A MAGIC CARPET FOR RAVI SHANKAR

“We can’t sit on that” said Ravi Shankar as we looked down on the unvarnished and splintery floor boards on the stage

Alla Rakha on tabla, Prodyut Sen on tamboura and Ravi Shankar on sitar.

My elation at having secured a visit from Ravi Shankar and his group was rapidly evaporating. We were in the Holywell Music Room in Oxford. It was 1958 and Ravi Shankar was already an international star and the leading player of Indian classical music throughout the world. He had composed the music for Satjit Ray’s internationally acclaimed film “Pather Panchali” and was well known for his performances throughout the USA, Europe and India. He was well on the way to super stardom, with performances to come in the 1960s with George Harrison, Yehudi Menuhin and at Woodstock.

I was president of the Oxford Majlis, a University club specialising in Asian politics and culture. I had been somewhat surprised when Ravi Shankar had accepted my invitation and considered it very gracious of him. And now, having dined him and his group at the Oxford Union, we had taken a taxi the short distance to the Holywell Music Room, the oldest custom-built concert hall in Europe, opening in1748.

The show was going to be a sell-out with all two hundred or so of the tickets already sold. Fortunately we had half an hour to go before the performance was due to start.

I assured Ravi that I would sort something out but I was not sure that he looked all that convinced. I sent one of my committee members to search through the props boxes of the stage and after a few moments he came back triumphantly with an armful of blankets. Blessed relief. The show would go on. However euphoria rapidly turned to despair as we shook out the blankets in a cloud of choking dust and discovered they had been eaten to shreds by rats.

Ravi did not look happy.

I had to do something and assured him I would find a solution and that he and his group would be comfortably seated. I explained that this would take about five minutes.

Ravi looked sceptical.

Fortunately my college, Wadham, was a two minute dash round the corner. I raced in through the gatehouse and entered the first room in the corner of the quadrangle. All doors in those days were unlocked and luckily there was no sign of the undergraduate who resided there. I grabbed all the blankets off the bed plus a small rug off the floor and raced past the porter in the gatehouse, round the corner and into the Music Room, pushing past the audience who were beginning to turn up.

Ravi asked no questions, happily settled down on the pirated blankets and rug and went on to delight the audience with a magnificent sitar recital.

Close to a quarter of a century later I took my son Rodney and his friend Sean to a Ravi Shankar performance in the Sydney Opera House. As I looked at Ravi on the stage and around at the sell-out audience of two thousand or so, I had a moment of quiet satisfaction at knowing I had played a small and totally irrelevant role in his career.

ROBIN SEN

Sydney, January 2021

Super-duper 2021

Tidying up my Christmas cards, I found one that hadn’t been opened. It was deep in a cardboard container for a wine bottle.

“Have a super-duper Christmas”, my brother wrote.

Super-duper.

It’s a long time since anyone wished me a super-duper anything. It brought a happy grin to my scowling dial.

I looked it up in the Macquarie Dictionary. There it was:

super-duper adjective, Colloquial — extremely fine, great, pleasing, etc. [dissimilated replication of SUPER]

I looked up dissimilate. To change a speech sound so it is less like a neighbouring syllable.

Enough of this lexicography!

It’s not as if super-duper was a mystery.

It’s just a happy phrase. How many other cheery phrases from the past have slipped out of use?

Pink frangipani on the balcony

In the midst of a very grey, cloudy, overcast start to the year, and more news about masks, statistics, border closures etc., came a brief moment of bright blue sky. I took my camera on to the balcony to capture it before it vanished.

So here’s to a super-duper 2021 for everyone, may the year bring blue skies, the scent of frangipanis, easier contact with our friends and family, and whatever else you may wish for.

I also look forward to more contributions to this shared blog from our talented team.

PENELOPE NELSON

January 2021

Santa’s cover blown

A cold Sussex evening in December 1977. A group of us were doing a door knock collecting gifts of food for the poor of the town. We belonged to the East Grinstead Round Table (akin to Australian Apex). We found the most generous people (rushing indoors to contribute Christmas puddings, cakes, tins of fruit, chocolate and lollies, etc) were usually the poor and elderly themselves. The young, I suppose, were going flat strap trying to pay their mortgages in this attractive, highly desirable town about fifty km south of London….. and had little charity to spare.

We had our own Santa – local veterinarian Euan, a quiet-spoken Scot and thoroughly decent fellow, well-known and respected in the town. A few months earlier we had watched his look of horror as a visiting group of French Round Tablers presented the president of our club with a large, white and very French cockerel. They had smuggled it through H.M. Customs at Newhaven after crossing on the ferry from Dieppe and, with Gallic insouciance and the characteristic French shoulder shrug, ignored British biosecurity rules. It is reliably known that later that evening Euan volunteered to take care of the cockerel, after wresting it from the club president who probably had had ideas for Sunday lunch. The bird was not seen again but it is pretty sure that our conscientious vet did the right thing.

Now in December, our evening of collecting had begun well. Santa’s sack was already brimming with reverse Christmas gifts. Local vet Euan, disguised as Santa, was clad in his red robe, with hood drawn close to his face and wearing a long white beard. So far nobody, adults or kids, had recognised him in about twenty or so door knocks.

We came to the door of a little cottage on the outskirts of the town. Santa knocked on the door and a small boy opened it.

“You’re not Santa”, said the boy. “You killed my cat!”

Illustration: Eleni Sen

SEASONS GREETINGS FROM ROBIN SEN, Sydney, December 2020.

Poetic justice? Acknowledging Grace Perry

Grace Perry – the name is not widely recognised now. But in the 1940s Grace Perry, teenage poet, was hailed as a genius. In the 1950s she graduated as a doctor and had three children. In the 1960s she founded a literary press and a poetry magazine. A prolific writer herself, she launched the careers of many others and encouraged many emerging writers through prizes and literary events.

Grace Perry, teenage poetry sensation

I saw Grace Perry occasionally at events that she had organised. Like most writers, I would turn up at cultural events without giving a thought to the administrative chores behind the scenes – the phone calls, the invitations, the funding crises, the publicity campaigns. All these things I took for granted. I bought my ticket, caught up with friends, and hoped to workshop my poems with someone well-known.

Grace Perry introduced the early sessions of the 1975 Poetry Write-In at Macquarie University. She wore a floaty, colourful caftan, and was justifiably proud of having writers present from Indonesia, New Zealand and all states of Australia. She came to some of the small seminars also. She was obviously a close friend of some of the well-known poets, but she was generous to other participants also.

I have written about Grace’s career in the Summer 2020 issue of the State Library of NSW’s magazine, Openbook, so I won’t repeat her story here. Sufficient to say that she published eight books of her own poetry, founded South Head Press, managed Poetry Australia magazine, and helped launch the careers of half a dozen well known writers.

Openbook, Summer 2020 – the journal of the State Library of NSW

About a year ago, I had an inkling, more a glimmering perhaps, that Grace Perry was a hugely underestimated figure. Her own poetry was groundbreaking: she wrote lyrical verse in her teens, but in maturity took on topics such as death, pain and heartbreak in a confident, contemporary style. Her cultural contribution to Australian literature was significant.

What a joy to find that the State Library had 35 boxes of her papers, and copies of all her books, even the ones published while she was still at school. She kept meticulous business records of South Head Press, Poetry Australia and events such as the 1975 Poetry Write-In. I was abashed to find three of my own poems in the bulging file from that event.

Grace Perry, a whirlwind of energy and generosity, deserves acknowledgement as a cultural pioneer.

PENELOPE NELSON

December 2020

Writing in the Time of Covid

Escaping to the NT from virus-ridden NSW in March, I was confined to home in mandatory quarantine for fourteen days. What bliss! The tropical weather, the smiling faces, the feeling of being safe. Being home alone held no fear for me, being a confirmed introvert.

The isolation and lack of pressure suited my solitary nature. At last my time was all my own, with no places to go, no people to see. What else was there to do but write? At last I could concentrate on finishing my novel, which I’d been struggling with for years.

In spite of not going outside for two weeks, I managed to keep fit by tuning in daily to yoga classes on Zoom. How amazing to follow expert teachers online from the comfort of home, thanks to the generosity of Darwin Yoga Space.

There followed the most productive months, in literary terms, of my writing life. In April I was honoured to be elected Vice President of our NTWriters’ Centre. In May, being shortlisted for the fiction prize for the 2020 NT Chief Minister’s Awards for my novel Capriccio, was a huge thrill. My short story, Procrastination, was accepted for publication in the new print edition of Borderlands, the new NT Literary journal, released here in September.

Attending Board meetings by Zoom was a new experience, and far preferable to travelling into town by bus, car or taxi. I don’t even need to change out of my yoga clothes!

Reading poetry at the Rosella Festival in Adelaide River in July was another great opportunity to enlarge my literary repertoire. In August I was privileged to join other NT poets from rural areas of Darwin at the annual Taminmin Poetry Day. Poetry lovers are so blessed to still attend our monthly Poetry Mornings run by Kaye Aldenhoven, Life Member of the NT Writers’ Centre.

My heart goes out to those who are struggling with loss of income, claustrophobia, anxiety and depression during the time of Covid. But how lucky we in the NT have been, to live in the safest place in Australia, while other States experience harsh lockdowns, strict isolation, spikes in the spread of the virus, and deaths.

Talking about Capriccio

DINA DAVIS

PAVED WITH GOLD

Back in the 1940s in wartime London, all kids owned guns – not the fragile plastic things bought today by politically incorrect parents. Most of us owned sturdy, die cast metal Colt 45 Six Shooters. Ours were of course better than the real thing. We were not limited to six shots before re-loading. We could fire up to a hundred shots at a time with our rolls of caps.

Illustration: Eleni Sen

We sometimes played “Cops and Robbers” but mostly it was “Cowboys and Indians” because those were the films we were most likely to see on Saturday mornings at the local flea pit. I suppose we were also politically incorrect by today’s standards, especially when we corralled the imaginary wagons and ordered “Don’t shoot till you see the whites of their eyes”.

Although there was a grassy park not a mile away, we preferred the car-free streets of our South London neighbourhood as our Wild West prairie.

Entertained on a diet of Western films, we were inclined to hero worship Americans, especially John Wayne and Randolph Scott, but we drew the line at the “Singing Cowboy- Roy Rogers” who we dismissed as “soppy”.

Round about that time, London filled up with American servicemen and, although not many ventured to our suburb of Brixton, we did occasionally see one or two striding around in their smart uniforms and chewing gum. How we longed to do the same! One or two lucky kids had even succeeded in approaching them and been rewarded when asking “Got any gum, chum?” Generally the Yanks welcomed these approaches by kids. Most I suppose were kids of eighteen or nineteen themselves and missing their younger siblings.

We didn’t need to travel far to come across bomb sites and these ruins became our adventure playground. Imagine our delight when one day we discovered among the ruins a number of batteries covered in black, sticky tar. We eagerly picked off blobs of said tar and spent the rest of the day swaggering around masticating our ersatz chewing gum.

Illustration: Eleni Sen

We kids were very superstitious. Whenever we saw an ambulance we had to hold our shirt collars until we saw a dog. If we did not do so, we believed our mothers would drop dead. Sometimes we spent hours wandering the streets looking for a dog – while no doubt our mothers would almost die of anxiety wondering where we were.

On one occasion we wandered into a bombed building and came across a dead cat with swarms of flies buzzing around. One of my friends told us to run off or “we would get THE FEVER”. I like to think that this was a direct link across the generations of kids for three hundred years back to the time of The Great Plague of London, when kids would no doubt have issued similar warnings. Indeed I recently discovered that during the Great Plague of 1665 many people thought that cats were carriers of that year’s pandemic and huge numbers of cats were killed. The true culprits, the rats, were ignored.

Eventually peace came to Europe and my parents celebrated VE Night by taking us up to London to the newly opened Waterloo Bridge. Everywhere huge crowds were out on the street celebrating victory in Europe. I had read in stories that the streets of London were paved with gold and to my delight I found this was true. There were pieces of gold everywhere and I eagerly stuffed them into my trouser pockets. It was only when I got home that I came face to face with the reality that they were crown corks off beer bottles.

ROBIN SEN

Sydney, November 2020

Mini-delights of travel

Moments. Unexpected encounters. Odd conversations. The mini-delights of travel are most intense when you’re travelling alone.

What seems an age ago now, I had a Eurail pass that allowed me to swan around Europe on marvellous trains in first-class seats, mostly without booking ahead. These are some of the memorable moments.

Pessoa in Lisbon. Unlike my fellow blogger Robin Sen, I did not find Lisbon tedious. My room overlooked very noisy renovations, but the managers moved me to a quieter room. I loved the scale of the place – the hills, the harbour, the crumbling alabaster masterpieces. The food was fine. The side trip to Sintra was lovely. But I wanted to see Pessoa, the weird many-named poet whose statue was somewhere nearby. On an uphill road, I was about to take a seat in a cafe when young man came up to me. “We’re environmentalists,” he said, “approaching tourists to ask for support ….”.

I handed him a couple of euros. “I wonder if you could help me,” I said. “There’s supposed to be a statue of Pessoa somewhere here but it’s very hard to find.” He grinned and waved his hand. There was Pessoa, just beside us, waiting for his caffeine hit.

A bronzed Pessoa in his Lisbon cafe

The Indian architects. There were only two other passengers in the carriage. The young Indian men responded in English to my stammered German enquiry about a free seat. We each said something about our travels. They told me about their conference in Frankfurt on architectural cues for crowd movement. They offered me snacks that their wives back home had prepared. It was the first time I’d eated Bombay mix. I remember the nice tang of curry on my tongue, the charm of those guys and their enthusiasm for their work. And I remember their shared shame-faced laugh when I asked I whether they’d tried German beer. “Here, yes,” one confessed. “But never at home,” his friend added.

The German businessmen. Late in the day the train to Bonn was crowded. I was lucky to get the last seat in a first-class carriage. My companions were smartly-dressed businessmen, all silently working on laptops or reading. After half an hour, the silence was broken by a trolley-wielding waitress of spectacular beauty. “None of you gentlemen,” she announced with a smile, “will refuse a nice aperitif or a coffee!” Papers rustled. Laptop lids went down. “Meine Dame!” She smiled at me too. I accepted the coffee. Then one man asked for cheese and a whisky. The next man chose wine. So we went round the carriage until everyone except the young man in the window seat was buying food and drink and even sharing a few words. The waitress clicked the last credit card, thanked us all, and backed out of the carriage. I took a closer look at the one hold-out, the young man in the corner, whose “Danke, Nein, nichts!” had been quite emphatic. He was deep in a book. I could just make out the English title – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Hotel de France. Arriving in Paris on the swish train from Brussels, I was met by a taxi driver with my name on a card. We drove and we drove and we drove. He was not familiar with the hotel that I’d booked online. He double-checked the address. When we finally drew up at the door he could not suppress a look that said arrives in style but stays in a dump. There was nothing glamorous about the Hotel de France. After lugging my bag up several floors I was in a drab room with shabby furnishings. One consolation was a window that looked down on a three-cornered space where people seemed to be setting up stalls. If I went to sleep now, I’d be able to get an early breakfast at the market. I was still awake, however, when two young Germans came into the neighbouring room, every remark audible through the paper-thin walls. “Well,” said one to his friend, “if this is the Hotel de France, I’d hate to see the Hotel d’Europe!”

PENELOPE NELSON

My Country?

‘I love a sunburnt country’, sunning on the beach, regardless of the risk. Beaches offer sculpture exhibits, ‘race riots’, and peaceful protests: something for everyone.

A land of sweeping plains’, consumed by cash crops, draining precious water, leaving a legacy of dead fish.

Of ragged mountain ranges’, left scarred by logging and mining.

Of droughts and flooding rains’, while climate change deniers cite MacKellar’s 1908 poem as scientific evidence: No climate change here.

I love her far horizons’ that grow closer every year, fogged by pollution and bushfire smoke. This year, with reduced road traffic, the media reported with some astonishment that the Blue Mountains were visible from Sydney – as they were 60 years ago.

I love her emerald sea’, the bleached and dying coral reefs, the floating plastic and Styrofoam beads.

Her beauty and her terror’ Beauty? Yes. Terror? Yes, the forces of nature and climate change are formidable. Terrorist attacks and the pandemic: two new sources of terror.

Uluru – painting by HJL

The wide brown land for me’ And for me, the granddaughter of a Scottish settler, and great-granddaughter of a convict from Yorkshire? I love and embrace this land as my birthplace, but it’s not mine to claim.

HELEN JEFFERSON LENSKYJ

October 2020

The Blind Beggar

“Do not give alms to the blind beggar” said my Bengali-English phrasebook. I had bought the book in Sydney to brush up on my Bengali prior to a visit to Kolkota (Calcutta) in 2006. It was only when I got home and took a closer look at the publication date did I see that it must have been printed over and over again for the past hundred years. This would account for other odd phrases such as “Order the syce to find out where we can buy fodder for the horses”. Being able to say this in Bengali would have been a valuable linguistic accomplishment for a fresh-faced young subaltern on his first posting with the Raj in 1906. It wasn’t going to be much use to me in one of Asia’s biggest cities in 2006. Still what else could I expect for an outlay of $3.95.

As it turned out, during a couple of weeks in Kolkota, I saw no blind beggars. Indeed, unlike my prior visit in 1959 when beggars, full- or part-limbed, sighted or blind, were abundant, this time I do not recall seeing any – due, said the locals, to the government whisking them away out of sight to who knows where.

However the concept of a blind beggar became imprinted on my subconscious and resurfaced in an unexpected way four years after the visit to Kolkota. My wife and I had been invited to a family wedding in Stuttgart and here I was in Sydney, working out what to wear for the ceremony – a suit of course- I had several in the wardrobe and these days they got worn only for weddings and funerals- sadly, more of the latter than the former. Here was an opportunity – to clear up wardrobe space by getting rid of the oldest suit. Sure, to outward appearances and in the absence of closer inspection, it would suffice for one last appearance at the wedding, but the suit was on a one-way ticket and would not be returning to Australia. On the other hand I could imagine no one in prosperous Germany interested in taking my suit off my hands.

This led to working out where we should go for a holiday after the Stuttgart wedding. We considered a number of sunny options but it was relative GDP that finally swayed the decision. One southern European place was pretty well as good as any other – they all had cathedrals, palaces, ancient ruins, trams, sunshine – and horrid tourist food. However, one candidate stood out. It had to be Portugal – and Lisbon in particular. When last there in 1961 I had noticed it was an impoverished place. This is where I would find lots of beggars and in particular a blind beggar to whom I could – noblesse oblige – donate my old suit.

Why, you ask, a blind beggar? The answer should be pretty obvious. A sighted beggar would doubtless ooze with Iberian pride and spot that my suit was a bit tatty and haughtily reject my munificence. The suit would probably be thrown back in my face. Yes it would have to be a blind beggar who would no doubt joyfully welcome the gift with a sincere obregado.

And so we flew to Lisbon. First impressions were highly favourable – the airport was crowded, grubby, old and decrepit. If I had any doubts, my spirits were lifted. This just had to be the place to part company with the suit.

Sadly Portugal had prospered in the preceding fifty years and, try as I might, during three tedious days of wandering the streets of Lisbon, I never encountered a blind beggar, nor regretfully any beggars. Later I discovered that the Portuguese had done wonderful things with their economy and their social welfare network: and beggars had become obsolete. As a trained economist, I suppose I should have known, but we all have our blind spots.

So one morning I crept out of our hotel, just before the garbos came round, and deposited my suit in the nearest green bin.

Illustration by Eleni Sen

It had been a humbling experience and one more of life’s hard-earned lessons. I reflect with shame at my arrogance in not reckoning that even if I had found a blind beggar, his compensating superior tactile skills would have soon discovered the frayed cuffs and the torn lining – and the suit would doubtless have been thrown back in where he thought was my face.

ROBIN SEN

Sydney 2020

Reading, Writing, Being

How does a child learn how to read? As far as I can remember the process, I couldn’t read until, one day,  I could.  Written words and spoken words suddenly matched each other, and when that happened, it was magic.  One clear memory that I treasure involved carefully copying words and stories from a book, probably a school reader, into an exercise book, and I can still feel the excitement and satisfaction of seeing that unfold.  I was sitting at a child-sized table in a patch of sunshine at the front of our house during a Sydney winter, writing out the story word for word.

As I think about this now, I’m reminded of a similar process, but not a happy one, involving a university colleague who suffered a severe stroke in the prime of life. He had written two ground-breaking books based on the work of French philosophers, and, as part of his personal project of rehabilitation, he began copying the original text on his laptop, in the hope of making sense of what he had written a few years earlier.

Returning to my own story, I recall the first ‘real’ book that I read – Enid Blyton’s Shadow the Sheepdog. A family friend had given me a copy, and I was thrilled to be able to read it by myself – that is, until I got to the word ‘determined’, somewhere in the first few chapters. I always had to ask my mother how to pronounce that word, apparently because it was important to me to hear it correctly in my head; I routinely put the stress on the first syllable instead of the second.  I still have the book in my collection, not for its literary value (yes, I’m aware of all the critiques of Blyton’s biases, including racism), but because it was a landmark in my childhood.

Book-lovers and authors often say they grew up in a house full of books. This was not my experience. As I recall, my mother had a copy of Pears Cyclopaedia, mainly for its health advice, and bought the Women’s Weekly quite regularly, while my father read the Sydney Morning Herald and had a small collection of Zane Grey’s paperback westerns.  Author Frank Dalby Davison was an acquaintance of my father’s, and we had a copy of Man-Shy. My brother, 12 years older than me, had a small collection of books, including one called The Theory of Flight that I read when I was older and loved books about flying.  In short, my family were readers, but I would not say that I was surrounded by books.

A neighbour and friend, Ada Smith, was the mother of Thelma Clune and mother-in-law of Frank Clune, both patrons of the arts.  Through Frank’s connections to the publishing industry, Auntie Ada (as I called her), was the recipient of several remaindered books that she passed on to me. I think Shadow the Sheepdog and other children’s books came through her, as did a number of coffee-table books, some about Australia and others about the Royal Family. And yes, I still have most of these books, too, 70 years later.

When I began undergraduate studies in 1972, I used to write term papers in longhand, then type them.  As an early adopter of a computer in 1979 (a primitive contraption that used audiotapes for data storage), I began composing on-screen, a big step towards writing more quickly and efficiently. It’s hard to imagine how we wrote back in the day, without the benefit of computers. It also seems like a different era (although it was only about 12 years ago) when I had to print final drafts and send them by courier to my American publisher, rather than simply email them as attachments. However, I was certainly not an early adopter of online books, having only graduated to doing so this year, out of necessity, when Toronto public libraries were closed for several months because of the pandemic.  

Yes, reading and writing: things that sustain us (to borrow from Julia Baird, with great admiration!)

Shadow the Sheep-Dog, by Enid Blyton

HELEN JEFFERSON LENSKYJ