Adolphe Sax or why I love memoir

Photo by Molnár Bálint on Unsplash

I am fascinated by memoirs and biographies. When reading novels, we understand the need to suspend disbelief, but true stories are often stranger than fiction. Take the life of Adolphe Sax who invented the Saxophone. If an author had made him the protagonist of a novel, we would think they were prone to exaggeration.

Born in 1814 in Belgium, Sax was accident prone. It strikes me as implausible that the man could have lived to the ripe old age of 80. He was hit on the head by a cobble stone which sent him careering into a river, yet he didn’t drown. He somehow survived poisoning several times over after drinking acidic water which looked like milk. He came close to dying several times, sleeping in rooms where furniture varnish was left to dry. He fell onto a hot frying pan, burned himself again in an explosion, swallowed a pin and fell from the height of three storeys onto his head. Yet he survived them all, invented the saxophone, and for his troubles lived out his life in penury. Voltaire may have pulled off such a ridiculous plot but not many others could.

This is what I love about people’s lives. The twists and turns, sliding door moments, disasters and moments of divine intervention that are both implausible and believable at the same time. We trust in them because we have experienced something similar in our own lives. We run into an old friend thousands of kilometres from home, we meet a stranger who is destined to be the love of our life or conversely, an accident turns our life upside down. Our experiences are joyous, humbling, exhilarating, painful and unfair, but they all allow us to learn and grow.

Reading a memoir gives me a window into someone else’s struggle and the lessons they have learnt. Writing my own memoir allows me to reflect on my own experiences and try to make sense of them. We are meaning making creatures and we need our personal narrative to make sense.

Writers’ Hour by London Writers’ Salon

There are many disciplined writers, but I am not one. There have been weeks, sometimes months when all I have done is to agonise about writing but get a single word down. And then there have been times when I have found that magic state of flow. Inevitably, a busy period at work throws a spanner in the works and I fall out of the habit.

A few months ago, my friend Margaret Paton, who single-handedly organises the Central West Writers’ Group, put up a post on our Facebook page.

Writershour.comDaily Writing Sessions. Brought to you by London Writers’ Salon.

I was intrigued. It took me a while to work out that there were in fact several writers’ hours, all held between 8 and 9 am around the world. The one in London is between 5pm and 6pm Australian Eastern time, while the New York hour comes on at 10pm to 11pm. As I am night owl, I tend to catch the New York session but sometimes I am lucky enough to be home by 5 to take part in the London session.

The concept is deceptively simple. Writers log onto Zoom at the specified hour, a host mutes the conversation and welcomes us all. There is an explanation of the process: we are to type our intention for the next 50 minutes into the chat pod and some of these are read out. We may be sitting isolated from each other yet there’s a definite feeling of community. We are all comforted by the couple of hundred people sitting in their own space, all engaged in the writing process and experiencing similar struggles and joys.

The host reads out an inspiring quote, we raise a glass of water or cup of tea and off we go, keeping our cameras on for extra accountability, or not. After fifty minutes, a voice gently invites us back into the ‘room’. We use the chat pod to say how we went, whether we reached our goal for the hour and how we felt. One or two people are randomly chosen to report back before we say goodbye. It is as simple as that.

Since coming across the London Writers’ Salon, I write every day. I am beginning to recognise faces and love the way we encourage each other. I feel part of this wonderful world-wide community and best of all, I have written many thousands of words. I only wish I had come across the London Writers’ Salon when they first went online during lock down. Since then, they have grown exponentially. There aren’t many positives I can point to when it comes to Covid, but the Writers’ Hour is definitely one. I have finally found my community and reawakened my enthusiasm for writing.

For the past three years I have struggled with writing my memoir. Within a few months of regularly attending Writers’ Hour, I have completed my first draft and I’m now using my daily writing habit for editing. I never thought I could say that I’m looking forward to when my book is published. Thanks to the London Writers’ Salon, that day is now within reach.


Every night I walked to our closest phone box and dialled 809 409, Janet’s phone number. I hopped up on the bench where the phone books were kept and steadied my feet against the opposite glass wall. I was quite comfortable sitting there and could easily talk for three quarters of an hour as long as adults didn’t come along trying to make a call. I ignored them for as long as possible and relied on my dog Scooby to dissuade them from banging on the door. I can’t for the life of me remember the things we talked about, but I suspect we told each other the minutiae of our day and made plans for the Elvis movie we would watch on the weekend. All this was mine to enjoy for 5c.

We alternated the weekends we spent at each other’s places. Janet would come to my place, and I would spend the next at hers. We had to take two trains and walk a good 15 minutes to half an hour at each end to arrive at our destination, but we didn’t mind.

I loved going to Janet’s place. She had a brother who ignored us most of the time, but her parents accepted me into their house and always made me feel welcome. Her mum, Gillian, was the kindest woman I knew and spending time out at Blackburn made me feel part of a real family who did things together. Janet and I walked her dog, a corgi called Melody on Saturday afternoon while her brother Ian, walked his beagle ahead of us.

Janet’s place was ordered and predictable. It felt like a real home. There was a rhythm to the family’s weekends and for the most part, the house was relatively calm and everyone got on. Their lives ran like clockwork. Saturday lunch was a tin of tomato soup with toast and on Sunday there was roast chicken. Janet’s parents were always there in the background, absorbed in their adult world but it felt like a real family. Their house was light filled and comfortable. Janet’s room which would have once been a sunroom, had large windows facing the backyard where majestic Elms provided shade. I loved waking up on the camp stretcher looking out into their lush garden.

My weekends were generally stress free in those early years with Janet, but my weekdays were rather drab and unexciting. I was generally home by six when my father arrived home, he cooked, we ate and then headed to the pub. After that we watched a cop show and went to bed. This was repeated every weekday. Life at Janet’s was quite different.  Their house seemed abuzz with her dad listening to the Goons on the radio every Saturday, her brother Ian playing the Beatles behind closed doors and her mum out in the kitchen humming while she did some household chores. Even the dogs were allowed inside. The contrast couldn’t have been greater to my place, where my dad listened to easy listening radio turned down low while he fixed handbags in the dining room that had become his workshop. Meanwhile I played Elvis on my record player at the other end of the house.

On weekends at Janet’s, we went for drives in the Dandenongs where we often saw lyre birds put on a display in the temperate rainforests. Then there were the tall mountain ash forests that were so very different to the woodlands of my childhood. No matter how peculiar these trees were, I had the same feeling of protection when I was amongst these stately, smooth-bark trees.

Janet’s family actually went out together. I remember going to Belgrave and taking the Puffing Billy to Emerald Lakeside station. The train snaked its way across wooden bridges as we sat in open air carriages that made me feel part of landscape. We walked to the perfect picnic spot, sat under a tree and enjoyed each other’s company. Eucalypts with their pungent citrus like smell permeated the air and I took slow deep breaths to saviour the moment. The sprawling Australian bush with its thick, untidy undergrowth was beginning to grow on me and feel like home.

When Janet came to my place in Elwood, we spent a lot of time listening to records in my bedroom and in the afternoon or evening we would watch a rerun of an Elvis movie. It didn’t worry us whether that was Clambake, Speedway or Viva Las Vegas. We were delighted when Elvis sang a romantic song at some implausible moment to yet another beautiful woman on the screen. I just wished it was me in his arms. We madly wrote down everything that happened in each scene and then dissected the movie scene by scene, talked about the girls he was kissing, the songs he sang and how he moved when he danced. Elvis was an endlessly fascinating subject for both of us.

One Thursday night, our television broke down just before it was Janet’s turn to stay over. As luck would have it, Double Trouble was going to be on TV that Saturday night. Neither of us had seen this Elvis movie as it wasn’t one that graced the screen too often. Looking back, it is not hard to see why. Not even Elvis could make Old MacDonald Had a Farm sound anything but trite. Regardless, we were keen to see it.

‘I know it’s Janet’s turn to come over, Papa, but we really don’t want to miss this Elvis movie. Can I go to her place, please?’ I begged.

‘Can’t the two of you do something else for once?’ he asked, slightly annoyed at my obsession.

‘You know I wouldn’t miss an Elvis movie for anything!’ I said, pleading now.

The next day, my father came home a little later than usual. He was carrying a 13 inch black and white TV under his arm. The screen was much smaller than our last TV but this one was less bulky and more modern. After giving my father a huge hug, I raced out to the phone box to tell Janet the good news.

While I was delighted that my father had solved our problem, I also recognised that this was quite reckless behaviour. It was the kind of behaviour that would have driven my mother crazy when they were still together. I knew we were a couple of weeks behind on our rent at the time and no doubt other bills were piling up. I wondered what he had hocked to buy that TV. Without noticing, I was beginning to take on the financial concerns just like my mother had done while she was with him.

Museo del Prado, Madrid

When I was four years old, we moved to Madrid. My favourite place was the El Retiro park, a 125 hectare haven, not far from where we lived. From there, it wasn’t far to walk to the Prado, one of the world’s most renowned art galleries. Leaving my mother and sister behind, I skipped across the square, straight past a colossal statue. When I finally reached the six gargantuan columns at the entrance, I stopped and waited for them. Looking up, I felt like a dwarf from the fairytales my sister had read to me. Surely, this palace was where giants lived.

            Years later, my daughter, Ella travelled to Madrid and retraced my footsteps. ‘It says something for a city when art galleries don’t charge admission fees for students,’ she said about the Prado. It was a place of refuge for her. Works by famous Spanish artists like Velázquez, Goya, Picasso, Dali and Miro are found in this gallery, boasting a rich history of Spanish art. She loved them all. And I still remember the gallery clearly, but through the eyes of a child.

            Once inside the giant’s palace, we must have walked through many rooms. It was a most peculiar place. Giants had hung colossal paintings of themselves having fights, eating enormous plates of fruits or walking in dark forests. I was particularly taken by one of the paintings. A group of well-dressed but terribly old-fashioned people stood stiffly, looking straight at me. What caught my eye was the child in the centre. He was dressed in red and looked straight into my eyes no matter where I stood in the room. It was as if he were pleading with me to take him away from the stuffy adults. He looked like a little boy who just wanted to play.

            ‘That painting is very famous,’ my mother said, noticing my interest. ’A Spanish painter called Goya painted it a long time ago. That boy looking at us was a prince.’ 

            I looked at the sad prince in his red pants and found a place to sit with him for a while. I was getting tired walking in the giant’s palace and needed a rest.

‘Will you be alright to stay here for a little while?’ my mother asked.

Yes, I was happy to be left alone with the prince. I rested on a tufted leather bench and stared at my prince from afar. I thought he was a bit like me, surrounded by adults, yet lonely for company. And I knew in my heart that I would always remember him.

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