What goes around

I need a new washing machine. This is a pain in more ways than one, not least because there is an Expedition in the planning, and the cash I need to sink into a new washing machine is a resource I was hoping to keep in reserve. Not to spend on, or while on said Expedition, but to have if I needed it.

However. I have reached a stage in my life where hanging out in laundromats has zero appeal. I can say this having had to haunt to the local laundromat (I am fortunate enough to have one in lugging distance) on the past couple of weekends, and having spent way too much time in them – or in their equally disturbing college/dorm analogue, the shared laundry – as a student. Had I ever been asked about how I imagined my life at this age, or thought about it, the picture would not have involved laundromats.

Except – possibly – when travelling. Even then …

I’ve dragged a bag of washing from Kensington to Earl’s Court because there was nothing closer that was actually open on a Saturday night – the owners of Kensington laundromats quite reasonably assuming, perhaps, that people had better things to do on a Saturday night in London.

I’ve had the misfortune to waste time in the rat-infested bowels (audibly rat-infested bowels) of LSE spillover accommodation near Regents Park and the disturbingly clinical basement of an Imperial College dorm.

I’ve traipsed around Venice with a backpack of half-wet laundry looking for several back-alley laundries that just weren’t bloody there, whatever Google Maps might say.

I’ve draped my damp clothes over radiators in friends’ flats and houses so the entire place looked like an exploded clothing shop and smelled of steaming cotton.

Altogether I have, on too many occasions and in too many places, wasted valuable touristing time finding laundromats and attending to my smalls. Because no matter what you do or how long you’re travelling for, you can never pack enough socks and underwear. And too often the washing proves to be much less problematic than the drying.

IMG_1138But – I have, on a couple of occasions, out of laziness or desperation or pure self-indulgence, handed over my washing (and varying amounts of cash) to hotel laundry services. Some very nice people in Rome took care of the whole bundle and apologised for slightly singeing what were, to be honest, a couple of cheap polo shirts (useful travelling clothes) by giving me a voucher for dinner in the restaurant.

I was amazed at the cheek displayed by a hotel in Brisbane, charging a fortune for relatively small bag of clothes and wanting extra for them all to be done before I checked out .

And I paid a surprisingly modest sum for exemplary service in a hotel in Tokyo. Everything came back individually wrapped and tagged. A terrible waste of packaging, but I know my underwear has never been treated so well.

So I find myself thinking – again with the excuse of ‘at this stage in my life’ – that perhaps in future I’ll waste less holiday time trying to decipher the instructions in a backstreet lavandería (and paying cocaine-level per-gram prices for washing powder). I’ll hand over the bag, sign the chit, cough up the tip and get the whole bundle back, fresh and clean and ready for the next stage.

Idle fantasy. Reality is, for the moment, whitegoods emporia, Choice reviews, and some disturbingly adult discussions and thinking.

 

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Tomorrowland (Part 1)

It feels like 2013 is still on the plate, congealing slightly but not yet done, there’s maybe cause to hunt the last piece of bread to chase the juicy bits around the china. And yet here’s 2014, all steamy and easy to eat.

Well … it was steamy for a while there. It’s better now. But I do feel like the new year sneaked (snuck?) up on me when I wasn’t paying attention and now it’s two months gone and I definitely haven’t finished processing last year yet.

Last year I wasn’t supposed to do much or go anywhere so as to save up leave for an Expedition this year. That didn’t quite work out (though the Expedition is still happening … soon): I went to New Zealand at short notice; I also went to Singapore, with a little more planning.

My habitual travelling companions are quite fond of Singapore; any trip to Europe will involve a stop on the way there or back (or both). I visited once in the 70s with my family, and did a brief stopover myself in 2001 … and discovered, when I went back to the airport, that I was travelling on a class of ticket which supposedly didn’t allow that. I think it was only by pointing out that the whole thing – including stopover – had been booked by the national carrier than I avoided the usual Singaporean consequence of transgression …

I exaggerate. Probably.

Anyway, I had this idea – partly as a result of chums’ petitioning – of taking a quick trip to Singapore: just a short break to take advantage of the abundance of long weekends in the first half of the year. And there were cheap fares available – always an encouragement. Once I set the plans in motion the travelling companions decided they had to come along to show me around.

Singapore is … steamy. Check the operating range for your electronic equipment steamy. Forget the first half-dozen or so photos you take when you get off the plane steamy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd yet the first stop – compulsory, I was told – was on the way into town from the airport. For chilli crab, in honour of someone’s birthday*.

IMG_0970This is very messy.

Singapore is steamy all the time. First and obvious observation. Singapore is open all the time. Second observation. There is, I’m sure, a brief window in the unfriendly bit of the morning, for people to come out and clean the streets, the shops, the malls … but it would be a very brief window. Everything else carries on. Construction goes on all night, courtesy of an abundance of floodlights. And there is a lot of construction. It is, like the cleaning, almost completely dependent on visiting workers. Non-residents. Gastarbeiters. Who May or may not be there legitimately.

On the way into the city I noticed other vehicles – trucks small and big, utes (pick-ups), open-back vans – with loose equipment in the back and a small round decal on the back: a number, indicating, as I figured out later, the number of people who could be legally stuffed into the back. And driven to and from those construction sites: in theory to and from Jahore across the border on the mainland: more likely to and from old buildings in Little India, where it’s a good bet they hot-bed ten or so to a room.

Third observation: Singapore, which is internationally notorious for its enthusiastic regulation of everything – food stalls, sex, spitting in the street – is quite happy for the Bangladeshis and Pakistanis and Filipinos who sustain the all-night construction to travel around, unsecured, in the open back of trucks and vans. With loose equipment.

But still: we made out way into town, to one of the many nice and comfortable hotels. On Orchard Road, of course. Handy for … everything.

Next observation: in spite of limited space, Singapore seems to have a lot of roads. They’re very good roads. They’re also full. Despite quite brutal taxes on cars and their licenses and on actually using the roads – and very expensive parking – and a good and cheap and clean public transport system – there are a lot of cars on the road. All the time. Cars are a more obvious prestige item in Singapore than anywhere else I’ve been – even if the car is just a boxy Japanese people-mover; it’s still a daily statement of “I can afford this.”

For a lot of people that statement isn’t enough; it has to be “I can afford this!” Every hotel had its complement of high-end cars: limited edition Mercs, Maseratis, various species of overpowered penis. Not rentals, and the more swish the hotel the more space there was for these things; the more arcane and asinine and expensive the cars got. Not just conspicuous consumption – almost passé in Singapore – but ostentatious consumption. I would lay money that if one overpaid expat with a Lamborghini Tossalotta encountered another of the same on the streets of Singapore, he’d immediately sell the damn thing to get something even more expensive and exclusive. Something about Singapore – many things about Singapore – seem, alas, to attract or even encourage this kind of thinking.

It’s perhaps obvious by now that, unfortunately, Singapore rubbed me up the wrong way almost from the time we left the airport.

Even so, one should throw oneself in to these things. And I should have mentioned that this was a short trip, something only possible with a relatively small locus to explore and the aforementioned discounted airfares. To my thinking, a short trip means embracing the unusual, and this meant the first Official destination – after some shopping – was the very out-of-character-for-me Universal Studios Singapore.

Surreal.

In that long-ago 70s visit with my family we spent a day on Sentosa Island. I remember a ride over on the cable car – still there – and a very undeveloped, almost jungly place. You got around in superannuated London buses with all the windows removed, and one of the highlights was a waxwork representation of the surrender to Japanese forces in 1942. It’s not like that now: the whole island has been remodelled, extended with reclaimed land and all but taken over with golf courses and premium real estate developments and resorts – including Universal Studios.

I haven’t been to the one in LA (or elsewhere) but I imagine they’re all similar, with a serious of backlot-style ‘worlds’ – an archetype of New York, a faux Egyptian setting, generic science fiction – and some thoroughly trademarked property: in this case a kind of Jurassic Park, a mocked-up freighter that turned out to be associated with the movie Madagascar (which I haven’t seen) and a disturbingly realistic representation of Far Far Away from the Shrek series.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was, alas, raining – Singapore, tropics – equator, actually – but that didn’t stop it being a lot of fun. In fact the rain was a blessing: the queues were few and short. A case in point: the science fiction realm boasts a Transformers ride which includes a long preamble, a kind of orientation for new troopers in some special military unit. On a busy day – one where the signs telling you how long you have to wait could be cause for cursing – the recorded briefings and video displays in the labyrinthine queuing area might have been a useful distraction for the kiddies …

We raced through, got to the staging area, collected goggles – it’s 3D – and … whoosh …

Holy crap.

You’re piled eight at a time into a thing that looks like an open-topped urban assault vehicle and then driven down a track surrounded by enormous 3D screens, as a voice-over tells you you’re on an emergency insertion into a combat situation. Then you get attacked by Decepticons.

The next twenty minutes involves you rocketing back and forth, spinning around, getting picked up and shaken by a giant angry Megatron, having fake shrapnel and real water tossed at you and at one stage there’s this extremely realistic sequence where you’re thrown through a building and then seem to fall 40 storeys to the ground, through the road, into the subway tunnels …

Holy crap.

I realised only later – after my knees started working again, and my pulse slowed down – that the car would have travelled at most about 100 metres, back and forth on the same rail as the images on the screens changed around you. There was a highly energetic turntable in there somewhere, too. The rest of it was visual and auditory tricks that probably had some really cool brain science behind them. Immense fun.

The rest of the park seemed a bit tame after that … but I would have liked to throw myself into it more. The Jurassic Park flume ride was fun – wet – and the various other attractions were well done. I would have liked to try one of those big roller coasters …

Alas. The trip coincided with someone’s birthday, as I said, and it was her decision that we should go somewhere else for lunch. For her favourite Singapore lunch. So Universal Studios didn’t get as thoroughly explored as I might have liked. But I can recommend it.

The rest of the day involved not-shopping and afternoon tea in a place with a multi-page tea menu (and an accompanying large glossy book to explain what it is you’re drinking).

teaFair warning: they don’t do coffee.  That was a shock.

And then …

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* not mine. If I was going to choose a special birthday meal, it wouldn’t be chilli crab. But it might be somewhere … unusual.

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Hot air and boiling mud

Sometimes the only sensible response to a boring election – one with an all-but-inevitable outcome and an utter deficiency in meaningful debate – is to flee the country. I’ve done so before – most notably in response to the wonderful ‘War on Terror’ Australian election of 2001 – and it has saved me no end of mental trauma.

I didn’t actually plan to escape the 2013 election, but a happy conjunction of circumstances gave me the opportunity to do so: a sale on air fares, some like-minded friends and an accommodating boss meant I could escape the last of the campaigning, election day itself and the tedious triumphalism of the winners by heading east for a change, to New Zealand.

I’ve only been to New Zealand twice before, both times for meetings which didn’t give me much chance to see the country. It’s probably long past time that I went for a look around; most of New Zealand is both closer and cheaper to get to than the other side of Australia and every other country I might care to visit. My habitual travelling companions have never been – and even greater oversight. When we started talking about the possibility – little more than a week before we actually went – one possible destination immediately sprang to mind, and the rest of the trip fell into place from there.

And so it was that we flew into Auckland, picked up a car, and headed off to Hobbiton. New Zealand has collectively decided that it should milk the whole Lord of the Rings thing for as much and as long as it can, and more power to them because the tour was immense fun. The town of Matamata, nearby, served as a base for much of the filming, and it has embraced the whole package: welcome to Hobbiton signs, a tourist office that looks like an (above-ground) hobbit building, and more decent eateries than one would normally expect from a wee town like that.

The set itself is in the middle of a working sheep farm (and surrounded by a working electric fence) which in many ways provided the first surprise of the trip: fat grass, fat sheep, many lambs and a greater density of livestock that seems natural to Australian eyes, and all on grass so green that it might be taken for the result of image manipulation in a picture. But no, it’s really like that: greener even than England; wetter and richer and gorgeous enough to evoke in me a strong feeling that a government would be well justified in legislating and regulating in whatever manner is necessary to protect that countryside.

ShipsThe tour of Hobbiton is a joy. The guides and drivers are good-humoured and well-informed, and the little ‘town’ has a carefully and lovingly executed lived-in feel. The hobbit houses may just be facades – no, you can’t go in to Bag End – but every one has gardens, clotheslines, carved lintels, pot plants, and little touches like a hobbit’s favourite pipe on a bench outside the door. There is a wealth of detail that would flash past in an eyeblink on screen, if it registers at all, but it’s all a testament to the dedication (if not fanaticism) of the people involved. Some of whom taught themselves how to thatch a roof by watching instructional videos on YouTube.

The tour finishes in a fully-rendered, full size version of the Green Dragon Inn, which offers good locally-made food and drink – and if I have a complaint about the whole experience it’s that the arrangements don’t leave you with enough time to sit in the Inn, relax and have a more leisurely lunch. The option of taking a later bus back to the staging point would be a bonus.

Hobbiton notice board in the Green Dragon InnFrom Hobbiton it was off to Rotorua, because there was no way a bunch of n00bs like us could go to the Shaky Isles and not take in a geyser or two. We were lucky enough to get accommodation at a lodge on Lake Rotorua, just outside of town – and a beautiful spot it was, too: good food, excellent facilities, a friendly menagerie and extremely welcoming and helpful staff. I liked Hamurana Lodge enough to post a recommendation on Facebook – something I have never done before.

Before we soaked ourselves in the sulphur scent of Rotorua, though, we took off across country to the famous glowworm caves at Waitomo – which I’ve been hearing about, and have wanted to go to, since I was in primary school. Spoiler alert: the worms are actually maggots, but not one would come to see caves full of phosphorescent carrion-eaters. Not intentionally …

Ruakuri Cave entrance - the SpiralNonetheless, totally worth it. The caves are spectacular, easily-accessible and well looked after. There are several caves in the area: Ruakuri, with a nine-storey spiral entrance; Aranui (which we didn’t see); and the glowworm cave itself. The worms are in all of the caves, but the last is saturated in them, and the tour involves boarding a boat and getting pulled slowly through an eventually pitch-dark cave, lit only by thousands and thousands of tiny blue dots …

The caves are also prime adventure territory: potholing, black water rafting and various other kinds of wet and messy options are available. All for braver souls than me.

Bad timing and a function in the tourism centre restaurant meant we missed lunch that day, so we went north to Hamilton for dinner. And a bloody nice dinner it was too. I’ve been told Hamilton is the most boring city in New Zealand, but on a Saturday night when the All Blacks were playing Argentina it was … lively.

Driving back to Rotorua in the dark and not having to worry about kangaroos was a novelty. As was tramping through the forest the following day, and not having to look out for snakes …

New Zealand has other hazards to offer. Never before have I seen road safety signs which said, simply, ‘Steam’. Or tourist advice warning you to be careful where you sit.

Hot seat, Te PuiaThe Te Puia centre is one of many in the volcanically active region around Rotorua, and it offers the full range of bubbling mud, boiling-hot pools (used for cooking), geysers and crusts of sulphur everywhere. All things outside the experience of natives of the tectonically pretty much dead country next door. It even has a kiwi habitat, managed by mischievous gods: they make sure that when you go into a dimly-lit building with a child eager to see kiwis, said birds will be right in front of you – busily making more kiwis. Ten points for taking the whole ‘endangered species’ thing seriously, but minus three for timing.

The Pohutu Geyser also performed on cue. Loudly.

Sulphir on the rocks around Pohutu GeyserAnd after that you just have to go off for a nice quiet non-stinky walk in the forest. Whakarewarewa Forest, actually. I don’t know that I ever said the name right …

Ferns in the Whakarewarewa ForestThe forest was very popular on a sunny Sunday spring afternoon, with plenty of families, dogs, and combinations thereof. There are mountain biking and horse-riding trails through the forest, too, fortunately separate to the walking trails. Whimsy is a strong theme: Whakarewarewa offers tracks with names like Frontal Lobotomy, Roller-Coaster and B Rude Not 2. We stuck to a nice, not-too-gentle walking trail.

Which was a nice relaxing end to the trip – well, that, a nice dinner at the lodge and an increasingly silly game of snooker – before the drive back to Auckland monday morning, and the flight home to a new regime.

About which I will say nothing. That’s not why I’m here.

More photos.

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Getting in to cars with strangers

My name is Robert and I am addicted to books.

Books have affected my relationships: there have been times when I elected to stay at home, reading, rather than go out with friends, see my girlfriend, go out at all*. Not many times, but even so.

Books have affected my work: I have taken sick days to stay at home and finish a book, taken extended lunch breaks to browse bookshops, sat at my desk and pretended to read something work-related that wasn’t.

I think about books when I am not reading, and sometimes I think about other books when I am. Sometimes I think about the next book even as I am engaged in this book (though not to the neglect of the book in hand). I buy books even when I have plenty, unread, at home – a case which has existed now for more than ten years and may be an overreaction to bookless times in my past.

I have spent money on books in preference to clothes, food (except coffee), and other necessities. I’ve never done anything illegal to support my habit, but I have done things that could be considered … questionable.

I will spend a day on the sofa reading when it’s raining, or when it’s sunny and glorious outside and every sane impulse says “get up! get some damn exercise!” I will spend a day on the sofa reading when there are many other things I should be doing (such as writing, or cleaning the flat), or just because I haven’t done it in a while and I feel I am not being true to myself unless I lose a day to a book every couple of weeks.

I don’t see any of this as a problem.

When I was a poor student (a period which, until a few years ago, was also equivalent to most of my adult life) I was often frustrated by my inability to obtain new and diverting books. There were two dimensions to this: a low income, and a disturbing paucity of stuff that I actually wanted to read. I could spend great chunks of time browsing bookshops (something I did even on holiday) and even when I had the money to spare I often couldn’t find anything I wanted to read (as distinct from books I wanted to have).

Now I have – to be frank – a high disposable income, not a lot of formal demands on my time outside work, and dear heaven! there is so much stuff that catches my eye. Not because I have lower standards but because there is so much good, original, creative stuff coming out (with corresponding levels of crap). In addition to the batch of authors for whom I’ve developed a fierce loyalty there are lots of new writers, new ‘voices’, new views.

I can’t keep up. Even with the income and time to support a dreadful habit I can’t keep up.

And d’you what really doesn’t help with all this? iBooks.

Until early 2012 the iBooks store for Australia was badly laid out, severely lacking in content, and often afflicted with prices the equal of the inflated charges we have to endure in this country. But then it got better: better layout, more content (though still not quite on par with the UK or US) and much better prices. A new book that will be $30 in a chain bookshop will be $17 in the iBooks store. The price difference alone is enough to tempt you to try something new, someone new …

On top of this, iBooks lets you download samples. Oh joy! you can get 30 or 40 or 50 pages, enough to get a feel for the book and some notion of whether you want to read the rest of it. Oh crap! it’s so easy, if you do like it, to press that ‘buy this book’ button when you get to the end of the sample – which is usually, probably deliberately, mid-chapter. Even so, the availability of samples is a definite incentive to try new authors. To take that risk of time and money.

It doesn’t always work. I’ve downloaded samples, read them, and decided not to bother. This is a Good Thing. On other occasions reading the sample has inspired me to go out and buy the actual book from an actual bookstore (there is a complex calculus behind these decisions which I’m not sure I could explain).

But often – too often – it works exactly the way it’s supposed to: I get to the end of the sample and I have to push that button.

This happened to me last week with Joe Hill’s NOS4R2. I was sitting – sprawled – on the sofa, aggravated by the newspaper and with many many other things to do (clean the flat), but I decided to dip in to the samples on iBooks. Into Joe Hill’s new book. I got to the end of the sample, pushed the button … and six hours later the phone rang and I realised I was cold, hungry, undercaffeinated, and feeling vaguely guilty after glancing out the window at the fading light of what looked like a beautiful autumn Saturday. I didn’t quite read NOS4R2 in one go … not quite. I had to eat, and shower …

NOS4R2_coverEight-year-old Victoria McQueen has parents who fight too often and a beloved bike that’s too big for her; it’s her escape from all the strife at home and a vehicle for some unfortunate fantasies about David Hasselhoff. It’s what she uses when she decides to end her parents’ latest fight by going to look for the lost bracelet that started it. She comes back with the bracelet, a headache, and a strange memory about the old bridge across a nearby river. Finding the bracelet doesn’t end the fight. And it turns out the bridge isn’t there …

Victoria – Vic – the Brat – has other childhood adventures on the bike, but as she grows she forgets about them, dismisses them as fantasy … until a teenage fight with her parents sends her out on the bike, looking for trouble – looking, without her quite realising it, for the dangerous man she’d been warned about, years before. And old old man with an old car and desire to help children make their dreams come true. Or at least what he thinks are their dreams.

I hadn’t read any Joe Hill before: he was one of those authors increasingly impinging on my consciousness, but who I’d kind-of ignored out of the belief that he was a horror write first and foremost. NOS4R2 has elements of horror, but it’s also – perhaps more – an example of what is often called the New Weird: the familiar made strange, the old terrors given a new twist. NOS4R2 mixes the cardinal rule of childhood – don’t get into cars with strangers – with a new take on the vampire, the ancient being who prolongs his life by sapping it from others. Hill throws a few other classics into the mix – the coming of age story, the geek made good, the price of creativity (and magic) and the joys and pains of parenthood – each, again, with a slight twist. The pace is steady, the writing clear and even lyrical at times, and the resolution satisfying if tragic. It might not be to everyone’s taste but I’ll be reading more of Hill’s stuff (starting with the Locke and Key series) … and wondering again what it is about New England that it breeds writers with such eldritch inclinations. And what I might find if I went for a visit.

* I’m pretty sure I’ve never chosen a book over sex, but these days if I was offered the option of shiny new book versus woman of my dreams, I might have to think about it.

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Night lights

March brings many things to Canberra: a much-needed long weekend, autumn (not much sign of it at the moment), and balloons. This year it brought tourists and all sorts of shenanigans, since it’s the 100th anniversary of the capital’s founding. In 1913 the Governor General’s missus stood up in an empty and dusty paddock to announce – and, unfortunately, mispronounce – the name of the compromise capital. To this day (if you’re a local) it’s CAN-bra rather than Can-BEH-ra. This is one of the few situations where our American cousins get the pronunciation of an Australian city right (tip: it’s MEL-b’n, not MEL-born) even if Australians technically don’t.

With an anniversary like that we had to have a big party to set off a year of special events, starting on the Canberra Day long weekend. It was a hoot – so many people, so many families out and about all weekend. I  made a special effort (hiring a car) to take in some of it, not least because my father was visiting.

The thing I enjoyed – the thing a lot of people seemed to enjoy – was this year’s Enlighten festival. For 2013 it went way beyond lighting up national monuments: there were shifting displays on major buildings like Parliament House and an array of bizarre and humourous projections on Old Parliament House – everything from graffiti to political cartoons to pictures of major events in Australian history. Even at 11.00 at night there were many many people – and as I said, many families – out and about, taking in the lights.

And of course lots of cameras.

One of the astonishing things about the evening – about the whole long weekend – was how good-humoured people were, even in the face of queues and some questionable choices for entertainment. When random strangers offer to share their chips you know something special is going on.

I’m determined to take in as many of the other events on this year as I can. And to take pictures.

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Not the man I play

Back to it. The year wears on with too many interesting things happening unremarked upon, and too many bad habits remaining to be broken.

Summer in the southern hemisphere is pretty much over, although like winter on the other side of the equator it seems to be hanging around long past the point where it’s welcome. We in the antipodes will match the heavy snows and rains in the US and Europe with lingering sunny weather after a record-breaking hot summer. And our own weird weather.

In February I took a trip up to the Big Smoke for the Sydney Shakespeare Festival. It’s been running for a couple of years but this is the first time I’ve pulled my finger out and gone along. It’s happily, and enthusiastically, an amateur affair: some of the people involved are studying drama in various places, and can draw on that experience. Others, not. And it didn’t matter. One of the blessings of Shakespeare’s comedies is that enthusiasm makes up for a lot; when your season involves two popular and very forgiving plays that enthusiasm can go a long way.

At the tail end of a sultry and stormy Friday the little company put on As You Like It – and a little company it was, maybe fifteen people all up and only eight or nine in the actual play, which made for some interesting doubling (though I’m not sure having Charles the wrestler re-appear as the ousted Duke is a wise choice – especially, in this case, with such a weak actor taking on the roles). There was some real creativity, too: when talking to the Duke about his desire for a motley coat the actor playing Jaques put on a very Carmen Miranda hat and then reappeared a few scenes later ‘playing’ the sluttish Audrey to a rather camp Touchstone. All the ensuing exchanges between the two were played out as if Touchstone knew exactly who he was talking to – and Jaques/Audrey knew he knew – but with as much romantic sincerity as Touchstone could manage. Both gave every impression they were enjoy the game, the pursuit. Nevertheless, at the end of the play Jaques still goes off to converse with the convertite Duke Frederick. Touchstone is left alone and Jaques’ parting shot – “thy loving voyage Is but for two months victuall’d” – becomes both poignant and vicious.

I’ve asked and looked around and I can’t find any indication that anyone else has tried this approach, so kudos to the team. I thought it lent something new and interesting to the characters and the plays – which is, after all, about trying on roles and playing with gender.

While some of the performances were patchy and the short and zaftig Rosalind made for an unconvincing boy, this was, overall, a fun production played out in a spectacular location: Jubilee Park in Rozelle, looking out through the ANZAC Bridge to the Harbour.

spotThe view got more amazing as the sky darkened: incoming weather and planes, lighting up the low clouds before wallowing their way into Kingsford Smith.

Alas, the weather got more weather-y. That Saturday in Sydney brought a succession of storms with heavy rain. Sydney doesn’t cope well with rain: the appalling traffic gets worse and it’s quite surprising how few people have umbrellas, especially given the forecast, the lowering clouds, the fact that it was probably raining when they left the house …

I noticed on this trip that compared to a lot of cities in Europe, Sydney has a serious deficiency of enterprising street vendors ready to swap their knock-off handbags for crappy umbrellas come the first drop of rain. Well-enforced trading laws probably have a lot to do with that, as does the threat of violence from competitive convenience store owners. It would be a brave hawker who set up within a coo-ee of a 24 hour mini-mart in Sydney. And there are so many mini-marts. And so few of them have umbrellas.

Like I said, the Festival had themselves a great location – but it’s not one amenable to heavy weather. The Saturday evening performance of Much Ado About Nothing was cancelled – and further kudos for the Sydney Shakespeare Festival team for giving people plenty of notice – which just meant creative dinner arrangements were required.

But not this creative:

signA few weeks later it was the ever-professional Bell Shakespeare Company and a new production of Henry IV, the two parts conflated into one play. Obviously this requires some cutting, and for the most part this was well done. The critical central story survived but the end result did have rather more Falstaff than was required – there comes a point when you just don’t need to be reminded any more of his drunkenness, debauchery and disease – but since it was John Bell himself in the role I suppose there was no one involved in the editing willing to trim back on his lines …

This is a modern dress production in minimalist decayed urban set – a giant wall of milk crates (which doesn’t survive long), a battered shipping container, assorted trash. A somewhat blokey Hal plays his games with Falstaff and his ‘crew’ – who could have passed muster at a casting call for Waiting for Godot – while clearly not being part of the gang. In the scene where Hal and Falstaff take turns at playing the King, where Hal effectively warns Falstaff that one day he will shun the drunken knight, the young Prince gradually becomes cooler, even more distant, more commanding. And Falstaff can see this in him, too. He recoiled from it – but his pride and stupidity and self-justification require him to shake off his emerging fear and carry on oblivious. Even when Hal makes good on his threat Bell’s Falstaff shows no signs of having learned anything.

This is the darker side of Hal, the man behind the lad who is prepared to deceive absolutely everybody because it suits his purposes to do so. And he’s happy to admit this to the audience. It’s a Hal who plays the roles he chooses, and plays them the way he chooses. It’s the prince-as-sociopath, the manipulator and Machivell who’s prepared to hang Bardolph as an example and kill the prisoners at Agincourt – the Hal glossed over by Olivier and Branagh in favour of the myth of the mirror of all Christian kings.

This isn’t an original way of looking at Hal, I know, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen Henry IV or Henry V – a decent production, anyway – and the Branagh version of the character in particular had settled into my brain. He’s gone now.

So – good production, worth seeing, look out for the rendition of Jerusalem and sing along if you can. Just try not to think of Johnny Rotten’s voice creeping in from an unexpected direction.

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Arch-nemesis

The Sunday morning archery continues, after a Christmas hiatus and a short break occasioned by a competitive event (for other people) over the Australia Day long weekend.  This had some useful benefits to the recreational twangers like me: there are now distance markers running down both sides of the field. Very handy if you’re one of those people who are terrible at judging distances. Which I am.

Best I can figure the first couple of times I went, to the open sessions where anyone can have a go, I/we were shooting at targets around nine metres away. Things can get crowded. And messy.

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But manageable. The thing about shooting at something that close, though, is that after a while it becomes hard for anyone but a complete duffer to miss the target. And the long ago muscle memory from teenage archering woke up enough to find it a bit meh. So the gaggle of us going and shooting together started to stake out a target to share, and move it out. We shot at 12-15 metres for a while, and pretty soon that started to become not much of a challenge, too. The weather, and I think mood, became the main variables – especially once I started using the same bow every week.

I should explain that when I say ‘not much of a challenge’, I don’t mean I was walking away from a session with ninety minutes of bulls-eyes behind me. I mean I could reliably hit the target every time, and get pretty close – increasingly close, and increasingly consistently – to where I was aiming, if not on the spot. For me, that’s pretty damn good: I’m not a sporty person, I don’t have the same kinesthetic senses and hand-eye coordination that many people do (in fact I have been notorious for most of my life for my lack of hand-eye coordination) – or indeed the skills that one of my shooting companions has: one of those people who gets good at pretty much anything they try in a fairly short time, and bloody good after a little practice. And yet, as I’ve said, I could sense that I was getting better at this. It’s a very satisfying feeling.

Yesterday marked a step up, in several ways. First, a fairly crowded session meant we were steered toward the serious end of the field. One side is always taken up by the hard core: people with everything from hand-made traditional wooden longbows (and arrows to match) to expensive and complicated carbon fibre compound bows (and occasionally some scary camouflage gear).

(I will say now that I’ve always thought of compound bows as cheating. If I were to buy my own bow – which looks increasingly likely – it will be a simple recurve bow. And probably wood!)

Second, this meant a target 30 metres away. Not, as far as I understand things, a competition distance (all Olympic events involve shooting at something 70 metres away. And some of those targets are damn small.).

Third, we were shooting at a more robust target – more like competition standard. I will come back to this.

So: more than double the distance me and my archering companions had become accustomed to. For me, this meant I had a problem tracking the arrow in flight, and seeing where it landed – a real problem because for most of the first half hour I missed the target almost every time. I just can’t see something as small as an arrow – as narrow in cross-section – over that distance. And yet all those target-missing arrows were easy to find, as they weren’t going too far beyond the target, and – reassuring, this – they were all ending up in pretty much the same spot. At least I was consistent. The serious folks we were sharing the target with suggested that the light draw on the bow (24lb in my case, i.e. the equivalent, at full draw, of lifting a 24lb weight one-handed) was maybe going to be a problem over that distance. It wasn’t, really, but that probably explained why the arrows weren’t going much further than the target.

After fiddling with the very basic sights on the bow, and compensating for a fairly steady breeze (both novel experiences)  I started hitting the target almost every shot. And that gave me a very definite sense of accomplishment, since there were multiple challenges – eyesight, distance, cross-wind, being no kind of sportsman at all – to overcome to get to that point. True, the shots were all over the target, but I hit the red a couple of times.

And then, alas, there was the last round of the day.

The target was a fairly solid thing. The ones rolled out for the casual shooters (a group that still include me … for now) are a dense foam with a competition standard paper target pinned to them. They’re either resting on the ground, propped up by a tripod, or elevated slightly on a metal frame.

The target we were shooting at yesterday was elevated about a metre off the ground. The butt itself (ooh! technical term) had a foam centre but that was mounted in a hard wood frame. Which we hit, a lot. And even with a puny little 24lb bow, even with aluminium or carbon fibre arrows, a good shot hitting that hard wood, or the metal stand, could be … amusing.

A chum’s carbon fibre arrow was blunted from hitting the wood: the steel tip was flattened down into a classic truncated cone. That meant when she hit the metal frame, any ‘crumple zone’ protection the arrow might have had was gone, and all the shock of impact was transmitted to the shaft of the arrow. The result was carbon fibre showing clearly why it’s called carbon fibre:

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No shrapnel. Just textbook delamination and the beginnings of a high-tech whisk.

Alas, the aluminium arrows I was using didn’t fare much better. On the last round of the morning I hit the metal stand twice. One arrow bounced half-way back to the shooting line, losing its head along the way. It can be repaired. The other … went to arrow heaven.

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But It still felt like an accomplishment. I killed an arrow! And I may do so again, since there’s the opportunity to take things up to the actual next level by joining a six-week ‘intermediate’ class.

Which I think I will do. I know I’m never going to get exceptionally good at this – not a sporty guy, eyesight, coordinawhatnow? – but I enjoy it. It accords with what little sense of sportiness I have: that ultimately it should come down to an individual’s capabilities, and if there’s equipment involved it should be as simple as possible (I have a pet rant about the need for an Olympic standard bicycle, for use in all events). Plus it’s archaic, not quite useless, not especially strenuous, and just social enough.

Sounds like me.

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Westward ho ho ho

Sitting in a rather deserted Qantas Club in Canberra Airport, much earlier for my flight than I need to be. I was expecting mayhem but apparently there are few Canberrans foolish enough to organise their holiday flights for Christmas Eve.

I’m absolutely confident of getting my dose of Christmas travel mayhem at the other end. Perth Airport? Worst Travel Hub Anywhere. There are third world dirts strips that only ever see rusting DC3s which are better organised and run than Perth Airport. Fortunately, I’m being picked up: it’s a challenge to make the Perth Airport experience worse, but trying to get a taxi there will do it.

In keeping with the Christmas spirit – at least as expressed by Sinatra, Doris Day, Dean Martin and others – the weather outside is frightful: low cloud, storms, squally rain. Lovely flying weather (but now I think of it, exceptionally Christmassy: if we have Donner and Blitzen then Rudolph and the others can’t be too far away).

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So far the flights don’t seem to be delayed, and I know once we get above the weather it should be a smooth flight. But the take-off is going to be white knuckle, maybe.

I’m confident of getting out tonight, though. There is only one daily direct flight from Canberra to Perth, and if I have to do the trek across the continent I always make sure I’m on it. That probably seems strange: only one direct flight each way between the national capital and the far-flung western province, but it’s symbolic or symptomatic or something of the odd relationship between Western Australia and the rest of the country – the ‘eastern states’, as we used to call them … and the natives probably still do; lumping the rest of the country together as a homogenous mass to be distrusted, blamed or ruthlessly exploited for money and talent as the situation requires.

There are, of course, plenty of indirect flights, via Sydney or Melbourne or even Brisbane and, on the odd occasion, when one has a discount fare, several other cities in succession. And indirect flight to Perth, though, can mean seven to ten hours of travel time to get from one end of the country to another. The four or five hour direct flight is long enough, thanks.

And at the other end – other that bloody Perth Airport – will be the traditional Perth Christmas (hot) with a traditional Christmas lunch (roast beast &c, something which makes less sense every year) and the traditional visiting relatives melting in a corner. The difference this time is that the holidaying cousins may be on reconnaissance; economic refugees from the Celtic taiga (flat, cold, and largely devoid of activity).

Yes, I’m dreaming – so to speak – of a fine and hot with a maximum of forty degrees Christmas, just like the ones I used to know. Where the only thing white is the sky, or the sand on the beach, or the unexposed flesh of visiting relatives (if it isn’t already pink).

Although to be honest, I’m more inclined to dream of a real white Christmas. With snow. Somewhere all the traditions make sense. That would be nice. I think I should start planning.
On to the plane. Once we get off the ground, the only thing to worry about will be flying kangaroos.

PS: I spoke too soon: the plane landed late, and the flight has been delayed pending hail inspection! This is probably normal in a lot of the Christmas world. Not so much Australia.

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An unexpected pleasure

Apparently I am now grown so predictable that “I have no plans for Sunday” is taken to mean “I’ll be on the couch with a new book.” What’s galling about this is that I was made aware of this predictability by a 10.30 Sunday morning phone call which found me, yes, on the sofa with a new book; that was where I was for most of the day; I eventually got showered and dressed about 4.30 that afternoon. I make no apologies for this. In fact when I am asked about my weekend, and I say (not as often as I used to, nor as often as I should) that I spent most of it on the couch reading, the most common reaction is “wish I could do that …”

On this occasion it was unexpected, most definitely not planned, and yet another instance of ignoring the appalling backlog of unread books in favour of something new: the latest from Lois McMaster Bujold, a book I didn’t even know was coming.

Bujold has written many (N>14, as she explains in a note to the latest) books, novellas and stories about the world of Barrayar, its expanding empire and its military mad (but not militaristic) culture. Most of these have been about Miles Vorkosigan: a unique and memorable creation – not that I’m going in to that now. Most of the Miles books have also included his much-abused, much-used, much put-upon and much-underestimated cousin Ivan, who now – and I never imagined I’d say this, finally – gets a book of his own.

20121216-182823.jpgCaptain Vorpatril’s Alliance opens with cousin Ivan on Komarr, Barrayar’s gateway to the universe, doing the kind of work he loves: predictable, stimulating, and entirely without physical risk. Under other circumstances it would also leave him plenty of time for socialising, but the planet’s nights are too short for that. Best of all, his cousin Miles is a world away: happily married, newly a father and unlikely to drag Ivan into another adventure. But of course there are other relatives more than willing to take advantage of Ivan’s good nature, sense of honour, and weakness for a pretty (and pneumatic) girl. As a result, Captain Vorpatril finds himself making an unexpected and increasingly complicated alliance, digging for buried treasure, gambling for the fate of worlds and – most surprising of all – making his mother happy.

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance has no grand battles, few spaceships (serving only as transport), and little of the intrigues and politicking of the other Barrayar books – although this being Barrayar, and Bujold, there has to be a bit of both. It’s more reminiscent of A Civil Campaign than the other Barrayar books, being as much a comedy (truly) of manners and morals as anything else. It’s a far more likeable and readable book than Bujold’s last, and all the more welcome for being so. I’d even go so far as calling it a return to form: cleverly and tightly written, amusing in places, insightful throughout. The pace isn’t exactly breakneck but neither does it drag: it draws you in on a pleasant ride to a satisfying, somewhat predictable (but no less satisfying for being predictable) conclusion.

Like I said, I never thought I’d see or welcome an Ivan-centred book. Of course Miles Vorkosigan gets a look in – Bujold wouldn’t dare not give him a walk-on role – but in many ways his story is done. It’s hard to see where else Bujold could take that wonderful character, short of backfilling imagined gaps in his imagined history. But Barrayar the world and the panoply of characters Bujold has populated it with do offer scope for more. Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance makes me hope for more – in a way that Cryoburn most definitely didn’t.

Which is curious, because I was wondering lately why another author kept re-using characters and settings. He gave a very good answer to the question when I asked him …

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Where the hell have I been?

Well …

1. Cut off from the rest of the world as a result of a lowest-bidder subcontractor for the local pay TV company deciding, for reasons passing mere human understanding, to chop through the phone cables to my flat. Rectifying the problem involved finding the fault (30 minutes), figuring out who was responsible for fixing it (body corporate – four days), cutting in to a concrete floor to expose more wiring (20 minutes), re-connecting the wires (not sure but surely no more than 10 minutes) and then waiting for a technician to come around and check on things (two weeks and three appointments for which he failed to turn up).

For personal internet access I have been limited to my phone, which I used as a personal hotspot once a day to download the newspapers to my iPad and otherwise served as my sole internet access platform for non-work stuff. I was cautious about using the personal hotspot option too much as I’ve also been

2 Arguing with a telco about charges for data use overseas, which is a popular Australian recreation. Despite undertaking extensive research before going to the UK, estimating data use (difficult, when the monthly bills don’t give very detailed information), buying an ‘international roaming data pack’ before I went, using wifi as much as possible while travelling, turning off data services when not in use &c &c – everything the telco and the industry ombudsman and so on tell you to do – I was hit this month with a phone bill of more than $4000. Which, without that data pack, would have been more than $5000. For net data traffic of less than 350MB.

This, my unknown reader, is sheer extortion, and a consequence, so a barrister friend told me, of misleading and deceptive conduct. I’m inclined to agree: I did all that research and still wasn’t exactly sure I had all the information I needed (like, for example, a good idea of my routine data use). The telco couldn’t tell me how much data that data pack would give me – just a dollar value, hard to map on to an amount in MB when you get hit with a $0.50 fee every time you connect to a 3G service. A fee which seems to be unique to this telco – the others I’ve looked at offer international data packs for 250MB, 500MB and so on (and for much lower rates … serves me right).

Even more annoying is getting asked to pay $4000 for frankly crap service: 3G reception for the provider my own telco defaulted to in the UK was rubbish. There were times in the middle of London and on major highways when I had no 3G service – no phone signal at times – despite my travelling companions (who bought local SIMs, something I will definitely do in future) having excellent reception on another network. In four days in Northumberland I hardly had a phone signal, and there were only a few hours on two days when I had 3G access, and yet I somehow managed to use $1300 worth of data.

But there is good news. I disputed the bill – the amount of data used, the charges, the poor service, the time it took for the telco to respond to the complaint – and as of this afternoon they have knocked $3000 off the bill. Still a big bill – the equivalent of a year’s phone bills in one hit, but better. Manageable.

So here is today’s valuable advice: argue with your telco.

And then take a shower afterwards because even if you win they’ll leave you feeling grubby.

Although taking a shower can present its own challenges, as I’ve found in

3. Getting the bathrooms done, specifically resealed and retiled in response to the depredations of age, damp, and changes in taste in fittings. It’s easy to date the bathrooms in my flat: the pastel grey on dusty pink tiles just scream 80s, and it’s likely no work has been done on them since the complex was built. So: power tools, tilers, plasterers, plumbers, concrete dust everywhere and no point in cleaning up because there’s more to come. Being blessed with both a proper bathroom (hardly used) and an en suite (location of the most serious damp problem) I could at least count on having one functioning bathroom at any time … except the first shower in the renovated en suite revealed a blocked drain, and I only barely avoided a flooded bathroom. Nine floors up and I had to bale out the shower recess. Such fun.

The accumulated frustration from all of this (no, I don’t have a lot of other stress in my life) has sometimes inspired a desire to go out and shoot something, but I’ve been dealing with that by

4. Committing archery on a Sunday morning. Yup, having tried it for the first time in (cough) ages on the recent holiday and been reminded of how much I enjoyed it, my erstwhile travelling companions and I have been going along to the open sessions at the Canberra Archery Centre for the past five weeks. And, gradually, getting better at it. I would feel much more chuffed about the result in the picture – yes, I shot those arrows – if the target wasn’t so damn close. But for the time being the focus is on form: it’s not exactly a natural sequence of actions, and the idea is to reduce as many variables as possible by at least having a consistent form, so the aim (so to speak) is to get all of that right, or better, and then worry about hitting something a decent distance away. For me there’s the added challenge of shooting left-handed – that’s bow in the right hand, draw with the left – because I’m left-eye dominant.

But I am getting better. It seems like I did have some muscle memory somewhere. What has come back, in spades, is how satisfying a good shot can be: the way the arrow wobbles through the air, the thunk when it hits the target, the reassuring lack of pain when you remember to rotate your elbow so the bowstring doesn’t take a couple of layers of skin off the inside of your arm …

Even so: I’m having trouble getting my head around the fact that I own sporting equipment. In fact I think this is the first non bike related sporting equipment I’ve ever owned.

Hell, some time in the near future I might buy myself a bow.

In spite of all these distractions, though, I have managed to churn through a pile of books (possibly even more than usual, what with Issue 1, above) and even mange to ask a question or two of some authors – a rare treat in Canberra, since visiting international writers often give us a miss.

More on that later …

Posted in Rants, Travel, Unexpected developments | Leave a comment