Race Against Time – The Diaries of F.S.Kelly Edited by Therese Radic

Reviewed by Neville Cohn

National Library of Australia SC



Does the name F.S.Kelly ring a bell? I confess it meant nothing to me; neither did it to 29 friends and colleagues I polled. None could place the name. Now, nothing so justifies the existence of the Australia’s National Library in Canberra as publishing a book of this nature. The edited diaries of Kelly are significant in the arts as well as the sports history of Australia – and Britain for that matter.

So far as I can establish, there exist no recordings of Kelly, a pianist as well as a composer and gold-medal winning Olympian. Rescuing him – and his diaries – from oblivion is timely, not least for drawing attention to his skill as a sportsman, winning gold for rowing for England on the Thames at Henley at the London Games of 1908.

Most of Kelly’s diaries cover his time in the U.K. at the height of Britain’s Imperial power, a time when Brittania really ruled the waves. There are vivid descriptions of upper class Edwardian society in which Kelly moved – a milieu that, with blurring of class distinctions and the collapse of Empire, has almost completely vanished. It was a societal stratum into which Kelly fitted neatly via immense inherited wealth, excellent connections (which reached up as far as 10 Downing Street), considerable physical charm and, I dare say, a very good tailor.

It was a life of ease: lunch at the Savoy, golfing or croquet weekends at the country seat of Lady this or Sir that, ownership of a chauffeured car (a most significant and unusual asset at the dawn of motoring history) and an existence utterly devoid of financial anxieties (his Sydney-based father died leaving in excess of 250,000 pounds sterling, a fortune in 1901(OK))

Kelly’s fastidious entries leave one with the impression of a man to whom a sense of order was paramount – details of concert programs heard are recorded in meticulous detail as are his practice times. The same could be said of fastidious attention to the recording of rowers, their names, weights and other sporting detail.

But whether so intended or otherwise, his diary entries leave one with an impression that hardens into a belief that Kelly was something of a cold fish, a man free – or perhaps more accurately, incapable – of deep emotional involvement. This might, of course, have been, if only in part, a striving to identify with Edwardian high society for whom the concept of stiff upper lip and never showing strong emotion in public was de rigueur. Again, even the briefest of piano recordings by Kelly would have thrown light on his emotional range.

In their absence, we have the elegant but cruel reviews of his concerts which appeared in The Times, London. They strongly suggest a musician of serious purpose, controlled and carefully prepared – but lacking passionate involvement. One is irresistibly drawn to the thought that had Kelly experienced some of the vicissitudes of life (of which he was singularly free until sucked into the murder mill that was World War I), his playing might have had more depth to it.

Kelly’s diaries give us insight into the astounding vitality and variety of London’s arts life in the Edwardian era. Kelly writes, for instance, about listening to Saint Saens performing 4 Mozart concertos in a single evening, attending performances by ballet demi-god Nijinsky, of hearing Paderewski. And on a night that Kelly gives a recital in London, he competes with Brahms’ Requiem at Westminster Abbey, Wagner’s Gotterdammerung at Covent Garden and a recital by Casals.

Stellar names flit through the diaries’ pages ­ the great violinist Jelly(OK) Aranyi, Donald Francis Tovey (best remembered nowadays for his editing of Beethoven’s piano sonatas), composer Roger Quilter, politician Arthur Balfour. Kelly hears Debussy playing his own Preludes and believes he could do a better job of it!

On returning to Sydney in 1911, he finds common cause with those who rail against the rape of the bush for crass commercial purposes. He comments that the ‘ubiquitous villa is springing up all over’ Belleview Hill. And he notes, as if it were something he’d not encountered before, that “Surf bathing has recently become a very popular amusement in Sydney”.

Despite Sydney’s remoteness from European and American music centres, Kelly records an often lively local music scene. Here, too, he moves in high society, visiting an ailing Prince Leopold of Battenberg and dining at Government House.

Back in England when war breaks out in 1914, the ever-well-connected Kelly, instead of calling at the nearest recruiting office, visits 10 Downing Street to take advice on which branch of the military to apply for.

In uniform, he meets poet Rupert Brooke. They are on the same ship steaming to war. Brooke visits Kelly’s cabin at night. Days later, as Brooke lies dying, not of war wounds, but of septicaemia following a mosquito bite, Kelly sits nearby writing the first draft of his Elegy in memory of his dying friend. If there’s an attraction or intimacy, the diaries reveal nothing. All he writes is:”The events of today made a deep impression on me”.

Kelly attends Brooke’s funeral on a small Greek island and afterwards painstakingly copies the contents of the poet’s notebook on case it fails to reach England intact.

Kelly survives Gallipoli only to die in the battle of the Somme leading a ‘gallant and successful attack on a machine-gun emplacement”.

Hopefully, publication of these diaries, meticulously edited by Therese Radic (whose introduction is a model of its kind) will spark interest and performance (perhaps on compact disc) of some of Kelly’s compositions.

Copyright Neville Cohn

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