A week or so ago I had occasion to walk past Moruya Books. Regular readers of my reviews, assuming there are any, will know my views about bookshops. The first rule is that you cannot in all conscience walk past a bookshop. You know that there is knowledge and entertainment behind its portals. The second rule is that once you have entered a bookshop you cannot leave without having purchased at least two books. One book on its own gets lonely. And so it was that I found myself with some time to spare and so it was that I entered those hallowed portals. I picked up and, of course, bought Simon Schama’s second volume of “The Story of the Jews” even though I still haven’t read the first volume, but I intend to before I die. The second rule of books demanded that I look for something else. Janice was not there but Alison and Julie were in attendance and they proved exemplary sales people. One of them thrust Richard Fidler and Kári Gíslason’s “Sagaland” into my hand and the other passed me “Danger Music”. I will review “Sagaland” in the fullness of time.
I enjoyed “Danger Music” even though it was not quite the book that I had expected. As a result, although I enjoyed it hugely, I was a little disappointed. But this should not stop you from reading it; it is an engaging and entertaining, and sometimes confronting, read. Eddie Ayres began his life as Emma Ayres. He has been undergoing gender reassignment treatment. It’s difficult for those of us who are not conflicted by our gender to imagine the anguish and desperation of those that are so conflicted. Our forebears liked us all to fit into neat boxes: there were men and there were women. But there aren’t neat boxes and the long history of social conditioning is hard to break. There are signs that we are beginning to understand the complexities and contradictions of the human condition. But we’re not doing very well: only the other day I filled in a form that asked my gender. There were three options: male, female and child. Now I know the German for a child is das Kind and that das is the neuter gender but I do not think that the designer of this form was thinking about that. Be that as it may be, I had expected to find out a little more about the experience of the gender change journey. Perhaps I am prurient.
The book is not silent on the struggles Emma had as she discovered who she was supposed to be. Perhaps this is because that struggle is there all the time and it is not, and should not be, a separate story. She says “when I realised I was transgender it was a life-destroying moment: I knew from then on that I would never be happy until I did something about it. But to do something about it meant possibly losing everything. It turned out that I lost everything because I didn’t do anything about it.”
This is a book by a remarkable person. I am a bit of a musician myself and I am slightly in awe of anyone who can actually play an instrument properly. As Emma, Eddie was a well-known broadcaster at ABC’s classic FM. Emma played the viola with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and presented the classical music breakfast show on the Radio Television Hong Kong station. Emma came to Australia in 2003 and as well as presenting the ABC’s Classic Breakfast program he also taught at the Melbourne Girls Grammar School and taught cello privately. But by 2014 Emma was struggling with depression. She saw and applied for a job teaching violin, viola and cello at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music … in Kabul, not exactly the safest of places.
Much of the story is of the remarkable time she spent in Kabul. She describes how she taught music to Afghani kids whose lives and experiences are so very different to ours. When the Taliban was in charge music was banned. Musical instruments were smashed. The Taliban are no longer in charge yet they continue to exact a high price from the citizens of Kabul as they continue to attempt to subdue a population through a campaign of suicide bombs and terror. The Afghanis’ approach to the role of men and women in society is very different to ours; sometimes it is abhorrent to the western sensibilities. Ayres talks about this in a way that is both sensitive and matter of fact. Sensitive because she is a westerner teaching children but matter of fact because she knows she cannot change the world on her own.
Although the book wasn’t quite what I expected it is a good and easy read. It’s not a long book and it romps along pretty well. It’s written clearly and concisely and without any sentimentality. There’s a playlist on Spotify which contains, not surprisingly, a good set of cello pieces but also pieces like Jason Isbell’s achingly beautiful “New South Wales” and a rather pretty arrangement of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” (which she talks about in the book). It’s coming up to Christmas and you could do worse than buy this for yourself and if you cannot bring yourself to buy it for yourself then buy it for someone else. I don’t have a fraction of the courage of Eddie Ayres. All I can do is read about it. You should as well.