing the turquoise waters. We could never travel far before hearing yet again the chestnut about the twin towns of Tuncurry and Forster ("Did you hear about the chap with the reluctant girl-friend. Yes, he took her to Tuncurry and Forster").
In the relaxing atmosphere of Port Macquarie, the group splits into small parties in the evenings. One group, aware of my "Maxwell sessions", sets up a board in my absence. When I return, there is considerable excitement, and I watch with interest as the glass moves, and the movement seems genuine. However, the results are childish and spasmodic. I realise that I am probably the only one who is sober and decide to will the glass to a letter. Standing in the doorway, some ten or twelve feet from the glass, I am able to influence it into choosing my letter.
I compose a short, innocuous message, and am surprised to see it spelt out. This gratifies the sitters, but is actually very hard work for me. I can not make a great deal of sense out of this incident. Some think that it indicates my subconscious influence all along, but the sheer effort and concentration required leave me in little doubt that this was not so. One of the Army friends is Irish, and I wonder if he has the usual Celtic respect for the spirit world. "Do you believe in the Little Folk, Liam?" I asked. "No-but I've seen 'em".
I was now out of the Army, and encouraged by Bernie, have made enquiries about joining the National Training Orchestra, being paid a modest scholarship salary whilst learning Orchestral repertoire, preparatory to seeking work in Australia's network of Symphony Orchestras. With a bare eighteen months of bassoon experience behind me, and not an inkling of audition method, I presented for a trial. "I hear you need a bassoonist" I said.
An impromptu audition followed, followed by two more at two-week intervals. The advantage of a poor first showing was the impression of rapid improvement created by subsequent tests. I was in and I moved to leafy Lindfield. On my first day I was invited to perform for the visiting Director of Music, well aware that many ears would be pressed to the hall doors. I was aware also that my standard was barely sufficient to scrape in and that I would need to improve rapidly. My bassoon also, was of a most inferior make, in poor repair. Nevertheless, I was determined to grasp the nettle, and not look back. Playing with a piano accompanist was a new experience for me, and I imagine that in some ways my style was a new experience for the accompanist also. In front of a polite panel I was allowed to struggle painfully to the end of what I suspected was a character-building exercise designed to spell out clearly the path for development. A brief "Thank you", and a "I suppose you know what you have to work on" and I was off. As I approached the exit door, the substantial bottom joint of the bassoon fell off. It hit the floor with a bang, but I gathered it neatly on a low bounce….the only thing that had gone right all day! The panel looked puzzled as I murmured my departing "Thank you".
I still kept up the Max sessions, at my new place or Regina's or other friends'. My new friends were as intrigued as my old Army colleagues who still visited. Naturally we discussed the issues involved, which touched on religion, life after death, reincarnation, karma, the nature of the soul, and more. However, we were not in any way obsessed, and this did not occupy a great part of our lives.
Although we are not playing together any more I sometimes speak to Barry G. He tells me that he has had a peculiar experience in his hypnotist act at Blacktown. He uses musical cues for his act, and having got a raft of subjects responding well, he sends them back into trance with the tune "Sleepy Time Gal". This works like a charm, and never gives any trouble. One night however, he tells me, he was woken by a call from the club manager after he had finished his act, and retired for the night. The band following his had played "Sleepy Time Gal" and sent a number of the audience back into trance. Barry made a brief but effective trip to normalise their situation.
I am amused. I remember too, that hypnotic acts were frowned upon by our teachers, who viewed even recreational hypnotism as voluntary surrender of the will by an individual. I feel that in this viewpoint, the nature of hypnotism may be misunderstood, and am not, nor ever have been, concerned. I reflect that the main crime of recreational hypnotism is that of vulgar taste. Otherwise, it is most interesting and entertaining.
I was becoming interested in he pattern of my dreams, which were vivid and colourful. I remembered, aged 16, at school, being called a liar for describing a dream which was vividly coloured. I discovered for the first time that many do not dream in colour, or are not aware of colour in their dreams. In my dreams, colour was generally a dominant factor. I wondered whether there was a cyclical factor in my dreams, or even a prophetic one. I decided to keep a dream diary to find out.
Each morning, I noted the episodes which I remembered. At first, there was generally a major theme, and a couple of minor ones, but as the days passed, my recall became better and better. Even with a scrawled shorthand, the task was becoming longer and longer. My memory was getting better by the day, and new variations and sub-plots would swarm into my view as I wrote. It was taking me too long, and there seemed no end to some episodes, but only new adventures.
Finally, I realised that I felt wrung out and flat by the time I had made my entries. In fact, the act of recall was quite deleterious to my health. I felt that most of the dream material was ephemeral rubbish, and if the dreams had any therapeutic value, it was while I was asleep, and that they were never designed for recall. So I threw away the diary, and felt much the better for it.
I REMEMBER IT, AND I WAS THERE ...and now, my dear, comes the rag-bag of my thoughts from the early 70s –
You will recall that I was in Sydney, to improve myself in the Training Orchestra. There one met a variety of people from all over Australia. One day there was considerable excitement at the arrival of a new violinist from Melbourne, said to be quite beautiful. We had already heard her audition tape, which was also stunning. The reality was everything we had heard, and more. Margaret looked like the cover of Vogue, every day.
She was given the task of leading the Orchestra in Stravinsky's Pulcinella, bristling with demanding violin solos, as well as solos for all the sections. She was to lead in a University concert which was scheduled, and I was keen to make a good impression on Margaret. I wanted the bassoon contribution to be yet another jewel in the orchestral crown.
Soon after the concert started, I got a fright to hear one of my notes not quite true. Yet another note seemed strangled, and before long I had major problems. I undid the rubber band securing a faulty key, I blew water from the finger holes, and did generally everything possible to trace the source of the problem, my face becoming progressively more flushed with embarrassment. Was it relief or chagrin which dominated when I found the real cause of the problem? For this formal occasion, our dress was not the usual casual wear of the rehearsal room. It was the first time I had played the bassoon wearing a tie, and it was the tie which had inserted itself under one of the keys, causing all the problems.
Margaret of course played beautifully, and was so concerned to get her own part right that she probably didn't hear anything, let alone my problems. Or maybe she was as kind as she was beautiful. Margaret was the sort of person you would like to talk to, but it soon became clear that many many people would like to talk to Margaret. Some of these were lady friends, who liked to talk to her so much that it became very difficult to talk to her without running the gauntlet of this group.
Minor kingdoms have been run in this way. She was highly educated, and balanced an open mind with a healthy scepticism. I had no idea then of the part she would play in my life. At this time I was engaged in keeping a dream diary, for the purpose of trying to ascertain whether or not there was any predictive value in my dreams. After several weeks of this I was exhausted, as the act of writing down the dreams became progressively more and more tedious. Each dream recalled would usher in a new one, and I found that I had improving recall as time went by. Although the time-scale was short, I found no cycle or predictive value at all. The dreams appeared largely so much rubbish, and recalling them did not seem good for my health. After recalling them, and notating them, I felt flat and wrung out, and so decided to stop. In the meantime I had talked about these dreams to friends, and Margaret had found them, and my ideas about them, interesting. Often we have an individual style in our dreams which seems exotic to others. I had a dream which left me very shaken.
THE SILK ROAD DREAM
In the dream, I am looking at a picture. Perhaps I am in an art gallery. The picture is large and vivid. It is a view of a warrior starting to ascend a scaling ladder set against a walled city. Above him is a window with stonework sections, each too small to admit a human. Suddenly, it is a picture no longer. I am standing at the foot of the ladder, and like the person mounting it, I am an Asiatic. He is my enemy and is trying to gain entry to my city.
I have come out of the city to try to defend it. The ladder is not the normal sort of ladder, but a stout pole with lumps of tar and rag for footholds. I thrust a large-headed spear through his ribs, blade transverse in order to pass smoothly. I withdraw it quickly to avoid entanglement, and whirl round to face his companion who has arrived. We are similar in size appearance and arms, and we swing our spears in an arc at each other. I pray that my spear is the one which will prevail, and sure enough his snaps cleanly, and I leap forward in the same movement to spear him. He does not fall, but stands looking at me. We both know that this is pure training and reflex. I thrust the spear through his eye, not in anger but as a necessary despatch.
Many people have now arrived and are starting to swarm. They are not soldiers, but a rag-tag mob, who are angry with us. I keep them at bay with my spear, but they close in from behind, seizing the spear, and swinging me off my feet. They swarm again, seizing me violently wherever they can lay hands. My arms, legs, joints are on fire, and as the pain escalates, my last thought is that I am being torn apart by a mob. I wake, and am utterly unable to move for quite some time. Every joint in my body aches and I am overcome with horror. I reflect on my dream, and the feeling is that I have had a vision of what may have happened to me, or a quasi me, in a previous time at my present age. Was the city on the Silk Route? Were the inhabitants of the city a wealthy group, but of the same ethnicity as the semi-nomadic desert people attacking them?
GOODBYE TO TWO OLD FRIENDS?
While I was heavily preoccupied with my new life, Regina's life too, had changed and she had new friends who sensed that she might have mediumistic powers. I did not like these friends, and they didn't like me. Before long, we found the sessions hard to organise and they eventually stopped.
I hadn't realised what a large part the Max sessions had played I my life. Regina also. Fortunately, I had much work to do in preparing advanced music, and was distracted by these demands. I had a call from Chris N, a songwriter musician with whom I had played on a cruise liner. We hadn't discussed my ouija nights while working on the ship, but it transpired that Chris had been strongly affected by a past-life reading.
He was told that he was the pampered son of a Roman Senator, living a life of ease and indulgence, and one in which he was able to exercise power of life or death over prisoners and gladiators. However, when he could no longer put off military duty, he found himself unexpectedly in a front line skirmish. He became aware of an older, vastly experienced soldier on the other side, moving along as in a production line, thrusting and turning his Roman-style short sword. The man next to him having been despatched, Chris faced up, but was dismissed with ease, and before collapsing from a mortal wound saw his next companion perish the same way. His last memory was the face of his executioner, a picture of brutal efficiency and utter detachment. The soldier appeared to be Roman also, so this may have been one of the internecine power struggles for leadership of the Empire.
SCARED ALMOST TO DEATH
Rehearsing all day, practising at night, playing a lot of squash and kayaking often on the Lane Cove River, I sleep well at night. One night I have a peculiar experience. In the small hours I wake up, and something hits my chest with a thud, and I feel it resting there. My flesh creeps, for it is there and doesn't move. I am lying on my back and I reach up with my left hand to feel what it might be. My blood runs cold – it is a hand!
And still it doesn't move. I feel further back, along an arm which turns out to be attached to my right shoulder. I have jammed my arm against the wall in my sleep, and upon moving, the released arm has collapsed, completely numb, onto my chest. The relief is immense, and as my heartbeat moderates to mere sledge-hammer strength,
I reflect how ironic it would be had I died of fright at that point. Because whoever found me would have said, "Yes, he was just as you see him now – lying on his back with arms crossed beatifically across his chest. He must have just died in his sleep. He would not have been aware of anything. We should all go like that."
A BALANCED LIFE
Chris had written a rock-musical; could I play in it? Weekends were now largely spent at Chris's place rehearsing a well-planned and well-written score and book. Each week new singer/dancers were auditioned till there was a cast of twelve and a band of five. I was having to divide my time up carefully, as I was now working often with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Opera Orchestra in both Ballet and Opera, as well as "bonding gigs" with the new band, which worked in Sydney bars and discos including Whisky Au Go Go. We began the night with sure-fire dance music in a Motown mood, getting patrons active, sweaty and thirsty.
Expensive drinks were sold at the break, and as the rate of consumption dropped, we would get the message to get them moving again. Girls were admitted free, ensuring eager attendance from American soldiers on R & R from Vietnam. At eleven o'clock our cast turned up for a one-hour floor show, for which we were the accompanying orchestra. From twelve to three was down-time, in which we played much rubbish and experimented with long, rambling improvised sessions, which would turn into a tight, highly condensed item suitable for pre-midnight presentation on subsequent nights.
LIFE WITH THE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE
We were in a magnificent rambling three-storey house, replete with colonial verandahs, on a hillside not far from the surf beach at Collaroy, on Sydney's northern shoreline. The house was due for demolition prior to site redevelopment, but not for quite some time. The singer/dancers and some of their friends had taken up residence and there was a powerful interest in the occult and all things astrological. There was much earnest discussion about the age of Aquarius, star signs and lentil-based diets. These were attractive and intelligent young people whose outlook and beliefs nevertheless seemed incredibly naïve. I eschewed some of the self-improvement groups for a flute practice session in one of the magnificent tiled bathrooms.
Occasionally I heard muffled laughter from the next room, although it was otherwise very quiet. Afterwards, I learned that a meditation group had been working well to a backdrop of my French Baroque flute work, the ethereal music being punctuated by the occasional profanity from me, at a dropped note or a missed turn…hence the amusement.
For my part, I was amused that in this community I was perceived as a Classical Guy, whereas in the Orchestra I was viewed by some with suspicion, and possibly, distaste. My own bassoon teacher was one who had his doubts. As the principal bassoonist of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, John was a dedicated and persuasive player, producing consistently top-class work of great dignity and style. He was also comfortable with an old-school look and style, and found my last-minute entries to lessons somewhat disrespectful.
Not highly tuned in to appearance, I would arrive to most of my lessons fresh from the surf, on my motor bike, with the instrument lashed to the back seat. My long hair and bristling beard were liberally sanded and salted and my outfits were seen as either minimal or garish. My tactic of defrosting my teacher with irreverent humour was not noticeably appreciated.
No! – the world of the Orchestra certainly saw me as "something other". In the meantime, back at Collaroy, the relentless characterisation according to star-sign was becoming tedious, and seemed to me to be shallow and simplistic.
MANCHILD – ROCK OPERA
Chris' show dealt with many of the life value issues of the time, and although Chris was later to feel embarrassed at its naivety, had much to commend it. Chris certainly had a knack for catchy song-writing, and the performance was polished and professional, for quite some time. The show was to open at the Sydney Showgrounds, in a specially designed inflatable tent, like a giant igloo, weighted down by a water-filled perimeter. There were many creative and innovative aspects to this show. Intervals were rather long, as so many people passing through the air-lock lobby had deflated the tent somewhat. We waited till the tent had re-inflated, then ushered them back in, by which time the tent had sagged perilously again. This would take some fine tuning.
However, a wild Sydney storm put paid to this problem, destroying the tent and sending us out on the road, to Canberra, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide. All was well, and the group partied hard. There was not a lot of money at first, and our diet was thoughtful and well balanced, eked out by party fare from well-wishers' hospitality, and even fish from the Brisbane River. The cast was on a high, with critical acclaim and enthusiastic audience response. Nevertheless, this was draining, and by the time we reached Adelaide, cracks were showing. So much had been done on adrenalin and "good vibes" and on minimal professional training that the cast felt confronted by the situation in Adelaide.
Suddenly, we were faced with a sub-standard theatre, difficult living conditions and staleness. Furthermore, there seemed to be a group within the audience akin to the notorious Italian opera "claques". Adelaide was not a good experience, and it was hoped that Melbourne would redeem this. However, Melbourne proved to be worse. Every theatre was booked by an agent protecting an upcoming show and not wanting any opposition.
I had been made a juicy offer to play in the stage band for "Jesus Christ Superstar" and although I felt tempted, I knew that it was possibly a sabotage to seriously undermine the viability of Chris' project in the short term.
On tour in Perth, we are enjoying the sun and the hospitality. We are partying frequently between shows, and getting in quite a bit of water-skiing. But the self-improvement group is on the move again, and there is a lot of pressure to work with the group, not as individuals. With reasonable grace, I attend a meeting where we are introduce to Fred. Word has gone round that Fred is a guru. H knows many of the secrets of life as revealed by a visiting alien life form. He has books from these creatures.
Fred is impressive (but then, I think, most con-men are). He is eighty. He looks fantastic. He is small and neat, his gold skin well set off against a plentiful mane of silver hair, and he has clear brown eyes. He is modest and kind, and a soft but persuasive speaker. Every word appears genuine and sincere. He is a Vegan, and explains just what we are doing to our bodies in the course of "normal" Western diet. He considers flesh eating barbaric, and is deeply moved and even angry as he discusses it. He holds us spellbound for an hour and a half.
Overnight, over half of those attending are violently sick, and over the next couple of days attend further sessions. For some, the smoking of dope is an issue. Some agree that it would be alright if it had been organically grown. Pressed for answers on his extra-terrestrial visitors, Fred does not claim to have met them at all. But, he tells us, his wife has.
This is very disappointing for many. The location of the alien wisdom also turns out to be a vague issue. Meanwhile, more and more are renouncing flesh, are purging and dieting and revising their world view. The musicians are a more sceptical bunch, and we discuss it with some ardour. It all seems highly principled, but we are not entirely sure, and we enjoy our diet too much to think of changing just yet. But out of respect for our colleagues, we feel we must take the matter seriously.
In this frame of mind, we go to a farm outside Perth where the band has been invited. As we leave the car, we are aware of a mouth-watering aroma which quickens our stride. Turning into a large courtyard, we are confronted by the barbaric sight of a pig being spit-roasted. Our minds are made up, and we enjoy a wonderful evening replete with roast pork.
A TRIP TO THE RIVER
It was difficult in those times to avoid drugs in certain situations. In the Army, as one of only two members of a platoon who did not smoke, I had to invent a little ritual with my water bottle every time we paused for a smoko. Smoking never particularly appealed to me. There were many friends who sailed through these decades untempted by drugs, their minds and hearts being fixed on other things. However, I found myself under pressure to "turn on" whilst playing, the idea being that in a state of mutual bliss we would communicate even more effectively, expressing ourselves musically with greater eloquence. I had my doubts, and have always liked to be in control.
Occasionally I would defuse the situation by appearing to puff greatly. I would not be the first. Many considered weed-smoking to be an alternative preferable to alcohol. On one occasion, I swallowed something which someone had given me – looking like small strips of plastic – and took off to the Lane Cove River, site of the famous Bogle Chandler double murder. I had spent many happy hours kayaking here alone, playing my recorder to the birds and imitating them.
Our afternoon was not idyllic however, as I was inspired to torment my friends, swimming up to their boats, and capsizing them. This seemed an excellent joke, and I was well aware that I was getting to the point of being a serial pest, when I thought he would try once more. Andrew J was exasperated beyond endurance, and stood up in his boat, brandishing his paddle like a spear. He thrust it at my face, but being wet, it slipped through his grasp and struck me just below the nose. As I sank under the water, I knew exactly what had happened, and quickly made a plan. I first checked that my teeth were intact, meanwhile fanning myself gently downwards for some time. I knew exactly where Andrew would be as I surfaced, and when I did, fixed him with a baleful glare, trying to look like an avenging monster from the deep.
Poor Andrew was so distressed that he couldn't speak. There was blood all over the place, something I was blissfully unaware of. I calmly rolled over and stroked for the shore, where I sat down, and having discovered the blood, pinched my nose till the bleeding stopped, then started all over again. I do not recommend those strips of gelatin or whatever they were.
EDUCATION WITH A DIFFERENCE
A fifteen year-old boy, immured in a boarding school for seventy, living a life based on traditional monastic disciplines, ostensibly as a trial for the real thing. A bell to rouse you from sleep at 6.45. Dress and wash in silence, even shave for those lucky enough to find it necessary. Morning prayers in Chapel at seven, and a lecture on which one was to meditate. Mass with hymns followed, and than to breakfast, all in silence.
During breakfast, we ate at tables of six, and we took turns to read aloud, from a chosen work, usually quite interesting, and not of a strictly religious nature, over a sound system. Any fault in delivery would find a small light above the microphone glowing, inviting the reader to scan his last sentence and to self-correct. Our favourite story in this regard was the New Testament story of Judas, who, after hanging himself, was replaced in the band of disciples by one who was chosen by lot. The reader is said to have to have inadvertently turned over two pages, leading to the felicitous conjunction "…and Judas, taking a halter, went forth into a high tree, and hanged himself. And his bowels burst asunder (rustle of turning pages)…and the lot fell upon Matthias."
Boarding school fare was excellent. The head cook entered many cooking competitions, and usually won them. Meeting colleagues twenty five years later (on an Elton John tour) one asked me "Have you ever been able to get any of that porridge?" Like me, they had both been on a quest to locate the secret of this excellent gruel. Toward the end of breakfast, conversation was allowed, then items of interest were read from the newspaper, and the meal concluded. In the fifteen minutes afterwards, housekeeping saw all rooms and corridors swept and dusted, and all breakfast items washed and dried, with the tables set for lunch, again, all done in silence.
By nine, a normal school day followed, with sport, hobby or farm activities till 5.30, when we said the Rosary together, walking in groups as we recited. Dinner was at six, and like lunch, was a cooked meal, with much of the produce coming from the farm. We studied from 7.30 till 9 and after a break resumed silent study till 10, retiring at 10.30 after a late light supper.
As the school was also a farm, it was expected that on one day a week, each boy would help in farm chores. As long as these were items such as weeding briars in the paddocks, picking mushrooms for the kitchen, or baling hay, this was fine. We all looked forward to Easter, the Church's central feast. And by feast, I mean, truly, "feast". It should not have been any surprise to me to hear "The following boys will be on the poultry squad……Nankervis, Williams…". I didn't know what to expect, but had a pretty fair idea. It didn't matter how you approached it, or which task you chose, it was all revolting. Killing, plucking or cleaning. Yet I knew I was no vegetarian and enjoyed these foods as much as anyone.
These were commonplace tasks carried out with gratitude by people all over the world. The farm brothers were kind, and looked after the delicate ones, relieving them of their unpleasant tasks having given them a little time to ponder the issues. Some of the boys had come from farm backgrounds, and one such person was one of the first to speak to me at the school.
With a companion, I was idly gazing at the small herd of sheep being penned, and noticed an ugly growth at the rear end of one large animal. "Surely…." I thought. "No, it couldn't be….. yes, it must".
At that point our dumbfounded musings were interrupted by the hearty voice of Tom from the country. "It's all right you city boys. You can take your eyes off that fine looking ram. Those are his testicles and they are perfectly normal". Yes, we knew that!
One of the seven deadly sins is gluttony, and one of the boys told me that he thought he might have committed that sin at the previous Easter. But, for a sixteen year-old, it is hard to fathom exactly what might constitute the act of gluttony. He knew that he could not have managed one more morsel. How much further did he need to go in order to be considered a transgressor? He sought advice in the confessional. "Bless me Father, for I have sinned….Father, I'm not sure whether I have committed the sin of gluttony."
Fortunately, his confessor of the day was from a sophisticated and worldly order. "Did you walk away from the table unassisted?"
"Go in peace my son"
Easter was also a feast of music….that is, if you like Gregorian. And we did. It was a fine achievement to coach such a disparate group of boys into the full glory of a liturgical Easter in a style which had changed little for over a thousand years. At times like these, one felt the full weight of the past, with connections back through our Medieval history and beyond, all the way back to ancient Rome, and who knows where else. The school was to isolate us from "the world" with its materialism, hedonism and distractions.
We saw no females, except for monthly family visits, where our friends' female relatives took on Hollywood standards of beauty and attractiveness. The lady scientist who came to test the cows for TB ("the herd-tester") was also an intriguing and mysterious creature, despite the fact that we saw her only from afar, and that she was dressed in raincoat, sou'wester and gumboots, and carried a bucket and pole.
On a cross-country hike, one of our number had a fall resulting in a few grazes to his leg. Some kind ladies golfing nearby attended him with bandages and kindness causing a rash of lonely jealousy amongst the rest, who flirted with the idea of self-inflicted "war injuries". In such an atmosphere, any music-making fell like manna from heaven. The school received visits from Catholic, or sympathetic, artists of high calibre, and also derived tremendous pleasure from artists lesser known in the world, but who were nevertheless greatly gifted. Cyril Ritchard, the Shakespearian Actor, Dame Joan Hammond, the pianists Stephen McIntyre and Jean Starling were just a few of those who were inspirational. And the boys delivered a wonderful audience, hungry for beauty, art and knowledge.
Our Gregorian mentor also undertook to provide us with an acquaintance with the classics as well as some folk songs and popular ballads, accompanying himself on mandolin. In this way, we heard the famous Bernstein lectures, and, free from a great many worldly distractions, absorbed a wide variety of influences. This had an effect not entirely intended. I became so engrossed in matters musical that I neglected my studies in favour of novel reading and browsing copies of the BBC music magazine, The Listener.
In Spring, study became more difficult. The Winter muds dried out and days became balmy. We watched "the stooks arise around" as the farm brothers baled hay. Lambs frolicked and hawks circled high above in the cirrus-streaked sky. Blossoms from the gardens sent out their own powerful messages mixed with pungent farmyard odours. In the evening, I felt twitchy and restless, yet here we were, back to study, in silence. From the bull pen came a mighty roar, starting deep within the animal, and shattering the silence. The message was unmistakable! "Me too", muttered the boy next to me.
AN AMERICAN CONNECTION – I DON'T THINK SO.
At school we are watching another round of bleak documentaries. Long before this has become voguish, we are confronted with footage of the horrors of the end of World War 2. “This is not pleasant, boys, but it happened, and you should know about it, particularly if you are to be the educators of tomorrow.”
In the historical section leading to the causes of the Great Wars, we see a stereotypical scene of men joining the U.S. Army. “As war clouds gathered over Europe” boomed the narrator, “they came from every corner of the land. From the plains of Wyoming” (man walks through grass), “from the villages of Maine” (man leaves the fishing nets), “from the hills of Tennessee” (man marches over brow of a small hill) “they came.” And where the next one came from, I do not remember, but it hit me with the force of a sledge hammer, and my heart pumped wildly, because it was so bitter-sweet as I felt the powerful pull of home. I was confused and puzzled, for we had no American connection that I knew of, and even though I remembered this event powerfully for the next fifty years, it made little sense.
P.S. FIFTY YEARS ON
I am on holiday in Queensland. A phone call from my sister has her saying – “Do you know your name is not Williams? It's Coan. C-O-A-N. Great Grandfather Frank Williams was actually Ira Coan. He was in the Union Army from 1855-1863. I'll show you the documentation when you're back.”
And she did. It was true. And so rich was the story I wrote a novel based on it, called “Coan the Cooper”. And his Grandfather fought in the War of Independence. The isolation from female company had unintended and disastrous effects at the end of the year, when one traveled to the Exhibition Building, for the Spring Year Twelve examinations. In the vast spaces of that august building were crammed many hundreds of seventeen-year olds. Here, it seemed, were the angels who populated our books, poems, dreams and music…real, soft, glowing with good looks and good health, smiling readily and happy to chat. I wondered whether those who corrected my papers would realise that the spidery writing might be the result of a severe case of "shaking hands syndrome". Though they did quite well, many of our better students under-performed in these examinations, and I think that in the circumstances, they were not to be blamed.
A GRAVE MISUNDERSTANDING
We don't believe in the occult, but signs from God and the occasional miracle are definitely on the agenda. On many nights I am restless and cannot sleep. To the scandalised eyes of my dormitory companions, I am a figure disappearing through the window to God-knows-where for a couple of hours. In fact, I am strolling through the grounds, with a dark blanket to shield me in the occasional patch of light. I am making my way to the cemetery, a pretty picket-fenced acre, bordered by roses, where lie the deceased members of the teaching order.
I sit on a tombstone, and sing softly. I conduct imaginary orchestras. I compose poems. I dream, and drift, and eventually, when I least expect it, sleep comes to me. Suddenly, the world heaves up - my heart turns over as I am lifted by a great force rising out of the tomb.
And now I am inexplicably lying on my back in the rose bushes. I have fallen asleep, and fallen backwards. The great force was actually that of Gravity as the gravestone toppled over. The dormitory option is suddenly appealing and it is noticeably colder as I make my way back. I see a light flicker – a torch? I see a black-robed figure check my room. I have been missed, and they know this is not the first time. I wait till the patrol passes on, slip through the window, and am apparently sound asleep as the torch flicks over me a few minutes later.
ON WITH THE MUSIC
Dear Reader, you may have guessed that by the end of my schooling, I had well and truly decided that the religious life was not for me. The need to earn a living was paramount, but the desire to play music was supreme. How could I manage this? Guitar seemed to be the preferred instrument for many and I decided that I would invest in one.
I could imagine myself in a blue white and black tartan wool suit, and possibly a mixed brick patterned suit as well. I actually looked for these in shops, unsuccessfully of course. I even went to factories and warehouses, but was amazed to find that they stocked only the bolts of cloth identical to the suits in the shops. I blush! Eventually I had a light mushroom coloured suit tailored to specification and was quite pleased with it. As for the guitar, I had decided to buy a good one, for twenty-five pounds.
Emerging from the guitar shop however, I noticed a saxophone for exactly the same price. This coincidence set my mind off on another track. Was not the saxophone the instrument which had caused much excitement when , at school, we had listened to "Bolero"? And was not the saxophone the instrument that played the high exciting obbligatos in current trad jazz hits? The answer to both questions was "No, it wasn't. Well, not exactly".
Firstly, upon hearing the jazz wail, I asked a friend "What's that'. He replied, with great confidence "A saxophone" (it was a clarinet) Thinking I now needed a high saxophone, I asked about an alto sax at the shop. In Bolero, the saxophone solos are taken by a tenor sax (deep) then a soprano sax (super high). I fancied that with a silver saxophone I would cut a dashing figure in a black roll-necked sweater and beret. With the instrument came a little container of a kind of grease. I smeared this on my lips which were mildly chafed from the saxophone reed, and promptly broke out in a rash. I then supposed that it might be used on the fingers for speed. As this tended to cause me to drop the instrument, I put the grease away for some months. When the cork on the neck of the instrument began to wear and crumble, it occurred to me that there ought to be some sort of lubricant for it. There are a number of good reasons for having a teacher!
TALE OF A TEACHER
I turn up for lessons with a nice man who seems pleased with the progress I have made. He is quite excitable, and talks a lot – about boys and girls growing up, and not staying young forever. He needs to pick up a clarinet case, and reaches between my legs in a merry manner. I don't find it amusing or threatening, just a little odd (the tailor also seemed vaguely odd in the same way).
After only a few lessons, he recommends me to someone else, and I leave without following up any other teacher. Thirty years later I find his picture in a local paper. Apparently he visits old folk in nursing homes, and the tenor of the article is laudatory. A few years later, he is in the paper again, having suicided spectacularly from a city building, after a court case involving his relationships with boys, about which he has written a book.
PUB TO CLUB TO OPERA HOUSE
For many years, I gave little thought to Maxwell of Norwich. I mentioned him to people, who were intrigued, yet I never took up any offer to attempt again to make such a contact. I felt that I was probably, almost certainly in fact, not the medium through which communication was made. I was also much absorbed in the here and now of establishing myself and making a living. I was alternating club work with playing in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. It was always interesting to open the respective instrument case, and inhale deeply. In the case of the bassoon (so to speak), there was a fine aroma of lacquered wood, shellac and kid leather. When I opened up the saxophone case, however, the first inhalation brought a whiff of stale clubland, with its mix of beer fumes, cigarette smoke cheap perfume and something that suggested poker machines.
One night I was playing in Whisky Au Go Go and it suddenly came to me that this was music for the waist down. And of course, in the Orchestra, the music was generally designed for the waist up. And certainly, the aspirations of orchestral music are usually noble, to such an extent that such unfashionable motives are now deemed passe by many. Playing a performance of the Bach B minor Mass in St. James Church near Hyde Park Sydney, we took a breather at interval. Across the road a band was moving gear into a basement gig. They looked at us in our tails, cummerbunds and high collars, and we looked at them in their striped flairs, high-heeled boots, decorated belts and paisley shirts – also a small collection of leather and silver adornment and jewelery inscribed with cabbalistic and astrological symbolism. "You anachronism, man" they cried scornfully.
I had started playing in the Sydney Elizabethan Orchestra, now the Sydney Opera House Orchestra and was busy learning a vast amount of material in a short time. The world of the Orchestra was a kind of time warp of its own. From the moment one leaves the bright light of day behind, one is in a highly contrived world of fantasy. The light is a powerful influence in creating mood, the sets are extraordinary, operatic voices are pure magic, and ballet bodies re-define space and gravity. Then, as the music starts, magic begins.
The orchestra is a mighty beast. Hundreds of years of development lie behind each and every instrument. The blend of timbre and sonority has been refined and perfected generation to generation, and we now accept this sound as a birthright. Even those who never listen to orchestral music are thoroughly familiar with the texture, feel and sound through exposure to a hundred years of recording film and the like. Even much popular music is firmly based in the art music developed so thoroughly, and with such painstaking care, over centuries. To hear this beast from the inside is an intoxicating experience. Sound is vibration, and as the instruments blend, the vibration locks into place in a sensation which is aural, physical and quite intoxicating. This sensation is not confined to orchestras of course, and may be heard at a relatively simple level.
The general understanding is that, as the complexity of the instrumentation increases, the possibilities for more and more sophisticated expression increases dramatically. As a film medium, it is hard to see it being surpassed. In a digital age, it is hard to grasp the amount of skill dedication and teamwork required by a hundred players to realise the expression of a major score. With a background in bands, it was with a sense of wonder that I sat amongst assorted woodwinds strings percussion and harp for the Puccini Opera, Turandot, the story of an oriental Princess.
From the moment I heard the clarinets and harp in a perfect conjunction, I knew I was hooked. No one instrument predominated. The harp's twang gave a magical impetus to the start of the clarinet note, which then cascaded softly in a manner impossible for the harp alone. This was alchemy, the musical ingredients combining in a manner totally different from their individual natures. Many conductors will ask for a blended sound where it is impossible to say what the individual instruments are. For example, with a flute and oboe jointly playing a melody, he may ask for a "floboe" sound.
In all the years I have played in Orchestras, I have never attempted the Max sessions" with colleagues. In general, they have tended to be healthily sceptical, whilst those who are not have veered wildly to the "lunatic fringe". Most, as with other friends, have listened with respect and interest to my experiences. Possibly, I did not feel that I would be able to provide the "psychic power" for such a session, nor did I happen across anyone who I thought would do that job. I took up my position in the Sydney Opera Orchestra, and living in St.Ives, I would make the trip in through the leafy Northern Suburbs to the Opera House, newly opened. Occasionally, driving past a patch of woodland, I would see the distinctive car of a flutist colleague, a well-known naturist, and would suspect the teddy-bears might have company on their picnic. The Opera House seemed to be the focal point of the Harbor. The Harbor was the focal point of Sydney, and Sydney the focal point of Australia.
We are excited, as the great project nears completion. Some of us have already played in the opening concerts in the Opera House Hall, and now the Opera Theater itself is almost ready. What's this? The back row of woodwind is sitting in front of a considerable drop to the backstage machinery, protected by a floor strip and a looped rope. After some rehearsals, a wall is installed. Now we almost pass out from lack of oxygen and stifling heat. It seems that the players' pit is one of the main exhaust systems for the theater.
There is competition to sit near the corners of the wall where a small gap allows a breath of refreshing cool air containing a life-supporting ratio of oxygen. We discover that the large safety doors open inwards. There would be no hope of getting out in an emergency. We are told that it is considered that the main danger of fire is in the backstage machinery, in which case the pit is the escape route for the technicians. The pit is not as large as had been hoped, and we are limited to two hard-working double basses, a highly disappointing situation for those of us used particularly to the European Orchestras where the basses often seem to lead a mighty charge with a roar like a lion.
Even the vigour of the strings' bowing style is challenged for reasons of safety. We begin an incredibly protracted process of evolution toward a larger, safer pit, more in keeping with Utzon's original design, which had the Opera under the other sail, where the Symphony Concerts have now taken over.
Some of us even investigate the stairwell that leads to a blank wall. Could this rank with the mysteries of the pyramids in future millennia? Quite possibly, for there is an undeniable air of religiosity about the Symphony concert as we know it. There is a strict protocol, and an almost unvarying form. There is the hierarchy of priests and attendants in the conductor, soloist, players, ushers, attendants, ticket sellers and publicists. The ritual performance is offered to the audience who pay obeisance with silence, attention and applause. Apropos of which, please read on-a short piece which I penned some time ago.
A MAGIC MOMENT
You may have noticed it. I'm sure you have. Others too. But no-one has ever, ever mentioned it. At least, not to me. You don't know what I'm talking about, do you? I'm talking about a super-charged moment that blows the collective energy of two thousand souls. It happens quite often at a Symphony Concert….now you're wondering.
Let's reprise a Symphony Concert- I know pretty much what to expect – the drive, the parking, the ticketing, all done in a pleasant haze of anticipation. Faces familiar through the years, beaming their own brand of musical possession. Literary types, searching for literal truths in the music, Central Europeans, drinking deeply from the well of Cultural Inheritance, earnest students, and critics of every hue sharpening their pencils to dagger points. We've really shared some wonderful moments, all these people and I. And most of us have slept together at some time or other. Sometimes my last conscious thought has been "What a wonderful performance!", only to find my next conscious thought being "Good Heavens! is that really the time?" I don't think it happens at Stadium shows. It would be almost impossible at that volume anyway.
And no, it's not the sleep of boredom, no matter what some might think. I think it really is another form of hypnotism…or meditation. Or maybe, both. Mozart's particularly bad. And there are plenty of others of course. But it's that moment when the brain stops talking, and the little voice in the head is stilled, and the magic of the harmony is rearranging neurones and synapses. At that moment we're completely at the mercy of the music. We no longer know where we are or what we are doing. We just are. And we are the music. Is that the super-charged moment? No, that's not it. Of course, there are many wonderful moments. I love the tuning up, when the Orchestra changes from a medieval machine clanking and whirring in various keys, to a sleek engine purring and humming its way into gear. The moment of anticipation as the conductor raises his baton... A Fascist, some say? Are they mad? Elitist? Oh dear! Ah yes, I think I see where they're coming from. Yes, it certainly does seem a widely held view now. How sad! I've noticed that villains in American films of late tend to speak beautifully, and are often English. They also have a nasty habit of listening to classical music, while their innocent children revert to rock whenever possible. Could it possibly be a case of commercial forces pandering to popular taste...no, I don't think so either. The point? This strange moment I mentioned? Yes, I suppose I should get on with it.
It happens when there is a female performer, let's say a singer, and of course, a male conductor. Well, they're just about all male. Yes, well, there are some ladies working at con…… Okay, yes, well, it is happening. As I say, the lady sings… Yes, the fat lady, perhaps, perhaps not! She sings, he waves, the Orchestra plays, the audience listens and everyone is moved, everyone is happy. They applaud – on and on it goes. Waves of clapping volley round the hall. The applause builds and builds. It fills the air like a thick mist. Something now must be done in this static drama. Conductor turns to singer. Singer turns to conductor. Toward each other they move. The distance between them narrows. Chins tip upward as they close in. Then, it happens! All eyes have now locked onto this improbable pairing. There can be no hint of passion. Physically exhausted and mentally spent, they look somewhat gross, florid and sweating from their performing duties. A hand's breadth apart, the kiss is now irrevocable, and the applause absolutely dies. I swear it! As their lips touch, there is absolute silence and you would swear we were at the eye of the mother of all hurricanes. Suddenly, they are in retreat, and the power is back on. Life resumes and once again we are swimming in a sea of sound. Where did all that energy go? What on Earth were we thinking? And how strange no-one has ever mentioned it. Until now!
It is early afternoon and I am alone at the front gate. I lean on it, watching the fluffy clouds drifting by. Where my brothers and sister are I do not know. But I, the responsible oldest, am here by myself, as I often seem to be, alone with my thoughts. There is an unseen ban on staying in the house, and at the back I feel I may be asked to do some painting or wood-stacking, which I'd rather not at the moment. I'd rather watch the endless march of the ants and the parade of the fluffy white clouds and rest my chin on the metal gate, sucking the metal for the sharp sweet taste sensation.
What thoughts might a child of seven be having at such a time? Again, I'll tell you, because I want to. I can tell you exactly what thoughts were. I wonder if I am having a happy childhood. I read about happy childhoods in books. The pictures are of smiling, red-cheeked children with large happy smiles. I don't think I am one of those. They all look a bit girlish anyway. How would I know if I am having a happy childhood? Would I be aware of it at all? Perhaps not. Perhaps it is in the nature of happiness that we are unaware of it at the time. What should I be happy about? I am not mistreated. I know that I think I have wonderful parents who love me and whom I love – but doesn't everybody have that? Should I ask myself if I am unhappy? Am I unhappy? Certainly not! What would I like to change? I wish I didn't have to run the gauntlet of bullies from the State School on the way home. I wish I didn't have such messy handwriting with so little character or style. I would like my sister Anne to be cured of her bronchitis. I don't like getting the strap at school. But these things don't upset me too much and they don't make me unhappy. Is not being unhappy the same as being happy then? I think it might be. Now I think I'll go down to the back lane and see if I can find some harlequin bugs.
Now I am twenty-five. We talk to Maxwell through the Ouija Board many times, but tend to ease off around Christmas. He says "Would you like to know what Christmas was like in my time"
Of course we are interested, but it is only what you would expect. It is a religious festival, albeit a joyous one, with feasting of modest proportions. Fruits and nuts are delicacies, and the main decoration seems to be hanging colored strips of cloth, with a preponderance of purple, in the doorways. After all, this was the fourteenth century.
What an exciting time it is for a ten-year-old. Can anything beat the thrill of the countdown, the joy of unwrapping the presents, the festivities and family fun? There are the little knick-knacks that turn up from God-knows-where, the gifts from relatives, and the big ticket items from the Man in Red himself. However, I have been hearing disturbing rumors concerning this person's true identity, but have been ignoring them in favor of the party line currently peddled by my parents.
These older children, however, cynical though they sound, are the sort who do seem to know something. The one thing we have been hoping for, against all advice, is a bicycle. We have been warned of the danger, our youth and inexperience, the expense, and every other factor conceivable, but on the great day…there they are. Two gleaming bicycles are waiting for Brian and me. Naturally we are overjoyed! But as I look at this miracle, I am again assailed by doubt. How dreadful, I think, if this is provided by my parents, to credit someone else; and a someone else who may not even exist! I decide to look at my mother's face. I know immediately that there is no Father Christmas…but I sure have wonderful parents. I discover half a century later that my father rode many miles one-handed on one bike, guiding the other with the free hand, to deliver them on Christmas Eve.
Christmas a year earlier and we all return from Midnight Mass ready for the morning. It's hard to get to sleep but it eventually happens. Light – it's morning. It's the Great day. But what's this…no presents! Yet we can hear sounds of joy from the neighbours as new toys and games are rolled out. I run in to Mum and Dad. "Mum, Dad, Father Christmas hasn't been".
As I rush into the room, I am astonished. My parents are asleep on top of the bed, with all their clothes on. This has never happened before. They seem very perturbed. "He's just running late"
"No, we can hear that the kids next door have got their presents."
"He's just going round the block in a different direction. You must go back to bed, and you must be asleep or he won't come. If he even thinks you're peeking he'll go away"
Back to bed, eyes tightly shut – is that a rustle or a swish. Must close eyes. How long has it been? Can I look? I peep, and see...presents! He has done a poor job…presents are strewn haphazardly round the room and only a couple have made it in to pillow slips. Nevertheless, we are relieved and overjoyed.
Brian says "Guess what?"
"I saw his coat tail just going up the chimney"
I am just about to say "Me too" but can't manage it. Brian has all the luck.
I am now a middle-aged man. Margaret says to me "Adelaide says she would love to have the presents out tonight, Christmas Eve, under the tree. What do you think.”
"Well, it seems a bit bald. I know she's a big girl now at thirteen, but I thought we might go on with the Christmas game for a bit longer."
We place the presents under the tree, and before long, Adelaide investigates. Then there is a heartfelt sobbing. "But these are the real presents. I only meant the little extras from friends and relatives, to make it all look more Christmassy".
We are mortified. "But Adelaide, I thought you were a big girl now…"
"Oh yes, I know all that. But I just love everything about Christmas, the lights, the stories, the papers and tinsel."
Adelaide cries and her miserable parents wonder how to turn back the clock.
"Adelaide, we've never been to that street where all the houses are done up in Christmas scenes…how would you like to come with us?"
Leaping out of bed, "Oh yes!…but you're not just saying that are you?"
"Oh no…truly, it's one thing we've always wanted to do, and have never had the time". Many thanks to the residents of the Boulevard, Ivanhoe.
Midnight Mass at the Church a couple of years later, and Margaret and I are playing the Bach Double violin concerto to enhance the service. Up in the choir loft the music soars out through the vaulted space, the timeless counterpoint of Bach working its magic yet again. Margaret's violin and my flute take turns to climb progressively closer to Heaven, while down below an assortment of families at various ages and stages squirms and wriggles in the warm night air. The young adults are in party gear ready to move on, their religious duty done. Adelaide and Dominic greet us after the service. "Well done" says Dominic with a smile. "Yes" says Adelaide. "We think that you and Mum are the only people in the Church who have had a Religious experience."
One Saturday night when I was thirty, not long after the Sydney Opera House curtain rose, the Operetta was disturbed by voices raised in the audience. The polls had only just closed on a contentious election (aren't they all?). Someone was shouting one of the election slogans "Turn on the lights". Others, offended at this affront to decorum cried wittily "Shut Up”, “Get stuffed” and “you're a disgrace”.
The noise escalated until it was realised that a patron had died, and the lights were indeed turned on. After the gentlemen was attended to, the chastened audience settled again to watch the show, which was re-started. The name of the Operetta? It was The Merry Widow.
A NASTY TURN
The bassoon is a double reed instrument, the reed being fashioned from a sliver of bamboo-like grass called Arunda Donax, grown commonly in Southern France. Other reed instruments also use this material. Is someone coming round tonight to join us in a session? I'm not sure. But I have to make a reed for tomorrow. It's urgent!
Reeds are the soul of the instrument, and whereas the saxophonist and clarinettist generally choose from a box of prepared reeds, the oboe player and the bassoonist often make their own reed – a lengthy and tedious process which has changed very little in centuries. It is not uncommon to waste hours of work with one small miscalculation – a slip of the knife, a slight crack in the cane, an over-tightening of the binding wire. Here I am, late at night, lights dimmed and working by candlelight to melt shellac onto the reed head, drawing copper wires taut, using Dutch rush to file the blade of the reed. Voices in the background I ignore. This is delicate. I frown and concentrate. Light floods the room – someone screams – I shout. We all laugh. It is my guests.
Not knowing quite what to expect, and being a little keyed up they have opened the door on a diabolical medieval scene – an evil face over a candle flame performing an arcane ritual. Apparently I look a lot better with all the lights on. I'll just have to cadge a reed from my rival in the morning.
The Life Orchestral is a strange mixture of Show Business and High Art. Tremendous dedication and discipline have to be observed to achieve and maintain a position. Then, a routine of preparation and playing sees one rehearsing often at office hours, only to switch to evening performance mode the following week. Great concentration and nervous energy are sustained, usually between the hours of eight and eleven. Naturally, many performances have to be on the weekend when concert-goers are available. Consequently, quite a deal of one's leisure time is around midnight or mid-week. This works well for golf course availability and relaxed convivial socialisation (otherwise known as drinking)...but not so well for family routine. On the other hand, the touring routine strikes an excellent balance between professional and social life.
POWERFUL PLACES I am touring with the Opera Orchestra in Tasmania, and find the place intriguing. We have driven South for a picnic, and I am not sure where we are going. It is very green, and the air is fresh, but eerily still. We arrive at some ancient (for Australia) buildings in a gentle landscape by the sea. It is charming in an odd way, but I feel out of place and out of time. I am told the place is called Port Arthur. There is a ghost town of old convict buildings of crumbling sandstone. A chill creeps over me as we explore. We go a little further, and I am shown a beautiful view. There is something absolutely primeval about this vista of benign sea, offshore island and drifting cloud. There is hardly any life about, animal or human. I am shown, behind me, some trenches. It is a system of cells, below the surface of the earth.
These were the solitary confinement cells, where light was excluded, from the convict days. The cruelty and inhumanity of it is overwhelming. It is my duty to think for a moment of the poor wretches who were here. But I can't take much at all. I find over many years that I am far from alone in never wanting to visit Port Arthur again. P.S. Sadly, this place is now even more notorious as the scene of Australia's most infamous massacre.
I am touring with the Opera Orchestra in Adelaide, not far from the Barossa Valley, home of many great Australian wines and I have been invited by Czech friend to attend a party in the Adelaide suburbs. After our performance, we make our way to a sleepy, quiet, dark suburb. It is so quiet that we speak in hushed voices as our shoes crunch the gravel. What sort of party could this be? I wonder as we round the back corner of the house. There is a large barn-like structure at the rear of the house. Maybe the party is in here, as the house is so dark. We tip-toe through the barn, and I hear faint noises, like a radio broadcast of party scene in a play, with the volume right down. My friend knocks on the floor. It is a massive trapdoor, which promptly rises, flooding the night air with a blast of "instant party".
There are glasses clinking, a piano playing and a constant barrage of banter and chat. It is warm and cosy, and as we descend the rugged stairs, we find ourselves in a large underground space – a cellar stacked with walls of barrels of all sizes, shapes and colours. Also bottles, flagons, flasks and every imaginable device for containing alcohol. There are tables, fridges and chairs and a piano being played by someone from the Opera company.
Rudi had arrived in Australia some forty years earlier, and had been amazed to find the bounty available to a man of taste. He admitted to hoarding and was now keen to assuage his guilt by sharing it with appreciative folk. And for this surreal and memorable taste treat we are truly grateful.
I am playing a concert for the International Society for Contemporary Music, and we are in a voguish performance space, the Old Darlinghurst Jail in inner Sydney, a splendid space of Church-like proportions with a loft ceiling well-suited to acoustic experimentation. During a rest in the performance, my gaze goes over the walls…so many red bricks, unrelieved by any ornamentation. Wait on…what are those marks on the walls? They seem to be at regular intervals, and there is a whole row of them. And there are some more, but they are higher up, and I see another line of them higher up still. I suddenly realise that these are chain anchors, or flooring pegs for several floors of prison cells, and that this noble space was actually a warren of tiny cells. Am I a coward? Another building I've never returned to.
A SENSE OF PLACE
Margaret and I like to drive in the country…for any reason at all. We don't hike or camp; we like our comforts. We travel in an air-conditioned car in pleasant weather. The flies are outside and we are inside – we like to drive in the country. Sometimes I am doing music examining, assessing a long procession of children on various woodwind instruments. They are accompanied on pianos in various states of repair, played by matching accompanists. While I am engaged in this pursuit, Margaret researches the town and its restaurants lest I expire from hunger.
Victoria is a good state to travel, as travel distances are not too great, and there is a variety of terrain. One of the most beautiful places is near Lakes Entrance, on Australia's South-East corner. In the hills up above the town, we left the car to walk in the forest. The sun cast mottled light through thin, straight eucalypti and the breeze sweeping up from the estuary below was balmy. The water below us swept away, with many sandy spits and pebbled beaches. Animals moved through the brush not too far away…probably wallabies. Lorikeets flashed overhead in a brilliant display, and there was evidence too of wombats and other marsupials. What a beautiful place, and how bounteous it must have been – watered countryside full of game sloping down to a vast fishing paradise. I felt suddenly like one of the trees, and as I did, seemed to see tall thin ghostly shapes drifting through the trees.
Some minutes later, Margaret spoke. "Do you feel something here?"
"Maybe. Like what?"
I sure did. In fact, they were not so far away. We were not aware that on the other side of Lakes Entrance was Lake Tyers, an aboriginal settlement. This area had indeed been a tribal meeting place, and for good reason. It was a blessed and fertile area, and had been frequented for hundreds and probably thousands of years by the local tribespeople. As has so often been the case, the richest land was the land which they lost first. If the aborigines are seen largely as a desert people, this is because they were able to survive there on land which no-one wanted. Old photos from various parts of Australia show a great deal of local variation in the aboriginal population, and one felt that the people who roamed the slopes of Nungerner above Lakes Entrance were a particularly well-fed and contented lot. There are other places in Victoria which repay quiet contemplation and evoke a similar sense of mystery.
Going through my Mother's photos with her recently (at age ninety), I found a strange black and white from 1944. Shy aborigines are clustered on a jetty in front of a tin shed. They are looking at the camera steadily. There is no posing or larking about, no resentment or “attitude”. I have never seen anything like them in Victoria. Mum said she met and talked to them on her honeymoon, at Lake Tyers.
While performing children's concerts at schools in the Gippsland area some twenty years ago, I asked if Lake Tyers had been contacted. No, was the answer, but I was free to do so. I did, and arranged a show with an elder who was courteous and appreciative. “I don't know if you realise what it's like here” he said.”It can be sad.”
I understood that poverty, disease, neglect and alcohol had had their usual effect, like that in old-style American reservations. “If you're happy to sing and have a good time, we will all enjoy ourselves” I told him.
When the time came close, I contacted them again. A younger woman answered. “No, he's gone and I'm in charge. We don't want no whitefella music here. And we're not gunna send our kids to whitefella schools till we get a Koori curriculum.” (Koori is the name used by Aborigines of South Eastern Australia).
“Certainly, I don't want to push in where we are not wanted. But I think it's a shame all the same. Goodbye.”
Performing children's concerts in the Lakes Entrance area some time later, I was a little surprised to find audience members keen to film the proceedings. Most of these people were Koori, and their children were happily attending local schools. They were assimilating general culture and technology quite happily and did not seem to be concerned about “whitefella music”. I wondered if they were the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Mum's jetty-pic from the War Years.
FORTUNE-TELLERS AND GRANDFATHERS
in my 30s The children are asleep, and I am pleased that I have managed to get them off. I am home tonight, and Margaret is playing at the Opera. We share most of the tasks, but whichever of us arrives home from a full day's work always suggests to the other "You take a break. I'll take over for a while". I go to kiss them good night. Adelaide, three, is in a graceful pose as usual, and her skin smells like caramel. Dominic, one and a half, is sprawled over the greatest possible area, and smells of peanuts. I have never been able to draw, but I want to draw Adelaide. To my surprise, it seems rather good, and over the next couple of years, I produce confident and pleasing work before my interest and talent seem to wane.
In my 40s Adelaide, now aged seven, has told us that she sees colours round people and describes the glow she sees, particularly around her grandmothers. I wonder if she has a gift as many people seem to do, but I am certain that I am not going to introduce any spirit body where there are children present.
In my 20s. Another friend had confided in me that she had had some sort of vision. In her case, it was childhood experiences at home in Preston, England. Her experience was that of constantly arriving in new towns where she knew the layout of the shops and buildings prior to seeing them. She could do this easily in most towns in her area. However, after arriving in Australia, she never had this experience again.
Gradually, I realised that a great many people have had experiences which seem to involve the spirit world. Many of these are extremely matter-of-fact, and were told to me in a rather diffident way, which I recognised as being due to fear of derision. Nevertheless, I found myself playing the sceptic. In some ways, this was because the subject is potentially so important that I didn't want to believe for the sake of my own comfort. The notions of death, immortality, reincarnation are terrifying when considered at length and are not comfortable subjects. I found that some of the experiences of others did not resonate with me at all, and find it hard to understand what I am to make of my own experiences.
Some quote teachers who seem to know the secrets of life, and of how our existence is ordered. I don't believe they can have acquired such knowledge from a conventional religion, nor do I believe in the notion of revelation, which has been such a disastrous doctrine for so many. The Stevie Wonder Song from the Album "Songs In The Key Of Life" is succinct….. "We can't trust you when you take a stand With a gun and bible in your hand". Some of these leaders and teachers are earnest types, and others seem to have a psychic gift of some sort.
RETURN OF THE TALL MAN
In my 40s I wake up feeling content. I have had a dream - a satisfying dream. I met my grandfather…no! wait on! Not my grandfather, but a grandfather. Perhaps a quintessential grandfather, kind, bluff, jovial, concerned for me. And we had such a good talk. Oh, we decided a number of things, and it was all so amicable and sensible. Now, what exactly did we talk about? That's funny. I can't quite remember. I'll think, and think, but no, it just won't come. But the good feeling and the contentment remain.
Some hours later, I am walking up a pleasant cottage garden in a hillside property in the foothills of the Dandenongs outside Melbourne. I have a tape, for recording the session, and an envelope with money. The seer is an elderly, dignified man who gets going quickly. No cards, crystal ball, handwriting or props. He looks at and around my face and head. He sees simple things, but quite specific. He sees a large bowl with red jelly. I like to make jelly for the children, and to me red is the only colour. I find it fascinating. I make it in a very large metal dish so that it cools quickly. Margaret is wary of the red colouring agent and generally would avoid that colour. He sees me playing a flute through my nose. Not likely, I think, or even possible.
In years to come, while entertaining children, I run through my arsenal of woodwind instruments. I begin with the simplest woodwind, the much-maligned recorder, and perform a routine with the various sizes of recorder. I begin with the tiny sopranino and by the time I get to the large tenor recorder, I want to make the point that the recorder does not need great breath pressure (much of the distressing sound of some class recorder ensembles is due to over-blowing). I say "When I played the tenor recorder, I took special recorder lessons from the President of the United States"(amusement and bemusement). He said "Watch my lips" (adult smiles and children's attention). I then blow the recorder with my lips not even touching the instrument. This creates a stir. "When I saw how easy it was to play the recorder, I looked for new and interesting ways to do it". Here, I go into a spin, emerging into view playing "Greensleeves" with breath force provided through a nostril (high amusement and mock horror). "And does anyone know the name of that tune?" I ask, wiping the mouthpiece on my sleeve (general amusement from older children, whilst for the younger I blow the recorder's nose before putting it to bed). I do this several times before remembering Dennis' prediction.
To me, a flute is a flute, and a recorder a recorder. But in fact the terms are and have been for centuries largely interchangeable. He tells me that he sees a tall man, with a long, cup-shaped face, rather like my own apparently. Is it my father or my grandfather? My father is still with us I am pleased to tell him. Could it be my grandfather? Well yes, I suppose it could. Is his name Clarence or Clarrie? No. Could it be his middle name? No. Dennis is insistent on this. I feel a little disappointed. Clarrie is not a name I have ever had much to do with let alone finding it in the family.
Dennis pursues this tack, his head slightly averted as if listening to something off stage. He concentrates on the sound of the word he is hearing It sounds like Clarrie or could it be "clarinet". Did my grandfather want me to play the clarinet? Well, yes. He deplored the saxophone as a modern instrument, and preferred that I take up the clarinet, which had a classical provenance.
"But look" I say. "Do you think my grandfather is really here, or do you think I am projecting him from my energy field?"
"Oh I certainly think he is here" says Dennis. "He obviously has an interest in you, and in fact you would have a relationship with him where you meet and discuss matters. In your deep sleep, your astral body rises up out of you and sits just above your chest. In this state you can make contact with him, and together you discuss things. You will make decisions and plot moves for the future. Of course you cannot remember this experience, but at some level you try to. Your subconscious mind will try to create a dream out of it to try to rationalize the experience, but has to use symbolism to tell its story. Oh yes, he's definitely there, and has your interests at heart, so I would listen to him. In fact there are others who want to help you. Who had beetling brows? You helped him and he wants to help you. Could it be David?"
My father-in-law was David, with extremely bushy eyebrows, and we nursed him over his last couple of years.
"Well, he wants to help you get organised. That's how he would like to help you. And who was Alan?"
"Well, Alan is here too, and he says, 'Gosh, I shot over here like a rocket. One moment I was there, and whoosh, I was over'."
Auntie Jean had said, "I'll make you a cup of tea" and Alan had replied "Right-ho" and sat down, never to move again.
"You, or one of your siblings will travel overseas soon. Do you have plans?"
"No, I don't."
"Well, one of you does."
"I think not, actually."
"Well" says Dennis, "that's not what I'm told. One of you will travel, and I would say, in the next couple of months."
I am interested that he sticks to his point in the face of what is almost flat contradiction. But I simply don't know of any such plan. We move right along, but about five minutes later, I remember that my sister is travelling to Hong Kong in a couple of weeks' time. I hasten to tell Dennis, but he does not register any surprise or gratification, as he is involved in receiving messages, which seem to be images or words.
Dennis tells me "I find you are writing a National Anthem." I have to agree. I had recently written just such a poem. To be sung to the tune of "Waltzing Matilda" verse then chorus, it read… "Southern Cross Above us, cradled in the ocean deep This is the Great South Land of our birth, From its rivers soil and Forest we all take our nourishment Building our lives on Australian earth. Long live Australia Let us not fail her All of her children warmed by her sun Let us work for the future generations yet unborn We, many people united as one. Of course, this anthem is both a truly traditional Australian tune as well as being musically very well constructed, if a little "rangy" for most singers.
At the end of the reading Dennis handed me an audio tape of the proceedings, which I listened to later and passed around. I was a little surprised that my responses were so unhelpful and passive. It seemed obvious that I was not going to assist or prompt in any way, and that anything he said to me would be all his own work. He hadn't asked anything about me at all, just my name. He didn't know what I did or anything to do with my situation. There was also a good deal of personal information of various kinds, and I decided to simply put it away after a week and not think about it.
This I did. Reaction amongst friends and family varied from scepticism to guarded acceptance. My sister was somewhat perturbed when, on visiting Dennis, he announced that he could not read her beyond the year 2002. She was extremely relieved when this year passed. Again, it seemed, Dennis had stuck to delivering a direct message, and calling it just as it came to him. I feel that in a similar situation I might be tempted to dress the message comfortingly. I was interested that some people who might be thought to have religious objections were very open-minded.
A LETTER TO GRAND-DAD
in my teens It is Sunday morning, and my fifteen year-old self is sitting in the classroom, at my desk, where we do our supervised letter-writing. I have finished my letter to Mum and Dad, with its recall of the week's activity – the sport triumphs, the academic news and the religious feasts celebrated with picnics and ritual. I am re-reading Mum's last letter, in which she expresses concern for her father, who lives with us. She warns me that Grand-Dad is not likely to make it through the Winter. This of course, means that he may die anytime, and his soul will be judged.
There are only two options – Heaven or Hell. I try to imagine Grand-Dad in Heaven and I can't manage it. He doesn't seem to have the right outlook. He is a man who takes himself seriously and has strong opinions which he loves to share. I have never seen a trace of religious sentiment from him, and although of Irish extraction and nominally Catholic, he is a well-known "priest-hater". If he has ever been to Confession, to free himself of sin, it must have been over forty years ago. I have to face it – he seems destined for Hell! And how can I enjoy Eternity in Heaven in the knowledge that my own Grandfather is enduring eternal punishment in hell? If only he would go to Confession! Should I, his fifteen year-old grandson, encourage him to confess? What effrontery! But balanced against the awful alternative, what choice?
So I manfully took out my pen and wrote. "Dear Grand-dad, well, I suppose you have had a pretty good innings, which you would be pleased about. But, like all good innings, it must come to an end some day, and then you will go to heaven no doubt. I am sorry for all those people who don't have the chance to go to Mass and Confession so their souls are ready for death, which comes as we are told "like a thief in the night"…and "we know not the hour". I know you haven't been to confession for a while but I hope you will be going soon so we will all be together in Heaven one day. I was thinking of you when we were listening to the Opera in a class yesterday. It was Sicilian Vespers and I wondered if it was one of the operas you used to see…(etc.) Your Loving Grandson Paul."
Grand-Dad survived the Winter and died the next year. He spent many nights sitting up in his chair afraid to sleep lest he never woke. When he did die, it was in terror and it proved impossible to compose his face after death. A veteran of the First World War, he died of breathing complication brought on by Mustard gassing in the trenches. Although he enjoyed a party, he had a mordant view of humanity and by way of explanation would only say "I know men". He returned, wounded, from the trenches in the Somme, only to return to the action in a few months' time. He wrote many letters for fellow soldiers who could not write and claimed that he was thereby responsible for some successful unions. How strange that Adelaide, almost a century later, while dancing at the Moulin Rouge in Paris, should tell us that she had been approached by two of her Australian colleagues to help them write letters home.
When clearing up her parents' effects, my mother found letters to her mother, in beautiful and poetic language. She was most embarrassed to find this correspondence from her mother's lover – until she realized it was from her father. She certainly never heard him use this language in life. When I told my mother of the message from the tall man ("please tell everyone that I love them though I could never bring myself to say so") when I visited the Scottish lady seer, she simply said "It's Dad". Grand-Dad never spoke of the War until the very end.
He spoke on three successive evenings to my Aunt. On the first evening, she was horrified to see the change come over his face as he spoke. She said that his face simply became the Mask of Tragedy. On the second night he was more composed, but on the third night, as he described the mud, it happened again, and he asked my Aunt to leave off the questioning, as the nightmares were starting up again. He said that they agreed never to "tell the women" just what it was like and if you wanted to know more, just read "All Quiet On the Western Front".
Grand-Dad was very sick, and was mostly bed-ridden with an oxygen tank by the bed. Occasionally he would get his pills mixed up or have a bad reaction, so that my mother found him running naked around the back-yard on a freezing June morning thinking he was on a spree with Yuri Gagarin.
As the years passed, the thought of my letter to Grand-Dad caused me some embarrassment until finally, after forty years or so, I asked my mother "Mum, did Grand-Dad ever get a letter from me at boarding-school?" "Oh Yes, he certainly did". "Oh - what did he think". "He thought it was just tremendous…he roared with laughter, and whenever anyone called in or came to visit, he would say 'Come and see the letter my grandson wrote me.'"
I had shared a room briefly with Grand-Dad and my two brothers some years earlier. My parents had taken them in to care for them, and the flat at the back was not quite finished. My brothers slept, but I listened with gritted teeth as Grand-dad struggled to draw breath, finally achieving a lungful in four or five laborious steps, only to exhale with a groan, and re-start the process...all a consequence of that mustard gas in World War 1. He would tell us stories of his travels, and generally they were the sights and sounds of the journey, though, as I have mentioned, he never spoke about war.
“In Colombo” he said "I went for a rickshaw ride. They are carts pulled by coolies. Well, there I was, with the chap off at a jog, and I looked up and saw Tommy in the cart next to me. A race, I thought! Giddyap, I shouted, and you know, that chap stopped in his tracks, lay down the traces, and said to me 'Master, I am only a man and not a horse'.
Well, I can tell you, I felt about as big as threepence. In Africa, we stopped by a river to wash our clothes. Any chance we got, we would wash to get rid of the lice. Suddenly, around the bend of the river came these enormous war canoes, loaded with savages, magnificent fighting men. And now we're arming them to the teeth with modern weapons – it can only be a disaster."
And Grand-dad would often say "Mark my words, the Hun will rise again. We should have dropped a bomb on every German city while we had the chance." So, on reflection, Grand-dad was probably a man of his time. If you had called him a racist he would have been quite puzzled. Of course he was. We all were. It is strange to think that he was born in the Colony of Victoria in 1888.
A counterbalance to Grand-Dad's views was the experience of my Father-In-Law who was shot down from a Lancaster after a bombing raid on Hamburg, or to be more precise, the synthetic oil plant at Leuna. He was a prisoner-of-war of the Luftwaffe, and took comfort from the fact that he was in Weimar where he knew that Bach had lived. Whilst in hospital, he felt that he was well and courteously treated, though his weight dropped alarmingly. He had been earlier allowed, in London, to make a recording to send home, and this is a sombre tape, in which you can hear a presentiment of doom.
The chance of death was high, and many who lived did not survive their own demons. "Does it hurt?" the German doctor asked him, concerning his shrapnel-riddled leg.
Wishing to reply in German, and not wanting to make a fuss (he was English) he replied "Eine Kleine" (derived from Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Mozart, generally rendered in English as "A Little Night Music"). This sounded quaint and charming of course, and the German staff were highly amused. Although he was "missing in action" for six months, the letters that eventually arrived home asked my Mother-In-Law to make sure that no-one was to blame or think ill of the German people from whom he had received much kindness. His leg was due to be amputated as the Allies were arriving, and he begged them to stay the saw until the takeover where he might have a second opinion in London. And that's exactly what happened. In his tape, David also made an interesting Religious observation. He wanted the Jesus of his children's lives to be Jesus, the Friend of Little Children, and to have a card picture of him so that he was a real person to them. I have heard of worse approaches.
VALUES in my 20s We are wondering what Maxwell's world-view is concerning religion. He has spoken previously in terms that indicate a late medieval sensibility, but now he seems to have a different outlook. Has our secular age triumphed over belief? He is aware of the tragedies perpetrated in the name of religion, and deplores the hierarchies of established religion but is not prepared to condemn religion. He feels that the impulse for a moral order and for the acknowledgment of a higher power is a good thing, and that we should be working towards a unified view. We are a little surprised, but his final say is that with all their faults, these religious systems are still a force for good, and that we should be trying to reform them rather than dismiss them.
TIME WATCH DREAM in my 50s
Along a well-made country road canters a team of two horses, pulling a fashionable trap driven by me. The seats are upholstered and sprung, and the ride is most enjoyable. The leather accoutrements are oiled and supple, while the brass fitments gleam in the mid-morning sun. The air is crisp and exhilarating, and the company most enjoyable. My mother is dressed in a black suit and a pale gold blouse with a jet brooch at the throat. I notice something on the road ahead – a small object.
As we pass over it, I see that it is a watch, with a classic face and a fine leather band. It is obviously an item of high quality, and I decide to check it out on the way back. I see my mother to the house, and tend to the horses. Re-tracing my steps, I find the place again, but the watch is gone. When I wake, the message is clear... it's not enough to say I enjoy my mother's company. I don't control time and I have to make the time to see my parents. I resolved to make time, to set time aside to see my parents.
HELLO BABY in my 30s
The day has arrived! And it is a beautiful Summer day. The waiting and wondering will soon be over. Nine months of expecting and expectation. Has this ever happened before? The baby will be induced, as the doctor thinks this will be better all round. The hours tick by, with much back rubbing and distraction for Margaret. It is obviously not comfortable and I hope it will not be too painful, but I am somewhat fearful. The midwife is soothing and calm, and we are grateful for her expertise. Mid-afternoon, and not much is happening. "Have you eaten?" asks Margaret. "No, but I might pop down to the kiosk for a sandwich". "What, and leave me here on my own!"
Then, on second thought, "Could you please be quick?"
A sandwich later, I return to find a different midwife, smarting from having to finish her holiday. Her bedside manner leaves a tad to be desired and her touch with the needle iss clumsy to say the least, and Margaret will wear the bruises to prove it. The action hots up, and labor goes on into the evening. A group of trainees come in, and their teacher asks if I would mind if they stay to watch. Whereupon I say "Actually, yes I do mind."
He replies "Right-oh" and off they go.
I pray that all will be well, and that the pain will soon stop for Margaret. At a quarter to nine, the moment arrives. The baby makes its way out. It appears perfect, and as it emerges, I am astonished that it is blue, and it is like looking at a creature in a chrysalis. I feel that this little creature is alien, and my mind is searching for something. I realize sudden that she is an amphibian. Now she is upside down and she sneezes or coughs her nose and mouth clear and roars into life. It is the most exhilarating sound I have ever heard.
"Welcome to the human race" we think. Her vocal cords also appear perfect. She rapidly turns pink as the blood courses through her body. Margaret is exhausted but relieved. She holds the baby but after a while I am allowed to take her to be bathed. She is handed to me, and I am full of curiosity as I receive the tiny bundle. I expect to look down into the helpless little face, but I am in for a shock. Looking back at me are two of the brightest eyes I have ever beheld, holding my gaze with an intensity I have never seen before. I feel that I am being scrutinized by an intelligence older than mine. I feel that I am being committed to memory as a person to whom she has entrusted her life. No-one has told me about this before. I decide to talk to more mid-wives about birth experiences. As instructed, I take her to be bathed. I hold her again, and look once more into that face. It is the face of a new baby, completely helpless, with milky sightless eyes.
AND HELLO TO YOU TOO
Adelaide was a large baby, 9 pounds 2 ounces. But Margaret's second pregnancy was even more spectacular, and somewhat worrying. The labor was protracted and complicated. The baby was entangled in the umbilical cord – a dangerous situation. This time, the birth was worrying. After the long struggle, the baby looked absolutely flat. At 10 pounds twelve ounces he was large, and although only 1 pound 8 ounces heavier than his sister, he looked much bigger proportionately. He had hairy arms and his head was squashed. I was fearful of brain damage, but tried to keep my concerns to myself. He seemed in no mood for an eyeball to eyeball greeting, which was reserved for Margaret. His name, we had already decided, would be Dominic. We wondered if he would be born on a Sunday, according to his name. He was! We also lived in the Parish of St. Dominic. However, we were completely unaware that his Birth Day was also on the feast of St. Dominic.
THE GREEN-EYED MONSTER
The next day, I took Adelaide, aged eighteen months, in to visit Margaret, and to meet her new brother, who had recovered well and was perfectly healthy and normal, to my great relief. Adelaide had walked and talked early, and was well co-ordinated. She fitted in to our lives very easily, and mixed with our friends, attending rehearsals and shows in a mature and adult way. This is often the way with only children, who are seen as precocious or prodigy depending on your point of view. Again, to my relief, Adelaide greeted the new baby with a calm appraisal which confirmed my belief in her early maturity. Having said goodbye to mother and son, I led Adelaide back to the car. I was in for a shock! I had never seen Adelaide throw a tantrum before, and this was the full treat! Abandoned kicking, thrashing, rolling around on the ground and screaming seemed to be indicators of extreme displeasure, against which the efforts of a kind, rational father were feeble. Passers-by either frowned at the lack of discipline, or smiled a little smile (which I now recognise as schadenfreude). From that day on, Adelaide began to be socialized in the normal way, as a child in a child's world, not an adult's.
SHARE A DREAM in my 40s
A normal night. The best part of a year since Mary, Margaret's mother, died. The whole family has slept well, all of us dreaming our own dreams. Mary has been in my dreams. We have had a pleasant chat, and I felt pleased to see her again. I think about this at breakfast when Margaret announces that it is probably because it's her mother's birthday that she dreamt about her…and she suggested Margaret get busy planting in the garden with some of her old favorites.
As Adelaide arrives, aged ten, she tells us that she had a lovely dream that she saw Nanny again, and they walked hand in through the back lane, under the trees and bushes, till they arrived at the tram stop at the end of the lane, where Nanny disappeared.
Dominic, aged eight, arrives and we ask him with a smile, whether or not he had any dreams. We all know that Dominic is rarely able to recall a dream, and is puzzled by this. At first, he starts to dismiss the question, but then begins to recall something. Oh yes, he did have a dream. He dreamed that he rode his bicycle with Nanny to the favorite place where they used to walk, the place with all the jasmine and lavender.
Adelaide is disturbed. She tells us that she has had a horrible dream. We wonder how bad an eleven year-old's dream can be. We soon find out. She tells us about the blood-soaked cellar full of bodies, people stabbed and mutilated. This very disturbing for a child whose life is all music song and dance and who does not watch television news or the like.
We are aware of the reports coming out of Kosovo, and we have good control over our incoming television programs and the children's viewing habits. In fact, Adelaide has an aversion to News programs in general. Adelaide's dream seems to be a "photographic-flash" experience. I suspect she has received this image in some way of which we are unaware, but I am glad we have not done anything to enhance her psychic ability. We assure her that we have had just the same sort of dream, and that it is certainly not unusual. She is greatly relieved, although we can see that the image has shocked her greatly.
She does a great deal of art work as well as dancing, and we are grateful for these outlets. I am more resolved than ever not to make any further contact experiment with Max or any other entity. I still think about Maxwell of Norwich, and my last contact about twenty years earlier . When my relationship with Regina ended, my two years' of contact with Maxwell ceased. After some time I visited Regina who told me that she too had stopped talking to him, at his request. He explained that the continuous contact was interfering with his further development and that he needed to "get on with things" rather than be too connected to our world.
SOUL RESCUE? in my 40s
Although I didn't practice anything by way of ouija sessions for many years, nor even any other form of spiritualistic activity, I was aware that other people occasionally mentioned it. However, few seemed to take it seriously, and the only people I met who seemed to bother were adolescents of the giggly variety, and their results were the usual inconclusive and somewhat tedious stuff. I was aware however, that there is a huge industry of clairvoyance of one sort or another, with a large number of devotees from surprising backgrounds. Some of these were highly paid executives with responsible positions, which they regulated according to their readings.
Occasionally I met people who considered any experience of mine extremely small beer, and I was interested in their opinions. Generally, they seemed to have an accurate understanding of my sessions, and expressed little surprise. They were mildly pleased for me. They were more concerned with soul rescue, which seemed like a voguish subject. However, I felt that they demonstrated greater knowledge and competence than I possessed, and had more authority. One such was John, who had arrived from England to work with the Orchestra. John was the sort of person one expects to be involved in mysticism/spiritualism but seemed to consider my sessions as almost a novelty or parlor trick. In a long term relationship with his partner, John was heavily involved in many "soul-rescues". This was almost a new idea to me, but I understood the concept from my readings with Dennis.
The spirits of people who have "passed over" are disoriented, and are wandering in a kind of state of shock. Suicides are often described as particularly disadvantaged souls unable to progress to a higher state. The spirits of those violently and suddenly killed seem also to be vulnerable. The remedy seems to be "incorporation" into a living body, albeit for a fleeting moment, to facilitate the possibility of further progress. The method is simply that a medium achieves a trance-like state in which he is open and receptive to the spirit world. In this trance, spirit bodies, ethereal entities or ghosts which can be seen by some, approach and pass into the body of the medium and then move on.
The stories are remarkably similar, and many mediums (or should that be media?) devote much time to this work, which, if based in reality, is truly a high calling. It is elements of this kind of spirituality which seem to resonate in ancient religious texts. Modern religious practice, by contrast, seem conspicuously devoid of this kind of experience. The Central Christian belief of "God made man" can be understood in this way. We were told that Christ did not have to die upon the cross, but merely had to "become man" for his mission to be effective.
A strange footnote to this issue surfaced recently when investigating my wife's ancestors. I found her paternal Great Great Grandfather as the subject of a Birmingham newspaper article of 1873. "Man dies on platform" it said. But it was not the railway platform I had assumed. Benjamin Hawkes, toy dealer, importer of fancy goods and banker, was the speaker at a Spiritualist meeting. He told the assembly that, in seances, he had felt the hand of Peter the Apostle. Therefore he felt that when Thomas met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, and felt the wound in his side, he was experiencing him in the same way that he, Hawkes, had experienced the hand of Peter. At this point he resumed his seat, making a remark about the power of love, and promptly expired.
THE DOCKYARD BATTLE DREAM in my 50s
Another dream? Yes, another dream. But, again, one of the few in my life which has that snapshot quality which seems to swamp daily reality with its completeness and immediacy. The time and place? I would guess the eleventh or twelfth century in north-western Europe. England, Scotland, Holland or Scandinavia. Denmark feels about right. I am in a castle, down at ground floor level, tolerably clean, with lots of rush flooring. I am chatting to someone, thirty-ish, whom I know is the Queen. There is not a lot of protocol and we have a comfortable professional relationship. I am what would be thought of as a court jester, but I am not really the funny man of popular imagination. I am expected to be good company, but I am more of an adviser or sounding board, being ten or so years older. I am relatively short in stature but fit and lithe, and I have red hair and beard.
Our conversation is rudely interrupted by shouting, and I know immediately that we are being invaded. Snatching up my weapons, I run up and outside to the nearby docks, which are swarming with a confusion of troops. At the quayside are some small ships, which are very stoutly made. In fact, they have rather a tubby look. Some soldiers are trying to set the ships afire, and others are resisting fiercely. Nearby, I hear a crack like a rifle, but it is not a rifle. It is a cross-bow and it makes a hell of a noise.
As the battle rages, I am aware also that at any moment a goodly number of the soldiers may suddenly change sides, and if they do we are lost. My efforts are not so much in direct fighting as concentrating our arms where they will be most effective, in trying to impose some order on this chaos.
And thinking about this dream, I realise that the cross bow was considered by the Pope to be too vile a weapon to use against fellow Christians, and advised that it only be used against the Saracens. However, war being what it is, and people being what they are, I doubt that anyone took too much notice. Again the dream was only one of hundreds, or more, which populate my sleeping hours. But again, this was one which had a quality which only a handful in my life have had, and which either seemed to hold a message, or to present me with an enigmatic, but unmistakable picture of something – significant! What that significance is, I can't say, but only guess, with the help of others. I am much older but I still dream. Friends sometimes say "Do you still have those dreams?" and I have to say in all honesty "Nothing significant". Then, out of the blue
REFLECTIONS in my 40s
In my deep sleep, I am far away. It is war-time England, and I am standing alone in a NAAFI building. It is like a large Nissen Hut, completely utilitarian. It is in the city of Plymouth, by the docks. As I stand there, the building changes around me. The ceiling rises to a majestic height and I am surrounded by sumptuous drapes and gilt furniture. I am in the grand building which stood here in former times. As my eyes take this in, I notice, quite some distance away, a man framed in a gilt door-frame which is half-way between us. He has been watching me. He walks toward me, and I feel sure that I know him.
He is somehow familiar, yet I haven't met him before. He is walking toward me and is smiling gently as if he knows something I don't. I realize that it is his eyes which are familiar. Where have I seen them before? Wait! The door frame is not a door frame at all. It is a mirror! Why, they are my eyes! As the realization strikes, the face changes and is replaced by another, again with the same smiling eyes. It is me again. And again, and again, and again, until I have seen a procession of about twelve or fifteen faces, each one regarding me steadily for what seems like fifteen seconds. All are male. Most seem to be between thirty and fifty years of age, and they seem to be from between 1500 and 1850. Some seem to be writers or printers, others involved in music or theater and one I do not care to think abut too deeply as the face is quite chilling. He is almost certainly a Puritan judge.
MEDJUGORJE now we are 60 (apology to Christopher Robin)
Medjugorje is the village in Croatia where six seers, or visionaries, claim to have received visions of Mary, mother of Jesus, from 1981 to the present. Something certainly does seem to have happened there, but again, experiences have been highly subjective, and are not admissible of proof. Concurrent with these events, in other parts of the world, have been small-scale appearances which appear to have been commercially motivated – in other words, pretty obviously hoaxes. Whilst I had no particular ax to grind, I was intrigued by the story of these appearances, with their strong echo of the appearances at Fatima in 1917.
These popular movements are not welcomed by the Vatican, and are usually most unwelcome to the local clergy, who are secondary players, usually well and truly upstaged by the young seers from humble backgrounds. It seemed indisputable, that, as happened at Fatima, Portugal in 1917, many people received what they considered to be a sign, being an event of a miraculous nature.
The events at Fatima are well documented, but here in our own time was a similar occurrence. Witnesses appeared sober and credible, but had experiences which their neighbor standing next to them did not. This would indicate a highly subjective experience. We discussed these events with an elderly friend, a devout woman with a strong faith, and whom my wife, Margaret, had known for many years.
She was a strong character with an uncomplicated and fun-loving outlook, and of an intensely practical nature. One day, she said to us "I was watching the television, all about Medjugorje, you know, that place in Croatia where Our Lady appears. And they said that all these rosary beads were turning gold, and I thought, Oh well, maybe. Anyway, I didn't think about it for a couple of days, until I took out my rosary beads, and I was just amazed. The chain was all gold." "Are you sure it wasn't before, Mary?" we asked. "Oh no. I've had them for years and I use them a lot. And besides, it's not just gold, but shiny, and they've never shone before." And with that, Mary fetched her beads, which were gold and shiny. The beads were of a type which is well known, and always has a neutral-colored dull pewterish metal alloy in its metal-work, being the chain links, medal and crucifix. We had no doubt this was true.
SPLISH SPLASH in my 60s
I am in Sydney for concerts in the Opera House. It's the Sunday morning after the shows, and I am breakfasting pleasantly. At any time of year Sydney's milder climate is relaxing and soothing. This morning though, I would like very much to forget a bad dream. I know it is stupid to worry about dreams, and this is not one of those "marker" dreams, but just the usual kind. In it, I enter a goodly sized room, like a long, box-shaped shop, and find that there is water in it. In fact, the water starts near the door, and gets deeper, till at the far end of the room, it is a few feet deep. The floor obviously slopes like a swimming pool. As I take this in, I become aware of a dark shape under the water at the deeper end. I hurry in, and pick up a young woman in what appears to be a dark blue bathing suit, but turns out to be a navy leotard. As I pick her up, my heart turns over, for I know that it is my daughter, Adelaide.
I am very upset by the dream, and decide I will not tell anyone about it. However, upon arriving back in Melbourne, I am so relieved to see her looking well and happy that I blurt out the content of the dream. Adelaide listens with a big smile. "Would you like to know what I did last night?" she asks. She had attended a performance by a leading contemporary dance company, in which the stage was strewn with small plastic-lined wading pools. With water and danger as their themes, the dancers had skidded, dived and collapsed into the watery element in every imaginable way, and Adelaide had found the show not only artistically satisfying, but was in awe of the risk-taking choreography. I never give that dream much thought after that.
As I write about credibility, a vast chasm opens up before me. Credibility is a sine qua non for most human activities. Why would you believe me? If this is like pleading a case, I am doing it at the end of the book so that you at least may feel you have an idea of where I'm coming from. For some folks, I am not the top candidate in the credibility stakes. As a child, I was not a liar, largely because I would be afraid to tell a lie as it was a sin and also because I didn't generally need to. I suspect I was also somewhat unimaginative in this respect. Occasionally, I tried. After an afternoon in the forbidden wild lands of the Moonee Ponds Creek, with its acres of fennel and aniseed growing wild, tobogganing down hillsides of tipped soil on palm tree branches or corrugated iron sheets, rock fights with other gangs, we would creep home about sunset. Our distressed mother would be waiting by the gate. "And where have you been?"
"Just round at Roger's place (lie)"
"Don't you try that one on me…just get in here this minute"
"You put that stick down"
"Who do you think you're talking to…get in here now, or do you want to wait for your father?"
This persuasive argument had us through the gate in a flash, bottoms tucked in to lessen the blow of the switch. The creek was considered a vile place and a death-trap, but was an exciting playground for us.
In the Training Orchestra in Sydney, I enjoyed playing occasional tricks on my friends, but not practical jokes. I suppose I enjoyed stringing people along, but more for the entertainment than anything else. Furthermore, I always came good at the end, and most friends and victims enjoyed the joke. However, there were always a couple of literalists who had a held a dim view of this approach, and who considered me simply a liar. I would find life bleak without a little of this sort of fun.
I have to admit that I am somewhat interested in the paranormal, supernatural and "conspiracy theories". They are usually deluded or mad, but some of the issues are well worth visiting, and need to be talked about. They also tend to challenge orthodoxies which may need scrutiny. Most of us recognize the "alien spotter" who has always wanted to spot an alien. But more convincing are the very ordinary people who report extraordinary events which have come as a complete surprise to them.
MY FRIEND GEORGE
In '63 I met George, a gregarious trumpet player who became a friend. He organized a band, and would pick me up and then Bob the drummer from Coburg, and off to the family home in Werribee for rehearsal with other friends. We enjoyed marvelous hospitality at the house, overflowing with kids, good food and music. Dom and May presided over their 8-child family with pride and were generous hosts. I often stayed over.
But all things come to an end, and I was soon on my way to other things and we parted company. I was called up for Army service and found myself in Sydney. I made a half-hearted attempt to find George's sister Pauline, who had married and moved to that city. She was a fine pianist, and I would have liked to chat. But it didn't happen.
Forty years later, I am seized with a desire to find George, and begin to ring through the phone book. No luck for ages till, Bingo! There is a suspicious woman and young man wondering why I want to know about George, husband and father, who had disappeared from their lives years before without trace. A complete mystery. After a couple of years I decide I will have to go back through the marriage registers to find his sister. Not long after this, the Musical Director of a school new to me asks me to MC a special concert. It is beautiful event, and she takes Margaret and me out to dinner by way of thanks. At the end of the dinner I am moved to ask her maiden name. It is the long-lost sister, and we have been working together for a year, not recognizing each other. Does she know what happened to George? Yes she does. He left his family, going to Malaysia, converting to Islam and marrying a Malaysian woman with whom he had two children. Returning to Canberra, he died – at the same time I had the impulse to contact him again.
A SHOPPING LIST FROM HEAVEN
Teaching at home, I riffled through my music. It struck me that I desperately needed a couple of new pieces at fifth grade level for a couple of my flute pupils. And there was a beautiful item called “Aria” by the French composer Eugene Bozza, which I had heard while examining that day. I thought I would dearly love to play this in a church.
And while I was at it, some of the more advanced pupils on clarinet would benefit from some high-grade “browsing material” of some sort. And, for a few days I relegated the list to my “must do at some time” box. Less than a week later the phone rings.
It is our friend Mandy. We had played for the funeral of her son Charlie, who had died of leukemia, some years before. She has a pile of music – do I want it? I picture the usual endowment in these cases, moth-eaten copies of yesteryear's hits, neatly labeled and signed, but falling apart at the corners and yellowed with age. But occasionally there is a semi-precious gem to be dug out or passed on to the right person.
It is a neat pile in excellent condition, and with it comes a pretty, miniature music stand. To my astonishment, the piece on top is “Aria” by Bozza. Directly below this are two flute pieces. Yes, they are prescribed Grade 5 pieces. The books below this are thicker and heavier, and turn out to be clarinet tutors brimming with studies and duets, perfect for sharing with advanced pupils. The name on the covers is familiar – Sally Donald. I asked Mandy whether this is a girl who had been in Prep with our daughter Adelaide. No, that was a different Donald. Do I remember Stuart Diver, the man who survived the Thredbo landslide? Sarah was his young wife, who had perished in that disaster.
Mandy says that Sarah's mother wanted the music to go somewhere where it would really be appreciated. And the miniature music stand? My petite pupil Pia enters a special concert with shoes attached to her knees and billed as the world's smallest flute player. Playing piccolo (little flute) and using a tiny piece of manuscript on the mini stand, she stars in a duet, Baby Elephant Walk, with me playing the bassoon.
Worked it out? Thanks for either getting this far or investigating this page. If you've come this far, I think it's because you have a modicum of faith in me. I presume that you feel I'm probably genuine. When I was seventeen, a friend said to me "You know, we've been reading all about wise old men ever since we were kids, but I've never met one. Do you think they really exist?" I thought then that they were probably wise young men to start with, but I have since modified my position. I now suspect that, like my happy childhood, it is something that can only be appreciated in hindsight. I think too, that we do actually acquire wisdom as we grow older, but just as we ourselves realize that we have something worth saying, we also realize that no-one is listening...unless we are media personalities – who appear to be the fonts of all wisdom.
Again, if I made the rash assumption that you might care, I could imagine you wanting to ask some questions. You might look me right in the eye and say "Is this on the level" and I would say "Yes".
And you might frown ever so slightly, lean forward and say "Do you really think there is such a person as Maxwell of Norwich?" and I would sigh the deep sigh that I have sighed for many years, and search my mind yet again (shouldn't take long, my friends would say). I would think yet again, "Did this really happen – did I imagine any of it – could someone have been fooling me – could I have been projecting this person from my subconscious?" I also know that I would be a fool to doubt the evidence of my own senses and experience. I know the material I have received is of a higher order than that which I've heard of from others. I am not sure whether any of this experience is translatable to another person. I know that I am more receptive to certain people when they tell me of their psychic experiences.
The dreams, advice, revelations and knowledge that have come to me are parts of a puzzle which is far too complex for me to understand. I am not sure that we are meant, or are able, to understand. Is it wishful thinking, this idea of a hereafter? Must we, for lack of definitive, empirical evidence, forsake this world of the spirit?
And in answer to your question, I would say "Yes, there is such a person."
You might say "But what is your real feeling about reincarnation?" and my mind would go back to the day when we buried our pet dog….as we prayed over his lifeless body by the graveside, I had time to think, through the misery, that this was not Trigger at all. Where was the real Trigger, where was the life force, the animation? Is this just a broken machine or a vessel for a soul? I'm firmly in the latter camp.
I would think about the people who can state with a great air of authority that we are embarked in certain cycles of development…I can't share their certainty. And other people who state equally firmly that "When you die, that's it". An unpleasant thought for some and an irrelevant thought for others.
I would reply to your last question "I tend to think there is something in it".
"What about becoming reincarnated as an animal?"
"I don't know".
"Why were your glimpses of possible pasts all male?"
"I don't know. I don't feel like the macho super male type, and I would have expected there to be some variation".
"Those seers, or fortune tellers…do you think they made money out of their readings?"
"Yes, though I think it's a modest amount, and there is a fashion in these things, as with anything else".
"And do you think they were on the level?"
"I think they both had a real gift. The lady was quite shrewd, and used quite a bit of paraphernalia to elicit background material, but she was good. The man's real concern was with the spirit world."
And you might look at me squarely and say "Look, in all mankind's history and endeavors, there is one issue, one question which dominates everything. It is the foundation for Religions, societies and wars. The question is "Is there an afterlife?" And if the answer is yes, we should be shouting it from the roof-tops."
And I would love to answer you, but I know that those who stride to the microphone, chest out and chin up, and who affirm their faith in, and even knowledge of, an afterlife, are very dangerous people – almost as dangerous as their followers. If there's an afterlife, it's not in our "sphere". From our standpoint, we might not be able to comprehend this world. But we have no proof, no sign, no revelation. That may be an impossibility. But some of us get hints, clues, scents and traces. These are hardly conclusive, but it would be foolish to ignore them."
Not one to give up, you might ask me "Where do you stand on the subject of religion? Do you still practise?"
"No I don't, though I still attend some services, play music for others and generally support the activities of most mainstream churches. They are mostly a force for good, especially when their work is practical. The medieval church with all its faults still performed invaluable charitable work feeding the poor and looking after the sick. When Henry the Eighth dissolved the Monasteries, he was able to persuade many people to back him, with bribes/gifts of newly acquired monastic land. However, the charitable work was neglected with dire consequences for thousands. The newly rich no doubt expressed revulsion at the laxity of the Religious orders, but felt no compulsion to emulate their charitable work.”
I don't believe that Jesus Christ was God. I think the “Life of Brian” had it pretty right. He was either a minor character at the time, or did not exist at all. John the Baptist was a much bigger fish. Furthermore, I believe that much of what we understand to be Jewish history from the Bible, is not Jewish but Egyptian. Like Freud, I believe that Moses was Akhenaten...and more.
Interestingly, Maxwell of Norwich told us that there is a Hell. It is the existence endured by Earthbound souls chained to this life by their lusts and appetites, unable to progress in their development, but hovering, always ready to possess or enter an unguarded body for their own gratification. People at risk include sick people and those who unwisely dabble in the occult (like me). For the reader who is not ofay with Maxwell of Norwich, he is the spirit entity I contacted through ouija board sessions or seances in my 20s. He told us that he died at the age of 22, when his horse slipped on a wet hillside, crushing him.He had no recollection of life after that moment, until called up by me. His sensibility changed from medieval to modern quite quickly. He told us that he was a teacher of mathematics and English and had made two trade journeys to Turkey to buy carpets.
His betrothed was Diana Blakesley, whom we "spoke" to and found rather conventional and boring. She subsequently married his friend Griffith Hall, who had the ironic nickname "Pot" as he was unusually tall for those days, which Max ascribed to his Scandinavian origins. We spoke to another friend, Phillip, who was awaiting reincarnation as a bear cub. We did not understand this, nor feel comfortable with the notion, but I report it nevertheless. Max always said that without a body his mental processes were more accurate and acute, but that no-one could tell the future. When, eventually, he told us he needed to cease the sessions, it was in order to progress in the current state of his after-life.
Have you watched a skilful interviewer dealing with a slippery interviewee, who has to be handled with kid gloves for political, social or other valid reasons? Have you wanted to say to them, "OK, that was inconclusive…what's your gut feeling?"
If you asked me that, I would have to reply "I believe that I have lived before and may possibly live again. I don't know whether I'm here to learn a lesson or not. I feel that we are not just individual souls, but that in some way we are more than our own selves. Societies make God in their own image, and all organized religions are highly flawed. I do not believe in Revelation, but believe that our future is in our own hands to work out. The departed may try to contact us, but can only reach us through certain sensitive individuals with an inexplicable gift. Seances are generally dangerous things and are usually trivial."
So there you have it. I hope you have enjoyed reading this. I know that there are so many more questions one could ask.
As you will have noticed, I don't have the answers. All I have is this story about my experience. As I have said, it's a modest experience in terms of spirit contact, and I feel there will be many who are astonished that I find it worthy of record. But this is my very own experience, and I can look you in the eye and declare it all true (like all good con-men you say?). Ultimately, like my friends, you have to decide whether you know me well enough by now to believe me. I hope you do, because I believe it is a subject worth talking about, and I hope you will talk to your friends openly about it. I think you will find it most worthwhile. THE END (PERHAPS) ————