How we come to have music in our lives

Music. Ah, Music!

Another wonderful art form and very different from the photography I write about in these columns from time to time. Or is it different?

I was provoked to recall my own life journey in music by an article in yesterday’s The Australian newspaper, written by Matthew Westwood, entitled ‘Schooling that sings’. The article was stimulated by conductor and educator Richard Gill’s Peggy Glanville-Hicks lecture, delivered on Monday night in Sydney. It is to be repeated this coming Friday 30th November, at the Deakin Edge Theatre, Melbourne. My home in Paddington, Sydney backs on to the former home of Australian composer and critic Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1912-1990), now a residence for musicians and composers. In Summer the air is filled with the sound of voices practising or instruments being exercised. Music really is in the air.


What is it about music that is so fundamental to our being? From the earliest moments of life outside the womb, mothers in every culture sing to their newborn children. They rock the new little person with a slow rhythm, while gently humming or singing in subdued tones. It’s comfort. Often the cycle of movement is half the pulse rate or around 32 – 35 cycles a minute. Little mechanical (or these days battery-powered) chimes may hang above a baby’s cot, designed to mesmerise them into calming sleep. Lullabies are found in every language and culture. Music is one of our earliest human experiences, even before speech.

In thinking about how important music has been to me in life, I quickly tracked back as I read the piece in The Australian. Pre-school in 1956 had dance and movement, played on the upright piano in Northern Heights school in London, by Miss Hackforth, I think it was. Boys and girls forced to coordinate arms and legs in time. Then we’d be assembled into a semi-circle and taught to sing along with a nursery rhyme already learned from our mothers before our schooling had even started. The Christmas pageant could be relied on to bring out our best (or worst) as we dutifully showed off our new collaborative performance skills. I do recall our triangle concert efforts were not so successful.

At the same time I was being programmed unconsciously to the sounds of my father’s ‘gramophone’. It’s what music streaming once was, only it was played from a vinyl LP! He had been the sales manager for HMV records in the nineteen-thirties. He had wined and dined all the greats of the era; the young conductor Malcolm Sargent, composer Rachmaninov and singer Chaliapin, to name just three. Booming out of my Dad’s dressing room from early waking minutes, before he drove down to the City, would be Bach, Beethoven, Rachmaninov and Wagner. No wonder my mother had confined him to his own room after 20 years of marriage. It really was very loud! I could hear it very clearly from down the hall.

Our visits to Hampstead Parish Church give me my first recollection of performance. The choir was directed by Martindale Sidwell, a musician of enormous influence for some 30 years, who combined being organist and choir master with a similar role at St. Clement Danes. Later he would form his own larger choir, performing all over London, the Martindale Sidwell Singers. At Christmas we would have the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, exposing me to soloists and harmony, and the different voices – the baritone lead in Three Kings and the angelic silence breaking of the processional treble solo from Once in Royal. I clearly remember the special glow that followed those packed events. Music was something special.


(The interior of St. John’s Church, Hampstead, London.)

My boarding school years enabled me to learn the power of the collective voice. I joined the choir at 9. As juniors our first year had us in cassocks, but no surplices. When I graduated up about five inches in height after my first year, I was allowed to use a surplice. That’s the white cover to the black cassock used by most Anglican choirs. Unless one is in a Cathedral choir where purple is the colour of the cassock. As I progressed through the ranks I tackled anthems by Dyson, Jeremiah Clark, CV Stanford and Vaughan Williams. When I was 12 in my final term at prep school I was terrified when my name was read out and I was to sing the processional Once in Royal opening to our end of year Carol Concert. But apart from nerves, all went well. The diligence and care to tutor us and to develop our love of Music was the task of a polio-striken teacher, privately wealthy, David Rowe. He would bring groups of about ten across the courtyard to his on-site residence to listen and critique a variety of music. He had a Quad amplification and loudspeaker system, along with Garrard 301 turntable and SME arm. I learned that these were the best of the best in a new word to me, Hi-Fi. This was the best possible sound reproduction. He was the first person to have stereo (two speakers/split channels.) We were IN the concert hall in his house. Here I learned of solo piano, Schubert, Brahms and many others.

When I went to High School, at Winchester College, music was just as deeply part of day-to-day life. Music appreciation exposed me to works I’d not heard at home. Britten’s Peter Grimes, as well as the musical form of the String Quartet were all new to me. Our teacher, baritone Julian Smith, exposed us to depth, tonality, programmatic music and so much more. As a national performer he could immediately illustrate, as they say today, in real time. Then we simply said, there and then! Meanwhile, with a raucous and non-stop insistence, our hall gramophone bleared out Frank Ifield, Jet Harris, The Shadows and an emerging new band from Liverpool, with the song “From Me to You” – The Beatles!

The annual house singing contest, the Bobber Cup I think it was (?) had our house master cajole teenage newly-broken voices into a semblance of unison. We tackled Schubert’s Ich Grolle Nicht as our serious piece, and did an arrangement of Lazy Bones from the 1930’s, written by Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael. We certainly didn’t win. But it was such fun trying. I remember so clearly the advice and encouragement of legendary cellist and head music teacher, Christopher Cowan:  “If you don’t want your voice to fall flat on a long sustained note, just think sharp.” He was so right. I must have passed that advice to dozens of people over the years.

Our boarding residence or House, was across the road from Music School. The air was full of practising students, – horns, cellos, violins, pianos and voices. I joined the school men’s choir and over three years performed in Bach’s St. John Passion, the Mass in B Minor and  Vivaldi’s Gloria. There were concerts from visiting dignitaries in the town. Soprano Galina Vishnefskaya and Tenor Peter Peers and the Bournemouth Symphony gave us Benjamin Britten’s newly released War Requiem. That introduced me to the war poets and especially Wilfred Owen. 1964 was the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War. The War Requiem made a huge impression. Later I used the closing Let us Sleep movement in a production of Everyman that the school produced. By then I had become the sound man at school and had assembled recording equipment to transfer and record performances. In the school holidays my father took me to hear a prom Concert at the Royal Albert Hall where they played all six Brandenburg concertos. (In those days the echo was so bad you got two concerts for the price of one.) Despite the fifty year age gap, in music we were brothers. I returned to the Albert Hall 18 months ago to hear Mahler’s great Resurrection Symphony (No. 2) in the last but one Prom concert of 2014. The illuminated blue discs, installed in the late seventies, converted the Albert Hall into a wonderful acoustic, and perfect for the extraordinary summer music festival that in 2016 will be celebrating its 122nd season, if I have calculated correctly.


I was a disc jockey in my University days, and an amateur recording engineer. I managed to produce a demo recording of Hey Jude by a new group called the Unauthorised Version, a Group of Magdalen College choral singers of sufficient quality to get them a recording contract. When re-recorded by CBS, it made no 17 in the UK hit parade in 1970. I also made special efforts to go round to the rooms of visiting Australian post-grad student, Roger Smalley to make a concert recording for University radio York. Smalley died recently in Perth having contributed greatly to music over 5 decades. Later I recorded the St. John Passion in St. John’s Smith Square with Richard Hickox as conductor and choral director and Robert Tear as tenor soloist. The resultant recording was submitted to the BBC. For Richard Hickox it gave him his first major recording contract. We had met through his work as choirmaster at my local church, St. Margaret’s, Westminster. On reflection perhaps I should have been a music recording engineer, so much of my early life was music. But again, as I was hopeless at playing an instrument and could only sing reasonably and read music moderately, it wasn’t a serious option.

By the time I was 25 I had witnessed performances conducted by Klemperer, Sargent, Boult, Mackerras, Groves, Downes, Haitink, Davis, Previn, and many other European maestros. I saw Rostropovich play cello, Menuhin play violin and Ashkenazy delight us with Rachmaninov. I lived in the Royal Festival Hall on London’s Southbank most weeks through the season. I was even at the recording session of the 3rd Symphony by the last directly connected Mahler student conductor, Yascha Horenstein. I worked in a wonderful record shop with his nephew, Mischa. I will never forget the electricity of that day in Croydon Town Hall, the venue for the Unicorn recording. John Georgiadis, then leader of the LSO, broke his bow string in the final bars; the second player in the violin desk threw his bow at Georgiadis and the recording went through to the end. Such is the passion of emotion and professionalism of inspiring performers. The show must go on, regardless. When I saw in the closing credits that Georgiadis had featured in the boutique 2012 Dustin Hoffman directed movie, Quartet about retired performers, my mind raced back to his glory days as a 40-something musical giant. Such is the travel of life.

As my own children grew up music was again pervasive in their lives. We visited the Sydney Opera House. I even saw my eldest daughter perform dance there in a young people’s performing arts festival, dressed as a punk Boy George. And if some of the other spectacles were harder to take and enjoy, I only had to look to the ceiling of Utson’s great building to seek visual stimulus.

DSCN1007 sydophse int roof_mono_blog(Roof of interior of The Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House. )

The children put on concerts in our house, and combined them with dress-up events. Neighbours and their children were involved. Both performed as singers in their teens, my eldest as a soloist in Mozart’s Exultate Jubilate, no less. Later after being joint-musical director for a University performance of the musical, Guys and Dolls, which she also choreographed, she became a consummate performer of Edith Piaf songs, some of which I video recorded before she ceased singing regularly. So highly treasured. My youngest has been a part-time concert/artist promoter for six years, bringing over 200 artists together with a musician friend to over 10,000 audience members. We have also sat together in Sydney’s superb Opera House and watched the finals of the ABC Young Performer’s awards. She gripped my hand as I sobbed my way through a rising young star’s breathtaking performance of Mahler’s Der Kindertotenlieder (Songs for a departed child).sydoperahouse_normalfield_jds_8517 2_blog

(Detail of the archway at the ground entrance of the Sydney Opera House)

Our lives have been enriched profoundly by music. But it’s been through passion, enthusiasm, encouragement, and stretching our comfort zones to learn. If a record dealer, David Foulger, had not goaded me into going to a concert to hear Messian’s Turangalila Symphony in 1969, I would never have discovered the French composer’s enormous range of organ works which are perhaps the finest examples of their type from the 20th Century. And now, in later years, possibly I would not find so much solace in the magic of John Rutter’s choral masterpieces, or the eternally uplifting tones of Miles Davis’ rendition and arrangement of Gershwin’s Summertime.

“If Music be the food of love, Play On,” said Shakespeare.

Let no student go without the life-enriching learning of performance and listening to music of all types. Richard Gill’s initiative so needs to be supported broadly in all Australian communities. This journey will make for a unifying link for our multi-cultural nation that can unite us like nothing else. Because it speaks from our souls and disperses our differences, in harmony. And, as it turns out, it’s a universal language that speaks to us like the great photograph.

All images and text are Copyright John Swainston, 2015. All rights reserved.

Aylan Kurdi joins Kim Phuc in changing the world: Warning – Confronting Images.

In the last thirty-six hours, news services, blogs, social media and websites around the globe have posted an Associated Press picture of a little 3-year old Syrian child, later identified as Aylan Kurdi, washed up on the shores of a Turkish beach. It was an anonymous tribute in the Obituary pages of today’s The Sydney Morning Herald that shocked me to the core as I sipped my first coffee at 6.30am.


Aylan’s father, Abdullah, spoke in Turkey of the unimaginable loss of little Aylan and his elder brother Galip and his efforts to save them. They had fled Syria and paid a People Trafficker over A$2,800 to attempt the journey into the EU in Greece. Such a desperate plight, which also resulted in the horrific death of his wife, Rehana, is beyond understanding.aylan-kurdi-AP picture

Picture © Copyright AP.

I have friends on social media who have stated their distress for being confronted with the image on Facebook when they logged on on Thursday morning. I understand it can not be to anyone’s liking. I agree: That’s not what Facebook set out to provide as a service. It is however part of a world in which we humans, alone of the animal species, express considered thoughts, emotions and communicate across national and international boundaries, in different languages. It’s a world where the desperation of tens of thousands is so extreme they will risk everything. For a remote chance at life.

The losses in the Mediterranean this year have been appalling. Boat after boat through the summer months has been upturned, sprung leaks, sunk. Hundreds have been lost in single events.

When I see the picture posted and this one below, of the two little brothers, I see, (and I think most parents see), a collage of our own children’s faces within these images. If you have not had the joy of your own children, you will see the faces of nephews and nieces, of your neighbours’ little ones. The memorial pictures of these children are, but for the Grace of God, whoever or whatever such a power may or may not be, the pictures of those near and dear. It’s extremely personal and very confronting. Because it tests our resolve and forces us to confront our own values and behaviours. Our shock gives way to the realisation that our own actions and inactions on war, on civil disobedience, in public and private life, in attitudes to climate change, to big-business, to the homeless man or woman we carefully move past on the sidewalk,  – all are who we are, and such actions are the definition of our humanity or lack of it.

aylan-kurdi + brother

Three other ‘history-changing’ images were part of my youth. And they all have a personal connection. Each image changed the course of political direction, two probably influenced the end to the war in Vietnam.

As a fourteen year-old at English boarding school, I was an avid reader of newspapers. (I still am, what’s left of them!) In early Summer of 1963 I had been reading of growing rumours of alleged misdeeds by British Defence Minister John Profumo. Once the scandal broke a hapless lady of the night, one Christine Keeler, was hounded by the media to tell of her association with the Minister. But it was the sensitive studio-based picture by the late Lewis Morley, society photographer to the raving 1960’s, who caught the ordinariness of a young woman trying to earn a living, caught up in the Cold War. This image hung like a noose around Morley for the rest of his days – it defined him in the eyes of most commentators. Morley’s image resulted weeks later in forcing Prime Minister Harold MacMillan from office. A year later Labour scraped into power and Britain sank from Empire under the grey hand of Harold Wilson.

Today the Morley image has become a collectable piece of fine art. For twenty years I grew to know Morley, who retreated for a new life in Australia in the 1970’s, exactly a decade before I did the same with my family. Lewis maintained to the end that the power of that image was its innocence, something he insisted on, clearing his studio of all hangers on, so the poor girl could comply with the magazine contract, which stipulated she be photographed without clothes. Morley’s picture revealed nothing, through sensitivity and quick thinking. But for English society, the picture of a seated naked alleged prostitute shook and shocked English society as never before.


© Lewis Morley, 1963.

Eddie Adams, American war photographer, was the witness to General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, the South Vietnamese police chief, shooting a VietCong Soldier, Nguyễn Văn Lém. The head-on image of the gun in the police chief’s right hand, a millisecond before it was fired, shocked the world, when it first appeared in the New York Times, and later Time Magazine. That February 1968 image, taken at the start of The Tet Offensive, was also the picture that, for most, defined Adams. But he often stated it was not his most important or best picture.

RETRANSMISSION TO RESIZE FILE--FILE--South Vietnamese National Police Chief Brig Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executes a Viet Cong prisoner with a single pistol shot in the head in Saigon Feb. 1, 1968. Nguyen died Wednesday, July 15, 1998 at his home in Burke, a suburb of Washington, D.C., after a battle with cancer, said his daughter, Nguyen Anh. He was 67. This photo of Nguyen aiming a pistol point-blank at the grimacing prisoner's head became a memorable image of the Vietnam War. The photograph, by Eddie Adams, won a Pulitzer prize for The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)

“Nguyen” by Eddie Adams – © 1968 Wide World Photos. Copy found at BBC News. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –

I met Adams once, walking quietly through a Photo Marketing Convention show, arriving on the Nikon stand in either Las Vegas or New Orleans in 1998, some six years before he died. His distinctive pony tale helped me recognise him immediately. I knew of him and this picture; and I had read about his comments. In trying to strike up a conversation I asked him how he had been selected to become a combat photographer in Korea all those years ago, asking if he had used a Leica or one of the new Nikons. (He eventually did get a Nikon.) In his very direct way he simply recalled that being a photographer helped him avoid using weapons himself, but enabled him to fight for causes he believed in that supported America. He was always blunt. On the death of General Nguyễn years later he was to tell a television audience that “he was a Goddam hero” and that Nguyễn had fought for a just cause.

Adams believed his most important work was a photo essay on Vietnamese refugees who made it to Thailand, only to be towed out to sea again by Thai Authorities. Such a story is challengingly familiar to Australian readers. He used those images to argue a strong case for compassion. His award-winning work is believed to have influenced President Carter to allow some 200,000 Vietnamese refugees to go the USA. Other Vietnamese refugees and their descendants, are now  a vital part of our own Australian community – hard working, hard studying, high achievers, valued members of today’s Australian community.

The last picture that shocked is Nic Ut’s 1972 picture of the Napalm Girl, or as it is better known, the ‘Girl in the Picture.’ That girl was Kim Phuc. She was recorded running down a Vietnamese road, having been badly burned by American bombers dropping Napalm. That picture ultimately forced Nixon to abandon the war. Because it changed Americans’ attitudes fully against the war. I was on my first visit to the US when this picture featured in American media. Everyone talked about it, whether they were for or against the war. It shocked as much as the picture by Bob Jackson of Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby had shocked Americans a decade earlier.



Image: © Nic Ut, 1972. Agency: Associated Press (AP).

In 1995, Kim Phuc, by then the mother of a small child, Thomas, featured in a photograph that was a cornerstone picture of a book called Family, in an amazing New Zealand photography project unusually entitled Milk.  The picture, created by photographer Anne Bayin in Canada, Phuc’s home today, defines new life while reminding us of her own terrible deforming injuries. In 2004 Kim Phuc came to Australia to open a show of the pictures from the Milk project, which Nikon sponsored, on the forecourt of The Sydney Opera House. The grace and peacefulness of her words over a very special private dinner, with just six present, is possibly the most life-changing event of my life. She recounted her years of struggle. But she exuded a message of peace and forgiveness. I realised that out of the most appalling calamity, sometimes good can result, even if not directly.


© Anne Bayin, 1995, Kim Phuc and son Thomas.

The picture of  little Aylan’s lifeless body on a distant shore this week surely must change even the most hard-hearted of minds. It MUST! If we are in any way beings of compassion and decency we will realise that anything is better than forcing desperate people to pay traffickers for the chance to escape, risking everything.

My life in photography has been filled with chance encounters and enormously heart-warming moments. The little lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi is a picture that must stir those of us who are so fortunate and give others the possibility of HOPE!


All words in this article are © Copyright John Swainston, 2015.

The pictures are subject to the copyright protection of their owners, their agencies and those attributed above. They are re-published here in the hope that showing them will influence change for good.

Sections of this article have been assisted by information checked in Wikipedia.


Why is Political Leadership in Australia so absent on The Environment?

Wednesday  September 1st, 2015 – Sydney
Last night I attended the Sydney launch of an important new book by former Australian of The Year, Tim Flannery.

flannery-atmospher-of-hope-petersham_JDS2072-fbThe book is called Atmosphere of Hope. You can buy it online or in your local bookstore. As a photographer who always carries a camera, I recorded some moments of Flannery’s speech at Petersham Town Hall, as he gave us some insight to the broader possibilities for CO2 mitigation and made a picture of the full-house gathering of 170 faithful, noting the extensive line of people waiting for Flannery to sign their own precious copy just purchased.Author Tim Flannery signs Atmospher of Hope for Berkelouw Peters

Continue reading Why is Political Leadership in Australia so absent on The Environment?

The man who is tired of London… Johnson and Wren

After enjoyable and informative visits to St. Martin-In-The-Fields, St. Mary le Strand and St. Clement Danes, it was time to head off. After all – St. Paul’s Cathedral had been my goal. In 1975, forty years ago, I attended a wedding in the crypt below. It was a wonderful couple – a then-popular actress and her dashing actor husband. Her parents were neighbours in our flat, just off Baker Street. The marriage did not end well, so no names. As I head off, inspired by the restored St. Clement Danes, it is with these memories of four decades earlier and that wedding celebration to egg me on. And it’s the excitement I’m feeling from rediscovering the city of my birth and youth.

Continue reading The man who is tired of London… Johnson and Wren

How pleasant to know Sir Christopher Wren!

Walking where one’s eyes takes one can lead to wonderful discovery. Two days on my recent visit to England, led me to scratch the surface of some London history. That history charts a direct path to the London of today.  I encountered the important architectural work of James Gibbs, the abode of Dr. Samuel Johnson and the legacy of Christopher Wren: A man of letters who gave us the English dictionary, and an architect who was inspired by the Italian Renaissance to give us St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. Clement Danes and the Royal Observatory at Greenwich down river, and who in turn was a key guidance in the career of Gibbs.

Continue reading How pleasant to know Sir Christopher Wren!

French Country Life: Less Travelled By

If you think about France for a few seconds, what comes to mind? Wine, Fine Food, baguettes, croissants, Paris? Or TGV or Airbus in contemporary terms.

Three weeks in a country, happily, enables you to dig deeper than a quick business trip. There are special traits that will either endear you to a country or possibly irritate you. Just when you think the traits of a country you recall fondly from childhood are gone, you experience the mountains of Southern France and its people.

Continue reading French Country Life: Less Travelled By

Famous, Less Famous and Timeless in France

I have spent a lifetime living out of a suitcase. After fifty years I am still not a good packer – too many things, just in case! A bit like my home office.

It’s been two weeks and four locations so far. I know I have at least 4kg more clothing than I’ll need. And I really should have stuck to two lenses for my camera. Because in two weeks away that’s nearly all I have used. A magnificent set of Tamron twins: The Super Wide Angle 15-30mm f/2.8 VC, and the highly versatile new 28-300mm full-frame megazoom. The versatility of Nikon’s D750 camera has enabled some shots at ISO 6400 that I’d swear are as sharp and noise-free as images I used to sweat over, shot at ISO 800 just a decade ago.

I mention all this because in the last three days I’ve been exposed to hordes of  all-conquering tourists at the Musée D’Orsay and Versailles in and near Paris, a tiny and delightfully picturesque pair of small towns and villages in Sancerre and Apremont-Sur-Allier, and an even smaller village of Couzon some 30km’s further south. In each case I have had to make decisions on what to capture in pictures, what will be of meaning in some future years and to take enough time to let what I see soak in. But it’s more than just the sights.


As photographers it is so easy to just grab the camera, phone or tablet, point it at something and snap away. In the Musée D’Orsay I saw countless eager sightseers, on a pressed timeline, rush into the venue, grab endless selfies and dash off. They had hardly seen anything. In the famous street scenes people are obsessed with holding up a few buildings (Think Leaning Tower of Pisa outreached-arm shots.) Or they model in front of a famous statue. I saw one Chinese tourist acting out the same pose as the statue directly beside her, art-directed by a complicit partner.

Another method favoured by even more time-pressed tourists just landed on the red-eye from Asia, is to switch on their ageing video camera and walk with it vaguely in front of them, shaking it mercilessly, as they race to keep up with the flag-waving tour group leader, who plods relentlessly onwards. He knows he has to get his hapless protégés to the next commercial shop in order to get his commission.


It’s not until their return, if then, that they will actually begin to experience what they have seen. In fact most are not looking at all, except through a viewfinder or the screen of their phone/tablet. And in doing so they are failing to absorb that important moment of contemplation, of thought. In June through November this year they will look at the Sky mirror of British contemporary artist, Anish Kapoor, and see it as a simple mirror, unrelated to the wonderful hall of mirrors within the Château, and the other lateral mirror nearer the building, all great contemporary art.

Copyright, Anish Kapoor, 2015. Link to The Guardian)

At the Musée D’Orsay they will fail to understand the re-imagining of how a post-Impressionist Bonnard thought through the colours, tones and atmosphere of his scenes and portraits, dabbed away sometimes with a brush, sometimes with longer strokes; when to twist and rotate his brush and then when to use the flat knife to build layers of colour to create another effect entirely.

In an exhibition spanning his entire working life in multiple locations his style changed, the brush movement clearly became longer, with more economy. Was he getting tired? Was he better able to express his vision in less detail? His scale seemed to become grander, the Triptique at the exhibition’s end clearly suggests something broader. Without pausing, without reflecting or listening and then reading more later, the whole experience will have been but a multi-coloured blur, akin to a Jimmi Hendrix Album or Oz cover as created by the late Australian artist, Martin Sharp.

The visit to Versailles, something I had somehow managed to miss in 6 decades of trips to France, was even more remarkable for the pace at which people rushed through the great rooms of the Sun King. Versailles is to the west of the Seine river, distinctively not Paris. In the town itself there is a wonderful lazy air. On a baking hot 35 degree June day it was almost the pace of Mexico in summer.


The buses were parked in their dozens just outside the gates. As the bus-door opened they rushed out. It’s uphill to gain entrance to the Château, across unevenly cobbled granite-stone grounds. And yet they literally tumbled out and scrambled to get into formation to make a security-crushed entrance through the gates, to disappear in a cacophony of shouting to seek out the Hall of Mirrors and the King’s apartment. Ah, That box can be crossed off!


(Detail from below the centre of the Hall of Mirrors, looking directly upwards through the chandelier.)

When I asked one of the tolerant room attendants if this was the usual pace of visitors she told me that 90 minutes was a long visit for most. Le Château de Versailles has over 700 rooms and more than 2,000 windows. It took hundreds of years of development and was home to Louis XIV, the Prussians (In the siege of Paris) in the Franco-Prussian War a hundred years later, to Hitler’s occupying generals in the Second Wold War and now the people of the world as tourists. I took six hours and did about 20%. I walked a tiny part of the gardens on a wet Sunday a few days earlier. Never even got to see the amazing Theatre and so many other exhibits.

Just to take in the exterior façades of the building took me ninety minutes, to assess the relationships of the forms of each of the gardens, to detect the patterns of fleurs-de-lis, to take in the perspective and how their shape and form was viewed from the galleries within the Château, how it differed t ground level. All this would have been missed by these busy tourists ‘doing Versailles’.


From arguably the grandest gardens in the world to a series of simple decorative delights at the edge of the Allier river. It’s Two hours drive south of Paris. As it flows north, it leads to the magnificent Loire River. Here lies the village of Apremont-sur-Allier. We encountered an older tourist, mostly European, taking their time. You have to go deep into magnification on Google maps to locate this little gem. Here were cyclists ambling through and stopping for refreshment. They had to contend with a heatwave, so the shade of a large riverside tree and the softness of some newly-grown grass made the perfect afternoon repose. There were rows of flowers trained and grown through multiple decades, simply to delight visitors and the small local population. No wonder it’s rated as one of the most beautiful villages in France. The fragrance was magnificent and pervaded the streets. If you made time to pick up the scent and smell the roses.


Tourism can be experienced in so many different forms. In two weeks away I have started to appreciate the value of looking until I see; of pausing until I hear the subtleties of bird calls unfamiliar to one from the southern hemisphere; of slowing until I smell the roses. At the river-side garden with no walls outside a café hung a simple metal sign, with the words Carpe Diem. Seizing the day was to grasp at how precious time and reflection is in the balance of life.


Last night, standing at the edge of a small lake in the remotest of villages, Couzon, some 30 minutes west of Moulins at the heart of The Allier, I simply let the beauty of the fading like soak in. The ducks noisily waddled off in protest at my arrival, the trees hardly breathed in the still air. The golden flecks of cloud turned to red and the intensity of the blue at the top of the sky was palpably breathtaking. I reflected on the ability to pace oneself and re-connect. Not with a Facebook friend or to generate an Instagram hit. But to connect our souls and the world we have left, perhaps working to restore something lost in the post-industrial age.

sunset-on-the alier_JDS6951

All text and Photos © Copyright John Swainston, 2015, except where noted.

Paris in the Summertime: Fifty years on.

tour eiffel_silhouette_JDS5933-fb

June can be a wonderful season in Paris. It can also be bitterly cold. This year it’s also been bright, sunny and wonderfully warm too. That’s the way it’s always been. A bit like Melbourne really! Several seasons all in one day. Making my first extended visit to this inspiring City in more than twenty years, -a City so steeped in revolutionary history, made all those changes in temperature, wind, rain showers and glorious emerging sunshine seem so insignificant. It’s a chastening contrast to the rushed 24-hour stops I made to visit French suppliers. Paris is so special. At its heart it is still the Paris of my youth fifty years ago.

I first visited Paris when I was fifteen. I arrived after a rough Channel crossing on the old boat train, into the Gare du Nord station. In those days as you walked past the the engine driver, who would be hanging out of his train, you would bow in acknowledgement and say thank you! It was a fine April morning. I was accompanied by my chaperoning mother who was delivering me to an exchange family. I was near the bottom of the class in French and it was her stern resolve to see that situation changed. Immersion exposure to the French language in a family where no-one speaks any English, was the solution!

Before the handover we checked in at the Duminy Hôtel, just off the Rue du Rivoli opposite the Tuileries Gardens. In the mid-sixties this was a simple 2-star private hotel. Guests were largely people formerly of some means, immaculately dressed, but quite clearly needing to conserve their centimes. At least that’s my recollection. Today it’s very much a boutique hotel with 70 fully priced rooms to match.



(Picture supplied by Duminy Vendome Hotel)

Back then it was not the George Cinq! As part of familiarisation for our new digs I was introduced by the bellman to the “Winston Churchill” or “Le Double Vay Cay” (phonetically), some doors away down the hall from my room. No inbuilt bathrooms. Learning one’s way around the hallway was important. The French were appreciative of old Winnie’s conquering ways twenty years earlier. But, naming the smallest room in the house after the great wartime leader did not appeal to my very British upbringing. More on WSC later.

After walking through the nearby gardens, witnessing that famous round pond memorialised by Kertesz, we window-shopped the little antique stops and small galleries that then occupied the fine Rivoli arcade. Sadly today much of it is run down and occupied by money changers, gift shops and pop-ups, as well as far too many displaced or impoverished migrants seeking assistance.


That April 1965 evening my mother and I ate a quiet meal in the very small hotel dining room and made an early night of it. The hard tubular pillow was a new experience, but sleep came easily after the prior night’s travel adventures. Next day broke crisp and bright, though only discovered when we again ventured out. The little back room which I occupied allowed precious little light of any kind to enter from outside, tucked away as it was in the corner on the third floor overlooking the courtyard.

I was duly brushed up to look my best and at noon, a taxi was summoned for the short ride over the Pont d’Alexandre III, down the impressive drive approaching Les Invalides, and around the side of the great national war museum in the heart of Paris. It was just round that building and into a wonderful tree-lined street, the imposing Avenue Breteuil. We duly pulled up at Number 14 and my mother dismissed the taxi in her well-intentioned French.


(This picture is as close as I can recall, identical to a Kodachrome taken fifty years earlier which I have somewhere back in Sydney on an archive scan.)

After pressing the bell, we were ushered in by the Concierge. She was dressed in regulation black dress. She wore round-rimmed glasses, all-seeing. Such people know more about the goings-on of Parisian Society than any law-breaking newspaper hacker, or even the infamous Canard Enchaîné scandal sheet. A tiny two-person lift transported my mother and I and my bag upstairs to the second floor. The door, as if by magic, opened. We were duly ushered in.

This was, even to my young eyes, an old-money apartment. A long hallway with doors that stretched to the 3 metre ceilings. Eight bedrooms, a salon, a dining room, a smoking room and a study. It was a world completely new in every sense. I was to ‘endure’ this for two weeks, before also ‘enjoying’ a third week in their house in Val D’Isère for my one and only (failed) attempt at skiing. The treatment continues but little progress in fifty years! But that’s a story for another day.

All this came flooding back as I walked the same route I remember walking most mornings. I was allowed to venture out by my hosts and spent much of the day sitting on the banks of the Seine River. It flows through the heart of the city and still has working barges weaving between the Bateaux Mouches tourist variety.  I was equipped with camera and sketch pad, drawing (badly) and taking the odd picture with my Ilford Sportsman, a 35mm camera loaded with Kodachrome 25, – a 13th birthday present. Although I had been at boarding school since the age of six (yes, seems unthinkable today) I really was experiencing freedom for the first time.


The walk through the gardens is still breathtakingly beautiful. This year with my long-suffering French wife, I ventured further, discovering the beautiful Palais Royal for the first time. These days all the buildings are water-blasted to a pristine cleanliness that marks Paris out amongst European cities as something special. The Arrondissements around the centre of town, the 6th, 7th and 16th that I walked through in a four-hour re-discovery walk, have all maintained facade styles and height limits that were typical of the revolution period two hundred years earlier. Cobbled stones still pave much of Parisian streets. Scooters are everywhere, weaving within millimetres of buses and hapless tourist cyclists.

But for all that, Paris retains its essential character of superiority, history, reverence for its victorious armies and generals (and sometimes not,) as well as its royal history in the era of the Sun King and Versailles.

Going into Les Invalides on a Monday meant the main museum was closed. But still available was the great dome, containing Napolean’s casket, and other great heroes of five generations of La Grande République. There too the chapel within and its beautiful pipe organ, dating from the 1680’s. It produces a sound unique to French instruments, and no doubt a great inspiration to two great French composers, Saint Saens and Olivier Messiaen, in the twentieth century. The great Church and Cathedral Organs of Germany and England sound quite different.


And in the middle of it all was a special exhibition exploring the history and quality of the relationship between Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill. In my childhood De Gaulle was the French President who, after being hosted by Britain throughout the war to enable him to bring together the resistance and re-invading forces and eventually restore French government, had rejected England in the formation of Le Marché Common, The Six as it was subsequently called from 1957. Yet with the passage of time, here was an exhibition celebrating the lives in parallel of two heroes of France, their military careers and their ultimate political rejection in 1945 in the case of Churchill, and 1969 for De Gaulle.


(Source: French Government Picture)

And so it was that my first Parisian visit in which Churchill had been used to describe the Water Closet, fifty years on was to see his life celebrated in Paris in the holy-of-holies Musée des Armées, Invalides, alongside the greatest French leader of modern times, General François De Gaulle. A wonderful reminder that the benefit of time and distance allows people to be seen in true perspective and recognised for their true value.


(Part of the Exhibition, depicting De Gualle’s BBC broadcast room,
De Gaulle & Churchill, running at Les Invalides through the summer months of through July 26th, 2015.)

Text and Photo’s © Copyright John Swainston, 2015, except where stated otherwise.


Recycling Cities II: London’s King’s Cross, Euston and St. Pancras

June 2nd 2015

(To view pictures larger, double click and be a bit patient! Takes a short while to grab the 1200 pixel version.)

Today’s post came initially with no pictures. (Editor’s note in November 2015: Some months later I have remembered that this post went up with no pictures, which I am now correcting.)

My MacBookPro decided to die on me. Or rather the battery did. Known problem apparently. But then I am 10 days into a five-week trip, so something one could almost predict. A power shut-down and black screen, but with a battery signalling 92% power remaining, suggests all is not well.

I am now in Paris. I took it in to The Apple Store at L’Opéra. Within minutes of queuing at the Genius Bar, they could see I had a Worldwide Extended Waranty and today I will collect it in less than 24 hours.



It will be complete with replaced top cover, which I had damaged, a new keyboard which in two years I had hammered into several disappearing vowels, and new batteries. Yes, inconvenient, but another example of what I remarked on in my last post on Tesla: Apple, like  Tesla, is not just a product. It’s an integrated system that delivers, even when defective. And while I await collection, I can carry on writing up a WordPress post on my iPad. Now I get it. If I had all my photo’s in Apple Photos and not in Adobe Lightroom, you’d be seeing this with pictures stored in their cloud.

But for now, back to London and last Saturday afternoon, or perhaps to start with, a little bit further back. Fifty years in fact.

As a small boy, going to London’s Euston Station meant one thing. We were off to Scotland for the family holiday. Train was the only way it worked for me. Acute car sickness was an affliction that meant long journeys together in Dad’s ageing Mark 7 Jaguar were out of the question. He would drive up alone, my brother and I would go on our adventure with our mother.

We’d eagerly board the train at about 6.00pm. Soon after pulling out of the station, with an impressive outburst of mechanical strength, in a cloud of steam and soot, we’d be called to the restaurant car to eat a three-course dinner. It was such an adventure and so very grown up. We’d then retire to our seeminlgly sumptuous bunk beds for the night’s journey, often after a few rounds of Happy Families, a then-popular family card game. The night might be interrupted by the loss of motion from the long stop at Crewe, then British Railways big interchange station. Crewe linked the East and West Coast main trunk routes. It featured in songs by Flanagan and Allen and George Formby. A few carriages would be uncoupled and a few more added and after the shunting had finished, off we would go again.

When we woke the next morning and were summoned back to the restaurant coach for breakfast, the LMS steam engine was puffing its way around the West Coast lochs. I remember the long curves of the 10 or 12-carriage train, poking my head out of the window and feeling the exhilaration of the wind in my face, along with the inevitable grit in my eye from the steam train. We’d finally arrive in Argyle at little Dalmally station after more than 13 hours on board. Here the Station Master would personally welcome the ten to twelve passengers who alighted, as if members of his own family returning.

Revisiting London’s train stations today is a big cultural shock. As you approach from the City side to the south, on the face of things, nothing much appears to have changed. But get nearer to King’s Cross. The Great Northern Hotel has no soot on it!


It’s bright clean brickwork and neo-gothic styling from the 1890’s construction is supplemented with glass and steel structures as contemporary as any station in the world. Inside it’s all ultra-modern, with new-gen LCD displays everywhere.


Move over to St. Pancras and the old Station is now the Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel.


The old ticket office is now an upmarket restaurant, with contemporary bar and music systems to match. Below, via glass and stainless steel lifts and elevators is the smart new home of St. Pancras International, – the start of the EuroStar routes to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. The old tea room is replaced by a plethora of boutique restaurants, coffee shops and major brand gift stores. The restaurants serve top quality gourmet foods.


No room for PG Tips tea out of the old aluminium pot from an over-chatty East-end tea lady. No sign of a raincoat-wearing Trevor Howard or Celia Johnson and definitely no Rachmaninov 2nd Piano Concerto as background music. Brief Encounter has given way to Broadway and fine dining.

Euston Station itself is the missing link. In an area buzzing with cranes and visible success, Euston is like a time-warp. Its 1960’s terminus was scheduled for redevelopment as part of the now-ailing HS2 (High Speed 2) project. For now everything is on hold. Government, local council Camden, and the HS2 consortium are at loggerheads. The long-promised link from London through the West Midlands, Leeds and Manchester, due to start as early as next year, has no viable London terminus.

But at St. Pancras and King’s Cross it’s a different story. Walk out of St. Pancras and a host of new high-rise office blocks is already up. Cranes to the North around the Regent’s Canal reveal old warehouse facades backed by modern new creative arts spaces, housing and cafés. Some are still work in progress and evoke visions of the dark satanic mills of the Dickensian past.bw_stpancras_dock_JDS5138-fbBig open area play-spaces for kids, with fountains and skate board riding areas attract people from many miles away, as it’s served by nearly 15 different bus routes and of course the London Tube.


There really are cranes as far as the eye can see.  Even the old Gasometer that splits the St. Pancras and Euston rail lines is getting a preservation-led coat of paint alongside super new steel structures to eventully create new housing.


As I wander past the door of  an experimental theatre centre, I come across Chinese students playing touch football on a newly laid playing field, amidst copious garden plantings and mixed affordable council-owned and owner-occupier properties. Another sign board announces an Architecture exhibition and prize.


Busily working away are people who’ve created models of their planned buildings in the cleared space between old warehouse facades.

The only departure from solid signs of progress is a rather too large, too smart Mercedes for the district, with exceptionally dark windows. The unseasonably warm late May evening forces a window to be opened, and in passing one is uncomfortably aware of a financial transaction underway between two rather daunting gentlemen in dark sunglass cover, in return for provision of substances still illegal even in this progressive country.

Something made me turn south. And as I looked across the skyline of cranes, high rises and more signs of generational change in the use of urban space, I realised that the skyline was revealing to me over ten miles of view, over the Marylebone road trio of King’s Cross, Euston and St. Pancras stations, down over St. Paul’s in The City of London and way down south over the river, to London Bridge and the top of the remarkable Renzo Piano building, The Shard. When I grew up in London the air was seldom clean enough to see that far, heralding another change of environmental significance.


An Indian restaurant, Dishoom, has a queue of several dozen as I pass. From reviews and friend’s comments this is setting new highs in a food tradition long the backbone of many Londoners, now enjoying a renaissance. People are at last venturing beyond Vindaloo, Beef Madras and Buttered Chicken, to the delights of Punjabi flavours from the north and superb textures from South India. But, as with much in London for Antipodean travellers, all at a considerable price!

As I eventually draw closer to home, I pass back by the GridIron building that sits just to the east of St. Pancras and adjacent to King’s Cross.

looking_up_JDS5330-fbThe starkly striking scrolled columns add softness to an otherwise metal facia’d multi-story building, look quite at home in the re-born cityscape. I feel I have unwrapped a brave new world in my journey. I rejoice in how much more one sees on foot than rushing through by taxi or driving.


But on return, the comfort of familiarity in the converted St. Pancras Railway Hotel and its wonderfully converted grand spaces into today’s aptly named St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel, is soothing.


It’s so far removed from the bustling porters, the whistling fruit-stall vendor and the piercing paper boy calling out “Standard, Standard: Suez latest!” Today’s Evening Standard is now a free newspaper and the paper boy is now probably setting up a new incubator start-up in one of the emerging new creative business spaces within the area. He’d be finalising some new technology that will change the world as we know it and perhaps even make the wonders of today’s Apple System obsolete. “Plus ça change; toujours la même chose.”

(Updated and augmented 23rd November 2015 – John S.)

All text and Images are subject to Copyright of the Author. All Rights Reserved.

The Tesla Battery: What it means for Your Future Energy Needs

When Elon Musk stood up and made his dramatic, yet incredibly modestly stated, announcement of the Tesla PowerWall for home installations on April 30th just one month ago, a major tremor went through the boardrooms of the Coal, Gas and Nuclear industry.

A number of commentators have noted that Musk announced nothing technically new. What he did was he packaged up known technology, developed for his car manufacturing program and delivered the missing piece of the alternate power puzzle: A complete system.powerwall_front_angle(Image courtesy of Tesla Energy)

In doing so he followed in the footsteps of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, by delivering not just the interesting concept of a 7 or 10kWh battery storage device (With Edison it was the better light bulb), – but the necessary system to go with it. A storage system which captures both variable wind and solar energy and delivers it at times when the capture device is not able to generate electricity on its own allows a grid-free ecosystem. Edison had done the same by mapping out a network on how to deliver electricity to homes and industry that would make the better light bulb actually useful. Ford broke down multiple complex tasks and developed a system to make the addition of each of these managed steps capable of bringing affordable cars to the masses, so long as they chose the one colour he initially offered.

In a world where Climate Science is constantly questioned by people with an agenda to defend the status quo, the last remaining hurdle – meeting the needs of peak load, on or off the grid, with storage designed to deliver energy when needed, mainly between 4.30pm and 7.00pm or at midday in the tropics when air-conditioning demand on the hottest days can swamp home-cooking energy levels, is solved with economic battery storage.

The GigaFactory in which these PowerWall storage devices (that can be stacked in multiples for higher stored energy needs) will start churning out these devices later this year and reach capacity production early in 2016. The first year’s production was, reportedly, sold out within the first week after Musk’s announcement. Tesla may even start work on a second such factory, as the land has already been earmarked in the Nevada desert. Ironic that this was the same desert in which thermo-nuclear devices were first tested in the mid-1940’s before Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Although the Tesla system does offer new price/performance standards, Musk’s team will not be alone in having available solutions. Panasonic, the Giant Electrical Corporation of Japan, who two years ago acquired Sanyo largely for their battery technology, has also intimated that they will be bringing to market comparable offers. China, which now boasts the largest wind turbine and solar panel production capacity (and a rapidly growing installed base of both,) also suggests products about to come to market that will support base load grid-free electricity that is highly competitive, especially in remoter communities. The social impact on Australian remote Aboriginal Communities alone could be ground-breakingly positive.

It seems to be generally accepted that the raw cost of coal-fired power is typically in a range of US$0.04 – 0.06 per kWh. The price we pay is largely determined by the distribution network. In many countries this infrastructure is ageing, or has been recently upgraded at huge cost to consumers, so prices (as opposed to cost) now typically are north of US$0.25 a kWh, a price with which a 10 kWh solar + stored energy system, off-grid can compete with, largely without subsidy.

The IMF (International Monetary Fund) published a fascinating study into energy subsidies this week. The real meat of this 41-page working paper comes after Page 18. In the chart below we see the scale of the subsidy. Mainly to coal and oil. We are talking over 3% of Global GDP. And the reason is that the mitigation costs of pollution and environmental impact have now been added back in.


(Chart from IMF Working Paper: WP/15/105 – How large are global energy subsidies?)

For the Australian government to carve $2B out of the ‘subsidies’ to solar and wind energy in their budget without also fully informing its electorate what costs we are subsidising in the production, transport and export of coal, is both bankrupt and misleading thinking. It’s straight bad economics, regardless of how foolish it is environmentally.

In the 2014 Energy Update from BREE (The Australian Government Bureau of Resource Economics) the 3 following facts on electricity generation caught my eye.

  • “Total electricity generation in Australia continued to decline in 2012–13, by 0.3 per cent to 249 terawatt hours (897 PetaJoules). This reflects the fall in electricity demand in the industrial and residential sectors in recent years in the National Electricity Market, although has been partially offset by continued growth in off-grid generation.
  • Despite a 7 per cent decline in coal-fired generation in 2012–13, coal remained the largest source of electricity generation in Australia at 64 per cent. Natural gas accounted for 20 per cent of the electricity mix in 2012–13, with gas-fired generation rising by 5 per cent.
  • Renewable generation rebounded in 2012–13 to rise by 26 per cent, to comprise 13 per cent of total generation in Australia. Most of this growth is attributable to increased hydro energy generation, although wind and solar energy also continued to grow strongly.”

Energy efficiency in household lighting and electronics is clearly contributing to reduced electricity demand. But so is the decline in manufacturing, which is long- term less desirable for existing jobs. If we are to make a meaningful impact on improved environmental outcomes to mitigate Climate Change in the world, we have to be clear what the true costs for each factor of energy production are. With efficiencies in solar capture rising each decade by several percentage points (Best practice efficiency in Solar PV is in the 21-22% level, with over 25% in labs), and integrated new generation systems from Panasonic and Sun PV, we should begin the debate on which subsidy is most consistent with the environmental outcomes we need for the future.

As Tesla now gives us real base load solutions, and others will be following soon after, the future for not only achieving the RET (Renewable Energy Target), but logarithmically surpassing it, is increasingly bright.

But it will also need an informed community. And to do that community funded organisations like Australia’s The Climate Council will need to be resourced. Funding is vital to ensure that agenda-driven media and existing Energy financial vested interests do not out-vote informed discussion and priority setting. Since the current Australian government is so hell-bent on placing it’s head somewhere clearly where the sun does not shine on environmental action, it’s up to you and me to ensure we play our part in moving minds for real action on Climate Change, now, while there’s still time.

In a future article I will explore ten quick steps most households and businesses can undertake to ensure a 15-20% reduction in their energy consumption and release of Carbon Dioxide and other human impacts stimulating temperature rise. Such low-hanging fruit frees up other resources to gain up to another 10% through use of new insulation and preventive losses, all with very fast payback.

© Copyright John Swainston, 2015