The Violin Player

14 November 2009

ABC Radio National Airplay

The Battle of the Somme, 1918… A young man with a violin… Recreation leave and mustard gas… A great uncle lost… His diary discovered… A young man busking in Paris, 1981… His great uncle’s violin stolen at a Paris station… A piecing together of song, sound and memory.

A year ago I came into possession of the original diary of my Great-Uncle Philip, who fought and died at the Somme battlefields in France during WWI. He was 19 years old, and the early diary entries are those of a young man who is at first excited, then disillusioned, and finally destroyed by the war he has gone to fight. He was the victim of the Mustard Gas campaigns which were used by the Germans in WWI French campaigns, including the battle of the Somme and resulted in the death of thousands of young Australian men. His youth brought abruptly to an end in a way I can only try to understand from the diary entries and the space of hidden memories between the lines of the faintly written diary. The way our family knew Philip was through his violin. My brother and I inherited his fiddle, inlaid with mother of pearl in the fingerboard, and it had always been ‘Philips violin’. Getting Philip’s diary helped me to piece together the story of a young man on the cusp of adulthood, his pride as a soldier, and finally his disillusion and destruction.

19 years old. This is the age that my brother Matthew traveled to Paris, busking with Uncle Philip’s violin.  Matt’s early adventures were at the Pompidou Centre and the Paris underground. This was Mitterrand’s France in the progressive years of 80’s Europe. He discovered the thrill of the post ’68 Paris, it’s freedom and cultural movements. Philips youthful adventures were in Cairo. Late night visits to the Pyramids and wild nights with soldier mates. Matt came home. Philip didn’t.

And the fate of the violin? Did it travel with him to war? Or did it remain, covered with cloth, in his Westgarth home in Melbourne, waiting for his return? Were its laments the laments of a free spirit or a disillusioned soldier? When we played the violin, did we hear tunes from the trenches of the Somme?

“One young man fought on the Somme. His great-nephew busked in Paris. Their experiences are brought together by the violin, that travelled with them both.”


Cast: Marty, Matthew Fargher

Philip: Luke Mullins

Greta, Grace and Singer: Maddy Slattery 

Sound engineer: Russell Stapleton

Director/producer: Jane Ulman