COVID cf. Spanish Flu

What can we learn from similarities and differences between events announced 101 years apart–to the day?

Australian historian writes hope and perspective 

In The Australian newspaper, reputed historian Geoffrey Blainey compared Australia’s situation with many around the world. Read it here

Creeping closer in 1919

Research for my recent book The Art Deco Mansion in St Lucia drew interesting parallels between two pandemics. My great-uncle Karl Johan Back wrote to family in Finland on 6 May 1919:
The Spanish flu is getting closer and closer; it has not yet reached Mullumbimby but we fear it will be here any day. People have already come down with the Spanish flu in Lismore and Bangalow but according to papers no more than 500 have died

Close friends died, including the first person Grandad met after emigrating from Finland, Frank James, just 50 years old. Did this exacerbate qualms for Spanish Influenza in the damp Northern Rivers area of NSW?
In The Art Deco Mansion in St Lucia: What drove the man who built it? I quote a reflective 1974 letter by WA Back:

In my little Ford car I was on the road every day, but the district was very wet and every February and March I was laid up with bronchitis. Dr. Kellas in Lismore gave me some good medicine which relieved it from time to time, but I felt l so tired that I could hardly walk. [Wife] Christina often used to say to me ‘Shake yourself up, you will be all right.’

Did this prompt WA Back to look over the border to sunny, dry Queensland? My latest book suggests so. 

The tragic human toll

On 27 June,1919, the Tweed Daily published an article titled The Coat Men.
The password in the street and on the roads today is: ‘Have you had it?’
The reply is generally ‘Yes,’ with a wan smile that in itself tells the tale of the ‘flu. It is easier now to count the population that has not had the ‘flu and those who have; convalescents are to be seen everywhere… they mostly have a big overcoat, which is worn throughout the day. They don’t walk—they just move along with slow and unmeasured step and as they come closer you perceive a pale and sickly face. It is the ‘flu alright. 
You enquire. ‘Oh, I only had a mild attack,’ comes the reply, and then ‘But it was good enough for me.’ They all start to tell you how weak they feel; no appetite for work. The only appetite they have is to wander aimlessly about or sit down in some snug corner with a big coat on and in the warm sunshine… There is one universal aftermath and that is weakness…
There is a warmth about human kindness which the ‘flu has caused hundreds of people in this district to feel and appreciate as they have never done in their lives before. 
‘Have you had it yet?’ 
No—then you possibly have yet to come into the pleasant glow of this warmth and comradeship which is the child of adversity. 

Lessons to learn?

It became  impossible for the Commonwealth to continue any pretence at controlling traffic when State Governments were not only acting independently, but were every day imposing new restrictions without reference to, or consultation with, the Commonwealth Government.
Relations between New South Wales and Victoria became very strained…
The border blockades soon proved to be farcical…and such ludicrous occasions were recorded as that of a dairy farmer being prohibited from crossing the road, which formed the border at that point, to milk his cows on the other side.

Fresh air or masks while exercising?

The Mullumbimby Star reported on 6 February 1919:
There is one thing in the country dweller’s favour with the epidemic, and that is that fresh air and sunshine are death on the germ. A Melbourne doctor has spoken out on this. He says to wear a mask when in close contact with likely cases, but ‘In the name of common sense, breathe in the air pure and unadulterated.’ There is no other kind of air but the pure in Mullumbimby, so we should be moderately safe. At the same time all precautions should be taken. While the medical men are fighting the common foe, influenza, the politicians are also having a fight—on State Rights! A little trade is being deflected and the insects are buzzing around and threatening reprisals.


This new third book of the trilogy looks at the parallel learning 101 years later. Can we find heart there? The Art Deco Mansion in St Lucia pays tribute to a man who inspired me to ‘Go forward!’ 

Order your copy, $25 RRP, available in leading bookshops.
Request through your library. Or order your copies here. (Prices include postage, with international options.)

New book launched in style!

The Art Deco Mansion in St Lucia details my grandfather WA Back’s role in developing part of the land on which the University of Queensland is built. Who better than Vice-Chancellor Professor Deborah Terry to launch?

Professor Terry AO has been quoted in recent media about her moves to support victims of  sexual misconduct on campus. She took the University of helm in Semester 2, 2020 to chart a difficult challenge of maintaining tertiary education in the brave new world of COVID. 

This book draws parallels with the Spanish Influenza 100 years ago. It quotes letters from my grandfather that severe bronchitis in the Northern Rivers area prompted his move across the border to Queensland. The dry climate to NW Queensland, with his base in St Lucia, proved more healthy. 

Many have been fascinated by photos of this magnificent mansion since it was built in the early 1950s. I grew up as ‘a girl whose grandfather built a lift in his house’.

The infamous elevator in the home of WA Back was the talk of 1950s St Lucia, Brisbane

Musical high notes

A highlight of my recent book launch was to hear alto Anne Fulton and organist Dr Phillip Gearing perform Angel Lovers by Dr Paul-Antoni Bonetti. Listen and watch around the 1 hour mark. My grandparents donated the organ to St Lucia Uniting Church and I imagine they also enjoyed lovely music by a great-grandson.

WA Back was an inspiration to his descendants and to others who encountered him. I learned more of his challenges when Camilla Ayala translated an article in a Finnish magazine, Australia’s Richest Finn, which is quoted in full in this new book. (A Finland-Swede, Grandad’s first language was Swedish, which is mercifully easier than Finnish!)

This third book of the Midnight Sun to Southern Cross trilogy pays tribute to a man who inspired me to ‘Go forward!’

Accolade reviews!

‘His rags to riches trajectory from Finland to Australia had me spellbound. What courage, sense of purpose and faith…here is an important and thoroughly absorbing piece of Queensland history.’

Positive reviews are music to an author’s ears. Read more at

The Art Deco Mansion in St Lucia


The third book in The Midnight Sun to Southern Cross trilogy is at the printers! Many have been fascinated by photos of this magnificent mansion since it was built in the early 1950s.

I grew up as ‘a girl whose grandfather built an elevator in his house.’

That’s the Anniversary of WA Back’s death in 1974, just weeks after my wedding on 16 March. I little thought that, as we said our vows at Binna Burra, Granddad relived his own with Christina Hart. That vista across the valleys of the Lamington Plateau and the New South Wales border must have sparked in Grandad flashbacks of his early settler years and courtship just over eighty kilometres away. Just two weeks before, missing his soul mate of sixty–two years, he wrote us a reflective letter–which I quote in the book.

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If we were superstitious, the omens might have halted my marriage.

Read the story: 

The heavens opened, emptying out a deluge worthy of Noah’s time. Cyclone Pam, the third in three months, has crossed the coast at Coolangatta near Binna Burra, just where we planned to marry three days later on a mountain top in the open air—if all the road landslides were cleared. 

A torrent of water buffeted our little red Volkswagen. The windscreen wipers made frantic but futile swipes. Defiant of black skies, we pushed on in a car painted with hippy flowers, nostrils and nose hairs. We plodded north from Sydney to Brisbane, a city already sodden and putrid from its record–breaking floods of late January 1974. 

Brisbane had the stink of debris and mud piled up in battered houses. Mounds of riverweed and flotsam lay engorged on the riverbanks. We could implement Plan B: to hold the ceremony in a small wooden church at Beechmont. 

But joy came on the morning of the wedding. The road up the mountain was clear. Despite threatening skies, the sun sparkled on raindrops and the golden splashes of Regent bowerbirds’ wings. Rainbows shone blessings through mist in the first fine day since the floods. Breezes frolicked around ladies’ dresses—and threatened to steal the marriage certificate, held by a pebble on a table overlooking the cliff. 

We revelled in the surrounding richness for all the senses; beauty displayed in rainforest trees festooned with ferns, staghorns and orchids; the fragrance of rain on volcanic earth. Hopkins’ poetry extolled the grandeur of God. Music flowed from a string quartet, from recorder and tabor. Kookaburras and parrots laughed with us; brilliant kingfishersflashed from trees.

Granddad beamed in delight, encircled by his prolific family. 

(Excerpt from Burn My Letters)

A joyful outdoor wedding at Binna Burra on the first sunny day after the 1974 floods and cyclone.
A patron of the arts and generous philanthropist
As a patron of the arts, WA Back  sponsored the organ in a recently built St Lucia Presbyterian Church (opposite Ironside State School, where I endured culture shock after correspondence lessons in Western Queensland.) He enabled his niece Perry Hart to study violin in Holland soon after World War II. WA bought his wife a piano and lessons, encouraged Giuseppe (‘Charles’) Ive to branch beyond house painting and plastering, to paint murals. On his travels he bought glassware and sculpture, and took his family through galleries and museums, historical sites and landmarks.  

WA Back was thought a ‘soft touch’ to anyone telling a hard-luck story. Executors of his will struggled to cover all the bequests he donated to charity.

Grandad was an inspiration to his many descendants and to all who knew him. Read more of the life of a 16-year-old emigrant from Finland, who embraced the opportunities of his new life under the Southern Cross.
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We launched 'Midnight Sun to Southern Cross' in the St Lucia church where Grandad was an elder. The organ was in full voice.

Where better to launch Midnight Sun to Southern Cross than in this church and to hear again the organ that WA Back donated?


Let’s Celebrate!

Inspiration from forebears

What would my life have been if my grandfather had stayed in Finland? If he had joined his brother and nephew to expel the Russian overlords, been conscripted into their army? If he had married a blue-eyed, blonde Finnish Swede and fathered his dynasty there I would weave between three languages like my northern relatives do.

But on 26 November 1902, Wilhelm Anders Back (‘WA’) embarked on that 15,000 kilometre voyage south to safe haven near the pounding breakers of the Pacific Ocean.

Wilhelm Anders Back aged 16 in 1903

Wilhelm Anders Back aged 16 in 1903

In the Great Southland, enterprising settlers might make a fortune, or they might lose all. Some ventures would be dashed, like breakers that come to grief on rocks. Others would take wings. WA had an eagle eye for opportunities and the talons­—or gnawed fingernails­—to seize them. In tough times he would horse-trade dairy farms, houses, a Barrier Reef island, factories, Italian art.

Granddad journeyed long distances from his hub in the lush New South Wales hinterland to forge his pastoral empire in the arid outback. Where his sons worked the land and raised children, but escaped to the coast to replenish their spirits.

The sea is in our blood.

[Excerpt from “Midnight Sun to Southern Cross“]

This week marked the 45-year anniversary of Granddad’s death

We last saw Granddad when he presided as patriarch at my own wedding. He passed away two weeks later. Out of range, on our honeymoon, we missed his funeral.

Ruth-Toni-Bonetti-Wedding-1974-WA Back

I little thought that, as we said our vows, Granddad relived his own with Christina Hart. But two weeks before, missing his soul-mate of sixty–two years, he wrote us a reflective letter:

“As I look back now on our marriage at Mooball on the 4thNovember 1908, I can remember it as plain as if it were yesterday. The wedding was in our new home that I had finished only a few days before, and the Minister from Byron Bay came by train to perform the ceremony.”WA-Back_wedding-1908-Mooball_NH

His letter described how he surprised his bride with the gift of a piano—her family were musical—and he’d then phoned to engage a teacher. (Aha! Some musical heritage.)

They knelt at the bedside and asked God to protect and guide and bless them through their lives.

“And we certainly asked for some material blessings that in the eyes of the Lord were very small and he blessed us with very much more than ever we contemplated or asked for. If you take God into your partnership I am sure it will be even better than what you anticipate.”

[Excerpt from “Burn My Letters“]

What Granddad taught me

An old-timer from Byron Bay area hinted tactfully that one does not become a self-made millionaire (as Granddad was reputed to be) without cutting some corners. Some families draft ancestors into pens of white or black sheep, with little variegation between. My books attempt an honest perspective, while giving credit where it’s due. Avoiding all conflict makes for dull reading and robs readers of the opportunities to learn from generational patterns. As I have done.

My grandfather passed on his ingenuity, vision and breadth of experience. Often I remember his motto of ‘Just do it.’ He had faith and an ability to turn difficult situations to positives, to innovate and find opportunities at every turn.

Granddad took seriously his role as patriarch and had a genuine care for his flock of descendants, relatives and emigrant Finns. He was concerned to establish his sons and grandsons, while giving women opportunities rare for that era.

He inspired us all with his generosity and enterprise.

I feel blessed and grateful for my forebears, who gave vision how I might forge my own life.

We will remember them

Music helps us remember

What can express the sad waste, the horrors, the grim memories of war? Music can touch hearts that grieve, can console where words may struggle to do so. Yet bugle players may dread annual renditions of The Last Post.

When pressure cracks a note

Nervous string players fear wobbly bows. Clarinetists advertise nerves by squeaking. What worse than shaky fingers right under trumpet players’ eyes? Read my Tips to Conquer the Shakes. Imagine the pressure of a solemn occasion, all ears and eyes targeting the lone bugle player. That, and cold, cost perfectionist Sargeant Keith Clark a note at the funeral for assassinated President John F. Kennedy yet that poignant fluff resonated with the nation.

“I missed a note under pressure,” he said. “It’s something you don’t like, but it’s something that can happen to a trumpet player. You never really get over it.”

BBC post informs how The Last Post (first published in the 1790s, one of dozens of bugle calls sounded daily in British Army camps) came to be associated with comrades who died. Arthur Lane was a bugler in the British Army who was captured by Japanese forces and worked on the Burma Railway.
The Armed Man - A Mass for Peace

Music with words

Dedicated to the victims of the Kosovo conflict, The Armed Man is a fitting work to commemorate the centenary of the ending of the First World War. With poignant text sung by a choir and soprano soloist, it is a seamless blend of ancient and modern.

Brisbane Symphony Orchestra remembers

With BSO, I look forward to performing The Armed Man (a Mass for Peace). This was commissioned by the Royal Armouries Museum for the millennium.  It draws on many sources, from the Catholic mass to the Hindu epic Mahabharata, and includes a traditional Muslim call to prayer.

Composer Karl Jenkins quotes lines from the Japanese poet Sankichi Toge, who survived the bombing of Hiroshima, only to die of leukaemia in 1953.  Its title derives from an ancient French song (“l’homme armé”).

Families shrunk by war

Hear Brisbane Symphony Orchestra players tell poignant stories of how war impacted on their families.
My father’s uncle Edvard Back fought for Finland’s Independence during the 1918 Civil War. His son Rolf took 30 patrols across the Finnish border into Russia, on skis in camouflage white. He loved to sing us Russian songs he learned during that time, but his wife told me he often had nightmares about the Continuation War bloodshed.
My great-uncle Karl Johan Back wrote from Australia on 6 May, 1919:
“There were many things I would have liked to write to you during the war but I feared you would be punished for my sins, so I thought it best to write as little as possible.”


Words about music and war

The Cellist of Sarajevo, A haunting novel based on a true story, shows how music can hearten and uplift spirits, even from the carnage, destruction and rubble.
Sunset Ridge: An unusual hero is the war dog Roland, who followed his French twin masters to the front at Saint Omer, Ypres and Verdun, and who rescued many injured soldiers from battlefields.

Read about families divided by war

My 2-part saga of historical biography/memoir tell of my musical journey from shy outback child to professional musician and teacher, interspersed with the discovery of heritage. Available at Amazon,Booktopia, Bookdepository, or

Or why not order them in at your local library?

Nurturing Young Musicians

A Moto Perpetuo of Musical Adventures

Queensland Youth Orchestra has for 50 years provided a springboard to propel young instrumentalists onto professional stages across the world. So has it grown that on Saturday 27 October, over 470 performers warm up backstage for their place in the spotlight of the gala Queensland Youth Orchestras Finale Concert. Their enthusiasm and excellence display the inspiring growth of this organisation in a half century.

Let me take you on a journey…from its genesis to the present

Remember the first time you were immersed in orchestral surround sound? My addiction began with Brahms Hungarian Dance in 1966 at Brisbane’s All Hallows school under the baton of John Curro AM, MBE.

Early paths into the world music scene were forged by baton-brandishing “JC”, who fired his young musicians with enthusiasm, drive and vision. His irrefutable “Why not?” would persuade sponsors, politicians and reluctant Executive Boards to support mammoth goals.

Franciscan priest ‘Father Fid’ Fidelis Stinson spread his vision, revving around on an instrument-laden scooter, his robes flapping behind. Father Fid played a pivotal role heading the committee of Queensland Secondary Schools Music Teachers’ Association to form a music festival orchestra of 94 players. Players and their parents demanded more.

Back in those days we rehearsed in various schools, church halls, a West End theatre, a night club the morning after. Sarah Scholz’ book Bravissimo filled memory gaps about 50 years of QYO. She described the essence of QYO as “true adventurers’ spirit, ambition and belief…the capacity to approach a goal of mammoth proportions with imagination and confidence.”

QYO-Lausanne-1972-IFYO-Ruth-Back-BonettiReflecting back on a half-century’s remarkable achievements, John Curro identified performing at the 1972 International Festival of Youth Orchestras in Lausanne, Switzerland as pivotal to future morale and growth: “In 10 days we went from thinking we were no-hopers to knowing exactly we fitted into the international scene. We discovered we weren’t the best orchestra, but by no means were we the worst.”

Conductor Ezra Rachlin urged the Executive to support as he did:

“A MAJOR CULTURAL AND EDUCATIONAL ACHIEVEMENT with enormous potential for future development to the lasting benefit of their country, their state, their city and its orchestra…”

Some needed convincing an overseas tour was a feasible dream. Living through vision in action, this inspiring experience broadened my horizons and increased confidence.

Indelible memories include:

• Fundraising frenzies. Manoeuvres to launch an orchestral caravan into the air and onto buses.

• Performing wind quintets in an Alitalia cockpit acoustic, rewarded with champagne. Alitalia Manager wrote that the captain was especially grateful for this impromptu recital.

Alitalia cockpit recital QYO tour to Italy and Switzerland 1972

Alitalia cockpit recital QYO tour to Italy and Switzerland 1972

• A constant flux of celli, tuba and their owners across the plane. Frazzled crew resorted to feeding us to keep us in our seats.

• A mass of jacaranda clad bodies slumped in Rome airport, sweating hotter than back home. (Why isn’t Europe cold? I packed the wrong clothes.)


• Gobsmacked by a first sight of the Colosseum! That American joke: “I’ll take two in case one breaks on the way home.”

• Touring ancient catacombs, lit by wavering tiny lamps.

• Shuffling in Italian phrase books to find pithy words to dodge Romeos and shysters.


• A flight to Geneva then bus to Lausanne amid green hills and earthy fresh aromas.

• A Babel hub of languages in the conference dining hall. We made short work of lettuce salads. Hunger pangs mid-morning after breakfast coffee and croissants. We were bussed out for a “real” breakfast of runny eggs the day of the performance.

• Angst as our big performance neared. Would we be good enough? Insecurity flared into blind funk from the top down. Orchestral manager Michael Byrne nudged me to “say something” to a glum Maestro.

• Onstage, Michael was applauded after setting up the four soloists’ chairs. I panicked, fearing my Mozart Sinfonia Concertante colleagues had gone on ahead of me.Ruth-Back-Bonetti-clarinet-teens

(Lightbulb “aha!”: A genesis of my books Confident Music Performance and Don’t Freak Out–Speak Out.)

• Relief: resounding applause from audience and critics. We could enjoy our second concert in the courtyard of Rolle Chateau; a lake cruise to Chillon Chateau; a dramatic lakeside 1812 Overture.

• Some visited the Alps. Those chosen to perform Berlioz’ Symphony Fantastique in the International Festival Orchestra rehearsed under Walter Susskind. Playing just one movement (the Eb clarinet witch solo), I went down-town shopping and misjudged a return bus. To ominous chords that precede this solo I ran to my seat just on cue, looking and sounding ultra-witch.

• The dubious episode of QYO clothes at the top of a flagpole. Three players spent the night in jail for climbing up to souvenir flags. Swiss police didn’t see the joke.

AVANTI Back to 10 Heady Days in Italy

• Exploring Milan Cathedral while dodging ogling Italian gentry “practising” their English. Bargaining in Florence flea market; vistas of the Duomo seen through Henry Moore sculptures in the Forte di Belvedere gardens.

• We lived it up–and down. Before our performance in Salo’s piazza of the fourteenth-century cathedral our five-course feast was lubricated with molto vino. Euphoria and accelerated tempi. “Stand up if you can” Il Maestro grunted at the final cadence of Tchaikovsky 5thSymphony. Did misunderstanding over the tab see us in tents near Monza for our next few days?

• Thousands-strong audiences loved our performances at Bergamo, Pitti Palace in Florence, Sforza Castle in Milan, culminating with a memorable final performance in an exquisite theatre in Siena. We emerged to the Palio horse race through the city square, its electric atmosphere of flag waving and medieval costumes.

•A blurred flight home; will write up the diary after Singapore…after exams…

Though one of the youngest orchestras to perform at Lausanne, we Queenslanders returned home boosted by international reputation, appreciated both as musicians and ambassadors.QYO-1972-Lausanne-tour-Ruth-Back-Bonetti

• “When and how can I return?” Why not? I did. For seven years.

In the early decades of QYO, the players’ enthusiasm compensated for lack of experience.

The meteoric rise of professionalism, finesse and standard humbles early alumni who felt privileged to play in the fledgling orchestra. This nevertheless trail blazed across the national scene. Back in the days when Sydney Youth Orchestra was just starting, when other cities managed tiny efforts, John Curro burst open the cultural cringe with a Queensland orchestra that defied condescension.

My own teaching methods owe much to John’s vision and challenges. Especially that he stretched players and students to the edges of their seats. Could we achieve? Somehow we did.

John was moist–eyed when I presented him with my book Sounds and Souls; How music teachers change lives(as we know they do!) and read his dedication:

For two beacons [with clarinet teacher David Shephard] who lit my voyage into music, teaching and indeed, life: John Curro, for opportunities, vision and the challenge of “Why not?”’

We may think our appreciation of teachers and mentors but do we express it? A sentence of thanks, a card or a tribute can uplift teachers who did not realise the impact of words they long forget speaking.

How many others has John challenged outside their comfort zone to reach new heights? In Midnight Sun to Southern Cross I wrote how John spurred me to my pinnacle:Covers-1WEB

While at university, John Curro, conductor of Queensland Youth Orchestra, sees that I need a challenge. The Copland concerto is virtuosic but also allows me to express the instrument’s singing tone and lyricism. There are altissimo register and jazzy syncopated rhythms to conquer. And John knows that I will enjoy exploiting its introvert and extrovert qualities.

‘Why not?’

‘Because the next round performance is two weeks away and I have not learned, let alone played, the Copland.’

‘There’s nothing to lose. You can fall back on Weber. Just do it.’

How I practise. Never have I worked so. I climb a technical Mount Everest; slay dragons of my weaknesses; my rhythmic vagaries are drilled into precision, altissimo register runs conquered. Day and night for a month I live, work, sleep and finally surmount the Copland Concerto. My performance with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra is already a triumph; there is no apprehension about winning—I did so already. This is my moment, charged with electricity. I shine, ecstatic. 

This glorious moment will never be repeated. My feet barely touch the ground as I walk through the City Hall foyer after. 

Thank you, John, for spurring me to excel, for your insight and inspiration. QYO changed my life.  Many thousands more, professional musicians across Australia and internationally, and inspirational teachers, might echo my words from Sounds and Souls:soundsandsoulsmedium

For many students, music lessons [rehearsals]are a source of rejuvenation in the desert patches of their lives. They can express pent–up emotions in a range of sounds. Those who have to live with critical parents or in dysfunctional homes look forward to interaction with a positive, creative and listening adult. 

Many will look back, decades later, and remember the words you spoke, the times you listened, and how your lessons changed their lives. 

You help them blossom in arid times. Your excellent work is valued! 


Wheels turn. Generations join the momentum. Many of the 7,000 Alumni see their own children and grandchildren dance to John Curro’s Pied Piper call of “Why not?” From Hameln in Germany in 1980 (when QYO was host orchestra for the International Festival of Youth Orchestras) to China, Japan, USA–indeed, the globe–they typify the unofficial QYO mantra of “Moto Perpetuo”.

How many future talents will warm to that stirring question, that vision?

Thank you, John for your legacy, life-changing influence and inspiration.

Ruth Back Bonetti

Principal Clarinet, 1966­–1972

Conquer the Tyranny of Distance

We enjoy travel to distant places for conferences and another presentations, right? (But in chilly winter weather, even the airport might feel an effort, after packing leads, adapters and remote–and clothes for anticipated weather.) Exciting presentations next month take me back to my roots. And I relish the prospect of reaching wider audiences through webinars.

Present from the comfort of your home or office

So why didn’t I explore webinars sooner? Thank you to my savvy co-presenter Bev Ryan for prompting these. Our first foray is Monday 10.30am. Or listen later at a lime that suits.
Info and registration

Ruth Bonetti-Webinar-16 JuneWrite or tell it now–before memories are lost

Writers of life stories sift truths from myths and reveal the black sheep and white – and those in the middle. They open closet doors to skeletons and shine light in dark places. What more precious gift to future generations than to write a family history or memoir? Do it now, before stories and insights are lost to the world.


Tribute to a fellow memoir writer

Last week Dr Pamela Davenport launched her memoir Searchlights, Slate Pencils and Searchlights: A Child’s War 1939–1954
As she taught me both Ancient and Modern History long ago, I knew it would be riveting to read. Her lessons opened my eyes, mind and imagination to a wider world. It was an honour to express some of the impact she made on my life, as historian, researcher, and teacher.
(Often we THINK our gratitude; let’s also EXPRESS it to those who inspired us.)

Imagine the thrill on my first visit to Rome when my bus turned a corner to– the Colosseum. Little wonder I lived seven years in Europe!

So vivid were Pamela’s lessons, that we felt to the marrow the sheer desecration of the Dark Ages.

Aleppo in Syria warns that Western civilisation teeters on the brink of similar decline. Will the Classical education that enriched my own Dark Ages of childhood and adolescence still be available to future generations?

What Pamela taught me

Pamela taught me to look below the surface of events; to wonder at the personalities and motivations of those involved.
(Not surprising that she and I share writing of memoir.)

Modern history intrigued me to understand world events and to envision my forebears’ roles in them. What drove them to emigrate?
(Australians are a nation of emigrants. We all grow from roots elsewhere.)
Letters told of settler battles and sucesses. I imagine how family back home grieved their loss, while accepting they left for a brighter future.

What history taught me

In this centenary of WW1 battles and armistice, how did families divided at either end of the globe view history from opposing prisms?
In 1918, people with foreign accents risked internment as “aliens” so my grandfather and his brother made lavish displays of patriotism.
Back home, their Finnish brother welcomed arms and training from the German “Huns” to help save Finland from Russian overlords.

Whether we write our stories or record aural history
“Telling Life Stories” is my first session in my birthplace, Hughenden, Western Queensland on July 3.

head west after presenting for Music Teachers Association in Townsville at the Alan Lane Memorial Weekend

There’s that memory-memorial–memoir link. For Alan Lane taught shy young Ruth Theory of Music. As she wrote in her memoir…

Back to my outback roots

What a metamorphosis has been my own journey from shy “bush” child to one who now enjoys communicating in public. From hillbilly music to Mozart. Schooling was through correspondence lessons– a far cry from the present School of Distance Education. Last year at Mt Isa Eisteddfodwe adjudicated young musicians over the airwaves!

Journeys-Finland-snow-to Outback-dust crop

On our sheep station outside Hughenden I played recorder to the poddy lambs.  Read how I surmounted technical challenges and culture shock in Sounds and Souls and also in the second part of my memoir Midnight Sun to Southern Cross. There I paid tribute to Dr Davenport and also my English teacher Mrs Bridgwood.
On July 3 I’ll present two sessions as guest of Hughenden Flinders Library:

  • Telling Life Stories
  • Journeys–from Finland snow to Outback dust


These link my own circles around the globe with those of inspiring forebears.

Off your beaten track?

Catch my WEBINAR  Writing Life Stories  on Monday June 18 at 10.30am.

Nature, Nurture–or neither?

In both Sounds and Souls and Midnight Sun, I explored the culture shock of an outback childhood. But…
Life’s journeys can take us to horizons way beyond our expectations.

In later decades I evolved from that shy ‘bush’ child who hid in the toilet block rather than face fearsome peers. I became an adult who welcomes platforms to reach out with words and music. When I now help people to confident performance of their words and music, I can say ‘The person you are now is
not who you will be in a decade or two or five. If I can conquer such shyness and fears, even welcome public performance, so can you.’
The outback child would run a mile at the prospect of speaking in public. Now she enjoys such opportunities.

How did that evolve? Midnight Sun to Southern Cross tells the story…And those of my inspiring forebears.

Time to write YOUR book?

Tributes to teachers

Why does Finland’s education system shine on the world stage? Many reasons: yes, kids are encouraged to play, indoors and outdoors, whatever the temperature. And a major factor is that teachers are well-paid, highly trained–and valued. 

Let’s express our value for exceptional teachers who changed our lives. I’m grateful to those who saw potential in me that I could not envision. Who encouraged, nurtured and inspired me onto my paths as teacher, musician, author and historian. 

A few words of thanks can mean so much!

Often we THINK our gratitude. How much more valued if we EXPRESS it!
Even better with a dedication.soundsandsoulsmedium

In  Sounds and Souls: How music teachers change lives (as they do!) I wrote:

For two beacons who lit my voyage into music, teaching and indeed, life:
John Curro, for opportunities, vision and the challenge of ‘Why not?’
David Shephard, who listened, encouraged, and whose sounds warmed my soul.

As did pianist Anna Goldsworthy

Her book Piano Lessons describes a decade’s relationship between student and piano teacher Eleonora Sivan. It is honest and often moving.

Imagine if someone wrote about their experiences of learning with you…

I look forward to co-presenting with Anna Goldsworthy 29 June–1July.

Townsville MTAQ Alan Lane Memorial Weekend

My topics will be:

  • How to prepare for a confident performance
  • Excel in Exams, Recitals and Auditions
  • Masterclass
  • Performance at the cocktail concert.

Nature, Nurture–or neither?

In Sounds and Souls I pose and answer questions of how I would teach child Ruth, with her various technical, rhythmic and foundational insecurities. Nonplussed in theory lessons with Alan Lane:

I had suffered cultural and social shock when catapulted into a large city high school, Somerville House. When baffled, I couldn’t find the words to ask for any explanation. I sat mute when my theory teacher wrote ant–track marks on manuscript paper. I was mystified by chords called IIc–V–I or V–VI.My painful fog matched his chain–smoking haze. I was too tongue–tied to ask for clarification. 

Back to my outback roots – to present in Hughenden July 3

What a metamorphosis has been my own journey from Slim Dusty to Mozart! Schooling was through correspondence lessons– a far cry from the present School of Distance Education. Last year at Mt Isa Eisteddfod we adjudicated young musicians over the airwaves!

On our sheep station outside Hughenden I played recorder to the poddy lambs.  How did I surmount technical challenges and culture shock?  I discuss this in Sounds and Souls and also in the second part of my memoir Midnight Sun to Southern Cross.
On July 3 I’ll present two sessions as guest of Hughenden Flinders Library:

  • Writing Life Stories
  • Journeys–from Finland snow to Outback dust

These link my own circles around the globe with those of inspiring forebears.

Off your beaten track?

Catch my WEBINAR  Writing Life Stories  on June 16 at 10.30am.Ruth Bonetti-Webinar-16 June

Nature, Nurture–or neither?

In both Sounds and Souls and Midnight Sun, I explored the culture shock of an outback childhood. Apart from a grandmother’s musical family, Classical music was foreign territory. But…
Life’s journeys can take us way beyond our expectations.

The impact and inspiration of two teachers shone rays of light into my own culture-shocked adolescent life. Dr Pamela Davenport and Gill Bridgwood recognised potentials in an insecure, shy outback girl catapulted from a dusty flat horizon into a big city school.

They took me under their wings; Mrs Bridgwood slipped to me the sort of books that evangelical Christians burned, like Catcher in the Rye.

Seated at my desk I read poetry and play characters with relish. But when I  was given a lead part in the school play, I froze. Eagle eyes pierced me!

I was relegated to the back of the Greek chorus.

In later decades I evolved from that shy ‘bush’ child who hid in the toilet block rather than face fearsome peers. I became an adult who welcomes platforms to reach out with words and music. When I now help people to confident performance of their words and music, I can say ‘The person you are now is not who you will be in a decade or two or five. If I can conquer such shyness and fears, even welcome public performance, so can you.’

The outback child would run a mile at the prospect of speaking in public. Now she enjoys such opportunities.

How did that evolve? Midnight Sun to Southern Cross tells the story…

April marks ANZAAC centenary – and other battles

April 1918–a celebration of the ANZAAC centenary.

Now let’s pay tribute to fights for freedom elsewhere in the world. Like Finland.

My father’s uncle Edvard Back Edvard_soldier_crop_NHfought in Finland’s Civil War of 1918, including the crucial April weeks-long siege of Tampere. This battle was a turning point in the Civil War, decimating the Reds and killing many Whites. Red Guards had controlled the south, industrial towns like Helsinki and Tampere. They battled to safeguard Russian trains carrying shipments of weapons.

Germans saved the Finns by smuggling in weapons on the ship Equity to sheltered bays in Ostrobothnia and training the Jäger troops.

During those crucial wars that led to Finland’s freedom, how did his brothers at the other side of the world view the Finland-Russia-German struggle?

Opposing sides

To Australians the “Huns” were enemies.
From safe haven in Australia, Edvard’s brothers Wilhelm Anders (my Grandad) and Karl Johan (“KJ”)  Back found themselves on opposing sides.

News of the war filtered through, doubtless heavily censored. How did the family reconcile differing allegiances? Blood thirst was rife on both side…The Back brothers came to the right country. They emigrated to escape conscription into the Russian army–a possible five years. Of all nations, Australia was the only country to hold a referendum—twice—that allowed men to choose to fight rather than accept conscription.

(from Burn My Letters: Tyranny to refuge)

Australian Displays of Patriotism

My grandfather W.A.Back made conspicuous donations to the war effort, second only to the mayor’s. WA raised money by driving people in his new automobile to farewell soldiers—for a fee. For “aliens” were regarded with suspicion, likely to be sent to internment camps.

Grandad and other family sent loads of provisions to save Finns and other Europeans from famine.

His office was strewn with sacks of flour and sugar, transferred into kilo–size calico bags. He employed a woman full time and grandchildren were enlisted as a Lilliputian army to pack and stack.

What if the shipments were pilfered, he was asked. ‘Thieves have to live too,’ W.A. replied.

KJ Back and Orchid

His pacifist dissenter brother Karl Johan protested his patriotism by writing and self-publis

hing books including The Royal Toast.
Locals suspected that KJ spied for the Germans, for he tended his bananas on the ridge by lantern light.

But what is night to a Finn?


[Excerpt from Award-winning Burn My Letters available at our webstore.]

The centenary of Finnish freedom from Russian oppression was celebrated on 6 December 2017. But the struggle continued…

Rolf, Edvard’s son, took 30 patrols over the border into Russia, on skis in camouflage white, during the 1940s Continuation War. Read his self-deprecating but inspiring stories in Midnight Sun to Southern Cross.

He SO typified that amazing Finnish spirit of sisu!

The laugh’s on me!

How dates got ahead of me

False Truths propagate too easily. So I wrote last email, citing dates that authors and historians replicate. Let me confess up to my own case study. I printed the date for my breakfast presentation as 6 February instead of 13 February.

Wrong WEEK.

Time management goals

A 2018 resolution is to run seven minutes early for appointments. More doable than 10 minutes.) I made a good start… Seven DAYS ahead of my presentation. There I was, preparing early, so there will be less rush to polish. So I can…

Speak out with a confident voice
Your voice is your identity: How to make it music to your listeners’ ears

Here’s the blurb:
Our first Brisbane International Womens Breakfast for 2018 features award-winning author, international presenter and performance coach Ruth Bonetti. Words and music are her passion, and in this interactive presentation, Ruth will share doable techniques to help you become confident on your feet:

  • Learn easy tips to enhance your natural voice
  • Project with ease, clarity, and poise
  • Pre-presentation warm-up for resonance, modulation and confidence

Ruth has presented in Scandinavia, the USA, UK and across Australia and New Zealand. Her techniques for confident presentation are encapsulated in her book Speak Out – Don’t Freak Outand her recent heritage memoir Burn My Letters was shortlisted and won the Omega Writers CALEB nonfiction prize. Ruth is available for one-on-one coaching and training (

Tuesday 13 February 2018 | 7.00am for 7.15am to 9.00am Bookings essential.

Moreton Room, Ground Floor, United Service Club Queensland
183 Wickham Terrace, Brisbane (Parking)

Covers-1WEBWrong YEAR!

On 17 January 1903, my grandfather Wilhelm Anders (“WA”) Back disembarked from SS Ophir in Sydney.  Aged 16, he grasped the opportunities his new land offered. So young! So enterprising.

Check sources like Shipping Records!

Ophir docked 16 January 1903! I was mortified to realise my books cited an incorrect date, 1902! But on his Application for Certificate of Naturalization Wilhelm Anders Back himself wrote “17 January 1902“. Good one, Grandad! His niece quoted this date in her memoir so it went into my books. I’ll add an Errata.WA-Back-Naturalisation-Application-1908

Such pitfalls historians face, to sift truths from myths!

Fact check, all we who speak or write.
Past, present and future.