A Beautiful Moment in China

A Beautiful Moment in China
Yes, I look weathered; it had been a long climb. But I was about to reach the Buddhist temple outside of Shao Xing.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Away with the birds: a character whose centre is music

I’d like you to meet Neddy. He’s a seven-year-old in my book of historical fiction, Song of Australia. When the story opens he’s out at night by himself.

Bare feet on cool ground, Neddy watched the stars. So bright, so clean. He could hear them—happy, sharp, poking his ears to make him sing with them. He opened his mouth, sang little notes like hot sparks from a fireplace, sent them shooting into the sky. ‘Ting! Tong! Ting-ting-tong!’

Neddy relates to the world mainly through sound, and especially through music. That same night, when he hears a public speaker address a meeting inside a hall, he makes a judgement of the person accordingly.

Neddy stopped listening to that voice. It was empty, dead, no music in it. It made him lonely. ‘Ting! Tong!’ He sang softly to the stars and smiled when they all answered together. He had friends.

The boy begins to pay attention again when he hears piano music coming from the hall. He looks through the doorway.

A girl sat at the piano, older than Neddy. He knew her. Sometimes in the front garden of a house near home, she smiled and waved to him as he passed. Her long fair hair twisted into a rope behind her shoulders. Someone in the house called her Elsie. Now her hair-rope was pinned up on her head as she played the piano. Elsie’s music was nice, like magpies he liked to sing with out in the bush. Neddy learnt a lot from magpies.

Both Neddy and Elsie are lead characters in my story. Although she is highly successful at school and he is the polar opposite, they are linked by their gift for music. Yet they approach music quite differently. Elsie is trained in classical pianoforte, but Neddy has had no training—not from a human anyway. He embodies a way of being that our civilisation has largely forgotten—much to its detriment, in my opinion. We have largely forgotten that we are creatures evolved to live in song. Scientific research in recent years indicates that human speech emerged from human song. Reflect on that: song enabled language. What are the implications—in education, for example?

Our civilisation demands that, of all the perceptual modalities available to us, we use vision as the primary channel of awareness. The implicit dogma is that vision is far superior to hearing, touch, smell, taste and kinaesthesia as a means of cognition. In Song of Australia, Neddy’s whole being is centred on hearing and sound, particularly that organised sound which we call music. In fact he’s highly gifted with singing ability, while finding literacy very difficult to acquire because it is taught mainly through vision. Schooling in South Australia a hundred years ago (the setting of my story) was only rarely modified to meet individual needs—unless the student was deemed significantly lacking in intelligence, given an official label like ‘feeble-minded’ or ‘moron’, and placed in a special class or institution. Consider how he must have felt about his schooling: no wonder he runs away to sit in the boughs of the big red gum and sing.

And the magpies? Bear in mind these are Australian magpies, quite different from species by the same name in other countries. They are perhaps the best songsters in the avian world, with a vocal pitch-range of four octaves, a voice with rich overtones (sometimes called ‘flute-like’), an amazing repertoire of calls and a propensity for melodic invention. They can even sing two-note chords! Some people have developed musical relationships with these birds with specific whistle-calls that they answer. Magpies are adept at mimicry: they have been known to learn to utter human words they hear frequently in their territory.

The best of the magpie music, in my experience, is heard in autumn. Breeding is over, the fledgelings have taken to the air, and the bird seems to find leisure time to just sing. Sometimes it’s a duo carolling: one takes the low part and the other erupts into ascending harmony, reaches a climax and then … silence. A few seconds later they begin again, repeating more or less the same phrases. This may continue for ten minutes or more.  Even more enchanting is the warbling of a single magpie at night, usually when the moon is bright. In this context the notes are not as high and the volume also is much lower, too soft to be intended communication with other birds. The magpie high in the gum tree seems to be singing alone for the pure love of it, sometimes for over an hour.

[Listen to a variety of magpie song here.]

In Song of Australia Neddy loves human music but, for him, magpie song is the best. As suspicion, grief and hatred sear the home-front during World War 1, for Neddy the music of magpies is the epitome of beauty and truth.

No breeze stirred the leaves of the old red gum where, cradled in the crook of a thick branch, Neddy sat waiting. They would be here in a minute. The shadows in the little clearing below told him that. This was always the time for the songs to start.

The big tree waited too. The tree wanted to sing. He hummed for it, stroking the trunk. This old tree was always his friend. Like a mother sometimes too. Teachers couldn’t boss him here. Children couldn’t tease him. Tree looked after him. And the magpies.

Neddy stopped humming. Wings whooshed around the trees up there. He stood up on the branch, took a big breath and sang. Magpies joined in. Sometimes their voices were low and soft, sometimes high and loud. They stopped and he sang again and they answered. This went on and on, until the magpies swooped to the ground to feed.

He felt better now. Teachers and nasty children had gone from his ears and his body tingled from singing. He sat again on Old Tree’s branch. But down on the ground … Who?  That girl—Elsie. She was down there, staring up.

‘Hullo Neddy. I love your singing. Come and talk with me.’

You can find Song of Australia on sale at your Amazon website


  1. What an excellent, evocative piece ... especially the bit about magpies and their musical 'prowess'. I am a bird person - I love birds, especially large ones. I loved Song of Australia - all Australians will find something to recognize in it. And all those wanting to know more about our country will find little factoids that bring the place to life.

  2. I'm so glad you enjoyed the read, Rosanne. And birds ... like you, I can't resist their drawing power. I'm not so keen on keeping them in captivity, but in everyday life they give me inner sparks. Why, even now as I write a twenty-eight parrot in a gum tree outside my window is sending a clear two-note call across the valley. And now a black cockatoo's harsh laugh scrapes our tin roof ... Thanks for dropping in, Rosanne!

  3. Another very good piece, Stephen, and very informative, too!

  4. Thank you, Chuck. Knowing the high quality of your work, I value your opinion!