A poet, scholar and spy: Pianist Penelope Thwaites’ loving tribute to her father Michael

Penelope Thwaites

Penelope Thwaites - Credit: submitted

Actor Timothy West and baritone Stephen Varcoe will join the musician in a concert at Kings Place on October 25, says Michael White.

Penelope Thwaites is one of those Australian musicians who have lived in London for so long (in her case, off the Finchley Rd) that they’re not obviously antipodean any more. The sun tan fades, the accent goes, the corks drop off their hats…and nobody would know their origins, except for lingering memories and loyalties.

With Thwaites it’s a devotion to the piano music of her fellow-countryman, the curious Percy Grainger. She’s a champion. And few Thwaites recitals pass without a Grainger fix slipped into the proceedings.

But she also has a family loyalty – to her father Michael Thwaites who was a well-known poet in Australia and whose centenary gets marked this month with an event at Kings Place that she’s put together. Featuring the actor Timothy West, baritone Stephen Varcoe, and Thwaites herself at the keyboard, it’s a programme of readings, songs, and piano repertoire. And the intention is to give some context to a man who not only wrote poems but led multiple lives as a wartime sea-captain, peace-time academic, and cold-war espionage director.

Born in Brisbane in 1915, Michael Thwaites came to England in the late 1930s as an Oxford Rhodes Scholar, and was already a published poet when war broke out. He joined the British navy, and war experience fed into his verse, which tends to come with an emphatic rhythmic beat.


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But there were softer, personal statements too, in poems written when he went back to Australia. As his daughter says, “he would take an event and look beyond it. An example was a poem that he wrote for me at the time of the first moon landings. It’s about the astronauts looking back to earth, but it’s called ‘For my daughter on another continent’ because it’s also about me coming to London to live on the other side of the world”.

Penelope remembers Michael as “wonderfully supportive” of her decision to study piano far from home; and it’s with obvious love that she’s turned several of his poems into songs (she’s also a composer) which will feature at Kings Place.

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More broadly, the connection between words and music will, she says. depend on mood rather than anything specific, with some Chopin, Scriabin, Rachmaninov (and not forgetting Grainger) to colour the verse. But there’s one intriguing aspect of her father’s life that needs some specificity. The espionage.

Drafted into Australian counter-intelligence during the 1950s, he directed high-level operations and dealt with at least one famous incident when the Soviet spy Vladimir Petrov defected.

That very little of this got into the poems is disappointing: they could have been John le Carre in couplets. But to hear how they actually turned out, go to Kings Place on October 25 at 11.30am. Details: kingsplace.co.uk

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