Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 7, 2018

Sensational Snippets: A Coveted Possession, by Michael Atherton

I am reading Michael Atherton’s A Coveted Possession, the rise and fall of the piano in Australia, and I came across this – just one among many intriguing snippets of information…

In a chapter called ‘The Changi Piano: A Conversation with the Past’ Atherton tells readers that old upright pianos usually have markings inside denoting the date of tuning or the names of its cabinet makers, but if you find some signatures of prisoners of war under the lid, it indicates the piano has its own special biography. 

The piano as a symbol of camaraderie, peace and joy is no more poignant than when played by prisoners of war.  In the stark surroundings of a POW camp, the power of music to strengthen and embolden people under duress was reinforced by the piano.  For those captured and interned by the enemy, music and theatre were a means of showing defiance to their captors and keeping despair at bay. (p.134)

Well, the POWs at the notorious Changi POW camp were quick to form the Changi Concert Party, and they used typical Aussie ingenuity to make their own instruments to supplement those that they already had – guitars, piano accordions and saxophones…

However, despite their ingenuity, the POWs could not make a piano.  Was it possible to sneak out of camp to find one? A daring solution was undertaken to address this lack, despite the watchfulness of Japanese sentries with trained machine guns.  The dare was made possible because Australian POW working parties had erected the wire fences around Selarang, deliberately leaving an occasional inconspicuous hole here and there.  Installing such a bodgie fence was something of an irony, given these fence builders were from a country of farmers and stockmen who boasted some of the longest and most enduring hand-made fences on the planet.  Prisoners were then able to slip in and out of the holes to find food and other needed items.  Sergeant Keith ‘Dizzy’ Stevens, who specialised in female comic routines, for which he wore a red-dyed mop on his head, knew about the holes in the fence when he led a group to capture a piano from a former British submarine base.  He led twelve of his comrades through the wire.  Stevens and his posse then lugged the piano one and half kilometres across swampy terrain, back through the wire, and deposited it in the centre of the Selarang barracks square for all to see next morning, especially the Japanese administration.  This sublime effrontery, this perfect gag, showed resistance through music.  And the Japanese never said a word.  Perhaps they were trying to save face, for surely they knew that the piano came from outside.  Then again, perhaps they wanted to see further improvements to the show themselves.

(A Coveted Possession, the Rise and Fall of the Piano in Australia by Michael Atherton, La Trobe University Press, in association with Black Inc Publishing, 2018, ISBN 9781863959919, p.136)

Who would have thought that a history of the piano would reveal a story like this from Changi?

Available from Fishpond: A Coveted Possession: The Rise and Fall of the Piano in Australia


Responses

  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place and commented:
    What a great story!

  2. I bet they called the Changi upright the goanna. The tropics are a terrible place for pianos, so the instrument was probably in a weakened state when the POWs took it. But what a wonderful story. Your review finds me dithering about whether to replace my ageing piano with a younger, larger grand that I can’t afford. This piano couldn’t be further from the little Changi battler. It has had a fine, easy life so far and lots of extra work by a renowned technician: its felts have been replaced with only the best, and the keyboard dip has been shortened slightly to suit the eighteenth-century repertoire I like to play. I know and love this piano, and it would be crazy to miss such an opportunity etc etc. So it goes with pianos — a coveted possession indeed.

    • Ah yes, The Spouse is campaigning for a new piano – electronic, if you please. Over my dead body!

      • Oh, you meanie. You sound like the Poet. He made an unrepeatable comment in the piano shop when the dealer suggested it was time for me to upgrade my piano. You know, with the digital piano, the Spouse could practise in silence with headphones, so you might be better off…

  3. […] wonder Australian POWs risked so much to have one when they were locked up in Changi.  (See my Sensational Snippet for more about […]


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