A gentleman in Moscow

 Fifty years ago this October, I briefly visited Moscow en route to the UK. There were signs that the cold war between East and West was slowly defrosting but even so I felt a sense of excitement just to be there: that I was infringing on an alien culture. I was staying at the Hotel Berlin on Red Square and the autumn cold was already seeping through the double glazed windows of my austere room. Outside, in Red Square an endless stream of Muscovites lined up outside the Lenin Mausoleum waiting their turn for a glimpse of their revolutionary hero; another line waited outside the GUM department store to shop; and at the far end of the square, St Basil’s Cathedral was undergoing restoration, though I was still able to enter and marvel at the holy icons adorning the walls of the many private chapels of the former Tsars and other Russian nobility.

St Basil’s Cathedral on Moscow’s Red Square. Undergoing restoration in 1968

The 1965 movie and hence the book of Boris Pasternak’s ‘Doctor Zhivago’ were still very much an influence on me then. For me, it helped to humanise the inhumanity that occurred during and after the Russian revolution; it was ordinary people tested in extraordinary times; it put the individual before the State – a fact that caused the Soviet Government to force Boris Pasternak to reject his Nobel Prize. 

The cover of Amor Towles 2016 book ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’

‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ is another life-affirming book full of humour and charm that brings together the profound, the political and the personal aspects of Soviet life during and after the revolution. In this case, the novel’s protagonist is Count Alexander Rostov, starting in Russia’s turbulent early 1920s and spanning 30 years. When the Count is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, he is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Having never worked a day in his life, he must now live in one room as history is being made outside.

Happily I now read that the book is soon to be made into a television adaption. Kenneth Branagh is to play the Count. I hadn’t imagined what the Count might have looked like, but Kenneth Branagh seems to be ideal. 

Moscow’s Metropol Hotel in 2018 (Google street view)

Moreton Bay History still open for business

Following on from my blog of last week (07.01.2017) entitled ‘Closure and Closure’ I have reached a compromise with the aid of the good folks at WordPress and am happy to relate that my website ‘Moreton Bay History’ (www.moretonbayhistory.com) will continue as before. I’ll keep on blogging, too, but probably not on a regular Saturday morning basis as I have been doing, because I am still resolved to pursue the writing of ‘the novel’.

Also, looking at the image I published last week of myself at the typewriter in 1970 reminds me of my muse at that time: my new brother in law, Patrick Vaughan, who wrote under the name of Bill Cody.

The Vaughan's house at Dromagh, Co Cork, Ireland
The Vaughan’s house at Dromagh, Co Cork, Ireland

Cody was a gifted writer with a wonderful grasp of words that were able to capture the personalities and events of his life in the Irish countryside. That’s his window on the upper floor of the Vaughan’s house at Dromagh. From here he could look out over the schoolyard next door and across the green fields that surrounded his house.

Regrettably many of his works were lost when they went missing after his death in 1986. However, the Irish Government did honour his memory when they erected this plaque in the fence outside his home:

Patrick Vaughan's memorial. It reads: Birthplace of Patrick Vaughan "Bill Cody" Poet and Playwright Born 1926 - died 1986
Patrick Vaughan’s memorial.
It reads:
Birthplace of Patrick Vaughan “Bill Cody” Poet and Playwright
Born 1926 – died 1986


Stories from Peel Island – 5 (Lazaret)

World Health Organisation:

‘In 1937 Dapsone, the first of a new sub‑class of sulpha drugs called the Sulphones was produced. Dapsone was found to be thirty times more active but only fifteen times more toxic than Sulphanilamide and in the 1940s is tested as a possible cure for Tuberculosis. Regrettably it is not effective but tests against rat leprosy provide dramatic results. Soon it was tried on human volunteers and by the mid 1940s it was believed that the miracle cure for Hansen’s Disease (Leprosy) has finally been found.’

Dr Eric Reye (Medical Officer, Peel Island Lazaret): 

‘On the 23rd of January 1947, twenty of Peel’s most severe cases received their first doses. The philosophy behind its administration was to deliver the maximum amount of drug in the shortest time, and as such the Promin was delivered by intravenous administration each morning for six days each week.  In all, by the end of April, my assistants and I have given 1,677 Promin injections, and the results were most encouraging!

(Promin is broken down in the body to dapsone, which is the therapeutic form.)

Thirtieth Session of the National Health and Medical Research Council:

‘The Commonwealth Government should pass a special Act granting to certain Lepers allowances along the lines of those available to sufferers of TB under the TB Act’.

However, the Commonwealth Government refused to accede to the recommendation.

Seventh International Congress of Leprology in Tokyo: 

‘The Congress is unequivocally in favour of the abandonment of strict segregation and other restrictive practices as currently applied to Hansen’s patients.’

Following this Congress, a full report was made to the Queensland Parliament, which then implemented legislation for the transfer of the lazaret from Peel Island to Ward S12 at the South Brisbane (now Princess Alexandra) Hospital. Such recommendations were contained in the Health Acts Amendment Act of 1959 (Division VI ‑ Leprosy), which replaced the Leprosy Act of 1892.

Peter Ludlow:

‘If isolation is deemed to be necessary, then it must be done within the community, in special wards at community hospitals, where patients and their relatives can go without fear of community ostracism.

‘These are the lessons we can learn from Peel Island. Its past was grim, at one time hopeless, but it should never be forgotten that such events did occur right here at our doorstep, and in recent times.  Let Peel Island always remain as a symbol of the individual’s determination to live on in the face of hopelessness, and of mankind’s ability to conquer such terrible afflictions as can beset our community at any time.’

Peel Island today - a popular boaties' destination once again
Peel Island today – a popular boaties’ destination once more

Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n Roll

Swinging London in the 1960s
Swinging London in the 1960s

During the late 1960’s like so many young Australians I was drawn to live in London’s Earls Court (known to all then as ‘Kangaroo Valley’). However, although I was fascinated by the whole ‘sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll’ revolution of which London was at the centre I never fully embraced it. Perhaps as a Pharmacist, I had medicated too many drug addicts at Boots Piccadilly pharmacy.

Recently, to see what I’d missed out on, I read Richard Goldstein’s book ‘Another Little Piece of My Heart’. Here are some of the quotes I found most interesting:

  • It was the great temptation of the sixties, the ghost of Rousseau that haunted every Freudian of my age. What lay beneath the layers of repression?…I was sick of living in a world whereto social order was all too obvious. That’s why the hippies were so appealing to people like me. They represented liberation from reality.
  • That was the whole problem with the counterculture. There was no will to form institutions that could transmit values, only a feeling that everything worth learning could be comprehended in an instant or immediately felt.
  • No one makes great art out of contentment with the world…
  • But in 1967 the hip thing for a chat show was to have a professor as a guest. ..They had to have an outsize sense of their importance, a blind confidence in their ideas, and a conviction that they could single-handedly alter the course of history. Most important…they had to be entertaining.
  • By getting us used to what, formerly, we could not bear to see or hear, art changes morals.
  • Perhaps this is always what it’s like to live in revolutionary times, the sense that everything is coursing toward a destiny that seems irrational and immanent (inherent).
  • I often found myself thinking about how other radicals had coped with the failure of their revolutions. How did the young visionaries of 1848 deal with the suppression of their noble dreams? What did partisans in the Paris commune think when their defeated comrades were executed by the thousands? How did Communists who deeply believed in the triumph of the proletariat live with the tyranny of Stalin? Some of them recanted in bestselling books, others clung to the long view of human history while settling down to raise ungrateful children.

I think our young people of today live in equally revolutionary times, and wonder how our radicals will cope when they fail.

Beethoven’s Creed

Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven

It always amazes me how a chance encounter can so much influence our lives. For example, the great 19th century German composer, Ludwig van Beethoven found the following text in the French egyptologist, Jean-Francois Champollion’s “The Paintings of Egypt,” where it is set down as an inscription on a temple to the goddess Neith:

“I am that which is. I am all that was, that is, and that shall be. No mortal man has ever lifted the veil of me. He is solely of himself, and to this Only One all things owe their existence.”

Beethoven had his copy framed and kept it constantly before him on his writing desk. The relic was a great treasure in his eyes.

Seeing the Light

The use of light figures prominently in two of the exhibitions currently at the Museum of Brisbane. One, Robyn Stacey’s ‘Cloud Land’, draws us inside her artworks as images of Brisbane from a camera obscura (pinhole camera) are captured on the walls engulfing the viewer. It’s certainly a new way of looking at our city, even if the images are necessarily upside down. As part of the Open House in Brisbane recently, I attended a practical demonstration of the camera obscura in a bedroom in the Hilton Hotel. Lying on the bed made viewing the images more comfortable, but unfortunately the day was cloudy and the images were difficult make out. Well, I suppose the exhibition was called Cloud Land.

Camera obscura image of Brisbane's CBD projected onto the ceiling of a room in the Hilton Hotel
Camera obscura image of Brisbane’s CBD projected onto the ceiling of a room in the Hilton Hotel

The second ‘light’ exhibition at the Museum of Brisbane was a collection of paintings by William Bustard, an Englishman who came to Brisbane in 1921 and, unlike his compatriots of a century earlier who painted the Australian landscape in dark European colours, was profoundly impressed by the distinctive sense of light here. It figures prominently in many of his paintings. However, the biggest surprise I had was to find in a corner of the exhibition, encased in glass, an open book ‘Robinson Crusoe’ showing one of his illustrations.

An illustration by William Bustard in the book 'Robinson Crusoe'
An illustration by William Bustard in the book ‘Robinson Crusoe’

For me, it was a case of remembering things I didn’t even realise I’d forgotten. I had once owned a copy of this book myself, but all memory of it had been submerged by the intervening 60 years. I wonder what ever happened to it? Perhaps it was my own book I was now privileged to look at once more?

Back to the Future

Dr Jacob Bronowski, wrote and presented the 1973 TV series 'The Ascent of Man'.
Dr Jacob Bronowski, wrote and presented the 1973 TV series ‘The Ascent of Man’.

In 1973, Dr Jacob Bronowski  was asked to write and present a documentary BBC television documentary series, The Ascent of Man, along with an accompanying book. Its subject was the history of human beings through scientific endeavour, and was intended to parallel art historian Kenneth Clark’s earlier “personal view” series Civilisation (1969), which had covered cultural history.

In 1974 when asked by Michael Parkinson what his idea for the future was, Bronowski replied: ‘I have no idea, but I am convinced that human beings take pleasure in work, rather than in idleness. I am convinced that when people are accused of idleness, it just means that they are being accused of hating the hum drum job that doesn’t tax them that they have been put into. So I am convinced that the ideal world for every human being is one in which he or she does a job that they are good at, like doing, and gives them satisfaction. That’s my utopia.’

Today, finding suitable employment for our disenfranchised is one of our major challenges.

A quote from Dr Jacob Bronowski.
A quote from Dr Jacob Bronowski.

If Only They Had Lived

My Last Words about Moreton Bay
My Last Words about Moreton Bay

I find it interesting to know what projects famous artistic people were working on when they died, and how it intertwined with their lives at the time. Here are some of my favourites:

  • A month before his death at 93, film actor, Christopher Lee, had signed up to star with an ensemble cast in the Danish film ‘The 11th’.
  • Richard Wagner, the 19th century German composer was planning another opera ‘Die Sieger’ (The Victors). I read somewhere that a teenage Adolf Hitler tried his hand at completing it.
  • David Lean, the British film director, was about to begin filming Joseph Conrad’s book ‘Nostromo’ when he died. In 1997 Alastair Reid directed it as a British-Italian television drama miniseries.
  • Stieglitz Larsson who wrote the ‘Millennium Trilogy’ died shortly after delivering the manuscripts and so could not witness the book and films subsequent huge popularity.
  • In the summer of 1959, Boris Pasternak, Russian poet and author of ‘Doctor Zhivago’ , began work on a drama to be called ‘The Blind Beauty’.  It was to be a drama of the 19th century in Russia with its main event the liberation of the serfs. He envisioned the drama as an ambitious trilogy, but unfortunately only lived to complete the first act.
  • After he had finished ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ in 1984, Sergio Leone wanted to make a war epic film based on Harrison Salisbury’s book ‘The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad’, about the Eastern Front during World War II. Leone settled on the idea of following an American war photographer, to be played by Robert De Niro, as he found himself trapped in Leningrad for years during the German siege of the city. Leone secured $100m in financing and the cooperation of the Soviet government and had hired regular collaborator Ennio Morricone to compose the score when he suddenly died of a heart attack in 1989 at the age of 60.
  • I had been writing about Moreton Bay for 25 years when Rosemary Opala supplied her sketch of what she imagined would be my final words as I disappeared beneath the surface of the bay’s waters….glug..glug…